Authors: Manel Loureiro
If the ship’s exterior had surprised Kate, the inside left her speechless. It looked like a movie set, only real.
It was not Kate’s first time aboard a cruise ship. For their honeymoon, she and Robert had taken a Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Istanbul. Robert had enjoyed the trip so much that he was instantly converted into a lover of cruises and displayed the same brand of childish wonder Americans tend to express when they take an interest in something. In fact, Kate was curious if perhaps his interest in the
had begun there.
On that particular trip their ship had been identical to the ill-fated
, an enormous, modern-style cruise ship that was a cross between a hotel, water park, and Las Vegas casino. Kate had greatly enjoyed the cruise and all the attendant luxurious comforts. Robert had splurged, booking a suite for the two of them. Those days on board had been magical, golden times, though she was fully aware of the hollow, shallow splendor so often associated with cruises. Like props on stage—rocks made of cardboard and the glitz of tinsel on the high seas.
’s interior did not look like any other cruise ship Kate had ever seen. Every last detail was a re-creation from the ship of the 1930s. Everything was decorated in art deco style. The furniture appeared to be excellent reproductions of the original furniture from that era. At least that was what Kate thought until she passed by a table on the terrace. She found, to her great surprise, that they were not reproductions at all.
Feldman had been watching her. “Nearly 80 percent of the furniture and decor you see here consists of original pieces,” he said. “Much of it comes from the
itself. When they converted it into a warship, they emptied out everything and sent the contents to a warehouse in Scotland. I found them and purchased everything nearly twenty years ago. My experts have restored everything in its original place, using original photos that survived the war as a guide.”
Kate nodded, impressed by how Feldman had not spared a single expense or compromised any of the details. A lamp screwed into one of the tables on the terrace caught her eye. She was no antiques expert, but she was certain that one little piece had to be worth thousands of dollars, and there were hundreds of objects like that throughout the
. It was extraordinary.
“After you’ve settled in and had a chance to relax in your cabin, I’d like you to come to a scheduled meeting to meet the rest of the team,” Feldman said. “We have a fairly small crew for this voyage since we have no passengers. While we won’t have many companions for the voyage, you’ll find at least they’re interesting.”
It was then that Kate noticed Moore, the head of Feldman’s security team, board the
with a dozen other men. They were loading heavy wooden crates, and even from that distance, Kate could tell the crates held guns and ammunition.
“Is that really necessary?” she asked, pointing at the men.
“You can never take too many precautions, Kate,” Feldman replied and motioned her to walk with him. “I don’t expect any problems, but we’d be idiots not to prepare ourselves.”
Problems? Prepared for what?
Questions piled up in Kate’s mind, but for the moment, she chose to keep them to herself.
They came to an entryway and walked into a wide, softly lit hallway. The carpet on the floor was blood colored, and music floated in the background. They had to step aside a few times to let Feldman’s personnel pass as they were busy stowing the equipment and putting the final touches on the ship before departure. In some places it still smelled like fresh paint and sawdust. The deck shook slightly. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship enormous diesel engines had rumbled to life. The
was ready to cast off.
“This is the entry to first class,” Feldman explained as he stepped aside to let two crewmen carrying wine pass. “At the moment, the second- and third-class sections have not been restored. We’ll be stowing supplies on those levels instead of in the original cargo hatches as they are still sealed.”
“I thought you had renovated the entire ship,” Kate said as she took pictures of the cigar lounge.
“I will,” answered Feldman defensively. “But there hasn’t been enough time to prepare all the details before our trip. Not if we want to stay on schedule.”
Kate nodded even though she had no idea what he was talking about. She figured he would explain everything more thoroughly at the meeting. In the meantime, she kept snapping pictures.
Next, they entered a wide oval-shaped room that was absolutely breathtaking. A giant crystal chandelier cast a blinding array of sparkles throughout the room. The marble and oak staircase that Kate recognized from one of Carroll’s stories rose before them. The stairs were etched with “KDF” and the name of the ship. The eagles that stood at the foot of the stairs had spread wings, and each one held a laurel wreath in its talons, but the center was empty, devoid of the swastikas. The Nazi flags that had once decorated the main landing of the staircase were also missing, replaced by an enormous palmlike plant that made for a strange contrast.
“They destroyed the staircase when the ship was converted. The marble and oak were excellent quality but were marred by the Nazi themes.” Feldman laughed. “Thanks to the pictures in the shipyard’s archive, we’ve been able to make a faithful reconstruction, minus the swastikas. There isn’t a single one on board the entire ship.”
“I thought it was supposed to be a faithful reconstruction?”
“It is. Nearly everything is exactly the same as when the ship was found at sea, more than seventy years ago. In fact, practically everything here is original. We’ve had to renovate only a few things that were damaged over time, like the staircase. In the process we eliminated the swastikas.”
“We haven’t done it just because Nazi imagery is banned here in Germany and we happen to be in Hamburg,” Feldman continued. “I’m Jewish, and on my ship I will not have a single swastika, unless—” Feldman cut himself off.
Before Kate could ask what he meant, an older woman, perhaps in her fifties, entered wearing a classic maid’s outfit with her hair in a bun. She glared at them over her beak-like nose.
“I thought you’d never get here,” she said. “From the minute those scientists stepped on board, all they’ve done is whine. ‘My room is too dark, or too sunny, or too hot, or too cold.’ It’s like they were born to complain, Isaac.”
A smile crept across Kate’s lips. The woman was the first person who was not afraid of the almighty Isaac Feldman. In fact, he seemed uncomfortable in front of her.
“Mrs. Miller has been Feldman’s housekeeper for over thirty years,” Senka whispered from behind. Her mouth was right next to Kate’s ear, close enough that she felt Senka’s warm breath drift over the back of her neck, causing a sudden surge of hostility. “She’s the only person who dares to call him by his first name. Sometimes they even get into shouting matches.”
“Are they lovers?” Kate asked curiously.
“It’s rumored they used to be years ago,” Senka answered in a seductive voice. “But I don’t think they are anymore. He respects her, though.”
“Kate.” Feldman turned toward the two whispering women with the look of a man who was trying to outrun a pack of wolves and had suddenly found a tree to climb up. “Mrs. Miller will take you to your cabin. Senka will accompany you down to the Gneisenau Room at noon sharp. Our first meeting will take place there. I strongly suggest you stay in your cabin in the meantime. There are still areas on board undergoing renovation, and I wouldn’t want you to wander into danger. It’s for your personal safety.”
“Should I ask Moore to leave one of those rifles for me?” asked Kate. “For my personal safety, you know?”
“Please don’t be angry, Kate. As soon as we’re at sea, you’re welcome to wander throughout the
. But we’re still trying to close off all of the dangerous areas, and I wouldn’t want you to suffer an accident before we leave.”
Kate was certain that Feldman was lying to her again. But she kept quiet. It was not the time to pick a fight, especially with Senka and Mrs. Miller standing right there, watching her closely.
“All right, Feldman. See you at noon then.”
Kate followed Mrs. Miller down another hallway until they reached an elevator that looked straight out of a museum. To enter it, the outside gate had to be opened by hand. The inside was lined with velvet. Along the back wall was a bench where a weary traveler could rest during the short ride.
“It looks magnificent,” said Mrs. Miller in a friendly tone, “but it’s slower than a snail. This elevator gives you time to get old, and that’s just in the time it takes to move past the three floors in first class.”
“What about in second and third class? Are there elevators?” asked Kate.
“I’m not sure.” Mrs. Miller shrugged. “I’ve never been down below. Only a few have, but workers are sealing the entrances to those areas until they’re ready to be reopened. From what I’ve heard, though, the mess deck in third class doesn’t have an elevator. And I think the elevator for second class doesn’t work. It hasn’t been used for seventy years, you know?”
After what felt like an eternity, the elevator stopped with a tremble, and Mrs. Miller opened the gate. They stepped into a hallway not unlike the one they had come from, only the carpet was blue and imprinted with “KDF.” There were at least twenty doors along the walls.
“First class used to be quite small on this ship,” Mrs. Miller explained as they walked along. “Three floors with a total of forty-five cabins and eight suites. They’re quite roomy.” They stopped at a door with a golden plaque that read “Room 23.” “This is your room.”
She opened the door. Kate held back a gasp of astonishment. The room looked like it had been modeled after an old, elegant black-and-white movie. The wide queen-sized bed was covered by an antique bedspread, and the walls were lined with inlaid teakwood. Art deco lamps sat on the nightstands. A splendid Persian rug covered the floor. The sun shone through two windows. The room was made complete by a sofa with wide arms, an end table with stationery, and a mahogany dresser that had to be worth a fortune.
“It’s beautiful,” Kate said, taking note of the lack of a television or telephone. Nothing to remind her of the twenty-first century. There was only one ancient-looking outlet. She wondered if the voltage would be the proper amount to plug in her laptop without getting a shock.
“You haven’t seen the best part yet,” Mrs. Miller said with a smile.
She opened up a sliding door and revealed the bathroom. Kate covered her mouth. Along the wall closest to her was an enormous sink with ornate brass faucets set below a mirror. In back was a gigantic square bathtub decorated on the bottom with small mosaic tiles, just like the colorful ones that adorned the walls. The combination reminded her of a Roman bath.
“Enjoy your stay, Miss Kilroy.” Mrs. Miller bid Kate adieu with a smile and exited the cabin.
Alone, Kate fell back onto the bed. Kicking her shoes off, she took in her surroundings. The
was amazing—a piece of history afloat at sea. As she lay there in the sunlight and listened to the voices on the pier, all of the horror stories regarding mysterious disappearances seemed completely ridiculous to her.
she repeated. Sunlight beamed through one of the windows, and specks of dust danced in its glow. Exhausted, she closed her eyes and fell right asleep.
A faint vibration woke her up. Her camera, which was on the table, was buzzing on the marble surface. Curious, she got up. The entire cabin floor was shaking. For an instant she experienced something akin to panic. But then she remembered she was aboard a ship. She looked out the window and watched a pair of workers winding up the mooring lines as the pier slowly shrank away.
The ship had cast off. The gangplank had been brought aboard, and now there was nothing tying them to land.
was at sea once again.
Kate’s patience lasted all of twenty minutes. After pacing around her cabin like a caged lioness, she decided to take a little walk. This, of course, meant that she was directly disobeying Feldman’s orders, but she figured it would be worth the risk. If she came across anyone, she could explain she needed to take pictures of the
’s departure for her report, which was actually quite true. Still, she also wanted to wander around to get a better idea of the ship’s layout.
She opened the door carefully and poked her head into the hallway. No one was in sight. Briefly, she thought Feldman might have placed a guard at her door for her “security,” but it seemed everyone was busy with the ship’s departure. She made as little noise as possible as she closed the door behind her and walked down the hall in the direction of what she thought was the bow.
Most of the hallways were deserted, but as she turned a corner she bumped into a couple of Moore’s security guards. Recalling how Feldman’s men had reacted when they caught her prowling the grounds of Usher Manor, she panicked, but they passed right by her as they chatted and only gave her a brief glance. One of the men even gave her a little nod as if they were old friends.
As soon as they had gone, Kate realized she had been holding her breath. Then, she noticed where the two men had come from.
There was a wide entrance leading to a staircase that wound down into the heart of the
. The stairs were old and worn compared to the rest of the ship. The varnish had disappeared, and the edges of the steps were scuffed up. Four or five steps down, someone had welded together some heavy sheets of steel into a door that sealed off the staircase. The ugly joints the welders left behind jutted out of the door like lumpy tumors, a stark contrast with the high-quality wood lining the hallway. The guards had placed a red sticker on the door with enormous black lettering:
Area Under Construction
Do Not Enter. Risk Of Fatal Fall”
Kate assumed the staircase led to the unrestored second- and third-class sections. Dubiously, she made her way down the stairs until she reached the makeshift door. The stairs creaked lightly with each step. Kate thought about how the wooden stairs had not been used for more than half a century. She leaned forward and placed her hand on the door.
A gust of cold air ripped through a poorly sealed joint and gave Kate a jolt. The air had come from somewhere down there, and it smelled awful. It was a strange smell, a mixture of dust, stagnant water, and rot. The stench also carried a hint of some metallic odor Kate could not pinpoint. She gently pushed the steel door and felt it budge slightly. The welder had done a rush job, and the steel sheets of the door were joined only at four points. She pushed again, fascinated, trying to figure out what was down there.
. . .
A woman’s voice called from behind her. Startled, like a little girl caught in the act of mischief, Kate flinched and turned around, muttering some hurried excuse.
No one was there.
She tiptoed toward the hallway. It was deserted in both directions. She ran around the corner the guards had turned earlier, but no one was there, either. Confused, she retraced her steps back to the staircase. She examined the ceiling to see if there were any security cameras or loudspeakers, but the only thing hanging from the ceiling were the bronze light fixtures, with
etched into their bases.
She listened closely. All that could be heard was her heavy breathing, the soft buzzing of the hallway lights, and in the background, the dull, distant rumbling of the engines.
But she was certain someone had said her name. She did not like the tone.
It had sounded violent. Dirty.
Needing some fresh air, she walked away from the staircase, feeling stiff.
After a few minutes wandering through the hallways, Kate came to a doorway that led to the walkway along the bow. The gust of fresh air, dense with the smell of the sea and engine smoke, that greeted her upon stepping outside was the most marvelous sensation she had ever felt.
In the distance, some fifty yards away, she could see the silhouette of a tugboat slowly pulling the
toward open sea. From where she stood she could make out the tugboat’s name,
, and she could even distinguish the shapes of the sailors in red uniforms loafing about on deck. On the poop deck was the captain, a heavyset man with a goatee, and a member of the port authority, who was tall with gray hair. Both were looking back toward the
, sipping coffee and chatting with one another. Suddenly, Kate had the urge to be with them, among those trustworthy men, and not aboard the
, with its strange voices and mysterious past.
But it was too late. The North Sea was already visible in the distance. The tugboat released the
and bid it farewell with two toots of its horn. The tugboat slowly receded into the distance, and finally, they were alone.
Kate leaned on the railing and took a deep breath. The morning was luminous, and out there, it seemed like nothing could go wrong.
What the hell,
You’re on a fucking luxurious cruise ship from the thirties. You’re going to write a fucking story, and in the meantime, you’re going to drink all the champagne you can and relax in the sun. You’re going to stop thinking about Robert and take control of your life once and for all—
“Kate.” A woman’s voice startled her from her thoughts, and the blood drained from her face. She spun around like a top, certain nobody would be there, but there stood Senka, staring at her.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.
“It’s not that. It’
s . . .
” Kate blushed and became quiet.
“It’s not wise to disobey a direct order from Feldman.” Senka stared at her with a disquieting gleam in her eyes. “He asked you not to leave your cabin.”
“It didn’t sound like an order to me,” Kate replied, holding up her camera. “It sounded more like a suggestion. Plus, I need to take pictures for my story.”
“If I were you, I’d follow every single one of Mr. Feldman’s suggestions to a T. This ship can be misleading. Even deceitful.”
“What do you mean?” The hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
“During these past few weeks on board the
, strange things have happened. Things that are hard to explain. There have been accidents. Do you believe in ghosts, Kate?”
“No. The truth is I don’t,” she answered, her heart wrenching in pain as her thoughts turned to Robert. “When someone dies they’re gone forever.”
“Good,” Senka responded with a strange smile. “That which you do not believe can do you no harm, right?” She looked toward the horizon and took a deep breath as if she was collecting her thoughts. “I think you should go back to your cabin. I’ll go with you. This time make sure not to leave until the time we agreed on.”
“Hopefully, it will be worth the wait.”
Senka crinkled her eyes. “Trust me. The meeting is going to blow your mind.”