A Plague of Zombies Page 1

Spanish Town, Jamaica

June 1761

There was a snake on the drawing-room table. A small snake, but still. Lord John Grey wondered whether to say anything about it.

The governor, appearing quite oblivious of the coiled reptile’s presence, picked up a cut-crystal decanter that stood not six inches from the snake. Perhaps it was a pet, or perhaps the residents of Jamaica were accustomed to keeping a tame snake in residence, to kill rats. Judging from the number of rats Grey had seen since leaving the ship, this was sensible—though this particular snake didn’t appear large enough to take on even your average mouse.

The wine was decent, but served at body heat, and it seemed to pass directly through Grey’s gullet and into his blood. He’d had nothing to eat since before dawn and felt the muscles of his lower back begin to tingle and relax. He put the glass down; he wanted a clear head.

‘I cannot tell you, sir, how happy I am to receive you,’ said the governor, putting down his own glass, empty. ‘The position is acute.’

‘So you said in your letter to Lord North. The situation has not changed appreciably since then?’ It had been nearly three months since that letter was written; a lot could change in three months.

He thought Governor Warren shuddered, despite the temperature in the room.

‘It has become worse,’ the governor said, picking up the decanter. ‘Much worse.’

Grey felt his shoulders tense, but spoke calmly.

‘In what way? Have there been more—’ He hesitated, searching for the right word. ‘More demonstrations?’ It was a mild word to describe the burning of cane fields, the looting of plantations, and the wholesale liberation of slaves.

Warren gave a hollow laugh. His handsome face was beading with sweat. There was a crumpled handkerchief on the arm of his chair, and he picked it up to mop at his skin. He hadn’t shaved this morning—or, quite possibly, yesterday; Grey could hear the faint rasp of his dark whiskers on the cloth.

‘Yes. More destruction. They burnt a sugar press last month, though still in the remoter parts of the island. Now, though …’ He paused, licking dry lips as he poured more wine. He made a cursory motion towards Grey’s glass, but Grey shook his head.

‘They’ve begun to move towards Kingston,’ Warren said. ‘It’s deliberate; you can see it. One plantation after another, in a line coming straight down the mountain.’ He sighed. ‘I shouldn’t say straight. Nothing in this bloody place is straight, starting with the landscape.’

That was true enough; Grey had admired the vivid green peaks that soared up from the centre of the island, a rough backdrop for the amazingly blue lagoon and the white-sand shore.

‘People are terrified,’ Warren went on, seeming to get a grip on himself, though his face was once again slimy with sweat, and his hand shook on the decanter. It occurred to Grey, with a slight shock, that the governor was terrified. ‘I have merchants—and their wives—in my office every day, begging, demanding protection from the blacks.’

‘Well, you may assure them that protection will be provided them,’ Grey said, sounding as reassuring as possible. He had half a battalion with him—three hundred infantry troops and a company of artillery, equipped with small cannon. Enough to defend Kingston, if necessary. But his brief from Lord North was not merely to reassure the merchants and defend the shipping of Kingston and Spanish Town—nor even to provide protection to the larger sugar plantations. He was charged with putting down the slave rebellion entirely. Rounding up the ringleaders and stopping the violence altogether.

The snake on the table moved suddenly, uncoiling itself in a languid manner. It startled Grey, who had begun to think it was a decorative sculpture. It was exquisite: only seven or eight inches long and a beautiful pale yellow marked with brown, a faint iridescence in its scales like the glow of good Rhenish wine.

‘It’s gone further now, though,’ Warren was going on. ‘It’s not just burning and property destruction. Now it’s come to murder.’

That brought Grey back with a jerk.

‘Who has been murdered?’ he demanded.

‘A planter named Abernathy. Murdered in his own house, last week. His throat cut.’

‘Was the house burnt?’

‘No, it wasn’t. The maroons ransacked it but were driven off by Abernathy’s own slaves before they could set fire to the place. His wife survived by submerging herself in a spring behind the house, concealed by a patch of reeds.’

‘I see.’ He could imagine the scene all too well. ‘Where is the plantation?’

‘About ten miles out of Kingston. Rose Hall, it’s called. Why?’ A bloodshot eye swivelled in Grey’s direction, and he realised that the glass of wine the governor had invited him to share had not been his first of the day. Nor, likely, his fifth.

Was the man a natural sot? he wondered. Or was it only the pressure of the current situation that had caused him to take to the bottle in such a blatant manner? He surveyed the governor covertly; the man was perhaps in his late thirties and, while plainly drunk at the moment, showed none of the signs of habitual indulgence. He was well built and attractive; no bloat, no soft belly straining at his silk waistcoat, no broken veins in cheeks or nose …

‘Have you a map of the district?’ Surely it hadn’t escaped Warren that if indeed the maroons were burning their way straight towards Kingston, it should be possible to predict where their next target lay and to await them with several companies of armed infantry?

Warren drained the glass and sat panting gently for a moment, eyes fixed on the tablecloth, then pulled himself together.

‘Map,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, of course. Dawes—my secretary—he’ll … he’ll find you one.’

Motion caught Grey’s eye. Rather to his surprise, the tiny snake, after casting to and fro, tongue tasting the air, had started across the table in what appeared a purposeful, if undulant, manner, headed straight for him. By reflex, he put up a hand to catch the little thing, lest it plunge to the floor.

The governor saw it, uttered a loud shriek, and flung himself back from the table. Grey looked at him in astonishment, the tiny snake curling over his fingers.

‘It’s not venomous,’ he said, as mildly as he could. At least, he didn’t think so. His friend Oliver Gwynne was a natural philosopher and mad for snakes; Gwynne had shown him all the prizes of his collection during the course of one hair-raising afternoon, and Grey seemed to recall Gwynne telling him that there were no venomous reptiles at all on the island of Jamaica. Besides, the nasty ones all had triangular heads, while the harmless kinds were blunt-headed, like this fellow.

Warren was indisposed to listen to a lecture on the physiognomy of snakes. Shaking with terror, he backed against the wall.

‘Where?’ he gasped. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘It’s been sitting on the table since I came in. I … um … thought it was …’ Well, plainly it wasn’t a pet, let alone an intended part of the table décor. He coughed and got up, meaning to put the snake outside through the French doors that led onto the terrace.

Warren mistook his intent, though, and, seeing Grey come closer, snake writhing through his fingers, he burst through the French doors, crossed the terrace in a mad leap, and pelted down the flagstoned walk, coattails flying as though the devil himself were in pursuit.

Grey was still staring after him in disbelief when a discreet cough from the inner door made him turn.

‘Gideon Dawes, sir.’ The governor’s secretary was a short, tubby man with a round pink face that probably was rather jolly by nature. At the moment, it bore a look of profound wariness. ‘You are Lieutenant-Colonel Grey?’

Grey thought it unlikely that there were a plethora of men wearing the uniform and insignia of a lieutenant-colonel on the premises of King’s House at that very moment but nonetheless bowed, murmuring, ‘Your servant, Mr Dawes. I’m afraid Mr Warren has been taken … er …’ He nodded towards the open French doors. ‘Perhaps someone should go after him?’

Mr Dawes closed his eyes with a look of pain, then sighed and opened them again, shaking his head.

‘He’ll be all right,’ he said, though his tone lacked any real conviction. ‘I’ve just been discussing commissary and billeting requirements with your Major Fettes; he wishes you to know that all the arrangements are quite in hand.’

‘Oh. Thank you, Mr Dawes.’ In spite of the unnerving nature of the governor’s departure, Grey felt a sense of pleasure. He’d been a major himself for years; it was astonishing how pleasant it was to know that someone else was now burdened with the physical management of troops. All he had to do was give orders.

That being so, he gave one, though it was phrased as a courteous request, and Mr Dawes promptly led him through the corridors of the rambling house to a small clerk’s hole near the governor’s office, where maps were made available to him.

He could see at once that Warren had been right regarding both the devious nature of the terrain and the trail of attacks. One of the maps was marked with the names of plantations, and small notes indicated where maroon raids had taken place. It was far from being a straight line, but, nonetheless, a distinct sense of direction was obvious.

The room was warm, and he could feel sweat trickling down his back. Still, a cold finger touched the base of his neck lightly when he saw the name Twelvetrees on the map.

‘Who owns this plantation?’ he asked, keeping his voice level as he pointed at the paper.

‘What?’ Dawes had fallen into a sort of dreamy trance, looking out the window into the green of the jungle, but blinked and pushed his spectacles up, bending to peer at the map. ‘Oh, Twelvetrees. It’s owned by Philip Twelvetrees—a young man; inherited the place from a cousin only recently. Killed in a duel, they say—the cousin, I mean,’ he amplified helpfully.

‘Ah. Too bad.’ Grey’s chest tightened unpleasantly. He could have done without that complication. If … ‘The cousin—was he named Edward Twelvetrees, by chance?’

Dawes looked mildly surprised.

‘I do believe that was the name. I didn’t know him, though; no one here did. He was an absentee owner; ran the place through an overseer.’

‘I see.’ He wanted to ask whether Philip Twelvetrees had come from London to take possession of his inheritance, but didn’t. He didn’t want to draw any attention by singling out the Twelvetrees family. Time enough for that.

He asked a few more questions regarding the timing of the raids, which Mr Dawes answered promptly, but when it came to an explanation of the inciting causes of the rebellion, the secretary proved suddenly unhelpful—which Grey thought interesting.

‘Really, sir, I know almost nothing of such matters,’ Mr Dawes protested, when pressed on the subject. ‘You would be best advised to speak with Captain Cresswell. He’s the superintendent in charge of the maroons.’

Grey was surprised at this.

‘Escaped slaves? They have a superintendent?’

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