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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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An hour later, Kate got into a taxi and headed to London Victoria station with the purple folder clutched in her hands. She’d been surprised by how light the documents felt, but the sparse amount of information presented a challenge for her avid mind.

She had accepted the assignment without much hesitation. It would give her more than enough to keep her mind occupied for at least a couple of weeks, and that time would be good for figuring out what to do with the shattered remains of her life. In the meantime, she would flesh out the story from scratch with nothing more than a loose end to work from.

She took out Isaac Feldman’s picture and carefully looked it over for the third time since leaving Rhonda’s office. He had rugged features and an expression of determination. There was something magnetic about this man, but she couldn’t unravel the riddle he had tucked away. She went over the notes that had come with the photo.

Isaac Feldman, son of Abraham and Lisa Feldman, born and raised in Merseyside, close to Liverpool. His father was a Jewish tanner from Kraków, and his mother was a housewife. The junior Feldman grew up in a tough neighborhood and was arrested twice before the age of sixteen. After a short, two-week stint in jail, he and a partner began a small battery-recycling company and, two years later, opened their first betting house. After some time, it grew into a network of online casinos that extended throughout the world. He was a millionaire by the time he turned fifty. He became a dual citizen of Israel and the UK, suspiciously. He was also suspected of having transferred vast amounts of money from Eastern Europe to the more secure fiscal havens of the Caribbean. That was all the information she had to go on.

Why would a mobster bookie—with an economic empire—dedicate nearly all of his efforts to launching a ship nearly seventy years old? It simply didn’t make sense. The more she thought about it, the more confused Kate got about the matter. The pieces didn’t fit together.

The young woman sighed, disheartened. Getting an interview with Feldman was completely out of the question. By all appearances, he hated anything that was remotely related to journalism. The only lead she had was the photo of the ship.

Before he’d died, Robert had traced the
’s location to the naval harbor of Denborough, close to Liverpool. Kate had to hold back tears as she looked over her late husband’s spidery, tight scrawl. His notes, always hurried and marked with a small asterisk in the bottom left corner—
my lucky star,
he’d say—were all over the dossier. Kate could almost imagine his hand dragging across the paper while he listened to some obscure jazz group in the background. Just Robert being Robert.

Kate was en route to Denborough. From the editorial office she had confirmed an interview with the commander in charge of public relations at the military base where the
was in dry dock. She was in dire need of information about that ship. Kate glanced at her watch. If all went well, she would be in Liverpool in a few hours.

She took advantage of the train ride to sleep. In fact, she fell into such a deep sleep that she did not awake until she arrived. The sky was coated dark gray as she left the station. Curtains of rain were falling, propelled by powerful winds.

Another taxi drove her to the base’s front gate. As the guard checked her credentials, Kate looked out the window. Illuminated by two magnesium lanterns that stained everything yellow, an enormous sign announced that she’d reached “Military Depot No. 19” of the Royal Navy.

Kate was surprised to note that this was more of a repository than an active military base. The guard at the gate possessed an air of boredom, and the fence surrounding the compound didn’t look capable of stopping anyone truly determined to break in. When the taxi finally rolled onto the base, she understood why security seemed so lax.

The place was practically a junkyard.

Parked side by side, huge rows of trucks from the 1960s were slowly rusting in the rain, their tires deflated. Rectangular shipping containers were piled up in uneven pyramids as if some giant kid had decided to leave his Erector set scattered around the base. God only knew what they held. Crates could be seen everywhere. There were vehicles that had been out of service for years and huge spools of cable all covered in ivy. An air of neglect permeated everything.

As the taxi rolled slowly forward along the macadam surface and headed toward the buildings located by the dock on the bay, Kate could make out the twilight silhouettes of more than a dozen docked military vessels. Getting closer, she could see streaks of rust splintering away from the portholes. It didn’t look like any of the ships had much of a chance of setting sail in the near future.

The taxi stopped in front of the main building’s entrance. A uniformed serviceman was waiting, holding a wide umbrella.

“Welcome to Denborough Naval Depot!” The man’s voice sounded loud enough to project over a hurricane. “I’m Commander Collins. I believe we spoke by phone this morning.”

“I’m Kate Kilroy.” Kate extended her hand to the officer, who grasped it with surprising gentleness for a man of his size.

“I don’t detect any Irish accent,” he remarked.

“Kilroy i
s . . .
was my husband’s surname. My maiden name is Soto. I’m Spanish. From Barcelona.”

“Ah,” murmured Collins. He didn’t require any further explanation for the time being. “Please, come inside. It’s a terrible evening out.”

The interior of the office was an unexpected change from the outdoor chaos. Everything was pristine and in order, as if at any moment the Queen herself might stop in for an inspection. A coffeemaker gurgled in the corner, a delicious aroma wafting through the air. The room was equipped with a few tables and filing cabinets but little more. The bluish glow of computer screens melted into the white light cast from the ceiling fixtures.

“Please, have a seat.” Collins graciously drew out a chair for Kate to sit down. “We don’t get many visitors here in the Junkyard, so please forgive our lack of comforts.”

“The Junkyard?” Kate raised an eyebrow.

“Just a nickname we’ve given the base,” replied Collins. “I suppose you’ve already guessed why.”

“The truth is it’s ver
y . . .
quaint.” Kate chose her words carefully and took off her coat.

“It’s disgusting is what it is,” confessed Collins with a wide grin. “This is the Royal Navy’s dumping ground. This is where all the rubbish ends up that nobody wants. That includes me. I always liken it to that drawer we all put our useless junk in. But we dare not throw any of it away lest we have a need for it in the future.”

Kate smiled, captivated by the officer’s sincerity and merriment. “I’m getting the picture. I also have a junk drawer like that in my house.”

“Ah, but this is the largest junk drawer in all of England!” He raised his hand and signaled out the window. “At this very moment I must have eight destroyers docked here that saw action in the Falklands, nearly a dozen patrollers from the 1960s, three minesweepers, and if I’m not mistaken, about twenty other kinds of ships. That’s not even counting the tons of obsolete equipment strewn about.”

“You’re the head of a small army, Commander,” Kate laughed.

“I have enough materials to declare war on a small country.” Collins shrugged, then smiled. “That, of course, is if any of it works. Would you care for some coffee?”

Kate realized she had not eaten anything since lunch. Next to the coffee machine was a box of doughnuts. Her stomach rumbled. Embarrassed, she felt the blood flow to her cheeks.

“I like it when a person can get to the point,” joked Collins with a hearty laugh. He passed Kate the doughnuts and coffee. “Now let’s dispense with the pleasantries. You’re here because you want to know about the
Sinful Siren
, right?”

Sinful Siren
?” replied Kate with half a doughnut in her mouth.

Big S
, the
Hitler’s Vixen
. It’s had many names over the years.”

He removed a manila file from his desk drawer and opened it to the first page. It was an old black-and-white photo of the
. The foreground showed two men in uniform posing in very different ways. The older of the two, wearing the captain’s stripes, seemed quite comfortable, whereas the younger man standing at his side wore an expression of worry and fatigue.

“The ship’s official name is the
. It was built in 1938 by the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg for an organization called KDF.” He looked up at Kate. “Do you have any idea what that might be?”

Kate shook her head and took a sip of her coffee.

“As stated in the report, it made its inaugural voyage on the twenty-third of August in 1939, with two hundred and seventeen passengers and fifty-five crew members aboard. Five days later, a coal liner called the
Pass of Ballaster
came across the luxury cruiser adrift at sea. Neither the ship nor its engines had power when it was found eight hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland.”

“Adrift? Was there an accident?”

“That’s the peculiar thing,” answered Collins. “No one knows. They found nobody on board.”

“Nobody? But that’s impossible. What about all the passengers and the crew? All those people don’t just vanish without a trace!”

“I agree,” Collins said, furrowing his brow. “But we do know that before the
Pass of Ballaster
towed the ship back to Bristol, they spent twelve hours searching the area in which they found the
without finding a clue. There wasn’t a single lifeboat missing. It’s quite the mystery.”

“OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight.” Kate set her coffee on the table and laced her fingers together. “A coal liner finds an empty cruise ship floating in the middle of the ocean. There’s no trace of anyone. The ship gets towed to port, and nobody opens an investigation? How did this not make headlines in every major newspaper? Shouldn’t this story be better known?”

“The fact is a few days later Germany invaded Poland, sparking the beginning of the Second World War. England and France declared war on Germany, and before anyone knew about it, the newspapers had much more interesting headlines. There was no room for a strange story about a ship found abandoned at sea. A German ship, mind you.”

“I see.” Kate was taking notes as the colonel spoke. “So I take it there was never any kind of official investigation.”

“Are you kidding?” Collins smiled sadly. “During the next twelve months, Hitler’s submarines nearly finished off England’s navy. In the span of fifteen weeks, hundreds of transport ships were sunk, ships that had supplied raw materials to the islands. Thousands of Allied sailors disappeared at sea. Nobody even considered mounting an investigation regarding the
. The story lost all importance before it was even born.”

“What happened to the ship during all this?”

was internalized. That’s military jargon for civil ships that are captured from an enemy nation.” Collins rifled through the pages of the report. “However, there was a bit of a legal snafu. Since the ship had been seized four days
the war started, it technically couldn’t be considered an internalized ship. But it also couldn’t be categorized as a rescued ship because it sailed under the enemy flag. A sort of bureaucratic tangle, you see.”

“I suppose it was no favor to the owner of the towing ship, the”—Kate consulted her notes—“
Pass of Ballaster
. Did he get his finder’s fee?”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Collins raised up a packet that was taking up nearly half the dossier on the
. “He spent nearly four years in litigation against the Royal Navy in pursuit of the reward money, but it was in vain. During the war there were bigger fish to fry. Facing a scarcity of ships, the Admiralty decided to commission the
for the transportation of soldiers, and well, this is where things get strange.”

Kate leaned forward. She was enthralled with the curious nature of the colonel’s story. A flash of lightning lit up the room.

“What happened?”

“For starters, nobody could get the engines to work. The best mechanics from London were called in. They took the motors apart piece by piece and put them together again, but to no avail. The engines simply refused to work. They tried replacing them with British engines, but the setup of the cams the Germans had used was so specialized that it proved impossible. Eventually, they realized the ship would not be leaving Liverpool, so they turned it into a floating antiaircraft vessel.”

“A floating antiaircraft vessel?”

“Yes, to defend the port against shelling from the German Luftwaffe. Eight antiaircraft cannons were installed on deck and assigned a crew to oversee them, and the navy anchored the
near the port’s refinery. That way it would be as close as possible to the resources it was meant to protect. But in case the German forces did manage to fly over unimpeded, the ship could be cut loose and allowed to drift away with the tide.”

“So what happened?”

“The dark legend of the
began taking shape.” Collins was holding an old draft of a report that looked fragile enough to disintegrate in his hands. “In August 1940 a German bomb fell on one of the cannons, killing all servicemen in the act. Unbelievably, the
sustained little damage. The following month a powder keg exploded in cannon number four. Sixteen sailors that had been loading missiles were killed in the blast. Again the
escaped nearly unscathed, only losing a couple of bulkheads. The cause of the explosion was never discovered.”

“Sounds like a ship with a curse on it,” Kate said, scrawling down every word. “I suppose nobody wanted to be stationed there.”

“Just wait. It gets better.” Collins looked at her seriously. “The twenty-first of November in 1940 was the worst night of the German Blitz on Liverpool. Hundreds of people died that night alone. However, according to reports, at two forty in the morning, at the height of the bombing, the cannon on the
ceased firing. At first it was believed that the ship had received a direct hit and had been sunk. But from the refinery it was confirmed that it was still there, floating in the dark, and that the artillery had simply quit working. Now take a guess.”

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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