I awakened to an indelicate sensation, mosquitoes having infiltrated my boxers. I was unnerved to discover that I'd been clutching a photograph of Uvula when I dozed off—a double truck from last year's issue, taken at a coconut plantation in Belize. What little there was of the bikini was rose-colored, with mauve piping. Uvula was atop an inflatable porpoise that leered up at her like a Rotarian under a lap dance. The model's gaze was appropriate to her predicament, but even when brooding she was exquisite beyond words.
No wonder Dooney and Klein were so frantic. Ricks, too, that rump-scratching rodent. They all knew what Kurtz's shot could be worth to the magazine, and the company. And surely they also knew that for whatever perverse reason, he'd never surrender the picture and that recovering it would require extraordinary measures and imbecilic risks.
Which is why (I now realize) they chose me. I had a history. I was hungry. And if things fell apart, I was expendable.
Contrary to Dooney's recollection, I'd never been to Somalia or Gaza, although I had visited Haiti once. When I was nine, on a cruise ship with my parents.
I was not a seasoned combat photographer; my prosaic career had been spent Stateside, bouncing from one daily newspaper to another. The closest I'd ever come to dying in the line of duty was at a peewee league football game in Blytheville, Ark., when rabid parents ran amok after a last-second touchdown was nullified because the scoring team had 15 players (and a Brittany spaniel) on the field.
Poor Dooney had gotten me confused with another shooter—probably Jonathan Maxwell, a ballsy Brit who freelanced overseas for the wire services and had once been shortlisted for a Pulitzer. A thousand times I have asked myself why I didn't speak up that day on the 34th floor. Was it my fascination with the incandescent yet tormented Kurtz that caused me to hold back? Or was it simply the prospect of a paycheck and a free trip to the Bahamas?
Thackeray said, "To endure is greater than to dare," and that's what I kept telling myself as I steered the Whaler through a slashing rain toward Ladyfish Creek. Overnight the weather had turned nasty—the tropical depression had organized itself into a seriously efficient storm and chosen a northerly course. I had to find Kurtz before the heavens cracked open.
I nosed along cautiously, squinting through the downpour and gripping the slippery wheel with both hands. With dismay I noticed that the tide was running hard against me, falling out. The creek grew more sinuous, and along both sides loomed mangroves so tangled and tall as to block out the rain. Turning a sharp bend, I was shocked to see another boat—if it could still be called a boat—gliding my way. It was a 16-foot outboard that once must have been sleek, solid and seaworthy; now it was more of a dwarf barge, mud-streaked, battered and listing. The engine was tilted up uselessly, revealing a three-bladed propeller that appeared to have been resculpted with a sledgehammer. The craft was perilously overloaded with a sodden and hollow-eyed cargo. From Klein's files I recognized the faces that stared back at me so blankly. Slouched on the bow in an aspect of utter defeat were the swimsuit issue's hair stylist and the makeup specialist. Next was the three-man video crew, looking haggard and shell-shocked—fiercely they clutched their cameras and booms, as if to guard against unseen marauders.
Poling the boat with a rod of bamboo was the magazine's fashion editor, a savvy veteran of a hundred swimsuit shoots. I'd seen Diane a few times around the office but on this morning she betrayed no trace of recollection. Alone on the stem, she seemed grimly preoccupied.
"What happened?" I called out.