The Ghoul Archipelago: A Post Apocalyptic Thriller by Stephen Kozeniewski

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Enjoy a sneak peek inside The Ghoul Archipelago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

PART I:  BLACK CLOUDS

 
1.  JIM
 
Jim had never been so eager to burn a person before.
 
Shall I fire the body?”
 
He stood, torch in hand, waiting on the riverboat captain’s decision.  They had tied the boat off a few hundred meters upstream, just past the tributary that led west, into Patusan’s jungle primeval.  The boat’s captain, Charles Marlow, crouched over the bloated corpse of the islander they had noted from the boat, and stopped in order to examine.
 
“Hmm?” was all Jim got by way of a reply.
 
Perhaps taking liberties (but, then again, perhaps not), Jim put his hand on Marlow’s shoulder and tried to press him to stand.
 
“Captain Charles, you not lean so close,” Jim said, “there dysentery and malaria to contend with.  And worse things.  Bodies not for such close examining.  For burning.”
 
Sighing heavily, Marlow stood, brushing Jim’s hand off his shoulder as though it were a mosquito or a speck of bird shit.
 
“It’s really not the disease which worries me, Jim,” Marlow breathed, “take a gander over yonder.”
 
Jim followed the invisible line of Marlow’s finger to the corpse’s neck.  Jim had never been one to be queasy, but neither was he overly fond of the mutilated dead.  He had up until now not closely examined the body, certainly not as closely as Marlow had been examining it, for what seemed like an eternity now. 
 
The woman had at some point tripped and put her eye out on a low, sharp tree branch.  She laid there, still, torso and legs flat, but head and shoulders propped up a few dozen centimeters off the ground.  Jim had seen no cause to look for further means of death.  Marlow had, and so it seemed, as usual, the captain was right. 
 
The islander’s neck was unusual in that it was little more than exposed bloody meat.  Thorns lay embedded in odd places throughout, and most of the skin had been stripped off. 
 
She got her throat caught in the underbrush,” Jim said, “and then a vine ripped a chunk of it away.”
 
Marlow had already wandered off as Jim was speaking.  Hurrying, but not so fast that his torch would extinguish, Jim went after his boss.  The Englishman seemed to be looking for something.
 
I say, do tell me, Jim, if you were to get caught on a thorn right now, do you think that you would continue walking?”
 
“No,” Jim said, “I extricate it.  Sloooowly.”
 
Jim dragged the last word out to three and a half syllables to indicate exactly how slowly he meant.  Marlow nodded.
 
“You certainly wouldn’t keep walking until it ripped a chunk of your arm out,” Marlow said, “or, God forbid, your throat.”
 
Although he didn’t need to, Jim shook his head.  Marlow whirled on the man, clearly eager to make his point.  He reached up and scarcely glancing at it, plucked a chunk of pink, maggoty flesh from a tanglevine.
 
“And supposing you did all this, that, and the rest,” he said, “would you then proceed to walk a few yards more, until you…”
 
Marlow slammed his fist into his other palm, to indicate, presumably, impaling one’s eye on a tree branch.  The poor dead woman’s neck flopped in his hand as he did so, splitting nearly in half.  Seeming to notice the gruesome bit of viscera for the first time, Marlow let the throat skin slip from his fingers to the ground, and rubbed his hands together to get the bugs and bits of grime and blood off.
 
“I saw dog once,” Jim said, “a mangy animal, yellow, with big spots rubbed out of his fur, walking through the streets of Manila with foam on his mouth.  I not think to notice such an animal, but he, ah, walked along the cobblestones with his ear to the ground.  The whole left side of his face rubbed off, all just muscles and protruding bone, and a sightless eye rotating in its socket.”
 
“Rabies,” Marlow guessed.
 
Jim nodded.  A twig snapped behind his head and Marlow’s hand went instinctively to his hip.  He slowly, but forcibly, undid the button on his brown leather holster. 
 
“I dislike these woods,” Marlow said. “If I didn’t know any better, and I was a bit of a superstitious man, I might swear we were being watched.”
 
Jim nodded.
 
“There no settlements here,” the Filipino said. “The jungle said haunted in these parts.  No one comes here.”
 
“She came here,” Marlow said, cocking his head towards the corpse, “so that’s quite evidently not the case.  Unless you should think she’s a specter and not a real corpse, eh?”
 
Jim held his tongue this time.  He had already made his point about the rabid dog.  Far sadder was the tale of a person afflicted by some disease that wasted away the mind.  Jim had always been taught to respect his elders, but he had seen far too many whose brains had turned to goat cheese, who began calling him “Bill” or not recognizing him at all.
 
Let’s make our way back to the boat, shall we?” Marlow said, not taking his eyes off the wood line behind Jim.
 
No doubt it was his imagination, but Jim was sure there were shadows all around, watching them.  He proffered the torch to the riverboat captain again.
 
“What about the corpse?” Jim asked.
 
Marlow eyed it with rather visible distaste.
 
Yes.  Well.  Leave it for the gulls, I should think,” Marlow said. “As it so happens, I’m worried about my own corpse right this very instant.”
 
Without turning around or drawing his pistol, Marlow walked backwards towards the boat.  Jim joined him, almost reflexively turning his back in the same direction that Marlow had his.  He thought better of it, though; figuring at least one of them should be looking in the direction they were actually travelling.  He put another libertine hand on Marlow’s shoulder and led the suspicious white man all the way back to the boat, his torch the only pinprick of light in the dark.
 
Jim refused to breathe again until the boat was motoring down the river and the dead woman was out of sight.
 
“I thought I might have heard it said somewhere that it was not the custom to bury the dead on Patusan,” Marlow said, once the cool night air and thin spray of river mist had calmed their nerves.
 
“No,” Jim agreed, “but neither is it to leave the dead for the birds.  Now, in Persia, I hear it done…”
 
“So, it’s cremation that’s the custom here, then,” Marlow concluded, cutting him off. “That might go some way towards explaining why you were so eager with that firebrand.”
 
Jim nodded, and almost as an afterthought, tossed the torch into the water.  It sizzled where the oily end struck the water, and sank with a thunk even before the boat was out of earshot.  Marlow’s eyes were twinkling with a sort of perverse glee.
 
“I say, Jim,” he said, lowering his voice for no particular reason, “is it true what they say?  That the locals in this island chain also burn the sick before they die?”
 
Jim cast his eyes down on the water.
 
When he lifted them again, he said, “True that they say that.”
 
Might be that the locals have convinced themselves that it may just be safer that way,” Marlow mused. “In order to ward off the spread of malaria and the like.”
 
“And the like,” Jim agreed.
 
It was almost midnight before they came upon the burned-out skeleton of the old wooden mission.  Marlow slowed the boat to a crawl and kicked Jim until he woke.  It was his first trip downriver, but it was not Jim’s, so Jim was serving as a guide of sorts.
 
Jim, old boy, gather your wits about you.  What is that?” the white man asked.
 
Bleary, rubbing the oh-so-precious little bit of sleep out of his eyes, but not betraying his tiredness in his voice, Jim replied, “That the old Christian mission.  Pastor Coughlin abandoned it six months ago when it burnt down.”
 
“During a funeral service, no doubt,” Marlow said.
 
Jim shook his head.
 
“I don’t think so,” he said, “the Bugis claim it was the Malays, and the Malays claim it was the Bugis.  But all agree it was arson.  Only one was killed: a woman.”
 
Was she a missionary?”
 
Jim nodded.
 
“Sad.  They said she beautiful.”
 
Well, where is the preacher now?  Not dead as well, I trust?”
 
“He moved on to Hippo.”
 
Marlow snorted.
 
Hippo.  The only island darker and more remote from the eye of civilization than this one,” Marlow said. “Didn’t he consider the challenge of bringing Christ to Patusan to be big enough?”
 
Jim shrugged.
 
“He had few enough followers here.  The white woman’s widower.  Hardly any natives.  Perhaps he thought Hippo be more fertile ground.”
 
I suppose it’s as likely as not that he’s bought the farm by now,” Marlow said. “Crushed in a wrestling match with some great bear of a Hippoan, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Or perhaps they took his head.  Then again, if there’s irony in the world, perhaps they nailed him to a tree to be quite like his savior.”
 
“We move on now,” Jim said, stifling a yawn even though everything in him wanted to let it out, “village will still bustle at dawn, but fishers all empty out shortly afterward.”
 
“Well, the good Lord knows I should prefer not to spend a whole day waiting.  Here, take the wheel, won’t you, Jim?  There’s a good lad.”
 
Jim did as he was told while Marlow plopped down in Jim’s newly vacated space.  The watery moon was full and bright enough that Marlow threw a coolie hat over his face to ward off the light. 
 
The path from Allang to the fishing village was almost as direct as one could hope for.  Except for the tributary the day before, and a few other false starts here and there that quickly dead-ended, all Jim had to do was follow the course of the main river.  Now, in the blackness, all he did was ensure that he stayed between the wall of trees, which reached almost out to the bank on either side.  Jim navigated on, mesmerized by the black water and the moon reflected in it, his only navigational beacon.
 
Once, later that night, as dawn was approaching and the ethereal blackness was turning to violet and navy, Jim heard a splash over his shoulder.  He idled the riverboat, turned off the engine, and walked aft to peer into the water.
 
…Is it?” Marlow muttered groggily, not bothering to remove the straw hat from his face.
 
“I think we lost a box,” Jim said.
 
Marlow was awake and at his side in the blink of an eye, scanning the water.  It was no use; neither of them could see anything in the muddy stream in the brightness of noon, let alone at night.
 
“Are you quite certain?” Marlow asked.
 
“I heard splash,” Jim said, “big splash.”
 
The riverboat was small, and aside from a few provisions for its two-man crew, it was stacked stem-to-stern with cardboard boxes marked “SDM.”  A small rug, rolled up like a crepe, was tucked neatly between two crates. 
 
Ah, damn it all to Hell.  Bergeron will have my ass for breakfast if I’ve lost one of his oh-so-precious boxes.”
 
Running his left hand through his closely cropped hair, Marlow counted the remaining boxes with the index finger of his right.  He snorted.
 
Blimey, I should say you’ve cracked, Jim,” the Englishman said, “they’re all here.”
 
“I swear I hear something fall into the water,” Jim replied weakly.
 
“Perhaps it was a rock or a coconut,” Marlow said, “or a vixen.  Or one of those damned jungle cats.”
 
Jim shook his head, saying, “I thought it bigger.”
 
“Get some shuteye, Jim.  I’ll take the wheel for the duration.”
 
Jim tried, but found he couldn’t sleep.  The oppressive shades of dead men and half-faced dogs seemed to peer at him from the riverbanks when he kept his eyes open.  The dead woman with a tree limb through her eye and her throat ripped out, gazed at him balefully every time he closed his eyes.
 
He was trapped in a trance halfway between slumber and wakefulness when they finally reached the fishing village.  A crude arrow shaft landed in between Jim’s legs, thankfully missing him by a few centimeters.  That jolted him awake.
 
“Good God, they’ve gone daffy!” Marlow shouted, clutching at his sidearm and dropping to the deck, “Hail them, Jim!  Hail them!”
 
Jim did as he was told.  Another volley of arrows sprinkled the water as he was shouting.  One even planted itself in one of the cardboard SDM boxes.  Jim kept shouting until the arrows stopped.
 
“You’re not pink?” One of the attackers cried out from the shore, the wariness in his voice obvious even to Jim across the language barrier.
 
“What are they asking, my boy?” Marlow demanded.
 
Jim shrugged.
 
“They want to know if we pink.  Does it mean anything to you?”
 
Marlow couldn’t have looked more confused if Jim had asked to fuck his mother in a third hole specifically drilled into her head for the purpose.
 
“No, we not pink!” Jim responded in the Malay-Buginese argot, common to the Curien islands, “We not even know what that means.”
 
Silence.  Then, the twittering of discussion, too indistinct for Jim to make out the specific arguments.
 
A new voice cried out, “Come on in.  Toss your weapons in the drink first.”
 
Marlow’s eyes narrowed when Jim translated that for him.  He unbuttoned his holster and slipped the weapon under a chair cushion.  He grabbed a wrench from the toolkit and tossed it over the side, then nodded to Jim.
 
“Just the captain’s sidearm!” Jim called out, “It’s gone now.”
 
“Come on in.”
 
Jim had never seen the normally carefree Marlow bring the boat to shore so cautiously.  They beached it in the mud and tied it off for good measure.  A hundred of the villagers had gathered to greet them, most with bows, clubs, slings, and mauls, even the women and children.  These were a terrified, molested people.
 
My good people, we have come,” Marlow said, undeterred, “bearing a gift from Mr. Bergeron.”
 
When Jim translated that, the villagers became extremely excited.  Tears flowed readily, as did embraces and discussion of what the gift might be.  One of the village elders, a tall, dark-skinned man with his beard tucked into his belt stepped forward. 
 
We are very hungry,” the elder said, “we would welcome any aid in our time of need.”
 
Jim watched Marlow’s face as he repeated the words back in English.  Marlow’s jovial façade didn’t crack at all.
 
“Tell him…” Marlow had to think for a moment, “…Tell him it’s quite a bit better than food.”
 
Marlow’s proxied words were greeted with stony silence.  Some of the women, with babes in their arms, left, shaking their heads in disgust.  Undeterred, Marlow jumped out of the riverboat and up to his knees in the soft brown mud of the shoreline.  He didn’t have to say anything for Jim to know to begin unloading the boxes.  The first box splashed down in the mud. 
 
“Careful, Jim,” Marlow barely muttered, “we don’t want to add any real boxes to your casualty column along with that phantom box you lost.”
 
The man was an ass, but Jim had worked for worse.
 
“Captain Charles,” Jim said deferentially, as he held out the rug to his boss.
 
Marlow nodded thanks.  He was perhaps as miserly in his praise as he was effusive in his normal speech.  The villagers eyed the Englishman warily as he plodded through the mud towards them.  He unfurled the rug on the ground, just where the mud dried out to packed clay, and knelt down on it.  He patted the rug until the village elder with the flowing beard knelt down across from him.  A few others joined them; including what Marlow assumed was the elder’s wife or concubine.
 
Anyone fancy a belt of gin?” Marlow asked, holding out his iron flask to the old man.
 
The elder asked Jim if it was alcohol, to which Jim nodded.  Nevertheless, he took the flask and took a sip.  Nodding in approval, the elder passed it on to one of the others, notably not to his wife first.
 
“Well, what have we here?” Marlow asked, smiling, and pointing at a boy who for all he knew, was not the child of his negotiating partner.
 
The boy was armed, as half the village seemed to be, though his weapon was a bit odd.  It had once been a baseball bat, but a poorly trained carpenter had permanently ruined its aerodynamics by pounding two long, squared-off nails perpendicularly through the sweet spot.
 
“A handsome young lad, to be certain,” Marlow said. “May I see your cudgel for just the briefest of moments, my boy?”
 
Marlow held out his hand until a nod from the boy’s mother caused him to hand over the batreluctantly.  He turned it over, admiring it.
 
“I played a bit of cricket in my youth, though I was certainly never the team captain or high scorer, or any such nonsense,” Marlow said, and by that time, Jim had come to hang back slightly and translate.  He was not welcome to kneel on the mat with his captain.
 
“Why have you come here?” the village elder asked.
 
Thoughtlessly, Marlow handed the ruined bat to Jim, instead of the boy it actually belonged to.  Neither protested.
 
“Jim, translate this word for word, won’t you, dear boy?”
 
“I always, Captain Charles.”
 
“Well, do it especially so in this instance.  Tell them (and this is where you should start translating rather exactly) tell them that we come bearing gifts, but more importantly, we come bearing Mr. Bergeron’s goodwill.  He wants the people of this village, and all the Curienese islands, for that matter, to know that he is their true and faithful friend.  Friends to the end.  And so, will you take my hand in friendship?”
 
Marlow extended his hand, his fingers pointing skywards like the legs of a dead spider, and offered it to the bearded man.  A shocked gasp emerged from more than one of the villagers.  Jim’s eyes widened, as did Marlow’s.  Marlow was a bit of a clod, but he had followed the protocols exactly.  Jim had vetted their every action with both Bergeron’s CFO and the locals back in Allang, to make sure everything would be kosher, from Marlow laying down the rug to offering his hand.
 
The elder, though, looked as if Marlow had just offered to trade a fruit fly for his daughter.  Marlow looked back to Jim for help, but Jim had none to offer.  He had watched him do everything correctly.
 
Finally, the bearded man cut through the shocked silence.
 
“That…that is not for me to decide.”
 
The old man turned to the woman Jim had thought to be his wife or lover, the mother of the child Marlow had stolen the bat from.  She had been sitting there quietly, taking the measure of Marlow as he had jabbered on and on with the man he had assumed was the elder.  She spoke now, her tone measured, slow, and assured.  Without exception, every man in the assembly hung his head in shame.
 
“Tell me what she said, Jim,” Marlow said, “and don’t sugarcoat a word of it.”
 
“She say she mother of this town.”
 
“Matriarch?”
 
Jim shrugged.
 
“She say the people of Patusan stop listening to men a hundred years ago, because of their foolish behavior.  Not sure what she refers to.  She say even the men of her village prove her point now, drinking alcohol and putting on airs.  And she say she most especially done with white men and their empty promises.”
 
“Is she speaking of myself or Mr. Bergeron?”
 
As usual, Jim shrugged.
 
The village mother began speaking again.
 
“She say the village starving.  Besieged.  Um…excommunicated?  Losing faith, maybe.  Marauders sailing under pink sails terrorize them.”
 
“Pink sails?”
 
“That’s what she said.  Same as before, when I hailing them.  But the pink sails not the worst.  There also…pugots.  Not sure what you call them in English.  They live in empty houses and eat children.”
 
Marlow furrowed his brow.
 
“The boogey man?”
 
Jim shrugged.  A wry smile slowly crept across Marlow’s face.
 
“The Bugi boogey man.”
 
The woman did not seem amused by Marlow’s jovial attitude.  She began speaking again.
 
“Oh.”
 
“What is it, Jim?”
 
Jim sighed deeply.  He hated this part most about being a translator.  Sometimes you just couldn’t iron out the cultural differences and still tell the truth.  He didn’t believe every word had to be perfect.  For instance, he had failed to tell Marlow how many times they had referred to him as something along the lines of an “infidel bastard.” 
 
“She says the white missionaries knew they starving and under attack,” Jim said. “Sonntag brought baseball instead of real help.  So they glad his church burned down.  I think she saying she did it.” 
 
Marlow’s smile didn’t fade, but he answered Jim through clenched teeth. 
 
“What’s the sign of highest respect for these people?”
 
After a moment’s reflection, Jim said, Tuan.”
 
The villagers leaned forward, recognizing the word.
 
Tuan,” Marlow said, testing the word with his tongue, but pronouncing it terribly, “Have you been calling her Tuan, Jim?”
 
“No…”
 
“Has she been calling you Tuan, Jim?”
 
Tuan Jim,” the man Jim had taken for an elder said, jostling his men, “Tuan Jim.”
 
The men snickered while the matriarch looked on.  She had all the appearance of someone who knew a great deal more about what was going on than she should have.  Under her withering glare, the men stopping laughing.
 
“All right, Jim, call the Mother Superior here Tuan, and ask her if she knows what this is.”
 
Standing, Marlow slipped a razor blade out of his pocket, causing the men to gasp.  The village matriarch held out her hands, to hold the gathered assemblage back from doing anything rash.  Marlow gingerly held the blade so they could see it glimmering in the rising sun, and waited until they were satisfied he had no ill intent, before cutting the packing tape off one of the boxes marked “SDM.” 
 
“I give you…” Marlow started to say.
 
A bullet cut short Marlow’s sentence, scissoring through his thigh and sending him sprawling on the ground.  The box tipped over with him, sending half the payload tumbling into the river and its muddy bank.  The village men were running, pummeling Marlow’s expensive rug into the mud.  The village mother was instantly yelling at them, cursing them for cowards, and ordering them to return and defend the children.
 
Jim tumbled back towards the boat.  His neck swiveled to and fro, from the still placid river to the now chaotic village.  Not knowing where the shots were coming from, he faced forward and stepped inelegantly backward, brandishing his misappropriated baseball bat.
 
“Jim!” Marlow shrieked, holding out one bloody hand toward him, while clutching his wounded thigh with the other.
 
“Get behind the boxes, Captain Charles!” Jim whispered breathlessly, pointing towards the weak, corrugated barrier.
 
Marlow dug into the mud with both hands and pulled himself forward; leaving behind a trail of blood, as he painstakingly dragged himself behind the boxes.  Stray bullets dug divots into the muck around Marlow, every third or fourth one making him duck his head, as though he could get it any lower.
 
Jim felt a tug at his khaki shorts as he tried to throw himself over the side of the boat.
 
Tuan Jim!  Tuan Jim!”
 
The child was standing there, pointing woefully at the baseball bat Jim had all but stolen from him.
 
“Here,” Jim said, handing the bat back to the child, stem-first, “no, wait.  Hold on.”
 
Jim picked the boy up and placed him, squealing, into the boat before hopping in himself.  He worried his hand under a chair cushion and fished around, cursing himself in equal parts for having this damn foolish idea and for possibly blowing his finger off executing it.
 
“Your whole damn life wasn’t worth the coin I paid your mother that night,” his father (if that was the right word) had told him on the one occasion they had met.
 
Now he heard his “father” speaking in his head, telling him the child’s life wasn’t worth a bullet in the hand, and the whole damn village wasn’t worth feeding his corpse to the fish for.
 
“Found it,” Jim said, finally producing the pistol and pressing it into the wide-eyed child’s hands, “Here.  Take it.  Take.  Even trade.”
 
Jim was sure he was speaking Curienese pidgin, but the child still looked absolutely nonplussed.  Jim all but tossed him over the side of the boat before the child ran off, his eyes alternating between the oversized peashooter in his tiny palm and the path before him.
 
“Jim!”
 
It was more a moan than a word.  Jim had to look to the steering wheel.  He simply had to.  The key was still there.  It would be the easiest thing in the world to leave the clownish white man behind.  The boat was riddled with bullet holes already, and it wasn’t as though theirs had been the first excursion to this village.
 
He had to look at the wheel, even had to wait for a cartridge to pass through one side of the boat and leave an exit wound in the other. 
 
“Jim?”
 
Sadder.  Quieter, that time.  Jim took a deep breath, held it.  He stood full up.  For the first time, he spotted the attackers.  A dhow crept up the river, silhouetted by the rising sun, which, not incidentally, provided it with excellent cover from being viewed from shore.  The dhow was spattered with the bright magenta tincture so common to Patusan and the other Curiens. 
 
“Pink sails,” Jim whispered.
 
A tiny little wisp of a man, shorter even than Jim at maybe a meter and a third, stood with one foot on the prow of the boat, grinning widely and shouting in Curienese at his men.  Jim’s eyes locked with the short man’s for a moment, but by the time the little man could point at Jim and order his men to open fire, Jim had jumped back to shore, putting the riverboat between him and the pirates.  It was thin cover, only slightly better than the cardboard boxes Marlow was hiding behind, but at least it obscured their view of him.
 
“We have to go, Captain Charles,” Jim said, kneeling down and throwing the wounded man’s arms over his neck like a sash.
 
“The boat,” Marlow whispered, his breath hot and rusty on Jim’s face.
 
Jim simply shook his head.  Marlow sagged visibly, though Jim couldn’t be sure whether it was the thought of losing his boat, losing his life, or being yet another captain who had to report failure back to Bergeron.  Bergeron had summarily dismissed every sailor who had failed to make the delivery to the fishing village from his service.  There had been at least six, and the denizens of the fishing village had chased each one off.
 
I don’t suppose you think we could grab the collars before we go?” Marlow asked wistfully.
 
Jim didn’t even bother to glance over the wall of cardboard at the box which had tipped over.  He knew a few of the metal collars still poked out of the mud, gleaming in the first rays of morning, and, not incidentally, presenting a magnificent target to the cherry-colored pirates.  Some of the muddy collars might be recovered; the ones which had tipped into the drink were already ruined.  In any case, they wouldn’t be able to take any with them.  All the boxes would become part of the pirate chieftain’s prize.
 
Jim knitted Marlow’s fingers together so that they resembled a praying man’s.  He didn’t particularly care for this method of transport, but he refused to drop his only form of protection, the bat, in order to execute a more graceful fireman’s carry.  He took off into the wood line, dragging Marlow behind him with the man’s arms wrapped firmly around his neck.  Jim had never felt so much like a plow horse.
 
“We’re leaving a fortune behind on that beach,” Marlow mused, about as close directly into Jim’s ear as anyone but a lover had ever spoken, “Bergeron will have our guts for garters, not a doubt in my mind.”
 
A bullet pulverized the mud just behind Marlow’s wounded leg, jarring it and causing him to wince.
 
“Shall I leave you with it, then, Captain Charles?”
 
Marlow didn’t really have to shake his head, but he did anyway.  The trek wasn’t as difficult as Jim had feared.  For one thing, the villagers, finally rallied by their town mother, had taken to the riverbank to fight the pirates, which took some of the heat off the escaping interlopers.  For another thing, Marlow’s legs weren’t completely useless, and he continually scissored his good leg to keep Jim moving forward.
 
Even so, they were scarcely a kilometer into the brush before Jim had to stop for a breather.
 
“You’re stronger than you look, Jim,” Marlow said. “You really ought to leave me.”
 
Jim said nothing.
 
“Would we ever make it all the way back to Allang like this?”
 
“No,” Jim replied.
 
“We might wait out the battle and then reclaim our boat,” Marlow said, “if it’s still there.  If not, we shall have to beg the villagers for help, I should think.”
 
Jim pretended he was still too busy catching his breath to respond. 
 
They both heard it at the same time.  A sudden crack, sharp like gunfire, but distinctly different.
 
“I shouldn’t be surprised if that will be your boogey man, then, Jim,” Marlow said, trying to chuckle, but he had lost too much blood to do so adequately.
 
The pugot, if indeed that’s what it was, was rustling in the underbrush, as though it were caught on a wad of tanglevine.  Jim’s thoughts unconsciously flashed back to the fat woman with the stick impaled through her eye. 
 
“I’ll go flush it out,” Jim said, gently unlocking Marlow’s bloodless fingers from one another and setting his diminishing body up against a tree trunk.
 
“I say, Jim,” Marlow called after him as he stalked up to the pugot in the underbrush, “why did you trade away the gun?  You could have simply shot it.”
 
Jim considered asking whether Marlow wanted to give away their position, but from the way he was shouting, Jim already knew the answer.  Instead, he put his finger to his lips.  Thankfully, silence fell.  Jim swung the bat underhand through the scrub where the creature had been rustling.  Jim spotted a flash of red fur as the animal darted away into the jungle.  So it had been a vixen after all.
 
“Jim!”
 
Suddenly, Jim felt a great weight slam home over his head, clocking him in the crown.  That wasn’t the worst of it, though, because he was suffocating before he really knew what was going on.  He dropped the bat to scrabble at his face, but found his way blocked by hard glass. 
 
“What’s the matter, don’t like your new helmet, you little shit?” someone whispered behind him in Curienese.
 
Jim scrabbled at the glass jar, and began trying to pull it off his face.  He dropped to his knees, all the lost air sucking the fight out of him.  He could scarcely think, as panic made his heart flutter, but he had enough of his wits about him to recall that some muggers in Manila had used plastic bags to knock their marks unconscious.  He had never heard of using a glass jar before, but the Curiens were a world unto themselves when it came to crime and all else.
 
A sense of calm took him as he realized that he was breathing his last.  The world seemed all in slow motion.  He glanced over to where he had left Marlow.  The man was gone, though a trail of blood led off into the jungle.  He turned in the other direction.  His heart was beating loud in his head, slowing.
 
A man stumbled through his field of vision, as black cigarette burns speckled his whole field of view.  The man had a beard tucked into his belt.  Jim had once mistaken him for the town elder.  All of his entrails crept out through his beard and trailed behind him on the ground.  Yet he walked on. The town elder, or whatever he really was, was shuffling like the victim of a terrible stroke.  One pirate stood before the man, goading him forward like a matador.  As the matador distracted the disemboweled old man, another pirate snuck up from behind, jammed a glass jar down over his head, and tightened the mouth of the jar around its neck with a metal sealing bolt.  This was the first time Jim realized what, precisely, was suffocating him.
 
He tried one last time to take a deep breath, even attempting to break the air seal around his neck with his fingers.  It was no use.  The metal was just too tight, although he took a couple of good chunks out of his neck with his fingernails.  All he got was a lungful of spent air from the inside of the jar.  He’d be dead in just an instant, he knew.
 
The bat wavered before him on the ground.  His hand seemed to emerge from nowhere to pick it up.  It swung well wide of the jar over his head the first time.  Before the bat, seemingly of its own volition, swung again, another apparition stepped into his field of view.  It was the child this time, the one who had taken Marlow’s gun, a gun which it still clutched in its otherwise dead, rigorous fingers.
 
The child had a jar over its head as well.  Its body was riddled with bullets.  Its mouth was wide open, and it was more or less giving the inside of its jar a lengthy, saliva-free Roman kiss.  The boy was obviously dead, but still walking. 
 
Pugot,” Jim mouthed breathlessly.
 
He didn’t really feel the bat as it was plucked out of his fingers, but that was more a function ofthe loss of sensation in his digits than anything else.
 
“Hey,” someone said behind him in Curien pidgin, “this one’s not dead.”
 
Something slammed into the side of Jim’s head and he thought he felt the glass shatter before he passed out. 
 

 

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