The clown that ran.
Everyone was looking at Vimbo now.
The hyena had his head down, his nose just brushing the dull carpet fibers. His eyes were round and blank, his ears back. Everything about him seemed devoid of expression or intelligence.
Mhumhi looked back at Pepukai, who had retracted her legs against herself where she was sitting on the carpet.
“What do you mean, he’s a bouda?”
His mind had already gone through the possibilities. One was that Vimbo was a bouda that had not yet transformed. That seemed unlikely, since Danai had made it clear that there was no way of telling ahead of time.
The second possibility was that Vimbo was a bouda that had begun to change, than gotten stuck. Perhaps his organs were hulker organs. Or his blood. Or his heart… or his mind.
Mhumhi hoped that it was the third possibility: that Pepukai was deluded or flat-out lying to them.
She replied to him through the machine, which seemed to be getting slightly better at speaking.
“Surely you must have noticed his intelligence.”
“No, we did not!” He looked over at Vimbo again. When had Vimbo ever displayed anything but mute indifference to their words? “If he’s intelligent, why would he pretend otherwise?”
“Hey, wild dog,” said Mini, piping up from near his feet. “You’re thinking about this from the wrong angle. That hyena, he’s been raised by these humans, right?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, shifting his feet. Pepukai was frowning as she listened to the machine’s version of Mini’s words. “I don’t see how that would make him more-”
“No, listen. We’ve all been yapping away in Dog, haven’t we? D’you think he understands a word of it?”
Mhumhi paused. Beside him Kutta gave a little grunt and closed her eyes.
Mini turned and said something to Vimbo in the hulker language. The hyena swung his head towards her and raised his right foot.
A beat later, the machine translated what she’d said back into Dog:
“If you can understand me, hyena, lift a leg.”
“Not exactly what I meant, but it serves,” said Mini, wrinkling her little nose.
Mhumhi said nothing. Vimbo slowly put his paw down.
“Right,” said Kutta. “Fine. So he’s been more intelligent than we thought. So what? He’s here, he can go back with you now. The rest of us have more important matters we need to be dealing with right now.”
They waited for the machine to say all this. As it spoke, Vimbo looked over at Kutta, his ears coming forward. Mhumhi felt a tinge of discomfort. If Vimbo understood, if he was intelligent- did it really change nothing? He eyed the hyena’s face again, but no hidden depths seemed to rise up from his well-like eyes.
“You have done something to him,” said Pepukai.
“We have done nothing to him,” Kutta said, whisking her tail. “We haven’t put a single mark on him.”
“You lie, he is bitten- his face, his legs…” Pepukai’s face seemed to collapse a little as she looked at Vimbo. Mhumhi flinched, realizing that he had forgotten all about how the hyena had taken the brunt of the attack by the police. The wounds still seemed fresh.
“It wasn’t us,” said Kutta, though in a muted way. “He followed us, do you understand? We haven’t… we didn’t force him.”
“He would not leave on his own,” Pepukai said. “You would not, would you?”
Here she looked at Vimbo, a few moments before the machine caught up with translating what she was saying. Vimbo raised his head and met her gaze- the first time that Mhumhi had seen him do this- and then he took a few lumbering steps to stand beside Kutta.
“Why?” cried Pepukai, and she pushed herself to her feet, clenching her hands into fists. “Why did you leave us? Why do you stay with those ones?”
Vimbo ducked his head and drew his lips back, leaning towards Kutta, who took a nervous step away.
Why had he left, Mhumhi wondered. Why had he attacked Jabulile, why had he been so desperate to follow Mhumhi into the unknown? What was he hoping for? No- no, what was he fleeing from?
“I know why he left,” he said, looking up at Pepukai. It had all suddenly clicked into place- it was painfully obvious. “You should, too. Or didn’t you tell him about what you were eating? What you were feeding him?”
Pepukai’s eyes went wide and she made a noise, a sort of cut-off noise. Vimbo looked over at her and bared his teeth in that frightened grin again.
“Oh,” said Kutta, glancing at Vimbo, her yellow eyes flickering. She must have just remembered about what Mhumhi had managed to explain to her of his escape from the bouda’s warren.
“Why do you think he attacked Jabulile?” said Mhumhi. “Because Jabulile knew about it too. It was obvious. Vimbo must have been the only one you kept in the dark.” And how stupid of Jabulile to bring the hyena down there, he thought, curling his lips with distaste. He remembered clearly the terror that Vimbo had shown after they had flown down the chute onto the pile of dead hyenas.
Vimbo looked over at him when the machine translated, which Mhumhi rather thought was a confirmation that he was correct. He suppressed a little shiver. The memories of the awful hyena slaughterhouse were surfacing, made much worse if he added in Vimbo’s intelligence. How many other hyenas had minds like his? He thought of the live ones, crammed together in the chicken wire, and then stopped himself.
Pepukai was sobbing now, wiping her eyes. Mhumhi felt annoyed.
“Don’t cry. You’d better speak to him. Tell him what you have to say for yourself.”
“Oh,” said Pepukai, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes. “Nobody- nobody likes it- but we’d- it’s all we have. It’s all we have. We can’t starve… I saved you, Vimbo, because they said you had a mind… I love you, I love you, you are my boy, I would never let them take you…”
Vimbo gave a little squeal, jerking his head from side to side. Mhumhi felt it was odd to watch the two of them, Pepukai speaking and sobbing and expressing every iota of her misery, and then Vimbo with his blank face and his empty eyes and his mute mouth.
“You can come with us if you want, Vimbo,” he said, letting the machine translate for him, “but you’ll have to obey our rules. And be kind to our puppies.”
Vimbo looked at him, his eyes round.
“Hm,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi flinched.
“Er- sorry, maybe I should have asked first.”
“Hm,” said Kutta, and then she gave a short laugh. “No, I guess I agree.”
They both looked back at Pepukai, who had taken her hands from her eyes and was clutching them together against her chest, her face a mask of tears.
“I know,” she said. “I know. You can’t forgive us. I understand.”
Vimbo sort of rocked on his feet then, as if he were about to take a step forward, then sat back on his haunches and turned his gaze to the outer wall.
“We will go,” said Pepukai. “Take care of him.” She turned around, scrubbing at her eyes.
“Wait, wait,” said Mhumhi, giving a quick little whine. “I have a question for you.”
Pepukai looked back over at him, over her shoulder.
“Our puppies,” he said, then amended himself. “I mean, our children. Where did you- where did you last see them? How were they?”
“Oh,” said Pepukai. Her eyes flicked left and right. “The little boy and the little girl?”
“Ah,” said Pepukai. She chewed her lips.
“What?” demanded Mhumhi, the fur on his back rising a little, and Kutta joined him, standing up stiff-legged. “Did something happen to them?”
“They aren’t hurt,” said Pepukai. The little lines around her eyes tightened, and she seemed to come to a decision. “Fine. I will tell you. We took them into the city with us.”
Pepukai did not wait for that to translate before speaking again. She said, “The moment it was understood you had left, they both became-” Her mouth twitched. “Upset.”
Mhumhi recalled Maha’s temper and tucked his tail a little.
“And they did not want to be there. And Danai was cruel to them anyway. She told the little girl that you- Well, it was not right. We went to track Vimbo, and I suppose I- I thought I would at least put them back where they came from.”
The machine’s voice did not contain any real emotion when it translated this out, but Mhumhi thought he saw Pepukai’s lips thin and her eyelids tighten as it did. He was not sure her expression was sympathetic.
“Well, where are they now?” demanded Kutta, pawing at the carpet. “Are they in the car? Are they?”
Mhumhi’s ears pricked and he craned his neck to see around Pepukai’s mate- whom he had completely forgotten about, standing mutely and stiffly in front of the door as she was- to try and see out the glass. The black nose of the car was just showing by the curb.
“No,” said Pepukai, crushing his hopes. “While we were searching for Vimbo’s signal, some of your kind started chasing us and harrying the car. The little girl said they weren’t friendly, so we drove around a bit to shake them. It wasn’t easy.” Her face looked rather bleak at the memory.
“Finally we ran a few down near a parking garage and the rest fell back. We decided to put the children in a safer place, in case they came back.”
“What safer place?” Mhumhi felt suddenly very uneasy. What safe place was there? And how would the bouda know about it, exactly?
“It was a hotel. We put them upstairs and had them lock the door with a chain. Perfectly secure against dogs,” said Pepukai. Mhumhi noticed that tightness in her face again. “I am sure Vimbo can lead you there with his nose, if you ask him. It isn’t far.”
At this Vimbo looked back over and gave a little grunt. Mhumhi wondered it if was supposed to mean a confirmation or a refusal.
“You won’t show us yourself?”
Pepukai gave a small smile.
“We came here to fetch my grandson. He does not want to go with us. So we are leaving.”
She turned back around again.
“Your children are just down the street. So you have what you want, I suppose. We have to go back home.”
She went forward and linked her arm with that of her silent mate. The other hulker reached out and stroked her hair and pressed her lips to her cheek.
“Wait,” said Kutta. “There’s one more thing.”
“There are no more things,” said Pepukai, shaking her head.
“Yes, there are,” said Kutta, her voice dropping a tone. “Your home is under attack right now. If you go back and open the entrance, there will be painted dogs waiting to rush inside. They already know about the opening near the place where you kill the hyenas and they already must have come in and attacked from there.”
Pepukai turned back around, one hand on her partner’s shoulder. She seemed only mildly troubled.
“We know how to deal with dangerous animals.”
“So you do,” Mhumhi said, coldly. “But they are not animals. And I do not think you realize how many of them there are.”
Pepukai looked at him for a very long moment, then at Kutta, and then she said, “I appreciate the advice.”
And then they left. They walked through the glass door and out of sight. A moment later the car engine hummed to life and rolled past the glass like a gleaming black animal, gathering speed.
When the sound was just starting to become distant there came a sudden shrill squeal that made Mhumhi jump. It was Vimbo. His body gave a violent thrash, as though he were possessed, and he gave a great cry and tore down the hallway.
Mhumhi and Kutta both put their ears back and followed, with Mini puffing her way behind them. Vimbo had gone round the corner and seized one of the edges of a flat moving picture screen that hung there, flickering. With a wrench of his head he tore it from the wall, sending it toppling down with a crash. The hard plastic in his teeth snapped apart.
The three dogs stopped a safe distance away, Mhumhi leaning close to Kutta. Mini was edging up behind them.
“Ask him if he’s all right,” said Kutta, a little timidly.
“Who, me?” Mini put her little ears back. “Does he look fine?”
Vimbo turned around, spitting out bits of plastic, and seemed to suddenly notice them standing there. His eyes widened and he ducked his head down, raising a paw.
“Well, ask him if he still wants to come with us,” said Kutta, licking her lips.
“I don’t think you realize that the poor thing can’t answer, fur-ears,” said Mini.
Vimbo crept a little closer to them, head down and rump tucked.
“I think he still wants to come,” said Mhumhi, thinking it should be more or less obvious. “Vimbo, you’re coming, aren’t you?”
The hyena’s head swung up at the sound of his name.
“It’s time to go,” Mhumhi told him. “Let’s go.”
“He can’t understand you, remember?” Mini pointed out, her tail twitching. Mhumhi stepped back to put a heavy paw on her head.
Mini shook him off with a tiny growl and a yap, all a-bristle, but she repeated the words in the hulker language. Vimbo looked down at her, his eyes like saucers, and stepped forward.
There seemed no need for more discussion after that, and they pushed back through the glass doors and outside. There were still no signs of other painted dogs anywhere, which Mhumhi was profoundly relieved about.
“What’s a hotel?” Kutta brought up, after they had finished their cursory sniff around the street. “Which way would it be in? Mini, do you know?”
“It’s like a place to sleep when you aren’t near your den,” said Mini. “They’re usually tall buildings with lots of windows. But…”
Mhumhi looked around them, noting the problem. Nearly every building in the vicinity was a looming skyscraper.
“Ask Vimbo, then,” he said. “Maybe Pepukai was right.”
Mini gave him a pop-eyed look, but she translated. For a moment Mhumhi wondered if Vimbo really understood, for he stood there wavering on his paws afterwards.
Then he raised his head and started trotting down the street to the left. Kutta and Mhumhi looked urgently at Mini.
“Well, it isn;t as if he said anything back to me,” she said, seeming exasperated. “Go on and follow him!”
There was sense in that, so they did as the little dog said, and loped after Vimbo, leaving her growling and hopping behind them on her short legs. The hyena was barely sniffing, but he seemed to know perfectly well where he was going, straight down the road, turning only a single corner.
They came across a broad white building, slightly squatter than the shiny black skyscrapers. Mhumhi stopped in his tracks, sniffing, and cast a worried look at Kutta. He could see by her eyes that she smelled it too.
There had been painted dogs near here.
Pepukai had said that they had chased them, he reminded himself. The scent was already fading.
Still, he felt sick, and it only got worse when they approached the white building and let the sliding doors open on their own and wash the scent of dog over them. And-
Kutta whined. Coppery blood.
The floor was marble around the reception desk in the lobby, and there was a low-hanging chandelier, but they did not stop to look. Even Vimbo was running now, his ears back, almost urgent in his movements- shoving through a door to dash up two flights of stairs, jumping to try and wrestle the next one open, running down the long, red-carpeted hallway lined with identical doors…
One of the doors was open, and there was the scent of blood coming from it, and there was blood on the golden knob, and blood on the carpet, and Mhumhi’s heart thudded sickly in his chest, because the scent of painted dogs was fading, and the blood was not.