Venom: A Thriller in Paradise (The Thriller in Paradise Series Book 3), page 1
Praise for Rob Swigart’s Venom:
“Lush with the aura of Pacific islands, this exciting account of the hunt for a mysterious killer delves into exotic toxins, ancient religions and deep-sea diving with such energy that readers will view the languid tropics with new eyes… descriptions of man-made, floral and marine venoms, as well as of island lore and magic, are fascinating.”
“An offbeat blend of voodoo and science…”
A Thriller in Paradise
By Rob Swigart
New Orleans, La.
Copyright 1991 by Rob Swigart
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First booksBnimble Publishing electronic publication: August 2013
Cover by Roy Migabon
eBook editions by eBooks by Barb for booknook.biz
There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough: the grave, and the barren womb, the earth that is not filled with water, and the fire that saith not, It is enough. —Proverbs xxx, 15.
Tutti venini sono freddi: “All poisons are cold.” —Brunetto Latini
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About the Author
Kimiko Takamura saw the man as soon as she had climbed halfway over the safety rail. She stopped, one slim leg hooked over the top, and said, “Excuse me, are you in trouble?” It was a reasonable question. The ship had floated into the cove as if out of nowhere, and despite its size, she hadn’t seen it until it had grounded only a few yards from where she had been enjoying her solitude under a hau tree. There should have been sound, the low thump of an engine, the splash of water against the bows. Instead there had been an eerie silence.
Her question, though reasonable, did not elicit an answer.
She brought her other leg over and sat on the rail. When he failed to move, she tilted her head and squinted at his outline against the late afternoon sun.
He was seated at the helm, but there was something odd about his posture. When she saw the ropes, she realized he was tied to the wheel, as if his ship had encountered a storm and he was afraid he might be thrown overboard.
She didn’t expect an answer when she asked again, “Are you all right?” She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the damp material of her bikini and the suddenly puckered flesh of her own sides. She leaned forward in that position and peered at him intently.
He did not move, and she knew he was dead. When she went over and touched his neck to feel for a pulse that no longer existed, it was an empty ritual, part of the form.
He looked about thirty, a burly red-haired man with what must once have been an open, friendly, conventionally handsome face. Now he was simply a carcass slumped on a plastic seat, open eyes no longer looking through the windshield at the lush coastline of Kauai. Or anything else.
The ship stopped moving after a slight lurch, and Kimiko reached out to steady herself against the seat back. The body shifted against her hand, and she jerked it away as if shocked.
The ship’s bow rested gently on the sand shelf of the beach where moments earlier she had enjoyed the late-afternoon warmth and calm, free of children and responsibilities for an hour or two. This silent bulk was out of place.
She was a good eighty or ninety feet, Kimiko guessed, and still trailed the rope ladder Kimiko had climbed. Ocean Mother, Vancouver, was printed on the life rings lashed to the cabin walls and across the stern. Rust streaked the letters below the anchor port, the scuppers of her upper deck. The glass in the portholes along her sides was scratched, almost opaque, and Kimiko had been unable to see anything within.
For some reason, the body had not surprised her. The ship was so obviously a derelict adrift in the gentle Hawaiian seas, so clearly a plaything of the current and trade winds that she half expected to find something unpleasantly wrong.
A fly buzzed near one of the man’s open eyes, which was blue and very bloodshot. It seemed as if there should be some sign on his face, some reaction to death— an expression of horror or surprise or fear— but she knew that in most cases death relaxed the facial muscles. There was no clue to the cause of this death. It was as if someone had cut away everything that had been human or even alive. The face was as empty as the sea.
She stood beside him and considered what to do next. He didn’t smell, not yet. It was a good half-hour climb back up to her car, and another twenty minutes to get to a telephone, so it would be nearly an hour before she could get hold of her husband at the County Police. Meanwhile the rising tide would lift and, as it ebbed, carry the ship back out to sea. She thought it would be better if she looked things over before reporting, despite the sudden chill this dead man seemed to impart to the air. There was no one else around, for this was an inaccessible beach at the end of nearly impassable, abandoned cane roads. The beach was used exclusively by natives and then almost always to hunt for sea urchins and whelks in the tide pools along the inside of the small cape.
She hesitated for a moment here on the bridge, wondering whether she should do something to stabilize the ship’s position, secure it. But the bow was gently grounded; Ocean Mother was not going anywhere for a while. In an hour or so, when the tide changed, the ship would lift off the sand and she could try starting the engines and backing away, or could lower the anchor. Meanwhile there was nothing pressing to do: the dead man would not be coming back to life. She went down the stairs into the main cabin.
It was empty as the pilot’s face. A bench upholstered in faded tan corduroy lined the starboard wall. Two elaborate salt-water aquariums were built in opposite it, and a large rack of instruments and radio equipment blocked the center, creating two narrow aisles on either side. This appeared to be some kind of research vessel.
The fish tanks were illuminated, the filter systems pumping soft streams of tiny bubbles through the water. Small kelps and other seaweed drifted back and forth in one tank, in the other several elaborately colorful, spiral-shelled cone snails and a sea cucumber shared the water with a small puffer fish that stared out at Kimiko with its round quizzical mouth pursed in disapproval.
Kimiko did not consider herself particularly brave, but as a policeman’s wife she was accustomed
The woman was lying on the floor of the lower deck companionway before the door to the head, one arm outstretched as if she had been reaching for the handle when death overcame her. Her cheek was pressed to the ridged rubber mat. Her dark eyes, too, were open, staring into the wall a few inches from her face.
Now Kimiko felt the first real stabs of fear. Something had killed these two people, and it was too much to expect coincidence to have struck them both down of heart attacks at the same time, particularly in light of the pilot’s relative youth. This woman was quite a bit older, but did not look to Kimiko like the kind of person to have died suddenly of heart disease, though Kimiko had only a vague and, she thought, probably inaccurate idea of what kind of person that might be. But she knew enough not to touch anything else.
She looked around. The walls were plain, metal, gray. She thought there was something smudged on the one by the door, but decided it was normal.
Nothing suggested crime, but two bodies on one ship did suggest something contagious, and that set off alarms. She stepped carefully around the woman’s body and stooped a little to study it without touching.
The woman appeared to be in her mid-fifties. Her long black hair was tied back severely in a French braid held by a tarnished silver clip shaped like a sea horse.
She was stocky. Her outstretched fingers were blunt, the nails cut very short. The first and middle fingers appeared stained yellow by nicotine.
She wore jeans and a denim jacket over a dark purple blouse of some silky synthetic. Her topsiders were worn and scuffed. She seemed to be not a vain woman, but someone who considered herself practical. A no-nonsense woman. Like the pilot above, she was Caucasian.
The next body was not. He was tall for a Polynesian, heavyset as any native Hawaiian, with a broad face and soft flesh. A light splattering of acne scars dusted both thick cheeks.
He was seated in the galley, his head tilted back against the shelf behind a plastic-covered bench. His mouth was open, an expression Kimiko found more obscene than the open eyes of the other bodies. Unlike the others, though, his eyes were closed. For the smallest moment Kimiko thought he might be only sleeping, but there was no rise and fall of breathing, no small pulse in the open, vulnerable throat. He wore shorts and an absurdly loud short-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned to the waist.
His head must have hit the shelf with some force. A can of Comet and two or three small bottles of herbs had fallen on either side of him. The Comet had left a green trail down the bench when it rolled onto the floor.
She moved through an open bulkhead and found the doors to the staterooms. One by one she opened them and looked inside.
The first two were empty, the bunks carefully made, the small lavatory sinks clean and empty. In the third a toothbrush lay on the sink beside an open tube of Colgate. A metal hanger clicked against the door as she opened it. It held a plain white cotton dress and a belt of red leather. The small closet contained a suitcase and a pitifully small collection of women’s clothes. They were not the kind of clothes the middle-aged woman beside the bathroom would have worn.
Kimiko passed through several more chambers before she found her in the engine room, across from the body of a thin older man. Both were bent uncomfortably over the open hatch to the engine compartment. A young woman barely out of her teens, she looked only a few years older than Kimiko’s daughter Kiki, and would have been pretty if she weren’t so dirty and dressed in such baggy, unattractive shorts. Her tank top had once been white but now was streaked with oil and grease. Her fingernails were black. Her face, what Kimiko could see of it through the mass of tangled hair that hid it, was plain, the lips cracked and chapped. The skin on her shoulder was either peeling or red where it had been burned. She was the kind of person who would never tan, just burn and peel.
By contrast, the man’s skin was weathered almost mahogany. His face was deeply lined, his thin gray hair cropped short. His nautical cap sat a few feet away on the floorboards, and had left its white line on his forehead where the tan stopped abruptly.
He was lying on his side, his legs twisted under him, as if he had been felled abruptly by a sudden blow. Kimiko could see no signs of violence, though, only the same relaxed, indifferent blankness as all the other faces.
She moved on to the cargo bay toward the stem. She saw a dozen or so cardboard boxes stacked against the outer walls, which left a narrow aisle down the middle with two metal bulkhead doors at the other end of the room. The floor was a bare metal grid. Kimiko could hear the soft splash of bilge beneath it as the ship rolled very gently back and forth with the waves. Soon now the tide would lift her off the sand and she would have to do something to secure the ship.
She tried the first door and found behind it an equipment closet that contained two fire extinguishers and a mop.
The other door resisted her efforts to open it. She pulled a couple of times, hesitated, then tugged once more. The hinges creaked as they gave, and a heavy-set black man fell out into her arms. Instinctively she clutched at him, catching him under the arms, but his weight and the surprise threw her backwards off balance. His body landed on top of her.
If she hadn’t been contaminated by now, this would do it. Panic seized her, and she struggled hopelessly with the man in her arms; he seemed to be tugging at her. She thought for a moment it must be like this to drown, to be pulled down.
She gasped in pain and caught herself. His weight was awful on top of her, but she took a deep breath and rolled him gently sideways, what she should have done before. Her tenderness seemed empty since he was as dead as the others, but some deeply ingrained fastidiousness in the presence of death lent her strength.
She stood up, breathing hard, wiping her hands unconsciously on her rust-streaked thighs. Even lying on his back, she could see he was large but not fat. He must have been an athlete, a football player, with that thick neck and those powerful arms and legs. She figured he had not played in some time: There was a layer of soft tissue over the hard muscle beneath. His jeans were clean and well worn, his shirt new. It was molded to his powerful torso as if a size too small for him.
His body showed the first signs of violence: One cheek was bruised, the eye above it swollen nearly shut. Other than the bruise, though, he looked just like the others, as empty of expression and as dead.
She peered into the closet. There she saw the drawing, a crude human skull chalked on the metal wall. The chalk was streaked, as if someone had rubbed out other drawings. A prank, she thought. That’s all.
The man was far too heavy to move, so she left him there. She could feel now the soft lift of the tide and climbed back to the pilot house to see if there was any way to start the ship, move it back out into the cove and anchor it.
The pilot had not moved. His eyes were still open, staring into green cane fields above the narrow cliff over the beach. The fly had gone. Kimiko stood beside the body and looked in dismay at the instruments and switches on the console before him. There should be a key or something to turn, but she could not find it. This was no motorboat, but a real ship. She had no idea how to start it up. Besides, the girl and the older man below had been working on the engine, so most likely it had broken down. She left the pilothouse and moved along the deck toward the bow. At least she could lower the anchor and keep the ship from drifting any further before she left to report the derelict.
She inched past the lifeboat hanging from its davits on the port side. There should be one on the starboard side, but the rope ladder she had used trailed down it and she had seen no lifeboat. Another mystery.
The metal railings were scuffed and tarnished. She trailed her finger along them, wondering how much time she had left before whatever had killed the crew got her. The worn metal was warm under her hand and glowed in the late-afternoon sunlight slanting across the low black volcanic torment of the cape to her left as she moved forward. A few of the perpetual clouds that shrouded the crater atop Waialeale tumbled the orange light like huge friendly puppies over the green slopes. She could see few buildings far away against the slopes— the island seemed nearly uninhabited. It might have been a thousand years ago, except for the incongruous body she tripped over on the forward deck as she walked, bemused by the evening. This time she let out a brief shriek of surprise as she threw her hand out to catch the rail.
She saw half of him in the pilothouse— only one foot and calf lay across her path to trip her. But as she fell forward she caught a look at the rest of him. He was dead as the others.
She realized now that she was barefoot, dressed only in a black bikini, in the presence of more death than she had seen in one place before. She crouched beside the final body, and from this low angle could see the livid splotch of blood pooled in his cheek where it pressed the deck. She also felt the uncomfortable heat of the metal decking, the itch of salt drying on her bare skin, the sharp flakes of rust on her legs and arms, the aura of fear she trailed behind her like a cloud of pestilence.
He must have been the captain, the skipper, whatever they called him. It was there in his casual uniform, in the look of command that no longer animated his face, in the hat that lay a few feet away, rolled to the edge of the anchor port. It was there in the pistol he wore in a holster on his belt.
Crouching there beside him she found something poignant in the way his hand lay, palm up, the wiry fingers gently curled, as if he had been holding something very delicate and had just let it go. As if someone had just taken it from him.