In the June of 1821, a small notice appears in the Trinidad Gazette. The Gazette is filled with advertisements for land and reports of European news. It would have been easy to overlook because of the small writing and its inconspicuous position on the page. But Chale Ortiz has memorised the notice because it has come down to him, over the centuries. He has been told that there was once the whole page carefully folded but now all that is left is the small notice on sepia coloured paper fragile as old skin.
Stolen from the store at the Royal Gaol, between the 20th and the 23rd April last, a silver mounted Spanish made FOWLING PIECE with an English stock, the barrel about three feet two inches in length and bell-mouthed. At the same time, a pair of Tower Pistols of the same description, and about a month previous a pair of pistols of the same description was said to have been stolen. Reward on the Fowling Piece 50 Dollars. Twenty on the pistols.
April 10th 1821
Almost two centuries later, the gun sits in a glass case above Chale’s desk. When people ask him about it, he smiles and says, he knows, it should be in a museum. A family heirloom… Before he leaves the office today, he carefully unlocks the wooden frame and packs the silver mounted shotgun into a specially designed case. The pistols are mounted in his office at home, the glass case positioned across from his desk so that he can lean back in his chair and look at them. The Gaol never got them back. No one ever claimed the reward. But the guns stayed in his family along with the stories.
It seemed appropriate and proper to Chale that he run his main camp out of the Ortoire River with sub units running off the southern coast, the little dinghies going out to meet the suppliers and trade guns and cocaine over the side of the inflatable boats. Chale did not fool himself. There was enough black, white, and East Indian blood running through his veins to dilute any Warahoon blood. Each strand of blood had its own pull but a man must choose what it is he decides to embrace. He’d visited the mainland enough times to feel the connection to the land. The elaborate system of business relations seemed to him not unlike the complicated kinship that had dictated fluvial trade across this savannah sea for centuries.
Even though his base was near the Ortoire River, with air-conditioned bungalows and tiny framed certificates that bolstered the company’s legitimate existence as a support base for the oil companies, he still drove to the northwest peninsula every evening. There he lived with his wife and son and his evenings were spent in the usual way of the affluent middle class of Trinidad. He welcomed the drive back north every evening, using the time to clear his thoughts and order his mind. Over the big bridge with the anacondas and the catfish. He drove a large van with night rider flood lights and heavy wide tyres. It was rare that he could make it to fifth gear on the nation’s crowded roads but here on the Manzanilla stretch, he could run the truck and feel the smooth transitions as he allowed her to open up her horsepower on the flat stretch of road, coconut trees stretching back to the river on the left and down to the Atlantic on the right. Here the cocoa and canna lilies grew wild out of the swampy brackish mud, and sometimes, on a road leading left to the river, a temperamental mud volcano rose out of the soil, its sides stacking as methodically as a machine.
He received the call just after he’d crossed the Valencia intersection and was bearing down on Wallerfield. He imagined the signal bouncing out of the forest, coming up from under the three storeys of trees under the Cierro del Aripo.
“Robby. Tell me.”
Here the line went dead and Chale waited for the call to reconnect.
There was a pause and Chale imagined his head man, Robby. He would be immaculately turned out as usual. A very black man with the refined Trinidadian accent and a whitish wife. He’d come to Chale with an MBA from one of the top universities in the States. Said he’d just bought a house in West Moorings. Chale paid him well to run the intricacies of both businesses. Today he would be at the Cierro Del Aripo base but no one listening to the conversation would have any idea that Robby was not seated in his Ortoire office, surrounded by the comforting paraphernalia of humming machines. Only Chale knew that he was camped out high in the Northern Range awaiting the delivery of a live human child.
“Do you have the boy?”
“Yes,” Robby answered. “We have him.”
Chale wonders if Robby ever imagined these are the things he would have to do to live the golden life in Trinidad. Often their wives go away on shopping trips to Miami. They both had boys the same age as Daniel.
“The clock will start ticking from midnight tonight though. It’s important to be precise with the timing.”
“Thank you Robby. Have a good night.”
“You too, sir. Don’t worry. It’s a minor issue.”
This was one of the reasons that he liked Robby so much. Robby never panicked. Never balked at the ugly work. Tonight would be a long night for them. But there was nothing that could be done to alleviate the mess. He’d liked Daniel.
It was even strange to think of his men as staff, the group he’d accumulated over the years. He’d come to know them all well and he learned that just because a man could blow another man to pieces over the delicacies of grams of cocaine, it did not mean you couldn’t sit down and fire a beer with him or enjoy a good curry duck after a long week. It was one of the reasons that he felt he had a better understanding of human nature than the average businessman. Not everyone could see gradations of morality. Only a few could know that a man is made of many compartments, sealed and separated like different chambers of the heart.
When Daniel had joined them, he’d been less than twelve. Good looking boy. Chale had known Daniel’s father from the days when he’d grown tomatoes. Back then the empire was just starting. Small thing. Acres up in the Biche area laid out and planted with the highest grade marijuana and enough tomato plants to obtain a farmer’s licence and get discounts on fertilizer. Daniel’s father had come on as a consultant farmer. A good man who knew the land. He’d devised the feeding protocol for the seedlings that allowed Chale to market the weed as organic. So when Chale heard the man had died, he’d always listened out for what became of the children. When he’d heard Daniel was on a block, he’d sent for him. His cell phone rang again.
“We lost him. He ran into the forest and we lost him.” Robby’s voice was uncharacteristically breathless.
Chale listened closely but there didn’t seem to be anything else Robby wanted to say.
“How you lose a boy Robby?”
“We’ll get him back, boss. You know that.” It seemed ridiculous to hear the words coming from such an educated mouth.
Where was the boy now?
The afternoon traffic heading into the western peninsula was heavy. Coming out of Sangre Grande, that first town that began the trek west across the north of the island, the sun began its descent in a bloody sky shot with tinctures of violet and saffron, delicate as jaundice.
Locked in the drawer of his office at home, Chale kept the birth certicates of his children and their mother. His own birth certificate, he kept folded in his wallet. In another locked drawer, he kept a small leather sheath that held a few photographs and some old clippings.
As he drove, he thought about Daniel. About how long he could last in the forest. He’d only recently learned the boy had come from whaling people. He didn’t even know the boy had white blood but who could tell anything about bloodlines looking at people. People could be hiding in plain sight. The whiteness had long been bred out of Daniel but when you looked at him, that old Bermuda blood was still there in the light eyes. That and an impressive ability to handle a boat on the open water. That was one of the things that had made him so useful to them. But now, he was gone. Had slipped away from them. The question now was how to tell Ralph.
Ralph du Bois’s office was a pompous place. The room felt as stuffed and overfed as the Minister of National Security. Topaz cufflinks and a Mont Blanc pen. A suit that must have come from Saville Row in London. Chale knew nice things but he also knew that Ralph would never think that a cocaine dealer who worked from a scabby village would know about fine things. This suited Chale. It still amazed him that well educated people thought drug dealers were thugs. He wondered what Ralph would say if he saw the precision that went into keeping track of the money that passed through Chale’s hands.
Ralph was searching intently on his desk for something and did not look up to meet the other man’s eyes.
“Where is the boy?”
“We lost him.”
“You lost him?” The Minister stopped his searching, stilled his hands and looked up. How hard could it have been for your men to hold him? He’s a goddam child.”
Chale sat looking out the window at the sun. From where he sat he could see the outline of Venezuela’s mountain range, just miles away from the northern peninsula. Through a haze of Sahara dust, the dying sun cut patterns of gold, thousands of pixelated amber squares that covered the surface of the gulf and stretched all the way back to the mainland.
“I’ll find him.”
Chale wondered if Ralph knew the half of it. Daniel had really fucked them over. Chale’s relationship with the government was complicated and needed constant diplomacy. There should be diplomats trained just in the delicate art of negotiating the cutbacks and protection money that supported the parallel narco-economy. Chale worked hard to keep his place as one of the bigger players. He always kept his word. But every now and then, he had to get his hands dirty and deal with a rogue employee. He hadn’t had one in a long time. Maybe a decade. And he must be getting old because he hadn’t seen it coming with Daniel.
He’d grown to love the boy. Had seen his potential and had begun unconsciously grooming him. He never saw the naked ambition. What else would possess a fifteen year old to begin striking deals with the mainland suppliers? And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d turned snitch, had thought that he could play one off against the other and had begun leaking information about the operation back to the government. Thinking he was playing double agent. That’s how the whole mess had ended up on Ralph’s desk. How was Daniel to know they were all in it together. It was understood that each side would keep their employees under control. And a fifteen year old had almost fucked it all up. Chale knew Ralph thought he had no choice but to hand the boy over.
“So what now?” Ralph looked away from Chale and resumed searching the papers on his desk. “What’s the plan now?”
“He has to turn up. I’ll check all my contacts here and put the word out on the street. But he may have already gone to the mainland.”
When Chale’s cell phone rings, he is pulling up to the guard who sits at the entrance of the gated community in which he lives. While the guard opens the barrier for Chale, he picks up the call.
“Tell me Robby.”
“I have him.”
The houses in the gated compound are elaborately landscaped and watered. His wife has worked hard on their garden and it is neat with stone walls and overflowing banks of colour. When he parks his car, he sees that she has already lit the line of junipers flanking the path to the door. While he listens to Robby on the telephone, he looks at his wife move around the kitchen. She is spotlit behind the large plate glass window. No burglar proofing. He’d ordered the shatterproof glass from Miami so he could live without bars on his windows. From the darkness of his car, he can watch her move around the room as if she is an actress on stage. Around her are the sharp edges of stainless steel appliances and the directed beams of downlighters. His son is soon in the room with her. He is the same age as Daniel. But luckily he’s never been much use on the water.
“Hold him for me. I’ll come up later and deal with him.” He is thinking of Daniel on the water as he looks at his son. “Secure him properly Robby, we can’t afford to lose him again.”
The man on the other side of the line is quiet. Chale knows that Robby is wondering why that plan has changed.
“What about Mr. Ralph?”
“You don’t worry about Mr. Ralph. I will deal with Daniel.”
After dinner, Chale locks the door to his office and unlocks the drawer with the leather wallet. From it, he pulls out the clippings.
He knows them by heart.
Undeneath the clipping of the guns is a second one, even more fragile. It has torn in the corners. He has one in English and there was also another one published in French. It is the same notice.
The date visible still on the bottom of the paper.
From the Subscriber, about 10 days since a Negress named Caroline, lately imported from Bermuda, but a native of Africa of the Caramanti nation; she is about twenty five years old, 5 feet 5 inches high, rather light complexion, speaks English and a little French; and was last seen a few days since in the Orange Grove Barracks. All persons are forbid, harboring or employing her after this Notice, under the Penalty of the Law. The usual reward will be given for securing her.
June 6th 1821
He will use the pistols to frighten the boy. That is all. The real action will need more than old pistols with defunct barrels. He imagines, not for the first time, the heat of the forest and the eventual capture. His great great grandmother. His own father had known her. He had not known there was an Joell blood left on the island. If the boy had not been so good on the water, he would never have asked. Who are your people? Had there been a strange sense of kinship? Hiding in plain sight. He’d spent his life looking for Joells but he’d been looking for the white faces. He has restored the old Fowling Piece so that it still shoots smoothly. He has never used it to kill but he likes the sense of grandeur it brings to a situation. Almost a sense of chivalry. He rises slowly and unlocks the glass case to remove the pistols, slipping them into a light muslin bag.
Before he leaves the room, he sits again and reads the last of the clippings.
Yesterday day morning an infant, apparently about two or three days old, was found washed onshore at the St. Vincent St. Wharf. It had a small cord tied tight around its neck, to which it appeared as if a stone or some other weighty substance had been attached, probably, though we can scarcely imagine human nature to be so horribly depraved, for the purpose of assisting to drown the poor little creature; what renders the act still more heinious in that case, is the supposition that the very creatures who gave it existence were privy to the crime, if not the actual of their offspring. But, they may rest assured however they may succeed in screening themselves from the arm of the Law or the indelible shame attached to the perpetration of the foulest of crimes, it has brought with it its own punishment and that remorse will accompany the remainder of their days.
Dec 24th 1821
This had probably been the first of them. How many of them were there? The first she’d been able to drown like a kitten. How many more? She’d been recaptured, that he knew. She’d tried to drown all of Joell’s babies. That was the story that had come down with the guns. The story of their family. His great grandfather stealing the guns to try and protect her and her Joell big belly. But one had slipped through. One had survived, hiding in plain sight. That much they knew. Joell had taken one from her as it was born. She had never seen the child again.
“So how you so good on the water, boy?” Chale had asked Daniel once.
“My mother’s people used to catch whales. White man thing.”
“You ever hear the name Joell?”
The boy had stopped and looked at him, his light eyes intelligent.
“Yes, that’s the name. How you know?”
Sharon Millar is the Trinidadian author of The Whale House and Other Stories, longlisted for the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize. She is the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2012 Small Axe Short Fiction Award. She is a part-time lecturer at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, where she teaches prose fiction.