Read an Excerpt
Death in the Andamans
By M. M. Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1985 M. M. Kaye
All rights reserved.
Something bumped lightly against the side of her bed and Copper Randal, awakening with a start, was astonished to find that her heart was racing.
For a moment or two she lay staring into the darkness and listening. Trying to identify what it was that had woken her so abruptly. And why she should be afraid? But apart from the monotonous swish of the electric fan blades overhead there was no sound in the silent house, and the hot, windless night was so still that she could hear the frightened pounding of her heart. Then somewhere in the room a floorboard creaked ...
Every nerve in her body seemed to jerk in response to that small, stealthy sound and suddenly her heart was no longer in her breast but had jumped into her throat and was constricting it so that she could barely breathe. She had to force herself to sit up and ease one hand out from under the close-tucked mosquito netting, moving very cautiously, and grope for the switch of her bedside light. She heard it click as she pressed it, but no comforting light sprang up to banish the darkness.
This, thought Copper, swerving abruptly from panic to impatience, is absurd! She rubbed her eyes with the back of her other hand and pressed the switch a second time. But with no better result. Yet there had been nothing wrong with the lamp when she turned it off, so either the bulb had given out during the night, which seemed unlikely, or else ... Or else I'm dreaming this, she thought uneasily.
The idea was a preposterous one, but nevertheless she pinched herself to make sure that she was awake, and reassured on that point, pressed the switch a third time. Nothing. Then the bulb must have ... It was at this point that irritation changed swiftly back into panic as she remembered the yards of flex that lay across the uncarpeted floor and connected the lamp on her bedside table to a plug on the far side of the room. Supposing someone — something — had passed by her bed and tripped over the flex, jerking the plug from its socket? She had done that herself more than once, so there was no reason to suppose — —
'Stop it!' Copper scolded herself in a furious whisper: 'You're behaving like a lunatic! And what's more, if you sit here in the dark for just one more minute, you'll end up screaming the house down. So get going!' Thus adjured she took a deep breath and summoning up all her courage, pushed up the mosquito netting and slid out of bed.
The smooth, polished floorboards felt pleasantly cool to her bare feet as she groped her way across to the switch by the bathroom door, and finding it, pressed down the little metal knob with a feeling of profound relief.
Once again a switch clicked beneath her unsteady fingers, and this time a light came on. But it was not the bright, warm comforting one she had expected. Instead, a queer, greenish, phosphorescent glow filled the room, and aware of a movement beside her, she turned sharply and saw, standing so close to her that without moving she could have touched him, the figure of a little wizened man in a suit of soiled white drill.
Copper shrank back, both hands at her throat and her mouth dry with terror. But the intruder did not move. In that dim light his blanched face glimmered like that of a drowned man coming up out of deep water, and she could see that his wrinkled features were set in an expression of malignant fury: a blind, unseeing rage that did not appear to be directed at her, for the unfocused eyes stared past her at someone or something else. But there was no one else, and the whole house was still. So still that the silence and the queer greenish light seemed part of one another, and Time had stopped and was standing behind her, waiting ...
I ought to scream, thought Copper numbly; Val's only in the next room. I've only got to scream — — She opened her mouth but no sound came from her dry throat, and the green light began to flicker and grow dim. It was going out and she would be left alone in the dark with ... with ...
And then at last she screamed. And, astonishingly, woke to find herself in her bed, shivering among the pillows, with the last echoes of her own strangled shriek in her ears.
A light snapped on in the next room and seconds later a dark-haired girl in pink cotton pyjamas, newly aroused from sleep, burst through the curtained archway that separated the two bedrooms, calling out encouragingly that she was coming and what on earth was the matter?
'N–nothing,' quavered Copper through chattering teeth. 'Only a nightmare. But a perfectly beastly one! I still can't believe ...' She reached out a trembling hand and switched on her own light, apologizing confusedly for making such an appalling din: 'I didn't mean ... I was going ... I am sorry I woke you, but I thought he — it — — And then the light started to go and — — Oh Val, am I glad to see you! D'you mind staying around and talking to me for a bit until I've simmered down and unscrambled myself? Bless you — —!'
She lifted her mosquito net and Valerie crept in underneath it and having annexed a pillow and made herself comfortable at the foot of the bed, observed crisply that any talking to be done had better be done, pronto, by Copper. 'Have you any idea what a ghastly noise you were making? It sounded like an entire glee club of love-lorn torn cats yowling on a rooftop. What in heaven's name were you dreaming about?'
'I'm not too sure that I was dreaming,' confessed Copper with a shudder. 'In fact I actually pinched myself just to make sure I wasn't: and it hurt, too.'
'Tell!' ordered Valerie, and composed herself to listen while Copper embarked hesitantly on an account of the peculiar happenings of the last fifteen minutes or so, ending defensively: 'It was real, Val! Right up to the time that I switched on the light by the bathroom door, I could have sworn I was awake and that it was all really happening. It was far more of a shock to find myself waking up in bed than it would have been to find myself being murdered!'
'Hmm. I'd say that the trouble with you,' diagnosed Valerie sapiently, 'was either too many of those curried prawns at the Club last night, or else you've been letting the fact that you are living on a sort of Devil's Island — anyway, a penal settlement — get on your nerves.'
'The latter, probably.' Copper relaxed and lay back on her pillow, watching the whirling, white-painted blades of the electric fan flicking swift shadows across the high ceiling, and presently she said slowly: 'It's a bit difficult to explain, but don't you think there must be something a little out of kilter ... something unchancy ... about the Andamans? Just think of it, Val. In this particular bit of the Islands almost three quarters of the population, including most of your father's house-servants, are convicted murderers serving a life sentence. They've all killed someone. Surely that must have some effect on a place — any place? Murderers being sent here year after year? All those dead people whose lives they took ... the atmosphere must get choked up with them like – like static. Or wireless waves, or – or something — —' She hesitated and then laughed a little shamefacedly. 'I'm sorry. I don't seem able to explain it very well.'
'Try not to think about it,' advised Valerie practically. 'Otherwise you'll be waking me up nightly dreaming that you're being murdered by convicts or haunted by the ghosts of their victims, and I'm not sure that I could take any more of that scarifying "woman wailing for her demon lover" stuff. It scared me rigid.'
'Don't worry, I'm not likely to have a dream like that twice, touch wood!' said Copper, reaching up to rap the nearest mosquito pole with her knuckles. 'And anyway, it wasn't a convict I was dreaming about. Unless there are any European convicts here. Are there?'
'No, of course not. What did he look like?'
'Rather like a rat. If you can imagine a rat with wrinkles and a lot of grey, wispy hair. A mean, vindictive sort of face. He wasn't much taller than I am, and he was wearing a grubby white suit and a big ring with a red stone set in it. You've no idea how terribly solid and detailed it all was. I saw him so clearly that I could draw a picture of him; and it wasn't like a dream at all. It was real. Horridly real! I was here, in this room. And I not only felt that switch click, I heard it. The only unreal thing was the light being green.' She shivered again, and turning her head, sat up in sudden astonishment and said: 'Why, it's morning!'
The clear pale light of dawn had seeped unnoticed into the room as they talked, dimming the electric bulbs to a wan yellow glow. Copper slid out from under the mosquito net, and crossing to the windows drew back the curtains: 'It must be getting on for six. I don't know why, but I thought it was the middle of the night.' She leant out over the window-sill, sniffing the faint dawn breeze that whispered through the mango trees on the far side of the lawn, and said: 'It's going to be a marvellous day, Val. Come and look.'
Valerie snapped off the bedside lamp and joined her, and the two girls knelt on the low window-seat to watch the growing light deepen over the sea and stretch along the ruled edge of the far horizon.
Below them lay a wide strip of lawn bordered on the far side by mango, pyinma and casuarina trees that overlooked the grass tennis-courts, a tangled rose garden and two tall, feathery clusters of bamboo. Beyond this the ground sloped down to the beach so steeply that the clear, glassy water that shivered to a lace of foam about the dark shelves of rock appeared to lie almost directly below the house, and only the tops of the tall coconut palms that fringed the shores of the little island could be seen from the upper windows. Sky, sea and the level stretch of lawn seemed to be fashioned from Lalique glass, so still and smooth and serene they were: the still, smooth serenity that presages a perfect Indian Ocean day.
The fronds of the coconut palms swayed gently to a breath of scented air that wandered across the garden and ruffled Valerie's dark hair, and she stretched a pair of sunburnt arms above her head and sighed gratefully. 'So cool! And yet in another hour it will be hot and sticky again. A curse upon this climate.'
'That's because you've been here too long. You're blasé,' said Copper, her eyes on the glowing horizon: 'After that endless London fog and rain and drizzle, I don't believe I could ever have too much sun, however hot and sticky.'
'You wait!' retorted Valerie. 'I may have been in the Islands too long, but you haven't been here long enough. Two more months of the Andamans and you'll be thinking longingly of expeditions to the North Pole!'
* * *
Valerie Masson, born Valerie Ann Knight, was the stepdaughter of Sir Lionel Masson, Chief Commissioner of the Andamans. A childless man, Sir Lionel had been a widower for close upon seventeen years; during which time he had paid school bills and written cheques at frequent intervals but, since his visits to England had been infrequent, had seen little or nothing of this stepdaughter who had taken his name. He knew that the child was well looked after in the home of a couple of devoted aunts, and his only anxiety on her behalf (in the rare intervals in which he thought of her at all) was the fear that in all probability she was being badly spoiled.
His appointment as Chief Commissioner to the Andamans had coincided with Valerie's nineteenth birthday, and it had suddenly occurred to him that he not only possessed a grown-up stepdaughter, but that it might be both pleasant and convenient to install a hostess in the big, sprawling house on Ross. The idea was well received. Valerie had welcomed it with enthusiasm and for the past two years had kept house for her stepfather, played hostess at Government House, and enjoyed herself considerably. Which last was not to be wondered at, for although she could lay no particular claim to beauty, her dark hair grew in a deep widow's peak above an endearingly freckled face in which a pair of disturbing green eyes were set charmingly atilt, and these assets, combined with an inexhaustible supply of good humour, had worked havoc with the susceptibilities of the male population of Port Blair.
Her present house-guest, Miss Randal — Caroline Olivia Phoebe Elizabeth by baptism but invariably known, from an obvious combination of initials, as 'Copper' — had been her best friend since their early schooldays, and at about the time that Valerie was setting sail for the Andamans, Copper had been reluctantly embarking upon the infinitely more prosaic venture of earning her living as a shorthand typist in the city of London.
For two drab years she had drawn a weekly pay cheque from Messrs Hudnut and Addison Limited, Glass and China Merchants, whose gaunt and grimy premises were situated in that unlovely section of London known as the Elephant and Castle. The weekly pay cheque had been incredibly meagre, and at times it had needed all Copper's ingenuity, coupled with incorrigible optimism, to make both ends meet and life seem at all worth supporting. 'But someday,' said Copper, reassuring herself, 'something exciting is bound to happen!'
Pending that day she continued to hammer out an endless succession of letters beginning 'Dear Sir — In reply to yours of the 15th ult.', to eat her meals off clammy, marble-topped tables in A.B.C. teashops, and to keep a weather-eye fixed on the horizon in ever-hopeful anticipation of the sails of Adventure. And then, three months previously, that sail had lifted over the skyline in the form of a small and totally unexpected legacy left her by a black-sheep uncle long lost sight of in the wilds of the Belgian Congo.
A slightly dazed Copper had handed in her resignation to Messrs Hudnut and Addison Limited, cabled her acceptance of a long-standing invitation of Valerie's to visit the Islands, and having indulged in an orgy of shopping, booked a passage to Calcutta, where she had boarded the S.S. Maharaja — the little steamer which is virtually the only link between the Andamans and the outside world. Four days later she had leaned over the deck rail, awed and enchanted, as the ship sailed past emerald hills and palm-fringed beaches, to drop anchor in the green, island-strewn harbour of Port Blair.
That had been nearly three weeks ago. Three weeks of glitteringly blue days and incredibly lovely star-splashed nights. She had bathed in the clear jade breakers of Forster Bay and Corbyn's Cove, fished in translucent waters above branching sprays of coral from the decks of the little steam launch Jarawa, and picnicked under palm trees that rustled to the song of the Trade Winds.
It was all so different from that other world of fog and rain, strap-hanging, shorthand and crowded rush-hour buses, that she sometimes felt that she must have dreamed it all. Or that this was the dream, and presently she would awake to find herself back once more in the cheerless, gas-lit lodgings off the Fulham Road. But no: this was real. This wonderful, colourful world. Copper drew a deep breath of utter contentment and leant her head against the window-frame.
Beside her, Valerie who had also fallen silent, was leaning out of the window, her head cocked a little on one side as though she were listening to something. There was a curious intentness about her that communicated itself to Copper, so that presently she too found herself listening: straining her ears to catch some untoward sound from the quiet garden below. But she could hear nothing but the hush of the glassy sea against the rocks, and after a minute or two she said uneasily: 'What is it, Val?'
'The birds. I've only just noticed it. Listen'
'What birds? I can't hear any.'
'That's just it. They always make a terrific racket at this hour of the morning. I wonder what's come over them today?'
Copper leant out beside her, frowning. Every morning since her arrival in the Islands she had been awakened by a clamorous chorus of birds: unfamiliar tropical birds. Parrots, parakeets, mynas, sunbirds, orioles, paradise fly-catchers, shouting together in a joyous greeting to the dawn. But today, for the first time, no birds were singing. 'I expect they've migrated, or something,' said Copper lightly. 'Look at that sky, Val! Isn't it gorgeous?'
The cool, pearly sheen of dawn had warmed in the East to a blaze of vivid rose that deepened along the horizon's edge to a bar of living, glowing scarlet, and bathed the still sea and the dreaming islands in an uncanny, sunset radiance.
'"Red sky at morning",' said Valerie uneasily. 'I do hope to goodness this doesn't mean a storm. It would be too sickening, right at the beginning of Christmas week.'
'Good heavens,' exclaimed Copper blankly, 'I'd quite forgotten. Of course — this is Christmas Eve. Somehow it doesn't seem possible. I feel as if I'd left Christmas behind at the other side of the world. Well, one thing's certain: there won't be any snow here! And of course there isn't going to be a storm. There isn't a cloud in the sky.'
'I know — but I still don't like the look of it.'
'Nonsense! It's wonderful. It's like a transformation scene in a pantomime.'
Excerpted from Death in the Andamans by M. M. Kaye. Copyright © 1985 M. M. Kaye. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.