FAIR CHASE

Here’s an extract from Learmont’s disturbing new novel.

Joost Brand managed to catch just a solitary hour’s lie-down, before he switched on the generator. He had coped with the clearing up after lunch and the catering for the evening braai, focusing his thoughts on the near future, when the whole exercise would be over at long last, and he could visit his mother and her arsehole boyfriend. By six, when the others emerged, freshly showered and thirsty, everything was ready for the festivities. As Nikolai guzzled his third glass of Meerlust, he quizzed Stretch about the finer points of paint ball, and offered his opinion: “Stretchy, paint ball is not Fair Chase, only playing games. No blood, that’s why. Must be blood!”

Nikolai’s chatter led to talk about rebels he called “Chuk-chuks” and his uncle’s military exploits against them. “Ruslan know how to deal with them. Oh – Chuk-chuks! That’s what we call Chechens. They were fighting for Chechniya, stupid people. Fair Chase, Whizzy! Ruslan couldn’t find rebel leaders to shoot, they hide too well, so he kill their families instead. Teach them a lesson the hard way, not so? A man godda do what a man godda do, seriosna? Now everything turn out well and the chuk-chuks behave, under great leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who listens to good advice from Comrade Putin.”

Smith said, “What happens if they don’t behave? A Lapua .338 in the head?”

“No, Comrade Smithy, 7.62 ammo from Dragunov semi-auto sniper. Yes, maybe in the head. Maybe right through head. Easy at two kilometres. Uncle Ruslan love Dragunov.”

Stretch broke in, “So that’s why he used a Winchester .375 last year. Semi-auto isn’t Fair Chase, is it ?”

The party went on until 10, when Whizz called the company to order in the lounge, where a laptop was connected to the large screen on the north wall. He said, “Okay, my lads, here are your positions for the big day. Brandy, you’ll be covering the hole in the fence; Stretch, I want you to patrol the northern boundary, just as you did last year; Smithy, who will issue weapons from the big gun safe later, will be holding the fort between the lawn and the gate, riding shotgun in his Jeep.

“And I shall be pedaling up and down the southern boundary on the mountain bike, keeping fit. Nikolai, you will take up your position about two kilometres north of the Lodge; Stretch will show you the way as he heads in that direction. Use your GPS to find what will be the ideal spot, in my humble opinion – just a little way up the kopjes, so that you have the advantage of height. Then you wait patiently, with one up the spout and another four in the mag. Use of the bipod is optional, it counts as fair chase. So if you want to fire from a prone position, that’s kosher.”

Brand said, “Chief . . . “

“Not yet, Brandy. Give it another half hour, and and in the meantime let’s have a few small snorts for big sports, before I give you and Stretch the nod. Is the video lashed up and tested?”

“Yes, Chief – I turned on the generator in the afternoon, and it’s running properly.”

Thirty minutes later, Whizz cued Stretch and Brand, who put down their glasses and left the lounge. They had rehearsed their next move, and it went according to plan. Stretch covered Brand with the Uzi while he entered the lock-up and handcuffed the man. Then Brand covered Stretch while he slipped a rope noose around the captive’s neck and tugged him out onto the covered walk. The man’s denim shirt and jeans were ragged and scuffed. Sparely built, he was of a height with Stretch, and his head was shaven. The guy wasn’t smiling now, and Brand estimated his age as early forties. They made their linked entrance to the lounge through the open sliding glass doors and pulled the prisoner over to stand beside Whizz. Brand had him covered, and Stretch held the end of the rope. Whizz rose and stood at the side of the big plasma screen, where the laptop rested on a small table. He said, “Mr Smith, if you’d do the honours . . .” The lawyer crossed and sat on a stool to operate the laptop.

Whizz held out a hand to the captive and said, “I salute you, my gladiator. Morituri te salutamus and all that, as old Gammy Protheroe my Latin teacher was fond of saying. Not that I expect a benighted zongwe chap such as your unworthy self to have had the benefit of a decent classical education. In all honesty, you’re the unhappy chappie whose life is on the line. You should be telling me salutamus, actually, because you’re about to become the quarry of a hunt. My friend Nikolai will do his level best to shoot you dead, in broad daylight.”

The man blinked. He gave no indication that he understood what Whizz was saying, and even Nikolai seemed a little nonplussed by Whizz’s vocabulary.

“Nikolai will hunt you according to the rules of Fair Chase, my zongwe friend. That is to say there are rules which he must obey: no automatic weapons or motor vehicles, no special equipment. Just the hunter, alone in the bush, on foot, with a simple weapon – a bolt action rifle. He will track you on foot and attempt to kill you. Your role in the game is to avoid getting killed. I think it was the immortal Hemingway who observed that the true thrill of the hunt comes when the quarry is doing its utmost to escape a fatal bullet. And that is the role which has fallen to you as we act out our bushveld drama. Man against man. Sophisticated civilisation versus primitive Africa. And there is hope for you – because Fair Chase means that your death is by no means guaranteed.”

The captive looked around the room, staring at each white man in turn. His lips curved, and clamped again as Stretch jerked the halter. Old Whizz went on. “I hope to overcome what seems to be a language barrier by using this laptop as an audiovisual aid, to make you understand the special circumstances in which you find yourself. It’s showtime! Watch carefully, Comrade Plesianthropus, and you will learn much about your bright tomorrow — I may even say the first – and possibly the last – day of your life.”

Smith giggled and pressed a key. The screen came to life, showing Uncle Ruslan’s smiling bearded face in full 4K resolution, as Whizz provided the commentary. “This gentleman hunted here last year. He was alone and on foot with a bolt-action rifle. His quarry was a trespasser – an illegal alien from Mozambique, who had wandered onto Capricorn Estate. The picture you see here was taken from a distance, using a zoom lens handled by Mr Charles Stretch – known to the ladies of the town as Paint Ball Charlie. He’s a dab hand at the art of videography.”

The distant image of Ruslan seemed to quiver through heat haze, pictured by an unsteady long lens. He stood with his back to a rocky slope, somewhere at the foot of the kopjes. Ruslan was all kitted out in camo, and held his Winchester at the ready.

Nikolai asked, “Is that my place for tomorrow?”

Whizz said, “Not too far away. Actually, I reckon you’ve got a better place than your uncle had – with a wider arc of fire.”

“So exciting,” said the Russky, and took a gulp of Meerlust. His face was flushed.

The next shot was a hazy one, zoomed in on a distant image which could have been a buck or a baboon. But it was a man, who ran and disappeared behind what might have been an anthill. The lens swung to the right in a zip pan, to settle once more on Ruslan. Then came a close up of Ruslan, who raised his weapon, aimed and fired away from the camera. Whizz said, “Old Paint Ball Charlie, who happens to be no mean video editor, recorded that angle later and cut it in. He was actually well out of range when Ruslan fired the fatal shot.”

The next image on the screen was a close-up of a man in tattered clothing, face down in the dust with blood on his shirt. The picture zoomed out to show Ruslan, who strode up to the body and prodded it with his right boot. Then came Brand, who turned the corpse over. The zoom lens closed in on the gaping mouth and open eyes. The final sequence showed the naked trophy hanging by his heels from a tree. The camera moved back to include the group under the body’s dangling arms. Then came two close shot cutaways; a shallow open grave, and an open picnic hamper with a bottle of champagne. Everyone sipped the bubbly in a series of smiling close ups. Whizz shook Ruslan’s hand, put his arm round the Russky’s husky shoulders. Then there were congratulations all round, from Brand, Stretch – and Smith, in a natty Panama hat and pastel blue safari suit.

Whizz moved over to the captive and said, “We will release you at midnight, Comrade Zongwe. Never fear, my friend. We will give you food and drink and set you free. Then we will sleep until dawn. And that is when Comrade Nikolai – whom you have already had the pleasure of meeting – will start tracking you. The rest of us will stay well away from the hunt. The whole of Capricorn will be the stage for this drama, with only two actors: hero and villain. Brandy – please inform this Darwinian throwback what I’ve just said, translated into zongwe lingo. Use any figures of speech you like, so long as he gets the message. Tell him he’s in with a chance of survival, provided his IQ’s anywhere north of 50.”

As Brand started talking in Xitsonga, the man seemed to be listening carefully. When he finished, Smith sniggered and said: “Well, here goes. In ten minutes time it will be Human Rights Day, the glorious 21st of March. Better give him the food and drink now, before the countdown.”

Brand took the cuffs off the man and went into the kitchen, returning with a two-litre plastic bottle of tap water and a small packet of biltong sticks. He handed them over to the captive and told him in Xitsonga that the rope would come off his neck, but that he would have to wait just a few more minutes. He would have to stand still until he was told to go. The man nodded.

“Okay, Stretch,” said Whizz. “Take the rope off, but keep the bugger covered until I say.”

He looked at his watch. “Let us all be upstanding, gentlemen.” The whites rose, and Whizz kept his eyes on the watch. “The hour has come, and you are free to go. I wish you the best of British luck. Midnight has struck – so voertsek!”

The man started to back away through the open lounge sliding door. On the stoep, he stopped, clutching his food and drink as he looked back at the five white men in the bright interior. Peering out into the dark, they saw a flash of white teeth and heard what sounded like a hiccup. Then the quarry was off over the lawn into the night, running hard.