Chapter 14: Russians
A raucous shout of laughter filled the air.
Alan nodded his head over his shoulder in the direction of the hilarity.
“We have a real pair of dodgies this time”.
Another loud set of guffaws rolled up the slope towards us.
“Not since I guided Escobar back in the 80’s have I come across a pair quite like these two.”
Allan nodded again towards them, ““Actually Pablo was a breeze once you got used to all the loaded side-arms being packed around by his bodyguards.”
I raised my eyebrows, “Really you guided Escobar?”
“Yes, compared to our current duo he was quite a gentleman. He would fly in with his private jet, no passports needed. And he paid very well, Cash!”
I chuckled,”Sso much for Interpol and all that law and order stuff.”
Alan went on, “Actually what did I care about the morality of Escobar selling cocaine to stupid people. When it is moved out here money can buy anything. And if you are invited to these bad boys table, it is best to accept their invitation, otherwise one may find oneself on the menu.”
Alan tilted his head at us and turning he indicated to follow him.. “Come, let me introduce you to our guests!”
To one side of the deck was the customary serving table covered with a tablecloth sporting a vibrant African motif. Opposite it, were four comfortable camp chairs set in a half circle facing towards the river.
Three of the chairs were occupied.
I immediately recognize Roger, with his dark brown hair, and bushy beard which could not hide the roundness of his face. Being much shorter than his father in stature, he must have inherited his features from his mother, including the propensity to follow, which, I could imagine, was necessary if one was to get on with his father.
Seeing as it was not yet midmorning, the one half of the table sported what was to be expected at this still reasonably early time of day. On the table were the flasks, jugs and cups, all laid out to make coffee or tea. Next to these was a woven basket containing toast and another with freshly baked muffins. Both were covered with a gauze cloth to keep off any insects. Alongside lay the cutlery to spread the butter, marmalade or jam in glass jars. All the elements of a light Bush breakfast.
All of it untouched.
On the other side of the table, somewhat forlornly, stood an empty whiskey bottle, and two bottles of vodka, one of which was half empty. An ice bucket and a few scattered and crumpled soda cans completed the picture of a different sort of indulgence.
Roger stood and moved across to meet me. I reached out to shake his hand. He greeted me as warmly has had his father. In the same fashion I introduced Moses.
Then with a broad sweep of his hand, Roger gestured towards the other two men, who had remained seated as we arrived.
“Let me introduce our guests.” Roger paused, ““Alexei”.
A man with dark eyes and a face whose roundness and dark brown hair bore a vague similarity to a shaved Roger, nodded back at us.
The second man was much older. He had a nondescript build, and was slighter than his companion,. Even though he was still sitting in his chair, it was obvious that like the young one, he was not tall. His fair hair was closely cropped, in a military style. I was not sure if the thinness of his hair was as a result of its close cropping, or because he was going bald.
I stepped across to where he sat and extended my arm with an open hand for a friendly shake.
Vladimir didn’t rise from his chair, but he did lazily raise his arm to give my hand a perfunctory and listless clasp as he briefly drifted his small piercingly blue eyes in my direction. He accompanied his glance with a nod of his head and an indecipherable grunt. This was issued when he had already turned his head towards his companion, to whom he began to address in what I assumed was Russian.
He didn’t seem to register, let alone care, that I was introducing myself. “Hi, Nice to meet you, I am Gideon”.
I waited politely for him to finish speaking to the other man, and then as he swiveled his eyes at me, I addressed him, ‘”Tis is my partner, Moses”.
Now it was Alexi who spoke, once again in Russian. Vladimir didn’t even grunt us an acknowledgement before he turned to reply to whatever it was Alexi said.
However, he had let his gaze drift in my direction just long enough for me to realize that the piercing blue of his eyes emanated not so much from their color, as from the pinprick constriction of his pupils, which allowed the hue of his iris’s to dominate my impression.
And it was then that the air shifted towards where I stood. It brought with it the smell of stale whiskey, which even a subsequent half bottle of odorless vodka could not suppress.
“Can I offer you any coffee or tea? Alan invited us to the table, “Feel free to have some of this toast or a muffin or two”. And he added that the coffee was fresh filtered, not the instant chicory knock off stuff.
While Alan poured the coffee, both Moses and I helped ourselves to some of the tables other bounties.
The scene was so idyllic. Beyond the broad leafy shade over the deck, and the swaying fronds of the river grass, the morning sunlight sparkled with a million kaleidoscope glitters off the rippling water as it bumbled across the rocky shallows.
In the background, like a musician practicing before a performance, the melodious sound of a Red-eyed bush dove rose and fell up and down its repetitive scale with metronomic regularity. It blended into the rivers murmurs as naturally as if into the whispers of a crowd behind the curtain, waiting for their maestro to take the stage.
But then there are few sounds out here which don’t find favor to anyone who is a child of the bush.
I wondered if the two foreigners were as affected by the halcyon splendor of the setting.
“What a great place for breakfast” I commented to no one in particular.
“I want more drink.
It was Vladimir who spoke.
“Vodka”, he added.
Roger obliged, handing him a glass and then filling it half full until Vladimir raised it up to clink on the neck of the bottle, indicating it was full enough.
I watched in amazement as he raised the glass, and tilting his head back poured its contents down his throat with no more than three or four gulps.
“Nostrovia!” I felt obliged to toast him.
“You speak Russian?”
Vladimir fixed his beady gaze on me.
“No”, I replied, “I know a few words, but I can swear quite well in Russian”.
A faint smile appeared on his face.
“Where did you learn to swear in Russian?”
“I had a Russian girlfriend.” I lied. “Idi Nahui” she would say to me all the time, and “Idi v pizdui”.
Vladimir gave a snort of laughter and turned and said something to Alexei, whose face had also begun to glimmer with a smile at my expressions.
“Where was that?”
“Oh it was a long time ago” I said, “I was scared of her. She was bigger and stronger than me. But she taught me many useful things, not just to swear”.
“What did she teach?” Alexei had a deeper voice than Vladimir.
“She taught me how to milk a cow”. I hesitated, I didn’t want to upset my hosts by offending their clients, but I sensed that it would be something other than raunchiness that would offend this pair. But then again maybe I was wrong. There indifference to my introduction had annoyed me. So I was willing to push a tad. I had already decided I didn’t like this man. There was something about him.
“Like most Russian women, she was a cow.” I said.
From experience I had learned that there were two types of drunks, the stupid silly, and the nasty aggressive. My gut feeling was that Vladimir fitted into the latter category. His slightly flattened boxer nose bore testimony to a pugnacious past.
Most probably, like many Russians, he had an astounding ability to be a functional drunk. It was clear that on this beautiful morning he was not sober, and probably had been so for quite a while.
I saw that my verbal jab had hit its mark. The flush of redness in his face indicated that he had not missed it. There are few things that get a drunk riled up as a jab at their women, even the ugly ones.
I was about to ask him his wife’s name, and then follow it up by telling him how strange it was that my “ugly ex-girlfriend” and his wife had the same name.
But out of the corner of my eye I saw the consternation on Rogers face. It validated that I was dealing with a nasty sort of drunk, so I backed off.
“Actually”, I mused out a loud, “I remember now that she wasn’t Russian, she was Ukrainian”.
“Are you hunters?”
Unlike Vladimir, Alexi spoke very good English, with almost no accent.
“No”, I replied, “I”m working here under a contract to train the scouts, so that they can save animals, so that you can shoot them.”
Vladimir continued to glower at me.
“Is this the first time you have hunted in Africa?” I asked.
“No, we are here many times. We are involved with mining. Mostly in Tanzania and the DRC. But this is the first time we are in Zambia.”
His expansiveness suggested that Alexei was the other type of drunk.
“I want more vodka”. It was Vladimir again. “I want Vodka and Cola”.
There were no cans of Coca-Cola on the table, and I saw Roger raises hand and beckon with his finger towards the back of the bar, which was situated towards the rear of the chitenge hire up the slope away from us.
As the barman started across the lawn towards us Vladimir spoke again.
He turned to me and with a flick of his head said, “Tell your boy to bring me the Coke”..
I was correct, he was the nasty sort of drunk.
“I beg your pardon, I’m not sure if I heard you correctly”“.
His escalation had caught me off guard.
The slur of alcohol was now detectable in his voice, “Tell your flat nose to bring me a Coke”.
Both Alan and Roger, sprang up and stumbled over themselves as they tried to diffuse the situation.
On my turf I would have pushed the interaction, he was drunk and I was not. But I had to give him credit. In Africa he knew which buttons to push to get a fight going. In Africa, we take less offense over our women, but racial slurs, that is fighting talk.
I could feel my temper rising as I stood and said to Moses, “Now that we have finished our coffee I think that it is time for us to go”.
Moses stood and walked across to set his cup down on the table.
He turned, and for the first time since sitting on the deck, he spoke.
“Vladimir”, he said softly, “Your friend Alexi, asked if we are hunters. My friend Gidi said he is not a hunter.
That is not quite true. He used to be a hunter. A very good one.
And I”m still a hunter, which is why he has asked me to help him.
Moses paused as he moved his gaze to Alexei, and then slowly back to Vladimir.
I hunt men. “
He moved over to where the barman now stood with the cola can in his hand, and took it from him.
“Vladimir, I have hunted many Russians. In Angola, they were easy to find, and they were even easier to kill. Because they loved their Vodka.
But, today I am a religious man, so now I bring you your Cola, instead of a bullet.
Both Alan and Roger followed us as we walked away.
Once out of earshot, Alan turned to us, “You can see that the chip has not fallen too far from the block with that father son pair.”
“I am glad I”m not in the hospitality business “I said, “With all that sort of bullshit, It would not take long for me to end up in jail after I punched one of those assholes.”“
“Ahhh, Gideon,” Alan spoke quietly, “You should remember that it is putting up with bullshit that pays for all this wonderful habitat preservation.”