She sat up in the darkness of the room, listening. The sound that had awakened her repeated. Three knocks on the room’s single door. Maribelle got to her feet.
“Who is it?”
Maribelle frowned. She opened the door.
“How soon can you get ready?” Hamm asked.
“Uh, just give me a couple minutes.”
“Good,” Hamm said. “The Warumbi have guaranteed us safe passage through their turf and we need to go ‘fore they change their minds.”
“Okay, yeah,” Maribelle said.
“I rounded us up a good truck,” Hamm said. “I’ll wait for you down in the lobby.”
Maribelle pulled on a pair of jeans over her boxers; she left on the T-shirt she’d worn to bed and laced up her boots. She ran a brush through her hair a few times and then gave up, surrendering her curls to the humidity. *Glad I took a shower last night.*
It was still dark when she came downstairs. A single lamp on the empty desktop offered a little light to the room. Hamm got up from a chair, handed her a small thermos.
“Hope you like your coffee black,” he said.
“That’s fine,” Maribelle said. She followed Hamm out the front door. A rusty truck with muddy tires and wooden sideboards sat puffing silver smoke into the morning air. A couple of local men—at least Maribelle assumed they were locals—stood in the truck bed.
“We’ll throw this in the back,” Hamm said, taking Maribelle’s single duffel bag from her.
“It has all my stuff,” she protested.
“It’ll be fine,” Hamm said, handing the bag to one of the black men. He opened the passenger-side door of the truck, then walked across and climbed behind the wheel. As Maribelle slid into the seat, she noticed the pistol sticking out of the back of Hamm’s pants. She closed the door.
“You sleep well?” Hamm asked.
“Like a baby,” Maribelle lied.
“Damn mosquitoes played stick the white boy with me all night,” Hamm said. “I bet I lost a quart of blood.”
The cab felt too small, too close. Maribelle leaned towards the open window. The truck rumbled along the dirt road out of the town.
“Your friend ’bout shit herself yesterday when I told her you were here,” Hamm said.
“You talked to Judith?” Maribelle asked. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the truck’s engine and the air coming in through the windows.
“She said she told you not to come.”
“She did,” Maribelle said.
“She reminds me of Jane Goodall with a bad case of PMS.”
Maribelle had to smile. “Yeah, that’s a pretty good description of her.”
The sun came up as they went, revealing a terrain of hills and tall grass bathed in crimson. Here and there a cluster of acacia trees cast gray-blue shadows. Once the truck scared a pack of some kind of antelope into running away. Later Maribelle saw a large cat, a leopard, stretched out in the branches of a solitary tree.
Maribelle felt a little thrill, a sensation she’d experienced several times since getting off the airplane in Nairobi. This was no zoo or tourist attraction. This was real, wild and harsh terrain, no safety nets. A pretty big deal for a girl who’d never been outside the United States before. Maribelle forgot all her homesickness, her anxiety, at least for that moment.
“So what’s a nice girl like you doin’ in a place like this?” Hamm asked at one point.
“They needed somebody to go and I volunteered,” Maribelle answered.
“And they volunteered me to baby-sit you,” Hamm said. “Not that they asked my opinion, of course. And not that they liked turnin’ loose of that money, either. They think you and your friend Doctor Mocker are on the proverbial wild goose chase.”
“I know,” Maribelle said. “Judi had to call in a lot of favors over this one.”
“So what do they want, anyway? Some shit in a Ziploc bag? A hair sample?”
“Or a blood sample,” Maribelle said.
“And how are you plannin’ to get that?” Hamm asked. “You think the bastard’s gonna sit down and make a donation?” he snorted. “No, we’re gonna have to kill it. Just you wait and see.”
“Under no circumstances is the subject to be harmed, Mr. Hamm,” Maribelle said.
“Says me!” she snapped. Her accent always came out when she got mad. “And WEBwatch, too! You know, the company signin’ your paycheck?”
“You think it’s a joke?” Maribelle said.
“Relax, big bwana,” Hamm said. “I got the same marchin’ orders you did. Just don’t be surprised if the company changes its mind, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
The sun had climbed most of the way over the horizon now, the heat of the day coming with it. The truck rattled and bounced along the road. Hamm would mutter a curse or profanity every time they hit a deep hole or rut.
“I seen him, you know,” Hamm said.
“You?” Maribelle asked. “When?”
“When I first got here, couple a’ months back. When I first drove out to meet Doctor Mocker.”
“Why didn’t you mention it until now?”
“Did you ask?”
“Well what did it look like?” Maribelle said.
“Big,” Hamm said. “An’ hairy. An’ without a doubt walkin’ around on two legs.”
“Oh, wow,” Maribelle said.
“He saw me too,” Hamm said. “Looked right at me.”
“Nothin’. He acted like I wasn’t even there.”
“So it didn’t make any attempt to attack you? It didn’t seem aggressive at all?”
“Nope,” Hamm said. “Good thing, too. Rifle I was packin’ would put a hole in an elephant’s ass big enough to pitch a football through.” He cleared his throat. “Guess it wasn’t hungry that day. Or maybe it just prefers dark meat. Lots a’ little Negro children have gone missin’ as of late.”
“Course, to be fair, there’s plenty a’ other predators around. The Warumbi tend to blame everythin’ that happens now on ol’ Blackmane.”
“What did you call it?” Maribelle asked.
“Huh? Oh. ‘Blackmane.’ That’s what the Warumbi call it. Zanyo Gazi’i, in their gibberish. They also got some word they call it that means ‘Wrath of God,’ but don’t even ask me how to pronounce that shit.”
“Blackmane,” Maribelle said, more to herself than to Hamm.
“Most a’ the Warumbi think it’s some kind a’ devil or demon or somethin’,” Hamm continued. “An’ the other ones, the ones gone all-out Christian, they say it was sent by God to punish the heathens among ’em for their sins.” Hamm chuckled. “Now your friend Doctor Mocker comes along sayin’ the thing’s intelligent, that it can even read an’ write. Me, I don’t see what difference that makes. It’s a monster any way you slice it.”
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Maribelle said. “This creature is an amalgamation of two distinct mammalian life forms, Human and animal DNA. It shouldn’t exist at all, but if it does exist there’s no reason to have expected it would display real intelligence. It’s phenomenal.”
“So who do you say created it?” Hamm asked. “God or the devil?”
“Neither,” Maribelle said. “Man did.”
“Yeah,” Hamm said. “Well, that qualifies it as a monster in my book.”