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The Helen Trilogy
Fever Dream, Cold Vengeance, and Two Graves Omnibus
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TWELVE YEARS AGO
THE SETTING SUN BLAZED THROUGH THE AFRICAN bush like a forest fire, hot yellow in the sweltering evening that gathered over the bush camp. The hills along the upper Makwele Stream rose in the east like blunt green teeth, framed against the sky.
Several dusty canvas tents circled a beaten area shaded by a grove of old musasa trees, their branches spreading like emerald umbrellas over the safari camp. A thread of smoke from a cooking fire twisted up through the cover, carrying with it the tantalizing scent of burning mopane wood and roasting kudu.
In the shade of the central tree, two figures, a man and a woman, were seated in camp chairs on either side of a table, drinking iced bourbon. They were dressed in dusty khakis, long pants and sleeves, protection against the tsetse flies that came out in the evening. They were in their late twenties. The man, slender and tall, was remarkable for a cool, almost icy paleness that seemed impervious to the heat. The coolness did not extend to the woman, who was lazily fanning herself with a large banana leaf, stirring the thick mane of auburn hair she had loosely tied back with a bit of salvaged twine. She was tanned and relaxed. The low murmur of their conversation, punctuated by an occasional laugh from the woman, was almost indistinguishable amid the sounds of the African bush: the calls of vervet monkeys, the screech of francolins and chattering of fire-finches, which mingled with the clattering of pots and pans in the kitchen tent. The evening chatter was underlain by the distant roar of a lion deep in the bush.
The seated figures were Aloysius X. L. Pendergast and his wife of two years, Helen. They were at the tail end of a hunting safari in the Musalangu Game Management Area, where they had been shooting bushbuck and duiker under a herd reduction program granted by the Zambian government.
"Care for another sundowner?" Pendergast asked his wife, raising the cocktail pitcher.
"Another?" she replied with a laugh. "Aloysius, you wouldn't be planning an assault on my virtue, would you?"
"The thought never entered my mind. I was hoping perhaps we could spend the night discussing Kant's concept of the categorical imperative."
"Now you see, this is exactly what my mother warned me about. You marry a man because he's good with a rifle, only to find he has the brains of an ocelot."
Pendergast chuckled, sipped his drink, glanced down at it. "African mint is rather harsh on the palate."
"Poor Aloysius, you miss your juleps. Well, if you take that FBI job Mike Decker's offering, you can drink juleps day and night."
He took another thoughtful sip and gazed at his wife. It was remarkable how quickly she tanned in the African sun. "I've decided not to take it."
"I'm not sure I'm ready to stay in New Orleans with all that it entails—the family complications, the unpleasant memories. And I've seen enough violence already, don't you think?"
"I don't know—have you? You tell me so little about your past, even now."
"I'm not cut out for the FBI. I don't like rules. In any case, you're all over the world with that Doctors With Wings outfit; we can live anywhere, as long as it's close to an international airport. 'Our two souls therefore endure not a breach, but an expansion, like gold to airy thinness beat.'"
"Don't bring me to Africa and quote John Donne. Kipling, maybe."
"'Every woman knows all about everything,'" he intoned.
"On second thought, spare me the Kipling as well. What did you do as a teenager, memorize Bartlett's?"
"Among other things." Pendergast glanced up. A figure was approaching along the trail from the west. He was a tall Nyimba tribesman, dressed in shorts and a dirty T-shirt, an ancient rifle slung over his shoulders, carrying a forked walking stick. As he approached the camp, he paused and cried out a greeting in Bemba, the local lingua franca, which was answered by welcoming shouts from the kitchen tent. He then proceeded into camp and approached the table at which the Pendergasts were seated.
Both rose. "Umú-ntú ú-mó umú-sumá á-áfíká," Pendergast said by way of greeting, and grasped the man's dusty, warm hand, Zambian-fashion. The man proffered his walking stick to Pendergast; there was a note wedged into its fork.
"For me?" Pendergast asked, switching to English.
"From the district commissioner."
Pendergast shot a glance at his wife, then removed the note and unfolded it.
"I don't like the sound of that," said Helen Pendergast, looking over her husband's shoulder. "What do you think this 'nasty business' is?"
"Perhaps a photo tourist has suffered the amorous advances of a rhinoceros."
"That's not funny," Helen said, laughing all the same.
"It is rutting season, you know." Pendergast folded the note and shoved it in his breast pocket. "I'm very much afraid this means our shooting safari is over."
He walked over to the tent, opened a box, and began screwing together the battered pieces of an aerial antenna, which he then carried up into a musasa tree and wired to an upper branch. Climbing back down, he plugged the wire into the single side-band radio he had placed on the table, turned on the unit, adjusted the dials to the correct frequency, and sent out a call. In a moment the irritated voice of the district commissioner came back, squawking and scratchy.
"Pendergast? For God's sake, where are you?"
"Upper Makwele Stream camp."
"Blast. I was hoping you were nearer the Banta Road. Why the devil don't you keep your SSB connected? I've been trying to reach you for hours!"
"May I ask what's happened?"
"Over at Kingazu Camp. A German tourist was killed by a lion."
"What idiot allowed that to happen?"
"It wasn't like that. The lion came right into camp in broad daylight, jumped the man as he was walking back to his hut from the dining tent, and dragged him screaming into the bush."
"Surely you can imagine 'and then'! The wife was hysterical, the whole camp went into an uproar, they had to bring in a helicopter to airlift out the tourists. The camp staff left behind are scared shiteless. This fellow was a well-known photographer in Germany—bloody bad for business!"
"Did you track the lion?"
"We have trackers and guns, but nobody who'll go into the bush after this lion. Nobody with the experience—or the ballocks. That's why we need you, Pendergast. We need you down here to track that bugger and… well… recover the remains of the poor German before there's nothing left to bury."
"You haven't even recovered the body?"
"Nobody will go out there after the bloody thing! You know what Kingazu Camp is like, all the dense brush that's come up because of the elephant poaching. We need a damned experienced hunter. And I needn't remind you that terms of your professional hunting license require you to deal with rogue man-eaters as, and if, it becomes necessary."
"Where'd you leave your Rover?"
"At the Fala Pans."
"Get cracking as fast as you can. Don't bother breaking camp, just grab your guns and get down here."
"It'll take a day, at least. Are you sure there isn't anyone closer who can help you?"
"Nobody. At least, nobody I'd trust."
Pendergast glanced at his wife. She smiled, winked, mimed the shooting of a pistol with one bronzed hand. "All right. We'll get moving right away."
"One other thing." The DC's voice hesitated and there was a silence over the radio, filled with hissing and crackling.
"Probably not very important. The wife who witnessed the attack. She said…" Another pause.
"She said the lion was peculiar."
"It had a red mane."
"You mean, a little darker than usual? That's not so uncommon."
"Not darker than usual. This lion's mane was deep red. Almost blood red."
There was a very long silence. And then the DC spoke again. "But of course it can't be the same lion. That was forty years ago in northern Botswana. I've never heard of a lion living more than twenty-five years. Have you?"
Pendergast said nothing as he switched off the radio, his silvery eyes glittering in the dying twilight of the African bush.
Kingazu Camp, Luangwa River
THE LAND ROVER BANGED AND LURCHED ALONG the Banta Road, a bad track in a country legendary for them. Pendergast turned the wheel violently left and right to avoid the yawning potholes, some almost half as deep as the bashed-up Rover. The windows were wide open—the air-conditioning was broken—and the interior of the car was awash in dust blown in by the occasional vehicle passing in the other direction.
They had left Makwele Stream just before dawn, making the twelve-mile trek through the bush without guides, carrying nothing but their weapons, water, a hard salami, and chapati bread. They reached their car around noon. For several hours now they had been passing through sporadic, hardscrabble villages: circular buildings of lashed sticks with conical roofs of thatch, dirt streets clogged with loose cattle and sheep. The sky was a cloudless, pale, almost watery blue.
Helen Pendergast fiddled with her scarf, pulling it more tightly around her hair in a losing battle with the omnipresent dust. It stuck to every exposed inch of their sweaty skin, giving them a scrofulous appearance.
"It's strange," she said as they crawled through yet another village, avoiding chickens and small children. "I mean, that there isn't a hunter closer by to take care of this lion problem. After all, you're not exactly a crack shot." She smiled wryly; this was a frequent tease.
"That's why I'm counting on you."
"You know I don't like killing animals I can't eat."
"How about killing animals that can eat us?"
"Perhaps I can make an exception there." She angled the sun visor into a new position, then turned toward Pendergast, her eyes—blue with flecks of violet—narrowed by the bright light. "So. What was that business about the red mane?"
"A lot of nonsense. There's an old legend knocking about this part of Africa concerning a red-maned, man-eating lion."
"Tell me about it." Her eyes sparkled with interest; the local stories fascinated her.
"Very well. About forty years ago—the story goes—a drought struck the southern Luangwa Valley. Game grew very scarce. A pride of lions that hunted in the valley starved to death, one by one, until only a single survivor remained—a pregnant lioness. She survived by digging up and eating the corpses at a local Nyimba cemetery."
"How horrible," Helen said with relish.
"They say she gave birth to a cub with a flaming red mane."
"The villagers were angry with this continuing desecration of their burial grounds. Eventually they tracked down the lioness, killed her, skinned her, and nailed her hide to a frame in the village square. Then they held a dance to celebrate her demise. At dawn, while the villagers were sleeping off the effects of all the maize beer they'd downed, a red-maned lion snuck into the village, killed three of the sleeping men, then carried off a boy. They found his gnawed bones a couple of days later in a stand of long grass a few miles off."
"Over the years, the Red Lion, or the Dabu Gor as it was called in the Bemba language, killed and ate a large number of locals. It was very clever, they said: as clever as a man. It shifted ranges frequently and sometimes crossed borders to evade capture. The local Nyimba claimed the Red Lion could not survive without the nourishment of human flesh—but with it, he would live forever."
Pendergast paused to circumnavigate a pothole almost lunar in its depth and extent.
"That's the story."
"But what happened to the lion? Was he ever killed?"
"A number of professional hunters tried to track him, without success. He just kept killing until he died of old age—if he did die, that is." Pendergast rolled his eyes toward her dramatically.
"Really, Aloysius! You know it can't be the same lion."
"It might be a descendant, carrying the same genetic mutation."
"And perhaps the same tastes," said Helen, with a ghoulish smile.
As the afternoon turned to evening, they passed through two more deserted villages, the usual cries of children and lowing of cattle replaced by the drone of insects. They arrived at Kingazu Camp after sunset, as a blue twilight was settling over the bush. The camp stood on the Luangwa River, a cluster of rondevaals arranged along the banks, with an open-air bar and a dining shelter.
"What a delightful setting," Helen said as she looked around.
"Kingazu is one of the oldest safari camps in the country," Pendergast replied. "It was founded in the 1950s, when Zambia was still part of Northern Rhodesia, by a hunter who realized that taking people out to photograph animals could be just as exciting as killing them—and a lot more remunerative."
"Thank you, Professor. Will there be a quiz after the lecture?"
When they pulled into the dusty parking area, the bar and dining shelter were empty, the camp staff having taken refuge in the surrounding huts. All the lights were on, the generator chugging full blast.
"Nervous bunch," said Helen, flinging open the door and climbing out into the hot evening, the air shrill with cicadas.
The door of the closest rondevaal opened, striping yellow light across the beaten earth, and a man in pressed khakis with knife-edge creases, leather bush-boots, and high socks stepped out.
"The district commissioner, Alistair Woking," Pendergast whispered to his wife.
"I'd never have guessed."
"And the fellow with him in the Australian cowboy hat is Gordon Wisley, the camp concessionaire."
"Come inside," said the district commissioner, shaking their hands. "We can talk more comfortably in the hut."
"Heavens, no!" said Helen. "We've been cooped up in a car all day—let's have a drink at the bar."
"Well…," the commissioner said dubiously.
"If the lion comes into camp, so much the better. Then we won't have the bother of stalking him in the bush. Right, Aloysius?"
She lifted the soft-canvas bag that held her gun out of the back of the Land Rover. Pendergast did the same, hefting a heavy metal canister of ammunition over his shoulder.
"Gentlemen?" he said. "To the bar?"
"Very well." The DC eyed their heavy-bore safari guns with a certain look of reassurance. "Misumu!"
An African in a felt fez and red sash ducked his head out a door of the staff camp.
"We'd like a drink at the bar," said Woking. "If you don't mind."
They retired to the thatched bar, the barman taking his place behind the polished wood counter. He was sweating, and not because of the heat.
"Maker's Mark," said Helen. "On the rocks."
"Two," said her husband. "And muddle in some mint, if you have it."
"Make it the same all 'round," said the DC. "Is that all right with you, Wisley?"
"Just so long as it's strong," said Wisley with a nervous laugh. "What a day."
The barman poured the drinks, and Pendergast washed the dust from his throat with a good slug. "Tell us what happened, Mr. Wisley."
Wisley was a tall redhead with a New Zealand accent. "It was after lunch," he began. "We had twelve guests in camp—a full house."
As he spoke, Pendergast unzipped the canvas carrying case and removed his gun, a Holland & Holland .465 "Royal" double rifle. He broke the action and began cleaning the weapon, wiping off dust from the long drive. "What was lunch?"
"Sandwiches. Roast kudu, ham, turkey, cucumber. Iced tea. We always serve a light lunch during the heat of the day."
Pendergast nodded, polishing the walnut stock.
"A lion had been roaring most of the night off in the bush, but during the day it settled down. We often hear roaring lions—it's one of the attractions of the camp, actually."
"But they've never bothered us before. I just can't understand it."
Pendergast glanced at him, then returned his attention to the gun. "This lion, I take it, was not local?"
"No. We have several prides here—I know every individual by sight. This was a rogue male."
"Large as hell."
"Big enough to make the book?"
Wisley grimaced. "Bigger than anything in the book."
"The German, a fellow named Hassler, and his wife were the first to leave the table. I think it was around two. They were heading back to their rondevaal when—according to the wife—the lion leapt from the cover along the riverbank, knocked her husband down, and sank his teeth into the poor man's neck. The wife started screaming bloody murder, and of course the poor bloke was screaming, too. We all came running, but the lion had dragged him off into the bush and vanished. I can't tell you how terrible it was—we could hear him scream, again and again. Then all went quiet except for the sounds of…" He stopped abruptly.
"Good God," said Helen. "Didn't anyone fetch a rifle?"
"I did," said Wisley. "I'm not much of a shot, but as you know we're required to carry rifles during outings with tourists. I didn't dare follow him into the long grass—I don't hunt, Mr. Pendergast—but I fired several times at the sounds and it seemed to drive the lion deeper into the bush. Perhaps I wounded him."
"That would be unfortunate," said Pendergast dryly. "No doubt he dragged the body with him. Did you preserve the spoor at the scene of the attack?"
"Yes, we did. Of course, there was some initial disturbance during the panic, but then I blocked off the area."
"Excellent. And no one went into the bush after him?"
"No. Everyone was simply hysterical—we haven't had a lion killing in decades. We evacuated all but essential staff."
Pendergast nodded, then glanced at his wife. She, too, had cleaned her rifle—a Krieghoff .500/.416 "Big Five"—and was listening intently.
"Have you heard the lion since then?"
"No. It was bloody silent all last night and today. Perhaps he's gone off."
"Not likely, until he's finished his kill," said Pendergast. "A lion won't drag a kill more than a mile. You can be sure he's still around. Did anyone else see him?"
"Just the wife."
"And she said he was red-maned?"
"Yes. At first, in her hysteria, she said he was soaked in blood. But when she calmed down a bit we were able to question her more exactly, and it appears the lion's mane was deep red."
"How do you know it wasn't blood?"
Helen spoke up. "Lions are very fussy about their manes. They clean them regularly. I've never seen a lion with blood on its mane—only its face."
"So what do we do, Mr. Pendergast?" Wisley asked.
Pendergast took a long sip of his bourbon. "We'll have to wait until dawn. I'll want your best tracker and a single gun bearer. And of course, my wife will be the second shooter."
A silence. Wisley and the DC were both looking at Helen. She returned their looks with a smile.
"I'm afraid that might be somewhat, ah, irregular," said Woking, clearing his throat.
"Because I'm a woman?" Helen asked, amused. "Don't worry, it isn't catching."
"No, no," came the hasty reply. "It's just that we're in a national park, and only someone with a government-issued professional license is authorized to shoot."
"Of the two of us," said Pendergast, "my wife is the better shot. On top of that, it's essential to have two expert shooters when stalking lion in the bush." He paused. "Unless, of course, you'd care to be the second shooter?"
The DC fell silent.
"I won't allow my husband to go in there alone," said Helen. "It would be too dangerous. The poor dear might get mauled—or worse."
"Thank you, Helen, for your confidence," said Pendergast.
"Well, you know, Aloysius, you did miss that duiker at two hundred yards. That was as easy as hitting a barn door from the inside."
"Come now, there was a strong cross-wind. And the animal moved at the last moment."
"You spent too long setting up your shot. You think too much, that's your problem."
Pendergast turned to Woking. "As you can see, this is a package deal. It's both of us or neither."
"Very well," said the DC with a frown. "Mr. Wisley?"
Wisley nodded reluctantly.
"We'll meet tomorrow morning at five," Pendergast went on. "I'm quite serious when I say we'll need a very, very good tracker."
"We have one of the best in Zambia—Jason Mfuni. Of course, he's rarely tracked for hunting, only for photographers and tourists."
"As long as he has nerves of steel."
"You'll need to spread the word to the locals, make sure they stay well away. The last thing we'll need is a distraction."
"That won't be necessary," said Wisley. "Perhaps you noticed the empty villages on your way in to the camp? Except for us, you won't find a single human being within twenty miles."
"The villages emptied that quickly?" Helen said. "The attack only took place yesterday."
"It's the Red Lion," the DC said, as if this were explanation enough.
Pendergast and Helen exchanged glances. For a moment, the bar went silent.
Then Pendergast rose, took Helen's hand, and helped her to her feet. "Thanks for the drink. And now, if you will show us to our hut?"
The Fever Trees
THE NIGHT HAD BEEN SILENT. EVEN THE LOCAL prides that often tattooed the darkness with their roars were lying low, and the usual chatter of night animals seemed subdued. The sound of the river was a faint gurgle and shush that belied its massive flow, perfuming the air with the smell of water. Only with the false dawn came the first noises of what passed for civilization: hot water being poured into shower-drums in preparation for morning ablutions.
Pendergast and his wife had left their hut and were in the dining shelter, guns beside them, sitting by the soft glow of a single bulb. There were no stars—the night had been overcast, the darkness absolute. They had been sitting there, unmoving and silent, for the last forty-five minutes, enjoying each other's company and—with the kind of unspoken symbiosis that characterized their marriage—preparing mentally and emotionally for the hunt ahead. Helen Pendergast's head was resting on her husband's shoulder. Pendergast stroked her hand, toying now and then with the star sapphire on her wedding band.
"You can't have it back, you know," she said at last, her voice husky from the long silence.
He simply smiled and continued his caresses.
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 1400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing