Spike Africa

Friday, March 25

When Harry collected his money from Dietrich Hoffer at Fiddler’s Green, there was a glitch.

Sitting in his booth, Hoffer removed his antique glasses and cleaned them with intimidating deliberation. In the background, Marlene Dietrich was singing “Und steht sie noch davor …”

“I understand there were certain…irregularities…in your delivery, Mr. Wry.”

Harry wondered how the man managed to make such an ordinary word sharp enough to draw blood.

“There were challenges,” Harry said, squirming in the booth as Hoffer rebalanced his glasses on the bridge of his nose and stared at him. Harry had seen the same look in the eyes of a Komodo dragon. “We improvised. It all worked out.”

“My business succeeds by being unobtrusive. Are you familiar with the word, Mr. Wry?”

“Yeah. You like to stay in the shadows.” Like a Komodo dragon, Harry thought.

“Exactly. Anything that draws attention to my activities is undesirable.” Hoffer picked up his antique fountain pen, examined the nib dispassionately, and then drove the pen into the tabletop with a motion quick as a rattlesnake’s strike. The man’s expression didn’t change.

Harry sat looking at the pen quivering in the wood.

“Do I make myself clear, Mr. Wry?”

“Abundantly,” Harry said.

Hoffer removed an envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “Excellent. I want no misunderstanding if this should happen again. I will have another job for you in a week. I will leave word with Herr Lidmann when the details are resolved. And Mr. Wry?”

Harry thought it was a rhetorical question but Hoffer waited for an answer. “Yes,” Harry said.

“Make no changes to your operation, nothing that would evidence your new financial status. Spend nothing more than usual. Do nothing other than usual.”

“I was going to have the boat hauled,” Harry said. “Scrap her bottom, replace some standing rigging. Basic maintenance.”

Hoffer shook his head slowly as if his patience was tried by a dull-witted child. “That would be ill-advised. Your success, and my anonymity depend upon you remaining utterly unremarkable. Hide in plain sight, Mr. Wry.”

Hoffer coughed into his kid glove. This time Harry recognized it as laughter.

Harry rowed back to the schooner riding at anchor and sat in the cockpit. The air was cold but the clouds had distanced themselves enough for the sun to warm his body. Gulls screeched and sea lions barked and the fog horn on Ediz Hook warned of impending bad weather. (Bad weather was always impending on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.) Spike Africa rose and fell gently on a groundswell born deep in the restless heart of the Pacific.

There was nothing Harry loved more than the schooner. She was the only thing in the world he owned, the only thing that made sense of the world. She was a creature of moods, grace, loyalty, stubbornness, joy, and a wicked sense of humor. He had lived with her longer than any woman and he intended to die with her.

He had joked that, when he died, he wanted a Viking ship funeral, his body laid on deck, sails hoisted, wheel lashed, and the old girl steering him to oblivion. It was more likely she would sink beneath his feet and be the cause of his death.

She was named for the President of the Pacific Ocean, a man who once signed proclamations with a flourish in the No Name Bar on the Sausalito waterfront. Spike Africa, the man, had come by his title honestly. He had shipped as crew on the K.V. Kruse, a five-masted lumber schooner built in 1906, wrecked in 1923, and as mate onboard Wanderer when Sterling Hayden, the actor, stole his kids and sailed to Tahiti in defiance of a court order.

Harry remembered a portrait of Spike hanging in a waterfront bar in Alameda. He was pictured standing in a meadow of yellow flowers on the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate in the background, wearing nothing but a Greek fisherman’s cap. His skin was wrinkled and leathery and his pose tastefully concealed the nasty bits.

Bob Sloan, a friend of Spike Africa, the man, built Spike Africa, the boat, in the late 1970s. She was designed as a working schooner, an anomaly even then. Sloan put a big diesel in the boat and made a business of towing plastic yachts back from Baja California at the end of the season. Scuttlebutt had it, Sloan would tow two or three boats at a time, strung one after the other, with a crewmember on each to steer a straight course. It took time so slow the schooner, bring the towed boats alongside, and change the watch, so Sloan kept his crew at the helm for 12 hours at a time, without slowing even to take a piss. The boat owners never suspected their cockpits were awash in urine.

There was no work left in the world for an old wooden schooner and no profit even in hauling a deckload of tourists around the Salish Sea. Both Harry and the schooner had outlived their legitimate usefulness.

He went below to make himself a meal of beans and stale bread when he heard an insistent call.

“Hello, the schooner! Hello, the schooner!”

Harry climbed the companionway ladder, balancing a slice of bread on his bowl of beans. Over the cockpit coaming appeared the head and shoulders of a man with hair the color of winter wheat and the blue eyes of an Arctic wolf. If he was standing flat-footed in a boat, Harry estimated he must have measured well over six feet.

“Hello to you,” Harry said around a mouthful of beans.

“Are you this vessel’s master?” the Norseman said. English didn’t seem his native language.

“Harry Wry, jack of all trades, master of none. If you mean the owner, then yes, I am.”

The Norseman didn’t smile. Harry suspected his expression was chiseled from ice.

“My name is Root Bergson. I am the mate onboard the Retribution. She is…”

“I know her,” Harry interrupted. “And her reputation.”

“You don’t agree with the mission of the Sea Defenders?” Root said.

“I don’t disagree,” Harry said, “and I’ve no love for factory ships killing whales for profit.”

“May I come onboard?” Root said. “I have a proposition.”

Harry carried his beans into the cockpit and looked over the schooner’s gunnel. Root Bergson was standing in a rigid inflatable powered by a massive outboard engine. A crash bar was bolted to the rigid frame and eyebolts fitted to the molded hull. The boat looked military grade. A young man, barely college age, sat at the center console.

“Come aboard,” Harry said, “but leave your weapons behind.”

“I have no weapons,” Root said, looking bewildered.

“A joke,” Harry said. “Beans?”

Standing beside Harry, Root looked at Harry’s bowl of beans. His smile looked more like a grimace. “No, thank you.”

“A tot of rum?” Harry asked, being hospitable.

“May I offer you some Linie?” Root pulled a hip flask from his pocket and offered it to Harry. His smile seemed less pained but still thinned lipped, like a pressure crack in old ice.

Harry knew the history of Linie, aquavit casked in sherry and carried twice across the equator in the hold of ships. The name meant “line” in Norwegian. He accepted the flask, a little too eagerly, almost snatching it from Root’s hand. It tasted of caraway, mustard blossom, and fennel. The 90-proof alcohol cut through the lingering taste of beans like stormwater through a field of ash.

“Damn,” Harry said and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed the flask back to Root who drank twice as deep. Harry waved Root to a seat in the cockpit. “This proposition…” Harry began and waited for Root to finish.

“You know the Makah will begin whaling again,” Root said.

Harry nodded. “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss all the hoopla.”

“Allowing Native Americans to resume whaling will encourage the Japanese and others to expand commercial whaling,” Root said. “Once the door is opened, you can’t close it again. The Sea Defenders are opposed to killing whales, whatever the reason.”

“I gathered that,” Harry said. “Your point?”

Root offered the flask again. It took the edge off Harry’s impatience.

“We are planning a major demonstration in Neah Bay. Retribution will lead a fleet in protest. They are mostly small boats, yachts. What we need is a platform that can be seen from the shore.”

“A platform?” Harry said.

“We would like to hoist a banner between your boat’s masts that could be clearly seen by the camera crews on shore.”

“You want to use Spike Africa as a billboard?” Harry said.

“Yes, exactly. We would like to anchor bow and stern at a right angle to the shore so the banner would always be visible to the cameras. Whenever anyone takes a picture of Neah Bay, our message will be broadcast.”

“And why would I want to lay beam to the swell, rolling the old girl’s guts out, for the Sea Defenders?”

“We would pay you $300 a day, plus expenses,” Root said.

Harry grinned, exposing a chipped front tooth. “That’s my kind of protest.”

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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