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CHAPTER ONE
Twenty Seconds

 

December 24, 1991

 

What you still need to know is this: When Death comes for you, she does not steal into your home like a thief in the night bumping against the detritus of your ordinary life. The chipped white cabinet with its squeaking hinges. Your grandmother’s broken teapot. The stuffed dancing monkey from America that takes pride of place on your mantle.

No. Death comes like a lady.

She opens the door and waits, sensing into the darkness. If all is well. If your life is full of joy and triumph. If your lover is attentive. If dark clouds part like shimmering dew in your presence, she will turn back the way she has come. She will close the door with a click so soft, you will wonder if you heard anything at all.

But if you are trapped in the inky darkness. If the scent of your imminent demise wafts in your nostrils. Well then, she might just make her appearance . . . and you would be grateful.

Do you know what it feels like to die? To feel that last gurgling breath wriggle its way through your windpipe?

I do.

When Death came for me, I was only five years old. A tiny girl-child, I stood on the edge of a cliff high above the Caribbean Sea while the boys of St. Marc perched below, shouting and taunting.

Plonje! Plonje!” they cried. Dive.

Easy for them to say, they knew how to swim. In the bustling Haitian port town where we lived, young boys spent the early hours of the morning diving into the bottomless ocean. They popped back up moments later with nets full of docile carp and grouper, rock lobster, sardines and even conch. They brought their bounty home for the women to cook with some fresh plantains and a spicy pikliz sauce.

“Rose is such a bébé-la-la. What a big baby!” someone shouted loud enough for me to hear.

The laughter intensified until I felt its vibration in my clenched teeth and in the tears that sprang to my eyes. I’m no baby. I squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest. In an instant, my feet were racing across the jagged rocks and into the deep, blue sea.

I’m flying!

I hung in the air like a laughing gull with great big flapping wings. It felt so good that I allowed myself to think, if only for a moment, that it would be okay.

Then the water rushed up to meet me.

You imagine my drowning as some long, drawn out affair with much screaming and crying and floundering about? No. There is only stillness. Wrapped in a paralysis of fear, the body cannot move.

For a child, the process is mercifully quick. It takes just twenty seconds to swallow a mouthful of water. Twenty seconds for the lungs to claw frantically at a tiny bubble of air. Twenty seconds to gasp and choke and vomit it all up only to take it back in with the next desperate inhalation.

Twenty seconds.

The last time Death came for me, I was a woman ancient in my bones. We were crossing the Caribbean Sea in a boat some half-hearted carpenter put together over a long weekend. Only the tiniest sliver of moon peeked out from beneath the darkened sky. I stayed alert. When the jolt came, I was ready.

The boat collapsed in a pile of wood and metal, splinters and shards. We plunged into the sea. By now, I knew enough not to resist. Why should I? This salt-seasoned world is as instinctively familiar as my mother’s womb.

Not so for the others. They struggled fiercely, churning the water with their arms and renting the air with their screams.

Ede mwen. Help me.

The process of drowning is not nearly as merciful for adults. We struggle against the inevitable, it is our way.

It takes three minutes for an adult to stop fighting. Three minutes to become so exhausted you can’t even raise your nose and mouth out of the water. Three minutes for the body to pulse and throb to a rhythm so erratic it does not register as a heartbeat.

Three long, endless minutes.

I went to work, swimming past scraps of lumber and old memories. I dove deep into the churning water, then popped back up with a lifeless shell curled in my arms. We enter the world in a tight little ball and leave in the exact same way.

I counted off as I worked: Three. Six. Nine. Twelve. Fifteen. Seventeen.

Where is she?

I counted again: Three. Six. Nine. Twelve. Fifteen. Seventeen.

Still, she is not here.

Where is the baby girl who had wrapped her tiny arms around me moments before our boat melted into the sea? Even in the darkness, I had felt the weight of her stare. It was as if she knew that I—

Ede mwen. Help me.

I heard the words reverberate in my soul. I couldn’t stop myself from plunging deep into the water once more.

It is all blues and dark, dark grays down at the bottom of the ocean. I made my way by touch, my hands groping through the debris of a thousand sunken ships. My lungs begged for much-needed oxygen. I swallowed hard—not the air that I craved, but the brine-soaked water that craved me. My lungs were now razor blades scraping against tender flesh.

I dove lower, feeling the seawater rush through my veins, curdling my blood. I need to breathe. The thought screamed through my mind, but I knew it was meaningless. I could not have what I wanted. This is the price of my salvation.

I dove even lower.

My hands collided with a sharp, bony elbow. Meci, Papa Bondye. Meci. I praised Father God as I grabbed hold of my burden and pushed against the weight of the ocean.

But I had stayed too long.

I could feel the spasms in my throat threatening to close off my windpipe. I could neither inhale nor exhale. I kept moving only because the human body is a series of reflexes and electrical impulses that don’t always know when they’ve been shut off.

I pushed up even as the darkness descended all around me. Then, just as the final twinkle of light started to fade, I broke free.

I swallowed huge, greedy gulps of air, choking and spluttering. A sharp, wheezing cough racked my body. For a long time, there was only this—the sounds of life.

When the violence subsided, I looked down at the young girl still wrapped in my arms. She did not stir. The soft pebbles of her eyes looked up at me without recrimination, but also without hope.

No! Not this time. Not this little girl.

I pushed the breath of life into her with a small prayer. How long had it been? Twenty seconds? Three minutes? Three hours? I don’t know. I pushed more air into her, but it eased through her body without resistance. I pounded her chest, then breathed again. Still nothing. She will not see her sixth birthday.

I allowed her body to join the others.

The air crackled with a sudden energy only I could feel. “Take me,” I begged, my strangled cry piercing the darkness. “I want to go home.”

You still have work to do, a stern male voice replied.

I trembled at the words, but of course I must obey. How could it be otherwise?

In the distance, I heard the roar of engines as the ocean shifted from the command of nature to that of man.

The Americans were coming.

CHAPTER TWO
Every Human Needs to Breathe

 

January 7, 1992

 

She could kill him, Renee François thought, her eyes traveling hungrily down her opponent’s body. It would be easy.

Adam Hartman was in his early thirties, just a few years older than her own twenty-eight, but he was already burdened with the pasty skin and pudgy middle of a man who spent too many hours hunched over a computer screen. He wasn’t some heavily muscled gym rat she’d have to balance against her one hundred and thirty pound frame—although, even that was easy if you knew what you were doing.

She knew what she was doing.

Every human needs to breathe, her self-defense teacher liked to say. All she had to do was get between this human and that need. Where would she aim the first blow? She pondered the question, scanning his body once more. The throat, she finally decided. The jugular notch, that visible dip between the clavicles in the center of the throat, made an excellent target. A well-placed jab in that hole would send the pasty Mr. Hartman reeling. It would only incapacitate him, of course, but if she aimed right, he would go down and she could reach in for the kill. She could almost hear the last gurgling breaths shudder through his body.

The killing itself would be easy, but how would she dispose of a dead body on a military base? She let out a defeated sigh and turned her attention back to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s resident lawyer-asshole.

“I’m here to do a job, Mr. Hartman, and I’ve only got three days to do it.” She kept her voice level and calm, in the way she might talk to an uncooperative child. “I need to see my client.”

Adam leaned back in his seat and placed his size thirteen loafers on the battered desk in front of him. Small patches of sand clung to his soles, a few flaking off to disappear on the stack of manila folders littering the desk.

“Not possible,” he drawled, his eyes gleaming behind black, wire-rimmed glasses while beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. “The Marines can’t supervise your little chat right now. It’s a security issue. I’m sure you understand.”

He didn’t give a damn if she understood, that was clear. She thought about her four a.m. wake up call and the long flight from Boston to Norfolk. She had been sandwiched between a chatty old man and a screaming infant whose hapless mother could do little to console him. Her arrival at the Naval Air Station in Virginia brought no relief. After three hours of waiting, she boarded a military plane and took a seat so hard it felt like being stretched on a rack. Then, after several more hours in the air, the plane made a heart-in-the-throat landing, braking hard on a cliff with just a few feet of runway separating them from the Caribbean Sea.

Now, here she was on a godforsaken wasteland being jerked around by an INS bulldog. “I just need twenty minutes,” she said, still hoping to appeal to her opponent’s better instincts. “I was appointed Rose Fleurie’s lawyer only a few days ago, and I want to introduce myself and maybe ask a few questions. Where’s the security risk in letting a client speak to her lawyer?”

“These people don’t need lawyers.”

She blinked, fighting for her composure. The room smelled of diesel and jet fuel exhaust, not to mention the very human scent of sweaty male flesh. A ceiling fan whirred overhead, doing little more than recycling the heat. She could feel herself wilting under the “light-weight” Armani suit she had worn for the past twelve hours. The padded shoulders stuck to her bare skin, and the pencil-skirt kept riding up on her thigh. Her power suit had made an impression in conference rooms all over Boston, but it was wasted out here. She would have given anything for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.

“Ms. Fleurie is seeking asylum in the United States, she most certainly needs a lawyer,” Renee said, “and I need time to prepare my case—”

“Well, I can help you there,” Adam interrupted. “I’ve got an offer for you. If you take it, you won’t have to worry about preparing your case.”

This should be good. “I’m listening,” she said.

Adam shifted his weight, planting his feet on the floor and leaning forward as the chair creaked in protest. “If your client will voluntarily consent to be returned to Haiti, we can promise her head-of-the-line privileges when she re-files her asylum claim from Port-au-Prince.”

“You want to send Ms. Fleurie back to Haiti in the middle of a military coup?” She paused, wondering if she was missing something. “How is that a good offer?”

“She’ll be one of the first claims we process.”

“Can you guarantee her asylum?”

He shook his head. “She’ll take her chances with everyone else.”

It was now her turn to lean back in her seat and stare him down. “She’ll be dead inside a week.”

Adam huffed dismissively. “Not even the Haitian military is going to waste time on a cook.”

Renee took several long, steadying breaths. “She is a chef. President Aristide’s chef, to be precise. The military deposed him. They slaughtered five thousand of his supporters within forty-eight hours of his departure, and you want to send back a member of his Administration?”

“It’s a stretch to call a cook part of a presidential administration, isn’t it?” Adam jeered.

She could feel her anger rising, but she kept her gaze off his jugular notch and focused on her breathing. “You obviously have no idea what’s going on in Haiti right now. Anyone remotely connected to the President is being slaughtered. There’s blood in the streets.”

“Haitians have been killing each other for centuries,” he said. “It is their way.”

She stared at him in silence, struck dumb by his words.

“For Rose Fleurie to be granted asylum,” Adam continued, “you have to show that she has a credible fear of persecution based on her political activities. What did she do? Bake political slogans into her pastries?”

“We’ll take our chances,” Renee bit out.

He reached for a manilla folder and threw it across the desk. “I tried to save you the hassle, but you obviously don’t know a good thing when you see it.”

She stared at the folder, a smudged black heel print marring its cover. “What’s this?”

Adam smiled with reptilian grace. “Proof that your client is going to prison unless you wise up.”

She flipped open the folder, quickly scanning its contents.

“I’ll save you some time and get to the punch line,” Adam said. “Your client murdered those people on that boat.”

“Murder?” Her hand shook as she thumbed through the file.

“We can bring her up on eighteen counts, and she can spend the rest of her life in a six by nine cell, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Or, we can ship her back where she came from. In Haiti, she can go on a killing spree to rival Jeffrey Dahmer for all I care. Your choice.”

She balled her trembling hand into a fist and laid it at her side. “I need time to review this material. And I definitely need to talk to my client. Now.”

Adam jerked a thumb toward the window. “I told you, the Marines are too busy processing boat people.”

She leaped from her seat, her chair scraping against the cement floor. “They are not ‘boat people,’” she said, her voice vibrating with an anger she could no longer hide. “They are political refugees fleeing persecution. They have the right to seek asylum in the United States—and we have a legal obligation not to return them to a slaughterhouse.”

“They are economic migrants,” Adam shot back. “I’d send them all packing if it was up to me.”

She thrust her face in his, so close her breath clouded his glasses. “Well, it’s not up to you, Mr. Hartman. People much more important than you have seen fit to give Rose Fleurie a hearing. I better get access to my client by tomorrow morning or it’s your ass on the line.”

She snatched the folder off his desk and stuffed it in her briefcase. Then, she stormed out of the room and into the oppressive heat that had descended on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

CHAPTER THREE
Honor Bound

 

It was almost six o’clock, but the sun overhead showed no signs of mercy. Waves of heat shimmered off cracking asphalt, and a translucent haze covered the landscape. Renee stood outside an old airplane hanger in McCalla Field, which now served as the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s temporary quarters. McCalla was a decommissioned airport that—like almost everything else on the naval base—was named for one of the heroes of the Spanish-American War. The air smelled of jet fuel, as though the airport could return to duty at a moment’s notice, shuttling Marines from one Caribbean hotspot to the next.

She squinted against the sun’s glare and scanned the horizon. Guantanamo Bay was a forty-five mile expanse of desert, a rugged terrain of hills and mudflats punctuated by cacti and palm trees. But just beyond the sun drenched landscape, the blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea undulated across the horizon, the waves crashing to shore in a cascade of white foam. The water beckoned with an almost irresistible force. Two hundred and ten miles away, Haitians were heeding the call. Thousands of people were taking to the sea in rickety wooden contraptions masquerading as boats.

Boat people. That’s what Adam Hartman had called them. She should have punched him in the throat when she had the chance.

An old memory teased at her. She was a gap-toothed third grader at P.S. 193 in Brooklyn. Coke-bottle glasses hid her earnest brown eyes, and two fat braids fell neatly down her back. The school bell rang, signaling an end to her daily reprieve.

She went tearing out of the school yard, her stubby legs pumping hard, braids bouncing haphazardly in the wind. She ran down Avenue L with its two-story houses and their tidy little yards. Across Ocean Avenue with its looming high-rise apartment buildings. Past Brooklyn College. Past the small park where the youngbloods smoked weed and pounded out endless games of checkers waiting for their beepers to go off. She kept running, her breath coming in sharp gasps, heart pounding an off-beat rhythm in her chest.

She was too slow. She was always too slow.

Most days, she made it to the corner of Flatbush Avenue before her nemesis struck. Mark Washington was the worst of bullies. A beefy fifth grader with a scar over his left brow that he supposedly got from fighting a teacher, Mark chose a new victim to torment at the beginning of every school year. It was her turn.

He hid in the stand of trees lining Flatbush Avenue and leaped out screaming, “Go back to the banana boat, Frenchie!” He doubled over with laughter as the tears streamed down her cheeks.

No amount of reasoning worked on Mark. She had even smuggled her birth certificate to school one day and thrust it in his face, proving she was born at King’s County General Hospital in East Flatbush.

“I’m an American,” she insisted.

“You just got off the banana boat, Frenchie.”

For Mark, the analysis was simple: her parents were Haitian, so that made her one of the “boat people.” Nothing she said or did would change his mind.

“You ready, ma’am?” a voice interjected.

She hadn’t thought about her old life in Brooklyn for years. She had fled that world for a new life in Boston. The helpless young girl she had once been was long dead.

“Ma’am?” The voice was more insistent this time.

She looked up, startled to find her military escort less than an arm’s-length away. “Yes, I’m ready,” she hastily replied.

Petty Officer John Wilkes pointed to a jeep parked just a few feet away. “After you, ma’am.”

“Can we walk?” she asked. “I’d love to stretch my legs.”

He gave her an assessing look before peering thoughtfully over her left shoulder. “Chow hall’s not too far,” he conceded.

They walked along the airfield, Renee wiping impatiently at the beads of sweat on her forehead.

“Is it always this hot?” she asked, glancing at her companion.

Despite the pale skin that went with his red hair, Petty Officer Wilkes seemed impervious to the heat. His uniform—a long-sleeved khaki shirt and sharply creased trousers—was as crisp now as it had been when he picked her up at the ferry landing a few hours earlier.

“No,” Petty Officer Wilkes grunted. He waited a moment then grudgingly added, “We got us a heat wave.”

He was not a talkative man, but she kept trying. She could use an ally. “It was thirty degrees and snowing when I left Boston this morning. It feels strange to be in a heat wave.”

“You from Boston?” His gaze visibly softened. “Me too.”

So, they did have something in common. She decided to press the advantage. “Where?”

“Dorchester.”

“Do you miss it?”

He nodded. “Miss my mom, but I’m lucky to have my wife and kids on this deployment.”

She gave him a startled look. “Your family is here?”

For the first time, he smiled. “GTMO is not as bad as you think. We got pretty much everything you’d expect from a small town in America. A golf course, bowling alley, even a McDonald’s. The local school’s pretty good too. And we got zero crime.”

It was hard to think of Guantanamo as just another Mayberry, USA. For one thing, most small towns in America were not surrounded by 17.4 miles of steel and razor wire, on the other side of which lay their sworn enemy.

“Don’t you get island fever?” she asked. “This place is tiny.”

“Thirty-one miles of usable land, mostly on the coastline. It’s not Boston, but I keep busy when I’m not on duty.”

“Doing what?”

He glanced at her almost shyly. “Directing a play,” he mumbled.

“A play?” She wondered if she’d heard him correctly.

He blushed. “It’s called A Few Good Men. Takes place right here on GTMO. They’re supposed to be making a big Hollywood movie about it.”

“I saw it a few years ago.” Paul had taken her for one of their date nights—back when they were still working on their marriage.

Officer Wilkes stopped in his tracks. “You saw the play?”

She faltered, staring warily at him. “It was good.”

“You think you could . . .” He paused, clearing his throat. “I mean, any chance you’d come to one of our rehearsals? I could use the help.”

“Well, I—” She didn’t know a thing about acting or directing, and it had been awhile since she saw the play, but she could hardly turn down the chance to create an ally in John Wilkes. “I’d be happy to come,” she finally said.

He let out a breath. “Thank you.”

They started walking again, and now she felt comfortable enough to ask the question that had been dogging her since her arrival on the island. “What are all those lines for?”

He didn’t need to ask what she was talking about. Though they were contained behind a large metal fence topped by razor wire, it was impossible to miss the crowd of people stretching to the horizon line. They drooped beneath the sun’s glare like a parched bouquet. Some wrapped damp towels around their heads for a bit of relief from the heat. Others fanned themselves with a small, hopeless wave of the hand, crumbled bits of newspaper, a sodden white handkerchief.

He threw a cursory glance over his shoulder then shrugged. “They’re waiting on their appropriations, ma’am. Soap, towels, toilet tissue and rations—that sort of thing.”

“They” were the approximately two thousand Haitian refugees the Coast Guard plucked from the ocean and deposited on Guantanamo. They were milling around a large field of beige canvas tents that provided little cover from the sun.

“It must be ninety-five in the shade,” she said, turning her palms up as if to measure the heat. “Surely it’s too hot to be standing out here like this?”

He stiffened. “We’re doing our best, ma’am. Didn’t have much time to prepare. Most of us missed Christmas with our families to build this camp.”

“I understand,” she replied, “but is there a way to dispense supplies in each tent rather than having people stand around waiting?”

“We’re not aid workers, we’re soldiers,” he snapped. “They told us to give humanitarian relief to these people, so that’s what we’re doing.”

“What I meant was—”

An officer walked by, his dress whites practically gleamed in the sunlight. Petty Officer Wilkes clicked his heels and saluted his superior.

“Honor bound, sir.”

“To defend freedom, sailor,” the officer replied, saluting smartly in return.

She looked on the exchange in silence, having learned one thing for sure. Guantanamo was no Mayberry.

CHAPTER FOUR
The Pearl of the Antilles

 

“Welcome to The Pearl of the Antilles. I hope your room is satisfactory?” The bellhop’s rolling Jamaican accent lent a melodious cheer to the words as he carried Renee’s suitcase into the hotel room.

He was a talker. In the ten minutes since check-in, Renee learned his name was Eric, and he was one of the roughly one thousand foreign workers on Guantanamo. They came on temporary contracts—mainly from Jamaica and the Philippines—to work service jobs on the island. Eric hoped to save enough money to pay his medical school tuition back home.

Renee followed him inside, her gaze skimming past the broken armoire, the mismatched desk and chair, and the full-sized bed squatting in the middle of the room. A thin layer of dust covered every surface, and a musty odor made her nose twitch. This was the Pearl of the Antilles?

“It’s fine,” she said, laying her briefcase on the battered desk while Eric opened the windows, chatting incessantly as he went.

“The heat has been very bad these last few days. There’s no air conditioning, but you do have this.” He turned on an enormous but ancient fan, filling the room with a metallic whine that set her teeth on edge.

“I’ll be ok.” She discretely palmed a ten dollar bill and handed it to Eric, who flashed her a wide, toothsome smile before making his exit.

Alone at last. She hadn’t been left to herself since her arrival earlier that afternoon. The military-issued commuter plane landed on the leeward side of the island, and John Wilkes met her at the ferry landing on the windward side. He shadowed her every step—even standing watch, like an impatient chaperone, while she choked down a slice of cardboard-flavored pizza for dinner. He nursed a warm beer in silence, glancing at the exit door every few minutes. She barely swallowed the last of her pizza before he practically frog marched her out of the chow hall.

He drove her to the hotel and peeled out of the parking lot before she could even thank him. Obviously, whatever headway she had made with him earlier was lost.

Renee crossed to the open window. It was after seven o’clock, and the sun was mercifully setting behind the majestic Sierra Maestra, Cuba’s highest peak. The mountain range sheltered Tainos escaping colonial rule, guerrilla fighters in the Spanish-American War—or what ten million Cubans across the fence line called the Cuban War of Independence. Even Fidel Castro found sanctuary in the depths of the Sierra Maestra during the Communist Revolution. But it was no proof against the heat.

She could feel the heaviness of the air on her skin. If it was this bad in a hotel room, what must it be like in a canvas tent in the middle of an abandoned airfield? She tried not to think about the people who hunkered down on the hot, broken asphalt less than a mile away.

There was nothing she could do for them. The Bush Administration decided Haitian refugees didn’t need lawyers. Instead, the U.S. Coast Guard was deployed to intercept them at sea to dispense their Solomon-like wisdom. It was the Coast Guard that decided, at least in the first instance, who would be saved and who would be sent back to Haiti like some rejected package stamped “return to sender.”

The process was as demoralizing as it was chaotic. Moments after being plucked from the sea, the traumatized and bedraggled refugees were lined up and treated to a barrage of questions.

“Who are you?”

“Where are you going?”

“Why did you leave your country?”

The lucky few who spoke English and could make a credible claim for asylum were “screened in.” They would be sent to the United States in a matter of days for further processing. Everyone else was “screened out.” They would soon find themselves on a one-way boat ride back to hell. The Coast Guard had already intercepted thirty-eight thousand Haitians and summarily returned twenty-eight thousand of them.

No one got a lawyer, so why was Rose Fleurie so lucky?

Renee pulled away from the window and walked back to her desk, flipping open the file she had taken from Adam Hartman. She sank down into the battered chair and skimmed through his memo, which mostly restated the small bits of information she already knew.

On Christmas Day, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter stumbled on a gruesome scene: a lone female clinging to a wooden plank surrounded by eighteen corpses. The Coast Guard plucked Rose Fleurie out of the water and prepared to send her to Port-au-Prince, as they had so many others.

But Rose was not like the others.

Somewhere in Washington, D.C., a phone rang in just the right office. Suddenly, Rose was being granted a temporary reprieve from deportation. More surprising still, she was granted the right to a lawyer.

Why? What made Rose so special?

It was true that she had worked in the Palais National, Haiti’s equivalent of the White House. But she was a civil servant, and not technically a part of Aristide’s administration—despite the argument Renee made to Adam earlier. Rose’s status should help her asylum case, but it didn’t explain why she was being treated so much better than the other refugees.

Renee paged through the file in search of answers. What she found was a photograph, a Polaroid of a young girl crouched in the fetal position with an arm outstretched in a macabre plea for help. She must have been beautiful once, with her heart-shaped face, high cheekbones and full lips, but she was not so beautiful now. Decomposition had already set in, eating away at her flesh while a patchwork of blue-green algae bloomed on her chest like a second skin.

Renee gently placed the picture on the desk only to reveal the next one, and the next. She spread them out until eighteen pairs of sightless brown eyes stared helplessly back at her.

By now, she should be immune to pictures of drowned Haitians. They had become a staple on the front page of every newspaper in America. At the airport that morning, she picked up a copy of the Miami Daily Sun with a headline that screamed “Thirty-Three Dead in Florida’s Magnificent Mile.” The cover photo showed a grotesque mound of naked dead bodies framed against a backdrop of million dollar homes.

The residents of Hillsborough Beach were quick to complain. “The government has to do something about this. We pay our taxes, and we object to living here with the remains of these boats and the stench they leave,” one resident told a reporter.

She wrenched her gaze from the pictures, blinking back tears. The Hillsborough Beach Thirty-Three would remain nameless, but this little girl had an identity. She was Eléne Guillaume, five years old. She was born in Fond-des-Blancs, a town in the southern part of the island that was once an enclave for Polish immigrants who fought alongside the victorious slaves in Haiti’s revolutionary war.

It was all the information they had on this poor little girl. Name. Age. Place of Birth. It was barely enough for an epitaph on a gravestone, but they were lucky to get even that much. Eléne had been carrying a passport wrapped in plastic and carefully stitched to the inside of her dress.

Renee scanned the autopsy report and landed on the all-important line: “Cause of death: Undetermined. Method of death: Homicide suspected.” While she might have assumed the cause of death for a floating body in the middle of the ocean as obvious, none of the eighteen corpses exhibited the telltale signs of drowning. There was no white froth on their mouths or noses, and no significant amount of water lodged in their lungs, stomachs and intestines. As a result, the report ruled out drowning.

Renee pushed back from the desk and reached for the whining fan, shutting it off. The temperature immediately rose ten degrees and the abrupt silence hurt her ears, but she hardly noticed. She had bigger problems.

How the hell was she supposed to figure out what—or who—killed eighteen people stranded on a small boat in the middle of the Caribbean Sea?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I learned to tell stories in my grandmother's courtyard in St. Marc, Haiti. On long nights, with the wind rustling in the trees, we sat around the fire telling stories. We moved to Brooklyn when I was five, and I learned to tell new stories from the books and tv shows I loved (Little House on the Prairie, Bionic Woman). These days, I write thrillers that evoke the heart pounding fear of a dark night with the badass heroines of my childhood.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I was a law student in the 1990s when the Haitian refugee crisis broke out and Guantanamo Bay first came to the attention of most Americans. I wanted to preserve some of that history, and the heroine of my novel, Renee François, wanted to litigate her case. We're both satisfied.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write because the voices in my head tell me to! Like most authors, I can't remember a time when I wasn't telling stories and scribbling notes on scraps of paper. It feels like the right time to finally bring those stories out into the world.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I catch my breath at the sheer beauty of Toni Morrison's prose. Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver's poems help make sense of my world. Edwidge Danticat and Isabelle Allende make me cry ugly tears. When I'm courting nightmares, it's Lisa Gardner and Karin Slaughter all the way!

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