Panting and groaning, with the occasional near-slip, they manhandled the unwieldy bundle down the stairs. Mr Dawes, making ineffectual grabs at the carpeting, was prodded by Captain Cherry into further discourse.

‘Well, I thought that I caught the word “snake” in the man’s tirade,’ he said. ‘And then . . . the snakes began to come.’

Small snakes, large snakes. A snake was found in the governor’s bath. Another appeared under the dining-table, to the horror of a merchant’s lady who was dining with the governor, and who had hysterics all over the dining room before fainting heavily across the table. Mr Dawes appeared to find something amusing in this, and Grey, perspiring heavily, gave him a glare that returned him more soberly to his account.

‘Every day, it seemed, and in different places. We had the house searched, repeatedly. But no one could – or would, perhaps – detect the source of the reptiles. And while no one was bitten, still the nervous strain of not knowing whether you would turn back your coverlet to discover something writhing amongst your bedding . . .’

‘Quite. Ugh!’ They paused and set down their burden. Grey wiped his forehead on his sleeve. ‘And how did you make the connection, Mr Dawes, between this plague of snakes, and Mr Warren’s mistreatment of the slave girl?’

Dawes looked surprised, and pushed his spectacles back up his sweating nose.

‘Oh, did I not say? The man – I was told later that he was an Obeah-man, whatever that may be – spoke her name, in the midst of his denunciation. Azeel, it was.’

‘I see. All right – ready? One, two, three – up!’

Dawes had given up any pretence of helping, but scampered down the garden path ahead of them to open the shed door. He had quite lost any lingering reticence, and seemed anxious to provide any information he could.

‘He did not tell me directly, but I believe he had begun to dream of snakes, and of the girl.’

‘How do— you know?’ Grey grunted. ‘That’s my foot, major!’

‘I heard him . . . er . . . speaking to himself. He had begun to drink rather heavily, you see. Quite understandable, under the circumstances, don’t you think?’

Grey wished he could drink heavily, but had no breath left with which to say so.

There was a sudden cry of startlement from Tom, who had gone in to clear space in the shed, and all three officers dropped the carpet with a thump, reaching for nonexistent weapons.

‘Me lord, me lord! Look who I found, a-hiding in the shed!’ Tom was leaping up the path toward him, face abeam with happiness, the youth Rodrigo coming warily behind him. Grey’s heart leapt at the sight, and he felt a most unaccustomed smile touch his face.

‘Your servant, sah.’ Rodrigo, very timid, made a deep bow.

‘I’m very pleased to see you, Rodrigo. Tell me – did you see anything of what passed here last night?’

The young man shuddered, and turned his face away.

‘No, sah,’ he said, so low-voiced Grey could barely hear him. ‘It was zombies. They . . . eat people. I heard them, but I know better than to look. I ran down into the garden, and hid myself.’

‘You heard them?’ Grey said sharply. ‘What did you hear, exactly?’

Rodrigo swallowed, and if it had been possible for a green tinge to show on skin such as his, would undoubtedly have turned the shade of a sea-turtle.

‘Feet, sah,’ he said. ‘Bare feet. But they don’t walk, step-step, like a person. They only shuffle, sh-sh, sh-sh.’ He made small pushing motions with his hands in illustration, and Grey felt a slight lifting of the hairs on the back of his neck.

‘Could you tell how many . . . men . . . there were?’

Rodrigo shook his head.

‘More than two, from the sound.’

Tom pushed a little forward, round face intent.

‘Was there anybody else with ’em, d’you think? Somebody with a regular step, I mean?’

Rodrigo looked startled, and then horrified.

‘You mean a houngan? I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe. I didn’t hear shoes. But . . .’

‘Oh. Because—’ Tom stopped abruptly, glanced at Grey, and coughed. ‘Oh.’

Despite more questions, this was all that Rodrigo could contribute, and so the carpet was picked up again – this time, with the servant helping – and bestowed in its temporary resting place. Fettes and Cherry chipped away a bit more at Dawes, but the secretary was unable to offer any further information regarding the governor’s activities, let alone speculate as to what malign force had brought about his demise.

‘Have you heard of zombies before, Mr Dawes?’ Grey inquired, mopping his face with the remains of his handkerchief.

‘Er . . . yes,’ the secretary replied cautiously. ‘But surely you don’t believe what the servant . . . oh, surely not!’ He cast an appalled glance at the shed.

‘Are zombies in fact reputed to devour human flesh?’

Dawes resumed his sickly pallor.

‘Well, yes. But . . . oh, dear!’

‘Sums it up nicely,’ muttered Cherry, under his breath. ‘I take it you don’t mean to make a public announcement of the governor’s demise, then, sir?’

‘You are correct, captain. I don’t want public panic over a plague of zombies at large in Spanish Town, whether that is actually the case, or not. Mr Dawes, I believe we need trouble you no more for the moment; you are excused.’ He watched the secretary stumble off, before beckoning his officers closer. Tom moved a little away, discreet as always, and took Rodrigo with him.

‘Have you discovered anything else that might have bearing on the present circumstance?’

They glanced at each other, and Fettes nodded to Cherry, wheezing gently. Cherry strongly resembled that eponymous fruit, but being younger and more slender than Fettes, had more breath.

‘Yes, sir. I went looking for Ludgate, the old superintendent. Didn’t find him – he’s buggered off to Canada, they said – but I got a right earful concerning the present superintendent.’

Grey groped for a moment for the name.

‘Cresswell?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Corruption and peculations’ appeared to sum up the subject of Captain Cresswell’s tenure as superintendent very well, according to Cherry’s informants in Spanish Town and King’s Town. Amongst other abuses, he had arranged trade between the maroons on the uplands and the merchants below, in the form of birdskins, snakeskins and other exotica, timber from the upland forests, and so on – but had, by report, accepted payment on behalf of the maroons but failed to deliver it.

‘Had he any part in the arrest of the two young maroons accused of theft?’

Cherry’s teeth flashed in a grin.

br />

Panting and groaning, with the occasional near-slip, they manhandled the unwieldy bundle down the stairs. Mr Dawes, making ineffectual grabs at the carpeting, was prodded by Captain Cherry into further discourse.

‘Well, I thought that I caught the word “snake” in the man’s tirade,’ he said. ‘And then . . . the snakes began to come.’

Small snakes, large snakes. A snake was found in the governor’s bath. Another appeared under the dining-table, to the horror of a merchant’s lady who was dining with the governor, and who had hysterics all over the dining room before fainting heavily across the table. Mr Dawes appeared to find something amusing in this, and Grey, perspiring heavily, gave him a glare that returned him more soberly to his account.

‘Every day, it seemed, and in different places. We had the house searched, repeatedly. But no one could – or would, perhaps – detect the source of the reptiles. And while no one was bitten, still the nervous strain of not knowing whether you would turn back your coverlet to discover something writhing amongst your bedding . . .’

‘Quite. Ugh!’ They paused and set down their burden. Grey wiped his forehead on his sleeve. ‘And how did you make the connection, Mr Dawes, between this plague of snakes, and Mr Warren’s mistreatment of the slave girl?’

Dawes looked surprised, and pushed his spectacles back up his sweating nose.

‘Oh, did I not say? The man – I was told later that he was an Obeah-man, whatever that may be – spoke her name, in the midst of his denunciation. Azeel, it was.’

‘I see. All right – ready? One, two, three – up!’

Dawes had given up any pretence of helping, but scampered down the garden path ahead of them to open the shed door. He had quite lost any lingering reticence, and seemed anxious to provide any information he could.

‘He did not tell me directly, but I believe he had begun to dream of snakes, and of the girl.’

‘How do— you know?’ Grey grunted. ‘That’s my foot, major!’

‘I heard him . . . er . . . speaking to himself. He had begun to drink rather heavily, you see. Quite understandable, under the circumstances, don’t you think?’

Grey wished he could drink heavily, but had no breath left with which to say so.

There was a sudden cry of startlement from Tom, who had gone in to clear space in the shed, and all three officers dropped the carpet with a thump, reaching for nonexistent weapons.

‘Me lord, me lord! Look who I found, a-hiding in the shed!’ Tom was leaping up the path toward him, face abeam with happiness, the youth Rodrigo coming warily behind him. Grey’s heart leapt at the sight, and he felt a most unaccustomed smile touch his face.

‘Your servant, sah.’ Rodrigo, very timid, made a deep bow.

‘I’m very pleased to see you, Rodrigo. Tell me – did you see anything of what passed here last night?’

The young man shuddered, and turned his face away.

‘No, sah,’ he said, so low-voiced Grey could barely hear him. ‘It was zombies. They . . . eat people. I heard them, but I know better than to look. I ran down into the garden, and hid myself.’

‘You heard them?’ Grey said sharply. ‘What did you hear, exactly?’

Rodrigo swallowed, and if it had been possible for a green tinge to show on skin such as his, would undoubtedly have turned the shade of a sea-turtle.

‘Feet, sah,’ he said. ‘Bare feet. But they don’t walk, step-step, like a person. They only shuffle, sh-sh, sh-sh.’ He made small pushing motions with his hands in illustration, and Grey felt a slight lifting of the hairs on the back of his neck.

‘Could you tell how many . . . men . . . there were?’

Rodrigo shook his head.

‘More than two, from the sound.’

Tom pushed a little forward, round face intent.

‘Was there anybody else with ’em, d’you think? Somebody with a regular step, I mean?’

Rodrigo looked startled, and then horrified.

‘You mean a houngan? I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe. I didn’t hear shoes. But . . .’

‘Oh. Because—’ Tom stopped abruptly, glanced at Grey, and coughed. ‘Oh.’

Despite more questions, this was all that Rodrigo could contribute, and so the carpet was picked up again – this time, with the servant helping – and bestowed in its temporary resting place. Fettes and Cherry chipped away a bit more at Dawes, but the secretary was unable to offer any further information regarding the governor’s activities, let alone speculate as to what malign force had brought about his demise.

‘Have you heard of zombies before, Mr Dawes?’ Grey inquired, mopping his face with the remains of his handkerchief.

‘Er . . . yes,’ the secretary replied cautiously. ‘But surely you don’t believe what the servant . . . oh, surely not!’ He cast an appalled glance at the shed.

‘Are zombies in fact reputed to devour human flesh?’

Dawes resumed his sickly pallor.

‘Well, yes. But . . . oh, dear!’

‘Sums it up nicely,’ muttered Cherry, under his breath. ‘I take it you don’t mean to make a public announcement of the governor’s demise, then, sir?’

‘You are correct, captain. I don’t want public panic over a plague of zombies at large in Spanish Town, whether that is actually the case, or not. Mr Dawes, I believe we need trouble you no more for the moment; you are excused.’ He watched the secretary stumble off, before beckoning his officers closer. Tom moved a little away, discreet as always, and took Rodrigo with him.

‘Have you discovered anything else that might have bearing on the present circumstance?’

They glanced at each other, and Fettes nodded to Cherry, wheezing gently. Cherry strongly resembled that eponymous fruit, but being younger and more slender than Fettes, had more breath.

‘Yes, sir. I went looking for Ludgate, the old superintendent. Didn’t find him – he’s buggered off to Canada, they said – but I got a right earful concerning the present superintendent.’

Grey groped for a moment for the name.

‘Cresswell?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Corruption and peculations’ appeared to sum up the subject of Captain Cresswell’s tenure as superintendent very well, according to Cherry’s informants in Spanish Town and King’s Town. Amongst other abuses, he had arranged trade between the maroons on the uplands and the merchants below, in the form of birdskins, snakeskins and other exotica, timber from the upland forests, and so on – but had, by report, accepted payment on behalf of the maroons but failed to deliver it.

‘Had he any part in the arrest of the two young maroons accused of theft?’

Cherry’s teeth flashed in a grin.

‘Odd you should ask, sir. Yes, they said – well, some of them did – that the two young men had come down to complain about Cresswell’s behaviour, but the governor wouldn’t see them. They were heard to declare they would take back their goods by force – so when a substantial chunk of the contents of one warehouse went missing, it was assumed that was what they’d done.

‘They – the maroons – insisted they hadn’t touched the stuff, but Cresswell seized the opportunity and had them arrested for theft.’

Grey closed his eyes, enjoying the momentary coolness of a breeze from the sea.

‘The governor wouldn’t see the young men, you said. Is there any suggestion of an improper connection between the governor and Captain Cresswell?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Fettes, rolling his eyes. ‘No proof yet – but we haven’t been looking long, either.’

‘I see. And we still do not know the whereabouts of Captain Cresswell?’

Cherry and Fettes shook their heads in unison.

‘The general conclusion is that Accompong scragged him,’ Cherry said.

‘Who?’

‘Oh. Sorry, sir,’ Cherry apologised. ‘That’s the name of the maroon’s headman, so they say. Captain Accompong, he calls himself, if you please.’ Cherry’s lips twisted a little.

Grey sighed.

‘All right. No reports of any further depredations by the maroons, by whatever name?’

‘Not unless you count murdering the governor,’ said Fettes.

‘Actually,’ Grey said slowly, ‘I don’t think that the maroons are responsible for this particular death.’ He was somewhat surprised to hear himself say so, in truth – and yet he found that he did think it.

Fettes blinked, this being as close to an expression of astonishment as he ever got, and Cherry looked openly sceptical. Grey did not choose to go into the matter of Mrs Abernathy, nor yet to explain his conclusions about the maroons’ disinclination for violence. Strange, he thought. He had heard Captain Accompong’s name only moments before, but with that name, his thoughts began to coalesce around a shadowy figure. Suddenly, there was a mind out there, someone with whom he might engage.

In battle, the personality and temperament of the commanding officer was nearly as important as the number of troops he commanded. So. He needed to know more about Captain Accompong, but that could wait for the moment.

He nodded to Tom, who approached respectfully, Rodrigo behind him.

‘Tell them what you discovered, Tom.’

Tom cleared his throat and folded his hands at his waist.

‘Well, we . . . er . . . disrobed the governor—’ Fettes flinched, and Tom cleared his throat again before going on, ‘—and had a close look. And the long and the short of it, sir, and sir,’ he added, with a nod to Cherry, ‘is that Governor Warren was stabbed in the back.’

Both officers looked blank.

‘But— the place is covered with blood and filth and nastiness,’ Cherry protested. ‘It smells like that place where they put the bloaters they drag out of the Thames!’

‘Footprints,’ Fettes said, giving Tom a faintly accusing look. ‘There were footprints. Big, bloody, bare footprints.’

‘I do not deny that something objectionable was present in that room,’ Grey said dryly. ‘But whoever – or whatever – gnawed the governor probably did not kill him. He was almost certainly dead when the . . . er . . . subsequent damage occurred.’

Rodrigo’s eyes were huge. Fettes was heard to observe under his breath that he would be damned, but both Fettes and Cherry were good men, and did not argue with Grey’s conclusions, any more than they had taken issue with his order to hide Warren’s body – they could plainly perceive the desirability of suppressing rumour of a plague of zombies.

‘The point, gentlemen, is that after several months of incident, there has been nothing for the last month. Perhaps Mr Warren’s death is meant to be incitement – but if it was not the work of the maroons, then the question is – what are the maroons waiting for?’

Tom lifted his head, eyes wide.

‘Why, me lord, I’d say – they’re waiting for you. What else?’

What else, indeed. Why had he not seen that at once? Of course Tom was right. The maroons’ protest had gone unanswered, their complaint unremedied. So they had set out to attract attention in the most noticeable – if not the best – way open to them. Time had passed, nothing was done in response, and then they had heard that soldiers were coming. Lieutenant-Colonel Grey had now appeared. Naturally, they were waiting to see what he would do.

What had he done so far? Sent troops to guard the plantations that were the most likely targets of a fresh attack. That was not likely to encourage the maroons to abandon their present plan of action, though it might cause them to direct their efforts elsewhere.

He walked to and fro in the wilderness of the King’s House garden, thinking, but there were few alternatives.

He summoned Fettes, and informed him that he, Fettes, was, until further notice, acting governor of the island of Jamaica.

Fettes looked more like a block of wood than usual.

‘Yes, sir,’ he said. ‘If I might ask, sir . . . where are you going?’

‘I’m going to talk to Captain Accompong.’

‘Alone, sir?’ Fettes was appalled. ‘Surely you cannot mean to go up there alone!’

‘I won’t be,’ Grey assured him. ‘I’m taking my valet, and the servant boy. I’ll need someone who can translate for me, if necessary.’

Seeing the mulish cast settling upon Fettes’s brow, he sighed.

‘To go there in force, major, is to invite battle, and that is not what I want.’

‘No, sir,’ Fettes said dubiously, ‘but surely a proper escort . . . !’

‘No, major.’ Grey was courteous, but firm. ‘I wish to make it clear that I am coming to speak with Captain Accompong, and nothing more. I go alone.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Fettes was beginning to look like a block of wood that someone had set about with a hammer and chisel.

‘As you wish, sir.’

Grey nodded, and turned to go into the house, but then paused and turned back.

‘Oh, there is one thing that you might do for me, major.’

Fettes brightened slightly.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Find me a particularly excellent hat, would you? With gold lace, if possible.’

They rode for nearly two days before they heard the first of the horns. A high, melancholy sound in the twilight, it seemed far away, and only a sort of metallic note made Grey sure that it was not in fact the cry of some large, exotic bird.

‘Maroons,’ Rodrigo said under his breath, and crouched a little, as though trying to avoid notice, even in the saddle. ‘That’s how they talk to each other. Every group has a horn; they all sound different.’

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