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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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XV

At noon, Kate entered the Gneisenau Room accompanied by Senka. Once more she was in awe. The room looked like a re-creation of an Italian palazzo from the Renaissance. Travertine marble columns rose from floor to ceiling, some fifteen feet in height. On the ceiling an enormous fresco portrayed an ancient Teutonic battle. In another panel, a pair of gigantic Valkyries held a dead warrior while a pair of horsemen brutally stabbed each other.

Between tall venetian windows that looked out over the sea, classical sculptures stood on ornate stands. The floor, made of wood and stone, could barely be seen as several thick, enormous rugs covered it. Stepping on them, Kate thought that if she were to drop a dime, it would probably never be seen again.

Several luxurious couches and chairs were haphazardly spread throughout the room. A huge wooden table with large legs occupied the center of the room, and an enormous, unmoving clock hung on the rear wall right above a grand piano.

The rest of the passengers were sitting around the wooden table. Kate was surprised to see how few there were, perhaps fifteen or twenty people, mostly men. A few of them stood up upon seeing the women enter. The others hardly noticed, too ensconced in passionate conversation.

Feldman sat at the head of the table; Moore was to his left, and there was a vacant chair to his right. Senka led Kate to her seat and, in doing so, kept her hands on Kate’s shoulders a little longer than necessary. Then Senka swaggered over to the seat at Feldman’s right and sat down, attracting the attention of most of the men.

They were all there. Feldman coughed and the table quieted down. Kate discreetly switched on her tape recorder.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” began Feldman in a polite but passionate tone. “Allow me to welcome you to the
Valkyrie
. Before we present anything, I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for accepting my invitation to participate in this voyage.”

Several people nodded in recognition of his appreciation.

“First, let’s talk about the ship. The
Valkyrie
was built in 1938 by Blohm und Voss, a shipyard in Hamburg. As you may have guessed, there are few ships still sailing from that period. In fact, this is the last survivor of the golden age of 1930s cruise liners. All of its rivals from those times have sunk, been scrapped, or were destroyed during the war. Only the
Valkyrie
has made it to the present day, for reasons you already know.” He nodded toward someone at the table. “Mr. Corbet
t . . .

Mr. Corbett cleared his throat and stood up.

“My name is William Corbett. I’m the chief engineer . . . ahem . . . the one in charge of general maintenance aboard the
Valkyrie
.” He nervously shuffled some papers. “The fact of the matter is the repairs have not been too hard. We’d expected the ship to be in much worse condition, but its time in dry dock seems to have preserved the ship extraordinarily well. The hull had no evident deterioration at all. We found no fissures or cracks that needed repairing.”

“That’s incredible,” muttered one man, who appeared to be of Asian descent.

“We’ve only had to give it a new coat of paint.” Corbett pushed up his glasses, which had slid down his nose.

He reminded Kate of a mechanic explaining why the bill was so high in spite of having done nearly nothing.

“After sixty years covered by canvas and out of the water, the ship was in superb shape,” Corbett continued. “Practically like it never went to sea until now.”

“Was it difficult to repair the engines?” Kate asked.

Every head at the table swiveled in her direction. Kate felt the blood rise to her cheeks.

“H
i . . .
thi
s . . .
I’m Kate Kilroy,” she stuttered. “I’m documenting the entire voyage and, wel
l . . .

She saw Feldman smile at her to calm her down.
Do your fucking work, Kate,
she told herself.

“Records from 1939 show that it was impossible to repair the ship’s engines.” She took a copy of the military record from her purple folder and read aloud:

 

Both engines present some kind of malfunction that is impossible to identify, both in the ignition and combustion systems. They are absolutely inoperable, and this technical department does not know of any solution or method of repair. We recommend it be scrapped immediately.

 

She raised her eyes and looked at the engineer. “So I repeat: Was it difficult to repair the engines?”

Corbett looked about, somewhat disconcerted, and then responded, “It was not necessary to repair the engines, Miss Kilroy. Both engines started on the first attempt after we had them fueled up. They weren’t damaged. In fact, they were in superb condition.”

Hushed whispers swept across the table. A few nodded heartily while others shook their heads in protest.

“The ship’s overall condition is quite good considering its age,” Corbett went on. “The entrances were sealed after the war and practically nobody had entered the ship for some sixty years. There haven’t been any leaks or humidity to speak of, especially in first class, where the temperature seems to have been held at a constant sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit. It’s like a gigantic time capsule. Only some areas internally appear to be somewhat worn.”

“That’s fantastic,” Feldman applauded. “How is the renovation going?”

“All of first class, the machine rooms, the bridge, and essential services like the kitchen, laundry, and the infirmary have been completed. However, all of the second- and third-class sections have yet to be restored, in addition to many of the hallways.” He shook his head. “Generally speaking, I think we’ve managed to restore about one-third of the
Valkyrie
, give or take. When we arrive in New York, we can finish what remains.”

Voices whirled around the table again.

“Nobody said anything about New York, Feldman,” shouted a heavy man with a scraggly beard and a Russian accent. He sat two seats down from Kate. “I don’t even have my visa in order.”

“Not to worry, Cherenkov,” Feldman replied, with a hard tone that silenced the room like a poisonous whip. “I’ve already taken care of it.”

Feldman rose. Every one of them watched him with anticipation.

“Today is August twenty-third,” he began. “On the twenty-third of August, nearly eighty years ago, this ship launched its inaugural voyage with two hundred and seventeen passengers and one hundred fifty crew members on board. It departed Hamburg from the exact same dock that we took off from just a few hours ago at the exact same time we did. It launched out into the North Sea just as we did and at the same time we did.” He took out an old navigation book and held it up dutifully. “We know all those facts because the ship’s logbook was recovered by the crew of the
Pass of Ballaster
, the ship that discovered the
Valkyrie
adrift at sea.” He opened the book to a page he had marked and displayed it for all to see. The page was blank. “On August twenty-eighth, five days after departure, the
Pass of Ballaster
found the ship. Not a single crew member or passenger was found on board. The only exception was someone who didn’t appear on the list—me.”

Kate was hit by a wave of excitement for what he was about to say.

“We’re retracing, nearly eighty years later, step by step, the same voyage made by the
Valkyrie
,” Feldman exclaimed, quite seriously. “Five days from now, following the same trajectory as recorded in this logbook, we will know once and for all what happened that night back in 1939.”

XVI

A flurry of voices swept across the table. Everyone suddenly had something to say. The only ones who kept quiet were Feldman, Moore, and Senka, who scornfully watched as the meeting devolved into pandemonium.

“This is bullshit,” a young man proclaimed, smiling like the whole thing was a psychiatry discussion. He was around thirty and seated directly in front of Kate. He had long hair, and his thick-rimmed glasses made him seem somewhat absentminded. Kate was struck by the fact that his floral shirt was adorned with a pin of a cartoon raccoon.

“That’s impossible,” shouted one woman, who was somewhat older and very stern.

“We should have made the trip with a test ship and no crew,” yelled another man, who was sitting next to Kate, looking as if he had just eaten a restaurant out of all its food.

“We’re running an enormous risk, Feldman,” roared the scraggly bearded man, who had been called Cherenkov, bellowing over everyone with a thunderous voice. “The chances of reproducing the event without a support team—”

“Not to worry, Professor Cherenkov. We’ll be counting on a support team.” Feldman raised his hands in a conciliatory fashion, and Kate watched in fascination as he once again utilized his unsettling charm. Slowly, the voices around the table hushed. “Now if I may continue.”

Everyone listened, intrigued.

“I’ve spent more than half my life trying to piece together my past. I do not know who I am or where I come from. My story begins on the dance floor two decks below us, some seventy-four years ago. A Jewish boy abandoned in the middle of an empty ship. This ship.”

Feldman stood up and placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. Kate was reminded of a feverish messiah leading his flock.

“For years I let those concerns stagnate in my mind. You know my reputation. I dedicated my heart and soul to carving out a place for myself among all the other sharks. There are those who say I’m a mobster.” He burst out laughing. “That’s nothing but an old wives’ tale. I’ve become rich thanks to the casinos I own in Europe, Asia, and the United States. But I’m no mobster, though I don’t mind the reputation,” he sighed and became quite serious. “In a way, I should be a happy man. But I’ve been missing one piece of the puzzle: Who the hell am I, and how the hell did I get here?”

“That’s all very well, Mr. Feldman.” The man with the floral shirt and the raccoon pin spoke in a soft American accent. “But perhaps it would have been better if you had hired a few private detectives to trace your history instead of wasting a fortune replicating the goddamn scene of the crime, if you’ll excuse the expression.”

A few soft chuckles could be heard around the table, but they were quickly snuffed out like a bonfire in a rainstorm when Feldman answered.

“I did, Dr. Carter. I did. But your grandparents’ generation and their B-17s made damn well sure Hamburg suffered. Every KDF record on file concerning the
Valkyrie
was burned to ashes, along with half the city, in 1943. Nothing survived. All that remained was the ship. This isn’t a replica of the crime scene. This is the original scene in every way. Whatever happened, it had to have happened here, between these very walls. We’re going to find out what it was.”

“Mr. Feldman, I’m a physicist,” answered Dr. Harvey Carter as if he were speaking with someone who did not speak English. “A scientist, the same as nearly all of us here at this table. I do not believe in magic or in anything that cannot be explained or proved by the methods of science. Time travel is impossible. If you think we’re going to be able to travel back to 1939 in this old ship—”

“I’m not stupid, Dr. Carter.” Feldman’s poisonous whip cracked again, leaving Carter cowering. “I have no intention of traveling through time. That’s impossible.”

“Then, what is it? What are we doing here?”

“We’re conducting a scientific experiment. Retracing the route step by step. Finding out what could have happened. Gauging the situation and, if possible, trying to understand it. We might discover a clue.”

“What if we find nothing?” Kate asked. “What if we get there, and the trip just keeps going without incident?”

Feldman shrugged. “I’ll keep trying as many times as necessary,” he said. “Either way, you’ll have a marvelous story for your newspaper, and I’ll be the owner of a 1930s luxury cruise ship with a mysterious past.”

Kate immediately understood what he meant. In an age in which all of the cruise ships were clones, enormous white mountains that traversed the seas and were crammed with tourists obsessed with the shows, casinos, and restaurants on board, the
Valkyrie
stood out like a poppy in a weed patch. Delicate and elegant, it recalled the golden era of glamour and luxury. Plus, the shadow of its cursed destiny only intensified its allure.

Kate issued a low whistle. People would come to blows for the honor of boarding this ship. Cruise fanatics would pay huge sums to travel on an authentic 1930s-style cruise. Kate’s story in the
London New Herald
would be the perfect promotional piece to attract publicity. Feldman, the great manipulator. She had no doubt he had planned this from the very beginning.

The young physicist, Carter, was not going to give up so easily, however.

“Nothing will happen,” he insisted. “Even if we retrace the ship’s course under the same conditions, there are a million other variables. We have no way of knowing the reason why everyone aboard the
Valkyrie
disappeared or what the seasonal patterns were like at the time. This will prove completely fruitless, Mr. Feldman. Seriously.”

“We’ve controlled the main variable, Mr. Carter,” Feldman replied, “which we believe was the cause of all this.”

“The
Valkyrie
,” murmured Carter thoughtfully.

“Not exactly.”

The walkie-talkie Senka Simovic was wearing on her waist interrupted the conversation. She turned away to listen more closely and then turned to Feldman and whispered something in his ear.

“I have word that our support team has finally arrived,” he announced with excitement. “Would you like to step outside a moment to see them? This is an ideal time to take a short break.”

They flocked outside to one of the terraces, where there were some potted plants and comfortable lounge chairs. They were on the upper level of the ship, and Kate thought that the command bridge could not have been far away.

They had left land far behind, and in every direction there was nothing but ocean. Not far from the
Valkyrie
, Kate caught sight of a small ship approaching that was painted a vibrant red with two white stripes along its side. When the group appeared on deck, the ship gave two loud toots of its horn to which the
Valkyrie
immediately responded, nearly leaving them deaf.

“The
Mauna Loa
! Our support ship,” Feldman shouted over the horns.

“Its design looks familiar,” Cherenkov said with a half smile.

“I’ll bet it does,” replied Senka. “It’s an old spy fishing boat that the Soviet Union used in the seventies. From the outside it looks like a harmless tugboat, but the vessel is loaded with radars and other surprising technological devices. We bought it at the end of the nineties for the price of a junker.”

“I was on the team that developed some of the electromagnetic-
interference gadgets that little ship is carrying,” added Cherenkov with a wisp of nostalgia.

Kate could not pull her eyes from the ship. It did not seem like much compared to the
Valkyrie
. As far as support went, it hardly inspired confidence.

Suddenly, a blinding flash appeared on the stern of the
Mauna Loa
. The sound of the explosion reached their ears less than a second later, along with a shock wave. The column of smoke was accompanied by screams coming from members of the crew.

The
Mauna Loa
was jittering like a rabbit being chased by a dog and yawed nearly ninety degrees. Several sailors were running on deck toward the stern, where flames had begun to appear.

“What the hell is going on, Moore?” Feldman asked. “I want to know what’s happening right now.”

“Right away, Mr. Feldman.” Moore grabbed his walkie-talkie and began barking out orders. Minutes later, a dinghy pushed off from the side of the
Valkyrie
with two armed guards aboard. As soon as they touched the surface of the water, they took off like a shot toward the
Mauna Loa
, which was listing badly to starboard. Several men worked furiously to stop the flames from spreading over the stern, filling buckets with water that had flooded the deck.

“Is it going to sink?” asked Kate with apprehension.

One man who was badly hurt had been pulled from below deck. He was bleeding profusely and barely moving. Kate wondered if he would die.

“I don’t think so,” Senka answered somberly. “If she were going to sink, she would have already. But there must be a hole in the hull. I don’t think she can keep pace with us.”

They watched as another man was brought up to the deck, covered in burns. Even from that distance it was obvious he had suffered grave injuries.

“The curse of the
Valkyrie
,” whispered one man at Kate’s side in an accent she couldn’t identify. When he realized Kate had heard him, he held out his hand. He was short, husky, and around forty years old, and his upper lip bore a mustache of Homeric proportions. “I’m Will Paxton. Geologist and specialist in underwater formations. But I’m afraid that won’t be much use to those aboard the
Mauna Loa
right now.”

“There’s no curse,” grumbled Senka, waving her walkie-talkie. “It was sabotage. Someone planted a bomb on the
Mauna Loa
.”

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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