Leadership's a Bitch
The storm had been easy on the Shark People. A little thatch lost from a roof here and there, a cookhouse blown over, some breadfruit and coconuts stripped from the trees, but not enough to cause hardship. Some seawater had washed into the taro patch, but only time would tell if it was enough to kill the crop. The Shark People went slowly about the business of cleaning up, the women doing most of the work while the men sat in the shade of the men's house, drinking alcoholic tuba and pretending to discuss important religious matters. Mainly they were there to pass the heat of the day and get good and drunk before dinner.
Malink, the high chief of the Shark People, was late rising. He awoke shivering and afraid, trying to figure out how to interpret a strange dream. He rolled off of his grass sleeping mat, then rose creakily and ambled out of the hut to relieve himself at the base of a giant breadfruit tree.
He was a short, powerfully built man of sixty. His hair was bushy and gone completely white. His skin, once a light butterscotch, had been burned over the years to the dark brown of a tarnished penny. Like most of the Shark men, he wore only a cotton loincloth and a wreath of fresh flowers in his hair (left there by one of his four daughters while he slept). The image of a shark was tattooed on his left pectoral muscle, a B-26 bomber on the other.
He went back into the hut and pulled a steel ammo box out of the rafters. Inside lay a nylon web belt with a holster that held a portable phone, his badge of leadership, his direct line to the Sorcerer. The only time he had ever used it was when one of his daughters had come down with a fever during the night. He had pushed
the button and the Sorcerer had come to the village and given her medicine. He was afraid to use the phone now, but the dream had told him that he must deliver a message.
Malink would have liked to go down to the men's house and discuss his decision for a few hours with the others, but he knew that he couldn't. He had to deliver the dream message. Vincent had said so, and Vincent knew everything.
As he pushed the button, he wished he had never been born a chief.
The High Priestess was also sleeping late, as she always did. The Sorcerer
jostled her and she pulled the sheets over her head.
"I just got a call from Malink. He says he's had a message from Vincent."
The High Priestess was awake now. Wide awake. She sat upright in bed and the Sorcerer's eyes fell immediately to her naked breasts. "What do you mean he's had a message from Vincent? I didn't give him any message."
The Sorcerer finally looked up at her face. "He was terrified. He said that Vincent came to him in a dream and told him - get this - to tell me that 'the pilot was alive and on his way, and to wait for him.'"
She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and shook her head. "I don't get it. How did he know about a pilot coming? Did you say something?"
"No, did you?"
"Are you kidding? I'm not stupid, Sebastian, despite what you might think."
"Well, how did he find out? The guards don't know anything. I haven't said anything."
"Maybe it's a coincidence," she said. "Maybe he was just having bad dreams from the storm. Vincent is all he thinks about. It's all any of them think about."
The Sorcerer stood and backed away from the bed, eyeing her suspiciously. "Coincidence or not, I don't like it. I think you need to have an audience with the Shark People and give them a direct message from Vincent. This whole operation depends on us being the
voice of Vincent. We can't let them think that they can reach him directly." He turned and started out of the room.
"Sebastian," she said and the Sorcerer paused and looked over his shoulder at her. "What about the pilot? What if Malink is right about the pilot being on his way?"
"Don't be stupid, Beth. The only way to control the faithful is to not become one of them." He turned to leave and was struck in the back of the head by a high-velocity whiskey tumbler. He turned as he dropped to the floor grasping his head.
The High Priestess was standing by the bed wearing nothing but a fine golden chain at her hips and an animal scowl. "You ever call me stupid again and I'll rip your fucking nuts off."
How the Navigator Got from There to Here
Watching the sharks circle the boat, Tuck felt as if he was being sucked down the vortex of a huge bathroom drain.
"We need a better weapon," Tuck said. He remembered a movie once where Spencer Tracy had battled sharks from a small boat with a knife lashed to an oar. "Don't we have any oars?"
Kimi looked insulted. "What wrong with me?"
"Not whores. Oars!" Tucker pantomimed rowing. "For rowing."
"How I know what you talking about? Malcolme always say oars. 'Bloody oars,' he say. No, we don't have oars."
"Bail," Tuck said.
The navigator began scooping water with the coffee can as Tuck did his best to bail with his hands.
A half hour later the boat was only partially full of water and the sharks had moved on to easier meals. Tucker fell back onto the bow to catch his breath. The sun was still low in the morning sky, but already it burned his skin. The parts of his body not soaked with seawater were soaked with sweat. He dug into the pack and pulled out the liter bottle of water he had bought the day before. It was half-full and it was all they had.
Tuck eyed the navigator, who was bailing intently. He'd never know if Tuck drank all of the water right now. He unscrewed the cap and took a small sip. Nectar of the gods. Keeping his eye on Kimi, he a took a large gulp. He could almost feel his water-starved cells rejoicing at the relief.
As he bailed, Kimi sang softly in Spanish to Roberto, who clung to his back. Whenever he tried to hit a high note, his voice cracked
like crumpled parchment. Salt was crusted at the corners of his mouth.
"Kimi, you want a drink?" Tucker crawled onto the gas tank and held the bottle out to the navigator.
Kimi took the bottle. "Thank you," he said. He wiped the mouth of the bottle on his dress and took a deep drink, then poured some water into his palm and held it while Roberto lapped it up. He handed the bottle back to Tucker.
"You drink the rest. You bigger."
Tucker nodded and drained the bottle. "Who's Malcolme?"
"Malcolme buy me from my mother. He from Sydney. He a pimp."
"He bought you?"
"Yes. My mother very poor in Manila. She can't feed me, so she sell me to Malcolme when I am twelve."
"What about your father?"
"He not with us. He a navigator on Satawan. He meet my mother in Manila when he is working on a tuna boat. He marry her and take her to Satawan. She stay for ten years, but she not like it. She say women like dirt to Micronesians. So she take me and go back to Manila when I am nine. Then she sell me to Malcolme. He dress me up and I make big money for him. But he mean to me. He say I have to get rid Roberto, so I run away to find my father to finish teach me to be a navigator. They hear of him on Yap. They say he lost at sea five year ago."
"And he was the one that taught you to navigate?" Tucker knew it was a snotty question, but he had no idea what to say to someone whose mother had sold him to a pimp.
Kimi didn't catch the sarcasm. "He teach me some. It take long time to be navigator. Sometime twenty, thirty year. You want learn, I teach you."
Tucker remembered how difficult it had been to learn Western navigation for his pilot's license. And that was using sophisticated charts and instru-ments. He could imagine that learning to navigate by the stars - by memory, without charts - would take years. He said, "No, that's okay. It's different for airplanes. We have machines to navigate now."
They bailed until the sun was high in the sky. Tuck could feel his skin baking. He found some sunscreen in the pack and shared it with Kimi, but it was no relief from the heat.
"We need some shade." The tarp was gone. He rifled the pack, looking for something they could use for shade, but for once Jake Skye's bag of tricks failed them.
By noon Tuck was cursing himself for pouring out the gallon of fresh water during the storm. Kimi sat in the bottom of the boat, stroking Roberto's head and mumbling softly to the panting bat.
Tuck tried to pass the time by cleaning his cuts and applying the antibiotic ointment from Jake's first-aid kit. By turning his back and crouching, he was able to create enough privacy to check on his damaged penis. He could see infection around the sutures. He imagined gangrene, amputation, and consequently suicide. Then, looking on the bright side, he realized that he would die of thirst long before the infection had gone that far.
The octopus jetted across the bottom, over a giant head of brain coral, and tucked itself into a tiny crevice in the reef. Sarapul could see the light purple skin pulsing in the crevice three fathoms down. He took a deep breath and dove, his spear in hand.
The octopus, sensing danger, changed color to the rust brown of the coral around it and adjusted its shape to fit the crannies of its hiding place. Sarapul caught the edge of the crevice with his left hand and thrust in his spear with his right. The spear barely pierced one of the octopus's tentacles and it turned bright red in a chromatic scream, then released its ink. The ink expanded into a smoky cloud in the water. Sarapul dropped his spear to wave the ink away before making another thrust. But his air was gone. He left his spear in the crevice and shot to the surface. The octopus sensed the opening and jetted out of the crevice to a new hiding place before Sarapul knew it was gone.
Sarapul broke the surface cursing. Only three fathoms, eighteen feet, and he couldn't stay down long enough to tease an octopus out of its hole. As a young man, he could dive to twelve fathoms and stay down longer than any of the Shark men. He was glad that no one had been there to see him: an old man who could barely feed himself.
He pulled off his mask and spit into it, then rinsed it with seawater. He looked out to sea, checking for any sign of the sharks that lived in abund-ance off the reef. There was a boat out there, perhaps half a mile off the reef, drifting. He put on his mask and looked down to get a bearing on his spear so he could retrieve it later. Then he swam a slow crawl toward the drifting boat.
He was winded when he reached the boat and he hung on the side for a few minutes, bobbing in the swell, while he caught his breath. He made his way around to the bow and pulled himself up and in. A huge black bat flew up into his face and winged off toward the island. Sarapul cursed and said some magic words to protect himself, then took a deep breath and examined the bodies.
A man and a woman - and not long dead. There was no smell and no swelling of the bellies. The meat would still be fresh. It had been too long since he'd tasted the long pig. He pinched the man's leg to test the fat. The man moaned. He was still alive. Even better, Sarapul thought. I can eat the dead one and keep the other one fresh!
Island of the Shark People
Deus Ex Machina
The Sky Priestess first appeared in 1944 on the nose of a B-26 bomber. Conjured out of cans of enamel by a young aviator named Jack Moses, she lay cool and naked across the aluminum skin, a red pump dangling from a dainty toe, a smile that promised pleasure that no mortal woman could offer. As soon as Moses laid the final brushstroke on her black-seamed stocking, he knew there was something special about this one, something electric and alive that would break his heart when they flew her off to the Pacific. He caught a kiss in his palm and placed it gently on her bottom, then backed down the ladder to survey his work.
He stood on the tarmac for perhaps half an hour, just looking at her, charmed, wishing that he could take her home, or to a museum, or lift her off the skin of the bomber and put her on the ceiling of a cathedral.
Jack Moses didn't notice the major standing at his side until the older man spoke.
"She's something," the major said. And although he wasn't sure why, he removed his hat.
"Ain't she," Moses said. "She's off to Tinian tomorrow. Wish I was going with her."
The major reached out and squeezed Moses's shoulder; he was a little short of breath and the Sky Priestess had set off a stag film in his head
. "Put some clothes on her, son. We can't have muffin showing up on a newsreel."
"Yes, sir. I don't have to put a top on her, do I?"
The major smiled. "Son, you put a top on her, I'll have you court-marshaled."
Moses saluted the major and scampered back up the ladder with his brushes and his red enamel and painted a serpentine scarf between her legs.
A week later, as a young pilot named Vincent Bennidetti was leading his crew across the runway to take the Sky Priestess on her first mission, he turned to his navigator and said, "I'd give a year's pay to be that scarf."
A half century away, Beth Curtis pinned a big red bow into her hair, then, one at a time, worked sheer black-seamed stockings up her legs. She stood in front of the mirror and tied the red scarf around her waist, letting the ends trail long between her legs. She stepped into the red pumps, did a quick turnaround in the mirror, and emerged from her bungalow to the sound of the Shark People's drums welcoming her, the Sky Priestess.
Vincent Bennidetti and his crew flew the Sky Priestess on twelve missions and sank six Japanese ships before a fusillade from a Japanese destroyer punctured her wing tanks and took out her right engine. But even as they were limping back toward Tinian, trailing smoke and fuel, the crew of the Sky Priestess knew she watched over them. They were, after all, charmed. For the price of a blown kiss or a pat on the bottom, the Sky Priestess had ushered them into battle like a vicious guardian angel, shielding them even as the other bombers in their squadron flamed into the sea around them. She had shown them where to drop their bombs, then led them through the smoke and the flak back to Valhalla. Home. Safe.
The copilot chattered over the intercom to the navigator, airspeed, fuel consumption, and now descent rate. If they lost any more airspeed, the B-26 would stall, so Captain Vinnie was bringing her down into sweet, thick lower air at the rate of a hundred feet per minute. But the lower they flew, the faster the fuel would burn.
"I'm going to level her off at two thousand," Captain Vinnie said.
The navigator did some quick calculations and came back with: "At two thousand we'll be short of base by three hundred miles,
Captain. I recommend we level at three thousand for a safer bailout."
"Oh ye of little fucking faith," Vincent said. "Check your charts for somewhere we can ditch her."
The navigator checked their position on the charts. There was a flyspeck atoll named Alualu about forty nautical miles to the south. And it showed that it was now in American hands. He relayed the information to the captain.
"The chart shows an uncompleted airstrip. We must have chased the Japs out before they finished it."
"Give me a course."
"Sir, there might not be anything there."
"Ya fuckin' mook, look out the window. You see anything but water?"
The navigator gave him the course.
Vincent patted the throttles and said, "Come on, sweetheart. You get us there safe and I'll build you a shrine."
Sarapul was heading for the beach and the men's drinking circle when he heard the drums welcoming the Sky Priestess. That white bitch was stealing his fire again. He'd been thinking all afternoon about what he would say at the drinking circle: how the Shark People needed to return to the old ways and how he had just the ritual to get everyone started. Nothing like a little cannibalism to get people thinking right. But now that was all ruined. Everyone would be out on the airstrip, drumming and chanting and marching around like a bunch of idiots, and when the Sky Priestess finally left and the men finally did show up at the drinking circle, all they would talk about was the wonderful words of Vincent. Sarapul wouldn't be able to get a word in edgewise. He took the path that led away from the village and made his way toward the runway. After all, the Sky Priestess might pass out some good cargo and he didn't want to miss out on his share.
Sarapul had been permanently banished from the village of the Shark People ever since one of the chief's grandchildren had mysteriously disap-peared and was later found in the jungle with Sarapul, who was building a child-sized earthen oven (an oom) and gathering various fragrant fire woods. Oh, the men tolerated him at the nightly drinking circle, and he was allowed to share in the village's take of shark meat, and the members of his clan saw to it that
he got part of the wonderful cargo passed out by the Sorcerer and the Sky Priestess, but he was forbidden to enter the village when women and chil-dren were present. He lived alone in his little hut on the far side of the island and was regarded by the Shark People as little more than a monster to frighten children into behaving: "You stay inside the reef or old Sarapul will catch you and eat you." Actually, scaring children was the only real joy Sarapul had left in life.
As he emerged from the jungle, the old cannibal saw the torches where the Shark People waited in a semicircle around a raised platform. He stopped in a grove of betel nut palms, sat on the ground, and watched. He heard a click from the PA speakers mounted on the gate across the runway and the Shark People stopped drumming. Two of the Japanese guards ap-peared out of the compound and Sarapul felt the hair rise on his neck as they rolled back the gate and fifty years of residual hatred rose in his throat like acid. The Japanese had killed his wife and children, and if there was any single reason to return to the old ways of the warrior, it was to take revenge on the guards.
Music blared out of the PA speakers: Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls." The Shark People turned toward the gate and dropped to their knees. Pillars of red smoke rose from either side of the gate and wafted across the runway like sulfurous serpents. The distant whine of airplane propellers replaced the big band sound from the PA and grew into a roar that ended with a flash and explosion that sent a mushroom cloud of smoke a hundred feet into the night sky.
And half-naked, the Sky Priestess walked out of the smoke into the moonlight.
Chief Malink turned to his friend Favo and said, "Excellent boom."
"Very excellent boom," Favo said.
"There it is," the copilot said.
The B-26 was sputtering on her last few drops of fuel. Vincent nosed her over and started his descent. "There's a strip cut right across the center of the island. Let's hope we didn't bomb the shit out of it when the Japs had it."
His last few words seemed unusually loud as the engine cut out.
"No go-around, boys. We're going down. Rig for a rough one and be ready for extreme dampness if we come in short."
Vincent could see patches of dirt on the airstrip, as well as fingers of vines and undergrowth from the jungle trying to reclaim the clearing.
"You going in gear up?" the copilot asked, thinking that they might have a better chance of survival going over a bomb crater if they skidded in on the plane's belly.
"Gear down," Bennidetti said, making it a command. "We might be able to land her gear up, but she'd never take off again."
"Gear down and locked," the copilot said.
They glided in about ten feet over the reef. A dozen Shark men who were standing on the reef dove underwater as the airplane passed over them as silent and ominous as a manta ray. Bennidetti flared the B-26 to drop the rear gear first and they bounced over a patch of ferns and began the rocket slide down the coral gravel airstrip. Without the engines to reverse thrust, Vincent had only the wheel brakes to stop the bomber. He applied them gingerly at first, then, realizing that the runway was obscured by vines that might be covering a bomb crater, laid into them, causing the wheels to plow furrows into the gravel and filling the still air with a thick white cloud of dust.
"We still burning?" Vincent asked the copilot over the rumble.
The copilot looked out the window. "Can't see anything but a little black smoke."
The bomber rolled to a stop and a cheer went up from the crew.
"Everybody out. Now," Vincent ordered. "We still might have fire.
They stumbled over each other to get out of the plane into the dust cloud. Bennidetti led them away at a run. They were a hundred yards from the plane before anyone looked back.
"She looks okay, Captain. No fire."
That set off a round of cheering and backslapping and when they turned around again they saw group of native children approaching them from the jungle led by a proud ten-year-old boy carrying a spear.
"Let me handle this," Vincent told the crew as he dug into his flight suit pocket for a Hershey bar.
"Hey, squirts, how you doing?"
The boy with the spear stood his ground, keeping his eye trained on the downed bomber while the other children lost their nerve and backed away like scolded puppies.
"We're Americans," Vincent said. "Friendly. We are bringing you many good things." He held the chocolate bar out to the spear boy, who didn't move or take his eyes off of the airplane.
Vincent tried again. "Here, kid. This stuff tastes good. Chocolate." He smacked his lips and mimed eating the candy bar. "You savvy American, kid?"
"No," the boy said. "I no speak American. I speak English."
Vincent laughed. "Well, I'm from New York, kid. We don't speak much English there. Go tell your chief that Captain Vincent is here with presents for him from a faraway and most magical place."
"Who she?" the kid asked, pointing to the image of the Sky Priestess. "She your queen?"
"She works for me, kid. That's the Sky Priestess. She's bringing presents for your chief."
"You are chief?"
Vincent knew he had to be careful here. He'd heard of island chiefs refusing to deal with anyone but Roosevelt because he was the only American equal to their status.
"I'm higher than chief," Vincent said. "I'm Captain Vinnie Fuckin' Bennidetti, Bad-ass of Brooklyn, High Emperor of the Allied Forces, Pilot of the Magic Sky Priestess, Swinging Dick of the Free Fuckin' World, and Protector of the Innocent. Now take me to your chief, squirt, before I have the Sky Priestess burn you to fucking ashes."
"Christ, Cap'n!" the bombardier said.
Vincent shot him a grin over his shoulder.
The kid bowed his head. "Christ, Cap'n. I am Malink, chief of the Shark People."
The Sky Priestess came out of the smoke and took her place in the middle of the semicircle of Shark People. Women kept their eyes to the ground even as they pushed their children forward, hoping that they would be the next to be chosen. The Sky Priestess threw the tails of her scarf over her shoulder and the music from the PA system stopped abruptly. The Shark People fell to their knees and waited for her words, the words of Vincent. It had been months since anyone had been chosen.
Malink rose and approached the Sky Priestess with a coconut shell cup of the special tuba they had made for her. He was as
stunned by her now as when he had first seen her painted on the side of
She drained the cup and handed it back to the chief, who bowed over it.
"Still tastes like shit," she said.
"Tastes like shit!" the Shark People chanted.
Beth Curtis turned her head to suppress a smile and a belch. When she turned back to Malink, her eyes were fury.
"Who speaks for Vincent?"
"The Priestess of the Sky," Malink answered.
"Who brings the words and cargo from Vincent?"
"The Priestess of the Sky," Malink repeated.
"And who takes the chosen to Vincent?"
"The Priestess of the Sky," Malink said again, backing away a step. He'd never seen her so angry.
"And who else, Malink?"
"No one else."
"Damn straight no one else!" She spat so violently she nearly disengaged the bow from her hair. "You told the Sorcerer that Vincent came to you in a dream. This is not true."
The Shark People gasped. Despite what the Sky Priestess and the Sorcerer thought, Malink had told none of his people about the dream. But Malink was confused. He had dreamed of Vincent. "Vincent said that the pilot is coming. That he is still alive."
"Vincent speaks only through me."
"But - "
"No coffee or sugar for a month," the Sky Priestess said. She pulled her scarf from her shoulders and the music began again. The Shark People watched as she walked away. There was an explosion across the runway and the Sky Priestess disappeared into the smoke.