Again he heard his watch chirping: ‘low oxygen sat levels!’ – ‘abnormal heart rhythm!’ – ‘call to emergency services imminent!’ Taggart sat up on his berth with nausea clawing up his throat, a headache spitting daylight into sodden pulses of bile screaming for release. He grabbed at the watch on his wrist, found the face and killed the alarm, then stumbled into the head, reaching for the tap of last resort. He splashed water on his face, found his toothbrush and toothpaste and tried to brush away the remnants of the dream – still lingering like a bad taste in his mouth.
Clyde was looking at him when he came out of the head, then he barked twice – letting Taggart in on a little secret: ‘You slept for ten hours, asshole. Get me to a bush before I spray down your bed…’
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Come on, shipmate. Let’s go and do the deed.”
They clambered up the companionway and the first thing Taggart saw was lightning painting the night in shades of gray. “Fuck. Why didn’t I get a god damn cat?”
He left Clyde in the cockpit while he ducked below for his foul weather jacket, then they hopped ashore and made for the bushes. Then he noticed that almost all the lights were out everywhere he looked, even across the river in Kiel.
Then he saw black shadows sliding across the water, like echoes of that dream playing out before his eyes…only these shadows were huge.
Clyde looked up and saw them too, then he growled and backed away from the sight.
“Guided missile frigates, Clyde. Locking up into the canal.”
He looked east and saw several more warships strung out in spectral lines, their silent moves just enough to maintain steerageway as they waited to enter the lock – one by one by one…
“Well, that explains why the lights are out. This move ain’t for public consumption, is it?” He knelt beside Clyde and rubbed his neck. “Nothing to worry about, Clyde…just a bunch of boys and their toys out to rehearse the end of the world.”
Clyde looked at him – not at all convinced those shadows were friendly – then he circled twice and dumped a load. Taggart reached into a pocket and pulled out a plastic poop-bag and picked up the steaming turds, a shiver running up his spine as he did, then he tied the pouch and carried it over to a trash can. “Man, I can’t tell you how much I love doing that, dude. You think you could, like, learn how to use the head?”
“Yeah, I know…I know. Not in your contract, blah-blah-blah.” He looked at his watch – 0345 – and shook his head. Three hours and change until the radio installers were slated to arrive, an hour and a half until the diner opened for breakfast. “Assuming I can hold it down, you mean?” He looked at his hands – not shaking yet – and decided a longish walk might feel good, so off they went through the wet grass.
But even out here in the rain and the shadows Taggart was having a hard time casting away from the dream. The grass, the spectral shadows, the menacing lightning out here, now…something just didn’t feel right. Like the world inside his dream was the real one, and he was walking along inside a dream right now – and that feeling shook him up, big time. He looked to the left and saw a line of trees and he sighed, then shook his head. Even the trees were an echo…too…
Then he decided he’d had enough. “Sorry Clyde, I’m not buyin’ it. Let’s go take a shower, okay?”
They made it below just before a heavy rain came for them, and he slipped a pod into the coffee maker as he peeled off his wet foulies. He put them away in the heated closet under the companionway steps – which he thought was the greatest invention since sliced bread – before he walked aft to the head compartment. Wet clothes off and into the washing machine, and he threw all his other dirties in too and started the wash cycle. Robe on and back to the coffee maker, add some cream and sugar then back to the head – Clyde dutifully standing in the shower looking just like…a wet dog.
Water on, rinse the old boy down and what the fuck is that on your back? It wasn’t there yesterday? It felt like a cyst, only about two inches in diameter, and when he touched it Clyde flinched. He sat on the toilet while he soaped-up the pup, then he rinsed and dried Clyde before he got back under the warm water and let it beat down on his neck.
Once out he felt a chill run down his spine and shook his head. “Time for a sweater,” he said to himself, then he put a bowl of puppy-kibble on the galley floor, and once his jacket was on again he went topsides to check all Bandits lines. With everything secure he walked up to the diner just as the Open sign started blinking at the fading night.
Eggs and ham, some modest variation of potatoes and a cup of tea later, he settled up and walked back to the marina; he saw a woman standing by Time Bandits as he approached his slip so he pretended not to notice and walked right on by. She stood there, motionless as he passed – so he walked to the end of the pier and back onto land. He went to a bench and sat, never taking his eyes off the woman. He looked at his watch; a half hour until the installers were due – and he asked himself why he hadn’t taken the goddam Sig out from under the pillow and brought it along?
And the rain hadn’t let up even a little – and yet, there she stood, inert, almost like some kind of talismanic statue – beyond here there be dragons! – but all he could think to do was just keep watching her, maybe try to find out what she was up to at this time of the morning.
“Fuck it,” he said as he stood and walked back down to his pier. Suddenly angry at the intrusion he walked right up to her and stopped with his face just inches from hers. “Can I help you?” he barked.
And beneath the hooded raincoat and wide-brimmed hat he found Eva’s shivering face, tear-streaked and lonely.
He grabbed her and pulled her close, held onto her like he was clinging to life itself, then he helped her aboard and down below. She was cold, real cold, so he took her aft, got her out of her wet things and into the shower, then he joined her and held her close as she clung to him.
“Feeling better now?” he whispered, and he felt her nod. He ran his fingers through her hair then kissed her, held her closer still.
“Right, I’ve got people coming round soon. Let’s get you dried off and into bed; you look exhausted.”
She looked up at him and began talking: “As soon as I could break away from her I returned to the airport. It was almost impossible but here I am.”
“Here you are. Yes, and we need to get you off your feet, too.”
He toweled her dry and helped her under the covers – and Clyde hopped up on the bed and slipped under the covers too – then Taggart went topsides and helped the installers get their gear aboard and down below. The old man came down and looked around the fuse panels and circuit breakers, then at the electrical runs he’d need to make.
“I must get longer runs of optical cable,” he told Henry. “Tell me, is that the only music system you have on board?” he asked, pointing to the radio mounted next to the chart table, shaking his head.
The old man, still shaking his head, climbed up into the morning and left.
Taggart worked with the installers throughout the morning, helping them place items where he needed them to go, running cables from the chart table to the engine room, and testing voltages before each new head unit was installed. The old man came back just before noon and ripped out the factory installed radio, installing a Fusion unit at the chart table and a remote head in the cockpit, by the wheel. Then he changed out all the speakers. The results were spectacular, and the installers left before mid-afternoon; Taggart handed the old man his gold bar, and they both smiled at the results, then shook hands.
Taggart then went aft to check on Eva and Clyde, also finding he’d left his phone by the bed – muted – and now in desperate need of a charge. It turned out that Clyde needed a walk too, and Eva needed more sleep, so he leashed Clyde and they went topsides for a strafing run at the bushes, then a bombing run near the line of trees. That done, they made it back to Bandits before another wave of really heavy rain hit.
Taggart got his phone plugged in and several calls and voice mails from Dina popped-up on the main display; listening to them he heard a frantic litany of cries for help because, apparently, Eva had disappeared and Dina wanted to know what to do. He growled, slipped another pod in the coffee maker, then called her.
“Where have you been?” she shrieked. “Why haven’t you returned my calls?”
“It turns out, Dina dearest, that Eva found her way back here.”
“I’m sorry, is there a bad connection on your end?”
“No dammit, I heard what you said. Why didn’t you let me know?”
“I didn’t have my phone with me, and I’ve been busy with other matters.”
“I see. Well, so Henry isn’t alone after all. I suppose you are most happy with the way this has turned out?”
“The work we accomplished today turned out nicely, yes. Thanks for asking…”
But by then she’d cut off the call.
Ten minutes later the phone chirped and this call was coming from a throwaway phone he’d bought Rolf before he left.
“Hey, Buddy, what’s up?”
“Henry, it is Dina. She is being very ugly, saying very mean things about you. What has happened?”
“Eva came here.”
“Oh, thank goodness she is safe. Did she have trouble getting there?”
“Yes, I think so. What about you? How are you doing?”
“Me? I am okay. But I am very much worried about Grandma-ma. She is saying hurtful things…”
“That it was a mistake to marry you, that she really never loved you, those kinds of things.”
“Oh, don’t worry about all that. I’ve known that pretty much all along.”
“What? How do you think this is so?”
“She was trying to protect your mother, Rolf. I think she was afraid your mother would fall in love with me and try to leave Bergen, so she intervened.”
“My God, Henry…if you knew this how come you went along with it?”
“Because Dina is basically a good person and I like her. But the main reason was I knew she’d feel more comfortable – and more in control – if she thought she had me under her control.”
“Henry, this is most devious, is it not?”
“Well, Rolf, sometimes you have to be a little devious in order to keep the peace.”
Rolf laughed. “Oh, if Grandma-ma only knew of this…”
“Probably better not to tell her, Rolf. I’d guess the results would be less than pleasant.”
“I want to come back too, Henry. What should I do?”
“You have the credit card I gave you, right?”
“Yes, and the cash.”
“Don’t use the cash unless you have too. Wait until there appears to be peace between NATO and Russia, then see about getting a flight. But, and this is important, you must tell your mother what you are doing.”
“She will never let me leave, Henry.”
“You weren’t listening to me, Rolf. I said you must tell your mother what you are going to do.”
“Okay. I understand.”
“Rolf, your mother will want to come with you.”
“You think so, really?”
“She will. Trust me.”
“And if she does?”
“Not if, Rolf – when. She will want to come with you. But…and this is important, Rolf; bring her along only if it is safe for her. She must not endanger the babies. Do you understand?”
“Text me at the Norwegian number, okay. Only call this number in an emergency. Got it?”
“And no emails. Not now.”
“Do not come back here, now. I’ll be leaving tonight.”
“Where will you go?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll let you know when I am someplace safe. Probably a week from now, okay?”
“Okay. Bye for now.”
Taggart turned on the Single Side Band radio and dialed in the BBC world service, then he turned on the VHF and went about setting up the AIS system with a ghost identity while he listened to reports coming from Moscow and Washington. ‘What a fucking con-game,’ he thought as he listened to the talking heads. ‘Get everyone scared to death, then use that as a cover to do something really hideous somewhere unexpected. Same game, new actors.’
Next he hooked up the transceiver to his laptop and inserted the NSA’s flash drive. He went through the code line by line again – smiling all the while – then he wrote a small sub-routine and executed a simple command through the radio – and, theoretically, he turned all the power off in Washington, D.C. for ten seconds – then he grinned.
“Oh, this is going to be so much fun…”
“What is?” Eva said, walking unsteadily into the galley.
“Oh, I had some new radios installed?”
“So, there is music now?”
“Oh, mama, do we have music now. You like Tears for Fears?” She shrugged and he put on Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Then: “Wanna dance, baby?”
He held her gently and ran his fingers through her hair as the music rumbled along, but he could tell she wasn’t feeling as maniacally manic as he was just then, so he walked her over to one of the chairs and helped her sit, then he turned down the volume.
“That is a very much more loud radio!” she said. “I think even the babies hear the music because now they are dancing a little.”
“Atta girl. How are you feeling?”
“I am a little hungry. Actually, more than a little hungry.”
“What sounds good?”
“Anything you cook for me will be most good.”
“Okay, Oklahoma smash-burgers it is.”
“A real old fashioned hamburger.”
“Perhaps you know someplace that has good soup?”
“I do indeed. I had lunch with old friends just yesterday at such a place. How are you set for clothes?”
“I have what I wore on the airplane. Nothing more.”
“Okay, so…tonight’s episode of Mission Impossible will begin after a brief word from our sponsor. Let’s get your shoes on, then we can beat feet to a store in time to get you all fixed up in time for dinner…”
He took Clyde for a quickie, then called for a taxi; the two of them rode over to Kiel and did some shopping, then they walked slowly to the Gaststätte Ratskeller for soup and schnitzel, and she perked up as she ate and was soon herself again. He had silenced his phone but felt it buzzing away in his coat pocket, and when Eva slipped away to the head he pulled it out and looked at the call log.
Dina had called – more than ten times in the last two hours – and she called again while he was looking at the display. He sent the call to voicemail and pocketed his phone, then stood when Eva returned and helped her into her chair.
“They make a decent strudel here. Would you like some?”
“Perhaps I might have a little of yours?”
He ordered one strudel and two forks and their waiter smiled.
“I did not know you spoke German so well,” she said.
“Occupational hazard,” he said, smiling. “When I was developing software, well, we had offices over here and I had to come often. It was easier to learn the language than to rely on translators.”
She found that hard to swallow. “You learn languages so easily? Truly?”
“Programming is a language too, so yes, I guess I do.”
“What other languages do you know?”
He shrugged. “A few.”
“I hope our boys are just like you,” she said, leaning over to kiss him once.
“With any luck at all, they’ll be the exact opposite of me.”
She leaned against him and sighed. “I could not stand to be away from you another day,” she whispered. “Please don’t send me away again.”
“I wanted you someplace safe, Eva. That’s all I wanted, because that’s what is most important to me right now.”
“I cannot breathe without you, Henry. Please, don’t ever leave me…”
The utter impossibility of and within her words hit him, left him bereft of reason – yet silence could be his only reply. He took her hand and held it, not knowing how precarious this girl’s grasp of the moment really was, but he held her tight – afraid to let go in case she might drift away on a stray current of hope. And then his mind flashed to the dream…to the white glow in the forest and the fleeting shadows reaching out for him; the sandy track across the grassy meadow, the sea and the mountains – all of it suddenly filling his mind with impossible possibilities…
After their strudel he took her for a short walk, then they rode in silence back to Time Bandits, echoes of the dream chasing him, pushing in against his every breath. He struggled with stray fragments of the dream even as he helped her down the companionway steps, and after he got her to bed he felt the dream drifting alongside as he took Clyde for his last walk of the day.
The phone chirped again – but this time it was Rolf’s ring-tone so he fished his phone out of his coat pocket…
“Rolf? What’s wrong?”
“Grandma-ma. She has gone to the airport, wait, mother – please don’t…”
“You have given this phone to my son?”
“I have. It is for emergencies, like this one.”
“I see. Your hold on him is complete, you know? I cannot reason with him…”
“You wanted to tell me something. Something about your mother.”
“How do you know that?”
“Simple probability, Britt. Now, what is the problem?”
“She told me she is not pregnant, Henry.”
He nodded. “That’s why she had to leave, Britt. She should have been showing by now, but she wasn’t…and she was never going to.”
“Henry? What is this game you are playing at with us?”
He chuckled. “No games, Britt. Games have rules, but I’m not sure your mother understands that.”
“What should I do?”
“My mother, of course.”
“Keep out of her way, don’t contradict her. Let her feel like she is the one in control, because that is what is most important to her.”
“How could…how could you possibly know that, Henry?”
“When you told me your mother knows the future, Britt. Do you remember that?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Wanting to know the future, to control the future is a defining characteristic of people such as your mother, but I do have to say her choice of oncology baffles me.”
“Unless that was the road she took to come to you.”
He wanted to laugh – but couldn’t. “All she wanted was to come between you and me. Don’t you see that?”
“No, I don’t. She was raving around the house all afternoon, almost screaming at the top of her voice how much she despises you, and a moment later she was on the floor in tears, telling us how much she loved you and how afraid she was of losing you so soon.”
“Step back for a moment, Britt, step away from all your connections to her. If she was in your office presenting with these symptoms, what would you think? How would you render a diagnosis?”
“Schizo-affective disorder, or possibly an acute bi-polar psychotic break.”
“And what would you do next?”
“Get her to the hospital before she did something to harm herself.”
“What happens to your mother if she is at the airport and the police are called? What if she breaks down there? What happens to her?”
“Take Rolf with you.”
“Yes. I will.”
“And may I speak to him now?”
“Yes, shipmate, I’m here. Now, listen carefully. Help your mother out to the airport, and you’ve got to get to Dina, then help get both of them back to your house. By the time they could get here I will be gone. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do. Will Eva be with you?”
“For a day or two, but then I have to do something important and I will be out of touch for a while. I will get her to a hotel for that time. You help your mother and your grandmother now, and remember, you are the man in their life, so act like it.”
“But Henry, you are…”
“No Rolf, I’m not. I am nothing but a ghost now, a ghost waiting for the night. I’m sorry to do this to you, I really am, but you need to step up and get ready to carry some of the load.”
“Henry? Are you going from us now?”
“No, no, not yet. We will be together for Christmas, but we’ll be together much sooner than that, so don’t you worry. Now, go help your mother…”
He went topsides and noted nothing but civilian ship traffic lining up for the canal now, but from what he could tell from here, there was a lot more traffic – and he thought: ‘so the word is out.’ NATO navies were getting out of the Baltic, so commercial dispatchers took note and started moving their vessels out, too. The only thing keeping him here was a need to replenish food stocks, but he decided right then and there that he was going to queue up for the canal, grab supplies along the way, probably in Rendsburg, but above all else to keep moving west for the time being. Once he made Brunsbüttel he’d be clear of the canal and his options would increase – but now he had a hard 50 miles to make with an untested Eva as his only deckhand.
He pulled-in the shore power cord and got the engine going, then he took in his dock lines and backed out of the slip. Once clear of the marina he called into the canal and got permission to pull into the first lock immediately – the lock-keeper noting that he’d be sharing the lock chamber with a large ocean going containership. He set the autopilot and rigged his lines for a port-side locking, knowing he would have a real struggle on his hands to keep Bandits under control inside the turbulent lock chamber.
He pulled in with the containership and ran his line to the forward bollard then back to the cockpit, then the same with his aft lines. Next, he ran both lines to the pair of electric winches on the port-side cockpit coaming and felt he was as ready as he was ever going to be – just as water started pouring into the chamber.
Using his electric winches, the whole process turned out to be an easy ‘no-brainer’ and he exited the lock behind the containership, noting that it was now a little after one on the morning. He noted his hands were shaking a little so set the autopilot and dashed below, taking care not to disturb Eva as he found his meds and washed them down with a Coke, then he made his way back to the cockpit – just as a small patrol boat came alongside. He went to the port-side boarding gate and helped ‘Mike’ step across, realizing his attempt to prevent their following him had failed.
“Welcome aboard,” he said to the captain. “What’s the occasion?”
Mike held up the locator beacon he’d removed from the keel the night before. “Sorry, but we need to keep tabs on you. It’s been decided that I’ll remain with you until the intercept is over.”
“You don’t say? My, my. Well, truth be told, I really should have a deckhand along for the transit.”
“Oh, from my position it looked like you handled things pretty well.”
“I take it you’ve done some sailing?”
“Annapolis, class of ’80.”
“Not as much as you have, but I won’t get in your way.”
“Well, I’ve got to stop and get some supplies…”
“Got a list?”
“No, not really. I’ll run ashore in Rendsburg and pick up what we need. There’s a market next to the river there.”
“Suits me. Then where to?”
“The Südstrand, Wilhelmshaven. Drop the girl in a hotel there, then on out to Norderney.”
Mike nodded. “A shame the girl had to show up.”
“She’s basically clueless. She won’t be a problem.”
“Okay. Where can I stow my gear?”
“All the way forward. Clean sheets on the bed, clean towels in the head.”
“All the comforts of home. Oh, and thanks for not making a stink about this.”
Taggart shook his head. “I just roll with the punches, man. No sweat off my back.”
He watched the captain head below before he let slip a string of four-letter-words under his breath, then he simply kept an eye on shipping traffic as they continued westward. ‘Nothing I can do about it right now,’ he thought, ‘so just accept the situation – until I can.’
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next chapter will drop in a week or so.