The Chinook‘s engine was running on diesel fumes. Provided the uncertain wind held steady, the nearest village with a police presence was a full day’s sail. A cellophane sky stretched taut, high lingering clouds scotch taped around its edges. The sea rolled on, lumps of blue jostling the boat and the tarp-covered corpse. Andy did his best to ignore his unwelcome passenger.
Xanadu Surf Resort. He’d never heard of it. Out in the middle of nowhere. How did they get guests out there? The bungalows had looked upscale, too, complete with air-conditioning units that surely rusted out every two years or so. Somebody had poured big bucks into the resort. Supplying all the necessities, not to mention the luxuries, would have been a logistical nightmare. But if empty waves were guaranteed, there’d be no lack of bookings at premium prices.
But somebody sure hadn’t liked the place being there.
Andy turned on his short wave radio, and on three different frequencies stated he’d found floating off Camel Island a body of a white male tied to a surfboard. In reply, he got only static. The great cosmic quantum indifference. We die and the universe yawns.
Camel Island dipped below the heated horizon. The cyclone was now only a minor meteorological statistic.
The cross-swell punched the boat. The makeshift bier lurched, and for a second Andy thought Thomas Steven Fairbanks was going to slip into the sea again.
Maybe he should just chuck the body anyway. He’d only happened across it by chance in the first place. Let somebody else find it. He was uneasy, sensing complications. Like six days ago, when the cyclone had only been an innocuous little bulge in the weather fax’s sea level pressure gradients.
Should he toss the corpse or not?
In answer, his stomach growled. Down in the galley he rummaged for a package of instant noodles, which he munched dry and washed down with a Coke.
In the wide-hipped salon hung a six-foot alaia, a traditional, finless Hawaiian surfboard, hand-shaped out of the Island’s nearly extinct koa wood. It had been an anniversary gift from Dana, the same year that another man strolled laughing and charming into her life and then was carried out of it in a body bag. Andy sometimes drank his morning coffee while staring into the board’s glossy brown surface. In the play of light and shadow he would see not memories but brief portents of his future, yet never clearly, like creatures of the deep rising momentarily into the edge of the sun’s illumination before sinking away again.
He took the Coke topside and drained it. He studied the empty can, weighing it in one palm and then the other. The garbage bag was in the anchor locker.
“Fuck it,” he said, and hurled the can over the side. He said to Thomas Steven Fairbanks, “Don’t tell Greenpeace.”
Thirty seconds later, he muttered, “Ah, hell,” and lowered sail. It took nearly an hour of puttering around and wasting the last of his diesel to find the can bobbing in the swell. He fished it out with a net and chucked it into the anchor locker’s garbage bag. As he straightened, he noticed far on the eastern horizon a splashing of water, a stead rhythmic beating of white, a fast hull against the swell.
The radar displayed a big green blip on the five-mile circle, heading fast toward the Chinook.
The binoculars showed it to be a navy ship, its sharp bow slicing up the ocean.
The .38 was still laying there in the cockpit. He grabbed it and the Merck’s Manual, which he hid in the hidey hole, a false bulkhead compartment behind the tool rack, shoving them underneath his bundle of emergency cash. Five thousand dollars. Pretty much all he had left after the trial lawyers were done with him. The gun was listed on the boat manifest, and he’d cleared customs with it, but hiding it still made sense. You never knew with foreign military. But why he hid the Merck’s Manual he didn’t know. A protective impulse of some kind, but who was he thinking of protecting? His battered self? The mysterious Callie Nazrin? The dead Thomas Steven Fairbanks?
Channel 16 on the VHF cackled to life, and a strident voice, speaking heavily accented English, ordered him to heave to.
He acknowledged and added, “Am I glad to see you. I found a body floating in the ocean, tied to a surfboard. I think he was murdered.”
No reply. Had the guy even understood him?
The few navy vessels Andy had seen in these waters were weary warships losing the battle against rust, but this two-hundred foot corvette sported a glossy gray coat. Its flags snapped crisp and clean. Sailors on the stern and on the bridge wing stared curiously at the Chinook. Someone on the bridge trained a pair of binoculars on him. An inflatable roared from the corvette, big enough for the squad of six marines sitting on the pontoons, assault rifles slung across their backs. Their brown faces looked sharp as arrow blades, and didn’t soften any as the driver at the central console expertly spun the inflatable alongside the Chinook. The marines swung over the rail in seconds, one shoving a palm against Andy’s chest, propelling him down into the cockpit bench.
Andy had known a few US Navy Seals, and these guys looked like they were cut from the same cloth, a size smaller maybe but with the same easy balance against the boat’s rock, the same alert competence, the same young faces darkened by sun but unlined by years, with eyes flat and smooth as black river stones. Their rifles were the same M4 carbines, too. Nobody pointed one at him, but they didn’t need too. Their strapped helmets and green battle camouflages were devoid of name tags and insignia, but Andy assumed that the marine who shoved him was their officer, probably the equivalent of a platoon lieutenant. The officer yanked back the tarp covering the body for a brief inspection, his gaze taking note of the mutilated scrotum. His eyes didn’t blink. He chattered something into a hand-held radio, and then with wordless gestures ordered his men to search the boat. Two went to the forward hatch, two slipped down the companionway, two remained on the deck.
Andy nodded at the mortal remains of Thomas Steven Fairbanks. Taking care to keep his voice level, he said to the officer, “That’s how I found him. I radioed it in.”
The officer eyed Andy without expression, like he might a silhouette target on the firing range.
The marines reappeared and barked their reports. Andy had passed a bunch of deadhead hours studying the local language phrase book and caught the drift of what they were saying. Nobody else was below, either alive or dead.
“Do you speak English?” Andy asked the officer.
“Shut up,” the officer said in voice flat as a bullet. Andy shut up and watched as the officer turned to the GPS to check the instrument’s automatically recorded logs. The way the cyclone had blown the Chinook around Camel Island, on the GPS it looked for all the world that Andy leisurely circumnavigated the island before anchoring up in the bay.
A hundred yards off the port side, the water erupted in a boil of bait fish. The empty sky abruptly filled with a cloud of terns appearing out of nowhere, dive bombing the surface. The officer ignored the birds’ squawking to get on his handheld once again, succinctly making his report. A softer voice replied. The officer turned to Andy. “Passport. Boat papers.”
“Down below,” Andy replied, pointing.
One of the marines escorted him and kept alert watch as Andy withdrew the documents from the chart table drawer. The officer took them without looking at them. A smaller inflatable raced over from the corvette, its driver tossing on board a body bag. A couple of the marines got Steven Thomas Fairbanks off the davits, cutting him free from the surfboard so they could slide him into the bag, which was taken away.
The officer pointed to the GPS, at the Camel Island anchorage.
“You go back,” he told Andy.
Andy had grown up at Silver Strand beach, a rough-and-tumble gritty patch of California coast between Port Hueneme Naval Base and the heavily blue collar town of Oxnard, and he’d learned early as a kid that you don’t argue with sailors and you don’t argue with men with guns. Two of the marines remained on board while the officers and the officer jumped into their inflatable and took off for the corvette.
The fish boil died away. The birds vanished, and the sky was empty once more over a long and sullen sea.
Built of rough hewn jungle logs, the storage stank of mice droppings and mold. Empty jute sacks scattered on the planks looked like the shriveled skins of drained souls. A rusty tin roof held in the gloom and heat. The single barred window didn’t allow much ventilation, but at least it overlooked the anchorage, where Andy could keep watch on the Chinook. The corvette was anchored offshore in deeper water. A tender ferried back and forth, etching furrows in water coated silver by the lowering afternoon sun. Light splashed on jungle crests, but the slopes and valleys were already gathering silent shadows.
No way through the iron door, bolted from the outside, but the window’s bars were set into a frame of rotten wood. One tug, and they’d pop like bad dentures. But then what? Where would he go? The storage room was in the back of the village’s government office, now converted to their command post. The marines had bivouacked in the abandoned houses along the lane.
They’d given him a canvas cot and a plastic jug of water and a slop bucket and a meal of rice and fish wrapped in a waxed paper that he’d eaten with his fingers. He’d made his protests that he’d done nothing wrong. He’d made his declarations that he needed to stay on the Chinook. He’d made his demands to contact the American consulate. His words fell on deaf ears, reflected off impassive faces. They were all perfunctory protests anyways, just going through the motions, because there was no point in getting heated about things he wasn’t going to change.
Mosquitoes buzzed, and he applied another coat of repellent. When his two marine minders ordered him off the boat after he’d dropped anchor, he’d had the presence of mind to grab the bottle. He paced the room, four strides by six. The planks squeaked. A gecko on the beam watched him.
Dusk thickened, and so did the heat. Oozing sweat diluted the repellent. More mosquitoes buzzed. Andy slapped at one, which splotched fatly on his forearm in a stain of blood, dark in the fading light. He’d been diligent in taking his weekly dose of mefloquine. As long as there wasn’t a resistant strain of malaria around, he’d be okay. He lathered on more repellent, took a long chug of water, pissed in the bucket, and lay down on the cot, wallowing in his stink of sweat and citronella juice.
As he absently twisted the wedding ring loose on his finger, an image of Dana ambushed him from the back of his mind where he shoved all his unwanted memories. She was kneeling in the front garden, mulching the flower bed, brushing her hair off her forehead with the back of her glove to give him a smile as he stepped out of car. An unremarkable moment, whose very ordinariness punched him in the heart.
What the hell had gone wrong? He’d been more than just derailed from his life. He’d been hurled halfway around the world, and was now stranded in this mosquito-filled room, rats squeaking in the corner.
He broke into song, lifting his hands into the air.
“If you’re happy and you know it, then fuck off (clap clap clap), if you’re happy and you know it, then fuck off, (clap, clap, clap), if you’re happy and you know it, then I’m sure you’ll surely blow it, if you’re happy and you know it, then fuck off (clap clap clap).”
The clapping drained of the last of his energy. Exhaustion overtook him, dragging him down to sleep. In the last moment of consciousness, he saw again the shrine that Thomas Andrew Fairbanks had made to the red-headed, freckled doctor. Callie Nazrin.
Kali, goddess of death.
But his sleep was deep and dreamless.