154° West Equatorial – South Pacific
Gauging the light surf, Taubuki Kuaba momentarily gunned the outboard before shutting it down and hauling it out of the water. With a muted hiss the wooden pram slid up the gentle slope of the beach, assisted by the breaking waves that Taubuki had deftly surfed in on. He shot a toothy smile at his cousin as they dropped into the tepid water and hauled the old boat farther up the beach. Ngauea returned the smile and reached into the pram, extracting a small flask. Taking a hearty drink, he let out a satisfied belch then tossed it to Taubuki.
Taubuki tilted the flask to his lips and closed his eyes as the kakioki slid down his throat and burned in his stomach. The potent drink of fermented coconut milk elevated his spirits even further and his grin spread. He marveled at how much could change in less than a week. For it was only last week, back on his home island of Kiritimati, that his life had been destroyed when, on his wedding night, he’d discovered his new wife was less than a virgin. To the Gilbertese, this was the highest form of disgrace and Taubuki knew his standing in the tight community would plummet. Yet the very next day, before the word of his disgrace had a chance to spread, his cousin had delivered the message that several foreigners were asking for him – Taubuki Kuaba, owner of the largest fishing vessel on the island and possessor of the best fishing grounds anywhere.
So here he was, on the tiniest sliver of land, an atoll only he knew the location of, with his cousin and five foreigners. He squinted across the shockingly green waters, oblivious to the beauty surrounding him; only aware of the distant outline of Neiko, his beloved little ship as it swung at anchor just past the deadly coral reef surrounding the atoll.
With the money the foreigners promised for this journey he’d be able to buy back the prestige robbed of him by that tinaba. Indeed, what a difference a week made.
There was a grunt behind him as Ngauea leveraged out of the pram the last of the heavy crates they’d been transferring from the Neiko for the past hour. Time enough for celebrating once they returned to Kiritimati, Taubuki mused as he pocketed the flask. With some effort the two of them managed to drag the crate off the beach and up the low hill rising from the center of the atoll to where the foreigners had gathered.
Once the crate had been positioned beside the other four, Taubuki pulled off his battered Yankees cap and approached the tallest of the five men, the one who’d hired Taubuki and who had spoken Kiribati surprisingly well.
“Mister,” he said then paused, the man not looking up from the little device in his hands. Taubuki recognized the GPS unit, indeed had dreamed of owning one for the Neiko, and he knew the secret of this tiny atoll was a secret no longer. Eventually the white man carefully placed the GPS unit into a backpack leaning against his leg and arched an eyebrow. “What is it Taubuki?” he asked in his oddly perfect Kiribati.
Taubuki cleared his throat before answering. “That was the last of your crates. Would you like any help assembling your…” he paused, not knowing the proper term for the strange equipment the foreigners had been assembling around him. “…your devices?”
The foreigner smiled and patted him gently on the shoulder. “No, thank you Taubuki. We can take care of it from here. Why don’t you and your cousin relax for a while. It shouldn’t be much longer now.”
Taubuki nodded and beckoned for Ngauea to follow him to the edge of the hill, where he squatted in the sand and waited. “What are they doing?” inquired Ngauea, a trace of awe in his voice as he dropped to the sand beside Taubuki.
Taubuki watched two of the foreigners finish bolting a metal frame together before answering his cousin’s question with a false confidence, “You wouldn’t understand, Ngauea. You never were very good at science.”
Ngauea shoved his cousin and extracted the flask from Taubuki’s back pocket. “You are the fool, Taubuki. You would piss into a taerawa and proclaim that it’s raining.”
Taubuki smiled but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his cousin’s reference to a taerawa – a cyclone – wasn’t far from the truth. He wasn’t sure what was happening here, but he felt that storm clouds were gathering around him.
An hour passed, interrupted only by the loud snores from Ngauea as he slept beside Taubuki, the now empty flask loosely grasped in an outstretched arm. Observing the shadow that had begun to grow beside the arm, Taubuki grunted in disgust. It was already past midday and if the foreigners took much longer to finish their experiments they’d have to spend the night at anchor before beginning their thirty hour return trip to Kiritimati. Another night of feeding the white men, another night of keeping the generator running and burning precious diesel. These thoughts propelled him to his feet and he purposely strode towards the tall foreigner.
“Mister,” he began but again halted as the white man held up a finger.
“Monsieur, le compte à rebours a commence.”
Taubuki turned towards the voice that had addressed the white leader. Ears buried beneath a bulky headset, one of the foreigners was seated behind a stack of electronic devices, one of which, at least to Taubuki, looked just like a radar display, something he’d once seen on a cargo ship that grounded in the Bay of Wrecks two years ago.
The tall foreigner nodded and turned his back to Taubuki, bending down to peer through a large telescope mounted on a tripod. Taubuki swallowed his question. He dared not talk, nor even move, sensing the tension around him. The experiment was about to begin.
“De vingt seconde,” the man with the headphones called out.
Taubuki stole a quick glance around him and noticed a large rectangular crate standing by itself off to one side. It was the only one the foreigners had carried up the hill themselves. The crate had been erected on a beefy metal frame that elevated it at a forty-five degree angle and was aligned in the direction the tall foreigner was looking.
“De dix seconde.”
“Armer,” the leader of the foreigners ordered.
A tense voice behind Taubuki joined in, “Aibler chercher active.”
“Lancer!” the foreigner with the headset yelled and Taubuki jumped. But nothing happened.
“Aquared de cible, le système sur automatique,” the voice behind Taubuki intoned and as the words were uttered Taubuki noticed a thin white line slowly tracing itself up into the sky from the distant horizon. In amazement Taubuki watched as the line streaked upward with gathering momentum, a vertical version of the trails he’d seen draw across the sky as distant planes passed over his home. But this trail moved much faster than those lines – more like the launch of a rocket he’d seen on television.
Phhhhhhhhhh – WHAM!
With an ear-splitting explosion something leapt from the angled rectangular crate and darted away from the atoll, heading with unwavering precision towards a point above the tip of the white line climbing into the sky. Frozen in place, Taubuki realized what was happening and watched in shock as the two objects merged into one and the air trembled with a distant rumble.
This wasn’t right, couldn’t be happening – he wasn’t supposed to be here. But it was too late, the taerawa had arrived. He turned away from the spectacle, needing to wake his cousin and get back to the Neiko. Turned in time to watch one of the foreigners plunge a knife deep into Ngauea’s chest, his cousin’s arms flailing weakly, the flask flashing in the afternoon sun.
Taubuki tried to run but an arm clamped down onto his shoulder and spun him around. Looking into the steely green eyes of the tall man, Taubuki instantly knew his future – the taerawa had arrived and there was no way of escaping it.
He uttered a prayer of forgiveness for his new wife as he felt the point of the knife slip between his ribs and release his spirit.
Deep in the Amazon basin – Brazil
Xingu swallowed hard as he silently reached down to his naked waist and extracted a short arrow from the cane tube by his side. He quickly dipped the arrow’s sharpened end into the deadly curari poison before sliding it into the blowgun. Having the flying death ready gave Xingu some sense of comfort and he crept forward a few more meters through the dense foliage, the gurgling of the stream he’d been following his only companion.
Mosquitoes buzzed unnoticed around Xingu’s head as he brushed caked blood from his shin, wincing as he touched a purpling gash from when he’d fallen several nights earlier. His entire body, naked except for the cloth covering his midriff, was covered with an assortment of cuts and welts and his usually shiny black hair was matted and tangled, more signs of his arduous journey.
Like Taubuki, he was a long way from home. And like Taubuki, his home was an island; though his island was a small patch of land cleared from an endless sea of jungle. He missed his home, missed the smell of caldeirada as it simmered in its clay pot at the end of the day, but the draw of the unknown was too strong for Xingu and he pushed forward. The usual nomadic nature of the Ticuna people was deeply ingrained within Xingu and though he’d led a comfortable existence within his village, the warnings of the village elders had only served to strengthen his resolve. Resolve that had propelled him along the stream and into the ForbiddenLand.
He was standing at the point where the stream merged with another at a fork – the forked tongue. Reaching up he ran his hand along one of the tiny clay figures hanging from the branches of an ancient teak tree. He had arrived.
The Forbidden Land.
The Catholic part of him performed a quick Sign of the Cross while the Ticuna part had him pull on the mask. A gift from his friend Anuk, the mask was for protection from Locasi, the evil spirit the elders said roamed the Forbidden Land. Xingu had always laughed at such claims, scorned those who told tales of the Portuguese missionaries who’d wandered into a Garganta do Diabo, the Devil’s Throat, and had simply disappeared. He had been fearless back then, safe in his village. Fear came more easily now.
From where the two streams joined, marking the beginning of the ForbiddenLand, he knew it was only a short distance to the Place of Captive Souls, the cave called a Garganta do Diabo by the missionaries. The destination of his journey. A surge of pride welled within him. He would be the only living person in his village to ever visit this place and when he returned he would be a man, a man worthy of the hand of Loki. Loki who was about to emerge from her family’s hut after the traditional two year confinement. He had crossed into the ForbiddenLand for Loki, and Loki had crossed into womanhood for him.
A howler monkey crashed through the leafy canopy above Xingu’s head and he nearly dropped his blowgun. He hesitated, his heart pounding, gauging the sounds and smells of the jungle. Crouching to the ground he pressed his hand into the moist soil and brought his fingers under his mask, tasting the jungle. The world around him was still in order. If Locasi was near, he wasn’t showing himself.
A thousand paces more and Xingu again halted. Ahead of him the jungle angled steeply upwards. At the base of the rise the stream erupted from a ragged hole in the ground, behind which a pair of towering Ipe trees framed a foreboding opening, ancient roots plunging into the porous limestone rising from the damp earth. Thick vines wound around the limbs of the Ipe trees and dangled across the opening like gargantuan green pythons. Xingu could feel his skin crawl, the breath of Locasi on his neck. This was the place. He was standing before The Devil’s Throat.
The tendons on his wiry forearm strained as he tightened his grip on the blowgun and advanced a few more paces towards the cave. Something to his right caught his attention and he watched the rhythmic movement of a large tarantula, furry legs slowly probing as she eased herself into a crevice in the rock. Any other time he would have leapt at the chance to snare such a large and tasty spider, but not now.
He carefully climbed down the short ledge before the cave, the limestone slick and treacherous underfoot. Fear began engulfing him like a second skin, slowing his movements and his thoughts, but he willed himself forward. Shadows lengthened and merged into shifting shapes as Xingu edged deeper into the darkness, ignoring a ringing that had started in his ears. Just ahead of him a pool of water shimmered in the weak light and his heart soared. He only needed to touch that water – drink from it – and he’d earn protection from Locasi. Then no one could touch him, no one would be more worthy of Loki’s love.
His throat began to constrict as he struggled forward, his legs trembling. A darkness began welling within him and he found himself stumbling, dropping to his knees only steps from the water’s edge. A burning pain welled through his entire body and Xingu knew his body was failing him. His arms buckled and he fell to his face, the mask shattering beneath his weight. But still his hands clawed forward, pulling him towards the thing he had travelled so far to reach.
Before him the water suddenly erupted in a boiling frenzy, thundering the ground beneath him, and an animal moan escaped Xingu’s lips. He retched, the hot vomit choking him, and he tried in vain to bring the blowgun to his mouth. But he knew it was too late. He had angered the spirits and now Locasi was coming for him.
From the center of the churning hell something began to rise, and with the last of his breath Xingu screamed, screamed as the apparition grew, screamed until there was nothing left to scream with. Towering over him, the demonic form of Locasi spread its arms, talon-tipped claws clacking as it engulfed Xingu’s prone figure and dragged it into the water Xingu had so desperately tried to reach.
With measured indifference the jungle resumed its normal cadence as another lost soul disappeared into the Devil’s Throat.
La Ceiba – Honduras
Clearing his throat, Jit spat in disgust onto the dry earth and tried again. The Zippo flashed across his jeans, producing an anemic flame that he hurriedly applied to the cigarette fixed between a pair of sharp incisors. The tip of the slender cylinder glowed to life and he took a long drag.
“Bloody fucking hell,” he muttered before stubbing the newly lit cigarette into the side of a rusty metal drum. “Doesn’t anybody sell a decent fag in this manky town?” He flipped the rest of the pack into the drum and walked towards a battered Nissan sedan parked beside a chain-link fence. As he approached the car the passenger side window cranked down, revealing the impassive glance of a man sporting a large pair of aviator’s sunglasses perched above an even larger moustache.
Jit stopped beside the open window. “Hey mate, I don’t suppose you’d have a smoke you could spare, would you?” he asked hopefully.
Jit held two of his fingers together and brought them to his lips. “You know – un cigarillo?”
“Si si, cigarillo.” Moustache ejected a raspy laugh and said something to his companion sitting beside him. “No señor, I hab no cigarette,” he said, revealing a crooked set of yellowed teeth before tapping the tip of his own cigarette against the edge of the window frame. Before Jit could retort the window rolled up, reflecting his feline snarl in the tinted glass and effectively ending further conversation. Shaking his head he turned away from the car and headed back towards the Stone Hunter.
The sixty-two foot Nordhavn trawler towered before him, her entire bulk sitting on dry ground, jack stands propped along both sides holding her substantial bulk upright. A web of scaffolding ran along her starboard side where repairs had been made from when the Sea Wolf’s launch had exploded alongside her. Though the scaffolding was still there, a handy way of getting up the high side of the trawler, all traces of the splintered fiberglass and twisted metal that had recently been the Stone Hunter’s starboard superstructure were now gone.
Indeed, though the shipwrights at La Ceiba Shipyard had been working on the Stone Hunter for less than a week, nearly all signs of the harrowing experience she’d recently endured had been meticulously erased. Although Jit was sure the reason for the rush had less to do with the owner’s desire to get back to sea and more to do with the shipyard’s own desire to rid itself of a ship that had effectively shut down the yard to all other customers. A conclusion made all the more apparent by the fact that Dan Stone, owner of the Stone Hunter, was in critical condition in a hospital some thirteen hundred kilometers away, his spleen destroyed by a round from an AK-47, received during the attack on the Stone Hunter.
So repair work on the battered Nordhavn had progressed at a feverish pace for the span of a week. Had filled the air with a numbing din that further clouded Jit’s already dark mood. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Two hours earlier the last hammer had finally stopped banging; the high-pitched screaming of grinders had finally faded away and the various tradesmen practically vanished. Now all was quiet, the yard empty save for Jit, the Stone Hunter, and the battered Nissan.
“Hey Jit – come give me a hand with this,” a voice called from the top of the scaffolding.
Maxine Stone, the daughter of Dan Stone and First Mate of the Stone Hunter, had remained behind after her father had been airlifted to Miami. Had remained as Jit’s sole companion, an awkward arrangement at best – more of a truce than anything else.
As Jit trudged up the steps set in the scaffolding he reflected on that truce, and on the reason behind it. He knew he deserved whatever hate Max harbored against him. After all, it was his fault they were here in the first place, his fault Max’s father had been shot, yet he already had so much pain in his heart he found it difficult finding room for more.
He sighed. That would come with time.
Reaching the top of the scaffolding he crossed over to the Stone Hunter’s side deck, a protective layer of brown paper crackling underfoot. Max was squatting at the far end of the paper, a heat gun in hand, her long blond hair hiding her face as she concentrated on what she was doing. Without looking up she said, “The goddamn glass guys taped this paper down too quickly and the tape’s sticking to the gelcoat. We have to pull it up before it ruins the deck.”
“Those bloody glass blokes and their crazy coats of gel,” Jit ventured, having no idea what she was talking about. “So how might I be of assistance?”
“Just pull up as much of the paper as you can and I’ll get the rest,” Max replied curtly, ignoring his attempt at humor.
Kneeling on the deck Jit began peeling off bits of paper. On the exposed side of the Stone Hunter the noontime sun was relentless and soon sweat was running down from under his unruly tangle of dreads and dripping onto the deck. The back of his head throbbed where he’d been hit while at the Shadow Lounge in Miami – a world away. For the millionth time, images of Luke crept into his thoughts and talking was the only way he could drive them away.
“I hate being a prisoner on this bloody tub.” His opening line could have been better chosen, but the words were out before he could stop them.
Max looked up and shot him a withering glance, her blue eyes smoldering.
Clearing his throat, Jit hurriedly clarified his statement. “Not to, uh, say that the Stone Hunter is a bad kind of tub. But honestly, Max, I’m going mad as a box of frogs here.”
The tiniest hint of a smile touched Max’s eyes before she returned to her work, shaking her head. “You Brits and your crazy sayings.” After a moment’s pause she continued, “What do you want me to say, Jit? That you’re free to go? Okay – you’re free to go, so go.” She looked back up, her face again clouding over. “Look, I’m as much a prisoner here as you are, and I didn’t even do anything. You haven’t forgotten that my dad and I were your kidnapping victims, have you?” The sharp dagger of guilt twisted in Jit’s gut while she continued, “If you have a problem with the current arrangement then I suggest you take it up with our friends over there,” she nodded her head towards the Nissan. “If you and Luke hadn’t…” her voice trailed off at the mention of Luke’s name – as she saw the look in Jit’s eyes.
Jit pushed himself off his knees and stood up, leaning against the newly rebuilt coaming. “Yeah, well if people hadn’t decided to fuck with our lives we wouldn’t be here right now – and Luke would still be alive.” Gritting his teeth in anguish, he automatically thrust a hand into the back pocket of his jeans, searching for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there.
The passing of a week hadn’t dulled the image of the little island only a score of kilometers from where he was standing. Hadn’t dulled the image of a volcanic eruption that had demolished the island, transforming it into a pile of rubble with stunning swiftness. Nor had it eased the mental vision of Luke as he was annihilated by the explosion – or was swept away by the wave of molten lava that followed.
Then again, a week hadn’t dulled the tiny fragment of hope he still clung to. The hope that somehow Luke had escaped the maelstrom, had somehow found his way aboard the submarine he’d bet his life was there. But hope was a fragile thing and Jit had been hard pressed to keep it alive.
“When did that government bloke, Carrington, say he’d be back?” he asked.
Max stood up as she replied, “Now, I think.”
Turning in the direction she was looking Jit saw Moustache unlocking a gate in the chain-link fence. A pair of vehicles were idling just on the other side, waiting for the gate to open. The first was a military-style covered-back truck, it’s olive-drab camouflage paint scheme standing in stark contrast to the industrial surroundings. Following it into the shipyard rolled a stunning burgundy-colored Bentley Arnage sedan, itself standing in stark contrast to everything.
The truck pulled into the center of the yard and the Bentley eased to a halt beside the scaffolding, below where Jit and Max stood silently watching. As the driver of the sedan pulled open the rear passenger door, the tailgate of the truck dropped down and three individuals in Honduran military garb jumped out.
“I think you’re right,” Jit muttered, “and it looks like he brought some play mates with him.”
A tall thin man unfolded himself from the back of the Bentley and smoothed his silver hair before looking up at where they were standing, the sun glinting off a pair of small round glasses. In his immaculate charcoal pin-stripe suit, Honorary Consul Lloyd Carrington looked very proper, very British, and Jit felt a twinge of homesickness.
With a scowl Carrington impatiently beckoned to them. Jit looked at Max, “I think his Lordship desires our presence.”
“Bloody uncomfortable weather, this,” Carrington commented in a British accent as immaculate as his attire. “Though I suppose not much different than any other day down here.” Turning, he flicked his wrist at Moustache and his companion, who had walked up to the truck and were trying to peer inside. A sharp exchange of Spanish ensued between the Consul and Moustache, at the conclusion of which Moustache and his companion sullenly retreated back to the Nissan. “Bleeding Honduran Intelligence Service,” Carrington said, a hint of amusement in his voice, “always poking their damn noses where they don’t belong. Though I suppose in this situation they are a little entitled, eh? After all – it’s not every day an American C-130 Hercules aircraft crashes into a foreign-flagged vessel and sinks in Honduran waters. Nor is it every day that their Navy answers a distress call from an American research ship drifting near one of their islands, which coincidentally, was just destroyed by a volcano.” He issued a low chuckle. “And when you consider the fact that both things happened in the same patch of water and at the same time, I’d suppose you can’t blame them for thinking it all a wee bit queer.” He paused, considering. “Still, damn their snooping noses.” Placing a satchel he’d been carrying on the hood of the expensive sedan, he turned to Max. “I’m sure, Miss Stone, you’ll be relieved to hear your father is doing well. I received a communication from my American counterpart as I was heading down from San Pedro Sula and he assured me that Mr. Stone is quite stable and resting comfortably at JacksonMemorialHospital in Miami.”
Max let out a small sigh and thanked Carrington, her moist eyes revealing the depth of her relief.
“And young lady, I’ve been asked to inform you that as far as the Honduran and American governments are concerned, you have done nothing wrong. There are, of course, many questions that will need to be answered, but that can be handled back in the States. I’m sure you are most anxious to join your father in Miami.”
Max simply nodded and again thanked Carrington for the good news.
Turning towards Jit, Carrington continued in a more somber voice, “As for you, Mr. Thomas, um – pardon me, Jit; well, as for you, your story is more confusing, eh? Suffice it to say that Her Majesty’s subjects will have to work a bit harder this month to pay for all the long hours spent looking into your situation.” He enunciated each syllable of the last word as if it were a sentence unto itself.
Jit said nothing, waiting for the verdict he was sure was coming.
Carrington contemplated Jit over the top of his lenses before continuing, “Well, I have some good news and, I’m afraid, some bad.”
Again saying nothing, Jit watched as Carrington pulled a sheaf of documents from his satchel, a lump forming in his throat.
“Right, well let’s get on with it, shall we?” Tapping the stack of papers with a long pale finger, Carrington shook his head. “I have no idea how you managed to get to tangled up in this, Jit, but luckily for you, much has transpired since you left the UK six days ago – much of which I have documented here. Suffice it to say, for the moment anyway, that sufficient evidence has recently turned up to cast significant doubt as to the extent of your guilt.”
Jit swallowed, the lump forming into a tight knot. Though this was indeed good news – far better than he’d ever dreamed – it wasn’t the news he’d been hoping for, and as Carrington continued speaking he felt the knot begin to choke…
“However,” Carrington said softly, “and this is the bad news, we’ve found your submarine.”
Beside Jit, Max gasped, but was silenced by a slender hand. “It was actually discovered by the Americans off the coast of Cuba.”
“But that’s great news!” Max blurted, her eyes dancing. “See Jit! Luke’s okay…”
“Jit,” Carrington cut her off, “the submarine was discovered lying on the bottom in 200 meters of water, her forward half destroyed, apparently by some kind of explosion. The Navy divers who entered her reported there was no possibility of survivors.”
The tiny ember of hope Jit had kept burning for the past week sputtered then died as these words were delivered. He closed his eyes and the final moments of his friend’s life played out in unbearable agony, Carrington’s voice trailing off into mental static.
As the spirits of Taubuki and Xingu dissolved into the fabric of the universe, Jit tried to release that of his best friend, unaware of how completely intertwined the three were destined to be.