The cannon toward the stern fired. Hanging onto the gunwale, Michael felt the shell's impact like a blow to the belly. Sofia gave a wounded cry. She'd been hit up near the bow. The forward cannon fired a second time. Michael heard the air sizzle as the shell passed just over the ship, and a waterspout shot up to starboard. Once more the stern gun spoke, and again Sofia was shaken by a hit. The ship was zigzagging violently; either the Swede or Medina was putting his back to the wheel.
A shell from the forward cannon punched through the superstructure. Portholes exploded and steel crumpled. "Get down! Get down!" someone was shouting, though it was hardly necessary; men were trying to fold themselves into smaller and smaller targets.
Except for three. Michael remained standing, so did Billy, and Gustave Beauchene aimed his Thompson at the now-distant Javelin and opened fire as he shouted blue curses into the rain. The warship's guns fired almost in unison. Sofia lurched, struck in two places. A blaze had broken out toward the bow, the flames leaping up from the deck. Another shell crashed into the superstructure, dangerously close to the wheelhouse. The freighter veered again to starboard, trying desperately to escape the punishment.
"Put out that fire!" Beauchene shouted to his crew, and then he staggered forward across the pitching deck to do it himself.
A shell hit the side of Sofia just aft of where Michael was standing. The impact lifted him up and threw him to the boards. The sound of distressed steel screeched in his ears. He lay dazed for a few seconds, feeling the wolf wanting to burst from its soul cage.
When he reached up for the hand that reached for him, he thought his own fingers might already be hooking into claws. But he was wrong.
Billy pulled him up. "You all right?"
Michael nodded. Were his ears bleeding? No.
Another shell struck toward the stern and Sofia shivered in agony. Then the rain began falling in sheets. Visibility was drastically cut; Michael could no longer see the Javelin through the gray curtains. Whether the lack of visibility affected the range-finders or not, he didn't know, but the guns had ceased firing.
"Damn," Billy said. Michael saw that his eyes were wide and his face bleached. Rain dripped from his chin. He was a kid trying to play a man's part. "I'm sorry," he managed to say, and then he lurched forward and threw up over the side.
A group of men were fighting the blaze and beating it down as Beauchene hollered and raged. Extinguishers sprayed. The flames sank away, and in a moment only black smoke curled up into the rain.
Michael stood over the body of the dead Spaniard. Several other crewmen, including Olaf Thorgrimsen and Dylan Custis, were silently staring down at the carnage. The presence of violent death among a member of any tribe, Michael knew, had the effect of piercing the hardest heart. Rain slashed across the dead man's face and open eyes. "Would someone find a canvas?" Michael asked, and Olaf immediately trudged off to secure one.
The captain appeared on the scene, his hair plastered down and face smudged with smoke. He pushed at the brains with the toe of his shoe. "Somebody get that up!" he ordered. No one moved.
Then someone did come forward.
He bent down. A pair of black hands scooped up the essence of a man, and then Enam Kpanga walked to the gunwale and dropped his burden into the sea. When he turned again toward the ship, his face was devoid of all emotion and his eyes were unknowable beyond the rain-wet glasses. He wiped his gory hands along the sides of his black trousers, and then he passed on by Michael and through the gathering of men like a silent spirit.
"Wrap him up," Beauchene said when Olaf returned with the canvas. "Anybody who wants to say something, say it now. I didn't know him. When you're done, put him over. Somebody pick up his rifle and shells. Comprenez?" He swung his gaze upon Michael. "I need you," he said, "to get up to the wheelhouse. Tell Medina I said to keep the engines at full speed. Tell him I said to come back to course two-four-zero. Go!" He may well have been urging himself onward, for he hurried off with a heavy-set gray-bearded man, one of the two engineers.
Michael climbed the stairs to the wheelhouse. The repugnant but obviously capable Swede was still at the helm. Rain whipped against the windshield. Though dawn had broken, visibility was limited only to the foam-streaked gray waves twenty meters beyond Sofia's bow. Medina sprawled in a brown leather chair with his hands to his face. "Get on duty!" Michael snapped at him, and he relayed Beauchene's commands.
Medina's eyes had sunken. He'd aged ten years in the last thirty minutes. "We're all going to die," he said.
Michael put his hand on the revolver's grip in his waistband. "Give those orders or you'll go first."
The orders were given and carried out. Sofia, a tougher lady than she appeared, slowly swung back on her course for England.
"Mr. Medina!" It was the Russian radio operator, calling from his station. "Message for the captain!"
Michael didn't wait for the second mate to respond. He walked back to the radio room. The bizarre noise of static, bagpipe drone and cat squall was pulsing from the speaker.
Michael asked in Russian, "Still jamming?"
The radioman looked at him in surprise. He was smoking a cigarette, and now he blew smoke through both nostrils. He gave a faint smile and said, also in Russian, "Jamming, yes. They drop the interference a little to send messages and receive from us, then they power it up again. A noise generator. Very wicked device, this one." He stared at Michael with new respect. "What's your home?"
"I was born in St. Petersburg."
"Ah!" He tapped his heart. "Stalingrad. Well, it was Tsaritsyn when I was born. Hey, you speak good English!"
"Yes, we don't waste our Russian on those with inferior ears, huh?" He grinned and reached over to a shelf that held tubes, wires, other radio parts and various tools of his trade. He flipped open a small leather case and offered Michael a hand-rolled cigarette.
Michael said, "Thank you," as he accepted it. Not because he planned to smoke it, but because it was a comrade's gift.
The jamming noise quietened, if only enough for that clipped voice to come through: "From the German vessel Javelin to the Norwegian freighter Sofia. Repeating our message. Captain Manson Konnig requests a meeting between brothers of the sea. He regrets your escalation of violence. Captain Konnig requests that you allow him to board your fine ship at your earliest invitation. Captain Konnig will arrive in an unarmed motor launch, with only the necessary crew. He will bravely and resolutely board your ship alone and unarmed. Is this agreeable to the captain of the Sofia?"
Michael tapped a finger against his chin.
The jamming was still at a lower volume. They were waiting.
Michael was about to do something that would get him hanged in a naval trial a hundred times over. But as far as he was concerned, and with the lives of the Wesshausers in the balance, at this moment he was in charge.
"Tell them to come ahead," Michael directed.
"I can't do that," the radioman said, still in Russian. "I know you're a big man here, but you don't have the authority." He let his gaze pass over the revolver. "Unless you force the issue."
"All right." Michael drew the weapon and held it between himself and the radioman. "Tell them to come ahead. I presume they're still off our portside. Tell them we'll treat Captain Konnig fairly. But tell them we've set up our own machine guns and if there's any hint of trouble we'll blow that launch to splinters. And tell them we're not cutting our speed. Go on."
The radioman sent the message. His German was not excellent, but it was very good.
There was a pause of maybe two minutes, during which the jamming noise increased. Then the clipped voice came back through the aural onslaught: "Agreed."
The static and pulsing noises swelled louder. The radioman again had to dial down the volume.
"On their way," he said, with the ironic fatalism of a true-born Russian.
The Mellow Moment
"You did what?"
Michael faced Captain Beauchene in the hallway outside the radio room and told him again. It was about twenty minutes after the meeting had been accepted, and Beauchene had just come to the bridge from a variety of tasks designed to keep Sofia afloat and the men from casting their lives to the lifeboats.
After the second telling, the captain stared at the floor. Rain dripped steadily from his yellow slicker. "We're not reducing our speed," he said.
"I told them that."
"You had no right."
"I want to see what we're dealing with."
"Oui, and what do they get to see?" Beauchene glared into Michael's eyes. "That we have a few rifles and pistols to use against their fucking cannons? Well, they already know that, don't they? Merde, what a mess!"
"We might get some idea how to clean it up by meeting Konnig."
"Yes," Michael answered calmly. "I do say."
Beauchene held Michael's gaze a few seconds longer. Then he shook his head and ran a hand through his rain-soaked hair. With a weary sigh, he said, "Come in and get a drink."
Michael followed him through a door on the other side of the hallway. Beauchene's cabin had a porthole and would have a nice view of the sea when the weather wasn't so closed-in. That was the best that could be said for it. There was a bunk, a desk, two chairs in need of reupholstering, a tatty green throwrug, a floorlamp with a crooked shade that had a cartoon of marching tin soldiers upon it like something taken from a child's playroom, and another lamp on the desk. Newspapers and magazines were piled around. There was a shelf of a few sad-looking books. It was obvious the captain ate alone and sometimes didn't finish his meals, because the plates and leftovers were in plain sight. The cabin had the musty dirty-socks smell of a cheap hotel room, uncleaned for many a night. There were no pictures on the pine-panelled walls. No excuse was made. Beauchene closed the door and rested his Thompson gun in a corner. He sat behind the desk, opened a lower drawer and brought out a half-full bottle of brandy and a single glass. The glass, Michael noted, had a brown crust of dried brandy sticking to its bottom and was mottled with greasy fingerprints. Beauchene poured liquor into the nasty glass and offered it to Michael, who took it without hesitation because it was not the worst thing he'd ever drunk from.
Beauchene swigged from the bottle. "Five men wounded and two dead," he said as the fire descended. "We were lucky there. Next time not so much. Some electrical cable damage aft. The engineers are working on it. No hull damage, thank God. No rudder or engine damage." He drank again. "A shell caused some havoc in one of the staterooms. Not theirs or the children's. My worst problem is figuring out how to feed my crew. Most of the crockery in the galley broke when we started slinging ourself all around like a maniac with an ass-itch. Got a cook with a broken arm, too. The doctor doesn't need his heroin today, he'll patch everyone up. Aren't you drinking?"
Michael took a sip and managed his initial reaction. It was not exactly France's finest.
"Sit while you can," Beauchene suggested, and Michael took the better of the two bad chairs. "There you go." Beauchene was speaking not to Michael but to the bottle. It was a croon of appreciation, or perhaps dependency. Michael thought that one man's heroin was another man's brandy. "Ah, oui!" Beauchene took another drink and closed his eyes. He leaned back in his chair. "Le moment mur," he said.
Michael knew what that meant: The mellow moment.
"Haven't had many of those?" Michael asked. "Except from a bottle?"
"Not many, thank you for asking." The captain's eyes remained shut. Then they suddenly opened and the red glare had returned. "Who the fuck are you? Or, rather...who the fuck do you think you are? Receiving my radio messages and giving orders? I could shoot you for either one of those!"
"And then," Michael said easily, as he sipped the mixture of pinesap and hot glue, "you'd have one less gunman."
"One less pain in my ass, you mean. I ought to forget about the shooting and knock your brains out." That statement caused him to frown and stare again into the bottle. His swig this time was a long swallow of needful thirst. "Damn, what a day," he said.
Michael had to ask the question. "Why do you hate him?"
"Him? Him who?"
Beauchene grunted. "I told you. He's a black nigger and he's a college boy. They put him here to ride my back. Imagine that! After all these years, a nigger on my back! And not just any one, but a college boy! Oh, they've got big plans for him, you can count on that." He leaned forward and planted his elbows on the desktop. "They put him on me to get experience. That's what they said. To get the actual experience of seamanship. But you know...you know...that's not all of it. Non! They want him watching me. Taking notes. Judging me, for any error. Because of my past mistakes, you see. A few errors. A few scraped hulls and mishandled cargo. Always the captain's fault, oui? And now look what you've gotten me into! If we get out of this, how will I have a job?" Another swig of deadly brandy went down his pipe. "Two men are never going home. Do you get that? And how many more will never be going home? Eh? So how will Captain Gustave Beauchene ever have a job after this?" He abruptly slammed the bottom of the bottle down on the desk. "Answer me!" he shouted, his face contorted with pure rage.
Michael was very careful in his reply. "When we get out of this, the British Secret Service will arrange a job for you with any British merchant line you please to approach. I can promise that."
"Oh, can you? Promise me a job sailing a desk through a sea of papers? Or perhaps you can get me a job in a bakery? Making crumpets and little tea-cakes for fags with umbrellas?"
It struck Michael then. Gustave Beauchene bore a hatred not only for Eman Kpanga, but for the entire world.
Beauchene was very intelligent. Michael knew the man must have seen some realization in his face, because the captain smiled grimly and said, "You think you know me, is that it? From your little histories and spy papers? Did you know, then, that I was the third generation of my family's bakery in Paris? That this was to be my continuation of the very profitable Beauchene family business? Oh, yes! When I wasn't sailing on the Seine, I was busy doing my part to carry forth the tradition. The great Beauchene tradition!" He said it as if it were something dangerous.
He picked up his bottle and stood up and peered out the porthole at the gray banners of rain. The sea had flattened, the waves beaten down by falling water.
"Then," he said, "I met a woman." Something in his voice changed; it deepened, and went dry. "A very beautiful and gracious woman. A woman far above my league. Yet she called to me. And I answered, yes I did. This woman...what can I say?" He put the bottle to his lips but did not drink, and so lowered it again. A sigh came out of him that might have been a whirlwind made small and private. "We were married," he went on. "And she wanted things. Needed things. Those beautiful and expensive things a beautiful woman needs. Well...I had to make more money for her, didn't I? I had to give her those things. To keep her, you see? Because a woman like that...if you lose her...you will hate yourself every day as long as you shall live. So I began gambling. More and more. It became a need of my own. I won some, oui, but in the end...you know, the house always wins."
Beauchene was quiet for awhile. Quiet also was Michael Gallatin.
"The house," Beauchene said, "took my family's business. And then...I learned about all the other men. Just by accident, the first one. Then...I began watching, and following her. There were so many others. It must have been a thrilling thing for her.
"And I thought...of course a beautiful woman such as she would never be satisfied just with one man. Certainly not just with me. Well, look at me! And I was better then, but I was on the downward slide. Without money...how could you keep a woman like that?
"And then...and then...I followed her to a hotel. I followed her upstairs. To a room. I let her go in. She walked as a woman does to meet a favored lover. As she used to walk toward me. And then I waited for awhile, and I kicked the door in."
Again the bottle went to his lips. Again it was lowered. Strong drink was not strong enough.
"There she was," said Beauchene, as he peered out the porthole at the rainy gray world. "In the bed. Held in those black arms. And both of them looked at me, as if I was nothing. She had no shame. I think she must have known I was following her, because she'd been expecting me. Maybe that was part of the thrill, too. She smiled, just a little bit. Have you ever realized, Monsieur Gallatin, how deadly a smile can be?"
The question cut like a terrible blade.
"Oh," Beauchene said softly, "I loved her more than life."
Michael couldn't see the man's face. He didn't want to see it.
"And furthermore," Beauchene said in a voice strained with old agony still raw, "what would the fates decree, but to someday make me the master of a ship that bears her name?"
He turned toward Michael. Something of the rainy gray world was in his eyes. "You're thinking now how much hate is in me. Yes, you're right. I hate Caucasians, Orientals, Africans, Brits, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutchmen, Spaniards, Germans, Russians and all the rest of them. I hate Frenchmen and I hate French women. I hate the tall, the short, the plain and the beautiful. I hate those who frown and those who smile. I hate the lucky in love and the unlucky in life. And most of all, Monsieur Gallatin, most of all...I hate - "
There was a knock at the door. "Captain?" It was the young African.
"Most of all, I hate men with green eyes," Beauchene said, finishing his litany. He aimed his mouth at the door. "What do you want?"
"Sir...a motor launch is approaching on the port beam. Its signal lamp is asking us to hold our fire."
Beauchene tilted the bottle to his lips and killed it. "Lower the ladder. One man should come aboard, and one man only. When he gets on deck, frisk him for weapons and blindfold him. Take him to the mess hall. And tell everyone my order is: no firing upon the launch or the man. Understand that?"
"Yes sir." Kpanga went away.
"All right, then." Beauchene came around the desk and picked up his Thompson.
He reloaded it with a fresh clip. "Don't worry," he told Michael, who had begun to worry. "I'll be as sweet as cream cheese. You ready?"
They left the cabin to go meet their visitor.
The Javelin's Master
The man standing in the mess hall had been blindfolded with a piece of black cloth. Enam Kpanga, Olaf Thorgrimsen and Billy Bowers were with him when Michael and Beauchene arrived. Olaf, brandishing his pistol, was walking around and around the Javelin's captain, as if to examine him from all angles. Billy stood at the door, his eyes dark from lack of sleep.
"May I remove my blindfold?" Manson Konnig asked in English with a crisp German accent. His voice betrayed no emotion, and not a half-quaver of fear.
"Oui," said Beauchene.
Konnig reached up long-fingered hands, removed his perfectly-white captain's cap with its high top and spread-winged eagle insignia above the Nazi symbol, and then took off the blindfold. He had reddish-blonde hair, trimmed short on the sides but thick on top, and a neat mustache and goatee more on the red side. He was wearing a long black raincoat over his uniform. His boots looked to have been recently painted with glossy ebony. He put the blindfold in a pocket of his coat and returned the cap to his head. Then he adjusted it at a slight, jaunty angle.
The man's cautious dark brown eyes regarded first Beauchene and then Michael.
"Captain?" he asked, and offered his hand to the lycanthrope.
"I'm the master of this ship," said Beauchene, his eyelids at half-mast.
"Ah! Yes!" Konnig moved his hand toward Beauchene, but it was not accepted.
"Well," said the Javelin's master, as he closed his hand and dropped it to his side, "pardon me. I was expecting a captain, not a garbageman."
Beauchene smiled thinly. He kept his eyes on the Nazi. "You two men can leave. Wait outside. Kpanga, you stay."
"Oh, dear," said Konnig. "Must we have that in the room?"
Billy and Olaf left. Michael pulled a chair over and sat down, interested to watch this encounter play out and also to examine Konnig. The man was tall and slender, very fit-looking, and about thirty-five years old. He had a long aristocratic nose with the required pinched nostrils. His chin was square, his teeth well-polished, his demeanor that of German royalty slumming with the fieldhands. His smile was a little oily.
"Would you please not wave that weapon around?" Konnig was referring to the Thompson. "I believe you've already committed an act of war with it, by destroying my searchlight."
"Your searchlight hurt my eyes."
Konnig grunted softly. He put his hands behind his back and locked the fingers. "I'm detecting here a certain level of animosity."
"That may be because you killed two of my crew."
"Really? And how many of your crew are left?"
"Enough to count."
"Count for what? More coffins?"
"You worry about coffins for your own crew."
"Oh, I surely will!" Konnig began to stroll around the room, looking here and there. "You did kill one of ours, by the way. A young sailor from Hamburg with a wife and two daughters. Shot right through the lungs. Died just before I left the ship. Does that make you proud?"
"It makes me wish more of my men had aimed better."
"You're harsh!" Konnig said with a small wicked grin. "A Frenchman from...where?"
"And what about you?" Konnig turned his attention to Michael. "Who and what are you?"
"I'm a man in a chair," said Michael.
"No, you're a man in a chair who will be dead before this day is done," Konnig answered. He was no longer grinning. "As all of you will be dead, if you refuse to turn your passengers over." He showed his palms. "Now listen! What is to be gained by a show of resistance? Nothing, in the long run. We all know that." He motioned toward Kpanga. "Even that one knows it. Captain, why do you wish your crew to be killed? And for a few people you really have no interest in? What should it matter to you and to your crew what becomes of those people?"
"Captain Beauchene," said Michael, "knows you'll kill everyone on board and sink this ship as soon as you get them. That's why it matters."
"Wrong!" Konnig stabbed a finger at him. "I am offering this: we receive the Wesshausers, and then we remove your crew. Yes, we do sink this freighter, but...My God, isn't she already half-sunk? Continuing on...we transport you, Captain Beauchene, your officers and your crew to Germany, where we will offer you lodging, food and all possible care. We're not monsters, sir! We just want what is ours."
"Lodging?" Beauchene's eyebrows had gone up. "For how fucking long?"
"Until," said Konnig, with a shrug, "we say it is in our interest to send you home. Now...that might be weeks, months, or years. We don't know the future. Who does?"
"Your big-mouthed Nazi boss seems to."
"Well, he's special," Konnig admitted. "One of a kind."
"We're not giving you the Wesshausers," said Michael.
"Pardon me!" Konnig frowned. "Who's the captain here? The dead man in the chair or the French garbageman?"
Beauchene laughed. It was an evil sound.
He walked purposefully toward Michael. With the remnant of that twisted laugh on his face, he wrenched the revolver from Michael's waistband. He cocked it, and then he turned and walked straight toward Manson Konnig, who blinked furiously and took a backward step.
Beauchene was faster. He put the revolver's barrel against the peak of Konnig's white cap. One shot blasted the cap from Konnig's head and made the eardrums sing.
Konnig staggered back and nearly fell before he righted himself. His mouth was open, his eyes furious at this crass indignity. But he was smart enough not to protest against a madman with a revolver in one hand and a Tommy gun in the other.
Beauchene stood over the smoke-stained cap. "I've always wanted to put a hole in one of those," he said, with a huge satisfied smile.
Konnig released the breath he'd been holding. A lock of reddish-blonde hair had fallen over his forehead, which appeared to be sparkling with sudden sweat. His smile was less satisfaction and more stupefaction. "With my compliments," he managed to say.
"He's speaking for me, but I can speak for myself," said the Frenchman. "You can go back to your ship. We're sailing on, with our passengers."
"Not sailing very far, I'm afraid." Konnig was inspecting his scalp with the fingers of his right hand. "We'll have to stop you, of course. I will tell you that my mission involves two choices. I was told the first choice was to remove the Wesshausers and take them back alive. The second choice, if the first proved difficult, was to make sure no one on this poor, sad vessel ever passes across the North Sea. It's really up to you, sir."
"It may really be up to me to put this gun against your head and give your cap a twin."
"That wouldn't be wise," Konnig said. "And why not? Because if I am not back on my motor launch within another ten minutes, Javelin will start to miss me. And when she misses me, she gets very angry. She begins to shoot incendiary shells, which will burn this ship to a crisp and causes such agonies to human flesh. And my death does nothing for you, because I have three very experienced and capable officers all more than willing to take charge. Now...we are going to destroy this ship, if you refuse our demands. Yes. But we will not use the incendiaries and we will gladly accept any crewmen we rescue. If I am dead, however, Javelin will run the survivors over until there is nothing left but a red smear in all this gray sea. So, you pompous little idiot, what is your choice?"
The African suddenly advanced on him. "Here!" he said angrily. "You can't speak to my captain like - "
Konnig's right arm straightened. There was a click of metal. In his hand appeared a small derringer, guided along a metal track laced from elbow to wrist. Michael realized it had been overlooked when Konnig was frisked, probably because the concentration was usually on armpits, sides and groin. Michael reached frantically for his pistol, which wasn't there.
There was a single loud crack! and Enam Kpanga's head was rocked backward.
His glasses flew off. A small round wound, deadly enough, had appeared at the center of his forehead. Kpanga's knees buckled and he slithered to the floor and twitched as he died.
Konnig stood over the body. "I've always wanted to put a hole in one of those," he said. With a snap of his wrist the derringer was retracted back along his forearm to the inner elbow.
Beauchene gave a shuddering breath and swung both guns up, pistol and Tommy. Michael was on his feet, advancing to pin Konnig's arms.
"Gentlemen?" Konnig said. "I am leaving now."
The absolute, chilling disinterest in his voice caused Beauchene's fingers to freeze on the triggers and Michael's shoes to stick to the floor.
"Honestly, what good would it do to even hold me here, much less kill me?" Konnig stepped over the dying or dead African on his path to the door. "I don't think I'll wear the blindfold out, if you don't mind." He narrowed his eyes at the expression of horror on Beauchene's face. "Surely...that thing wasn't worth the price of a funeral pyre, was he? Now, you have my word I won't use the incendiaries. Those are very nasty. Remember, sir, that we will rescue any crewman we find in the sea. You might spread that little bit of information around, to help matters. Oh...and I do have another cap." He paused at the door. "Do the two men outside know our agreement?"
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