But an hour was no good. At ten thirty, things started to go wrong.
Up until then I'd felt I was in control of the situation. Perhaps I even was in control of the situation. A number of difficulties -Françoise drunk, Christo breathing — had been solved; we'd got through the meal without anyone noticing that we were throwing our stew away; aside from Jed, there were no further loose ends to be tied; Tet was winding down. All we had to do was bide our time and then make our move.
But at ten thirty Mister Duck appeared in the marquee, and I knew I had a problem.
He appeared out of the shadows, stepping over the outer ring of candles. Then walked over to Sal and Bugs, and after acknowledging me with a vague grin, sat down beside them.
'Where are you going?' said Françoise, as I stood up. It was the first thing she'd said in a while. Since the dancing she'd been lying with her head in Étienne's lap, staring intently at the sheets on the marquee. From her colour I'd assumed she was feeling the effects of her afternoon boozing, but when she spoke I realized that she was also scared. Obviously, considering the circumstances, but I wasn't in a very empathic frame of mind. Neither was I in the right frame of mind to reassure anyone.
'We could be fucked,' I said, stupidly speaking my thoughts out loud.
Étienne began looking around. 'What? What is it?'
'...I've got to check something out. The three of you don't move from this spot. Clear?'
'Not fucking clear.' Keaty caught me by the leg. 'What's going on, Richard?'
'I've got to do something.'
'You're going nowhere unless you tell me what's going on.'. '
'Let go of my leg. Greg is watching us.'
Keaty squeezed tighter. 'I don't care. You tell us what the fuck...'
I bent down and clamped my fingers on the soft underside of Keaty's wrist, blocking the blood. A couple of seconds later his hand fell away.
'Hi,' I said to Sal.
'Richard,' she replied happily. 'Richard, my right-hand man. How are you, right-hand man?'
'Left-handed. I've started seeing fucked-up stuff.' The last words were directed at Mister Duck, who seemed amused.
'Sit down with us.'
'I need to get some cigarettes from the longhouse.'
'If you were sitting with us...' Sal drifted off briefly, then picked up the thread. 'I'd know that you and Bugs were friends again.'
'We are friends.'
Mister Duck guffawed, but Bugs nodded, full of dreamy goodwill. 'Yeah, man,' he said. 'All friends here.'
'It was... this was the last thing I was worried about... I needed you two to be friends...'
I patted Sal's shoulder. 'There's nothing more for you to worry about. Things are back to normal, just how you wanted.'
'Yes... We did it, Richard.'
'You did it.'
'I'm sorry for shouting at you, Richard. All those times... I'm sorry.'
I smiled. 'I need to get the cigarettes. We'll talk later.'
'And you'll sit with us.'
When Mister Duck walked through the longhouse door, I grabbed him by the neck and slammed him against the inside wall. 'Right,' I said. 'Tell me what you're doing here.'
He stared with a slightly baffled, innocent expression, then chuckled.
'Are you here to stop us?'
'Tell me why you're here!'
'The horror,' he said.
He sighed, and with a quick movement, twisted out of my grip. 'The horror,' he said a final time, ducked through the doorway and was gone.
For a few seconds I stayed where I was, my arms still pointlessly raised in the position they'd been holding Mister Duck. Then I came to my senses and started jogging back to the marquee, making only the most cursory attempt at casualness in my haste.
'OK,' I whispered, when I reached Keaty and the other two. 'Get ready. We're going.'
'But... it's still pitch-black out there!'
'We'll manage. I'll go first so I can get Jed and pick up the water bottles, then Étienne and Françoise leave five minutes later, then Keaty. We'll meet by the beach path in...'