Voyage of the Piquant
Call me Irving. The tale I am about to relate is a story of obsession, madness, the power of the sea, and other heavy stuff like that.
I was serving as Chief Activity Coordinator aboard the Piquant, a six-hundred foot cruise ship operating off the Pacific Northwest. We were late in the season, perhaps our last run along the Canadian coastline, when we found ourselves drawn into a nightmare of unspeakable proportions. It began on a normal day, during the normal routine, on a cruise that seemed no different from the hundreds I had seen in my career.
A seaman is supposed to be able to sense a storm coming, and I suppose I must’ve gained some of that legendary faculty for precognition during my years on the sea. I first felt a sense of dread as I was guiding my group of passengers through their early evening routine.
“And ready... now drain!” I checked my stopwatch, ticking off the standard seventeen seconds. “Good... now shake! Two, three, four. Now retract... and zip! Group three, move out, group four into place.” The next line of men shifted their way to their assigned positions with the practiced ease of a precision drill team. “Check your number to your urinal,” I instructed, my tone crisp and professional. “Now unzip, and extend...”
And I felt it—an ominous premonition something was about to happen... something that was definitely not on the agenda.
I stared into the distance, looking past my clipboard, as if I could see through the steel hull of the Piquant and into the ominous forces gathering in the endless depths upon which our vessel we floated. The seconds ticked by on my stopwatch, unheeded, until finally I heard one of the passengers clear his throat. I glanced towards the sound and saw the men standing before their urinals, poised and waiting for my command.
I shook off the strange feeling, remembering my duty. “Sorry, men. All right, on my mark… now, drain!”
I dismissed the eerie premonition as nothing more than a lapse of consciousness, perhaps brought on by an ill-advised second helping of Muenster-spinach quiche with truffle garnish at breakfast. Yet within thirty-eight minutes, I received the first sign that there was more to my feeling than a case of gastronomic excess.
As my group shuffled onto the Riviera Deck, the intercom crackled to life. “This is your captain,” came the voice of Captain Wellington. “This ship will be making an unexpected stop. There is no cause for alarm. Please continue with your scheduled activities.”
The passengers milled nervously, low chatter humming to life from the group. Aboard a cruise ship, that kind of uncertainty can lead to unthinkable chaos. “To your positions!” I snapped, my voice cutting through the babble. “We are not deviating from the schedule! Stand on your color-coded squares... very good.. Mr. Armstead, please turn your head towards the viewing marker. Now breathe deep, and... appreciate the sunset!”
My timely actions may have saved us that evening, but nothing could have prepared me for the horror that was to come.
I guided my charges through the remainder of their routine without further incident. Three minutes and twenty-two seconds after I had sealed the cabin doors behind the passengers for the night, I spoke to the captain about the disturbance. “What happened back there?” I asked.
Captain Wellington twirled his fingers along the length of his waxed moustache. “We picked up a castaway,” he informed me.
“He was lost at sea, in a rubber life raft,” the captain said. “By maritime law, we were obliged to pick him up. Even if it meant sacrificing our position for optimum viewing of the sunset. Damn, but the sea can be a cruel mistress.”
“Where is the castaway now?” I asked.
“Sickbay,” the captain said, then both of us stopped. A sound came to our ears from along the corridor leading to the bridge. We heard footsteps and the familiar swish of a hand sliding along the polished brass surface of the safety rail. Yet there was something different about that sound, something alien that sent a chill straight down my spine.
The man who entered stared at us with black eyes that contained nothing of human sanity. His coarse beard seemed to be made of bristling wire, similar to the copper scrub brushes they use to clean the grills in the kitchen when they get really nasty. He had skin as rough and leathery as an old loafer, creased into a permanent scowl of rage. And we saw the horrible truth behind that discordant sound on the handrail—on the grizzled madman’s right hand, where his pinkie should have been, there was only a wooden peg.
“What the devil are you doing here?” the captain demanded.
“The devil?” the stranger rasped. “What do you know about the devil, you softgut? The devil lurks out beneath the waves, white and slick and hungry. He tasks me, and I mean to have him! I’ll chase him around the Cape of Good Hope, past that boot-shaped bit of Italy, and through the Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”
“Pardon me, but what are you talking about?” I asked.
“My name is Aholl,” he growled. “I’m taking command of this ship.”
“You most certainly are not!” Captain Wellington said..
Aholl drew a harpoon gun from the folds of his battered black coat. “Say again now, you bowl of pudding?”
“Eh... heh,” the captain chuckled weakly as the tip of the harpoon pointed between his eyes. “Now... I’m sure we can discuss this like reasonable men.”
He brandished his peg-pinkie, the veins on his neck standing out like jump ropes. “Reasonable? You see this, milk boy? You think a man like me is capable of being reasonable?”
“It’s only your pinkie!” the captain squeaked.
“Only?” Aholl roared. “Try touch-typing with a thing like this, flounder-breath! I used to be able to hit eight-five words per minute. Damn it all to Hell!”
“How did it happen?” I asked, hoping to draw his attention away from the captain.
He whirled to face me, flinty eyes shimmering. “Bitten off, lad. Bitten off by the fiercest hunter in the seven seas. My little finger rests in the gullet of the great...” He paused.
I leaned forward.
I held my breath.
“Squid?” I repeated. “A squid bit off your finger?”
“They have very powerful beaks,” the captain said, keen to placate the lunatic with the harpoon gun. “Can be quite nasty.”
“This ain’t no ordinary squid,” Aholl told us in his gravelly voice. “’Tis a beast what squirmed straight out of the poop-chute of Lucifer himself.”
“Oh gross,” I moaned.
“He roams the sea, laying waste to everything that dares cross his path. White as bone, and twice as vicious. I call him Mocha Rich.”
“We serve that at the coffee bar,” I said.
“Shut up,” Aholl snarled. “That devil took down my last boat, destroyed my entire crew, yet somehow I survived. My last ship, she was too small for the job. But this tub of bolts,” he looked around at the bridge assessingly. “Aye. This might just be enough.”
“But surely you can’t mean to use this ship to hunt a squid!” the captain protested.
“He tasks me!” Aholl bellowed. “He tasks me!”
“Right, yes, you already mentioned that,” Wellington said. “But we have a schedule to keep, don’t you know. The passengers...”
“Shall be my crew! Fear not, they’ll be well rewarded when we take the beast. I am a man of some means.”
“But it is not in the itinerary!” cried the captain.
“You can shove your foul itinerary into Mammon’s blubbery armpit!” Aholl thundered, waving his harpoon gun wildly about mere inches from the captain’s face. “Do as I say or I’ll skewer you like a sautéed prawn!”
Wellington clapped his hands together, smiling through the sheen of sweat which covered his face. “Right! Well, then I suppose we shall be making a new schedule for tomorrow. Mr. Irving? Let’s report to the copy room. And for the love of God, I hope we have enough toner.”