Just four days out of Rangoon, the SS Murnow‘s chief cook, a fastidious fellow nick-named “Dutch Pete,” to distinguish him from the Boatswain named “Spanish Pete,” was throwing an unholy fit about the stowaway who had ransacked his galley. Dutch Pete unlimbered a stream of profanity concerning the “heathen stink” he would have to scrub off the countertops and floors before the next meal could be prepared. And he wasn’t wrong. There was a stink all right, 3rd Engineer Bill Webb recognized it right off. It was the stink of the bilge. Down below the engines were all the condensation, engine oil, coal dust, and wastewater from the Murnow‘s coal-fired boiler settled in the bowels of the ship before it was pumped into the ocean. The accumulated filth left a greasy trail on the old ship’s wake.
Mr. Lawrence, the Chief Mate was trying to shout Dutch Pete down so he could get a word in edgewise. “We’ll find ’em, alright? Just get to work cleaning up in here!” Lawrence looked around like he was trying to find the right wrench to tighten a particular bolt. Webb knew it was time to go. He’d just stepped back into the passageway past two gawking able-bodied seamen when he heard “You. Webb. C’mere. I got a job for ya.”
Webb reversed back into the galley. “What’d you have in mind, Mr. Lawrence?”
“We’re going to draw weapons from the armory and search the ship.”
“Why me?” But he knew why. Lawrence had taken up Webb’s misery as a personal project ever since Lawrence had gone all in with a month’s pay when Webb was sitting on a heart’s flush. Ever since that fleecing, no job was too low, no duty too late. Lawrence gave Webb the jobs others hesitated to give to the Chinese stokers and wipers. And this was clearly going to be one of them.
“I believe I once heard you say you said shot mines in the Med off the deck of a minesweeper,” Lawrence sneered. “So as our resident Deadeye Dick, I’ve just promoted you to Master-at-Arms.” Lawrence was showing too many of his nicotine-stained teeth. Webb knew this was going to be wretched. In the best of times, a search for a stowaway was tedious and exhausting work.
“So we’re going to shoot this kid?” he asked.
“Kid? Who says it’s a kid?”
Webb pointed at the small, greasy bare footprints on the deck that hadn’t yet been smeared by the recent traffic. “Whoever did this has got feet like my kid sister.”
Lawrence straightened to his full height. The two men could not have been more opposite. Lawrence was a lanky six feet, with grey hair, and a complexion to match. Webb looked as if Thor had struck Leif Erikson on the head with Mjölnir so violently that it had simultaneously shortened and broadened the man. He may have been half a foot taller than Webb, but Lawrence did not impress. He looked like a lot of dry kindling trying to intimidate a keg of beer.
“We draw weapons,” the Chief Mate said. He pulled up his sleeve exposing a white scar that ran from his knuckles to his elbow. “One of your kids carved that into me on the Bund back in ’17. Don’t think some feral runt won’t cut you if they can.”
None of this sat well with Webb as he checked the revolver’s cylinder. Six cartridges, ready to go, with twelve more on the belt. He snapped the Colt shut and holstered it. Lawrence had taken Colt’s twin but refused to holster his, preferring to wave it around in one hand with his flashlight in the other. Webb knew Lawrence had been assigned to keep the Murrow clear of thieves and stowaways while in Rangoon. He was now anxious to erase that failure. But Webb was just as anxious about having ricocheting rounds chasing them around the ship’s steel passageways. Webb knew if Lawrence saw something move, he was going to let fly and leave it to Webb to swab the blood left off the deck even if it was their blood.
“It’s just a kid,” Webb repeated. Lawrence pretended not to hear.
“The galley smelled like the bilge. Dollars to Navy beans, they’re squatting down there.”
“Worth checking,” Webb said, but he already had doubts. None of the oilers or wipers in the engine room had reported any of the bilge access hatches open. Nevertheless, when they got to the bottom of the deafening engine compartment, sure enough, there was black, greasy bilge water all around the hatch set on the floor. It only took a second for Webb to check to see if it was secured.
“They must be down there,” Lawrence said, reaching for the handle.
“How?” Webb asked. “The hatch can only be opened from up here.”
Lawrence chewed on this for a bit. “Food,” he said. They must have hidden the food they stole down there. Must come back only to get what they need while they hide someplace else.”
“Okay,” said Webb. “Let’s just stake this out”
“For how long? I can’t have men missing watches because they’re down here watching a single bilge hatch. Besides there are like four other access hatches we’d need to watch. No, we go down, find their stash, and haul it out. That’ll draw them out of hiding. They’ll have to come up to steal some more food. Then we’ve got ’em.” Lawrence opened the hatch, swung his legs in, and down he went.
Webb was in no such rush. He signaled one of the oilers, a young Chinese named Rong, to come over and explained in the ship’s pidgin that he wanted someone to wait here for him to come back up. Rong nodded his understanding and squatted by the hatch as Webb worked himself through it and into the blackness of the bilge.
The sound of Lawrence sloshing through knee-deep black water echoed off every corner of the bilge. The chamber ran along the keel beneath the engine compartment, and despite the steel and rivets, the curved hull and ribs radiating off the keel made the space feel more like the gullet of a whale than anything else. Their flashlights’ beams reflected off the oily surface of the water, cast undulating filaments of illumination on the rusted hull and deck above them.
Still hanging from the steel rungs below the hatch, Webb could smell something besides the bilge. Something corrupt. Something organic, a bit like an open sewer, but more like an open grave. He stopped for a moment and was about to speak when Lawrence fired off two deafening shots.
Webb released the ladder and dropped the last five feet, landing unsteadily in the water, but maintaining his footing. Looking up he shouted for Rong to hold tight. He hurried to Lawrence’s side and pushed the barrel of the man’s warm revolver down. “Jesus! You just couldn’t wait for to-“
But it wasn’t some kid from the slums of Rangoon with his face shot off. It was far worse. A naked Burmese man was propped against the outer hull, the two holes in his chest still spurting blood down into the bilge water. At first, Webb thought Lawrence had shot the man in the face because his lower jaw was gone along with his tongue. But the missing mandible was sheared off as if it has been erased with the rubber at the end of a no. 2 pencil. So were his arms and legs. There were just bloodless stumps at the elbows and the knees that twitched weakly as the mutilated man’s lungs filled with blood.
“What?” Lawrence asked no one. “What is…” The Chief Mate stumbled backward, his pistol dangling limply at his side.
Webb tried to take it all in, his eyes moving faster than his brain. He stepped forward but the thought of rendering aid seemed almost an obscenity. Then he saw a bowl from the galley and cans stacked on a jutting ledge of rusted steel. There was even a spoon. The food from the galley, wasn’t for the stowaway. It was for this barely human wreckage. Mashed and spooned down his eternally open gullet. Because alive he stayed fresh. And alive and fresh he could be consumed one joint at a time as the SS Murnow crossed the Pacific.
Webb turned as soon as he heard the splashes. Whirling about he saw a jawless Lawrence staring in disbelief at the bloodless stumps at the end of his wrists. Lawrence’s submerged flashlight still cast alien spectrums of light through the foul waters. Lawrence tried to wail but without even a tongue there wasn’t much more than a wet flapping sound. Lawrence fell off his ankles and fell thrashing into the water. His rubber-soled deck shoes bobbed to the surface with his feet still inside.
They weren’t alone. There were shapes standing in the bilge water. A dozen? Small, child-like but for their hairless, oversized heads. Webb’s flashlight revealed the countenances of old men and women. Besides, the wrinkles were scars and tattoos too. Mutilations. Their wet smiles filled with teeth filed to shark’s teeth. These were the true stowaways, with their well-stocked larder for the crossing. And when the SS Murnow docked in San Pedro they would disembark to a new land where the feasting would be fine.
Fuck that, Webb thought. They aren’t all going to make it where they’re going.
Webb drew his revolver and got off four well-placed headshots before his hands fell from his wrists.