This was the second story I ever finished.

Um.

Read for interest value only. While I managed to get all the idea, unlike my first story, the actual realisation of that idea leaves much to be desired.

I work for North Technologies, a distributive company that acts as a go-between between the general public and wholesalers; they specialise in marine navigational aids, echo-sounders and the like, in some of the rather more esoteric areas of Asia.

The 'distribution centre' (small shop) that I run is in a tiny fishing port on the coast of Malaysia, about three hundred miles from anywhere. I have absolutely no idea why this particular place rates a distribution centre, but there you go. Oh, and I'm not going to tell you what the port is called.

I don't really do a lot there. There's a small, upstairs office, which I make tea in, and a warehouse roughly the same size which mostly stocks spare parts. Most business comes from tourists needing a new echo-sounder repeater, but I occasionally sell items to the local fishermen.

This particular day started at about 10.00 am, when there was a knock on the office door. I thought, "Damn, it's going to be that blasted Tony wanting to know why I won't give him credit again...", took my feet of the desk and bellowed, "Come in!"

However, it wasn't Tony who came in the door. It was one of the largest men I've ever seen. He must have been about six foot ten --- and he looked as if he had come straight out of an old swash-buckling film, you know, tattoos, sleeveless shirt, the lot.

I looked at him --- looked up at him, actually -- and made the usual can-I-help-you noises. He stood silently for a few moments before replying.

"You sell navigation devices, don't you?"

I said yes.

"My captain would like to buy something from you."

I said I would be delighted, and when would he like to make an appointment?

"The captain never leaves the ship. He wants to see you now."

This was a little off-putting. However, as this refugee from C.S.Forester showed every sign of staying right where he was until I went with him, I scribbled a note to the cleaning-lady (to say that if I wasn't back by this evening I was probably dead), put a few demonstration devices into a briefcase, checked the very small pistol everyone keeps saying I should habitually carry, and followed him.

He led me down to a fairly seedy part of the docks. I kept rechecking the pistol, though I doubted it would do more than irritate this human mountain. Finally we reached the quay where he had left the boat.

It was a large, battered rowing boat. No engine. It was propelled by three other people of about the same size as the one who had brought me here.

I turned round, about to say something to him --- I still didn't know what his name was --- and suddenly noticed something. They say the eyes are the window of the soul. Utter nonsense. The eyes have no expression. But the eyes plus the rest of someone's face, that conveys a lot.

This man had an expression which I have never seen before or since in my entire life. It was as if he no longer cared about anything, was working on sheer momentum; as if he didn't want to do anything anymore. Rather as if his body knew what to do and his mind didn't have to direct it anymore. It was very strange and more than a little unnerving.

I shut my mouth and climbed down the ladder at the edge of the quay and into the boat. The giant followed me, sat down on a bench and grabbed an oar. Without a word all four of them heaved and we pulled out over the oily water. I sat down at the bow, so they were facing away from me.

We slipped over the water, heading for the harbour mouth, remarkably quickly, and in complete silence apart from the occasional splash of an oar. I tried to watch the scenery slide past, but couldn't keep my mind on it.

Finally I could stand it no longer, cleared my throat, and tried a question.

Who is this captain, anyway?'' I asked.

There was a long silence, broken only by the swish of water under the keel.

Finally one of them --- I didn't know which one, they all looked alike --- muttered something like, "Captain 'ecken," and I shut up.

We pulled out of the harbour mouth, and headed straight out to sea. I looked over my shoulder, but saw nothing; the sea was completely empty. I was about to ask where we were going before thinking better of it and didn't.

Finally, however, with the harbour about half a mile behind us, one of them started to glance over his shoulder.

I looked around. There was a ship there, not fifty yards away. Where there had been only empty sea before, was now a ship. A large, two-masted schooner, to be exact. A very old large, two-masted schooner.

She had seen a lot of weather. Her sides might once have been tarred, but now they were stained and even cracked, her sails were discoloured, had been patched many times and were still rent in a few places, large sections of the rail were missing --- but most of all there was an impression of extreme age about her. Not the sterile, timeless age that museum pieces have, but a well-used, worn-out type of age. However, rather at odds to this, everything was still kept neatly; she was a tidy, but dilapidated, ship.

There was a name on the bow, but it was very discoloured and blotchy, and only the ornate capitals were still readable, F and D. There was nobody on deck.

We pulled alongside, and one of my chauffeurs indicated a frayed rope-ladder. I scrambled up it, and one of them passed my case up to me. The impression of age was even stronger when actually standing on the ship. The deck was warped, but clean. A lot of things had rope wound round them for strength where they had split. The glass in the wheelhouse was cracked.

Noises behind indicated that the crew was coming on board. I got out of the way, and they all climbed up, leaving the boat moored below with its rope fenders protecting the schooner's battered sides. Three of them silently went to a companionway just in front of the deckhouse and went below. The fourth indicated that I should follow him, and I did so, wondering exactly what it was I was getting into.

He led me to the other side of the wheelhouse, where the wheel was (neatly lashed with fraying rope), knocked on the door, and without waiting for an answer ushered me in, closing it behind me. He stayed outside. I blinked and waited for my eyes to adjust in the gloom. The windows, though clean, were none too transparent.

Suddenly I noticed that there was somebody else in here. At one side of the wheelhouse there was a table, against the wall, at which the person was sitting. He was wearing black, and sitting very still, which was why I hadn't noticed him in the gloom. In front of him were a pile of yellowing papers, which he seemed to be studying. He hadn't appeared to have noticed me.

His face was very thin, and deeply lined, appearing to be mere white flesh drawn over bone. His face was completely expressionless, as if all emotions had long ago been burnt out of him. I swallowed. Captain?'' I ventured. After a brief pause, he turned round. Good day,'' he said. His voice was very quiet, and, like his face, completely expressionless. You are a dealer in modern navigational equipment.'' It wasn't a question.

I nodded, and, with some effort, managed to release my stranglehold on the case and put it down. I frantically tried to remember my sales pitch.

Did you have a particular item in mind, Captain?'' I asked.

He stared at me for a second and then, without nodding or otherwise moving his head, said, Yes. You have a device that will measure the depth of the water, do you not?'' He had no accent and his voice was completely flat, with no expression.

I reached into the case and took out the first thing that met my hand --- the Matatsui Portable Echo-Sounder --- and held it up. I let my mouth run on without out trying to control it. I would probably just confuse it.

The sales pitch briefly described what it was, and then went on about why it was different. This device is designed for hand-held use. If the sensor is lowered into the water on the end of its cable, with the other end plugged in to the control unit, the depth of the water in metres or fathoms is displayed on the high-resolution LCD screen here. It is not necessary to have the sensor mounted on the hull of the ship, so reducing cost and inconvenience. The maximum depth it can read is three hundred metres, which is ample for most use.'' I put it on the table and then took out a catalogue. We also have other models, most of which require a mounting---''

He interrupted with, I will buy that.''

I gaped a bit before managing, Don't you want to see the others?''

He said, No,'' just like that, again without moving his head.

I swallowed again, and managed to kick my sales pitch back into gear.

You really must reconsider, Captain. This model is not very suitable for a ship like this; I only really mentioned it as an example. You would really want a mountable one, they are really far more convenient...''

He said No,'' again, this time following it with, I will buy that one,'' and pointed a thin, white finger at the Matatsui on the desk. I gave in.

Certainly. Now, if you could just sign here, here and here, and fill in the name of your ship here, I will have one delivered to your ship tomorrow.'' If I can find it, I added silently, thinking of the way the schooner seemed to appear from nowhere.

No,'' he said again. I will buy that one.'' He pointed at the Matatsui again.

But that is a demonstration model,'' I protested.

I will buy it anyway,'' he replied expressionlessly.

I gave in, and agreed. I put away the order form and got out the receipt pad. I'm afraid the company can only accept US dollars, but I can exchange other currencies for you. Let me see... that is \$149.99.''

He didn't take the pen I was extending to him. I have gold,'' he said.

I stared at him for a moment, and didn't even bother arguing. That will do nicely.''

He took the pen, without touching my fingers, looked at it for a moment, and then signed the receipt pad, adding the name of the ship. Reaching behind him, he down a small box, which he unlocked and opened. Inside was a small, leather bag, from which he got three large coins out of it and gave them to me. It was a very small leather bag. I shoved them in my pocket without looking at them, and handed over the carbon copy of the receipt and the Matatsui's instruction manual.

I managed to get outside without anything untoward happening to me, and found waiting there what might have been the same crew-member who had met me. He led me to the boat, which now had the other three in it, and we climbed in. This time I sat in the stern, and we pulled away from the battered old schooner, to my relief.

As we approached the harbour, I looked round at the ship. She had gone.

We pulled up at the quay, and I climbed up, with the silence remaining unbroken, and then the boat left. I watched the boat row out towards the harbour mouth before collapsing onto a bollard, wondering exactly who Captain 'ecken'' was. I fished around in my pocket and got out the three coins. They were, indeed, gold.

Two of them were Spanish doubloons, which I recognised from a museum somewhere. The other had a lobster and a Greek word on it, which I managed to puzzle out. Atlantis?

I stared at them for some time before getting the receipt pad out. The captain's name was fairly unfamiliar, but the ship's name certainly was not. I thought a moment and contemplated whether to throw the coins into the harbour, but then decided, what the hell, nobody will believe me, and put them back in my pocket before heading off back to the office.

Sometimes, today, I wonder whether with the help of the Matatsui echo-sounder, Captain Vanderdecken and his crew will make it round the horn... and whether the Flying Dutchman will finally find its rest.

David Given
Sun Nov 26 03:36:51 GMT 1995