Monday, December 31, 2012

Short Story: The Tarsus Secret

As my brother likes to say, Happy Old Year! Here's a short story for everyone who's ever thought of going on a cruise:

Twenty casinos that never closed. Thirty-six restaurants. Twenty-five nightclubs. Five Olympic-sized swimming pools, plus all the smaller ones. Room service, massages, the botanical gardens, maybe a hundred or so cute little shops. Movie theaters, plays and musicals. Skating shows, magic shows, strip shows, kiddie shows, water shows and laser shows. Batting cages, tennis courts, basketball courts, running tracks and racing simulators. And the Daughter of Tarsus didn’t just have all this, she had all this in style. Always the little drizzles on the plates, always someone waiting on you in starched white cuffs. The mini-bar in Connor Meara’s stateroom was always stocked, his bed was always made when he returned to his room, and the hallway (the ornate hallway with the beautiful carpet and the little statues in the corners) was always well-lit and immaculate.

It was like living in hell. The noise, the racket, never stopped. And it wasn’t just the noise; it was the lights, the people, the whining children, the claustrophobic awareness of being trapped in a city of over twenty thousand people without even the option of jumping in the car and driving to the country.

It had all sounded so good a year ago when he’d let Louise from the office talk him into booking a cruise. “Endless possibilities!” she had raved. “So much to do and see, you’ll never find the time to do it all.”

As if he’d want to do it all. There was nothing stimulating, nothing challenging. Sure, there were people on board to play chess with, and plenty of other games to play, but that was all it was: just play. He wanted to take things apart, figure out what was wrong with them and fix them. He wanted to be useful.

So here he was. It was two a.m. and he was wandering. He had wandered into the main kitchen and been kicked out. (Yes, they were actually busy cooking at one-thirty in the morning.) He had wandered into a janitor’s closet, but even the vacuums, lined up neatly against the right-hand wall, hadn’t needed any tinkering. All three hoses were clear and all three brushes were free of threads and fuzz. Six filters had been washed and were hanging above their machines, drying, while the remaining three were clean and dry and installed, their vacuum ready for use. At the moment he was wandering down a hallway somewhere near the starboard bow, on a level he guessed was roughly halfway between the keel and the highest deck, and it was looking promising. Well, maybe not exactly promising, but at least it was looking less glitzy and more utilitarian than much of the rest of the ship.

This particular hallway was narrower and less well-lit than the one outside his stateroom, and there were no statues in the corners. The carpet wasn’t maroon and tan with an intricate scroll pattern and plush padding, but a no-nonsense grey-brown mottle that tended to hide stains because it already looked dirty. Ahead, near the ceiling, was an exit sign. He walked toward it.

Under the sign was a grey metal door with a crash bar and another sign across it: “Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound,” it announced in red block letters on a black background. But the door was standing open, held by a brown rubber doorstop, and if any alarm was sounding, it was silent here. He slipped through the doorway.

The deck where he found himself somehow reminded him of a street between abandoned factories after a rainstorm. It was a dark place with a clean feel and a smell that was somewhere between fresh and sharp. A few stars, very bright and distinct, were visible overhead, but most of the sky was blocked out by high walls and shadowy angular shapes. He assumed the shapes were a few of the steel beams necessary to give support and stability to the decks above.

And then he found what he was looking for. On his left and well over his head was a horizontal service duct about four feet in height and at least as deep. It carried ductwork for the ventilation system, he figured, along with plumbing and wiring. A hinged access panel stood open, leaving a rectangular hole about two feet across. A man in navy blue uniform pants stood with his feet on a ladder and his head and shoulders inside the hole.

Connor smiled. He would try to make eye contact with the guy, and maybe he’d let him help, or at least watch. At the moment of course, eye contact was impossible, and Connor didn’t want to interrupt him, so he would wait. But he also didn’t feel right about watching a guy who thought he was alone, so he shuffled his feet and drummed his fingers gently on the metal wall.

The man quickly pulled himself out of the hole, scratched his stomach with his right hand and turned to greet Connor, coming down a step or two on the ladder. His blondish hair was tousled but his face was freshly shaved. He looked worried, or maybe just tired.

Connor stepped forward, too, and in an instant, the man had a pistol two inches from Connor’s face, pointed directly between his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, “but you must be quiet.”

“Okay,” Connor replied in a near-whisper. “I’ll just leave.”

“No,” the man said. “You cannot to leave now. You already see this.” He gestured with his head, a slight jerk upward, toward the hole.

Connor hadn’t seen what was in the hole, didn’t want to see what was in the hole, told himself not to look. But he looked. By habit, by reaction, as soon as the man jerked his head up, Connor looked up. It was money. Bundles and bundles of U.S. hundred-dollar bills. He couldn’t begin to estimate how much was there, but he was sure that whatever the amount was, it must be a staggering figure.

The man had a soft-sided tool box slung over his left shoulder, and now Connor saw that it, too, was half full of the little banded bundles of hundreds. Apparently he’d been either putting them in or taking them out.

With his right hand still pointing the gun at Connor, the man reached out with his left and closed the access panel. It made a loud popping sound when he pulled it past the hinge-spring, and then smashed shut. Connor jumped, even though he’d been expecting the sounds. The man descended the ladder, closed the flap on his tool bag and said, “Let’s go,” twitching the barrel of the gun slightly toward the door Connor had just come through. Connor started walking.

The man followed him through the Emergency Exit door and fell into step beside him with the gun at Connor’s waist, doubtless hidden under the hem of his favorite ‘34’ jersey. Even if they did meet anyone in the hallways at this hour, it would look—pale as Connor must have been—that the man was helping a sick passenger to his room.

They did walk to a room—the man’s own room, maybe. It was on a different deck from Connor’s, but looked just like it. Even the immaculate hallway was the same, except for the statues in the corners, which were still there but depicted different individuals. Beside the elevator here was a flirting siren instead of a fierce-looking sea god.

Connor couldn’t learn much from the room at first glance. The bed, of course, had been made up perfectly by the housekeeping staff, and the room was tidy. A book in Cyrillic characters lay on one of the nightstands and a pair of brown slippers was lined up neatly under the edge of the bed.

The man walked him straight to the bathroom and ordered him to sit on the white tiled floor.

Connor sat, of course, his back against the cool smooth side of the whirlpool tub, his elbows on his knees and his eyes on the pistol, which was still pointed in his direction.

The man used his left hand to open the linen closet, remove the towels one at a time and stack them on the sink vanity. Next, still gripping the gun and watching Connor, he removed the shelves where the towels had been and leaned them against the wall nearby. He was smaller than Connor and looked like he might burn easily in the sun. The embroidery over the left pocket of his navy blue uniform shirt read “P. Smith.” Connor figured that probably wasn’t his name. “Stand up,” he instructed.

Connor stood.

The man pointed into the closet, toward the floor at the back of it. “You get chain,” he said. “Give to me the end.”

In the back of the closet was a sewage pipe, and wrapped around it at floor-level was a heavy chain of the type used for towing cars. Connor squeezed into the closet, got down on one knee and found the loose end. There wasn’t room to turn around in there, so he backed out. The man took the chain from him and Connor stood back, keeping his hands away from everything. He wondered if he would have to sit by the tub again.

The man pulled a pair of handcuffs out of the tool bag by hooking it with one finger. Then he threaded one side through the end link of the chain and closed the other around Connor’s left wrist. “Turn around,” he said.

Connor obeyed, facing the bathtub. “I, um,” he began nervously, and hesitated. He put his hands up, surrender-style. The chain was heavy on his arm. “I’m not going to use it or anything, but I have a knife,” he said, staring at the swirly teal shower curtain and wishing he could see the guy’s face instead.

“Where is knife?” was the reply from behind him. If the guy was concerned about the knife, his voice didn’t show it.

“I have an inside pocket in my jeans,” Connor explained, “on the right side.”

“Okay.” The man pulled up the hem of Connor’s jersey, plucked the wallet out of his back pocket. “Take off shirt,” he ordered.

Connor pulled his jersey over his head without unbuttoning it and it slid along the chain to the floor.

“Turn around again,” the man said, and Connor did, making the chain clink and ring with his movements. The man checked near the neckband of the jersey and pulled Connor’s ATM card out from where he kept it between the tag and the back of the shirt, glanced at it and put it back. Then he felt the button band and the hem. “Now give me knife,” he ordered.

Connor slipped his index finger and thumb behind his waistband and pulled out the knife. It was a folded four-inch carbon-steel blade with a fiberglass handle that looked just like polished mahogany. He hated to part with it, and had even for the tiniest instant considered attempting to hold on to it, to keep it a secret from his captor. But a knife was no match for a gun, and it wasn’t worth risking his life for.

The man took the knife, slipped it into the tool bag. “What is in pockets?” he asked, waving the gun at the front of Connor’s jeans.

“Gum,” Connor replied, “and the stone for my knife, and my lighter, and a…well, I guess it’s a bottle opener.”

The man held his left hand out, and Connor emptied his pockets.

“Pull pockets out,” said the man.

Connor pulled out his pocket liners.

“You can put pockets back in and put shirt on now,” the guy said. He still held the contents of Connor’s pockets on the palm of his left hand, like a waiter holding a tray.

Connor pulled his jersey back along the chain, put it on and tucked his pockets in.

“You can take gum,” said the guy. “I will keep other things.”

Connor picked up the pack of hot cinnamon gum and put it back in his pocket.

“Take off shoes,” the man ordered.

Connor sat by the tub again and untied his sneakers, slipped them off.

“Throw shoes out door into bedroom,” he instructed, and then, “Turn socks inside out,” and Connor complied.

“You can put socks on again. I must go now but I will be back soon,” said the man, and left the bathroom. A moment later, a rock band from the Eighties began playing at high volume, starting suddenly in the middle of a song. Connor didn’t hear the stateroom door shut.

He set to work looking for a way to escape. The end of the chain that was wrapped around the sewer pipe was securely padlocked, the pipe itself was very sturdy, and the handcuffs at his end weren’t going to let him go, either. He examined the chain: every single link was closed and welded.

He had just begun a systematic search for some way to get a message out when the music stopped abruptly. Seconds later, the man appeared in the bathroom doorway, the tool bag gone and his arms full of folded blankets. He set them down on the floor--three blankets and a pillow—and walked away again.

He came back with one of the plastic deck chairs from the balcony, set it down and sat on the toilet with the lid down. He gestured gallantly to the empty chair and Connor sat.

The guy had Connor’s wallet in his hand, and now he opened it and pulled out the driver’s license. “Connor,” he read. “I’m sorry I have to do this, and I’m sorry I cannot explain to you why it is necessary--or at least not now. Later perhaps there may be time to tell you. For now I will only say that I am not bad guy. I must do what I came here for, and I cannot let you get in way.” He slid the license back into place and continued looking through Connor’s wallet. “I told housekeeping do not to come in. I told them I will make own bed, I don’t drink and I want privacy.”

Maybe Connor should have done that: made his own bed and stocked his own fridge instead of going out in the middle of the night and looking for trouble. “What do you want me to call you?” he asked.

The man shrugged and scoffed. “You call me anything you want,” he replied, “or maybe you call me nothing, just talk. There is no one else to confuse: if you speak, I will know it is me.”

Connor shrugged, too. He looked at the name on the guy’s chest: “P. Smith,” thought of the Cyrillic characters on the book on the nightstand, and told him, “I’m going to call you Pasha.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and The Tarsus Secret is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to The Tarsus Secret, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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