As I have said and as I hope that you have seen, I am inclined to a love of life and to a sunny disposition even in the face of bleak skies and persistent storms. I can find a laugh or two in a split lip and even greater hilarity in the threats and posturings of a sadistic chief of police.
Fair warning requires the acknowledgment that some events resist the touch of a humorist, and what jokes may arise from certain acts can call forth only a less hearty kind of laughter. We are coming now to dark shoals in rough waters, to straits so narrow that virtue and wickedness voyage close together and may be at times more difficult than usual to differentiate from each other.
Across the bay and into open sea, I waited without light in the belly of the boat. In spite of noise that hammered effectively at concentration, I used the time to mull over what I had learned since coming aboard.
Junie’s Moonbeam must have been only a few miles offshore, for the engines cut back sooner than I had expected and, after a thus far straight course, the big oceangoing tugboat began to maneuver. They were aligning the vessels to effect the transfer of the nukes.
The Pacific seemed to be nearly as calm here above the deeps as it had been all day nearer shore. With smooth water, their work would go faster.
I rose to my feet and eased through the pitch-black chamber, aware that surfaces previously safe to touch might be scalding hot. I kept an image of the compartment door in my mind, relying on psychic magnetism to lead me to it through the lightless maze.
Instinct told me to reach for a lever handle, and I found it after a minimum of fumbling.
When I cracked the door, I saw a deserted passageway. With the transfer of the shipment begun, Joey would be at his radio, while Utgard and the other three would have to be above, all hands needed to ensure a successful delivery.
I stepped to the first starboard compartment, tried the door, found it unlocked, and went inside fast, shouldering it open, the pistol in a two-hand grip.
The room was dark, but light played on the porthole. Certain that no sleeper lay here to be awakened, I felt my way to the bright circle of glass.
Alongside the tugboat lay Junie’s Moonbeam, its port side to our starboard, at a distance of perhaps ten or twelve feet. A white yacht in fog, it would have been a stealth vessel but for the hotel’s worth of lighted portholes and windows that made it appear as festive as a luxury cruise ship.
From the main deck, the yacht’s crew had slung down inflatable black-rubber bladders that would serve as protective bumpers when the boats drew close enough to knock hulls in a set of rogue waves.
Retreating to the passageway, I quietly pulled shut the door and crossed to the first portside compartment. I prepared to go in fast, as before, but the door opened on darkness.
Soft lamplight filled the aftmost port compartment. When I went inside, Joey looked up in disbelief from a photo spread in a copy of Maxim magazine.
Letting the door swing itself shut behind me, I took two steps and shoved the pistol in his face before the magazine fell out of his hands and slithered shut upon the deck.
JOEY, THE CRITIC OF YACHT NAMES, SAT AT THE shortwave radio. For a moment, staring into the muzzle of the gun, he looked as though he might make a toilet of his chair.
When I saw that he regained control almost at once and that he began to calculate how to come after me, I lowered the pistol to his throat, the better to see his face and every nuance of expression.
Get me the Coast Guard, I said. Call them up.
Me and them, we already had our chat.
Call them or I’ll put a bullet in your leg.
What’s the matter—you can’t use a shortwave?
The moment I took the gun off him, he would come for me.
My mouth had flooded with saliva triggered by nausea, so I made use of it. I spat in his face.
As he flinched, his eyes were briefly shut, which gave me a chance to whip him across the face with the pistol. The forward sight scored his cheek, and a thin line of blood sprang up.
He put a hand to the hot laceration.
Although the anger in his eyes had with unsettling swiftness distilled to bitter hatred, he had gained a new respect for me and might not be so quick to make a move.
Call them, I repeated.
He meant it. He would not be persuaded. The prospect of life in prison might have been worse than death to him.
Glancing at the door and then quickly at me, Joey hoped to imply that someone had entered behind me, but I knew that he was scamming, hoping I would glance back.
Anyway, he said, when I didn’t take the bait, their nearest cutter is fifty nautical miles from here. We’re home free.
The idling engines of the nearby yacht sent vibrations through the hull of the tugboat, and all the other noises of the pending transfer left me with no concern that a shot would be heard above the racket. I put one round in his left foot.
He cried out, I told him to be quiet, and I whipped him with the gun again to silence him.
Inside myself, I had opened a door to ruthlessness that I wanted to close again as soon as possible. But the fate of a nation and the lives of millions were at stake, and whatever must be done, I must do it without hesitation.
Pain had changed him. He was crying.
I believe you about the cutter, fifty miles. So here are your options, Joey. You tell me some things about this operation, then I kill you quick and painless.
He said a twelve-letter word that I won’t repeat, although I challenged him to repeat it.
When he didn’t take up the challenge, I said, If you don’t tell me what I want to know, I’ll wound you in ways so painful you can’t conceive of your suffering. Wounds that leave you dying slow, unable to move or speak. You’ll be hours here on the deck, in agony, more tears than all the babies you would have killed in those cities, so many tears you’ll die of dehydration before you bleed to death.
He wanted to sit on the deck and hold his wounded foot to damp the pain, but I would not allow it.
Where do the bombs come from?
I didn’t think he was ready to answer, but then in a voice shaken by pain and fear, he named a Middle Eastern country.
How did they get on the yacht?
From a freighter.
Three hundred miles out.
Yeah. Where the Coast Guard can’t monitor. He inhaled with a hiss between clenched teeth. This foot is killin’ me.
It won’t be the foot. How many nukes?
Four. I said. Four.
You better not be lying. What cities?
I don’t know.
What cities? I demanded.
I don’t know. I don’t. I didn’t need to know.
Who owns the yacht?
Some billionaire. I don’t know his name.
Why would an American want to do this?
If he can, why not?
I hit him with the gun. An eyebrow ripped.
Pressing shut the torn skin with his fingers, his voice thin and higher pitched, as if time were running backward to his childhood, he said, Hey, all right, hey, it’s like this—okay? truth? okay?—just before the bombs go off—okay?—there’ll be assassinations.
President, vice president, lots of them.
And then the bombs. And after that?
They got a plan.
They who? What plan?
I don’t know. Really. See? Even this much, it’s more than I should know—okay?—stuff I found out they don’t know I know. Okay? There’s no more. I swear to God. There’s no more.
I believed him, but even if I had not taken his protestations as the truth, I would have had no opportunity to question him further.
The knife must have been up the right sleeve of his shirt, in a sheath on his arm. How he released it, I don’t know, but it came under his cuff and into his hand. The blade flicked from the handle.
I saw the wink of light along the razor-sharp edge, but he thrust before I shot him in the throat.
The crack of the gun was not loud in the small cabin. The tug’s engines, the boom and clatter from the work on the afterdeck, and the squeal of one boat’s bumpers rubbing those of the other would have masked it easily.
Joey slid out of the chair and folded onto the floor, as if he had been a scarecrow with flesh of straw that couldn’t fully support the clothes that now draped baggily around him.
The switchblade was so sharp that it had sliced open the thick fabric of my sweatshirt as though it had been silk.
I reached through the tear to feel my right side where it stung, above the lowest rib. He had cut me.
I SAT ON THE RADIO OPERATOR’S DESK, WHERE no blood had showered.
In an arc across a bulkhead, ending in spatters on the round of glass, was his blood from the lethal shot, as if it were the spoor of a fleeing soul that had used a porthole as a portal out of this world.
My cut was shallow, the bleeding light, the pain less than that of loss but troubling. Left hand pressed over the wound, I closed my eyes and tried to dream into existence the blue lake of abiding hope.
Stormy Llewellyn and I, at eighteen, had gone to the lake to bake on beach blankets and to swim.
A sign warned that no lifeguard was on duty that day. Swimmers were advised to stay in the shallows close to shore.
The hard desert sun sprinkled diamonds in the sand and displayed a vast wealth of jewelry across the water.
The heat seemed to melt the mechanism of time, with the promise that she and I would never age or know a change of heart, or be apart from each other.
We took a boat out on the lake. I rowed into the blue, sky above and sky spread across the water.
I shipped the oars. On every side, the gently lapping blueness appeared to curve down and away, as though we had been given a small world of our own, where the horizon was nearer than on the former Earth.
We slipped from the boat and floated on our backs in the buoyant salt lake, kept afloat by the lazy winglike motion of our arms. Eyes closed against the sun, we talked.
All the talk was in essence about one thing. We were dreaming our future into existence.
From time to time, we noticed that the rowboat had drifted from us. We swam nearer to it and floated once more, dreaming aloud as before.
Later, as I rowed us back to the beach, she heard the cry and saw the drowning boy before I did.
He had been nine or ten and, showing off, had swum too far. His arms went weak, his legs cramped, and suddenly he could not keep himself afloat even in the brine.
Stormy went over the side, so lithe and swift, the arc of her stroke pulling the water away from her with determination.
On the sand, the mother and a sister, neither swimmers, became aware of the crisis only as Stormy side-stroked to shore with the boy in tow.
She swam faster than I could row. I beached the boat and ran to her, to assist, but resuscitation was not necessary. She had snared him before he had breathed the lake into his lungs.
This is a moment that will remain forever fresh in my memory: the coughing boy, the crying mother, the frightened sister—and Stormy tending to them in the way that each required.
She always was a savior of others. I know that she saved me.
Although I had thought that I had beached the boat securely when I had been eager to get to Stormy’s side, I must have left it adrift, for when I looked, it bobbed beyond the shallows.
The lake is big, and the dynamics of deep water apply. While it appears placid on the surface, currents are always working.
I waded into the water and then swam, but at first the boat, in the influence of a current, moved farther away from me.
Perhaps the irrational fear that gripped me was inspired by the near-drowning of the boy, the reminder of ever-present death, also by the fact that Stormy and I had been dreaming our future together and, therefore, had been tempting fate.
For whatever reason, as the rowboat initially eluded me, my frustration rapidly escalated into dread. I became crazily convinced that if I could not catch the boat and board it, the future we had dreamed together would never come to pass, and that in fact the death from which the boy had narrowly escaped would be visited instead on one of us.
Because the boat was adrift and I was not, I reached it in due course. Aboard, I sat shaking, first with residual dread and then with relief.
I suppose now that in swimming to retrieve the boat, I might have experienced a dim presentiment of the shooter who, a couple of years later, would take Stormy from me.
Sometimes, I like to call into memory that day on the lake. The sky and the water. Safe in that sphere of blue.
I tell myself that I can still dream our future into existence: the two of us on a new Earth all our own.
Now and then, as we floated on our backs, the winglike motion of our arms brought our hands in contact beneath the water, and we gripped each other for a moment as if to say I’m here, I’m always here.
The tugboat yawed, and the rubber bumpers squealed between the vessels, and from above and aft came a solid thud that trembled the deck.
I slid off the radio operator’s desk and got to my feet.
Having tumbled from his chair, the dead man lay on his side, his head twisted so that he faced the ceiling. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were like those of a fish on ice in a market.
That I had never seen Stormy’s body in death, that in mercy she had been brought to me only as ashes in a simple urn, filled me with a gratitude beyond measure.
Leaving the radio room, I knew the time had not yet come for me to venture above. Once the transfer of the nukes had been completed and the crates lashed down, once Junie’s Moonbeam sailed away into the fog, Utgard and Buddy would at once kill Jackie and Hassan. My best chance to succeed at this was to time my afterdeck appearance to that bloody moment.
Opening off the passageway was one room I had not explored, the aft compartment on the starboard side, across from the radio room. I tried the door, found a light switch, and stepped into a lavatory.
A red cross marked a white corner cabinet full of first-aid supplies.
After pulling off my sweatshirt and T-shirt, I spread the wound with my fingers. I poured rubbing alcohol into the shallow gash.
No stitches were needed. Bleeding, renewed by this attention, would eventually stop again.
Leaving the laceration open to the air and the rub of clothing, however, ensured a continuous stinging that distracted me. I had to work at an awkward angle, and I might not have a lot of time; so I used no gauze, only wide waterproof adhesive tape to seal the cut.
Stripping it off later, I would inevitably tear open the laceration. I didn’t worry about that, because if the time came for me to peel away the tape, that would mean I had survived Utgard and his crew.
As I put on my sweatshirt, another heavy thud from the afterdeck shivered through the tugboat.
Although I did not think anyone would come below until the work was done, I turned off the light and stood in blackness. Should the door open, I could shoot as he reached for the switch.