Bukit Bear has been posting some excellent writing, with reference to HEART OF DARKNESS and mad Kurtz. This reminded me of a novel I wrote years ago, back when personal computers still used DOS system with green cursors, and WordPerfect was the word processor of choice. I had no idea what happened to the manuscript, but I eventually found a copy on a RW-CD that miraculously still booted up. I re-read the opening chapter, winced at some places. I don’t know if I dare read more. (PS I updated some anachronistic references to this modern era but left it pretty much the same). Here it is
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
And on the morning of the third day, he slept.
The shrieking wind had sucked out of him all thoughts and memories and even, at the last, his name. When the cyclone finally blew itself out, he had only the energy to turn on the radar’s alarm and take off his safety harness before collapsing into oblivion as deep as the Indian Ocean drifting beneath the sailboat.
Something woke him. For a moment his mind was an amnesiac’s perfectly blank consciousness, colored only by his immediate senses. He lay scrunched on the cockpit’s back passenger seat. Sweat dripped down the outstretched arm cradling his face. Without lifting his head he focused his gaze on a lone tern gliding in the cloud-swollen sky, the bird black as a mote from hell. It screamed once and wheeled away.
He stood and stretched, woozy with disorientation. Was that a rising or a setting sun behind the spongy gray clouds? How long does it take for demented seas to flatten into calm, thick-skinned ocean? His sense of time was normally acute. At cocktail parties he was famous for guessing the precise hour and minute.
As his mouth stretched in a huge yawn, all of it came back, as sour as his breath.
My name is Andy Mack, and this is my new life.
His surfboards were gone. They’d blown off in the cyclone. Three of them, each in a board bag, had been lashed in a stack on the bow. The crashing of seas and howling of wind worked loose the rope and there came a moment, on a crest of wave, when they’d peeled off like leaves, twirling high into the storm. Who knew where they were now?
A light breeze ruffled his salt-stiffened hair. He contemplated the wind vane atop the mast, knowing there was some metaphysical lesson to be had from it, but too weary to bring himself to such a futile exercise. The wind was on the nose to where he wanted to go. He glanced at the bulkhead clock —seven a.m. —and the chart. He should turn on the engine and motor along. Instead, he adjusted the sails to extract maximum speed, even though this took the Chinook away from his original destination, the world-famous surfing waves of Sumatra’s Mentawai islands. His plan had been to spend a season surfing those waves, coaxing back to perfection his physical skills as he gave time for his heart to heal smooth and cold like a glistening scar. But such healing could be done just as well elsewhere. Say on the Thai island of Phuket. Phuket didn’t have surf, but then again he no longer had his surfboards. He’d do some charters. Hell, he’d sell the boat and become a beach bum. One of the world’s outcasts, finding refuge as an anonymous expat donning a new persona. Thailand was an ideal place to reinvent the childless, wifeless, career-less self.
The breeze soon died. The boat rocked, the sails flapped, the stays clanked. A metronome for the cataleptic. The clouds provided woolen insulation rather than shade. Andy sweated heavily. Again he thought of turning on the engine, but these were the famous equatorial doldrums, the latitudes of lassitude. Why not experience it in all its perspiring glory?
His wedding ring itched. He twisted it around his finger. The thick gold band was scratched in several places from the labors of single-handed sailing and engine maintenance. He’d signed the divorce papers a month earlier. Why hadn’t he taken it off yet? The ocean stretched away to empty horizons. Beside the wallowing hull, several water spiders, gangly as their landlubberly cousins, skittered on the water’s surface. How did they survive cyclones?
Even sunless, the water’s translucent depth held luring promises. He dove in. The cool water welcomed him, fit around his skin like weightless silk. The boat’s hull inched past. One gust and the Chinook would sail itself away from him. One long gust and he would have quite a swim to catch up. One steady wind and he would be dead.
Andy swam twenty yards away from the boat, aquatic Russian roulette, his fingertips tingling with thrill. All the water underneath him, the millions of tons of fathomless sea, buoyed him like helium. The short stretch of water between him and the boat could kill. Andy sensed rather than felt the strike of wind, the cat’s paws racing across the smooth surface. The moment stretched in meditative calmness that reached deep into his soul. So be it. Then his heart was a sudden wild thing, and he stroked furiously for the boat. He saw, in brief staccato flashes as he lifted his head to breathe, the sails fill and the Chinook heel as it surged forward. One last stroke, a lunge, and his right hand fell onto the stern’s duckboard. His fingers clenched through the aluminum grating. The tug nearly wrenched his shoulder out of joint. He got his other hand on the duckboard and hauled himself out of the rushing water.
For a long time he sat trembling in the cockpit.
Two motoring for two hours later, Camel Island rose gray as a hangover on the horizon.
The unseasonable cyclone hadn’t caught Andy unawares—the weather fax had given him sufficient warning that he could have found a safe anchorage. But as he studied the weather map that bright bubble blue morning, it seemed as though his life, past and future, was being gathered up in rotation with the evil eye bearing down on him. A line from an old Christian hymn came to him, one that his grandmother Maggie sometimes sang in her nasally voice. Blow your wildest then o Gale, on my bark so small and frail, I shall not fail, I shall not fail. So he sailed on, keeping sea room between him and nearest land mass, Camel Island. For three days and nights, however, the cyclone tried to shipwreck him on that island. Every time the Chinook’s stalwart diesel clawed him free of a dangerous lee shore, the cyclone shifted direction to drive him back.
And here the island was again.
Andy adjusted course to pass on the eastern side, where the dangerous fringing reef held closest to shore. According to the pilot book, an 18th century Portuguese navigator had given the remote island its name because its three main hills, despite their green rainforest cover, looked like the desert creature. Andy saw no resemblance at all.
As the island drew nearer, the water became mottled green and then light brown from a flooding river’s runoff. A matted clump of yellow bamboo ripped up by the roots floated by ten yards to starboard. There came into view on the far side of the bamboo a red surfboard, the tip of its nose nudged up onto the bamboo like a beached craft. A nude surfer lay on top of the angled board, his broad tanned back exposed but his pale buttocks just barely submerged. His arms draped into the water. His cheek was pressed against the deck of the board, his face turned away from Andy. Long, sun-bleached hair curled around his head like a halo.
Andy circled back and idled the Chinook a boat length away from the surfboard. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled at the slumped surfer, “Hey, are you all right?”
What an idiotic question.
Andy inflated the tiny spare dinghy. He shoved it over the side and rowed to the surfboard. Leaning over the side, he pressed his hand to the surfer’s exposed neck. Clammy flesh. No pulse. The slumped body was stiff in rigor mortis. Rigor passed quickly in warm temperature; the guy had been dead for less than a day, perhaps even only six hours.
Andy looked toward Camel Island and the hazy arc of a wide bay, the rumpled edge of jungle barely visible as a trace of purple on the skyline. A couple years ago he’d seen a Discovery Channel documentary on the settlement there. One of the documentary’s stars was an American doctor from the Surfers’ Assistance volunteer agency. She ran the village clinic and taught the villagers how to grow certain medicinal plants that pharmaceutical companies bought. A nice steady income. The village prospered. What was her name? An unusual one, a last name something like Nazarene. In the documentary she was big and blond and dressed in loose khaki fatigues. Was she still there? Well, even if she weren’t, there’d be a village chief. He’d drop the dead surfer at the village chief’s feet and leave.
Andy worked the board and body through the chocolate water to the empty stern davits, the two stout metal poles curving over the water like trailing afterthoughts. They had previously secured the big, rigid-hulled dingy that had been stolen in Bali’s Benoa harbor. He looped the davit lines around the board and body before getting on deck to hoist. The board rose reluctantly from the water. One ragged wave reached up and washed over it, submerging the body with a heavy pull on Andy’s arms, as though the sea wanted possession of the dead. The board broke free and rose with a curtain of dripping water. Andy meticulously tied off the lines on the cleats before glancing again at the body.
The arms and legs weren’t dangling. They’d been hogtied together around the surfboard by strips of rattan. The skin around the rattan knots was torn from desperate struggle. The purple hands were clenched together as though in prayer. The guy hadn’t fallen overboard—he’d been deliberately tied to the board and set afloat while still alive.
Andy grabbed the corpse’s long hair to swing the face into view. A crab hunkered down on top of the right eye. Andy swallowed hard against a rising gorge and shooed the crab away. It scuttled off the eye, revealing a light blue pupil whose sudden gaze seemed to shaft right into Andy’s soul.
He quickly looked over the rest of the corpse and spotted under the flaccid scrotum the edge of a wound and a big, black stitch. What the hell? Using a winch handle, he lifted the scrotum and penis. The surfer’s testicles were gone, and the clean, sharp incision at the base of scrotum stitched up with rough, hand-twilled vegetable fiber of some kind. The anus widened and a pencil-thin green eel wriggled out of the rectum and plopped back into the ocean.
Andy leaned over and retched into the sea.
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.
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.
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.”
What little breeze there was died away, and the air felt bloated, with just the faintest stink of mangrove muck. On the island’s hills, several tall trees killed by lightning stuck out from the tangled green mass of jungle like burnt bones. The bay’s unmoving water was a mirror, reflecting clouds fat as maggots.
Joe Quigg fanned himself with a Surfers’ Assistance brochure, the cover a happy healthy island family flapping back and forth across his face.
“I fear Rani blames me,” he said. “I was the one who hired Callie and I was the one who introduced her to Tommy.”
“Who was Tommy?” Andy asked.
“A surf charter boat guide. Worked for Elroy Kapuni.”
“Elroy Kapuni? The big wave surfer?” Andy had met Elroy once, at a San Diego fabrics trade show that Dana had dragged him to. Elroy was representing a line of Hawaiian shirts and signing autographs, some of them on the shirts themselves.
“Let’s not forget bit Hollywood actor, too,” Quigg said. “Did you see the profile Vanity Fair did on him?”
Andy had. In Bali, a passing yachtie had traded the magazine for a paperback. The piece was rather snarky, amused in a snooty way that Elroy was the boy toy of Celeste Perry, socialite and principal shareholder of Peregrine Mining, a privately held company.
“A surf charter boat? I didn’t know Elroy was operating out here,” Andy said.
“Celeste Perry brought up three old fishing boats from Perth. She’s a fisherman’s daughter, you know. Grew up surfing. She’s also the principal investor in the Xanadu Surf Resort. Rani is the local partner.”
“Her father the governor, to be precise,” Colonel Hatta said. The Colonel’s hands were limply draped over the ends of the chair’s arms, his expression calm and benign. With the baseball cap still on his head, he looked like a local deity for the Red Sox*. Perhaps this year they’d break the Curse of the Bambino and win the World Series.
“As the American consul,” Andy said to Quigg, bringing critical issues back on track, “I’m sure you know the police can only hold me for twenty-hours for questioning. Which they have. Forget the diesel, I’ll sail out.”
Quigg slurped an ice cube, spat it out into the glass again, and wiped his lips. “I’m not the consul. I’m a consular agent. A hired civilian. But you are right. In this country, the police can only detain a person for twenty-four hours.”
The Colonel’s brow rose a fraction. “You are familiar with the details of our criminal law, Mr. Mack?”
“It’s hardly a detail.”
Quigg nodded at the envelope of money on the table. “I daresay if you gave the Colonel half, he’ll give you the fuel and his blessings.”
The Colonel lifted his hands at the wrist, holding the palms upright. “Now, now, my dear Quigg.”
Andy was tempted. Get out of Dodge while he could. But then his stubbornness set in. He’d been running ever since the trial, but damn if he was going to run from this. At some point, a man had to stand his ground. He told Quigg, “It’s against American law to offer or facilitate the offering of bribes to foreign officials.”
Far out in the bay, cats’ paws riffled the water, striding toward the corvette. The breeze sifted through the ship and trailed cool fingers along Andy’s cheek. Quigg lifted his chin to expose his sweaty neck. “Ah, that feels good,” he said.
“I’m not going to paying a bribe,” Andy said. “I want you to do your job.”
“My job? Okay. If you donate a thousand dollars to Surfers’ Assistance, then I’m sure I could convince the good Colonel to allow you to leave.”
Andy took a deep slow breath and counted to ten. The oldest anger management trick in the book, the therapist had told him years ago, but it works. Although sometimes it didn’t. This time, though, it did. When he spoke, his voice was calm, almost reflective. “And that’s extortion.”
“Do you want me to arrest him?” the Colonel said, his voice dry as the ship’s steel deck.
Quigg held up the Surfers’ Assistance brochure. “A thousand dollars will supply an entire village with insecticide treated mosquito nets.”
“Except there’s no village here.”
“We work on many of the other islands.”
On the shore, marines in jungle uniforms, geared with weapons for a long patrol, clambered into an inflatable. The inflatable zipped past the corvette and into the wide mouth of the river, heading inland. Quigg watched it until it disappeared and then swung his gaze to Andy.
“You’re a medic? You could come work for us.”
“I’ve made other plans, thanks.”
Closer to the shore, the steadying breeze turned the Chinook turned on its anchor. On the island, the branches of the taller trees quivered to life.
Quigg tossed Andy the plastic bag with the money and then handed him his passport and boat papers and box of morphine.
“And the gun?” Andy said.
“Confiscated,” the Colonel said.
Andy eyed the wind, coming in at a side-shore angle. Even if the bay was empty, it’d be a tricky sail out, but the anchored corvette blocked all angles.
Quigg smiled. “The surf report is calling for an 8-foot southwest swell and an offshore wind. The Xanadu Rights should be very good. Why don’t you stay for another day and go surfing? I’m sure tomorrow we can scare up some diesel for you.”
“I lost my surfboards in the cyclone.”
“It so happens that Elroy is headed out here on Celeste’s yacht. They’ll be here this afternoon. Plenty of boards you can borrow. And he’s looking for another charter boat skipper, in case you’re interested.”
* Alert readers may note that earlier the Colonel was wearing a White Sox cap, but I’m changing it.