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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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“Look out,” shouted the cabdriver.

Kate was startled back into reality mere seconds before it was too late. She looked up to see the nose of an SUV with tinted windows hurtling like a rocket toward Carroll’s house. Without thinking, she leaped to her right and landed in a pile of cardboard boxes a bum had probably planned to use as a mattress.

As the vehicle sped by, the side mirror hit Kate’s arm. The car continued forward, and the mirror dragged across the front of the house and broke off in a burst of metal and glass. The SUV managed to uproot the mailbox, sending beer cans and trash cans flying. The sound of metal grating against cement chilled Kate as she crawled frantically across the ground to get away from the car’s back wheels.

The driver of the SUV hit the brakes, unsure how to proceed. The taillights cast a red glow over Kate as she desperately gasped for breath on the ground, trapped between the SUV and the front of the house. If the driver put the car in reverse, she would be crushed like a grape. The cabdriver ran toward them, club in one hand, phone in the other, screaming frantically.

It was enough to make the mystery driver step on the gas and tear away at full speed. Before the cabdriver reached Kate, the SUV had already rounded the corner and disappeared into the night.

“Are you all right?” shouted the driver, a nervous wreck. “I told you this was a bad neighborhood. Bad neighborhood.”

Kate got up, trembling, her head whirling.

Someone had tried to kill her. She had no idea why.

IX

Thirty minutes later, Kate was in her hotel room standing beneath a jet of hot water as steam clouded around her. Her left arm had an enormous bruise that was slowly taking on a sickly yellowish hue.

Who would want to kill her?

She dried herself with a wide cotton towel and put on pajamas while she considered the possibilities. The only reason that came to mind was her newfound interest in the
Valkyrie
, and she could think of only one person who would care: Isaac Feldman.

Any other reporter might have given up the story right then and there. In fact, Kate considered it several times as she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed. But the very idea of going back to the office with her tail between her legs made her dismiss that thought.

This had been Robert’s story. Thinking about him made her heart cave under the weight of her sorrow. Robert had never given up when something good came along. She would do as he would have done. Not only for him but for herself, too. If she truly wanted to make something of herself in this profession, she couldn’t let herself be rattled.

But they had tried to kill her.

It suddenly dawned on her that she had almost been run over by a car just an hour earlier.

Run over.

Like him.

It hit her harder than the SUV ever could. Her legs began to shake, and she had to sit on the bed to hold back a swelling flood of hysteria. Her emotional floodgates burst open, and she began crying uncontrollably, inconsolably. Her tears were a mixture of the tension from the fateful afternoon and the throbbing pain that had burrowed into her weeks ago, never letting go. Until now it had not been afforded the luxury of being let out.

Tears streamed from Kate’s eyes. Lights swirled through her mind; the SUV’s headlights fused together with the morgue’s fluorescent lights from a month ago, when she had identified her husband’s broken body.

She had almost suffered the same fate. Cold. Dead. Displayed on the mantle next to Robert in an urn.

Her fears slowly spun into a cold, merciless anger. She would not be deterred, nor would she let someone scare her away. If, for some strange reason, Feldman wanted to keep her away from the
Valkyrie
, she would not let him. Suddenly, she felt much better.

That night she slept surprisingly well. The next morning she woke up and put on a blue tailored suit with long sleeves to cover the bruise on her arm. When she was ready, she went down to the lobby and waited for a taxi.

Thanks to the file Robert had left behind, she knew Feldman lived in a mansion forty minutes away. Although the gambling tycoon never gave interviews, Kate figured she could improvise. She had no appointment and no plan, but the worst he could do was turn her away. Plus, if she didn’t manage to talk to Feldman directly, someone nearby might be able to give her a clue as to the whereabouts of the
Valkyrie
.

Since the ship had been taken from the navy yard, there had been no sightings of it. As if the earth had swallowed it whole.

One thing was certain: there was no way it could be in a junkyard. Nobody pays that kind of money for a ship just to scrap it for steel planks and kitchen rags. The photo of the small army of technicians working on the ship right there at Denborough proved that Feldman was absolutely determined to make the passenger liner seaworthy, at any cost.

Still, it was also evident that those basic emergency repairs had not been enough for the ship to return to sea on its own. The
Valkyrie
had to be in dry dock somewhere or anchored in some harbor, awaiting Feldman’s decision to launch. Kate was determined to find it.

Adrenaline pumping when her taxi arrived, Kate vowed to get the full story that afternoon, if she had to strangle it out of Feldman with her own two hands.

Her plans, however, quickly began to unravel.

Feldman’s residence, Usher Manor, was in the countryside. Long before the cab could even approach the front door, it encountered an iron gate flanked by an enormous brick fence that stretched out of sight on both sides.

“We can’t go any farther,” said Hussein, the same driver who had taken her to Carroll’s house the night before. Kate felt attached to him since he had saved her from being run over. “Either they open the gate, or we’ll have to turn around. Would you like me to use the intercom, ma’am?”

Kate shook her head. She knew calling the house would do no good. There had to be another way.

“This is the main entrance to Usher Manor,” she mused. “But I’ll bet anything that an estate this large has another way in. There must be a service road somewhere. Let’s have a look.”

Hussein groaned and wondered why on earth he was doing this. Allah had placed a nut job in his path. He touched the
hamsa
hanging from his mirror and looked imploringly at the beautiful young woman in the backseat.

“Come on, Hussein.” Kate gave him an encouraging slap on the back and flashed her most charming smile. “It won’t be so bad. We’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

In response, the Pakistani muttered something in his native tongue and shook his head.

They coasted along a stretch of country road lined on both sides with tall hedges until they reached a fork in the road. In one direction, a muddy-looking dirt road carved its way toward the mansion.

Kate used her most persuasive tone to convince Hussein that the cab wouldn’t get stuck going up the road. Five minutes and a hundred quid later, they were bouncing down a bumpy road that made the car’s shocks creak ominously every few feet.

More suited to pavement, the taxi hit a thick patch of mud as it headed up the hill. Hussein stepped on the gas repeatedly, but he managed only to spin the tires in place, sending mud flying through the air.

“Leave it. I’ll walk from here. The house can’t be far.”

“Walk?” Hussein’s eyes became saucers. “In those shoes?”

Kate looked at her feet and cursed. He was right. She was wearing high heels. She looked at Hussein’s shoes. He was short, and his feet seemed about right. A sinuous smile crept across her lips.

“No. No way.”

A few minutes later Kate was treading cautiously up the road, wearing a pair of sneakers that were too large. An irate Hussein stood barefoot next to his taxi, fifty pounds richer but all the more nervous.

At the top of the hill Kate stopped to catch her breath, not from fatigue but to take in the view. Usher Manor was an impressive Victorian-style mansion, reminding Kate of Howards End, but subtly altered.

The gardens and fountains had been ignored, or forgotten. Weeds grew on the terraces, and the fountains were dry. Rancid water filled the ponds, and bramble choked the pathways. Kate got the impression nobody had visited the area for some time.

Planted in the flower beds, satellite dishes of different sizes pointed in all directions. A huge telecommunication tower loomed imposingly on one side of the house, casting its shadow over a wing of the mansion. A group of people milled around what looked like a truck generator connected to the house.

The place resembled a company’s headquarters more than a summer home belonging to a wealthy millionaire.

Something to her right caught her eye. Two men driving ATVs headed straight for her, looking extremely unfriendly. This was private property. She stuck her hand in her purse and blindly felt for her press card as the ATVs grew louder. They skidded to a stop next to her, speckling her suit with mud.

“Hello,” she said with a nervous smile as the two men dismounted. “I’m a reporter with the
London
—”

She was silenced by a set of cold eyes fixed behind the dark barrel of a rifle pointing straight at her. Kate asked herself if she had taken things too far.

They put her on the back of one of the ATVs with her hands bound behind her back by a hard plastic cord, and then they took off at full speed, heading toward the mansion. Kate struggled not to fall off the vehicle each time they hit a bump in the road. The cord dug into her wrists, and her hands tingled from lack of circulation. The two men had thoroughly tied her up without a care for diplomacy. They seemed like they were ex-military, and Kate suspected one of them did not speak English.

When they reached Usher Manor, they crossed the outside encampment, attracting curious looks from the workers lingering about. Clearly, visitors were rare.

It dawned on Kate that Hussein was the only one who knew where she was. Given the treatment she’d received, she was certain he, too, had been taken into custody.

The ATVs stopped by one of the mansion’s side doors. One of the men leaped off and bounded inside while the other waited with Kate, smoking a cigarette and giving her sidelong glances every so often.

She then realized that during the rough ATV ride her skirt had hiked up, revealing her lacy black underwear. The guard smoking the cigarette was practically cross-eyed.

Flustered, she tried to compose herself as best she could, knowing full well this had become a disaster. The cabdriver’s shoes were no more than two pieces of felt hanging from her feet, her hair was covered in mud, and her suit looked straight out of a thrift store. Still, she managed to straighten up and calmly inspect her surroundings, as if all of it were simply a routine task.

Just then the door opened, and the guard appeared with three more men. Two of them were a part of the security team, but the third was an older gentleman, perhaps seventy, looking resolute and authoritative. It was Isaac Feldman.

The first guard handed Kate’s press badge to Feldman, and as he looked it over, the guard methodically emptied her purse and recorded all of its contents. Upon finding her iPhone, he tossed it to the ground and gave it three powerful blows with the butt of his gun, smashing it to pieces.

Kate started to protest but let the sound die in her throat. It was only a phone, and she had bigger fish to fry at the moment. Feldman looked at her with an impenetrable gaze. Horrified, she reflected on all of the terrible stories she had read concerning his reputation as a mobster and realized her destiny lay in his hands.

“She was up on the hill watching the mansion,” the first guard said. “She didn’t have any cameras that we could find, but she had a partner, a Muslim guy in a taxi a little ways back. He’s being brought here right now.”

“Muslim?” Feldman, himself a Jew, began to smile malevolently. Kate realized a paranoid maniac like Feldman would not understand that Hussein was there only by coincidence.

“It’s not what it looks lik
e . . .
” She heard herself babble, her composure withering before Feldman’s hawkish look. “I’m a reporter from the
London New Herald
. I wanted to talk to you about the
Valkyrie
. I think we could—”

“Take her back to town,” Feldman cut her off. “Her and her associate. Turn them in to the police, and report them for trespassing and harassment. Let’s step up security and find out how they got in. This is totally unacceptable, Moore.”

The man called Moore paled upon being reprimanded and clenched his jaw. He looked at Kate with such hatred that she thought he might burst into flames.

“Yes, of course, sir,” he muttered. “It won’t happen again.”

A pair of hands like claws grabbed Kate and dragged her toward a parked van. Feldman turned around and, without another glance at Kate, headed into the house.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Wait! I have to talk to you!”

Feldman paid no attention as he walked through the doorway. This was her last chance.

“I know about the child!” she yelled with a sudden burst of inspiration. “The Jewish baby found aboard the
Valkyrie
.”

Feldman stopped in his tracks. The guards had already placed Kate in the van despite her kicking and screaming. The elderly man took in the scene for a moment. He looked down at the press badge still in his hand.

“Let her go.”

The guards immediately obeyed, and Kate wriggled away from them furiously. She looked directly at Feldman, who returned her gaze.

“I know about the little boy,” she repeated. “I know it
all
. I’d like to talk to you about it.”

Feldman shrugged and, for the first time, smiled openly.

“All right, Miss Kilroy. Since you want to talk about me, let’s talk,” he said enigmatically, although Kate detected a threatening undertone. “I hope the conversation proves stimulating. For your sake.”

X

Usher Manor’s interior offered such a stark contrast to the exterior that Kate blinked in disbelief. Thick Persian rugs covered the floors. Beautiful, priceless oil paintings hung from every wall. Kate could have sworn the painting above the fireplace was a genuine Constable. As the two took a seat, Kate’s eyes fell on an elephant’s head hanging on the wall. It watched them with a look of fury.

“This house belonged to the same family for four hundred years,” Feldman said, noticing Kate’s surprise. “After the Second World War, it was ruined and nearly demolished. I decided to buy it some fifteen years ago along with all of its belongings. Lovely, isn’t it?”

Feldman’s tone was proud and satisfied. His skin was surprisingly smooth for a man who had to be close to seventy years old. His eyes, deep blue, watched Kate almost without blinking. His magnetic gaze was renowned in the world of gambling. If the rumors were true, on one occasion he had completely unnerved a rival without ever blinking. He was tall with a sharp nose and confident demeanor. His snow-white hair fell gently over his ears. Everything about him exuded authority. He was a self-made man who had utilized hard work and perseverance to make something of himself. Not to mention the occasional corpse, Kate was forced to remind herself. Isaac Feldman was a dangerous man.

Feldman turned Kate’s badge over with his long fingers, which were crowned by perfectly round fingernails. After a few moments he set it down on the table and leaned back in his seat without taking his eyes off the badge.

“How do you know about the child?”

“Where is the
Valkyrie
? What do you plan to do with it?”

“The
Valkyrie
now belongs to me,” answered Feldman emphatically. “I’ve spent years searching for it. Some idiot from the Ministry of Defense registered it under a code name. It took decades of shots in the dark just to find it. For a while there I even thought it might have been scrapped. But now it’s mine.”

Feldman uttered his last words with such force that Kate jolted in surprise.

“Why is that old ship so important to you, Mr. Feldman?” asked Kate coolly, feeling like she was prodding a sleeping lion.

“I don’t remember anything about the orphanage. I was barely there three months. The Blitz had yet to begin, and the war in Europe was still a distant echo. The number of orphans was normal for peacetime.” He smiled bitterly. “Not at all how it would be just a couple of years later.”

“You were the baby boy they found on the dance floor of the
Valkyrie
.”

“My parents, the Feldmans, were good people. He drank too much but worked like a dog in the leather trade. She couldn’t have kids, which nearly destroyed her entirely. When I was placed up for adoption, it was a blessing for them. They weren’t first on the list, but they were the only ones who had checked ‘Jewish’ on the adoption form. So I was placed with them. That’s how I grew up and became what I am today.”

“How did you find out where you came from?”

“When my parents adopted me, they were given all of my personal effects.” Feldman reached under his shirt collar and pulled out a gold Star of David. “This pendant, a high-quality
tallit
, and the blanket someone benevolently wrapped me up in so I wouldn’t freeze my little butt off on that dance floor. That was all I had. The blanket had the KDF logo and the name
Valkyrie
stitched on the edges. From there, I began to follow the trail. But it was cold.”

“KDF?” interrupted Kate. “What’s KDF?”

“Initials that stand for Kraft Durch Freude. Do you know what that means?”

Kate spoke German quite well and nodded. “Strength through joy. What I don’t get is what it means.”

“That was the Nazi organization in charge of planning vacations and leisure activities for those loyal to the Reich. Believe it or not, it was the largest and most important travel agency in the world in the thirties.” Opening a drawer, Feldman took out an old book and set it on the table. He flipped it open to a page that showed a flag. In the middle was a swastika surrounded by a cog and sun rays. “That was their symbol. They planned trips, organized private parties.”

“Cruise ships like the
Valkyrie
.”

“The
Valkyrie
was one of the first ships owned exclusively by the organization. It was built in Hamburg, but almost all documents that mention the ship or the KDF were destroyed during the Allied air raids during the war. Almost nothing is known about that cruise liner except that they found it floating in the middle of the ocean with no sign of any passengers or crew. It’s a mystery.”

“An empty ship. Then it’s true.”

“Not completely empty,” Feldman corrected her, a flash in his eye. “A Nazi ship with a Jewish boy as its only survivor. Me. Now do you see why that ship is so important to me?”

Kate nodded, seeing Feldman in a different light. The man had seemed like he was haunted by some sort of fever. Now she realized Feldman had spent his entire life racked by doubts and fears about the true nature of his origin. As if the pairing of a Jewish baby with a Nazi cruise ship wasn’t bizarre enough, Feldman was also the only survivor of the largest disappearance of people at sea in history. Yet only a handful of people knew about this ghost ship.

“Now that I have told you my story, Miss Kilroy, I believe the time has come to hear yours.”

Kate took a deep breath and wondered whether or not she could trust this man. She realized she had no choice. She opened her purse, removed the purple folder with the
Valkyrie
’s file, and handed it to Feldman. As he looked through it, Kate began relating the interview she had conducted with Collins and Lambert at the naval base. When she got to the part about Duff Carroll, Feldman looked up in shock.

“A sailor from the
Pass of Ballaster
is still alive?” His voice betrayed his torment. He sprang up, and the folder and its papers fell to the floor. “Where? How?”

Kate was puzzled. She remembered that the men at the base had said Feldman’s employees were rude and arrogant when they came to take away the
Valkyrie
. Perhaps they had not mentioned anything to Feldman about the old man and his strange obsession with the ship.

As she told him about her conversation with Carroll, Feldman’s apprehension increased. He took wide strides across the living room, pacing past the mounted animal heads with a look of distress.

“I must talk to that man. Where does he live?”

“I’ll tell you if you let me go with you and allow me to take notes for my story.”

Feldman stared blankly at her for a few seconds. Then, almost imperceptibly, he nodded.

“All right, Miss Kilro
y . . .
Kate.” Feldman started toward the door. “You’re in. Now let’s go see Mr. Carroll.”

Ten minutes later a caravan of five vehicles departed Usher Manor. Kate and Feldman sat in the backseat of an Audi SUV with tinted windows. The four other vehicles flanked the Audi: two in front and two behind. Seated with them were bodyguards like those who had captured Kate earlier. Richard Moore, head of security, sat up front and spoke by phone to the other cars as the convoy sped down the highway.

Kate and Feldman kept quiet in the backseat, each lost in thought. Kate wondered what might be going through the head of the man by her side. As if by reflex, Feldman moved his hand toward the gold pendant around his neck and held it tight. He seemed to be lost in the throes of a memory.

Kate tried to imagine what Robert would have done in her position. She was sure he would have been chatting effortlessly with Feldman, calm and relaxed, dissipating any tension as if by magic. Robert had possessed an innate ability to make everyone around him relaxed and comfortable. Kate cursed herself for not having the same gift. All she could do was look out the window as the scenery whipped by.

When they arrived in Denborough, Kate could sense the tension rise. Dozens of prostitutes and junkies wandered near trash piles and ruined houses, regarding the convoy with the same empty expression before returning to their dark lives. In the daylight, the neighborhood looked even more dirty and downtrodden than it had last night. Kate shuddered. She had almost been killed.

She looked at Feldman. His surprise at discovering Carroll had been genuine, of that she was sure. Feldman had never heard of the man, let alone where he lived.

So if Feldman hadn’t put a hit on Kate, then who had? Her head buzzed as she racked her brains for a clue.

The caravan came to a halt in front of Carroll’s little home. The bad scrape across the front of the house was still visible from the night before. Kate and Feldman got out of the Audi and climbed the two front stairs that led to the entrance. But before they could reach the front door, Moore ran up, looking grave.

“One moment,” he said in a low voice. “Something’s not right here.”

Kate did not understand until she saw that Carroll’s front door was ajar. The door’s wood trim was cracked, and the frame was damaged in one corner.

Immediately, half a dozen armed guards surrounded Feldman and Kate, each pointing his gun in a different direction. The lost souls who were milling about on a nearby corner had the sudden urge to be anywhere else but there, leaving the entire street deserted.

“Wait here,” Moore ordered in a grave tone.

Three of Feldman’s men entered the house cautiously, guns ready, while the rest waited outside impatiently. After two minutes, one of the guards returned with a strange and somewhat pallid expression. He leaned against the doorway and vomited on the doorstep.

“Clear,” he croaked and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “No one’s inside. But I warn you, it’s a butcher shop in there.”

Kate felt her legs begin to shake. Feldman, cold and ruthless, lived up to his reputation and did not bat an eye.

“You don’t have to go in,” he told her, placing a hand on her arm with surprising gentleness.

“I’m going in,” she said, taking a deep breath, wishing her voice had sounded firmer.

The hallway was just as it had been the night before. Beyond that, it looked as though a tornado had hit.

The first thing that struck her was the smell. It was slightly sweet and sticky, with a touch of ocher to it. But underneath was another scent. Burnt hair.

As they entered the living room, Kate grabbed Feldman’s arm to avoid collapsing. It looked like a mad butcher had decided to decorate the walls with human remains. On the table lay Mr. Carroll’s body, or at least what was left of it. His hands were tied to his feet with wire, and every one of his fingers was broken or severed and scattered on the floor. Horrified, Kate noticed that nearly all of them were missing fingernails. The body had been torn open. His organs had been extracted and placed in neat piles as if some forensic specialist had simply done his job. Blood was streaked across the walls in crimson designs. But the most striking thing of all was Mr. Carroll’s head was nowhere to be seen.

“But who? How?” Kate stuttered.

“Who could have done this?” Feldman responded, somberly. “Someone hell-bent on getting answers.”

One of Feldman’s men found a scalpel and blowtorch underneath the coffee table. It was a cheap blowtorch, the kind that could be bought at any hardware store. From the foul stench in the air, it had been used for a very different purpose than its manufacturer had intended.

Kate glanced at the wall in disgust. She realized something was off. The pictures chronicling Carroll’s life at sea were still hanging there except now they were spattered with blood. But one was missing.

An empty yellowed piece of wallpaper occupied the space where the picture of the
Pass of Ballaster
had once been. Someone had taken it.

“This is barbaric,” Kate said in disbelief. “He was a charming, polite man.”

“He chose the wrong neighborhood to live in,” replied Moore, who seemed to be the only one unaffected by the slaughter, apart from Feldman.

“This wasn’t done by any old crack addict,” answered Kate, pointing toward the television, which was still on. Instead of a busty young hostess on-screen, however, a movie was playing. Next to the television was Mr. Carroll’s open wallet with a few ten-pound notes visibly protruding.

“I must agree with Miss Kilroy,” Feldman said icily. He was undoubtedly thinking something, but it was hard to say what that was. “This was the work of a professional. Someone motivated enough to behead a man.”

“There’s also one picture missing,” Kate pointed as she tried to avoid stepping in a pool of blood. She wanted to vomit, but she refused to give Feldman and his men the satisfaction. “The picture with Mr. Carroll aboard the
Pass of Ballaster
.”

“That’s not all that’s missing,” Moore chimed in with a strange note in his voice.

Intrigued, everyone turned around to look at Moore, who was standing beside the corpse.

“His heart is gone,” he said, pointing to the pile of organs. “Someone’s taken it.”

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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