Kingazu Camp, Zambia
Twelve Years Ago
The night had been silent. Even the local prides that often tattooed the darkness with their roars were lying low, and the usual chatter of night animals seemed subdued. The sound of the river was a faint gurgle and shush that belied its massive flow, perfuming the air with the smell of water. Only with the false dawn came the first noises of what passed for civilization: hot water being poured into shower-drums in preparation for morning ablutions.
Pendergast and his wife had left their hut and were in the dining shelter, guns beside them, sitting by the soft glow of a single bulb. There were no stars --- the night had been overcast, the darkness absolute. They had been sitting there, unmoving and silent, for the last forty-five minutes, enjoying each other’s company and --- with the kind of unspoken symbiosis that characterized their marriage --- preparing mentally and emotionally for the hunt ahead. Helen Pendergast’s head was resting on her husband’s shoulder. Pendergast stroked her hand, toying now and then with the star sapphire on her wedding band.
“You can’t have it back, you know,” she said at last, her voice husky from the long silence.
He simply smiled and continued his caresses.
A small figure appeared in the shadows, carrying a long spear and wearing long pants and a long shirt, both of dark color.
The two straightened up. “Jason Mfuni?” Pendergast asked, his voice low.
Pendergast extended his hand. “I’d rather you didn’t ‘sir’ me, Jason. The name’s Pendergast. And this is my wife, Helen. She prefers to be called by her first name, I by my last.”
The man nodded, shook Helen’s hand with slow, almost phlegmatic movements. “The DC want to talk to you, Miss Helen, in the mess.”
Helen rose. So did Pendergast.
“Excuse me, Mr. Pendergast, he want it private.”
“What’s this all about?”
“He worry about her hunting experience.”
“This is ridiculous,” Pendergast said. “We’ve settled that question.”
Helen waved her hand with a laugh. “Don’t worry about it --- apparently it’s still the British Empire out here, where women sit on the veranda, fan themselves, and faint at the sight of blood. I’ll set him straight.”
Pendergast eased back down. The tracker waited by him, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“Would you care to sit down, Jason?”
“No thank you.”
“How long have you been tracking?” Pendergast asked.
“A few years,” came the laconic reply.
“Are you good?”
“Are you afraid of lions?”
“Ever killed one with that spear?”
“This is a new spear, Mr. Pendergast. When I kill lion with spear, it usually break or bend, have to get new one.”
A silence settled over the camp as the light crept up behind the bush. Five minutes passed, and then ten.
“What’s taking them?” asked Pendergast, annoyed. “We don’t want to get a late start.” Mfuni shrugged and leaned on his spear, waiting.
Suddenly Helen appeared. She quickly seated herself.
“Did you set the blighter straight?” asked Pendergast with a laugh.
For a moment, Helen didn’t answer. He turned to her quizzically and was startled at the whiteness of her face. “What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just . . . butterflies before a hunt.”
“You can always remain back in camp, you know.”
“Oh, no,” she said with vehemence. “No, I can’t miss this.”
“In that case, we’d better get moving.”
“Not yet,” she said, her voice low. He felt her cool hand on his arm. Aloysius...do you realize we forgot to watch the moonrise last evening? It was full.”
“With all the lion excitement, I’m not surprised.”
“Let’s take just a moment to watch it set.” She took his hand and enclosed it in hers, an unusual gesture for her. Her hand was no longer cool.
She squeezed his hand. “No talking.”
The full moon was sinking into the bush on the far side of the river, a buttery disk descending through a sky of mauve, its reflection rippling like spilled cream over the swirling waters of the Luangwa River. They had first met the night of a full moon and, together, had watched it rise; ever since it had been a tradition of their courtship and marriage that no matter what else was happening in their lives, no matter what travel or commitments they faced, they would always contrive to be together to watch the rise of the full moon.
The moon touched the distant treetops across the river, then slid down behind them. The sky brightened and, finally, the gleam of the moon vanished in the tangle of bush. The mystery of the night had passed; day had arrived.
“Good-bye, old moon,” said Pendergast lightly.
Helen squeezed his hand, then stood up as the DC and Wisley materialized on the path from the kitchen hut. With them was a third man, hollow-faced, very tall and lanky. His eyes were yellow.
“This is Wilson Nyala,” said Wisley. “Your gun bearer.”
Handshakes. The bartender from the previous night came from the kitchen with a large pot of lapsang souchong tea, and steaming cups of the strong brew were poured all around.
They drank quickly in silence. Pendergast set his cup down. “It’s light enough to take a look at the scene of the attack.”
Nyala slung one gun over each shoulder, and they walked down a dirt path that ran along the river. Where it passed a dense stand of miombo brush, an area had been marked out with rope and wooden stakes. Pendergast knelt, examining the spoor. He could see a pair of enormous pug marks in the dust, next to a puddled mass of black blood, now dry and cracking. As he looked about, he reconstructed the attack in his mind. What had happened was clear enough: the man had been jumped from the brush, knocked down, bitten. The initial reports were accurate. The dust showed where the lion had dragged his thrashing victim back into the brush, leaving a trail of blood.
Pendergast rose. “Here’s how it’ll work. I’ll stay eight feet behind Jason, slightly to his left. Helen will be behind me another eight feet, to the right. Wilson, you float just behind us.” He glanced over at his wife, who gave a subtle nod of approval.
“When the time comes,” he continued, “we’ll gesture for the guns --- bring them up with safeties on. For my rifle, detach the strap --- I would rather not hitch it up on brush.”
“I prefer my strap on,” said Helen curtly.
Wilson Nyala nodded his bony head.
Pendergast extended an arm. “My rifle, please?” Wilson handed him his rifle. Pendergast broke the action, examined the barrel, dunked in two soft-point .465 nitro express cartridges --- big as Macanudos --- closed it, locked it, made sure the safety was on, and handed it back. Helen did the same with her rifle, loading it with .500/.416 flanged soft points.
“That’s a rather big gun for such a slender woman,” said Woking.
“I think a big-bore weapon is rather fetching,” replied Helen.
“All I can say,” Woking continued, “is I’m glad I’m not going into the bush after that brute, big rifle or no.”
“Keep the long-triangle formation as closely as possible as we advance,” said Pendergast, glancing from Mfuni to Nyala and back again. “The wind’s in our favor. No talking unless absolutely necessary. Use hand signals. Leave the flashlights here.”
Everyone nodded. The atmosphere of false jollity quickly evaporated as they waited in silence for the sun to come up enough to fill the underbrush with dim blue twilight. Then Pendergast motioned for Mfuni to proceed.
The tracker moved into the bush, carrying his spear in one hand, following the blood spoor. The trail moved away from the river, through the dense thorn scrub and second-growth mopane brush along a small tributary of the Luangwa called Chitele Stream. They moved slowly, following the spoor that coated the grass and leaves. The tracker paused to point with his spear at a brake of flattened grass. There was a large stained area, still damp, the leaves around splattered with arterial blood. This was where the lion had first put down his victim and begun eating, even while the victim still lived, before being shot at.
Jason Mfuni bent down and silently held up an object: half of a lower jawbone with teeth, gnawed around the edges and licked clean. Pendergast looked at it without speaking. Mfuni laid it down again and pointed to a hole in the wall of vegetation.
They proceeded through the hole into heavy green bush. Mfuni paused every twenty yards to listen and smell the air, or to examine a smear of blood on a leaf. The corpse had bled out by this point, and the spoor grew fainter: all that marked the trail were tiny smears and spots.
The tracker stopped twice to point out areas of broken grass where the lion had put the body down to shift its fang-hold and then pick it up again. The day was coming up rapidly, the sun breaking over the treetops. Except that, save for the constant drone of insects, this particular morning was unusually silent and watchful.
They followed the spoor for more than a mile. The sun boiled over the horizon, beaming furnace-like heat into the brush, and the tsetse flies rose in whining clouds. The air carried the heavy smell of dust and grass. The trail finally broke free of the bushveldt into a dry pan under the spreading branches of an acacia tree, a single termite mound rising like a pinnacle against the incandescent sky. In the center of the pan was a jumble of red and white, surrounded by a roaring cloud of flies.
Mfuni moved out cautiously, Pendergast, Helen, and the gun bearer following. They silently gathered around the half-eaten body of the German photographer. The lion had opened the cranium, eaten his face, brain, and much of the upper torso, leaving two perfectly white, unscathed legs, licked clean of blood, and one detached arm, its fist still clenching a tuft of fur. Nobody spoke. Mfuni bent down, tugged the hair from the fist, shaking the arm free in the process, and inspected it carefully. He then placed it in Pendergast’s hand. It was deep red in color. Pendergast passed it to Helen, who examined it in turn, then handed it back to Mfuni.
While the others remained near the body, the tracker slowly circled the pan, looking for tracks in the alkaline crust. He placed a finger on his mouth and pointed across the dry pan into a vlei, a swampy depression during the wet season that --- now the dry season was advanced --- had grown up into an extremely dense stand of grass, ten to twelve feet high. Several hundred yards into the vlei rose a large, sinuous grove of fever trees, their umbrella-like crowns spreading against the horizon. The tracker was pointing at a slot bent into the tall grass, made by the lion in its retreat. He came back over, his face serious, and whispered into Pendergast’s ear. “In there,” he said, pointing with his spear. “Resting.”
Pendergast nodded and glanced at Helen. She was still pale but absolutely steady, the eyes cool and determined.
Nyala, the gun bearer, was nervous. “What is it?” Pendergast asked in a low tone, turning to him.
He nodded toward the tall grass. “That lion smart. Too smart. Very bad place.”
Pendergast hesitated, looking from the bearer, to the tracker, to the stand of grass and back again. Then he gestured for the tracker to proceed.
Slowly, stealthily, they entered the tall grass. The visibility dropped to less than five yards. The hollow stalks rustled and whispered with their movements, the cloying smell of heated grass stifling in the dead air. Green twilight enveloped them as they moved deeper into the stand. The drone of insects merged into a steady whine.
As they approached the grove of fever trees, the tracker slowed; held up his hand; pointed to his nose. Pendergast inhaled and caught the faint, musky scent of lion, overlaid with the sweetish whiff of carrion.
The tracker crouched and signaled for the others to do likewise --- the visibility in the bunch grass was better closer to the ground, where they had a greater chance of seeing the tawny flash of the lion before he was actually on top of them. They slowly entered the fever grove, inching along at a crouch. The dried, silty mud was baked hard as rock and it retained no spoor, but broken and bent stems told a clear tale of the lion’s passage.
Again the tracker paused, motioning for a talk. Pendergast and Helen came up and the three huddled in the close grass, whispering just loud enough to be heard over the insects.
“Lion somewhere in front. Twenty, thirty yards. Moving slowly.” Mfuni’s face was creased with concern. “Maybe we should wait.”
“No,” whispered Pendergast. “This is our best chance at bagging him. He’s just eaten.”
They moved forward, into a small open area with no grass, no more than ten feet square. The tracker paused, sniffed the air, then pointed left. “Lion,” he whispered.
Pendergast stared ahead, looked left, then shook his head and pointed straight ahead.
The tracker scowled, leaned to Pendergast’s ear. “Lion circle around to left. He very smart.”
Still Pendergast shook his head. He leaned over Helen. “You stay here,” he whispered, his lips brushing her ears.
“But the tracker --- ”
“The tracker’s wrong. You stay, I’ll go ahead just a few yards. We’re nearing the far end of the vlei. He’ll want to remain in cover; with me moving toward him he’ll feel pressed. He might rush. Be ready and keep a line of fire open to my right.”
Pendergast signaled for his gun. He grasped the metal barrel, warm in the heat, and pulled it forward under his arm. He thumbed off the safety and flipped up the night sight --- a bead of ivory --- for better sighting in the grassy half-light. Nyala handed Helen her rifle.
Pendergast moved into the dense grass straight ahead, the tracker following in frozen silence, his face a mask of terror.
Pushing through the grass, placing each foot with exceeding caution on the hardpan ground, Pendergast listened intently for the peculiar cough that would signal the beginning of a rush. There would be time for only one shot: a charging lion could cover a hundred yards in as little as four seconds. He felt more secure with Helen behind him; two chances at the kill.
After ten yards, he paused and waited. The tracker came alongside, deep unhappiness written on his face. For a full two minutes, neither man moved. Pendergast listened intently but could hear only insects. The gun was slippery in his sweaty hands, and he could taste the alkali dust on his tongue. A faint breeze, seen but not felt, swayed the grass around them, making a soft clacking sound. The insect drone fell to a murmur, then died. Everything grew utterly still.
Slowly, without moving any other part of his body, Mfuni extended a single finger --- again ninety degrees to his left.
Remaining absolutely still, Pendergast followed the gesture with his eyes. He peered into the dim haze of grass, trying to catch a glimpse of tawny fur or the gleam of an amber eye. Nothing.
A low cough --- and then a terrible, earthshaking explosion of sound, a massive roar, came blasting at them like a freight train. Not from the left, but from straight ahead.
Pendergast spun around as a blur of ocher muscle and reddish fur exploded out of the grass, pink mouth agape, daggered with teeth; he fired one barrel with a massive ka-whang! but he hadn’t time to compose the shot and the lion was on him, six hundred pounds of enormous stinking cat, knocking him flat, and then he felt the red-hot fangs slice into his shoulder and he cried out, twisting under the suffocating mass, flailing with his free arm, trying to recover the rifle that had been knocked away by the massive blow.
The lion had been so well hidden, and the rush so fast and close, that Helen Pendergast was unable to shoot before it was on top of her husband --- and then it was too late; they were too close together to risk a shot. She leapt from her spot ten yards behind and bulled through the tall grass, yelling, trying to draw the monstrous lion’s attention as she raced toward the hideous sound of muffled, wet growling. She burst onto the scene just as Mfuni sank his spear into the lion’s gut; the beast --- bigger than any lion should rationally be --- leapt off Pendergast and swiped at the tracker, tearing away part of his leg, then bounded into the grass, the spear dragging from its belly.
Helen took careful aim at the lion’s retreating back and fired, the recoil from the massive .500/.416 nitro express cartridge jolting her hard.
The shot missed. The lion was gone.
She rushed to her husband. He was still conscious. “No,” Pendergast gasped. “Him.” She glanced at Mfuni. He was lying on his back, arterial blood squirting into the dirt from where the calf muscle of his right leg was hanging by a thread of skin.
“Oh, Jesus.” She tore off the lower half of her shirt, twisted it tight, and wrapped it above the severed artery. Groping around for a stick, she slid it under the cloth and twisted it tight to form a tourniquet.
“Jason?” she said urgently. “Stay with me! Jason! ”
His face was slick with sweat, his eyes wide and trembling.
“Hold that stick. Loosen it if you start going numb.”
The tracker’s eyes widened. “Memsahib, the lion is coming back.”
“Just hold that --- ”
“It’s coming back!” Mfuni’s voice broke in terror.
Ignoring him, she turned her attention to her husband. He lay on his back, his face gray. His shoulder was misshapen and covered with a clotted mass of blood. “Helen,” he said hoarsely, struggling to rise.
“Get your gun. Now.”
“Aloysius --- ”
“For the love of God, get your gun!”
It was too late. With another earsplitting roar, the lion burst from the cover, sending up a whirlwind of dust and flying grass --- and then he was on top of her. Helen screamed once and tried to fight him off as the lion seized her by the arm; there was a sharp crackling of bone as the lion sank his teeth in --- and then the last thing Pendergast saw before he passed out was the sight of her struggling, screaming figure being dragged off into the deep grass.
The world came back into focus. Pendergast was in one of the rondevaals. The distant throb of a chopper sounded through the thatch roof, rapidly increasing in volume.
He sat up with a cry to see the DC, Woking, leap out of a chair he’d been sitting in at the far side of the hut.
“Don’t exert yourself,” Woking said. “The medevac’s here, everything’ll be taken care of --- ”
Pendergast struggled up. “My wife! Where is she?”
“Be a good lad and --- ”
Pendergast swung out of bed and staggered to his feet, driven by pure adrenaline. “My wife, you son of a bitch!”
“It couldn’t be helped, she was dragged off, we had a man unconscious and another bleeding to death --- ”
Pendergast staggered to the door of the hut. His rifle was there, set in the rack. He seized it, broke it, saw that it still contained a single round.
“What in God’s name are you doing --- ?”
Pendergast closed the action and swung the rifle toward the DC. “Get out of my way.”
Woking scrambled aside and Pendergast lurched out of the hut. The sun was setting. Twelve hours had passed. The DC came rushing out after him, waving his arms. “Help! I need help! The man’s gone mad!”
Crashing into the wall of brush, Pendergast pushed through the long grass until he had picked up the trail. He did not even hear the ragged shouts from the camp behind. He charged along the old spoor trail, thrusting the brush aside, heedless of the pain. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen --- and then he burst into the dry pan. Beyond lay the vlei, the dense grass, the grove of fever trees. With a gasp he lurched forward across the pan and into the grass, swiping his weapon back and forth with his good arm to clear a path, the birds overhead screaming at the disturbance. His lungs burned, his arm was drenched in blood. Still he advanced, bleeding freely from his torn shoulder, vocalizing inarticulately. And then he stopped, the ragged incoherent sounds dying in his throat. There was something in the grass ahead, small, pale, lying on the hard-packed mud. He stared down at it. It was a severed hand --- a hand whose ring finger was banded with a star sapphire.
With an animalistic cry of rage and grief, he staggered forward, bursting from the long grass into an open area where the lion, its mane ablaze with color, was crouching and quietly feeding. He took in the horror all at once: the bones decorated with ribbons of flesh, his wife’s hat, the tattered pieces of her khaki outfit, and then suddenly the smell --- the faint smell of her perfume mingling with the stench of the cat.
Last of all he saw the head. It had been severed from her body but --- with a cruel irony --- was otherwise intact compared with the rest. Her blue-and-violet eyes stared up sightlessly at him.
Pendergast walked unsteadily up to within ten yards of the lion. It raised its monstrous head, slopped a tongue around its bloody chops, and looked at him calmly. His breath coming in short, sharp gasps, Pendergast raised the Holland & Holland with his good arm, propped it on his bad, sighted along the top of the ivory bead. And pulled the trigger. The massive round, packing five thousand foot-pounds of muzzle energy, struck the lion just between and above the eyes, opening the top of its head like a sardine can, the cranium exploding in a blur of red mist. The great red-maned lion hardly moved; it merely sank down on top of its meal, and then lay still.
All around, in the sunbaked fever trees, a thousand birds screamed.
St. Charles Parish, Louisiana
The Rolls-Royce Grey Ghost crept around the circular drive, the crisp crunch of gravel under the tires muffled in places by patches of crabgrass. The motorcar was followed by a late-model Mercedes, in silver. Both vehicles came to a stop before a large Greek Revival plantation house, framed by ancient black oaks draped in fingers of Spanish moss. A small bronze plaque screwed into the façade announced that the mansion was known as Penumbra; that it had been built in 1821 by the Pendergast family; and that it was on the National Register of Historic Places.
A. X. L. Pendergast stepped out of the rear compartment of the Rolls and looked around, taking in the scene. It was the end of an afternoon in late February. Mellow light played through the Greek columns, casting bars of gold into the covered porch. A thin mist drifted across the overgrown lawn and weed-heavy gardens. Beyond, cicadas droned sleepily in the cypress groves and mangrove swamps. The copper trim on the second-floor balconies was covered in a dense patina of verdigris. Small curls of white paint hung from the pillars, and an atmosphere of dampness, desuetude, and neglect hung over the house and grounds.
A curious gentleman emerged from the Mercedes, short and stocky, wearing a black cutaway with a white carnation in his boutonniere. He looked more like a maître d’ from an Edwardian men’s club than a New Orleans lawyer. Despite the limpid sunlight, a tightly rolled umbrella was tucked primly beneath one arm. An alligator-skin briefcase was clutched in one fawn-gloved hand. He placed a bowler hat on his head, gave it a smart tap.
“Mr. Pendergast. Shall we?” The man extended a hand toward an overgrown arboretum, enclosed by a hedge, that stood to the right of the house.
“Of course, Mr. Ogilby.”
“Thank you.” The man led the way, walking briskly, his wingtips sweeping through the moisture-laden grass. Pendergast followed more slowly, with less sense of purpose. Reaching a gate in the hedge, Mr. Ogilby pushed it open, and together they entered the arboretum. At one point he glanced back with a mischievous smile and said, “Let us keep an eye out for the ghost!”
“That would be a thrill,” said Pendergast, in the same jocular vein.
Continuing his brisk pace, the lawyer followed a once-graveled path now overgrown with weeds toward a specimen-size weeping hemlock, beyond which could be seen a rusting iron fence enclosing a small plot of ground. Peeking up from the grass within was a scattering of slate and marble headstones, some vertical, some listing.
The gentleman, his creased black trouser cuffs now soaked, came to a halt before one of the larger tombstones, turned, and then grasped the briefcase in both hands, waiting for his client to catch up. Pendergast took a thoughtful turn around the private graveyard, stroking his pale chin, before ending up next to the dapper little man.
“Well!” the lawyer said, “here we are again!”
Pendergast nodded absently. He knelt, pushed aside the grass from the face of the tombstone, and read aloud:
Hic Iacet Sepultus
Louis de Frontenac Pendergrast
Apr 2, 1899-Mar 15, 975
Tempus Edax Rerum
Mr. Ogilby, standing behind Pendergast, propped his briefcase on the top of the tombstone, undid the latches, raised the cover, and slipped out a document. On the cover of the briefcase, balancing it on the headstone, he laid down the document.
“Mr. Pendergast?” He proffered a heavy silver fountain pen.
Pendergast signed the document.
The lawyer took the pen back, signed it himself with a flourish, impressed it with a notary public seal, dated it, and slipped it back in his briefcase. He shut it with a snap, latched it, and locked it.
“Done!” he said. “You are now certified to have visited your grandfather’s grave. I shall not have to disinherit you from the Pendergast family trust --- at least, not for the present!” He gave a short chuckle.
Pendergast rose, and the little man stuck out a pudgy hand. “Always a pleasure, Mr. Pendergast, and I trust I shall have the favor of your company in another five years?”
“The pleasure is, and shall be, mine,” said Pendergast with a dry smile.
“Excellent! I’ll be heading back to town, then. Will you follow?”
“I think I’ll drop in on Maurice. He’d be crushed if I left without paying him my respects.”
“Quite, quite! To think he’s been looking after Penumbra unassisted for --- what? --- twelve years now. You know, Mr. Pendergast --- ” Here the little man leaned in and lowered his voice, as if to impart a secret. “ --- you really should fix this place up. You could get a handsome sum for it --- a handsome sum! Antebellum plantation houses are all the rage these days. It would make a charming B and B!”
“Thank you, Mr. Ogilby, but I think I shall hold on to it a while longer.”
“As you wish, as you wish! Just don’t stay out after dark --- what with the old family ghost, and all.” The little man strode off chuckling to himself, briefcase swinging, and soon vanished, leaving Pendergast alone in the family plot. He heard the Mercedes start up; heard the crunch of gravel fade quickly back into silence.
He strolled about for another few minutes, reading the inscriptions on the stones. Each name resurrected memories stranger and more eccentric than the last. Many of the remains were of family members disinterred from the ruins of the basement crypt of the Pendergast mansion on Dauphine Street after the house burned; other ancestors had expressed wishes to be buried in the old country.
The golden light faded as the sun sank below the trees. Pallid mists began to drift across the lawn from the direction of the mangrove swamp. The air smelled of verdure, moss, and bracken. Pendergast stood in the graveyard for a long time, silent and unmoving, as evening settled over the land. Yellow lights --- coming up in the windows of the plantation house --- filtered through the trees of the arboretum. The scent of burning oak wood drifted on the air; a smell that brought back irresistible memories of childhood summers. Glancing up, Pendergast could see one of the great brick chimneys of the plantation house issuing a lazy stream of blue smoke. Rousing himself, he left the graveyard, walked through the arboretum, and gained the covered porch, the warped boards protesting under his feet.
He knocked on the door, then stood back to wait. A creaking from inside; the sound of slow footsteps; an elaborate unlatching and unchaining; and the great door swung open to reveal a stooped old man of indeterminate race, dressed in an ancient butler’s uniform, his face grave. “Master Aloysius,” he said, with fine reserve, not offering his hand immediately.
Pendergast extended his and the old man responded, the ribbed old hand getting a friendly shake. “Maurice. How are you?”
“Middling,” the old man replied. “I saw the cars drive up. Glass of sherry in the library, sir?”
“That will be fine, thank you.”
Maurice turned and moved slowly through the entry hall toward the library. Pendergast followed. A fire was burning on the hearth, not so much for warmth as to drive out the damp.
With a clinking of bottles, Maurice muddled about the sideboard and poured a measure into a tiny sherry glass, placed it on a silver tray, and carried it over with great ceremony. Pendergast took it, sipped, then glanced around. Nothing had changed for the better. The wallpaper was stained, and balls of dust lay in the corners. He could hear the faint rustle of rats in the walls. The place had gone downhill significantly in the five years since he had last been here.
“I wish you’d let me hire a live-in housekeeper, Maurice. And a cook. It would greatly relieve your burden.”
“Nonsense! I can take care of the house myself.”
“I don’t think it’s safe for you to be here alone.”
“Not safe? Of course it’s safe. I keep the house well locked at night.”
“Naturally.” Pendergast sipped the sherry, which was an excellent dry oloroso. He wondered, a little idly, how many bottles were left in the extensive cellars. Many more, probably, than he could drink in a lifetime, not to mention the wine, port, and fine old cognac. As the collateral branches of his family had died out, all the various wine cellars --- like the wealth --- had concentrated around him, the last surviving member of sound mind.
He took another sip and put down the glass. “Maurice, I think I’ll take a turn through the house. For old times’ sake.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be here if you need me.”
Pendergast rose and, opening the pocket doors, stepped into the entry hall. For fifteen minutes, he wandered through the rooms of the first floor: the empty kitchen and sitting rooms, the drawing room, the pantry and saloon. The house smelled faintly of his childhood --- of furniture polish, aged oak, and, infinitely distant, his mother’s perfume --- all overlaid with a much more recent odor of damp and mildew. Every object, every knickknack and painting and paperweight and silver ashtray, was in its place, and every little thing carried a thousand memories of people long since under earth, of weddings and christenings and wakes, of cocktail parties and masked balls and children stampeding the halls to the warning exclamations of aunts.
Gone, all gone.
He mounted the stairs to the upper landing. Here, two hallways led to bedrooms in the opposite wings of the house, with the upstairs parlor straight ahead, through an arched doorway protected by a brace of elephant tusks.
He entered the parlor. A zebra rug lay on the floor, and the head of a Cape buffalo graced the mantel above the massive fireplace, looking down at him with furious glass eyes. On the walls were numerous other heads: kudu, bushbuck, stag, deer, hind, wild boar, elk.
He clasped his hands behind his back and slowly paced the room. Seeing this array of heads, these silent sentinels to memory and events long past, his thoughts drifted irresistibly to Helen. He’d had the old nightmare the previous night --- as vivid and terrible as ever --- and the malevolent effects still lingered like a canker in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps this room might exorcise that particular demon, at least for a while. It would never disappear, of course.
On the far side, against the wall, stood the locked gun case that displayed his collection of hunting rifles. It was a savage, bloody sport --- driving a five-hundred-grain slug of metal at two thousand feet per second into a wild animal --- and he wondered why it attracted him. But it was Helen who had truly loved hunting, a peculiar interest for a woman --- but then Helen had been an unusual woman. A most unusual woman.
He gazed through the rippled, dusty glass at Helen’s Krieghoff double-barreled rifle, the side plates exquisitely engraved and inlaid with silver and gold, the walnut stock polished with use. It had been his wedding present to her, just before they went on their honeymoon safari, after Cape buffalo in Tanzania. A beautiful thing, this rifle: six figures’ worth of the finest woods and precious metals --- designed for a most cruel purpose.
As he looked, he noted a small edge of rust creeping around the muzzle rim.
He strode to the door of the parlor and called down the stairs. “Maurice? Would you kindly bring me the key to the gun cabinet?”
After a long moment, Maurice appeared in the hall. “Yes, sir.” He turned, disappearing once again. Moments later, he slowly mounted the groaning stairs, an iron key gripped in his veined hand. He creaked past Pendergast and stopped before the gun case, inserted the key, and turned it.
“There you are, sir.” His face remained impassive, but Pendergast was glad to sense in Maurice a feeling of pride: for having the key at his fingertips, for simply being of service.
“Thank you, Maurice.”
A nod and the manservant was gone.
Pendergast reached inside the case and --- slowly, slowly --- grasped the cold metal of the double barrel. His fingers tingled at the mere touch of her weapon. For some reason his heart was accelerating --- the lingering effects of the nightmare, no doubt. He brought it out and placed it on the refectory table in the middle of the room. From a drawer below the cabinet he removed the gun-cleaning paraphernalia, arranging it beside the rifle. He wiped his hands, picked up the gun, and broke open the action, peering down both barrels.
He was faintly surprised: the right barrel was badly fouled; the left one clean. He laid the gun down, thinking. Again he walked to the top of the stairs.
The servant appeared once more. “Yes, sir?”
“Do you know if anyone has fired the Krieghoff since...my wife’s death?”
“It was your explicit request, sir, that no one be allowed to handle it. I’ve kept the key myself. No one has even been near the case.”
“Thank you, Maurice.”
“You’re quite welcome, sir.”
Pendergast went back into the parlor, this time shutting the doors. From a writing desk he extracted an old sheet of stationery, which he flipped over and laid on the table. Then he inserted a brush into the right barrel, pushed out some of the fouling onto the paper, and examined it: bits and flakes of some burned, papery substance. Reaching into his suit pocket, he pulled out the loupe he always carried, fixed it to his eye, and examined the bits more intently. There was no doubt: they were the scorched, carbonized fragments of wadding.
But the .500/.416 NE cartridge had no wadding: just the bullet, the casing, and the propellant. Such a cartridge, even a defective one, would never leave this kind of fouling behind.
He examined the left barrel, finding it clean and well oiled. With the cleaning brush he pushed a rag through. There was no fouling at all.
Pendergast straightened up, his mind suddenly in furious thought. The last time the gun had been fired had been on that terrible day. He forced himself to think back. This was something he had avoided --- while awake --- at all costs. But once he began to remember, it wasn’t hard to recall the details: every moment of that hunt was seared forever into his memory.
She had fired the gun only once. The Krieghoff had two triggers, one behind the other. The front trigger fired the right barrel, and that was the trigger normally pulled first. It was the one she pulled. And that shot had fouled the right barrel.
With that single shot, she missed the Red Lion. He’d always chalked it up to bush deflection, or perhaps extreme agitation.
But Helen wasn’t one to display agitation, even under the most extreme of circumstances. She rarely missed. And she hadn’t missed that last time, either...or wouldn’t have missed, if the right barrel had been loaded with a bullet.
Except that it wasn’t loaded with a bullet: it was loaded with a blank.
For a blank to generate a similar sound and recoil, it would have to have a large, tightly wadded plug, which would foul the barrel exactly as he’d observed.
Had Pendergast been a man of lesser control, the hinges of his sanity might have weakened under the emotional intensity of his thoughts. She had loaded the gun with .500/.416 NE soft-points at the camp that morning, just before heading into the bush after the lion. He knew that for a fact: he had watched her. And he knew they were live rounds, not blanks --- nobody, especially not Helen, would mistake a wadded blank for a two-ounce round. He himself clearly recalled the blunt heads of the soft-points as she dunked them into the barrels.
Between the time she loaded the Krieghoff with soft-points and the time she fired, someone had removed her unfired cartridges and replaced them with blanks. And then, after the hunt, someone had removed the two blanks --- one fired, one not --- to cover up what they had done. Only they made a small mistake: they did not clean the fired barrel, leaving the incriminating fouling.
Pendergast sat back in the chair. One hand --- trembling ever so slightly --- rose to his mouth.
Helen Pendergast’s death had not been a tragic accident. It had been murder.
Excerpted from FEVER DREAM © Copyright 2011 by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.