THE FACE IN THE TREES
James D. Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
THE CHASE HAD BEEN a long one, but soon it would be over. The Phantom stopped and scanned the jungle before him. Thickly overgrown, it was almost impenetrable; however, the three fugitives with their prisoner had opened a path for him in their three month long rush to escape. Still, it would be foolish, if not deadly, to follow blindly where they led. He had not survived so long in the jungle by being careless. He had no desire to become the ghost they thought him to be.
Seeing no fresh sign of them he set out again, heading south along the west coast of Africa. Even though it was far from his native Bangalla, the jungle was as familiar to him as his own. He pushed aside a frond of leaves and stopped dead in his tracks. In front of him, where he never expected to see one, was a log cabin. He slipped back into the jungle and peered at the structure. He could see no movement, but he was in no hurry to announce himself to anyone within. He waited a while, scanning the area. He noted the general air of disuse and decay. However, some small things puzzled him. The door was open but it looked like it was still functional and could close.
The hunter circled the cabin and found the tracks of the three fugitives leading away from the cabin. He should go after them and not waste his time on the deserted cabin, but he had to see inside. Approaching the door, he noted it had been unlatched and not broken as he had expected. Inside the single room was sparsely furnished. He saw the skeleton of the man first and then the one of the woman on the bed, if the clothes it wore were of any significance. Beside the bed was a crib which held another skeleton. This one was of a baby. It was obvious the place had been deserted for years. After all a human being would have at least buried the bodies. Vowing to return, the hunter stepped out of the cabin and latched the door. That would keep out any animals.
In a moment, he was back on the trail, calculating how many miles the fugitives had gained on him during his investigation of the cabin. He figured he would catch up to them late in the afternoon but well before dark.
Several hours later he slowed his pursuit. The fugitives could not be far. He sharpened his senses and moved on.
A limb on a tree next to the trail was bent and broken. The manhunter stopped short. This was a danger sign. He had followed their spoor easily for miles without ever seeing a branch broken. The white slash of exposed wood screamed of a trap. He looked left and right. He saw where one of the three had turned aside and was probably hiding in ambush just ahead.
Taking a step to the side, the hunter disappeared into the foliage without a sound. Despite the skin-tight, purple suit he wore, the man was now almost invisible. He looked again and saw a slight movement in the brush ahead. One of the fugitives was hiding there, no doubt, his spear close to hand.
A grim smile split the hunter's ivory-brown face, revealing even white teeth beneath the black domino mask. A quick glance around sent him into the tree above him with scarce a rustle of leaves to mark his passing.
He swung through the trees from branch to branch with the ease of one jungle-born. Trained from his youth for the job at hand, the manhunter quietly positioned himself above the fugitive.
Below him the native sweated, sending up a scent it was impossible to miss. It was fear. Good, the hunter thought. It would serve him in good stead if it came to a confrontation.
Leaving the ambusher behind the hunter searched ahead for the other two. He found them in a small glade nearby. They sat together, back to back with the princess between them. Their frightened eyes searched the jungle around them for their enemy, not knowing he was but a stone's throw away.
He backtracked to the other fugitive and looked him over again. The man was obviously settled in for a wait. Nodding silently, the hunter moved off and found some fruit. He would have preferred meat, but he was not prepared to shoot anything and alert the fugitives to his presence. The fugitives might harm or kill the Princess. The Singh Pirates would not pay as well for the head of the princess, but he was sure they would still want proof of her death if they could not have her. He would eat the fruit and then return to the fugitives. He would hunt later.
Having satisfied his hunger, the hunter settled himself into the crook of a tree. He was too much of a jungle creature to attack the other two men in their present position. And to take the one at the trail too soon would warn the others of his presence. Night would come soon and he would take them all then.
* * * * * * * *
Elmo leaped from one branch to another with the carefree abandon of a child. Even though he looked every inch a grown man, his young body had not reached twelve years. Bronzed to a nut brown by years of life in the open, he blended into the jungle like the rest of the Great Apes. Kala proudly watched her son at play with the other ape children. Even though he had been so small and weak when she had found him in the wooden cave, he was now as strong as any of the apes his age. He was also tall and straight. His face and body had no hair, his mouth was small, his teeth puny and insignificant, but he had the shiny tooth. She wondered why he put the strange covers on his body and the feathers in his hair, but he was her son and no one would dare tease him or they would incur her wrath. A grub poked its head out from under the rock she was turning over. In a moment her every thought was on the food in front of her and not on her son.
Elmo screeched again as he leaped to another branch, accurately guaging its strength and suppleness. He grabbed it in one hand, allowing it to spring him up and out to another branch. In this way he travelled from tree to tree, leaving the tribe behind him. As soon as they were out of sight, Elmo stopped his screeching and swung silently through the jungle towards his wooden cave. He was bored. He needed something to interest him, but he knew not what. There was always something new to be discovered at his wooden cave.
Reaching the cave he found it disturbed, his books were scattered across the floor and the cabinets opened. Nothing had been taken, but the very fact that someone had been inside angered the boy.
He sniffed the air and discovered the scent of four men and a woman. Three of the men were Gomangani as was the woman but the fourth scent was unfamiliar. It was similar to the Gomangani but different somehow. Still, it did not matter. They had violated his house and they would pay for it with their lives.
In a rage, he took his bow and followed the intruders. He would find them and kill them for invading his place.
The Gomangani were clumsy and left a trail even Manu the monkey could follow, but the other was well versed in jungle craft. He left scarce a trail, but, even though it was small, Elmo had no difficulty following it. He found the first Gomangani hidden off of the trail. It was but the work of a moment to drop on the man and plunge his knife into the man's heart. Elmo threw up his head and gave forth the victory cry of the bull ape, before disappearing into the verdant jungle.
* * * * * * * *
The Phantom woke with a start. He had fallen asleep after his meal, but always with one ear open and one eye slitted. But the scream was as loud as it was unexpected. He leaped to the ground and rushed back to the trail. He found the ambusher dead with one wound in him, a stab wound that went straight to the heart. There was no sign of a struggle. The wound could only have been made by a knife, but how could someone have reached the victim and stabbed him so hard as to leave the impression of the guard on the skin? The Phantom slipped back into the trees as the other two pirates came crashing up to the slain man.
* * * * * * * *
They jabbered to each other and rolled their eyes as they huddled in superstitious fear. Elmo recognized the word for demon and ghost, but understood little else of their speech. He watched as the two blundered away, trailed by the other. He followed them all and nocked an arrow. He circled them and let the two Gomangani pass and then shot the purple demon. It struck true and square in the belly, but bounced off. In an instant the demon had disappeared. Elmo sat stunned. He knew he had not missed, but the arrow had not penetrated. He wondered at the powers of the demon and decided to watch. He was not afraid, but even Numa the lion avoided Tantor the elephant. It was not bravery to fight another too powerful to kill.
The Phantom hid in the brush, his gun in his hand. The arrow had nearly knocked him off his feet. He rubbed his aching stomach. It was a lucky thing the arrow had struck his broad buckle. He thanked his forefathers for their incredible foresight in designing a costume that had something of a shield built into it. He examined the buckle and found it dented. Whoever had shot him was a very strong man. He retrieved the arrow and put it in his belt. He searched the trees and saw a small white spot in a tree about forty yards away. It was the face of a child. The boy had a scar that ran from his hairline to his eyebrow. It was inflamed now. Perhaps in anger, the Phantom thought.
All of a sudden the Phantom was plunged into a fight for his life. It happened thus--
The fugitives had returned and seeing their comrade lying dead, were positive the Phantom was planning to kill them. In a rage of despair they raised their spears and charged flat out at him, hoping to kill the "Ghost Who Walks", the "Man Who Cannot Die" before he killed them. The Phantom realized he was in a bad spot. He could shoot one of the men, but not both before they were upon him.
The still angry Elmo shot at the Gomangani. Those at least he could kill. His arrow pierced the first one in the throat. The man threw out his arms and sank to his knees before rolling onto his side. Elmo had scarce nocked another arrow to shoot the other Gomangani when he heard the noise of thunder. He looked at the cloudless sky, puzzled, then down at the demon whose hand smoked like a green fire.
The Phantom had raised his gun and fired at the same time as Elmo shot the first man. Both fell as one. Elmo and the Phantom stared at each other for a moment before Elmo disappeared into the trees.
Puzzling over the presence of the boy in the jungle, the Phantom collected the Princess and began the trek home. He promised one day to return and discover the secret of the face in the trees.
Elmo watched from the jungle as the demon and the Gomangani woman walked away from the cabin. As long as the demon left him alone, Elmo was satisfied.
THE MUSEUM WAS NOT MUCH by European standards, being but two stories high and housed in an old barracks building from the colonial days. The history of Bangalla contained inside its brick walls was mostly from the colonial times but some of it was of more recent origin. Still, it was a plush post for a new graduate patrolman from the Jungle Patrol. Private Briggs was proud to have been chosen out of the graduating class of twenty patrolmen. He paced his post with back ramrod straight and eyes forward. Unfortunately, this passion for his job was what killed him. Had he been a little more relaxed he might have seen the shadow move in the darkness, little more than a restless jerking of a nervous hand as it caressed a black-bladed knife. As the trooper turned at the end of his posting, his heels clicking on the pavement, the killer leaped from the shadows and a hand curled around the guard's throat, cutting off his victim's cry before it had a chance to leave his lips. His dying eyes bulged as the hand tightened on his neck. A sharp knife slipped between the ribs of his back just under the heart. The blade angled up and pierced his heart, which burst in his chest. Private Briggs was dead before his body slid to the ground.
After a quick glance around to see if anyone had heard the nearly silent scuffle, the shadow entered the museum and left it a few minutes later with nothing more than an old journal curled in its arms, leaving the gold mask of the king and the jade necklace of the queen behind undisturbed.
Minutes later the shadow crept up the gangplank of a three masted yacht tied up to the quay. He tiptoed forward on the polished deck endeavoring to keep quiet. He passed an open porthole in the white washed wall, pausing to look inside. The massive form on the bed stirred slightly. The terrified shadow cringed until the sleeper settled back, resuming the deep breathing that signified sleep. Sighing silently, the furtive figure crept forward and into the crew's quarters.
Inside the cabin, the sleeper raised his head and smiled in the darkness before resuming his disturbed slumber.
* * * * * * * *
Colonel Flynn woke up from a sound sleep when the Sergeant barged into his room shouting that one of their own was dead. In moments Flynn was aware of the details, sketchy though they were, of the robbery and murder. A minute later, after dressing quickly, Colonel Flynn was at the radio set calling the Commander of the Patrol to report the bizarre incident.
The commander had only one question: "What was taken?" When told it was the 20 year old journal of the Kidnapped Princess, the commander grunted. "Carry on," was all he said before signing off.
Corporal Thoms turned to Colonel Flynn. "What did he mean, Sir?"
"Call the Officer of the Day to my office. I'll need to speak with the patrolman in charge of the investigation."
The corporal confirmed the order then asked, hesitantly "Colonel, just who is the Commander?"
Flynn smiled wryly, "Don't ask, corporal, it's best you do not know."
The colonel left the puzzled signalman behind as he returned to his own office. What he dared not let his subordinate know was that he himself did not know the answer to the soldier's question. No one knew who the commander of the Jungle Patrol was. The rumors were preposterous. The commander was a Phantom who had lived for 400 years. Even the origins of the Patrol were lost in the mists of time. Some said the Patrol was founded by a pirate crew the Phantom had subdued, winning the captaincy of their ship by beating their captain in single hand-to-hand combat. Flynn did not know who was the commander but he was glad the man was there.
* * * * * * * *
The Phantom sat back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought about the robbery. Something was familiar about that particular journal. His father had been the rescuer of the Princess. Shortly after his return he had been killed by pirates. His son had returned to the jungle and donned the costume of the Phantom, continuing their 400 year fight for justice.
The Phantom leaped from his chair by the radio and strode through the Skull Cave to the library. The walls of the room, carved from the living rock centuries ago, were lined with volume after volume of the Phantom Chronicles, the history of the line of protectors which descended from the cabin boy of Christopher Columbus. Selecting a volume, the Phantom sat at the table in the center of the room and began to read.
His father had chased down a band of ten men who had abducted the Princess for the Singh Pirates. Their mission was to take her to the pirate base and deliver her to the leader of that vicious pack of jungle wolves. However, the Phantom had caught up with the boat and had boarded it during the night. In the ensuing fighting he had despatched five of the pirates, but five had gotten away, fleeing south across the desert into the jungles of the west coast of Africa. Two of the fugitives had died in an ambush gone awry shortly after the band had reached the jungle. The chronicles did not describe the fighting but the Phantom knew without the need for words that the killers and his father had fought hard and violently. The rest had fled further south in an effort to escape from their nemesis. He had caught up with them just after finding a log cabin built in a small inlet on the coast. The cabin had held three skeletons: man, woman and child. His father had vowed to return to the cabin and discover what had happened to the family living there, why they had been stranded where no white man had ever been before. In the hours that had passed following the discovery of the cabin, he had been shot by an arrow which had bounced off his belt buckle. One of the abductors died mysteriously, stabbed through the heart without a trace of violence on him except the small hole where a large knife had penetrated his heart.
Later, the other two had attacked his father without warning. The chronicle related the elder Phantom's belief that certain death nigh since there was no time to fire upon both, but at the same instant his father shot and killed one man the other fell to the ground clawing at an arrow protruding from his neck.
The bowman was a man-sized child of approximately twelve years, though developed with the muscularity of a god. The chronicle remarked upon a livid scarlet scar on the boy's forehead--briefly seen before the youth disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared.
The Princess was found safe and all that remained was the journey home. The Phantom smiled as he closed the volume, for that trek had been an adventure in itself. His father had discovered a ruined city full of fabulous treasure, fought jungle animals and, after various trials, delivered the Princess to her people weeks later.
The Phantom frowned below his domino mask. His father had not been a gifted map maker so the only way to discover the location of the lost city would be from the Princess' journal.
Returning to the radio, the Phantom called Colonel Flynn ordered him to ready a patrol car to take a "Mr. Walker" to the morgue to examine the evidence.
Calling to his pygmy warriors he had them saddle his horse Thunder. He rode to the edge of the jungle with a band of Bandari. At the rendezvous point he put on a trench coat and hat, covering his eyes with dark glasses.
The two patrol men who came to the meeting sat nervously as they were surrounded by the Pygmy Poison People. The Phantom smiled grimly, "Don't worry, they know you are friends." As the car disappeared around the bend, the Bandar disappeared into the jungle, taking Thunder with them.
Less than an hour later the Phantom was in possession of all of the evidence he needed. A smear of a mixture of tar, oil, brass polish and grease told him the perpetrator was a seaman who worked on a sailing ship.
Colonel Flynn confronted Mr. Walker as he left the morgue. "What can you tell me about the theft, sir?"
A grim smile broke the half-hidden face, revealing even white teeth against the dark skin. "I can't tell you much more than that the killer was a seaman on a sailing ship. How many ships left port today?"
Flynn scratched his chin. "The only ships that sailed are the _Mombasa_, a freighter heading to India, the _Carnarvon_, heading to China, and the _Swiftwind_, heading to Marseilles, France."
"Who owns the _Swiftwind_?"
"I believe it's registered to an Achmed Shaw."
The Phantom grunted. Achmed Shaw, one of the Singh Brotherhood. "I need passage on a fast ship to Marseilles at once. See to it, Colonel."
The soldier saluted as the Phantom left. He wondered who the man was and why he instinctively obeyed the man's commands. Was he the Commander? Shrugging, he hurried to the shipping office at the port authority.
* * * * * * * *
The seaman woke to the rough shaking of his shoulder. "What is it?"
"Mr. Shaw wants to see you."
The seaman looked up to see the hulking form of Mr. Shaw's personal bodyguard. He shivered with an unnamed apprehension as he rose. The deck swayed under his feet. That meant that the ship was at sea.
Moments later he was escorted into the august presence of the owner of the _Swiftwind_, who sat at the table, a sumptuous breakfast spread before him. Daintily raising a tid-bit to his full, pendulous lips, he stared at the seaman, examining him like a particularly unappetizing morsel which one had to swallow. He chewed the food quietly, watching as the seaman began to sweat. Finally he wiped his lips with a silken napkin which he threw on the table.
"Where is it?"
"Where is what, Sir?"
At a nod from the immaculately dressed owner, the bodyguard swung a ham-sized fist into the side of the seaman's head. The seaman struggled to right himself, but only succeeded in rolling over before Mr. Shaw placed his foot on the man's neck. "I am not a fool. Last night you took the Journal. Where is it?"
The seaman moaned the location. After a few strained minutes the Journal rested in the owner's hands. He flipped through the pages, frowning as he tried to read the writing. It was in a language foreign to him. French, he thought. However he would have it translated. He saw the map in the middle of the book, noting the location of the treasure and of what looked like a cabin on the coast.
A groan from the man on the floor brought him out of his reverie. "Throw that scum to the fishes," he said.
The doomed man screamed. His screams continued as he was dragged out of the cabin and thrown over the side of the ship and only ended after the sharks had closed in.
* * * * * * * *
The Phantom signed the register at the Savoy Hotel in a firm hand, "Mr. Walker, Mawitaan, Bangalla."
He had followed the _Swiftwind_ from Bangalla across the water until it reached France. He had lost track of the Journal shortly after arriving in Marseilles, but he was certain he would find it soon.
After a short rest in his room, the Phantom slipped out the window of his suite and travelled along the ledge until he reached the fire escape. Clambering down the ladder was the work of a minute and he slid into the shadows.
Less than an hour later a powerful form looked down on a dark alley watching two men stagger down the pavement. One slipped behind the other and swung a blackjack at the other's head. As the first man was rifling his victim's pockets a massive forearm encircled the throat of the denizen of the Rue Morgue who was kneeling over the unconscious body of his robbery victim, cutting off the scream that formed in his throat before it could break out. The Phantom was becoming impatient to have his answers this was the fourth crook he had waylaid tonight. The frightened man held suspended by the corded muscles of the arm around his neck heard a harsh voice whisper in his ear. "Why did Achmed Singh come to Marseilles?"
The frenchman struggled in vain, clawing at the arm. The vice around his throat tightened until he slumped weakly to the ground. "Do not try my patience. Answer the question."
"He had a journal he wanted translated. The Rat translated it for him."
"Where is Achmed Shaw now?"
"He is not here. He left for England yesterday."
"Where is he going?"
"He is going to see John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. The Rat could not find a certain place the map inside the journal showed. He owns property in the area."
Powerful hands grasped the frenchman's collar and raised him to his feet. Pushing him against the wall, the Phantom held the man high so only his toes touched the ground. "Look at me. Remember me. If you have lied to me I will return and do more to you than this." With those words the Phantom's fist moved in a short arc and impacted on the frenchman's jaw.
In the morning the gendarmes found the robber lying, trussed with his belt, beside his victim, the stolen money stuffed in his coat pocket, an unusual bruise on the man's chin. The discoloration looked like a skull. To the thief's eternal dismay it never wore off or healed.
A steam locomotive train left Marseilles that morning carrying "Mr. Walker" to Calais. He would gain almost twenty-four hours on his prey.
* * * * * * * *
John Clayton put the newspaper down with relief. Even after all these years, he still was uncomfortable getting his news from paper and not from his own senses. The gathering clouds of war plagued his thoughts as he looked at the butler who entered following the diffident knock on the door to the library. "Yes, Henry, what is it?"
"A man to see you, my lord. He says it is about a journal of a trip down the west coast of Africa."
Raising an eyebrow, Lord Greystoke nodded his visitor in.
A huge man, immaculately dressed in evening clothes entered the book-lined room. Like a bear pushing its way through the brush he stopped just inside the doorway and stared at the lord of the manor.
He was surprised at the size of the man in the finely cut suit. From his black shoes to his equally black hair, he stood well over six feet tall, though he was so symmetrically muscled he appeared normal-sized until one came face to chest with him. Even Achmed Shaw had to raise his eyes to him. This disturbed the pirate more than he dared reveal, so he pasted a smile on his face and raised a hand to his host.
Taking the hand in a firm grip, Elmo asked, "To what do I owe this honor, Mr. Shaw?" He had smelled the slight fear on the other man and smiled inwardly. He did not like this man particularly, but he could find no reason for his dislike except for his jungle trained instincts, Instincts honed to a razor edge where a mistake could--and often did--lead to death.
The pirate's brow broke out in a sweat because the hand gripping his own was slowly crushing it. He had unwisely tried to impress the giant with his power. Suddenly, he felt the pressure lessen and Elmo loosed the hand.
"Lord Greystoke, I understand you are familiar with the west coast of Africa."
"I have a journal I would like you to see. If you could translate it for me, I would appreciate it."
Elmo was about to refuse this man but he found himself asking, "Do you have it with you?"
Opening the briefcase Achmed Shaw removed the Journal.
Elmo moved over to the window and opened the book. Turning the pages so fast it seemed he was not reading, Elmo read about the terrible ordeal the Princess had endured.
* * * * * * * *
The Phantom left London on the first train north. He hired a cab at the station and soon was approaching an inn near the Greystoke Estate. He stepped down from the taxi and paid the cabman to wait for him at the pub. Taking the generous tip, the driver agreed to wait.
The Phantom asked directions to the estate and left the inn at a mile-eating lope. He could run for hours at that pace but he had travelled less than fifteen minutes when he saw the ivy-covered hall rising above the lush grounds surrounding it. Circling the edifice the Phantom saw Shaw's vehicle outside the front door. Continuing around the hall he discovered a tree that grew a little too close to the house. He had shinnied up the tree trunk and had gained a large branch that grew towards the open window. Looking inside he saw Achmed Shaw and a stranger discussing the book. He settled to await developments, he did want to find out what was so important about the Journal to interest Achmed Shaw.
* * * * * * * *
Achmed Shaw became agitated as the pages turned swiftly. The giant stopped at the map and traced the trail of the pursuit and the trip inland. He recognized the story and the place. It was he who had been the face in the trees, the twelve year old child. The cabin was his ancestral home on the dark continent. A low growl escaped his lips as he realized what the man behind him intended.
"Where did you obtain this tome?"
"From my mother. Why do you ask?"
"I am surprised you would admit to having a Negress for your mother."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean this book was written by an African Princess about a terrible trip she made when she was kidnapped by Singh Pirates."
"How do you know it was a nigger who wrote it?
"I was there. I saw her."
"I do not believe you. How could you know?"
"I was born there. The cabin was my white parent's home. Where did you steal it?"
"How dare you? Give the book back to me."
"No, I think not. I will have it returned to the Princess' heirs. You may go."
Elmo turned slightly to toss the book on the table behind him. That error almost cost him his life, because the moment his eyes left Shaw, the man's hand slid inside his coat and whipped a gun out. It was drawing level with the Ape-man's chest when an explosion outside the room heralded the end of Achmed Shaw's life. A bullet was not intended to kill the pirate; unfortunately it struck the cylinder of the gun and ricocheted upward into the man's throat. Bubbles of blood burst from Shaw's lips as he struggled to drag breath but the bullet had done its grisly work. Achmed Shaw, villain, expired on Lord Greystoke's Indian carpet leaving a stain that would require a lengthy explanation to Lady Jane Porter Clayton when she returned home.
At the instant the explosion heralded Shaw's death, Elmo spun to look out the window. He saw the masked face of the demon of his youth, the one he had tried to kill with an arrow! The shadowy form disappeared in the foliage. For a moment Elmo thought to clamber out the window and chase down the man, for he knew it was no demon, but even as he had a leg over the sill ready to leap for the swaying limb the servants had rushed inside the room. Pandemonium reigned supreme.
Elmo quieted the servants and issued instructions to call the local constabulary. By then the "demon" was long gone. Were he in his native jungle the ape man would have immediately begun a search, no matter how lengthy, but he was in civilization and a body on the carpet required certain considerations in a lawful society.
Besides, Elmo thought with a grim smile, he did save my life. Let him leave in peace.
Representatives of the Home Office arrived early the next morning to collect the Princess' Journal. Soon it would be returned to its rightful place in the two-story museum in Mawitaan, Bangalla.