Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
Another new development in last year's tragic sinking of the
yacht. Tyler Brewer has the details.
Following the news that a raft from the
has been discovered on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, the families of the victims have renewed their call to search the ocean for any remains. Today, Sextant Capital, Jason Lambert's former company, announced that a salvage effort will begin immediately. Bruce Morris is Lambert's former business partner, who has since taken over the firm.
“We believe the recent news warrants a fuller exploration of the fate of the
. We have partnered with Nesser Ocean Explorations, the world's top deep-ocean exploration company, to search the area where we last heard from the
, and to send down probes to the seabed. If there's anything to be found, we will find it.”
Morris has cautioned that these efforts are often unsuccessful. And even if something were discovered, it's unlikely that it would answer all the questions. But pressure
from various governments and influential families has ratcheted up since that life raft appeared on Montserrat.
Speaking of that, Tyler, has the man who discovered the raft been found?
Not as of yet. The media here ask about him every day. But so far, no response. It's a rather small island. So it seems unlikely someone could go unseen for very long.
“Good morning!” LeFleur said cheerily when the guesthouse door swung open. “Wanna go for a ride?”
“What time is it?” Dobby grumbled, rubbing his face.
“Around eight. I'm heading to the beach where we discovered the raft. I thought you might want to see it.”
Dobby sniffed deeply. He wore a black Rolling Stones T-shirt and orange running shorts.
“Yeah,” he grunted. “Actually, I would. Can you give me a few minutes to get cleaned up?”
“Sure. I'll be in the jeep.”
LeFleur had arrived with a plan. It began with getting Dobby alone, then confronting him with what he knew. He didn't want to run into any reporters. And there was one place where he knew that wouldn't happen.
An hour later LeFleur was steering his jeep through the darkened landscape of the exclusion zone as Dobby gazed out the window. Gone was the lush green vegetation and sherbet-colored houses of the northern side of the island, replaced by a moonlike terrain of mud and gray dunes. Occasionally the top of a streetlight or the upper half of a house could be seen poking up from the ash.
The exclusion zone was the dead half of Montserrat, a dull, empty panorama suggesting the end of one world and the beginning of another. Twenty-four years after the SoufriÃ¨re Hills eruption, the area remained off-limits.
“Why are there no other cars on this road?” Dobby said.
“Only authorized vehicles.”
“The beach is beyond this?”
“Yeah,” LeFleur lied.
Dobby looked out the window. “How long ago did that volcano explode?”
“I bet you never forget that year.”
“No,” LeFleur said. “We never do.”
Eventually, the jeep reached Plymouth, once the largest town on the island. Four thousand people had lived here. Shops and restaurants had thrived. Now, like Pompeii, Plymouth was defined by its ashen ruins. Oddly enough, it remained the island's official seat of government, but its
population was zero, making it the world's only ghost-town capital.
“This is bloody awful,” Dobby mumbled.
LeFleur nodded, but kept his eyes straight ahead. Bloody awful, it was. But worse than the calculated murder of a yacht full of innocent people? He didn't get this Dobby, the way he reacted to things. If the notebook was accurate, then Benji's “cousin” was incredibly good at hiding his crimesâand his guilt. But the biggest question still remained: How did Dobby get off the
? How did he escape when everyone else was lost?
“Is that a church?” Dobby asked, pointing.
LeFleur slowed the jeep and saw the remains of a cathedral. “It was,” he said. He thought for a moment. “Do you want to take a look?”
Dobby seemed surprised. “All right. If you've got time.”
Moments later they were entering the ruined structure, which had been burned inside and out from the volcanic eruption. Light spilled through the exposed beams that once held up a roof. Some pews still lined up parallel to each other, but others were destroyed, their loose boards and rails scattered where they came apart. The floor was covered in ash. Prayer books lay open and abandoned. Here and there some green growth was spreading, the Earth reclaiming the space.
The remains of a lectern, with four steps leading up to it,
stood in the center, before a large archway that was burned black.
“Go stand in that,” LeFleur suggested, “and I'll take a picture.”
Dobby shrugged. “Nah, that's OK.”
“Go on. When else will you be here?”
Dobby hesitated, then shuffled his boots along the ashen ground to the steps. LeFleur waited. Beads of sweat formed on his hairline. The lectern itself was inside a round enclosure, waist high, with a railing all around. One way in, one way out.
When Dobby reached the top, he rested his arms on the dirty edges. Had he been a priest, he'd have been ready for a sermon.
“Lemme grab my camera,” LeFleur said. He reached slowly around his side, took a breath, then pulled his gun from its holster. With both hands holding it steady, he aimed the barrel straight at Dobby, whose eyes widened in shock.
“Now,” LeFleur said. “What did you do to the
“What are you talking about?” Dobby yelled. “Why are you doing this?”
LeFleur's arms were shaking. He kept the gun aimed straight ahead.
“You're responsible for all of them,” he said.
“All of who?”
“The people on the
You killed them all. You brought a mine onto the boat, and somehow you detonated it. Now you're going to tell me how you did it, and how you escaped.”
Dobby's face contorted so severely that LeFleur was sure it was an act.
“I don't understand you, man!” Dobby said. “Come on.
Put the gun down! Where are you getting this from?”
“Are you denying it?”
“Yes. Yes! I'm denying it! Jesus, come on. I don't know what you're talking about. Tell me!”
LeFleur blew out a mouthful of air. He freed one hand from the gun and reached for the briefcase he'd carried into the church. He produced the tattered notebook and held it out as Dobby stared.
“I found it in the raft,” LeFleur said. “It's all there.”
*Â *Â *
For the next three hours, as Dobby crouched inside the lectern, LeFleur sat on a pew and read the pages of that notebook out loud, holding the gun in his lap. Periodically, he checked Dobby's face for a response. At the start, he seemed incredulous, but as LeFleur continued, Dobby's shoulders slumped and his head dropped lower.
LeFleur read to him about the sinking of the
. He read about the death of Bernadette, and Nevin, and the cruel fate of Mrs. Laghari. He emphasized the parts about Lambert, his haughtiness, his gluttony, his ego. He went slow and deliberate about the limpet mine in the drum case. Twice he read the part where Benji said, “We can't play God,” and Dobby replied, “Why not? God isn't doing anything about it.” When he read Dobby's quote about dying
in an explosion being “better than living like an ant,” he paused like a lawyer letting a damning point sink in.
Throughout the reading, Dobby sighed; at times he chuckled, and more than once he teared up. Now and then he would bury his head in his hands and sigh, “Oh, Benji.” Some of his reactions seemed odd to LeFleur, but then the whole scene was odd, reading the notebook of a dead cousin in a destroyed church, talking about God appearing in a lifeboat.
It was midafternoon when LeFleur finished. He had been so engrossed in reading the pages, he'd barely noticed the time. When he read the final line, where the little girl named Alice said “I am the Lord. And I will never leave you,” LeFleur closed the notebook and used his sleeve to wipe ashy sweat from his forehead. He stood up, the gun still pointed at Dobby.
To his surprise, Dobby immediately made eye contact. He did not seem rattled, or caught. Rather he seemed subdued with sadness, as if he'd just walked out of a funeral service.
“That's a cry for help, man,” he said quietly.
“What are you talking about?”
“He's delirious. He made it all up. Come on. Do you honestly believe he was in a boat with God? You're a cop.”
“That's right, I am,” LeFleur said, shaking the notebook. “And this has you loading a bomb onto the
giving a reason, and going off to murder all those innocent people.”
“Yeah,” Dobby said, almost smiling. “That's the most unbelievable part of all.”
“Oh, really?” LeFleur paused. “Why is that?”
“Because,” Dobby said, exhaling, “I've never set foot on that boat.”
Tonight, an update on the search for the
, the luxury yacht that sank more than a year ago in the North Atlantic Ocean. Tyler Brewer reports.
Thank you, Jim. I'm with Ali Nesser, the owner of Nesser Ocean Explorations in Naples, Florida. In a few days his search vessel, the
, will be scanning the Atlantic Ocean where the
is believed to have sunk. Mr. Nesser, can you explain how this process works?
Certainly. First we map out what's called a “search box”âan area maybe five miles by five milesâbased on last known signals and sea currents. In that search box, we'll tow a side-scan sonar and a magnetometer, which measures any change in the magnetic field and sends back images in real time. Basically, we'll keep scouring the area, hoping to pick up a signal of something sizable, like a sunken yacht. If we don't get a signal, we'll widen the box. If we do get a signal, we'll send a probe down for a better look.
Is there any chance you could raise the ship?
That's something you'd have to ask the folks who are paying for the search.
But is it possible?
Anything is possible. I'm not sure why you'd want to.
Well, as you know, many well-known people died in that disaster.
Yes, and that ship is their grave. Do you really want to disturb it?
I suppose that's for someone else to decide.
I suppose so.
Reporting live, I'm Tyler Brewer. Jim?
Dobby put his hands above his head and slowly rose from the lectern.
“I gotta stand up, please,” he pleaded. “My back is killing me.”
LeFleur kept the gun pointed, but he, too, was getting tired. The reading of the notebook had been draining. He realized this wasn't the most well-thought-out plan, coming to the exclusion zone to pry out a confession. He had no backup. If something went wrong, he was a long way from help.
“I'm still waiting for an answer,” LeFleur said. “How did you do it?
did you do it?”
Dobby lowered his hands to the filthy podium. He pushed some ash away with his fingers. “Look,” he said.
“I don't really want to tell you all this. But I can see it's the only way you're going to believe me.”
“You're gonna say you were never on that yacht?”
“I never was. I
it. I'd gone with Benji to Cape Verde, and I drove him to the docks the morning they loaded up. I was worried about him. He'd been through a lot, and he was acting strange. Agitated. I didn't want him to be alone.”
“Why go to the docks?” LeFleur asked.
“This manager of Fashion X was supposed to be there. I wanted to say hello. To be honest, I was hoping he'd hire me for their next tour. That's all. I swear.”
“So you saw the
“I saw it. It was a beast, just like he wrote. A monument to greed and excess.”
“Now you sound like the man in the notebook.”
“I'm just telling the truth. The upper deck was like an outdoor theater, a stage, dozens of chairs, a massive sound system. And every guest on that yacht had a staff member assigned to take care of them. Whatever they wanted, the staff person had to provide. Drinks. Towels. An iPad in the middle of the night. That's how that whole trip worked. At least that's what Benji told me. He had four people to look after from start to finish. I was standing next to him when they signed in.”
“You remember who they were?”
Dobby scratched his chin and looked down. “Yeah,” he said. “Now I do.”
He sighed. “One was Geri, the swimmer. One was the Greek guy, Yannis. One was the Indian woman, Mrs. LaghariâI remember her, because she looked at my clothes like they were offensive, and she asked Benji to hold a pair of earrings for herâand the last was the tall British guy, I forget his name.”
“Nevin Campbell?” LeFleur said.
“Yeah. Those were Benji's people. He was assigned to those four.”
LeFleur shook his head. “Come on. You just named four people who
to wind up in the lifeboat?”
“I know,” Dobby replied. “And I might as well tell you the rest. I met Jean Philippe and Bernadette, too. Benji introduced me. They were nice. Funny.”
“What about Nina, the Ethiopian woman?”
“We never met. But I saw her.”
“How did you know it was Nina?”
“Trust me, you don't forget a woman like that. She looked like Iman, that model? She waved at Benji, and I said, âWho's
?' He said, âNina. She gave me this haircut.'”
LeFleur exhaled. This was crazy. Dobby had just rattled off nearly all the passengers in the story. It was too
simple. He could easily be reciting their names, making up his own tale as he went along.
“The little girl?” LeFleur asked. “Alice?”
“Never saw her.”
“What about Jason Lambert?”
Dobby bit his lip and looked away.
“What?” LeFleur said.
“Put down the gun, Inspector. And I'll tell you a story.”
LeFleur held steady.
“Come on,” Dobby said. “You know, in your heart, you don't believe that notebook. Put down the gun, and I'll explain everything.”
LeFleur rubbed his eyes with his left hand. “Why do I need a whole story? What's the big deal about Jason Lambert?”
Dobby lifted his gaze.
“Benji thought Lambert was his father.”
*Â *Â *
As the sun split its rays through the church's broken ceiling, Dobby told LeFleur the story of Benji's childhood.
“Benji's mother's name was Claire. My mother was Emilia. They were sisters. Very close sisters. When my father died, we came to America, just like Benji wrote. But he didn't explain
“Benji's father was supposedly an American, that's true. And his mother did meet him in Scotland, the week of that golf tournament. And like a lot of women in our poor little town, she found herself pregnant too young. She never breathed a word to anyone except my mom. But once she started showing, Claire's parents were ashamed. It was one thing in our community when people knew who the father was. They had someone to blame. But keeping the father secret made it harder for Claire. People acted like it was her fault. It was terrible, the way they treated her. She was smart. A good athlete. But once she gave birth, she was on her own. And Carndonagh was not an easy place to be on your own.
“She raised Benji by herself, working in a butcher shop during the day, living in a flat above it at night. They barely had a penny. The town looked at them as potlickers. Claire wouldn't take any help from her folks. She was proud, even a bit headstrong, to be honest.
“One night, according to my ma, Claire came by, all worked up. She said she'd read a story in a magazine about Benji's birth father. He was hugely successful now and lived in Boston. Claire said she was going to find him, tell him about their son. She believed he would take responsibility. Of course my ma told her, âDon't be daft. He'll cast you off like a beggar.' But Claire was convinced. She
and Benji moved in with us for almost a year, so she could save what she earned and use it for plane tickets. That's when Benji and I got really close. We shared the same bed, ate our breakfasts together. We thought of each other as brothers, because we didn't have brothers of our own.
“Anyhow. You read what happened. They went all the way to the States, and my mother was right. The guy rejected her. Claire was broken. My mother sensed it from her letters and phone calls. That's why we moved to Boston, to be near her. They had a strong sister thing, those two, stronger than work, stronger than country. Funny, 'cause Benji and I kind of developed the same bond.
“Anyhow, by the time we got there, Benji was a changed kid. He knew he'd been rejected. He saw what it did to his mother. He started to hate anyone with money, or anyone who acted superior to him. I guess he associated them with the father he wasn't good enough for. But that father was always in his head. As teenagers, we used to sneak into the bleachers at Fenway Park, the baseball stadium, and he'd look down at the people in the expensive seats and say, âAny one of those guys might be my deadbeat dad.' Or we'd take the T line after school and ride out to Beacon Hill, the fancy neighborhood, and we'd smoke cigarettes and watch men coming home from work in their nice suits, and he'd say the same thing. âMight be that guy, Dobby. Or maybe that guyÂ .Â .Â .'
“I told him to stop wasting his time. It wasn't worth it. Don't get me wrong. I had plenty of issues with the rich. But not like Benji.
“Then his mom got injured at the factory, and he quit school to take care of her. That was a raw deal. She did nothing wrong. A scaffold she was on collapsed, but that factory built a case against her so they wouldn't have to pay lifetime health coverage. Imagine getting too injured to walk, and then being blamed for it. No wonder Benji was angry.
“I came back to visit them once. I was in the navy at that point, and Aunt Claire was in her wheelchairâit was the last time I saw her alive. Benji was still going on about why she was even working in that factory, and where was the father who should have been responsible for them? He said he'd go after the bastard himself if he ever knew who he was. But Claire took that secret to her grave.”
He paused. “Or so I thought.”
LeFleur looked up. “What?”
“My ma had moved back to Ireland. A few years later, she got cancer. I was with her one night, near the end, when she told me something she'd sworn to never tell anyone. She said that Benji's father wasn't only rich, but he'd become a pretty famous businessman. And that poor Claire had to read about him in the American newspapers.”
He hesitated. “And that his name was Jason.”
LeFleur blinked hard, his thoughts racing.
“Lambert?” he said.
“I have no idea. Whatever his last name was, my mother couldn't remember it. She died a month later.”
“So how did Benjiâ”
“I told him! Ahhh!” Dobby howled and rolled his eyes toward the roof. “Stupid! Stupid! He was going on about things. Why he was so poor. Why he never got a break. He was in bad shape, and I felt sorry for him. But when he started in on his deadbeat dad again, I told him to stop, he was never going to find the guy, and even if he did, nothing would happen. That's when I shared what my mother had said. I blurted it out. He just stared at me, dumbstruck.”
“When was that?” LeFleur asked.
“A month before he started working on the
. He must have sought Jason Lambert out. Rich guy? From Boston? Right name? Honestly, I never even
about a possible connectionâuntil you read me those pages. But I see it now. Because Benji was so distraught.”
He dropped his head into his hands. “Jesus. It all makes sense.”
“Wait. You're saying he was so mad at his fatherâ”
“I never said Lambert was his fatherâ”
“He was so mad at a guy named Jason that he decided to blow up a yacht? To get revenge? Come on.”
“You don't understand. He was desperate overâ”
“What about the mine? Are you saying you never told him how a limpet mine worked?”
Dobby sighed. “Years ago. I was telling him a navy story. I can't believe he remembered that.”
LeFleur adjusted his grip on the gun and wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“This is all too convenient,” he said.
Dobby thought for a moment. “Maybe not. Did you ever hear of something called confabulation?”
“I knew a musician who went through it, years ago. It's when someone confuses something they imagined for a real memory.”
“That sounds like lying to me.”
“But it's not lying. The person honestly believes what they're saying. It can happen when someone has a really bad trauma.”
“Yeah. Like losing a loved one. Or getting blown off a ship and trying to survive in the ocean. The experience makes you believe things you know aren't true.
“All that time Benji wrote that he was talking to me, he must have been talking to himself, doubting himself, torturing himselfâ”
“Stop!” LeFleur interrupted. “So Benji didn't have a father. Lots of kids don't. They don't sink a yacht to make up for it.”
Dobby locked his hands behind his neck and stared into the sunbeams.
“You're missing the point, Inspector.”
“Who was he writing to? Who's that whole story directed to? What's the name on the front of that notebook?”
Dobby looked straight at the inspector. “Don't you see? This isn't about Jason Lambert. It's about Annabelle.”
LeFleur squeezed his eyes shut. His shoulders slumped.
“Annabelle,” he mumbled. “Right. So where do I find
“You don't,” Dobby said. “She's dead.”