I’ve been writing a length (well, more like in short snippets, but relatively often for this place) about the novel I was trying to complete for a the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing competition. I didn’t finish in time for the deadline, which is a shame, but I’m continuing to write. Here is the first chapter/prologue, entirely unedited and rough.
The Cazique’s Disciple
It was an untidy time when the semi-respectable had rested their heads by choice and drunkards had been forced into an involuntary slumber but the General and Daniel sat somewhere in between, still sipping a flask of rum at even turns and chatting the twilight to life. Neither man acted or called upon their rank in the exchange. There were no ranks or considerations in the twilight. Only deep yet idle conversation. Stuff that could sow regret in the mind of a hungover man. The kind to could find a man dead for the knowledge.
The General was from a far away land, on the other side of the Atlantic. Further than Florida and then some. It was called Scotland, and was by almost all counts a bleak and dreary place. This did not stop the General from speaking of it fondly and somewhat longingly. Still, it was no place that Daniel ever wished to make a life, let alone visit. Cold that chilled your bones and grey so that you could not see the sun. Beneath the gusto, Daniel suspected these were some of the reasons that the General found himself so far from home.
In the twilight, the two sat side by side next to a low fire. Their proximity was demanded by the need to pass the flask so frequently. It provided an eerie edge to the conversation as they both stared into the fire, somewhat drunk, somewhat sober, speaking in a manner which would have swayed a third person to think they were both having separate conversations with themselves. Some of what the General said reinforced this point.
Daniel grabbed the flask from the General’s light grasp, indicating his appreciation to the tacit release. With little acknowledgement of the handover, the General continued his stories, “I had to be someone, you see. There was never any try or fail, it was simply a be. Ultimately I guess I don’t mind that fact, but it’s what’s driven this rise of mine, you see. Only 30 and a General. How superb.”
A superb feat indeed for the charming Scotsman. Daniel, and the others privates fighting in the wars of independence, had heard the General’s backstory before. Most didn’t care about the past, only the actions in the present, but when a General spoke, you just tended to listen, even if it was with one year closed.
Apparently he had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. For the British, clearly, but that didn’t preclude him from making a few enemies in the chain of command. He had been from a wealthy enough background that he could afford a commission and then served under a Colonel whose name is somewhat lost to history. When victory was secured, bickering became a theme for the young General. Not a day went by without some sideways swipe at his superiors.
Eventually, the friction was too much the General and he made his way to the New World to make his proper mark, as he could never have done in the crowded field that was Europe, and London in particular.
Now he sat with Daniel, after making his name, so to speak. The twilight afforded him the space and mood to contemplate the future more unashamedly. He didn’t intend to harbour his ideas forever close to his chest as he was certain his plans could not be accomplished alone. For certain, he had not expected this campsite to be where he gave birth to his ideas for future conquest. The space and the mood fit though.
Daniel asked, “Where do you plan to settle when this is all over, General?”
The General ignored the question and stated drunkenly at the centre of the fire.
“General,” Daniel said as he tap the flask against the General loose hands, “have another drink and tell me about the plans for your life. Sure, you have done much, but what next?”
“What next indeed my friend. What next?”
If Daniel had been sober, he would have been immensely frustrated by the General repetition and speed. He wasn’t though, so he found it all almost lyrical. Nodding along Daniel said, “Si,” quietly over and over under his breath. Daniel momentarily pondered if he should probe or engage further, but the glassy eyes and partially open mouth made it quite obvious that something was going to come out naturally.
The sky had a wonderful gradient to it as the sun started to signal an end to the twilight and the General slowly continued his line of thought, “Really, ‘what next?’ Has always been the question of my life. Every chapter moves me in a direction, but not the one I truly plan. I have imagination and desire much beyond my current station you see. Not to say my station is at all low, it is simply not high enough in my estimation.”
Not precisely the words that a private was expecting to come from the mouth of a General. If he had t reached a high enough station in life, then what did that mean about Daniel and his life? How could Daniel use what the General intended to increase his station? The obvious question popped into Daniel’s mind and then straight out of his mouth, “How will you move beyond your already lofty station General? I don’t comprehend how it is possible?”
“Well,” responded the General to no one in particular as his eyes bounced around ever so slightly, “I have my ways, I believe.”
Even in this state, quite stable. If Daniel hadn’t been in his own state, the conversation would have ended abruptly long before. “You must have some plan, General.”
“Yes, indeed, I do,” he began with a twinge of pride in his voice. Part of his mind urged him not to continue, another that he would eventually need support so why not explain and the final third, his drunken ego, swayed the vote in favour of explaining his plan aloud.
“I’ve been thinking of one for some time and testing out how it might work,” the General said to the captivating fire at the end of its life and less so to the private, Daniel, “and I believe the land to the North West of us here may hold the answer for me.”
North West was the Mosquito Coast. As far as Daniel had ever heard, there was nothing there, but some tribesman and arid heat. How could that shit possibly be an answer?
“There is a King down there who may decide to grant me some land. I’ve been thinking about how exactly I would use it for some time. Some ideas were useless. At first I wanted to cultivate it and make my own kingdom. Can you imagine, a city named after my clan, with lush fields as far as the eye can see to the mountain and the bay to trade with America and beyond.”
The General broke his gaze with the fire and tilted his head toward Daniel to check his expression.
“I can see by your expression that you have some idea of what this land is like and how crazy my original idea is. I’m not interested in settling in that disease ridden land, but it can yield me great fortune nonetheless. There will be some cause for me to go there in the future to firm up my plans and confirm these reports I’ve heard of it. Without seeing things with your own two eyes it is hard to truly believe it, so eventually I must see it. Then I will seal the grant from the King and return to Great Britain to make my true mark on the world.”
Daniel was puzzled, as any man might be at such an assertion. It catches the imagination, much like the possibility of turning some basic element into pure gold. This, thought Daniel, was equally impossible and so he pushed the General.
“It’s not nothing into something, my brother. This is tilling the field of other’s imagination with a false seed and reaping the rewards of their imaginations and desperations. Their desire for the so called ‘new life’. Don’t be fooled yourself, there is always work involved to become truly great and truly wealthy. This doesn’t mean you can’t take certain liberties and shortcuts that your average man might not. That just means you have thought it out in more detail and precision than the next man. Not followed the path laid out for you by your forebears.”
“What exactly will you do?”
“Exactly, I don’t know. The plan is in its infancy. I have some ideas though,” the General expounded with his loose tongue, “like issuing fake money in exchange for real money.”
The thought or idea that money could be fake had never even crossed Daniel’s mind. How would you go about it, he thought. Then he snapped back and probed further, “Surely that’s not it General.”
“No, of course. That’s the small time. Part of what makes the grand scheme so grand. It’ll have all the trimmings of reality whilst being nigh on fiction. You see, that land to the North West that we know, or at least you know, to be so inferior, could be made into a veritable paradise in the imagination of a Londoner who has reached the ceiling in their life there in the dreariness. Equally so for the Scotsman struggling through another cold and harsh winter. All you need to do is allow them to believe it. An emissary from the country, some official currency, a sketch written by a reputable captain and some willing financiers. In a word, hard, but in another easy.”
“What if they find out General?”
“Those who fall for such a trick will easily delude themselves into continuing to believe. They will very rarely admit that they have been duped or bluffed. Save that, there is always someone to blame.”
The two men sat and stared into the embers, now all but gone and anyway unnecessary. On the horizon the sun was coming into full view, announcing its presence with the morning heat. Twilight had given way and revealed the camp in Barcelona, where they had arrived yesterday after an arduous retreat which took them 34 days of blood, sweat, toil and marching. Men lay strewn around the camp after their long night of booze and exhaustion fuelled slumber. Barcelona was a name that the General would be remembered well for. The retreat was an expert and gallant one.
They sat just on the outside of an old Convent of San Fransisco that had been taken over by the Republic. It was known as Casa Fuerte. Long ago the Franciscan friars from the Order of Friars Minor Recoletos had come to Venezuela to spread the Gospel. None of the men had taken note of this. Instead they had come to see if as a frontier fort. A yellow monument that could serve as a defence and shelter. For now, the men had mostly remained on the outskirts, awaiting their next orders. The sea was not far away, only three kilometres, which made many pleased and others indifferent. It was only a smell in the air for Daniel and the General as they continued to soak in the embers and the air. These components mixed to provide a sobering sensation.
Daniel was beginning to comprehend two key points. The General was sobering up and would soon wonder why he was speaking to this private Daniel in such an open way. Consequences were unlikely, but you could never be sure. There was also the small matter of how Daniel was forming his own vision of a beautiful future for himself at the expense of others. He resolved that it had something to do with London. Before the General sobered up, Daniel needed to get whatever information he could. He didn’t really know what he needed though. The General had been intriguing yet vague. Making false money, fine, but what of actually convincing someone to hand over their valuable in return for a promise?
This was his way up or, at least, part way up, so Daniel was determined to uncover what secrets he could. He experienced one of those rare moments where he was most certainly still very drunk, but with clarity of purpose. With his mind somewhat straight, he proved the good General, “How can you convince people to trust you, General? I don’t fully understand.”
“And you might never,” the General quickly and sharply responded before softening his tone and continuing, “though there are ways that you can learn. Charm is key. You need to be likeable. Dress well and remain clean. Don’t thrust an idea upon your target or targets too quickly. They need to believe you are somehow doing them a favour. People enjoy being let in on a secret. It is the way. With these key elements, you have a start.”
“Is there no way of improving the odds of success my General?” Said Daniel with more urgency and hope than at any time in their unexpected conversation.
Cautiously, the General repeated what he had said,”An emissary from the country, some official currency, a sketch written by a reputable captain and some willing financiers,” to which he broadly added, “any props or artefacts which allow the target or targets to connect the wonderful idea you have planted in their head with reality. It’s really that simple.”
A moment of silence followed by the temporarily sobered up General inquiring, “what is this all to you private?”
Daniel has panic in his eyes. It was lucky he was not facing the General. There was always a good reason to be asking questions, you just needed to ensure it wasn’t to steal or to discover misdeeds or to criticise. Good questions made the respondent feel important and knowledgable. People liked to talk. When they got the chance to brag without having to slowly push it into the conversation, they were even happier. Panic subsided as Daniel gained a clear picture of what to do. His learnings from this conversation would hopefully work on their first outing.
“It is nothing to me, General, I am merely humbled to understand the magnificent deeds of someone with such a station as yours. I enjoy hearing of your exploits and of you. I meant to ask some time ago, actually. What I really wanted to know about was London. I have never been and alas will probably never go. The men have said that you are quite a well known man back in London. Tell me of it, please,” Daniel said without a hint of his initial panic and in the most gracious way he could possibly muster as he passed the flask back the General’s way.
The General took a swig and then, unwittingly, likely through a mixture of insobriety caused by the alcohol and the importance he felt for himself, fell for it and began to expound on the his life in London and all of the people he knew.
As the General continued, Daniel made mental notes of all that was laid out before him. The street names, areas and descriptions were committed to memory along with the other points that the General had explained. Daniel was not sure what his next step was. There was still work to do for the cause, but then he would have time to exploit the fortuitous set of circumstances that had landed him which such valuable information. It is true, he would much rather have just had all the loot he could carry. Easier that way. He knew though that one day, that would simply not be enough. So, his sobering mind committed it all to memory as the General droned on and on. One day someone would rue the day that Daniel Perez met the General, Gregor MacGregor.