They rode the baked laterite roads through the forest, the old jeep throwing up clouds of dark red dust. It hadn’t rained in months, but the wet season was coming; Tomé could smell its approaching breath. Soon hunting in the Dzanga would be done and they would have to return to the farms or the mines to work and wait.
Tomé watched the South African frowning into the trees, his Remington ready as if he expected The Ghost to lumber out at any moment, begging to be shot. Alban, the translator, was chatting away next to him but the foreigner seemed uninterested, satisfied to just stare ahead in silence.
Nouradine caught Tomé’s eye and smiled, the chief in a good mood for once. They’d all laughed when Alban had told them a white man from the mining company had heard about The Ghost, wanted to hunt him. Not for pink ivory – that was the funny part – but for a photo. It meant a great deal to this man, Alban had insisted, that he kill the white elephant and have it immortalised in film. They’d laughed even harder at that, until the translator told them how much the man was willing to pay. Tomé’s share would feed his brothers and sisters for a year.
So here they were, driving down the old logging roads to the abandoned lumber camp constructed years ago by the Czechs before they were all killed. Now it was the staging point for both poaching excursions and ranger patrols into the Dzanga forest.
Tomé didn’t know the foreigner’s name and didn’t need to. To the poachers, he was just the South African. They’d joked about a white man hunting a white elephant – it seemed perversely cannibalistic, a ghost hunting a ghost – but Sivori had really taken a dislike to him. That was why he was driving the jeep, to keep some distance between them. Tomé had asked what the problem was, but Sivori had said that he just didn’t like the man’s look. Sullen and angry, Sivori had said. Not a good man to take to the forest. Not a good man to have weapons and money.
Tomé was just happy some of the man’s money was coming his way.
He was searching his jacket pocket for a cigarette when the jeep slowed, stopped. He stood to look over the cab. In the middle of the road was a leopard, staring at them intently. There was no sign of fear in the animal’s stance; only confrontation. It seemed to be challenging them, daring them to make a move.
The South African frowned, barked a question to Alban. The translator shrugged and turned to Tomé. “He asks why we are stopping, what the problem is,” he said in Sangha. “It’s just a leopard.”
Tomé glanced at Nouradine, who looked just about ready to kill someone, or perhaps himself. The chief pulled a small silver crucifix from around his neck and kissed it.
“Maybe nothing,” said Tomé. “Maybe Saturnin.”
The trees drank the twilight as they neared the rocky outcrop where they would camp for the night. They were making swift progress, driven hard by Nouradine who pushed them on through the dense forest, face grim.
Nouradine had said nothing, but Tomé sensed his concern about the leopard, that it might mean Saturnin was hunting in the Dzanga. Tomé had never met the man, but Nouradine had had some kind of run-in with him that he refused to speak of. Instead, he kissed the tiny silver cross he wore around his neck every time the man’s name was spoken. Sivori claimed Saturnin was a demon who practised the old religion and worshipped the forest itself, that the leopards were his servants. Tomé thought that was bullshit.
They clambered over the tangled root bole of a rubber tree and down through thick riverbank vegetation, slithering into the channel and slowly wading through silt and mud. Sivori held their Kalashnikov up high, while the others did the same for their pistols and supplies. The South African hugged the Remington to his chest like a child, while Alban struggled through the water with the man’s tent and a couple of rucksacks.
On the far bank, they stopped to drink water from old diesel cans and wolf down some tinned sardines and dried mealworms, which the South African turned his nose up at. He sat off by himself, chewing a bar of nuts and dried fruit.
Tomé was listening to Sivori and Nouradine discussing how far it was to the camp and how best to pick up the Ghost’s trail when they fell silent, staring towards the South African. Sivori raised the Kalashnikov uncertainly but Nouradine pushed it back down.
A leopard walked out from the trees, right up to the South African who sat still, his cereal bar halfway to his mouth. His other hand was creeping towards the Remington propped against the tree next to him, but Tomé knew that he would never reach it if the leopard attacked. He took out his pistol and flicked the safety off, his heart starting to race.
Tomé couldn’t be sure if this was the same leopard they had seen on the road. It looked a similar size, but that didn’t mean much. Had it been following them? Could Saturnin have sent it?
The animal’s eyes sparked in the dying light, then it turned and bounded away.
Nouradine swore and grabbed the Kalashnikov from Sivori. “Move!” he hissed. “I want to be at the camp before full dark.”
Once they’d reached the rocks and set a fire, a pan of rice and beans boiling away atop it, they started to relax. Sivori pitched their old, worn tents while Tomé tended the fire and Nouradine smoked and checked the weapons. The South African sat with Alban, rubbing his legs and grimacing.
Tomé looked up. The stars were bright in a cloudless sky.
“Well now!” called a voice from the trees. “So many of my friends here in this place o’ mine.”
Two lambent eyes flared in the darkness beyond the campfire, their hue the startling green of fireflies. And into the camp walked a demon.
Saturnin was tall and broad, his face covered in thin dark scars beneath a red bandana tied tightly over his forehead. But it was the way he carried himself that sent a shiver through Tomé. Like a leopard that had wandered into a cattle pen, he stared languidly around at the poachers with those bright eyes. Darkness seemed to follow him from the trees as more men emerged, dressed and armed much like Tomé’s comrades. But there the similarity ended. These were devils of the forest, darker and more dangerous than most men. And Saturnin was the worst.
His gaze passed over Tomé and rested on the South African for a long moment, and then Alban.
“How goes the hunt, Alban?”
Alban made a hard expression, but swallowed nervously all the same.
“Well, Saturnin, well.”
“And a man I don’t know comes to take one of my elephants.” He scratched at a long scar on his cheek, ran his tongue over yellowed teeth as he stared at the South African with amusement.
Saturnin’s gang of poachers always found their quarry. It was widely known that he held all of the Dzanga to be his hunting grounds and when ivory was needed, commissioned or not, he and his men would find an elephant to kill. That was one reason why they were hated and feared.
Another was that Saturnin was crazed, possessed by the spirits of wicked animals that told him to do terrible things. Only the most desperate and disturbed of men would work for him.
Which made their arrival right now bad news for everyone.
The South African opened his mouth to speak, but Alban hushed him. Saturnin pointed to the rifle at the man’s feet.
“Beautiful weapon. Just the thing for a hunter of beasts. The very thing.” He lit a thin white cigarette, let the smoke drift into the night sky. He turned to Alban.
“This man likes to hunt, to take risks. He’s in my forest. Tell him I want to play a game.” Saturnin waited patiently while his words were conveyed, smiling all the time. The South African looked angry and made to stand, until Alban placed a placating hand on his chest.
Saturnin continued as if the man had not reacted at all. “We draw cards. Highest wins. I win, I get that smart hunting rifle he carries. And…” he waved his hand in the air as if thinking. “His watch. Then he leaves, and never comes back to my forest. He wins, we have coffee together and part as friends. I’ll even give him this.” Saturnin held up a carved ivory elephant, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, but even Tomé could tell that it was worth a great deal. What looked like tiny diamonds flashed in its eyes.
Even the forest seemed silent now. The pan of rice and beans boiled on, forgotten.
Saturnin tilted his head. “What does he say?” His hand drifted to his belt and the pistol holstered there.
Tomé glanced at Nouradine, who was watching the proceedings with a carefully neutral expression, his hatred and fear of Saturnin well concealed.
After the translation the South African scowled, but Alban was clearly urging him to accept, knowing that to decline would almost certainly be suicide. And the man was staring avidly at the ivory elephant. Its significance would not be lost on him.
Slowly the South African nodded, and Saturnin beamed. He drew a battered deck of cards from his trouser pocket and shuffled them slowly. Behind him his men watched Tomé’s gang, hands on their weapons.
Saturnin held out the deck and, eyes fixed on the South African, drew the top card. The King of Clubs. Tomé heard Nouradine curse under his breath.
The South African went as pale as the ivory elephant he now looked unlikely to win. His hand trembling slightly, he teased a card from the middle of the deck, held it up. The King of Diamonds. Silence thundered through the camp.
Saturnin kept smiling. “Well,” he said, “I’m a good sport. Since you are my guest, let’s say you won.” He sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the South African, while once again his words were translated. The white man sagged in relief.
Saturnin held out his hand and one of his men placed a metal flask in it. He unscrewed the top and poured out a measure of thick brown coffee. He drank. Then he passed it to the South African. The white man grimaced at the bitter taste, but then smiled and nodded as he returned the empty cup. Saturnin tossed the ivory elephant into the man’s lap.
“You have to understand,” Saturnin said, eyes locked with the South African’s, “that life – real life – is all about give and take. You can’t take without giving, and you can’t give without taking. Because the same spirit connects us all. The Spirit of All Things. As water links the rivers and the land and the sky together, so the Spirit flows between all living creatures. Sometimes it pools in places, to form great lakes. Like here.” He motioned to the forest around them. “Take something without giving, and we are all poorer for it. Understand that, and you understand everything.”
He pointed to the small carved elephant in the South African’s hand. “I always find my elephants, because I know how to give back to the Spirit. And the Spirit is always watching.”
And then Saturnin stood, turned, and walked silently out of the camp and into the darkness of the forest. His men followed, as shadows.
Tomé watched the forest while the camp slept. Pistol in hand he stared into the trees, listening for any sign of Saturnin or his men, or rangers, or the predators of the forest. He had volunteered for the watch. He wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway.
He was certain Saturnin was out there. Sometimes he thought he could hear faint singing, as of men voicing a hymn together. Tomorrow he would make the case to Nouradine to give up the hunt – Saturnin was too unpredictable, too much of a risk. No hunt was worth dying over.
Movement made him turn, pistol raised. At the edge of the camp, Alban waved his hand nervously, pointing with the other off into the trees. “Need to shit,” he mouthed. Tomé nodded and turned away.
It was only when the translator had been gone for half an hour that Tomé realised that he had been carrying his rucksack.
Tomé jerked awake, snatching his gun from its place by his makeshift pillow and tearing through the cloth of his battered old tent in his rush to get out. Everyone was shouting, the ground trembling.
At first he thought it must be Saturnin returned, but as he emerged into the pale morning light he saw a forest elephant charging through the camp, a huge white bull with prominent tusks, panicked or enraged.
He watched as Nouradine fired his pistol at the beast, only to be bowled over and trampled beneath its heavy tread.
Tomé raised his own pistol and sighted on the elephant’s head, but before he could fire the rattle of an automatic rifle came from the trees and Saturnin strode into the camp, AK47 shivering in his hands. The elephant reared, bellowing madly while bullets ripped into it and blood misted the air. Then it plunged to the ground atop Nouradine, flailing its legs for a few moments before becoming still.
Saturnin grinned as he surveyed the camp, eyes bright.
“Well now,” he said, “looks like the Spirit gave us our elephant.”
Tomé rushed to the dead beast, looking for any sign of Nouradine, but the man was covered by the elephant’s bloody carcass. There was no way he could have survived. Tomé put his head in his hands, squeezed his palms against his eyes to hold back the tears.
Sivori stood behind him. “Where is the South African? Where is Alban!” he said, voice tight with anger.
Together they walked across to the white man’s tent, or what was left of it. The elephant had ripped it to shreds, and the man’s belongings were scattered amongst the wreckage. His rifle lay in its case next to his trampled rucksack and his hiking boots, socks still tucked neatly inside from when he had removed them to sleep. There was no sign of a body, no blood. Tomé wondered if he had fled into the forest when the elephant had burst into the camp. So much for the great hunter.
Saturnin bent down amidst the wreckage, still grinning, and picked up the small ivory elephant he had given the South African the night before. He slipped it into his pocket.
“Give and take,” he said, and winked at Tomé. “You can have one tusk, we’ll have the other. The rest we leave for the leopards. And if you get any other customers looking to hunt in the Dzanga, you let me know.” He took out his deck of cards and slipped one from the pile, scribbled a phone number on the edge with a pen. “The Spirit provides.” He held the card out, and Tomé took it.
It was the King of Spades.