* * * * *
Nick and Gray kept to the lee side of the ship, shielded from the powerful gusts, and crept from jutting deck equipment to low rise to shadowy niche. Gray fetched a look out over the gunwale to glimpse how the churning water measured along the freeboard, surging up and down as it was. The two slipped past the forward cargo hold kept with supplies and raw ore, the kind that most tramp freighters were apt to carry, Nick’s destination instead being the aft hold where the other stowaways stayed. Night was at its deepest now and many onboard were sleeping, but those whom Nick sought—he was sure—were not enjoying that luxury. The weather deck was still slippery underfoot, as the boat pitched from port to starboard, and the two skulking stowaways had to pay mind to their footing. Too much mind for either of them it seemed to notice spying eyes surveying them in the dark.
A creature of habit, Nick dropped to all fours as he scanned for trouble along the walk to the steel stairwell that spiraled down below decks where the dregs were kept. Only crew would be out and about in this torrential weather, and Nick had been lucky so far. Though apt to set caution aside—especially when all it did was make you look guilty—Nick waved his hand to signal that the coast was clear anyway.
The two steathfully attained the upper deck landing of the aft hold. Their feet settled on a grating that covered the floor here, sending overflow through a chute to a porthole on the side of the ship. They stepped over a tiny crab and a few floundering mackerel that were trapped amid the seaweed that hung from the grate.
Nick looked at Gray, addressing him as he would a greenhorn upon his first day on the job. “Okay, now listen up. What you prol’ly know already is that this boat is a kind of travelin’ slum sanctuary, right? Takin’ on transients and what not—the payin’ ones in the cabins, the rest of us down below,” he said, gesturing for Gray to give him a boost as he reached to disable the door lamp which hung from the ceiling. “Now you might’n’t’ve thought the cap’n wanted stowaways like yourself onboard, see, but what you didn’t know is that the captain of Le Esprit is somethin’ of a smuggler—a smuggler of people, that is.”
Having disabled the lamp they could now go through the deck door without turning on the landing light, which would shine up the stairwell. “Now, most of them that come onboard are just yer average transient, and that’s fine and well for them. But I’ve heard tell the cap’n has a nose for miscreants, ya see, and he lets ‘em come on board, free of passage and all, just so’es he can turn in the nastiest ones to the authorities on the far side of the pond.”
“And he never thought to do anything about you?” Gray asked offhandedly, admiring Nick’s adroit hand at killing the lamp without damaging it, and then springing the lock on the door noiselessly.
“Aw!” Nick returned in a hush. “I’m not that bad! The cap’n and I have a gentleman’s understandin’, see. I take care of the dregs, keep ‘em quiet, get ‘em what they need, you know?
“‘Cept the first mate and ‘is crew don’t like me very much.” Nick’s brow furrowed quizzically. “Guess that’s why the cap’n keeps the whole thing a secret, so long as I don’t wreck ‘is business, that is.”
Gray wore his eyebrows doubtfully high and nodded to himself as he digested the story.
Nick was quick to respond, reading his cohort’s face. “Hey! I’m not a thief! I fix things. I’m a fixer.”
The two stifled a snicker as they continued along a creaking corridor with doors facing the starboard side. The aft hold was broken up into separate flats, each built to facilitate a certain number of stowaways. The two came to the first door and Nick put his shoulder into it as the portal lurched open.
Immediately the two were struck with how much warmer the air was on this flat. One wall just inside the room was lined with a bank of tinged and dented lockers where passengers that lodged here could store their belongings. Beyond the lockers was a common room where men stood in tight clusters with a tin cup of coffee in hand while they chatted, the women gathered between them under heavy blankets, and a heavier scowl—everyone clad in layers of wool and denim. Makeshift cots consisting of a basic frame layered with soiled cushions and rolled-up towels—some of which lay hidden within crude stalls along the walls, each doubling as a shower—and the rare cradle fashioned from a split oil drum complete with the wailing sound of a baby inside it were scattered about the room. To their credit, Nick and Gray shared no signs of pause as they entered.
* * * * *
But why? More to come!