Then the grass opened up. Maribelle recognized their path as a wide game trail. Made by elephants, maybe? They followed the trail to the left.
“So how many times have you come to Africa, Mr. Hamm?” Maribelle asked.
“This is my fourth extended visit,” Hamm answered. “It’s where the money is. The company’s always got work in Africa for a guy like me.”
“That sounds very mercenary, Mr. Hamm,” Judith said.
“I prefer the term ‘soldier-of-fortune,'” Hamm said. “More PC.”
“Of course,” Judith said. “WEBwatch would never employ a mercenary.”
“I do whatever kind a’ job needs to be done,” Hamm said. “Within limits, of course. No wet work. Least not in the official sense.”
“Wet work?” Maribelle asked.
“What he means is, he doesn’t take money to kill people,” Judith said.
“Naw. I do that for free.” Hamm snickered. “Just kiddin’, ladies. I have been through three wars here, if you can call ’em wars. But I always left it to the rebels and the warlords to do the killin’.” He cleared his throat, spat. “I was in Rwanda, with that group
countin’ mountain gorillas, durin’ that last uprisin’ some years back, when three-fourths of the country’s population got wiped out. You could smell the corpses for ten miles in any direction, gettin’ ripe in the sun.”
“Nice,” Maribelle muttered.
“Truth be told, I’m just an overpaid bodyguard,” Hamm said.
“Well, I’m grateful that WEBwatch feels our bodies are worth guarding,” Judith said. “Moreso as of late, with what happened to those poor missionaries.”
“Tried preachin’ to the wrong audience, didn’t they?” Hamm said.
“My people did not kill them!” One of the native men said. It was the first time any of them had spoken since they’d left the village.
“Easy, Cochise,” Hamm answered. “Nobody’s sayin’ you did it.”
“The Warumbi would not kill such men of peace!”
“Relax.” Hamm put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We’re all friends here, right?”
The man nodded, but the others scowled at Hamm. Maribelle wanted to ask more about the missionaries but was afraid to. *It was a missionary who taught the Blackmane to…*
“Speakin’ of dead,” Hamm said, “here we are.”
The group spread out. Now Maribelle could see what he was talking about. A dead zebra lay just off the game trail. The grass around it, crushed to the earth, was stained red with blood. Hamm approached the carcass and scattered a swarm of blowflies and other insects. They filled the air, an angry buzzing cloud. Maribelle put her hand over her mouth.
“Got your camera ready?” Hamm said.
Maribelle came closer. “This is evidence?” she asked.
The carcass was half-eaten, not pleasant to look at. The ribs were exposed; all the animal’s belly; its eyes were gone. Raw meat bleached pink by the sun, blood evaporated or drank by insects.
“No sign of scavengers,” Hamm said. “They won’t touch it. It’s tainted.” He pointed. “Look here. See the throat, the head?”
Maribelle grimaced. “I see it just fine.”
Judith Mocker gasped. “Oh, I do see!”
“What?” Maribelle said.
“Lions tend kill with their jaws, dear,” Judith said. “They bite down, suffocate their prey if the unfortunate animal doesn’t die right away. But look here. The throat hasn’t got a mark on it.”
“Head’s twisted clean around,” Hamm said. “Complete one-eighty. Snapped the neck.”
“What does that mean?” Maribelle asked, though she thought she understood.
“This animal wasn’t killed by a lion,” Judith said. “It was killed by something with hands. Something that kills the way a man would kill.”