The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 18)

Over the Southern Ocean, November 5th, late p.m.  

“It’s so tempting.”

“Mmm?” She didn’t even break off from kissing his stomach.

“I just want to test it.”

“Me too.” Her mouth continued its odyssey.

“Put it in water and see if this arm heals any quicker.” Now Catalina did stop and looked up in frustration. “Not to stop the pain. I need to be sure it’s not just a worthless piece of junk now that it’s away from the island. I mean, it’s not helping me as things stand and it didn’t do the old man much good as he lay…” He broke off. It wasn’t an image he was comfortable with yet.

Catalina propped herself on her elbow. “Well you daren’t risk it. Dirk doesn’t know you’ve got it and I can imagine his response if he comes back to find your wound healed – or rather, I can’t.”

Pete looked at the bandage. “Certainly feels better. I wonder if that’s because I handled the k’ib in the temple.”

“Well, just keep it to yourself. It gives you a motive for killing the team – that’s what men do for such a prize.”

“Men?” He looked down the bed at her, and then reached across and picked up the k’ib. Both of them looked at it, transfixed for the moment. “There’s something about it, isn’t there?” He weighed it in his hand. “Y’know, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not of this earth. After all we’ve been through these last few days, I wouldn’t be surprised if travellers from some distant, dying world crossed the universe seeking a planet with water where the k’ib could live again, and they with it.” He placed her hand on the cold metal. “Don’t you feel it’s as ancient as time.” Then he gave a little intake of breath. “I wonder if I drowned the last being that understood its power.”

Catalina shrugged. He knew she wanted to get her hands on a different object right then and did not share his growing fascination with the artefact. “Well, I’m sure it’ll remain an enigma.”

He didn’t like the mix of condescension and ennui in her voice, and sat up. “Hey, I might give the impression of being a waster, but I’m not unintelligent. Jane Sutch would never have fallen for me if I was.” The flash of annoyance in Catalina’s eyes pleased him. “Ok, I know the attraction of opposites played a part too. And yes, my public school education was cut short, and my father didn’t hide his contempt for my lack of business nous too well, so I’ve developed a thick hide, but I’m not insensitive. You think I didn’t see the looks of arrogant surprise when I ventured logical and sensible opinions on the island. Well, who’s dead and who’s alive? Who are the fuckwits now?”

As he lay back with a thump he realised just how right he might be. If the k’ib had an intelligence, had it recognised in him a worthy successor, someone more suited for this new age than the old robed shaman, who had brought it so far, but was perhaps incapable of taking it further? He had seen things with a prescience and sensitivity which had surprised even him. And ideas had come to him in extremis. How else could he explain the clarity of thought that had enabled him to formulate plans with such speed and cunning in the midst of chaos and fear?

Strangest of all; where was this innate knowledge of the history of the k’ib coming from, and this peculiar certainty that he was right? For he knew that water was its memory and its blood and he remembered, where others had forgotten, that the Mayan civilisation was reputed to have died out because of drought. Had the high priest taken this treasure into hiding knowing the drought was coming?

“Hey.” The hand on his cheek. “It’s me, remember?” He had been staring at his prize on the table at the side of the bed, rather than at the one lying next to him. “You wanna feast your eyes on me instead?”

She peeled off the shirt she’d been wearing since they’d finished their first session of love-making – if that was the correct term for the ferocious release of tension and pent-up animal desire they had just shared. There was no doubt; whatever her flaws, the sight of this woman was also capable of triggering universal, ancient responses in man.

The two days since Dirk’s absence might have been technically described as a chill-out period, but large chunks of if had been spent in sexual gratification. He told himself to enjoy her now. Who knew what their future held? Her hands and mouth wandered, prompting in him at those very moments the belief that he could never do without her, though he knew only emptiness would follow the temporary sating of his lust.

So it was again now. His body took over, driven by her demands and the intensity of her desires. In some way he welcomed the smothering of the cerebral by the carnal – a few minutes escape from the thoughts that plagued him; doubts about the way forward; mistrust of Dirk. Her body seemed to conjure endless ways to pleasure him. Was this what happened when you combined Latin American blood with an upbringing in a land that was ninety-five per cent wilderness? Or maybe he was just reading too much into it, and she was no more exotic than any cheap slut in the back of a lad’s magazine, making him no less of a slave than any other porn aficionado.

He had a sudden need to control her; dominate this woman who had killed and then demanded sex within sight of the corpses. Just for a moment, resuming his place in the driving seat mattered more than anything, perhaps because even now, he could not be sure he had ever occupied it. Or was this for auld lang syne, now that he realised her intelligence and sensitivity might be subsumed by her need for sex? Was she no longer the way forward for the man he hoped he might be?

He put an arm around her waist and flipped her onto her back. She gasped in a theatrical, cheap way and immediately she pretended to struggle. He knew this game; fighting, but not so hard that she didn’t welcome him with open legs.

And then they began; wave after wave, thrust after thrust. She clung to him, gasped and screamed and dug her nails into his back and scratched and urged him with her words and her hips to fill her, never stopping, even if the graves threw forth their dead. Then his name was on her lips. She screamed it; shook and struggled beneath him, and he seemed to be driving her higher and higher up the bed, towards some volcanic eruption of a climax, when he looked at her face and saw her eyes staring in terror over his shoulder. She screamed, more than once, and started to scrabble against the headboard. Pete turned.

Of the people he might have expected to see, Jim was not very high on the list. In that moment, as his guts turned to water, Pete knew everything was lost, but he could not even begin to imagine how. Was this a trick being played by the k’ib; some projection, some memory?

He must have looked as if he had seen a ghost, because Jim said: “No, I’m not some figment of your fetid imagination.” At the sound of the voice, Catalina started to whimper. “For God’s sake shut her up,” demanded the Pulitzer Prize-winning phantom. As he spoke, there was a weary brutality in his features that didn’t sit easily there, and it had nothing to do with the newly-acquired scars. Despite his plight, Pete could not help but see the irony of it; it was how he had pictured Jim in his mind’s eye as he described the psychotic who had shot the Professor. He looked like, well, someone who had done exactly what he appeared to have done, which was to escape from his own grave and come seeking vengeance.

Pete raised his hand to the girl, signalling for calm, though at that moment he understood how King Canute must have felt.

“He made me…” she cried, “…made me come with him,” she sobbed.

Pete looked at her in disgust, then turned away and shook his head. “Women.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, perhaps the most ineffectual statement he could have chosen, “you think I believe the bitch? I’ve observed for the last few minutes just how much you were forcing her to go down on you, ride you, etc etc.”

Jim pushed himself away from the doorframe on which he was leaning, and that was when Pete saw that, only with difficulty could he put any weight on his left leg. Then Jim produced a pair of crutches from the hallway. He beckoned. “Come through as soon as you’re…dressed. I was going to say decent, but…” Now he grinned, but it was an expression devoid of humour. “There’s someone in the lounge I think you should meet.”

A hailstorm of thoughts and images – thousands, millions of them – came at Pete,  driven by the wind, and he was powerless to do anything other than weather them. Amongst them were, or course, the possibility of escape, and regret that he had thrown away his weapons. Yet, in the end, he was intrigued. Besides, he assumed they had allowed for the chance of him trying to get away and posted some sort of watch. Pulling on trousers and a top, he invited Catalina to leave her trance and do the same. He remembered to pick up the k’ib and then led the shaking girl through into the lounge.

That she collapsed into his arms was not surprising; even he felt his legs shimmy, at the sight of the Professor, sitting in a chair by the window.

Sutch pointed towards two empty armchairs. Pete carried Catalina across and, without words, they sat down. He did not bother asking any questions, knowing an explanation would follow, as surely as life, it seemed, followed death.

Jim sat near the Professor, and it was he who spoke first. “Almost a perfect crime, but let me tell you something about that thing;,”  – here he pointed to the k’ib – “water…”

“…gives it life.” Pete’s interruption was laconic. He might have been on the back foot, but he was not going to let these smug bastards get one over on him. Jim’s ironic smile told him that he had surprised them again. “Believe it or not, I listened along with everyone else to Tariq’s journal.”

“I guess we all underestimated you,” continued the photographer. “Rest assured, that won’t be happening again. A pity for you, you didn’t pay more attention to that.” Jim’s eyes turned towards the window and the past. “Your own greed outdid you. You see, if you hadn’t taken it from its altar, then maybe the bogeyman might have torn me limb from limb in the temple. Instead, he retreated; lived to fight another day – to find his Precious, you might say. And I lived. Killing me took second place to his need to stay alive. Also, if you hadn’t taken the k’ib from the temple, the Professor wouldn’t be alive now.” Pete frowned, unable to work out why, but Jim continued. “Your first explosion wrecked only part the inner sanctum, but it extinguished the torches and I was left in blackness. I crawled blind, knowing a second explosion was coming, and put my hands on a large slab of stone that was probably the remains of the altar; it seemed the bottom of that block of stone survived. The next blast destroyed – as poor Cobus intended unfortunately – the staircase up to the tunnel entrance and brought down some of the entrance itself, blocking it from my end. But still I could hear.” He turned back and looked directly at Pete, blank fury in his eyes. “Gunshots, as you fled. You sacrificed that young guy to save your neck.”

“And you know that how?” asked Pete, staying cool despite how he felt. “You’re fishing.”

Jim ignored him. “The third explosion, the one planned to block the other end of the labyrinth, succeeded, I assume. Then I heard Cobus again. Distant, somewhere in the darkness of the tunnels. He was crying for help. Screaming. And I couldn’t do anything, with my ruined knee and still dazed from the explosion. His voice was faint, but still I could hear too much. And then, those who weren’t killed in the explosions must have come back to him. Trapped in the tunnel, they vented their fury on our screaming friend. I swear I could hear his flesh being torn.” Jim squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then re-opened them. “But no, that must have just been my terrible imagination; an automatic response to hearing tortured cries once more. Some things can’t ever be closed out. The sound of a machete slicing time and again into innocent flesh. The cries of hurt and betrayal.” He looked at Pete. “If the Tutsis can forgive the Hutu’s, I could forgive you your anger at what I did, but I’ll never forgive what you did to Cobus; and what you made him do.”

The two men stared at each other for a long time, at opposite ends of a dark tunnel from which they had both just emerged. Then Pete said: “Guess you’ll be sticking to photographing weddings from now on.”

“And you.” It was the Professor’s voice, quiet lest his rage consume him. He was looking at Catalina, but she most certainly wasn’t looking at him. She stared down at her hands, as she had from the moment she seen seen Sutch, sitting, accusing, like Banquo’s ghost. “My daughter trusted you. Singled you out; held you in high regard, and how do you repay her?”

Catalina made to reply, but Pete lifted his hand. “Say nothing. What proof do they have? Eh?” He looked at Jim. “Oh, I know I said in the temple that I’d killed her, but it was simply to torture you; rub rock salt into the wound, as it were.”

The Professor went to rise from his seat. “Monstrous!” he spat. But even before Jim’s restraining hand was on him he had collapsed again, putting his hand to the left side of his chest, his strength gone for the moment.

“Well, I guess I crept from your torture chamber” continued Jim. “You see, the stream continued to run over the altar after the explosion, and as I lay there in agony, my throat closing with dust and Cobus’ screams still tearing at my senses, I heard the water and followed its sound. I drank, and then, incredible to relate, felt a lessening of the pain. Then it seemed that the knee you smashed started to mend. Not perfectly – I’ll need surgery – but enough that, after a few minutes, I could stagger in the general direction of the tunnels on the lower level. There was faint light from them, which turned out to be daylight – distant, but visible in the intense darkness. And it seemed the water was also helping my night vision. I could see well enough to spot my rucksack lying in the rocks. The Platypus bottle was inside, and intact as ever. I filled it and made my way out.

“I followed the light and found the outside world. The tunnel opened out at the base of the cliffs and there was a precarious, narrow path just above the pounding waves. Incredibly, I saw the dark man, miles ahead of me on the path, but unmistakably him. I forget how many hours I spent on that narrow ledge, battered by the wind, just one slip away from being smashed against the cliff face; my legs healing, but still with a mind of their own.

“At last I made it round the headland, away from the path, too exhausted to care about the dark man or anything else. I assume I collapsed and slept like the dead.

“But my worst moment was waking. In the distance I could just about hear a plane.  I looked for it, thought I could make out a dot in the distance. I guess it was Dirk homing in on your signal. After I’d waved frantically, shouted, and the plane had disappeared, I felt like the only man at the bottom of the world.” He looked across at the Professor. “I didn’t know that a mile and a half away was another man burying his daughter and feeling exactly the same.” He looked across at Sutch. “I think I spent most of the next two days in a state of delirium – hungry, weak, in pain still and unsure whether any of the priests were still alive. I thought the sound of the plane returning was part of a feverish dream. That was when I remembered the waterproof matches in my rucksack and managed to build a fire. I thank God the Professor and Dirk saw the smoke.”

Jim lapsed into silence.

“You were dead, I know you were,” said Pete to the old man, as if Jim’s words hadn’t registered with him.

Sutch had recovered and spoke again, first to himself. “Witness to my own death.” He looked up. “The ironic part is, as Jim pointed out, the same fact you discovered for yourself is what kept both Jim and me alive. You see, when you shot me, I was still clutching the k’ib, and my other hand must have rested in the very edge of the pool. I can only think that I acted as a conductor between it and the water, just before the last of my life could drain from me.” He paused. “In so many ways I wish it had.”

The Professor pointed at the k’ib. “That thing may derive its power from water, but it seems to return it tenfold – a hundredfold – and the touch of that power on my hand kept me alive after you departed– just. It might be better to say it stopped me from dying. I was indeed on the point of death, and my recovery was slow. At last strength returned, long after you’d left the island, and my wounds started some sort of healing process, that continues now, albeit at its own pace because I am old.” He put his hand to his head. “It was too late, of course, for my darling Jane.”

“Yes,” said Pete, “how come she’s still dead?” He knew the answer well enough, but took pleasure in the brutal phrasing and intonation of his comment. Nothing good could possibly come from this situation, so he figured he might as well go down with guns blazing. These men who had treated him with disdain were at last getting what was coming to them.

“You bastard!” Jim was in the process of getting out of his chair and it was his turn to grimace in pain; the Professor’s turn to raise a restraining hand. The latter spoke, addressing his comments to Pete.

“You know well enough it cannot restore life where there is none, and I know enough about dead bodies to know that Jane died from a broken neck. I also know enough about people to recognise genuine surprise when I see it. You didn’t expect to find her dead.” Now Sutch glared at Catalina. “But you…what hellhole did you spring from?”

The girl just sat, ashen-faced and withdrawn. All fight, all passion, seemed to have drained from her at the sight of the Professor.

“Nice. Well, thanks for sharing that,” said Pete, “but I’m afraid I’ve got to be going now.”

Jim looked at him and shook his head. “You’re something else. And you’re going nowhere. What you will be doing is facing up to what you did.”

Pete perched on the edge of his seat and rested his elbows on his knees. “And what exactly did I do? A woman’s dead; there’s no witness to any crime. Another man claims a young female student shot him; again there’s no witness to any crime. Nor is there a victim, if your rapidly healing wound is anything to go by. A young Afrikaner with an attitude goes trying to steal some artefact from its rightful owners and gets ripped apart. Was he shot? There’s no body to check. Again no witness. And you? You fuck my wife, so I bust your kneecap. Again no witness, but possibly it’s an understandable reaction – a crime passionel. How’s all of this going to stand up in a court of law? They’d be more likely to believe that you’re still alive because you’ve discovered the secret to eternal youth.” They just looked at Pete, who pointed to Catalina. “Even if she pleads guilty to anything, that’s up to her. She’s not seen me do anything that she can swear to on oath. Sorry guys, I’m outta here.”

He got up, turned, and stopped in his tracks when he saw the barrel of a gun pointing at him. Ah, that was one little item he had overlooked in all the excitement of seeing dead people – where was Dirk?

Jim smiled. “You see, it wasn’t just you we were ‘sharing’ with. We’ve not had a chance till now to tell Dirk everything that transpired. To be honest – though I doubt if you know what that word means – he never really believed you. He tells me your explanation of what happened was all a bit too slick for him. That and the she-devil’s transformation from the strong, persuasive woman he picked up from the ocean to the little mouse who let you do all the talking, as if by pre-arrangement.”

The Aussie, who’d been standing out of sight in the kitchen behind Pete, motioned with the gun. “Siddown again, mate. Who said anything about a court of law?”

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