The first murders were committed nineteen years before the second, on a dry and unremarkable day along the Sutlej Frontier in Punjab.
It was beastly hot weather, as Juniper remarked to Captain Lysander out on the veranda of the officers’ mess, fit for little more than an odd gin and tonic, perhaps the lazy composition of a letter home. The flies, maddening creatures that had never learned to take no for an answer, crowded around the nets that blocked the porch, searching for a way in. "I would trade a hand to be back in London," Lysander said to Juniper after a long pause. "At least they have the decency to bar these flies from coming into the city there."
The battalion was on edge, because a recent retaliatory raid on a local village had turned bloody. Suspicion and rumor abounded. The officers, with a few exceptions, had long ceased to attend to their charges’ morale. Though all the Englishmen in Punjab lived well, with villas and servants to themselves, every one of them at that uneasy moment would have made the trade Lysander proposed.
"Well," said Juniper. "I may go look around and have a bit of a shoot with Jim."
"Were you planning that?"
"Where do you reckon you’ll go?"
"That little patch of scrub east of here. Doubt we’ll find anything worth a bullet. Maybe a darkie or two, looking for trouble."
Lysander smiled grimly. "Past that little grove of banyan trees, then?"
"Curious today, aren’t you?"
In another place this might have sounded rude, but being white was a great equalizer in that country, and these men were too intimate to maintain entirely the ceremonies of respect and rank that defined the British.
"Always on the lookout for a decent bit of shooting, you know," responded Lysander, sipping his gin and tonic. He was a trim, forceful, savvy-looking man. "D’you know why they give us so much tonic, young pup?"
"Has quinine in it. Prevents malaria."
"I suppose I did know that, actually."
"They must’ve told you in training."
"Yes," said Juniper, nodding agreeably.
"Just past that grove of banyan trees, then?" There was a slight, casual persistence in Lysander’s voice. "Ever shot anything edible there?"
"Not to speak of. There are a few birds, not much on the ground. It’s poor sport."
"So’s this whole country."
"Any more inspirational speech before I leave?"
"On your way."
Juniper stood up. "I’m sure I’ll see you for cocktails."
But he wouldn’t, and the other man knew it.
When Juniper had gone out of sight, Lysander leapt out of his chair and walked briskly up a small dirt path that led from the mess to his villa. The captain’s batman, his assistant and a lance corporal, was on the porch, whittling an Indian charm to send back to his mother. He had been working on it for weeks.
"Best go do it now," Lysander said. "He’s off with Juniper. Both of them, would you? They’re hunting, out east, in that scrub."
"Yes, sir," said the batman, standing. Here rank still meant something.
"Do your best to make it look like an accident, obviously."
Lysander paused. "By the way, that treasure?"
"There’s talk of a society. Don’t know what it’s to be called yet, and it will be for officers alone."
"But if you do right by us, we’ll do right by you."
"Thank you, sir."
The batman ran off, and Lysander called to one of the servants, a fair Indian lad, swathed in brilliant pink and pale blue that contrasted with the dull beige of the landscape and the military man’s uniform. The boy with some sullenness came forward.
"That box," Lysander barked. "Bring it to me. And it’s worth your life to open it before it gets here."
A moment later he was holding the box, and, when certain he was alone, he opened it to reveal a massive, pristine, and beautiful sapphire.
As he snapped the box shut and had it taken away, Juniper and his friend Jim emerged from the latter’s house, guns broken over their arms, both wearing beige, broad-brimmed hats to keep the dying sun off of their necks and faces. They had a bantering style of conversation that sounded as if it had been picked up from a thousand other conversations before. It was clear how much closer they were than Juniper and Lysander.
"A farthing says you’ll never eat what you shoot," Juniper said with a laugh.
"A farthing? I’ve played higher stakes than that with women."
"That serving girl of mine you like, then."
"What do I have to eat?"
"First thing either of us shoots."
"What if it’s the dirt?"
"Bet’s a bet."
"How much dirt would I have to eat?"
"Nice haunch of it."
"Farthing for the first meat, let’s go back to that. Don’t shoot anything too horrible."
"I’m insulted you’d suggest it."
It was a little more than a mile outside of camp, away from Lahore—and that city’s dangers, which these two men knew all too well—that they found a decent patch of land. It had a few bushes and trees scattered around it. They didn’t have a dog, but Juniper shot into the undergrowth and drove a few birds out into the open, where the two men had a clear look at them.
They observed the birds fluttering, partially obscured, soon to be dead. Ruminatively, Juniper said, "What do you miss most? About England?"
His interlocutor thought it over. "I wish I hadn’t left it so badly with my family, you know. I miss them."
"I do, too."
"Only six months, I suppose."
Then both men heard a scratching emerge from the under-growth that lay off to their side.
A shot. The fall of a body. Another shot. The fall of a body. A lone figure, Lysander’s batman, rose from his hidden spot and ran off full bore back west. And then a long, long silence, in the empty land that stretched blank as far as the eye could see, in every direction, forty-five hundred miles away from Piccadilly Circus.
Excerpted from The September Society by Charles Finch
Copyright © 2008 by Charles Finch
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Minotaur
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher