I numbly followed the harbor’s curve until the flow of cars let me pull off into a parking lot. The bay shimmered before me, boats trailing wakes across turquoise water, ripples fading behind.
A steep, loaf-shaped little island sheltered the harbor from the open sea. Treasure Island. John had worked at the resort that owned it, teaching Scuba with Frank Savetti.
I’d already taken the shuttle boat over there, only to learn that Savetti was gone on a sailing trip “down island.” He was probably my last contact to John here, my last chance to find out about the petroglyph cove. Maybe I was glad to postpone one last disappointment. I’d never find out from Manden, I’d burned that bridge. Maybe he was crazy. Why had he looked so startled to see me? Why had his anchor been in that careening truck? No such thing as coincidence here, he’d said. What was he doing with Pat MacIntyre’s beautiful daughter, smiling so—
I spun, squinting over the crowded quay for the source of the deep voice.
“Sue. Hey, gal!” A big native man lounged against the gunwale of a wooden cargo boat with bright blue paint and Sea Maid in yellow. Flash of white teeth against skin so dark it gleamed polished blue-black in the sunlight.
“James!” I waved at the man who’d danced with me beside Samuel’s grave. Sidestepping a truck backing onto the quay with a stack of beer crates, I eased through launch passengers and native crewmen unloading banana bunches and straw baskets of coconuts from small cargo boats.
“You come foh you next lesson, gal?” James ran a hand over his close-cropped head and did a swaying dance step on deck. “Got to be set foh Carnivale.”
Punch-drunk from alarm, adrenaline, and confusion, I found myself beaming up at the big native, grateful for his friendly grin. “James, it’s good to see you.”
“Dis de happenin’ place, gal.” A dazzling smile. “You like fresh?” He pulled a mango from a basket and held it up. “Fine as Sweet Sue.” Whipping out a knife, he sliced the fruit in half, handed down a dripping piece. “You eats dese fruit, dey talkin’ to you. Tell me I lie.”
The fruit was warm, scented sweetness curling around my tongue and sliding indecently delicious down my throat. I licked my lips.
“So! What she say inside dere?” He wiped juice from his chin and cocked his head, listening.
I quoted Bob Marley, “Don you worry ’bout a ting.”
He threw back his head and laughed.
I had to laugh with him. It didn’t matter, he couldn’t be real. Rising and dipping with the boat’s sway, he towered above me, sunlight pouring over him to emphasize the sheer scale of his giant frame. On a purely esthetic level, the man could only be called gorgeous.
“All right! We get you fix up here.” He whipped out a burlap sack and vaulted over the boat’s rail. “Come, gal.”
We were off on a tour of his friends’ boats, the sack loading up with mangoes, three kinds of bananas, coconut, pineapple, and some sort of hairy oversized berries.
“Sweetest fruit, you finds it right here!” Rocko, the last one, slapped a callused hand on his boat’s stern. “You come see me, gal! Dat James, he jus break you heart.” He winked.
“No breakin’ cept I break you fool head, Rocko.” He escorted me back to his boat, swinging the heavy sack onto its deck as if it were filled with feathers. “Now you an me go get us lunch. You lookin’ puny, gal.”
James was a force of nature. I found myself being shepherded through the shopping district and into the native Jungle Town behind it, threading cobbled lanes between peeling plastered walls. Sauntering along, he grinned down from his height at the natives who paused suspiciously to eye me. He called out greetings to women in upstairs windows and teased the big-eyed kids playing games in the streets. Even the packs of prowling Rudes, with their dreadlocks and hivelike knit caps, boom-boxes blasting reggae, and slit T-shirts showing off pectorals and gold chains, parted like the Red Sea before him. James was my ticket to the neighborhood that was officially “suicide for Continentals.”
We passed through a brick archway and down a passage between buildings. A faded wooden sign, Le Lambi, pointed the way up steps onto a thatch-covered landing. A dugout pirogue, hacked from a mahogany log in the style of the original Caribs, hung from the rafters. Beneath it, an elderly man snored on a bench, face the color of the age-blackened wood.
Past him, a dim room with five assorted tables. A plump, sleepy young woman in a red sarong presided over the bar.
“Good day, Lisabet. An how you be dis fine afternoon?” James gave the curvaceous bartender his heart-stopping smile.
She sniffed at me, shrugged, and picked up a glass to polish with a towel.
He sauntered over to a table beside the one small window, pulling out a chair for me. “I go talk to de cook.”
I sat fanning myself with a cardboard beer ad. The decor featured grass thatching hung from the bar and ceiling, a tinseled rope looped around the walls and wound with blinking Christmas lights, a poster of Superman (Caucasian), dusty plastic flowers in Dixie cups, and a dusty jumble of dried puffer fish, shells, sea fans, and liquor bottles on the bar. Among them, what appeared to be a genuine human skull grinned over at me.
From a couple of tables filled with native men, fast patois and laughter. It cut off as James reappeared from behind a plywood partition screening the kitchen area of the dim room.
“You in foh a wake up, gal,” he announced.
I swung around, eyes widening as I took in the white designs painted on the partition beside him. Geometric shapes—diamonds, interlocking triangles, filigreed spikes, dotted spirals.
Veve patterns. Voodoo.
James stepped closer, towering over me and reaching down a huge hand. The one naked overhead bulb and the twinkly little Christmas lights suddenly died. The room plunged into darkness.
For a black moment, I ricocheted wildly among generic scare stories for women, and the island warnings about Jungle Town. I jumped up in a general clatter of chairs. Hysterical vision of flinging off my clothes in a convenient phone booth to emerge as Superwoman.
An enraged shriek from the kitchen. James chuckled, patting my arm.
I sat with a thump as my eyes adjusted to the sketchy window light. An enormous shape engulfed in a ghostly apron flew out from behind the partition, waving a wooden spoon. The men at the other tables struck matches to candles stuck here and there with wax globs. A candle flared, crimson wax dripping down the cheekbones of another empty-eyed skull. Wavering lights threw shadows of the cook and bartender carrying on a heated exchange in what sounded like a French dialect. The cook finally retreated behind the partition, and the bartender flounced back to her bottles.
“Every body come home foh lunch, turn on de stove, and boom out go de power. Dey cook on gas here, we be cool.”
The sulking bartender eventually brought us warm Elephant Beers. She smacked the bottles down and turned away with a peevish twitch of the hips.
James looked pleased. “Drink up, gal. You gon’ eat de finest food on de island.”
The big cook swept out with a tray and laid heaping platters before us, plenty for four or five people. I looked up from the dishes, glancing at the smirking men across the room. “You invited your friends?”
“Eat up, little Sue! You lookin’ puny. How you find a man watch over you, an you not got plenty soft pillow foh his weary head?”
I picked up my fork. “Guess I’ll have to find a man who’s not so weary.”
He looked taken-aback, then slapped his leg and laughed. “Whoo-whee! You a case sure.” He touched my arm. “Now you dig in.”
I didn’t need urging. There was a rich soup with conch and “root” and “kallaloo.” A huge pile of seasoned rice with round black peas and pungent bits of peppers and chicken. A mound of “fungi,” a firm mixture of corn meal and okra that looked terrible but tasted wonderful with fish sauce spooned over it. Fried little pastry pies with “salt-fish” inside. Cooked plantains with a syrupy coating.
“Ooph. I just died and went to Heaven.” I leaned back in a daze of beer and gluttony.
“We jus startin’ on you, gal. You gon’ lively up here.” He flashed a lot of white teeth.
I smiled back, allowing myself the added indulgence of a frivolous fantasy or two.
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