• The Black Sea

    by Richard Setlowe

    Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1991

    ISBN 0-395-56927-3     Buy This Book

  • EXCERPT — CHAPTER 1: A Package for Raffles

    The coolie stood on the pedals of the bicycle rickshaw, furiously pumping the becak through the ghostly, white-walled canyons of downtown Singapore, as if he were being goaded by demons. But the only occupant of the cushioned rattan passenger seat behind him was a lidded wicker basket.

    The heavy monsoon rains that had swept the city earlier in the evening had ceased, but at one o'clock in the morning the air was still so thick with moisture that Singapore appeared to be under water. The pale concrete cliffs of high-rises cut off the northeast wind but not the drizzle that fell like detritus raining on the bottom of the sea from the ocean above. The streetlights along Bras Basah Road wavered and diffused. The scattered room lights still burning in the Westin Stamford Hotel hung in the night sky, growing dimmer, dimmer, dimmer, blinking, and finally dissolving way in the distant high mists that veiled the building's seventy-three story summit. Lightning pulsed in the cover of clouds that shrouded the city.

    The coolie's sweating face and bare arms and legs reflected a moist, oily gleam in the street lights, and his T-shirt and shorts stuck to his body. Still standing on the pedals, he careened around the corner at Beach Road at full speed. The becak lurched alarmingly, as though for an instant it might overturn. The coolie froze on the pedals. His head twisted about, and he stared with a bloodless, terrified face at the wicker basket.

    It swayed slightly on the seat a moment but stayed fast, held down by the weight of whatever was inside. The rickshaw man continued to stare at the basket, then cautiously turned back to his pedaling. It was a strained, desperate movement, as if he were at once terrified of jostling the basket again but was pushing to go as fast as his heart and legs could drive the becak.

    He suddenly braked and turned, this time infinitely more gingerly, into the curving carriageway of the old Raffles Hotel. With its worn, gray cobblestones and Victorian portico, the Raffles was an anachronism amid the relentlessly modern skyscrapers, a story-book throwback to colonial times. Two other bicycle rickshaws were parked just outside the entrance of the carriageway, their drivers both curled up in fetal positions in the passenger seats. The Sikh doorman, sweltering in the humid heat in his long coat and turban, stood guarding the hotel entrance, his erect, rigid stance disguising the fact that he was all but asleep on his feet at that hour.

    The coolie warily eyed the Sikh. Then, with the same strained, gingerly movement of frantic haste, he lifted the basket by its handles and very quickly slid it onto the faded red carpet that ran from the curb to the marble steps. Then he leaped back onto the bicycle, and the rickshaw bolted off, careening back down the cobblestones.

    The doorman started awake, but the becak was around the corner and out of sight before the Sikh shouted after it. The big turbaned man shuffled to the curb and bent over the basket, the sort of woven lidded affair in which snake charmers keep their cobras.

    He cautiously eased off an edge of the lid. A circle of polished white cloth caught the overhead light. The Sikh lifted the lid off.

    His rheumy eyes stared in puzzlement at a naval officer's cap with a foreign gold crest and band. He fingered the shiny black leather bill, then tipped it up, toppling whatever it rested on back against the basket, reveling a shock of black hair, a broad, white-skinned forehead, eyes of lifeless amber glass, blood-smeared nostrils, and a tortured mouth.

    The Sikh gasped and staggered back, gagged by the sour, metallic stench of blood, congealed in a thick puddle at the neck of the severed head.


    Copyright © Richard Setlowe, 1991



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