Andy woke in the pre-dawn darkness to the pounding boots and the cadence of chanting men. For a disoriented moment, he was back in basic training at Fort Benning. Panicked, he swung off the cot before a drill instructor could get in his face for missing reveille, and then realized where he was.
Locked in a storage room on an equatorial island, mosquito bites itching.
Night-chilled air had seeped down from the jungle hills, cold enough that Andy’s shoulder ached. The surgeons at the Germany army base had told him they’d plucked out all the shrapnel, but at times Andy could feel a jagged little piece digging into bone.
He stood at the window. Stars speckled the sky, with just the faintest touch of gray to the east. The column of marines sang their way down to the sand for dawn calisthenics.
Nobody had turned on the Chinook’s anchor light, but then again, this wasn’t a busy anchorage.
He used the slop bucket, a procedure more tricky than it looked. The sun slid into view, like a fried egg onto a plate. His stomach rumbled. The chill vanished, the heat rose, and he started the day’s sweating with a vengeance. He heard men laughing at chow. He was debating how loud to shout, or even whether to pop the window bars after all, when the door scraped open.
One of the marine guards from yesterday wrinkled his nose and gestured for Andy to carry out the slop bucket. Andy thought he was going to be taken to a latrine, but instead the marine remained carefully upwind, escorting Andy to the pier and the water’s edge. The sun glared off the oily sea. He ordered Andy to wash out the slop bucket and sling it onto the pier. Then he pointing Andy to the Chinook’s two-man inflatable, tied up to a piling, the rubber scraping against sharp barnacles. He clambered aboard after Andy, and pointed to the Chinook.
“You bath,” he said. “We go there.” He swung his finger to the corvette.
“Sounds good to me,” Andy said. A shower and shave, a bit of groveling at the Feet of Authority, and he’d be let go. He’d ask for some diesel, too. The tank was down to fumes.
Yesterday, on the way in under guard, he’d broken out a carton of cigarettes. A pack of Marlboros worked wonders. It put cheer on the face of a sullen harbor official, it got favors done, a pack offered around a coffee stall and you had a bunch of instant friends. His marine guards flicked a longing glance at the cigarettes but declined. Andy was impressed with their self-discipline.
This morning, as he headed down the Chinook’s companion way, he immediately noticed that the carton was gone. Not only that, but so was the cheap padlock that locked the salon’s booze cabinet. He opened the latch. The shelf stood bare.
“Bastards,” he muttered, but without heat. Soldiers were soldiers.
At least all the electronics were still in place, and his laptop remained untouched on the chart table.
He showered, shaved, and dressed in slacks and batik shirt. Wrinkled clothes, smelling faintly of mothballs, but it always helped to look as nice as you could.
At the corvette, a long plank had been slung over the side, and three sailors chipped away at the hull’s paint. The endless eternal battle against rust. They ignored Andy, who on deck was handed over to a ship’s officer. The officer led him to the stern deck’s empty helicopter pad.
A stocky man in khaki trousers and leg-sleeved shirt stood by the deck’s edge, casting a spinning rod, the lure sparkling silver as it flew out and landed with a soft plop. A Chicago White Sox baseball cap shaded his square, brown face. Watching him from the comfort of a wicker chair shaded by a jury-rigged tarpaulin was a Western man, in linen trousers and shirt. A trimmed white beard framed his chubby jaws that he mopped with a handkerchief. He looked looking more accustomed to air-conditioned offices than the great tropical outdoors. A young Asian woman slouched in a sofa, tapping at an iPad. She wore shorts and a T-shirt over a one-piece swim suit. The T-shirt was one of those college bookstore ones, UWA—Washington University? Constant sun had bleached her short black hair and toasted her limbs to a near black color, except for the tell-tale pale strip around her right ankle where a leash-strap covered the skin.
A wicker table was set with china and silverware, the remains of chicken porridge breakfast in the bowls.
The Western man nodded genially at Andy and returned his attention to the fisherman. The young woman didn’t look up.
The line tightened, the tip bent. The fisherman reeled in hard, a palm-sized jack wriggling on the end of the line, which he held up for everyone’s inspection. “Dinner is always more tasty if you catch it yourself,” he said, with the perfect enunciation of the non-native English speaker.
“I don’t mind you catching mine,” the Westerner said, mopping his chin with a handkerchief. He sounded American, a lilt of Minnesota to his voice.
“We’ll go trolling later.”
A white-coated steward bore the fish away as the fisherman washed his hands from a deck hose reel.
“Please, have a seat, Mr. Mack,” he said, gesturing to an empty chair. “Tea? Coffee? Or a cold drink?”
“A glass of cold water would be good,” Andy said, gingerly taking a seat.
“You Americans and your iced water. I do not like cold drinks. My teeth ache.”
The Western man extended a mushy hand, soft as a mushroom. “Joe Quigg. Executive director of Surfers’ Assistance.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Joe rides boogie boards,” the woman said, her attention still fixed on the game. Her accent threw Andy for a temporary loop. Aussie. Not perfect Aussie, but definitely not Washington University.
Quigg smiled, wrinkles curling around pale blue eyes. “And this is Rani. Rani means princess, but that is her name, not her title. Her father is the province’s governor.”
“Stupid game,” Rani said, tossing aside the iPad. Her gaze briefly caught Andy’s, her eyes swept up catlike, and just as coolly indifferent.
“Rani hates losing,” Quigg said, and took another sip of his water as the steward reappeared with a fresh chilled jug and a tray of rolls.
Rani stood and shucked her shorts and T-shirt, tossing them on the couch. A long, trim body, with a surfer’s wide shoulders. She dove off the side, twenty feet down, a slender arrow piercing the water with hardly a splash. Andy could see the pale soles of her feet kicking as she headed deep.
The fisherman joined them. “Please, help yourself, Mr. Mack,” he said.
Andy sipped the water and nibbled the rolls, trying his best not to gulp and gobble.
The fisherman opened a folder. Within were Andy’s passport and boat papers, which he perused.
Andy was keeping his eye on the water. “She hasn’t come up,” he finally observed. “It’s been a while.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Quigg said.
A moment later, Rani surfaced on the other side of the ship, with not even a whoop of breath
“Everything looks in order,” the fisherman said, closing the folder.
“It should be,” Andy replied. “And I’m sorry, you are?”
“Colonel Hatta. Police. I am on a fishing holiday.”
Quigg chuckled and tilted his head toward Rani, swimming smoothly alongside the hull. “You’re a glorified babysitter, Colonel.”
The Colonel smiled and dipped his head in acknowledgment before addressing Andy again. “You should be taken to a police station for interrogation, but since I am here, and you are here, why make the bother?”
“Interrogation?” Andy said. “I did nothing wrong. I did everything right.”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning, wherever the beginning it.”
As Andy told his story of the cyclone and finding the unfortunate Thomas Fairbanks, the Colonel listened with unblinking gaze that didn’t stray from Andy’s face. The sun beat hot through the tarp. Quigg kept mopping his cheeks with a handkerchief. He picked up a glass of melting ice cubes and sucked on one.
“You did not see anyone when you were on the island?” the Colonel asked.
“Not a soul,” Andy said.
“Where are you from, Mr. Mack?”
“Oxnard. Near Ventura.”
“Are you a surfer?” Joe asked.
“Callie Nazrin is from Santa Barbara.” Joe’s words sounded numb from the nice.
“I’ve never met her,” Andy said.
The Colonel lifted a hand, and the steward appeared again to hand Colonel a large plastic bag. The Colonel withdrew a smaller self-sealed bag.
Inside was the S&W .38. “Is this yours?” the Colonel asked.
“Firearms are not allowed entry.”
“It’s declared on my customs form. I did my part.”
The Colonel withdrew another sealed bag, this one containing a stack of hundred dollar bills tied with yellow rubber band. “Did one of these convince the customs officer to overlook the form?”
“No. And there’s five thousand dollars there. I expect to get that back.”
“We’re not thieves, Mr. Mack. We’re the ones who catch them. Murderers too.” He tapped the gun. “This has been recently fired.”
“I thought it would be prudent to go ashore armed. I found an abandoned village and destroyed resort. I was spooked. I was sure I was being watched. I fired off a warning shot.
Quigg stirred. “You went to the resort?”
“I told you. What happened there?”
Joe sucked more ice. From the bag, the Colonel produced an item taken from the Chinook’s first aid kit. A box of morphine vials nestled in their cushion. “Narcotics are illegal in this country,” he said.
“That’s on the customs form, too.”
“Two are missing.”
“The other week a fishing boat asked me for help. One of their men had crushed his leg. I dosed him and gave them another for their trip to port.”
“You are trained in administering narcotics?”
“What’s there to it? Jab it in.”
The Colonel’s gaze held steady.
Andy sighed. “I was an Army medic, all right?”
“Then there is this,” the Colonel said. He put on the table Callie Nazrin’s Merck’s Manual, which was not in an evidence bag. “You omitted mentioning that you had this in your possession.”
“I found that hidden in Thomas Fairbank’s broken surfboard.”
“How did you know to find it?”
“Have you seen the place he fixed up? He has a shrine to her.” Andy rubbed his face, feeling a spot of bristle on his chin he’d missed. “Look, this is all very interesting and very Hollywood, but it has nothing to do with me. I need to get on my way. I was wondering if I could get some diesel off the captain.”
“I’d like you to stick around for a while longer,” the Colonel said. It wasn’t a request.
“In that case, I demand to talk to the US Consulate.”
Quigg slurped more ice. “You are.”
“I’m also the US consular agent for the region.”
Andy sensed movement out of the corner of his eye. Rani padded into view. Her straight-backed stride, with bare feet slightly splayed and precisely placed, reminded Andy of a cat. She’d changed into clean shorts and T-shirt, and was rubbing her rinsed hair with a towel. She spotted the Merck’s Manual. Picking it up, she opened it to the flyleaf and stared at the inscription Thomas Fairbanks had added.
CALLIE = KALI = DURGA = GODDESS OF DEATH, WORSHIP HER ALL YE NATIONS.
Grief pierced Rani’s face, driven deep into her eyes. She closed them for a long moment. When she opened them, they were misty with tears, but there was nothing soft at all to her voice as she said something to the Colonel in a dialect Andy did not understand. She pointed to the jungled hills of Camel Island, endless rumpled green under the vast blue sky. There was no mercy to the gesture.
The Colonel replied softly.
Rani spun around and stalked off.
Quigg’s heavy sigh broke the silence. “Tom was Rani’s fiancé,” he said. “Then he met Callie.”