Island of the Sequined Love Nun

Chapter 8~9


The Humiliation of the Pilot As a Passenger

Once on the plane, Tucker unfolded the letter from the mysterious doctor and read it again.

Dear Mr. Case:

I have become aware of your recent difficulties and I believe I have a proposition that will be of great benefit to us both. My wife and I are missionaries on Alualu, a rather remote atoll at the north-western tip of the Micronesian crescent. Since we are out of the normal shipping lanes and we are the sole medical provider for the people of the island, we maintain our own aircraft for the transport of medical supplies. We have recently procured a Lear 45 for this purpose, but our former pilot has been called to the mainland on personal business for an indefinite time.

In short, Mr. Case, given your experience flying small jets and our unique requirements, we feel that this would be a perfect opportunity for us both. We are not concerned with the status of your license, only that you can perform in the pilot's seat and fulfill a need that can only be described as dire.

If you are willing to honor a long-term contract, we will provide you with room and board on the island, pay you $2,000 a week, as well as a generous bonus upon completion of the contract. As a gesture of our sincerity, I am enclosing an open airline ticket and a cashier's check for $3,000 for traveling expenses. Contact us by e-mail with your arrival time in Truk and my wife will meet you there to discuss the conditions of your employment and pro vide transportation to Alualu. You'll find a room reserved for you at the

Paradise Inn.


Sebastian Curtis, M.D.

<a href="mailto:S[email protected]">[email protected]</a>

Why me? Tuck wondered. He'd crashed a jet, lost his job and probably his sex life, was charged with multiple crimes, then a letter and a check arrived from nowhere to bail him out, but only if he was willing to abandon everything and move to a Pacific island. It could turn out to be a good job, but if it had been his decision, he'd still be lingering over it in a motel room with Dusty Lemon. It was as if some combination of ironic luck and Jake Skye had been sent along to make the decision for him. Not so strange, he thought. The same combination had put him in the pilot's seat in the first place.

Tuck had grown up in Elsinore, California, northeast of San Diego, the only son of the owner of the Denmark Silverware Corporation. He had an unremarkable childhood, was a mediocre athlete, and spent most of his adolescence surfing in San Diego and chasing girls, one of whom he finally caught.

Zoophilia Gold was the daughter of his father's lawyer, a lovely girl made shy by a cruel first name. Tuck and Zoo enjoyed a brief romance, which was put on hold when Tuck's father sent him off to college in Texas so he could learn to make decisions and someday take over the family business. His motivation excised by the job guarantee, Tuck made passing grades until his college career was cut short by an emergency call from his mother. "Come home. Your father's dead."

Tuck made the drive in two days, stopping only for gas, to use the bathroom, and to call Zoophilia, who informed him that his mother had married his father's brother and his uncle had taken over Denmark Silver-ware. Tuck screeched into Elsinore in a blind rage and ran over Zoophilia's father as he was leaving Tuck's mother's house.

The death was declared an accident, but during the investigation a policeman informed Tuck that although he had no proof, he suspected that the riding accident that killed Tuck's father might not have been an accident, especially since Tuck's father had been allergic to horses. Tuck was sure that his uncle had set the whole thing

up, but he couldn't bring himself to confront his mother or her new husband.

In the meantime, Zoophilia, stricken with grief over her father's death, overdosed on Prozac and drowned in her hot tub, and her brother, who had been away at college also, returned promising to kill Tucker or at least sue him into oblivion for the deaths of his father and sister. While trying to come to a decision on a course of action, Tucker met a brace of Texas brunettes in a Pacific Beach bar who insisted he ride back with them to the Lone Star state.

Disinherited, depressed, and clueless, Tucker took the ride as far as a small suburban airport outside of Houston, where the girls asked him if he'd ever been nude skydiving. At that point, not really caring if he lived or died, he crawled into the back of a Beechcraft with them.

They left him scraped, bruised, and stranded on the tarmac in a jockstrap and a parachute harness, shivering with adrenaline. Jake Skye found him wandering around the hangars wearing the parachute canopy as a toga. It had been a tough year.

"Let me guess," Jake said. "Margie and Randy Sue?"

"Yeah," Tucker said. "How'd you know?"

"They do it all the time. Daddies with money - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Petroleum. Hope you didn't cut up that canopy. You can get a grand for it used."

"They're gone, then?"

"An hour ago. Said something about going to London. Where are your clothes?"

"In their car."

"Come with me."

Jake gave Tucker a job washing airplanes, then taught him to fly a Cessna 172 and enrolled him in flight school. Tucker got his twin-engine hours in six months, helping Jake ferry Texas businessmen around the state in a leased Beech Duke. Jake turned the flying over to Tuck as soon as he passed his 135 commercial certification.

"I can fly anything," Jake said, "but unless it's helicopters, I'd rather wrench. Only steady gig in choppers is flying oil rigs in the Gulf. Had too many friends tip off into the drink. You fly, I'll do the maintenance, we split the cash."

Another six months and Jake was offered a job by the Mary Jean Cosmetics Corporation. Jake took the job on the condition that Tucker could copilot until he had his Lear hours (he described Tuck as a "little lost lamb" and the makeup magnate relented). Mary Jean

did her own flying, but once Tucker was qualified, she turned the controls over to him full-time. "Some members of the board have pointed out that my time would be better spent taking care of business instead of flying. Besides, it's not ladylike. How'd you like a job?"

Luck. The training he'd received would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he'd gotten most of it for free. He had become a new person, and it had all started with a bizarre streak of bad luck followed by an op-portunity and Jake Skye's intervention. Maybe it would work out for the better this time too. At least this time no one had been killed.


Cult of the Autopilot: A History Lesson

The pilot said, "The local time is 9:00 A.M. The temperature is 90 degrees. Thank you for flying Continental and enjoy your stay in Truk." Then he laughed menacingly.

Tuck stepped out of the plane and felt the palpable weight of the air in his lungs. It smelled green, fecund, as if vegetation was growing, dying, rotting, and giving off a gas too thick to breathe. He followed a line of passengers to the terminal, a long, low, cinderblock building - nothing more really than a tin roof on pillars - teeming with brown people; short, stoutly built people, men in jeans or old dress slacks and T-shirts, women in long floral cotton dresses with puff shoulders, their hair held in buns atop their heads by tortoiseshell combs.

Tuck waited, sweating, at one end of the terminal while young men shoved the baggage through a curtain onto a plywood ramp. Natives re-trieved their baggage, mainly coolers wrapped with packing tape, and walked by the customs officer's counter without pausing. He looked for a tourist, to see how they were treated, but there were none. The customs officer glared at him. Tucker hoped there was nothing illegal in his pack. The airport here looked like a weigh station for a death camp; he didn't want to see the jail. He fingered the roll of bills in his pocket, thinking, Bribe.

The pack came sliding through the curtain. Tucker moved through the pall of islanders and pulled the pack onto his shoulders, then walked to the customs counter and plopped it down in front of the officer.

"Passport," the officer said. He was fat and wore a brass button uniform with dime store flip-flops on his feet.

Tuck handed him his passport.

"How long will you be staying?"

"Not long. I'm not sure. A day maybe."

"No flights for three days." The officer stamped the passport and handed it back to Tucker. "There's a ten-dollar departure fee."

"That's it?" Tucker was amazed. No inspection, no bribe. Luck again.

"Take your bag."

"Right." Tucker scooped up the pack and headed for an exit sign, hand-painted on plywood. He walked out of the airport and was blinded by the sun.

"Hey, you dive?" A man's voice.

Tuck squinted and a thin, leathery islander in a Bruins hockey jersey stood in front of him. He had six teeth, two of them gold. "No," Tucker said.

"Why you come if you no dive?"

"I'm here on business." Tucker dropped his pack and tried to breathe. He was soaked with sweat. Ten seconds in this sun and he wanted to dive into the shade like a roach under a stove.

"Where you stay?"

This guy looked criminal, just an eye patch short of a pirate. Tucker didn't want to tell him anything.

"How do I get to the Paradise Inn?"

The pirate called to a teenager who was sitting in the shade watching a score of beat-up Japanese cars with blackened windows jockeying for position in the dirt street.

"Rindi! Paradise."

The younger man, dressed like a Compton rapper - oversized shorts, football jersey, baseball cap reversed over a blue bandanna - came over and grabbed Tucker's pack. Tuck kept one hand on an arm strap and fought the kid for control.

"You go with him," the pirate said. "He take you Paradise."

"Come on, Holmes," the kid said. "My car air-conditioned.

Tucker let go of the pack and the kid whisked it away through the jostle of cars to an old Honda Civic with a cellophane back window and bailing wire holding the passenger door shut. Tuck follow him, stepping quickly between the cars, each one lurching forward as if to hit him as he passed. He looked for the driver's expressions, but the windshields were all blacked out with plastic film.

The kid threw Tuck's pack in the hatchback, then unwired the door and held it open. Tucker climbed in, feeling, once again, com

pletely at the mercy of Lady Luck. Now I get to see the place where they rob and kill the white guys, he thought.

As they drove, Tuck looked out on the lagoon. Even through the tinted window the blue of the lagoon shone as if illuminated from below. Island women in scuba masks waded shoulder deep; their floral dresses flowing around them made them look like multicolored jellyfish. Each carried a short steel spear slung from a piece of surgical tubing. Large plastic buckets floated on the surface in which the women were depositing their catch.

"What are they hunting?" Tuck asked the driver.

"Octopus, urchin, small fish. Mostly octopus. Hey, where you from in United States?"

"I grew up in California."

The kid lit up. "California! You have Crips there, right?"

"Yeah, there's gangs."

"I'm a Crip," the kid said, pointing to his blue bandanna with pride. "Me and my homies find any Bloods here, we gonna pop a nine on 'em."

Tucker was amazed. On the side of the road a beautiful little girl in a flowered dress was drinking from a green coconut. Here in the car there was a gang war going on. He said, "Where are the Bloods?"

Rindi shook his head sadly . "Nobody want to be Bloods. Only Crips on Truk. But if we see one, we gonna bust a cap on 'em." He pulled back a towel on the seat to reveal a beat-up Daisy air pistol.

Tuck made a mental note not to wear a red bandanna and accidentally fill the Blood shortage. He had no desire to be killed or wounded over a glorified game of cowboys and Indians.

"How far to the hotel?"

"This it," Rindi said, wrenching the Honda across the road into a dusty parking lot.

The Paradise Inn was a two-story, crumbling stucco building with a crown of rusting rebar beckoning skyward for a third floor that would never be built. Tuck let the boy, Rindi, carry his pack to an upstairs room: mint green cinder block over brown linoleum, a beat-up metal desk, smoke-stained floral curtains, a twin bed with a torn 1950s bedspread, the smell of mildew and insecticide. Rindi put the pack in the doorless closet and cranked the little window air conditioner to high.

"Too late for shower. Water come on again four to six."

Tuck glanced into the bathroom. Mistake. An exotic-looking or ange thing was growing on the shower curtain. He said, "Where can I get a beer?"

Rindi grinned. "We have lounge. Budweiser, 'king of beers.' MTV on satellite." He cocked his wrists and performed a gangsta rap move that looked as if he'd contracted a rhythmic cerebral palsy. "Yo, G, we chill with the phattest jams? Snoop, Ice, Public Enemy."

"Oh, good," Tuck said. "We can do a drive-by later. How do I get to the lounge?"

"Down steps, outside, go right." He paused, looking concerned. "We have to shoot out driver's side. Other window not go down."

"We'll manage." Tuck flipped the kid a dollar and left the room, proud to be an American.

An unconscious island man marked the entrance to the lounge. Tuck stepped over him and pushed his way through the black glass door into a cool, dark, smoke-hazed room lit by a silent television tuned to nothing and a flickering neon BUDWEISER sign. A shadow stood behind the bar; two more sat in front of it. Tuck could see eyes in the dark - maybe people sitting at tables, maybe nocturnal vermin.

A voice: "A fellow American here to buy a beer for his countryman."

The voice had come from one of the shadows at the bar. Tuck squinted into the dark and saw a large white man, about fifty, in a sweat-stained dress shirt. He was smiling, a jowly yellow smile under drink-dulled eyes. Tuck smiled back. Anyone that didn't speak broken English was, at this point, his friend.

"What are you drinkin', pardner?" Tuck always went Texan when he was being friendly.

"What you drink here." He held up two fingers to the bartender, then held his hand out to shake. "Jefferson Pardee, editor in chief of the Truk Star."

"Tucker Case." Tuck sat down on the stool next to the big man. The bartender placed two sweating Budweiser cans in front of them and waited.

"Run a tab," Pardee said. Then to Tuck: "I assume you're a diver?"

"Why would you assume that?"

"It's the only reason Americans come here, other than Peace Corps or Navy CAT team members. And if you don't mind my saying, you don't look idealistic enough to be Peace Corps or stupid enough to be Navy."

"I'm a pilot." It felt good saying it. He'd always liked saying it. He didn't realize how terrified he'd been that he'd never be able to say it again. "I'm supposed to meet someone from another island about a job."

"Not a missionary air outfit, I hope."

"It's for a missionary doctor. Why?"

"Son, those people do a great job, but you can only get so much out of those old planes they fly. Fifty-year-old Beech 18s and DC3s. Sooner or later you're going into the drink. But I suppose if you're flying for God..."

"I'll be flying a new Learjet."

Pardee almost dropped his beer. "Bullshit."

Tuck was tempted to pull out the letter and slam it on the bar, but thought better of it. "That's what they said."

Pardee put a big hairy forearm on the bar and leaned into Tuck. He smelled like a hangover. "What island and what church?"

"Alualu," Tuck said. "A Dr. Curtis."

Pardee nodded and sat back on his stool. "No-man's Island."

"What's that mean?"

"It doesn't belong to anyone. Do you know anything about Micronesia?"

"Just that you have gangs but no regular indoor plumbing."

"Well, depending on how you look at it, Truk can be a hellhole. That's what happens when you give Coke cans to a coconut culture. But it's not all that way. There are two thousand islands in the Micronesian crescent, running almost all the way from Hawaii to New Guinea. Magellan landed here first, on his first voyage around the world. The Spanish claimed them, then the Germans, then the Japanese. We took them from the Japanese during the war. There are seventy sunken Japanese ships in Truk's lagoon alone. That's why the divers come."

"So what's this have to do with where I'm going?"

"I'm getting to that. Until fifteen years ago, Micronesia was a U.S. protectorate, except for Alualu. Because it's at the westernmost tip of the crescent, we left it out of the surrender agreement with the Japanese. It kind of got lost in the shuffle. So Alualu was never an American territory, and when the Federated States of Micronesia declared independence, they didn't include Alualu."

"So what's that mean?" Tuck was getting impatient. This was the longest lecture he'd endured since flight school.

"In short, no mother government, no foreign aid, no nothing.

Alualu belongs to whoever lives on it. It's off the shipping lanes, and it's a raised atoll, only one small island, not a group of islands around a lagoon, so there's not enough copra to make it worth the trip for the collector boats. Since the war, when there was an airstrip there, no one goes there."

"Maybe that's why they need the jet?"

"Son, I came here in '66 with the Peace Corps and I've never left. I've seen a lot of missionaries throw a lot of money at a lot of problems, but I've never seen a church that was willing to spring for a Learjet."

Tuck wanted to beat his head on the bar just to feel his tiny brain rattle. Of course it was too good to be true. He'd known that instinctively. He should have known that as soon as he'd seen the money they were offering him - him, Tucker Case, the biggest fuckup in the world.

Tuck drained his beer and signaled for two more. "So what do you know about this Curtis?"

"I've heard of him. There's not much news out here and he made some about twenty years back. He went batshit at the airport in Yap after he couldn't get anyone to evacuate a sick kid off the island. Frankly, I'm sur-prised he's still out there. I heard the church pulled out on him. Cargo cults give Christians the willies."

Tuck knew he was being lured in. He'd met guys like Pardee in airport hotel bars all over the U.S.: lonely businessmen, usually salesmen, who would talk to anyone about anything just for the company. They learned how to make you ask questions that required long windy answers. He'd felt sympathetic toward them ever since he'd played Willie Loman in Miss Patterson's third-grade class production of Death of a Salesman. Pardee just needed to talk.

"What's a cargo cult?" Tuck asked.

Pardee smiled. "They've been in the islands since the Spanish landed in the 1500s and traded steel tools and beads to the natives for food and water. They're still around."

Pardee took a long pull on his beer, set it down, and resumed. "These islands were all populated by people from somewhere else. The stories of the heroic ancestors coming across the sea in canoes are part of their reli-gions. The ancestors brought everything they need from across the sea. All of a sudden, guys show up with new cool stuff. Instant ancestors, instant gods from across the sea, bearing gifts. They incorporated the newcomers into their religions. Sometimes it might be fifty years before another ship showed up, but

every time they used a machete, they thought about the return of the gods bearing cargo."

"So there are still people waiting for the Spanish to return with steel tools."

Pardee laughed. "No. Except for missionaries, these islands didn't get much attention from the modern world until World War II. All of a sudden, Allied forces are coming in and building airstrips and bribing the islanders with things so they would resist the Japanese. Manna from the heavens. American flyers brought in all sorts of good stuff. Then the war ended and the good stuff stopped coming.

"Years later anthropologists and missionaries are finding little altars built to airplanes. The islanders are still waiting for the ships from the sky to return and save them. Myths get built around single pilots who are supposed to bring great armies to the islands to chase out the French, or the British, or whatever imperial government holds the island. The British outlawed the cargo cults on some Melanesian islands and jailed the leaders. Bad idea, of course. They were instant martyrs. The missionaries railed against the new religions, trying to use reason to kill faith, so some islanders started claiming their pilots were Jesus. Drove the missionaries nuts. Natives putting little propellers on their crucifixes, drawing pictures of Christ in a flight helmet. Bottom line is the cargo cults are still around, and I hear that one of the strongest is on Alualu."

"Are the natives dangerous?" Tuck asked.

"Not because of their religion, no."

"What's that mean?"

"These people are warriors, Mr. Case. They forget that most of the time, but sometimes when they're drinking, a thousand years of warrior tradition can rear its head, even on the more modernized islands like Truk. And there are people in these islands who still remember the taste of human flesh - if you get my meaning. Tastes like Spam, I hear. The natives love Spam."

"Spam? You're kidding."

"Nope. That's what Spam stands for: Shaped Protein Approximating Man."

Tucker smiled, realizing he'd been had. Pardee let loose an explosive laugh and slapped Tuck on the shoulder. "Look, my friend, I've got to get to the office. A paper to put out, you know. But watch yourself. And don't be surprised if your Learjet is actually a beat-up Cessna."

"Thanks," Tucker said, shaking the big man's hand.

"You going to be around for few days?" Pardee asked.

"I'm not sure."

"Well, just a word of advice" - Pardee lowered his voice and leaned into Tucker conspiratorially - "don't go out at night by yourself. Nothing you're going to see is worth your life."

"I can take care of myself, but thanks."

"Just so," Pardee said. He turned and lumbered out of the bar.

Tuck paid the bartender and headed out into the heat and to his room, where he stripped naked and lay on the tattered bedspread, letting the air conditioner blow over him with a welcome chill. Maybe this won't be so bad, he thought. He was going to end up on an island where God was a pilot. What a great way to get babes!

Then he looked down at his withered member, stitched and scarred as if it had been patched from the Frankenstein monster. A wave of anxiety passed through him, bringing sweat to his skin even in the electric chill. He realized that he had really never done anything in his adult life that had not - even at some subconscious level - been part of a strategy to im-press women. He would have never worked so hard to become a pilot if it hadn't been for Jake's insistence that "Chicks dig pilots." Why fly? Why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything?

He rolled over to bury his face in the pillow and pinned a live cockroach to the spread with his cheek.

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