Warnings - See Part 1.
BENEATH THE SURFACE - PART 3 (CONCLUSION)
I threw the engine out of gear, then let go of the rail. The water carried me over to where Daryl and Piper had been standing just seconds ago. A hand was still clutching the rail, its knuckles white - a meaty hand, covered with long black hairs.
I peered over the side, straight into Daryl's brown eyes.
"I could sure use some help here, Cap," he gasped. His other hand still held his gaff pole, and clinging to it just above the fierce hook, barely keeping her head and shoulders clear of the roiling water, was Piper. She shouted when she saw me, but the wind whipped her words away.
I leaned over as far as I could and grabbed Daryl's arm. But when I tried to haul him up, his weight, combined with Piper's, was too much for me. I felt the rail dig into my ribs until I thought they'd crack.
Pete and Will arrived beside me. It was probably only a few seconds since Daryl and Piper had been washed overboard but it seemed like hours.
"You guys have a go." I stood back and rubbed my bruised ribs. They nodded and reached over, bracing themselves against the deck and heaving. For a moment I thought they were going to succeed ... Daryl actually rose a few inches and Piper's waist lifted above the waves. Then Pete's grip slipped, and Daryl dropped back, the jerk almost loosening his hold.
The big man's eyes bulged, and sweat beaded his forehead as he struggled to reestablish his grip on the rail. My heart was in my mouth as I noticed that the blonde head had now disappeared beneath the waves.
Will and Pete grabbed Daryl's arm again and heaved, and as they did so, Piper's head reappeared. She was coughing violently and trying to shake the salt water from her eyes.
"Don't try to pull him up again. Just hang on to him," I told them. "I'll try something else."
I looked round for something, anything, to use. A lifebelt was no good - Piper couldn't let go her hold for even a second. My gaze fell on the mainline.
I pulled my knife from my belt sheath and sliced through the thick monofilament. Then I looped the end of it a couple of times around my waist and tied it off. A bedraggled looking Kev had by now disentangled himself from the swordfish and the scuppers, and I beckoned to him.
"You know how to work the drum, Kev?"
"Put it in reverse. Release a few yards of line, slowly. I'm going over the side."
"Hurry, Cap," called Pete. "I don't know how much longer we can hold him."
I sprinted towards the rail ... only to be brought up short by the line round my waist. Shit!
I turned to glare at Kev ... just as the drum began to turn. The line slackened, and I hurriedly climbed up onto the rail then eased myself over, swivelling round until I could brace my legs against the green painted hull and 'walk' down it. I drew level with Daryl, then I was past him. As I descended, I kept glancing down to where Piper was still hanging on. I was dismayed to see that she was struggling to keep her grip. The rate I was going, Piper would have gone under before I could reach her. Thank God the water wasn't any colder ...
I craned my head upwards. "Tell Kev to speed it up," I yelled.
Pete nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. Seconds later, the line began paying out ... too fast. Abruptly, I lost my footing and found myself falling. Will shouted something, but whatever it was was obscured by the almighty splash as I hit the water and went under.
I surfaced quickly, gasping and spluttering, and to my relief found I was only a yard to the right of the blonde. The line round my waist went taut again and lifted me a couple of feet - Kev must have realized his mistake and compensated. I swung myself over behind Piper and put my arms carefully around her.
"It's all right. I've got you," I whispered in her ear.
She glanced round at me bit dazedly.
"Let go of the gaff'."
For a moment I thought she wasn't going to do it, then I found myself taking her entire weight. We dropped a good 6 inches, and for a nasty moment, I thought the line had parted. I should have known better though - monofilament has a breaking strain of 700 pounds; it was probably just the line tightening round the drum.
Piper squirmed in my arms and I was frightened I was going to drop her. I burrowed my hands beneath her jacket and grabbed her belt. She shifted as my fists pressed into her abdomen.
"Sorry," I said. "It won't last long." She mumbled something unintelligible.
The gaff that had been her lifeline fell into the water next to us and was swept away. I glanced up to see an exhausted Daryl being hauled over the rail.
Pete cupped his hands round his mouth. "She OK, Cap?"
I nodded and was about to shout when a wave soaked both of us and made me cough and splutter. When I'd shaken off the worst of it - and the elastic band from my ponytail into the bargain - I yelled, "Haul us in."
Pete gave me another thumbs-up. Then I felt a sharp tug on the line.
It wasn't the prettiest ascent - I was jerked round so I couldn't brace my legs. I ended up twirling first this way then that, bouncing off the hull with bruising force. Piper cried out only once; after that, I managed to cushion her from the blows.
Then we were being hauled over the rail, and the men were prying loose my death grip on her belt and taking Piper from me. My fingers were shaking and I had trouble unknotting the line round my waist. I had just succeeded and was turning to follow the others to the galley when a huge rogue wave slammed the starboard quarter, inundating me with what felt like a ton of bricks.
Bruised and exhausted, my mind on other things, I was totally unprepared. My legs buckled and I lost my balance and staggered backwards. Had I been a few feet further from the rail, things might have been different. As it was, the rail caught me at hip level and acted as a pivot. Before I could react and grab onto something, I was falling backwards over the side.
Something was approaching me fast, something large and bright scarlet and made of all too solid metal. Though I twisted and tried to tuck my head into my shoulders, I reacted much too slowly and caught the back of my head on the beeper buoy. Pain stabbed through me, and my vision flared white, then red, then black ....
I was drifting downwards in a silent world of murky greeny-grey. Something darted in front of my face, brushing against the tip of my nose, and I jerked back before realizing it was only a trailing frond of kelp.
What a weird dream.
It would have been quite pleasant if my head hadn't been splitting and my lungs hurting. I let myself drift gently, then realization dawned.
How far down am I?
I thanked God my instincts had stopped me from trying to breathe underwater.
My heavy boots hampered me when I tried to halt my descent, so I curled up and tried to pull them off. It was more difficult than it might seem. At last, one boot came free and disappeared into the depths, but I couldn't shift the other. I gave up and turned my attention to swimming, a weak uncoordinated crawl. At least I was managing to go up instead of down this time. Too slowly though.
I struggled out of my heavy jacket and watched it spiral down into blackness. Then, trying to ignore the growing pain in my lungs, I struck out for the surface again.
Movement to my left made me turn. The last thing I needed was a shark to come nosing round .... But it wasn't a shark.
He looked exactly as he had the last time I saw him: a teenager in his prime with the severe crewcut that made him look vulnerable rather than dangerous; the blue jeans so snug they revealed rather than concealed his crotch; the grey sweatshirt that was fraying where he had cut off the sleeves to display his biceps to advantage. He smiled at me and beckoned.
I was sorely tempted to follow him. Every inch of me ached, and every stroke I took was exhausting yet seemed to gain me little ground. It would be so easy just to let go. After all, it didn't really matter anymore, did it? Piper was safe, that was the important thing.
Piper! I could see her in my mind, smiling and wrinkling her pert nose at me ...
Andy beckoned me again.
I opened my mouth to refuse him, then closed it, unnerved at how close I had come to inhaling water. Desperately, I pulled handfuls of water towards me, and kicked out, my foot passed unimpeded through the space Andy had inhabited, if indeed he had been anything more than the product of my oxygen-starved brain.
As I ascended, inch by hard won inch, I became aware that the water above me was lighter than it had been. That could only mean one thing. The surface! But there was a growing roaring in my ears, and darkness crowded the edges of my vision. Worst of all - my lungs were a fiery agony that I couldn't fight any longer.
I sucked in an involuntary breath and got salt water, lots of it. It sent my larynx into violent spasm, and I found myself thrashing around fighting desperately for air. Like a stranded swordfish - how fitting. So this is how it ends?
The roaring in my ears became deafening, and darkness descended on me like a curtain. My final thoughts were of a beautiful blonde with green eyes ...
A giant was sitting on my back, crushing my ribs.
I protested, but all that emerged was a gush of water. My lungs hurt, and I desperately needed to breathe, but I couldn't seem to manage it without spluttering and choking. Then the giant was crushing my ribs again and I was spewing up yet more water. The torture seemed to go on forever before my retching gave way to dry heaves and I was able to breathe unobstructed.
"I said: Get the fuck off me!" I gasped, gradually becoming aware that I ached all over, and my head was throbbing.
Strong hands rolled me onto my back, and I found myself looking up into the bearded face of my first mate. He leaned over, and I was sure he was going to put his lips on mine.
"Jesus, Pete!" I croaked.
He blinked, chuckled, then pulled back. "Guess you don't want any more artificial respiration, huh, Cap?"
I gazed up at the ceiling, recognizing it as belonging to the galley. I must be on the table. I waited for the pounding in my brain to lessen and my nausea to subside, then let Pete help me sit up.
"Is she going to be OK?"
Piper was peering round Pete's frame. Her blonde hair was plastered to her skull, and someone had wrapped a blanket round her shoulders. She had never looked so much like a drowned rat ... or so wonderful. Beside her, grinning inanely and looking like the Three Musketeers, were Chris, Kev, and Will.
Mentally I counted off the crew. Plus Piper that makes 5. Shouldn't there be one m- I spied Daryl sitting on a bench in the corner, wrapped in another blanket. Ah.
I tried to smile, and after a second attempt, found my lips were in working order. So I cranked the smile up a notch and turned it on Piper. "Hi. You OK?" Belatedly I noticed the sling that her blanket had hidden. "What's happened to your left arm?"
She shrugged. "Pete thinks it's probably fractured."
Shit! How did ... ? I suddenly remembered her crying out as we bounced off the hull. "Oh God, Piper. I'm sorry."
"It was hardly your fault, Cordie!"
"Does it hurt?"
She shrugged. "The painkillers are helping, but ... yeah, it hurts."
A broken arm. It had to be set correctly, as soon as possible. Only one thing to do: get the Coastguard to helicopter her back - "Ow!"
Pete had moved around to the back of me and was examining my head. "Looks like you banged yourself up pretty good too, Cap," he said.
I grunted at him then returned my attention to Piper. "Has Pete splinted it for you? Here. Let me take a look -"
Green eyes flashed. "Don't start!"
I blinked at her. "What?"
"I'm fine. Pete did a great job. Which is more than can be said for you -"
Her criticism took me aback. But I deserved it. Her father was going to kill me when he learned just how well I had looked after his precious daughter.
"- You weren't even wearing a life jacket, for God's sake!" She started pacing up and down. "Of all the stupid ...!"
Pete raised an eyebrow. "None of us were, Piper."
She gave him a dirty look.
A warm glow had spread through me as I realized where her concern actually lay. Now I reached for her right hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Yeah. What is it with me and life jackets, huh?"
She sighed, and shook her head at me in a longsuffering kind of way, but my touch seemed to calm her.
"Ow!" Pain lanced through the back of my head. Pete was dabbing disinfectant on the spot where I'd got up close and personal with the beeper buoy and it stung like mad.
"Uh uh. Don't touch." He batted my hand away.
"Well stop butchering me then."
"I'm not butchering, I'm doctoring."
I was shivering. Piper noticed and, one handed, grabbed another blanket and draped it round my shoulders. I smiled my thanks at her. "So," I pushed my wet hair out of my eyes. "Who pulled me out?"
Pete nodded toward Chris who blushed a bright red. "Wasn't nothing, Cap. You popped up next to the boat and I simply got a line round you."
"You're right, it wasn't nothing ... it was a great big something."
His blush intensified, and spread to his eartips.
Something about Daryl was bothering me, I realized belatedly. I eased myself off the table and tottered lopsidedly - I was still wearing only one boot - towards him.
"Cordie!" chided Piper. I ignored her.
A fine sheen of sweat coated his upper lip, and his brown eyes were dull with pain. Macho fishermen! I didn't include myself in this category, of course, though a certain blonde would probably disagree with me. "Where does it hurt?"
Daryl blinked up at me. He hesitated, then glanced guiltily at Pete. "Shoulder," he admitted.
"What? Why didn't you -?"
I shushed Pete and flipped back Daryl's blanket, replaying in my mind how he had carried all of Piper's weight and his own on his right shoulder. I felt the shoulder in question gently, and he winced. Then I reached for his hand and made him flex his right arm. He grunted in agony.
"Dislocated," I told him.
I nodded at Pete and Kev. "Hold him still, will you, guys?"
"Cordie," protested Piper. "You're in no fit -"
"No sweat. I've done this lots of times," I told her. "When you're at sea for a while, you learn the basics."
Pete and Kev now had the nervous Daryl braced between them. I grabbed his arm and twisted carefully, working partly from experience and partly by feel. Daryl struggled, and swore, and groaned loudly, but I ignored him, concentrating instead on manoeuvring the humerus ... The head of the bone slipped back into its socket with a satisfying squelch.
There were sighs of relief all round when I stepped back. "All done."
"You'll need to put a sling on that," I told Pete, indicating the arm Daryl was cradling protectively. Already the big man's colour looked better.
"You'll have to lay off using it for a couple of weeks, Daryl."
"That's going to slow me down some, Cap."
"Can't be helped." I bit my lip and thought about what I really wanted to say to him. "About what you did ... you know ... hanging on to Piper like that .... Thanks."
It sounded so inadequate, yet I meant it with all my heart. My eyes must have conveyed my sincerity because for the first time since I'd met him, Daryl blushed, the red flush clearly visible beneath his thick black stubble.
"You'd have done the same for me, Cap, I'm thinking," he growled.
Would I? He was probably right. "Nevertheless." I reached out and squeezed his good shoulder. "Thanks."
"No problem." He smiled tiredly, and as if in sympathy, a wave of exhaustion passed over me.
"Jesus! What a day!" And it wasn't over yet. I turned and tottered towards the exit.
"Where do you think you're going?" chorused Pete and Piper, who had been watching my interaction with Daryl in fascination.
"In case you forgot," I reminded them both, "there's no one at the helm. We're drifting."
"Yeah, but there's no one around for miles," countered Pete. "I checked."
"Let someone else drive, Cordie," said Piper firmly. "You should take it easy. You almost drowned."
I frowned at her. "So did you."
"And you almost cracked open that thick skull of yours."
I pondered briefly whether she had just insulted me then dismissed it. "Anyway, I have to call the Coastguard and" - a heavy sigh escaped me - "your father."
"Coastguard?" It was her turn to frown.
"That arm needs setting properly, Piper. And even if we head due west we're still two days from the nearest hospital."
"Oh!" Her tone was chastened. "Well," she continued after a pause, "I can wait two days."
I turned to her and said seriously, "No, Piper. You can't."
She rolled her eyes. "Some trip this is turning out to be!"
I silently agreed with her. I couldn't remember the last time so many things had gone wrong. Maybe my luck had deserted me. Or maybe it was the presence of another woman on the boat? I pushed that thought aside as unworthy.
Piper drummed her fingers on the galley table. "You'll still have to cut your trip short though, won't you, Cordie? What with your head and Daryl's shoulder ..."
I chewed my lower lip but remained silent. Piper obviously didn't know her father as well as she thought she did.
Ollie's voice boomed jovially round the wheelhouse. "Hi, Cordie. What's up? Filled your fish hold and bait freezer too? Over."
I pressed transmit. "Hi, boss." Piper was listening avidly beside me and I wondered how best to phrase it. But I was too exhausted for subtlety. "Piper's broken her arm. I'm thinking of helicoptering her to Canada. Over."
"What?" There was a shocked silence that left me wondering if the radio had gone dead. "Jesus, Cordie." Anger had replaced his good humour. "Didn't I tell you to look after her? What have you been playing at? Over."
I sighed. "Sorry."
"Sorry? You saved my life!" protested Piper.
I raised a hand to quiet her. "It's not too bad. Pete's splinted her arm and given her some painkillers. I just don't want to risk the bone not setting right. Over."
There was a moment's silence while he thought about that. "OK," he said at last. "Call the Canadian Coastguard and -"
A small hand grabbed the VHF radio microphone from me. "Hey, Dad. It's me, Piper. Over."
"Piper? What happened to your arm, sweetheart? Are you OK? Your mother's going to have a fit when she hears about -"
"I'm fine, Dad."
I reached for the microphone, but she pointedly held it out of reach, turned her back on me and continued speaking.
"But I'm not the only one who got hurt. Cordie nearly drowned and hit her head and Daryl dislocated his shoulder and -"
"Jesus!" I had never heard Ollie swear so much before.
"- so I told her you wouldn't mind if she cut the trip short and headed back. That's right, isn't it?"
"You told her what?"
This time I succeeded in wrestling the microphone away from her. "Boss, it's Cordie again. Look -"
"What the hell is going on, Cordie?"
"It's not as bad as it sounds, boss. I'm fine, really. And Daryl just needs to rest his shoulder for a while."
"I'm relieved to hear it. So what's all this about cutting the trip short? Is the Dawn Piper's hold full?"
"No, but -"
"Did you run out of fish to catch?"
"No, as a matter of fact, this berth has worked out fine. We've been doing great sets each day -"
"Give me that!" A determined hand wrenched the microphone from me again. "Dad, I can't believe you want her to keep fishing! Didn't you hear me ... she almost drowned."
Silence greeted this remark, then, reproachfully, he said, "Cordie just told me she's fine, Piper."
"But - "
"I know you mean well, but this is business, sweetheart. Yours as well as mine. Anything less than a full hold just isn't economically viable. You saw the books."
"Yes but, Dad, Cordie -"
"Can continue fishing perfectly well without you. And you've probably learned all you need to know from this trip anyway." His tone changed. "Cordie. You there? Over."
Piper threw me a glance equal parts annoyance, astonishment, dismay, and apology then passed me the microphone.
I pressed transmit. "Yes, boss?"
"Tell the Coastguard to notify me when they've delivered Piper to hospital, will you? Over."
"Roger. Will do. Over."
"And... get yourself sorted and that hold filled. This shambles really isn't what I expect from you."
"I know, boss. Sorry. Over and out."
I put the microphone back in its bracket then turned to find green eyes glaring at me. "What?" I said defensively.
"I can't believe you let him railroad you like that!"
"No. Don't make excuses. For him or for you." Her eyes clouded. "Does he always treat you like that?"
"Like some workhorse he can flog to death?"
"It's not like that!"
"Sure sounds like it to me." She made as if to put her hands on her hips then winced and cradled her left arm.
That wince was enough for me. I reached for the mike and prepared to call the Canadian Coastguard.
The whomp whomp of rotor blades was deafening. It must be scaring the fish for miles.
I shaded my eyes and squinted up at the red belly of the Coastguard helicopter hovering directly above. Two faces - must be the helicopter crew - were peering out of the jump door, anxiously watching the hoist basket descend towards the Dawn Piper's deck..
"Cordie, I'm really not sure about this," yelled Piper, struggling to make herself heard.
I patted her on the shoulder. "You'll be fine."
She turned to look at me and grimaced. "What did you say?"
"I said: YOU'LL BE FINE."
The basket touched down with enough force to dent the deck tiles, then Will and Pete were rushing over and grabbing hold of it. I urged the reluctant blonde quickly towards it, both of us struggling to stay upright against the fierce downdraft. Fortunately, the suitcase I carried served to anchor me.
I helped Piper climb into the basket and strapped her in. As I handed in her suitcase - it was her free weights that had made it heavy, I'd learned - she grabbed hold of the front of my T-shirt and pulled me close with surprising strength.
"Promise me you'll look after yourself, Cordie," she shouted, her breath tickling my ear.
I nodded and clasped my right hand over hers for a moment. "You too."
Then, gently prying open fingers which seemed determined not to let me go, I stood back, and signalled to Will and Pete to release the basket. When they had done so, I stood clear, craned my neck back so I could see the helicopter crew, and gave them a thumbs-up.
They replied in kind, and seconds later the basket and its wide-eyed passenger were rising skywards.
It seemed like forever but it was probably only seconds before I saw the basket disappear inside the helicopter's belly. The watching faces withdrew and the jump door closed, then the red helicopter with the white stripe wheeled about.
I watched it disappear into the west, the thundering concussion of its rotors fading rapidly and leaving blessed silence behind. I followed its progress until it was no more than a dot on the horizon, and then until it was not even that ...
If the other fleet captains could have witnessed life aboard the Dawn Piper during the days immediately following Piper's departure, they'd have died laughing. My bumps and bruises had left me feeling (and moving) like The Ancient Mariner - even simple things like getting dressed seemed to take twice as long and use twice as much energy as usual. As for Daryl, since he was doing an excellent impression of a man with only one arm, I had to take him off hauling altogether.
To say our style was a bit cramped during the sets and haulbacks is to put it mildly. Somehow the crew got by though, pitching in and helping each other. It helped that conditions at sea had calmed considerably - in fact I couldn't remember the last time we'd have such perfect fishing weather for so long. As for the fish ... well! The swordfish were practically leaping on deck and gaffing themselves.
If work was going swimmingly, my personal life was another matter. Piper had arrived safely at the hospital in Newfoundland, so the Canadian Coastguard had told me. I also knew that her arm had been X-rayed and correctly set, and Ollie had chartered a plane to fly her back to Massachusetts - the boss told me as much.
I hadn't once heard from Piper herself, though, and I missed her.
That night, when I radioed Ollie to tell him the good news - with the fish coming in at this rate, we could probably cut several days off our trip - I bit the bullet and, instead of waiting for him to offer information, asked directly about his daughter.
"She's coming home tomorrow, Cordie," he said, sounding almost bored. "Oh, and by the way. I'm going to be out of town for the next 10 days ... I'll call in when I get back. OK?"
"Er ... maybe Piper can call me daily instead, while you're away then," I improvised, trying to hide my need to hear her voice. "Over."
"I'll ask her," he said, offhandedly. "She might not want to though, Cordie ... She's got a lot on her plate at present. Over."
"Oh, sure," I said, trying not feel hurt. "Only if she wants to, boss. That goes without saying. Over."
As the days passed, though, and there was no radio contact from Piper, and no reply to my hails using Ollie's call sign, my spirits plummeted ...
Ten days later, when my boss called to say he was back, I couldn't bring myself to mention his daughter's name, and neither, it didn't escape my notice, could he.
Though I'd radioed Ollie our ETA, there was no one on the wharf in Gloucester to greet us when the Dawn Piper docked.
What did you expect, Cordie? Bunting?
While my crew hopped up onto the dock and made the ropes fast, I peered through the gathering dusk, expecting to find my boss's Range Rover parked at the far end of the wharf, or the man himself striding self importantly along it, cigar in hand, shouting that I should unload the fish pronto and get the boat turned around.
No Range Rover. No boss. And, as I had feared, no small blonde woman with green eyes.
After the constant drone of the engine as we steamed home, the silence was deafening. Well, almost. Absently I noted the sounds of water slapping against the hull, ropes creaking and groaning, seagulls fighting over titbits ....
So. No Piper.
In the absence of anything concrete, I had concluded that, once ashore, she'd come to her senses and realized, like her brother before her, there was more to life than smelly swordfish and barely civilized sea captains. She had probably lost no time in heading back to the salons of Manhattan.
But though I told myself all this and more, a tiny part of me hoped I'd got it wrong and there was some other reason she hadn't contacted me. Now I felt that last tiny flame of hope flicker and go out. All of a sudden I felt bone weary.
"It's too dark to unload tonight, guys," I decided, though once a little obstacle like that wouldn't have deterred me. "We'll do it first thing tomorrow."
The crew grinned at their unexpected reprieve and gave each other high fives.
Glad someone's happy.
"Hey, Cap," said Pete. "You gonna come with us? Have a drink or two at The Look Out?"
The Look Out was within walking distance of the docks. When I was ashore for any length of time, I rented a room there. A fisherman's bar, it was basic and ran a tab for its patrons. Most importantly, the beer was always cold and there was no dress code.
It suddenly dawned on me that I couldn't remember the last time I was able to just relax and have a beer. "Or two," I said on impulse.
Pete turned to the others and shouted, "Hey, guys. The Cap's coming with us!"
Chris bounded over and gave me a high five. "Yeah."
When I entered the barroom of The Look Out, Kate, the buxom bartender - we once had a brief fling but it didn't lead to anything - gave me a big grin.
I managed a wan smile in return, perched on an empty stool in front of the horseshoe shaped bar, and ordered the first round of beers. My thirsty crew were already squabbling about who would buy the next round.
One of my fellow captains, Bob Marco, was sitting by the plate glass window. "Hey, Cordie," he yelled as Kate set drinks in front of my five drinking buddies and me. "Hear you had a slammer trip. 20 tons, they say."
"They say right." I took a gulp of beer and wiped off the foam moustache.
He raised his half-empty beer glass to me. "Care to let me in on the secret of your success?"
I gave him my shit-eating grin, though my heart wasn't really in it. "Nope."
I glanced round the bar. Not much had changed since the last time I was here. The pool table where Pete and Daryl were now racking up for a game was a little older and shabbier, so were the customers ... hell, so was I.
The payphone on the wall by the door started to ring. After a couple of minutes, Kate threw up her hands in annoyance and stomped across to it. "Jeez, can't anyone pick up a phone?"
She spoke into the receiver, then looked in my direction and nodded. It could only be one person, I decided. I waited for her to call me over, but she replaced the receiver and came to join me instead.
Fearing what was coming, I took another gulp of beer. "Yeah?"
"Your boss wants you."
I snorted. "Now there's a surprise. What is it? He want the boat ready in two days?"
Beside me, Will let out a groan. "Please God, not that. Anything but that. We just got home!"
"Yeah, and the first thing we did was head for the bar," said Chris ruefully. "My girlfriend's gonna kill me."
But Kate was shaking her head. "No. Ollie said he wants you " - she pointed at me - "up at the house."
"'The house?'" I gaped at her. "You sure he said that?"
"Jeez, Cordie. Next time pick up your own messages, will you? Yeah, I'm sure." She stalked back around to her side of the bar. "And if I were you, girl," she said pointedly, "I'd get cleaned up before you go. You reek of fish."
I was so startled by Ollie's message I even let her get away with calling me 'girl'.
"Whooee, watch out, Cap," said Kev. "You must have done something really bad." Chris poked him in the ribs and the stocky crewman looked indignantly round at his shipmate. "What?"
I ignored them both and checked my watch - 8p.m. Uncertainly, I glanced down at my clothes. If Kate could smell fish above The Look Out's customary stale miasma of beer and cigarettes I must really smell bad.
"Gotta love you and leave you, guys." I stood up and kicked back the stool. "Have fun ... But make sure you're at the dock bright and early tomorrow morning. We've got 20 tons of swordfish to unload, remember."
They groaned at that, and I left them consoling themselves with another round of drinks.
"You going already, Cap?" called Pete from over by the pool table.
I halted beside him. "Got to shower and change ... and hope the engine of that damned pickup truck hasn't rusted solid while I was away," I told him.
"Got a hot date?"
I shook my head. "Nope. Summons from the boss ... to his house!"
His eyes widened at that, then he looked thoughtful, then he finally smirked.
I made an irritated noise in my throat. "What?"
"Sure sounds like a hot date to me." He winked.
I rolled my eyes. "You've had too much to drink, Pete," I told him. "More likely he's going to rip me a new asshole. This last trip didn't exactly run smoothly."
"And since when did Ollie need to call you up to his house to rip you a new asshole, Cap?"
I grunted and left my first mate to his game. But as I jogged along the dimly lit streets leading back to the dock and the Dawn Piper, I pondered Pete's remark.
Since when indeed?
It was nearly 9.30p.m. by the time I turned my pickup truck onto the hill road just outside Rockport that was my destination.
I swear, sometimes mechanical things have minds of their own.. My battered old truck, which I keep in a rented garage near the dock, had pleasantly surprised me by starting up first time. But it was merely lulling me into a false sense of security. I had just turned off Route 127 when, with a cough and splutter and screech that set my teeth on edge, the engine died.
Though I soon diagnosed the problem, fixing it ruined all my efforts to look presentable. I might just as well have skipped the shower and change of clothes. I had oil stains on my white poplin shirt and best jeans, and grime ingrained in my skin and under my fingernails.
The road finally levelled out and Ollie's house - correction, mansion - came into view. I'd heard the buzz about it - built by a wealthy sea captain in the days when there were still clipper ships - and it lived up to its rep. The architecture was supposed to be Late Georgian, whatever that was. I did know what that contraption perched atop the roof was though - a widow's walk, where anxious wives were supposed to strain for a glimpse of their beloved's ship in the bay below. I was undoubtedly lowering the tone of the neighbourhood just by being here.
On the gravel in front of the house, I parked my truck between Ollie's Range Rover and an expensive looking powder blue Mercedes, and turned off the ignition. Then for several long drawn out minutes, I sat there listening to the ticking of my cooling engine and fighting the urge to turn right around and head back to Gloucester.
The front door opened and light spilled out onto the parking area. The small figure silhouetted by the hall light seemed to have one arm - her left - thicker than the other. A plaster cast? I reached for the door handle and got out.
Piper jogged towards me, her shoes crunching over gravel. "Cordie. What kept you?" She was beyond the reach of the hall light now and there wasn't enough moonlight to make out her expression, but she sounded pleased to see me.
"You're here!" Right then, a feather could have knocked me over.
"Where else would I be?"
She held out a small hand, but though I wanted nothing more than to grasp it, I evaded it. "Don't! Grimy. I had to ... the truck was ... on the way over ... That's why I ...sorry ... late." There was a sentence in there somewhere, I swear.
She gave a snort and grasped my hand firmly. "Never mind that. You're here now. Come and get cleaned up, Cordie. Dad's waiting for you."
I let her lead me like a child towards the massive front door with the ornate knocker, while I tried to work out what was going on. She hadn't tried to contact me for two weeks, yet she was here all the time, with access to Ollie's VHF radio?
The porch led into a huge entrance hall. Belatedly I became aware I was leaving muddy footprints on the plush beige carpets. Jesus! I halted.
Piper looked back to see what was keeping me. "Oh, don't worry about that," she said blithely.
She tugged me towards a door leading off the hall. It was a large and well-equipped bathroom. With a sigh of relief, I crossed to the porcelain basin, grabbed the huge bar of lavender scented soap, and began to wash the grime from my hands.
"You might want to wash your face too," said Piper.
I noticed she was trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. A look in the mirror told me why. I had streaks of engine grease on my cheeks. Looks like war paint.
I sighed, took the damp washcloth she was holding out, and scrubbed my cheeks.
"Piper," came a woman's voice from the hall. "Piper, where are you, dear? I thought you said Cordie Bellamy was here."
The blonde gave me a 'stay put' pat on the arm and popped her head round the bathroom door. I took the opportunity to admire her butt, which was encased in form fitting chinos.
"She's just freshening up, Mom," I heard her say.
"Oh. Good. You know your father doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"Tough," said Piper cheerily. When her head reappeared I gave voice to the question that had been burning a hole in my gut since The Look Out. "Why am I here?"
She tapped her finger meaningfully against the side of her nose. "You'll see." Then she was gone again.
"Aaaargh!" It seemed I was back on the rollercoaster known as Piper's Ride.
Since I had no comb, I ran my fingers roughly through my hair, then went in search of her. She was standing at the other end of the hall by an open door.
She gestured. "He's in here."
I paused next to her. "Are you coming in?"
"No." She gave me a reassuring pat on the arm. "But I'll see you afterwards. OK?"
"OK." I sighed and went in.
The first thing that struck me was the books. There were literally hundreds of them on the mahogany shelves lining the walls. The second thing was the log fire burning merrily in the grate ... and the man standing warming his backside in front of it.
"Ah, Cordie," said Ollie Redmond. "Glad you could come. Take a seat." He gestured towards one of two easy chairs placed in front of the fire. Cautiously I crossed to it and sank into its cushioned depths.
"You wanted to see me?"
He nodded, then belatedly registered my grimy appearance. "What happened to you?"
I flushed. "Problem with my truck."
"Why don't you spend some of that money I pay you on a new one?"
"Never seem to have the time."
"Mmmmm." He nodded as if this confirmed some private suspicion.
"So," I said, trying to get back on track. "What did you want to see me about. Is there a problem?"
"I have a proposition for you." He took the other easy chair and steepled his fingers together. "I've been having quite a few chats with Piper since she got back from the hospital."
My guilt alarm went off. "I'm really sorry about what happened to her arm, boss. It shouldn't have -"
He cut me off with a gesture. "I'm not here to talk about that, Cordie. Accidents happen. Especially around Piper. She seems to be the centre of her own personal hurricane." He sighed, then came back to himself with a start.
"My daughter told me you're tired of spending so much time at sea. She said you're considering a change in direction. Lobstering, perhaps."
Thanks very much, Piper!
"Is that true?" From his neutral tone, it was impossible to tell his feelings on the subject.
I regarded him frankly. "It's these 30-day jaunts and 2-day turnarounds. Reckon I'm getting too old for 'em."
He shot me a sharp look from eyes the same colour as Piper's, I realized. "You probably aren't aware of it, Cordie, but over the past five years, I've come to depend on you a lot. Too much. If you leave, catches ... and profits ... will plummet."
"In retrospect, I may have pushed you too hard. Fortunately, Piper pointed out in time that I was in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."
Now I'm a goose?
"I don't want to lose you, Cordie, or your skills."
I pretended a sudden interest in my fingernails.
"So here's what I'm proposing," he continued. "To sweeten the deal. You stay on and I make you a junior partner in the business."
I looked up sharply. "Won't Piper have something to say about that?"
He suppressed a smile. "It was her suggestion."
"In return, you teach all my skippers how to find berths as productive as yours."
I began to protest - that was my only marketable skill - but he held up a hand and stopped me again. "Hold your horses, Cordie. There's more. I'm thinking of diversifying into the tourist business."
My mouth fell open. "Tourism? You?"
"Stranger things have happened," he said, sounding mildly offended.
"Sorry. Go on."
"As I was saying ... I was thinking along the lines of fishing trips, whale watching jaunts .... You get the picture?" He took my assent for granted. "Piper has located a couple of likely tripper boats whose owners are willing to sell."
He waited for me to add two and two together.
"So," I said slowly, feeling an upsurge of hope that at last there was a way out from the round of constant exhaustion that was my life, "What you're saying is that I could, for example, alternate swordfishing with day trips?"
"Got it in one."
With that schedule, I could even have a personal life!
He took my silence for reluctance. "Piper was sure it would meet with your approval. She's been working hard on the details since she got back. The contracts for the partnership, and for the purchase of the extra boats, are already drawn up. All I need is your signature, Cordie. What do you say?"
I sprang from my seat, clasped his outstretched hand in both of mine, and shook it enthusiastically. "It's a deal."
He grinned and reached for a box. "Great! Let's celebrate with a cigar."
She was in the sitting room with her mother, their blonde heads close together in earnest discussion. The similarity between the two women was marked. So that's what Piper will look like when she's older? Not bad!
The talk stopped the moment Ollie and I entered. Piper flushed and glanced at Carmel who smirked. I wondered if they had been discussing me.
"Well?" Piper rose to her feet and rushed over to greet me. "Did you take the job, Cordie?"
She grabbed my arm. Such familiarity in front of her parents made me nervous and I glanced anxiously at Ollie before answering.
"Meet your new junior partner."
Her wide smile made words unnecessary.
Ollie walked over to join his wife. He settled on the huge sofa beside her with a small groan of relief. She smiled at him and patted his arm.
Giving me a look full of meaning - though I had no idea what the meaning was - Piper tugged me towards the door. I glanced at Ollie, shrugged helplessly, then followed.
"Don't forget you've got a hold full of fish to unload tomorrow, Cordie," called her father.
We escaped out of the sitting room door and she led me along the hall to another door, which turned out to be the game room.
I looked at the green-felt covered table then gave her a puzzled glance. "You want to play pool?"
"No. I want to do this."
A strong right arm wound itself round my neck and pulled my head down and I found myself being soundly kissed. It was a very pleasant sensation, and after I got over my initial shock, I returned the kiss whole-heartedly. Her lips were soft, very soft, and when her tongue tangled with mine I tingled all the way down to my toes.
When she eventually allowed me up for air, though, her words weren't the romantic sweet nothings I'd expected.
"You've been smoking, haven't you!"
I blinked at her while my brain processed her words. "Your father gave me a cigar," I admitted.
"Well, don't smoke anymore ... or I won't let you have any more of these."
Then she was kissing me again. At the next pause, I foggily recalled her instructions. "OK. No more cigars. I promise."
She laughed up at me and brushed my cheek with her finger. "Good. I could say that was a thank you for saving my life but it wasn't. I kissed you because I've been wanting to for the longest time."
"Me too ..."
"That's good to know." She smirked as she used my well-worn phrase.
"Just as well it wasn't a thank you," I teased. "Or you'd have to kiss Daryl too."
She snorted loudly. "No way, Cordie. Me and Daryl? Hah!"
My heart was so filled with happiness, I didn't quite know what to do with myself. So I looked round for a chair, sat down before I fell down, then pulled her onto my lap. It felt ... right.
"I'm the one that should be thanking you," I told her. I brushed my lips against hers to do just that ....
"I should tell you now," she said, a little later. "I'm not the type of woman who wants to spend her life pining on the widow's walk."
I nodded. "And I'm not the type of captain who expects you to."
"So you'd better arrange plenty of shore time in that revised schedule of yours."
I nodded. "Roger that." Which reminded me ... "Why didn't you radio me aboard the Dawn Piper? When I didn't hear from you, I figured you'd gone back to Manhattan."
She wouldn't meet my gaze. "I'm sorry about that. But I was too busy locating tripper boats and speaking to the lawyers about contracts."
"And that kept you occupied every single minute of every single day?"
She twisted her hands together. "No, but ... Oh, Cordie. Do I have to tell you? It's so embarrassing!"
My interest was thoroughly piqued now. "Come on. Spill it. It's the least you can do after what you put me through."
She sighed. "Promise not to laugh?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
"Well ... the radio is in Dad's office. He keeps the list of fleet frequencies and call signs in the safe in there too."
"He gave me the keys to the room and the safe before he left for Europe ..."
"... and I lost them."
She muttered under her breath. "I lost them, Cordie. What can I say ... I'm a klutz."
I chewed my lower lip. "Spare set?"
She nodded. "He managed to get me into the office - ruined a perfectly good door in the process too. Mom was furious - it was an antique." She sighed. "The only trouble was, I still couldn't get into the safe. And the locksmith wasn't prepared even to attempt to open that without Dad's written permission."
"Did you even try the radio? It must have been set up to call someone from the last time Ollie used it."
She flushed. "Captain Marco was very surprised to hear from me."
I tried not to laugh. "I bet. So why didn't you simply ask Bob Marco for the Dawn Piper's details?"
"Basically, because I already felt like such a total idiot. Besides ..." she batted her eyelashes at me, "I knew if I apologized to you in person, I could offer ... compensation."
I barely had time to raise an eyebrow before she was pulling my head down and kissing me again.
"Oh yeah," I managed when she let me up for air. "Gotta love that compensation!"
"So I'm forgiven?"
I nodded. "More compensation?"
"If you insist." ...
"What are we going to do about your parents?" I asked her, when there was another lull.
"Yeah. They might not take kindly to a battered old fisherman," - I gestured at my grimy apparel - "getting involved with their daughter."
"You're not old, Cordie. Well, not very." A poke in her ribs earned me a squeal and a sly glance. "Anyway." She waved a hand dismissively. "They already know about us. I told them. I also told them they could like it or lump it. They decided to like it."
I gaped at her. "But there wasn't anything to know." But even as I spoke, I was remembering Pete's reference to a 'hot date' and wondering how obvious it had been to everyone.
"Wasn't there?" She raised an eyebrow at me. "So you weren't dreaming about me, then?"
How the hell did she know about that?
She chuckled. "You look really cute when you blush, you know." Then she became serious. "I knew how I felt for certain when I thought you had drowned. I had never ... felt anything like that for Helen in all the years we were together." She stroked my face. "I never want to feel that way again."
"Me neither. When you were hanging onto that gaff pole -" The horrid memory made me shudder.
"I've come to the conclusion," she said, gazing into my eyes, "that while you might not be unlucky at sea, my love, I certainly am."
'My love'. I basked in the phrase then considered what she had said. "I think you might be right." She deserved my honest opinion. "In all my years at sea, I've never had so many things go wrong during a trip."
She sighed. "Thought so. I'm a Jonah. Well. I'll just have to run things from shore, then, won't I? Let my big strong sea captain take care of matters at sea."
I laughed at her description of me. "Yeah?"
"But that's OK," she continued. "Because one thing I've discovered from that trip is I'm more of an administrator than a hands-on fisherman." She twisted to regard me anxiously. "You don't mind, do you?"
I squeezed her waist affectionately. "Nope. Means you won't be in any danger of doing me out of my job."
"Piper. Cordie? Where are you?" The voice belonged to Carmel, and seconds later Piper's mother was standing in the doorway to the game room grinning knowingly at us. "Thought you might be in here."
She gave her daughter a meaningful look. "It's just turned midnight -"
We both gasped and I looked at my watch. Where had the time gone?
"-and Cordie has a lot of heavy work to do tomorrow. You should let her get some rest, Piper."
The young blonde slid off my lap, and I immediately missed her presence. I stood up, nonchalantly trying to brush out the creases Piper's weight had left in my jeans.
"Oh, Mom!" Piper pouted. "We were enjoying ourselves."
"There'll be plenty of time for that later," Carmel told her. "It's not like Cordie's putting out to sea in two days, is it?" She raised an eyebrow at me.
"No, Mrs. Redmond," I said politely. "Ollie's agreed; I'm taking a break." I'd better get a room at The Look Out.
"Call me Carmel, dear. After all, you're going to be family now, aren't you?"
All my saliva seemed to have dried up, and I swallowed loudly. "I hope so," I managed. "If she'll have me."
Piper turned to look lovingly at me and squeezed my hand. "You're the fish that isn't going to get away," she confirmed.
I smiled at her. That was good enough for me.
Two excellent books provided me with information about swordfishing and the life of swordfishermen: The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. Incidents in both books inspired some scenes, but no plagiarism was committed or intended.
I'd like to say a big Thank You to Advocate and Kamouraskan for helping me iron the squiggles out of this story. <g>
In reality, the Grand Banks swordfishing grounds are beyond the operating range of a helicopter so the Canadian Coastguard would probably use a cutter. But I wanted to use a helicopter ... so there. <g>