Hwange National Park, Hwange, Zimbabwe
Like a pair of pool balls wrapped in women's nylons, the lion's testicles smeared a path across the Land Rover's dusty windshield as the animal sprawled out, a feral exhibitionist chewing on a severed wiper blade. The breeze, carrying a stifling heat that clung like a damp cloth to everything it touched, tousled the tawny savannah grass. In the distance, a lone acacia swayed gently.
Gabriel McCollough leaned back, the rusty springs beneath his seat groaning, and pondered the mating habits of the African lion. Tricky enough to screw with the help of opposable thumbs, he thought. It must be hell having the survival of the species riding on only a few well-aimed hip thrusts. He eyed the faded sticker adhered to the sun visor before him. Keep Africa wild: Recover your trash. Rolling down his window a crack, he spat his chewing gum through the opening, then slapped the sun visor closed. The movement caused the rear-view mirror, dangling by a fraying strip of duct tape, to break free. It clattered to the dashboard where it lay canted to a side, a wandering fissure spanning the face.
He caught a glimpse of his reflection.
The women who had passed transiently through his life would have likely all agreed that the sunburned Scottish expat possessed the kind of rugged features that promised exotic adventure—the inviting raffishness of a prom date who shows up wearing a scuffed leather jacket, riding a motorcycle with a strategically defective exhaust pipe. In reality, he had just the unkempt, haggard visage of a man who smoked too many unfiltered Dunhill cigarettes, wore too little sunblock, and long suffered from a malaise of which the only palliation seemed to come from roaming about the wilds of Africa in search of something tenacious enough to kill him.
In the seat beside him, panting and trembling like a febrile Shih Tzu, cowered a wildlife photographer. Canadian gent. Looked like he'd stepped straight out of the pages of a mail-order outdoor-supply catalog. Wrinkle free, starched and pressed from collar to hem. He smelled of cheap bug spray and expensive cologne. Definitely not Gabriel's usual clientele, but in light of recent events, he would have gladly played chauffeur to a troop of Girl Scouts so long as it meant putting a little added distance between himself and the negative sign clinging stubbornly to his bank account balance.
"Close one, eh?" Gabriel made a halfhearted attempt to reattach the mirror. "Thought for a second that big fella was going to get himself a choice piece of sirloin out of your arse. You must have been a track runner in school. Would be more impressive without the high-pitched squealing, though. Probably the only reason he chased you in the first place; must have thought you were a critter in distress."
The photographer peered out the window. A nosy neighbor pulling aside the drapes for a better look. "It all happened so fast. My pants are wet, but I don’t remember pissing myself." Sweat pooled on his upper lip and slipped off his forehead, discoloring his fresh-off-the-rack safari vest.
"Better not get that on my seats. This is a classic, highly collectible motor. Worth a mint in Europe." Giving up on the mirror, Gabriel reached over and tossed it inside the glovebox. Banging the heel of his fist against the windshield, he shooed the lounging male cat from the Rover's hood. "I think we've taken enough photos for today. Ready to head back to camp? Bet your mates didn't have half as much excitement as you did. Told you sticking with me would get you closer to the action. National Geographic will be calling you for those photos, you wait."
"We can't leave yet," the photographer stuttered, tapping the glass, motioning toward the slinking waves of golden fur as the pride circled their vehicle. "My bag's out there. It has my camera in it."
A lioness sat up on her haunches and began licking a side-view mirror.
"Then you probably shouldn't have dropped it at the first sign of trouble. Good thing you aren't here to hunt. If you'd tossed one of my rifles the way you did that camera, I'd have left you out here overnight. We'll come back for your kit tomorrow. It's not likely to rain." Gabriel's hand groped about the ignition blindly. Angling his head beneath the wheel, he said, "Where are the keys?" He shot the photographer a baleful look.
"Like I said, we can't leave without my bag," the Canadian repeated, wiping a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose.
Jostling in his seat as his hand sought the man's neck, Gabriel shouted, "This is my vehicle, which means we leave when I say we leave. Now give. Me. The. Keys."
The man recoiled, drawing back against the door. "They're in my bag, too. That's what I meant. We can't leave—literally cannot—without my bag."
Outside, one of the big cats, thick muscle twisting beneath its skin, tossed its mane and planted a pie platter-size paw on the camera bag as it chewed idly on the carry strap.
Pinching his eyes closed, Gabriel leaned forward until his forehead rested on the steering wheel. "Why? Those keys haven't been out of this vehicle's ignition in years."
"I...was afraid someone might steal it."
Gabriel turned his head slowly, eyes smoldering with a growing fury. Grabbing the photographer's shirt epaulets and shaking him like a dog with a rope bone, he roared, "Does this look like the rough side of town to you? Figured someone was looking to put the old girl on cinder blocks and thieve the tires? You're in the middle of the African savannah, hundreds of miles from civilization. That's the fucking appeal! Who's going to steal it? There's nobody out here but us, you walloper!" With a final shake, he shoved the man back into his seat, then began hammering the steering wheel with his palm, the horn honking in time with each strike. The lions looked at the vehicle curiously but remained steadfast. Patient. Like stone statuary guarding an estate's front gate.
Fuming, Gabriel held out a hand. "Fags."
The photographer shook his head slowly. "You told me to leave them in my tent because you were trying to quit."
"I'll try harder tomorrow, maybe after I've killed you and buried your remains in a termite mound. I saw you slip a pack into your pocket before we left. If you value your life, cigarettes. Now."