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A Serpent's Tooth
by Jason Manning
(October 2003)
The moon in its third phase cast a silver glow over the coastline below Hugh Carlow's villa. The tropic night was humid, with only a faint breeze off the inky sea to stir the fronds of graceful palms. The fragile petals of fragrant orchids opened to the darkness, like a shy woman insisting that the light be out before undressing to meet her lover. It was a tranquil setting, and despite the fact that Jamaica had been Carlow's home for sixteen years, its beauty was not completely lost on him.
Carlow had known the Caribbean all his life, from a boyhood in Florida through his Coast Guard days to his present job as resident operative on Jamaica for American intelligence. He knew the tropics, the people, the customs. But he remained very much the blunt, pragmatic Yankee. For one thing, he wasn't superstitious. All this voodoo business, for instance, was pure nonsense.
Lounging in a cane chair on the terrace, Carlow lighted a pipe and listened to the muted heartbeat of the rada drums coming from the nearby foothills. In some ways, he thought, the people of Jamaica -- of all the West Indies -- were like children. Easygoing, amiable, funloving, but susceptible to a little mumbo-jumbo and so-called "black magic." As he examined the moonglow's pathway across the placid sea and the distant lights of the city of Ocho Rios between the steep jungle-clad slopes, he dismissed the drumming as part of another stage show put on for gullible tourists. Voodoo was big business. The shows were often held in hounfors, or voodoo temples. Carlow ran a travel agency as his cover, and some of his tour packages incorporated the shows.
Sixteen years residence in Jamaica had weakened he warrior in Carlow. Until recently, the island had been a peaceful paradise. Jamaica had gained its independence in 1962 but now, after eight years of economic disruption, crime and political violence were on the rise. Of all the troublemakers, Carlow thought Poto to be the worst. He incited talk of unrest, native riots, revolution. Jamaica was about to explode. He assumed that was why The Department -- that secret covert branch of the Pentagon -- was sending two agents down here to talk to him.
Carlow realized that the drums had suddenly stopped. So had something else. It took him a moment to identify what was missing. There was no birdsong. Birds sang night and day in the jungle.
His pipe smoke, which had been rising above the bowl in lazy curlicues, was suddenly swept away as wind began gusting down from the mountains that formed Jamaica's backbone -- The Cockpit. The wind thrashed the tops of the trees. As Carlow stood, the gusts tugged at his wrinkled khakis. His narrowed eyes searched the star-bright sky -- no, there were no storm clouds gathering over the interior. Usually the heavy winds came from seaward. What kind of strange phenomenon was this? The locals said voodoo priests could conjure up a "death wind," but that was a bunch of malarkay.
Then he saw them -- torches flickering into sight through the jungle foliage, a serpentine line of light twisting downslope towards the villa. Carlow's throat tightened with fear. Foreigners were likely targets for the murderous madness that Poto was stirring up among his followers. And even after sixteen years on the island, Carlow was still, and always would be, a foreigner.
The wind was growing stronger, sweeping at almost gale force across the terrace, overturning the cane chair and a small table. Carlow hurried through glass sliding doors that vibrated with the hammering of the wind and went immediately to the phone.
"This is the operator," came a sleepy female voice.
"Connect me with Indigo Tours at once."
"Yes, sir. One moment."
Relief surged through Carlow when he heard the click of a connection made. The phone began to ring. My God, Chee! Answer the phone!
"Chee! It's Hugh."
"What's the matter?"
"I...." Carlow hesitated. What had gotten into him? There was no one he could know for sure that Poto's rebels were coming for him. The torches might be part of a local ceremony. "Something strange going on up here, Chee, that's all. I...I think I'll come into town."
"Sure. But those two Americans you're expecting? They were just here. They're on their way out to you now."
"Well, in that...."
Carlow stared at the receiver. The line had gone dead.
Then the lights in the house went out.
The wind was howling like banshees around the corners of the villa. Carlow slowly put down the phone. The wind had felled the phone and power lines. Yes, that had to be it.
He went into the study, opened a desk drawer, took out the .38 Smith & Wesson. The weight of the pistol gave him some comfort. But he was disgusted to see that his hand was trembling. He stood in the middle of the room, straining to hear something, anything, above the din of the wind. The only light was from the moon; night shadow and moonlight distorted by the thrashing limbs of trees created a chiaruscuro of black and silver against the walls lined with books.
A window shattered. Carlow whirled, fired twice without thinking. Violent whipstreams tossed curtains, knocked over a lamp, banged pictures against the walls. It was as though a poltergeist was going on a rampage. Shadows moved beyond another window -- man-shadows -- and Carlow fired wildly, twice more.
A door banged against the wall, and Carlow turned to see a man standing at the threshold -- a huge man whose frame filled the doorway. A mulatto, he wore khaki trousers and a vest, his arms bulging with muscles. His hair was in dreadlocks. A second man, standing behind the first, held a torch, and by its flickering light Carlow saw that the big man had something draped over his shoulders, something long and round with white bands on a brown and tan body. As Carlow, frozen with terror, the thing moved, raised its viperish head.
Carlow whirled to make for the glass sliders at the end of the room, but staggered back as he saw the torches, and the press of men, clad in khaki or camouflage, on the terrace.  The giant in the doorway was coming towards him; Carlow fired his last bullet, but it had no effect. He kept triggering the gun, and the hammer kept falling on an empty chamber. Backing up, he stumbled over a fallen lamp, hit the floor hard. The mulatto giant reached for him placed the fer-de-lance on the floor. Rooted by sheer, gut-deep terror to the floor, Carlow didn't even put up a fight. The mulatto lifted him by his shirt front and hurled him through the sliding glass door.
Bleeding and half-conscious as he lay among the shards of glass, Carlow looked up in time to see the moonlight on the machete blades. The first blow killed him, nearly severing his head from his body. But the blows kept raining down....
You could have heard them coming from a mile away. It was the car's fault. The old Austin Healy could hardly make it up the steep incline of the road that snaked through the hills from Ocho Rios. With a clatter of loose bolts, a grinding of gears, a squeal of decrepit brakes and a backfire, the rental car came to a stop in front of Hugh Carlow's villa. Alexander Scott jumped out of the passenger's seat and waited for Kelly Robinson to unwind his long, lithe frame from behind the wheel.
"A classic, you said," sneered Scott, eyeing the Austin Healy with a great deal of contempt. "I could have pushed the car up here quicker."
"Now you tell me," replied Robinson. "Hey, with a little tender loving care this baby would be good as new."
Scott harumphed. "Yeah, well, so would I." He peered at the villa. There were no lights on anywhere. "Doesn't look like anybody's home."
"Darn, I forgot my handy-dandy, government-issue spy flashlight, too. But I do have these." Robinson brandished a small box of matches from the pocket of his windbreaker.
"Good, light one -- and drop it in the gas tank. Then we'll have plenty of light."
Robinson shook his head. "Sacrilege. Complete and utter sacrilege."
They went up the stairs to the front door. Carlow's villa clung to the slope of a steep hillside, and sported balconies on two sides. The front entrance was off the balcony facing the road. When they reached the door and found it slightly ajar, Robinson and Scott exchanged glances. Guns materialized as if by magic in their hands. They had worked together as a team for a long time -- they didn't need to discuss what to do next. Scott pushed the door open with his foot and they went in one after the other, taking different directions. The big living room before them was empty. Robinson motioned for Scott to take the hallway on the right, and he catfooted his way down the hallway on his left. It took him to the study, and the first thing he noticed was the broken glass of the sliding door across the room, which looked like it had been hit by a cyclone. And there was something out there beyond the door, on the terrace....
Finding the bedrooms empty, Scott retraced his steps, went down the hall after Robinson, and found his partner standing just outside a shattered sliding door, looking down at a body crumpled on the terrace.
"I think we came at a bad time," said Robinson.
Scott nodded. He knew Robinson wasn't being callous. They'd seen plenty of death in their years as secret agents, but it was something you never really got used to. They used humor to quell the horror. And Carlow's death had been horrible.
"Whoever did this is long gone," muttered Scott. "Come on. Let's get out of here. Chee can call in the authorities."
"I'm right behind you."
They left the villa, got in the Austin Healy, and rattled, clattered and backfired their way down the road.
They went to see a man named Pringle the next day, but not in the Austin Healy, which had barely been able to get them back to Ocho Rios the night before. The taxi they hired was a vintage '57 Chevy that looked to be in mint condition. The cabby was a chubby, cheerful "colored" -- one of the mixed breeds who, along with the descendants of plantation slaves, made up ninety percent of Jamaica's population.
"Where to, chappies?" asked the driver.
"Old Harbour Bay," said Scott.
They drove south, across the island, and into Kingston, past the beautiful green square of Victoria Park and the old, whitewashed buildings along it. Just beyond the square they paused at the behest of a "Red Stripe", as the Jamaican constables were called, who looked very authoritative in his white pith helmet and gauntlets, the broad red stripes from whence came the nickname running down the outseam of black trousers. The driver twisted around and grinned toothily at Robinson and Scott.
"First time in Jamaica, mates? Mebbe you want to stop off at Castle Colbeck. Oldest and grandest mansion in the Caribbean, y'know."
"No sightseeing," said Robinson curtly.
"Righto. M'name's Ketch, by the way."
Robinson just nodded. The Red Stripe let them proceed, and Robinson watched the harbor, one of the finest in the world, pass by as they made for Spanish Town, crossing the Fresh Salt at The Ferry, angling around Hunt's Bay. Passing through scenic Spanish Town, Robinson hardly noticed the fine old English architecture of King's House and the Rodney Memorial. He couldn't get the image of Hugh Carlow's butchered corpse out of his mind. As for Scott, he was languishing in far more pleasant memories -- memories of honey-brown eyes, a bewitching smile, and lustrous jet-black hair.
They reached Old Harbor Bay, turning up a gravel drive and stopping in front of a small but impeccable colonial house. Robinson ordered Ketch to wait, and he and Scott crossed the columned portico to the front door. It swung open before they could knock, and Scott found himself looking into those honey-brown eyes -- and across five long years.
The Lily Pringle Scott had known had never been at a loss, and she didn't disappoint him this time, either. Smiling warmly, she laid her hands lightly on the broad span of his shoulders, leaned close, and kissed him softly on the cheek.
"Hello, Alexander."  She smiled at Robinson. "Hello, Kelly. Father is waiting for the two of you. He is out on the patio."
She led the way, down a cool, airy hall with parquet floor and arched ceiling. She was wearing a pale yellow sundress, and her hair hung loose and full around her shoulders. Expensive perfume -- Alliage, wasn't it? -- wafted back to Scott and teased more memories to life.
Dr. Jonas Pringle sat on a rattan lounger on a sunny patio that offered a good view, across an expanse of Bermuda grass and a sliver of white beach, of the turquoise stretch of Portland Bight, to Great Goat and Pigeon Islands. Beyond the isles a high ridge of land jutted like a ship's prow into the sea -- Portland Point. Pringle was a tall, thin man, with short-cropped hair now gray at the temples and spectacles perched on a hawkish nose as he perused a newspaper. As usual he had an unlit cigar, a Cezadore, clenched between his teeth.
"Gentlemen!"  Delighted, Pringle clasped their hands. "Pardon me for not getting up. My leg hurts especially badly today for some reason."
"No need to get up, sir," said Scott. He knew that Pringle had been shot by a British soldier while allegedly attempting a prison break fifteen years ago. One of black Jamaica's most respected citizens and accomplished physicians, he had gotten into politics -- and on the wrong side of the colonial government, thanks to a tendency to agitate for Jamaica's independence.
Pringle offered them a drink, which both agents declined. At the doctor's bidding they pulled up some chairs and sat down facing him.
"You've probably guessed why we're here, sir," said Robinson.
"Well, let's see. Last time you were tracking a Cuban assassin, as I recall. This time I suspect the problem you've come to attend to is homegrown. Named Poto."
"There's talk of a Marxist revolution," said Robinson. "Weapons being pipelined in from the Soviets via Cuba. Wealhy expatriates being contacted and asked to donate to the cause."
Scott was watching Lily. She had gone over to a rollaway bar flanked by huge potted plants and was mixing herself a Chivas with a dollop of water and a slice of lemon. This she took to a distant chair where she could hear and watch all. The smile she gave him when she realized he was looking at her was noncommittal. She was possessed of a strong sexual magnetism, and Scott couldn't help but feel the stirring of desire.
"I am older and, hopefully, wiser than the day I received a bullet in this leg," said Pringle, patting his left knee. "I have reached the disillusioning conclusion that revolutions only serve to replace one set of unacceptable rulers for another. I will answer the question you have not yet asked. Yes, Poto has contacted me. But I have declined the offer of becoming involved. But many are involved. The people have suffered for years under an incompetent, if not corrupt, regime. When times are hard it is quite easy to be swept away by the fervor of revolution. And Poto is a charismatic leader. Then, of course, there is the occult. I don't put much faith in it. But a lot of people on the island do. It gives Poto an edge. He's certainly not your run-of-the-mill rebel leader."
"So what are his chances of pulling off a coup?" asked Scott.
Pringle shrugged. "It is hard to say." He indulged in an enigmatic smile. "You Americans -- you still think of the Caribbean as your own private backyard. Someone is labeled a Marxist and he becomes a target."
"We're just here to assess the situation, sir," said Scott.
"Good. I would advise you not to tangle with Poto."
"No, sir," said Robinson glibly, "we didn't come here to tangle -- or even rhumba."
"The bossanova would be okay, though," mused Scott.
"Bossanova? Man, that is definitely uncool."
"How about the Watusi?"
"The Watusi is hip, but I'd get a bad case of lumbago."
Pringle stared at them -- then glanced at his daughter, who was suppressing a smile.
"You wouldn't know, then, sir, anyone who might be able to tell us more about Poto?" asked Robinson. "His strategy? His goals? Who his supplier is?"
"His goal is simple enough. The government is corrupt and incompetent and cares nothing about the suffering of the people. His strategy is also simple -- to empower the people. To give them hope."
"To overthrow the current government," murmured Scott.
"Yes. Of course. And to nationalize what little industry we have, so that all the people may share in the proceeds, not just the privileged few."
"I see," said Scott, nodding.  "Well, we think Poto had an associate of ours killed last night on the north side of the island. The man was hacked to pieces with machetes."
"It was a warning," said Pringle.  "I hope you took it seriously."
"Oh yes sir," said Robinson. "We always take death very seriously."
"Well," said Scott, rising. "It was good to see you again, Doctor." He nodded at Lily. "You too, Lily. Looking as fine as ever."
"Thank you, Alexander."
They shook hands with Pringle and left. Lily caught up with them in the driveway.
"Alexander? Do you, um, think we might see each other again before you leave Jamaica? Dinner, perhaps? And we'll talk about auld lang syne."
Scott glanced at Robinson, who raised an eyebrow and strolled on over to Ketch and the taxi.
"I don't think that would be a very good idea, Lily. Hanging around me might not be the safest place to be. But it was nice seeing you again."
He gave her a peck on the cheek and joined his partner in the back of the cab.
"Where to, mates?" asked Ketch.
Robinson told him to return them to their Ocho Rios hotel. Then he looked at his partner.
"Lovely lady, my Man. She hasn't changed at all in . . . how long has it been?"
"Too long," said Scott, with furrowed brow.  "And not long enough."
"I roger that. So tell me, Professor -- what did we learn from the good doctor? Is he or isn't he?"
"He's a likely candidate. But maybe he isn't involved at all."
"And if he is he might just give us up to Poto."
"It puts him squarely on the horns of a dilemma," said Scott. "He owes us big time for saving Lily's life last time we rode into town."
Robinson nodded. They had cornered the wounded Cuban assassin in Pringle's office, and he'd taken Lily hostage. At great risk to life and limb they'd gotten Lily away unharmed, and killed the assassin. A very satisfactory outcome -- especially for Scott, who'd spent the next two weeks of downtime getting better acquainted with the lovely Miss Pringle. But Robinson had known all along that it wouldn't last. Lily Pringle was the product of a liberal liberal arts education courtesy of Cambridge U., and her ideas about politics and world peace and all that good stuff had been quite different from Scotty's.
They headed up Junction Road with the sun setting over the Cockpit country to their left, and were a few miles past Halfway Tree when Ketch half-turned, giving them a toothy grin.
"Hey, mates, there's a car on our tail. It follow us from Old Harbour, but I didn't think anythin' of it 'til we got out of Kingston town. Now I'm sure."
Robinson and Scott were too well-trained to turn and look behind them.
"What kind of car and how many in it?" asked Scott.
"A little blue job, a Triumph, I think. One man. This is plenty mecky-mecky, mates. What we do?"
"Just keep driving," said Robinson, reaching under his windbreaker to loosen the Walther P-38 he carried in a shoulder holster.