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Authors: Manel Loureiro

The Last Passenger

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Text copyright © 2013 Manel Loureiro

Translation copyright © 2014 Andrés Alfaro

All rights reserved.


No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.


Previously published as
El último pasajero
by Editorial Planeta, Spain, in 2013. Translated from Spanish by Andrés Alfaro.


Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle


Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.


ISBN-13: 9781477826539

ISBN-10: 147782653X


Cover design by Edward Bettison Ltd.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014910661

For my son, Manel, the axis upon which my universe spins




The spray, the fog, the night. A moisture that seeps into your bones with the boldness of a rooting weed. Dark water, turbid. Thousands of feet of abyss beneath the ship and somewhere, below, monsters.

I. Freskor


Pass of Ballaster

Somewhere in the North Atlantic

August 28, 1939

4:57 a.m.


Six hundred miles off the coast of Ireland the night was black like the depths of a mine, disappearing into the calm, opaque sea. It was there that the fog struck.

A knot formed in Tom McBride’s throat as he tried to pierce the mist with his gaze. He spat and pulled his coat, emblazoned with a captain’s insignia, tight. It had been nearly twenty-four hours since they’d been caught in the spongy mass. Moisture was seeping into every last crevice of the
Pass of Ballaster

“I don’t get it,” he murmured. “Fog in the middle of August. At this damned latitude.”

Grumbling, he reached to his left without peeling his eyes from the horizon, which at that moment meant a distance of no more than ten or eleven feet. He picked up the cup of coffee that was sitting on the navigation table and took a sip. It was cold like everything else on board. Nothing stayed hot for more than ten or fifteen minutes since they’d been surrounded by this thick yellow haze.

At least the waves aren’t too rough,
he thought, spitting the coffee back into the cup with a look of disgust.
A storm is the last thing we need.

McBride knew what he was talking about. The
Pass of Ballaster
had already seen its best years go by. The five-thousand-ton cargo ship was covered by a thick layer of rust, which mattered little since the rust was almost completely hidden by the sticky black powder from the loads of coal that were piled up in its hull.

The ship also sported a gigantic scar on one side, a souvenir left behind by an inexperienced tugboat captain who had miscalculated his distances in Halifax Harbor. The
Pass of Ballaster
was a ship that had been condemned to being scrapped, yet continued on in spite of itself.

I don’t believe we’ll make too many more journeys aboard you, old friend,
thought McBride as he undid the top button of his jacket.
Maybe one or two more. Who knows?

McBride had always thought of the ship like an old dame who had been stripped of her beauty and glamour but who tried to maintain her withered dignity until the very end. Now it was spending its final years shipping coal between Boston and Bristol.

Every member aboard was conscious of the fact that the vessel had very few voyages left in it. The
Pass of Ballaster
was just too old, the repairs were getting too costly, and above all, the coal market had practically dried up. It would only be a matter of time before the ship’s owners decided to retire it from service.

The outbound journey, made in ballast, had been perfect. The summer weather was such that the crew could strut on deck shirtless. The loading of the cargo in Boston had taken place without a hitch, apart from whisperings of impending war. It was supposed to be a trip like any other.

Until they hit this damned fog bank.

First, the radio cut out, despite the fact that the communications officer had checked it thoroughly, swearing that everything was in order. It had just stopped working. All that could be heard was the screeching of static and a faint beat in the background, a sort of dull
that repeated at random, every few minutes.

Sometimes the radio remained silent for hours until, as if suddenly realizing the ship was still there, it would hiccup out a series of low regular clicks, like a mad butcher whacking a cleaver against the chopping block. Then, silence.

On top of that, there was the cold. Sure, it was normal for it to be chilly within a fog bank, but this was different. This was an intense cold; frozen vapors formed each time you took a breath outside, and every exhalation tried to take a piece of lung out with it.

If that weren’t enough, it had been six hours since the compass started acting up.

This had not been like the problem with the radio—unexpected—but rather had come on slowly, gradually. At first there was a slight tremble in the needle, subtle enough that the crew attributed it to the vibrations sent out by the ship’s old and worn twin piston engines. After some time it became evident that the needle was becoming more and more erratic and unreliable.

McBride leaned over the compass again, though he knew he had just done so ten minutes prior. The needle fluctuated violently from east to west, unable to steady itself for more than a second.

The captain gulped. To navigate without a compass and with no visibility in the middle of a fog bank was an invitation for disaster. They could circle about for hours or, worse yet, lose their way completely. This was something that the
Pass of Ballaster
, with its asthmatic engines, could not risk.

As if reading his mind, the helmsman, a young man of no more than twenty, turned around upon hearing the creak of the command chair.

“Captain,” trembled the young man’s voice as the compass sitting on his right danced to the same broken rhythm as the one McBride had by his side, “what do you suppose I should do?”

“Stay the course,” ordered McBride.
And don’t forget to stay calm,
he added to himself. “If we haven’t strayed too far off our last estimate, then we should be on course. As soon as we can get out of this fog bank, everything will be better, son.”

“Yes, Captain,” answered the helmsman.

Never let on to the crew that you are nervous, too,
thought McBride. He could almost hear in his mind the old adage every captain of the merchant fleet memorized at the academy. How easy it all seemed on land, under the sun’s radiance. There, in the middle of the strangest situation of his career, he figured nothing worse could happen that evening.

A gust of cold air, heavy with moisture, caused the edges of the navigation chart to flutter. Captain McBride raised his eyes to see Tom O’Leary, the
Pass of Ballaster
’s first mate, walking in backward and fighting against the wind to keep his coat closed as he shut the door to the command bridge.

O’Leary, a forty-something Irishman, red-faced and slender, shook off the water that had collected on his jacket and muttered under his breath. McBride greeted him with a tired motion. His first mate was efficient despite his nervous and irritable personality.

“Have you overseen the changing of the guard?”

“Of course, Captain,” answered O’Leary as he approached the navigation table. “But this damn fog frays my nerves.”

“It’s only fog,” replied the captain laconically, licking his lips.

“Yes, sir,” he said, exchanging a nervous look with McBride that was much more eloquent than anything they could have said. “It’s only fog, sir.”

Both were lying and they knew it. But going from there to admitting it was a big step.

Between the two of them, they had more than forty years of maritime experience on these waters. They had come across fog banks thousands of times. Many had been much worse, more dense and dangerous than their present situation. Besides, it was August, and the possibility of encountering an iceberg along the way was slim. They had already gotten far enough away from Newfoundland that the danger of hitting some clueless Portuguese fishing boat was remote. In theory, it was simply another fog bank.

But somehow, this was different.

“This just keeps getting worse,” said McBride.

He briefly entertained the idea of going to bed and leaving the first mate in charge tonight. Head to bed and trust that in the morning the sun would be out, the radio would be up and working, and the compass would stop acting like it had gone berserk. Everything would be back to normal. But then he noticed something in the corner of the starboard window.

I’ll be damned if I don’t see ice forming in that window,
he thought.

Ice in August? A strange tingle ran up his spine.

“Mr. O’Leary, sound the ship’s siren every three minutes instead of every five. And send another two men with binoculars to the lookout on the bow. I have no intention of hitting any damned Turkish merchant ship whose crew’s fallen asleep or some block of ice run adrift,” he grunted, standing up. “Some polar ocean current must have come down this way. It may have brought a surprise with it.”

“Not to worry, Captain,” answered O’Leary as he gazed at the crystalline frost with an unusual look.

The first mate saluted and, without another word, strode off the bridge toward the staircase that led to the crew’s quarters.

Pass of Ballaster
was a small ship that did not require a large crew. On this particular trip, the crew was comprised of the captain, O’Leary, and seven seamen from various countries.

When the first mate opened the door to the common area, a flash of light smacked him across the face. The interior of the ship might have been a few degrees warmer than the bridge, but it was still freezing. Although the ship’s heating system was firing on all cylinders, not even the red-hot radiators could counter the icy sensation.

O’Leary entered the galley, where two of the crew on watch had come to take refuge in an attempt to get warm. Seated at a table, they were in the middle of a hotly contested round of cribbage.

“Men, the old man wants two of you to go to the lookout on the bow,” he muttered, giving a friendly slap on the back to one of the sailors. “Any volunteers?”

“Come on, Mr. O’Leary!” one of them protested. He was a lanky, freckle-faced youth of eighteen with more acne than hair on his cheeks. “Tonight is dreadful, and besides, you can’t see a thing out there.”

“That’s exactly why, Duff,” he replied patiently. He poured himself a glass of brandy and turned around toward the other deckhand, a middle-aged man who was short and squat like a circus strongman. His face was crowned by thick black eyebrows that seemed to have a life of their own. “Stepanek, you and Duff can head up to the crow’s nest with a pair of binoculars. Keep your eyes open. If there’s any problem, radio the bridge.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Stepanek. He reluctantly picked up the deck of cards and packed it away in its box.

He was a weathered sailor with a distinct Slavic accent. He had served aboard many vessels and knew that, on occasion, however unpleasant the order, there was no choice but to obey.

“You will be relieved within three hours, but in the meantime I would like you to remain vigilant. If you fall asleep and we hit something, I swear to God I’ll strangle the both of you before I see this ship go down. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Stepanek as he buttoned up his heavy winter parka and looped the binoculars around his neck. He turned to the youngest sailor and ruffled his hair. “Come along, lad. Tonight we’ll be counting seagulls.”

“Seagulls? What seagulls, Step?”

“Sometimes I wonder how the hell you got aboard alone, kid.” Stepanek shook his head and dragged the boy along behind him.

As soon as they got up on deck, the two men began to shiver. The fog stretched out in all directions, clammy and viscous. It made the ship’s lights dull and lifeless.

“You can’t see anything out here,” complained Duff. “It will be no better in the crow’s nest.”

“Pleased to have your opinion on the matter, Excellency. Now quit your griping, so we can head up the mast before O’Leary comes back. If we hit something, they’ll have our hides. Now move! Let’s go!”

The crow’s nest was a sort of basket set atop a tall mast, seventy feet in height. Besides holding the nest, it served as a good base for the radio antenna. Going up there was rare. And the only way to the top was by climbing a ladder attached to the steel post. The iron rungs of the ladder gleamed maniacally from the thin sheet of ice covering them.

“Watch where you step, Duff. If you fall, your brains will get to Bristol before your body.”

All Duff could do was answer with a strangled groan.

It took one long minute to climb the ladder, grunting and kicking at each one of the metallic hoops before placing the weight of their feet on them. Finally, they climbed into the nest and squeezed into the small, cramped space. In one corner, attached to the mast, was a black telephone connected to its counterpart located on the bridge.

“See? What did I tell you? You can’t see anything up here,” moaned Duff.

“What would you have? Sunshine? Take those binoculars and cover your side, numskull,” replied Stepanek, tossing the binoculars at him.

Stepanek knew the boy was partly right. Even seventy feet up, visibility hadn’t improved a bit. It seemed the fog was doing nothing but getting worse.

From the crow’s nest one could see neither the bow of the ship nor the deck. Even straining, one could hardly make out the faint lights coming from the bridge. For a moment Stepanek had the sensation they were alone in the world, suspended amid a spongy, dense mass the color of a dead man’s bones.

BOOK: The Last Passenger
7.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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