You can read Chapter 1 here
With the murdered surfer secured on his surfboard bier and covered with an old tarp, Andy set course for the island.
On the Admiralty chart, Camel Island resembled an amoeba. It was thirty miles long, the northeast coast a stretch of mangrove swamps. The solid, southeastern hills were interwoven by a river system. The chart depicted the main river as a sinuous blue line, a whimsical color in an otherwise stern map, as though the printer envisioned feathery waterfalls and pristine bathing pools awaiting the wanderer. The pilot book warned of heavy seas off the south coast but said the northern bay offered good anchorage.
The island drew closer, the jungle hills a soggy green. The sky hung low and mottled. The bay was heavily discolored from river runoff, and Andy slowed to a crawl, keeping an eye out for submerged logs.
On the bay’s north side, the river still flowed heavily, its channel a wide swath through the dense mangroves. The mangroves gave way to a berm of coarse coral sand, high enough hide the village except for a church’s steeple and cross. A wooden pier on log pilings stuck a hundred feet out into the water. A stout, well-made pier, too, and not a rickety, ad-hoc assemblage of planks. Except for a few birds perched on its end, the pier was empty, no boats tied up to it. At any moment, though, Andy expected a rush of children, shouting their “hello meesters” and dancing in excitement at the arrival of this new entertainment, while their elders ambled after them, ready to grab a tossed line.
But nobody showed.
Andy dropped anchor, the rattling chain scaring the birds into flight. When he turned off the engine, only the lapping of water against the hull broke the silence. He studied the empty shoreline again, distinctly uneasy.
Going below, he retrieved the S&W .38 out of the engine room’s hidey-hole. He shoved the gun into a daypack aleady holding a bottle of water and a small first aid kit, tossed a pair of moldy deck shoes into the dinghy, and headed for shore by the pier. A few yards from the beach, he cut the whining outboard and let the dingy drift onto the sand.
Into the silence, an unseen jungle bird trilled, a lonely, mournful lament.
The back of his neck puckering, Andy’s instinct was to turn around and get the hell out of here, but he really didn’t want to be hauling a rotting corpse any longer than he had to. If no-one was around, then a hasty burial would do, with a report at the next harbormaster’s office.
He hauled the dinghy out of the water. With one hand tucked into the daypack and gripping the .38 for a fast draw, he crept up the berm, using the pier for cover. He inched his head just high enough to have a look.
A lane of crushed rock led away from the pier and then split north and south to parallel the berm. A good firm roadway, and not a muddy track. Spaced along its length were faded wooden and thatch huts on stilts, roofed with rusty tin, fronted by muddy, overgrown gardens. The church was the largest building, its wooden walls painted white half-way to the eaves and then abandoned, the paint already splotching with fresh mold. A bamboo scaffolding nestled against the wall. There was no evidence of life, no laughter or voices, none of the sounds of civilization that even a remote outpost produces.
He stepped out onto the lane. “Hello?” he called out. “Hello?”
His voice sounded small, absorbed by the wall of jungle behind the village. Green, green, green: shades of green unbroken by any other color, except for wisps of steam rising through foliage. The rainforest seemed a single, melded mass, pushing the village out to sea.
He climbed the steps to the nearest house and knocked on the door. After waiting a few seconds, he pushed it open. A couple chairs and a cheap bamboo table stood in the front room, its floor of thick wood planks. In the sooty kitchen area, dishes and glasses were still on shelves, with a kerosene stove on a ceramic counter. Beside the stove, a chipped glass held a sodden sodden mass of moldy tea leaves. In the one bedroom, a mosquito net was pulled to the side, a cheap blanket crumpled on the sleeping mat. A few clothes were scattered on the floor. It looked like whoever had lived here had packed in a hurry and fled.
It was the same with the second house he checked.
At the southern end of the path huddled a cluster of official-looking buildings of cinderblock and pre-fab panels. In front of one hung a sign with the Surfers’ Assistance logo, two surfboards framing a doctor’s staff. Behind the squat building, a radio tower poked at the clouds.
Now holding the .38 openly by his side, Andy walked to the clinic. His shoes crunched on the lane’s gravel. As he approached the clinic, he called out again. “Hello, hello?”
A wooden porch ran the length of the clinic. The planks in front of single waiting bench had been polished by the scuffing of bare feet. The front door was ajar. Andy eased it open further, holding the gun at the ready. Something quickly scuttled across the bare cement floor, but then all was still again.
The stink of fish was thick on the air. The odor came from a red snapper placed on the one desk in the room, the fish covered with flies and ants. With it was a bouquet of bougainvillea flowers wound around a coral stem.
Andy stared at that for a few moments, not knowing what to make of it. Then he turned to the cabinet, its shelves lined with folders. Patients’ records. Andy leafed through several at random, brushing away silverfish eating the paper. Here was a community’s history, of sicknesses and deaths and births.
Except the community had vanished.
He retreated the way he came, but as he left the clinic, he noted a separate wooden walkway curving off to the left. By the intersection stood two chopped stubs of wood. The sign they had supported lay toppled face down on the ground, edges overgrown with vegetation.
Andy ripped it up. In the damp soil underneath, termites squirmed, and a nasty looking centipede wriggled off. He turned over the sign, expensively made in carved woods, with mother-of-shell inlay that spelled out XANADU SURF RESORT.
He’d never heard of the place. He took a slug of water, thinking. He didn’t want to leave the boat alone for too long, but the resort couldn’t be too far away. He’d have a quick look. Maybe somebody would be there. Wars, riots and revolutions—surfers would stick through pretty much anything if the surf was good.
Then it occurred to him that the murdered surfer had most likely come from the resort, and if that was the case, then the murderer was most likely still around.
But he had a gun. And he’d always been stubborn. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it hadn’t killed Andy Mack, at least not yet.
The walkway led through a patch of mangroves. The gloom was thick enough to swat. The heat wrapped around him like a blanket. Crabs clicked through the muck. Mosquitoes buzzed. He stopped to spray himself with repellent and take another another swig of water.
Fifty yards on, the mangroves gave way to higher and solid ground graced with coconut palms. A stream separated this shore from a towering wall of jungle. The beach here was of fine white silica eroded from mountain rock and not reef. Waves crumbled on a flat sandy bottom. Several hundred yards off shore, a reef fringed the island, with a classic channel pass that looked like IT would hold a good left and right, otherwise a surf resort out here in the middle of nowhere would make no sense. But the wind was onshore, and a heavy sea broke in dark and sullen chunks.
Andy inched on, gun at the ready. The resort itself came into view. Nothing much of it was left, only the charred remains of eight bungalows and a main central lodge, burned to the ground. Two fiberglass boats were sunken the water.
By the central lodge, somebody had jury-rigged a hut out of salvaged planks, beams, and awnings.
Andy squatted behind a bougainvillea, its pink blossoms the only color in this moody, sunless landscape. He listened and watched for several long minutes. The restless rasp of the sea mingled with the rustle of palms. Despite the breeze, the jungle remained still, an unmoving mass of vines and trees, like it was carved into place.
When he was certain nobody was around, he rose and moved forward. The resort’s walkways were of the same sand as the beach. The grains squeaked as he walked on them, so he instantly stepped off the path and onto prickly native grass and sidled to the hut, his senses wide open and edgy.
There was no door, just an opening to a small space of sandy floor. A cot with a mosquito net and a single-burner propane stove. There was a box of instant noodles, the staple food of the feral surfer, as well as a spear gun. Leaning against the wall were two surfboards and the halves of a snapped Channel Islands big-wave gun. Several board shorts and T-shirts hung on drift-wood tree branch, and several novels and magazines lay on a shelf.
By the cot a topless ice chest stood upside down. Propped on it were two photographs framed in woven palm leaf. They were of the same woman, a freckled red-head. In the first one, she stood on the white sand beach, a blue surfboard under her arm, her hair wet from the water, her nose coated white with zinc. She looked at the camera with a level and unreadable gaze, no hint of smile on her pretty smile.
In the other, she was in the village clinic, a stethoscope pressed to the chest of a villager shrunken to ribs and skin. On the desk behind her was a name plate in the shape of surfboard, carved with the name “Dr. Callie Nazrin.”
Before the photographs, an empty peanut butter jar held burnt incense sticks.
A goddam shrine.
Any poked through the clothes and riffled through the books and magazines, but there was nothing to indicate who’d been staying here.
His glance fell on the broken board. The exposed foam on the bottom half had been cut out and replugged. He pulled out the plug, revealing a hollow that contained some folded bills, a blue American passport, and a thin black notebook.
From the ID page of the passport, the dead surfer stared at him with a slightly stupefied gaze. Thomas Steven Fairbanks, from sunny San Diego, twenty-eight years old.
The black notebook wasn’t a notebook at all, but an ancient edition of the Merck Manual. The leather covers were creased and cracked with age, the gilding of the title long worn off. Modern editions of the medical reference book were tomes four inches thick, but this 1899 manual was no thicker than a finger. Andy was about to open it when several bird calls broke the silence. They sounded unnaturally isolate, as if hunters were signaling each other, so he stuffed the manual, passport and money into his day pack and left as furtively as he could. The thought of taking a few hours to bury the dead surfer puckered the back of his neck. He didn’t want to hang around any longer.
Back on the Chinook, he hoisted anchor and motored out of the bay. The nearest island with a town and police was at least a day’s sail, but maybe he could raise the alert on the radio.
First, though, he had a look at the Merck manual. On the flyleaf the original owner’s name was written in elegant calligraphy, the black ink long faded to copper. “Alfred Nazrin, London, 1900.”
And underneath that was another line, in modern blue ballpoint, the block letters dug hard into the paper.
“CALLIE = KALI = DURGA = GODDESS OF DEATH, WORSHIP HER ALL YE NATIONS.”
Andy turned and looked at the dead surfer. The tarp had slipped partway off the head, one side of the face squished against the surfboard. That blue eyed stared back at him.
“And did you worship her?” Andy said.
In reply, the surfer groaned.
Andy jumped backward, his entire skin prickling. But the noise was only gas escaping the corpse’s mouth.