Search
About

The Bulgarian ambassador is found eviscerated in his London quarters, and Major Sonja Slade of the Prussian Army searches for his killer while trying to forget her own ties to the dead man.

Contents
Kitty
Navigation
Monday
Jun242013

Week 28

John, The Insurance Clerk

There was something sharper about the air out at sea. The salt, perhaps, pinpricking into my forehead as I scanned the horizon which was glowing with the dawn.

I felt unmistakably awake. This was not a dream. This was real and all the more reassuring for it. The boat bobbed and swayed under my feet and the engine was silent, but the sea was no threat to me and the weather no danger. I was awake. This was real. Only my dreams gave me cause to be afraid.

“I think I know where to look.”

The voice came from behind me. The stationmaster emerged from the bridge carrying a chart and brought it forward to where I was standing. It flapped in the breeze and he folded it over to keep it steady while he pointed with his thumb.

“We are at the correct coordinates, but the current moves this way. Perhaps the wreck has shifted. We will go east.”

I agreed and he returned to the bridge, where he fired up the engine. I grasped the rail as the boat lurched forward with a belch of diesel smoke then wheeled to the right.

This was the stationmaster’s boat. His name was Evangelos, it turned out, and we hadn’t been out of each other’s sight since I’d returned to the coastguard station and asked for his help the night before.

When I’d told him about Hristos and how I’d found him, Evangelos had wept. I’d been surprised. I would have thought that a member of the emergency services would be inured to death, but he said that he always cried when someone died, always had, even when he was serving on the lifeboats himself. He might not have approved of Hristos’s lifestyle, but the lad was young and didn’t deserve to lose his life. Especially not like that.

While he was still wiping his eyes, I’d given him my theory about why he’d been killed, and it wasn’t because of his recreational drug habit. His murder was linked to the Lasserre, and if they’d killed Hristos to cover up the report of the supposed sinking, they might well come back to clear up any other loose ends – people like me. And Evangelos.

So we grabbed the charts, boarded his dumpy fishing boat and headed out from the harbour to find what we could. He had some basic diving equipment, but I wasn’t planning to get into the water. Evangelos was confident that a wreck the size of the Lasserre – assuming it was a wreck – would be easy enough to spot from the surface, even in weak daylight.

One thing was for sure. The Lasserre wasn’t here.

The boat chugged eastwards for half an hour and I looked over each side, searching for angular shadows or a telltale swirl of oil. Nothing. Having set course towards the low glaring sun, Evangelos also preferred to look out over the side.

That may have been why we didn’t spot the ship sooner. We were approaching it from the aft, which gave it a narrower profile, and it was directly in line with the sun. Evangelos saw it first. The shimmer of the sun and its reflection on the water made it hard to judge scale and shape, but we pulled over to the south as we approached.

I tried to assess the vessel through a pair of binoculars. It was certainly large. Possibly a tanker. If it was moving, it was going very slowly because even our little fishing boat was gaining on it. Within ten minutes we were close enough to see the name written high on the ship’s aft: LASSERRE. The screws weren’t turning. The vessel was adrift.

We pulled alongside and Evangelos sounded his horn. It echoed back off the towering steel hull of the tanker. There would be no way for us to board the Lasserre without help from above.

A full minute later, we saw a crewmember poke his head over the side of the ship. He waved his cap at us and we chugged forward a little more until we were directly below him. Evangelos shouted something to the crewman – apparently an official request to board, in his capacity as a coastguard – and the crewman scuttled back out of sight.

After another minute, a rope and then a wire ladder were slung over the side. While Evangelos dealt with the ropes, I started the unsteady climb up. The rungs were less than a foot wide and the whole ladder twisted like a ribbon in a gale.

Two pairs of hands reached over the side and helped to haul me up over the rail, landing me like a net full of herring. The stationmaster vaulted the railing with a practiced swing of the leg and helped me to my feet. The crew jabbered on it Greek, good naturedly, though one of them didn’t look like a local and he spoke with a strong accent. He was oriental, chinless and whippet-thin. Thai? Micronesian?

Evangelos spoke and the pair of crewmen beckoned us towards the bridge, which sat close to the rear of the ship. It was a long walk. As we went, I couldn’t help noticing how clean the deck was. Exceptionally clean. Not only that, but there was barely any deck furniture – no piles of equipment, no life preservers, no recreational facilities for the crew, not even any ropes except for the one they had used to tie up our boat.

As we got closer to the bridge, the skipper stepped out of the side door and shouted a greeting from the top of the stairs. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt decorated with a tropical scene, palm trees swaying over a white sand beach. When we were close enough to see his face, I noticed he was tanned to the colour of terracotta. He and Evangelos shook hands and exchanged words, then the captain gave an ah of recognition and addressed me in English.

“From London?”

His accent was Spanish. No, his features were more South American. Peruvian, perhaps. I smiled back.

“Yes, just a courtesy call. We heard you had some trouble.”

“Trouble? No, no trouble here.”

Evangelos chipped in now, English having become the common language.

“One of the coastguards reported that this ship had sunk.”

At that, the captain laughed.

“Does this ship look like it has sunk?”

“We tried to hail you. Many vessels tried, many times. You did not reply.”

The skipper shook his head. “Sometimes my crew are lazy. I apologise. There has been a mistake. You have had a wasted journey.”

He started to usher us to the door.

“As we’re here,” I said, “do you mind if we have a look around? I believe the ship’s just been refitted. It will save us conducting an inspection next time you’re in port.”

“Very well. There’s not a lot to see,” said the skipper, picking up a peaked cap as he led us away.

“Oh – could you bring the ship’s papers with you? Always best to check the small print.”

The skipper smiled at me, then snapped an order at one of the crewmen, who searched through the drawers at the back of the bridge as we descended the steep stairs into the living quarters of the ship. They were tidy and small without so much as a magazine or a dirty plate on the tables. And, I noticed, they had a remarkably fresh smell. It wasn’t the freshness of the sea air, though. It was the freshness of air freshener, cloying and sweet, and I consciously started breathing through my mouth rather than my nose.

Then there was the other odour underneath the perfume, the one that was not quite masked. A stench. Rot.

We passed three more crewmembers as we descended into the ship’s lower levels. The captain pointed at restored fittings and newly welded plates as we went, but the details weren’t what concerned me. There was something odd about the whole ship. It was all simply too clean for a vessel that had a dozen men on board for a week. The bare deck bothered me. The smell upstairs.

We reached the engine room and the skipper talked us through the new parts that had been fitted while the ship was in dock. The oriental crewman from the bridge (Chino-Viet? Singaporean?) arrived with the ship’s papers just as Evangelos was nodding at the vessel’s impressive turbines. I took the papers and looked through them. Insurance dockets I recognised from Ludgate & Smythe. The original registration certificate from Midway.

“Captain, pardon me,” I said, “but why aren’t the engines running? What’s the problem?”

“They overheated. We let them cool down now.”

“And when did that happen?”

“It happens sometimes. We run for a few hours, then stop again.”

“When did you last stop?”

“A few hours ago.”

I looked over to Evangelos and he put his hand against the side of one of the engines. He pulled it away, scalded.

“You’ve barely sailed ten miles in the past three days. Can I see your logs?”

“Pardon?”

“The ship’s log, your diary. The record of what you’ve been doing every day.”

“I will have to prepare it. It is not up to date.”

“Refusal to maintain proper records is a maritime offence, captain.”

“I do not refuse. It is only an accident.”

“Then tell me what the hell is going on here.”

“The engines overheat. They are still hot.”

“After several hours.”

“Yes!”

“That is not a satisfactory explanation, captain. You have failed to keep adequate records, your radio operator is consistently ‘lazy,’ you appear to have been drifting for days and your engines are most peculiar – as are your crew’s quarters and a number of other factors that make me very uncomfortable. You leave me with no option but –”

“No, sir, I can explain.”

“Then explain.”

“I – I – the engines overheat and –”

Clearly we are not going to get to the bottom of this here. We are taking this vessel to Piraeus for a full investigation.”

“No, no.”

“I hereby take possession of this vessel on behalf of Ludgate & Smythe of London...”

“You idiot, stop!”

“...and transfer the registration from Midway to the British Empire, under whose jurisdiction I place you under confinement in accordance with British maritime law pending an investigation.”

“You crazy bastard! Do you know what you’ve done?

“Evangelos, would you help me take the captain upstairs to the brig or to any room we can make suitable?”

I expected some resistance, but the skipper went wild. He shoved Evangelos in the chest and pushed past me then leapt towards the steep staircase, his feet slipping on the metal treads as he scrambled to escape. As he ran he yelled Spanish words I recognised as profanities and prayers. The chinless crewman followed close behind him before Evangelos or I had the chance to recover. I couldn’t think where they planned to escape to, but then it occurred to me that they might be running to collect weapons. Most ships of this size had a gun cabinet.

I chased after them. The captain was two flights of stairs ahead of me, directly over my head, but his frenzied progress was all haste and less speed. I was gaining. I still might catch him before he reached the –

Something enormously leaden and violent landed on the top of the ship, sitting the vessel down in the water and sending my stomach into my throat. In this windowless box, it felt like my innards had be squashed by an invisible pair of hands then stretched to the length of my body as the vessel surged back up again.

The captain lost his footing, clattered down the stairs and landed at my feet. He pushed himself away from me until his back was against a steel grille. His eyes were red with fury.

You’ve killed us, you stupid asshole! We’re all dead!

« Week 27 | Main | Week 29 »