In a small town in upstate New York, best friends Q. and Jasper live typical high school lives filled with parties and girls. When Q. starts acting recklessly, defacing lockers and misusing Bunsen burners, Jasper thinks his buddy is just letting off steam. But when his actions put both of their lives in danger, it's clear that Q. is possessed by something far more sinister than mere teenage high spirits.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Khartoum, Ileana Magdalen is tracking an elusive man who has left a trail of blood and bodies behind him, bringing strife, war, and genocide wherever he goes. It is Ileana's mission to stop him, for she is a member of an elite group of hunters initiated into a mystery that plagues humanity and drives men and women to commit unspeakable crimes.
When Ileana, Q., and Jasper are brought together, the loyalties of friendship are tested in unimaginable ways, and the living, the dead, and those who are beyond death become entangled in a violent battle as old as mankind itself.
In Body Surfing, celebrated author Dale Peck presents a beautifully written page-turner of a literary thriller. It is a mesmerizing tale in which a complete parallel universe is filled with shockingly dark corners where the secrets of human nature wait to be discovered.
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The woman at the bar of the Hotel Acropole leaned on her elbows and scanned the dim room. At not quite six feet in battered, American-style cowboy boots, Ileana Magdalen (that's what the name on her passport said anyway) was taller than just about everyone else in the dingy establishment. There were no other women in the bar, although countless numbers passed the open French windows in their head scarves and flowing robes, more than a few concealed from head to toe by brightly colored burqas. Ileana looked down at her sweat-stained tank top. Her nipples protruded through the wet ribbed cotton, and she had to fight the urge to cross her arms over her chest. Fuck it, she thought. It's too goddamn hot for a bra. And besides, if she had to put one more ounce of clothing on, she was going to kill the wrong man.
Ceiling fans swatted the hot air. Outside, slender Africans and lighter-skinned Arabs milled along the sweltering streets of Omdurman, a working-class neighborhood in Sudan's sprawling capital city, Khartoum. The predominant language was Arabic, but Ileana caught snatches of Chinese, Hindi, Russian, staccato dialects she didn't recognize. But the most persistent noise was the whine of traffic: horns, brakes, screeching tires, revving engines. Backfires that sounded a little too much like gunshots for comfort. Oil had made Africa's largest country a thriving nation by regional standards. Unfortunately, a significant chunk of its newfound wealth had been spent massacring its non-Islamic citizens. Ileana had seen the devastation firsthand. She'd just completed a two-week tour of the western province of Darfur with Francois Dumas, a French epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, after which she and Dumas had driven six hundred miles in an ancient Land Rover whose sprung shocks amplified every ridge, bump, and pothole minehole, Dumas joked, and Ileana didn't bother to point out that the oblong craters looked like they were caused by mortar fire rather than land mines, whose blast radius tends to be perfectly circular.
The journey across the Sahel had left them parched, and they came down to the bar to wash the dust out of their throats. Ileana arrived a few minutes after Dumas, found the Frenchman looking skeptically around the seedy room. But after a brief exchange in broken English (along with the "gift" of a few American dollars) Ileana convinced the Acropole's barman to produce a bottle enigmatically labeled Cocker Spaniard. "Kentuckessee whiskey," the barman said. "Number one brand." Despite the fact that Ileana paid for it, he handed the bottle to Dumas.
"I'm impressed." Dumas squinted at the label, which looked as if it had been written by hand. "I think."
Ileana popped the cork and poured them each a drink.
"Save the compliments till you've tasted it." She held up her glass. "Death is in my sight today." She tossed her drink back and closed her eyes, shuddered pleasantly as the gasoline-colored liquor stung its way down her esophagus. She ran her tongue over her tingling lips to savor every last drop of the burn.
When she opened her eyes, Dumas was staring at her with more than scientific curiosity.
" 'Death is in my sight'?"
"Something a friend taught me." Ileana's tone discouraged further questioning.
Dumas nodded, held his drink up.
"To friends," he said, casting another glance at his companion. "Old and new."
The epidemiologist downed his drink. When he could speak again, he cursed: in French, English, and a language Ileana didn't recognize. Spaniard? she thought with an inner laugh. Kentuckessean?
The scientist excused himself to go the washroom. "I hope it is safer than the alcohol," he panted, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.
Ileana glanced around as her companion tottered off. The rundown room certainly seemed an unlikely place for a pair of international aid workers to end up. The sawdust on the floor was stained with spilled drinks, the air clogged with sweet-smelling shisha smoke wafting from an enormous hookah on a corner table. After the devastation of Darfur, Ileana would have preferred to sip a chilled lychee martini on a palm-shaded verandah with the majestic Nile in the background. But the Legion's last known twenty for her target was here, and the front desk had confirmed that a guest by the name of Antonio Soma had checked in several days earlier. The clerk declined to mention the room number aloud, so Ileana folded a blank piece of paper into an envelope, scrawled Soma's name on it, and watched as the clerk slipped it into a cubbyhole. 206.
In truth, Ileana hated knowing the name. Wished all she had was that number. Names made it harder. More personal. More human. Some members of the Legion hid behind words like "ichthys," "mandorla," or "vesica pisces," archaic terminology that attempted to draw a philological distinction between target and host, but Ileana had no time for compartmentalized thinking. Her quarry was formidable enough as it was. She didn't need to distract herself with mind games and rationalizations.
But still. She hated knowing the name.
Unfortunately, her mobile phone wasn't receiving pictures, so "Antonio Soma" was all she had to go on. Her contact had described him as "on the tall side," slightly built, with dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. Not exactly novel features in an Arabic capital. But there were other things more telling than hair or eye color, or names for that matter. That had been Alec's first lesson, all those years ago.
Some two dozen men were scattered around the bar. Ileana ignored the groups, confining her attention to the single men. Her target would not want to make friends. She judged each sidelong glance for an appetite that betrayed a more than carnal hunger. She made no effort to conceal herself. There was an invisibility in being watched: no one would suspect the most conspicuous person in the room of engaging in subterfuge. She smoothed her dark blond hair into a ponytail, fished a rubber band from a pocket. Her bare arms moved dexterously, the skin so taut it revealed the action of the muscles beneath. Deltoid, triceps, and biceps flexed and stretched, augmenting the action of the rotator cuff in one of those miracles of human anatomy that go unnoticed on less refined specimens. Few would have guessed she was over thirty, and not just because of her lithe body. Her face was as smooth as a teenager's. Some would've said it was because she rarely smiled no smile, no smile lines and only a blind man could have denied it was a beautiful face, with its Slavic cheekbones and almond-shaped gray eyes. But it was a cold beauty, aloof, untouchable. Not that many men hadn't tried and at least one succeeded, if the watch on her left wrist was any evidence. The band was an intricately woven platinum braid, the face broad, thick, unadorned. A man's watch. Ileana had been rubbing it unconsciously for the past several minutes. She caught herself now, smiled at the watch wistfully, gave the knob a couple of turns.
When she looked up she saw Dumas returning from the washroom. The scientist's presence caused a chain reaction throughout the room as, one after another, the men looked away from her. She suppressed a frown. Dumas was genial, but she'd hoped to ditch him so she could concentrate on her hunt. But apparently her companion was not to be deterred. The tuft of dark hair that showed in the gap between the top two buttons of his requisite UN-issue khaki shirt made Ileana's chest tighten. Was Dumas actually going to make a pass at her? But all the Frenchman did was pick up his glass with a theatrical air of trepidation.
"This stuff is absolute poison."
Ileana didn't take her eyes from the room. "Probably made from rotten yams and siphoned gasoline."
Dumas swirled the liquor in his glass. As Ileana watched his fingers, she remembered how delicately he'd probed patient after patient in the refugee camps. A true healer's hands, nimble and nurturing, attuned to the flesh beneath the fingertips. She tried to think of the last time she'd felt a man's hands on her body, then tried even harder to forget. She reached nervously for her watch, then jerked her hand back to her side. This is no time to get distracted, she chastised herself, let alone sentimental. Focus.
Her contact had said Soma was clean-shaven. That could change in a week, of course hell, the target's sex could change in a week but even so, she ruled out all the men with long beards, which took care of three-quarters of the room. In fact, there was only one patron about whom she had any lingering suspicions, a young man, little more than a boy really, who wore his wispy mustache with the pride of someone only recently able to grow facial hair. He couldn't have been more than eighteen or twenty. His dusty gray business suit was too small for his long legs, but he wore it as he did his mustache, with an air of adolescent panache. More to the point, he seemed to be checking Ileana out. She couldn't be sure because of the pair of knock-off Ray-Bans that covered his eyes, despite the dimness of the smoky room.
Beside her, Dumas sighed heavily. "What I wouldn't give for a nice glass of Pernod."
Ileana ignored her companion. She stared into the reflective black lenses and made a silent offer.
"A chair at a cafe in Montparnasse. Paris, you know, in the springtime..."
The boy bit. He took his glasses off and glanced at her once, then quickly looked away. But the glance was all Ileana needed. The adolescent shyness, the nervousness of a john. The poor boy seemed to think the brazen Western woman in her revealing (if not exactly feminine) attire was for sale.
Ileana nearly jumped at the sound of her own sigh of relief. Calm down, she told herself, or you'll be useless when Soma really does show. Easing onto her stool, she turned and gave her attention to Dumas.
"Paris." She forced a laugh. "You would settle for the Seine when you have the Nile the three Niles at your disposal?"
"It's true, the Seine is a trickle from a rusty tap compared to the Father of All Rivers. But the liquor " Dumas held up his glass " makes up for the lack of scenery."
"I would have thought your work had inured you to the need for such creature comforts."
Dumas laughed mirthlessly. "I do not think anyone ever becomes inured, as you say, to such...things." His English was good, but Ileana had to admit it was hard to come up with synonyms for what they'd seen in Darfur. "Such..."
Dumas's expression wasn't so much unsympathetic as resigned. "The brutality of war is old news, no? Especially this kind of ethnic war?"
"I'm Croatian," Ileana murmured. "I know."
"Ah!" Dumas didn't heed the warning in her voice. "I have been wondering about your accent for the past two weeks." He smiled a little too eagerly. "I did two years in Bosnia and Herzegovina with Médecins Sans Frontières. Doctors Without Borders. Ninety-three and '94. Believe me, I understand."
Ileana nodded, but doubted that even someone who'd pulled bullets from flesh and sewn up limbs ravaged by shrapnel could understand what she'd endured. She poured two more shots. Alcohol offered its own kind of understanding, and she touched Dumas's glass with hers and swilled the fiery liquid as though it were a toast to the fallen.
Dumas shuddered as the whiskey went down. "Are you sure you're not Russian?" he said when he could talk again. "You drink like a professional."
"Self-discipline." Ileana smiled. "Self...possession," she added, but so low the last word was inaudible.
Copyright © 2009 by Dale Peck