Authors: Barbara Cleverly
Joe, James and Fred had stayed on with the two Afghans after the party broke up, James calling distractedly for brandy. Fred, bottle in hand, did the honours, pouring out with lavish hand glasses of a fine old cognac. Joe guessed that the generosity of Fred’s measures reflected the relief of the five men that they had been left behind by the civilians. He could not deny that he felt more comfortable in the after-dinner company of Zeman and Iskander than that of Rathmore and Burroughs. To Joe’s surprise both the Pathans accepted a glass of brandy. To Joe’s further surprise they were quite prepared to settle down and do what Pathans enjoy after a good meal: they proceeded to swap news and scandal and tell stories and even to have a laugh at Rathmore’s expense. Unexpectedly, Iskander gave an impassioned and hilarious imitation of Rathmore’s declamatory style. This broke any remaining ice and they all relaxed gratefully into the familiar unbuttoned comfort of an after-dinner officers’ mess.
So in the end, everyone had rolled away to bed in high good humour, beyond anything Joe and James could have expected. Accompanied by vigilant Scouts James patrolled the lower fort, Eddy Fraser the grounds, and it fell to Joe to check the guest wing. ‘Remember,’ James had said, ‘the frontier never sleeps,’ and, thankfully at last, his patrol complete, he had settled in for the night with Betty in the double-sized guest room on the first floor. Not much concession to marital comforts here! Two iron beds, two narrow mattresses, four coat hangers, two candlesticks, two candles, and two bedside tables. ‘No concessions!’ he had warned Betty. ‘Not even for the memsahib! We don’t want to get a reputation for having gone soft. This is a barracks not the Ritz!’ But his wife’s presence turned it into paradise. James had no yearnings for silk-clad houris reclining on damask cushions; Betty and an army issue blanket filled his world for the night.
Joe had seen that the defences were impeccable and he stood for a moment listening to the soft footsteps of sentries in their grass-soled chaplis on the walls above his head. Impeccable. Yes. As tightly controlled as one could wish. And yet the swift gleam of moonlight on a bayonet as a sentry turned awoke a sickening and well-remembered fear in Joe. For a dizzying moment he remembered that the fort was manned by over a thousand native troops, cousins of the very men against whom they were busily defending these walls. What held them and their loyalty in place? The handful of British officers? The King’s shilling? Joe leaned his back against the wall as the vertigo took hold. What the hell was he doing here? What was James doing here? What business did they have in this unyielding wilderness? Had he elected to join a mad picnic party on the slopes of a volcano? All his senses were crying a warning.
He calmed himself by reaching in his pocket for a cigarette. The scrape of his match against the box was enough to bring a hissed warning down from the wall above. ‘No, no, sahib! No smoking after dark!’ Joe grinned, his tension evaporating. No problems with the security of the defences but he remained uneasy, however, as to the internal safety measures. The fort was not designed to cope with trouble from within. But what trouble could there be? Joe only knew that he felt uneasy. He had learned to trust his instinct and never to dismiss a prickle of anxiety however subconscious, however unfocused. He thought carefully about each occupant of the guest wing and came to the conclusion that his anxieties centred on Rathmore. Arrogant, eager to make an authoritative impression for Lily’s benefit and even with a half-formed determination to put Zeman – ‘and any other blasted tribesman’ – in his place, Rathmore was troubling him. Had he learned a lesson? Joe wasn’t sure but at least Lily, his primary charge, was safely tucked up in bed by now and alone. Joe had called to her to be sure to lock her door and she had briefly opened it with a derisive smile and had said impatiently, ‘Don’t you worry about
, Joe! I’m perfectly well equipped to defend myself but – if it’ll make
feel easier . . .’ And she had closed the door firmly. He heard her fumble with the lock and a last decisive click reassured him that in this at least she was prepared to take his advice.
‘Now what did she mean by that?’ he thought as he went along the corridor. ‘Ought I to have checked her luggage for a secreted Colt revolver?’ He remembered her remark about Wyatt Earp and the skill with which she’d shot the pheasant and he wondered again about Miss Coblenz. She was on the first floor also, between James’s room and Joe’s own. At the end of the corridor was Grace Holbrook. Well, for good or ill, there they lay in a row.
And, at least, all on the first floor were able to lock their doors. With the sudden influx of civilian visitors James had organized carpenters to fit locks to the guest wing rooms but supplies of ironmongery had run out when the first floor had been fitted and he’d decided to install the female guests – and Joe in his protective role – in the more secure accommodation upstairs. The gentlemen downstairs would just have to resort to the chair under the door handle routine if they were of nervous disposition, Joe thought with a smile.
He completed his patrol of the wing by checking on the ground floor rooms. Candles flickered under the doors of the first two rooms occupied by Zeman and Iskander. The next room was in darkness and silent apart from a stricken wuffle. Poor old Burroughs! Next to Burroughs an oil lamp was still alight and Fred Moore-Simpson was tunelessly whistling a selection from
. The room at the end of the corridor was Rathmore’s. Dark and silent. Joe hesitated. To disturb or not to disturb? Well, he deserved it!
‘Rathmore!’ he said, tapping on the door. ‘Is all well?’
‘Perfectly well,’ said Rathmore, adding impatiently, ‘Tea at seven. And the papers, please.’
As he passed the stairs to the upper floor a low growl broke out. Somebody had thought it a good idea to house the appalling Minto here by the door in a hastily constructed box. Joe detected James’s hand in this. He wouldn’t want to spend his precious time alone with Betty fending off Minto and Joe guessed that the animal had been banished from the bedroom. And not happy with the arrangement either, Joe thought, judging by the noises he was making. Joe bent down and tapped on the kennel.
‘Anyone at home?’
Minto swaggered out and made his annoyance clear.
‘Hey, it’s only me – Joe! Remember me? No, obviously not! There’s no need to be unfriendly, mate.’ Joe picked up Minto by the scruff as he spoke, scrubbled his furry chest and put him down again. ‘Back in your kennel! Sit! Stay!’ The dog looked at him malevolently. ‘Wretched animal!’ said Joe and he remembered that leopards in the hills were not uncommon and that they were known to fancy a snack of dog. ‘Any hope, I wonder?’ but he supposed the fort defences too strong.
Joe walked through the open archway and stepped into the garden for a few moments to clear his head before going to his own bed. It was a very private place enclosed on two sides by the guest wing and the now deserted entertaining rooms. A breath of cool air coming down from the mountains stirred the almond trees and blossom floated lazily down on to the dark pool. The only sound was the gentle gurgling of the piped river water constantly refreshing the swimming pool and for a moment Joe was tempted to throw off his clothes and plunge in. The icy touch of the water was just what he needed to wash away the anxieties and the uncertainties which were making his skin itch. Instead he breathed in the scents of jasmine and rose accompanied, as always in India, by a scent unknown to him. He wandered for a while amongst the roses and stopped to listen to the sudden song of a nightingale in the orchard beyond the wall, shot through by melancholy, aching to share this overpowering moment with someone close, his mind going back to just such an evening in a garden in Calcutta. ‘Nancy! Be well, Nancy! I’m thinking of you. Wretched girl!’
He trailed sadly back upstairs to his room. Stifled laughter and the sharp click of a key turning in the lock as he passed James’s door heightened Joe’s feeling of loneliness. ‘I shan’t sleep tonight,’ he thought. ‘Mistake to have that second brandy. Always makes me maudlin!’ But he was wrong and against all his expectations he fell straight into sleep. And into a series of disconnected dreams, dreams in which tribesmen jostled with London policemen and snatches of English rang out across the plaintive songs of the frontier. All at once, through this came a warning. Something had clicked him into instant wakefulness.
Dark night still outside and all quiet. All was quiet inside too. Or was it? A light shifted across the gap at the threshold and he slid out of bed and went to stand by the door. Carefully he opened it and peered through. Seeing two familiar figures moving quietly down the corridor, he stepped out. ‘Anything I can do?’ he called quietly.
James, holding a flickering candle, stopped dead and turned around. He did not smile or even speak, in fact he looked, Joe thought, distinctly put out to see him appearing in the doorway. James frowned, put his finger to his lips and hissed, ‘Shh!’ Grace Holbrook, following close behind, impressive in ancient plaid dressing gown and curlers and carrying a leather medical case, turned to Joe with a reassuring smile and said in a whisper, ‘No need to worry, Joe! It’s Betty. James came to fetch me but, you know – worried father-to-be! Her sickness has come back. Not surprising after that supper! Asking for trouble! Anyway I expect a little shot of Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne will do the trick! Night-night! And don’t worry! I’ll fetch you if it’s serious – James would want you close by, I think.’
Back in his room, Joe lit a candle and checked the time. Three o’clock. Poor old James! No wonder he looked so seedy! And poor old Betty. What bad luck to be struck down again just when she’d thought it was all over. Joe hoped it hadn’t ruined their evening. Betty had steered a sure course through the hazards of that potentially disastrous party and Joe was well aware that her grace, humour and foresight had kept hands off daggers and smiles on lips. Perhaps he would find a vicar’s daughter to complete his schemes when he got back to London. Yes, that’s what he would look for – a girl who knew what the rules were and who had the spirit to break them. Yawning, he waited for a few more minutes in case Grace needed him and then fell back into sleep and back into dreams. ‘Getting too old for the full Pathan Gastronomic Treatment,’ was his last waking thought.
He woke as the first note of reveille sounded and at once the early morning hush was shattered. Running footsteps hurrying on the stairs, doors that opened and shut, Indian voices calling anxiously, a wave of distress rolled upwards. Other voices, English and Indian joined in. There was the clang of a water pot being set down and nailed sandals clattered up the stone steps. Joe scrambled hurriedly into his clothes and went to the door. The bearer was standing outside James’s door banging loudly, wide-eyed and wailing desperately.
‘What’s going on?’ Joe said.
The bearer turned to him with relief and a torrent of Pushtu as, shock-headed and bleary, James unlocked his door and appeared, shrugging into his jacket, and together they looked down the stairs and at the chattering and wildly gesticulating bearer. James stood seemingly paralysed and at last shook himself. ‘Come on, Joe,’ he said. ‘Something fearful’s happened.’
The door of Grace’s room opened and she stepped out into the corridor, alert and ready for the day. ‘James? Joe? What on earth’s going on? Do you need me?’
‘Too late if what the bearer has to tell me is right,’ said James. ‘But come with us, Grace, will you?’
They hurried to the top of the flight of steps and looked down. Sprawled diagonally across the stairs, half-way up there lay a body, apparently lifeless. A brown hand was extended upwards as though appealing for help, a chestnut turban had come unknotted and spilled like a waterfall down the white stone steps. Khaki uniform, shirt and breeches, shiny boots and an unmistakable face turned in profile identified the man.
‘Zeman,’ Joe said, aghast. ‘It’s Zeman Khan!’
James, fully awake and taking in the enormity of the event, was the first to react as the politician in the soldier took control and he began quietly to give orders. Joe caught the name of Iskander. ‘We’ll touch nothing for the moment.’
Stepping carefully they moved down the stairs and knelt beside the body.
‘Somebody open the bloody shutter, for God’s sake! I can’t see a fucking thing! Oh, sorry, Grace! Forgot you were there. We’ve got a bit of bother here.’
‘So it seems,’ came the level voice of Grace Holbrook.
And the desperate voice of Iskander Khan: ‘Zeman! Is he badly hurt? Did he fall? When did this happen?’
He came from his room buckling on his gun-belt, already in uniform, and started up the stairs. Joe gripped him by the elbow. ‘We’ve only just found him . . . but – I can’t wrap this up – I think, and as I say it it sounds impossible – I think your friend is dead.’
Distraught and dangerous, Iskander looked from one to the other and back to Grace who broke the impasse. She took control at once. ‘He may not be dead. Move aside. I must see what I can do! Iskander, will you please approach with me?’
Iskander looked over her shoulder and James and Joe knelt on the stairs. Something caught Grace’s attention as she felt for his pulse at wrist and then neck. ‘He’s dead, I’m afraid, but – oh, good gracious! – look there – and there! Mind your feet and do be careful not to disturb anything, will you all?’
She was pointing to a trail of vomit which had oozed from underneath the body and dried on the stairs. Gently she turned the body over and a further gush of vomit flowed from his mouth. Iskander turned pale and looked aside to hide his distress. Silently Grace pointed to the trail which started at the door of Zeman’s room, continued up the stairs and ponded under the body. She resumed her examination, bending limbs, examining eyes, gently feeling his skull.
‘Why is he on the stairs? Where was he going?’ Lily’s voice, wavering and scared, came from above putting the question that had been in everyone’s mind. ‘And don’t tell me to go to my room,’ she added. Joe subconsciously noticed she was already dressed, wearing a brown divided riding skirt and a white blouse.