Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Familiars

FAMILIARS
By
Robert W. Tinsley

Three men had been killed over the last two weeks. The young Kikuyu man standing in front of Inspector Thomas Donnegan's desk at the British East Africa Police headquarters in Nairobi was afraid he was going to be next.

"You are a man," said Inspector Donnegan in KiSwahili gesturing to the young warrior's shield and spear. "Why don't you protect yourself?"

All this was being translated for me by Suleiman, Inspector Donnegan's askari corporal, as I had not been in the country long enough to become familiar with the lingua franca of this part of Africa.

Suleiman, a member of the WaSwahili tribe, stood as tall as I, and was splendidly turned out in the red fez, blue shirt and khaki shorts of his office. Many of the askaris I had seen thus far had been rather slovenly in their dress, but King Edward himself could have found no fault with Suleiman.

"If it were a man I had to fight," said the Kikuyu whose name was Lanana, "I would do so and win. But these are not the deeds of a man. This is the work of a witch."

"What?" I said, unable to keep quiet in the face of this nonsense. "Is this man serious? Witchcraft?"

Inspector Donnegan fixed me with a look that made me wish I hadn't spoken. "Quite serious," he said. "Don't forget, you are no longer strolling the Thames embankment. To these people witchcraft is as real as London fog is to you. I've seen men and women in the prime of life curl up and die because some witch put a curse on them. Now, be quiet, and let's see what else we can learn."

"Why do you believe this to be witchcraft?" asked the Inspector switching back to KiSwahili.

"The men disappeared at night without a sound. On those nights that a man disappeared, we heard hyenas outside the village. We found each man the next morning just outside the boma, half eaten by hyenas."

"You must hear hyenas around your village quite often," said Inspector Donnegan.

"N'dio, Bwana," said the young man. "That is so. Fisi often comes to our village, but always in packs. Those nights there were only two. That is not the way of fisi. These are the warriors of a witch."

After a few more questions and a promise to follow the man back to his village, a two-day walk apparently, Inspector Donnegan had Suleiman show the young Kikuyu out.

I could not hold my tongue any longer. "Surely you don't credit that nonsense."

Inspector Donnegan leaned back in his chair and regarded me over his tented fingers. "Do I appear, in any way, to be an idiot? If so, please tell me."

My heart jumped into my throat. I was certainly making a dog's dinner out of this session. Here I was, fresh from England, and already well on my way to confirming my immediate superior's apparently low opinion of me. My father always said that my tendency to speak without appropriate thought beforehand would be my downfall.

"Er, no sir. Not at all, sir. I was merely trying to ascertain why, in the face of such arrant absurdity, you would agree to investigate these so-called crimes. Likely these unfortunate fellows simply chose the wrong time and place to answer the call of nature."

Inspector Donnegan rose from his chair and stalked around his desk to stand in front of me so closely that I could count the number of threads in the weave of his shirt. I am not a short man by any means, standing a full six feet without my shoes, but Inspector Donnegan topped me by half a head. I could feel his breath ruffling my eyebrows, a nice accompaniment to the butterflies in my stomach.

"The natives in these parts often leave their dead outside the village to be eaten by hyenas, and hyenas, being opportunists of the first water, will eat murdered corpses with as much gusto as a corpse that died of natural causes. Thus hyena attacks are often used as cover for more nefarious deeds.

"I seem to remember," continued Donnegan, "that the alleged purpose of your posting here, boyo, was that I might train you to become a useful member of His Majesty's British East Africa Police. Does my understanding of your orders coincide with yours?"

I realized that sometime between when the Inspector rose from his desk and now I had come to full military attention. I couldn't for the life of me remember having done so. "Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir."

"Good. Then perhaps you will be so good as to remove your sorry carcass from my sight."

"Yes, sir." I executed a smart about-turn and marched toward the door.

"One other thing," said Donnegan. "Be certain to retire early tonight. We'll be leaving at dawn tomorrow. I don't want you collapsing of exhaustion along the way. Should you do so, I'll leave you for the lions. Now, be off with you."

I went.

* * *

I am not a morning person, thus my anxiety over sleeping late overcame my anxiety over being left for the lions, and I got almost no sleep at all. I arrived at headquarters a full half hour before the inspector. This allowed me to watch the preparations for our safari, that being the KiSwahili word for journey.

Suleiman and three of his askaris arrived about the same time I did, each carrying his service rifle, a Martini-Henry .500-.450 single-shot.

The porters arrived next, five WaSwahili clad in the ubiquitous kanzu, a white cotton garment similar to a nightshirt. They were carrying packs that would have driven me to the ground after five steps. These packs contained all we would need on our safari, tents, camp beds and chairs, cooking utensils, non-perishable foods such as rice, grain and biltong, a spicy dried meat that is a positive danger to the integrity of one's dental work. In addition each porter carried a jerry can of water as our trip would send us to the northwest, away from the rivers and streams that surround Nairobi on every other side.

Just as false dawn began to lighten the Eastern sky Inspector Donnegan came striding up to BEAP headquarters. A small Swahili man with a perpetual grin followed him. This worthy, as Suleiman informed me, was the Inspector's gun bearer and cook who went by the name of Tasty.

The Inspector walked right up and ran a dubious eye over me from sun helmet to boots. I had checked myself four times in the mirror before leaving my quarters and knew I was as well turned out as anyone in the country. Why, then, did I begin wondering if I had left some important piece of clothing undone?

"Didn't anyone tell you," said the Inspector, "that in this country starch in one's clothing is not a good idea?"

"No, sir," I said.

The ends of the Inspector's mouth turned up in what I suspect was a smile. I was more than half amazed that the lower portion of his face didn't crack and fall off.

"Never mind," said the Inspector. "Occupational hazard of the new boy, I suppose. Come along then."

With that Donnegan turned and strode off through the dirt of Government Street, puffs of dust exploding into the first golden rays of the sun at every step. Tasty, carrying the Inspector's service rifle paced him at his right elbow. I followed, carrying my own rifle, with the others stringing along behind.

We were just out of site of the town when we came upon a curious figure standing beside our line of march. From a distance he looked like an enormous stork, standing on his left leg with his right foot resting on his left knee.

This extraordinary figure became even more so as we approached. Drawing even with the stork-man the Inspector stopped. They greeted each other with some familiarity.

Their greeting allowed me to examine this curious creature. The man was as much taller than the Inspector as the Inspector was of me. He was lean and well muscled. I could tell due to the fact that his only clothing was a red bolt of cloth draped under his left arm and knotted above his right shoulder. His hair was plaited into narrow rows and plastered against his skull with red clay. He carried a spear almost eight feet long, just under half of which was a head of narrow double-edged steel that flashed in the sun like a diamond, so well polished was it. In addition he carried a long knife or short sword hung on a cord draped around his neck.

"This is Uliagurma," said the Inspector, "though I call him Deadly. He is Maasai and will serve as our guide."

"Why do you call him Deadly?" I asked.

The Inspector fixed me with his gimlet eye and replied. "Because he is."

We then resumed our trek with Deadly in the van. I had, of course, read of the Maasai, an exceedingly warlike tribe until just recently, though they are still not a people to take lightly. To become a moran or warrior, the only males eligible to marry and own cattle, a man has to kill a lion single handed with nothing more than his spear and shield. Yes, I should think twice about giving such a man offense.

Throughout the day we were never out of sight of one great herd or another. The sheer number and variety of wildlife here is incredible. We saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles and eland. We even saw a pride of nine lions gathered about a kill they had made last night. The male was a huge specimen with a bushy black mane. We passed them at a distance of no more than two hundred yards. I must admit my heart was in my throat the entire time, expecting a charge at any minute. The lions merely watched us until we were out of sight. No one else in our little caravan gave them more than a passing glance.

We made camp about an hour before sunset. As soon as the tents were up, Tasty began preparing dinner. This was to be my first taste of impala as the Inspector had shot one just before we reached our campsite.

This deed elicited some excitement among our askaris and porters as fresh meat is apparently a treat for them. So much so in fact that during the butchering each of them could not resist slicing off a bloody handful of the flesh and eating it then and there without benefit of cooking.

After witnessing that I wasn't sure I was going to have much of an appetite for dinner. However the aromas wafting over from Tasty's cooking fire soon had my stomach growling like a hungry lion. I discovered that Tasty had been well named.

After dinner I settled into one of the folding camp chairs before the fire. The Inspector ducked into his tent and emerged with a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey and two glasses.

"Would you care to join me in a wee dram?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you, Inspector."

It was full dark now and the moon was not yet up. We sipped our whiskey in silence. Then there came a sudden cacophony that could have originated in Bedlam itself. Such a concatenation of snorts, hoots, giggles, guffaws, and shrieks I had never heard before. It made the hair on the back of my neck rise and chills run down my spine.

"It sounds as though the hyenas have had a good hunt tonight," said the Inspector.

"Hunt?" I asked. "I thought the hyena was a cowardly scavenger."

The Inspector grunted in amusement while splashing another "wee dram" of whiskey into his glass and then mine. "Don't believe everything you read, boyo, especially about Africa." He paused for a moment listening to the calls of the hyena pack. "If you were to come upon a ten-pound note lying on the ground, would you pass it by?"

"Certainly not."

"A rotting corpse is no different to a hyena than a ten-pound note is to you. It's a meal she didn't have to work for. The fact that they scavenge doesn't mean they are averse to working for their tucker. Hyenas are quite skillful hunters. And brave as well. It is quite common for a pack of hyenas to drive a pride of lions away from their kill."

I sipped from my glass. "I had no idea."

"Most people don't. And, by the way, boyo, has anyone told you about puff adders?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“One of the deadliest vipers in Africa, so I shouldn't move just now if I were you." The Inspector pointed, moving nothing more than his index finger, at the ground by my right side.

I looked down and my heart fairly stopped in my chest. There on the ground illuminated in the flickering firelight was the largest snake I had ever seen. The details seared themselves into my mind. The snake was a yellowish color, not much different from the dust along the game paths we had been following all day, and as thick as my forearm. It's head swung back and forth, it's tongue questing out.

The glass was quivering in my hand as though I had the palsy. "What should I do?" I croaked. Just then Deadly's spear flashed out of nowhere and pierced the snake's head, pinning it to the ground.

"What you should do, boyo, is finish what's in your glass, then let me pour you another," said the Inspector without any sign of quaver in his voice.

It was advice that I followed with some haste.

Deadly retrieved his spear with the snake still dangling from its point. He flipped the spear with a short twist of his hands, flinging the snake's corpse out into the night, then returned to his fellows without a word.

"My God," I said. "Does this happen often?"

"Not much more than once or twice a trip," said the Inspector, grinning. "You're lucky Deadly hates snakes rather than simply fearing them as do most natives. Our other lads over there, fatalists all, wouldn’t have stirred a stump, letting the gods decide what would happen."

The Inspector stood and stretched. "Well, you should finish your drink and get to bed. Breakfast is before dawn. We'll be moving at first light."

With that pronouncement he ducked into his tent. It wasn't five minutes before the sound of snoring reached my ears. I, meanwhile, with the adrenaline still rushing through my veins, was wondering if I would ever sleep again.

* * *

We resumed our march as soon as the sun lightened the eastern sky enough for us to see our path. We traveled on through the heat of the day and finally reached the village about mid-afternoon. There must have been close to a hundred thatched huts surrounded by a fence of cut thorn trees called a boma.

Most Europeans have no concept of what an African thorn tree is really like. The thorns of holly and roses are children's playthings next to this beastly bush. The thorns themselves are three to four inches long and sharp as a seamstress' needle. The branches grow in such a manner that the thorns often interlock.

Natives cut branches from these trees and pile them in a fence around their villages to keep out wild animals. During the day one or two openings are left to allow comings and goings. At night these openings are closed with more thorn tree branches. It forms a very formidable barrier.

We left our porters and two of the askaris to set up our camp outside of the village while Inspector Donnegan and I, accompanied by Deadly, Suleiman and the remaining askari, a fellow named Jomo, paid a visit to the village chief.

We found that worthy seated on the ground in front of his hut. An older man, his hair was sprinkled with white. Four mature women, presumably his wives, and numerous children ranging in age from infants to late adolescence wandered about engaging in either work or play.

Inspector Donnegan asked Chege, which was the old man's name, about Lanana.

"That one has gone on," said Chege in KiSwahili.

"Where has he gone?" I asked after Suleiman translated for me.

The Inspector spared me a withering glare before returning to his conversation with the chief.

"This means that the man is dead," said Suleiman.

"When did this happen?" asked the Inspector in KiSwahili.

"Last night. Hyenas took him. His hut was empty this morning. We searched for him and found him there." Chege pointed off to the North.

"Where is his body now?" asked the Inspector.

Chege merely pointed in the same direction as before. Apparently the old chief was going to let the hyenas and jackals finish what they started.

"Hyenas have been bad around here. Isn't this the fourth young warrior your village has lost to them?"

The old man shrugged. "It happens," he said.

"How can the man be so uncaring?" I said.

Donnegan glared at me. "Be quiet and listen," he said.

"Since we are here, Chief, perhaps we will kill these hyenas for you. There are only two after all."

The chief shrugged again. "There are two, and you may try to kill them if you wish. But I think you will not succeed."

"Why not?"

"These two are not just hyenas. They are devils, witches' warriors. They cannot be killed."

After Suleiman told me this, I was about to let my mouth run again, but the Inspector anticipated me and raised his hand for silence.

"I wish to see the body," said the inspector.

"My son will show you," said Chege indicating a boy no older than 12 or 13.

The Inspector turned to us. "You and Jomo will come along," he said to me. "Suleiman, you and Deadly will stay here and see what you can find out." With that he gestured to the boy and we followed him out through the gap in the boma.

We found the scene of carnage no more than a 20-minute walk from the village. On coming upon this horrible sight my gorge rose immediately, and it was only by quick action that I did not vomit on my own shoes. I was quite mortified, but the Inspector didn't seem to notice.

Parts of the man's body were scattered everywhere. There was little flesh left, and many of the bones had been chewed and broken in the hyenas' powerful jaws. The head had been completely detached from the spine. It stood upright, and the profile toward me looked untouched. It was only as I moved around that the rest of the horror was revealed. The hyenas had eaten away all of the flesh on one side of the head.

I glanced over at the boy. He was gazing at the scene with an aplomb that I could only envy. "Should the boy be seeing this?" I asked.

"I'm sure he's seen worse," said the Inspector. "You must remember that Africans do not have the reverence for life that is found in the London drawing rooms you so recently left behind. Life here is ugly, bloody and short. These people have learned to deal with that in their own way."

The Inspector surveyed the scene once more, and then dismissed the boy. "It's time we returned to camp. I'm sure Suleiman and Deadly have news. Africans will talk to other Africans before they'll talk to a white man."

* * *

"There is a very pretty girl in the village coming of age to marry very soon," said Suleiman. "There are many suitors. The old men say one of the young warriors hired a witch to eliminate the competition."

"Do they know who the witch is?" I asked.

"They know," said Suleiman, "but they will not say. They are not civilized like we are. They are afraid."

"What about the man that hired the witch?" said Donnegan.

Suleiman shrugged. "Each one we talked to believed it was someone different."

"You're not giving any credence to this witchcraft nonsense, are you, sir?" I asked.

"As I said before, hyena attacks are often cover ups for wicked deeds. But since any evidence we might have had has been eaten, all we can do is sort out these rogue hyenas."

Accordingly we ate our dinner and made preparations to return to the kill site. Our party consisted of the Inspector and myself, Deadly, Suleiman and Jomo.

We arrived an hour after a spectacular blood-red sunset and spread out in a line 30 yards downwind from the site. The Inspector had brought a large electric torch that he set on the ground close to hand.

We waited in silence for over two hours before hearing the giggles and whoops that heralded the approach of our quarry. Standing, we checked our weapons by feel, as the moon had not yet risen.

I couldn't see my hand before my face. My heart was thumping so loudly I feared the hyenas would hear me and take flight.

Finally I could hear the sound of bones breaking, and I knew the brutes had resumed their grizzly meal.

"Be ready," whispered the Inspector.

I raised my rifle and pointed it in the direction of the feeding sounds even though I could not see my front sight.

The Inspector flipped the torch on, revealing the dreadful scene before us. Both of the huge brutes lay on the ground gnawing bones that not 24 hours before supported a living man as he went about his business. At that point events stopped progressing as expected.

Normally when one shines a sudden light on an animal at night, that animal will freeze for several seconds allowing the hunter to fire a telling shot. Not so these devilish beasts.

As soon as the light hit them, they were up and charging us in that half-crippled gait of theirs. As odd as it looked, their progress was remarkably quick.

After a moment of stunned inaction, we all fired. The ground erupted all around the charging brutes, but not one bullet struck home. As the Inspector and I were the only ones armed with repeating firearms, it was up to us to stop them. By the time we were ready to fire again, the beasts were only 15 yards from us. I seemed to be unable to take a breath, and it was becoming imperative that I do so.

The Inspector and I fired almost as one. The Inspector’s quarry stopped as though it had run into a wall and fell over quivering. My target merely ducked its head and continued on undeterred. I began to believe I would never take another breath except to scream when Deadly’s spear saved my life a second time within as many days.

I finished jacking a fresh round up the spout and discovered that I could breathe again.

“Close thing, that,” said the Inspector.

“Asante, Deadly,” I said to the red-painted giant. He nodded his head with all the presence of royalty.

Examining the dead beasts we discovered that they were both females, the larger of the two sexes. My hyena, or rather Deadly’s, had a bloody crease down the top of its head bisecting the distance between its ears. That must have been my bullet causing the brute to duck its head. I had overshot though I had been sighting at the base of the hyena’s neck. I checked my rifle and discovered that my 200-yard rear sight was up. No wonder I had overshot.

The Inspector noticed me changing the sight. “In future,” he said, “I suggest that you use the long distance sight for long distances.”

Since that statement required no response, I resumed examining the dead hyena. Deadly’s spear had severed the hyena’s spinal cord. As I was looking at the wound I noticed a flash of reflected light amongst the stiff bristles of hair along the beast’s withers. Looking closer I found four glass beads woven into the animal’s coat, red, blue, yellow and red again.

I drew the Inspector’s attention to this, and we examined the other hyena. The same types of glass beads in the same sequence were woven into this beast’s hair as well.
“How in the world could that have happened?” I asked.

At just that time an apparition appeared from the dark to the considerable consternation of our little party. The apparition resolved itself into a wizened old black man naked except for a tiny loincloth. His body was painted all over with white spots. He immediately launched into a long tirade in KiSwahili.

He and the Inspector went back and forth for some time. At the first appearance of this man all our civilized natives faded into the dark, so I had lost the translation services normally provided by Suleiman.

After a lengthy discussion in which voices were raised on both sides, it seemed that negotiations were finally concluded. From his dejected mien it appeared that the old man came out the worse for it.

“Corporal,” called the Inspector.

Suleiman materialized out of the dark with Jomo at his side. “Sah!”

“Corporal, accompany this man back to the village and cut out ten head of his best cattle. We will be taking them back to Nairobi with us. The money from the auction will serve to pay his fine.”

“Sah,” barked Suleiman saluting. He and Jomo gathered up the little man and disappeared into the darkness.

“Sir,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, what the devil was that all about?”

“That man is the witch that started this whole donnybrook.”

“A witch? Him?”

“Indeed,” said the Inspector. “He saw us kill the hyenas, and came in here demanding payment for the loss of his property. I asked him if he could prove they were his. He said, of course he could prove it and proceeded to describe the beads woven into their coats. For a moment, I was at a loss over what to do. I couldn’t arrest him for murder, no evidence, and I certainly couldn’t arrest him for practicing witchcraft. I realized, however, that I could punish him financially, so I fined him 10 head of cattle and told him that the next time the fine would be double.”

“You fined him? For what?”

“Keeping vicious animals.”

THE END

10 Comments:

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Megan said...

Hey! You cheated!

But thanks for the bedtime reading. You're forgiven.

 
At 7:33 AM, Blogger Bob said...

It was after midnight somewhere!

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger John R. said...

Hehehe. Very cool, Bob. Nicely different, too.

 
At 8:51 PM, Blogger Dave White said...

Between you and Rickards...

Nice job. Very different.

 
At 8:25 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Great use of the setting. Well done all around.

 
At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob,

Fantastic job with this one. Damn, I wish you had given Hardluck Weird Noir a shot with this one, but you probably should've given AHMM and EQMM a shot also. Very impressive!

Dave Z.

 
At 4:10 AM, Blogger Gerald So said...

How much research/time did you put in to give this story the ring of authenticity? Your efforts certainly paid off, IMO.

 
At 11:58 AM, Blogger Graham said...

I love adventure stories like this one. The tone was pitch-perfect.

 
At 12:38 PM, Blogger Candace said...

Donnybrook. Mmmm, now there's a word I've not heard in a long, long time... to put it all in a nutshell: excellent, Bob. Well done!

 
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