Story by Mike Murphy
Illustration by Lee Dawn
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:26 (King James version)
“A lion is called a ‘king of beasts’ obviously for a reason.”- Jack Hanna
— ♦♦♦ —
The dead eyes of many animals watching them, John Baxter led his potential client back to where they had begun the tour: The trophy area. “I must say,” Mr. Washington remarked, looking around at the many heads mounted on the walls, “you have a most impressive collection.”
“You killed all of these creatures yourself?”
“Over the years, yes. I’ve been an avid hunter since I was 12, and my father gave me my first rifle,” John reminisced. “I brought down a rabbit that day.”
“So, these aren’t all animals you’ve bagged while here in Africa?”
“Oh no. I’d say about a quarter of them are kills from this hunting preserve of mine. I’ve only been open for a year.”
“I wouldn’t think it possible to make a living from such an endeavor.”
“With the proper management – mine – it is. I stock a variety of animals here that a hunter would have to travel far and wide to face.”
“You could say that,” Baxter replied after a chuckle.
Washington glanced again at all the trophies. “There’s certainly a wide assortment of animals.”
“Each one provides a unique challenge for a hunter’s skills. One cannot stalk a leopard in the same way as a deer. A hunter must be able to adjust to suit his quarry.” Baxter took a couple of steps forward and pointed at a mounted lion’s head. “My latest trophy,” he said with pride.
“It looks like quite a ferocious beast.”
“It was,” he assured his would-be client. “I was done for the day and heading inside. This building doubles as my home and my office. Out of nowhere – totally unexpected and unprovoked – it charged me.”
“What did you do?”
“Fortunately, I had one bullet left in the chamber. I put it right between the beast’s eyes. If you look closely, you can just see the mark.”
Washington did so and pronounced it barely noticeable. “Your taxidermist did a wonderful job.”
“I don’t like aiming for an animal’s face, but that lion left me no choice.”
“Why do you feel that way about the face?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” John answered, smirking. “It can ruin the animal’s appearance once it’s mounted on the wall.”
Washington got a good laugh from that.
“So, would you like to bring your club members here for some hunting?”
“It would be a grand trip. I must ask the membership first.”
“Our monthly meeting is on the 21st. I’ll bring it up then.”
“Can you guarantee everyone will bag something to take home?”
“I can guarantee there will be a wide array of animals available for the hunt,” Baxter clarified. “I’ll see to it that the preserve is freshly stocked. Of course, the members’ chances of going home with a trophy depend upon their skill with their chosen firearm.”
“Spoken like a true businessman.”
“This is how I make my living. If any of your members doubts his skill, there are some wonderful establishments nearby that can help him brush up prior to the hunt. My assistant, Katie, has their pamphlets.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“We want this hunt to be as rewarding as possible for all concerned.”
“I’m sorry I can’t give you a definite yes or no, but that would be in violation of club rules.”
“Not a problem,” John told him. “Do remember that we offer discounts for large parties and advance bookings.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Baxter’s assistant was typing on her computer keyboard when he opened the door separating the trophy area from her office. “Katie,” he said, “will you please give Mr. Washington Package B?”
“Of course.” She stopped typing, opened a desk drawer, and removed a stuffed manila envelope, which she handed to him. “Here you are,” she said. “In addition to the usual paperwork, there’s also a DVD about the preserve.”
“Thank you,” Washington returned. “Visual aids are always helpful.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Aren’t those tours tiring?” Katie asked her boss after Mr. Washington had driven away.
“Very,” he told her, “but schmoozing is all part of the sell. It’s like a test drive.” He stretched and inquired, “Any messages?”
“Only one: Mabenga.”
“Not him again.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What’s on his mind?”
“He said he must speak with you as soon as possible.”
“Of course, he must,” John said with a sigh. “Can I duck him?”
“That wouldn’t be wise,” she answered. “He’s one of the oldest men in the village, and you know how the natives revere their elders.”
“That’s the only characteristic of theirs that I like.”
“If you don’t see him, it might be taken as a sign of disrespect. It could ruin our relations with our neighbors.”
“‘Neighbors?’” Baxter repeated incredulously. “They’re a bunch of savages!” Katie gave him a knowing look, and he continued. “Give him my earliest possible appointment.”
She pulled up his calendar on the computer. “That would be tomorrow morning at nine,” she informed her boss.
“What a way to start the day,” John responded. “Did he mention what he wants to see me about?”
“The gods again?”
“What do his nonexistent deities want with me?”
“I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Mabenga himself.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Good morning, Katie,” Baxter said as he walked downstairs from his living quarters.
“Morning, sir,” she returned.
“What’s on the docket?”
Katie flipped through some sheets of paper on her clipboard. “You have a Skype call with Mr. Davis at 10:00 a.m.,” she announced, “then there’s lunch at noon with Mr. Sampson, and Mr. Williams will be here for his tour at 3:30.”
“Excellent. He seems very keen on booking.”
“Mabenga is waiting in my office.”
“Already? He’s a little early.”
“What’s he. . . uhm. . . seem like today?”
“The same. The man is a walking cipher. He always seems the same to me – never upset, never happy.”
“I suppose the earlier I see him, the better.”
“Shall I send him in?”
“Can you give me five minutes? I haven’t had my coffee yet, and I can’t face him without caffeine.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Resplendent in his native dress, the thin, white-haired black man walked into Baxter’s officer. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” he said.
“The pleasure is mine,” John lied to him. “How are your people?”
“Well, thank you. Most everyone is healthy, and the crops are plentiful.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’ve always tried to be a good neighbor to your village.”
“And you have succeeded. Some elders had trepidations when you began erecting your preserve, but our concerns have proved groundless.”
“‘Our?’” Baxter repeated. “You were among the worried?”
“I was,” his visitor admitted. “I am no longer.”
“May I offer you some coffee?” John asked, going to pour himself some more.
“No thank you. I had some bora tea before coming here.”
“Give me coffee any day.”
“Bora is an acquired taste. If you had been brought up on it, as I was, you would appreciate it more.”
Baxter sat behind his desk and offered Mabenga the chair facing him, which he accepted. “If you don’t mind,” he began, “my day is rather busy. Can we get to the purpose of your visit?”
“I have come about a vision I had two nights ago.”
“It is the way the gods communicate with me.”
“What’s on their minds?”
“They want you to close this hunting preserve,” Mabenga said matter-of-factly.
“They said I should tell you personally. They do not care for the way you are killing their animals.”
“No?” John asked, trying to dial back his sarcasm.
“They wish you to kill no more.”
“This preserve is my livelihood.”
“Surely, you can find another job – perhaps back in your United States?”
“I don’t want to.”
“The gods do not care about your wants,” the older man said. “It is not wise to deny them.”
Baxter took a much-needed big drink of java, rose, and sat on the corner of his desk. “Mabenga,” he started, “you understand that the two of us are not of the same religion.”
“Yes. You worship only one god.”
“In my holy book, it says that God has given man dominion over the animals.”
“Our sacred scrolls say the same. However, they also mention that we should be good stewards of the animals and allow them to flourish. My people hunt only for food, not for – what do you call it? – sport.”
“Have you ever experienced the thrill of matching your wits against a beast?”
“Of course, but only in the pursuit of nourishment.”
John reached for more coffee. “You said your gods’ wishes came to you in a vision.”
“That’s true,” Mabenga agreed.
“Have you had visions before?”
“Has any of them come true?”
“Several,” the colorfully garbed man disclosed. “You know of the Kilosay Cliff just beyond our village?”
“It’s not much of a cliff,” Baxter said.
“Not now. Years ago, it jutted out much more. Our young men would climb it and stand at its precipice to show how brave they were. One evening, the gods sent me a vision that a portion of the Kilosay would soon break off. I warned my fellow villagers. Several days later, a large section of it did crumble to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
“Mabenga,” Baxter continued, trying to remain calm, “you know I can’t close down the preserve.”
“Don’t forget that this place benefits your people too. Many of my clients, after their hunt, wander down to your village and buy your pots, beads, and blankets. If I close up shop, you will lose that money.”
“I am aware of that. However, the will of the gods has been made known, and we are not to question it. As we did before your arrival, my people will survive. The gods will see to that.”
Baxter had reached the end of his patience. “I can’t close this place. I won’t.”
“The gods will be displeased.”
“They’ll have to learn to live with it.”
“They do not learn from men.”
“Maybe this is a good time for them to start.”
Mabenga stood, his usually stoic face creased with sadness. “I wish you safety, sir.”
John rose and faced his visitor. “Are you suggesting there may be some retribution for my decision?”
“It is possible.”
“Certainly not,” Mabenga replied after a brief chuckle. “I am here to deliver a message. I would not presume myself worthy of acting further on behalf of the gods.”
“What then?” Baxter asked, getting very close to the older man’s face. “What might happen?”
“I cannot say. The gods have ways of making their will occur.” He reached out and touched his host gently on the right shoulder. “I beg you to reconsider. Please.”
“Out of the question! I have two hunting parties booked for this weekend alone. I’d lose thousands!”
“I have come here to do what the gods asked of me, and I have. For your sake, I pray that they are merciful.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“No ‘good morning’ today, Katie?” John asked as he set foot on the landing.
His assistant didn’t look happy as she held several sheets of paper in one hand. “I’ve been checking the voice mail,” she told him.
“What?” She passed him the papers. He counted them aloud: “One, two, three, four, five, six. All of these are cancellations?”
He flipped through the pages, reading the surnames of the cancelled parties: “Dundon. . . Mercer. . . Waverly. . . Pierce. Not Pierce!”
“That was a big booking!” he complained. “Did anybody say why they were canceling?”
“Not a one.”
“Can we get any fees?”
“I checked the contracts. All the cancellations are within the terms. We can’t collect a cent.”
“Damn!” There was a sudden knock on the door. “Come in,” Baxter said.
It was Gren, the caretaker he had hired from the village when the hunting preserve opened for business. “Good. . . Good morning,” he greeted them nervously.
“What is it?” John asked. “The staff meeting isn’t until tomorrow.”
“I know that, sir.”
“Is there a problem?” Katie wondered.
“Out with it, man!” his boss exclaimed.
“Well. . . I was doing my usual morning walk of the preserve when I noticed. . .”
“The lions, sir. They’re. . . gone.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Baxter told Gren they would talk in his office.
The caretaker took a seat. John sat behind his desk and filled his coffee mug from the whiskey bottle in the hidden drawer. He didn’t usually touch a drop until noon, but he knew today was going to be a bad one. “How can the lions be missing?” he asked after a healthy swig from his mug.
“I wish I knew,” Gren answered.
“It’s your job to know!”
“I looked into every possibility before I came here. I’m at a loss.”
“Are you sure they haven’t wandered away from their usual site? They’ve done that before.”
“Yes, sir. Their tracking chips aren’t showing up on the screens anymore.”
“The security system?”
“It’s functioning properly. The fence is intact and electrified.”
“Could any of the other animals be responsible?” Baxter asked.
“You mean could they have eaten the lions?”
“I doubt it. It would take an awful lot of them to subdue even one. And, if that had happened, there’d be some evidence, like a carcass.”
“Then what did happen?”
“Only the gods know.”
“The gods,” John said, suddenly understanding. “Of course!”
“Take a look around the security fence.”
“I already have,” Gren informed him.
“What should I look for?”
“A man’s footprints – sandals, to be exact.”
“You think one man is responsible for –”
“But he would have to come in through the main gate, sir. There is no sign of any entry or exit from there. . . neither man nor beast.”
“Check it again.”
“But, Mr. –”
“Do I need to do it?”
“Of course not.”
“I can find a new man to take your place,” Baxter warned his employee. “I’m sure someone from your village would jump at the chance. Is that what you want?”
“I didn’t think so,” he said, satisfied he had gotten his point across. “Check every inch of the security fence – inside and outside. Unless I miss my guess, you’ll find some indication of an after-hours visitor.”
“Right away.” Gren stood, quickly turned on his heel, and left, closing Baxter’s office door behind him.
John drained the last drop of liquor from the mug and heaved it at the door. It broke into many pieces. “I’ll get you for this, Mabenga!” he exclaimed, pounding a fist on his desk.
— ♦♦♦ —
Not much later, Mr. Washington, who had been given a tour of the preserve only days earlier, called to add to the bad day. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but my club won’t be coming to your establishment.”
“How can you know that already?” Baxter wondered. “You said your meeting wasn’t until the 21st.”
“It isn’t, but Saxon but the kibosh on the idea.”
“The club president. It turns out that his wife and daughter are very much against hunting. He said he would catch no end of grief if the trip was approved.”
“Can he simply reject the idea outright like that? Is it within your club’s rules?”
“Not really, but I can’t imagine anyone challenging the decision of Fred Saxon.”
“Maybe I could speak with him, try to change his mind?” Baxter suggested, grasping at financial straws.
“I’m afraid that would be a waste of time,” Washington told him. “You’re not married, are you?”
“Edith Saxon runs that home with an iron fist, and daughter Amelia is as spoiled as year-old milk. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t give up hope. Our club elects a president every year. It’s possible that someone more open to the idea may run against Saxon in November,” Washington said. “Granted, no one has for the last five elections, but there’s always a chance.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Katie stepped on a piece of the broken mug when she entered her boss’s office. “Have an accident?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” he answered her, rubbing his exhausted eyes. “I’ll. . . I’ll clean it up later.”
“Mr. Washington’s club won’t be coming.” He looked up and noticed that his assistant was holding a sheet of paper. “Is that another cancellation?”
She nodded. “The Thompson party.”
“Did I hear Gren correctly: The lions are. . . missing?”
“It has to be Mabenga.”
“That old man?”
“He must have figured out a way in here and released them.”
“Are there any signs of forced entry at the gate?”
“Then how –”
“I don’t know!” Baxter exclaimed. “Maybe he. . . Maybe he flew in!”
“Maybe those gods of his picked him up and dropped him in here. Mabenga said they want me to close this place down. It sounds like he’s helping them bankrupt me.”
“He has nothing to do with the cancellations,” Katie told her boss. “It’s just. . . bad luck. You don’t really think – even for a minute – that Mabenga’s gods –”
“No, but I do know one thing.”
“It’s time to pay Mabenga a visit.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Mabenga welcomed Baxter to the village and escorted him into his mud-and-brick hut. John told him what had happened. He also mentioned who his chief suspect was.
“I assure you,” the white-haired man told him, “I have nothing to do with your troubles.”
“You didn’t return to the preserve last night?”
“I did not.”
“I don’t believe you,” Baxter said flatly.
Mabenga was surprised. “I am sorry you think me dishonest. Why would I take your lions?”
“To make me believe the wish of your gods was coming true.”
“You are accusing me falsely.”
“Where are they?” John asked adamantly.
“I do not know. I assume the gods have taken them to show their displeasure with your decision.”
“Get one thing straight, old man: I don’t believe in your gods,” Baxter announced, his anger finally boiling over. “There’s a perfectly logical and earthly explanation to this.”
“Of course!” John said seconds later, understanding the whole scheme now. “How could I have been so blind?”
“What’s your price?”
“How much do you want to give the lions back and call off your gods?”
“I do not control the gods.”
“I want the lions returned!”
“I do not have –”
“A thousand? Five thousand?” He gestured at the hut’s sparse decorations. “You won’t make that much in a lifetime of selling these knickknacks of yours.”
“I want nothing of you, Mr. Baxter. I have taken nothing from you.”
“Do you know much of my religion?” Mabenga wondered.
“A little. Why?”
“The gods can be merciless when they are denied. I urge you one last time to please close your preserve.”
“Out of the question.”
— ♦♦♦ —
John, now dressed in his bathrobe, found a glass to replace his broken mug. The whiskey was nearly gone. He took another swig and continued to talk to himself: “Close this place down, huh? No way. Well, gods or whoever you are, you’ve met your match in me.”
As if on cue, he heard a low noise. “What was that?” The sound came again, louder and longer.
It was a lion’s roar.
John stood up quickly. “The old fool brought them back!” he exclaimed. “I knew he couldn’t stand up to me.”
— ♦♦♦ —
He drained the last of the whiskey and rushed to Katie’s office. He found the flashlight in her desk drawer and opened the door to the starry, humid night. He panned the light beam around but did not see his lions.
The alcohol briefly cleared his brain as another roar sounded. That was when he realized the sound was coming from inside the building.
The old fool was trying to kill him!
— ♦♦♦ —
Rifle at the ready, he walked the halls, taking direction from what he could hear. Since there was only one roar at a time, he reasoned that a single lion was loose in the house. Where were the others? He would get that information out of Mabenga later. . . and he would enjoy it.
The sound suddenly changed: After every roar, there was an odd thunk. He returned to the trophy area. The noise grew louder, and then louder still.
Baxter turned quickly, sensing his prey. “You can’t be,” he called, sweat forming on his brow. “You’re. . . I killed you.” He got off several rounds, but they had no effect on the roaring thing. It was quickly upon him. John managed a few agonized screams before becoming a filling meal.
— ♦♦♦ —
Mabenga was waiting at the door as Katie pulled up. She got out of her car and approached him. “Good morning, miss,” he said.
“Hello, Mabenga,” she pleasantly replied. “You’re here early.”
“Yes, the sun is new in the sky.”
“I don’t recall you having an appointment with Mr. Baxter,” she said as she pulled a loaded key ring from her purse.
“I do not, but I must see him.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I had a vision that he will soon be in danger. I came to warn him.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.” She opened the door and flicked on the light switch. “He’s probably in his office. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Mabenga closed the door behind him as Katie entered the trophy area. Her sudden screams were piercing! The old man rushed to her. Shaking, she covered her wet eyes with one hand, pointing at the rug with the other.
There wasn’t much left of John Baxter.
Hoping against hope, Mabenga felt for a pulse. None.
“It looks like. . . like something. . . ate him,” Katie blubbered.
Mabenga pointed at the streak of blood behind the corpse. “He must have been trying to get away.”
“What do we do?”
“You call the authorities. I will stay with the body.”
Katie hurried to her office, fumbling the phone the first time she tried to make the call.
“You poor, poor man,” Mabenga said, a tear coming to one eye. Finding himself unable to look at the remains any longer, he glanced at the trophies. When he saw it, he squinted and stepped closer. There it was, in the mouth of the lion Baxter killed and had mounted to the wall only recently, a bloody strip of his bathrobe.
— ♦♦♦ —
Captain Jenks didn’t tolerate turn-coats. Henry had been caught and summarily thrown overboard. Then things got very strange…