Friday Night Book Club: Greed. Danger. Treachery. A rare cycad – stolen. Read an excerpt from Tony Park’s latest novel Last Survivor
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Get comfortable this evening with some popcorn and an excerpt from Last Survivor – the new novel by Tony Park!
Last Survivor is out now from Pan Macmillan.
About the book
A priceless plant, a rare African cycad thought to be extinct and prized by collectors, has been discovered, then stolen.
Joanne Flack, widowed and broke, is the prime suspect for the crime. While supposedly hiding out in London she single-handedly foils a terrorist plot, killing a lone-wolf gunman.
Former mercenary turned CIA contractor, Sonja Kurtz, uncovers a link between the missing plant and the terrorist who tried to kill Joanne. The US Government thinks that if it can find the missing cycad it can foil an attack to rival 9-11.
Hot on Joanne’s trail is retired US Fish and Wildlife Department special agent Rod Cavanagh who knows his plants and knows his target – he’s her former lover.
Joanne is a member of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society. She, Sonja and Rod enlist the help of this group of ageing gardeners and gun nuts to find a plant worth a fortune and the traitor in their midst who is willing to kill for it.
Read the excerpt:
Pretoria, South Africa
Jacqueline Smit banged her gavel on the table. ‘I call this meeting of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society to order. Are there any apologies?’
Thunder rumbled outside like a distant artillery barrage, but the lightning strike that followed was close, as loud as a direct hit. Thandi Ngwenya dropped her knitting and Jacqueline frowned. A hadada ibis gave its drawn-out, eponymous call as it took off in fright from the water feature just outside the back-room office of the garden centre where they were meeting, sitting around an eight-seat boardroom table.
‘Sorry, my Queen,’ Thandi said to Jacqueline as she reached to retrieve the tiny jersey she was knitting for her third grandchild.
Thandi’s back ached when she bent over and SS, Stephen Stoke, who proclaimed himself 100 per cent Boer despite the shame of the Christian and surnames his English-speaking father had bestowed on him, dropped to one knee, creakily, and retrieved it for her. SS was quick to criticise the African National Congress government of South Africa and Thandi had sensed he had been distinctly uncomfortable with her, initially, as the first black person to join their society, but over time they had become friends and both, she thought, had learned to leave some of their prejudices where they belonged: in the past.
‘Thank you, SS.’
SS smiled. ‘Pleasure, Thandi.’
‘Queen’ Jacqueline Smit, as she was known to the other members, gave Thandi a curt nod and banged her gavel again, as loud and as fast as a double tap from a Glock. Her beehive hairdo, piled appropriately like a crown on her head, shook slightly. Charles Borg, a white-haired old South African of Viking stock, sat to attention in his chair and folded his arms. ‘Apart from the obvious apology?’
The ticking of the wall clock became audible. Laurel looked to Baye, who rolled her eyes.
‘Has Joanne not officially resigned yet, or been given the chop?’ Sandy Burrell asked.
Charles leaned over and put one hand on the back of Sandy’s wheelchair.
‘Not yet. She took off to London while you were in hospital. How did it go, by the way?’
‘Well my spinal cord isn’t going to fix itself, of course, but the treatment was good. Basically, I’m still fucked.’
Jacqueline cleared her throat. ‘Language.’
‘All right, all right,’ Charles said. ‘We have one apology, Mrs Joanne Flack.’
‘Thank you,’ Jacqueline said. ‘You’ve all read the minutes of the last meeting, I take it, so there is no need for me to go through them?’
SS leaned back in his chair, the buttons of his farmer’s two-tone khaki and blue work shirt threatening to open fire as the material stretched tight across his spreading belly. ‘Ag, enough of this what-what-what. I move the minutes be accepted.’
A quick show of hands confirmed it.
Thandi looked around the room at her friends, because despite their occasional differences and outbursts, and instances of latent racism, they were her friends. Sandy frowned; SS harrumphed; Laurel Covey inspected her latest manicure for non-existent signs of imperfection; and Baye Pigors, at sixty-seven still as lithe as a leopard in Lorna Jane activewear, regarded Jacqueline through narrowed golden eyes. Baye’s hair, long, dark and lustrous, was pulled back from her olive-skinned face in a plait. She taught Pilates for the more-mature to while away her spare hours and to keep herself in shape; her regime was working, Thandi mused with not a little envy.
Charles sat up. ‘Very well, I’ll speak to the elephant in the room …’
‘Who are you calling an elephant?’ Laurel asked, finally tiring of looking for her reflection in her fingernails.
Jacqueline frowned and Thandi sighed. Laurel was the prettiest woman in the room, and had been mistaken more than once, she was keen on reminding them, for being twenty years younger than her sixty-five years. Thandi touched her gently on the arm.
‘It’s a figure of speech, dear, it means the big thing everyone is scared of, and knows is there, but does not want to address.’
Charles, handsome and debonair as ever in his sports coat and cravat, cleared his throat. ‘I move that Joanne Flack be hereby … what’s the word, excommunicated, terminated?’
Jacqueline clenched her teeth and drew her lips back from them. ‘Expelled?’
Typical ex-teacher, Thandi thought as she started her knitting again. She wasn’t being rude – the others knew she was able to listen to everything they said while she knitted, and it calmed her when she felt anxious. Like now. These people were messing with words. In her day, in the training camp in Mozambique, they’d known what to do with traitors.
‘What do you think, Thandi?’ SS asked. ‘Expelled?’
She looked up from her knitting. ‘I was thinking that at one time in my life, if someone betrayed the cause they would be killed. The ANC would burn them – with a necklace, you know, a tyre filled with petrol – but we Zimbabweans would simply shoot them.’
SS raised his eyebrows. ‘Sheesh, man, you think we should shoot Joanne? This is not the old days.’
They were all looking at her now, as if she was the odd one out. They were no different from her. Her eyes lingered on each of her friends for a second. Charles Borg had been a South African Defence Force helicopter pilot under the old apartheid regime and had served in Namibia and Angola and, for a time, in Thandi’s native Zimbabwe, flying for the Rhodesians. Ironically, Thandi’s second husband – the first love of her life – had been a white man who had also flown choppers in Rhodesia. Charles had, it turned out, flown with her husband George for a short while in the same squadron.
Thandi and George had been forced to keep their love a secret during the Bush War and had been estranged for many years, finally reuniting not long before dear George died of a heart attack. SS was a former Recce-Commando, a member of South Africa’s elite special forces; Jacqueline, her Majesty the Queen, had famously shot and killed a man who’d tried to hijack her car; Joanne had grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and had shot two Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army terrorists, Thandi’s people, during an attack on her family’s property.
Laurel, once the wife of a Zululand cane farmer, had shot dead a thief during a farm robbery; and Baye Pigors, a banker’s widow from Johannesburg’s expensive Houghton Estate, had moved to Tel Aviv in 1972 after leaving school to study and found herself serving in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 before moving back to South Africa. They had all once been soldiers or involved in gunfights, living for a time on a diet of adrenaline and fear, but today they looked forward to their cycad society meetings and pensioners’ discount Tuesdays at Builders Warehouse.
Even dear Sandy, the youngest of them at fifty-five, had put a bullet in a home invader’s leg when he’d tried to threaten her into giving over the PIN for her Visa card – he had dropped his guard, thinking her disability, the result of a motor vehicle accident, made her helpless, and she had pulled the CZ-83 from the side pocket of her wheelchair and dropped him. She had sat there, keeping him covered, until the police tactical unit arrived at her home in Centurion. Charles scoffed.
‘Well, Thandi? It’s not the liberation war now so we won’t let you burn or shoot anyone to death as a punishment for betrayal.’
‘No,’ she tutted in reply. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it, and nor do I think Joanne should be expelled, or excommunicated, or sanctioned. At least not until we’ve heard from her.’
‘Tell me exactly what I’ve missed over the last couple of weeks,’ Sandy said. ‘I want to hear it from the chair, not via the rumour mill.’
Queen Jacqueline looked down over the top of her hornrimmed eyeglasses. ‘Joanne, as treasurer, had not only the bank account log-in details, but also the keys to the storeroom.’
‘Yes,’ Sandy said. ‘And …’
‘And as you would have heard from the others already, the police brought us a fine specimen of Encephalartos woodii, a female plant no less, and –’
Sandy broke in: ‘Yes, I could hardly believe it when Joanne told us she’d discovered a female woodii, but to then find out it was stolen, not once but twice, is incredible. That plant must be worth …’
‘A fortune, yes,’ Jacqueline continued. ‘The police gave it to us for safekeeping after they caught two men with it at a random roadblock.’
Sandy shook her head. ‘This is just too astonishing for words. How did the cops even know it was a female woodii? I think we can agree it’s unlikely they’d have realised it’s the only one of its kind in the world, so rare no living human had ever even seen one until Joanne and you lot clapped eyes on it.’
Jacqueline held up a hand. ‘If you will allow me to continue …’ Even Sandy, who was never afraid to speak out, had to bow to Jacqueline’s typical forcefulness. She gave a submissive nod.
‘The criminals,’ the Queen continued, ‘had it in the boot of their car. The fact that they rather foolishly tried to run from the police told the cops that the plant was worth something. The detective at the station –’
‘My son-in-law,’ Laurel interrupted, sitting straighter in her chair and beaming proudly.
‘Yes, Laurel’s son-in-law, James, asked Laurel and me to identify it. Needless to say we were shocked when we realised what it was. James later asked, begged, Laurel to bring it to us for safekeeping when she told him what it was – he was worried that once word got out about its true worth it would disappear from his evidence locker. Isn’t that right, Laurel?’
Laurel nodded. ‘Yes, shame, the police don’t even trust one another. Poor James did actually beg me to look after the woodii. And this was obviously the same female woodii that Joanne had discovered in the garden of Prince Whatshisname?’
‘I doubt there are two female woodiis,’ Charles said patiently to Laurel, ‘so, yes, this plant was first stolen from the cycad garden on Prince Faisal al Sabah’s private game reserve, near Hoedspruit, and then stolen again from our storeroom after the police entrusted it to us.’
‘But how can we be sure Joanne took it?’ Sandy asked.
Jacqueline pursed her lips. ‘Well, we can’t, but you have to admit, the evidence is fairly damning. Joanne, as you know, worked for the prince part-time as his consultant horticulturalist, and knew of the theft from the reserve. After the plant was rediscovered and left with us, Joanne flew out to London to visit her daughter, and when I next checked the lock-up, two days after her departure, the woodii was gone and our bank account had been emptied. Since then none of us have heard from her, despite leaving repeated voicemail and email messages.’
Sandy nodded, frowning. ‘Yes, I tried as well. Nothing. And how come none of this has made the newspapers?’
‘These oil-rich Arabs,’ Baye said, unable to hide her disdain, ‘they have enough money to buy anyone, anything, even the silence of the police and the media.’
‘The theory,’ Thandi said to Sandy, ‘is that Joanne took the cycad and the money with her to the UK. She told me before she left that her son-in-law had lost his job and the family are in debt up to their eyeballs. They had already paid for her ticket to come visit before the young man was sacked.’
SS nodded. ‘I’m afraid to say Joanne asked me for a loan a few weeks ago. Shame, the poor thing is in trouble. I gathered that the money her daughter used to send her from the UK had dried up.’
Charles leaned forward, hands on the desktop. ‘Laurel, did you ask James to open a docket to investigate the theft from our premises?’
Laurel looked to Jacqueline, clearly bewildered. ‘Should I have?’ Jacqueline frowned. ‘This matter is most concerning. One of the things I wanted to discuss here today is what steps we should take next – if it is indeed appropriate to call in the authorities.’
‘“Appropriate to call in the authorities”?’ SS slapped the table.
‘Our bank balance, thirty-something thousand ronts –’
Thandi lowered her knitting and smiled to herself at Stephen’s old-fashioned pronunciation of the word ‘rand’ – the man lived in another era, one he would have termed ‘the good old days’.
‘Thirty-two thousand, six hundred and fifty-five rand and twenty cents.’
‘Whatever,’ SS said, ‘has been stolen, along with a cycad we were supposed to care for until the offenders were dealt with by the courts … I’d say it was time to call in the bladdy police, yes, Jacqueline, especially as this bladdy cycad is worth a king’s ransom.’
Jacqueline glared at him. ‘Language.’
‘Now, now, Stephen,’ Charles said. ‘Like Thandi says, I think we need to give Joanne a chance to explain before we go getting the police involved.’
‘But she’s taken the money and the cycad, Charles, you buffoon,’ Sandy said.
Charles rolled his eyes. Sandy’s abrasiveness was well known, but she seemed to filter her words even less when talking to Charles. Thandi wondered why Charles put up with her barbs. They bickered like an old married couple sometimes. Baye leaned back in her chair, one long, lycra-clad leg crossed over the other. ‘That Arab prince Joanne worked for would have cut off her hands by now if he’d caught her stealing his cycad. Clearly she didn’t steal the female woodii from her employer in the first place, unless of course she paid the guys who the police arrested to transport it for her and then had to steal it a second time – from us.’ She tilted her head, lifting her nose as if she had just detected a whiff of something unpleasant. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time Joanne dudded someone who trusted her.’
‘I say call the police,’ Sandy said.
Thandi placed the little jersey back in her knitting basket. That very act made some of the others look her way.
‘Comrades …’ SS looked heavenwards, as he always did when Thandi addressed them by that name. She liked using the word solely for his reaction. ‘Comrades, now is not the time for burning necklaces, excommunication or amputation. We must find out what has happened to Joanne. I think she will return to Africa. Joanne told me more than once that she could not bear living in England, or Australia, or anywhere outside of this continent. She is a child of our blood-red soil, and, besides, thirty-two thousand, six hundred and fifty-five rand will not last long in England, particularly the way Joanne drinks.’
SS snorted. Queen Jacqueline frowned. Laurel had resumed her inspection of her perfect nails.
‘You don’t think Joanne stole the cycad?’ Sandy asked.
Thandi shrugged. ‘I’m saying something doesn’t add up. Joanne was investigated for smuggling back in the nineties, you remember?’
SS nodded. ‘I do. She was acquitted, though her husband, rest his soul, was clearly guilty, shot dead by an undercover American G-man.’
‘Exactly,’ Thandi said. ‘Even if Joanne was involved she was able to expertly cover her tracks. Stealing a cycad from under our noses, from our storeroom, is not the style of an accomplished poacher. It’s too obvious. If she had wanted to steal the female woodii she could have taken it from the Kuwaiti’s garden before anyone, including the prince, even knew what it was. Remember, it was she who alerted us to her discovery of the rarest plant in the whole world.’
Laurel had taken to her nail with a file, but now she looked up, at Thandi. ‘So, like, what must we do, Thands?’
Dear Laurel, Thandi thought. If it wasn’t for her extensive knowledge of cycads she would think the woman a halfwit. ‘We must investigate, Laurel.’
‘What are we now,’ SS scoffed, ‘the number one old ladies’ private investigation agency, headed by our own Mama Ngwenya?’
Thandi ignored the flippancy. ‘But we must find Joanne and, if we cannot find her, we must ascertain what she was doing before she left South Africa, who she met with, what she was planning.’
‘What about the son of the king of Arabia or whatever, Prince Sisal?’ Laurel asked.
‘His name is Faisal,’ Charles said patiently, and turned to Sandy. ‘Joanne told us all about her work for him while you were in hospital. Faisal’s a Kuwaiti prince, a minor member of the Al Sabah family, busy building his own private game lodge near Hoedspruit. Joanne had some work advising on the landscaping. The prince is one of us, apparently.’
‘You’re suffering from old man’s disease, Charles, you silly old fool,’ Sandy said. ‘You forget I was here when Joanne told us about her work for the prince and how he’d already had an Encephalartos hirsutus stolen from his garden. So this female woodii is the second valuable cycad he’s lost. And what do you mean, he’s one of us?’
‘He’s a gun nut and a cycad fancier,’ Charles said quietly, somewhat chastised.
Jacqueline weighed in: ‘Come to think of it, we should invite him to join the society as we need his subscription. He’s a hunter – the game lodge is primarily there to stock his private trophy room, apparently.’
Sandy frowned. ‘Joanne wouldn’t have been involved with a hunter, would she?’ Jacqueline shrugged in reply. ‘Joanne was an old-school Zimbabwean. She told me once she took her daughter on an impala hunt when the girl turned fifteen. The girl never shot again and Joanne said she no longer had the stomach for it, either, but money is money these days, and the Kuwaiti paid her in US dollars.’
Laurel addressed Sandy. ‘Not only is he fabulously wealthy in his own right, but Joanne told us how he has all this ivory and rhino horn stocked away that people are always scheming to get their hands on.’
‘I’m in a wheelchair, Laurel, I am not mentally deficient. I also remember Joanne telling us about the prince’s other treasures.’
‘Yes, well, I think this Sisal’s a suspicious character, myself,’ Laurel said.
‘Faisal, Laurel.’ Thandi had gone back to her knitting, in order to process the new information swirling around. She thought out loud: ‘A suspicious member of a royal family with cash, diplomatic immunity, and a love of cycads.’
Charles raised his eyebrows. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Thandi?’
‘Road trip?’ SS interrupted. ‘Joanne told us that the prince had issued a standing invitation for us to visit his royal hunting estate if we were ever in Hoedspruit – and we very soon will be.’
Thandi looked to Jacqueline. ‘Madam Chair, we have the Kombi organised for this year’s cycad conference at Nelspruit, and a visit to the Kruger Park next week. Hoedspruit is very near.’
Jacqueline pursed her lips and slid her glasses up her nose. ‘Do we have a motion and a seconder?’
All of their hands went up.