GUSTAVIA, SAINT BARTHÉLEMY
* * * * * *
None of it would have happened if Spider Barnes hadn’t tied one on at Eddy’s two nights before the Aurora was due to set sail. Spider was regarded as the finest waterborne chef in the entire Caribbean, irascible but altogether irreplaceable, a mad genius in a starched white jacket and apron. Spider, you see, was classically trained. Spider had done a stint in Paris. Spider had done London. Spider had done New York, San Francisco, and an unhappy layover in Miami before leaving the restaurant biz for good and taking to the freedom of the sea. He worked the big charters now, the kind of boats the film stars, rappers, moguls, and poseurs rented whenever they wanted to impress. And when Spider wasn’t behind his stove, he was invariably propped atop one of the better bar stools on dry land. Eddy’s was in his top five in the Caribbean Basin, perhaps his top five worldwide. He started at seven o’clock that evening with a few beers, blew a reefer in the shadowed garden at nine, and at ten was contemplating his first glass of vanilla rum. All seemed right with the world. Spider Barnes was buzzed and in paradise.
But then he spotted Veronica, and the evening took a dangerous turn. She was new to the island, a lost girl, a European of uncertain provenance who served drinks to day-trippers at the dive bar next door. She was pretty, though—pretty as a floral garnish, Spider remarked to his nameless drinking companion—and he lost his heart to her in ten seconds flat. He proposed marriage, which was Spider’s favorite approach, and when she turned him down he suggested a roll in the sheets instead. Somehow it worked, and the two were seen teetering into a torrential downpour at midnight. And that was the last time anyone laid eyes on him, at 12:03 a.m. on a wet night in Gustavia, soaked to the skin, drunk and in love yet again.
The captain of the Aurora, a 154-foot luxury motor yacht based out of Nassau, was a man called Ogilvy—Reginald Ogilvy, ex–Royal Navy, a benevolent dictator who slept with a copy of the rulebook on his bedside table, along with his grandfather’s King James Bible. He had never cared for Spider Barnes, never less so than at nine the next morning when Spider failed to appear at the regular meeting of the crew and cabin staff. It was no ordinary meeting, for the Aurora was being made ready for a very important guest. Only Ogilvy knew her identity. He also knew that her party would include a team of security men and that she was demanding, to say the least, which explained why he was alarmed by the absence of his renowned chef.
Ogilvy informed the Gustavia harbormaster of the situation, and the harbormaster duly informed the local gendarmerie. A pair of officers knocked on the door of Veronica’s little hillside cottage, but there was no sign of her either. Next they undertook a search of the various spots on the island where the drunken and brokenhearted typically washed ashore after a night of debauchery. A red-faced Swede at Le Select claimed to have bought Spider a Heineken that very morning. Someone else said he saw him stalking the beach at Colombier, and there was a report, never confirmed, of an inconsolable creature baying at the moon in the wilds of Toiny.
The gendarmes faithfully followed each lead. Then they scoured the island from north to south, stem to stern, all to no avail. A few minutes after sundown, Reginald Ogilvy informed the crew of the Aurora that Spider Barnes had vanished and that a suitable replacement would have to be found in short order. The crew fanned out across the island, from the waterside eateries of Gustavia to the beach shacks of the Grand Cul-de-Sac. And by nine that evening, in the unlikeliest of places, they had found their man.
* * * * * *
He had arrived on the island at the height of hurricane season and settled into the clapboard cottage at the far end of the beach at Lorient. He had no possessions other than a canvas duffel bag, a stack of well-read books, a shortwave radio, and a rattletrap motor scooter that he’d acquired in Gustavia for a few grimy banknotes and a smile. The books were thick, weighty, and learned; the radio was of a quality rarely seen any longer. Late at night, when he sat on his sagging veranda reading by the light of his battery-powered lamp, the sound of music floated above the rustle of the palm fronds and the gentle slap and recession of the surf. Jazz and classical, mainly, sometimes a bit of reggae from the stations across the water. At the top of every hour he would lower his book and listen intently to the news on the BBC. Then, when the bulletin was over, he would search the airwaves for something to his liking, and the palm trees and the sea would once again dance to the rhythm of his music.
At first, it was unclear as to whether he was vacationing, passing through, hiding out, or planning to make the island his permanent address. Money seemed not to be an issue. In the morning, when he dropped by the boulangerie for his bread and coffee, he always tipped the girls generously. And in the afternoon, when he stopped at the little market near the cemetery for his German beer and American cigarettes, he never bothered to collect the loose change that came rattling out of the automatic dispenser. His French was reasonable but tinged with an accent no one could quite place. His Spanish, which he spoke to the Dominican who worked the counter at JoJo Burger, was much better, but still there was that accent. The girls at the boulangerie decided he was an Australian, but the boys at JoJo Burger reckoned he was an Afrikaner. They were all over the Caribbean, the Afrikaners. Decent folk for the most part, but a few of them had business interests that were less than legal.
His days, while shapeless, seemed not entirely without purpose. He took his breakfast at the boulangerie, he stopped by the newsstand in Saint-Jean to collect a stack of day-old English and American papers, he did his rigorous exercises on the beach, he read his dense volumes of literature and history with a bucket hat pulled low over his eyes. And once he rented a whaler and spent the afternoon snorkeling on the islet of Tortu. But his idleness appeared forced rather than voluntary. He seemed like a wounded soldier longing to return to the battlefield, an exile dreaming of his lost homeland, wherever that homeland might be.
According to Jean-Marc, a customs officer at the airport, he had arrived on a flight from Guadeloupe in possession of a valid Venezuelan passport bearing the peculiar name Colin Hernandez. It seemed he was the product of a brief marriage between an AngloIrish mother and a Spanish father. The mother had fancied herself a poet; the father had done something shady with money. Colin had loathed the old man, but he spoke of the mother as though canonization were a mere formality. He carried her photograph in his billfold. The towheaded boy on her lap didn’t look much like Colin, but time was like that.
The passport listed his age at thirty-eight, which seemed about right, and his occupation as “businessman,” which could mean just about anything. The girls from the boulangerie reckoned he was a writer in search of inspiration. How else to explain the fact that he was almost never without a book? But the girls from the market conjured up a wild theory, wholly unsupported, that he had murdered a man on Guadeloupe and was hiding out on Saint Barthélemy until the storm had passed. The Dominican from JoJo Burger, who was in hiding himself, found the hypothesis laughable. Colin Hernandez, he declared, was just another shiftless layabout living off the trust fund of a father he hated. He would stay until he grew bored, or until his finances grew thin. Then he would fly off to somewhere else, and within a day or two they would struggle to recall his name.
Finally, a month to the day after his arrival, there was a slight change in his routine. After taking his lunch at JoJo Burger, he went to the hair salon in Saint-Jean, and when he emerged his shaggy black mane was shorn, sculpted, and lustrously oiled. Next morning, when he appeared at the boulangerie, he was freshly shaved and dressed in khaki trousers and a crisp white shirt. He had his usual breakfast—a large bowl of café crème and a loaf of coarse country bread—and lingered over the previous day’s London Times. Then, instead of returning to his cottage, he mounted his motor scooter and sped into Gustavia. And by noon that day, it was finally clear why the man called Colin Hernandez had come to Saint Barthélemy.
* * * * * *
He went first to the stately old Hotel Carl Gustaf, but the head chef, after learning he had no formal training, refused to grant him an interview. The owners of Maya’s turned him politely away, as did the management of the Wall House, Ocean, and La Cantina. He tried La Plage, but La Plage wasn’t interested. Neither were the Eden Rock, the Guanahani, La Crêperie, Le Jardin, or Le Grain de Sel, the lonely outpost overlooking the salt marshes of Saline. Even La Gloriette, founded by a political exile, wanted nothing to do with him.
Undeterred, he tried his luck at the undiscovered gems of the island: the airport snack bar, the Creole joint across the street, the little pizza-and-panini hut in the parking lot of L’Oasis supermarket. And it was there fortune finally smiled upon him, for he learned that the chef at Le Piment had stormed off the job after a long-simmering dispute over hours and salary. By four o’clock that afternoon, after demonstrating his skills in Le Piment’s birdhouse of a kitchen, he was gainfully employed. He worked his first shift that same evening. The reviews were universally glowing.
In fact, it did not take long for word of his culinary prowess to make its way round the little island. Le Piment, once the province of locals and habitués, was soon overflowing with a newfound clientele, all of whom sang the praises of the mysterious new chef with the peculiar Anglo-Spanish name. The Carl Gustaf tried to poach him, as did the Eden Rock, the Guanahani, and La Plage, all without success. Therefore, Reginald Ogilvy, captain of the Aurora, was in a pessimistic mood when he appeared at Le Piment without a reservation the night after the disappearance of Spider Barnes. He was forced to cool his heels for thirty minutes at the bar before finally being granted a table. He ordered three appetizers and three entrées. Then, after sampling each, he requested a brief word with the chef. Ten minutes elapsed before his wish was granted.
“Hungry?” asked the man called Colin Hernandez, looking down at the plates of food.
“So why are you here?”
“I wanted to see if you were as good as everyone seems to think you are.”
Ogilvy extended his hand and introduced himself—rank and name, followed by the name of his boat. The man called Colin Hernandez raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“The Aurora is Spider Barnes’s boat, isn’t it?”
“You know Spider?”
“I think I had a drink with him once.”
“You weren’t alone.”
Ogilvy took stock of the figure standing before him. He was compact, hard, formidable. To the Englishman’s sharp eye, he seemed like a man who had sailed in rough seas. His brow was dark and thick; his jaw was sturdy and resolute. It was a face, thought Ogilvy, that had been built to take a punch.
“You’re Venezuelan,” he said.
“Says everyone who refused to hire you when you were looking for a job.”
Ogilvy’s eyes moved from the face to the hand resting on the back of the chair opposite. There was no evidence of tattooing, which he saw as a positive sign. Ogilvy regarded the modern culture of ink as a form of self-mutilation.
“Do you drink?” he asked.
“Not like Spider.”
“Coltrane and Monk.”
“Ever killed anyone?”
“Not that I can recall.”
He said this with a smile. Reginald Ogilvy smiled in return.
“I’m wondering whether I might tempt you away from all this,” he said, glancing around the modest open-air dining room. “I’m prepared to pay you a generous salary. And when we’re not at sea, you’ll have plenty of free time to do whatever it is you like to do when you’re not cooking.”
“Two thousand a week.”
“How much was Spider making?”
“Three,” replied Ogilvy after a moment’s hesitation. “But Spider was with me for two seasons.”
“He’s not with you now, is he?”
Ogilvy made a show of deliberation. “Three it is,” he said. “But I need you to start right away.”
“When do you sail?”
“In that case,” said the man called Colin Hernandez, “I suppose you’ll have to pay me four.”
Reginald Ogilvy, captain of the Aurora, surveyed the plates of food before rising gravely to his feet. “Eight o’clock,” he said. “Don’t be late.”
* * * * * *
François, the quick-tempered Marseilles-born owner of Le Piment, did not take the news well. There was a string of affronts delivered in the rapid-fire patois of the south. There were promises of reprisals. And then there was the bottle of rather good Bordeaux, empty, that shattered into a thousand shards of emerald when hurled against the wall of the tiny kitchen. Later, François would deny he had been aiming at his departing chef. But Isabelle, a waitress who witnessed the incident, would call into question his version of events. François, she swore, had flung the bottle dagger-like directly at the head of Monsieur Hernandez. And Monsieur Hernandez, she recalled, had evaded the object with a movement that was so small and swift it occurred in the blink of an eye. Afterward, he had glared coldly at François for a long moment as though deciding how best to break his neck. Then, calmly, he had removed his spotless white kitchen apron and climbed aboard his motor scooter.
He spent the remainder of that night on the veranda of his cottage, reading by the light of his hurricane lamp. And at the top of every hour, he lowered his book and listened to the news on the BBC as the waves slapped and receded on the beach and the palm fronds hissed in the night wind. In the morning, after an invigorating swim in the sea, he showered, dressed, and packed his belongings into his canvas duffel: his clothing, his books, his radio. In addition, he packed two items that had been left for him on the islet of Tortu: a Stechkin 9mm pistol with a silencer screwed into the barrel, and a rectangular parcel, twelve inches by twenty. The parcel weighed sixteen pounds exactly. He placed it in the center of the duffel so it would remain balanced when carried.
He left the beach at Lorient for the last time at half past seven and, with the duffel resting upon his knees, rode into Gustavia. The Aurora sparkled at the edge of the harbor. He boarded at ten minutes to eight and was shown to his cabin by his sous-chef, a thin English girl with the unlikely name Amelia List. He stowed his possessions in the cupboard—including the Stechkin pistol and the sixteen-pound parcel—and dressed in the chef’s trousers and tunic that had been laid upon his berth. Amelia List was waiting in the corridor when he emerged. She escorted him to the galley and led him on a tour of the dry goods pantry, the walk-in refrigerator, and the storeroom filled with wine. It was there, in the cool darkness, that he had his first sexual thought about the English girl in the crisp white uniform. He did nothing to dispel it. He had been celibate for so many months that he could scarcely recall what it felt like to touch a woman’s hair or caress the flesh of a defenseless breast.
A few minutes before ten o’clock there came an announcement over the ship’s intercom instructing all members of the crew to report to the afterdeck. The man called Colin Hernandez followed Amelia List outside and was standing next to her when two black Range Rovers braked to a halt at Aurora’s stern. From the first emerged two giggling sunburned girls and a pale florid-faced man in his forties who was holding the straps of a pink beach bag in one hand and the neck of an open bottle of champagne in the other. Two athletic-looking men spilled from the second Rover, followed a moment later by a woman who looked to be suffering from a case of terminal melancholia. She wore a peach-colored dress that left the impression of partial nudity, a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed her slender shoulders, and large opaque sunglasses that concealed much of her porcelain face. Even so, she was instantly recognizable. Her profile betrayed her, the profile so admired by the fashion photographers and the paparazzi who stalked her every move. There were no paparazzi present that morning. For once she had eluded them.
She stepped aboard the Aurora as though she were stepping over an open grave and slipped past the assembled crew without a word or glance, passing so close to the man called Colin Hernandez he had to suppress an urge to touch her to make certain she was real and not a hologram. Five minutes later the Aurora eased into the harbor, and by noon the enchanted island of Saint Barthélemy was a lump of brown-green on the horizon. Stretched topless upon the foredeck, drink in hand, her flawless skin baking in the sun, was the most famous woman in the world. And one deck below, preparing an appetizer of tuna tartare, cucumber, and pineapple, was the man who was going to kill her.