Strange Gods

A Mystery

Annamaria Alfieri

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1.

 

They never went out in the dark because of the animals. But if she was ever to escape the boredom of life confined to the mission compound, tonight determination had to win out over terror.

So, well before first light, she left her bedroom. The things she would need were packed and waiting for her in the Kikuyu village.

She went barefoot through the back door of the house and into the kitchen yard. Once outside she slipped on her boots and tried to step lightly. She stole past the mission office and the school. The moonlight was dim, but adequate. Her eyes were good.

All she wanted was a bit of adventure. To go on safari. She resented being kept at home while her brother, Otis, was allowed to go. She was nearly six years older, yet he had already gone more times than she. The Newlands had invited her as well as Otis, but her mother had refused to allow her leave. Her mother, who tried to control every minute of her time. Well, tomorrow morning she would tell Mr. and Mrs. Newland that Mother had changed her mind. By the time her parents discovered what she had done, they would have no way to bring her back.

It was juvenile of her to be doing this. She was a grown woman, nearly twenty. But she would never have the chance to be an actual grownup, to make her own decisions. British rules of maidenhood did not allow for that.

Otis was already at the Newland farm, set to go off into the wilderness in the morning. After much cajoling, he had agreed to help her slip away and join the safari party. “We will leave at dawn,” he had said before he went. “I will ask Mr. Newland to take us near the Kikuyu village, but you will have to be there and ready by six.”

“That’s easy enough.”

“What will you say if they catch you?”

“I will go beforehand and put my rucksack and my rifle in Wangari’s hut. That way, if they see me up in the night, they will not suspect the truth.”

“Okay,” he said, grave faced. “That’s a good plan.” She loved it that he pretended to be a man. He was such a serious boy.

The chill of the wee hours made her wish for the jacket that was already at the bottom of her pack. She scanned the shadows for the slightest movement as she crossed the bare packed earth of the mission grounds, listening with her ears, with her skin, for any sound of danger. Hippos might have come up from the river to graze. They were deadly but not quiet. The cats were silent but unlikely to be hunting here now. They came often to look for water in the dry season, but not after the long rains, when the land was moist and the water holes all round about were full.

Stupidly she thought of Tolliver. Whenever she moved from one place to another her thoughts always went to him, as if her bones and her blood vessels wanted her to move only in his direction, wherever else she was going. Tolliver, though, would never approve of her defying her parents. He was a proper Englishman. Men like him never expected a good girl to do anything but what she was told, even when she was an adult in every other way.

The moonlight threw a weak shadow beneath the thorn tree growing in the sward that separated the stone hospital from the grass and wattle school. A rustling in the underbrush halted her steps and her breath. She was between the river and whatever that was in the shadows near the chapel. If it was a hippo, it might kill her with one snap of its powerful jaws just for blocking its way back to the water. Suddenly the night was full of sound. As many cicadas as there were stars, singing out near the hospital privies. The chilling cry of hyenas behind her, beyond the coffee groves. And then the long, deep, hollow vibration of a lion’s roar that sounded as if it came from the core of the earth. The cat’s night song did not frighten her. They made that noise when they mated. She thought of Justin Tolliver again but pushed her mind away from the mating call in her own blood.

She stole toward the stable, with her eyes to her right where the rustling in the undergrowth had come from. When she heard nothing, she ran flat out until she came to the veranda of the hospital. The windows of the building were dark. Not even a candle burned in the wards. She slipped into the gloom at the near-side stone wall, panting a bit, more from fear than from running. She breathed deeply to calm her nerves. The noise of something moving came again, nearer now. She was about to back away to try to get inside the building before the animal reached her when she saw a person carrying a lantern, approaching around the far corner. It could only be Otis, come back to help her. But why would he bring the lamp? She held her breath not to shout and scold him.

She crept in his direction.

The figure carrying the lantern became clear.

Vera gasped. “Mother!”

“Vera?”

“I— I—”

“Go to your room and stop this nonsense.”

“But, Mother…”

“Immediately.”

There was no disobeying her mother when she used that tone.

*   *   *

While, in the dark of night, Vera McIntosh returned to her bed, where she consoled herself with fantasies that involved kissing Justin Tolliver, the young man who was the object of her infatuation stood in the half-wrecked bar of the Masonic Hotel in Nairobi, his hands in the air and two revolvers aimed at his heart. His own weapon was still in the holster at his side. This was a tight spot where an assistant superintendent of police should never find himself, not even a neophyte like him. How he got here was as easy to explain as it was humiliating and exasperating.

His superior officer—District Superintendent of Police Jodrell—was off on home leave in England, making Tolliver answerable directly to Britain’s top man in this sector—District Commissioner Cranford.

When Tolliver was called to the hotel to take control of two drunken Europeans who were tearing up the place, he brought with him a squad of his best askaris—African policemen who could be counted on to be brave and dutiful, including the best of the lot, Kwai Libazo.

But as they jogged at doubletime through the unpaved streets of the ramshackle young town, carrying flaming torches to light their way, Tolliver knew he was in danger of incurring D.C. Cranford’s wrath. He was about to make the unforgivable mistake of using African policemen against Europeans. Cranford had the strongest opinions of such matters. So Tolliver had left his squad outside the corrugated iron and wood hotel and entered the bar alone. Unfortunately, he had failed to draw his pistol before he did so. Perhaps if he had not been exhausted from doing double work for days now, including fighting a fire last night in an Indian shop on Victoria Street, or if he had cared less about what Cranford thought and more about his own skin, he would not have let these louts get the advantage of him. As it was, he was completely at their mercy, unless the askaris outside came to his aid. But why would they if they had no idea how muddle-headed he had been?

“You are being damned fools,” he said with more bravado than his predicament warranted. “If you interfere with a police officer in the execution of his duty, you are risking many years of hard imprisonment. If you hurt me, you will be up before a firing squad.”

“Bloody hell, we will,” the bigger man said with a laugh. “Listen, you puppy, on the count of three you are turning tail outta here or you’ll be picking lead outta your legs.”

Tolliver gave them what he hoped looked like a careless, indulgent smile. “I am not leaving without putting the two of you under arrest. If you come with me peacefully, I’ll not charge you with resisting.” He took a quick step forward thinking that it might intimidate them.

The smaller of the two, a red-haired bloke with a vicious sneer, jammed his pistol into Tolliver’s stomach and said, “Stop right there or it’s the graveyard for you.”

“If you shoot me, you will be joining me there,” Tolliver said. He thought to add that the sound of a shot from inside the bar would bring in the squadron of policemen he had left guarding the entrance. But it suddenly occurred to him that all he had to do was get one of these drunks to fire a shot—not at him—but at something. Help would storm into the room forthwith.

He raised his hands higher and pulled himself up to his full height, so that he towered over the sly, little man. “How do I know that gun is loaded?” he asked.

“Easy,” his assailant said. “See that whiskey bottle on the shelf?”

“Certainly,” Tolliver said, as nonchalantly as he could. It was impossible to miss since it was the only one still standing. All the others, along with just about anything breakable in the bar, had been smashed to pieces before Tolliver arrived and lay littering the floor.

The man turned his pistol away from Tolliver and without taking aim, shot the top off the bottle. His big companion looked away to see the result, and in a flash Tolliver had his pistol out and leveled at them.

In two heartbeats, Kwai Libazo was smashing through the door, his rifle at the ready.

“That was some excellent shooting,” Tolliver said as he relieved the bigger man of his weapon.

The other askaris were piling into the room.

“Libazo, handcuff these men and march them to the station.” Tolliver knew when he gave that order that Cranford would disapprove. But he’d already almost gotten himself killed trying to appease Cranford, with his British ideas about keeping the natives in their place. Given the choice between death and the D.C.’s disfavor, he would take the latter, no matter how displeasing it would be.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Annamaria Alfieri