Family visiting. Shoulder rehab. Stumbling about in the dark at nights because of flying ant swarms, so have to turn off the lights. I was so looking forward to the rains I forgot about that part of the wet season. Blog will be back 4 Jan
(The face looks kind of familiar–I believe I’ve surfed with him, a bit of a wave hog)
In the meantime, if you are looking for a good Christmas gift for a Kindle reader in your family (or Kindle app on all kinds of devices), then click on my rip-roaring adventure thriller A ROTTEN STINKING PLACE TO DIE on the side-bar. Below is an excerpt of the first chapter. It’s under a different author name than BONES OF THE DARK MOON because it’s a different genre.
I didn’t see the body at first.
It’d been a rough night crossing, the Orient Star plowing into thirty-knot squalls with driving rain and corkscrewing seas. Around two in the morning we dropped anchor in the lee of what boat skippers in this part of the Indian Ocean call Thank God Island and collapsed into our bunks.
I woke by long habit before dawn, my consciousness returning full and instant. I have never been a sleepy-head. The storm had passed. The cabin held steady. The air conditioning unit hummed, the red numerals of its temperature display reflected off the porthole’s glass. We were a few degrees shy of the equator, and while I am long accustomed to tropical heat, I’d indulged my Nordic-American genes by dialing the thermostat down to frigid.
I was crewing as the ship’s cook, so I took a minute while huddled under my blanket to decide on breakfast for the guests. Something soothing to tender stomachs. Oatmeal with palm sugar syrup and a fruit salad, say. That said, I got out of the berth and made the bed. After dressing in loose cotton trousers and T-shirt, I grabbed my yoga mat and stepped out of the cabin. The warm humid darkness wrapped me in its clammy grip. I used the toilet, which on a boat is for some obscure nautical reason called a head, washed my face, and climbed the metal stairway to the upper deck.
On the landing, I turned by the compact hydraulic crane, a dark cactus-like hulk. The body dangled only ten feet away, shrouded in thick night shadow. I walked past without noticing.
Beside the salon door, bolted rungs led to the top of the wheelhouse, festooned with radar and satellite domes. I moved quietly in order not to disturb Alexandra, who slept with her captain’s ear alert to the ship’s noises. Tattered clouds strung across the moonless sky. Patches of stars shed enough light to silhouette the island, hardly bigger than a hand. A light breeze carried the iodine scent of reef and the murmur of surf.
I began my stretches, facing east where the night was thinning. The body was below me, out of my line of sight. I’m not a yoga devotee, but as I am by nature a restless, restless man with an unruly mind, I’ve learned the benefit of starting my day with a meditation of stillness and silence. This morning, my thoughts refused to drain. In the weedy edges of my consciousness, uneasiness about the ship’s troublesome guests squatted like a warty toad.
Giving up with a sigh, I rolled the mat and stepped toward the ladder. A swell curled into the anchorage and ran under the ship.
In the darkness below me, something swayed. I noticed then that the crane’s boom was extended over the water. As I peered, the thing dangling from the boom swayed the other way and hung still again.
The head tilted at an ugly angle. The chin flopped onto the chest. The arms fell straight. The toes drooped toward the water. I might have thought it an illusion, a shape fashioned out of the night like a cardboard cutout, without depth or detail, except another swell rolled into the bay. The body swayed again. A stray beam of anchor light fell on the face. Dried blood crusted under the nose. A swollen tongue protruded between puffed lips.
That made it real as hell.
A week earlier before the madness started, I was in Bali, where I was born to American expats before the babble of the global village, when Bali was still mostly a romance of the imagination and not a favored destination for mass tour junkets.
Gus and I were at Serangan Beach, checking the surf from the front seat of my pickup, which is what you do when you grow up island boys and your Saturday morning is free and the sun is shining after days of rain. An offshore wind groomed the lagoon’s pastel water. To the north, the purple hulk of Mount Agung took a volcanic bite out of the polished sky. A tourist postcard of tropical paradise, except the photographer would have composed the shot to exclude the plastic trash on the high tide line, and no postcard could have caught the sour stink of rotting garbage wafting from the island’s main dump a mile away in the mangroves.
Eau de Bali, these days.
A head-high swell pulsed weakly over the reef, utterly uninspiring but stirring excitement among the surf school students. Bali gets them all, novices from around the globe who want to frolic in the warm waves. To our left, a van disgorged a horde of Russians, and to the right a bus unloaded a squadron of Germans. From the two rental cars flooded a stream of Japanese. Out in the surf, the lineup was already packed with a flotilla of soft-top learner boards going every which way. The January monsoon winds were blowing every surfer and every surf school to Serangan, about the only place offering clean waves today.
“Do you even want to bother?” I asked Gus.
“We could go golfing,” he said.
“You don’t golf.”
“You don’t either, but we could start.”
Two women in their twenties strolled past on the beach, their skin gleaming with sunscreen, surfboards under their arms. As for their bikinis, there was barely any there there. An admirable view, because one thing about surfing is it keeps you fit and your muscles firm. When I started surfing the chicks stayed on the beach and sunbathed. Now they surf in droves and I call them women. The blonde threw a sly glance over her shoulder. I raised the fingers of my right hand off the steering wheel and wriggled a wave. There was a time when I would have been out the door to engage in some casual banter, the spicy question of what later hanging intriguingly in the air, but those days were long ago. I was well into my fourth decade of life. I was tired of that game and wanted something of substance longer than a tourist visa.
Besides, she was sliding the glance at Gus, not me. With my blond hair and colored eyes, I looked like any other tourist surfer, but Gus has that island lad magnetism.
Gus didn’t even give them a glance. He’s three years a widower but still wears his wedding ring. His full name is Ida Bagus Johanes Putra. The Ida Bagus is the title for a high-caste Brahman. His nickname Gus is not pronounced like “bus” but rounded just short of “goose.” Most Balinese are Hindus, but the Johanes indicates part of Gus’s extended family were from Dutch colonial days members of the indigenous Catholic Church of Bali. Gus’s mother was a Jewish atheist from New York. By Jewish law this technically makes Gus a Jew. Such a mash-up is typical of Bali’s blended international community, no place on earth quite like it.
From kindergarten days, Gus and I went to international school together and cut school together to go surfing. He was one of the local enforcers in the increasingly crowded surf lineups, keeping the peace, and I was the one who got into the fights. After he graduated from Bali International School, he attended the University of Chicago on a full scholarship, where he studied economics and transformed somewhat vampire-like into a rabid Bears fan and Green Bay Packers bloodsucker. He returned to Bali as a civil servant in the Bureau of Statistics. It’s a mystery to me what he does there. He watches Bears games live on satellite TV. He’s a cantor at the Catholic Cathedral and a member of the Bali Community Choir. Sometimes for public performances he drafts me as a bass. I can’t carry much of a tune, but I can boom like a bull frog.
My cell phone buzzed. I looked at the display. “It’s Alexandra,” I said and put on the speaker phone. “Hey, Alex.”
“Budi, where are you and what are you doing?” The raspy voice conjured up an instant image, all five-foot-five and one hundred and twenty pounds of her. In the wheelhouse of the Orient Star, her captain’s chair had a booster seat.
A gaggle of Taiwanese with boogie boards under their arms and swim fins on their feet waddled into the water.
“I’m with Gus at a meeting of the United Nations,” I said.
“Gus! Is he there? Hi, Gus.”
Gus leaned toward the phone. “Hello, Alex. How are you?”
“I need Budi’s help. And I just might need your prayers.”
In her sea-salted forties, Alex had grown up in South Australia as a fisherman’s daughter and then a skipper herself, rugged and proud and independent. Those Southern Ocean fishermen are a breed of folks who are the first to offer help and the last to ask for it. She worked mostly out of Phuket in Thailand. She told me she was sailing the next day for the port of Padang on the west coast of Sumatra Island to pick up a surf charter booked by Elroy Kapuni.
I whistled. Elroy Kapuni, Hawaiian big wave surfer and legendary waterman, was to the surfing world a demigod of the tempestuous Roman kind. It was best to keep a prudent distance. He was CEO of his own clothing and sports company that rumor said was going public. His PR handlers were massaging the message that Elroy was actually a friendly and likeable fellow, but nobody was buying it. His fame had spread to the civilian world in part because of his monster wave exploits that filled slow news days on talk shows and because of several Hollywood epics in which he’d co-starred as the chiseled and menacing sidekick. Many clever non-surfing folks in Minnesota and Melbourne knew him as the answer to trivia game questions.
“It’s prime big wave season on the North Shore,” I said. It was early January, and Hawaii’s surf spots were rocking with big winter swells. “Why’s he doing an off-season surf trip?”
“I don’t ask those questions. I just take their money. Pick up in Padang and then all the way down to Jakarta for drop-off. There’s him and his girlfriend and four other guys. But here’s the thing. He’s asked me to get rid of my crew. He says he doesn’t want a crowded boat. He says one of his guys is a master mechanic and fully licensed engineer. He says they’ll take turns on watches and cooking. I told him he was going to have to pay an extra ten grand. Didn’t even faze him. I should’ve asked for twenty.”
“The harbormaster isn’t going to let you leave port without crew.”
“Oh, we get the clearance and then I pay them five hundred dollars each to get sick and we drop them off. Stryker is spending his school holidays with me on the boat and I don’t want to be alone with a bunch of seppos I don’t know with something going on.”
“Then cancel the charter.”
“I need the money.” She sighed, and I could see her raking her fingers through her hair, which she keeps immaculately dyed to an unnatural shade of red. “There’s some crates in the hold Elroy sent me in Phuket. They were escorted and stowed by a couple of his fellows. Thing One and Thing Two. Thing Two also stowed a bunch of weights and bars. He looks like he could bench-press a bus. Who ever heard of weightlifting equipment on a surf trip? It’s hinky as hell, Budi.”
“What’s in the crates?”
“Bill of lading says fishing and camping gear. I want you to come up to Padang and join me and be the charter chef. I’ll say you’re a family friend, and that’s that.”
“I’m a seppo too,” I said.
For those who don’t know, seppo is an Aussie term of endearment for an American, derived from septic tank, which rhymes with Yank. I am also an Indonesian citizen, in part because I was born and raised in the country and in part because I paid a bribe to the judge to make me one, which at a stroke removed annual hassles with the Immigration Department. For my Indonesian passport and other civil documents, I changed my name from the hated Vannevar to Budiman, which means “law abiding.” Gus had suggested it. There was some irony involved. I was supposed to relinquish my US citizenship, but one thing about being born an American is that it’s extremely hard to do so. Several US federal agencies take a deep and abiding interest in why you would want to do such a thing. The Internal Revenue Service in particular is loath to let a tax-paying citizen escape from its clutches. I am still known to them as Vannevar Wells Junior.
Alex snorted. “Mate, you’re an honorary Aussie. You eat Vegemite.”
“And Elroy’s Hawaiian, not American,” I said. “You call him an American, he’ll make sure you know the difference.”
“True. Stryker’s beside himself with excitement. He’s got posters of Elroy all over his cabin.” Stryker was her ten-year-old son.
“I’m not much of a chef.”
“What’s there to it? You fry, bake, boil and barbecue. The galley has an automatic bread-maker, just dump in the ingredients and forget about it. I’ll pay for your ticket. Plus you’ll be getting uncrowded surf. Nobody around this time of year.”
Out in the waves, war was breaking out between the surf schools, and it didn’t seem world peace would be established any time soon. For once I had nothing to do, the sunny-side up of my consultancy business was going well, and I had no clients wanting my specialized brand of services in the darker shadows.
I was, in other words, bored and restless.
“I’ll book my flight,” I said.
“Thanks, Budi.” She sighed again. “God, I need a cigarette, but with Stryker on board I’ve vowed to stop. No nicotine and seppos, this charter’s gonna be hell.”
We said our goodbyes, Gus chiming in with his. We sat in silence for a few moments, watching six students take off on one wave and mow each other down.
“It’s that time again,” Gus said.
“And what time is that?”
“You nearly get yourself killed on a regular basis, and it’s been a while.”
“It’s just a boat charter.”
“May the Good Lord make it so, but I’ll be praying for you.”