Lonely on the Mountain

Chapter Two

The next morning there were heavy clouds overhead and the ominous sound of thunder in the distance. It looked like rain. Well, this was the rainy season, but that just meant that it rained maybe once or twice every two weeks, and in recent years not even that from what I’d heard. I was just unlucky that it had come while I was here.

The trip to Emperor’s View was cancelled. When it rains in Malawi, it rains hard, and being caught out in it is no fun at all. There wouldn’t be much of a view, either, which would make the whole trip pretty much a waste of time. Marius, the guy who ran the camp, said that the rain wouldn’t last all that long, probably, but afterwards the ground would be too muddy for good walking for a few hours. I decided to take a trip down to the town rather than hang around in the camp.

I saw Meryl and Dave standing around with long faces. “Hi,” I greeted them. “No walk today, huh? I’m gonna take a drive down to Zomba, pick up a few things. Anything I can get you while I’m there?”

“I could use a few double-A batteries, thanks,” Dave said. “Maybe some fresh bread.” He turned to his sister. “Can you think of anything?”

“I have a better idea. Could you give me a ride down, Xander?”

I frowned. “Uh, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.” She gave me one of those wide-eyed hurt looks. “Not that I wouldn’t enjoy your company,” I hastened to add. “It’s just, hey, the road is pretty darn twisty, I’m betting it’s gonna be a bitch to drive in the rain, and I’d hate to go over the edge with you along.”

“But you’re going yourself, right?”

“Well, yeah. I have a four wheel drive, I’ve been driving in Africa for a couple of years, and I guess I can handle it no problem.”

“So, you must think that it’s safe, then?” She gave me a triumphant little smile with a quirk of her eyebrows that reminded me a whole lot of one of Buffy’s expressions when she’d outsmarted me.

I gave her a rueful little grin in return. “Okay, you got me. Yeah, you can come along.” I was about to add ‘and don’t blame me if we end up in a blazing wreck at the bottom of the mountain’, but I cut myself off short. I didn’t know her well enough to know how she’d take that sort of comment.

“Thanks, Xander, that’s great.” Her smile grew wide and her eyes twinkled. “I promise I won’t blame you if we do go over the edge and crash and burn, ‘kay? I’ll just get my purse. Wait for me.”

I blinked. Had she read my mind, or was it just that she had the same sense of humor as the crowd back in Sunnydale? She’d grown up with pretty much the same kind of people as I had, watched the same TV shows, so no big surprise if it was just coincidence, but the mind-reading thing couldn’t be ruled out. I’d seen her in direct sunshine, so no way was she the vampire, but I still decided that I’d better check out just when she’d arrived in Malawi. “Yeah, sure,” I said.

Dave grinned at me and dipped his head slightly. “She does get her own way a lot,” he said, in tones of male solidarity. “She’s a good kid, though. Look after her, ‘kay?”

“Sure thing,” I promised. I’d have to check up on Dave, too, but really I didn’t expect to find anything suspicious. “You want to come along too?”

He shrugged. “There’s nothing special I want in town that Meryl can’t get for me. I’ll just take a rest after all the walking we did yesterday.” He looked around and shook his head. “Okay, there’s not much to do here in the rain, not even TV, but hey, a week at this place costs the same as one night at the Ku Chawe hotel. I’ll get by.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Nobody spoke for a moment and then Meryl emerged from her chalet and came towards us. “Hey,” she smiled.

“Try not to get too wet,” her brother warned her.

Rod, the night tour guide, stepped out of the main camp building and looked up at the dark mass of cloud. He sniffed the air. “Rain in an hour, maybe less, hey?” he said. “It should be clear by this afternoon.” He pushed the brim of his hat upwards with one finger and arched an eyebrow. “Tonight would be a lekker time for a night walk, hey? The weather should be clear, and you won’t have been walking all day. What about it, hey?”

“Sounds cool,” Meryl said. “Only, what about the leopard?”

“It won’t come near a group of people. One person alone, yah, but not four or five. Anyway, I always take my gun, hey.”

“I’m good with that,” Dave said. “As long as there’s something to see.”

“The night is the best time to see animals, man,” Rod told him. He wet his finger in his mouth and held it up to the wind. “The storm is blowing towards Mulanje. If we’re lucky it’ll be there tonight. Looking out from here with a thunderstorm there, man, that’s something you’ll remember for a long time. Maybe it’ll hit too early for the full effect, but we might get lucky, hey?”

“Yeah, way cool,” Meryl enthused. “Xander? Will you come?”

“I’m all on board with the night walk,” I confirmed, and she beamed at me. It had been part of my plans all along, but if she wanted to think that it was because of her, well, I wasn’t going to disillusion her.

“Okay, we meet up here at half past seven, hey?” Rod got our agreement and then frowned up at the sky. “I’m going to bed. Looks like there’ll be thunder. Maybe I can get some sleep before it starts, hey?”

“You sleep during the day?” Meryl asked.

“Mostly, yah,” Rod replied. “I work all night and I sleep all day.”

I couldn’t resist it. “So you’re kinda like a lumberjack in reverse?”

Meryl giggled and Dave grinned widely.

Rod half smiled and nodded. I couldn’t tell if the smile had reached his eyes. “You could say that, man. For sure I don’t wear suspenders and a bra. Tonight, hey?” He walked off without waiting for a response.

I led Meryl to the Land Rover and opened the door for her. “How come you’re up here without a vehicle, anyway?” I asked, once we were both in and buckling up.

“We’re on a tour,” she explained. “The rest of the people are staying at the Forest Lodge, and that’s where the minibuses are, only that place was full and they gave us a discount for staying here instead. They’ll pick us up on Friday when we move on to the Liwonde National Park.”

“The Forest Lodge has a restaurant, right?”

“Yeah, but hey, the price of a few cans of food is way less than what we’re saving, so, I say yay for Nyumba Camp. And it’s not like I have to do the cooking.”

“Yeah,” I said. I looked her straight in the eyes, and I noticed for the first time how clear and grey they were. Her hair was blonde, only not so much, more maybe tawny, fairly short and with a curl to it. She looked good. Slim and kinda lithe, like a lioness. I looked away hastily and started the engine.


***


The rain hit when we were half-way down the mountain, and boy, when the rain hits in Central Africa, it really hits. One second it was dry, the next it was coming down like a power shower. Driving in that kind of weather is really no fun at all. I’ve adapted pretty well to having just the one eye, the depth perception loss doesn’t bother me too much, and I get by okay, but the visibility got pretty bad and I had to concentrate like hell.

They used to have two roads up the side of the mountain, so I’d heard, one for going up and one for coming down, and the Down road had been pretty bad. This road was okay by African standards, so that was a plus. On the other hand I might meet oncoming traffic, which I wouldn’t have done on the old road, so that was a minus. I guess nobody much felt like going up Zomba Mountain in the rainstorm, though, and it was too early for any tour parties to be coming in from elsewhere, so there wasn’t anybody coming the other way. We reached Zomba town safely and I found a vacant parking spot near the People’s Supermarket.

I killed the engine. Meryl looked out of the windows at the rain lashing down. She had her hand on the door handle but she didn’t seem in any hurry to open it and climb out. “Hey, that sure is some rain,” she commented. “We’ll be soaked by the time we’ve gone five steps. I’ve never seen rain like it.”

I had, since I’d been in Africa, but there’d never been anything like it back in California. The hardest rain I could remember there had been on the day of my wedding that wasn’t, and that had seemed pretty darn hard at the time, but compared to this that had been a light sprinkle. These raindrops were huge, and there were an awful lot of them, coming down real fast. They were rattling on the bodywork of the Land Rover like we were being pelted with gravel. We could see the storm drains filling up, torrents of red-brown water rushing down them like in one of those TV shows with crappy titles like ‘When Good Dams Go Bad’ or ‘When Dams Attack’, only this was just normal Malawi rain.

“We could sit here, wait it out,” I suggested. “It won’t last all that long. My guess is an hour, tops. Probably half that.”

Meryl let go of the door handle straight away. “I’m all on board with that. Really wasn’t looking forward to taking a shower in my clothes.”

“I guess it’ll be pretty boring for you,” I said. “I could put on some music, maybe? Or the radio?”

“It’s not boring,” she said. “I’m in Malawi, caught in a tropical storm, sitting in a Land Rover with a handsome stranger. Something to tell my friends about when I get back to Fresno.” Her eyes crinkled up at the corners when she smiled.

“I guess. Shame you’ll have to make up the ‘handsome’ part.”

“I’ll take a few pictures and let them make up their own minds. You okay with that?”

“I guess so.” I was a little uncomfortable about the idea but I couldn’t come up with any good reason to object.

“Cool. And you can take some of me and Dave, ‘kay?” She looked back out at the downpour. “I don’t get it. Those people are just walking in the rain like nothing’s happening and they even look pretty happy. They must be, like, part hippo or something.”

“Hey, most of the folks in Malawi are farmers. If the rains fail, they starve. You’d be happy about rain if you were them.”

“I guess so.” She stared out into the rain again. “The other people sheltering up against the shops. Not farmers, huh?”

I looked in that direction. “The ones in the suits? Nope, not farmers. Plus, letting a suit dry out on you in the sunshine? Not so good for the smooth city slicker look.” I turned on the radio. “Let’s see if I can find some music.”


***


We talked, and we listened to ‘The Good Morning Show with Nicole Masauli’, and we watched the storm drains filling up until the water started overflowing onto the roads and the sidewalk. After maybe forty minutes the rain just stopped as if someone had turned off the faucet and the sun came out straight away. I put on my shades, Meryl scrabbled in her purse and pulled out hers, and we climbed out of the car.

I hadn’t planned on company in the town but Meryl was kinda taking it for granted that we were together. Well, it wasn’t like I was doing anything super secret in Zomba, so, why not? We did some shopping, and wandered around the town some. It was all kinda pleasant and normal, a guy and a pretty girl who’d met up on holiday and taken a liking to each other, and I started feeling guilty. I could sorta hear Giles in my head saying ‘You are not in Malawi to enjoy yourself, Xander. Do please try to concentrate on the mission’. There would probably be tutting, and cleaning of the glasses. Or not, ‘cause he’d taken to wearing contacts, but something like. There was a time when the inner me would have just said ‘Hey, lighten up, G-man’. Not these days.

We looked up at Zomba Mountain. The rock faces had a hundred little waterfalls pouring down them, glinting in the sunlight way up above us, as the water from the rain ran down. Meryl was all with the ‘Hey, that is just so beautiful’, and she was taking pictures the whole time. Me, I was wondering about how the water drained out of Chingwe’s Hole – like, was one of those waterfalls coming out of some tunnel that led out of that chasm? – and trying to figure out where the vampire had its lair.

Chingwe’s Hole was the closest thing to a crypt that you'd get on the plateau and it didn’t really fit the bill. A vertical drop, a ledge about twenty feet down, and then another vertical drop way down deep. Not exactly easy access even for a vampire. I’d asked Felix about caves on the plateau and come up blank. So, either there was some cave that Felix didn’t know about, or it was living in a building. The huts at the logging camp? They were empty for a chunk of the year, only, what would the vamp do when the loggers arrived for the season? There were a few private holiday chalets up there, empty most of the time, but the invite rule would apply there. I couldn’t figure it out. Hell, maybe the vamp had a permanent luxury room at the Le Méridien Ku Chawe! Only, the staff would notice someone who never went out in the daytime. It had me beat.

The answer was staring me in the face the whole time, but, what the hell, nobody ever said I was smart.


***


We went to Zomba Market after lunch. For me it was no big deal, I’d seen a hundred others just like it, but for Meryl it was a real taste of Africa and she was wide-eyed and fascinated. A hundred stalls selling everything possible. Food, clothes, knock-off tapes and CDs, pots and pans, radios, you name it, and there was one section where all the witch-doctors hung out. The air was full of the smells of cheap cigarettes, and sweat, and foods that maybe you wouldn’t want to know what they were.

Meryl checked out some of the food stalls and got kinda wigged out by what was on offer. Giant millipedes. Snails. Snake meat. Caterpillars. I’d gotten used to that sort of thing lately and it didn’t bother me. Not that I was all that eager to start digging in, but it’s all protein, right? Not like they have enough of it in Malawi that they can afford to be choosy.

A guy came out of the witch-doctor zone and came up to us. He was wearing a suit and tie, but he had a headband decorated with porcupine quills, and he had a thong hanging round his neck with a huge ten-legged sun spider threaded on it. “Moni, bambo, muli bwanji?”

He was saying ‘hello, how are you?” I knew the response to that one. “Ndili bwino, kai inu?” Only that pretty much used up my whole stock of conversational Chichewa. Well, apart from ‘ndalama zingati?’ – ‘how much?’ – and the most essential phrase of all, ‘Chimbudzi chili kuti?’ which is ‘where is the toilet?’ “Uh, I don’t speak Chichewa. Sindikudziwa Chichewa. Mukamba Chizungu?”

“I have English, mzungu,” he told me. “You are the One Who Sees?”

Well, that got my full attention. “You could say that.” I turned to Meryl. “Uh, Meryl, I have some business with this guy. Give me a few minutes, ‘kay? Maybe look at some curios or something?”

“Yeah, okay,” she agreed, although she didn’t look any too pleased, and she wandered off.

“You knew Grace, right?” I asked the witch-doctor.

He didn’t reply straight off. “Come, mzungu,” he invited. I followed him into a little three-sided brick shelter with a tin roof that had his witch-doctory stuff on a trestle table along the open side. Kinda like his consulting room and sales stand. He held out his hand. “I am Duncan Lipenga.”

I took his hand. He brought up his left hand and cupped it over my right, and I did the same, and we did the sorta four-handed handshake that they do in these parts. “Xander Harris.”

“Drink some tea,” he offered, releasing my hands and waving at a battered tin kettle that was sitting on a stand above a little wood fire.

“Uh, thanks. Zicomo.” I wasn’t big with the tea-drinking, but hey, I guess it goes with being part of the Council of Watchers, and I didn’t want to offend the guy. “I can’t stay too long. The girl doesn’t know anything about my work. So, like I was saying, you knew Grace?”

“I did.” He got out a box of Chisunga tea-bags, which was kinda reassuring ‘cause I’d been expecting something home-made and herbal or maybe magical, and a couple of mugs. “She should not be dead.”

“I know. She should have had back-up. It’s just we’re kinda overstretched. I came here from Uganda, you know? But hey, if she’d called, I’d have gotten here as soon as I could, or we’d have sent someone down, maybe flown someone in from England.”

He poured boiling water into the mugs and shook his head. “I do not blame you, mzungu. She was a fine strong girl, fierce as a lion, and she had killed kumwana before. She would not have asked for help.”

I wondered if this guy had been a sorta unofficial Watcher to Grace. “You know where we can find this vampire?”

“Up on the mountain. You know this.”

“Yeah, I’d kinda worked that out. That all? Did she tell you anything else? Or did you point her in the right direction?” I was wondering how he’d recognized me. Had he seen me when I’d first come to Malawi and made contact with Grace? I hadn’t seen him, not that I could recall. Had she shown him my picture, or given him a real good description? Or was it some kinda witch-doctor-y thing?

“She said that this kumwana comes in a galimoto.”

He seemed to think I’d know what he meant, only, not a clue here.

“Galimoto?”

He produced a carton of milk. I hoped that the hot water would kill all the germs. “Motor car. This kumwana drives a car.” He pulled the tea bags out of the mugs, ladled in some sugar without asking me, and splashed in some milk.

Well, not like I hadn’t met vamps who drove cars before, although I bet this one wouldn’t have a fifties DeSoto with punk music blaring out from the stereo. Kinda strange for Africa, though. I accepted the mug of tea and sipped at it cautiously. “You know any nifty tricks for recognizing a vampire, a kumwana, on sight?”

“They can not be seen in mirrors. They fear the cross. They die in the sunlight.” He gulped at his own tea. “You know all this, mzungu, I think. Garlic. They hate garlic.”

I shook my head. “You’re wrong on that one. I knew a vamp once who ate garlic bread, loved spicy chicken wings with garlic, went on a motorbike trip to the garlic capital of California, pretty big with the whole not hating garlic thing. He was a pretty special vamp, though. Hell, he even used to get around in the daylight. One time I even saw him right out in the sunshine.” I sipped at my tea again. Could there be another Gem of Amara? I didn’t think so, and, if there was, surely the owner would be in Paris or New York or somewhere living the high life and not stuck out here in the sticks.

And then I had it. The answer popped right out at me and I groaned at not seeing it before.

“Xander?” I heard Meryl calling. “Xander?” She came around the side of the stall and looked at me across the trestle table. “Are you finished in there? I could use some help.”

She was surrounded by ragged kids, all extending their hands towards her. I guessed that she’d given too much money for a beggar and gotten tagged as a soft touch. “I’ll be in touch,” I told Duncan Lipenga. “Thanks for the information, and the tea. Zicomo.”

Duncan turned to the kids and spoke rapidly in Chichewa. Whatever he said sure worked wonders; they scattered and vanished into the crowds in a few seconds. “There is power in your left eye,” he told me. “Remember that. Pilani bwino.”

Power in my left eye? What the hell did he mean by that? Only, not like I could ask him for an explanation, not now that Meryl had turned up. “Tsalani bwino,” I said, which I think was the right reply to what he’d said, and I put down the mug and departed.


***


There’s no Internet café in Zomba. Blantyre, yeah, and Lilongwe, and one of the tourist places up at Lake Malawi, but not Zomba, so no way to get an e-mail off to Giles and co. Well, I had other ways of getting in touch, and I would be doing that as soon as we made it back to the camp.

That wasn’t going to be too much longer. By mid-afternoon we’d pretty much exhausted the possibilities of Zomba and we went back to the Land Rover. The ground was bone dry again, the storm drains were empty, and there were only red tide marks on the side to show that there’d even been a rain storm.

We were hot and my shirt was damp with sweat. Zomba Plateau is more than six thousand feet above sea level, seven thousand at the top, and it was a whole lot hotter down here at three thousand. There were damp patches on Meryl’s shirt too, and when we got into the car I could smell the sweat from her, only it was a clean girly kinda sweat smell, not like sweat from guys, and it took about a second for me to get a boner that you could have used to beat small animals to death. Or not, preferably, but you get the idea. I was hoping that she wouldn’t notice, but she probably did, ‘cause I had to do some major league squirming to be able to drive the car without serious pain.

Driving back up the mountain was way easier than the trip down had been. No rain, good visibility, and we were on the side of the road away from the edge. It was a steep climb, and the bends are tight, and there was some oncoming traffic, but no big. I put the radio on and they were playing songs from the UK and American top twenty. Crystal clear, ‘cause the repeater station for Malawi FM coverage is right on Zomba Mountain. I could have been back in the States, pretty much, driving along with a California girl next to me and listening to the Pussycat Dolls, and James Blunt, and Eminem, and this real weird song from England about a kid riding with his dad in a mechanical digger.

“I’m glad it rained,” Meryl said, when we were halfway up the mountain. “I’ve had a great time today. And hey, night walk through the forest still to come.”

“Yeah, it’s been good,” I agreed.

“It’s been nice hanging out with you,” she said.

“I’ve enjoyed hanging out with you, too. Shame you’re heading out on Friday.” If my theory was correct then Friday night was when I’d suddenly be in clear and present danger. “I guess we’ll probably never see each other again.”

“I don’t want that.”

I took my eyes off the road long enough to look at her for a moment. “I’m not exactly jumping up and down going ‘yay, Meryl’s gonna be leaving’ myself.”

“I don’t want to not ever see you again. We could keep in touch, right? You will be coming back to California sometime? We could maybe meet up, do things together?”

“Sure thing.” I wasn’t just being polite, I wanted that too. “I’ll give you my e-mail address. I wasn’t close to my parents, we’ve pretty much lost touch, and my friends are pretty scattered, but I still miss California. I could take a vacation there, sure, if I have a reason.”

“Would seeing me be enough of a reason?”

I swallowed. Partly because it was a good thing to do, with the changing altitude, and it took away the feeling of pressure that had been building up in my ears, but mainly because I was suddenly nervous. “Yeah,” I said, committing myself. “You’d be enough of a reason.”

I glanced over at her again and saw a smile that lit up her face. I felt glad that I’d made that commitment. Vacationing with her would be something to look forward to.

Always assuming that she wasn’t really a demon who wanted to eat my head.


***


When we got back to the camp we met up with Dave and divided up the food that we’d bought. While we’d been away some local people had climbed up the mountain and come to the camp selling food. I guess they’d worked out that the day’s walks would have been cancelled and the tourists would be in one place instead of all scattered. Dave had bought some potatoes. We’d bought some too, but hey, you can never have too many potatoes. We’d bought fish, Chambo from Lake Malawi, which were supposed to be all kinds of delicious, and we handed them in to be cooked. Meryl asked me to join them at their table, and that was fine by me, and Dave was all on board with it too, so that was that. We fixed a time, and then I headed off back to my chalet to catch a shower before the meal.

Well, that’s what I told them, and yeah, I did shower. There were other things that I had to do, more important things, and I rushed through the shower and dried myself down. Then I opened up my case. I had a satellite phone in there, but that would work best if I set it up outside, and I didn’t want to be seen doing that. I took something else out instead. A two-way radio.

I glanced at my watch. Yeah, right on schedule. She should be listening in. Unless she’d gotten distracted, of course. The previous night I’d had to keep trying for ten minutes. I checked that I was on the right frequency and pushed the call button.

“Nighthawk calling Southie. Nighthawk calling Southie. Come in.”

This time she must have been sitting waiting for the call and she answered right away.

“Yo, Nighthawk! Southie here. Receiving you five by five.”


***


  • Chapter 3

  • The characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episodes, and the TV and production companies responsible for the original television shows. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ©2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox.