“Do excuse my distaste for incertitude, dear fellah, but was that a 'yes', or a, 'no', or a definite, 'maybe'? And how many lions have you shot then, man-eating or not?”
The sarcasm in the question was so thick, it could almost be cut with a knife.
The annoyed, annoying, and even deliberately insulting question was simple enough, but it was framed in condescendingly scathing tones reeking of sarcasm for those who might recognize it, which meant everyone within earshot. The look on the questioner’s face was as contemptuous as the question.
The lone man at whom it was directed by Viscount Bennington, recognized the arrogant familiarity—trademark of the lesser lights in the impoverished, and mentally bankrupt, British aristocracy— but he merely smiled tolerantly.
He had come across types like Bennington many times before, and knew that his hesitation, as though debating with himself whether or not to respond to the insolent question, and his air of gentle nonchalance, would be of extreme aggravation to the pompous blowhard. He knew of Bennington, but he was comforted that Bennington did not know him. Bennington would find out soon enough if it were necessary. They all would.
In the dim gloom of the room, just now revealing its occupants better, after the glaring brightness of the sunlight outside, the lone man who had arrived just a few minutes earlier, could make out four men at the table toward the center of the room.
“And you are?” The man asked gently as he stared directly at his still indistinct questioner and waited for a reply.
The small dog at his feet also seemed mildly curious. The fact that by asking, making it seem all the more obvious that he was not aware of who his inquisitor was, would also be guaranteed to annoy him. That, and the implied contempt in the man’s nonchalance and almost dismissive tone of voice.
However, he did know of Bennington. He knew all of them. Three of them were marked for death, but did not yet know it. One of them would die tonight, or at least that process would begin tonight.
The man might just as well have yawned with boredom.
The inquisitor colored, and a flash of annoyance crossed his face. He was not used to being questioned in that casual way as though by an equal or even... unthinkable, someone who regarded himself as his superior. It was a disturbing and outrageous thought.
“Bennington.” He said tersely.
The name clearly had no effect on the man.
He repeated it. “Viscount Bennington.”
It still didn’t.
The newcomer smiled and then gently chuckled at the man’s insuperable arrogance, but entirely without humor.
Bennington flushed in annoyance.
However, the man then answered the question honestly and gently, after appearing to contemplate whether or not he might do so, for but a moment.
“Well... Bennington, if it is any business of yours, and it isn’t, it is still a 'maybe'. And, ‘none’.”
Then what the hell was he doing here?
Bennington felt ruffled by his disrespect and relaxed nonchalance, but could obviously say nothing. Had the man not looked entirely capable of handling trouble he might have been inclined to try and browbeat him or threaten to box his ears for his insolence. However, he had made that mistake once in his life; underestimating someone, and his image had paid a high price for it.
There was a brief snort and a ripple of dismissive mirth which spread for but a single second, and was then closed off like a tap—he clearly deserved no more than that—through the select group of four, seated over by one of the four pillars of the old dining hall.
Apart from this lone individual off to one side of the empty and gloomy dining room, and the four at the same table, there was a bartender but no-one else.
As the stranger had taken his seat, the bartender (no more a bartender than any of them) brought a bottle of cold beer over to his table, along with a salt shaker, placing both in front of him.
The man smiled up at the large Zulu, and nodded imperceptibly to him.
They knew each other, but no one else saw that slight exchange.
The 'hotel', (the flaked sign outside, still proclaimed that dubious identifier) if it could ever be given that name, lacked the amenities and comforts to place it in Fodor’s pages, other than possibly with a truthful description of its laughably dismal lack of amenities, which would be enough of a warning to stay away. In fact, it had never attracted any visitors, intent on staying there. Only those who were lost, and desperate, ever, willingly, sought its Spartan hospitality as a possibly more secure alternative to sleeping under the stars with all of the attendant risks from large and hungry carnivores, in that part of the world... as well as from the smaller ones, which were much more numerous.
Bennington went back to polishing his glasses. The two who had turned to see the newcomer turned their backs upon him once more and decided to ignore the individual with the craggy features, piercing eyes, and the brown unruly hair, that Viscount Bennington had addressed.
Bennington had no patience with lesser mortals—in which group he had immediately placed this stranger— and those without title, which meant that he found little to be patient of, in any of his fellow men, even those who were titled.
To be entirely candid; they did not willingly choose his company either, as he had too sharp a tongue, a vicious sense of humor, and was always too ready to put them down if he could. He thought it made up for his own deficiencies and failings.
He was also generally regarded as stupid, and had been told so on several occasions, but as with most truly stupid men, he did not believe that.
The man had been seated for just a few minutes before the question had been directed at him.
He still carried an almost white handkerchief in his hand with which he mopped at his grime-streaked forehead where the dust, kicked up the strong winds and blown into the open windows on his vehicle despite its forward momentum, had stuck.
He’d tossed his hat on the table after beating the dust off it on his leg. He followed his hat with his grimy spectacles, rubbed the bridge of his nose where his glasses had chafed, sat down, and then closed his eyes to rest them from the overpowering glare and dust that had assaulted them for the last two hours from the Pell, or whatever the last huddle of small huts and dilapidated shacks—with their inevitable dogs and children—on the dusty road had been called.
The hat, falling upon the table had created enough of a draft, that another flake of slightly greenish paint, fluttered from the scarred and dirty wall next to the table, and dropped relatively unnoticed to the floor to join others that were there.
A small dog, which had noticed the small falling flake of paint, flopped down by the man’s legs, unseen by the others, watched everything.
The mild exercise brought forth even more beads of sweat to join others that ran down the stranger’s brown neck and further discolored his equally grimy and dust-streaked shirt even more.
Every rivulet of sweat had made a damp and sticky area that had locked on to the dust that had penetrated everywhere, and had turned what had been a clean shirt into a dust-darkened damp and muddy cloth.
The heat was unbearable outside—probably forty in the shade—and barely tolerable inside, despite the rotation of a very large electric fan in the ceiling in the middle of the dimly lit room. It was almost worse than useless, as it merely brought the heat from the ceiling down to the level of the humans and made their misery even more complete, though its main purpose was to circulate the otherwise unbearably stifling air. Its other purpose seemed to be to stir up the flies attracted to the single operating light beneath it, and the sticky flypaper that latched onto them if they came near it.
The one welcome difference was that a moderately cool beer was deposited in front of the man, as it was for everyone who escaped from the heat, even as he sat down, alone, and as far from the only other group in the dining area as he could be.
The simple enquiry of the bartender, a sinewy and tall, black, of uncertain age, but clearly of Zulu origin, and far out of his homeland, as to whether he had come to hunt down Packham’s ghost, and delivered in the usual broken English that was a pleasure to listen to for some people, had elicited an equally gentle response of affirmation. “I believe so.”
He hadn't needed to ask. He already knew, but he wanted everyone's attention for a few moments. He addressed everyone present.
“He sent a message over from the farm. He’ll be here himself, or his foreman Schlumberger will be, in the morning.”
The cryptic statement, but not cryptic to those who understood what he was saying, was addressed to all of them.
The non-committal admission from the man... ‘I believe so’, had immediately caught the annoyed attention of the group at the table, sparking the initial question.
They had difficulty believing their ears.
They had turned with some surprise and curiosity—even the two younger ones, who’d had had their backs to him—and took another look at the man; his compact build and craggy weather-beaten face.
He was a complete unknown to them, and therefore could not exist as a credible hunter in this dangerous business, as all of those, were well known to them.
They took in his unkempt brownish hair, and his dust covered and heavily sweat-stained clothing. He looked hot.
He might be about thirty-years old, maybe even older, or much younger. This climate could play hell with a man’s looks as well as a woman’s.
He carried a small knapsack from which metallic sounds had issued as he’d set it down on the table with his hat.
The small table, usually set for four but never actually set until anyone sat down and actually asked for food, if they were so recklessly inclined, seemed to be coated in the dust that he had shed, just in the act of placing his knapsack on it, removing his hat, and sitting down.
Just as quickly, they returned their attention to the beers that they had momentarily turned away from in their surprise, and regretted their sudden effort in the heat, for such obviously little cause.
He was clearly itemized, catalogued, addressed and seemingly, almost discarded in just their one brief moment, after learning by his response to the bartender’s question, that he had also turned up in response to the appeal that had been passed discreetly by word of mouth to a select and capable few.
It was difficult to know how this one might have heard.
Who the hell was he?
At this time of year there were no others in the flea-trap of a ramshackle hotel fifty miles from anywhere, and in an area where tourists would rarely venture unless they were lost, or intent on seeing the worst that Africa could throw at them, and at absolutely the wrong time of year. But there was never a right time here. It was miserable no matter the season.
There were many men out here that it did not pay to pigeon-hole prematurely. Everyone who chose to be in this part of the world when they did not have to be, was there for a good reason. And even a man that seemed out of place and harmless, was always worth a second glance. There was often much more than met the eye.
This man was an unknown quantity.
His brief and gentle answer, delivered in a clear and confident tone... 'maybe'. And, 'none!’ might have been unheard, except that there was a momentary silence, as they contemplated at what point they’d left their previous interesting conversation to size up this unwelcome, comical, and enigmatic newcomer as he entered the hotel dining room.
The four were all relatively large men, bronzed, weather-beaten and polished; mature and no longer young, except for one of their group, who might be about twenty-five years old and seemed ‘out’ of the group, and not truly one of them.
He still lacked the hard-bitten character that seemed to fit the others. They belonged to a class of Englishmen who worked at giving the general and cultivated impression of being both cultured and assured in any awkward circumstance.
They had the annoying habit of speaking down to everyone around them, endeavoring only to look down their noses at lesser life forms – those who were not English, and they spoke louder to them, so that they would not be misunderstood by the doltish natives. They, like all intruders, conquerors, colonizers and exploiters, were roundly resented by the indigenous population, and were justifiably hated for it.
They were men of ‘character’—at least that is what they believed of themselves—and were ‘men of the world’, with its widely flung British Empire, that, was now dangerously close to crumbling, having committed a kind of social suicide, building up over the years, having snobbed, and demagogued-to-death, their welcome, if it had ever been there.
They were jealously protective of the reputation that each of them believed that he had earned from various adventures and exploits over the last twenty years; or more, in the case of the two older men. All of them, hard-earned, if the signs could be read on their faces.
The man sitting alone at his table, saw those signs.
A missing forefinger. A false eye – but then he knew what to look for there. A scar across the scalp with some hair missing. The lobe of an ear gone. One shoulder held a little lower than the other.
The fourth and youngest man might actually be the only one without such a mark of rough experience. Time would correct that if he stayed in this group.
“Maybe. None!” One of them repeated scornfully.
The silence dragged on for a minute or more.
“Tony, I thought you said that Penelope would be here?”
The other of the two young men was the one who asked the question of the man seated beside him.
“You said, that when you saw her in London, she said that she would probably make it, if her father did not manage to stop her. As if he could! He couldn’t stop her headstrong brother, and look where it got him, likely to be in hospital for a year last I heard, and he can do nothing with her, either.”
One of the two older men, came back at at the speaker.
“I guess you must still be hoping that she’s a ‘no-show’, eh, Trencham? Too good a shot for you, is she? A wizard with scissors, I hear, and a first rate artist with the camera. Likely to steal your thunder?”
The man addressed as Trencham realized that to ignore the comment would only invite more of the same, with ever more sharply aimed, underlying barbs. He was irked by the implication, but knew better than to show it.
“Oh, not our Penelope. She knows cameras and photography, I suppose, but guns... are my forte,” he unconsciously mused, with a bitterness in his voice that was not lost on the others.
He twirled his less than totally clean, but empty foam flecked glass, noticing a fly sitting drowned in the bottom of it, and that had been hidden in the froth on top of the original beer.
He was inclined to tell off the bartender for it, but times were changing, and he was no longer the, ‘Bwana’.
He recalled seeing an old and apparently well-used machete behind the bar, earlier.
It was becoming dangerous to be too familiar or openly contemptuous of the natives anywhere. They had lost their respect for the white man.
He stifled a belch. Beer from a bottle was always too gassy and kicked up an inch of froth which inevitably stuck to the glass, and there was not a decent draft beer for almost 400 miles. The moist air seemed to attract flies like a magnet, especially to the eyes and mouth and nostrils, but to any patch of damp, especially to a beer. He fished it out with an oil-dirtied finger, and squashed it on the table just in case it might still have a spark of life.
“Another beer all round’ he waved, and raised his hand to the bartender. And another one for ‘Saint Maybe’, behind me.” He pointed needlessly over his shoulder to the only other occupant of the dining room.