He proceeded to dress for bed and went to extinguish the lamp by the bedroom door. It was an unfortunate placement for now he had to navigate his way back to the bed in the dark. He felt clumsy in his new surroundings but after a few uncertain steps he finally felt the soft edge of the mattress. He navigated along its perimeter with his spider like hands before lying down and sinking his tired body into its welcoming embrace. His exhausted limbs gave way first before his mind followed. He quickly succumbed to a deep sleep.
The moment that woke him was as sudden as the terrible news that had been broken to him earlier that day. It took him by equal surprise as well for there was no apparent cause to the immediate cessation in his deep slumber. It seemed like the room itself had forced him awake, like the space between the walls was alive. He sat straight up, opened his eyes and stared into the darkness. Only the darkness stared back. He was aware he was shivering. The veranda door was open. Perhaps he had forgotten to close it and a sudden breeze had kicked up. His suspicion was confirmed as he could make out the faint silhouette of the lace curtain as it flapped about in the breeze. It would need to be closed if he was to have any hope of sleeping tonight.
He swivelled around on the bed, his two feet landing gently on the wooden floorboards. He was on his guard as he rose to his feet. That trace of fear that accompanied him to his bedroom now became a torrent. Without knowing the geography of the darkened room, his movement was awkward, uncoordinated and disoriented with remnant sleep. Yet, he stumbled forward towards where he believed the open door to be. His progress was immediately halted as he stumbled into a firm obstacle. He bounced back with fright but also force. He did not remember a piece of furniture in this part of the room and so he raised his right hand and slowly edged it forward into the dark so as to explore what the obstruction could be. He desperately hoped to confirm his hopeful suspicion that it was just a figment of his imagination and that he could quickly return to bed. At full stretch, his fingertips eventually brushed against something. It was soft to the touch and slightly moistened, not the firm obstacle that had forced him backwards in his stride. He let his fingers creep further until he began to trace the outline of what appeared to be a man’s shoulder. His hand now firmly rested on the muscle-bound frame of a human torso. The realisation that he was not alone in the room did not elicit an immediate reaction for the fear had momentary crippled him. His legs were weak and sweat poured profusely from his brow. His heart pounded with adrenaline.
He came to his senses and immediately recoiled his hand. He stepped backwards, retracing his initial steps until his arms clambered awkwardly onto the bed behind him. It was his safe haven, where he so desperately longed to be back to the dreamless sleep where all was well. He stared now into the darkness, seemingly at the point where his terrifying encounter occurred. He began to see colours, faint at first but they became more vibrant as the huge frame of a man stepped forward out of the blackness. He stood perfectly still, barely a few feet now from where Gabriel lay.
His body was smeared with paint. His head was adorned with a striking array of feathers. His nose was pierced with a myriad of small bones, whether animal or human Gabriel could not tell. A mask with terrifying bird’s eyes obscured the upper half of his face. Gabriel’s instinct for survival kicked in. He knew his only route of escape was via the balcony that the intruder now blocked. He would have to run for the bedroom door and hope he could make it there before his adversary. He quickly rolled over to the other side of the bed and got to his feet. There was no hesitation now such was the urgency of the situation. However, whatever hope of escape he had was quickly dashed to pieces by the emergence of several other figures from the chasm of space in the bedroom. “They hunt in bands of six,” Abraham’s words now floated through his subconscious and made themselves audible to Gabriel. He knew now that the death squad had come for him and there would be no escape.
Again he retreated to his bed and curled up into a ball against the back metal frame. He watched in horror as the remaining assassins moved forward, appearing to float, their feet invisible. They were inches from the edge of his bed and, like statues, formed a motionless cordon around him. All had painted bodies - vibrant blues, yellows and reds and all their heads radiated with extraordinary feathers. All wore eye masks that unnerved Gabriel the most for the eyes within them bore straight into his soul. The statue in the middle, directly in front of the bed now, removed his mask to reveal an ashen white, featureless face. The man’s naked eyes now drew Gabriel in. He was transfixed. Involuntarily he began to edge forward away from the security of his bed frame, now fortified with a heap of pillows, as if they could afford some protection in the event of an attack. On all fours, he crawled the length of the bed towards the motionless, white-faced figure. He halted at the bedposts and craned his neck forward, his head only inches now from the white faced warrior. He had lost all reason and was under their spell.
Unbeknownst to Gabriel, the warrior’s clenched fist was wrapped around a sharp object that now slowly edged towards him. He noticed a momentary flicker of light as the tip of the steel spear flashed before his eyes. His gaze was now locked in on the spear’s pointed tip as it moved, almost in slow motion, towards the soft flesh between his eyes. It was the last thing he would ever see. Incapacitated by a strange spell, Gabriel was helpless as the spear pierced the skull right between his eyes and emerged with ease at the back of his head. However, by that point he had already taken flight back to where it all began. He was on the deck of the Vauban. Proudly he looked out over Liverpool as the ship edged away. The ship’s horn was blowing and all crowds amassed on the quay were chanting his name and shouting: “It was all for you, Gabriel. Now, come home where your parents are waiting for you with a warm welcome.”
There were no guards on site to raise the alarm when he did not report for duty the following morning. The staff that did turn up for work assumed their master to have slept in and were only too happy to slip off quietly. Carlos was the first to discover Gabriel’s body when he drove up to the estate three days later. He knew something was wrong when a mass of flies was buzzing outside the upper veranda doorway. They do not take long to descend on the dead in the Tropics. He found Gabriel’s head impaled on a spear and severed from the body on the bedroom floor while the bloated torso rested on the bed as if asleep. Blood had been spilled from carefully placed incisions along his torso. Several, coloured feathers lay strewn on the floorboards. Carlos recognised the feathers as those of the spirit birds of the Highland Maya. There was no doubt they had struck again. Carlos ran in terror, not stopping once while pushing the Austin to its limits on the downhill descent to the Governor’s office.
Once informed, the Governor commissioned a token police investigation. He knew the outcome before the detectives had even returned. He decided to keep their report to himself. The last thing the Governor wanted was for an Agent of the Crown, an official of the British Honduras Trading Company, to be carried home headless. Furthermore, it would have been a stain on his reputation back in London that such a callous act could be carried out by mysterious assassins and not go unpunished. No, the Governor, thought, I will need to keep this quiet, just like the last time.
On Gabriel’s death certificate he had listed a mysterious and highly contagious influenza as the cause of death. It had quickly killed Mr. Howard and due to infection control, the body could not be dispatched back to Liverpool and would be buried with urgency here in Belize City. The authorities would not raise an eyebrow for tropical illnesses were the bane of many a prospective settler and could easily spread in the confines of a ship.
He was the only attendee at Gabriel’s funeral in the city’s cemetery. The burial was a hasty and hushed affair. It was all too familiar to Swayne having been the only mourner at Murray’s funeral a few month’s ago, the upturned soil of his grave still fresh on the plot next to Gabriel’s.
After the funeral, Swayne retreated to his office in the vast, sprawling villa. The heat of the morning was building and he needed a drink before resuming the tiresome work of running a colonial possession. He poured himself a glass of Scotch and lit up a hand-rolled Cuban cigar. He sat back on his mahogany chair and perched his two feet on the office desk, astride the letter tray, crammed with correspondence awaiting his attention. He reflected on the morning’s main event and stared into space, as if unsure what to do next. He swilled the whiskey around his mouth, swallowed it and let the cigar smoke swirl before exhaling it in a billowing cloud through his nostrils. He reached for the paper tray and took out a clean sheet. Arranging himself in order to write, he put pen to paper.
He started to write just below the state seal of the country that adorned the head of the paper sheet. He steadied his hand at the appropriate place and formulated his words:
“To the newly appointed Head of Operations of the British Honduras Company’s Mountain Pine Ridge Logging Operation,
I welcome you on behalf of the Crown and the British Honduras Company to Belize City to oversee the successful operation of the aforementioned logging operation. You will be the sole operator of this enterprise and an innovator in the thriving hardwood industry. You will do the Crown and Company proud. I will personally welcome you to initiate the contract with breakfast at my home on your arrival in six day’s time. My driver and trusted agent, Abraham, will welcome you at the pick up point for arrivals at the Belize City port.”
He signed the letter off and called for Abraham:
“Make sure the letter is dispatched to London on the next available mail ship. We urgently need a replacement for Mr. Howard.”
Abraham agreed and with a knowing look dutifully took the letter away to be posted to its unlucky recipient.
His work done, Swayne now closed his eyes and drifted into a daydream, away to a cold winter’s day in London, to the crowded, smog-filled streets where a cosy tavern awaited him.
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