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The Drums Drone Death

By J. Allan Dunn

I.

JOHN CARTER, lean, long, redheaded American, clean-shaven and immaculate in whites, sat at his desk in the bungalow that was his official residence, conning his daily list of Melanesian words.

Without doubt the youngest man ever to be appointed to the rank of police commissioner, it was no easy job he held in the New Hebrides, where a dual British and French government holds sway over that archipelago of far-flung, savage isles, where the bushmen still serve man meat baked in the ovens, and call it "long pig."

At Port Vila, on the island of Vate, are two resident commissioners, two judges, British and French, to administer respectively the affairs of their own countrymen, while the high commissioners have control over the native chiefs—at least nominally. A president, chosen from a neutral race, preserves impartiality in the courts, and Carter held the same relationship to the two chiefs of police, outranking them.

There had been much consultation between consulates and even embassies before he had been selected. The qualifications called for were stringent. Eventually, the United States agreed to give indefinite leave to a junior officer of the customs service—and John Carter was the man.

French he knew from his mother, a Quebec Canadian. He could fly an amphibian, and he had had varied experiences with smugglers and illicit immigrants, with rumrunners and passport fakers. His I. Q. rated high and his physical test was tops.

Carter's girl was back in the States, waiting for him to make good. She came of a wealthy family and while love overrode social standings, the pay of a junior in the customs service fell far short of what Carter—not the girl—decided was necessary before matrimony could be definitely contemplated.

They were not even engaged, although that did not matter. Doris Ogden was a girl who knew her own heart and mind; while she did not entirely disregard conventions, she was very much in love with the tall, virile Carter, not precisely handsome from a Hollywood standpoint, but all man.

She respected his principles about marital income from his standpoint, but not from her own. They had agreed upon a compromise. The New Hebrides appointment might lead to something well worth while and she was coming out to him when that end was in sight; thrilled with the thought of a tropic honeymoon, of life with John in a wildly foreign land.

Carter told himself he had to make good. He had the incentive and the enthusiasm, he believed he had the ability; but things had not run too smoothly. There had been some jealousy among his fellow officers, but that was nothing to the attitude of the chiefs of police, French and British; the judges.

The resident commissioners had received him affably, but he had still to prove himself. The chiefs of police, over whom he had nominal jurisdiction, would be glad to see him turn out a failure. They resented his appointment, and they did not cooperate.

So far, no important assignment had come his way. He would have to carve that way for himself, he saw, make himself indispensable. If only—

HIS GAZE wandered from the list of words to the portrait of Doris on his desk. Dark-eyed, dark-haired, winsome and wistful—to John Carter

. . . the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.

Not that he felt himself another Hector, or an Ulysses. His duty ranked high with him, united with his love and all his ambition for Doris and himself. In many ways John Carter was single- minded, as he was clean-minded. He was a born executive, blessed with intuition toward human beings—very human himself—and Doris was his guiding star, his mate. They thought and saw the same way about things. She was, he told himself, so charged with feeling, so damned sensible about main issues, and with a romantic streak that tied up with his commission at Port Vila.

What a wife she would make—to help him handle problems—to—

He knew himself getting sentimental as he visioned Doris with him—Doris at Government House—mistress of the bungalow—and of him. Things got a bit mixed when he considered Doris. He applied himself to the list. Melanesian was not hard to master. Mostly nouns, strung together in various meanings and combinations. If a man learned five hundred basic words—

Futu stood in the open doorway, saluting punctiliously.

Futu was a sort of bush wizard, attached to the courts as interpreter. That called for certain fees and privileges that gave him importance among the natives.

He was dressed officially in white Sulu skirt, drill monkey jacket and red sash, plus a secondhand Sam Browne belt.

He was intelligent enough though his eyes were like those of a monkey, bright, shallow, and shifty, seeming to swim on the whites, like a compass card on alcohol. They held native cunning rather than any deep reasoning faculty.

At the present moment he was in a little trouble with the courts, under suspicion of suppressed evidence and the possible sharing of stolen goods.

For that reason, when he had received, by bush Marconi, a message boomed across the miles by a sending drum manipulated on Mallicolo by Lasi, ancient tindalo, or witch doctor, Futu had decided to bring it direct to Kariteri—the native rendition of Carter.

Kariteri had a mana—a psychic force—that enabled him to tell when Futu was lying, and further compelled his respect.

Moreover, Kariteri might give him a couple of shillings, and help him fix matters with the police chiefs and the judges.

Outside the bungalow, in the garden, he spat twice, blew his nose violently between thumb and forefinger, carefully buried saliva and mucus, treading down the dirt.

Now he stood before the presence.

HE SAW Carter's gray eyes fixed upon him, noted the clean line of the Amerikani's jaw. He was stern, this boss polisimani, but he was far more human that the stolid Beritani—Britishers? or the excitable Manaweewees—the French, so dubbed by the natives as the men who were always saying "oui, oui."

"Come in, you rascal. Shut the door. Now what is it?"

Futu grinned, scratched the calf of one bare leg with the prehensile toes of his foot.

"I catchum drum talkee. All same talkee come from Mallicolo. I think mebbe plenty trouble walk along that place."

Carter was studying native customs as well as the language. He knew far more than Futu, or anybody else, guessed. To all intents and purposes he was, as police commissioner, head of the detective bureau, and such information was vital. He knew about the sending drums, bowls of exact size, filled with precisely the same amounts of water, used for inter-island communication. He was trying to master its code—or codes, for there seemed more than one.

"Get on with it, Futu."

Futu rolled his eyes in the effort to translate.

"White Mary, she speak too much trouble along Tomasi place, all same Mallicolo. She say boss polisimani come plenty quick. She say maybe matemate too soon."

It was plain enough. Carter knew "white Mary" meant any white woman, and that matemate meant killing, probably murder.

"Who sent that drum talkee, Futu?"

Futu rolled his eyes once more, scratched his fuzzy hair, bleached rusty with lime to keep down its population. His gaze fixed covetously as Carter brought a bright silver florin from his pocket.

"I think Lasi send. Him big tindalo. I think, suppose you go along Mallicolo, better you take me?"

Carter looked out the window. Shadows were lengthening, the land wind stirring. Sunset was near, and sudden tropic, moonless night.

He meant to play this solo. It was inside information, it looked like real trouble, it seemed his first real opportunity.

"Tomasi" would mean Thomas, he knew; no doubt a Britisher. Carter got along fairly well with the British resident commissioner; better with his secretary, Aylwin, a good egg, if somewhat quaint in his ways.

There was a mystery here, Carter fancied? murder pending or already done. If he could clean it up—

"You like to ride in aitumanu?" he asked. Futu shuddered, his brown skin grayed and goose-fleshed. He spat furtively in the palm of his hand, to bury the spittle later.

The aitumanu—ghost bird, in native—was Carter's amphibian, bought by the government for his use. Above all things Futu craved to ride in it. It would give him immeasurable prestige, but? His belly twisted; it seemed filled with the black and yellow boas of the bush.

The aitumanu was white man's mana. To fly with the ghost bird would place him altogether and forever in the power of white spirits. It was like answering the ghosts that prowled after nightfall and whispered to a man, seeking to supplant his soul.

"No can do," he answered sorrowfully. His eyes brightened as he deftly caught the coin Carter tossed him.

"Wait," Carter said. "I write chit. You take along Aliwini. I think you catch at club."

II.

AYLWIN was, to resident commissioners, what first secretaries of legation are to ambassadors. They might have the drag, but he did all the hauling. He was indispensable. Commissioners might—and did—come and go, but Aylwin, like the brook, went on forever.

He was a tall, gaunt, elderly, baldish Englishman with a straw-colored mustache, pale- blue eyes, and an Adam's apple that bobbed up and down when he ate or talked, like a fishing float when a perch is making up its mind to swallow the bait.

He was a living encyclopedia of everything that had happened in New Hebrides on the British side since his arrival. A good deal about the French and native sides, and some of what had gone on before his time.

Carter had a liking for him, on account of his efficiency and readiness to help the newcomer, at first; afterward for Aylwin's self. He was shrewd, thorough, conservative, and eccentric, but he was human enough, especially after a few drinks.

Carter had Scotch and soda ready for him when he arrived from the club where Futu had found him. In the chit Carter had included the drumgram message.

Aylwin said nothing until he had sizzed half his glass, with a "cheerio" to Carter. Then he had plenty to say, but did it succinctly, as if he had assembled certain facts in his orderly way.

"I say, look here, Carter. This is all a bit odd. I don't like that message. No doubt it's authentic, though Futu is a bit of a faker, y' know. Doubt if he'd cook up this. But I can't quite see the girl?'white Mary' means any white woman, of course—I can't quite see the girl at Thomas' place getting a tindalo to boom off a message for her."

"There is a girl, then."

"Yes, and she's an American, by the way. Matemate means killing, possibly murder."

Aylwin drank again with his absurd throat working. Carter knew what "white Mary" and matemate meant well enough, but he did not ...

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