A rusting steel door stood closed against them and Banda hammered on it in a commanding manner, leaning back on his heels and rapping four or five times at calculated intervals as if a code were being transmitted. The door creaked open partway to reveal the haggard, apprehensive heads of three young men. But at the sight of the surgeon doctor they reeled back, enabling him to slither past them, with the result that Woodrow, left standing in the stinking hall, was treated to the hellish vision of his school dormitory given over to the AIDS-dead of all ages. Emaciated corpses lay two a bed. More corpses lay on the floor between them, some dressed, some naked on their backs or sides. Others had their knees drawn up in futile self-protection and their chins flung back in protest. Over them, in a swaying, muddy mist, hung the flies, snoring on a single note.
And at the center of the dormitory, parked by itself in the passage between the beds, stood matron's ironing board, on wheels. And on the ironing board, an arctic mass of winding-sheet, and two monstrous semihuman feet protruding from it, reminding Woodrow of the duck-feet bedroom slippers he and Gloria had given to their son Harry last Christmas. One distended hand had somehow contrived to remain outside the sheet. Its fingers were coated in black blood and the blood was thickest at the joints. Its fingertips were aquamarine blue. Use your imagination, Mr. Chancery. You know what happens to corpses in this heat?
"Mr. Justin Quayle, please," Dr. Banda Singh called, with the portent of a barker at a royal reception.
"I'm coming with you," Woodrow muttered and, with Justin at his side, stepped bravely forward in time to see Dr. Banda roll back the sheet and reveal Tessa's head, grossly caricatured and bound chin-to-skull in a strip of grimy cloth which had been led round the throat where her necklace had once hung. A drowning man rising to the surface for the last time, Woodrow recklessly took in the rest: her black hair plastered to her skull by some undertaker's comb. Her cheeks puffed out like a cherub's blowing up a wind. Her eyes closed and eyebrows raised and mouth open in lolling disbelief, black blood caked inside as if she'd had all her teeth pulled at the same time. You? she is blowing stupidly as they kill her, her mouth formed into an oo. You? But who does she say it to? Who is she ogling through her stretched white eyelids?
"You know this lady, sir?" Inspector Muramba inquired delicately of Justin.
"Yes. Yes, I do, thank you," Justin replied, each word carefully weighed before it was delivered. "It's my wife Tessa. We must fix her funeral, Sandy. She'll want it to be here in Africa as soon as possible. She's an only child. She has no parents. There is no one apart from me who needs to be consulted. Better make it as soon as possible."
"Well, I suppose that will have to depend a bit on the police," said Woodrow gruffly and was barely in time to make it to a cracked hand basin, where he vomited his heart out while Justin the ever-courteous stood at his shoulder with his arm round him, murmuring condolences.
Copyright © 2001 by David Cornwell.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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