I had no idea how any creature could survive the sweltering heat I had decided to trek in. Yet I found myself swatting away mosquitos, every other second, as they landed on my sweaty skin. In hindsight, it had been quite an awful idea to set foot out of the hotel in the blistering heat. Much less set out for a trek, but it’s not like I had much else to do.
My parents, despite being the ones who had adamantly insisted I accompany them to a tropical island in the middle of summer, claiming that the walks through all the natural beauty would be worth whatever drawbacks there were, had quite shamelessly refused to budge from the comforts of their air-conditioned room and the temperature-controlled pool back at the hotel. Natural beauty my ass.
I silently cursed myself for agreeing to come on this trip in the first place as I scratched at an itchy red bump on my arm that could be a mosquito bite or an insect bite, considering the fact that I was in the middle of a forest. The bite did nothing to improve my mood, but I realised that if I were to contract dengue or malaria, I couldn’t be guilted into staying on this trip any longer. The thought gave me some energy and I moved further along into the forest.
For a second, I wondered what would happen if I were to die in the forest, which honestly would not be quite far-fetched a scenario, seeing that I had no idea where I was going. The guides at the hotel had told me to follow the track, saying that it led back to the hotel after a few kilometres. They offered to come along, but I decided that I was content with smelling just one person’s sweat at a time: my own, thank you very much.
I continued along the track, if you could really call it that. It maybe 3 feet wide if you were to be generous. My calves kept getting scraped by bushes that jutted out onto the track. The experience overall was quite underwhelming.
I fished out my water bottle in the hopes of maintaining a reasonable level of hydration, but discovered that there was barely a sip left, which I drank. It didn’t help that I was sweating profusely and that I would clearly need more water very soon. I let out a sigh and figured I’d stop if I saw any more resorts or hotels along the way, although I hadn’t seen any yet.
When I saw the mansion, I was quite sure that dehydration had left me mildly delusional and that I was hallucinating. The mansion, apart from literally being situated in the middle of nowhere, was huge and extremely out of place in the humid forest.
I contemplated continuing on the track, since I couldn’t be very far from the hotel, but my fascination and thirst got the better of me, and my feet propelled me in the direction of the mansion.
I slowed as I walked past the expensive cars that were parked in the expansive driveway. From what I seemed to recall from the movies, the only people who owned mansions like these in such exotic places were drug dealers. I figured I’d take my chances.
I climbed the front steps and rang the bell next to a door that was so large it looked like it needed three people to open it. To my utter disappointment, it was only opened by one very polished looking butler, who regarded me with a look of disdain. Not that I could blame him, I’m pretty sure my sweat had dripped onto the mansion’s flawless marble porch, and I’m sure my appearance had taken a toll for the worse in this heat.
The butler looked like he wanted to slam the door in my face, but against his better judgement he ushered me inside.
The inside featured an area twice the size of my house and contained a huge chandelier in the middle of the ceiling, and two huge staircases descending on either side of the room. The chandelier alone looked like it cost more than my life savings, and I hadn’t even been into any of the rooms.
The butler seemed to be even more disapproving, if it was possible, of my open awe. He blinked at me, bored. “What is your name ma’am?” He asked in a completely disinterested tone.
I opened my mouth to reply, and possibly bombard him with a stream of questions, but before I could do any of that, a man appeared suddenly from one of the numerous rooms and greeted me.
Unlike his butler, the man had much more enthusiasm. “Hello! Welcome! You look exhausted. Vacationing here I assume? The locals know better than to trek in this heat.” He smiled charmingly at me.
“I – uh, yes. I just stopped by hoping I could get some water, mine ran out.” I waved my empty water bottle in front of the man.
He smiled encouragingly once more, “Yes, yes of course, leave the bottle here, Alfred shall fill that up for you, why don’t you come sit near the pool for a bit? There’s some shade.”
I thought I’d decline his offer, seeing as in the movies, drug dealers always have guns and are quite happy to use them at the slightest misunderstanding, but the man (who looked to be my age) was looking at me quite expectantly. “Okay.” I turned to the butler. “Is your name really Alfred? Like in Batman?”
Alfred looked unimpressed. He took my water bottle from me and paused. “What are you implying Miss?”
I opened my mouth and then shut it. “No – I just – awfully coincidental, that’s all.”
The man laughed. “I thought so too, when I hired him! Come now, I’ll show you to the pool.”
He led me through a corridor with two long panes of glass that ran the length of either side of it, offering a breath-taking view of the lawns on either side. It opened out to huge patio with a large pool and an impressive assortment of deck chairs.
To my immense relief, there was a cool breeze blowing, and several palm trees offered adequate shade. I sat down on one of the deck chairs as the man took the other.
I took in my surrounding as the man chatted on animatedly and I responded in a voice that I hoped sounded less half-hearted to him than it did to me.
“This is a beautiful mansion you have here, in the middle of an island that too.”
The man flashed his brilliant white teeth in another charming smile. “I know, my father built it. He runs a jewellery store of sorts.”
“A jewellery store…in the middle of an island…?” I frowned
The man laughed, “well there isn’t much business here, so mostly exports. But sometimes some of the foreigners take back a gem they like as a souvenir.”
I nodded. That seemed to make sense.
The butler came out then and stood near us till the man noticed him. “Ah! Alfred! Is the lady’s bottle filled?”
“Yes sir, and I had the cook prepare a few sandwiches as well.”
I thanked the butler. Hopefully jewellers weren’t into poisoning people for the heck of it.
The man led me through another corridor, this one without an outside view, butler trailing behind us.
This corridor was lined with cases of gems of all kinds on either side. I drifted past them slowly, my gaze snagging on a particular gem.
“Wow this ugly”, I muttered before I could stop myself. I looked at the man quickly. “No offense.” My face had gone a deep embarrassing red.
He appeared nonchalant. “None taken. I’m not the one in the business anyway. It’s more of my father and Alfred, who also happens to be a trustee adviser of his.”
I nodded absently. “Where do you get these gems from?”
A humorous look crossed the man’s face. “Well the one that you remarked was quite an eyesore happens to be a dead aunt of mine.”
My eyes widened. “A dead what?!”
“Aunt. They compressed the ashes to form a gem. I heard they do that nowadays. I wouldn’t know.” He waved a hand dismissively.
For some reason, an unsettling feeling had settled in my stomach. “I should go, where do I collect my bottle from?”
The man’s smile was a bit more forced this time. “What’s the rush?” His smile deflated then. “I hate to do this, you really seemed like a nice person. But it costs so much to maintain the house and everything else.”
The feeling of dread in my stomach grew.
“We have to keep business blooming you understand?” He nodded at me like a teacher would nod at their student, trying to make me see his point.
I backed away slowly.
He looked at me sadly. “It’s always so sad when they resist.”
Yeah because people don’t generally resist death, I’m sure.
“Alfred.” He snapped.
Alfred drew out a sleek black knife.
The man smiled. You’d make a beautiful gem, I can tell.”