The skin of her face tightened visibly before my eyes. She started to tremble. “Anna?” she said hoarsely.
I nodded. “I found what was left of her and her friend in a canoe on the riverbank. They must have been killed in the original attack after all and drifted down-river.”
“Thank God,” she whispered. “Oh, thank God.”
She reached out for the disc and chain, got to her feet and fled to the other end of the church. Sister Maria Teresa turned to meet her and I saw Joanna hold out the identity disc to her.
At the same moment Avila called to me urgently. “I’m getting something. Come quickly.”
He kept the headphones on and turned up the speaker for me. We all heard Figueiredo at once quite clearly in spite of some static.
“Santa Helena, are you receiving me?”
“Mallory here,” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“I hear you clearly, Senhor Mallory. How are things?”
“As bad as they can be. The Huna were waiting for me when I landed and set fire to the plane. I’m in the church at die mission now, with Avila and the two women. We’re completely stranded. No boats.”
“Mother of God.” I could almost see him crossing himself.
“We’ve only one hope,” I said. “You’ll have to raise some sort of volunteer force and come up-river in that launch of yours. We’ll try to hang on till you get here.”
“But even if I managed to find men willing to accompany me, it would take us ten or twelve hours to get there.”
“I know. You’ll just have to do the best you can.”
There was more from his end, but so drowned in static that I couldn’t make any sense out of it and after a while I lost him altogether. When I turned I found that Joanna and Sister Maria Teresa had joined Avila. They all looked roughly the same, strained, anxious, afraid. Even Sister Maria Teresa had lost her customary expression of quiet joy.
“What happens now, Neil?” Joanna said. “You’d better tell us the worst.”
“You heard most of it. I’ve asked Figueiredo to try and raise a few men and attempt to break through to us in the government launch. At least twelve hours if everything goes right for him. To be perfectly frank, my own feeling is we’d be lucky to see them before dawn tomorrow.”
Avila laughed harshly. “A miracle if they even started, senhor. You mink they are heroes in Landro, to come looking for a Huna arrow in the back?”
“You came, Senhor Avila,” Sister Maria Teresa said.
“For money, Sister,” he told her. “Because you paid well and in the end what has it brought me? Only death.”
I stood by the window, peering out through the half-open shutter across the compound, past the hospital and the bunga-lows to the edge of the forest, dark in the evening light. The sun was a smear of orange beyond the trees and the drum throbbed monotonously.
Joanna Martin leaned against the wall beside me smoking a cigarette. In the distance, voices drifted on the evening air, mingling with the drumming, an eerie sound.
“Why are they singing?” she asked.
“To prepare themselves for death. It’s what they call a cour-age chant. It means they’ll have a go at us sooner or later, but there’s a lot of ritual to be gone through beforehand.”
Sister Maria Teresa moved out of the shadows. “Are you saying they welcome death, Mr Mallory?”
“The only way for a warrior to die, Sister. As I told you once before, death and life are all part of a greater whole for these people.”
Before she could reply, there was a sudden exclamation from Avila who was sitting at the radio. “I think I’ve got Figueiredo again.”
He turned up the speaker and the static was tremendous. I crouched beside it, aware of the voice behind all that interfer-ence, trying to make some sense of it all. Quite suddenly it stopped, static and all and there was an uncanny quiet. Avila turned to me, removing the headphones slowly.
“Could you get any of that?” I said.
“Only a few words, senhor, and they made no sense at all.”