The House of Mystery
Devon Stewart was the greatest hunter of his generation, yet his greatest desire was to hunt something he had never hunted before — the ultimate challenge. When an old man from Vietnam approaches him with a proposition to do just that, Stewart discovers why people say be careful what you wish for.
A long-nosed, bespectacled man squinted through his Ben Franklin glasses, holding an antique book close to his eyes as he attempted to read the faded words. His brown hair was styled unusually, swept up into points on either side of his head, while the bushy Abraham Lincoln-style beard below his chin left his face uncovered.
Tonight, Cain was dressed in khaki safari fatigues, and a large-caliber hunting rifle — suitable for elephant hunting — leaned casually against the table next to him. Hearing a noise, he looked up from where he was sitting, slouched deep in an overstuffed easy chair. Flickering light from the roaring fire illuminated the shelves of books that lined the walls in the small study. Closer examination in better light would have shown that the shelves were mostly obscured by cobwebs.
“Ah, back again for another tale, are you? Well, sit down and make yourself comfortable!” Cain picked up a shot glass from the table beside him and threw down the amber fluid with a practiced flip of the wrist. “Care for a shot of the good stuff?” He blinked with concern. “Careful, though — don’t sit on kitty, he’s a mite touchy tonight.”
“Say, speaking of kitty reminds me of a story, one I call The Hunter.” The immortal storyteller paused to collect his thoughts, shifted into a more comfortable position in his deeply padded easy chair, and continued.
“The year is 1961, and at that time, one of the biggest, most-famous of big game hunters was Devon Stewart. Devon was a self-made man who came up the hard way. Started from a simple life as a guide in Canada and worked his way up to become a world-famous adventurer and hunter. Truth was, as he approached his fiftieth birthday, he realized that he was bored beyond imagination. He wanted a new challenge; he needed to hunt for something he had never hunted before.”
Devon Stewart was celebrating his fiftieth birthday with a bash at the Adventurers Club in New York City. But even this celebration, attended by the most famous and renowned explorers, daredevils, swashbucklers, and travelers in the world, couldn’t lift him out of his boredom. Eventually he searched out a quiet corner and stayed in the dark, nursing a drink, when he was approached by an Asian man, a short, older gentleman with wispy white hair and a Fu Manchu beard.
“Honored great white hunter, I, Kim Jong Mai, request from you a great favor,” the old man spoke softly, clasping his hands together and slightly inclining his head.
“OK, Mr. Mai, how can I help you?” Stewart replied, thinking this old guy might have something interesting in mind.
“I have heard it said that you have hunted and killed every form of wildlife. Is this true?” the old man asked. Stewart could sense suppressed eagerness in his voice.
“Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve even tried my hand — successfully, I might add — at hunting some of the most exotic creatures in the world, such as sea serpents, the Yeti, Sasquatch, and the like. Why do you ask?” Stewart wasn’t idly boasting; he’d bagged creatures that biologists had called impossible, extinct, or legendary before he’d presented them with specimens.
“I come from a small country in South East Asia called Vietnam. Have you heard of it?”
“Lots of political turmoil. Right now, U.S. troops are acting as military advisors in a civil war between North and South Vietnam, and there’s talk of sending even more troops there. Yeah, I’ve heard of it; in fact, I was there a few years ago with a French expedition. Why?”
The old man inclined his head again. “There is talk that you are searching for a new challenge. I bring word of such a challenge. In a remote southeastern region, there are rumors of an extremely rare form of tiger said to be pure white. Not an albino tiger, but one whose white fur breeds true. This white tiger is said to have killed many.”
Stewart nodded and sipped his whiskey sour. “I’ve hunted man-killers before, nothing new about that. And I’ve tracked and killed a few allegedly white animals, but they’ve never really had pure white fur.” He put down his drink and looked directly at Mai. “So, what’s this to me?” His tone suggested no more than casual interest.
Mai frowned. “It is said that none of those who hunt this tiger are ever seen again. Just last month, I funded an expedition of seven men. These seven men were reported killed by this beast, and they have never returned.”
Stewart nodded. “I see. And you want me to hunt this creature?”
“Indeed. This beast killed my brother, among others. I will pay you whatever you ask to bring the carcass, or at least the hide, of this deadly beast to me.”
“Give me your number,” Stewart replied. A chance to hunt a beast who had conquered all other men, along with a blank check — it was certainly an offer he hadn’t expected tonight. “I’ll think about it and call you within the week.”
Mai smiled and handed Stewart a business card. “I am the owner of an import business here in New York. My brother was the purchasing agent for Southeast Asia. I can usually be reached at the private number on the card from seven in the morning until seven at night, Sunday through Friday.”
Stewart did some research and at five called Mai to set up the deal. The importer didn’t flinch at Stewart’s outrageous monetary requirements: one-hundred-thousand plus anticipated expenses in advance and another hundred-thousand upon receipt of the hide. Mai agreed, and later that day he handed Stewart a check. He also arranged transportation. Stewart caught a plane that day, and two days later he was making local purchases for equipment he hadn’t been able to carry on the plane. As he had promised it would be, Mai’s credit was good at every outfitter Stewart approached.
One week later, Stewart had finally reached the region where the ghost tiger was rumored to live. The previous expedition hadn’t survived long enough to reach this far inland. This part of South Vietnam was so remote that the insurgents hadn’t found it yet; so remote, in fact, that even the Japanese hadn’t made it here during the last big war. The people had never even seen a radio or a rifle. But natives knew well of the ghost tiger. It frequently killed members of their villages.
Finally, Stewart decided the best way to catch and kill this creature was by going lightly, simply, and alone, without even a guide. Of course, the last condition also came about partially because the locals were too fearful to accept the position of guide. He had to admit this was beautiful country, full of lush plant life and interesting birds. Not that he was a conservationist, but he was glad that civilization had not yet found this neck of the woods, so to speak.
He never felt quite as alive as when he was on the hunt. And this hunt was even more exceptional than most. Armed with only knife and rifle, depending on little more than compass, canteen, and bug repellent, eating what he could find on his own, and drinking pure water from small streams, he felt in touch with the life around him as he had nowhere else on Earth. He found spoor, and that led him deeper and deeper into the jungle.
It was late, and he was tired. He had a small fire going and was munching on some freshly roasted grubs when he heard a roar that made him sit up straight, rifle in his lap. A tiger was near, but was it the legendary ghostly white tiger for which he searched?
He was answered immediately as he was rushed by a very large, pure-white creature with fierce green eyes and wickedly sharp-looking teeth. The majestic cat showed absolutely no fear of his small fire or his rifle. He raised the weapon, took aim, and waited. The beast leaped, and he fired, missing it completely, and then it was on him! He fought with knife and fist as teeth and claws ripped his flesh. At last, after what seemed hours, the battle was finished.
Natives found him bleeding badly, but victorious: the ghost was dead. They took him and the carcass back to their village, nursed him to health, and helped him tan the hide.
Soon, he was back in the city of New York, proudly collecting his pay, complete with a bonus check of another five-hundred-thousand because the hide was so beautifully cured.
Knowing that he had conquered the ultimate challenge, Stewart decided to retire. Maybe he’d write a book or something, or even finally marry and raise a family. As soon as he felt one-hundred percent, of course; he still needed time to recover from his wounds.
One month later, Stewart was finishing a drink after dinner at the Adventurers Club. He was initially pleased to see Mai approaching his table and offered him a set. Shaking his head, the aged importer remained standing and asked a disturbing question. “I say, Mr. Stewart, have you heard any rumors of a white tiger hunting in this city?”
“In fact, I have. Poppycock, of course. Can you imagine a tiger in New York? Even if it were true, though, why would it concern me? Surely if such an animal has escaped from a zoo or circus, there are proper authorities to deal with sort of thing.”
“Oddly, I feel this beast is real and has been stalking me,” Mai responded, his voice quivering. “So much that I fear to even venture out under tonight’s full moon!”
“Ridiculous,” Stewart laughed, climbing to his feet. “Tell you what, I’ll walk you home. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Cain poured another round of shots, stared at the fire for a few seconds, and laughed. “The next day, Mai’s body was found outside his home, badly mauled. Perhaps by coincidence, Stewart was never seen again. Probably couldn’t stand New York any longer, you know. I never did like the city, either. How about you?”