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By Robert Masello
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Robert Masello
All rights reserved.
Skolnick tried to light another of the cigarettes he'd bought in Koto Baharu, but this one fell apart between his fingers too.
Pomeroy, at the wheel, laughed. "Hand-rolled," he said, as Skolnick brushed the dry tobacco off his lips and tossed the paper overboard.
Skolnick said, "I'd kill for a Camel."
"I'll buy you a whole pack when we put in at Pattaya."
"How long are we in port?"
Pomeroy shrugged. "Three days, four." Leaning on the rim of the wooden wheel, he looked out over the undisturbed expanse of ocean. It was a clear night, with a three-quarter moon, and the Gulf of Thailand glistened all around him like a slab of polished onyx. He thought about the carved figure—a black owl with its wings furled—that he'd almost bought in Koto Baharu, and he was sorry he hadn't; he could have had it for five dollars American and it was probably worth a hell of a lot more than that stateside. Next time he wouldn't be so stupid.
Skolnick, who'd finally managed to light one of his Malayan specials, put his feet up on the wheel deck and blew out a cloud of smoke. "A pack of Camels," he mused aloud, "a couple of cold beers, and if I can find her, that same piece I had last time."
"You mean if you can afford her."
Skolnick smiled. "I've been savin' up."
They fell silent again—the only sound the constant, powerful thrumming of the engines. This tanker, the second largest in the Calais company fleet, carried 360,000 cubic feet of liquefied natural gas. At a steady thirteen knots, she'd put in to harbor at about noon the next day. Pomeroy just wanted his pay and a good night's sleep; Skolnick could tear up the town if he wanted to.
The smell of the cigarette gradually filled the wheelhouse, making Pomeroy even sleepier. Idly, he checked the instrument display, to be sure of their bearings. The currents here were wildly unpredictable, but the tanker had succeeded in holding to within a quarter degree of its plotted course.
Skolnick, taking a last drag on the cigarette, took his feet down and leaned toward the observation window. He stayed that way for several seconds, not moving a muscle, then said, "Take a look off the starboard bow, about two o'clock—tell me what you see."
Pomeroy rubbed his eyes and gazed out at the dark horizon. All he saw was miles of ocean, glimmering in the moonlight.
"I don't see anything."
"Keep looking." Skolnick had picked up the binoculars.
Guy's seeing things, Pomeroy thought. Stare at the ocean long enough and you can see anything you want.
"There," Skolnick announced, "there it is again."
"There what is?"
"A yellow light, a signal ... right where I said."
Pomeroy looked again ... and this time he saw it too—an amber light that flashed for a split second and then disappeared.
Skolnick was on the intercom to the radio room, giving the approximate coordinates. "Yeah, yeah, but check it out anyway." He hung the microphone back on the cabin wall. "They say the only thing out there is the Rotterdam, ten kilometers southeast ... but that ain't the Rotterdam."
The light flashed again.
"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" Pomeroy asked.
Skolnick nodded. "If you're thinkin' boat people ..."
They both knew what that meant. Endless red tape coming into port, delays, confrontations with every petty official in town ... it was almost enough to make Skolnick regret he'd ever seen the light at all. But he had, he was on record with it now, and they'd just have to follow through. The cardinal rule laid down by the owner of the fleet was to rescue, at any cost, any such refugees spotted at sea. One whole crew that had failed to had been summarily dismissed, without pay.
"Better call down to the captain," Skolnick said, and Pomeroy picked up the hand mike.
"He's not gonna like this."
"Not with the head he had on him."
There was a clicking on the intercom, and a bleary voice said, "What is it?"
"Pomeroy, sir. We've got an unidentified vessel off the starboard bow."
"Well, why the hell don't you radio 'em?"
There was a pause, then a muffled, but audible, belch. "Boat people?"
"That's my guess."
"Christ ... all right, you know Mr. Calais's orders. If that's what it turns out to be, bring 'em aboard. Whatever it is, Pomeroy, you take care of it. I feel like shit." He belched again, and the intercom clicked off.
"Aye, aye," Pomeroy said over the dead mike. "Asshole."
The amber light flashed again, twice, with what almost appeared to be a swinging motion.
"I think they've spotted us," Skolnick observed. "I'll notify navigation of what's goin' on."
Pomeroy grunted and turned the wheel. He'd bring them up midships, on the starboard side. He just hoped there weren't too damned many people; tankers weren't built to accommodate more than their crew, and a minimal crew at that.
Fortunately, the sea was rolling easy tonight, and the sky was clear. In a squall, he'd run as good a chance of crushing them under his own hull as of pulling them out of the sea. And what would Calais say if he ever heard about something like that? He'd do more than can him without pay—he'd probably come after him with a blunt machete.
Of course, with a man like Lucien Calais, it was hard to say anything for sure.
"I've got Molloy and Koop coming up on deck," Skolnick said. "I'll go down and check out the boat myself."
"Check it out good ... that bunch the Le Havre picked up, off Con Son, had been eating each other for two weeks."
Skolnick grimaced and gingerly lighted another of his fragile cigarettes. "Yeah, well, if I'm not back on board in two minutes flat, come on after me."
They both fell silent, the cigarette smoke curling lazily into the air, the pounding of the huge engines a far-off but constant pulse beneath their feet. The amber light had grown noticeably closer, but even with the aid of the binoculars, Skolnick couldn't make out much of the boat. Whatever it was, it was low in the water, and no more than thirty or thirty-five feet long. There was a bat-wing sail, made out of black cloth. So far, he couldn't see any people.
"I'm going to cut the engines and let them drift in," Pomeroy said.
Skolnick nodded, and looped the binoculars around his neck. "Give me all the light you can," he said, and Pomeroy flicked on the running lights, fore and aft, and the searchlights that covered the bow deck. For good measure, he gave a blast on the foghorn. Smiling at Skolnick, he said, "Enough to wake the dead?" Skolnick stuck a flashlight into his back pocket, and stepped out into the night.
There was a cool breeze blowing, and he turned up the collar of his jacket. Down below, he could see Molloy and Koop, leaning against the railing on the starboard side. They looked no more enthusiastic than he was.
He clambered down the ladder, onto the steel skeleton of the monkey bridge, then down again, into the glare of the searchlights. Molloy turned and said, "Know anything about 'em?"
"No more than you do." He looked out over the side; the boat was sort of an improvised junk, but with several rows of oars, all idle, projecting from under a long covered cabin. It was drifting slowly toward them.
"Can you see who was waving the light?" Skolnick asked.
"Nope," Molloy said, spitting over the rail. "Ask me, it's just hangin' on the rudder. My bet's they're all dead."
Skolnick didn't know how he felt about that; it made his present task more grim, but at the same time it would sure cut down on the paperwork and trouble when they reached Pattaya the next day. "Gimme the boat hook," he said, and Koop unlashed it from the rail. "If there's any alive, we'll keep 'em in the empty cargo bay."
Skolnick put the boat hook over his shoulder, climbed the three steps over the bulwark, then started down the outside ladder. The bars were cold and slick in his hands, and he had to be careful his feet didn't slip. Halfway down, he paused, level with the huge R in Garuda, the name of the tanker; glancing over his shoulder, he saw the junk brushing up against the hull, about forty feet from the foot of the ladder. There was still no sound, or sight, of life.
"Shit." Slowly, he continued on down, until he was only ten or twelve feet above the water line; the junk was nudging alongside the ship, gradually drawing closer to the ladder. The amber light, or lantern, had been obscured by the black sail that flapped loosely in the breeze; there appeared to be some sort of design, a faded red circle or wheel, in its center, but Skolnick couldn't bother trying to make it out now. He took the boat hook off his shoulder, looped the slack through the ladder, then tossed the end down onto the junk. It landed on the roof of the cabin, made out of bamboo poles, but skittered off without catching. He had to haul it up once more, and throw again. This time it seemed to latch onto one of the oarlocks and hold fast. The junk came to rest, gently bumping and turning, against the side of the Garuda.
"Go get 'em," Molloy called down from the deck, through the bullhorn.
Skolnick raised his middle finger in reply, went down to the last rung of the ladder, then gauging the distance and the movements of the boat below, jumped onto its rickety prow. The whole boat dipped with the impact and Skolnick, losing his balance, tumbled against the wooden thwarts; the flashlight dug hard into his hip.
"Nice move," Molloy called down.
Skolnick got up, fishing the light out of his pocket. If nobody'd even reacted to his hitting the boat, things weren't looking good. The front of the cabin was closed off by horizontal bars of cane; he'd have to go down the length of the boat and enter from the rear. Keeping one hand against the bamboo wall of the cabin, and pointing the flashlight at his feet, he slowly made his way toward the stern. Through the cracks between the slats of the cabin, he could see a dim amber glow, the color of the light he'd seen at sea. Had somebody taken the lantern in there?
"Hello," he shouted, at the same time rapping his hand against the roof of the cabin. "Anybody in there?"
There was no reply.
Stepping over an overturned bucket, and ducking the sail, he got to the far end, where a rough embroidered cloth—black, but with that same red circle at its center—covered the hatchway; now he could see it wasn't actually a circle, but a snake, coiled, with its head almost touching its tail. Lifting the cloth, he lowered his head and peered inside.
The lantern appeared to be at the other end of the cabin, throwing a fitful, uneven light over the interior; still, Skolnick could make out the dull gleam of human flesh. There were rowing benches, equipped with oars—and dead men, skeletally thin, slumped over them.
"Jesus fucking Christ."
Something unseen made a small, crying noise from within.
A baby in there? Alive?
"Jesus Mary and Joseph."
Skolnick secured the hatchway flap, and slowly climbed down into the cabin. There was a sickly sweet, cloying smell that he didn't even want to think about. He played the flashlight around the walls of the cabin, made of pale green and brown bamboo, much of it already rotting away. Beside the amber lantern, and seated like a Buddha on a raised platform, was the body of a fat man, naked to the waist; his eyes were closed, his mouth open, his head thrown back at an odd angle. He was bald, except for a topknot of black hair tied with a red ribbon. Skolnick shone the light straight into his face, but he looked as dead as all the rest of them.
The noise—a low, soft, plaintive cry—came again. But from where?
"Can you hear me?" Skolnick said. "Can you talk? I'm here to help you. Tell me where you are."
He just wanted to make it cry again, make it respond to the sound of his voice. Then he could snatch it up, and get the hell out of there.
"Can you hear me?" he said again.
The cry returned, from somewhere behind the body of the fat man. God in Heaven, why did it have to be back there of all places?
"Can you come on out?" he said, though he knew it was futile; he'd have to go after it, a little bitty baby like that. "Can you come on out?" he said again, drawing closer and directing the flashlight beam into the shadows where the amber light didn't reach. "Can you come on out to me?"
He was now leaning just above the fat man's tilted head, and playing the light into the shadows behind him. There was a sudden movement, barely discernible, in what looked like a coil of rope. "Can you hear me?" Skolnick said, training the light on the rope again.
A tiny head, furry, with a white spot, popped up, blinking in the light ... a kitten.
A kitten. "All this for a fucking cat," Skolnick said, and laughed out loud. All for a fucking cat. He laughed again, and lowered the flashlight. "Well, what the hell—here, kitty-kitty. I don't know how you didn't get eaten up long before this."
He whistled softly, and at the sound of it, the fat man's eyes slowly opened, a subtle smile creasing his face. Skolnick's whistle died on his lips, and he stumbled backwards.
The men on the benches were all sitting up, at their oars.
"Mother of God ..."
The fat man rolled his head on his neck, as if ridding himself of a nasty crick, and Skolnick banged up hard against the mast pole.
"I'm here," he managed to get out, "to help you."
The oarsmen smiled through broken, yellowed teeth. One rubbed his mouth, hungrily, with the back of a skeletal hand.
Skolnick had time only to cross himself.CHAPTER 2
"I give you," Harbison said, raising his glass in a toast, "the man who made this marvelous exhibition possible ... Lucien Calais."
The other diners raised their own glasses, crystal goblets that sparkled in the rosy glow of the candles and the pink damask tablecloths, and sipped at their champagne. All around the room, lighted cases displayed gold-encrusted headdresses and brilliant silk sampots, sandstone reliefs and ivory Buddhas, selected from the larger exhibition mounted in the galleries downstairs.
"I don't need to tell any of you here tonight," Harbison said, replacing his glass on the lip of the podium, "the extraordinary value, and I mean that now in the cultural sense, of the collection that goes on view to the public tomorrow. In its own way, 'Treasures of the Ancient Khmer' will help to restore an entire people to their rightful place in what is sometimes referred to as the world's 'community of nations.' "He smiled, wryly, and turned toward Calais himself. "But there's no one better equipped to speak to that than tonight's benefactor, a man who has experienced the very worst the world has to offer, and overcome it valiantly. Lucien, perhaps you'd like to say a few words ..."
Calais sat silently, while a stocky figure with a pronounced limp stepped up behind him and pulled out his chair. Calais rose and moved the few paces to the podium. He was wearing a black silk dinner jacket, with a crisp white shirt that offset the burnished cast of his skin; with the exception of his eyes, dark and Asiatic, his features were largely European. His hair was pulled back in a sleek black ponytail. He appeared uncomfortable at the podium.
"Public speaking is perhaps my greatest fear," he said, his head still lowered but his dark eyes flashing upwards for a moment. "So you'll have to forgive me for being brief."
"Harbison won't," someone called out from a table at the rear.
Excerpted from Private Demons by Robert Masello. Copyright © 1992 Robert Masello. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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