“What do you mean you don’t know where she is? Don’t tell me you’ve lost her? How can you lose a person? You should have brought her to me at once, instead of playing this cat and mouse game… you… you…” Ballantine’s anger and agitation were palpable.
Harker on the other hand stood his defiant ground, arms folded, and waited until Ballantine calmed down. He watched as his employer lit a cigar and took a sip from his glass of bourbon.
You drink too much.
Harker’s wait was short-lived as Ballantine had no choice but to calm down. He knew angering Harker would lead to Harker walking out, or worse. He shuddered inwardly at the thought of a violent confrontation with William Harker.
“I didn’t say I had lost her, I said I was having trouble finding where she is living, since she moved out of Blackmore’s apartment. There’s a difference, Mr. Ballantine. And as for the cat and mouse game, she’s plainly not well by all accounts. She seems to have memory loss. My advice is to leave her be and allow her to get well, or you may find yourself with someone so ill you won’t know what to do with her.”
The emphasis on his title was not lost on Ballantine. Harker was more than useful to Ballantine, but there were times he realised he was skating on thin ice and Harker’s famed stiletto blade could come into play at any time. Ballantine gulped down another shot of bourbon, thankful Harker was not coming at him with the knife.
“But you will find, her? You will find Magda?”
You’re fixated! Not good, Mr. Ballantine, not good at all.
Harker nodded. “From what I can gather she has been taken in by a woman. I’m not sure why and currently my source has no other information on who this woman is.”
Harker prided himself on keeping tabs on all the information that came his way. He wielded that information like a weapon, like the stiletto he was famous for. Harker knew all about Magda’s family and their ownership of a large parcel of land in Texas, land that covered a presumed immense oil field. Harker made it his business to know all he could about his enemies, those he has pledged to find, pledged to kill and pledged to work for. Harker knew that information was infinitely more valuable than possessions. Information can be used to extract great wealth from a person, rather than go to the bother of extracting wealth by digging or drilling for it.
“I have my suspicions as to her whereabouts and I have my sources of information. I will find her. But then you will need to decide what you want to do with that information.”
Ballantine was mid-swallow and paused to pull his glass from his lips. “What do you mean?”
You haven’t thought this through at all.
“If I find Magda, why would she want to be with you?”
Ballantine’s chubby face looked stunned. “I have a contract with her parents.”
“But Magda, as far as anyone else is concerned, is dead. The White Star line has declared it so and it won’t be long before it becomes official. According to the manifest she never even got on board the ship.”
Ballantine’s face was a picture of confusion, much to Harker’s delight.
“There are no buts, Mr. Ballantine. You need to think about the consequences. If she is alive and well, and still willing to be your wife, then all well and good. If she is ill and incapable, or has simply changed her mind, maybe even cannot remember you or anyone else, what do you want me to do?”
It came to Ballantine in a flash of, what he believed, was brilliant insight. “Kidnap her. Bring her to me.”
Harker nodded, picked up his cap and made his way to the door. One word was on his lips as he left Ballantine’s hotel room. “Fool.”
Lüderitz West Africa
The storm had abated swiftly after it had taken Charles Archer, almost as if its sole purpose was to remove the unfortunate Marconi man from Blackmore’s vessel. Now, the bruised and battered crew were subdued as their equally bruised and battered ship sailed into the harbour at Lüderitz, West Africa. They took on a pilot and the crew did their duties in a perfunctory manner. There was no desire for the usual smiling, joking and looking ahead to shore leave. The Lady Jane’s crew were a sad company, keeping their thoughts to themselves.
Captain Blackmore was even more introverted and in a darker mood than before the equatorial crossing. Where his presence was not needed on the bridge, Richard Blackmore spent his time, alone, in his cabin. The loss of Archer, though not his fault, was his responsibility. He had never lost a crewman in his entire career as a captain of a ship, any ship. A month had passed since they left New York and still over two months to go before Blackmore and Maggie were re-united. Though that time would be joyful for Blackmore, it would be laced with sorrow because his crew would disembark, all except Charles Archer.
Blackmore’s melancholy was not helped by his efforts to write a letter to Archer’s family. His cabin floor was littered with scrunched up paper, failed attempts to alleviate the sense of loss that would inevitably crowd into the everyday life of Archer’s parents. His letter writing was not going well, and he decided he had better get himself onto the bridge if he couldn’t write this letter of condolence. By his reckoning, maybe the air from West Africa would clear the fugue in his mind. But as he climbed slowly up to the bridge, Archer and Maggie were very much on his mind. Of course, Blackmore knew nothing of Maggie’s current situation. Under normal circumstances the shipping line did not look favourably on personal messages flowing through the ether, for no other reason than it did not do well for a ship’s crew to have their concentration taken away from the job in hand. What they didn’t know would not hurt them, was Gordon Bellagon’s belief. But even if Blackmore could have bent the rules, with the loss of Archer and the equipment all but wrecked in the storm, there was no way of contacting Bellagon until, hopefully, they could get a message out in Lüderitz.
“Lüderitz seems a peaceful enough place.” Blackmore mused as his First Officer brought the Lady Jane into the port at the pilot’s guidance. His words didn’t go unheard.
“Ja, Kapitan. It is a beautiful place, no? Germany has created a masterpiece in West Africa.”
Blackmore turned to the German pilot and smiled. “If you say so, Pilot. My personal choice would be any port in Canada. The African heat does not sit well with me.”
The pilot’s greasy black hair and unkempt uniform made him look like many of the pilots Blackmore had seen across the world. They knew their business, but many have either no dress sense or care nothing for their appearance. The fact this pilot was German seems to have been lost in the years he has worked in this seemingly peaceful backwater of the world.
Blackmore walked the length of his bridge, toward where his First Officer stood, overseeing the position of the boat. “More like hell on earth to my mind, Mr. James,” Blackmore said in a hushed voice.
Mr. James smiled without turning to his Captain. “Well, I suppose there must be something about the place, otherwise why would people live here?”
“I tend to think there are those who wish to hide from civilisation rather than take part in it. Some prefer the lawlessness that the outer fringes of society can offer. It’s not long since slavery was abolished here, though seeing the place for the first time I somehow doubt it’s completely disappeared. Besides, the discovery of diamonds in this area will soon make this a boom-town and all the world’s riff-raff will be converging on this place soon.”
As the Lady Jane was finally ushered into her anchorage and the pilot vacated the bridge, Blackmore had his longboat lowered, ready for his trip to shore and the customs office.
“I suppose we will be here quite some time, Captain, judging by how slow these dhows are at loading and offloading.”
Blackmore looked over to the distant shore. “Yes, you can bet we will be here two or three days at least.”
As Blackmore and his first officer made their way down to the Captain’s longboat and its waiting crew, his first officer asked the question on all sailor’s lips as they berthed in a new port. “Any shore leave, sir?”
“Let me assess the situation first, Mr. James. I’ve never been here before and if our pilot is anything to go by, I suspect there will be a lot of potential for trouble if we’re not careful. I know we all need to let of a little steam after what we’ve been through, but I would rather mitigate any potential problems beforehand. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
The Lady Jane seemed a sad, lonely and somewhat neglected ship to Blackmore, as he and his crew pulled further and further away from her. Despite the small, sail powered, dhows transferring goods to and from the shore, his ship looked close to lonely, as lonely as he now felt. Though their voyage was only just beginning, almost a third was over and it would not be long before they were off to Europe. The European leg would be something of a tedious time, so near to the States and Maggie, yet still so far. His first officer’s words of advice echoed inside his head and Blackmore tried to shrug off his melancholy, instead looking forward to the dubious delights of Lüderitz.
The squat buildings, mostly made of some local mix of concrete, mud & straw, wood and many more unknown building materials all served a similar purpose, keeping their rooms light, airy and cool. The generous scattering of palm trees gave the relief of some occasional shade from the incessant heat and gave an air of tropical sultry a visitor could appreciate. Though it was evident to Blackmore as he walked through the bustling crowds, making slow progress, that most of the people were on a mission, not sightseeing. It was fast approaching mid-day and people were trying hard to finish their mornings business, ready for a well-earned siesta during the heat of noon and into the afternoon. Business would be completed soon and then continue in the late afternoon. Nobody wanted to be caught out in the sun during the hottest part of the day. Blackmore was aware of this and made his knock on the customs chief’s door that much more urgent. A brief grunt issued forth from the interior and Blackmore took that to mean enter, so he did.
The gloom inside lightened as his eyes grew accustomed to the lack of light, but still Blackmore squinted to see who he was dealing with.
“You have papers?” The words came from a shadowy figure, sat at a desk with a single candle flickering on the paper strewn desktop. The smell of stale cigars, alcohol and food made Blackmore wrinkle his nose in distaste.
“I do,” he said and dropped the leather-bound document holder onto the desk.
The seated man said nothing, taking the document holder, opening it and scrutinising the contents. “Tobacco, spirits and machine parts?”
Blackmore nodded. “Correct,” he said.
“No contraband? No slaves?”
Blackmore bridled at the questions. “I assure you, sir, I carry nothing except that which is on my manifest.”
“Sit,” the shadowy figure said, “please, Captain.”
Blackmore sat on a rickety wooden chair, steadying himself on the official’s desk, the stickiness to his touch making his stomach bridle at the thought of what he was touching.
“You will be offloaded starting today, Captain. You are in luck, there are no vessels in front of you.”
Blackmore’s eyes had adjusted to the light and he could see, with certainty that the man opposite was fair-haired, young and well dressed and manicured. The sight took him by surprise. He had expected an official with greasy black hair, a uniform as dishevelled as the pilot who had steered his ship to her birth. The sudden swish of a previously unseen overhead fan made Blackmore look up. Blackmore raised an eyebrow at the makeshift fan, seemingly comprising of dried palms and a well-worn rug.
“Electricity here is intermittent, people power is the order of the day and that requires food, water and some rest in between work.”
The customs man smiled at Blackmore and tipped his head to Blackmore’s left. Blackmore peered in the direction indicated, his eyes penetrating the gloom and noticed a small boy pulling on a thick and rough vine, connected to a pulley that pulled the large swath of intricately plaited palm leaves and rug, forming the rudimentary, but effective, fan.
“It seems to work well, sir,” Blackmore said with a smile as the small boy steadily returned his gaze.
“My son,” the official said. “He insists on working with me… and being paid too much for the job he does.”
Blackmore watched the little boy pulling on the creaking interlaced vine rope and the boy looked back, a small smile creeping across his face. “Does he not go to school?”
“Oh yes, we teach him at home. My wife, Kristina, and I are both teachers. She is at the school now, just down the road, teaching.”
Blackmore was surprised. “Isn’t a customs job in Lüderitz a far cry from teaching in Germany… assuming you are German.”
“Well,” the man said with a sigh, “my mother was English, and my father is German, so going to school in both England and Germany gave me a chance to perfect two languages.”
“Well, your choice of career move seems…”
“Interesting?” The young man asked.
Blackmore nodded and smiled.
“The move is not of my choice. It’s the choice of my father-in-law.”
A small snort of derision emanated from the corner and Blackmore turned his gaze to the little boy, whose smile was now replaced with a look of distaste. “Your son is unimpressed with his Grandfather’s choice?”
“We’re all unimpressed, as this is a punishment for my wife, for her defying her father and becoming a teacher, not a socialite as he wished. We had no money, only dreams. Her father has money and influence. His influence brought us here, but he kept hold of his money.”
“Harsh indeed and I suppose you had no choice.”
“Just so Captain, no choice, just as you have no choice at all.”
Blackmore was still regarding the little boy when he suddenly realised the change of tone in the boy’s father. “I have no choice? What have I to do with your story?”
“Nothing at all Captain, I merely use our dilemma as an illustration of your impending dilemma.”
“Sir, you have me at a disadvantage. I have no idea of what it is you speak.”
“Captain, it’s nearly time for a meal and siesta. I know you wish to get back to your ship, but would you at least do my family the honour of taken food with us?”
This was another surprise and Blackmore did not like surprises. “Sir, my ship has sustained damage in a storm, we have lost our Marconi man overboard and the equipment he operated is destroyed. I need to send a message to my owner. But first, can I ask why? Why a German custom official should take an interest in a Captain’s welfare?”
“I am sorry for your loss captain. We can oblige with the use of our telegraphy office, but it will be closed within minutes, as will almost all the town. I will be happy to oblige with answering your questions, but only while we eat. It’s something I find calms the soul. My wife will not be joining us, she will feed the school children at the school and join us later.”
Blackmore stood. “I balk at this obtuse treatment, sir. But as you hold my papers and as I wish to depart as quickly as possible… then I will agree to break bread with you. But under protest, sir.”
The young man stood, his son followed suit. “Very well, Captain, and thank you. I wish you no harm, indeed, I have a package I must pass on to you and I also have information that you will find interesting, I believe.”
The three left the office, the little boy respectfully taking his father’s hand and all three made their way to the custom’s official’s home. With Blackmore’s mood quickly turning from anger to inquisitive as they made the short journey.
Blackmore stood opposite the young man, noting the array of ornate cushions and very low divans, set in a square in a small room in the man’s basic home. There was nothing expansive or expensive about this single storey home. Blackmore waited, still no wiser as to why he was here and not back on his ship where he wanted to be. He had asked the young man to despatch a runner to inform his long-boat crew he was delayed and for them to find refreshment and relief from the sun, at Blackmore’s own expense. This business he was now involved in, he was sure, was not company business and should therefore not be a cost his employer should bear, especially as his employer was unhappy with Blackmore’s treatment of his nephew.
“First captain let me introduce myself,” the young man said, standing and holding his right hand out. “Gottfried Andrew Schott, at your service.”
Blackmore shook the man’s hand. “You of course know my name,” he said, intentionally curt in his introduction.
“I do, and I wish we had met in less, trying, times.”
“Trying times? Are you referring to your lot in life or mine, or perhaps both?”
“The world is going through trying times, captain,” Schott said as he sat and then clapped his hands, twice, in quick succession. Schott indicated Blackmore should sit on the very low sedan chair provided. Blackmore followed Schott’s lead as did the man’s son. When they were seated, food appeared borne on bone china plates. Schott could see Blackmore was impressed with the choice of serving dishes.
“It is my wife’s only concession to her previous life of privilege. These plates were a gift from her brother on our marriage and she treasures them dearly.”
“Sir, I wish…”
Schott had begun taken small portions of food from the serving dishes and without fuss and using fingers only, he began to eat. Blackmore took it as a sign they should eat first and talk later. The next forty minutes passed frustratingly slowly for Captain Blackmore.
“Sir, I do appreciate your hospitality, but I must…”
“…insist I get to the point. I agree, you have enough on your mind and you need to return to your ship. My wife seems to have been delayed, but no matter. Please, hear me out and pay attention to what I’m about to say. But first I have a small consignment for your employer.” Schott had produced a small leather pouch, about the size of a pair of eye-glasses and he handed it to Blackmore. “Better you receive this away from prying eyes. We will finish the paperwork back in my office shortly.”
Blackmore had never taken kindly to being lectured or told what he must do even as a child or by his peers. But Schott was insistent, so he took the pouch, sat back and waited.
“Two days ago, I received a message, from New York, that concerns you.”
“From Mr. Bellagon?”
“No, this was not a message about your ship. It was about you and it was from the New York Port Police authority.”
Blackmore frowned. “Why would the police be contacting me?” Blackmore suddenly sat bolt upright. “Maggie? Is there something wrong with Maggie?”
“I know nothing of this Maggie you speak of. The message concerned the whereabouts of a gentleman by the name of Arthur Collins. It seems he is missing. They had tried and failed to contact your ship.”
“Two days ago we were in the eye of a storm. My old chief, you say? I received a message a while back about him going missing, not an unusual occurrence. I saw him the night before I sailed.”
“Well, it seems since then he has been officially reported missing. The police are asking me to ask you if you know anything about his disappearance.”
Confused, Blackmore shook his head. “Why are the police in New York asking a customs official in Lüderitz for information about a missing man?”
Schott smiled. “I also act as a sort of police chief here, since our last Chief of Police died of dysentery a few months ago.”
“I see. So, you can tell them that I saw Collins the night before I sailed. This seems a lot of fuss about nothing, Herr Schott.”
“Would it be so I would never have made such a fuss, as you put it. But I have received two more cables since the first. One from the owner of your ship, also asking after his nephew, which I assume is the same Arthur Collins and one from a gentleman called Ballantine, Matthew G. Ballantine III.”
Blackmore was more and more confused, and his expression and agitation showed it. “What is going on, Schott. Who is this Ballantine?”
Schott looked shocked. “You do not know him?”
“No, I do not.”
“A very dangerous man who is searching for a woman… a particular woman, whom he seems to think you know the whereabouts of.”
Blackmore sat and simply stared at Schott for several moments, until he put two and two together. “Maggie?”
As I have already stated, I do not know who this Maggie is. The person he seeks is called Magda. All I know is that this woman is dear to him, his betrothed, and that he seems to think you have somehow kidnapped her.”
“What?” Blackmore’s voice boomed, frightening Schott’s child.
“Please, captain. For the child’s sake keep your voice down. Let me first explain that I know Matthew G. Ballantine, or rather my family knows him. He is a rogue and a charlatan; a thief has more honour than he does.”
“I beg your pardon sir, but I am at a loss to understand what all of this has to do with me.” Quickly Blackmore explained the circumstances of finding Maggie at the scene of the Titanic disaster, her loss of memory and the role Arthur Collins had played in the disaster.
Schott listened attentively, never interrupting to ask any questions. “Whatever these circumstances, however you have found yourself in love with this Maggie is of no concern to me.” He held up a hand as Blackmore tried to protest. “Please, Captain. When you speak of Maggie your eyes are alive with love and your heart is so obviously smitten. Do not, as they say in English, pull the wool over my eyes. I know you are in love with Maggie. If Magda and Maggie are one in the same, then you have a major problem on your hands. But that is as it may be. You have to be aware there are now dark forces trailing you.”
“Ballantine has many underhand ways of doing his business. Extortion, bribery, theft are all illegal practices, but normal for him. However, if these illegal practices fail to work, he has more persuasive means in the form of one William Harker. A man who sold his soul to the devil the day he was born. He is in Ballantine’s pay and there is nothing he will not do for money, including murder.”
“And you know this how?”
“William Harker murdered my brother.”
Blackmore did not like where his conversation with Schott was going.
“Sir, I fail to see what all this has to do with me. If indeed Magda is Maggie then she has the right to choose who she wishes to be with.”
Schott nodded, contemplatively. “I see what you are trying to impart, that Maggie has free will. If she is Magda, she has no free will. She has been bought by Ballantine.”
Blackmore shifted his position on the low divan. He hated to be uncomfortable when conducting any business, yet this situation was far from being business-like. “You say this Ballantine had your brother killed.” Blackmore was diverting attention from the thorny discussion on Maggie, he needed time to think.
“Indeed, he did and at the same time my brother’s wife also died, though not at the hands of Harker.”
“Harker killed your brother and…”
“… my brother’s wife committed suicide months later.”
Schott sighed, and Blackmore detected a glassiness about the young man’s eyes. The subject matter obviously had considerable impact on him emotionally.
“My sister-in-law was ashamed. My brother, after his death, had been implicated on a case of fraud with a Swiss bank. Harker had manufactured the evidence. It had been his way of ensuring no awkward questions were ever asked about my brother’s death.
Mt brother had been killed, murdered by Harker, in such a manner to make it look like suicide. My brother’s wife could not bear the shame and took her own life. Plunging into an icy-river. Her body was recovered days later, a few kilometres downstream.”
Blackmore was not shocked, and neither was he convinced of the story. He didn’t know Schott or his family, in fact he had no idea if the man even had a brother. He was not taking anything at face value.
“I can see the doubt in your eyes, Captain.”
“I don’t wish to sully the memories you have of your family or the wrongs you believe have been visited on your family. I fail to understand why this Harker would do such a thing.”
“On Ballantine’s orders, Captain. Unless you know Ballantine, you will find the reason hard to believe.”
“Let me be the judge of that, sir.”
“Ballantine is a wastrel. As I said, he makes money with many illegal ventures. One such method is blackmail. While in Europe, apparently searching for a bride, perhaps even finding one in the form of this Magda. Ballantine had come across a fraud being carried out by an official at a Swiss Bank he was using to wire funds to him.
Ballantine attempted to blackmail the official. The official told his superior and his superior made the mistake of approaching Ballantine directly, trying to keep the scandal contained and not involving the police.”
“The superior was your brother?”
Schott smiled. “Indeed, Captain, you are most astute. My brother stopped Ballantine in his tracks by confronting and humiliating Ballantine, in public.
He paid the price of humiliating Ballantine with his life and also that of his wife, for ultimately, his wife was surely murdered as much as her husband was.”
Blackmore sat silently for a few moments, trying to take in what it was Schott was telling him. “You think Ballantine, assuming Magda is Maggie, will somehow take her from me and at the same time set this bulldog of his, this Harker, on me.”
Schott nodded, once. “I do. I know the man. One of the reasons I am in this god-forsaken-place is because of him. My wife wanted us to move away from Germany and the scandal that erupted around the family when my brother was falsely accused of being corrupt. My father accused me of being a coward and cut me off without a second thought. No money and no prospects mean you take whatever work you can, where you can… and here we are.”
At that point a man in white robes rushed into the room and spoke quickly in German. Schott vaulted to his feet. “We have to leave.”
Blackmore climbed to his feet more slowly. “Why?”
“The rebels are on their way into town.”
Copyright Tom Kane © 2018
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