King of the Sacred Lagoon
by Gene Stewart
Lassiter leaned on the scarred rail and looked out at the sea. Tall and strong, he wore a white linen suit and a Panama hat somewhat battered by the weather it had faced the past few months. When he was joined by Compton, shorter and darker in a more formal suit of clothes with no hat, Lassiter asked, "How many more days of this?"
"The voyage, or the heat?" Compton took a swipe at his face with a big red handkerchief, but more beads of sweat sprouted on his fat face almost at once. "We're three days from Jakarta, barring storms." He sighed. "Heat's forever."
"Expecting storms?" Lassiter asked, his gaze darting upward.
"Red sky this morning. You know the old saying. Smith tells me we should be fine, though. We're in some kind of weather trough or channel. He can explain it. Apparently, the storms, if they come, will miss us by miles."
Lassiter nodded and left the rail. He crossed the deck, scrambling over a heap of ropes and cargo netting that had been awaiting attention from the lazy crew most of the voyage. At the fore cabin, Lassiter paused and glanced back at Compton, who was mopping sweat, smoking a cigar, and paying no attention to him. He opened the cabin door, ducked in, and shut the door quickly. He smelled hemp rope, tar, and a hint of stale urine. He waited for a few seconds, letting his eyes adjust to the relative dark, then descended the stairs and made his way along a narrow corridor. At about midship he entered a room on his left, a room that stood behind a locked door, a locked door only he had a key for.
He relocked the door from the inside and put the key, which hung on a heavy gold chain around his neck, back under his shirt. He took a breath of the close, baked air and gagged at the fishy smell, then squinted into the gloomy chamber illuminated by only the sunlight able to force its way through the grimy porthole.
Something heavy and awkward moved in a shadowy corner.
Lassiter focused there, then sighed and took off his hat. "Ma'am?" he said, voice hushed and humble. "Not much longer."
From the shadows came a moan and a growl, a sound of mixed pain and eagerness. Something flopped and thudded.
Lassiter's skin prickled. He shivered and took a step back, but bumped the locked door. He fumbled at his shirt front and grasped the key through the cloth, then said, "The storms should miss us." His voice trembled. He gulped. "It won't be much longer." He picked up a bucket, splashed water into the corner.
A gurgling hiss that lasted nearly a minute raised Lassiter's hackles and had him pulling the key from under his clothes with some degree of haste. He unlocked the door and got out, not looking back.
His hands shook so badly that he had trouble relocking the door. Once he'd done so, he slumped against the opposite wall and caught his breath as if he'd run several circuits of the ship. When something thumped the door he gasped and moved fast toward the stairs, toward the fresh air on deck.
"You smell of her," Compton told Lassiter a few moments later. He lit another cigar, as if to fight stench with stench.
"Those things will shred your lungs," Lassiter said.
"You should cultivate a few vices," Compton said, contentedly puffing smoke as he pulled a whisky flask from his inside coat pocket. "Might help you cope." He unscrewed the flask's silver cap and took a swig, then offered the flask to Lassiter. "Drink?"
Lassiter took it, choked down a dram, and handed it back. He gazed for a moment toward the sea, then pointed and said, "Is that a gull?"
"Sure is," Compton said. "Probably blown out to sea by a storm."
"If we founder, she'll die."
Compton looked at the taller, younger man. He studied the hawk nose, the glaring eyes, the feral, down-turned mouth. "You're too serious about all this. She's cash in our pockets, Lassiter. And once yours are crammed full, I'd advise you to cultivate a few vices. Yes, sir. Learn to relax and enjoy yourself, my friend."
"Friend? We're business partners."
"If that, really -- brother-in-law."
Lassiter turned away and took a step, then stopped. His shoulders hunched, he turned back, then leaned on the rail beside Compton. "I don't like to think about Sadie that way," he said.
"Maybe she can't think about you anymore." Compton puffed his cigar, then took another swig of scotch and replaced the cap. As he slid the flask back under his coat he said, "I'm sorry, Lassiter. It's not going to be like that, okay? We'll drop it, and in a few days we'll part company rich men."
"If they keep their word."
Compton's brows shot up. "What makes you think they'd stiff us?"
Lassiter shrugged and began pacing. He kept his head down, watching his feet as if the footing were treacherous. "All the way from Newport we've had to live with her," he said.
"True, but so what? She's been fine."
"She's dying. She's inherited the full curse."
Compton hawked up some phlegm and spat over the rail, then leaned over to watch it fall and splash. "My father beat it."
Lassiter came up behind Compton and raised a hand. then shook his head and backed off.
With a smirk, Compton said, "If I go into the drink, the deal's scuttled, and you know it. I set it up, remember."
"Maybe. They want her badly enough to offer--"
"You listen." Compton turned, slashing the air in front of Lassiter's face with his cigar. "It was my father's contacts."
The two men faced each other, squared off as if to fight. This drew some mocking attention from a pair of the ship's crew, who catcalled in a pidgin of Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages.
Compton peered intently up into Lassiter's face, then relented a bit. "We're in this together. She's my sister."
"She's my wife."
"We're delivering her to a better--
"To her doom, don't you see?" Anguish tore Lassiter's calm apart. "They'll kill her."
"Nonsense, get ahold of yourself. She's a queen, practically a deity to them. You don't ransom a goddess only to kill her."
"How do you know?" Lassiter paced again, dismissing Compton's belligerent stance and eagerness to have it out. "Neither of us has ever been to Indonesia. I've heard it's war-like, a fascist tyranny. What kind of place has a tyrant and a queen/goddess at the same time?"
Compton's posture softened, much to the crew's disappointment. The cargo netting was kicked around desultorily by the crew members for a few moments, then left to bake some more in the merciless sun.
Compton said, "Lassiter, she changed. You saw it happen."
"I held her that last night," Lassiter said, sobbing but shedding no tears. Iron control reddened his face, stretched the tendons in his throat. His fists crackled audibly. "The night she started changing. How could your father risk having kids?"
"My God, Lassiter, let it go. She's not Sadie anymore. She's, well, what they say she is. A sea-goddess, some kind of monster they've worshipped for centuries."
"We're both of us out of our minds, you know," Lassiter said then, suddenly much calmer, almost happy. He stood straighter now, and a half-smile crossed his face, which took on a more youthful look that mirrored how he'd seemed in the early days of his marriage to Compton's sister. "Think about it. How could a nice New England girl become a South Seas sea-goddess creature?"
Compton scowled and bit down on his cigar so hard that he chomped it off. Sparks cascaded down his suit's front as the cigar's ignited end fell to the deck. He kicked it through a scupper even as he slapped at his clothes.
Lassiter helped him put out all the sparks, then, hand still on Compton's shoulder, said, "Let's go talk to Smith, see if he'll agree to a quick stop before we reach port."
As the two men walked toward the pilot house to speak with the ship's captain, the gull Lassiter had spotted settled onto a spar and folded its tired wings. Its beady eyes watched them walk along the port side of the deck until they were out of sight, and then the gull, without a sound, fell off the spar. It clunked onto the deck, dead.
"Have we run across another fish kill?" Captain Smith asked, his unshaven face seeming to glow as the white whiskers contrasted with the darkly-tanned skin. His eyes twinkled, too, although one seemed bigger and wilder than the other.
"No," Compton said. "But my brother-in-law has a business proposition for you." He slapped Lassiter's back and pushed him slightly forward.
Lassiter cleared his throat and tried to smile, but something about Smith withered such efforts.
As Lassiter floundered for words, Smith grinned and said, "I thought you gentlemen might want to do some business, sooner or later." He kept one hand lightly on the wheel as the other toyed with the ends of his long, straggling white hair.
Lassiter coughed and said, "Yes, well, I was wondering -- that is, we, Mister Compton and I, er -- we were wondering if it might be possible, for a generous fee of course, to have the ship heave to and, uh --"
Compton jumped in. "We'd like to put into a lagoon some distance from Jakarta."
"Is it on the main island?"
Compton bowed his head as if conceding a point. "Uh, no, it's not."
"Changes of course cost the comp'ny money," Smith said, greed in his face and voice. "Schedules must not be broken."
Lassiter sweated in the small pilot's house, even though all the windows were opened. He went to a window, then glanced out at a crew member insolently swabbing the deck with a dry mop, obviously eavesdropping.
Turning back to Smith, Lassiter said, "Your crew isn't entirely trustworthy, captain."
"What crew is?" Smith asked, shrugging happily. He kept looking from Lassiter's face to Compton's, as if gauging a harpoon throw. "But I am in charge, seņors, so if you please?"
"The point is this," Compton said, producing an envelope. He held it toward the captain as he opened it.
At the glimpse of money, Captain Smith's eyes danced. "Ah, I see," he said, going to his chart table. He motioned the other men over. Pointing down at a dotted line, he said, "This is where we are now. Where must we go to make that envelope's contents mine?" His accent and the formality of his phrasing did little to hide his greed.
Compton leaned down and studied the chart, squinting. "Uh, Lassiter, can you make this out," he asked eventually.
Without having to bend or squint, Lassiter pointed to a small indentation on the lee side of a tiny island a day and a half's journey from Jakarta, at that ship's average speed. "Here," he said, his finger coming down hard on the chart.
"Ah, Laguna Sacra, yes. Are you intending to vacation there, perhaps?" Smith laughed. "It's an odd spot for tourists."
"We must unload our cargo there," Lassiter said.
Smith watched Lassiter's eyes as he said, voice even, "Your cargo."
"The animal we brought aboard," Compton said.
"The animal, yes," Smith said. "And what kind of animal did you say it was? I have checked the manifest at the request of my first mate, and it says only Specimen for Export."
Lassiter moved from the chart to stand in the pilot house's doorway, as if seeking a breeze. "It's a manatee," he said.
The captain snorted as he laughed aloud. "No, Seņor Lassiter, it is no manatee, which require water to live in. I am not entirely a fool."
Compton stepped between the other two men and said to Smith, "Look, it's a one-of-a-kind creature and we're returning it to its natural habitat so it can live the rest of its life outside captivity."
"We took it aboard in Newport," Smith said. "How did such a creature come to be so far from its, uh, natural home?"
Compton smiled and spread his hands, palms outward. "Why, the same way it's going home. On a cargo vessel."
"Captured by naturalists, no doubt," Smith said, obviously going along with what he considered a mockery of a story.
Compton ignored the tone and facial expression and agreed.
"Naturalists who never give up a specimen even it it might mean their own deaths," Smith said, in the same mocking tone.
Lassiter said, "What's it matter if you're paid enough?"
Smith's face broke into a huge smile and he nodded as he went to Lassiter and shook his hand. "Bravo," he said. "When you bribe a man, have the courage of your money."
"Then you'll do it?"
"Either that or have you murdered in your sleep so I can steal your fat envelope, Seņor Compton." Captain Smith's demeanor changed as he turned to face the smaller man. "You insult me with childish lies and expect me to play your games. You are not a man, sir. Please leave my house."
Compton blinked, blushed, but turned and brushed past Lassiter, who said, "I'm sorry," and walked out.
"You are welcome here, Lassiter," Smith called, thrusting his head from one of the windows. "We can talk. A man always welcomes a man."
Just then the ship lurched, and the steady throb of the engine stuttered, then stopped.
Compton was miffed. "So why'd he like you and hate me?" he asked, hunched on the edge of his bunk over the chess game he and Lassiter had long since forgotten.
Lassiter said nothing. He stood gazing out of the port hole, which was open to let in a sticky breath of air now and then. "Ship hasn't moved for over an hour."
"Engine broke down, you heard it. Hell, we all felt it, that awful lurch. I almost fell over."
Lassiter went to his trunk and squatted. He opened the trunk and rooted around under the mess of clothes until his hands found what he wanted. He brought out a pistol.
Compton's eyes got big. "What's that for?" he asked, leaning back on his bunk, almost over-balancing backwards. He shot his feet out to catch himself and kicked the chess set, which had been balanced on a suitcase, all over the floor.
"Don't get nervous," Lassiter said. "This is just in case that crack about murdering us in our sleep meant anything."
"Do you think it did? I thought it was just talk."
"Maybe it was." Lassiter broke the revolver open, checked the rounds, then pulled out a bullet and laughed. He held it up. "Green," he said. "Mold."
"Moldy bullets," Compton said. "Great. Think they'll fire?"
Cleaning the bullet off with a thumbnail, Lassiter shrugged. "Guess we'd better hope we don't have to find out."
The scream that came slashing through the porthole froze both men for an instant.
"That was right above us," Compton said.
Lassiter was already out the cabin's door.
As Compton dashed up the stairs to the weather deck, to see who had screamed and why, Lassiter headed downward a deck and along the central corridor. He reached the locked door, this time on his right, but had no need to use his key -- the door was torn off its hinges. "Oh Sadie," he said, following the slime trail.
Compton stood riveted by the sight of the huge dark green mass of pulsating flesh wrapped around one of the crew, even as other crew members poked and jabbed at the thing with various makeshift weapons. He swallowed hard, then said, "Over here."
The creature, ignoring the blows and slashes of the weapons, ignoring the cacophony of the crew's wild shouts of anger and terror, focused on Compton's voice. It moved toward him, moving with short bursts of sliding and many gatherings of hidden muscles under rubbery flesh.
"That's right," Compton said, staggering a bit, as if dizzy. "Just stay calm, try to cope." It was not clear if he addressed himself or the creature.
He stood his ground, though, as the thing approached him, still dragging the parts of the crewman it hadn't yet ingested.
Lassiter came our of the fore cabin then, face showing such surprise and consternation that Compton was compelled to laugh. And once he began laughing, he did not stop, even as the creature reached him and began oozing around his limbs to engulf him.
A couple of the crew broke off their ineffectual attack and flew over the rails to splash into the water on the ship's far side. Where they thought they were going, no one could say. Perhaps they preferred death by drowning.
Lassiter stepped forward and got in front of the creature just as Captain Smith arrived on the scene carrying an old shotgun. "Stand aside," Smith bellowed.
"Wait," Lassiter said, holding up both hands, one of which held the pistol. "Please."
"This is your mess," Smith said, keeping the shotgun trained on the thing. "You'd damned well better do something about it."
Turning from the captain, Lassiter faced the creature and even took a step closer to it. "Ma'am, please," he said, tone humble, as if dealing with royalty. "We're almost there. If you can just wait a few days more."
That gurgling hiss, this time with vented steam that stank of rotting vegetation and long-dead fish, was the creature's reply as it oozed toward Lassiter.
"He was your brother," Lassiter said.
The thing slowed, then stopped, only inches from Lassiter, who stood tall despite trembling all over.
Lassiter said, "Please, ma'am. We're almost there."
The thing rose up to tower over Lassiter.
"I'm your husband," he said.
Smith cried, "Watch out, man," and blasted both barrels of the shotgun.
Lassiter howled as some of the buckshot struck him, even as the creature fell onto him and, in the same motion, rolled hard against the rail, which gave way. The creature carried the three men it had engulfed over the side, into the sea.
Smith raced to the spot where the rail had broken free and gazed down. Water churned and bubbles boiled the water there. And then there was a pop, as if Lassiter had finally used his gun.
Smith turned toward the shocked crew, pointed at the other side of the ship, and barked, "Get those men out of the water."
Then he broke the shotgun, ejected the shells into the water, and reloaded. "Any man gets in my way I'll cut him in half," he cried, stalking back to the pilot house.
In the water, Lassiter relaxed finally. His gun had gone off as he'd inadvertently squeezed the trigger when he'd clenched as he fell. He lay back now in the warm wetness, encased by a loving embrace more complete than any he'd known since before his birth. She held him inside her, and he felt fine, he felt wonderful, in an ecstasy of belonging and acceptance.
She was not digesting him as she had already digested the crew member and her brother. She was holding him safe in a dark, warm pocket that moved soothingly as she swam more swiftly than any ship could move.
They'd soon be home, Lassiter realized, smiling, letting the infection give him soothing fevers and joyous numbness. He remembered that last night, when he'd held her, the night before she changed for good. She'd warned him, begged him not to, but he'd loved her and he hadn't cared about risking infection, as long as they could share one last time truly together, truly sharing their love as one.
Now they were one again, for a while, one until again they became two as she gave birth to him anew, in a new form, a better form that found the sea more welcoming than any open air could be.
He felt bad only for Compton and the crew member, but knew they'd be a part of her always now, and maybe even a part of him, too, and that comforted him a bit. Life went on.
They'd soon take their places as king and queen and live among the people and creatures of Laguna Sacra and rule there for decades in harmony with their surroundings, away from the meaningless business of human culture, apart from the tiresome business of human consciousness.
He wondered how soon he'd begin changing, and couldn't wait.
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