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Dome, The

Chapter 1: DeeHeart pounding, feet pounding."Pick up the pace, Dee!""Just dump them, Rogan--it's not worth the risk!""No!" he gasped. "We can eat for a week on this. Keep running!"My lungs had started to burn as soon as we'd hit the third set of stairs in the abandoned apartment building, but with a Lobot on our tails, I couldn't afford to slow down. Rogan showed no signs of giving up the search for a hiding spot, despite the fact that so far, the doors to every floor were locked. Fourth floor--no luck. Fifth floor--the same. Sixth floor--the whirring noise was getting closer. Seventh floor--finally! The door lock was broken, and we pushed through, looking wildly behind us as we raced down the hallway. The apartments were mostly empty as we passed them but the second last place, despite half the exterior wall being blown out, had some furniture in it--better yet it had an old stovetop with an oven. We could stash the baubles in there, hide in the closet and wait for the Lobot to give up. I slammed the apartment door shut behind us as Rogan threw the baubles into the oven, then we dove into a closet with louvered doors and pulled them closed--I pushed back up against the wall, while Rogan knelt down to look through the slats. "Shhh!" he whispered sharply to me. "Listen." I tried to control my breathing so that I could hear what was happening. There was a faint hiss--the Lobot was using one of its lasers to cut a hole through the apartment door. Then there was a thud, as part of the door fell onto the floor, and a low whirring sound. I inhaled and held my breath as the Lobot flew slowly by the closet, tracking the microchip signal coming from the baubles. Suddenly it stopped moving and hovered in mid-air, rotating its antennae toward the old appliance. Then I could hear banging, and Rogan smothered a giggle. He moved back and motioned at me to look for myself. I knelt down and I slapped my hand over my mouth so I wouldn't laugh out loud. The Lobot was slamming itself into the glass door of the oven; it was able to sense the microchip signal and see the baubles, but it couldn't figure out how to get to them. I turned to Rogan, and in the dim light, I noticed an old blanket on the shelf above us. I pointed to it and Rogan nodded. This would be tricky and dangerous, but we didn't have a lot of choice at this point--we needed to act before it started using a laser. Rogan took the blanket down and quietly opened the closet door. I just hoped that the Lobot was so preoccupied with the baubles that it wouldn't notice much else. Rogan began creeping towards it--it was still unaware of him. Finally, at about three feet away, he took a deep breath and threw the blanket over the Lobot, knocking it to the ground. Before it had a chance to squirm or struggle, he jumped on the blanket with all his strength, over and over, until the Lobot was still and silent. He smiled triumphantly at me.I hesitated. "We should make sure," I whispered. I tiptoed over to where Rogan was waiting and gingerly lifted up a corner of the blanket. Sure enough, the Lobot was dead--its lights were out and it looked pretty crushed. We both stared at it in distaste--the tranquilizer darts and locator cuffs it carried were spilling out of it like guts. Suddenly I was filled with fury, and I turned on Rogan."That was really stupid, Rogan! Do you realize how close we came to being caught?! Which body part are you willing to lose for a couple of coins?!"He looked taken aback and his brow furrowed defensively. "Neither of us is losing anything, and that stash is worth more than a 'couple' of coins. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been chased by the Lobot for so long, you know that. I had everything under control--it's all good, Dee. Now come on." He opened the oven door and took out the baubles--a necklace and two rings--which glittered in the light. "That stupid Fancy won't miss them--she probably has plenty more where these came from, anyway. Serves her right for wandering too close to Divinity without any Blues nearby to protect her."I sighed in frustration. "Well, it was still awfully close, and I happen to like my hands and feet just as they are, thank you very much."Rogan leered at me. "I like your hands and feet too, my lovely!""EWW! You sound like a Fancy!" I slapped him on the shoulder in mock-anger.He slapped back at me then peered around the corner of the apartment door. "All clear. Anyway," he continued cavalierly, "you could always choose an eye, although I hear it's pretty painful. Come on. We need to get out of here before some ambitious Blue tracks that Lobot and shows up."My stomach flipped at the thought of having an eye removed, and then I was overcome by a wave of emotion--a sense of questioning and worry. It was my twin brother, Cee. I focused inward and sent feelings of calm and reassurance back to him. Not only did we look exactly the same--green eyes, and hair that was called strawberry blond when strawberries used to grow, but we were on the same wavelength, so to speak. We couldn't read each other's minds exactly, but we could project feelings to each other. Right now, he was sensing that I was scared and mad, and I was telling him that everything was okay. He hated it when I went out thieving, especially with Rogan, who was a real risk-taker. It was one thing running a scam or getting a Fancy to cough up a little spare change, but outright robbery in broad daylight wasn't for the faint of heart. Not that I had much of a choice. Cee and I used to be workhouse kids, and like all "provincial wards", once you hit 15, you were sent to the agri-complexes up north as farm labour. The alternative was to run away and fend for yourselves as "Freeworlders". And after spending most of our lives as workhouse kids, neither of us wanted to finish out our days as agri-slaves in the Upper Belt, so we made our way to Divinity, a tent city in Metro.Cee and I had been left at Happy Valley, one of the workhouses up North, when we were about three months old. After the Frag riots in 2087 and the Water Wars that followed, babies were being abandoned on a regular basis by parents who couldn't afford to take care of them, sometimes as many as twenty a day, so The Consortium, a supergroup of countries across the water, set up the workhouse system. All the kids were given letters of the alphabet instead of names, and he and I were the third and fourth babies dumped there that day, so "C" and "D". Our actual "designations'" are a lot longer and include the date as well. By the time most ward kids were 4 or 5, they'd been given nicknames or picked out new names for themselves, but we were fine with Cee and Dee. The workhouses weren't great, but if you kept your nose clean and did what you were told by the Protectors, the adults who ran the place, you could survive. And you were told a lot. By the time you were a One, you were expected to stay with an older kid, a Guardian, who either worked in the dorms or the kitchen--like an apprentice. Depending on who your Guardian was, you either got slapped regularly or ignored most of the time. When you got to be a Five, you were responsible for making beds or washing dishes, or garden work. At Ten, you worked in the nursery with the babies, in the kitchen doing meal prep, or in the schoolhouse, teaching other kids about soil and plants from a textbook. At Twelve, you started working the fields full-time, in preparation for a life-time of servitude in the Breadbasket, which was the area of the Upper Belt where farms could still exist. All the fruits and vegetables from up North were planted and harvested by agri-slaves, mostly the workhouse kids who had chosen farm labour and three meals a day over freedom and starvation. But it was a hard life too--from what I heard, most agri-slaves didn't make it into their thirties--too much exposure to chemicals. I was pretty sure that Cee and I stood a better chance on our own--if we didn't end up in The Dome, that is. Cee and I ran away from Happy Valley right before our 15th Drop-Off Day. That wasn't a "birthday" exactly--none of us really knew when we were born, but the workhouse had a record of the dates that all of us had been left there, and if you'd been a good little "agri-slave in the making", you got a piece of candy on your Drop-off Day each year. Kind of a twisted thing to celebrate, but we didn't have much else. Anyway, Cee and I had no intention of going to the Breadbasket so we took off and headed for Divinity, the biggest tent city in Trillium Province, where we've been for over a year now. Scraping together a living hasn't been easy. Cee brings in a little money at the Hidden Market, where he sells his handmade "pretties" to the Fancies, the rich people who come into Divinity on Sundays with their Blue bodyguards, looking for unique objects to impress their friends with. He's an amazing woodcarver--he can take an old scrap of anything and turn it into an elephant or a parrot, things that sell really well because they're extinct now. I don't know how he knows what they all look like, but they're beautiful, and the Fancies will pay a lot for them. The problem is that we can't both be out at the same time. It's a cutthroat world, and your tent and everything inside it is fair game for squatters if you leave it empty. Someone has to be there at all times to protect it, so Cee can't come thieving with me, and I can't go to the Market with him. Not that either of us minds. His hands are his most important asset--if he got caught by a Lobot, he'd get sent to The Dome, and more than likely the crowd would choose hand over foot--they usually do for thieves, unless, like Rogan said, you want to give them a real thrill and choose your own eye. As for me, I hate the Hidden Market. Well, I don't hate the Market, I just hate the Fancies. They come in their finery and jewels, with their servants and bodyguards, sometimes with Lobots hovering around them for extra protection, and then they want to barter for lower prices. It's sickening really, when I think how long Cee works on his pieces and how little he has to sell them for sometimes.I felt his wave of worry start to subside, and I sent a projection of the idea of home to him, so that he'd know we were on our way. Rogan once asked me what the "idea" of home was, since I couldn't actually send a picture of the tent to Cee--the only way I could describe it was to say it was like the emotion you felt when someone you loved squeezed your hand. I know it sounds stupid, but home to me was always just Cee, never a place. Whenever I was scared or sad, I could always count on him to take my hand and hold it tight, to let me know that, no matter what, we were together and that nothing could separate us. That was home. Then, just for fun, I sent him the feeling of being well-fed--we were going to eat well as soon as we pawned our hard-won treasures.

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In Rhino We Trust

In Rhino We Trust

A Jenny Willson Mystery
also available: eBook
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Chapter 1

May 24

Sam Mogotsi climbed to the top of a ridge, slowly, quietly. The dry, crystalline soil crunched beneath his boots. It was midday and the sun was high and hot, sucking the moisture from his skin. Since leaving his remote house at dawn, he had been driving and walking for more than five hours and was keen to be home by the time his two boys returned from school. After checking the ground for snakes and scorpions, he lowered himself and sat in the limited shade of a large boulder, his back against the rust-coloured sandstone. He could feel its warmth against the shirt of his uniform, its tan fabric dark with sweat.

Mogotsi began to search the opposite hillside with a slow pan of his 10x50 binoculars. He knew they were close. As he did each day, he’d been following their tracks since he’d spotted them on the road. They were old friends. If he was patient, he would eventually spot them.

Seeing nothing through the high-powered optics, Mogotsi dropped them to his chest and let his experienced eyes scan the slopes unaided, watching for the hint of movement that would reveal his targets against the rugged browns and greys. The rainy season had ended a month earlier, and already, most of the trees and shrubs on the far hillside — the acacias, mopanes, and shepherd trees — were showing signs of drought, their leaves drooping or edged with brown. Surprisingly, a few were still vibrant green. He used these as landmarks while his eyes moved in a practised pattern. He slid his Save the Rhino Trust hat from his head, its dark-green brim ringed with salty white. A slight breeze blew from the north, carrying with it the smell of heat, of parched grasses, of the baking rock at his back, of something vaguely organic.

His eyes continued the sweep.

After a few moments of silent observation, Mogotsi finally saw motion. He again raised the binoculars and watched as the creatures cautiously emerged from behind a grove of mopane trees. It was a pair of black rhinos, a cow and a calf. The pointed lip and lack of hump on the cow confirmed the species. They were moving from right to left, the calf behind and partly obscured by the mother’s larger body. He saw the notch in the cow’s left ear and knew it was Linda. The calf was Buhle, or “Beautiful.” Mogotsi had been given the honour of naming her because he was the first to see her after she was born.

Linda was leading Buhle away from the shade of the trees, though they’d normally be napping at this time. Mogotsi knew Linda’s eyesight was not keen enough to see him at this distance, so he wondered if she’d heard his footsteps as he came up the ridge, or if she’d caught his scent on a slight shift in the wind. Or had she detected the scent of something more dangerous?

Mogotsi smiled. Seeing wild rhinos always gave him pleasure, even though he saw them almost daily. Ten years ago, that pleasure had come from the thought of a quick payday. Then, he had carried a .303 rifle in his hand and a large axe in his backpack. Like today, he’d slowly stalked the animals, staying downwind. His goal would have been to get close enough to the cow so that he could shoot her and, as quickly as possible, hack the two horns from her skull, the larger one in the front, the much smaller one behind. On the two-hour drive to meet his buyer in the town of Kamanjab, he would not have given any thought to the fate of the orphaned calf.

But Mogotsi’s days as a poacher were over. As a full-time rhino ranger hired by the local “Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy, he was a valued member of the team and could now comfortably support his family with a regular salary. Having grown up with a father and a grandfather who had both hunted illegally and sold horn and ivory to shadowy buyers, or used illicit bushmeat to barter with hungry neighbours, it had taken Mogotsi two years to shift his thinking. But he now understood the saying “A dead rhino will feed a family for a week; a live rhino will feed a family for a lifetime.” He knew it, his family knew it, and so, too, did his community. His wife and sons no longer had to endure boom-and-bust cycles, with money for food or clothing there one day and gone the next. His family and friends respected him, and he was free of worry over going to jail or paying hefty fines. Life was better now.

In his notebook, Mogotsi recorded the rhino pair’s condition and direction of travel, using a handheld GPS unit to determine their exact location. Even though he knew the animals by name, he sketched in the length of their horns, the size and shape of their ears, and descriptions of their tails. Most importantly, he noted his distance from them and their reaction to him at that distance. He knew that this data would be used to fine-tune the guide-lines they followed when they brought out guests from the local eco-lodge to watch these and other rhinos.

Mogotsi rose, pulled his cap down low, and moved out of the shade. He began to walk parallel to the path of the animals, stepping carefully around rocks the size of soccer and cricket balls, moving downhill along the spine of the ridge he had climbed earlier. He looked toward where he expected the rhinos to be heading: a water hole in a low draw, visible in the distance as a copse of green trees. There, he saw a herd of elephant cows and calves, the adults feeding on acacia leaves above their heads, the youngsters cavorting in and out of a tiny pool of water.

Picking his way carefully along the rocky ridge while keeping his eyes on the rhinos and on the ground at his feet for any sign — tracks or scat — that other animals were around, Mogotsi almost missed it — something lay in an opening to his left. When he saw it, he knew that things had changed, suddenly and dramatically. After two days of searching as he’d shadowed the rhinos, it was the very thing he had hoped not to find.

Mogotsi froze, Linda and Buhle forgotten for the moment. Myriad tracks — he recognized those of black-backed jackals, spotted hyenas, and vultures — led to the gruesome pile. Though the bones were mostly picked clean of flesh, he knew they hadn’t been there long; he saw traces of blood and sinew in their crevices. Where sharp molars and incisors had cracked open the bones, the marrow was still red. The action of the scavengers had most likely erased any evidence of the cause of death.

The only portion of the skeleton that still resembled its original structure was a length of spine, and only because the lobes, tongues, and planes of the vertebrae fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The circular pelvis sat next to it, as if resting, waiting for its owner to return. Turning in a slow circle, Mogotsi saw the rest of the bones scattered over a vast area. The skull there on the slope just above him, laying on its right side, empty sockets staring, the lower jaw missing, as was most of the left side of the skull. A lone femur lay a few feet away.

Mogotsi stood quietly, shocked by the ghastly sight, frightened of the implications it would have for the safari lodge and the lucrative wildlife-viewing program that brought new visitors to the conservancy each week. He had to report his find; if he didn’t, someone else would eventually. But most of all, he wondered about the e?ect this discovery would have upon him and his family.

Deep in the Klip River Valley, the sun was dropping steadily toward the horizon, and Mogotsi scanned the scrub brush around him. Was he in danger of becoming the next meal for the area’s predators and scavengers, which had tasted human flesh, perhaps for the first time?

Slowly, Mogotsi fished the portable radio out of his pocket and raised it to his lips. “Klip River Lodge,” he said in a near whisper, “this is Sam. I have found what we have been looking for. I need you to send the police.” He was purposefully obtuse in case any lodge guests were listening.

The voice of the dispatcher crackled in his ear. “What did you find, Sam?”

“I think … I think it’s Chioto.”

“Where are you?”

Mogotsi gave the dispatcher the local name for the area — DuRaan East — and his coordinates from the GPS, just in case.

A response came five minutes later. “Sam, the police are on their way. I also reached the manager on the phone. He is in Windhoek but will come back right away. He wants you to stay there until the police arrive.”

“I will,” said Mogotsi, again turning slowly to look around.

The radio crackled again, but this time came the voice of his partner for the day, a man who was watching a second pair of rhinos about a kilometre away: “I copy that, Sam. I will come to where you are.”

Mogotsi hesitatingly took a step toward the skull, respectfully. Knowing he shouldn’t, but unable to help himself, he gingerly picked it up, turned it to face him, and stared into the empty sockets. “I am so sorry this happened to you, my friend.” A clump of soil fell from the right side of the skull, revealing a hole the diameter of his thumb, opposite to where a chunck of the skull was missing.

For Mogotsi, there was no doubt that this was all that remained of Chioto Shipanga, a fellow ranger who’d been missing for two days, the subject of an intensive search by friends, family, and colleagues. Mogotsi thought about his sister, Martha, and the devastation that his brother-in-law’s death would cause, not only for her, but for their whole family.

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