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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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XXXV

Will Paxton, the geologist whose expertise was submarine formations, felt off.

He was in his cabin, lying in bed in his dirty shirt and boxers. Racked by emotion, he was trying to emerge from the mists of the most extraordinary and powerful dream he’d ever had.

The dream had been about a gala dance in the
Valkyrie
’s main hall. All around him were women dressed like flappers, while the men who weren’t in uniform wore tuxedos.

Paxton was in the middle of a group, holding a glass of champagne and laughing hysterically at something someone had said, though he could not recall what. When he’d looked in the mirror, he remembered being surprised that, instead of his usual wrinkled blue suit, he was wearing the impeccable and handsome uniform belonging to a captain of the Wehrmacht.

A band was playing in the background as a few couples danced feverishly, as if lit by an inner fire to shake and sweat across the dance floor. The place was hot and humid, like a room being heated in the middle of August. But nobody cared. The air had a thick, sweet scent with subtle undertones of burnt oil and something like rotting flesh.

Someone at the back of the room raised a glass. Paxton could have sworn it was a tipsy Cherenkov, wearing a snug tuxedo with buttons about to shoot off at any moment.

“Long live the Thousand-year Reich,” Cherenkov bellowed in German, flushed, and without the slightest trace of a Russian accent. “To Greater Germany and our beloved Führer, Adolf Hitler!”

Everyone raised a glass. Even the dancers were pulled out of their hypnosis momentarily to turn and smile at Cherenkov.

“To our Führer, Adolf Hitler!
Sieg Heil!
” the entire hall shouted in unison.

“Sieg Heil!”
Paxton followed suit, overcome by an inexplicable wave of excitement.
“Sieg Heil!”

With a single gulp he downed the champagne and grabbed another one from a passing waiter. Adrenaline made his entire body tremble. He brushed an imaginary speck off his uniform and had another look in the mirror as he straightened his jacket. Never in his life had he felt so alive and powerful. A heavy buzz reverberated in his mind and impeded his thinking. His emotions, however, were loose and fought among themselves to be let out. Paxton was happy, anxious, excited, and nervous all at once. It was wonderful.

Strolling through the hall, he took in all of the details. Flags decorated with swastikas hung over the tables as dozens of waiters carrying appetizers and cocktails continued to file in and out of the elevators that shuttled between the kitchens. The civilians he came across let him gallantly pass by and offered up toasts and deferent smiles, all while admiring the gleaming medals on his chest.

It was then that Paxton felt as if a tiny hand were clenching part of his head and squeezing as hard as possible. He stopped, dizzy and incapable of taking another step under such intense pain. He fell back in a seat and gasped for breath.

Then, he saw her: the nosy reporter Feldman had brought on the expedition. She was in the middle of the dance floor, clearly terrified, her head swiveling in all directions. She could not see him as he was seated. But the geologist had a moment to delight in the way she was dressed. She was wearing a pair of jeans—the ones that leave nothing to the imagination—and a tight blue blouse that showed off her breasts. Paxton was certain she was doing it to get attention. They always wanted attention. They were all whores.

The pain in his mind sharpened, and he heard a voice. It was as clear as someone whispering right in his ear.

You see that little slut, Willie? You see how she sways and tries to be the damned star of the show?

Paxton nodded, unable to breathe. He undid the top button of his uniform.

She shouldn’t be here, Willie. This is not her place. She befouls this immaculate setting.

“No,” he droned, his mouth dry as sand. “She should not be here.”

There’s no room in the Great Reich for little Jewish sluts like her, right, Willie? I’m sure she’s a Jew. Only a Jewish whore would come dressed like that to a place like this. She’s trying to distract healthy and rational German men from their duties.

Beaded with sweat, Paxton gurgled out his approval. He was starting to see double. A waiter handed him a handkerchief while making an indistinct motion. Paxton accepted it before realizing that the waiter was pointing toward his nose. He dabbed his nose, and when he examined the handkerchief, it was wet with blood. Trying to stanch the bleeding, he heard a distant voice in his head inquire whether this seemed odd. But he did not listen to that voice. He only had ears for her. For her voice.

So, Willie? What are you going to do? Are you going to let her laugh at you like all those other little whores in your life, or are you going to teach her a lesson?

A sense of wrathful hatred, strong and pure, was growing inside Paxton, nearly drowning him. Simultaneously, a formidable erection had sprouted in his pants.

“I’ll teach her a lesson all right,” he said, stumbling to his feet. “I’ll teach that bitch a lesson she’ll never forget. She’ll scream, she’ll scream good.”

Kate looked up as if alarmed, and Paxton turned around and saw the ship’s captain—what the hell was his name? He knew it, but it refused to be found in the mush that was his mind. Whatever his name, the captain was instructing two waiters to go after Kate, who was one step ahead and hurrying out of the main hall.

Go after her, Willie. Make sure she never bothers you ever again.

Paxton began pushing his way across the dance floor. His bloody nose had begun to run down his uniform, tracing sinuous designs over the verdigris fabric, but that was of little importance. The only thing that mattered to Will Paxton was getting ahold of Kate.

Making his way to the main staircase landing, he scanned the crowd and felt disoriented. He didn’t see her. At the bottom of the stairs, next to the wooden eagles, the two waiters looked equally confused. One of them decided to head in the direction of the bridge and the other in the opposite direction. Paxton punched the balustrade. The Jewish bitch had gotten away.

He remained standing there a few minutes more, brimming with anger and a squall of other emotions. Although he did not know it, hundreds of small veins were about to burst in his head, unable to withstand the pressure any longer.

The nursery, Willie. Run.

Paxton frowned as a whisper of doubt crept slowly into the back of his mind. The voice sounded worried.

Paxton shook his head and tried to think clearly. He’d never felt this bad, even after the time he’d gone through an entire bottle of tequila. Sweating, he began running down the stairs as fast as he could.

At the bottom, as if out of nowhere, a tall man dressed in a handsome cream-colored suit blocked his path. Paxton tried to go around him, but the man prevented him from passing. The geologist looked up and felt a surge of hatred. The man, probably in his thirties, with angular features and dark hair, was looking at him with a strange glint in his eyes. There was something odd about him.

“Get out of my way,” Paxton spat.

“Where do you think you’re going? Don’t even think about touching my girl, you bastard,” said the man before punching Paxton in the face.

The geologist fell backward, hitting his head against one of the stairs. Colorful little stars danced before his eyes and burst into utter darkness as he lost consciousness.

And then, he woke up.

He was lying in bed. The strong stench of smoke was in the air. The ship’s alarms were blaring, making for a hellish racket.

He sat up in bed feeling dizzy and confused. He looked down at his plump legs and the blood-stained shirt pulled taut against his bulging belly. It looked nothing like the handsome uniform he had been wearing moments before.

With a shaky hand, he reached out for the flask on the nightstand. The liquor was hot as it slid down his throat before exploding in his stomach with that same feeling of comfort that it always brought. He rubbed his eyes and tried to figure out his next step.

It was just a stupid dream, Willie. Just a dumb dream.

He stumbled to his feet and went into the bathroom. When he finished emptying his bladder, he stood before the mirror and turned pale. His eyes were bloodshot, but that was not what had scared him.

He brought a hand up against his jaw, where an enormous bruise had begun to take on an ugly shade of purple.

“This can’t be,” he moaned.

With his other hand he felt the back of his head and found a bump the size of an egg.

It had really happened. It had not been a dream.

It had been here.

He knew it was time to act.

It was time to complete the mission Wolf und Klee had spent so long preparing him for.

XXXVI

He got dressed as fast as he could, taking care not to move his head too much as he put on a sweater. Once he was dressed he grabbed what he needed and went out into the hallway, where the alarms had finally been turned off. Two weary crew members were walking down the hall. One of them was covered in soot as if he had been dipped in ashes.

“What happened?” Paxton asked, grabbing one of them by the arm. “Why are the alarms going off?”

Dumbfounded, the sailor looked at Paxton. “Didn’t you hear the explosion? Someone’s planted a bomb or something on the communications tower. We’ve lost the satellite, radar, and God knows what else.”

“A bomb?”

The other sailor misinterpreted Paxton’s look and said, “Don’t worry. It’s all under control. The ship is in fine shape, and we’ve just sustained a bit of damage on the upper deck. It’s nothing dangerous. Plus, they’ve already found the person responsible.” The sailor issued a strange, dissonant cackle. “Moore is going to make a drum out of the skin on her ass.”

Paxton nodded and looked lost. The crew members excused themselves and went on their way.

The awful pain in his head returned as the welt began throbbing violently.

Someone had planted a bomb, and it had not been him.

There must be another spy aboard, Willie. There’s no other explanation.

He felt a wave of relief come over him followed immediately by one of irritation for not being told about the alternate plan. The Elders had specifically chosen him. They had provided him with the best training in Syria, Venezuela, and in some shitty Russian republic whose name he couldn’t recall. They had molded him and supplied him with funds. They had given him a mission. He thought they trusted him.

But now he discovered that some other fucking agent was aboard the
Valkyrie
, and nobody had said a word about it to him.

Paxton gritted his teeth in rage as he walked down the hallway. He knew it was unwise for two agents to operate together. But not informing him of the other’s existence was simply irrational. They could have easily killed one another. He stopped in his tracks like he had run up against an invisible wall. What if the other spy knew of his existence? What if he was no more than a Plan B in case Plan A failed?

Paxton had believed Wolf und Klee was offering him the recognition and respect he had always deserved but been unfairly denied. As the third of four siblings, he was certain his parents did not love him as much as they loved the others. Throughout his life he had accumulated a long list of offenses, real and imagined, that he vowed to someday exact revenge for. They would all pay: his neighbors; colleagues; the board that had denied him tenure; the women who, inexplicably, had not fallen for his obvious charms; those girls who attended his classes, dressed in miniskirts, but never accepted his crude advances. They would all have to answer to him.

Wolf und Klee had lavished him with the reverence and appreciation he had always wanted.
Wolf und Klee.
The wolf and clover. He was a wolf, a field agent, a fucking obtainer of things. That was why the Elders had considered him so valuable. Or at least that is what he had thought, until now.

His wrath continued to surge as he walked down the hall, forcing the pleasant expression that had been carefully practiced for the voyage. Will Paxton, amiable geologist. Will Paxton, full of fun little anecdotes. Will Paxton, absentminded, kindhearted, and harmless. Innocuous as a field clover.
At least until the wolf bares its teeth, hungry for blood.

A flurry of voices coming from the end of the hallway rattled him out of his thoughts. A woman was shouting, and a bang followed. He stopped, his senses alert. Two of Moore’s men were walking toward him, dragging Senka, who was dressed in no more than panties and a blood-spattered T-shirt. Her face was swollen like she had been hit by a truck.

They passed by him filled with hateful determination. Paxton stepped aside as he looked sidelong at the unconscious blonde.

Paxton never would have suspected Senka Simovic as the other agent. Ever since boarding the ship, he had believed her to be the greatest obstacle in carrying out the mission. She was watchful like a hound and did not seem to trust anybody. The perfect cover, no doubt.

But she had gotten herself caught, and that was a fatal flaw. The mission’s objective was crystal clear. They were to stop the
Valkyrie
from completing the voyage, without doing irreparable harm to the ship, and make it turn around and head back to port. Once there the Elders would take over. They would arrange for the authorities to seize the ship from Feldman. The Elders had pulled many strings to get the Treasury Department on his back. When the time was right, the Elders planned on ruining him and leaving him penniless. When the
Valkyrie
went up for public auction again, the Elders would be there to buy it. It was the perfect plan, which had been spoiled by the incredible swiftness with which the Jew had managed to launch the ship. Old Feldman was no fool.

But he could not know everything.

Paxton walked distractedly toward the ship’s kitchen, whistling a television jingle. He was surprised by the lack of people walking around on the ship. The
Valkyrie
was huge, and there were very few crew members on board, but normally, he would have come across at least a few others along the way. The entire ship was in utter somnolence as everyone waited for something to happen. The empty hallways would make his mission all the easier.

The spacious kitchen was sweltering. Hundreds of pots, pans, and plates all gleamed, hanging from long bars attached to the ceiling. There were enough ovens to accommodate a dozen chefs, but on this voyage there was only one along with half a dozen apprentices. They were working in a corner, busily skewering whole chickens. One of the prep cooks noticed Paxton and waved at him amiably. Paxton responded with his own friendly gesture as he rubbed his stomach with one hand and flashed a playful smile.

From the very first day, he had made a daily round through the kitchen, striking up friendships with the personnel and taking an interest in their work. He’d hinted that he was a serious glutton, and occasionally, he would like to sample whatever they were preparing at the time. The chefs were always fretting over their culinary innovations and were happy to have Paxton stop by. He’d made it a point to make his presence in the kitchen totally normal.

He leaned against a wall and tried a dish of crispy shrimp scampi. He was waiting for the proper moment, like a wolf stalking its prey.

He didn’t have to wait long. One of the kitchen staff tripped, sending a seasoned chicken flying into the air. It fell to the floor and slid a few feet amid a chorus of yelling, screaming, and cursing.

Nobody was looking at Paxton. The geologist reached for a valve connected to the sprinkler system above the stove. As he turned the valve, several sprinklers began spraying large amounts of carbon dioxide over the stoves.

A stray chicken on the floor was now the least of the kitchen’s problems. It turned into pure chaos. A harsh-smelling white cloud enveloped the cooks, who quickly began shouting even louder and stumbling into each other. Paxton took advantage of the confusion and slipped into the pantry without anyone noticing.

He walked deftly between crates of dry goods and mountains of canned food until he got to the stairs leading to the wine cellar. That door was locked, however. Before boarding, he’d been given the key that opened the lock, and he took it from his pocket. He sighed with relief as the lock opened with a click. For the time being everything was going according to plan.

He quickly walked down the stairs into the narrow climate-controlled space, which stored the prized wines. On one side, from floor to ceiling, a long rack filled with bottles stretched all the way to the back of the room. On the other side, dozens of wooden crates filled with more bottles of fine wine sat waiting for space on the racks to become available.

He walked down the corridor, looking for a particularly special wine. Upon locating two cases of 2005 Pingus, he smiled. It was a delicious wine that retailed for around $2,000 per bottle. But that was not what he had come for.

He brought the cases to the floor and pried them open with his Swiss Army knife. Under the storeroom’s soft light, the magnums glowed temptingly. Paxton took them out one by one and lined them up single file like a battalion of guards. Then, he took out the straw that covered the bottom of the case and finally found what he was looking for.

They looked like clay tablets wrapped in cellophane. With a triumphant smile the geologist leaned in for a closer look. Twenty units of Semtex plastic explosives per box, and there were quite a few boxes. He would not need all of it yet, but it was there just in case.

From beneath his jacket he took out a green cloth bag and filled it with enough explosives and detonators for now. He glanced at his watch nervously. He had to get out of there before someone found him.

He zipped the bag shut and retraced his steps after he arranged everything just as he’d found it. When he got back to the pantry door, he stood watch for a second before fully emerging. The cooks had managed to shut off the gas line, but the kitchen was wrecked. That day’s food was covered in a fine layer of white dust that was still dripping out of the sprinklers. At that moment there was a terrifying argument under way between four of the cooks, covered in white powder.
It is not a good day to be a chef,
Paxton thought derisively.

He slipped out of the kitchen and made his way down the same hallway by which he’d entered, whistling, with his bag slung over his shoulder. This was the riskiest part of the plan. If someone stopped and searched him, he was a dead man. Luckily, he passed only one sailor, who was bleeding profusely from his nose and muttering to himself. It looked to Paxton as if the man were on drugs.

Passing the library, he noticed that someone had knocked down a whole shelf as if possessed by some spirit of destruction. Books were strewn all over the ground with many of them ripped or lying open haphazardly. A partially dressed man was murmuring amid the ruins.

Paxton looked both ways cautiously before entering. The scene was too strange to pass up.

It was Cherenkov. The Russian physicist was on his knees; his hair was ruffled, and streaks of dried blood ran from his ears down to his neck. Surrounding him were pages filled with calculations in little Cyrillic characters. Most of the pages were ripped or crumpled. Cherenkov looked up when he heard Paxton enter, but he did not seem to recognize the geologist. His eyes were foggy, and his mind was a million miles away. He turned his head back and continued focusing on his work, which consisted of balling up his papers and tossing them into the fireplace. Paxton noticed that dozens of books and several notebooks were already in the fire.

Paxton opened his mouth to speak, but he thought better of it and silently exited the library. Clearly, the Russian was disturbed. The wacky professor.
Let the doctors on board deal with him.

Still, the image of Cherenkov cheering on the Reich in the dance hall lingered in Paxton’s head. Maybe he was one of the faithful. Paxton decided that once his plans had been carried out, he would return to the library and check on the Russian.

He went down the stairs toward the service sector and was finally able to put his bag down and rub his sore shoulder.

He checked all around to make certain no one was in the hall. He was next to one of the sealed entrances, an entrance not monitored by security cameras. He had memorized the security system’s distribution thanks to a copy of the plans he’d obtained a month ago. It was incredible what one of the restoration members had been willing to do to ensure his wife never saw pictures of his private parties with other women.

Paxton took one of the chairs found in the hallways throughout the ship and placed it underneath a section of the ceiling that had been marked with a pencil. It was nearly invisible unless you were looking for it. He got up on the chair and gave the ceiling a hard push. A light click indicated the piece had come out. He reached up and blindly groped about until his fingers hit upon something that felt like hard rubber. He grabbed it and took it down. It was a pair of shears equipped with batteries. That little wonder would be able to cut through steel the same way regular scissors cut paper. Plus, it had a little engine that made the work effortless. He put the ceiling tile back in place and went back to the sealed entrance. He switched the shears on and brought the blades up to the welding joints. They sliced through the metal easily, like a knife through a ripe banana.

When he was finished he kicked at what remained of the door in order to make enough space to crawl through. It had to be quite a large hole. Paxton weighed more than three hundred pounds, and he was neither slim nor trim. After a good while he succeeded in making the hole wide enough, and he slipped through to the other side.

Immediately, he found himself surrounded by total darkness. He didn’t like the idea of visiting such an isolated and dangerous area of the ship. The time before he’d nearly broken his neck, stepping on a rotten step that had given way under his weight. Then, that stupid guard came running and yelling like a madman about ghosts. The idiot shouldn’t have been there, and he definitely should not have seen Paxton. It had been necessary to cut his throat. Paxton did not have the luxury of leaving behind loose ends.

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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