THE SERPENTS OF PARADISE – Tom Hearron

Prologue: Inka Is Sick

The rain beating on the cabin’s tin roof, rolling down the corrugations and cascading to the ground, was so loud that at first the banging on the door blended with Jerry’s dream. It was early—not even a hint of gray light slipping through the curtain-hung windows.
Rolling over, Jerry groped for the rifle. Calling, “Who’s there?” he checked that the gun was ready for action.
The banging continued, and a voice shouted, “Monsieur Katz! Monsieur Katz!”
He didn’t recognize the voice over the rain. It wasn’t his boss, Gafaranga, nor his housekeeper, Laurent, the logical one to be there at this time, though this was early even for him. Without waking Anne, Jerry edged to the door and opened it, holding the rifle ready. Anyone with unpleasant business was going to be surprised.
A lightning flash revealed an Ohio State rain parka, water dripping down the sides, the bottom dragging in the mud. Bundled up and sleepy-eyed, the boy known as Imboga, who brought vegetables for sale, peered out of the wet hood, which clung to the outline of his brown face.
Bonjour, Monsieur Katz,” the boy said, panting. He must have run all the way from the village. Solemnly he offered his tiny hand.
Bonjour, Imboga. What is it?”
Imboga did not say what the matter was. Like most children his age in Rwanda, he spoke little French, so Jerry asked again in Kinyarwanda: “What news?”
Bad news, the boy said. “Inka.”
“Inka isn’t here.”
“Yes, Inka is in the park.”
At this hour? “She’s in the park?” Jerry asked.
“Yes, but Inka is, is gapfuye.” Jerry didn’t understand, and his face must have shown it, so Imboga tried in English, which he knew as little as Jerry knew Kinyarwanda: “Inka is—is, is—Inka is sick.” He pronounced the word “seek,” as in hide-and.
“Sick? She’s sick?”
Oui, Monsieur Katz. Sick. Come with.”
“Okay, but I have to dress. Come in out of the rain.” Jerry gestured for him to step inside, but the boy shrank back like a Hansel who’d acquired a dislike of gingerbread.
“Mmmh.” Anne moaned as she rolled over. Her red hair was tousled, and one brown eye opened. “What is it?”
Jerry lit the kerosene lamp. “Have to go.” He slipped on the camouflage outfit, high boots against the mud, bowie knife just in case. He checked that his pack contained extra bullets as well as the first-aid kit.
“At this hour?”
“Trouble. Inka. Sick.” He held his head and clutched his stomach.
“Bad?”
“Don’t know. We’ll soon find out. Have you seen my machete?”
“Laurent was using it yesterday.”
“Damn, I’ll have to do without then. Can you radio Kinigi?” He dictated a quick message into the tape recorder. Once the ancient vacuum-tubed machine warmed up, Anne would play it for the park office.
“No one at Kinigi?” he signed. “Then radio headquarters. I should be back soon. Love you.”
“Same.” She sat up and kissed him. “Be careful. Don’t let her shoot at you again.”   “Let’s go,” he said to the boy, who stood shivering outside. He slung the rifle strap over his shoulder.
He’d expected to head down the mountain toward the village, but instead at the car park they turned onto the trail leading to Mount Olympus. Something was very wrong, he thought. If there was a problem at Olympus, why hadn’t someone from there radioed park headquarters? If Inka—a.k.a. Elaine Barton, the famous gorilla researcher—was sick, why didn’t they bring her to the Ruhengeri hospital? They’d done that often enough that it should be routine. That woman was always getting sick or hurt. Simple cuts left unattended in the damp turned into abscesses that had the French hospital staff murmuring about gangrene and amputation. She was always falling and breaking something—only a slight sprain, she’d claim, until the swelling and agony persuaded her otherwise. She just didn’t have any damn sense! Inka had no more business here than a penguin on the moon. And here he was, just a couple of days after she’d tried to kill him, heading to rescue her.
At the park’s border, a line of bamboo at the edge of the adjoining fields, the trails diverged. Jerry led the way, not because he was a Leo, a natural leader of men and small boys, but because he had the flashlight they’d need once in the forest. He started up the trail to the research center, but the boy hung back.
“This way.” Jerry pointed along the path.
The boy shook his head. He indicated the other trail, the one into the mountains.
“To her house?” Jerry pointed the way to her shack.
Shaking his head, raindrops flying from the poncho, the boy pointed the other way.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Another head shake. “Ingagi.”
Ingagi. Gorillas.
Looking up the path, Jerry didn’t see any ingagi. The trail led through a stand of bamboo, stalks a foot across, where mist clung to the trunks and wrapped around vines hanging from the upper story. Once inside the bamboo, the gray light of morning faded. When he glanced back, the boy was gone, and Jerry was alone in the fog-shrouded forest.
Inka had definitely come this way. Discarded cigarette filters marked the path every hundred meters. God, what sort of trouble had she gotten into now? She could have fallen and broken an ankle. She could have encountered a buffalo, which, though not dangerous, did insist on having the right of way, and in places yielding the right of way meant toppling off a lava cliff. And then there were poachers, like Semburu.
The odd thing about the trail was that it was solitary, and that made Jerry uneasy. If a bout of fever had made her unable to walk, she would have sent her tracker back to Mount Olympus. And with the dozen people there, a rescue party would have set out, leaving in the process more of a trail. Of course, they might have gone another way. There was a trail out of the back of the center, though it was longer. But often she’d leave her tracker behind, slipping out unnoticed. If the camp didn’t know her exact location, if in a contrary mood she hadn’t left word where she was going—as rumor said she was doing these days—if she only announced that she’d return by nightfall, they might have set out that way before the camp trackers came across her trail, discovered she was ill, and sent for help. That made some sense in a jungle where sense was a foreign notion.
The smell warned him first—the distinctive aroma of gorillas, which indicated their mood. This wasn’t the scent of contented gorillas, a musky smell like a locker room after a wrestling match. It was stronger, more acrid, the stench of enraged or terrified gorillas.
He wasn’t surprised when he came across fresh signs of violence. In a meadow, ferns and bushes had been trampled. Loose gorilla scat—the diarrhea that came with intense panic—made the footing slick. Tufts of black, wiry hair, torn out in gorilla handfuls, littered the trail. An occasional splotch of blood splashed the foliage. Oh God, he thought, the signs of an interaction.
Interaction—what an innocuous word for the heaven-shaking, earth-rending battle when two gorilla groups bumped into each other, defending overlapping territory. Most times they stopped after hooting, threatening, name-calling, and knocking down trees, but the signs here pointed to a biting, clawing showdown. Someone was hurt for sure.
Had Barton gotten sucked into a gorilla war? She’d spent so much time with Othello’s group that they regarded her as one of them, just with eccentric taste in dress. Her loyalty was equally strong, but a sick woman was no match for an enraged silverback. Could Othello’s group have come this far since Jerry had last seen them? Easily. Could she have found them again after returning to Mount Olympus? Yes, with a little luck. But, too, this area of the park contained gorillas who hadn’t come to accept human companionship, who might very well attack if she came upon them unexpectedly.
The dense jungle was good at hiding things. Once Jerry hadn’t noticed an elephant until he almost touched it. Now, only the rustle of wings caught his attention. A dozen huge birds—ravens with splashes of white like vests, brown hawks with shrill whistles—glared at him from what looked like a pile of discarded clothing. When he came near, they took wing, squawking curses at his intrusion.
Clothes littered the ground. They contained a form sprawled in a patch of stinging nettles. Muddy boots protruded from one end, and a rain poncho was bunched up over the head and arms.
He recognized the jeans and blue work shirt that she favored for field research. Elaine Barton. A chill raced across him. This was no common emergency; this was someone in deep trouble. He knelt beside her and opened his first-aid kit. “Hey, you okay?”
No groan, no whimper. Nothing.
He squatted, trying to keep his knees out of the blood-spattered grass. “Elaine?”
No answer.
He gently turned her over, knowing that he was violating all the rules of first aid. Her chest was pierced with deep gashes, any one of which must have been fatal. His heart thumped at the sight of so much blood. No point in checking for a pulse, yet on the chance that nature’s laws were off duty, he pulled back the poncho and reached for her wrist. Then his movement stopped, recoiling upon itself, when he saw a pink piece of bone protruding from severed wrists and spaghetti-like things (veins? arteries?) sticking out like cut electrical wires.
She had no hands.
He put his head between his legs to fight off the dizziness and nausea. Yes, Inka was sick, all right, with a sickness he was powerless to cure. “Elaine,” he whispered. “Oh, my God.”
And when he tugged back the poncho that obscured her face, he saw that she had no head either.
Fat green-eyed flies, drowsy from the morning chill, feasted on the pink mass of blood and flesh that had once been a neck. When he waved them away, they buzzed groggily around his eyes.
Elaine Barton lay sprawled in a patch of stinging nettles stained pink with blood diluted by the rain, arms extended as though reaching to the heavens for help that hadn’t come.
Elaine Barton had been murdered.
Elaine Barton, famous primatologist, belle of National Geographic, might have deserved every ounce of hatred she’d earned in this land, but nobody, not even Inka the monster, deserved something like this.
A machete lay beside her body. The cracked wooden handle had been mended with banana fibers, and blood was smeared on the blade, which had a chink in it where it had hit something solid, like a neck bone.
Jerry gasped for breath, thinking, trying to calm his racing mind. Those goddamn poaching Twa, he thought. She must have caught them, a larger group than normal, maybe trying to capture a baby gorilla that, smuggled out through Zaire or Uganda, would bring thousands from a zoo itching to be first to have an endangered mountain gorilla in captivity. Elaine Barton had often said she hoped to end her life as she’d spent it—fighting for her gorillas. But somehow Jerry doubted that this was what she’d had in mind.
“Oh, Elaine,” he said. “Those fucking poachers. Those goddamn bastards!”
And then it hit him like ice water injected into his veins. Semburu, the most notorious of the poachers, and all those goddamn bastards—they might still be here.
Was he being watched? A chill washed over him. He tried to think, think. What to do? His first impulse was to run, get the hell out, back to the hut, call out the Rwandan equivalent of a posse. He’d need to radio headquarters, tune the transmitter exactly enough to reach Kigali. But he also had a job to do—protect the gorillas—and they were in danger. If Inka had come upon poachers attacking the gorillas, that would explain a lot. A battle would have obliterated any human tracks. Why, he thought, did I so easily assume that the struggle was between two gorilla groups? He should follow the flee trail, see if the group was intact, check for injuries. But which trail? A dozen radiated out like spokes, showing that the group had split and would be scattered all over the mountain by now. Locating them could take days. He could also try to pick up the poachers’ trail—Kabenda could track a man or gorilla across naked rock—and teach them a thing or two about law and order, American style.
Be calm, he told himself. Think.
A black beetle on an important errand crawled over his thigh. Some red ants that had blundered into Elaine’s body scurried about in excitement, eager to alert the gathering crew to the bonanza.
He had to think. His knees were smeared with cold blood, the stain rising up the leg. He staggered to his feet, panting, fighting back the urge to run as fast as he could. The rustle of wings, like a piece of heavy canvas, drew his attention upward to where the ravens perched, squawking, talking things over, making plans for lunch as soon as the table was available. Others gathered as he watched, settling onto limbs like silent shadows—just like that scene from The Birds.
He couldn’t leave her there alone. Even though he couldn’t help, even though she’d been a first-rate pain, he couldn’t leave her, not alone in the forest, not in the Mountains of the Moon. He bent to lift her, brushed aside the blood-smeared poncho, slipped a hand, the one she hadn’t bitten, beneath her waist, and staggered to his feet, panting. She was heavy. Though thin, she was all muscle and bone. But the blood and rain made her slick—the rifle shifted on his shoulder, and she slid off. Kneeling, he broke her fall and set her gently back on the wet earth. His hands came away blood-smeared. Blood on his shirt, blood on his face—he could feel it ooze into his beard. His stomach rose, heaved, turned a somersault. He fought the urge to vomit and forced his eyes to focus on every detail except the dead Elaine Barton.
Tears welled in his eyes, fogging the world. He put his face in his hands, and for a moment he cried.
It wouldn’t work, he thought. On a level surface, maybe, without the vines that grabbed for his ankles, without the mud sucking at his boots, without the thin air of eleven thousand feet, maybe he could do it. But here—no, he would have to get help
“Oh, Elaine.” He looked at her, wanting to look away, wanting to be somewhere else, wanting this to be a nightmare that Anne would wake him from. But the flute-call of the wagtails, announcing that the rain had stopped, the distant moo of a cow in a farmer’s field, these noises told him it was real. How useless, the first-aid kit he’d been so resourceful to bring! The bandages, compresses, splints, slings, tablets for pain, fever, and malaria—Elaine Barton didn’t need them. She didn’t need anyone’s help.
Her personal effects were scattered everywhere: a pencil chewed to the lead, a soggy box of matches, a notebook filled with writing in the code she’d used since becoming convinced that others were stealing her research. No sign of her knapsack—the Twa wouldn’t leave behind something that useful. Then it struck him that something else was missing, something she had never been without in the forest—the pistol she carried tucked into her belt.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of bushes being trampled. Whirling to locate the source, he noted the nearest tree to climb in case it was buffalo and readied his gun in case it was poachers.
Across a ravine a group of men were following his path through the brush, hacking furiously with pangas. Although he couldn’t see them clearly, they weren’t poachers. Poachers glided through the forest quietly. This bunch was loud, louder even than a tourist group coming to visit the gorillas.
A search party from the center? That would make sense. If Inka had been out all night, the trackers should be looking for her. As the men came closer, he saw park uniforms. It was help. Thank God. Relieved, he lowered the rifle. When they came near, he recognized his boss, Gafaranga. Jerry called to them, “Over here!”
Puffing and hobbling on his cane, the short figure of Gafaranga approached. He wiped water from his Boston Blackie mustache. “Ah, Monsieur Katz. This is not your patrol this morning.” He held out a hand for a formal handshake.
Jerry showed his bloody palms and thought about giving his elbow to shake, French-style, but that too was blood-smeared. “God, I’m glad to see you, Gafaranga.”
Gafaranga pushed back the poncho hood. Moisture made the long scar on his cheek stand out. His boot nudged Barton’s body. “You are not alone, I see. Do you know who it is?”
Jerry told him.
Gafaranga shook his head slowly and clucked. “What a shame to have such an accident.”
Jerry said, “Accident? This is no accident.”
“Perhaps so, perhaps a gorilla. Dangerous animal, the gorilla. Very strong. Very strong.”
Jerry yanked back her poncho. “No gorilla did this.” He pointed to the machete. “Does that belong to a gorilla?”
“Ah, la, la.” Gafaranga knelt to pick up the weapon, wiped away the blood with a cloth.
Jerry’s heart sank. Fingerprints—maybe their best chance to find the killer, and now they were gone. No one trained in Dick Tracy would have picked up evidence.
“I believe,” Gafaranga said, “we have found the murder weapon. Now we must find the murderer.” He gave a command in Kinyarwanda.
Jerry recognized enough to understand an order for his men to search the area. They spread out and trampled the underbrush, obliterating all signs of the murderer’s trail.
“I know who did this,” Jerry said. “Poachers, maybe Semburu.”
Gafaranga shook his head, his dark brown eyes burrowing into Jerry’s. “Mr. Katz, you do not know the ways of Rwandans. Poachers set snares for antelopes, they sometimes cut bamboo or steal someone’s cow, but they do not kill people, especially not a muzungu. And poachers are very poor. Would they have left behind anything so valuable as a panga?”
“They apparently did.”
“Perhaps you dropped it in the shock when you found the body?”
“It’s not mine. Besides, don’t all pangas look the same?”
“Even this one?” Gafaranga twisted around his finger a loose banana fiber that was holding the handle together.
Jerry sucked in his breath. His own machete’s handle had split, and Laurent had made a similar repair.
Gafaranga handed the machete to his aide. “Did you say how you happened to be here?”
Jerry told him.
“To your house there came a strange boy?”
“I buy vegetables from him.”
“I see. And you came alone, fearing no danger. Why did you not radio Kinigi for help?”
“The boy said Inka was sick. I thought he meant at Mount Olympus, so I asked Anne to radio a message.”
“We received no message.”
“The radio must not have worked.” He noticed the aide jotting down in a notebook everything he said.
“Of course, of course,” Gafaranga smiled. “And you set out into the forest without your panga.”
“I couldn’t find it in the dark. I got here just before you did. She was dead when I arrived. Anne will confirm what I’ve told you.”
“I do not doubt that she will.”
Jerry didn’t like the way this was headed, but he could see why Gafaranga might be suspicious. Yes, Jerry thought, I’ve had problems with Elaine. Who hasn’t? Yes, they had argued over park policy, and she had tried to bite his hand off; she’d even pulled a gun on him. Yes, there had been times when he’d felt the gorillas would be better off if she was out of the country forever and someone in touch with reality ran the center. But had he ever mentioned that to anyone?
Having finished the investigation Laurel-and-Hardy style, Gafaranga’s men announced that the trail of Elaine Barton’s murderer had gotten mixed up with the gorillas’ flight track. Trackers like Kabenda or even Fidele could have found it easily, but now the clearing looked as though a rugby match had been played there.
“Yiiih!”
A cry from the underbrush, and one of the men scurried out as though he’d seen a spirit of the ancestors. He said something to Gafaranga, who looked for himself and picked up a sodden book. When it was open, Jerry recognized the pictures inside it. The men drew back in terror. Some of them crossed themselves, while others slipped a hand inside their uniforms to finger packets of sumu—magic charms.
“Interesting, interesting,” Gafaranga said, smiling. “We have found her book of magic spells. It is just as I suspected. She was a witch.”
“That’s no book of magic,” Jerry said. “It’s a textbook on sign language.”
“The language of signs? Ah, like your—your woman uses. It is her book then?”
Jerry had never seen it before. “No.”
“Yours?”
“Of course not. Why would a book of mine be here?”
“We will know more when it is translated.”
Porters from Elaine’s staff arrived with a woven rattan litter. The men laughed and smoked the cigarettes Gafaranga handed around, ashes floating onto the body. With Jerry doing most of the work, they lifted her into the basket and covered her with leafy branches. The way families carried gifts on Sundays, Jerry recognized. The trek down the mountain began, Gafaranga and the park men in the lead, the porters next, Jerry following behind, lost in thought. The ravens set up a raucous cry, complaining of waste in a land where meat was in short supply.
They had to go slowly, the men slipping on the muddy trail. Occasionally a bloody arm came dangling out of the litter and needed to be tucked back in. The men sang a folk tune, haunting and plaintive.
At the park boundary, a mob of onlookers greeted them. The cry went up. “Muzungu! Muzungu!” Women burdened with baskets on their heads and babies on their backs streamed down from the hills. Men lugging hoes on their shoulders rose up from fields of potatoes and pyrethrum. From banana groves children rushed to line the rocky road and stare with stony, frozen expressions. Boys in muddy khaki shorts scurried between the adults’ legs, the bravest dashing out to touch the blood-spattered leaves wrapping the body. Then they giggled and rushed back to the safety of the roadside, showing the blood to their friends.
As word spread of the identity of the basket’s occupant, the mood turned festive. It reminded Jerry of the Munchkins celebrating the death of the wicked witch. He couldn’t blame them. Elaine Barton had been the one who kept them from expanding their farms. She had stopped their cows from grazing in the mountains’ fertile meadows. She hadn’t allowed them to cut the bamboo poles needed to support their beanstalks. And, of course, she was a muzungu and so, in their way of thinking, not quite human.

Author’s Statement

Who killed Elaine Barton, famous researcher of the endangered African mountain gorilla? And why are they working to place the blame on Jerry Katz, American wildlife biologist? It’s up to him to find out, because he’s the prime suspect. This question—and more—are answered in my novel The Serpents of Paradise, which I wrote to call attention to the imperiled status of these gentle giants.
Jerry believes that he’s found his dream job: protecting the gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda. Even more, he relishes the opportunity to meet his idol, Elaine Barton, the renowned primatologist whose articles in National Geographic first drew his attention to the animals. He comes to know the gorillas as friends while living in a remote hut with his life partner, Anne Lerozier, who is convinced that wild gorillas can learn sign language. The job seems like paradise. But as Gafaranga, the head of the National Parks Office, tells him, “Even in paradise are there snakes.”
The warning turns real when a late-night summons leads Jerry to discover the body of Elaine Barton, who has been brutally murdered—and dismembered. Her death in some ways resembles the real-life murder in 1985 of Dian Fossey, the celebrated and controversial American primatologist who brought the world’s attention to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. In the case of Elaine Barton, all the evidence points to Jerry as the culprit. A frantic struggle ensues, as Jerry must continue to protect the gorillas while trying to clear his name—and keep an unknown someone from killing him.

 

Tom Hearron, a native of Dallas, received degrees from Rice University and the University of Buffalo. He currently lives in the mountains of North Carolina. A year teaching in Rwanda provided the background for The Serpents of Paradise. He has published in various magazines and was a prize winner in the Authors in the Park fiction contest. An earlier version of this novel was a finalist (top five) for The Dana Award in the Novel.