Darker Than You Think (3 page)

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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"What
happened?" the girl insisted, without mercy.

"I
never knew." He swallowed hard. "Something turned Mondrick
against me—I never knew what. At the end of our senior year,
Mondrick was giving us all inoculations and blood-group tests, to get
us ready for another field trip. He called me into the lab, one day,
and told me not to plan on going."

"But
why?" the girl whispered.

"He
wouldn't say why." Barbee spoke huskily, wincing from that old
injury. "Of course he saw how hurt I was, but he wouldn't
explain. He just turned gruff—as if the thing hurt him too—and
promised to help me get any other job I wanted. That was when I went
to work on the
Star."

"And
your friends went on to Mongolia?"

"That
same summer," Barbee said. "With the first Foundation
expedition."

Her
green eyes searched him.

"But
still," she said, "the four of you are friends?"

He
nodded, faintly puzzled.

"Yes,
we're friends. I felt a little bitter toward old Mondrick because he
wouldn't tell me why he didn't want me. But I never had any quarrel
at all with Sam and Nick and Rex. They're okay. Just the same, every
time I run across them. The Four Muleteers, Sam used to call us, when
we made those muleback summer jaunts into Mexico and Guatemala and
Peru. If Mondrick ever told them why he kicked me out, they never
spoke about it."

Barbee
looked uncomfortably past the girl's bright hair into the cold leaden
dusk that now was throbbing to the engines of the unseen plane.

"They
didn't change," he said. "But of course we drifted apart.
Mondrick was training them into a team of specialists in different
departments of his 'humane sciences'—grooming them to look for
that something in the Ala-shan. They didn't have much time for me."

Barbee
caught his breath.

"Miss
Bell," he demanded abruptly, to end that aching memory of old
defeat, "how did you know my name?"

Her
eyes lit with a teasing mockery.

"Perhaps
that was just a hunch."

Barbee
shivered again. He knew that he himself possessed what he called the
"nose for news"—an intuitive perception of human
motivations and the impending events that would spring from them. It
wasn't a faculty he could analyze or account for, but he knew that it
wasn't unusual. Most successful reporters possessed it, he
believed—even though, in an age of skepticism for everything
except mechanistic materialism, they wisely denied it.

That
dim sense had been useful to him—on those summer field trips,
before Mondrick turned him out, it had fed him to more than one
promising prehistoric site, simply because he somehow knew where a
band of wild hunters would prefer to camp or to dig a comrade's
grave.

Commonly,
however, that uncontrolled faculty had been more curse than blessing.
It made him too keenly aware of all that people thought and did
around him, kept him troubled with an uneasy alertness. Except when
he was drunk. He drank too much, and knew that many other newsmen
did. That vague sensitivity, he believed, was half the reason.

That
some formless intuition, perhaps, could account for his brief shudder
at the first glimpse of April Bell—though nothing about her
long, warm eyes and flame-colored hair seemed at all alarming now.
And her own hunch about his name wasn't completely surprising—except
that it went too far.

A
good
deal too far. Barbee grinned at her and tried to relax that
instinctive alarm. Doubtless her own editor had briefed her on the
story he expected her to get and told her how to get it. Probably she
was tantalizing men with her own irresistible mixture of wide-eyed
innocence and guile. The strangest incongruity always had a sane
explanation, if only you could find it.

"Now—please,
Barbee—who are they?"

Her
red head nodded eagerly toward a little group filing out of the
terminal building, beyond the steel barrier. A thin little wisp of a
man gestured excitedly toward the dull, thrumming sky. A tiny child
cried to see, and her mother took her up. A tall blind woman came
behind, guided by the leash of a huge tawny German shepherd.

"If
you have such wonderful hunches," Barbee retorted, "why ask
me?"

The
girl smiled repentently.

"I'm
sorry, Barbee. It's true I just came back, but I do have old friends
in Clarendon, and my editor told me you used to work with Mondrick.
These people must be waiting to welcome the expedition home. I'm sure
you know them. May we talk to them?"

"If
you like." Barbee didn't want to resist. "Come along."

Her
arm slipped through his. Even white fur, where it touched his wrist,
felt somehow electric. This girl did things to him. He had believed
himself impervious to women; but her warm allure, balanced with that
queer, lingering sense of unease, disturbed him more deeply than he
wanted her to guess.

He
guided her through the terminal building, pausing beside a clattering
teletype machine to ask the busy dispatcher: "Is that the
Mondrick plane?"

"In
the pattern, Barbee." The dispatcher nodded, frowning at a wind
indicator. "Landing on instruments."

Still
he couldn't see the plane, however, when they came outside again to
the edge of the taxiway, and the drum of it seemed fainter in the
gloomy murk.

"Well,
Barbee." The girl nodded hopefully toward the people waiting.
"Who are they?"

Barbee
wondered what made his voice unsteady.

"The
tall woman with the dog," he began. "The one standing there
alone, with the black glasses and the lonely face. She's Dr.
Mondrick's wife. A lovely, gracious person. A gifted pianist, even
though she's blind. She has been a friend of mine ever since the two
years Sam Quain and I lived in her house when we were in the
university. I'll introduce you."

"So
that's Rowena Mondrick?" Her voice seemed hushed, oddly intense.
"She wears strange jewelry."

Puzzled,
Barbee glanced back at the blind woman who stood very straight,
silent and lonely and aloof. As always, she wore plain black. It took
him a mo
ment
to see her jewels, simply because he knew them so well. Smiling, he
turned to April Bell. "That silver, you mean?"

The
girl nodded, her eyes fixed on the old silver combs in Rowena
Mondrick's thick white hair, the silver brooch at the throat of the
black dress, the heavy silver bracelets, and the worn silver rings on
the white and youthful-seeming hands that held the dog. Even the
dog's leather collar was heavy with massive silver studs.

"It's
odd, perhaps," Barbee agreed. "Though it never struck me
that way, because Rowena loves silver. She says she likes the cool
feel of it. Touch, you know, is important to her." He looked at
the girl's set face. "What's the matter? Don't you like it?"

Her
burnished head shook slightly.

"No,"
she whispered solemnly, "I don't like silver." She smiled
at him quickly as if in apology for her long stare. "Forgive me.
I've heard of Rowena Mondrick. Will you tell me about her?"

"I
think she was a psychiatric nurse at Glennhaven when she met Dr.
Mondrick," Barbee said. "That was probably thirty years
ago. She was a brilliant girl and she must have been beautiful then.
Mondrick rescued her from some unhappy love affair—I never
heard the details of that—and got her interested in his work."

Watching
the blind woman again, the girl listened silently.

"She
went to Mondrick's classes and became an able ethnologist herself,"
Barbee went on. "She used to go with him on all his expeditions
until she lost her sight. Since, for the last twenty years or so, she
has lived very quietly here in Clarendon. She has her music, and a
few close friends. I don't think she takes any more part in her
husband's researches. Most people consider her a little odd—and
I suppose that was a dreadful experience."

"Tell
me about it," the girl commanded.

"They
were in West Africa," Barbee said slowly, thinking wistfully of
the other days when he had been on expeditions to search for lost
fragments of the puzzle of the past. "I think Dr. Mondrick was
hunting proof of a notion that modern man first evolved in
Africa—that was long before he found those sites in the
Ala-shan. Rowena was taking the chance to gather some ethnological
data on the Nigerian tribal societies of human alligators and human
leopards."

"Human
leopards?" The girl's greenish eyes seemed to narrow and turn
darker. "What are they?"

"Only
the members of a secret cannibalistic cult, who are supposed to be
able to turn themselves into leopards." Barbee smiled at her
taut intentness. "You see, Rowena was preparing to write a paper
on lycan-thropy—that's the common belief among primitive tribes
that certain individuals are able to transform themselves into
carnivorous animals."

"Is
that so?" the girl whispered breathlessly. "Tell me!"

"The
animals are usually the most dangerous ones found in the locality,"
Barbee went on, eager to keep her interested and glad to find some
use at last for the dry facts he had learned in Mondrick's classes.
"Bears in the north countries. Jaguars in the Amazon basin.
Wolves in Europe—the peasants of medieval France lived in
terror of the
loup-garou.
Leopards
or tigers in Africa and Asia. I don't know how the belief could have
spread so widely."

"Very
interesting." The girl smiled obliquely, as if to a secret
satisfaction. "But what happened to Rowena Mondrick's eyes?"

"She
would never talk about it." Barbee lowered his voice, afraid the
blind woman might hear. "Dr. Mondrick told me all I know—once
we were talking in his study, before he fell out with me."

"Well,
what did he say?"

"They
were camped deep in Nigeria," Barbee said.

"I
believe Rowena was looking for data to connect the human leopards of
the cannibal tribes with the leopard familiars of the Lhota Naga
medicine men of Assam and the 'bush soul' of certain American
tribes." "Yes," the girl whispered.

"Anyhow,
Rowena had been trying to get the confidence of the natives and
asking questions about their rituals—too many questions,
Mondrick said, because their bearers got uneasy and one of them
warned her to look out for the leopard men. She kept on, and her
investigations led her to a valley that was taboo. She found
artifacts there that interested Mondrick—he didn't say what
they were—and they were moving camp into that valley when it
happened."

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
9.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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