Dr. Ndebele was a dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair, a broad face, and round, wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a blue linen suit that buttoned up neatly around the neck like a Nehru jacket, and he carried a steel briefcase. At the sound of his name he looked up and smiled. "Ah," he said in English, "Dr. Stantz, is it? Or do I call you Ambassador for this?"
"Honestly, sir, the Ambassador title kind of gives me the bahoogies when it comes from anybody who hasn't got gills," Ray said apologetically. "Dr. Stantz is fine. It's an honor to meet you, sir. I'm told the restaurant here's good- did you want to talk there or in one of the meeting rooms?"
"The restaurant will do nicely. Thank you." Dr. Ndebele adjusted his glasses. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
"Not at all, sir, not at all. I'm sorry I couldn't have been here to meet you sooner myself." A waiter in yellow and red led them to a small table in the next room. "Although I hope you speak better French than I do."
"How on Earth did you get into the diplomatic corps without being taught French?" asked Dr. Ndebele, one eyebrow slightly raised.
"It wasn't my idea," Ray answered. "I’m a parapsychologist and an engineer by training, not a diplomat. I got called on for the position after four better-qualified people in a row quit the job. Not to mention that-"
"-fish-people don't speak French," Dr. Ndebele finished for him. "Yes, I see."
"I did spend most of the trip here plugged into a Berlitz course, for what that's worth."
"Not very much, to be honest. The dialect here isn't so easy to assimilate as that." Dr. Ndebele glanced at the menu briefly, then set it aside and reached for his briefcase instead. "We shall see… Dr. Stantz, I'd like to get straight to the point, if I may?"
Ray spread his hands. "By all means," he said. "The sooner the better."
"Thank you." Ndebele slid his glasses back up his nose again. "How much has the State Department told you about my situation?"
"Well, to start with, three weeks ago you were on a research expedition in the Lake Tele area sponsored by the University of Cape Town," Ray said. "Primatology, specifically."
"Correct. My specialty is rare and endangered primates of the Congo basin."
"Which, it said, brought you into conflict with a group of bushmeat hunters-"
Ndebele muttered something under his breath, which Ray was rather grateful not to understand. "Too kind a word for them, Dr. Stantz. These men were trappers and thieves. Their prey would have gone to the European market and no one but them would have been the better for it. I've known hunters. These men were nothing like."
Ray nodded. "They sounded like a thoroughly nasty piece of business," he allowed. "I saw in the reports that they threatened to- well, I won't repeat what they threatened, but that's an awful kind of thing to say. Was there a specific reason for that?"
"When a man with a university at his back, and the scientific community watching him, reports on the faces and operations of a group of slaughterers, it becomes very hard for the local government not to take action," said Ndebele dryly. "I could not hurt them then. I could only hurt their operation if I escaped, and told the story."
"So you weren't particularly famous, or known to them, or some kind of long-standing nemesis of theirs?"
"Only in the way that the best sniffer dogs are known to smugglers," said Ndebele. "They knew my name, but we had never met."
"Gotcha," Ray said. "Okay, then. They threatened you, you refused to back down, aaaand…. That's the point where everything went to hell, right?"
"Aptly put, Dr. Stantz." Ndebele interlaced his fingers on the table in front of him. "The vegetation began cracking somewhere behind the thugs, as if a very large animal were coming through. I have heard such noises before; you take them seriously in the deep jungle country. Elephants, hippos… you don't take chances with hippos. Nasty beasts."
"So I hear," said Ray. "The description gets a little short on details after that."
"Yes, well-" Ndebele shifted in his seat. "Dr. Stantz, I told the authorities that the trees themselves were smashed aside, and that something in the darkness began shouting words I could not understand. I said this because it was the very limit of what I thought I could say and still have them believe me. Respect for academics only goes so far, here."
"Dr. Stantz… I saw the creature with my own eyes. Not much. Not for long. But it was not the Mokele-mbembe of the legends." Ndebele shifted again. "The creature was too big for that. Too big by far. The Mokele-mbembe is a beast as big as two elephants; this was larger. I saw only the head, but not one of the stories of the riverbeast say that its head was as long as a man…"
Ray whistled. "What did it look like?" he wondered.
"Like nothing I have ever seen," confessed Ndebele. "Its skin was shining, the way a hippo looks when it emerges from the water. Grey skin, or green- I could not say. The creature's very eyes were glowing- not reflecting. Glowing. I have seen enough animals by the light of a campfire to know the difference. "
Ray frowned a little, thinking. "This sounds oddly familiar," he mused. "What color were its eyes, anyway?"
"Blue, and slanted," said Ndebele. "Why do you ask?"
"Were you aware of the reports of the Frashingly-Smalth expedition to the Lake Tele area in 1922?"
Ndebele shook his head, his forehead creasing. Ray dug into his own briefcase. "According to the reports of the expedition, Lord Frashingly-Smalth set out to snag a Mokele-mbembe for his trophy wall and encountered something else. Still dinosaurian in bodyplan, mind you, but not the classical sauropod form. The one he shot at was bipedal, not unlike some of the larger species of theropod, with glowing blue- are you all right?"
Wordlessly, Ndebele unlocked his briefcase and handed Ray a sheaf of photographs. Several he'd already seen- the wrecked, burned trees, the slashes too high and too deep on the trees to be the work of machetes alone- but the last few were of the forest floor itself. Specifically, of footprints sunk into the leafmould that covered the soil.
If the measuring stick next to the three-toed impression were anywhere close to accurate, Ray was looking at a footprint left by something the size and approximate shape of a Carcharodontosaurus.