The waters of the Pole were as dark as they were cold. Such a chill could seep and ooze through the hull of any ship on God’s blue Earth, and it could send a shiver down the back of any man of the sea, as rugged as he was. Daring, full-hearted, red-blooded Virginians certainly were no exception, as rugged as they were.
The radar operator of the Outrider, a small bucktoothed fella, sneezed loudly.
“No sign o’ the wreckage cap’n,” he said as he wiped his runny nose with his sleeve.
Captain Waylon Whitman was a tall man with broad shoulders and long thinly muscled limbs. His greying hair and mustache gave his lined face an air of quiet severity, and in his gaze, there was the alertness of an old wolf that had dodged the antlers of many a charging bull moose.
“What’s wrong, Nielsen? Drunk outta your mind again?” he said with a smidgen of a smile in his baritone voice.
“No, sir, haven’t had nothin’ to drink since New York.”
Whitman chuckled. “Haven’t had the heart to touch a bottle since those uppity brits drank you under the table, huh?”
“I’d wager a nickel he still has bourbon to wash down his biscuits, cap’n,” the pilot said with an audible smirk.
“Well, yeah,” the operator said distractedly, “but that don’t count as drinkin’. It’s jus’ breakfas’.”
“Yeah. Takes a special kind o’ drunk to be drinkin’ before noon, don’t it, cap’n.”
“Sure does, Grant,” Whitman said as he clapped his pilot’s enormous shoulder. “But let’s talk about Nielsen’s alcoholism later, and let’s focus on those mines, for now, awright?”
“Aye, sir,” Grant said in a military tone as he straightened up.
Back when he was in the navy, Amos Grant had been nicknamed “Bull” by his fellow seamen, and for obvious reasons. He was one giant of a man, barrel-chested, with arms like tree trunks, and hands as strong as pliers. Whitman found him to be his best man by far, and he was certainly worth five times what he could afford to pay him.
“’nother mine dead ahead, skipper. One mile.” Nielsen warned.
“Damn it,” Whitman said through his teeth as his pilot changed their trajectory. “How many o’ those’re floatin’ ‘round here…”
Those were relics of the Northern War. The waters around the North Pole were swarming with all sorts of explosive devices that were still drifting, waiting endlessly for any unsuspecting ship that passed by…
“…like a goddamn knife on a couch…” Whitman said with disdain. “Ruskis sure knew what they were doin’. Forty years and there’s still one o’ these things for every single fool sailin’ the Atlantic.” He paused and glanced at his radar operator. “Well, let’s hope not all of ‘em.”
“My friend Marty sure found one with his name on it.”
“Oh, yeah?” Whitman said absent-mindedly to humor Nielsen.
“Yup,” the little man said, his head bobbing to follow the sweeping line of his radar, his eyes unblinking. “Him and his entire crew. They was just a few miles from the coast o’ Greenland, mindin’ their own business, lookin’ for some rocks, and then boom, no more Marty, an’ no more Blue Ox.”
“Wait,” Whitman interrupted, eyeing the operator. “Blue Ox? As in Cap’n James Talbot’s Blue Ox? That sub was a rusty piece o’ shit.”
“That guy bought more booze than fuel anytime he was at Far Coast.”
“Saw him drinkin’ from a jerrycan once,” Grant added. “Don’t know what was in it, an’ don’t think he did neither.”
“You sure they didn’t just sink? ‘Sides, how do you know they hit a mine?” Whitman said, raising an eyebrow.
Nielsen shrugged, still not blinking. “I really don’t, but I’m sure that’s how Marty would’ve liked to go.”
There was a long awkward silence, like the one that comes after an old lady narrates her past sexual exploits, and all they could hear was the distant rumble of the engine and the waters swirling along the hull. The captain’s eyes wandered: to the left, to the right, and then to his pilot.
“Well, that ain’t how I wanna go,” Grant said.
“Nope,” Whitman agreed as he took an internal radio communicator in hand. “Allerton, how are things on your end.”
“Everythin’s perfect, cap’n,” the gravelly voice of his chief mechanic answered merrily. “She’s singin’ like a passerine.”
“Good. Keep her happy.”
“Will do, cap’n.”
They had been at it for hours. The low monotonous purr of the engine, the steady beeping of the radar, the bubbling and gurgling of the pipes, the creaking of the hull, the voice of Nielsen: it was all starting to get on their nerves.
“’Nother one ahead. Two miles. We’re gonna pass right under it. No problem,” Nielsen announced.
Whitman sighed. He had paid good money to be certain that his sonar was the best quality that he could find. It would have been suicidal to venture into these waters without excellent radars and an operator that was just as good. Luckily, Nielsen was as keen-eyed as he was dumb. Hawkeyed and birdbrained. Time crawled on, and after one or two more hours, six mines, two whales, and three shoals of fish, northern pikes if Nielsen was to be believed, the radar operator finally gasped in excitement.
“Think I see it, cap’n.”
Whitman raised an eyebrow and sat up straight in his chair. “You sure, Nielsen?”
“It’s big enough that it’s gotta be it and… wait a minute… There’s another ship.”
“Goddamn scavengers,” Grant said, audibly crossed.
“Bunch o’ dumbasses.” Whitman grumbled. “Takes a special kind o’ dimwit to go and strip a White Ribbon ship.”
But then, there was no shortage of dimwits in the Atlantic Ocean, or any other ocean, for that matter.
He brusquely took the radio’s microphone in hand, but then remembered that he had thrown his last communications officer off his ship for being a cheat, a whoremonger and an all-around jackass back in Boston. For nearly twenty minutes, he had to dutifully scan for the right frequency until he found it amidst the white noise.
“This is Cap’n Waylon Whitman of the Virginia Outrider. The vessel that you’re plundering an’ all the goods it contains’re the sole property of the White Ribbon Marine Company. Unknown ship, identify yourself, or we’ll open fire on your sorry ass.”
The answer was nearly immediate, and it came in a light Scandinavian accent.
“I’m Captain Eirik Magnussen, of the Fýrisvellir. That ship is at the bottom of the ocean. It’s nobody’s property.”
Wihtman made a sound that was in equal parts a grunt, a sneer, and a chuckle.
“The Gibaraltar Accords state that any sunken boat remains the property of its rightful owner for a full year after it’s wrecked,” he recited. “Now, if you take a gander at the hull, you’ll see that there’s a name plastered on it: City of Doodlecastle. And I got a title of ownership proving that it belongs to the White Ribbon Company, plus a Salvage Contract, both signed and stamped. You gotta think real hard ‘bout your next move, though, cause even if you thought I wadn’t bein’ truthful with ya just now, you’d still have to take the chance o’ callin’ my bluff ‘bout havin’ my torpedoes trained at your shiny backside.”
For a good long while, there was only static.
“They ain’t movin’, cap’n,” Nielsen said without raising his head from his console.
They waited for several minutes more, and eventually, Whitman raised his voice again. “Ferriswheeler, what’s your answer.”
“You wouldn’t fire on us,” the juvenile voice of Captain Magnussen spouted.
Grant turned around to look at his captain with a savage grin. With a voice akin to the restrained growl of lion, Waylon Whitman spoke in the microphone.
“Are you callin’ me a liar, son?”
He winked at Grant and had a little laugh, deep and husky. He waited for a minute, then two, then three.
“You still there, Magnussen?” Whitman said with feigned concern.
It still took a few seconds to get an answer. “We will withdraw. Hold your fire.”
“Attaboy!” Whitman cheered. “You just stay right where you are until we make sure you didn’t take anythin’ from the hold, and then you’ll be on your way”
He changed frequency and instructed his divers to get out of the ship and take a closer look at the wreckage. He looked at the hull thermometer: twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit. That would be one Hell of a cold swim for that poor bastard O’Neil. More than an hour later, his diver came back to inform him that nothing had been taken: the arms of the Fýrisvellir were not powerful enough to get to the crates, and their divers hadn’t made their way to the hold yet.
He called captain Magnussen again. “Ferriswheeler, you’re free to go your merry way.”
“Acknowledged, Outrider,” the young captain said. “We leave you to your business.”
Whitman put the microphone on the console, beaming, and then grabbed a small leather pouch with a silver clasp from his armchair and fished out a plug of tobacco. He breathed in the sweet scent of the leaves and the cherry syrup.
“Aaah! Californians really know how to make that stuff.”
“What’s the brand, cap’n?” Grant asked.
“Cherry Bomb, ‘course.”
“Expensive tastes, cap’n.”
“Yup, when it comes to my drinkin’ and smokin’, I spare no expenses. Can’t go ‘round drinkin’ swill an’ chewin’ schlock now, can I?”
“No, sir,” Grant said.
Whitman tucked the tobacco in his mouth and waited for it to release its flavour, sweet and acrid, with an aftertaste of citrus. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and sunk in his chair: the tobacco was having its usual relaxing effect. He could hear the aggressive beeping of the radar, steady and regular.
“They’re movin’, Cap’n,” Nielsen’s nasal voice announced, “real slow.”
The time between each blip got longer, and longer, and longer, until eventually there was nothing but a low humming.
“So, would you’ve shot’em, Cap?”
Whitman opened his eyes. His pilot knew full well what kind of damage the Outrider could cause, and he knew how vulnerable an immobile and unprepared sub was. And he also knew that they were all out of torpedoes. “Sure would’ve.” Grant remained silent. He wasn’t one to ask more than one or two questions at a time. The captain stood up from his chair and again went to the communication station to instruct his diver, as well as his mechanical arm operator, to commence the salvage operation. Then, he ordered Grant and Nielsen to get the Outrider closer to the wreckage and deploy the mechanical arms After a few minutes, the lightbulbs flickered as they started hearing the loud whirring, revving, buzzing, and humming of the massive mechanisms. With a job like that they would be able to hire a new radio operator, give a good upgrade to their engine, and get a crateful of spare parts.
“Who’d be dumb enough to risk it, Grant?” Whitman asked with a little smile.
“You talkin’ ‘bout the Nordskis, sir?”
Whitman shrugged. “Who else?”
Grant stroked his bushy black beard with an amused look on his reddish face. “Plenty o’ dumb men this side o’ the Country.”
“True,” Whitman said.
But not that dumb, he thought.
“Fine, but no cap’n worth his salt would risk it.”
“Talbot would’ve,” Grant replied.
Whitman spat in a large bronze spittoon just next to his chair. “Just made my point, smartass.”
A laugh shook Grant’s giant shoulders. “Made my own point, cap’n: most dangerous an’ unpredictable thing out there is a stupid man, friend or foe.”
Whitman thought of Marty and Talbot, and of all the idiots sailing around the Earth’s oceans, and it gave him pause.
“Amen to that.”
(c) Jean-Philippe Savoie