MICHAEL WASHBURN -CUNNING PASSAGE
The winds were gentle and the sea was calm when Runnels walked out onto the deck of the merchant vessel Chamberlain. Most of the other men slept but the captain, Larson, sat on a folding chair behind a tiny table with a bottle of rum and a pair of glasses on it. Larson greeted the first mate with a nod and gestured at the rum. Runnels pulled up another chair and sat down facing the captain, who loved to talk and needed an audience.
He poured rum into a glass, took a sip, and leaned back, briefly free from the tensions that went with moving ore from one point on the map to another under pressure from his corporate masters. In a tall beige building on a tree-lined street in San Francisco’s Nob Hill district, people they would never meet sat gazing at screens or spreadsheets and assessing the crew’s performance as haulers of ore from port to port under the tightest of schedules. The scrutiny from afar put sailors on the Chamberlain into a complex state. Though full of bravado, they were prone to imagine that after giving a career-killing review, those strangers would go out to a bar to drink and laugh. At times the crew grew depressed over such thoughts.
Runnels was in a mild mood though he sensed the ship had slowed down a bit. The engine was ancient. The ore in the cargo hull was due tomorrow afternoon at the port in Nauru, in the Central Pacific, whence it would ship to the Americas. But if they were really losing speed, the boatswain, Willard, could handle it. Runnels needed a drink.
“I’m so much nicer than running this ship effectively and getting to places on time requires, John. But our corporate overlords have expectations. You may or may not read the bullshit that corporate sends our way. They have this thing about a crew getting to know each other. And after ten months, I must admit I have no idea who you are or what you do nine months out of the year,” the captain said.
“I’m a high school chemistry teacher.”
Larson peered at the first mate for an unseemly amount of time, then tossed his shaggy head back and laughed.
“Well, now. I suppose that was one of the more obvious guesses, wasn’t it?”
“You speak well, captain. But I have this sense that you’re an autodidact. You would go get some formal schooling if you had the time and money. Or maybe something else is stopping you?”
Larson took a draught of rum and leaned back. There came a faint breeze, fluttering his uncombed dark hair.
“Look, mate, it’s not that I distrust intellectuals or academics. I am both a curious and a practical man. Not seldom have I wished we had a professor here to explain things, and I don’t just mean about the igneous character of some formation or other or the various sea creatures and what they will or won’t eat or the finer points of geography or the changing patterns of the waves or the obsolescence of maps. No, I sometimes have experiences that I guess are akin to what some character in a novel or story has gone through, but I feel like I’m not well read enough to make the connection. I could use someone who is truly learned.”
Runnels drank more rum, nodding pensively.
“So you see, my problem has to do not with intellectuals or academics per se, only with certain kinds of smart guys. The poufters. Whelps and weaklings who wouldn’t take their own side in an argument, let alone help someone in danger. And maybe it’s just as well that I haven’t learned your vocation until now. Teachers aren’t the only ones I blame for the worst thing to happen in my life, far from it, but I do fault a few of them for their failures of courage.”
Runnels did not know what to make of the man’s odd mix of street slang and pomposity. This was what you got sometimes with autodidacts. It got worse as the captain drank.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, captain.”
“You mean you’ve never heard it from the crew? My boy Alan nearly died in a school shooting three years ago.”
Runnels gasped. The captain went on.
“A maniac rampages through the halls, firing into classrooms and shooting everyone in his path. The teacher in Alan’s classroom, a Mr. Perry, hears the shots, and what does he do? Lock the door? Draw his own gun? No, he bolts right out of there without even a word to the kids to get under their desks, as they’re supposed to do in this type of emergency. He flees and boy does he pay a price for his cowardice. The maniac shoots him in the back before pausing at the door and unloading on the kids. Alan, my only son, gets hit in the hip and shoulder. He lives, but needs many months of physical therapy to walk again. And the counseling, forget it. All the scratch I was earning by being so fucking dependable in this role, gone. And Alan’s still a mess.”
Runnels nodded somberly.
The captain went on. “Some people are just weak, John.”
The door through which Runnels had come a brief time before opened and a youth named Stevens came out onto the deck, pale and worried.
“It’s the sonar, sir. I caught an SOS coming from eight or ten leagues off. No radio contact but we think it’s a Norwegian or a Danish freighter.”
“Thank you, Stevens. That will be all.”
“That will be all!”
The boy stood there, looking expectant, then seemed to realize the captain really was done with him and vanished. As Runnels struggled to recall a passage of maritime law he had read months before, a red flare shot high into the sky and burst, its fragments drifting slowly toward the untroubled blue. Both men got up, went to the rail, and gazed into the distance.
“Did you see anything, John?”
The first mate looked at the captain, dumfounded.
“Did you see anything?” Larson repeated.
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Yes, captain, as did you.”
“Now, look. We’re already cutting it close, John. If we changed course now and went out there and tooled around in the dark for five or six hours, or more, I figure we’d reach Nauru the day after tomorrow. Very late. The importer has twice had to tell management that’s unacceptable. By a modest estimate, the company loses $250K and we lose our bonuses if not our jobs.”
“You saw what I saw.”
“Forget it, John. There are other ships around. Whoever they are, they’ll be fine.”
“Maybe we could at least do a quick sweep. Just so we can say we did it.”
“You heard what I said.”
“Look, captain, it’s not like I care. I mean, just so we can say—”
“Not another word about it, John.”
“It’s not right, captain. I urge that we follow the law, and I could still catch hell for this.”
Runnels gazed out into the distance while the captain stared at him.
“You know the losses we’ve taken lately, John. I didn’t want to mention this before, it’s not exactly good for morale, but all our jobs are hanging by a thread.”
The remainder of the rum went down well, the captain’s talk lulled him, and he spent his last conscious minutes on this calm night lying in his bunk, listening to the churn of the engine far below, and hearing, through the round window, sprays of water and the rare gust sweeping over the sedate blue.
Over breakfast in the mess hall, the men joked and laughed and talked about the Queensland bars they hoped to visit again soon. Runnels ate his cereal with mechanical motions, remembering a girl he had talked to in a dive bar back in Brisbane, one of the points on an all-night bar hop, her accent, her coy sarcasm, her smile. How like his wife, but for the accent. Runnels barely looked up from his tray and not once made eye contact with Stevens.
On the deck, he enjoyed a view of the wide and brilliant day.
“Hey, first mate! Can you come downstairs for a minute, sir?” Stevens called from the engine room below.
“Not just now.”
“John! You’d better get your ass down here now!” cried Willard, the boatswain.
Runnels went down the metal stairs and stood facing the grubby man in the space amid myriad pipes, valves, handles, tanks, and grilles.
“We’ve been slowing down for more than twelve hours. I don’t know whether someone brought this to your attention or not,” Willard said.
“Oh, I noticed, and I mentioned it to the captain,” Runnels replied, not liking the implication that he’d neglected his duties.
“I have little doubt there’s water in the fuel and it’s getting to the engine. Which leads me to believe that either the fueling station in Brisbane has a broken filter, or the supplier’s trying to save a buck with an ethanol-based fuel and figures no one’ll ever know the difference. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Do you figure we should turn around?” Runnels asked.
“We’ll burn right through the fuel just trying to maintain our current speed, sir. The engine will quit before we ever get in sight of Brisbane,” Willard said.
Runnels sighed as he tried to process this, ruing the boatswain’s jabs at his competence.
“Let me talk to the captain.”
Runnels found Larson in the command room. The captain, who had rarely been sober since Brisbane, took the news calmly. The engine was pretty old and Larson did not believe water in the fuel was the problem. The captain pulled a map of the Pacific off a shelf and spread it out on the table.
“Find someplace, John.”
“You’re the first mate and here’s a fucking map. Find a place we can lister to in a reasonable amount of time and rest for a spell and get a proper inspection done.”
“Don’t you know these waters, captain?”
“No. Sort of. Are you disobeying a direct order?”
With another sigh, Runnels pored over the map. He realized they were at just about the worst possible point in the Pacific for a technical issue to arise. Everywhere around their point on the map was the same dull blue. Despair spread in his mind like a Rorschach blot until his gaze fell on a spec about twenty leagues from where they were. It was about the size of Nauru. Barely there. Eight square miles, an island you could walk around in no time. Looking at the beige spec, he guessed its amenities made Nauru look like Monaco, but at least people spoke English and used the Australian dollar. The place was Uvalu.
Runnels relayed orders to Stevens. An hour later the crew of the Chamberlain made out the edges of the little island, copper sand mottled with dark rocks. As the ship neared shore, the faces of the rocks grew distinct. On the shore a party waited to greet the white visitors. Runnels looked at the smiling beige faces of the men and women who had reacted with grace to an interruption of their lives. They wore casual attire, the men in khaki shorts, short-sleeved button-down shirts, and loafers, the women in light blue or gray dresses and sandals.
As the boat docked, Larson spoke to the crew.
“Listen, roughnecks. We’re here until we get the mechanical problems sorted out and fixed. There are several thousand women on this island. I expect each and every one of you to act like gentlemen. If you don’t know what that means, you can stay on the ship.”
No one was really listening, Runnels thought as the men filed off the boat and over the gangplank leading to the rocky slope. Willard looked grim and Stevens appeared clinically depressed. Runnels worried about that kid. Soon they were ashore.
The island looked as barren and humble as Runnels had imagined, but it had a small hotel in addition to a hangar that the natives had converted into barracks. The captain, first mate, and boatswain would enjoy better digs than the twenty-two other men in the crew. A twentyish woman with a wreath of flowers in her hair led the trio up a winding path across the road that ringed the island and through clusters of squat buildings of crude design until they reached the hotel, a three-story edifice with peeling yellow walls and dull green shutters on the windows. Gulls perched atop the sign at the center of the façade.
They thanked the young woman, who smiled warmly before turning and walking back down the path toward the beach, and then split up. There was no elevator, only a narrow staircase. When Runnels reached the room set aside for him on the top floor, he closed the door, locked it, and flopped down on the plain little bed.
The phone on the night table woke him. Light still poured between the parted curtains, but it had a paler quality.
“Willard here, sir. I’m over at the hangar. The men have settled in and are planning to go out to the bars in a spell.”
“There are bars here?”
“Three of them. A German owns the one just across the road here and it’s popular with visitors, such as there are. Anyway, the native who accompanied us over here said I should clear it with my superior. Just a formality, you know.”
“Of course, of course. Where’s the captain?”
“Well, have a good time this evening.”
“We’ll unwind all right, sir. The say it’s gonna storm in a bit, though.”
Runnels looked outside. The skies really had clouded up in the last couple of hours.
“Keep an eye on Stevens. But enjoy yourselves. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
Willard laughed. It was the dumbest cliché imaginable. They hung up.
He called downstairs and inquired about rum. Minutes later a knock came. He opened the door and a stranger handed him a bottle and left.
He dozed again. When he woke it was to the sound of rain hissing and pelting the window so hard he thought the glass might crack and burst. Before he had had a clear view of the beach, but now he could only dimly make out the elongated form of the Chamberlain, its black hull and clay-red cabins blurry as a watercolor.
The rum was sweeter, fruitier, than what he had enjoyed on the ship. He did not mind that it was room temperature now. He took in long draughts and thought of his home in California. He had no idea how severe the storm would get, but the thought of a hurricane put him in mind of another kind of extreme condition. One afternoon back home he heard a rumbling and then a pounding as if the earth hemmed in a titan who now in rage used his fists to punch the earth and try to drive it so far out of its uneasy order that all the things on the surface would slip and fall in as new centers of gravity broke out all over. The house shook, the walls jumped, the view through a window moved wildly like images on a screen. He said his wife’s name. He mounted the stairs to the second floor as the walls continued to jerk and dance. On the upper floor, all the doors were shut. He moved down the hall, flinging open the doors to the bedroom, the TV room, the library, and the study where he sat and prepared for his chemistry classes. Linda was in none of them. That left one possibility. Her own study.
Gazing through the hotel’s window, he thought he had no use for such a painful memory, he had a good bottle of rum, and for now the storm was no analogue to an earthquake. It was getting worse, though. He could not see the ship anymore. He sat on the edge of the bed, letting the liquor lull him.
At some point he dozed again. Now when the phone rang, it was dark out and the bottle lay on its side on the floor, its former contents all over the rug. At least the storm had let up. It was barely raining at all.
“John,” said a raspy voice.
“We come to this exotic place and you sit in your room. I’m at the best nightspot on the island. Come on down so we can talk things over, you and I.”
“The bar with the German owner?”
“God, no. I didn’t want to be with all the men. And Stevens! There’s something wrong with that kid. No, I’m at the tiki bar up the road.”
“You sound drunk. I’m much too tired. Goodnight.”
The next day was bright. At lunchtime at the tiki bar, the captain drank heavily. The place had a small crowd today. The bartender was buoyant and quick on his feet and his smile never faded even when the captain got curt with him. To Runnels, Larson seemed in a hurry to enjoy as much booze as possible before the arrival of a crew from Brisbane. Willard had told Larson that the crew should reach Uvalu the day after next. They could not be available any sooner and the company stood to take a huge hit. As soon as Larson relayed it all to Runnels, the first mate had questions, but the bartender planted himself before them.
“I guess you’ve heard about the party that came ashore last night.”
The captain and first mate exchanged looks.
“What party?” Larson said.
“A bunch of Danes. Nine of ’em, to be exact, in a little lifeboat. Their freighter went down and they damn near died. They say there were two others in their lifeboat who blew right overboard in the squall last night, and they have no idea what happened to the other lifeboats from their ship. God in heaven. I’m thirty-two and never seen a thing like this in all my days.”
“Danes,” the captain repeated, in a strange voice.
“Yes, sir. The tallest, blondest men I’ve ever seen. But from what I’ve heard they’re not like Vikings, they’re a pretty friendly bunch. All smiles and jokes.”
The captain and first mate sat down with beers at one of the tables.
“You saw nothing and I saw nothing. You followed orders. If anyone has violated the Law of the Sea, it’s the company,” Larson said.
Runnels looked nervously around and lowered his voice.
“We’re not the only parties who knew. You’re like the driver of a car full of people who thinks that if he just shuts up about the accident he’s caused—”
“To avoid saying things is not to lie, John. And no one wants trouble.”
“At some point we’ll both have to make statements under oath.”
“Remember my warning, John. My son needs me after what he’s been through. Do you want to see your wife again?”
“How dare you threaten me. I will tell everyone everything.”
“I’ll kill you!”
Just then Willard ran into the bar, looking distraught.
“It’s Stevens, sir. He’s killed himself. We were outside the hangar and some of those Danes approached us. The ones who just showed up in a lifeboat. One of them talked to Stevens and the boy started crying and talking incoherently, and said his career is over, and then he ran back to the ship and put a flare pistol in his mouth and fired. The boy’s head literally explored.”
“What else did he say?” Larson demanded.
Runnels could not believe the captain would forego any expression of regret or concern about the boy himself and all that his act entailed. Surely no one could be that heedless.
“We think he stopped briefly in his cabin. He may have recorded some statements there. The native police are all over the ship now so we won’t know for a while.”
The captain hurried outside and up the road leading to the port, and the other two followed. But the police had blocked off the approaches to the dock. Larson lingered for a while in the glare, clenching his fists, looking furious, before turning around and backtracking. Soon Runnels realized that Larson was heading right back to the tiki bar.
“Captain! Hey! We have to go talk to the police and get on the radio to corporate.”
“You can see we can’t get on the boat, John. I’ll talk to the cops soon enough.”
The captain burst into the bar, where a sextet of blond men sat at a table, talking in Danish, drinking and laughing. Runnels hurried after Larson, mortified but powerless.
“All right, which one of you talked to my boy?”
His boy? thought Runnels. The blond men looked at the angry captain with curiosity. Then one of them, twenty-nine and with lucid blue eyes and a ponytail, spoke in flawless English.
“Hello, sir, is everything okay? Want to come have a drink with us?”
“One of you talked to my boy, Stevens, the kid with the pierced ear, right before he shot himself with a flare gun. Was it you?”
“Yes, sir. I talked to Stevens. A nice boy. I think the bartender would like it if you lowered your voice.”
The bartender nodded, not smiling now. The captain looked at him in rage.
“I did mention to Stevens that I had a theory as why he got so upset. Anyway, please calm down, my good man. Come on, the three of you, join us for a drink,” the ponytailed Dane said.
Larson raced over to the table. The Dane rose just as the captain got close enough to throw a punch. He cried out but the others quickly pulled the captain off their mate as the bartender withdrew a Beretta pistol from behind the bar and aimed it at Larson. Even here, bartenders kept weapons. They held Larson there for the police.
When the uniformed natives arrived, they questioned Runnels and Willard briefly, took down some information, and told them they were not to leave the island until further notice.
As Runnels sauntered back to the hotel, a young member of the Danish crew on another path smiled and waved at him. The guy barely looked sixteen. Runnels did not wave back.
In his room, the lure of pineapple rum was too strong to deny. He sat on the bed drinking aggressively and looking out at the ship in the distance. Virtually all the island’s small police force was there, and official-looking people milled around on the deck and talked to officers and to each other. He stared, thinking of the smiles and grins of the blond men who had come ashore, their bright upbeat manner. The storm, rain hitting the window. The dark that followed. Stevens putting the tip of the flare pistol in his mouth, the mushrooming red shroud a moment later. Soon Runnels had drained the bottle and had a buzz. The phone rang.
“They allowed me one call,” said a hoarse voice.
“I should have reported you back in Brisbane. You never should have gotten back on the ship. Every single thing you’ve done since then has been a violation. You’re a disgraceful man, Larson.”
“It’s not my fault we’re under such pressure.”
“That’s your excuse.”
“Not just mine. We’re both pawns in this global game, John.”
“Why did you attack that sailor? If anyone had a reason to get violent, he did.”
“He’s the reason Stevens died.”
“No. Just the messenger. You’re too drunk to make any sense.”
“It is so deeply unfair that Stevens, or you or I or anyone, should face ruin over what they find with hindsight to be wrong in a situation we didn’t cause. That’s the evil here, John. Don’t you get it?”
“Yeah, I know, hindsight’s always 20/20.”
“Can I share something with you? I told you what happened to my son Alan. I’ve had big legal bills since the incident, John.”
“Legal bills? A lunatic shot your son!”
“Correct. After the teacher failed to do his duty. Compounding one crime with another. Here’s what I didn’t tell you, John. After the maniac showed up at the door, Alan grabbed another kid, a sniveling little nerd named Eric Faye, and used Eric as a shield. The two rounds that hit Alan were out of a total of ten that the gunman fired in his direction. My boy used Eric as a shield and all the kids saw him do it.”
“Christ. You left all that out.”
“But what did Eric’s parents leave out! It’s so fucking easy now to second-guess Alan and say this thing should ruin his whole life and mine as well. Like Alan could have done anything to stop it. If Mr. Pratt had even tried to do his duty—”
“Yes, I get it.”
“They’re signaling for me to end the call now, John. I just want to leave you with this. I think it goes to the heart of one of your problems as an intellectual. You’re maladjusted. You have to live in a world so full of people who aren’t in any way like you, and you could never possibly relate to them, or so you imagine.”
“Oh, God. If I believed that, do you think—”
Runnels heard a click at the other end. He sat there on the bed, wishing there were more rum, looking out at the figures on the ship, brooding. In his mind images came of the hall in his house in San Francisco, the empty rooms, his wife’s study after he had forced the door. His wife lying on the floor unconscious. And the realization that if he needed to do anything behind her back, as it were, here was the time. He remembered turning and rushing back down the hall and down the stairs to the ground floor as the walls jumped and shook and finding her purse on the couch. Inside was a letter, folded so many times it was the size of a post-it. Opening it up, he saw it was from a man he had never met, a Jay Silver, who explained to her that Jay knew the degree of Linda’s ardor for him and hoped that his failure to return all her messages over the past months had not hurt her. Jay knew that in her eyes he was the white knight who could save her from the relentless demands that selfish John Runnels made on her finite time in this world. After reading the letter, Runnels ran back to her prone form on the upper floor and only then noticed the empty jar. Doctors later said that if he had called EMS a minute later, the pills would surely have killed her. Though it was human to want someone to blame and hurt in retaliation for a thing like this, people told Runnels, Jay Silver was blameless. They asked him to consider how he would feel if the man had engaged in an affair with his wife.
Justice is hell to sort out sometimes.
If he could not achieve recompense for what felt like the evil of others, Runnels thought, then at least let no one ever be unfairly vindictive to him. That would be the gravest evil of all.
Runnels would see his wife again. Right now he needed liquor and cheerful company. He thought about resolving any misunderstandings and making peace.
He went downstairs and out of the hotel and wandered over to the tiki bar. Now the lights were dim and the bartender was friendly. Runnels got down to business and soon had finished three whiskey sours and started on a fourth.
The Dane with the ponytail sat down to his left.
“Are you all right?” Runnels asked, on realizing who had joined him.
The stranger smiled.
“Oh, I’m fine, never felt better, thank you. I really wanted to ask how you, and your captain, are doing after that business. Your captain must have been under tremendous stress.”
“He took a swing at you. And you seem genuinely concerned for him.”
The smile broadened.
“Is that somehow abnormal?”
“I’d be pretty damn mad. In fact, I wouldn’t be sitting here, I’d be on the phone with my lawyer.”
The Dane had a good laugh, turned to people at one of the tables whom Runnels could not see in the dimness, and had a brief exchange in Danish.
“That wasn’t polite,” Runnels said.
“Excuse me, I just told my friends that they should withhold their solicitude for your captain.”
“You think it’s a joke. I can’t believe you’re not furious at my captain.”
“Well, he was pretty upset, which I can understand, and he wanted someone to blame for the boy’s death. But a full inquest is already underway. Soon enough, the world will know why that boy killed himself with the flare pistol. The boy talked to me before he died, and I’m going to share everything with the police tomorrow.”
Runnels strained his eyes in the dim light. It took an effort to see and he felt an old feeling tightening its grip on him inexorably.
“Stevens talked to you before he died?”
“Yes. A very nice boy, as I told your captain.”
Runnels sighed as he pondered this.
“Some stuff is hard to sort out. I say, better deliberate evil than the misapplication of justice.”
“Whoa. Heavy stuff. You need another drink, my friend,” the Dane said with a laugh.
“This isn’t Larson you’re talking to.”
“Let me fix it myself.”
He stood up, leapt over the bar, and found the Beretta. The Dane barely had time to get up before Runnels fired five shots.