Go back to previous chapter
For the rest of the day Adam felt restless, as though there was some thought niggling in his subconscious that wouldn't go away. It didn't help that he had no company to help it. Kieran and Joby didn't surface from their room, Hillyard had gone off to sample the dubious delights of the local whorehouse, and Ransey was in his room catching up on his sleep properly. He saw no sign of Paul and Noni at all, but could only count this as a blessing.
All afternoon he wandered the town like a lost soul, but saw little to cheer him up. On the border with the desert he came across a small graveyard, where wild animals had dug up some of the bones and left them exposed to the sun. All were bleached white, and some of the bones were so recent that one skull even had hair still attached to it.
The cemetery had only one other living visitor, and that was an aged local man, who was methodically arranging whitewashed pebbles in a neat border around a grave.
"You here in Husgalonghi on business?" he asked, when he noticed that Adam was watching him.
"Holiday", Adam replied.
"Ain't much to do here is there?"
"We're thinking of moving on into the jungle very soon".
"Heading anywhere in particular?"
"No, I suppose we'll just see where it takes us".
"I guess so", said the old man "We all feel the need to git off walking sometimes. I think ancient tribes understood that need better 'en us modern fellas do. Trouble is, so many places are out of bounds these days".
"In the jungle you mean?"
"In most places".
"That howling noise", Adam began, cautiously "The one that can be heard at night. What is it?"
"It been disturbing you?" the old man straightened up.
"I'd just like to know what it is".
"There ain't no need for you to know".
"But if it's some kind of wild animal ..."
"It's in the jungle. As long as you avoid the Mundaba Heights, you ain't got no need to fret".
"But what is it? And what are the Mundaba Heights?"
"Clearly marked on any map, so there ain't no excuse for you to go there".
"But what's the noise?"
The old man walked past him and out of the cemetery, as though the conversation had never taken place. Feeling more frustrated than ever, Adam went back to the hotel and brought up every local map he could find. He then ate dinner alone in the hotel restaurant, which was a very depressing affair. Half the food on the menu wasn't available (Adam doubted if it ever had been), and he ended up pushing a piece of grilled chicken around his plate in a lethargic fashion. The heavy silence in the room was only broken by the occasional mumbling voice, and the whirr of the brass fans overhead.
He had excitedly located the Mundaba Heights on the map, but otherwise it told him nothing of what was there. On his way out of the dining-room he paused in reception and asked if they had any local guide-books for sale. He was greeted by upheld palms and a shrugging of shoulders. He went back to his room in a resigned way, and spent the rest of the night being plagued by the howling noise.
By morning he was sick of the sight of his room, and decided to go downstairs for breakfast. He was overjoyed when he got there to find Joby sitting at a table near the door, eating kidneys and scrambled eggs as though he'd never seen food before.
"Has Patsy kicked you out then?" said Adam, sitting down opposite him.
"What have you been up to?" Joby exclaimed "We thought you might pop in and see us last night".
"Oh come on! I could hardly disturb the love-birds on their wedding night".
"Don't be daft. We'd finished by then".
"Joby, you have such a wonderfully blunt way of putting things", Adam signalled a waiter over and ordered a pot of coffee.
"We were gonna come looking for you, but we were both too knackered".
"I see, that good eh?"
"Heat more than anything. I don't know who it was who started spreading the myth that sex is sensational in hot countries, but he can't ever have tried it in the middle of the afternoon, with the temperature at forty degrees".
"I hope something actually did happen after all my efforts yesterday?"
"Course it did", Joby smiled.
"Well?!" Adam exclaimed, after a long pause.
"It was out of this world", said Joby, with noticeable satisfaction.
Adam let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
"We were both so soaked in sweat after a while though that we kept sliding about all over the place", said Joby.
"You didn't have a little reprise later?"
"Both too shattered".
"Patsy's been alright about everything hasn't he?"
"Yea. After he'd made me give him a detailed account of everything you and me did! I'm surprised he didn't start counting up kisses".
"Where is he now then?"
"He'll be down in a minute. Said he couldn't stand watching me eat breakfast. Said I reminded him of the vampires when I'm eating sometimes, which I think was a bit cruel".
Adam poured out a cup of coffee and held it up as a toast.
"Here's to Patsy", he said, and Joby clicked his cup in return.
Kieran appeared soon after, with Ransey in tow.
"I'll be glad to get out of here", said Ransey, after ordering a breakfast large enough to feed an army "I can't stand anymore of that howling noise. I keep waking up and thinking I've left a dog chained up outside".
"That wasn't a dog", said Kieran "It sounds larger to me".
"Oh God", Joby muttered "The Ghost of Christmas Past!"
Hillyard had appeared, wearing an overcoat over his naked body. He looked exhausted, and the coat was covered in stains. Some dubious-looking and of varying vintage.
"Hillyard", said Adam "What are you doing wearing an overcoat in this weather?"
"Some bastard's swiped all my clothes", said Hillyard "This was all I could find to wear".
"All of them?"
"Yea. He must have taken the ones I'd worn to the brothel, found my room-key in my trouser pocket, and come back here and got the rest of 'em. I'd kill him if I could remember who it was".
"Did he take anything else?"
"I didn't have anything else! But every bit of clothing I had has gone, even my underpants".
"Ugh!" said Joby "If Hillyard's underpants are at large, shouldn't we warn everyone else so that they can get their vaccinations?"
"People'll pinch anything these days", said Kieran.
"I'll give you some money out of the kitty later", said Adam "Then you can pop down to the outfitters and get yourself sorted out".
"How much are you going to give him?" said Joby, looking mutinous.
"Enough", Adam replied "We can't have him roaming around like that for the rest of the trip, it's not hygienic for one thing".
"It's his own fault", said Joby "Going into places like that in the first place".
"Take no notice Hillyard", said Adam "Sit down and have some breakfast. If Joby goes all puritanical on you, I shall tell you what he's been up to lately".
"Oh yea, what's that?"
"You bastards!" Paul electrified them all by suddenly appearing, and looking hysterically angry "I hope you're bloody well pleased with yourselves".
"What's happened?" asked Kieran.
"It's Noni", said Paul, tears rolling down his cheeks "He's dead".
An hour later they all sat in a row on hard chairs in the office of the Town Constable, and listened to the details of Noni's undoubted murder being read out. By the end of it no one felt at all comfortable. Paul was calm though, having been fed copious amounts of brandy by Kieran before they left the hotel. Hillyard, feeling more conspicuous than ever in his overcoat, had to give a formal statement. There was a strong likelihood that he, apart from the murderer, had been one of the last people to see Noni alive.
"I didn't speak to him all evening", he recalled "I just saw him about occasionally, around the brothel".
"There was a party on at the brothel last night, it was very crowded", said the Constable "And yet you had no trouble noticing him, even though you never spoke to him?"
"You always noticed Noni", said Hillyard, quietly "He stood out in a crowd".
"Did you notice anything about him in particular last night?"
"Only that I was surprised he didn't seem to be having much luck. He seemed to be drinking quite heavily though. I would've gone over to him myself but ... well to be honest I thought he looked like trouble. And ... and I was there to enjoy myself".
"And yet someone did show an interest in him eventually, is that not so?"
"I didn't see much of that. I'd had a bit to drink myself, stuff that was a bit ropey I think. I nipped out the back at one point to get some fresh air. As I came in through the back door I noticed Noni and this other bloke walking upstairs together. The other bloke was a real stunner, I was surprised I hadn't noticed him before. You can imagine what a pair they made!"
"We need to know more than that he was a real stunner", said the Constable.
"He was tall", said Hillyard "Well-built. Fair hair, but not really really fair like Kieran's, more a sort of strawberry blonde. I didn't get much of a look at his face, because I only caught his profile. At first I wondered if he worked for the house, because he was wearing some kind of exotic costume. Very tight silk trousers, a scarf tied round his midriff, but no top. He was bare-chested".
"But you don't think he did work for the house?"
"No", said Hillyard "Quite frankly I thought he was too classy for them. Their tarts were almost as ropey as their booze".
"Would you say this beautiful stranger was fit and strong?"
"Looked it, as far as I could see. Very taut body, as though he got plenty of exercise".
"That's important", said the Constable "Because whoever did this revolting thing would have had to have been strong enough to hold the deceased down with one hand, whilst inserting the murder weapon with the other. And the deceased himself was fairly tall and fit".
"Noni was very hot about all that", Paul blurted out "Said he'd seen too many actors on the boards run to fat".
"Quite", said the Constable "So his murderer would have had to have been stronger than him. Would you say this stranger was an athlete perhaps?"
"No I don't think so", said Hillyard "More a dancer. There was something about the way he moved. I can't describe it, but I think if he was anything he was a dancer".
"That all ties in. The fitness and the physical strength would all be there", the Constable sighed, and stared out of the window for a moment "We've had murders in Husgalonghi before. We've had sex crimes here before. But nothing quite so ... so depraved as this. Whoever did this rammed in the bottle so hard that the glass splintered, and Noni died of massive internal bleeding in his rectal passage. Whoever did this must have been consumed with some kind of savage hate".
"Nobody hated Noni", said Ransey "He drove all of us mad at times, but not enough to do that!"
"Quite so", said Adam "I'd had words with him several times over the past few days. In fact we came to blows at one point".
"Did you give him the bruised lip?"
"Yes, that was me. The last time I saw him was yesterday lunchtime. I'm afraid I have no witnesses as to what I was up to last night, because after I'd had dinner I went to my room, and I stayed there alone".
"How did Noni seem to you when you last saw him?"
"Very down. Melancholic", said Adam "He was lonely, and I couldn't ... wouldn't help him anymore".
"Did he get aggressive, abusive?"
"No, not at all. Just very down. Resigned to being miserable".
"What did you have these frequent quarrels about?"
"We'd had a one-night stand in Lixix", Adam sighed "Noni wanted to take it further. I didn't. Noni couldn't seem to accept that. I'd started to feel hounded by him. But I could never have ... not that. Never!"
They talked for a further twenty minutes. Noni's last few hours were poured over in detail. Adam told the Constable about the man fitting the "dancer's" description that he had seen at the casino when Noni was still there, although Paul couldn't remember seeing him. All in all it was a thoroughly depressing conversation, and Kieran had already formed the conclusion that the killer would never be caught, simply because the killer wasn't human. He was beyond law and order.
When everyone stood up and trooped out of the room at the end, Kieran hung back. He waited until the others were all out of earshot before speaking to the Constable.
"Can you help on this matter then?" said the Constable.
"I take it you have a local witch-doctor around here?" Kieran gabbled hurriedly, going for broke "I need advice".
"I'm a stranger in these parts. I don't think I can catch Noni's murderer for you, but I may be able to locate the source of the trouble. But I need help".
"I can arrange a meeting for you, although ..."
"Although officially it will never happen", said Kieran "I understand".
A meeting was arranged for within the hour. It was one of those rare but special times when Kieran actually saw an advantage in being the Vanquisher of Evil. He could get things done. He knew he just about had time to go back to the hotel and change into something respectable.
In his room he dug out the only pair of long trousers that he had brought with him, and put them on along with a clean shirt. He knew it was imperative that he showed this man respect, even if he did turn out to be a charlatan. He would still have power and influence in this area that Kieran couldn't match.
"Why can't I come with you?" said Joby, sitting in the window.
"Because it's important I show this man I trust him", said Kieran "And I can only do that by turning up alone".
"I should stop you going".
"And just how are you going to do that, you daft eejut! You're getting too damn bossy. Just 'cos you're my lover now doesn't make you my wife", Kieran put on his heavy silver crucifix.
"They might not like you swanning around in that".
"Tough", Kieran kissed Joby lightly on the ear "I'll meet you in the bar at Happy Hour".
Kieran followed the Constable's instructions, and located one of the witch-doctor's hidey-holes in a small, cramped room at the back of the casino. The room was windowless and smokey, hung with beaded curtains, bleached skulls and the odd ornamental machete or two. Kieran got the measure of the place quick. This room was for the benefit of the locals and the gullible tourists.
"I know what you're thinking", came a voice as rich as molasses "But every guy has to earn a living. Doesn't instantly make me a phoney".
"No I agree", said Kieran, peering through the gloom "After all my religion has a long and established reputation for getting money out of the public. Toe-nail clippings of venerated saints, weeping statues, the vial containing the blood of Christ that's really pig's blood, all that kind of thing".
Kieran walked beyond a beaded curtain, and found himself in a small alcove. Ebuali, the witch-doctor, was sitting at a table covered in a green velvet cloth. There was an oil-lamp hanging from the low ceiling directly overhead, a pack of Tarot cards and a mummified eagle's claw rested on the tablecloth. Kieran couldn't help thinking that it all looked like the sitting-room of a Victorian spiritualist. Only instead of some daft old biddy in a moth-eaten frock, he was facing a rather striking-looking individual. Ebuali's head was completely hairless, and his eyes were obscured by a pair of rimless tinted spectacles. He wore a snakeskin jacket directly next to his naked torso.
"I have visited the scene of the crime", said Ebuali, motioning Kieran to sit down "Not a very pretty sight I can assure you".
"Did you sense anything?"
"I saw the creature that did it. The elemental. He was standing in a corner of the room, watching me".
"Did anyone else see it?"
"No. Doubtless you wonder why this had to happen to Noni?"
"I know why. As far as Gabriel was concerned he'd overstepped his duties. He'd fallen in love with Adam".
"You know all about Gabriel?"
"I know his general biography, and that he's out to kill me".
"You took a grave risk walking here alone".
"I need you to tell me what I can do to stop him. Not just from killing me, but from doing this to anyone else. I know Gabriel didn't murder Noni himself, but his paw-marks are all over it. He organised it. A sick retribution from a very mixed-up man".
"Gabriel will soon be coming out this way", said Ebuali "He has a residence at the Mundaba Heights. He goes there for a specific reason. That is where he gains his power, his supernatural energy source. He comes out here every six months to re-charge".
"Is that where he learnt those formidable powers of his?"
"He is an intelligent man, willing to learn. And in case you're wondering, it was not I who taught him. I have genuine powers it is true. There are many phoney witch-doctors around, ones who know how to poison a person so that their corpse bursts after death and all the locals think it is demonic vengeance. Ones who claim to be able to raise the dead. There is a great fear of that in these parts. That is why I am often called to the body of a newly-deceased person to hack off their head and feet, so that the corpse cannot walk again. I am genuine. But I do not have Gabriel's powers. About four years ago he disappeared into the jungle alone, and was missing for five weeks. It caused great consternation in the City. It was believed he'd been kidnapped by rebel brigands, but no ransom note was ever forthcoming. When he finally returned he had changed. He was a spectral creature, an emaciated, lifeless version of how he used to be. Many here thought he was a bokor, a zombie".
"He's never said what happened to him there?"
"No, but every six months, as regular as clockwork, he charts an air-buggy and flies back to the Mundaba Heights, where he stays for about a month".
"So do you advise I follow him there, is that? Confront him face-to-face, destroy him?"
"You may or you may not. But if you refuse you can be assured that he will destroy you eventually", Ebuali picked the top Tarot card from the pack and turned it over. Somehow Kieran knew it would be the Death card, the grinning skeleton riding a white horse "There will be an attempt on your life before the day is out".
"Will I survive it intact?"
"That is up to you entirely. The spirits can only warn and advise. No one's fate is ever sealed for certainty, unless they are cursed that is".
"And has Gabriel cursed me?"
"He is afraid to. The power of a curse is a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways. If you curse someone, and choose your victim unwisely, they can bounce the curse back at you, and its power will have increased threefold in transition. Gabriel was safe in cursing Noni. The actor was very weak, he had no mental strength to return the curse. But he is uncertain of you".
"I see. The people with me, are they safe?"
"Simply because they are with you, it makes them vulnerable".
"So perhaps it's best if I go to the Mundaba Heights alone?"
"If you do that, you will be powerless against Gabriel. It is their love which is giving you strength and protecting you. It is a vicious circle. You need them, but by being with you they are at risk".
"A bloody rotten situation".
Ebuali picked up the claw and shook it twice in Kieran's direction, like a priest blessing a coffin.
"What was that in aid of?" Kieran asked.
"I am blessing you, and I wish to give you some of my strength. Come here".
Kieran walked nervously around the table, until he was standing directly in front of Ebuali. The witch-doctor indicated for him to kneel on the ground. Kieran hesitated, but such was the power of the man at close quarters that he obeyed. Ebuali leaned forward and pressed his hands on either side of Kieran's head.
At first Kieran felt nothing, but then Ebuali's fingertips pressed with greater urgency until Kieran began to feel that the man was trying to crack his skull like a walnut. The feeling of panic slowly passed, and was replaced by such a feeling of complete and utter peace that Kieran practically floated, as though he was suspended in a vacuum tank. It was the kind of exquisite feeling he got after good sex, a feeling of utter weightlessness, as though he could glow with contentment.
"You must have the calmness and serenity deep down of a trappist monk", said Kieran, rising to his feet afterwards.
Ebuali threw back his head and laughed.
"It is inner strength", he said "And it can be used for good or bad. Both are highly effective".
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site