DISCLAIMER: Uber. The characters are fictional and are not based on any persons appearing on PBS.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is sexually explicit. The sex is between two consenting adult women. It takes a while to get to the sex, but it's there.
Some blood and violence; a few lines dealing with attempted sexual abuse.
Animal abuse in two scenes.
Because it takes place in Kenya, there is some dialogue that is in Swahili, but translated into English.
Naughty words where appropriate.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I wish to thank and acknowledge Towandababe for her assistance in story content--with medical information and weaponry, and helping me put into print the action I saw in my head. Thanks for asking all the right questions. Also, she did a great job as my beta reader and editor. And a thank you to Sarah, my other beta reader who helped me define the characters.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Under the Kenyan Sky: A Romance
By Portia Richardson
"These are the programs that mean so much to you. Think about the PBS programs that you can't missour home repair shows, The American Experience, Nature and Mystery!" The pledge host, Rita, bubbled over with excitement. " Our cooking shows with wonderful and innovative chefs like the one you just met, Serena Hewitt. With your pledge of $120.00 or more we will send you Serena Hewitt's cookbook, 'Frills on Summer Grills.'"
Kate Chavez stood in the hallway at the edge of the set waiting for her cue to join Rita in front of the camera. She nervously chewed on hours' old bubblegum while frowning at the set and the host. The last thing she wanted to do with her time back in the States was to perform during the semi-annual pledge month frenzy, but here she was.
Looking at Serena Hewitt and how well put together she was, Kate wondered if she shouldn't have found time to get a decent haircut. Serena's hair was long and obviously recently trimmed. Her bangs fell evenly with her eyebrows, the hair that rested on her back was perfectly straight, not a strand out of place. Kate's black hair was longer than usual, well past the middle of her back and her bangs practically hid her blue eyes. And her clothes! She glanced at the cook. Serena Hewitt was impressive, dressed in an ethnic print, peasant skirt and emerald green top that matched both the green in her skirt and her eyes. She looked prepared for anything--an outdoor barbecue, a trip to the lake, an evening at a concert, or an afternoon in a TV studio. Kate, on the other hand wore an outfit that was inappropriate for a special guest spot on television. Not only hadn't she managed to get a haircut, but she hadn't purchased an outfit for these pledge drives. She wore a white tank top and beige khaki slacks. The one thing Kate had going for her was her remarkable tan. She might not have been dressed as a professional, public television star, but she'd definitely come across healthy and sexy with her olive skin and well-toned arms. Not that she cared what anyone thought, anyway.
"Now, let's take a look at 'Kenyan Heartsounds: Journey to the Past,' one of PBS's most requested Nature programs." For the next two minutes, the host, guests and volunteers remained rooted to their places and stared at the monitors placed throughout the room. Serena Hewitt paused in her clean up of the makeshift kitchen and watched the monitor above her. Kate Chavez's voice coming from the TV was melodic as she narrated the sequence of wildlife excerpts. The long, blonde-haired chef turned to look at the exotic-looking woman whose own eyes had found something interesting on the floor. As the video ended, Kate looked up and her eyes met Serena's. Caught, Serena smiled, then gave the woman a friendly, toothy grin. In response, Kate shook her head in embarrassment as she rolled her eyes at the monitor.
"That entire program will air later this evening, but right now, the person who created such beautiful work is here with us. Let's welcome Kate Chavez, filmmaker, conservationist and protector of Africa's wildlife."
Kate took the gum out of her mouth, considered sticking it on the wall, then casually handed the pinkish-gray wad to the stagehand as she stepped across the set.
"Thank you." Kate stepped up onto a platform, smiling and extending her hand toward Rita.
"Amazing work, Kate. So happy you could join us today."
"Glad to be here, Rita. I love PBS and I know your viewers who feel the same way... ." Kate smiled engagingly into the camera, working the television audience who viewed her. Serena sighed as she filled another platter with chicken and beef satay. While Kate hawked the virtues of public television Serena thought about how interesting that work must be--out in the wild, roughing it day after day, risking her life to tell the animals' stories, fighting developers and poachers, living a life so dissimilar from her own. Being brave everyday, taking chances. She wondered if she could do anything like that, make that kind of sacrifice, and quickly decided she couldn't. Though it might be fun for a while, maybe even a few months. Kate, according to what she was saying to the audience, had been living in Kenya for the past five years. Serena admired that kind of dedication.
After ten minutes of interview, interspersed with clips from 'Heartsounds," there was applause from the in-studio volunteers. Kate motioned a thumbs up sign to the audience and said, "Goodbye! Or in Swahili, Kwaherini!" Her shoulders fell once she was out of camera range and she expelled a mighty sigh. "God, how I hate this," she said to no one, but Serena heard.
"How many stations have you had to visit? This is my twelfth one this month."
"Ugh, I've lost count. I feel like such a whore, but it's in the contract," Kate said.
At least, I can check out the local restaurants."
"Local restaurants? " Kate let out a snort. "I've been eating McDonald's and Burger King for the past sixteen days."
"Are you trying to kill yourself?"
Kate grinned. "Nah. At least not via my arteries. It's just easier this way. I never said I liked the stuff."
"No one can survive on Whoppers and McRibs."
"Can I have some of whatcha got there?" Kate asked while reaching for one of the skewered chickens.
"Here," Serena said while handing her a dish piled high with skewered meat and field greens on the side. "I fixed you a plate."
Kate couldn't help but smile. "For me? Thanks." Kate picked up a skewer, and pulled one piece off and popped it into her mouth. She then slid the rest of the chicken off the thin skewer. Serena took note of the long, tapered fingers and felt her breath catch in her throat.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Serena said, "Would you like to have dinner with me, tonight? There's this seafood restaurant in Annapolis that's supposed to have some of the best Chesapeake crabs in the mid-Atlantic." Serena hoped that her invitation didn't sound like a come-on line, though it was. She never behaved this way, never so forward, but there was something about this woman that she found intriguing. "The thought of you eating another cholesterol sandwich somehow saddens me." She touched her hand to her heart, shook her head then quickly turned the small frown into a broad smile.
"Well, we wouldn't want to have you sad, would we?" Kate laughed. "I'm staying in that area, so sure."
"Me, too. Did they put you up at the Little Inn of Annapolis?"
"Nice place. Good food."
"Everything you say related to food and eating?"
"I guess you'll find out over dinner." She gave Kate a wink and a flirty smile.
Kate picked up three more skewers and started out of the studio. "So, we'll meet in the lobby about what? Seven?
"Seven's good," Serena called out, but she wasn't sure if Kate had even heard. The studio's big metal door opened and Kate was gone. "Wow."
Kate was sitting in bed, her notebook computer next to her. She had just put the final changes on a new grant proposal and wasn't pleased with it. It needed a hook, but she didn't have one. She needed money to keep her research and film program alive in Kenya. There were no bells and whistles, just the grit of daily operations. She had three full-time Kenyan wildlife assistants and two free-lance film production people to pay and feed, SUVs to keep in decent enough condition not to leave them stranded in the grasslands, supplies to purchase. Of course, she was building up debt trying to keep Lisa Calltreaux behind bars. Kate shook her head. Thinking about Lisa was not something she wanted to do. The only thing good about returning to the States was a breather from all that was happening in Africa.
Kate's mind turned to Serena. She was quite lovely and there was no doubt that Serena was hitting on her. That dinner invitation said it all. If Serena hadn't asked, Kate would have. She liked how Serena had scolded her about her eating habits and had offered her a plate of food. In her life, no one had ever bothered about the simple necessities when it came to her. Kate's mother never took an interest and her father had always been too busy with his shop. Kate was a self-made survivor, survivalist, and loner. Those weren't the labels she would have chosen for herself, but she hadn't been given a choice. Now they defined her. But the chef hadn't known. Instead, Serena had stopped to consider her and for a moment, take care of her. That was nice. It was different.
Kate found her friendly, unlike the usual diamond in the rough she found so compelling. That had been the attraction to Lisa, a woman whose passion had shown in many ways. Lisa was uncontrolled and as fierce as any animal she had encountered in the wild or the Park Reserve. Serena was everything Lisa wasn't.
It was six-fifteen. She could shower, spritz on a little Cool Water cologne, wear something sexy, then turn on the charm for a couple of hours with the cook. Maybe, they'd end up in bed--not a bad idea since Kate hadn't been with anyone in over a year. She desperately needed some sexual relief. A night with a sexy stranger would do her good and the situation was set up to meet her foremost requirementno strings attached. Kate closed the notebook, stood and stretched, then headed off to the shower.
Six-fifteen. Clothes were strewn abouton both of the double beds, over chairs, on top of the chest of drawers. Serena couldn't decide what to wear. Elegant silk, casual cotton, a sleeveless top to show off her well-defined arms, a playful halter top that really did her hard abdomen justice. She felt like she was going on a date, but then told herself that it wasn't a date, just two PBS personalities getting together to talk trash.
After meeting Kate, an idea popped into her head and she couldn't shake it. While she made one set of calls, her agent made others. Finally, she'd spoken with someone interested in her idea. She hoped Kate would go for it. She knew better than anyone that life was short and she had put things on hold for too long. Now was the time for action, to go after what she wanted. It was a sudden life decision, but one she felt good about making.
Serena chose a bright yellow polo shirt and jeans, slipped on a pair of Birkenstock sandals and cleaned up her room by dumping everything onto the closet floor and sliding the door closed. After making a quick stop in the bathroom, she left to join Kate for dinner.
The paper tablecloth was covered with cracked crab legs and crabmeat, the paper bibs both women wore read "Captain Martin's Crab and Seafood Shanty." They had ordered buckets of the succulent crabs and with two healthy appetites, finished every crab leg on the table.
"This is the first meal I've had in a long time that didn't begin with the phrase, 'supersize it.'"
"Ah." Serena tossed her napkin onto the table. "That was good." She licked her lips and for the third or fourth time that night, Kate's stomach flipped over with desire.
"You eat with such passion." Kate stared into Serena's eyes.
"I've been told. I guess I'm just an oral kind of person."
"Really?" Kate's eyebrow arched mischievously.
The invitation was there, but fear overpowered Serena's opportunity to take the next logical step. Instead, she changed the subject. "Uh, I hope you don't mind that I asked you so many questions about your work. You are just so unbelievably brave and strong. And it's awesome the way you get so close to the animals--that they allow you so near, and your camera work is just spectacular. And your script! I was on the edge of my seat the first time I saw 'Heartsounds.'"
"Thanks. I love what I do. Had I known you'd be so interested, I would have brought my slides, though," Kate answered playfully. She continued to stare into Serena's eyes. Kate knew the charm she possessed, and in the past all it took was a special look from her crystal blue eyes to get what she wanted.
"Well, the thing is, I kind of have an ulterior motive."
"I was thinking..." She took a sip of water. "This afternoon, as I listened to your spiel, I thought it might be a really cool idea if we did a joint project. I'm working on a Millennium cookbook and program series, jumping on the Y2K bandwagon. Each book will focus on a different region of the world. I'm thinking of calling it 'Cooking: The Last Thousand Years.' I thought I might start in Africa. And the hook would be cooking for you and your crew, filming at your camp. Plus, it would bring in money for both of our projects. I'm a great fundraiser."
"A joint project?"
"Right. I'd make sure everyone was well fed while you did your filming and wildlife work. Just give it some thought."
"Interesting idea." Kate decided that she could humor Serena. There was no way this silly proposal would ever see the light of day. A city cook in the Park Reserve?
"I can tell that you're skeptical. If you're utterly opposed to it, I can drop it now."
"No, go for it."
"You mean that?"
"Sure. What'll it hurt?"
Serena wanted to burst. There had been no way to gauge Kate Chavez. Rumor had it that the filmmaker was difficult, aloof, quick-tempered, demanding, and forceful. Serena had heard this from her agent, who had gossiped with one of the accountants who had listened as Kate's former producer described her with venom and contempt. Sitting across from her now, Serena saw nothing but a charming, sexy woman who seemed a bit out of place wearing a bib. She wasn't at all standoffish and Serena found her to be quite amusing with a dry sense of humor. Adding this to what she had viewed in the film, she surely liked everything she saw.
"We should walk off some of this food before it settles."
"So that's your secret. I was wondering how you could shovel down so much food and have such a gr and look so healthy."
Serena lowered her eyes and smiled. "Yep, I workout a lot. So, let me just take care of this." She picked up the bill.
The natural progression after returning to the inn was to head for the bar, which turned out to be very smoky and noisy. Serena suggested drinks in her room and Kate, with great anticipation, followed behind. The sway of Serena's hips as she walked down the carpeted corridor was already so tempting. Kate could almost picture those hips moving against her hand and licked her lips in response to the image. She couldn't remember a time she had been so physically moved by someone. She wanted very much to end up in bed with this woman.
"Here we are."
As Serena fumbled in her bag searching for the room's cardkey, Kate maneuvered herself between Serena and the door. She smiled at her, then bent to kiss her. Serena's arms dropped to her side, surprised by the kiss. When she realized it wasn't ending, Serena's arm slipped around Kate's waist and pulled her closer, kissing deeper.
Their chemistry was powerful--strong, reactive, impulsive, and heated. For many minutes they stood in the corridor making out. Eventually, Serena pulled away, blushing, perspiring, and her chest rising and falling with need. She suggested they finish whatever they were starting inside.
In her hotel room, Serena poured the requested scotch over ice for Kate and grabbed a bottle of Perrier for herself.
"I don't really."
Kate took the glass from Serena and sipped. "Good scotch. I'll have to remember to empty the honor bar in my room." She set the glass on the round table next to the window, and followed Serena to one of the two recliners in the room. Before Serena could sit, Kate had wrapped her arms around her; bent to own her lips again, seeking the heat of her tongue against hers once more. She stepped back and stared at Serena as she cleared her throat and grinned. "Umm." They stood, arms locked around each other until it became awkward.
"How long have you been here? Staying here?"
"Just since last night."
"You've certainly made yourself at home." Still locked in Serena's embrace, Kate looked at the dozen framed pictures around the room. Most of the pictures were of Serena and a man about her age. Each picture seemed to capture a vacation--a ski trip, rollerblading, standing outside the Louvre. A few of the pictures included the couple and another woman dressed identically in Northwestern University sweatshirts.
Serena followed Kate's eyes and saw that she was looking at the photographs. "My friends. From school."
"You and the guy seem close," she said, stepping back, gently grasping Serena's forearms and removing them from around her waist. She had just made a decision. If Serena were interested in sleeping with her, which she knew she was, it wouldn't happen. Kate was not in the business of training lovers or being party to experimentation. She liked being with a woman who knew what to do and exactly what she wanted. Years ago, Kate had had a brief affair with a heterosexual woman. Minutes after making love, the woman had broken down in tears of guilt and confusion. What should have been a pleasant interlude between them was spent offering comfort to her. Kate didn't want a replay of that night.
"Yeah, you might say that." Serena didn't want to talk about Elliot.
"Hey, it's getting late." Kate walked across the room. "I'm going to call it a night."
"I'm trying to finish a grant proposal and I have to do two pledge drives tomorrow in DC and Virginia."
"Are you sure? I'd really like you to stay. At least finish your drink, Kate." Serena picked up the glass that was missing no more than a few swallows of liquid.
Kate smiled and tapped her temple. "Gotta keep a clear head."
"Well, okay." She followed Kate to the door. "I'm glad we got a chance to...It was good meeting you. I love your work."
"Yeah, me too--that it was good meeting you."
"I'm off to New Jersey tomorrow."
"Well, thanks for dinner." She turned, opened the door and left.
Serena watched her for a moment, then closed the door. "What was that all about?" she asked herself, then, turned toward her graduation picture and looked at Elliot. "Oh, you."
Four Months Later.
Today was supply pickup and mail day, so Kate Chavez had driven over one hundred miles from her camp to downtown Nairobi. First thing, she had the SUV worked on. After a three hour wait and haggling over the cost of repairs, she drove to the grocery and hardware stores for weekly purchases. Those errands completed, she stopped at the pharmacy to pick up more first aid supplies. Finally, she drove to the post office where she kept a large box which more times than not contained grant rejection letters, demands from producers, pleas from her agent and occasionally letters from fans requesting pictures or help with school projects.
Kate sat in her midnight blue, Oldsmobile Bravada. The driver's side door was open and one of her long legs dangled out the door. She pushed her sunglasses to rest on top of her head and tore open a plain white envelope. Pulling out a sheet of paper attached to a contract, she quickly read through the letter. "Shit."
Two months had passed since Kate learned that Serena had persevered. As much as she wanted to say no way, forget about it, not gonna happen, Kate was resigned to the fact that Serena was coming to Kenya and they'd be working together. The filmmaker could have said no, but Serena with Kate's agent had managed to bring in a hefty amount for Kate's research and next film. She needed the money and couldn't have done it on her own.
Serena had arrived the day before and as planned, she checked into one of the local, western-style/primitive ambience hotels, spoke over the phone with Dafton, who would be her adviser and assistant and arranged to have him and their supplies arrive at the campsite two days later. She and Dafton first met at the British Culinary School of the Arts three years ago where she had taught a seminar. He had been her best and most imaginative student. The two had remained in contact since and Serena was thrilled to have him working with her. She also spoke to the producers at Nairobi Broadcasting Company and learned that her shooting dates in-studio were scheduled for weeks later and that a full studio kitchen would be available to her. The editors would come in near the end and help pull together the footage Kate would be shooting on-location.
Later that afternoon, Serena bookstore-hopped, picking up any and all books related to African cooking, several books on indigenous plant and herb life in Kenya, two Kenyan history books, and the requisite tour guidebooks. In her hotel, she read through the cookbooks, took notes and familiarized herself with the pronunciation of seasonings and spices.
Over dinner, she wondered about her upcoming first meeting with Kate on the filmmaker's turf. More than anything, she wanted everything to go well. They'd be working together for about a year and it could and should be a positive experience. Since they met six months ago, not a day had gone by when Kate Chavez wasn't deep in Serena Hewitt's thoughts. She had replayed their introduction, the conversations over dinner, the walk back to the Inn, and the passionate kisses they had shared many times. The morning after, she had purchased Cool Water cologne, the fragrance she was certain Kate had been wearing. She sniffed from the bottle and occasionally dabbed a bit on her pillow, but never wore it. It was Kate. It was special and she wouldn't claim it as her own. And now, she sat in a restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa counting the hours 'til she'd be face to face with this woman again. Was she being compulsive? A stalker? A silly young girl? Or was she finally opening herself up to living instead of just existing? What would her parents have thought? Elliot must be stunned. Serena ran her fingers through her short hair and smiled.
Kate stood in the lobby of one of Nairobi's finest hotels, The Norfolk, listening to her Walkman and waiting for Serena. Her hair was pulled back into one, long, loose braid that hung down her back with soft dark bangs resting on her forehead. She wore her usual work clothes--a pair of khaki pants, a forest green long-sleeved, button-down shirt, and camel-colored hiking boots. It was 12:28pm and Kate decided that if Serena didn't arrive promptly at 12:30 it was a sign of her lack of seriousness about Kate's time and work. The chef had a couple of minutes to show herself. Even though Kate found Serena attractive, she would not let those impulses come to the surface. She might look good, but she's still an interloper. Showing up where she doesn't belong and making me responsible for her safety. I'm not a fucking tour guide. Within minutes, Kate had worked herself up into a moody anger just as she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Hi, Kate. Waiting for me?" Serena reached up and pushed one of the earpieces away from Kate's ear. "I'm here." She grinned.
Kate pushed her hand away. "So you are." Serena had cut her hair short and it looked windblown and perfectly disheveled. Surprisingly, she was not dressed in the requisite African khaki, but tropical, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with pineapple drawings scattered over it and bright yellow gauze pants. She was nothing short of sexy. The chef sure didn't make it easy. Kate turned away.
Serena was taken aback. Not even an hello. Now she knew, Kate wasn't happy about the new arrangement. But there was no turning back. She had committed herself to this and once Kate signed the contract, so had she. "We're going to need some help. Storage is down the hall."
"How much you got?"
"A lot, I'm afraid. They were kind enough to put it in storage, so I wouldn't have to lug it all up to my room." Kate stared in dismay, then trailed behind her.
A man dressed in a maroon and gray uniform stood at the door and guided the women inside. "Please point out your belongings to me, Miss, so that I might retrieve them," he asked formally.
Serena scanned the storage room filled with suitcases, trunks, and boxes. "Let's see. That's mine." She pointed to a footlocker. "The one over there." She pointed again.
"That, too. Those three boxes." She stood arms akimbo and stared into the room. "Can we get one more on the cart? Just that crate and " Serena looked at the purple duffel bag in the corner. "That bag."
"Jesus Christ. There must be twelve pieces here. Why in the world would you bring all of this stuff?" Kate stared angrily at Serena.
Serena raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Well, really the duffel bag is mine and nothing else. All of this is for you and your crew packed and addressed by *your* agent."
"Just this bag is mine." Swinging the duffel over her shoulder she brushed past Kate and the bellhop toward the door. "Where are you parked?"
Two small boxes were the last to go into the back of the Bravada. As Kate slammed the door, she headed for the driver's side. "You might wanna go around to the passenger's..." she looked up, expecting to see Serena, but it wasn't the newcomer. It was Lisa.
The scrawny, blonde stared at her. She looked more emaciated than usual, but there was still that incredible muscle tone that cried out danger. "Kate. Surprise! I just love dropping in on my friends, stopping to chat, say hello." She winked at her. "Catch up." Lisa dripped sweetness, but her eyes pierced the filmmaker.
"What are you doing here?" Kate asked calmly pushing Lisa and stepping between her truck and the woman.
"You mean why aren't I in prison? You didn't really think that they'd be able to keep me there? Come on."
"Hope springs eternal. How'd cha get out, Lisa?"
"Your flimsy evidence worked on an incompetent judge, but it looks like the Kenyan justice system is fair. I've got no complaints. You're not going to make a fuss about this, are you?"
Serena came around the truck from the front and stood listening to the dialogue. She hadn't thought it possible, but Kate had grown colder. She could feel the chill from eight feet away.
"I hope they at least gave you your passport and told you to get the hell out of the country. Why don't you go home?" She asked angrily.
"Unfortunately, my luck is only beginning to turn. I'm out until the trial gets underway, if it goes to trial. I can't leave the country." She gave Kate the once over and grinned. "But believe me, dear Kate I would never desert you. Even if I could leave, my only joy comes from being near you." The smile remained plastered on Lisa's face.
Kate opened the door and said to Serena as she flopped on the seat, "Get in. Let's get outta here."
"What?" Lisa pouted as she stood at the driver's window. "You don't share those feelings anymore? You used to. What happened? Her?"
Serena looked inquisitively at Lisa, then turned to walk back around the SUV to the other side.
Kate started the Bravada as Serena leapt in to the passenger's side. The truck was already rolling before the woman had closed the door. Kate wasn't waiting.
They drove in virtual silence for several minutes. Serena was too afraid to broach the subject of what just went on and Kate obviously had no desire to discuss it. Serena glanced behind to see Lisa become smaller and smaller. When Kate was sure she was out of Lisa's sight she picked up her cellphone and dialed a number.
"Kate Chavez." She listened as she turned onto the road leading out of the city. "Oh, I'm sure you were expecting my call," she said sarcastically. "What the hell is going on?" Another long pause. "What do I have to do?" Pause. "Don't tell me that. I don't want to hear that." Pause. "Who? Oh, yeah. That bastard would sell his mother and kids for the right price. Just great." She listened to the person on the other end and shook her head as she drove. "So you're telling me there's nothing I can do or anyone over in your office?" Pause. "This is just rich. Just rich." Pause. "And I don't suppose my camp will have any protection either? Of course not." Kate pressed the disconnect button and drove on, biting her lip.
Many minutes passed.
"Are you all right?"
"Who was that woman? Lisa?"
Kate turned fixing on her. Her blue eyes narrowed and she said, "A mess I need to clean up." As she drove, she turned to look at Serena. "Do you know how to use a gun?"
Serena nodded. This was not what she had anticipated of her first hours in Kenya.
The Bravada stopped in the middle of camp. There were seven tents of varying size that formed the perimeter of the camp.
Kate spoke to Serena as they stepped out of the truck. "That's the only kitchen we've got over there. You get water from those barrels which we restock once a week. Be careful with water. It's a limited supply. You know not to drink any water without it being purified. Filters *and* iodine tablets?"
"All the water at this camp is safe, but if you go elsewhere, don't drink it."
"Hepatitis. Yes, I read about it."
"And that goes for the river which looks clean enough, but it's especially contaminated, laced with bacteria and parasites."
Serena's eyes widened. "Sleeping sickness. I know all about it. Don't worry, I'll be extra careful. That is something I don't want to experience," she answered excitedly.
"We've got three generators that pump in some energy, plus rely heavily on solar power." Kate pointed out objects as she spoke. "The shower is behind these two tents. That tent is yours, the one next to it, the bigger one, is mine. Two of the guys bunk together, the other one snores, so he doesn't share his tent. The other tent is for storage, meetings during bad weather and when my freelance people come out to work, they stay in there. There's a short wave radio in there, all of our electronic equipment--phone and fax, plus all of our film equipment. The phone and fax are for emergencies only. It'll cost you about 7-10 U.S. dollars per page to fax, so use it sparingly. All of this is hooked up via satellite." Kate raised her chin to point to the small satellite dish that allowed the camp entrance into the late 20th century. "That small tent over there, that's for your assistant. Now you and your assistant are going to have your own stuff, right? We're already stretched pretty thin out here."
"Yes, he's coming out tomorrow with everything."
"Victor, come 'ere a sec," Kate shouted to one of the Kenyans looking out at the two women from his tent.
As he approached, she introduced him to Serena and asked him to round up everyone to help unload the truck. Already Serena loved the camp. It was almost as she had imagined, probably from the numerous viewings of Kate's video, "Heartsounds." She even recognized her crew. There was Victor, Kate's right hand for the past three years. Tall and lanky, the overly cautious one who in the videos always warned of danger as the risk-takers proceeded. Jimiyu, a Kenyan whose first language was Swahili and spoke broken, but precise English. He was born into a family of herders and hunters, learning to treat the animals as he did a member of the family. He was the most fearless of the group, seeing no good reason not to run directly into a family of cheetah or taunt a hyena for the right picture. He had long, muscular legs that looked like they had spent a lifetime running. He was older than Victor by five years and had numerous scratches on his body from close interactions with wildlife. Jack was the perfect balance between Victor and Jimiyu. Level-headed, he weighed each situation and advised accordingly. He was short and overweight. The last few buttons of his shirt had popped open, exposing his dark belly.
"Glad to meet you." She shook hands. "Hi, how are you? Hamjambo." She smiled and accepted the welcome from each man.
Kate busied herself unloading the SUV and sorting through the boxes. She moved back and forth between the truck and her tent, dropping packages at the entrance, then returning to the vehicle. At the back of the truck, she took one more look at what was left, patted Jack on the back and said softly, "Jack, Lisa's out. Tonight, we clean guns. I don't want to be taken by surprise." She walked toward her tent, pulled the flap back and entered. For the next ten minutes, Kate's arms were the only part of her seen as she grabbed boxes and pulled them inside.
Serena wasn't sure what to do. She wanted to talk about the joint project. Kate would be responsible for shooting Serena at work as well as her usual filmmaking duties. Serena took a seat on one of the picnic benches and waited patiently for her return. An hour passed and Serena decided to unpack her few items and when Kate was finished with her work, she could find her.
The tent was far from homey. There was a cot, a couple of blankets and a small pillow. A rickety endtable was placed beside the cot on which there was a lantern and several containers of mosquito coils. Several were already lit and burning inside, giving off an unusually sweet aroma. On the other side of the tent, a large bucket containing a first aid kit, a handheld flashlight, a headgear flashlight, a towel, a small shovel, and toilet paper. She did a double take of the last two items. No way.
Serena hurried out of the tent and looked around at the camp. Seven tents, a small kitchen area and *no bathroom.* That hadn't even occurred to her.
"Excuse me," Serena called out to Victor and Jack who sat at one of the picnic tables smoking cigarettes. "Excuse me," she said as she approached them.
"Yes, Mama," Victor greeted her with the Swahili version of 'yes, Miss.'
"Umm, I...where are the restrooms? The restroom? Bathroom?" She looked at Jack and with deliberation asked, "Choo kiko wapi?"
Victor laughed. "Anywhere you like, Mama." His outstretched arm panned the land where they stood. "You have your shovel, no?"
Serena blushed deeply. "Yes, I have my shovel." Smiling weakly, she nodded and returned to her tent. "God," she exclaimed under her breath.
Sitting on her cot, Serena fiddled with the lantern and the box of matches left next to it. Seven or eight attempts later, she finally lit the lantern and watched as it held its flame. She unpacked and put away her few items.
Now what? Afternoon had turned to dusk and still no Kate. Serena stepped out of her tent and back into the camp that was spookily quiet. Several lanterns had been lit and were strung on rope between tents and on the tables.
Serena's stomach growled as she looked at the items on the counter. It didn't come as a surprise to see that there wasn't much in the way of food--dozens of packets of freeze-dried camp food entrees, side dishes and desserts, and cans of vegetables and fruit. She couldn't believe that this was what they survived on. The three small battery-charged refrigerators contained eggs, soy milk, a few tomatoes and onions. Putting her hands on her hips, she glanced around the camp. Nothing, no one. Hours had passed and other than her brief contact with Victor and Jack about the bathroom, she had spoken to no one and no one had approached her.
"Use the cowbell, Mama." The voice came from one of the tents, but Serena didn't know which one or to whom the voice belonged. She was standing just outside of Kate's tent and was about to clear her throat to announce herself. She slapped the cowbell and waited. Finally Kate flung the flap back and glared at Serena.
"Hi." Serena smiled.
"Oh. Dinner ready?" Kate asked casually.
"Dinner? Uh, no. I really don't know much about the camp. What you usually eat, what time, how much to make. I'm not familiar with your setup at all."
"According to the contract, you're supposed to cook, right? And shoot your series, of course. But here at the camp, you're suppose to cook?" Kate inquired, then stared as if she had never been so bored.
"Uh, yeah. But. Umm." Serena felt uncomfortable. "Could I come in and talk to you?"
Kate stepped out, closing the flap behind her. "What is it?" She stiffened.
"Look, I know you don't want me here. That's obvious. I'm sorry. Maybe it was a mistake, but you had several chances to nix it. I'd appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to show me the ropes, help me settle in. I promise, I'll stay out of your hair after that."
"I think I told you all that you needed to know. Tent, kitchen, shower, barrels." She shrugged. "I don't know what else to tell ya."
Kate turned and stepped back into her tent, leaving Serena still standing at the closed flap. Serena shook her head. What had she gotten herself in to?
Dinner was abysmal, but what could be expected from a packet of Chicken Tetrazzini and vegetables that only required water and heating?
"Sorry about the meal. I promise starting in the next few days nothing but one delicious dining experience after another." She winked. "This will just be a bad memory."
Kate chewed her last bite of the entrée, following it with a long swallow of the remaining water from her cup. She stood and walked back to her tent. Victor glanced at Serena who watched as Kate's tent flap closed. She lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"She has some worries. It'll be okay. She is a good person."
"Yeah." She stood and began clearing plates, her own, then Kate's.
"Do you need some help, Mama? Serena?" Jack asked.
"No, you guys go ahead and do whatever it is you do in the evening. I'll clean up. Thanks for asking, though."
As she cleaned, she thought about her first meeting with Kate. She had been so personable. Serena considered the difference.
The next morning Serena awoke early and with her shovel and toilet paper, ran as far from camp as she could get without completely losing sight of it. She couldn't believe that she would be squatting in the Kenyan soil for the next year. Hey, I wanted the adventure. After using the "toilet" she gathered her clothes and toiletries and headed for the shower. It took a few minutes to figure out how to use the solar shower. She learned that just before dawn was a perfect time to shower undisturbed, but it was impossible to have warm water. Solarsunheat. Duh. As she dried herself with a towel, she listened to the sounds of her first morning in the flatlands of this old country. Here, in the middle of nowhere, about 150 kilometers or 90 miles from the outskirts of Nairobi, in a place where only five people currently lived, Serena heard incredible sounds. She closed her eyes and listened. Animals were waking in the distance. Growls, chirps, yawns, which undoubtedly would have been loud if she had been next to them, whispered in harmony and it was a joyful noise.
She slid on her underwear and pants, thought about putting on her bra and decided that she didn't need it. It was hot and she didn't want to have that kind of binding sticking to her all day. She pulled the over-sized T-shirt over her head and brushed her hair. Suddenly, she stopped and listened to something much closer.
"No. Stop. You can't do this. Stop it. What are you doing? Stop." Kate's voice, coming from her tent sounded as if she were struggling.
Serena started toward the tent, but hesitated.
"Why are you hurting...? Don't hurt... Please. Please don't do this. Look at their faces." The strong voice of the often surly filmmaker sounded weak and child-like.
Serena ran to the front of the tent. She was just about to barge in when Victor's hand grabbed her arm. "Don't. She's dreaming. She is having a bad dream."
"Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine, but say nothing to her. She would not like that we hear this."
"How long has this been going on?"
"This particular dream? The things that she says now? About eight months. She keeps much inside. It has to come out. Before this, she had others. Please don't say anything. It would hurt her. She will be angry."
Serena stared at the tent, then turned to Victor. "I won't," she whispered.
An hour passed before Kate made her way out of her tent, walked through the camp and headed to her "toilet." She returned and with long strides, headed for the shower. About ten minutes later, with wet hair, and wearing green pants, a white cotton top and her usual hiking boots, she joined Serena at the picnic table.
Serena rang the camp's cowbell and the men joined Kate at the table that had been set with plates and messkit flatware. The chef smiled at each man as she walked around the table serving breakfast. "I hope this is better. Once I set my mind to it, I can make something out of not much at all."
"Breakfast burritos. You name it, it's in here. Hearty breakfast for us Kenyan cowboys." She laughed. The men grinned, but didn't understand. Kate waited to be served.
They ate well and finished off all that she had made. "That was really good," Kate said.
Kate turned to her all male crew. "Hey, you guys going to be ready soon? I want to get out to the base of the mountain before noon."
"Yes, when you're ready. The truck's loaded."
"And you used the checklist? I don't wanna be out there without the stuff we need."
"We are set."
"Okay, then." She started toward the SUV, then turned back to face Serena. "Hey. We'll be out until maybe eight tonight. Your friend should be here before then. I don't expect you'll need it, but here's protection." Kate withdrew a handgun from behind her back and handed it to Serena who had been trailing behind her. "Don't get trigger happy. Use it if there's trouble."
What could that possibly mean? No explanation? Serena took the gun and examined it. She was comfortable handling firearms, and had become an accurate shooter. It was not as heavy as the weapons she had used at the shooting range a while ago, so she trusted her ability to handle it.
The men piled into the Bravada and waved goodbye. Kate didn't. She started the engine, backed out, then made a U-turn and headed out of the camp. Serena was alone.
She spent the day reading one of the histories of Kenya she had purchased. Knowing the history of a people helped to understand why and how they cook and eat the way they do. Were they a conquered people and where did those victors originate? It was this research and study that made Serena one the top-selling cookbook authors in the country and second only to Julia Child on PBS.
She had finished reading about Arab merchants arriving in Kenya and was well into the chapter on the Portuguese invasion of the 15th century when she looked up from the book. She thought she heard a vehicle in the distance. She left the book open, turning it upside down and placing it over the gun on the table. She listened. Perhaps it was Dafton, her assistant. She did hear a truck or car.
A beat up Jeep Wrangler rolled into the campsite and Lisa, the woman from yesterday jumped out of the SUV. "Where's Kate?"
Serena stood, but didn't move from the picnic table. "She's not here." This woman made Serena edgy and scared.
"Oh? Where'd she go?" Lisa asked sweetly.
"She didn't say. I think some mountain."
"And her crew? Where are they?" Lisa moved closer to Serena who has frozen in her place.
"Uh... uh...the crew? They're...umm."
"Is there a problem?"
"No. No problem." She hoped her voice didn't sound as shrill as it did to her.
"Then are they with her?"
No point in lying. She'd find out eventually and that meant in the near future. She nodded.
"When are they due back?"
"Soon. Any minute."
"Really?" Lisa looked up at the sky, then her watch. "I don't think any minute. No, not any minute. What did she tell you about me? "
"You're afraid of me. There's no reason to be frightened. Kate and I are friends who are having some difficulties right now." Lisa sighed and lifted her hands in surrender. "Difficulties that she's created, but I'm willing to work it out with her. In fact, I've brought a few peace offerings. I'm just trying to open up the lines of communication."
Serena's eyes enlarged as she watched Lisa stick her arm in the Jeep. Her own body tensed, leaning into the table, edging closer to the handgun hiding under her book. She wondered if Lisa was reaching for a gun as well. Was this how she was going to die? The victim of a madwoman in Kenya.
Lisa dumped a variety of objects onto the ground beside the Jeep. She then grabbed a sombrero-size, straw hat from the passenger's seat and plopped it onto her head.
"Guilty as charged. I took some of these things when I left her...this camp. I'm returning her belongings. I'm sure she probably didn't even miss this stuff, but... I'm certainly willing to start clearing the air if I can. Could you tell her I brought these?"
"Oh, look." Lisa stared at the ground. "The hammock. She loves this thing. Here I'll help you put it up."
Serena continued to stare.
"I'm really *not* going to hurt you."
Serena cautiously walked over to Lisa as the twitchy, far too thin woman picked up the hammock she had dropped. "How about over there between those trees? I think that's where it was before." The two trees were a perfect distance apart for the hammock. "You'll have to try it out. Read your book while lying in it. There's nothing like it to kill an afternoon. You'll have to try it as soon as it's up, okay?" Lisa rattled on.
Serena imagined that Kate would relax there, fall asleep in the sun or read or listen to her Walkman while her long legs stretched out in the hammock. She had been lost in this fantasy. Lisa stood at one tree and had securely tied one end of the hammock to it. "Aren't you going to help me?"
Serena was walking over to pick up the other end of the hammock when she heard another vehicle Maybe this was Dafton. Although, Lisa wasn't threatening her in any way, she was picking up bad vibes from her. Something about this woman was spooky. One thing she did know was that she should be in jail, according to Kate. If she did something bad enough to warrant prison, then Serena wanted nothing to do with her. Let it be Dafton.
It was Kate's SUV. Serena stood up and checked her watch. It was only four-thirty.
"Well, I don't want to upset her. Nice seeing you again, sweetie. Enjoy the hammock." Lisa ran to her Jeep, pulled the sombrero off her head, shook it vigorously, then threw it in the backseat.
Lisa left and Kate entered the camp about the same time, both of them kicking up clouds of dust. The Bravada had barely come to a full stop when Kate jumped out of it. "What are you doing?" She ran over to Serena who stepped back.
"What the hell are you doing? Why is that hammock there? Who was that? Was that Lisa?"
Serena blinked quickly. Something was terribly wrong. Victor, Jack and Jimiyu also leapt from the SUV and moved toward the hammock where they stood looking at the trees.
"I...I don't. I was reading when your friend, Lisa showed up. She left all of this stuff for you." She pointed at the pile of objects on the ground. "And the hammock."
"Did you do that? Did you put the hammock there?"
"Well, no. I was just about to help her when I heard you coming. Lisa was tying it."
Kate grabbed Serena, holding her by the shoulders, blue eyes, large and unyielding. "You weren't over there helping her?"
"No." She shrugged Kate's hands off of her. "Don't worry about your stupid hammock, my hands never touched it."
Kate realized that she was out of control. "Sorry. It's not the hammock. It's where the hammock is. Those trees are mango trees. The fruit isn't in season now. Nothing but hard rocks. But, the mango tree...There are these worms that live in the trees. They like our skin...to burrow into it. You've got to be careful. You can put the hammock over there." She pointed to other trees. "That's where it used to be anyway. Just don't sleep under those trees."
Serena realized that it wasn't anger, but fear. Kate had been afraid for her. "Sure."
Just as quickly as the concern had appeared, Kate's coolness returned. "Lisa's sneaky. Don't turn your back on her. She's dangerous, too. What did she want?"
"Hmm." Kate picked up the belongings. "That it?"
"Yeah. Why are you guys back so early?"
"Ask Jimmy?" Kate rolled her eyes and marched into her tent.
Jimiyu smiled with a hint of embarrassment. "Perhaps, I was not as thorough with my checklist as I should have been."
It was another night of camp rations. Serena managed to spice them up and create a decent enough meal, but not one that she'd ever put in a cookbook.
Later that evening as Victor, Jack and Jimiyu smoked cigarettes and recalled various, strange encounters with wild animals, Serena quietly stepped from her tent wearing on her head an elaborate hardhat with elastic straps and Velcro holding a flashlight in place just above the forehead. The light was to guide the way into the darkness, but she didn't turn it on. Modesty was an issue for her. She was discreet, particularly about normal bodily functions. It was perfectly natural to have to relieve oneself, but she felt very self-conscious about walking through the camp with her shovel and toilet paper. Not everyone needed to know when she had to go. As she walked, a feeling came over her very similar to a déjà vu. She swallowed and pushed the image down. At the very edge of the camp, she flipped the light on and it illuminated what seemed like miles. So much for discretion.
When she returned, Kate was standing next to the table, sipping tea and talking to her crew. She turned when she saw the light, barely acknowledged Serena, then returned to her conversation. Serena entered her tent, then a few seconds later joined the rest of the camp.
"Kate, could I talk to you a moment?"
"Uh-huh." Kate stepped away and moved toward Serena. "What?"
"My assistant didn't show up today. He was supposed to be here by late morning. I think something happened to him."
"What did he tell you?"
"That he'd be here today."
"No, what exactly did he tell you?"
"Two days ago he said that he would come out day after tomorrow."
"Let me tell you something about this place. When a Kenyan uses the word 'tomorrow' that really means sometime in the future. What he told you was that he wouldn't see you the next day, but sometime after the next day."
"But we agreed on today. And anyway, he lived in London for the past seven years. He's very Western."
"Hmm." Kate grunted skeptically. "He's back home, now. He's not trying to screw with you. It's the way they are. They see time very differently. We survived without your cooking before, we can continue eating rations as always."
Serena was sure Kate didn't mean it the way it came across, but she felt bad nonetheless. Kate had basically said, we didn't need you before, we don't need you now. Kate looked down at her, waiting to see if she had anything else to say.
"Oh, I bought this for you. Here." Serena handed her a leather bound journal. "I thought maybe you could write down your adventures, keep a log. It's African. I think Kenyan."
Kate looked at it, then flipped the journal over. Made in Nigeria. God, tourists are all the same. One African country is just as good as another. "Thanks," she said coldly. She dropped it on the table and drank from her mug. Serena wondered if she'd survive this camp. So far it looked like it was running a close second to the worst time of her life.
Two more days passed. It was all she could do not to beg Kate or Victor to drive her back into Nairobi. This was a test in patience. Dafton probably wasn't even aware that she was worried, frustrated, lonely, and eager to get started.
Kate had said only the minimum required of her. Serena was becoming friendlier with the men, but as is Kenyan culture, they weren't particularly comfortable around her. Men and women were not friends, only mates or potential mates. Although, these men were very Americanized (and who wouldn't be after spending time with Kate), she guessed much of their life's views were engrained into them from childhood. They were kind, but distant.
She had asked twice if she could accompany them on a shoot and Kate without hesitation struck the very idea of it down. "Someone needs to be here when the other cook arrives. And anyway, we're busy. You'd only get in the way."
Jimiyu's eyes had turned to Serena and he favored her with a long look of empathy.
Now, when Serena heard the soft roar of a car in the distance, she assumed that Lisa was returning or Kate and the guys were back. She had pushed Dafton's arrival out of her mind. A Ford Expedition pulled into the camp. A man many inches over six feet unfolded his long frame out of the truck and stood to his full height. Serena raised her head to the sky and whispered, "Thank you."
"Serena," the tall Kenyan spoke to her with a soulful, rich upper-crust British accent. "I've finally arrived. I can't believe I'm out here in the middle of nowhere. Several times I almost turned back. I swear to you if I had seen so much as a grasshopper or cricket, I would have declined your exciting offer for this adventure."
"Where have you been?" she said, then ran to him and gave him a strong hug.
"I had to get my house in order, as it were. It is true that I am treated no better than a pile of dung, yet the restaurant finds me indispensable. The manager was quite the piece of work, bitching and moaning about my leave, just hours after throwing out a beautiful souffle I had created. We had quite the knockdown, drag out row. * You* are looking fabulous." He placed his hand on top of her head and gave her newly cropped hair a tousle. "I love it."
"Thanks. I can't tell you how happy I am to see you."
Dafton walked behind the SUV and began pulling out boxes of cookware, utensils, even beautiful earthenware dishes from the storage area of the Expedition. "Help me fetch these things, mate."
Serena grabbed a box and headed toward their 'kitchen.' Moving back and forth between kitchen and truck, they soon had a well-stocked cook area.
"Are we the only people out here? Where's this camp we're supposed to be cooking for?"
"They're out working. I'll show you around and tell you all about them."
He dropped a long, brown arm around her shoulders and said, "I'm just dying to hear every detail about this woman who made you drop out of your life in America and come here. It must be love."
"I feel pretty stupid, actually. I don't know what I was thinking. She's not the person I thought."
"Serena, from your letters you said you had only met her once. How much could you have known?"
"I know. It's foolish."
"Don't tell me about foolish. I can understand you coming here for love. After all, I left London where I could be an out and proud gay man to get over being dumped by Duncan. Now, I'm back home and so far in the closet it isn't even funny. That's love."
"Well, this ain't love."
"No. She's definitely not straight. She's a controlling, temperamental... Ah, never mind. It's me."
"Come, sit down and tell me all about it and her and the boys. Are they ruggedly handsome? Dashing? Wild and untamed?" He flung his long legs over the picnic bench and sat down.
Serena sat down and poured a cup of tea from the carafe she had filled earlier. "They are not your type in so many ways." She laughed.
When Kate, Jack, Victor and Jimiyu arrived back at the camp, the smell of real food permeated the grounds. Dafton and Serena had turned the camp into a cooking laboratory. Cookbooks were opened on the picnic table, the shorter chef tasted an ingredient, then jotted something into her notebook. She moved next to Dafton who stood at the stove staring into a pot and they whispered conspiratorially. The filmmaker and crew had been back for over ten minutes before they were even noticed.
"Oh, nina njaa. Kitu gani hiku?" Jimiyu worked his way across the camp to the kitchen.
Dafton turned around. "A hungry man is a good thing." Dafton responded to the Swahili comment and then, "I am Dafton and to answer your question, it is kuku. We're having chicken tonight."
"Ah. Nitapenda kukujulisha na, Dafton. Ninaitwa Jimiyu."
"The pleasure is mine."
"Daf, the other guys are Victor and Jack and that's Kate," Serena said over her shoulder while she stirred the contents of the pot.
He waved at the other two men still unloading the truck and gave Kate a long, lazy once-over. "She's gorgeous," he whispered. "Now I understand."
Serena blushed and returned to their cooking.
That night was wonderful. Dinner was splendid. Dafton and Serena worked well together and though she took some of his suggestions, the final product was her creation. It was a traditional and simply prepared meal of chicken cooked in coconut milk and spices, but the camp didn't get this sort of dinner often. Everyone had seconds and Kate even had thirds. She joked with her crew and even shared a laugh or two with Serena and Dafton. The Kenyan chef had a way with people. He was funny and outrageous, keeping them laughing with stories of his family in Nairobi and his friends in London. His mood was infectious.
As bad as things had become at the camp, Dafton's presence had turned it around. The night was a good omen.
These days were in many ways some of the best Serena had lived in almost ten years. She was being challenged in her profession, steering away from the conventional and moving toward the avant-garde in cooking. Dafton had been a godsend. Victor, Jack and Jimiyu had taken Dafton's lead and had really gone out of their way to make the camp feel like a home to her.
One evening she threatened Jimiyu who had made fun of her with her bathroom shovel. He leapt over the picnic tables, slipped between tents, hid from her as she howled and yelled after him.
"Now, you're scared. You don't want to get hit with this shovel. You know where it's been."
The two dropped breathlessly on the picnic table just as Kate walked into the camp with her own shovel, the long stick poised on her shoulder.
"Kate, quick bring your shovel over. Jimmy's been asking for trouble and I think the shovels will teach him a lesson."
"No, don't do it," he pleaded in a heavy Swahili accent.
Kate's upper lip turned up. "You givin' me orders, Jimmy. You know my shit shovel has a mind of it's own." She flipped the shovel off her shoulder and followed its outstretched lead in a zombie-like fashion. "See? See, what'd I tell you?"
Jimiyu jumped up and Kate and Serena began the chase. They laughed so hard that they could no longer continue the game and Jimiyu held his stomach all the way back to his tent.
Dinner was another huge success. This night, Serena was being driven mad by Kate's long glances and warm smiles. They ate family style with bowls of food placed strategically around the table. "Could you pass me the rice?" Kate asked.
Serena picked up the bowl and passed it across the table. Kate's fingers grazed over Serena's and the contact sent a shiver through her. It affected Kate, too. Momentarily, her eyelids hid her eyes as she sighed from the touch. Kate cleared her throat. "So when do you guys want me to start shooting your cooking show? The big rains are due soon. We'll have rain for about four months and it'll be heavy."
"We'll start next week? Is that good?"
"Fine with me."
Eight weeks had gone by since Dafton had joined the team. Everyone had fallen into a routine and they were very comfortable with one another. Kate shot sequences of Serena and Dafton at work, jabbering about food, discussing tastes and creative combinations of traditional favorites. Serena had previewed each video and was quite pleased.
One morning, Victor and Jack left early for Nairobi. The second Bravada had been giving them trouble for about a week and Kate wanted everything in order before the rains. They were sent into town with the videos of Serena and Dafton that they'd drop off with the editors. Jimiyu had decided to stay in the camp and organize equipment, do some repair work on one of the film cameras, some usual maintenance on the satellite dish, and to eat. He explained that nowhere in Nairobi could he get such wonderful food, so why go. He and Dafton spoke in their native Swahili only breaking into English when Serena was around. She wondered how Jimiyu would feel once he learned Dafton's sexual orientation. Kenya was not an open country for homosexuality. Gay men were ostracized, beaten, tortured and even taken to tribal doctors for treatment in the more rural villages. Jimiyu seemed very traditional. She made a mental note to chat with Dafton about it.
Serena had been reading while listening to the chatter of Swahili coming from the men and the rhythmic beat of traditional drumming coming from Kate's boombox. Kate played her music loudly and this particular CD seemed to be a favorite right now. She played it almost every time she went into her tent.
The music stopped and the two men and Serena glanced up to see Kate exiting her tent a few minutes later, a 35-millimeter camera around her neck.
"Hey. I'm going up to the grasslands to see how our cheetahs are doing, plus I'm gonna get some measurements before the rains. We'll have to get a pool going on how much we'll get this season."
"Come?" Jimiyu asked.
"Nah. I think I can handle it Jimmy. If Victor and Jack are having a day why shouldn't you?"
Kate walked to the driver's side door. Jimiyu glanced at Serena who had been watching Kate intently. He grinned, then looked at Kate and with his eyes motioned that she invite Serena. Kate stared at him, and opened the truck's door. Just as she was stepping up, she stopped, looked off into the distance, her hand on the doorframe, frozen in mid-action. She slid her tongue across her teeth, then thrust it against her cheek in contemplation. "Uh, hey. You wanna come along?" Her voice trailed off slightly. "Grab whatever you want to bring and let's go. Snacks would be nice."
Serena couldn't believe it. She leapt from the picnic bench. "I'll be ready in just a minute."
Fifteen minutes later, after packing up goodies and making a trip to the woods to void her bladder, the two women were no more than a cloud of dust particles at the camp.
As they drove, Kate filled Serena in. "I've been following the same pack of cheetahs for the past year and a half. One of the females delivered a small litter just before you arrived at the camp. They're pretty big now, but not nearly grown. They could kill you, though, so you should still use precautions when approaching them. The cubs are dangerous and the mother will fight off anyone who gets too close. I'm especially interested in them because it's my first opportunity to watch development from birth through infancy and hopefully adulthood."
"It is. The cheetahs are carnivorous. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Nope, so am I." Serena grinned.
"Yeah, I guess so. Except you know it can get gross?"
"What do they feed on?"
"Their food of choice is antelope, but if they can't get that, they'll down a hare and I pity the slow baboon who can't get away."
Serena felt her breakfast somersault in her stomach.
"I've been trailing them back into the grasslands. That's how I knew for sure rain was on its way. They're moving back into this area. All of the animals have been on hunts as far as the swamps. But now, they feel the rains. They're heading home--those that survived the drought, that is. Lots of carcasses from fallen animals, too weak to keep up the good fight for food."
"As we get into the grasslands, you'll see for yourself. Look over there." She handed Serena a pair of high-powered binoculars and went on. "See that white in the middle of nothing? Bones. Looks like an adult elephant from here."
Serena adjusted the binoculars. "Yes, I think those are elephant bones.
"Probably a very old or very ill one. The adults can usually keep up and it's far too large to be one of the calves. We'll see more of that."
Serena placed the binoculars between the seats and looked out again. "As dry as it is, it is still beautiful. The mountain is just majestic." She gasped suddenly. "What is that?" She pointed at a tree. "I've never seen anything like it." One bao-bao tree was filled with birds' nests--possibly as many as two hundred covered branches, rested in the forks of limbs, dangled precariously on thin, twig size branches. It was like a high-rise apartment building for birds. Many birds twittered near their homes, but most were vacant as the birds were out hunting food.
"Uh-huh." Kate's mind was focused elsewhere. "Now the cheetahs I'm scouting for are in a pack of seven. There is the matriarch, three daughters and now three grandchildren. There will be a male, but he won't be with them. He'll be near, so remain ever vigilant. If you don't see that combination, then those aren't the ones I'm looking for."
"What does it matter?"
"The study has to be precise." Kate stared at her as if she were an idiot.
"Yeah, of course." Serena became suddenly quiet. She probably ruined everything by that moronic question.
They drove in silence for awhile. Kate came to an abrupt halt, turned off the Bravada and stared out the front window. For a few moments, Serena actually feared that she might force her out of the SUV and abandon her in the middle of nowhere. She watched her from the corner of her eyes.
"There they are," she whispered. Kate was completely focused on the seven animals off in the distance. Serena was fascinated by the change in expression. Kate had been very matter-of-fact in detailing information about the cheetahs, but once they were in view, she softened and wonderment shone in her eyes. "Okay, we're going to do everything very slowly. Polepole. Slowly. All right? I'll get out first, you get out on my side. They're heading this way, so we're just going to stand and wait. Look, do you see what they're doing? There's an antelope. I think they're going to go for the kill. C'mon. You ready?"
"Yeah," Serena whispered.
"Remember, all movements slow. We don't want to spook them or intrude."
Kate put the camera strap around her neck, the telephoto lens protruding from her chest and quietly opened her door. Serena crawled over and stepped out behind her. She stood next to the taller woman.
"I'm going to go to that dune. I can get some better shots over there."
Suddenly, there was a roar followed by several more of varying timbers. And the seven cheetahs began their chase. The antelope had been inattentive, believing that the cheetahs weren't interested and lost its only chance for escape. Within moments, the beast had been felled and the hungry cheetahs began to devour their prey.
"God, look at that," Serena said once the dust cleared and she saw all that was happening.
Kate had been snapping pictures non-stop, getting wonderfully memorialized photographs of the chase, the kill, the divvying up of the spoils. Her camera turned to the cubs who were allowed first taste. "That one is Diego--the big cub. He always goes first. Pretty much demands it. Big like the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. That's how he got his name." Kate had given names to all the cubs and she recited them with explanations.
Kate touched Serena's arm and motioned to her. Softly she said, "C'mon. Polepole." Kate moved toward the dune, then dropped onto her belly. Serena took baby steps in slow motion and slid her body down next to her.
"Soon, others will come to feast. It'll be a big party. The cheetahs, then maybe a lion will venture by, a few others. Finally the slim pickings will be left for the vultures circling above us," Kate spoke sotto voce.
"This is incredible." Serena's soft reply was incongruent to the excitement she felt. She was almost giddy, flying high. She felt one with nature for the first time. The brittle grass she rested in tickled her nose, the smell of the earth was ripe with old and new animal droppings, the sun shone bright, making hallucinogenic waves in the air. The sky was a vibrant blue with heavy white clouds that hypnotized her with their softness. The growling of animals in play and in battle over food echoed in her ears. But it was the sight of Kate stretched out, long and lean, her ass rising round and inviting, her dark hair falling around her beautiful face that moved Serena the most. She was so attracted to the woman before her that it made her shiver.
"No. I'm blown away by all of this. It's awesome."
"Yeah, it is."
On the way back to the camp, Kate and Serena disagreed again. No matter how she tried not to, Serena managed to always say the wrong thing to her.
Kate shook her head. "I think you're being very naïve. Did you watch 'Heartsounds?' Can't you see what I'm trying to show people?"
"All I'm saying is I think zoos serve a purpose. They protect animals and teach valuable lessons to young people," Serena responded confidently. This was a good and factual argument. "You've got to admit, some of those animals wouldn't last long out here in the grasslands, up in the mountains, at the swamps. And...and people get to see these animals up close and personal in their own habitat."
"People don't get to see them in their own habitat. It isn't their habitat no matter what glossy name they give it. They can call it 'Big Cat Country' or whatever they want, but it isn't here. I'll tell you this--and maybe you'll see it the longer you stay here--once you've been here and see how they really live, it hurts to think of them living any other way."
"But even you'll admit their survival rate is low out here in the wild? A gazelle might not even reach adulthood out here--starving, walking miles and miles for a sip of thick, muddy water. Or a gorilla. What chance does the gorilla have against poachers? Whereas in a zoo, they are given nutritious meals, they have shelter, comfort, they can grow old. My local zoo has a host of middle-aged and elderly animals."
Kate drove in silence for a while, gathering her thoughts. "A couple of years ago, I had a consult at a zoo. A zoo I had gone to as a child. While I was there, I happened onto the elephant show, so I sat to watch." She felt a lump grow in her throat, and she swallowed hard in order to continue. "I was sitting there and the trainer came out with these colorful platforms. Three elephants followed him onto the stage and he introduced each one. The first was Clarabell. Suddenly, I was seven years old and I was sitting in the audience at the elephant show. Clarabell came out. I realized right then that this was the same elephant from twenty-five years ago, doing the same show. Is that an existence? So the elephants or gorillas or alligators live to be thirty, forty, fifty, some older? So what? To live in captivity performing tricks that may have been beaten into them, definitely forced on them. Is that living?"
Her eyes left the bumpy road and she gave Serena a long glance in hopes that she was getting through to her. This was her mission. She wanted people especially children to love and respect wildlife and she didn't think it could happen at a zoo.
"I see your point."
"We don't need zoos anymore. We have cd-roms, videos, IMAX movies. Zoos are a joke. It's just animal prison."
"So you get to be out here, seeing them one-on-one and no one else does? You can't think that's fair? And I bet you first fell in love with animals from going to the zoo?"
"And that makes it right? I got to go to a zoo, so nothing changes? No, I disagree."
"But they do get a life. Perhaps it's not as risky and unpredictable as one in the wild, but it's a good life. "
"Would you say that to a child born into poverty? Your lifespan will greatly decrease if you continue to live in your world, so we're going to cage you to give you a chance at living to see twenty-five. Of course, not."
"No, no I'm not."
They continued their drive back to camp in silence.
That evening, Dafton took control of the kitchen and surprisingly Jimiyu helped. He diced and sliced and laughed with the tall chef. The unlikely foursome sat at the picnic table into the wee hours talking about their various life experiences. Not surprisingly, Kate was vague except when it came to her precious wildlife Reserve. Passion poured from her then.
"So, what's Lisa Calltreaux have to do with all of this? Serena told me she's a bit of a problem out here," Dafton inquired.
Jimiyu turned to face Kate and waited for her response. Serena was pouring wine and stopped, also waiting to hear more about the mysterious and scary, Lisa Calltreaux.
"Lisa," Kate began then sipped from her wine goblet. "Lisa is an anthropologist. We met at UCLA in undergrad. We were very competitive even from the first 'anthro' class. We vied for the same jobs, the same awards. Truthfully, I was better. I was honest, had integrity, had a desire to do a good job with my work..."
"Ah, you shouldn't have such a low opinion of yourself. Stop the self-degradation, please stop it," Dafton chided.
Kate smiled. "Yeah, well. Hey, it's true." She paused, then, "Lisa pretended to have these qualities. She could be convincing, but a lie doesn't hold up forever."
"She is a very mean woman," Jimiyu added.
"Both of our Master's theses dealt with this part of the world and the work we wanted to do out here. At the time, those proposals became part of a national competition that I won. I was coming to Kenya, managing this Reserve. My second year here, Lisa pleaded with me to bring her on to do some research. We finally agreed on terms and she joined the team."
Jimiyu lowered his head in remembrance of the Lisa days at the camp. "Big mistake."
"I never fully trusted her, but months passed and she never gave me reason to doubt her sincerity. She worked hard, she took on shifts that no one else wanted, sometimes double shifts. She'd secure the Reserve and it's *miles* wide and long. It would take all afternoon and she'd volunteer to go back and do the next inspection."
"So what happened?"
"I blamed myself when poachers got in. I couldn't figure out how they had done it--come in unnoticed, stole animals, murdered them or left them for dead after taking the body parts that would bring the most profit on the Black Market. Lisa was inconsolable. Each event had happened on her watch. She had fallen asleep or was late getting to her post or thought she heard something, but was too spooked to investigate on her own. She had her rifle, ready to use should she see poachers. Here in Kenya, poaching has become so bad that those of us running Reserves have every legal right to shoot poachers on sight. Shoot to kill. I didn't consider Lisa as a possible suspect. She knew the risks involved in poaching and as far as I knew, there was no incentive for her to do such a thing."
"Yeah, so I thought. She put on quite the show, but something wasn't right. I had to listen to that other voice. The one telling me Lisa was a coward, a thief, a liar, an opportunist who might benefit from these events."
"And she was?" Serena stated the obvious in a question.
Jimiyu stood and started clearing the table. Dafton lightly touched his hand and shook his head. "I'll do it. Sit."
Jimiyu wanted no part of this story. He didn't want to hear Kate describe what she found, to see her pain or feel the ache in his own heart, but he sat.
"First, fences weren't destroyed. Locked gates were undamaged, yet poachers and thieves entered, stole animals and disappeared into the night. I knew it wasn't the work of alien abduction. As my suspicions grew, I was also dealing with my sponsors, the board of the competition. My reputation was on the line. Not that those things mattered that much. I was most concerned about the animals. They needed me to protect them."
"How did you prove it?"
"I followed her. She was making an inspection round and I followed far enough behind not to be heard. With my binoculars, I saw her open gates, watched her herd elephants into these massive trucks, and watched a few locals cover tire tracks. Lisa left the Reserve and I followed again. I could have fired a warning shot or even fired at them, but I thought there might be a band of poachers. I wanted them all. I followed them to a warehouse on the edge of Nairobi. The place was huge and I crept around peering through windows until I hit paydirt. I got it all on video." Her voice cracked and a tremor remained as she continued. "Three elephants that had been there a while, not the new arrivals. They were being beaten and tortured. The elephants were gaunt. Can you imagine a gaunt elephant?"
Jimiyu shook his head. Dafton and Serena stared slack jawed as they listened.
"Locals with canes were beating these starving animals. I can show you. I've got the tapes," Kate said, standing and leading them to the media tent.
In the tent, her fingers traced over the labels of the dozens of tapes until she found the one she sought. She slid the tape out of its cardboard box and into the VCR. She powered up the television and hit play on the tape machine. The four people stood in front of the television screen and watched as the screen changed from a dull black to a cobalt blue, to a square of multi-colored vertical bars. First they heard the audio and moments later the horrific video began.
"Don't even try to feed these fuckers. My buyers want product that will do as commanded. Break these fuckers and break them tonight."
The video was shaky. Kate's hand, normally quite steady trembled in response to the scene she captured with the camera. The first image was of a tall Afrikaner, well-muscled and tanned from the sun, platinum blonde hair falling over his eyes. "Goddamn, fucking product. Let 'em know who's boss, goddamnit."
A slender Kenyan entered the scene. He was very dark and appeared even darker next to the white man. The men were of equal stature and were obvious partners. Whereas the white man's demeanor was of anger, the black man was cool and smooth. "That language is so unnecessary, John. The elephants don't know a vulgarity from an endearment. I personally don't want to hear it." Though the man was softer spoken, a fierceness was at the surface. You didn't need to hear anger in his voice to know he was a cold and heartless man. His brow furrowed. "They look emaciated. Who's going to buy?"
"It's the only way to break them."
"Fatten them up."
One elephant turned and looked down at the Kenyan as if he understood. There seemed to be gratitude in the big, gray beast's eyes.
"How's this one doing?"
"Lot of trouble. Won't take orders. Won't listen."
"Hmm." He thought for a moment. "Break him, but don't make him look weak."
"Beat the shit out of it," another voice was heard, a voice Kate, Jimiyu and Serena recognized. "That's how you deal with these. Beat 'em. Beat 'em all. I want my money this week," Lisa said.
"This one simply cannot take anymore," the trainer/beater said with a frown. "It's been three weeks. He has a spirit that cannot be crushed."
With two long strides, Lisa Calltreaux stood next to the trainer and grabbed the long cane from him. He surrendered it easily and watched. "This is how you do it. Beat them! Beat them. " She began to strike maniacally at the elephant's side, slapping the cane repeatedly against its strong hide. Close to the camera's microphone, Kate could be heard gasping in disbelief, stifling her breath. The camera shook more as she continued to record the event. "I...want...my...money." She struck again and again. Kate wondered why the elephant didn't fight back, perhaps too weak.
The camera moved to her immediate area outside the opened window. She tilted the camera down and her hand came into frame, reaching out for a crate. She placed the camera on top of the crate and dragged it under the window. Leaping onto the crate, she picked up the camera and continued to shoot the scene inside. Now she had an excellent vantage point of the elephant's legs and saw that they were shackled.
The camera tilted up again. Sweat beads appeared on Lisa's head. "Do I have to do everything?" she questioned as she continued the beating. "I lined up the buyers. I made the deals. I got you into the Reserve and now I have to do this? You're as useless as this piece of gray turd. At least I can make tens of thousands off of it. What are you three bringing me?" The beating didn't let up. As she ranted and raved at her partners, subordinates, conspirators, she rhythmically beat the elephant until finally it's big, thick legs, gave out and it knelt before her. "See!"
In the audio foreground, Kate whimpered as the elephant bellowed in pain in the background. The camera slowly moved across the downed elephant's body. It's skin sagged, loose and wrinkled around its bones. It's sunken eyes blinked, then closed, slowly opened again and looked at its captors, perhaps etching their faces in its mind forever. Just as the big mammal closed its eyes again, it glanced at the window and made contact with Kate and her camera. Barely audible, Kate said, "Don't worry, I'll help you. I'll help you."
Now, Kate stood with Jimiyu on one side of her, Serena on the other and Dafton beside the American chef. She bit her lip nervously. Jimiyu lowered his head, staring at his shoes. Dafton's eyes jumped from the final image on the screen to Jimiyu to Kate. The early conversation about animals in captivity made sense now to Serena. She glanced over at Kate, then pressed her hand against Kate's forearm, comforting her without being intrusive--a gesture that Kate had almost begged for. She needed this touch. There had been no one there to comfort her through all of this.
Her staff treated her with respect and with that respect came distance. Kate had nurtured the distance, thinking it best for a well run camp, but since that day she had longed for closeness. She ached to have someone hold her and tell her things would work out, that it wasn't her fault, that she had done the best she could. Serena's touch was doing all of these things, yet she suddenly pulled away.
Clearing her throat and straightening her posture, Kate took a deep breath, then reached and hit the stop button on the VCR. "Well, there you have it."
"What happened after this?" Dafton asked what was on Serena's mind.
"I got the elephants out. All of them. They were taken to the hospital, treated, and put back into the wild. The one you saw never recovered. But there were so many others before that. There was evidence of gazelles being stolen and sold, lions, leopards, baby giraffes, rhinos, many more elephants. She was trying to get them all--little by little, but she was going to empty this Park. Lisa and her pals were arrested and now, we wait for the trial. I no longer manage this Reserve. I'm allowed to continue my research here, but that's it. The day-to-day of running this place was pulled from me. I guess in a way that's good. I can concentrate on other things." Even as she spoke the last words, she knew they weren't true and the others knew this as well.
Kate ejected the tape and returned it to its place on the shelf. "I need...uh, excuse me."
She shuffled out of the tent and headed for her own, but stopped when she heard Serena call out to her. "Kate. Come to my tent. We can talk."
"I don't want to." Kate didn't turn around.
"Then we'll just sit," Serena offered softly.
Kate's shoulders fell. She didn't want to be alone again. "Okay," she whispered.
Serena moved quickly across the camp toward her tent. She held the flap open and waited for Kate who stood motionless in the center of their site. "Kate, c'mon."
Kate Chavez allowed Serena's sweet invitation to break down the barrier and she followed the voice to the tent. As she walked through, Serena lightly touched her arm again.
Inside, all her strength evaporated. "God. What did I do?" The tears that had been controlled during waking hours for so many months suddenly poured from her. Her body shook with anxiety, blame, guilt, failure, anger, and hatred. Serena pulled her to her and held onto Kate as the taller woman clung to her. "All that was expected of me was to take care of them, to keep them out of harm's way. Instead, I delivered evil to them. I brought her here and kept allowing her to go back out there, to do more, to cause more pain, to torture more of them. I did that."
Serena felt the tears drop into her hair, felt the heavy breathing of the woman sobbing against her, tightened her hold in hopes of steadying the trembling body. Kate cried, sobbed, whimpered, and then cried some more.
"Come. Sit on the cot. She guided her to her small, uncomfortable cot and sat beside her. Kate's head rested on Serena's shoulder while Serena gently stroked her dark hair and murmured soothing words. "You saved most of them. You helped them. If it weren't for you, she'd still be doing it. You put her out of business."
For over an hour Serena simply sat beside her, gently rubbing her thumb over Kate's hand which rested in her lap. Kate had drained herself of tears and coughed several times before sitting up. Her nose was red and eyes still moist. Mucus flowed from her nostrils and mingled with tears. She wiped the liquid away with the back of her hand, then wiped her hand on her pants. She stared at Serena whose name really suited her at the moment. She looked serene and at peace as if she had nowhere else in the world to be than beside her at that moment. Kate continued to look intently at her, then raised her hands to hold Serena's head between them. "Thank you."
Serena didn't give it a second's thought. She did what seemed the most logical and expected thing--she leaned forward and kissed Kate. She tenderly kissed her closed mouth and didn't break contact. Kate thought it was like a freeze-frame in a video production. Everything stopped--their breathing, the noises of the wild. She waited for the image to fade to black, for that curtain to drop, and it did when she closed her eyes. Serena pecked gently at those lips and whispered, "You did everything right."
It was at that moment that the image became alive again. Kate opened her eyes and pulled away. "Uh, I'm sorry." She stood. "Hey...you know."
"I'm going to go on back to my tent."
"You can stay."
"Nah, I don't think so."
They were reliving the night of their first dinner again. Kate looked around nervously, half expecting to see the dozen pictures of Serena with that young man and other woman. The photos she had seen in the hotel room. The only photo in the tent was of another good looking man. Immediately she thought it must be a boyfriend she left in the States.
Kate laughed nervously, unsure where to look. Finally she said, "New boyfriend, huh?"
"Him? No, that's my brother."
The filmmaker nodded. "Oh. Good-looking guy. How much younger is he?"
Serena lowered her eyes, then smiled up at Kate. "He's eleven years older."
"Wow, he looks great for his age. He looks like he's about nineteen or twenty." She sniffled, the residue of her emotional release still fresh.
"Yeah, old picture."
"So, thanks again. And I had a good day with you and the cheetahs, too. Ya know?"
"Me too, Kate."
Kate stepped out, then re-entered. "Um, Lisa was my lover. I got really suckered, huh? I was so sure she was a different person. I trusted her and she betrayed me. I let my guard down. I can't afford to do that again. I've seen first hand the damage done when I stop thinking with my head. You understand that, right?"
"Yes," then added, "I do."
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