You must not think of me as a reliable witness, as someone immune to bias and distortion. Every story, of course, should by rights be introduced by such a disclaimer, for we are none of us capable of a wholly disinterested clarity; but though it is my intention to relate the truth, I am persuaded by the tumult of my recent past to consider myself a less reliable witness than most.
For several months prior to receiving Rawley's phone call, I had been in a state of decline, spending my grant money on drink and drugs and women, a bender that left me nearly penniless and in shaky mental health. It seems that this downward spiral was precipitated by no particular event, but rather constituted a spiritual erosion, perhaps one expressing an internalized reflection of war, famine, plague, all the Biblical afflictions deviling the continent--it would not be the first time, if true, that the rich miseries of Africa have so infected an expatriate. Then, too, while many American and overseas blacks speak happily of a visit to the ancestral home, a view with which I do not completely disagree, for me it was an experience fraught with odd, delicate pressures and a constant feeling of mild dislocation--these things as well, I believe, took a toll on my stability. Whatever the root cause, I neglected my work, traveling with less and less frequency into the bush, and sequestered myself in my Abidjan apartment, a sweaty little rat's nest of cement block and stucco with mustard-colored walls and vinyl-upholstered furniture that would have been appropriate to the waiting room of a forward-thinking American dentist circa 1955.
The morning of the call, I was sitting hungover, watching my latest live-in girlfriend, Patience, make toast. Patience was barely two weeks removed from her home village; city ways were still new and bright to her, and though she claimed to have previously observed the operation of a toaster, she'd never had any hands-on experience with the appliance. Stacks of buttered toast, varying in color from black to barely browned, evidence of her experiments with the process, covered half the kitchen table. The sight of this lovely seventeen-year-old girl (the age she claimed), naked except for a pair of red panties, staring intently at the toaster, laughing when the bread popped forth, breasts jiggling as she laboriously buttered each slice, glancing up every so often to flash me a delighted smile ... it was the sort of thing that once might have stimulated me to insights concerning cultural syncretism and innocence, or to a more personal appreciation of the moment and my witness of it. Now, however, this sort of insight only made me feel weary, despairing of life, and I had grown too alienated to keep a collection of intimate mental Polaroids--and so I was glad when the ring of the telephone dragged me away into the living room.
"My God, man!" Rawley said when I answered. "You sound awful." His tone became sly and knowing. "What can you have been doing with yourself?"
"Business as usual," I said, more brusquely than I'd intended. "What's on your mind?"
A pause, burst of static along the long-distance wire, after which Rawley's voice seemed tinier, flatter, less human. "Actually, Michael, I've some work to toss your way ... if you're interested. But if this is a bad time..."
I apologized for being short with him, told him I'd had a rough couple of nights.
"Not to worry," he said, and laughed. "My fault for calling so early. I should have remembered you're a bit of a cunt before you've had your coffee."
I asked what kind of work he was talking about, and there was another pause. A radio was switched on in the adjoining apartment; a soukous tune blasted forth, lilting guitars and Sam Mangwana chiding an unfaithful lover. From the street came the spicy smell of roasting meat; I was tempted to look out the window and see if a vendor had set up shop below, but the brightness hurt my eyes, and I closed the blinds instead.
"I've been put in charge of a rather curious case," Rawley said. "It's quite troubling, really. We've had some murders up in Bandundu Province that have been attributed to sorcery. Crocodile men, to be specific."
"That's hardly unusual."
"No, no, of course it isn't. Not a year goes by we don't have similar reports. Sorcerers changing into various animals and doing murder. Although this year there've been considerably more. Dozens of them. Hang on a second, will you?"
I heard him speaking to someone in his office, and I pictured him as I had seen him three months before--blond Aryan youth grown into a beefy, smug, thirtyish ex-swimmer given to hearty backslapping and beery excess. Or, as a remittance man of our mutual acquaintance had described him," ... halfway through a transformation from beautiful boy to bloated alcoholic."
"Michael?" Patience stood in the kitchen doorway; the room behind her was wreathed in smoke.
"The bread won't come out the slots." She said this sadly, her head tilted down, gazing up at me through her lashes--an attitude that suggested both penitence and sexual promise.
"I'll be there in a minute," I told her. "Just pull the plug out of the wall."
"Sorry about that, Michael." Rawley was back, his manner more energized, as if he'd received encouraging news. "This particular case I mentioned. We have a witness who's identified three men and two women he claims turned into monsters. Half man, half croc. He says he saw them kill and eat several people."
I started to speak, but he cut me off.
"I know, I know. That's not unusual, either. But this fellow's testimony was compelling. Described the beasties in great detail. Human from the waist up, croc from the hips down. Skin in tatters, as if they were undergoing a change. That sort of thing. At any rate, arrests have been made. Four of them deny everything. As you might expect. Under ordinary circumstances, I'd let them go. Despite the superstition rampant in these parts, prosecuting a case based entirely on an accusation of sorcery would be a ludicrous exercise. But in this instance, one of the accused has confessed."
I had been stretching the phone cord to its full extension, peering around the corner of the doorway to see how Patience was doing with the toaster cord. Now Rawley had won my complete attention.
"He confessed to killing and eating people?"
"Not only that. He confessed to killing them while in the form of half man, half crocodile."
I took a moment to consider this, then said, "The police must have tortured him."
"I don't believe so. I've spoken with him in the jail at Mogado, and he's not in the least intimidated. On the contrary, I have the sense he's laughing at us. He seems amused that anyone would doubt him."
"Then he must be insane."
"The thought did occur. Naturally I had him examined by a psychiatrist. Clean bill of health. Of course, I'm not altogether sure of either my psychiatrist's competency or his motives. His credentials are not of the highest quality, and there's a great deal of political pressure being exerted to have the case brought to trial. The big boys in Kinshasa don't enjoy the notion that someone out in the provinces might be practicing more effective juju than they themselves."
"It all sounds intriguing," I said. "But I don't understand how I can help."
"I want someone I trust to have a look at this fellow. A practiced observer. Someone with expertise in the field."
"I'm scarcely an expert in human behavior. Certainly not by any academic standard."
"True enough," said Rawley. "But you do know a thing or two about crocodiles. Don't you?"
This startled me. "I suppose ... though I haven't kept up with the literature. Snakes are my thing. But what possible use can you have for an expert on crocodiles?"
Again Rawley fell silent. I had another peek in at Patience. She was sitting by the table, staring glumly out the window, the black toaster plug protruding from her clasped hands--like a child holding a dead flower. She did not turn, but her eyes cut toward me and held my gaze--the effect was disconcerting, like the way a zombie might glance at you. Or a lizard.
"I realize this may sound mad," Rawley said, "but Buma ... That's the man's name. Gilbert Buma. He's an impressive sort. Impressive in a way I can't put into words. He has the most extraordinary effect on people. I ..." He made a frustrated noise. "Christ, Michael! I need you to come and have a look at him. I can get you a nice consulting fee. We'll fly you into Kinshasa, pay all expenses. Believe it or not, there's a decent hotel in Mogado. A relic of empire. You'll be very comfortable, and I'll stand for the drinks. It shouldn't take more than a week." I heard the click of a cigarette lighter, the sound of Rawley exhaling. "C'mon, man. Say you'll do it. It makes an excellent excuse for a visit if nothing else. I've missed you, you old bastard."
"All right. I'll come. But I'm still not sure what exactly it is you want from me."
"I'm not entirely clear on the subject myself," said Rawley. "But for the sake of the conversation, let's just say I'd like you to give me your considered opinion as to whether or not Buma might be telling the truth."