|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.
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
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
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
"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
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 dont
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
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,
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
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
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
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 didnt 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
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?"
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
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
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
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
"Tom, excellent, come in," Jan
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
"I'm fine," Tom said, when he
was fairly certain he was no longer about to throw up. "They're
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?"
"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
With his own drink in hand, Jan
returned to his desk. A ragged scrap of paper was the only item out of
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,"
"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,"
"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
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
"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
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
"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."
"Capture, Tom, not kill. Not this
time. At least, until we've found out who's behind this."
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Kerstenmann fell back a pace and
said something in Dutch, the stunned tone indicating it was either prayer
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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 didnt," 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."
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."
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
"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
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.
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.
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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
Temporarily without a target,
Tom made for Jan's bedroom. He found the door standing wide, but partly
"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
"He shot me." Weak, but audible.
"He shot you? Jan?"
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
"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."
"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,"
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
"Yes, sir," Tom admitted. "I guess
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
By the sounds of it, the remaining
regulars were getting organized. Soon, they'd be down here, looking for
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
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,
"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
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?
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
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.
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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
"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,
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 dont 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
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
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
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
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
"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."