Nickel Springs, New York
All eyes were on a worn leather duffel bag. Alec had hauled it, with urgency, through the kitchen door. It hit the floor with a thud. Honor startled. Aaron swallowed hard. Troy sucked in a breath like he saw a ghost. Ruby, sitting at the kitchen table, looked curiously between the Clairmont siblings.
Years before, when Alec left for Navy SEAL training, Sebastian Clairmont had given him the leather bag. “It saw me through a vicious scrape or two, son. I hope it does the same for you.” Inside the Clairmont house were family photos and family recipes, the little jewelry that belonged to Evie—a wedding ring, of course, not among her possessions. But with its supple scarred hide and nicked brass buckles, the duffel bag differed from other mementoes. Its mere existence told a story, and Alec had sometimes wondered about the secrets it could tell. A thick leather strap was attached to either end of the bag, and every Clairmont kid could picture it hanging from Sebastian’s wide shoulder—sometimes coming, sometimes going. Today the duffel bag held Alec’s things, and it definitely said he was going.
After receiving Jess’s cryptic texts and remote crash site photos, the Clairmonts had been unable to reestablish contact. Alec had moved forward with a plan and his family, the Tribe of Five, agreed to it. There was a plane wreck that might hold answers to their parents’ mysterious disappearance years before. Then there was Jess Donnelly—journalist, buddy, and roommate—the woman Alec was determined to find. All of it required he get his ass to Colombia ASAP. His flight left in a few hours. Standing in the Clairmont kitchen, Alec took out his phone.
“No word?” Aaron said.
“Nothing. I thought maybe there’d be a text. This isn’t like Jess. Worse, it’s such an isolated region of South America. I don’t like it. Almost anything could have happened. I did put a call in to her ex, Julian Silva.”
“The way Jess talked about him…” Honor drew a breath and shrugged at Alec. “I’m not sure how much help he’ll be.”
“I guess we’ll find out. Julian agreed to meet me at the airport in Bogota, and he did say he’d seen Jess before she left on her assignment.” Alec bent over the duffel, tightening the straps until leather squealed. “I mean, it makes total sense, right? What woman travels three-thousand miles and doesn’t pay a visit to her fucking almost ex-husband?” He stood upright. A room full of blank stares met Alec’s. “Anyway,” he said, letting go of the bag. “Right now, he’s our only plausible connection to Jess.”
“And if Julian Silva hasn’t been totally forthcoming,” Aaron said, “my guess is he’ll get a frogman type lesson in the art of communication.”
“Count on it,” Alec said.
The brief exchange about Alec’s SEAL past was the closest thing to a conversation they’d had on the subject in some time. It always happened that way. The moment Alec wrestled that part of his life silent, there it was again—like a weed. His brother’s recent go-round with crime and punishment, evil and justice—namely Stefan Gerard—had been enough to stir memories Alec would rather forget. He refocused, glancing at his watch, calculating ground zero coordinates for the Sneak and Peek—aka, recon mission. He had spare time, which wasn’t his strong suit. “You packed?” he said to Troy.
“Yep. Ready to ship out.” Alec heard military lingo that made it sound as if his brother was reading his mind. “But maybe with all this happening I shouldn’t be heading off to a movie set.”
“Go,” Honor insisted. “Jake is expecting you. You’ll know anything the minute we do.”
“Yeah, but I was thinking,” Troy said. “Since I’m already packed, maybe I should go with Alec—be his wingman or something.”
“I appreciate that,” Alec said. “But I’ve got it covered. Stick with the plan, Troy. Go soak up Jake’s movie star life. At least it’ll be air-conditioned.” He tried to sound upbeat and loose. The potential hazards of dragging Evie and Sebastian’s youngest son into the unknowns of Colombia was more responsibility than he needed.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ruby had been flipping through a photo album. While the pictures were new to her, any Clairmont could describe the next page before she turned it. “Heaven forbid I inflate a Clairmont ego, but you are a ridiculously handsome bunch,” she said, tipping back her head to smile up at Aaron.
“It felt… necessary to take the album out,” Honor said. “Maybe I just needed to see their faces.”
“I get it,” Alec said. With Honor and Ruby seated, Alec, Aaron, and Troy huddled tight to get a closer look at the album. In the next room, the dining room—a space they rarely used—was a sideboard. It was cluttered with family photos. First pictures of Evie and Sebastian from the late 1970’s—when they’d first met. Those photos were followed by pictures of Alec, the kind you’d take of a first-born—like he’d been the first of a species. Pictures of Aaron came next, the brother who looked even more like Sebastian with the same striking green eyes. Photos racked up fast after Alec and Aaron, showing off the Clairmont twins, Jake and Honor. They looked largely unalike—but maybe that was more of a boy-girl thing. The sideboard held just enough room for photos of Troy, the last of the Tribe of Five. The progression of photos ended with a final Christmas snapshot. It was taken not long before Evie and Sebastian’s fateful flight to South America. It showed a messy mob of barely adult children, piled like dogs under the tree, a mountain of torn wrapping paper surrounding them. After their parents disappeared, the Tribe of Five decided there would be no more photos added to the dining room sideboard. They kept it exactly as it was— a small piece of the Clairmont house where time stood still.
Others photos were scattered about the rooms of the Dutch colonial—Troy’s high school graduation, Alec on leave in Dubai, deployed to Iraq, Honor with Rowan, her fiancé, before he was killed. He guessed there’d be a wedding photo to come, Ruby and Aaron’s. Alec shook his head at what seemed like a wild concept. For some families there might be the amazement of a first-generation college graduate. In Alec’s family, amazement would describe the first Clairmont to marry—his parents included. Good for Aaron, if that’s what he wanted—and it seemed he did. His brother had hardly taken his eyes off Ruby, who looked at the photos, gleaning bits and pieces of Clairmont family history.
Honor turned the page. Her fair hand wasn’t reminiscent of their mother’s, which was sturdier, less delicate. Honor’s fine bone structure always stood out. In the photos, her blonde head was shades lighter than Evie’s and even Jake’s. Alec sometimes wondered if the loss felt different to Honor. She was the only girl, the only daughter who’d lost a mother. She’d been the person capable of ruffling Sebastian Clairmont at his core. Alec could remember the way Sebastian looked at his daughter—as if stunned by her existence, unlike his four sons, who were subtle variations of one man.
Alec stepped back, blindsided by a loud memory. It was clear in his mind how his father had also looked at him. He recalled the prideful gaze as he’d graduated from SEAL training, the medal ceremonies that had followed. But there was also the way Sebastian would catch himself, sometimes losing his temper at a younger Alec. He’d loved his children—categorically—but Sebastian could also be abrupt. Over the years, his work had taken him away for months at a time. Once, on Alec’s first leave home, he remembered doing shots with his father. Sebastian didn’t drink often, but on those rare occasions he did it up right. It had to be the booze talking, Alec had thought, as Sebastian wove in and out of conversations about the past—a time before Alec was even born. “Your mother and I—it wasn’t an easy thing. In fact, every day, I still wake up amazed she’s mine.”
Alec was quiet. He’d been half drunk, half listening to a story that didn’t sound like one he’d heard before. “Evie, she never saw where I came from. It was bad enough what she did know. Truth be told,” his father had said, “I should have never made it off those docks—a man soured on life, an older version of the punk prick who didn’t give a fuck about anyone.” He’d snickered. “I was supposed to turn out to be my old man.” Alec’s woozy gaze had traveled to his father, who’d stood an inch taller than his eldest son. He’d never met his grandfather. He didn’t know anything about him. Sebastian never talked about life before Evie. Maybe that’s why the description had made such an impression—soured, punk prick didn’t fit. Sebastian Clairmont was rock solid—albeit a little unsteady in that moment.
His father had poured them each one more shot, downing his. “Remember that, Alec. We all work with what we’re given. I wasn’t given anything but a will to survive. A skull too thick to know to quit. If you knew where I started, who I was… Well, the last thing you’d want me to be is your father.” Alec had stepped back from the bar. The mirror image, the steely interior—he couldn’t fathom another man in that role. No Clairmont could. “Years before today… what you see now…” His father’s words slurred and his lumbering frame had leaned hard into the bar. “This wasn’t me. Not even close.” He swiped a broad hand across his mouth. “God and Evie, they know I wasn’t always Sebastian Clairmont.”
Sebastian Christos rolled over and looked at the body breathing next to him. Easy girls from the neighborhood behaved this way. She wasn’t from the neighborhood. He knew because he’d fucked all those girls—twice. Daylight pointed out bottled blonde hair and a tangle of sheets. Her skin, he now saw, had a ruddy Irish look. She stirred. Sebastian tipped his head at her fluttering eyelids—one set of lashes looked fur-lined, the other skimpy and paper-bag brown. He supposed it was her natural color. He lifted the sheet draped across her midriff. Yeah. Natural color. Along with her willingness to sleep with him, she’d been predictable—nothing special. Raking a hand over his stubble-covered face, Sebastian thumped a fist unceremoniously into the mattress.
That was his life.
He was ready to get out of bed, but she stopped him, her hand coming across his body, stroking his broad chest. She cleared her throat—a croaky combination of tequila shots, come, and cigarettes. Sebastian wondered which might kill her first. He arched his brow and examined the scene—bare toe to pillow top. Considering how quickly she’d slept with him, this girl would fuck the wrong guy long before the booze and cigarettes got to her. She groped downward, reaching. His cock did the opposite of his brain by responding. On the nightstand were condoms, a bottle of tequila, and two empty shot glasses. “What the hell…” he muttered, grabbing the bottle and taking a gulp like mouthwash. He tossed a condom wrapper onto her stomach. She tore it open and went to work sheathing him. He’d been damn clear about that.
A moment later, Sebastian, whose frame largely shadowed hers, rolled the woman onto her back. She moaned softly as her legs parted on cue. She closed her eyes again, and he felt flamingo pink fingernails rake down his back. That woke him up—maybe more so than the mechanical thrusts into her. Her noises were more prostitute than passionate lover, although she wasn’t either thing. She wasn’t anybody. Her long legs wrapped around his body, and her breathing amped to complementary gasps. Could be she really was enjoying it.
“God, Sebastian… I’ve never done it so many times, not like this.”
He doubted that.
“Maybe… uh, maybe after…” she said on airy whispers, “we could get some breakfast. Or I can make you something.” She giggled. “I’m guessing we can use your kitchen to cook.”
The remark threw him—or maybe it was just her breath. But she shut up, her pouty mouth connecting with his unshaven neck. Images of last night jutted through Sebastian’s mind—fucking her against the refrigerator. Coffee. A canister of coffee had shimmied from the counter onto the floor, the rousing scents of java and sex filling the air. One jacked him up enough to get through the days, the other delivered distraction. She was talking again, although Sebastian wasn’t listening. Now that she’d proven to have remembered his name, Sebastian was trying to remember hers. It seemed like the decent thing to do. She moved her hands lithely down his back and onto his ass as she hitched her legs up, urging him on. Other odors hit him hard. Her hair reeked of cigarettes and the sheets smelled of a different girl’s perfume. One from the neighborhood who he’d fucked two nights ago.
That girl had slipped from his bed before dawn, saying something about leaving a kid at home. Super good-bye to that, he’d thought. Kids belonging to anyone were an absolute point of avoidance. Random thoughts replaced those as he thrust harder into her, striving toward precious seconds of nirvana. The ones that indicated he was alive. A thundering orgasm shot through him, a powerful sensation.
Maybe too powerful.
The whole bed rattled. An object rocketed past them like a Russian missile. It slammed hard into the wall above their heads. The girl screamed. Shock, instead of ecstasy, penetrated Sebastian’s ears.
A thickly accented voice boomed from the doorway. “You ’bout done in here?”
The girl tried to wrench away, but Sebastian’s body had her pinned to the mattress. She clawed for the sheet, legs still wrapped around his ass. Her wide-awake hazel eyes blinked starkly into his. He looked away, annoyed when specifics registered. Sebastian reached around and hauled the sheet over them. Her writhing turned to frozen mortification.
“Yeah. We’re done. Give us a minute,” Sebastian said.
“I’ll give you thirty fucking seconds and not a speck more. Do your banging on your own time, Bash—you hear me? I’ll not pay you to put your cock in chickies after sunup. You and your dick were supposed be on that dock at dawn.”
Sebastian rose in a pushup-like movement, twisting his neck toward the warning. In the doorway, he caught a glimpse of the old man and, he suspected, his future. Sebastian looked to his right and saw the telephone lying where his head had been. It made sense—hurling it at him was classic Andor retaliation. The phone had sat on the hall table. It was the closest hardest object within Andor’s reach. A sprinkle of freshly dented plaster flaked downward. Sebastian glanced at the girl, whose ruddy complexion had turned redder. “I said I’ll be right there.”
“See that you are.” The door slammed but opened again. Sebastian sighed, stiffly holding his body over the girl. “And clean up that fucking mess of coffee on the kitchen floor.”
He peered down at the girl. “No coffee. Explains his off mood.”
“Off mood?” she said as Sebastian rolled away. The girl darted to a stance more erect than his dick had been. “Who… who the hell was that?”
“The man who calls the shots,” Sebastian said, getting out of bed. Wadding the spent condom into a tissue, he threw it into the trashcan—a dead center shot from six feet out. He pulled on his underwear and glanced at his watch. A shower was out of the question. The girl gathered a telltale trail of clothes that led from the doorway to the bed. “Hey, do you, um… have a way home?” They’d come back to the house in his car. He hadn’t thought about how she’d arrived at the pool hall where he’d picked her up. “I could take you, but… Well, you heard.”
“I, uh…” She reached for her purse which had spilled onto a chair. It seemed to hold all the cosmetics that held her together. With the bed in between them, she skimmed her gaze down his body, a more distant full daylight view. She seemed to forget things like fear and embarrassment. “Wow. It’s a mind-blowing combination.”
“Muscles and scars. Last night I thought your eyes were the best part—guess I was wrong.”
“Guess we better keep on truckin’.” Sebastian shuffled into jeans and yanked on a thick crewneck sweater. He couldn’t do anything about the eyes, an unusual milky green. They attracted attention—all kinds. The sweater smelled of salt air and sweat. He often wore it to the docks. The wind was cutting and the sweater was bulky over his jeans, which was helpful.
As soon as he opened the nightstand drawer, the girl reverted to surprise. She gasped as Sebastian withdrew a Beretta and tucked it in the back of his jeans. He shifted his shoulders. “Docks can be a bad scene.” For the first time since last night’s game of nine-ball they made real eye contact.
“I’ll call a cab.” She looked at the phone, the cord ripped from its wall jack. “Maybe you have another one?” She busied herself by stowing away the contents of her purse. “I… I, um, don’t even know what part of Philly we’re in.”
He hesitated, considering the possible fates she might have met with his part of town. “You should. And you’re probably lucky it was just me.” They traded a look. It was meant to remind her that he was twice her size and that he had just tucked a gun into his pants—a different guy, a different circumstance, and her night might have ended in a bad shit different way. Sebastian shook it off—nameless women weren’t his problem. “Near Whitman,” he said. “Not too far from the docks. There’s another phone in the kitchen.” Sebastian reached into the nightstand again, retrieving some cash. As he passed it across the bed, his glance caught on a black caterpillar. Eyelashes. He plucked the delicate feathery thing from the bedsheets. “Here.” He held out a twenty dollar bill, gently placing the lost lashes on top.
She touched her eye, which did look off-balance—one eye dressed like she’d been on her way to Cinderella’s ball, the other offering a glimpse of where she came from. The middle class suburbs of Philly, he guessed.
“Are you offering me money for…?”
Sebastian snorted a laugh. He wanted to warn her again—Well damn—fill name in blank—you did go to bed with me after a couple of drinks and sentences. What should I think? “It’s for a cab,” he said instead.
“Oh.” Sheepishly, she accepted the cash and prop. “Thanks. You, um… you work for him, that man?”
“Andor? Yeah, I work for him.”
“Does he always talk to you like that?” she said, finally pulling on her clothes.
She’d worn no bra. No name, nothing memorable, no personal history, but her ample tits had registered. “Nah, sometimes he can be a seriously mean bastard. In that case, he woulda hit me with the phone.”
Her expression captioned her reaction—things didn’t go down that way in her middle class neighborhood. The girl talked as she tugged on a bell-bottom jumpsuit, like perhaps keeping him busy might keep him from shooting her. Sebastian bit down on a smirk as the girl realized the error of her ways—wrong town, wrong man, wrong everything. “So… so why do you? Work for him. I mean, why let him talk to you that way? Where I live, there’s decent work, nicer people. You seem like a decent guy—nicer than some.”
And there you go. She’d officially moved through all the phases: find him, fuck him, fear him… save him. Like that was possible.
“Couldn’t you change jobs, get a different boss?”
Sebastian thumbed over his shoulder. “Well, I suppose I could—get a different job… move, get a different boss. But that wouldn’t do a damn thing about changing the fact that he’s my father.”
The girl—whose name Sebastian never did recall—didn’t cross his mind again that day. At least not until Vinny Danato’s wife showed up at the dock’s edge and he raced down the gangway to meet her. A kid clung to each of Vinny’s hands while his wife held a baby… toddler… mouth to feed. Having loaded and unloaded freight all morning, Sebastian’s arms ached and he was ready for a break. On the deck, he leaned against crates of cargo. They were bound for the Port of Piraeus that night. He lit a cig, inhaling deeply, and zoned in on the family below. He didn’t know the wife’s name. Damn, did he ever bother to learn any female’s name? He stared, trying to remember Vinny saying it. Jesus, he talked about her enough. Sebastian narrowed his eyes at the scene. Christ, it was like Little Italy had crashed their South Philly dock, the entire Danato clan hanging out. Wops… Andor was particular about hiring Italians. Although not as particular as he was about thick Micks. Micks went to confession, which meant they talked. “First it’s the priest, gios,” Andor would caution. “Then it’s the cop that comes to Sunday supper.”
Vinny, however, had proven himself by making two undercover narcs who’d worked the docks last summer. Andor was always hung up on where a person came from, though Vinny had earned Andor’s trust. If his father had his way, he’d only hire Greeks. But that was almost impossible in a corner of Philadelphia that spun like a miniature globe—Wops, Micks, Pols, Spics, Gooks, Blacks and so on.
Sometimes, Sebastian wondered what they said about the Greeks.
Vinny’s conversation with his wife grew more animated. Sebastian couldn’t hear, but the Italians talked with their hands, and Vinny’s gestures were increasingly fervent. Sebastian read it as angry. He leaned into the rail and braced for a strike to the face of Vinny’s wife. Years ago, he’d seen his father do it, strike his mother in public. She’d been dead a long time now—an eleven-year old Sebastian finding her that way on the kitchen floor. If Vinny’s wife died, he supposed his crewmate’s reaction would be different than his father’s. “Life is full of hard things, gios… Just take this as proof and move on…” The same voice Sebastian heard in his head boomed from the forward deck.
“Is everything so loaded, Bash, you’ve got time to stand about?”
He turned from the railing, Andor approaching. Sebastian stood six-foot three while his father was six-foot four. It summed up his life—always an inch short. “I’m workin’ on it. I’m waitin’ for one more crate to board. The one from Atlantic City. Paulos is bringing it.”
“Your uncle is delivering the most important one. Make certain no one touches it but you. It goes in the safe, in the belly. Then you lock it.” He poked at his son’s chest. “Nobody but you locks it. Last man out, you understand, gios?”
“Yeah, I got it. So it’s not cash?”
Andor’s eyes, which were a shade deeper than his son’s—gios—narrowed. “I thought you don’t like to know. I thought my money-making ways are of no interest to you. Naturally, eating interests you—this is true since you were born.”
Sebastian heard the harsh Greek accent, words that had filled his head for twenty-four years—guttural consonants and exaggerated vowel sounds. He didn’t have the accent, though his appearance was similar enough—oil-colored hair (Andor’s peppered with gray), imperial noses, the eyes surrounded by thick dark lashes. Shit that seemed to leave women in a puddle. But the mirror-like reflection only left Sebastian leery. How much of Andor Christos was bound to him? Most days he didn’t want to know. Sebastian squinted as if this might alter the fingerprint image. “I’ll watch for Uncle Paulos. You can count on me, Pater.”
It was only an inch. Even so, Andor had a way of staring down his son. A smile pushed into the hollow of broad cheeks—like airplane wings. He moved closer. Sebastian tensed. The close proximity rarely resulted in anything good. “Our new product line. Heroin was the drug of yesterday—the sixties, still a decent business,” he said, waving his hand in a so-so gesture. “Today these young men and women have jobs. They’re earning money, wishing for a classier high. It’s a new dawn, Bash.”
“Cocaine,” Sebastian said. The girl from last night had asked if he had any. At the time, he didn’t think so.
“The finest grade money can buy. The shipment includes both product and profit for our Godfathers of the Night on the other side of the ocean. I believe they’ll be impressed. They’ll want to invest. I could move up.”
Sebastian nodded, waiting for more. There was always more.
“If things go well, we’ll be adding a new route to our schedule.”
“New route?” Sebastian said. For as long as he could recall, a bi-monthly trip to Greece and back had been their bread and butter run.
“Yes. Our brother godfathers here, they wish us to expand to a southern course—down through the Panama Canal into South America.”
“What the fuck are we going to do in South America?” Sebastian didn’t like the sound of that—the routes they sailed were dangerous enough.
“Like I said, we’re expanding. Our product and our transport. I’ll tell you more when it’s a fact. I’m not getting younger, Bash. You will have to decide. Are you willing to take my place? If you want, you could rise above me. If you don’t,” he said, his drifting gaze moving around the seedy dockyard, “you’ll be a ship’s hand until you die. Tell me… what is your biggest ambition, gios? To collect whores like pennies?” He spit on the wooden deck. “Worthless, both things.”
Sebastian supposed the girl from last night was a glaring example. That and he did lack true ambition—the kind that took you to college or to trade school. But neither were options Andor had encouraged. It didn’t matter, he thought, glancing at Vinny. He wouldn’t know what to do with that sort of everyday life. “The Godfathers of the Night, Pater,” he said, looking at his father. “It… I’m not sure it’s where I belong.”
“Where you belong? It’s who you are, Bash.” The way he spoke, it was like saying the sky was blue. “You can’t deny it. What?” he said, peering over the rail. “You think you belong with that, down there? At Sunday mass with Danato and his kind?” Sebastian and his father watched. Vinny patted his wife’s stomach while holding their son in his arms. Sebastian had mistaken joy for anger. He took a long drag on his cigarette, skeptical of both lives.
“The Wops, they reproduce quicker than the Micks. One son is all a man needs.” A sideways glance cut to Sebastian. “One mouth to feed—as long as he doesn’t disappoint. One woman…” He slapped at Sebastian’s arm and laughed. “Now that’s a different tale. Right, Bash?”
Andor puffed out his cheeks, lighting a cigar as he strode toward the bridge of the Diamatis. As the dock manager and mid-ranking member of the Godfathers of the Night, it was Andor’s business to oversee the Greek ship’s imports and exports, legal and otherwise. It was Sebastian’s job to make certain his father didn’t fail at the latter. On occasion, depending on the cargo, he’d made the crossing too. Sebastian neither loved Greece nor did he hate it. It was more like relatives—you couldn’t choose your heritage. He’d been to other European ports, not feeling an attachment to those either. But looking to the west, he also couldn’t picture sailing to South America.
As Andor disappeared from view, Sebastian felt a tap on his pea coat. He turned, having to look down. “Bim. I wasn’t sure if you’d show—well, not on deck.” Sebastian shook the slight hand of a man who was the color of coffee.
Bim worked for the vendor who supplied fruits and vegetables to the ship’s galley. Years before, when the two first met, Sebastian had laughed at Bim’s everyday ambitions. He said he’d come to America to get a college degree. Then, some time ago, Sebastian quit laughing. Not only had Bim finished college, he was now in medical school. But, as incredible as the feat was, a poor medical school student wasn’t in a position to help his family. The one he’d left behind in the Sudan. That’s when he’d approached Sebastian. Cautiously, Bim had asked if the stories were true. Did the dock manager’s son—his friend—run ocean-wide errands for cash?
It wasn’t untrue.
“I was fearful the remainder of my funds would not arrive in time,” Bim said. “Mercifully, they did. Here—it’s all here.” Anxiously, he shoved an envelope at Sebastian.
With the stub of the cigarette pinched in his lips, Sebastian thumbed through the contents. One-thousand dollars, just as they’d agreed. “Good. But you’ve got to take care of your end. Have your sister at the dock in Piraeus on the twenty-first. Tell her escort to ask for Vinny. He’ll take her to a safe spot on the ship. It won’t be the Ritz, but if she doesn’t mind crappin’ in a bucket for ten days, she’ll be in America on the other side—no questions, no immigration.”
“I understand.” Bim continued to nod as if taking copious mental notes. “I’ve used most of the cash to secure safe transport out of the Sudan and into Egypt. My parents, you have to understand—they have no choice. They were to marry Nafy to the son of a neighboring family. In turn, his family would pay my parents’ debt to the warlords. There is nothing these men do not control.”
Sebastian nodded back. “So marrying her off to the son, that wouldn’t be any better than the warlord option?” He couldn’t absorb it beyond the plot to a movie.
“My friend, you’ve no idea. This happens every day to women in my village—unspeakable atrocities. Girls no more than twelve and thirteen turned into sex slaves… or resold again. Death, I think, is a better fate.”
“Twelve and…” Sebastian shook his head. “How old is your sister?”
“Much older. Sixteen. Even so, the man my parents will marry her off to… These warlords are his cohorts. Nafy, she is smart, so sweet. In this arrangement, the best she could hope for is producing many sons, then a swift fatal illness.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Sebastian waited for Bim to smile, to tell him it was some twisted joke. “That’s, um… some heavy shit. And so you’re gonna do all that for her?”
Bim’s tiny face grew more curious. “Nafy is my sister. How can I not help her?”
“Yeah, well… that’s something I wouldn’t know anything about.” Sebastian flicked his cigarette butt overboard and returned to fingering the cash. Warlords and sisters, they weren’t his problem. “Bim… how’d, um… How’d you get this—and the rest, the money to get her out of the Sudan? Poor med students and part-time produce vendors don’t have that kind of bread.”
“Bread?” he said, his newfound roots had taken, but not the slang.
“Dough…” Sebastian sighed when that didn’t register either. “Money. How’d you manage so much cash?”
“Ah!” he said, holding up an index finger. “After completing being accepted to medical school, I was sent the dowry of my to-be wife, Devi. Her family is wealthy.” He pushed the envelope closer to Sebastian. “There was just enough to pay you after funding Nafy’s escape from my homeland.”
“Damn,” he said, thinking about Bim’s willingness to invest his last dime. It made Sebastian think of the crate he was about to load and the cash value attached to it—how the money was earned and how it might be spent. “This girl… the one with the dowry. She’s the chick you plan on marrying and you haven’t seen her in four years?”
“Nearly five. And, yes, absolutely. We are lucky. It was love at first sight.”
Sebastian’s brain balked at the concept.
“Nafy—she is not as fortunate. She had no suitors. The men of my village do not care for women wiser than them. Daughters are often given to warlords or if they’re fortunate, to decent village men. Repayment of debt and bearing children are their only worth.”
Sebastian inched back. “Jesus… Sucks for the daughters.”
“Sucks?” Bim said, wrinkling his dark brow. “Perhaps. But sons do not provide what these men want.”
Sebastian raked his hand through his hair, considering the universal concept—guys thinking with their dicks. He recalled stories he’d heard while getting drunk in the bars near the Port of Piraeus and the Port of Rize in Turkey—a particularly unsavory stop. Young girls traded like livestock, treated worse than chickens in a cage. At the time, he didn’t think the stories were real. Confronted by it, Sebastian cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “But as long as you get your sister out… ” He clung tight to the envelope, shaking it at Bim. “That’s all that matters, right?”
“For Nafy, yes.”
“I mean, you can’t save the fucking world.”
“I suppose not. I mean… correct. Our plan for Nafy is perfect. My family won’t be implicated in her disappearance. The village, the warlords, they will believe she was stolen or eaten. Both can happen.”
Sebastian nodded vaguely at the grisly fate. “And this Dev…”
“Devi,” Bim said, a bright smile consuming his face.
“I’m curious… You’re set on marrying her?” Sebastian waved a hand at the harbor and distant land and dropped it brusquely. “With all the women on this side of the map? I mean, eventually you’ll be a rich doctor.”
“This side of the map or that one—there is only one Devi.”
Sebastian had a better feel for being eaten by a lion. One girl mattering that much? Impossible. “Whatever, man…” Slipping the envelope toward his coat pocket, he hesitated. “The money. Won’t you have to explain what happened to it?”
“Safe passage for Nafy. That is our agreement,” he said, pushing the envelope at Sebastian. “You’re right. One day I will be a doctor with a good income, and Devi’s dowry will be repaid. This is not for you to worry about.”
Bim was right and he tucked the envelope away. “Well, I’m a man of my word, Bim. Your sister will be here on the first.”
“Excellent! It’s going to work out, my friend. This life… this country. My days as a produce vendor are numbered. I could never say that in my country.”
“I think it’s a lot to say here.”
Sebastian watched as Bim retreated, the small man and his huge ambition disappearing into the stairwell of the Diamatis. Whatever drove Bim, Sebastian suspected he didn’t own an ounce of it. Ounce… It brought him back to reality and Sebastian went about his business, directing cargo and waiting for his uncle’s delivery. But as he plotted the future of crates bound for distant shores, Sebastian couldn’t shake Bim’s life. He stared east feeling… something. Or maybe it was more about feeling anything. The things Bim had talked about, his family, this Devi. Sebastian shook his head, his gaze set on the horizon. Could be that on his next run, he’d get off the freighter and set down roots in the land of his ancestors. But seeing Paulos’s car turn into the dockyard, the idea short circuited. Nothing would change, even on the other side of the world. A different life required a reason, and that Sebastian couldn’t see.
He leaned over the rail where Vinny remained at his wife’s side. “Hey, Vin, you fucking ever gettin’ back to work?” Vinny turned, waving at Sebastian, indicating he’d be right there. The wife offered a smaller, shyer wave, her hand barely rising past her breastbone. Awkwardly, Sebastian’s large hand returned the gesture. Vinny kissed his children and he kissed his wife. The menial crew hand then bent and kissed his wife’s stomach. Sebastian stepped back from the rail. The scene below was wrought with things he couldn’t comprehend—like Sanskrit or doing the drugs he shuttled. But as he came away from the rail a name bubbled in his brain. “Antonia.” Sebastian remembered the endearing way Vinny said his wife’s name… Antonia.
Where romance meets suspense and the Clairmont legacy begins…
On Sale May 17, 2016