Chapter 1: Walker's Joke
Momma Mobusu's Bar
Mbuji Mayi, Zaire, South Central Africa
In the movie Night After Night, a coat-check girl gushes, "Goodness! What lovely diamonds!" Whereupon Mae West snaps back her now-famous line: "Goodness had nothing to do with it." The shiner inside the fish tank wasn't the best in color, clarity, cut, and carat count, but it glittered enough to catch the eye even in the subdued light. It all but screamed for someone to reach in and take it home with them. But it wasn't the only thing in the tank: there were a few pebbles, and a snake that would have left even the flippant Mae speechless.
"Hisssssss!" Ophiophagus hannah. Page twenty-nine of the African guidebook told all about what that sound meant.
The king cobra wasn't indigenous to the Congo Basin, of course, but Momma had shipped it in from Egypt to serve as a feature attraction in her bar.
"It hasn't moved in ten minutes," said Harlow, the platinum blonde crouching in front of the tank. "It just keeps making that noise. Do you think it's asleep? Is that how they snore?" She pressed her nose to the pane and shuddered as a thump on the glass made her jump back. "Guess not," she said, her voice trembling. They had nothing even close to this back home in Iowa.
The big snake had left a vapor trail on the inside of the tank, where it had just tried to get at Harlow and the man standing beside her. Harlow glanced at him. Men. Every man I ever met had eyes like that snake has, she thought. Except Harry here; I thought he was different. But if he's going through with this... Oh, what a jerk. He's a fool, just like all the other men I've known. To think he's all I got!
It wasn't every day Momma Mobusu found somebody foolhardy enough to accept her challenge, was it? Everyone Harlow had spoken to confirmed that. Guess there's one born every day, she decided. Even Daddy has his moments. Her father's decision not to support her career had only served to make her stronger. She'd run that newspaper of his into the ground if it were the last thing she ever did. The old fart had never gotten over having no sons, and he swore Harlow didn't have a prayer of inheriting his newspaper when he died. He was the biggest fool of them all.
And the fool next to her apparently had his mind made up. There was no talking him out of it. In Harlow's eyes, Harry, the tall stranger with the unruly chestnut hair, was unreasonably cocky, even boisterous. Or at least he had been, until he stepped up to that tank and actually peered inside along with her. She thought she felt him shuddering even worse than she had. She prayed he'd give up on this dangerous contest.
Harry had a smelly cigar seemingly welded to his face. It chugged smoke endlessly and was reluctant to ever die out. He wore a dirty white shirt and well-worn khaki dungarees held up with fraying red criss-cross suspenders. Those red suspenders had Harlow's curiosity piqued. Everyone else in the bar obviously preferred belts, she mused, so why draw attention by wearing suspenders? Dried mud caked his boots, like the boots of most men of the area who labored outdoors under the hot African sun, and his handsome features were weather-scored. As a struggling freelance reporter, she habitually noticed such things. Yet nobody could recall having seen the man before. He certainly wasn't like the other losers she'd observed in the area; at least he took better care of himself. She had to leave town fast, and with all outbound airplane flights booked, who else was there to turn to?
Who would ever have guessed he'd attempt a stupid stunt like this? Why, she asked herself, had she ever given the man virtually every cent she had, in return for his promise?
He'd drive her to Botswana? It might have been smarter to pay him after he got her there. She wasn't all that sure he even had a car. That diamond. Did he need money that bad? Diamonds were pretty, sure, but all she could think of now was the nightmare she had created for herself. Harry may not have been the best choice she'd ever made, but he had promised to take care of her. The consequences of staying in Mbuji were unthinkable. Once he had the diamond, would he finally keep his word to her and get her out? This stunt of his was so unreal.
It was getting noisy. That, too, came across as unreal to Harlow. Did everyone here want to see Harry die? That would make them no better than molting vultures. Even so, rowdies crowded around the man and egged him on, their animate urgings drawing even more spectators to gather by the droves. It was to be expected, Harlow supposed. This was going to be a contest between life and death. Who'd want to miss that? Yes, almost everybody agreed, it was an event worth going out of their way to see.
This man she only knew as Harry should have charged admission; he'd have made them both rich. But it wasn't riches that had drawn Harlow to Harry, she reminded herself. It was only their business arrangement that concerned her now. What was the big hurry anyway? Harry could always come back and take up Momma's challenge later. Who else would be so dumb? The diamond would still be there. She needed Harry's help now, and to her the clock was ticking loudly.
It was all going to be so easy, Harry assured her. All he had to do was reach in and pluck out that four-hundred-carat rock. That was it: just reach into that poorly constructed fish-tank, and pluck out one crummy, albeit shiny, stone. He'd get to keep it afterward, of course. Nothing could be simpler. Or so he said.
The question is, Harlow countered in her mind, can he do it without that scary-looking king cobra waking up again? If he were to try, it would react in a most predictable fashion. Surely Harry knew he'd have to be plenty fast to avoid the consequences then.
Harry ignored her urgings and rolled up his sleeve, exposing a hairy tattooed arm that he held poised just above the tank rim. Massive streaks of sweat dribbled from his forehead and slid relentlessly down both cheeks on their way down into the tank. Sweat glued his shirt to his back. His breath now came noisily, in short bursts, his stogie tip burning a brighter crimson with each breath.
"That overhead fan. Momma could at least have it running fast enough to stir up a breeze," he muttered, puffing eye-burning smoke into Harlow's eyes with each word.
"Don't. Please don't do it, Harry," Harlow pleaded, as she tugged at his shirt from behind.
"Go fer it, sonny," an old-timer urged, then slapped Harry soundly on his back. It was enough to unnerve Harry, who glared over his shoulder before covering the old man's face with one open palm, then shoving him back as hard as he could. The old man blinked, his arms pin wheeled, and he fell back into the crowd.
Silently, Harry went back to where he'd left off, first shoving Harlow and the returning old man to arm's length behind him. The crowd surged forward to get a better look.
"Sssssshush!" Harry growled, motioning for the others to stifle their exuberance. "You'll wake up the damn thing."
"I thought we had a deal," Harlow insisted. She reached out and again pulled Harry back, yanking him by his suspenders this time.
"Get away from me. That rock's as good as mine," Harry snarled. He spun around, swooped down and lifted the surprised Harlow off her feet and up onto the bar. "You stay put," he said. "I'll be back in a minute, and we'll finish discussing business then."
"Men!" Harlow complained, out loud this time. She glared at Harry's back as he returned to the tank.
That slimy snake was going to wake up again, any minute--and there would go her one and only ticket out. Men can be so foolish at times, she thought. More often than not, in fact.
Harry touched the top of the tank with two trembling fingers. Then he carefully studied the serpent for any further movement. "Look, it's asleep. Sleeping like a baby on spiked Quaaludes," he whispered. He slowly withdrew from the tank and spit out his cigar, then reached for a beer and guzzled down most of it before imprudently throwing the bottle to the ground with a showy burst of noise and shards. The noise noticeably startled the snake, but only momentarily. A few seconds later Harry breathed a sigh of relief as the snake went comatose again. Was it all an act?
Harry breathed in one final long and labored breath. Suddenly, without another word, he stood up on his toes, plunged one hand in the tank, and curled his eager fingers around the diamond. A smile stretched the corners of his mouth as he whispered, "I got you now...come out and see Papa."
The crowd, no longer able to restrain themselves, roared.
Harry snapped his head back and snarled his annoyance, resulting in a hush that instantly blanketed the room. The snake remained still. Everyone gasped in appreciation as Harry exhaled with a long shallow grunt, and began to bring his prize up for all to see.
This new movement finally caught the attention of the groggy cobra. It slowly lifted its head, and began darting its tongue in and out. Harry froze. Was it too late? The head, with its serpentine pea-eyes, swayed back and forth a few agonizing seconds, then dropped back down to rest on the bulk of the snake's coil again. Harry was perplexed. It had been a long way from the bottom of that glass tank to the opening at the top. His hand began shaking uncontrollably as he dipped the stone back down toward the bottom of the tank to reassure the serpent nothing was amiss. He silently prayed the snake was just too sleepy to notice him.
"Just a few inches to go. Just a few lousy inches more," Harry assured himself out loud. He slid the hand with the diamond sideways in a wide zigzag arc, just inches above the snake's head, to test its awareness. With each pause in sound and motion, the cobra settled into what appeared to be a deeper sleep.
"Go fer it, sonny," the old man loudly repeated himself.
"Please hurry, Harry," Harlow urged from the edge of the bar. It hadn't even occurred to her to get down. The unfolding drama was mesmerizing, and not only to Harlow. Harry impulsively wheeled to bellow back at her, breaking her spell, and that of the snake. "Look, Ms. Goodie-Two-Shoes, I'm going as fast as I can. Gimme a break, all right?"
But Harry had acted most imprudently. From that point on, it became a good dream gone sour. It all happened so fast--too fast. Hardly anyone in the crowd was aware of it when it did happen. But just as Harry's hand was sure to clear the top edge of the tank, the big snake leapt up, delivered its deadly cargo of venom, and silently sank back down to the tank floor, where it expanded its neck ribs to form the all-too-familiar cobra hood.
It appeared to smile as it arched upward and swayed back and forth, hissing, its tongue darting in and out between blood-soaked fangs. Fangs soaked with Harry's blood.
Harry screamed, the incredible pain flaring inside his hand and working its way up his arm toward his heart. He had dropped his prize on impact, and looked in helpless horror as the rock tumbled back into the tank. The twelve-foot hamadryad was quick to curl its coils over the stone, and there were those who swore they saw the snake actually grin in total triumph.
Harry stared into the distance, his eyes incredulous. He gazed first at the snake, then at the trickles of yellow slime that appeared to be erupting from the two tiny, puffy volcanoes that pitted his hand. He turned pale as the realization brutally sank in: he was going to die.
With exaggerated effort, he staggered to within a few feet of Harlow, to murmur, "Guess you were right all along, Lady...should have never done--" It was a sentence he never got to complete. He clutched his chest, reeled, and collapsed to the floor.
The assembled crowd climbed over each other to circle above him, shoving the reluctant Momma to their rear. To her credit she frantically did her best to peel away the outer ring of gawkers with, "Let me through--I've got enough antitoxin here in this syringe to levitate a hundred-year-old zombie. He'll survive if I can get it to him soon enough!"
Harlow scurried down from the bar and wormed herself through several human entanglements to put Harry's head on her lap.
"Please, Mister, ah, Harry. Don't die. You're my only hope. You can't die. I've got to get out of here. Please don't die on me," she begged.
Harry, eyes bulging, tried to respond, but the best he could do was grind his teeth and watch his body shaking in short spasms as he gasped for breath.
"Don't be such a baby," Momma consoled. "You're not going to die. This stuff I'm jabbing you with is pretty damn good...you'll be up and pinching my girls' fannies again in no time." But as she turned her head to shout back to the constricting crowd with, "C'mon, back off and give this guy some goddamn room to breathe," Harry's face became locked in speechless horror, and he quit breathing altogether.
The mob parted as requested, but not without resistance, and far too late to help poor Harry.
Momma snapped her head back from her hollering and paled at the sight that awaited her. After shoving two fingers into Harry's throat, she said, mystified, "Must have been his heart, the poor slob, no fuckin' cobra bite works that fast--unless you maybe get it on the neck or something. He must have died from sheer fright. What a dumb shit."
As if she was used to people dying in her bar every day, Momma ordered two of her hirelings to drag the body out. "Take him over to Doc Kranner, and somebody call Johnny Law. Tell 'em I'll come down and help 'em fill out the report later. I don't want 'em coming in here. It's bad for business." Then she added under her breath, "They better not give me any goddamn flack about this. They sure gouge me enough every month to look the other way on the other crap that goes down in here."
Momma offered everyone a round of drinks--on the house--when the majority threatened to go bombastic. "That's enough excitement for one night," she bellowed. "Drink up; think maybe I'll close up shop early tonight." The crowd surged up to the bar, looking from the top balcony like legs moving in concert under a fifty-foot-long centipede. They made a noisy nuisance out of themselves as Momma and her help frantically served drink after drink.
Later, when she had assured herself that things were settling down, Momma headed for the door, motioned and shouted over her shoulder, "Business as usual tomorrow, guys, party's over." As if she thought anyone needed reminding, she added, "Be sure and come back. I got bills to pay, you know." The locals plowed through the swinging doors, as they all knew Momma's authoritative orders were not to be ignored.
Left behind were Momma's help and the drunks, people Momma made a practice of letting sleep it off in place when the occasion presented itself. But Harlow also stayed behind. "Yeah, business as usual," she complained bitterly. "You have your people drag out the only hope I had of leaving this hellhole alive, and you call it 'business as usual'." Momma came closer to put her arm around Harlow, but the blonde shrugged her off. She stared through the swinging bar doors out into the street, and continued raving with her back to Momma. "Look at them. They watch a man die--just for sport--then they soak up all the free drinks you'll allow them like nothing ever happened. I think they're the most despicable people I've ever seen in all my life."
Harlow spun around, sidestepping the amused Momma, and ran to the center of the room. She glared while pointing an accusing finger in a wide arc that encompassed the barkeeps and all the drunks in her view. She added in a steady low voice, "And believe me, I've seen some doozies in my time!"
Her hazel eyes were but slits, red and puffy, like the aftermath of a four-hanky two-reeler back home. Even Mommy couldn't console her when she got like this.
Stepping forward and leaning back against the doorway, Momma shrugged. "I gave him the same chance I give everybody who comes in here. Is it my fault the local hoi polloi like to watch saps like him try for the shiny brass ring? What were you doing just now? Lollygagging, weren't you, Duchess, safe and high up there on the bar? Sure, they were watching the show. I noticed you didn't turn away, either."
Harlow's answer to Momma was another of her cold stares. True, she was angry, but mostly it was because Momma was right. She had enjoyed the show--while it lasted.
But Momma had that other good question. What the heck was she doing here? Not just here in the bar, but what the heck was she doing in Mbuji-Mayi, anyway? Much more importantly, how was she ever going to get out, now that her only hope had died with Harry?
Yes indeed--what the bloody heck was she doing? Where the expletive was Mbuji-Mayi, anyway? In thinking about it, Harlow had to admit it was no accident that she was in that particular bar. Thinking over the last few days, she had to admit it was her own damn fault she was in the trouble she was in. Travel southeast, no more than one hundred km from Kananga, by all accounts one of Zaire's bigger cities, and you too just might stumble onto Mbuji-Mayi on your way. It's one of those places where you'd be wearing a "Where the hell's Mbuji-Mayi?" T-shirt if it was anything closer to resembling civilization.
Father Saboon had told Harlow what to expect. She had found him begging for alms for the poor at the local airport. He had taken her under his wing, and had become something of a mentor to her. It was he who had introduced her to Harry. The Father, a balding, bone-thin man in his late fifties, wore an unkempt gray beard and tattered clothes of similar color. But his green eyes were kindly, and he said he knew everything worth knowing about Mbuji-Mayi and its indigenous people. His stories on the subject were boundless.
"What rates it a place on the map," Saboon once told Harlow, "isn't the lush green jungle that surrounds it, the beauty of the friendly ladies of the night, or even its proximity to the historical Congo River you've probably read about. It's Old Man Greed. He's alive and well. He lives right here, and as you can see, he has plenty of friends to keep him company."
Harlow had dwelled on his every word as if they were swallows through a straw stuck in an ice-cold Shirley Temple. She naively believed the man could do no wrong; even now she believed.
"You want to know what brings people here? It's diamonds, what else? Here in Mbuji you can still find them," Saboon had said, "both legal and illegal, and some of us will even live to tell about it after we collect them." At first, Harlow had only paid lip service to being interested in what Saboon had to say. But in time his words more than intrigued her. Still, would he ever get around to helping her before she ran out of enough money to pay his bar tab? As a reporter, one of the first things she'd learned was that if you want water, you gotta prime the pump first. How much priming was he going to take?
"Diamonds are a major drawing card here for people like me, of questionable character, from all over the world," he said. A chuckle had set the tone. "They flock like maggots drawn to bloody magpies--hard-pushing to make their deals. Winners, losers. They all come here." Will he ever stop rambling? Harlow had wondered.
"People with dubious pasts, people with pristine high hopes and thorny aspirations." And on and on. Under different circumstances, Harlow would have been hooked; he was such an interesting character. But the moment was nearly ruined when Saboon paused to spit into a tarnished copper spittoon, an act that made her stomach churn. Was he a slime-ball like all the rest of the men she'd met in the area?
Saboon rambled on. "Mostly losers and natives who work their skins off hoping to make enough to move the hell away." Father Saboon's voice trailed off as he coyly solicited another bottle of the local hooch from Harlow. "In all fairness, most of us make at least the attempt at honest toil when we first get here. But take my word for it, there are those, and I suppose there will always be, who connive to better their lot by any means." He drank a long swig from the bottle. "These are dangerous men who make their own opportunities while they're here," he continued. "Most, like me, manage to cover up their past afterward, and then, unlike me, move on to pastures of darker green. That, I'm afraid, dear lady, is the Mbuji-Mayi of today, a land of opportunists."
Harlow couldn't help noticing at the time that Saboon was beginning to slur his words.
"Theesh are people," he continued, "involved in developing a past they must always hide. Toward that end you can't find a bar here where somebody isn't trying to sell you something."
He paused only to take another swallow. Then with a wave of his hand he said, "A treasure map, something off the black market, or a stolen trinket they claim belonged to a famous figure like Rommel, King Solomon, or even Hemingway. As for me, I wouldn't stoop so low; instead I sell the real thing, shrunken human heads. Have 'em sent to me from Hong Kong. I'm legit in what I sell."
"Yes, Father, you've told me all this before. Can you please get to the part where you can help me?" Harlow urged.
Her anguished pleas were wasted on the good Father. Saboon knew an excellent mark when he saw one. And he knew more than enough to stall Harlow to the point where he could glean a few more free drinks from her. Saboon knew it all, all right, and would ramble on to her and anyone able and willing to feed his booze-cravings. But there was marginal truth to what he had to say. If one were to come to Mbuji and craved the color, or wanted some information, or just longed for companionship, they ultimately would ferret out one of his bars du jour.
Sooner or later, everyone coming to the city would find themselves at Momma Mobusu's, too. Harlow had heard it right. It was here, everyone she met had told her, that you could find almost anything you wanted from Zaire--including a way out.
If, however, Father Saboon hadn't agreed to bring her to the bar, Harlow didn't know what she would have done. Going there alone didn't exactly appeal to her: all those burly men. But now that he had brought her, he proved to be more interested in drink than in keeping a watchful eye on her. Ever leery, she kept a watchful eye on the front door, fearful that at any moment the local police might stroll in and prove to her she had been found out.
On her first arrival at Momma's, this particular afternoon, Harlow had sized up the place and tried to tie a garnish on what she saw. She noted with tribulation that Momma Mobusu's clientele included twenty or so blacks, what the locals called coloreds; a like number of assorted Europeans, including sundry Frenchmen, Belgians, and boisterous ex-German Nazi patriots; and more than a few unsavory sots, taking up otherwise perfectly good chairs and tables.
Harlow noted that off in a corner were two titans with bulging tattoo-marred biceps engaging in undulating, sweaty arm-wrestling. By the stairs were at least ten noisy card-playing rowdies, comprised of a hodgepodge of mixed nationalities. They were all belly-bumping a large table and working themselves into a fever pitch betting on moldy-looking cards. There were piles of poker chips in the center of the table. The whole room was partially obscured by a thick haze of cigarette smoke. A typical gathering for a bar like this, she speculated. She kept close to Saboon as he headed for the nearest barstool.
Harlow could have counted the women in attendance on the fingers of one hand. They had tattoos too, though not as erotic as the ones the two arm-twisters sported. If Momma had one, it wasn't in a place polite people would want to look, Harlow surmised. A green parrot that Momma kept in a wire-dome cage high over the bar added color to the scene, in both feathers and language. Harlow tried not to stare at the full-length painting of a nude lady hanging behind the bar.
After giving up on Father Saboon being sober enough to help, Harlow pleaded her case to everyone she dared talk to, anyone who would even pretend to listen to her plight. But nobody had any ideas she could take seriously--though it stroked her ego that all had propositions for her to consider. Finally, Father Saboon bounced back to reality long enough to point out the relatively clean-cut stranger she later learned was Harry. He said he'd help, and Harlow believed in him. Father Saboon would never have referred Harry to her if there were any question as to his integrity. A good man or not, who would have guessed he would choose to take the detour that he did later in the day, forcing him to drop out of the race?
With Harry dead and long removed from the bar, Momma eventually returned from the swinging doors and ordered one of her people to slide over a bottle of whiskey with two glasses. She poured herself a half-glass, then filled the other glass full. Momma plunked it down so hard it slopped over the rim and left a puddle on the bar in front of Harlow. Harlow jumped at the sound. She searched Momma's eyes for intent, then gulped the drink down in one long swallow. As she coughed and sputtered, Momma said, "Look, honey, my boys tell me you need a greased ride outta here. All planes out are booked this week, huh? You say you got twenty-four hours, or they'll make a permanent place for you at our Hoosegow Hilton? That would give even me a case of the hives--a real crying shame," she said, shaking her head.
"Can't argue with that much," Harlow said, eyeing the bottom of the glass. "My first real drink, and it has to be when my head is already spinning like a top."
Meaning well, Momma offered, "It's none of my business, honey, but you really should watch whose toes you step on around here. But if you really gotta leave our fine city, have you tried Walker yet?"
Harlow had accepted Momma's drink offer without question. Now she wondered if Momma could be trusted to recommend a reliable guide, or anyone else for that matter.
"Walker? Is that what this stuff is?" she asked in a horse voice, while studying the bar spill for acid burns.
"No, the one I'm talking about is a he."
"He, who? Does he have a car?" Harlow asked, her head going down for the third time in an eddy.
"Who he is doesn't matter a whole lot, but I hear tell he's got a plane holed up someplace downriver. Maybe you can talk him into flying you out, if he's up to it."
"Why, is he sick? I mean, I can't wait for very long."
"He's not exactly sick, but he...oh, hell. That's him over there," she said, pointing. Harlow hadn't noticed this particular sot. There were Momma's people and a few drunks draping several tables that obstructed her view.
"Where? That good-looking hunk with the cleft chin standing over there by that short floozy in the red dress?"
"No, they work here and he's one of mine. Name's Pete. I mean the demolished one, the guy putting a strain on my best bar table--over there," Momma said, pointing her ring-studded finger.
"You can't be serious."
Momma gave a snicker and another shrug while nodding yes, her eyes rolling up. "He's supposed to be a mining engineer, but the only thing I've personally seen him engineer is that bottle he keeps with him. Don't even think of prying it off of him. He can get downright vicious." Momma barely stifled a laugh.
"How old is he? He looks older than a wooden nickel my Daddy has on display on his desk," Harlow said.
"Naw, he's not a day past forty-eight. I saw it on the mine pass he keeps in his wallet. When his tab gets big enough, I just reach in and help myself." She let another shrug roll off her shoulders. "He never even notices. Anyway, everybody ages fast that does his kind of work. At least, in these parts they do. 'Bout everybody works in the mines, and they're all outdoors, honey. Leather isn't the only thing that gets tanned out in the sun, you know."
With considerable reluctance Harlow ambled over to Walker's table, taking care to keep out of reach of the others who looked even more unapproachable than Walker did.
"Mr. Walker! Mr. Walker!" she implored, as she tried in vain to rouse the sleeping colossus. He sprawled out before her, engulfing the bar table with his massive proportions. His hair, fedora, clothes, and boots were covered with dried mud--the same mud, it looked to Harlow, that had covered Harry's boots. Like gooey brown frosting on a chocolate cake. His sidearm and machete, like him, looked overused. And the man reeked like a female hyena in heat.
He, like the late Harry, had one of those weather-beaten faces with crow's feet, and his brow was full of wrinkles that, as Momma had pointed out, had nothing to do with age. He looked more rugged than handsome, Harlow mused. Dare she take the risk? He's the type I wouldn't want to ever meet in a dark alley, she thought. Not even to get a free puppy. Not even with an armed guard at my side. "Why do I always get into situations like this?" she asked rhetorically.
She glanced nervously in Momma's direction. "You have to be kidding," she muttered. Momma just smiled at her, teeth white in a dark face. Harlow peered again at the stubble-faced slug. He was obviously a seasoned drunk, and it made her skin crawl just to look at him. She finally worked up the nerve and tugged at the man's sleeve. She got some encouragement when he raised his head a notch, but he merely groaned, cocked one blood-shot eye at her and growled, "Lady, you're beginning to irritate me. Go way."
"But--" she insisted.
"Go--" he started to say, but then he inexplicably lost track. Harlow became more and more distraught as she watched Walker slouch slowly forward, then lay his chin back down on his crossed wrists, shoving the nearly-exhausted bottle to the far side of the table with both hands. He looked totally dazed.
Then he sat straight up, apparently suddenly aware that a real woman, and not the usual pink elephant, was standing before him. His gaze gradually morphed from quizzical to total obscenity. Now Harlow had to fight an overpowering urge to throw up. She lost her nerve, and hastily retreated to the safety of Momma and the bar.
Momma told her the smoke-filled room was John S. Walker's favorite haunt whenever he was in Zaire, and she added that he had long since been anesthetized by the local excuse for booze by the time Harlow had made her frenzied entrance. She hadn't even noticed him then.
There could be no doubt now, though, that he had missed all the excitement, Harry and all. What a deadbeat. But who else was left for her to turn to? The other derelicts she had asked were so poor that the nearest they ever got to owning transportation had long floppy ears and lived in a stable. Compounding her anxiety was the fact that, as saturated as Walker looked, he wasn't the only thing in the bar that irritated her. Her eyes smarted from the smoke, her shirt was wet in back from terminal sweat, and everyone had laughed at her from the get-go.
She had thought then that they had no right to treat her that way, and now wasn't any different. This character was going to be another challenge she hadn't foreseen--another thing Daddy had never warned her about. When Walker lost track again and fell forward, bumping his chin on the table, she groaned. "Men!"
Okay, so it was true that her outfit could have come straight out of an old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie, and the bar-scum all did think it made her look campy. And it was also true that her platinum-blonde hair (natural, thank you), which she'd pinned back into a bun, made her look much older than her chronological age of twenty-five. But she had to wear it that way, didn't she? The last thing she needed, she had decided before agreeing to come to Momma's with Father Saboon, was to get dragged off to a grimy pit somewhere by a horny drifter. She was in enough trouble already. It wouldn't take much more now to drive her over the edge--not much more, really, to make her lose it altogether.
Harlow hoped with all her heart that the hair camouflage would brand her as unworthy of getting hit upon. But the clothes simply were not her fault. They'd been all that Iowa department store had left in stock. Daddy had pushed her too far this time. She's take whatever it took.
Ambition can be a terrible obsession. Harlow had developed hers in a flash when Daddy told her to her face that, while she would be well provided-for when he died, she could forget getting his syndicated newspaper too. After all, he said, she was "only a woman." Something inside her had stirred then, like one of those colorful blobs in a lava lamp, and she'd declared a state of virtual warfare with her father, on the spot.
Two weeks later she was on a ship steaming for Africa, short on cash and long on determination. She would go on safari--not searching for game, but for a news story she hoped would catapult her to a recognition even Daddy couldn't ignore. She must be good at what she did: it took her only two days of probing into Mbuji's lucrative underground slave trade before she found out that it was not only known to the local police, but that it was also supported by them. She was still bewildered at the speed with which they had graduated from threats to serving her with deportation papers when she wouldn't stop her research. The alternative they offered her was unconscionable.
It was a learning experience she hadn't fully accepted yet. She did, however, concede that she might want to alter her approach to reporting in the future. No more aboveboard accusations, at least not until her safety from reprisals was a done deed.
Now, she studied Walker for signs of life. What a wretched creature, she thought. It wasn't right, her being a woman and all. At least someone should have offered her better help by now. Out of common decency, if for no other reason. Was Africa that different from what she was used to, back in the Midwest? She wasn't that bad to look at. That hadn't escaped the attention of at least some of the sober locals, now had it? On the other hand, from what she could see, they got excited by anyone who wore a bra larger than a Junior Miss trainer. She had to admit that some of the locals had even given her a few raised eyebrows. Too much attention, and for all the wrong reasons.
But most of those losers, like Walker, were just too hung-over from the heat and the booze to even care she was a lady with a very serious problem. The heat of the day does something to a man, she surmised: it drains ambition in some, compassion for the plight of their fellow man in others. Harlow was sure this night wasn't going to get much better. Father Saboon had tried to tell her that too, before he'd been ushered out with the others after Harry's demise. If she wasn't in such a hurry to leave Mbuji, she would have liked to do a piece on him and the locals he knew so well. That would fix them.
Harlow instinctively deplored drinkers. Liquor could be so debilitating. Still, she supposed, it did make it easier to forget the sweaty armpits and the soggy back of one's shirt, and the boredom that inevitably consumed men of little vision and lackluster prospects. All Harlow knew for sure was that she detested drunks, and now she needed this one desperately. The Mbuji police may have wanted her to leave Zaire badly, but not half as badly as she wanted it for herself after she'd reviewed the alternatives they had explained to her in graphic detail. If she didn't get out, she'd be locked up with the turd-eating human apes now being incarcerated, until a plane became available to fly her out, probably by then as damaged goods.
She'd barely escaped her fate while being interrogated by throwing a chair through a front window as a diversion, and sprinting out the back door. The run, while invigorating, was far too scary for her taste. Luckily her pursuers lost her in the marketplace, but she knew they wouldn't give up until they had her in chains.
"Walker! Wake up! Mister Walker!" How repulsive can a man get? Harlow wondered.
She overcame her inhibitions and grabbed a handful of his grimy black hair. She yanked upward, only to have his hair slip through her fingers, causing his head to fall back to the table with a dull thud.
"Men!" she complained. She was considering having the epithet made into a recording. It did seem to fit any situation that was totally frustrating to her. But now she tried to cut off her thoughts of the past few hours, and considered instead her recollections of the eccentric Saboon, who also couldn't hold his liquor. Her conversations with him had been pleasant, but even he had acted amused to distraction at the spectacle of her attempting to jar him from his trancelike state--a state like the one from which she was attempting to resurrect Walker right now.
Like Saboon, everyone in the bar but her thought it was funny. Oh yes, she knew the look; and now even Momma had it too. It was like a stab in the back. At least someone's having fun, Harlow thought savagely. She would have to overlook Walker's transgressions, she supposed. After all, he was a man, like the source of all her other woes. He was a snake, just like all men were. She conceded that this was all she really knew about him. But Momma made it clear she knew more. Everybody in the bar knew about Walker, except for her. And everybody present made it abundantly clear they knew a greenhorn when they saw one. They simply couldn't, in their amusement, hide it from her any longer.
Even Momma Mobusu's green parrot wanted into the act. It mimicked Harlow's "Mr. Walker, Mr. Walker," and in time, every time the bird did its thing, the bar drunks repeated it--as they were doing now.
"Men!" Harlow repeated herself, but even she realized she needed another word to better describe them. She aimed her worst glare at Walker. When he failed to disintegrate, she spun on her heels and stormed back to the bar, where the heavyset Momma was still leaning. Either she wanted to see if Walker was going to help this forsaken lady who claimed she was in distress, or she just couldn't tear herself away from watching the ruckus Harlow was making.
Whatever her reason for not leaving to report Harry, as she had said she planned to, it didn't affect her appetite. She reached under the bar and brought up a handful of greasy fried chicken. After wiping it clear of flies and offering some to Harlow, who gracefully declined, she shoved a large piece into her mouth whole and chewed earnestly while directing her gaze at Walker. Harlow heard bones cracking and nearly gagged.
"Men! They're so pathetic," Harlow said.
Momma stopped nibbling her drumstick and greeted the onslaught of Harlow's rage with an unruffled smile. A product of French and Swahili parentage--well schooled in Paris and briefly at Berkeley, but now permanently entrenched in the land of her mother's ancestors, she offered her condolences with, "He's been like that for hours. I suppose I should apologize. I was only joking when I put you on to him. I'm afraid he's not very much your type."
Momma downed another shot of her whiskey to wash down her meal. "He's not the type of anybody who's got half a brain. No disrespect to you, or him, intended," she said, fearing Walker might be listening by osmosis.
Harlow responded with a pout and a tear.
"Oh now, don't do that. I'll think of something. He's really not all that bad. A little ugly, maybe. Oh, I suppose you could even make something out of him if you cleaned him up a bit. What do they call you again, honey?"
"I'm Harlow. It's what usually gets my attention, anyway." She scowled, looking as if she had just wandered off and suddenly found herself stranded on Mars, gasping for breath. "If you weren't joking about that plane, too, I couldn't care less if he looked like the Elephant Man. I do need him, or somebody a little less like him who can get me out of here."
"Harlow. First or last?"
"Just Harlow. And you're..."
"Well, Just Harlow; I'm Momma Mobusu, as you might well have guessed by now. I own this place. You can call me Momma. 'Bout everybody hereabouts does. Tell you what, give me a day, let me find you somebody else. A rich, maybe more handsome, gentile squeaky-clean Whiteboy. Somebody with a car that works. Maybe he can drive you out. That jungle out there hides a thousand secret roads. You only need one. I'll find you somebody. Consider it a door prize, just for coming into a dump like mine."
"I don't have a day," Harlow complained.
Momma smiled and tugged at her orange halter-top, to align it front and center of her chartreuse mini-skirt. She finished with a flagrant wiggle, but her smile looked sincere, and Harlow craved the friendly attitude.
Harlow said, "No, a race car powered by what you laughingly call liquor couldn't move me fast enough. You said it before; I need out now. If your Johnny Walker's got a plane, then that's who I've got to sober up. Got any java?"
"They don't make coffee that strong, honey."
"If it's true Walker's got a plane that's not over-booked, it's the only one in all of Mbuji-Mayi, and I've got to leave for Botswana by tomorrow afternoon." Harlow wiped a tear off her cheek with the back of her hand.
"Daddy's there on business. He owns the paper I wanted to do a piece for. I've got to go find him and beg him to give me a different assignment. He was right; I got out of my league on this one." She almost started to cry again, but fought the tears back with visible effort. "It hurts more than I can tell you, but the story he sent me here to get just isn't going to happen. You've run out of time to get proof for a story when your visa papers get burned. They burned mine right in front of me. You know Walker; how long will he be out like that?"
"All night, from the looks of him. He's not going to be in any shape to fly an airplane when he wakes up, though. Even then, he's entirely mercenary." She downed another slug of whiskey, this time straight from the bottle. "It'll depend on what you can offer him if you want anything from him that requires effort. Just look at him. He'll be days before he can even walk."
Harlow glanced at Walker and fought back another flood of tears. "I suppose under the circumstances, I could put off asking Van Winkle for a ride until morning," she said. "If I can get him revived enough to hear me even then." She wiped her forehead with her scarf. "Know where I can find a room that doesn't crawl for the night? I don't have much money left, but if you can be reasonable..."
"Been having a really rough time of it, huh?"
"You don't know the half of it." Harlow thoughtlessly dabbed the end of her scarf into Momma's half-empty glass of whiskey, and ran it across her throat and down her cleavage.
Momma smiled knowingly, then she pointed up the stairs. "Got one up there you might like. Room Six. It'll set you back seven whole American simoleons, but it's cleaner than you're going to get anywhere else 'round here."
Harlow felt relieved, but remained pensive.
"A bath's down the hall. Go on and get settled, and I'll get one of my guys to bring you up some towels later. I got to go report what happened here today, or I'd do it myself. The powder room is also just down the hall up there. Remember, unless you like company, always use the locks."
Harlow's bubble burst when Momma added, "Oh, and just don't try to leave without paying me in the morning, okay?"
"Right. I'm going to stiff you after spending a night in your den of iniquity, so you can sic your two-tooth mascot on me." Harlow pointed to the middle of the bar where rested the infamous fish tank. She had heard of it long before she had heard the name of the bar. That tank was famous.
It was something of a big deal, that tank. Though Momma had only used it as an attraction for a short time, it had already become the talk of all of Zaire. It, and the spectacular four-hundred-carat diamond that still glittered like a bright blue neon sign deep inside it. The sign duct-taped to the front promised that anyone who wanted to roll their sleeves up and, like Harlow's brief business associate, Harry, had one hundred Zaires to ante, could have a crack at beating the sole living inhabitant of the cage to the gemstone it protected.
Poor Harry. Harlow wished she'd known him long enough to get his last name. He had taken his chances--and lost big time. Who would be next? Too bad she wouldn't be there to find out.
"Oh, you must mean Smiley. Aw, he's just a little ol' pussycat. He's in the last stages of gingivitis," Momma assured her, beaming. "I'm sure he bit that guy just by mistake. Just following a reflex or something. Probably just wanted to play with the fellow. That snake's peepers are so bad he can't even see farther than a couple of inches in front of him." Momma tapped the glass with her fly swat.
The big cobra hissed, rose up, and again arched itself erect, spreading its hood the scary full four inches across. Harlow flushed, her skin crawling for real, accompanied by a gaggle of goose bumps. Go ahead and smile. There's no way I'm sticking my hand in there to scratch your chin, pal, she thought.
"I wouldn't want him to hurt himself on you," Momma said, "but if you don't pay up, I just might decide to string you up between my two Leguan lizards. Two of my other house pets. I keep 'em tethered out back to keep the flies from multiplying."
"You're kidding," Harlow said hollowly.
"If you want, go check 'em out. They'd slither you to death if I told them to; I've seen 'em do it before. Takes about an hour. And I gotta tell you, it can get real uncomfortable just before the end."
Harlow snickered softly, but she wasn't too sure Momma was only joking. Well, enough of that; she turned and made her way up the stairs. Two steps up she remembered that Momma hadn't given her the key to those locks she was supposed to use. She glanced back to remind Momma when she spotted a long auburn tail sticking out from under Walker's table. She could barely make it out through all the smoke and haze in the room, but it looked furry enough to belong to a very large dog.
No one had even approached Walker's table in all the time Harlow had been in the bar, let alone as she now looked under it. That poor creature must be famished, she thought. Harlow would have let a man--any man--starve while she feasted in the desert sun under a white parasol, but there was no way she would let an animal go hungry. Not if she could help it. The key could wait.
"How much would you take for a piece of that chicken you're nibbling at for me to give to Walker's dog?"
Momma looked puzzled and scratched her head. "Walker's dog? He's got a lot of things, including fleas, but--hey everybody, she's gonna go feed Walker's dog! I gotta see this."
Momma let out a rowdy belly laugh, and everyone in the bar stopped what they were doing to join her with one of their own. Even the gaudy green parrot swung upside down on its perch pole and giggled until it gagged. Harlow ignored the ridicule and stormed under the birdcage to get to Walker's table, where she bent down to get a better look. But it was too dark and too smoky to see anything clearly. More laughter ensued.
Someone pointed out, "That's not your average dog, lady," but even that was followed by a bevy of laughter.
By now Harlow was seeing shades of red that rivaled the color of her cheeks. Were they all so blind? Couldn't they see what she could see? That poor dog. It must be famished. People could be so callous. "See? What do you think this thing is?" she said as she picked up the tip of the tail and raised it. The laughter turned into a riotous clamor.
"What's so funny about me wanting to feed Walker's dog, anyway? Dogs are just like you are. They get hungry too. They got a right to live, too," she said. She lifted the tail higher and gave it a gentle tug.
Less than overjoyed at having her tail fondled, the fully-grown lioness on the other end bellowed an earth-shattering roar, fluidly twisted out from under Walker's table, and jumped onto an adjacent one. There it stood on all fours, leaning menacingly toward and towering over Harlow. It growled a warning that grew to a belligerent coughing roar, and the inane laughter stopped in an instant. Another roar, another showy display of teeth, and Harlow shrieked, her white-knuckled fingers still locked in place around the tip of the tail. Finally, she managed to fling it away as if she had touched molten lava and gotten third-degree burns for the effort.
"Niiiice pussycat. I didn't mean to upset you. Forgive me and I'll never do it again." Harlow kept repeating her apology, all the while praying for some big-cat savvy hero to come dashing to her aid from the ranks of those present. She flushed anew when not a soul volunteered.
She slowly backed away, hoping to reach and hide behind the bar, but the enraged animal wouldn't allow it. It only hesitated for a moment before shaking its head and throwing its all into another gut-wrenching roar. Harlow froze.
Her red cheeks faded to pale--as pale as the prison lifers she had been told were eager alternatives to her deportation--and she fully expected her hair to follow suit. Daddy had warned her she that didn't have what it took. He'd once told her reporting was a job only a man could perform properly. Only a man could meet adversity in all its guises. She wondered now why she had set out to prove him wrong with such naive vigor. Maybe Daddy was right. This kind of thing was certainly too much for her to handle.
Who needs a silly old newspaper anyway? Harlow thought, her life passing before her eyes. It wasn't an encouraging little movie. Maybe it would have been better if Daddy had had a son instead of her. It was what he'd really wanted, wasn't it?
"Drats!" she complained.
Father Saboon had warned her that no heroes had ever frequented Momma's bar more than once, and it was all too clear that no first-time heroes were in attendance this day of days, either. In fact, everyone looked as if their feet were Krazy-glued inside their tracks as the big cat again stretched to full height on that table and roared a gut-buster.
Walker, no longer able to ignore the hubbub, awoke with a start. He opened that bloodshot eye he favored and sized up the situation in a quick glance, then painfully staggered to his feet and placed himself between Harlow and her would-be attacker. Harlow gasped as he glared into both the big beast's eyes while fumbling at his side for his firearm.
Harlow grew ecstatic. A hero at last! A smelly one, but he'd have to do under the circumstances.
Walker gingerly pulled his rusting Taurus Model 82 .38 special double-action revolver out of its holster with two trembling fingers--and promptly dropped it on the floor, where it landed with a thud. Looking embarrassed, Walker reached down to pick the piece up, but the lioness hopped off the table and countered with a swat from one of its big furry paws.
The beast snarled softly, as if laughing, as Walker snapped his hand away from the spinning gun. He stiffly backed off and stood erect, looking worried. Harlow felt worried enough, now, for the both of them.
"Okay. No more Mister Nice Guy," Walker said.
Again he reached to his side: the right side this time, where he slowly unsheathed his machete. It came out with such a swishing sound Harlow feared her heart would stop in anticipation of the slaughter to follow.
"Easy, Simba! Easy, big girl," Walker murmured.
"Isn't it yours?" Harlow asked, pointing at the big cat.
"It was, before you got it mad. What'd you do, pull its tail?"
"I only touched it."
Walker cringed. "You didn't. That's the one sure way to get Simba riled. Never, ever, touch Simba's tail."
"I didn't know. It's your cat. Can't you tell it to behave itself?" What kind of a hero was this? Even his own cat didn't like him.
"Don't know. She sure looks mad, though. I suppose I'll have to shoot her when I get my gun back. You wouldn't want to kick it my way, would you?"
"The cat or the gun?" Harlow whimpered. Knowing full well which Walker had meant, she reached for the gun, but chickened out at the sound of another deafening roar.
Momma shouted, "Please don't do it, Missy Harlow. That cat'll make goulash out of you." The advice was redundant.
The cat growled as if it understood and fully agreed.
Harlow had already thought better of kicking the gun to Walker, so she became an ice sculpture.
"Simba, it's me. Don't you even know me?" Walker pleaded.
Simba grew rigid as she appeared to ponder the question. Both man and cat now turned to granite. Each studied intently the other's eyes, as if longing for some sign of crumbling resolve. Then, his machete at the ready, Walker took the initiative. He took one short, albeit cautious, step forward. Shaking her head in defiance, the big cat briefly eyed Walker, then snarled another warning.
Walker again looked as worried as a virgin about to get her first kiss. But suddenly, the ferocious animal leaped, landing on Walker with one paw on each of his shoulders, knocking him off balance. Walker's legs buckled, the machete went flying, and he crumbled to the floor with a resounding crash, ending up staring nose-to-nose at the big cat.
Everyone winced in empathy, but no one offered to pull Walker to safety. They were most aware that up to this moment, the big cat had been ignoring them, which suited them just fine. Walker glowered painfully at his cowardly supporters.
Walker's machete had flown clear across the room, and he went groping after it after squeezing out from under the crouching jungle cat. Simba gave him another sweeping swat with one of her enormous paws, and Walker sailed across the room like a bagful of stale marshmallows.
"Now, that hurt," he complained.
The big cat leaped up to the top of the bar, where she obviously enjoyed the hasty retreat of Momma and her help, who had clustered there only a moment before. Her tail now thumped rhythmically against the fish tank, sounding to one and all like Crazy Horse's all-out war against Custer.
Harlow flitted from person to person. "Help him, please, somebody," she screamed. "That horrible animal is going to jump down at any minute and Walker's going to get torn apart! He's one of you. Won't anyone do something better than stare at him getting ripped to shreds?"
Apparently not. No one moved a muscle.
The lioness roared one last vibrantly resonant roar, and again pounced on the hapless Walker. Sheer impact flattened him to the floor, where he tried in vain to get to his feet again. Simba defiantly stepped off, then returned, with a ruthless vengeance, every eye glued to her every movement. The magnificent beast drooled while closing in for the kill, growling angrily as it climbed up and sat securely on top of Walker's heaving chest. Walker groaned, reacting to the weight. Even Harlow could smell the cat's hot breath from her vantage point a few feet away.
Walker looked up pathetically, and cowered before a mouth full of jagged teeth. "Eaten alive! No, not that," he pleaded. "Somebody shoot me!"
"Mr. Walker!" Harlow cried. What a terrible way to go! she thought. It was true that all men were scum, and also true that Walker was a man, no matter what he smelled like. But she never would have wished that on him. Even stinky scum deserved better than that. She inched toward the gun, but it was just too far away. Harlow watched helplessly as Simba drooled hungrily over Walker's head, and...gave him a great big juicy lick on his cheek, accompanied by a very contented purr. A cement mixer of a purr.
"Still want to feed Walker's 'dog?'" Momma asked.
The biggest of all spells broken, the bar broke into pandemonium as Momma's help laughed at Harlow in general, and Walker's joke in particular. They had seen his act before, but never had it been funnier. Yet Harlow, shaken, could see no humor at all in what had just gone down.
"So, it was all just a great big fat joke!" Harlow yelled. To her, it had been a harrowing experience, and her heart was still pounding. The crisis now over, Harlow seethed with unfathomable rage--but Walker's pet looked bored by all the commotion.
When Walker said, "Get off me, you big ham," she yawned, then stepped down to return to her under-the-table lair. Walker remained where he was, lying on his back and heaving, laughing so hard he had tears in both of his bloodshot eyes.
Harlow strolled over to stand above him, her arms akimbo. "Can I help you up, Walker?" she finally said, while holding out her hand. "Name's Harlow." She smiled sweetly, but he no longer rated a "Mister" from her.
"Sure you can. I'll say this for you," he said, between chortles, as he staggered to his feet, "you sure can take a joke. You looked so serious before, I just couldn't resist."
As soon as he could stand unassisted, Harlow withdrew her hand, doubled up her fingers into a fist, and punched his chin so hard it quivered. Walker reeled counterclockwise and sank into a heap at her feet, a bemused smile plastered on his face, as Harlow danced around, shaking a bruised hand.
"If I wasn't such a lady I'd take that machete of yours and you'd be singing alto when you got back up!" she snarled. Then she walked away, dusting off her hands as if she'd just finished a disgusting chore on the farm and had gotten them dirty. As Momma's people hooted and roared, Harlow snatched the key from Momma's hand and stormed up the stairs. Momma composed herself and sashayed over to Walker, to stare quizzically down at him. Then she sighed. "I sure came close to missing one hell of a show this time."
As if agreeing with Momma, Simba crawled out again, only to roll over, grunt, lay one paw on Walker's thigh, and flop her head back down, content to join her master in a peaceful snooze in the middle of the bar floor. In seconds both were sounding like an Oregon lumber camp crew working round the clock in full swing to meet an unreasonable quota. The parrot perked up and squawked, "Mr. Walker, Mr. Walker!"
As the cage swung overhead everyone shouted back, "Mr. Walker, Mr. Walker--he's dog-tired!"
Walker and Harlow couldn't know it--not even Momma sensed it--but the two were about to embark on an impossible adventure, an escapade that promised unimaginable riches, excitement, life-threatening danger, and the history-altering discovery of the century--a secret that once revealed stood to shake much of the world to its very foundation. That is, if the two didn't kill each other before they could tell their story in one of Daddy's newspapers.