The sound of Judith yelling woke Maribelle.
She had at last gotten back to sleep after the Blackmane’s visit during the night, and had then slept later than usual. It was hot inside the hut and the light outside was bright. Maribelle hurried to dress, listening.
“Well I hope you are not counting on me to help you, my dear sir.” Judith’s voice. “Else you will be most disappointed.”
“Your bosses say otherwise.” Phil Hamm’s voice, petulant as usual.
“If you were familiar at all with my working record,” Judith said, “You’d be quite aware that I am prone to not always following my employers’ directions.”
Maribelle stepped out of the hut, blinking. “What’s going on?”
Judith turned to her, but Hamm spoke first.
“The powers-that-be at WEBwatch have decided that maybe this here enterprise ain’t such a wild goose chase after all. They want us to bring in the bacon.”
“They’ve decided they want to capture the creature,” Judith said. “Post-haste.”
“Capture him?” Maribelle said. “I didn’t think they even believed in him.”
“Too many witnesses, now,” Hamm said. “Not just one crazy old broad,” he grinned at Judith, “an’ a bunch a’ jungle bunnies. I expect it was your confirmation, Miss Tate, that closed the deal.”
“I told them before I ever took this assignment,” Judith said, “that I would not be party to some big game hunt. I am here to study the creature, not put it in a cage!”
“What’d you think was gonna happen, sooner or later?” Hamm asked. “Think they was just gonna let it go off an’ live off the land, like in that ‘Born Free’ book? Shit.”
“I won’t have it!” Judith said.
Several of the natives had gathered around to listen to the argument. Some were grinning, amused, others stoic and serious.
“Critter’s gettin’ pegged whether you help or not,” Hamm said. “Might be so we wouldn’t have to put so much hurt on it if you helped out, but it’s all the same to me one way or the other.”
“You’re not going to hurt him?!” Maribelle asked.
“They want it alive,” Hamm said. “If I bring it in with every bone in its body broke but it’s still suckin’ air, that still qualifies.”
“Uh-uh!” Maribelle said. “You ain’t gonna do that!” Her southern twang was coming through again, loud and clear.
“Aw, precious,” Hamm said, “you plannin’ on stoppin’ me?” He winked at her.
“Damn right I will!” Maribelle grabbed up one of the sticks the natives had stacked in front of the hut for firewood. She started towards Hamm. Judith caught her by the arm. Hamm cackled.
“You got spirit, sugar,” he said. “I’ll give you that.”
“You son of a bitch!” Maribelle said. It just made Hamm laugh harder.
“Mr. Hamm,” Judith said, “you may rest assured that I will be in contact with the home office again this morning and that I will do everything in my power to…”
“Save it, toots,” Hamm said. “They want this critter, an’ nothin’ you say or do is gonna change that. An’ since they’re payin’ damn good American green to get it done, I aim to take ’em up on their generosity. Now I figured you two would want to participate, to make sure I handle this thing with the kiddie gloves an’ all that. But if you’d rather I do it all myself, that’s fine, too.”
Maribelle looked at Judith. “We can’t let him get hurt.”
“I say I will not do it!” Judith said.
“But they’re gonna do it anyway,” Maribelle said.
“My darling,” Judith said, “think about what it is they are proposing. Putting a sentient being in a cage, to be poked and prodded like some common guinea pig.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t have to be like that,” Maribelle said. “I mean, WEBwatch, they’re supposed to be the good guys, right?”
“Oh, my dear, your tenderness of age is showing. You are not yet old enough to have grown cynical, but the cynic is often a closer relation to the realist than is the youthful idealist.” Judith shook her head. “How long do you think it would take before some other government agency came in and took custody of our specimen? You must know that would happen, of a certainty.”
“Maybe we should’ve never come here at all,” Maribelle said.
“Perhaps,” Judith replied. “But then the individuals responsible for all of this would get away with it. The creature is proof, living proof, as it is, that the Natarajan corporation violated international law. We need proof of the creature’s existence as evidence against them.” She turned to Phil Hamm. “But that does not necessitate the capture of the creature itself.”
“You’re preachin’ to the wrong choir, lady,” Hamm said. “I just follow orders and collect the paychecks.”
“Look, we’ve gotta talk about this,” Maribelle said. “We need some time.”
“Take it,” Hamm said. “It ain’t like I can throw a huntin’ operation together in ten minutes. I got Ts to dot and Is to cross. Just be ready to roll out by mid-afternoon. The it’s a huntin’ we will go.”
Maribelle waited until Hamm had walked away and the crowd had dispersed.
“We’ve gotta warn him,” Maribelle said, leaning in close to Judith. “Tell him to get outta here before they can come after him.”
“You’re a woman after my own heart,” Judith said. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Well what are we waitin’ for?” Maribelle said. “Let’s go pay a visit to my secret admirer.”