38 - Into the Storm
As instructed, we entered the harbor late in the day and tied to a fuel dock after closing. Then we waited nervously below deck for a Spanish official to show up and do who-knew-what with us. He was pretty coy about the whole deal. It felt like something Jon set up ahead of time. Like the official was doing us a huge favor. Being at the mercy of anyone in that manner is freaking anathema to everything I am! Nevertheless, as long as we followed his rules, he would let us stay -- turn a blind eye, so-to-speak, to Elena's existence. He granted me, and only me, one week in the country.
Wrapping up, he called a couple of his sailmaker friends to act as our guardians. I think he was making sure we got out of there -- pronto. "Only seven days! One minute more and I must report you myself. The Russian girl must not be seen. If anything goes wrong, I only know that it is you I have met."
On land, stationary objects appeared to be receding. A hallucination caused by staring endlessly at oncoming waves. The brain compensates for an environment constantly in motion. Come to a stop and the brain keeps on compensating. I stepped onto the floating dock, and then, actual land. I was wobbly and disoriented -- and no, I hadn't been at the scotch. It was night. Every light was too bright. Every noise too loud. Every moving object was threatening and unpredictable. My legs were weak: the chicken-legs effect from not using them -- and then, only in a variable gravity environment. Elena and I hadn't been that far apart since Marmaris. I had a weird, panicky feeling, like something crucial was missing. Worse than all that, every face I saw, terrified me.
The sail-makers, a couple of English chaps, showed up bright and early. They'd been briefed on our situation, knew that one of us officially didn't exist. They coordinated tradesmen and shops, found parts and services mindbogglingly fast. Even the steam-punk windvane made it to a machine shop. Success really does come down to who you know.
It's who you don't know that's going to get you screwed.
The bricked radar needed a fifty-dollar part. The MajorBrand technician said he could change it in a few minutes for six-freaking-hundred euros!
I thought he was joking. Elena popped up the companionway to remind me it was brand new and under warranty.
"Oh warranty is bad." MajorBrand man said. "To fix under warranty will take very long time. But six-hundred, and few minutes. Radar is working like new."
"It is new! Nah... I'm not paying that for warranty work." Getting screwed because we are screwable makes my blood boil.
"Your choice!" He slammed his case and stomped off.
The English chaps were dropping off the spinnaker and caught the tail end. "Oh yeah, it's a scam alright! He'd get a few quid from MajorBrand for fixing it. Not worth his time when he can take you for whatever he feels like because you're under a deadline. Look, it happens to everyone, especially with ARC coming up. It's nothing personal."
"It felt personal. Like he knew we had to leave."
"You're not local, are ya?" Then, "Right, you two. We need to get you on your way. Is the autopilot back?"
Each of them made a frantic phone call. "The ExpensiveBrand man says he doesn't have the parts and can't get your autopilot back to you for a few weeks. Says he's too busy. If I was you, I'd forget the autopilot and make for the high seas."
The other sailmaker continued. "An autopilot's just not worth it. That guy is a notorious swindler. He's got crooked connections all through this town. Probably had you pegged the minute you phoned. He's up to something or you'd have your autopilot by now, fixed or not."
The boat was re-provisioned, refueled, repaired, and almost ready to go. We even had a few days to spare. The autopilot's hydraulic pump and motor -- literally, the heart of the unit -- was removed several days earlier by a morbidly obese technician and his scantily clad, female assistant. "It's worth something like five grand!" I protested. "And I should just leave it?"
"Absolutely, it sounds like what he pulled on the German couple." He was already dialing another number. "Bloody hell, that was a nice boat, brand new."
"What do you mean by was a nice boat'?" I asked.
"When they tried to leave, the bastard had their boat seized. Swindled them! Nothing they could do." He frowned at his phone. Dialed again. "I will feel him out... carefully. See what I can do. No promises." He climbed out to the cockpit.
"It's like this." The remaining sailmaker explained. "A scammer claims a foreigner with an expensive boat owes him for some bogus charges. The foreigner says 'bugger off.' Then the coppers seize their boat until the claim gets settled in court. 'Course, that can take years. By the time the case gets to court, the storage and legal fees are more than the boat is worth. The boat goes to auction, the swindler and his eh hem associates get it all. It's bloody brilliant."
The sailmaker in the cockpit started back down the companionway. "Just ditch the autopilot and get out of here." He pocketed his phone. "I asked if I could come by with some cash and pick the thing up. He said he's going to feed my dog razor blades, after he puts that thing back on your boat."
"He's bringing it back? You mean now." Sounded like a score to me.
"Yeah, before he kills my dog. He'll do it too. He's right pissed. He's gonna get you and Lenna. Knows her name and everything. He's coming over to stick that thing back in and stick you with the bill."
"So, he takes me for one or two hundred Euro for doing nothing? I just want to get the hell off this skivie island."
"It doesn't work like that. He will charge you thousands!"
"So, I'll call the police."
"You can't do that! It's what he wants you to do. Remember, you're the foreigner. They'll seize your yacht until it is settled. You have a lot more to worry about than losing your boat." He gestured at Elena. "Just go. Your marina bill is paid and you're all set except for that autopilot. I'm off. I have to get my dog."
"Hola?" It was the scantily clad assistant. "My boss, he is coming soon. I am to install back your autopilot."
Elena slammed a door below. I winced. "Just give it to me. I'll install it myself."
"Oye, no es possible! I shall then wait for my boss. He very busy. Will be displeased that you do not let me do my job."
When The Boss lumbered up, wheezing and sweating, I offered to pay for his time and take the autopilot, as is. Oh no, no, nooo! He insisted on installing it. Told me we would settle the bill while his girl put it in. From a book of invoices he ostentatiously handed me one.
"A thousand euros!" I gasped!
"Pardon me, there has been an error." He snatched back the invoice and with a flourish, modified it by scratching a five over the one.
"Right... That's just freaking great."
"I should think one in your situation would not wish to attract attention." He sneered.
I pulled two hundred Euros from my wallet. "Take it. It's all I've got."
He did, crumpling the bills and dropping them at his feet. "Perhaps we should call for the police. They can settle this."
Well shit-on-a-stick! The sailmakers were right. "Okay, of course, five grand, but I don't have that kind of cash. Just keep the pump. It must be worth that much."
"I could, but you still have my bill for five-thousand euros. You must pay it. I can let you keep your autopilot."
"Will you take Visa? You threw all the cash I have on the floor."
"I deal with cash. We can go to the bank together. My girl will look after your yacht... and, your little friend in the cabin."
"It is way beyond my daily withdrawal limit!"
"Your game is not my concern. I will be back in the morning for my money and perhaps I will bring the police." He nodded slowly and turned to leave. "No funny business. I know what you are thinking."
* * *
"I need to email Jon." I growled. Then to Elena, "Put my jacket on, pull up the hood and get out there."
"We need to fill the water tanks and get the hell out of here."
"You think your jacket is going to fool anybody?"
"I don't think the bastard or his muse are watching. He thinks we're a couple of scared-stupid chicks."
"Chicks! Two baby chickens?" Elena said.
"Baby chickens, ducks, hummingbirds, condors... whatever. Thinks we're scared into giving him the money. Maybe he's hoping we'll chance a runner so he can take our boat."
"Why not just come with police and take our boat now?"
"I'm pretty sure there is a time period even scammers have to give us to pay the invoice. Make's it look less like extortion."
"So, by running we bring the cops right away?" Elena stood on the companionway's first step. "Why not wait, make him think you will pay to him?"
"Because, I don't think he really wants the money. I think he'd rather have the boat. Besides, he knows you're on board. No matter what we do, we're completely screwed!" It's not like Elena needed me screaming at her. I stood, tried to put my arms around her. Got pushed away. Yup, I deserved that. "I'm sorry, but we really don't have time to think. Please, start filling the water tanks. I'll email Jon then we'll change places. You'll work down here while I make ready outside. Just start filling the tanks for now."
"Blyad, there is lightning. It is not looking good out here." Elena was half way out the companionway.
"Just go!" I waved her away. A peal of thunder drove home her point about the weather. I flung the laptop open and jammed in the satellite-modem's serial connection.
Elena opened a hatch and yelled through it. "Meg, this is not funny. We can't sail in this." She lost control of the hatch cover. The wind slammed it shut with a crash. At least I didn't hear any screaming.
She had the water tanks full and was trying to shut the overstuffed cockpit lockers. Lightning laced the sky. Palm fronds cha cha cha'ed in the wind like maraca players on speed.
Twilight compounded the darkness of the building storm. Sheets of rain and spray roared above deck. It sounded like a prairie hailstorm. Wretchedly deteriorating conditions and one very upset, Russian illegal had me paralyzed.
The satellite modem flashed an incoming message: "GET OUT OF THERE NOW! GET OUT. E-MAIL FROM SEA. If you can't sail, you NEED to take Elena by taxi to the airport and make a refugee claim at customs RIGHT NOW! Those are Spanish feds. Not local cops. It is an extortion racket. They will take the boat and arrest you for people smuggling. Think of Elena, better she turn herself in to the feds NOW, than get arrested.
I showed her the message.
"Nothing has changed from Gibraltar. I didn't leave Russia to be a refuge in Spain. I am not leaving this boat. It is my home. You are my family. It isn't meant to end like this. You take me to the airport, you will be killing me!"
"It's not my plan, but you need to know what's happening."
"I know what is happening. Some criminal wants to steal, but I cannot be stolen. We are stronger and better than this criminals. He thinks we are scared ducks. That storm is too strong. He will not think we will try to get away from here."
Elena and I sat across the table from each other. We held hands. Listened to the storm with the lights off, scared out of our freaking minds. It had to let up. Eventually.
Four am rolled around. The storm was still blasting at full force. The harbor policeboats were pinned down. The port was closed to small craft, and dawn lurked just a couple of hours away. We hadn't seen activity on shore or on the water since nightfall.
"Okay, let's go for it." I whispered.
Elena nodded. "No matter what happens I want you to know one thing."
"Sounds like last words, and nothing I don't already know, so don't say it."
"No silly, and yes, I love you, but what I was going to say was, 'Thank you.' "
"Isn't that enough?" She pulled on a boot. "Come on, let's get going."
Boadicea's deck was littered with broken palm fronds and plant debris. I swept it from the helm and started the engine.
Elena stood at the bow. "Ready! Let's go!" she ordered in Russian.
I released the stern lines.
Elena triggered the electric windlass to raise the anchor.
Boadicea inched into the fairway.
The howling wind forced us to shout. We were moving way too fast, pushed by the wind toward the opposite row of boats. Turn or crash. The wheel didn't budge! The steering was jammed. "Don't lift the anchor! Leave it down! STOP! LEAVE IT!" I screamed. Combined with full reverse, it might buy us a few seconds before we blew clear across the fairway into a row of big motor yachts.
"We have NO STEERING! The son-of-a-bitch sabotaged the steering." I waved frantically for Elena to leave the bow.
The propeller in full reverse swung Boadicea to one side. The wind did the rest. We ended up perpendicular to the bows of the big motor yachts that we were about to be skewered on. "Shit, shit, shit! Grab a fender! Get it between us and whatever!"
Elena froze, then pitched sideways toward the powerboats. A grinding shudder came up from below. Boadicea came to a surrealistic, leaning stop less than a meter from the bow of the nearest motor yacht.
I did a double take. "Holy shit! We've hung up on their anchor chains! Their chains, Elena!" I laughed like a fool. "Their anchor chains are holding us off. Damn lucky we didn't hit anything."
"We are stuck on anchor chains, and that makes us lucky!?"
"Not stuck! Just stopped and I don't know for how long." I jumped down the companionway, wiped out on the wet floor, scrambled for the electrical panel. I snatched at every glowing breaker I saw. The anchor windlass, I left on.
Elena ran to the bow. I lunged for the wheel. With the hydraulics disabled, it turned. "Raise the anchor. Go, go, go!" Boadicea lurched, shuddered. Sickening grinding sounds came from below. But the bow lifted slowly away from the parked yachts. Our own chain was stretching out, pulling our bow toward the middle of the fairway. I saw flashlight beams cutting through the rain saturated air like light sabers. There might have been a bullhorn barking in Spanish. I couldn't tell.
The crunching and grinding stopped. A meter from the chains, two, two and a half, and then Elena was shrieking from the bow. "Anchor off bottom!"
Throttle to full forward. Excruciatingly, we picked up water speed. I was frozen at the wheel, unable to breathe until enough water was flowing past the rudder to give me control. The anchor clattered into its cradle, and Elena ran for the cockpit. Several flashlight beams followed her. We rounded the fuel dock, still picking up speed. Arms and flashlights waved. At least no one seemed to be shooting. Still accelerating, we passed the harbor police dock. I saw the speedboats safely tied up for the storm.
The opening to the breakwater was dead ahead. A raging maw of whitewater and exploding waves beyond it. Police cars raced along the northern section toward the opening. "What are they going to do, ram us?" It wasn't cars that worried me, but something that was meant to float, and with a lot more horsepower. A flash of lightning and instantaneous thunder knocked the wind from my lungs. Elena dove for the cockpit floor.
I followed her lead, crouched behind the wheel. "What am I thinking? Fiberglass won't stop a bullet! Then again, it might slow it down." Boadicea barreled forward, rearing and bucking through the breakwater opening. The first wave outside the breakwater nearly threw us overboard. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" I screamed.
Glancing back, I saw police silhouetted on the breakwater and the orange, firefly glow of a cigarette. I imagined the smoking cop saying to his partner, "Storm'll get em so we don't have to. What say we go back to the station and watch some Hawaii Five-O, boys."
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