Monday, November 9, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Three]

Aholl drove the ship by sheer force of will, studying the charts endlessly as he tried to anticipate the moves of his enemy, training his crew in the secret arts of maritime combat, sniffing the briny air for a hint of where his prey might be hiding. Never once did he take advantage of our seemingly endless array of entertainment features to unwind and get away from it all. Whether it was wisdom, instinct, or madness that drew him on, I know not. He was a man with a purpose on a ship full of cruisers, and we found ourselves infected by his unforgiving quest for revenge.

No matter who is captain on a cruise ship, routine is always the king. So adapting to this sudden shift in our well-lubed pattern took its toll on the officers and staff. Louis and his massage team pulled many a late shift, I can report, as we all scrambled to shape Aholl’s militant orders to a palatable form for our passengers. Trying to make the effort of preparing for battle with a monstrous squid into a luxurious and exciting holiday experience put our skills as vacation experts to the test.

Yet for some of us, this venture into uncharted territory felt invigorating. We who serve aboard cruise ships bear little resemblance to our pioneering forbearers, the explorers of past centuries who dared to chart the unknown seas in their primitive wooden galleys without the benefit of charts, modern electronics, and fully-appointed spas. Being swept up in Aholl’s lunatic pursuit of Mocha Rich was, for most of us, the first time we had ever stepped into the unknown as the sailors of yore had done, pitting our mettle against a true elemental force of nature.

In theory, anyway. We hadn’t seen the squid, after all. And some of us wondered if it even existed.

“He’s completely barking mad,” Captain Wellington observed one night as we gathered in the kitchen after the evening meal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he concocted this whole yarn about a giant squid out of his twisted imagination.”

“What about his pinkie?” asked Louis.

“Hardly compelling evidence,” the captain said. “There are any number of ways a man could lose a pinkie. Look around this kitchen, for instance. Knives, cleavers, electric can openers… all sorts of things that could take a finger off. Right, Quisiene?”

The burly cook looked up only briefly from the immense mixing bowl over which he was laboring. He grunted in a way that could have meant anything.

The captain frowned at him, then spoke again. “So it needn’t have been any kind of attack. He was probably preparing some calamari dish with a light cream sauce, had an unfortunate slip of the knife, and then over the years he’s embellished the tale up to this business about a giant white squid.”

The staff murmured. It sounded like a plausible story. Quisiene simply shook his head and heaved an oar-sized spoon through the dough. “Think that if it gives you comfort,” said the cook, “but you are the one spinning stories here, not Aholl.”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“The kind of madness that grips Aholl does not come from delusions and lies,” Quisiene said. “His are the eyes of a man that have stared into the naked truth, the truths that we who live cocooned in luxury and privilege do not dare to see. Aholl tells no lies, captain. ‘Twas a monster squid what took his finger. Before this voyage is over, I fear the beast will take far more than that.”

“Well that’s just ludicrous!” the captain spluttered. “Even if there is a big white squid out there somewhere, it’s not a threat to us unless we’re stupid enough to jump off the ship or something. It can’t hurt the Piquant. This ship is six hundred feet long. We’re too big to fail!”

Quisiene simply shrugged and went back to his mixing.

“What the hell are you making, anyway?” the captain asked.

I intervened. “Aholl has him baking day and night. Something to do with the hunt for Mocha Rich.”

“He does,” Quisiene said, “but this dish isn’t for Aholl. It is a tradition harkening back to the early days of the epicurean explorers. When one of us died at sea, we were committed to the waves in a funeral cake. ‘Let Davy Jones know that the dinner bell has rung,’ it was said. ‘To the locker we commit a true gruelmaster.’”

“A funeral cake?” the captain squeaked. “You’re making a funeral cake for yourself?”

“Aye,” said Quisiene.

“Well I order you to stop it!” Wellington demanded.

But Quisiene paid him no heed. The squishy slurp of his great wooden spoon plying the dough seemed to whisper of an oncoming doom.

The next morning, Aholl called me to the Fiesta Deck at the aft of the ship. “Mr. Irving,” he said, fixing me with that tax auditor glare of his. “Ye asked about long lines and fishing. Well, we shall be dropping some lines into the water today, and then we shall see if Mocha Rich takes our bait.”

“Bait?” I asked. “Is this what Quisiene has been making for you?”

“Nay, lad. Take a look for yourself.”

He gestured to a length of thick cable on the deck, coiled next to a monolithic form draped in canvas. At his command, I unveiled what was concealed beneath, the bait that Aholl intended to use. I must’ve looked quite perplexed, for Aholl let out a chainsaw laugh.

“Speakers?” I said.

“The very thing,” he said.

The great speakers had been pulled from the dining hall, cocooned in watertight clear plastic, and affixed to reinforced cable. I puzzled over this oddity for a while, then a chilling insight made an unwelcome entrance into my head, and I felt some inkling of what Aholl might be planning. Trembling, I traced the path of the cable back to its source.

Sure enough, Aholl had moved every scrap of karaoke equipment on the ship out to the Fiesta Deck.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “You intend…”

“That’s right, lad.” With a mighty kick, he shoved the plastic-wrapped speakers off the side of the Piquant. The cable slithered after the heavy payload, unspooling in the wake of the heavy amplifiers.

“Send an announcement to the passengers, Mr. Irving,” Aholl trumpeted. “Thar shall be karaoke! Nonstop, day and night, twenty-four bleedin’ seven!”

I felt my stomach quake at the thought of it, but Aholl had even more insanity yet to reveal. He brandished a sheaf of papers in front of my nose, and grinned like a barracuda. “This is the playlist,” he growled. “They shall sing these songs, cast them into the sea, and let Mocha Rich hear how we mock him.”

With sweaty hands, I riffled through the list. It was worse than I could’ve imagined. “Sir, you can’t mean to… sir, a karaoke performance can turn even a masterpiece into unlistenable drivel. But this list… I mean, ‘Muskrat Love,’ for God’s sake! Nobody should be singing these atrocities!”

‘They’ll sing them,” Aholl vowed. “They’ll sing them flat and toneless and off-key, and they shan’t break for a minute. And we shall drop every botched note and pitch-poor warble into the darkest depths, where dwells Mocha Rich.”

“But really, will a giant squid even care?”

“Ye never have understood him,” Aholl glowered. “Mocha Rich is not some oversized mollusk, plying the lightless waters and waiting for a sperm whale to gobble him down. He is as intelligent as he is cruel. A din such as we will inflict upon him will run fingernails over the blackboard of his evil heart. Let him hear the bitter discord of my hate. Let him hear a green grocer from Queens serenade him with ‘Macarthur Park.’ He will come for us soon, laddie. He’ll come.”

That night I lay in my bunk, tossing and turning in a puddle of my sweat-drenched blankets, drifting in and out of fevered dreams. I dreamed of the whole sea rising up in indignant fury, towering over the tiny form of the Piquant as we blasted the heaving waves with a karaoke-mutilated version of “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

Nature itself would rebel against us for what we were doing. Truly, the Piquant was now cruising the waters of the abyss.

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