At first Jack had travelled up front with the three aristos, now that Ralph and Hennessy’s seats were spare, until Toby had politely taken him aside for a quiet chat, and was relegated to the rear. Despite the veneer of friendly banter, he was still the baitman, and staff were like the animals they hunted, it was best not to anthropomorphise them too much, lest the bullet’s aim be spoilt. That suited Jack too, respectful acrimony worked both ways.
Now, he crouched with his employers as they watched the gentle primates, casually plotting their murder. The apes were at one with their jungle environment, timeless in peaceful comfort, while the shooting party sweated and shifted uneasily, their incongruous garb alien to their surroundings, as were any notions of decency modern society had failed to instil in such a protected species.
“It’s important to build something yourself. No-one respects people who’ve got it all for free.” Leo didn’t think he described himself, instead he explained to Jack his issues with modern charity. “You give too much, there’ll always be a begging bowl, and they won’t learn to fend for themselves.”
The fire spat and crackled between them as the night deepened, Leo perched on a camp stool polishing his bespoke silver rifle, the flames bringing a golden shine to the metal that lit his face. “Let’s face it, the billions poured into this continent have killed more than they’ve saved, mainly because of these.” He patted the gleaming barrel. “Africans just don’t know what to do with money, they’re still too tribal to make it work.”
HEAVY WEIGHS THE CROWN
Leo was oblivious to the native staff he had employed to hoist the base camp tents, set the fire, cook his food and track their prey. Jack looked behind him, the guides sat around their own fire, where he would have been ensconced before his upgrade. The laughter that drifted over suggested a lighter tone than the philosophising he was privileged to have endured the last hour.
“There’s an art to spending money well,” said Leo. “You have to know who to trust, otherwise it can be… easy to get confused. People may think I’m a fool, but I’m not.” He looked straight at Jack. “Yeah, I know what people think, I’ve always known, ever since I was six and nanny asked me to fetch my mother’s earrings for her. I know people take advantage, laugh behind my back. Years of taking the bill at restaurants, wondering if you’d have the same friends if you didn’t always pay, then deciding it’s best not to know. The trick is not to care. There’s a responsibility to being a Winchester, we have a lot of people to look after, livelihoods to protect, it’s not as easy as people think.”
“Heavy weighs the crown?” said Jack. He almost regretted the sarcasm, but it brought a laugh. Leo tossed him his hip flask. Jack hated whisky, but he understood the dram was an offer of friendship it would be too rude to refuse. It still burned his tongue.
“It’s just… lonelier than you’d imagine sometimes. Not always a camaraderie when you’ve got so much more than most people you meet. You don’t always choose your friends, you just move in similar circles, and find some are easier company.”
WE LIVE IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS
Jack stood up and passed back the flask. He tottered slightly, a stage show of drunkenness to justify refusal if offered again. “It’s not always money that separates people,” said Jack, when he was seated. “Sometimes, it’s just life. I’ve never been the most… gregarious man, and never much wanted to be. Being alone doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world, it’s not the same as loneliness.”
He stared into the fire, the flames a reminder of why he was there. “We live in the company of strangers, but when we crave them, we lose them.”
Leo raised the flask in salute. “Wise words young man. Perhaps we’re not so different after all. Well, apart from the obvious.”
Jack smiled. “Someone once told me, everyone starts the same, and finishes that way too. It’s the stuff in-between we can try and do something with.”
“That’s what this is,” said Leo. “I was always built for better things, without being allowed to reach them by myself. Wasn’t allowed to join the Army, kept out of the family firm because Dad doesn’t want the competition, so he says. They gave me the run of Foxglove, but it’s just a big house really, not as much fun as you’d think. My little sister gets to do more than me, most of the time. Like being on a leash my whole life, or made to wear gloves so my hands don’t get dirty.”
Leo had managed to get his hands dirty anyway, mused Jack. Nobody’s life went to plan, everyone made mistakes along the way, but some could afford to squander what others only dreamt of attaining. That sparse common ground also revealed a division far greater than the fire between them.