Erica could be forgiven for thinking she’d lost her colour vision. Peering west across the sleek varnished deck towards the coast of Malta, all she saw dazzled her eyes with a moiré of black and white swirls and diamonds. Fleeting moments of surprised calmness allowed the half moon to reflect itself. Not that two halves make a whole, yet it tried. The catamaran dipped and the wet half of the moon drowned.
She knew if she peered down into the depths she’d not see her long red hair. As if she was somewhere else.
She loved this. The rise and fall, swell in both meanings. Alone with her thoughts. Not technically alone in that she had all the communication gizmos, and then there was Dean, asleep in the starboard cabin. She’d volunteered for the night watch, always did.
Up, and down.
On the rise she could just make out a red light. Her catamaran, Hot Air, sailed towards Malta’s Grand Harbour but with ten miles to go she shouldn’t see any land lights yet. The port navigation light, then, of the Sicily ferry? It proved that her colour vision worked.
In a deep oceanic valley the horizon rose as high as a house, cutting off stars, moon, and distance. Others would lose their wits but she relished the silent powerful surges of energy, confident in the stability of the cat, paid for out of criminal compensation when her hot air balloon was brought down and the Gorda mobsters abducted her. She thought back to steering a captured speedboat in a Mediterranean storm giving her a zest for the ocean. Her reminiscence was about to bring a smile when Hot Air shuddered and stopped, throwing her hard against the large circular helm.
An eerie metallic groan filled her ears as if a giant violin was being played by a girder. Once her lungs could reinflate, a shriek escaped, “Dean, get the hell up here!”
On reflection he’d be blaming her while fighting his way out of bedding and debris having been hurled against the prow bulkhead. Perhaps she should have been on the lookout more. Without needing to leave the cockpit, she dropped the main and reefed the headsail so it wouldn’t try and pull the boat off the obstruction. At least the sea swell had calmed down. She switched on all the outside lights and ducked down into the helm locker for a flashlight.
In spite of the balmy night, an icy thought travelled up her spine as she recalled a report of a second-world-war wreck breaking up on the seabed. Part of it had filled with bad air over the decades and made it surface before it sank again. She lifted her nose and tested the air. There was something there besides the ocean’s chlorine, kelp and salt. Methane perhaps, but wasn’t that supposed to be odourless? Not when mixed with decay and evil. Of course, whatever the floating barrier was, there’d be algae, slime, the sort of crud she’d want distance from and yet she’d no choice unless she waited for Dean.
The beam of light cut through the black, making the green sea reveal a shipping container. Corrugated, as long as her boat and only just buoyant by a few centimetres but more often completely submerged. Red or rust, with dirty white, incomplete lettering: MAER-K. Now with the sea settling down and Hot Air becalmed, stuck, the only noises were gentle sloshing as an occasional wave braved the flotsam. Peaceful, apart from the thought of damage to the cat. Hopefully superficial.
Then – knock. Wood on metal? Another.
She bent an ear to the metal box. Dean’s voice disrupted her careful listening. “What’s this, why couldn’t you steer around it?”
She didn’t rise to it, but bent closer to listen after she thought there was another thud. She held up a hand to encourage silence, but Dean continued.
“They usually sink. Maybe it’s valuable but lightweight and packed in bubblewrap. You know what I’m thinking?”
She gave up listening for aberrant noises. “Usually, but humour me.”
“Salvage.” His teeth gleamed, reflecting red from the port lights then green, then yellow as she brought the flashlight up.
“You think? We might have an incapacitated steerage and our engine’s only four-forty horsepower.”
Dean looked over the side. “We’re damaged? Better check. Who’s going over?”
“We should wait for dawn,” Erica said, also leaning over the side, frowning at the possibilities of jagged metal, curious predators and the origin of knocks.
“That would mean a four hour delay. I want to know what we’ve hooked. Give me the flash, I’ll go over.”
“Yeah right. You swim like a brick.” She slipped off her life jacket, a Marino turtleneck sweater and Philipp Plein jeans then donned flippers and a facemask before entering feet first into the warm water.
She loved this otherworldly ennui. Afraid because of hidden dangers yet awed by the eerie juxtaposition of the black void below and the translucent lights from the catamaran above.
She aimed the flashlight at the container. Only an ellipse of illumination at a time yet sufficient to reveal a lack of algae or barnacles. The container was new to swimming. Up for breathing then down again, from one end to the other. No sign of drifting hinged clasps or loose straps. About to surface once more, she heard it again. A knock resonating slower than before. She placed her ear next to the metal even though her lungs screamed for oxygen.
Bang! She recoiled away and up.
Erica broke the surface and sucked in sweet air, then exhaled with, “There’s somebody in there.”
“Have you checked the cat for damage?”
“What? Didn’t you hear me?”
He pointed at his temple as if she’d a screw loose. Maybe so.
“Okay, I’ll check. Listen for anything unusual from the container, will you?”
“Sure, but it’s probably just our boat rising and falling on it. Are we properly stuck or what?”
She swam round to the port bow and winced at the gouges in the fibreglass but nothing too awful. Her cat bounced a little on the container making more rasping noises than knocking. There could be damage to steering on that hull but she wasn’t going to risk getting trapped. She swam around to the starboard hull and called to Dean.
“We should be able to lift off the container by tipping the cat to starboard. I’ll pull on a stay from here while you bounce her.”
“There’s another way of getting free.”
She pulled on the lanyard. “I didn’t think you wanted to sink it. Think of the salvage.” Erica was more bothered about the percussion noises than potential earnings and yet didn’t want Dean to think she was paranoid.
He jumped onto the starboard side of the deck near her, and between them the lurching and bouncing lifted the vessel off the container.
Erica dived to inspect Hot Air. As she suspected the left tiller had been ripped away along with cable stays.
Knock, knock knock.
She froze, or at least trod water while submerged, staring at the famous company’s logo wondering why the S in Maersk was missing. Around the front, a glistening padlock faced her. Someone had locked the person in. Perhaps more a stowaway then a prisoner at the time, but a prisoner now, or a bunch of them. She gasped with shock at the thought of desperate people, who’d used all their life-savings to smuggle across the sea to Italy or somewhere else, safe. Now, crammed, drowning in the container.
Knock, a few seconds, knock.
She didn’t wait for the third. She emerged so fast she leapt out of the water, grabbed a rail and was on deck in seconds. Dean stepped smartly back, not wanting to get wet.
She gasped, “There’s… there’re people in there.”
“Are you still going on about that knocking?”
“Call the Maltese coastguard. If they knew this was a danger to shipping and persons were inside, they’d surely send a helicopter and launch to bring it in?”
“You know they wouldn’t. They’d either assume it would sink, or they’d force open the door and watch it disappear, along with our salvage, and your refugees.”
She went into the cabin and called the coastguard anyway.
“Yes, GPS has us at 35.764343North,14.707947East.” She listened for a while then, “Damn you, over and out.”
Reluctantly, she let Dean chug the motor while she dried and dressed. She lay on a bunk but couldn’t sleep. Images too real, of drowning children and clawing hands wrecked her sanity. She poured a G&T to help her nerves and took one to Dean.
“I thought we were heading to Malta?”
“Then why is the container just behind us?”
They both stared. It couldn’t move on its own, could it? Dean said they’d travelled at least three miles while she was below.
Erica perked up. “Something must have snagged it. A line on us. At least it shows we can tow it in. Maybe the salvage money will pay for repairs so we don’t have to claim on the insurance.”
“Okay, get back in the water and loop these carabiners around the container’s top hook and eyes.”
She stood, chilling with the night breeze on her glistening skin, warming from the inside with anger. After a noisy exhalation she gathered the equipment, jumped in and swam the few metres to the container.
Dean called out, “Pity we don’t have a spare outboard motor to jury-rig on the container. Even a sail would help if it wasn’t so damn calm.”
Erica looked for the snagged line but couldn’t find one. She attached two lines to crane-hook eyes on the nearest end to her boat. Then stood on the roof of the container. She removed her flippers but keeping upright was not easy as it tilted every few seconds so her arms waved out like a tightrope walker. The sea washed over the container every seventh wave so not much chance of air holes. She wondered if there might have been a tube or two, like snorkels, but if so, they’d been knocked off in the accident.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Dean, listen. It’s an SOS, I’m sure of it.”
“You’re kidding. I thought you were thinking there might be an animal in there. Maybe a pony you’d like to rescue.”
“Morse code. Listen, damn you.”
“Just for you.” Dean squatted and cocked an ear. In moments he shot back upright. “You’re right in that there’s a pattern but not Morse. Now what? If we open the doors the sea will rush in and it’ll sink immediately.”
“We could pump air into it. The container might be airtight or as you said earlier, filled with air-filled packaging but if its only recently fallen off a ship or made worse by us ramming it—”
“Examine the top again, I bet there’s an inspection hatch or some kind of airhole.”
“I thought of that. I’ll look again, damn the night.” She took her time playing the strong torch over the ruddy surface but found nothing in the central panels.
Knock, knock, followed by multiple hammering from every part of the box as if a dozen desperate people were hammering their way out. It calmed down to a steady thudding from the far edge. There she found two holes through which the sea swept in with each wave, but could have had air tubes. She called to Dean to throw her two snorkels.
She caught them. “You could have removed the mouth pieces.”
“Wait, see if one will jam in one of the holes. It doesn’t matter if the hole is too big as we have plenty of sealant. I wonder if we should pump air into the other hole.”
Erica smiled. He was finally on her side, that of humanitarian life saving.
“After all, we don’t want the box to sink before we know what’s in it. Catch.”
She pushed in the startling yellow tube and felt the throb of the pumped air going in like blood in an artery. As was her nature, she began to worry. Suppose the air pressure builds up too much? Could that be bad? Suppose the people were in a kind of plastic box within the container and… no, it too would need fresh air. Yet how could the container stay afloat even for an hour or so?
Dean’s voice floated through the night. “If you’re going to stay out there, I’ll throw you an oar.”
“You think you’re so funny. Wait. I can hear moaning now. Many voices.”
“Probably from the pumping. Get aboard so we can get to shore.”
Back on board the cat, Dean started the engine while she threw on a towelling jacket and took the helm. The boat slewed to port then starboard like a wounded whale. Not only from the tow but with only the one working tiller.
Only ten miles yet it was midday before they passed through the breakwater in Malta’s Grand Harbour. Half an hour previous, Dean had put a call into the harbour master to sort the formalities of bringing in the container as salvage and possible rescue.
“Docking Bay C09 is the one we’re to head for,” Dean said. “It’s the most appropriate for our tow since the floor can be raised like a half-dry dock.”
Weary from the continual fighting the helm, mixed with being hyper from too much coffee, she looked at him with half-closed eyes. “What did they say about the people in the container?”
“They said it was probably loose cargo.”
Dean waved at helpers he’d radioed in advance on the quayside. “Well, we’ve not heard it for hours, though that could be ‘cos we’re both more than half asleep.”
“Is George going to take over the tow with his rubber dinghy?”
“Yep. We’ll stop pumping and reel in the air hose. You think the container’s higher in the water now?”
She’d thought so hours ago even though the occasional wave broke over it. She stopped the engine. The sails were reefed but she checked the wind was offshore, not that they were going to dock the cat here. She was booked already to a nearby repair yard. She waited until the last minute to turn off the air pump.
“Dean, while in for repairs, get this pump checked. It’s making noises like the Pied Piper and all the rats of Hamelin.”
Reluctantly, Erica relinquished the container to George who’d started the careful job of pushing the container into the dock. His pipe smoke tweaked her nostrils. Disgusting habit but she loved the vanilla aroma. He had helpers on the side ready with tow ropes and long boat hooks. Erica made sure they’d attached fenders to the container. She wanted to stay with it but Dean insisted he needed the two of them to dock Hot Air and she could run back in ten minutes.
“I don’t know why a few more minutes is making you anxious, Erica. It’s gonna take at least an hour before a recovery crane capable of lifting the container is available. And this is your boat!”
“Okay, agreed, but…” An empty cold pit in her stomach. She’d knocked on the side and top of the container from time to time but with no response for hours. Was it all in her mind? Overtired on the night watch although Dean had heard the few regular bangs that made her think it was an SOS. As they approached the repair yard she groaned. Jack was on duty and he’d take hours not just on the paperwork but the trivial chatter. She stayed for a perfunctory quarter of an hour, signed papers and left Dean to it. In any case, Customs would be more interested in their unscheduled imported box.
On the way, she picked up a roasted vegetable wrap and coffee from one of the dockside takeaways. She’d forgotten how hungry she was. Even so it hardly settled the dancing in her stomach.
As soon as she saw the group of people on the quayside C09, she froze. Already there were men and women in police and customs uniforms, fine, but she saw George climbing onto a ladder and someone was handing him a sledge hammer. She threw away the rest of her wrap. A seagull caught it and flew off, chased by another.
“George, you were to wait for us.” She stared at the container sitting in knee deep water from where the false dock floor had been raised. “Have there been any noises from it?”
“Eh? Well, now you mention it. An’ there’s an odd smell – musty, not the wet kind we’re used to sniffin’.”
A woman customs officer told Erica how she’d noted the container’s registration number and had phoned it in. They should be hearing from Maersk later. She’d given permission for the container to be unsealed and was ready to embargo everything inside.
“It’s still ours though?” Dean said, breathless from running.
“You have salvage rights, but we might have an interest if it is contraband to the islands.”
The padlock flew off with the hammer strike, then the same with two smaller locks Erica had overlooked. The double doors creaked open letting water rush in. Dean smiled as the contents proved him correct. Large inflated polythene bags protected other bubble-wrapped boxes.
His face fell when the customs officer read a label. “Destination Museo Archeologico, Palermo, Sicily. They are Egyptian artefacts, sir. Priceless to humanity, worthless to you.”
Erica switched on her own torch and while keeping her feet dry for once, shone it towards the back. “No refugees smuggling their way out of Africa then?”
The officer turned so that her deep brown eyes looked directly into Erica’s worried face. “If there were, I might be thinking you were involved in their trafficking.”
“I heard knocking and cries. That’s all.” She climbed down the ladder and stepped into the water into the container. She had to shoulder aside dangling plastic and thought how unhappy Palermo was going to be with water-damaged trinkets.
George called her to the rear where he flashed his light into her face making her blink before back to larger boxes. “Are these your stowaways?”
Before she could wade over to him, he’d pulled off plastic and pulled at a corner of a wooden crate. It lifted easily, too much so. He swore.
“Hopin’ for another King Tut not this tat. Look at it all, they must’ve shovelled in the broken bones of a dozen oldies.”
Erica shook her head at his desecration but also at the puzzle of the noises. A label on the lid gave a series of codes and in English – Fifth Dynasty, Osiris Lord of Silence and his cohort of Silents.”
As she re-emerged, she saw a smile on Dean’s face. “Maersk are paying us a thousand euros for recovering their container and we get a token comp pass to Italy’s state museums.”
He held down a hand to help her up the ladder and he laughed at her soggy trainers.
“Excuse me, you two,” George said, turning their elbows to face the ocean. “Isn’t that your cat?”
Heading silently out of the harbour was the white Hot Air. The offshore wind filled the sail, beneath which grinned several brown faces. Too far, now, even with binoculars, to say whether they were tanned, emaciated thieves, or—she looked back at the container.
Geoff Nelder asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work