A near moonless night, made more uncomfortable for the people crammed into the SUV, by being parked so close to a pack of circling and yapping hyenas. Few sights are spookier or potentially more dangerous than the bright eyes of a pack of spotted hyenas encountered at close quarters at night. Through bulky night vision goggles, they tracked the animal’s movements, all of which seemed to be part of an innate and undecipherable choreography. Ole Andersen turned to the two couples in the back of his battered Land Rover.
“Kleptoparasitism,” he said. He pointed to his right and toward a pack of spotted hyenas harassing a lone lioness. She had a Thompson’s gazelle under her front paws and fangs bared, snarled at the hyenas. “It is where one predator steals the prey of another, usually a weaker predator. Tonight they have taken on a lion, which is unusual, but not rare. It wouldn’t happen if this was a leopard. She would have dragged her kill up into a tree and thus, no hyena attacks. In this case, you see, if these hyenas are lucky, if the lion thinks they might attack her in force, she will give up her prize and they will take it. There, you see, she is not so sure. A single hyena will not dare attack a lion. Not even two or three, but if a critical mass is reached…who knows. Look, you see the somewhat larger hyena on the left? That is the dominant female. Remember what I told you earlier? Hyenas are matriarchal and the alpha will be female. The game rangers call her Kotsi Mosadi. It means dangerous woman. They like to call her Danger Woman.”
His passengers, board members from Denmark, decked out in too-new bush jackets and cargo pants and shorts, twisted in their cramped seats to view the animal that Ole wished them to see. They smiled politely at what they took to be quaint native nomenclature—Danger Woman. They were in the country to observe and report back to the foundation that funded Ole’s research. They served as trustees on that board and they were to be indulged. He wondered if they weren’t secretly wishing they were comfortably ensconced in the bar or back in their beds at the Marina Lodge and not wedged into the rear of his cramped ancient Land Rover. They adjusted their night vision goggles and watched the standoff unfold. Two more hyenas trotted up and joined the group, then two more. This addition apparently created the critical mass needed to alter the balance of power. The lion hesitated, seemed to consider the odds against her, took one final swipe with a paw at her tormentors, turned, and trot- ted away, ceding the gazelle to the yapping and snarling melee of scruffy hyenas.
“There, you see, kleptoparasitism.” Ole spoke with the accents of his native Denmark although he hadn’t lived there in over forty years. Fresh from his graduate studies in Copenhagen he’d been invited to Southern Africa to study wildlife. He’d fallen in love with its exotic beauty and had never returned. Over the ensuing years, he’d made a life for himself, married a local woman, a Motswana, lost her to tuberculosis, and raised a daughter alone. In a country still dealing with widespread HIV, raising a girl created more worries for a parent. His sister insisted that he return to Denmark. Africa, she knew to be a dangerous place and not one suitable to bringing up a child. After giving it some serious thought, he’d refused. In spite of all the personal distractions year after year, he’d managed to raise his daughter to womanhood, acquire a series of research grants that allowed him to settle in the country permanently, and in the end become one of the world’s better known experts in hyena behavior. The hyenas had no interest in Ole, his guests, or his research. They milled around the gazelle, barking and chortling, the sound that had given them their misnomer, laughing hyenas. In their mad and competitive rush to feed, they crashed through the dry bush and dragged the gazelle several meters to one side. The three observers shifted in the seat to mark the progress of the snarling animals as they chased the carcass across the stubble. Not all of the hyenas moved. Ole shifted his gaze back to the area where the lioness and her prize had been to see what held the remaining hyenas in place.
The gazelle’s body had previously blocked from sight whatever lay there before. Either the lion had been busy or something else had. Ole peered closer and cursed.
“Kristus!” He muttered and then, turning to his passengers, apologized. “Tilgiv mig.”
He didn’t wait to find out if they pardoned his brief lapse into profanity. He put the vehicle in gear and leaned on the horn. Its blare scattered the pack. He had not wanted to do that. He’d spent weeks sitting with Danger Woman’s pack, and they had come to ignore his presence. Blowing the horn and disturbing them this way would likely set that effort back a month or more, but he had no choice. A human skull is not a thing you can leave in the park for hyenas to gnaw on. God only knew where the rest of the body might be.
He called the game ranger station. In the dim light, Ole couldn’t be sure, but his passengers seemed to have turned green. Maybe it was just the night vision goggles.
# # #
When Sanderson received her promotion to superintendent of her district in the Chobe National Park, she’d initiated a policy that required one of her game rangers to be on phone and radio duty twenty-four hours a day. It had been the practice before, but her predecessor had been lax in enforcing it, allowing the duty person to go home and to bed with a live radio. A distress call might or might not have been sufficient to rouse a sleepy game ranger. The result had been several near misses and Sanderson determined that as long as she was in charge, there would be no repeats. She believed the threat of poachers from across the border and, during the dry season, the threat of fire, required that someone should always be available and promptly so.
Her friends would say of her that she took democracy too far. “You are the Supervisor,” they said. “You should not draw this all-night duty with the others.” But her years as the person who’d been assigned the less pleasant tasks because of her gender and tenure had made her particularly sensitive to the small injustices organizations sometimes impose on some of their members. When she made out the roster for night duty, she diligently added her own name into the rotation. As luck would have it, it was she who took the call from Ole Andersen, “the Hyena Man.” “You are sure of this thing, Mr. Andersen. It is a human skull
you are seeing in the bush?”
Assured that it most certainly was, that it could not possibly be a monkey, baboon, or any other animal resident in the park, she signed off with a promise to drive out to meet him. The prospect of a midnight drive through the Chobe National Park did not excite her. The recent rash of deaths, bodies, and their separated parts appearing in her park caused her great concern. Until a few months ago, finding a man or woman in the park in trouble, much less dead, would be a rare thing. But, ever since they found the remains of Rra Botlhokwa, suicide by lion the authorities insisted, these dead people were popping up like fleas on a warthog. She didn’t like to think about why that might be. Kgabo Modise, her policeman friend from Gaborone, attributed this morbid activity to a civil war between rivals over control of what passed for corruption in the country generally and the Chobe River District particularly.
“It is the Russian Bratva,” he’d declared. “They wish to move into Botswana and if they do, it could spell the end of the clean government we have enjoyed for over a half century.” Kgabo had sounded worried and, because she admired this policeman, she worried with him. It seemed with cause. Now she must travel into the park in the dark, find the Hyena Man, and retrieve the head of someone she believed would attract much attention by the police. She would prefer that to be Modise, but it would more likely be the local police and Superintendent Mwambe. He was not a man she had any use for.
She found Ole and took his statement on her newly acquired recording device and sent him and his passengers on their way. She turned on the spotlight mounted on the roof of her vehicle and panned its bright halogen beam in a circle. She saw no evidence of any wildlife still in the area, no glint of luminous eyes staring back at her from the bush. The hyenas would not be far away, though, not with a freshly killed gazelle lying on the ground. Plus the lion Ole said had been there first might linger nearby in hopes of reclaiming her gazelle. Sanderson alit, being careful to first park within a few feet of the skull, donned latex gloves—a present from Modise—and retrieved the head which she placed in a plastic bag, also a present from Modise.
She circled the area once again with her floodlight and then stepped back to the spot where the skull had been lying and focused the beam of her flashlight on the ground nearby. If there was more than this poor head, she did not see it. She would return in the daylight and look again. She recorded her coordinates on her GPS and headed back to the office. She would place the skull in the fridge until morning when she would deposit it with the police. Then, she would return to her home, nap for an hour, sponge off her uniform, and return to work. It promised to be a long day.
Irena Davidova never succumbed to the despair that finally broke most of the other women forced into the life euphemistically referred to as Moscow Traffic. She managed to retain her sense of self however degrading her nights, her days, indeed her life, had become. An escape from the stench of the gutter became her obsession. This determination to survive did not come without a price. A willingness to accede to the inevitable, no matter how degrading, in order to endure can transform a person into a zombie-like state, a living corpse, or an insensate, angry survivor. For Irena, the choice seemed clear enough: survive. But the mind-numbing abuse and humiliation, the physical and emotional demands on her, meant she had developed an outer shell of unnatural hardness. This sort of life inevitably produced persons with an inordinate coldness of heart and a persona psychologists would describe as “zero affect.”
Irena learned not to feel, not to care; to isolate herself and her emotions from the things occurring to her few friends, to her body, to her soul. In the end, even by the implacably brutal standards of the Bratva, she had evolved into a hard woman. But she survived. She survived and thrived, more animal than human, her enemies would say, a scavenger, and a опасная женщина, a dangerous woman.
By the time she’d turned eighteen Irena had learned how to manipulate men and decided she would either find a life that afforded her some measure of respect or, with nothing else to lose, die trying. She would not be someone’s compliant блудница, someone’s whore, forever. She would find a safe haven at the least, and if she were lucky, something more than that. But in the dark world she inhabited, that meant securing the protection of men. Men, she learned early on, could be numbered into “button types.” One, two, three, and all of the buttons, by which she meant she could attract and lead them by the number of buttons on her blouse she needed to leave unfastened. What she needed, she believed, was a relatively weak one-button man who would melt at the sight of three.
She found him in Oleg Lenka, then a minor Bratva appa- ratchik buried deep in the St. Petersburg organization. As with all men who are intrinsically insecure, Lenka was a braggart, a coward, and an easy conquest for someone like Irena. She saw her chance to mold this man into what he pretended to be and through him climb out of the gutter. It did not take long for Lenka to keep Irena permanently by his side. Then, with Irena’s urging, sometimes gentle, often ruthless, he climbed steadily to the top. He gained enough power in the underworld culture to carve out a modest organization of his own. She kept him in tow with her skills learned in the bedrooms of the rich and famous and the less so. A university professor to whom she’d been leased—that was how she thought of it: she was for rent— described her talents as her “womanly wiles.” He said the words in English and it took her several days to translate them. She liked the thought of having wiles. But then she was nothing more than leasehold and she’d determined to move to lease-purchase before age, drugs, or a violent lessee put her in the hospital, on the street, or into an early grave.
Lenka formed his group from an older one whose leader got careless one cold, snowy night in St. Petersburg and was found under the ice in a canal near Nevsky Prospekt the next morning. Lenka carved out a substantial portion of the protection racket in the city, made a shaky alliance with the Bout organization, and turned his attention to other, global opportunities including muscling his way into an air freight operation which moved contraband between one marginal enterprise to another. The United States seemed a likely destination to expand into but he decided it had already become crowded with Moscow gangs, Serbs, Rumanians, and South American drug cartels all vying with an entrenched Mafia. Africa, he decided, or rather Irena had decided for him, would be the next big thing and they would move the main operations there. They were not alone in their estimation. The Chinese, the Yakuza, and other Bratva groupings also saw the Dark Continent as a fertile ground to plant new organizations. So, while Western Democracies dithered over their policies about Africa, the several global undergrounds moved inexorably in, prepared to create significant problems for those diplomats when they finally decided that there were important issues to be addressed there.
The natural resources which had sustained European exploitation in the past were now available to anyone bold enough to go after them. By the time Lenka arrived, others had secured most of Central and North Africa. He joined the mad rush to settle in Southern Africa, which by most people’s standards should be easy pickings. Lenka managed to garner a small foothold in Cape Town, South Africa’s most European and therefore welcoming city.
Irena turned him toward Botswana. Other players specializing in crime and corruption had adopted a wait-and-see position with that country. Its main resource, diamonds, was firmly under governmental control and regulation. There would be no “Conflict Diamonds” to be had in Botswana, not easily anyway. The country seemed determined to resist any and all efforts to introduce even petty graft into its political system, a necessary precursor to any real takeover. Almost everyone agreed it was only a matter of time until Western progress would reach a level where corruption could flourish. The more conservative criminal elements determined to wait. There was more than enough to keep them busy in Johannesburg.
Irena had not survived her life before Lenka by being passive. She knew that the first one in could call all of the subsequent shots and so, while others spent their time in organizing efforts in Johannesburg and Pretoria, she set her lover’s eyes northward. Like Joshua in the Bible, she made sure scouts were dispatched into the land, to Gaborone. They reported that while it might be difficult, there appeared to be enough willing players to mount a small effort in that city. Small-time criminals and small-time crime, promising in the long run, a chance to establish a foothold, at least, and a platform on which to build. That done, she turned her eyes farther northward.
She heard about the casino built by an American on the Chobe River. She and Lenka traveled there as tourists. They talked to people, discovered the local soft spot in the otherwise straight society. Rra Botlhokwa, the local “Mr. Big,” ran a small- time graft, smuggling, and contraband operation. It was rumored he had a back door relationship with the Intelligence Community, but that had never been confirmed. Lenka sent operatives who proceeded to remove Botlhokwa and any members of his loosely defined organization who had second thoughts about cooperating with the new order. He would steal the old man’s business, “Lock, stock, and barrel,” he’d said. Lenka believed his mastery of the English language and it many colloquialisms set him apart from his rivals. Kleptoparasitism was not in his lexicon or he would have said that instead.
The process had not been as easy as he had assumed. There were others in the field by then, some with the backing of his mother country, some not. The Nigerians with their ability to “blend in,” remained a particular problem. Not an insurmountable one, but real, nonetheless. The Chobe River with its high-end tourists, hotels, and a nascent casino represented too big a plum to have gone unnoticed. At the moment a small, but grisly civil war raged in the dark. People had to choose, competition had to be discouraged, and consequently the number of deaths occurring in the north seemed to skyrocket overnight. How large that number might actually be was masked by the vastness of the Chobe National Game Park and its adjoining river, with its always-hungry animal life. A body dropped in either might never be found, a convenience Lenka likened to the legendary landfills of early-twentieth-century New Jersey.
The fact that the first attempt had been marked by the killing of a local police officer and the arrest of one of his operatives should have worried Lenka. But he foolishly assumed that what worked in St. Petersburg also worked in Africa. That a life in a country fighting an AIDS epidemic would be less valued than elsewhere, that brutality and terror would sway any culture, and so he did not worry about what he considered a small bump in his road to criminal dominance.
He should have.