The bedroom was spacious. On entering, he lit the only source of light, an oil lamp by the door, and proceeded to scan the room. The metal-framed bed was flush against the back wall and there was sparse furniture, just a simple wardrobe and a chest of drawers alongside it. There was another door that led to a small veranda and from where the lace curtains had been dancing in the wind on his arrival. They were now completely still.
He noticed a small annex off the bedroom that consisted of a simple but well presented library with shelves climbing the walls from floor to ceiling and crammed with books. Mr. Murray must have been an avid reader. He entered the miniature library dipping his head under the low ceiling. Browsing the shelves, he discovered books on business performance, British history, bookkeeping and timber trade periodicals but further down on the lowest shelf were several books that caught his attention: “Ancient Astronomy of the Mayas”, ”Maya Society” and “Maya Cosmology and Religion”. Gabriel was intrigued now and perused their contents when a handful of folded papers fell out from their hiding place, wedged between the back cover and inner pages of one of the books. Gabriel inspected their contents, perhaps a dozen letters, all signed off by Mr. Murray himself and addressed to Sheila, presumably Murray’s sweetheart back home. Gabriel ordered them chronologically, unfolded the first letter and proceeded to read aloud:
3rd January, 1912
Sorry it took me so long to write my dear but I have taken the bull by the horns and have been industrious as always. My first months here have been a roaring success. I’ve rebuilt the property provided by the Company. It was neither spacious nor tasteful. The Governor was having none of it when I formally requested funds for a rebuild. So, I’ve injected some of our savings to finance this beautiful villa from where I now write. I know one day you will join me here too in this magnificent jungle hideaway. I will see to that, dear. For without industry and initiative, we get blown helplessly around like a lone leaf in the breeze. I’m sure you’ll understand.
Now, business aside, there is the curious matter of my neighbours. I had been warned about them you see – some kind of hostile native tribe who won’t accept us trimming the forest to get at those beautiful specimens of mahoganies that dot these hills. I don’t see why they can’t make way. There’s plenty space for all of us up here.
Today, in order to make my acquaintance, as any good neighbour should, I went to the perimeter of the property, beyond which I am told is strictly tribal land. I stood there, staring into the thick jungle and called out: “Anybody home?” No answer. I came back later, after sunset, with my torch to see if I could rouse them and called again. This time I heard rustling and saw flickers of light from between the maze of branches and leaves. I knew somebody was there and called again but could only hear the silence. I gave up, came home, poured myself a generous glass of Scotch and started to write this letter.
Gabriel reflected on the man name Lewis who had left so many secrets and into whose life he had now stepped. He could know him through these letters. He read on. The next one dated two weeks after the first.
I’m writing to you after a long sultry day. The humidity has crept up the hillside and I’m sweating even now as I write, long after sunset. Not that it bothers me. I’m happy to work up a sweat, as any good Scotsman will!
The house continues to bring me great joy. The view is magnificent into the forested hills below. I’ve placed your photograph in the hallway. Now I see you every day, my dear. I have a wee update for you on the matter of my neighbours. I also have a shocking story to tell so pour yourself a drink and listen to this.
Frustrated by my last failed attempt to make contact, my plan was to find them with the help of an interpreter and negotiate a deal so the Company can expand the logging concession. Otherwise, we’ll perish. I don’t care about the previous lousy deal. Its progress at all costs out here, darling!
I enlisted one of the loggers, a local Maya native, by the name of Fabio, as a translator and guide. The man quivered in fear when I presented my case: a venture into the jungle with me to speak to the Highlanders directly in return for a bottle of Scotch. He didn’t seem to get the value of the offer but accepted after a bit of arm-twisting, if you know what I mean. I must admit, it was a wee bit frightening as we traipsed through the jungle. The flames of our torches flickering, casting shadows across the trees, which appeared to dance, and play about us, almost like living creatures. You know I’m a God fearing man and wouldn’t believe any of that nonsense about forest spirits but you wouldn’t want to let your wee imagination run wild out here!
They found us before we found them. A group of six was standing like statues in a clearing and it was Fabio who first halted dead in his tracks. I know these are no words for a lady like you but I was sure he wet himself with fear. I stood my ground and told Fabio to tell them I wanted to speak to their Chief. I tell you, Sheila, what followed I can only describe as surreal.
They took us first for another hour’s trek through the jungle before we finally saw much torchlight in the distance and the silhouette of built structures. It was their village. The entrance was lined with carvings of animals. To be honest, in the dark, I could not tell if they were fake or real, such was their likeness. Fabio pointed to one that looked like a big cat, elaborately carved, and said it was a jaguar spirit or balam that protected the village’s four entrances from evil. Mind you, Sheila, from what I was about to discover the problem was keeping the evil inside that Godforsaken place.
We were immediately brought to meet the Chief. Fabio told me he was the king and judging by his attire, he carried some weight. He was adorned with beads and jewellery, across his chest and arms, not to mention his head for I could not tell where it ended so large was the crown of feathers and beads that surrounded it. I must admit he stared me down but I wouldn’t let him intimidate me and I stared straight back while Fabio communicated with other men in strange tongue. It turned out the King had a proposition to make: I would be allowed to expand the logging operation and log in tribal land, under one condition: that I be a subject for a Maya ritual act.
Sheila, I know this will strike you as out of character, but I agreed. I’m here to make money and if it meant expanding my horizons to take in a cultural experience like this, so be it.
A huge man, with full body paint and a snake carving ornamenting his head, then gave me a foul tasting potion to drink. It was the shaman, Fabio whispered to me. By then he had a worried look on his face. After that I felt strange, my dear. I was in a trance and don’t remember much. The next thing I know I was on my back on a cold hard slab of some sort with four men holding down my legs and arms. Another man stepped forward from the gloom. He was dressed in gold and had a bird like head. I could only see two human eyes peering out from behind the bird mask. I thought they were human, darling, but I could not tell, I was in such a stupor. It was at this point I heard Fabio’s voice informing me that the priest had just stepped forward and that the bloodletting ritual would begin. When I heard those words I writhed and wriggled for I would not submit myself to such a ghastly procedure but the potion weakened me and I began to hallucinate, having strange visions where the trees were alive and holding me down, their long branches like arms, wrapped around my limbs. I could see the birdman had already sliced a long incision down my wrists and the inner parts of my legs but as the blood seeped out I was powerless to act. There seemed to be a channel in the slab where I could see the blood collecting. I don’t know how long the terrible experience lasted but when I came to, I was lying on the grass just outside the property. Fabio must have carried me back. My wounds recovered quickly for they covered them in a paste that Fabio told me was a herbal medicinal remedy. It acted like magic.
I hate to be the bearer of such a grizzly tale, my love, but somebody needs to know what your beloved has endured out here.
Several more letters recounted the same repetitive ordeal. It seemed Mr. Murray continued to submit himself to the bloodletting ritual in return for access to new logging concessions on tribal lands. It was the last letter, however, that had sent a chill up Gabriel’s spine and left him in no doubt about the fate that befell his predecessor. He noted it was dated around the time Murray had been murdered.
The men have been working hard and logging the virgin forest tirelessly for a few weeks now. It appears my little blood donation to the Godless thugs in the jungle has paid off handsomely. The Governor and the Company’s HQ in Belize will be pleased when I disclose our monthly returns. If we can keep it up I’ll be rich in a matter of weeks and be able to pay your passage here so we can be together again. It has been too long, darling. Soon, I plan to make a trip to the city and finally post these letters, now piled up on my desk. You’ll probably get them all at once!
Before I go I must tell you something. Fabio, otherwise mute with fear since this whole arrangement started, warned that the natives were obsessed with blood - both their own and that of their captives - and that ritual bloodletting appeased their gods. He said to be careful - that soon blood might not be enough and that only a human sacrifice would be acceptable. Perhaps he knows something I don’t.
Sensing danger, I have ordered Fabio to meet me at the edge of the forest tonight so I can find out if there’s any truth to it and end the deal before it goes too far.
They would be his last words. The Highlanders thought him a willing sacrifice and slayed him that very night, Gabriel thought to himself. He closed the letters with shaky hands and folded them away where he had found them. He would present them to the Governor at the first opportunity and demand an explanation of this whole sordid affair.