Authors: Richard Hilary Weber
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Richard Hilary Weber
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Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
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You can always get into those places. What is hard is to get out. That is a private fight. Everybody has to find his own way.
V. S. Naipaul
A Bend in the River
Let me tell you something about lining your pockets even when the effortâwhether driven by greed or mere survivalâwill probably kill you.
Because the truth is, had I been able to land a stateside job after graduating Princetonâno, let me amend thatâif I could have landed a job anywhere else, I'd never have gone to San IÃ±igo and never have seen with such terrible clarity and closeness the many ways a person could die there. Which to some extent may explain why, though no one was threatening me when I arrived, I felt vaguely anxious from the moment I stepped off the plane into the hot wet air of what travel brochures called “the paradise island of the western Caribbean, a pristine passage to sublimity, discovered 1496â¦”
In tourist bureau photos, island colors were dense and vivid under brilliant sun, impossible to tell at a glance whether you were looking at growth or decay, the island's highlight a rainforest river glistening white over mountain rapids before turning caffe latte beige on its way down to the sea.
My job, a day's hard journey by road from those scenic mountains and river, was supposed to keep me in San IÃ±igo city, safe and occupied, which meant the formless worries I experienced on arrival were absurd, as I knew very well who was in charge, that our own people ran the place, we were the entrepreneurs, not the barbarians. Despite this, anyone in my shoes might have felt the way I did landing on that island republic for the first time. No matter how great the opportunity for meâDan Shedrick, junior architect for the new harbor and Xy Corp. facilities, a year's contract freshly signed and notarizedâmy first up-close view of San IÃ±igo was less than encouraging.
Armored tanks ringed the airport, turret cannons aiming away from runways as though fearing attacks not by outside invaders but from forces within. Before leaving home, I'd checked the U.S. State Department's Web site, and although the facts appeared less than enticingânorthern virtue eyeing tropical depravityâI thought I detected wiggle room for hope.
“The potential for violence by terrorists and other criminal elements continues to be notorious in certain areas of San IÃ±igo. Outside the protected zones, armed assaults and robberies continue to be a part of everyday life, and U.S. citizens have been victims of violent crimes, including kidnapping and homicide. Firearms are prevalent in San IÃ±igo, and altercations can often turn violentâ¦”
In other words, oppression didn't create saints, only potential killers: all victims were dangerous, permanently aggrieved.
My harbor job was in a protected zone, the entire capital city a heavily patrolled world unto itself, where I couldn't even bring my dog in from the States, and with much parting sorrow had given Felix, a devoted golden retriever, to a neighbor on Garden Place in Brooklyn, my dog and I and my neighbor all of us blubbering. Apart from missing Felix, the abrupt discomfort I felt on entering San IÃ±igo wasn't any specific anxiety I could actually pinpointâthe tanks around the airfield weren't aiming at me. Nor could I nail down a precise instant when vague fears seized me, replacing curiosity and enthusiasm, a sensation of nausea rising from a dread of increasingly obvious discrepancies as I rode into the city from the airport, the symptoms a sourness in my throat, sharp taste on my tongue, growing knots in my stomach while passing lugubrious mile after mile of thatched roof, cinder block shanties lining the highway, the
where the poor lived. The shanties didn't appear in any tourist brochures, and the tanks were facing the shanties. Their message: to endure, not enjoy.
While my job in San IÃ±igo wasn't exactly a Frank Lloyd Wright assignment, the salary beat anything I could barely land an interview for stateside, my Princeton degree and varsity tennis letter, Deke brother and Cottage Club years worth nearly nada in the endless recession back home. Up to that point my life had been sympathetic and ordered, a steady and protective progress of parochial and private schooling, made more placid by the hope, indeed the continued reassurance, that life would always continue this way. And then the bottom fell out and the long slump struck. San IÃ±igo was supposed to be differentâregular paychecks, warm nights, tropical fancies fulfilledâseveral steps up a new ladder of revived progression.
But the ride from the airport into Ciudad San IÃ±igo wasn't promising all that much. The cab air-conditioning conked out, windows stuck shut, the driver muttering few words of Englishâ
âand in full view on the front seat, a shotgun beside an open box of cartridges. Wiping a misted window, I regarded an endless parade of shantytowns. Oil rigs were so far offshore, I couldn't see a trace from the coast, but I knew platform towers lay somewhere out there beyond the horizon, and they were the only reason our people tolerated perpetual heat in San IÃ±igo. As the taxi approached the city, views improved, forested foothills and serrated mountain ridges framed a panorama of spectacular scenery, the island alive with colors. Anyone would fall in love with the landscape; indifference to the setting was impossible. The first time I saw the San IÃ±igo coastline at sundown, I lingered in the hotel garden with a welcome drink in my hand and watched the vista grow even more beautiful for about fifteen, twenty minutes. The distant hills and winding roads, the military base, all these acquired a yellow tint, turning pink to pale green, blue and red and gold, this unvarying transformation occurring whether you drank too much rum or sipped only iced tea. The offshore oil rigs remained invisible, shantytowns remote, nothing in San IÃ±igo marred the knockout views from hilltop hotels and restaurants. The island may have been full of frustrations and fears, real or imagined, but at sunset each day you felt a kind of happiness there, when for a few moments you indulged crepuscular insights, moved by some peculiar mix of fading lights and fragrances of new flowers and fruits that brought back childhood memories and revived old hopes, or at other times induced a feeling of something precious once lost and now almost impossible to recall. You picked your spot to stand and watch, too mesmerized to judge whether the place was acquiring meaning for you or leaking it away, the island tottering at some halfway point between creating or destroying.
West of the city, floodlights illuminated a shadowy black lava mass of the El Moro headland and a hundred-foot white stone statue of Cristo Redentor, the island's tallest structure, the immense San IÃ±igo pride of Christ the Redeemer, His arms stretched forward in benediction over city and sea.
Granted, San IÃ±igo wasn't really ours, not legally, I knew that much, but it might as well have been. And I wasn't there in military uniform, I was with the companyâa harmless unarmed civilian, no bull's-eye on my backâstill I nearly slipped into cardiac arrest the first time a dark hand touched my arm, coming up from behind me without warning. “I take you bags, seÃ±orâ¦”
The Nacional hotel lobby was cool, polished lava floors spotless. Someone was always mopping the dark stone. I left my suitcases yawning open on the bed in my room, too depressing a sight, and called for a cab. Pocketing a letter of introduction from my stepfatherâan often tightfisted man, though free with kindly wordsâI rode down the coast to the Saint Ignatius beach, golf, and tennis club. A reassuring sight, the club could have been in the Hamptons, the entire Maidstone airlifted directly down to Latin America, albino members and all. My relief was palpable, serendipity my guide: the familiar comforted, and the unfamiliar didn't have to be sought as it would find you soon enough.
“Dan!” Right hand extended, an older man crossed the bar terrace in my direction.
Walter Ferguson was the club owner-manager, a friend of my stepfather's and an embassy confidant, a longtime expat on the island. His reputation placed him on excellent terms with the San IÃ±igo president, and he'd often boast of visits to
's vast sugarcane plantation on the western end of the country, flying out there in the maximum leader's official plane, landing alongside flower beds and lawn in time for a splendid lunch. Walter Ferguson wasn't noticeably different from the man whose photo hung behind the club bar, The Founder, of twenty-five years before. Ferguson's blue eyes were large and lively, chin sharp, white hair trimmed close, giving him the appearance of a television talking head or a grandfather figure in an ad for mutual funds.
Preserving the legacy you've earned
â¦He was a
, willfully flamboyant, his style was his substance, assiduously cultivated, his manner his mansion, fastidiously designed: an experience common to expats on meeting a new culture, acting out a role felt to have been rightfully assigned in an earlier life, and now a hidden persona kicked into action.
“You look exactly like your Facebook picture,” he said to me, “full of youth. Delighted you're here, Dan, I'm Ferg.” He lowered his voice, hinting at confidentiality. “Wish I were your age again, swear to God. You'll do wonders in this place. They'll be all over a jock like you, swarming like mosquitoes. Live life to the hilt, it's a big mistake not to. Only take precautions, you never know what'll hit you here.” Ferg placed an avuncular hand on my shoulder. “Place reeks with disease. No matter what we do, nothing changes. Same old storyâ¦”
You'll do wonders in this place
â¦Although a thought meant to encourage, even at that early point I didn't kid myself. The island gave off a heavy air, like a pervasive pollutant, an inescapable warning telling anyone paying attention there were lots of reasons to worry, a disquiet insidious and chronic and I believed I knew why. Or that I should have known. It wasn't merely malaria or whatever other contagions spread so easily in San IÃ±igo. Unavoidable discrepancies gnawed, endlessly. Detachment was impossible, a natural apprehension prevailed for as long as you were rational and confined to the island.
The Club Saint Ignatius, however, delighted. A series of white buildings overlooking an eighteen-hole golf course, tennis courts, a long swimming pool beside a yacht marina and sugary sand beach. From sunset, electric lights illuminated the club paths like vesper candles lit for evening services, a time of day that was no longer quite daytime, a time when some people started feeling a call to drink especially if moonrise happened to be involved and life grew seemingly stale without alcohol. Inside the club the public rooms were high-ceilinged and air-conditioned. Outdoors, when the sun disappeared, insects grew ubiquitous. Furry spiders, mosquitoes, flying roaches, moths the size of your hand. No razor-wire fence or guards kept the bugs out.
But you get used to them
, club members assured me,
. Simply pick the pests out of your drink, and toss them away, they won't kill you. With time, you'll develop an immunity here, all of us do. While I had more than a little trouble believing that, I remained undeterredâSan IÃ±igo was my new domicileâan act of hubris inviting inevitable retribution.