Says Who? - PREVIEW

 

SAYS WHO? 

by

Mark Warford

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

By the sound of bass and drum, angels rise from warm earth, weeping and caressing, without breath and without sight.

 

Negril, Island of Jamaica

 

The applause to end the beggar’s life was sudden and insistent and simple.

And it was loud. Like a river. And it cascaded across flaking skin and sore muscles and acres of memory and an ocean of regret.

With head bowed, the beggar sank before his God, and his knees bulldozed mounds of fine sand and his lungs bloated like unbound bladders and he fed upon a noxious, tarnished haze that exhaled from a cracked sewer pipe in tiny, cotton clouds. A squat, rusting barrel spat ragged orange flames, illuminating the soft grey matter as it was drawn as a veil before his tobacco brown eyes. The beggar was at once still and sightless and his chin brushed the folds of a tattered, soiled vest and he greeted the dirt floor in concert with the thump of sacks tumbling from the shoulders of migrant workers. With the ejection of sputum and slaver and a single, wretched, rasping breath, the colored mist eased over his body, gliding serene and indifferent, and his skin

blistered in gossamer sheets and he sweat perfect, round beads that swelled and warped like tears. And with clawed hands scraping a leaden sky, he died, cool and alone.

From beyond a pair of mahogany gates, weathered and split from a century of salt and sun, a tiny, stirring wind vacuumed the mist into a courtyard of marble and slate. Here, it was swirled and dispersed through the frames of windows and the cracks of doors and it gathered and tumbled along pitted baseboards and it stroked the underside of twelve gilded birdcages draped with white hoods, suspended on fine silver wires looped from honeycombed rafters. And they swayed, excited by a warm, sub-tropical breeze, like so many Klan members cloaked in the fervor of racist prayer.

And a symphony of frightened, imprisoned chirps arose from beneath the opaque linen covers, growing steadily in pitch and vibrato, and with membranes ruptured like petrified rubber, vital cells were overwhelmed and extinguished and silence fell upon the room.

The smoky river coursed across heavy rugs and traced lines of grain along scuffed wood floors and it rose to the tops of tables and absorbed brackish, yellow light radiating from bare bulbs that bloomed on stems of ivory lamps and it consumed the muted shadows that spilled across a forest of framed, frozen stares and nervous smiles and furrowed brows and slicked hair and skirts that billowed silent and static and perfect as white meringues, and a void of low pressure from beyond crown glass panes sucked the heavy vapor into clean air where it caressed a wide lawn of Bermuda grass and white clover and wandered as aimlessly as an abandoned child under the Caribbean sun.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Southern Sahara

 

Solitude beckoned like a rising silk skirt. Thomas Edward Shaw careened from a smooth table of sticky tarmac onto loose gravel and finally onto a wide plateau of milky-white, shifting sand. Sunlight poured from the cloudless, indigo North Africa sky and burned the skin of his forearms to the color of dark mahogany and the Saharan winds whipped at his flank and teased and taunted both man and machine to the brink of sanity and stability.

Into the great wide open. El solo motocicleta.

With the throttle twisted to its stop, a jarring dissonance spewed from the sawn exhaust, pounding his unprotected hearing like a battery of jackhammers. He hurled a resounding "fuck you" to the line of traffic in his wake and his mind emptied itself of the most inarticulate of drivel: “Crazy.., stupid.., fucking.., people.., and…’’ Land and sky and sight and sound were as one and it was a drug and he inhaled deep and every breath expanded the world about him. He raced across the escarpment, punching a tiny hole in a sea of humid air, chest laid flat against a scalding, steel tank and eyes streaming rivers of salty liquid along his hairline and down his neck. For the next seventy-five miles, he raced across a tortured canvas painted with moguls of sand and whale-sized divots of loose scree and when the engine was finally subdued, the internal melee was silenced. He was exhausted by a

thousand voiceless thoughts, each beaten into submission by the incessant silent screams of the children he could not save.

Shaw set the bike upon its stand and dragged his leg over the abraded leather seat and walked a short distance and sat down, heavy and awkward. He was bone tired; lay down in the dirt like a dog, tired.

And the internal conflict reigned:

There are dues to pay. Tenfold. By tiny bodies with tiny hands bearing the weight of mankind’s crumbling morality like so many pounds of rotting flesh. This land of the free; this fucking, dismal land of the free.

His exile was unbearable.

Drained of freewill and drained of imagination and drained of intellect.

An empty vessel. Cried out. Laid out. Sexed out. Drying out. And guilt flowed from his pores and settled thick as winter molasses upon his skin.

Maria or Mary or Mariel or..? It doesn’t matter; they don’t matter; I don’t matter.

Another shadow of the evening was consumed; another warm body used to blanket his weakness; another feeble strike at the cloying renegade imprisoned within. He lied to himself regularly now, an art form perfected in the pursuit of solace; his loneliness quelled by alternating doses of peace and quiet and soft skin. Shaw spoke aloud to no one. His words were formed slowly on parched lips.

‘‘I have.., and I want.’’

He was still drunk. And his head fell into cupped hands.

Celebrate the loner; pity the lonely.

He tipped onto his back and rubbed tired eyes until a constellation of stars glinted and swirled and danced behind the thin veil of skin and a chorus line of blank faces with black holes for eyes were cast against a jet black sky with mouths frozen shut lest they spew forth a willing retreat.

And the roars of lion abound. Like white noise and canyon echoes. And everywhere he heard Mano’s disembodied voice pushing to the fore. And Mano was his friend.

‘‘Thomas, there is only one road to ride.’’

Shaw pulled the remnants of a rolled joint from his coat pocket and pressed it between his lips. He reached for his lighter and found only matches. The fourth attempt at striking delivered a bold flame nursed by a single-malt shake and he sucked down the sulfur and pungent smoke and his lungs filled and he held it in, greedy for its magic, numb to its effect. He pointed an index finger knowingly at his invisible friend but the words were slurred and pointless and Mano’s spirit was not placated.

‘‘Your riddles have no place here. Meet me out on the bay.’’

Shaw surveyed the darkening sky. The spiritual summons was absorbed by the sound of a rising wind and he hollowed out a shelter in the sand and curled up on the dirt and he drew deep on the rolled cheroot and thought of his wife and the melancholy was welcomed like the warm, sensual embrace of a lover.

Thank you.., baby…’’

Sentiment was his only crutch. In constant motion, there was tranquility; a beautiful, relentless, magnetic force that pulled him from the past and thrust him into the future. But now, five thousand miles from home, he could find no consolation and no escape.

High above, in the hard slate-grey of the approaching night, a booted eagle spiraled on rising thermals and he traced its random westward flight until the horizon erased it from sight. Shaw refocused on the jagged mountains carving north across the grassland. Their peaks were ghosted in shadows, like racks of newly-sharpened pencils, and the sun was fully eclipsed behind the tallest range. He drew his knees up and pushed his back against the wall of sand and there he rested and smoked until the color of night was complete. And then he slept.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Little Bay, Island of Jamaica

 

“You’d do well to take more lemonade, sir. It’s too hot to be refusing. My wife makes it every day, and every day it goes to waste.”

The air was thick as liniment and pungent with sea salt and in the stifling heat the glass pitcher wept a constant stream of iridescent tears, drawing damp lines on a towel that swaddled the juice like a new born baby.

‘‘Ma’am..?’’

A short silence was embraced. Malik the waiter stared at the two recumbent forms at his feet and noticed that not a single square inch of bare flesh was exposed to the elements. Body parts not painted by umbrella shade were safely draped in thin layers of white cotton that reflected the noonday sunlight with the intensity of a solar mirror.

Malik presented the jug again. He flashed an automatic smile; a perfect smile; a white teeth smile; a salaried smile.

“Come on now, you two. Whas da scene? Ya can’t make me walk all ‘dis way and not take some sweet lemonade.”

His uniform was pressed and clean and his hands were gloved and damp with runoff. As ever, he was prepared for that moment when touching was necessary. He had been schooled hard in the ways of service.

Rich folk appreciate the covered hand. It’s not about yuh race, it’s about yuh finances, mon! Hands don’t lie. Yuh work will always betray yuh pride. No matter how hard you scrub.’’

Malik passed his wisdom to all of the new employees at the compound. ‘‘Gotta keep the dream alive, from arrival to departure. If ya want to season your spliff, fellas, ya’s got to make style. In truth.’’

The island was awash with nauseatingly, mindless activities born out of placating the tourist trade, and with so many indigenous workers on hand, the rivers of knowledge ran shallow and wide and time moved as slow for the unemployed as it did for the unemployable; as slow as the trudging lines of wiry, lean bodies that snaked from docksides to markets to hotels, drenched in sweat and wrapped in fatigue.

But for Malik, this gig was different. ‘‘…dees cats is different.’’ The money was good. The best he ever had, in fact. These folks didn’t rock out with the glitterati and they were ten times as famous. “Fuck, man, they are front-cover famous! On every news stand, famous; lead story on every TV, famous. He’s the government man. The Ambassador that was kidnapped, no shit! He got half a leg and all, and he got her at his side. She’s old, but sweet, too bad! And they don’t talk down to me.., and they invite me to eat at their table…’’

But he didn’t go. Not because he felt out of place. ‘‘…‘cause maybe I’d just scoffed half a chicken and two pounds of corn bread and me want no more food. Anyways, I keep the distance, right?’’

And he did, and he said so, and they had laughed. Big laughs. Not at him.

With him. “Yeah, these cats are cool.’’

 

Ingrid Hayes rose from the lounge chair and tilted the wide brim of her sun hat and cast a long, piercing gaze at Malik over the top of dark, oversized sunglasses.

“Enough with the serving, young man. If we need something, we’ll get it.”

She settled her hand gently on his arm and it was pale and blotched with age.

“Take this time for yourself; go spend it with your family. We want for nothing.”

“Mrs. Hayes, it’s my responsibility… If dey find out I’m not serving you, dey’ll bring in someone else…”

His challenge was cut short. “Don’t get her started, Malik.”

A man’s muffled voice crept from beneath a paperback that was cracked along its spine, obscuring his face from forehead to bottom lip.

“She’s already reassigned two gardeners to clear garbage from the shed and the pool guy is cleaning gutters and by now wondering if he’ll ever get paid.”

“This place is an outrageous waste of taxpayer money,” Ingrid Hayes muttered with contempt. “The government owes us so much more than the trivial comforts of some drug-lord’s impounded mansion.”

Alleged drug lord.”

Alleged? Have you seen the bathrooms.., all that gold? I’d say who ever lived here had turned laundering money into an art form.”

Ambassador William Hayes removed the book hiding his face and raised his eyebrows and winked at the waiter.

“I’ll take some lemonade, Malik. Just leave the pitcher.”

The icy liquid was dispatched with a gentle pour and covered with the towel and clean glasses were deposited and empties were collected and Malik bid his farewell and rattled off across the great expanse of the south lawn with the heavy beakers engaged in an unsettled dance on the silver tray.

Ingrid Hayes’ eyes trailed Malik as he ascended a rise of wooden steps set into the side of a low sea wall. The top of his head bobbed along a line of sculpted rose bushes for another thirty feet before vanishing out of sight completely.

“His wife is about to give birth, you know,” Ingrid said. Her lips barely moved, as if she were reluctant to be overheard. “Between them, they have eleven children, all living together in a three room house. I visited last week - so much laughter and so much happiness against such a depressing backdrop.”

“Perhaps you’re judging them by someone else’s standards.”

The Ambassador pulled his left leg to his chest and adjusted the thin blanket covering the exposed stump of his other limb. Crudely severed three inches above the knee in a terrorist bombing during an Embassy ground- breaking ceremony ten years previous, the damp air had seeped into his bones and spread fingers of ache throughout his flesh and he massaged the limb until it pulsated with a bright stain of red blood beneath the surface of his white skin. The warmth was immediate and welcome.

“It’s the twenty first century.” His wife would not be dissuaded of her opinion. “No one should be fetching water in the middle of a city.”

“You can’t fix everything, my dear.” Eyebrows were raised. “I am I,” she said.

A dreadful sense of melancholy pressed upon her chest as she watched him struggling for comfort and she caught a breath in her throat and the memory of his long captivity resurfaced and it was raw and without a sign of repair. For the past six months, it had been a constant ghost that floated at her side, goading and taunting her every step. She had first felt its presence during the long weeks of their even longer debrief. Her husband had begun recounting his ordeal in a rehearsed and solemn fashion to a gathering of officials at a private hospital in Tenerife no more than forty-eight hours following his rescue. Through gritted teeth and bouts of racked, uncontrolled sobs, the Ambassador had recalled in vivid detail how shards of broken concrete had ripped at his legs as though spat from an automatic weapon, and he had shared intimate details of the eventual amputation by his captors, and the months of infection, and the dedication and sacrifice of his assistant

to keep him alive. He told of dank housing and desert camps and his constant fear and the numerous mock executions, and, with much difficulty, he told of his surrender to the acceptance of his destiny.

But what he did not share with those strangers was the strength and resilience he had witnessed on the faces of those who would succumb to the most degrading and depraved inhumane treatment outside of a bona fide war zone. He would not jeopardize the transit home of his fellow hostages in any way by laboring over their ability to cope with an unimaginable hell. They were women and they were children, and their numbers were many, and their souls were beaten and their minds shattered. But, en masse, they were only seen as being of Africa, and they would be compensated poorly, if at all, by their home countries. To a woman and to a child, they would be reabsorbed into the communities of the impoverished and the fearful and as the glare of the media spotlight dimmed, they would once again become invisible and at risk.

The Ambassador’s ten year incarceration had been the ultimate bargaining chip for a human trafficking enterprise that was encamped within the desolate coastal territories of Western Sahara and southern Morocco.

Hayes and his diplomatic aide, Rebecca Shaw, had long since been mourned and grieved and immortalized in the minds of their loved ones, so the sudden knowledge that their captivity had been the product of chaos and careful planning amidst the violence of a suicide bombing had been an impossible weight to bear for Ingrid Hayes. Her lust for vengeance had been deftly corrupted by her husband’s captors in what would prove to be an extraordinary show of patience and precise execution.

In the aftermath of the Ambassador’s rescue, the public cries for a full investigation were quickly silenced and no honors were bestowed and no official celebration was encouraged and no moves to avenge a sitting U.S. diplomat’s abduction were put into motion. The soft underbellies of political embarrassments were in danger of being exposed and subsequently, Ingrid

Hayes and the team she had engaged to secure her husband’s release were branded as nothing more than common vigilantes. Warrants were issued and assets were seized and bank accounts were frozen and if not for the Ambassador’s very real and angry threats of exposing past governmental misfires from his storied and influential career, he too might have been publicly admonished as having become emotionally attached to his captors. ‘‘Ten years is long time..,’’ a Republican Senator from Missouri preached to the media, ‘‘…we just don’t know why he was spared and he is providing no real evidence to suggest he remained a strong patriot throughout his ordeal.’’

A decision was made within the darkened halls of congressional sub- committees: pay them off and make them go away.

And pay them off, they had. Without consideration or consequence, fifty million dollars had appeared in a joint account under the Hayes’ names at the National Bank of Dominica. For his aide, Rebecca Shaw, a nominal amount of five hundred thousand dollars was cleared to a Swiss bank account with no visible trail.

Ingrid settled back into the lounge chair and pulled out her phone. For the tenth time that hour she studied an email sent anonymously to her private account.

“Shaw’s contracts have all been cancelled,” she said, “Even the non- government ones. They’ll sell off his airplane next.”

“What do you expect? It isn’t a personal vendetta, it’s how the game’s played; country comes first. Anyway, there’s not much you can do from the outside.”

Hayes rocked a half-filled glass in his wife’s direction. “Do you want some of this?”

“No.., thank you.., I can’t help feeling it’s more than politics. Look at this place…”

Ingrid spun her head through 180 degrees and took in the sprawling estate

-manicured gardens as far as the eye could see; a brace of tennis courts; three

swimming pools and a seven-car garage. The guest house alone had five bedrooms.

“It’s obscene.”

“It’s free, and we’re homeless too, remember.”

I don’t know what’s worse, accepting dirty money or imagining the acts of depravity the walls of this house must have witnessed. Either way, the government owes you more William; the country owes you and Rebecca and Molly and…”

Ambassador Hayes caught the flash of disgust in his wife’s eyes and extended his hand.

“Hey, we’ll get through this.”

His smile was crooked, but broad and full and his dark eyes danced like nuggets of polished ebony in the afternoon sunlight.

“Your optimism is borderline clinical. Maybe the post-abduction therapy is a little too effective.”

From across the lawn Malik returned, carrying a telephone handset and issuing contemptuous shouts of annoyance as a battery of lawn sprinkler heads popped up for service and began to splutter and the air around him exploded into a hundred vibrant rainbows as the fine spray saturated his fine, white uniform.

Ingrid and the Ambassador watched the amusing scene unfold from a hundred feet away: the high stepping and skipping; the bemused, angry shouts; the immediate laughter from onlookers.

And then Malik slowed. And his voice stalled. And his posture became suddenly erect and his hands rose to his throat and he clawed at his uniform as if it were abrading his skin. His feet drew together and a muddy puddle formed around his perfect white shoes, lapping quickly above the neatly tied laces.

The Ambassador sat up in his chair and shouted across, “Are you alright, Malik? You’re getting soaked.”

The telephone handset fell to the ground and Malik sank to his knees and the muscles in his neck stood proud and began to spasm and his head was pulled back sharply and his nose discharged streams of bright mucus that was flecked candy-red. Ingrid looked around for the assistance of others, but found the grounds to be empty. Where only moments previously, gardeners and builders labored under the relentless sun, tools now littered the ground and work sites were vacated. She called for help and hurried across the lawn into the path of the sprinkling water and she was not so agile on the soft grass and she stumbled several times over protruding rocks and shallow folds in the soft earth. As Ingrid recovered her footing, Malik’s eyes connected with hers and a soft, muted gargle spilled from his throat. The ivory white surface of his eyes bulged and watered profusely and tracks of thick translucent tears stood proud of the gentle shower. She turned back to the Ambassador for some sort of consolation and was suddenly propelled into panic as she saw her husband struggling to stand. Sprinkler heads dotted randomly in the turf had risen beneath his lounge chair and the air was now thick with a brassy, swirling vapor. He waved his arms frantically and shouted for her to move away and in only a matter of seconds, William Hayes’ voice faltered and became more aggrieved and frantic and his head bowed to his chest and he collapsed onto the saturated ground. Ingrid made to return to his aid but the conflict of devotion and survival startled her to stillness. The Ambassador’s voice called again, but she was immovable. And then as suddenly, clarity descended and the beat of her heart filled her senses. Nothing else mattered; nothing had ever mattered except her love for this man. Her life was behind her now. She would not live without him again.

Ingrid Hayes strode directly into the path of the toxic cloud. She had covered no more than seven steps before she too was laid upon the darkened turf, still and quiet. The fibers of her muscles constricted tightly and collapsed her internal organs and her pores were evacuating scarlet bullets

and she was determined to feel her husband’s hand clasped around hers one last time.

So much time had passed and so much love remained unrequited and so much pain had been born by so many innocent people and she would not let it end with a pathetic, silent protest. Ingrid Hayes pushed along the ground to where her husband lay. Her fingers clawed at roots of grass and clover and her bare feet plowed furrows of mud and his form became visible, like a gentle hillside rising from a retreating fog bank. And she reached for his hand and he reached for hers and she knew they would have this connection, one last time. And with arms outstretched and eyes locked, they were denied.

 

Eight hundred yards from shore, the yacht, Le Crucible, lolled like a porcelain figurine atop a gentle, rolling swell. From bow to stern, the vessel stretched one hundred and thirty feet and presented her twin six-hundred horsepower diesels with in excess of three hundred tonnes to push through blue water at speeds of up to thirty knots. The port of registration showed clearly as Marseille, France.

The glass patio door on the aft deck swept open with a soft whoosh and a heavy-set man - a slab of granite with a buzz cut and too-tight shorts - pushed a wheelchair through the opening and down a purpose built ramp. He cocked his head at an awkward angle and a beret set one inch above the eyebrow sagged and he was forced to right it. A silver insignia on the headgear caught the arc of the sinking Caribbean sun, flashing two white stallions at full gallop against crossed swords.

On opposing, muttony forearms, single words were boldly tattooed: Johnny and Blade. To an onlooker, the flowery scripts read: Blade Johnny. He thought it worked either way. The silver fox he attended set a pair of dark wrap-a-rounds onto his face with an obvious Parkinson’s shake, spearing both eye and cheek before finding purchase on the bridge of a beaky, spider-

veined nose. Henri Baudin was wheeled across the expanse of a polished teak deck to where the view of the coastline was unobscured by the superstructure of the vessel. The brake was set and Johnny Blade raised a pair of binoculars and swept the cliff side and saw no movement. The old man snapped his fingers impatiently and extended his hands, said,

“I want to see for myself.”

He lifted the heavy glasses to his eyes but the weight was too much for his weak arms and the image bounced erratically within the eyepiece and he abruptly discarded them. A cell phone lay upon his lap. It was alive with a connection and he wrapped a curled, arthritic hand around the device and raised it to his ear and spoke in a mixture of French and English and his voice was thick with the phlegm of cigarettes and his breath was sour with the taint of whisky and his words rolled weakly from one tired lung.

‘‘Êtes-vous sûr? Je veux pas d'erreurs. Take photos. Prendre des photos. Je veux voir les morts chienne.’’

The phone connection was killed and the old man gestured to be returned to the cabin. The door whooshed again and several raised voices in the throes of heated debate were quickly silenced, eyes averted; innocence relayed. The old man wasted no breath.

“You have all just become a party to an international crime - the murder of a US diplomat and his wife. What penalty does that carry, I wonder?”

A man in his early sixties, with thin strands of grey hair plastered to a skull heavy with oil, raised his glass in mock celebration.

“We are bankers, Henri. We are invincible!” The sole woman spoke.

“You cannot convict what you cannot prove.”

Her feet were bare and she uncrossed and crossed caramel-brown legs and they were long and slim and the old man followed their untangling with yearning eyes. From the waist down, his pale skin wrapped three decades of paralysis. From her waist up, a ripened sexuality was obvious, even if her

ethnicity wasn’t. Some of the men guessed at Asian or Caribbean heritage, but there were no obvious indicators and her accent gave nothing away. She flitted randomly from traditional Jamaican patois to the lazy drawl of the southern United States to a clipped mid-Atlantic delivery. Her tone and inflection could have emanated from anywhere in a million square mile radius. She was draped in layers of bold, carnival print and her hair was pulled back tight and her eyes perfectly round, like a child’s drawing, and the bridge of her nose, narrow, and her lips too full, and with honey-colored cropped hair slicked against the frame of her face, she commanded the room as though a master’s brush stroke had deemed so.

Naria Chea thumbed her phone impatiently. No calls. To witness the old man fail would have been a joy. She motioned for a refill and watched intently as a bright concoction of crushed ice and raspberry juice and vodka spilled from the waiter’s jug.

She said, “With this.., retribution.., are you now satisfied?” “Not until I see their deaths publicly acknowledged.”

A second man, a round, black ball of perspiration, dabbed at his neck with a sodden handkerchief. “There are considerations,” he said. “We have commitments. And soon our clients will look elsewhere - especially the Russians. We do not hold a monopoly on the…”

“I’ve told you of the existence of Sulamien’s hidden camps,” Baudin said. “They’re spread throughout northern Africa. My son’s bodyguard informed me of the map showing their locations, but unfortunately it is no longer in our possession. It was Sulamein’s only insurance policy, so we know it to be relevant. It’s not that we do not have product, it just that we cannot access it for the time being.”

Grey-hair shifted in his chair. The levity was no longer evident in his voice. “Will you cover all our losses?”

“I will not!” The old man spat the words like sour milk and the veins in his neck showed bold and blue and his steroidal attendant shuffled to his side

to calm him. Naria noticed that the man’s thighs brushed audibly against each other as he walked, revealing no daylight as far down as his knees and she found humor in the timbre of his voice, so thin and high.

She said, “If your son hadn’t been so negligent; so driven by his militant ego, none of this would have been necessary.”

“My son was a victim; he was attacked. He was merely discharging the duties he was assigned,” the old man said.

Grey-hair speaks, “Above and beyond the call of duty if you ask me. And it was not for the first time. Where do we stand with the result of his actions?”

“What do you mean where do we stand? You stand here, aboard this vessel; his vessel - a gift received in recognition of his contribution to our unified goals. Our business is not confined to the movement of workers. You are all being hysterical; the extent of our reach is across many industries.”

The old man became quieted by his own anger. It was a honed skill; a tactic he employed for the benefit of investors. Displays of passion might receive admiration from some, but a calm disposition received funding from all. And he was no longer solvent. And retribution is expensive. And this was not the time for moral grandstanding.

“Philippe Baudin.., my son.., did not kidnap and hold hostage an Ambassador of the United States. But when he discovered Sulamein was harboring such an important commodity, he manipulated a world order we have all benefited from. He utilized the tools at his disposal and he was repaid with dishonor and…”

Henri Baudin changed tack.

“…mark my words; you’ve all gained much political capital with the Americans’ demise. I suggest you use it to benefit our organization instead of promoting a sudden sense of fiscal morality. This has never been about money.”

“It’s always about money, old man,” Naria said. “We wouldn’t be here risking such exposure if it weren’t.”

“You’re here because I asked you to be.”

“I’m sorry you think that you wield such a level of control, Henri. I’m here because we’re down over four hundred shipments for the last six months.

Where does it end? Zero shipments..? Do we inform our distribution networks that we’re no longer operational when there are potentially thousands of serviceable individuals hidden amongst the West Africa sand dunes? If this operation died with your son, then you are accountable.”

Naria sensed blood in the water. And she circled. She had been taught well by her father, sitting at his feet, watching avidly as he created and manipulated successful textile corporations in the Caribbean Islands using imported and undocumented labor from China and India. She was being groomed to profit from the misery of others - right up until the age of twelve when she had been orphaned and withdrawn from her coddled existence by the child services and deposited into a succession of unregulated foster homes where she would be branded with taunts and threats and assaults; where she would hide the gentle curves of her coming of age under thick gabardine sheets bunched and tied at the waist and veil her face with scarves cut from bolts of cheap imported cloth lifted during midnight raids on the stalls of Kingston’s Jubilee Market; where she would work, pushing barrows of yams and tripe and coal through covered markets, fighting off the lecherous advances from the dregs of white colonial rule along with those of her black masters; where she would be beaten if she refused, and brutalized and cast aside if she would succumb. And as the years passed she bloomed beyond her confinement. She organized the runaways and the discarded, navigating the slums like the Jamaican Artful-dodger. And as the welcome bellow of the Port Authority’s fog horn signaled the evening shift change, she would seek out hidden coves along the shoreline with the stench of Saltfish and the acrid smoke of cooking fires filling her nose and she would linger

past sunset, throwing rocks into the breaking waves, wishing upon the falling sun and the rising moon for a deserved new life. If her appearance was always to walk many paces before her intellect, she would use it in her favor and reclaim what was rightfully hers. She would bear the emotional scars and she would bear the physical wounds to create the perfect feminine specimen - an undeniable work of art and authority.

Day in and day out she courted the glares and abuse of dockside whores and fallen women; woman whose age had surpassed their appeal; women for whom no man would pay despite their sensuous parading and their shrill invitations. In time, Naria learned to turn these girls to work in her favor. She gained their trust using her youth and beauty and energy, the way her father had moved workers - with promises and stories of better lives. She became a force throughout the Caribbean and money followed suit. She bought property and she charged premium rates and the customers came and the years passed and her beauty faded. So she bought new beauty. The perfection she had always dreamed of.

And here and now, aboard this decadent vessel floating atop a bucolic ocean, whose saltwater was imbued into her DNA, she would not see a lifetime’s struggle devolved so quickly at the hands of this impotent antique.

As if to punctuate her thoughts, Baudin’s attendant produced a paper cup of water and a small plastic bottle for his employer and the rattle of medication soon followed. Three pills. Like colorful submarines. Sucked through dry, flaky lips and swallowed with great effort.

“We will request advance payments from the European and American distributors; and we will levee a tax on past shipments,” Baudin said.

The obese Jamaican roused himself, suddenly intrigued. His weight bore his frame deeper into the soft upholstery and the strained squeaks and burps of polished leather invaded the conversation. “For what purpose does this tax serve..?”

“The Euro is weak against the US dollar. They are making huge profits.”

“…and they would lose greatly if the inverse were true. Our costs have always been a flat rate.”

“You’re insane, they’ll never agree; they’ll never pay,” Naria said. “I would be embarrassed to even broach the subject.”

“Don’t be weak. We’re not a supermarket with shelves of produce.” Henri felt a fresh buzz of energy course through his clogged arteries. “Of course they will agree. They have whorehouses and factories to fill.

The attrition rate is without comparison. With so many human rights groups bringing pressure, the ability to protest on social media alone has cost them greatly. There are no secrets anymore and we need a great deal of capital to root out Sulamein’s followers and find these camps and set up new networks. There was too much reliance placed on that heathen and he is now dead and we must not rest on past achievements. We must rebuild, and for that I need your cooperation.”

“Cooperation..? You mean our money - with little guarantee of a return.” Naria stood and wandered to the ornate bay window that overlooked the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean. She felt the rise and fall of the swell and rode it with ease.

“Perhaps it is time we voted.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Grande-Terre, Guadeloupe

 

Le Crucible nosed alongside an empty dock and two young deckhands leapt ashore and secured the mooring lines to rusted pylons. Three shadows disembarked clutching rope handrails along a metal gangway that was extended but not affixed, and when the last guest had ducked into the confines of a waiting Limo, the vessel was cast off and drifted quickly into the velvet blackness. With the soft hum of turbo-charged diesels simmering the water at her stern, the old man lingered on deck. The twinkling heavens filled his gaze and he blinked in wonder and he mouthed words that were barely audible and his shoulders rounded and he closed his eyes. The buzz cut returned and wheeled his chair to a small elevator and deposited the old man inside and the doors closed with a soft, metallic catch.

One deck below, Baudin backed out of the tiny compartment into a corridor that hugged the gently curving bulkhead for the entire length of the vessel. He tensed as the monotonous knock of a breathing compressor and the steady bleep of a heart-rate monitor became evident. A uniformed nurse approached and handed him a chart bound to a thick clipboard and she issued a verbal report:

“Temperature is within acceptable limits and breathing is steady. There’s been no change in his nerve response and I think the infection rising from his

neck to his hairline has been contained. I’ll know more in the morning. Dehydration still remains our most important concern as so much fluid is being lost through the damaged skin.”

The nurse excused herself from the room and Baudin fingered the chair’s joystick control and the electric motor whined and the thick rubber wheels rolled without sound toward a clear Perspex incubator. He scraped the arm rest gently against the case and set his hands upon the enclosure. The unit was cold to his touch and he leaned close and studied the immobile form beneath. A tangle of feeding and pain management tubes shuttled fluids beneath yards of sterile bandages that wound from ankle to neck. Baudin’s eyes followed the windings to the twisted features of an unrecognizable face patched with irregular shapes of grafted cadaver skin.

“Philippe, my son, our journey home has begun. I have secured the investment. We will sail to Marseille and begin to rebuild.”

He spoke in soft tones, often choking back a sob. No matter how long he stared at the disfigured form beneath, he could not recognize his son. Where strong, noble features were once emblematic of the Baudin family; a trademark handed down through generations of strong, independent men, there were now only patchy growths of hair poking through a scarred scalp, and sallow cheeks and eyelids that fluttered like nervous butterflies. Baudin turned his chair and wheeled to the far wall and brought a large computer display to life with the swipe of a track pad. A series of photographs stared back. Each showed the face of an individual retrieved from the database of the immigration services of several countries. He picked up a stylus and drew a slow, shaky red line though the faces of Ambassador William Hayes and his wife Ingrid.

“I am only sorry they did not know for whom they were suffering.

Perhaps we will be more fortunate with the others.”

He reversed the wheelchair until his hand brushed the plastic cocoon once more, never letting his glare drop from the gallery of faces. His eyes scanned

the now familiar contours of the remaining four men and two women as if he was perusing a restaurant menu.

“I know you can hear me, Philippe. I will avenge you.”

Henri Baudin pressed his thin, dry lips to the plastic and began to sing softly. A gypsy folk song; a song from his childhood telling of dark fears and retribution and suffering and demons to be slain.

 

‘‘Lay to waste the mothers and the babies; A simple war to win;

Shelter the Fathers and the sons; Protect the family from sin;

Lightning flashes and trembling hands will signal our return;

And Gods will bow to mortal men while the dead have yet to burn.’’

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Southern Sahara

 

Shaw’s mind awoke before his body. The smell of sweet sagebrush and citrus trees filled his head and soft sheets of warm night air brushed his face and for a moment there was no pain. Within the sanctuary of closed eyes, he imagined the faces of loved ones and he imagined the nervous laughter of young, mischievous children as they were corralled by officious parents wielding long, crooked sticks and switches of willow and birch and the scenes dissolved against a backdrop of treeless dunes and the cries of youthful excitement faded as the steady drumbeat of a body trampled and tortured by alcohol and tobacco and herbs and pills marched forth, insistent and without remorse.

With effort, he opened one eye, and then the other, and then rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself upright.

Slow. Achingly slow.

He came to his knees unsteady and nauseous and finally he stood, swaying and he was weak and dehydrated and angry. His mind had said the demons would not prevail this time; his body knew otherwise.

Shaw took two steps and sank to his knees and vomited. He wretched until his throat was raw and his stomach muscles balled into fists and his entire body shook with fatigue. With eyes watering and strings of spit

dangling, he pulled his jacket sleeve across his mouth and recoiled at the sound of the scratch of stubble from a week old beard. When he attempted to run his fingers through the mop of thick, matted hair that hung long over his face, the misery was complete.

With effort, he stumbled to his feet and walked to where the motorcycle lay on its side like an abandoned toy, weeping gentle tears of gasoline from a loosened cap. He wrestled the 600lb machine upright and found the key still twisted to its stop and with a knowing dread churning in his stomach, thumbed the starter.

Shaw was rewarded with the sound of complete silence. A dead battery is at once the ultimate resolution to a mechanical malaise, and also the final straw.

He popped the collar of his jacket and collected his bearings. The track that ended at the indents of his front tire was of his own making. His night time assault of the vast desert plain was without consideration and now the main road lay some thirty miles to the south and by the time he would have made it even half way back on foot, the late-August sun would have emptied the last molecules of water from his soul.

Shaw walked in a slow circle with the palm of one hand swiping dirt and gravel from the indents of his cheek. He tried to identify landmarks in the misty-violet, pre-dawn light but the landscape returned no relief or shape or depth at this hour.

 

And then… With the promise of a dream, wavering colors of deep orange and crimson spilled across the translucent fog that clung to the cold shadows at the base of the nearest mountain. A life-force beckoned. The pulse was visible beyond the grey curtain and then it vanished against the foreground and then returned, bright and sharp.

 

And with a heavy head, and a heavier heart, he began to walk.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Exmoor, Devon, England

 

A steady nor’easter pushed over sandstone cliffs and hugged tufts of yellow gorse and spilled across moss-laden stones and spread beneath blankets of heather and the dappled emptiness of Exmoor lifted and rolled like the waves of a vast purple ocean. Rebecca Shaw felt the onset of a cold, soft rain trickle down her back and she shuddered and pulled her jacket tighter and loaded another cord of damp wood into a rickety wheelbarrow and kicked mud from her boots and pushed on through shallow puddles and mounds of soggy grass.

In half-a-hundred meters more, a gravel strewn lane was born from the deep, churned ruts of the field and welcomed the barrow’s flattened single tire with a firm crunch. Winding away into a series of blind corners, the lane carved through a thicket of elm and oak that had upheld two centuries of defiance to the prevailing winds and Rebecca was soon encased beneath a canopy that was silent and sheltered but for the whine and bite of frosty air. She bore the barrow’s weight of cut wood easily and trudged onward until a man’s voice startled her from within the darkness beyond the tree line. It was loud and heavy with concern and his presence was further announced by the crack and split of timber and branches as two large calloused hands opened a passage in the wooded mass. A ruddy face and a wiry beard plunged into

view and the dead sheen of a decades-old oilskin jacket, scratched with fine, dull tracks of bramble thorns followed. Their eyes met and in an instant the man’s voice was kind and insistent.

“Here, let me do that. You should be resting.”

“I’m fine, Dad, Rebecca said. “Honestly.., I’m not an invalid. I’ve been doing pretty well for myself these past years.”

The words spat from her mouth like grease meeting flame and the look in her father’s eyes was immediate and broken.

“No, c’mon Dad, you know what I mean...”

A small, crooked grin drew upon her mouth and she went to his side and her arm reached up and wrapped around his neck.

“Ok, tell ya what,” she said. “I’ll push this lot.., you get the next.”

“Of course I will, and the one after that, too. Tea’s up, by the way. It’s been set out next to the fire. That Mano is a bloody good cook. I never knew we had half that stuff in the pantry.

The rain eased and the air exploded with the soggy smells of the north Devon countryside: cut grass and rock pools and blackberry bushes and privet hedges and honeysuckle. It was all so immediate, and so unforgettable.

They walked on in silence and it did not matter that a constant blanket of grey cloud had denied them a glimpse of their shadows for weeks at a time, for it was here that Rebecca did not think of Africa; and it was here that she did not hear the plaintive cries of women and children in bondage, nor did she remember her throat scarred from the effects of severe thirst, or relive the sensation of her ankles as they were hobbled in iron shackles. Instead, she inhaled the aromas of her childhood home, infused with the memories of hiding places and magical summers and haunted abbeys and small shops filled with sweets and cakes. It was the sanctuary of England.

 

A rogue log tumbled from the wheelbarrow and Rebecca stooped to recover it.

“What’s on your mind, Dad? You’re doing your level best not to mention Thomas.”

“I know, but it’s just that.., you know.., whatever I say will sound trite and small and self-centered. You’ve been through the mill. It’s not my place to judge. I want the best for both of you, but I feel my duty is to you first, and then Molly.., and then...”

“You can’t write him off. I haven’t. I’m only here because of him.” “You’re my only family and I lost you, and now I have you back. And he’s

not here. He’s bloody well not here.”

 

Finn Courtenay was a mountain of man with a baritone voice that could rattle windows in their panes. He felt the resentment and frustration spill from his mouth and he checked his tone and cleared his throat. He had raised Rebecca alone, and alone he had suffered through her disappearance and presumed death. He had had no companion to console or to tend to his own needs. His precious little girl was his reason to live and to love and more than ten years ago she had been taken away while he stood powerless, an ocean away. And now she was back. Just like that. Returned as a stranger; wise beyond her years.

 

“Thomas should know that his wife and his daughter need him.” Courtenay said. “Here and now. Instead of parading around that God- forsaken continent looking for God-knows what?”

They rounded a low stone wall and approached the back entrance of a small stone farm house that sat exposed to the elements at every corner. The texture of the rock face was weathered perfectly smooth in places and Rebecca reached up and brushed the rounded corners with her fingertips as she had done as a child and the connection was complete, as if a path through the ages had been lighted for her and brought her home.

“He’s haunted by so much more than I can explain, Dad. We all are. But for him there’s no end, not until he’s exhausted his demons. We’re not the same family, but it doesn’t mean that one day it can’t be beautiful.”

“If he is trying to outrun them, he is a fool. He’s seen the effects of war for the first time and he’s spooked, that’s what I think. I know. I’ve been there.

It’s not pretty. The rest of his life is here, not there. Fair enough, he’s lost his company and his home - but he got you back. That just doesn’t happen.

That’s nothing short of divine intervention. He’ll lose everything, you mark my words.”

“Things, Dad.., they’re just, things - the plane and the house - just things.”

She struck a pose that sent Finn back in time - hands on hips, feet slightly spread, hair whipping at an expression that could be cast in bronze.

“We’re here and we’re safe. There’s nothing that can’t be reconciled in time. My sentence was distance and imprisonment, his and Molly’s and yours was complete loss. I waited, but you grieved.”

“I want…”

Courtenay checked his request and paused and lowered the handles of the barrow and the struts sank into the loose gravel and the load tilted awkwardly under its own weight. As he spoke, a hearty gust of wind pushed through the trees and autumn leaves floated like patches of golden cloth to the woodshed’s metal roof.

“…I’m here - for whatever you need. That’s all I want to say.”

Rebecca pushed her hands inside his jacket and buried her thick black curls against his chest, hiding her face in the folds of a thick Aran wool sweater.

“Those people that kept me from my family…, they’re still there. Those kids are taken from their homes and made to do the most inhuman.., families swap females, you know, they live in fear of being made to rape each other.

Thomas isn’t messed up, he’s not abandoning us. He’s resolved; he’ll find his way back.”

 

From the house, a lilting Spanish tenor and a chorus of small children’s voices spilled from the nearby open kitchen door and interrupted their quiet moment. Father and daughter listened to the rhythm of the unfamiliar lyrics and bursts of laughter and then fell to stacking the damp cuts of wood into the dry confines of the shed.

As they had a thousand times before.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Southern Sahara

 

“Papa! A stranger! ”

A child’s excited shouts cascaded throughout the canyon with growing speed and assault.

“Look!”

Pirouetting on a single small, dirty bare foot, oblivious to sharp rocks and cactus spines and acacia thorns strewn across the open bivouac, the child waved a crude wooden crutch about his head and hopped and sang before the cooking fire, always with a ruler-straight finger pointing at the shadow emerging from the low bank of morning fog surrounding the camp.

“We do not acknowledge strangers,” the Father stated abruptly, “we do not engage with strangers, we engage with friends. All travelers are our friends until they prove otherwise. And then they are most certainly not strangers.”

The child shrugged off the Father’s wisdom as though it were an annoying insect and continued his erratic dance.

A welcome was shouted in Arabic and was greeted with silence. He switched to French. Maybe this was a traveler from the ocean?

‘‘Bonjour dans le brouillard.’’

He grabbed a handful of the young boy’s robe and pulled him tight against his chest and spoke again.

‘‘Nous sommes des voyageurs simples. Vous êtes les bienvenus.’’

No sound returned from the advancing form and the Father became nervous and he mumbled beneath his breath. He was born to the life of a nomad and although he embraced the teaching of Islam with his heart, he trusted his eyes even more. The mountains and deserts were full of spirits that were denied by the Imams as figments of his imagination. But he had seen them, creeping in the firelight shadows and inhabiting his dreams and bringing disease and possessing his wives. It was the Imams that were mistaken because they sought shelter in the mosques and in the cities and were surrounded by the constant cacophony of traffic and the incessant wailing and false remorse of needy people. The silence of the desert was his cathedral and in this place all was revealed to those who believed.

 

The ground was iced white under Shaw’s heavy boots and crunched with frosty disruption. He saw two silhouettes move before the orange glow and he heard the voice of a man carried above the sound of his footsteps and he returned the greeting with a hand raised in greeting and a hearty, ‘‘Bonjour,’’ quickly reverting to his native tongue with an exuberant, ‘‘Hello,’’ lest he promote his less than adequate grasp of the French language. A man of obvious advanced age and a young boy retreated slightly at his advance into the light of the camp and Shaw was convinced his appearance was indeed to blame. Weather-worn and battered by these last few months of hard riding in search of an invisible trail leading to an invisible camp, he presumed the mirror would return a less than civilized reflection of his character or intent.

Shaw paused at the edge of the clearing.

‘‘As-Salam-u-Alaikum.’’

He issued the preferred greeting for a non-Muslim to a Muslim and bowed his head.

“I have come to your camp from the other side of the valley. My motorcycle has broken down and I saw the light of your fire.”

“You are welcome to our home..,” the Father said, his accent broken only by the pace of its delivery, “…we have food and water and shelter.”

“Thank you,” Shaw said. “I apologize for my appearance, I have covered many miles.”

“I hope your journey is one of adventure and enlightenment.”

“Not as of yet..,” Shaw said, rubbing thick protruding knots of muscle across his shoulders, “…I’m afraid my voyage is leading me in many circles. But I do not wish to burden you. That I was fortunate enough to discover you in this vast expanse is a gift and I am grateful. My name is Thomas Shaw.”

“I am Yahya ibn Umar and the jewel of my life, is Abdel. We are alone in this world and we live a simple life, but you are welcome to all you survey.”

“I am honored by your generosity, but all I require is some water and perhaps a little food and I will soon be on my way.”

Yahya instructed the boy to bring water and bread and slices of goat meat and dried figs to the fireside, following the young boy’s sluggish progress with a beaming smile. The old man’s pride was eclipsed only by the efforts of the boy as he navigated many obstacles with deft use of his crutch.

“Your son is a strong boy,” Shaw said. “It is clear you have raised him to overcome many challenges.”

The old man nodded agreeably. “Yes, but he is not my son.” “Forgive my presumption.”

Yahya waved away the apology. “He is an orphan. I discovered him when he was no more than two or three years old, cast off into the desert by a band of traders that found his disability not commercially viable. They did not even bother to end his life; they just dismissed him, with neither guilt nor aggression. To them, his life was simply of no consequence. What do you say about those people Mr. Shaw? Do you have children?”

“I have a daughter - a young woman now. She’s my guiding light.”

“And yet, here you are, wandering alone in an unforgiving land and the heavens are obscured by clouds.”

The old man sat upon a heavy rug at the fire’s edge and beckoned for Shaw to join him, and in the light of the burning pit, the elder’s features were haggard and deep creases became bold and exaggerated and lay upon his face black as charcoal lines drawn upon a tobacco-stained cloth.

The boy returned three times more with trays of food and on the final delivery it was clear he had changed his robe and laid a comb to his tousled hair for it was now firmly parted and swept back from his forehead in a single wave and his eyes glistened like dark brown stones sunk into deep wells. He pestered the old man constantly for information on the stranger and was consistently denied until Shaw detached an object from the set of motorcycle keys and offered the small silver trinket as a gesture of his appreciation.

The boy took it eagerly and turned it in his hand, over and over.

‘‘L’avion,’’ the boy said with wonder. His voice wavered as he declared,

‘‘Un avion magique provenant du brouillard.’’

“I must know your name if we are to be friends,” Shaw said, and Yahya dutifully translated.”

The boy became suddenly still and covered the gift with both hands and his eyes fixated on the dancing flames.

“Have I offended him?” Shaw asked?

“No. You have honored him with your curiosity and he does not know how to repay you.”

“But there is no need.”

“Of course there is,” Yahya said. “It will release him from your debt and allow your friendship to flourish. It cannot happen any other way.”

“Please tell him the gift is my repayment for the kindness he has shown a stranger.”

“That will work, I think.”

“The conversation that floated between Yahya and the boy became earnest and severe and at times Shaw was reminded of the many verbal scufflings he had endured with his own daughter, Molly. Fiercely independent, she came by it naturally; woven deep in the DNA. Should’ve been no surprise. The highs were immense. Touching the clouds. But the lows destroyed him, churned his gut with sickness. The guilt of the single parent; the anger of defeat. ‘‘It’s all your fault,’’ she would scream at him. And it was. His self pity was his real baby. He protected it; nurtured it deep into the night. He had cradled the child, but was lost with the young woman. The sudden flick of her hair brought a vision of the past crashing into view. His wife. Dead and gone. Then. Not now. He found her within a nightmare. But the damage was done; the alienation and the guilt was a permanent stain.

The young boy met Shaw’s look of concern with a self-satisfied grin. “All is well,” Yahya declared. “Now, what causes your path to intersect

with our home?”

“I’ve broken down…”

The old man cleared his throat and with obvious relief spat mightily into the fire.

“I understand the mechanical failings of your vehicle,” Yahya said. “I am interested in your journey to this land and especially this place. My devotion to the boy is without question, but even a camel must drink from a new well. Tell me your story.”

Shaw began. The old man closed his eyes and remained still and the fire crackled and the sky brightened and clouds boiled and marched against the horizon as indigo soldiers. And the time passed. And a life’s events were sketched upon the sands and colored upon the rocks and the old man absorbed every detail. He learned of an abduction and imprisonment; he learned of women and children bought and sold as cattle by men of his own tribe and he learned of vengeance and remorse; and he learned of a changed man, a broken man.

“I found the woman I loved like no other after ten years. She is the mother of my child and I cannot be in the same room as her without a legion of demons marching through my skull, inviting anger and frustration; taunting me with the faces of those that would harm her. I am powerless in her presence.” Shaw said. “My pledge to make amends with this evil has become my burden and my escape, and I do not know if I will find my way back.”

“Back to what, Mr. Shaw..?”

Yahya was very matter-of-fact with his remark.

“…evil is but an ingredient in this recipe and you suffered at its hand and you did not look away. You should ask nothing more of yourself at this time. To do so is a fool’s journey.”

Shaw was tired from speaking and acknowledged with barely a shrug of his shoulders. He was suddenly aware that he was hung over. A battle was raging from his stomach to his throat and nausea crept from the darkness like a stifling blanket.

“I hear you old man, but you are a nomad and I believe you have little to fear. I see that for you it would be an easy path to redemption. But there are young souls being traded as simple market wares…”

“You are hearing my voice, but you do not listen to the space between my words.”

Shaw pulled a small black cigar from his shirt pocket and ignited the tobacco from a bright ember that popped and swelled and burned by his boot. He held the smoke in his lungs for a long moment and exhaled a thin, blue line into the morning mist and a sharp sting of bile scored his throat and he swallowed a mouthful of blood-warm water.

“The sun will be your enemy today, Mr. Shaw. It would be an honor to extend our dwelling to you. You will feel better for a cool, dreamless sleep.”

Shaw was tactful. He refused the old man’s offer and tried to stand and promptly sat back down.

“Well, maybe if I take shelter for a few moments I might rest enough to be able to continue.”

“Of course,” Yahya said, summoning the boy from his play in the confines of the tent. “A few moments are all you need. You will take some tea and then you will rest.”

 

The arc of the sun drew pale shadows across Shaw’s face as he slept on a bed of thick rugs and the wind outside the shelter moved across the dunes, coaxing wistful tunes from their fragile surface. As night drew to a close once more, the boy leaned against Shaw’s prone body and he looped and swooped the tiny airplane about his head with eyes wide and full of wonder.

Shaw became aware of the movement and he was drawn slowly awake and the boy’s soft mutterings merged with the plaintive, melancholic whine that invaded his thoughts. He opened his eyes and whispered, “Endeavor,” and the boy was startled.

“L’avion, le nom..,” Shaw said, “Endeavor.”

The boy relaxed and repeated the name over and over and was pleased and ran to share this knowledge with the old man.

Shaw pushed his body upright expecting to be greeted by the residual rush of his hangover with the force of a sledgehammer. To his surprise, his head was clear and his eyes sharp. He emerged to a bejeweled sky and a moon that was full and shone as bright as a giant yellow pearl directly over his head.

“This night is a feast for my imagination. The weather has cleared. I could have sworn the moon was shrouded by thick banks of cloud as I fell to sleep.”

“It was, Mr. Shaw. But that would be the moon of two nights previous. You awaken to a new moon - one that we shall dedicate in your honor.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“The arc of two suns have come and gone. You would be wise to walk steady. Come to the fire and rest.”

Shaw trudged through a deep bank of sand and caught his breath. A glint of chrome flashed through the dance of the orange flame and the familiar curves of a tank and seat and wheels came into focus.

“You will find petrol now fills the tank,” Yahya said. Shaw wiped at his eyes.

“I am so grateful, but with a battery so flat I’m afraid no amount of fuel will prompt her into motion.”

“Ah.., yes.., the battery. Nothing that a little patience and the gift of God’s light didn’t satisfy.”

The old man’s eyes twinkled in time with the starry night and his chuckle of satisfaction was contagious. He deftly unrolled a portable solar panel with the dramatic turn of a seasoned performer and Shaw let go with a booming roar of delight that echoed like cannon fire across the canyon.

“By God, you’re a magician.”

“I accept no praise. My camels, however, are the pride of this land. They are envied by all who survey their poise and their stature and they are coveted for their strength and beauty. To transport your vehicle here was but a minor inconvenience.”

Shaw kicked at the tires and found them fully inflated and the engine cleaned of mud and debris.

“I cannot leave without satisfying my debt of gratitude. You can instruct me in your service or consider that you have a permanent guest until you do.”

Yahya was pleased with Shaw’s remarks and he danced in a circle and he yelped like a desert fox and the boy, oblivious to his guardian’s provocation, shouted in support and whirled until his robe drew taught around his legs and he stumbled dizzy and breathless to the ground.

When the excitement faded, the elder beckoned Shaw to the fire and they sat for a moment in silence.

“We will take some food and then we will speak of these camps where you say children are held. I know this land and I know its sadness. If these places exist, then they are a plague that must be destroyed.”

A rush of wind raced across the camp and toyed with the firelight and the swollen red coals blinked with the hues of ripened plums and strawberries and peaches and in the smoldering ash he saw the wide, pleading eyes of the innocent and the abused. Thomas Edward Shaw inhaled deep and the smoke brought water to his eyes and the desert sang to him once more.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Abdel loosed three camels from the herd and brought them to the compound. He stood with an air of defeat as Yahya and Shaw secured provisions to one and mounted great saddles and heaped blankets upon the others.

“The boy is unhappy.” Shaw said.

“He must stay and tend to the herd and protect our camp. There are many nomads across this valley desiring this area for the forage of their own herds. Alas, as the world has warmed so our vegetation has become sparse. Abdel must learn that manhood is denoted by his acceptance of responsibility, not excitement. There is much time for adventure in his life. This lesson of patience will not go unlearned.”

Shaw stepped away from preparing his camel and pulled the motorcycle off its stand and fired the engine and signaled to the boy to mount up. Abdel needed only one invitation and clambered onto the tank and felt the shudder of the V-twin as it settled to a steady idle. Shaw kicked the machine into gear and popped the clutch and together they leapt onto the vast plateau of cracked earth surrounding the compound with the rear tire trailing a steadily diminishing arc of sand and small rocks. For three miles, the boys face was as bright as a radiant sun. His eyes streamed torrents of tears, but he refused to close them. Shaw eased off the throttle and leaned the bike into a slow, languid turn and the boy was without sound or movement and his heart beat with the insistency of a highway rumble strip. Shaw gently lifted the boy’s

right hand from its death grip on the handlebars and placed it on the throttle and covered it with his own. He revved the engine slowly, letting the boy feel the resistance of the cable and the rise and fall of the engine at his command. He moved the boy’s left hand to cover the clutch lever and again walked him through the motions of release and restraint. For several moments the boy rehearsed his moves, and each time the bike rolled a little further and accelerated a little faster. Finally, Shaw let go. The bike came quickly to speed and he toed the gear lever and the boy hesitated and the bike dropped its nose and there was a splutter and a cough and then silence. Shaw laughed heartily, “Everyone stalls the first time.”

The bike roared back to life at the punch of the starter and this time stayed active through the entire gear set. Abdel laid flat on the tank behind the small nose screen and let out such a whoop of joy that Shaw nearly tumbled off the back of the bike. They raced toward the compound with the searing heat and dust of the desert wind raking their faces and stinging their eyes and in this moment, the riders were as one.

Shaw lifted the trembling boy from the machine and watched proudly as Yahya was assaulted with a flurry of unfinished sentences and flailing arms as he reenacted the ride moment by moment. Shaw set the bike under the shade of an awning and jangled the keys so as to get Abdul’s attention and then tossed them high into the air, sure to land at the boy’s feet.

“I am in need of a keeper for my treasured possession,” Shaw said, and the boy looked anxiously to his guardian for the translation. “Perhaps Abdel knows of someone that is responsible and dependable and would act upon my behalf?”

The boy’s eyes lit up. He retrieved the keys and immediately attached them again to the prized winged trinket. He set to work scooping out a shallow trench next to the motorcycle, as he would when bedding down his own camel. He spread a blanket into the shallow depression and, for extra security, laid a large wooden club within its folds.

“I believe you have found your man, Mr. Shaw,” Yahya said. “Come now, we have many miles to cover before sunset.”

 

They left Abdel tending the herd as the sun was completing its awakening and by mid-morning the wind was stirring at their heels and thick clouds rose from the earth and raced to the horizon, filling their vision with waltzing columns of grit and tidal waves of broken light.

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Miami, Florida

 

The shop-girl stuffed a fresh wad of gum into her cheeks and sucked the sweet juice between her teeth and smacked her lips with deep satisfaction.

“Your stuff is being boxed up now,” she said, tossing her head at stacks of printed business cards that rose and fell like a city skyline against the store’s glass frontage. “You can pay me now if you want. Or wait awhile and check ‘em for yourself.”

The sole customer leaned on a stack of boxes. “I’ll wait.”

He glanced behind the counter and saw a selection of printed proofs - rows of white teeth and a pair of abnormally large breasts stamped with a bold font: JANUARY.

“Your work?” he said.

“Oh yeah, Mitch does the photography out back. I can show you the studio if you like. He says he’ll shoot me a lot more when I get bigger, but I think I am good to go now.”

Shop-girl stood and smoothed the creases of her T-shirt.

“Whaddya think? If I can get on a calendar then the booker out at Boner’s says that’ll prove I have what it takes. He says I’m already a good dancer and he should know ‘cause he sees everyone.

The customer nodded his head in acknowledgement and shop-girl mistook it for confusion.

“It’s a bar off the turnpike, near downtown. All the trucks stop there. If you can get on before midnight, especially at the weekend, the tips are fucking huge. Prime time, if you know what I mean.”

She let out a knowing giggle that drew her top lip into the shadow of her nose and displayed a finger’s width gap in her front teeth.

“I know a girl that went to the same school as me and she bought a house

- just from dancing - and she was a porky little b-i-t-c-h, couldn’t even do the splits.”

A beanpole clad in a white pharmacist’s smock with a greasy pony tail and a cheek-to-cheek spread of boiling acne came through a plastic curtain clutching two small boxes of printed material. He set them on the counter.

“Here we go, sir. Sorry for the wait. Two hundred business cards as ordered. I coulda hooked you up with a premium set for just few bucks more. You’d get gold trim and raised letters.”

“Nah, this’ll work.”

The customer pulled the sample card from the cover of the box and studied it for typos and general print quality:

 

Levin and McDonald, Sea Plane Charter Pilots Roseau, Commonwealth of Dominica

Phone: (767) 448-2045

E-mail: levinmcdonaldcharters@gmail.com

 

A small, tasteful graphic depicted a meeting of mythological Gods.

Shop-girl said, “We was wondering what the cartoon meant.., ‘cause if you’re a pilot, then maybe you should have a picture of a plane or something. We can get one off the Internet if you want us to design it for you. We do it all the time.”

“Thanks all the same, this’ll do fine.”

And then, even though the voice inside his head screamed for him to let it lie, he held up the card and said, “You know what it means, right? The sea and the sky?”

The customer drew a couple of dumb stares. “Zeus and Poseidon?”

The trio remained uncomfortably silent for a long moment. The smack of shop-girl’s lips and the loud pop of her bubble gum broke the stillness.

“That’ll be thirty five dollars, including tax.”

The customer settled his invoice, waved adios and took his leave.

 

The soggy curtain of a Florida summer greeted Michael Levin as he exited the air-conditioned store and stepped onto sticky black tarmac and headed toward a black Ranger Rover that idled at the curbside. Through the tinted window the driver’s head could be seen bouncing in time to muffled tones of 1970’s-era Rod Stewart, hair waving like a south sea palm.

Levin flipped the handle of the passenger door and was assaulted by an ice cold tempest blowing from the vents and the immortal uttering from the spiky-haired troubadour: “If ya want my money, and ya think I’m sexy, c’mon sugar let me know…

The driver nodded along for few more bars with a shit-eating grin pasted across his face and then killed the volume. “All good, brother?”

“Fake passports, a set of business cards and a website? You think it’s enough?”

“It’ll get us in the door; all part of the ruse. Anyway, if we’re hanging around down there long enough for a serious background check, we’ll be doing business from the insides of a damp cell.”

“There must be easier ways to make a living.”

Malcolm McDonald scanned the small precinct. Standard suburban fare that was guaranteed to be repeated every six blocks: a liquor store, empty nail

salon, sketchy launderette, nasty pizza parlor, check-cashing joint and a donut shop with a few bear claws absorbing fly shit under the fluorescent light of an otherwise empty display case. Visible through the door Levin had emerged from, a handwritten sign swung from a light fixture, suspended with what looked like a knotted shoe string. It proudly and creatively announced: Help Wanted - Proof Reeder.

“You know, that print shop back there is hiring.”

“I have a feeling job satisfaction is not necessarily guaranteed.” “Charter pilots for narcos, social deviants, spoiled debutants and the

criminally insane it is then.”

The SUV leapt forward and Mal steered out of the parking lot, bouncing onto Highway 1 south as the skyline of Miami grew faint and grey under boiling cumulus clouds. He spun up the volume on the radio. Two for Tuesday.

‘‘Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you…’’

 

The Tune ‘a Tuna motel kissed the backside of Buttonwood Bay in Key Largo with all of the élan of a Siberian gulag. It housed twenty-six units with pitted concrete walls that were flecked and scarred from a thousand storms and the only visible effort to account for Mother Nature’s wrath was a recent sloppy application of turquoise paint that congealed within fractures on crumbling walls. Along the roof line, streaks of rust veined strips of corrugated tin sheets like printed Tiger stripes. Any attempt at design upgrades ended at the units’ doors. Weary travelers seeking solace and rest would twist a loose door knob and enter a room barely twelve feet square finished with a painted concrete floor. They’d be greeted by sparse furnishings: a wood-slatted bed struggling to bear the weight of a skinny damp mattress, a Magnavox TV, as deep as it was wide, encased in a steel frame and slung from ceiling joists like a wrecking ball at rest, and a string of wire antennas and power cords weaving across the rafters and dribbling

through drilled holes that doubled as cool and convenient pathways for Skinks, Geckos, Anoles and the odd baby Alligator.

Mal took one look and swallowed hard and said, “Nice. Any room service?”

The motel manager missed the joke. “There’s a 7-11 at mile-marker 106.” “How far’s that?”

“Uh..,‘bout three or four miles. Y’all are pretty late in the season. Gonna do any fishing?”

“Nah, just sightseeing. Meeting some friends. The brochure said you had a skiff to rent?”

“Yup. She’s tied up at the dock. She’s a beauty. Forty-bucks an hour.” “We’d like it for a couple of days. How’s about five-hundred, all in?”

“Six-hundred, with gas included. Cash, if you don’t mind. My credit card machine’s busted again. Damn thing.”

“Sure it is.”

Michael Levin raised an eyebrow and wandered over to the small dock. A flat-bottomed airboat rocked on murky water. The hull of the craft appeared solid enough, although the two patio deckchairs elevated three and five feet respectively from the deck, were affixed with rusty worm gear hose clamps to an array of homemade steel struts. To add insult, the 125hp Lycoming engine with its chipped wooden propeller, drooled a sizable sheen of black oil into the bottom of the boat. The two men stood in silence, each lost in their own version of dismay.

Out on the bay, Levin noticed a grand white yacht ambling across the horizon and marveled at its candy-colored running lights dragging a rainbow trail along the charcoal seam that stitched land and sky. For a short moment his mind was empty of thought and he was suddenly tired. The sound of footsteps on the dock roused him.

“I can rustle up some food if you’d like,” the motel owner hollered. “For a small fee, that is. Some bologna and cheese sandwiches? It’s what I’m having, so it’s no trouble. Bread’s good, too.., got it on Saturday.”

Mal furrowed his brow and whispered. “Today’s Thursday, right?” “Thanks all the same,” Levin shouted. “We’ll sort something out.” “If you wanna eat, I can go and pick something up,” Mal said. “Yeah, suppose it’s not a bad idea.”

With that, Levin jumped into the boat and gave the engine a once over, spinning the prop by hand. A metallic grating sound rumbled through the engine casing. He looked up at Mal. “Worn bearings?”

“It only needs to run for fifteen minutes.”

“From your lips to God’s ears. Leave the Air-band, will ya?”

Mal unzipped a canvas holdall and dug out a handheld radio used for monitoring and communicating on frequencies most commonly used by aircraft.

“Channel 122.7, call sign is cannonball.” a beat “It’s a pirate thing. Just came to me.”

Mal checked the battery in the handset and finding no issues stuffed it back in the bag and lobbed the entire package to Levin.

“See if you can’t rustle up some sort of vegetable, will ya?” “So that’s a jumbo burger with all the trimmings?”

 

Malcolm McDonald slid behind the wheel of the Range Rover and was crunching gravel under the wheels before the door was latched. The highway in each direction was a ribbon of abandoned tar as far as the eye could see.

Except for…

The plain white hood of a police cruiser jutted from a stack of wood pallets that looked like they’d been dumped by a passing hurricane along the treeless roadside. Several slats had been strategically removed to facilitate the

aiming of a radar gun. Or maybe just a gun. Mal adjusted his speed. ‘‘What the fuck is the speed limit down here? 40 mph should do it.’’

The Range Rover was not ten feet past the jumble of wood when the blue and red lights flared up.

‘‘No way, you must be kidding,’’ Mal thought. ‘‘Maybe he gotta call?’’

Mal lifted his foot from the gas pedal and slowed the SUV and pulled over to the shoulder. The cop car kept coming. Headlights flashing; siren-a- wailing, it was suddenly bedlam on U.S. Route 1.

‘‘That-a-boy, keep it up, on your way now.’’

The lights filled the Range Rover’s rearview mirror and the patrol car came to rest ten yards behind.

Mal’s British sensibility goaded him to open the car door and inquire as to what all the commotion was, but he remembered where he was. This was Florida, the ‘shoots first, ask questions later’, state. So he sat. Quietly. Hands clearly visible, engine purring. The A/C pushed an agreeable breeze onto his legs and face. The LED readout showed the temperature outside as eighty- seven degrees. It was a little after nine p.m. The lights on the cop car continued their fairground cycling, but no one exited. Mal studied the reflection in the side mirror. The ambient light was failing. A silhouette moved; grabbed something from the dash. Papers, maybe. A dull glow of soft blue light showed hands tapping a laptop keyboard. Darkness again as the lid closed. Three minutes passed. Mal twisted in his seat and looked out of the rear window. Another vehicle approached. A pick-up with dull paint and no chrome. No front plate. It slowed and pulled alongside the patrol car and muffled words were exchanged over the rumble of the truck’s engine. Mal’s pulse whipped up a few beats. He dialed Levin.

“Checking on my order?”

“Didn’t get that far. ‘Bout half a mile. Got pulled over.” “Cop making his quota?”

“Maybe. But he’s having a tête-à-tête with some guy that just pulled up in a truck.”

“Everybody’s a local.” “Yeah, but this feels weird.” “How so?”

“Unnecessary. This guy fired up his lights and siren before I was past his hiding place. No way had he clocked me as a speeder.”

“Describe the truck.”

“GMC. Jacked up. Glass packs. Dark paint, mottled grey or dark green, maybe camouflage. Mostly blacked out; like your Mom’s.”

Levin busted out a hearty laugh. “Welcome to the southern states.” Mal sighed. “If I bolt, I’m screwed.”

“Correct.”

“Guess I’ll let it play.” “Leave the line open.”

Mal laid the cell phone in a cup holder and sat with eyes glued on the rearview mirror. A song played. Intro to fade, 3:42. The pick-up jerked into reverse and tucked in behind the patrol car and the engine was shut off.

Mal dropped his window. “Hello! Anybody there?”

His eyes flitted from mirror to mirror.

Curiosity killed the…

“This is fucking nuts. I gotta see what this is about.”

A squeak of leather; the clunk of the door handle and various warning bells dinged their disapproval.

On the phone’s minuscule loudspeaker, Levin’s voice was tiny and scratchy.

“Stay in the car, Mal..,”

Levin jogged from the motel room and across the car park with the phone still pressed tight to his ear.

“…they’re just fucking with you.”

He stepped out to the highway’s thin median strip and saw the patrol car’s light bar paint the surrounding bush like a fading red sunset. He crossed back to the verge and started walking. Within fifty steps he was sweat soaked and shrouded in a cloud of insects and a sense of dread washed cold over his saturated skin and acid churned wild and sour in his gut. The swirling lights cut to black. He picked up his pace and broke into a run. And when the sounds came they were small as a child’s firecracker; the sudden pulse of a distant star against a curtain of infinity. The crack of gunfire cut through the incessant, metallic song of the Cicadas for only a fraction of a second, but Levin knew he was too late. At twenty meters distant, he slowed to a walk.

The Range Rover sat alone. Taillights illuminated patches of grass and banks of weeds and amongst the chaos of roadside trash, a single dark shape protruded onto the edge of the carriageway. Levin fell to his knees and turned Malcolm McDonald’s face to his own and it was bathed in the crimson glow and it was without expression and his eyes were closed. Levin ripped at Mal’s shirt and pressed his hands over a growing stain of dark blood bubbling from perfectly round bullet holes. Beneath the skin, Mal’s heart had stopped beating and Levin pounded on his chest and felt a viscous shower spot his cheeks. Again and again, he massaged and breathed, willing his friend back to life.

The sky grew brighter. A car approached. Silent as a ghost. Powerful LED headlights pierced a rising lunar fog and the brilliant glare dissipated like fine white powder around Levin’s feet. The vehicle slowed to a crawl and rolled to a stop in complete silence. Levin’s face was a mask of disbelief and his hands were painted bright red and his voice was strong and his plea was urgent.

“Ambulance! I need an ambulance.” The windows were dark as caves.

Again he raged. “I need a fucking ambulance! Can you hear me?” The windows and doors remained sealed.

The Cicadas’ wail was heavy and oppressive and it ebbed and flowed in the stillness.

“My friend’s been shot. I need help. Please!”

Levin listened for a response. Nothing. He stood and rushed toward the car and the sudden grate of pressed gravel announced wheels beginning to turn.

“No!” he cried. “Wait!”

He beat hard on the darkened windows and pulled at the door handles and Mal’s blood bound road dust into clumps that left muddy, black trails across the sleek, silver paint.

Spinning faster now. The car’s electric motor emitted a sharp whine and with a short squeal the tires obeyed and the car rocketed away in a shower of sand and grit.

 

Cocooned in a perfect climate, Naria Chea directed her driver to head for Miami. When they were underway she connected to a private server and pressed a video icon on her phone. Henri Baudin occupied the screen.

“Your people completed only half the job,” Naria said. “They are incompetent. One is still alive.”

“Why didn’t you take care of him?”

“Because mourning is a palpable wound, and he will mourn as a wounded animal suffers. Doesn’t that fill you with some sense of fulfillment?”

Impatience laced the old man’s every word.

“Would it have been so difficult to finish the job?” Baudin said.

“You are an irrational old man. Revenge is only half of the equation. First, you must lure the prey into the light - disfigured and disgraced.”

On the tiny monitor, Baudin’s face was drained of color. He wheeled closer to the camera and spat his vitriol through crooked, yellow teeth.

“I don’t understand your games. These men destroyed my life and my son’s and they must pay.”

Naria lowered the window and stared at the black ocean. Silver rays from a silver moon streaked the water with parallel highways that stretched to outer space and she yearned to strip naked and feel the waves lick her body clean of this man’s obsession. She looked again upon his decrepit features.

“It is so like a man to require an immediate result,” she said. “Settle back and watch what happens next. You will have your day, soon enough.”

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Exmoor, Devon, England

 

“Everything must be in its place,” Mano said.

Molly stepped back from the stove top with hands held high in surrender. “The master has spoken.”

“Don’t be difficult. To be a great cook you must be like a great conductor. You must take charge of the score and present it with estilo y personalidad; with style and…

Personality.., yes, I get it. But I just want to make some eggs.” “Cabron! You are as ignorant as your father. We do not make eggs. We

create the entire experience.”

“Can you create me some scrambled eggs?”

Mano bowed his head in mock defeat and handed Molly an empty bowl and a plastic whisk.

“It is now your domain. I’ll be in the garden should you catch fire and need to be hosed down.”

The house phone rang out in the next room and drew a reflexive stillness from all within ear shot. No one knew when or how, but the ghosts of the household’s combined past would inevitably be announced, and they would come within the guise of an ineluctable loss, or a shattered dream, or a broken promise, and the effect would be shared and it would be complete.

In due course, the ringing stopped and Finn Courtenay’s commanding baritone echoed through the halls. “Hello,” he answered, resenting the intrusion to the otherwise library-quiet of the house at this hour of a Sunday morning. The edge of his sword was immediately dulled when he heard the somber tone of the caller’s voice.

“Of course,” he said. “Mano..?”

Manolito Rodriguez Romero hurried down the corridor. His huge frame eclipsed the light from each window and plants were brushed by and clay pots were unsettled and his heavy footfalls shook the ancient floorboards with several pounding thumps.

‘‘¿Dígame?’’

“Mr. Romero?”

‘‘See; Yes.’’ Mano said. The voice on the other end of the line was curt and official.

“Sir, this is Sgt. Chaney. I’m the watch supervisor with the Key Largo Police Dept. We have obtained your contact details from a cell phone believed to belong to a certain Malcolm McDonald. It was one of only three numbers within the contact list. One is for a satellite phone that appears disconnected, another with a New York area code that appears to be a data terminal, and this number. Can you confirm you are either a family member or are otherwise acquainted with this individual?”

“Yes, we are friends.., colleagues.”

“Sir, this number shows a Miami prefix, is there any way you can come to our offices. We’ve been working a case regarding a death in suspicious circumstances and it’s a matter of some importance and.., well, we really need to speak to you in person.”

“Sgt., the number you dialed is being forwarded to a residence overseas.

Please tell me what is going on.” “Hold the line, sir.”

The line clicked quiet.

And the muzak played: a light jazz melody of saxophone and strings, pointless and mundane. The pause was lengthy and Molly and Rebecca gathered at his side and Mano waved them away. His nerves grew tight and his patience grew short, but the women remained. They knew better. So they stood together in the corridor, bound by the landline; tethered by their anticipation and their fear and their isolation, avoiding eye contact at all cost, each taking solace from the bright, bay window that broadcast nature’s ceaseless concert: the dull, fluttering wingspans of sparrows and wrens and swifts; the stately and restless late-summer foliage of oak and beech and alder and the vibrant, nodding theatrics of poppies, daffodils and orchids. A break in the September sky drew shadows that were long and the light was low and harsh and sparkled like jewels through the stems and leaves and branches, and the morning endured without the press of time or calendar.

The tedious compilation of bland instrumentals was cut short mid-conga and tambourine shuffle and the receiver emitted a loud buzz and click and then a careful…

‘‘You still there?’’

“Yes, I’m here,” Mano said. “Please, tell me everything.”

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Southern Sahara

 

“The land of silver bells lies across that water..,” Yahya said. “…that was the tale my Grandfather shared when I was a boy. He said it was a magical land; a land where the sand glittered like stars and the sky provided rain when you asked for it and the wind song was clear and sweet and would profit my soul and my mind, but not until I had heard each bell in turn and crossed the stream with our flock intact.

“And this was a test?” Shaw said.

“I would learn lessons of patience and temptation. He was both cruel and generous.., and complicated.”

Yahya paused as if confused.

“Yes.., my Grandfather was a gracious man. He would comfort a rabid dog as surely as he would a starving child, but in neither would he invest any sympathy. I ran from his care when I was ten years old and he immediately forgave my youth and my ignorance, but he never forgave my disloyalty. I have remained in this land as free and as self-sufficient as the richest of men only from the benefit of his teaching.”

“And the silver bells..?”

“A simple tale; colored by the words of a tribal elder. There is a track at the far side of the dunes and it was well known by herders and merchants

with filled carts heading east to the market towns on the coast. For a century or more, the track bore the bleeding footsteps of villagers taken from their homes. They would be chained together in lines that stretched more than three miles. Around their necks they wore the tin bells reserved for sheep and cattle.”

Yahya folded his arms across his chest as though preventing his heart from escaping.

“I think the story of the silver bells might not be such a fantasy.” “And today..?” Shaw said. “…is the track still in use?”

“Yes, it is still the only road from the escarpment to the coast through the great dunes - trodden by herders and their flocks in one direction and by uneducated travelers seeking enlightenment in the desert in the other. You will also find workers drawn to the mines of West Africa. This trail is both a curse and a blessing. You will hear the prevailing winds bring the sounds of their chatter across the water and it will seep into your dreams as though ghosts sit atop your blankets...”

Yahya drifted away to tend his camels.

“…but for a young man seeking to confirm his manhood, the bells were real; to accept anything less would have been a severe compromise.”

“And for you that is not acceptable?”

“Compromise is never acceptable. We all begin our journey as empty vessels. We exist only to carry our life force from the cradle to the grave. We do not own this force, it is a gift and it is a responsibility. Our journey thereafter is assured only if we pass it on to the next carrier. Your static, civilized world does not allow for this concept. You willingly pass evil from one person to another. The people you describe - those that would cause great suffering to children - they are your people; as different to me as water is to stone. In our world, the young are treated as fine diamonds, unearthed by the grace of this land, raw and dirty, to be shaped and honored.”

Shaw watched the little man bathe his feet in a shallow stream that burbled across small rocks and disappeared through the narrow mouth of a natural levee. At both of Yahya’s ankles, the skin bore pale indents the width of a man’s fist and wrapped his bones with a soft discoloration. Shaw’s intrusive words balanced on his tongue, only to be swallowed when his eyes met with the elder’s dark gaze.

“We will walk for two more days to the region where the camps of the evil ones might exist. I must rest now.”

 

Shaw was restless. The ghost camps danced in his thoughts and kept him from deep sleep. There was beauty in the simplicity of revenge. It coursed through his veins like an infectious disease. As were the haunting words his wife uttered at his departure: ‘‘You’re not their answer, Thomas. You’re ours. Be ours.’’

He retrieved a short three piece hunting bow and two carbon-fiber arrows from his pack, turned in a slow circle until the wind moved the hair from his face and then walked directly onto the open veldt. As he moved, he screwed the shafts of the arrows together and strung the bow to complete the weapon. A mile from camp, he crouched, notched an arrow and waited while the setting sun drew the final blanket of heat aside and the shadows spread like spilled paint across the grassland.

 

Yahya crawled from his blankets to the scent of roasting duck meat and wild sweet potatoes buried in hot coals, their skins burning black and oozing syrup that spat and boiled and sizzled. He stretched mightily and expelled a great gust of wind from his buttocks that, even from twenty feet away, had Shaw raising an eyebrow in mock admiration.

“You found meat in the desert, Mr. Shaw. God has rewarded you this fine morning.”

“Hardly. It was fair luck, not divine intervention. The game trails are nothing more than lanes of dust littered with the decapitated bodies of great beasts. If it hadn’t been for a weary flock being blown off course and a set of true arrows…”

The old man hurried across the makeshift compound and sat close to the cooking fire with one of his blankets still wrapped tight around his shoulders.

“Fifty years ago this area was a rich pasture. Herds of elephant moved as one dark carpet. There was water and food and protection. Now a poacher can kill from a fast truck or from the safety of a helicopter. There is no shelter on the savannah. The animals do not stand a chance and society’s actions do not prevail sufficiently on their behalf. They are being slaughtered from both sides.”

“Do you see the poachers at work?”

“No. Nobody does. Because they are you and they are me. They are simple farmers that struggle to raise crops, and they are itinerant travelers that see a cull only as a reason to get paid, and they are fierce gangs that will kill without mercy. A true hunter does not kill for a trophy and leave a carcass to bleed to death and rot in the sun. This is the evil that weak and desperate men do, Mr. Shaw.”

Shaw ripped a leg from the cooked bird and laid it on a flat heated rock within Yahya’s reach and then dug the potatoes out of the coals, setting two upon the rock and loading the rest into the canvas holdall.

“You said we need two days to cover the territory?”

Yahya nodded. “In total, yes. But by day’s end we will have reached as far as I dare go in the glare of the sun. There is illegal mining everywhere.

Diamonds are still such a powerful force in this land. They will divide a family as surely as they refract the sun’s rays. There is so much corruption. Grown men are guarded night and day by children with automatic weapons. We must take care not to stumble into matters that are not of our concern.”

“There will be a full moon tonight,” Shaw said.

Yahya wrinkled his little brown nose and both lips parted hungrily and he sucked loudly on the tiny bird’s cooked flesh.

“All the better for us both as I’m not sure I can remember the way even by the light of day.”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Key Largo, Florida

 

Michael Levin lifted Mal’s lifeless body onto the tailgate. He backed off a few paces and stared. His conscious brain worked overtime while his heart slowed and the blood in his arms and legs ran cold and his fingers became stiff and numb. He stared at the crumpled shirt and the blue jeans smeared with black stains and he suddenly wondered about Mal’s glasses - those sunglasses; those two hundred and fifty-dollar sunglasses framing a six-dollar goofy grin that had him looking like the bastard child of a nerdy computer programmer and an Air Force pilot.

‘‘You can’t buy this kinda style, Michael. It’s a burden from which most would shy away. But I’m not most people, Michael.., oh no.., and the ladies will testify.’’

It seemed pointless; in bad taste even, but Levin was consumed. He searched the ground and the car. He looked again. On his hands and knees. Everywhere. He was angry now: “Where the fuck are they? They’re always parked on his head.’’ He rose from a crouched position and smacked his head on the corner of the open tailgate. Hard. He covered the wound with both hands. And then the noise came - a raw, primal noise that rose from his gut. He tried to muffle it, but it spewed in torrents from his mouth, thick and wet. And it filled the air, again and again. He pulled hard at his hair and wiped at

the skin of his face until red welts rose on his cheeks. ‘‘Why..?’’ was all he could scream. An atavistic rage boiled under his flesh,‘‘FUCKING WHY?’’

Levin was weakened. He sagged and leaned on the tailgate and held Mal’s hand and the skin was rough and calloused and pale and all was silent. He peered down the highway into a darkness that was now impenetrable and the trees suddenly danced against a wall of white light, outlining muscular limbs of thick branches that grew from the dense undergrowth. Two distinct beams, bright and constant, strafed the treetops like wartime search lights. A container truck. The vehicle quickly filled his vision as he replayed Mal’s words over and over again. ‘‘It’s a cop… No way was I speeding… He fired up his lights before I was past him…’’ The truck jerked to a halt with the Range Rover sitting diminutive at its front wheel. Air brakes were set and the cab lit up like an elevated doll house. Gray hair, wire-rims and red flannel was all Michael could make out. The driver’s door cracked open and a head popped above the sweep of the hood.

“You okay?” said a southern drawl, with a thin, phlegmy voice. The driver hacked and spat and then spoke again, deeper and richer in tone: “Everything alright?”

The echoes of Mal’s words receded, “It’s a cop… No way was I…’’

Michael said, “No. No.., my friend has been killed…”

“Holy shit!” The driver pushed the door fully open and jumped to ground. “How..? Was he run over..?”

“I don’t know. No. He was shot… by the police, I think. I don’t know…”

Michael started to recount the events and then silenced himself. The babbling of a lunatic. “Where can I get help? Where’s the nearest hospital?”

The driver retreated. He was a head smaller than Levin, and Levin was covered in blood and talking crazy. He climbed back up to his perch.

“There’s one past Key Largo, ‘bout ten miles. Or there’s one up in Homestead, but that’s another thirty or so. You want me to call an ambulance?”

“No..,” Levin came closer. “…we’ll get him to the hospital; they’ll take care of him there.”

Levin felt cold waves of despair lick at his throat. His heart revved and his breathing was short and snatched. ‘‘We’re just minding our own business!’’

The absurdity of the scene sent the driver ducking back into the cab. The door slammed shut and he released the brakes and stuttered the rig forward. The trailer was adorned with a full-length graphic advertisement for the Miami Herald. By the time the broad stroke of the capital ‘H’ had passed his head, Michael knew the driver would’ve connected with 911.

He weighed going forward or going back. Levin was building a wall around his grief, brick by brick.

‘‘Who did they think they were stopping? Not us; no way. No one was looking for us. We’re the ones that are looking…’’

Levin rolled Mal’s body into the rear compartment and curled his legs and closed the tailgate. He peered into the dark interior and saw a sleeping friend and gently closed the hatch. The drive to Mariner’s Hospital was slow and surreal. The soft hum of the air conditioning droned over the hushed, almost subliminal tones of Mal’s classic rock station and Michael Levin milked the melancholy for all it was worth. There would be no more memories to be made; no more flights to sun-drenched shores in search of work; no more racing against the clock to serve someone’s improbable charter or impossible schedule.

The wall was almost complete.

Levin turned off US-1 into the Mariner’s Hospital grounds. If not for the signage posted every few yards, the dull, concrete facades of the buildings may have been mistaken for a corporate retreat or a cookie-cutter hotel group as much as a thriving medical complex. He pulled the Range Rover onto the forecourt of the emergency receiving area and shut off the engine. These last few moments were important. He would now cap the wall.

Remorse and revenge sent to their respective corners. The fight would endure.

An orderly stepped through a parting glass door and waited. Emergency arrivals were normally frantic episodes of confusion and volume. This was neither. Levin stepped from the vehicle and asked for a stretcher.

“My friend has been hurt.” The orderly’s pace quickened.

The tail gate was lowered and Mal’s body was laid upon a gurney and a small crowd of trauma nurses took charge. Levin was shuffled aside, demoted to the role of observer, detached and silent.

“You know this man?” said one. “When did this happen?” said another.

And then Mal was gone. Wheeled from the black of night into a winter wonderland where colors were obsolete - all except for red.

 

Levin stared out of a fourth floor hotel room window at a steady parade of shooting stars flickering along the midnight highway.

Time and again. The whine of tires and the rumble of smokestacks and the percussive slap of a passing thundershower and the suicidal lash of scaly wings beating against the perforated metal screen bled into the room as a single reverberating wash of sound. Every truck and every car seemed like an island; a sanctuary free from the weight of guilt and pain and grief. The TV entertained in silence. The radio played, soft and low; obscure Latin beats, like a party in the distance on a hot summer night, from all points of the compass, to be heard but never seen. Levin moved to close the window. His mind was fixed on reason and purpose and an equation to solve. He reached further, deeper. He could almost touch it. The answer. But every time he approached, an eighteen-wheeler would decelerate with a range of pops and splutters and groans and the vision would dissolve and the cycle would begin once more. The events replayed, over and over. Until morning; until the

shooting stars were revealed as nothing more than bold slogans wheeled along an asphalt track.

He smoked a pack of cigarettes. Lighting one off the next. Marlboro reds.

He scanned the empty streets and thought, ‘‘Where are the people? There aren’t any people. Only in America.’’

The air conditioner clicked on in a vain attempt to fight the oppressive climate that smothered the room. He kicked at the switch and the metallic churning slowed and gurgled and stopped. He dropped the last butt into an empty bottle. The label read, The Macallan. He stood and left the room.

The highway sign was soft with flaking rust and hung at an odd angle and was peppered with bullet holes. The destination was legible: Miami; the distance, not so much. The Range Rover’s GPS displayed a candy-colored map. A thin red line dissecting a sea of blue. Fifty-six miles from the bright lights of downtown. He was driving in a fog even though the sky was devoid of clouds. His thoughts blurred every obstacle that encroached upon his vision. He wanted to keep driving; to never stop. Moving felt natural. The immediacy and the urgency worked in concert. Lights from oncoming cars and trucks plowed wide furrows in his path and he swerved and he braked and finally, he stopped. His heart beat with exertion and his palms were shiny with sweat. He lowered the windows and he turned off the A/C and the SUV idled and the radio glowed and crackled and murmured with news and weather, and the commercials opined, and the crush of being alone tore at his gut. He wanted to sob. Bile welled and scorched his throat and he willed the pain to be released from his soul, but no sound came. Levin stepped from the vehicle and shoved his fingers down his throat and gagged until at last, he vomited. Whisky and tobacco. And soon, the tears followed, blinding and stinging, until his face was soft and raw.

Levin leaned against the wheel hub and pushed his hands through his hair. He watched a group of pale Shearwaters circle and dive and feed. Their relentless hunt enthralled him for many moments and his mind cleared and

the heat of anger settled warm and comfortable in his chest. He would go on. Like the birds. Circle and hunt and feed.

 

Levin returned to the Tune ‘a Tuna motel. He made good time. But for a cavalcade of spandex-clad cyclists pushing hard for the seven-mile bridge, HWY 1 moved at a steady pace and he was back within the hour: same dusty parking lot devoid of human activity. He backed the Range Rover up to his room, retrieved his go-bag from the back seat and locked the car with a flick of the remote over his shoulder. At the manager’s office the venetian blind in the window slapped against the glass when he was still twenty steps from the door.

“Some cops was here a few nights ago, asking about some kinda shootin’ on the highway. They was lookin’ for a SUV. One like that,” he said, pointing at Levin’s ride.

“I’m sure it was some kind of misunderstanding,” Levin said.

“Didn’t sound like it. They described it perfect, they did. Same color ’n everything.”

“You recognize them?”

“Can’t says that I did,” the manager said. “…but we tend to keep our heads down around here, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” Levin said. “Now how’s about that airboat ride?”

“Gonna have to charge a little extra, considerin’ there’s all this attention all of a sudden.”

“How much more?”

The manager scuffed the tarmac with his boot and sucked on his lip and he pulled at the baggy denim around his crotch. He said, “Another hundred.”

Levin grimaced and shot him a quick, “Fuck you” with his eyes. “…or fifty! Yeah, fifty should do it.”

Levin said, “I’ll give you the hundred, but you gotta look after the car.

Don’t let anybody mess with my shit, OK?”

“You’ll leave the keys?”

 

Another, ‘‘Fuck you,’’ look.

The manager walked Levin down to the dock. “You gotta hot-wire it to get it going. She runs good, just don’t wind her up.”

Levin set a pair of wrap-around sunglasses over his eyes and stepped into the rusting tub. Two bare wires were taped to the arms of a toy hula dancer. Bare-chested and chemo bald. He twisted them together and flicked the starter. To his surprise, the engine turned over without a hiccup or a cough or a stall. The manager puffed out his chest with pride, loosed the lines and pushed the craft away from the dock.

“You’s gettin’ a good ride for your money!”

Levin nodded at the smug son-of-a-bitch in the dirty, bait shop T-shirt and slammed the throttle to its stop and spun the airboat away in a flurry of sound and spray that was both deafening and drenching. Like a rag doll in a hurricane, the manager stumbled about the dock as he frantically ducked for shelter.

The rendezvous time was fast approaching. Levin pulled the air-band radio from the bag gripped between his knees and selected channel 27. He clipped a Bluetooth receiver to his ear and turned up the volume. A few clicks and pops - mostly white noise. The bay showed signs of a slight chop to his port side and some bikini-clad howlers on jet skis to starboard. He adjusted his course to give both the disturbed water and the sorority sisters the widest berth. Ten minutes later, he eased the power back and glided onto a sandbar surrounding one of the many small island groves that were dotted like birthday cupcakes throughout the southern tip of the Florida Everglades.

The radio chirped and a distant voice; a southern voice, infused with the wash of a spinning propeller, cut the silence.

“Cannonball, cannonball, ETA, two minutes. Approaching from the northwest.”

Levin acknowledged and shielded his eyes and caught a tiny, white dot seemingly suspended and unmoving in the sky. As the shape descended, the broad, high wingspan of a Cessna Caravan took shape, dipping and side- slipping against a strong easterly wind, setting up for a straight in approach. The aircraft kissed the water and immediately sent two razor sharp plumes rising like white fences in its wake, leaving the drag of the ocean to bleed all forward momentum and bring it to a gentle, wallowing rest. The pilot held the power at idle, kicked open the hatch and stepped onto the pontoon just as the airboat bumped alongside. Levin exchanged a mooring line for his pack.

“I was expecting two souls,” the pilot said.

“Now, we are one,” Levin said. “Are we good? Fuel? Customs?”

“You’re good. She’s topped off. Track straight to the airport. No detours.

Depart the main runway and ask for directions to Amador FBO. They’re hosting the auction. Your event laminate is in the folder on the passenger seat.”

“Any news on the clientele?”

“Given it’s mostly ex-military gear, every shady dealer and drug lord this side of the Panama canal will have an emissary or two with a sack load of cash at their disposal. I see you’re traveling a little light in that department.”

Levin said, “I don’t intend to barter.”

The wind whipped fine pellets of salt spray onto their faces and the little airboat bounced like an eager puppy and the pilot rubbed his brow with concern.

“This is my ride outta here?”

“She has hidden talents. Cost me six hundred bucks. Just leave her somewhere onshore, she’ll find her way home.”

 

Levin showed the delivery pilot the rigged electrics of the airboat and took him through the basics of the controls. They bid a casual, ‘‘see ya later,’’ and the line was untied. The caged propeller spun up and despite a clumsy, rookie

maneuver that nearly removed the aircraft’s left aileron, the delivery pilot was soon skimming across the turquoise carpet, melting into the glare of the midday burn. Levin pitched the mooring line into the cabin and hoisted himself into the left seat. He adjusted the pitch of the propellers, pulled the nose into the wind, ran a final set of checks and eased the aircraft into slow plough across the light chop. He hit a patch of calm water and, with a modified 900 horsepower power plant at his disposal, the Cessna was soon on its step and airborne in under ten seconds. Levin settled into a circling climb with one eye glued to the mottled roof of the Tune ‘a Tuna motel and the scene of Malcolm’s attack. His mind wandered, floating in a sea of melancholy. A pocket of air slammed the fuselage and pushed his shoulders hard against the restraints and he remembered how much Mal hated sudden jolts. No matter what he would be doing - working, sleeping, reading - he would announce to the cabin with a shake of his head, ‘‘I kid you not, every time that happens, I die for three seconds.’’ These were good memories; vital memories, but they had no place on this voyage.

 

CUBA

 

At twenty miles distant and five thousand feet above a heavy, rolling swell, Cuba’s north shore was painted as a thin, dark pencil line across the horizon. A paradise lost for many generations, the country now wrestled with all of the social and governmental pressures that come from being a dumping ground for the common denominators of plunging American values - obesity, greed, segregation and racism - in all of their most ill-conceived forms. Rather than energizing and rebuilding a third-world mindset, politicians courted special interests and drove the public into two distinct,

hyper-critical camps. ‘‘Wake the giant,’’ shouted one newspaper, ‘‘Drive the sword deeper,’’ yelled another, and the unity of a nation reborn seemed less likely now than at any time since Colonel Theodore Roosevelt urged his Rough Riders through a blood-strewn battle ground to the summit of San Juan Hill.

Ten miles from touchdown, Levin dialed in the radio frequency for Havana approach at 120.3 and then one minute later he was handed off to the tower. The Cessna was held in the pattern for another few minutes, bucking thirty knot crosswinds that punched the floats suspended from the undercarriage like a welterweight working a heavy bag. Levin was finally cleared for a visual approach on runway 24. The wheels met tarmac with a loud thump and he swore aloud at his clumsy landing, ‘‘Fuck! Get it together, man. This is the easy part.’’ He taxied the Cessna onto the apron and made a call to ground control: “…Amador FBO, por favor.”

A creamy, languid voice inquired, ‘‘Are you here for the Defense Procurement and Technology Conference?’’

Levin raised an eyebrow and depressed the mic button, “Yes, sir.”

The voice came back, ‘‘Hold at the apron and we will send a follow car to escort you.’’

“Roger, standing by,” Levin said.

He yawned and removed the headset and massaged his aching ears. ‘‘Jesus, Mal would love this, being made to feel all special.’’

Rising like silver pyramids from behind concrete security walls, the pointed roof tops of several corrugated hangars were visible about five hundred yards or so off his starboard wing and from the sheer quantity of drab green vehicles lining the approach road, Levin guessed he had found ground zero for all manner of war toys.

The heat was stifling in the cockpit so Levin unhooked his seat belts and pushed the door open, luxuriating in the cool back draft of the idling propeller. He pulled a satellite phone from his pack and fingered the raised

keypad. Speed dial **1 would connect with Thomas Shaw, or at the very least, his voicemail. For the fiftieth time since Mal’s death, he wavered.

‘‘He needs to know what’s going on. Why am I waiting?’’

Levin’s mind rocked and tumbled with indecision until finally he announced aloud,

“If.., when.., Endeavor is aloft. That’s when I make the call. Until then, it’s all on me.”

A yellow caution light atop a Cadillac SUV blinked its way along the taxiway at speed. The vehicle slowed and made a single revolution of the Cessna at about twenty yards distant and Levin threw a ‘howdy’ at the driver, receiving a curt wave in response. When it reappeared, it flashed a ‘Follow Me’ sign and headed across the active runway to an enclosure reserved for charter aircraft. Levin was handed off to a couple of marshals waving lighted batons that walked him to an empty tie-down. With the aircraft finally at rest, Levin stepped down onto the pontoon and then to the tarmac. A marshal approached with a radio in hand, dispensed with trivial greetings, and asked for his pass.

In French.

He was unlike any airport worker Levin had encountered - no baggy overalls; no slouching manner. On each hip hung a MAS 50, a 9mm semi- automatic pistol and slung across his back, a FAMAS bullpup assault rifle.

‘‘Le billet..,’’ he said, ‘‘…et votre passeport.’’

Levin produced both from his shirt pocket, which were duly inspected under ultraviolet light and reported to a disembodied voice that returned a confirmation. Again, all in French.

In heavily accented English, the marshal said, “A car will collect you. Wait by your aircraft.”

Levin stowed his papers and took a seat on the pontoon and watched the four more aircraft of varying types delivered to parking spots. Every pilot and passenger was subjected to the ritual of identification. Except one. A Learjet

75. Without so much as a glance from the marshal, she rolled into the enclosure and completed her engine shut down. In the cockpit, the crew was still as mannequins. A white Escalade approached. The driver looked barely sixteen. His dark skin was painted with sweat against a uniform that was crisp and white as brand new sailcloth. He alighted, standing poised and attentive, with both hands resting on an opened rear door. The gathering of attendees now numbered twenty four and, with their constant shuffling and back slapping, obscured Levin’s view of the Lear’s cabin door. He stood and walked amongst them and their dull, puerile banter seemed infectious, growing in volume, eliciting heady, alcohol-laced laughter. The Lear’s hatch popped open and the steps dropped but Levin caught only the tops of a series of bobbing heads ducking from the aircraft and diving into the rear of the vehicle. The last man out, however, did not rush. He paused at the door and observed the crowd. He was tall and heavy built with a thick, sunburned neck, like a side of raw ham. Hair was cropped and clothing was nondescript. His eyes were wide and he met the glare of the sun with no squint. He descended slowly. Step, pause; step, pause. He drew stares from the crowd and doused them immediately with a practiced scowl. The driver passed him a folder which was ignored. The scan continued and Levin felt suddenly exposed and he merged into the throng. A voice rang out from a portable tannoy, this time in English.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Havana! There will be two vehicles departing for the hotel, and one directly to the conference facility. If you have no prior appointments scheduled, we advise you to proceed to the hotel.

Refreshments are being prepared and we will share a full briefing of tomorrow’s events leading up to the auction. Please, for security’s sake, it is vital that you keep your laminate on you at all times.”

No sooner had the speaker stopped talking than three SUV’s similar to the

Follow vehicle entered the enclosure - each with blacked out windows; each

with sequential triple-digit number plates. Levin followed a small party heading for the conference transit and was quickly challenged by a late joiner.

“All work, eh?”

“Pardon me?” Levin said.

The man, now keeping step across the tarmac, was thin and wiry with mousy hair and he reeked of a low level public servant.

“Work..,” he said. “…at the conference… no time for a little dip in the pool?” The man wiped perspiration from his neck with a damp handkerchief. “God, it’s like a furnace out here. I grew up in Maine; winter for nine months of the year. I feel like I’m gonna melt every time I get south of D.C. How ‘bout you?”

“The southwest.”

“Oh, right.., hot and dry. Still, better than this humidity.” “I guess.”

“Who are you with?”

“A buyer.., a private buyer. A collector. He wants to keep it all very unofficial, no fuss…”

“Got it. Every year it’s the same story. Half of these people are representing some private interest. Used to be that this stuff would go to some banana republic in exchange for information or access, now it’s all about museums and collectors.”

“You come every year?”

“Most years. First time in Cuba, of course.” The man threw Michael a goofy grin. “Was hoping for a few new faces. So what’ve you got your eye on?”

“Oh, you know.., just the small stuff. War memorabilia, flags, uniforms.” “Well you might be in the wrong place. This is pretty much all hardware.” “So you work here?”

“No, just paying a dutiful visit. Gotta track a few of the big ticket items - tanks, HumVees, see where they end up. Can’t qualify for new budgets or

new acquisitions until we’ve unloaded it all, been paid and logged the paperwork.”

“We?”

TriCorp.., out of Rochester. We broker these events on behalf of the Pentagon. Well specifically, the Army, the other branches of the service have their own outlets. Just our way of keeping your tax dollars safe. You know, there’s a wholesale fair in Austin next month. It’s a big deal for the supply stores. You might do better for clothing there.”

“That’s good to know. Still, I’m here now, might as well look around.” “Well if you feel the need to sink a few beers, come find me. I’m Freddie,

we’re all staying in the same hotel.”

“Mike..,” Levin said, “…good to meet you, and thanks for the low down.”

The motorcade of SUV’s blew from the enclosure and raced around the perimeter of the airport. Using the pulpit of the front passenger seat, Freddie took it upon himself to address the captive audience in the rear. He launched into an exuberant monologue, pointing out where the airport had been bombed prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, who were affiliated to some of the largest luxury jets on display, and with no dismay whatsoever, shared why this will probably be the one and only year Cuba will have the pleasure of his business.

“It’s not a cultural slight..,” he said, “…it’s a practical one. It’s just not sexy. Post revolution; post embargo, it’s just a bunch of bad hotels with rusty pipes and streets lined with Russian hookers. Or maybe it’s the hookers with the rusty pipes. Who knows?”

“That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?” Levin said.

Freddie turned back to face the windscreen and straightened his white linen jacket and said with a heavy sigh, “Well, they’re just not our kind of people.”

Levin couldn’t resist. “Our kind of people?”

“Billionaires, Mike,” Freddie turned and winked. “We like billionaires.”

The irony of being wedged between two rotund businessmen, with flesh pouring over tight collars, was not lost on Levin. Neither projected wealth nor status. They were, at best, intermediaries for big money buyers; buyers that clearly saw this event as an exception to their required participation. The men talked over Levin incessantly. In Serbian. Zena and pištolj, he recognized as woman and pistol. He had no idea how those words achieved such mutual significance. See this, Mal? Cavorting with arms dealers with bad breath and sweaty-necks. All he wanted to do was get out and breathe.., and walk.., and think.

The SUV pulled up sharply at a concrete security barrier and soldiers with dogs and underside inspection mirrors circled the vehicle twice before the gate drew back to reveal the rather alarming sight of the business end of an M1 Abrams battle tank, fully dressed in desert camouflage, wearing the insignia of the Egyptian army.

Freddie turned to Levin, “See what I mean, hardware.”

The group of buyers alighted from their vehicles and was escorted to a reception tent replete with mood lighting and table-top exhibits of brochures and colorful, high-production video loops of a world at war. They were each allocated a new laminated credential and assigned a personal representative. ‘‘More like a shadow..,’’ Levin thought, ‘‘…in case somebody tries to sneak a rocket launcher down his trousers.’’

Freddie sidled up to Levin with a demure, Latin woman trailing close behind.

“Mike, Isabella will be your guide to the conference. She’ll be happy to escort you through the exhibition. The auction has been divided into two sessions tomorrow: light arms in the morning and vehicles and aircraft in the afternoon. She has a complete itinerary of the events and for security reasons; she will hold your catalogue.”

Freddie lifted an eyebrow in a knowing manner.

“Accidents happen, people get distracted and we don’t necessarily want our inventory on public display.”

An image of the two Serbs incapacitated by rum-induced comas while hookers rifled their pockets flashed through Levin’s mind. He scanned the displayed array of back-lighted posters of RPG’s in flight and soldiers posed like Hollywood idols and heavily-armed outposts nestled in breathtaking, mountain landscapes and said, “No.., that would be unfortunate.”

Levin extended his hand to Isabella and it was met with a small, firm grip that was almost doll-like as it was enveloped by his own. She was decked out in what might best be described as a 1930’s stewardess uniform - tight pencil skirt, seamed stockings, heels and all.

“Welcome, to Havana,” Isabella said. “Thank you, it’s my first visit.”

“Did you have a particular area of interest in the auction?”

Her voice was shy and soft and her smile exposed perfect white teeth and she stared at him through saddle-brown eyes that were immediately distracting.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Did you want to view anything in particular?”

“Uniforms mostly. Anything Army; anything foreign. My collector is pretty low key so the latest in landmine tech is not relevant. And, even though I won’t be bidding on them, I’d welcome a chance to tour the vehicles

- planes, boats, that sort of stuff.”

She nodded agreeably and made a notation on the inside flap of the catalogue. Levin saw his given name was outlined in raised letters on every page: ‘Michael Summers’. Mal’s cheeky idea for a nom de plume as his demeanor was usually anything but.

“Well, let’s do that first. The big dealers aren’t scheduled to arrive until tomorrow, so that section’s not crowded at all.”

She flicked through the listings and opened the book at a color photo bleeding off every edge - an aerial view of the air power on offer.

“Oh, Jesus,” Levin said. He drew his forefinger across the page. “747’s, F14’s, F16’s, Eurofighters, Dassault’s, Lear’s.., makes my Cessna look slightly pathetic.”

“So it’s just you? I have another catalogue.” She dog-eared the cover of another booklet and read aloud: “Malcolm Sweet. I was expecting a party of two.”

The words caught in Levin’s throat as he wrestled out an answer, “Change of plan. Not this trip.”

The enclosure to the aircraft repository was walled by sectional partitions, eight feet wide and twelve feet high and bound together by high tensile fencing wire. One gate in; one gate out. Both guarded by a single sentry.

Another child, in baggy fatigues gripping a battered AK47 with fine, soft hands. Overhead, shielded from the prying gazes of drones, planes and satellites, a series of conjoined canvas and netting covers were suspended from the telescoping booms of more than twenty mobile cranes. And with a cursory nod to softening the allusion of oppressive authority, each winch head carried a yellow dome light that burned with a haunting phosphorescent glow against the failing light of day.

Isabella wound her way quickly through packed alleyways, dodging waves of foot traffic that emerged from each exhibit station like broods of cackling hens. She flashed her ID badge, letting slip a wickedly flirtatious smile to a packed guard house and then they were through, emerging into a circus wonderland of exotic aviation. Levin paused at nearly every stand as he feigned interest in the hardware on show. Nose cones were dutifully stroked and landing gear was perused and cockpits were investigated. He circled the enclosure with Isabella’s shadow never more than a step away.

And Levin’s anxiety grew. There was no sign of Endeavor.

“This is an impressive collection,” he said. “It’s a wonder they could pack all of it into one area.”

“Yes, I believe this is the best of the bunch,” Isabella said. “Space is tight; some just didn’t make the final cut.”

“Oh..?”

“The balance is kept in an old Cubana de Aviación hangar,” she said, “at a small service field on the other side of Havana. Most are civilian. Dirty paint. Not like these.”

“Any chance of going over there and taking a look?”

She hedged. She fussed with her hair. Levin was drawing the mischief from her soul.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Levin played the vulnerable card. “I’d like to tell my collector that nothing got by me.”

“You’re due to make the hotel transfer shortly,” Isabella said. “I’m not sure that we’ll have time.”

“Do you drive?” Levin said. “How about dinner in exchange for a look at the other hangar?” A beat. A shuffle of feet. Highlights in Isabella’s hair shone like seams of gold and Levin wondered suddenly if his motives weren’t being driven by matters a little further south of his belt buckle.

“Yes, I drive.., I’m also learning to fly.”

“Excellent, that gives us much to talk about. Do you have other clients today?”

“No, only you.”

“Will you be here for the auction?” “Only through tomorrow evening.” “And then?” Levin asked.

Isabella shook her head and threw him a “are you hitting on me?’’ look and said, “Another day, another job. Just like the rest of the world.”

“Where I’m from, the ‘rest of the world’ is only what is seen on TV.”

For the next several hours their exchanges grew more sincere. Amidst the towering displays of deadly munitions, they explored family and politics and music and films and their mutual worlds.

“You’re neglecting the exhibits,” Isabella said.

“I know. It’s strange to walk amongst all of this potential for violence. It’s so peaceful right now. Aren’t you’re a little insulted that this kind of auction is taking place on your soil?”

“War is just business. Cuba has felt the weight of empty promises for so many decades. It’s part of who we are. What we need now is an economy and jobs and a voice and unfortunately it’s a long time coming. Leaving seems to be the only way of achieving forward motion.”

“You’d leave to pursue life elsewhere?”

“No, I would leave so that I can speak my mind about what needs to happen here. I love my country more than my life; it’s the music in my soul. Do you think I should wait patiently for a lottery win; be one of the few thousand hopefuls that get a chance to experience the climate or the food or the culture of another country? When is the last time you had to apply for permission to leave the U.S.A.?”

Embarrassed, he said, “Never.”

“Welcome to the Isla de complicaciones. Things change in a heartbeat.

One day the internet is safe to use, the next day it’s shut down; one day there is food, the next day the shelves are bare, so now…”

She paused, digging through her bag, plucking a passport from between sheaves of papers.

“…I never leave home without it. Oportunidad favorece a los preparados.’’

Isabella guided Levin to a waiting area with piped music and easy chairs and a bank of TV’s that were alive, but muted. Pots of coffee gurgled like forest brooks and tables strewn with newspapers shouted the latest headlines from Europe and Asia.

“Wait here,” she said.

Levin sank deep into a leather settee and closed his eyes. Deception was a trying pastime, he decided: fake names and fake smiles and fake stories with fake endings. He helped himself to a cup of coffee and leafed through one of the pamphlets scattered around the room: Big guns and big shells; happiness is genocide; destruction begets misery begets profit. He brought one of the

phone-book sized publications to the couch and flicked through the glossy index of calibers and barrel lengths and penetrating force and muzzle velocity and kill ratios, all brought to you by the capable and versatile..,

 

Le famile de Baudin

 

There it was. In black and white. Levin shuddered at the sight of the bold type. He read it again - Le famile de Baudin - and the blood in his veins ran nitrogen cold.

‘‘Why not,’’ he thought. It makes sense. Human trafficking is the perfect cousin to arms dealing. Spread a little sunshine throughout the developing world.’’

“Are you alright,” Isabella said.

She stood before him, composed and serene.

“You look lost. Is it the catalogue? Do you have a question?”

In a white T-shirt and faded blue jeans and suede boots she was transformed. The woman emerged, simple and powerful and radiant.

Levin said, “No, just caught a trip down memory lane.”

 

“I hope you’re not expecting a Limo.”

The couple stood before the rusting steel tub of a sun-bleached Jeep that looked like an artist’s composite of many different vehicles.

“As long as it goes and stops,” Levin said, climbing in.

The remote hangar was tucked away at the end of an unpaved access road that spared little mercy for the little red Jeep’s suspension or the occupant’s

spines, for that matter. Isabella rode the dips and bumps of back streets and hidden alleyways with her foot hard down, at times coaxing the willing four- wheeler through steep and soggy drainage ditches that brimmed with discarded furniture and bundles of trash. They cruised empty avenues lined with palm trees that swayed against monstrous walls of billowing clouds that touched the sky like the sails of passing ships, and they bought tart, strong coffee from a roadside stall and they swapped stories of real and imagined times, and in due course, with all four wheels locked and gravel sprayed high into the air, the topless vehicle came to a final, sliding stop in front of an imposing wooden hangar. With broad grins pasted on dusty faces, they sat in a swirling cloud of dirt, exhilarated and content. Levin peeled his fingers from the roll bar above his head claiming victory of an imagined rally.

“I think the Dakar is next. Whaddya say?”

Levin tapped the glass of the chrome-trimmed speedometer housing that sat in the center of the steel console. The mileage read 149,656. “Not bad for an old girl past her prime.”

“You think?” she said, drawing his attention to the hand-written numeral scrawled in felt pen onto the dash to the left of the odometer. “1,149,656..,” she said, “…everything gets fixed in Cuba.”

 

Eighty years ago, the cavernous structure would’ve stood proud and resolute in the eternal Caribbean sunshine, proclaiming its importance with nothing more than a fresh coat of whitewash. The signage was faded now. Whole letters of waxy, fused paint layers peeled from parched boards of pine like burned skin, gently rising and falling in the eddy of a warm easterly breeze. Logos and brand names, such as Lockheed’s Model 8 Sirius and the Altair and the L-1049 Super Constellation, were etched deep into vertical panels accompanied by carved illustrations of the aircraft in flight.

“Built in the 1940’s, in case you were wondering,” Isabella said. “It was a service bay for airplanes flying from Havana to Madrid by way of Venezuela and Brazil and Senegal.”

Levin brushed his fingertips over the indentations of the artwork and said,“Trans-Atlantic in a single engine.., flying with only dead-reckoning and the stars for reference..? Anyone that speaks of those men and women without extreme reverence is crazy, or stupid.., or both.”

“You are a fan, aren’t you?”

“I cannot lie. Aviation has been my life; it’s given me a sense of being that I could only have dreamed of.”

“Dreams are good business in Cuba,” Isabella said. “How do you know so much about the hangar?”

“My grandfather was an engineer. Worked right here. For forty years. He came to work every day on a bicycle that he built with his own hands. I still ride it.”

Isabella smiled with obvious pride at the recollection. “Each time I come here it is, as you said, a ride down memory lane.”

 

A snaking concrete path overgrown with weeds and stained with splattered paint and motor oil wrapped the perimeter of the building. They went left. Into the shade. At the rear, an expansive sliding door faced a single uncontrolled runway and despite its rickety outward appearance, the old hangar sported a state-of-the-art digital lock that released with the sound of cannons firing a Royal six gun salute. Once unlocked, the vast wooden slab began a slow and steady retraction on greased rollers. Light spilled into the blackness and revealed a museum of spoke wheels and stamped steel and the aroma of stale gasoline and industrial solvents swam from the confined space in thick, nauseating waves. Shivers of anxiety crawled across Levin’s skin.

This was as far as his plan took him. There was no peering into the future from this point on. He was alone. And he shouldn’t have been.

Another foot of the dark cavern was revealed. A HumVee, more pimp than military. Another seizure by the US government. The DEA, most likely. Too hot for the irascible tellers at the DMV. Isabella wandered into the shadows.

“Are you coming?”

Levin felt as though his feet were encased in concrete. He walked in. The mechanics of the retracting door was the only sound. He looked up. Shafts of angled sunlight fell from frosted skylights and converged onto a windscreen framed by a dull, yellow skin. The aged door squeaked and rattled in protest and the apparition grew brighter. Spreading its wings. Dark eyes stared from above; eyes that would burn with fire. Levin was transfixed by Endeavor. The noble airplane wore the veil of a tired, discarded relic. He noted flecked paint dotting her nose cone and a thick gelatinous film of dust hugged her skin like a pauper’s coat and the rubber of her tires was soft, but her grace was as evident as the bloodline of a thoroughbred. On golden wings she had ferried battered souls from a living hell that flourished under the scorching sands of the south Sahara and she had united a family torn from each other’s embrace at the apex of their innocence. A babe in arms and lovers divided, left alone to endure a winter for every season. Levin imagined Endeavor coming awake, wingtips bouncing expectantly, straining at her brakes, yearning to soar into the…

 

sky blue sky

 

AVAILABLE SEPTEMBER 2017


Says Who? will be published in 2017.

All text, artwork and photography ©2017 Cry Desert Publishing, INC.   All Rights Reserved

Mark Warford