Scorpion Archipelago October 30th 1997 2pm
He was cold now. Nothing seemed to warm him; not the campfire, the blanket, the tot of whisky or the afternoon sun. An hour before, the thought of a letter from his old acquaintance, the sound of his voice on parchment from beyond the grave, would have made him glow inside.
The others were also in a state of shock, the letter having chilled each of them in different ways. But in all six minds one image was common; that of a horribly emaciated dead body hiding in the ruins of a city in a stagnant forest, issuing a warning none of them understood. In some ways the written words were superfluous; the very discovery was enough of an ill omen, like waking to find a dead magpie on your doorstep.
The youthful eighty year old that had been Professor Sutch just hours before seemed to have gone the way of his friend, Tariq, as if a blanketing doom had smothered him. In the silence he stared into the fire, and then unrolled the parchment again.
‘My dear Professor Sutch, Edward, forgive the rolled-up parchment – old habits die hard, as do old men of the island kingdom. The latter I have discovered to my cost. I am much further along the road to death than I was when I sent you the amphora, a gift that has turned into a curse. How I wish now you were not coming here, though I know you will. That was why I entrusted the amphora to you. I knew I had whetted an appetite that was hungry for knowledge, so you would seek out this place and keep it alive, if only in the history books. I needed someone to be the keeper of the secret, so that it did not die with me; a secret I kept for two hundred and fifty years.
Having talked to you forty years ago of the place that was my home for more than a thousand years before, I felt a sudden longing to see it again before I died. I took a chance, hoping they were dead – the priests. Believing they must have simply lost the will to live in this remote and blasted place. But they are still alive and it seems they have heard my boat. In an attempt to deceive them I set it on a course to the west of here and left the engine running while I slipped overboard and made my way to the shore. But they have followed me. Evil minds are suspicious and not so easily fooled.”
Here the script became ragged, barely legible.
‘Oh, I am wracked with pain. It is as bad as I feared. As you have come so far as to discover my body, a man of your intelligence will know by now that it was not some natural disaster from which I fled all those years ago. I warn you now to leave and beg your forgiveness for my lies. You may ask why I never came back to my home before. I could not. There would have been no forgiveness for me here, only slow death. Besides, there was a world to discover – is it not a strange irony that you had that whole world to explore, but sought only mine.
It is hard to explain why the melancholy of the Southern Ocean lived on in my blood, enough that I should want to die here.
Temple Island is alive – alive with death. You must flee. Pass on the secret of this place when you are ready to come back better prepared. I thank whichever god looks over me that I am about to die, and pray that he will protect you.
What had Pete said, cold but succinct, as the Professor had read the letter to the others? “This Tariq’s not just a linguist, he a good story-teller, ‘cos he’s sure spooked me, whether I believe him or not.” The story would have amazed them all the more, had Sutch not chosen to keep certain details to himself. Luckily no-one had asked to see the letter, or they would have discovered just how much he had held back.
At last Jim broke the silence. “So let me get this straight – there was no cataclysm, no tidal wave, or volcano.”
“No,” said Sutch. “Just before we found Tariq I expressed my doubts to Jane.”
“Well then, what do you think happened to this kingdom?”
“It would be pure speculation, without being able to explore all the other islands. And that’s too big a job for this little party. Too dangerous as well, by the sound of it.”
“I tell you what,” said Catalina, “whatever happened here, you can count on this ‘TempleIsland’ playing a part.” She shuddered and looked around. “Perhaps we’re on TempleIsland now,” she continued, voicing everyone else’s fears. “God, I wonder whether Robbie’s disappearance is tied in with this.”
The day’s various finds had conspired to overshadow the fate of the young Scotsman, but now the mention of his name was like a rumble of thunder, reminding them of the storm clouds overhead.
“My dream has become a nightmare,” said the Professor gloomily, “one I’ve dragged you all into.” There were some half-hearted denials. “How often do we warn to ‘be careful what you wish for, because it might come true’?” Suddenly, he stood up decisively. “I’m going to call for Dirk. We’ll spend this one last night here together and he can come and pick you all up tomorrow.” He could almost feel the relief flooding from the others, except Jane.
“Meaning what, as far as you’re concerned?” she asked
“I’ll stay and continue to search for Robbie on this island, or in case he comes back, while you can organise to return as soon as possible with a bigger team. I won’t rest until we know what became of him and what TempleIsland is all about.”
“Father, don’t be…”
“Enough! I’ve decided. Would you have him return to the camp to find we’ve deserted him?” He stalked away to his tent and Jane knew better than to follow at that moment.
“When we were out on night manoeuvres,” said Cobus, prodding absent-mindedly at the fire, “we used to say there was something duplicitous about a campfire; bright and warm, offering comfort within its circle of light, while it draws in a deeper darkness beyond it; revealing the back of the cave, yet filling it with dancing shadows.”
“Thanks,” said Catalina, “I didn’t believe I’d be able to eat or sleep before you said that, now I know I won’t.”
Jane started to hand out mugs she’d been brewing. “Well, here’s the famous British panacea for all ills, a cup of tea.”
Indeed, that seemed to calm them, to the point where they realised both how ready for food and how exhausted they were. But still, the image of Tariq hovered in the shadows at the margin of the firelight, like Banquo’s ghost, waiting to be offered the spare place where Robbie would have sat. After dinner Cobus said:
“We’ll take it in turns to sit watch, in pairs. We’ve got a positive arsenal in that gun-box there. Anybody thinks they’re gonna come wandering in and helping themselves to…anything tonight is in for an attack of lead poisoning. I’ve been here before – in Zimbabwe, when their army decided they could use a few recruits from their friendly neighbour South Africa, so I’ll be on all night. Who’s gonna take the first watch with me?”
“I will,” said Jim immediately.
“After two hours I’ll wake you, Pete.” He looked at the others with a wry grin, but his comments were still directed at the playboy. “I’m guessing you’re a bit of a night owl.”
“But why should you have to sit up all night?” It was Sutch, who’d returned from his tent, having had a chance to get things straight in his head.
“Sir, I’m the only one who’s shot a gun ‘ere. I mean to kill…people.” He didn’t sound ashamed; it was the reality of a bush war and though the words struck a chill in everyone, the whole team recognised a stark truth – better to have that experience on your side in the silent darkness.
“Sounds like you’re perfectly qualified to me, then,” said Pete. “Boy, I bet that’s the ultimate adrenalin fix.”
The firelight only emphasised the contempt on the faces of Jane and Cobus. The latter now looked at his chronometer. “So Professor, you gonna try Dirk again in the morning?”
“Yes,” replied Sutch in resignation. “I guess I couldn’t really expect him to be sitting by the phone.” The unanswered ringing tone had been one of the loneliest sounds the Professor had heard in a long time.
“Okay everyone;” said Cobus, “let’s try to grab some sleep. We’re armed; we’ve got a fire. The biggest difference of all to last night is that this time we’re ready for any trouble.”
“Yes,” said Jim under his breath, when the others headed to their tents, “but from what?”
Unfortunately the possibility of danger wasn’t enough to keep Jim awake, and he felt himself being shaken.
“Jim?” An urgent whisper from Cobus.
“What?” A sleepy response accompanied by a sudden, guilty jolt into a sitting position. “Shit, sorry.”
“Never mind that now. Look.” He tried focussing his bleary eyes. “You see them?”
Out on the water, towards the eastern arm of the bay, were two faint lights.
“Is that a ship in the distance?” Jim asked rhetorically, and then provided the answer. “Can’t be, eh? The movement isn’t right.”
“Ya, the lights must be much closer to bob like that – it’s not a rough sea.”
Those lights were moving south and would soon be hidden by the arm of the bay. There was no sound that they could pick out above the rush of the tide, but the speed of approach suggested wind or manpower was driving the vessel.
“C’mon,” said Cobus, “let’s not lose them.”
“Let’s wake the others,” said Jim.
“Nah, let ‘em sleep for the moment. We need to move and also, we might scare everyone unnecessarily. Besides, this way we’ve got an element of surprise. If this is trouble coming, it might be scared off if the camp comes to life, with six people stumbling and blundering around. We’ll move faster if we’re just two. No offence mate, but I’m the only one who’s used to this sort of thing, so trust me. Bring your rifle. C’mon.”
“I’ll bet you our friend Pete has done some hunting in his time.”
Cobus looked at Jim. “Ya, but he’s also a prick.”
That was that settled then. They moved cautiously across the shingle towards the softer, quieter ground around the margin of the forest.
“They’re probably wanting to land in the forest and creep up on us through the trees,” said Cobus. He gave Jim a knowing look. “I’m guessing we know what happened to Robbie.”
“Yes,” said Jim. “We just don’t know why.”
The lights, which they had to assume were on a boat, were about to disappear from view. The pair’s way was hindered by roots and low-hanging branches. “C’mon man, we’ve got to hurry,” urged Cobus, breathing hard every two words or so. “If we get to them before they land we can take ‘em out. If they beat us and disappear into this forest, which we’ve got to assume they know well, we’ve got a problem.”
“I’m doing my best,” said Jim, as he slipped on a wet root.
The lights were gone. Cobus and Jim were struggling, their faces and hands covered with cuts from lashing branches. Jim, less sure-footed than his friend, was bleeding and bruised on his knees and shins from countless stumbles. Now they rounded the promontory that marked the end of the bay and ran through the surf.
They were just in time to see the lights reach the shingle by the forest edge a couple of hundred yards or so ahead of them – it might have been much further, but the swaying lights, which seemed to be attached to some sort of mast, hypnotised and confused their eyes. Cobus raised his hand to stop Jim. “Can you see anything?”
“To be honest, Cobus, I can’t even see the boat yet.”
Suddenly Cobus punched his thigh in anger. “Poes!”
Though he didn’t understand the word, its anger was clear enough to Jim. “What’s wrong?”
“There are night vision goggles in the inflatables. I’m such a fuckin’ idiot.” Now the Afrikaner turned his attention back to the lights. “There’s something not right ‘ere. Let’s go. Keep low, and don’t look at the lights; try to see beyond them.”
They ran forward hunched. When they’d covered about three quarters of the distance Cobus raised his hand again. “Stay here and cover my back. I’m gonna see what this is all about.”
Jim watched Cobus’s shape grow indistinct in the starlight, and then, faint but audible, he heard the word “SHIT!” and the Afrikaner was sprinting back across the shingle. “Get back to the camp man, quick! It’s a fuckin’ decoy!”
Cobus bolted past him. Jim turned and followed.
“Man, they’re clever, but I’m stupid. It’s a tiny boat with two storm lanterns fixed to it.”
“How the hell…?”
“They must know the tides here, man. But there’s no way that would have floated all the way across from one of the other islands.” He held his rifle in both hands as he ran and gestured with it now towards the blackness of the sea. “They must have been out there all along. Fuck, I’ve been a doos.”
They hadn’t realised just how far away from the camp they’d come. They shouted as they ran, but the surf and the distance killed their words. As they got closer it looked as if nothing was wrong, but so it had the previous morning.
“Let’s get everybody up and armed,” said Jim. “We need to be on our guard.”
Cobus didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. They both knew that their enemy was skilled and if there intention was to kidnap someone they would already be finished and away.
They were nearly there now and could see that their shouts had, at last, stirred the sleepers. Catalina was the first up. “What’s going on?”
“We saw some lights on the water,” panted Cobus, “but they were a fuckin’ decoy. We thought a boat was coming and went over to where it landed, but it was just a trap. Get the guns.” Sutch and Pete were also up, looking and sounding confused.
“What’s happening?” asked the Professor.
“We’ll tell you in a minute. Open the gun box first…sir, please.”
“Where’s Jane?” They all looked at Jim, who was holding open the flap to her tent.
“She wouldn’t just have wandered off,” said Catalina shakily. “Not tonight.”
The Professor looked ashen-faced. “You’re right,” he said. “She might have defied a thousand curses in her career, but this place – it’s different. It’s got us all scared.” He turned towards the trees. “JANE!”
“Oh my God,” said Cobus, “this is all my fault. If I’d woken all of you as Jim suggested before we went after those lights…”
They peered out across the water towards where they knew the nearest island stood, but could barely make out its bulk.
“Listen,” said Jim, “none of us could guess we’d be up against something like this. Whatever it…” His voice trailed off and he raised his hand. “Hey, I’m not sure, but is that something out there?”
“Where?” asked several voices.
“Wait a minute.” It was Cobus, who ran across to one of the flight boxes and rummaged inside, before returning with a pair of what looked like bulky, hi-tech field glasses. “Night vision glasses,” he said in response to the others’ looks. Then he looked shamefaced. “If I’d remembered the bloody things before, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Spilt milk,” said Pete. Cobus looked at the man. The South African had such respect for the Professor, and so little for the quintessential arrogant English rake, that he’d forgotten the man must be worried about his wife, no matter what domestic issues they might have. Cobus had learnt the maxim during his time in England and was taken aback by Pete’s magnanimity. “You tried to do what was best. Now let’s just find my wife and bring her back.”
Cobus nodded with new-found respect, and then trained the goggles out across the water, screwing up his face as he tried to locate his target. Then his features dropped again and he tensed. “There is something out there. It’s a boat.” There was a murmur of fearful anticipation from the others. “Looks like two people in it. Don’t think either of them’s Jane, but it’s hard to tell. They seem to be heading towards that other island.”
“They must have her,” said Jim. “To have got her away from the camp like that without a sound…how’d they do it? Might have drugged her.”
“Yes,” said Pete, “Rohipnol. Very popular in ancient civilisations.”
Sutch looked at him. “I hardly think this is the time for your cynical wit. My daughter’s missing and…”
Pete turned on him. “My wife, too. Isn’t that a coincidence?” Sutch said nothing, perhaps the wisest move for a number of reasons, amongst them being the fact that he might have questioned his son-in-law’s sudden concern for Jane. Pete held out a hand towards his father-in-law. “The keys to the gun box, as Cobus asked. I’m not sure why we’re all standing around unarmed.”
Cobus looked apologetically at Sutch. “Sorry, Professor, but I think he’s right. While you’re sorting that out, I’ll get the boat ready”
“Hold on,” said Pete, “we can’t just jump into a powered dinghy and chase after these guys. We know nothing about them.” He looked at the Professor and said with less-than-subtle irony: “If they’ve got drugs they may have guns. One hole in the side of our mobile paddling pool and we’ll all be stuffed. And that’s if they decide not to pick us off through a telescopic sight.” He pointed to the shadowy hump of the other island. “And yes, I know we’ve also got guns, but there might be five hundred of them over there. I say we follow, but carefully.”
“By which time my daughter may be dead,” said Sutch. “Or is that your alternative plan?”
Something blazed in Pete’s eyes, even in the lambent glow of the dying campfire. “Maybe it’s yours, so you don’t have to have me as a son-in-law.” There was a nervous gasp from the others at those harshest of words, but Pete wasn’t holding back now. “We don’t know they have Jane – and old man or not, I’ll take you apart if you ever…”
“For God’s sake, stop it!” It was Catalina, whose nerves seemed stretched to the limit by all that was happening.
“Hey everyone,” said Jim, “let’s calm down. Let’s not do their job for them.”
“So are we just going to sit here and let them – whoever they are – pick us off one by one?” asked Sutch rhetorically.
“That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it,” said Pete.
Cobus had stopped in his tracks when the row kicked off, but continued now on his way to the boat, speaking over his shoulder as he went. “I still think we should go now, and we may even have an element of surprise helping us. They’ll be expecting us to be confused, scared; they certainly won’t be expecting pursuit, as they won’t know we’ve seen them.” He pulled the cord that powered the pump on the inflatable. “Also, though I hate to admit it, Pete may be right. If there’s five hundred, or even fifty of them, six of us with rifles are not going to overpower them. So we’ll go carefully, not gung-ho. Do a recce, then decide. Also, I don’t think we should all leave the camp.” Now he came back across to the others, who said nothing, just waited to hear; needing a leader; needing direction. “Who’s to say that isn’t another decoy boat out there – though I don’t think it is.” With what still took him a great effort, Cobus put his hand on Pete’s shoulder – he needed him onside right now. “I must say I admire how you’re managing to think straight under the circumstances.”
Pete looked down and said nothing. The silence that ensued spoke volumes, but nobody was too sure what it was saying. “Like I said,” continued Cobus, “we do have to act now. Jim and I will go.”
“It’s my wife, for fuck’s sake,” spat Pete.
“Ya, sorry man, you’re right. You come with. Jim, you stay back and guard the camp. Apart from anything else, two men in the boat is enough. We’ll be faster.”
“We won’t be if we don’t get moving,” said Pete. He looked long at Jim. “She’s my wife, and none of you know what she means to me.” With that he grabbed a rifle and started pushing the boat out into the surf.
“She’s my daughter, too.” They turned and looked at the Professor. “So you go and bring her back.” The three younger men might have been butting horns like male mountain goats, but amid the huffing, puffing and flying stones and dust they’d all overlooked the fact that he was the only man who commanded Jane’s unequivocal love. But he was old, and in his voice they heard how close he was to being broken.
Quickly Cobus grabbed his pack – something he’d always done instinctively when setting out into the unknown, ever since it had taken a bullet from a rebel sniper and saved his life – and leapt into the boat to start the engine. “Let’s get the bastards.”