We continue our week of original short stories with something by Your Correspondent, Jungle Calls. Written as a homage to the terse thrillers found in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, this story is not the fare usually found in more literary publications like The New Yorker. However, I’m rather proud of it, and think it captures the era nicely. Let us know what you think!
Outside my window was the jungle.
A tangled mass of green, thick and overgrown beyond human imagination. As the bright red slivers sunset played over the treetops, I could sense the forest teeming with life. Waves of heat floated towards me, and I staggered backward at the stench.
The jungle always stinks. Rotted vegetation, mud and damp, and the thick, savage smell of animals. As if underscore my thoughts, a piercing cry penetrated the trees. It came loud and shrill, and quickly cut short on a strangled note.
The jungle had claimed another victim.
I let the gauzy material of the curtain fall and turned back to my room. Overhead, a ceiling fan spun lazily. The cane-backed chairs would not be out of place in the poshest of gentlemen's clubs, and the walls were lined with books now mildewed by the damp.
This is my home. I haven't always lived in this forsaken hell, and I was once a different man. But that was years ago. Too long ago to remember.
I took the crystal decanter from the bar and poured another brandy. I added flat soda from the siphon just before the polite knock at the door.
Kunwhald, my house boy. Like all Watusi, incredibly tall, and the top of his head brushes against the door frame. Small, brilliantly white finger bones hang from each ear. He stands tall, as always, proud and capable.
"Visitor. Says she must see you." His voice is like controlled thunder.
"A visitor? Here?"
"Come with guide and two bearers. Says she walk many days. You want I should send her away?"
I considered. "No. Send her in."
I straightened my white jacket, and ran a hand through my hair. There was another knock, and Kunwhald opened the door and bowed. She followed close behind him.
She was tall, and her blond hair was lank from too long without a washing. Sensibly, she had gone without make-up during her expedition, but the effect was still worthwhile. Eyes of rich blue stared from under her pith helmet, and her lips pouted at me. The vision of holding her in my arms and pressing my lips against hers floated somewhere in the back of my mind, and I smiled at it.
"Kane?" she asked. "Richmond Kane?"
I nodded. "Brandy and soda?"
"Thanks." She came close to me as I poured. She took the drink with a smile and managed a healthy gulp. "You're not an easy man to find."
"The last word I had was in Burma. You were flying a Graumann Goose, and had taken some nuns to a leper colony. You were the only pilot who'd do it. Before that, you were in Africa, tracking elephants for the Natural History Museum with Akeley. Nobody's heard of you since."
"What ever happened to Akeley?"
"Skull crushed. Elephant. Died in the bush."
I finished my drink. "Tough break."
"A lot has happened in the real world," she told me.
"Roosevelt is president, and he's offering the country a new deal. Pictures talk. A man in Italy says he's going to make the trains run on time."
"You going to offer me a seat?"
"What do you want?"
"Thanks," she said, sitting in one of the wicker chairs. She ran the damp glass across her forehead. "This story wont take long. I've come here, Mr. Kane, to ask for your help.."
I took a pull on my drink. "Me?"
"Yes. The Boga tribe. I see from your reaction that you remember them."
I felt my body grow cold. "Vividly."
"The story has it that they are about a hundred miles south of here. No one knows for sure, or if they do, they're not saying. Of course," she sipped her drink, "I've heard that you've been there."
I said nothing.
"Legend goes that there are two idols that they worship, more like totem poles than statues. And both of them are made of solid gold. Or so I've heard it said."
I stood. Two more seconds and I would show her the door.
"I financed one expedition there to find the Bogas and buy the idols. At a price, of course."
"It hasn't returned. Three white men, including the expedition leader, and nine native bearers. Vanished without a trace. Mr. Kane, the expedition leader was my husband and business partner, and, and I want him back."
"What makes you think I'd help you?"
"You have that reputation."
"That's all in the past. I don't help anyone anymore. It hurts too much. And even if I were to do something for somebody, I wouldn't go near the Bogas. You have no idea of what you're asking, and maybe it's for the best that you don't." My mind flooded with memories: swirling bodies in the night, the bonfires, the screams of agony. My knees weakened, but if I didn't go on, I feared I'd pass out. "My trip to Boga country wasn't entirely successful."
"What happened there?"
"I was captured and kept prisoner. They... did things to me."
I went to the door and quietly opened it.
She smiled at me. "Fifteen thousand dollars."
"Twenty-five thousand dollars."
"Look, Miss, I've made more than enough money for both the necessities and luxuries of life. This discussion has ended. Nothing you can say would convince me to take you there."
Now she stood. "The expedition leader, and my husband, was your brother, David Kane. How do you do. I'm Jean Kane, your sister-in-law."
# # #
Two nights later, I twisted in bed, unable to sleep.
My bedroom was thick with the sickly sweet jungle smell, and my sweat drenched the bedclothes. I clawed at the mosquito net overhead, my body racked with the memory of torture. In the black pit of my unconscious, I could hear the jungle drums. Their insistent beat pounded my temples until I thought I would scream. The vision of hands, dreadful claws at the end of impossibly long arms, came to me. Arms reaching out.
Focus, I told myself. Focus on the job at hand.
David Kane, my brother. I haven't seen him in eighteen years. He was the youngest of we four sons, and the only brother I spoke to after we had all grown up. We drifted apart as our lives went in separate directions, but he's still my brother and I love him.
Jean had caught me up as best she could. She and David met and married a few years ago, just outside of Johannesburg. He had been working on a degree in anthropology, she was the daughter of a failed diamond miner. It was from her father that she learned of the golden idols, and she and David planned an expedition.
And now, he's in Boga country.
Savage faces came to me in the darkness. Teeth filed to sharp points, mad brown eyes flashing in faces smeared with blood...
I climbed out of bed and toweled off. Slipping into a dressing gown, I stepped downstairs into the library for a drink. The siphon spat soda into my brandy and I shivered before I drank.
I heard a sound and turned. Jean sat in the darkness near the corner window. She wore a pale, almost transparent nightgown, a glass in her hand.
"Couldn't sleep either?"
"I thinking of out there," she said, pointing to the window with her glass. "It's another world. Trees and vegetation run riot, the whole world like it was over one million years ago. It's the prehistoric age of tooth and claw, right outside your window. Animal law, the law of the jungle, is the only rule, and the weak find themselves dead."
I sat on the floor, close to her chair. I could smell the scent of her body. "What made him go? It's madness."
"First, he was just curious. Science, and all of that. Meaningless. Then we started thinking of the gold. Imagine, twin idols, reaching into the sky, made of solid gold. A fortune, ripe for the taking."
"It's not yours."
"It could be. My father spent his entire life hunting for diamonds. He never found any. Have you ever been poor, Mr. Kane? Dirt-eating poor?"
"Yes." That memory hurt, too.
"Then you know. I've been hungry. I've been in rags. I've done things for money that were wrong, that I shouldn't have. I did things with men, just so my father and I could eat. I told all of this to David, and I think part of him ached for me. He went out there, into the jungle, because of my pain. He went out there, to bring back to life the part of me that died when I was poor."
I said nothing.
She turned to the window. Her voice lost all inflection. "I don't have character. I don't pretend I do. So, I let him go. My need was greater."
"And are you going out there to find him, or the idols?"
The door opened slowly, and the sleek barrel of an elephant gun snaked into the room.
Behind me, Jean gasped. I slowly rose.
The door opened completely, and Kunwhald stood in the frame. "I thought I heard voices."
"Just us," I said.
"We leave at sun-up," he said, lowering the gun.
"Yeah. I just on my way back to bed. Jean, you had better hit the hey, too."
"I think I'll sit here just a few minutes more. Thanks."
"Goodnight," I mumbled, as Kunwhald followed me out the door. On the stairs I said: "Keep an eye on her."
# # #
It was like a holiday in hell.
The bright red sun started to creep over the forest, the sky filled with the color of blood. Kunwhald had gotten six native bearers from a neighboring village. He led the way into the bush while I brought up the rear. Jean stayed close to me.
The bearers held additional guns and ammunition, along with food, water, and the makings of camp. They looked at the jungle ahead with grim faces. What were they thinking, I wondered. And what did they knew, or intuit, that was a mystery to me?
My rifle felt good in my hand, and I held it at the ready. It was 7.9 mm. German Mauser -- a good gun for the bush. Jean carried a silver plated automatic I had given her, and it hung from a holster strapped to her thin waist. Kunwhald, ever distrustful of the trappings of my world, pressed forward with nothing more than a loincloth and spear.
We had not marched long before the grounds surrounding my home grew thicker. Soon Kunwhald stopped, standing at the very edge of the bush. He turned and looked at me. I nodded him on.
We stepped into the jungle, a twilight world of impenetrable forest. The trees clustered thickly, creating a closed canopy over-head that blotted out the sun. It was another world, one that had neither sympathy or patience for the puny animal that was man. A mad tangle of vines clutched at my feet, and I pulled myself free with each angry step.
Sounds, too, were different. Cries of victory and anguish could be heard in the far off corners of the forest, as if we were being watched by a crowd of savage animals invisible to us. The howls were hollow and distant, making me sick at soul.
I choked on the jungle smell -- the thick aroma of vegetation, damp, and rot. Up ahead, Kunwhald had already unsheathed a machete, and had started to hack our way through the tangle.
"What about the Bogas?" Jean interrupted my reverie. It was like a slap into wakefulness.
"What about them?"
"The idols. Were they there? Could you see the gold?" Her voiced was a hushed whisper.
"Does it matter, now?"
She stared ahead, into the jungle. "It could."
"Of course he matters!" she snapped.
"They are twin idols, both about 25 feet tall. They're a series of heads, one on top of another, representing their gods. Where the gold came from, no one knows. Who built them is a mystery. Surely the kind of work I saw was completely beyond the Bogas. Both idols have tremendous significance in the Boga's religion."
"Which is what?"
"Boga mysticism is unknown to me. And if it has any bearing on the way they live their lives, I don't want to know about it."
"Your scars are deep."
"And not just physical. It was madness to take you along, madness to drag you into this."
"He's my husband! And I dragged you."
I kept walking, each footstep settling into the soft earth of the jungle. "He's probably dead."
"You got out alive."
"But you did!"
"If we get out of Boga country, you'll have seen things that you'll keep for the rest of your life. Are you still ready to go in, knowing that?"
Finally she faced me. "What would your answer be?"
I said nothing.
We stopped only intermittently, when the heat and the damp and the smell were too much for us. My joints ached at the exertion, and my heart grew heavy. We set-up camp at sunset. By Kunwhald's calculations, we have traveled ten miles.
We broke camp at dawn and pressed on. After a couple of hours, the ground began to get softer, and to tilt downward.
"What is it?" she asked.
"We're hitting swampland."
"Dangerous. Very dangerous."
Soon the earth was nothing more than black soup. Kunwhald kept up ahead, maintaining his balance while holding his spear high overhead. The bearers struggled beneath their loads, often sliding beneath the cases they carried.
"Water!" Kunwhald cried.
And there it was, finally, the swamp. It was little more than a field of dark, fetid water. I shuffled beyond the bearers, and stood beside Kunwhald. The water stretched out as far as the eye could see, both straight ahead and east-west.
"Go around it?" I asked.
"Don't know how far around. Could set us back too long."
"The rainy season was months ago."
"Should be shallow. Walk through it?"
"Don't have much of a choice," I said. I motioned to the men, and they lifted their packs with trepidation.
Jean came up behind me. "What's the matter?"
"We have to go through the swamp."
"They're afraid. Don't blame them. Quicksands, leeches, God knows what."
"Damn them!" She pushed her loose fitting pants into her tall boots, and stepped into the water.
Kunwhald shot me a look, then followed. He made his way behind her, his tread deliberate.
I stepped in, my feet sinking into the soft mud. The water swelled over my ankles, bits of earth fluttering in the water. My boots held tight, and my feet stayed dry.
Jean pushed on recklessly, the water at the mid-point of her shins. Some of the trees had rotted at the roots, and now lay partially buried in the muck. She pushed her way through them, Kunwhald close behind.
I motioned for the bearers to follow, and they did, howling as they stepped into the wet. My nerves ran through me like fire, my senses heightened to the constant danger. Something roiled under the water inches away from my boot, then swam away.
Snakes. And the bearers were bare-legged. My grip tightened on my rifle, and I paused so the men could catch up to me.
After twenty minutes, we had gotten halfway through, with drier land hovering in the distance.
A few feet more and the water grew shallow. Jean and Kunwhald navigated past a withered hulk of tree, with me following. I felt the ground start to rise up underfoot when I heard the scream.
I twisted, rifle at the ready. One of the bearers had stiffened in agony, dropping his case containing our tents into the swamp. He screamed and tugged at his leg, the withered log I had passed grabbing his ankle.
I splashed over, brandishing my Mauser. I could hear Kunwhald behind me, racing through the muck.
The warty and knotted log twisted with a horrible life of its own. It writhed beneath the slimy surface of the water, muscles coiling under its reptilian skin. The log was really a small croc, and it had the man by the leg. I lowered the tip my Mauser into the water and fired.
There was a tremendous explosion, throwing up water and blood like a geyser. The recoil knocked me back, and I staggered backwards, struggling to keep balance. There was a thrashing underfoot, and the croc was gone. The man jabbered and lurched towards me, collapsing in my arms.
Kunwhald and I helped him out, and put him to rest on the damp ground around the swamp. With an ear-splitting shriek, he started to wail and pray.
The wound wasn't bad... from the space between the teeth, it was a little croc of no more than nine or eleven feet. The bite seemed to go as deep as the bone, and it bled freely. But there was no ripping of the flesh, and he could move the foot without too much pain. Some disinfectant and a bandage, and he would be fine.
"Can he walk?" Jean asked.
"Think so, but he wont be carrying anything for a while."
Kunwhald had stepped back into the swamp, spear held high and ready to attack. With his free hand, he pulled the tent case from the muck.
"It'll be heavier," he said. "Wet. Damage?"
"None, except the Mauser," I said. I held the rifle up for inspection. There was a bulge in the barrel where it had hit the water. The pressure pushed it out, and the gun was virtually useless.
"Good metal in these Mausers. Foolish of me to stick it into the water. A different gun, it would've exploded and killed a couple of us. As it is, I may have killed us all."
Jean spoke. "How?"
"Fire a gun here, and everything within a few miles knows where you are. Sending up a flare would've been just as effective."
"I mean, the Bogas may find us before we find them."
One of the bearers had guns strapped to him, and I pulled a .256 Mannlicher short barrel from his back. I pushed Kunwhald and the men on, and brought up the rear. Progress was hampered by our man's injured ankle, but still we made good time for the bush. At day's end, Kunwhald had estimated a progression of eight miles.
Night fell quickly in the eternal twilight of the jungle. Cutting from the higher branches we found enough dry wood for a fire. The tents were damp, and built close to the fire to fight any mildew. I've seen heavy canvas rot through in just a few days.
I sat by the fire, sipping from a silver flask. I had Kunwhald double the guard, and the men stood just within the range of the firelight, guns ready.
Jean came out of her tent. She was drawn close to the fire, I could see the flame flicker in her eyes. "Anything?"
"Not yet." I looked into the blackness. "I've got a feeling."
She looked out into the blackness. Silence answered her.
I sat by the fire until well after midnight. My body ached at the thought of tomorrow's trek. With that in mind, I rotated the guards and turned in. The thick smell of the swamp had eaten into the canvas of the tent. Two cots were readied, and Kunwhald lie on his back in a loincloth, his eyes open.
I bade him goodnight, and crawled into my cot. He said nothing, and when I lowered the lamp, I saw that his eyes were still open.
# # #
It happened quickly.
The screaming woke me. Kunwhald was up in a flash, his hard, lean body reaching for his spear. I tumbled out of bed, reaching for my Mannlicher. With a rip, someone had cut through our tent wall. In the gloom came the flash of a knife. Kunwhald reared back with his spear, but my Mannlicher exploded, throwing the invader back through the tent.
"Get to the girl," I barked. "I'll keep them back!"
He followed me through the cut opening and we backed around the tent. The situation was clear in a glance. The campfire illuminated the dead bodies of our guard, their bodies pierced with the long spears favored by the Bogas. The few bearers that remained were struggling hand-to-hand with the Bogas.
No sign of Jean.
Kunwhald, spear held high, dashed to her tent. A Boga from the bush trailed him, stone knife in hand. I cut him down with my Mannlicher before he got too close. The flash from the barrel was blinding, the retort like thunder in the damp air.
My bearer with the injured foot grappled in the dirt, he and a Boga twisting in circles. I couldn't get a clear shot and raced to his side. The butt end of my rifle put the Boga out, and I helped the bearer to his feet.
He smiled a quick thanks before his face contorted in agony. I heard the horrible wet sound of pierced flesh, and looked down at the spear tip that had come through his chest. With a gurgle the bearer fell to his knees, then his face. The spear stood out of his back like an exclamation point.
With the bearer down, the Boga that got him now stood directly in my line of fire. He reached to the ground for another spear, and I blew his chest away with my Mannlicher.
More screams. I scrambled, Mannlicher at the ready. Kunwhald stumbled backward out of Jean's tent. He jabbed at two knife wielding Bogas with his spear. One of them lunged, and Kunwhald swiped him with the tip, ripping a gash in the man's naked torso. With a jerk, he brought the blunt bottom of the spear to the man's jaw, knocking him back and out.
Still no sign of Jean.
A spear sailed past my head. I felt the rush of air, and the faintest brush of the wood as it sped past my cheek. Another inch, and it would've buried itself in my brain. The Boga who tried for me started backing away into the bush.
With a savage smile, I raised my Mannlicher, ready to cancel him out.
Then, a fierce blow to the back of my head, and all was blackness.
# # #
The first thing I knew was the pounding in my head.
I tried to open my eyes, then closed them in pain. A wave of nausea passed through me, and I swallowed it back.
Next I became conscious of the intense heat. My body was drenched with sweat, and my clothes had clung to me. My cheeks and forehead were smothered in hot air.
Blearily, I managed to open my eyes. I was in a darkened room of straw, a hut of some kind. A dim, red glow from an overhanging oil lamp provided the room with faint light. Beside me I could make out the figures of Kunwhald and Jean. Both of them were bound, ankles together, hands behind their backs.
I moved towards them, only to realize that I too was bound. Waves of pain sped through my body as I tried to move, and I stopped, exhausted. I wriggled my fingers, now trapped behind me, praying the blood would start to circulate again.
I realized that the banging in my head was actually the sound of drums in the distance. I groaned inwardly, and started to sweat again. The blow to my head must have caused a concussion. All around my, I thought, could just be a horrible delusion, the hallucination of a man with a heady injury. I blinked such thoughts away, for down that road lie madness.
My body quivered in horrible anticipation. Every torture the Bogas had inflicted on me returned in phantom torments, my body squirming in imagined agony. Once again I felt their hot spears bury themselves in my knees, the skin peeled from my back...
Kunwhald woke first. He managed to sit upright, quickly taking stock of the situation. His face grim, he nudged Jean. She twitched with a moan, her body resisting consciousness.
"How long you been awake?" he asked.
"Not long. The drums, do you hear them?"
"Who'll be first, I wonder?"
He looked into the blackness, saying nothing.
I swallowed hard. "We could kill her. Now, ourselves. Before they get to her."
"Have to decide soon."
I looked at her. In the red gloom, she was almost supernaturally lovely. Her blond hair reflected the light like flame, and her sleeping face was that of an angel. Her chest fluttered. Soon she would awake.
"Not yet. It's too soon,' I said.
And the drums stopped.
My heart filled with terror as I looked at Jean. As if on que, her eyes blinked open. They filled with pain as she struggled against her bonds, making little mewling sounds.
"Don't," I said. "It'll only make them tighter. It's cat gut. Leopard, usually. It'll cut into your skin deeper than you can imagine, and before you know it, you bleed to death."
"Bastard," she muttered.
"Quiet. The drums have stopped, and I know what's next. They'll take one of us."
Her mouth worked, choking back a gasp. "What'll they do?"
I didn't answer. "Kunwhald, you can talk to Boga lingo?"
"Talk to them, tell them everything. Tell them my brother was lost, and we were looking for him. Tell them--"
Jean's face contorted with a sick look, and she started to crawl back. I turned and saw a shadow at the hut opening.
It came closer, a figure shrouded in night, coming bigger and bigger. It filled the doorway, then stepped into the light.
A Boga. My blood turned cold at the sight of him. He looked like his fellow tribesmen: small ears purposely boxed to cauliflower, teeth filed down to points, and the blank, bloodlust-stare of a psychopath. His head was shaved, and the thick, knotty tribal scar ran across his pate to the back of his neck. Dressed in skins, he looked like some great, prehistoric beast.
"Tell him, Kunwhald."
Kunwhald started to speak, and I could hear a gargled version of David's name. The Boga held up his palm, and Kunwhald went silent.
The Boga looked at us, clinically.
"Try not to be afraid," I said. "It's fear that they want. They suck it out of you and grow fat on it."
The scrutiny lasted only a second more. Then, two more Bogas, shorter and squatter than the first but both with the filed teeth, shaved heads and scars, joined him. Without a word, he pointed at Kunwhald.
They came, hauling him up by the shoulders. I tried to get to my knees, and was pushed back with a bare foot to my chest. Jean rolled away, pressing her body against the straw wall.
Kunwhald rose. A Boga cut away the bounds of his ankles with a stone knife, then used the point at his back to guide him out. He threw me a look, and was taken away.
"Bastards!" I screamed. "Bring him back! Leave him alone!"
Kunwhald was gone, and the tall Boga stood at the door, smiling at me. Then, turning, he left.
There was silence, then Jean spoke. "Will they kill him?"
"Not right away. Not all at once."
She started towards me, slithering across the floor like a snake. "We're getting out of here."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
It took her a few minutes, but she dragged herself to me. We sat back to back, stiffened fingers working on the fine wire. I clawed at her bonds, pinching her skin. She struggled with mine, her longer nails scratching at me. Soon, I felt a warm wetness flood my palms, and I knew the cat gut had dug into my wrists, drawing blood.
"It's not working," she said.
"Dammit, stay still. I can't get hold of anything."
"Wait a minute." Grunting, she twisted and flopped on her belly behind me. I felt her hair brush against the back of my arms, and her warm breath on my hands.
Her face pressed to my wrists, she started biting at the rope. Her teeth pinched my skin, and I could feel her tongue churning as she licked and softened the bond. Her incisors grabbed and worked on a strand, let go, and started again. I felt the gut cut tighter as she pulled, and the blood started to flow again.
Finally, she worked a strand loose, and reared back with her head, pulling it along with her teeth. Another stand came loose, and soon the gut started to unravel.
It took a few minutes more, as she bit and pulled like a jungle cat. Soon, I was able to wrench one had free. An agonizing sting worked through my wrists, and I examined them in the gloom. They bled freely, but I don't think fatally.
I turned to Jean. Her mouth was smeared with my blood, and she slumped on the floor, exhausted. I rolled her on her stomach and removed my belt, using the sharp edge of the buckle to cut the gut that held her. The gut left thin, blood red lines, but no real damage. Next I did her feet, and then my own.
I ripped the pockets out of the insides of my pants and bandaged my wrists, tying the knot of each with my free hand and my teeth. A red stain spotted instantly, but the flow had stopped.
I rose unsteadily to my feet. I lifted Jean up, her body shaking.
"Tear away some of the hut wall," she said. "We can escape through the back."
"First David. And Kunwhald."
"Kunwhald is dead."
"There's still hope. And David."
"David's not here," she said, sick. "He never was."
It hit me with a jolt. "What?"
"He was never here. You've been to Boga country, you saw the idols. You were the only one I could use." She lurched towards the wall. "I had to say something, anything to make you come."
I came at her. "You lied to me."
"The idols," she murmured blankly. "The idols."
I spun her around by the shoulders, my fingers burying themselves in her flesh. "You brought us here for the idols." I could barely speak, and in my rage my breath came in snorts. White sheets of lightning flashed before my eyes, and I felt some essential part of me unhinge and float away. "You brought us here for nothing," my words tore through clenched teeth. I could feel my hands come closer together, and before I knew it, I had her by the throat. I squeezed, my hands and face growing hot.
She gagged and scratched at my hands, pulling up clumps of my flesh. Still I squeezed, my muscles tensing as I choked the life out of her. Her thick tongue thrust between her lips, and her eyes started to glass over.
Suddenly, the horror of what I was doing hit me, and I let go. She dropped to the floor, gasping. "You evil bitch. I should feed you to the Bogas."
She cried and choked, struggling with air and her emotions. "I had to come. I had to. You don't understand. Nothing. I had nothing."
I left her there, pacing the hut. Torn by fury and terror, I stumbled about for something to do. I knew that if I turned my attentions to Jean, I could all too easily kill her. Channel the rage, I thought. Make it work for you. My heart hammered in my chest, my temples continued to pound.
"I had to have you with me," her voice was a harsh whisper.
I continued to pace.
"It wasn't hard to discover things about you. A few questions, an afternoon with some old newspapers, and I had what I needed." She started to massage her throat. "David is unharmed. I've never even met him."
I stood over her, my hands balled to fists.
"The things I told you, about my past, were true." She looked away from me, her voice distant. "I heard tell of the idols from one of the men I knew in Cape Town. It was like a promise of heaven. Gods of gold, just what I needed to save my soul."
And then, just as suddenly as they stopped, the drums started once more.
"Kunwhald," I whispered.
She looked at me, pleading.
"If he's dead, expect no mercy from me. You can count on it."
I looked around the hut, the earthen floor barren except for a few strands of straw. And my belt, dropped when I had cut us free.
"On the floor," I said. "Hands behind your back, feet together. Play dead, if you can."
"What are you going to do?"
"The same. I'll jump them if I have to. If I can get my belt around one of their throats, I could use him as a shield."
I fell to the floor, holding my hands behind my back. I could see huddled figures in the shadows outside, lugging something with them.
The figures stepped in, and I repressed an impulse to run foreword as I saw they carried Kunwhald. They threw him to the floor, leered at me, and made for the door. I watched them go into the blackness, and the blackness swallow them.
I dashed to his side in an instant. Jean hovered behind me.
Kunwhald had gotten off easy. The tips of each of his fingers had been split, the flesh seared where hot needles were thrust into the nerve ends. The nails of each finger had been peeled away, raw, red patches where they once had been.
A quick examination told me the joints of his toes had been broken, and the skin at the bottom of his feet ripped away.
"Jesus," she moaned.
"This is just the start. If they get you, by the time they're finished you'll wish that I had killed you."
"Can he walk?"
"Don't know." I ripped strips from my bush jacket, bundling his raw feet. Waking would be an agony for him, but there was little choice. I slapped him several times, and his eyelids fluttered before he snapped into instant consciousness. He remained stoic and courageous, like all of his tribe, but I could read the pain in his face.
"Hundreds," he said. "Hundreds of them. Great wickedness. Ritual, awful."
"Kunwhald, we have to make a break for it. Is there anything you saw, anything that could help?"
He looked into space like a man drunk. He battled memories of the past hour, sifting through them.
"Guns," he said. "Makings of camp kept in great pile."
"The idols," Jean asked. "Did you see the idols?"
Outside, the drums continued.
Kunwhald lapsed back into unconsciousness.
"Keep an eye on him," I told Jean. "I'm going to cut my way through the wall. Wait for me. If you hear them coming, break away through the back and head for the bush. You wont get far, but at least try."
"What about him?"
"Take care of yourself. You seem to be good at that."
I went to the opposite wall and started tearing away huge clumps of straw. There was always the chance that guards were posted outside the hut, but I hoped they thought we were too tightly tied to escape. At least, that was my hope. The straw quickly thinned as I cleared all the way through. A black gaping hole waited me. Before setting off, I took one more look at the hut. Kunwhald, sprawled on the floor, remained unconscious. Jean stood over him, her eyes boring into me.
I bent my head and stepped into the void.
The night air stank of sweat, bonfire, and jungle. I darted around, struggling to remain steady on my legs. I cautiously circled the hut. A Boga stood there, stone knife tucked into the waistband of the skins he wore. He bald head seemed to glow in the dark, the purple-black scar like a huge vein. He stood, looking into the bush, transported by the sound of drums.
The hut stood off, away from the village. It was on the other end of a slight rise, and I could see the brilliant red and yellow flame of their campfire. A shower of sparks flew up towards heaven.
To my surprise, I found I still had my belt wrapped around my right hand. Opening it to its full length, I crept up on my man. I snared him around the neck and twisted with everything I had. His arms flailed, and I think he reached for his knife, but his hands began to twitch convulsively. In minutes it was over. I dragged the body into the bush and took his knife. Like any jungle predator, I now had a fang.
I crept to the edge of the bush, using the great trees as cover. Faceless things scurried in the dark forest floor, but I continued on. There village came into focus, the bonfire lighting it with a hellish brilliance.
The last time I was here, every detail was seared into my memory. It hadn't changed. A huge bonfire blazed like the pit of hell itself. The Bogas danced a circle around it, their bodies glistening with sweat. Some of them tore the animal skins they wore from their bodies and threw them into the inferno, screaming curses. The conflagration threw a terrible glow on their faces, firelight dancing in their eyes like insanity.
Seated high in a simple sedan chair of jungle wood sat the High Priest. He looked down on the worshippers with a twisted smile, his filed-down fangs pressing into his bottom lip. Beside him, a simple earthen bowl with raw meat.
My eyes trailed the blaze of the fire, following its sweep with the jungle breeze. My eyes grew accustomed to the glare, and I could now see the idols beyond.
Again, I looked in wonder at their golden gods. They stood upon a large stone alter, and both spires reached thirty feet into the night. The gold caught the fire light, and stood like twin, blinding streaks of lightning. The image burned into my retina, and closing my eyes, I could see it still.
Graven images were carved into them, monstrous, misshapen heads. Many sported fangs like those the Bogas imitated, with eyes buried in shadowy hollows. Others were fashioned like the withered, decomposed faces of men long dead. Angry, bestial faces, evil human faces with animal horns or goat-like snouts glared down at the flame with golden eyes. A blasphemous mixture of man and ape, golden mouth open in a silent roar, topped one of the totem poles. A tentacled, one-eyed thing topped the other, like a madman's version of an octopus. The poles, like the stone alter, were festooned with obscure hieroglyphs.
I stood, transfixed with awe at the sight. Never had I seen a relic both so hallowed and so repellent. Little wonder the Bogas worshipped them. They were a wonderful, dreadful achievement -- the enduring monument of a lost and twisted people.
In the distance were the simple huts they lived in. Near a group of supply huts lay heaped the stores of our expedition. The boxes, many of the broken, had been raided, and the contents strewn on the damp jungle floor. Firelight flickered on the barrel of my Mannlicher.
The goods were unguarded, and the Bogas remained focused on the fire and the steady rhythm of the drum. I continued through the darkened jungle rim, sneaking around the village. My progress was slow as the bracken shredded my clothes and tore at my skin. The night about me was thick with mosquitoes, and the damp air smelled foul and sick.
I could keep no track of time, but after what seemed an eternity I reached the stores. Peering from behind the bush, I made certain I was unobserved and crept to the stash. The Bogas still danced around the bonfire, which threw up smoke into the black, black night like a factory. I hit it at a crouch, and my hands closed gratefully around my Mannlicher. I smiled.
Then, just as I had it in my hands, the drums stopped.
My heart stopped dead. I fell to my knees, hiding behind the pile of boxes. I grabbed an ammunition pouch. To my surprise, underneath it was Jean's nickel plated automatic. I stuffed that in my pocket, too.
With the drums gone silent, I knew they'd be back at our prison. I dashed back into the bush and tore recklessly through the forest. The Bogas moved with a slow, stately progression, and I made good time. I reached the hut before they, and scampered around, entering through the hole I had torn in the back.
I was later than I thought. As I scrambled in, the tall Boga from before entered the tent. Jean stood in my way, but still his powerful form loomed around her.
She hit the dirt in an instant, and my Mannlicher spit a torrent of death. The Boga somersaulted over backwards and landed with a sick thud. The ground grew wet with blood.
I pulled Jean up by the shoulder and pressed the automatic into her hand. "Help me with him!" I barked, hauling Kunwhald up the by shoulder. He was dazed, his face looking into my blankly. She held him as I crouched over and draped him over my left shoulder. The weight was tremendous, and my sore body screamed in protest.
We lunged for the door, right into a nest of Bogas.
About twenty of them, standing right in front of the door. The fire in the background played over the tops of their bald heads, and the scars seemed to pulse like giant veins. I was so silent, I could hear my heart beat. A smaller Boga stood closest, and with a savage cry lifted his spear.
Jean's automatic replied with a deafening thunder.
The spear went wild as the man fell. My right arm brought up the Mannlicher, and I fired into the crowd. Jean spotted two of them before I could fire again. They ran, screaming into the night.
"The bush?" she asked.
"Into camp!" I ran, hefting Kunwhald on my shoulder. I knew if I could do as much damage as possible, we might hold them off long enough to put some distance between us.
Confusion galloped through the village. Bogas bumbled around, uncertain weather to head for the prison hut or run to their homes. Some kow-towed before the High Priest, who stood on his sedan chair and gazed into the night. I hefted the Mannlicher and fired, the flash from the rifle streaking like lightning. He crumpled in a heap and dropped into the crowd. The Bogas howled, and fell on him like carrion birds.
We ran openly through them, the roar of the fire drowning out the screams. Some of the more courageous bulls mulled together, gathering spears. Jean fired a volley into them while running, dropping many. My Mannlicher finished the argument.
"We're going to make it!" I heard her say right before she stopped dead.
I almost tumbled into her. "What?"
She pointed. I followed her gaze up. The idols continued to glow brilliantly in the firelight. The evil faces flickered with a blasphemous life of their own.
"The idols," she said, and ran towards them.
"Jean!" I took a half step after her and stopped. I debated following her for a handful of seconds, turned, and carried Kunwhald into the jungle.
I made good time despite the extra weight. I sped through the village and jumped into the jungle. I pushed my way through, the ground moving upward in a slight incline. I knew the Bogas would soon be behind me. For all of the speed, my mind was blank except for a sick despair. I knew in my heart of hearts that we would not make it.
The gunshots stopped me. It could only be Jean. I stopped, lungs afire, and lowered Kunwhald to the ground. Bracing myself, I turned back for another look.
The Boga village was spread like a great panorama beneath me. Jean had just pecked off a Boga that had gotten to close. She blew smoke from the muzzle of her automatic and concentrated on the idols. Using the butt end of her automatic, she pounded at the gold of one ape headed one.
I starting hearing high pitched wailing sound. The wind rose, and started to swirl in circular currents. The fire blew in the frenzied gusts of air, sparks flying. Bogas all over the village stopped mid-step, and started twisting and singing. The wailing grew louder and the fire roared.
Jean continued the hack away, the wind whipping her blond hair.
"Jean!" I called, but there was nothing I could do. She was too far, the noise too great. I could only sit and watch.
The idols started to tremble, the gold grew paler despite the fury of the flames. Then both started to expand slightly, like huge animals taking a deep breath. A savage roar, like that of a prehistoric animal, boomed from out of nowhere.
Jean stopped, stepping back. Her gaze trailed up the idol, and she screamed.
On top, the hideous human-ape face began to move. Browns knitted, and the eyes came alive with a malefic frenzy. Saliva like molten gold dripped from the razor-sharp teeth. It roared again.
The length of the golden body started to vibrate, all of the heads coming to life. The corpse like face sputtered and spat green bile, the savage beast men worked their dreadful mouths as their eyes lit. They gibbered and growled with unearthly voices. The pole sprouted arms, as if from nowhere, golden arms incredibly long, with sharp pointed fingers.
Behind her, the octopus on the other idol began to writhe. The tentacles slipped down the length of its many headed body, leaving a dripping trail of golden slime. They glistened in the firelight, coiling like snakes. The single eye of the thing blinked, looking down at Jean.
She had her automatic in seconds. In one fluid motion she took aim and fired up into the ape face. But it kept coming at her. She spat three more bullets, backing away, closer to the other idol. It was only when she stepped into its twisting tentacles that terror overcame her. She threw her automatic at the ape, crouching to run.
Too late. The long arms of the ape-like idol had her by the shoulders and lifted her effortlessly. She screamed, her arms and legs flailing madly. She tore and scratched at the thing as it bore her closer to its mouth.
The tentacles from the other idol reached out, wrapping around one ankle, then the other. Both held her suspended between them, and even in the distance I could hear her screams. Another tentacle wound around her waist, pulling her closer. One of the lower heads cackled, golden fangs afire.
The Bogas circled the base, chanting and dancing like a people possessed. Some dropped to the ground in supplication, rolling in mud and religious mania.
The ape thing brought her closer to its mouth, the drool now spilling down the side of its body in rivers. It's long, golden tongue snaked out of its mouth and tickled the side of her head. She thrashed, both of them drawing her in opposite directions. Her screams were unbearable, and I felt my insides grow cold.
The ape-thing tugged her closer, and sank its fangs into her shoulder. She convulsed and twitched, then went limp like a rag doll. It was still biting at her when the tentacles snatched her away. It slide her up the length of its pole, its coils wrapping her securely. Consciousness hit her again as she was lifted her up. Its eye glared at her.
I drew up my Mannlicher and took aim. The distance was bad and the wind against me, but I've taken more difficult shots and scored. With luck I could do a body shot that would put her out.
Kunwhald grabbed my arm, wrenching the gun from my grasp. "No," he said. "Bogas hear. They follow."
It was only for a second that I thought about it. I took Kunwhald by the shoulder and helped him up. Silently, we crept into the jungle.