* * * * *
Nick easily walked among the dregs—in a sense, his own people—and even greeted a few with a kind word and a touch on the shoulder. Gray tried his best not to appear stiff in Nick’s shadow, though the eyes that returned his gaze told how they knew more than he.
As the two moved into the common room proper, a row of aged aluminum toilets—likely pooled from retired naval vessels—lined the wall nearest the stern. Gray looked up and saw a young girl, not more than eight, resting on top of a toilet in the act of defecating. The girl’s father stood over her, his back partly to Gray, as he urged her to be quick about it. Strangely, Gray saw pity in the young girl’s eyes as she watched him turn away.
The room felt crowded with only twenty people occupying it—space for ten more at most—and Nick had to lead Gray around and sometimes over slumbering individuals and their duffels. Thick candles and oil lamps were positioned here and there to give light where it was needed; the only electrical fixture in the room was a flickering shop light dangling from the ceiling over the toilets.
“No room to swing a cat, ‘ey?” Nick said over his shoulder to Gray.
The smell of stewed beans and potatoes and strong coffee filled Gray’s nostrils as the two of them approached a large iron furnace that was built up into the ceiling on the other side of the flat. A brewing kettle and several pots rattled away where they rested on a grill over one section of the fire. Gray surmised that Nick had provided some portion of the cookware or the spare coffee beans and potatoes, but just how much did these people rely on him, he began to wonder.
Neighboring the furnace, a large man, with the mustached face of a St. Bernard, stepped aside as Nick reached past him and pulled back one corner of a drape that obscured the inside of a private stall. There, lying on what appeared to be a heavily bedded gurney, and doubtless the finest divan on the entire flat, an elderly gentleman reclined in obvious discomfort.
The old man’s skin was slick with sweat, and red blotches were visible on the backs of his hands, his jaw, and his neck. His eyes were shut but his mouth hang open, a hollow, sucking sound emanating from the back of his throat each time he inhaled. His scalp was spotted and the few wisps of hair that decorated his head looked painted on. Judging by how loosely his clothes sat on him, the old man couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. Above all else, however, it was clear that the elder, whose pained expression was somehow still proud, had the look of an honored patriarch.
Nick turned to Gray in earnest and whispered. “The first time I went to look for’t was after I brought some spare blankets and the coffee from storage. Tha’s two days ago.” Nick lifted a finger and gestured toward a couple other stowaways across the room. “Since then the old man’s affliction has spread to some others, though not serious yet.”
Gray listened, emotionless.
“Is he eatin’?” Nick asked the big man still standing nearby.
The saggy-faced giant, who had kept vigil over the old patriarch since all this had began, shrugged and shook his head.
Nick leaned over to inspect the dwindling store of food. “There’re some fish and a small crab out on the landing, why don’t you go and fetch ‘em,” Nick instructed the large man. “Don’t worry none, you’ll be safe.”
Gray glanced at the big man as he left and then moved over to have a better look at the old patriarch.
“The cap’n is not an unfeeling fellow,” Nick began softly, placing a hand just above the old man’s forehead to check his temperature. “But there’s only so much he can do.”
Gray watched Nick out of the corner of his view, eyes moving from Nick’s lips to his eyebrow to the tip of his nose and back again as he spoke.
“The cap’n used to be one of ‘em, you know,” Nick continued. “Until by some odd stroke of luck, or someone else’s misfortune, this ship fell into ‘is hands. Ever since he’s been perfectly willing to carry one’s like these on ‘is back, so long as they’re out o’ sight.
“Fact is, he still has a ship to maintain and a crew to pay, and the crew generally don’t put out too much charity for one’s like these, so that’s where I come in—the unofficial go-between,” Nick said, wobbling his head from side-to-side like a champion horse jockey.
If Nick was disingenuous, Gray didn’t know it.
“And I’ve been with many a-crew, and one or two cap’ns besides, but this lot are some of the most ornery and paranoid by far,” Nick said. “It’s because of this that I’ve had to sneak into the paying passengers’ cabins a time or two. And they don’t like that much, I can tell you,” Nick added with a snort.
“But now I have what he needs,” Nick said, turning away from the old patriarch to face Gray. Nick produced a fistful of swabs, a flask of light brown unguent, and a bottle of what looked like cough syrup from inside his jacket.
“The medical kit you stowed in the fore flood chamber,” Gray confirmed.
Nick nodded. “It’s from the coxswain’s safe. I’ll be found out if I run around with it, so I just keep it hid out of sight till I need it. As for the crew, they’ll never know it was missin’, or need it I’ll wager.”
Nick’s carefree words caused the corners of Gray’s mouth to curl downward into a faint, cloudy expression.
An indecipherable murmuring issued forth from the old man and Nick bent his ear to the bedridden patriarch’s mouth to listen. Nick was patient as the elder spent what little energy he had saved up to make his wishes known. Nick responded periodically between the patriarch’s inaudible whispers, “Yes … yes, no worries.… No, it’ll not be long … rest easy. Oh … him?”
Nick cocked an eye at Gray as the old man settled back. “Say, come to think of it, I don’t think I ever got your name, friend,” he realized.
Coolly, Gray replied, “Friend will do.”
A crooked smile spread across Nick’s face as he rose to leave. “Aw’right then. Stay with him, I’ll not be five minutes. They’ll need more skin ointment and fever medicine ‘n what I’ve brought.”
Gray showed no outward signs of having heard Nick just then, seemingly entranced by the orange glow of the furnace, and that was good enough for Nick, given “Friend’s” outward aloofness. Without a further word, Nick was out the door and on his way.
* * * * *
Next up, a bit of chapter 5.