At Work By Midnight
He was a gentleman in search of a good piece of meat.
He was out for enjoyment this evening, strolling casually through the charming streets of Danzig, a busy harbor city on the coast of the Baltic Sea. It had once been known as Gdansk and was originally part of Poland, had a complicated political history between the rulership of Poland and Germany and was now, in this month of April in the year 1938, known as a "free city" with its own national anthem, constitution, government and even its own stamps and currency apart from the Polish standard. The population was ninety-eight percent German, and this was also reflected in its language.
As he walked along what was locally known as the Royal Road - so named because it was the procession path of visiting kings - he passed sights like Neptune's Fountain at the center of the Long Market and the Golden Gate with its statues symbolizing Peace, Freedom, Wealth and Fame.
He enjoyed peace, he relished freedom, he didn't really need wealth nor did he desire fame. But tonight he had to find the perfect chateaubriand.
The clerk at the very expensive Hotel Goldene Eiche had given him the name of the Restaurant Maximillian. Too far to walk? Not at all. Three miles was a nice stroll and the evening was cool, the city was lighting itself up for the night and there was a certain excitation de la vie in the air. So he'd set out, dressed in a dark blue Saville Row suit with a crisp white shirt and a plain-spoken black tie, neither walking too slowly nor striding too fast, for he always took pleasure in every moment.
He was twenty-eight years old and as fit, probably, as he would ever be. He was a large man, standing six-feet-two with a broad chest, narrow hips and long, lean legs. He had the look and smooth motion of a track-and-field athlete. He wore his thick black hair closely-trimmed, and from his darkly-handsome and rugged face his intense green eyes inspected the street-scenes he passed with genuine interest, consideration for the cast of characters involved, and not a little flash of humor at the chaos of what was called 'civilization'.
His eyes also did not fail to note the bright red posters on some of the street corners proclaiming the future of the Nazi Party as the future of Germany.
But this was an evening for a good steak, a glass of wine and possibly some music later on. He did have a schedule, though. He had to be at work by midnight.
In the oak-walled quiet of the Restaurant Maximillian, he spoke German in ordering his chateaubriand rare and was informed by the waiter that it served two persons. The diner's response was that he wouldn't be eating quality steak for awhile, so please bring it on along with a bottle of Cabernet, waiter's choice.
Sehr gut, sir.
The coat-check girl, a very willowy redhead with bee-stung lips, wandered over as he was drinking his initial glass of wine and engaged him in light conversation about was this his first time at the restaurant, where was he from, and so forth. It got to the point where she said she was free this evening after ten o'clock, and if he wished to come back for her she could show him a hot music club that would make him, as she put it, "itchy".
He smiled and said thank you, but he had to be at work by midnight. What kind of work? she asked, a little dark of disappointment in her eyes.
He told her he was in the nautical trade, and then he wished her a pleasant evening and she went away.
After a leisurely dinner, he continued his stroll. Around the corner he discovered a tavern of orange-painted bricks that had been in operation, more or less, since 1788. In the dark-timbered, slightly-musty but quite pleasant confines he ordered from the barmaid a Tyskie pale lager. She was a personable and angelic-looking young woman with curly blond hair and eyes nearly the color of the lager. Her globes were absolutely huge north of her equator, and she didn't mind making sure he got many good looks at the way they threatened to burst from her ribboned bodice. Then she leaned in close, smelling of peppermint and peaches, and confided in him that she thought all men were babies at heart, and that what all men truly - truly - desired was a nice pacifier to put into their mouths and suck on to their heart's content. And what did he think about that? she asked with her red lips twisted to one side.
He said he didn't really have an opinion on that subject, because he had to be at work by midnight.
What was his job? she asked, as she toyed with one of her ribbons.
The nautical trade, he told her, and then he finished his Tyskie and left.
The night was moving on. So was he. Two streets over, he entered a dimly-lit but well-attended music club and sat at a table to listen to a trio playing piano, muted trumpet and drums. He ordered a glass of ginger ale. He took the music in while staring at the twinkling multicolored lights that clung to the ceiling. After the third song he noted a man in a gray suit get up from a nearby table he shared with a woman and head toward an alcove on the far side of the bandstand. When the man had gone from the room, the woman got up from her seat and came directly and purposefully to his own table.
She was sleek and black-haired and wore a black dress that she'd been poured into. She wore a fashionable hat with a little fluff of lace descending over her forehead and left eye. She stared at him with her sea-green eyes as if she'd been searching for a good piece of meat, and here it was.
She asked him if he would be gentleman enough to save her from a very poor specimen of mankind, and while her escort was gone to the restroom she would be pleased and happy to leave this club and show him another place where one might get to know one much better than here.
He gave her a faint smile, sipped at his ginger ale, and told her he was flattered she'd chosen him as her potential savior, but he had to be at work by midnight and in fact he would be leaving in a few minutes. Also, he said, he wanted her to know her escort must have either come upon an occupied bathroom or suffered a false alarm because the man was even now returning to their table.
Therefore he did not get to tell her he was in the nautical trade.
He checked his wristwatch. It was time. He paid for his drink, left the club and began walking back to the Hotel Goldene Eiche. Again, his pace was neither hurried nor languid. In his room at the hotel, he thought of taking a shower and shaving but decided against both. Then he removed his necktie, his Saville Row suit and white shirt and took from the closet a stained and dirty brown canvas duffel bag. From the contents of the duffel bag he put on faded gray underwear and white worksocks. He put on a red plaid shirt with patches at both elbows. He put on a pair of baggy brown trousers that made a mockery of his fitness and was furthermore stained with the shadows of old grease. He laced up cracked and battered workboots. He pulled a brown woolen cap down on his head, and then shrugged into a canvas jacket that was missing three buttons and bore enough stitches to make Frankenstein jealous. His fine English wallet was replaced with a Polish travesty of cardboard and rubber bands. His equally fine Rolex wristwatch, last year's model, went away in favor of a tarnished pocketwatch that was possibly new when the British charged from their trenches at the first battle of the Marne. His shaving razor was flecked with rust, his boar bristle toothbrush worn to a nub, his personal bar of soap made from pig's fat. And smelled it.
He was nearly ready to go.
He left his suit and other belongings on the bed. Everything would be collected later, by someone else. There was no need to study himself in the mirror; he appeared no longer to be a gentleman, but was a scruffy-looking roughneck. Just as planned.
He tied up his duffel bag with his other sour-smelling work clothes in it and left the room. Crossing the Goldene Eiche's famous lobby with its indoor oak tree and cream-colored sofas that had never hosted an uncreased trouser was interesting, because suddenly he no longer belonged in this rare air. A squat man wearing a bowtie - a house detective? - began striding after him, calling for him to please stop.
Outside on the street, he asked the doorman to hail a cab for the harbor. He received a haughty glare until the Danzig currency in his fist spoke. Then there was the skittish cab driver to deal with, and again money changed owners. The cab pulled away, with the roughneck and his duffel bag on the back seat.
An instruction was given to stop well before the harbor entrance was reached. That instruction was explicitly followed. The roughneck swung his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked toward the harbor with the smell of Baltic salt, oil, dead fish and the metallic friction of cables and machinery in his nostrils.
Beyond the gate, worklights glowed aboard the dark shapes of moored freighters.
Figures moved about, walking through the beams of illumination. Hammers swung and sparks jumped. A crane engine growled, pulling up crates in a netting. Orders were shouted and re-shouted. Someone flicked a burning cigarette butt into the water like a shooting star. Ropes creaked as the sea moved beneath rust-streaked hulls, and trucks barked black fumes as they hauled flat trailers piled with more crates and stacks of burlap bags.
He stopped at the security hut to sign the detail sheet that was offered to him.
With the bleeding fountain pen he wrote Michael Gallatin, Ordinary Seaman.
Then he swung the duffel bag up over his shoulder again and he walked on in his battered boots toward Slip Number Four and the Norwegian diesel ship Sofia.
When the last cargo of farm fertilizer in three hundred black oildrums and sixty crates of ball bearings had been loaded in the Sofia's hold, red dawn was beginning to break. The huge double diesel engines throbbed and knocked, making the old ship vibrate like a tuning-fork and moan like a busted fiddle. Orders were shouted along the deck. Lines were cast off. Brown water stirred up from the muddy bottom by the twin props boiled at the stern. The ship, born in 1921, gave a small lurch as it left the pierside like an elderly dame startled from her nap. The one-hundred-and-fourteen-meter length of Sofia swayed back and forth as she searched for her balance. Her central wheelhouse sat atop an ugly stack of port-holed steel. Two masts spider-webbed with cables and nettings stood fore and aft. Ventilation funnels had been riveted to the deck in no apparent rhyme nor reason; it was the triumph of some Nordic ship designer's descent into a bottle of aquavit. Everything topside was painted a vaguely-spoiled yellow, mottled with patches of orange rust. The hull was smoke-gray, except for more rust streaks that streamed down from the anchors at the pier-dented bow and clung just above the waterline like a strange species of ivy. The Sofia, an undignified and much-abused mistress of the sea, was rocked by the most innocent of waves and caused to cry out at her joints and rivets and bulkheads and deckboards as if she dreaded any touch of the man she had once loved.
The ship left the harbor in quiet shame.
In the mess hall belowdeck, Michael Gallatin was looking askance at a plate of fried potatoes swimming in oil. His scrambled eggs, likewise, were about to slide off the plate in a greasy foam and what passed for bacon appeared to be made from fat and brown rubber.
Thank God, he thought, for the memory of the chateaubriand.
At least the ship's coffee was palatable. Not necessarily good, but strong enough to make the teeth ache and the gut clench. Colonel Vivian had warned him that the food might not be up to the standards of a sidewalk kidney pie in Soho, but it was for the best during the first few days of the voyage until Michael got his sea-legs and sea-stomach. Those tramp freighters roll like a whore with bedbugs, Vivian had told him in undelicate terms. Best to do your puking from an empty bag.
But breakfast was served, and Michael was hungry. He had to eat. The mess hall, even just past dawn, was full of cigarette smoke and men with cigarettes clenched between their teeth. Michael figured almost all of the forty-two crew were here, except for the first and second mates and a few other specialists on engine duty. The clatter and scrape of eating utensils on plates was a diabolic symphony. But the work had been hard and constant since midnight, and now that Sofia was underway - at about five knots per hour, it felt to him - and breakfast was piled up on the gray tables, the mood among the rough-hewn, rough-fleshed and rough-eyed men was definitely lighter.
He hadn't really met anyone yet. He'd been assigned to a loading detail, but everyone was a stranger. He was sitting at a table with a wiry, wrinkled man of about fifty who could eat around his cigarette by shifting the stick from side to side in his mouth. The second occupant of his table was a stout fellow with sandy-brown hair who wore a sweat-stained blue workshirt and giggled to himself at every opportunity, and the third was a lean black man around thirty or so who had a shaved head and was missing the right half of his nose. It had been carved away to the rippled pink flesh. A very sharp razor at work, Michael thought as he tried one of the bacon strips. The black man wore a necklace of cowrie shells, another necklace of ebony beads and a third with some kind of hexagonal blue stone hanging from it. He had deeply-sunken eyes that looked at no one directly but seemed to be seeing a lot.
"Ah, ya!" boomed a voice behind Michael. "Here's da sumabitch I wanna find!"
Michael turned around in his chair. Over him stood the monstrous, huge-shouldered, lantern-jawed man he'd heard called 'Olaf'. They'd been on the same loading detail. Michael had already apologized for some infraction that had involved the passing back and forth of heavy crates, though he wasn't sure exactly what he'd done to make Olaf holler a curse and spit on the deck. Michael had been briefed and trained on all this, but the briefing book and the landlubber's lessons went out the window when the hard, fast work began.
"I'm talkin' to you!" Olaf said, as if Michael didn't already know. The mess hall went silent. "You gonna sit there or I'm gonna pull you up?"
The man's protruding brow was dappled with red. His dark brown eyes were also red-rimmed and as fiercely hot as volcanic stones. He had a dirty matting of brown hair with an untameable cowlick sticking up in back. He stood with his meathooks on his wide hips awaiting Michael's decision.
Michael was tempted to return to his breakfast, but he reasoned he should stand.
"Now you listen!" A finger with a filthy nail jabbed his chest. "You don't get in Olaf's way! You don't push Olaf! Eh? You don't make Olaf look slow in front of nobody! Eh?"
"I already said I was - "
"You shuddup!" Olaf growled, with another painful finger jab. He looked Michael over from boots to cap. "You ain't no sailor!" Michael said nothing. This was getting serious; who would have thought the dummy could see through him so easily?
"No sailor!" Olaf repeated. "I seen how you don't know what you're doin'! And them hands! They ain't no sailor's hands! These," he said, thrusting his work-scarred and rope-burned palms into Michael's face, "are sailor's hands! So you gonna be tellin' me, what real sailor you put out of a job by signin' on here! Eh? What friend a'mine you put out on da pier, him with maybe a wife and three, four kids?" He gave a scowl that caused even the black man with the shaved-off nose to wince. "You ain't no good! I take a breath a' you, and you stink!"
Michael had no reply for this. He'd already gone one sorry too many.
Olaf smacked his left palm with his right fist. His mouth wore a wild grin. "Ah, I'm gonna teach you! Olaf's gonna drop you, pretty fella. Olaf's gonna fix that nose and close up them eyes. Olaf's gonna stretch that neck and give you a new set a' teeth! Olaf's gonna - "
But what Olaf was going to do was interrupted by Michael hitting him in the jaw with his right fist as hard as he could let one fly.
Olaf went back on his heels and crashed over the next table and fell over two men who tried to get away but were caught under the toppling bulk. Then Olaf slid down their backs and fell to the sickly-green floor tiles, where he lay with blood on his mouth, his eyes twitching in their sockets and his fist still balled up but unthrown. He made a bubbling noise over his bitten lower lip, gave a thunderous fart from his massive ass, and then went to sleep like mother's best baby.
Michael sat down to finish his breakfast. He'd nearly broken his knuckles on that slab of a jaw, but at least he was on his way to having sailor's hands.
Somebody laughed and somebody hollered. Somebody gave a whistle of respect and somebody shouted out in a singsong language Michael had never heard before. Then the clatter of utensils on plates continued, cigarette smoke puffed into the air, and the black-bearded second mate burst into the mess hall with one of the cooks and wanted to know who the fuck was fighting in here.
No one said anything. The second mate, a Spaniard named Medina, stood staring down at the sleeping Olaf. He repeated: who the fuck was fighting in here?
"Hey, mon!" said the black man with the carved nose. He grinned wickedly, showing white teeth sharpened by chewing Jamaican sugarcane. "That big fool, he fall down and bust hisself open! Doan be no fightin' goin' on!"
Medina looked around the room for a second opinion, but suddenly everyone was very much enjoying their oily potatoes, greasy eggs and rubbery bacon. He reached out, grabbed a mug of coffee from another table and threw the liquid into Olaf's face. The sleeping giant began to come around with a hitch and sputter. "You! And you! Get him into a shower! And don't waste the water!" The two men Medina had pointed out, the very same two who'd nearly had their spines rearranged, grumbled around their cigarettes but they dragged Olaf out of the mess hall through the swinging door. Medina backed away as if retreating from a roomful of wild animals. "Nobody better fight!" he warned, just before he got out.
The ritual of face-feeding continued. Soon some of the crew would hit their bunks while the others had work detail. Michael was scheduled for six hours of sacktime. He looked across the table at the black man. "Thanks. I'm Michael Gallatin." He offered his hand.
"Didn't ask," the man said. He stared coldly at the hand. "Doan want."
He scraped his chair back, stood up and sauntered out of the mess hall with as near a rooster's strut as Michael had ever seen.
Michael finished his coffee. Across the table, the grinning idiot giggled into empty space.
A navigator's degree at a time, the Sofia was turning across the sunlit waves toward the Denmark passage to the North Sea.
The Best Man
On the third morning at sea, as Sofia's bow pushed through blue waves under the glare of the Baltic sun and gulls swooped the length of the ship, Michael got a look at the girl.
As his rank of Ordinary Seaman dictated, his was the most mundane and mind-numbing of jobs. His work had much to do with scrubbing away rust and refinishing the affected areas with sealant, primer and paint; there was a lot of rust, and there was a lot of paint. His work also involved a mop, a bucket, and a deck that seemed to go on forever. Therefore as he labored at these concerns he let himself mentally drift, yet not so much as to lose the necessary rhythm that got the job done.
His count of the crew's nationalities: fifteen Norwegians, nine Swedes, five Poles, three Spaniards, three French, two Dutch, one Brit besides himself, one Russian, one African and one Jamaican. He'd known this before setting foot aboard Sofia the first night. He also had known their names and what histories could be discovered about them, no simple feat even for the British Secret Service
The Jamaican's name was Dylan Custis. Had been arrested in Kingston for having three wives at the same time. Later the authorities had found out about the counterfeit money he was creating in his cousin's basement. Custis evidently had an artistic talent suitable to mimic a very reasonable five-pound banknote.
Olaf Thorgrimsen, from Trondheim, had been at sea since he was a thirteen-year-old engine boy on a steam freighter that probably made Sofia appear a beauty queen. His only brushes with the law had been several public brawls. Since the incident in the mess hall, Olaf had been in an infirmary bed and the scuttlebutt was that he was feigning double vision.
The other Brit was an eighteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman named Billy Bowers.
Michael had seen him at work and bunked near him, but the young man was quiet and kept to himself. Bowers had no criminal history, the only exceptional fact being that the young man had at fifteen evidently left his home in Colchester after the death of his mother.
Michael knew that the first mate was a twenty-six-year-old African named Enam Kpanga. No criminal record, but a sterling educational history and graduation with degrees in business and maritime law at the University of London.
The Sofia's captain was an interesting case. A Frenchman named Gustave Beauchene, fifty-one years old, from Paris. Beauchene had gone to sea in his late twenties, for a French freighter line, and had drifted from company to company until at last he made captain for the Norwegian Blue Star line at age forty-nine. There was intimation in the report of a fondness for strong drink and a reputation for outbursts of vitriolic anger. Michael had not yet laid eyes on Captain Beauchene, nor had the good captain deigned to speak or otherwise meet with any member of the new sign-ons.
Michael had not wanted this assignment, and had tried to dodge it with as much fervor as he could summon. He didn't care to be cooped up on a ship for so long, he'd told Colonel Vivian. It was against his nature. It did not require his specific talents, anyway. And besides, shouldn't it be better handled by someone with actual nautical experience?
We send the best man we have at the moment, the colonel had told him in that infuriatingly calm, cool and collected way Vivian possessed. You've been trained to do what is needed. When it is needed. You are needed now. Please take those reports with you. I am to remind you that your briefing and training session begins promptly at eight o'clock in the morning aboard the freighter John Willis Scott, moored at drydock at Battersea.
You've got to be joking, Michael had said. You've secured a freighter for me?
I used to joke, Vivian had answered, already turning his attention to another document on his desk. But that was when I was a major and a hale and hearty boy.
Now, I fear, I'm all grown up. Good day, Michael, and good hunting.
And Michael Gallatin had answered, Let's hope there's no need for any hunting on this one.
Quite, said the colonel with one of his quick, tight smiles. He rarely showed his teeth anymore. Do enjoy your night in Danzig, the Hotel Goldene Eiche is very charming.
Michael's paint brush moved back and forth, masking with dull yellow an area that had been scraped of rust and reprimed. But he knew, as everyone did, that rust was an enemy that never slept.
He was on his knees on the starboard deck, working on one of the series of ventilation funnels, when he noted the girl come through a doorway at the base of the amidship superstructure. He knew exactly who she was, though she was dressed against both the chill in the air and any eye that might turn in her direction. She was wearing a shapeless gray overcoat, buttoned to the throat, the collar turned up as well. She was wearing large circular-lensed sunglasses and a dark brown silk scarf over her hair and tied under her chin, rendering herself nearly faceless. Michael could tell her body was slim and she was young, but then again he already knew that Marielle Wesshauser had turned sixteen in the second week of March. He heard the hard clump of her left shoe against the deckboards, and quickly he glanced there though he already knew about her left leg being three inches shorter than the right. The clunky black left shoe, as ugly as the right one since orthopedic shoes are rarely lovely, had a built-up sole to compensate for the problem of balance. Did she catch the movement of his head and did her own eyes behind the sunglasses very quickly mark his notice? Possibly. But she walked away from him with her face downcast, the air slightly ruffling the mouse-colored scarf and the thick-soled shoe beating a halting rhythm on the deck.
She disappeared aft, possibly intending to make as many circuits of the ship as she could before either the impoverished strength of her leg gave out or the hammerblow noise of her condition beat down her willpower.
Michael saw a shadow fall over him.
He realized he should have smelled the medicinal odor of the infirmary in the air a few seconds before he did. He twisted around and there indeed stood Olaf Thorgrimsen, cleaner now than before, his hair combed back and damp from a fresh shower. The cowlick would not be controlled.
"There you," said Olaf.
"Yes," Michael answered, still on his knees. "Here I am."
They stared at each other for a few seconds, neither one moving on their own but the ship moving them with its slow roll against the sea.
Olaf reached into a pocket of his trousers and retrieved something wrapped in a piece of old Norwegian newspaper.
"Give you this," Olaf grunted, and he held it out.
Michael put aside the paintbrush and took it. When he opened the piece of newsprint, he saw it contained an oatmeal-and-raisin cookie still warm from a platter in the mess hall. Like rust, the cooks never slept. "Thank you," Michael said.
"No sailor," Olaf told him. "Yet. But maybe you fighter. Eh?"
Michael didn't know how he should respond. He simply nodded.
"Olaf likes fighter," said Olaf. Then he turned away. His thick bulk shambled away from the hard sunlight into the shadow beneath a blue awning roped against the superstructure. Michael heard a door open and close.
He returned to his painting, ate the cookie, and in a few minutes heard the sound of Marielle Wesshauser coming back. Her pace had slowed. It appeared the left shoe was heavier than before, and it dragged at her leg like an anchor. She made her way around a lifeboat, negotiated passage between two ventilation funnels, may or may not have glanced quickly at him as she clumped past, avoided the gaze of a couple more ordinary seamen doing the same work as Michael, and then she went through the exact door by which she'd left the interior of the ship. She was going back to her cabin, the one she shared with her twelve-year-old brother Emil. Her father and mother were in the cabin across the hallway. There were two more passenger cabins on the hall. Michael knew that a V. Vivian had paid for them, but V. Vivian had not shown up for the voyage and so those cabins remained empty. Michael knew that Paul and Annaleisa Wesshauser had made arrangements for their food to be delivered to their cabins. Their names on the Sofia's passenger list, a very short document, were Klaus and Lili Hendriks.
Michael finished his job. But there was always another one to do, and the advice he'd been given by the ex-master of the freighter John Willis Scott was to always find it and apply himself before he could be spotted dawdling and be assigned to something far worse. Therefore he went directly to another funnel and started the process of scraping away streamers of orange rust.
He knew his real job aboard this freighter. It was to carefully watch the crew, to listen to their conversations and gauge their movements, to fit in if at all possible, but to be very vigilant. To be as observant as a wolf on the hunt, so to speak. Much depended on it. Maybe many thousands of lives, as well.
Certainly four lives.
He thought he had things well under control so far. It would be a long voyage. They'd travelled about four hundred nautical miles already, but there were eight hundred and sixty-odd more yet to go. From Danzig to Dover, it was a journey of roughly ten to twelve days to two weeks, depending on the weather.
Michael suddenly had the desire to stand up from his kneeling position and gaze back across the sea they'd just crossed. It was untroubled but for the white foam of the freighter's wake.
He recalled Colonel Vivian telling him that sometimes loose ends could come flying apart with remarkable and dangerous consequences. He recalled the colonel telling him to always be prepared for the unexpected.
Good advice, he thought.
"Hey, you! Get to work there!" It was the Spanish second mate, throwing his weight around. His voice was loud enough so that everyone could hear how a real man gave orders. Without comment or a change of expression, the lycanthrope from Russia knelt down and continued his labor.
Vulcan At His Forge
Sofia entered the North Sea on the fifth night, having stopped at Copenhagen to take on another load of machine parts in crates and a couple of hundred hardwood logs.
Michael lay on his bunk in the semi-dark of the crew's sleeping quarters and thought this must be a little preview of Hell. The smells of men who worked so hard for a living could never be completely eradicated by the paltry streams of water from the reluctant showerheads. A toilet had backed up and added its odiferous fumes. The pungent, nose-wrinkling stinks of oil and diesel fuel were always floating about; Michael imagined he could see them, like currents of green and yellow smoke moving in the sodden air. If some of these men snored like this at home, they would be smothered in their uneasy sleep by half-deaf wives. And there was also the problem, to him, of the closeness of people. He was unable to find a private space, unable to breathe a private breath. He longed for a run through the woods. He longed to be away from the odors of cigarette smoke and human foulness. But here he was and here he had to stay until this voyage was done. He cursed Colonel Valentine Vivian, and he lay on his back feeling the ship roll against the rougher North Sea waves and hearing her groan deep in her guts where the engines knocked and clattered every second of every day.
Everyone was growing a beard by now. Shaving was too much trouble. It seemed almost too much trouble to change clothes. Michael put an arm up over his eyes to block out the dirty lightbulb that always burned at the entrance to the showers and head. Occasionally someone belched, struggled up and went off to relieve themselves. He couldn't help but hear their further struggles and blasts of escaping gas, thanks to the fried and oily food. The cooks knew a dozen ways to prepare kippers, but none of them worth eating. Michael wondered if the Sofia's passengers had gone on a starvation diet, but then again they were probably getting better food for their money.
He thought that he could so easily let the wolf out in this miserable chamber, and it wanted to get out. It always wanted to get out. The change was not so much a matter of willing it to happen, but letting it happen. Opening the soul cage, is what he considered it.
A little less vigilance, and it would be there. Sometimes at night, when he could sleep, he awakened with a start to feel the wolf coming out. Just sliding out of him, first the rippling bands of hair and then the searing pain of bones reforming. The smell of his own animal in his nostrils. His mouth in agony, his gums starting to be ripped apart, the taste of blood from new fangs. He always slammed the soul cage and locked it before he went too far...but the wolf was always there, and it always yearned to break free.
Life aboard a freighter was not suitable for lycanthropes.
He had enough of the noise and the smells. He had to get out and find some fresh air and a quiet place. He eased out of the bunk and from his duffel bag put on his red plaid shirt, his paint-dappled trousers and his cracked boots. He shrugged into his dirty canvas jacket and went through the door that led to the stairway up.
The Sofia was illuminated by small lights atop the masts and running lights at bow and stern. The windows of the wheelhouse, atop the central superstructure, showed dim yellow light, as was suited for nighttime eyes. Waves drummed against the hull. The ship shivered, as if it felt the chill wind. Michael put his hands into the pockets of his jacket and breathed deeply and gratefully of clean salt air. He walked along the portside deck, trailing a shadow. The night was very dark beyond the wash of Sofia's lamps. Michael had seen clouds closing in before sunset. Now there were no stars. But a fitful flare of lightning occasionally jumped within the clouds, and very distantly there was the sound of thunder.
He heard a clumping noise coming toward him, getting louder, and he realized at once that she too was having trouble sleeping. He kept his head down until they were almost together. Then he looked up into her face, and he smiled and said in German, "Hello."
She shivered like the ship. Her head had also been lowered. She had her arms around herself. She was wearing the ugly mouse-colored overcoat and a gray head-scarf, which allowed just a glimpse of her blonde hair. Tonight, of course, there was no need for sunglasses. Her eyes were a cool shade of aquamarine under unplucked blonde brows. Her nose was small and sharp-tipped and her chin was adorned with a small dimple. She looked at him with something like horror in her face, and then she put her head down again and tried to get past as quickly as her weight of a left shoe would allow.
"May I walk with you?" Michael asked, before she could escape him.
"No," she said, more of a whispered breath than a voice. "Please. Leave me alone." She was trying to move faster, but she suddenly stumbled and had to catch her balance against one of the funnels.
"Don't you want to see Vulcan at his forge?" Michael asked. She was still trying to get away, not daring to meet his gaze. He gently spoke her false name: "Kristen?"
The teenaged girl took two more staggering steps before she looked back over her shoulder.
"Come watch Vulcan at work," he told her, standing against the gunwale. "Just for a moment."
"I have to go," Marielle said, but she wasn't moving. Her eyes darted here and there; anywhere but to his own eyes. And then: "How do you know my name?"
"I suppose I heard someone mention it. From the passenger list." He smiled again. "I think it's a very pretty name."
"I have to go," she said again.
The right foot moved, but the heavy left foot remained where it was.
Lightning flared amid the clouds.
"There!" Michael said. "Vulcan at his forge. Did you see it?"
"Keep watch, then. It'll just be...there! Did you see it then?"
"It's lightning," she said, with a trace of irritation.
"It's Vulcan," he corrected. "Working at his forge. He's the god of blacksmiths, you know. Ah, listen...hear the sound of his hammer on the anvil?"
"Thunder," she muttered.
"Vulcan has an interesting history." Michael made a half-turn so he could watch the display in the clouds but she could also still hear him. "He was the son of Jupiter and Juno. But Juno thought he was ugly. She cast the baby off the top of Mount Olympus into the sea. When he fell all that way, he was injured."
There was no response for a little while. Then her quiet voice asked, "Injured? How?"
"He broke one of his legs," said Michael. "It never developed properly. After that, he was always crippled. There he is again! Listen to that hammer!"
Marielle Wesshauser, the daughter of Paul and Annaleisa and sister to Emil, was silent.
At last she said, "I shouldn't be talking to you. Father said not to talk to anyone."
"He's right. There are some men on this ship who are not very nice."
She frowned at the deck. Michael saw her glance quickly up at him and then away again. "Are you nice?" she asked cautiously.
"If I said I was, would you believe I was telling you the truth?"
She had to think about that one for a moment.
Michael watched the lightning. The sound of thunder was nearer now; a storm was on the move. North Sea weather, particularly at the change of seasons, was never predictable. "You don't have to talk, Kristen. I'll talk. Can I tell you some more about Vulcan?" He turned to face her.
She kept her eyes averted. She shrugged beneath her overcoat.
"Vulcan," said Michael, "sank down to the bottom of the sea. The sea-nymph Thetis found him and took him to her grotto, and she raised him as her son." He paused, firming up the memory of this story from his mythology studies. "Vulcan had dolphins for playmates. He had all the sea as his world. Then one day he found what was left of a fisherman's fire on the beach. Do you know what it was?"
She shook her head. Again, her eyes slid to his, lingered for just a few seconds, and then darted away.
"A single coal," Michael continued. "Glowing red-hot. Well, he became fascinated with it. He became fascinated with fire, and with creating things from fire. He made rare and beautiful necklaces and bracelets out of sea stones and metals for his mother. He could make anything out of fire. It was his element to be used and adored. There!" That particular flash had been tinged with vivid electric-blue. "He's working extra hard tonight."
"But," said Marielle. She hesitated, as if thinking she'd already said too much. "But," she went on, "how did Vulcan get back up to the clouds? You said he was in the sea. How did he get back to the sky?"
"His real mother invited Thetis to a party on Mount Olympus. Those old Greek gods were always having parties. Then Juno saw the magnificent necklaces and bracelets of rare sea-metals and wanted to know who forged them, because she wanted some too. So she invited the son of Thetis to come up and make some for her. That's how he got back to Mount Olympus, and after that Juno realized who he was."
"And then he lived there with his real mother?" Her frown deepened. "Even though she didn't like him?"
"He tricked her," Michael said. "He built a fantastic metal chair for her that trapped her with its arms and wouldn't let her go. Jupiter couldn't even free her. Jupiter begged Vulcan to let Juno free. Finally Vulcan, because he had such a kind heart, let his mother go. And because of that, Jupiter told Juno to leave the boy alone, and then do you know what happened?"
"Venus fell in love with Vulcan. The most beautiful of the goddesses, in love with him. And him only a crippled blacksmith. But Venus saw his heart, and that was what she loved. It was enough. After that, Vulcan went to work making arms and armor for all the heroes of Olympus, and he made thunderbolts for Jupiter. Look there! See? He just made a new one."
She cocked her head to one side and studied him. A little shy smile came up and, like the quicksilver lightning, flashed away. "I think you've been on this ship too long."
"True, very true," he agreed. "My name is Michael Gallatin." He offered his hand to her.
Now her heavy left shoe did move, scraping across the boards. She stepped back, as if she'd been presented not with a human hand but with the claw of an animal.
"I'm tame," he told her. When I need to be, he thought.
But she was having none of it. Without looking at him again she turned away and struggled onward across the moving deck. Michael decided to let her go. It was a long voyage yet; there would be plenty of time.
Time for what? he asked himself. A shipboard romance with a sixteen-year-old girl? Certainly not! But watching her pulling herself along that first day, making herself faceless to hide from the world...