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Sometimes winding, occasionally zig-zagging, but always descending, the tunnel led them down into the stony heart of Isla Diablo. It quickly became too dark to see, but Evan produced a finger-sized mag-light from one of many pockets in his Old Navy cargo shorts. In that moment Ally silently congratulated herself for stifling any disparaging comment on the earnest biologist’s fashion sense. And yet, she marveled at her newly found sensitivity. She needed no flashlight to find her way in the dark – her senses of hearing and touch told her where the tunnel walls where, or where she should duck to avoid bumping her head on a low-hanging rocky protrusion. When Evan turned on the tiny light, it flattened the world to her senses, robbed it of dimension.
“As long as we continue to veer to the right, I think we will be heading in the right direction,” Evan announced.
“You think?” asked Ally. “Because you sold this tour as a sure fire short cut when we were standing in the light of day.”
Evan shrugged. “It just stands to reason…”
“Wait…” interjected Ally. They had just skirted a fork in the tunnel, a junction where another passage intersected the principal lava tube on the left side of the curved rock wall. Ally stopped cold, took several steps toward the dark portal. “There’s something down there.”
“Phew… something dead,” commented Evan at her side, fanning the stagnant air from his face. “That’s the smell of muscle protein in a state of rapid composition, but not fish.”
“Yeah, but I’m getting something else,” pressed the seventeen year-old in the red bikini. “Like… foul breath. And this will sound totally woo…”
“I adamantly refuse to do woo.”
“I didn’t ask, did I? As I was saying, it’s a sense of… coldness. Like a darkness, but not the lack-of-light kind of darkness.” Ally searched her impressive vocabulary for the right word, but had to settle on an imperfect descriptor. “Best word I can think of is malevolence.”
“Even if I accepted your woo sensibility, it’s impossible. What you are describing would indicate intelligence.”
“You are sharp as the white crayon in a well-used box of Crayolas,” countered Ally. “It’s def intelligent. But here’s the hook: I’ve felt it before.”
“Hold it,” said Evan shaking his head, having heard enough unsubstantiated, zero blind studied, lack of control group or peer-reviewed reasoning for one day. “Felt? What is this felt?”
“Look, I can’t explain it. But ever since we got to the island I’ve felt like I’ve never felt before, and by felt I mean… known stuff I shouldn’t know, sensed things that I shouldn’t sense. It’s like my brain and body are on steroids, but the kind that let you see what nobody else can see. I know it sounds crazy, but I know for a fact that there is something down that tunnel, and it’s the same thing that we saw picking through dead turtles on the bottom of Smuggler’s Cove. And it’s bad…really bad. Like dark lord slash demon slash republican bad.”
The stale blood and meat odor of death wafted over them from the side passage. Evan pulled Ally back into the middle of the main tunnel, because even he, without the benefit of her woo, sensed that something unnatural was happening somewhere down in that dark place. And then came a sound that pierced the darkness. It was a long, shrill-yet-guttural animal moan, not unlike a cow giving birth.
“Go,” he told her. “We gotta get out of here.”
Ally took Evan’s hand and they fled down the main passage of the ancient lava tube, neither one of them looking back at the dark place where both knew that a nightmare was festering.
The afternoon Caribbean sun spattered the jungle floor with mottled light and shadow. The Seattle-born PhD and the lass from north-o-Sunset reemerged into daylight, sending a pair of brilliant green Hispaniolan parrots screeching angrily into the forest canopy.
The tunnel had deposited the couple at the base of a jungle-covered slope. Ally observed that the lava tube exit was remarkably well-kept, as if often used. They stumbled into the brilliant sunlight, onto a patch of sand where they paused to catch their breath, still clasping each other’s hand.
“We did it,” shouted Evan.
“You’ll know damn well when we’ve done it,” admonished Ally. “You’ll be a changed man, I daresay.”
“No doubt,” agreed Evan, “but I meant – arrived where I was hoping we would. Rodrigo’s boat can’t be far.”
“So the white whale has a name,” mused Ally.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out who the slime bag is. I asked around the village,” explained Evan. “He grew up here. Does a lot of handy work for local folks – very well-connected, if you know what I mean.” He made if you what I mean sound like a bad thing.
“I do indeed,” said Ally, clucking her tongue. “Where I come from, agents and other bottom-feeders say that all the time – and very well-connected means that they have a single client, and are about to lose her.”
“Come on,” said Evan, gently pulling on the girl’s hand. “The beach is this way.”
A narrow, but surprisingly well-worn path led them out of the sandy clearing and into the lowland jungle that skirted most of the island. The trail was unmarked, just a simple foot track of calcified soil and sand, winding through the mahogany, coconut palms, and mango trees.
They had been following the jungle path for several hundred yards through dense tropical foliage when they found themselves approaching a rusted metal shack, partially overgrown with creepers. If the structure had ever been plumb, it was no longer so. It had a definite tilt in the direction of the geographical rise. Sides and roof were made of the same, corroded sheet metal. There was a door on the nearest side.
Curls of bluish smoke curled up from a rusted metal chimney pipe.
“Shhhh,” shushed Evan, then continued in a course whisper. “He could be inside!”
“After all this, he’d better be,” scolded Ally in voice un-hushed. “Just bar the door from the outside and trap him in there while we fetch the authorities – easier than pairing Italian heels with an Argentine handbag.”
“I’m gonna make him pay,” hissed Evan, forming his hands into fists and making an unintentionally comical scowl.
Ally burst into laughter, then covered her mouth. “Sorry, it’s just that…” She grabbed one of Evan’s clenched mitts. “First of all, I’m an LA girly girl, and I can make a way better fist. And second… never use flesh and bone in a serious fight when you have one of these lying about.” She shoved a meter-log section of mangrove limb into Evan’s hand.
Evan looked repulsed at the bludgeon, looked at Ally – who crossed her arms over her chest – then held up three fingers and counted down silently.
One… two… three!
Evan rushed the door of the rusty sheet metal shack, but it easily withstood his assault. He fell back clumsily on his ass, then jumped at the stubborn portal once again, this time kicking it and beating at it with the makeshift Billy-club.
“Here,” said Ally, rising onto her tippy toes and pulling a knotted line that dangled from a hole next to the door frame. A mechanical clunk reverberated through the metal siding. The door swung inward. “You’re welcome,” she mouthed silently.
The single room had no structural floor, just an area rug laid down over the sandy soil. A trail of leaf cutter ants was traversing the corner of the room, entering from under one wall, exiting under another. The room was not large, and was filled to capacity with a sleeping cot pushed to one side, a frayed wicker armchair, a small table with red Formica top, two stools, and small wood stove crafted from an oil drum – a sizzling cast iron skillet sat on top.
“He was just here,” said Ally, picking a cigarette butt out of an ashtray made from the bottom half of a Budweiser can. “Still warm.”
Evan looked crestfallen.
“Relax,” reassured Ally is her most soothing voice. “I’m sure it wasn’t that near-ultrasonic girly scream you let out when you smashed your knee against the door.”
“No? Oh good.” And that Evan seemed truly relieved Ally found adorably charming.
“More likely it was that seemingly endless stream of cow town expletives right afterward that did the trick,” she said, as if clarifying her point.
Evan rumpled his tanned and freckled brow. “Really, Miss Sassy Frass? Sarcasm at our worst hour?”
Ally snorted a truncated laugh. “Our worst…oh, no. There’s lot’s more darkness ahead. I can feel it. Hell, you’ve not yet met my mother! She’s a prelude to every apocalypse I’ve ever witnessed. Carol is a walking/talking omen of doom.”
“He was cooking something,” Evan observed, stepping closer to the converted oil drum wood stove. “Looks like fish.”
“Apparently recalcitrant Rodrigo was in the middle of lunch when he heard us coming and took off,” deduced Ally as she bent over the red Formica tabletop to examine a chipped ceramic plate with a partially eaten fillet of mystery fish swimming in grease, lime juice, and jerk seasoning. From under the plate, a corner of pink paper caught her eye. She pulled it out and read the bold faced black print aloud:
ANNUAL ISLAND FISH FRY!
6 o’clock PM, Friday, September 13th
Featuring Harry Simpson’s Flat Water Trio
ALL YOU CAN EAT!
“Are you asking me to dinner?” asked Evan, eyebrows jumping up his forehead.
“It’s tonight – I would never ask a gentleman, nor even a starving man of science, to dinner on such short notice.”
“That’s too bad,” bemoaned Evan. “I was going to say yes. I love fish.”
But Ally didn’t hear Evan’s retort. She was focusing on the large font that formed the words FISH FRY! The dot of the exclamation point was moving. As Ally watched, the dot wriggled to the top of the pink flyer, paused on the edge, then fell onto the plate and the half-eaten fish. Tossing the pink paper aside she craned her neck and focused her strong young eyes on the greasy, overly seasoned fish. The wiggling speck burrowed into the meat. With edge of Rodrigo’s tarnished fork, Ally gingerly scraped back the outer crust of black pepper, salt, chili, thyme, cinnamon, garlic, and nutmeg – and recoiled. The flesh beneath, despite being well-cooked, was rippling with movement from countless speck-sized larvae.
“Merde,” whispered the Bel Air beauty. “The heat should’ve killed these things. Hey, Evan, take a look at…”
Behind the biologist a human shape appeared out from under the tattered mattress. It was Rodrigo, the turtle killer. Before Ally could shout out a warning, Evan was spinning toward his nemesis, then flustered, stepped backwards to steady himself, but instead, his head thumped with a ripe melon tonality against the shack’s smooth center post. He went down like a sack of eels.
“Isn’t that just perfect,” muttered Ally, as Rodrigo, grinning fiendishly, stepped toward her.
Hunger… was all that she knew. Hunger drove her, guided her, and now had rewarded her with a new condition… consciousness. That was unexpected, but she could tell that it would come in handy.
The thing’s first thoughts were confused, stabbing pains of hunger and confusion, and the new vessel she found herself in… fleshy and weak. Then she was in the water, which had almost killed her. It was filled with a soup of microbes and caustic minerals that, in another hour, would have ended her. But the vessel’s brain, the one she had just moved into, was easily exploited with a few thousand nerve fibers boring into gray matter here, new synapses planted there. She modified that sweet, juicy brain, made it hers, and found that it gave her a sense of existence, a desire to expand her perception… and while doing so, find more food to devour. Because… hunger.
She used that feeble human body (never mind that it was decapitated, that was easily repaired with nerve fiber tendrils) to move herself to this new place – to this dry, dark, refuge from painful light and poisonous water. Yes, this place would do nicely. She liked the cool rock that surrounded her. This would be a good place to rest, and expand, and feed on the reptiles that were so fortuitously placed here. Their flesh provided basic nutrition that she needed to grow, but eventually, she would need more of the bipedal vessels with the delicious warm brains. She could take over the planet with an army of them. But not all would be turned into drones, no, not all. She would need an ally, one of the bipeds that could serve her in a way that infected drones could not.
It wasn’t long before she found her protector. It was the turtle killer himself! He stepped into the ancient lava tube cavern, carrying two dead reptiles and brandishing a device of electro chemical light – painful, but not crippling like photons of sunlight. She quickly subdued him with her specialized attack tentacles, holding him tightly aloft in the large cavern, amused by his pathetic struggling to free himself. But his species was no match for her. She tightened her hold.
He dropped the flashlight and the turtles. With a feeding tube tentacle she probed the two dead reptiles, sucked the soft tissue from their bony carapaces in less than a minute, then turned it on her captive. The feeding tube tentacle sniffed at his perspiring face, inhaled the sweat from his armpits and chest. He was trembling. Pheromones of all kinds radiated from him. Something about him intrigued her. She lifted him closer to her new human face, the one that recently belonged to Bambi. From empty orbits she peered out at him with beady red crustacean eyes. Yes, she thought. He will do.
As the terrified man stared at the pale bloodied human face with the crab stalk-eyes, she silently moved a neuron tentacle up from behind him. A drooling stinger appeared from the fleshy end of the tentacle, glistening for a moment in the dim electric torchlight. The stinger plunged into the base of the reptile killer’s skull, through his foramen magnum, probing deep into his medulla oblongata. From a microscopic pore in the stinger, she sent invasive nerve fibers up into the reason centers of his soft, warm, delicious pink brain, and deposited receptors for controlling him, as necessary. Then she withdrew the stinger and released the miserable, delicious creature.
Rodrigo collapsed. He struggled to all fours, crouched on the sandy floor of the cavern, hardly believing that he was still alive, his brain filled with white-hot agony. But the pain was receding quickly, or was being replaced with something else, something he had never felt before – love. He looked up at the thing, suspended in the cavern by buttresses of connective tissue and slimy tendrils. Though it made no sense to him, he loved the repulsive creature – part human girl, part lobster, part jellyfish – a blasphemous chimera. She filled his senses with her own thoughts, like a constant whisper behind every idea he dared think was his own – and Rodrigo liked how it felt. His mind felt stronger than ever. He knew that when he could stand again on two feet, his body would feel stronger, too. He was no longer an outlaw, a poacher, a criminal. He was her champion! He would do anything for her. Anything!
I love you so much, Rodrigo, her voice sang like a galaxy of Stradivarii in his mind as her directive filled his awareness. Now go make me an army, my love.
Ally grasped a thick vine firmly in her left hand and pulled herself up a vertical rock face. Hand over hand she climbed, doing quite possibly the most difficult work she’d ever done in all of her seventeen years – and had never had quite so much fun. The shore around this part of Isla Diablo was impassable, too rugged with cliffs and wave-washed boulders to navigate on foot. The only way to get anywhere was to go up.
The rock was ancient lava, reddish orange from its high iron content and a million years of oxidation. It was rough on her bare feet, but no longer razor sharp. The last ice age had compressed it, mellowed it, transformed it into an ideal substrate for jungle plants. Pausing, she looked back over her shoulder. She was surrounded by the colors, sounds, and smells of life. The cove, a brilliant aqua crescent, was five hundred feet below and the breathtaking view beyond something out of a 1960’s Sunset Boulevard travel billboard. It felt as if the trade winds cooling her perspiring skin had cleared her head of a lifetime of trivialities and self-constructed obstacles. She felt a part of the universe. This was freedom.
On hands and knees she clambered over the top of the cliff and onto a level step thick with tropical growth. The shelf ran laterally across the face of the massive cliff. In some places it was sixty feet wide, and supported mature stands of banga, avocado, mango, and banana.
Ally fell onto her back exhausted yet exhilarated.
“You okay there, Hollywood,” inquired Evan Rylander. He drank rainwater from a large heart-shaped leaf.
“Never better, Dr. Strangelove,” retorted Ally. “But I actually prefer my maiden name of Madam Bel Air, because if you think I want anything to do with Hollywood, you’d be dead wrong!”
“Noted. Not really my scene anyway.”
Ally’s eyes narrowed. “So you say, Dr. Kildaire, but I feel compelled to challenge. Riddle me this: the last movie you saw, in a theater, and it didn’t have giant robots, light sabers, or hobbits.”
“That’s a tough one. Would’ve been pre post-doc. Ah! It was a musical with that mousy actress, sorry, and the Aussie guy who can’t sing, not sorry. The Victor Hugo adaptation.”
“Jesus Christ on a Trisket, you’re telling me that the last movie you saw was Les Mis?”
“That’s the one!” shouted Evan triumphantly.
“Impressive…in a tasteless way. Victor was never my cup of Darjeeling. But you get points for clearly not knowing a damn thing about commercialized American cinema.”
“Okay, next question: who is that guy with the bigger boat than you, and oh yeah, he got away?”
Evan looked up from tightening his threadbare Nike’s. “You mean the Marqui de Sade of Isla Diablo.”
“Oooo, baby… when you mix francais with español like that I get all weak in my Broca’s and Wernicke’s.”
Evan’s right eyebrow jumped toward his sun-kissed hairline. “That’s nice, but I was hoping to tingle your primary somatosensory cortex.”
“I should slap you, sir. You haven’t even met my mother!” Ally sized up Evan’s genetic potential with a keen glance, then: “On second thought let’s keep it that way.”
“Like I said before, he’s a poacher – and a wanted eco terrorist.”
“Wanted…by whom?” pressed Ally. “Interpol, the FBI, the Super Friends?”
“One of those,” answered Evan vaguely, his mind now busy with agendizing, “but more germane to the task at hand, they put a hefty price on his head.”
“Right… So let me get this straight. He slaughters sea turtles… and you want to euphemistically kill him… ‘and what’s my motivation?’ …oh, that’s right…for thirty pieces of silver.”
“It’s not the same thing,” interjected Evan defensively. “This place has to be protected! He should be stopped!”
“For a buck.” Tropical birdcalls accented the deep quiet of the jungle. A gentle trade wind rustled the tops of the mango trees. Ally sat up and found herself surrounded by the most beautiful vine orchids possibly ever seen by human eyes. “Whoa…” escaped her parted lips.
“Do you get it now?” Evan asked rhetorically. “That’s the miracle of this place. There’s something unique behind every rock. Hell, in front of, on top of, and underneath it, too.” Evan examined one of the blossoms. “I’ve never seen this one, but it looks like a sub species of Ostrocodilus gangiopium.”
The girl from Bel Air had never felt so…present. She rose to her feet. Her energy was returning, as if this place was a giant battery and was supercharging every nerve and muscle in her body. Ally’s senses were sharper than they’d ever been, but it was her mind that felt like an electron-saturated dynamo. “I can see how you’d make that mistake. Look again, Mister Doctor Professor, sir. It’s trilobinius, not gangiopium. The anthers have three lobes – as anyone can plainly see.”
The scientist’s brow became geographic. The grad school lab instructor in him wanted to object to this upstart correction, but the researcher stopped him. He bent close to one of the orchids, reexamined it, and smiled. “Well, damn, you’re right! I didn’t see it. It was right in front of me.” Evan stared at the bikini-clad girl standing amidst a halo of tropical blooms.
When Ally spoke it was with another voice: “’The thin eyelid prevents the eye from seeing the world and what is contained therein. Then think of the result when the curtain of greed covers the sight of the heart!’”
“That’s from something,” asked Evan, feeling himself pulled toward this unusual girl. “What’s it from?”
Ally answered softly. “An old Egyptian told me that once, when I was visiting a dig near Luxor.”
“As happens when visiting a dig.” Evan stepped closer to Ally. “What else did the old Egyptian tell you?”
Ally threw back her hair and took in the view. “She said that someday I would have to make a choice between saving the world and finding the greatest love anyone has ever known.”
“Typical! No all-inclusive option for finding world class romance and saving the world?”
Shrugging, Ally answered matter-of-factly. “The old Egyptian seemed pretty sure it was one or the other.”
“Did she? Because although this dedicated, world-saving eco warrior actually kinda liked the Victor Hugo flick, I must defend an otherwise unblemished history of unwavering heterosexuality!”
Ally barked a laugh. “Unblemished, or unwavering… which is it? You know, the minute you have to defend your sexual orientation…”
“I liked it, okay?! It really… spoke to me! I mean…”
Ally interrupted Evan by pressing a finger to his lips.
“Hush,” she commanded in a whisper, “before you start wavering.” Ally threw herself into Evan’s arms, and their lips met.
The kiss was eternal. It had everything a kiss should, including a small but mutually electrifying amount of tongue.
After a while, Evan decided to peek, opening one eye ever so slightly. Far below, he saw a dark object moving on the water.
“Oh my God!” he shouted.
“I get that a lot,” cooed Ally. “In seventh grade the boys, okay and maybe a couple girls, secretly voted me best kisser at Cedar Canyon junior high.”
“No, no, no.”
Ally pulled away. “What’d’you mean ‘no’!”
“I mean no, it’s him! The turtle killer! Down there! He’s headed for Whaler’s Beach!” Evan pointed to the speck far below. It was El Tiburón.
“You can’t be serious,” declared Ally, planting her hands firmly on her hips. “Because that’s really not the direction I was envisioning this was gonna go.”
Evan planted a peck on Ally’s forehead and pulled away. “This time, he’s mine!”
Ally sighed. “And for just a moment there, so was I.”
Evan charged through the tropical underbrush. Ally lagged behind just far enough to avoid being slapped by the whiplash release of foliage from the scientist’s reckless passage. Pushing, pulling, crawling, and climbing they made slow progress through the nearly impenetrable growth. Maneuvering the narrow jungle shelf, they traversed a fair distance of the south face of the cliff. Birds scolded them as they disturbed the lazy afternoon island ecology. The biologist hoped that the commotion wouldn’t trigger an avian coconut telegraph, and alert his nemesis to their less-than-stealthy approach.
After a few minutes of eastwardly movement, Ally sensed that they were making little progress in the direction of the beach. “This way isn’t going to take us down to the turtle killer,” she admonished.
“I was coming to the same conclusion,” agreed Evan, and what he was thinking was: He can’t get away again. Not this time! We need a shortcut.
Ally stopped cold. “What the hell…” she whispered. Her skin was crawling with goose bumps. An unseen malice washed over her like the sickly sweet stench of decomposition. Without thinking she turned away from the path they were following, fought her way through a barrier of tangled vines toward the vertical wall of ancient lava. She broke through a stubborn matt of creepers, revealing the entrance to a cave.
“Hey bio-boy!” She shouted to Evan without turning away from the cavern mouth. “Take a gander at this.”
Following a brief battle with a vine, Evan appeared at Ally’s side. “Is that a…”
“Lava tube. You know… created when lava cools over the top of a flow, and then the molten rock drains out, leaving behind a tunnel. Science! You should try it.”
“…shortcut?” finished Evan.
“Never a good idea,” answered Ally, shaking her head. “You know what they say about shortcuts.”
“No. What do they say?”
“There are no shortcuts through the wilderness of life; Rip Vanwinkle.”
“Sorry, never read it. This could take us straight to where we want to go!”
“Or the venerable and personal favorite: Short cuts make for long delays; Fellowship of the Ring.”
“And again. Does seeing movie three times count?”
“Seriously, Evan? Who doesn’t read Lord the Rings at least once in their first week of grad school finals? It’s like a thing.”
“I drove up to Mount Baker every day, parked my 2004 Volvo at Artist’s Point and worked on my thesis until the sun set behind Vancouver Island.”
“Bet you didn’t take any short cuts to get there.”
“What I’m trying to say is: this island is riddled with these tunnels. Let’s take it. This is our chance to catch him!”
The handsome biologist and the brilliant beauty from Bel Aire plunged into darkness.
Harry Simpson was in deep trouble… and knowing that he had so haplessly volunteered for this fiasco made him want to kick himself. How had this happened? – he pondered, knowing damn well how this had happened. It was all about the ginger Siren in the wet, clingy tee-shirt, the second woman to rain misery down on him in as many days. But why does she look so familiar? It was as if he had known her in a previous life.
Even now Harry could sense doom drawing him into its inescapable clutches. A vise of destiny was slowly crushing him. No sirree, this will not end well.
Harry caught a whiff of repugnance undiluted. The smell served to remind him of his other plight. The ton of billfish in his lockers was unfit for feeding stray cats, let alone humans – daresay not even tourists! Had he remained in Puerto Verde, ignored the Siren’s irresistible song, he might’ve found a fertilizer buyer. That would have been the smart thing to do… and it’s what I should’ve done! Everyone knew that those big corporate sugarcane growers would sow damn near anything compostable into their fields to boost their yield. He‘d even heard of one plantation that had procured a dead humpback whale, chain-sawed it into manageable chunks, and buried it under their cane rows. Harry wondered fleetingly how rum made from that sugar would taste.
That’s exactly what I need, thought Harry with certainty, as a plan began to materialize. As soon they made landfall he was headed straight to the nearest watering hole, and based on their current heading, he had a pretty good idea whose watering hole it would be.
“And…we’re…rolling,” announced Brad McCall with perfunctory nonchalance. He started his shot on the back of Harry Simpson’s silver and coal-flecked head, just visible beneath a broad brimmed canvas hat. The wide blue Caribbean shimmered in the background. Brad widened his shot and panned left to reveal the main deck and staging area of the Lucille. His Ansel-Adams sense was tingling. The shot was pure art. The hazy tropical light, the rough, worn wood of the deck and rails, peeling paint, coiled lines and rusty cables, bloody fish stains everywhere – and there amidst all this coarseness, his perfectly turned out star.
Despite her rage at the situation, and the desire to find Ally and bring her back into the family fold, Carol Reeding McCall was too much of an old pro to let worry/anxiety/discomfort ruin a shot. Long before the selfie had become a ubiquitous artifact of the modern world, Carol had developed a keen self-awareness about how she looked to the camera, a power that told her Brad’s lens was drinking up the scene, and it was up to Carol to do her part. Chin held high, she tilted her head back just so, knowing that the sun would strike her hair perfectly, highlights glinting in the breeze, and that bothersome glare off the cabin windows softly filling the shadows under her jaw. The only thing distracting her now was the unmistakable smell of fish in an advanced state of decomposition.
Carol knew this odor only too well, from a time at Muzzo & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. She had stormed out of an otherwise delicious lunch of excellent sand dabs with her agent Sidney Gold and some lowlife Neanderthal of a producer. Carol recalled pushing her way past the prim and professional waiter and out the rear entrance of the restaurant. As she moved to hail a cab, there came the odor of pure unvarnished rotting death. Behind the building an overflowing dumpster, fault of the striking LA waste disposal workers, was disgorging a pungent hash of carrot peelings, celery leaves, lettuce ribs, and a crowning glory of fish remains. Carol spun on her copper and turquoise Ivanka Trumps (had she really paid $600 for those!), stepped in something unsavory, and found herself transfixed by the biological tableau. She could not look away.
Flies buzzed around the waste, crawled into open fish mouths and emerged through eye sockets. After festering all day in the southern California sun, the smell was unbearable. And yet Carol somehow held her gorge, and held it well… until she realized that the fish she had so thoroughly enjoyed thirty minutes ago was the very same that was liquefying on the asphalt around her overpriced footwear.
Two decades had passed, and no fish of any kind had passed the lips of Carol McCall since that day. Now she did her best to ignore the smell of three tons of rotting billfish, played to the camera without ever looking into the lens. “What an exquisite morning,” she announced. “Why… I just love the fresh ocean breeze. And just look! You can see so many plush, virile islands!” She stood, as if to get a better view, thrusting her famous assets toward the receding horizon, knowing instinctively when to ratchet up the performance.
Ker-splat! Seagull poop painted the bench where Carol had been sitting only a moment earlier.
“Cut!” called Brad with irritation. “Damn it, Ma! Bird shit? Really?”
“Well don’t look at me,” said Carol defensively. “And mind your language. You’re the one who didn’t hire professional seabirds.”
“Bloody close call, if you ask me,” declared Harry Simpson, wiping off the guano with a grease-stained mechanic’s cloth.
“I didn’t,” said Carol flatly. “But a clean towel to sit on would be lovely.”
“You used the last of the clean ones, buttercup,” informed Harry. “But stone me, you do look familiar.”
“Do I? Really?” asked Carol innocently.
Brad had to admit, she was good – damn good. When it came to seducing cameras and men, his mother had serious skills. He raised the camera to his eye and thumbed the trigger. “Mr. Captain, sir… if you haven’t figured it out by now, she’s a movie actor.”
“Star,” interjected Carol.
“I stand corrected,” said Brad. How could I forget? He was remembering the summer three years ago when he wasn’t allowed to attend a young filmmakers’ camp at NYU because Carol had spent all discretionary family funds to reserve her burial plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery, the last one available anywhere near her idol, Lucille Ball. Brad would never forget Carol ranting that only real stars were buried in that section of Forest Lawn, as she would be. When the time came.
Harry Simpson made a squeaky sound of surprise, pressed both palms to his face and took a step back, eyes wide. “Yes! It was Starlight Rendezvous! Brilliant picture! It’s your togs that tossed me! Don’t recall that you wore a stitch in that one. But blimey, you’re the very Carol Reeding!”
Carol looked away, trying to hide her smile. “You know, I became a method actor for that damn director!”
Brad laughed. “Ma, you played a hooker.”
Harry Simpson danced around the deck, like a child acting out a scene from his favorite film. “Good Lord, when you stood beneath that waterfall…” His hands pantomimed the cascading stream. “Your blouse flying off, and the water… trickling… over every perfect curve!” Harry was panting. “Oh, my!”
“You do know that picture well,” said Carol with renewed admiration.
“Ought to,” explained Harry. “Must’ve traipsed down to the old Blue Banana Playhouse half a dozen times for that one.” Harry could see that Brad’s eyebrows were climbing up his forehead, so he hastened to explain. “This was before Cinemax or home video, you see.”
“I was quite proud of that one,” said Carol. “Did some of my best work in it. “
“It bears repeating… you played a hooker,” intoned Brad, still filming.
“Won a Golden Globe for that performance, didn’t you?” asked Harry rhetorically. Carol was beaming and smiling coquettishly. Harry was grinning like a schoolboy. “You were robbed, buttercup.” He glanced at the taut fabric of her designer tee. You deserved…two.”
“Platinum,” whispered Brad. “Pure.”
Carol glared straight into the camera, nostrils flaring. “Bradley, would you for once, turn that damn thing off?!”
Brad zoomed in. “Not a snowball’s chance, Ma. We are making history here. There is truth to uncover. A legend to reveal! We are stripping away the myth that surrounds Carol Reeding McCall!”
Harry looked around. “Stripping? Who, pray tell, is stripping?”
Carol threw up her hands. “Brad, you’re incurable!”
“Incorrigible,” corrected Brad. “But keep going.”
Carol was in full rage. “My agent and lawyer will hit you with a Disease and Dentistry order!”
For the young filmmaker, it didn’t get any better than this. Focusing on a throbbing vein on Carol’s left temple, Brad goaded further. “That would be Cease and Desist – and last year, just FYI, Sid and Armando served me with a Please and Continue order! That film is our family cash cow. You’re welcome! The bonus deleted scenes will be sending me to USC Film School! Makes the whole Girls Gone Wild series look like…”
Harry gave Brad’s arm a squeeze. He had been watching Carol through all this and could see twinges of embarrassment and underlying shame. He lowered his voice for Brad’s ears only. “You made your point, young sir. Now show a kindness.”
Brad swallowed, his face reddening. “Sorry, Ma. That was good stuff back there. Thanks.” He lowered the camera, but continued filming.
“Of course it was good stuff,” said Carol matter-of-factly, slightly insulted. “I am a professional!” Suddenly her eyes went wide, and she continued in a near panic. “Dear God! I hadn’t thought of this, but if this picture is a hit…” She paused, the gears spinning madly, “they’ll want an interview! Correction… interviews plural! But I’m not ready! There is so much to do!” She peeled off the tee, exposing skin remarkably well maintained and a tortured pearl-colored bikini top, the only thing that separated Carol’s twin trademarks from God and all His witnesses.
Harry, who had suddenly lost his ability to speak, whispered hoarsely to Brad, “When you get ‘round to it, I’ll be wanting that on DVD, young sir.”
“Colonel…” said Carol in her kindest summoning tone, eyes closed, face, chest, and legs in prime sun-gathering pose.
“That’d be Captain,” corrected Brad.
“Harry, buttercup, will suffice,” responded the Brit.
“As you wish, Captain Buttercup. I believe we have an arrangement. Can you tell me when will you find my Ally? Does this vesicle go any faster? This seems to be taking forever.”
“It could take a little time m’lady, but you may rest assured that I won’t spare the horses.”
“See that you don’t. I’m instructing you to employ each and every horse. In the mean time, it sounds as if I have time for tanning.”
“No additional charge for the tanning, mum,” said Harry.
“That really is so very kind of you, Captain Buttercup. All-inclusive really is the best way to go on these excursions. I’ve always said so. And if you would be a lamb, send your mani-pedi girl over here at her earliest convenience.”
Harry opened his mouth, closed it, then turned and looked quizzically at Brad.
“This is why I never stop filming,” responded Brad, grinning from behind the camera. “I love you, Ma!”
Carol waved at the air. “I love you too, honey! And if, and when, you decide that you’re gay, you might want to give some serious thought to something in design. The gays own that industry, you know. You’d make a stellar interior decorator. Just saying.”
“Thanks for that, Ma.” Brad stifled no less than seven distinct retorts. This, he reasoned, must be how Ally felt most of the time.
At the cockpit, Harry looked up from the radar, and back at his passengers. “Mum, young sir… two blips on the radar just tucked in behind Isla Diablo. One of them is sure to be your darling dearest. ETA in one hour.”
“Ally’s met her match!” declared Carol, somehow without gumming up her Coral Nebula lipstick.
Brad panned hard, framing a new shot on the towering clouds ahead of them and the dark horizon beneath. He was delighted at how ominous and foreboding the shot appeared – Ansel Adams would approve! He narrated the shot as the camera captured every menacing pixel. “That’s right…Isla Diablo. That’s where she has fled. That’s where we foolishly dare to follow.” He zoomed in, centering his shot on a shadowy place beneath the growing cumulonimbus. “Who knows what terror lies in store for the runaway Ally on a godforsaken rock known as the Island of the Devil?”
The air was delicious. The droning of the Volvo diesel was hypnotic. The slight chop against the hull was both jarring and relaxing. It was a boat thing.
Evan Rylander could no longer see El Tiburón, but he knew where its master was going. Ahead, the midday clouds were stacking nicely over as-yet unseen Isla Diablo. Those darkening towers of white and gray made the western Caribbean sky painfully blue. Later, they were in for some weather, he could feel it. He could taste the negative ions. The usually-methodical scientist had intended to check the National Weather Service marine forecast back at Puerto Verde, but everything got thrown into chaos when the girl erupted into his life – followed by the sudden appearance of El Tiburón and the monster at her helm, the white whale to his own Ahab.
Evan made a mental note to check the forecast when he got back on land. For now, however, he couldn’t have asked for a nicer day weather-wise. He dogged the wheel and pulled off his shirt just as the girl appeared from the nook beneath the foredeck. A perfectly temperate breeze felt rejuvenating on his sweaty torso. The girl appeared not to notice. She turned to face the bow, letting the wind blow back her golden hair, then made room on the bench seat by adjusting a large cardboard box from Fisher Scientific. But alas, still no sign of interest from the girl. Evan died a little inside.
“You lost him,” Ally pronounced with profound disinterest.
Evan looked across his right shoulder at her. Her legs were folded at the knee, her left arm draped over the gunwale. She looked at him without expression.
Evan returned his gaze forward. The dark cliffs of Isla Diablo were now visible. Home.
“And not for the first time, I’m afraid,” Evan lamented casually.
Ally inspected the nails of her right hand at arm’s length, appeared pleased with their condition, and asked, “So… what’s he guilty of?”
Cynical laughter exploded from Evan. “What isn’t he guilty of? – is a better question. It’s a long ass list that includes murdering endangered sea life, poaching, and illegal dumping in protected waters. But this villain is slippery as an eel.”
Ally folded her arms. “Oh good lord, villain? Really? Now it all makes sense. You’re with PETA! Or what, a former cast member of Whale Wars! Please, oh please tell me you’re not a tragic bard. I cannot, will not, abide post-modern self-obsessed poet warriors. What an insufferable menage of self-indulgent trust fund brats. Jesus… please say you’re not an aspiring poet waiting to be discovered by NPR. I’ll go over the side and end it right now! I’m not kidding!”
Ally’s set jaw and stiff posture said it all. She could not have been more repulsed. Evan burst into a gut-wrenching guffaw.
“Oh my God,” he said gasping for breath, “I’ve been called many things, but never a poet… of any kind.” He offered his hand. “Just plain old Evan Rylander, destitute and starving research biologist.” Ally tentatively took the hand and shook it. The biologist gestured toward the island with a nod. “But this bastard… If I can catch him in the act, I stand to collect one hell of a…”
“Oh, now I see how it is,” said Ally, eyes narrowing. “You’re kinda noble. But not, odieux noble.” Then, injecting a precision dose of sarcasm she drove it home. “Nobility can be a real burden, huh?”
Evan looked trapped. “Well, what I meant was… it’s not about the reward money really,” he stammered, looking like he’d been caught stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar.
“Of course it isn’t,” mused Ally with a smirk. “Hey, it’s okay. I totally get extrinsic motivation. I grew up in Beverly Hills, after all. By the eighth grade Mom was paying out five thousand bucks for every A on my report card. Honor roll last year got me a new Audi R8, which I promptly…”
The boat lurched. Thud! Something glanced off the hull. Ally tumbled forward into Evan.
“What the hell…” burst Evan.
“Watch where you’re steering,” admonished Ally.
Evan cut the engine. Several more thuds reverberated through the hull. Together they looked over the side.
The sea was littered with dead and dying sea turtles. A nylon drift net appeared to be strung between a pair of small floats perhaps two hundred yards apart, essentially barricading the mouth of a small inlet. The lush cliffs of Isla Diablo rose up from the back of the bay.
Ally felt her throat tightening with anguish for the tragic sea reptiles, but rage quickly supplanted it. “What the fuck? Is this his work? This is outrageous! This has got to be illegal! This is a crime against… against Nature! We have to radio the authorities!”
Ally turned to see Evan staring stony faced at the carnage. Tears streaked his bestubbled cheeks. He looked back at her, eyes swimming, unable to find his voice, but words were no longer necessary. In that instant she knew him, understood what drove this Pacific Northwest tree hugging, orca saving, Palouse earthworm protecting bio-vigilante.
Evan’s voice returned with an explosion of rage that he directed toward the cliffs of Isla Diablo. “You murderous piece of naked mole rat excrement! When I catch you I will kill you with sea urchin spines and jellyfish tentacles! No, that’s too good for you! I will find what you love and cherish… like I love these animals… and I will destroy it, whatever it is!” Evan realized he was shaking his fist, and slowly dropped his arm to his side. He continued in a course whisper. “Now do you see? He’s the scum of the earth! Worse than that – he is the devil. But a few dollars here and there and the authorities look the other way every time. Every single goddamn time.”
Ally surveyed the inlet and its litter of dead sea creatures. Yet, there was movement here and there. Some were still alive, barely.
“Oh my god,” gasped Ally. “Some are alive. A knife! Hurry! We have to free them!”
Ally rifled through a tool bucket, pulled out a short bladed filleting knife. She reached over the side of the boat and began furiously cutting the nylon cord netting. She freed one turtle, then another. Evan started the engine and maneuvered the boat slowly through the killing field as Ally rescued several more of the animals as fast as she could. After several minutes of desperate effort the girl from the Canyons pulled herself upright and dropped the knife. “The rest are already dead. I’m so sorry.”
“Not as sorry as he will soon be,” muttered Evan, pointing.
There it was, El Tiburón, resting on the incoming swell. A distant figure was visible pulling dead turtles in over the transom. He was intent on his labor and hadn’t yet seen Rylander’s boat some two hundred yards away. A long steel blade caught the tropical sun as it stabbed into a live turtle, cutting sinew and tendon. Brutal hands tore the carapace away from the dying creature. Blood poured off the back of El Tiburón.
Ally gasped. “It’s him,” she shouted. “It’s Captain Eco-scum!”
The poacher’s head snapped up from his work. He dropped the turtle carcass, aiming his long gaze at Rylander and Ally across the water. He assessed them quickly, then jumped to the helm of his dark stained metal boat.
“He heard you loud and clear,” said Evan. “Great.”
“Yeah, that came out louder than I had intended,” said Ally, wincing.
El Tiburón’s engine roared to life. A cloud of oily smoke belched from its exhaust and floated over the inlet. The poacher pulled up the anchor, made it fast, and scrambled over white buckets of turtle meat to grab the wheel. A moment later El Tiburón was moving, accelerating – directly toward Evan and Ally.
“Oh shit,” muttered Ally. “Evan, if you want this guy, you’d better get your gun.”
“That’s not likely to happen,” said Evan, his gaze never wavering from his nemesis.
“No seriously, Evan,” hissed Ally. “He’s going to mow us down. Get your damn gun!”
“Don’t believe in them,” said Evan flatly.
Ally’s eyes rolled skyward. “Pity, because they do exist. Furthermore, this bastard is not slowing down!”
El Tiburón was one and a half regulation soccer fields away. Blue-black smoke boiled from behind her.
Evan stood tall, hands planted on his hips defiantly, as if daring the poacher to come any closer.
Ally stared in flabbergasted awe. “Good God! You are an actual noble-PETA-poet-whale-warrior suffering delusions of eco-grandeur! Do something!“
Evan suddenly jumped to life. He reached into the under-nook and pulled out a three year old Nikon D7200. “This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.”
Ally threw her hands into the air. “Oh for fuck’s sake! What are you going to do with that – throw it at him?!”
El Tiburón was fast approaching now.
Ally continued. “Because I can tell ya, as a life-long prey of the paparazzi, even with a solid kilo in weight the long lens on that camera won’t stop a dainty yet determined fist, let alone a Chrysler-442 inboard pushing three tons of angry aluminum!”
Evan was snapping photos of the looming poacher boat and yelling, “Bring it, you motherfucking son of a shit-sucking coward!”
He is completely insane, thought Ally, and here I am falling for him. Jesus!
Through his $4000 Zeiss telephoto lens, the last thing Evan saw before bedlam was the poacher’s grinning leer, and his uncharacteristically perfect teeth.
As she dove over the side, Ally was thinking rock, paper, scissors, but modified it in this particular case to water, aluminum, fiberglass.
In the end, Rylander’s Bayliner runabout impeded El Tiburón’s velocity so little that hypothetical advanced motion calculus with super computer physics modeling would be unable to detect even a fraction of deceleration. In other words, the aluminum poacher boat crashed through the smaller vessel, splintering it into innumerable pieces and sending its load of scientific research equipment to the bottom of Smuggler’s Cove.
By the time Evan Rylander broke to the surface gasping for air, El Tiburón was gone. In every direction the sea was littered with broken bits of fiberglass and parcels that hadn’t immediately sunk.
“My boat! My research logs! All my equipment,” mourned the man of science. Where was the girl? He looked around frantically. “Ally!” he shouted. “Ally, where are you?”
Pumping his lungs for maximum oxygen saturation Evan dove beneath the surface. Down he went, looking in all directions through the cloud of flotsam that used to be his boat and the conveyances of his livelihood. Where was she?
With a powerful breaststroke he descended. The bottom was uneven, some thirty feet deep right here. Directly below him was a shelf of rock and coral. It threw a shadow over a sandy depression littered with turtle carcasses and viscera. Imbedded in the coral shelf’s vertical face was a natural tunnel entrance some eight feet in diameter. Ally hovered at the opening, looking inside. Evan swam down to her. He tapped her on the shoulder. Ally pointed toward the cave threshold. Evan followed her finger. Something was moving in there. A shape emerged from the shadows, a thick tentacle of translucent flesh. It reached randomly, yet with a kind of raw intelligence, in several directions until it touched a turtle shell with fatty flesh clinging to it. It then wrapped tightly around the turtle’s remains and pulled them into the tunnel and out of sight.
Both girl and scientist suddenly felt the unmistakable urge to get far away from the undersea cavern entrance as quickly as possible.
When they broke the surface, Ally McCall and Evan Rylander swam for the nearest shore, a narrow strip of smooth wave-polished rocks at the base of the cliffs. It was a short swim, and neither of them mentioned what they had just seen, nor would they for quite some time.
Brad McCall had a knack for knowing when video magic was about to happen. He called it his VOSP: video opportunity superpower. In the disheveled suite of the Holiday Empress, the young artist was taking full advantage of his gift. He panned his camera around the post-Ally cabin, then held his final composition with the main entrance perfectly framed.
In a subdued soto voce the teen-aged documentarian narrated: “A chill fills the cabin. An unnamed evil approaches… Well, it has a name. Several actually – all of which would illicit a stiff fine from the F.C.C., if this stellar documentary makes it to air.”
Suddenly, the universe glitched. Somewhere in the world a cat screeched and an old man coughed with a sound like shredding cabbage. Somebody inexplicably dropped an ice cream cone on hot pavement for no reason.
The light changed. There came from outside the suite, a voice. It was not a kind voice. It arrived from down the corridor like a harsh winter gale, with a timbre that made fingernails-on-chalkboard sound like Vivaldi. It was the voice of a livid, impatient, irate goddess intent on smiting mortals because it pleased her to do so. Brad imagined glass frosting over as she approached, of paint peeling from the bulkheads, of lighting fixtures going dark, and potted plants withering as she passed.
And then, just like that, she filled the doorway.
Carol Reeding McCall, starlet of scores of low-budget genre motion pictures, self-proclaimed Queen of the B’s, she-who-ruined-Galaxy Studios Group, swept into the swankiest guest suite the Holiday Empress could offer.
Carol scanned the room with a death-ray gaze, effortlessly avoiding the lens of Brad’s camera. There was no need to remind Miss McCall don’t look at the camera. She was, after all, a professional!
From behind the lens Brad whispered: “Aaand… action!”
The fifty year-old screen legend struck a pose. She shook back her magnificently coifed chestnut tresses. Her lips parted in slow motion, and the words left her mouth with the same cadence as a strolling tyrannosaurus rex: “Where…is…she?”
Brad was in his element now, a joyful pig in waist-deep life-as-art slops. This was the unscripted drama he craved, and needed for his masterwork. This was the blood and guts of a human story that nobody but Bradley Baker Francis McCall could tell with any shred of artistic integrity. And yet he wanted more from his subject. With his eye pressed to the viewfinder, he coaxed: “Mother dear, you only just missed her.”
Carol straightened, inhaling with nostrils flared. “Why, oh why do I sacrifice so much for that girl? God only knows. It’s these damn maternal instincts; they are both blessing and curse! All I asked was a week – one fucking week! Seven days to live and play and relax and just be… together like any other normal family.”
Brad stepped up onto a chair, and was now directing his camera down at Carol and her canyonesque cleavage, the surrounding mountains shimmering with perspiration. This was good stuff, and another filmmaker would’ve been pleased over-the-moon, but Brad wanted more… demanded more. “Not so sure Family McCall could ever be described that way, mother dear. I mean, we don’t even own a sweater-wearing French bulldog.”
Carol spun, looked up straight into the lens. “I will not be criticized! I sacrificed more for you and your sister than you will ever know, or understand! Jesus Christ, I could have gone to the very top if I hadn’t put family first! Helluva lot of good that did me. Hold it, let me do that again…” She cleared her throat. “The Good Lord knows I could have been the next Rita Hayworth. I had the offers, so many offers. Even bidding wars from the majors. But alas, those maternal instincts could not be squelched. I knew my place, a sacred trust, and that my beloved children were more important than the fleeting rewards of celebrity and notoriety. Better.”
“More takes for the editor, thanks, Ma ,” commented Brad. “Now back to the A storyline. Let’s work on your motivation. Your daughter Ally? She’s missing. She’s run off. She was here briefly, as we can see by the mess. Maybe she left a clue to where she might be going.” It was working. Carol had stopped monologue-ing. Brad could see the resolute, spurned mother bear emerging. “Now let’s have some action. Cross to the dresser, please. Yes, that’s it. Good…”
Carol followed Brad’s direction without a thought. “She can’t have gotten far,” reasoned Carol. She pulled open the top dresser drawer. Carol stepped back and appraised the remaining contents of the drawer. “It’s missing!”
Brad looked around the camera at Carol. “The editor needs a subject, Ma, come on. Work with me. What is missing?”
“My La Blanca – the red one! My favorite, of course.”
Brad resumed filming. He prodded: “Isn’t that the same swimsuit you said was depraved, revealing, and let me get this right: sluttier than Brittany Spiers at a midnight release party? And then you forbade Ally from getting one like it.”
“I stand by that. She isn’t old enough to wear that whore suit.”
“News flash, Ma. That suit was made for her.”
Carol opened her perfect full lips to answer, but interrupted herself. “It’s fine. This isn’t a problem. She can’t go anywhere without money.”
Brad held his shot. His filmmaking instincts were prodigal. Carol was never one to disappoint. Wait for it….
“Where the fuck…” she started as she yanked the drawers out of the chest, one after the other, “is my damned wallet?” Underwear, passport, and a ten-inch realistic vibrator – ebony, lay strewn across the white marble floor. “It’s gone! She knew right where I hid it. That’s my girl.”
Brad panned over the chaos lovingly, ending his frame on Carol’s reddening visage.
“She took it!” announced Carol to her invisible audience. “That spoiled rotten little slut stole my wallet… my Céline!” Carol’s eyes were Golden Age crazy as her furious gaze moved toward the balcony and the tropical vista beyond. “Bradley, grab your things. Cancel that… no time.”
Carol swept out of the cabin with Brad in tow by his left ear, wincing in pain and protesting: “Hey! We’re still rolling here!”
“Indeed, we are!” agreed Carol sternly, as mother and son receded down the passageway in hot pursuit of the seventeen year-old beauty.
The usual denizens of M Dock had never seen anything like the entourage presently parading up the long boardwalk. A striking woman with big hair and impractical footwear led a crew of cruise line pursers and one camera-toting teenaged boy. From somewhere, boat speakers were playing Wooly Bully. The former starlet’s two-inch pumps kept perfect time to the beat of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs.
“Allison Louise McCall!” bellowed the family matriarch with foghorn intensity. “You are grounded!”
Carol’s bullhorn herald arrived down the dock fifty-seven seconds ahead of her. Ally swore – but tragically her cleverly worded French epithet was lost under the roar of an eight-cylinder long block Chrysler as it pushed a twenty-foot aluminum workboat out of the marina in haste.
Bellowing clouds of diesel exhaust the boat thundered past the end of M dock, throwing an illegal wake over the platform. Evan’s smaller Bayliner was lifted several feet and slammed into the fenders. El Tiburón accelerated out of the harbor on a course for the open sea.
“Son of a bitch! You goddamn motherfucking piece of shit!” shouted Evan scrambling to prevent his new equipment from tumbling overboard. As the wake subsided, the biologist leapt to the wheel, barking over his shoulder to Ally. “That’s him! Get on!”
Encouragement wasn’t something Ally required – Carol was fast approaching. “Aye, aye, mon capitaine!” As she hopped over the port gunwale Ally caught the shiny new centrifuge teetering precariously above the drink. “Ready when you are, skipper!”
El Tiburón was growing distant. Evan pressed the starter and finessed the choke control. The Bayliner’s Mercury outboard sputtered and smoked. From the wheel Evan coaxed the throttle with teeth clenched. “Come on, baby. You can do this.” The Mercury coughed.
From a hundred yards up the dock, Carol shouted, “Ally, get off that boat and come here this instant!” On the word “instant” the wake from El Tiburón arrived where Carol stood wagging her finger, and broke spectacularly against a piling. Stepping back, the cruise ship personnel and young Bradley watched with mouths agape as white water arced gracefully up and came splashing down on Carol.
A grinning Brad peered from behind his camera, eyes lifted skyward, mouth silently forming the words, Thank you!
The Bayliner’s Mercury thundered to life.
“Fuckin’ yeah!” shouted Evan.
Ally braced herself with one hand and held down a loose collecting net with other. Evan threw off the mooring line and gunned the engine. Picking up speed the sixteen-foot Bayliner’s nose lifted as Evan steered to pursue El Tiburón. For a moment they paralleled M dock, then turned away from the marina at a point ten yards from where a soaked Carol stood thunderstruck.
Va et faire foutre! shouted Ally. She blew Carol a dramatic farewell kiss as the Bayliner sent a second wake showering over the McCall matriarch.
Fat drops of Caribbean seawater splattered in puddles around Carol’s soggy open toed Christian Louboutin pumps. The Bahamian coral Tory Burch beach smock clung revealingly. Carol glowered at the receding Bayliner, nostrils flared.
Brad cleared his throat, then directed a stage whisper at his star, “We are rolling, Ma. And the light is… er… working for you. Working very well.”
Carol’s bosom swelled with rage. Her gaze never wavered from the diminishing speck of the boat and Ally, her Too Faced, Better Than Sex mascara had held flawlessly. “Twenty thousand dollars for French lessons and she couldn’t order water off a menu, but can cuss like a frickin’ French sailor!”
Moving to a vantage point behind Carol, Brad softly suggested “Ma, could you twist left, just a little. The backlight is totally complimenting your, uh…”
“Turn that thing off!” demanded the starlet, shaking herself out of a mommy bear/camera ready daze. “I will not have you filming another movie mockery of moi.” Then breaking her gaze Carol spun on Brad, eyes narrowing. “What are you thinking for a title?”
“More Movie Momma Madness”
“That’s not bad,” said Carol with an approving nod. “But… my name above the line this time!”
Brad shrugged, “Fine, but no first dollar gross. Deal?”
Carol shrugged in agreement.
To his mounting horror, Carol turned her attention to the chief purser. The terrified officer sensed he was about to be carved into fun-size bites and fed to overbearing child passengers, yet was transfixed by the legendary features of Mangos McCall. He managed a simple, weak, “Ma’am?”
To say that Carol was accustomed to this form of straight male distraction was the epitome of understatement. She rolled her eyes, knowing full well that the purser wasn’t looking up that far. She roared, “My daughter is getting away!” Her left arm went to the three o’clock position, finger pointing towards the behemoth cruise liner a quarter mile distant. “Well? Don’t just stand with your jaw on your gut. Start up your boat and make chase!”
Brad cleared his throat. “Ma, word choice. Think bigger.”
Carol glared at her son, then back to the Holiday Empress, then back to Brad. From deep within she pulled up the word… “Ship!”
The chief petty officer snapped his heels together and led the crewmen away from the crazy American movie star and her overly-indulged son as quickly as their starched whites allowed.
Brad shaded his eyes and looked beyond the harbor. “Well, Ma, hope you have a Plan B. Ally is halfway to Havana by now. Halfway to Havana… not bad for a title.” He knew only too well how to get a performance from his star.
“Like Hell…” hissed Carol. She scanned the marina with predatory intensity, and there it was – a sign! Through pilings, spars, rigging, and nets she saw a name embossed across the transom of a fishing vessel. She read the name aloud. “Lucille!”
Holding their noses, Harry Simpson and Cubby Anderson were standing over the open fish locker, looking inside. Harry slammed the lid shut.
“That’s a new one on me,” commented Cubby.
“A bloody damn mystery, I’d call it,” said Harry. “Me wonders if they wouldn’t make dandy fertilizer.”
The fish buyer wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “Harry, I don’t think anybody wants whatever that is in there. Wish I could help you.”
“As do I,” said Harry, waving off Cubby as the fish buyer took his leave. “’I am a man whom fate hath cruelly scratched’…”
“Your fortunes may be looking up,” commented Constable Monty Kingslander, cocking his head toward two obvious off-islanders, a mother and son, approaching at a fast clip.
Carol presented herself to the constable with a, for Carol, courteous nod. “You there, Captain, my good sir! This is your ship?”
Brad winced, mouthed the word boat.
Kingslander smiled his huge smile. He loved privileged mainlanders. When they tried, they tried so hard, and almost always blew it. “You would be looking for this gentleman here,” explained Monty, gesturing to Harry Simpson. “He’s the captain.” He winked at Harry. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an island to protect and serve.” As Monty made his way up the dock he admired Carol’s assets at a glance and gave Harry a departing gaze that said “behave yourself!” Then whistling the theme from Bridge Over the River Kwai he receded from view.
Harry Simpson was smiling like a sailor on his first weekend liberty in Bangkok. “Yo-ho!”
Carol’s image of charm gave way to one of ice. “I beg your pardon,” she intoned coldly.
Brad sighed. “No, Ma…no. ‘Yo-ho’ like the pirate song. An archaic nautical term once employed by British sailors during physical exertion. Not the ‘yo, ho’ of late twentieth century misogynistic rappers.”
“And just where the hell did you learn that kind of language?!” demanded Carol.
“Where else… from sis!” answered Brad.
Humph! “That’s one more thing I will be bending her ear about.” As Carol turned to the fishing boat captain she transformed. In an instant her manner became softer, her posture more alluring, her voice suddenly devoid of shrillness. She took a slow step toward Harry. “So you’re the captain. Did I catch a hint of an accent? Oh, I do love British men.”
Harry blushed, then stammered: “Yes, yes, and what’s not to love about our American cousins? We all suckle from the same…er… I mean…
“The British are quite the commandoes of English,” said Carol admiringly.
Brad ‘s VOSP was tingling. “Gold as ever, Ma. Now give me one for the editor. Move closer to Mr. Shakespeare; I need the two-shot.”
“Sounds like a cocktail,” commented Harry.
With a nod of understanding Carol took the direction. She closed the gap between she and Harry, shook back her tresses, and moistened her lips. With his free hand Brad signaled Action!
Carol slipped effortlessly into character, paused a moment, then poured it on. “I’m in dire need of your services, good sir! A total stranger just sailed away with my daughter! I want to hire a boat – and someone to… to…” Brad held his shot, but Carol was drawing a blank. “Shit. I’m sorry. Line!”
Harry looked skyward, searching the flawless Caribbean blue for the cloud with the lines.
“How about…” proposed Brad, “someone to pilot her.”
“Yes, thank you,” responded Carol, as she turned on her acting switch. “And I will need someone, anyone with an ounce of compassion, to pilot her.”
“Less is more, Ma,” pleaded Brad from behind the camera.
Harry offered Carol a hand as she stepped aboard the Lucille. “Much as I would love to accommodate you, buttercup, I’ve got a thousand pounds of fetid fish to unload straight away, and if…”
“Good lord, that smell!” Carol covered her nose.
“That would be the afore mentioned fish comma less-than-fresh, which I will tragically have to discard. Ka-bloody-ching”
“Then I will make it worth your while, kind sir.” Carol planted a hand on her hip. “I’ll pay you fifty pestos.”
Brad died a little. “It’s pesos, Ma. And that’s what… less than three bucks.” He swung the camera toward Harry. “Hey mister. You’ve just been seriously insulted. Where’s the outrage? Show me some red-faced exasperation with some proper British cursing… maybe a bugger this, and a bleeding that.”
Carol squared her shoulders. “I can give you a hundred…”
“Dollars,” interrupted Harry. He had been eyeing Carol’s jewelry among other things, and knew easy money when he saw it. “Two hundred of them. And, buttercup, it will be cash.”
Carol sputtered, searching for words that didn’t come. She clearly wasn’t accustomed to not getting her way, let alone being told how it was going to be.
Brad was amused. “S’matter, Ma? Gobsmacked?”
“Watch your language, young man!” scolded Carol, then faced Harry, looking him up and down appraisingly. “Two hundred dollars? Well, I never! That’s outrageous! Huff. Okay, fine. Will you accept an IUD?”
Brad stifled a snort. Harry opened his mouth to comment, then thought better of it.
Carol continued, gesturing out to sea and explaining. “Ally stole all my real, American money! And if ever I needed a shiny armoire of the night…”
Brad face palmed, not for the last time. “Knight in shining armor, I think is what you mean.” He continued filming.
“The truth is,” offered Harry in a conciliatory tone, “I am ‘ever a sucker for hard ass…”
“…Luck…” suggested Brad.
“Cases,” continued Harry. “We can shove-off whenever you’re ready.”
“I’ll have you know that I am not that kind of girl!” exclaimed Carol.
Amused by his mother’s misinterpretation, Brad translated. “Ma, shove-off means to set sail, leave port, begin the voyage.”
“Well then…yo-ho!” declared Carol.
“Pure gold,” whispered Brad, patting his camera affectionately.
“There are towels down below, in the head,” explained Harry, directing Carol toward the companionway. “Just make yourself at home, buttercup.”
Carol paused at the hatch, directing a flirtatious smile back over her shoulder. “Thank you, Captain, for coming to my rescue. How will I ever repay you?”
“Two hundred US greenbacks will be a grand start,” answered Harry with a wink. “Now while you get your lovely self shipshape, I’m going to see if I can get a spot more than usual out of Lucille’s old Volvo.”
Carol disappeared into the cabin.
Brad panned with Harry to the topside wheel station. Going for an artsy editing option, he focused on the old guy’s grimy Converse, best guess formerly orange. As the deck and shoes came into focus, a random spattering of red burned into the video viewfinder. It was blood, and it was fresh, and it appeared to be all over the deck. And there in the middle of the Rorschach gore was a single earring bearing the trademarked likeness of a licensed cartoon deer.
“Whoa,” whispered Brad. “We will call that one a keeper!”
Author’s note: Bikini Zombie Warrior is now being featured on the Top Horror Blogs & Sci Fi Blogs list!
Ally ran as if demons were snapping at her heels. But if fear was at her back, joy lay ahead. She ran knowing that no matter what awaited her at the end of the dock it was better than her old life: anything would be. With each athletic stride she felt her mother’s world slipping into her wake. She was not afraid of the unknown, oh no, she welcomed it.
Where M dock dead-ended into the blue Caribbean Ally came to a halt. Distant dark humps indicated islands. Cumulous clouds stalled over each and grew upwards, like pillars of gossamer cotton candy.
The watercraft moored in this part of the marina skewed toward the utilitarian. Near the end of M dock a scientist in his twenties was transferring parcels to an open-hulled sixteen-foot Bayliner. His Pacific Northwest complexion was lost beneath layers of healed sunburn, or what he liked to call Puget Sound leather. At the moment his bright blue eyes were shielded behind Ray Bans. Black cargo shorts and a tan short sleeve button-down were both from Old Navy online, and revealed leg, arm, and chest hair bleached the color of sand. From a Radio Shack boom box he had purchased years ago as an undergrad, the local AM band was playing trite vacation music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. But Seattle native Evan Rylander, PhD wasn’t wasting away again in Margaritaville.
The young biologist was eager to get back to his research lab on Isla Diablo. While loading the new equipment he composed (and edited) a cover letter in his mind.
My Dear Dr. Hoffsted,
About damn time you responded!
Thank for your swift response to my query of 23/9 about the Isla Diablo Trust Grant. Hurry the fuck up and approve the goddamn grant! Funding and action on this issue is critical, no thanks to the impending rape invasion by the hell-spawn Holiday Cruise company. In the seventeen months I have been cataloging the island’s biodiversity, I have concluded that shit-sucking capitalist exploitation will result in Isla Diablo’s delicate ecosystem’s destruction.
Thankfully the new equipment from Scripps arrived today. About fucking time! It will make the island biodiversity survey more accurate, easier to compile, and much faster to complete. It should’ve gotten here a fucking year ago! The satellite internet uplink is a life-saver. No more working with stone knives and bearskins archiving critical data to CD-Rs, and then waiting for the weekly Fed Ex boat with its moronic carrier to carry them to the land of slow-as-fuck academia. All the fucking delays, thanks to your inefficiency, have given me little reason for hope. It is my sincerest hope that if we complete the survey in a timely fashion, much of Isla Diablo can be protected from development and set aside as a preserve as quickly as possible.
Evan Rylander, PhD.
Isla Diablo, Western Caribbean
From the boom box the music faded and the morning DJ segued to the news: “So did you see it last night? I think every listener west of Antigua called into our news line. But you can all relax. That bright light in the sky just after midnight, according to the U.S. Navy, wasn’t an alien invasion. Yes, I am just as disappointed as you are. And it wasn’t a Russian spy satellite, so they say. Ahem. So what was it? Just a meteor. That’s right, folks, it was a space rock. I want to personally thank all the night owl news tipsters for jamming the lines and filling up the voicemail here at the station. Turns out ten gigabytes of storage isn’t enough when lights appear in the sky. In other news, hurricane Lovey has gained strength and is on a track that will…”
Evan kicked the boom box and sent it nine feet out into the harbor. “Bull-fucking-shit! I saw it myself, you lying asshole. And your convenient laundry list of things it wasn’t? How about one of Uncle Sam’s old orbital ICBMs? It likely scattered radioactive material across the sea! But that won’t make the front page of any newspaper – which nobody reads anyway. And why don’t we read anymore, asks our good friend nobody? Because we’re addicted to social media and ‘round the clock infotainment!”
The sound of a single person applauding stopped Evan up short. The red-bikinied girl stood fifteen feet away on the dock, appraising him thoughtfully. She planted her hands on her hips.
“No, please go on,” directed Ally McCall. “You are way better entertainment than the kind you just trashed. That was some seriously good material. Something about ‘round the clock – and then you made up a word.”
“Infotainment,” intoned Evan. “And it’s actually in the dictionary now.”
Ally rolled her eyes dramatically. “Mon dieu.”
“Oui, but I’m not a Believer,” admitted the scientist. “Card-carrying atheist, if you must know.”
“Oh my! I suppose I should be all wow and shit, because what’s this? A nerdy science dude doesn’t believe in the All Mighty?! Shocker!” Ally shifted her weight onto one leg. Her opposite hip made a viola-like curve. “The whack-job with the PNW dialect aims for intriguing, and nails it with a solid meh.”
Evan smiled. “Wait. Did you just refer to me as a whack-job – in the third person?”
“Well, swoon!” proclaimed Ally, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead. “Is that a post doc education I smell? Golly, I might be falling in love.”
Evan chuckled, then continued his rant: “I’d advise against it. What’s the point of love? The planet is dying for fuck’s sake! All of this will soon be lost beneath rising sea levels. And let’s be very honest here, nobody really cares. Nobody wants to sacrifice his tiny square of first world comfort. So nobody gives a rat’s rancid rump about the health of the forests or the oceans! Nope, they don’t care about anything that isn’t…”
Ally took one perfect step toward Evan. “I disagree, sir. Some of us care quite a bit.” She stole a lightning-fast glance at the Mercury outboard, then eyes back on Evan. “And not to indelicately change the subject, but uh, your boat looks fast.”
A flicker of self-consciousness washed over Evan. “Uh, yeah. I guess so. Fast enough.”
“Golly, it’s like you know exactly what a girl wants to hear.” Did she really bat her eyelashes? Ally sensed time beginning to close in on her. “But if you don’t mind me asking, would you be taking off relatively soon – as in – immediately or sooner? And if so, would you mind taking on a last minute passenger?”
“I wouldn’t mind one bit,” responded Evan, too eagerly he realized a moment later, “but you don’t know where I’m going.”
Ally shrugged. “An irrelevance that actually works for me.”
“Wow! This must be my lucky day, “ exclaimed the scientist with the same enthusiasm he might have used with the discovery of a new slime mold species, which was considerable.
“It would appear so,” agreed Ally. She shot a glance back toward the cruise ship.
The sun was approaching a perfect flesh-roasting zenith. The glistening Ally McCall thought that the handsome scientist, Evan, was never going to finish loading his boat. She shot a side-glance up the dock. Her intuition was screaming. Run, you idiot. Run!
“Wow, “ she remarked, “someone really took advantage of their Amazon Prime free shipping. Will there be any room for li’l ol’ me?”
Evan laughed. “Yeah, but it’ll be a little crowded! Working boat.”
Ally appraised and conjured up a tone of admiration. “Maritime bio-research. Pretty nice salinity and spec gravity unit. That must have set you back a pretty penny.”
The biologist hesitated, nearly losing a grip on a brand new research grade centrifuge. Damn! This girl had a lot going on, and every gram of it was working for him just fine.
“I’m betting…” said Evan, pausing for effect, “that you have a name.”
“Whoa there, Mr. Science Man. You’re just too crazy. Names can come later. Right now we need to jet.” She glided up to him, rose up on her toes, and kissed his stubbly left cheek.
The world through Evan’s eyes became a watercolor swirl of excitement. This amazing girl awakened something in him that he hadn’t felt in six life spans of Lycaste aromatica, which by pure coincidence was also the scent of her perfume.
Ally was looking deep into Evan’s eyes. He had no idea how much time had passed since the cheek kiss. She was easily the most incredible girl he had ever met. Ally shrugged her tanned shoulders and cocked her head slightly, then asked eagerly, “So what’d’ya say?”
Author’s note: Bikini Zombie Warrior is now being featured on the Top Horror Blogs & Sci Fi Blogs list!
As mornings went, Harry Simpson had suffered better ones. Glaring tropical sunshine and the smell of ripe fish did not mix well with his hangover. All he wanted was to get to his favorite bar, slump into a dark corner, order up Scotch with conch fritters, and write this trip off as a loss. God knew the fish in the hold were never going to make it to market.
“Harry, you a-listening t’me, old man?”
Someone was badgering him with questions in a deep, slow almost melodic cadence: questions about the girl Bambi, about where they met and how long she had been aboard Harry’s boat before disappearing sometime in that very strange night. Was it last night? Jesus, it was last night. Harry shook off his stupor.
A heavy-set islander in a rumpled constable’s uniform shifted into harsh focus. Monty Kingslander was the long arm of law enforcement for the local island group and all the waters in-between. Puerto Verde was his home turf, and he watched over it like a lion over its pride. While Monty had a small of army of deputies, he preferred working alone and interacting with the citizenry he had grown up with. He knew all of the old-timers by name, and had an easy familiarity with most everyone else, including the many expats. Harry Simpson was no exception.
Harry was sitting on the transom of his Lucille. Monty’s pen was poised over a small spiral-bound notepad – no digital transcription for this island cop. Harry shrugged and answered the last question as if nails were being driven into his temples. “I explained this all before, Monty. I’m as flummoxed as you. I don’t really know what happened to her. All that’s left behind is this…” Harry held up a blood-spattered yellow bikini top.
Monty smirked behind a giant jet-black beard. “That, m’friend, is evidence. Hand it over.” Harry tossed the garment to Monty with a dismissive flick of his wrist. The bikini top landed on Monty’s considerable constabulary left shoulder. Without flinching, Monty set pen to paper and asked: “Filled this out, did she?”
”And then some, if I recall,” mused Harry, pondering thoughtfully.
Monty wrote something down, then looked around, perplexed. “What about the rest of it… y’know… the bloomers?”
“Tragically, good sir, we never got that far. I assume the poor dear is still attired in them.”
The constable scribbled something onto a fresh page as a Caucasian man wearing a straw hat and sweat-stained wife-beater with tan Bermuda shorts strolled up. A cigarette smoldered on his lower lip, and he spoke around it with practiced ease. “Trouble with the law, Simpson?”
“Only in countries where the King’s English still reigns,” answered Harry as he regarded the new arrival.
“So…. western Canada,” chided Phillip “Cubby” Anderson. Ash fell from the cigarette onto the rounded shelf of his belly. Cubby was a fish wholesaler. It was a point of pride that he had something of a monopoly on the local fish market, buying the prime catch from the fishing fleet and reselling it to local hotels and restaurants – a used fish salesman, as Harry Simpson liked to call him.
Cubby looked out from the shadows of the straw brim. “I don’t have time to barter and banter, Simpson – delightful as that would be. Let’s get to it. It’s your lucky day because I’m desperate. It’s tourist season – the run is piss poor – so what’ch’ya got for me?”
Harry sighed, and heaved open the lid to the aft fish locker. He paled as the smell wafted up from the hold. With one hand holding his nose he reached down to hoist one of fifty souring billfish up by the tail. And then…
A vision of striking beauty, of flawless form and motion, went flying passed the three men. A latent image stuck in Harry’s mind: the running form of bronzed skin and toned muscle, of streaking golden hair, all accented by a scarlet bikini.
And then it was gone.
From Cubby’s gaping pie hole the cigarette tumbled, bouncing off his belly. “Sweet Jesus on a jet-ski, did you see that?”
Monty Kingslander surveyed the dock for more eye candy. “Ah, tourist season! What’s not to love?”
“Aye, thar be beautiful lasses…” answered Harry, shaking his head, “…and they are naught but trouble. Take it from a bloke that knows.”
He pulled the billfish up from the hold.
”Bloody hell…” Harry released his grip. The fish fell off the transom and onto the dock with a wet thud. Its skin was a yellowish gray with irregular pink blotches. Pale blisters swelled in the warm sun and popped with a soft hiss, secreting greenish fluid. Small wriggling larvae, like smaller-than-garden-variety maggots, withdrew into the fish’s body, leaving oozing pores all over the miserable dead creature.
“Well, bollocks,” announced Cubby, breaking the silence with what everyone would agree was a perfect mimic of Harry.
Author’s note: Bikini Zombie Warrior is now being featured on the Top Horror Blogs & Sci Fi Blogs list!
Like most tropical anchorages, Puerto Verde had once been described as “sleepy,” but in the three decades since the first cruise ships began calling on the western Caribbean fishing village the port had exploded. Its lush green hills now sported dozens of vacation mansions, most of them vacant for ten months of the year. At the foot of those jungle-covered hills, a gorgeous natural crescent formed a picture perfect tropical harbor, famous the world over. At the east end of this stunning inlet one of the Caribbean’s finest beaches lured travelers to bask, broil, and roast under the unforgiving tropical sun. The protected west side of the bay was home to a bustling marina, and the ten square blocks composing incorporated Puerto Verde itself.
The marina provided moorage to an eclectic mix of vessels, from luxury yachts to the shanty colorful mish-mash of a regional fishing fleet. Beyond the floating docks and platforms, the monstrous glistening floating cities of modern vacation sea travel sat at anchor, accommodation to a diversity of Norte americanos.
One of those sleek shiny white pleasure palaces lay aside the outer floating dock, her gangway disgorging festively festooned passengers for an uninterrupted twelve hours of distilled west Caribbean frivolity.
The Holiday Empress was two hundred twelve thousand tons of obscene indulgence. The flagship of the Holiday Cruise fleet, she spent most of the year pampering her guests on six-day tours from Fort Lauderdale, around the most dazzling ports of the western Caribbean, and back. This particular sailing, however, was special for the Empress. She would be “opening up” a new port-of-call for Holiday lines. In two days she would drop anchor beside a new Caribbean haven, a virgin paradise if you will, not yet graced by the floating fleets of finery. Her sixty-five hundred vacationers had been promised first contact with an untouched Shangri-la – a truly sleepy, out-of-the-way speck of tropical escape with the exotic and mysterious name of Isla Diablo.
On this sun-drenched morning, the Holiday Empress gleamed like polished mother-of-pearl on the turquoise hued water. She had arrived just after midnight amidst a humid thunderstorm. The squall had kept most of her passengers tucked into the comfy artificial climate of their cushy staterooms, content to watch sheet lightning flicker over the silhouetted hills of Puerto Verde through portholes and windows. Before sunrise, however, the clouds had moved off with the morning trades and the day promised to be one to memorialize on social media several thousand times over. Most of the Empress’ sol-seekers were already ashore, storming the boutiques and cafes of the tourist-trap village, and those in need of hair-of-the-dogging a hangover.
On C-deck, in the VIP stateroom section, a different kind of storm was brewing. The family McCall, lately of Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California, was about to embark on a visceral nightmare that would transform, not only clan McCall, but every corner of humanity that touched the seven seas.
In C-303 Ally McCall had slept in and awakened to discover her iPhone latest-and-greatest nowhere to be found. In its place on the nightstand beside a flaccid charger cord was a Post-It note with a message in her mother’s stern hand.
“ALLY, DAMMIT we had a deal! No devices on this trip, REMEMBER?! This trip is all about FAMILY, REMEMBER! Don’t you forget it! Now meet us by the main pool for coffee and pastry – I think the Cuban purser with the shark tattoo is into me!
Ally had been planning to destroy her mother, Carol, since age seven (an entire two years ahead of most girls). But this was the final straw. Carol would pay for this latest parental infraction. Daggers and bullets, however, might be too good for her. Better yet, the ultimate death-blow to Carol would be to have raunchy sex with the Cuban purser herself, and post every scandalous pic online. Oh, but that would be impossible unless she recovered her impounded phone.
As was her mental habit, Ally fired off a mental letter to her mother. She did this several times a day, whenever the moment warranted. This habit in itself wasn’t unusual for teenagers. The unusual part was that Ally remembered every mental missive she had ever composed to Carol.
Shitty move! My phone, really? How is a girl supposed to survive a family vacation with no contact to the outside world? It’s inhuman, and very likely a violation of some international civil code. Or at least it should be. BTW, the hot Cubano slipped me his room number. Your adoring daughter….
“Merde,” cursed Ally in her habitual French (because swearing in the language of romance really pissed off her mother), then sent the phone charger flying. It struck the vanity mirror and turned it into a silver glass spider web.
For several minutes Ally McCall methodically ransacked all four rooms of the suite. She left no possible hiding place unturned. The seventeen year-old exhibited a fury heretofore unknown since Joan Crawford was told that she had to share marquis billing with Bette Davis. But the phone was nowhere to be found.
That’s it, Carol! I’m so done with your bullshit! I didn’t wanna go on this trip anyway!
Ally was standing in the middle of her mother’s stateroom wearing an LA Dodgers tee-shirt and panties from Victoria’s Secret Pink collection. She was moments away from an unscheduled departure from the Family McCall Bonding Vacation, that much was certain – but before she departed her brilliant and well-organized mind began survival agendizing: she would need money… and clothes.
Ally found both in her mother’s top dresser drawer.
- one: very skimpy two piece from La Blanca, colorlipstick
- one: calfskin wallet from Céline, colorporcelain spazzolato
A minute later, Ally’s body was trussed neatly into the La Blanca. Ally paused a moment to assess the overall effect in the dressing mirror, as she tucked the wallet under the tie-strings on her left hip.
Fits me way better than it fits her, she mused with smug satisfaction.
Then came a knock from the main entrance, and a voice from the passageway, a younger teen-aged boy’s voice. “Ally…”
“Fucking buzz-off,” replied Ally in an irritated tone.
“Al… it’s just me,” explained the adolescent voice behind the door. “Come on, Al, open up.”
Ally pressed her face to the door, peered out the peek hole. “How do I know you’re alone?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, Al,” said the boy. “I just came to warn you.”
Ally unbolted the door and pulled it open. Her fourteen-year old brother, Brad, looked small in the passageway. Ally sighed. “I know. She’s coming…”
Brad shuffled into the suite. He was dressed like a filmmaker from 1920: rumpled cotton shirt, linen trousers with suspenders, a beret on his blond head, and a director’s scope on a lanyard around his neck. In his left hand: a compact video camera, the ready light was aglow. Brad sized up his sister with a swift toe-to-head scan, noted the bikini and the wallet.
“Way to nail the accessories,” he commented dryly.
“What do you want, Brad?” pressed Ally.
“What I want,” explained the ersatz cinema documentarian, “is for you to not abandon me!” Ally avoided her brother’s imploring stare. He continued. “Don’t leave me with… with her!”
Ally spun on one heel and found her reflection in the mirror once again. As she applied lipstick to match the bikini she shrugged and said, “Sorry, kiddo. I’ve had it! I’m done! I’m over the horny old men in Speedos – over the midnight cop-a-feel buffet – but mostly, I’m totes over with her majesty the quintessential queen of control.”
Ally brushed back her golden tresses with one hand and held up the other to silence Brad. “Before you ask: there’s only enough loot for me.”
“I don’t care about the cash, Al. I just really…”
“…Need to cut the apron strings? Yeah. I wholeheartedly agree.” Ally regretted the words as they left her mouth. Brad was effectively crushed. His chin quivered slightly and his gaze dropped to the floor. A maternal impulse swelled in Ally’s chest. “Brad, listen. You’ll be thanking me soon. When she walks in here and finds me gone you’re going to have a scene that will make no more wire hangers look like an infomercial for a Bakersfield time-share.”
Brad’s face lifted. His imagination raced, running a scene he had always hoped to capture – his mother in full-blown mommy meltdown. It had eluded him ever since he had begun recording her every move. His eyes widened momentarily. “You really think so?” Sniff.
“We both know it’s the shot you’ve been waiting for. Hell, Brad! The fee from Entertainment Weekly will fuel your wild adolescent fantasies for a year! God only knows how many Monster drinks and pizza bagels that will buy.”
But Brad wasn’t envisioning carb-riches. He took his art seriously, and this was truly the chance of a lifetime. “You could be right, sis. I was wondering what my next project would be. Why didn’t I think of it sooner?”
Ally was checking out her reflection for final, overall effectiveness. “Because I got the brains of the family, and you’re an idiot artiste… and that’s okay.”
But Brad didn’t hear it. He was in mental pre-production. “That’s it! I’ll shoot a long-awaited follow-up to my My Mother the Movie Star!”
“As well as the looks,” continued Ally, with her previous thought. She struck a pose for Brad’s camera. “You ready?”
Brad framed his shot in less than three seconds, and called, “Rolling!”
Ally charged for the door, swirled over the threshold, and vanished down the passageway, blond hair streaming behind her.
Brad panned the camera to follow, then held on the gaping doorway and the vanishing point where Ally disappeared into the heart of the ship. He cleared his throat and began narrating in his best 1950’s television journalist voice: “Young Ally McCall, eager to test the waters of her blossoming womanhood, flees her mother’s oppressive world, heading for a fateful encounter with who-knows-what.”
Brad raced to the balcony, directed his lens over the rail, down the vertical white hull of the Holiday Empress. Eighty-two feet below Ally emerged from the ship. At this distance she was a fleeting golden apparition on the gangway. Her hair caught the morning Puerto Verde sunlight in a momentary flicker.
Filming, Brad felt the wetness on his face but didn’t allow tears to compromise the shot. “See ya later, sis,” he whispered, and continued shooting until Ally was lost in the festivity and sparkle of the busy marina.