"I heard stories."
In spite of the cold, Jamie began to sweat. He wiped his hands on his sweater. What did Steve suspect? "Stories like what?"
"Like he's killed people, back in Ireland, and one on the docks in Boston and was too smart to get caught."
"Yeah. Maybe so," Jamie said. He relaxed a little. Obviously Steve didn't suspect about the guns. And he was really naive if he thought Gregory was the only man aboard who'd killed someone.... Jamie had never seen such cold-eyed killers.
"You don't believe in God?" Steve asked.
"No," Jamie said. "Do you?"
"Well, I'm not a Catholic like a lot of these guys, but I believe in God."
"I don't know, I just do."
"That is so dumb. When you're dead, you're dead."
"I don't think so, Jamie."
"Look," Jamie said, "all I ever heard at the orphanage was 'You're going to hell, Jamie,' 'God loves you, Jamie.' Okay—I'll go to hell and if God loves me He can come and get me. Maybe I'll believe something then."
More men were coming in, a poker game starting, someone trying the radio. Everyone was griping about the cold.
"Well, boys," Kell said, "it's cold—but I've been colder. Almost froze to death, in fact."
The men paused in their griping, coffee drinking—even the poker game slowed. They recognized a story coming. Kell rarely told one, they were always anxious for more. Jamie grinned. He knew this one.
"Yes, faced death in the snow in Switzerland with a good friend of mine, it's amazing what you can find out about a man in a time like that. And I'm speaking of your own first mate, Greg."
Greg glanced up and nodded. Jamie was surprised. He didn't know the guy in the story was Gregory.
"It was during the war, Greg and I had some business in a little village in Switzerland, never mind what now. It was dangerous, but we were harebrained young scamps in those days— exchanging information, finding out things, letting things be found out—that sort of thing."
You could see Kell being a harebrained young scamp, but the men were glancing sideways at Greg. He wasn't known for a sense of humor. Except for a tight little circle of pals, most of the crew was afraid of him; he was hated by a few.
"Anyway, we concluded business, and a few pleasures, and started back to Zurich in our jeep. We'd stocked up on a few essentials, mostly wines and cigarettes, for friends, of course. It was cold and snowy and night but we were already late so we set out anyway. We knew we were in trouble, hoped to buy a little favor—leaving relative luxury, going back to relative hell. Didn't work though. They shipped us off to Africa soon after... but that's a different story.
"We were testing the wine, making sure it was good enough for our friends, and became somewhat befuddled, took the wrong road, and ended up in the mountains. Of course we ran out of petrol and blamed each other. But I remember distinctly, Greg, that was your job."
Gregory said, "No it wasn't," in his oddly toneless voice.
"Well, we remember it differently, then.... We soon realized cursing each other wouldn't save our butts—in fact we sobered up enough to realize we might die. Nothing will sober you up like cold.
"Was it you or me, Greg, who remembered passing a shack of a cabin? Might have known you'd say that. But you were as muddled as I was, no use pretending for the sake of the crew."
Greg's thin-lipped mouth twisted into his weird little half smile that always made Jamie think of sharks.
"So we salvaged what we could from the jeep and started trudging back. It was the kind of cold that ate your bones from the inside out, felt like a knife in your lungs. The wind lashed tears from your eyes and then froze them into icebergs, and the shivering sapped all your strength, there was none left to walk. You wanted just to curl up and get it over with. Greg kept saying his dick was froze—I lost a couple of toes, myself.
"I tell you, boys, the sight of that cabin was as welcome as if it had been a home for wayward girls. There was a stove, a bed, a little wood, and more outside—it was like we'd stumbled into heaven. Soon had a fire going, the mattress thrown down next to the stove. Neither of us had slept for days; we were tired to say the least.
"Well, me and Greg grew up together, it wasn't like snuggling with a stranger. Pretty soon we were huddled up, just getting ready to doze off, and Greg says, 'Kell, would you care to hold my wiener?'"
The room went silent.
"Well, this startled me, to say the least, but we were both tired and somewhat muddled, since we'd celebrated our near escape with another bottle of wine, so I say, 'No thanks, Greg, the only wiener I care to hold is my own, and it's so cold I couldn't find it with a flashlight.'"
Someone choked on a laugh but quickly recovered.
"Well, we're quiet and nodding off and Greg says, 'I wish you'd hold my wiener, Kell, it's froze.'
"I was thinking all kinds of things by then—but I didn't want to run out in the snow. I really didn't even want Greg to move, he was as warm as a horse blanket—I'll overlook the odor comparisons. I'm thinking, I'd managed to get laid back in town, but poor Greg was an ugly turd even those days.... I'm so tired and muddled I even think, Well, I'm wearing gloves, perhaps it wouldn't count... but I say again politely, 'No thank you, Greg.'"
Jamie looked at Gregory. He was bright red, even his scalp under his close-cropped silver hair. The crew was starting to shift uneasily. Just the hint of something like that on a ship was dangerous—in the navy Jamie had known it to end in murder.
"Pretty soon," Kell continued, "Greg's kind of rustling around. I hear him unzip his pants. I'm jolted wide awake at that, wide awake and drunk, becoming somewhat nervous, thinking, What the hell?
"And all of a sudden he grabs my hand, puts it on him—and it's up, and hard and cold! I'm paralyzed with shock ... you know how it is, your first time.
" 'Here,' he says, 'hold it while I take a piss' and rolls off the mattress. And I realize I've still got it! It's froze and broken off!
"Well, lads, you never heard such a yell as I let out as I threw the thing across the room.
"And then Greg says, quite mildly, 'I hope you didn't ruin that sausage, Kelly.'"
Kell paused. The whole room roared with laughter. Greg actually fell off his chair. Jamie laughed as hard as he had the first time he'd heard it, long ago.
After a bit, when they had quieted down, Kell finished up his story.
"The sun came out the next day, we got our bearings, and made it back without too much trouble. And it's a good thing, too, because I tell you lads, I'd have starved before I ate that sausage."
Up in the bow of the ship, on watch, Jamie didn't mind the cold. He could look at the waves for hours, not really thinking about anything. The vast expanse of sea was peace to him.
He liked night watch, too. He always volunteered. You got to sleep late ... and the ocean seemed different then, like a woman with the lights turned low, familiar but yet strange....
He recognized the footsteps coming up behind him, so he didn't bother to turn.
Kell leaned on the rail next to him. They remained silent for a while.
"Care for a nip, Jamie?" Kell pulled a pint of whiskey from his heavy pea jacket. "I'm on watch." Kell took a long swallow.
"Weather's changing. Look at the haze around the moon."
Jamie didn't tell him he already knew that—he felt it in the ocean, the way it was slapping the sides of the ship, like a person with the jitters. But it made Kell nuts when Jamie said he could feel things from the water. Kell always said the only way to know the weather was the sky. And they both preferred instruments....
He turned his back to the wind, huddled to light up a cigarette.
"Jesus, Jamie, you still smoking those Indian bedis? You'll have no lungs left the time you're my age."
"You really think I'll make
it to your age?"
"I don't think you'll make it another week, if this hostility between you and Greg continues. It's got me troubled, lad."
"It don't trouble me." Jamie shrugged and faced the sea again.
"Greg's being patient for my sake, but he'll not stomach insolence. He had to take too much as a lad. And he's not a man to run afoul of."
"I hate this fucking job," Jamie said. "I'm not a fucking deckhand."
"You're getting paid five times as much as the captain is, that ought to ease your pride somewhat."
"Look, it was okay when we were on that ship where everybody knew what was going on—but half these guys are honest. Who's gonna believe that if we all get caught?"
"I've never known you to shy away from danger, Jamie. That time we double-crossed Cahill's brother with the Philippine whores—we'd have been shark bait and you damn well knew it and laughed."
"I'll take my own risks. I don't mind that. You said we'd quit two trips ago."
"For God and country, Jamie. And you do owe me."
"Look, what's going on in Ireland's lasted a couple of hundred years. It'll still be going on a hundred years from now. Can't you guys find something else to think about?"
"No," Kell said. "And I've told you, you can't understand unless you've been bred to it, born to it, have it taint every breath you draw."
Kell sipped some more whiskey. Jamie muttered, "My nerves are shot, Kell. I keep thinking about what'll happen if some of the crew find what's in the cargo. We'll have to fight each other. I knew what I was getting into when I signed on ... but some of the rest of them..."
"Loyalty to your crewmates over the job, a fine thing, Jamie. But each man chooses where his loyalty lies. Sometimes the thing you're fighting for is not what it seems.... For all my fine war record, I haven't got a country—don't be begrudging me my God."
"I keep forgetting you were in the war, Kell. It seems so long ago."
"Seems like yesterday to me. And I was younger than you are now. It goes so fast, Jamie ..."
"What the fuck were you serving with the English for, anyway?"
"Well, Jamie, I was serving in the British merchant marine when the MI-6 hauls me in for a little talk.