S&C presents a story by local author Fletch Mallory, part of a collection that make up his recently released novel Stranded Foxes, inter-linked stories that jump through history and speak through a myriad of voices, including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa.
I am bad. Descended from pirates, the blood of thieves and looters taints my veins.
As I unscrew the silencer from my gun I glance briefly at the frightened girl with pink hair and absently slip the camera into my suit pocket, then turn and walk away from the lift. The dead bike messenger’s story is finished, just as mine will be soon. If you are patient I will tell you how with certainty I know this.
Bad people with guns kill and have no remorse and as I walk down the corridor I try to fathom why I have just strayed from type and let the girl live.
When you are walking the streets, a thick trench coat is the best place to hide a long-barrelled gun. A carefully selected weapon of choice. At home I leave it on the coffee table, hiding in plain sight. Think where you shouldn’t hide it and leave it there. That’s what my uncle taught me, along with several techniques for picking a lock and how to dig a shallow grave. So when I am home the gun sits on the coffee table next to loosely read copies of National Geographic and a small pewter bowl, holding an odd mix of loose change, pot pourri and a scattering of uncut diamonds.
Yes, you heard correctly, uncut diamonds. The remains of my ancestral heritage that have not been sold, bartered or shaped into ostentatious cufflinks.
I was thirteen when my uncle first told me the story; the true story of the Mary Celeste. I thought it was just a fable, tall as a ship’s mast, until the moment he opened up a worn leather pouch revealing a broken wooden arrow shaft and silver arrow head. The pointed silver now lies in my pocket, smoothed by the passage of time and the continual friction against the fabric inside the pocket of my Saville Row suit.
History will tell you that Olivier Devereaux, First Mate of the Dei Gratia was the first person to board the unmanned Mary Celeste, but this is an untruth; the diamonds that sit on my sleeve testify to this.
Albertine, my great-great-great uncle, an aspiring young Lieutenant aboard the naval ship Marathon, first saw this mysterious vessel riding listlessly upon rolling waves off the coast of Santa Maria in the Azores, and changed the course of my family line forever. No male in our family has lived past the age of forty since. Cursed! If you don’t believe me, wait around a while; I was thirty-nine last year.
As the story is told, silence met Albertine as he climbed aboard the faltering vessel and instinctively loaded his musket – a small comfort against a growing sense of unease. Melting ice lay on the deck and water crystals sat in the ropes of the rigging. By the time he was making his way below deck, Devereaux had boarded and they silently nodded acknowledgement to each other but were unwilling to speak, as if to break silence would unleash all the fury of a sailor’s imaginatious superstitions.
There was an eerie quietness about the boat; an ethereal, chilling stillness in the air as if all the wind and heat had been purposely removed. Albertine saw undisguised fear in Devereaux’s eyes and knew they reflected his own. They cautiously moved below deck. Contrary to historical records, the Mary Celeste was not unmanned, but in the galley around a long oak table sat the twelve crew, in front of roasted chicken, once crusty bread and tankards of half-empty rum. Each man was dead, or were they frozen? They were all grey and cold, with frost in their hair. Yes, twelve frozen men. It was the thirteenth man who shocked Albertine, with his wide, blue eyes and braided blonde hair. He was not frozen but was clearly dead with a silver arrow through his heart and tight fists laying to rest on the galley table.
Albertine felt nauseous and to escape from the uncanny scene he entered the Captain’s cabin. Strewn disorderly on a rich, oak desk lay an assortment of maps and sea charts; and a brass-encased compass which spun continually at speed, anti-clockwise, like a whirlpool on a stormy night. Strangely the clock above the desk was upside down and Albertine wondered what strange fate befell this ship and crew. The final entries of the Captain’s log book read like this:
13th December 1872
We passed a school of dolphins on a cold but sunny day off the coast of the Azores. There was something odd about them. They were less playful than usual and were moving North. I sensed their urgency. I have never seen so many together. Within half an hour the sun had disappeared and a winter storm descended on us as quick as a brown hare being chased by a hungry fox. Wind, lightening, hail and even snow claimed the night with a fury so intense that I thought we would not survive with our vessel intact! The compass stopped working! Round and round it spun, relentless, like a sycamore seed released from its tree.
14th December 1872
The storm has passed and the ship is intact apart from the lifeboat, whose ropes broke in the night. We watched it sail off into the dark expanse of the Atlantic.
Today is a day distastefully without sun, and the sea as thin and muted of colour as the vegetable soup served up by our cook. We picked up the stranger on a makeshift raft, which appeared to be a large, white door. I can only describe him as odd and he spoke a tongue that neither I nor my crew could ascertain its origin. Not even the Doctor, who has claimed to have travelled to the Americas and beyond, could place it. He was clearly scared, and for this I am wary but the good Lord clearly tells us that everyone is our neighbour, so I bring him on board despite the crew’s superstitious misgivings.
Note: the stranger appeared to have no possessions apart from the clothes he stood in and a timepiece strapped to his wrist. I have heard of these but this was truly odd; it had no hands and its numbers flashed! I will endeavour to investigate further tomorrow when he is more at ease.
Crew still nervous about cargo. Compass broken.
Young Tom’s ‘sea dog’ still nervous; I locked him below deck.
When Albertine finished reading, he heard a gasp from the galley and ran back to see a wide-eyed Devereaux, gazing at diamonds sitting in the prised-open hand of the thirteenth man. They glittered enticingly, shining brightly like a thousand twinkling stars in stark contrast to the frozen greyness of the galley.
‘There’s more in his pockets,’ Devereaux exclaimed excitedly.
Albertine moved towards him with haste and changed my family’s future with a single action, exchanging long life for the trappings of wealth and clock watching.
At this point my uncle’s story changed several times during retelling, depending on whether he was sober or intoxicated. ‘Yes, my boy, Albertine slipped on the icy deck and his musket inadvertently fired. Yes, my son, Devereaux’s heart gave out at the immensity of wealth before him.’ But deep down I knew Albertine killed Devereaux in cold blood; I sense it every time I touch the diamonds.
Little else is known of this story except that the crew’s cargo exploded and the remains of the ship sank in the ocean. The only reported survivor a scraggy, curly-haired dog.
That story changed my life. It changed my great-great-great uncle’s life. It made him wealthy beyond his imagination or class status, but it was quickly spent on whores, gambling and honest business ventures which required brains and not money. Among all the men in my family, only I have succeeded. I have been wealthy. I am wealthy. But with just days remaining before my fortieth birthday, my time is running out and you can’t buy time, can you.
The side street that I walk down is deserted when I come across the pregnant woman.
Compassion. I wasn’t born with it and I certainly didn’t inherit it. But now I feel it inside of me as I watch the woman with two hands on the wall and head bowed, cry out in pain. This is weakness in my world. What use is compassion? But I can’t let go of this tugging feeling as I hear her heavy, painful breath.
‘Help me,’ she wheezes out.
I look her in the eye and briefly share her pain, which is a mistake on many levels, not least because I will be late for the drop off. Reluctantly I move forward and she grips my hand so tightly and with such ferocity that I am surprised because she is slight of frame despite her pregnant state.
The simplicity of her request stops my heart. I don’t help people; I don’t care. I don’t get into people’s lives. But when she asks me the third time with tears in her eyes, I know I will. A day of firsts?
‘Please help me.’
And I lead her to my car and cushion her carefully, with a gentleness I didn’t know I possessed. Safely positioned into clean, leather upholstery, I run around to the driver’s side and start the engine, unconsciously trying to map out the quickest route to the hospital in my head. I then realise I haven’t even spoken to her.
‘Er… you ok?’ I say. She doesn’t answer; her eyes are fixed on the handle of the gun as it peeks guiltily out of my rain coat.