The Perfect Shot
A short jungle adventure with dinosaurs and wildlife photography.
Rain pounded like drumbeats onto the thatched roof of the bamboo observation tower. It must have been the seventh or eighth rainfall Sid Francis had seen over the first two days of his safari. Supposedly, this was what passed for the middle of the dry season deep in the Musiyinti country. Small wonder they called it the rainforest.
Sid swatted away at a mosquito which whined dangerously close to his face. Already the little devils had marred his pasty Kanuck complexion with a bombardment of red bumps, each and every one of them an itching reminder of his lacking the foresight to bring bug repellent. Or maybe he had simply been too cheap. Sid had already spent a third of his living on a suitable new camera and another third on reaching here from halfway across the world. It was too easy to gloss over a variety of important little details in that kind of hassle.
“Are they here yet?” Sid muttered as he continued to defend himself against the insect’s harassment with his bare hand.
His guide, a lithe Bayinti named Masengu, looked up from her handheld GPS to give him a disappointed frown. Her ebony-dark skin, though decorated with lines of traditional scarifications, remained fragrant with repellant and thus enviably unblemished by the bugs. Not to mention, the brief strips of bark-cloth she wore over her bosom and waist would have made for more comfortable attire in this humidity than the heavy khaki getup Sid had to put on.
“Ah, fuck.” Sid would have gotten out his pack of joints to smoke away the boredom, except he had no idea whether the scent of burning cannabis would attract or scare off the local wildlife. All he could do was continue to stand here on aching feet, watching for anything bigger than a colobus monkey to show up in the mess of foliage, mist, and shadow that was the surrounding jungle. And maybe glance at his guide’s curves a few more times from the corner of his eye.
On second thought, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.
“Ever thought of a modeling career on the side, Masengu?” Sid asked, tapping a finger on his camera.
She thrust at him a glare almost fiercer than the tranquilizer rifle she had slung over her back. “You mzungu men are all the same.”
Sid laughed, not the least offended even if she had almost said the local word for white people like a slur. “It’s a compliment, trust me. A good shot of you would fetch as much as any tyrannosaur. Of course, I’ll split some of the profits with you, 50/50. What do you say?”
Masengu rolled her eyes with a smirk. “As long as you don’t ask me to pose nude.”
A deep rumbling groan resounded from the jungle. Except for the pulsing of his heart, every muscle in Sid’s body turned stiff as rock from the surprise.
“They’re coming after all.” Masengu was looking at her GPS again. “It’s a whole herd. Get ready, and stay quiet.”
Bending his legs down at the knees, Sid held his camera to his eyes and peered through the lens. In spite of the mist and falling sheets of rain obscuring his view, he could make out the shaking and waving of vegetation down in the jungle understory. Not even the raindrops’ pattering on leaves and the tower’s roof could suppress the crackling of branches, or the rumbling and bellowing calls which made Sid quiver with every note.
He zoomed the lens in, and caught the sparkle of wet pebbly scales sliding below the undergrowth. A banana tree shifted aside as a three-horned face, rimmed with a rigid semicircular frill, reached up to tear one of the fronds off with a hooked parrot-like beak.
Ever since he was a kid, Sid had seen Triceratops in photos and television documentaries. But no photos, videos, or even cramped zoo enclosures could substitute for witnessing these animals in the flesh within their natural habitat, doing what they had done for millions of years. Even when viewed from high up on the tower, Sid could discern that they grew bigger than elephants below all the verdure, with their heads alone capable of carrying a man on top. It was a spectacle very few in the industrialized world had the privilege of witnessing firsthand.
“Nzambi Mpungu be praised, they are beautiful,” Masengu whispered. “Especially that bull over there.”
The animal she was pointing to stood out from the rest by the brilliant splashes of red and yellow on its frill that nearly glowed through the rainfall. Sid adjusted his aim towards this one, with the camera shaking in his hands. He had almost clicked his shutter when the bull trike withdrew its head back into the cover of the understory.
It could have made a perfect shot, one that singlehandedly would have pulled him out of the desperation that so many freelance photographers suffered. It would have made even his mother respect him, for once in her life. And he had missed it within a second.
If only Sid could get a closer look at the herd. Not too close, of course. That would be suicidal. But if he could get close enough to see them in full underneath the understory trees? That might be possible, even if it was daring. Daring enough to impress even his mother.
He stretched a leg over to the top rung of the ladder descending from the tower, but Masengu grabbed him by the shoulder before he could make a second step.
“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s foolish,” she said. “They will either gore you or crush you into paste.”
“Maybe not, if I have someone experienced by my side.” Sid winked at her. “Come to think of it, a shot of a strong and beautiful woman standing in front of a Triceratops herd would be worth even more. Remember our 50/50?”
Masengu bit her lip and sighed. “All right, but only because you’ll need protection if you’re really going to do this.”
With silent speed, they hurried down the ladder all the way down to the jungle floor and crouched within a cluster of elephant-ear plants. The pungent stench of flatulence that floated around the twelve-ton dinosaurs assaulted Sid’s nostrils and further strengthened his appreciation of their immense presence. His knees wiggled even more than before now that he could observe these awesome reptiles from only a few yards away at ground level.
Masengu had spoken the truth. With their colossal bulks and spear-like horns, the trikes looked as if they could indeed make short work of a human being if provoked. Sid would have to do his best not to provoke them himself.
He took a few steps back and brought his camera back to his eye. “Stay there, Masengu, and turn to face me. Give me your sultriest expression. Say, why don’t you take your gun out and show it off? It’ll make you look like a woman of action.”
“I don’t want to get it too wet,” Masengu said. “It’ll corrode the metal.”
“Trust me, it’ll only be for a few minutes. Now take it out, hold it like a spear. Push your hips back a little, hold the breasts up higher. That’s it, just a little higher.”
Earlier in his career, Sid had worked with a few fashion and swimsuit models, but always in the air-conditioned comfort of indoor studios. Any outdoor settings would have been added in with the same image-editing software that “tweaked” the models’ complexions and figures to fit his clientele’s tastes. Now he had real beauty posing before him in a real natural environment, complete with real dinosaurs milling about in the background. It had cost him an arm and a leg, but it was an opportunity most other freelancers could only dream of obtaining, the kind his mother claimed would never happen to him if he’d kept doing this damn photography thing.
Forget what he had missed earlier on the observation tower. This would make the perfect shot.
Sid laid a finger on the shutter. “Perfect! Get ready now. Five, four, three…”
He got cut off with a loud snort coming from the herd’s direction. One of the trikes had stopped in mid-browse to sniff the air overhead. Its companions followed in suit.
Masengu lowered her head and tightened the grip on her gun. “They know we’re here.”
“Hold it there,” Sid said. He held an open palm up. “I’ve almost got it. Three, two…”
A gust of hot air blew him off his footing. Before him stood the towering bull Triceratops, pawing the jungle floor with one foreleg while rumbling and flaring its nostrils. The reds and yellows of its frill blazed with a brighter fury than a bushfire. Nearby the rest of the herd took up threatening postures of their own, forming a tossing wall of horns aimed at the two humans who had dared disturb them.
Sid clutched his camera close to his chest and pointed it at the oversized brute as if it were a gun of his own. It was the only motion he could muster in his paralysis.
“Can’t you simply shoot at them?” he whispered from the corner of his mouth. “You know, like scare them away?”
“I have ammunition to conserve, for emergencies,” Masengu said. “While we can, we should — ”
The bull trike threw its head up with a savage bellow that burst through his eardrums.
“ — run.”
They took off like rockets through the raining jungle. Their boots splashed over mud, puddles, and the tree’s slickened buttress roots. Soaked foliage slapped them in the face and clawed past their limbs. Sid’s calves burned with strain as he pushed himself to keep up with his guide.
He slipped. He fell face-first into the ground with a girlish yell, skinning his knee and staining his khaki clothes with wet dirt and leaves. As Sid scrambled to pull himself back up, he felt the earth shudder under his hands and saw the puddles rippling. Trees and bushes crashed aside as the angry stampede rushed after him like a killer wave with horns. Never would he have believed such enormous animals could move with such alarming speed.
Sid had barely gotten back to his feet when the herd fell upon him. He dodged and maneuvered between the trikes as he ran, but his lanky legs could not outpace them. Within seconds he found himself straight in front of the bull trike, the tips of its horns inches away from his back. And it was drawing its head back to build momentum for a thrust through his torso.
A gunshot cracked. The Triceratops all skidded to a stop and then veered away in flight, bellowing in shrill panic instead of roaring fury. Panting in relief as well as exhaustion, Sid saw Masengu approach him with rifle in hand, gesturing him to follow her.
“I thought you had ammunition to conserve,” Sid said.
“For emergencies, like that one,” Masengu replied. “You were a hand’s span away from certain death. We head back to the jeep, and then I take you back the lodge. You’ve gotten yourself and I into enough trouble for one safari, mzungu.”
Sid could only nod in agreement. He checked his camera, cleaning the muck off its lens, and noticed it had cracked.
Not another word passed between Masengu and Sid Francis as she drove the jeep. There was only the pattering of rain against the windshield, the scraping and splashing of the tires over the trail, and the lyrics of Bayinti hip-hop being sung from the radio. Sid watched the wall of jungle rolling by through his window, hoping in vain to spot more wildlife. Even if he did, he was sure Masengu would not stop to let him take another shot. And he had only himself to blame for that.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. Picking it up, he saw on the screen that it was coming from his mother. That was exactly what he needed at this very moment.
“How’s your little adventure coming along, my baby?” Mrs. Francis’s voice sounded uncharacteristically sweet on the surface, even if Sid could detect a little growl underneath it.
He wanted to lie with a positive answer, to pretend everything was going swell, but he couldn’t pull it off if Masengu was there to contradict him. “So far, not so good. We had a little run-in with some trikes, after I got a little too close. They almost gored me.”
“I figured that would happen. You may be a coward, Sidney Francis, but you are still a fool as well. You must have squandered away so much on this.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Like it or not, Mom, I’m not my goddamn father. I’m a freelance photographer, not a jarhead.”
“Don’t you dare disrespect the men and women who serve our country like that! They are true heroes, as was your father. He must be turning circles in his grave if this is what’s become of his son.”
“Look, Mom, we’ve had this conversation a million fucking times already. There’s nothing you can do to stop me from pursuing my dreams.”
“And what has that done for you? Nothing! You can barely put food on your own table. And now you’re telling me you put your own life in danger because you ‘got a little too close’ to some animals? Sidney, I should have known you’d turn into an even bigger disgrace to our family than I thought. I rue the day I even let you out of my womb!”
Sid hung up and slammed the phone onto his lap. Tears streamed down his scarlet face as scalding rage convulsed within him. If he weren’t halfway across the world from her, he would have strangled that old bitch until she gagged the last breaths of her life out. All his life, she had been like this, pressuring him to follow the example of a father he had never seen alive. If only she had shown as much love towards her only child as she claimed to have towards her late husband.
The jeep braked to a halt. Masengu was staring at Sid with horror in her widened eyes. “Is that how your mother talks to you?”
“Now you know why I was so intent on getting that perfect shot,” Sid said. “All I’ve ever wanted was to show her I could be a success, that I could thrive on my own. Even if it wasn’t in the way she expected.”
Masengu rested her arm on his shoulder. “If she’s going to abuse you like that, you shouldn’t listen to a word she says. Don’t worry about what she thinks.”
“The thing is, she’s right. I’ve been a failure. This trip has cost me almost everything I have, and I’m going to come back with nothing to show for it! I’m going to die of starvation, perfectly penniless!”
“Maybe not.” Masengu smiled as she got the jeep started up again. “I’ll give you a second chance. I know exactly where you can get your perfect million-dollar shot. But I warn you, you’ll really want to keep your distance for this one.”
By evening the rain had drifted away, leaving in its wake a thick gray mist that hung over the land. Sid followed Masengu as they hiked among the eroded, overgrown ruins of an ancient Bayinti city that reared from the jungle like gravestones in a haunted cemetery. He tried to avert his gaze from the unblinking eyes of the giant sculptures and inscribed wall reliefs that must have seen more than a thousand years fly past. A chill always slithered up his spine whenever he viewed artwork that old, and the knowledge that he was in a jungle with very real perils did nothing to soothe his tension.
Nor did the fearsome, unmistakable roar of a Tyrannosaurus that echoed between the walls and trees.
Sid hugged his camera close to him. “Is that what you want me to photograph?”
“I did say you’d want to keep your distance this time.” Masengu fingered her GPS screen and bent down to a crouch. “He’s very close by, only a couple of blocks away. No funny business this time, you hear me?”
Sid nodded in earnest. “We wouldn’t have time for it anyway.”
They crept down the undergrowth-swathed street to the point where it opened into a vast circular plaza. Ringed by colossal obelisks, it had a swampy pool of water with reeds and water-lilies lying in the middle. Masengu sat and leaned against the base of one of the obelisks, ordering Sid to hide behind another one. Without another word she pointed to the far side of the plaza where a couple of trees parted to make way for something large.
The mere sight of the Tyrannosaurus made Sid shiver like it was winter despite the steamy heat. It was every bit as big as the bull trike had been, strutting towards the pond on long and muscular hind legs. The scars of a violent predatory lifestyle streaked and crisscrossed all over its dark green, scaly hide, each of them the mark of a true prize-fighter of the Musiyinti jungles. Sid prayed to himself that a beast of this scale would find humans too small and bony to be appetizing, but even that would not preclude a territorial intolerance of rival flesh-eaters.
The tyrannosaur craned its head down to lap up the water. Relieved that the dinosaur wasn’t going to get any closer, Sid zoomed the camera in on its face until he could make out its individual scales. It was a gorgeous specimen to behold, he could not deny, even if its bone-crushing jaws were lined with stabbing teeth longer than his hand.
This time, Sid would not bother having Masengu model in front of the animal. He did not mind that anymore. She was here as his protector, not merely a bit of meat to drool over, and a simple clear shot of a live Tyrannosaurus would be more than enough to pay both their bills for months.
He clicked the shutter. Although he had the flash turned off, the camera still whirred inside as it processed his image. The tyrannosaur cocked its head up from the pond with a suspicious growl, but promptly returned to its drink.
Sid had taken it at last. It was the perfect shot, and he had taken it with little trouble. It had been ages since he last enjoyed such a euphoric triumph in his career. He would be rolling in mountains of dough from that shot alone, and the wildlife magazines would be fighting for his attention.
Not to mention, there was the 50/50 deal he had made with his guide. He was going to keep his word there without second thoughts. It would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between them, and hopefully so much more than that.
Maybe, if Sid took only one more extra shot, he would reach the next level even quicker.
The moment he pressed the shutter a second time, the pupils in the tyrannosaur’s fiery yellow eyes contracted into dots glaring straight at him. Rearing itself up to the sky, it opened its cavernous mouth to its widest gape and blasted out the most deafening, explosive roar, The rancid stink of its breath alone was enough to kick Sid onto his back.
If the trike stampede he had fled earlier had shocked him with its speed, none of those animals had anything on the Tyrannosaurus storming at him with great strides. Every stomp of its feet rattled the ground like an earthquake. Sid jumped and scurried away as the titanic tyrant brushed past the obelisk he hid beside, toppling it over into pieces.
Masengu’s rifle banged, but the dart did not hit the advancing carnivore. It stopped only to roar back at her in defiance, without the slightest sign of fear in its tone, and revert its course towards her. Sid saw that she wouldn’t have time to reload before the Tyrannosaurus caught up and brought down its saurian wrath upon her.
There was nothing Sid could do. He had only a camera, not a firearm of his own. It wasn’t like he could make the dinosaur dizzy with flash photography or something.
Then again, he hadn’t even thought to try that before.
He flipped the flash mode on and clicked the shutter yet again. When the blinding white light came and went, the tyrannosaur stopped in its tracks and shook its head in confusion. He clicked again, and again, until the flashes from his camera blended into a single expanse of whiteness that drowned out everything else. With a roar that sounded as agonized as it was ferocious, the predator returned to charging after him. Still Sid continued his luminous attack, at least until the tyrannosaur knocked him over with a ram of its snout.
The camera fell out of his hands and rolled over the jungle floor. As he stretched his arm out to retrieve it, the tyrannosaur’s open maw ran down on him, dripping with drool and the blood of past kills. It had nearly clenched its teeth onto him when Masengu’s gun went off again.
The dinosaur withdrew to stand on wobbling legs, its head spinning about in a daze. With a terrific yawn it sank down into a resting posture and closed its eyes. A big red-feathered tranquilizer dart stuck out of its flank, rising and falling as the tyrannosaur started to snore.
“Don’t feel too bad for him,” Masengu said as she slipped her rifle back into its holster. “He’ll wake up in a few hours.”
She walked up to Sid, who stood there trembling with shock and awe, and wrapped her arms around him. “In the meantime, thank you so much for the distraction. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You’re welcome, I guess.” Sid blinked. “I guess I got a lot of good shots today, didn’t I?”
Masengu planted a potent kiss onto his cheek. “You still want to take the perfect one though? How about one with me in front of him?”
Sid laughed. “Sure, why not? You earned it. Man, my mom is so going to turn red as hell when she sees all of these!”
Now, at last, he was ready to take the perfect shot.
This and other stories are included in my self-published anthology Dinosaurs & Dames.