Crouched, I crossed the dock to the sentinel position that the guard had just vacated. Through a gap in the railing, I had trouble seeing Jackie on the unlighted slip below, but after a moment, he appeared as a shrouded form on a shorter gangway that led up to the low afterdeck of the tug.
He joined the other man at the deck crane, and together they attended to some final task before departure, sacrificing a kitten to Beelzebub or whatever deeply evil men did to ensure a safe sea journey.
Unlike the boat slip to which it led, the gangway was lighted, but it offered the only sensible approach to the berth below. The noise I would make by diving from here and swimming to the nearest finger of the slip would bring everyone aboard the tug to the open decks to discover if the fabled Harry Lime might be as bulletproof as he was psychic.
Both men at the crane had their backs to me.
All things in their time, and the time had come for reckless commitment.
Pulling the pistol from my waistband, I rose and went to the break in the railing. I descended the gangway boldly, hoping that even if someone stepped onto the foredeck or the bridge deck and saw me, they would see only a figure in the mist and would assume that I was one of them.
Echoing across the bay, the foghorn sounded like the plaintive call of a prehistoric behemoth, the last of its kind crying out in loneliness.
I reached the bottom without raising an alarm, and crossed the slip to the second gangway. The afterdeck had such a low profile that I could see the two men up there working at the small crane.
Their backs were still turned to me, and I risked setting foot on the second gangway. The first had been a permanent feature of the dock, and therefore solid; but this much shorter ramp was detachable and collapsible and, it seemed to me, fearsomely noisy. Nonetheless, I boarded the tug without drawing attention.
Jackie and his friend were no more than twelve feet away. The halogen lamp burned through the fog with such intensity that, if they turned, they would be able to see me clearly enough to know that I wasn’t one of them.
The quickest route off this deck was up a set of six open stairs to the foredeck, immediately to my right. The higher deck encircled a portholed structure containing spaces that an experienced seaman would be able to identify but that were, to me, as mysterious as any female wrestler’s boudoir—and just as scary.
Instinct told me that I would be less likely to encounter people if I went below decks. The bulkhead that separated the afterdeck from the forward structures featured a door that most likely would take me where I wished to go.
I had to walk across half the width of the afterdeck, behind the two laboring men, through the bright halogen backwash, but I reached the door, opened it, and stepped through without being shot in the back.
Beyond lay a landing at the top of an enclosed companionway. I descended the circular stairs to a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway with cabin doors on both sides and another door at the farther end, which was well aft of the bow.
Understandably, you may at this point be wondering What is this bozo’s plan?
As usual, I had no plan. After the fact, it might sometimes appear to a celestial observer—if one happened to be tuned in to Channel Odd—that I had performed according to a meticulously worked-out strategy, using well-rehearsed tactics executed to an operations schedule timed with a stopwatch. As you know, I make it up as I go along, heart in my throat and bowels quivering near a state of collapse.
Over the years, I have found that my seat-of-the-pants approach works well. Except when it doesn’t.
By doing, I learn what to do. By going, I learn where to go. One day, by dying, I’ll learn how to die, and leave the world and hope to land in light.
Pistol ready, I went forward along the passageway, ignoring doors to the left and the right, behind which might wait the lady or the tiger, neither of which I wanted. All I asked was that I be spared surprises, although in this world of six billion souls, all acting with free will and too many with audacity, surprises are inevitable, too few of them the kind that make you smile and that lift your heart.
Easing open the door at the end of the corridor, which bucked one of my cherished traditions by swinging smoothly on quiet hinges, I was pleased that I did not at once receive a bullet in the face. I stepped across the raised threshold into the engine room.
An extravagance of cool machinery and a maze of pipes crowded this compartment, a three-dimensional jigsaw fitted to perfection in the stingy space, a testament to the engineering skills of humanity. High maintenance standards resulted in a room that was cleaner than many kitchens, with fresh paint everywhere and not a spot of rust to be seen.
Evidently, not everyone in the harbor department was distracted by plots to destroy civilization.
Once in the compartment, I hesitated to close the door, though I seemed to be alone.
This was a tugboat, not a battleship or even a destroyer, so the engine room didn’t have a lovable but tough Scottish-American warrant officer overseeing a jokey but dedicated team of sweaty enlisted men who—between poker games and harmonica interludes and sappy conversations about their girls back home—were forever tormented by boilers failing, boilers overheating, pipe joints bursting from too much pressure, and a host of other crises. Nobody needed to be stationed in this compartment for the vessel to go about its work with efficiency, which is one reason why Hollywood never made a great World War II movie about a tugboat.
Because the lights had been on when I opened the door, however, I had to assume that someone had recently been here and intended to return.
As I was about to retreat and search for another hiding place, I heard a crewman descending the companionway. I closed the door behind me.
Although the equipment was tightly fitted, the layout allowed for repair. I snaked quickly through the service aisles, toward the point farthest from the entrance. Unfortunately, the farthest point was not far enough to make me feel safe from discovery.
Crouched behind shielding pumps and pipes, I had no view of the door, but I heard it open and close.
Someone had entered, though he did not seem to be doing anything but standing over there. The engines were not even idling yet, and the quiet in the compartment was such that I would have heard anyone moving around.
As I had admitted to Chief Hoss Shackett, when I was suffering from amnesia and unable to remember that I wasn’t Matt Damon, I am a guy with a good imagination, which now kicked into overdrive. I envisioned the newcomer, in a gas mask, preparing to pull the release pin on a canister of poisonous chemicals, to kill me as if I were a cockroach.
Before I could elaborate this simple scenario into an opera, the door opened again, and I heard someone say, What the hell happened to you?
The reply came in the distinctive bearish voice of Utgard Rolf: I fell down.
Fell down what?
Some stairs, Rolf said.
Stairs? How many stairs?
I didn’t count them, idiot.
Man, that’s gotta hurt.
Utgard closed the door behind him. Been a change of plans. We’ve got to cut some throats.
ON THE FARTHER SIDE OF THE ENGINE ROOM, which was nearer than I would have liked, Utgard Rolf said, Listen, Joey, once we have the packages aboard, we won’t return to the harbor.
What? Why not?
There’s a guy, he’s onto the operation.
What guy? Joey asked.
A government sonofabitch.
But we kept this so tight.
We’re gonna find him. He’s as good as dead.
With sharp anxiety, Joey said, He’s here in Magic Beach?
What do you think, I fell down some stairs in Washington?
This guy was the stairs?
Don’t worry about it.
How big is the guy, he could do this to you?
He looks worse than I do.
I resisted the urge to stand up and disprove that boast.
If we don’t go back to the harbor, Joey wondered, where we gonna go?
You know the abandoned boatyard south of Rooster Point?
That’ll work, Joey said.
Damn right it will. The facilities there, the privacy, it’ll be an easier off-load than we’d have in the harbor.
The trucks know the new meet?
They know. But here’s the thing.
I see what’s comin’, Joey said.
We need five of us to take delivery at sea, but the way things are at the boatyard, three can handle the off-load.
When boarding the tug, I’d had two main concerns, one of which was how I would be able to determine the number of crewmen I might be up against. Now I knew: five.
Joey said, We were gonna drop those two, anyway. So we drop them sooner than later.
Perhaps a falling-out among thieves had not occurred, as I had thought when I’d found Sam Whittle drilled five times in his bathtub. The initial entrepreneurs who set up this operation might always have intended, toward the closing of the business, to issue pink slips to those lesser partners whom they considered mere employees. A few bullets were a prudent alternative to generous severance payments.
After the transfer, Utgard said, Buddy will pop Jackie. I’ll drop Hassan.
The name Hassan was something of a surprise and a disappointment to me. Thus far Jackie, Joey, and Buddy had led me to believe that Utgard’s crew might be composed of retired Las Vegas comedians and that the final member could be named Shecky.
On the other hand, I was somewhat relieved that my second main concern had been partly addressed. I had wondered how I would be able to deal with the entire crew; now I would be required to deal with only sixty percent of it.
Joey said, But don’t cut their throats.
It’s too up-close. Dangerous. Shoot them in the head.
Of course, Utgard agreed. Pop them, drop them. That’s what I said.
Well, first you said you had to cut some throats.
That was just a way of saying it.
You said it, I thought you meant it.
We’ll shoot them in the head, Utgard said.
The back of the head.
How else? What the hell, Joey.
It’s the only smart way.
We’re on the same page now.
So they don’t see it comin’.
I understand, Utgard said impatiently.
I have only a few times been in a position to overhear bad men conspiring to commit evil deeds, and on every occasion, they had been pretty much like Joey and Utgard. Those who choose to live criminal lives are not the brightest among us.
This truth inspires a question: If evil geniuses are so rare, why do so many bad people get away with so many crimes against their fellow citizens and, when they become leaders of nations, against humanity?
Edmund Burke provided the answer in 1795: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
I would only add this: It is also essential that good men and women not be educated and propagandized into believing that real evil is a myth and that all malevolent behavior is merely the result of a broken family’s or a failed society’s shortcomings, amenable to cure by counseling and by the application of new economic theory.
Beyond my sight but not beyond my hearing, Utgard said, From when we leave the dock till we’re to Rooster Point, you man the radio room.
Like we planned.
You got to piss, get it done now.
I’ll be at the radio.
We can’t pull the transponder, that’ll just make the Coast Guard sit up and take notice.
I know what to say to them.
They get a GPS report we’re at sea this time of night, they’ll want to know why.
Joey’s turn for impatience had come: I know. Don’t I know?
Just don’t get cute with them. Play it like we planned.
Joey recited the story to prove himself: A guest aboard Junie’s Moonbeam ate some shellfish, had a real bad allergic reaction, needs a hospital urgent. The yacht’s too big, a hundred eighty feet, draws too deep for the bay. So they called us, and so we’re just bringin’ the sick bitch ashore.
What’re you doing? Utgard demanded.
Relax. I’m not gonna call her a sick bitch to the Coast Guard, Joey assured him.
Sometimes I wonder about you.
Sick bitch? Would I do that? Man, I’m just havin’ some fun with you.
I’m not in the mood for fun.
I guess fallin’ down a bunch of stairs will do that to you.
Don’t try to dress up the story, Utgard advised. Keep it simple.
Okay, okay. But what kind of name is Junie’s Moonbeam for a major yacht, anyway?
What do I know? Why do you care? None of our business.
Joey said, Junie’s Moonbeam sounds like some half-assed put-put kind of boat.
So it is these days that men plotting the nuclear devastation of major cities and the murder of millions of innocents can be no more interesting than those most vapid of your relatives whom you wish you did not have to invite to this year’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Just park yourself at the radio, Utgard said.
We’re out of here in three minutes.
Aye, aye, Captain.
The door opened but didn’t close.
I heard Utgard stomping along the passageway.
Joey waited. Then he switched off the light.
The door closed.
Apparently, unlike Utgard, Joey did not have a body mass equal to that of Big Foot, and I could not hear him walking away.
Because life has taught me to be suspicious, I waited motionless in the dark, not convinced that I was alone.
WHEN THE ENGINES TURNED OVER AND MY COZY compartment filled with the drumming of the four-stroke diesels, with the throb of the pumps, with the rotational rata-plan of driveshafts, and with myriad other rhythms, and when we began to move, the boat yawing slightly as it had not done in its berth, I knew that I was alone, because Joey had committed to being in the radio room when we got under way.
Though I breathed more easily, I didn’t relax. I knew that what was coming would be terrible, that even if I were not shot or cut, I would come through this night with wounds that would never heal.
I bear similar wounds from other such encounters. To protect the innocent, to avoid being one of Burke’s good men who do nothing, you have to accept permanent scars that cincture the heart and traumas of the mind that occasionally reopen to weep again.
To do something, to do what you feel sure is right and in the aid of justice, you sometimes have to do things that, when recalled on lonely nights, make you wonder if in fact you are the good man that you like to believe you are.
Such doubts are high cards in the devil’s hand, and he knows how to play them well, in hope of bringing you to despair and ennui, if not to self-destruction.
Ozzie Boone, my novelist friend and mentor in Pico Mundo, had instructed me, on the writing of the first of these accounts, that I keep the tone light. He says that only the emotionally immature and the intellectually depraved enjoy stories that are unrelentingly grim and nihilistic.