Lili Marlene

Sunday,March 20

Dietrich Hoffer was a thin man wearing antique Pince-nez glasses, precisely trimmed Van Dyke, and hand tailored gloves. He looked like an aristocrat from fin-de-siècle Vienna. He was reading documents in a leather-bound binder which he closed with a precise and measured movement when Harry sat down.

“Harry Wry.”

Hoffer declined the offered hand. “You’ll excuse me. A debilitating nerve condition.”

“I’m told you’re in the import business and you’re looking for someone to haul cargo,” Harry said.

“Who told you that, Mr. Wry?” Hoffer removed his glasses and cleaned them meticulously with a linen handkerchief. It was a surprisingly intimidating gesture.

“I’m not sure, exactly. I was drinking. Your number appeared in my notebook.” He passed his notebook to Hoffer. “That is your number, isn’t it?”

Hoffer replaced his glasses before accepting the notebook from Harry. “It was my number. It’s no longer in service.”

“Yeah, I know. So, you hiring?”

“One moment, Mr. Wry.” Hoffer stood, brushed the wrinkles from of his pressed pants, walked to the old Wurlitzer in the corner of the bar and made a selection. By the time he returned to the booth Marlene Dietrich was singing the German lyrics to “Lili Marlene” in a throaty voice.

“What have you to offer, Mr. Wry?”

“I’ve got a schooner at anchor in the bay with a hold big enough to carry a substantial cargo and I’m desperate enough to carry it no questions asked. Almost no questions.”

“What questions do you have, Mr. Wry?”

“What, when, and how much.”

“And why should I do business with you, Mr. Wry? I know nothing about you.”

“You can ask Lidmann. He knows everything about me you need to know.”

“I will make inquiries, Mr. Wry. Do you have a phone number?”

“No. I live onboard.”

“You don’t have a cell phone?”

“No. Electricity is scarce,” Harry said.

Hoffer looked at him sharply.

“And they’re too easy to tap,” Harry added.

“A wise precaution, Mr. Wry. Very well. Return this evening. I’ll inform Lidmann if I’m interested further.” Hoffer opened his leather binder and waited for Harry to remove himself.

“Pleasure talking to you,” Harry said. It wasn’t.

Afterward, Harry couldn’t remember exactly what Dietrich Hoffer looked like besides the black leather gloves and the antique glasses. Almost immediately the man seemed to fade in his memory like an old photo.

He waved to Lidmann on his way out the door, blinked in the bright sunlight, and abruptly ran into a Stetson hat. Beneath the Stetson was a denim shirt, Levi’s and cowboy boots that might have been alligator hide. “Harry Wry?”

Harry lied reflexively. “Name’s Rehnquist, William Rehnquist.”

The man snorted. “A dead Supreme Court judge? Nice touch. Harry Wry, you’ve been served.”

The cowboy hat tucked a folded sheet of paper in Harry’s shirt pocket and pivoted on his cowboy heels.

Gray Marine Engine Works had filed suit for lack of payment. Harry had 30 days to pay the bill or surrender Spike Africa for impoundment.

Before returning to the schooner, Harry made a call from another pay phone in front of the Asian Soho Bistro. Bulldog Purvis answered. Bulldog had crewed for Harry carrying tourists on day trips from different ports around the Salish Sea.

“I may have some work for you if you’re not squeamish,” Harry said.

“It can’t be worse than pumping septic tanks,” Bulldog said.

“That’s what you’ve been doing?”

“It pays the bills. Most months. Like they say, it might be shit to you but it’s my bread and butter.”

“They don’t say that,” Harry said. “If it happens, it will mostly be night work but it pays better than pumping septic tanks. We’ll need a deckhand as well.”

“I’ve got a friend. He knows bow from stern and I trust him.”

“I’ll call you when I know more. There may not be much notice. And Bulldog, don’t tell anyone else about this. Not even your mother or you might not have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. The state will provide it.”

When Harry returned to the Spike Africa, he deliberately rowed around her. She had a year’s worth of marine growth on her bottom. It would take a knot off her best speed but there wasn’t time or money to haul and scrape her. The old girl’s fate wouldn’t depend upon speed, anyway. On a beam reach with a stiff breeze she might make eight, maybe nine knots, not enough to outrun anything chasing her. Her only hope was slipping between ports unnoticed.

On deck, she looked like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet. The white paint on her deckhouse was peeling, her teak decks were grey with dirt, and the brass ventilator cowls that passed fresh air below were green with verdigris. The varnish on her spars had bubbled and flaked, exposing bare wood to the weather. The wheel was unmounted from the steering gear and leaned against the deckhouse. Her running rigging was spliced a dozen times over but it would do. It would have to.

Harry sat in the cockpit and admired the graceful sheer of the schooner’s deck. He stroked the teak cockpit coaming. “I don’t see any other way out of this,” he said to the schooner. “We’ve got our backs against the wall and they’re loading the guns.”

That evening he returned to Fiddler’s Green. Lidmann was polishing a pickle jar full of cloudy liquid. He claimed it was the same pickle jar that Gallus Meg once kept the ears she bit off boisterous sailors in her bar on the New York waterfront during the boisterous Age of Sail.

“Lidmann.”

“Harry.”

“Any word from our mutual friend?” Harry jerked his thumb in the direction of Dietrich Hoffer’s booth.

Lidmann sat the pickle jar on the bar. “It’s a dangerous game, Harry. Think twice about making deals with the devil.”

“I don’t have much choice. I got served with papers. The old girls will be arrested if I don’t pay. Once the marshals have her, I’ll never get her back.”

“He wants to talk to you,” Lidmann said. “But Harry, watch your back. The man is a pit viper.”

“Even vipers predictably serve their own interests,” Harry said and hoped it was true.

Harry stood beside Hoffer’s booth waiting for the man to look up from his journal.

“Mr. Wry.” Hoffer was still wearing the black gloves. They looked supple enough to have been made from the skin of young goats—kid gloves. He gestured for Harry to sit.

“Do we have business to conduct?” Harry asked.

“One moment.” Hoffer walked to the Wurlitzer, selected “Lili Marlene,” and returned to the table. “Indeed, we do.”

“My references were acceptable?”

“You qualify as a desperate man, Mr. Wry. When can you sail?”

“The sooner the better. Tonight, if need be.”

“I will let you know in a few days. I’ll leave word with Lidmann. You know Whiffin Spit on Sooke Inlet?” Harry nodded. Sooke Inlet was on Vancouver Island, almost directly across the Strait from Port Angeles. “How long will it take you to cross the Strait?”

“Four, five hours, depending on the breeze and the current.”

“I’ll make the arrangements. I’ll require you to load and depart the same night. Return by a more circuitous route and unload the next night.”

“Where do we offload?” Harry asked.

“Freshwater Bay, near Observatory Point.”

Harry bit his lip.

“Is that a problem, Mr. Wry?”

“Freshwater Bay is an open roadstead. If there’s any sea running it will be difficult to land a loaded boat. It’s also an old log dump. There are a lot of snags close inshore.”

“Do you have an alternative?”

“I do. We could land on the beach at Tse-whit-zen.”

“The site of the graving dock?”

Harry thought Hoffer coughed. Later he recognized it was Hoffer’s dry, humorless laughter.

“Why not? It’s not visible from the street. No one goes there after dark. I know the night watchman. We could land your cargo safely and unobserved.”

“Amusing,” Hoffer said. He removed his Pince-nez glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. ”At the doorstep of the U.S. Coast Guard. Agreed then. I’ll accept delivery at Tse-whit-zen.”

“How much does the job pay? I have my crew to consider, and whatever Sully needs to look the other way, and…”

Hoffer wrote a figure on a napkin and slid it across the table. Harry turned it over. “Damn. Who knew smuggling was so profitable? I guess everybody but me. What is it we’re carrying?”

“I pay you not to ask questions, Mr. Wry. You will deliver my cargo without looking in the crates. If you accept my money, you accept my terms. The consequences for violating those terms are, shall we say, prohibitive. You’ll receive one third now and the balance on delivery. Are we agreed?”

“Agreed.” Harry didn’t hesitate. Later, he wondered why he hadn’t.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Fiddler’s Green

Saturday, March 19

Two days before he met Sully Marlybone at the Eagle Café, Harry Wry was startled by the sound of a gunshot. He sat upright like a released spring, struck his head on the bunk above and pitched onto the deck, stunned. He remained on hands and knees as the drunken stupor cleared from his brain and the pain flooded his head like a spring tide.

Pistol shrimp. Damned pistol shrimp. Little shrimp with a cartoon claw. They banged their over-sized claw closed so hard it created a jet of water traveling 100 kilometers per hour. Little water cannons that stunned or killed their prey. A low-pressure bubble formed in the wake of the jet. The bubble collapsed with a sound like a pistol shot. The sound passed effortlessly through water and the wooden hull beside Harry’s bunk.

His detailed knowledge of the natural history of pistol shrimp was one of the benefits of a degree in marine biology. That and three bucks could buy him an espresso.

Harry was kneeling in an inch of standing water. Saltwater. The seams of the wooden schooner wept like an old lady. There was no money to haul the boat and caulk her. Until there was he simply pumped the bilge more often. Except when he was hungover and forgot.

The pistol shrimp were banging away in the shallow water of Slee’s Bay. It sounded like a pitched battle. “Dear God, make it stop,” he whispered. It was a rhetorical prayer. Harry didn’t believe in a God who intervened with pistol shrimp but wasn’t above pleading with a fictional deity when he hurt this bad.

He was as unsteady on his feet as if the old schooner was pitching in a seaway but found his way on deck, moving one handhold to the next, and fitted the long handle to the manual bilge pump. Each stroke was like a blow to his head. He grit his teeth and kept pumping until the bilge was dry and an oily sheen surrounded the boat. He kept a bottle of dishwashing liquid beside the pump. With a backhand gesture, he broadcast drops of soap across the water. Each drop devoured the oil in an expanding circle like a petroleum-eating Pacman. It wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t even legal, but avoided a fine Harry couldn’t afford to pay.

It wasn’t the only thing he couldn’t afford. Spike Africa’s sails were so often patched they looked like quilts from the Women’s Missionary Society. She needed new standing rigging and her engine was hardly better than ballast. Everything he had was sunk into the old schooner and she was about to sink beneath him.

In the galley, he pumped pressure into the kerosene stove and boiled water for coffee. He washed down a handful of aspirin with water that smelled of rotting eggs. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and made a note to add more bleach to the water tank. The previous note was a phone number Lidmann gave him the night before. Some guy interested in importing from Canada without the hassle of customs. Lidmann didn’t say what he wanted imported.

He drank his coffee in the cockpit. The breeze had already risen on the Strait. Whitecaps were forming where the ebb ran strongly against the prevailing westerly. He heard the surf beating against the outside of Ediz Hook. Clouds of gulls followed a fishing boat returning to harbor. The gulls were squabbling over the bycatch the fishermen threw overboard.

Despite his abject poverty and punishing headache, he couldn’t imagine a better way to live. He didn’t want it to end.

Lidmann had mentioned the importer after Harry’s fourth or fifth glass of rum. He was drinking the cheaper stuff that tasted like molasses and wood alcohol.

“If I don’t find some way to make money,” Harry complained to Lidmann, “the old girl is going to sink or be arrested by Federal marshals.”

“How much do you owe?” Lidmann asked.

“More than I can pay.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Ten thousand to Haven Boatworks. And another five to Hasse’s sail loft. I can’t see a way out. Hauling tourists was a bust. It cost more money than I earned.”

“Do you have qualms about how you make your money?”

“Qualms?”

Lidmann had a subtle accent. The accent sounded vaguely European; no one could place it. He was a man of indeterminate age and indefinite history. He owned Fiddler’s Green, a waterfront bar on the wharf near Slee’s Bay. The bar was favored by locals. The few tourists who strayed far enough from safety and basic hygiene to reach the front door were dissuaded by the smell of stale beer and despair. Despite the regular customers, there was no sense of community. Men drank alone in dark corners and shaded booths, solitary men silently staring into their whiskey and beer or arguing violently with their memories. It was Harry’s kind of bar.

“It’s a perfectly good word,” Lidmann said. “And the question remains.”

“No, I can’t afford any qualms. Or reservations or inhibitions or morals. If they take my boat I’ll end up serving burgers at McDonald’s.” He rubbed the gray stubble on his head with his knuckles. It was the same gray stubble on his chin. “Can you imagine me wearing a hair net?”

Lidmann gave him the number. “Write it down. You’ll forget your mother’s name in the morning.”

It was true. In the morning he couldn’t remember if he ever had a mother. He finished his coffee and added the cup to the sink of dirty dishes. He decided to call Lidmann’s contact but needed a phone. In a cellular age, pay phones were rare. The nearest one was at the Eagle Café.

Harry hauled the long boat alongside and managed to get in without falling overboard. Coordinating two oars was difficult when he thought about it so he didn’t think. His body remembered the rhythm of the oars—stroke, feather, and return. He tied up to a float attached to the wharf and climbed the ladder. It was low tide and a long climb. The lower rungs were slick with marine growth. He missed his footing and almost fell, hanging from the ladder by one hand like a baboon, cursing.

The Eagle Café served a big breakfast for a reasonable price. The booths were crowded with men with scarred hands and women whose voices were rough from cigarettes. Hattie Malept served him a cup of black coffee.

Harry left his coffee on the counter and called the number Lidmann had given him. The phone rang twice before a woman’s recorded voice said, “The number you dialed has been disconnected. There is no new number.” His quarter fell into the change return slot. He tried again with the same result.

He waited until the afternoon to revisit Fiddler’s Green. The bar seemed always open but he needed time to recover from the partial blindness that struck him leaving the Eagle. He spent 30 minutes rowing around the anchorage looking for the Spike Africa. It was embarrassing to misplace a 70-foot schooner in an anchorage as small as Slee’s Bay. “I’m getting too old for this kind of shit,” he said when he finally found her.

“You look like a dog’s breakfast,” Lidmann said when Harry settled onto the bar stool.

Lidmann made Harry his hangover cure, raw egg in tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, and Tabasco.

“I called the number you gave me last night. It was disconnected.”

“What number?”

“For the importer.”

“I didn’t give you any number, Harry.”

“Hoffer, Dietrich Hoffer. You said he was looking for someone to haul cargo from Canada, no questions asked.”

“Harry, I never talked to you about Dietrich Hoffer, last night or any night.”

“You didn’t give me this number?” Harry showed him the entry in this notebook. Lidmann shook his head. “Damn. That was my last wild-ass hope.”

“He’s here if you want to talk to him.”

“Who?”

“Dietrich Hoffer.”

“Here? Now? I thought you said you didn’t know him.”

“I said I didn’t give you his number. He uses this place like his office,” Lidmann tipped his head toward the booth in the most remote corner of the bar, “but he pays his tab on time.”

“So, you don’t know anything about his business?”

“I know more than I should about his business. I just didn’t discuss it with you.”

“Is he a smuggler?”

Lidmann shrugged. “Ask him yourself but be careful. He’s a dangerous man.”


Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Scout’s Honor

Monday, March 21

Monday morning Sully woke with a migraine. His mouth tasted like bilge water. His sight was clouded by blood in his eyes. He made a note to avoid returning to the Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha, then forgot where he put the note.

He walked to the pay phone at the Eagle Café to call his boss at Port Angeles Parks and Recreation. He felt like a Sherpa humping a pack up the Himalayas, gasping for air. He listened to a five-minute lecture before learning he still had a job. Apparently, guarding a centuries-old graveyard where the dead were piled like cordwood didn’t appeal to many people even in the depressed economy of Port Angeles.

Hattie Malept served him his usual breakfast of poached eggs and dry toast.

“You look rough today,” she said.

“I feel like roadkill.”

“Too much fun on the weekend?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t describe it as fun,” Sully said. “More like perdition.” He opened the newspaper he had bought from the vending machine on the wharf.

Harry Wry sat down opposite Sully.

“Coffee?” Hattie asked.

Harry nodded and rubbed the gray stubble on his chin with his knuckles. “Looking for a job?” he asked Sully.

Sully nodded, swallowing.

“Don’t,” Harry said. He waited until Hattie was beyond earshot. “I got a job hauling cargo from Canada, no customs and no questions asked. I need a place to land it. Someplace quiet with no one looking late at night. Someplace like Tse-whit-zen,” he said, pronouncing each syllable like a separate word, drumming the Formica tabletop with a scarred forefinger. Tse. Whit. Zen.

Harry owned an aging schooner at anchor in the bay. He spent most of his time trying to keep her afloat. He was also Sully’s only friend.

Harry stole a piece of toast from Sully’s plate, took a bite, grimaced, and returned it to the plate. “I don’t know how you can eat burnt bread without butter. Tastes like a roof shingle.”

Sully took his fork and pushed the piece of toast off his plate and onto the table. He leaned forward and spoke in a hushed voice. “I’ve seen things. Things that couldn’t possibly be. At Tse-whit-zen. And something like a black hole. It knew my name, Harry.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to find another gig.”

He didn’t mention his ayahuasca vision. It would only mislead Harry into suspecting his experience at Tse-whit-zen was drug induced. Harry went there anyway.

“I’ve seen plenty of things like that, kid,” Harry said. “You just need to dry out for a while.”

“I wasn’t drinking. Not until after I saw it. I don’t think I can keep working there. Damn place is haunted.”

“Well, yeah, it’s a graveyard,” Harry said. “Every graveyard is haunted. Comes with the territory. Makes no difference. Ghosts can’t hurt you. Rattle a few chains, moan in the night. Child’s play.”

Harry had no appreciation for the more arcane aspects of existence.

“I didn’t think your boat would float, much less haul cargo,” Sully said. “What kind of cargo needs to be landed in the middle of the night?”

“The kind that pays well with no questions asked,” Harry said.

“How well?”

Harry wrote something on a paper napkin, turned it over, and slid it across the table to Sully.

“A bit dramatic,” Sully said before he read the napkin. “Holy shit!”

“Keep your voice down. We don’t want to draw attention.”

They had already drawn Hattie’s attention. She came with a coffee pot. “You sound excited,” she said to Sully. “Find a job?”

“What do I have to do?” Sully asked Harry when Hattie returned to her other customers.

“Something you’re very good at,” Harry said. “Nothing. Just look the other way. You can do it in your sleep. Mostly what you do anyway.”

Sully looked again at the underside of the napkin. “If you’re paying this much, it can’t be legal. What happens if we get caught?”

“What do you think? We go to jail. Look, we make a few runs, make a boatload of money, then sail away before anyone’s the wiser. We refit the old girl and sail someplace where we can live like kings the rest of our lives. I know places that aren’t even on the charts.”

“Hard time,” Sully said, frowning. “The big house. Plastic sporks. Institutional rape. It’s a big risk.”

“What do you have to lose?” Harry said, eyeing Sully’s eggs. “You live in a chicken coop floating in a cesspool. You spend your nights guarding a bunch of bones. And you’ve got the social life of a leper.”

“My freedom?” Sully said.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“Don’t you dare break into song,” Sully threatened the back of Harry’s hand with his fork. “I swear, I’ll gig you like a toad.”

“Take a breath, man. Like I said, we do a few jobs, then get out. What could go wrong?”

“This is the part in cheap horror movies where the ditzy blond opens the door to the basement and the soundtrack turns ominous and everyone in the audience thinks ‘Don’t do it,’” Sully said.

“The blond always goes into the basement,” Harry said.

“Yeah. It’s in the script.”

“So you’re in?” Harry said.

“Sure,” Sully said.

“A few jobs and we’re gone,” Harry said. “Scout’s honor.”

Sully doubted Harry Wry was ever a Boy Scout.

On the way home, Sully saw Sprout ushering people into Riddlepit. It seemed an unlikely amount of activity for Shantytown before noon. He investigated.

“You having a wake?” he asked Sprout.

“A war council,” Sprout said. “The city council is making a move.”

“They’ve made moves before and nothing ever comes of it,” Sully said.

“It’s different this time,” Sprout said.

“Different? How?” Sully said.

“Rezoning,” Sprout said.

“Rezoning? What the hell does that have to do with anything? I thought we were outside the city’s jurisdiction. Harbor of refuge and all that.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Sprout said. “Something to do with our connection to the shore. From what I’ve heard, they claim anything that floats but can’t move on its own power is landfill, and landfill is under the city council’s jurisdiction.”

“Floating landfill?” Sully said. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

“They don’t elect city council members for their language skills,” Sprout said. “Or their reasoning.”

Sully changed the subject. “What happened with Dr. Rathskill?”

Sprout shook his head. “The usual. HP read his cards, then rolled her eyes. I didn’t understand a word of it. I drove him home and a bunch of dead birds fell on my car.”

“Birds?”

“Purple Martins. That’s what Rathskill said. I don’t know birds from tree toads.”

“They just fell out of the sky? Dead?”

“Dead as doornails,” Sprout said. “Bounced when they hit the ground. And they crunched when I drove over them.”

There was a rumbling sound in the distance. The sound registered subconsciously on Sully. He cocked his head without knowing he was trying to triangulate a sound he wasn’t even aware of. The sound grew in volume as the distance diminished. It rose above his horizon of consciousness.

A truck. It sounded like a truck. It took several more microseconds to recognize the incongruity of a truck in Shantytown.

Qwackers rumbled into view, a boatload of tourists with duck bodies. Sandy Crab was broadcasting on the PA system. “…a lumbermill.” His voice drifted away and returned. “…lucky you came in time…all be gone soon. Oh, look. It’s the dwarf I told you about.”

Sprout raised a single finger salute.

“Randy little bugger,” Sandy broadcast.

“I’ll show you randy,” Sprout muttered. He turned his back on the tourists, dropped his trousers, and bent over.

There were several audible gasps from the tourists and a few expletives. Sully saw one mother cover the eyes of her child.

Sandy Crab’s voice boomed across the water. “Howdy Doody, folks. You don’t see that every day.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.