The Stranger in the Lifeboat (6 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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Four
Land

LeFleur drove with his body slightly twisted. The plastic bag was tucked inside his shirt, and he was doing his best to hide it from Rom. Not that Rom seemed interested. He stared out the rolled-down window, the breeze swirling his wavy hair.

LeFleur had only been able to read the first paragraphs of the notebook. When he tried to turn the page, it tore in his hands. Fearful of doing more damage, he slid the notebook back into the bag. But he had seen enough. The experts were wrong. Passengers
had
survived the sinking of the
Galaxy
. For now, he was the only one who knew.

The raft remained on the beach—it was too large to fit in the police jeep—so LeFleur called two men from the Royal
Defense Force to guard it until the next day, when he could bring a truck. The force was mostly volunteers. He hoped they knew what they were doing.

“We'll stop ahead,” LeFleur announced, “grab something to eat, OK?”

“Yes, Inspector,” Rom answered.

“You gotta be hungry, right?”

“Yes, Inspector.”

“Look, you can stop with the formalities, OK? You're not being investigated here.”

That caused Rom to turn.

“Am I not?”

“No. You just found the raft. You didn't do anything to it.”

Rom looked away.

“Right?” LeFleur said.

“Yes, Inspector.”

What a strange bird, LeFleur thought.
The north shore seemed to attract a lot of men like him, thin, raggedy drifters who were never in a hurry. They smoked a lot and rode bicycles or carried guitars. LeFleur often thought of them as lost souls who, for some reason, felt found on Montserrat. Maybe because half the island itself was lost, buried in volcano ash.

They pulled into an open-air restaurant that was part of
a small motel. LeFleur pointed to an outside table and told Rom to take it.

“I'm going to find a bathroom,” LeFleur said. “Order whatever you want.”

Once inside, he rang the front desk bell. Out from the back came a middle-aged woman with a sweep of black hair across her forehead.

“Can I help you?”

“Listen,” LeFleur said, his voice low, “I need a room for an hour or so.”

The woman glanced around.

“Just me,” LeFleur sighed.

The woman produced a registration form.

“Fill this out,” she said flatly.

“I'll pay cash.”

She put the form away.

“Also, do you have any paper towels?”

A few minutes later, LeFleur was inside a simple room with a double bed, a desk, a lamp, a floor fan, and some magazines atop a mini fridge. He went into the bathroom, ran water in the tub, then removed the notebook from the plastic bag. He ran the notebook gently through the water, just once, to remove dirt and dissolve the salt that was binding the pages together. Then he laid the notebook on one towel and patted it with another. He slid paper towels
in between some pages and pressed down. After a few minutes, he was able to separate the cover and reread the opening sentences:

When we pulled him from the water, he didn't have a scratch on him. That's the first thing I noticed. The rest of us were all gashes and bruises, but he was unmarked.

Who was this stranger, LeFleur wondered? He glanced at his watch and realized how long Rom had been waiting. The last thing he needed was that guy to grow suspicious.

He placed the notebook upright on the desk, then pulled the floor fan over to help dry the pages. He hurried out, locking the door behind him.

At the restaurant, LeFleur saw Rom at a corner table, with a glass of ice water in front of him.

“Did you find what you were looking for, Inspector?”

LeFleur swallowed. “What?”

“The bathroom?”

“Oh, yeah. Found it.”

He grabbed the menu. “Let's eat.”

Sea

It is dawn, Annabelle. I haven't slept. I've been waiting for enough sunlight to write you again. I remain haunted by the death of Mrs. Laghari, and there is no one here that I can speak to about it. Not the way I can speak to you.

I've been thinking about a memory; it comes to me vividly now. A few days ago, I had dozed off, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Mrs. Laghari combing little Alice's hair with her fingers. She did it gently, unhurried, and Alice seemed to revel in the human contact. The old woman straightened the little girl's bangs. She licked her fingertips and pressed them across Alice's eyebrows. Finally, she tapped the girl's shoulders as if to say “All good,” and Alice leaned in and hugged her.

Now Mrs. Laghari is gone. We are nine people left in the
raft. Even as I write the words, I cannot believe it. What's happening to us?

* * *

I realize I haven't written about how Mrs. Laghari or Alice or any of the others wound up in the raft the night the
Galaxy
went down. The truth is, I don't remember much. I was so exhausted after pulling myself in that I must have blacked out. When I came to, I was on my back, and I felt someone tapping my face. I blinked my eyes to see a short-haired woman staring at me.

“Did you set the sea anchors?” Geri said.

It was surreal, the question, the setting, her face, the faces of people behind her, barely lit by the hazy moonlight. I recognized Jean Philippe and Nina from the staff. The others were so wet and terrified-looking, I couldn't place them. My mouth hung open and I turned my head as if looking at a dream.

“Sea anchors?” Geri repeated.

I shook my head no, and she quickly moved away. I saw her rifling through the ditch bag as the others helped to sit me up. That's when I realized there were eight of us: Yannis, Nevin, Mrs. Laghari, Nina, Geri, Jean Philippe, Bernadette—who was lying under the canopy, her head bandaged—and me.

Geri found the sea anchors, two small yellow fabric
parachutes, and she threw them in the water and tied them through grommets on the raft.

“These will slow us down so they can find us,” she said. “But we already drifted a lot.”

Nina was crying. “Does anyone know we're out here?”

“The yacht must have sent distress signals. We just have to wait.”

“Wait for what?” Mrs. Laghari asked.

“A plane, a helicopter, another boat,” Geri said. “We gotta stay alert and use the flares if we see something.”

She suggested we get out of any clothes that were holding the cold water, and she gave Mrs. Laghari a large pink T-shirt from the backpack she'd grabbed before abandoning ship. I remember Mrs. Laghari asking Nina to unzip the back of her gown, then requesting we turn away while she struggled to get out of it. Even on a lifeboat, people have their modesty. The explosion had come during a dinner party, and the sight of most of us in dress clothes, now soaked and ripped as we huddled inside a raft, was a grim reminder of how little the natural world cares for our plans.

After that, we were mostly silent, just staring at the heavens, hoping to see an approaching airplane. None of us slept. A few of us prayed. It wasn't until the sky began to lighten that we spotted anyone else. Geri had found a flashlight in the ditch bag, and we took turns waving it like
a beacon. Somewhere around five in the morning, we heard a distant yell.

“There,” Geri said, pointing, “about twenty degrees to our right.”

Up ahead, in the flashlight beam, was a man gripping a chunk of something. As we drew closer, I realized it was actually a piece of the
Galaxy
's fiberglass hull, and the man clinging to it was the ship's
owner, Jason Lambert.

I fell backward, trying to catch my breath.
Not him!
He made a guttural moaning sound as the others struggled to pull his corpulent body into the raft.

“It's Jason!” Mrs. Laghari yelled.

He rolled on his side and vomited.

Geri turned to the horizon, which was coming clear with the daylight. “Everyone look carefully out there! This is our best chance to see if anyone else survived!”

When she said that word, it hit me like a bell chime.
Survived
? We were the
survivors
? No one else? No. I could not accept that. There must be others. In some other raft. In some other part of this angry sea. I thought of Dobby. What had happened to him? Where had he gone? Was he responsible for this disaster?

Geri pulled binoculars from her backpack, and we spread about the raft and passed them around. My turn came. At first glance, through those lenses, every small
wave seemed like something alive; you'd swear you saw a dolphin, or a piece of equipment flashing in the chop. Then I saw a spot of something red, and red is not a color you confuse with the ocean.

“I think I see someone!” I yelled.

Geri grabbed the binoculars and confirmed it. She removed a soggy piece of paper from her pocket and ripped off a small corner, then threw it in the water and leaned over to watch it.

“What are you doing?” Mrs. Laghari asked.

“The currents,” Geri replied. “See how that paper comes back to the raft? Whatever's out there will come our way if we hold our position.”

She had us paddle with our hands against the drift. I watched the red figure draw closer and closer. Finally, Yannis, who now had the binoculars, blurted out, “Oh my god . . . It's a
kid
.”

We stopped paddling to look. There, in the coming sunlight, clinging to a deck chair, was a little girl, maybe eight years old. She wore a red dress, and her light brown hair was soaked against her head. Her eyes were open, but her expression was blank, as if she were waiting calmly for something to begin. I imagine she was in shock.

“Hey! Are you all right?” we yelled. “Hey!”

Then
splash!
Geri was in the water. She swam until she
reached the deck chair, then swam back with the girl's arms around her neck.

That's how we discovered Alice.

Who has not said a word since.

* * *

When the sun set and the sky turned an amber shade, Geri rose and made an announcement. “Look, everybody. I know what happened to Mrs. Laghari is awful. But we gotta regroup. We need to focus to survive.”

I looked at the Lord. I did not tell anyone about his hand going in the water, or that strange look he gave me. Am I imagining things? Was he in some way responsible for that attack? What kind of God would do that?

Jean Philippe collected what was left of our supplies. We'd lost the binoculars, the sunglasses, and, worst of all, some of the food. The sea anchors are gone. The sharks cut a hole in the lower tubing, so the raft tilts downward and water splashes in repeatedly. One of us must constantly bail it out. Geri is trying to figure how to patch the hole closed, but it may mean going beneath the boat, and nobody wants to do that after what just happened.

“From now on, if those sharks get close, we've got to use these,” Geri said, holding up one of the paddles. “You bang them on the snout. Hard.”

“Won't that make them mad?” Yannis asked.

“Sharks don't get mad. They only attack when they smell or sense—”

“Stop this! Stop it!” Nina yelled. “We have to say something about Mrs. Laghari! We can't talk about what happens next without saying
goodbye
to her! What's the
matter
with us?”

Everyone went quiet. The truth is, none of us knew Mrs. Laghari well. We don't know anyone well. I was aware from our conversations on the
Galaxy
that she had come from India and had two children and that her work involved cosmetics.

“I liked her,” I finally said, for no particular reason. Then the others said they liked her, too. Yannis imitated her accent, and a few of us chuckled. It didn't seem right, laughing, but it felt better than weeping. Maybe laughter after someone dies is the way we tell ourselves that they are still alive in some way. Or that we are.

“Tell us that she's someplace better,” Nina pleaded, looking at the stranger.

“She is,” he said.

Geri scratched her hair. She glanced at Nevin, whose head was bobbing up and down, like someone fighting sleep.

“Nevin? You want to add anything?”

Nevin blinked hard. “What? . . . Oh . . . yes . . . She was lovely.” He sighed and rubbed his wounded thigh. “I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm not much use.”

Nevin's injuries have grown concerning. His ankle is bent at a horrific angle, the result of tripping over a locker on the
Galaxy
deck. The wound on his thigh, which he slashed open on that locker, is bad and not closing. Over the days, it's turned dark red, and we have noticed a foul odor. Geri believes there may be a small piece of metal lodged inside, causing an infection. If so, there is nothing we can do. Not about him. Not about Mrs. Laghari. Not about Bernadette. There is nothing we can do about any of this, I fear, except pray and wait to die.

News

ANCHOR:
Tonight, Tyler Brewer continues his series on the victims lost at sea in the mysterious sinking of the
Galaxy
. In his tenth installment, he profiles a British media executive who changed the face of television.

REPORTER:
Thank you, Jim. You might not know the name Nevin Campbell if you're American, but in Great Britain there is hardly a popular TV program that doesn't bear his mark. He rose from the ranks of the BBC to start his own streaming service, Meteor, which now has more British subscribers than any other.

Nevin Campbell took chances in the early days of Meteor, borrowing money to finance expensive productions like
The Hill
,
Cleopatra
, and
Do You Know Sherlock Holmes?
At one point, he had a triple mortgage on his home and rode a bicycle around London because he couldn't afford a car. But the shows he gambled on turned into blockbusters, and Campbell became one of the most successful media figures in Great Britain.

The
Times of London
, just before his untimely death, called Campbell “a kingmaker worthy of Hollywood's biggest
moguls. If he blesses your production, you will likely make a fortune. If he chooses you for the cast, you'll become a star.”

Nevin Campbell was born into an accomplished family. His father was the noted literary agent Sir David Campbell, and his mother was a law professor at Cambridge University.

Campbell stood six foot five, and as a student he excelled at the pole vault. He once dreamed of representing England at the Olympic Games, but a fourth-place finish at the trials left him one spot shy. Years later he told CNN, “I vowed to never finish out of the money again.”

Nevin Campbell was fifty-six years old when Jason Lambert invited him to attend the Grand Idea voyage. Lambert knew Campbell from a deal they did to get Meteor launched. He was interviewed on the deck of the
Galaxy
before the ill-fated journey began.

NEVIN CAMPBELL:
“I know Jason says we are here to change the world, but I'm afraid that's a bit lofty for me. I'll be happy to listen to the others speak, learn a few things, and perhaps get a tan. My colleagues say I'm too pale from working all the time.”

REPORTER:
Campbell and his wife, Felicity, divorced in 2012. They had three children. At the time of his death, Campbell was engaged to the British actress Noelle Simpson. She posted a message on Instagram thanking the public for their condolences and asking the media to respect her privacy during this difficult time.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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