the trees they were walking through, though giving a bit of shade, made it even hotter.
wilkinson wanted a drink.
margrave needed a drink.
mercer was on the verge of weeping for want of a drink. however, as the assistant manager of the main plantation, and de facto manager since the murder of hawkins, it was up to him to escort the man from the colonial office, who had arrived to investigate the crime, around the plantation and the settlement.
despite their differences, wilkinson, margrave and mercer had been united in hoping the colonial office fellow would regard his mission as a formality, and quickly retire with them to the relative cool of the bar at the hotel.
but ashley, the man sent from cairo, was having none of it. right keen, he was, and determined to "get to the bottom" of the matter.
he insisted on being led to the spot where the body of hawkins had been found.
the spot mercer led him to was quite indistinguishable from the rest of the path and the wood around it.
ashley looked around. "so, this is where the body was found?"
"close enough," mercer answered, after a slight hesitation.
"close enough, eh?" ashley snorted. he looked the sweating mercer up and down like a colonel inspecting a private on parade. "but it was you who discovered him, was it not?"
"one of the boys discovered him. he came to me. i was the first white man to see him."
"so far as you know you were the first white man to see him."
mercer winced. behind him margrave and wilkinson rolled their eyes. "what is that
supposed to mean?" mercer asked.
"what does it mean? it means that if he had been shot by a white man, that white man would have been the last to see him, would he not?"
"he wasn't shot by a white man. he was shot by a native."
"you know that, do you? how do you know that?"
good god, was this son of a bitch a bloody barrister as well as a sniveling bureaucrat? "it's what the natives do," mercer answered gamely. "besides, none of us had any reason to kill him. why would any of us want to do him in?"
"why, why does anybody do anybody in? an argument over money, a woman, perhaps - "
"there are no white women here , " margrave interjected.
ashley just laughed at this. "i am aware of that."
"surely you don't expect a chap to kill another over a native woman," wilkinson put in.
"expect has nothing to do with it, " ashley answered impatiently. "i am just trying to find the facts."
"but surely you have never seen such a thing?" wilkinson. "a chap killing a chap over a black woman?"
"have i seen it? why, yes, as a matter of fact i have, all over the empire. over black women, black boys, over great strapping blackfellows who could beat a tiger with a riding crop." ashley looked up at the almost white sky, which was beating down hotter than ever through the trees.
"look here, this is enough of this palaver." he turned away from mercer and fixed his gaze on wilkinson. "you are acting chief of police, are you not?"
"why, yes, but i am not actually a policeman, you know. the bailiwick is hardly big enough for a real force. somebody has to have the title, and i stepped up."
"no need to get your back up, old chap, i understand how things are done in these places. it is what i deal with. i just have a few questions, if you don't mind. i will be as happy as you to get them over with and get out of this sun. "
wilkinson stiffened. "fire away."
"you are sure the fellow was shot?"
"i know a bullet wound when i see one. "
"no doubt. but no bullet was recovered?"
wilkinson hesitated. "no."
"was one searched for?"
"none was found."
"as i thought. and no bullet was found in the body?"
"he had been shot clean through."
"was an autopsy performed? "
"doctor wilson had a look at him."
"and he determined what?"
"why, he determined that he had been shot and that he was dead as a dog."
"of course. of course." ashley sighed. "look here, i want a thorough search made here for the bullet. within a radius of a thousand yards of the spot i am standing on."
" but - " wilkinson hesitated.
"it has been over a week," margrave put in. "anything could have happened to the bullet - if there was one - in that time."
'if there was one?" ashley replied. "i thought we had established that there was. and what could have happened to it?"
"why, a native could have picked it up. you wouldn't believe what scavengers they are. or a wild dog. or the ants."
"ants? what use would ants have for a shell casing?"
"who knows what an ant wants? any more than what a native wants?"
"we have some bully ants here," wilkinson added. "they can drag away the carcass of a rhino. they wouldn't have any trouble with a bullet."
"and have you ever seen these ants drag away the carcass of a rhino?"
"not myself, no, but i've heard tales -"
"i am sure. enough of this. have the area searched. as soon as possible. it will be one thing done and out of the way. we can proceed from there."
"but, look here," mercer put in. "we can tell the boys to search, but unless we stand over them the whole time they won't really do anything. in fact, they are as likely to hide the bullet, out of spite, if they do find it."
"well then, stand over them, captain jenks, stand over them when ready, if that is what it takes. or get down on your hands and knees and search yourself. "
"what is the point?" margrave was close to losing his temper. "we know he was shot. what will finding the bloody bullet do?"
"the bullet might be matched with a particular gun."
"oh come, that's all mumbo jumbo."
"hardly. in any case, it's regulation mumbo jumbo. his majesty's regulation mumbo jumbo."
suddenly all the fight went out of wilkinson and margrave. the two of them, and mercer, who had no fight in him to begin with, looked down at the dust, surrendering to the man from cairo.
the sun had reached its zenith.
"so you will have the search done this afternoon?"
"yes," wilkinson muttered.
"excellent. with any luck we will spared the nuisance of digging up the poor chap."
they all nodded. "i need a drink," margrave declared.
"of course, " ashley agreed. "of course. i could use a glass of club soda myself. with ice. you do have ice, do you not?"
"yes, we have ice, " wilkinson answered. "we are not completely uncivilized."