Black fruit hung in the branches that arched the dirt track, hung in the shadow of the sun. Red dust mushroomed from the bare feet of the African children as they tore towards the car, a stampede of wildebeest. Horace was unconcerned in the leather passenger seat, his thin moustache twitching mischievously in the wind. He wrote the first memo:
“Rewire the lift buttons. First floor becomes second floor and so forth. Rewire the display panel above the doors in accordance.”
Horace fixed his bowler hat firmly to his head. The black children’s panting was harder now but he did not listen. Next memo:
“Procure a dog turd from the street; put in a paper bag. Simply untraceable! The swimming pool attendant will be bamboozled.”
Pale fingertips pressed the cool metal bumper, but their thin charcoal legs struggled to keep pace in the reflection. A boy of six was trampled, a heap of rags shrinking into the distance. Memo no. 3:
“Aunt Ethel’s sewing kit. Unpick the hotel motif from the guest towels. Stitch an offensive word in situ. Towel circulation will cause an uproar.”
Horace sniggered. It was a young girl from the tribe that had gotten hold of the roof mechanics of the convertible, her nails only an inch or so from Horace’s white face. Memo no. 4:
“Ladybirds. A touch of class. Put near the buffet and encourage to be airborne.”
The girl reached out for a clump of hair beneath the rim of the hat. Horace turned to witness a set of pearl teeth baring on her sweaty grotesque face. Nuisance! Stabbing with a pocketknife, the girl was gone. Memo no. 4:
“Pepper and raw onion in the air vents. The old colonel in the smoking room will be sneezing and sobbing and shaking the black letters off his broadsheet. Top-notch!”
Horace felt a tug at his shirt collar. Foreign words echoed in his ears. Two African boys sat on the boot as the car slowed to turn, a rusty machete in one of their hands. Horace swung his ivory walking stick and the sharp turn propelled them off, back into the plumes of red smoke. No. 5:
“Pornographic magazines in the sauna.”
Horace told the driver to step on it, as an arrow breezed past his ear. Dabbing a handkerchief, crimson fluid soaked into the silk. Just a nick! No. 6:
“Itching powder in the bed sheets. Romance a servant girl, Horace, and yield a key to the laundry room!”
A vine tightened around Horace’s neck. The bowler hat tumbled from its crown of luxurious hair and rolled into red dust. Beat the drum. Beat. Beat. A torrent of branches beat a body from the driver’s seat. Horace thought only of the hotel reception adorned with fixed brass plaques and immovable marble pillars, as black fruit was stuffed into mouth. Black, because, in the shadow of the sun, it had hung too long.
Into the jungle…
‘Here, where the branches are snapped,’ said the old colonel, ‘It happened here.’ The sleeves of his khaki suit were rolled up and buttoned down. With an authoritative twitch, his bushy moustache interrogated the markings in the dirt track. Who would have the brass balls to question his answers?
Julian wrote the findings on his clipboard. “Snapped branches. Loc. 56 23.” The old colonel rested on his good knee and stroked the soil. ‘A struggle. And pips.’ Julian frowned, the pencil paused, ‘Pips?’ The old colonel rose unsteady to his muddy boots. ‘Pips,’ he grumbled. Julian wrote, “Pips.”
On his ivory walking stick the old colonel walked deeper into the jungle, the red dusty path vanishing. At each pace he found another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and behind him his faithful assistant Julian scribbled it down. ‘Do you see, boy, the bark. Look how it’s torn.’ Julian rubbed the wound on the tree then smelt the tips of his fingers. ‘A spear,’ the old colonel clarified, his wrinkled face suddenly upon Julian’s shoulder, startling him. Julian wrote it down.
‘Aha! Over here,’ and the old colonel dashed to a clearing, hunched but surprisingly sprightly. Julian followed, his pencil still pressed to his clipboard, ready for the next note.
Panning his hand around a section of the ground, the old colonel said, ‘The butchering happened here. There is blood on that rock and, see, a clump of hair in the scrub.’ He let the monocle drop from his eye. ‘Just there,’ the old colonel reconfirmed to Julian, waiting impatiently for it to be written down. Julian wrote it down. Only then did the old colonel fix his monocle back onto his eye and continue to survey the area.
‘That’s it, boy. Best head back to camp and take stock.’ Julian clipped his pencil to his clipboard and followed the colonel, retracing their steps out of the jungle.
At a log, just before the red dusty path, the old colonel turned to Julian and said rather gruffly, ‘Fancy a fuck?’ Julian replied, ‘No.’
Back at the hotel…
A pigeon landed on the reception desk with a note tied to its foot. Julian brought it to the old colonel’s room at once on a silver tray.
‘Ah, dear boy, bring it to me,’ said the old colonel, propping himself up in bed with a pillow, ribboned medals dangling from the breast of his pyjama top. With a finger he instructed Julian to open the venetian blinds, which he did, nudging the window a crack to rid the room of cigar smoke.
‘Just as I thought,’ the old colonel stated proudly, ‘Horace’s body was found in a village not three kilometres from here. Well, parts of it at least.’ Folding the note up and placing it on the mahogany bedside table, he employed his finger once more. Julian brought him breakfast on a larger silver tray.
‘You know, dear boy,’ the old colonel announced whilst munching a sausage on a fork, ‘the Boer War taught me a thing or two about tracking. Hogs, lions and, of course, the man.’ Wagging his meaty fork, he went on, ‘Every footprint has its own narrative. Just like reading a book, my dear.’ There was a twinkle in the old colonel’s eye. ‘My sweet love.’
Julian collected the laundry and took his leave, choosing not to see the old colonel’s stiff red penis, the bed covers thrown back to expose a lack of pyjama bottoms. The laundry required a rewash as the old colonel had suffered terrible itching, underwear bringing his crumpled skin out in a ferocious rash.
And the fruit in the bowl on the bedside table, it soon grew a dark shade of mahogany. A reddish black.