Cry of the Firebird
In the badlands of Africa, a resourceful doctor fights to save her patients’ lives. Australian thriller writer T.M. Clark returns with a vivid, action-packed adventure in the tradition of Wilbur Smith.
South African-born Doctor Lily Winters, a consultant with the World Health Organization, has been in the thick of some of the worst humanitarian disasters across the globe. But when she’s posted back to South Africa following the suspicious death of an ex-colleague, she faces the biggest medical mystery she’s ever seen.
The resettled San community of Platfontein is exhibiting a higher-than-average HIV infection rate, and their people are dying. The cases Lily takes over are baffling and despite her best efforts the medicine doesn’t seem to be helping.
To save this unique community, Lily and a policeman from the Kalahari, Piet Kleinman, join forces to trace the origins of the epidemic and uncover the truth. Their search drags them into the dangerous world of a corrupt industry driven by profit while the authorities meant to protect their community turn a blind eye. In a race against time Lily and Piet will put not only their careers but their lives on the line…
Kimberley, South Africa, 2017
Quintin Winters pulled his violin, La Angelique, from her bed of purple velvet, along with Fred, his bow, and smiled fleetingly before tucking them under his arm. He walked outside onto the veran-dah, which looked out over their property, towards their neigh-bour’s game farm. Today there were at least fifty flamingos that had stopped to visit. A few more were silhouetted against the golden sky as they honked and joined those already gathered in the cool water. He and Lily had done extensive work on building a bigger dam soon after Minke, their rescued flamingo, had left them, in the hope that one day, flamingos might visit. If Minke was one of those there now, they would never know.
Beyond the game fence, a herd of majestic eland grazed the small hill, while a group of impala ate against the fence line, their tails continually moving to keep the flies at bay. A troop of monkeys clambered up and over the fence, using the thick upright pole. Never ones to be imprisoned, they now ran towards the water’s edge and an evening drink, chattering madly between themselves, almost as loud as the flamingos.
Buying Hacienda El Paradiso had been one of the best decisions Quintin and Lily had made together. The landscaping had been worth it. So had the extensive renovations to the house. Their room had been designed to capture just this sight: the flamingos on the dam.
Quintin sat down next to Lily, who was dressed in a pink pyjama top, to watch the sunset. She loved the flamingos as much as he did, and everything they represented to both of them.
He leaned over and kissed her forehead, breathing in her scent. He smelled strawberries. Bessie had obviously washed her hair while he’d been at Kamfers Dam. His own hair was still damp from the rushed shower he’d taken. Her braid was neat, with a pink-striped ribbon at the end keeping it in its place.
He removed the elastic and loosened her silky locks, once so dark, now streaked heavily with grey. Lily only liked to braid her hair at work, otherwise she preferred to have it free. Like she was.
‘There you go, my wifie,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I’m a little late getting here tonight.’
He rubbed his hands together, creating warmth. Then flexed his fingers against each other, ensuring that the stiffness from being broken all those years ago was massaged out, and they would per-form once again as they were meant to. Lifting La Angelique, he tested a few notes with Fred patiently caressing the strings.
She was still in tune.
‘There was so much to do at the dam today. The good news is that the breeding season is going well, despite this drought. The dam received a good shower and some decent run-off a few days ago, and now the green algae looks a bit like pea soup all over the place. There are about ten thousand adults still waiting with the nursery chicks. The creche has settled in on the north-western side of the pan. Piet and his trusty Platfontein helpers are making sure that when they roost there, they have no unexpected visitors, either four- or two-legged, to disturb them. There are already three or four chicks who have managed to become airborne, even if for only a moment. The rest are still wandering around, flapping their wings vigorously. They looked like they were attempting to walk on water. Won’t be long now and this lot will all be moving on, flying to other feeding pans. It’s been a hard slog, but it was so worth all the effort, Lily. The flamingos are safe, they have their warriors constantly watching over them. Only change now is that with money behind them, they can make a difference to the future of the species.’
He began playing his concerto, the slow haunting start, and he watched Lily closely. Quintin let the music wash over them, cocooning them in a time capsule, and as the music rose and fell, he saw her hand twitch.
He smiled and closed his eyes as he reached a particularly intricate run he’d written, allowing his mind to relax and enjoy the music. To enjoy the process of playing to his greatest fan and inspiration in his life. Fred knew the movements and instinctively followed Quintin’s heart, and La Angelique’s sweet sounds serenaded in the curtain of night. One by one the stars peeked out from the violet sky, and then hearing his music, they brightened.
Quintin felt the soft touch of Lily’s hand on his thigh.
He opened his eyes. She was looking at him. Their eyes locked. For a moment, she was free, and they were together.
‘I love you, Lily,’ he said. ‘From that first moment till eternity, you know I was yours alone. I’m not going anywhere. My heart has always been yours, and it always will be.’
She closed her eyes. Slowly, her hand became heavy. He didn’t want it to move away, to break the contact.
He continued to play her favourite piece, which he’d composed for her—Concerto for the Flamingo.
Brisbane, Australia, 2010
‘You took the job, didn’t you?’ Quintin said as soon as Lily put down the phone. It was more a statement than question, and his Austrian accent was strong with disapproval.
Lily turned to look at her husband of twenty-seven years. Quintin had aged beautifully, like a sculpture, and he seemed to get bet-ter every year. His hair was flecked with silver and appeared more ash-blond than grey. Although it had thinned, lots of hair remained—hair that he still couldn’t control. At the moment, it was stuck up, making him look like he’d just got out of bed. Unable to resist, she reached over and threaded her fingers through the silky strands to smooth it all down. She looked into his blue eyes that were so dark, they were almost purple. They should look older given what they’d seen, but instead, they were vibrant and alive, as if adventure and living had sparked an eternal fire deep inside his soul. And his eyes were surrounded by laughter lines of years spent exploring and enjoying life. Fifty-eight wasn’t old at all, they were in their prime years and getting better all the time.
She placed her hand on his arm and nodded slowly.
He pulled away, causing her hand to drop back to her side. ‘Even though you know how I feel about South Africa? You still said yes?’
‘I did,’ she said, crossing her arms. ‘And you know why? Ian Hawthorne.’
‘That shithead.’ Quintin’s volume was rising. ‘What about him? No, don’t tell me. You’re working with him again? I swear, Lily, if Ian—’
‘He’s dead,’ she said quickly.
Quintin stopped with his hands midway to imitating a stran-gling position. ‘I can’t say I feel anything for that cockroach dying. Hell’s a good place for a man like that.’
Lily shook her head. ‘There’s a little more to it. He was there and things went wrong. Now World Health don’t trust his research. They’re questioning it. The cherry on top is that they said that he discovered clusters of meningitis but did nothing. Just put it in a report as if it was an everyday occurrence and continued to focus on HIV in the township population. He totally ignored the fact that he was sitting on the data of a killer disease.’
‘That’s on Ian—’
‘That’s just it, Quintin. With Ian dead, it’s my problem. I know he could be callous and abrasive, and rub people up the wrong way, but now World Health want me to verify the state of things. Imagine that? Sound familiar?’ She paused. ‘I want to know why he’d do that. Ignore something that was so obviously a looming disaster.’
‘Lily, it’s South Africa. You shouldn’t have taken the job. Not without us discussing it more first.’ He shook his head.
She opened her mouth and then closed it. Sometimes silence was a more effective tool than arguing. Instead, she turned and looked out at their view of the ocean and across the bay to Moreton Island. The weather was abysmal, the wind churning the ocean as white peaks leaped across the normally calmer waters.
‘How did he die?’ Quintin asked.
Turning back to him, Lily said, ‘Hijacking. They stole his Land Cruiser.’
‘Bloody hell, just one of the reasons we always avoid spending time in the cities in South Africa. It’s like the Wild West there. They don’t rank Johannesburg as one of the murder capitals of the world for nothing.’
‘He wasn’t in Johannesburg, he was outside Kimberley.’
‘Another city, same crimes. Call them back and tell them you made a mistake, Lily. It’s too dangerous,’ he said, taking both her hands in his.
She shook her head. ‘No, Quintin, I need to do this. It’s my chance to disprove him. To make people understand that what happened in Sudan could’ve been avoided, that they listened to a pig of a man instead of us. Make them acknowledge that they were wrong. That we were right.’
‘I don’t care about that, it’s history,’ Quintin said.
‘I care,’ she said. ‘He messed up royally at Zam Zam, and now this. That man should’ve had his medical licence pulled years ago. He should never have been employed again in any position of authority.’ ‘You have nothing to prove, Lily. You’re an amazing doctor. Do you remember why we stopped going into Africa? Do you remem-ber why we stopped working with NGOs?’
‘Of course I remember, but this is World Health—not just some NGO.’
‘I don’t care if it’s Elvis himself back from the dead, it’s too dangerous. Last time Africa nearly killed you, and I’m still picking up the pieces.’
‘But it didn’t. I’m still here. Now Ian’s dead, and I can go and—’ ‘What? Clean up another of his messes? Get another kick in the teeth for it? I don’t want to watch that again. Don’t ask me to see you go through that repeatedly.’ He was shaking his head. ‘Lily, you don’t have to put us in this situation, just tell them no. You don’t have to work. God knows I earn enough for both of us.’ He let go of her hands and ran his own through his hair.
‘You think I don’t know that? It’s not the money, my golden rock star. This is about me. About my reputation. After the Sudan fiasco that I warned them about, this is my chance finally to get World Health to acknowledge that they were wrong.’
‘They just admitted that when they came crawling back to you and asked for your assistance on this! The admission is there, end of story. No need to go back to Africa and get involved again.’
Lily felt the familiar tears well in her eyes and was damned if she was going to brush them aside. The anger over her treatment a few years back still burned a hole in her stomach when she gave it time to linger. She looked him directly in the eyes. ‘I want justice, Quintin. I want them to take what I have to say in my report about Ian and his findings and admit to me, in writing, that I was right. They owe me an apology, a big one.’
He blew out a breath. ‘Think about this for a moment before you answer. Is it seriously worth risking your life over? Our lives? Because as much as I hate the thought of you doing this work in a township in South Africa, I hate the idea of you being out there alone without me even more. It’s both of us or nothing. That’s the way it’s always been, and this time wouldn’t be any different. But know I’ll fight you on safety the whole way.’
Lily waited for her moment, choosing her words carefully. ‘Six years ago, I felt like my heart had been ripped out, after Zam Zam. This is my chance to prove to myself that I’m not broken. That I’m tough enough. That I can face Africa again. It didn’t destroy me. I’m ready to face the beast again. I love Africa, I was born there, and it’s unreasonable that I should be scared to return. I know that you can make your music anywhere, and that deep down you too have a love of Africa. I want this chance to find that stronger me again. To prove to me that while I always knew I was right, I should’ve stood up and been stronger, more assertive, and perhaps then, Zam Zam might have ended differently for us.’
‘Oh, Lily.’ He took hold of her shoulders and drew her into his embrace. ‘You are strong enough. How can you, after all these years, not know how amazing you really are? But if this is what it takes—then we go back to South Africa. No matter how unhappy I am with the situation there. We go together and find whatever it is that you’re searching for. You should know that I would follow you to the ends of the earth if I needed to. I won’t let you step into that world alone.’