The June Featured Story is by Terence Faherty
Please feel free to email Terence at: TPFaherty@aol.com
by Terence Faherty
“The guidebook says this fjord has a great otter population. It’s the only place around here where they weren’t killed off by the Exxon Valdez spill. Some fluke of the currents kept the oil out.”
John Mohr was barely listening to his wife. He was trying to overhear the conversation the sailor at the head of the gangway was having with his walkie-talkie. Then the man, an Australian, whose red face was prematurely cracked and cragged, lowered the radio and addressed a point above Mohr's head.
“The pilot says there’s a front moving in over in Sitka,” the Australian announced. “He’ll have to head back soon. He’ll have time for one more flight over the glacier. Maybe two.”
There was a disappointed murmur behind Mohr, which he did his best to ignore. He tightened his grip on his wife’s hand as he felt her start to turn to interact with some stranger. They were next in line for the sightseeing flight. The inflatable motorboat—the Zodiac, the sailor had called it—that would carry them from the ship to the seaplane, was waiting below, another crew member, a young woman, at its idling outboard. The seaplane was already taxiing back toward the Alaska Wayfarer, bobbing on the wake its landing had left on the water of the fjord. He and Dial would have their ride, the ride they’d waited for over an hour to get. They only had to hold their place.
Dial had freed her hand and was using it to poke strands of wavy black hair back under her knit cap. “Maybe we should have gone kayaking instead,” she said.
Mohr didn’t point out that they’d been kayaking twice already on this cruise through Alaska’s Inner Passage, that if he’d known his wife wanted to paddle all the way to Juneau they could have skipped the ship entirely and saved a lot of money. Dial’s insistence on being close to nature had already cost them the usual amenities of a cruise: the buffets and nightclubs and driving ranges. The little Wayfarer carried only one hundred passengers and had no nightclubs whatsoever. They’d seen grizzlies and eagles and whales but had slept in bunk beds and eaten food that had reminded Mohr of grade-school cafeterias. All to please Dial. To make things right with Dial. This afternoon’s treat, a flight over the Sutton Glacier, had been Mohr’s suggestion, almost his only one, so naturally Dial wasn’t really interested.
He didn’t say anything about that, didn’t say anything at all. Dr. Voss had encouraged him to speak less and especially to complain less. Those were his triggers, complaints. Once they started, he could almost never control what followed. He had to stay in control if this cruise, this reconciliation, was to work.
A little towheaded boy from the group behind them was trying to squeeze past Mohr on his left. For a better view of the bright yellow seaplane, perhaps. Perhaps not. Pretending to study the old round-engined plane himself, Mohr shifted subtly to block him.
Behind them, a woman spoke soothingly. “Just say a prayer that he’ll make two trips. Then we’ll be able to go. Just say a prayer.”
“You said we’d go in an airplane,” a small voice, the boy’s sister, replied.
Dial dug her elbow into her husband’s side. The effect was dampened by the layers he was wearing and by the life vest draped across his shoulders, which the sailor had handed him when they’d reached the head of the line. Mohr scanned the sky for the front that was threatening Sitka. He could only see a single cloud in the incredible blue, and it was more of a rolling vapor, like the frozen breath of an unseen giant. The cloud created a shadow that moved across the deeper blue of the inlet before climbing the slate gray of the towering cliffs.
“Grandpa and Grandma loved this part of the trip,” the woman behind him said. “They told us not to miss it, and we won’t.”
“John,” Dial whispered.
He shushed her. “I’m meditating.” That was another anger management technique Dr. Voss had suggested.
“Let’s wait for the second trip, John. We’ll still get to make the flight.”
“How do you know?” he asked before he could stop himself.
“The spirit of the fjord will see to it. Because you did something generous.”
This spirit business had been a running joke of Dial’s since they’d visited a native fishing village on the Wayfarer’s first stop. Now every place and everything had a spirit. Less amusing to Mohr were the tests she’d been dreaming up for him. He felt one coming now.
“If you do this,” Dial said, “I’ll know you’re really in control.”
Behind them, one of the children was crying. Mohr sighed and turned around. He found himself facing a blond who had managed to get her makeup perfect in spite of the cramped conditions on the ship. She held a girl of seven or eight. Each wore a Dodgers cap that looked like it had made the trip north in a hat box.
“Excuse me,” Mohr said. “Would you like to go next?”
“Really? You mean it?”
Though Mohr managed to nod, he couldn’t get himself to move completely out of the way. The woman and girl squeezed by, joining the boy, who had gotten around Mohr while he was speaking.
The sailor helped the three into life vests and told them to follow him down, adding, “Careful now. Everything’s wet.”
Two steps down the metal stairway, the woman turned, drawing the boy back to her side. “What do we say to the nice man, children?”
Mohr smiled. Then he noticed that the woman was helping the girl make something with the thumb and forefinger of her little hand. The letter L. Then the woman and the boy formed L’s with their own hands. All three held them to their foreheads and shouted in practiced unison, “Loser!”
Someone behind Mohr laughed as the trio hurried down the stairway. Mohr couldn’t turn to see who; he was stiff-necked with anger. Dial was very quiet and small at his side. Together they watched the inflatable speed out to where the yellow seaplane waited. They watched again the process of exchanging passengers, one of the plane’s big pontoons serving as a staging area. Then the Zodiac was hurrying back. Its occupants came up the side laughing, followed by the Australian sailor who guarded the gangway.
Dial said, “I think I’ll go down to the cabin for a minute. I have time, right?” This question was addressed to the returning crewman.
“Yes, miss. The truth is. . . ” The unfinished thought ended in a shrug.
Mohr was sure he’d been about to say she could take an hour for all the difference it would make. This would be the last flight of the day. Dial squeezed his hand and hurried off.
He was watching the plane taxi downwind when someone beside him said, “Something should be done about people like that.”
Mohr looked down and saw a little, black-haired man. A native Inuit, he thought. Their eyes met. The stranger’s eyes were incredibly sunken and nearly black, like twin pits with deeper pits at their bottoms.
“Something will be done,” the little man said.
Then the roar of the seaplane’s engine drew Mohr’s attention to the fjord. He thought, as he had on every previous takeoff, that the plane was moving too slowly ever to fly. And, as before, it seemed to be fighting the water, breaking what waves there were into showers of spray. Then, suddenly, the motion smoothed and the yellow craft shot forward.
The sailor said, “What’s that in the water? A log? See it?” He fumbled with his walkie-talkie. “Oh God, it is! Oh God!”
Mohr glimpsed something huge and black rolling in the trough of a wave. An instant later, the seaplane was tumbling across the water, one pontoon flying off in its own twisting arc. The engine had stopped as though seized. Mohr could hear the gasps of people around him, hear the terrible slap of the fuselage landing upside down on the water, breaking off what remained of the wings. Then the echo of the engine’s death roar came back to them from the surrounding cliffs.
The sailor swung around wild-eyed, shouting into his radio. “I need help now!” He grabbed Mohr by his jacket. “Come on! There’s still a chance!”
Mohr tumbled down the metal stairs behind him, struggling to secure his life vest. The woman at the inflatable’s engine was calling up to them. “Hurry! It’s sinking!”
Mohr fell into the bottom of the boat. By the time he’d righted himself, the Wayfarer was far behind them, looking, as it had from their kayaks, like an oversize yacht. The Zodiac’s raised bow was blocking the view ahead. Then it dropped, and Mohr saw the tail of the plane, so close he could make out the rivets in its aluminum skin.
The wreck had rolled onto its side, the stub of one wing pointing toward the sky. The fuselage was awash, water lapping at the cockpit door on which the sailor was pulling.
“It’s jammed,” he grunted. “Take hold!”
Mohr shouldered in beside him and placed a hand next to the sailor’s on the big latch, bracing himself against the Zodiac’s fat side. They pulled together, the strain drawing Mohr down as the boat tilted. Directly in front of his face was a cockpit window. He could see a headrest and water, as black as oil.
Then something white loomed up at him. It was a face, the blond woman’s face. Her eyes were open and lifeless, but her golden hair swirled around her as though still fighting. As the face neared the glass, Mohr made out something on its forehead: a livid bruise in the shape of an L.
With a strangled cry, he lost his grip on the latch and tumbled backward.
The Aussie yelled, “It’s going!”
From the bottom of the boat, Mohr saw the tail rise almost vertically and then slip out of sight.
Hours later, Mohr sat outside the captain’s cabin, Dial beside him, holding his hand. The Alaska Wayfarer still rode at her anchor a few hundred yards from the drowned plane, awaiting the arrival of a Coast Guard cutter. The entire ship was in shock. Mohr felt he was somehow near the center of the collective grief, that he’d become associated with the disaster in the minds of the other passengers, probably because of his part in the rescue attempt. He’d caught people staring at him, though no one would look him in the eye.
He’d already given a statement to the Wayfarer’s mate. Now he’d have to give another to the captain and probably a third when the Coast Guard arrived. He hadn’t told the mate about the bruise on the woman’s face. He wouldn’t tell the captain. They wouldn’t believe him. He was hoping he’d soon start to doubt it himself.
Their only company in the cramped anteroom was a big, rosy-cheeked man in a loosely knit sweater adorned with a line of running caribou. Unlike the other passengers, the man didn’t look away when Mohr met his gaze. Instead, he smiled.
The door to the inner cabin opened, and the Australian sailor—Mohr now knew his name was Cox—came out, looking small and subdued without his yellow rain gear. “He’ll see you now,” he said to Mohr. And then, to Dial, “There’s just the one chair free.”
“I’ll wait here,” she said, patting Mohr’s hand.
The captain’s cabin was small and, like the rest of the ship, coldly utilitarian. Mohr had met the man behind the desk when they’d come on board. Then the captain’s long face had been held taut by a fixed smile. Now it sagged beneath the sad, dark eyes and along the line of the narrow jaw.
Mohr was surprised to see a second man in the room, a passenger by his dress. He made Mohr think, involuntarily, of the woman in the flooded cockpit. His skin was dead white and his red-rimmed eyes wide and fixed—on him.
“This is Mr. Olsen,” the captain said. “His wife and children were on the plane. He wants to speak to you.”
Mohr’s first thought was that Olsen wanted to thank him for trying to help. Then he saw the clenched fists in the man’s lap.
The captain gestured to the open chair, and Mohr sat down, now expecting to be blamed for giving the family his place.
The captain said, “Mr. Olsen has read the statement you gave the first officer. He wants to ask you about something you may have left out. I thought it would be better if he asked in front of me, rather than accosting you later.”
“I don’t understand,” Mohr said.
Mr. Olsen seemed too upset to speak. After waiting for a moment, the captain continued. “You gave the Olsen family your place in line.”
“They were afraid they wouldn’t get a flight.”
The captain waved a pencil he held as though checking an item off a list. “The Olsens said something to you as they were leaving the ship.”
Mohr hadn’t mentioned the taunt to the mate. It had seemed unimportant in light of what had followed. And thinking of it brought back memories of that livid bruise—so like a brand—on the woman’s forehead.
“They didn’t mean it, I’m sure,” he said, wondering again what piece of the cockpit could have left that mark.
The pencil waved a second time. “Then you said something, after they’d gone. You said, ‘Something ought to be done about people like that. Something will be done.’”
For a moment, Mohr felt as robbed of movement as he’d been when the plane had struck the log. He stammered, “But that wasn’t me. That was a man standing next to me.”
“I have statements from two of the people in line behind you. They must be spreading it about; the story’s all over the ship.”
Now Mohr understood the staring and the averted eyes. He said, “They made a mistake. Our backs were to them. I’d never say anything like that.” Not since Dr. Voss.
The captain studied the papers on his desk. “No one mentioned a second man. Do you know his name? What did he look like?”
Mohr described him. “He’s an Inuit,” he said as an afterthought. “I’m sure of that.”
The captain sat back in his chair. “I greet every passenger who comes aboard, Mr. Mohr. You might recall that. It’s rare that we have an Inuit passenger. They’re not in sympathy with bringing strangers to these out-of-the-way spots. They feel we’re disturbing them. I’m sure we don’t have anyone fitting that description along on this trip.”
“I’m telling you, I stood right next to him. I’ll find him if you don’t believe me. He’ll tell you himself. If he doesn’t feel too threatened, that is.” He looked at Olsen, who had yet to move.
“I hope no one feels threatened, Mr. Mohr,” the captain said. “That’s why I wanted to have this talk, to hear your side of things. I’m sure whoever said that didn’t mean it, didn’t intend Mrs. Olsen and the children any harm.” Then he turned to the unblinking survivor. “And of course, no matter what was said, it had nothing to do with the accident. Nothing whatsoever.”
In the waiting area outside the cabin, Dial’s chair was empty. The big man in the caribou sweater said, “Your wife asked me to tell you that she was going to your cabin. I’m Frank Esche, by the way. Dr. Frank Esche.”
Mohr shook his hand mechanically and hurried out. He spent the next hour searching the ship for the little man he’d seen at the gangway. He didn’t find him or anyone who would admit seeing him. He didn’t blame the man for hiding. Olsen might be organizing a lynch mob, all over some thoughtless remark.
Mohr ended up at the railing near a knot of people who were watching two crewmen in the Zodiac place a buoy at the spot where the plane had gone down. Dr. Esche joined him there.
“Very sad,” the big man said. “I’m a psychiatrist from Seattle. My wife and I have taken this trip three times, so the captain and I are well acquainted. The captain asked me to have a talk with Mr. Olsen, but Olsen wasn’t ready to talk. He’s in a terrible way, of course. I think it would help if we could get him away from here. It would help that sailor who led the rescue party, Cox. He’s thoroughly spooked.”
“By what?” Mohr asked eagerly. “Did he finally admit he saw something?” In the boat afterward, Cox had denied seeing the woman’s face in the window. He’d claimed that Mohr had blocked his view.
“No,” Esche said. “He just doesn’t like the feel of this place. That makes two of us.”
“Three,” Mohr said.
“How about I find us a cup of coffee? It’s getting cold out here.”
Esche led him into the dining room and got them coffee at the self-service urn. As the only gathering space of any size on the ship, the dining room was never empty. The dozen or so people who’d been seated when they’d entered immediately fell silent. Mohr watched them slip out in twos and threes as Esche emptied one sugar packet after another into his cup.
“Since Mr. Olsen wasn’t interested in my services, I thought you might be,” the doctor eventually said.
“How are you at finding people?” Mohr asked.
“It depends on whether or not they exist,” Esche replied without losing his smile. “The captain told me about your Eskimo. . . I mean, your Inuit gentleman.”
“And you don’t believe me either.”
“You’d be surprised at some of the things I believe, Mr. Mohr. And don’t believe. Your wife and I had a little chat while you were in with the captain. She told me about your anger problems and the work you’re doing with. . . Dr. Voss, right? I have to tell you, I don’t believe in his methods. Suppressing anger isn’t the key to dealing with it, not in the long run.”
“Dial liked it a lot less when I was venting.”
“She thought she did. She told me she hated the cursing and the yelling, that it embarrassed her. But she never felt unsafe around you.”
Esche, gazing out the nearest window, appeared not to hear the question. “Damn, this is a weird place. Uncanny. Cox told me he’s never liked it. And it’s so still this evening. Makes you want to head for the storm cellar.”
He sipped his coffee and added, “Interesting word, uncanny. It means eerie or supernatural. It’s based on a Scotch word, canny.”
“Which means smart,” Mohr cut in. “So uncanny means stupid, which is what anybody who believes in the supernatural has to be.”
Esche laughed his irritating laugh. “Canny does mean clever or shrewd. But it can also mean comfortable. So something uncanny might just be something that makes us feel uncomfortable, like this whole ship feels now. But there’s a third meaning for canny: restrained or quiet. I think perhaps uncanny derives from that. Maybe an eerie feeling is only the byproduct of a lack of restraint in someone around us. Or in ourselves. A breaking of bonds that keep us from saying things or doing things or maybe only wishing things.”
He paused, then continued, “Your wife said she couldn’t imagine you wishing anyone dead in the old days, never mind a mother and her children. Now she believes you might be capable of that, that tying down your safety valve, so to speak, might be letting the pressure inside you build up to dangerous levels.”
As though on cue, a buzzing began in Mohr’s ears. He pushed his coffee cup away. “What are you saying? Am I lying about the little man or did I imagine him?”
“I’m saying our feelings will find an outlet, and statements too terrible for us to admit out loud could find their way into another person’s mouth.”
Mohr was tempted to tell Esche of the livid L just to knock the roses out of his cheeks, but he knew the doctor would explain it away as another projection of the guilty conscience that had conjured up the little man. Then he thought of something better, something more in tune with Eche’s own uneasiness.
“You’re forgetting another possibility, Doctor. We’re not in Seattle now or any other civilized place. Suppose my pent-up anger reached out and woke some sleeping spirit in this goddamn fjord. Maybe I did cause the plane to crash. Maybe something terrible will happen to anyone who crosses me. Sleep on that, Doctor.”
The look on the other man’s face, the moment’s doubt, actually made Mohr smile. But his satisfaction was gone before he left the dining room. He hurried down the companionway to his “deluxe cabin,” with its icy floors and tiny beds. At the cabin’s door, he paused and tried a breathing exercise. It didn’t settle him. He kept thinking of his wife discussing their problems with a stranger. Finally, he gave up and went in.
Dial’s suitcase was open on the lower bunk. She came out of the tiny bathroom carrying her things from the shower.
“What?” Mohr asked.
“I need to be by myself tonight, John. Just for tonight.”
Mohr looked at the open drawers of the dresser. Everything she’d brought was in the bag.
“Just till we get out of this awful place, off this awful ship. The captain’s found another cabin for me to use. He stopped by to see me.”
“To tell you I was crazy?”
“To tell me about the horrible thing you said today after I left you at the gangway. I never should have left you there today, John. I’m sorry.”
“You’re leaving me now,” Mohr said as she zipped the suitcase shut.
“Just for tonight.” She placed the case on its wheels, setting it in front of her—between them. “Could you get the door?”
“I need you, Dial.”
“Nothing’s changed, John. You haven’t changed.” She stopped herself with a visible effort. “I keep thinking of those children, down there in the dark.”
“That has nothing to do with us. I didn’t wish them there. A stranger did.”
Dial nodded. “The captain told me that version, too. Now you tell me something. Did you say anything to stop this stranger? Wasn’t what he said exactly what you were feeling in your heart?”
She gave Mohr a full minute to answer, and when he didn’t, she nodded again, and left.
When the door had closed behind her, Mohr sat on the edge of the lower bunk, palms pressed against his eyes. He was literally seeing red, seeing swimming lights and tiny explosions. All of this to please Dial. Dr. Voss, the trip, everything had been done to please her. Even giving up their place in line and all that had happened since. And still, she’d left him—alone on a ship where everyone hated him.
Quite near him, someone spoke: “Something should be done about people like that.”
Mohr looked up. The little man from the gangway was seated in the chair across from the bunk, his withered hands on his knees. The bottomless pits that were his eyes each held a glint like a living flame.
“Something will be done.”
Somewhere deep in the ship, an alarm bell began to ring.
Terence Faherty is an award-winning mystery author and the author of two mystery series, the Shamus-winning Scott Elliott private eye series, set in the golden age of Hollywood, and the Edgar-nominated Owen Keane series, which follows the adventures of a failed seminarian turned metaphysical detective. His short fiction, which appears regularly in mystery magazines and anthologies, has won the Macavity Award and been nominated for the Anthony and the Derringer. His work has been reissued in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, and Germany. Faherty lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife Jan.
His eleventh novel, Dance in the Dark, will be published by Five Star in 2011. "Uncanny" is his first horror story and his first ezine publication.