There were a lot of things McKinlay Spencer liked about Star. Like how she enjoyed driving fast. Since she was the Ziya, the ruler of the country, her green Buick flew the flag with its cat-snake emblem from the antenna. The citizens of Singii knew to scramble out of the way at the snarl of the Roadmaster’s powerful engine. In the passenger seat, Mack estimated fifteen minutes from the airport through the center of Saylor to Cliff House.
“It’s always a little fraught, when Stephen comes home,” she was saying. Her full name in the Asian style was Sze Stellamaris, and she had been born in Singii. But her parents had been white. No native of Southeast Asia had gray eyes. She wore a headscarf to keep her blonde hair tidy, and a flowered Western skirt.
Mack thought about her half-brother Stephen, who they had just seen off on his way to Melbourne to help with the 1956 Olympic Games. “Like Halley’s comet, yes. Rare. Glorious. And ominous.”
Star glanced at him over the rim of her sunglasses. “When a former ruler drops by the present one sits less easy. Like when a shark swims into the lagoon.”
“Possibly he doesn’t do it to you, his older sister.”
She grinned. “What?”
She gave a man time to get the words into complete sentences. “Every now and then you can see in Stephen that Greek deity quality. Handsome and tall, his hands full of blessings. But, if put to it, an entirely ruthless killer. Like Apollo.”
“Are you saying Dai threatened you? Mack, that’s thrilling. About what?” She used her brother’s Asian name. Everyone in the ruling family had three names, confusing but typical of the culture. Stephen See had been born Sze Daishin and briefly reigned as Salik IV.
“To be fair, your little brother threatened to threaten me. About you.” Carefully he kept his gaze on the road ahead. They were almost across the bridge now. Saylor, the capital, was low buildings clustered to the right, all of them charmless and newly built since the war. To the left was a shallow greenish bay, formerly a strait dividing the two joined islands which rose steep and green before and behind. “Your frightening brother was concerned about my divided loyalties.”
“To Shell Oil. And Washington. And…”
“And us.” Such a short word, to be freighted with so much meaning.
“A Venn diagram, with you in the middle.”
“You can see why he’s uneasy. I’m going to have to treat you right, he says. Or else.”
She laughed. “Stephen’s such a do-gooder.”
“He might be onto something.” He had to be careful here. If Stephen was a shark, Star was no less dangerous. Blunt, or wily? He made a snap tactical decision. “Star, would you marry me?”
She stamped on the brakes. The pinch-crown fedora tipped on his head as he was flung forward against the Buick’s dashboard. The follow car fishtailed and veered into the ditch. Pedestrians on the sidewalk beyond leaped back and shrieked comments in Chinese and Malay.
“You, you – Get out of this car!”
Such was her fury, he opened the door and stumbled out. He stood open-mouthed in the road as she reached across to pull the door shut. The Buick zoomed away in a cloud of dust. From the car in the ditch her secretary called in Malay, “Mr. Spencer? What the hell?”
Mack replied in the same tongue. “Never make snap decisions, Johari.”
It had been a mistake to ambush her. Mack himself loathed being blindsided. In spite of the firecracker temper, he knew Star would forgive him. But he was a lawyer, and lawyers were belt and suspenders men. The following morning he bought flowers at the vegetable market. Vivid but scentless bougainvillea and jungle orchids, a great sheaf of them, lay beside him wrapped in sheets of Chinese-language newspaper as he drove his own car up the hill.
The Ziya’s glass and concrete residence was new, paid for with oil revenue. But it was a house, not a palace. The rulers of Singii kept no unnecessary luxuries like a court. One of her stepfather Miyyol the Great’s many virtues had been fiscal prudence. He had taught Star well.
The housekeeper directed him to the shady walled garden at the side. Here on the hill the thick tropical humidity was swept away by the breeze from the Pacific. Singii was on one of the major migratory flyways of the hemisphere. From anywhere at Cliff House he could look up and see birds on the wing, distant and strange avians that he didn’t recognize on long journeys to places no one knew.
Star sat at breakfast under the arbor, cool in a Western flowered cotton dress with a full skirt. He doffed his hat. “Forgive me, cookie. I startled you. I shouldn’t have.”
Star rolled her eyes at his bougainvillea, exactly similar to the blossoms dripping from the canopy above her head. “Here, Uleni. Have these set in water.” Shifting from Malay to English, she went on. “Sit down, fella. We have a deal, right? This is a strictly as-needed relationship. No strings.”
He sat down and accepted the tea she passed him, a pale-green Asian brew in a handle-less porcelain cup. “Sze Daishin is all strings.”
Sesame wound purring around the legs of her rattan chair, and she bent to lift the cat into her lap. “You aren’t really frightened of my DiDi.”
The Chinese term for little brother. She had been raised speaking all three languages. “In the U.S. Stephen’s a pussycat. American as apple pie, the working stiff purring on his wife’s lap. But here? He’s Salik, and I heard the growl of the tiger.”
She smiled at him, more than a little catlike herself. “Shall we talk after, or before?”
He gave the answer she wanted. “My mind is clearer, after.”
“So’s mine.” She rose, setting the orange and white cat on the vacated seat cushion.
A side door opened from the patio into a corridor in the Ziya’s wing. There were no secrets from her servants, and Stephen was safely gone with his family. But innate caution kept him sedately at her heels until they passed through into the bedroom. He shut the door behind them. The modern lock clicked under his thumb with a solid secretive noise.
Then she was in his arms, her mouth on his. He unfastened his suit jacket before she could tear it off buttons and all. He could not be bothered with the side zipper of the gown. He flung the armful of flowered skirt up and aside, so that her car keys and karambit knife clattered from her pocket to the floor. Underneath she wore neither girdle nor panties.
Here in bed the brain fell away and the passionate body took over. They coupled like animals, fast and hot, rolling over and over on her wide bed. He forgot to take off his blue striped tie, and when the end of it got caught under her elbow he gasped for air. But nothing could slow him down as he hurtled towards climax, and she was above him, panting in his ear.
Fifteen minutes and it was over. Gently she loosened collar and tie for him, and swept the rumpled dark hair from his brow. “I may have stretched your necktie out beyond rescue. Should I buy you another?”
“I have others.” It was important that she never bought him stuff, never offered him anything of monetary value. The deal only balanced if it was fifty-fifty. He fished in the nightstand drawer for lighter and ashtray. The only time he ever smoked was with her, after. She’d learned it, along with cocktails and sex, from him. In return she had taught him how to cheat at cards. Brought up in a pirate kingdom, Star had a thoroughly Asian attitude towards morality.
He lit the Chesterfield for her. The glow of the match lit features tanned but fresh, rather too large for her face. Large eyes round but not deep-set, a strong nose between rosy apple cheeks, a wide firm mouth slightly overfilled with large white teeth, a round stubborn chin. Crashingly unglamorous, not even pretty, but he liked to look at her. She drew on the cigarette before transferring it to his lips.
He held the smoke in his lungs, blowing it out slowly through his nose. Either the erotic afterglow or the bright brilliant rush of nicotine fostered discussion. She tapped ash into the ashtray nestled in his chest hair. “We have a nice little mutual benefit thing going here. Friends. Lovers. Work.”
“You don’t know a person well until you sleep with them.”
“You mean, not just sex.”
“I don’t sleep here,” he noted. “With you.” It would be unwise.
“It’s kind of stimulating. You not being here except when we want it.”
He wasn’t sure what he did want, but it might be more than this. “How well do you know me, Star?”
“Pretty well, fella.” She pushed his loosened trousers, the boxer shorts still inside, further down. “Intelligence agent. War criminal hunter.”
The garments caught on his remaining shoe. He pried it off with his other foot and kicked the garments over the edge of the bed. “You remember Jessica ditched me.”
“Your wife, yeah. A Dear John note on the kitchen table. That’s all I am, your rebound girl.”
He smiled up at her. “She finally got in touch. A letter, forwarded from our old address to my lawyer pal Ralph in Honolulu, and then care of Shell Oil to Saylor. She wants to marry her new man, Jody. I go back in December and sign off on the final divorce paperwork.”
“Oh, Mack! I’m so sorry. I knew it was over, but you’re right. I didn’t know the divorce was imminent.”
“Nothing is real until it’s legally recorded.” He waved, brushing away the old loss with the cigarette smoke. “We were never friends, you know? The way you and I are friends. The war separated us for months at a time. It was a mistake, and by New Year’s it’ll be over.”
His clothing removed, she shed her own, unzipping the flowered dress and tossing it over a chair. Underneath she was strongly built, with big bones, a body like a cinder block. Although she was 38 years old, her body was firm with muscle, in better shape than his own.
“You might be more like my father. My mother was the love of King Miyyol’s life.”
He tipped ash into the ashtray. “But he wasn’t hers.”
“No. Mom gave him what she could, but that was all. And I can’t afford to give you more, Mack. For a Ziya, everything has to be business. What’s good for Singii is the only consideration. Don’t change the deal by asking me to marry you. Right now this is the deal. In bed.”
Mack wanted to protest. She deserved more than that. For that matter, so did he. But she wasn’t about to delve into it. She stubbed the cigarette out and moved the ashtray to the nightstand. “I have a council meeting at noon.”
“At the office.” It was only just past ten.
“Yep.” She eyed him speculatively.
He ran a fingertip over her little breast. “There’s time.” If this was a temporary arrangement, then he should take advantage of it.