I said, “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, I think you do. You were being polite to Sister Maria Teresa down there in the bar. About my sister and the other girl, I mean. You were letting her down lightly.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Don’t play games with me, Mr Mallory. I’m not a child. I want the truth.”
“Who in the hell do you think I am?” I demanded. “The butler?”
I’m not sure why I got so angry – possibly because she’d spoken to me as if I were some sort of servant, but there was more to it than that Probably some weird kind of defence mechanism to stop me from grabbing her.
“All right,” I said. “I was asked if it was possible your sister and the other girl were still alive and I said it was. What else do you want to know?”
“Why would they take her? Why not kill her straight away. Even the older nuns were raped before being killed, isn’t that so? I’ve read the report.”
“They like to freshen the blood,” I said. “It’s as simple as that.”
I started to turn away, tiring of it suddenly, wanting to be away from her, aware of the strain finally blowing through the surface.
She grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me round. “I want to know, damn you!” she cried. “All of it.”
“All right,” I said and caught her wrists. “It’s a pretty com-plicated ritual. First of all, if they’re virgins, they undergo a ceremonial defloration in front of everyone using a tribal totem. That’s Huna custom with all maidens.”
There was horror in those eyes now and she had stopped struggling. “Then for seven nights running, any warrior in the tribe is allowed to go in to them. It’s a great honour. Any woman who doesn’t become pregnant after that is stoned to death. Those outsiders who do are kept till the baby is born, then buried alive. The reasons for all this are pretty compli-cated, but if you have an hour to spare sometime I’ll be happy to explain.”
She stared up at me, head moving from side to side and I added gravely, “If I were you, Miss Martin, I’d pray she ended up in the river in the first place.”
The rage came up like hot lava and she pulled free of me, the left hand striking across my face and then the right, help-less, impotent anger and grief mingling together. She stumbled to the door, wrenched it open and ran into the corridor.
I walked toThe Little Boat, a dangerous thing to do after dark, especially along the waterfront although such was the rage against life itself that filled me that I think it would have gone hard with any man who had crossed my path that night I needed a drink and perhaps another to use one of Hannah’s favourite phrases and a woman certainly – a dangerous mood to be in.
The Little Boatwas not particularly busy, but that was only to be expected on a Monday night. The rumba band was play-ing, but there couldn’t have been more than a dozen people on the floor. Lola, Hannah’s girl friend from that first night was there, wearing the same red-satin dress. I rather liked her. She was an honest whore, but she was crazy about Hannah and made it obvious, her one weakness.
Knowing that he wouldn’t be in that night she concentrated on me and she knew what she was about. Strange, but it didn’t seem to work. I kept thinking of Joanna Martin and when I did that, Lola faded rapidly. The message got through to her after a while and she went off to try her luck elsewhere.
Which at least left me free to drink myself into a stupor if I was so inclined. I went up to that private section of the deck where I had dined with Hannah on that first night, ordered a meal and a bottle of wine to start with and closed the sliding doors.
My appetite seemed to have gone. I picked at my food, then went and stood at the rail, a bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other and stared out over the river’. The reflected lights of the houseboats glowed in the water like candle flames. I was restless and ill at ease, waiting for something – wanting her, I suppose.