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.

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