The jungle demon was slumped so long among the exposed roots of a tree, tendrils had snaked around its ankles. Vines that once bound the demon’s body hung from its neck, wrists and legs.
Crude stitching that had knitted together its mouth had also long rotted. The demon could not close its eyes because its eyelids had been cut away.
One eye sat higher than the other anyway due to a tumble into the rocks of a dried river bed where the demon Arri had remained face down for several months. When the mud dried and turned to dust, the doll surprised itself awake with a muppety sneeze.
Sunlight had a beneficial effect on the abomination. It tightened it’s hide while vegetable matter in open lesions fixed its blood.
Grass ticked with insect life during the day and rustled with animals by night. Although the demon barely moved for days, no birds sang in the vicinity. But if a rodent happened to run over it’s legs a bony hand flicked out, crushed the animal’s skull and mashed the morsel into the doll’s unhinged mouth.
An aeroplane droned overhead but the Arri did not register it. When the small cries of children came from a clearing beyond the tree-line the demon turned its head to the noise. It rose to its feet as if lifted by strings, reached for its blowpipe and darts and stalked to the edge of the jungle.
About fifty yards from the bungalow, the adventurer Dakota Joe taxied his biplane along the strip marked out on the lawn and cut the engine. The children’s mother stood in the shade of the verandah. She shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand. Dakota, unshaven, sticky, grey, sanded her cheek with a kiss. he mumbled: I’m so sorry.
There was nothing more to say. If there was, Joe didn’t have the words for it.
Dakota Joe was a man of action.
Mostly a man of action.
He had seen better days.
He was also half in love with the children’s’ mother having shared a brief fling with her shortly before she married the young plantation owner with prospects. He once saw a picture of her and her husband and their triplets. Joe fancied the children did not resemble the plantation owner as much as they did him.
Mrs Rose English was not yet thirty and her skin was as pale as the moon. When the triplets were born she followed her husband out to these parts and lived there for eight years. She missed the genteel company of her friends, the lectures, the theatre. She even missed the rain. But she grew to accept her new home, and that her husband was called away for long periods of time on surveys. When one of their children was lost to the jungle Rose’s husband seemed to be called away for even longer periods of time.
She learned to ride so she might search for her lost son and over time found horse riding was a balm. She even began to love the place a little. Then she received news by messenger that her husband, beloved father of William and Jane, had been thrown from his mount and killed.
Mrs English led Joe into the drawing room. Detective Inspector Renard stood with his back to the gathering. In the mirror above the fireplace, he observed the tableau behind him.
Rose English’s father-in-law sat upright in a cane chair. He was stout and bearded and mopped his plum-coloured face with a mustard kerchief.
“Bloody horse reared at a snake on the bloody trail,” he bellowed at the detective’s back.
“But it turned out to be a branch! Horse got spooked. Too highly strung, too nervy. What happens when you give a horse to a bloody woman to train.”
Under his orders the mare was shot.
Apart from the metronymic tock from the clock on the mantle piece, the room was silent. A bead of sweat snailed down Joe’s ribs inside his shirt.
Getting too old for this shit, smirked the little voice in his head. The voice sounded like Fatso Mulligan’s – if Fatso Mulligan’s voice lived in a matchbox.
“It’s a fucken jungle out there,” Fatso Mulligan observed only two days earlier as Joe stood before the agent’s desk.
Mulligan turned away from the window.
“That’s why everybody needs an agent these days. I scope the way ahead. Help ya in your quest for adventures and shit. You have an exciting holiday. My people turn your bullshit stories into movie gold.”
The Nazi gold Joe was sent to find years earlier in some doomed temple in Sri Lanka was a sore point between them. Mulligan did not believe Joe when the adventurer said he had found the temple but not the gold. The agent had short-changed him at every opportunity since.
Mulligan leaned over his desk and jabbed Joe with a thick, hairy forefinger.
“Listen, man. All I’m tryin to tell ya is, your shit is tired.”
He shuffled some papers.
“Come back tomorrow. I’ll have your goddam money.”
When Joe returned next day, Mulligan’s office was vacated. Except for a rectangle on the carpet, and a disconnected telephone on the floor, the room was bare. Desk, filing cabinet and Fatso Mulligan might have been jerked out on strings.
Dakota Joe sighed. He had almost expected this.
He dragged a dusty mattress up from a vacant lot behind the office block and fetched the bottle of mezcal Fatso stashed behind the toilet cistern. He figured he would crash at the office for a few days while he figured out what to do next. He still had plenty of money from the sale of the ingots he had brought back to New York from the doomed temple.
Fatso was right. His shit was tired. One last adventure, he told himself, then he’d hang up his stock-whip and machete for good.
An Amazonian transvestite called Cleopatra turned up. Mulligan owed her money too but it wasn’t clear what he owed her money for.
Joe invited her into the office for a drink.
When the adventurer woke up on the mattress with one hand clutching an empty mezcal bottle, the other rested on a wire crotch that wasn’t his own he decided it was time to move on.
He recalled Rose English transplanted into the middle of a steaming, rotting, squeaking, shrieking jungle and felt an overpowering need to visit her and her family.
He rinsed his mouth with flat cola, hitched a ride out to the airfield, dragged the dusty canvas off his plane in the hangar and fired it up. The Dakota coughed a bit then caught and wheeled down the runway towards the rising sun.
Dakota Joe could not have known that Mrs English’s young husband had died in a riding accident that very day. Nor could he have known that her two remaining children would disappear within an hour of his arrival.
Renard cleared his throat.
“Mrs English… you have suffered much misfortune during your time here. Clearly no one here is implicated – but one of you holds the key, of that I am sure!”
Silence descended on the rustling company. Outside the window by the bookcase to Joe’s left, dry sticks of a bush outside the window tapped against the glass.
“Monsieur Joe,” coughed the detective. He floated on the points of his toes. “Perhaps we could give these good people some time alone, no?”
Dakota joined the detective in the hall. Renard raised his fingers to his lips and took Joe by the elbow. The duo entered the mother’s bedroom.
“Notice anything unusual?” said Renard.
Joe glanced about the room. His eye rested on a picture of the triplets. One face was scrawled over in crayon by a childish hand.
“Henri,” said Renard. “The child did that the day he went missing. Why Mrs English keeps this picture – je ne sais pas. But the other two – they look like their father, oui?”
Joe felt his face flush.
“You knew Mrs English before she married, yes?” said Renard.
“We… met.. briefly,” said Joe.
Dry stalks scratched at the torn fly screen in the window, threw mad shadows on the wall.
“You think these children are mine?”
“Mr English was incapable of having children. But, regardez! You have seen this before, in Sri Lanka, no?”
Renard pulled back the sheet off the bed to reveal half-chewed head of a fish with the face of a pugilist. A bristle of quills tipped with red gum were stuffed into the back of its head. Joe felt his pulse thump in his ears. Harmless enough with its body missing the fish-head nevertheless looked malevolent enough to come to life.
The detective whipped out a large magnifying glass and squinted through it at the fish-head. Each quill, he informed Joe, was diagonally incised at the tip and dipped in red sap.
“What the,” said Joe.
A scream erupted from the verandah. Joe and Renard ran into the hall and out onto the verandah.
“William and Jane,” sobbed Rose’s sister Ivy. “They’ve disappeared.”
When the jungle demon’s darts hit William and Jane’s necks in quick succession, the children were stopped dead in their tracks. The Arri clutched one frozen child under each arm and scampered for the river. It slithered across the mud and into the water.
A string of bubbles trailed behind a reed poking out of the water. Renard raised his pistol to shoot but Joe swung his arm up to deflect the detective’s aim.
“The children. You might hit. Whatever it is has my. Has Rose’s -”
Searching was as pointless as it was when the first child disappeared three years earlier but Renard ordered bush-beaters head out with the best trackers in the region anyway. Rose English stood at the tree line calling till she was hoarse.
Then she stopped speaking forever.
The children were found the following day not far from Dakota’s plane. Their faces were streaked with blue mud, their eyes fixed on nothing. The trackers prodded them into a wooden cage where they remained until Dakota built a secure hut. While they were still blank-eyed, he shackled their wrists to the bed irons and checked their pulses. There were no vital signs.
When the Arri poison wore off, the children shrieked and snapped their heads from side to side. They gnawed their hands off at the wrist then burrowed their way out of the hut.
Much bribery was required to persuade two of the remaining trackers to go after the children. One returned after a few days to say he had found them sleeping at the foot of a tree. He cut their heads off, drove stakes through their hearts and buried them, he said.
He refused to return with Renard, Rose’s father-in-law and Joe to the spot.
Rose departed with Ivy and her late husband’s father. Except for the detective, no-one said good-bye.
“Where will you go now?” said Renard.
“Back to New York,” said Joe,
“You have family there?”
“Yes. No. Sort of.”
“I’m not sure,” said Dakota.
“Bon chance,” said the detective.
Joe dragged the canvas tarp from the plane. He would never return to this place. It was time to retire anyway.
As the plane taxied over the lumpy ground, lifted off and skimmed the treetops, and headed for the horizon, uneasiness nibbled at the fringes of Joe’s consciousness. He should have made sure the tracker had decapitated, staked and buried the demon-children.
He thought he might go back to New York.
Give Cleopatra a call or maybe hit some bars. He rubbed his face under the goggles. His chin was bristly and his eyes bleared. Maybe he wouldn’t do any of that stuff, he thought. Maybe he’d just drink a bottle of mezcal and go to bed.
Disturbed by the noise of Dakota’s departing plane, a flock of bats clapped their way out of the jungle canopy into the dusk.
Further below, at the foot of a tree, two small bodies half-buried in loam jerked upright.
By the afternoon of the following day they rose to their feet as if lifted by strings. When darkness came, they followed a track to the mud road then headed East to the coast. A month or so later they smelled in the air the rotten fish and diesel stinks of the port.
For several more weeks, they remained slumped in the grass among the floes of concrete and bent up shipping containers in a nearby lot.
Sun scorched their skin and rain pulled shreds of it away. None grew back, none bled. Beyond the mesh-link security fence, across the asphalt and railway tracks towered the rusted hull of a cargo ship.
Rats fled from the ship as brother and sister elbowed unseen up the gangplank and wedged themselves into a gap between two containers. Heaped one on top of the other in the confined space, they appeared to be no more than a heap of rags in a rusty puddle.
The ship groaned and creaked and the last of the containers boomed and clanked as they were loaded on board.
There came the rumble of engines from below.
Men’s cries carried from the deck to shore, from shore to deck. Diesel fumes mixed with the pong of mud and rust then with salt and rotting fish as two small boats tugged the ship out of the harbour.
A horn split the air as the freighter headed for the horizon then it set its course and sailed east – for New York.