Author: P Hana

Page 176


“Did ye have blood to protect you, or stones? I wouldna think ye’d the nerve for blood—but maybe I’m wrong. For surely ye’re stronger than I thought, to have done it three times, and lived through it.”

“Blood?” I shook my head, confused. “No. Nothing. I told you—I…went. That’s all.” Then I remembered the night she had gone through the stones in 1968; the blaze of fire on Craigh na Dun, and the twisted, blackened shape in the center of that fire. “Greg Edgars,” I said. The name of her first husband. “You didn’t just kill him because he found you and tried to stop you, did you? He was—”

“The blood, aye.” She was watching me, intent. “I didna think it could be done at all, the crossing—not without the blood.” She sounded faintly amazed. “The auld ones—they always used the blood. That and the fire. They built great wicker cages, filled wi’ their captives, and set them alight in the circles. I thought that was how they opened the passage.”

My hands and my lips felt cold, and I picked up the cup to warm them. Where in the name of God was Jamie?

“And ye didna use stones, either?”

I shook my head. “What stones?”

She looked at me for a moment, debating whether to tell me. Her little pink tongue flicked over her lip, and then she nodded, deciding. With a small grunt, she heaved herself up from the chair and went toward the great hearth at the far end of the room, beckoning me to follow.

She knelt, with surprising grace for one of her figure, and pressed a greenish stone set into the mantelpiece, a foot or so above the hearth. It moved slightly, and there was a soft click! as one of the hearth slates rose smoothly out of its mortared setting.

“Spring mechanism,” Geilie explained, lifting the slate carefully and setting it aside. “A Danish fellow named Leiven from St. Croix made it for me.”

She reached into the cavity beneath and drew out a wooden box, about a foot long. There were pale brown stains on the smooth wood, and it looked swollen and split, as though it had been immersed in seawater at some time. I bit my lip hard at its appearance, and hoped my face didn’t give anything away. If I had had any doubts about Ian being here, they had vanished—for here, unless I was very much mistaken, was the silkies’ treasure. Fortunately, Geilie wasn’t looking at me, but at the box.

“I learned about the stones from an Indian—not a red Indian, a Hindoo from Calcutta,” she explained. “He came to me, looking for thornapple, and he told me about how to make medicines from the gemstones.”

I looked over my shoulder for Jamie, but there was no sign of him. Where the hell was he? Had he found Ian, somewhere on the plantation?

“Ye can get the powdered stones from a London apothecary,” she was saying, frowning slightly as she pushed at the sliding lid. “But they’re mostly poor quality, and the bhasmas doesn’t work so well. Best to have a stone at least of the second quality—what they call a nagina stone. That’s a goodish-sized stone that’s been polished. A stone of the first quality is faceted, and unflawed for preference, but most folk canna afford to burn those to ash. The ashes of the stone are the bhasmas,” she explained, turning to look up at me. “That’s what ye use in the medicines. Here, can ye pry this damn thing loose? It’s been spoilt in seawater, and the locking bit swells whenever the weather’s damp—which it is all the time, this season of the year,” she added, making a face over her shoulder at the clouds rolling in over the bay, far below.

She thrust the box into my hands and rose heavily to her feet, grunting with the effort.

It was a Chinese puzzle-box, I saw; a fairly simple one, with a small sliding panel that unlocked the main lid. The problem was that the smaller panel had swollen, sticking in its slot.

“It’s bad luck to break one,” Geilie observed, watching my attempts. “Else I’d just smash the thing and be done with it. Here, maybe this will help.” She produced a small mother-of-pearl penknife from the recesses of her gown and handed it to me, then went to the window ledge and rang another of her silver bells.

I pried gently upward with the blade of the knife. I felt it catch in the wood, and wiggled it gingerly. Little by little, the small rectangle of wood edged out of its place, until I could get hold of it between thumb and forefinger and pull it all the way loose.

“There you go,” I said, handing her back the box with some reluctance. It felt heavy, and there was an unmistakable metallic chinking as I tilted it.

“Thanks.” As she took it, the black servingmaid came in through the far door. Geilie turned to order the girl to bring a tray of fresh tarts, and I saw that she had slipped the box between the folds of her skirts, hiding it.

“Nosy creatures,” she said, frowning toward the departing maid’s back as the girl passed through the door. “One of the difficulties wi’ slaves; it’s hard to have secrets.” She put the box on the table, and pushed at the top; with a small, sharp skreek! of protest, the lid slid back.

She reached into the box and drew out her closed hand. She smiled mischievously at me, saying, “Little Jackie Horner sat in the corner, eating her Christmas pie. She put in her thumb, and pulled out a plum”—she opened her hand with a flourish—“and said ‘What a good girl am I!’”

I had been expecting them, of course, but had no difficulty in looking impressed anyway. The reality of a gem is both more immediate and more startling than its description. Six or seven of them flashed and glimmered in her palm, flaming fire and frozen ice, the gleam of blue water in the sun, and a great gold stone like the eye of a lurking tiger.

Without meaning to, I drew near enough to look down into the well of her hand, staring with fascination. “Big enough,” Jamie had described them as being, with a characteristic Scottish talent for understatement. Well, smaller than a breadbox, I supposed.

“I got them for the money, to start,” Geilie was saying, prodding the stones with satisfaction. “Because they were easier to carry than a great weight of gold or silver, I mean; I didna think then what other use they might have.”

“What, as bhasmas?” The idea of burning any of those glowing things to ash seemed a sacrilege.

“Oh, no, not these.” Her hand closed on the stones, dipped into her pocket, and back into the box for more. A small shower of liquid fire dropped into her pocket, and she patted it affectionately. “No, I’ve a lot o’ the smaller stones for that. These are for something else.”

She eyed me speculatively, then jerked her head toward the door at the end of the room.

“Come along up to my workroom,” she said. “I’ve a few things there you’ll maybe be interested to see.”

“Interested” was putting it mildly, I thought.

It was a long, light-filled room, with a counter down one side. Bunches of drying herbs hung from hooks overhead and lay on gauze-covered drying racks along the inner wall. Drawered cabinets and cupboards covered the rest of the wall space, and there was a small glass-fronted bookcase at the end of the room.

The room gave me a mild sense of déjà-vu; after a moment, I realized that it was because it strongly resembled Geilie’s workroom in the village of Cranesmuir, in the house of her first husband—no, second, I corrected myself, remember the flaming body of Greg Edgars.

“How many times have you been married?” I asked curiously. She had begun building her fortune with her second husband, procurator fiscal of the district where they lived, forging his signature in order to divert money to her own use, and then murdering him. Successful with this modus operandi, I imagined she had tried it again; she was a creature of habit, was Geilie Duncan.

She paused a moment to count up. “Oh, five, I think. Since I came here,” she added casually.

“Five?” I said, a little faintly. Not just a habit, it seemed; a positive addiction.

“A verra unhealthy atmosphere for Englishmen it is in the tropics,” she said, and smiled slyly at me. “Fevers, ulcers, festering stomachs; any little thing will carry them off.” She had evidently been mindful of her oral hygiene; her teeth were still very good.

She reached out and lightly caressed a small bottle that stood on the lowest shelf. It wasn’t labeled, but I had seen crude white arsenic before. On the whole, I was glad I hadn’t taken any food.

“Oh, you’ll be interested in this,” she said, spying a jar on an upper shelf. Grunting slightly as she stood on tiptoe, she reached it down and handed it to me.

It contained a very coarse powder, evidently a mixture of several substances, brown, yellow, and black, flecked with shreds of a semitranslucent material.

“What’s this?”

“Zombie poison,” she said, and laughed. “I thought ye’d like to see.”

“Oh?” I said coldly. “I thought you told me there was no such thing.”

“No,” she corrected, still smiling. “I told ye Hercule wasn’t dead; and he’s not.” She took the jar from me and replaced it on the shelf. “But there’s no denying that he’s a good bit more manageable if he’s had a dose of this stuff once a week, mixed with his grain.”

“What the hell is it?”

She shrugged, offhanded. “A bit of this and a bit of that. The main thing seems to be a kind of fish—a little square thing wi’ spots; verra funny-looking. Ye take the skin and dry it, and the liver as well. But there are a few other things ye put in with it—I wish I kent what,” she added.

“You don’t know what’s in it?” I stared at her. “Didn’t you make it?”

“No. I had a cook,” Geilie said, “or at least they sold him to me as a cook, but damned if I’d feel safe eating a thing he turned out of the kitchen, the sly black devil. He was a houngan, though.”

“A what?”

“Houngan is what the blacks call one of their medicine-priests; though to be quite right about it, I believe Ishmael said his sort of black called him an oniseegun, or somesuch.”

“Ishmael, hm?” I licked my dry lips. “Did he come with that name?”

“Oh, no. He had some heathen name wi’ six syllables, and the man who sold him called him ‘Jimmy’—the auctioneers call all the bucks Jimmy. I named him Ishmael, because of the story the seller told me about him.”

Ishmael had been taken from a barracoon on the Gold Coast of Africa, one of a shipment of six hundred slaves from the villages of Nigeria and Ghana, stowed between decks of the slave ship Persephone, bound for Antigua. Coming through the Caicos Passage, the Persephone had run into a sudden squall, and been run aground on Hogsty Reef, off the island of Great Inagua. The ship had broken up, with barely time for the crew to escape in the ship’s boats.

The slaves, chained and helpless betweendecks, had all drowned. All but one man who had earlier been taken from the hold to assist as a galley mate, both messboys having died of the pox en route from Africa. This man, left behind by the ship’s crew, had nonetheless survived the wreck by clinging to a cask of spirits, which floated ashore on Great Inagua two days later.