Macedonia Passage: Dangerous Cargo
by Wright Gres
“Every man wants to live long, but no man wants to be old.”
Pietro Louka lowered the field glasses. “At last!” he whispered in Greek to his two companions. “They are leaving now.” He watched a small Boston Whaler slowly motor away from a large schooner and meander its way through the maze of darkened boats anchored in the harbor.
George Savastano, the smallest of the three men, could stand it no longer. Standing up, he whispered urgently, “Come on. Let’s go.” Without a sound, Dimitris Moukuzis reached out and jerked him back to his seat on the ground.
His eyes again glued to the glasses, Louka said, “No, George. We wait for the sign.”
They had been waiting in the dark since shortly after closing time. The three olive skinned men, dressed casually in work clothes, didn’t stand out along the waterfront. As it was, they weren’t even noticed, and the padlocked gate had posed no problem to Moukuzis.
Moukuzis and Louka had unloaded two empty, gray painted, steel boxes from their van along with six duffel bags full of tightly wrapped rectangular packages, while Savastano went to row the yard’s work boat over to where they could load it. Now the boat with its tarpaulin-covered cargo was carefully hidden in the deep shadows beneath the dock. The three men continued to wait silently in the darkness of the closed boat yard.
Twenty minutes later – and it seemed much longer to Savastano – another boat left, a small, outboard powered inflatable dinghy. Five more minutes passed, the schooner in total darkness except for the anchor light suspended on the forestay. While Louka watched, the lights in the main salon – the only cabin above deck level – flashed on and off three times. Only then did he allow Savastano to get up.
Savastano grumbled quietly, asking why they had to row instead of using an engine. Moukuzis, who was doing the rowing, never said a word as he bent to the task of propelling the heavily laden boat toward the darkened schooner.
As they approached, a dark figure emerged from the shadows on the aft deck and tossed fenders over the side. Moukuzis dipped an oar and allowed the boat to pivot and drift up against the fenders.
“Good evening, Captain,” Louka called out quietly. “Has everyone gone ashore?”
The man on deck nodded. “Yes,” he said quietly without removing his pipe from his mouth. “No one should return before midnight.”
“Good! You might earn your money yet, Captain.” While Savastano and Moukuzis labored to get the cargo aboard, Louka handed a thick envelope to the captain. He watched with a sly, expectant look as the captain opened the envelope and thumbed through the thick stack of currency.
“Hey, what’s going on? You said ten thousand U.S. dollars. There’s only a thousand bucks here. The rest is Turkish lira and Greek drachma. What am I supposed to do with that?”
Louka, with the hint of a sneer on his face, said, “So? What’s the problem? You’re going that way, no?” He laughed at his own humor.
Captain Bob Lomack sputtered and began, “But, I – ”
“No buts, Lomack,” Louka interrupted. “By today’s rate of exchange that bundle of Greek and Turkish currency is worth double what you bargained for in U.S. dollars. So you see, Captain, you have a bargain. Now, enough of this. We must see to our little cargo.” Then, as an afterthought, Louka stopped and handed Captain Lomack five crisp one hundred dollar bills. “Here,” he said, “Perhaps this will make you feel better.”
The five hundred dollars helped, but Lomack still wasn’t happy. He had gotten himself into this situation innocently enough. Over his head in debt – he couldn’t turn down a sure thing. His current creditors had no sense of humor, and Louka had made this sound so easy. Almost no risk, and the man had assured him no one would be hurt. And ten thousand easy, tax-free dollars! Now he felt way out of control and he wished he had never met this guy. But he knew it was too late to get out. Sighing, Lomack stuffed two of the bills into his pocket, thrust the rest into the fat envelope and tossed it onto the shelf above his navigation station.
Full, the steel boxes would have been too much to handle, but empty, the three men were able to manhandle them through the main salon, down the companionway, and into the passageway between the staterooms.
Lomack lifted the carpet and opened a hatch in the passageway sole. The schooner drew over twelve feet and this section of the bilge was deep, offering almost six feet of headroom above the keel. The bilge was full of ship’s stores, including boxes of canned goods, canned drinks, various infrequently used maintenance items, and at least ten cartons of various wines. The owners, French and wealthy, saw nothing extravagant in this indulgence.
These stores were packed around numerous pipes and electrical conduits suspended beneath the cabin sole, and up against various water and fuel tanks that were, for the most part, rectangular, and looked, not coincidentally, much like the two steel boxes just brought aboard.
Each box was three feet by four feet by almost a foot and a half deep. After each was brought down through the narrow hatch into the bilge, they had to be turned ninety degrees, pushed back to one side, placed on end, and bolted into the bulkheads.
Once the boxes were in place, they began passing the duffel bags below, emptying them, and stacking the tightly wrapped packages in the boxes.
It was still and very hot below decks and the men were soaked with perspiration. After three of the six bags had been stowed, everyone took a short break.
George Savastano, too tired to climb out, lay down on the steel bottom of the ship, trying to cool off. Pietro Louka sat on the floor, head down, feet hanging through the hatch. Dimitris Moukuzis, who had borne the brunt of the heavy moving, stood at the end of the passageway, trying to take advantage of the slight cross breeze there.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the soft thump of someone jumping lightly on to the deck. Louka glanced at his watch reflexively; it was only ten o’clock. He looked accusingly at the captain who wore a confused look on his face. Moukuzis silently slipped into a stateroom.
“Hey, Skipper, it’s me.” Billy Dawson, the young cook, stopped abruptly as he stepped into the brightly lit passageway and saw the empty duffel bags on the floor and the open bilge access hatch. “Whoops, what’s going on, Cap?” A stranger and Captain Lomack stood glaring at him.
Moukuzis stepped silently behind Billy, and with a huge hand, slammed the cook’s head against the doorframe. Billy’s body hung limply beneath his pinned head; when Moukuzis let go, Billy dropped like a rag doll to the floor.
Lomack was speechless as he scrambled and fell over a duffel bag and landed at Billy’s side. He kneeled over Billy’s body, trying to cradle the boy’s head in his hands. Suddenly, he pulled up, and stared in horror at his blood-covered hands.
He moaned. “Oh, God! Oh, God, he’s dead! He’s dead! Why?” He looked frantically from Moukuzis to Louka, his strident voice rising uncontrollably. “Why?” he sobbed. “Billy wouldn’t hurt anybody!”
Moukuzis slapped the hysterical captain twice across the face, and Lomack sagged to the floor, sobbing and mumbling to himself.
Ignoring the captain, the men finished stowing the packages, placed the rubber gasket around the edges and bolted the side of each box closed. They sprayed gray paint over all the nuts and bolts on the boxes and touched up any nicked places, then replaced the miscellaneous ship’s stores around the tanks and hoses and pipes.
Before coming out, Louka took a last careful look around. The boxes looked as though they belonged there, as though they’d been there forever.
When everything was cleaned up and back in place, Captain Lomack was still sobbing quietly. Louka shook his head sadly, and said, “I’m afraid this won’t do.” He looked up at Moukuzis meaningfully. “Won’t do at all.”
Instead of going back empty, Moukuzis again had to row a heavily laden boat with a tarpaulin covered cargo.