November 28, 1933
Eventide spread an orange and rose hue across the horizon, where the vast space of sky and sea met. Calm waters rose to meet the black metal hull of the SS Daring and a thick black smoke from the coal-fueled fires rose from the giant smoke stack, astern of the ship, into the darkening sky.
The flying bridge—a deck that stretched the width of the ship—stood in front of the smoke stack. Inside the wheelhouse a crewman manned the pronged wooden wheel that guided the great tramp steamer as it patiently chugged its way through the waters to the rhythmic thwump-thwump of the screw-turning steam pistons.
The slightest breeze picked up, snapping at the edges of the rolled canvas tied to the front of the wooden railing of the flying bridge.
A sudden shout broke the deep silence onboard, “I see her, Captain! Twenty-degrees south-west!” A slim youth with windblown light-blond hair leaned over the iron railing of the crow’s nest, perched high on the front main mast near the bow of the ship.
Two men stood stationed on the bridge, one with a pair of binoculars which he lifted to his sight when the boy called out. The other, athletically lean and a few inches shorter, wearing a white peaked cap with stiff black visor pulled snug upon his head, had approached up the stairs. He spoke with a low even tone, husky with a soft German accent. “Any sign of activity, Mr. Alston?”
Alston handed the binoculars to his captain. “Not that I can see, Skipper. She appears to be drifting with the current.”
Captain Callan Thorne searched the horizon through the binoculars' sight. A dark shape appeared through the dying haze of dusk. The name on the side of the ship was still obscured by distance and fading daylight. Yet, the Daring’s crew were certain it was the ship they were looking for.
“There’s no smoke. No visible lights,” Thorne conveyed, and his lips thinned as he lowered the binoculars. He braced his arms against the bridge railing in front of him. Bright and vivid blue eyes darkened in concentration. “We’ll overtake her by first light,” he said firmly, after a moment of silence. “Make sure the crew is prepared to board.”
Alston gave a slight nod of his dark head and an “Aye, Captain” before Thorne turned for the wheelhouse and at the threshold issued the calm command to set course. “Take us to her.”
The ship began to turn and the thwump-thwump sounded louder than before. Alston moved to the left side of the bridge to take another look at the ship. The last light of day melted into the sea and the rich blackness of night settled across the sky. Stars began to appear in the Eastern sky, stretching over the ship like a canopy. The lights on the ship flickered on, one at the crow’s nest lighting the long cargo deck, and two at the wheelhouse: a green light on the starboard and a red light to port side. The soft yellow glow of deck lighting pushed back the gathering darkness, but the ship on the horizon was lost to the night even as the Daring pressed onward.
Jamie stirred from his lookout perch and climbed from the crow’s nest down the mast rigging to the fore deck. He returned to his quarters below-board, beneath the fore deck.
In his bunk, a narrow turned-down shelf from the wall, he tucked the blanket over his head to shut out the cold and the light from the main room where several of the seamen were gathered, smoking and playing card games, waiting out the night.
But the murmur of their voices reached him, their words keeping him from sleep and setting his youthful heart to racing. He listened to the dark tales with baited breath until a shadow fell across his bunk. He sat up quickly and looked at the seaman standing in the doorway. “You still awake there, boy?”
Able Seaman Yardley, a burly man with sleeves rolled up past his elbows, revealing the black-ink tattoo of a ship’s anchor on the inside of his left forearm, watched Jamie with firm question in his eyes.
“I’ll go aboard the ship, Mr. Yardley,” the boy said bravely. “I want to go with the rest of the men. I’m old enough. I can handle it, I swear.”
Yardley shook his head. “That isn’t my decision, Jamie. The captain needs you to stand watch here—on the Daring.”
“I’m not afraid of the stories... ghost ships and the like. I know what it means and I’m not afraid to go. Cap’n needs fearless men, that’s why he takes after these assignments, right? ‘Cause no one else is willing to risk it.”
“No,” Yardley said, more sharply than he’d intended. “You’ll stay with the ship and do your job.” Realizing the harshness of his words and seeing the hope fade from the boy’s light blue gaze, Yardley shook his head and sighed. He glanced back into the main room, then back at the boy. “Someday, Jamie, you’ll get to come along, and you’ll make a fine seaman. Now go to sleep.” He returned to the main room and Jamie lay down again to stare at the ceiling and feel the movement of the ship.
Tension clung to the air and hung like a cloud over the crew. The night passed slowly, each moment stretching to an eternity. Not even the captain’s light went out that night.
The crew listened to each turn of the giant screws that propelled them toward the ghost ship, anticipating the dawn, tense and ready for action—for whatever the light of day would reveal.
They’d all heard the stories. They all remembered the famous Mary Celeste, whose crew mysteriously vanished in 1872. The case was never solved even after a thorough investigation. The sea was a place where strange things happened. But this was the life they had chosen.
Then, as the first hint of dawn touched the sky, the captain stepped from his quarters and mounted the stairs to the wheelhouse where Alston stood. In silence they waited. The Daring crew held their breath as the massive shape materialized from the darkness before them. Closer now, one could make out the clean white-block lettering on the side of the ship’s bow: CAGIT.
“I want fifteen men ready,” Thorne ordered to Alston. Louder, he spoke as he descended the stairs to the boat deck, “Put to anchor and lower the tenders. Forbes,” he called to one of the able seamen, “you’re with me.” The men jumped into action.
On the aft—back—boat deck, four crewman readied the twenty-foot tenders with SS DARING painted in black along the wooden sides. The first mate would lead one, and Captain Thorne the other.
The crewmen released the boats from the davits—arched cranes—and let them down to the water. A fine mist sprayed up from the waves over the sides of the tenders as they rowed away from the Daring toward the still, silent Cagit.
Beams of morning sunlight scattered across the sea and washed over the faces of the crew, some grim, others strained with eyes revealing a mix of fear and excitement. Muscles strained as oars were pulled. Standing at the back of the tender, Captain Thorne faced forward, his gaze scanning the length of the Cagit’s hull and empty decks as they drew ever closer.
A merchant steam vessel, SS Cagit carried both sail and oil-engine. The engines and bridge were mid-ship, with raised fore and aft decks. The typical Three-Island style vessel. An eerie silence prevailed, making the slap of the tenders’ oars in the water all the more resonating.
The two tenders met and merged against the side of the great Cagit’s hull. Once aboard, Thorne dispensed orders to search the ship top to bottom and report back.
The crew spread out, the soft shuffle of their quiet footfalls seeming louder in the silence.
The bunks were vacant. The doors to the officer’s quarters hung open to a yawning empty blackness from within. The wheel turned this way and that. Unmanned. Pressed by the course of the wind and waves. The wind increased and clouds gathered across the horizon behind the Cagit. A winter chill turned the seamen’s cheeks and ears a ruddy pink.
Alston approached as the captain stood in the dining saloon. “Not a soul aboard, Skipper,” he said quietly.
Thorne, his back to his first mate, ran two fingers over the smooth, polished surface of the dinner table, set as if a meal was about to take place. A center-piece candle had burned to the end of the wick, wax spilling out over the sides that had hardened as it cooled. He turned to Alston. “Any sign of struggle?”
“No. The cargo is still aboard and in tact. The galley has a pot of stew still on the stove, untouched. Nothing appears to be missing…,” Alston trailed off.
“What is it, Mr. Alston?” Thorne questioned knowingly. He turned to face his first mate as Alston spoke again.
“The crew’s anxious to get back to the ship. They say it’s the Mary Celeste all over again. They’re a hearty crew, but they have their limits.”
Thorne remained calm, and with a firm voice replied, “I don’t believe in ghosts, Mr. Alston, nor in horror stories. There is a reason behind everything that is, even when one cannot explain it.” He nodded toward the port window. “I want a detailed report from all hands. Don’t let them touch anything. Nothing is to be moved until I contact the shipping agency.”
“Cap’n! Cap’n!” came a sudden shout and Thorne jerked his head up at the sound. He ducked out into the sunlight as the pounding of feet slammed against the stairwell and a black-haired young seaman appeared on the stairs from shelter deck to boat deck where Thorne stood. “Out in the water,” he gasped, heart pounding against his rib cage.
Alston came just behind his captain to merge with the circle of seamen gathered by the bulwark of the boat deck. Across a sea glaring white and yellow from the sun’s reflection, a dark splotch bobbed up and down, winking back at them.
Forbes broke from the other men to address the captain. “It’s been there all this time, out of our line of sight. It’s one of the lifeboats, Captain. Someone’s there.”
“Or something,” spoke one of the men. It didn’t matter who spoke the words, they were all thinking it.
The wind whistled between the decks in a sudden burst of power, like the scream of a lost and lonely child. A few of the crew shifted uneasily.
Thorne spoke to Forbes. “Take the men back to the ship. Mr. Alston and I will see to the lifeboat.”
Forbes’ look was uneasy but he nodded, jaw tightening. “Storm’s coming in fast.”
“I’m aware of that,” Thorne replied. “Let’s not waste time. Mr. Alston.”
Captain and First Mate climbed into one tender, legs steady against the bucking of the waves.
They drew near to the small craft bobbing precariously against the roughening waves. Thorne saw the lumpy form of a man lying awkwardly within its hull, and his hand moved within his trench coat, which opened to reveal the handle of his black German Lugar at his back.
Alston didn’t miss the action, but neither did the presence of the pistol alarm him in any way. Only the captain was allowed to carry firearms. To protect himself. A stow of rifles were kept aboard under lock and key, and only the captain had access to them. He decided when risk or danger was high enough to arm his crew, and when the danger was past the guns returned at once to the captain’s care.
The tender bumped up against the drifting lifeboat with the scrape of wood against wood. Alston laid down the oars and grabbed onto the lifeboat with one hand to steady it.
Thorne moved forward to the bow of the tender to get a closer look. A white face and wide sightless eyes stared up at him from beneath a white peaked Navy cap. A grizzled white beard was stained red with blood, lips parted to reveal rotting teeth.
Thorne’s jaw tightened. “The captain. He’s dead.”
“Mutiny?” he heard Alston question quietly.
Thorne pushed back the torn edge of the captain’s sleeve with the end of the long, narrow barrel of his Lugar to reveal the captain’s own pistol held in one hand. A hole in the side of the man’s skull marked where the bullet had entered. Thorne followed his sightless gaze to where the Cagit floated. “Then where’s the crew?”
Jersey City, New Jersey
March 7, 1934
A few lonely flakes of snow, no bigger than flecks of dust, floated down from the gray afternoon skies to land and melt away beneath boot-clad feet and the wheels of hand trucks and carts moving boxes and supplies along the Jersey City docks.
The horn blast of a departing passenger liner cut above the muted sounds of the city beyond the row of walls and warehouse buildings. The rush of water slammed into the pier, churned by the giant propellors. A dock worker shouted to another. A ship’s crane lifted a net of cargo slowly, high into the air off the docks. A small group of sailors leaned against the side of a building, drawing on cigarettes, the smoke curling into wisps above them into the cold air before vanishing away.
From this familiar scene stepped a lonely figure. She hesitated at the threshold of the sights before her, with eyes a darkened brown. She drew her wool-tweed coat more tightly around her, collar pulled high against her neck. The shoulders were nearly worn through, revealing the padded underlining, and the buckled fabric belt frayed at one end.
Soft dull brown curls—muted by the grays and browns of the sky and buildings—blown by the winter breeze, clung to her cheeks and the collar of her coat. In contrast, a small dark-red felt hat, simple cut with a narrow upturned brim, covered her head.
Her initial hesitation seemed to wan as her eyes fixed on the lettering of the ship near the end of the dock where she stood. A smaller ship compared to the others, yet it seemed to carry an air of importance and pride. The white painted, single word brought a light of recognition to her eyes. DARING.
She lifted her face to take in the hull and the tall booms and iron mast where the crow’s nest stood. A few stray flecks of snow landed on her face and clung to her eyelashes. Her lips parted as she moved closer as if in a trance, fixated on the ship.
A seaman coming toward her bumped her shoulder in passing, causing her to gasp in surprise. Her startled gaze took in the muscular arms, grease-streaked clothing, the brooding dark eyes within a square face, bristly brown goatee, and thick, unkept hair fanning his brow and poking down over his ears. He was a big man, tough, and from his expression, none too friendly.
He looked at her without a word, and she wondered if he was silently challenging her somehow. On a busy dock filled with rough sailors, he might have wondered if she didn’t belong with the large passenger liner that had just departed.
In that moment she didn’t know what to do. Should she scream? But what for? He may look upon her with irritation, but he was not threatening her that she could tell.
“Fenix,” came a commanding voice. She looked beyond the seaman to a man standing near a load of cargo by the ship’s shell door—a square opening in the side of the ship’s hull where cargo was wheeled or carried into the ship’s hold. His riveting deep-blue eyes cast briefly her way, but his focus was on the seaman. A white peaked, black visored cap covered his dark blond hair. His face, though shaven, was darkened by short light scruff. He wore a dark trench coat with wide lapels and the high collar lifted against the back of his neck against the cold air.
The seaman before her stepped aside without a word and moved on to a stack of large canvas sacks. He hoisted one to his thick shoulder. He didn’t look her way again.
Then she noticed the blue-eyed man—clearly the captain, she realized—approaching. “My apologizes, ma’am,” he said and his voice carried a soft, husky German accent. “My men mean you no harm.” His gaze took in her appearance swiftly. She could not tell what he was thinking, though the softness in his eyes was a stark contrast to the cold way Fenix had looked at her.
“Are you Captain Callan Thorne?” she said, finding her voice.
The captain raised his brows slightly in surprise, but the corners of his lips lifted in a slight, polite smile. “I am.” A dock worker approached with a clipboard and Thorne turned his head and took it, scanning the page. He glanced back at her in an unhurried manner. “What can I do for you?”
“My father…. He used to tell me about this ship, your ship,” she replied. “I started to think they were just stories….”
Captain Thorne handed the clipboard back to the dock worker with a curt nod. He looked back at her again as he stuck his hands in the pockets of his trench coat, elbows bent and legs spread in a casual stance. He stood only half-a-head taller than her, but his air of command and control made him seem even taller.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I heard a ship called SS Daring docked two days ago, and I was just curious….”
Thorne glanced up at the ship. His voice remained quiet and calm, bearing little emotion, though not unkind. “You are interested in ships?” The wind picked up in a sudden gust and he noted her shiver. There was a quiet reserve in his eyes.
“Do you spend all your time at sea?” she inquired, eyes wide as she took in the ship and the men moving to and from the hold through the shell door, carrying supplies. She seemed either not to have heard his question, or wasn’t inclined to answer.
“Whenever and wherever there is cargo to be carried and a job to be done,” Thorne answered. “The ship cannot make a profit otherwise.” He waited a moment, and when she said nothing he continued, “I have duties to attend to….” He hesitated, “I can have one of my men escort you—.”
She pulled her gaze from the ship and smiled softly. “No, thank you. That is not necessary.”
“Ma’am,” Thorne said and lightly touched the stiff brim of his cap with two fingers. His gaze searched hers, but she turned aside, her curls hiding her face as they fell forward against her cheeks.
“Captain,” came the voice of his first mate behind him and Thorne was obliged to turn back to business. He glanced back over his shoulder a few moments later, but into the city gray and the bustle of dock workers toting cargo to and fro, the mysterious young woman had vanished.
The hatches were battened down, and lights glowed from the portholes into the hazy dusk of approaching evening. With the start of the engines, the Daring came to life. Water foamed up from the propellor as great shovelfuls of coal were heaved into the giant furnace, and the pistons began to rise and fall.
The Daring and her crew moved slowly into the open water. Jamie settled on the fore deck with his back against the mast, within the glow of the yellow-white running light on the underside of the crow’s nest. He opened a small brown package sent to him from his mother, that he’d received in port. The chief engineer made his rounds below deck in the engine room, making sure the equipment was running smoothly and that there were no complications. The cook was hard at work in the galley preparing the evening’s meal. Captain Thorne stood over the table in the chart room looking at the maps and determining the safest course for the Daring to reach her next destination.
In the radio room, William Sterne turned a few dials and through the horns came the quiet strands of an orchestral waltz to be heard all through the ship.
A clean ocean breeze swept over the decks and Jamie, a small leather-bound book against his chest and the empty brown wrapping discarded between his knees, leaned back his head in contentment and closed his eyes, the breeze ruffling through the fan of stark blond hair across his forehead.
The sky began to clear as evening lengthened and the stars appeared behind the haze. The black smoke billowed up from the stack to drift away in the cool March breeze.
Dinner assembled and the officers and captain gathered to the saloon. “You’ve outdone yourself once again, Virgil,” spoke 2nd Engineer, Samuel Gage, with a pleased smile. He raised his wine glass to salute the cook as Virgil set a platter of roasted duck and red potatoes upon the center of the large oval table.
Virgil beamed with pride at the compliment, his hazel-green eyes sparkled with the joy of success. Despite the cramped spaces of his galley, the Canadian somehow managed to keep a clean and neat appearance. Even the apron stretched taut against his slightly protruding belly was pressed and clean.
Captain Thorne, sitting opposite Chief Engineer Wesley Durham, gave a slight smile of agreement to Gage’s comment and leaned back comfortably in his chair, surveying the table. “Thank you, Virgil,” he said quietly.
As the group commenced to dine, Virgil retreated to serve dinner for the rest of the crew, who ate below deck in the galley’s mess hall.
“Three days to Madeira Islands and then on to Africa?” questioned Sterne.
“Africa?” blurted Gage in surprise, pausing between a bite of roast duck.
Thorne and Alston exchanged a glance. Thorne ran a finger along the edge of his plate, tracing a hairline crack near the gold filigree. Virgil always brought out the better china on the first night of departure from home port. The set was nearly as old as the ship, yet beyond the small cracks of age, not a chip could be found on a single piece. “I’ve arranged business at Ad Dakhla,” Thorne replied smoothly. “There is a contact there.”
Durham took a drink from his wine glass and swished the remaining dark liquid in the bottom of the glass. Thorne watched him silently. “I hear Ad Dakhla is warm this time of year,” Durham said with a thin Irish accent. He cracked a smile and the others chuckled.
A line of tension seemed to subtly ease from Thorne’s straight shoulders.
Sometime before dawn, Forbes climbed from his bunk stationed beneath the fore deck and made his way down the steep metal stairs to the hold. The familiar rhythmic thwump-thwump of the engines seemed to vibrate the floor of the hold and the very air so near to the engine room.
The hold, packed tight with large crates and barrels and secured with netting and ropes, left only enough room for a central aisle for the crew to reach and unload what was necessary come port.
Moving a light over the cargo to be sure all was secure, a shadow and movement near a particularly large crate caught his eye. He swore softly. “Damn that boy,” he muttered. “What are you up to, mutt?”
When he came around the crate, however, he didn’t find what he expected to see. What he did see caused him to step back in shock.
“Jack?” called Jamie’s voice from somewhere back the way of the fore deck. The boy appeared quite suddenly behind Forbes and stopped in surprise. “Mack…,” he began uncertainly.
“Jamie, get the captain,” Forbes ordered.
When the boy realized the Able Seaman was not concerned about the missing dog, and that his attention was focused beyond the crate, he peered over Forbes shoulder and his eyes widened. “Is that—?” he began in astonishment.
The ship creaked as it tilted to the force of the waves outside.
The figure stumbled to its feet and tried to dodge past the seaman, but Forbes’ arm shot out and blocked the way. “Whoa there, kid,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere. Jamie,” he said more sharply, “get the captain.”
Jamie scrambled to obey, remembering himself. Heart hammering against his chest, he sprang up the steps to the cargo deck and hurried to the boat deck. “Captain!” he shouted up to the wheelhouse, unsure if Thorne was on the bridge or in his office. “Where’s the captain?”
The words barely left his lips when Thorne appeared above him by the bridge railing, looking down to him.
Jamie lifted his face. “Forbes needs you. He’s in the hold.”
“What is it?”
Eyes wide, he blurted. “A girl!”
North Atlantic Ocean
March 8, 1934
Captain Thorne took in the scene before him as he came into the hold, Jamie following behind with curiosity. Forbes stood near the end of the narrow aisle, arms folded across his chest and eyes never wavering from the waif who stood in the corner, back against the cargo.
Thorne approached and addressed the seaman in a low tone. “What is going on here, Mr. Forbes?”
Forbes replied, “I came down to check on the cargo and found this one hiding between some crates.” He waved an arm in the young woman’s direction. “At first I thought it was that scruffy tramp of Jamie’s…,” he concluded.
The captain looked sharply at Forbes then glanced toward Jamie, whose shoulders slumped.
“Sorry, Skipper,” the boy mumbled.
Thorne’s gaze flickered toward the figure then back to Forbes, and his lips thinned as he pressed them together in a moment of thought. “Has she said anything?”
Forbes raised an eyebrow. “Not a word.”
The captain turned to face the young woman. As he approached, he took in the wide dark eyes and jaw-length brown curls, flattened and messy from sleeping on the floor. His eyes narrowed slightly, skin deepening to tiny creases at the corners. “I have seen you before—at the Jersey docks.”
“Captain, I know how this must look…,” she began.
Thorne interrupted, voice and German accent clipped. “Stowing away on my ship is a serious crime and not something I take lightly.” His dark blue eyes were firm and unyielding. “Why are you here?”
She looked at him for a moment, though he couldn’t tell what thoughts were behind those eyes. Then she looked down as if ashamed. “I…I had no where else to go,” she confessed softly, honestly.
A muscle worked in the side of Thorne’s jaw. He understood there was more to that simple statement then she let on, and he also knew well what circumstances must have made those words a reality.
These were hard times. He’d noticed the poor condition of her attire when at the docks, and the lost look veiled in her eyes. He’d felt then that turning his back on her was wrong somehow. But he hadn’t the time or the resources to help just another desolate human-being trapped at the bottom of the economic downslide. He had enough problems and responsibilities of his own.
He noticed she’d discarded her coat somewhere, probably to sleep on, and that her dress was in as shabby a condition as the rest of her attire. Only the hat, which also had been discarded at some point, he remembered as seeming new and cared for. She wore a beige cotton dress, patterned with medium brown circles with semi-fitted bodice, cowl neckline, elbow-length cape sleeves and bias-cut, mid-calf-length skirt. Her shoes, scuffed and dirty, were a matching, if somewhat darker, beige leather.
The captain studied her a moment, then let out a barely audible sigh. She couldn’t be more than eighteen. “Tell me your name,” he demanded quietly.
She lifted her eyes to his again. “Alena Day.” Her voice was soft, but spoken with confidence despite her circumstances.
“Take her top side,” he ordered Forbes, still watching Alena. He started to turn away.
Alena stepped forward. “Captain,” she insisted and he paused. “What will you do with me?” she almost whispered.
“My first priority is getting this cargo to Madeira. I’ll decide then what to do with you,” Thorne replied in an emotionless, commander’s tone. Though he didn’t sound angry, he certainly wasn’t pleased. “I do not run a charity ship, Miss Day. You will be confined to quarters until I have a chance to speak with you again.”
“Please don’t send me back—,” Alena began, a hint of veiled vulnerability breaking through in her voice.
Thorne turned back, the question in his eyes forming a light crease between his brows. After a moment of uneasy silence he nodded to Forbes who stepped back to let Alena pass. Thorne looked at Jamie and his gaze sparked with anger, his jaw tight though his voice remained even and firm. “I told you to get rid of the dog when we were in port.”
As if on cue, a small, straggly mutt appeared from between the maze of cargo and came to stand beneath the boy, between his legs. Panting, his short tail wiggled and he smiled up at Thorne.
“It’s gone by Madeira, or you are.”
The heavy finality caused Jamie to pale. The captain’s orders were not to be taken lightly, and the consequences were severe. The boy felt both anger and shame.
Thorne walked past him, after Forbes and Alena. He came upon them as Alena paused suddenly on the stairs to the deck. Forbes turned slightly, several steps higher, sensing her hesitation. “Miss Day?” he said with concern.
Thorne saw her list slightly to the side as he came upon her. He was behind her as she collapsed and his arms caught her. He was shocked at how frail she felt as he braced her from behind. Her head turned against him, her eyes looking into his blue ones with faint surprise. “I—I’m all right,” she muttered so softly only he heard her, just before her eyes fluttered closed and her head dropped to his shoulder. It took him a moment to realize she had fainted. It seemed she’d simply fallen asleep against him.
October 26, 1929
Alena paused on the threshold of her family’s small townhouse in Jersey City, and knew. Returning from a social outing downtown with a few girlfriends, the fourteen-year-old saw her mother’s stricken features and the joy within her vanished like a cold wind.
The air held the promise of something awry, Before she could even walk into the room, the tension hit her in the chest. She knew in the next moment her whole world would fall apart. She wanted to go out again, erase the moments leading up to whatever tragedy was about to befall her.
“Mother? What’s wrong?”
Pain seemed to echo from Margret Day’s eyes straight to Alena’s heart. “Your father…,” and her voice broke. She grasped her daughter’s free hand, the other carrying a paper sack of goodies from the girlfriends’ shopping spree. “There’s been an accident…He won’t be coming home this time.”
The sack slipped from the girl’s numb fingers and she didn’t even hear it slam to the floor and scatter its contents across the tiles.
Thorne straightened from leaning over the chart room table where he sorted through several sheets of inventory lists. Sterne appeared in the doorway, bracing his hands against the doorframe. “Skipper,” he said and Thorne looked at him with question. Sterne nodded his head back the way he’d come. “She’s waking up.”
“Thank you, Will,” Thorne replied quietly.
Thorne stepped back from the table. “Have her brought to the saloon. I will be there in a few minutes.”
Sterne disappeared down the hall and walked out onto the boat deck toward the passenger cabin, just behind and separate from the cabin that made up the captain’s quarters, office, chart and radio rooms.
Thorne took a deep breath and lifted one hand to squeeze the back of his neck, just above his shoulders, pressing away the tension. He surveyed the charts, noting the Daring’s position and distance to Madeira. He started for the stairs to the saloon, then redirected his steps to the radio room instead.
“I’ve seen her, gliding through the waves. She’s beautiful, Alena. Most people don’t recognize beauty like that because they don’t know what such a sight stands for. It’s freedom and adventure. It’s a challenge. I wish you could see her. She’s quite a ship. Someday I’ll take you to the docks with me, and maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of her.
“The captain is a good man. I met him, though briefly, when I was doing work on the ship’s hull. They’d run into a storm and she got knocked about against a reef. I suppose if I asked him, he’d let me take you aboard while she’s in port. Though there’s no telling when they’ll be in Jersey again.
“I swear to you, little ‘Lena, if it weren’t for these pains in my leg, I’d sell this house and buy us a ship like the SS Daring. We’d live on the sea, and travel all over the world.”
Alena’s eyes opened slowly to a beam of sunlight across her face, feeling the ghostly remnants of resonating heartache fading with her memories and dreams. Someday, ‘Lena. Someday…She’s quite a ship. She’s beautiful…
She heard the rhythmic thudding of the ship’s engines, and lifted a hand to shade her eyes from the bright light of the sun. The ship moved gently to the motion of the waves. She sat up carefully and looked around, trying to remember what happened to bring her here. She remembered looking up the steep metal staircase and feeling her legs grow heavy. The sensation of a strength that was not her own suddenly behind her, and then the warmth of a solid body and the stiff fabric of a trench coat. The blue-eyed captain.
She put a hand to her head. What had she been thinking, hiding herself aboard the Daring? This ship that had filled the wonders and fantasies of her childhood? The ship that had become a legend to her. She blinked back a sudden onslaught of threatening tears. I’m not a child anymore. What did I think would happen?
She remembered the captain’s words and his closed expression. “Stowing away on my ship is a serious crime and not something I take lightly.”
A gentle rap sounded on the door. She stood carefully, still feeling a weakness steal over her but managing to keep on her feet.
She smoothed the wrinkles from her dress as best as she could, wondering what had become of her coat and hat. These were the only pieces of clothing she owned and it wouldn’t do to lose her coat, especially in the still-cold March weather.
She opened the door to a lean young man with a small dark, visored cap nestled upon a head of tight light-brown curls, lightened at the edges by much time in the sun. His sea-green eyes met hers with bright kindness. “Ma’am, the captain wants to see you.” He stepped back.
She followed him down the stairs and into a generously spaced square room with round portholes at the far end. The walls were covered in dark-wood panels. In the center of the room sat a long table covered in a clean white linen tablecloth.
“He’ll be along in a moment,” the kind-eyed officer informed her.
Just then, someone descended the stairs from the back hallway and entered the room. Wearing the familiar white peaked cap and having discarded his trench coat, Captain Thorne stood in tan trousers and a green, long-sleeved, button-up shirt over an off-white shirt.
“Sterne, you may go,” he said quietly.
Sterne withdrew, tugging on his cap as he went. And then it was just the two of them. She faced this captain of the ship with some trepidation.
But his words were not what she expected. Neither was the softness of his tone. “Have a seat.” He stood still, shoulders straight with ease, seeming unaffected by the subtle, yet constant movement of the ship in the waves. The ship is a seaman’s home, Alena reminded herself with the words of her father. And a good captain operates as one with his ship.
Too tired and weak to refuse, Alena sat at the end of the table. Thorne watched her a moment without speaking, then crossed to a drinks cabinet and bar. He withdrew a glass from the shelf and a large, narrow-necked glass jar from the icebox. As he poured a glass, he glanced toward Alena. “How old are you?”
Alena replied softly, “Nineteen.”
The captain returned to the table, carrying the glass which he handed to her. When she hesitated in taking it, he smiled slightly. “It’s just water.”
Alena took it slowly, her fingers brushing against his for the briefest moment. She took a drink, and the water cooled the burning dryness in her throat and hit her empty stomach.
“Your family?” Captain Thorne questioned.
Alena’s hand shook slightly as she put the glass down on the table, half-finished. “They’re gone,” she said, averting her gaze.
Thorne pulled out the chair beside her and turned it around. He straddled it, arms resting atop the back of the chair, one hand locked around the opposite wrist in front of him. He studied her. “Everyone?”
Alena avoided those blue eyes of his. She watched a drop of water trickle a slow winding path down the outside of the glass. “My father is dead and my mother is dead. They are all the family I have ever known.”
The chair creaked as Thorne shifted. “So why are you here, Miss Day?”
Alena hesitated before meeting his gaze. “My father used to tell me about your ship. He worked at the docks. He even worked on your ship once and told me he met you, in passing. Out of all the ships, he was most impressed by the Daring, and by you. He said you were a good, upstanding captain.”
Thorne leaned back slightly, and she thought she saw a measure of doubt in his eyes. He was hard to read.
“The family of the apartment I was staying in got evicted, and I didn’t know where to turn. That night on the docks, I don’t know why I came. But I wanted to see the ship my father long talked about. I have no money, Captain, and I know I cannot pay you a dime…” Her voice trailed off as she looked away again.
Captain Thorne cleared his throat after a moment of silence. “Here’s the situation as I see it,” he said. “I can’t return you to New Jersey. I have cargo to deliver to Madeira and we’re in the middle of the Atlantic. Until we reach port, you can stay in the passenger cabin. This is all that can be done for now.”
He stood, the decision final. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“I—,” Alena began.
Thorne nodded in understanding. “I’ll have Virgil bring something to your quarters. Can you find your way back?”
Alena nodded wordlessly.
“Captain?” she said, as he was nearly gone from the room. “I am sorry for trespassing.”
Thorne, his back to her, stood still a moment. Then, without a word or even a look of acknowledgement, he disappeared into the back hallway.