Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Six


Hispaniola, April: The largest island of the Caribbean has a record of woe. The rugged land remembers only moments of peace in its long history of strife and sorrow. Rule by colonial aristocrats, despots, corporations, or military dictatorships made no difference to the impoverished inhabitants. The new boss, as the twentieth-century song said, was much the same as the old one. The passage of the Kurians across their green island made the rest of their unhappy past a mere warm-up for the horrors to come.

The island's role as one of the first gateways of the Kur's invasion shrank the populace from the millions to the thousands. When the Kurians arrived, their Reapers hunted down the Hispaniolans in even the most remote villages on their way north, south, and west. The few slaughter-shocked inhabitants of the island remember these years in oral tradition as "La Fiesta de Diablos."

The beauty of the island stands in contrast to the ugliness of its history. Royal palms tower over empty towns, vanishing under a carpet of leafy vines. Nature left to itself covered the eroded scars left by charcoal gatherers in a dozen years. Cackling colonies of birds flit from enormous palm to enormous palm over an ocean of lesser trees and creepers. Gulls and sandpipers congregate on empty beaches, nesting in washed-up fishing boats. Further inland, wild dogs and pigs hunt and root through new and thriving forests.

What civilization there is exists on the east side of the island, where the Kurian families rule a retinue of Quislings

from the gray ziggurat of the Columbus lighthouse. A few coastal communities dot the perimeter of the island, sending tribute to the Dark Lords in the east. Their combined Reapers hunt farther inland, or land here and there along the coast in search of auras. Perhaps something of the spirit of Columbus has entered the Santo Domingo Kurians, for they are some of the few who venture into the sea in ships in their predatory wanderings along Hispaniola 's long coastline. The appearance of the Kurian "Drakkar" sends whole towns fleeing into the mountains.

It was not a bad storm; the Caribbean sees far worse during hurricane season. The spring storm lashing the channel in between Hispaniola and Cuba made up in bluster for what it lacked in size.

Valentine watched Captain Carrasca on the Thunderbolt's bridge. A knotted rope and a stick, in a curious mix of hairstyle and seamanship, restricted her thick hair to the back of her head. She stood next to the wheel, bending first one knee and then the other as she rolled with the ship's motion like a slow metronome, owlish eyes watching the storm.

Since leaving Jamaica-gaps in the crew filled with the commodore's sailors-Carrasca had taught Valentine a good deal about the islands of the Caribbean: cays and atolls where some found refuge, larger islands such as Cuba and Cozumel, which fed the appetite of the Kurians. She knew winds and weather, currents and courses, radio procedure and sail setting; she spoke of them as easily as Valentine could describe his old platoons in the Wolves.

"How's the rudder?" she asked the steersman.

"Biting fine. She's a heavy ship. All that steel in this old ice-shover. Wouldn't care to ride this out in the Guideon. We'd have to heave-to."

"She's working. We're shipping more water than I'd like. The sea hasn't worked up much-I'd put it at three meters."

"Four sometimes, Cap," the steersman said.

"Any sign of the coast?" Valentine asked, trying to pierce the rain-filled darkness forward.

"By dead reckoning, it's there," Carrasca answered. "I don't dare get much closer. The best harbors are on the other side of the island, and we can't use them."

Cool and professional. The warm moment they shared that night on the balcony where she admitted her thrill at her command seemed like a childhood game of you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine. Now she just watched him every now and then out of the corner of her eye, as though checking the professional wall between them for cracks.

"Your ships don't land here?"

"Nothing worth landing for, except fresh water or firewood. We hit richer lands. Now Cuba, there's good hunting there, especially on the north coast and in the stretch between it and the Florida peninsula."

"My work is on Hispaniola-the Haiti side."

"Ill get you there. Nothing's going to happen until this blows itself out, Valentine."

"I'll try and sleep. Have me woken if this clears, please."

Valentine descended from the bridge, weaving past a mix of the Thunderbolt's old crew and new shipmates from Jamaica. He went to his cabin, formerly shared with Post, who now lay almost recovered in sick bay, thanks to the skilled teams of Jayport's aged hospital ship. Sea air and sun were speeding his recovery, but the former Coastal Marine was still not up and around for more than a few hours a day.

Ahn-Kha was on the cabin floor. The quarters smelled of Ahn-Kha's horsey odor and vomit, the contents of the Golden One's stomach having abandoned ship when the storm started.

"My David, take out your pistol and put an end to my suffering," Ahn-Kha groaned. He lay on his stomach, with four-fingered hands clasped over his pointed ears.

"Carrasca says it won't last long, old horse," Valentine replied. The motion stimulated Valentine, if anything,

though he longed for surcease of the endless sounds of rain, wind, and the ship groaning in the weather.

"It's a new hell each hour."

"What's that?" Valentine asked, dropping into his bunk.

"My people ... say there are four hells. The theosophists need to add one more, the Hell of Motion."

Valentine placed his boots on the floor, tucked them away from Ahn-Kha's head in case the Grog decided to bring up another ten gallons of digestive matter. Best to keep his friend's mind on something else. "They left out a hell?"

Ahn-Kha lay silent, as if gathering his words and putting them into English. "The Golden Ones believe that you must be purified by Hell before gaining Paradise. There is a Hell of Hunger and Thirst, a Hell of Pain, a Hell of Illness, and a Hell of Loneliness. If you suffer deeply of these in your life, you are spared them after death, and reach Paradise that much quicker."

"That's a lot of suffering to reach Heaven."

"By our creed, 'Only through suffering do you grow a soul capable of understanding others, and appreciating the'-what is it-the word for grace of gods?"

Valentine thought for a moment. "Beatitude?"

"I must look that up as soon as I can open my eyes again. I've never heard it. English has too many words for some things, and not enough for others. You take too long in the telling. Your words can never match the music of our proverb-verse."

"I'll work through a King James Bible with you. It'll change your opinion."

"Arrgh. Those tracts, most of them read like the family history of a group of nomad pfump-raisers. One of your theosophists tried to instill in me a belief in my own soul, and me having tasted only the bitter surface of the Hell of Loneliness and Hell of Pain in the time before we met. The fool. As if Paradise could be gained by affirming the divinity of some human. Bah!"

"I've always thought there was more to it than that, my friend."

"My David, if you wish to learn the true path to Paradise, you must read of the Golden Ones' Rhapsodies. Then you will be steeled to torments that must be overcome before a joyful afterlife."

" 'There are four and fifty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them are right,'" Valentine quoted.

"Then what is your opinion of your gods?"

"God? You mean Bud?"

"There is only one? I thought you had two or three."

"Depends who you talk to," Valentine said, sinking into his bunk. On his back, the ship's motion seemed to tilt him headdown first, then feetdown.

"I don't remember anyone calling your god Bub."

"Bud. It's from an old story the top sergeant from Zulu Company used to tell."

"Old stories are the best ones. The bad ones die young. Tell me about Bud."

Valentine sifted his memory. "The sergeant's name was Patel. He was built almost as broad as you, a helluva wrestler, too, and he always fought clean unless someone tried something. Then it was anything goes. But back to the story, before he was in the Wolves, he fought with the regulars, the Guards-"

"Yes, I've seen them," Ahn-Kha said from the noisy darkness. "Good guns, better uniforms, and the best food."

"They can fight when it comes to it. I think when Patel was with 'em they didn't have the nicest clothing. Especially where he was. He said it started while he was watching the ground south of Saint Louis. For a while there, it was trench warfare: the men and Grogs working for the Kurians were trying to blast them out of these hills with artillery. Got so there wasn't a tree standing, but the Guards just kept digging and digging. They'd build little caves of wood with tons of dirt overhead-they were called 'dugouts.' Anyway

he was young, and he had this real nervous NCO running the dugout these twenty men were crammed into. The damn Grogs-sorry, old horse-the damn Kurian Grogs started building these rockets they were launching off of railroad rails, and they had enough of a bang in them to collapse a dugout.

"When those babies landed, Patel said it felt like someone picked up the hill and dropped it again. The concussion outside was enough to stop your heart. Well, this corporal starts to lose it-they're in there and it's dark and cold and wet, with the noise and smell of burnt flesh, and as if that isn't bad enough, it seems like any minute they're going to get blown to hell.

"'Get friendly with God!' this corporal starts shouting. 'The time's coming, and you'd better know him! You gotta know God and be on a first-name basis with him to get into heaven. Hurry up, guys!'

"Of course, some of the men just tell him to shut up, but you've always got a joker or two who thinks a nervous breakdown is entertainment, so they start quizzing him.

" 'Praise Jesus!' one hollers, trying to egg him on.

"T'm talking about God, not Jesus!' the corporal says. He keeps looking at the ceiling of the dugout. 'Know him. Love him.'

" 'Okay, what's God's name, then?'

"The corporal doesn't even think about it-he says Bud right away. Some of the guys think this is just too funny to let go.

"'Bud is my shepherd, I shall not want,' one starts to say. They start misquoting stuff like 'Praise Bud!' and 'Bud, bless this stewed rat, which I'm about to eat, and probably puke up again.'"

"Skip the food part," Ahn-Kha groaned.

"Well, after a couple minutes of humor like that, some old soldier yells, 'Shut your Bud-damned mouths, for Bud's frickin' sake.'

"The corporal loses it, says he's not going to stay in there with a bunch of blasphemers, and he heads out of the dugout with the shells and rockets still landing all over the hills. Patel thinks the corp is going to get killed, and so he goes out after him. Patel catches up to him thirty yards away and jumps on him, wrestles him to the ground in the trench, when one of those rail-rockets lands right on the dugout. Kills every man in there, either the blast or suffocation did them in. Patel and a bunch of others, even the corporal, tried to dig out the shelter to rescue them, but no luck. Sure enough, some of the bodies are blue, and this corporal starts pointing at the ones who suffocated and saying 'Bud's mark!' and things like that.

"Patel and this corporal get out of the trenches and are posted with a new unit in western Missouri in the bushwhack ground. This corporal seems sound enough most of the time, but now and then he points out the color blue and says 'the Hand of Bud,' or something like that. One day they're on patrol on a footpath and he just freezes, with his head cocked like a dog listening to a whistle. He says that 'Bud's whispering in my ear.' A couple of the guys pass him, maybe they thought he was taking a leak without bothering to use his fly, and go right into a tripwire that fires this harpoon through two men. Patel said he started to think that old expression about God looking out for drunks, children, and idiots might be true.

"After that, this corporal turned into the kind of NCO that stays behind to watch over the sick and the supplies. Until this one day, there's a beautiful blue sky. So he decides to climb a tree and look at Bud's handiwork. He falls asleep up there, no one knows where he is, they figure this time he's really flipped and run off into the woods. They don't even bother looking for him. Which is too bad, because if they had been dispersed, these three Reapers passing through the area wouldn't have caught all that lifesign in the camp. They went in and killed everyone but the corporal, maybe when he was in the tree talking to Bud, he didn't put out much more lifesign than a cuckoo clock. After that, the corporal

pulled kitchen duty at an infantry training school by Mountain Home.

"Patel ended up joining some Wolves who were hunting the Reapers, he made himself useful when they caught up to the bastards, and ended up in Zulu Company.

"Funny thing is, every now and then in a tight situation, I'd catch Patel saying, 'Bud help me' or something like that. I don't think he really believed it, but Patel wasn't taking any chances."

The storm blew itself out overnight. Valentine arose and dressed around the slumbering Ahn-Kha. He checked Post, who slept with his familiar snore in the tiny sick bay.

The indefatigable Carrasca still stood on the bridge. She looked as fresh and alert as when Valentine had last seen her, rocking with the storm.

"That's Haiti, Valentine, dead ahead."

Valentine stepped out onto the wing of the bridge. Something loomed ahead, a heavy presence in the darkness. As the light grew, he could make out mountains coated in green.

"Why the white knuckles?" Carrasca asked, joining him in the open air.

Her words weren't in the cool captain's voice with its self-assured intonation. They tickled his ear like a playful finger.

Valentine looked down at the decorative wood top to the rail where his hands gripped the painted metal. He breathed out, half-laugh and half-sigh. "For over a year, I've been trying to get here in the right kind of ship."

"Worth it, I hope. The commodore thinks you're chasing a rumor. Said it reminded him of the years after the Kurians first came, where ships and men were lost looking for remnants of the old society."

"That's what my father was doing when he ran into a Lifeweaver. This chase is something the Lifeweavers put me on."

She put binoculars to her eyes and searched the coast ahead. "How much do you know?"

"There's something on that island the Cause needs."

She frowned. "The Cause. You sound like Hawthorne of the hasty retreat."

Valentine involuntarily stiffened. Now a row of ghostly bodies lay between them, friends Valentine had lost, talents the world had lost, in the sake of "the Cause."

"I'm sorry," she said, looking away. "You've proved yourself to Jamaica."

"But not to you?" Valentine asked.

"It's the same thing."

Valentine stifled a laugh. He might have said those exact words. Jensen and Carrasca had proved themselves to the Cause by letting him use the ship, the same thing as proving themselves to him. He took his hands from the rail and rubbed life back into them.

Carrasca broke the silence: "Why is it nobody's thought to go get this whatever-it-is until now?"

"We didn't know it was there. It was put there hundreds of years ago by a Lifeweaver. He lived in secret among us, with a few followers. He guessed what the Kurians were planning, but he only knew about the one door. He and his people were ready for what was coming on Haiti, but something happened, they were betrayed, and I don't think anyone survived. One of the followers kept a journal of some kind, more as a record of that Lifeweaver's teachings, but in it was a section about this weapon against them.

"Like a lot of places, there's a resistance against the Kurians. These Haitians are fighting without really knowing what they're fighting. They just know it's evil, and they're doing what they can to protect their own people. They found a cache of weapons in a cave, along with this diary. They made sense of it and somehow word got passed to us. I never knew about it-I just got orders to join up with the Quislings on the Gulf Coast with fake papers and background. I think they chose me because I speak a little Span-

ish and French. My mother was from the French part of Canada, and I was raised by a priest from Puerto Rico. It took me a year, but I got into the Coastal Marines and managed to get myself posted to the right kind of ship to bring it back. It's a year I wouldn't care to repeat. Now it's like life in the Ozarks is something out of my childhood."

"Is there snow there?"

"Sometimes, in winter. The mountains aren't big enough to be snowcapped year-round. Why?"

"There's a story the people here tell. They think if you go somewhere there's snow all the time, like the north pole, the Kurians can't get you. It's all mixed up with stories about Christmas now, that there's this place everyone is safe from them with plenty of food and electronic toys and no fighting."

Valentine watched a frigate bird float above, drifting on the air currents with only the tiniest alterations to its wing.

"If only. I grew up almost in Canada. It gets colder in the winter than you can probably imagine, and the Reapers still made it up there. They don't come in winter, but we're still not out of it. You go much farther north from there, and the land can't support many people year-round away from the coasts. Just not enough to eat. And the old-timers say the climate is strange now, summers are longer and hotter, but somehow winter is even worse. God knows how the Kurians managed it. There's no safe place, or if there is, they're keeping it to themselves."

She nodded. "Cape Haitian is ahead. What is the plan?"

"The plan is to sail into the port as bold as if we have the proverbial balls of the brass monkey. We have a contact in town who'll get in touch with me. He's on the lookout for a ship from the north. Not sure what happens after that. Maybe we pull out and land somewhere nearby on the coast, and he gets us in touch with the resistance. They load us up, and back we go."

"Will it be that easy?"

Valentine found a smile. "Somehow I doubt it."

* * *

The Thunderbolt rounded Cape Haitian and turned her prow to the town, a cluster of white and gray snuggled into a stretch of flat land with mountains towering behind. The vivid colors of the Caribbean struck Valentine once more: deep blues of the ocean; brilliant blues and whites above; and behind stretches of white sand a green so lush, it hypnotized.

Fishing boats, hardly more than canoes, rocked in the gentle swell. Tall, lean black men threw nets into the water and gathered them again. If they noticed the Thunderbolt, they showed no sign of it. As the ship approached, Valentine observed that the fishermen were either naked or wearing stringy loincloths. Wiry muscle glistened under the sun.

A boat with four oarsmen put out from the docks. Its splashing approach scattered seabirds bobbing on the calm surface of the bay.

"Dead slow," Carrasca called into the bridge.

"Dead slow, aye aye," the junior officer there answered.

The bulky ship coasted to a crawl. The small boat cut across the prow, as if blocking the larger vessel's entry. A man in a simple gray uniform stood and put a speaking trumpet to his mouth.

"Que bateau?" Valentine thought he heard.

"What did he say?"

"What ship is that?" Valentine translated.

"I thought they spoke Spanish here."

"Creole French, mostly. Or a form of it. But you can get along in Spanish, too."

Valentine inflated his lungs. "Thunderbolt, New Orleans. May we anchor here tonight? We will buy food," he bellowed, hoping his French would be understood.

"What do you do here?"

"We chase pirates. Have any sailing ships passed?"

"No, not close. Not since before the last hurricane season."

"May we drop anchor?"

The man lowered his speaking trumpet for a moment, then raised it again. "For now. Our officer will come. Do not lower your boat until then."

"Thank you!" Valentine yelled back.

The same four-oared boat brought out the "officer." Valentine watched him make the transition to the Thunder-holt with a fair amount of agility. He wore a similar uniform to his underling, though with gold buttons and a brilliant scarlet sash beneath his pistol belt.

Valentine went to greet him.

"Monsieur speaks French?" the man asked. His features were exaggerated: strong cheekbones, a pointed chin, knifelike nose, wide eyes, and handsome in a sensual, full-lipped way. Unlike most of the Hispaniolans Valentine had observed in the boats, who either had a full beard or were clean-shaved, he wore a mustache.

"And some Spanish," Valentine said, then realized, as visitor, it would be best if he began the introductions. "My captain is more comfortable in Spanish. I am Lieutenant Rowan, of the Coastal Marines," Valentine said, turning to introduce Carrasca. She wore a combination of her own Jamaican attire and a coat liberated from Captain Saunders's chest.

"Si, bueno. Muy encantado," he agreed, then touched his chest. "El Capitaen Boul."

"1 understand you wish to make use of our market?" Boul asked, seated in the captain's cabin. Even with a table fan blowing, the air settled wet and thick on the three people gathered in the small space. "We have only a few liters of diesel oil, I am sorry to say."

"My captain has ample fuel, but some fresh food and, of course, water would be most appreciated. We can barter or pay in gold."

"Ours is a poor market, unless you count fish. Though once word got around that you wished to buy, the people

would bring in chickens, eggs, pigs, fresh fruit, and vegetables. It would take only a day or two more, and your ship would be fully provisioned."

Carrasca exchanged a look with Valentine and shook her head.

"I must be at sea again. The damned pirates have too long a lead even now."

"In our mutual interest, I will ask the fishermen as they come in. They see ships, especially in the waters between here and Cuba."

"If you hear any news between now and when we leave tomorrow, we would be most obliged. A few hours are all we need to replenish our fresh water supply."

Boul put up his hands placatingly. "My friends, if you choose to stay, I can guarantee most advantageous terms for your barter in the market. Our people would have little use for gold. But tools, trinkets, even pencils and paper will get you much good food."

Valentine leaned forward in his chair. "Captain, do you have some special reason to have us stay here?"

Boul drummed his fingers on the table, but stopped as soon as he looked down and realized what he was doing. "I will lay my cards down, as you New Orleans gamblers say. Though we pay tribute to the cursed ones on the other side of the island, we still suffer their torments. Even now one of their Drakkar, a wooden vessel known as the Sharkftn, approaches. On it are the Drinkers of Death, the robed ones who come in the dark. A ship such as yours in the harbor will make them think again about anchoring. I saw your gun-it would blow the Sharkftn into kindling. Our market is poor because even at the rumor of one of the Drakkar, the Dragon-ships, my people fly to the mountains."

"We can't stay here forever," Valentine said. "And were we to destroy the Sharkfin, New Orleans would hear about it, and it would be trouble for us."

"But you may save us this season. This would not hurt your patrol, perhaps three days here. And I do mean what I

say about making inquiries among the fishermen. You may buy what you will, and each day you stay your men will feast on what my poor town can provide. We make a very good rum, vodka even from potatoes."

Carrasca nodded. "So be it. We shall stay a few days. We'll anchor so our gun can cover the sea. And your town, in case of treachery, Captain Boul."

"Thank you, Captain. You are helping my people a great deal. Though I cannot blame you for thinking it, do not fear treachery."

Valentine escorted Boul off the Thunderbolt and asked about springs flowing into town. Boul pointed out a beach and assured Valentine the water was good there. Nevertheless, Valentine made a mental note to remind the party about the water-purification tablets. He returned to the captain's cabin, knocked, and entered. They sat down and talked about the watering and market party.

"Fresh food and time. We lucked out," she said once they'd decided which men would do what.

"Unless this Sharkfin shows up. Much as it would be nice to blow it into flotsam, our cover story would suffer. Even worse, one of your own ships could sail in."

"Doubtful, nothing on this side of the island worth going after," she said.

"Well, with your permission, tomorrow I'll take a few men into town and have a look around. All I need to do is make it easy for this man to find me."

He stood up, as did she. As he turned sideways to get past her to go out the door, their chests touched. She glanced up into his eyes and then away, as if afraid of what she might find there.

The watering party left under the supervision of one of Carrasca's petty officers. They used the Thunderbolt's two boats, the smaller motor launch and a lifeboat, heaped with plastic ten-gallon barrels. It wasn't the most efficient way to water the ship, which had been amply filled before leaving

Jamaica anyway, but it gave the men something to do and added a touch of realism to the story.

Under further instructions from Carrasca, they also returned with planking torn from an old fishing boat. Some men fashioned it into a raft and attached a makeshift flag; then they towed the target out beyond the surf for gunnery practice. Carrasca made sure the distance was greater than that to the town, and she had her men lob a few shells at the target, to impress those ashore that the gun worked and they had shells to spare. She still didn't trust anyone on Hispaniola, no matter what promises came from below a handsome mustache.

Valentine was with Post when the gun began to fire. The healing lieutenant startled at the sound.

"Just gunnery training. I told you, remember?"

Post was red-faced. "Sorry, Val." He raised his arm on his wounded side. "Nerves might not be healed yet, but the shoulder's working great. Hardly a twinge." He flapped an elbow and smothered a wince.

Valentine went to the market the next day. Much of the town looked to be in rubble, victim to wave and war, storm or earthquake, and never rebuilt. What was still standing was gaily painted: blue-trimmed doorways looked out from whitewashed buildings, and elaborate designs like a child's drawing of men and animals decorated awnings and window sills. The widest street in Cape Haitian was crowded with straw-hatted food vendors, selling produce out of wooden carts. Valentine and his men would have been besieged by beggars and hustlers, except Captain Boul sent a set of navy-uniformed gunmen to act as escorts and intermediaries in the market. Which was just as well, because the Creole dialect of the streets was beyond Valentine's French. The acting-purser simply picked out items, and the strongmen passed out what looked like beaded ribbons to the people in the market.

Shouted offers for liquor, drugs, and even women tempted a few of the sailors, but Valentine and the petty officer kept them at work filling the cart.

"Hey Lieutenant, you want a good drink?" someone hallooed in English. "Wine, me got some wine. I have friends up North, and I know what you like, what you want."

Valentine spotted the man waving to him from the crowd, a dark bottle in his hand.

"Don't buy anything from that one, sailor sir," the sergeant of the escort said in a mixture of French and Spanish. "There's better wine to be found. Off, Dog-boy, or you'll be sorry."

He looked like a man to Valentine, and he didn't see any dogs. The man's eager eyes implored him across the sea of straw hats in the market, and he held out the bottle again. "Have a taste-you'll want more."

Valentine reached for the bottle, and one of the guards rewarded Dog-boy with a crack across the wrist with a baton. It dropped, but Valentine's reflexes saved it from crashing to the cobblestones.

"You don't want his piss, sailor sir."

Valentine sniffed the open mouth of the bottle. His ears picked up the sound of something clinking against the glass within. Dog-boy had disappeared into the crowd.

"Maybe I don't. I've got a drain that needs unclogging on board-I'll use it on that."

Valentine kept the bottle in his hand for the remainder of the session in the market, using it as a pointer. The purser and his men hauled their acquisitions back to the dock, yet another set of round trips were ahead for the motor launch.

Once back on board, past the Grogs hungrily eyeing the supplies coming alongside, he took his bottle down to the cabin and emptied it down the drain. Whatever was within refused to come out, so he smashed the bottle against the steel sink. A wooden tube, lacquered and stoppered, had been stuck inside. He examined it for a moment, then pulled out the cork, and extracted a rolled-up note from the tube:

To officer with black hair and scar-

I will come to your ship tonight after midnight.

I will swim to the anchor chain.

Must keep clear of soldiers in boats.

-Victo

Valentine read the note twice, then got Ahn-Kha and took it up to Carrasca.

"Is he telling us there is danger from soldiers in boats? Or that he has to swim clear of them?" Ahn-Kha asked, after the note had been passed around in the cabin.

"The Oerlikon could sink any number of boats," Carrasca said. "I've looked around the harbor. They have a lot of those canoe fishing boats. I suppose they could put a couple hundred men in the water, but we'd sink them before they got halfway here. But we might want to shift anchorage, farther out."

Valentine shook his head. "He'll have a tough enough swim as it is. Let's wait until he's on board."

There was a rap at the door, and a teenager entered. "Captain, one of those rowboats dropped off a letter," he reported.

"Thank you, Lloyd," Carrasca said, opening it.

"Today is a day for notes," Ahn-Kha observed.

She handed it to Valentine. "An invitation to a dinner and beach party in our honor tomorrow night. However many officers and men as I choose to bring. I smell a rat with a nice mustache."

"We'll make some excuse tomorrow during the day," Valentine said. "A radio message. As long as this Victo is on board, we can take our leave of El Capitaen Boul."

"You think he means to take hostages?" Carrasca asked. "Why didn't he do it today? There must have been ten or twelve men on shore at various times. He could have taken you and your party. That would have given him something to bargain with."

"He could be waiting for orders."

"Huevos. The man's a schemer-I could read his eyes," she said, touching the corner of her own. "He may be playing us false, but it's to his own purposes."

"I'm going to arm Ahn-Kha's Grogs and what's left of my marines. You might want to have the machine guns ready tonight."

"They'll be manned. I want everyone to have a chance at fresh food, though. There's an old tradition at sea to give your men a good feed before action." Her expression softened into that of the woman he'd played mah-jongg with in Jamaica. "Would you care to have dinner with me in the cabin?"

"Far be it from me to break with tradition," Valentine said.

The food tasted better in the cooler night air. Valentine put on a plain white shirt with his best pair of pants fresh from the laundry and went lightly up the stairs to Carrasca's cabin. Askin, her only lieutenant, answered the door. A handsome young Jamaican with hair cropped so short it made Valentine think of peach fuzz, Askin was dressed in a trim black uniform decorated with a heavy silver whistle on a thick chain. A linen covering added a formal note to the table in the wardroom. The Thunderbolt's, best plates and cutlery lay upon it.

"We really should have asked Post, as well," Carrasca said. She wore the same blue uniform Valentine remembered from the dinner at Commodore Jensen's, though now it bore an epaulette on the right shoulder.

"He's only just started walking," Valentine reported.

"The Chief doesn't care for formal meals, and Ahn-Kha-"

"Just wouldn't fit in," Valentine finished. "I don't mean with us, but in this cabin."

"It would be a bit like having a horse in here for dinner," Carrasca laughed. She sat, and the men followed suit.

Carrasca began uncovering dishes. "Askin, you did wonders with the birds."

"A sugar glaze from the beets on this island," the lieutenant explained. His diction held only a hint of Calypso.

She took another cover off. "The bean-and-rice dish is mine. Sweet potatoes. Crab cakes with goat-milk butter, and a fruit platter."

Valentine took a bite of a buttery crab cake, feeling guilty that he hadn't brought anything. He turned to Askin. "The captain tells me you've landed here before."

"Farther along the north coast, near the Samanae Peninsula," Askin said. "We were chasing some little trading ship. They beached it and waded through the surf to escape us. It took us forever to take off the cargo. Something must have scared some of them worse inland, because they came scampering back."

"Did they say what it was?" Valentine asked.

"I think they got a look at one of the mines. Bauxite, maybe. Those and the sugar plantations-they're hell on earth. Hispaniola is the worst island in the Carib."

"The Kurians have a knack for doing that."

"That old Specter by Kingston, he was a saint compared with the creatures running Santo Domingo. They don't even try to keep their people alive."

Unspoken agreement turned the three to their dishes, further conversation might spoil their appetites. Valentine had seen his share of cruelty in his years facing Kur, and worse, recently participated in it as part of his assumed role as a Coastal Marine.

The meal ended with fruit for dessert and a single glass of wine chilled into sangria. There were no toasts this time. Askin excused himself, carrying two green bananas out with him.

"He has the bridge as soon as it gets dark, even though we're at anchor," Carrasca explained. "I told him to be extra careful tonight. I warned the watch to keep an eye open for our swimmer. Now we wait, David."

Valentine sipped at his sangria, enjoying the sound of his name from her lips. "I have no complaints. I'm left alone with a beautiful woman."

Carrasca smiled, her teeth gleaming against her dusky skin. "Captain Valentine, I'm shocked. A breach of etiquette. But for God's sake, don't stop."

Valentine's innards warmed to the wine and the spark in her eyes. "I haven't had a woman to talk to in a long time, Malia. When all this is over, when we can both relax and take off our respective hats, so to speak, I'd like to spend some time with you. You're someone I can talk to."

"So that's what you'd do with me? Conversation?"

He met her gaze. "Yes, long, in-depth conversations. Late into the night."

"Really, David?" she asked. "How long has it been since your last good conversation with a woman?"

"Over a year. In New Orleans I was tempted to pay a woman to talk to me, but I resisted."

"It's better to wait for a decent conversationalist," she agreed.

"Yes."

"I'd like to talk to you, too. I'm sure you'd enjoy it. Women with any Cuban blood in them-well, they make great conversational partners. You'd be amazed at how many different topics I'm familiar with."

"I'm sure," Valentine said, smelling her femininity in the confines of the dining cabin.

"It's a shame, now that you've got me thinking about it, I've been lacking in decent conversation myself. The only problem is, we're both married to our duty. We can't have the men thinking anything else."

"Maybe if we whispered-"

"I tend to shout at the top of my lungs, when I'm really interested in the subject."

Valentine laughed. "We couldn't have that."

Carrasca bit her lower lip. "You speak French. Perhaps we could have a short-"

The ship's Klaxon went off. They froze. At the second screaming blast of the alarm, they hurried out of the cabin to the bridge, just a few steps away.

Carrasca killed the Klaxon and picked up the ship's squawk-mic. "Battle stations, battle stations." Aspin spoke to the engine room, asking for maximum revolutions.

Valentine stepped aside for men rushing to their stations. He looked to the shoreline from the wing of the bridge. Five great bonfires lit up the beach outside Cape Haitian. Wide fishing boats with double-banked oars approached like giant water beetles, men crammed inside. Pot shots from shore zipped through the air or tinged harmlessly against the steel sides of the ship.

Why would they approach with the bonfires behind them, making them perfect silhouettes for...

He went to the opposite side of the bridge, heart in his throat, and searched the darkness. The stars went right to the horizon in the clear tropical night. No ship sailed out there; that much could be seen. He heard Carrasca shouting orders for the anchor cable to be cut. Valentine went to a searchlight and threw the switch. He began a slow sweep of the seaward approaches of the harbor, the searchlight's electric buzz filling his ears.

He probed the darkness with a knife of light. The beam fell across something small and gray, approaching like a sea monster with part of its snout showing. Orange light flashed, and a shell howled as it landed just in front of the ship. Water fountained into the air. But the cannon's flash told him what hunted the Thunderbolt from the sea.

It was not Boul's wooden Drakkar, but a submarine! The commodore had mentioned some old diesel ships in the hands of the Haitian Kur. It had a low profile like something from the Second World War. He hardened his ears in that direction even as the second shell approached and picked out the sound of churning engines.

He grudgingly congratulated Boul for a clever poker game. The thought stayed frozen in his mind as the second

shell hit forward, beneath him. Time faded; the next thing he was aware of was a disembodied floating feeling.

David, I'm not going to hold you up anymore, his mother said. You'll have to swim for yourself.

Cool, slightly slimy Minnesota lake water engulfed him as she let go. Fear... He kicked hard and spun his arms like wheels until he broke the surface and felt air on his face again. The panic changed to triumph.

Swimming, Mom! By myself! Look! he sputtered.

His mother's bronze face split into a smile under its wet tangle of glossy black hair. You 're a regular motorboat.

David Valentine spat out a mouthful of Caribbean as he came to his senses, disoriented. Distant and muted sounds echoed over a roaring in his brain.

He bobbed in the ocean, the waves adding to his sensation of drunkenness. Woolly-brained, he watched the Thunderbolt cut her cable and get under way. Someone had the presence of mind to turn the Oerlikon from the shore boats to the attacking ship. Red tracers crossed overhead, seeking the exposed figures on the bridge of the submarine. The deadly fireworks played across the deck of the submarine, tearing the conning tower's men and machinery to pieces. The submarine's gun fired again, and its shell detonated in the wake of the now-moving target. The Oerlikon's tracers shifted, and this time tore through the thin shield of the submarine's cannon. The thirty-millimeter shells blasted the gun's crew from the deck in a series of whipcrack explosions.

Valentine noted, rather dully, the Thunderbolt turning to escape the harbor-leaving him behind. She and the submarine traded machine-gun fire; the bullets scrabbled against the respective port sides of the two ships. The ineffectual fire reminded Valentine of a pair of crabs battling with their oversize fighting claws, both too well armored to be damaged by the exchange.

Hard hands grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him into a boat. He looked around at a mass of black faces, eyes and

teeth shining in the night. A few pointed their guns at him. He could make out voices now.

"Put those things down, you fools," Valentine barked in French. "I'm not going anywhere." He consoled himself with the sight of the Thunderbolt's churning wake as she escaped the harbor.

They landed and trooped up the beach and past the wounded Haitians. The soldiers' screams and lamentations struck Valentine as surreal, with soft sand beneath his feet and a breeze licking his skin as though he were just back from a pleasure swim. A few of the women from the town tended to the men in a haphazard fashion, caring only for the faces known to them and ignoring others.

The soldiers moved him along with words and gestures rather than the blows he expected, especially after the brief, intense fight. They escorted him to the stoutest building off the market square, a cinder-block three-tiered structure with a collonade and a few friezes that reminded him of an elaborate wedding cake he'd once seen back in New Orleans. They brought him into the basement by way of an exterior stairway and metal door broken only by a narrow gun slit. A navy-uniformed warden led him to a cell. Its ten-by-ten concrete floor supported no furniture, and only a drain hole and dirty ring on the floor around it hinted that there had once been plumbing fixtures.

Cockroaches scuttled for the corners at their entry. What light there was came in through the face-size window in the door, where tiny shards of reinforced glass and wire still stood in the broken pane like the teeth circling a lamprey's mouth. He stood in the holding cell, wet and uncomfortable, while they searched him. Finding him weaponless, they took only his belt.

He waited what he thought to be an hour or so, and a familiar eye appeared in the circle of jagged, stained glass. It widened in surprise.

"My God! So it's true-the bargainer himself," Boul exclaimed in French.

"That sounds like the man who told me not to fear treachery."

A melodious chuckle came from the hall. "I know which side of the bread my butter rests on, my friend. Or in this case, on which side of this door I wish to be standing."

"Funny thing, buttered bread," Valentine said, emotion facilitating his. command of his mother's tongue. He sat and rested his back against the wall. "If it is dropped, life always arranges for it to land butter side down."

"My bread is brought to me, so I wouldn't know. Listen, my friend. You'll have buttered bread, decent food, as long as you stay here if you'll tell them the whole truth. That through me your captain was convinced to stay."

"Are you sure you want to take credit for tonight's fiasco? Your prize got away."

"Your sailors were more alert than we thought, for all the illicit rum and tequila they bought today. But your ship was damaged, my friend, damaged. Whatever you sought to do here is at an end. The Lords of Santo Domingo still rule, and they know now that you play a false game."

"Thanks to those who would sell their countrymen's lives. For what? A uniform? Someone to bring you your buttered bread?"

"I must put an end to this pleasant exchange, though in the future we'll have freedom and leisure to talk. Well, just leisure in your case. But first a comrade of yours will join you. It seems he wished to see you again a great deal, so much that he risked his life to be in the harbor tonight. One moment please."

So they had Victo, too. Valentine waited, and rested. So close, and you blew it at the end. He closed his eyes and his mind and tried to reduce his lifesign. Not that it was necessary in this particular heart of darkness, but the mental discipline would calm him for whatever lay ahead.

A heavy tread outside the door, and a rattle of a key in the

lock made him open his eyes again. He readied an apology for Victo, whose life had also been on the table in this mad gamble. Valentine felt a flash of resentment at the superiors, Lifeweaver and human, who pushed men to their deaths, sacrificed like pawns. But it wasn't Victo who stood in the doorway, glowering at him.

Captain Saunders.

"By Kur and the Catastrophes, I owe the devil his due. It is you," Saunders rasped. His skin was darker, his hair lighter, and the wattles on his neck more pronounced with weight loss. He wore loose butter-colored cotton clothes and rope sandals.

"Good morning, Captain," Valentine said.

"Stow it, renegade. Boul, put this man in shackles. He's slippery."

Boul yelled something to his men outside the door, who rushed to comply with the Haitian Creole. Valentine submitted to his boots being stripped off, and his wrists and ankles being clamped in steel. A second chain linked the upper and lower segments of the restraints.

"That's better," Saunders said, looking over the fittings with a careful eye. He snickered. "So young, so sure of himself. Plotting behind my back. I found you out still, clever man."

"Shouldn't you be getting back to the Thunderbolt, sir? It is your command, after all."

A paroxysm passed over Saunders's face, and he reached into his shirt. Valentine saw a sheathed knife under his arm. Saunders clutched the hilt with a trembling hand, then relaxed.

"You should be congratulated for being in the right place at the right time, Captain," Valentine admitted. "Was it dumb luck or evil fate?"

"It took some doing," Saunders said. "I got away from those bastards off Jamaica by only the thinnest margins. I jumped in a raft with Peatwo and my pistols while the fight-

ing was still going on. We rowed for shore." Saunders still enjoyed talking about himself, and he began to pace the cell.

"Nobody noticed a missing raft. But we've been busy killing a Kurian," Valentine said.

"I rowed for shore, but it turned out there was a third ship there. Didn't know that, did you? A little fishing boat, just a wheelhouse and a deck really. From the other pirates in Montego Bay. The scoundrels on board were hoping one or both of the ships would be so damaged by the fight, they could get in on some salvage.

"Their sailing master, for he wasn't fit for the word captain, was a crafty one, lurking there. Pointed a bunch of guns at us, bobbing there in the raft. I saw him watching Peatwo with a look I'd seen before, so I took my pistol and put it to Peatwo's head. Promised to blow the boy's brains out if they didn't put down their guns, but I'd trade the boy for my life. The sailing master chuckled and brought me on board.

"He meant to murder me, of course, so as soon as I got on deck, I shot him and another who moved clean dead. I made the others throw their guns overboard, and between me and Peatwo, we got five into the raft. That just left us with three, enough to handle the ship but not too many to watch.

"I couldn't go back north, but I knew the only Kurians with ships nearby were here. We made for Santo Domingo. I ended up shooting another of those Montego dogs on the trip. I stayed awake two days at one stretch, promising myself with every breath that I'd see you again and avenge myself. I offered the Devil my soul for this moment."

"Not much of a bargain for either of you."

"Hold that tongue, or I'll cut it out-by Kur, I will. We got to this island, and I found the local Lords. I gave them the Jamaicans, and Peatwo for that matter, for the promise to let me serve them at sea. That came hard. Felt a bit like that guy in the Bible who had to sacrifice his own son. I couldn't have made it that week at sea without Peatwo. The Kurians didn't know what to make of me. But they had that subma-

rine working; they used it at sea because it was almost un-sinkable. The cannon's sights were wrecked. I fixed it up for them, and they gave me the command.

"We heard about what happened in Jamaica. At first I thought you had ideas about setting yourself up in style there. When the good Boul radioed Santo Domingo that you were seen off the coast, I knew the Devil had kept his part of the bargain. You'll rot here until I get the Thunderbolt back, and then what's left of you will go back to New Orleans for disposition. Dispossession, more like, of your traitorous hide. As slowly as I can make it last."

In a way, Valentine was relieved. He wouldn't be killed outright, and so far no one had bothered to wonder just what he was doing off the shore of Hispaniola.

"Better get that gun fixed, sir," Valentine suggested. "Otherwise the Thunderbolt will sink your pigboat under you."

"I intend to. The damage is repairable, within even the capabilities of the joke of a machine shop they have here in Haiti's wet asshole. But help is on the way."

Valentine feigned disinterest and said no more in the hope that Saunders would brag out further details. But his former captain turned to leave.

"Oh, Captain, one more thing," Valentine said. "Suppose you do get the Thunderbolt back. Are your new masters here just going to let you sail off in an armed ship that size? Our mutual friend Captain Boul, he may just have orders to shoot you in the back of the head once the Thunderbolt's safely taken."

"A traitor judges all others by his traitorousness," Saunders sneered, as if he had hit upon an important point of philosophy. "Kur keeps her bargains with those useful to them."

"What about with those who are no longer useful to them? What happened to Peatwo when you didn't need a second set of eyes, Captain?"

"Boul, have him beaten!"

Saunders stormed out, letting his stomping feet do his cursing for him. Boul's lips curled into an uneven grin, and two heavyset Haitians entered, wooden clubs in hand.

An hour later, Valentine consoled himself with the knowledge that this pain would not be forever. Pain never was; the body either died or healed. In either case, the pain subsided.

But for now, he had an existence of seeping blood and throbbing pain. Blood stinging his eyeballs-the sting coursed up the side of his face like a hot circuit. Blood in his mouth, blood in his urine from the hammerlike blows to his kidneys, he fancied his toes were bleeding where one of the jailers had stood on them with thick-soled boots. And pain underneath, pain as deep as the Cayman abyssal. Vomit covered his shirt, and worse filth stained the inside of his pants.

He felt a callused yet gentle hand rock his head. Some kind of leaves went into his mouth, and the hand worked his jaw. He chewed with loosened teeth and swallowed; it seemed important to the hand.

"Oui, oui, my child. This will help, yes," a woman's voice said in Haitian Creole.

Valentine opened one blood-gummed eye and looked up into a black face. Warm dark eyes looked down at him, a tenderness glowing there thanks to some inner light. He felt he must be resting in a lap-though the arrangement of her legs seemed wrong-but he only had a moment to enjoy the sensation before fading out.

When he awoke, he was in clean cotton ducks of the same kind he had seen under the straw hats in the Cape Haitian market. Something had woken him, and a sniff of fresher air made him turn to the door, which the breeze told him was open.

A figure slid in, moving mostly with its arms like a chimpanzee. It was the same woman who had cradled his head in her caressing hands. She was disfigured: two fleshy stumps were all she had left of her legs, and one arm ended in a leather-covered knob at her wrist. She had a wide nose, so

wide it seemed to touch every other part of her face, below a cheerful yellow bandanna tied tight around her head. Swinging on her arms, like a cripple using two short crutches, she was at his side in two strides. She pivoted on the wrist-stump as neatly as a ballerina en pointe.

"Feeling better, child?"

"Yes. Whatever was in those leaves helped."

The door remained open. A lemon-sucking guard watched every move the woman made in the bare cell. Valentine noticed that she wore a man's wristwatch with a cracked crystal on her good arm.

"Food and water'll help more. I brought both. I'm Sissy. I tend to the poor souls in here."

"Sissy?"

"Short for Narcisse," she said, unrolling a bundle. A coconut and further food wrapped in bits of rag greeted him.

"Food doesn't sound that good, but that coconut-"

"As full of milk as a cow, child. You want me to hold it for you?" She sniffed at the air above his waist, like a mother wondering if a diaper needed changing.

"I think I can manage."

Valentine removed the coir plug and tipped the sweet, thin coconut milk down his throat. It tasted like pure honey.

"You're a good healer, child. I've seen men die from such a beating. Here you are with an appetite already."

"I'm grateful," he said, handing her the empty husk.

"You want the meat inside?"

"Maybe later."

"I understand, child. Been there myself."

"Sorry to hear that."

"Grateful and sorry." She chuckled. "That makes you two rungs up on every man in this town."

"Narcisse," Valentine said, not to his nurse, but to the ceiling of the cell. "That's a lovely name."

"Twenty years ago, I was a lovely girl."

"You still are. Nobody is more beautiful than someone who takes away pain."

She half snorted, half laughed. "Child, you're a charmer. Now you're three rungs up."

Valentine unwrapped a piece of cheese and nibbled at it with sore teeth. "Good of them to let you in here."

"Captain Boul's orders. I heard the men talking. They want you to live."

Valentine probed a loosened tooth with his tongue and refrained from comment.

"Ten minutes, and you'll need to pass water, bad," Sissy predicted. "I'll be back with a basin."

She swung herself to the door and glared up at the man blocking it. "Thank you," she said as he moved aside. Valentine almost felt the air chill at her tone.

Sissy helped him urinate at the end of the predicted ten-minute interval in such a matter-of-fact fashion, Valentine almost laughed at the procedure.

"Christ that burns," Valentine groaned.

"Pain means you're still breathing," she commiserated. "Told myself that before-and before that, too."

She put his head in her lap again and started to sponge blood clots out of his hair. "You're wondering, and you're too polite to ask. I'm like this from my own beatings, from trying to run away out of here. I started out in the sugar fields. Tried to get away once too often. I'd be dead, except I can cook better than anyone this side of the island. And they're afraid of my juju."

"Actually I was wondering about the watch. It doesn't fit you."

"Hmpf. Most people just see a woman with stumps. This belonged to my man, Robert," she said, pronouncing the name Rowberr. "He went to join the guerrillas, and I never seen him since. I think he's dead."

Valentine lay back, trying to fall asleep. There was no pain in sleep. "Do you ever think of running again?" he breathed, his voice hardly a whisper.

"Hard to run with no legs, child," she said, cradling his head again and bringing her face close to his so he could hear.

"When you bring me dinner...," Valentine began.

Narcisse listened, gently stroking his head. But Valentine felt her body tremble with excitement as he spoke.

Valentine lay down, and tried to sleep away the afternoon. He'd gotten up and walked around the cell. There was one final wall of pain to get through as he did so, and then he felt his strength coming back to him as though a dam had burst. He put his back to the wall where the guard couldn't see him and squatted and stretched and tried a few push-ups. The exertion left him as limp as water. He tried to sleep. He told himself he would never be able to rest: there were gaping holes in his plan, beginning with the necessity of him staying in this cell for another meal. He tried to relax, worried that a change in mood could alter his lifesign signature. He hadn't seen any Reapers on Haiti yet, or felt their presence, but that didn't mean they would not come for him. And with all those worries, sleep still ambushed him.

He woke with a start at the sound of Sissy's voice outside the door. "What, you on hourly wages? Food's getting cold, boy. Get this thing open."

The door swung inward, and Valentine rolled over to see Narcisse. She had changed into heavier long-sleeved clothes, and the yellow bandanna had been replaced by a blue-green one.

Valentine rolled onto his side and knelt, as a hungry man looking forward to his meal. The guards looked in Nar-cisse's bag, poking through the contents.

"Awful lot in here."

"You know the cap'n's orders. He wants him well fed. He didn't eat much earlier owing to the beating-he'll be healing-hungry now. I'm going to give him a wash, too. That's what the water's for."

The jailers exchanged a look. One stepped aside so she could pass. She executed a neat hop over his foot, but her

trailing culottes caught on his boot. Something fell from between her stumps and clattered to the floor.

The guards and Valentine looked down. It was a filleting knife-with a razor-sharp blade and a sturdy handle.

The guard outside the door reached for his rifle. The one inside bent to grasp at the knife. Valentine took his chance. Excitement overrode the stiffness in his body.

He sprang, bringing his fist forward. The defunct but heavy watch that once belonged to Narcisse's lover was wrapped around his hand in an improvised brass knuckle. The jailer turned his head at the blur of motion. What was left of the crystal shattered against the bridge of his nose, even as he tried to bring up the knife.

The other raised his rifle. To Valentine it seemed as though the guard moved in slow motion, and a rifle is an unwieldy weapon for a close-quarters fight. Valentine whirled around the pain-blinded guard at the door and stepped past the long barrel. He brought his watch-covered fist against the second guard's jaw in a haymaker blow, trapping the gun under his other arm. The gun fired; its bullet went into the cell, splitting the air between Narcisse and the broken-nosed man at the door.

Sissy had the knife now, and stuck it up and under her opponent's rib cage. Valentine grabbed his guard's head and pushed it as hard as he could into the wall behind him. Two sickening, crunching thumps, and he let the man drop.

"Get the keys," Valentine said, blood and cordite in his nose.

"They ain't good for the outer door," she said, slamming the door to the interior staircase shut. "I got the captain's. Boul's asleep for the rest of the day, and not much use to anyone for a while after that. His chicken curry had a pinch of magic in it."

Valentine looked at both rifles and took the better of the two, an old Ruger Model 77/44. There were no spare magazines, but one of the guards had a handful of .44 cartridges in his pocket.

"Food and water?" Valentine asked. He took one of the guard's sandals off and put them on his bare feet.

"Got it," she said, throwing the bag over her shoulder.

Valentine knelt. "Okay, get your arms around me. We're out."

Narcisse wrapped her arms around his neck, holding on to her mutilated forearm with her good hand. Valentine came to his feet easily; she weighed no more than a loaded backpack. He went to the dead bolt on the basement exterior door.

"It's the shiny steel one with the longest barrel," she said in his ear.

The door opened, and Valentine brought the rifle barrel up the stairway.

"Most of the men that weren't wounded are behind sandbags in the harbor. They expect your ship to come back for you. The white man with the chicken neck wants to spring a trap once they land troops."

Valentine kept the rifle to his shoulder and ascended the stairs. Where his eyes went, the iron sights of the rifle followed. He heard banging on the door Narcisse had locked back in the cells.

A trio of navy-uniformed men approached the stairway, rifles held ready, hunched over as if trying to make themselves smaller. They hugged the wall, all in a row, like the three blind mice. Valentine ducked when he saw the rifle barrel come his way. The shot pinged off the wall behind his head.

He popped his head and gun back up and shot the front man as he worked the bolt on his rifle. The other two dropped to the ground and fired without aiming.

Valentine ran, popping off another shot from his hip as he crossed the street, trying to keep the other two soldiers hugging pavement. His opponents looked more interested in getting behind the twitching body of their leader than in shooting at him. He made it into an alley chased only by the sound of a gunshot from the roof.

"You okay?" Valentine asked.

"You'd be running a lot lighter if I wasn't," she said in his ear.

"I want to get away from the waterfront, if that's where the soldiers are. You wouldn't have a suggestion on how to get to the resistance, would you?"

"We'll get out of town and head west. Hope you're feeling better and some kind of athlete, child. These mountains'll kill you if the captain's men don't."

Sissy guided him out past the standing buildings and into a mass of rubbled buildings. A shanty town of sorts grew out of the ruins, homes created from rebuilt walls and roofed with everything from corrugated aluminum to old doors to woven palm fronds. Gaping locals got out of Valentine's path. He was running with gun ready and Narcisse clinging to his back like a baby monkey riding on its mother. He ran to the canebrake beyond the rabble, then to the trees and momentary safety.

Valentine crossed the Plaine du Nord at a steady, loping run. Narcisse clung tightly to his back, Valentine's shirt tied around both their waists, to keep her from being bounced like a sack. They moved through the muted light of the forest, crossing old roads that were now only paths and the occasional overgrown foundation. During a break, he took a look to the south, at what looked like a tabletop mountain.

Narcisse panted: "How you ran like that, child? Don't you tire?"

Valentine did not want to be reminded. "Oddly shaped mountain," he said.

"That's no mountain, that's the Citadelle. An old fortress. It took many years and many lives to build, they say. It belongs to him now."

"The local Kurian?"

She nodded.

"Why are we running toward it?" he asked.

"They wouldn't be expecting me to take you there. Once we come near the ruins of Sans Souci, we turn west into the mountains. Then you'll be among friends."

The dead air of midday enveloped them. Sweat poured off the pair and mingled as it ran down Valentine's back. Narcisse mopped his brow and eyes as he ran.

By nightfall they hit a grade that made Valentine slow to a walk. Evening birdcalls and air flowing like a slow stream seemed to whisper a promise of relief from the day's heat. Valentine found a heavy tree trunk and set Narcisse down between two roots. He passed her the water, and she spat out a beaded chain she had clenched between her teeth, and fingered the charm on it with her good hand.

"Those look like rosary beads," Valentine said as she drank.

"My favorite juju." She smiled, handing him the water. "They were blessed by the pope himself, in the long-ago, my mother told me. She got them from her mother."

"I thought you practiced voudou."

"Voudou's a bit of everything, child. Even the pope did it-he just didn't know he was."

Valentine emptied his gun and looked down the barrel. "Captain Boul's men take good care of their weapons."

"He dotes on that sort of thing. Every gun represents some piece of trading he did. He's just protecting his investment."

Valentine dried his chest with his shirt, eyes stinging with sweat. Even the thin cotton of his pants seemed to suffocate his skin.

"It's hot here. You'd think the shade would help." He bit into some kind of rice-flour bun from the sack of provisions.

"It is worse farther inland. The cool night is soon. Your name, Valent-Valenter?"

"Valentine."

"Oh, like the saint. And your first name?"

"David."

"Dav-eed," she said. "The king who danced. Your name is strong with magic."

"The only dancing I'll be doing is at the end of a rope, if we don't find the guerrillas." He looked east, where a long string of mountain feet ran down to the ocean. "Are you up to it?"

"There is a road along the coast. They will catch up soon on horses using it, once they know what direction we go. But perhaps they will not come this far. No man can run as you. This is a race for a story."

"Where is the finish line?"

"I cannot say for sure. They move. There are guerrillas to the west is all I know. Not many kilometers, I think. Their area begins at a place of good magic, and we are near it."

"So close to Captain Boul?"

"They have... an understanding, perhaps you would say. You do not know Haiti, David. The Kurian on this part of the island, he is more concerned with appearances than results."

"The one in the Citadel?"

"Yes."

"Do his..."-Valentine searched for a phrase- "'drinkers of death' visit Cape Haitian often, or use the road?"

"Monks of death? You mean the Whisperers? He does not use them much. Again, appearances."

Valentine thought for a moment, wondering if he was losing something between his barely adequate French and her Haitian Creole. A Kurian who did not use his Reapers much?

"I don't understand."

"Knowing that is the first step on the path to wisdom."

"Hope the path isn't as steep as this damn hill," Valentine said. He picked her up, retied his shirt, and carried her onward.

The next day, after a long mix of jogging and walking the rugged mountains of the coast, Valentine heard the sound of a hound's cry. It brought back memories from five years ago.

He was tired, hungry despite emptying Narcisse's store of food, and still sore from the beating in the Cape Haitian jail. Evening was well on its way; the sun had disappeared behind the mountainside. Picking a path through the tangled growth would become a blind, exhausting flight for a normal man. Valentine's gift of night vision would help, but he needed a modicum of light, and without some moonlight penetrating the clouds that gathered above the canopy, they were as good as lost among the lianas and creeping vines.

"We're being tracked."

"Yes, we are," Narcisse agreed. Her strong good hand still locked the ring of muscle and bone around his neck and shoulders that allowed him to bear her.

"You wouldn't have some hot pepper somewhere in that food bag, would you?"

"I wasn't planning on cooking, child."

Green cotorras screeched at them from the trees above. The noisy parrots mocked them.

"How did they catch you, when you ran before?" Valentine asked, pushing up yet another steep hill. Perhaps he could outlast the tracker, if not the dogs. Talking to Narcisse might get his mind off the pain in his legs and back. Exhaustion was an enemy that could not be beaten, but it could be delayed if he kept his mind from giving in to it.

"The first time was when I worked in the cane fields, in Santo Domingo. I hitched a ride on a taptap-"

"What's a taptap?"

"One of those painted trucks. They are still running after all these years. The only thing on them that isn't forty years old is the tires. The driver of this taptap turned me in at the first station we came to. There's a standing reward for runaways; he was a poor man.

"After that I met my lover; he was one of the guards who came for me. Kinder than the rest. After punishment, a whipping, he got me a job cooking at a waystation for the guards on one of the highways. They would stop, and I would cook and wash. I had time on my own when there

were no soldiers to take care of. I went into the woods, and at a waterfall met a juju-man."

"A witch doctor, you mean?"

"Yes, Dav-eed. When I touched the stream to drink or bathe, he said I made writing in the water, which told him I could practice voudou."

Valentine set her down next to a great mahogany tree, looked downslope, and set the sights on his rifle. He worked the bolt and chambered a round.

"So he taught you?"

"People think voudou is all fear and hate, but there is love and healing in it, Dav-eed. There is a bad side-like anything, it can be used to destroy. Those who work their magic with both hands can cause much sadness. Have you ever heard of a zombie?"

"Yes."

"On the east side of the island, there are many zombies, slaves to the Evil Ones. They hardly need their Whisperers to feed from them. Such a sad thing, to have the gros-bon-ange taken, and the poor soul standing there, with no chance to even run."

"The 'great good angel'?"

"It is the spirit that enters you at conception. It animates you."

"I learned it was called the 'vital aura.'"

"One word or another-it is all the same. Didn't I tell you that already?"

"Yes. Seems different when it comes from a Lifeweaver."

"Still think there's nothing to voudou?"

"I never said that. I've seen enough to know not to laugh off anything."

Valentine settled down behind a thick tree root, stomach against the moist earth, with a good view of the slope. "Our gros-bon-anges may be packing for a tap. I'm going to see if I can't take out a couple of these dogs before the light fails. I smell a rain coming. That'll throw them off if they don't get here first."

"Wait for me to tell you to shoot," she said, sliding next to him for a better view down the hill. She removed her bandanna, and Valentine saw more scars going up the side of her head. They had a stretched-over, half-healed look to them: burns from long ago.

"Why, are you going to work a charm to make me aim better?" he asked, tearing himself away from the tales told by the scar tissue.

"Don't know one, or I would, Dav-eed."

The occasional barks and yips grew louder. Valentine tucked the rifle closer to his shoulder. He wished he had had more time to get familiar with the gun; it felt a little nose-heavy. Too late to fill the stock with lead weights now.

Slathered dogs came out of the gloom, towing a ragged black figure up the slope. Valentine listened for the hoof-beats of more men behind with hard ears. He heard nothing.

Valentine looked down the barrel and put the foresight square on the man's chest. He placed his finger on the trigger, then startled with recognition. He put up his gun.

"That's the man who sent me the message in the market."

She squinted. "Yes, I thought so when I heard the dogs. His name's Victo, but the captain's men call him Dog-boy. He hunts wild pigs with those things. He's a character. Come into town just to trade, though I've seen him around more lately."

"Monsieur Valentine," Victo hallooed up the hill in English, waving. "Have no fear." He held up a pair of boots. "Look, I have your shoes, sir."

Valentine stood slowly, his aching body fighting him. "Thank you, Victo. You know what a good pair of boots means." He put on cotton socks, another gift from Victo, and slipped the familiar boots back on his sore feet. The sandals had chafed his skin badly during the long run from Cape Haitian.

"I thought you'd be on the Thunderbolt" Valentine said.

Victo showed a healthy set of teeth. "No, soon as we knew you were missing, I put ashore."

"Where's the Thunderbolt?'

"Down the coast, off a little island. They won't be seen, unless another ship from the other side of the island comes looking. That's Roots land." Valentine took a good look at the man who rescued his boots: Victo was handsome, with coal-black skin stretched tight over lean muscle.

"Roots?"

"The guerrillas."

Narcisse interrupted in her Haitian Creole. "Men, we need to be moving now. Sun is going down, but that doesn't mean they can't follow us still. There's more dogs on this part of the coast than just yours, Victo."

"Yes, woman. He carry you all this way?"

"Like an empty sack. Up and down these hills, never knew a man could run like that. What do they feed you up north?"

"I'll tell you, if you'll tell the story of why the guerrillas are called Roots. Do you hide in tunnels?"

Victo laughed in the slow, easygoing manner of the Caribbean. "It's an old saying, blanc. When the old hero Louverture was taken from us, he said, 'Overthrowing me, they have cut down the trunk of the tree of black liberty. I will shoot up again through the roots, for they are numerous and deep.' We aren't numerous, my friend, but we are deep. Deep in the mountains, deep in the forests. Though for once, all men wear the same yoke."

Valentine took up his human backpack again, and swallowed a grateful mouthful of Victo's water. It seemed almost futile; the water left him as fast as he took it in. He thirsted as if the last time he had water was yesterday. "Never been so thirsty," he said.

Victo pulled a metal tin from his pocket, an old breath-mint logo in red and white still visible on the lid. He opened it. "Salt pills. Take two now. Two more later."

"There are springs soon. Don't worry, child," Narcisse said.

The Cat led the way, and the dogs circled as they hiked.

It began to rain, one of the enervating downpours of the Caribbean summer. They made a queer procession, Valentine toting his human load, the rainsoaked dogs crisscrossing first in front, then behind, and Victo's long-legged tread at the rear.

They slogged through the night with an hour of fast walking along the hillsides, a ten-minute break, and then another hour of walking. By the time Valentine set Narcisse down again, he had lost the battle with exhaustion. His time in the KZ and life on the Thunderbolt had softened him from his years of run-walks with the Wolves and long treks with Ali Duvalier into the Great Plains. He had to take his mind off his legs, which felt like someone had shot them full of sulfuric acid.

"So you ran away from the station again?" he asked Narcisse. He put two more of Victo's salt pills on his tongue; they tasted almost sweet.

"Oh, yes. I heard you could get away if you reached the coast. There were boats, men who would take you across the waters to safety. But of course I was caught again. Brought to a coastal village, under a plantation owner. A terrible man, this one. He had four strong men hold me down, and he broke my legs with an iron rod. Broke is not a good enough word, he made it so the bones inside were nothing but splinters. You should have seen them-they looked like two run-over snakes. After that, there was nothing to do but take them off. The beast of a man gloated over me, said something about my not running anymore. He got his face too close. I tried to put out his eye. He chopped off my hand with a machete. For some reason, they let me live, perhaps as an example to others. For a while I went from plantation to plantation, and they would set me in the sun with a sign around my neck where the workers would walk by every day as a warning to others. Then Captain Boul found me. He had been a friend of Rowberr, in a manner, and he took me to his station on the cape."

"What ever happened to your lover?"

"He just vanished. I think that is the worst part of this time. You do not even know if people die. They just disappear. Perhaps they ran; perhaps they were killed. You don't know."

Valentine's legs no longer bothered him. He tried to imagine what it would feel like, to have the bones so broken they were nothing but pieces, and had to shift his mind to the trees towering overhead.

"My brothers and sisters, too. Just gone," Victo added.

"I'm sorry," Valentine said. It wasn't enough.

Victo nodded. "Let's sleep. It is safe-we are far enough into the Roots' lands that anyone after us will come slowly."

"Can you find them?" Valentine asked.

"They will find us."

Valentine would have slept through the dawn were it not for the birds. The parrots hollered back and forth between the trees like argumentative neighbors, while thousands more greeted the morning with song and call. Victo and the dogs slept in a snoring mass, and Narcisse lay with her back pressed up against his. He felt something disquieting in his crotch.

"Sissy," Valentine whispered.

"Yes, Dav-eed?" she yawned.

"I think a bug or something crawled up my leg."

"That is bad, especially if it is a centipede. Turn yourself so it rests in your trousers, rather than against your skin."

Valentine shifted, wondering if after all the hazards he faced he would finally be brought down by an insect. Whatever it was decided to cling to his thigh.

"It's still there."

"Take down your pants."

Victo woke up and looked at the operation. Valentine got into a position as if he were doing a push-up, and Narcisse helped him take down the loose cotton pants.

"It is a centipede," she said, smiling. Valentine looked down. It was long and black, with painful-looking pincers

waving back and forth. Narcisse maneuvered her head and blew on the centipede. It didn't care for the breeze and began crawling down his leg. Still blowing, she herded it onto his lowered trousers, and from there used a stick to encourage it to return to the debris on the floor.

"They can kill, though for a man as healthy as you, it might just be very painful."

"The same thing happened to a friend of mine," Victo said. "It bit his sack-he said it swelled up like a mango. Oh, how he howled."

Valentine grimaced. "Thanks for waiting to tell me that."

Valentine heard the guerrillas first as he cast about that morning with his hard ears. The dog-led trio was following a game trail west up yet another hillside. Five or six men, keeping concealed, paralleled their track up the slope. He picked out their step from the cacophony of the Haitian forest: birdcalls, creaking trees, and wind in leaves.

He called a halt. The dogs startled at the sound of the guerrillas' approach down the hillside. Two came down to greet them; the rest observed from above. Valentine was relieved to hear glad words of greeting rather than a challenge when they caught sight of Victo. They were well fed if scantily dressed, with rifles tied across their shoulders and short wooden spears tipped with metal and thorn-bristled clubs. They embraced and descended into a bantering conversation Valentine couldn't begin to follow.

Victo turned to him with a smile. "They were sent to find us, Captain Valentine. Word of your escape reached the hills. They are also in contact with your ship. It is waiting off Labadee not far from here."

Valentine's growling stomach asked the next question. "Do they have food?"

"Soon, soon. Their company watches the road out of Limbe at the river. They have a camp there. It is a downhill walk."

"Thank God."

"But soon you will be climbing mountains again, my friend. You must see the keeper of the weapon against Kur."

"So you do know. What is it? Don't tell me I traveled a thousand miles for an old voudou curse."

"No. Papa Legba will tell you more. I do not know much about how it works. A very old magic, they say. But even the Whisperers fear to cross into this part of Haiti."

"Where do I find Papa Legba?"

Victo's eyes furrowed. "They did not tell you? You must go up to the Citadelle. To meet the Kurian there. We call him Papa Legba. He will show you the weapon."

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