Legend in the academic world has it that Dr. Matthew Prendel, an expert sailor, had been shipwrecked years ago. His boat was attacked by pirates. He survived thanks to an incredible stroke of luck while his entire crew perished, but then found himself embroiled in a ferocious fight for survival between two castaways on a desert island. There, too, he was lucky and came out the victor.
But perhaps luck played no part in it. Perhaps something darker was at play, something bigger at stake. The only sure thing is that Matthew Prendel disappeared for five whole years. He has been back in New York now for a while, or so they say. One should never rely entirely on hearsay . . .
A blend of adventure story and noir mystery, The Island of Last Truth is a riveting tale filled with both suspense and incisive psychological observation.
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Laura McGloughlin's translations from Spanish and Catalan include Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The first incongruity that occupies Mathew Prendel's mind is thinking, just as he feels the roughness of the damp sand against his face, that he doesn't know if he is alive. It is pitch-black night, and he doesn't know if being alive is a stroke of luck either. He remembers the salty hell of the last few hours. How he has managed to arrive at a beach is unknown. He didn't even know there was an island at a distance he could cover swimming. The last coordinates taken with the GPS, which he'd noted meticulously on the map, fifteen minutes before the attack, gave a latitude and longitude of open sea many days' sailing from any point of dry land. They were more than eight hundred miles from the west coast of Africa. They'd left Jamestown a week before and were expecting to reach São Tomé, all going well and wind permitting, in eight or ten more days.
Katy Bristol was in the cockpit, gathering up the spinnaker. The wind, although light, had changed direction and the sail could no longer hold the course. Frank Czerny was in the cabin, making sandwiches for lunch. Mathew was steering. They were moving at a rate of six or eight knots, with a cross wind; a sufficient quantity of clouds, none threatening, defended them from the scorching heat of the midday Atlantic sun, at a point some five hundred miles southeast of the coordinates uniting the equator with the prime meridian. Katy put the spinnaker pole in its cover, went down to the cabin with the spinnaker folded up and back in the bag, made a joke about Frank's poor cooking in a very loud voice so Mathew would hear it too, and came back up top. She was carrying the binoculars. She was fond of using them even when there was nothing definite to be seen except the horizon which, despite always seeming much the same, changed according to the spirits of the person contemplating it. They were discussing the celebration they were going to have when they passed the equator. Katy was most insistent on the menu. She wanted them to prepare a special meal; she was tired of tins and sandwiches. All three were more or less in agreement that they had earned a celebration. As they were talking, Katy was looking through the binoculars. Suddenly, in a voice not altogether calm, she said:
"There's a yacht, port side. Three or four miles away. I can't see what flag they're flying. Looks big." The noise of the motor still hadn't reached them.
Mathew suspected that Katy was afraid. Some colleagues they'd met up with in Jamestown port on the island of Saint Helena had told them blood-curdling stories of pirates attacking sailors in the region, with a cruelty as unnecessary as it was unchanging. It was strange, because piracy was usually concentrated on the east coast of the African continent, but they assured them that at least one dangerous vessel which had caused the disappearance of more than one sailboat was operating in these waters. It wasn't their principal objective, because they made a living from contraband, but if they came across one, they plundered it.
Frank, who'd heard her, stuck his head out the companionway.
"Maybe we should change course. We could beat to windward and be out of sight. What do you think, Matt?"
But with the worst possible timing, Mathew didn't share his crewmember's fears. Doctor Prendel wanted to stick to the schedule they'd mapped out and now that they were taking a direct course towards their destination he didn't want to deviate from it. It wasn't the first time he had sailed in these waters, and he'd never had any run-ins with pirates, although he'd often heard about them.
"We'll keep going," he told them. It will be an annotation in the logbook: boat sighted at this time, latitude, longitude, that course. "Frank, how's that lunch coming?" The silence of his companions made him reflect. "All right," he gave in, "if we see them coming deliberately towards us, we'll change course."
But in sailing, as in life, you have to change course before hitting the obstacle. If you wait too long, you collide. It is as bad weather begins that you must lower the sails because when the storm is already upon you it is much more difficult and, at times, very risky if not impossible.
"They're coming directly towards us," informed Katy, who hadn't put down the binoculars, even to grab one of the sandwiches Frank had brought up. "Matt, they're coming head-on and there's no doubt they've spotted us. Either they have problems and need help or they'll make problems for us and the ones needing help will be us."
Mathew looked to where Katy was pointing. The binoculars were no longer necessary to see the boat. It had to be sixty foot. Bigger than the Queen, which was forty-two. It must be travelling with a considerable crew. However much they tacked, if the other boat chased them, they would catch them. Sails versus motor: it was obvious. The only solution — although calling it a solution was extravagantly optimistic — was to face them.
"Katy, go down and lock yourself in your cabin. Frank, look in the starboard trunk for an aluminum box, grab the pistol inside. Then lock yourself in as well."
"Pistol? Why do you have a weapon?"
"Does this seem like a good time to explain?" Dr. Prendel was a pragmatic man, decisive.
Katy hadn't moved. She wasn't planning to hide herself in the cabin. If it were necessary, she wanted to defend herself with her own hands. Frank told her that captain's orders couldn't be questioned. Katy answered that when your life is at risk, yes, they could. They argued for a few minutes before Prendel's impassive silence. It's easy for people to disagree when they are talking about death. Or when they are talking about life. It's easy for people to disagree.
"Doesn't matter. There's nothing to be done. We're done for. They're pirates," announced the captain. "They're predators. We'll be lucky to get away with our lives. But I'm not confident about it. At all."
Then Prendel thought that he shouldn't have changed the name of the boat, that the legend of bad luck pursuing vessels whose names had been changed was true and now being confirmed once again. Why couldn't he have a boat called Mary? How could memories weigh on him so much?
The captain turned the bow into the wind. Better to wait for them, show a total willingness to be plundered. And so he explained to his companions. There isn't only one way to be a victim, but Prendel was convinced that surrender was the optimum. He took off his gloves and leaned on the wheel to eat his cheese sandwich. He reflected that this was perhaps the last meal of his life. He looked at Katy and Frank and told them he was very sorry, very sorry to have involved them in this adventure whose close, tragic end could now be glimpsed. They answered that he shouldn't blame himself. Fear kept them tense and prudent.
"What can we give them? What are they hoping to find?" he asked out loud, but received no answer. Katy knew they were carrying nothing of value, except some money and their laptops. But that would seem like pure junk to pirates.
The Queen rocked lazily, calmly. The halyards slapped against the mast. The horizon line was broken only by the silhouette of the boat approaching them. Frank lit a cigarette.
"I'll have to resign myself to never having climbed the six hundred and ninety-nine steps of Jacob's Ladder," he said.
During the days they were docked in Jamestown port, Frank had tried to convince his companions to go see the island from above; to do so only required climbing the six hundred and ninety-nine steps of that narrow and steep staircase that ascended the mountain. Katy and Prendel kept putting him off and in the end they set sail without climbing it. Confessing that he would never satisfy that desire was an admission of death. "And you two? What did you not get to do?"
Dr. Prendel was calculating the time left before they were boarded. Five minutes? Ten?
"I don't know, Frank. If this ends here, I'll still want everything. I'm only thirty-six. You?" He turned to Katy.
"I'm thirty-eight, like Frank. I would like to have had a baby. But wouldn't you know it, now it would be left an orphan."
If they spoke so clearly of impending death, it is because they didn't believe in it. Believing in it might have saved them. Maybe, if they'd felt threatened up to that point, they would have sent an SOS by radio.
The appearance of the pirates was nondescript. No special mark or characteristic gave them away. Nevertheless, there was no doubt what they were. Five men on deck. Three black and two white. No visible weapons. The boarding was rapid. They pulled in alongside the Queen with the speed and efficiency of experience. They fixed cables to stern and bow. Two men came aboard the Queen and gave Prendel, who identified himself as captain, an order for him and the whole crew to throw themselves overboard. Seeing they spoke English, Prendel tried to talk to them.
"We have nothing of value," he told them.
The one who seemed to be calling the shots didn't delay in answering him.
"The boat's enough. Into the water."
"We'll die." It was Frank.
"Sooner or later, yeah," said another. And at that moment he pulled out a gun. They were getting impatient. "But if you prefer, we can kill you. Right now."
"At least let us lower the lifeboat," pleaded Katy.
The man who had just taken out his gun shot at the boat.
"No use now," he clarified needlessly.
Feeling scared and having nowhere to run to was a terrifying feeling. Mathew saw there was no way out, but he had to try.
"Look, I'm the owner of the boat, I mean, I'll jump overboard, OK? But let these two people off at a port or near some coast so they can swim to it."
"Are you negotiating with us? Do you think you're in a position to bargain?" He gave a signal. The one carrying the revolver shot and wounded Frank in the arm.
Desperate, Prendel took out his weapon. He only had time to shoot once and, unexpectedly, he gave it to one of those who had remained on the pirate ship. The man fell into the water and sank immediately. He didn't have to wait long for the pirates' response. Infuriated by the death of one of their own, they started shooting. As he threw himself overboard Mathew Prendel saw Frank and Katy gunned down. He swam furiously, conscious of the difficulty of avoiding the shots in that calm sea. However, the men didn't persist. Why waste bullets if Prendel would end up dying anyway? Of exhaustion or prey to some shark. Of hunger or thirst. Of desperation. Of loneliness. Drowned.CHAPTER 2
Prendel doesn't feel the warm temperature of the water until he sees the pirate ship moving away. On the stern he can still make out the name, Solimán. Tugging his Swan 42; they had lowered her sails, defeated her. Even so, without meaning to, Prendel admires the line of her; he can tell himself he's had the boat of his dreams. He can tell himself he's made some of his dreams come true. He wonders if this is what counts, now that the moment has come to take stock.
He is surprised to feel cold just as the enemy leaves. He observes them. There's nothing else he can do. He knows that swimming is pointless. The only hope is that a boat may pass, but he knows that's unlikely; so much so that it is almost impossible. He is going to die. This idea causes him to shiver as he never has before. Within a short time he will have done two radical things: killed and died. About dying, the only thing that surprises him is the manner. About killing, everything. He would never have thought himself capable of killing anyone, even in extreme circumstances. Although he hasn't practiced for some time, being a doctor used to weigh heavily on him. So he had thought. And instead, he'd proven that his survival instinct functioned like the mechanism of a Swiss watch: silently, with precision. It wouldn't be useful to him anymore.
After a while, he sees them throw the bodies of Katy and Frank overboard. Mathew cannot forgive himself. He is going to die with the sorrow of having sacrificed his friends; the only ones he'd had in New York in all the years since his family left Baltimore and moved to the Big Apple for him to go to university. He remembers how he convinced them to join him: it was April and Prendel had just begun a sabbatical year. He'd gone looking for Katy and Frank at their nautical bookshop. They'd opened it six years before. Frank and Katy had been friends, and sometime lovers, since university. They'd both studied marine biology. It was lunchtime and he invited them to the place of their choice, although he already knew the answer if it were Frank who chose; he always suggested PJ Clarke's on the off chance he'd run into an old girlfriend of his, a tour guide he was still in love with.
"I have to tell you a dream which I've been going over in my mind for years and that now, finally, I can make come true," he told them en route from 57th to 55th Street. And little by little, while they each devoured one of those famous burgers, he seduced them. They would depart in May, to take advantage of favorable winds. They had already sailed on the Queen once and knew she was safe and comfortable. He would take care of the expenses. And the preparations. He'd requested a sabbatical year thanks to some stock market investments which had paid more than generous dividends. The lives they were leading would await them quietly. The two sales people they'd hired could mind the bookstore. They were talking about five months, six at the most.
"We have to do things in life that later on we'll want to remember. Look back and feel it's been worth it. Going over our history and feeling that it's not like anyone else's, it belongs to us, we invented it. We're young. We have to do it now. Now. I can't stand any more of this predictable life. Whatever we do, we'll end up dying. Worth doing what we want, isn't it?"
Prendel knew very well that everyone carries within himself a person who wants to break the routine, who wants to show that he is unique, who says there is only one life and it has to be seized. He also knew, as practicing medicine had allowed him to corroborate it on more than one occasion, that when a patient receives a terminal diagnosis, the first feelings to overwhelm him are sadness and regret for not having done anything special with the life he'd been given. And that was what counted.
Everyone carries within himself a person who believes he is better than their living self. Prendel addressed his friends' inner beings. And it was a good move, because they didn't know how to say no.
Now, on the contrary, he thinks it wasn't a good move but an unfair manipulation. Now that he is floating in an improvised cemetery he feels guilty. They should have fled as soon as Katy saw the boat. Or afterwards. They should have tried. He should have trusted Katy's intuition, or more simply, respected her fear. But fear, when it isn't contagious, is as untransferable as desire or disgust. Now the man has the sensation of having surrendered without resistance. He cannot manage to forgive himself, he isn't capable of telling himself he acted as he did because he thought it was the best way to stay alive. He feels stupid. He is angry at himself.
Many times he has feared dying in the sea, but he never imagined it would be this way. He'd feared storms and calms. Even feared the coast, when he'd seen it too close on stormy days. Feared darkness. How true it is that life surprises us even on the terrain we believe we have mastered most.
Since it seems worse to resign himself to dying motionless than to dying while moving, he begins to swim. But beforehand, and as though it matters at all, he calculates in which direction the nearest shore lies. He tries to remember: at the moment of the attack they were seven hundred miles north of Jamestown; Ascension Island was almost six hundred miles southeast of them; it's clear that the Ivory Coast is closer than Gabon, although the difference between dying six hundred or eight hundred miles off the coast is ultimately irrelevant. Finally he decides: north. He mocks his instinct for survival and settles for thinking that it gives meaning to his every stroke. Giving meaning to things is an inevitable part of human aspiration and now in his situation, alone as never before, if there is a predominant feeling it is, no doubt, that of being profoundly human.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Island of Last Truth"
Copyright © 2011 Random House Mondadori S.A..
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.