Andrew Mason returns to South Africa, war weary and riddled with guilt over the death of his wife Alyson. Spiralling towards the grip of alcoholism he takes refuge in an isolated cabin in the picturesque environment of the South African bushveld, but he knows he can’t hide forever. There are ghosts in his past that have returned to haunt him and he sets off on a mission to clear his name. South Africa is governed under a flawed and internationally condemned political system, the sustainability of which is questionable at best and Mason unwittingly stumbles upon a web of deceit on a scale that has unexpected political ramifications. Against his will but by necessity, Andy is once again faced with having to fight for survival under conditions where his skill and training as a Special Forces combatant are tested to their limits.
Northern Transvaal South Africa February 1981
ANDREW MASON SKIMMED GRACEFULLY THROUGH THE WATER, his broad shoulders and muscular arms rolling smoothly in even, measured strokes as he swiftly closed in on the shoreline. The cry of a lone Fish Eagle reverberated hauntingly through the crisp morning air and the bark of baboons echoed off craggy, weather beaten hills overlooking the lake.
Reaching the shallows, Mason rose to his feet and stood waist deep looking back to admire the picturesque environment. The rising sun reflected off the water in a shimmering pathway the colour of molten copper, and the rolling hills beyond stood in dark silhouette against the delicate hue of dawn. He looked at his watch, and grunted with satisfaction. Three kilometers in forty two minutes, a better time than the day before; and by nearly a full minute. Grinning, he cocked his head and arched an eyebrow
“Not bad” he muttered.
Turning, he waded towards the rocky outcrop on dry land where he had left his shoes and a towel. As he reached the shoreline he froze. Leopard spoor lay imprinted in the muddy water’s edge; those tracks had not been there when he’d set off on his swim and he went down on his haunches to examine them. The hair at the nape of his neck bristled as he cautiously looked around, half expecting the cat to be dangerously close, but the trail disappeared into the thick bush along the lakeside and he breathed a sigh of relief as the adrenalin rush subsided. He ran a hand through his long, dripping hair and scratched at his beard. The tracks were fresh, not more than twenty minutes and pondered the wisdom of an idea that instantly came to mind. The scene offered up a silent challenge, and for a moment he was torn between ignoring it or taking it up. Abruptly, as if he’d made up his mind and feared giving himself time to think about it, he donned his shoes, grabbed the towel from the rock and dashed up the hillside to his cabin two hundred meters away. Within minutes he was back, kitted out for the chase.
Drawing on his years of Special Forces training and combat experience, Andy followed the spoor, moving with ghostlike stealth through the undergrowth. Twice he lost the faint trail and had to retrace his steps and cast a circle to recover it. It had taken him well over an hour when he finally sighted the beast languishing in the dappled shade beneath a Mopani tree. Naturally camouflaged and barely visible, he would never have seen it had it not been for the tell-tale flick of an ear. Andy crept quietly into a hidden recess between two trees, from where he had a clear view, with only thirty meters separating him from his quarry. This close up, the majesty of the animal was breath-taking. It never failed to surprise Mason how underestimated these creatures were when seen from afar.
He adjusted the scope, bringing the image into sharp focus, the cross hairs held steady for a perfect shot and squeezed gently down on the trigger….‘Click, click, click, click’… The Pentax auto-shutter rolled in a rapid succession of consecutive snaps.
Startled by the intrusive hum, the cat scrambled to its feet, teeth bared in a belligerent snarl, its stance an intimidating display of defiance; hind quarters compressed in muscular contraction set to defend itself against the unseen peril. Appearing mystified by the absence of a visible adversary, the animal held its pose for only seconds before turning and darting away, quickly vanishing into the dense undergrowth. From his vantage point, Mason held down on the shutter button running off a full roll of thirty six exposures. He had captured the sequence frame by frame and he grinned triumphantly at the accomplishment of his venture.
“Gotcha” he murmured in smug satisfaction.
For a few minutes he remained motionless giving the big cat plenty of time to get clear, then rose from his prone position and stretched, allowing himself a luxuriant yawn as he physically unwound from the tension of the hunt.
Slinging the camera over his shoulder, he sat down on a rock and lit a cigarette as he surveyed the rustic beauty of his surroundings. He looked up at the dazzling aquamarine sky where a flock of geese flew in perfect V formation and sparse white clouds hovered idly like floating balls of cotton wool. All around him the animated chatter of birds and insects added to the enchantment of the African bush. This was paradise. His private Garden of Eden and a refuge from the life he had chosen to leave behind, but a life from which he knew he could not escape forever. He pondered briefly what needed to be done, and then cast the thought aside. After a while he got to his feet and began the long walk back to his cabin.
The wooden structure he called base was an isolated hillside retreat blending anonymously into the surrounding shrubbery. It stood in lonely seclusion on a ten hectare property just a few kilometers from the North West boundary of the Kruger National Park. Situated as it was, it provided a panoramic view over the shimmering lake and the weathered hills beyond.
Mason had discovered the place while hiking eight months previously. It had been abandoned and in a state of ruin, but he’d recognized its potential almost without conscious thought. His quest for solitude and his love of the wild had motivated him to seek out the owner, hopeful that the land was for sale. – Luck had been on his side. Enquiries through the national land and deeds office had revealed that the property belonged to the insolvent estate of a failed entrepreneur whose assets were under curatorship. Andrew had traced the executors and made them a preposterously low cash offer, expecting to be disregarded or at best, encouraged to be considerably more persuasive if he was serious about the purchase. To his amazement, his bid had been accepted without hesitation.
Restoring the hovel had taken a little over four months and Andy had done the work himself. He’d bought a four wheel drive pickup truck and brought in all the materials and appliances on the back of it. A gantry rigged up with a long steel beam, supported a sliding block and tackle to lift and position heavy objects. Once properly equipped, he had set about the mission of remodeling his acquisition with the commitment of a fanatic. Now, having accomplished what he had pictured in his imagination the first time he’d seen the rundown ruin, he wallowed in self satisfaction over what had been achieved.
The cabin was divided in two adjacent rooms. On one side was a sizeable open quarter Andy used as a living and dining area, with a compact kitchenette tucked away at the back. On the other, through an open archway, was his sleeping quarters with a rustic en-suite bathroom attached. Clear perspex skylights in the roof, on either side of the pitch, bathed the interior with a refreshing ambiance of natural light, while expansive plate-glass windows facing the lake provided a panoramic view, adding enchantment to tranquility. Out front, a spacious deck, bordered by a balustrade of gum poles, was where Andy spent much of his leisure time. A diesel compressor generated electricity and water was pumped from the lake to a five thousand liter tank perched atop a scaffold framework alongside the dwelling.
The manual labour together with his daily exercise routine had kept Andy’s physique hard and well defined, and he was tanned bronze from continuous exposure to the harsh African sun. He had neither shaved nor cut his hair in the months he’d been absorbed by his task, so his beard was thick and shaggy, with his sun-bleached hair hanging on his shoulders like a mane.
It had been almost a year since Mason’s return to South Africa, and not a day had gone by when he had not thought of Alyson, the woman he’d loved and been married to for only four turbulent months. The image of her, lying spread eagle on their bed with half her head missing and her brains spattered across the bedroom walls of their Salisbury apartment haunted and tormented him unremittingly. It didn’t help that the instrument of her self destruction had been his military issue assault rifle, which should never have been where she had found it. For the most part, it was the cruel shame of that event that had given him cause to adopt an existence of solitude. But there were other issues.
Eight years earlier, he had been made the fall guy in an elaborate banking fraud, perpetrated by executives of Highgate & Savage, the bank at which he had been employed. Discovering the extent to which a process he himself had uncovered and reported on, had been conveniently warped to implicate him while he had no way of knowing about it, was a latent revelation that had astounded and angered him.
Andy’s return to South Africa had been under conditions of war weariness coupled with emotional trauma and a drinking problem. He had survived on a diet of guilt and booze and had been in no condition to deal with the fallout from what had been disclosed to him. The day after he had learned of the pending prosecution, he had locked up his plush apartment in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg and left town. Equipping himself with his survival bag, containing the bare minimum of supplies and useful paraphernalia, he had taken the road north and driven into isolation in the unspoiled environment of the Northern Transvaal bushveld. Apart from the two weeks it had taken him to track down the property owner and to secure the services of an attorney to handle the transfer, he had not been back. He had become accustomed to his reclusive life here in the wild and he treasured the freedom, the clear air and the abundant wildlife with which he shared his concealed existence. He lived each day closeted in a world of fragile contentment, but he was acutely aware of the fact that it could not go on indefinitely. Sooner or later he would have to return to the real world.
There were issues he had set his mind on confronting. One had been to stop the spiral rapidly dragging him towards the clutches of alcoholism, and the other was to seek justice from those who had been behind the unethical practices of which he had irrationally been accused. Simply clearing his name just didn’t seem to cut it. He wanted those bastards to remember him in a way to make every day a reminder.
The first undertaking had been accomplished by isolating himself and focusing on renovations to the cabin. He had not touched a drink since his departure from Johannesburg and he was determined not to give the addiction an opportunity to resurface.
The second was a work in progress about which he had done very little apart from think, but he now felt that the time had come to act. With work on the cabin completed he turned his mind to bringing closure to the issue. To his ire, this meant returning to Johannesburg where he had the means with which to confront his accusers on his own terms.
Things Mason had plenty of were money and time. An unexpected windfall had stunned him after Alyson’s death when it emerged that she had bequeathed her late father’s vast fortune to him. The massive inheritance had done nothing to soften the pain of his loss or the depth of his guilt, but it provided him with the means to do pretty much as he pleased when he pleased without having to be concerned over how much it would cost or how long it would take. But the time had come to clear the debris in his life and reluctantly he began the process of preparing for his return to the city and the perception of civilization.