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We could see the low, bone-white hotel now, its wings curving toward the sea like the base of a sun-bleached skull.
For an hour the island had been growing on the horizon as the "Wanderer II" sailed steadily west, pushed by the winds of the Caribbean. The small spot of mossy green we'd first seen on the earth's curved rim was now unmistakably Verde Island, near enough to us that we could see the froth of the surf spreading on the black sand beach near the hotel.
It didn't look dangerous.
Verde Island looked like something out of a travel folder designed by a liar—preposterously beautiful, with white-sand and black-sand beaches, a scalloped blue lagoon before the graceful hotel, low and lush green land to the south, and, much farther to the north, higher land with several jagged peaks there solid against the sky.
Behind the hotel rose the soaring bulk of Damballah-Loa, Verde's long-extinct volcano. Low on its steeply slanting side were the hotel's two score "cabins," and above them, a half dozen larger and even more lavish private homes. Thick cables supporting the little cars that carried guests up to those cabins—after the fashion of ski lifts at snow resorts—from here were cobwebs against the volcano's dark face. In the lagoon near the hotel were slips for the hotel's boats, which could be rented for fishing, cruising, and water-skiing; and a mile to the south was the dock where soon we would tie up and disembark.
Gazing at all that travel-folder beauty, I decided Ed Wylie must have died a natural death or else peace and contentment had killed him. Murder? Murder just didn't belong in a place like this.
"Isn't it gorgeous, Shell?"
That was lovely blonde Vanessa Gayle, on my left. Very close on my left. In fact, I had my arm around her slim, firm, warm, exciting, vibrant waist—it was some waist—and was holding her in a pretty firm grip, so she wouldn't fall off the boat.
"That's the word," I said.
"It sure isn't anything like L.A., is it?"
The slangy abbreviation sounded harsh and out of place here on the blue and balmy Caribbean Sea. But Vanessa was right. Los Angeles and Verde Island seemed parts of different planets entirely. This was a far, far cry from, say, Broadway between Third and Fourth Streets, downtown in the City of the Angels. That's the location of the Hamilton Building, wherein is the office of Sheldon Scott, Investigations, wherein sometimes I am—since I am the Shell Scott of Sheldon Scott, Investigations.
In several years of investigating everything from missing husbands to multiple homicides in and around Los Angeles and Hollywood, even including jaunts to Mexico City and Acapulco and Hawaii, this was the farthest I'd roamed from the well-traveled routes of the world. Verde Island was definitely off the beaten path. Only one small airline included Verde in its itinerary, and only rarely did a passenger ship make it a port of call. Except for that, all contact with the "outside" world was with the passenger-carrying freighters that docked here once or twice a month, and with the "Wanderer II" itself. While one island after another in the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles, the outer islands of the West Indies chain, had become centers of farming, manufacture, or tourism, Verde had rested quietly, almost untouched by the growth and progress all around it.
Before leaving the States I'd dipped into the Encyclopædia Britannica and a book or two. So I had a rough idea of what lay ahead of me.
Verde Island. In the Caribbean Sea almost due west of Martinique, above the fringe of the old Spanish Main. Here, two hundred years ago, pirates roamed, and Dutch, French, and Spanish slavers sold their pounds of flesh for pieces of silver. It had been ruled at different times by the Spanish, the British, the French—and, for thirty years following the massive slave uprising of 1814, by the slaves' descendants themselves. It was now, at least temporarily, a French possession; the island was a stew of peoples and tongues, seasoned by French, Spanish, British, and hodgepodge races, but predominantly black—descendants of those thousands of slaves carried here in sailing ships during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The white population was probably no more than five hundred people. But one of those people was John Farrow, codeveloper—with the now-deceased Ed Wylie—of the Sunrise Hotel, my destination. He had sent for me, asking me to come here and investigate the "strange circumstances" of his partner's sudden death. Just how strange, or how sudden, I didn't yet know; but I would be meeting Farrow in less than an hour.
Vanessa said, "I'd better go freshen up a bit, Shell. So unhand me, you beast. Or unarm me."
"How about disarm?"
"Either dis one or dat one. Whichever arm you're—"
I groaned. "Vanessa, puns are the lowest—"
"I have an excuse. A monster kept me awake most of the night."
"Who? I'll kill it."
She smiled. I smiled. We both knew who. Me, that's who. Except for the four-man crew, we were the only people aboard the "Wanderer."
* * *
Before Vanessa joined me at the rail again, I'd had time to finish the tag ends of packing in the two suitcases I'd brought along, and the "Wanderer" was nosing in toward the dock, sails furled and twin diesels throbbing as the skipper signaled for the engines to turn slow astern. The deck shuddered beneath our feet, the lead for the bowline was thrown to a black-skinned native on the dock, then there was a soft shock as the boat nudged the thick pilings.
Lines fore and aft were made fast, and in a few minutes the gangplank was down and we were ready to disembark. I didn't know what, if any, excitement lay ahead, but for me it was excitement enough just to be here. There was something in the air—something more than the rich spicy scent of fruits and flowers and the luxurious warmth of the breeze, more than the dazzling array of colors.
On the dock a handful of natives worked; others sat silently and watched. One weird-looking character, wearing what appeared to be a woman's woven-reed hat, stared up at me. Beyond the far end of the dock were a dozen or so tin-roofed shacks, and I could see mounds of vegetables and fruits before some of them. It looked like a small local market place. Men and women in brightly colored clothing moved lazily among the stalls. From there a dirt road snaked west toward the sun just dropping past the edge of DamballahLoa, and on the road three women walked, each balancing something on her head. Going home, I guessed, now that the sun was nearly gone.
From the elevation of the "Wanderer's" deck I could see past green clumps of banana trees, slim and graceful coconut palms, to the rough peaks at the north end of the island. It seemed to me I'd never seen a more beautiful place in my life. A mile away were patches of white gleaming through the trunks of palms. That was the Sunrise Hotel. I wondered if there was any transportation or if I'd have to walk.
Behind me Vanessa said, "It's so lovely. I could die here."
"Don't say that. Say live here."
She'd changed into a white linen skirt and a simple white blouse, and she had her pale blonde hair pulled back and tied behind her head. She was something to see: tall and slim, but with enough fine firm flesh to go around, and just a little more; lips the red of a Stop light but with a Go smile on them; a pale white body and hot green eyes that made me think of jungles. Her face made me think of jungles, too, in a way. The eyes seemed, but weren't, slanted; she looked just a little savage. She was just a little savage.
"Well, let's go," I said.
We walked down the gangplank and turned left toward the sheds or stalls at the dock's end. The character who'd been staring at me earlier was still staring. I thought maybe it was because I probably looked like nothing that had visited this island in the last fifty years. Or maybe longer. Since the Stone Age, say. Not that I look like a cave man or Cro-Magnon citizen. Not exactly.
I'm six feet two inches tall with my socks on and weigh two hundred and six pounds, and I'm sun-browned to the approximate shade of mangrove roots, which accents the whiteness of my inch-long hair and the equally obvious whiteness of the brows angling up over my eyes and then slanting down sharply at their ends, as if fractured. My eyes are gray to begin with, and set in the deep tan of my chops they probably look lighter than they really are, so I figured I could stare just as menacingly as this character.
Which I did as he walked toward me, his fixed gaze holding to my face. I stared smack back at him, even leaning forward a little. It didn't faze him. I started wondering what the hell he was doing.
This guy was brown-skinned, with bushy hair spraying out from under that wide-brimmed hat I'd noticed before and a sharp-featured face that might have been African and Mexican blended together. His eyebrows were bushy and tangled and black, going every which way, partly obscuring his dark eyes, and his nose was thin and came to a point sharp enough to be dangerous if he should happen to blow it, something which he apparently had not done for some time.
He was dressed in ragged white pants cut off under the knees and a red, blue, white, and green shirt with long, billowing sleeves. He wore black bands like elastic garters over the shirt sleeves above his elbows, and around his neck was a string of bright beads. In his right hand he held some kind of gourd at the end of a short, curved stick. It looked, believe it or not, like a rattle.
It was a rattle.
He rattled it at me.
"Ahgee hoo, wah chacha wah-boom," he chanted—or something like that. At least remotely like that.
I knew most of the Verdean natives spoke a patois formed from French, Creole, Spanish, a little African, and local invention—and I couldn't understand any of it. But whatever he was saying, it didn't sound like, "Welcome to Verde, O White God." It didn't sound like that at all.
He was getting that stuff off at a fine clip, in a kind of nasal singsong, going rapidly up the scale and then sliding back down as if he was shooting the words up one nostril and down the other, and all the while he kept shaking that damned rattle at me.
I'd stopped and was looking at the guy with alarmed amazement, and he was standing about six feet from me. Now he started hopping up and down in one spot and moving no more than two or three inches vertically, and he'd just got to a part about like, "Vahkee muerdo, muerdo, Damballah fie fooey!"—again, I stress that that's what it sounded like, at least remotely. But, whatever he was saying and doing, I'd had enough of it to last me for a while. So I said, "Forget it, champ. Get lost. Vanish."
It was as if I hadn't spoken. He just kept on with the noises. I looked at Vanessa. "What the hell is this?" I said.
She didn't answer. She was looking at the spook, one hand touching her throat. She didn't look overcome with happiness. Well, I didn't blame her exactly.
"The spook had now dug into his pants or shirt somewhere and come up with a snake. Yeah, a snake. It was dead and dangly, but that didn't help much. He was shaking the rattle in one hand and whipping the snake around in the other, not singsonging now but just spitting out a single word from time to time.
He danced around me in a circle, quivering like a fat woman in one of those vibrating reducers, and when he got back to where he'd started he dropped both arms to his sides, looked up into the air, and cried, "Aieeee!", I think.
I said, "I am going to pop you."
He looked at me.
Well, maybe he didn't understand English. I took a step toward him, held my right hand up, open, palm toward his face. Then I slowly closed it into a large fist and drew it back to my shoulder.
It was clear as could be that I intended to bash him right in the mouth, but it didn't seem to faze him. He grinned. He had two teeth out in front, I noticed. Maybe he didn't think he had much more to lose. But he must have known it was going to hurt. Nonetheless, he just grinned, then shook his rattle and snake and said, "Muerdo, Damballah!" or sounds to that effect. Then he turned and walked away.
"What the hell was that?" I said.
Vanessa remained silent. But, of the half dozen men who'd earlier been sitting limply on the dock, and who were still sitting limply on the dock, one spoke.
He used a kind of warped English, but him I could understand. "You go," he said. He pointed past me to the boat, then to me, then to the boat again. "You go. Away, over water."
"Go? I just got here. If you think I'm going to sail away just because a creep with St. Vitus's dance shakes a rattle and a snake at me and bounces his beads—"
"Him no beads."
"Him no beads?"
"Him wanga." He ran a brown hand around his neck. "Much bad in him. Pow'ful wanga. You get sick and die now."
"Ha," I said. And ha-ha, I thought. So that's what the performance had been about. The creep had been trying to cast some kind of spell on me, apparently. Well, he couldn't hex me. Not me, he couldn't.
But, by golly, I felt a little chill. It seemed colder, all right. And then suddenly I realized my eyesight was failing. It was getting darker. And colder. The twitchy bastard had frozen my blood or something. But it couldn't be. I didn't believe. That stuff was all a lot of baloney.
I was standing there, wondering if I'd freeze solid and get all white and slick and frosty on the outside, and maybe with my tongue hanging out a little bit, when I realized what had happened.
Nothing. Nothing supernatural, anyway. It was merely that the sun, which had been dropping past the volcano's edge, had now slipped all the way down and the tropic darkness had started to fall. The rest had been my imagination.
Ha-ha, I thought again. Can't hex me. I'm immune. No such thing as a hex. I'm immune. Just a lot of baloney. I'm immune.
I was still thinking when Vanessa said softly, "That man just about scared me to death."
"Ha," I said. "It was nothing. Nothing. That stuff doesn't work unless you believe. And you and I know there's no danger from a guy shaking sticks."
"But ... they do practice voodoo here, don't they, Shell?"
"Sure. So they practice voodoo. So what?"
In reading of Verde I'd come across much about the basic religion of the island, voudon or voodooism—much like the Haitian and South American variety, but with indigenous corruption and invention. Plus a liberal addition of sorcery, black magic and such. But I hadn't thought much about it, except to think some of the dances might be interesting.
For example, the Cha Cha—that's straight out of Haitian and Cuban voodooism, chacha being the name of a rattle used in voodoo ceremonies. Or mambo—the voodoo word for a priestess of the supernatural religion.
That creep hadn't been doing a Cha Cha or a mambo, though.
Vanessa said, "Well, I don't know much about it, but it's—it's scary."
We'd started walking to the end of the dock, and I said, "So let's go to the hotel and get a drink. I think I could use a drink. To warm my bloo—to warm me up a little."
"I could use a couple myself," she said. "Let's."CHAPTER 2
Only we didn't get that drink right away. At least not together.
When we reached the group of stalls and little sheds, I noticed that there were not only fruits and vegetables on display but also numerous examples of native handicrafts. Next to a table heaped with yams, alligator pears, and little bananas, was a stall displaying calabash gourds, straw hats, woven beach bags, and sandals. On its left was another, laden with trays and bowls and bracelets made of tortoise shell and a big mass of crudely fashioned but interesting jewelry—earrings, bracelets, rings, and pendants, made of coral, polished stones, metal bands, and more tortoise shell.
Vanessa, being a woman, simply had to rummage among the earrings and doo-dads. She told me to go on to the hotel and she'd follow later, having spotted an old Model A coupé with "Taxi" printed on its doors in yellow paint. Finally I left her haggling over the price of a pretty with a fat native woman in a bright dress, a pink turban, and enormous earrings dangling down to her chins. The fat woman paused to light a shiny Coleman lantern, then returned to the haggle—and I took off.
Excerpted from Dead Man's Walk by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1965 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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