In another surprising turn of events I managed to squeeze past the judges in the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with a 4th place.
Below is that story. Have I published it before? I’m sorry to bore you if that is the case.
The Last Voyage of the Nadine
Zamboanga was glowing in the distance through a thin sea fog as the sun began to awaken the city. Looking down from the helm I recognised the returning fishing fleet and I steered further south to avoid unnecessary attention. I shut down the engines about three miles off the coast and, with the laundry bags, alighted to the rubber dingy. The Nadine would complete her final voyage alone.
My own voyage had taken another turn….
I was born to a domineering, sociopathic father and to an egotistical and emotionally absent mother. I count myself as little more than a passionless error of judgement.
My home, for the first ten years anyway, was a three-story, five-bedroom house looking out over the Pacific Ocean and containing seven television sets, an indoor swimming pool, a sauna and a grand piano, but not even the faintest sniff of abiding love.
I attended an exclusive private Sydney boarding school where my report card (a document my parents did not read), noted initially that I had ‘great potential’ but ‘could do a lot better’ and later that that I was ‘disruptive’, ‘cynical’ and ‘obnoxious’. It came as something of a relief to both the school and to myself when I was caught cheating and expelled.
In a further attempt to palm me off my father pulled some strings and I was magically accepted into the Australian Naval College. There, my progress was described, on the good days, as ‘barely satisfactory’ and my naval career came to an unceremonious conclusion one morning when the Admiral’s wife woke up in my bed. My parents took the only logical course of action and disowned me.
By then I had developed a passion for boats and for the loneliness of the ocean, so, immediately following my cold-hearted disinheritance, I moved north, in search of open water and warmer climate. Arriving in Cairns, I falsified my qualifications and scraped together a modest existence skippering game-boats that chased marlin and tuna out beyond the reef. I dabbled a little too, in the offshore transportation of marijuana from fertile plantations further north, to the peaceful hippie communities living in isolated liberation out on the Atherton tablelands.
But when the police began to ask me uncomfortable questions and issue threats regarding my own liberty, I sensed that it was time to move farther north again. I passed myself off as a deckhand on a Chinese freighter bound for Manilla and jumped ship in Zamboanga during a refuelling stop.
And that is how I came to be sitting, about eighteen months later, in my own quiet corner of The Mariners’ Club. A weary relic of forgotten days, The Mariners’ Club existed in permanent semidarkness and smelled, in equal proportions, of stale cigarettes, body odour and rotting seaweed. Its regular inhabitants included a mixture of lonely local fishermen and third-rate Thai prostitutes blended in with my own tribe – the refugees from another life, hiding from failed businesses or failed marriages or hiding just from failure itself. I found the environment very welcoming.
The sight of a blonde woman dressed in business attire entering the premises was something, therefore, of an oddity, and when she idled up to the bar and asked the barman a few questions all eyes were upon her. All eyes were upon her still as he pointed in my direction and as she walked to my table with a cocktail and a beer to sit down beside me.
Placing the beer in front of me, she picked up the cap that I had left lying on the table.
“A naval man?” she asked, in reference to the insignia ‘HMAS Albatross’ embroidered across the brim.
The old souvenir was faded and tattered. “Retired,” I said, as usual, because it sounded so much better than ‘dishonourably discharged’.
“A Captain?” she asked
“Lieutenant Commander,” I replied, modestly elevating myself only twelve rungs up the promotional ladder.
“Oh,” she smiled, “right.”
I could tell that she had been, at one time, quite beautiful, but also that time had taken its toll. In her eyes I could detect the traces of unreconciled childhood dreams.
She reminded me of my mother.
She wore an ostentatious diamond ring on her finger and caught my eyes examining it – secretly estimating its value.
“From Mr Evans,” she informed me, “my husband. Recently deceased.”
“I’m so sorry,” I lied.
“Well,” she continued casually, “I’ll get over it. But it seems that he’s left me a bit shorthanded and with a few loose ends to tie up. I have some delicate trade negotiations to conduct out in international waters,” she waved her ringed finger vaguely towards the west, “and now I am without an experienced skipper to take me there. Are you, per chance, looking for work?”
I had long ago ceased looking for work, but though I had learned to live on a meagre income my eyes were always open to an occasional easy payday. Now and then someone wanted an extra hand to unload a catch of sardines at the cannery or wanted a compliant skipper to ferry passengers without passports north to Manila. I asked no questions and I had a short memory.
So, I was unperturbed when she supplied me with only scanty details. “My launch will be fuelled and ready off the end of the wharf tomorrow night at six-thirty,” she explained, “and you can meet the rest of the crew there. You take us out, you bring us back. That’s all you need to know.”
As she finished her cocktail and rose to leave it seemed reasonably obvious that I was about to re-enter the drug trade. It was, income-wise, my very favourite industry, but we had not yet discussed renumeration. She reached into her purse and extracted two crisp $US100 bills. “It’s a high return operation,” she explained, as if to confirm my assumptions, and handed me the two notes, “so there’ll be plenty more where this comes from. Go buy yourself a new hat, Admiral. And if you’re still interested, I’ll see you tomorrow night”
Of course, I was interested.
The following evening, I forwent my usual sundowner at The Mariners’ Club in order to arrive early at the dock and take a brief look over the ‘launch’. As I walked along the creaking wooden planks, I could see three young Filipinos moving what looked to be laundry bags from the back deck into the cabin. My employer was there, pointing and barking sharp orders to them with military precision. When she sensed my approach, she turned and softened her stance to greet me, with a smile.
“Captain McCloud,” she called out to me, “so nice of you to come.” I had no idea, until that moment, that she knew my name.
“The Widow Evans,” I greeted her formally in reply.
The ‘launch’, as I had feared, was a floating wreck. A former pleasure craft, she had fallen victim, not unlike myself, to neglect. Her once proud hull was stained with rust and seagull droppings. The stern was almost entirely black with the accumulation of thousands of hours of diesel exhaust but beneath the grime I could vaguely make out the name, ‘Nadine’.
“Your name?” I asked the widow politely as I stepped aboard.
She smiled back at me. “The boat’s name, silly,” she responded, keeping me at a disadvantage.
The crew meeting was brief. “Boys,” she said, addressing the three Filipinos, “this is the Commodore. Commodore, this is the crew. Larry, Curley and Moe.” They barely looked up to acknowledge me. “OK, then,” she continued, “let’s go.”
As I climbed up onto the flybridge I was surprised to notice a serviceable rubber dingy complete with outboard motor secured to the front deck, and equally surprised to hear both engines bark obediently to life when I turned the keys. I signalled to Moe to release the last of the ropes and within five minutes we were easing her out between the channel markers and into open ocean.
We had been motoring peacefully for about an hour, I suppose, when I heard engine noises behind us. The widow was sitting beside me scanning an ancient copy of Vogue and the Filipinos were on the back deck playing cards. Within seconds I could see the lights of two smaller vessels approaching fast from astern. “Expecting someone?” I asked.
“Fucking pirates,” she announced, identifying them with admirable calm.
“Fucking pirates!” she yelled, this time to the Filipinos, “blow ‘em away, boys!”
Everything happened fast. Even before I had fully comprehended the situation the Filipinos had mounted machine guns in the old rod holders on the transom and were exchanging fire with our foe. The widow was brandishing a revolver and waving it around wildly in the general direction of the enemy and letting off shots at random. We were outrun, outnumbered and possibly outgunned, but the Nadine’s heavy metal hull was holding up well. The pursuers were only about twenty yards to the stern when Curly stood up heroically on the back deck and started lobbing hand grenades. He may have been a professional baseball player in another life, or would be in the next one, for two grenades landed, each on their separate targets, exploding simultaneously as he himself fell in the final hail of bullets.
The battle was over as quickly as it had begun. I pulled the throttles back and put the engines into neutral. An eerie quiet descended upon us as the scattered fires astern sank silently into the ocean. The widow climbed down the flybridge ladder and I climbed down after her. Moe was leaning tearfully over the bodies of Curly and Larry as they lay dead in their own pools of blood.
“What happened, Moe?” the widow asked, “were we set up?”
“I dunno, Miss.” It was the first time I’d heard him utter a word. And it would be the last. She raised her revolver and shot him in the forehead.
“He drinks too much,” she informed me, “and then he talks. Loose lips sink ships.”
“Likewise, the late Mr Evans?”
“Lead poisoning,” she said, “there’s a lot of it going around.”
She grinned at her own little jokes.
It took some time before I could think of a question that might help delay my own death a while longer. I pointed towards the cabin, “so …. do we still deliver the dust?” I asked.
She looked at me quizzically. “Dust?” she said, “Cocaine? You thought we were selling drugs? No, no. You have it backwards. We have no drugs. We were buying. Not selling.”
The laundry bags were full of cash.
“I like you,” she said unexpectedly.
The gun was still in her hand, but it was as if she had forgotten it. Her demeanour had changed like the tide and the expression she directed towards me may have been, indeed, one of affection.
We stood there in silence, listening to the burbling of the engines and to the waves lapping up against the hull. The moon was setting on a dark horizon. She moved closer to me and let her skin brush against mine. The deck was awash with human blood. Three dead bodies lay at my feet. I was thirty nautical miles off the Philippine coast, standing under the stars with an undeniably attractive, certifiably insane, murderous drug dealer.
It felt strangely romantic.
She whispered into my ear. “You were chosen, you know, as a confirmed loser with a fake boat licence, who wouldn’t be missed by anyone if you washed up dead on the beach. But I like your face and it turns out that you have some real talent for this sort of work. Perhaps we could make it a regular gig.”
When I put my arms around her waist, I thought that I felt her heart beating. I gently lifted her up and towards me until our lips touched.
And before she could raise her gun, I threw her overboard.