"I think something's wrong," Susan says.
It takes some time for the words to trickle into Veronica's mind. She is too busy breathing to pay much attention to anything outside her body. Her lungs feel on fire, her feet are alive with blisters, her mind is lost in a fog of exhaustion. She doesn't even think to wonder why they have stopped until she registers the concern in Susan's voice.
Veronica lifts her head, looks around, tries to re-engage with the world. It seems like they have been trekking forever in this damp heat, up this steep and muddy trail. They are still in deep jungle. Montane rainforest, technically, but it feels like jungle, in the most alien and forbidding sense of the word. There is a reason this is called the Impenetrable Forest. The vegetation here is so violently, densely fecund that even the greenery has greenery: roots and branches are covered by moss, vines hang on vines, the boulders that dot the trail look like verdant hillocks. Leaves and ferns glisten with water from recent rain. Birds chirp, monkeys hoot, water burbles, clouds of pure-white butterflies flutter through the damp air. Only a few shafts of light fall through the massive canopy trees into the dense thickets below.
Ahead of them a walkie-talkie emits a burst of static, followed by a half-dozen sentences in some African language. Their guide holds the walkie-talkie close to his ear. In his other hand he holds his panga, a viciously curved machete. He looks carved out of ebony, short and powerfully built. After a pause he pushes his radio's red TALK button and speaks in a slow and careful voice. Veronica can't remember his name. Something biblical.
"What happened?" she asks Susan. "Why did we stop?"
The blonde British girl shrugs. "I don't know. I think he saw something. On the ground."
Veronica looks down and sees nothing but mud and underbrush. But then she is a city girl, while their guide has spent decades tracking gorillas through this rainforest, he can probably deduce volumes from a broken twig she wouldn't even notice. She had total faith in him when they departed park headquarters, he seemed so tough and self-assured. Now his voice sounds uncertain.
She looks around at the others. The Canadians, Derek and Jacob, are about ten feet away. Derek stands erect, breathing easily, his lean and muscled body already ready for further exertions. She can see the dragon tattoo coiled around his left bicep. Veronica has hardly admitted it to herself, much less anyone else, but Derek is the real reason she is here. Jacob is beside him, his pale, lanky, goateed form doubled over with hands on knees, gasping for air. Veronica feels sorry for him, but also grateful that she is not their foursome's weakest link. Susan looks like a model, willowy and fine-boned, and Veronica expected her to wilt like a fragile flower; but it seems she's tough, too.
The rest of their gorilla group is far enough behind to be invisible, but Veronica can hear the rustling of the hanging vines and underbrush as they catch up. The Brits appear first, Tom and Judy, slow and portly and middle-aged but surprisingly durable. They look like they're still enjoying themselves. Diane and Michael behind them do not. The two fiftysomething Americans are thin but not fit, and Diane in particular looks haggard. The Ugandan guards bring up the rear, two men in camouflage uniforms with scary-looking rifles slung over their shoulders.
"What's this then? Elijah finally call for a tea break?" Tom asks, hoarse but cheerful. Elijah is their guide's name, Veronica remembers. "Why start now, just when we're having so much fun?"
"We don't know yet." Susan too is British, but her clipped upper-class accent is entirely unlike Tom and Judy's broad syllables. "He saw something on the ground."
"Gorilla dung?" Judy asks, excited.
Susan frowns. "I don't think so."
YOU ARE READING
Night Of KnivesMystery / Thriller
Veronica Kelly came to Africa to start her life over. Still reeling from her divorce, she is grateful when a handsome stranger invites her to join a tour to visit gorillas in Uganda's wild Impenetrable Forest. A trip that goes desperately wrong when...