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from the March 2008 issue

The Dragon of Rabieh

Based on actual events

Inspector Sharbel Barud was picking his teeth while listening to the firemen's explanations. This case was starting to get on his nerves. For the past five days he had been spending his time visiting the inhabitants of Rabieh gathering information regarding the strange creature that was spreading panic in the upscale Mount Lebanon village once made famous by the Italian-Belgian singer Salvatore Adamo. The facts that had been established thus far were not very conclusive. Some witnesses claimed to have seen a dragon, others a dinosaur. In a country where the majority of the people were so superstitious that they took astrologists' predictions as gospel and preferred healers to doctors, it was not easy to separate fact from fiction, illusion from reality. He was skeptical by nature and did not take his mother's religious practices seriously: she lit candles so he would return safely from his assignments, invoked Saint Sharbel so he would find a suitable wife and never swept the Wednesday before Easter—called "Job's Wednesday"—for fear of being devoured by ants in her sleep… He was admittedly proud of being Maronite, but he didn't really believe in the miracles that were attributed to the villages' statues which were said to ooze oil, water and blood. "It's like the Loch Ness case: a lot of fuss about nothing!" he told himself, thinking about a documentary on the mysterious Scottish monster that had recently been aired on television. The latest theory was that the monster was in fact an elephant that had escaped from a circus, and that the shape emerging from the water—the object of the famous and controversial photograph—was in reality nothing more than the unruly pachyderm's trunk. Inspector Barud got back into his Jeep, took the cap off a bottle of Almanza beer and quenched his thirst. "Take care of the problem for me as soon as possible," his boss, Superintendent Jamil, had said to him. "Take care of the problem"? Easier said than done! Avid for sensationalism, the local media were confusing the issue by putting forth the most far-fetched hypotheses, and the locations where the animal had reportedly been spotted were too far apart for the establishment of a safety zone to be effective. But Inspector Barud was not one to allow himself to be intimidated. Endowed with an imposing stature, he already had several spectacular arrests to his credit: the Zalka bombers, the assassins of the jeweller of Burj Hammud, the Qornet Shehwan bank robbers… At the station, he did not hesitate to resort to farruj, a torture method consisting of binding a suspect's hands and feet and attaching him to a stick set horizontally between two chairs. His theory was simple: an offender will never spill the beans if he hasn't first spilled some blood. Considering the presumption of innocence to be an aberration, he had inverted the rule to make it more compatible with reality: "Everyone is guilty until proven innocent." Impressed by his strong-armed methods, his colleagues had nicknamed him "Dirty Harry." In order not to let them down, he had a duty to find the akrut of a monster that was ravaging yards, dirtying swimming pools, biting horses and devouring chickens as quickly as possible.

"Inspector Barud?" said a voice.

"At your service," he responded, addressing the woman who had called to him.

"I think I can help you…"

Intrigued, he came back to reality and looked her up and down. She appeared to be in her sixties. She was plump, had prominent cheekbones and generous breasts, which were shown off by her low neckline. But her somewhat vulgar appearance was tempered by her black hair, which was elegantly rolled into a bun, and by her beautiful green eyes, which sparkled with intelligence.

"Let's hear what you have to say," he grumbled, pulling out his notebook and pencil.

"It's my son, Detective. When he was fifteen, he brought a strange-looking lizard back from Indonesia in his backpack."

The inspector raised an eyebrow, clearly interested in the story.

"One day," she continued, "he lost the animal in the Rabieh forest, near our house. He never did find it after that. He just called me from Germany, where he is right now, to warn me that the creature you are looking for is probably his lizard, which would be full grown by now."

"A giant lizard! And what kind of lizard was this?"

She plunged her hand down the front of her shirt, pulled out a piece of paper, and handed it to him.

Inspector Barud squinted and read aloud:

"The Komodo Monitor."

He made a skeptical face. He didn't like the sound of that name. He wrote it down in his notebook nevertheless, took down the woman's address and phone number, and asked that she thank her son for his kind help. "Next time, make sure he buys a goldfish or a canary, like everyone else."

That evening, the inspector rushed home to consult the encyclopedia that adorned his bookshelf. He had never had the occasion to leaf through the volume, given to him by his Uncle Albert the day he graduated from junior high school. He recited the letters of the alphabet in a low voice to locate the letter "M," then began to look for the word "Monitor," sticking his tongue out in concentration. Five minutes later he found it. The photo illustrating it showed a terrifying creature, halfway between a dinosaur and an alligator. It had a long nose and short, powerful legs, and its massive cuirass was covered with bony plates. He had never seen anything like it and had no idea that such an animal could exist, or at least that it still existed today. He feverishly began to read the entry devoted to the animal:

The Komodo Monitor or dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the largest living species of lizard. Located in Indonesia, it has fearsome jaws with sixty serrated teeth, grows to an average length of 2.5 meters and weighs 165 kilograms, though specimens reaching over 3 meters in length have been recorded. When it attacks a large prey, the Komodo Monitor first breaks its spine with a movement of its head and then tears it to pieces with its sharp teeth. It behaves differently with smaller prey: it catches them in its mouth and shakes them so hard that their bodies burst. It has such a large appetite that a 52-kilogram Monitor has been known to ingest 26 kilograms of meat in 17 minutes. If a victim were to escape from the "monster," it would die from its bite, for the bacteria contained in its saliva are so virulent that they prevent healing and cause death from blood poisoning within days. Adults eat pigs, wild boars, deer, dogs, buffalo and horses. Younger Komodo Monitors feed on mice, birds, small lizards, rats and insects.

The inspector shuddered. So the hypothesis the woman had put forth was in fact plausible. The lizard her son had brought back from Indonesia had grown to maturity in the forest and, naturally, it had transformed into an enormous animal forced to survive outside of its natural habitat in an environment it hadn't chosen. He turned down the corner of the page that he had just read and, with the encyclopedia under his arm, went directly to see his boss, who seemed more nervous than usual.

"Can you believe it, Barud," Superintendent Jamil grumbled, "our people, who survived fifteen years of civil war, are panicking at the thought of an animal prowling around in Rabieh. The television stations are running stories about it, wild rumors are spreading, people are shutting themselves up in their homes after 6 pm, hiding from an invisible monster… Even the Minister of the Interior, who lives in the area, personally commanded me to find an immediate response to the inhabitants' concerns!"

"I have the answer!" the inspector retorted, proudly opening the encyclopedia to the dog-eared page.

Inspector Jamil put on his glasses and skimmed through the article. In his astonishment, his jaw relaxed.

"Are you… are you sure about this?" he stammered, wiping his brow.

Inspector Barud hesitated for a moment. Was he really sure of what he was putting forth? Had the woman with the green eyes misled him? And what if it were merely a starving wolf, after all? Could he defend the Monitor theory without running the risk of being wrong? His instinct had never yet failed him. Once again, he obeyed it.

"Absolutely!" he said forcefully.

The superintendent jumped up, went to a closet, opened it and pulled out a pump gun. In a determined voice, he exclaimed:

"E lafékkélak raébto! I'm going to wring its neck!"

First thing the next morning, the order was given to all Mount Lebanon police units to spread their nets over the area, guns in hand, and to kill the animal without warning. Assisted by the Boy Scouts of Lebanon, the firefighters organized patrols and beats, and night watchmen were posted at every street corner. On the initiative of Superintendent Jamil, quarters of poisoned meat were placed in the forests to serve as bait for the roaming monster. Army helicopters were even called in to keep watch over the area. But all of these efforts were in vain. In spite of the search and the resources that were deployed, the Komodo dragon was never found. Did it die from poisoning? Did it migrate to a less hostile area? And what if it had only ever existed in the minds of a handful of cranks? Furious at having misled the population because of a bunch of incompetent fools, the Minister of the Interior punished Superintendent Jamil by sending him to Nabatiyeh, on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Transferred to the Hermel district, a Hezbollah stronghold, "Dirty Harry" is champing at the bit. He has not given up hope of someday solving the mystery. To avenge his honor, scorned by a lizard.

Read more from the March 2008 issue
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