The S.S. Black Dahlia

Side by side, the English gentleman, Viscount Hastings, and his young Chinese partner-in-crime, Miss Sedona Li, traversed the spindly jetty, prudently picking their steps as they crossed the dilapidated boards.

“This will do.” He dropped his backpack, and bade her to sit.

A wispy breeze foreshadowing the monster on the skyline swept over the sea, as tiny waves lapped against the uprights. The salty scent of seaweed, and that neurotic sultry atmosphere afore a tropical gale, hung in the air. With daylight fading and nothing at their backs but sandstone cliffs, he felt the tension coursing through his shoulders.

The syndicate would have another carload of thugs on their trail, scanning the highway and townships nearby. Hastings had a card up his sleeve. Such men were paid to kill people, not tackle tropical storms on the ocean at night.

Something on land caught his eye, far in the distance. Was that a vehicle on the cliffs headed their way? Two vehicles? Why would anybody be out for a drive when the whole province was going into lockdown. A flock of screeching seagulls hovered on motionless wings over clumps of seaweed, scattered along the shoreline.

A boat sped their way. He pulled Sedona to his side, and squeezed her shoulder. “By Jove, could it be the boy did it?”

The boy, Johnny, was eighteen-years-old, from the north of Cambodia, and deeply in love with Sedona.

“I’ll be damned.” She jumped up and down, waving her arms.

The drone of the motor diminished as Johnny pulled up alongside. Their ride was a fiberglass speedboat, around twenty-five feet in length with a center console and three outboards hanging off the transom. It had a few million miles on the clock, but it would have to do. He went to throw the bow line to Hastings, who waved it away. “Just lash a line around the upright. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Be careful climbing aboard,” said Johnny.

Hastings dropped their bags onto the deck, and clambered down. After steadying himself he reached for Sedona who put her arms on his shoulders, and allowed him to lower her into the boat.

On the horizon, the last smolder of the sun vanished behinds the mountains. The sound of the ocean reverberated as a plume of mist sprayed over the boat.

Johnny, holding fast to the upright, looked very proud of himself. “What do you think?”

Three outboards meant better close-quarters control, which they’d need if the seas became unmanageable, and Hastings had to beach it in the black of night. But they’d eat a lot of fuel. He caught Sedona’s eye, and pointed to the lifejacket laying on the deck. She pulled a face, but slipped it over her head.

“Tell me young Johnny, how’d you get this runabout started?”

“She’s got a Western name. The SS Black Dahlia. I pulled the key ignition point on the outboards, and hotwired them, same as you would a car.”

“Much fuel in those tanks?”

“Should be enough.”

Behind them, Sedona shouted, “There’s a six-pack of Coca-Cola here.”

“Better not to chance it, son. Shut down the center outboard—we’ll just go with port and starboard.” They had around a hundred and twenty miles to cover. Fenders on the gunwale made a muffled thud as they repeatedly buffeted the jetty.

Hastings turned to face the shore. No sign of any cars or people in fact no sign of anything out of the ordinary. He spent the next couple of minutes getting familiar with the instruments panel.

Johnny tapped him on the shoulder. “Outboards are done. I gotta handheld spotlight here.”

“We won’t use it unless we get into real trouble; the glare off the ocean will kill my night vision.” He put an arm around Johnny, and pulled him in closer. “I going to have to turn off the navigation lights too. With these conditions the coast guard’ll be prowling around. Can you tell me anything about this stretch of sea?”

“It’s fairly shallow, there’s some coral reefs the local fishermen dodge. Best to head straight back the way I came, then when we’re out of this bay you stick to the coast. We’ve gotta get up near Koh Kong.”

Hastings pulled a raincoat out from behind the console and slipped it on. “Any landmarks?”

“There’s supposed to be a bridge that’s lit. It means we’re at Phumi Bay. You could get off the ocean, and head up the Meteuk River.”

“Is that ideal?”

“No, it’ll be patrolled. About two hours further up, near the Thai border, if we can find a small lighthouse that’s the place to land. It’s totally remote.”

“Very good.” Hastings zipped his pocket closed. The twilight hour was upon them. He killed the lights.

“If you’ve got GPS on your phone, you can get your position on a chart. I mean, without the internet, you know.”

“Dear boy, from here on I’m off the grid. Now describe the shoreline.”

The vessel pitched under a sudden surge in the swell, Johnny took a tumble, and sprung up looking a little ashamed. “Goddamit.” He gripped the console. “The coast, yeah, I think it’s rocky for a bit then it’s all sandy beach.”

“Good, very good.” He reached out, and gripped his shoulder. “Johnny, if we did get separated, will you take care of Sedona? Get her home?”

The question appeared to take him by surprise, and he took a step back. “What do you mean?”

“Anything could happen on the ocean tonight. I need to know you care about her.”

For a moment neither said anything, their jackets flapping like wings in the rushing wind.

Finally, Johnny nodded. “Course I’ll take care of her. What man wouldn’t?”

“Spoken like a true gentleman.” Hastings grabbed the flashlight beside the instrument panel, and flashed it around in the darkness. “Untie us, let’s fire the engines and get out of here. See if you can find some foul weather gear and keep your girlfriend from falling overboard.”

“Behind you,” said Johnny. “That’s an auto-inflation lifejacket. It’s gotta twenty-four-hour beacon too. You should put it on.”

Hastings ignored the advice, and put a light in Sedona’s face. “Grab the flashlight in my backpack, and have a look in the stowage locker for a solar battery unit. Give the cellphones a quick charge. Be on the look-out for a signal. Got that, Sedona?”

“Aye aye, Captain Snobby-guts.”

Her childish nicknames did not impress him.

Even if the Black Dahlia was fit for little more than Sunday afternoons reeling in mackerel with the family, Hastings couldn’t help but relish every surge of adrenaline coursing through his veins. If he had to take his leave from this goodly frame the earth, it would be God banishing him to Davy Jones Locker. Not some low-rent thugs following the syndicate’s orders.

He braced himself and placed his hands on the wheel. Salt water sprayed over him, and the engines roared. He gazed at the mass of thunderclouds bristling on the horizon.

“Let’s get out of here, Snobby-guts.”

“If you keep calling me childish names, young lady, you can get out and walk.”

“Not now I can’t.” She pointed her flashlight at the shore. “Come on, let’s go!”

He gazed at the headlights illuminating the edge of the clifftop, as two vehicles approached. The drivers cut their engines. The cars sat like a pair of stalkers preparing to pounce from the shadows. Two animated silhouettes oozing the swagger that comes with homicidal intent, sprung out of the vehicles. They descended the cliff-face with long guns in hand.

With his hair blowing every which way, Hastings turned to face a whole new enemy on the horizon.

Gunfire echoed against the cliffs. He leaned on the throttle; the engines spluttered. Nothing.

More shots fired. The crack of a bullet tearing into the portside just beneath the gunwale. Fiberglass shards sprayed across the deck.

“It’ll work now,” screamed Johnny. “Try it man, try it.”

With his heart sprinting, Hastings leaned on the throttle. The deck vibrated under his feet, and a sea breeze whipped his face as the SS Black Dahlia powered away from the jetty, and across the unruly ocean.

*

Tropical storm Kunthea gathered strength as it rolled over the Gulf of Thailand towards the west coast of Cambodia. Authorities suspended all ferry services and loaded foreigners onto buses destined for the relative safety of inland townships. The few who remained in coastal communities battened down the hatches in preparation for high winds, torrential rains, and six-foot high waves hammering the shores. All popular tourist islands and coastal resorts were classified as inaccessible. The main highways were closed and soldiers deployed to enforce it.

A small contingent of U.S. marines holidaying in the area pitched in to help. They contacted the coast guard, and passed on a report from locals who’d witnessed the formation of large waterspouts on the sea near Koh Kong. Royal Cambodian Navy patrol boats remained on standby in case of emergency. Only larger supply vessels were permitted to sail from the mainland. Small boat skippers were instructed not to leave shore. Kunthea was a once in a decade storm and only the foolhardiest of seafarers would venture onto those seas.

Foolhardy. Or those with nothing to lose.

*

Across the majestic black firmament and over the roaring ocean, storm clouds billowed, and lightning flashed. The SS Black Dahlia rose and collapsed in the grip of high rollers, as Hastings battled at the helm. He squinted, desperate to see a way through the inky sea speckled with foam. With every rise and fall of the deck beneath him, charges of tension ran through his limbs. His knuckled were fraught with an icy paralysis from hours of wrestling wheel and throttle. The dozens of scratches and cuts on his hands and face burned with a salty sting.

Relentless breakers swallowed the bow then spat it out before rolling over the stern in a cascading hiss of white lather. In that sledge-hammering sea, his body folded over the wheel but he straightened himself up. His mind remained pure with intent. He had to get up the coast, and could ponder nothing else. Tackling the omnipotence of the ocean focuses a man on his raison d’étre. Life’s facile frills are cast asunder, when death looms in the swell.

A thunderclap reverberated through skies now strobing and crackling, as the Black Dahlia crested the eye of the storm. Heavy rains pounded the deck, it creaked and groaned under the strain. The bow rose, Hastings grabbed at the console. His knees collapsed beneath him as, the vessel hung in the air like a noosed prisoner waiting for the hangman’s drop. The hull slapped the next surging wave, the starboard engine spluttered and died.

He snatched a quick glance at Sedona who furiously baled water with a bucket while Johnny, looking like a bunch of wet rags, slapped the outboard and cursed. With only one motor working they wouldn’t last long. Johnny turned his attention to the shotgun blast in the hull. The ocean pumped in as they sunk lower in the water.

“Block that hole Johnny,” shouted Hastings. “Use anything but block it up.”

“We’re sinking!” Sedona looked on the verge of collapse but she pushed herself on and on, desperately baling.

Could it be their luck had finally run out? Tempestuous winds continued to howl, sweeping across the vessel from bow to stern, as the rains whipped at their faces. In the eye of the storm, the lightning pulsated, a pure white blood vessel in the sky, its tendrils lashing at the ocean below. And then Hastings saw the hypnotic flash of a lighthouse. “I’m taking her in.” His voice was a feather on steel against the rumble of the ocean. “Get ready for a rough landing.”

Negotiating a lee shore with the wind at his back and only minimal visibility would have been on any other occasion, a ridiculous choice, but he could see no other way forward and spun the wheel. Again and again, head-bent waves drummed the hull. They pitched and rolled, with the tide at his back, Hastings leaned slightly on the throttle and headed in. Through the veil of ocean spray he powered on desperately trying to make the shoreline before the port engine cut out.

The seas transitioned from huge swells to smaller, choppier waves which were in their own way more dangerous. Broach a roller and the ocean swallows you up. He leaned off the throttle, almost chopping it as the lighthouse faded from view. Through the mist, an ominous black wall appeared in the distance. The jungle at night.

Around six hundred yards until they hit the shore.

“I told you guys, we’re sinking,” shouted Sedona. She slumped to the deck, barely able to lift her arms.

Hastings was up to his knees in water. “Johnny take the wheel. Take it!” He snatched the bucket from Sedona. “Keep it steady Johnny, I’ll try and get this water out.”

Four hundred yards. A subterraneous rasp hummed from under the hull as they slid through the shallows. Scraping the seabed, the outboards jumped and jerked like pistons. Would a reef tear the hull off?

Two hundred yards. The crash of collision rang out in the storm followed by the sound of metal scraping as they sideswiped a cluster of rocks. The boat veered, the deck splintered, and water shot up through the cracks. Johnny took a tumble and clung to the fracturing gunwale. Water rushed over him, he shouted, “Help me Hastings, damn it, help me,” as the outboard died. Hastings and Sedona locked eyes, she lost her footing and stumbled overboard. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dove in after her.

The current seized and dragged him. He twisted and turned in the manic swell.

Down he sank.

He bobbled up, gasped for breath, and tried desperately to get eyes on Sedona. The current snatched him, he descended into the turbulent abyss, deep in the tides, now surging on the shore. The surf tossed him out, then retreated before gathering pace once more.

Coughing and spluttering, he crawled through the shallows, his fingers grating through the sand as the storms overhead cracked and boomed. The beach reeked of dead fish. Hastings pushed himself to his feet and staggered into the darkness. He collapsed on to the rocks, the roar of the ocean filled his ears.

He pushed himself to his feet and wiped the saltwater from his eyes. “Sedona,” he shouted into the winds. Again, he cried her name. Staring into the rollers, that sea of boiling milk, his cries felt helpless, almost pitiful, as the rains swept over him and he fell to knees. “Where are you? Oh Christ girl where the hell are you?”

“Over here, Chucklehead,” came the cry in the darkness.

“Sedona? What are you doing?”

She coughed, spluttered, and then shouted, “Puking up the ocean.”

As she crawled his way in the sands, Johnny waded towards them through the surf.

They’d made it.

*

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