Today’s fiction excerpt from Blood of the Dragon Trees concerns this serious issue.
[Jalbala Emcheta. Conservationist. 6ft 2ins, skin mahogany, close-shaved head, coal black hair; high-domed head; full lips, marvellous smile. Almond-shaped eyes. Ebony – very dark brown eyes. Broad nose with flaring nostrils. Lantern jaw, high cheekbones, pearly teeth. Iron-muscled body, massive shoulders, pronounced biceps, defined pecs, washboard stomach. Voice – bass.
Jalbala is an associate of Andrew Kirby; they work for CITES. While investigating in Tenerife, they’re led to a network of people smugglers. Jalbala sneakily joins a group of fresh ‘recruits’ brought ashore from a smuggler’s boat, intent on obtaining incriminating evidence… ]
The week was a long ordeal of starvation rations, hard labor and a few minor beatings, but Jalbala stoically accepted his lot. His body ached in every muscle, mainly from work, but he was determined to fit in.
Including him, there were twenty-two in the new group, so Mustapha had been accurate on that point, too. It seemed that the rest of the group hadn’t noticed the switch. They were probably – and understandably – wrapped up in their own fate at the time.
Some days he was put to work in a field, picking melons. The open air was preferable, but the sun quickly sapped his strength and gave him a pounding headache, the first signs of dehydration. In the fields, Jalbala got to know the woman he’d pulled out of the water. Her name was Nadira. She was twenty-four and had left her two young boys with her parents. Her husband had been killed and she wanted to fend for herself. ‘Europe is where I will make money and bring my children up,’ she told Jalbala with conviction.
Other days, he worked under immense sheets of plastic. Within these greenhouses, he found it difficult to breathe in the very humid 140oF. Light and heat seemed to radiate from every surface. The days melded into an amorphous mass of time within Jalbala’s surreal world, where the sky was white, suspended by arched wooden ribs, just inches above his head.
Toiling in the suffocating greenhouses, Jalbala made friends with one of the men who’d been landed from the ship. Talking made them even more breathless, but Jalbala needed information and Jope was glad to pass the time while doing monotonous work.
Jope spoke French. He was Senegalese, with a wife and a five-year-old daughter. He’d been an electrician, earning £25 a month.
‘Why talk in British pounds?’ Jalbala queried. ‘Your currency is francs, isn’t it?’
Jope shrugged. ‘I don’t know why, but they preferred discredited pounds, rather than our francs or euros.’
He went on. He’d been enticed by a friend who said that in the Canaries he could earn at least £1,000 a month. ‘I decided to improve my family’s lot. I spoke to my wife and we agreed. I took our family savings and went to the coast.’ He eventually caught a ship sailing from Dajla in Mauritania. ‘I want a house and I want to educate my children,’ he told Jalbala. ‘The journey cost £800. I worked for three months to add the wages to our savings.’
Jalbala felt for the man. The money that ruled – and ruined – Jope’s life, was peanuts to the majority of people in the UK or the States. Everything was relative, he supposed. Both the States and the UK were still hurting from the credit crunch and massive borrowing. Yet he’d seen in England that large sections of the workforce were still intent on striking for higher wages. What planet were they on?
‘Why do you ask so many questions?’ Jope said.
Really good question, Jalbala thought. ‘I’m a reporter. I want to expose the people who put you through this.’ He only wished that was true; maybe some aspects of it could be.
Somewhere near, guard dogs barked and Jalbala knew that not far from their side strode sadistic men with pickaxe handles and baseball bats.
Jalbala’s stomach growled. After days of poor food and backbreaking work, he felt drained, weak, weary, and he ached all over. He was fit and strong, but the others weren’t, so he had no idea how the women coped.
He worked in the fields, a huge plastic collecting basket strapped to his back. As he’d been shown, he sliced off melons and slung them over his shoulder to land in the basket. After a while, their combined weight started to tell, threatening to rip his shoulders off. The field was filled with his fellow illegals, women and men. Nadira, the woman he’d pulled out of the water, was over on his right, Jope on his left. They both bowed with a will, determined to work towards their freedom.
A wave of depression swamped Jalbala as he reali
zed they were being duped. They’d never get legitimate
papers. Food and so-called lodging would be deducted from their miniscule
wages; complications would arise over the required forms. They’d be made to
work till they dropped, and then Black Beard or one of his men would come along
with a baseball bat to encourage them to work some more.
Already, one of their tent walked with a serious limp, thanks to ‘encouragement’ from a guard. Jalbala decided he could not wait much longer. He’d noticed a couple of guards watching him, as if making sure he pulled his weight. The slightest excuse, they’d give him a good hiding, and it might be so harsh he wouldn’t recover fully from it. Commonsense and honest fear told him he couldn’t delay more than a week. He must get the evidence soon.
***He and ten other men occupied Jalbala’s tent; the women were accommodated separately. He waited until everybody in his tent was asleep then silently rose from his bedroll and tiptoed over the sleeping bodies of his fellow immigrant workers.
Hardly daring to breathe, he reached the tent flap and eased it aside. The sentry dozed, which wasn’t surprising; after the first two nights, all of the illegals seemed resigned and incapable of fighting a way out. Besides, they had to continue working to earn the official papers they’d been promised.
Feeling the tension in every muscle, Jalbala stepped out. Nobody else was anywhere near. He slunk into the shadows and headed to the east section of the plantation.
As he moved, he listened.
But there was only the constant sound of cicadas. No dogs growling anywhere near.
He reached the fence barrier and found a suitable spot, near a cluster of banana plants.
Cicadas close by stopped their racket for a few seconds, then, apparently satisfied they were not under threat, they resumed their loud noise.
Barbed wire sections overhung the other side of the fence.
He removed his right shoe and prized the heel free. It swiveled to reveal a hollow occupied by a plastic sealed miniature transmitter, its tiny light emitting a red flash.
It only took a few seconds for him to bury the transmitter behind one of the young banana plants, by the fence. He covered his tracks, sure he could find the plant again tomorrow in the dark.
***‘The signal pinpoints this position,’ Kirby said, pointing to the map on the lieutenant’s desk. ‘Next to the boundary fence.’ He sounded unusually cheerful. For the last few days, he’d seemed very quiet, withdrawn, almost depressed.
Vargas slapped Kirby on the back. ‘Good. I’ll get Sergeant Alvarez to drive you to the spot.’
‘Well, make it close to the spot, Lieutenant. We don’t want to alert them.’
Vargas nodded. ‘Just so.’ He picked up his desk phone. ‘You know, this might work.’
‘I hope so.’
‘Send in Sergeant Alvarez,’ Vargas said into the phone.
‘Sí, teniente,’ came the reply.
A sudden heaviness descended on his chest as Vargas replaced the receiver. ‘Until now, Jad has been taking a risk,’ he said. ‘Once he gets the delivery, that risk multiplies tenfold. If they catch him…’ He shook his head and held the worried eyes of Kirby. ‘Well, it will not be pleasant, I assure you…’
‘No, I guess not. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping for the next couple of nights,’ Kirby confessed.
***The next night, Jalbala slunk out of his tent again, the only sound the raucous buzz of cicadas. He made his way to the banana plant where, hidden behind it, was a small canvas bag. His heart gave a slight flip of pleasure as he picked it up. He quickly checked that the handheld video camera, cushioned within a thick roll of bubble-wrap, was intact. Clearly, their plan worked. Kirby had tracked the transmitter accurately and lobbed the bag over the fence, probably earlier tonight.
He tucked the bag under his shirt and made his way to the tent. Now for some interviews.
When he got back, he gently shook Jope awake.
‘I’ve got the camera,’ Jalbala whispered. ‘Are you still willing to speak?’
‘And have you found anyone else who will speak?’
‘Yes.’ Cautiously, Jope clambered over the sleeping bodies and shook two men awake. He whispered to them and they nodded.
Jope and the others had spoken in measured tones about their mistreatment and how they came to be there. Jalbala got Jope to film him and he presented his testimony, too. Gradually, however, others in the tent woke up due to the sound of voices. Despite exhaustion, many of the workers were light sleepers, as if keeping one ear cocked in case there was an official raid. They’d all been told to disperse in every direction if the police descended on their plantation.
They were very tense moments and Jalbala’s pulse seemed to race on overdrive, but no alarm was raised. Yet the rest inside the tent shied away, giving the four of them wary glances. He hadn’t appreciated that not all the illegals would condone his actions. As far as they saw it, this was their chance to get a well-paid job. Nothing he said derailed them from that belief.
Jalbala considered breaking into the women’s tent for more evidence, but discarded the idea as foolhardy. Maybe Nadira would speak on camera, but his presence in the tent might cause concern or even alarm among the other women. He couldn’t risk it.
After filming, he decided to take the camera in the bag back to the banana plant and lob it over the fence. On a number of days, there’d been evidence of searches in the tents. He had no idea what they were looking for; maybe drugs, or written notes.
Most of the occupants in the tent were still awake when he left. The second journey to the fence seemed to take much longer. Maybe because he was carrying incriminating evidence, evidence that could cost him his life.
Once at the banana plant, he stood still, listening. Nothing. No voices, no footfalls. The cicadas had stopped. They had last night, too. But for some reason they were keeping quiet. Why? Getting paranoid, he told himself, and lobbed the bag over the fence. He heard it land but couldn’t see it. Somewhere in the shadows. He hoped Kirby found it. Would he check for it tonight? If he didn’t, would it be visible to any of Black Beard’s men tomorrow? He had no way of knowing. He must trust to luck – which abruptly seemed to run out on him.
A powerful torch beam blinded Jalbala.
‘Trying to run off, eh?’ The voice belonged to Black Beard, somewhere in the dark behind the torch.
Jalbala raised his hands and slowly edged sideways away from that section of fence. Let them think that, he thought.
‘Come on, step forward,’ said Black Beard. ‘Accept your punishment like a man!’
Jalbala heard the slapping of a hand against the wood surface of a baseball bat. I never was a good sportsman, he thought.
Blood of the Dragon Trees published by Crooked Cat Publishing as an e-book and paperback
Some review excerpts:
‘This is a breathless read - totally satisfying.’
‘Set on the idyllic holiday island of Tenerife, the novel exposes how illegal traders in endangered species and also human trafficking, thrive on making a massive fortune from their disgusting activities there… a masterfully written fictional story based on these appalling facts - a thriller and romance rolled into one that draws you in with plenty of suspense and fast paced action. Each chapter ends with a hook leading you eagerly on to the next. The characters and all the location settings on the island are colourfully realised.’
‘The crimes are appalling, the characters well drawn and credible, and the settings superb.’
‘What a fantastic fast-paced read this is! The plot twists and turns and keeps us guessing.’
‘Nik Morton’s experiences and his writing put the reader in the novel and I felt like I had physically and emotionally travelled hand in hand with the characters through their arduous ordeals.’
Amazon COM here
Amazon UK here