He seemed quite at ease in company, and conversed with them about the town, the weather – he confidently predicted rain in the evening, at about ten o’clock – leading Grey to think that he had likely been employed as a servant in good families for some time. Was the man a slave? he wondered, or a free black?

His admiration for Rodrigo was, he assured himself, the same that he might have for a marvellous piece of sculpture, an elegant painting. And one of his friends did in fact possess a collection of Greek amphorae decorated with scenes that gave him quite the same sort of feeling. He shifted slightly in his seat, crossing his legs. He would be going into dinner soon. He resolved to think of large, hairy spiders, and was making some progress with this subject when something huge and black dropped down the chimney and rushed out of the disused hearth.

All three men shouted and leapt to their feet, stamping madly. This time it was Rodrigo who felled the intruder, crushing it under one sturdy shoe.

‘What the devil was that?’ Grey asked, bending over to peer at the thing, which was a good three inches long, gleamingly black, and roughly ovoid, with ghastly long, twitching antennae.

‘Only a cockroach, sah,’ Rodrigo assured him, wiping a hand across a sweating ebony brow. ‘They will not harm you, but they are most disagreeable. If they come into your bed, they feed upon your eyebrows.’

Tom uttered a small strangled cry. The cockroach, far from being destroyed, had merely been inconvenienced by Rodrigo’s shoe. It now extended thorny legs, heaved itself up and was proceeding about its business, though at a somewhat slower pace. Grey, the hairs prickling on his arms, seized the ash-shovel from among the fireplace implements and, scooping up the insect on its blade, jerked open the door and flung the nasty creature as far as he could – which, given his state of mind, was some considerable distance.

Tom was pale as custard when Grey came back in, but picked up his employer’s coat with trembling hands. He dropped it, though, and with a mumbled apology, bent to pick it up again, only to utter a strangled shriek, drop it again, and run backwards, slamming so hard against the wall that Grey heard a crack of laths and plaster.

‘What the devil?’ He bent, reaching gingerly for the fallen coat.

‘Don’t touch it, me lord!’ Tom cried, but Grey had seen what the trouble was: a tiny yellow snake slithered out of the blue-velvet folds, head moving to and fro in slow curiosity.

‘Well, hallo, there.’ He reached out a hand, and as before, the little snake tasted his skin with a flickering tongue, then wove its way up into the palm of his hand. He stood up, cradling it carefully.

Tom and Rodrigo were standing like men turned to stone, staring at him.

‘It’s quite harmless,’ he assured them. ‘At least I think so. It must have fallen into my pocket earlier.’

Rodrigo was regaining a little of his nerve. He came forward and looked at the snake, but declined an offer to touch it, putting both hands firmly behind his back.

‘That snake likes you, sah,’ he said, glancing curiously from the snake to Grey’s face, as though trying to distinguish a reason for such odd particularity.

‘Possibly.’ The snake had made its way upward and was now wrapped round two of Grey’s fingers, squeezing with remarkable strength. ‘On the other hand, I believe he may be attempting to kill and eat me. Do you know what his natural food might be?’

Rodrigo laughed at that, displaying very beautiful white teeth, and Grey had such a vision of those teeth, those soft mulberry lips, applied to— he coughed, hard, and looked away.

‘He would eat anything that did not try to eat him first, sah,’ Rodrigo assured him. ‘It was probably the sound of the cockroach that made him come out. He would hunt those.’

‘What a very admirable sort of snake. Could we find him something to eat, do you think? To encourage him to stay, I mean.’

Tom’s face suggested strongly that if the snake was staying, he was not. On the other hand . . . he glanced toward the door, whence the cockroach had made its exit, and shuddered. With great reluctance, he reached into his pocket and extracted a rather squashed bread-roll, containing ham and pickle.

This object being placed on the floor before it, the snake inspected it gingerly, ignored bread and pickle, but twining itself carefully about a chunk of ham, squeezed it fiercely into limp submission, then, opening its jaw to an amazing extent, engulfed its prey, to general cheers. Even Tom clapped his hands, and – if not ecstatic at Grey’s suggestion that the snake might be accommodated in the dark space beneath the bed for the sake of preserving Grey’s eyebrows – uttered no objections to this plan, either. The snake being ceremoniously installed and left to digest its meal, Grey was about to ask Rodrigo further questions regarding the natural fauna of the island, but was forestalled by the faint sound of a distant gong.

‘Dinner!’ he exclaimed, reaching for his now snakeless coat.

‘Me lord! Your hair’s not even powdered!’ He refused to wear a wig, to Tom’s ongoing dismay, but was obliged in the present instance to submit to powder. This toiletry accomplished in haste, he shrugged into his coat and fled, before Tom could suggest any further refinements to his appearance.

The governor appeared, as Mr Dawes had predicted, calm and dignified at the dinner table. All trace of sweat, hysteria and drunkenness had vanished, and beyond a brief word of apology for his abrupt disappearance, no reference was made to his earlier departure.

Major Fettes and Grey’s adjutant, Captain Cherry, also appeared at table. A quick glance at them assured Grey that all was well with the troops. Fettes and Cherry couldn’t be more diverse physically, the latter resembling a ferret and the former a block of wood – but both were extremely competent, and well-liked by the men.

There was little conversation to begin with; the three soldiers had been eating ship’s biscuit and salt-beef for weeks. They settled down to the feast before them with the single-minded attention of ants presented with a loaf of bread; the magnitude of the challenge had no effect upon their earnest willingness. As the courses gradually slowed, though, Grey began to instigate conversation – his prerogative, as senior guest and commanding officer.

‘Mr Dawes explained to me the position of superintendent,’ he said, keeping his attitude superficially pleasant. ‘How long has Captain Cresswell held this position, sir?’

‘For approximately six months, colonel,’ the governor replied, wiping crumbs from his lips with a linen napkin. The governor was quite composed, but Grey had Dawes in the corner of his eye, and thought the secretary stiffened a little. That was interesting; he must get Dawes alone again, and go into this matter of superintendents more thoroughly.

‘And was there a superintendent before Captain Cresswell?’

‘Yes . . . in fact, there were two of them, were there not, Mr Dawes?’

‘Yes, sir. Captain Ludgate and Captain Perriman.’ Dawes was assiduously not meeting Grey’s eye.

‘I should like very much to speak with those gentlemen,’ Grey said pleasantly.

Dawes jerked as though someone had run a hatpin into his buttock. The governor finished chewing a grape, swallowed, and said, ‘I’m so sorry, colonel. Both Ludgate and Perriman have left Jamaica.’

‘Why?’ John Fettes asked bluntly. The governor hadn’t been expecting that, and blinked.

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He seemed quite at ease in company, and conversed with them about the town, the weather – he confidently predicted rain in the evening, at about ten o’clock – leading Grey to think that he had likely been employed as a servant in good families for some time. Was the man a slave? he wondered, or a free black?

His admiration for Rodrigo was, he assured himself, the same that he might have for a marvellous piece of sculpture, an elegant painting. And one of his friends did in fact possess a collection of Greek amphorae decorated with scenes that gave him quite the same sort of feeling. He shifted slightly in his seat, crossing his legs. He would be going into dinner soon. He resolved to think of large, hairy spiders, and was making some progress with this subject when something huge and black dropped down the chimney and rushed out of the disused hearth.

All three men shouted and leapt to their feet, stamping madly. This time it was Rodrigo who felled the intruder, crushing it under one sturdy shoe.

‘What the devil was that?’ Grey asked, bending over to peer at the thing, which was a good three inches long, gleamingly black, and roughly ovoid, with ghastly long, twitching antennae.

‘Only a cockroach, sah,’ Rodrigo assured him, wiping a hand across a sweating ebony brow. ‘They will not harm you, but they are most disagreeable. If they come into your bed, they feed upon your eyebrows.’

Tom uttered a small strangled cry. The cockroach, far from being destroyed, had merely been inconvenienced by Rodrigo’s shoe. It now extended thorny legs, heaved itself up and was proceeding about its business, though at a somewhat slower pace. Grey, the hairs prickling on his arms, seized the ash-shovel from among the fireplace implements and, scooping up the insect on its blade, jerked open the door and flung the nasty creature as far as he could – which, given his state of mind, was some considerable distance.

Tom was pale as custard when Grey came back in, but picked up his employer’s coat with trembling hands. He dropped it, though, and with a mumbled apology, bent to pick it up again, only to utter a strangled shriek, drop it again, and run backwards, slamming so hard against the wall that Grey heard a crack of laths and plaster.

‘What the devil?’ He bent, reaching gingerly for the fallen coat.

‘Don’t touch it, me lord!’ Tom cried, but Grey had seen what the trouble was: a tiny yellow snake slithered out of the blue-velvet folds, head moving to and fro in slow curiosity.

‘Well, hallo, there.’ He reached out a hand, and as before, the little snake tasted his skin with a flickering tongue, then wove its way up into the palm of his hand. He stood up, cradling it carefully.

Tom and Rodrigo were standing like men turned to stone, staring at him.

‘It’s quite harmless,’ he assured them. ‘At least I think so. It must have fallen into my pocket earlier.’

Rodrigo was regaining a little of his nerve. He came forward and looked at the snake, but declined an offer to touch it, putting both hands firmly behind his back.

‘That snake likes you, sah,’ he said, glancing curiously from the snake to Grey’s face, as though trying to distinguish a reason for such odd particularity.

‘Possibly.’ The snake had made its way upward and was now wrapped round two of Grey’s fingers, squeezing with remarkable strength. ‘On the other hand, I believe he may be attempting to kill and eat me. Do you know what his natural food might be?’

Rodrigo laughed at that, displaying very beautiful white teeth, and Grey had such a vision of those teeth, those soft mulberry lips, applied to— he coughed, hard, and looked away.

‘He would eat anything that did not try to eat him first, sah,’ Rodrigo assured him. ‘It was probably the sound of the cockroach that made him come out. He would hunt those.’

‘What a very admirable sort of snake. Could we find him something to eat, do you think? To encourage him to stay, I mean.’

Tom’s face suggested strongly that if the snake was staying, he was not. On the other hand . . . he glanced toward the door, whence the cockroach had made its exit, and shuddered. With great reluctance, he reached into his pocket and extracted a rather squashed bread-roll, containing ham and pickle.

This object being placed on the floor before it, the snake inspected it gingerly, ignored bread and pickle, but twining itself carefully about a chunk of ham, squeezed it fiercely into limp submission, then, opening its jaw to an amazing extent, engulfed its prey, to general cheers. Even Tom clapped his hands, and – if not ecstatic at Grey’s suggestion that the snake might be accommodated in the dark space beneath the bed for the sake of preserving Grey’s eyebrows – uttered no objections to this plan, either. The snake being ceremoniously installed and left to digest its meal, Grey was about to ask Rodrigo further questions regarding the natural fauna of the island, but was forestalled by the faint sound of a distant gong.

‘Dinner!’ he exclaimed, reaching for his now snakeless coat.

‘Me lord! Your hair’s not even powdered!’ He refused to wear a wig, to Tom’s ongoing dismay, but was obliged in the present instance to submit to powder. This toiletry accomplished in haste, he shrugged into his coat and fled, before Tom could suggest any further refinements to his appearance.

The governor appeared, as Mr Dawes had predicted, calm and dignified at the dinner table. All trace of sweat, hysteria and drunkenness had vanished, and beyond a brief word of apology for his abrupt disappearance, no reference was made to his earlier departure.

Major Fettes and Grey’s adjutant, Captain Cherry, also appeared at table. A quick glance at them assured Grey that all was well with the troops. Fettes and Cherry couldn’t be more diverse physically, the latter resembling a ferret and the former a block of wood – but both were extremely competent, and well-liked by the men.

There was little conversation to begin with; the three soldiers had been eating ship’s biscuit and salt-beef for weeks. They settled down to the feast before them with the single-minded attention of ants presented with a loaf of bread; the magnitude of the challenge had no effect upon their earnest willingness. As the courses gradually slowed, though, Grey began to instigate conversation – his prerogative, as senior guest and commanding officer.

‘Mr Dawes explained to me the position of superintendent,’ he said, keeping his attitude superficially pleasant. ‘How long has Captain Cresswell held this position, sir?’

‘For approximately six months, colonel,’ the governor replied, wiping crumbs from his lips with a linen napkin. The governor was quite composed, but Grey had Dawes in the corner of his eye, and thought the secretary stiffened a little. That was interesting; he must get Dawes alone again, and go into this matter of superintendents more thoroughly.

‘And was there a superintendent before Captain Cresswell?’

‘Yes . . . in fact, there were two of them, were there not, Mr Dawes?’

‘Yes, sir. Captain Ludgate and Captain Perriman.’ Dawes was assiduously not meeting Grey’s eye.

‘I should like very much to speak with those gentlemen,’ Grey said pleasantly.

Dawes jerked as though someone had run a hatpin into his buttock. The governor finished chewing a grape, swallowed, and said, ‘I’m so sorry, colonel. Both Ludgate and Perriman have left Jamaica.’

‘Why?’ John Fettes asked bluntly. The governor hadn’t been expecting that, and blinked.

‘I expect Major Fettes wishes to know whether they were replaced in their offices because of some peculation or corrupt practice,’ Bob Cherry put in chummily. ‘And if that be the case, were they allowed to leave the island rather than face prosecution? And if so—’

‘Why?’ Fettes put in neatly. Grey repressed a smile. Should peace break out on a wide scale and an army career fail them, Fettes and Cherry could easily make a living as a music-hall knockabout cross-talk act. As interrogators, they could reduce almost any suspect to incoherence, confusion, and confession in nothing flat.

Governor Warren, though, appeared to be made of tougher stuff than the usual regimental miscreant. Either that, or he had nothing to hide, Grey thought, watching him explain with tired patience that Ludgate had retired because of ill health, and that Perriman had inherited money and gone back to England.

No, he thought, watching the governor’s hand twitch and hover indecisively over the fruit bowl. He’s got something to hide. And so does Dawes. Is it the same thing, though? And has it got anything to do with the present trouble?

The governor could easily be hiding some peculation or corruption of his own – and likely was, Grey thought dispassionately, taking in the lavish display of silver on the sideboard. Such corruption was – within limits – considered more or less a perquisite of office. But if that was the case, it was not Grey’s concern – unless it was in some way connected to the maroons and their rebellion.

Entertaining as it was to watch Fettes and Cherry at their work, he cut them off with a brief nod, and turned the conversation firmly back to the rebellion.

‘What communications have you had from the rebels, sir?’ he asked the governor. ‘For I think in these cases, rebellion arises usually from some distinct source of grievance. What is it?’

Warren looked at him, jaw agape. He closed his mouth, slowly, and thought for a moment before replying. Grey rather thought he was considering how much Grey might discover from other avenues of inquiry.

Everything I bloody can, Grey thought, assuming an expression of neutral interest.

‘Why, as to that, sir . . . the incident that began the . . . um . . . the difficulties . . . was the arrest of two young maroons, accused of stealing from a warehouse in King’s Town.’ The two had been whipped in the town square, and committed to prison, after which—

‘Following a trial?’ Grey interrupted. The governor’s gaze rested on him, red-rimmed but cool.

‘No, colonel. They had no right to a trial.’

‘You had them whipped and imprisoned on the word of . . . who? The affronted merchant?’

Warren drew himself up a little and lifted his chin. Grey saw that he had been shaved, but a patch of black whisker had been overlooked; it showed in the hollow of his cheek like a blemish, a hairy mole.

‘I did not, no, sir,’ he said, coldly. ‘The sentence was imposed by the magistrate in King’s Town.’

‘Who is?’

Dawes had closed his eyes with a small grimace.

‘Judge Samuel Peters.’

Grey nodded thanks.

‘Captain Cherry will visit Mr Judge Peters tomorrow,’ he said pleasantly. ‘And the prisoners, as well. I take it they are still in custody?’

‘No, they aren’t,’ Mr Dawes put in, suddenly emerging from his impersonation of a dormouse. ‘They escaped, within a week of their capture.’

The governor shot a brief, irritated glance at his secretary, but nodded reluctantly. With further prodding, it was admitted that the maroons had sent a protest at the treatment of the prisoners, via Captain Cresswell. The prisoners having escaped before the protest was received, though, it had not seemed necessary to do anything about it.

Grey wondered briefly whose patronage had got Warren his position, but dismissed the thought in favour of further explorations. The first violence had come without warning, he was told, with the burning of cane fields on a remote plantation. Word of it had reached Spanish Town several days later, by which time, another plantation had suffered similar depredation.

‘Captain Cresswell rode at once to investigate the matter, of course,’ Warren said, lips tight.

‘And?’

‘He didn’t return. The maroons have not demanded ransom for him, nor have they sent word that he is dead. He may be with them; he may not. We simply don’t know.’

Grey could not help looking at Dawes, who looked unhappy, but gave the ghost of a shrug. It wasn’t his place to tell more than the governor wanted told, was it?

‘Let me understand you, sir,’ Grey said, not bothering to hide the edge in his voice. ‘You have had no communication with the rebels since their initial protest? And you have taken no action to achieve any?’

Warren seemed to swell slightly, but replied in an even tone.

‘In fact, colonel, I have. I sent for you.’ He smiled, very slightly, and reached for the decanter.

The evening air hung damp and viscid, trembling with distant thunder. Unable to bear the stifling confines of his uniform any longer, Grey flung it off, not waiting for Tom’s ministrations, and stood naked in the middle of the room, eyes closed, enjoying the touch of air from the terrace on his bare skin.

There was something remarkable about the air. Warm as it was, and even indoors, it had a silken touch that spoke of the sea and clear blue water. He couldn’t see the water from his room; even had it been visible from Spanish Town, his room faced a hillside covered with jungle. He could feel it, though, and had a sudden longing to wade out through surf and immerse himself in the clean coolness of the ocean. The sun had nearly set now, and the cries of parrots and other birds were growing intermittent.

He peered underneath the bed, but didn’t see the snake. Perhaps it was far back in the shadows; perhaps it had gone off in search of more ham. He straightened, stretched luxuriously, then shook himself and stood blinking, feeling stupid from too much wine and food, and lack of sleep – he had slept barely three hours out of the preceding four-and-twenty, what with the arrival, disembarkation, and the journey to King’s House.

His mind appeared to have taken French leave for the moment; no matter; it would be back shortly. Meanwhile, though, its abdication had left his body in charge; not at all a responsible course of action.

He felt exhausted, but restless, and scratched idly at his chest. The wounds there were solidly healed, slightly raised pink weals under his fingers, criss-crossing through the blond hair. One had passed within an inch of his left nipple; he’d been lucky not to lose it.

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