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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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O’Leary placed his hand on the sailor’s shoulder to turn him over and let out a scream of pure terror. Stepanek was shaking uncontrollably. His eyes rolled madly about in their sockets and blood streamed from his mouth and nostrils. Horrified, O’Leary realized the sailor might have bitten his tongue.

“Stepanek! Stepanek, wake up!”

He shook him by the collar, but Stepanek’s mind seemed to be off in another especially cruel and horrific land. O’Leary decided he couldn’t take anymore and wouldn’t stay a moment longer on this cursed ship.

He shoved the ship’s log down the front of his pants and lugged the sailor up on his shoulders like a cargo sack. He held the lantern in his free hand and retraced his steps up the staircase. As he walked he had the distinct impression that someone, or
, was behind him, but he did not dare look back to see.

Don’t look,
he thought.
Keep walking. Get the hell out of here.

Don’t look.

The atmosphere was so electric that the hair on his arms stood on end as he climbed the stairs; his heart leaped into his throat. A monotonous buzzing echoed throughout the entire ship like the ringing of a dead tuning fork. The vibrations traveled up through the soles of his feet and hummed in his head. He wiped sweat from his forehead.

He found himself in the banquet hall again. The back door led to the dance parlor and its ornate staircase. He was almost out.

Then, O’Leary heard it. At first, between Stepanek’s moans and his own heavy breathing, he had not detected a soft yelping that came from his right. He moved his lantern in that direction, scared of what the light would reveal.

But there was nothing except a pile of sheets haphazardly strewn across the dance floor. O’Leary swallowed, and a small spot of wetness spread in his underwear. The pile of sheets had not been there when he had passed by not ten minutes ago. He was sure of it.

The yelping sounded again and the pile moved. In an almost hypnotic state, O’Leary watched the sheets come toward him, and the noises around him multiplied. A chair fell and plates crashed to the floor. The buzzing grew louder and louder.

He reluctantly moved to meet the pile and directed his light toward it.

It was a baby, no more than a few months old, tossing about restlessly. He let out a muffled moan as if too weak or too tired to cry any louder.

O’Leary did not think twice. Despite the voice of terror in his head that insisted he leave that baby on the ground and get the hell out of there, the officer crouched down and placed him in the crook of his arm like a package. Staggering under the weight of Stepanek and the child, he crossed the room as quickly as he could until he reached the giant staircase. With all of his attention focused on getting off the ship, he walked toward the door and felt the sharp corners of the logbook as they poked him in the groin.

He finally reached the last hallway. Suddenly, a dark shape materialized before his eyes. O’Leary felt a stifled groan stick in his throat. He was so close. The figure raised a lantern to his face; it was Duff.

“Sir! What’s going on? The whole ship is rattling! What happened to Stepanek?”

O’Leary felt so relieved he thought he might faint. “Help me with this,” he said, passing Stepanek’s limp body to Duff. “We have to get out of here right now.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice, sir,” answered Duff with a panicked expression as he held his shipmate.

O’Leary took the logbook out of his pants, placed it under his arm, and cradled the baby in his arms. Following Duff’s light, they made it outside, and yet again on this night that refused to end, they were forced to keep from gasping.

The fog that enveloped the
funneled into the mouth of an enormous vacuum. Wisps of steam twisted and turned around the ship as if a tornado were forming. The
Pass of Ballaster
had turned around, dragging behind it the tow cable Duff had secured. From the front rail, O’Leary could see the worried captain, who was signaling to them.

Without hesitation the two men climbed down to their raft and rowed toward the
as if trying to break a world record. Water splashed up into their faces as the oars hit the surface, but they never took their eyes off their goal. The
Pass of Ballaster
loomed before them.

As they secured the raft to the ship and climbed aboard, O’Leary couldn’t stop wondering about the little boy he held so close to his chest.

And more to the point:
What the hell had happened aboard the




Present-day London

6:30 a.m.


The incessant ringing of the alarm clock sliced through Catalina Soto’s head. The young woman tossed in bed and tried to break the bonds of a dream that still held its grip. She turned off her alarm with a dull thud and rolled over again without opening her eyes. Her left arm slid to the other side of the bed, which had been empty and cold for weeks.

Catalina made a heroic effort to not go back to sleep again. Sleeping let her get away from it all and not have to think. Not have to remember him. Sleeping hurt less.

She had spent the first week in a state of constant but fitful slumber, conscious yet dazed, first from the shock and then from a fistful of colorful pills someone had placed in her hand. Perhaps that person feared her collapse would be imminent without the pills. She figured things would get better with time, but the second and third weeks were hardly any better.

Robert was no longer there. She had to admit it outright. But it was very difficult to accept. Since she had left her parents’ house ten years ago, slamming shut the door to her past, Robert had always been by her side. Sometimes close, other times distant, but never too far. Robert had first been a summer fling, then the man she was in love with, and then, quite simply, the core of her existence, the axis on which everything turned: the sun, the moon, the planets, and her world. Then, one day, he disappeared. Poof. Bye-bye, Kate.

She vividly recalled the day she stopped being Catalina Soto and became Catalina Kilroy. Kate Kilroy. They had married just outside Barcelona. It was almost as if they had feared that if they didn’t do so, the spell would be broken. Perhaps it had been a good idea, because the magic lasted for five more years.

Kate—nobody called her Catalina anymore except her mother—got out of bed feeling stiff. She tripped over the kitchen chairs on her way to turn on the coffeemaker. As the coffee brewed, she took a long cold shower that managed to drive away the final remnants of sleep. Twenty minutes later when she stepped out of her apartment and onto Cheyne Walk, located in the heart of Chelsea, nobody would have suspected that the impeccable woman who was getting into a taxi dressed like an executive was the same disheveled, puffy-eyed young woman from thirty minutes before.

The offices of the
London New Herald
were only fifteen minutes from her house in light traffic. When she arrived, she passed her ID card over the electronic turnstile and rode the elevator to the twenty-fifth floor. As they went up she noticed how some of the men gave her sidelong glances. This was normal. Barely twenty-seven years old, tall, thin, and with thick red hair that fell in curly locks down her back, Kate was the type of woman who could cause a traffic accident if she really wanted to. Only the empty, drained expression in her grayish eyes betrayed her sadness.

When the elevator finally arrived at her floor, the din of the newspaper staffroom enveloped her like a gentle, comforting lullaby. The clicking of keys, the ringing of phones, and the murmur of conversations: all of it was painfully familiar yet alien at the same time. Kate wondered for the umpteenth time that morning if it had been a good idea to come to work.

She stood next to the front desk, nervous. One of the secretaries looked up at her and opened her eyes wide. When Kate looked over, the secretary looked away and leaned over to her coworker and whispered something in her ear. Another furtive glance. More whispering.

Some people had stopped working and were staring at her. By their expressions and movements, Kate realized many of the women were gossiping, about her and Robert, of course.

She couldn’t take it. She thought she could be strong, but she couldn’t. It had been a mistake to come to work. She turned around to leave and stumbled into a dark woman around fifty, dressed in a beautiful pearl-colored suit and carrying a briefcase.

“Kate! What are you doing here?” asked Rhonda Grimes, the newspaper’s editor in chief. Her voice, legendary for making hundreds of reporters and interns tremble over the years, was now imbued with concern. “Did something happen, sugar?”

“Hi, Rhonda,” answered Kate, trying to control the volume of her voice. “No, nothing’s happened. It’s just tha
t . . .
I thought I’d be able to, bu
t . . .
” Tears began to well up in her eyes.

“Oh, honey.” Rhonda rested her hand on Kate’s arm and leaned in to whisper, “Don’t let them see you cry. Come to my office.”

Kate nodded as she dabbed a tear that was threatening to escape. A secretary and a pair of assistants hastened to converge on Rhonda at that very moment, each one convinced that the messages and calls they had to relay were of the utmost importance. Rhonda, who had not become the newspaper’s chief editor by coincidence or from lack of character, sent them away with a motion of her hand. They scattered like frightened doves.

The two women passed through the bullpen and entered Rhonda’s office. Rhonda closed the door behind them and turned toward Kate, who had dropped to the sofa. Kate looked dejectedly out the window at the fantastic view sprawled before her.

She is so young,
thought Rhonda.
Yet she’s seen so much tragedy in so few years. She doesn’t deserve it.

“I thought you were going to take a couple more weeks off before coming back,” she said as she offered Kate a box of tissues. Kate waved it away. If she had had a moment of weakness, it had passed. She again projected the image of a ruthless executive.

“I can’t take being at home anymore, Rhonda.”

“I understand,” she replied. “A lot of thinking.”

“Too much,” Kate countered. “I can’t stand doing nothing. It makes me feel useless. And every time I turn my head, I see something that reminds me of him. It’s too much. Even for me.”

“Have you thought about getting help?” asked Rhonda cautiously.

“Help isn’t what I need. What I need is time to put my affairs in order,” answered Kate in painful consideration. “I don’t want to be popping Valiums and whatever else, like I’m eating popcorn. You know what happens to people who abuse that crap. You end up a zombie, totally unmotivated. That’s not me, Rhonda.”

“I know, dear.”

Both women kept their silence for a beat.

“We all regret what happened to Robert,” murmured Rhonda. “We all miss him.”

Kate gulped and didn’t answer. Anything she had to say at that moment would sound empty.

“Do you know what you want to do yet?”

“I need to go to the United States. His parents will want to have his ashes.”

When she uttered the word
, a shadow fell over her face.

“Why?” asked Rhonda.

“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s what he would have wanted. Because I don’t know what else to do.” A devilish glow, fleeting as a spark, crossed Kate’s eyes. “Plus, I don’t think being in a tin on top of the mantel, between his two Pulitzers like a fucking cocky cat wagging its tail, is exactly how Robert envisioned eternity. You know how proud he was.”

The two women laughed quietly, at ease for a while.

The old Kate was back, joyfully irreverent, if only for a brief time.
Easy now, world. I’m still just as screwed up.
The thought popped up with such force that Kate almost jumped.

Rhonda looked at her thoughtfully as if she had just had an idea.

“Kate, I may have something of interest to you. Something to keep your mind off things and help you move on. Not to mention you’d be doing me a huge favor.”

Rhonda began rifling through the folders on her desk, pushing through piles of papers awaiting review.

“Rhonda, thank you, but I’m not in the mood to cover a fashion show. If I have to interview some stupid celebrity who is full of herself, I just might kill her.”

“It’s nothing like that,” murmured Rhonda, pushing a huge dossier to one side. “Where the hell did I put it? I swear I had a copy around. Ah, here it is!”

Rhonda’s coral necklaces rattled as she held up a purple folder with a look of triumph. Kate’s face lit up with a flicker of interest. Purple was the color that was used for feature stories, the pieces that had made the
London New Herald
famous and were assigned to only the most reputable reporters. The biggest names in journalism had fought in these hallways to take home one of these folders. Now Rhonda was holding one in front of her and flashing an intriguing smile, like a drug dealer loitering at the entrance to a school.

“Are you serious?” asked Kate without taking her eyes off the folder. For the first time in weeks, she was thinking about something besides Robert. “Until now I’ve only covered the society and culture beat.”

Until now
is the correct expression, sugar,” replied Rhonda, opening the folder. Kate stood up from the sofa, but all she could see was a photo of something that looked like enormous scaffolding. “I believe you’re ready for something like this. I’m not the only one. Robert believes—believed—you could do more than just interview Justin Bieber or Madonna. Truthfully, this story should have been his, but he was planning on working on it with you.”

Kate’s eyes clouded over. Robert had held that same folder. His eyes had passed over its same contents. The final hours of his life could have been consumed with thoughts on how best to tackle this story. Suddenly, reading everything in the folder seemed more important to her than anything else in the world.

“I need details.”

“Does the name Isaac Feldman ring a bell?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” The reporter inside her suddenly felt mortified for not recognizing his name. “Should it?”

“Unless you spend a lot of time betting in online casinos, it shouldn’t.”

Rhonda took an image from the folder and handed it over to Kate. It was a photograph of an elderly man around seventy. He had great shocks of white hair and looked surprisingly hefty for a man his age. His unshaven face along with his look of surprise made him appear quite unhappy to be having his picture taken.

“So you want me to investigate online casinos?” Kate suddenly felt disheartened.

“Nothing like that, dear. You’re too late. Feldman is an Israeli with a British passport, or English with an Israeli passport, depending on the person you ask, and the owner of at least five of the largest online betting houses. Obviously, he’s made tons of money. But it would seem he hasn’t paid his taxes for the past three years, and now he’s under investigation by the Treasury Department.” Rhonda smiled. “You see, it’s not exactly an investigation you can take part in.”

“So what’s the angle?”

“Feldman is clearing out his accounts in the United Kingdom, or at least that’s the word on the street. But he’s invested huge amounts of cash in the last five months in a bizarre project that’s about to become public. They say he’s obsessed with it and he doesn’t care if he loses everything as long as it goes ahead.”

“What is it? Funding a church? Building another Vegas in Dover? Hunting UFOs?”

“It’s much more mysterious than any of that. Robert thought it would be the story of the year. Have a look for yourself.”

Rhonda turned the file over in her hands and passed it to Kate. It was open to a page showing a color photo of a ship in terrible condition, surrounded by scaffolding in the middle of a shipyard. Like ants, dozens of workers were polishing the ship’s hull. A piece of the bow was in the air, and looking closely, she could make out the ship’s name in spite of the fact that its lettering was faded and covered in moss.


BOOK: The Last Passenger
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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