Brett Russell is a hunter of the rarest game. His targets are cryptids, animals denied by science. But they are well known by those living on the edges of civilization, where monsters attack and devour their animals and children and lay ruin to their shantytowns.
When a shadowy organization sends Brett to the Congo in search of the legendary dinosaur cryptid Kasai Rex, he will face much more than a terrifying monster from the past.
Spinosaurus is a dinosaur pulp action thriller packed with intrigue, action, and giant prehistoric predators.
Prologue: Tshikapa, Congo
Arthur Mabele dug in the muddy clay of the Vermeulen mines next to the Kasai River, a tributary of the mighty Congo and itself deeper than most rivers in the world. On the other side of the river from the mine is thick rainforest jungle, most of which has never been charted by man, even today. Satellites cannot see through the ceiling of foliage, and there would be little reason to do so anyway—it is a terra incognita, which isn’t worth the trouble financially, and scientists or others interested in penetrating its mysteries are not the kind who get funding.
But Vermeulen Mining Corp. and other commercial miners of rare earth metals and diamonds do find it very financially rewarding to occupy that part of Congo. Diamonds are dug up by hand by the people of the area, some from holes dug fifty feet into the banks of the Kasai where the water has to be pumped out by methods old when the Romans built their aqueducts.
So the miners dig by hand, getting maybe five dollars for a gem that, when cut and polished, will bring ten thousand or more. Diamonds are very plentiful in Tshikapa, so supply and demand keeps prices vanishingly low and lets Vermeulen and other companies buy them for almost nothing.
Arthur Mabele had been extraordinarily lucky at his mining endeavors, and got his entire family spending fifteen hours a day digging for what passed for treasure there. They lived in the tent city at the mines like everyone else to protect them from the militias that wanted control of Vermeulen’s property, but they had a television set and one of those dishes that gets television from space back at home, plus a box that let them watch everything for free.
His favorite show when they took days off, which was infrequently, was Cryptids Alive! a show in which the beautiful Ellie White led viewers on a search for mythical creatures that probably actually existed. They had never found one that they could get video of, but that didn’t matter. They were always so close, and that’s what was exciting. It was in English, but that didn’t matter—monsters were monsters, and there were lots of “artist’s conceptions” and Ellie running toward or away from giant cryptids to keep Arthur and his family mesmerized.
It was night at the mine, too dark to see anything except the security lights on at the Vermeulen building, and Arthur was bone-tired after a day in which he found six rocks—six, enough for his family to have something other than gristle and skin for their meal. But, as sometimes happened, his body was too thoroughly worn out for him to immediately fall asleep, so he left his sleeping wife and boy and girl in the tent as he went out to look at the stars. It was relaxing and reminded him that there was a universe outside the diamond mines, a mysterious universe that enchanted him as much as the mysteries on Cryptids Alive!
It was also as silent as it got this close to the rainforest’s edge. He could hear the cawing birds and the occasional screech of the monkeys, but the sounds themselves were muffled, swallowed by the thick vegetation. That’s why he could hear a motorboat revving across the river and landing on the mine’s side. That sound was followed by loud whispers and the slap-slap-slap of someone in boots running through the mud of the mine area—they had to know what they were doing, because the bank was marked by deep holes and shallow ones—and then between the workers’ tents, heading for the far side.
Arthur couldn’t make them out well, except as silhouetted by the company building’s floodlights, but he could see it was two men in military-type uniforms and caps, one of them carrying … a big smooth rock? Something inside a sack? Whatever it was, it seemed heavy and the man carrying it let out a huge sigh of relief when he put it down next to the tent closest to the mine complex’s entry gate. Then, as far as Arthur could tell since they ran off into the darkness, they left through that way. He heard a vehicle start up and drive off.
Lots of weird things happened in a Congo mine, but this was crazy. The military in Tshikapa never entered the Vermeulen area, it being officially Belgian property, even a poor miner like Arthur Mabele knew that. But the militias who everybody knew wanted control of the mines and to force out the Belgians, they snuck into the mines whenever they could, something butchering the unfortunate workers as a warning not to work for foreigners, to refuse to mine for them so they would leave and the militias could take what “belongs to the people of Congo.”
The murders certainly didn’t help morale among the miners, but what could they do? They had to work if they were to eat. It wasn’t like the militias were inviting them to dinner so they wouldn’t have to toil for the Belgians.
Was it a bomb, this thing that the two soldiers had placed next to that far tent? Arthur wasn’t religious and had no interest in being a martyr, but he found a mystery even as probably banal as this one irresistible. He stood up from the crouch he had assumed when he heard the men coming and very slowly and silently placed his bare feet in the mud, then the dirt, as he approached the edge of the tent city, where the object lay.
With excitement, he peeked around the corner of the tent—pointlessly, he knew, if it was a bomb; it wasn’t like a piece of fabric was going to protect him from an explosion. He didn’t have a flashlight and the floodlights from the building illuminated nothing this far away. So he bent down and put his hands on it.
It was smooth, like a river rock. Or an egg. He pushed on it a little and it was so heavy it barely even moved. It had a weird, kind of musty smell, exactly like one would expect from a dredged-up river rock—
Arthur almost fell down at the sound, thinking at first a plane from the town’s little airport had crashed and blown up. But that wasn’t what it sounded like, not really. It was more like a roar. Like a—
That one was even longer and louder. What in the name of his ancestors was that? He couldn’t see anything in the dark, but he could see just enough to get back to his family’s tent, seeing that many miners had been awakened by the unholy shrieking, snarling, screaming ROAR that he could tell had come from the far side of the Kasai.
“Get up! Get up! Come with me!” he roused his family in Swahili, grabbing his children by their arms and dragging them out of the tent until they had woken enough to walk on their own. Arthur’s wife was slow to awaken, but once she realized the children were gone, she snapped to and rushed out of the tent to follow her family into the brush on the edge of the tent city.
Some fires had been lit inside tents, no doubt instinctively at the outset of some kind of chaos, and Arthur could see the fires were around rags around tree branches, the fabric doused with cooking oil to make torches.
Another blast from what Arthur knew now had to be some kind of animal, and something raged out of the dense jungle. They could feel more than see the giant thing’s stomps, which ceased with a splash.
The blood froze in Arthur’s veins as he realized what that had to mean: The roaring, epically enraged monster was swimming to the mine side of the river. Their side.
Men, being men, had massed with their torches near the water’s edge, trying to see what was making the horrifying sounds and making the ground shake beneath their feet. Arthur could see what was going to happen as if it were already a memory, and if he didn’t have his wife and little ones with him, he would have shouted to them to get out of the way, run away, GO!
But they stayed grouped together, the torches illuminating their patch of ground.
Then the river heaved and the torches showed Arthur the monster climbing out of the water. The light showed a crocodile’s head on a lion’s body, four legs as thick as an armored car, and, when it crashed down on the screaming men, making the torches fly and set the tents aflame, the huge fin on the thing’s back. It roared again and now everyone was screaming, some coming out of their tents to run, others huddling and hoping not to be seen.
None of it did any good. Arthur and his family watched in horror as the Kasai Rex—that’s what it was, a Kasai Rex, the river monster of legend, a dinosaur that never died out, a predator, a death machine Congolese parents told their children about to scare them into good behavior—stomped and ripped and bit and swallowed and ate, the fire spreading all around it but the building-sized creature not even noticing.
It trampled every tent, killed every single person in the way, until it got to that final tent, the one that the militia had placed the bomb or rock next to, and it let out a roar so loud that it made Arthur’s eyes water even though his hands were clamped hard against his ears. Roared and roared and roared until Arthur, his wife, and his children all had been forced into unconsciousness.
When Arthur Mabele woke in the light of the morning, his wife was already awake, shaking from cold and fear but watching over their children, who were still sleeping. The tent city was a smoldering mess of mud, bodies, body parts, and ruined wood and fabric.
His wife looked at him and said but one thing:
Arthur nodded. He had never in his life made an international phone call, never tried to find the number for a telephone in America, but knowing his family was safe, he knew it was his responsibility to tell the world so the Kasai Rex, taller than the Vermeulen building and almost as long as the tent city itself, killer of everything it encountered, could itself be killed.
It took him the better part of a week even to locate a telephone—miners were not welcome inside the Vermeulen building. It took still longer to find where and whom he should contact, and almost three weeks had passed before Arthur could find someone who spoke English and Swahili to place the call for him and interpret his story. But finally he was able to tell what had happened, tell the only people he knew would believe him.
He called Cryptids Alive!
Before I spill my whole story, I need to ask you a question.
Humans: the most dangerous animal. True or false?
They’re the most annoying animal, that’s for sure. Also the greediest, the best at making weapons and making tools that make weapons, the ones who eat the most food when they’re already full, the most superstitious and willing to kill for a little bit of luck or sexual ability, but the most dangerous? No.
Put a Bengal tiger and the world’s most vicious human in a room and call me when it’s time to mop up what’s left of the human. Put Michael Phelps and a hungry Great White shark in thirty feet of water-hell, give Phelps a spear gun and a wetsuit—and see how many more sharks come around once the Olympic hero has been reduced to a froth of blood. Put a twenty-foot chain around the ankle of the most recent Mister Universe and clamp the other end onto the tail of an 18-foot adult King Cobra. In minutes, it’ll be time for the Mister Universe runner-up to start fulfilling some duties.
En masse, of course, humans are a different story. We can communicate better than any other animal, organize better, procreate better, build and wield weapons unique to anything else on Earth. We also build rules and laws, concepts of justice, ideas that must be dodged and thwarted if individual humans are to fulfill the role of “most dangerous animal.”
That is my role. I am a dodger and a thwarter of treaties, handshake agreements, hunting quotas, and any other form of cooperation different states employ to keep men like me from hunting in their forests, their savannahs, their jungles and rivers. I’m proud to say that I have never personally killed any endangered or protected animal by my own hand; there are plenty of men slavering at the opportunity to do that. All I do is lead the humans to the black rhinoceros, whose horn is sheared off the corpse to make into aphrodisiac powder for the Chinese. I help them get close enough to kill elephants with precious ivory in their tusks, the shooters responding to worldwide demand. Same with those seeking silverback gorillas to kill and sell as trophies to the highest bidder.
I suppose, given our zeal for killing despite the laws of nations and the wishes of millions, that man is the most dangerous animal. It’s just that some men, like me, are more dangerous. We hunt the biggest game, the most protected, running circles around those who naïvely think we give a Sumatran monkey rat’s ass about their rules.
My name is Brett Russell. I am a most dangerous animal.
I know where to look because rare beasts are often the dangerous ones, and the dangerous ones are those that receive the most ink. When I read in “News of the Weird” or El Miami Herald about vulnerable villagers living right along a riverbank on the Amazon reporting lost children who would never wander or linger at the waterline, vanished animals as large as llamas, and even seen wooden fishing boats broken into pieces to get at an open bucket of bait, that’s when I know something big—a ravenous crocodile or even an anaconda, which can reach 26 feet long and 325 pounds in weight—is just asking to be bagged and tagged. Exotic species, perhaps, ones protected by laws that no one losing children gives a damn about.
Ever hear of Iquitos, in Peru? It’s the largest populated area in the world not accessible by any road. It’s either airplane or boat if you want to visit. Why the hell you would want to visit Iquitos is beyond me, but I don’t get to choose the places I hunt—money does. I just go.
Its residents are largely uneducated, highly superstitious (as many Catholic South Americans are), and when their prayers and attempts at protection inevitably fail, they mythologize it into a monster “known” to inhabit that area—a cryptid, in science-speak. This is how I get involved in the situation, because I keep my eyes out for any rumor of a cryptid terrorizing an indigenous village.
My man in that part of the Amazon was Jefry, a gangly Peruvian whom I had personally seen take down a murumuru palm tree using nothing but his outsized hands and feet. I contacted him and he told me the Iquitos villagers, some of the poorest on the continent, had reported to police and Army personnel (often the same people in Peru) that a Yemisch—essentially an elephant-sized, carnivorous, huge-taloned sloth; I looked it up—was disemboweling animals, eating the meat quickly and leaving the disgorged entrails of its victims in the mud or floating in the river. At least one 5-year-old child had reported being chased by something exactly matching the cryptid’s description.
“What do you think, Jef?” I asked in Spanish after I came down the steps of the charter plane at Vignetta International Airport and the attended put my heavy bags on the tarmac.
It was cool early morning, the sun just peeking over the horizon, but it was already humid as hell. “We got a Yemisch here or what? One of their heads would look great on the wall of a man cave.”
Jefry laughed. “Whatever it is, it’s a monster, Mister Russell. Something comes out of the river and steals goats and dogs and tries to eat small children. Then it drags them into the river and … does what it does, you know.”
“Sounds a lot like a crocodile to me.”
“You always say that.” He popped the locks on the Range Rover and we got in.
“I always say it because that’s what it usually is,” I said, taking out a cheroot and reaching for the Rover’s lighter, which had been switched out for a sleek doohickey of some kind connected to Jefry’s iPad tucked between the seats. “Where’s the goddamn lighter?”
Jefry laughed again. “Nobody uses the lighter as a lighter anymore, amigo. It’s a 120-volt power outlet now. Look, you can keep your electronics charged even as—”
“Yeah, whatever. You got an app on there that lights cheap cigars?”
“You come four thousand miles and don’t bring a match?”
Five minutes from the airport and the road was already crap. This was going to be a fun drive. I said, “I got matches in my checked bags—you can’t bring that shit as carry-on onto an airplane anymore, dude.”
Jefry looked at me with incredulity. “You got two .338 high-powered Winchester Magnums in your luggage!”
“You can’t light a cigar with a rifle, el jefe.” Oh, wasn’t I just so hilarious? “Anyway, I brought five, since we have three hunters. But again, try to bring those in your carry-on for a commercial flight from Denver to Lima. Same thing with matches and lighters. And hair gel over 3 ounces. All of it goes into the checked bags.”
Once again, my Peruvian friend guffawed. “So how come you didn’t get a pack of matches at the airport just now?”
“Number one, that Quonset hut barely had a telephone, let alone traveler’s conveniences,” I said, then leaned in close and crooked my finger for him to bring his ear closer. I whispered, “And number two, cars are supposed to have lighters stuck in their lighter holes, not Steve Jobs’ goddamn pene.”
Jefry never really stopped laughing this whole time, even when he reached over, popped the glove compartment, and pointed to a full Bic encendedor right there. I smiled despite myself and grabbed it to light the end of my cheroot.
I couldn’t wait to get my trusty, totally dangerous book of non-safety matches out of my bags and stick them into their familiar place in my back pocket. Lots of room back there anyway, since I don’t carry a wallet—the shit I do and the places I do it, my money and papers are always in a discreet, flat vinyl pouch hanging from my neck.
We hit a huge pothole and I almost set my hair on fire as we lunged forward. “God, I hate the roads in Peru.”
“That’s Iquitos, man. You got a car here, you brought it by boat. Only the richest people have cars.”
He smiled. “La organización makes sure we get what we need, no?
“Sí, muchacho.” I thought of the more than $25,000 worth of weapons and two full stocks of different ammunition for each, every rifle sitting in its own rugged, foam-insulated case. The commercial and then charter flights to Iquitos for myself and the three merry hunters. Supplies for as much as a 10-day hunt, since crocs don’t just offer themselves up to grab bait like sharks do. Bribes to local officials to look the other way. All paid for by what Jef called “The Organization,” which was the right way to refer to it, nice and anonymous, since what we were doing was unbelievably illegal and plausible deniability an essential quality.
“This ain’t a big driving town, man. You’re lucky we’re even on a road.”
“Yeah, my ass feels totally blessed,” I mumbled around my cheroot as we nearly careened into another monster hole in the asphalt. “So who’s on Team Killer Croc this time?”
“You mean killer cryptid, man.” The word sounded funny inserted into his Spanish: creepteed. “One of these days, it’s going to be not a crocodile and you are going to feel very stupid for making assumptions in the jungle.”
I had worked with Jefry in South America ten times over the past couple of years, and every time it was a croc which went feeding on pets and children in the villages encroaching on their habitat. Every time. “Okay, who’s on Team Monster From Outer Space this time?”
Jefry almost drove off the “road” from laughing so hard. “No one has ever proven the Yemisch not to exist,” he was able to say once he got his breath. “Pero sí, our hunters are expecting it to be a big crocodile.”
“Yeah, they wouldn’t know a Yemisch if it bit them in the ass,” I said with a smile, but my joke apparently didn’t translate well. (In English, that gag kills.) “Anyway, how big are we talking here?”
“That little kid who got away? He said the Yemisch stopped chasing him once it noticed a goat tethered to a post. He said it took two bites—one to rip the goat off the rope into its mouth and one to swallow. That is a big croc, Mister Russell.”
“Stop calling me that.”
I love working with Peruvians—they give and take no bullshit whatsoever and are funny as hell. So I shrugged and said, “The kid reported it as a giant sloth, too. How much are we going to rely on his eyewitness testimony?”
“All I’m saying is the hunters are expecting probably to be hunting a Black Caiman.”
As I mulled this over, the Range Rover got into Iquitos proper. The road was getting a little better, but not by much.
“Those are endangered,” Jefry added, unnecessarily.
“That’s why we’re here, amigo.” I had smoked the cheroot down to a stub, which I tossed out the window. I used the Bic to light another one. “To assist the goddamn Nautilus-machine–fit dentists and lawyers. White men more likely to get eaten by a crocodile than to bag it themselves.”
“I do not know this ‘Nautilus machine.’ Is it for diving?”
Now I chuckled, looking at the sinewy muscles on my companion’s bare arms. “I’m too embarrassed for my race to even explain it.”
“So this is a joke, like the electric clothing dryer?”
“That wasn’t a joke, Jef. That’s something in almost every North American home. It heats the air while it …” I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for tumble. “… throws your clothes around in a circle.”
He snorted and said, “Claro, claro.” (“Of course, of course,” as in “Pull the other one.”)
“Anyway, let’s make sure these guys have the right rifles and ammo before they go shooting at a floating tree stump, or each other.”
“That’s why they book you, right? Lead them right to the where the crocodile is bothering people so they can shoot it and feel like big men, saving the village or some shit?”
“Yep,” I said in English. I had an ad running in nearly every hunting and rifle magazine, always a small, text-only piece all the way in the back. It read:
DON’T LET “THEM” TELL YOU WHAT TO HUNT
Experienced guide available. I know what wild species are endangered: crocodiles, elephants, tigers, etc. Contact me if you need to see these animals yourself so you know exactly what animals are RARE and the government says NOT to hunt. Inquiries to Box ES-338 ℅ this publication.
I place the ad every month in print magazines and that’s how these “tough guys” find me. The mags put their classifieds on the Internet, so the ad can be found online as well, but never with anything identifying me like putting up my own Web page would do. (Also, I hate computers.) They know the shooting and killing and such is their job—mine is only to get them near enough to pull that trigger. Of course, Jefry and I enlist these rich would-be Hemingways to rope and then immobilize the animal (big cats are, perhaps counter-intuitively, the easiest to keep still, and the good old crocodiles among the toughest and take multiple men to handle), but then it’s all them. They envision themselves as heroes, saving the encroaching human community from this animal, technically “endangered” but really, when they think about it, more of a danger itself.
And that makes it all right, I suppose.
The Amazon River is huge. Huge. It is wide and deep. No one knows all the creatures that live in these waters, but pretty much everyone knows it’s chock-full of things that want to eat you, infect you, or kill you in some other way. There are piranha, worms that old explorers say want to crawl up your urethra, mosquitoes that definitely want to give you malaria, there’s leprosy, all sorts of good stuff available.
If there were such a thing as the Yemisch, it wouldn’t be any less likely than a lot of weird shit that the Amazon is actually confirmed as having. Other than the Congo in deepest, darkest Africa, the Amazon is home to more mysterious and dangerous zoological discoveries than any place on Earth.
But the dentist, the urologist, and the Toyota dealership owner, each of whom found me through my classified ad and wired $50,000 to a front account to hunt with me, had probably never heard of a Yemisch and wouldn’t have cared even if it did exist. No, they were here to bag the enormous and deadly Black Caiman crocodile—ideally three, one for each of them—an animal that had been hunted right to the edge of extinction into the 1970s for its handbag and shoe-enhancing hide. The species had rebounded since then, only lately to fall to low numbers again because of encroachment by the explosive growth of the human population and their desire to grow, eat, and sell land-consuming crops.
It was my job, and Jefry’s, to lead these rich fellows right to the crocs, which as always I figured to be where the supposed Yemisch attacks were reported. I brought the guns and hunting prowess, Jefry brought his unequaled knowledge of the mighty Amazon, and our three clients paid their money to have a rifle placed in their hands and be told where to shoot. (All strictly confidential, of course, because poaching an endangered species in a place like the Amazon basin, where ecotourism is sometimes the only thing supporting the economy, can get you in big, big, bigger-than-a-Yemisch trouble with the law.)
To help protect the guilty, I will call the dentist “Dan”; the Toyota guy “Theodore”; and the urologist “Peter.” (Ha! I crack myself up.) Jefry and I met them at the Arandú Bar, a colorful tavern overlooking the river. We would soon be headed down to the Bélen District, located at the southern tip of Iquitos and one of the poorest areas of the city, where the attacks were occurring and where my clients expected to welcomed as heroes there to save the children. And the goats and such. But first things first.
Dentist Dan was tanned so evenly he looked like a cartoon. He was in great shape—muscled arms, flat stomach, bulging quads—each muscle looking exactly as if it were exercised individually under the supervision of an expensive personal trainer. He shook my hand with the intent to crush it but was well met by my manly manliness. We didn’t technically take out a ruler to compare dicks, but it worked as a proxy fight and ended in a draw anyway.
Toyota Ted had a hell of a belly and was puffy in the face and bloated in the neck, the way a middle-aged former high school football star gets after he’s extremely comfortable financially and the first wife who plopped out his three children is shoved aside for a younger model. His handshake revealed pudgy, smooth hands. Absolutely what you want when you’re going after an 800-pound, 13-foot-long beast that’s half teeth and the other half even more dangerous as the muscle-bound animal feels cornered and starts thrashing.
Peter the Penis Poker was thin as a rail and looked like a “before” picture in a muscle magazine ad. He sported a lip-shadow pencil moustache and his fingers felt like spider’s legs as they wrapped around my hand at our greeting. I was glad when that contact was over.
We all sat in a curved booth and the skinny native camarera brought the group some beers even though it was just 8 in the morning. I guess that’s what they expect gringos up and about just after sunrise in Iquitos would want, and it wasn’t wrong. This suited us just fine.
“So you’re the guy who knows where the, ah …” Dan said in English but still in a low voice, looking around the empty bar before continuing, “… where the big game is?” He said “big game” like we were using codewords, not really a bad decision considering how hard Peru had come down on poachers in recent years.
(Don’t mess with tourist money could have been the slogan of the new Peru, especially in its cities along the Amazon. To poor countries that depended on tourism, poaching was literally stealing vital national resources. But wasn’t that why one became rich in the first place? To take what you want, whether others want to give it to you or not? These muy rico “big game” hunters wanted crocodile heads as their trophies. They hired me—and I hired Jefry—to get them what they wanted.)
“Funny you say that,” I said, leaning in to enhance that secret-men’s-club vibe, “because the village we’re going to? They’re lost dozens of animals and even small children to this monster.” So I did fib a little on the “small children” part, but guys like this trio liked to add righteousness to their technically illegal activities, making them feel like vigilantes working above cold, uncaring national laws.
“They think it’s a Yemisch,” Jefry said in his perfect but heavily accented English. “That’s a, um … eh, how do you call amfibio—oh, yes, amphibious! It is a legendary amphibious creature that stalks the river’s edge, looking for victims.” The would-be poachers looked both entertained and a bit shocked.
I tugged on Jefry’s shirt sleeve, trying literally to pull him back. “It’s a crocodile. Jef likes to act like he’s hunting Bigfoot when it’s really just a bear. Of course, bears are dangerous as hell, but they’re not a magical creature like Sasquatch or the Yemisch.”
We all had a chuckle over that, Jefry included. This was part of our shtick, the credulous native guide and the more practical—and white—American hunter.
“No, boys, I’ll bet you ten thousand dollars that what we have here is a Black Caiman, the biggest and most dangerous crocodile in the Western Hemisphere. It’ll eat any kind of animal it can crush with its jaws—adult humans as well as children included—and swallow it in two bites. There have been numerous reports of animals and children gone missing near the same time, when one Caiman would still be digesting, so I’m thinking there’s enough crocs to go around for each of you.”
They liked that. Dan, Theodore, and Peter each grinned and practically slapped one another on the back at this news. They came from different parts of the country—Minnesota, New Jersey, and California, I believe—but seem to have bonded on their flight from Peru to the little airport in Iquitos. This was a good thing: they would likely have one another’s backs when it came down to it. Probably not—we are an “every man for himself” group of people, poachers and those who help them get to their targets—but maybe. Every little bit of camaraderie would certainly help to keep these guys from accidentally shooting one another … or Jefry and me.
“All right, gentlemen,” I said with a now-serious mien, “tell me what you know about hunting something that weighs more than the three of you put together. Something that wants to kill you. Something that could get you twenty years in Peruvian prison if you’re caught.
“I ask this because we can’t screw this up. There are people in this village, and while they’ll be thrilled to have the man-eater gone, stories can start spreading. We will need to hunt, kill and dress each Caiman in the light of day, then smuggle each one into the vehicle and down to the airport. Once you’re in the air, you’re golden. The U.S. doesn’t give a shit what trophies you bring home—some airlines do, but you were warned against flying on those.
“So what do you know? Help Jef and me help you get these monsters.” I looked at Dentist Dan to start.
“You gotta shoot them in the head,” he said with rock-hard confidence. “Go for the brain. It’s tiny, but a body shot isn’t gonna do shit except make it mad or make it jump in the water and swim away.”
“Can’t we just have a boat on hand to chase it?” Peter offered in a reedy voice probably developed by trying to talk with his mouth mostly shut while examining man-parts all up close in his face. “I mean, you follow a lion if you’ve got an arrow in him, right? Eventually he gets tired and you take him down with another arrow or a bullet to the head.”
“Have you done that shit? That’s wild,” Ted said to Peter, who looked even smaller and mealier under the fat man’s gaze.
“Yes. Kind of.”
“Kind of? What’s ‘kind of’?”
Peter cleared his throat weakly and said, “Well, I did wound it and track it, and then I did put it down when it tired from the chase, but it was actually an, um … a cassowary.”
“A what, now?”
“It’s like an emu,” Peter said with his eyes fixed down on the table, “only smaller. I had to go to Australia to bag one of them once the guide showed me where the habitat was.”
Ted outright laughed and Dan smiled, looking like he was trying with all his might to suppress it. Jefry looked confused. So it was up to me to rescue the Great Hunter from himself: “Cassowaries are fast sons of bitches, guys—they can run at 30 miles an hour. And if they kick you—”
“They can disembowel a man with the claws on their feet,” Peter answered. “They’re considered the most dangerous bird in the world.”
I wanted to say something like “Pelican supporters may find that insulting,” but kept my jocularity to myself. Instead I said, “The main point we should take from Peter here, I think, is that hunting a cassowary is beyond illegal in Australia. So he has experience in taking some rare game down, smuggling it past customs, and mounting it for his man cave.” I smiled and nodded at Peter, who looked even paler now.
“I, um, didn’t actually kill it,” he said. “I did shoot at it! But it ran away. It would have been a definite kill if I had hit it, though.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to make it sound like an affirmation instead of an awkward interjection. I failed.
The table was as quiet as a deer blind. Thank god for cute waitresses.
“¿Más cervezas?” she asked with a cute dimple in her smile.
We shouted “¡Sí!” as one, making her almost jump in surprise. That made her laugh, which made all of us laugh, including Peter.
I literally sighed a breath of relief and said with a renewed smile, “How about you, Doctor Dan? Do you have some helpful experience we should know about?”
Dan leaned back against the vinyl booth with a dentist’s grin, all perfectly straight teeth that were whiter than the population of Vermont. He looked at each of his with that smile, bronzed skin crinkling around his eyes, then took a quick look around to make sure no one was near enough to overhear, before he spoke.
“I don’t know if it’s helpful, but I’ve brought down ‘protected’ animals on three—no, four—continents,” he said, actually making air quotes when he said “protected.”
The other two men looked suitably awed. Jefry and I looked at each other, I think each to use the other as a mirror and make sure we each looked as equally (and falsely) impressed as the other. “That’s a hell of a résumé,” I said at last.
The crinkles deepened as Dan’s blinding grin grew even wider. He counted off the continents on his fingers as he continued: “North America. I went down to the Everglades with an Indian guide, maybe a Seminole who didn’t get in on the casino gravy train or whatever, but before I found a Florida Panther, there were about a hundred estimated to live in the wild. After I saw it, there were ninety-freakin’-nine.”
This guy was audacious. Everybody, myself included, was loving it. The waitress dropped off our fresh beers and gave me a wink. Oh, I felt manly as hell right then, let me tell you.
He continued: “Then you got Asia, goddamned China, right? You know what they do to hunters who bag one of their precious pandas? They get the death penalty. But that didn’t stop me—why would it? A man’s got to hunt if he’s going to eat that day. I mean, I had high-calorie protein bars and stuff, but that’s the reason behind allowing a man to hunt: he needs that animal for meat, warmth, and so on. I could only take the head with me—hard to smuggle out a 250-pound carcass, even on a private charter flight—but that’s the solid reason we all hunt. You guys get me.
“Anyway, I got the right grease onto the right palms and there I was, staring at one of these majestic black-and-white creatures munching on some bamboo and pow!” Dan mimed shooting a rifle as he said this, then added with a laugh, “I have to keep that trophy in my study at home, goddamn yakuza or whatever would come looking for me if I had it on display.
“Africa, nailed an elephant—got the tusks in my living room—and then in Australia? You’ll love this. In Australia, I bagged a protected rhino that they had relocated from South Africa to save it!” He banged the table as he roared with laughter at that, the others joining in.
Jefry and I exchanged a covert glance and I made a mental note to give Dan the most powerful, special rifle, since he lived up to the Internet research we had done on him: he was frickin’ serious about his hunting, and had developed his skills like a master.
The others, not so much.
Theodore of Toyota Town said, “I can’t match any of that stuff. I mean, I’ve gotten deer and such in season, but this is my first … um, real hunting trip.”
He got slaps on the back and gestures of support from his two fellow poachers. Jefry and I just watched.
“All right, then. I was looking for anything you guys knew specifically about hunting crocodiles, but no worries. We’ll head out this morning,” I said, looking at my waterproof and shockproof diving watch, “because the heat of the day is the only time you’re going to find a Caiman sunning itself on the riverbank. It’s relaxed and, most importantly, out of the water. If you try to wrestle a croc in the water, you’re doomed.
“But let’s say we find one sunning itself. Peter is right that you go for a headshot, because that will usually immobilize them. But the killshot is here”—I indicated the base of my skull—“where it’s little brain is. Otherwise, shooting them only makes them slip back into the water and disappear.”
Everybody nodded sagely. We ate breakfast, loaded the poachers’ gear into the SUV, then drove through the slums of Bélen to start two hunts: They had theirs and I had mine, and the twain were about to meet.
All five of us got outfitted with shoulder GoPro cameras—an edited video of the hunter’s triumphs was included in the package price— and we set the three men in different spots along the river, giving each instructions to hide in the bodacious flora and watch for a Black Caiman (or any croc) to come out of the muddy water to get warm in the sun. Crocodiles need to do this to keep their temperature high enough, since they’re cold-blooded—O, the irony—and a nap in the blazing South American sun kept them going through the day and chilly nights in the water.
Dan, Ted, and Peter were each in sight of the others, rifles wrapped in towels on the mud and walkie-talkies in their hands to alert everyone of any potential targets, but Jefry and I convened just out of view and out of earshot to discuss our own hunt.
“If I went on a hunt that took ten days, I’d need a good divorce lawyer,” Jefry joked quietly in Spanish.
“I said it might take up to ten days. Besides, that’s to bag an Amazon crocodile. We don’t need to wait that long,” I said, and checked my sidearm to make sure it was loaded and the safety was on. Jefry did the same with his weapon, or whatever the correct procedure was with a freaking crossbow. I laughed as quietly as possible and said to Jefry, “What the hell is that?”
He did his best to look like his male pride was under attack. “This is muy macho, my white brother. It intimidates. It also delivers a shot that can pierce a crocodile’s hide to get at that tiny cerebro.”
“We’re not hunting crocodiles.”
He looked at the highly, lovingly polished wood of his weapon and smiled. After a moment of admiration, he said, “This works even better against people. They see a gun, they know in their minds it’s a gun and they could die. But they see ol’ la ballestai here, man, they see that arrow pointing at their neck or their gut … they don’t know if they’ll die, but they know that whatever happens, it’s going to hurt.”
We both grinned at that truth, but then came the unmistakable crack of a rifle shot.
I had my walkie-talkie to my mouth in less time than it took me to round the corner of foliage and see Peter the Pecker-Checker standing on the bank with his weapon pointed at a spot in the water. “Stand down!” I shouted as I stomped toward the skinny poacher. “What the hell are you doing, man?”
“I saw one!” he said, still looking gleeful but also confused at my anger. “I could see a little yellow blob in the water right after I shot. It must be fat or something, right, oozing out of the wound? I really think I might have hit him. ”
“I really think I might hit you, you dumb son of a bitch,” I snarled before remembering we had to be quiet in order to lull a Caiman into climbing up onto the mud. In a much-lowered voice I said, “What happened to waiting until one came out, then alerting Jef and me, so we can make sure you do this shit correctly?”
Peter’s set his weak chin and puffed up his concave chest in defiance. “I paid a lot of money for this—I’m going to do it my way. I am the hunter here. You’re just my backup.”
I said to Jefry in Spanish, “I think I see what went wrong on the emu hunt.” Spanish for “emu” is “emú,” so to prevent Peter figuring out what I was saying, I used “avestruz,” the word for “ostrich.”
“What are you saying? Hey, I paid you—you speak English so I know what you’re saying.”
The other two men had walked silently up behind Jefry and me. They didn’t say anything in support of their comrade when we turned to see them there, but they didn’t seem to disagree with him, either.
“Ted, Dan, I’m right, right? Fifty thousand dollars means we can hunt however we want, right? Back me up here, guys.”
Ted mumbled noncommittally, scratching his belly and looking down at the mud.
Dan gave Peter a hard stare and said as calmly as possible, “We paid these men to help us bag giant crocodiles. We have to follow their advice if we want the kill.”
Jefry and I nodded, trying to agree with Dan while not making Peter feel like the assclown he obviously was. “I’m just trying to help y—” I said, stopping short as something caught my eye several hundred yards behind the game-hunting urologist.
Peter must have seen the look in my eye, because he pivoted 180 degrees in the mud to look at whatever I was looking at. In seconds, all of us saw a huge crocodile—huge, like 14 feet and almost half a ton of ravenous predator—creeping out of the water and onto the bank. It stopped before going into the jungle. It was sunning itself.
Peter whipped his rifle up and would have pulled the trigger if I hadn’t slapped the safety on before Peter could get his eye against the scope. Then he did pull the trigger, but of course nothing happened. I whispered and shouted in his ear, “DO NOT FIRE!”
“We’re too far away for a decent shot,” Jefry added in his own whisper.
When I forced Peter’s rifle down and turned to instruct the others, Dentist Dan was gone. I started to say “Where did—” but then I saw the muddy bootprints Dan left behind as he stealthily made his way to the riverbank opposite the sunning croc, where the best shot would be. Except now the animal was perpendicular to the water from crawling out and stopping, there was no angle to fire off either a stopping shot or a killshot.
I brought the walkie-talkie up to my mouth as slowly as I could and pressed the red button. “Come in, Dan. This is Brett. Hold your fire. You’re just going to piss it off from that position. Do you read me?”
As slowly as I had gotten my walkie-talkie in position, so did Dan look at the rest of us and hold up his own. Not up to his mouth, but all the way up so we could make no mistake about what it was. He then brought it back down and pitched it like a softball into the Amazon. Then he raised his middle finger to us.
The Caiman—and that is definitely what this beast was, a Black Caiman that was snatching animals and scaring the villagers into thinking it was the mythical Yemisch come for their children—noticed the plop in the water and used its short legs to turn 90 degrees to see what, if any, danger was being posed. It noticed Dan.
I could hardly believe that an actual crocodile of any kind, let alone this monster, had come out of the water as if on cue. I’ve waited a week for my party to see one, and half the time it slipped back into the water once it heard any activity. Luckily for us, however, this one had gotten up the bank on the opposite side of the river and wouldn’t be spooked away so easily.
“Call the evac copter,” I whispered to Jefry. “Get it out here now or we’re going to have a serious mess on our hands.”
Jefry immediately switched the band on his walkie-talkie to summon the waiting helicopter from the airport five and a half miles away. (Over half an hour by car, but three minutes by chopper. That’s why we had an airlift on standby, to get where we were now, before somebody could die.)
Dan was taking his time—I could see now how he had killed so many skittish and rare creatures. He was fluid in his movements, and even how he tossed the walkie-talkie into the water was calculated to make just enough noise to make the Caiman move but not flee back into the water. It was impressive, but the animal was on the other side of the Amazon River. We had no boat to cross and it was too deep to wade through. You couldn’t swim across without soaking your rifle, and even if you could, the whole reason we were in Iquitos was that this stretch of the river had an abundance of man-eating goddamn crocodiles in it.
Dan checked his footing in the mud and braced himself for the recoil from the loaded rifle I had given him. He very slowly raised the rifle.
I could hear the helicopter now, homing in on my GPS signal.
Dan very carefully lifted the weapon so the scope met his eye, and he aimed slowly, so slowly. I wondered why he even needed my services. Of course, killing an endangered animal was one thing; smuggling it home was quite another.
Chopchopchopchopchop, the ’copter getting louder every second. Soon it would be visible over the—
KAPOW! Peter’s rifle went off. My ears rang like he had put his bullet through my eardrums.