Chapter 1: Artem
The ancient Victory-class merchant ship made an ominous creaking each time she crested a wave. The cherry glow of a cigarette butt wafted through the air until it hit the frothy surface of the Gulf of Mexico below. A man leaned over the railing, watching it extinguish in the seas as the ship groaned and popped in a way that made Artem Andreivik wonder how the old Victory was still running. He sighed heavily, exhaling his last smokey drag, his relief palpable. After five years working on this rusty old girl, this would thankfully be his last voyage.
Staying below decks in rough seas wasn’t a good option in seas like this. The forty-one-year-old ship showed her age in bubbles of rust covered with flaking gray primer. She had been launched in 1945 to carry a cargo of men and munitions during World War II. After the war, she had been bought and sold a handful of times until she was purchased in 1980 by a miserly Libyan merchant who never spent another dime on her. Artem wasn’t going to be caught stuck inside when the poor maintenance and metal fatigue caught up with the ship.
The pay hadn’t been that great sailing around the Black and Mediterranean Seas near his home in Odessa. This trip to America was paying much better, but more for his discretion than his skills as a sailor. The large wooden crates in the hold had dire warnings stenciled in Cyrillic letters on all sides. They weren’t full of wine, no matter what the bill of lading said. Weapons or heroin was his best guess, but he never guessed out loud. Not where anyone could hear, anyway.
It was midday, but the heavy seas were only lit by the occasional flash of lightning. When the ship rose up the steep side of the next swell, Artem felt a sinister thrum vibrating up through his feet as the bow crested the wave, followed by the unmistakable scream of shearing metal mixed with a hollow crunching that made him grip the railing along the deck. The ship shuddered as a warning klaxon on the bridge began to voice its shrill alarm.
The sound chilled Artem more than the cold, stormy air. He swallowed the compulsion to heave his lunch over the railing as the ship lurched. He had never been on a sinking ship before, but his father had always spoken of the time a fishing ship slowly sank out from beneath him. This didn’t feel the way his father described it. His father had spoken of dread and boredom as the ship slowly took on water and listed to one side over the course of one long day. The screeching vibrations through the hull of this ship spoke to a more immediate danger.
The swell continued to rise as the bow slid down into the next trough, but the rest of the ship didn’t follow. Looking around in horror, Artem realized the ship had broken in half amidships. While the bow-half floated away, the steam turbine engine pushed the stern-half deeper into the swell.
Artem had no time to think as an almost vertical wall of water washed over the ship. He climbed up on the metal railing and leaped as far as he could into the churning waters thirty feet below. The ship pushed further into the wave, creating a deep judder he could feel in his guts. Knowing how dangerous waterlogged clothing can be, especially in the rough seas of the Gulf of Mexico, Artem quickly shed his boots and overcoat before he swam to the surface near the broken ship.
Another swell lifted him up even as the turbulence of the sinking ship pulled at his body. Artem kicked hard and watched in horror as the ship he’d spent most of his time on for the last five years listed with a squealing groan that sounded like demented whalesong. The ship rotated on its side, leaving Artem staring at the exposed keel. At the stern, the single giant propeller spun free in the air, throwing up sheets of water as the steam engine continued to power the doomed ship. Artem swam as hard as he could, pulling and kicking himself through the water to escape the deadly blades while the sucking current pulled him toward its spinning maw.
An explosion sounded deep inside the hull and Artem felt himself pushed through the water by the force of the blast. The water boiled as bubbles rushed around him. He tumbled and became lost in the darkness of the waves. His lungs burned for breath until another swell lifted him, hinting at a direction to air despite his dizzy confusion.
This time when be broke the frothing surface, the ship was gone. He saw a tangle of wood and ropes floating nearby and swam his way over to it. After he pulled himself mostly out of the water, he looked around for a lifeboat or other survivors. Riding down the other side of the swell only showed him stormy seas and flotsam from the ship.
“Layno,” he cursed in his native Ukrainian as he began to shiver from the cold and adrenaline overload.
Lashing his arm with ropes to the broken wooden planks, Artem caught his breath and stilled his racing heart. It had all happened so fast there was no chance any of the crew below decks had survived. And the way the stern drove the pilot house into that first wave, no one would have survived up there either. Artem’s prophetic concern about the age and condition of the ship ended up saving his life.
He spat the salt water out of his mouth and gave a hysterical gallows chuckle. “Ya zheyvy!”
Scanning the horizon when he crested the next swell, Artem spotted the lights of another, smaller ship in the distance. He screamed into the wind, raising on his knees and waving his free arm wildly to get their attention. After what seemed like hours, the ship shined a spotlight toward him. He nearly cried from relief as the ship turned his direction.
It was a small cargo ship, maybe fifty feet long, and the crew was out along the decks in foul weather gear. When the ship was close enough, one big guy spun out a life ring on a rope and hit close enough for Artem to reach it. He clung tight as the crew reeled him in, spinning at the end of the rope like bait on a hook. As he rose up the side of the ship he read the name St. Marie in tall white letters. Hands reached over to grip his arms and pulled him onto the deck of the ship.
“You see anyone else out there?” the big guy who threw the ring asked the other men. Artem understood English well enough to hear an unusual accent in his speech.
“No, sir,” the men echoed a few at a time as they all searched the storm tossed seas.
“What’s your name, son?” the man asked as he extended Artem his hand.
“Artem Andreivik,” he gasped. “Seaman on Stara Peremoha from Odessa, Ukraine.” He glanced over at the debris field where the ship went down as he clasped the man’s hand. “Or I was.”
“Charlie Mouton,” he said as he pulled Artem to his feet. “I’m captain of the St. Marie out of Morgan City, Louisiana. Welcome to America!”
After getting into some dry clothes and wrapping up in a blanket, Artem was given a cup of hot coffee and led up the steps to the bridge. The sweet, nutty coffee was different from the dark mediterranean brew he was used to. Charlie was at the helm smoking a pipe and turned to smile when Artem came in and shut the door against the wind.
“Feelin’ betta’?” Charlie asked after he removed the pipe from between his lips.
“Yes,” Artem answered as he looked out at the storm blowing outside the glass windows. Wipers near the top of each window were beating out an uneven tempo as they slapped the water drops away. It was too cloudy to determine the direction they were traveling. He struggled for the proper English words for a moment, “Are we…uh… sailing to port?”
“Yeah, we done delivered our supplies t’ the rigs and was headin’ back when we saw your ship breakin’ up,” Charlie said. “Helluva thing. Never saw nothin’ like it. We should be comin’ up on the coast any minute.”
Artem decided he’d used up a lifetime supply of luck being saved the way he had. The Stara Peremoha had been heading to New Orleans when it sank. There were plenty of ships this close to the coast, but he doubted there had been time for a distress call. He wondered about the crew and the cargo.
After taking a minute to mentally translate his thoughts, Artem asked, “How deep where we went down?”
“‘Bout five hunnerd feet, based on the charts,” Charlie muttered around his pipe stem.
That meant the cargo was a total loss, whatever it was. Those wooden crates were scattered across the ocean floor further down than would ever be worth recovering.
The smaller St. Marie might not be able to plow through the waves like his old ship, but her powerful engine and empty hold allowed her to make good speed. He sipped the coffee and shivered as he thought how close he’d come to joining his crewmates at the bottom of the gulf. Some of the men he’d known for years and now they were just gone. The loss, and his rescue, felt surreal.
Despite his close call, Artem also worried about the money he was owed. With the ship sunk and the cargo lost, he doubted the Libyan owner would be willing to pay him. And whoever the customer was wouldn’t be any happier with their contraband goods littering the bottom of the gulf. Being a foreign sailor in an American port could create problems as well. He looked over at Charlie and studied the young captain for a moment.
“What will happen to me?” Artem asked. “When we get to port.”
“Dunno,” Charlie said and breathed out a fragrant cloud of smoke. “Never rescued nobody befo’.”
“I wonder how I get home?”
“The Coast Guard will take care of that, I bet.” Charlie nodded to himself and chuckled. “If not, I can always use a lucky seaman. And you’re definitely lucky! Just need to get yourself a work visa so you can stay.”
“You would hire me?” Artem asked, surprised at his comment..
“Why not?” Charlie chuckled. “It’s not your fault the ship went down, was it?”
“I’ll give anyone a fair shake. Don’t mean I won’t fire you, though, if you don’t work out.” Charlie looked him over and grinned. “You got any family back in Odessa?”
“Yes. My father and two brothers are…rybalok…” Artem paused for a moment while he racked his brain for the English word. “…fisherman!” He finished with a smile.
Charlie nodded. “After we get to N’Awlins and make our report, I’ll see about hirin’ you on.”
“Nawlins?” Artem asked, confused by the jargon.
Charlie barked out a laugh and pronounced the name again slowly. “New Orleans.”
When they arrived in New Orleans, Artem followed Charlie around and they told their story to a half-dozen different people with the Coast Guard and Port Authority. The news of a cargo ship sinking off the coast of Louisiana was quickly picked up by newspapers and televisions. Based on Artem’s statement, the reports all repeated the likely cause as the ship’s age and poor record of maintenance. Artem worried that the ship’s owners might not like what he told the officials, but the tension between Libya and the United States would make it hard for them to do anything about it.
True to his word, Charlie Mouton gave Artem a job on his ship after the news died down. Compared to working in the Mediterranean, the pay was incredible for delivering goods to the offshore oil platforms. After two weeks, he had saved enough to get a small garage apartment in Morgan City.
His crewmates at the Mouton Transport Company became fast friends. Between shifts he often drank with them and ate spicy boiled crawfish. In Odessa, crawfish were called paku and the spices were very different. Artem had to admit, the Cajun way of cooking them was very tasty.
Captain Charlie was very careful with his ship and performed all the required maintenance on a schedule. Working on Charlie’s ship made Artem feel much safer than his previous job after his last ship sank out from under him. Because he didn’t have a family, he often volunteered to work on the ship when it was in port. One afternoon, while he was replacing a broken cleat, a voice hailed the ship.
“Ahoy the St. Marie!”
Artem came to the railing and looked down to see a heavyset young man wearing a sports coat. It was unusual to find people dressed up like that around the docks.
“Help you?” Artem asked.
“I’m looking for a guy named Artem Andre-something. You him?”
The man walked up the gangway toward Artem at a measured pace. His expression made Artem nervous. He’d learned the hard way that the most dangerous men often didn’t look dangerous, but nothing could hide their dead eyes. He knew without a doubt that this man had killed others without remorse. When he reached the deck of the ship, his eyes squinted at Artem in recognition.
Without a word, Artem turned and ran for the opposite side of the ship as fast as he could. It felt like someone hit his right shoulder with a bat, then he heard the crack of the gunshot. The impact threw off his stride. He tripped and flipped over the railing to fall headlong toward the Atchafalaya River. The brown water swallowed him up and Artem swam down instead of up to get away.
Someone wants me dead! Kicking away from the St. Marie until his lungs burned, Artem surfaced as quietly as he could under the docks. The dirty river water made his shoulder wound burn like crazy, but he’d rather hurt than die.
“Did you get him?” a man asked above him on the dock. His voice was higher than than man who shot him and his accent was different.
“Yeah,” the deep-voiced man said. “I shot him in the back and he dropped over the side. No mess to clean up. The alligators are gonna eat good tonight.”
“Good. I’ll tell Champion. I’m gonna go talk to the captain and make sure he doesn’t know anything about the lost cargo. You head back to Jersey and I’ll call you if we need you again.”
“Make sure I get paid or I’ll take my fee out in trade.” The killer could have been ordering a beer from his calm tone, but if anything that gave the threat more weight.
“You’ll get paid, don’t worry.”
Artem floated there until they both walked off the dock, then he swam to a pylon holding up the dock and climbed up the wooden slats nailed there as a ladder. Climbing up the pylon without using his right arm was hard, but he was able to crawl out on the dock eventually.
Pushing himself to his feet, Artem limped away from the St. Marie. Someone wanted him dead and now the man who saved him at sea was in danger. After everything Charlie had done to help him out, Artem knew he had to get away to keep Charlie safe.
The same question circled his mind over and over as he shivered in the afternoon breeze. Who is this Champion and why does he want me dead?