“You’ve been slacking off on me, I kind of miss the excitement. Aren’t I still the number one suspect?”
I stood gawking at him.
“Grab your dive gear, I’ve got a job you can help me with. You might find out some things.” He lounged arrogantly against the wall, crossed his arms, gave me a taunting look. “You want to know what happened with me and John, or not? Better make up your mind. Maybe I won’t be in the mood tomorrow.” He met my gaze, all his pent-up energy crackling in the crowded little room, another invader in my space.
“I’m not in the mood.” I strode to the door and held it open.
“Terrific. Forget it, then.” Mouth tightening, he started past me. Then he spun around, frowning, reaching to grab my seed necklace. “Where did you get this?”
Startled, I pulled back, jolted to a stop by his grip on the strand. He yanked it over my head.
“What the hell are you doing? A friend gave me that!” I grabbed at it.
“Some friend.” He twitched it out of my reach. “You need to take a shower. Now.”
I fell back a step. “Are you crazy?”
He was scowling down at the red seeds. “Crab eyes.”
Backing away, I came up against the wall.
He raised his face. “Shit. You’re really afraid of me.” He held out the seed strand. “Look. They’re not Jumbie seeds, they’re crab eyes, you can tell by the black dots. Poison, absorbed through the skin.”
“What?” I stepped reluctantly forward to squint at the loop. There was a tiny black dot on each seed. It wasn’t the necklace Conrad had given me. A wave of dizziness passed over me.
Manden touched my shoulder, voice gone quiet. “You really should wash it off. I’ll go.” He tossed the seeds in my wastebasket and headed for the door.
He turned, gaze locking on mine. Another ripple of dizziness, and I was lost in time and place, back in the drowning seas. Suspended in the surreal depths where John died, these same eyes probing me through our masks.
“All right. I’ll go with you today. Maybe I’m as crazy as everyone else on this goddamn island.”
His white grin flashed. “Now that’s John’s sister talking.”
The battered gray Jeep growled down the switchbacks off the mountain, Manden silent at the wheel. I touched my neck where I’d scrubbed off the poison of the crab eye seeds. How had he known about them? The necklaces must have been switched during my break-in.
I glanced over at him, blunt face masked by his mirrored shades. It was like peeling an onion. How many layers were we going to strip off each other before we got to some core of truth? Was there a core, or only layer after layer, wrapping empty air?
The road took a last turn, and we broke out of tree shade into blazing sunlight, swooping into the plunge toward town and a dark pall hanging over the harbor. I swallowed, tasting smoke. “What’s going on?”
He snapped out of his fixed stare at the road. “Another fire.”
The smoke was thicker past Main Street, in one of the native Jungle Towns. “This is the third one in the past two weeks.”
The grass and bushes along the road, brown and withered now, had been rich green when I moved in. “Shelli came out with one of her subtle editorials, hinting it’s the Africa Unite agitators starting the fires.”
“Ms. Ethical Journalism?” He snorted. “Maybe it’s worse this year, with the drought and the Independence Movement, but shit always starts happening in the spring.” He glanced at me. “The old pressure cooker just gets too hot, people go a little crazy. Good timing, Carnivale coming. Release valve.”
“Like the ancient rain rituals. Leon Caviness is planning to perform a ceremony for the water spirit.” I glanced aside at him. “Have you seen the fetish necklaces he makes for the natives?”
He eased around a tourist bus wheezing uphill. “That where you got your crab-eye seeds?”
“No. I’m talking about cloth bags, made from a person’s clothes, with magic objects inside, used for protection or ‘putting a power’ on someone.”
“Sounds more like Voodoo than the Obeah they have here. This tied into your research?”
“In a way. You’ve never seen one?”
He shook his head, swerving around a pothole as we swooped down the last hill. The stinging smoke haze closed around us. “So you think Caviness is into black magic? I’ve heard the buzz about his so-called cult. That’s the island for you, start casting stones, ask questions later. Me, I don’t know the guy.” He turned onto the busy harborside drive.
What about his “deal” with Caviness?
He shot me a look. “Funny you mention him.” He stopped for a red light, heat pulsing in the breezeless glare off concrete and chrome, simmering the acrid smoke. “Just met him a couple weeks ago. Hired me to look for a yacht wrecked in a storm last year, he bought the insurance rights for salvage. I’d about written it off, but I think I stumbled onto it yesterday. So we’re working for Caviness today.”
“Oh.” Truth? Lies? If I collected enough stories, maybe the puzzle pieces would fall into place.
The light turned green and the Jeep moved forward, bringing us below the fire. Red lights flashed, sirens wailing through smoke. Muffled voices shouted, surging closer through the haze.
“Steal we island, burn us out!”
“We drivin’ out de slavers!”
A shrill whistle, shadowy shapes running, boiling out of the billowing smoke. Taillights flared, traffic crunching to a halt.
Another loud whistle, someone shouting through a megaphone. Sirens wailed up behind us. The mob was pouring downhill from the fire, natives darting between cars ahead. Police cars were blocked behind us, sirens shrieking, lights flashing. Native cops with helmets and billy clubs advanced past the jammed cars.
A wild-eyed, dreadlocked native in ripped T-shirt grabbed the Jeep door and thrust his face up to mine, shouting, “Fuckin’ muddah scunt, you suckin’ off us!”
Vic leaned across me, pushed at the man’s chest. “Get going, man. Cops coming.”
The man’s eyes rolled. He whirled and ran.
An angry roar broke out. The crowd surged uphill again, running back into the twisting lanes of Jungle Town. I coughed, squinting through the haze. Ahead, a policeman was waving the traffic on.
We rolled slowly forward, past more cops handcuffing a couple of Dreads. A knot of women and children watched, one woman screaming at the police. Uphill, beneath the smoke, flames leaped from a two-story building, water spraying, lights flashing. The cop directing traffic waved again, and we were past it, picking up speed along the harbor boulevard.
I cleared my parched throat. “Looked like an apartment building. I can’t believe the natives would burn their own homes. Where will they go?”
“Who knows, with the housing crunch. More of a mess, everybody on welfare, plus all the illegals, crammed into those godawful Jungle Towns. Nowhere to go, no way out. Don’t even have a vote.”
He shot me a look. “At least Caviness is speaking out for the people. Government and the Continentals are screwing them over, same old colonial bullshit, same old mess just like over in—” He bit it off, chopping his hand through the air. “Our glorious white man’s civilization has managed to royally fuck up the world, so maybe Caviness is going to Voodoo us all. Why the hell not?”
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