The GiftbyFrederick Carol©
This is a work of fiction, written for enjoyment and amusement; hopefully yours as well as mine.
Comment and constructive criticism welcomed. You can reach me at the email address in my profile.
My thanks go to Paul C and Cockatoo, for commenting on the original draft of this story, which has been rather amended. Thanks too to Cockatoo for the title. To Wida my grateful thanks for editorial comment. To those three, the credit. The mistakes are all mine.
The first time I met Helen she never said a word. Her husband did all of the talking. "Mr. Jensen," he said.
That's me, Steve Jensen, owner and skipper of the Nora, a 38-foot ketch that's older than me. "Mr. Jensen," he said, "my wife and I want to get back home to Georgetown, and I've persuaded her that it would be good to sail back. The Harbor office tells me you do charter work."
"That's right, Mr.?"
"Grant, Jack Grant. We've been here on business, but now we want to relax." He smiled, all teeth and no eyes. Like a shark. "I guess it's only a four day trip, but I'd be happy to pay you for the full week."
I glanced at his wife. Tall, slim, expensive clothes. Blonde hair cut stylishly short. Still silent, I noted. Oh, well. I turned my attention back to her husband. "I usually expect whoever charters my boat to give a hand with her. I'm the only crew."
"I realize that, Mr. Jensen. I have some sailing experience and I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure Helen will help out, too. Won't you, honey?" His wife smiled politely. "But Georgetown is off the main shipping routes from here. I'm sure all will be well." He smiled again.
"OK," I said, "let's go aboard and sort this out. When do you want to leave?"
"Tomorrow morning, that OK?"
"About ten and we'll catch the tide."
"Fine, fine." He turned to his wife. "Helen, honey, why don't you take the car and see about packing. I'll sort out the details with Mr. Jensen, and then get a cab back. I'll just get my briefcase."
Helen Grant never said a word, just got in the car, passed her husband his briefcase, and then drove away without a backward glance. I shrugged mentally. It might be a silent passage, but I needed the money. I turned to Jack Grant. "Come aboard, Mr. Grant, and we'll sort out the paperwork."
On Tuesday morning the Grants arrived at the slip at nine-thirty. Jack Grant took me to one side.
"I have a problem, Mr. Jensen," he said. "Something has come up and I'll have to see to it, but Helen would still like to go ahead. Will you be able to manage?" he asked anxiously.
I looked at him while I gave the matter some thought. We'd be clear of the main shipping lanes by nightfall, I could lock the tiller or heave-to. "It should be OK. It might take a little longer if I have to heave-to, but I don't really see a major problem." I definitely needed the money.
"Suppose I pay you for two weeks?" Jack Grant said, reaching for his wallet. A few minutes later we'd sorted out the revised details and I was ready to go. Helen Grant had a big carryall with her and I took it and showed her to her berth in the fore-cabin. My own quarters were aft. I left her to unpack whatever she needed and went back on deck. Jack Grant brought a carryall from the car. "Will you take this for me?" he asked. "It will save me on excess baggage when I fly back."
"Of course. No problem."
He smiled. "I'll take my leave of you, then. Helen and I have said our goodbyes and I've never been very good at waiting and waving." He smiled, the shark re-surfacing, as he passed me the carryall. It was surprisingly heavy. With a casual wave he turned on his heel and walked back to his car.
I made a rude gesture - mentally, I'm no fool - and busied myself with the last minute tidying that accompanies departure. I stowed the carryall in a waterproof locker just inside the main cabin. It was about ten to ten when Helen Grant came back on deck. She had changed out of her tailored suit of shore clothes and was wearing jeans and a cotton sweater, deck shoes on her feet.
"Is there anything I can do," she asked politely.
"Have you sailed before?" I asked.
"Dinghies. Day-sailers. Nothing this big."
"Well, if you don't mind, Mrs. Grant, just sit over there until we're clear of the harbor, then we'll see about translating your dinghy knowledge into something bigger." I grinned at her and was rewarded with an almost whole smile in return. Away from her husband, Helen Grant seemed much more human.
She was intelligent and a quick learner and when I left her at the helm while I made some sandwiches for our lunch she showed no anxiety. There was nothing wrong with her appetite either, and we made short work of the beef and mustard. The wind was fresh and I hoisted the big genoa. Nora was butting into the waves now, and some spray was reaching us in the cockpit. I got two waterproof jackets out of the locker and handed her one. She looked at the garish orange and fluorescent yellow color scheme and raised an amused eyebrow.
I laughed. "There are no fashion police out here, Mrs. Grant."
She laughed in turn, surprising me as she shrugged into the jacket. "Call me Helen. And you're Steve, right?"
"Sure am, ma'am," I quipped and she smiled. She surprised me again.
"Steve, what are you planning to do tonight? I mean, about keeping watch or whatever it's called." She raised an interrogative eyebrow.
"Actually, I was going to ask you to take the helm from ten until midnight, if you think you can manage, then I'll take over until morning. I can get by on two hours a night. It's only three nights, after all."
She looked at me quizzically. "Wouldn't it make more sense if I did say ten until two, then relieve you at six, when it will be light again?"
"It would, if you're confident. We'll be clear of the shipping lanes by eight, so you should be all right. If you're sure?"
"I can always wake you if anything happens, or I'm unsure, can't I?" she said.
"Of course. In fact, consider it an order, first mate."
She grinned, looking incredibly young suddenly. "Aye, aye, captain."
That broke the last of the ice. Helen Grant turned out to be damned good company. She was bright, witty, interested in learning Nora's foibles. I learned that she'd been married to Jack Grant for four years, that she was thirty, my own age, a Computer Science graduate and was thoroughly enjoying her little voyage.
"I get sick of flying," she told me, "when Jack spotted your charter sign and suggested that we sail home, I didn't need much persuasion. We weren't in any hurry." She frowned. "I don't know what Jack needed to do that couldn't be done from Georgetown." She shook her head, curious but apparently unworried.
"I'm surprised your husband let you, I mean going off with a man in a boat." I smiled to show her I was joking, but her face closed and she shook her head.
"You made lunch, I'll do dinner," she said. "Do you mind if I rummage in your kitchen?"
"Galley," I said.
"Galley. It's not a kitchen, it's a galley."
"Oh," she said. "Of course." She started below, and then turned. "It looks like a kitchen," she said, and disappeared before I could form an adequate response. I grinned. I liked her.
Dinner turned out to be pork chops in an onion gravy, and she'd managed to make a side salad with the inadequate provisions I'd supplied her with. The chops were cooked superbly and I told her so.
"One of my many accomplishments," she said dryly. "Not that Jack really cares. We eat out more often than not, usually some business associate of Jack's. I sometimes think I'm just there for decoration."
And very decorative you are too, Helen Grant, I thought, but I didn't say anything like that out loud. Instead I changed the subject and that led us into a conversation about books, art, boats, islands, and lagoons and then onto diving, where she surprised me again.
"I noticed you had some scuba gear, Steve. Are the tanks charged?"
"Yeah. I always keep them ready. I had to clear some rope from the propeller only last week. The tank means I can do the job without having to keep coming up for air. I have a compressor connected to the diesel." I smiled at her. "Are you interested in diving?"
"Oh, yes, but I haven't done any since I got married. Jack's not happy in the water." She grimaced. "On it, yes, but not in it."
"Tell you what," I said. "We'll be passing fairly close to an island tomorrow morning. It's small and uninhabited, but there's a bay where I can anchor. We could go down and look at the reef. It's only about twenty feet down. It will mean we don't reach Georgetown until Friday evening, probably late. It's up to you."
"Sounds like fun," she said immediately, "I'd love to."
"OK, then. I'll just work out the course alteration, then you can start your shift."
"Aye, aye, skipper," she said, throwing me a mock salute.
I always sleep well at night when someone I trust is at the helm, and for some reason I trusted Helen Grant. She woke me at two, with a cup of hot coffee and then took herself off to her bunk with a quiet goodnight. She was startled for a moment when I woke her at six, but smiled and took the coffee I handed her. I don't know what else she was wearing in her narrow bunk, but she certainly filled the shirt very nicely.
She came on deck after a few minutes dressed again in her jeans and sweater and took the helm while I tried to grab a couple of hours sleep. I don't sleep well when it's daylight regardless of who's at the helm, and I gave up after forty minutes, dressed and went back on deck.
"I thought you were sleeping," Helen said, surprised.
"I can't sleep when it's daylight." I smiled at her. "Breakfast?" I asked
"Please. What have we got?" she asked. I liked the 'we'.
"There's some ham in the refrigerator and there should still be some eggs. Ham and eggs?"
"Sounds good, Steve. Here, you take the helm and I'll get breakfast." She smiled at me; a good, honest, open smile and I think it was then that I began to fall in love with Helen Grant.
We ate breakfast together in companionable silence. Helen had a healthy appetite, which almost surprised me, as she was slender in build. She must have caught my curiosity because she paused, swallowed and said, "I play a lot of tennis and I go to the gym twice a week." I flushed and she grinned at me. "It burns the calories off."
I looked over her shoulder, and then pointed. "There's the island, just showing on the horizon. We'll be there by noon."
"Oh, great!" said Helen, and then frowned. She looked at me and flushed. "I didn't pack a swimsuit."
'Swim naked' I thought, my prick twitching. Aloud I said, "There's an old pair of shorts of mine, they've shrunk so much they'll never fit me again. With a piece of line for a belt they'll probably do, those and a t-shirt, maybe?"
"Oh, yes," said Helen, "that will do just fine!"
I was slightly out in my estimate, because it was almost one when I dropped the anchor in the little bay. Helen helped me lower the dinghy overboard and then went below to change, my old shorts in her hand. I went to my cabin and donned my faded pair of swim shorts. I hung an air tank on each shoulder, managed to pick up two sets of fins, two masks and two weight belts and staggered back on deck.
Helen was waiting for me, barefoot, my old shorts dragged in at her slim waist, long, lightly tanned legs, lovely legs. A black t-shirt was snug on her upper body, the absence of her bra manifesting itself by the perceptible protrusion of her nipples. She flushed slightly when she saw me looking but said nothing. I handed her a pair of fins and a mask.
"Try those for size," I said.
Five minutes later I moored the dinghy to a coral head showing above the water. "Ready?" I asked, then catching Helen's nod, "OK, let's go!" We let ourselves fall over backwards out of the dinghy and into the water. We trod water and I pointed. "The reef's there. Follow me. It's only twenty feet down, so we'll be fine. We'll just go down for ten minutes at first, then come up and check everything's OK. Right?"
Helen nodded, eager. "OK, Steve. Lead on."
A moment later we were lost in the wonderland that is a coral reef. I kept a careful eye on Helen at first, but relaxed when she proved herself a competent diver. I touched her hand when the ten minutes were up and pointed to the surface. She nodded and we went up.
"Everything OK?" I asked her once we had surfaced.
"Everything is fine," she replied, eyes sparkling. I saw the flash reflected in her eyes but I'll never know what else she said because the noise of the explosion was too great. I spun around just as the after-shock hit us and threw us against the dinghy. The Nora was just beginning to settle, her back broken and as I watched appalled, she slipped gently beneath the surface until just the mainmast showed. She'd gone down in about thirty feet of water and the mast still showed above the disturbed waves, a marker for her grave.
I turned to Helen. She looked stunned, her eyes staring, her mouth moving soundlessly. Slowly she turned to me.
"What happened?" she whispered.
I shook my head, stunned, staring at the mast, all I could see of my beloved Nora. "I don't know. It can't be petrol, because the engine's diesel. Not gas, because the stove is alcohol and the lamps are either electric or oil. I just don't know." I was in shock, watching my home and my livelihood sink before my eyes.
"What do we do," Helen asked, dragging me from my self-absorption.
I paused, gathering my scattered wits. "We'll have to salvage what we can and camp on the island. Once we've done that, we'll see what we can do."
"But no-one knows we're here," said Helen, panic starting to show in her tone.
"No," I said, then gripped her hand. "But there's food and clothing on the boat, if we can salvage it. There's also an emergency radio which might be OK, and we can make shelter from the sails."
"Yes, but..." she began.
"Helen," I interrupted her, squeezing her fingers. She looked at me, her face strained. "We're alive," I said gently.
She stared at me for a moment, and then smiled weakly. "So we are," she said.
"Come on," I said. "Let's get the dinghy and see what we can salvage."
Quite a lot, actually. Both the fore cabin and my own quarters were substantially undamaged and we managed to salvage our clothing, after I succeeded in opening the forward hatch to get at Helen's clothing. The cockpit was in splinters, the main cabin even worse and the galley was a mess. I managed to detach the stove from its gimbals and to get it and a fuel bottle out and into the dinghy where Helen waited. That, drinking water and some food. Most of the freeze-dried stuff anyway, and some from the refrigerator. By the time we'd done that, my air tank was almost empty and Helen's was down to a quarter. Ten minutes. I decided we'd keep that for emergencies. Other emergencies. The locker where Jack's carryall had been stowed had just about disappeared.
The locker where the emergency radio was stored was in the saloon, near the companionway. The blast must have distorted the door. I tried a few times, using anything available as a lever but I couldn't get it open. It was getting late by then and I'd been free-diving, Helen waiting anxiously in the dinghy. I reckoned we had better get a camp set up before it got dark.
By the time we'd gotten everything ashore and above the high-water mark it was almost six in the early evening. We sat together on the beach and stared at the mast showing above the water. I took a deep breath and asked the question I had to ask.
"Helen," I said gently, "was there trouble between you and your husband?"
She looked at me silently for a moment, and then nodded. "The marriage is on the rocks. We were going to arrange a divorce once we were home." She grimaced. "We should never have gotten married, at least not to each other."
"Would he try to kill you?" I flinched at the look of pain on her face, but she answered readily enough.
"No," she said positively. "The marriage is over, but we're not enemies; anything but. I think we're better friends now that we've acknowledged we made a mistake than we were before." She looked at me quizzically. "That explosion was a bomb, wasn't it?"
"I think so," I said. "The main cabin is in splinters, but as far as I can tell, the explosion seems to have been in the locker where I put Jack's carryall."
She stared at me, then began shaking her head. "No, Steve. Jack wouldn't try to kill me." She began to cry, soundlessly, the tears spilling unheeded down her cheeks. I held out my arms and she collapsed against me, her face buried against my shoulder. I put my arms around her and just held her.
She calmed, and pushed away from me, sniffing and dashing tears from her eyes. "There could be a reason," she said slowly.
"What?" I asked.
"It's my money, and he inherits."
"Your money?" I asked, confused.
"Steve, I'm your original little rich girl. My father left me twelve million dollars and the company." She grimaced. "Jack and I made wills eighteen months ago, with each other as beneficiaries." She smiled wryly. "The marriage hadn't gone sour then."
"We don't know it was Jack, do we? When did he find out he needed to stay?" I asked.
"Barely an hour before we were due at the dock. A telephone call," said Helen.
"It doesn't sound like he was planning a bomb, then, does it?" I asked, thinking 'unless he arranged the call'.
Helen shook her head. "He just took a few clothes out of the carryall, and his razor and toilet bag. He left everything else." Helen paused, a faraway look on her face. "There was something else," she said slowly. "One of Jack's business associates gave him a present, just before the 'phone call. I never really thought about it at the time, but why then? Why not earlier? He said not to open it until we were at sea, because it was something to enjoy. Jack put it into the carryall and I forgot all about it until now. Jack left it in the bag."
"I think that might have been the bomb. Can you remember who gave your husband the present?" I asked.
"I think his name is Guzman," said Helen. "It wasn't anything to do with the company, so I stayed away from their meetings." She made a little gesture of distaste. "I didn't like him."
"Well, if it was him, how on earth did he expect to get away with it?" I asked bitterly. "If we'd kept to our course, instead of diverting, the bomb would have probably killed us." I paused. "Although if we'd been on deck, we'd probably just have been blown into the water. Either way, we were dead."
"He didn't care about you, Steve, you were just the instrument he used to carry the bomb," Helen said sadly, squeezing my fingers.
"I'll be the instrument of his destruction, if I ever get the chance," I said morosely.
"We're stuck here," Helen said hopelessly, "how on earth can we do anything?"
"We're alive, and while we're alive, there is always hope," I said gently, squeezing her hand. "I'll have another try at getting the radio in the morning, it's getting too late now."
"Steve?" asked Helen.
"What are our chances?"
"Pretty good if I can get the radio out and get it working, not so good otherwise," I said wryly.
"Right," she said, taking a deep breath, "Let's go find some firewood."
We both donned damp shoes, and then I led the way off the beach. The island was a mixture of trees and scrub and we soon had enough fuel gathered. I had salvaged some waterproof matches in an aluminum container and soon had a comforting little fire going. I piled some flat rocks to act as a reflector, so as not to waste the heat.
"What now?" asked Helen.
"I go and cut some poles. You go and fetch the line we brought ashore and we'll see if we can dry ourselves some other clothes. After that, we see if we can find fresh water, otherwise we'll be out in a day."