The God Gene, p.1F. Paul Wilson
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Conspicuous by his absence: David G. Hartwell RIP
Sunday, May 8
Amaury Laffite stared at the photo for a moment, then shifted his gaze to the man on the other side of the counter, the thin, thickly bearded Afrikaner who had handed it to him. He wore a slouch hat and a safari vest. Trying to look like Indiana Jones, perhaps? Or perhaps not. Under the hat his scalp was bare. And the outfit was practical in East Africa.
Amaury rubbed his prickly jaw. He used a stubble trimmer daily, set at the Jason Statham length of 0.4 millimeters. Women liked that. He kept his dark brown hair tied back in a short ponytail. Women liked that too, as long as it wasn’t too long. He didn’t let it reach past the base of his neck. His mother had been a not-too-dark Algerian from Oran, his father a somewhat-white Marseillais, leaving Amaury’s skin just light enough and his hair just straight enough to make both affectations work.
This odd South African gave him a frisson. He’d heard talk of him, wandering both shores of the Mozambique Channel, from South Africa all the way up to Zanzibar and Tanzania on this side, and all along the west coast of Madagascar. And everywhere he went he’d show his picture of a strange little primate to anyone who would look. Amaury had never doubted that he eventually would show up here. In all the man’s travels he would inevitably run across someone who would say, You’re looking for an exotic animal? Go see Amaury Laffite.
Easier said than done, however. Amaury did not make himself too easy to find. He’d grown up on the docks of Marseilles, and had entered the smuggling trade at an early age. He knew how to keep his head down and stay off the police radar. Eventually he’d drifted to his mother’s homeland in North Africa, and finally landed here on the east coast of the Dark Continent, where rules were less stringent and the police even more corrupt than in Marseilles.
Even so, the endangered species he dealt in carried certain risks, such as fines and jail time. The former were tolerable, the latter unthinkable. He never housed the animals where he did business. He moved his signless storefront from time to time and stocked his shop with photos only.
And now, in his hand, lay another photo.
He looked at it again, studying it more closely this time. The creature in question crouched on a man’s shoulder; the man himself had been cropped out, leaving only the monkey or prosimian—he couldn’t be sure—staring at the camera. It had eyes like a lemur, only bigger. And bright blue—clear winter-sky blue. Some lemur species had blue eyes, but this wasn’t like any he’d ever seen.
Lemurs, especially the ring-tailed variety, had been a gold mine for a while, demand sparked by that first Madagascar cartoon back in 2005. No matter that they were among the most endangered vertebrates on the planet, no matter that they made lousy pets, people wanted them. After a while, business fell off as dealers in places like Texas and Florida started breeding them, but it had been great while it lasted.
This wasn’t a lemur, though. It lacked the bushy tail. More like a monkey.
“I cannot tell the size from this,” Amaury said, angling the photo this way and that.
He spoke English. He and this stranger had established in their first few sentences that this was their lingua franca. Marten Jeukens spoke no French, negligible Portuguese, but excellent English. In addition to French and English, Amaury spoke Portuguese—an absolute necessity for doing business in Mozambique—but no Afrikaans.
“It weighs about eight hundred grams,” Jeukens said.
Convenient weight. Nothing threatening about a monkey weighing less than a kilo. He looked again at those big blue eyes and that sad expression. He could sell a ton of these, five grand retail, three grand wholesale. Yes, he could move every one he laid his hands on.
“You wouldn’t happen to have one for sale?” the Afrikaner said.
“I wish I had one for sale. But I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen just about every monkey and prosimian in this part of the world.”
He snatched the photo from Amaury’s fingers. “Then you are no use to me.”
Another frisson. Not the words so much as the tone. It seemed to imply, You might as well be dead for all I care.
Under normal circumstances Amaury would be glad to see him go. But the creature’s eyes …
“Wait! What is it?”
“New to me. New to almost everyone I’ve asked.”
“Two people say they have seen what they claim is the exact same animal, only dead. One was washed up on shore near Toliara, and another washed up right here.”
Amaury considered that: one in Madagascar, on the far side of the channel, and one here in Mozambique. He knew it hadn’t originated on this side, and he’d mined the exotic species of Madagascar to the fullest extent without ever seeing a trace of this blue-eyed monk—an occasional blue-eyed lemur, yes, but not this monk.
“Both drowned? Odd, don’t you think?”
The Afrikaner stared at him with his cold eyes. “Not if they’re confined to an island.”
Amaury frowned. “Island? Where?”
“Where else? The Mozambique Channel.”
“There are islands in the channel, monsieur, some so inconsequential that they disappear at high tide. But they’re all well explored.” He pointed to the photo. “None contain an exotic species such as the one you have pictured here.”
The slam of Jeukens’s fist on the countertop startled Amaury.
“Do not tell me that! It is there! It must be!”
“I speak the truth when I tell you there is no undiscovered island in the channel, monsieur.”
Jeukens calmed as suddenly as he’d flared. His eyes narrowed and his tone turned mocking. “You’re sure? Absolutely sure? It is said that to be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it.”
“Well, no one can be absolutely sure about anything, can one? No one can know everything about the sea, but—”
“The Mozambique Channel covers one and a third million square kilometers—half a million square miles of open water. Do not presume to tell me there couldn’t be a small undiscovered island in all that expanse.”
“Well, it is possible, of course, but—”
“Millions of years ago, lemurs floated on debris from Africa to Madagascar. Eventually they became extinct on the continent
“Anything is possible, I suppose.”
“By my calculation, the island lies north of here.”
Amaury nodded. “Obviously.”
The Mozambique Channel flowed north to south. The drowned monks would have entered the water upstream.
Jeukens slipped the photo into a breast pocket of his vest. “I am going to find that island.”
“Where was this monk found?” Amaury said. “The one you have there?”
Jeukens tapped the pocket. “Floating in the channel, near the Madagascar coast. A sailor fished it out, thinking it was dead. But it sputtered to life once it was onboard. He sold it to a street vendor in an outdoor market near Quelimane town center.”
Amaury nodded. Quelimane … about halfway up the Mozambique coast from here. “Have you checked with that vendor?”
“Of course. You think I’m an idiot? But he says he’d never seen one before and hasn’t since.”
Amaury smiled. “It appears you will be renting a boat soon.”
“‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky.’”
“That sounds like a poem.”
“Masefield. But first I must learn to navigate.”
“I suggest you search satellite maps before you start searching the horizon.”
“I’ve already done that.”
“No unnamed islands.”
Amaury was about to say I told you so, but thought better of it.
“However,” Jeukens went on, “I have noticed areas where clouds always seem to cluster. An island could be hiding beneath them.”
“True,” Amaury said. But not likely. “Are you in a hurry to find this little creature?”
“I am on a mission.”
A wild light grew in the Afrikaner’s eyes. He seemed filled with an almost religious zeal. Amaury was going to ask, For God? but thought better of that too. “For yourself or someone else?”
“For civilization. To save the Giordano Brunos of the world.”
Without another word, Jeukens turned and strode from the tiny storefront.
His departure left Amaury nonplussed. An idea had come to him and he had been searching for the best way to present it. A fortune awaited in the sale of those monkeys. An exclusive deal could keep the gravy train running for years. Jeukens didn’t know navigation but Amaury was a veteran of the seas. Theirs could be a match made in heaven.
He ran out into the street. Downtown Maputo at midday … crowds of pedestrians and bicyclists winding past and through street vendors and smoky buses and taxis. But nowhere was Marten Jeukens. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Tuesday, May 17
EAST MEADOW, NEW YORK
What do you say to a man you crippled for life?
Hi, Mister Fife. Remember me? I’m Laura Fanning—the girl who caused you irreparable brain damage twenty years ago.
Laura stood at the Advocate’s reception desk and watched the man in the electric wheelchair roll toward her from far down the hallway. He worked the controller with his right hand while his left—splinted to the forearm—lay useless in his lap. As he neared, she saw how the left corner of his mouth sagged. Persistent left hemiplegia. Just the way she’d left him two decades ago.
James Fife … a fresh stab of guilt knifed through her. She’d hoped to find that he’d regained some function over the years.
His paralysis seemed to be the only thing that hadn’t changed, however. He looked older—obviously—and grayer and heavier than she remembered.
Her gut squeezed at the prospect of facing him again, but she had to do this. She’d somehow forgotten about him, and she couldn’t allow that. Ever.
And maybe … just maybe the damage didn’t have to be permanent. Maybe she could change that.
“So it’s you,” he said with a slight slur as he rolled to a stop before her. “I didn’t see how it could be anyone else, but I still couldn’t believe it.”
“Not be anyone else?” Laura said, startled. “How could—?”
He nodded to the receptionist who’d called the dining room to tell him he had a visitor. “Ceil here. When I asked what you looked like she said ‘dark-skinned and-blue eyed.’ I’ve only met one person who fit that description.”
Yeah, well, Laura herself had never met anyone who looked like her either. Her Caucasian father had been blue-eyed, and her Mayan mother must have had a blue-eye recessive hiding in her genome. The result was a striking combination that turned heads.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I was finished anyway.”
“How … how are you?” She hated how lame she sounded but was unable to come up with anything better. The sight of him had gummed up her brain.
“Still half paralyzed,” he said, but she could detect no malice in his tone. “Have you come to tell me of the death of my nephew?”
So … he knew.
She shook her head. “No, I came to see you. I heard you were on Long Island and—”
“Did Nelson tell you that?”
What to say? During the few remaining minutes of his life Nelson Fife had said that his uncle was “stuck in an East Meadow nursing home.” It had taken a while but she’d managed to track him here to this facility run by the Catholic Church.
“Yes. He said you were ‘suffering every day.’ I’m so sorry.”
James Fife offered half a smile. “Nelson was like a son to me, but he had a tendency toward the dramatic. Let’s go someplace we can talk.”
“Someplace” turned out to be his apartment. She followed him back down the hallway to a studio with a full bath, a tiny kitchen equipped with a microwave and half fridge, an electric bed tucked into the rear section, and a small sitting area at the front. A crucifix and a Sacred Heart of Jesus print adorned the walls.
Leaving the door open, he gestured to one of the two easy chairs flanking an oval throw rug. “Please.”
Since he was already seated, she complied.
“And for the record,” he added, “I’m not suffering. I’ve accepted, I’ve adapted, and I bear you no ill will.”
Laura felt her throat thicken. “I was so irresponsible.”
“You were seventeen.”
Yeah … seventeen and using the rearview mirror to apply mascara as she blew through a Salt Lake City stop sign and hit an unsuspecting pedestrian.
He added, “Even though I wasn’t fully aware during the days that followed in the hospital, I know you came to visit me every day.”
“I felt so helpless. I ruined your life.”
Another lopsided smile. “No, you merely changed my life. You set it on another course.”
But not one of your choosing, she thought.
“Your nephew wasn’t quite so forgiving.”
She didn’t mention that Nelson had meant to kill her.
“I know. We discussed you shortly before his death.”
It shouldn’t have surprised her, but it did, and not in a pleasant way.
“Yes. I know you’re a county coroner, and I’m glad you’ve put your life to good use. I assured Nelson that the accident wasn’t your fault, that you were simply an instrument of God’s will, part of the Divine Plan.”
Uh-oh. Like nephew, like uncle? Nelson had been a total fanatic.
“It doesn’t feel that way,” she said.
“It rarely does. Since there wasn’t enough of Nelson left to bury, I can assume you weren’t with him when he died.”
“No … not with him. But I wasn’t far away.”
“You were on the island?” Fife leaned forward in his wheelchair. “Can you tell me what happened? I was told an explosion of some sort.”
“Yes. A big one. I’d just left the island and was in
Fife winced and squeezed his eyes shut. When he looked at her again, he said, “Saint Augustine told us to love the sinner but hate the sin. It took this”—he gestured to the inert left side of his body—“and the changes it caused in my life to make me appreciate that. But Nelson couldn’t separate the two. Do you know any more about it?”
“Apparently something didn’t go as planned, but I don’t know the details.”
She did know them, but this man probably wouldn’t believe her if she told him.
He gave her a hard look. “You’re not one of those, are you?”
He leaned back with a frustrated expression. “All right, I’m going to say a word that I hope means nothing to you: panacean.”
Panacean … brewer of the mythical panacea … which had turned out to be not so mythical after all.
“No, not one of them. In fact, I became aware of their existence less than two months ago when I was hired to bring back a dose of the tea they brew.”
“And did you?”
None of his business.
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
He jabbed his right index finger toward her. “Is that why you’re here? Is that why you’ve shown up after all these years? To assuage your guilt by slipping me a dose of that diabolical potion?”
His vehemence startled her. “Not at all. I—”
“I forbid it! Pour it down a drain! What happened to me is God’s will and you shall not undo it! Is that clear?”
She managed a shrug. “It’s a moot point. I don’t have any. I just came by to see if you needed anything, if I could do anything for you.”
That seemed to mollify him, but only a little. His eyes remained narrowed with suspicion.
“I hope that’s true. And if it is, I appreciate it. But I need nothing. I’m comfortable here. I have friends, I pray, I meditate, I feel closer to God than ever. Don’t ruin that.”
Laura couldn’t imagine not wanting to regain the use of half of your body. She almost envied the peace that came with imagining yourself part of a divine plan … a peace she’d never know.
The God Gene by F. Paul Wilson / Thrillers & Crime / Science Fiction / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes