As their outrigger banca skimmed across the rolling swells beyond the Sulu Sea, JoJo and Rasul Pangulag came upon the most amazing sight they had ever encountered.
Somebody was feeding the fishes off Berbalang Island.
The brothers were Badjao, water gypsies. They roamed the wild Sulu archipelago that stretches hundreds of miles from Borneo to the southern Philippines. Their families lived in shacks set on stilts above tidal waters, but the brothers spent days at a time in the slim twenty-foot banca, occasionally smuggling, usually fishing.
They rarely visited the waters around the island. Few Badjao ever did. The berbalang was a dreaded shape-shifting ghoul of Sulu myth, said to feed on the corpses of its victims. Most Badjao didn’t really believe that the island was home to the berbalang, but they didn’t exactly disbelieve it, either.
There were more practical reasons to avoid the island. It was beyond the Badjao’s natural territory, the placid shallows of the archipelago where one could travel three hundred miles without losing sight of land. Berbalang Island was a solitary place, with ferocious tides and wind-driven seas, the last chunk of land before several hundred miles of open water.
But the brothers’ catch had been poor for several days, and they were venturing out in hopes of changing their luck.
The island was a craggy hump of volcanic rock, forested with coconut palms and banana trees. JoJo and Rasul approached it from the west. They headed for a steep bluff that plunged down into the sea, an area where mackerel were known to run. The banca’s single-cylinder engine clattered as it labored through high swells. Rasul sat working the tiller. He watched JoJo standing easily at the prow, peering out across the open expanse of water, which blazed under the midday sun. Rasul was twenty-nine years old, JoJo twenty-seven. They were both small and lithe, brown-skinned men, although JoJo was perhaps an inch taller, his skin a tone or two darker from the hours that he spent in the hot glare of the sun, while Rasul sat in the shade of a canvas canopy.
They were about half a mile off the island when JoJo shouted over the engine’s noise and pointed out across the water. Rasul followed the line of his brother’s arm and finger. A speedboat was rounding the rocky point at the far end of the island. This was no hand-built native boat. It rode high, the sharp white bow uplifted, throwing up twin plumes of spray as it banged through the waves.
It was a wonderment. Neither of them had ever seen such a craft in these waters.
The speedboat slowed and stopped, settling into the water. At the wheel was a pink-skinned man with light hair. A foreigner, Rasul realized. It was stunning. No foreigner ever ventured within a hundred miles of these waters. The man at the stern stood up, and Rasul got another shock. He was huge, the biggest man Rasul had ever seen: tall, wide, and solid. His chest and upper arms bulged against a white T-shirt. To Rasul he looked like a pink bear.
He stood near the stern and lifted a tall white bucket. He tipped the bucket forward, and something spilled out over the side, splashing into the sea.
The banca was still pushing across the water, on a course that would take them about one hundred yards from the speedboat. As they closed the distance, the pink-skinned giant picked up another white bucket. Rasul shaded his eyes against the sun, looking through the glare, as the huge foreigner lifted the second bucket over the side and upended it. Solid chunks of something slithered out