Death of a Siren: A Novel

Death of a Siren: A Novel

by William S. Schaill

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613734261
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

William S. Schaill is the author of seven nautical thrillers, including Cabot Station, Seaglow, The Wreck of the Misericordia, and MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate. He spent a month living on the Galápagos Islands in 1961. After serving in the US Navy as a lieutenant, he had a long career in educational publishing before becoming a novelist.

Read an Excerpt

Death of a Siren

A Novel


By William S. Schaill

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 William S. Schaill, Trustee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-429-2


CHAPTER 1

I wrapped the remains of my tattered canvas boat shoes around my feet and looked up at the strange building that was staring down at me. I then choked down the last of my foul water, which did little to quench my thirst, and manhandled the dinghy over the side of the boat. I hadn't seen any signs of life near the stone building, which I was already thinking of as "the castle," but there had to be some. Oddities like that don't just grow out of the ground on their own. Not even on an island so distant, ephemeral, and otherworldly that many doubted it ever existed, even 150 years after its discovery.

I rowed across the cove to the beach directly below the castle and sprang out into the shallow water. After hauling the dinghy up onto the stony beach, I paused again to catch my breath. From where I stood the building seemed shrouded in shadows. Whether this was due to the light or the angle from which I was viewing it or the color of the stones used to construct it I don't know. In fact, I didn't really care, since my mind was fixed at the moment on water. Cool, clear, fresh water. I sprinted up a path that led inland, the thin rubber soles of my shoes immediately proving no defense against the stony ground.

The ground leveled off fifty yards up the path. On either side I was surrounded by a small but prospering vegetable garden filled with tomatoes, spinach or some other green, and several kinds of beans. It was, I thought, a near miracle considering the dry, thin, sandy soil from which the plants were emerging. A miracle and the result of great labor. Twenty yards later I passed through a low hedge of cactus into a sort of formal garden. Various types of cactus and agave had been laid out in a pattern with paths running between the beds. Odd, I thought, but appropriate considering the soil. I continued through the prickly desert garden and found myself standing on a patio paved in what seemed an arbitrary pattern with the same tan, brown, and black volcanic rocks used in the rest of the construction. "Hello?" I shouted. "Is anybody here?"

There was no reply except the gentle flapping of what looked like a white curtain in one of the windows and the chirpy screeches of the little gray-brown finches that watched me from the surrounding dry brush.

The castle was considerably larger than I'd realized before. Another wing of rough, mottled stone stretched inland, away from the cove. On closer examination I could see there was no glass in the windows; the openings were protected only by crude wooden shutters. Directly ahead of me was a large opening in the stone wall, flanked by heavy doors of weathered wood planks. Inside, all I could see was darkness. It was like looking into the mouth of a deep cave that somehow absorbed the sunlight.

After almost three continuous months at sea, I was out of shape, sweating and puffing from the hike up from the beach. I paused to catch my breath. I watched as a little lizard chased an even smaller one up the stone wall. The lizards paused, the pursuer's throat puffing in and out like a kid's brightly colored balloon, shimmering slightly as it did. And then the chase was on again.

Time was passing, and my mouth felt as if it were filled with sand. Bold action was called for. "Hello?" I shouted again, then marched across the patio and through the double doors into a sort of great hall. On my second step I tripped over her.

As my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness I was able to clearly see a woman's body lying on the floor in front of a large, formal sofa. She was dressed in twill riding trousers and a khaki shirt, and she was drenched in blood. Blood that was no longer a lively, gem-like red but more of a restrained, dirt brown. She was lying on the brown-stained floor on her left side and bent slightly at the waist, as if she'd crumpled as she fell. Then I realized a hatchet was sticking out of the right side of her head and a riding crop was still clenched in her left hand.

I've dealt with more than my share of mangled, bloody bodies, bodies crushed by trucks or repeatedly shot or sliced to ribbons or drowned in their own bloody, diseased vomit, so I wasn't totally shocked. All the same, I was upset. I don't like seeing people die, and I don't want to die myself. Whenever I look at a dead body I always feel a little sad, even when I suspect the deceased deserved to die. More to the point, there was one dead body I would never get out of my mind — the body of the guy I killed. He deserved it, that's one thing I'm very sure of. Whether or not he should have died, however, is of only secondary importance. The important thing is that his death was the cause of my many current problems.

My thirst momentarily forgotten, I leaned over what was left of the woman and took a closer look. She had chestnut hair and was far from old. Early middle age at most — about my age. If she were still alive she'd have been very attractive, although it was hard to be sure with all the blood on her face and head. When she was younger she probably had been beautiful.

Sitting off to one side was a heavy polished mahogany coffee table with four or five empty beer bottles on it, along with maybe half a dozen rocks of various colors. All had a vaguely metallic, oily cast. Decorations of some sort, I assumed. Somebody, maybe the dead woman, was a rock collector.

The woman seemed to me totally out of place, as did the polished, carefully crafted furniture, so foreign to the rustic, crude architecture of the building. Who was she? What was she doing here? Where had she and the furniture come from? Why was she dead?

"Ilse!"

I turned to find a man dressed in long trousers and an undershirt standing behind me, staring at the corpse. He was tall and stringy with close-cut gray hair and an almost skeletal face. On that face was the strangest look I've seen in a long time, a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. Then I noticed his teeth, which were glinting even in the dim light. They appeared to be made of metal. Every one of them.

"You've killed her, you son of a bitch," he shouted in German. "Why did you kill our baroness?"

It took me a moment to shift mental gears, but I finally managed to do so. Growing up, most of my friends were Irish, but I was a "Dutchman," as Germans were often called on the east side of Manhattan. Not a tall, blond Teutonic German but a middle-sized, dark-haired German. I do, however, have blue eyes. And because a lot of German was spoken at family gatherings — when I had a family — as well as in the streets, people tell me my accent is tolerable. For an American.

"I didn't kill her," I shouted back, as confused as I was angry. He was bigger than I but looked emaciated. I figured I could take him if necessary. Except for the shotgun he was pointing at me.

"Who the hell are you?" he screamed, shaking the gun at me. "Where did you come from? Why are you here?"

I looked again at the gun and decided to try reason, despite the almost mad fury that filled the fellow's face. "Look! Her blood is already dried, and I just walked through that door two minutes ago. I arrived at this island half an hour ago. My boat is anchored down in that cove."

"You came to rob us. To rape our baroness. You walked in that door and killed her with that ax."

I looked at him, whoever he was, and wondered if maybe he had killed her, whoever she was. I couldn't see any blood on him, but he might have cleaned up. Then I looked at the gun. It was still pointed right at my gut, and he was clenching it tightly with both hands. Could I take it from him? I doubted it. My first attempt at reason and logic hadn't achieved much, but I had no choice except to give diplomacy another try. I looked at the gun again. "Look," I said with the most pleasant smile I could force onto my face, "I didn't kill this woman."

"She was our mistress and our lover. She was our life. She was our baroness. Demanding but adorable. We were a happy family, Ilse, Ernst, and I." His eyes filled with tears, and he looked like a man who had just lost everything he ever valued. I didn't know how to respond.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"My name is Frederick Freiman."

"German?"

"No, American."

"You're a lying shit." The tears had disappeared, replaced by a snarl as he rammed the gun barrel into my side, then pulled it back. I lunged for the barrel but was too slow and received another vicious stab at my kidney. Stumbling back, I couldn't take my eyes and mind off his gleaming, pewter-colored teeth.

"I must find Ernst and tell him. You, march!" As he spoke he waved the gun toward an opening in the wall that led into what proved to be the kitchen. The space was far from grand but totally adequate for its function: stone walls, a big porcelain sink with a single faucet connected to a pipe that disappeared through the wall, a black, cast-iron stove and oven, and several long wooden tables and storage chests. Each surface had been scrubbed to within an inch of its life. "Pick that up," my host shouted, waving the gun in the direction of a wooden trapdoor set into the floor.

I could guess where this was leading, and my throat, dry as cinders now, began to clamp shut. "Water, please." I had to struggle to get it out.

"Open it, shithead!"

I bent down, grabbed the ring in the center of the door, and lifted. In front of me lay a dark hole that I assumed was some sort of root cellar or cool storage pit. I had started to lay the door down when the shotgun's butt slammed into the side of my head. Even before the pain could blossom fully I felt myself kicked forward. I fell, knees first, through the hole, only to come to a bone-crunching stop almost immediately. Fortunately, I didn't land directly on either knee, although both legs and my side were badly bruised. The bruises were nothing, however, in comparison with the Fourth of July horror inside my skull.

Before I could recover my wits and take even one breath, the door slammed down and I was surrounded by total, absolute darkness. I tried to stand but vomited instead, barely aware of the crashing and scraping as my jailer moved something heavy over the door. Shuddering, clutching my head, and on the verge of screaming, I lay there for some time. Later, much later, my brain began to work again. I forced myself to stand and pushed up on the door. It was there to stay. I sat down hard on the rough floor and found myself focusing on the throbbing pain in my side and legs. I managed to stand again, and again tried the trap. As I already knew, I wasn't going anywhere soon.

CHAPTER 2

This, my first acquaintance with the fabled and tortured Galápagos Islands, occurred on a warm, dry late October afternoon. It was 1938 and World War II was exploding to life. Hitler had already wrapped his arms around Austria and was in the process of doing the same to the Sudetenland. Back in the Fatherland, he was busy building concentration camps and filling them with political opponents, Communists, Gypsies, Jews, and just about everybody else he didn't like. And on the other side of the Pacific, in Asia, the Japanese were equally busy beating the crap out of every Chinaman they could get their hands on. Based on what I'd read in the newspaper, the world was a mess, although many Americans seemed totally unaware of it. I, however, was certain it was just going to get worse. Dire though the world's prospects seemed at the time, mine seemed only marginally better. My discovery of Las Encantadas, as the Galápagos are sometimes known, was a godsend. Or so it had seemed at first.

I'd set out from New York three months earlier in an old forty-foot ketch named Pegasus. I'd told everybody I'd met since leaving Sheepshead Bay that I wanted to prove I was just as tough and salty as old Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. Not quite as tough, I guess, since I planned to use the Panama Canal rather than suffering all the way around Cape Horn. But that explanation was a lie. I'd left New York because it was a very, very good time for me to get out of town. I'd left because if I hadn't, I'd have been dead within weeks, if not days.

The first leg of the trip, from New York south around Florida and on to Panama, had gone swimmingly. Once I'd made it through the canal, though, everything began to fall apart. The engine overheated and cracked. I considered turning back but was certain that the less time I spent in places where American English was spoken, the longer I would live. Pegasus and I continued on toward Tahiti. The next day the radio died of saltwater poisoning. And then everything really went to hell. Vicious squalls attacked day and night, drowning me in rain and saltwater and driving me far south of my intended track. When the weather let up, the wind died. As I drifted, inscrutable ocean currents and countercurrents carried me south and east, then west, then south into the Doldrums, those windless regions where, according to fable, ships can be trapped for eternity. I became merely a passenger, utterly powerless to control the boat's movements.

Days passed and soon became weeks. Many weeks. What do people who sail alone over long distances think about? The wind, the waves, how fast the boat is leaking, and how much food is left. I also thought, hour after hour, about what I'd left behind and where I'd really like to be at the moment. And how hard they might be looking for me, and what they'd do to me when they found me. And I worried about whether Uncle Alf would ever forgive me.

Six weeks after I passed through the Panama Canal, I was down to a couple gallons of thick, green, organic water that didn't improve in flavor even after being filtered through an old shirt. I knew I couldn't last much longer. I sat in the cockpit hour after hour and stared out at the limitless Pacific.

A pair of porpoises appeared, one off each side, blew, and swam past. Not even they could, or would, help me. I didn't want to die at all, but if I was going to I wanted to die fighting. I resented having to wait for it, sitting and doing nothing. Then I spotted a smudge on the horizon to the northeast. "Oh my God!" I gasped, after I convinced myself it wasn't just a freak cloud. It had to be one of the Galápagos, because there was nothing else for hundreds of miles. Pegasus continued ghosting through the dark-blue waters of the Pacific, driven by a light breeze from the northwest under a cloudless sky as blue as the water.

I lashed the wheel and went below to celebrate my salvation with a cup of warm, green-tinted water. I tried to sleep but couldn't, so I spent most of the night pacing around the deck, willing Pegasus to move faster, faster. Although the boat and I were almost precisely on the equator, the air and the water were cool, thanks to the north-flowing Humboldt Current, born in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

I wasn't the first navigator to stumble on the Galápagos by accident. Or to miss them the same way. The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish first called them Las Encantadas, the enchanted ones. The islands are separated from the Ecuadorean mainland by the vast, trackless expanse of the faceless Pacific Ocean, a plain whose only road signs are the ever-changing waves. Thanks to the confusing ocean currents and the lousy navigational practices of the times, Las Encantadas were never found where the early, imprecise charts said they should be. Many a frustrated navigator concluded that they were figments of somebody's imagination — or works of the devil himself.

The morning after I spotted land, I found the sun hidden directly behind a towering black mass I tentatively identified as Floreana Island. As the orb rose, its rays wrapped themselves around the island's volcanic cone, driving away the heavy, lingering shadows and slowly turning the mountain a brilliant dark green higher up and a pale green-tan at the base. Crowning the peak was a wispy white cloud that looked as if it had been snagged while drifting past.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Death of a Siren by William S. Schaill. Copyright © 2016 William S. Schaill, Trustee. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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