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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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Kate suddenly noticed how dry her mouth was. This was all too bizarre to be true. “That would mean—” she stopped short.

“Exactly. When they went aboard the
, they found that the crew assigned to oversee the cannons had completely vanished. As if they had never existed.”


“People don’t just disappear like that,” murmured Kate. “I suppose they were found later, right?”

“They most certainly were not. At least that’s not what the report says,” answered Collins.

“Are you saying the ship swallowed them up like it did the passengers?” Kate’s voice was skeptical.

“Not at all. Are you familiar with Occam’s razor?”

“I believe it states that when there are two or more competing hypotheses regarding a single even

“The simplest one has the highest probability of being correct,” Collins finished the phrase.

“So what is your theory?”

“First, the artillerymen were a part of Home Guard. That means they weren’t even trained military.” Collins set the file on the table and began listing on his fingers. “Shop owners, attorneys, and milkmen dressed in uniform and put in charge of a few little cannons to defend against the Luftwaffe? Put yourself in their shoes. They were last seen at night aboard a dark ship with a reputation for being cursed. A vicious bombing campaign was unfolding, and they were stationed next to millions of gallons of combustible fuel. I propose that, very simply, facing the risk of being scorched to death, the sailors on duty that night shit their pants and got the hell out of there as fast as they could.”

“You think they deserted?”

“In those days everything was in chaos, and there was little oversight, especially with the men from Home Guard. They probably hurried home and reenlisted the next day. Or maybe they ended up in the army. It’s hard to say. In any case, would you agree my theory makes more sense than thinking they were swallowed by a ship?”

Kate nodded, reflective. The story made sense. “What happened afterward?”

“Very little.” Collins shuffled his papers as if he were looking for some hidden order in the dossier. “By the end of the war, the company that owned the
Pass of Ballaster
no longer existed. The same can be said of the Nazi government, the original owner of the
. No one laid claim to the ship. While things were being resolved, the ship was towed temporarily to the naval depot at Denborough. It was placed in dry dock until they figured out what to do with it. But given its nature and origin, the navy decided not to make its location or existence public, in case Communist Germany wanted to reclaim it. It was the Cold War, you understand? So here it has stayed for the past sixty-eight years.”

“No one’s discovered the
for nearly seventy years?” Kate lifted her head up from her notepad, stunned. “How is that possible?”

“It was a civil ship docked at a military base in the middle of a nation fresh from war. Plus, in the fifties, commercial flights started between America and Europe. That left passenger liners like the
with little relevance. After so much time exposed to the elements, the
’s hull has deteriorated substantially, making it too expensive to repair. In the sixties, some thought about using it as a floating target, but they abandoned that idea for some reason. It was easier just to leave it where it was and take care of other business.”

“So it’s just been sitting there all of these years? Hasn’t anyone gone aboard?”

“All the hatchways except a few were sealed to keep thieves from breaking in and stealing the wiring or other valuable materials. Plus, that helped keep the moisture from filtering in and ruining the remaining furnishings. Early on, they made monthly rounds through the ship. But after a while, even those stopped.”

“Why’s that? More disappearances?”

“Nothing that creepy.” Collins laughed out loud. “The guards began suffering dizziness and vomiting from nothing more than going aboard. Some even became seriously ill. A committee ruled that the condensation from the toxic gases emanating from the bilge was to blame. They decided to seal up the ship entirely.”

Just then the door opened, and a heavyset man walked in wearing a military raincoat. Grumbling, he shook off the water that was sliding down his jacket and pulled it over his head.

“Blasted weather! Stupid, shitty rain,” he sputtered from beneath a thick gray mustache, without noting Kate’s presence. “I’ve got two years till retirement, and that next day, I swear, I’m going anywhere you can’t see a single fucking cloud anywhere. I’ve had it up t
o . . .
Oh, dear!”

“Miss Kilroy, I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Major Lambert.” Collins stood up as the portly sergeant blushed clear up to the edge of his receding hairline. “He’s usually a little more polite in front of a lady, but it seems today is not his day.”

“Please, forgive me. I had no idea we had a visitor,” he said in embarrassment. “Here at the Junkya—I mean the depot—we don’t get many visitors. At least we didn’t use to.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Kate, smiling. The sergeant relaxed a bit. “I suppose that’s normal when you spend too much time in a place like this. Are there many stationed here?”

“Five guards on the perimeter, two assistants to Sergeant Major Lambert, and the two of us,” answered Collins. “More than enough to keep this place out of God’s hands.

“Miss Kilroy is a reporter from London,” Collins explained while the sergeant major poured himself a cup of coffee. “I was just telling her the story of the
Big S

Lambert nodded before saying, “I was glad to see them get that thing out of dry dock and take it away. I waited fifteen years to see it go.”

“Who took it?” asked Kate, feeling she had begun to approach the crux of the matter. “Why? How?”

“Its new owners took it. You see, next year the Royal Navy will be terminating half of the Trafalgar-class submarine fleet,” answered Collins. “They’re monsters built in the eighties, filled with asbestos and so many other pollutants that it’s going to be a major headache to scrap them. Someone in the Admiralty realized they would need a quiet, remote place to do the dirty work. Naturally, they chose here.”

“For the first time in sixty years, we’ve been ordered to make space,” added Lambert. “It came down from London that the dry dock holding the
along with three other old ships had to be cleared out, and those ships were put up for auction to the highest bidder.”

“In other words, after sixty years outside the public eye, the
suddenly resurfaced from oblivion.” Kate began to grasp why Robert had thought there was something bigger to this story.

“Essentially, yes.” Collins took out the topmost file from the folder and handed it to Kate. Its brilliant white contrasted starkly with the yellowed pages contained within the rest of the folder. Apparently, it had not been there too long. “A public statement announcing the auction was released six months ago. It ran in print ads and on the ministry’s website. Not to mention the other usual media. I think it even appeared in your newspaper.”

“I see from this that there were three bidders.” Kate’s eyes fell on one of the names. “Garrison and Son
s . . .

“That’s a scrapping firm that has over thirty years’ experience,” explained Collins. “Normally, they’re the only ones who bid when one of these old ships comes up for auction. They’re close by, which makes transport cheaper for them. But in this case, they didn’t win. The other two bidders made exorbitant offers for the

“I see.” Kate scanned the other two names. “Feldman Inc. is obviously Isaac Feldman’s company, but who is this other one? Who is Wolf und Klee?”

“I believe that would be a German company, and it would appear they had been determined to make off with the
at all costs. Before the auction they sent a group of technicians to inspect the ship and take tons of photos. They were all German and all quite keen on the

“It’s true,” added Lambert. “They ran around her like headless chickens. They acted like it was some marvel instead of a cursed heap of junk from the thirties.”

“But in the end Feldman won,” countered Kate. “How did he pull it off?”

“He had the highest bid.” Collins’s eyes sparkled playfully. “He must have wanted that old ship more than anything because he paid dearly for it. He only managed to make the Germans acquiesce once he entered a bid of one hundred and fifty million pounds.”

Kate’s eyes grew big. “That’s an incredible sum for a broken-down ship.”

“It’s an incredible sum even for a new ship,” remarked Collins. “Yet our pal Feldman paid the tab without a peep. His pockets must run deep.”

“I can see that.”
No wonder Feldman is bankrupt if this is how he spends his money,
she thought.

“They came to inspect the ship five months ago.” Collins closed the file and pushed away his empty coffee cup. “Feldman arrived in person along with a group of around fifty employees and a few extremely expensive Dutch floating cranes. I’d risk my neck to wager that all of them were either ex-military or naval experts. They looked like hardened and resourceful men.”

“They managed to remove the
from dry dock in only thirty-six hours,” added Lambert. “Considering the ship hadn’t budged for seventy years, I think that’s quite a feat.”

“Do you know where they took it?” asked Kate, hopeful.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” answered Collins. “It stopped being my problem the moment it left the dock. Believe me, I have no desire to see that ship ever again.”

“Nor do I,” agreed Lambert. “I must say, Feldman’s men were quite gruff. They were in such a hurry to remove that ship they practically kicked out me and my boys. And on our own base.”

“Why do you think they were in such a hurry?”

“They looked nervous, like they were scared someone might wrench the ship from their grasp at any moment, which is odd.” Lambert brushed an imaginary speck from the lapel of his uniform. “Who would want to quarrel over an old ship with a bad reputation?”

“Perhaps the runners-up?” Kate suggested. “The people from Wolf und Klee?”

“Could be. But it doesn’t matter anymore. No one here is going to miss the

“Except old man Carroll,” said Lambert thoughtfully.

“He’s a raving old lunatic who used to sneak on base all the time,” said Collins, exchanging a reproachful look with the sergeant major. “He’s been the biggest security threat in the last twenty years, which isn’t saying much for our surveillance system.”

“He’s an old crackpot!” Lambert burst out as he stood up. “He used to sneak about like a rat, and he always made his way onto the
. He’d spend hours on the bridge, spinning around, muttering strange things.”

“Do you know where I can find him?” asked Kate.

“Carroll? He lives maybe ten minutes from here,” answered Collins with a glimmer of interest in his eyes. “How did you know I was going to suggest you talk to him?”

“I didn’t.” Kate shrugged and stood up. “It seems like he would be a good source for the article I’m writing. That’s all.”

The two men exchanged a look.

“It’s OK,” said Kate, smiling. “Why were you going to suggest him?”

“Because old man Carroll,” Collins replied, “claims to be the same man who discovered the
in the Atlantic.”


Half an hour later a taxi dropped off Kate in a blue-collar neighborhood of Denborough. The quiet little houses were swallowed up by the pitch-black night and torrential rain. She wondered for the thousandth time if it had been a good idea to come. She was tired and wanted badly to find a hotel. Instead, she found herself standing in front of an old house that looked haunted.

She shivered as a particularly strong gust of wind blew past. Her return train was scheduled to leave early the next morning. If she didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, she might not have another chance to talk with the old man. Most likely, he was just senile and had confused the
with some obscure merchant ship from his time as a cabin boy fifty years earlier. But she had to try. Something in her stomach—the fluttering of fruit bats, Robert used to say—told her that this was a good lead.

“Wait for me here, please,” she told the cabdriver. He was a sallow-skinned Pakistani with a bushy beard who was looking around nervously.

“This is very bad neighborhood, ma’am. Very bad. Drugs, whores, and bad people. You shouldn’t be here. Me neither,” he said with urgency.

“I’ll just be ten minutes. Maybe less,” she said, trying to appear confident as she handed the driver two fifty-pound notes.

The driver took the money and muttered something under his breath. Still, he appeared more at ease. Kate couldn’t help but notice the man had a club within arm’s reach underneath the dashboard.

Approaching Mr. Carroll’s house, Kate noticed that it had seen better days. The paint was peeling and parts of the eaves were missing. Graffiti covered an entire side of the house, and plywood shuttered one of the first-floor windows. Empty beer cans and cigarette butts littered the front steps.

Kate hesitated before ringing the doorbell. Nothing happened. After a moment’s wait, she tried again. Finally, she gingerly knocked on the door a few times with little hope. Disappointed, she turned back around to the taxi. But then, she heard several deadbolts unlock. A wrinkled, hunched man with suspicious eyes opened the door slightly and peered at her.

“You can’t work here,” he grumbled. “Go find another corner to show your tits, but don’t come to my door! Go away or I’ll call the police!”

“It’s not what you think,” she said, rifling through her bag for her press badge. She looked up to see the man closing the door.

“A gun,” he howled. “She’s got a gun.”

“It’s just my badge,” Kate yelled, trying to show it to him through the gap in the door. “I’m a reporter. I just want to talk.”

“Reporter? I don’t want to talk to you. I’ve been blowing the whistle on all those junkies from Compton Road for years now. I’ve called the papers dozens of times and for what? They never listen to me. Never!”

“I’m not here to talk about Compton Road.” Kate could tell the man excelled in holding a grudge. “I’m here to talk about the

The change in the old man’s expression was so unexpected that Kate realized she was holding her breath. The earlier confusion drained from his face, and he even straightened up a few inches. Kate caught a glimpse in him of the former sailor of yesteryear.

“Hold on.” The man closed the door, and Kate heard him undo the chains. He opened the door again. “Please, come in. This area isn’t safe at these hours.”

Kate crossed the threshold and walked into the entrance hall of a modest but tidy home. Though the wood floors were worn and the wallpaper was faded, everything had been placed in careful order, and the house held a pleasant fragrance.

“Years ago, this was a good neighborhood to live in,” said Mr. Carroll. “But about two decades ago, under Thatcher, the area began to turn into what you see today. Still, it’s my home. At ninety-three, I can’t very well be starting over, now can I? Can I offer you anything?”

Kate shook her head politely, but the man ignored her and went into the kitchen to put a kettle on to boil. In the corner of the living room was a small television that had been muted. A lively television presenter with a dress that fit too snugly was greeting the audience and inviting them to do something silly. A half-finished newspaper crossword puzzle and a carefully sharpened pencil lay side by side on the table.

Her eyes scanned the walls. They were covered with pictures, nearly all of them black and white. In a few, a youthful Mr. Carroll was pictured with a woman and two small children. But the majority showed him aboard various ships. Kate slowly took in the living room, thinking about the photos. They were hung in chronological order, and it was like taking a fascinating journey back in time. The first few pictures were of an older Carroll dressed in his captain’s uniform. Then, as the pictures went along, younger versions of the sailor were pictured, looking somber in one or defiant in another.

Kate paused to look more closely at the last photo. It was so ancient that one edge of the yellowed paper was torn as if it had been handled often and kept in many places.

The photograph was of a group of sailors on the deck of a ramshackle ship. In the center, an imposing captain with a white beard stared ahead gravely. He was flanked by a group of officers, who in turn were surrounded by the rest of the crew. It took Kate a moment to pick out Carroll from the other sailors. He couldn’t have been more than twenty, with a puckish face. He wasn’t looking ahead at the camera but was focused instead on two seagulls perched on the rail. The birds had become frozen in time alongside the mariners. In shaky scrawl across the bottom of the photograph, it said, “
Pass of Ballaster
, 1938.”

“That was my first vessel.” Carroll’s voice startled Kate out of her thoughts. He had returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea, quiet as a mouse. “The
Pass of Ballaster
. In those days, I was a cabin boy, and everyone called me Duff. It was a dumb nickname, but then again I was a dumb kid, so I guess it fit.”

“This man looks straight out of a how-to guide for captains,” Kate said, pointing at the captain.

Carroll nodded. “Captain McBride was a good man, and I learned a lot from him. He died in ’41, or maybe ’42, when the Germans torpedoed his ship in Newfoundland. In fact pretty much everyone in that picture died during the war.” His hands shook as he took a sip of tea. “The
wanted no survivors, and it’s slowly been taking care of them all, that’s for sure. I’m the only one left.”

“I’ve just been to the naval base, and they told me you have quite a history with the

“Indeed. I found the damn thing in the middle of the ocean. But I wish I never had.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because that ship is cursed. She devours people’s souls and spits them back as something dark. And every time is worse than the last.”

An awkward silence ensued. The only sounds came from the babbling rain as it poured down the gutters. Carroll gestured for Kate to have a seat.

“What I’m about to tell you happened at the end of August 1939, just before the war broke out,” he said, sounding distant, almost as if he had returned to that very day.

Kate frantically took notes—she cursed herself for not having the foresight to bring her recorder—as Carroll told the story of finding and boarding the

“Officer O’Leary nearly ran me over when we met in the doorway. He had been trying to get out of there as quick as he could, and he was carrying poor old Stepanek on his shoulders like a sack of potatoes. Stepanek looked about a thousand years older. His mind was gone. And O’Leary had that little baby in his arms.”

“Baby?” Kate’s head perked up, and she stopped taking notes. “What baby?”

“The little boy we found on the dance floor, of course.” Carroll looked at her fixedly, changing the tone of his voice to one of grave concern. “Didn’t you hear about that?”

Kate shook her head. She had reviewed the file Robert had left behind, and there was nothing that referenced any baby.

“Are you sure?” she asked cautiously. “Could you be mistaken?”

“Miss”—Carroll began to count on his hands—“I’ve been torpedoed twice, I’ve crashed into a reef, I’ve sailed through typhoons, and I’ve even battled Malay pirates on a couple of occasions. But I promise you, only once in my life have I encountered a passenger liner adrift with a baby on board. So, yes, I do believe I’m sure.”

“What happened to the baby?”

“I have no idea.” Carroll shrugged. “I suppose he was taken to an orphanage or some kind of facility. The day we arrived back was the day the war started. Within a few weeks Europe was filled with thousands of orphaned babies. He was abandoned on a German ship. Just imagine the attention he’d get.”

“Indeed,” Kate murmured. “What about the other two men who climbed aboard with you? O’Leary and Stepanek? What happened to them?”

“O’Leary was a good man. Too good.” The old man’s voice was starting to sound weak. He had been talking for some time now and was beginning to look fatigued. “They called him up for duty, and he went into the Royal Navy. But that damned
left him wrong in the head. He’d say he was hearing things or that he could see—” Mr. Carroll did not finish his sentence and shuddered. “I have no idea what was going through his head. But I do know he left something of himself behind on that ship, and she left something of herself in him. He shot himself in Gibraltar six weeks after we ported with the cruise ship in tow. They say he left his cabin filled with writings he’d done.”

“My God,” whispered Kate, “that’s awful.”

“Stepanek spent the next seven years in a mental hospital in Croydon. He was reduced to a helpless vegetable.” Carroll’s breathing sounded more labored than before. He was trembling, on the verge of collapse.

“We don’t have to keep going,” Kate said, taking his teacup before he dropped it. “We can pick this up another day.”

Carroll shook his head. His eyes glimmered with fierce resolve. “Someone has to know about all this,” he wheezed. “Please, listen. There’s still more. The mental ward helped Stepanek’s body but not his mind. He ate, drank, and slept but did nothing else besides babble and stare off into space. I went to visit him a couple of times, and he didn’t even recognize me. One day I got a phone call that he had jumped out of a window.”

“Jumped out of a window? But didn’t you say he was like a vegetable? How is that possible?” A chill ran through Kate.

“It was May 15, the same day they moved the
from the port in Liverpool to here.” On the verge of desperation, Carroll clung tightly to the edge of the table, his knuckles white. “Do you understand?”

“Understand what?”

“The move threw the curse for a loop. Stepanek took advantage of that fact and managed to get away. Somehow, the ship loosened its grip long enough for him to jump out of the window at the psychiatric hospital.” Carroll placed his bony hands on Kate’s arm. The heat emanating from his body was not normal. He was burning up.

“That’s crazy, Mr. Carroll. Nobody was trapped aboard the

“That’s where you’re wrong, Miss Kilroy. That’s where you’re wrong.” He coughed hoarsely and doubled over. A bit of blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and continued, despite the fact that his lungs sounded like the wheezing bellows of a foundry. “Come closer.”

Nearly in a trance, Kate acquiesced and leaned closer. His breath was hot and dry next to her ear.

“They’re still trapped inside. Dozens of people,” he whispered. “I broke free because I didn’t spend long enough for it to take hold. But that thing did something to me because I can see them.”

Kate moaned and tried to free herself from Carroll’s grip. The old man was completely deranged.

“Ah, yes. I can see them all right. And talk to them.” His eyes were ablaze, and he gripped Kate’s arm tighter. “They’re still there. Dozens of them. It’s a place worse than hell. Stay away from that ship.”

Carroll finally let go and Kate pulled away. He tumbled back in his chair and panted heavily, nearing collapse. Kate stood up and took two steps toward the door. Her legs wobbled as she picked up her notes and bumbled out a hasty farewell. She wanted to get the hell out of there. But just as she made a motion to grab the doorknob, Carroll’s feeble voice stopped her.

“The boy,” he huffed. “The boy was important. The Jewish boy was important.”

Kate paused at the door, thinking she’d misheard him. She turned around and walked back into the living room.

“The boy was Jewish? Jewish? Why do you say that?”

“The bo
y . . .
he was circum
. . .
circumcised, an
d . . .
” His breathing sounded like a whistle filled with dead skin. “He had a sta
r . . .
the Star of Davi
d . . .
hung around his neck. He was wrapped in a Jewish thing
y . . .
used to cove
r . . .

,” muttered Kate. A Jewish boy aboard a Nazi ship. It didn’t add up. Unless, perhaps, he was a stowaway.

Carroll motioned weakly with one hand. He had said all he needed to say and had closed his eyes, exhausted. Kate placed a pillow under his head, so he could breathe more easily. He raised his head in thanks and grasped her hand.

“Be careful.” His voice was almost inaudible. “There’s something about that shi
p . . . a . . .
g . . .
Please be careful. I beg of you!”

Kate nodded to placate the elderly gentleman and began to tiptoe out of the living room. She began piecing it all together. If the boy was Jewish, Isaac Feldman’s involvement in all this made more sense. Feldman was Jewish and even had Israeli citizenship. What if Feldman was somehow related to that boy? In fact, maybe he
the boy. Why not? They were close enough in age.

Lost in thought, Kate walked down the house’s front steps without noticing the headlights that were fast approaching from her right. A car thundered straight toward her at a tremendous speed.

BOOK: The Last Passenger
7.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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