The sandbanks appeared and disappeared at intervals for most of the way, finally rising in a shoal a good two hundred yards long in the centre of the river opposite the mission jetty.
“I landed and took off from there twice last year during the summer when the river was low,” Hannah said.
I suspected he had made the remark for something to say more than anything else for we were drifting in towards the jetty now and the silence was uncanny.
We tied up alongside an old steam launch and climbed up on to the jetty. A couple of wild dogs were fighting over some-tiling on the ground at the far end. They cleared off as we approached. When we got close, we saw it was another nunslying face-down, hands hooked into the dirt.
Flies rose in clouds at our approach and the smell was fright-ful. Alberto held a handkerchief to his face and dropped to one knee to examine the body. He slid his hand underneath, groped around for a while and finlly came up with the identity disc he was seeking on its chain. He stood up and moved away hurriedly to breathe fresh air.
“Back of her skull crushed, probably by a war club.”
“How long?” Hannah asked him.
“Two days – three at the most. If there has been a general massacre then we couldn’t be safer. They believe the spirits of those killed violently linger in the vicinity for seven days. There isn’t a Huna alive who’d come anywhere near this place.”
I don’t know whether his words were supposed to reassure, but they certainly didn’t do much for me. I slipped the safety catch off the machine-gun and held it at the ready as we went forward.
The mission itself was perhaps a hundred yards from the jetty. One large single-storeyed building that was the medical centre and hospital, four simple bungalows with thatched roofs, and a small church on a rise at the edge of the jungle and close to the river, a bell hanging from a frame above the door.
We found two more nuns before we reached the mission, both virtually hacked to pieces, but the most appalling sight was at the edge of the clearing at the end of the medical centre where we discovered the body of a man suspended by his ankles above the cold ashes of what had been a considerable fire, the flesh peeling from his skull. The smell was nauseating, so bad that I could almost taste it.
Alberto beat the flies away with a stick and took a close look. “Father Conte’s servant,” he said. “An Indian from down-river. Poor devil, they must have decided he’d earned something special.”
Hannah turned on me, his face like the wrath of God. “And you were feeling sorry for the bastards.”
Colonel Alberto cut in quickly. “Never mind that now. Your private differences can wait till later. We’ll split up to save time and don’t forget I need identity bracelets. Another day in this heat and it will be impossible to recognise anyone.”
I took the medical centre, an eerie experience because every-thing was in perfect order. Beds turned down as if awaiting patients, mosquito nets hooked up neatly. The only unusual thing was the smell which led me to the small operating theatre where I found two more nuns, their bodies already decompos-ing. Like the one at the end of the jetty they seemed to have been clubbed to death. I managed to find their identity discs without too much trouble and got out
Alberto was emerging from one of the bungalows. I gave him the discs and he said, “That makes ten in all; there should be a dozen. And there’s no sign of Father Conte.”
“All they’ve done is kill people,” I said. “Everything else is in perfect order. It doesn’t make sense. I’d have expected them to put a torch to the buildings, just to finish things off.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” he said. “Another superstition. The spirits of those they have killed need somewhere to live.”
Hannah moved out of the church and called to us. When we joined him he was shaking with rage. Father Conte lay flat on his back just inside the door, an arrow in his throat. From his position, I’d say he had probably been standing on the porch facing his attackers when hit. His eyes had gone, probably one of the vultures which I had noticed perched on the church roof. Most terrible thing of all, his cassock had been torn away and his chest hacked open with amachete.