Blood Forest (Suspense thriller) (9 page)

BOOK: Blood Forest (Suspense thriller)
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She could still feel the eyes on the back of her neck, but the apparition held no power over her.

Let it look all it wants.

Brandon’s arm twitched underneath her, the spasm similar to the motions he made the previous night. He was in the middle of some kind of nightmare, she realized.

She shook his shoulder gently. He stirred, rolling his head and smacking his lips lightly, but he didn’t wake up.

She slid closer until her lips were at his ear and his short brown curls brushed her forehead.

“Sleep sweetly, baby,” she whispered. “It’s just a nightmare.”

With that, he rolled up on his side, facing her, his eyes still closed. His arm draped absently over her side and she slid closer so her cheek pressed into the dip between his pectoral muscles, hot skin on her face.

She lay like that, ignoring the cloud in the tent, and his arm did not twitch for the rest of the night.

Morning came and, although she had barely slept, Sam was anxious to get moving. She said nothing about what had happened the night before, instead greeting Brandon with a warm smile and a hug. The action felt forced, despite her best efforts, and his returning hug seemed the same way.

With each passing hour, the shadow’s power waned and the sun broke through the trees, lighting the forest in brilliant shades of blue.

As they walked, the floor of the Ituri forest rose and fell, hinting that they were leaving the lowlands and entering a hillier submontane region. The animal cries still haunted them, forcing them to wonder what creatures were making those noises. They rarely spoke to each other and when they did their voices kept to a near whisper.

“Did you hear that?” she asked suddenly, breaking the silence.

They were climbing toward the top of a small hill. The shadowy ground ahead silhouetted the bright green tapestry in the distance. The sound had come from over that next crest, singsong voices carried on the breeze like wind chimes.

Brandon regarded her with careful suspicion. At any minute, he would accuse her of imagining things.

She heard the sound again, a high female voice singing out a strange melody. Other voices joined the first one in a foreign song. Sam could not make out the words, but the syllables reverberated in a simple rhythm. It sounded like a child’s song, lighthearted and repetitive, the kind of song that could be sung indefinitely.

“There it is again,” she said. “Do you hear it?”

He tilted his head, picking up the noise. He glanced curiously at the trail ahead as it swept over the next peak.

“It’s getting closer,” he noticed. He jogged up the forest trail, his backpack bouncing heavily against him. When he reached the top of the hill, he stopped and gazed down the opposite slope.

The singing stopped and the voices erupted into a stream of giggles, filling the forest with their laughter. Sam moved up beside Brandon and followed his gaze down the trail as it twisted through the undergrowth. Through gaps in the leaves, she saw fast movement coming up the trail.

Three of them came into view, skipping lightly. They seemed to glide off the ground as they moved. Their black skin glistened in the light, covered only at the waist by grass skirts. Long tails of bark hung down behind them, whipping about as they hopped and danced. They were so small that Sam thought they were little girls no older than seven, but their naked breasts were full and developed, swaying with the rhythms of their steps.

The three girls stopped, having spotted Brandon and Sam at the top of the hill. They quieted instantly and spent the next seconds staring across the remaining distance. Their black hair formed thin hoods around the tops of their heads, and they had exotic faces with eyes spaced far apart. They carried baskets with twigs and branches sticking out of the sides. They seemed at least as shocked to see Sam and Brandon standing there as she was to see them. Brandon raised his right hand to wave.

The lead girl repeated the gesture and Sam saw the friendly grin on her face. She yelled out a greeting that Sam didn’t recognize. The second girl joined in, but the third remained silent, standing shyly behind the lead girl.

These are pygmies, she realized. The next few moments were awkward, as the two groups stared at each other. Sam took a few steps forward and pointed to her chest. “Sam,” she said, enunciating as carefully as possible.


Sam
,” the lead girl repeated. She introduced herself and the two others. Sam did her best to repeat the names back at them, but she could tell by the laughter that followed that she had gotten them horribly wrong.

“Do you know if there is a village near here?” Brandon asked.

The girls didn’t seem to understand what he was asking. They turned to each other, talking and giggling amongst themselves.


Où est la ville la plus proche?
” Sam asked.


Ville?
” the lead girl repeated.

She nodded. “
Oui. Une ville.

The lead girl nodded back encouragingly and asked a question. The second girl widened her eyes in surprise when she heard and the two turned to each other and began arguing. Their language had a strange tonal quality that made the words sound like singing.

The second girl threw up her hands and backed away, looking as though she might cry. The lead girl turned back to Sam and asked, “
Perdu?

She nodded. Yes, they were lost, she explained in French.

The girl grinned wide. Standing closer, she saw the woman’s smile up close for the first time, and she struggled to hide her revulsion. The girl’s smile exposed a row of sharpened, jagged teeth.

The girl pointed to the two of them, before turning the finger on herself. “
Ville,
” she announced reassuringly and pointed at the trail behind them. She walked slowly in that direction, then turned to look at them, and gestured for them to follow.

Sam got the point

“She’s going to lead us to a town,” she said to Brandon. “I think we should follow them.”

“Right,” he agreed.

The three pygmy girls, the tallest barely reaching Sam’s chest, skipped off down the trail, starting them off at a brisk pace. They shouted back words of encouragement in their own language, as Brandon and Sam struggled to keep up.

Njia Nya Siri

(The Secret Path)

“He who asks questions cannot avoid the answers.”
—African proverb

8

J
ean bit through the ripe red skin and tasted the sweet juices of the fresh tomato as they poured into his mouth and dribbled down his chin. The fruit was one of many treasures plundered from the conquered village. The
Askari Nahuru
had settled in after trapping and executing their Mai-Mai enemies. Now they would enjoy the spoils until their warlord instructed them to pack up and move out.

Certain treasures, like the freshly picked tomatoes, would only be enjoyed for a while, but others, like Jean’s new Glock, would still be on his hip when he left the ruined village behind.

The sound of shouting in KiSwahili drew his attention away from his meal. From outside the
baraza
, he gazed past the thatched huts at the dirt road leading into the village. He stood up, his hand resting against the new automatic machine pistol.

An olive green truck, rusting brown in places, burst around the corner. Clouds of brown dust billowed out and settled amid the green trees.

Jean lifted his hand from his weapon, but he did not relax. His muscles grew tense as a string of trucks, Jeeps, and motorbikes followed.

Halfway down the procession, he spotted a Jeep filled with heavily-armed soldiers. Leopard skins draped over the sides of the Jeep. A small flag, reminiscent of the Ugandan flag, with stripes of black, amber, and crimson fluttered at the end of a long antenna.

A stern, round-faced man, missing his left eye, sat in the backseat. He wore a black beret and a small half-cape, cut from the striped hide of an okapi.

The men stationed throughout the village got up, shouldered their firearms, and filtered toward the open lot at the end of the road. All were eager to see their general’s face when they informed him that all of the Mai-Mais had been killed.

Jean stepped into the lot, saluting the oncoming Jeep. The soldiers in the front seat, the army’s best, returned crisp salutes of their own. Even General Adrian Zadu raised his hand to his temple, showing respect for the man who had just conducted a nearly flawless raid.

The Jeep stopped in front of Jean. One of his lieutenants stepped beside him, remaining slightly back in respect of his rank. As Zadu and his bodyguards climbed out of the backseat, the first of two massive trucks rolled into view. Each truck pulled a trailer and each trailer carried a pair of Jeeps and assorted weapons and supplies. The whole procession served as a base on wheels for the vagrant militia.

The motorbikes buzzed around them and the trucks’ diesel engines rumbled like angry monsters.

The general stepped forward. On his feet he looked elephantine, as any good leader should. Although he limped slightly from an old back injury, his enormous barrel chest and round face were menacing. His hands were thick and gnarled, a reminder that he did not always rely on others to do his work for him.

“Everything looks handled,” the general noted in KiSwahili. His voice was sonorous and crisp.

Lutalo, the general’s favorite bodyguard, nodded grimly as he gazed around. His eyes were always wide and his jaw set firm. He wore a black beret, like the general’s. But instead of a mere okapi cape as a trophy, a string of finger bones hung from his left ear.

The story said that he had constructed the gruesome ornament from the fingers of the men he had killed. But when it threatened to get too long, he took them only from those he had killed with his bare hands.

Looking at Lutalo, Jean believed every facet of the tale. The bodyguard’s arms were like tree trunks. To Jean, who was skinny and a better shot than a brawler, Lutalo was a man to stay clear of. His eyes drifted down to the large knife sheathed at the bodyguard’s belt, the killing instrument that was also used to cut off the fingers for his earring.

“Where is Michanga?” the general asked.

“He is in his hut.”

“Alive?”

Jean nodded, hoping that was what Zadu wanted. “He’s under guard.”

The general curled his bottom lip as if he meant to spit in disgust. “He betrayed us to the Mai-Mais. Put his head on a stick in the middle of the village. Understand?”

The general spun on his heels as the trucks finished parking and the engines were silenced. Soldiers poured out of every vehicle, many carrying rifles or other weapons.

“There is more,” Jean began hesitantly. “When we arrived, there was a group of Europeans in Michanga’s house. We chased them away and one of their Jeeps crashed several kilometers from here.”

A strained look passed over the general’s face. He did not like to hear about Europeans or Americans. The Ugandan government had denied supporting the
Askari Nahuru
, uncomfortable with Zadu’s tactics. More bad publicity could spell trouble for the renegade militia group. “They are still alive?”

“Yes,” Jean replied. “They fled into the forest on foot. Michanga says they were heading east. They were looking for something in the swamps.”

Zadu’s eyes widened, and his nostrils flared. “The swamps?”

Jean almost let his voice crack, but he caught it at the last moment. “Yes.”

“The plane your men shot down before the raid. It landed east, did it not?”

“Yes.”

“In the swamps.”

“Yes,
Bwana
.”

“Show me where.”

He led the general and his entourage toward the Bantu hut he had set up as his temporary command post. They stepped inside one after another. Cool shade greeted them as they surrounded a long table. Jean hoped that the general would not notice the faint odor of marijuana. If he brought it up, Jean would blame the villagers. While the soldiers smoked whatever they could steal or buy, General Zadu detested its use among his commanders.

Jean spread out his map and pointed out the hilltop where the cannon had been stationed. He drew a line with his finger, pointing out the place the plane was first hit and the hill it had vanished behind.

“It crashed into this region of forest?” Zadu asked, indicating the section of map with the flat of his calloused palm.

“Yes somewhere—”

“In the swamps,” the general said again, driving his point deeper.

Jean understood. General Zadu thought the Europeans were looking for the downed plane.

“You remember these swamps, don’t you?” Zadu asked.

Jean nodded. How could he forget? It had only been a few years before that he and the Army had marched through that region.

“They are looking for evidence,” Zadu told him. Evidence of war crimes.

If they found the pygmy camps, the United Nations might call for the arrest of Zadu and his men. That in itself wasn’t bad. The outside world rarely followed through on such designs where Africa was concerned. But such a thing would make Zadu’s European friends uneasy.

Already, they had lost the backing of their parent nation of Uganda, and the Belgian spy the general dealt with had vanished in the night. The militia army was forced to steal and trade to make its way

“We have to go in after them,” the general told him. “We will recover this plane before they do.”

Jean’s stomach turned. Was he suggesting they return to that region? After what had happened? After the stories they had heard?

“But . . .
Bwana
.”

For a man who was not often questioned, the general didn’t seem surprised when Jean spoke up. “Yes?”

“They say the place is cursed. They call it
Msitu wa Damu.

“I know.”

“They say the shadows in that forest are alive, that they drink the blood of men.”

“Let the shadows sate themselves on the Europeans first,” the general replied with a wry chuckle. “We must not let them leave that place. We will take the plane for ourselves. What parts we find can be traded. When your men chased them away, they fired at them?”

Jean nodded.

“It has begun. We have no choice but to finish it.”

BOOK: Blood Forest (Suspense thriller)
11.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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