The Cold Comfort was making steady progress across the calm seas of the Indian Ocean. 10 days out of Mauritius, headed east. The sea was calm and dark, while above stars twinkled on and off as wispy clouds passed over the my head.
From my perch along the starboard rail, I could feel the steady rumble of the engine several decks below my feet. I could feel a slight breeze against my face. The greasy odor of lubricant and bunker fuel filled my nose.
I was a long way from home, and no closer to discovering who was behind the plot that had led to this desolate spot on board an aging freighter.
Originally designed to shuttle cargo between Bergen and Murmansk in the Barents Sea, the Cold Comfort had passed through a number of owners before she was acquired by a small trading company, ostensibly to ship textiles and sugar to Australia and return with food products for hungry Mauritians. Dock-side mutterings hinted at other, less “approved” cargo, but no one had ever proved anything. Or, it seemed, wanted to.
Business in the dark trade must have been slow, or maybe the owners needed a little cover, but the Cold Comfort accepted passengers on the 16-day passage between Mauritius and Fremantle. The four small cabins allowed for a maximum of 8 passengers, well below the 12-passenger limit, at which the ship was required to have a doctor on board. Fewer questions about the nature of her cargo, too.
I had the smallest of the cabins, with a single bed and a shared toilet. My fellow passengers were a Brazilian couple on their honeymoon, a retired orthodontist from Nebraska and a reclusive chap of indeterminate nationality.
Other than for meals, I had steered clear of the others, preferring to wander the decks alone when I wasn’t in my cabin, pouring over the case notes and trying to find something – anything – that would make sense.
I had adopted my strategy of solitude following dinner in the Officer’s Mess on the first night at sea. Between Senhor and Senhora Abelho’s newly married giddiness, and the cloying attention of Dr. Pensertain, I longed for the seclusion of my cramped accommodations. The Brazilians found the story of their whirlwind romance endlessly fascinating, and assumed everyone else did, as well. And “Doc P”, as he liked to be called, apparently was looking for a full-time companion for the voyage. And also apparently, he had chosen me.
The fifth passenger seemed to appreciate company even less than I did. He had not shared his name, so I had taken to calling him Han Solo in my head. Han barely spoke to anyone, and when he did, it was one or two words that made it impossible to discover his accent. He would finish every meal as quickly as possible and hurry back to his cabin. Which was just fine with me.
The First Mate had approached so quietly than I didn’t notice his presence until he was at my side. My surprise must have evident to the stocky Filipino. “Sorry to startle you, Mr. Nesbitt.”
“Yeah, I guess I was lost in thought.”
“Of home? Perhaps a woman?”
“Neither. What can I do for you, Nestor?”
“I thought you might like to know that we are about to cross the Tropic of Capricorn.” Nestor smiled, the gaps contrasting his yellow teeth.
“Thanks. I felt us turn south a few hours ago.”
“Yes, that’s right. We are now headed directly for Fremantle. 6 more days and we’ll be in port. Is Perth your final destination?”
Nestor had been making delicate inquiries since I boarded: where was I headed, where had I come from, was line of work was I in. When I answered him at all, it was with practiced ambiguity or outright avoidance. He was a little too curious for my taste, so I kept my trust in my wallet.
“Been on this ship long?” I asked, by way of deflecting his question.
“3 years. She’s old, but you can count on her. Especially in a storm.”
“Get many of those down here?”
“Not many,” Nestor replied. “But when they come, they are kahila-hilakbot.”
“Terrible.” Nestor turned to leave. As he reached the hatch, he turned his head toward the western sky, where dark clouds had started to gather. “Terrible.” he repeated.
I was back in my cabin when the storm arrived. The rain pelted my tiny porthole, and the ship was beginning to rock in the ever-roughening seas. I decided to make my way to bridge.
As I climbed the ladder to the upper decks, I suddenly was thrown against the wall. For several seconds, I was pinned against the railing, until at last I regained my balance and realized what was happening.
The Cold Comfort was turning north.
Just before I reached the door to the bridge, it opened. Han Solo’s eyes met mine, then he hurried past me. I entered the bridge to find Nestor at the helm. “Coming around to new heading 360, Captain.”
“Sehr gute,” came the reply. Captain Dieter Kreutzman hadn’t taken notice of my arrival. He was staring intently at the radar. “Increase speed to 12 knots.”
“Increasing speed to 12 knots.” Nestor echoed.
“What’s going on, Captain.”
Kreutzman turned quickly to face me. “Herr Nesbitt. I apologize, but presently we are rather busy. Please return to your cabin until the storm has passed.”
“Is that why we changed course? To avoid the storm?”
“Ja…it is wiser to avoid such things. Now I must insist that you return immediately to your cabin. For your own safety.”
“Is that what you told Han Solo?”
“Who? Oh, you are referring to Herr Drake. Ja, I insisted he also return to his cabin.”
Drake…so that was his name. Was it a coincidence that the last entry in the dead industrialist’s appointment book was “S. Drake”? We had boarded about the same time…was I on his trail, or was he on mine? And was it another coincidence that his only foray out of his cabin, other than for meals, was to the bridge just as the Captain ordered a course change? Just who was giving the real orders here?
And what exactly were those orders?
Next Episode: Rendezvous on Christmas Island
Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, weighed less than the Titanic’s rudder.