She had sat for well over two hours without moving, and the need to do so was an almost unbearable affliction. Every muscle in her body seemed to quiver with the craving for movement. Her buttocks were numb and despite being advised to do so, she had not emptied her bladder before they had gone into hiding, for she had been embarrassed by the masculine company and still too nervous in the African bush to go off alone to find a private place. She regretted her modesty and her timidity now.
She was staring out through the eye-slit in the rude grass structure of the hide, down a narrow open tunnel that the gunbearers had meticulously cleared through the thick bush, for even a tiny twig might deflect a bullet flying at 3000 feet a second. The tunnel was sixty yards long, paced out so that the telescopic sight of the rifle could be zeroed on precisely.
Without moving her head, Claudia swivelled her eyes towards where her father waited in the hide beside her. His rifle was propped in the vee of a branch in front of him and his right hand rested lightly on the stock. He needed to lift it mere inches to his cheek to be aiming and ready to fire.
Even in her physical discomfort the thought of her father firing that sinister glistening weapon made her angry. Yet he had always filled her with violent and conflicting emotions, nothing he ever did or said seemed to leave her untouched. He dominated her life and she hated him and loved him for it. Always she was trying to break away, and always he drew her effortlessly back. She knew that the main reason that she was still unmarried at twenty-six years of age, despite the way she looked, despite her own singular achievements, despite having had countless proposals, at least two from men with whom she had believed herself in love at the time. The reason for all this was this man who sat beside her. She had never found another to compare with her papa.
Colonel Riccardo Monterro, soldier, engineer, scholar, gourmet, multi-millionaire businessman, athlete, bon-vivant, lady-killer, sportsman -- how many descriptions fitted him perfectly and yet did not describe him as she knew him. They did not describe the kindness and the strength that made her love him, nor the cruelty and ruthlessness which made her hate him. They did not describe what he had done to her mother that had turned her into a discarded alcoholic shell. Claudia knew he was as capable of destroying her if she let herself be run down by him. He was the bull and she the matador. He was a dangerous man, and therein lay most of his appeal.
Someone had once told her. 'Some women always fall for real bastards.' She had immediately scoffed at the idea, but then thought about it later and came partially to accept it. The Lord knew. Papa was one. A great rumbustious bastard, with all the charm and flashing golden-brown eyes and shining teeth of his Latin origins. He could sing like Caruso and eat all the pasta she could heap on his plate. But although he had been born in Milano, the greater part of him was American for Claudia's grandparents had emigrated to Seattle from Mussolini's Italy when Riccardo was a child.
She had inherited his physical characteristics, the eyes and teeth and glowing olive skin, but she tried to reject every value of his that offended her and to take the opposite path to his. She had chosen to study law as a direct defiance of the lawless streak in him, and because he was a Republican she had decided long before she could understand what politics meant that she was a Democrat. Because he set so much store by wealth and possessions, Claudia had deliberately turned down the $200,000 job she was offered after graduating fifth in her law class and had taken instead one at $40,000 in the civil rights agency. Because Papa had commanded a battalion of engineers in Vietnam and still talked of 'gooks', her work with the indigenous Inuit people of Alaska gave her satisfaction enhanced by his disapproval. He called the Eskimos 'gooks' as well. Yet here she was in Africa at his request, and the true horror of it was that he was here to kill animals and that she was in collusion with him.
At home what spare time she had was devoted to working without remuneration for the Alaskan Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society. The Society devoted most of its resources and efforts to fighting the oil exploration companies and their depredations on the environment. Her father's company, Anchorage Tool and Engineering, was a major supplier of hardware to the drilling rigs and pipeline contractors. The choices she had made had been calculated and deliberate.
Yet here she was in a foreign land waiting submissively for him to assassinate some beautiful wild animal. Her own duplicity sickened her. They called this expedition a safari. She would never have even contemplated becoming an accomplice in such a heinous enterprise, in fact she had indignantly refused the invitations he had made to her in previous years, but for the secret she had learned a scant few days before her father had invited her. This might be the last time, the very last time, she would be alone with him. That thought appalled her more even than the dirty business in which they were engaged.
'Oh God.' she thought. 'What will I do without him? What will my world be without him?'
As the thought struck her she turned her head, her first movement in two hours, and looked over her shoulder. Another man sat close behind her in the small thatch-walled hide. He was the professional hunter. Although her father had hunted with this man on a dozen other safaris, Claudia had met him for the first time only four days previously when they had disembarked from the South African Airways commercial flight at Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. The hunter had flown them out from there in his twin-engined Beechcraft Baron to this vast and remote hunting concession near the Mozambique border which he chartered from the Zimbabwe government.
His name was Sean Courtney. She had known him four days but already she loathed him as if she had known him a lifetime. Not strange that thinking of her father had led her instinctively to look back at him. Here was another dangerous man. Hard, ruthless and so devilishly good looking that her every instinct shrieked a warning at her.
He frowned sharply at her with clear bright green eyes in the darkly tanned face, and the crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes puckered with annoyance at her movement. He touched her on the hip with one finger, cautioning her to stillness again. The touch was light, but she felt the disconcerting male strength in his single finger. She had noticed his hands before, trying not to be impressed by their graceful form. 'The hands of an artist or a surgeon or a killer,' she had thought then, but now that peremptory touch offended her. She felt as though she had been sexually violated. She stared fixedly ahead again, through the eye-slit in the grass wall, and she fumed with indignation. How dare he touch her. The spot on her hip burned, as though he had branded her with his finger.
That afternoon before they had left camp. Sean had insisted that each of them shower and bathe with special unscented soap that he provided. He had cautioned Claudia to use no perfume and one of the camp servants had laid out freshly washed and ironed khaki shirt and slacks on her cot in the tent when she returned from the shower.
'Those big cats can smell you from two miles downwind.' Sean had told her. Yet now after two hours in the heat of the Zambezi valley, she could faintly smell him sitting up close behind her, almost but not quite touching her, fresh, male sweat, and she felt an almost irresistible urge to move in the canvas camp chair. He made her feel restless, but she forced herself to sit perfectly still. She found herself breathing deeply, trying to pick up the faint intermittent wafts of his odour, then stopped herself angrily as soon as she realized what she was doing.
Inches in front of her eyes a single green leaf, hanging down into the opening in the grass wall, spiralled slowly on its stalk like a weathercock and almost immediately she felt the shift of the light evening breeze.
Sean had sited the blind below the prevailing wind, and now as the breeze came down to them. It brought a new odour, the stench of the carcass. The bait was an old buffalo cow. Sean had selected her from a herd of two hundred of the huge black animals.
'That old girl is way past breeding,' he had pointed her out. 'Take her low on the shoulder, through the heart,' he had ordered Papa. It was the first animal Claudia had ever seen killed deliberately. The crash of the heavy rifle had shocked her, but not as deeply as the scarlet gush of blood in the bright African sunlight and the mournful death bellow of the old cow. She had walked back to where they had left the open Toyota hunting car and sat alone in the front seat in a cold sweat of nausea while Sean and his trackers had butchered the carcass. They had hauled the carcass up into the lower branches of the wild fig tree with the power winch on the front of the Toyota, positioning it with much debate between Sean and his trackers at the exact height which would enable a full grown lion standing on his back legs to reach up and partially satisfy his hunger without enabling a large pride of cats to consume all of it at a sitting and so move on to find other fare.
That had been four days previously, but even then as they worked the metallic-green blowflies had come swarming to the smell of fresh blood. Now the heat and the flies had done their work. Claudia wrinkled her nose and grimaced at the stench that came down to her on the breeze. The smell seemed to coat her tongue and the back of her throat like slime, and staring at the carcass in the tree, she imagined she could see the black hide undulating softly as the maggots seethed and burrowed into the putrid flesh beneath it.
'Lovely.' Sean had sniffed it before they entered the hide. 'Just like a ripe Camembert. No cat within ten miles will be able to resist it.' While they' waited the sun sagged wearily down the sky, and the colours of the bush now glowed with the richer light, in contrast to the washed-out glare of noon.
The faint coolness in the evening breeze seemed to awaken the wild birds from their heat-drugged stupor. In the undergrowth down on the banks of the stream a lourie called' Kok! Kok! Kok!' as raucously as a parrot, and in the branches directly over their heads a pair of glistening metallic sun birds flitted busily, with fluttering wings, hanging upside down from the fluffy blooms to suck up the nectar. Claudia lifted her head slowly to watch them with intense pleasure. Though she was so close that she could see their thin tubular tongues thrusting deeply into the yellow flowers, the little creatures ignored her as though she was part of the tree.
She was still watching the birds when she became aware of a sudden tension in the hide. Her father had stiffened, his hand on the buttstock of the rifle clenched slightly. His sense of excitement was almost palpable. He was staring through his peephole, but though she stared as hard she could not see what had excited him. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sean Courtney reach forward between them, his hand moving with infinite stealth, to grasp her father's elbow in a cautionary restraining grip.
Then she heard Sean's whisper, softer than the breeze. 'Wait!' he said.
So they waited, deathly still, as the minutes drew out slowly and became ten and then twenty.
'On the left.' Sean said, and it was so unexpected that she started at the barely audible murmur. Her eyes swivelled left. She saw nothing, just grass and bush and shadows. She stared unblinkingly until her eyes smarted and swam with tears and she had to blink rapidly and then look again, and this time she saw something move like mist or smoke, a drift of brown in the long sun-seared grass.
Then abruptly, dramatically, an animal stepped out into the open killing ground below the reeking carcass in the fig tree.
Despite herself, Claudia gasped, and then her breath choked in her throat. It was the most beautiful beast she had ever seen, a great cat, much larger than she had ever expected, sleek and glossy and golden. It turned its head and looked directly at her. She saw that its throat was a soft cream, and sunlight gleamed on the long white whiskers. Its ears were round and tipped with black and held erect, listening. The eyes were yellow, as implacable and glowing as moonstones, the pupils reduced to black arrowheads as it stared up the long clearing at the wall of the hide.
Still Claudia could not breathe. She was frozen with excitement and dread as the cat stared at her. Only when it turned its head away and looked up at the carcass in the tree, could she let out her breath in a soft ragged sigh.
'Don't kill it. Please, don't kill it,' she almost cried aloud. With relief she saw that her father had not moved a muscle and Sean's hand was still on his elbow restraining him.
Only then did she realise that it was a female, there was no mane, a lioness, and she had listened to the camp-fire conversation enough to know that they were hunting only a full-maned lion and that there were heavy penalties, huge fines and even imprisonment for the killing of a female. She relaxed slightly and gave herself over to the full enjoyment of the moment, to the stunning beauty of this beast. Claudia's pleasure had only just begun, for the lioness looked around her once more and then, satisfied that it was safe, she opened her mouth and gave a low mewling call.
Almost immediately, her cubs came tumbling into the clearing. There were three of them, fluffy as children's toys and dappled with their kitten spots. They tripped over paws that were too large for the tiny bodies, and after a few moments of hesitation during which their mother placed no restraint on them, they launched into boisterous mock combat, wrestling and falling over each other with ferocious baby growls.
The lioness ignored them and rose up on her hind legs to the dangling carcass. She thrust her head into the open belly from which the entrails had been plucked, and she began to feed. The row of black nipples down her belly were sucked out prominently and the fur around them matted with the saliva of her offspring. She had not yet weaned them and the cubs took no notice of her feeding and went on with their play.
Then a second lioness stepped into the clearing, followed by two half-grown cubs. This lioness was much darker in colour, almost blue along the spine and her pelt was criss-crossed with old healed scars, the legacy of a lifetime of hard hunting, the marks of hoof and horn and claw. Half of one ear was torn off and her ribs showed through the scarred hide. She was old. The two half-grown cubs that followed her into the clearing would probably be her last litter. Next year, when the cubs had deserted her and she was too weak to keep up with the pride, the hyena would take her, but now she was still living on her store of cunning and experience.
She had let the young lioness go in first to the bait, for she had seen two mates killed in just such a situation, beneath a succulent carcass dangling from a tree, and she mistrusted it. She did not begin to feed, but prowled restlessly around the clearing, her tail flicking with agitation and every so often she stopped and stared intently down the open lane to the grass wall of the hide at the far end.
Her two older cubs gazed up at the carcass, sitting on their haunches and growling with hunger and frustration for the meat was obviously beyond their reach. At last, the bolder of the two backed off then made a running leap at the bait. Hooking on with its front claws, its back legs swinging free, it tried to grab a hasty mouthful, but the young lioness turned on it viciously, snarling and cuffing it heavily until it fell on its back, scrambled to its feet and slunk away.
The older of the two lionesses made no effort to protect her cub. This was the pride law: the full-grown hunters, the most valuable members of the pride, must feed first. The pride survived on their strength. Only after they had gorged could the young ones feed. In the lean times, when game was scarce or when open terrain made hunting difficult, the young might starve to death, and the adult females would not come into season again until game was once more plentiful. In this way, the survival of the pride was ensured.
The chastened cub crept back to join its sibling beneath the carcass and then to compete eagerly with it for the scraps that the lioness ripped out of the buffalo's belly cavity and unintentionally let fall.
Once the young lioness dropped back on all fours in obvious discomfort, and Claudia was horrified to see that her whole head was swarming with white maggots that had crawled out of the meat as she fed. The lioness shook her head, scattering maggots like rice grains. She pawed frantically at her own head to be rid of the fat worms that were trying to crawl into the furry openings of her ears. Then she extended her neck and sneezed violently, blowing live maggots out of her nostrils.
Her young cubs took this as an invitation to play, or to feed. Two of them launched themselves at her head, trying to hang on to her ears, while the third rushed under her belly and attached himself to a nipple like a tubby brown leech. The lioness ignored them and rose once more on her hind legs to continue eating. The cub at her nipple managed to hang on a few seconds longer and then fell under her back paws, and his dignity was trampled as she tugged and heaved at the bait. He crawled out between her legs crestfallen, dusty and dishevelled.
Claudia giggled, she could not help herself, she tried to muffle it with both hands. Immediately Sean dug her hard in the short ribs.
Only the old lioness reacted to her giggle. The rest of the pride were too preoccupied, but the lioness crouched and flattened her ears against her skull, staring fixedly down the opening at the hide. With these eyes on her, Claudia lost any urge to giggle again and she held her breath.
'She can't see me,' she told herself without conviction. 'Surely she can't see me?' But for long seconds, those eyes bored into hers.
Then abruptly, the old lioness rose and slid away into the thick undergrowth beyond the bait tree. She moved like a serpent, a sinuous flowing and gliding of the brown body. Claudia let out her breath slowly, and gulped with relief.
While the rest of the pride romped and tussled and fed beneath the bait tree, the sun slid below the tree-tops and the short African twilight was on them.
'If there is a tom with them, he will come in now,' Sean breathed softly. The night was the time of the cats, the darkness made them bold and fierce. The light was going even as they watched.
Claudia heard something beyond the grass wall beside her, a furtive brush of some creature in long grass, but the bush was full of such small sounds and she did not even turn her head. Then she heard a distinct and unmistakable sound. The footfall of some heavy creature, soft and stealthy, but very close, and she felt her skin crawl with the insects of fear and the prickle of it up the back of her neck. Quickly she turned her head.
Her left shoulder was pressed up against the thatch wall of the hide, and there was a chink in the thatch an inch wide. Her eyes were at the same level as the hole, and through it, she saw movement. For a moment, she did not recognize what she was seeing, and then she knew that it was a tiny expanse of smooth tawny hide, filling the chink, only inches on the far side. As she stared in horror, the tawny pelt slid past her eyes, and now she heard something else, an animal breathing, snuffling at the far side of the thatch wall.
Instinctively, she reached behind her with her free hand, but never taking her eyes from the chink. Her hand was seized in a hard cool grip. The touch that had offended her only minutes before, now gave her more comfort than she had ever believed possible. She did not even marvel that she had reached for Sean's hand, rather than her own papa's.
She stared into the chink, and suddenly, there was another eye beyond, a huge round eye, glistening like yellow agate, a terrible inhuman eye, unblinking, burning into hers with a dead black pupil in its centre, a hand's span from her face.
She wanted to scream, but her throat was closed. She wanted to leap to her feet, but her legs were dead. Her swollen bladder was like a stone in her lower belly, and before she could control it, she felt a few warm drops escape. That checked her, the humiliation was greater than her terror and she tightened her thighs and buttocks and clung to Sean's hand, still staring into that terrible yellow eye.
The lioness sniffed again loudly, and Claudia started silently but held on. 'I won't scream,' she told herself.
Again the lioness snuffled beyond the grass wall, and her nostrils were filled with the man odour and she let out an explosive grunt that seemed to rock the flimsy grass walls. Claudia caught the scream in her throat before it could escape. Then the yellow eye was gone from the chink, and she heard the pad of great paws circling back round the hide.
Claudia swivelled her head to follow the sound, and she looked straight into Sean's face. He was smiling. That was what shocked her after what she had just lived through, there was that devil-may-care grin on his lips and mockery in those green eyes. He was laughing at her. Her terror subsided, and her anger flared.
'The swine,' she thought. 'The arrogant bloody swine.' And she knew that her face was bloodless and that her eyes were dark and wide with terror. She hated herself for it and she hated him for being witness to it.