The Guardians: Shadow Path

by Christine Morgan

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or consent. All other characters belong to the author. Mature readers only due to violence and some sexual content. 
April, 2003. 
18,700 words.

       Coming as it did out of the droning, dozy heat of the afternoon, when the only other sounds to be heard were the whisper of the ceiling fan's blades and the bumbling buzz of some insect trapped in the mosquito netting, when even the calls of the birds and monkeys were rendered muffled and faraway by the heavy, green humidity of the air, the gunshot was a sudden and violent shock. 
       Tom jumped. His pen skidded across his latest letter of lies to Dee, and he was on his feet before the first screams began. The bench upon which he'd been sitting, his wings extended behind him, clattered over. 
       He was at the window in a flash, swiping aside sheer linen curtains. To his left, the bluff fell away in a precipitous plunge, a view that would have stirred acrophobia in most ordinary people. A hazy steam hung over the jungle and the river. To his right, where a tributary tumbled in misty veils down a rock-strewn slope, was the village. It perched on a rise between the river valley and a rich expanse of farmland.
       His first thought was that the villa atop the bluff was under attack. That he would lean out to see camouflage-clad guerrillas charging the gate, and that the initial shot would be followed by the rattle and bang of both offensive and defensive fire. Perhaps with the coughing boom of grenades mixed in. 
       But the shot wasn't repeated, and the screaming went on and on. A horrible, gobbling sound. Like a champion turkey-caller whose legs were being slowly crushed beneath a steamroller. 
       From his vantage point, in the window high above the village, Tom readily saw the source of the agonized howls. And the cause. Kerstenmann's regulars, of course. One of them stood, his swagger apparent even when he wasn't moving, over the writhing body of a man. The fallen man was clutching at his abdomen, and the muddy ground beneath him was steadily turning muddier from the pulsing flow of blood. 
       Gutshot. He had been gutshot, and would thrash there in the mud screaming his life away, while his murderer stood over him as triumphant as any great hunter over the body of his kill. 
       Behind the regular, three others were occupied with the struggling form of a woman. Tom did not have to be a genius to put the pieces together. 
       Gutshot man with a jaggedly broken bottle nearby. Woman, clothes torn, thrown rudely down on the same muddy earth. One regular kneeling on her hands, which were raised above her head. A second laughing as he fed a thick erection into her mouth, gagging her, muffling any cries. And a third pounding brutally between her wide-splayed legs. 
       The man had tried to defend her, and been holed through the intestines for his trouble. It would be a slow, terrible way to die. 
       The regular who'd shot him, a large blond man with linebacker's shoulders and virtually no neck, swept a cold eye over the other villagers. Most of them only stared with empty-eyed horror. Some scurried away, hunching their shoulders and ducking their heads lest the attention of the regulars fall on them next. No one moved to the aid of the gutshot man or the woman. 
       They looked, one and all, as if they could neither believe nor understand how any of this had happened. Tom had seen new groups of villagers arrive and supposed he would see more, and the majority went through the same stages of outrage, denial, and rebellion. A few eventually tried to make the best of a bad situation. The rest either got themselves killed, or went insane. 
       Kerstenmann's regulars went on with the woman. When the first three finished, they swapped places with their leader. The big blond man had her turned over a barrel, and without preamble thrust himself up her ass. She shrieked, so loudly and shrilly that she drew answering scolding screeches from the monkeys in the treetops. 
       Larssen. Tom knew his name. Earl Larssen, one of Kerstenmann's chief lieutenants. A vicious bastard and proud of it. The regulars weren't normally given the run of the village, because their idea of entertainment only began at the Panther Claw saloon. It usually ended with a scene like this. Never mind that there were practical women at the Panther Claw who had decided their best chance was at servicing the regulars. Larssen and his boys liked it better this way. 
       The gutshot man carried on his wailing, though it was losing strength. One of the regulars strode over to him and kicked him around until he was forced to see his woman being sodomized. She had quit struggling and gone limp, either unconscious or merely resigned to enduring the cruel punishment. 
       Tom, sickened, turned from the window and let the curtain fall back into place. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and sought to blot out the images. Not easy. He had the keen vision of any self-respecting predator, and hadn't been able to miss the details. The way she bled. The way a sausage-colored bulge of intestine showed through the dying man's clutching fingers. Larssen's grin as he battered into her.
       When he had banished these things as well as he could, he opened his eyes to the familiar surroundings. 
       It was a nice room, with many wide windows to catch what little breeze and coolness that the climate saw fit to offer up. The ceilings were high, and the fan twirled the air. The large bed was draped in layers of netting. Woven rugs dotted the gleaming hardwood floor. The furniture was, in deference to his size, weight, and shape, primarily backless and sturdy. It was carved into designs – giraffes, elephants, maned lion's heads, leaping gazelles. A stretched zebra hide hung on one wall, opposite a collection of tribal masks. Shelves held decorative baskets and wooden figurines. 
       He went to the desk and looked down at his letter. The pen had left a harsh jittering line through the words. But that was all right. He'd been about to crumple up this effort and toss it to join the others in the wicker wastebasket. 
       "Dear Dee," he read aloud. "I'm sorry it's been such a long time since I wrote to you. I've been pretty busy here. You wouldn't believe how beautiful it is, and what it's like to hunt in the real jungle. Tell Grandma Diane that everyone here is doing fine and wishes her well. Nobody needs to worry about me. I'm having a great time."
       Not all lies. He was pretty busy. That much was true. And it was beautiful here, if you ignored the village. That part was nothing but ugly, both in the pitiful hovels and in the atrocities visited on it by the regulars. 
       The hunting was good, yes, but if Dee knew what was really going on here … if their father knew, or their grandparents, or Aunt Elisa and the gargoyle clan … if Alex knew … 
       Tom pushed that out of his mind. They were half a world away. New York was impossibly distant, and the Thomas Reed Maza who had left Manhattan seeking to explore his African roots had been a much younger, much more foolish person. 
       He tore the paper in half, wadded the halves, and chucked them atop the rising heap of other rejects. Sitting down again, he picked up his pen and gloomily studied the fresh, blank sheet. 
       "Dear Dee," he said aloud, not writing. "Today, I watched a man get murdered and a woman be gang-raped. Know what I did? Not a damn thing. And guess what else? I've been lying to you this whole time. I never met the were-panthers or anyone that Grandma told us about. I was too late for that. Too late to find anything but the burnt-out shells of their huts, and skeletons in shallow graves."
       How would that go over back home? And it was only the beginning. 
       He remembered what it had been like. Those long weeks of travel, starting with the private flight that Alex had so generously arranged. From New York to Lagos. No questions asked. That must have been hard for the crew and the contacts at each stopover. The world knew about gargoyles, but mutates were still something of a curiosity. 
       He'd been the recipient of many a sidelong look, standing nearly seven feet tall with his jet-black fur and feline features. Cat-slit eyes of a brilliant green-gold, a mouthful of fangs suited for tearing meat, ditto retractable claws hiding in the tips of his fingers and toes. All that, and huge leathery bat-wings, too. 
       "Dear Dee," he said, with the paper so reproachfully blank before him. "I even tried finding the spider city, like in all Grandma's stories. I know, the Gathering and all, but I thought there might be some sort of clue there. Boy, was I fooled. I found it inhabited, all right, but not by giant bloated spider-gods or by gentle storytellers happy to talk about the Panther Queen. Headhunters, Dee. Not the corporate kind. The kind who really do hack off your head and boil it in this nasty shit to shrink and mummify the flesh. Modern ones, though. Not just spears and blowguns for these guys."
       A shudder made the fur bristle all up and down his spine. A phantom pain lanced through his shoulder. He couldn't see the scars, front and back, but his pelt there had grown in thin and grey. 
       "They shot me, Spot, how about that for a warm welcome to Nigeria? I barely got out of there with my life. Had to kill three of them, too. So, how's it going with the track team? Got any big races coming up?"
       Spot. He hadn't called his sister that in years. When they'd been little, it had been a deserved nickname, because her fur was dark rosettes on tawny gold like a leopard. She'd grown out of it to a uniform lioness coat until they were about fourteen. Then, among the other changes adolescence brought, her markings came back. But she had let him know, in no uncertain terms, that her 'Spot' days were over. 
       Better to think about that than the men he'd killed. The thoughts kept intruding all the same. A desperate game of hide-and-seek among the ruins of Anansi's great city, overgrown with vines and scurrying with spiders. Unable to fly because each time he opened his wings, agony ripped through his shoulder and sent new gouts of blood to help them track him. Rounding a corner and running into one, both of them stunned, the man raising his weapon. Tom's hand shooting out, wreathed in blue-white crackles of energy, and clamping onto the man's face. The incredible jolt of power, overdoing it in his pain and fear. And the body, lolling bonelessly away from him, eyes rolled up, smoke rising from the blackened face.
       "Yeah, Dee, it was really something," he whispered, aware that the pen was bending in his grip. "I zapped one so hard that by the time his buddies caught up to me, I was totally out of zap. Had to use my claws. Good thing they shot me in the left shoulder, huh? I still had my good right hand, and when I tore the next one's throat open, it was like a red tidal wave."
       The pen broke, spilling ink in a messy blot on the unused paper. It looked like some slouching muscular beast with wings. 
       "The third guy jumped me. I don’t know why. He had a gun and a knife, one of those big-ass Bowie knives, but he jumped me and tried to take me down bare-handed. I broke his back, Dee, how do you like that? Just caught him up in a big old bear hug and squeezed. It hurt my shoulder like you wouldn't believe, and he bit part of my ear off, but then there was this snap, this huge snap, and he was dead."
       What would happen if he sent a letter like that home? He could just picture Dee, safe and sane at the Sterling Academy, opening the air-mail envelope with its load of exotic stamps, and reading such a story. 
       "I could hear the rest of the headhunters coming," Tom recited as if dictating. "At least five more of them, and I knew I couldn't win. I got over the wall and into the jungle. It's a miracle, really, Dee, that no wild animals came along and finished me off when I was laid up in the den I made. I would have been easy dinner for sure. Maybe they didn't like the smell of me. It's funny now, but I thought I was going to die. I honestly did. I went a little nuts, too, maybe. I had a fever, I know I did. Like that one time when we were kids, remember? And Delilah didn't know what else to do so she made us sit in the freezer with the lid up to cool us off? I shed in drifts, too. Damn near starved. Probably would have died of thirst if it hadn't rained and leaked in through the roof of my shelter. Anyway, I hope you're getting good grades and that Amber isn't being too big a pest now that she's at school with you. Say hi to Orph and Sebastian and Alex and everybody."
       Oh, yes, he could just picture it. Dee would freak. She'd probably blanch so badly that she'd lose her spots all over again. The next thing she'd do would be to get on the phone to their father, or their grandparents. One way or another, they'd be after him to get home and get home now
       Until they learned the rest of it, anyway. And then they would disown him, exile him, or maybe even have him thrown in jail. Family was family, but cops were cops, too. Once a cop, always a cop, at least that was what Aunt Elisa said. Once a Guardian, always a Guardian. 
       Yeah, right, sure. 
       They'd never take him back. They'd hate him if they knew. Even Dee, his twin, would want nothing to do with him. Brother? What brother? I have no brother. 
       The blot on the paper, that bestial winged shape, seemed to mock him. Was it Dad, Talon, Derrek Maza, as he was known in his many aliases? Was it Goliath, the high and mighty, always ready with a simple answer about honor and clan and protecting? 
       Was it himself, with human blood caked on his claws and the weight of many deaths bending his back?
       He snatched it up, the ink still wet and getting on his fur. But it was black and his fur was black, so what the fuck. He shredded it, letting the blotched pieces sift down atop his other failed missives. 
       A light tread in the hallway brought his head sharply around. He knew that step. A sinking lead weight replaced his stomach. One more thing to never include in his letters.
       The tapping came next, as he'd known it would. Three short raps, a pause, three more. 
       "I'm here," he said.
       The door opened and a woman came in. She closed it quickly, then turned to him with her hands folded anxiously beneath her scant breasts and her eyes darting to his with a plaintive needy hope. "Tom … oh, Tom," she said. 
       "Betje, what are you doing here? It's the middle of the day. Your husband –"
       "He's out." She tripped swiftly over to him, tall and thin, more angles and lines than welcoming curves. "He took Jan Jr. riding. We have an hour, an hour at the very least."
       Hideously, his mind flashed a sudden contrast between Betje and the woman that Larssen and the regulars had assaulted in the village below. Their victim had been abundantly shapely, ample in the tits and even more so in the firm fleshy mounds of an ass like two scoops of chocolate ice cream. Betje was narrow, wan of complexion, too bony by far. Her hair, dishwater blonde and limp from the humidity, framed her face unflatteringly. Her nose was a blade, her eyes the color of a smoggy sky, her lips thin. 
       But when she came to him, and put her arms around him, he let her. She burrowed into the fur of his chest, sighing.
       Dear Dee, he thought. Oh, and by the way? I'm having an affair with my boss' wife. But wait until you hear the really good part! Wait until you hear who I'm working for!
       "You're so soft," Betje said, caressing him, running her fingers through his pelt. "Please, Tom, hold me."
       His reluctant arms encircled her. He could feel the individual knobs of her spine, the ridges of her ribs. 
       "We have to stop this," he said. He was often surprised at his own voice. It had changed these past couple of years, deepening, taking on a husky growl. Whenever he heard himself speak, it was like listening to someone else. His father, maybe. "If Jan finds out –"
       "I don't care!" Betje cried in sudden animation. Her cheeks actually found blood enough in those anemic veins to flush pink. "So he'll divorce me, what of it? He's never loved me. He loved her, and only married me so that his son would have some sort of mother. And if he fires you, what of that as well? You're too good for him, Tom, too good for this place. This miserable hell-hole of a place!"
       "I'm not thinking about him divorcing you or firing me," Tom said. "I'm thinking about him having us both killed."
       Betje's laugh was as thin and brittle as the rest of her. "He's already murdering me. His unkindness is his weapon. Its aim is as true as any gun, but the death is so much slower!"
       His mind once more replayed him a ghastly refresher of the events in the village. The gutshot man was also dying slowly, and Tom rather thought that if he could speak, he'd be inclined to disagree with Betje about the lethal capabilities of a gun versus unkindness.
       This was a mistake, all a mistake, and he had no idea how in the world to extricate himself. It never would have happened if he hadn't been feeling so low, homesick, and alone. Knowing that he could never go back to New York. Knowing that his family was lost to him now, that his own deeds had made a division between them that could never be surmounted. Living without them was bad. Living in the face of their scorn and disgust would be unbearable. 
       He'd needed to feel close to someone, that was all. And it had been the same for Betje. Craving any sort of sympathy, any sort of comfort. It shouldn't have turned into sex. He shouldn't have let it. But when she'd started kissing him that first time, clinging to him and kissing him and rubbing his fur and telling him how good it felt just to be with someone, he hadn't known how to dissuade her without shattering her fragile feelings. 
       And still didn't. She only wanted to be loved, he understood that. She wanted to be thought of as special. She didn't have a friend in the world, having been Jan. Jr.'s nurse and tutor – did they still have governesses in this day and age? – but often ignored even then. 
       She just needed him so much, and Tom didn't have the heart to refuse her. So, as she pressed herself against him, and murmured what she wanted, he gave in. It wasn't an easy prospect. Any desire he'd had for Betje wore off a long time ago. The inequity of it … a woman could fake it if she had to, but he had to perform. If he couldn't, she'd think it was her fault, and be hurt. The fact that she'd be right wouldn't help. 
       With no other choice, Tom did as he always did at this critical juncture. It made him feel sleazy, like he was tarnishing the memories of people he cared about. 
       Thinking of Delilah, his first big crush when he'd been a kid. Golden-skinned, white-haired Delilah, with a body that wouldn't quit and an innocent, sweet nature. He'd walked in on her naked once, in the Labyrinth, when he was barely more than a kitling, and the sight had blasted into his brain like a shotgun shell. 
       Thinking of Angela, too. He remembered her as being so quiet, so somber, melancholy over the loss of her son on the same evil night that had robbed him and Dee of their mother. Wishing he was old enough and mature enough to help her, to give her what she needed and what her mate Brooklyn obviously couldn't provide. To make her smile again. Angela, gorgeous in lavender, that fall of sable hair and the delectable flare of her hips. 
       Now, as Betje embraced him, he let himself conjure up those teenage fantasies. Delilah, Angela, and a host of others both gargoyle and human paraded through his mind. Alex's mother Fox in a sparkling gold bathing suit, lounging poolside in the castle with a novel resting facedown on one long, toned thigh. Pale Elektra, nude by moonlight. Brittany, one of his grandparents' wards, whom he'd once gotten to second base with, feeling her tits all springy and braless under a weathered flannel shirt. 
       Her hands at his belt, undressing him. Reaching to touch him. Tom let himself sink into delirious fancies of Delilah and Angela together, gold and lavender, limbs entwined, lavishing attention on each other with fingers, tongues, tails. 
       That did the trick. He swelled obligingly, slick stiffness emerging from its furry sheath. He was able to respond as Betje so urgently needed him to respond, and if he wasn't thinking of her, as long as she didn’t know it, what was the harm? If he fantasized instead that it was Delilah straddling him as he stretched out on the bed with its many veils of mosquito netting, Delilah lowering her body onto him and moaning in pleasure as he sank deep, that was his business and his alone. 
       After, when Betje had gone, he went into the adjoining bathroom and showered, feeling soiled in more than his flesh. It was a dangerous game to be playing on behalf of any woman. To be playing it, to be risking so much, for a woman he didn't truly desire … what was that? Madness? Desperation?
       He was summoned an hour later, when the sun was descending in a fat orange blister toward the horizon and the dark green shadows of the jungle were beginning to spread. The air cooled perceptibly. In the river valley, far below his window, twilight already held sway. He suddenly wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be down there. To be skimming the surface of the river, wings wide, senses keen, ready to snatch a leaping fish from the rushing waters and feast, airborne, on its meat. 
       Instead, he went downstairs to the long east veranda. The windows overlooked a trio of waterfalls spilling down an even higher cliff, and in the dying light of the sun, the mist around them glimmered the way he supposed the air did on Avalon, of which Elektra had so often spoken. 
       The screened-in veranda was a single open dining room, with round tables beneath hanging lanterns and a buffet service set up down one wall. By the time Tom arrived, a fair number of the household was already in attendance. Including the boss, sitting by a window drinking imported beer from a bottle and nodding absently as his son chattered away. 
       Jan Kerstenmann was in his early forties, or at least so Tom guessed. He had the lean, fit good looks of an athlete only just passing his prime. If there were threads of white in his blond hair, they didn't show. The crinkles around his china-blue eyes were easily taken more as the result of squinting against the sun than signs of age.
       The boy was a younger version of the father, except that Jan Jr.'s hair was the fine shade and texture of cornsilk, and his eyes were a darker blue. And his lip … Tom would have wagered half his salary that Jan Sr.'s lip had never in his life borne such a spoiled, petulant twist. 
       Several of the regulars were also present, Larssen and his cronies among them. They were in the most boisterous corner of the room, loudly and lustily describing their afternoon in the village. One of them, the one who had knelt on the woman's hands while his buddies raped her, seized his gut and rolled to the floor, bawling and rolling in cruel imitation of the gutshot man. 
       "Tom!" Jan Kerstenmann hailed, raising a hand. Although the tone of his voice and his gesture were both affable, something about his manner immediately put Tom on red alert. 
       He returned the wave and approached the table. Jan Jr. sneered up at him, still in a snit because Tom had not yet given in to the boy's entreaties to take him flying. If the father ordered, Tom figured he would comply, but he wasn't going to do it otherwise. Bad enough that he was sleeping with Kerstenmann's wife. If he lost his grip on the rotten little kid, he would probably end up with his head impaled on a spike like the last group of guerrillas who'd been stupid enough to try to raid Kerstenmann's territory. 
       "Get yourself some food, Tom, and join us," Jan Sr. said. "I have something to discuss with you."
       There was concern in his face, and anger, but Tom did not get the impression it was directed at him. The muscles in his neck and back relaxed. He smoothed his fur, which had begun to prickle up with static. 
       As directed, he toured the buffet table. His appetite was a source of incredulity and amazement among the household. Even the regulars were astonished. Every now and then, one of them would challenge him to a contest, but not even the biggest and hungriest of them could pack the meat products away like he could. 
       Plate laden with cuts of beef, a quart-sized mug of milk in his other hand, Tom returned to the table and perched on a stool. Jan Jr. had pushed away his supper and was drawing a spindle-legged creature that was either a wildebeest or a very ungainly horse. When the boy began adding a saddle and stick-figure self portrait, Tom guessed the latter. 
       "I'm meeting with Babatunde tomorrow," Jan Sr. said. "He wants to discuss property rights around the diamond mine, or so he claims."
       Tom arched a brow and said nothing, mostly because his mouth was full of rare roast beef. 
       "I've heard rumors, though, that he's been smarting ever since our last encounter. Didn't much care for the way you went through his best men. They say that he's got a new bruiser on his team. I think that he means to pit this newcomer against you."
       "What do you want me to do?" Tom asked after a swallow of milk.
       "What I hired you to do, as if that shouldn't be obvious. Babatunde can't come up with anyone capable of bringing you down in hand-to-hand combat, unless he's captured a bull gorilla and shot it up with steroids and enhancers. You'll get in there and show them that Jan Kerstenmann is not to be interfered with."
       "Yes, sir," Tom said. 
       He could just see this in a letter to Dee. Dear Dee, the thing about my job is this: I'm sort of half bodyguard, half mercenary for a real slimeball. His family's originally Dutch, but they settled in South Africa about two hundred years ago. Ask Grandma Diane for the details. She can give you chapter and verse on apartheid. Anyway, this guy's grandfather and a bunch of his followers split the country when the political situation started getting too touchy. They moved to Nigeria, where the current head of the Kerstenmann family makes his living mining (diamonds, emeralds), poaching (hides, ivory), smuggling (spices, drugs, weapons), and – get this, Dee, you won't believe it –
       "Tom?" Fingers snapped in front of his nose. 
       "Sorry, sir." Tom shook himself back to the here and now. 
       "Lost you for a moment there."
       "Thinking about Babatunde."
       "Well, for now, forget about Babatunde. Come to my study when you're done eating. I have something else for you to take care of. Assuming that you don't let me down and get yourself killed tomorrow."
       Tom blinked in astonishment. The study? It was the first time he'd ever been summoned to Kerstenmann's inner sanctum, where only the most important of business was conducted. Rumor had it that Jan kept his prize hunting trophies there, and that even the corpse of his cherished, idolized first wife had been subject to the taxidermist. Her eternally preserved beauty, or so went the story among the regulars, was kept on display. 
       Jan rose, laying his napkin neatly across his empty plate. He gave his son's hair a perfunctory ruffle. The boy gazed up at him with shining, hero-worship eyes. 
       "I'll be there soon," Tom said. 
       "You know the way?"
       He nodded.
       "Very good." 
       Jan Sr. made for the exit. He stopped here and there to exchange brief conversations with other members of the household, but when Betje entered, he passed her without a look. Dull hurt crossed her face at this lack of acknowledgement. She might claim that she was used to it by now, that she had long since ceased seeking any kindness from her husband, but Tom suspected that the truth was far different.
They knew better than to exchange any meaningful looks of their own. Betje lingered in the doorway for a moment, surveying the room. No friendly waves beckoned to her, no voices hailed her by name. She could have been invisible. 
       Tom finished his plate of meat, drained the last of his milk, and left the table. He was aware of them watching him, still unused to his presence or perhaps the strangeness of it. And he wondered, not for the first time, what these people would do if they knew that had it not been for the mutagenic agents in his DNA, he might well have been as dark-skinned as the villagers the regulars tormented. 
       He'd seen photos of his parents before their change. His father, back when Talon had been Derrek Maza, had taken strongly after Grandma Diane's side of the family. His Native American blood barely showed. Aunts Elisa and Beth had inherited a lighter blending of copper in their complexions. His barely-remembered mother had left only a single pre-mutation photograph behind, one which showed a small-town pretty white girl in a graduation cap and gown. 
       So, if Dr. Sevarius had never gotten his needles into the two of them, and if circumstances had still arranged for them to meet, fall in love, and have kids, Tom supposed that he and Dee would have been considered … what, mulatto? Was that the term? Octoroon was another he'd heard, from the beefy redheaded redneck who ran part of Kerstenmann's village operations. 
       And, of course, there was the big word, the N word, the one he had spoken aloud once in his entire life after hearing a couple of the denizens of the Labyrinth tossing it back and forth. His father had brushed Tom's teeth with Lava soap, spanked him until he cried, and sent him to bed without supper. 
       To people like the regulars, though, that word was what applied to any and all whose heritage was not entirely pure white. He could thank his feline genetic material for his acceptance here. Strange as it was. 
       He made his way to the bottom of the house, down into the cool of the level that had been dug and blasted out of the solid rock of the bluff. The safe was down here, and the armory, and the wine cellar. And Jan Kerstenmann's private study. 
       "Dear Dee," Tom murmured, having to duck his head to pass under the doorjamb at the bottom of the stairs. "The real reason I can't come home and can't tell you the truth is because you'd hate me now. Everyone would. I've become what they hate, what they've dedicated their lives to working against. Remember how Dad and Goliath used to go on – and presumably still do – about the duty of the strong to protect the weak? Remember how they couldn't stand bullies, thugs, mercenaries, and amoral hired goons? Well, Spot, here's the deal. That's what I am. A killer-for-hire, bodyguard to a criminal kingpin. How do you like that?"
       The study door was a thick slab of mahogany with a steel core, and a system of locks, bars, and bolts that would have done credit to a dungeon of the Inquisition. At the moment, it was standing ajar, and warm light came through.
       Tom tapped on it with his claws. 
       "Come in," Jan said. 
       He pushed the door open, revealing to his curious gaze a large room that had no windows, but even so did not feel cramped or claustrophobic. The wood paneling was broken up here and there by paintings of such clarity and realism that they could have been windows themselves, though they showed scenes that had nothing to do with Africa. Tom was no expert on world geography, but he guessed that they depicted places in Europe, likely ones that Jan Kerstenmann had never even visited. 
       The floor was carpeted in maroon plush, the furniture dark leather. And the trophies, yes, on that count the rumors had been true. Heads on plagues adorned the walls, as did stretched pelts. Animals were frozen in poses on their bases, their hides stuffed with sawdust and their eyes replaced with eerily lifelike marbles. 
       No woman, though. No elegant, statuesque blonde. Except in a framed photograph standing upon Kerstenmann's marble-topped desk. 
       "Tom, excellent, come in," Jan said. 
       Tom got three steps into the room, his feet sinking into the carpet, when his eye was riveted by two of the trophy pelts. A chill like melting ice ran down his back. The fur on the back of his neck stood up. 
       Two pelts. One black as his own, the other a smoky dark grey. The heads and paws were missing, but he knew panther pelts when he saw them. And these two each bore a peculiar scoring near the shoulder. A sort of triple hash mark, not dissimilar to the one from the Quarryman logo. 
       He knew that mark. Grandma Diane had described it more times than he could count. 
       "Impressive specimens, aren't they?" Jan asked, rounding the desk. "I bagged them not far from here. Quite a fight they gave me, too, but the taxidermist did splendid repair work. You can barely see the seams."
       Tom's mouth had gone dry. The big meal he'd just finished seemed to roll thickly over in his stomach. 
       "Are you all right, Tom? Ah, I see!" Jan shook his head in chagrin. "You feel a certain kinship with the big cats. Panthers in particular, I suppose. Forgive me. I should have realized."
       "I'm fine," Tom said, when he was fairly certain he was no longer about to throw up. "They're … um … interesting. Where did you say you bagged them?"
       "Up river a ways, where the current is so strong." Jan closed the door and gestured to the wet bar. "Drink?"
       "No, thanks."
       "That's right, you don't take alcohol, do you? You're a man of remarkably few vices, Tom. I like that about you. No boozing, no smoking, no drugs, no tearing apart a bar, no chasing after whores. You're almost too good to be true."
       Dangerous ground indeed, and he was so unsettled by the sight of those pelts that Tom didn't trust himself to reply. He kept thinking of the burned-out hovels, the shallow graves, the abandoned ancient city where he'd nearly met his own end. How long ago? And had Kerstenmann known? Had he known the true nature of the creatures he hunted?
       With his own drink in hand, Jan returned to his desk. A ragged scrap of paper was the only item out of place. 
       All sorts of crazy things went through Tom's head then. It was one of his rejected letters to Dee in which he'd said too much. It was a love note to him from Betje. It was … 
       "This is what I wanted to show you," Jan said. "I think it's probably nothing, but it may be a problem. And problems of this nature are what I pay you for."
       He handed it over. Tom could see large straggles of sticklike printing. His next thought was that it had been written by the boy, for it had that elementary school quality. But then he actually read it, and disquiet gnawed at him. 
       I come for you now, white hunter killer man. I come for you to kill you. 
       There was no signature.  
       "It looks like a death threat," he said. 
       "My thoughts exactly. Now, as you doubtless know, Tom, a man in my position makes enemies. The problem is finding out which threats are serious, and which are merely meant to worry and distract."
       "Which do you think this is?"
       "I'd like your opinion first," Jan said. 
       "It's childishly written. The sentences are clumsy. But it's in English, which could mean that the writer of the note doesn't normally speak the language." What he did next, he did on impulse. He brought the paper to his nose and inhaled deeply. 
       Several faint but powerful scents assailed him. Most recent was that of Kerstenmann, but it was almost drowned by a vile reek of fresh death. He smelled horses, leather, oil. And there was something else, something wild and almost familiar … 
       "Where did you find this?" Tom asked. 
       Jan opened a drawer and took out a gallon-sized plastic bag with a zipper seal. Inside was a man's severed hand, the skin gone blue-white, the torn stump of the wrist bloodless and raw. 
       "This was waiting in the stable yard when Jan Jr. and I got back from our ride today," he said grimly. "The stableman, Neil Ericssen, is missing. This is all that was left of him. The note was held in the fingers. More, the remaining horses had been slaughtered. Their throats cut. I only thank heaven that my son didn't see any of it."
       "You mean it was here, in the compound?"
       "All was well when we took the horses out this afternoon," Jan said. "Neil was alive and well, saddled up our mounts for us. By the time we returned … a slaughter, Tom. It looked almost like the work of a wild animal. It even crossed my mind to wonder if it might have been you."
       "Me?" he blurted. "Why would I do that? You can't think that I –"
       "Settle down, Tom. I don't think it any more. It only held my mind for a minute. Less, even. I know I can trust you as much as any of my men, if not more. I know that you need me even more than I need you, for without me, where would you go? What would become of you? You would have nothing to gain by my death."
       He took back the paper and frowned at it. 
       "Sir … I … you should have told me right away."
       "I didn't want to upset the house."
       "But if whoever did this is inside the compound, we have to take care of it. One man is dead already, probably."
       "I sent Jan Jr. up to the house with one of the guards," he said. "Only a few of the men know about this, and I don't want to cause a panic. I had a look around. No tracks, Tom. No trail. You can see for yourself that I am no slouch as a hunter. Yet I couldn't find a single thing."
       "Is that supposed to reassure me?"
       "No. It doesn't do much for my peace of mind either. However, I have enough concerns without adding phantoms to the list. I meet with Babatunde tomorrow, remember. It may be that this is his doing, meant to rattle me and give him the edge. So, I will not let it. We will go on, business as usual. But I want you to be all the more vigilant, Tom. Especially at night. This boldness, striking the stable in broad daylight, is one thing. Anyone trying to get near the house would have to come at night. I want you to put those wings and that night-vision of yours to good use."
       "I will."
       "Capture, Tom, not kill. Not this time. At least, until we've found out who's behind this."
       "Yes, sir."
       "Thank you, Tom. That'll be all."
       Dismissed, and with a single backward look at the panther pelts, Tom returned to the upper reaches of the house. Full evening had fallen by then, and the windows were all wide open to catch the cooler breezes. It was a nail-biter from a security standpoint, though he knew that the exterior of the house and the grounds were monitored by infrared cameras and motion sensors. 
       Not the stable, though. That was an oversight which should have been remedied. The stable and the garages were located down the hill, away from the village. There were guard houses and sentries, but look how much good they'd done today. 
       He went out into the dusk, hearing the hoots and cries of the nocturnal beasts waking from their day's slumber. It was a relief to leap skyward, beating his wings, taking to the air. 
       His mind was whirling. The pelts had done it. He knew Kerstenmann was a bad man, had known it since the very beginning. But he'd overlooked the drugs, the guns, the crimes in the village. Told himself that he wasn't much better. That he might as well keep such company, because it was the only company he deserved to keep. 
       The pelts, though. 
       It was all too easy to envision. Kerstenmann and the regulars, descending on the peaceful setting, armed to the teeth. Laughing and shouting. Dragging sleepy natives from their homes. Beating and shooting the men. Raping and shooting the women. Making target practice with the children. Putting the buildings to the torch. 
       And then, into the midst of it, the panthers. Bursting onto the scene like twin avenging furies, all sleek black fur and flashing ivory claws, their eyes aglow in the light of the burning houses. 
       His mind's eye showed him a younger Jan Kerstenmann, calm amid the chaos, taking steady aim with his rifle at one of the shadowy beasts wreaking carnage on his men. The explosion of the shot. The panther body robbed abruptly of its grace, tumbling in a heavy heap. The other, its mate, yowling in anguish. Perhaps, instinctively, leaping to the body, though all hope would have been snuffed in that one instant. 
       Then the second shot. Two more prizes for the great hunter. 
       "Look at me, Dee," he said as he flew. "Look what I've turned into. I came here to find them. I thought that maybe there'd be a life for me here. School wasn't it for me, and neither was the city. I hoped I'd find a place where I belonged. I even thought – call me crazy – that there might be more of them. That they would have shared the gift around, and maybe made a clan. Okay, and yeah, so what if I was thinking that maybe there'd be someone for me? It's different for you. It'll be easier for you. Plenty of normal human guys think that winged furry babes like you are sexy. Fewer girls would go for someone like me. It's a fact. I know it. I went to one of those weird conventions –"
       Oh, shit, he didn't want to think about that. 
       He did a sweep of the compound. Nothing was out of the ordinary except for an increased guard presence around the stables. Presumably, the bodies of the dead horses would have been hauled away for butchering. The two survivors, the lucky pair who'd been being ridden while the rest died in gurgling bloody violence, would be skittish. So would the regulars. 
       The night went by. Tom stopped for rests when his wings began to ache, but otherwise kept up a routine patrol of the house, the grounds, the outbuildings, the village, and the road leading to the diamond mines. All was quiet. 
       Could it be Babatunde? Had he gotten smart and realized that one good way to get rid of Kerstenmann would be to contact the villagers, maybe sneak weapons to them? They'd be more than happy to rise up and gun down Kerstenmann and any of his regulars. But Babatunde had as much disdain for the villagers, if not more, than Kerstenmann himself. They didn't belong here. Babatunde prided himself on tracing his ancestry to Nigerian chiefs of old, and had no patience for displaced foreigners. 
       Eventually, he was too exhausted to continue and knew that in such a state, he'd be ineffective should any enemy put in a sudden appearance. He flew back to the house for a few hours' sleep before the appointed meeting. 
       The next day dawned as troubled and restless as Tom felt. The sky was low with clouds and had a greenish tinge that betokened thunderstorms later. The oppressive sticky heat was worse than ever. All over the house, tempers were on edge. The regulars baited each other with curses and insults, and more than one fistfight broke out. 
       Only Jan Kerstenmann seemed even-natured as ever. He assembled the selected men who would go with him, said good-bye to Jan Jr. with a remonstrance to behave, gave Betje an indifferent nod, and off they went. 
       A line of jeeps bounced along the rutted road through the dense, dripping jungle. The shade offered no relief from the heat. Tom panted, holding his wings as wide as the back seat of the jeep allowed. He sweltered in his fur and the air was full of the droning of insects attracted by the smell of sweat. 
       The meeting place was near the coast, the undulant swells of the waves teasing with the promise of cool immersion. Foamy crests rushed up the beach, where long-legged birds darted to and fro jabbing their thin beaks into the sand in search of shellfish. Monkeys chattered in the trees, hooting their objections as the two groups of armed men advanced toward each other. 
       A roofed, open-sided platform half the size of a football field was erected on short stilts over the weedy dunes. Kerstenmann and the regulars mounted the steps on one side as Babatunde and his men did the same on the other. This spot, this no-man's-land, marked the boundary of their neighboring territories. That was a situation Babatunde was eager to change. 
       Tom stood with the rest, trying to look like a menacing brute instead of a tongue-lolling, overheated excuse for a mutate. He was vividly aware of them staring at him, perhaps remembering the last time they'd seen him in action. The way their companion had squealed like a pig as the life gushed from his many wounds. 
       A stab of homesickness caught him out of the blue. He thought of Dee, her long mane tied back, taking her position at the starting blocks of a sweeping oval track. He thought of their friends – their clan – cheering her from the stands.
       Kerstenmann and Babatunde met at the middle of the platform. Tom loomed behind Jan's shoulder, glowering down at Babatunde. The other man was short and stocky, affecting the military uniform and little moustache that was the hallmark of many a third world tinpot dictator. His many medals glinted on his barrel chest and an automatic pistol was thrust through his red sash. 
       Around them on both sides, the opposing forces eyed each other. The regulars were whites, in rumpled fatigues. Babatunde's men displayed every imaginable shade of African skin tone, and many boasted patterns of tribal scars or tattoos. 
       The two leaders conversed, but the topic was the same as ever. Babatunde wanted access to the diamond and emerald mines, claiming that Kerstenmann had encroached on his territory. Kerstenmann told him he was being ridiculous. 
       Babatunde suggested that perhaps Kerstenmann would like to settle this matter personally. Man to man. In the interest of sparing unnecessary bloodshed and the loss of so many lives as would be sure to happen if their faithful followers opened up on each other. 
Kerstenmann loftily explained that he was not about to get into a common brawl with the likes of Babatunde. And suggested, as he had done before, that perhaps each of them could choose a champion from among their ranks to represent them. Winner got the mines. 
       This time, Babatunde's grin was a hard curve of smug certainty. "I assume you mean to use that beast of yours?" he asked in his accented English. 
       "My bodyguard and right-hand man, Tom, has agreed to take part, yes," Jan said. 
       A prickling sensation swept over Tom. Some premonition or feeling of being watched. Corny as it was, he knew that feeling. He was being watched. 
       Of course he was being watched. He was the center of attention of more than fifty people, half of them hostile. But it had nothing to do with Babatunde or his men, though there were enough automatic weapons present to start a modest war. It was something else.
       He wanted to turn around and search for the source of this disturbing feeling, but just then a murmur arose from Babatunde's ranks and they parted like the Red Sea. Someone was coming, someone large, with a tread that seemed to vibrate the floorboards and threaten to splinter the entire platform into so much driftwood on the dunes. 
       Kerstenmann fell back a pace and said something in Dutch, the stunned tone indicating it was either prayer or swear. 
       Tom forgot all about eyes watching him from concealment. He gaped at the figure stomping toward him, and for the first time, doubt wormed into his belly. 
       It appeared to be humanoid in its basic physical structure. And male, most decisively male as evidenced by a colossal phallus jutting from between the panels of his red and white robes. 
       But there was something of the ram about him too, in the hulking shoulders and the solid curves of horn on either side of his head. Above the horns, decorating a sort of helmet or crown, he wore two axes. 
       Most unsettling of all were the six eyes that glared balefully from a rough-hewn face, which was at once as proud as a graven idol and as hideous as anything born from nightmare. 
       He was accompanied by costumed people who began beating drums and shaking rattles. The sound was like growing thunder. 
       Tom was no expert, but thanks to Grandma Diane, he was no slouch either. He recognized the trappings as an offshoot of a religion devoted to Shango. Once a king, Shango had been elevated to an orisha, a deity. God of the weather, of storms, of revelry and wanton sexuality. He was still worshiped in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean as a defender against evil. 
       But in all her stories, and in all his reading, he'd never run across anything quite like this. 
       The figure facing him, well over eight feet tall and built like a wall, was not just some man dressed up as a representation. He couldn't believe it was a genuine god, either – if it had been, surely it should have been on Avalon with the rest of them – but seemed to be something in between. 
       For the first time since he'd hit puberty and gained his full height, Tom felt suddenly very puny, weak, and small. 
       The air was heavy and alive with the feel of an impending thunderstorm. Overhead, the hazy sky was darkening as black clouds swirled and coalesced. 
       "Now we see how your black cat does," Babatunde jeered at Kerstenmann. Though his tone was mocking and his stance confident, naked terror lurked in his eyes. He was a man who had unleashed something that he did not know if he could fully control, and it showed. 
       "Oh, boy," Tom said. He took a deep breath of the metallic-smelling air. His fur was already standing up in sympathy to the energies. 
       The shango-creature stripped off its robe, letting the garment fall in a heap. One of the costumed attendants – three of them were women, Tom saw, dressed up to represent the god's trio of wives … though surely no mortal woman could mate with a creature of that size – scurried to retrieve it. 
       Unclothed, the shango was even more impressive. Every inch of him was layered with slabs of rock-hard muscle. Ritual tattoos covered his ebony skin. 
       Kerstenmann was demanding of Babatunde how they had come by such a behemoth, to which Babatunde replied with smirks and sneers. Tom barely cared. What mattered to him was the fact that he was about to die. And if he was lucky, the shango would only kill him. 
       The assembled men, regulars and Babatunde's troops alike, all stood slack-jawed in identical amazement. Nobody moved. Tom was on his own. 
       "Dear Dee," he whispered. "I'm not getting paid enough for this …"
       The shango roared and struck his chest in challenge. The attendants slipped away, and the crowd drew back without seeming to actually take any steps, so that Tom found himself standing near the center of the platform with the monster towering above him. 
       He didn't bother asking about the rules for engagement. If he wanted to live through this, there was no time to play fair. 
       The zap was unbelievable, the biggest he'd ever done. It surged through him and gathered excess electricity from the air, and the blinding streak of lightning that exploded across the platform would have burst an ordinary man like a grape in a microwave. 
       When his dazzled eyes cleared, his ears still ringing from the thunderclap and his nose wrinkled against the stench of ozone, Tom couldn't accept what he saw. 
       The shango was unscathed.
       A grim smile split the giant's countenance. He took a single step that covered about six feet, and hammered Tom with a punch that sent the hapless mutate flying. 
       He crashed into one of the platform's support posts, shearing it in two. Splintered ends slashed at his flesh. One of his wing struts broke in a sheeting flare of pain. He thudded to the ground, bones clattering like castanets. 
       Babatunde's men cheered. The regulars and Kerstenmann looked dumbstruck. 
       Tom, groaning, got to his feet. He was entirely off the platform, knee-deep in the grassy weeds that grew from the dunes. His wing dragged. No way to fly, no way to escape. 
       The air pressure around him changed in the split second before the shango's return lightning bolt struck. 
       The African thunder god might be immune … Tom wasn't so lucky. He howled in agony as the energy burst through him. The grass around his feet ignited into flame. He was thrown ten yards down the beach and landed with another bone-jarring impact, his fur smoldering, his thoughts an electrocuted, disconnected scatter. 
       For a second, he couldn't remember where he was or what he was doing here. His short term memory was scrambled. But the vibrations through the loose sand, as the shango stalked monstrously toward him, reminded him in a hurry. 
       He rose, wishing he had written to Dee after all. One last letter before he died. 
       No way to beat the shango with his electrical powers. They were puny by comparison, and the god shrugged them off like a shocker got off a doorknob. That meant he had to get physical. 
       The odds of such a meeting weren't much better. 
       Still, he wasn't about to go out without a fight. 
       Tom threw himself at the shango, his eye on one target. The double axes decorating the god's helmet. They were mostly for show, but – yes! They tore free in his hands. 
       And then, the battle was on in earnest. 
       The shango pummeled him, fists like iron mallets. Tom avoided those he could, hacking at his foe with the sharp but soft edges of the decorative axes. He was rewarded by one blade biting deep into the shango's arm, proving that whatever else he was, the god could bleed. 
       The two opposing forces, with Babatunde and Kerstenmann at their heads, fanned out to surround the combative figures. In the excitement of the moment, the regulars and the others had forgotten their own deadly rivalries long enough to place bets on the outcome. 
Tom heard this but was beyond caring. He knew he was taking a merciless beating, that he was almost certain to lose, but he ignored his hurts. He had to concentrate, he had to win. Or at least make a good showing for himself. 
       It came with unexpected suddenness. The shango had backed him to the water's edge. In a final and desperate move, Tom drew both hands to his shoulders and snapped them forward, throwing the twin axes with the last of his flagging strength. 
       One missed, whickering into the dune grass. But the other, as if guided by a divine hand, split the shango's nose and buried its blade between two of his six eyes. 
       There was a moment of utter silence. Even the scolding birds refrained their cries. Then, a slow collective gasp arose. One of the costumed women wailed. The shango, a freshet of blood pouring down his face, toppled slowly over backward. The earth shook with his landing. 
       Tom stayed up just long enough to ascertain that his fallen foe was not going to get up, then surrendered to insensibility. 
       He returned to the land of the living when fresh pain wrenched his broken wing. He lashed out by instinct, feeling skin and flesh give beneath his claws. Hands wrestled his arms to his sides, voices boomed apologies and reassurances.
       "Hold on, Tom," Jan said, as if from very far away. 
       The world was coming and going in vast rolling waves. Tom grappled with consciousness like it was an eel, always on the verge of slithering out of his grasp no matter how he tried to hold onto it. 
       There was no pain, and that was good. He was oblivious to the rough jouncing he knew the jeep must be taking over the rough road, and that was better. And there was the knowledge that he had won, even if it ultimately wound up costing him his life, he had won. He had beaten the shango, and that was best of all. 
       They were at the garage again without him fully knowing how it had happened. He was surrounded by regulars, dimly hearing them argue about stretchers and how they were going to get him up to the house. The trail wouldn't admit the jeep, the horses wouldn't let Tom near them because his scent spooked them. Somehow, they figured it out, because when he blinked and opened his eyes, he was swaying on a litter between eight men, looking up at the overhang of jungle. 
       Jan Kerstenmann walked beside him. It was absurdly touching to think that a man who so heedlessly ordered the deaths of others could express any sort of concern. It had to be mere gratitude for a job well done. That must be it. 
       They reached the house, their big blundering parade, and by now the commotion had drawn the servants, Betje and Jan Jr., and the regulars who'd been left behind on guard detail. It went from a parade to a circus, or a comedy of errors, as Jan bellowed orders and Tom's litter-bearers tried to fit their burden through the door. 
       In the middle of it all, Betje was trying to get close to Tom. He noticed this with amazed despair – what was the idiot woman going to do? Weep and fuss and make a scene? Give their secret away? 
       No … she only wrung her hands at the sight of him. It was the first time he could recall ever having actually seen anyone do that, wring their hands. She spoke to Jan, something about a telegram, visitors coming, wanting to see Tom.
       That brought him back a little. "What? What visitors?" he croaked. 
       "Later," said Jan brusquely. "Get him upstairs."
       Incredibly, they did so without dropping him. Soon, Tom was on his own bed, the mosquito netting drawn back. Servants scrambled about, moving furniture. Tom tried to protest that he was bleeding all over the place, but that seemed the least of their worries. 
       A doctor, Jan was demanding a doctor. The frail, white-haired man who answered this demand would have blown over in a strong wind, but he went to work briskly after a single expression of dubiousness – he wasn't skilled in veterinary medicine, he said, and what was he going to do with a seven-foot panther-man with wings? 
       Jan told him to do the best that he could if he valued what remained of his declining years. This threat didn't faze the doctor much. He snorted, and opened his bag, and his first order of business was to hold some ether-stinking cloth against Tom's mouth and nose. 
       He floated in darkness after that. Scattered images played across the black, memories of home interspersed with scenes from Grandma Diane's wealth of folklore. Then he was running, fighting his way through the jungle as the vines took on sinister life of their own. Something was after him. Something in hot pursuit. At any moment, it would leap and bear him down, and he would feel its jaws close on his neck – 
       Tom gasped himself awake and enjoyed one blissful instant before the pain fell into him. His gasp turned into a groan. 
       Rustling, movement, and then Betje was there. "Tom? Tom, are you awake?"
       He groaned again. 
       "Oh, my poor dear Tom!"
       His eyelids peeled open, showing him to his relief that she was the only one in the room. She brushed her fingertips against his cheek, and a tear dripped from the sharp point of her chin. 
       "How bad is it?" he said. 
       "Doctor Schuyler says you'll be fine, just fine." She rattled off a string of injuries, most of which he could not remember sustaining. "He thinks you'll need at least two weeks of rest, though. Longer until your wing is healed, but he promises that you will fly again. Of all the times for this to happen, too. I'm so sorry."
       Tom winced. "He told you? Don't worry, Betje. I'm not going to let anything happen to Jan. I don't care how many nasty notes they send or how many horses they kill. They want a death threat? I'll give them a death threat."
       This speech sapped him, and he concentrated on regaining his breath. Betje's brow knotted in confusion. 
       "Notes? Horses? Death threats? What are you talking about?"
       When he didn't answer right away, she shrugged and wrung her hands again, then went on. 
       "What I meant is that it's such a shame you'll be bedridden, unable to greet your aunt properly."
       "I should let you rest. We can talk about it in the morning."
       He reached out, his arm feeling as if it had blocks of concrete chained to it, and grabbed her wrist. Some unwilling understanding of her words was trickling through his cloudy brain. "Tell me, Betje."
       "A telegram came," she said. "From Lagos, the airport. A charter plane's filed a flight plan from New York. One of the passengers is apparently going to be your aunt. A woman named Elisa Maza."
       "What?!" He tried to lunge upright in bed, made a bucking motion, and collapsed back feeling like he'd torn his insides loose. A heavy mass of solid plaster encased his wing, anchoring him. "Aunt Elisa? Here? When?"
       "She expects to arrive early next week." Betje's brow knit some more. "I didn't know you had told your family where you were."
       "I didn’t," he said. "I've written to my sister, but I never told her precisely where I was. Did it say why?"
       "No, only that they wouldn't be here until after dark, sometime next Tuesday night."
       "They? Who's … after dark … oh, no." Tom pushed his head into the pillow and closed his eyes. That could mean only one thing. 
A bad thing. An awful thing. 
       What could make Aunt Elisa and Goliath take such a trip? All the way to Africa to find him … it must be bad news. Something terrible must have happened back home. His grandparents? His father? Dee? 
       But they would come, and see him, and see this place. They would know what was going on. Aunt Elisa's keen cop instinct practically guaranteed it. They'd find him like this. 
       "They can't come here, Betje. I don't want to see them. I don't want them to see me, not like this."
       "They're your family. You're lucky to have them. You don't know how precious that is, Tom, to have people who care about you. Maybe they'll take you home. You're too good for this place. I know your heart is better than this."
       She took his hand, mindful of his scraped and battered knuckles. Her touch made him feel low and dirty. 
       "Maybe," she added in a whisper, "we can leave with them. Together, Tom. There's no home for me here. I could be with you, we could be together."
       "Betje …"
       He couldn't finish, but that was just as well because there was nothing he could say that wouldn't crush her already trampled spirits. 
       They were spared by the sound of someone coming down the hall. Betje released him and straightened up, bustling about to tidy the bedclothes. The door opened to admit the doctor and Jan Kerstenmann, the former looking apprehensive, the latter simply concerned. 
       "Well, he's still alive," Doctor Schuyler said, crossing to examine Tom's pupils with a penlight. "He should pull through after all, as long as he stays put and follows doctor's orders."
       "You heard the man, Tom," Jan said. "I believe I owe you a bonus. Babatunde nearly had us that time."
       "Yes, sir," Tom said. 
       "He needs his rest," Schuyler said. "He can take broth if he's hungry, some nice beef broth should do him good, but he'd best not move around."
       The three of them withdrew to discuss his care, while Tom gazed dolefully up at the clumps of netting. 
       Aunt Elisa and Goliath. It had to be. Coming here. How had they known?
       Alexander. Of course. With Alexander Xanatos involved, the ways they could have found Tom were limitless. Anything from having bugged him with a satellite transmitter when he first left New York to scrying him with magic. 
       That was enough to chill his soul. If Alex, Patricia, or maybe Aiden had been spying on him in a crystal ball or something, then it was too late. They already knew. They already knew everything. 
       Maybe that was why Aunt Elisa was coming. Maybe Dad had asked her to, since he wouldn't trust himself to confront Tom without killing him. 
       An urgent but hopeless desire seized him – to cut and run, to get far away from this place. To lose himself in the jungle and live free, the way he had in the months following his experiences at the spider city. He had nearly gone wild then, hunting and eating his kills raw, sleeping in a den on a bed of leaves, thinking in the language of the beasts, living by his senses rather than his wits. 
       He could do it again. It would be better. He wouldn't have to think then, wouldn't have to deal with the awful weight of his past actions. There wouldn't be Thomas Reed Maza anymore. There would only be his animal self, turning savage. 
       They left him to rest. When the broth came, he drank it out of need rather than appetite. The doctor had laced it with pain killers, and a sedative, but Tom resisted the effects as long as he was able. He had to figure out what he was going to do. 
       But no good solution presented itself before he finally succumbed to the medicine, and he sank into a sleep as deep and dark as the ocean. 
       He woke with what felt like a paralyzing hangover around sunset. Dehydration had sucked the life from him, leaving his mouth raspy and dry. But, that discomfort aside, he felt much better. His wounds barely pained him at all. 
       The bed was adrift in fur. He had been shedding like crazy and he itched all over. He managed to sit up, and when the room only rocked a little, he swung his legs over the side and tried to stand. 
       It worked, though the cast was a clumsy burden. He had to move drunkenly from one supportive piece of furniture to the next. He stumbled into the bathroom and into the extra-large stall of the shower, with that one wing stuck out through the curtain. 
       The water hit him like a revivifying blessing. He turned his face into the spray and drank until his stomach felt like a sloshing balloon in his middle. 
       The drain clogged once he began scrubbing in earnest. He must have lost five pounds just in fur. Shampoo stung in his healing scars. He was careful to wash around the stitches. Where the doctor had shaved away parts of his pelt, he could see bruising at that muddy red-brown stage. 
       A tray was waiting for him when he emerged, toweling. The bed had been stripped, a stack of clean sheets sitting on the end. Tom sniffed the air, went to the tray, and ignored the spoon in favor of lifting the entire tureen of broth. He swilled it until his stomach, still bloated from the quarts of water, objected. 
       Two of the servants, supervised by Betje, came in. Her gaunt face softened as she looked at him, some of the lines of strain easing away. They made the bed, swept stray black hairs from the floor, and finished just as Tom was at the limits of his strength. He let Betje help him back to the bed. 
       "I'll fetch Doctor Schuyler," she said. She stroked his head lovingly when the servants quit the room. "Oh, Tom … you had me so worried!"
       "How long was I out?"
       She told him, and he regarded her in bemused dismay. He'd slept the clock around and then some. 
       The doctor appeared before Betje could go find him, evidently having been alerted by one of the servants. He grunted approval to see Tom resting against a heap of pillows, and proceeded to poke and prod. 
       "Good that you came around," he said. "I was going to put in an IV if you hadn't roused by tonight."
       "What did you give me?" Tom asked. "Rhino sedatives?"
       "It's tricky calculating the dosage for you," Schuyler said, a scolding tone creeping into his voice. "But you seem to be suffering no ill effects."
       "Is everything okay here at the house?" he asked. Betje and Schuyler swapped a look. Tom pushed himself into more of a sitting position. "What? Tell me."
       "It's nothing to concern you," Schuyler said. "Some of the men are missing, that's all. Regulars. Probably AWOL."
       Tom narrowed his eyes, not believing it for a second. The regulars didn't go AWOL. They liked their situation too much, and where else would they go? Most other places in this part of the world, men like them wouldn't exactly be welcomed with open arms. 
       He let it pass, though. It wasn't as if he could really get up and investigate, now, was it? 
       The evening passed fairly peacefully. Jan Kerstenmann himself paid a brief visit, only long enough to satisfy himself that Tom was indeed in the land of the living. He wouldn't elaborate on the mention of the missing regulars, but Tom suspected that the matter was preying on his mind. Through overhearing the servants, he learned that Jan had issued orders for no one to leave the house unless accompanied by armed guards, no explanation given. The slaughtered horses and the absence of the stable hand were common knowledge now. 
       What troubled Tom even more was the impending arrival of Aunt Elisa and her mate. He couldn't face them, this he knew without a shadow of a doubt. There was no way for them to see Kerstenmann and the regulars for anything other than what they were, and no way for Tom to hide his own involvement. 
       Aunt Elisa would be furious, and Goliath would be appalled. They would look at him like he was the lowest of the low, no better than any of the thousands of no-good thugs they'd busted over the years. It would kill him to see that condemnation in their gazes. 
       What was he going to do? His earlier thought, of fleeing for freedom, recurred to him. Such a plan would he hampered severely by his injuries. He was in no real state to hunt for his meals. Too, abandoning Kerstenmann in this time of need didn't sit right on his soul. 
How ludicrous was that?
       "Dear Dee," he murmured into the lull of his quiet bedroom. "Is this the stupidest thing you've ever heard, or what?"
       He couldn't go on. What sort of half-assed code of honor was this? 
       By the next morning, Doctor Schuyler was favorably impressed enough by his recovery to allow him some solid food. With that breakfast came the news that Curtis Burns, the redheaded redneck, would be arriving that afternoon with fresh 'cargo.' 
       It wasn't the optimum time, not with everything else going on. Kerstenmann usually liked to have Tom there as a sort of precaution, just standing by looking all fierce and ominous to prevent the cargo from getting any wise ideas. Too, there were the missing regulars – three of them, plus the stable hand. The rest were on edge, the sort of high-strung edginess that would make accidental shootings a virtual certainty. 
       But the shipment had already been en route, and the show must go on. When the appointed time arrived, Tom got gingerly out of bed and went to the window. 
       He could hear the thumping beat of the rotors as the cargo copter hove into view. It was an ugly, ungainly thing, fat as a horsefly or bumblebee, its rounded sides making it look too awkward to stay in the air. 
       A wide space in the center of the village had been cleared, and was ringed with armed regulars. The villagers cowered at the peripheries. If ever there was going to be a time for them to rise up, it would be during one of the cargo drops. 
       Tom saw Larssen speaking into a handheld radio, presumably giving Burns the all-clear to land. The clumsy helicopter descended, the downdraft of its blades sending a whirl of straw, dry leaves, and dust flying in all directions. 
       The regulars brought their guns to bear. Two men in flight suits hopped down and unlocked the large sliding cargo bay doors. Burns, who had the ham-fisted build of a big dumb farmboy, swung his arm in an imperious wave. 
       The doors trundled open, and the regulars rushed forward to help offload the cargo. They were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs with knotted cords. They still wore ordinary clothing – jeans and tee shirts, business suits, frumpy oversized pants that bagged below the hips, smart dresses and sensible heels, skintight capri pants and bustier-style tops. They were rumpled, some of them roughed up, and they blundered around pathetically as they were yanked from the copter and shoved into the open. 
       Their voices rose in a babble of confusion. Some shouted for help, others loudly demanded lawyers. Some swore, others made vociferous exclamations about being American citizens, you can't do this, whoever you are, we're American citizens. 
       Those who'd come before them looked on in pity and impotent hate. More than a few cast greedy, longing looks at the newcomers' clothing. 
       If they had risen up right then, cooperated, they might have become a real problem. The villagers and the cargo outnumbered the regulars better than three to one. But the regulars were toting rifles and handguns, and the newcomers wouldn't believe that this was real until it was too late to help. 
       Larssen signaled his men, and they pulled off blindfolds. They herded the cargo – staring around stupefied at the poverty-stricken village and the dense jungle beyond – into a group, holding them at gunpoint while Burns stepped up on a crate to address them. 
       Tom didn't need to be down there to hear the speech. It was the same every time, delivered in Burns' thick southern accent. 
       Y'all wanted reparations. Y'all sued for what your ancestors suffered. How dare the whities import them like cattle and keep them as slaves. Y'all thought ya deserved compensation. But y'all never stopped to think that if the whities hadn't done that, yer ancestors would have stayed right here. Y'all never would have enjoyed the freedoms and luxuries of the glorious U.S. of A. So, ya ungrateful bitches and bastards, here's reparations for ya. Welcome to Africa. Welcome home. See how ya like it.
       The same utter shock and incomprehension would be on every face. A few might think it was all a joke, some reality-television stunt. Others would refuse to believe it, refuse to accept their new lot. It would have to be thrashed into them, and if that failed, they'd be shot as an example to the rest. 
       Burns had returned to the helicopter. Later, Tom knew, Larssen or one of the other regulars would assemble them again and explain some key facts of life. They could work in the fields, or they could work in the mines, but they would work. They'd earn their keep or they'd be sorry. 
       The copter lifted off, hovered over the village for a moment, and rose into the sky. Tom envied it the ease with which it got airborne. It would circle around to a field on the far side of the river, and then Burns would bring his other supplies and imports up to the main house by jeep. 
       Below, in the village, the regulars stood back and watched, grinning like oafs, as the newcomers milled about. A few bold individuals came forth to help untie them.
       Two dozen in this shipment. Two dozen people snatched from their cars or homes, from the streets of America, and dumped into this environment. Burns would have their cash and valuables, a percentage of which he'd keep and the rest he'd deliver to Kerstenmann. Back home, the missing persons' reports would already be filed, the searches underway, to no avail. 
       And Aunt Elisa was on her way. What would she have to say when she found out what was going on here? That he'd known about it and done nothing? Worse, that he'd known about it and been a part of it? Not an active part, perhaps, since he'd never actually been called upon to forcibly deal with any of the villagers, but a part nonetheless. 
       There was no way on earth he could get out of this with any measure of his family's good regard. It would have been better if Babatunde had killed him. 
       He returned to his bed and moped there, picking at his meals when the servants or Betje brought them, responding with snorts or growls or monosyllabic replies to any queries or overtures. It hurt Betje, he could tell, but mollifying her was far down his list of priorities just then. 
       Night came, the end of another day, another twenty-four hours closer to the moment when he'd have to confront his aunt. And he still had no idea what to do. 
       Sleep eluded him, while the rest of the household gradually quieted. The village, too, was still. The new arrivals would be exhausted from their trip, first confined in the hold of a cargo ship, then transferred to the copter for the flight inland. They might have planned and plotted revolution, but nothing would come until they'd slept. A body could only run on fear and fury so long. 
       A fat crescent of moon rose in the east, and still Tom hadn't been able to close his eyes for more than a few seconds. He was caught in his endless quagmire, wondering what to do, knowing there was nothing. 
       And then, from elsewhere in the house, sharp but quickly ended, a cry. A scream. 
       He came fully awake, ears twitching toward the door. The world held its breath. The cry wasn't repeated. 
       Not a bird, not a monkey. That had been a human voice. 
       Tom got up, not bothering to dress in more than the loose cotton drawstring pants he'd been wearing. He still felt weak, and his stitches pulled with each movement in an unpleasantly tight pinching sensation, but he crossed to the door on silent panther feet and eased it open. 
       His eyes and ears told him nothing. But his nose picked up something at once. He recognized it from the note Jan had gotten. Below the stink of the stable hand's death, below the horse blood, had been this uncanny scent. 
       The killer was here. In the house. He knew it. 
       He crept into the hallway, nostrils flared. As he moved slowly down the guest wing stairs, he detected a new odor. Human blood. A lot of it. Then he spied it, a gaudy oilslick on the entryway floor. A guard was normally stationed there throughout the night, one of the regulars. He was still present, or most of him was. It took Tom a few seconds to spot the head, which had rolled under a chair. 
       The regular would have been sitting by the window, gun resting across his knees. He hadn't seen his death coming in time to get off a single shot. That quick and brutally ended cry had been all. His head had been taken off in one clean sweep, as if from a machete or other blade. 
       Tracks. A series of them, wet and bloody footprints leading from the body toward the center of the house. Toward the family living quarters. 
       Tom bent and studied them. Small, barefoot, with a partial hand print here and there as if the person had stumbled and bent to touch the floor. 
       He followed, swiftly as he could while maintaining stealth. 
       A shadow was at the door to Betje's room. Trying the knob, rattling it in frustration because Betje kept it locked. The dripping machete hung at the figure's side. Tom could hear the patter from it, and see its deadly, red-streaked shine, but he could not make out many details of the killer. Only that it was someone small. 
       His foot came down on a creak that sounded, in that cringing moment of discovery, loud as the squeal of a semi's brakes. 
       The killer spun and sprang, incredibly fast. The machete arced, spraying a stipple of blood as it came. 
       Tom lunged. He was slow, achingly slow from his injuries, but he got inside the swing. The arm struck him. The blade waved back and forth behind him. He grappled the killer and slammed the much smaller body up against the wall beside Betje's door. 
       The much smaller … shapely … female body. 
       Her scent overwhelmed him now, wild musk issuing from her pores, and the feel of her trapped between him and the wall, trapped and wriggling, stirred an interest that was completely inappropriate under the circumstances. 
       From within, Betje called out, "Who's there? Is someone there?"
       The girl – for girl she was, Tom's age or even younger – twisted her head and bared her teeth at the door in a feral hiss. They were very white in her dark face, white and sharp. He saw that she had sulfur-yellow and bright scarlet marks on her skin in slashes and daubs.
       And … she was naked. A simple braided belt girded her hourglass waist, a necklace of beads and teeth hung around her neck, a similar anklet was on one foot, but aside from that, she was wearing only the warpaint. 
       The machete clanged to the floor. The girl dug for Tom's eyes with fingernails that felt like claws, ripping at his forehead when he ducked to save his vision. She raked her toes down his shins, too, and it felt like she wore razors. 
       "Who's there?" called Betje again, sounding frightened. 
       Tom bundled the wildcat into his arms, steadfastly telling himself that now was not the time to be noticing the way her breasts jiggled against his chest. He dragged her away from the door and flung her into a patch of moonlight. 
       He'd meant her to go sprawling, but she twisted in mid-air and landed crouched on all fours. Her head came up and around, tossing back a profuse mass of thin black braids. Her eyes, as luminescent as stars, stared incredulously at him. 
       There was a mark on her shoulder. 
       A familiar mark. 
       It came together in Tom's mind with an almost physical shock. The note, the scent, the mark. 
       "You're one of them," he breathed. "You're their daughter."
       The girl began to change. 
       Fur rippled over her limbs. Her braids receded as her neck shifted down and in, her face pushing forward in a short muzzle, her ears ascending. A long sturdy tail sprouted from her backside. Her fingers and toes retracted into paws. Only the mark on her shoulder, and those eerie, beautiful eyes, remained the same. 
       "And he killed your parents," Tom said, still barely above a whisper. "Destroyed your home. That's why you're after him."
       She hunkered low, tail lashing side to side, pearly fangs exposed. 
       "Tom?" Betje opened her door. 
       "Betje, no!"
       The panther-girl leapt. Betje, seeing in the gloom only some low-slung, powerful shape coming at her, uttered a high shriek. 
       Tom tackled the panther, noting in some distanced portion of his mind that her mass had somehow increased threefold. They crashed against the wall, pocking it with a massive indentation. His cast-covered wing whacked painfully. 
       Betje shrieked again, loud as a fire engine this time, and ran down the hall toward Jan's room. 
       Claws tore at Tom's chest and arms. He wrenched his head aside as she did her best to maul his face. 
       "They'll kill you," he grunted, struggling to contain her. "They've got guns, they'll kill you, this is suicide!"
       He felt the change begin, the contortion of bones and muscle. Moments later, he was holding the nude girl again, her looking up into his face with those incredible cat's eyes. 
       "I want see him dead," she hissed. "Them all dead, poachers, murderers! Let me go, gargoyle!"
       "I'm no gargoyle –" Tom stopped. Now was not the time to argue semantics. Then again, now wasn't exactly the time for an erection either, but try to tell his body that. Never mind doctor's orders and recuperation. He couldn't help it, with the wild naked feel of her so close against him. 
       "Then no must to protect them," she said, and with one acrobatic lunge managed to squirt free of his embrace like a watermelon seed. "Why you do?"
       Her question hit him hard, distracting him even from the fascinating but brief view of her bottom as she uncoiled sinuously to her feet. 
       "I …"
       But there was no good answer. There never had been. And that was the whole problem. 
       She bared her teeth at him again, then loped down the hall.
       Tom lay there, stunned. He couldn't seem to think. Maybe because he'd lost so much blood, and the rest of it was temporarily diverted from his brain. He heard the uproar of the house as Betje's shrieks woke the rest. Any minute, the halls would be swarming with regulars. 
       The girl wouldn't stand a chance. Fierce as she might be, she was now without any weapon but her fangs and claws. The machete lay where it had fallen. 
       So did he. The urge to close his eyes and just let it all happen was very strong. This wasn't his fight. Why should it be his fight? He had come to Africa in hopes of meeting the were-panthers and maybe finding a home among them, and he'd ended up instead working for the very man who'd hunted them, shot them, skinned them, and kept their pelts as trophies. 
       He'd looked the other way when faced with hideous atrocities against the defenseless. He'd broken about every law and commandment there was. 
       What had he said to the girl? I'm no gargoyle, that was what he had said. And oh, but wasn't it the bitter and painful truth? He wasn't a gargoyle. He wasn't a cop. He wasn't worthy of the name Maza or the love of any clan. He was only a mutate, a poor stupid slob of a mutate.
       If he knew that Aunt Elisa or Goliath would kill him for his failings and transgressions, he might have been happy to see them. He could imagine it so clearly – Goliath's roar, white eyes blazing. Those huge hands closing like a vise around his throat. A sudden vicious jerk, the deep snap of his neck, and it would be over. 
       "Coward," he muttered. 
       Lights, the bobbing beams of flashlights, jittered madly through the dark halls. The power was out. Of course it was. She would have done that first thing. Sliced the lines, or disabled the generator. Regulars charged around bellowing in the strobelike illumination. 
       A gun went off with a loud crack of a report. Jan Kerstenmann yelled in fury. Tom had heard him yell like that when and only when he missed what he thought was a sure target. 
       She was alive, then. 
       Somehow, without knowing how it happened, Tom was on his feet. 
       The first of the regulars reached him. Larssen, blond hair standing up in spikes, clad only in boxer shorts. 
       "What's going on?" he barked. 
       "The end," Tom said. 
       His arms shot out, knocking the gun from Larssen's grasp. In his memory he heard the gutshot man's terrible gobbling cries, and the woman's agonized scream as Larssen thrust into her. He lifted the man, dimly aware that stitches were popping, and pivoted. His fur was rising with static. 
       Larssen shouted and writhed, feet kicking ineffectually. Tom, with seemingly no effort at all, held him suspended for a moment and glared murder into his face. 
       "See how you like it," he snarled, and slammed Larssen down onto the upraised spear of the statue of a pygmy warrior. 
       He didn't have time to study Larssen's reaction, because others of the regulars had witnessed this act and started raving that Tom had gone crazy, the boss-man's bodyguard was going to kill them all. Automatic fire lit up the hall in stuttering flares. Tom let go of Larssen and dove for cover. The bullets missed him, found Larssen, and ended his suffering far too soon. 
       Maybe he had gone crazy. He swung around and howled at them, thrusting out his fists. Blinding bolts of electricity streaked from them. The nearest regular was blown smoldering out of his slippers, the one behind him hit the wall and stayed there, shuddering, as if he'd stepped on a live wire. 
       Crazy? Yes, forget the maybe. There was a joy in this that he had never experienced before. So what if they killed him? He was going to take plenty of them along. 
       He charged them, his entire body now alive with crackling tendrils of energy. The regulars, disciplined men who should have stood up to an army, broke and scattered, fleeing through the house.
       Temporarily without a target, Tom made for Jan's bedroom. He found the door standing wide, but partly blocked.
       "Betje," he said. 
       She raised her head. She was sitting with her back to the doorjamb, hands pressed to her middle. A runnel of blood slid from the corner of her mouth. More of it puddled in her lap and spread out around her. 
       "Tom." She couldn't say it aloud, but he read it on her lips.
       He looked past her. No Jan, no panther-girl. 
       "What happened?"
       "He shot me." Weak, but audible. 
       "He shot you? Jan?"
       "A woman … she held me by the neck. Stood behind me. Jan had a gun. She told him that he'd killed her parents so she was going to kill his woman. He laughed. Said it was no great loss, she should go ahead. She thought he was bluffing. So he shot me. Is it bad, Tom?"
       He had been leaning close to hear her, and when she took her hands away and he saw the wound, he recoiled. 
       Gutshot. Just like the man in the village. Her intestines coiled in her lap like fat and glistening worms. 
       "It doesn't hurt much," Betje said, searching his face hopefully. "So it isn't bad, right?"
       Tom gently leaned her forward to get a look at the exit wound. No wonder it didn't hurt much. Her back had blown open like a pop can with an M-80 inside. Fragments of her spine littered the bloody floor. 
       He lowered her again and manufactured a smile. "No, Betje, it's not so bad."
       She nodded feebly at him. "I thought so."
       "Here. Let me just –" He reached as if to adjust her to a more comfortable position, then swiftly took her head in his hands and broke her neck. "I'm sorry, Betje. Sorry for everything."
       Her look, as her body slid slowly over to one side, was strangely like gratitude. 
       Tom rose to his full height and looked around. He tested the air, found the scent he sought amid the multitude of others, and followed it. 
       To the study, Jan Kerstenmann's basement sanctuary. Where else? The only better place for a standoff would have been outside, on the edge of the bluff above the plunging waterfall. 
       The three people in the room didn't notice his approach. Kerstenmann stood behind his desk, his favorite hunting rifle held steady. The girl was near the wall, beneath the pelts of her parents. She held the little boy, Jan Jr., in her arms. He was a hefty kid and she was not a giantess, but she had hidden strength and kept him captive despite his struggles. 
       "Let him go," Kerstenmann said. 
       He was aiming at her, but couldn't be sure of the shot with the way Jan Jr. writhed and fought. Too, the panther-girl's clawlike nails were held to the boy's tender pink throat. They made dimples, and one of the dimples already oozed a trickle of blood. 
       "Poacher," spat the girl, as if it were the most vile word she knew. In all likelihood, Tom thought, it was. "I slash him! No less you deserve."
       "I'll shoot."
       "Put gun down, great white hunter," she said. "Throw away and I free brat."
       "You'd better listen to her, sir," Tom said, stepping into the room. "Unless you intend to shoot your boy just like you shot Betje."
       "My son is worth something to me," Jan said, imperceptibly more at ease now that he believed his reinforcements had arrived. "Carefully, Tom. Don't provoke this harridan. Ask her what she wants in exchange for my son's life."
       "Your life," the girl said before Tom could repeat the question. 
       "I'm afraid you don't seem to realize the position you're in," Jan said.
       "No more words!" The girl dug her claws in a bit more, and blood ran from three of the dimples. Jan Jr. whimpered. His eyes were fixed pleadingly on his father. 
       "Put the gun down, Mr. Kerstenmann," Tom said. 
       He hadn't made any moves, and didn't think any of what he'd said could have given him away, but all at once Jan turned, and the black bore of the rifle was trained on Tom. "You betrayed me."
       "Yes, sir," Tom admitted. "I guess I have."
       The rest happened very fast. Jan's finger tightened on the trigger. Tom held his ground. The girl dropped Jan Jr., who landed upright and immediately ran for his father. Ran right between his father and Tom, as the gun lurched in its deadly report. 
       The small body was pitched into Tom. He caught the boy, feeling little hands clutch strengthlessly at his fur, and looked down into wide, surprised blue eyes. 
       "Jan!" cried Kerstenmann. "Jan, no, oh, no!"
       The gun fell, and the girl pounced. She didn't clear the desk but landed atop it, sliding on the marble surface. Her momentum carried her into the stunned man and they both went down. Jan cried out first in startled pain, then in genuine torment. A wavering feline screech filled the room. It was followed by the rending sounds of claws in flesh. 
       Tom held the boy, not moving. He felt Jan Jr. slacken as the life fled from him, then placed the body on a chair. 
       Kerstenmann came scrabbling around the corner of the desk, mouth working frantically. A chunk of meat was missing from his cheek, exposing his teeth and flapping tongue. He hitched toward Tom, hands extended imploringly. 
       The panther hunkered over her prey, her luminous gaze on Tom as if asking what he was going to do. 
       He reached down for Jan's outstretched hand, but in the instant before they touched, zapped him a minor but excruciating jolt. Jan wailed. The panther seemed to grin, just before her jaws closed on the back of Kerstenmann's neck. 
       It was over quickly. After a few hard shakes to be sure, the panther backed away from her kill and stretched. Tom observed this process with considerable fascination, enjoying the play of light along her sleek fur and flexing limbs. Finished, she sat up on her haunches and regarded him evenly as she licked her paws and groomed her face. 
       By the sounds of it, the remaining regulars were getting organized. Soon, they'd be down here, looking for Kerstenmann. 
       The panther reared up, altering as she did so. In no time at all, she stood before him in her human form. Her many braids draped her almost to the waist in a living shawl that didn't do much to conceal her finer attributes. 
       She hadn't attacked him, hadn't really hurt him even when trying to break his hold. And though she had just killed his employer, defying his entire job description, Tom felt no urge to avenge the dead man or his family. 
       Her head tipped to the side in silent question. He nodded in equally silent answer. 



       "What happened here?" Goliath rumbled, his gaze taking in the carnage. 
       Elisa blew out a long slow breath and steadied herself. She'd been expecting to find Tom in some sort of trouble, but not even in her wildest dreams had she pictured anything quite like this
       The bodies were bad enough. What had been done to them … it was enough to rattle anyone's nerves. Hardened NYPD detectives and gargoyle clan leaders included. 
       "We figured this guy Kerstenmann was dirty," she said. "In Lagos, we suspected that much. What Babatunde had to say only made me more sure, and the village confirmed it. This, though …"
       "Apparently, his evil deeds have caught up with him," Goliath said. "He will harm no more innocents."
       "I'll say." She had to lean briefly on him for support, gagging on the stink of decay that permeated the house atop the bluff. 
       They had arrived before midnight, and been shocked to the bone to discover the sordid truth about the village below. That would take months to straighten out. Both governments would be up to their chins in red tape. Elisa was glad it was their problem and not hers. 
       Her problem hadn't yet put in a personal appearance. 
       But he had left his signature stamped pretty damn heavily. 
       "Tom did this?" Goliath shook his sable-crowned head almost admiringly. "I remember him as a kitling, a mere ball of fur."
       "He must have. I hate to believe it, but he must have. Shit. How am I going to tell Derrek? Or my parents? Or Maggie … we came all this way looking for Tom to give him the good news about his mother, alive and well after all, and now this!"
       Goliath's arm went around her and drew her companionably to his side. She rested her brow on his chest, comfortable in his familiar warmth. It occurred to her that she was getting too old for shocks like this. Walking into an abattoir would give anybody a jump, and she was no squeamish frail. But still. 
       What he'd done to them …
       Jan Kerstenmann stared blankly and blindly over her head. Or would have, had not the ocular tissues already lost cohesion and dribbled down his rotting cheeks like runny soft-boiled eggs. His mouth gaped in a soundless cry. The skin of his neck was splitting around the nails that held his head to the plaque. Unspeakable fluids had leaked down the wall. 
       It was the same all over the house. Grisly trophies on display. Flayed bodies, their skins stretched and tacked to the walls. Heads mounted on plaques. One, an entire corpse of a large blond-haired man, was affixed somehow to a polished board above a fireplace. The mauled and mangled remains looked to have been savaged by tooth and claw.
       Elisa tried to reconcile this with the memory of her nephew. Tom had indeed been a bundle of fur and feistiness when he was young, and had grown into a difficult age. Those sullen teenage years, which Dee had weathered so easily, had driven a resentful wedge between Tom and his father, and the rest of them by extension. 
       It hadn't come as a big surprise when he'd announced his wish to travel abroad. She had hoped he would find what he needed in Africa. 
       But … this?
       "We should leave this place," Goliath said. "It would not do for us to be found here."
       "I can't go without knowing what happened to Tom," Elisa said. "I owe the family that much."
       "Elisa, my love, he may be a danger to us."
       "Not to us. Not Tom."
       "Would you have thought him capable of this massacre?" Goliath asked. "No, nor would I, nor any of us. Yet see what he's done. There is madness here, Elisa."
       "If that's the case, it's all the more reason we have to find him. We have to stop him, and get him help."
       Goliath scanned the room, and uttered a weary sigh. Understanding washed over her then, though she would have given anything to avoid it. Ever since that business with Demona, unleashing that accursed Vial on him and nearly killing him with that plague virus, ever since Amber had braved the perils of the past to bring Old-Mother to heal him, there had been a change in Goliath. That weariness. 
       He, too, was getting old. He might not show it the way she did, with the silver streaks showing up in the ebony of her hair, and he might age more slowly, but he'd been older than her to start with. And neither of them had exactly led a calm and stress-free life. 
       "You don't want to fight him," she said, and repented of the words the instant they left her lips. 
       His face tightened. She'd stung his pride with that one, never meaning to, but they both knew it was the root of the matter. Tom was young and vital, and by the evidence scattered all over this house, in the grips of a violent berserker fury. Goliath in his prime would have been able to best him, no sweat. But that wasn't the case, now. 
       "I would not wish to harm your nephew," he said. "I pray it does not come to that."
       "Goliath, I'm sorry." She embraced him, but for a moment he remained rigid in the circle of her arms. "I didn't mean it that way."
       Relenting, he folded his wings about them both and leaned his head down to nuzzle her hair. "I know what you meant, my Elisa. I do not have to like it, but I know it to be true."
       "Hey, so we're getting old … it beats the alternative." 
       She couldn't stand the death-smell of this place any more and knew it had to be even worse for Goliath, whose senses were sharper. They retreated to a veranda, where they drank of the fresh river air. 
       "I do not like to fail you."
       "When have you ever?" she returned, rubbing her knuckles hard against his temples in a show of affection. "I think we just both take on more responsibility than we need to, you know? We should ease off. Retire, maybe."
       "Retire?" He echoed the word as if he'd never heard it before. "You wish to leave the police force?"
       "I practically already have," she said. "It's all special assignments and diplomatic crap these days. I guess I was mostly talking about you."
       "You could step down. Turn things over to Brooklyn."
       Goliath tensed. "You wish me to give up leadership of the clan. Do you think me so –"
       "Stop it, Goliath," she interrupted. "Stop it right there. You know that I don't for one minute think you're too old or slow to lead the clan. That isn't it at all."
       "Then what is it?" he growled, unconvinced. 
       "For one thing, poor Brooklyn deserves his chance. You've been training him for twenty years. If he isn't ready by now, he never will be."
       "He is a fine warrior. Experience and wisdom have tempered his impetuousness. I have been leaving more and more of the decisions and responsibilities to him."
       "It's not the same, though," Elisa said. She had known this conversation was coming, had been planning for it, but never thought that it would happen here, and under these circumstances. Still, no time like the present. "As long as you're still there, everyone will keep looking to you. If there's a crisis, if there's a dispute, they'll all want you to handle it. Even Brooklyn does it. I've seen him. He second-guesses himself when you're around."
       "What are you saying, Elisa? That I should not only step down, but leave the clan entirely?"
       "How was it when you took over from Hudson?"
       He pondered that, scowling thunderously. "For a time, yes, many of the clan continued seeking his guidance. But he turned them aside, and told them to bring their concerns to me."
       "And it worked?"
       "Eventually. It was our way, our tradition."
       "A thousand years ago," Elisa said. "You've got to admit that most of the traditions went out the window once you guys landed in the 20th century. Human mates, individual parenting, crossbreed hatchlings … things have changed, Goliath. And you've been the one to see the clan through all those changes. You're closer to them than Hudson was to the clan in the old days. I don’t think that they'd be able to fully view Brooklyn as leader with you still there."
       "So you would have me leave?" He sounded frankly appalled by the very notion. 
       "Maybe for a while, and I meant both of us. A vacation. Some time away to really let Brooklyn come into his own. He's got to prove – to himself more than anyone else – that he can do it without you."
       He made the grumbling noise she'd come to associate with his grudging assent. "But what would we do? Where would we go?"
       "Other clans," she said. "They're not so afraid to let themselves be known now. We could make it a goodwill mission. Clan to clan. Reaching out."
       "Go to them?"
       "Yeah. You and me. Another world tour … but this time, one that we control. Think about it, Goliath. We could revisit the clans in London, Guatemala, and Japan. We could check out these new ones we've been hearing about in Canada, Russia, California, the Caribbean, et cetera." 
       "Hmm," he said. 
       "And," she added, laying her hand along the line of his jaw, "it'd be just the two of us. Kind of a second honeymoon."
       He smiled, cracking that stony façade. "I like that idea."
       They shared a kiss, which ended awkwardly as both remembered they were standing on the veranda of a slaughterhouse. Elisa tugged her jacket back into place and gave him a rueful grin. 
       "Playtime later, big guy. First, we'd better see if my nephew left us any clues."
       The villagers had told them of hearing eruptions of gunfire and screaming from the house a few nights ago. None of them had gone up, partly because they were afraid, partly because they didn't care what happened to Jan Kerstenmann and his regulars, and partly because of the fences and other security measures. 
       When no one ventured down to the village, they began assuming – hoping – that everyone up at the house was dead. The newer arrivals in particular, the ones who hadn't had their spirits broken, were talking about trying to sneak away when Elisa and Goliath turned up. 
       It could have been a bad scene, the sudden appearance of a gargoyle. But these villagers were displaced Americans, and reacted so overwhelmingly that Goliath had been almost embarrassed. 
       The law in this part of the world was sketchy at best. So, rather than try to go through the proper channels, Elisa and Goliath had gone over the fence. The only living things they found, apart from the indigenous flora and fauna, had been a couple of horses. 
       Everyone else was dead. Guards at their stations, servants in their rooms, regulars at the site of some terrible battle. Two, a woman and a little boy, had been shot rather than mauled. Those bodies were furthermore left wrapped in blankets, instead of mounted like trophies. 
       Finally, in one of the upstairs bedrooms, Elisa found what she was looking for. The room had obviously belonged to Tom. His custom-made clothes were in the closet. Framed snapshots of the family were on the desk. And propped up against one of these was a sealed envelope, with Dee Maza's name and address written on it. 
       Elisa opened the envelope and took out the letter. It began 'Dear Dee,' and when she finished it, she turned to the patiently waiting Goliath with a tear in her eye. 
       "He's all right," she said. "He wasn't for a while, and he's done some things he's not proud of, but he's going to do what he can to make up for everything."
       "Where has he gone?" Goliath asked. "Does he plan to return to Manhattan?"
       "He's gone into the jungle," Elisa said. "He says not to worry about him. He's met a new friend, and everything's going to be fine."
       She folded the letter and returned it to the envelope, which then went in her inside jacket pocket near her shoulder holster. 
       "And that is enough for you, Elisa? You are willing to let it be at that?"
       "I don't have much of a choice, do I? Here … he wants us to take his personal effects home with us."
       "He knew, then, that we were coming. Yet he did not wait?"
       "I get the impression he wasn't ready to face us yet. But it's okay, Goliath. It's what he wants, and I have the feeling we'll hear from him again when he's ready."


The End

copyright 2003 / Christine Morgan /