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Will Staeger


The first book in the W. Cooper series, 2005


(the list of reasons runs longer than this book)


He couldn’t remember coming here; he didn’t know where he was. Jagged leaves, black in the wet night, whipped his cheeks as he ran. Sores bled beneath a torn jersey. A gust of wind knocked him off balance, and he slipped, fell, and rose again. Hurling his diseased body through the jungle, he couldn’t find sufficient oxygen to fill his lungs; few of his muscles obeyed the orders from his brain. None of this mattered.

All that mattered was the pain-and the need to escape it.

Rifle shots cracked, the equivalent of snapping twigs in the roar of the hurricane. Figures emerged from the jungle behind him-rain-soaked wraiths shouldering heavy firepower. Voices barked, and with sudden brilliance a flare arced into the sky. Its parachute caught and held, bathing the fleeing man in daylight.

He may have registered a thought-memories of home, of yesterday, of five years ago. Of Simone. In that instant, it might all have come back to him; it might not. In the next, he fell, dropping eighty feet in the darkness. His legs churned on, pumping, until the rocks at the base of the cliff drove them into his pelvis.

Flashlight beams pierced the sky-rotating, descending, settling on his broken remains. It was only a matter of seconds before he was moving again. Propping his upper body on shattered elbows, he lunged forward, fighting the surf as it pummeled him. He climbed across one boulder, then the next, until, sluglike, he pulled himself onto the wooden planks of a dock. Clawing at the rain, his bloody fingers stretched, reaching for the vision that appeared to him at dock’s end. Moored against the farthest piling was a rowboat-an eight-foot dinghy, slapping and banging itself to pieces, restrained only by a fraying rope that wouldn’t survive the hour.

A star-shaped muzzle blast burst from the lip of the cliff. Another pulsed beside it, and in seconds the brittle pier was chewed to pieces by a fusillade of armor-piercing shells. He was nearing the end of the dock when one last bullet struck him in the back, and the pain that had propelled him ebbed. His struggle slowed, then ceased.

The hail of gunfire subsided; the airborne flare splashed into the sea. The flashlight beams pulled skyward and vanished. Finally, as the torrent raged around him, the man slumped, incapable of completing his escape.


Six o’clock in the morning and already the phone was ringing. There was no answering machine, and anybody with the number knew the rule: emergency use only. This meant the caller would persist, so if Ronnie didn’t get up and answer it, the phone might ring all day. Pulling his spindly legs off the cot, he organized his hair with a zigzag jerk of the hand, established a ponytail with the aid of a rubber band he kept around his wrist, and pulled on a military green baseball cap that said CONCH BAY, BVI.

A thick rain pelted the metal rooftops of the beach club, where gray daylight had begun to offer the palm trees some definition. In thirty, maybe forty minutes, the sky would be blue, the sand dry-the island drying out like a wet paper bag in a hot oven-but as Ronnie emerged from his trailer, the rain had yet to abate, and it dumped on him. He ducked into a cubbyhole behind the open-air kitchen, where the phone continued its insistent ringing until he answered it.

“Conch Bay,” he said. In Ronnie’s Liverpool brogue, the words came out Kunk Bye.

The voice on the other end of the line spat out a request. In hearing the caller’s aim, Ronnie took a look behind the garden, where he could see, even in the dim morning light, the stark outline of bungalow nine. Nine was built of cinder blocks and painted a luminescent hue of yellow; windows and doors screened, it appeared older, shorter, and more eroded than its brethren, squat and fierce in the face of their more recent construction. It shared with the others the architectural feature of a boxy porch standing six steps above the garden-high enough for a view of the lagoon.

Completing his second stroll through the rain, Ronnie ascended the stairs and banged on the door.

“Cooper!” he said, and took a step back.

It took a while, but when it did, the reply came in a baritone, the voice sludge-thick with hangover phlegm.

“Keep out.”

Ronnie grinned. “Brought you a gift, Guv. Mutual friend of ours. You wanna guess who it is? You get it right, she says she’ll come in.”

Another silence.

Then the voice said, “The new one. Dottie.”

“Nah,” Ronnie said, talking fast, “just pulling your leg, old man.” He took another backward step. “You got a phone call. It’s Cap’n Roy. Says he’s got a problem-‘emergency situation,’ he says. Gotta run now-”

Ronnie made his move, ducking and spinning, arms flailing for protection, but Cooper covered the distance from bed to door in one long step. Fully naked, pivoting at the hip, the permanent resident of bungalow nine got his full weight behind the Ken Griffey Jr. Autograph-Special Louisville Slugger and smashed the front door’s jalousie panes to splinters, the bat bursting through the window’s mesh screen and sending shards of glass flying across the porch.

“Run, boy,” Cooper said, and watched through the fresh hole in the door as Ronnie shot down the stairwell and darted off through the garden. He noted with satisfaction there appeared to be blood on one of the boy’s shoulders.

Cooper dropped the Louisville Slugger and listened, eyes closed, to the chock-chock of the bat as it settled on the concrete floor of the bungalow. He rolled his shoulders, cracked his knuckles, and pulled in a deep, slow breath, inhaling the pungent scent of the rain.

Blinking against the morning headache, he dug a pair of shorts from a mound of clothes, looked at his Tevas, decided, defiantly, to go without-Cooper thinking he’d show the little pissant that the broken glass lying around the porch didn’t faze him. Hell-the first week he spent here, he’d watched the gardener they had that year, a local kid maybe fifteen years old, working all day in bare feet. Walking along those gravel paths with the sharp stones, and the kid hadn’t even brought a pair of shoes with him. Cooper thinking at the time that he, given enough practice, could probably do the same thing. And thinking now, a few years in-a few years of walking shoeless over those same stones-he’d developed calluses thick enough to dance the jig in a shark’s mouth, were the mood to strike.

Anybody visiting the Conch Bay Beach Club didn’t need an owner’s manual. Rent a mooring in the bay, consume a savory meal beneath the palm trees, throw back some rum punch at the bar. Bake your skin, snorkel amid rainbows of sea life, sleep with sand in your sheets, wake up to the cries of goats and roosters. No roads, no cars, two minutes of hot water in the shower, and no lights after midnight. It was these and other factors-the fish, the sea, the beach, the rum, the women, casinos, conch fritters, palm trees, blue sky, rain, trade winds, hurricanes, the oppressive heat, lethargic pace, and near-total lack of local white people-that had caused Cooper to adopt Conch Bay as his permanent residence. He’d decided on a bungalow set back from the beach, a swath of fat-leaved foliage dividing it from the portions of the resort equipped with such amenities as air-conditioning, indoor showers, and newlyweds.

He came down the stairs in nothing but the shorts, baggy blue swim trunks sagging to the knee. He didn’t duck or hurry. The rain felt good; it was already eighty, eighty-five out. Cooper stood about six three, and there wasn’t so much a tan as a dark weathering to him-his skin looked like the peeling hull of an old boat. Scar tissue creased his cheekbones, his nose had been flattened by a couple dozen breaks, and he had the eyes of somebody who’d checked out a few decades back.