Master of the Crossroads Excerpt

1 Through the Dark Jungle

Master of the Crossroads

Master of the Crossroads

A spark of sunlight glinted off of the razor edge of the machete as it came hacking down in a long powerful arc through the air and sliced a way for us through the impossibly dense jungle. I looked at the beads of sweat that were trickling down Tobias’s broad ebony back as he hacked again and again with a seemingly endless reserve of strength and energy to fight a way through the tangle of vines that strangled our path. The humid heat had become oppressive and I felt choked for air like I had been confined in a small space, the impression made all the more claustrophobic by the artificial darkness under the jungle canopy that allowed only a few slanting beams of sunlight to penetrate to us on the ground.

I had become somewhat inured to the screeches and calls of the birds and animals concealed by the dense foliage so that I had been able to push my unease down to a barely tangible level but still my eyes darted all around me, scanning the jungle for unexpected snakes or insects of horrible tropical proportions. I turned to look behind me, to check on the progress of the Count and our terrifying companion, the bocur called Blackjoe, who were following directly behind me. It seemed that the jungle had closed up behind them and I feared that we would never find our way back to Port Rio Bueno. Just at that moment Tobias grabbed at my shirt and looking into my eyes he split his ebony black face with a wide bright white, gap-toothed grin and said,

“We’s nearly there Mistuh Robert, suh.” before turning back to the track in front of him and delivering another hefty blow with his machete. “Just a bit more to go now Mistuh Robert suh.” he continued in his drawled English.

A few moments later we were through into a small clearing and as the Count and Blackjoe came out of the jungle it seemed to close up behind them so that I could not tell the way that we had come anymore at all. I threw myself down on the ground at the foot of a tall, leaning palm tree and worked my aching shoulders out of the heavy pack on my back with a satisfied sigh of relief. When I had had time to catch my breath I looked around the small clearing, marveling that anyone could apparently hold back the jungle’s inexorable advance. At the far end of the clearing was a small round wattle and daub hut with a peaked roof and a single door that faced us. A few chickens ran around in a small fenced yard next to the hut and a goat was tied to a tree nearby but otherwise the place was deserted.

The Count had dropped his own pack next to mine and gone over to examine the hut while the bocur stood impassive, as he always did, staring immutably into some indiscernible space that he alone inhabited or could perceive. The sight of the huge black bocur with his clouded eyes that yet could see, and his teeth that had been sharpened to points, had been enough to send tremors through my soul when I had first met him but in this place I found him to be terrifying, as if he were some spirit that had manifested itself out of the decaying layer of dead things that lay at the bottom of the jungle’s tangle of growth. To take my mind away from contemplating him I began to muse on how I had come to be in this place in the first instance.

2 At the Outset

It seemed like years had passed since I had answered Count Eisendorf’s advertisement for a personal assistant to accompany him on a journey to Jamaica for the purposes of research. When I had first met the Count I had found him to be a gentleman of the finest taste, well spoken, polite and fastidious in his dress. He was older than me by twenty years or so and his blonde hair was shot through with grey, whilst his face was lined with the experience of a full life. He used pince-nez glasses for reading and they hung by a chain from the breast pocket of his sharp grey morning coat while his cuff-links appeared to be two huge square cut sapphires and he wore a thick square onyx ring on the little finger of his left hand. He was the image of the cultured gentleman and I was drawn to him from our first handshake.

He told me that he wished to make a study of anthropology among the natives that remained on the island of Jamaica and that he would require someone to assist him with his notes and equipment. At the time I was desperate to get to the West Indies where I wished to search out my father’s youngest brother who, apart from myself and my mother, was my father’s last living relative on earth. My last information on him put him in Trinidad and as I was all but penniless I needed to work for my passage to the new world and the Count’s offer had seemed to perfectly fit the bill. I agreed to join him and we had set off only a few short days later aboard an old Indiaman called the Intrepid Queen that was carrying rum and salt pork for the army in Kingston Town.

During the journey the Count had done nothing to belie the madness that was to come when we reached the Caribbean, dining every night at the Captain’s table and filling his evenings on board with games of whist or entertaining us with piano recitals of Mozart and Bach. In some of the quieter moments aboard the Intrepid Queen he even spoke quite openly to me and I learned that he was a respected, albeit amateur, anthropologist who had been published in many scholarly journals on the subject of the primitive rituals of West African tribesmen. He had spent many years in the Congo but when his only child, a daughter, had died of a tropical fever it had broken his wife and she had wasted away with a broken heart until she too passed away. In spite of his own grief, or perhaps because of it, the Count had travelled to England where he had been much in demand as a speaker in the Universities and academic associations, relating his fantastic tales of life in the darkest reaches of unconquered Africa where the witchdoctor and the sorcerer ruled the hearts of the simple savages. He told me that he had travelled to England to study certain artifacts from Haiti and Guyana that were held in the British Museum and that our journey would be in the furtherance of those investigations.

The trip was almost boring it was so uneventful and we arrived in Kingston Town two days ahead of schedule. The novelty of life at sea was still fresh in my mind as I stepped ashore in Jamaica and gazed in wonder at the rows of white daubed shanties that lined the rough cobbled streets. The sea of black faces that regarded me and the tropical smells, bad and good, filled me with the excitement of an exotic experience making my life in London seem grey and distant in comparison. The Count instructed me to arrange some porters to carry our luggage to our hotel and gave me a slip of paper with an address on it and instructions to follow him when I had made the arrangements, assuring me that the porters would be able to show me the way to our hotel, before disappearing down one of the narrow alleys that led into the heart of the town.

I asked the purser from the Intrepid Queen if he could point out a reliable porter on the docks and soon I had assembled half a dozen burly black men all shirtless who hefted our trunks and began to lead me through the streets to my destination. The wild and exotic atmosphere of the place had made my head spin and the aroma of the spicy foods cooking in the shanties made my stomach growl as we wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow lanes until my guides told me that we had arrived. After getting to know the Count on board the Intrepid Queen I had expected that we would be staying at one of the finest hotels and so when I beheld the hotel where we were actually staying I was stunned.