Novel

Pirates & Pachyderm

I

300 Days until the apocalypse.

     Captain Leonard Kincade stared out across shipwrecked plagued waters that had claimed more sailors than scurvy and syphilis combined. His deep-set features looked as though the trade winds had chiseled them out of granite. A silver head of hair was kept trimmed down close to his scalp and he could pierce a man’s soul with his blue-gray eyes. He gripped the deck rail with hands that resembled knots of rope, like the rope that acted as the tendons and sinew connecting the muscles of his ship.

     He won that old china junk through a hand of poker in Hong Kong. He played cards like a madman, reckless and unpredictable, no opponent could read him. It was the same approach he applied to every facet of his existence. Throwing caution to the very wind by which his ship was propelled. A strategy that brought him a great deal of victories along with his share of miserable defeats.

     Kincade took a moment to reflect upon the ship and all of his voyages aboard it. From carrying Cuban and Haitian refugees to Florida, running drugs out of every sweet dope-producing nation on the planet, on up to the current business of smuggling looted antiquities out of Cambodia, the better part of his life had been spent out to sea. The better part and the longest part as well.

     The salty scent of sea spray filled his nostrils and lungs. He was lulled into a trance by the sound of the ocean rhythmically lapping against the ship’s hull. Gulls squawked and swooped, occasionally setting down on part of the mast before taking off again. A familiar pang in his gut snapped him out of it, a distress call from his liver. He ducked below deck searching the storerooms for a fresh bottle but came up empty handed while the bottle he kept in the wheelhouse had been emptied hours ago.

     “Whole damn ship is dry.” he muttered to himself. Knowing at this point what needed to be done, he disappeared below the deck once more emerging a few moments later with a large green duffel bag in each hand. He walked to the edge of the deck and threw them overboard, before taking a deep breath and throwing himself over as well. All three landed with a soft thud in the wet sand below. This was not the first time Kincade had run a ship aground, and it in all likelihood it wouldn’t be the last.

     He stood up and brushed the wet sand off of his trousers before lifting the newly soaked duffel bags out of the tide and heading towards ‘The Ugly Parrot’ to join his crew. ‘The Ugly Parrot’ was a dingy little dive bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It played host to four beers on tap, another four in bottles, three brands of whiskey, two vodkas, four tequilas, one type of rum, and all manner of drunks, as well as music seven nights a week. Nestled in among Biloxi’s numerous Casinos, the low price of drinks attracted plenty of gamblers fresh off of a losing streak.

     Seated at a table in the darkest corner of the room were four men arguing the finer points of a mutiny, as was often the case after the captain had managed to run a ship aground. The crew’s newest two members, Earl Stoles and John Stopes, were futilely attempting to persuade their other two shipmates to oust Captain Kincade and make off with his ship.

     “He’ll end up getting all of us thrown in jail, if not killed!” bellowed Earl. He was a burly, bearded man and had spent most of his adult life as a transient, often with John at his side. His only legitimate work history was two years spent as a logger in the Pacific North West along with a few short-lived jobs on construction sites. For the most part he was a petty thug, who had done petty time, for a life of petty crimes. John Stole’s story didn’t differ very much from Earl’s.  They had been set up with Kincade and Company through a mutual acquaintance. Kincade did not care much for the likes of them or their mutual “friend” but at the time he was desperate for a full crew, having just run the ship aground in Singapore.

     “What kind of man calls himself a captain then goes and runs a boat right up onto a goddamned beach?” Earl hammered his fist down causing their beer glasses to bounce. Bucky Lansing eyed him from across the table, contempt hidden just below his cool and collected exterior.

     “It’s only a minor setback.” Bucky had been with Kincade since the beginning. His loyalties were deeply set and a mutiny was something that he wanted to hear nothing of. To the right of Bucky sat Heng Ouch. Heng had been sailing with Captain Kincade for as long as he had been operating with the China Junk and had been sailing aboard that ship for longer than it had been with Captain Kincade. He worked with a diligence and focus unlike anything Kincade or Bucky had seen before and he never complained. Heng was a deaf/mute and he also would hear nothing of a mutiny.

     Kincade “won” Heng in the same hand of poker that he won the boat in and granted him his freedom, but Heng chose to remain with the ship. Although he was able to write a little bit in English Heng mostly communicated through a variety of gestures he had organically worked out with Kincade and Bucky over the years. Of the few things he had crudely written down there was a letter detailing his past that was given to Kincade.

     As an Infant, Heng was made deaf by a land mine explosion, an artifact of life left from Cambodia’s many military struggles. Somehow he survived the blast with only a permanent loss of hearing but his father who was carrying him at the time lost every limb except for the arm he had been carrying him in. Everyone in the village thought Heng was blessed but his father only saw him as a curse. His father became a desperate and violent alcoholic, dependent on Heng’s mother to make enough money for food as well as supporting his habit. He was filled with a bitter rage and grew to resent his son. He beat him with his one good arm every chance he got. It was easy for Heng to escape the beatings but due to his poor hearing they were difficult to avoid. Eventually the money Heng’s mother made wasn’t enough and his father struck a deal with a man from Hong Kong, selling the boy into slavery.

     Bucky had just convinced the would-be usurpers that there would be no mutiny, and now he was trying to convince them to stay on board.
“From time to time a ship will find itself out of water.” he said, “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”

     “Well it ain’t right.” started Earl, “He ain’t right in his head.” No sooner than Earl had finished that sentence did Captain Kincade burst through the door holding an innocuous green duffel bag in each hand.

     “I knew you two bastards would jump ship at the first sign of trouble, so I brought the rest of your shit for ya!” He then tossed the bags onto the table in front of John and Earl, taking out a pitcher of beer in the process. If the sailors had wished to avoid drawing attention to themselves by sitting in that dark corner, it didn’t matter anymore.

     “Hey what’s the problem over there?” shouted the bartender. Kincade pointed a long lean finger at his face from across the room.
“None of your goddamned business, and don’t you say another fucking word to me unless it’s to take my drink order.”

     The musician in the corner stopped singing, the bar flies stopped buzzing, and Earl and John began to put as much distance between themselves and Captain Leonard Kincade as they could manage in one night. The bartender broke the silence.

     “Do I need to throw your ass out of here?”

     “Son apparently you’ve got a listening problem.” Kincade started, “So I’ll let it slide just this once and pretend you just asked me what I’ll be drinking. Rum! And put some limejuice in it. From a real lime, none of this shit from a little plastic bottle. Ya got that?” The bartender was furious but before he could open his mouth Kincade tossed an exotic gold coin in his direction. The bartender snatched it from mid-air, and as soon as he opened his fist to put eyes upon that coin one word rang loud and clear between his ears. “PIRATE.”

     The Ugly Parrot was staffed by men in their twenties who all shared an unhealthy fixation on all things pirate. Disney had served them a swashbuckling, carefree, and action packed depiction of a pirate’s life and they ate it up like the free peanuts at the end of the bar. They threw pirate themed parties, at which they would swill large amounts of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum mixed with Coca-Cola. They putted around in little fishing boats talking in what they considered pirate lingo, and once when one of them got married there was a pirate themed wedding.

     The bartender was now in complete reverence of this wild man standing before him, and excited by the very possibility of what he expected him to be. The idea of meeting a legitimate pirate rattled his core like a monkey in a birdcage. Had he not screamed, “jump ship” at those other two men, was this not pirate gold he had paid him with? In truth it wasn’t gold at all, it was just a novelty trinket from a tourist trap in the Florida Keys.

     “I’ll join your crew!” he shouted. Captain Kincade looked him over, sizing him up.

     “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” he said, “How about that drink first.”

     “Aye-aye captain!” The now over enthused bartender shouted. Kincade muttered something beneath his breath and turned to look at the young man in the corner who had stopped playing music.

     “Why’d you stop?”

     “Well, it seemed that you had the floor.” he replied

     “Suppose you’re right about that. Do you know any Tom Waits?”

     “Just one song.”

     “That’ll be fine. Play that.” Kincade turned back toward the bar as the folkie started into a rendition of “Heart of Saturday Night” , the Captain nodded in approval.

     A dog-eared flier in the men’s room identified the singer as Thom Merchant. Thom bounced around the country going from dive to dive, playing for food, drink, and tips. He was a national treasure collecting dust in the attic. He’d written hundreds of songs about life, love and the human condition but most of his earnings were the result of the multitude of cover tunes he could play, like a human jukebox.

     Lack of recognition didn’t bother him, he shunned the spotlight, he hid from it the way a convict does during a prison break. He knew the dangers of being trapped in that light, he had heard those caged birds singing through the radio. There was no passion in those songs, no freedom, no risk, and no danger. He’d seen them lining up for a spot in the coop and more than once witnessed the cockfights that ensued. So he kept on the move, with no permanent plans and no decided direction, rudderless but free.

     The bartender set a glass down in front of Kincade and filled it with rum, leaving just enough room to squeeze half of a lime into it. Kincade eyeballed the drink before turning his piercing gaze onto the man who poured it.

     “What’s your name son?”

     “Sam.”

     “Sam what?”

     “Sam Ashwell.”

     “And just what makes you think I’d want you aboard my ship?”

     “Well” started Sam, “I’ve always known I have what it takes to be a pirate…” Right then Captain Kincade interrupted.

     “Jesus H. Christ, who said anything about pirates! You’ve got a head full of fucking fairy tales kid, and we don’t have room for your Mickey Mouse wet dreams aboard my ship. We’re sailors of fortune, mercenaries at sea, but we sure as hell aren’t fucking pirates.” his words cut Sam to pieces. He then drained his glass with one massive gulp. “And one more thing. This tastes like shit to me!” He then slammed the glass down and walked away from the bar. Sam was too crushed to say a word. Kincade joined the remnants of his crew at their table. “Looks like nothing but drunks and assholes, and drunk assholes in here.”

     “This is their natural habitat.” Bucky mused.

     “Well boys, we’ll have to figure out a way to get the ship back into the water tomorrow. Then we can make it to New Orleans to meet up with our contact and unload.” He addressed both of them although he knew that only Bucky could hear him. Heng could read lips fairly well but at the moment seemed lost in thought, starring into his beer mug.

     “You’re not worried that the ship will draw unwanted attention just sitting on the beach that way?” Bucky asked. Captain Kincade just smiled and said,

     “Not at all. The Cops will think it’s the coast guard’s problem, seeing as it’s a boat, and the coast guard will think it’s the cop’s problem seeing as it isn’t in the water. Nobody wants to deal with anything they don’t have to, it’s the American way.”

     After a few more songs Thom took a break and ordered a beer. Beads of sweat formed on his brow as quickly as beads of condensation formed on the bottle as he approached Kincade’s table.

     “I’m coming with you.” He announced, summing up every bit of courage in his body.

     “Give me three good reasons I should even consider it.”

     “I’m bored, I’ve got nothing to lose and I hate this place.” Thom answered without hesitation.

     “Good answers.” remarked Kincade as he pulled out a chair.

     They left the bar after another round and checked into a couple of rooms at the motel next door. The place was decorated in a nautical fashion that Kincade found to be in bad taste. Mirrors that resembled port holes, and cheap reproduction paintings of old wooden ships adorned the walls, which themselves had been painted an awful shade of sea foam green.

     In the next room over, Thom didn’t care too much one way or the other about the interior design of their accommodations. He had spent many a night in motels much worse than this one. Heng, on the other hand, wished for just a moment that he had been blinded by that land mine instead.

     It didn’t take Thom very long to realize that his roommate would be of little use in making conversation, so he removed his guitar from it’s case and began absentmindedly plucking away. Heng, oblivious to Thom’s nosy meditation practices, lay in bed and quickly drifted off to sleep.

     “I wonder if his dreams have sound?” Thom whispered to himself.

     Thom continued playing, just noodling mostly. Occasionally he’d play through a passage of some song he wrote, never committing to a full performance. He wasn’t really focused on the guitar, it mainly served as a way to pre-occupy himself while he thought about a few things and unwound before bed. He stared at the sea-foam green surface that separated him from Captain Kincade and reflected on the series of events that that had brought him to be a part of his crew.

II

     Thom had been driving around the country in an old Jeep formerly used for delivering mail. The driver’s seat and steering wheel were on the right hand side, the way you would find them in a British automobile. There were no other seats, just the one there on the right. It was a good way to avoid picking up hitchhikers or any other unwanted traveling companions. He made his way from town to town on an endless road trip, playing every greasy spoon and dingy dive that would have him.

     One seat, one steering wheel, one stick shift, one seat belt, one engine, one transmission, one gas tank, one guitar, one suitcase and not one shred of mail. For two years Thom and the mail jeep traced a meandering route around the country. Show to show, day in day out, until a little over a week ago when the transmission started acting up near Memphis, Tennessee.

     “Ya might of just burned out the clutch on her.” The combination of John’s easy-going cadence and southern drawl helped to make things seem like they weren’t so bad. Thom met him a about a year ago at a bar in St. Louis.  He walked in looking to shake up a little gas money but the bar had already booked John for the night. John looked to be around twenty years Thom’s senior, he’d been making the rounds of his region’s blues bars for longer than that.  Thom introduced himself and explained his situation. He had tried this a few times before and what usually happened was that whoever had been booked would tell Thom where to shove it before he moved along. John listened to Thom’s sales pitch and said he was welcome to play a little bit in between his sets. At the end of the night he even threw him a couple of bucks for gas. That night John mentioned that he lived in Memphis and if Thom ever came through to give him a call, maybe they could set up another show together.

     “I’m glad I had somebody to call.” Thom stared at his helpless jeep and John fiddled with the gear shift inside.

     “Well you’re welcome to stay at the house for a few days while I try to fix her. If I can’t figure it out I know a guy who can.” John’s hospitality was overwhelming. Thom took him up on the offer but that night he stayed up worrying that he might be imposing, but more so he was already getting anxious to move along. The next morning John had the transmission nearly halfway apart in his driveway before Thom made his way outside.

     “I’m pretty sure I can fix it, not a hundred percent sure but I think I can do it. Either way it definitely can be fixed. Might take a couple of days though.”

     “I’m thinking of hitching down to New Orleans. I’ve got something to see to down there.” Thom didn’t have anything to see to anywhere. He’d never even been to New Orleans but he didn’t want to become a burden to John and he couldn’t sit still.

     “Hitching huh? Didn’t think folks still did that.” John replied as he turned loose another rusty bolt.

     “I see folks doing it from time to time.”

     “You ever pick one up?”

     “No.”

     “I used to do a bit of that back when I was your age. Folks say it’s not safe but I never had any trouble. Of course that was years ago and people are different now. Stranger and stranger times we’re living in.”

     “Well they say it’s all coming to an end pretty soon.”

     “Yeah, they say that. Been saying that for years. Centuries even.” John stared at the pieces in front of him like he was looking for answers. After a few minutes he broke the silence, “I could give you a ride down to New Orleans. It ain’t too far. No sense in you getting stuck on the shoulder of the highway trying your luck at thumbing a ride.”

     “That’s really nice of you John but I can’t impose any more than I already have. Here’s a some money for the jeep.” Thom pulled some cash from his wallet as he continued, “I’ll be back to pick it up in a week or so and I can pay you whatever else I owe you for it then.”

     “You just put your money back for now. When you come back to pick it up I’ll let you know what you owe on it.” Thom put his money back in his wallet and fetched his guitar case from the jeep.

     “Thanks for all your help John, you really are the epitome of Southern hospitality.”

     “Southern. Northern. There’s friendly folks all over. Assholes too. If you aren’t going to let me drive you down to New Orleans, at least let me take you in to town.”

     Thom agreed to being dropped off in town. John insisted that they have something to eat first and his wife cooked them a huge breakfast. After filling up on sausage, eggs and hash browns they jumped in John’s truck and drove to town.

     Thom hung around Beale street, busking while he planned his next move. He was playing “Proud Mary” by CCR and aside from seven dollars a few passersby left in his case, he also got an idea. He decided on hoofing it all the way to the Mississippi River to see if he could hitch a ride on a boat. It was something he’d never even heard of but he had a feeling it might work.

     He hung around the docks playing for tips while waiting for an opportunity to come along. He was ready to pack it in when a small crowd of college-aged kids gathered around. They clapped enthusiastically after each song and a few threw money in the case. A few of them started to dance. After several songs Thom worked up the courage to give his plan a shot.

     “So where are you guys headed?”

     “We’re taking my parent’s house boat down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.”  One of the boys in the group shouted out. Thom couldn’t believe how his luck was beginning to turn.

     “Have ya got room for one more? I’ve got some money I could give you and I’ll be out of your hair as soon as we get to New Orleans.” The young man looked back at his friends, some shrugged while others nodded in approval. He turned back to Thom and extended his hand in greeting,

     “Looks like you’re coming with us. My name’s Tyler and as long as you keep the tunes coming you can keep your money.”

     Thom set himself up a little place, to sleep and keep his belongings, underneath a ping-pong table that was only being used to play drinking games. There were ten to twelve college kids on the houseboat, Thom couldn’t keep count, not that he cared to. All they seemed interested in was drinking, playing games that involved drinking, and then passing or making out.

     They weren’t that much younger than Thom but he felt eons apart from them. He liked them well enough, and they liked him, he even had fun flirting with a few of the girls, but none of them had anything interesting to talk about. He had expected more from a group of people coming from an institution of higher learning. The more he interacted with them, the less he regretted skipping out on college. He figured he could get shitfaced drunk and fool around with young impressionable girls for a lot less than ten thousand dollars a semester.

     When they got to New Orleans Thom thanked them for the hospitality and went into town on his own. The city was overrun with party goers. The streets swelled with bodies, most of them drunk and ready to spend their money on any sort of distraction. The fruit was ripe for the picking.

     He spent the afternoon wandering around, taking in what there was to take in and scouting out a good place to set up for a little busking. Just as the sun began its descent toward the horizon Thom found what looked to be the perfect spot between two little bars on Bourbon street. He took the guitar out of its case and began tuning up. Just as he was about to launch into his first song, Thom felt someone tap him on the shoulder.

     He turned his head and saw a silver hand. His eyes ran up the silver arm it was attached to, until he locked eyes with an entire silver man. The silver man didn’t say a word, he just stared intensely and motioned for him to move along. Thom didn’t want any trouble his first night in New Orleans so he relocated to a spot across the street. It wasn’t as ideal a location but it was better than a fight.

     The silver man turned out to be some sort of street performer. His act was to stand on top of a galvanized steel bucket and remain just as still as the heavy gulf air. Propped up next to him was another bucket with a sign that read,

TIP FOR PICTURES.
NO EXCEPTIONS!

     Thom played through a dozen or so songs and made about thirty dollars, all the while the silver man hadn’t moved an inch and looked to have made close to two hundred dollars from people posing for a photo next to him.

     “I’ve got the wrong racket”, Thom mumbled to himself, “but then again I could never stay that still for that long.” Thom couldn’t stay put for any length of time, that’s what had landed him across the street from the human statue. If he had stayed put he’d still be in Virginia, working at the shopping mall with everyone else from high school that never moved.

     After about another hour and another thirty dollars, Thom decided to pack it up and find some place to count his money. As he bent over his guitar case he heard a commotion across the street. The silver man was on the move. A couple of guys had taken a picture next to him and refused to leave a tip. Apparently that’s all it took to get the statue moving, and talking as well. Shouting in fact,

     “Hey, you see the sign. You take a photo, you put something in the bucket!”

     “Fuck you freak!” one of the guys shouted. They both had short military style haircuts, and were wearing squadron tee shirts that indicated they we’re from the Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, about ninety miles away. They’d probably come down to New Orleans for a good time and now they were getting more than they bargained for.

     The silver man pushed the taller and lankier one of the two, then went for the camera that the fat one was holding. As he was trying to wrestle the camera away from him the tall one came up behind him, got him into a headlock and started punching him in his shiny silver forehead.

     “Alright, keep the picture. Please let me go!” the silver man screamed. At this point a crowd began to gather and a crowd control police officer on horseback started to make his way towards the scene. The fatter of the two airmen saw him coming and shouted to his friend,

     “Hey man the cops are coming. We gotta get out of here!”

     The tall one let the poor street performer go and they both made a run for it. By this time a couple of foot patrol officers had also got wind of what was going on and they gave chase. Thom watched the airmen disappear around a corner and then the police after them. He shook his head as he finished packing up and made a promise to himself that he would get out of New Orleans either that night or the next day. For the time being getting off of Bourbon street would have to be enough.

     Thom’s body wandered around the city, while his mind just wandered around itself. He began to worry about what the future was going to be like for him. He often questioned his transient proclivities when but brushed the thoughts aside, knowing there was no way to know until the future arrived, at which time it would be the present and the current present would be the past and he’d have a whole different future to worry about along with a whole different past to regret and a new present to question it all in. At least that’s how it always seemed to go.

     Thom found himself passing in front of a fortune parlor just as he was sweeping his thoughts about the future into the dustbin at the back of his mind. He stopped and stared at the red neon outline of a hand in the front window.

     “Why not?” he thought aloud.

     The lobby was dominated by a large red plush sofa, there were wasn’t a soul in sight but Thom could hear someone giving a reading from behind a curtain of beads that separated the lobby from the next room. He studied the plastic veil that hung in the doorway. Each strand made up of little round purple beads, silver stars and moons. The stars and moons reminded Thom of the street performer. He thought of the airmen too, and if the police had caught up to them. He turned his attention back to the curtain of beads and tried to appraise its value in nipple gazing.

     During the sixteenth century beads carried enough value to buy quite a bit of land off of the Native Americans, although it wouldn’t be fair to say they understood the nature of the deal. In modern times they could only buy you a flash of skin from drunk girls and that was for the most part only in New Orleans and on most nights only on Bourbon Street. For one night of every year, the scope of the beads influence was expanded to include bar rooms and frat parties across the country. That night was tonight, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. Traditionally a day of feasting before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, a Catholic practice of forty days of abstinence from a habit, indulgence or vice of the practitioners choosing. Over the years Mardi Gras had become just another drinking holiday, joining the ranks of St. Patrick’s Day, New Years Eve, and in some cases Christmas. Years ago, Thom decided to give up dogma for Lent and never looked back.

     Now he sat in what his former padre would surely have considered one of the devil’s usual haunts. Of course Thom didn’t believe in Old Scratch, as he had little use for him. Several minutes passed before the belly of a severely pregnant woman parted the curtain. She wore a smile across her face, ‘Good news for her, or good news for the baby’ thought Thom, ‘probably both.’

     After the expecting mother exited the fortune parlor, a young woman’s head poked through the curtain separating the lobby from the next room. Thom was awestruck at the sight of her. She looked to be only twenty or so, maybe even just a teenager still , but there was an aura of elegance and maturity about her. Her face was set with cute smallish features and framed by glossy jet black hair. Her eyes and skin tone suggested that she was at least partially of Asian descent.

     “Are you here to learn something about yourself?” her voice was stronger than her appearance led him to believe.

     “I’m here to have my fortune told. I guess.” Thom couldn’t focus, he didn’t feel sure of himself. She made him feel the same way he felt when he got up to play his guitar in front of people for the first time. Now he had the worst stage freight of his life for an audience of one.

     “Close enough.” she rolled her eyes before melting back behind the veil. “Come in and have a seat at the table.” Thom parted the beads and entered the fortune room where she was already seated on one side of a small red table. Thom took a seat on the other side. She smiled faintly at him, Thom felt slightly disconnected from everything.

     “Thirty dollars.” she said. Thom stared blankly across the table.

     “The fee is thirty dollars.” she reiterated. Thom slowly registered the words and dug into his pockets for a ten and a twenty. He slid the money across the little table. It was so small that they were nearly face-to-face. She picked up the bills and placed them in a small tortoise-shell paneled box on a shelf behind her. She turned back around in her seat and moved her hands to the middle of the table,

     “Give me your hand.” Thom moved his left hand toward hers as he began to sweat. She waved her hand in a refuting gesture.

     “No, your right hand.” she said. Thom nervously placed his right hand where his left had been.

     As soon as she took his hand into hers Thom could feel his focus coming back to him. His heart slowed down and his nerves relaxed. He stared at his palm as she held it in her hands and began to inspect it for clues about his future.

     “Musician?” she asked him.

     “Yes.”

     “You’ve been traveling. On the road for a long time. Touring?”

     “Something like that.”

     “No, not quite. Your travels have been more about your heart than your wallet. You’re looking for something, or somewhere.”

     “You could say that.” Thom began to feel slightly vulnerable.

     “You still haven’t found it; whatever it is.” she offered.

     “At this point I don’t even think I’d know it if I did find it.”

     “Soon you will be offered an opportunity. It will led to whatever or wherever it is you are looking for.” She folded his fingers into his palm and pushed his fist toward him.

     “Is that all? Nothing about how long I’ll live, or my love line or any of that stuff?”

     “This isn’t the movies.” She retorted. Thom got up and started to leave but stopped just short of the beaded curtain.

     “Tell me one more thing.” he started, “What’s your name?”

     “You don’t need to know that.” Now it was her who looked unsettled and defensive.

     “No I don’t.” Thom started, “But I want to know.” Thom swore he thought he saw her smile a little at that. Whether or not she found his response amusing she looked over at him and said, “Dresden.”

     “Works for me.” Thom left the fortune parlor and started looking for a way out of New Orleans.

III

     This time Thom decided upon land travel. His ride on the houseboat worked well enough and he definitely hadn’t written off aquatic hitchhiking but he decided this time it would be better if he stuck to the pavement. Heading to the bus station and picked a destination off of the marquee was an appealing notion but there weren’t any buses coming or going at that hour, so he walked over to an intersection near the interstate and waited by a stoplight. He had fashioned a crude sign from a scrap of cardboard that read- ANYWHERE BUT HERE. He only had to wait around forty-five minutes before an old orange pick-up truck rumbled up to the stoplight and a guy hanging out of the passenger side offered him a ride.

     “Hey buddy, you can ride with us but you’ll have to sit bitch.”

     “Works for me.” It was becoming Thom’s mantra, he liked the sound of it. He tossed his guitar and suitcase in the bed of the truck as the guy in the passenger side got out to let Thom in. When Thom saw him outside of the truck he immediately recognized him as one of the airmen who was in the fight with the silver street performer. The ring of silver paint around his arm and torso helped to confirm his identity. Thom hopped into the truck and wondered if the cops had caught up with them already or if they were still on the run.

     “So where are we headed?” Thom asked.

     “Biloxi.” said the driver, “We’re headed back to the Air Force base up there. That’s where we’re stationed.”

     “We’re in tech school to be Air Traffic Controllers.” the other guy added, “We came down to New Orleans to blow off some steam and have a good time.”

     “Yeah, but then old numb nuts over here goes and gets in a fight with some kind of a mime or something. Anyway, I had to bail him out of jail.” Then the driver turned to the passenger, “You owe me eight hundred bucks by the way.”

     “I can’t believe they caught up to us.” The passenger responded.

     “Well that ring of silver paint on yer shirt didn’t help your case too much.” The driver started to laugh. “So what’s your story?” he asked Thom.

     “Me, I’ve just been traveling around playing music, seeing the country, ya know. My car broke down in Memphis and I managed to hitch a ride to New Orleans, and now I’m hitching a ride with you. Name’s Thom.”

     “Seein’ the country. That’s how they suckered me into the Air Force. Anyway, my name’s Russel, and that mime hating son of a bitch over there is Alex, but we all call him Chode Nose” the driver began chuckling to himself.

     “Kiss my ass.” The passenger said to Russel before turning to Thom, “You can call me Alex. No one calls me Chode Nose.”

     “Not to your face.” The driver laughed some more.

     The three of them drove on through the night.  He and Alex seemed pretty interested in Thom’s tales from the road and Russel offered to help Thom get a gig at a bar in Biloxi. They finally made it into town just before dawn. Due to security restrictions since 9/11 and Russel and Alex’s status as students, they couldn’t get Thom onto the base so he just had them drop him off at the beach.

     “You sure you’ll be all right?” Russel asked, “I’m sorry that we can’t let you crash at the barracks.”

     “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ve done this lots of times.”

     “Well okay, I’ll give you a call about that gig in a day or so.” Russel and Thom exchanged cell phone numbers before Russel headed back to base and Thom set up camp beneath a large wooden pier.

     The next morning Thom took a little stroll around the boardwalk . Casinos dominated the coastline; interspersed with the occasional tattoo parlor, pawn shop, restaurant, or adult bookstore. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

     Thom tried to do a little busking but soon discovered that most of the locals had already lost all of their money in the casinos. Once in awhile somebody on a winning streak would throw a few chips in, and less often than that an Airman from the base might toss a handful of change. All in all he made thirty dollars in chips and two twenty-five in loose change. No bills came in that day.

     He took his thirty dollars in chips to the casino they came from to trade them for cash. It was still pretty early in the afternoon and the tables hadn’t quite filled up yet. There was only the desperately unemployed, the “professional” gamblers, and the retired slot jockeys milling about. A man got up from a blackjack table after losing his last pile of chips and brushed passed Thom. He was muttering in discontent and pulling at his wedding band; out of the door and on his way to the pawn shop.

   Deciding to forgo the tables, Thom headed straight to the cashiers cage. He was almost there when the roulette wheel caught his eye. The aesthetics of that particular game of chance he’d always found appealing. The red and black pattern and all the numbers, the hypnotic motion of the wheel and the idea of the outcome being left totally up to chance. No one was playing roulette at the time, a middle-aged woman in a dealer’s uniform was attending the wheel. Her eyes were heavy with mascara and turquoise eye-shadow that matched her bow-tie. Lines we’re worn into her foundation caked face, and her hair was teased up as high as so much aqua net would allow. She was staring off into space as she waited for someone to come along.

     “Thirty-six red.” Thom called out as he lay down his three ten dollar chips. The ball dropped into the spinning wheel and clanked around for twenty seconds or so before coming to rest on his number. The dealer handed over Thom’s winnings, and smiled at him.

     “Congratulations honey!” she wheezed out in a tone of voice that suggested she had a long road paved with emphysema ahead of her. Thom tipped her a fifty-dollar chip, and headed to the casino’s buffet to celebrate.

     After stuffing himself silly Thom headed back out to the boardwalk and found a bench that provided a good vantage point for some light people watching. He thought about pulling out the guitar and trying to make a little busking money, but his stomach disagreed. People outside of the casino were almost as sorry a sight as those inside. Most of them were just making their way from casino to casino, or from pawnshop to casino and back again. Every so often a couple of guys from the Air Force base would stroll by, headed out to spend their money on tattoos and pornography, or chicken wings and beer at Hooters. The entire place seemed like a cycle of defeat, punctuated by the occasional meaningless victory. Of course that could be said for a lot of things. As Thom sat there thinking about Biloxi and its inhabitants he heard a vaguely familiar ringing.

     The cell phone in Thom’s pocket hardly ever rang. Most of the time he just forgot that it was there. He didn’t care much for it, to him it was just a bothersome tether to the rest of the world. The rest of the world that he was trying for the most part to ignore. Of course a few times it had been a lifesaver, and sometimes there was work on the other end of it.

     “Hello.”

     “Hey, Thom. It’s Russel.”

     “Yeah. Hey how are you? How’s your friend… uh, Chode Nose.”

     “I’m good. He’s not so good. Somehow word of his mime fight got up to base here and he’s gonna be facing the music for a while now. I’ll probably catch a little shit for it too, but as of now I’m doing okay. Anyway, I called about that gig I was telling you about. They want you to come in and play down there at The Ugly Parrot tonight if you can. I told them that should work out. Hope you don’t mind, I figured you wasn’t doing anything. Anyway, they printed up some posters and whatnot. Said they’ll pay you two hundred dollars to play for just three hours! Woo-ee! Can you imagine? That’s something like seventy dollars an hour or so. Anyway, they want you to start at nine. I can pick you up later this afternoon, and we could go grab something to eat and take you down there to meet the fella who owns the place, before you get started. How’s that sound?”

     “Sounds great. Thanks man. I’m just sitting out here on the boardwalk, outside of one of these casinos.”

     “Well shit, it ain’t nothing but casinos out there. You’ll have to be more specific than that.”

     “It’s the one that looks like a giant purple pirate ship.”

     Russel pulled up to the boardwalk in his old orange pick-up at around seven o’clock. Thom threw his guitar in the bed and hopped into the cab. Russel was a big fella, pretty round seeming for someone in the military. His high and tight haircut only made it look even more like he was exploding with lumps of flesh. He was a nice guy though. That’s something people always say after they say something unflattering or mean about a person, “He’s a nice guy though.”

     “I figured we could just cruise on up to the Parrot and have a bite to eat there. Meet with the bar manager and give you some time to get comfortable and whatnot. That sound okay to you?”

     “Sure. Beats sitting out on that boardwalk.”

     “Pretty boring huh?”

     “What’s that?” Thom asked.

     “The boardwalk.”

     “Yeah, the first few hours weren’t so bad. Good people watching, but eventually it got kind of depressing.”

     “Yeah, the boardwalk.” Russel drew out the ‘board’ in boardwalk putting extra emphasis on it, “Ya get it BORED-walk? Like it’s boring. Anyway that’s how we call it on base. The Bah-ore-ed walk.”

     The Ugly Parrot wasn’t too far from where Russel picked Thom up. The ride only lasted about ten minutes and mainly consisted of Russel telling Thom stories about nights he’d gotten drunk there. When they pulled up in the parking lot the place looked deserted.

     “Looks pretty dead. Only one other car in the lot.” Thom observed.

     “Nah, it’ll be hopping in couple of hours. Anyway, they get a lot of foot traffic. The parking lot could be empty and the bar still full at a place like this. Especially come eight o’clock. A lot of the folks who works at the casinos get off around then. They like to come down here for a drink. They got a real good beer and wings special. Twelve ninety-five for a pitcher of beer and twenty-four hot wings! Anyway, I hope you like hot wings.”

     “I do appreciate a good hot wing.”

     “Alright, you like the hot ones or terriyaki style?”

     “Hot ones sound good, but if you like terriyaki then that’ll be fine too.”

     “No sir, I like em hot. Hoo-yah! Alright, we’re gonna have fun tonight!” Russel seemed like an excitable fellow. Thom grabbed his guitar out of the back of the truck and they walked into the Parrot and took a seat at the bar. The bartender walked over and greeted Russel in a familiar fashion. They chatted a little before he looked over at Thom and asked, “So, this is the guy?”

     “Yep. This here is Thom Merchant. Picked his ass up in New Orleans just last night.” Russel declared. The bartender extended a hand to Thom and they shook, “My name’s Sam, I’m the bar manager.”

     “Nice to meet you, I’m Thom.”

     “Right, we’ve established that. So here’s the deal Thom. You play for three hours, Nine to Midnight. You can play longer than that if you’d like but you only have to play those three hours, and that’s all we can pay you for. You can take a couple short breaks in there, to drink or pis and whatnot, but don’t milk it. Kills the momentum in here. Don’t kill the momentum in here. Don’t play a bunch of depressing sad sappy slow shit either. And try to play songs that people know. Stuff that everybody likes. Seeger is a big hit around here.”

     “Pete Seeger?”

     “Who? No, not Pete Seeger. Bob Seeger, ya know, Old Time Rock and Roll, shit like that. Lynard Skynard, The Stones, any of that’ll do. All your drinks are free as long as those drinks are Pabst, off the tapper. You good with that?”

     “Sounds great Sam. In the meantime I think Russel and I will have a go at some of your famous wings.”

     “You guys want uh, the Hot or Terriyaki wings?”

     “Hot wings!” Russel chimed in, grinning from ear to ear.

     Thom and Russel ate their chicken wings and downed the pitcher they came with, before ordering another one. Sam got on Thom’s case about not getting to drunk to play. Thom assured him that he knew what he was doing and everything would be fine. Russel mainly talked about other times that he ate hot wings and drank beer, and started almost every sentence with “anyway” the drunker he got.

     Sometime around Eight O’clock business at the Parrot started picking up, just as Russel had predicted. Thom went to go relieve himself of some of the beer they had drank and noticed his name on the live music flier. It was written in with the same black marker that had been used to cross some other guy’s name out. Thom wondered what his story was, then he flushed the urinal and stopped caring.

     At Nine O’clock Thom stepped up to the microphone in the corner and started his first set. He stuck to playing covers and kept to the classics. A few people started getting up and dancing. Everything was going well and Sam seemed to be happy about it. He’d catch his eye every once and awhile and give Thom a thumbs up gesture. Russel continued to get progressively drunker while maintaining an increasingly jubilant mood. He tried dancing and flirting with several women but never seemed to get any traction with them. Every once in a while he’d waltz up to the microphone area with a drink for Thom. All in all it was shaping up to be a real good time.

     During the first set break Sam came over and talked to Thom.

     “Hey man, you’re doing a great job. These people they really dig you man. You want to come in again on Saturday? It’s a good gig, if it works out I could even talk to the owner about getting you some more pay for it.” The idea appealed to Thom and he thought about it for a minute while Sam poured him another beer, “I’ll think about it. I’m not sure how long I plan on being in Biloxi though. I still haven’t found a place to stay or any of that. But I appreciate the offer. I’ll let you know.”

     “Yeah, let me know man. You play really good.”

     “Thanks. Speaking of which.” Thom then grabbed his glass and made his way back to the corner to start his second set. The second set went as well as if not better than the first, Thom even tossed in a couple of originals that got a good response from the crowd. Well, everyone continued on as they had been, flirting and dancing. It was as good a response as any. During his second break before his last set, Thom had to use the bathroom and didn’t get to talk with Sam about his offer. He was seriously entertaining the idea of sticking around Biloxi awhile and trying to raise some money to get the old postal jeep fixed. He was starting to miss the thing. With the money he won at the roulette table he could easily find a small apartment to hole up in for a couple of months maybe. By the end of his urine stream Thom had decided to take Sam up on his offer.

     That left two days for Thom to kill before Saturday rolled around. The first matter of business was to find a better housing situation than staying under the pier so he used some of his roulette money and checked into a motel. It was a seedy little dump down the road but the price was right. He didn’t plan on spending much time there anyhow. There was still plenty of Biloxi to be explored.

     Thursday was spent wandering aimlessly around the city. The bulk of the afternoon  disappeared in a little bookstore he stumbled upon. The owner seemed just as surprised as Thom was when he found it. There were a lot of signs advertising bookstores in the area but they were “Adult Bookstores” and face it, those aren’t books and they’re mostly for teenagers.

     Thom picked up a couple of paperbacks and took them to the motel where he spent most of Friday reading. Friday night he met up with Russel and some of his friends from the base for a few drinks at The Ugly Parrot. He listened as the young airmen swapped stories over pitchers of beer and reconfirmed his gig for tomorrow night with Sam. After a few beers he was tempted to go back to the casino and try his luck some more but he’d made a rule that if was going to keep hanging around Biloxi he would have to stay out of the casinos so that his guitar could stay out of the pawn shop.

     Saturday morning was spent sleeping off the drinks from the night before. That afternoon Thom decided he could do better than the dump in which he was currently residing. It was a good deal financially but the place was a disaster. The physical condition alone was appalling and the people coming and going at all hours were beyond questionable. He packed up all of his belongings and took them with him to his gig at the bar. After he got paid he would see about upgrading his accommodations, but  in the end it was Captain Kincade who would pick up the tab on his next hotel.

IV

     Thom awoke somewhere in the vicinity of Ten O’clock the next morning . He got quietly left bed, pulled on his clothes and tip toed halfway out the door before he remembered that it didn’t matter on account of his room mate being completely deaf . Thom laughed at himself as he walked down the hall and stood outside of Kincade’s door, listening for sounds of movement within. It seemed as though not a crewman was stirring.

     “I wonder what business hours for these guys are?” Thom whispered to himself before heading to the lobby to see what was left of the continental breakfast. The rest of the hotel wasn’t quite as horribly decorated as the rooms but the lobby put forth a notable effort, and would go home with a silver medal. Palm trees filled large planters scattered throughout the room, a seven foot long model of a sailboat hung from the ceiling flanked by two chandeliers fashioned out of captain’s wheels. Rather than sea foam green, the walls of the lobby had been painted a more tolerable shade of midnight blue, but their tranquility was interrupted by fuchsia and purple starfish that had been glued along their surface.

     The only remnants of breakfast were a few crumbs around a stainless steel toaster, and half a pitcher of lukewarm coffee. Thom decided he could afford treat himself to lunch at a restaurant after the financial luck he’d been experiencing recently. He knew he’d have to make it quick, should Kincade and company wake up while he was out. “I’ll just run into the very first place I see and order the first thing that catches my eye.” he quietly decided.

     That place ended up being a sandwich shop across the street. Truthfully the first place that he actually did see was a waffle house next to the hotel but Thom couldn’t bring himself to go in there. The night that Russel had dropped him off on the beach he contemplated eating there. It was between Three and Four in the morning and the bars had just kicked their patrons to the curb. Thom stood outside of the place, looking in through the large plate glass window that took up the building’s entire facade. He watched the people inside move around the dining room, some trying to find out about an after bar party, some trying to score drugs, and others just trying to score, while the rest were feeding. A thought occurred to him. This low, long, rectangular building with its large glass window, seemed very much like an aquarium. One big white trash aquarium. He tried not to be judgmental about the specimens contained within but decided against joining them for biscuits and gravy.

     Thom searched the chalkboard in the sandwich shop for something that would jump out at him. Most of it seemed like your standard fare, but then one item caught his eye. “THE CREATION.”

     That was all it said, “THE CREATION”, no description, no price. Just that name, “THE CREATION.” It could be anything. To Thom it conjured up images of the Frankenstein’s Monster of sandwiches. He stepped up to the counter, rife with spontaniety as he confidently announced,

     “I’ll have the creation!”

     “Italian or Wheat bread.” The girl behind the counter asked him.

     “Okay, Um, Wheat I guess.” Thom answered.

     “Turkey or Ham.” She continued.

     “Turkey.”

     “Alright, and Cheddar or Swiss cheese?”

     “Swiss.” He answered once more. So much for spontaneity. Twenty minutes later he was halfway finished with his sandwich and walking back to the hotel as he devoured the other half.

     As he approached his room he could see Captain Kincade knocking on his door. “You’ll have to knock harder than that.” Thom called out, “probably won’t help though.” Kincade looked up to see his newest crew member walking down the corridor, wiping crumbs of a sandwich from around his mouth.

     “Where have you been off to?” He asked.

     “I just ran to get some lunch. We’ve slept through breakfast.”

     “Well, unlock the door so we can wake Heng up! Deaf as he is he could sleep through an air raid siren. Then sleep through the following air raid.” Thom opened the door and walked in behind Kincade. The captain shook Heng’s shoulder and with a few quick gestures had set him about getting his clothes on and out the door. “Grab your things and follow us.” Captain Kincade called over his shoulder.

     When they arrived at the ship Bucky was already there surveying the situation.

     “How bad is it?” Kincade called to him.

     “She’s stuck pretty bad. I can’t believe you got her all the way up onto the shore. You had to miss two pretty long sandbars to do it.” Bucky answered.

     “Any trouble with the authorities?”

     “Nope when I got out here a few folks were hanging around. Probably thought it was a new casino.” Bucky chuckled.

     “We’d better find a way to get her back in the ocean. We’re due in New Orleans tonight.”

     “I suppose if we could find a tugboat we could have it pull us out with a tow line once the tide comes in.”

     “Sounds good.” said Kincade, “You and I will go down to the marina and see about a tug while Heng and the new guy stay and watch the ship.” Then he made a few motions at Heng before he and Bucky headed off toward the marina. Heng waved for Thom to follow him as he climbed aboard the ship. Thom tossed his guitar and suitcase up to Heng before ascending the little rope ladder on the side of the ship.

     Once aboard, Thom surveyed the layout of the deck. Toward the aft section of the ship stood a small wheelhouse. It was just big enough to fit two people, but looked as though it were only meant for one. The portion of deck that the wheelhouse sat on was raised higher than the rest of the ship, and directly beneath it was Captain Kincade’s quarters. Toward the center of the main deck was a moderately sized gathering room containing a table and some chairs as well as an area to prepare food. In the corner of the room a hatch was propped open to reveal a ladder that led below deck.

      Heng motioned for Thom to follow him into the bowels of the ship. Thom descended the ladder and found himself standing in a long narrow hallway with several doors on either side. Heng had opened up one of the rooms and motioned for Thom to come in. It was alittle cabin with a set of bunk beds against one wall and a couple of wooden trunks against another. Heng gestured for Thom to set his things down and then led him down the hall to the crew’s bathroom. It was just large enough to contain a toilet, a sink and a shower stall. Heng was demonstrating how to operate the shower when they heard the sound of a tug boat’s horn.

     They rushed topside to find Bucky and and Kincade waving from the deck of a bright blue tugboat. Heng began to fasten a rope to the rear of the ship before tossing the other end down to Bucky who secured his end to the tug. After a series of hand gestures they began pulling the ship off the shore and into deeper waters. Once both vessels were in more suitable waters, the little tug pulled up alongside of the old junk allowing Bucky and Kincade to make their way back aboard their own ship.

     Kincade headed straight for the wheelhouse while Bucky and Heng immediately began to prepare the rigging and raise the sails as the tug boat putted away. Captain Kincade called for Thom to follow him. In the wheelhouse he shuffled through a stack of nautical charts until he located the appropriate sheet.

     “Do you have any sailing experience?” It was a question that Thom thought would have been better suited for their first conversation at The Ugly Parrot.

     “No.” Thom replied.

     “Well, Bucky will teach you anything that you need to know, but for the most part Heng and him will handle all the technical stuff.” Thom began to wonder where that left him in all of this. It didn’t take long for nightmarish visions of him on all fours scrubbing the decks began to seize his mind. If that were to be the case, he figured he could just jump ship once they reached New Orleans. Two steps forward, one step back.

     It wasn’t long before the ship was underway. Thom observed how quickly and efficiently they worked together and wondered why they would even need any other crew members. As though he could read his thoughts, Captain Kincade began to answer some of Thom’s questions.

     “You’ll be working closely with me. Something like a personal assistant. Anything that I need help with will be your duty. These old eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were, so I’ll be counting on you to help me keep track of what’s on the horizon. There will be a lot of errand work as well. Running back and forth to fetch me things that I find myself in need of, but have found themselves out of my reach. You’ll have your sea legs in no time.”

     Kincade consulted his disheveled maps and charts of the gulf coast, and with the help of a few navigational aides he set a South-Westerly course for New Orleans. Thom let his new job description sink in for a moment before inquiring if there were anything he should be doing at that instant. “It’ll be smooth sailing all the way to New Orleans. We just have to sit back and wait for the wind to get us there. In the meantime you can go and get that little guitar of yours. Play some songs, keep us all entertained. In fact, anytime I don’t have a specific task for you and Bucky doesn’t need your assistance, that’s something you could be doing. Never enough music on this damn ship.”

     The voyage to New Orleans went as smoothly as Kincade had said it would. He and Bucky agreed that Thom’s serenading was a welcomed addition. Inexplicably, even Heng seemed in higher spirits. As they approached their destination Captain Kincade called a meeting in the galley.

     “Courtesy of our friend on the inside.” he said, as he opened a packet of fraudulent papers.  There were fake permits, cargo manifestos, passports for the crew and even a phony log book. Everything they would need to conceal the true nature of their enterprise. The only snag was the absence of Earl Stoles and John Stopes, and the addition of Thom Merchant, who didn’t fit the description of either former crew member for whom there was a surplus of documents.

     Thom still wasn’t sure of what Captain Kincade and company were involved in but he was pretty sure that it fell well outside of the law. He was beginning to suspect that he had gotten himself mixed up in some sort of a drug running operation. The idea of bailing out in the big easy was becoming more and more appealing to him.

     “Thom you go below and keep still. We’ll just tell customs that the other two fellas got off at the last port. Couple of quitters is all they were. If we’re lucky this friend of ours will show up and handle everything.” Thom was nervous about what might be happening but he followed orders and went down to his cabin. He lay on his bed staring up at the ceiling, straining to hear what was taking place above him. Questions raced through his head. Eventually questions gave way to mental exhaustion and Thom fell fast asleep.

     The presence of a hand on his shoulder startled him awake. ‘Oh shit!’ he thought, ‘how could I have fallen asleep?’ Now customs agents had discovered him lying there below deck and had no trouble getting the drop on him. He tried to jerk away but the grip on his shoulder only tightened. He started to yell out but a second hand quickly clamped firmly around his mouth. He tried to make out the face of his captor but his eyes were still blurry with sleep. Slowly he raised his hands to rub his eyes and was surprised to find that they weren’t restrained.

     Upon removing his knuckles from his eyes Thom could clearly make out Heng’s face in front of him. The hand clasped around his mouth was removed and Heng held a solitary finger in front of his own lips, gesturing for silence as if he’d know the difference. Heng backed away and pointed at the ceiling. Thom sat up on the edge of the bed and strained his ears. He could hear the sound of footsteps up above. Two customs officials had come aboard with intentions of searching the ship.

     Heng pulled Thom to his feet and slowly opened the door. After checking to see that the coast was clear, he motioned for Thom to follow him. The lighting in the corridor had been switched to the red colored nocturnal lights. Thom couldn’t believe he’d been asleep for that long. Of course he hadn’t, Heng had switched to the red lights in an attempt to help them avoid detection, but he had no way of communicating that to Thom effectively. They crept along the narrow corridor bathed in red light, taking care to not make a sound. Overhead, Thom could hear footsteps making there way toward the entry hatch.

     A thin veil of perspiration began to form on Heng’s forehead as he worked the key in the lock on one of the storage compartments. The footsteps had stopped and now Thom could hear voices coming from around the hatch. He faintly heard Bucky obliging to show the customs agents below deck. There was a put-on tone of friendliness in his voice. Although Heng couldn’t hear anything that was going on above them, he certainly seemed to sense it. In nearly complete synchronicity Thom heard two very separate but similar sounds. As Heng clicked the storage door open, Bucky threw the latch open on the entry hatch at the opposite end of the corridor. Both doors opened with a creak as Heng and Thom disappeared into the store room at the same moment that two customs agents followed a shaft of light down into the lower deck. One of the agents switched the lighting back to the familiar tungsten glow and it’s more efficient illumination as they began their inspection of the crew quarters and cargo holds.

     The first room they entered was Heng and Bucky’s quarters. Their cabin was spotless. Aside from the presence of some clothing and personal affects it looked as if the room wasn’t even being used. The next room they checked was Thom’s, whose room showed more signs of occupation than the previous. The bed was unmade, a suitcase lay in the middle of the floor, half full of clothes. A guitar case was propped up in the corner. One of the agents began to suspect that there was third crew member aside from Kincade, before his partner spoke up.

     “That first room must belong to the gook. They’re real neat, ya know, Asians. This mess must belong to the fella who let us down here. Looks like he’s packing up his things. Must be planning on staying in town a while. Maybe ditching out like the other two guys did.” The other man nodded in agreement, forgetting his suspicions in the process. The next three rooms were locked so the men called Bucky down to open them up. Heng and Thom were currently concealed in the last room on the right, but that couldn’t last much longer.

     Heng scanned the room for a place that Thom could hide. The room they were in contained all of the things that could get them into serious trouble. The contraband, the illegal cargo, the smuggled goods. If those two government goons came in here it would land the entire crew in a hot water.

 

     Ever since the war in Vietnam, Cambodia has been inundated with landmines. They’re scattered haphazardly around the country, heavily concentrated near the borders. In recent years there have been efforts to de-mine the country, and as more areas are opened up for safe passage, more people are taking advantage of burial grounds and holy sites that were once nestled in the safety of a mine field. Years of war and hardship have left the people there in extreme poverty. Many of them take to the practice of looting these recently unprotected sites as a means of income. A person can make more money in a single night of tomb raiding than an average Cambodian would normally make over the course of a year.

     Art collectors in more developed countries pay a premium for authentic artifacts fetched by such looters. Of course most of that money goes to to the dealers and middle men, with only a small percentage going to the people doing the dirty work. Small as the percentage may be it’s still enough to attract more and more looters, day by day. Some effort has been made to stop the destruction of Cambodia’s cultural heritage but preservation of historical sites isn’t very high on a struggling government’s to-do list. They hardly have the resources to tackle the countries most pressing issues and any system put into place to protect the sites is jeopardized by corruption within that system.

     Captain Kincade and company’s current business was the transport of these looted treasures. The store room Heng and Thom stood in was filled with artifacts, the prize piece being a fully intact sarcophagus. Heng looked at the crate holding the sarcophagus and got an idea. He pried the top off of the crate and brushed away a layer of sawdust to reveal an intricately carved stone lid. As Heng motioned for Thom to help him with the heavy stone lid, Thom realized what he had in mind. He began to wave his arms and shake his head, signaling his disapproval of the plan. Heng put on an expression so stern that it gave the carved stone a run for its money as he pointed to the vintage casket. As the footsteps out in the corridor drew near Thom knew he didn’t have much of a choice.

     ‘I hope the previous tenant has already been evicted.’ Thom thought as they slid the heavy lid off. A gush of stale air rushed out to meet their nostrils and Heng began to wish he had lost his sense of smell instead. A rumor of death was contained in the bouquet that lingered out of the coffin. Thom could hear Bucky and the customs agents shutting the door across the hall as he slipped beneath the massive stone lid. He was covered in a cold sweat but relieved to discover that he was the sole occupant. The odor was unpleasant but not overbearing although it worsened as the top slid back into place.

     Inside it was pitch black and dead silent. Thom began postulating over what became of the original owner of this box. Did they just dump him out where they found this thing? Or maybe he ended up on the black market as well, a real live mummy. Maybe he was even somewhere aboard this ship? Could there really be a market for ancient dead bodies? Thom shuddered at the prospect. He thought about what kind of person the original occupant must have been. Someone important to deserve such a fancy resting place he decided. All the speculation was getting Thom worked up and breathing heavily. He wasn’t sure if this little pod was airtight or not. He slowed his breath to conserve oxygen, and cleared his thoughts in an attempt to meditate.

     Meditation wasn’t something that Thom had much experience with but this seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try. ‘How hard can it be to just lay here and think of nothing?’ he thought. After growing accustomed to the smell, the inside of the sarcophagus was serene, and well suited for the taskless task. It wasn’t long before Thom’s mind was as blank as a zen master’s, and as empty as the stone Tupperware had been before he crawled inside.

     All sense of time dissipated, the rest of his senses were dulled. The universe dissolved like a sugar cube in Buddha’s tea cup. A pin prick of white light appeared before Thom’s eyes. It twinkled like a far off star. Thom was transfixed by the little point as it pulsated and grew before him. He reached out but could not touch it.

     Soon the light had grown to the size of a compact disc and began to glow with the strength of a forty watt bulb. Light vibrated around it’s edges as it grew to the size of an old forty-five, back to analog baby! Thom’s eyes sunk into it like the stylus on a turntable. There was the sensation of spinning around and around. He swore he could faintly here George Harrison singing “Here Comes the Sun” before the episode abruptly ended.

V

     THUD! THUD! THUD! The carved top of the the sarcophagus reverberated with the sound of Heng pounding his fist upon it. Dust shook loose and cascaded down upon Thom. Slowly he gathered his wits and recalled the current situation. Heng’s pounding continued as the dankness of what little air was left inside became apparent once again. “Looks like the end of the line.” Thom whispered quietly to himself. He pressed his hands and feet against the heavy lid. As it began to slide over a yellow shaft of light crept into the sarcophagus. While his eyes adjusted he could make out only a solitary silhouette in the room with him. Eventually his pupils contracted enough that he was able to focus on and make out Heng’s face staring back at him. He waved him out of hiding and helped him to his feet.

     Thom and Heng joined Bucky on the deck, he looked like he was soaked through with sweat and visibly shaken but you could sense the relief around him.

     “Shit, are we lucky those two didn’t make there way into that last storeroom.”

     “Yeah, what happened?” Thom asked.

     “I’m not sure where they went off to, but just as they were about to pop open the door on you two their radios blasted out some urgent announcement calling all personal to another dock. Sounded like they may have found what it was they’ve been looking for somewhere else. Lucky break for us.” Bucky mopped the sweat off of his forehead with a bandanna. Thom looked around the deck for any sign of Kincade,

     “Where’s the Captain?”

     “He was hauled off to the harbor masters office for questioning.” Thom surveyed the docks and tried to make out which building was the harbor master’s office but nothing stood out to him.

     “What do we do now?” Thom asked.

     “We wait. When Kincade gets back he’ll let us know if it’s safe to unload.”
Heng and Bucky passed the time with games of checkers as they waited for Kincade to return. The sun had gone down and the docks became quiet and still. The only sound was Thom noodling around on his guitar, if it hadn’t been for that they might have heard Kincade approaching.

     “Up off your asses!” he shouted, startling Thom and Bucky, Heng remained oblivious. “We’ve got cargo to unload.”

     All four of them set to work hauling crates up onto the main deck. On the dock below another crew of men moved the crates off of the ship by crane before loading them into an unmarked delivery truck. After the work was done Captain Kincade and one of the men from the truck crew climbed into the cab together. When he exited the truck he was carrying a briefcase which he immediately handed to Heng who took off below deck with it, returning empty handed moments later. Kincade looked down at the truck which had been started but sat motionless on the pier. Then he turned to address his crew.

     “Put on your good shirts boys. We’re going into town tonight.” Bucky looked over at Kincade,

     “Celebration?”

     “Business first.” The captain replied. “We have a little meeting with our diplomat friend. Sounds like another job hauling the same kind of shit out of Cambo. We’re riding into town in the back of that truck.”

     The entire crew squeezed into the back of the truck while the two men who helped load it sat up front. It was as dark in the truck as the inside of the sarcophagus had been, but not nearly as calm and quiet. Once they got moving Bucky spoke up,

      “That was a close call with customs back there. I thought this guy was going to cover our asses? Keep that sort of thing from happening?” Kincade shifted in the darkness before responding.

     “Things got a little out of his hands. He already has to try and keep from arousing too much suspicion around here, and this human trafficking tip really put the whole port on edge.”

     “So he just leaves us to the dogs?”

     “C’mon Bucky. You know that’s a risk inherent to the job.”

     “Yeah, Yeah, I know. But I thought we could count on this guy. Who the hell is he anyway?”

     “I’m not entirely sure of that myself. As far as I can tell he works for the State Department or something along those lines. I think he’s some sort of diplomat. But that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that he pays well and has covered our asses on several occasions.”

     “Not tonight.” Muttered Bucky. Kincade shook his head in the dark.

     “We’re supposed to meet him at some joint on Bourbon Street. Just Heng and myself as usual. I think he only lets Heng around on account of him being hard of hearing. Bucky you keep an eye on things from the bar. Don’t get noticed though. Thom, stay the hell away from the whole thing. No sense in having you around for this part. You can just take the night off and enjoy New Orleans. Meet us in the cemetery around Four O’clock.”

     They could feel the truck begin to slow and make a few turns. Soon they had come to a stop and the door slid open. The four of them hopped out of the truck and into an alley behind the bar where the meeting would take place. Heng and Kincade walked around front while Bucky waited with Thom for a moment.

     “I’ll give them a few minutes to get in there and set down. Then I’ll sneak in and post up at the bar. What are you gonna do with your free night?”

     “I don’t know, I guess I could spend up some of the money I made back in Biloxi.” “This certainly is the place to do it.” Bucky chuckled. Thom pulled out his wallet to take stock of his finances and groaned.

     “Dammit, I left all my money back on the boat.” Bucky dug a grimy ten dollar bill out his pants.

     “Here I can spot you ten, but that’s it. You’re just going to have to get creative.” Thom pocketed the money and thanked him before they parted ways in the alley.
Thom wandered the busy streets aimlessly. Drunken shouts of “Show us your tits!” cut above the din. Bourbon Street was no stranger to that tune. The crowd would erupt into cheers every time a pair of nipples were exposed. Necklaces of plastic beads would rain down on those willing to show the goods. Thom pushed his way through the throngs of drunks, beer spilling onto his shoes as he avoided puddles of pis. He decided to make his way off of Bourbon Street to avoid the drunken masses.

     It wasn’t long before he found himself standing outside of the fortune parlor he visited last time he was in town. Why not? He decided as he stepped inside and took a seat on the familiar red sofa that dominated the waiting room. Thom could here Dresden moving around in the next room but there didn’t seem to be anyone else with her.

     “Hello?” Thom called out just to make his presence known. A minute passed before an answer came.

     “Yes, come in.” Dresden’s voice called from behind the curtain. Thom ducked though and took a seat at the little table. Dresden looked at him like as though he were a toaster on a golf course.

     “For someone who’s supposed to be psychic you sure seem pretty surprised to see me.” Thom laughed.

     “I’m not surprised. I’m curious.” She retorted. “Besides, it doesn’t work that way.”

     “What doesn’t work which way?” Thom asked.

     “It’s just intuition. I don’t automatically know everything that’s going to happen at any given moment. I’m perfectly capable of being surprised by something. Anything to the contrary would suggest fate, and I am by no means fatalistic.”

     “Yet you make your living predicting the future?”

     “That’s it, just predictions. It doesn’t mean they’ll come to pass. It’s like the weather. Also the the sign in the lobby says ‘For entertainment only’ so maybe you should check the fine print.”

     “Well you were pretty accurate on our first visit a week or so ago.” Thom then caught her up on everything that had happened to him since they last saw one another. She studied his face in the silence that followed his story.

     “That’s all very interesting, but way are you back here?” She remarked. Thom seemed a bit surprised by her response and just sat there speechless. “Well did you come in for another reading or are you just here to yak my ears off?”

     “I thought you’d be interested to know what came of your prediction but apparently you don’t care. All I’ve got is ten bucks.” Thom said as he pulled the tattered bill from his wallet and laid it on the table, “Entertain me.” Dresden shot an agitated look across the table.

     “Keep your filthy money and give me your hand.” Thom lay his outstretched right hand on the table and she swatted it away. “Your other hand.”

     “What’s this? The sequel?” Thom joked as he waved his left hand at her. She grabbed it and pulled it across the table towards her. “Ow, hey watch it!” Thom cried out.

     “Don’t be such a baby.” She said as she studied the lines in his palm. “Do you know where it is you are headed with these men?”

     “It’s no fun if I have to give you all the answers.” Dresden lifted her eyes from his palm and gave him a furious glance.

     “We don’t have to do this.” she said coldly.

     “Okay, sorry. I’m pretty sure they said we’re headed for Cambodia.” Her mood suddenly changed at the mention of Cambodia. She stared back down into his palm as though she were searching for something that she had misplaced there. “This is the journey I saw in your last reading. It’s very important that you go with them. When do you leave?”

     “Early in the morning, I think.”

     Dresden became visibly excited. Her chest heaved and glistened with perspiration that had no choice but to cling to her olive skin in the nights humidity.

     “There is more, but it is unclear to me now. As though it’s not meant for me to see.” Her demeanor was completely different from when Thom had walked in. Any traces of hostility had vanished. Her coldness had given way to radiance. Thom in mistaking her excitement for attraction began to make a pass.

     “Do you have a last name Dresden?” At that she curled his fingers into his palm and pushed his fist across the table and into his chest.

     “That is not in your future.” she said, some of the earlier coldness returning to her voice.

     “But the future is always changing.” Thom said as he stood up and headed out the door.

     The crowd was still going wild back on Bourbon Street as Thom made his way through packs of drunks. He ducked down a side street and into a little bar where a jazz trio poked holes through the damp and heavy air with blasts of melodic anarchy. A bouncer approached him as he walked through the door.

     “Ten dollar cover.” he held out a meaty palm and Thom placed the grimy Hamilton he borrowed from Bucky in it. He found a dark spot on the wall to lean into as he took in the music. He didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that he couldn’t purchase any drinks after having spent all of his money getting into the place. From the safety of that shadowy section of the wall he watched the band burn through a few fiery renditions of otherwise traditional tunes.

     All three of the musicians on stage were painted up like skeletons with black and white make-up. The trumpet player wore a beat up old top hat and a bright red duster. ‘He must be hotter than hell up there.’ Thom thought. The bassist and drummer, both in black coats didn’t look any more comfortably dressed. If their wardrobe was a burden to any of them they sure didn’t show it. All three of them were wild eyed and teeming with manic energy that spread through the crowd. The rhythm section was a frenzy of limbs while that maniac on the horn blew through it as though he were the trade winds. Thom was entranced and didn’t notice the redhead approach him from the bar.

     “Great band!” she shouted. Thom was startled and caused her to giggle.

     “Yeah, they’re amazing!” he shouted back.

     “I’m headed back over to the bar for another, what are you drinking?” she asked him. Thom hesitated for a moment before answering,

     “Uh, I’m not. Spent up all my money earlier.” an embarrassed grin swept across his face.

     “That’s okay, I’ve got you.” she offered.

     “You don’t have to do that.” Thom started to protest. “I’ll be fine.”

     “It’s no problem.” she answered. “You’re the first guy I’ve talked to all day that hasn’t shouted ‘show us your tits’ at me.” 

     “There’s still plenty of time for that.” Thom joked as they headed toward the bar.

     She waved at the bar tender and held up two fingers. Seconds later he set a couple bottles in front of them. She handed one off to Thom and took a drink from the other.

     “So what’s your name?” she asked.

     “Thom, what about you?”

     “Maria.” There was an awkward silence after their introductions. “So what brings you to New Orleans?”

     “That obvious?” Thom replied. Maria smiled at him,

     “The lack of an accent sort of gives it away. Even if you have managed to walk into one of the less touristy joints in the area.”

     “Yeah, I suppose you’re right about that. I just sort of blew in with the wind.” as soon as the words left his mouth Thom regretted them for their cheesiness.

     “Right.” the tone of Maria’s voice was gilded with sarcasm but she let it go.

     They found a couple seats at a small table in the back and made small talk while finishing their drinks, moving in close to hear each other over the band. Thom found her very attractive and almost immediately forgot about Dresden. Her hair was the color of the brick dust sold in the voodoo shops. It hung down around her face and framed it’s fair complexion. Two emerald orbs for eyes stared back at him as they talked. She was so slender that it seemed as though she could be blown off of her bar stool by a stray trumpet blast. She had moved to the city from Little Rock last year to work as the front desk manager at a nearby hotel. They were situated so closely that Thom felt her breath swirl around his face every time she opened her mouth to speak.

     Their knees rubbed against each other beneath the table, at first by accident and then with intention. He placed a hand on the inside of her thigh just above the hem line of her skirt. She leaned forward and whispered an invitation in his ear.

     “Would you like to see the hotel I manage?”

     A taxi deposited them near the front entrance to the hotel. Maria took Thom by the hand and led him through the lobby and toward the elevators. The place was deserted except for a few drunks and a bartender in the lounge area. The numbers above the elevator doors lit up one by one as they counted down.

     Sixteen…Fifteen…Fourteen…Twelve…Eleven…

     Thom’s heart sped up, rushing blood southward in anticipation…

     Eight…Seven…Six…

     Maria sunk her teeth into her lower lip and tugged at the tail of her blouse…

     Five…Four…Three…

     Thom shifted around in his Levi’s, trying to create a little more room as his palms dampened with sweat…

     Two…One…DING!

     Touch gloves and come out fighting.

     They plunged into the elevator and into each other. Hands groped as tongues flicked and probed. He didn’t even notice her press the button. The entire ride up fore play ensued. By the time the doors opened on the fifteenth floor Maria’s blouse was half way opened, Thom’s shirt was completely unbuttoned and his belt buckle dangled to the left of his fly. An elderly couple waiting to take the elevator down to the lobby stepped aside to let the slightly embarrassed youngsters by.

     Maria fumbled through her purse and produced her master card key. She unlocked a vacant room and they rushed toward the bed, tearing their clothes off in the process. She smiled seductively as she pulled him down on top of her and turned the soles of her feet toward heaven. Afterward Maria lay her head on his chest. Thom wasn’t ashamed of what they had done, he wasn’t particularly proud either, but he was tired and he drifted off to sleep.

     Something in his subconscious stirred Thom awake a few hours later. Maria, bathed in red light from the bedside clock radio’s display, which currently read Three-Thirty A.M.

     “I’ve got to stop falling asleep.” Thom whispered. He quickly searched the room for all of his articles of clothing and put them on. Before rushing out the door he left a note on the night stand.

THANKS FOR THE BEER, THOM

     He also left his cell phone number although he had a feeling that he would be out of calling range in the near future. On his way through the lobby he grabbed a brochure containing a map of the area before dashing out to the road. According to the map, the cemetery was quite the distance from where he was. Of course it claimed that it wasn’t drawn to scale, which could be for better or worse. He’d thought of borrowing cab fare from Maria’s purse before he left the hotel room, he could always mail it back to her at the hotel, but ultimately decided against it. “I’m not a crook yet.” he thought, also she had already given him enough.

     Thom started running toward the cemetery as he tried to think up an excuse for being late the rendezvous. It wasn’t very long before he was gasping for breath and had to slow to a near halt. He propped himself against a street lamp as he tried to catch his breath. About that time Thom was approached by a “lady of the night.”

     “Hey honey! You lookin’ fer a good time?” She called out her pitch. Thom had just had “a good time” but her proposition gave him an idea.

     “Yeah, that sounds nice.” he said. “Let’s get a cab and work something out.” The hooker agreed as Thom hailed a cab. As they climbed into the backseat of the taxi Thom noticed that the driver was the same man that dropped him and Maria off at the hotel just a few hours earlier. He gave Thom an incredulous look as Thom, looking down at the brochure, gave him the address of another hotel on the other side of town. They rode along in silence for several blocks until they came to a stop light at an intersection near the graveyard. Thom leaned forward to talk to the driver,

     “Thanks for the lift. She’ll get the fare.” he said before jumping out of the taxi and using what was left of his legs to run off into the graveyard. He could hear the prostitute screaming after him but he didn’t bother to look back. He just ran and weaved through the headstones and monuments straining his eyes for any sight of Kincade and the crew.

     Thom started to worry that he might have been left behind. Then he tried to console himself, “Maybe I’m better off not getting caught up in this mess anyway.” It was no use though, he couldn’t stop thinking of how important Dresden made it sound that he get on that boat, and more importantly his guitar and all of his money were still on that boat.

     By now he felt a safe distance from the prostitute and cab driver, so he slowed down and took a seat on a stone bench near a cluster of mausoleums. A flicker of light in a stained glass window of one of them caught his attention and he went over to investigate. Thom crept softly up the marble steps and peeked through a crack in the doors. He could see Captain Kincade and Bucky discussing something as Heng sat nearby.

     “This trip sounds a lot riskier than usual. I don’t like it.” Bucky was saying.

     “Yes, but the payoff is enormous. We stand to make a fortune.” the captain replied.

     “We could also lose everything if it goes South. We’re already short one crew member and this kid we picked up back in Biloxi isn’t exactly the type of fella we’re used to working with. He’s just a boy.” Bucky made a convincing argument but Kincade just brushed him off.

     “I think it’s worth it. If we pull this one off we won’t have to take another risk as long as we live. Now let’s go find the kid.”

     Thom, who didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping, bolted from the steps upon hearing that. He dashed across a few plots before stumbling upon a freshly dug grave which he fell to the bottom like a rag doll down a laundry chute. The wind was knocked out him when he hit the graves soft muddy bottom but nothing was broken. He sat there for a moment to catch his breath before trying to climb out. He clawed at the edge of the pit but it was useless he couldn’t get enough footing to lift himself out. “This is going to be embarrassing.” He thought.

     It wasn’t very long before the crew’s search for Thom led them near the open grave and he called out for help.

     “How the hell did you end up down there?” laughed Kincade.

     “I just sort of fell into it.”

     “Come on boys let’s help him out of here.” Kincade obviously found the situation rather humorous but Bucky and Heng weren’t as amused. They each lowered a hand and helped pull Thom out of the crypt. On the way back to the ship Kincade filled Thom in on the details of their impending voyage.

     “Were heading back to Cambodia at first light. We’ve been offered a rather lucrative opportunity over there. Normally we just pick up the goods and smuggle them back into the states or wherever else we get sent, but this time they need us to help with removing items from the site. Of course there’s added risk in going ashore and doing that part of the job but we’re being paid handsomely to do so. The ship has been resupplied and will be ready to set sail once we arrive at the pier. I hope you’re ready for a stretch at sea.”

VI

     Dresden made herself quite busy during Thom’s escapades. When he came in earlier talking of Cambodia she knew it was the opportunity she had been waiting for. She packed a small bag and made a dash for the docks. She left a short note back at the fortune parlor.

MY SHIP HAS COME IN
SEE YOU EVENTUALLY,
DRESDEN

     She arrived at the docks and immediately began searching for the ship, without knowing it’s name or what it looked like. She had nothing but her intuition to go off of, that and the fact that an old china junk in the process of being loaded by a group of shady characters was the obvious choice.

     While the men were busy on the ship she stowed herself in one of the crates still on the truck and waited to be loaded onto the ship with the rest of the supplies. Once safely aboard and certain that the supply crew had gone, she came out of hiding and made herself familiar with her surroundings. The room she found herself in was completely stocked with dried foods. “At least I won’t go hungry.” She thought to herself.

     She exited the storeroom and tried the doors immediately around it to be locked. Further down the hall she discovered the crew quarters to be unlocked. A well traveled guitar case quickly gave away which room belonged to Thom. The hatch that led to the surface was also locked. The only other room she could get into was the bathroom, which she discovered out of necessity.

     As she sat there in the dark, hovering over the porcelain bowl Dresden began to have doubts about her decision. She wasn’t even certain that this was the right ship, and even if it were, she didn’t know for sure that it was bound for Cambodia. Thom didn’t seem to be particularly knowledgeable about the details of his situation.

     She contemplated her doubts as she waited for her business to begin. Even if it were the right ship, how could she manage to stay hidden for an entire ocean crossing? If she did how could she know if she would find what she was looking for once she got there.  After a few moments she decided it was useless to worry at this point and emptied all the worry from her mind and all the contents from her bladder.

     Just as she finished her business she heard footsteps above. Too scared to risk the noise of a flushing toilet, she left a little tissue raft adrift in a yellow sea., before darting back to her hiding place in the food storeroom

Once aboard Thom headed straight to the shower to get cleaned up after his tumble in the cemetery. He used the toilet and was slightly surprised to find the previous users contribution still remained. He thought little of it before flushing and jumping into the shower. The water was refreshing as it washed away all the tension of the evenings events.

     Thom reappeared topside, a clean body in clean clothes, and began to helping Hneg and Bucky get the ship underway. It was his his first attempt to help with the rigging and he proved to be more of a hindrance than a help, but after a couple days of tutoring he began to get the hang of it. Even Bucky began to have faith in him. Kincade taught him to plot the ships course and navigate at night by the position of the stars. There wasn’t a terrible lot of work to be done once they got out to sea and as soon as Thom started to get comfortable as a sea faring man everything ran very smoothly for the crew. They spent evenings relaxing on the deck, drinking and listening to Thom play his guitar. Time effortlessly swam by like a serpent through the water.

     For Dresden the voyage couldn’t have been going any differently. Down below deck in her hiding place time was moving like a slug on salt flats. With every drink of water, every handful of food and every trip to the bathroom she risked discovery. She was hungry and lonely. She hadn’t showered in nearly a week. She smelled terrible, her stink alone might  lead to her discovery were it to get any worse. She hadn’t seen the sun since the day she last saw Thom. He was the last human contact she had.

     She didn’t know when it was night or when it was day most of the time. On occasion she heard the crew’s voices talking or Thom’s voice singing as he plunked away on his guitar. She hadn’t heard her own voice in so long that she became curious as to whether or not she could still speak.

     Thom and Dresden’s clocks continued to keep time in that matter, his running smoothly like a well oiled machine and hers grinding along down below for more than half of the voyage. Until one morning Thom awoke to natures call well before the rest of the crew and dragged himself to the bathroom to face the challenge of pissing with morning wood. He assumed a forty-five degree angle over the toilet using the wall behind it for support. As he looked down into the waters of the bowl he noticed that once again they had already been yellowed and a single square of toilet tissue was floating in the middle. “Strange.” Thom thought to himself. He knew that there was no way that the urine in that toilet belonged to Bucky, Heng or Captain Kincade. He remembered an almost identical sight several nights ago as they left New Orleans. At the time he attributed it to one of the men who resupplied the ship but this time it wasn’t an option.

     Thom made his way down the corridor checking the locks on all of the doors. He was entirely unsure of what should be done in the event that he discovered a stowaway. He thought for a moment about waking the others but decided against it.  If it had been one of them who left the toilet unflushed they would be very unhappy with having been roused from bed so early for nothing.

     Thom tried the knob on the first door only to find it locked. He didn’t have the keys for any of these doors, not because Captain Kincade didn’t trust him but because they only had enough copies for Bucky and Heng. Thom tried the next two doors, finding them both locked. All except for the room on the end. He grabbed the knob expecting it to be locked as the others had been but was surprised to find that it turned easily in his hand.

     Dresden’s pulse began to heighten as she heard the latch twisting in the door. Up until now no one had bothered to come into the room she was hiding in. She could hear the crew come and go from the room across the hall two to three times a day. She assumed that was the primary food storage room and that once it had been emptied they would start frequenting the room she had been hiding in. She knew it was bound to happen but didn’t expect it so soon.

     She climbed into one of the crates and held her breath just as the door began to swing open. She could hear footsteps enter the room and pause. She clasped her knees to her chest, attempting to make herself as small as she possibly could. Sweat rained down her neck and chest, the air inside of the crate grew heavier and more damp with every second that passed. Her lungs began to ache and her head grew dizzy from holding her breath. Whoever was in the storeroom took a few steps toward the crate she was concealed in. Her head throbbed as her body begged for air. The inside of the crate warmed like an oven. Her muscles trembled , her hair was plastered to her face and neck. She could hear the lids of crates around hers being lifted off and and peered into. Time dragged to a halt, the gears of her clock had finally worn down. A shroud of regret fell over her as she gave way to despair. The pain in her chest was unbearable, her eyes felt as though the were about to burst from their sockets. She let out a long gasp just as the lid of the crate was opened and fresh air rushed in. Her eyes shut tight.

     “Whew! Is that spoiled food or you?” it was a familiar voice, Dresden looked up to see Thom’s face beaming down at her. “What the hell are you doing here?” he asked her.

     “I’m hiding.”

     “I can see that! I mean, what are you doing on this ship?”

     “I’m going to Cambodia.”

     “Couldn’t you have just bought a plane ticket?”

     “No. I can’t leave the country. I don’t have a passport. I don’t even have a birth certificate.” A look of confusion spread across Thom’s face so she tried to explain. “I’m not a U.S. Citizen. I’m not even legally allowed to be in the country. I have no ID, no bank account, no credit cards. They can’t exactly take a large wad of cash from an unidentifiable woman at the airport.”

     “How did you get into the country in the first place?”

     “I was born in Cambodia. When I was a little girl my village was destroyed by elephants. Both of my parents were killed. An American couple working for the peace corps began to take care of me and as their time in Cambodia drew near an end they arranged to have me smuggled into the United States. I rode in the bottom of a boat the whole way across the ocean with about a dozen or so other people. The conditions were terrible but it was a chance for a better life in America. When we got to America, the couple from the peace corps weren’t there to pick me up. They must have got cold feet when they realized the implications of what they were doing and backed out of the deal. So there I was, left all alone in New Orleans with nowhere to go, and nobody to turn to. Somehow Magdalene found me, she’s the woman who owns the fortune teller’s shop where I met you. She took me in and gave me a place to live and things to eat. When I was old enough she taught me to read palms and run the store. She said that young men would rather have their fortunes read by a pretty young lady than an old woman and that I was an asset to the business so she was glad to have me around.” Thom stood there with an incredulous look on his face.

     “Elephants? Elephants attacked your village?”

     “Yes, elephants.”

     “Elephants killed your parents?” Thom’s tone was a mixture of confusion and disbelief. He rubbed his forehead as though he were trying to help the information sink in. Dresden realized how ridiculous parts of her story must sound.

     “In Cambodia there are herds of wild elephants that attack people and villages. Nobody knows what causes them to do it but some say that they are trying to reclaim there land, while others think it’s because they can remember being harmed by humans. I’ve looked into it and found out that the same thing has happened in Africa as well as other parts of Asia.” It all sounded so bizarre, but Thom believed she was telling the truth.

     “If you’re going to make it to Cambodia, we’re going to have to hide you better than this.” Thom left Dresden in the storeroom while he checked to make sure that Bucky and Heng were still asleep before moving her into his quarters.

     One of Kincade’s standing orders was that Crew members respect each others privacy. That meant no prying questions, no snooping around others rooms, and always knocking on doors before you go in. According to Kincade it was the best way he’d discovered to keep everyone from hating each other on long trans-oceanic voyages. Bucky and Heng managed to share a room successfully because of Heng’s hearing condition and the simple fact that they had known each other for such a long time. Thanks to that Thom actually had a chance of keeping Dresden hidden for the rest of the voyage. She found the other bunk in Thom’s room to be much more comfortable to the bed she had fashioned out of packing materials in storeroom. Having another human being to spend time with and talk was also a big relief.

     The next week went much more smoothly for Dresden. Thom was able to bring her warm food and clean water more often than she was able to get it as a stowaway. She enjoyed chatting quietly while Bucky and Heng were working up on deck. Thom would serenade her with his guitar on some nights. Thom also enjoyed having her around although it caused him some inner turmoil. He wasn’t sure how Kincade would react if he found out he was keeping her hidden aboard the ship and he certainly didn’t want to find out. That girl was a ticking time bomb that he invited into his bedroom, but he ultimately didn’t mind risking it. She made him feel sure of himself in a way that nothing else had managed to. In all the traveling he had done he never felt quite at home, but the more time he spent with Dresden the more he felt like he was getting closer to it.

     Bucky, Heng and Thom worked in eight hour shifts minding the ship and helping Kincade, who would come and go from his quarters to the pilot box as he pleased. Bucky worked the graveyard shift and kept the ship on course while Kincade slept. Heng worked the morning shift making preparations for each day and Thom worked afternoons taking lessons in sailing from Captain Kincade. Most afternoons he just served as his personal human jukebox while the Captain got good and drunk. The biggest use he got out of Thom was a sober pair of eyes during low visibility.

     The schedule worked out perfectly with Thom and Dresden’s living arrangement. They could sit up all night talking while Bucky worked and Kincade slept. Whether or not Heng slept or sat awake in his room didn’t matter, seeing as he couldn’t hear a thing. When Bucky was relieved by Heng and went to bed, they would whisper until drifting off to sleep before Thom’s shift in the afternoon.

     “You already know my motive but why are you on this boat?” they hadn’t discussed anything relevant to Captain Kincade or the voyage since Thom had found her in the storeroom a few weeks ago. He was surprised that she wanted to bring any of it up now.

     “It’s not a boat. It’s a ship.” Kincade was wearing of on him.

     “Fine.” She rolled her eyes at him before rephrasing her question, “Why are you aboard this ship? Why join up with these guys?” Thom sat and thought about it for a minute. He seemed to be thinking the question through for the first time.

     “Boredom, I guess. I was in a rut when I first came in to have my palm read. Then a few days later I meet these guys in some bar in Biloxi and it seemed like your prediction was coming to pass right there, so I went with it. I rode with them to New Orleans and I was thinking of ditching there but when I saw you again you convinced me to stick it out, and now here I am.” They sat in silence and Dresden began to blush.

     “So really you’re just here because of me.”

     “Well… I guess so. It all seems like bullshit now.”

     “Funny how fate works out sometimes.”

     “I thought you weren’t a fatalist.” Dresden blushed some more.

     “Bucky, come over here.” Captain Kincade called to him from the door way of his cabin. Bucky set the wheel in place and did as he was told. “Does it seem like Thom has been acting weird lately?”

     “How do you mean?” Bucky asked.

     “He’s been keeping to himself a lot lately. When he isn’t on shift he just holes up down there in his room.”

     “Yeah, I guess so. He’s not really used to this kind of life, ya know. Maybe he just needs some space.”

     “Maybe.” Kincade muttered, “Still, I want you to keep your eye on him. Pay attention and try to see if he’s okay. I don’t need anymore guys cracking up around here. We just lost Earl and John because they couldn’t handle it.”

     “I doubt he would desert in a foreign country, but I’ll see what I can find out.” Bucky agreed to the Captain’s request.

     “Thanks Bucky, I knew I could count on you. I’ll mind the wheel for the rest of your shift, you can go on to bed.”

     “You sure about that?”

     “Yeah, I can’t sleep tonight. I’m feeling antsy.”

     “Alright. G’night Captain.” Bucky made his way below deck and headed for his and Heng’s cabin. On his way down the ladder he thought about Thom. He had reservations about being asked to spy on another member of the crew. It seemed to go against Kincade’s privacy policy, but he had a point about not being able to lose any more of the crew. Bucky couldn’t blame Thom if he was thinking of deserting, he knew that this life wasn’t for most people, and Thom was just a boy. Of course Bucky was about that same age when he got mixed up with Captain Kincade, but Thom and him were from different worlds. He paused for a moment as he passed Thom’s door, and for just a moment thought he could hear him talking to himself in there.

     “So I’ve been thinking.”

     “I find that hard to believe.” Dresden teased from the bunk above Thom.

     “Very funny.” he replied, “But I have been thinking that you owe me that last name after all the trouble I’ve put myself through keeping you hidden down here.” a long silence followed his request. “Dresden? Are you awake? You don’t have to tell me your last name if you don’t want to.”

     “If I’m that much trouble than why don’t you just turn me in?” she shot back at him.

     “Relax, I was just kidding. It’s no trouble. I like having you around. It’s been nice these last couple of weeks.”

     “Do you mean that?”

     “Yeah. Besides, at this point it’ll be both of our asses if we get found out.” Thom started, “So what about that name?”

     “Don’t have one.”

     “What do you mean you don’t have one?”

     “Magdalene’s last name is Reichel if that’s what you want, but I don’t have one. Dresden isn’t even really my name, it’s just what she called me. I don’t even know what my real name is, it died with my parents.”

     “Sorry.” Thom felt bad for pressing the issue.

     “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’d have every right to want to know.”

     “Why don’t you just make up a name for yourself?” He offered.

     “What’s the point in that. A last name is meant to identify what family you belong to. I can’t just make myself up a name and family tree to go along with it. I think it’s fitting for an orphan like me to have no last name.”

     “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

     “What about you Thom Merchant? What’s your story?” The tides had been turned but no one else aboard seemed to notice.

     “Well, I grew up in Virginia where I had a pretty normal childhood. Normal enough anyway. My parents split up when I was a kid, but that’s pretty normal. After high school I went to college but dropped out after a year to travel around the country and play music. I’ve probably learned more out on the road than I would have in any university. Too bad all that traveling doesn’t come with a degree.”

     “Haven’t you ever wanted to settle down and start a family? You can’t wander around forever.”

     “No. I don’t see what the point in that would be.”

     “You don’t want a wife and children? Someone to come home to?”

     “What’s the point? I still haven’t found any place in this world that feels like home. Maybe I’ll want a wife someday, but I definitely don’t want any damn kids.”

     “Why not?” she seemed surprised and strangely upset.

     “I’m too selfish for one thing, and besides that why would I want to bring a child into this world as fucked up as it is. Birth is just about the rudest thing you can do to a poor soul. Besides there’s already too many people on the planet, almost seven billion.”

     “The world isn’t all that bad. You just have a negative perspective.”

     “No, it is that bad!” Thom started, “Probably even worse than that. There’s a lot about the world that needs to be fixed before we bring any more children into it. Besides, you’d think that someone such as yourself would be more interested in adoption.”

     “You’re just mad at the world for ignoring you the way your father did when he left and I’ll bet that’s the real reason you don’t want children. You’re bitter, and you’re scared that you couldn’t raise one because no one showed you how!” She felt terrible for saying the words as soon as they left her mouth.

     “Are you a psychologist now? Because the last time I checked you were just a cheesy palm reading psychic con-artist. What the hell do you know about my relationship with my father anyway? Why do you even care what I think about kids? The way I feel about this has absolutely nothing to do with you! This conversation is pointless!”

     “You just sound so childish that it’s impossible for me not to argue with you.” By now Dresden and climbed down onto Thom’s bunk in order to debate him face to face. He was hurt and confused by what was happening. The harder he tried to understand the harder she became to figure out. He was mixing up an emotional Rubik’s Cube in his mind. They sat there on Thom’s bed, two sets of eyes each trying to burn a hole through the other one. Eventually the hurt Thom felt got the best of him and he lashed out, “I wish I’d turned you over to Kincade and had you thrown over board as soon as i found you. I should have never walked into that stupid fortune parlor of yours.” The words cut her deep and she started to strike Thom in the chest while sobbing.

     “Fuck you! Take it back.” she cried heavily into his chest. He felt horrible and tried to sooth her.

     “Dresden, please stop. Stop crying, I didn’t mean it.” He held her close to him as her crying subsided. They shared the bottom bunk from then on.

VII

     The next day as Thom was finishing up his shift Bucky appeared on deck a bit earlier than usual.

     “Where’s Kincade?” he asked Thom.

     “Shitfaced drunk, passed out in the galley.” Thom motioned to the little area where they ate and prepared meals. Kincade was seated on a chair, the upper half of him laid on the table next to a near-empty bottle of rum.

     “That’s been happening more and more lately. Hasn’t it?”

     “Seems that way. Has he always been such a lush?” Thom asked.

     “Usually about this far into a long stretch he’ll try to squeeze himself into a bottle. It’s how he deals with it.”

     “Deals with what.” Thom asked.

     “The sea. It can drive a man to insanity. It’s the combination of loneliness and a complete lack of solitude that you can only get from a long stretch on the ocean.”

     “Oh, right.” Thom thought about it for a moment.

     “How are you holding up kid?”

     “I’m doing okay. It takes some getting used to but I think I like it.”

     “Good… That’s good.” Bucky paused and scanned the horizon before looking over at the Captain still passed out on the table. “Kincade’s worried that you might be cracking up. Says you’ve been spending an awful lot of time locked up down in your room.”

     “Well, you know.” Thom was getting nervous, “Everyone has their way of dealing with the sea, right? Kincade drinks and I sit in my room.”

     “Right.” Bucky placed one of his large knotted hands on Thom’s shoulder, “I just wanted to check up on you. Make sure you’re doing okay.” Bucky smiled at him.

     “Thanks.” Thom said as he smiled back.

     “No problem kid.” They stood there in silence and watched the ocean turn black as the sun sank below the horizon behind them. Once it was dark Bucky was the first to speak. “One other thing kid.”

     “What’s that?”

     “You’d better not let anybody else find out that you’re keeping your little girlfriend down there.” Bucky kept his eyes straight ahead as he said it. Thom felt an uneasiness in his gut. “I don’t know how you managed to get her aboard, and I don’t suppose I care to know, but you’d better make sure that Heng and Kincade don’t find out. Of course, with one completely deaf and the other completely hammered it shouldn’t be that difficult.”

     “How did you find out?” Thom asked

     “I got done with my shift early a few nights ago, and I could hear you two arguing. You’ve got to watch that shit, otherwise I’d have never even imagined. You haven’t been sneaking any extra food or water, at least nothing noticeable, and there hasn’t been anything else to indicate that she’s on board. I still haven’t seen anything, and I only heard her that once.”

     “So you’re not going to tell him?” Thom motioned to the drunk slouched over in the galley. Bucky looked at Kincade, flopped over their dinner table like a rag doll and shook his head.

     “No, I don’t see any reason to. It wouldn’t help anything, might make his drinking worse. I’ve never kept anything from him before mind you, but this is different.”

     “Thanks.” The feeling in Thom’s gut gave way to relief as they sat there in silence again. This time it was Thom who spoke first, “Do you think we should get him into bed?”

     “Yeah, why don’t you take care of that before heading back down to your woman.”

     The shock of someone else knowing about Dresden still hadn’t worn off as Thom headed entered the galley to help Kincade to bed. He reached out a hand and shook the captain’s shoulder, “Sir, wake up sir.” No reply. Thom shook him harder, “Captain Kincade! Wake up sir!” Still nothing. The scene was even sloppier when viewed up close. All the muscles in his face were completely relaxed to the point that it looked like a pile of flesh poorly draped over an aging skull, and all of that come to rest in a puddle of drool.

     Thom lifted one of Kincade’s sinewy arms around his shoulders and started to lift him off of the table and out of the chair. Kincade’s slobber smeared Thom’s cheek and dampened the shoulder of his shirt. He hoisted the drunkard up and started moving him out of the galley. Kincade began to stir as his boots dragged across the deck, “If that’s what you’re doing, you are criminally conspiring to violate my civil rights.” Kincade slurred out the sentence half asleep, half awake and completely hammered. Thom could hear Bucky chuckle from the wheelhouse.

     Once Thom got Kincade into his bed he stopped by to thank Bucky once again before saying goodnight.

     “Ya know kid, I’m not all that different from you. I had somebody once. I was just a kid then. Just a little pis-ant like yourself.”

     “What happened?”

     “She left. That’s what they do, they leave. Well not all of them, but enough of them. ‘Course they usually only leave ’cause you’ve given ’em enough reason to.” Bucky paused to collect his memory. “She was something else kid, a real Alaskan beauty. I was living there working on a fishing boat, great way for a fella your age to make a lot of money, dangerous as hell of course, but so is this. She was a young widow, lost her husband to that line of work. I figure I must have reminded her of him, and we hit it off. As the waters got all fished out we’d have to spend longer at sea to catch our quota, and the longer I was gone the more she didn’t like the idea of me being out there. She’d beg me to give it up, get a job in a salmon canning factory. I didn’t listen to her, I was trying to buy us a house so we could get married and make a little life together. I thought I had my eyes on the prize but the whole time I was ignoring her. So, one day I come home and all of her stuff is gone, there’s just this note.”

     “What did it say?”

     “Typical “Dear John” letter. She ran off to live with her sister in Wyoming. A few years later she married some fella and settled down. Had a couple of kids. In the meantime I was so distraught that I devoted my life to the sea. I joined the Navy. That’s where I met Kincade. He was an officer and I was just an enlisted man. We weren’t supposed to be social outside of duty but we hit it off and eventually we cooked up a couple of schemes to make a few extra bucks by exploiting our positions aboard the ship. That’s how the smuggling business started. Everything was going great until we got busted by taking too big of a risk. Like this job we’re on now, there was a lot of pay but it came at the cost of us getting too involved in the dirty work and we suffered for it. Kincade was forced to resign and I got court-martialed right out of the Navy.”

     “So you guys bought this ship and went back into business together?”

     “No, we parted ways for awhile after that. We both had plenty of money stashed away to live off of. Kincade went on a worldwide bender and gambling streak, picking up this ship in the process. I went to Montana to see Alice.”

     “Hmm… How’d that go?”

     “While I was in the Navy her husband had left her for another woman. When I got to her she was just as bitter as could be toward all of mankind. Waste of a trip is what it was, but I still loved her. Ever since I’ve been trying to save up enough to support her and retire, just be there for her. Maybe then we could make it work.” Bucky looked out over the bow and rubbed his eyes, “Agh, sea spray. Stings, ya know.”

     “Yeah, It’s been bad today.” Thom agreed before heading down to bed and Dresden.

     She was already asleep when he made it to bed. Thom lay there next to her, thinking about Bucky and all that he had just shared, and about Dresden and their chances of a future together. He wasn’t even sure if that was something she wanted, he knew that they both enjoyed each other but wasn’t sure how serious it was. He knew that things were nice right now, nearly perfect, but all of that could change once they reached land. They still didn’t have a plan for getting her off the ship.

     Thom somehow drifted off to sleep while those notions tormented his mind, but they followed him into his dreams. He dreamed that he was in his childhood home, gathered with his family around the table, and his parents were both there and happy, his grandparents still alive, Cousins, Aunts and Uncles from both sides of the family and everybody getting along. The spread of food was like a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. Everyone else was already eating and smiling. They motioned for Thom to dig in. He loaded his plate with food. Turkey, stuffing, Mom’s green bean casserole, fresh buttered rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy. He loaded a spoon full of mashed potatoes and put it in his mouth but when he started to chew, it all turned to sand. The microscopic grains crunched between his teeth, and soaked all the moisture from his mouth. He spit it out onto the plate and tried to take a drink from his glass of milk, but when it hit his lips it was nothing but sea water. Salty and bitter.

     He looked up at his family around him and all of their faces had turned sad. Then one by one they became angry and started to fight with one another. They shouted and shook their fists in the air but it was all in a nonsensical language that Thom couldn’t understand. When he tried to cry out for them to stop, his tongue turned to ash in his mouth and fell out onto his plate. He awoke in a puddle of sweat and Dresden was stroking his forehead.

     “You’re burning up, are you okay?”

     “Yeah, I think so. I just had the worst nightmare.” Dresden sat up in the bed and held Thom’s head to her chest.

     “You’re safe now.” she said and rocked him back to sleep.

     As Thom lay there asleep in her arms, Dresden thought about their future as well. She was more certain of it than he was, although she also didn’t know how they were going to make it work. She looked down at him and smiled, she was beginning to feel like she might have a chance at a real family. She knew then that she loved him and wondered if he felt the same.

     The next morning Thom went up to the galley for breakfast. Usually he would go up and eat half of his meal with the rest of the crew and then retire to his room with the other half to “finish later.” The second half of his breakfast would of course be given to Dresden. The first few times he tried this he struggled to come up with excuses but eventually it became a routine and didn’t require an excuse. This morning things were different. When he got to the galley, only Bucky was there. When Thom saw him he immediately hoped he hadn’t changed his mind about keeping their secret.

     “Morning Bucky!” Bucky just looked up at Thom from his plate and then over at the wheelhouse and then at Kincade’s cabin.

     “Sit down Thom.” There was no hint of emotion in his voice. Thom walked over and sat across from him at the table. “Eat your breakfast and eat it all. No sense in giving me that bullshit about how this is too much to eat in one sitting anymore. I packed a little bag of food and a jug of water for you to take to your room for the girl. It’s not much but it’s what we can get away with. I sent Heng to mind the wheel, the ocean’s been rough all night and a little bit into the morning. Kincade is probably still passed out, he’ll be in his cabin all day nursing that hangover either way. So you just eat your breakfast and when you’re done you can bring that bag down to your room. In the meantime I’m going to go down and have a peak. Bucky got up from the table and headed down below deck. Thom wanted to shout out for him not to hurt her but stopped himself. He knew that Bucky wouldn’t, but the urge to protect her was instinctual. Instead he just kept his mouth shut as he studied his eggs and toast.

      Dresden was famished when she heard the door knob turn. Her and Thom’s eating arrangement had caused them both to lose a few pounds. For Thom it was an improvement but she was already so slight that it bordered on dangerous. She looked up expecting Thom to be there with breakfast and was shocked to see the giant of man standing in the doorway. Dresden was too scared to scream, she didn’t know what to do, so she just sat there on the bed. Bucky pulled the chair over and sat down across from her.

     “Don’t worry. You’re not in any trouble. I’m surprised Thom didn’t already tell you that I know.” Dresden just stared at him with a look of confusion, still to frightened to speak. Bucky continued, “Anyhow, my name’s Bucky. I live in a room across the hall with a fellow named Heng.” He looked her over for a moment, “Hell he looks like he could be your uncle or something. You don’t have to worry much about him. He can’t hear shit, stone deaf. I’m sure Thom has mentioned that.” Bucky stopped to give Dresden a chance to speak, but she still remained silent. “Not much of a talker, eh? Well I just came down to say hello, and see what we’re dealing with. Thom should be in with your breakfast shortly.” Bucky got up and let himself out of the room, as he closed the door behind him he could faintly hear her whisper, “Thank you.”

VIII

280 days until the apocalypse

     “A dollar isn’t worth anything it’s just paper.” Whatever free time they had to themselves that wasn’t spent in bed was filled with little philosophical debates like this one. Most of the time time they discovered that they agreed on things. This caused Dresden to begin playing devil’s advocate on a number of subjects just to keep the conversation lively.

     She was currently attempting to unravel the illusion of currency. Thom, who had made it through this much of his adult life earning one grimy dollar at a time on street corners and barroom floors, wasn’t quite ready to give up the notion that a dollar meant something.

     “But the paper stands for something. All that green ink, and the serial numbers and symbols turn it into more than just paper.”

     “So just because it’s got a portrait of a dead man surrounded by Illuminati symbolism on it a dollar somehow is imbued with value?” She knew what he meant but was enjoying herself too much. Sometimes she would spend days looking for a subject that struck a raw nerve within him. There was something about watching Thom get all worked up over a thing that caused her to fall even further in love with the boy.

     “Illuminati! What? No, this isn’t some conspiracy theory mumbo jumbo. I’m talking about the value of a dollar. So what if it’s just paper. A book is just paper until you fill the pages up with words. Is it still worth just the cost of wood pulp and dye once somebody has written it?”

     “Sometimes less.”

     “Very funny Dresden. If you aren’t going to take me seriously I can go see what’s going on topside.” It was an empty threat and they both knew it. Dresden chose to humor him regardless.

     “No, don’t go. Finish what you were saying.”

     “Never mind. It’s pointless.”

     “Not if I want to hear what you were going to say it isn’t.”

     “It doesn’t matter if a dollar is just paper. It’s not the paper that has value, it’s what the paper represents. If I write you a letter it’s more valuable than just the paper it’s written on.”

     “To the both of us sure. Someone else might not care so much about it. That’s why the American dollar is doing so poorly in the global marketplace right now. It’s one country’s love letter to itself that no one else seems to care all that much about.”

     “But back in America it’s still a buck. Even if it doesn’t buy as much as it used to is besides the point. It’s proof of a job well done. It’s a receipt that says somebody valued what you were doing enough to give you one.”

     “What if I don’t have any dollars Thom? Can I still value you?”

     “Well that’s different.”

     “How’s it different?”

     “You know me. We have an intimate relationship. Valuing each other is implicit at this point.”

     “I don’t know if I like the sound of that.”

     “Why not? You don’t value me?”

     “No, I do. I just don’t think it is ever implicit in any relationship. You have to work at it every day and remember to work at it. We can’t just start taking our feelings toward each other for granted.” She had a point and he knew it. He decided to avoid the subject as best he could.

     “Look, when a stranger gives me a dollar they didn’t have any impetus to help me in any way or even pay me any mind. That dollar becomes proof that I was able to introduce something into their life that they felt had enough value to toss a dollar in the case. That’s the value of it.”

     “They should feel an impetus to help you because you are their fellow man.”

     “They should but they don’t. The world doesn’t work that way.”

     “What about people who give money to the homeless on the streets. They still give the homeless money and they haven’t introduced anything good to their life.”

     “Yes they do. People like to feel like they did a good thing by helping the downtrodden. Probably to make up for feeling shitty about something else they did. They’re spending their money on shaping their psyche. That’s what advertising is all about.”

     “Advertising? What’s that got to do with this.”

     “Advertisements are designed to alter and diminish your psyche to a point that you feel the need to go out and buy their product in an attempt to repair the damage. The thing is that the product was never meant to fix that problem, so once you get it home and out of the box any positive effects from the purchase soon wear off and you’re back where you started. Then more escapism in the form of television, leading to more commercials, leading to more damage, leading to more purchases, the cycle keeps repeating and no one feels any better about it. You’d think a country in as much debt as ours would have more to show for it.”

     “All because people value little green bits of paper.” She thought she had him.

     “No. All because people value little green bits of paper for the wrong reasons. Those people who horde all the money, the one percent or whatever you want to call them, they don’t have an ethos behind their value of the dollar. They don’t understand that it’s meant to represent an appreciation for what you do, a validation of your work. They just like to see the little numbers in their bank account get bigger an bigger. To a working man the numbers in his bank account are his proof that he contributed to his society. There’s honor in drawing a paycheck, or there used to be. When you work for a dollar it isn’t worthless. When you steal one it is but you’re the only person who knows it.”

     “You don’t draw a paycheck. You stand on the corner with your guitar and beg for change.”

     “I don’t beg!”

     “Yes you do! You just do it with rhythm and melody.”

     “Alright, so you’ve got me. That’s why I got this job on this boat.”

     “And what exactly is the job on this boat?”

     “Stealing. Well smuggling but I think that’s sort of the same thing.”

     “So what will all those dollars be worth.”

     “Less. But I got you out of the deal so the dollars I can overlook.”

Chapter nine.