The Perfect Assassin
By Ward Larsen
Oceanview Publishing Copyright © 2006 Ward Larsen
All rights reserved.
Christine Palmer saw it right on schedule, a waxing three-quarters moon on the horizon. Bright and beautiful in its own right, the moon began lifting up toward the stars for what would certainly be another celestial masterpiece over the eastern Atlantic. She'd always been amazed by the number of stars you could see out here, away from the usual lights and pollution. Gentle swells made a rhythmic, hollow slapping noise against Windsom's fiberglass hull. The only other sounds were those of the boat's rigging, which creaked and groaned in proportion to the strength of the wind.
Christine raised her chin into a crisp southeasterly breeze, finding it remarkable that conditions on the open ocean could vary so greatly. The first night of her trip had been like this one, calm seas and a gentle breeze. The second night had been a singularly miserable experience. A strong weather system had rolled in, pounding Windsom with vicious winds and towering waves. Christine could do no more than keep the boat on course and the sails trimmed, all under a constant lashing of rain and frigid ocean spray. She'd spent most of that night on deck, wet and chilled to the bone. When the storm finally broke, late the next morning, she had collapsed onto her bunk, without even the energy to remove the foul weather gear that had done so little to keep her dry.
That had been four nights ago. Since then, the weather had largely cooperated and Christine convinced herself, perhaps with reaching optimism, that such trying times were necessary to find true appreciation of life's more placid moments. It was a satisfying concept, and one she suspected would be quickly discarded in the next squall.
Sitting at the helm, she twisted her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail and poked it through the back of her baseball cap. The luminescent hands on her watch told her it was five-thirty in the morning. The sun wouldn't be up for an hour. Christine tended to be an early riser, but sailing somehow magnified the trait. In the four days since the storm her routine had taken shape. She went to bed an hour or two after sunset, set the alarm to wake up once at midnight to check the sails, the autopilot, and the weather, then slept again until four or five. Aside from the one wakeup call, it was a natural fit for her body's circadian rhythm. And it allowed her to enjoy her favorite time of day.
Christine went below to the galley. When she crawled out of the bunk each morning, coffee was always the first order of business. It had to be brewing before she could go topside to face the day's other issues, such as whether or not Windsom was still pointed west. She poured her fix into a big ceramic mug, the one her father had given her last Christmas. It was an oddly shaped thing, similar to the Pyrex flasks she'd used so often in chemistry lab, wide at the bottom and tapering to a narrow, round opening at the top. The mug had drawings of famous schooners all around and a rubbery non-skid coating on the base. It was, in fact, the very same cup she had picked out for her father that Christmas. Mom had instantly seen the humor — the two sailors thinking alike again, probably even ordering from the same catalogue.
The pain returned as Christine thought of her father. It had been three months since Dad had died, and the hurt still came, only not as often, and it dissipated more readily. Being on Windsom seemed the best tonic. It had been a place of great happiness for their entire family this last year. She and Dad had crossed east to Europe last summer. On arriving in England, Christine flew back to Maine to finish her third year of medical residency. Then Dad had somehow coaxed Mom to England to spend a month cruising Europe and the Mediterranean. This was a terrific coup, since Mom normally kept herself a great distance from all large bodies of water. Christine had no idea what persuasions her father might have used to get Mom aboard until the answer slowly presented itself — a constant stream of postcards from the ports of Europe. It was a second honeymoon, Christine thought, much deserved after having spent twenty-eight years raising a family.
Christine smiled as the pain subsided. Making this westbound return was a catharsis of sorts. It was the first time she'd ever tried the crossing alone, her two previous runs having been with him. She had been trying to talk Dad into it only weeks before the stroke — a solo retrieval of Windsom from France during her winter break. He hadn't gone for the idea, and initially Christine was angry, thinking his reservations had to do with her sailing ability. That didn't wash, though. Christine had been sailing since she was a kid, and they'd both spent countless hours on Windsom. She decided he was only disappointed that she hadn't invited him along. Or perhaps he saw it as a final sign that his fledglings were all truly gone from the nest. Christine was the oldest, but her two younger sisters had recently ventured off on their own, one to college and one to the altar. Yet even after they were gone, Ben Palmer continued to dote on his girls. The fact that "little Christi" had been out of the house for nine years, and was more often addressed as Dr. Palmer, didn't diminish that she was still his girl. And only now did Dr. Palmer realize how much she'd actually liked it.
Christine went back up top, making sure to reconnect the safety line to her harness. It was a fast rule to never be on deck without it. Even the most sure-footed sailors could be sent overboard by a snapped line or a freak wave, and it was a sealed fate for a solo driver to go over in the open ocean without being attached to the boat.
She estimated her speed at four knots, about right for the untended graveyard shift. Now that she could keep watch on things, though, Christine let out more sail and was soon making closer to six. She clambered around the perimeter of the boat, checking Windsom's rigging up close. A halyard needed adjusting on the mainsail. A tie-down was loose on the eight-foot fiberglass dinghy that lay overturned and lashed to the portside deck. Her only other discovery was a small flying fish that had come aboard — recently, judging by the fact that its gills were still laboring slowly. Christine gently picked up the fish and dropped him back into his element, trying to see if he swam off under his own power. She couldn't tell.
It took half an hour for Christine to finish her morning rounds. Afterwards, she settled into the cockpit with her second cup of coffee. She held it close with both hands, not wanting to let any of the heat escape. It would still be a couple of weeks before the latitude and trade winds took the chill from the air. She looked to the horizon astern, brushing away strands of hair the breeze had swept across her face. Christine could just make out the subtle glow that announced the entrance of a new day. She watched, mesmerized, as the eastern sky slowly fell awash in rays of light. Then Windsom shuddered along its entire length.
Coffee went flying as Christine's hand shot instinctively to the tiller. "Christ!" she sputtered. The boat had hit something. Something big. Christine stood and looked ahead, but there was only ocean. A heavy scraping sound drew her attention to the port side, close in, where a huge timber slid by. It was half the length of her boat and as big around as a telephone pole. With another hollow clunk, it fell behind, rolling heavily in Windsom's wake.
Christine disengaged the autopilot and turned into the wind. The sails flapped loosely as she scanned all around. There was more flotsam. An empty gallon jug and some smaller bits of wood, but nothing like the first monster she'd hit. She eased the boat back on course and pulled in much of the sail to keep her speed down.
Reaching into the cabin, Christine found the binoculars. The sun broke the horizon to provide light as she scanned the surrounding seas, giving particular attention to what lay ahead. She spotted more debris, but nothing worrisome. It had probably come from one of the big ships, either thrown off as trash, or washed over in a storm. In any event, she'd keep her speed down for awhile until she was sure it was all behind.
Christine re-engaged the autopilot, figuring she'd better go up front to check for damage. She moved forward along the port rail, still scanning the waves ahead suspiciously. Nearing the bow she spotted something, bright red and squarish, bobbing in the distance to starboard. It looked like a big plastic cooler, and there was something lying over the top of it. She brought up the binoculars, focused, and was stunned by what she saw. It was an arm hooked over the cooler. There was actually someone out there!
Christine dropped the binoculars, but kept her eyes locked on the cooler as she backed toward the cockpit. She averted her gaze just long enough to open the hatch to the engine controls and start Windsom's small diesel. It sprang to life and Christine swung the boat straight at the bobbing red dot — she knew how hard it was to find something out here once you lost sight of it. Looking again with the binoculars, she could make out a head and shoulders above the water. Once she was closer, and certain she couldn't lose contact, Christine pulled in the sails to better maneuver.
As Windsom closed in she saw the person, a man, turn his head and wave weakly. Christine slowed the boat to a crawl, idling the engine ten yards away. She wouldn't venture any closer in the small but rolling seas.
"I'll throw a line and pull you in!" she shouted.
The man waved again.
Christine coiled a rope and heaved it across the divide, but the line fell away as he snatched at it. She gathered it in and tried again, this time laying the line right across his shoulder. He grabbed on and was barely able to wrap it once around his wrist. Christine pulled the man slowly toward Windsom's stern, but halfway there he lost his grip — first went the cooler, then the rope. He disappeared underwater, but came right back up. Without the cooler for support, the man seemed barely able to tread water. When he went under a second time, Christine had no choice. She checked that her harness was secure and dove in.
The shock of the cold was piercing. The man resurfaced as she swam over, and Christine approached him from the rear. "I'm behind you!" she shouted. "Just relax and let me pull you in!"
He went limp so suddenly that Christine wondered if he was even still conscious. She threw an arm across his chest and started pulling herself back toward Windsom by the line, praying he was alert and strong enough to get up the boarding ladder. She approached it with care, as the stern rose and fell heavily on the waves. Christine grabbed the bottom rung and was relieved to see him do the same.
"Okay, you first. Try to get a foot on the bottom step," she said. It dawned on her that the man might not speak a word of English. He got a leg on and she tried to shove him upward, but then he lost his grip. The man tumbled back in a graceless flop and disappeared. Christine lunged out, snatching with her hand, and was rewarded with a fistful of shirt. Pulling with all her strength, she got him back up, coughing and spewing.
Christine had only been in the icy water for a few frantic minutes but she already felt her strength beginning to ebb. She wasn't strong enough to pull him up from above. It was such a damned simple problem!
They both latched onto the ladder again and she yelled, "This time when the boat falls with the swell, try to get both feet on the ladder and stand. Let it pull you out as it rises, okay?" She pointed to the bottom of the ladder and the man gave a nod as if he understood.
With all the leverage she could manage, Christine pushed him up as the stern fell. He stood on the ladder and rose with the next upward swing. The wave crested, and at the high-point he wobbled for a moment, like a child's top losing its spin, then tumbled forward into Windsom's cockpit. "Yes!" she shrieked, right before getting slapped in the face by a breaker.
Putting a leg on the ladder, she came out with the next swell and crumpled to the floor of the cockpit next to him, frozen and completely out of breath. She could only imagine how he must feel. The man lay still as Christine collected herself. She knelt next to him, checking his pulse. It was weak, too slow for all the exertion. His skin was deathly pale, almost white. Then she noticed the blood stain on his shirt. She unbuttoned it far enough to reveal a four-inch gash running between the bottom two left ribs. He'd obviously lost some blood. Christine wondered how long he'd been out here. With that kind of injury, and with the water so cold, it couldn't have been long.
The man stirred and looked around blankly, a dazed expression on his face. He tried to sit up, but Windsom took a wave broadside and the jolt sent him back down to the deck, grimacing. Adding insult, both were doused with a sheet of salty spray.
Christine looked across the water and wondered if there could be any others. If so, would he even know?
"Do you speak English?" she asked.
The man didn't respond. His eyes drifted shut, and Christine knew what had to be next. She pulled her best drill sergeant's tone — he might not understand the words but at least she'd get his attention. "We've got to get you down below, into a bunk!" His eyes cracked open and she motioned to the cabin. He seemed to comprehend.
She helped him stand, and he leaned on her heavily, in obvious pain. They made their way to the steps, which he negotiated with the wobbling precision of a drunkard, Christine doing her best to stabilize his wandering inertia. Once in Windsom's main cabin, he collapsed onto the bunk. She propped his head on a pillow and figured the wet clothes were next. Gently, she pulled off the tattered shirt. His upper body was lean and muscular, and judging by the number of scars, Christine decided he must have found himself in the company of strange doctors on a regular basis. There was one particularly nasty-looking scar near the fresh wound on his ribcage. She took a good look at the new damage, hoping it was superficial.
"Any pain when you breathe?"
Again, no response. His eyes were closed and he was still pale, but at least the man's respiration had slowed now that he was lying down. To top it all off, he had what looked like a terrible sunburn, his face and arms blistered from exposure to the elements. She dug out her first-aid kit and dressed the wound, then checked for other injuries — any cuts, swelling or bruises. Christine gently palpated his rib cage and abdomen, finding no obvious complications. He wore no shoes, but she noticed when she took off his wet socks that the bottom cuffs of his pants were bound tightly around the ankles, tied with shoelaces. How strange, she thought. Christine untied them and removed his sodden trousers, leaving the man in his briefs. Next she got a towel, dried him off, and finally covered her patient with two heavy blankets. He stirred for a moment and his eyes opened, but they were void any semblance of coherence.
Christine went to the galley and poured a glass of water. She pressed it gently to his lips, "Try to drink. You must be dehydrated."
He managed a few swallows, but then coughed roughly.
"Take your time."
His eyes focused more clearly and he scanned the cabin, obviously trying to comprehend his surroundings. He finished the water, then drifted off again.
Christine was weighing what else she could do for the man when it dawned on her. Damn! She had never checked Windsom for damage. She wouldn't be much help to anyone if the boat was sinking. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Perfect Assassin by Ward Larsen. Copyright © 2006 Ward Larsen. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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