Gray-bearded Columbus holds out his hand, palm upturned, toward a pair of Indian chieftains who carry bows. Nearby, bare-breasted native women knead maize. Columbus is wearing a breastplate, breeches and a purplered cape. In the crook of his arm, Columbus carries a visored helmet resplendent with scarlet plumes. His sword is sheathed.
Faustman and a woman wearing Armani sunglasses, a silky, tailored, open-collared blouse, skin-tight gold-lamé pants and high-heeled sandals climb a stairway that leads to a lounge and restaurant on the second floor of Nassau International Airport. The woman, who carries a Gucci bag, is in her mid-30s. She has a tanned and slightly weathered face, shiny black hair swept back into a chignon, and a striking figure that is just a tad to the far side of full. She has been a passenger on the Delta flight that Faustman took from La Guardia that morning; she will be on the Bahamasair flight he takes to Eleuthera that afternoon. Like him, she's going on to Haven Island. He has learned this by standing in line behind her at the ticket counter, where, jolted from his daydream of casting to bonefish by the reality of her gorgeously gilded rump, he has invited her to join him for a drink. Like Columbus, he is a tall, bearded, dignified-looking man in his 40s. Instead of a visored helmet, however, he is carrying a briefcase and an aluminum tube containing a fourpiece eight-weight graphite fly rod. To make conversation as they climb the stairs, he tells her that Customs officials sometimes require him to open the tube and empty its contents for scrutiny when he passes through inspection on his way back to the States. Neither he nor she notices the mural on the wall behind them.
In the lounge, the woman leans forward so that Faustman can light her cigarette, cups his hand with fingers that end in sharply tapered nails and asks for a glass of iced tea. Faustman orders a beer.
"Jack" he says. "Jack Faustman. I was on the Delta flight from New York. I'm on my way to Haven Island too."
The woman looks at the aluminum tube he has placed on the Formica tabletop between them. "Faustman the fisherman," she observes. There's a touch of languor in her voice, a trace of weariness in her face.
"Faustman the bonefisherman," he tells her with a smile.
The woman pushes her chair away from the table and crosses her legs, suspending a naked foot that twitches at the edge of Faustman's peripheral vision. Out on the tidal flats, he would already have cast to it, as he would toward the slightest movement or shadow, on the assumption that it signals the approach of quarry.
"Known everywhere as Bonefish Jack," he says.
The woman laughs at his joke. On Haven Island, this appellation is reserved for a handful of professional guides, who are legendary for having radar instead of eyes, for poling their skiffs without making sound or ripple, and for holding still as patience on a monument when fish are near. "Do you come to the island often?" she asks.
"Every chance I get," he tells her.
"Me too," the woman says. "It's a wonder we haven't met before."
"Probably because I spend most of my time wading on the flats."
"Looking for bonefish, I presume."
"Stalking them, actually."
"You have to ambush bonefish," Faustman explains. "They come at you out of nowhere. Spook at the blink of an eye."
"It's certainly wise of them to be so wary," the woman says. "There are plenty of predators about."
"Well, I'm a catch-and-release man," Faustman tells her. "I let my bonefish go."
The woman looks amused, twitches her foot. "A catch-and-release man," she murmurs.
"In real life, I'm a professor of marine biology. At Oceanic Institute on Long Island. My specialty's coral rejuvenation."
"Coral rejuvenation," Faustman says, more slowly.
"You mean coral as in the reefs I will see when I go out to the beach tomorrow?"
"Coral as in the reefs that make the sand out there so pink."
"Tell me how they do that," she says.
"The reefs are made up of the limestone secretions and skeletons of countless polyps and other tiny organisms that have died and settled on the ocean floor over hundreds of millions of years. The sand gets its color from the pulverized fossils of calcareous red algae, which happen to be a prevalent organism on the windward side of the island."
"What a downer to know I'll be sunning myself on a cemetery."
"The real downer is that the reefs on Haven Island and lots of other places in the world are being killed by overfishing, pollution and the greenhouse effect. In my lab we grow genetically resistant subspecies of coral that can be transplanted onto dead and dying reefs and bring them back to life."
The woman yawns, takes a sip of iced tea. "How do you go about growing coral in a lab?" she asks.
"We import specimens from various parts of the world and hang them from strings in specially heated pools. We then wait for the polyps and algae to proliferate."
"Sounds exciting," the woman says.
"Tell the National Science Foundation. Thanks to government cost-cutting, we're about to lose our research grants, which means I'll probably have to shut down the lab before the end of the year."
The woman's foot stops twitching. "Suppose somebody wanted to ship coral to the States from down here in the Bahamas," she says. "Could somebody do that?"
"No reason why not," Faustman replies. "Provided the Bahamian government gives its permission."
The woman sets her glass of iced tea on the table, places cool fingertips on the back of Faustman's hand. "I know someone on the island you should meet," she tells him.
Excited by the intimacy of her touch, Faustman begins to describe the new book he's writing, about the plight of coral reefs--a 400-page maze of annotation and revision that, thanks to the obsessive nature of scholarship, shares his briefcase with a box of bonefish lures. The woman interrupts him with a smile, some gentle pressure of her fingertips, tells him her name is Beatrice. She's the Caribbean editor for a travel magazine in New York City, flying down to visit friends.
"Beatrice," Faustman says. "She was Dante's inspiration. His ideal woman."
"Drove him divinely wild, I hear."
"All the way to verse."
"Can't you see Emma Thompson in the movie?"
"Now that you mention it," Faustman says.
"I'm into movies," Beatrice confides.
On the way down to the Bahamasair gate, 20 minutes later, they come face-to-face with the staircase mural.
"There's a travesty for you," Faustman tells her.
"I'm looking at Columbus," Beatrice replies. "Coming on to natives. Doing the National Geo thing."
"What you're looking at is fraudulent. Columbus is going to betray those Indians. He's going to send them off in slave ships to work the mines of Hispaniola."
"You're thinking history," says Beatrice with a laugh. "I'm thinking turned on by topless."
Once the yellow-and-blue Bahamas-air Convair takes off, it climbs out over some white cruise ships berthed at Prince George Wharf, passes above Paradise Island and, gaining altitude, lumbers east and north over a turquoise sea. Faustman and Beatrice sit in the back, behind throbbing engines, discussing possible scenes for the script of a movie she's thinking of writing. "I want it to have a Bahamas setting," she tells him.
"What's the idea?" Faustman asks.
"The idea is to get myself out of the travel mag racket before I overdose on the beauty and rapture of the coral reefs you want to save. My editor in chief's got me churning out enough chummy Club Carib copy each month to choke a crocodile."
"I mean, what's the movie going to be about?" Faustman says.
"Something historical maybe. Got any ideas?"
Faustman's idea is to open with the conquistadores raiding a Lucayan village, shackling the men, raping the women. This to be followed by a tracking shot of suicides bobbing in the wake of a slave ship.
"Too tragic," Beatrice tells him. "Also (continued on page 108)Down in the bahamas (continued from page 102) too far back in time."
Faustman considers the fact that the opening chapter of his book on coral reefs describes the slow accretion through eons of calcium carbonate deposits that eventually become more than three miles thick. "How about starting with the Pirate Republic in Nassau?"
"If you're thinking a buccaneers-making-captives-walk-the-plank kind of thing--it's been done."
"I guess I'm running dry," Faustman admits.
"Try free-associating. Did you know there were women buccaneers as well as men?"
"No," Faustman says, "I didn't know that."
"How about lesbian pirates?"
"Now that's something I hadn't thought of."
"Stripping Spanish grandees of their boots and breeches, sodomizing them with dirk handles."
"Pretty far out," Faustman says casually, as if he hears this kind of conversation all the time.
"Trying to loosen you up. What comes to mind when I say duke and duchess?"
"Windsor and Wallis. They spent the war years here when he was governor of the Bahamas."
"Forget reality for the moment. Let yourself float."
"My mind's not as buoyant as yours."
"Think of the duke tied hand and foot to the bed in Government House. Ask yourself what he is doing all trussed up."
"What is he doing all trussed up?"
Beatrice gives a sigh. "He's the middle of a daisy chain! Chauffeur at one end, lady-in-waiting at the other. Duchess Busybody directing things. Telling people what to do and when to switch."
"Sounds like a porn film."
"What we're aiming for is adult entertainment with a concept. A mix of sex and history."
"You mean sex as history," Faustman says.
"Now you're getting the picture," Beatrice tells him.
Faustman decides to take what encouragement he can from this assessment for there's not much to be had from any review of his own sex life during the six years since his wife left him for an ichthyologist on the fast track at Scripps--the high points being a frenzied stairwell encounter with one of his graduate students, a parents'-weekend stand with the mother of another and some sporadic trysts with the unhappy wife of a colleague in the Littoral Drift Department. What wouldn't he give to be able to toss aside his academic reserve, lean confidently toward Beatrice's naked ear, whisper something sufficiently lewd to stir her obviously lustful heart.
The plane has already begun to descend. White roofs in Spanish Wells are visible out the left-side window, the skinny shank of Current Island is on the right, dangerous-looking reefs lie below. "If the flight were longer, we could put in more," Beatrice tells him. "Duchess' favorite thing, for example: getting rogered by the chauffeur while she watches her lady-in-waiting go down on the duke."
Faustman gazes speechless along her gold-sheathed thigh, imagines all manner of scenarios that could unfold, is thankful he's sitting down. "What do you say we continue this over drinks and dinner?" he says. "Coveside for drinks, Bayview for dinner, Angelina's if we're in the mood for fried."
Gleaming in sunlight beyond the window are the vast sand flats of North Eleuthera, where Faustman has planned to take respite from contemplating the mass murder of coral by fishermen armed with bleach, and to wait breathlessly for bonefish to materialize like ghosts in gin-clear water that looks as thin as the sun glare it reflects. However, the prospect he dreams of now is no longer that of torpedo-shaped shadows cruising toward him beneath a curtain of water rising on the flats, but of him and the Botti-cellian Beatrice heaving in ecstasy between the sheets in a room filled with the scent of pink hibiscus.
"Love to," Beatrice says. "Call you once I check in with my hosts."
"I'm staying in one of the cottages at Windsong." Faustman tells her.
The plane lands with a squeal of tires, followed by the reverse roaring of turboprops. As it taxis toward a peeling yellow adobe building that serves as the airport terminal, it passes the cannibalized shell of an old DC-3 that sits by the runway, nose tilted toward the sky, as if poised for take off.
A policeman wearing a pair of red-striped navy-blue pants and an immaculate white tunic stamps Beatrice's passport before waving her on into the building; he does the same for Faustman, who, eyes tethered to her undulating gait, trails behind her like a pack animal. On the street side, they pile into the back of a battered Buick taxi that bumps its way over a mile-long stretch of scarred macadam to a limestone dock, where a beat-up speedboat waits to take them and other travelers on board. Soon the boat is bouncing bow to the sky across the bay to Dunstertown, spraying a tattoo of foaming water, trailing a dazzling wake. The turbulence of the waves and the roar given off by a pair of hundred-horsepower Yamaha outboards make conversation impossible. Faustman watches Beatrice ride the ups and downs as if she were sitting on a frisky horse and calms the turmoil in his breast by imagining Venus sea fans waving in the depths below.
Ten minutes later, the boat draws up to a staircase landing by the pink Customs house on Government Pier in Dunstertown. As usual there's a small crowd on hand--dockworkers, jitney drivers, kids on bikes, some tourists in shorts and sun hats. Faustman recognizes one of the jitney drivers--a somber-faced fellow whom everyone calls Sergeant--and returns his solemn wave. Beatrice is standing beside him in the stern, looking up at a Mercedes parked at the top of the steps. The driver of the car, a large black man wearing wraparound sunglasses, is already being handed her luggage. At this point, she smiles at Faustman, places a hand on his shoulder and delivers the other into a massive paw held forth by the hulk on the landing, whom she quickly squeezes past to mount the staircase, one high-heeled sandal after another propelling her breathtaking buttocks to the top, where, sashaying past a suddenly radiant Sergeant, she walks to the Mercedes, and, while Faustman fumbles in his wallet for three one-dollar bills to pay the boatman, slides inside. He is still fumbling in his wallet, stunned by the sight of her golden bottom slipping away like a sunset, when someone taps him on the elbow. It's the boatman wanting money.
By the time he climbs the stairs to the pier and asks Sergeant who owns the Mercedes, the car is moving slowly along the pier toward Front Street.
"Belong to the Greek," Sergeant says. "One who's been bringing in all the palm trees."
"And how about the woman in gold pants?"
"Does she belong to the Greek?"
"Comes to visit."
Faustman has heard of the man--an overweight shipping magnate and entrepreneur from Piraeus with a long name and a fleet of rusting tankers, who has been buying up property on the island ever since Hurricane Andrew snapped its stately palms in two, flattened its hotels and peeled away half the roofs in Dunstertown. The usual insular gossip attends, fueled by maids and gardeners working at the estate he is refurbishing at the north end, who speculate about the possibility that contraband is hidden in the fronds of the palms he imports, about the mysterious comings and goings of the twin-engine Grumman amphibian that flies him to and from Nassau and about the exotic-looking women who can be seen disembarking from the motor yacht that plies back and forth from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to his private dock. Suddenly, Faustman feels his day go slack, like a fly line whose leader has been parted by a heavy fish--in this case, a Greek tycoon with money enough to import boatloads of trees from Central America, Beatrice's ravishing butt from Manhattan and God only knows what else.
Sergeant is craning his neck and shielding his eyes with his hand as he looks up at a pair of small airplanes zooming back and forth above the bay.
"What's going on up there?" Faustman asks. "Why're they chasing each other?"
"Drug-enforcement planes." Sergeant says. "They only practicing."
"Send a message maybe."
Sergeant rolls his eyes. "Somebody here below."
"What kind of message?"
"That something coming down."
Faustman recognizes the euphemism, knows better than to ask more questions. He's seen the concrete-filled barrels that render the island's tiny airstrip unusable, watched the searchlights of helicopters sweeping across the bay on moonless nights, come across bullet-riddled flotsam on Stingray Island and, while fishing on the Eleuthera flats, melted into the man-groves on more than one occasion when he didn't like the look of an approaching boat.
His mood brightens as he leaves the pier. What greets his eyes are splashes of color that might have been scraped off Gauguin's palette. On the slope behind the waterfront rise tiers of cottages with blazing white-shingled roofs overhung by the foliage of giant fig trees. Behind every wall are fragrant gardens inhabited by stunning flowers--scarlet five-petaled blooms of hibiscus, orange tubular blossoms of Spanish Cordia and purple bells of bougainvillea--all of them frequented by fork-tailed hummingbirds that fly sideways and backward, and thirsty bananaquits that hang upside down on frail stems like tightrope walkers who have lost their footing. The sight of these tiny tropical creatures causes Faustman's spirits to soar, his stride to quicken. Five minutes later, he checks into his cottage at Windsong Beach. An hour after that, fly rod rigged and at the ready, he is wading out across the tidal flat behind the island's dilapidated power station.
This is the secret world of his dreams--the brilliantly illuminated arena into which predators of all kinds, he among them, come in search of prey. Here, with the sun at his back, the visor of his cap pulled down over his Polaroids, he scans the labyrinth of light and shadow that stretches before him, strains to detect the slightest movement in the carpet of turtle grass that covers the bottom, watches for gray shapes to reveal themselves against patches of sand, examines shallow holes in the sand that indicate how recently his quarry has rooted for food, tries to keep in mind that the merest countercurrent on the wind-ruffled surface--the tiniest of ripples--can signal its approach.
On this day, however, his powers of concentration and his thoughts lie else-where, manacled to a mind's eye that is unable to focus upon anything except Beatrice's sumptuous breasts and tapered haunches--a torso that would have inspired Michelangelo. Struggling to put her out of mind, he resumes his surveillance of the water stretching before him in time to see the flat-trajectory light of the setting sun glint on the silver tails of several bone-fish foraging heads down in the sand, 50 yards away. The tails twitch and disappear, leaving a slight bulge on the surface, a nervous shimmer that moves this way and that but steadily in his direction.
Faustman waits until the tremulous patch comes to within 60 feet, then gives his rod a quick backward flip, plucks the Pink Charley he has been holding between thumb and forefinger into the air and, adding line by false casting, sends the fly out over the water. It lands smack in the middle of the imperceptible commotion to which his eyes are glued. There is a boil of alarm followed by an audible splash. The V-shaped wakes of frightened bonefish streak hellbent across the glassy surface of the flat--a mirror in which Faustman imagines Beatrice succumbing to all manner of blandishments in the villa of the Greek tycoon.
He has just stepped out of the shower and is toweling himself off when the telephone rings. It's Beatrice calling from only a mile or two away, but because of the crackle of static always present in the island system, sounding as if she were a continent removed.
"If you could see yourself out there," she tells him. "You look like one of those stiff-necked herons. Meph and I've been watching you through the telescope on his gazebo."
"Meph----" Faustman says.
"My host. Meph's short for Mephisto, which is short for his real name, which is too long to bother with. I've told him how you import and grow coral in your lab at the institute. He's interested in meeting you. Says you could be just the person he's been looking for."
"Why should he want to meet me?" Faustman asks, even as his heart leaps at the prospect of seeing her again.
"Meph is planning to develop Haven Island, which is why he's been buying up property and planting palms. He wants to talk to you about saving the reefs so he can attract the glass bottom-boat and diving crowds. Which reminds me, what're you doing? I mean right now."
"Right now, I'm drying myself off," Faustman replies.
"Mmmm," Beatrice says softly. "Let's do some more free-associating. Give me a word. Any word."
"Towel," Faustman tells her, knotting it around his waist.
"Damp?" she asks.
"Look down, silly."
"Want to go fishing?"
"Yes," says Faustman, thickly.
"Then keep it rigged till I get over."
The wait is agonizing, a frenzy of anticipation accompanied by involuntary ups and downs. To remain calm, Faustman pours himself a slug of Barbados rum, swallows half of it in a gulp, sinks limply into a sofa. Darkness has fallen. The air pulsing through the window of the cottage is heavy with the fragrance of jasmine and night-blooming cereus.
When Beatrice comes through the door, 20 minutes later, she's wearing her high-heeled sandals, a pair of raw-silk pink-beige slacks, a blue cotton tank top and an exuberant smile. "Listen, we play this thing right with Meph, it could change our lives!" she cries.
Faustman looks at her as if she were (continued on page 130) Down to the bahams (continued from page 110) an apparition from one of the magazines that he reads when he visits the barbershop. "What do you mean?"
"I mean money. Lots of it. Enough for me to ditch the travel rag and make my movie. Enough for you to keep rescuing coral reefs."
"Sounds too good to be true. What do we have to do for it?"
"Meph'll fill you in on the details tomorrow night. He wants you to come to dinner."
"There's been talk about this guy. About what he's up to down here."
"Whatever it is, you can bet it'll be two steps ahead of everybody else. When I left, he was on the telephone pitching coral reclamation to the minister of marine something-or-other in Nassau."
"He moves fast, doesn't he?"
"Like I said, two steps ahead."
"You sure there's not some kind of catch?"
Beatrice lifts the towel on Faustman's lap with the toe of her sandal, takes a peek at his dwindling erection. "The catch is that you and I could get to spend a lot of time down here in the Bahamas."
Faustman considers the humdrum of his life at the institute, imagines himself spending time in the Bahamas with Beatrice and knows how the alchemists must have felt when they conjured up the elixirs that held the promise of transmuting base metal into gold.
"Think of all the fun we'll have." Faustman thinks of the fun they'll have and feels himself stiffening beneath the towel.
"Take my word for it," Beatrice tells him, "you're going to like hanging out with me."
Faustman watches her kick off her high-heeled sandals, pull down her slacks and, lifting one foot after the other, step out of them.
"This is just a preview," she announces as she hooks her thumbs in the elastic of her panties, peels them off her splendid bottom, slides them down past her knees and lets them drop around her ankles.
Faustman leans his head back, drinks the rest of his rum as if he were swallowing a potion. Tossing the panties aside with her toe, Beatrice kneels before him, reaches under the towel and takes him in her hand. Faustman closes his eyes, wonders if this can really be happening.
"Movietime," she murmurs, burrowing deeper.
By the time he wakes up the next morning, Faustman's passion for exploring shallow tidal flats has been replaced by a desire for further pelagic adventures with Beatrice, which resume at once, continue through the afternoon and reach (for him at least) uncharted depths that night, when he goes to Mephisto's house for dinner. He arrives at eight, is delivered by Sergeant over a driveway lined with yellow allamandas and blue Bengal trumpets. He raps for entry at an oaken portal flanked by sculpted nymphs cavorting amid the flaming vulvae of flamingo flowers. The door is opened by Mephisto's mannequin-slender wife, Margot, who has recently arrived from Paris. She is accompanied by Beatrice, who offers Faustman a cheek to kiss. Both women are wearing see-through cover-ups, which reveal them to be topless.
"Such a gorgeous night," Beatrice says. "We're dining by the pool."
The Greek, his vast bulk swathed in terrycloth, lies on a rattan couch at the shallow end. He lifts glistening fingers of greeting from a platter piled high with grilled shrimp and salsa. His face, which manages to be both vulpine and androgynous, wears an indolent smile. A camcorder is at his side. "Bienvenue à notre pěcherie," he says, pointing Faustman toward an ice bucket and a bottle of champagne. "Beatrice tells us you're a scholar and a sportsman."
"Un savant sportif," says Margot with a knowing smile.
Faustman pours himself a glass of Dom Pérignon. "Divine Beatrice," he says, raising his glass.
"Comme il est galant," Margot murmurs throatily.
"My wife salutes you for your charm," Mephisto tells him. "And I for your efforts to preserve the coral reefs. I understand you're writing a new book on the subject. The other one came today by International Express. Most striking is the image that you present of the reefs as the rain forests of the sea.
Faustman, who rarely encounters anyone familiar with his work, is flattered to the point of mumbling a few shy words of appreciation and gratitude.
"But it is we who should thank you!" Mephisto says. "We need to know what we must do to save the reefs that surround our beautiful island."
This kind of talk is right up Faustman's alley. "To begin with, you'll have to contain the runoff from roadways, which clouds the water and interferes with the process of photosynthesis. Second, you have to find a way to discourage the local fishermen from using Clorox to stun snapper and grouper and dislodge crayfish from crevices in the coral. And, finally, you'll have to find someone to grow clumps of healthy coral in tanks and graft them onto the dying reefs."
"The first problem will be solved when I build a proper sewage system and treatment plant," Mephisto replies. "The second when the fishermen on the island are employed by me. And the third can best be accomplished by someone like you."
"Such an undertaking will be complicated and expensive," Faustman tells him. "Coral specimens from Haven Island will have to be transported to the States within 24 hours in sealed and insulated tanks in order to maintain the proper temperature. The transplants grown from these specimens will have to be brought back in the same manner and painstakingly affixed to rock with underwater epoxy."
"You don't say," Mephisto murmurs. "Sealed tanks. Quick delivery. Yes, of course. The perfect solution."
"All of which will require the approval of both the Bahamian and American governments. Most countries impose strict controls on the import and export of live coral because of the black market that exists in the U.S. and elsewhere for its use in fish tanks."
"But the authorities of both nations will surely allow coral shipments to be sent to Professor Faustman of the prestigious Oceanic Institute."
"Provided the proper permissions are obtained, there should be no problem," Faustman replies. "We've been able to import specimens from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere without difficulty."
"So the project is feasible," Mephisto says as he heaves himself to his feet and heads toward a glass-topped wrought-iron table.
Chilled tomato-and-lime soup accompanied by a Chassagne-Montrachet is served by a pair of island women wearing white starched dresses. It is succeeded by moules and fennel in saffron cream sauce, followed by roast rack of lamb and thyme washed down with Saint-Estèphe. The Greek turns out to be a prodigious eater--a big fork in every sense--dissecting his food with a self-absorption that precludes table talk, sucking each frail bone to the point of desiccation, stacking a small ossuary at the side of his plate. When the dishes of the main course have been cleared away, Beatrice and Margot plead the heat of fullness, slip out of their see-throughs, sit bikini-bottom-deep on submerged steps at the shallow end of the pool to cool themselves. Mephisto lumbers back to his rattan couch, falls upon it with a heavy sigh, motions Faustman to his side.
"Let us now talk about the terms under which you will help me turn Haven Island into paradise," he says.
Faustman sips his Saint-Estèphe, glances at Beatrice, who is whispering in Margot's ear. "That's what they call Hog Island now."
"A vulgar appellation. Here there will be no foreign castles or imitation gardens. No high-rise hotels to spoil the magnificent skyline of the palm trees I have planted, no beachfront restaurants to block the splendid ocean view. Which is why your participation will prove invaluable. You will grow new strains of coral to replenish our dying reefs, advise us on how to protect the mangrove swamps that surround our celebrated bonefish flats and act as ombudsman for the great gifts God has given us."
Faustman looks at Beatrice and Margot, who are cavorting in the pool, imagines himself joining in their frolic. He is distracted by a faint stirring of doubt from deep within. "What about the coral shipments? Who'll be in charge of them?"
"Who but myself? Together with the Bahamian authorities who, as you have pointed out, must give permission for the coral to be exported and be satisfied that all conforms to regulations."
"So they've agreed to go along with your plans for Haven Island?"
"Let's say that I'm not without connections in Nassau. In any case, mon cher, down here in the Bahamas the government eventually approves of everything. The trick is to persuade it to do so sooner rather than later. Which is why I require someone with your credentials to help me launch my project."
"Just so long as there's no chance of myself or the institute becoming involved in any impropriety."
"Rest easy, my friend. Everything will be handled in such a way as to guarantee that you and the institute will be seen as having no other role than that of helping to heal our ailing reefs. Once our joint venture gets under way and the island is developed, other opportunities will present themselves. Contemplate a future in which the world's most advanced coral-growing laboratory will be built on the site of the old power plant that I'm now in the process of acquiring from the government. Imagine yourself as the director of such a facility. At twice--no, three times!--the salary you now command."
Faustman drains his glass of wine and glances at Beatrice and Margot. They are splashing each other with handfuls of water. He imagines arrays of tanks filled with coral of every conceivable variety--purple leaf, ivory tree, orange tube, cavernous star, fused staghorn, fragile saucer, giant brain, grooved fungus. "It's tempting," he tells Mephisto.
"Yet you hesitate. Do you perhaps require additional compensation?"
"It's not a question of money."
"Of what then?"
"That's hard to say. Academic integrity, perhaps."
"But I'm not asking you to sell your soul! I'm simply asking you to help us rejuvenate our reefs. Besides, what good will academic integrity do you when you lose your research grants?"
Faustman notices that Beatrice and Margot have shed their bikini bottoms. "You have a point," he admits.
"Regarde les femmes," Mephisto whispers, reaching for the camcorder. "Do they fret about temptation?"
Faustman looks at the two women, who are kissing each other, listens to the soft whir of the video camera as it lingers upon Beatrice's statuesquely gleaming breasts, Margot's erect and dripping nipples. "I'll need time to think about all this," he says.
"But of course, my friend. Take whatever time you need. Meanwhile, follow the camera."
Eyes locked, faces close together, Beatrice and Margot continue to embrace, until, following Mephisto's whispered stage direction, Beatrice paddles to the side of the pool, hangs on to the tiles, looks wide-eyed up into the lens of the camcorder as Margot comes up behind her, begins to caress her with her fingers.
Eye riveted to the angled viewpiece of the machine, Mephisto urges them on in an argot that Faustman cannot understand. Beatrice responds with groans of pleasure, Margot with a torrent of words in French.
"My wife insists that a true marine biologist would have jumped into the water long ago," Mephisto says.
"Tell her it's not that I'm not tempted," Faustman replies. "It's just that I'm--"
Faustman takes a deep breath, nods his head.
"Because the woman who incites you is my wife?"
"Un savant scrupuleux," Mephisto says to Margot. "Il lui faut plus de temps pour réfléchir."
Margot responds to this by beckoning to Faustman with her tongue.
"What did you tell her?" Faustman inquires.
"I explained that you need more time to think," Mephisto answers. "Or have you thought enough?"
By now, Beatrice is responding to Margot's ministrations with gasps of satisfaction, cries of ecstasy, the beginnings of orgasmic shudder. Beside himself, Faustman inhales the night air deeply, strips off his shirt, pants and underwear. "You're sure you don't mind?"
"But I'm delighted!" Mephisto tells him. "And Margot more than I. Can you not see that the ardor she provokes in Beatrice is but a mirror of her own?"
Faustman steps to the edge of the pool. "Well, then, since it's all the same to you."
"C'est tout entendu," Mephisto assures him. "But what have you to say to my proposal?"
Faustman gazes at the two women who await him in a state of estrual frenzy, poises himself to make a leap.
"All right!" he cries. "I'll do it!"
"Alors, dépěches-toi!" Mephisto says, training the camcorder on Faustman's bare behind. "Don't keep the ladies waiting any longer. Immerse yourself as if you were, how does one say, chez vous!"
Two weeks later, at Beatrice's suggestion, she and Faustman are treating themselves to a celebration drink in the lounge at Nassau International. They're on their way to New York, where Faustman can look forward to accepting the congratulations of his colleagues at the Oceanic Institute for having landed a contract that will save the coral laboratory, and Beatrice to telling her editor in chief that she's quitting the travel rag for good. Several sealed tanks that they have just watched being loaded into the cargo hold of the Delta flight to La Guardia will be delivered to the institute immediately. And if things don't go as planned? Or, more to the point, if the coral should be discovered to be sharing space in the tanks with something else? Well, it is this distressing prospect that suddenly perches on the doorstep of Faustman's mind when Beatrice, having ordered a piña colada, informs him out of the blue that she and several of Mephisto's business associates plan to be on hand when the tanks arrive.
"On hand for what?" Faustman asks.
"The grand opening." Beatrice raises her drink as if to make a toast.
"Do you mean the opening of the tanks?"
Faustman does not want to believe what he believes her to be saying. "Now wait a minute," he tells her. "Wait just a minute."
"Something wrong?" Beatrice asks, studying him over the rim of her glass.
"Are you suggesting there's something in there besides coral and seawater?"
Beatrice gives a throaty laugh. "Isn't it kind of late in the game to be worrying about that?"
"You haven't answered the question."
"How should I know what's in the tanks? Weren't you on hand while Mephisto's boys were filling them?"
"Not the whole time," Faustman says, ruefully.
"So maybe you didn't want to know."
Astonished at the brazen accuracy of this assessment, Faustman makes a time leap forward to the cargo storage area at La Guardia, imagines a German shepherd sniffing at the tanks, straining at its leash, whining to alert its master--
"Give me a word," Beatrice says, concerned by his pallor, wanting to distract him. "Any word."
"Dog," Faustman tells her, absently.
"Not to worry," Beatrice says. "Dogs can't sniff anything through seawater."
"So there is something else in the tanks!" Faustman exclaims. In his mind's wild eye, he sees a Customs agent pry open a lid.
"Get hold of yourself," Beatrice advises. "You've got a case of nerves is all. Happens to everybody the first time."
"What do you mean, the first time?" Faustman moans, gaping openmouthed at this confirmation of his worst fear.
"Meph's going to be shipping you lots of coral," Beatrice tells him.
The realization that the kind of dreadful anxiety he is now experiencing will be repeated is enough to render Faustman speechless.
Beatrice gives him a reassuring smile. "Didn't I promise you we'd get to spend a lot of time down here in the Bahamas?"
When Faustman and Beatrice leave the lounge and start downstairs to the departure area, some tourists just in from Boston turn around to look at them. Small wonder because at first glance they make a striking couple. Beatrice, who has once again shoehorned herself into her gold-lamé pants, descends in that inimitably provocative manner of hers--one high-heeled sandal following the other, a hand on her escort's shoulder--while a tanned and somber-looking Faustman, who carries a briefcase in one hand and an aluminum fly-rod tube in the other, keeps step with the languid rhythm of her sway. On closer inspection, however, it can be seen that Faustman is trembling and perspiring heavily, and that Beatrice has placed her hand on his shoulder not so much to steady herself as him.
As they pass beneath the mural, Faustman looks up at Columbus, remembers the harsh judgment he pronounced upon him and, realizing that he, too, has embarked upon a road of no return, feels a pang of trepidation pass like an arrow through his bowels. All at once, he clutches his throat, begins to gasp for air. "I don't feel well," he says.
"You must pull yourself together," Beatrice tells him.
"I don't want to go through with this."
"Too late now," Beatrice says. "Unless you're thinking of turning yourself in at Customs."
"My God," Faustman groans, "what was I thinking of?"
Beatrice gives a laugh. "Probably what you were going to do to Margot and me in the swimming pool."
Faustman stares up at Columbus, tries to pull himself together. Three hours ahead in time, the Customs agent at La Guardia has rolled up his sleeves.
Following his gaze, hoping to lighten him up, Beatrice pokes him in the ribs. "You and the Great Explorer," she says with a smile. "You've just discovered a new world."
When they get to the Customs counter. Faustman allows Beatrice to go first, follows once she's been waved on through by a middle-aged and uniformed inspector whose eyes linger appreciatively upon her backside until Faustman's arrival brings him back to business.
"How long have you been in the Bahamas, sir?" he asks, glancing at Faustman's declaration card.
"Two weeks," Faustman replies.
"Down here on business or pleasure?"
"A little of both."
The inspector looks at Faustman, notices that he's pale and short of breath. "Anything to declare?"
"Nothing," Faustman says, close to fainting.
The inspector picks up the aluminum tube, unscrews the cap, pulls out the fly rod that has remained unlimbered since Faustman waded out on the tidal flat the day he arrived on Haven Island. "Bone-fishing any good?"
"Fine," Faustman tells him, trying to hold in the panic that projects the word a touch too fast. "Just fine."
The inspector pushes the fly rod back into the tube, screws the cap back on, asks Faustman to open up the briefcase that contains the annotated manuscript of the book he's been writing. "Feeling all right, sir?"
"Fine," Faustman says again. "Little hot is all."
"Imagine what it would be like in here without air-conditioning," the inspector says, and waves him on through.
Faustman closes his briefcase, picks up the fly-rod tube and rejoins Beatrice, who is waiting for him by some glass doors that open into the departure area. She gives him an appraising glance, leads him to a molded plastic seat, fetches him a paper cup with Coke and ice. "You look terrible," she says. "Try to relax."
"You knew it all along, didn't you? From the very beginning. When you said there was someone on the island I should meet."
"Be a good boy," Beatrice tells him, "and I'll take you into the lav when we're airborne. Do you the way you like."
Faustman looks at her in horror. The very idea of having sex with her now is enough to start him hyperventilating again. In the storage area at La Guardia, the Customs agent is reaching into one of the tanks.
"Take it easy," Beatrice says. "Once we're on the plane, I'll give you something to make you sleep."
Faustman closes his eyes, wishes to God that the past two weeks were a dream, and that when he wakes up he'll find himself wading alone on the tidal flat like one of those stiff-necked herons. Instead, the Customs agent at La Guardia has pulled out the first of several waterproof packages.
"Let's go, Bonefish Jack," Beatrice tells him. "They're calling our seats."
In a daze, Faustman follows her through the departure gate and out onto the tarmac where the Delta flight awaits them. A suffocating blast of heat threatens to deprive him of what little breath he has left. The sulfurous stench of baking asphalt and aviation fuel fills his nostrils, stings his eyes. Stumbling, he reaches out to steady himself, feels Beatrice take him by the hand. Only it's not her cool fingertips that touch him now, but her fingernails. They take hold of his flesh like talons, inflict pain that impels him to stay upright, prod him into the searing light of his future.
What wouldn't he give to be able to toss aside his reserve and whisper something sufficiently lewd.
"This is just a preview," she announces as she hooks her thumbs in her panties and peels them off.