Noah took the stairs down to his stateroom, hung his jacket on a chair, and pulled off his tie and shoes. He unbuttoned his shirt and sat on his bed. The clock radio said 10:14. Hamish would be at the hospital by now. He picked up the phone and dialled his friend’s private mobile number.
After a long, dead-air silence, the connection went through. Half a dozen rings later, a male voice answered. “I can see your international caller ID number. If you’re calling from a call centre in Pakistan with an offer to clean my ducts, forget it. You shouldn’t even have this number. ”
“Never been to Pakistan. But I am on the other side of the globe. Next stop, Komodo Island and the dragons. ”
“Calling from the Ark. How you doing, Hamish?”
“I’ve got a wet sponge in one hand and a specialized instrument in the other. My arms hurt like hell and I’m dead tired. Otherwise, I’m fine. ”
Noah could hear rock music, Arcade Fire, blaring in the background. It didn’t sound like something Professor Hamish Wakefield would normally choose. During their med school days together, Hamish had been obsessed with micro-organisms and Mozart. Now that he was a recognized guru in the field of infectious diseases and microbiology, was he listening to rock music? “You at a rock concert or performing surgery?”
“Scraping wallpaper. ”
He’d never seen Hamish with a tool in his hand. Or take a day off work. The guy was evolving. “You? Where?”
“Master bedroom. Finished the kitchen last week. ”
“You bought a house?”
“Inherited it. A North Hamilton fixer-upper. Foot of Bay Street, near the yacht club. Took a while to get Aunt Gwen’s will probated, but here we are. ”
We? Hamish never said we in any context. Noah couldn’t picture the guy sharing his life with anyone. He was too solitary, too set in his routines for domestic bliss. “We?”
“Al and me. Al Mesic. He’s an investigative reporter with the Hamilton Spectator. ”
A man. Good for Hamish. Out of the closet. Officially, that is. Everyone knew he’d been hiding in plain sight for years. “Congratulations. And once you get the house fixed up, you’ll be getting yourselves a sailboat and joining the yacht club. Listen . . . I need to pick your brain again. But . . . you know, in strict confidence. Nothing must hit the media. ”
“Can you speak up a bit? This connection isn’t perfect. ”
Noah raised his voice a notch and told Hamish the story.
“Hmm,” Hamish said. “Three deaths in one month among a youngish crew. Got to tell you, I don’t like the sound of those pus-filled lymph nodes. ”
“You see why I called. ”
“Unusual that they died so quickly. Very few infections kill that fast. ”
“Anything come to mind? You know, off the top of your head?”
“Vibrio vulnificus can manifest that way. Acquired by shucking clams and oysters, or swimming in heavily contaminated tropical waters. You’re in the right part of the world. Were the victims covered in giant bruises?”
“Just one stubbed toe,” Noah told him. “Didn’t look like much. ”
“V. vulnif affects primarily the elderly and people with serious underlying illnesses. Not robust young men. No, it won’t be that. ”
“One man did have scratches on his forearms,” Noah added. “And the guy who died early this morning had a small lesion on his thumb. ”
“What did it look like?”
“I’ll text you a photo in a sec. ”
“How clean is your vessel? You got a problem with rodents?”
Noah wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I know what you’re thinking. ” He lowered his voice. “I worried about that too, but there are rat traps in the cargo hold. And the rest of the ship is as pristine as any five-star resort. ”
After a pause punctuated by half a minute of Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go,” Hamish said, “Okay, I got the photo. That skin thing . . . could be anything. A burn. Herpes. Staph. ” He gave a forced cough. “Even bubonic plague. ”
“Or it could be nothing. You need to take a touch prep and a swab of it. Identify the bacteria in it. ”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You have to determine if the bacteria in that thumb and in the pus from the neck are one and the same. If they are, that tells you the bloodstream was infected and spread the germs throughout the body. ”
“You’re talking septicemia. ”
“Got a microscope?”
“Just for looking at urines. ”
“Fine. Do a couple of Gram stains and look at them under your scope. All you need is a single drop of the pus and a touch prep from the skin lesion. Nothing to it. ”
“Let’s be realistic here. ”
“Who’s not being realistic?” Hamish got miffed easily when you questioned his advice or his knowledge. “You asked to pick my brain. I’m telling you that managing your outbreak will be nearly impossible—”
“Who said it was an outbreak?”
“You did. Three dead crewmen. Similar demographics. Same purulent lymph nodes. ”
He knew Hamish was right. Characterizing the offending agent with a Gram stain was key to determining what it was, to pinpointing its source, and to stopping it from causing further deaths. But a Gram stain in the middle of the ocean? “You do know we don’t have a lab, eh?”
“Right now, you don’t have the faintest idea what killed these guys. And let’s face it, there are going to be more of them. ”
“Hamish, for God’s sake. ” The guy’s candour could be overwhelming. “Have a heart. I’m all alone here. ”
“You can do it. Start by finding some gentian violet for the first step of the Gram stain. It looks like ink. Often comes in a dropper bottle. ”
Noah knew gentian violet as an age-old remedy for infected insect bites, superficial yeast infections, impetigo, even ringworm. It didn’t work well and was usually consigned to the back of the medicine cupboard along with castor oil and Mercurochrome.
“You’ll also need a bottle of iodine solution,” Hamish added. “Should be no problem for you. Every first aid box in the world has that. ”
“Doesn’t matter as long as it smells like iodine. ”
“Alcohol. Unflavoured vodka will do. I’m sure you have no shortage of that. ”
“And one more thing,” Hamish said. “A counterstain. ”
“Something to give colour to the Gram-negative bacteria so you can see them under the scope. Only Gram-positive bacteria hold onto the gentian violet dye. ”
“Sounds tricky,” Noah said.
“But not impossible. ”
In his mind Noah canvassed the ship looking for dyes and stains. The engineering shop: paint and varnish — unsuitable. The bathrooms: makeup, hair dye, and shoe polish — no good. The kitchens: tons of stuff came to mind, including . . . well, yes.
“How about food colouring?” Noah offered, feeling pleased with himself. “Got plenty of that in our industrial kitchens. ”
“Worth a try, I guess. Not yellow, though. Won’t show up. Come to think of it, cochineal red might work. ”
“It’s made from the pulverized bodies of a particular species of Central American beetle. Safe to eat. ” He chuckled. “And, as people love to say these days, one hundred percent natural. They’ll have it in the kitchen. ”
Noah shook his head. The things the guy knew . . .
“Collect your stuff and call me back. Don’t forget microscope slides. I’ll talk you through the procedure step by step. Oh, and Noah . . . ”
“Make sure you’re wearing a gown, gloves, mask, and eye protection whenever you’re handling specimens from this case. Including when you’re performing the Gram stain. ”
“Got it. ”
Hamish cleared his throat. “But listen, I’ve got to be frank here. ” Wasn’t he always? “We’re kidding ourselves if we think you can do this on your own. You’ve got a complicated situation on your hands. You need someone on board who knows the ins and outs of investigating epidemics. Without that, you’re dead in the water. ”
“Bad choice of metaphor, Hamish. ”
“Sorry. But I am serious. You need to hire a consultant. ”
“Sure. They’re a dime a dozen, ready to jump at the chance of being flown to a plague ship so they can revel in our deficiencies. ”
“No, not a grandstander or a whistleblower. Someone on your side who doesn’t answer to local authorities. But can still make things right. For everyone. ”
“You’re talking fairy godmother, Hamish. ”
“I’d come myself, but I can’t get away. Al and I sing barbershop. Got a big concert coming up. ” In the background, Arcade Fire had given way to Neil Young, who was sounding awfully damned sorry for himself.
“You know,” Hamish continued, “one of the best investigators I know works right here. He’s in charge of our local public health unit and is a master at discretion. ”
“Does he offer himself as an international troubleshooter?”
“Not that I know of. I’d say his hands are full most of the time. Actually, he’s away on an extended leave with his son. Been going through a rough patch since his fiancée died last year. ”
If the guy was on leave from his regular duties, he might be available. “Could you call him for me? Sound him out? Tell him we’d put him up in a beautiful suite. And feed him very well. ”
“I haven’t the faintest clue where he is. I’m sure he told me, but—”
“Can you find out?” Surely Hamish could see how desperate Noah’s situation had become.
“He’s overseas somewhere. I don’t know which continent. Funny thing though, Zol said he would be spending at least part of his leave on a cruise ship. ”
“Which cruise line?”
“I don’t know one from the other. Look, this call must be costing you a fortune and I should get back to my hideous wallpaper. ”
“Just a sec. ” Had Noah heard correctly? “Did you say your guy’s name was Zol?”
“Yeah. Short for Zoltan. Hungarian parents. Tobacco farmers. ”
Noah’s heart rate picked up twenty points. “Does he have a girlfriend named Natasha?”
“I’m not aware that she’s his girlfriend. A co-worker for sure. And a talented investigator herself, even though she’s not an MD. ”
“This Zoltan fellow’s last name. Is it Szabo?”
“Hamish, our next drink is on me. Call you back tomorrow. ”
Noah pressed Aksoy’s doorbell. They could hear it through the door but there was no answer.
Zol jabbed at it three more times.
A moment later, the captain and Prem the security chief came striding down the corridor. Neither man looked happy.
“He’s not answering,” Noah told them.
“He must be in there,” said the captain. “He never use the public lounges. And the outer decks, I order them closed. Too much wind. ” He banged his fist against the door. “Mr. Aksoy, Mario here. We must talk. ”
“Sorry, Mario. ” Aksoy’s voice was muffled and strained. “It’s . . . not a good time. ”
“Mr. Aksoy, it’s Dr. Szabo. Dr. Ferguson and I are here too. We need to speak with you. ”
“You . . . you should come back later. ” Aksoy was clearly uncomfortable. But whether the man was frightened, anxious, or embarrassed, Zol couldn’t tell. And for some reason, he wasn’t using the intercom.
“I’m afraid it’s very important we talk to you, sir,” Zol persisted. “How about you take five minutes to finish what you’re doing?” If he was in the middle of watching one of his porno flicks, five minutes would be plenty of time to turn off the TV, put away the disk, and zip up his fly.
“This evening would be better,” Aksoy said. “Perhaps after dinner?”
The captain turned to Prem. “This is ridicolo. You open the door. We go in now. Not later. ”
Prem nodded then cupped the walkie-talkie attached to his belt and swept his index finger along the underside of the device. The motion was barely perceptible. Normally, Zol would have thought the man was hitching up his pants. But after what Noah had shown them in Gustave’s room, he was almost certain the security chief had pressed the walkie-talkie’s unmarked button that connected the device directly to a speaker on the bridge. Prem pulled a key card from his shirt pocket, inserted it into the lock, and turned the handle.
Through the partially open doorway, Aslan Aksoy was impossible to miss in his oversized black recliner. But he looked nothing like the massive but genial host who’d greeted Zol and Noah a couple of hours earlier. His face was pasty grey, his eyes bloodshot, the armpits of his Liberace jacket stained dark with sweat. When the big man turned to face Zol and the others crowding the entranceway, the door closing behind them, Zol could see he wasn’t just pasty, he was terrified. A second later, the reason became obvious. Three men in dark clothes were standing in front of Aksoy’s white sofa and threatening him with kitchen knives — German-made Henckels from the galley, by the look of them, their razor-sharp blades forged from ice-hardened steel.
“What the hell?” the captain said. “What’s going on?”
The tallest of the three, dark-haired but seriously balding, had hold of a white iguana the size of a house cat. It was tucked under his left arm like a rugby ball, and he was menacing its throat with his ten-inch knife. “Everyone freeze,” he said. “Hands in the air, feet apart. ” He jerked his head toward the armed man on his right. “Check them for weapons. ” Then, avoiding the captain’s fiery gaze, added, “Anybody moves, I decapitate the lizard. ”
Aksoy’s face crumpled. “Please, do exactly what he says. He’s serious about killing Pogo. ”
The second man passed his knife to the youth beside him, a kid still in his teens. The now-unarmed man hesitated before stepping forward, caught Zol’s eye briefly, then looked away. Zol felt sick. This man was no stranger. No anonymous pirate. It was Mir, Ramesh’s brother, the Hazara waiter and translator. And it was soon clear from his awkward pat-down technique he’d never searched anyone for weapons before. Still, he managed to seize the walkie-talkies from Prem and the captain, and take Prem’s Maglite and Swiss Army knife.
When Mir finally finished, the bald guy gestured toward Aksoy’s curio cabinet next to the wide-screen TV and ordered Mir to set the Maglite and walkie-talkies on top of it, keep the pocketknife, and take his Henckel back from the kid.
A few moments later, Zol found himself sitting squeezed on the sofa between Noah and the captain. His aching arms were down, thank God, his hands gripping his knees as commanded.
The captain looked at his watch. “I don’t have time for no nonsense. Tell me what you want. ”
“I ask the questions,” said the bald guy, clearly battling to maintain the upper hand but not finding it easy in the presence of his captain.
“Okay, so you ask,” Mario told him.
The man’s bare scalp glistened with sweat. “First . . . we want no more games from Mr. Aksoy. ”
Aksoy’s fearful gaze was riveted to the pure-white iguana. “I . . . I haven’t the foggiest why you men are upset. And I beg of you, don’t hurt Pogo. He’s an innocent in all of this. ”
The bald man threw Aksoy a look of disgust. “I told you already. We want Gustave off the ship before he kills anyone else. ”
Mario scoffed. “Nobody kill nobody on my ship. ”
“He poisoned my brother,” Mir said, tears welling in his eyes.
The captain threw up his hands and shook his head. “Poison? That’s pazzo. Crazy talk. Drop your knives. After that, we listen. Not before. ”
Mir wiped his nose with the back of his hand and caught Zol’s eye again. But this time, he didn’t look away. “Ramesh is going to die on your machine. ”
The dark creases around the bald man’s eyes deepened. “Ramesh is not the first. There have been others. Gustave is slowly killing every Hazara on the ship. ”
“Others?” Aksoy said. His surprise seemed genuine. “What others?”
“First Qurban,” said Mir. “And now Sayed. ”
Zol closed his eyes and lowered his head. It had been patently obvious that Sayed’s B. pseudo infection, if that’s what he had, was not responding to the antibiotics Noah had to offer. But as Zol understood it, a lack of response was not entirely unexpected. B. pseudo could short-circuit the immune system and propel patients into a state of irreversible septic shock from which no antibiotic could save them. But an hour ago, the poor fellow had at least been breathing. What were the chances for his buddy, Hamzad? And for the next set of cases getting ready to blow, whoever they were? Zol opened his eyes and studied Mir’s stricken face. “I’m so very sorry. ”
“What you care?” said the youth, running a thumbnail across his knife blade. Zol recognized him now. He was Karim, one of the pool boys from the sundeck. His English wasn’t great, and Zol had seen him befuddled by the demands of impatient passengers. “He just a worthless Hazara boy, live on street. Gustave, he kill him, so what?”
Mir, his face showing his pain, looked at Aksoy. “You brought us to your ship with promises of sanctuary. Then you let that Sunni devil torment us. Some of us to death. ”
“Gustave, a Sunni?” Either Aksoy’s shock was sincere or he was a talented actor. “Never in a million years. He’s an atheist. ”
“Perhaps a charming atheist on the outside,” said Mir, “but a Sunni fiend on the inside. ”
Aksoy threw Zol a pleading look, as if desperate for an ally. “The claims these men are making cannot possibly be true, Doctor. I’ve known Gustave for years. ”
Zol leaned forward on the uncomfortably crowded sofa, caught Noah’s eye, then turned back to Aksoy. “I’m afraid there’s something you need to know. ”
Noah frowned then wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “Gustave can’t harm anyone now. He’s dead. ”
“Oh my God,” Aksoy said. “When?”
The bald man scowled and tightened his grip on the bug-eyed lizard as it scratched to get free. “You’re lying. Trying to trick us. ”
“No trick,” Zol said. “We just came from Gustave’s room. He’s been dead a few hours. We can show you, if you like. ”
The bald man opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Suddenly, he was standing like a Ferrari with its engine roaring but its gearbox in neutral and its tires deflated.
“How did he die?” Aksoy asked.
Noah rubbed the back of his neck and took a deep breath. “From the same infection that’s been killing numerous members of our crew for the past month and a half. ”
Aksoy’s expression morphed from shock to anger. “What do you mean by numerous, Doctor? I distinctly remember you telling me this morning you’d had three cases of a serious infection. One poor fellow who died only a few days ago, and two others currently under treatment and expected to recover. ”
Zol felt Noah squirm beside him. Where was the man going to start this messy story? And was he going to come clean with all the details?
“Two other men got sick first,” Noah began. “Their names were Peng and Wu. ” He paused, and after getting no reaction from either Aksoy or the captain added, “They died very quickly. About six weeks ago. ”
Aksoy’s flabby neck flushed blood red. “Six weeks?” He turned to the captain. “You told me two Chinese died in a suicide pact. That they overdosed on something they bought in a brothel in Thailand. Tell me the truth. Is the doctor talking about those two men?”
The captain nodded slightly then stared at the carpet.
Noah looked at Zol, raised his eyebrows, and continued. “We suspect they died from the germ that killed Jung Lee last week. The same germ we think infected the two Hazara apprentices I mentioned to you this morning, Hamzad and Sayed. ”
At the mention of their comrades, the three Hazara exchanged glances.
Aksoy undid the buttons of his Liberace jacket and began pulling at his tee-shirt in obvious desperation to cool his enormous, overheated mass. Perhaps the message was sinking in. Over the past six weeks, nearly a half dozen of his employees had been struck by a lethal infection that was still spreading through his ship. He’d known nothing about it because the captain and the doctor had covered it up. Aksoy glared at each of them in turn then asked, “Exactly what is the nature of the infection, Dr. Ferguson?”
“A type of bacteria sometimes called the Vietnamese Time Bomb. ”
Karim’s eyes widened. He tightened his grip on his knife and scanned the room as if expecting something to explode.
“God in heaven,” Aksoy said. He glared at the captain. “Mario, how long has it been since the Dynasty last docked in Vietnam?”
“About five months. ”
“So this time-bomb germ,” Aksoy said, “my crew picked it up in Vietnam?”
The bald man sneered. “They didn’t just pick it up. Gustave gave it to them. ”
“Indirectly, perhaps,” Noah said. “But not on purpose. And not in Vietnam. ”
Sweat poured down Zol’s face, itching his temples and his cheeks. Inside, his mouth felt like the Kalahari. “To . . . to be clear . . . we’re almost positive they acquired it from something on the ship. ”
Aksoy tugged at his collar. “And you’re blaming Gustave?”
Zol caught Mir’s eye before answering, relieved to see that the waiter had stepped back a pace and lowered his knife to the level of his thigh. “He probably didn’t set out to kill anyone, but we do know he was putting certain members of his staff in harm’s way. ”
“Harm’s way? Never,” Aksoy said. “You can take my word for it, gentlemen, Gustave was devoted to his crew. He would never have put his staff at risk. ”
Mir scratched at an itch behind his ear and drew Zol’s attention with a short, dry cough. It was a reminder of what he’d said earlier in the treatment room about Gustave being a chameleon and Aksoy blind to the man’s faults.
“Come on, Mr. Aksoy,” Zol said, “I know your staff kept you in the dark about the seriousness of the infections affecting your crew. And that is most certainly regrettable. But our investigation showed that all the infections centred on Gustave. He was up to something. Something messy or dangerous. ”
“So for God’s sake,” Noah said, “you have to tell us what it is. ”
Aksoy pulled again at his shirt with his pudgy fingers. The fluttering made the huge man look absurdly precious. And overheated with deceit. “I’ll tell you, all right. Gustave was occupied with the smooth running of his department. And that’s the beginning and end of it. ”
Zol took a deep breath. “Hell’s teeth, Mr. Aksoy. If all of us are going to get out of here alive, you’ve got to come clean. It’s an open secret that Gustave was involved in some sort of clandestine operation that affected your crew. Now what was it?”
Aksoy flicked dismissively at the air. “I haven’t the faintest what you’re talking about. ”
Zol turned to Mir. “You men came for answers, and you’re entitled to them. Unreservedly. But Mr. Aksoy says he has none to give. ” He paused, then opened his hands and raised them, palms up. “So how are we going to settle this so all of us can continue on our journey?”
Mir looked at Zol and blinked. If there was once a trace of hope in his face, it was long gone.
Zol acknowledged Mir’s defeated look with an exasperated sigh then turned to the bald leader and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. ”
The man shifted his feet and eyed his weapon. The blade’s razor-sharp edge glinted in the overhead lights. “It’s not important. ”
“You can tell him,” said Mir. “The doctor’s not the enemy. Can’t you see he’s trying to help us?”
The man shrugged and said nothing.
“His name is Lashkar,” Mir said. “Musa Lashkar. ”
“Actually,” Zol said, “it’s Doctor Lashkar, isn’t it? You’re the dentist in the group. ”
The man tightened his lips and looked away.
“We can’t stay at sea forever, can we, guys?” Zol continued. “Eventually, we’re going to have to put into a port. If only for food, water, and fuel. And when we do, if the owner and the captain of the Dynasty are being held hostage, a well-equipped army will storm the ship and kill a lot of people. ”
Dr. Lashkar’s shoulders stiffened at the word hostage, and Zol could see there was more than anger in the dark furrows in the man’s face. Fear was there too. He and Mir were no more thugs than Zol was. The dentist must have relieved countless toothaches, restored hundreds of smiles. Mir had taught science to pimply teenagers — the periodic table, Boyle’s law, acid-base titrations. It was awful to picture them running for their lives from their devastated homeland and scrounging through garbage dumps for scraps of food.
A mother of a wave thudded against the hull and pitched the ship heavily to one side. From somewhere next door, there was metallic rattling and the unmistakable clonk of a heavy object shifting. Lashkar scowled a stay-put warning to his captives and rode the wave with his knees flexed and his feet wide apart. His comrades did the same with less aplomb and more alarm on their faces as they struggled to maintain control of their knives.
When the Dynasty returned to more-or-less even keel, every man was still positioned as he’d been but Mir and Karim looked more unnerved than ever. Lashkar glared at Aksoy and raised the iguana’s chin with two dextrous fingers, tightening the skin over the animal’s lily-white throat. Then, controlling the kitchen knife with the precision of a scalpel, he teased the thorny hide beneath the jaw with the tip of his blade. “The doctor is predicting a bloodbath, Mr. Aksoy. Shall I make the first cut now?”
“No, no. I beg you. Don’t hurt my Pogo. If it’s money you want, I’ll pay. Name a figure. Whatever you want. ”
“You filthy bastard,” said Lashkar. “We don’t want your money. We want your respect. And we want to know why our countrymen are dying here in this treacherous so-called haven you promised us. ”
The captain frowned at Prem beside him on the sofa. He was clearly exasperated at the powerlessness of his security chief. Though Prem had been sitting all the while like a stone-carved Buddha, Zol could see he was anything but a passive observer. The Gurkha was absorbing every detail, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
“Respect?” said the captain. “We have no respect for banditi. ”
Lashkar spat on the carpet and snarled something Zol couldn’t understand.
“Gentlemen, please,” Zol said, his heartbeat accelerating every time he caught a glimpse of Lashkar’s knife. “We . . . we have to talk things through. Dr. Lashkar, Mir, Karim, no one here means you any harm. You can safely lay down your knives. ”
“Don’t take us for fools,” Lashkar said, raising his weapon. “The moment we let go of our knives, we’re dead. ” He took a long, hard look at Prem. The ropy veins in the necks of both men strained at their tethers, but it was Lashkar and his knife who held the floor. After what seemed like an ice age, there was a slight twitch of Lashkar’s mouth. He licked his lip as if to hide it and turned to the captain. “We . . . we need a guarantee . . . that the rest of us will not be poisoned or sickened. That we will get off this ship free . . . and alive. ” He narrowed his gaze and refocused it on Aksoy. “And into the safe hands you promised us before we boarded. ” He raised the lizard’s jaw a fraction higher and waved the blade across its throat. “If you refuse, the first to be dispatched will be your precious little pet. ”
Prem’s walkie-talkie crackled to life on the curio cabinet, obscuring Aksoy’s angst-filled moan. A muffled voice called out, “Dad? Dad?”
“Max? Is that you?”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s me. ”
“Son, is Travis with you? Are you safe?”
“We’re on the bridge. With Jodie and Tasha. We’ve been listening in. But Dad, you gotta check the secret room behind the cupboard. ”
Zol scanned the room. There were cupboards on three walls. “Which cupboard?”
“It’s got glass doors, and there’s plates and vases inside. ”
“Wait a sec, when the hell were you kids down here in Mr. Aksoy’s apartment?”