PRIMITIVE ENCOUNTER

What PRIMITIVE ENCOUNTER is about 

In this fourth Gene Martin thriller, GENE and his wife, JESSIE, investigate the abduction of a teen girl from Los Angeles.  (To find how Gene and Jessie met under bizarre circumstances, read the Gene Martin thriller # 3, The Fear Cult.  Thrillers # 1 and # 2, respectively, are, Wolf Seed, and Bigfoot Valley.)

In PRIMITIVE ENCOUNTER, the search for the girl leads Gene and Jessie to Africa and into the Congo.  Here they come across an organization involved in sex-trade slavery and find themselves fighting for the girl’s life and for their own.  They encounter a cruel and formidable enemy in the group’s leader, ELTON SLAYDORN, a man who has himself become enslaved to a dark and powerful evil force from out of the depths of the Congo jungle.

There’s never a slow moment in this steaming hot thriller from the master suspense spinner, Johnny Carlton!

 

For a sneak preview of this book read the sample pages below:

Prologue: THE SORCERER

LUSO LUSADI obviously had no Pygmy blood in him.  He was probably the biggest man in the Congo, physically, and almost certainly the most evil one.  He stood seven feet, two inches, and was a little shy of three-hundred pounds.  It was all brawn.  Recently he had been wearing suits and ties, and he had looked impressive, massive, and intimidating, but these days he wore nothing but a loincloth and several necklaces and arm bands, all supporting sun-bleached bones of various sizes and shapes.  These hung over bulging muscles sheathed in brown-black, sweat-shiny skin.  His hair was in many dreadnoughts, all hanging lower than his massive shoulders and held off his face by a silvery metal chain that circled his forehead like a headband; and at the rear, somewhat hidden among the snakes of hair, this chain supported a metal sheath that held a small dagger at his neck.

His face, which basically had regular, moderate features, would have been pleasing except for two things.  His eyes were extremely bloodshot, and, much worse, the expressions that crossed his otherwise handsome visage in an ongoing energetic parade, were undeniably expressions of uttermost evil.  The face was like some darkly fascinating electronic billboard flashing a series of obscene graphics and slogans–perhaps advertising vacations in hell.  Luso Lusadi had learned to do many things, but he had never learned the art of hiding his rottenness behind a façade of innocence.

And that was mainly why he had left civilization and was back in the jungle.  In the cities people had avoided him like the plague, particularly after he had grown up.

Lusadi’s parents, so many years ago, had been offered many things–clothing, trinkets, tools–in exchange for little six-year-old Luso.  These offers had been made by the leaders of a charitable organization that had been giving a variety of help to the whole village–food, medical help, training in farming and raising livestock.  They took particular notice of Luso because he showed obvious signs of having an above average IQ.  The deal was that he would receive an education so his smarts could be utilized for the good of all, including his own people.

The deal was made and Luso was adopted by a charitable couple and taken to a new life in Kinshasa, and, as had been expected, he was a whiz in school.

He was even more of a whiz in the one-to-one sideline education he received from an uncle who had moved from the jungles to the city ten years earlier and was making a living by practicing witchcraft in the extensive black community there.  Unknown to Luso’s adoptive parents, by the time he was fifteen he had mastered everything his uncle had secretly taught him.  He then went on to gain even more occult knowledge from a greater sorcerer that his uncle passed him on to.

This dreaded shaman worshipped Gomgolo, known only by a select few as the god of torture and death.  He required human sacrifices and cannibalism from those who would be his priests, and in return offered much power.

Shortly after his twentieth birthday, Luso killed both of his adoptive parents as the needed sacrifice, ate parts of them, and escaped from the police by heading deep into the rain forests to the north of Kinshasa.  In an area peopled by primitive Bateke, he set himself up as a powerful witch doctor to be feared and provided for.

But Luso Lusadi, being as smart and ambitious as he was, did not stop at that.  In the city he had learned that the white man had much wealth and power, brought about by their own particular type of magic called technology.  Lusadi saw this as a resource to be tapped into, and he expected that if he did things right he would one day be fabulously rich and have immense power.

The first step of his plan was to find a white man who already had power in the white world of technology, and to use that man as a connection to that civilized world that had stupidly rejected him because of his work and religion.

He found such a man in Elton Slaydorn, a wealthy world traveler and one involved in a variety of imaginative, creative crimes.

Then Lusadi went about strengthening his own base.  He did this by building a statue of his terrible god, Gomgolo.  He made the statue out of dry tree branches plastered with mud, nine feet tall and hollow so that the demon god could actually live inside the statue when he was so inclined.  Going by tradition and his own occult insights, Lusadi created a mud monster with forward reaching arms and nine-fingered clawed hands, a fanged mouth (he used actual gorilla teeth for this), and two horns taken from the carcass of a Congo buffalo.  The horrendous looking image stood on a wooden base weighted down with rocks.  It stood in the middle of a jungle clearing where Lusadi had taken up residence.

When Lusadi was finished with his work, he at once went into prayers and ceremonies that involved the eating of human flesh and the making of promises, and of rededicating his own soul to this horrible god of death and torture.

As the huge Lusadi lay face down before the even larger figure of his god and said the final words of dedication, the sky overhead darkened somewhat and the light throughout the area dimmed.

*     *     *

In the months that followed, Luso Lusadi did many horrendous things in that clearing before that image.

The nights were always darker there than anywhere else.  And the days were always like late dusk.

1

GENE MARTIN stood at the rail looking out over the seemingly endless, slightly ruffled but sparkling Atlantic Ocean and feeling somewhat stupid.  Behind him bathers splashed about happily in the ship’s pool which was open to the sky and therefor sun drenched.  It was a beautiful sea day in mid June.

Martin felt stupid because, after two days away from shore, nothing had happened that gave him any good reason for being here on this ridiculously large and luxurious ocean liner advertised as taking passengers on “an adventure where no pleasure cruiser has gone before,” with land excursions into African jungles and wildlife parks.  The advertising further used clever words to suggest mystery and even danger, while at the same time using other clever words to assure that no one would actually lose life or limb.  With all this emphasis on adventure and mystery, the liner’s strange name, The Dark Mermaid, probably worked.

The passengers drawn to it were in general considerably younger than the usual staid and proper cruise regulars who tended to be rich and retired.  On the Mermaid they were rich and crazy.  And good looking–almost as though 800 catalog models, men and women with a few super-cute children thrown in, had been hired for a cruise just to do a photo shoot.  Of course if you looked more closely you could find some not-so-cute individuals, and even some outright homely ones as a pleasant relief, but in general the ship and its inhabitants, crew included, seemed like the set of a soap: As the Ocean Churns.

Appearancewise, Gene Martin fit right in.  At thirty-one years, presently wearing only swim trunks and sandals, he seemed to be a cruise poster boy–tanned masculine beauty at its best.  Just a shade over six feet tall, slim and moderately well muscled, he did not look like a bulky bodybuilder, but rather like a model for underwear.  He had thick dark hair full around the ears yet moderately cut, and a clean cut, clean shaven, slightly rugged face capable of a shattering smile.  Gene Martin turned feminine heads like carousels out of control.  Men looked at him and turned green.

The women were looking at him now, from the pool, but he wasn’t aware of that at the moment, still giving his attention to feeling foolish.

He had not booked a berth on this floating city because he wanted to be on a pleasure cruise, adventurous or otherwise.  He was here because of a letter he had received by snail mail a month ago while he was staying a short while in Bismarck, North Dakota.  It was from his Aunt Verna whom he hadn’t seen, and had seldom heard from, since he was a kid.  Aunt Verna had written from Los Angeles:

 

Dear Gene,

I don’t know if you even remember me, although I suppose you do.  I’ve been seeing a lot about you on TV lately and am quite proud of you.  I tell everyone that’s my nephew.  And you were in that magazine article too.  You look so nice with your beard.  Do you still have it?

I’ve also read your books, and I must say they shocked me.  It was because of the books, because of some of the things you did in them, was why I decided to write to you.  I thought maybe you would be the right person to help me.  Well, it’s not really me that needs help, but my niece’s daughter, Dee.  And her father too I think.

Her mother died a little over two years ago in a terrible accident at the sewing machine factory where she worked.  She was your cousin, you know, Audrey Fletcher, but I don’t know that you ever met her.  Anyhow, after she died, when Dee was only a little over twelve years old, her father, Audrey’s husband, went kind of crazy.  Well, I don’t mean really crazy, but I guess I should say, rather, that he went kind of bad.

He got involved in gambling and seemed to like rubbing elbows with gangster types, if you know what I mean.  And so Dee wasn’t getting a good upbringing, in fact, she’s been getting in with the wrong crowds, smoking pot, and showing signs, as my friend Matty said, of seriously going down the wild road.

Now it has gotten worse.  Dee, who is sixteen now, has signed up on a contract to apparently train for a part in some kind of a show that was to be done in South Africa, can you believe that!  Although it later turned out to be a different country.  But I’m afraid they really want to make a prostitute out of her.  At first Morris Kurdley, that’s her dad whom I’m sure you have never met, was all right with it.  I mean he didn’t think there would be prostitution involved, but I talked at least some sense into him and now he’s worried too.

He managed to track down the man who hired Dee and was able to talk to him.  Right off the start Morris found out that Dee had already been sent away to this other country somewhere in Africa, a country that used to be called Zaire but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  That’s what Morris told me.

Anyhow, this man who hired Dee, I don’t know his name, began to bargain with Morris, telling him he’d break the contract with Dee in return for something he found out that Morris has and that he wanted.  Namely some costuming that was used in some silly jungle movies, sort of like Tarzan, but with a different name.  The jungle man’s name in these movies was Zimtar.  I think I’m spelling that right.  I don’t suppose you ever heard of those movies, but anyhow Morris liked the movies and after they weren’t being made anymore he bought some of the costumes at an auction.  It’s totally unbelievable, I know, but he paid $5,500 for three little skimpy costumes.

 

This wasn’t at all unbelievable to Gene, and he knew a fair amount about the Zimtar movies.  This latter was because Gene’s best friend, the illustrator-writer Wally Walters, had created Zimtar, first as a comic-book character, and later after the series had become popular and a strip had been syndicated, he had sold the movie rights to a company in LA, Retro-Gold Pictures.

Only three Zimtar movies had been made before the company went bankrupt because of bad financial decisions and a law suit with the director.  But the three that had made it to the screen were popular, and Zimtar, along with his jungle mate, Zelda, had become household words.  Wally had written the basic stories but someone else had molded them into the successful screenplays that had promised to set the pace for a dozen or more of such romantic, colorful, heroic jungle action flicks.  Gene, being romantic to the core (in the broad sense of the word) had been sorry to see the thing fold.  Wally was sorry too, yet as things stood he had made a bundle.

The pictures had been expensive, partly because they had been shot on location in the Congo rain forests.  After the series went belly up, Wally, being at least as romantic and adventurous as Gene, had moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with his wife, Lulu, intending to soak in some of the jungle atmosphere he had written about and drawn pictures of before ever having set foot in Africa.  He had first gone there briefly during the shooting of the second Zimtar movie and had liked it.  Now he and Lulu lived on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the country’s capital city, and the last Gene had heard from him he was once more drawing and writing the Zimtar comic book, now able to put even more authenticity into the background.

Aunt Verna’s letter went on:

 

This man who hired Dee invited Morris to go with him to the Congo to see for himself that everything was all right with Dee.  And he asked Morris to bring along the three costumes so that if he decided he didn’t want Dee to be in the show, a deal could be made.  Morris would leave the costumes, to be used in the show I guess, and he could take Dee home.  Or one possibility was that Morris would see that the show was okay and Dee was safe, and still sell the costumes to the man, for considerably more that he had paid for them, but I don’t know how much.

As I already said, Morris tends to be attracted to slimy types, if you’ll pardon the crude expression, so if this man he’s dealing with is as bad as I think he is, it helps to explain why Morris was willing to go with him.

They flew to New York yesterday (the day before I’m writing this letter) where they’ll have to wait until their ship arrives from Panama.  You see, they’ve booked aboard a pleasure cruise to Africa, on a ship called The Dark Mermaid.  It seems that the man needs more talent for his show and will scout for it on the ship while crossing the Atlantic.  That part may be true, but as for the rest I think it’s a pot of crap, if you’ll pardon the crude expression.

I inquired and the ship is still booking US passengers.

Now, I know what I’m going to ask you to do is outrageous, and there’s no way I could pay you what it would be worth to me.  And, since you’re so wealthy, I wouldn’t think of insulting you with the small amount of money I have available.  But according to the books you’ve written about your own exciting adventures, it seems to me that this might make another one of them.

Would you maybe be interested in investigating this matter, and hopefully you could rescue my great niece from a life of sin and slavery and maybe even death?  And you might be able to save her dad too, for I think that his life is in danger as well.

I thought if you were willing to book passage on The Dark Mermaid, I suppose under an assumed name, maybe you could learn something about Morris and the man he’s with.  Maybe you could strike up an acquaintance with them, as though by chance, and maybe learn something that way.  But I’m sure you would know how to go about this much better than anything I could think of.

Enclosed is a recent picture of Dee and one of her dad Morris.  I’m sorry I don’t have one of the man he’s with.

I suppose you’re much too busy to do this, but I’m so desperate and worried.

Even though you have an unlisted number, I suppose I could have contacted you that way if I had tried hard enough.  But I thought it would be best to explain things on paper first.  I’ll send this in the fastest way possible by air mail.  I’ll put my phone number at the end of the letter and hope that you’ll call me right away and let me know if you’ll do this, or what I should do.

 

There had been a bit more to the letter, but nothing helpful in regard to the pertinent matter of the possibly kidnapped girl.

It had seemed to Gene that his aunt had a legitimate concern, so, after rescheduling some other business, he had called her and had agreed to go ahead with her plan.  He had shaved off his beard and booked passage on The Dark Mermaid.

Gene had picked Morris out of the crowd even before the ship had sailed, but so far he had found no good opportunity to talk to him alone.  He was always with a tall, slim, sophisticated man, almost certainly the one who had hired Dee.

Gene Martin was traveling under a phony name–Gordon Tyler.  He didn’t yet know if he would reveal his true identity to Morris, or if he did, when.  That would depend on how he sized up the man.  Ideally, Gene would have liked to have a heart-to-heart talk with Morris, bringing everything out into the open with him, but keeping his sophisticated looking companion in the dark.  However, according the Aunt Verna, Morris was a bit of a slime sponge who liked to rub elbows with “gangster types, if you know what I mean.”  He needed more study from a distance–yet how much could one learn that way?

Gene turned his back to the rail, leaning against it, and had another go at ogling the bikini-clad women in and around the pool.  There were several shapely ones, but his eyes were quickly drawn to the small blonde.  He had been enjoying watching her–in her bikini and earlier in casual deck clothes–and was looking forward to closer contact with her.  Right now she was energetically swimming about, underwater about as much as with her head above the surface.  Since at the moment he couldn’t see as much of her as he would have liked, he let his attention roam to the women lolling about beside the pool.

His eyes came to rest on Hot Chocolate.  She was sitting near one of the two shower stalls, men’s and women’s, that were shaped like oversized barrels, or maybe more like undersized smokestacks, except that they didn’t lean.  The lady’s stall was decorated with a finely detailed life-sized painting of a dark-skinned mermaid whose upper half made up for the lack below her waist with a great set of bare, large-nippled tits.  Her long black hair appeared to have been straightened into waves.  The other stall had a picture of a Caucasian merman who looked suspiciously like Tom Cruise except for the tail.  He also appeared on the doors of men’s restrooms, but that was the extent of his glory.  The Negroid mermaid, however, being the ship’s logo, showed up in many places, including on the ceiling of the main dining room.

But her place of greatest honor was a bit strange and inharmonious.  This ship was as sleek and modern as any liner sailing the seas, but the designers had not been able to resist fitting her with a totally antiquated looking, genuine figurehead at the ship’s prow–a figurehead of the Dark Mermaid that would have looked in place on a fifteenth century sailing ship.  On this gigantic ocean liner, even though the figurehead was several times larger than life, it still looked–particularly from a distance–like a little gnarly stem of carved wood.  Actually she was made of metal, and, from a closer view, was magnificent as she leaned out over the water, her hair represented as streaming in the wind, her gigantic breasts and long nipples pointing the way into the wild blue yonder.

The paintings of the Dark Mermaid were like the figurehead but had her in a variety of poses.  In the one on the shower stall she was leaning back on her arms and smiling as though pleased and sure that all the mermen in the vicinity were more than willing to fertilize her eggs.

Gene wondered if the black girl who was sitting near the women’s shower stall was doing so to draw attention to the fact that her upper half, including her face and long wavy hair, much resembled that of the mermaid.  However, the entirely human one was wearing a bikini.

When the little blonde climbed up out of the pool, shaking water from her curls, Gene’s eyes were on her at once like two horny balls rolling up and down her length.  As though she could feel this attention, she suddenly glanced directly at him.  He gave her a smile and she returned it.  Then she picked up her towel and made a show–Gene was sure of it–of drying herself sensually, spending too much time on her breasts.  Although these were not very large, they were perky and well nippled, the bumps showing up distinctly through the thin blue material of the string bikini’s top triangles.  The lower triangle was hard pressed to cover her considerable mountain of love.  She was like that all over: small but curvy, with a moderate tan that contrasted with her golden hair and lent a wholesome, outdoorish look to her finely featured, expressive face.

She slipped her feet into thongs, then, carrying her towel and a small blue-leather handbag, walked away from the pool and toward Gene.  Before reaching him she turned aside, but not without giving him another look–an inviting look, Gene was sure.  This was distinctly verified a moment later when she glanced back over her shoulder and thrilled him with another smile.  He quickly got himself into motion, following her.

They passed by two couples coming their way, one of these in swim wear, and when this particular narrow length of deck was clear of anyone but the blonde and Gene, she suddenly turned off to the side into a space between two large tubular structures that Gene took to be part of the air conditioning system or maybe plumbing.  In a moment he had followed her into a fairly isolated little nook that had nothing in it except an empty potato-chip bag and a crushed pop can lying on its small area of deck.

She stopped and turned to face him, so he came to a stop too, only four feet away from her.  With the towel and purse hanging from her left arm, she used her right to pull the top string of her bikini, with practiced ease, and the two little triangles came free and dropped as though it was a magic trick.  She stood there letting him look at her for a moment.  Then she kicked the pop can out of the way, leaned over, and spread the towel out on the deck.  She laid her handbag and the bikini top on one corner of it, straightened up, and at once began to untie the string of the bikini’s lower half.

By the time she had gotten free of this little piece of cloth, revealing a touch of blonde pubic hair over shaved lips, he was out of his trunks–and just in time before they would have caught and hung up on his rapidly enlarging central anatomy.

The blonde got down on her hands and knees on the towel, her ass toward him.

He didn’t need an instruction manual.  In a quick moment he was down behind her, then was slipping smoothly into that delightful, hot, well lubricated place where he had been many times before.

For the exciting little blonde was the love of his life, his wife, Jessie.

Liquid fireworks!  Male and female subdued moans of passion.  Overwhelmingly intense pleasure quickly replaced by a satisfying sense of relief and fulfillment.

In spite of the possibility of being discovered, Gene and Jessie lay side by side on the towel, letting strength return to their seemingly floating legs.  How Gene loved that face, so close to his now, finely featured but with full lips and an ever-so-slight hump to her nose.  He always felt that the slightly convex nose gave her a hotter look, while the sky blue of her eyes held angelic connotations.

Keeping her voice down, Jessie said, “I found out the name of the dude your relative is hanging out with.  It’s Elton Slaydorn, and he behaves as though he’s some kind of English royalty.”

“Yeah, that’s about how he struck me too,” said Gene just above a whisper.  “Elton Slaydorn?  How’d you learn that?  We’d better get dressed before someone catches us here.”

“I got talking to one of the black women–you know, the one that looks the most like the Dark Mermaid.  It turns out she’s Slaydorn’s hot squeeze … so I expect to get more out of her.  Yeah, we’d better get out of here.”

They both got to their feet, grabbing up their swimwear at the same time.  As they hurried to cover their genitals, Jessie said, “I’m gonna go to my cabin and take a shower, then put on something civilized.”

Gene, once more in his trunks, tied the bikini-top string at Jessie’s back, a little bow that would easily come undone with one pull.  He said, “I’m not gonna bathe or shower ever again.  I want to keep as much as I can of you on me.”

“You’ve said that before, but actually you’ll be heading to your cabin and scrubbing your prick just like any man who just had sex with a strange woman.”

“Okay, so you are a little strange at times.  Just don’t take this bad-girl thing too far.”

They were facing each other now, Jessie’s head tilted back because she was so much shorter.  She said, “Well, at least I’m getting somewhere.  Have you made any progress more than ogling the girls in the pool?”

“Yeah, I just got to home plate with that cute little blonde.”

“And in the meantime we get closer to Africa, and still don’t know a whole lot about the matter we’re supposed to be getting a handle on.”

“You just keep working on it.  I’ll be your bodyguard and take care of your sexual needs.”

Revealing her Canadian background, she said, “Anything to get out of work, eh?”  Then, smiling, she started toward the opening between the big pipe affairs.  “You’d better wait a minute before you come out.  In the meantime try to keep from masturbating.”

“Right now I couldn’t produce enough cream to give a facial to a microbe.”

She laughed her tinkling way and quickly disappeared from his view around one of the big pipes.  Gene wiped dust off his one knee that had missed the towel and felt good about the terrific sex he and his wife had just had.

Like Gene, Jessie was traveling under an assumed name.  Hers was Cassie Brandon and she was playing the part of a spoiled, rich young woman out to have a good time.  They had reasoned that if Morris Kurdley’s companion was as sleazy as Aunt Verna thought, both Jessie and Gene might be able to get closer to him if they didn’t present themselves as being pure as the driven snow.  But Jessie’s role worried Gene, even though he trusted her not to go too far with it.  He was afraid she might be hit on by any number of horny young studs on board this vessel so that she’d more or less have to fight them off with a stick.

His own phony background, as Gordon Tyler, was that of a wealthy cattle-feed producer involved in animal nutrition.  He had chosen that because he knew something about it.  Years ago, when he had been a very young man, he had been involved in farming and ranching and still retained a good deal of it in his not-so-fond memories.  To keep from looking pure, he had taken up smoking cigars, reasoning that one wasn’t expected to inhale their smoke.  Since boarding the ship, Jessie was smoking the occasional cigarette in public to support her image, and Gene kept worrying that she’d get hooked; yet there was little chance of this, for she was a dyed-in-the-wool health nut, just as he was.

He and Jessie had decided that rather than ship aboard as a couple they would come separately as strangers to one another.  This way if it turned out that there was danger involved and if one of them got into trouble, the other one might be able to come to the rescue.  So far the only danger Gene had become aware of  had been the threat of his prostate exploding and killing himself and everyone else on board, but now that disaster had been held off, at least for the time being.

After about a minute he began to leave the nook, listening carefully for footsteps and not hearing any.  Even though Jessie was no longer with him, he didn’t want to get caught coming out from behind the big pipes, for it might be thought that he had ducked in there to take a leak.  That was a tempting idea for he found that he was beginning to be in serious need of bladder relief.

As he headed for his cabin the wind began picking up a bit.  He saw Morris Kurdley and the tall, sophisticated looking man, Elton Slaydorn, climbing a flight of steps to a higher deck, their hair blowing about.  They were both dressed in short-sleeved knitted shirts and dress pants.  Morris Kurdley, the father of the girl, was of medium height but broad through the shoulders and chest, and Slaydorn was tall, slim, and moved as though all his bearings were well oiled.  Slaydorn, as usual, was carrying his fancy walking stick without putting any weight on it.  Its lower half was shiny black and its upper half appeared to be lathed ivory but was likely a hard plastic, since real ivory was illegal.

Gene decided to try following them at a distance.  If he could innocently get close enough there was always a chance that he might overhear something of their conversation–something that might at least suggest whether or not Slaydorn was up to all the sinister stuff Aunt Verna was so worried about.

Up on Passenger Deck B-1, Gene found the two men standing in a storage area near the outer wall of the storage room proper, a place not for luggage, but for larger items that the passengers had bought at some port or other.  The Dark Mermaid had not started its cruise from New York but from Panama City, and some of its earlier passengers had probably left a few centesimos and balboas in the classy stores of the Big Apple.  These bulky items would now be transported halfway around the world, and not free of charge.  Outrageously wealthy himself, Gene Martin was, nevertheless, aghast at the way he saw other wealthy people spending their money.  On the deck area that was a temporary extension to the storage room and a place for cataloging items before putting them away, were several pieces of furniture including what looked like bedroom sets, and there were also wicker chairs and floor lamps.  It had not been covered with anything other than a system of foam-padded ropes that snugged them into place against the wall.  They looked fairly secure, yet would likely not to be there long before being moved into the storage room.

Morris Kurdley and Elton Slaydorn came to a stop on the far side of the stack of furniture, as though what they were talking about was too important to allow any further concentration on the complicated act of walking.  At this point Gene could see only their heads and shoulders over top of a totem pole of stacked wicker chairs, and he felt confident that they had not yet caught sight of him.  He also realized that if he moved only a little over to the left he would have the highest part of the furniture pile between him and them and would therefore be out of their line of vision.  So he stepped to the left and then noticed that although the furniture had been stacked against the storage room wall, there were considerable open spaces here and there.

In the last few minutes the breeze had escalated into a salty wind and was having fun whistling about the many beautiful curves and crevasses of The Dark Mermaid.  This, combined with the way Kurdley and Slaydorn were speaking in hushed voices, apparently not wanting anyone to overhear them, made Gene dissatisfied with his inability to register their words clearly.  Therefore the inviting spaces between furniture and wall quickly enticed Gene into getting down on his hands and knees; he worked his way silently into and under the stack.

Although he could have crawled farther, he only went about halfway through, for at this point he found that he could eavesdrop effectively.  He could also see, through between chair rungs and other stuff, Slaydorn’s expensive looking gray pant legs and his cane.  Gene could now see that the top part of the cane looked like a bone–a human bone, in fact.  Gene’s best friend, the writer-illustrator presently living in the Congo, had used a life-sized plastic skeleton in his art training; and Gene had studied the spooky thing enough to know what the major human bones looked like and he even remembered what some of them were called.  This one, making up the top half of the cane, looked exactly like an upper arm bone, the humerus.  Well, it was probably made of plastic, thought Gene, but, even so, it seemed like an indication that Aunt Verna might be right.  Who but a sleaze bag or an extroverted ghoul would want to walk around flashing a cane like that?  Well, maybe a medical doctor with a perverted sense of humerus.  Gene almost chuckled aloud at his mental pun but quickly subdued the urge.

At the moment Slaydorn was saying, “Of course she’d look sexy.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  The girl that played the part of Lori in the movies–what was her name?”

“Theresa Alcott,” Morris helped him out.

“Yes, Theresa Alcott,” continued Slaydorn in his polished voice.  “Did you think there was anything wrong with the way she looked when she wore the costume?”

“No, but she wasn’t my daughter.”

“Get a grip man.  Dee is a young woman now.  Get used to it … and don’t deny her this chance to do something she really wants to do….  Look, if you give her your blessing on this, I’ll quit hassling you about wanting to buy the ruddy costumes.  You can keep all three of them and I’ll rent them from you to use in the show.”

“How much and for how long?”  Morris Kurdley’s voice had the sound of a North Dakota farmer, even though he lived in LA, or maybe it was only in contrast to Slaydorn’s smooth vocal emanations and perfectly enunciated words.

Slaydorn said, “I’ll be generous.  I’ll give you thirty-thousand American dollars for each season, but you’ll have to sign a contract that ensures my usage of the costumes for as long as the show lasts.”

“Why seasons?  There aren’t any winters in the Congo.”

“Not in the Congo, but there are in some of the countries my clientele will be coming from.  So I’ve worked out the four months of the year when most of them will be the most likely to be available.  Besides, I have other things to do myself and I bloody well can’t spend all my time in an African jungle….  So, my good man, what do you say?”

There was silence for several seconds, except for the wind and the snap of a cigarette lighter being closed.  Then came the smell of smoldering tobacco.  Maybe they had come to a stop only so they could have a leisurely whiff of poison, since smoking wasn’t allowed in any interior parts of the ship other than the passengers’ cabins.

Finally Morris said, “Well, the whole thing swings on whether or not I approve of the show, so there’s really no point in discussing it until I’ve seen that.”

“I know you’ll like it.  I’ve laid it all out for you the best I know at present in regard to what the director has in mind.  But remember, the director is responsible to me.  Therefore, when you see the show and if you decide that there’s something about it you don’t like, although I doubt there will be, we’ll discuss it, and, if necessary, change it so there won’t be any problem….  So, assuming that you end up liking the show, would you go for this new deal I’m offering?–letting me rent the costumes from you instead of buying them?”

“Why are the costumes so important to you?”

“Hey, my good man,” said Slaydorn laughingly, “don’t you have any understanding of promotion and the selling of entertainment?  Those are the costumes that were actually worn by the actors who played Zimtar, Zelda, and Lori.  We’ll make a big thing of that.  Fans are nutty that way.  They want to get close to something touched by the stars.”

“You’d be better off to hire the three stars.”

“Certainly, but they’re not available….  So, what say you?  Does thirty-thousand per season sound good to you?”

“Yeah.”

“Good man.  Let’s go have a drink.  I say it’s bloody well getting all too windy out here to suit me.”

“All right, a quick one,” said Morris.  “It’s time for my nap.”

Elton Slaydorn laughed, and Gene thought that if his Aunt Verna could have heard it she would have said, “See, only a bad man could laugh like that.”  It was a cackle that would have done credit to the Wicked Witch of the West if she had been a man, and it sounded even worse because it contrasted so much with the pleasant voice Slaydorn used in conversation.  Having disgorged himself of the laugh, and likely thinking that it had sounded friendly, Slaydorn said, “You Californians are lazy bats.  Come now, let’s go.  There might even be a show going on at the Stroking Fin.”

They walked away then, leaving Gene to decide whether he should head forward or go into reverse to get out from behind the furniture.  In any case, there was no time to lose because by now he needed to pee pretty bad.  Being on hands and knees, and having an active sense of humor, Gene couldn’t help but imagine himself sniffing at the furniture and then lifting a leg to pee on it.  This thought, however, made his need more urgent, so he quickly put it out of his mind and began to move forward, toward the opening through which he had been studying Slaydorn’s cane.  In spite of having to crawl over a low hassock and around a floor-lamp post, then through under several leaning chairs, he would have made it out in half a minute, but the sound of approaching footsteps brought him to a sudden halt like a pointer dog finding partridges.

And he could see, with difficulty through small openings in the stack, that two couples had come to a stop only a few feet away from him, apparently having arrived there from two sides, and, oblivious to Gene’s bladder distress, were nattering away about the increase in the wind and how this might affect the rest of their afternoon.

Gene had a choice of peeing on the deck, if he could get his trunks down without bumping things and making noise, or he could exercise serious control and wait it out–or try to.  He decided on the latter course, at least for the time being.

He wondered how a decent person like himself could manage to get into this sort of thing.  And it certainly wasn’t the first time he had found himself in ridiculous trouble.

*     *     *

As a farm boy in North Dakota he had daydreamed about living a life of adventure–being some kind of action hero, no less.  This dream had been shared by his best friend, Wally Walters, the comic-book illustrator who was now living in the Congo and no doubt enjoying the jungle atmosphere.

In their early twenties the two of them had managed to get into the stuff of their dreams up in Saskatchewan, Canada where Wally had gotten a job as an illustrator.  The two of them together had investigated the bizarre doings of one Dr. Paul Morgan, and, with the help of some locals, had prevented this madman from infecting the genes of the whole human race with animal traits.

After that, money had come in by the carload, partly because of the best-selling book Gene had written about the case, and partly because some mysterious donor had sent him half a million dollars in an old cardboard box wrapped in brown paper and held together with electrical tape.

Now having the grease to smooth the road he had always wanted to travel, Gene had returned to Canada, this time into the great Rocky Mountain regions of Alberta and British Columbia.  Here he was tickled pink to be involved in the rescue of a woman and her daughter from a type of animal that, until then, and in spite of the many sightings, had been thought of more as fantasy than as reality: the legendary bigfoot, or sasquatch.

At this point in his young life, Gene realized that he needed to do more than ramble about getting his ass in and out of a variety of slings.  He had invested some of his money in up-and-coming companies of various kinds and these all flourished.  Soon worth eight-million, Gene felt the weight of responsibility.  There were people in need the world over, and here he was with more money than he at first knew what to do with.  Homeless children weighed extra heavily upon him, so he built an orphanage in Florida (he had read about a particular need there), staffed it, set a good manager over it, and put the whole thing into motion.  In the first year over a thousand neglected children found shelter, food, and love in that haven which Gene called, Great Beginnings, #1, for he intended to build a string of them around the globe.

He also took a mail-order course in private investigating, for he had lost none of his romantic inclinations, and made another trip to Canada, going back once again to the province of Saskatchewan.  He went to investigate a strange case of apparent hauntings and through that got involved in dealing with a dangerous cult of autophobics–people who fear themselves.

During this time he met Jessie and married her.

Another cardboard box full of money–this one containing a million in US currency–caught up to him before he left Saskatchewan.  He still had no clue as to who was sending him these ridiculously large amounts of money.

At this time Gene and Jessie made plans to go to Africa, for Jessie was just as adventurous as he was and both of them had often dreamed of seeing “the dark continent” with all its aura of jungle drums, great wild beasts, and thatch-roofed villages.  But they also knew there were needs there–overwhelmingly vast needs.

But the trip had to be postponed.  An opportunity popped up for Gene to have help in building the orphanages and shelter homes in his own country, so for almost a year he and Jessie got totally involved in that.  Jessie insisted on staying out of the limelight, But Gene was in every newspaper and virtually on every TV screen.  Not wanting his face to become so familiar that it would interfere with his privacy, he grew a beard and wore window-glass spectacles, and, when under observation, walked with a slightly humped back.  This worked out well, for when the Aunt Verna thing came up, he shaved off his beard, shucked the glasses, and straightened his shoulders, and so far no one aboard the ship had given any indication of recognizing him as Gene Martin, the famous young philanthropist and adventurer-writer.  He and Jessie had also spent a few days getting good tans, from head to foot, before starting out on this journey into the sun.

Basically their home was now in Bismarck, North Dakota, quite close to the farm where Gene had grown up; but they were still trying to decide where to set up a permanent residence and official headquarters for their operations.

*     *     *

Just when Gene was expecting urine to start squirting out of his ears, the two couples broke up their conversation and headed off in opposite directions.  Without waiting to listen if anyone else was approaching, Gene scrambled forward through the rabbit warren of spaces among the furniture stack, and not silently.

In a few seconds he was clear of it and got to his feet–right in front of Morris Kurdley who was coming to a stop and giving him a rather severe look of disapproval.

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