Bitter Truth by William Lashner
Excerpt - Chapter One
"I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the hours of the waking day to the making of money for money's sake."--John D. Rockerfeller
En Route to Belize City, Belize
I suppose every hundred million dollars has its own sordid story and the hundred million I am chasing is no exception.
I am on a TACA International flight to Belize in search of my fortune. Underneath the seat in front of me lies my briefcase and in my briefcase lies all I need, officially, to pick my fortune up and take it home with me. I lift the briefcase onto my lap and open it, carefully pulling out the file folder, and from that folder, with even more care, pulling out the document inside. I like the feel of the smooth copy paper in my hands. I read it covetously, holding it so the nun sitting next to me can't steal a peek. Its text is as short and as evocative as the purest haiku. " Default judgment is awarded in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of one hundred million dollars." The document is signed by the judge and stamped in red ink and certified by the Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas of the City of Philadelphia and legal in every state of the union and those countries with the appropriate treaties with the United States, a group in which, fortunately, Belize is included. One hundred million dollars, the price of two lives plus punitive damages. I bring the paper to my nose and smell it. I can detect the sweet scent of mint, no, not peppermint, government. One hundred million dollars, of which my fee, as the attorney, is a third.
Think hard on that for a moment; I do, constantly. If I find what I'm hunting it would be like winning the lotto every month for a year. It would be like Ed McMahon coming to my door with his grand prize check not once, not twice, but three times, and I would get it all at once instead of over thirty years. It would be enough money to run for president if I were ever so deranged. Well, maybe not that much, but it is still a hell of a lot of money. And I want it, desperately, passionately, with all my heart and soul. Those who whine that there is no meaning left in American life are blind, for there is fame and there is fortune and, frankly, you can take fame and cram it down your throats. Me, I'll take the money.
For almost a year I've been in search of the assets against which my default judgment will be collected. I've traced them through the Cayman Islands to a bank in Luxembourg to a bank in Switzerland, through Liberia and Beirut and back through the Cayman Islands, from where payments had been wired, repeatedly, to an account at the Belize Bank. From the Belize Bank the funds were immediately withdrawn, in cash. Unlike all the other transfers of funds, the transfers to Belize were neither hidden within the entwining vines of larger transactions nor mathematically encrypted. The owner of the money has grown complacent in his overconfidence or he is sending me an invitation and either way I am heading to Belize, flying down to follow the money until it leads me directly to him. He is a vicious man, violent, deceptive, greedy beyond belief. He has killed without the least hesitation, killed for the basest of reasons. His hands drip with blood and I have no grounds to believe he will not kill again. When I think on his crimes I find it amazing how the possibility of so much money can twist one to act beyond all rationality. I am flying down to Belize to find this man in his tropical asylum so I can serve the judgment personally and start the collection proceedings that will at long last make me rich.
In a voice equally apathetic in Spanish and English we are told that we are beginning our approach to Belize City. I return the document to the briefcase, twist the case's lock, stow it back beneath the seat in front of me. Outside the window I see the teal blue of the Caribbean and then a ragged line of scabrous slicks of land, spread atop the water like foul oil, and then the jungle, green and thick and foreign. Clots of treetops are spotted dark by clouds. For not the first time I feel a doubt rise about my mission. If I were going to Pittsburgh or Bern or Luxembourg City I'd feel more confident, but Belize is a wild, untamed place, a country of hurricanes and rain forests and great Mayan ruins. Anything can happen in Belize.
The nun sitting next to me, habited in white with a black veil and canvas sneakers, puts down her Danielle Steel and smiles reassuringly.
"Have you been to our country before?" she asks with a British accent.
"No," I say.
"It is quite beautiful," she says. "The people are wonderful." She winks. "Keep a hand on your wallet in Belize City, yes? But you will love it, I'm sure. Business or pleasure?"
"Of course, I could tell by your suit. It's a bit hot for that. You'll be visiting the barrier reef too, I suppose, they all do, but there's more to Belize than fish. While you are here you must see our rain forests. They are glorious. And the rivers too. You brought insect repellent, I expect."
"I didn't, actually. The bugs are bad?"
"Oh my, yes. The mosquito, well, you know, I'm sure, of the mosquito. The malaria pills they have now work wonders. And the welts from the botlass fly last for days but are not really harmful. Ticks of course and scorpions, but the worst is the beefworm. It is the larva of the botfly and it is carried by the mosquito. It comes in with the bite and lives within your flesh while it grows, grabbing hold of your skin with pincers and burrowing in. Nasty little parasite, that. The whole area blows up and is quite painful, there is a burning sensation, but you mustn't pull it, oh no. Then you will definitely get an infection. Instead you must cover the area with glue and tape and suffocate it. The worm squirms underneath for awhile before it dies and that is considered painful by some, but the next morning you can just squeeze the carcass out like toothpaste from a tube."
I am lost in the possibilities when the plane tilts up, passes low over a wide jungle river, and slams into the runway. "Welcome to the Philip Goldson International Airport," says the voice over the intercom. "The airport temperature is ninety three and humidity is eighty-five percent. Enjoy your stay in Belize."
We depart onto the tarmac. It is oppressively hot, the Central American sun is brutal. I feel its pressure all over my body. The air is tropically thick and in its humidity my suit jacket immediately weighs down with sweat. There is something on my face. I am confused for a moment before I realize it is an insect and frantically swipe it away. We are herded in a line toward customs. To our left is the terminal building, brown as rust, a relic from the fifties, to our right is a camouflaged military transport, being loaded with something large I can't identify. A black helicopter circles overhead. Soldiers rush by in a jeep. Sweat drips from my temples and down my neck. I shuck off my jacket, but already my shirt is soaked. I brush a mosquito from my wrist but not before it bites me. I can almost feel something wiggling beneath the skin.
After we hand our passports over for inspection and pick up our bags we are sent in lines to wait for the dog. I sit on my suitcase and pick at the amoebic blob swelling on my wrist. A German shepherd appears, mangy and fierce. He is straining at his leash. He sniffs first one suitcase, then another, then a backpack. The dog comes up to me and shoves his nose into my crotch. Two policemen laugh.
Even inside the terminal it is hot and the sunlight rushing through the windows is fierce and I feel something dangerous beyond the mosquitoes in the swelter about me. I wonder what the hell I am doing in Belize but then I feel the weight of my briefcase in my hand and remember about the hundred million dollars and its story, a story of betrayal and revenge, of intrigue and sex and revelation, a story of murder and a story of redemption and a story of money most of all. Suddenly I know exactly what I am doing here and why.