Island of the Sequined Love Nun Chapter 37~38
Bombs and Bribes
The itching started a week after the first flight. It began on his scalp and a few days later, as the wounds on his arms, legs, and genitals healed, Tucker would have stripped off his skin to escape it. If there had been some other distraction, something to do besides sit in his bungalow waiting to be called for a flight, it might have been bearable, but now the doctor came only once a day to check on him, and he hadn’t seen Beth Curtis since they landed. He read spy novels, listened to the country western radio station out of Guam until he thought that if he heard one more wailing steel guitar, he’d rip the rest of his hair out. Sometimes he lay under the mosquito net-ting, acutely aware of his comatose member, and tried to think of all the women he had had, one by one, then all the women he had ever wanted, including actresses, models, and famous figures from history (the Marilyn Monroe/Cleopatra double-team-in-warm-pudding scenario kept him dis-tracted for almost an hour). Twice a day he cooked himself a meal. The doctor had set him up with a double hot plate and a pantry full of canned goods, and occasionally one of the guards dropped off a parcel of fruit or fresh fish. Mostly, though, he itched.
Tuck tried to engage Sebastian Curtis in conversation, but there were few subjects about which the missionary was not evasive, and most re-minded him that he had left some pressing task at the clinic. Questions about Kimi, the guards, the lack of cargo, his personal history, his wife, the natives of the island, or communication with the outside world evoked half-answers and downright silence.
He asked the doctor for some cortisone, for a television, for access to a computer so he could send a message back to Jake Skye,
and while the doctor didn’t say no outright, Tuck was left empty-handed except for a suggestion that he ought to go swimming and a reminder of how much money he was making for reading spy novels and scratching at scabs. Tuck wanted a steak, a woman (although he still wasn’t sure he could do anything but talk to her), and a chilled bottle of vodka. The doctor gave him some fins, a mask and snorkel, and a bottle of waterproof sunscreen.
When, one morning, Tuck spent an empty hour trying to will his member to life by mentally wrapping his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Nelson, in Saran Wrap, only to find his fantasy foiled by her insistence that he had no lead in his Number 2 pencil, he grabbed the snorkeling gear and made his way to the beach.
Two of the guards followed at a distance. They were always there. When he looked out the window, if he tried to take a walk, if he wanted to check on the Lear, they clung to him like stereo shadows. They stood over him as he sat in the sand, pulling the fins on.
“Why don’t you guys go put on some trunks and join me? Those jumpsuits have to be pretty uncomfortable.” It wasn’t the first time he’d tried to talk to them, and it wasn’t the first time he’d been ignored. They just stood there, as silent as meditating monks. Tuck hadn’t been able to discern if they understood a word of English.
“Okay, then, I’m going to do the Cousteau thing, but later let’s get together for some raw fish and karaoke?” He gave them a wink.
“Then let’s play some cards and talk about how you guys recite haiku while blowing each other every night?” Tuck thought that might do it, but still there was no reaction.
As he started toward the water, Tuck said, “I heard the Japanese flag was modeled after a used sanitary napkin. Is that true?” He looked over his shoulder for a response and his fin caught and bent double on a rock. An instant later he was facedown on the beach, sputtering to get the sand out of his mouth, and the guards were laughing.
“Asshole,” he heard one say, and he was on his feet and looming over the Japanese like a giant rabid duck.
“Just back off, Odd Job!”
The guard who had spoken stood his ground, but his companion backed away looking lost without his Uzi.
“What’s the matter, no submachine gun? You chickenshits so busy crawling up my back that you forgot your toys?” Tuck poked the guard in the chest to punctuate his point.
The guard grabbed Tuck’s finger and bent it back, then swept the pilot’s feet out from under him and drew a Glock nine-millimeter pistol from a holster at the small of his back and pressed the barrel to Tucker’s forehead hard enough to dent the skin. The other guard barked something in Japanese, then stepped forward and kicked Tuck in the stomach. Tucker rolled into a ball in the sand, instinctively throwing one arm over his face and clenching the other at his side to protect his kidneys as he waited for the next blow. It didn’t come. When he looked up, the guards were walking back to the compound.
Getting them to leave him alone had been the desired result, but the process was a little rougher than he’d expected. Tuck wiggled his finger to make sure it wasn’t broken and examined the boot toe print under his rib cage. Then the anger unlocked his imagination and plans for revenge began. The easiest thing to do would be to tell the doctor, but Tuck, like all men, had been conditioned against two responses: You don’t cry and you don’t rat. No, it would have to be something subtle, elegant, painful, and most of all, humiliating.
Tuck almost skipped into the water, running on his newfound energy: adrenalized vengeance. He paddled around at the inside edge of the reef, watching anemones pulse in the current while small fish in improbable neon colors darted in and out of the coral. The ocean was as warm as bathwater, and after a few minutes with his face in the water, he felt de-tached from his body and the color and movement below became as meaningless as the patterns in a campfire. The only reminder that he was human was the sound of his breath rushing through the snorkel and the images of cold revenge in his mind.
He looked down the ragged curve of the reef and saw a large shadow moving across the bottom, but before fight-or-flight panic could even set in, he saw it was the shadow of a loggerhead turtle flying through the water like a saurian angel. The turtle circled him and cruised by close enough for Tuck to see the movement in the creature’s silver-dollar-sized eye as it studied him, and a message there: “You don’t belong here,” it said. And that part of Tuck that had recognized the saltwater as its mother re-belled and he felt alien and vulnerable and cold, and a little rude, as if he had been attending a black-tie dinner only to realize as dessert was served that he was wearing pajamas. It was time to go.
He lifted his head, took a bearing on the chain-link fence that ran to the edge of the beach, and started a slow crawl toward shore. As the water went shallow, he banged his knee on a submerged rock,
then stood and slogged through the lapping surf as his fins tried to drag him back off the beach. Once clear of the water, he fell in the sand and tore the fins off his feet. He threw them up the shore without looking and a half a breath later a deafening explosion lifted him up and he landed ten feet away, stunned and breathless, as damp sand and pieces of swim fin rained down upon him.
Tucker stormed through the clinic door trailing sand and water across the concrete floor. “Mines! You have fucking land mines on the fucking beach?”
Sebastian Curtis was seated at a computer terminal. He quickly clicked off the screen and swiveled in his chair. “I heard the explosion, but birds and turtles have set them off before. Was anyone hurt?”
“Other than I’m going to hear a high-pitched wail for the rest of my life and my sphincter won’t relax until I’m dead a couple of years, no, no one was hurt. What I want to know is why you have mines on the beach.”
“Calm down, Mr. Case. Please sit down.” The doctor gestured to a folding metal chair. “Please.” He looked sad, not at all confrontational, not like the kind of man who would mine a tropical beach. “I suppose there are some things you need to know. First, I have something for you.” He opened a drawer under the keyboard, withdrew a check, and handed it to Tuck.
Tucker’s rage dropped a level when he looked at the amount. “Ten grand? What’s this for?”
“Call it a first-flight bonus. Beth said you did very well.”
Tucker fingered the check, then brushed the sand off it and read it again. If he had any self-respect, he’d throw it in the doctor’s face. He didn’t, of course. “This is great, Doc. Ten grand for picking up a case of wine. I’m not even going to ask you what was in the cooler she gave that guy, but I was almost killed on the beach a few minutes ago.”
“I’m very sorry about that. There’s a lot of Japanese ordnance scattered around the island. The area at the edge of the fence used to be a minefield. The staff and the natives all know not to go there.”
“Well, you might have mentioned it to me.”
“I didn’t want to alarm you. I told a couple of members of the staff to keep an eye on you and steer you away from there. I’ll speak to them.”
“They’ve been spoken to. I spoke to them myself. And I’m a little tired of being watched by them.”
“It’s for your own safety, as I’m sure you can see now.”
“I’m not a child and I don’t expect to be treated like one. I want to go where I want, when I want, and I don’t want to be watched by a bunch of ninjas.”
The doctor sat bolt-upright in his chair. “Why do you refer to them as ninjas? Who told you to call the staff that?”
“Look at them. They’re Japanese, they wear all black, they know martial arts – hell, the only thing they’re missing are T-shirts that say, ‘Ask me about being a ninja.’ I call them that because that’s what they look like. They sure as hell aren’t medical staff.”
“No, they’re not,” Sebastian said, “but I’m afraid they are a necessary evil, and one that I can’t do much about.”
“Why not? It’s your island.”
“This island belongs to the Shark People. And even this clinic isn’t mine, Mr. Case. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we are not financed by the Methodist Mission Fund.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that.”
“We do have some very powerful corporate sponsors in Japan, and they have insisted that we keep a small contingent of security men on the island if we want to keep our funding.”
“Funding for what, Doc?”
Tuck laughed. “Right. This is the perfect environment for research. No sense using some sterile high-tech facility in Tokyo. Do your R and D out on the asshole of the Pacific. Come clean. What’s really going on?”
The doctor pointed to the check Tucker was holding. “If I tell you, Mr. Case, that’s the last one of those you will see. You make the choice. If you want to work here, you have to work in the dark. There is no compromise. It’s research, it’s secret, and the people who are paying for it want it to stay that way or they wouldn’t have hired the guards and they wouldn’t allow me to pay you so well.” He pushed back his gray hair and stared into Tucker’s eyes, not threatening, not challenging, but with the compassion of a physician concerned about the welfare of a patient. “Now, do you really want to know what we’re doing here?”
Tuck looked at the check, looked back at the doctor, then looked at the check. If it was good, it was the largest amount of money he’d
ever possessed at one time. He said, “I just want the guards to lighten up, give me some room to breathe.”
The doctor smiled. “I think we can do that. But I need your word that you won’t try to leave the compound.”
“To go where? I’ve seen this island from the air, remember? I can’t be missing much.”
“I’m only interested in your safety.”
“Right,” Tucker said, as sincerely as he could muster. “But I want a TV. I’m going nuts sitting around in that room. If I read one more spy novel, I’ll qualify for a Double-O number. You guys have a TV, so I know you have one of those satellite dishes hooked up. I want a TV.”
Again the doctor smiled. “You can have ours. I’m sure Beth won’t mind.”
“You gave him what?” The Sky Priestess looked up from a copy of Us magazine. She was draped in a white silk kimono that was untied and cascaded around her into a shimmering pool at the foot of her chair. Her hair was pinned up with ivory chopsticks inlaid with ebony dragons.
The Sorcerer stood in the door of her chambers. He’d felt rather proud of himself until the tone in her voice struck him like an ice pick in the neck.
“Your television. But it’s only temporary. I’ll have another one waiting for you at the airstrip on the next flight.”
“Which is when?”
“As soon as I can set up an order. I promise, Beth.”
“Which means that I also have to do a performance without my soaps. I depend on my soaps to practice my sense memories, Sebastian. How do you expect me to play a goddess if I can’t find my emotional moment?”
“Maybe, just this once, you could try emotions that don’t come by satellite feed.”
She dropped her magazine and bit her lip, looking off to the corner of the room as if considering it. “Fine. Give him the TV.”
“I gave him ten thousand dollars, as well.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What does he get if he blows himself up again, a night with the Sky Priestess?”
“If I can bargain him down to that,” the Sorcerer said. He turned and walked out of the room smiling to himself.
Tucker Case spent the next week watching the compound, trying to get a clue to what was going on. The doctor had brought the TV as he promised, and even loaned Tucker a seven iron, but since then Tuck had only seen him from a distance, making his way back and forth from the clinic to one of the small bungalows at the other side of the beach. The guards still watched him, following him at a distance when he went for a swim or a search-and-destroy mission for roosters, but there had been no sign of Beth Curtis.
If indeed the doctor was doing some sort of research, there was no hint as to what it involved. Tuck tried stopping by the clinic several times, only to find the door locked and no response when he knocked.
Boredom worked on Tuck, pressed down on him like a pile of wet blankets until he felt as if he would suffocate under the weight. In the past he had always fought boredom with alcohol and women, and the trouble that ensued from that combination filled the days. Here there was nothing but spy novels and bad Asian cooking shows (the doctor had refused to let him hook up to the satellite dish) and although he was pleased that he now knew nine different ways to prepare beagle, it wasn’t enough. He needed to get out of the compound, if for no other reason than because they told him he couldn’t.
Fortunately, over the years, Tuck had acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of women-in-prison movies, so he had at his disposal a plethora of escape strategies. Of course, many of them weren’t applicable. He immediately rejected the idea of seducing and shiving
the large lesbian matron, and faking menstrual cramps would only get him sent to the clinic with a Mydol IV, but strangely enough, as he was acting out the gratuitous shower scene, his plan burst forth: soap-slathered, silicone-enhanced, and in total defiance of time, gravity, and natural proportion…
The shower drain opened directly onto the coral gravel below.
He could see it down there, the ground, and a small hermit crab scuttling to escape the soapy water. He’d lost weight, but not enough to slide down the drain. The entire bottom of the shower was no more than a tray of gal-vanized metal. He bent, grasped the edge, and lifted. It didn’t come free, but it moved. A little time, a little patience, and he’d have it free. Planning and patience. Those were the keys to a successful escape.
So he could get out of the bungalow without being seen. The next obstacle would be the fence.
Tuck found out early on that the fence around the compound was electrified. He’d found a rooster stuck to the wires, doing a convulsive imitation of the funky chicken while its feathers smoldered and sparks shot from its grounded foot. Satisfying as the discovery was, Tuck realized that there would be no going over the fence, and the gate to the airfield was locked with a massive chain and padlock. The only way past the fence was around it, and the only place to get around it was at the beach. Sure, he could swim out and come in farther down the beach, but how far did the minefield extend? He began testing it by hitting rocks into the minefield with his seven iron under the auspices of practicing his swing. He managed to produce several impressive craters and scare the guards with the explosion before finding the edge of the minefield some fifty yards down the beach. He decided to risk it.
He picked up a coconut on his way back to the bungalow, then climbed into bed and waited for darkness to fall.
After the sun set and the three-quarter moon rose, Tuck waited for the guard to peek through the window, then as he heard him crunch away, began building the decoy (a trick he learned from Falling Fingers: Leper Bimbos Behind Bars II). Two pillows and a coconut head made for a reason-able likeness, especially when viewed by moonlight through mosquito netting. He slipped out of bed and crawled below window level to the bathroom, where he had left his mask, fins, and a candle.
He shoved a towel under the door to keep the light from leaking out, then lit the candle and began working the metal shower tray
out of its frame. After five minutes of tugging, stopping for a moment when he heard the guard’s boots crunching outside, he released the shower tray and leaned it up on its side.
Tuck blew out the candle and dropped to gravel four feet below, then reached back and pulled his fins and mask through the opening. The coral gravel felt like broken glass on his tender feet, but he decided to endure the pain rather than risk the noise of shoes. Tuck heard the guard coming again and dropped to the ground where he could look out under the bungalow into the courtyard.
The guard thumped up the steps, paused as he looked through the window, then, satisfied that Tucker was asleep, walked across the compound to the guards’ quarters and sat in a folding chair outside the door.
Tuck checked behind him, then scrambled out of the crawl space into the grove of coconut palms. He paused and caught his breath, then planned his path to the beach. He would have to cover fifty yards between his bungalow and the clinic, fifty yards that weren’t completely open but visible from where the guard sat. He could hop from tree to tree, but if the guard happened to be looking that way, he was done.
A lizard scampered up the tree he was leaning on and Tuck felt his heart stop. What was he thinking? There could be scorpions out here, sharks and barracudas and other creepy stuff in the dark ocean. And what happened when he got to the other side of the fence? More sand and scorpions and possibly hostile natives. He was waiting, thinking about how easy it would be to crawl back through the shower and go to bed, when a lighter flared across the compound and he saw the guard’s face illuminated orange, and Tuck bolted for the rear of the clinic building, hoping the lighter would blind the guard long enough for him to cover the fifty yards.
Halfway across, he dropped a fin, then fell to the ground beside it and looked up. The guard was smoking peacefully, watching blue streams of smoke rise in the moonlight.
Tuck grabbed the fin and crawled on his belly the final ten yards to the clinic, fighting the urge to cry out as the gravel dug into his elbows. A hermit crab scuttled over his back sending a bolt of the electric willies shooting up his spine to speed him to cover.
The guard didn’t look up. Tuck climbed to his feet, dusted himself off, and made his way to the beach.
A light breeze rattled the palm leaves and Tuck could hear the surf crashing out on the reef, but at the shore the waves lapped only
shin high. Tuck waded into the warm water carrying his fins. When he was waist deep, he crouched and slipped them on, then paddled out on his back, looking back toward shore.
There were lights on in both of the Curtises’ bungalows. He could see Beth Curtis moving past the windows. She appeared to be naked, but from this distance he couldn’t tell for sure. He tore himself away and swam out past the surf line to make his way down the beach.
It was an easy swim to the fence, the biggest challenge being to keep his mind off what might be lurking under the dark water. He swam another hundred yards down the beach, then started toward shore. When his hand brushed a rock, he reached down and pulled off his fins. He gritted his teeth as he put his feet down to stand, expecting the shooting pain of an urchin or a ray. He cursed himself for not bringing his sneakers.
As he slogged up the beach, Tuck heard a rustling in the trees and looked up to see a flash of color in the moonlight. He ran up the beach, dove behind a log at the high-tide line, and lay there watching as tiny crabs clicked and crawled around him.
She emerged from the trees only ten yards from where Tucker lay. She was wearing a purple lavalava, which she unwrapped and dropped on the sand.
Tuck stopped breathing. She walked by him, only a few feet away, her body oiled and shining in the moonlight, her long black hair playing behind her in the breeze. He risked lifting his head and watched her walk into the water up to her knees and begin washing, splashing water on her thighs and bottom.
From the time he had left Houston he had carried images in his head of what it would be like to live on a tropical island. Those images had been buried by cuts and scrapes, typhoons and humidity, sharks and ninjas and enigmatic missionaries. This was why he had come: a naked island girl washing her mocha thighs on a warm moonlit beach.
He felt a stirring under him and almost leaped to his feet, thinking he was lying on some sea creature. Then he realized that the stirring came from within. It had been so long since he’d felt signs of an erection that he didn’t recognize it at first. He almost burst out laughing. It still worked. He was still a man. Hell, he was more than just a man, he was Tucker Case, secret agent, and for the first time in months, he was packing wood.
The girl walked out of the water and Tuck ducked his head as she passed. He watched her wrap the lavalava around her hips and disappear into the trees. He waited until she was gone, then followed her, enjoying the tension in his trunks as he crept into the trees.
Malink looked up from pouring tuba for the men at the drinking circle to see Sepie coming down from the village. This was an outrage and an em-barrassment. No women were allowed near the drinking circle. It was a place for men.
“Go home, Sepie!” Malink barked. “You are not to be here.”
Sepie ignored him and kept coming, her hips swaying. Several of the young married men looked away, feeling regret that they wouldn’t be bedding down in the bachelors’ house tonight. “There’s a white man following me.”
Malink stood. “You talk nonsense. Now go home or you’ll have another week away from the ocean.” He noticed that the ends of her hair were wet and drops ran off her legs. She’d already broken her punishment for talking with the Japanese guards.
“Fine,” Sepie said. “I don’t care if a white man is sneaking around in the bushes. I just though you would want to know.”
She flipped her hair as she turned and made her way back up the beach. As she passed the tree that Tuck had ducked behind, she said in English, “The fat loud one is chief. You go talk to him. He tell you who I am.” And she walked on, head high, without looking back.
Tuck felt his face flush and his ego deflate along with the swelling in his pants. Busted. She’d known he was there all along. Some secret agent. He’d be lucky to get back into the compound without getting caught.
He watched the men on the beach passing around the communal cup. From the way they moved he could see that some of them were pretty drunk. He remembered the warning of Jefferson Pardee about not drinking with these latent warriors, but they looked harmless, even a little silly with their loincloths and shark tattoos. One young man reached to take the cup from the old guy who was pouring and fell on his face in the sand. That did it. Tuck stepped out from behind his tree and started toward the circle. Whatever was being poured from those jugs was probably not gin and tonic, but it would definitely get you fucked up, and getting fucked up sounded pretty good right now.
“Jambo,” Tuck said, using a greeting he’d heard in a Tarzan movie.
The whole group looked up. One man actually let out an abbreviated scream. The fat old guy stood up, a fire in his eyes that cooled as Tuck moved out of the shadows.
Mary Jean had always said, “Doesn’t matter if it’s a senator or a doorman. No one is immune to a warm smile and a firm handshake.”
Tuck held out his hand and smiled. “Tucker Case. Pleased to meet you.”
Malink allowed the white man to shake his hand. As the others looked on, still stunned, Malink said, “You are looking better than the last time I saw you. The Sorcerer made you well.”
Tuck’s eyes were trained on the three-gallon jugs of milky liquid at the center of the circle. “Yeah, I’m feeling on top of the world. You guys think you could spare a sip of that jungle juice?”
“Sit,” Malink said, and he waved the young men aside to make space for Tuck on one of the sitting logs. Tuck stepped in and sat as Favo handed him the coconut shell cup. Tuck downed the contents in one gulp and fought to keep from gagging. It tasted of sulfur, sugar, and a tint of ammo-nia, but the alcohol was there, and the familiar warmth was coursing through him before he’d even stopped shuddering from the taste.
“Good. Very good.” Tuck smiled and nodded around the circle. The Shark men smiled and nodded back.
Malink sat beside him. “We thought you died.”
“So did I. How about another belt?”
Malink looked embarrassed. “The cup must come around again.”
“Fine, fine. Drink up, boys,” Tuck said, smiling and nodding like a madman.
“How you come here?” Malink asked.
“A little stroll, a little swim. I wanted to get out and meet some people. You know, get to know the local customs. Gets pretty boring up at the clinic.”
Malink frowned. “You are the pilot. We see you fly the plane.”
“Vincent said you would come.”
The men, who had been whispering among themselves, fell si lent. The pouring and drinking stopped as they waited for Malink’s reply.
“Vincent is pilot too. He come long time ago, bringing cargo. He send the Sky Priestess until he come back. You see her with the Sorcerer. At hospital. She have yellow hair like yours.”
Tuck nodded, as if he had any idea what the chief was talking about. Right now he just wanted to see the cup finish its lap and get back to him. “Yeah, right. I’ve seen her. She’s the doctor’s wife.”
Abo, who was drunk and for once not angry, laughed and said, “She is nobody’s wife, you fuckin’ mook. She’s the Sky Priestess.”
Tuck froze. A plane crash and a talking bat rose like demons, ruining his oncoming buzz.
Malink looked apologetic. “He is young and drunk and stupid. You not fuckin’ mook.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Tuck asked. “Where’d you hear ‘fuckin’ mook’?”
“Vincent say that. We all say that.”
“Vincent? What’s Vincent look like?”
The young men looked to Favo and Malink. Favo spoke. “He is American. Have dark hair like us, but his nose point. Young. Maybe as old as you.”
“And he’s a pilot? What’s he wear?”
“He wear gray suit, sometimes a jacket with fur here.” Favo mimed a collar and lapels.
“A bomber jacket.”
Malink smiled. “Yes, Sky Priestess is bomber.”
Tuck snatched the cup from one of the Johns and drained it, then handed it back. “Sorry. Emergency.” He looked at Malink. “And this Vincent said I was coming?”
Malink nodded. “He tell me in a dream. Then Sarapul find you and your friend on the reef.”
“My friend? Is he around?”
“We no see him now. He go to live with Sarapul on other side of island.”
“Take me to him.”
“We drink tuba now. Go in morning?”
“I have to be back before morning. And you can’t tell anyone that I was here.”
“One more,” Malink said. “The tuba is good tonight.”
“Okay, one more,” Tuck said.