Santuario

Santuario by G.B. Gordon
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-937551-64-3
eBook release: 
Oct 8, 2012
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-937551-65-0
Print release: 
Oct 8, 2012
Word count: 
67,600
Page count: 
258
Cover by: 

This title is #1 of the Santuario series.

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Police teniente Alex Rukow has spent his life trapped on Santuario, his people’s isolated home-slash-prison-island. They’ve been living in poverty under the tyrannical regime of their own elite familias for the last two-hundred years, ever since their generation ship landed on the planet and found it already populated by earlier Earth settlers, the Skanians, who banished them to the inhospitable south.

Increasingly shamed by the decisions of their ancestors, the Skanians seek to open their borders. But dissent exists on both sides, and in the midst of this explosive political situation, a dead body appears on the island.

Bengt, a Skanian investigator, is shipped to Santuario to lead the murder investigation—which, he quickly realizes, the local teniente wants nothing to do with. As far as Bengt is concerned, things can’t get worse than the brutal climate, his own memories, and a growing attraction to a partner who will barely say two words to him. But then he and Alex run afoul of the local familias, and the problems with their investigation and their budding relationship seem like nothing compared to just getting out of this whole mess alive.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

flashbacks to child abuse

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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200 Years Too Long

Santuarian Bicentennial Has Citizens Questioning the Past

Thousands took to the streets of Hentavik yesterday on the 200th anniversary of the Santuarian generation ship landing on Jarðvegur. Individual voices have always questioned the Þing’s decision to segregate the newcomers on “Santuario” as its inhabitants call the island, but those voices have never been as numerous as they are today. People of all political convictions are ready to end the Santuarian isolation. “It’s not like they’re space aliens,” one protester told the Herald. “They’re human beings, like us. We have the same origins, even if they’re thousands of years apart. This planet gave us a home when we first came here. And we turn around and assign them some uninhabited, hellishly hot rock in the South Sea? That’s contemptible.”

Sources tell the Herald that more than a few Þing representatives share that sentiment and are lobbying to extend a hand to our neighbors in the south. The time to close the most shameful chapter in our history might be finally here.


Chapter 1

Three hours after sunrise, the temperature in the Quonset hut that served as the comandatura had already reached sauna level. When Alex opened the door to his office, he walked into the usual wall of muggy, stale air. A glance at the dead ceiling fan, a shrug, a quick check of his in-basket. The arbitration decision on the fender bender at the bridge had come in; each of the boys would pay for his own damages. The second paper was a handwritten note: Elena was withdrawing her complaint against her husband. Again. With a sad shake of his head, Alex ripped the domestic disturbance report to shreds and dropped it in the bin. Routine. Except . . .

He paused, pulled a folder from between two memos and drew his brows together. Looking at both sides of the thin cardboard sleeve, he perched on a corner of his desk. The capitán didn’t put together files, at least not for the one-page reports of thefts and cantina brawls that filled most of Alex’s days. And the files he did assemble, for cases having to do with the familias or Securitas, rarely ended up on Alex’s desk. Alex gingerly folded his too-tall frame into his chair and carefully centered the folder on his desk before opening it.

First page—morning rounds report. The rurale had found a body on the beach not too far from the slaughterhouse; male, about forty years old, dressed in nothing but canvas pants. The dead man had old scars on his back and fresh abrasions on both wrists, as well as a deep wound in his skull.

Alex scanned the rest and wondered why the Securitas hadn’t cleaned up after themselves. Unidentified bodies didn’t exist on Santuario, at least none with rope burns on their wrists. There were injured and missing persons, but no murder victims. Alex tried to remember the last time he’d heard of a death the policía had investigated. There’d been a knife fight in Rajon Five in which one of the combatants had been killed. That was it. He had never worked a homicide. Not in eleven years on the job. Why didn’t the capitán take care of this himself? Staring at a point beyond the wall, Alex dropped the report back into the folder, dislodging a yellow sticky note:

RUKOW:

I’m too tied down with the Santillas case to mess with
a dead drifter. You speak Skanes, right? Inform ICE.
They’ll send someone to take care of this. Be polite!

Mendez

Alex swore softly. Work with ICE and probably annoy the Securitas into the bargain; he was doubly fucked. The capitán had smoothly disentangled himself from the mess. A pox on him. Alex mentally reviewed what he remembered of homicide procedures from the academy and briefly entertained the thought of letting the file disappear or losing it. Unfortunately, there was still a body in the slaughterhouse waiting to be transferred to the morgue in Hentavik.

With an accusing look at the fan, he left his office and strolled past the clerk’s desk to the open door.

“Sultry today,” he ventured.

“Storm coming,” the clerk, Kazatin, nodded.

Alex leaned against the doorframe and studied the sky. “The poor sod they found on the beach this morning doesn’t give a shit anymore.”

Kazatin drew his head between his shoulders. “Gijón found him. He was already packed with flies. Why’d they leave him there?”

The same question Alex was asking himself. Not a breath of wind stirred the palm fronds. “Anyone from here?”

Kazatin shook his head. “Gijón hasn’t said anything.”

Hands in his pockets, Alex pushed himself away from the doorframe. “I’ll go have a look.”

He headed east down the dirt track that followed the coastline between the beach and the trees, now and then winding through the palms or brush. If the dead guy was a Securitas victim, they had hardly forgotten him there. They didn’t make mistakes like that. Which meant they’d left him there for the policía to find. On purpose. The thought made him want to puke. Of course, there was still a slight chance that it was someone else’s shit entirely.

# # #

A jumble of concrete and old bricks, the slaughterhouse occupied a patch of sparse grass and weeds between the road and the beach. Rambling vines had long conquered the walls and aided the sun and wind in widening cracks and peeling paint.

Rather than walk all the way around the building to the front entrance, Alex cut across the loose sand to where the wire fence had rusted away, and slipped through the hole. There were no windows facing the rear of the building, just a gray metal door. In the yard, an old man was emptying a pail into the incinerator. Alex tried to ignore the increasing stink of decomposition.

“Hola Miguel, quetal!”

The old man turned and raised a hand.

“You got a cigarette?” Alex asked.

Miguel looked at him sideways with raised eyebrows.

“Don’t worry, I’m not starting again.” Alex pulled down the corners of his mouth and pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the door. “Gotta go in there.”

Miguel nodded his understanding, handed over one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, and struck a match. Alex inhaled the smoke deeply. He’d pay for that cigarette. Miguel shook his head, but Alex just grimaced. With a mock salute, he turned and entered the rendering plant.

The foreman came over as soon as he saw the tan uniform in the dim light. “Ah, Teniente, please come in. He’s in the fridge. When are you going to take him away?”

“Soon.”

“Soon, soon. A body in the fridge is bad for business.”

Alex shrugged. “Así es la vida.”

The foreman snorted, but shut up and led the way across the plant’s floor to the refrigerated warehouse. He had to bear down on the handle with the full weight of his skinny body to open the heavy metal door.

After the heat outside, the cool air felt pleasant, but when the door fell shut behind him, Alex shot a nervous glance over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Teniente. It opens from the inside as well. Down the right aisle, all the way to the back,” he said as he left.

Alex nodded and walked between the ceiling-high metal shelves to an aluminum table on wheels that had been pushed against the back wall. The man lay on his back. Alex had never seen him before. Which answered at least one of his questions. It was nobody from Peones. He was skinny and filthy and had bad teeth. Anywhere between 40 and 50, Alex guessed. The description fit a good many of the djeti, as the familias called anyone who didn’t belong to them. Alex checked the abrasions on the wrists—rather unambiguous signs of forcible confinement. The head wound was deep; the skin around it had been neatly shaved and part of the skull plate removed. No fall or blunt force trauma, that one. It looked more like surgery. He squinted through the cigarette smoke. Hardly any blood, no other injuries he could see. So maybe not Securitas after all; they tended to be less circumspect with their victims. He wondered what the crime scene looked like.

Goose bumps on his arms reminded him to get out. He rubbed his hands across the skin, and with a last musing look at the body, turned and walked back to the door. A twinge of trepidation made him push down on the latch more forcefully than necessary, but the door opened without a problem. Humid heat smothered him like a wet towel. The door into the yard stood wide open; Miguel was nowhere to be seen. With a slight feeling of regret, Alex dropped the cigarette butt in the sand and ground it out with the toe of his boot.

Down on the beach, the waves had draped black seaweed on the sand, and bolts of lightning flashed on the horizon. Still, it would be evening before the cooling rain would reach the coast. Alex grinned without joy. At least this case would keep him from roof repair duties and having to dig houses out of the mud. Hands in his pockets, he stared across the gray surface of the water, his eyes searching the northern horizon as always, even though the mainland was much too far away to be seen from here. He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting this murder solved. Or did Mendez? A drifter with a professional surgery wound. What a nice little puzzle. One that would give someone more than just a headache. Alex swore it wouldn’t be him, but he couldn’t help wondering who the guy had been and why he’d had to die.

“So contemplative, Rukow? Thinking about your case?”

Alex almost flinched. He turned slowly, carefully relaxing his facial muscles to achieve the vacant, indifferent expression he habitually showed to the world. He’d practiced that expression, rehearsed it for hours in front of a mirror until it revealed nothing of what he might think or feel. Survival training. “They don’t pay me to think,” he said.

Vilalba smiled. Alex was almost sure the other teniente had been posted in the small comandatura to watch someone. Vilalba didn’t fit. The clerk, Kazatin, was barely smarter than a slice of bread, and Gijón, the young rurale, was a rookie. It made perfect sense for them to be stationed in the boonies. Alex had Luìz to thank for being stuck in Peones, the village he’d been born in, the village in which he would die. And he thought Mendez might have pissed someone off. But Vilalba was a hard-liner, had contacts, and wasn’t stupid. He didn’t belong here. Apart from which, Alex didn’t like him. All good reasons to stay out of his way.

“’Taluego.” Alex saluted carelessly, only lifting his hand halfway to his hat. Then, he turned deliberately and walked west along the beach and through a grove of palm trees. It was unnaturally silent under the canopy, the calm before the storm, like having water in both ears.

Angling back north after a few minutes, he saw the neon-yellow spray marks as soon as he stepped through the underbrush. Gijón had preserved the silhouette of his find exactly according to manual, and the lasting calm had kept it mainly intact. Alex would soon find the photos on his desk.

The victim had lain there as if thrown away. Trash, no good anymore, not even a danger. Don’t take people to heart so much. Don’t let them get too close. Good advice from a mother who’d been a bad example in that respect. Getting involved, helping, dying. An inevitable sequence of events he’d experienced firsthand. He should find it easier to follow her counsel.

He walked the beach in a grid and hoped not to find anything. The cigarette he’d smoked had his body screaming for more, and he cursed his weakness. Focus. Whoever had brought the body here had left no traces. Alex briefly removed his hat to wipe the sweat off his forehead and out of his eyes. He checked further toward the road—no tire marks, no drag marks, nothing. He decided he’d done his duty and started back toward the comandatura.

# # #

Kazatin brought leftover tea. Alex—feet on his desk, a mug on his chest, and a sandwich in hand—waited for the power to come back on. The weird pre-storm light and the unusual events of the morning conspired to create the feeling that he was an observer, one step removed from reality. He would wake up any moment now and realize he’d escaped Santuario long ago, that being stuck here was only a dream, that his father . . .

A familiar tightness closed his throat. Abruptly, spilling tea on his shirt, he took his feet off the desk, set the mug down, and got up. Don’t think. Self-pity wouldn’t get him out of here. For a moment, he stood, undecided, sandwich in hand. Then he wrapped it back up. He didn’t feel like eating anymore. Where were those photos?

Slowly, the ceiling fan came back to life, interrupting his pacing. He automatically reached for the phone list. He had to call ICE, the mainland noseys. Shit! Wasn’t life bad enough without crap like this? Reluctantly, he reached for the receiver. Maybe the power would go off again right away, or maybe there would be no connection.

Dial tone. That didn’t sound like a reprieve. Drumming his fingers on the tabletop, he waited for the series of clicks that connected him to the Skanes system.

“Investigation Commission for the Executive, Reception. Who would you like to talk to?”

Alex had no clue, had never done anything like this before. But he’d prepared what he wanted to say in Skanes beforehand. “This is Santuario, Comandatura Policía, Rajon Three, Teniente Rukow. I need to report a murder.”

“On Santuario? Uhm, one moment please.” Unfamiliar music hummed through the line. Alex’s foot began to tap to the rhythm. Then a woman’s voice, a name he didn’t catch. Did they know who the dead person was, she wanted to know. Where and when had the body been found, how long had he been dead, what kind of injuries, and on and on. Laboriously, Alex stumbled his way through the answers in a language he’d once learned but never used.

“Very well, Teniente Rukow. We will send a coroner and a homicide investigator. Would you please pick them up at the airfield?”

“Sure. When?”

“Tomorrow morning, ten o’clock. Is that convenient?”

“No problem.” Alex had no idea when Mendez would be back with the zorro, the light utility vehicle they all used. But he’d be damned if he’d show weakness to a stranger.

“And, Teniente Rukow, please envoy us your report and the crime scene photos today.”

“Envoy?”

“Yes. Is that a problem? Do you have the address?”

Envoy. That meant a computer. Shit. “Yes, I have it. No, no problem.” He politely said good-bye, then slammed down the receiver. Envoy! The comandatura didn’t have a computer. He’d have to use the one in the Hotel Aldea, where the Securitas kept their whores and had installed a kind of office. Alex hated to go there, hat in hand, and beg to use their computer. He never knew who he’d encounter, could never be sure he’d get out in one piece. Even just to be noticed by someone who might later remember him wasn’t good.

Kazatin chose that moment to bring him the missing photos. Alex’s stomach turned to lead. He put on his “face” and shoved the photos into the file. “Thanks. Mendez back yet?”

“I haven’t seen him today. He went to Tierraroja yesterday, because of the Santillas thing. Said it could be a few days.”

“Shit! I need the zorro tomorrow morning.”

Kazatin shrugged. “I’ll tell him when I see him.”

Alex didn’t even bother with a comment, and Kazatin disappeared back to his desk. The report took barely more than a page and was typed up too quickly. No reason to linger. Alex got up heavily, played with the folder, then mentally kicked himself and grabbed his hat from the hook by the door. “I have to pay a visit to the Aldea,” he informed Kazatin. “I shouldn’t be long,” he stressed, but doubted that Kazatin would even notice if he never came back.

Dark clouds were piling up in the sky, and the air stood like warm water in a bathtub. He strolled up the road, stopped on the wooden bridge to spit in the creek and look at the mist-covered hills. It would be good to drop this whole miserable case into someone else’s lap tomorrow. A Skanian’s lap. He chewed on his lip. He wasn’t nearly as curious as he’d been eleven years ago when, fresh out of school, he’d applied for that security job in the mines, but still, he couldn’t help wondering who he’d meet tomorrow.

The mines, the only area on the mainland where the Skanians allowed anyone from here, the only way to leave Santuario. This island, this life. How naively he’d believed in the possibility. But of course Luìz had found out. And of course he’d made sure not only that the job application disappeared, but also that Alex would be stuck in Peones for the rest of his life. He’d been a fool to think learning the language would be his biggest problem.

How had Mendez found out he’d learned Skanes? Alex had scoured the library for information about the mainland, but hadn’t found a lot beyond the language book. It was supposed to be a cold country, full of lakes and evergreen trees, with somewhat primitive inhabitants—huge and lumbering.

Alex had never seen a Skanian, but he doubted that the animal-like drawing in the ancient encyclopedia matched reality. He sighed deeply and pushed off the rail.

The Aldea was a decrepit building on the outskirts of Peones. All the curtains were drawn, but the door stood open. Alex slipped into the tiny, club-like entrance hall and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light within.

“Alex, what’re you doing here?” Alessa sat on the reception desk, kicking her naked legs against the wood. Sixteen, with a clear Madonna face; Alex liked her.

“I need to use the computer.”

“You’d better come back some other time. Leonid is upstairs.”

Alex felt the blood leave his head. It took an effort to keep his mask in place. “Is he busy?”

“Julia’s with him. But you never know how long he’ll be.”

Alex shook his head. “Gotta be today. Anyone in the parlor?” No need to specify that he didn’t mean the girls.

“Two from Rajon Four want to share a girl, but I don’t think it’s because of the money.” She wrinkled her nose.

Alex tried not to picture the details. “I’ll manage. Your brother back on his feet?”

“Of course.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Only the good die young.”

He touched his hat in a friendly salute, took a deep breath, and stepped into the parlor.

A dark-haired Adonis lounged on the leather sofa, watching his friend dance with Lena to non-existent music. Alex tried to look as if he belonged. He made it three steps toward the office before the dancer noticed him and blocked his way. “Whoa, hold it, where’s the fire?”

Alex glanced at his face—lean and unshaven with light-colored eyes—then the stripes on his shoulder. He made a placatory gesture and lowered his eyes. Don’t fight back. He still had a chance to get out of this without raising any dust. “Don’t let me disturb you, Sargente. I just need your computer for a few minutes, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

The guy didn’t budge, simply stared at Alex with narrowed eyes. “Ain’t he cute, Kolya?” he asked without turning his head.

Kolya slowly studied Alex from head to foot. The way he lolled on the sofa could only be called lascivious. Full lips and cold, black eyes. “Mhmmm, uniforms should be outlawed. They only seduce decent boys like us.” He talked with a slight accent, had probably grown up in one of the Rus-speaking tierras.

Alex deliberately relaxed his jaw muscles and waited. No sense in arguing. They would leave him alone when they tired of their game, not a second earlier.

Lena wrapped her arms around the lean one, who stank of sweat and booze. “Come on, dance with me.” He ignored her at first, but when she tried to take his hand, he shoved her away hard.

With feline smoothness, Kolya came up from the sofa, positioned himself behind Alex, and shoved both hands in the back pockets of Alex’s pants. Reflexively, Alex clenched his butt and straightened his shoulders. Mistake. Kolya kissed his neck, and Alex was unable to hide a shudder of revulsion. Lean Guy grinned.

“Madrios! You make me sick!” a voice rang out from the stairs. Alex’s head whipped around, and the two Securitas stood at attention. Leonid! For a fraction of a second, Alex couldn’t decide whether he was relieved or scared shitless, but then he shoved the thought aside and, using the reprieve, disappeared into the little office in two long strides.

The folder stuck to his hand. “You are lucky you don’t serve in my rajon,” Leonid’s voice rumbled through the slightly open door. Fingers flying across the keyboard, Alex scanned the pictures and reports. Scan in progress. Please wait. “If I had trash like you two in my unit I’d rip your pansy asses open.” Alex didn’t doubt it for a second. He pictured Leonid prowling around the two, typed in the envoy address, nervously shifted his weight—connecting—threw a quick glance toward the door. “Dismissed! Now scram before I forget that I’m not your CO.” Connection established. Sending envoy.

“Are you looking for your daddy?”

Alex whipped around. Leonid stood in the door—one hundred thirty kilos of contempt for humanity, arms as thick as Alex’s thighs crossed over a heavily muscled chest.

“What do you want?” Alex barked at him. He felt sick, but he was in for a solid licking anyway. Better get it over with.

“What do I want?” Leonid raised one eyebrow, then took a sudden long step forward, crowding Alex, looking down on him. “You little gnat. As if you’d stand even the shadow of a chance.”

Alex could smell the breath mints Leonid was addicted to. He tensed the muscles over his solar plexus in anticipation of a blow that didn’t come, and was unprepared when Leonid’s head rammed his forehead. He felt his eyebrow split, stumbled backward. He quickly measured the distance, trying to calculate whether he’d reach the door if he kicked Leonid in the balls. Leonid grinned, and Alex remembered having pulled that stunt at their last encounter. Leonid wasn’t stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice. Accepting the inevitable, Alex grinned back in a show of bravado he knew he wouldn’t be able to back up. He was waiting for the blow that would break his ribs when Leonid suddenly laughed. Without the scar across his cheek, he would have looked boyish. “Your father is wrong, gnat. You’re no coward.” Then he left. Incredulous, Alex straightened up and wiped the blood out of his eye. Behind him, the computer beeped. Transfer complete. Sign out?

# # #

As he walked back to his office, the scene played over and over in his mind, but he had no explanation for it. Luìz had found Leonid about a year ago. Blond, handsome despite the scar, a year or two younger than Alex, and the perfect Securitas officer, he was exactly the kind of son Luìz had always wanted. He’d made Leonid his special pet and loved to sic him on Alex for perceived infractions. Ever since then, Leonid had given Alex the impression that it was his personal goal to break every single bone in Alex’s body at least once. This was certainly the first time he’d ever helped Alex, however unintentionally.

Thunderheads piling up in the sky blotted out the remaining light of the evening, and the storm had almost reached the island when Alex opened the door to the comandatura. Mendez still wasn’t back. Alex would have liked to talk this weird case over with him. He liked the calm, somewhat distanced way with which the capitán approached problems. And he was the only one around with whom it was possible to have the occasional rational conversation.

Kazatin’s desk was clean, and Gijón was holding the fort by folding paper planes. He looked up guiltily when Alex entered. “The sargente went home. He was sure nothing else would happen today.”

Alex wearily waved the apology aside. Good thing he hadn’t needed the help. Though he hadn’t really counted on Kazatin to sound the alarm if he didn’t return. The cavalry only existed in old stories. “You can go home, too,” he told Gijón. “I’ll lock up.” Not that it would do much good if anyone really wanted to break in.

The young rurale breathed a sigh of relief and scrammed. Alex perched on the edge of his desk. Listening to the first few raindrops patter on the roof, he reviewed the day. Vilalba was watching either him or Mendez, he was almost sure of it. But for who? Luìz? Hardly. Luìz needed neither reason nor pretext to “discipline” Alex. Besides, he didn’t team up with razor creases like Vilalba; not his style at all. Vilalba was probably after Mendez and merely enjoyed sideswiping Alex now and then.

But those two goons from the bordello? That could’ve gotten nasty. You suffered the Securitas like a pest. You didn’t fight them—not more than once, anyway. Had Leonid seen who the envoy was addressed to? Had the encounter at the Aldea been a setup, or did the Securitas have nothing to do with the corpse? In either case, an ICE investigator would spoil their mood. With that, the nausea was back. Suddenly, Alex knew it was only a matter of time until the Securitas dealt with him once and for all.

With a flash of lightning and an almost simultaneous crack of thunder, the storm broke loose. Rain drummed deafeningly on the corrugated tin roof, drowning out Alex’s thoughts. He checked the windows, locked up, and watched the light show from the porch for a few minutes, then fingered the chin cord out of his hat and gave himself up to the elements.

Within seconds he was drenched. He crossed the yard on the double and loped up the road. Soon, the rising wind at his back forced him into a run. The few houses he passed on his way home were boarded up tight. Just after the bend, a loud crash made him flinch. Lightning had felled a tree and dropped it through the roof of Ria’s house. A baby wailed in the darkness. Alex prayed Ria and her son were okay and went to check. Her husband had been disappeared last winter without ever having seen his son.

He hammered his fist against the door, though he felt a bit ridiculous considering the giant hole in the roof. She opened the door with the baby in her arms. Panic made way for relief in her eyes when she recognized him.

“Alex, gracias a Dios! I can use your help.”

Over her shoulder, he could see the rain pouring through the ceiling. “I can try,” he yelled against the storm. “But it doesn’t look good.”

For more than an hour, Alex tried to cover the hole in the roof while Ria moved her belongings and shoved furniture into other rooms. Then, with a loud crack, the storm tore the roof off completely. In the pelting rain, Ria snatched up a few things for the baby while Alex wrapped him in his jacket. A futile gesture, since they were all utterly soaked. Holding on to each other, they fought their way through the lightning-lit darkness. In some places, the road had turned to a knee-deep morass, and the rain fell so densely that Alex almost missed his own house.

A tree lay diagonally across his driveway, but the roof was whole. He forced the door open against the wind, shoved Ria through the gap ahead of him, and let the door crash closed behind the three of them. They stood dripping in the narrow hallway, dazed, wiping the rain out of their eyes, stretching their shoulders, savoring the relative calm. Around them, muddy water collected in a small pool.

Ria shivered. Alex moved the child to his left arm and gently turned her by the shoulder. “Come.”

Wordlessly, Ria followed. Alex gave her the baby, went to find her some dry clothes, then walked her to the bathroom, talking quietly all the while.

“Here’s the bath. Wash off the mud. I’ll make us some tea,” he said. “Take your time. It might take me a while to get the fire started in this weather.”

In the hallway, he kicked off his muddy boots. His shirt and pants were no less filthy, so he stripped and left everything in a pile by the door.

There were some live embers left in the stove, which made starting the fire easier than he’d thought. He put the kettle on, washed at the kitchen sink, pulled on dry clothes, and did a quick round through the house, checking shutters and doors—all reasonably tight. Having poured the boiling water over the tea leaves, he grabbed a pillow and blanket to make himself a bed on the couch.

When Ria reappeared, Alex smiled at the way she was drowning in his clothes. She’d rolled up both sleeves and pant legs a good few inches.

“Tea should be ready.” Alex waved her toward the kitchen. “Or do you want to put the little one to bed first? You take the bedroom, I’ll stay here.

Ria just nodded, wrapped her son in the blanket Alex had given her, and disappeared into the bedroom. Alex poured the tea through a sieve into two mugs.

“He was asleep before I left,” Ria said as she walked up behind him. He gave her a mug. “Thank you.” She sank onto a chair and sipped carefully, eyes closed, both hands wrapped around the mug. “I’m exhausted. And it didn’t even do any good.”

“Don’t think about it now. It’ll look less desperate in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll go look at the damage. So far we’ve always managed somehow, even if it looked hopeless at first.” He was tired, too, and felt much less positive than he was trying to make her think, but Ria managed a smile.

“You’re right.” She finished her tea and set the mug on the drain board. “Tomorrow then, and thank you!” She kissed him on the cheek and left.

Alex stood there, clinging to his mug, felt his throat grow tight, and wished it had been more. He shook his head. Slowly he drained his mug, took his clothes off and tried to get as comfortable as possible on the short sofa. Wind and rain brawled about the house, and despite his tiredness, he tossed and turned for a long time.

He must have fallen asleep eventually; when Ria came to him, he started awake from a confused dream he couldn’t remember. “What happened?”

“You yelled something. Did you have a bad dream?”

“Must have.”

She gently straightened his blankets and smoothed his hair back. “That sofa is way too short for you. I’ve made a bed in your drawer for the baby. Come with me, you’ll be much more comfortable in your own bed.”

She left without waiting for an answer. Alex wasn’t too sure he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. Slowly, he stood up, wrapped the blanket around his middle, and risked a peek into the bedroom. Ria, still in his too-big shirt, was sitting on one side of the bed, invitingly tapping the mattress with one hand.

“I . . . you don’t have to . . .” he started.

“I know, but it’s a bit spooky with the storm and in a strange house. And it’s not exactly warm either. I could just use some company for one night. Do come.”

With a last hesitant look at the peacefully sleeping baby, Alex closed the door and snuggled into bed with her. She was warm and his soap smelled different on her.

She loosened the blanket and nestled against his naked body. Alex closed his eyes, let his hand wander across her thigh, her butt, her waist, opened the buttons on her—his—shirt, felt her lips on his chest. Her hand softly traced the scars on his back. He removed her shirt, kissed her lips, throat, the tips of her breasts. Slowly feeling their way, they kissed and caressed, and held on to each other, each trying to escape their own storm-tossed loneliness.

# # #

She fell asleep in the crook of his elbow, one arm across his stomach. Alex had shoved his left hand like a pillow under his head, stared into the darkness, and tried not to think. He rarely spent the night in someone else’s bed, and even more rarely shared his own. But every time he did, he had the feeling he was on the brink of finding what he was looking for, or at least of finding out what that was. And every time, he fought the disappointment afterward—that it was no different from taking things into his own hands in the shower. Why couldn’t he just lose himself in a beautiful woman? And she was beautiful. Straddling him, eyes closed, head thrown back against the flashes of lightning, she had been a goddess from a different reality. And yet his vague longing remained unfulfilled. As always.

A tree burst in the storm. Alex’s thoughts drifted back to the murder that had tugged at the rug under his feet. But then, that too was familiar. Turmoil had been part of his life for as long as he could remember.

He pulled on the tablecloth to reach the fruit bowl in the middle. Unfortunately, it slid toward him faster than he’d expected. It exploded into a thousand shards right in front of his feet, oranges bouncing through the kitchen like balls. Mama turned toward him, and Alex’s lips quivered at the prospect of a scolding that never came. Instead, she stared past him at the door. A man Alex had never seen before stood there in a suit covered with green and brown blotches. Alex went to look at it more closely, and the man picked him up and studied him intently.

“Is that my son?”

Mama held her hands to her cheeks as if she had a toothache. “He is my son, Luìz. You didn’t care for over five years. Why now?”

“You never told me you were pregnant when I left.”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“Mila says he’s my son. She also told me you quickly found a replacement for me. Where is he?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Where is the bastard?” the man yelled so loud that Alex started to cry. Mama took him in her arms and comforted him. The man turned on his heel and went to the bedroom, even though Papa had the nightshift and must not be disturbed.

“Luìz!” Mama called. “Leave us be. You don’t want a family. Why come back now?”

“You are mine,” the man called over his shoulder, then turned and pointed his finger at Alex. “And so is he.” Then he disappeared into the bedroom. Mama cried and ran after him. Alex couldn’t comfort her, and then there was blood everywhere and Papa didn’t move.

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “I’ll send someone to clean this mess up. We’ll be a real family.”

The storm had cleared the sky overnight, and the soggy earth steamed under the morning sun. Alex opened all the shutters and stood on the porch, trying to figure out how he’d get the tree out of his driveway. Despite the early hour, sweat was running down between his shoulder blades into the waistband of his pants. Since Rajon Three had only one service car and Mendez was usually the one driving it, Alex almost never used his driveway. Luìz was the only one who occasionally parked his zorro there. With a vicious grin, Alex decided to leave the tree. He toyed briefly with the idea of a morning swim, but he was already running late. Besides, after the storm, the water in the bay was probably anything but clear.

Ria blinked sleepily when he came in to get a fresh uniform shirt from his closet.

“There’s bread and fruit in the kitchen,” he whispered. “I’ve got to go, but I’ll try to send you someone later to help with the damage. You take care of yourself.”

“You too. Thank you. For everything.”

“What are neighbors for?”


Chapter 2

“Halden, I’m sure reading the news can wait until after we’re done eating. Bengt, dessert? Bengt! Are you mooning over that silly boyfriend of yours again?” Mamma rapped her knuckles on the table in front of him, startling him from his thoughts.

“I’m not mooning,” Bengt protested. Mooning indeed. He was hardly a teenager. He looked at his aunt across the table for support, but Svenja only winked at him with a grin that made him growl. It was perfectly normal to be a bit preoccupied with the end of a relationship. You couldn’t call that mooning.

“Dessert?” Mamma repeated, waving a plate of apple crumble under his nose.

“No thanks, really.” Bengt patted his flat stomach. “Just tea for me, please.”

“As if you needed to watch it,” Freya grumbled next to him. “You’re all muscle.”

“Only because I watch it, little sister. We’re fighting the same genetics here.”

“Who’re you calling little, bro,” she challenged him with a smile, unfolding her tall frame from the chair.

Bengt just grinned. “Don’t even try.”

They’d all three of them inherited their father’s height, but also his tendency toward bulk. So far, Halden was the only one of the siblings losing that particular fight.

“What’s caught your attention so completely?” Bengt asked, trying to peer over the rim of Halden’s newspage.

“Santuario,” Halden said. “They’re not letting up. Now the little buggers want representation for opening their borders.”

Bengt nodded. “It’s gonna be all over the evening news.”

Halden’s boys, who’d been quietly shoveling apple crumble a minute ago, broke out into a hot argument over who could claim the last piece.

Mamma’s knuckles hit the table again. “Hey! Volume doesn’t increase the truth of your arguments. You two are way too old to fight. Your brains are perfectly capable of reasoning. Use them.”

“Sorry, Mormor,” the twins said in unison, then put their heads together to negotiate, serious concentration settling over their five-year-old faces.

Bengt caught Halden’s eyes, and they both smiled.

“The Santuarians have a point, you know.” Svenja nodded toward the newspage. “I suppose you could make an argument for isolation when they first settled here, before they started working in the mines. But you can’t have it both ways. If you want them to work for us, you have to acknowledge them.”

Halden shook his head. “They should be grateful we gave them a place to stay. The second we let them step off the island, they’ll make trouble.”

“But they’re already here. Working shit jobs. Without any rights or protection,” Svenja countered.

Bengt held his peace. They both had a point. The islanders were extremely isolated in the South Sea, so not much was known about them, but everyone knew that they were ruled by an undemocratic lot. And the only Santuarians some Skanians came in contact with were the miners. Those were a rough bunch; Bengt didn’t blame his countrymen for having reservations. Even the miners lived in an enclave, though. Their entry had been permitted, under strict conditions, because they were capable of dealing with the heat of mining kisa ore underground. Bengt and Svenja weren’t the only ones who saw that as exploitation. While many Skanians hated the idea of opening the borders to a potentially dangerous culture, more and more were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo.

Their forefathers had probably hoped the problem would solve itself, that the colonists were too few to sustain a population and would eventually die out. Yet despite the hellish tropical climate in which they lived, their numbers had grown. And more than two hundred years after being stranded on Jarðvegur, they still posed a problem for the Skanians.

“We’ll have island conditions here in no time,” Halden growled.

Svenja stuck her chin out. “And what conditions would those be, exactly?”

Halden nodded toward Bengt. “Ask him,” he said. “He’s worked security in the mines. I’m sure he can tell you a story or two.”

Bengt flinched, but was saved by his phone. He checked the number, then walked out onto the back deck. The late summer rain was still warm, and the garden smelled of leaves and earth. It was Sunne.

“Shit, Bengt, I’m really sorry for spoiling your Familyday,” she said by way of greeting.

“No worries.” If she was calling him at his mother’s place on a Familyday afternoon, it had to be serious. Sunne didn’t make waves about nothing. Two years younger than himself, she’d leapfrogged over him to make team lead and was running for the Þing in the coming elections. Bengt hadn’t been surprised. He’d shot his own career in the foot before it’d even started. But Sunne was good. He’d vote for her. Her demands were always high, but most of all toward herself, a trait that ensured her almost boundless loyalty from her team at ICE.

“How’s the family?” she asked.

“Excellent. Well, you know them.”

He could hear her smile. “I infer from that cryptic answer that your brother’s there?”

With a dismissive wave of the hand, he changed the topic. She hadn’t called him to talk about Halden. “So, what is it?”

“I just received a funny call. Well, not funny really.” She paused.

Bengt leaned against a post and watched the rain drop from the trees, giving her time to sort her thoughts and wondering, not for the first time, if she had any idea how hard he found it to curb his impatience.

“The matter is somewhat delicate, Bengt,” she finally said. “Have you heard about the petition the islanders submitted?”

“That topic is hard to avoid these days. We were just talking about it over dessert. They want a seat in the Þing.”

“One? There are several factions among them, each of which is demanding—demanding!—a seat. Squabbling over it. You’d think they’d jump on the offer of having the borders opened. Instead, they seem set on derailing the process.” Again she paused. “I mean, most of our þingreps are in favor of eventually integrating Santuario. Proportionally, mind you. And this has been unofficially signaled to the Santuarian senate. They’ve been here long enough now and haven’t threatened us in any way. Not that we give them much of a chance,” she added.

“Cultural isolation was the only way to prepare an eventual integration with due diligence,” Bengt said, quoting the Þing’s favorite set phrase. “Yaddah yah.”

Sunne laughed, but became serious again almost immediately. “We’ve had a somewhat troubling call from Santuario.” She waited for his reaction, but he merely hummed for her to continue. “There’s been a murder. The timing couldn’t be worse. The opposition is just waiting for a juicy morsel to feed their counterattack. Keep this low profile. You’ll have to figure out the details as you go.”

“Excuse me? I can’t go to Santuario.”

“Caseload’s light at the end of summer, and the team is perfectly capable of finishing up. You’re the only one who speaks the language. I need you for this. You’ve worked with them before.”

“And I suppose you forgot how that turned out?”

“I’m sorry, Bengt. It’s got to be you. I’ve already booked your flight. You’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

Bengt barely managed to swallow the sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue. Was she really that hard-pressed to find someone else, or was she trying to give him a second chance? Either way, it was a really bad decision to send him, but he could hardly say that. She might be a friend, but she was also his commanding officer. And she didn’t make it sound as if the matter was open to discussion.

“I’d better get going then.” He ended the call and firmly slammed a lid on memories he’d have much preferred to leave dead and buried. He went back to the dining room, paused in the door, and managed to catch Svenja’s eyes. She quietly got up and followed him outside. Sharp as a blade, his aunt. She was closer to him in age than to her own sister and was his best friend.

“Work?” she asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

Bengt nodded. “I have to leave for a few days, possibly a couple of weeks.”

“Right now?”

“Pretty much. Flight’s in the wee hours, so I have some stuff to take care of.”

“And you want me to make your excuses to escape the questions and the fussing?”

He grinned at her guiltily. “Would you mind?”

“What would you do without me? Can you tell me where you’re going?”

“Just keep it to yourself, okay? Santuario.”

“Shit.”

“Pretty much.”

He spent the rest of the evening in his office, dug out what he thought he might need from among his old notes, cleaned up his desk, and wrote a transfer report. Then he sat for a long time, just staring at the wall. He already hated every minute of this assignment.

# # #

Around midnight, he packed and met the ME at the airport. He’d worked with Kvulf on a case a couple of years back and found him somewhat aloof. That didn’t seem to have changed. Immediately after boarding, the pathologist buried his nose in a journal about parasite infections, and ignored Bengt. Their common assignment was to inspect the body and prepare transport; then Kvulf would return with the body and send Bengt the autopsy report as soon as possible. He didn’t seem to find that reason enough to strike up a friendship.

Bengt decided he didn’t like him. But his unwillingness to communicate gave Bengt an opportunity to read the report Sunne had given him. It wasn’t much. A few photos, a copy of the death certificate, an officially worded description of the dead man that managed perfectly to deprive the nameless victim of any individuality. A teniente, Alexander Rukow, had filled out a form with a typewriter whose e’s drifted a millimeter too high and whose n’s seemed to fall over sideways, so Bengt’s eyes started to water after only a few lines.

Teniente Alexander Rukow was requesting that ICE take over the investigation under protection of the Policía de Santuario’s sovereignty, because he didn’t have the means to investigate the case to mutual satisfaction in an acceptable time frame. He was also applying for the services of a forensic laboratory and a pathologist.

Bengt grinned appreciatively. The wording skillfully glossed over the fact that Santuario’s police force wasn’t even authorized to deal with a homicide. Just like cases of smuggling and drug or human trafficking, murder fell under the jurisdiction of ICE. That was the price the colonists had had to pay for their sanctuary. But then, not much happened on the island, anyway. It was the mining crews that fueled the statistics.

Bengt sighed and forced himself to reread his old notes. After the incident in the mining camp, he’d buried them deeply in the file he’d dug back out last night. Back then, they hadn’t helped him. But surely one couldn’t compare the testosterone-laced atmosphere in a mining camp with the normal population of a mostly rural island. He read the marked passages in the dossier he’d been given twelve years ago:

The Islanders, also Santuarians or Esprussians, exhibit a fascinating cultural diversity. [. . .] Because of their low physical strength, they prefer simple living quarters that can be constructed without much effort. They only work enough not to starve; stockpiling is largely unknown to them; nevertheless, they are not dependent on imports. In the financial sector, the bartering system is predominant, since that way they can avoid income tax and other fees. The ruling class is made up of so-called familias (which means clans); they are without a doubt the population group with the most business acumen and efficiency, and they command goods like education and culture, while the rest of the population remains largely in a state of cultural innocence (school attendance not being compulsory). [. . .]

The dossier had been ancient back then. The style seemed even more patronizing and unbearable now. And some of it was simply wrong. There were few more recent analyses, though. Sunne had compiled some more current statistics for him from an article she was working on for the Þing.

For a population of about 4,000,000 Santuarians, there are 20 hospitals. Childhood mortality lies at about 10 percent. Medical training is only available at exclusive private schools. Nearly half of the population is functionally illiterate.

Sighing, Bengt shoved the dossiers back into his briefcase. He felt no better prepared now than he had twelve years ago. Less, in fact. He’d been so naive and arrogant. So young. And the situation had escalated. Santuarians were more fragile than Skanians and more volatile. Well, more than most Skanians.

Watch, learn, keep your pants on. Treat them like equal partners in these investigations and pay them the respect they’re due. Important to stay open-minded. And keep his temper contained. Yeah, especially that.

Sunne had had a passport issued for him that temporarily appointed him “Commissioner on Special Duty with Plenipotentiary Powers,” as well as forms for his expense account and a letter of credit. Bengt raised his eyebrows. So much for “bartering.”

All official documents were issued in Skanes and Esprus. As he went over them, he remembered the melodic sounds of that language. He’d hoped to make friends with the miners, instead . . . the suffocating stench of iron. He rubbed his eyes.

“Hard night?” Kvulf asked.

Bengt itched to wipe the superiority off Kvulf’s face, but merely shook his head. “Not an easy assignment,” he said.

“Ah, well.” The magazine went back up.

Asshole.
 

Chapter 3

The comandatura had weathered the storm relatively undamaged. Only the porch roof was missing. Alex unlocked the door and switched the fan on. No power. Well, he would’ve been surprised if there had been. When Kazatin came in, Alex sent him to Ria’s house before the clerk could settle at his desk. At just after nine, the sound of a motor drew him toward the window. The zorro cut deep tracks into the soft soil, and the windshield was covered in mud around the arches the wipers had left. Mendez climbed out and stretched—a slender, quiet man, just the other side of fifty, with deep-set eyes that rarely betrayed anything.

Alex went to meet him. “Good thing you’re here. I need the car. Have to pick up the ICE guys at the airfield in Cuevas.”

Mendez greeted him with a careless wave, studied Alex’s face, and nodded toward the split brow. “Do I want to know what you did yesterday?”

“Not really.”

“Apart from that, things are okay?”

Alex shrugged. “Hard to say. The whole thing’s pretty off-key. My report’s on your desk. It’ll be good to hand the case over.”

Mendez followed him into the office. “Hand it over?”

“Well, to ICE. That’s what they’re sending their guys for.”

“No, Rukow, whoever they’re sending to investigate this case will need help. Those people don’t know the first thing about Santuario.” Mendez glanced through the papers on his desk, then looked up, his gaze holding Alex’s. “I want you to keep a close eye on them. Don’t leave them out of your sight. You’ll have to watch out for them.”

“Me?” Alex stared at the capitán, hardly trusting his ears. He couldn’t even watch out for himself.

“Of course you. This is going to be ticklish, and you’re good with people.” Mendez fished out a report from among the papers Alex had handed in a couple of days ago. “Case in point,” he said. “Andres managed to get his truck stolen in Cuevas, but instead of filing it directly with the local policía, he comes to you.”

“Because he’s known me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Mendez shook his head. “Because he trusts you.” Then he sat at his desk and got busy with the stack of papers in front of him. Dismissed.

Alex stood undecided for a moment, then took his hat and left.

He drove carefully, intent on avoiding obstacles and deep mud or pools of water. The bridge was gone; only the posts on either side had survived the storm. He backed up and steered the zorro through the crossing further upstream. Thankfully, the water was already receding. The small town of Cuevas hummed with activity. Trees were being moved out of the way, shutters repaired, shingles replaced. He reached the airfield just as the plane touched down. Leaning against the zorro, hat pulled low against the sun, he let his mind run through possible dialogues in Skanes, thought of the drawing in his encyclopedia of the hunchbacked, hairy beast, and stared intently at the plane. The asphalt reflected the heat and made the air shimmer.

The plane taxied to a stop, and the door opened. Two figures appeared. And stopped at the top of the stairs as if they’d walked into a wall. Barrel-chested, long hair tied in the back, they were definitely not hunchbacked. Their faces were shaved, and they wore long-sleeved, dark suits that made Alex cringe in the heat. They looked like boxers who’d taken a heavy hit, until the taller of the two came down the steps and held out his hand in a gesture that looked freshly learned. Alex took it and shook it briefly. Firm grip, but no crushing contest. The nails were cut short, the back of the hand covered in soft, blond fuzz.

“Teniente Alexander Rukow?” the Skanian asked in a deep, quiet voice. “I am Bengt, Commissioner on Special Duty.” Alex was easily a head shorter than the massive Skanian and had to look up to welcome him. Bengt looked well-groomed and elegant, not in the least primitive. And way more normal than Alex had imagined after the picture in his book. A bit exotic maybe with his bright blue eyes, sand-colored hair, and high cheekbones. A strong jawline hinted at some steel behind that soft voice. But if it weren’t for his size, he’d barely be noticed in Santuario. Except for the eyes. Eyes like that would be noticed anywhere.

“My colleague, Kvulf, medical examiner,” the comisario said, introducing the other one, who was a few inches shorter and not quite as solid.

Alex shook his hand as well and threw a skeptical glance at the zorro’s narrow seats. “There is maybe a problem,” he said, hoping his Skanes was not as rusty as it felt.

“Will it hold?” Bengt asked.

“Yes.”

“Then we’ll try it,” he said and squeezed himself into the back. His colleague had no choice but to fill the passenger seat. The suspension groaned painfully, and Alex hoped the roads had dried somewhat so they wouldn’t get swallowed by the mud.


Chapter 4

The first impression Bengt had of Santuario was heat. An assault that burned the membranes in his nose and covered him in sweat before he’d even set one foot on the ground. Heat, and the smell of tar and burned rubber. For a moment, he stopped at the top of the gangway and squinted into the glaring sunlight. Next to him, the pathologist moaned. An open vehicle stood waiting on the tarmac. It was wider than high, which wasn’t saying much, since the seats were on the same level as the big all-terrain tires. The driver seemed asleep, leaning against the side door, his face hidden by a wide-brimmed hat, but Bengt thought he’d been looking up at them earlier. Was that the löjtnant who’d typed the report? Teniente, he corrected himself silently. The sooner he started thinking in Esprus, the better.

Bengt slowly went down the steps without taking his eyes off the man. The sand-colored clothing was probably a uniform, sleeves rolled up neatly to just above the elbows. Long legs, narrow hips, shoulders like a swimmer. Bengt barely remembered the appropriate greeting in time to hold out his hand as he introduced himself. The Santuarian’s grip was firm and brief, the muscles of his forearms sinewy under deeply tanned skin. Brown eyes regarded Bengt steadily from under the brim of his hat, the chin-cord of which ran loosely across a five o’clock shadow. He smelled of sweat and soap—and a mix of ocean and possibly herbs Bengt didn’t know. His uniform looked rumpled and sweat-stained, and his pant legs were covered in mud. But despite these signs of negligence, he conveyed an inner tension Bengt couldn’t put his finger on. Surprisingly, the man spoke Skanes. His language was a bit stilted, but grammatically correct, and his soft accent made Bengt’s mother tongue sound enticingly exotic.

The vehicle proved to be as tight as Bengt had feared, which made the heat even worse. At this rate, he’d be wrung out before he’d even started to work. He claimed the back seat and carefully stretched his legs across the drive shaft as far as he could. Let Kvulf squeeze in the front.

The Santuarian drove past the squat airport building onto the road. The town looked like a single chaotic construction site. Everywhere people hammered and cleared away debris, carried boards and buckets, and called from one roof to the next. Loud music blared from a radio somewhere.

After only a few minutes, they’d left the town behind. Trees and thick underbrush lined the largely deserted road.

Now and then, a pedestrian stepped out of their way; once, a few chickens fled into the ditch. The stifling heat and the swaying vehicle soon had Bengt in a stupor.

A pothole slammed him awake again. The teniente had left the paved road and turned onto a dirt road where deep ruts and potholes shook the vehicle and its passengers like a fun fair ride. Bengt held onto the door and the back of his seat for dear life. The doctor had managed to wedge himself between the seat and dashboard. Only the Santuarian seemed unaffected; he let the steering wheel glide loosely through his hands, and his body swayed back and forth in his seat with the movements of the vehicle.

“Everything all right?” he asked Bengt over his shoulder in his lilting Skanes.

“Mhmm.

“We are almost there. Not long now.”

A few tiny wooden houses came into view, and became a village that quickly disappeared behind them. The Santuarian steered the vehicle through a creek, water splashing high on both sides. A few minutes later, he stopped behind a Quonset hut, climbed out, and stretched his arms.

“I would like to introduce you to the capitán. Then we can walk across the beach to the . . .” He searched for the right word, and finally said in Esprus, “slaughterhouse.”

Bengt peeled himself out of the vehicle with difficulty, grateful to be able to stretch his legs again, but unsure how much movement he could expect of himself in this heat. He felt sticky and light-headed. Tiredly, he wiped the sweat from his face. “Where are we?”

The Santuarian briefly took his hat off and ran a hand through damp black hair. Only now did Bengt notice the fresh scab over one eye.

“This,” the teniente said with a wide gesture, “is the Comandatura Three. Welcome to Santuario.”

Bengt had an uncomfortable feeling that he was being mocked, and gave the Santuarian a searching glance, but he’d already turned away to meet the man coming around the corner of the barracks.

Gray-haired, but not old, maybe fifty, alert eyes. He, too, wore his chin cord like a scar across his cheeks. When he saw them, he smiled and held out his arms.

“Welcome to Santuario,” he said, echoing the words of the teniente in his own language.

Bengt had trouble quickly calling up enough Esprus to greet the capitán, who winked at him understandingly.

“If you need anything, please trust Teniente Rukow to take care of everything,” the capitán assured him with a side glance at his subordinate, whose expression froze instantly.

Bengt clenched his teeth in an effort to overlook the exchange. He remembered this kind of impoliteness from the miners. The Esprussians didn’t value openness. He’d known that, had expressly resolved to ignore it as a cultural idiosyncrasy, and yet . . . As the surge of blood in his ears mixed with the surf of the ocean, the events seemed more and more like a movie in which he was only a spectator.

# # #

Blood and scraps of meat rotted in the heat on the floor of the rendering plant, green flies shimmered in beams of sunlight, and the stench gave Bengt the final blow. Even the Santuarian covered his nose with his hand until they stepped inside the cold storage unit. Meat hung from hooks and lay unwrapped on metal shelves—the dead man on the wheeled table only one piece among many. Kvulf visibly pulled himself together to conduct a cursory examination. He talked into his voice recorder for a bit, then turned to the Santuarian.

“How long has the body been in cold storage?”

“Since yesterday morning,” the teniente answered in his slightly halting Skanes.

“Incredibly precise information. At which time was he brought here?”

The teniente’s cheek muscles jumped, but he merely shrugged. “The rurale found him maybe six, the exact time is written in the report. He was brought here as soon as possible. No more than an hour after.”

The doctor rolled his eyes. “Am I supposed to roll dice for the time of death, or what?”

Bengt wondered how they’d be able to bring the body to the mainland in any reasonable condition, and was thankful that wouldn’t be his problem.

“I’d like to go over the dump site,” Kvulf finally said.

The Santuarian didn’t move. “There is nothing anymore. The storm washed all out.”

“What in the—” the pathologist started impatiently, but Bengt put a calming hand on his shoulder.

“Please,” he said to the teniente.

The Santuarian turned without a word and left.

The doctor shook his head. “Is he retarded or just lazy?” He packed his bag. “I really don’t envy you this assignment.”

Bengt laughed mirthlessly. He certainly hadn’t asked to be sent here and had no clue how he’d manage. What riled him was the vague feeling that they bothered the Santuarian as much as he did them, and Bengt couldn’t for the life of him see why.

The teniente led them to the place where the body had been found, and Bengt marched up and down the deserted beach trying to get an impression, let the atmosphere speak to him. Finally, he gave up. He couldn’t get a feel for this place, for this whole indescribable island—the heat, the filth, the people, the fact that no one even remotely cared enough to explain to him what he needed to know.

“Did you find anything that looked like a murder weapon?”

“No.”

“Any possessions with the body?”

“No.”

“Does anyone live around here?”

The Santurian lifted his thumb back over his shoulder to point in the direction of the village they had come through earlier. “In Peones.”

Having just held back the doctor, Bengt now realized that he, too, was in danger of losing his patience. “Could you be any less chatty?” he asked, half joking, half exasperated.

“No.”

Fine. Bengt turned abruptly and walked back toward the comandatura. Don’t lose control now. Sloppy police work and arrogance was a hard-to-bear combination, but he had also felt the Santuarian’s anger and had noticed his rigid stance. Shit. Something was decidedly wrong here.

The teniente led them back to the comandatura and swore when he noticed the capitán had gone with the zorro. It took Bengt a minute until he understood that “the zorro” was not a person, but the vehicle they had ridden in.

The Santuarian asked them inside and served them a lukewarm drink he called tea. Bengt wondered why people in this furnace didn’t at least drink something cold, but the slightly tart drink quenched his thirst surprisingly well.

# # #

Only when he was finally in his hotel room that afternoon, standing in the shower with tepid water running over his head, did his thoughts begin to clear. He didn’t towel off; just turned the A/C to “Max” and stretched out on the bed, relishing the cool air on his wet skin. His feet hung over the end of the bed. He braced himself for a few uncomfortable nights, and, sighing, mentally went over the events of the day for his report.

They had been stuck in the Quonset hut for over an hour. At some point, the fan on the ceiling had started moving, the power had come back on, and the teniente had phoned around for transport. In the end, though, it’d been the capitán after all who’d come back with the zorro. He’d apologized to the Skanians and exchanged a decidedly non-apologetic grin with his teniente.

Things couldn’t go on like that. They were laughing at him. That not only undermined his authority, but also cast a bad light on the country he was, after all, representing in a way. Him of all people. He was painfully aware of the fact that he just couldn’t function here. He desperately needed something to help him deal with the climate—and more suitable clothes. With the decision to envoy his department immediately, he promptly fell into an exhausted sleep.

# # #

He woke up with a pounding headache, drenched in sweat. The morning sun blazed through the window, and the A/C had obviously capitulated under its cosmic attack. Groggily, he pushed himself upright and swayed to the only chair in the room, on and around which his luggage lay piled. He stood at the narrow desk under the window, swatted the brochure of the Grand Hotel Cuevas del Yeso—all rooms air-conditioned off the table, slid his netpad out of its cover, fumbled the plug into the adapter, and connected the device to the wall socket. The battery sign lit up when he switched the computer on. He swore tiredly, typed his SOS list and clicked send. The system hummed for a moment, but then informed him it hadn’t found a connection. He stared unbelievingly at the screen, wanted to grind the netpad into the equally disobliging A/C or at least send it flying after the brochure. He clenched his teeth, his splayed fingers hovering inches above the screen; then he curled his hands into fists and resignedly closed his eyes. He should have guessed.

When the knock on the door sounded, he was in the shower. He grabbed the thin hotel bathrobe, which was, of course, several sizes too small, tossed it aside, and instead wrapped a towel around his hips while walking to the door. Teniente Alexander Rukow, freshly shaven, in a clean, if rumpled, shirt, hat pushed back to his neck. A thin film of sweat glistened at his throat; other than that, he didn’t seem to feel the heat. He looked fit and well rested, which didn’t improve Bengt’s mood. On closer inspection, the scab over the teniente’s eye turned out to be quite a split, which might have warranted a stitch or two. Without that, it was sure to leave a scar.

The Santuarian lifted an inquiring eyebrow, and Bengt took a step back.

“Please,” Bengt cleared the chair and sat down on the bed, but the Santuarian went over to the window to draw the drapes against the sun. The relief was instant and remarkable. Despite, or maybe because of that, Bengt couldn’t hold back a “Feel right at home.”

The Santuarian ignored him.

“Did they say anything about a power outage downstairs?” Bengt asked.

Again, a grin flitted across the teniente’s face, quickly suppressed, but unmistakable. Rising anger joined Bengt’s bad mood.

The Santuarian shrugged. “You will maybe have power in the afternoon, rarely in the mornings.”

“And what about the communications network?”

“There is a telephone in the lobby. Or you can have an international line through our office. Envoy only with special computer lines or satellite.” The teniente’s face lost every expression. “Only the Securitas has those lines. At least here. Tierraroja has its own access.”

Bengt snorted. He grabbed the netpad off the table, added extra batteries and a sat-phone to his list, then printed it. The Santuarian leaned back and didn’t take his eyes off him.

“I need a few things. Would you envoy this to my office?”

Long fingers drummed four, five beats on the desk, the hand covered in tiny scars from knuckles to wrist. Finally, the Santuarian took the list and read it. “It is not good enough to just telephone this through?”

Weird sentence structure, but the Santuarian probably didn’t have a lot of opportunity to speak Skanes. “If it’s not too much trouble,” Bengt insisted, not quite managing to keep the irony from his voice, “I’d prefer an envoy.”

The teniente looked at him, then immediately lowered his eyes back to the list. “No problem.”

Bengt watched him closely. There’d been the briefest flash of anger, or maybe fear—there was definitely a problem. Why didn’t he say what he thought? The conflicting signals made him nervous—the indifferent eyes, the tension in the shoulders, the restless vigilance in the hands. Did he know more about the case than he was sharing?

The Santuarian folded the list twice and shoved it in his shirt pocket. “I will be in touch.”

Bengt frowned. “When?”

The teniente lifted hands and shoulders.

Again Bengt’s temper rose. Couldn’t the bastard just talk to him, at least make some polite conversation? Bengt stood up, wet, dressed only in a fucking towel, and tried hard not to shake the guy. The Santuarian, who barely came up to his chin, slid back toward the door. Easy, Bengt. Dial it back a bit. But then the bastard nonchalantly leaned his shoulders against the frame and shoved his thumbs in the waistband of his pants.

Insolent bastard, Bengt corrected himself. The corners of his mouth twitched appreciatively, but he was too mad to allow himself the grin. He took a deep breath. “What about the investigation?”

The teniente raised one eyebrow. Whoever had found it necessary to split that flexible brow had Bengt’s spontaneous sympathy.

“Has the victim’s description been relayed to the other departments?” He was too loud, felt light-headed, the room shrinking around him. He made a fist against his thigh. It annoyed him that no one had told him how the heat would affect his body, and even more, that he hadn’t thought of it himself. Obviously, the teniente wasn’t the only one capable of negligence.

“I will mention it.”

“Shit, what in the world are you people even doing here? A man died two days ago. Maybe I should be happy that anyone even noticed.”

The Santuarian lowered his eyes. But then that mobile brow rose in a mocking arch, and he let his gaze wander slowly up Bengt’s betoweled body. He briefly held eye contact, lifted his hand to his forehead in a salute, then turned fluidly on his heels and left the room.

Arrogant asshole. Bengt slammed the door shut behind him, ripped the towel off his body, and balled it up in his hands. With a frown, he regarded the wet terrycloth, made a conscious effort to relax his muscles, and hung the towel on the rail in the bathroom. Granted, he might not be the most patient man in the world, but to let someone get under his skin that easily was inexcusable.

He should write his report. Sunne would want to know how it had worked out. Fuck! Nothing had worked out, nothing had been accomplished. The doctor was lucky, must already be back on the plane by now. Sunne would recognize from Bengt’s SOS list that he had problems, but she could also expect those to disappear once he had his supplies.

Of course they would disappear. The exhaustion, this feeling of not being able to grasp anything, running up against walls, being the butt of some joke—it was the heat. Had to be.

He shook his head. He hadn’t asked the right questions. It wasn’t information about the case he was lacking, but about the world he had entered. He’d take the next occasion to ask this Teniente Alexander Rukow to explain some things to him. The thought of the expression his questions would elicit made him clench his teeth.

Maybe his mother was right and the breakup was still affecting him, even though he’d been the one to end it. But that was his personal problem and didn’t have anything to do with the case. He’d better just ignore the teniente. After all, what had really happened? The Santuarian did as he was told and wasn’t interfering; Bengt had worked with guys like that before. ICE had plenty of them. He’d get a grip on the teniente. He sighed and rubbed his face. Who was he kidding? He had about as good a grip on the man as on a wet bar of soap.

# # #

from Kim-Chan Experience

[A]stounding world building, richly imagined characters, and a tightly woven plot.

from Book Lovers Inc.

Santuario is a fascinating story . . . highly original and very well written . . . I will be impatiently awaiting the next book. G.B. Gordon is an author I will definitely follow closely.

from LeAnn's Book Reviews (by Shirley Frances)

. . . [V]ery interesting . . . I was hooked . . . I am looking forward to [the next book.]

from Romancing the Book

[E]ngaging . . . I am very pleased that there will be a second book . . . 

from One Good Book Deserves Another

I didn't put the book down . . . [A]n intriguing, complex journey of two very different men who come to realize they offer each other far more than either one of them knew they needed . . .

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