Jefferson Pardee was trying desperately not to look like a sea turtle. He'd managed to find the surface, catch his breath, and put his mask on. Blood from his nose was now swishing around inside it like brandy in a snifter. After locating the floating garbage bag that contained his clothes and propping it under his chest as a life preserver, his main focus was not to look like a turtle. To a shark living in the warm Pacific waters off Alualu, sea turtles were food. Not that there was any real danger of a shark making that particular mistake. Even a mentally challenged shark would figure out that sea turtles did not wear boxer shorts printed in flying piggies, and no turtles did not wear boxer shorts printed in flying piggies, and no turtle would be yattering streams of obscenities between chain-smoker gasps of breath. Still, a couple of harmless white-tipped reef sharks smelled blood in the water and cruised by to check out the source, only to retreat, regret-ting that in one hundred and twenty million years on the planet they had never evolved the equipment to laugh.
The surf was calm and the tide low, and considering Pardee's buoyancy, the swim should have been easy. But when Pardee saw the two black shadows cruise by below him, his heart started playing a sternum-rattling drum solo that kept up until he barked his knees on the reef. An antler of coral caught the plastic bag, stopping Pardee's progress long enough for him to notice that here on the reef the water was only two feet deep. He flipped over on his back, then sat on the coral, not really caring that it was cutting into his bottom. Waves lapped around him as he fought to catch his breath. He lifted his mask and let the blood run down his face and over his chest to expand into a rusty stain in the water. Tiny blue and yellow reef fish
rose around him looking for food and nipping at his skin, tickling him like teasing children.
He looked toward the beach, perhaps two hundred yards away. Inside the reef the danger of sharks was minimal - minimal enough that he would sit here and rest for a while. He watched the waves breaking softly around him, lapping against his back, and realized, with horror, that he was going to have to do this again in a few hours, against the waves and probably the tide. He'd have to find someone with a boat; that was all there was to it.
Ten minutes passed before his heart slowed down and he was able to steel his courage enough to swim the final leg. He picked out a stand of coconut palms above a small beach and slid across the reef toward the is-land. He kicked slowly, scanning the water around him for any sign of sharks. Except for a moment of temporary terror when a manta ray with a seven-foot wingspan flew out of the blue and passed below him, the swim to the beach was safe and easy. If manta rays are going to be harmless, they should look more harmless, Pardee thought. Fuckers look like aquatic Draculas.
He sat in the wash at the water's edge and was tearing the tape that held the fins on his feet when he heard a sharp mechanical click behind him. He turned to see two men in black pointing Uzis at his head. Pardee grinned. "Konichi-wa," he said. "You guys have a dry cigarette? I seem to have torn my garbage bag."
A seven iron, Tuck, thought. After all these years I need a seven iron.
Tucker Case did not play golf. He'd tried it once, and although he'd en-joyed the drinking and driving the little electric car into the lake, he just didn't get the appeal. It seemed - and he'd examined the game closely be-cause his father had loved it - an awful lot like a bunch of rich white guys in goofy clothing walking around on an absurdly large lawn hitting ab-surdly small white balls with crooked sticks. If the greens were at opposite ends of the same fairway and foursomes had to play against each other, defending their own green while assaulting the opponents' and risking getting hit with a ball or a club at close quarters, well, then you'd have a game. If the game was scored on how quickly one got through the eighteen holes instead of the fewest strokes and they dropped small-block Chevys into the little carts, why, then you'd have yourself a game. (Maybe
put those little Ben-Hur food processors on the wheels and make it legal to hamstring competitors.) But traditional golf, as it was, had always left Tuck cold. Strange, then, that he absolutely yearned for a seven iron, or maybe a shotgun.
Tuck had been up since before dawn, awakened rudely and kept awake by what seemed like eight million roosters. It was now ten o'clock and they were still going strong. What joy to feel the thwack of a seven iron on red feathers, the satisfying impact of balanced metal on poultry (suddenly si-lenced and somewhat tenderized for your trouble). He saw himself wading into a bucket of roosters, swinging his seven iron madly (but always keeping his head down and his left arm straight), dealing death and de-struction like the Colonel's own avenging angel. Welcome to Tucker Case's chicken death camp, my little feathered friends. Now, kindly prepare to have your nuggets knocked off.
Tucker Case was not a morning person.
He decided that he'd give them five more minutes to shut up, then he was going to get dressed and go borrow a seven iron from the doc. Five minutes later he was preparing to leave when Beth Curtis knocked and opened his door without waiting for an answer. She was wearing disposable surgical blues and a hairnet; she wore no makeup and the vapid housewife smile was gone from her eyes.
"Mr. Case, we need you to be ready to fly in two hours. Can you do it?"
"Uh, sure. I guess. Where are we going?"
"Japan. The navigational settings should already be programmed into the plane's computer. I need you to have your preflight finished and the Lear fueled and on the runway, ready to go."
Tucker felt as if he was talking to a different person than the one he had seen for the last week. There was no hint of the soft femininity, just hard business.
"I haven't had time to go over the controls for the Lear."
"You took the job, didn't you? Can you fly it?"
"Then be ready in two hours." She turned and marched toward the hospital building. Tuck started to follow her, then noticed movement through the trees, down by the beach: men unloading fuel drums from a longboat onto the pier. He could see a white freighter anchored outside the reef.
"Mrs. Curtis!" he called.
She turned and regarded him like an annoying insect. "Yes, Mr. Case."
"That ship. You didn't tell me there was a ship."
"It doesn't concern you. They are simply delivering some supplies. Now please, prepare the plane."
"But if they're delivering supplies, why do we need to...?"
"Mr. Case," she barked, "do your job. The doctor needs me." She threw open the hospital door and stepped inside.
"Ask him if I can borrow his seven iron," Tuck said weakly.
Tuck shuffled back toward his bungalow. Just a few seconds in the sun had given him a headache and he felt as if he would pass out any second. He was going to fly again. He was sick and dizzy and suffered from talking bat hallucinations and he was going to get to do the only thing he had ever been any good at. It scared the hell out of him.
It had been fifty years since men with guns had entered the village of the Shark People. As the four guards went from house to house, Malink walked the paths of the village, his cordless phone in hand so the people could see that he had things under control. He'd been calling the Sorcerer since the four Japanese had arrived in the village, but he'd only gotten the answering machine. He had told everyone to go inside their houses and not to resist the guards, and even now the village seem deserted, except for the sobs of a few frightened children. He could hear the guards kicking their way through the coconut husks that had been piled in the cookhouses for fuel.
Suddenly Favo was at his side. Favo, who had seen the coming of the Japanese during the war, had seen the killing. "Why does Vincent allow this?"
Malink really didn't have an answer. He had lit the Zippo and asked Vincent that very morning. "It is the will of the Sorcerer, so it must be the will of Vincent. They want the girl-man."
"We should fight," Favo said. "We should kill the guards."
"Spears against machine guns, Favo? Should the children grow up without fathers like we did? No, they will find the girl-man and they will go away."
"The girl-man has gone to live with Sarapul. Did you tell them?"
"I told them. I took the Sorcerer there."
The guards came out of the old church and crunched in single file down the path toward Favo and Malink. The old men stood their ground, making the guards walk into a stand of ferns to get around them. They made no eye contact and said nothing. Favo hurled a curse at them, but it had been too long since he had spoken Japanese and it was not a language suited for swearing. He ended up telling them that their truck tires smelled of sardines, which elicited no response whatsoever.
"Excellent curse," Malink said, trying to raise his friend's spirits.
"It needs work. English is the best for swearing."
"They have machine guns, Favo."
"Fuckin' mooks," Favo said.
"Amen," Malink said, crossing himself in the sign of the B-26 bomber.
The two old men fell in behind the guards, following them from house to house, waiting outside on the path so the villagers could see them when they were roused out of their houses.
For the guards' part, it was a wholly unsatisfying endeavor. They had been looking forward to kicking in some doors, only to find that the Shark People had no doors. There were no beds to throw over, no back rooms to burst into, no closets, no place, in fact, where a man could hide and not be exposed by the most perfunctory inspection. And the doctor had told them that no one was to be hurt. They did not want to make a mistake. For all the appearance of military efficiency, they were screwups to a man. One, a former security guard at a nuclear power plant, had been fired for taking drugs; two were brothers who had been dismissed from the Tokyo police department for accepting Yakuza bribes; the fourth, from Okinawa, had been a jujitsu instructor who had beaten a German tourist to death in a bar over a gross miscarriage of karaoke. The man who had recruited them, put them in the black uniforms, and trained them made it clear that this was their last chance. They had two choices: succeed and become rich or die. They took their jobs very seriously.
"He might be in the trees," Favo said in Japanese. "Look in the trees!"
The guards scanned the trees as they marched, which caused them to bump into each other and stumble. Above them there was a fluttering of wings. A glout of bat guano splatted across the Okinawan's forehead. He threw the bolt on his Uzi and the air was filled with the staccato roar of nine millimeters ripping through the foliage. When at last the clip was empty, palm fronds settled to the ground
around them. Frightened children screamed in their mothers' arms, and Favo, who was lying next to his friend with his arms thrown over his head, snickered like an asthmatic hyena.
The guards scuffled for a moment, not sure whether to disarm their companion or shove their clips home and begin the massacre. Above the crying, the scuffle, the snickering, and the tintinnabulation of residual gunfire, a girl giggled. The guards looked up. Sepie stood in the doorway of the bachelors' house, naked but for a pair of panties she'd recently ac-quired from a transvestite navigator. "Hey, sailors," she said, trying out a phrase she'd also acquired from Kimi, "you want a date?" The guards didn't understand the words, but they got the message.
"Go inside, girl," Malink scolded. Women, even the mispel, were not permitted to show their thighs in public. Not even when swimming, not when bathing, not when crapping on the beach, not ever.
"Go back inside," Favo said. "When they go away, you will be beaten."
"I have been beaten before," Sepie said. "Now I will be rich."
"Tell her," Favo said to Malink.
Malink shrugged. His authority as chief worked only as long as his people willingly obeyed him. The key to retaining their respect was to find out what they wanted to do, then tell them to do it. He levied the most severe punishment he knew. "Sepie, you may not touch the sea for ten days."
She turned and wiggled her bottom at him, then disappeared into the bachelors' house. The stunned guards ceased their scuffle and moved tentatively toward the doorway, looking to each other for permission.
"This is your fault," Malink said to Favo. "You shouldn't have started giving her things."
"I didn't give her things," Favo said.
"You gave her things for" - and here Malink paused, trying to catch himself before losing a friend - "for doing favors for you."
Free Press, My Ass
Jefferson Pardee sat on a metal office chair in the corner of a windowless cinder-block room. The guard stood by the metal door, his machine gun trained on Pardee's hairy chest. The reporter was trying to affect an attitude of innocence tempered with a little righteous indignation, but, in fact, he was terrified. He could feel his heartbeat climbing into his throat and sweat rolled down his back in icy streams. He'd given up on trying to talk to the guards; they either didn't speak English or were pretending they didn't.
He heard the throw of the heavy bolt on the door and expected the other guard to return, but instead a woman wearing surgical garb entered the room. Her eyes were the same color as the surgical blues and even in the oppressive heat she looked chilly.
"At last," Pardee said. "There's been some kind of mistake here." He offered his hand, trying not to show how unsteady he was, and the guard threatened him with the Uzi. "I'm Jefferson Pardee from the Truk Star."
She nodded to the guard and he left the room. Her voice was friendly, but she wasn't smiling.
"I'm Beth Curtis. My husband runs the mission clinic on this island." She didn't offer her hand. "I'm sorry you've been treated this way, Mr. Pardee, but this island is under quarantine. We've tried to limit the contact with the outside until we have a better handle on this epidemic."
"What epidemic? I haven't heard anything about this?"
"Encephalitis. It's a rare strain, airborne and very contagious. We don't let anyone off island who's been exposed."
Jefferson Pardee exhaled a deep sigh of relief. So this was the big story. Of course he'd promise not to say a word, but Time magazine would kill for this. He'd leave out the part about being taken prisoner in his flying piggy boxers. "And the guards?"
"World Health Organization. They've also given us an aircraft and lab equipment, as I'm sure you've seen."
He'd seen an awful lot of lab equipment as he was led through the little hospital, but the aircraft was still a rumor. He decided to go for the facts. "You have a new Learjet, is that correct?"
"Yes." She seemed genuinely taken aback by his comment. "How did you know?"
"I have my sources," Pardee said, wishing he wore glasses so he could take them off in a meaningful way.
"I'm sure you do. Information is like a virus sometimes, and the only way to find a cure is to trace it to the source. Who told you about the jet?"
Pardee wasn't giving anything for free. "How long have you known about the encephalitis?"
For the first time Pardee noticed that Beth Curtis had been holding her right hand behind her back the entire time they had been talking. He noticed because when the hand appeared, it was holding a syringe. "Mr. Pardee, this syringe contains a vaccine that my husband and I have developed with the help of the World Health Organization. Because you took it on yourself to sneak onto Alualu, you have exposed yourself to a deadly virus that at-tacks the nervous system. The vaccine seems to work even after exposure to the disease, but only if administered in the first few hours. I want to give you this vaccine, I really do. But if you insist on drawing out this little game of liar's poker, then I can't guarantee that you won't contract the disease and die a horrible and painful death. So, that said, who told you about the jet?"
Pardee felt the sweat rising again. She hadn't raised her voice, there wasn't even a detectable note of anger there, but he felt as if she was holding a knife to his throat. Okay, to hell with the adventurous journalist. He could still get a byline based on what she'd already told him. "I talked to a pilot who passed through Truk a few months ago."
"A few months ago? Not more recently?"
"No. He said he was going to fly a jet for some missionaries on Alualu. I came out to check it out."
"And that was all you heard? Just that we had a jet?"
"Yes, it's pretty unusual for a missionary clinic to have money for a jet, wouldn't you say?"
. "I guess it is. So how did you plan to get off the island after you got your story?"
"The Micro Spirit was going to pick me up on the other side of the island. That's it. I was just curious. It's an occupational hazard."
"Who knows you're here, besides the crew of the Spirit?"
Pardee considered her question; what would be the best answer. Surely she wouldn't let him die of some dreaded disease, but how stupid would he have been to come out here without telling anyone? "The people who work for me at the Star and a friend of mine at AP who I called for some background before I left."
"Oh, that's good," she said, still smiling. Pardee couldn't help but feel pleased with himself. It had been a long time since he'd gotten any approval - or attention for that matter - from a beautiful woman.
She uncapped the syringe. "Now, before I give you the vaccine, a few medical questions, okay?"
"You smoke and drink to excess, correct?"
"I indulge from time to time. Another occupational hazard."
"I see," she said. "And have you ever had a test for HIV?"
"A month ago. Clean as a whistle." This was true. He'd been motivated to take the test by a creepy rash on his stomach that turned out to be caused by skin-burrowing mites. The medic with the Navy CAT team had given him an ointment that cleared it up in a few days.
"Have you ever had hepatitis, cancer, or kidney disease?"
"How about your family? Anyone with a history of kidney disease or cancer?"
"Not last time I heard. I haven't talked with my family in twenty-five years."
She seemed especially pleased at that. "And you're not married? No children?"
"Very good," she said. She plunged the needle into his shoulder and pushed the plunger.
"Ouch. Hey, you could have warned me. Aren't you supposed to swab that with alcohol first or something?"
She stepped to the door and smiled again. "I don't think infec tion is going to be a problem, Mr. Pardee. Now don't panic, but in a minute or so you are going to go to sleep. I can't believe you bought that bit about the encephalitis. People get stupid living in the tropics, don't you think?"
She went out of focus and the lines of the room started to heave as if the entire structure was breathing. "What was in...?" His tongue was too heavy; the words wouldn't come.
"You don't have a staff and you didn't call anyone at AP, Mr. Pardee. That was a stupid lie. We'll have to put 'self-importance' down under cause of death."
Pardee tried to stand, but his legs wouldn't obey him. He slid off the chair and his legs splayed straight out in front of him.
Beth Curtis bent over him, pushed her lips into a pout, and baby-talked. "Oh, are his wittle wegs all wobbly?" She stood up straight and put her hands on her hips. To Pardee her face floated like the moon through clouds.
She said, "You're probably thinking that I'm being unusually cruel to tease a dying man, but you see, you're not dying right now. Soon, but not right now."
Pardee tried to form a question, but the room seemed to go liquid and crash over him like a black wave.
Sebastian Curtis walked down the dock to where the crew of the Micro Spirit was unloading fuel drums from a longboat. He was wearing his white lab coat over Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, a stethoscope hung from his neck like a medallion of power.
The Micro Spirit's first mate, who was drinking a Coke while supervising the unloading, jumped up on the dock to meet the doctor. "Good morning."
"Good morning," Curtis said. "Are you in charge here?"
"I'm the first mate."
Curtis regarded the tattooed Tongan. "Mr. Pardee will be staying with us for a while. He's asked me to tell you not to wait for him."
"That don't bother you?" the mate asked. It seemed strange to him after the effort Pardee had made to sneak onto the island.
"No, of course not. In fact, we've offered to fly Mr. Pardee to Hawaii when he finishes his work."
The mate had never heard Pardee's name in the same sentence as the word "work." It didn't sound right. Still, he had his job to do
and the doctor was paying double freight for these barrels. He said, "Is he going to pay his fare?"
Curtis smiled and pulled a wad of bills out of the pocket of his shorts. "Of course. He asked me to give you the money. How much is it?"
"From Truk, one way, is three hundred."
The doctor counted out a stack of twenties and held it out to the mate. "Here's six hundred. Mr. Pardee asked me to pay the round-trip fare, since that's what he originally contracted for."
The mate stared at the stack of bills. He had known Jefferson Pardee for ten years and had never even known the man to buy a beer; now he was just giving him three hundred extra dollars? Three hundred dollars that the company and the captain didn't know about. "Okay," he said. He snatched the money out of the doctor's hand and shoved it into his pocket before the crew could see.
He would get the whole crew drunk and they would toast the generosity of Jefferson Pardee.
Return to the Sky
The Lear 45 was a working corporate issue, the seats upholstered in muted blues and grays, facing each other over small worktables. For some reason Tucker had expected something more unusual: bright carnival colors with a monkey in a flight attendant outfit perhaps; a stark metal interior stripped for cargo; maybe stainless steel over enamel with a lot of complicated medical gizmos. Nope, this was the standard, run-of-the-mill station wagon model of your basic four-million-dollar jet.
He slid into the pilot's seat and a rage of adrenaline coursed through him, as if his body was reliving the crash of the pink Gulfstream. He fought the urge to bolt, let the adrenaline jag settle to a low-grade nausea, then started his preflight checklist. Everything looked normal; the instruments and controls were in place. He snapped on the power for the gauges and nothing happened: no lights, no LEDs, nothing.
He felt the plane move as someone came up the retractable steps and suddenly one of the guards reached around him and inserted a cylindrical key into a socket on the instrument board. The guard turned the key several times and the cockpit whirred to life.
"This thing has a main power cutoff?" Tuck said to the guard.
The guard removed the key and walked off the plane without saying a word.
"Nice chatting with you," Tuck said. He'd never seen a plane with an ignition key and he was sure that this one was not factory-issue. Why? Who would steal a jet airplane? Who could? I could, that's who. The doctor had installed the key to keep him from re
peating his performance in Seattle. The missionary bastard didn't trust him.
Tuck checked the navigation computer. It was, as Beth Curtis had told him, set for an airfield in southern Japan. He watched as the LEDs on the nav computer came on, indicating that it was acquiring the satellites it needed to locate his position. When three were lit, his longitude and latitude flashed on the screen; when a fourth satellite was acquired, he had his current altitude: eight feet above sea level. He thought of Kimi navigating by the stars and felt a twinge of guilt for not trying harder to find him. He resolved to look for the navigator personally when he got back to Alualu.
He ran through the checklist and threw the autostart switches for the engines. As the twin jets spooled up, Tuck felt his anxiety float away like an exorcised ghost. This is where he was supposed to be. This is what he did. For the first time in weeks he felt like his head was clear.
He pushed the controls through their full range of motion and checked out the window to make sure that the flaps and ailerons were moving as well. Beth Curtis was coming across the compound toward the plane. At least he thought it was Beth Curtis. She wore a sharp, dark business suit with nylons and high heels. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun and she wore wire-frame aviator sunglasses. She carried a small plastic cooler in one hand and an aluminum briefcase in the other. She looked like one of Mary Jean's corporate killer attorneys. Her third identity in as many days.
She walked into the plane and the guard pushed the hatch shut behind her. She stashed the cooler and briefcase in the overhead, then climbed into the cockpit and strapped herself in the copilot's seat.
"Any problems?" she said.
"You look nice today, Mrs. Curtis."
"Thank you, Mr. Case. Are we ready?"
"Tuck. You can call me Tuck. I need you to look out the window and tell me if the flaps and ailerons move when I move the controls."
"They look fine. Shall we go?"
Tuck released the ground brakes and taxied out onto the runway. "I need to pick up some sunglasses while we're in Japan."
"I'll get you some. You won't be leaving the plane."
"We'll only be on the ground for a few minutes, then we'll be coming back."
"Look, Mrs. Curtis, I know you think that because of the circumstances that brought me here that I'm a total fuckup, but I am really good at what I do. You don't have to treat me like a child."
She looked at him and took off her sunglasses. Tuck wished he had sunglasses so he could whip them off like that.
She said, "Mr. Case, I'm putting my life in your hands right now. How much more confidence would you like?"
Tuck didn't really know how to answer. "I guess you're right. Sorry. You could be a little less mysterious about what's going on here. I know that we're not flying supplies, not with this plane and the kind of money you're paying me."
"If you really want to know, I can tell you. But if I tell you, I'll have to kill you."
Tuck looked from the instruments to catch her expression. She was grinning, a deep silly grin that crinkled the corners of her eyes.
He looked at the instruments. "I'm going to take off now. Okay?"
"And I haven't even shown you the best way to fight boredom on our little island."
Tuck concentrated on the gauges and the runway. He said, "What church do you and your husband work for?"
"You'll have to tell me about it."
"What's there to tell? Methodists rock!" she said, then she giggled like a little girl as Tuck pulled the plane into the sky.
Malink joined the drinking circle late, hoping that everyone would be drunk enough to forget what had gone on that day. He'd spent most of the after-noon at Favo's house, afraid even to face his wife and daughters, but when the sun was well boiled in the sea, he knew he had to join the other men or face the consequences of tuba-poisoned theories and rumors aspiring to truth. He sneaked into an open spot in the circle and sat on the sand, even though several younger men moved so he could sit on a log with his back to the tree. He threw an open pack of Benson & Hedges into the center of the circle and Favo divided up the smokes among the men. Some lit up, others broke them into sections to chew with betel nut, and a few tucked them behind their ears for later. The distraction was
short-lived and one of the Johns, an elder, said, "So why did Vincent send the Japanese into our houses?"
Malink waved him off as he drank from the coconut shell cup and made a great show of enjoying his first drink before handing the cup to Abo, who was pouring. Then he stalled another few seconds by lighting a Benson & Hedges with the Zippo, making sure everyone saw it and remembered, then after a long drag he said, "I'm fucked if I know." He said this in English - English being the best language for swearing.
"It is not good," said John.
"They came to the bachelors' house," said Abo, who, as usual, was angry. "They looked at our mispel's thighs."
"We should kill them," said one of the younger men who had been named for Vincent.
"And eat them!" someone added - and it was as if the air had been pulled on the circle before it could inflate to well-rounded violent mob.
Everyone turned to see Sarapul walking out of the shadows. For once, Malink was glad to see him. The old cannibal seemed to have a spring in his step, seemed younger, stronger.
"I need an ax," Sarapul said. The men who owned axes all stared into the sand or examined their fingernails.
"What for?" Malink asked.
"I can't tell you. It's a secret."
"You're not going to start headhunting, are you?" Malink said. "We've put up with your talk of eating people, but I draw the line at headhunting. No headhunting while I'm chief."
Everybody grunted in agreement and Malink was glad to have been able to assert his authority in a way that no one could dispute. An anthropologist had once come to the island and given him a book about headhunters. Malink felt very cosmopolitan discussing the topic.
Sarapul looked confused. He'd never read the headhunting book, had never read any book, but he did have a Classic Comics version of The Count of Monte Cristo, which a sailor had given him in the days before the Shark People were forbidden to meet visiting ships. He'd made Kimi read it to him every night. Sarapul liked the thread of revenge and murder that ran through the story.
Sarapul said, "What is this headhunting? I just want to cut a tree."
"Cutting trees is taboo," said one of the younger men.
"I will get special dispensation," Sarapul said, using a term he had learned from Father Rodriquez.
Malink shook his head. "We don't have that anymore. We only had that when we were Catholics."
"I need an ax," Sarapul said, as if he might do better if he started over. "And I need permission from the great Chief Malink to cut a tree."
Malink scratched a mosquito bite and looked at his feet. It was true that he could give permission to break a taboo, and Sarapul had distracted the circle before they ganged up on him. "You may cut one tree, on your side of the island, and you must show it to me before you cut it. Now, who has an ax?"
Everyone knew who owned axes, but nobody volunteered. Malink chose one of the young Vincents. "You, go get your ax." Then to Sarapul he said: "Why do you need to cut a tree?"
Sarapul considered holding out, but decided that a credible lie would be better. "My house is falling down from the girl-man climbing in the rafters."
It was the wrong answer to give in front of a group of men whose houses had been rifled only hours ago. Malink cradled his head in his hands.
The toughest part of the landing for Tuck was restraining himself from leaping out of the seat and demanding high-fives from the woman. It was perfect. He was back. Never mind the ghosts, the talking bats, the three-hour flight with a woman who could have been the model for the new Multiple Personality Barbie. She's elegant, she's fashionable, and she's the reason that Ken has no genitals! Have fun, but remember to hide the sharp stuff!
Never mind all that. He was a pilot.
They were somewhere in southern Japan, a small jetport, probably private, with no tower and only a few hangars. Tuck had gotten them there by following the nav computer, which, he found in midflight, had only two coordinates programmed into it: Alualu and this airfield.
"What happens if we have a problem and have to divert?" he asked Beth.
"Don't worry about it," she said. She had spent most of the flight grilling him about the navigational instruments, as if she wanted to
know enough to be able to check the course herself. He complied, feeling insulted by the whole conversation.
Another Lear was spooling up on the tarmac and Beth Curtis instructed him to taxi to it. As the jet bumped to a stop and he prepared to shut down, she pulled her briefcase and cooler out of the overhead and turned to him. "Stay here. We'll take off in a few minutes."
"What about loading supplies?"
"Mr. Case, please just prepare the plane for departure. I won't be long."
Two men in blue coveralls crossed the tarmac from the other jet and lowered the hatch for her. Tuck watched out the window as she met a third Japanese man in a white lab coat. She handed him the cooler and a folder from the briefcase, then traded bows with him and quickstepped back to the Lear. One of the men in blue coveralls followed her into the plane with a cardboard box, which he strapped into one of the passenger seats.
"Domo," Beth Curtis said.
He bowed quickly, left the plane, and sealed the hatch. She stashed the briefcase in the overhead again climbed into the copilot's seat.
"That's it. Let's go."
"We should top off the fuel tanks while we're here."
"I understand why you might be a little nervous about that, Mr. Case, but we have plenty of fuel to make it back."
"One box. That's all we're picking up?"
"What's in it?"
"It's a case of '78 Bordeaux. Sebastian loves it. Let's go."
"But I have to use the bathroom. I thought..."
"Hold it," Beth Curtis said.
"Exactly. Now don't you need to do your checklist thingy?"