Shaw looked out the window as the chopper came in to land.
It was a typical small South Pacific atoll: a band of gleaming white sand encircled the lush rainforest and was surrounded in turn by a brilliant blue ocean. It was shaped like a teardrop. A hill straddled the widest part. The forest swept downward from the hill toward the beach. Shaw remembered his primary school geography. This was not the sort of island that had grown patiently over the eons from the detritus of the reef, the shift of the tides, and the patronage of the sea birds. This island had been created suddenly and violently, thrown up from under the sea by the force of a volcanic eruption a million years ago.
The uniform lushness of the rainforest opened up into a patchwork of different shapes, colors, and textures as the chopper descended. Like turning the dial on a microscope, Shaw thought, and seeing a whole new level underneath. He could make out the top canopy of the trees now: waxy leaves, creepers, rubber trees, palms, and an infinite variety of flora that, just a minute ago, had appeared so unvaryingly green.
In the center of the island, at the base of the hill, Shaw saw the main house. The modern glass-and-steel structure gleamed in the sunlight. It seemed incongruous to Shaw, the wrong sort of house for both the climate and the landscape. It had not been built to complement the rainforest. It had been built to tame it.
Shaw smiled in amusement. Typical of Vornis. He was the sort of man who liked to build monuments to his own power and wealth, and that was exactly what the house was. Shaw imagined a day when the rainforest would retake the house, slowly grinding it down again until nothing remained. Like Ozymandias, Shaw thought suddenly, and wondered where the hell his brain had dredged that reference from. Was it Year Nine English? That was a lot of years and a whole other life ago.
Shaw took a breath and let it out slowly.
A large yacht gleamed in the crescent-shaped bay on the far side of the island. It was anchored between a curve of white beach and a line of breakers that marked the reef and surrounded by a patch of deeper blue. From the chopper, Shaw thought that he could make out the safe channels between the reefs where the water was deepest. He had toured the yacht once before, several months ago now, at Mykonos. Vornis liked to show off his wealth. He liked to see other men's eyes light up with envy. And Jesus, a part of Shaw had been envious. A part of him still burned with it. King-size beds, a theatre room, an elevator between decks...but another part of Shaw was secretly amused. What was the point of having a yacht at all, if you stayed hermetically sealed under deck?
The island, Shaw knew, would be the same to Vornis, nothing more than a backdrop. Nothing more than a tick in a box: yacht, jet, helicopter, island. Vornis had all the trappings of wealth imaginable, but did he enjoy their use or only the jealousy they inspired in others? Shaw knew enough about Vornis to know that he found his pleasure in strange ways.
The sunlight burned on the glass panes of the house, and Shaw squinted as the chopper came in to land. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
A gap in the trees--the helipad.
The chopper hovered, and Shaw settled back into his seat. The rotors seemed louder than they had before, the exercise somehow more fraught. When they'd been moving forward, Shaw hardly felt it. Now he was conscious of the pull of gravity as they hovered slowly above the helipad, and of the churning of the engines.
Shaw's lips quirked in another smile. He wasn't a nervous flyer, but the thought never failed make itself known to him at some point: How does this even work?
The skids bumped against the ground, lifted again for a fraction of a second, and they were down. The engines whined as the pilot cut the power, and the rotors slowed.
Shaw unbuckled his seat belt and reached for his suitcase and laptop bag. When the pilot came around and opened the door for him, Shaw stepped down onto the helipad. He took a deep breath, hoping for sea air, but smelled only fuel.
"Mr. Shaw." A large man in dark fatigues came forward to meet him. "Welcome to the island."
He didn't smile. He didn't offer to take Shaw's luggage. It wasn't that sort of welcome. Shaw held his arms out as the man frisked him.
"My name is Hanson," the man said, straightening up. "Head of security. I'll show you to your bungalow."
"Thank you," Shaw said. He followed the man away from the helipad onto a wide sand path flanked by golden cane palms.
Hanson was at least a head taller than Shaw, and Shaw wasn't short. Hanson had the sort of width across the shoulders that you'd measure in ax handles, Shaw thought, and, despite a thickness around his middle that had more to do with age than his fitness level, he looked like he could snap a man's neck between his thumb and forefinger. Hanson had to be pushing fifty, but Shaw had no doubt he could easily take down men half his age. Not that it would ever come down to physical strength. Hanson wore a GLOCK on his hip. Fourth generation, with the dual recoil spring assembly.
Shaw forced his gaze away from the sidearm, and tried very hard not to imagine the brilliant white sand soaking up his blood like litmus paper. He looked at the fluttering palm fronds instead.
Focus. The sand crunched under Shaw's shoes, and he wondered what it would feel like under his bare feet. His imagination took him all the way across a beach he hadn't even seen yet and into the cool embrace of the Pacific before he reeled it back.
Not that sort of trip, Shaw. Not that sort of island.
"How was your trip, Mr. Shaw?" Hanson asked him.
Shaw tried to pick his accent. American, maybe, but not for a long time. All the edges were knocked off. Hanson had spent a lot of years in a lot of different places. He was probably an ex-mercenary who had learned his trade in Kosovo, Pakistan, Liberia, and every dirty little theater of war in between. Shaw knew from previous dealings that Vornis was never without at least a dozen armed guards. He suspected there would be more on the island this week. This place was Vornis's sanctuary. He wouldn't leave it vulnerable.
"Good, thanks," Shaw told him.
It was a lie but not the sort that would condemn him. He'd spent fourteen hours in economy class from LA to Nadi, transferred to Suva on what had to be the local mail run, and waited another two hours there for the chopper. An hour and a half later, and here he was--jet-lagged, unshaven, and wanting nothing more than to recharge his batteries with a hot shower, a decent meal, and a long sleep. Then he could dream about that Cezanne burning a hole in the false bottom of his luggage, and the nice fat chunk of Vornis's cash he was about to earn. And, with any luck, wake up with his head in the right place. He couldn't afford a misstep here.
Hanson turned his head and grinned, and Shaw was surprised at the genuine amusement in the big man's eyes. "Sure it was!"
God, but it was nice to be on solid ground again, feeling the sun and the breeze. Shaw smelled salt on the air now. He heard the slow roll of the ocean against the beach.
They rounded a bend, and the beach appeared.
It was beautiful--an open, unspoiled beach and an ocean that went on forever. Shaw filled his lungs with the salt air and let his gaze settle on the horizon.
Beautiful, but don't let it fool you.
He sucked in a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, and put his prickling unease down to jetlag. Nerves? Hardly. Shaw didn't get nervous. He was at the top of his game. He kept his gaze on the horizon and let his smile win. No harm in that. Beautiful, so enjoy it while you can.
Enjoy the tropical paradise completely surrounded by sea.
And there was that flicker of unease again, dancing up his spine. He'd felt it in the pull of gravity as the chopper came in to land. The feeling was strange, contradictory. Shaw wouldn't walk away from this opportunity in a million years, but the illusion of free choice was always nice. Standing on the glowing ribbon of beach, Shaw shaded his eyes to watch as the chopper headed for the distant horizon, back toward Suva.
Don't let the palm trees and the sand fool you. You're stuck here now, and this place might as well be a fortress.
"You're just along here, Mr. Shaw," Hanson told him.
A bungalow sat a little way along the beach, with wooden floors, bamboo walls, and a thatched roof. Swaying palms surrounded it on three sides. The front steps led directly onto the beach. It looked like something off a postcard.
"There are six bungalows on the island," Hanson said as they continued along the beach. "They were building a resort here, but it went bankrupt. Yours is the one with the turtles, if you get turned around."
Shaw had never got turned around in his life, but Hanson didn't need to know that. Shaw was always exactly where he needed to be. "The turtles?"
He followed Hanson up onto the shaded veranda of the bungalow and saw them: three carved turtles decorated the post beside the door.
The veranda, wide and shaded, had a hammock at one end, a spa at the other, and a small table and two chairs by the door. Hanson slid the bamboo door open and stood back for Shaw to enter. Shaw walked inside and dumped his luggage on the bed.
The bungalow was open plan. It was like a five-star resort, with a massive bed, a large plasma screen, a dining table, and a self-contained kitchen. Shaw crossed the rattan matting and looked down a set of shallow steps into the bathroom. It had no floor, just crushed coral. There were walls, for the sake of privacy, but no roof above the shower cubicle. It would be like showering on the beach, and Shaw liked the idea of that. He rolled his shoulders and let his gaze travel around the bungalow again.
The bungalow was open to the sea breezes. It was large, airy, and full of light. Luxurious, Shaw thought, but strangely simple for a man with Vornis's notoriously vulgar tastes. Shaw supposed he had the original owners of the island to thank for the bungalow. Definitely not the same crew who had designed the main house.
Hanson stood by the bed and nodded at Shaw's luggage. He didn't have to ask the question.
"Go ahead," Shaw said. It wasn't like he had any choice in the matter.
Shaw watched Hanson check through his bags. The man was an expert. He didn't miss the hidden bottom in Shaw's luggage like they had at LA and every security check since, and Shaw hadn't expected him to. Hanson also wasn't looking for a painting.
"Thank you," Hanson said when he'd finished. "Mr. Vornis will be down to see you shortly."
Shaw nodded and slid the thin door closed behind Hanson as he left. He needed a shower, but first he needed to let Callie know he'd arrived. He lay down on the bed to check his e-mail and fell asleep halfway through.
Shaw awoke to the sound of gentle rain. He stared up at the underside of the high thatched roof for a while before he his mind caught up: Fiji. He was in Fiji to sell Vornis a stolen Cezanne.
Shit. How long had he been asleep? Shaw didn't bother check his watch. It was still set to LA time anyway. It was still daytime; that had to be a good sign. And he couldn't have slept through the whole night, because he wasn't starving.
Every muscle in Shaw's body ached as he hauled himself up from the bed. He closed his laptop, grimacing at that particular breach of his own security. He would have woken up if anyone had tried to take it though, right? Not that it mattered in the grand scheme of things. His laptop was secure.
Shaw grabbed his shaving kit and staggered down the steps into the bathroom. His shoes crunched on the crushed coral floor. He splashed water on his face, stared into the mirror, and marveled at the dark shadows under his eyes. He looked like crap.
He shaved and then splashed water on his face again. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up! Jesus, he hated jetlag. He wished he knew the time so he could figure out how many more hours he had to fight off sleep. Because the sound of the ocean washing back and forth on the beach and the gentle patter of the rain wouldn't help any. Sleep, sleep, sleep, the ocean murmured, and Shaw wanted to listen.
Shaw scrubbed his face dry and headed back up the stairs. He sat on the bed and pulled his shoes and socks off. He wriggled his toes on the rattan floor covering. Bare feet, that was more like it.
Shaw unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off, reaching back into his suitcase for a fresh one. He was about to change his trousers and underwear when he heard the squeak of the boards on the veranda, followed a moment later by a knock on the doorpost.
"Shaw? You in there?"
Vornis. Game on.
Shaw rose. An easy smile spread across his face as he walked to the door and slid it open.
"Shaw," Vornis said, extending his hand. "It is good to see you, my friend."
Shaw shook his hand. "It's good to be here, Vornis."
Vornis wasn't a large man, but he still managed to seem physically intimidating. He stood at just under six feet, with a paunch around his middle. His dark hair was gray at the temples and thin on top. His dark eyes were set into a pale, fleshy face. He wasn't an attractive man, but he exuded an air of power that only the very naive or the very stupid didn't see.
Shaw wasn't stupid, and it had been a long time since he'd been anything like naive.
"How do you like my island?" Vornis asked, walking into the bungalow.
"It's beautiful," Shaw said. No need to moderate himself there. God's honest truth. "I can't wait to have a walk around."
He knew Vornis had bought his Fijian island outright twelve years ago. It was remote, an hour and a half by chopper from the main island, but Vornis never arrived by chopper. The yacht, anchored in the secluded bay on the other side of the island, was his preferred method of travel. It would be Shaw's as well, if he ever had that sort of cash. It was the sort of luxury Shaw could only dream about, and often did.
Vornis opened the fridge and drew out two beers.
Shaw had never seen Vornis drink beer before. He wondered if it was the relaxed atmosphere of the island, or, more exactly, if drinking a beer was the sort of thing Vornis felt he ought to do on a tropical island to show that he was relaxed. With Vornis, everything was for appearances.
Shaw accepted a beer and twisted the top of it. "Cheers."
"Shall we sit outside?" Vornis asked.
They headed onto the veranda. So beautiful here, Shaw thought, so peaceful.
So remote. So dangerous.
Shaw looked out at the ocean. It had vanished under clouds now, but the rain was only soft. It was tropical rain. It smelled sweet, and Shaw knew that it wouldn't be cold. A part of him wanted to get out underneath it, to tilt his face up to the sky and taste it.
God, the smell of it hit him like homesickness. His own fault. He'd let the Pacific work its old magic already. He'd been a different person the last time he'd stood on a beach with a beer and watched the rain on the Pacific.
Focus. You're supposed to be smarter than this.
Vornis rested his beer on the rail of the veranda and watched Shaw watch the ocean. Shaw sensed his gaze--he felt it sliding over his skin like a touch--and didn't comment on it. Nothing like the narrow, heated scrutiny of a predator to sharpen the senses. He should be thanking Vornis.
Shaw ran his thumb up and down the cold beer bottle, collecting condensation. He knew he looked relaxed. He almost believed it himself, and why not? There were worse places to be than on a Fijian island. In a tropical paradise, even the rain was nice.
At last, Vornis spoke. "I'm glad you're here, Shaw. I have always enjoyed your company. I have been growing a little bored with nothing to do except play with my toy."
"Toy?" Shaw asked.
Vornis was looking out into the rain. Shaw followed his gaze. He looked up into the line of trees, and he saw, and a moment later understanding caught him.
His stomach flipped.
Vornis had left his toy out in the rain. The toy was young, male, and lean. When he moved, his muscles shifted under his captivity-pale skin. He was walking in the rain like he couldn't remember the last time he'd stood under a natural sky. A few steps forward and a few steps back; he was held close to the tree line by an imaginary leash. His skin gleamed under the rain. Shining droplets caught on full lips that were parted as he looked blankly at the world, his jaw hanging like a gormless child's. His bare feet sank into wet grass. His long pants, hanging low on his hips, flapped wetly around his feet.
It was the pants that gave him away. They were khaki cargoes with a camouflage pattern. They were thin with wear and stripped of any identifying labels, but Shaw could hazard a guess.
Focus. Take a breath and focus.
He leaned on the veranda rail. "Military," he asked Vornis, ignoring the sudden wild thumping of his heart, "or mercenary?"
Vornis only laughed.
Shaw shook his head wonderingly. "Christ, Vornis, you do like to walk on the wild side. Couldn't you at least get him some new clothes?"
Vornis laughed and took a swig of his beer. "But I like to remember where he comes from. One of us ought to!"
Shaw raised his eyebrows and looked out at the young man again. He was hardly more than a boy, probably only nineteen or twenty. He couldn't have done a lot of living before he was brought here, and Shaw didn't like his chances for the future.
Shaw raised his beer bottle to his lips and forced himself to swallow.
Jesus, he did business with some frightening fucking assholes. Truth be told, Vornis wasn't even the worst of them. Sure, he was a murdering drug lord, but at least he was up-front about it. And here, on his secluded little island, Vornis was almost friendly. His friendliness had a lot to do with the fact that Shaw had a Cezanne to offer him. Like a lot of thugs, Vornis liked to pretend he was cultured. The fact that he kidnapped, raped, and murdered anyone who crossed him was beside the point. He appreciated fine art and classical music. He must have been a gentleman.
"So, which was it?" Shaw asked. "Military or mercenary?"
A pair of armed security guards stood some distance away: more of Vornis's private security team. They watched the boy intently, their hands on their utility belts. Shaw watched them as they watched the boy. They were too far away to hear what they said, but Shaw saw the way one of them smirked in his direction. There was something predatory about that smile, something proprietary. Shaw hid his misgivings under the gentle curve of his own smile.
Vornis sipped his drink. "That is the only surviving member of a covert team who made a strike on my Colombian compound eight weeks ago. The uniform is not American, but the boy is. CIA, I suspect."
"CIA?" Shaw asked. The boy looked way too young to be a specialist in any field, let alone in black ops.
Vornis only shrugged. "What does it matter?"
Shaw raised his eyebrows. "In your place, I might be worried he had friends coming after him."
Vornis laughed. "We're a long way from Colombia now."
Shaw watched the boy as he shuffled in the rain. "True."
Watched, and tried not to see.
Shaw had an idea he wouldn't like himself much if he had to keep looking at that boy and imagining the things Vornis did with him. Shaw had made a career out of morally reprehensible dealings, but he didn't usually have his nose rubbed in them. Shaw liked to pretend he was a gentleman. It felt so much more civilized when he could pretend Vornis was a gentleman too.
The palm fronds waved in the breeze, tipping rivulets of water into the sand. The sea was gray under the clouds, and Shaw hoped he'd at least get one postcard-perfect glimpse of the brilliant blue Pacific before he left. He had been hopeful that Vornis would extend his hospitality even before he'd seen the beauty of the island. He hadn't anticipated any problems. He'd known what he was walking into.
Palm fronds, sand, the clouds and the ocean, but somehow Shaw's gaze kept coming back to the boy. He didn't just see flesh either. He saw straight past that, straight to his own...culpability? No, that wasn't fair. He hadn't kidnapped the boy. He hadn't brutalized him and broken him. That was all Vornis, and in Vornis's world, payback wasn't only justified, it was necessary. It was the only currency men like Vornis dealt in: force. Shaw understood that.
And the boy must have known what he was getting himself into. He must have known the risks. Somewhere along the way, he'd signed on the dotted line and given his life away. He'd probably never seen this coming, though. Shaw wondered which was worse in theory, getting shot in the head or getting raped daily by Vornis? It wasn't a choice he'd want to make, but any man who entered Vornis's world had to know the risks. You knew them, you calculated them, and you decided whether or not to take the chance. Heads, you win, tails you lose, but nobody forced you to play. It was the kid's own fault he was here
The breeze tasted of salt, and Shaw swiped his tongue over his lower lip. Being on the same island at the same time wasn't culpability at all. It was coincidence.
Shaw smiled again. How useful that he could always soothe his own conscience. Soothe it or smother it, same thing. It took a special sort of pathology to look at Vornis's captive American and blame him for his own misfortune.
Vornis saw where he was looking, saw his smile, and his eyes danced. "Nice, yes?"
Shaw couldn't deny that. His cock had twitched the moment he'd seen the boy, but he'd put it down to jetlag, alcohol, and a long dry spell. "You're a man of impeccable taste. I've always said so."
Vornis laughed again, and Shaw pressed his advantage.
"Particularly in art."
Vornis clapped him on the back. "It is late, my friend. We have plenty of time to discuss my latest purchase tomorrow. What is your rush?"
Shaw took another sip of his beer. "No rush."
"Good," said Vornis. "Make yourself at home. You look tired. Have a shower, and I'll have something sent over from the main house for you. Business can wait for the morning, agreed?"
"Agreed," Shaw said. "The morning."
Shaw watched as Vornis walked down the steps. He stepped onto the winding path that led back away from the beach toward the main house and whistled sharply.
"Christ," Shaw said under his breath.
He had the boy trained like a dog. One whistle and the kid almost tripped over his feet in his hurry to get to heel. Cowering and eager, just like a fucking dog. Shaw felt himself tense as Vornis ran a hand down the boy's naked back, and he turned away. The beer he'd swallowed churned in his guts. Shaw drew a quick, deep breath and held it.
It was none of his business. None of his fucking business.
He had to remember that.