Tuska

an excerpt



RICHARD HAD BEEN PREPARED to hate this handsome man whose touch sent uncontrollable sensations racing along his spine, whose low and melodious voice brought back memories of his childhood before it went sour.

"Welcome to Lionspride," Christopher said, and smiled. He didn't recognize Richard. Richard didn't expect he would. They weren't children now, and Richard's professional bi-line was Richard Westover, not Richard KeIley.

Christophers teeth were brilliantly white in contrast to a tan burnished deeply bronze by the South African sun. His golden eyes were black-flecked. He didn't look like his father, Vincent. He never had. He took after his mother's side of the family. Richard didn't remember Gretchen Van Hoon, but he remembered Christopher's father very well. There was no forgetting or forgiving him.

"May I offer you and your crew something cool to drink before we get started?" Christopher asked, holding Richard's hand, still smiling. Richard recalled a biblical quote about how the sins of the fathers were visited upon their children. "I've taken the liberty of having wine punch brought out on the terrace," Christopher added, releasing Richard's fingers. "Emphasize the punch. De-emphasize the wine � all of us realizing, of course, that this is a working visit, isn't it? I mean, neither of us would want to end up tipsy before the cameras, would we?"

Richard should refuse. He had a job to do, and he wanted it over with. He wasn't taking this as easily as he had planned. Seeing this place and Christopher brought back too many memories' painful and otherwise. However, there was his crew to consider. The air-conditioning in the van wasn't working; Tim and Roger could use a cool drink before setting up the equipment. So could Jill, the makeup artist.

"A drink of punch would be lovely," Richard said. He felt guilty. There was no reason to feel that way; Vincent Van Hoon, dead, had left an unpaid debt.

"This way, please," Christopher said. He motioned them along a walkway that circled toward the back of the main house.

Richard tried not to concentrate on Christopher. He wasn't successful, even with the wealth of distraction offered by the mansion, its gardens, and the view from the terrace. All around were sights and smells that helped renew Richards acquaintance with exotic Africa: flaming aloes, unbelievably large proteas, flowering mimosa. In the distance, the well-remembered swimming pool and bathhouse were separated from the South African veldt by a line of dense acacia and blue gum trees.

Lions had growled among those trees. Elephants had filled the air with their trumpeting. Quaggas had made shrill and barking neighs. A boy had felt the thrilling of first love.

There were no longer lions and elephants this close to the Van Hoon estate. They were locked in parks farther inland. As for the quaggas and the boy�

"Mr. Westover?" Christopher queried, interrupting Richards reverie, offering a crystal glass filled with ice and an attractive amber liquid. Richard took the glass with thanks, careful not to touch Christophers fingers. He tasted the punch. It was tart but thirst-quenching. He turned to the scenery, resentful that Christophers presence wouldn't let him concentrate. Richard was resentful, too, that Christopher didn't recognize him, although such recognition could ruin everything. Richard would know Christopher anywhere.

"Is this your first trip to Africa, Mr. Westover?" Christopher asked.

Richard would spoil everything if he made Christopher suspicious, but he couldn't lie. "No," he said. "I was here as a little boy. With my father." He didn't mention his father's name, and Christopher didn't press for it.

"Do you find the country much changed?" Christopher asked; Richard was nervous - the seasoned host of Animal Kingdoms in the Wild was used to asking the questions, not answering them.

"All things change, don't they?" Richard replied. "Often, as in the case of Africa, they change for the worse." There were those, Christopher included, who would consider Richard's notions at odds with any definition of progress, but Richard couldn't help that.

"How so?" Christopher asked curiously. His eyes weren't looking at Richard but into Christopher's glass.

"We should start taping," Richard said, determined not to be sidetracked into giving himself away. "We're imposing on your hospitality as it is."

"Believe me, it's my pleasure," Christopher said with a charm and grace his father never possessed. Richard would have taken great pleasure in fooling Vincent Van Hoon, but Christopher belonged to the good times.

"We'll be out of your hair as quickly as possible," Richard promised.

Christopher's blond hair was like sunlight. Touching it would be like submerging caressing fingers in molten gold.

"I've had far less charming things in my hair, I assure you," Christopher replied gallantly. He smelled of lime-scented after-shave. His dimples were deeper than Richard remembered.

On some mysterious cue, a black man appeared to collect the empty glasses, carrying them away on a silver tray.

"What you've come for is this way," Christopher said, guiding Richard toward the open French doors. The others followed in their wake.

The trophy room was immense. It was larger than Richard's childhood memories of it, and it was filled, wall-to-wall, with animal heads and animal skins. The latter were mainly scattered on the hardwood floor and used as throws for the overstuffed furniture. The room smelled sensuously decadent � of time-worn leather. Over the mantel of a large walk-in fireplace was a sunburst of guns. Those weapons had killed most of the animals on display.

Richard shuddered. He always had when entering this room. Christopher, standing close by, sensed his reaction. Christophers questioning gold eyes turned on him. Richard enjoyed a second shiver that had nothing to do with the first.

"Someone must be walking on my grave," Richard said, wishing for better. He was rescued by Jill Marlow who was anxious to start whatever makeup Christopher needed before the cameras.

There were so few blond heroes in the early days of the movies, because they didn't film well; heavy makeup had solved the bleached-out problem for women but had never worked as well for light-complexioned men. Christopher, though, didn't have to worry. Modern technology had improved camera, tape, and processing. The Robert Redfords of the world no longer took back seats to their dark-complexioned competition. In fact, Christopher would come off genuinely well on camera. He was so tanned, so handsome, so clean-cut, so ... well � appealing. He was the stereotypical Dutchman, and his robust attractiveness would actually work against the message Richard had in mind.

Richard needed an unattractive slob of a man, with a two-day growth of beard, sweaty clothes, dirty fingernails, and no finesse. He needed someone as thoroughly obnoxious as Vincent Van Hoon had been.

Not only was Christopher all wrong, but so was the setting. It was too genteel. The animal trophies were too sterile. A television audience, jaded by blood-and-guts violence, needed to see a downed beast in the wild and bellowing out its death throes before it would get Richard's point.

"I think Mr. Van Hoon looks fine," Richard said to Jill who was running a makeup brush over Christopher's tanned cheeks and strong neck, paying too much attention to the smooth run of muscled chest revealed by an open shirt collar.

"Yes, he does look fine, doesn't he?" Jill answered with school-girl gushiness that Richard found irritating.

The cameras were ready, and Richard turned toward an antler-bracketed mirror that commandeered a place on one trophy-littered wall. Reflected were his wide-set black eyes, pert nose, Cupid's-bow mouth, and a mane of thick black hair. If there were traces of a thirteen-year-old boy in his face, there were none in his muscled chest, narrow waist, and long legs. It was best leaving the memory of his childhood in the same grave as his father. Nothing good would come of resurrecting it. Oh, if only he could turn back the clock.

The taping didn't begin well. Richard couldn't relax, and it showed. There was no hiding from the camera. He got curious looks from Tim, Roger, and Jill. Christopher looked at him in a funny way, too.

Richard shouldn't have come. Why had he? His reasons for being in Africa needn't have brought him to Johannesburg, to this house, to this man, to these memories.

"And this?" he asked Christopher, commanding his mind not to wander. He pointed to a skin stretched on the wall. It was a reddish brown pelt with irregular dark-brown striping.

"A quagga," Christopher informed.

"And that one?" Richard asked. He pointed toward the mounted head of an antelope with long stout horns that swept back from its forehead in a saber-like curve.

"Blaubok - a bluebuck," Christopher said, providing the translation. At the same time, suspicion registered in his gold eyes.

Richard was going about it all wrong. He should ask about the wildebeest, or the North American elk, those takes edited out later.

"You know, Richard," Christopher said on cue, "they're extinct now - the quagga and the bluebuck. It was quite awhile ago that they last roamed this spot on which we're standing. There were thousands of quagga as late as the late nineteenth century. My great-grandfather hunted them, but I can't. No one can. We can't even see them, except as bits and pieces scattered around museums and in trophy rooms like this one."

Yes, the quaggas were gone, and so were the bluebuck- as were the young boys who had stood on this very spot so many years ago.

"My response to the loss of those animals is a feeling of deep regret," Christopher continued. Richard listened for sincerity. He wanted to believe, but Christopher was likely saying what he was saying only because Richard had let Christopher insinuate Richard's chief reason for being there. "Not only do I regret their demise," Christopher said, "but I regret that more effort by my family wasn't channeled into saving them."

He was saying the right words. There had been a time when Richard had known whether Christopher was telling a lie or the truth. Now, Richard didn't know, not for sure.

"However, I've been doing my own small part by restricting my hunting to camera safaris," Christopher said. "Possibly that's too little, too late, but it's taken this long for the Van Hoons to shake off an outdated family tradition."

The camera safari was a good touch. Richard would check it. If true, he would give Christopher good marks for trying. Richard couldn't go easy, though, on a family whose quest for corporate profits had wrecked the chances of more than one poor beast for survival� as well as killing Richards father.

"Thank you, Christopher Van Hoon," Richard said.

Within seconds, Tim and Roger were packing up the lights and equipment.

Richard turned to Christopher and smiled a nervous good-bye.

"Would it be possible to speak with you privately for a few minutes, Richard?" Christopher asked. Richard liked the sound of his name on Christopher's lips.

"Privately?" Richard asked; Christopher would confront him with his suspicions, no doubt.

"It'll only take a moment," Christopher persuasively assured.

"I really " Richard began, wanting but not wanting to be alone with him.

"Please," Christopher said. He put his hand on Richard's elbow and delivered the shock of his touch. The sensation was more disturbing for Richard than their previous handshake.

The ever-present servant opened the door to the next room. Richard took a deep breath. He couldn't lie if Christopher pressed for the truth, not even if it came out who Richard was and why he was there.

"I thought you might have supper with me, this evening," Christopher said. It was the last thing Richard expected. It was out of context. "I thought I'd be more persuasive in inviting you, here, out of the general hubbub," Christopher explained as they entered the room.

"Supper?" Richard echoed, confused.

"I thought we should have more time together, to talk," Christopher said. He leaned against a winged-back chair and folded his arms across his chest. His muscled chest thrust forward, molded by the cloth of his shirt. "We do have things to discuss, don't we, Richard?" he said.

There was a way he might have spoken Richards name to say their talk would be of old times, of shared and happy memories, but he didn't speak it that way. He was a man who had discovered a plot and was out to deal with the enemy. So, all of his fine talk about camera safaris was pure garbage. He was his father's son after all.

"Thank you for asking, but I have a lot to do at the hotel this evening," Richard apologized. His desire to accept was a painful violation of a promise to Richard's father. "We're flying to Salisbury the day after tomorrow and then on to Great Zimbabwe. There don't seem to be enough hours in the day," he explained.

"I think you'll find the time in this instance, though, won't you, Richard?" Christopher said, sounding very confident � too confident.

"I don't mean to be rude, but it's quite impossible," Richard said. Christopher's father had killed Richard's father. Richard wasn't here to dance to Christopher's tune.

"Very well, Christopher said. His expression had changed little from when they had first entered the room. "More is the pity that your trip is wasted."

"I'd hardly call it wasted," Richard objected with a nervous laugh. He caught a glimpse of the boy in the man. It wasn't difficult. Christopher was eighteen when Richard last saw him; the body had worn the stamp of what it would become. Unlike Richard who, at thirteen, was still due for major physical changes. "I think a replay of the tapes will show we've accomplished quite a lot in a short time," he reminded.

"I'm afraid I can't let the tapes leave the house," Christopher said. His smile widened. "Not without your promise to stay for supper," he qualified.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Richard said. It wasn't Christopher's threat to hold the tapes that Richard didn't understand. It was what Richard staying for supper had to do with it.

"It's simple," Christopher said. "I've always been extreme[y attracted to clever men. What you almost accomplished this afternoon was a very good show. Admittedly, it was flawed, but that you got this far reveals an admirable piece of planning."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Richard said, his resolve weakening. He could have turned and walked out of the room, but he remained rooted to the spot.

"Although I came out fairly well in the interview," Christopher explained, "I'm aware how clever editing of those tapes can make my family appear the greatest detriment to wildlife since the invention of the firearm."

"But why would I?"

"Come now, Richard," Christopher interrupted, a steely edge to his voice. "If I momentarily failed to recognize your true intent, please don't make the mistake of continuing to underestimate my intelligence. Considering everything, I'm asking a fair price for letting your friends walk out of here with their tapes intact. Don't you agree?"

Richard couldn't have heard correctly. "If you think I have ulterior motives, why let the tapes leave here at all?" he asked suspiciously.

"I thought I made that perfectly clear," Christopher said, so close that Richard was heady from the lime-based fragrance of Christopher's after-shave. "You interest me more than the tapes - certainly more then whatever damage you hope to accomplish by having the tapes."

Christophers interest suggested more than supper. "I have no intention of going to bed with you to buy back tapes that are rightfully mine," Richard said, surprising himself with the outburst.

Christopher laughed. Richard would have preferred disappointment to amusement.

"Please, Richard, do wait until I ask," Christopher chided and laughed again. There was less humor in the sound than Richard expected. "I mentioned supper, didn't I?" he reminded. "Although I might be persuaded to throw in a visit to the Ivory Room. Wouldn't that make a marvelous supplement to your interview: a first-hand account of the fabled Van Hoon ivory cache?"

Richard had never seen the Ivory Room. His father had, and that should have served as a warning to the man, because Vincent Van Hoon, a man with that much evidence of mass slaughter in his basement, plus ties to the mining community, wouldn't have been interested in feasibility studies for a wildlife preserve, no matter how much he had pretended otherwise.

There was a sharp knock. The door opened slightly, and Roger stuck his head in. "Sorry to interrupt, but we've everything packed," he said. "We're ready whenever you are, Richard."

"Richard has just accepted my invitation to stay on, here, a little longer," Christopher said. "I'll have my chauffeur drive him back to the hotel to join the rest of you there later this evening."

"Right!" Roger said, not waiting for Richard to verify Christopher's statement.

"You had no right to do that!" Richard accused Christopher, anger coloring Richard's cheeks. He wasn't pleased with Roger's hasty retreat, either.

"You are going to stay." It wasn't a question.

Richard wanted those tapes. They were part of his only feasible plan for getting back at the Van Hoons. If Christopher was unimpressed by the damage the tapes could do, that didn't squelch Richard's overpowering need to use them. Richards condemnation of the hunter-clan, money-mad Van Hoons might yet have repercussions Christopher couldn't imagine. Richard hoped so.

"Yes, I'll stay," Richard said.

"Good," Christopher replied - and kissed him.

Richard didn't believe it. Not kissed by Christopher, with Jill, Tim, and Roger in the very next room. It wasn't a peck on the lips, either. Nor was it a kiss Richard could enjoy, despite his curiosity about how kissing Christopher, the man, would differ from kissing Christopher, the boy. The kiss was aggressive, crushing Richards lips. And Christophers arms wrapped Richard with a strength that made it impossible for Richard to move, let alone breathe.

"There!" Christopher said; his smile was the epitome of satisfaction. "Report to the world how a Van Hoon can attack as well as any wild animal."

Richard couldn't find the words to express what he wanted to say. So when Christopher released him, Richard slugged the bastard in the gut. The sound of knuckles colliding against hard muscle was like a rifle shot (how apropos!), and it left Richards fist stinging. Unfortunately Christopher, having anticipated the sucker punch, came off seemingly unfazed.

"How dare you!" Richard said; his breathing was erratic. Christopher's continuing smile infuriated.

"I'll be sportsman enough to accept that one-for-one, kiss-for-punch exchange, but don't try to take advantage," Christopher warned.

"You bastard!" Richard accused, his voice dripping venom. He went quickly to the door, willing his weak legs to support him. He expected to find Tim, Roger, and Jill in the next room, but they weren't there. Nor was the camera equipment. He hurried through the French doors and around the house, praying he would be in time. He prayed in vain. The van was gone. He was alone with Christopher Van Hoon, except for the people who worked for the man. Richard could count on no one but himself. There was something decidedly disturbing about his predicament.

Christopher stepped out on the front porch like an Olympian god about to bestow his favors on some mere mortal.

"I insist you have someone drive me back to my hotel immediately!" Richard said.

"You'll be driven to your hotel - later," Christopher said, his smile mocking Richard's demands. "Right now, Ashanti will show you where you can freshen up. We do, by the way, dress for dinner."

The servant who had earlier collected the punch glasses appeared on cue.

"Dress for dinner?" Richard echoed incredulously. He expected Christopher next to say he'd had Richard's hotel room raided for the only suit Richard had brought for formal occasions. Richard wasn't expecting opportunities for dress-up in the bush, where he was heading the day-after tomorrow.

"I'm sure you'll find something in the room to fit you," Christopher said instead. "I'm partial to the designer black-silk Draqual tux, myself."

"Then you wear it!" Richard refused to humor him. "I'm returning to my hotel!"

"Suit you," Christopher said with a shrug. "I just hope you're up to the walk." He turned and disappeared into the house.

Richard looked at the driveway, knowing how far it was to the main highway, let alone to Johannesburg.

"Mr. Westover?" It was Ashanti, waiting patiently for Richard to obey Christopher's wishes.

Richard didn't answer. He started walking away from Lionspride and the madman who owned it.