A Low Crime on the High Seas

July 3 - 5, 1999, 100 Miles off the Canadian Pacific Coast - Her name is Diomede, an exotic name for an exotic dame, and no sooner do we leave the Port of Tacoma, Washington, but she turns up missing. She was but a visitor on this vessel, a little something to entertain the crew, if you will, and now she's gone, like unlashed cargo in high seas, like a platter of Mama's cornbread. Gone.

The thing about ships is that there is no exit once you set sail. If she's not in here, she is in trouble. Something is amiss, something is very wrong - I can smell it. Sure, she was a carefree and sometimes reckless dame, prancing around this ship like she owned it. Sure she shared herself freely among the crew, but dammit, she doesn't deserve this! I have a classic case on my hands, and I'm suspicious of everybody. I got no one to finger - everyone looks guilty on this boat. The whole crew knew her - Christ, the whole crew treated her like their little pet - and every one of these guys is a likely suspect. I search her cabin again, but there's still no trace. The next stop for this freighter is Anchorage, Alaska, and who knows what can happen in the next 66 hours.

I set out to search this tub from bottom to top, and to question everyone on board. I take the elevator down to the engine room. Nobody makes ships out of wood anymore, and this whole blasted thing is steel - cold, hard steel. Stepping through hatches and scaling steep stairs, I make my way into the real muscle of this fat boy; the engine room. It takes up two stories and several rooms, cranks out 30,000 horsepower and is louder than a wet baby in a movie theater. I wind my way through every inch here; past the desalinization unit, the pair of 2,000 watt generators, the pumps, the boiler - there's enough stuff down here to run a small city, but no Diomede. I meet Douglas Crews, 2nd A/e, and I grill him hard, but he has no answers. Shouting over the noise, he puts on a good show; "We've got two boilers, here," he says, stalling. "They heat the water up to 904 degrees, creating 900 pounds of pressure."

"It's an external combustion engine, see." 3rd A/e Douglas Currier chimes in. "That pressure turns the high pressure turbine, then the low pressure turbine. The rpms are brought down in a reduction unit, which powers the shaft, turning at 115 rpm right now." These guys are good. "Where's Diomede?" I ask them, point blank. They shrug, suspiciously. The place is spotless - too clean, I think - and I spy a smudge of oil. It's the "heavy fuel" this ship uses, the bottom of the barrel in fuel oil. This is a steamship, running on old and new technology, with enough nostalgia to make even a hardened seaman weep on his tattoos. But I've got a case to crack, and it's evident the suspects aren't down here. I make my way up to the third deck.

I stop in the weight room for a look-see, and I find the pilot, David Cooper, getting in some exercise. This guy works only two days a week, guiding the ship into and out of Anchorage waters, and he has nothing to do the rest of the week. Sounds crazy, but that's how it works. Seems to me, he'd have plenty of time to pull this abduction off. I grill him between reps on his abs. He works up a sweat, and I know I got him, but he claims he was in his cabin, working on a yacht design - likely story, but it doesn't stink. I can't get a straight answer from him, but I figure he's clean. Besides, if he took the dame, his parrot would squawk, so I make myself scarce.

This is a huge ship - 790 feet long - you could set up a football field on the foredeck, baseball on the aft, tennis, hockey, basketball and 16 lanes of midnight bowling below decks, and still have room for the mini go-kart track. It could be a floating field house, but instead, they use it to carry cargo - go figure. She holds mostly semi-truck trailers - 380 of them, and up to 120 other vehicles, including my motorcycle. There are 28 crew on this behemoth, and I am but one man, and my time is running short. If the abductor - or murderer, even - discovers that I'm on the case, I'll be next. I'll end up shackled to the 22 1/2 foot propellor and, as they say on these big ships; "I'm screwed." I search the decks, hoping to find something, anything, desperately looking for the missing victim. Sometimes finding the body isn't necessary, and I'll just have to find the culprit and nail him. A suspicious "clank!" booms down from the second deck, and I run up the steps to find Chief Mate Jonathan Boyce, a tall, quiet man - the perfect suspect. He's lurking around the deck, pretending to inspect the cargo. "This is called a "RO/rO" ship, Mark," he says. "That means; 'roll on, roll off' because we take cargo in the same truck trailers in which it is carried over the road. There's no need to repack the cargo!" He is trying to distract me, but I'm onto him. This man has "murder" written all over him, or maybe it's just the grease from all these dirty trailers.

We take a hike to the bow, and he shows me the system they use. The truck trailers sit right on the decks, on their wheels and a device they call a Roloc Box, which goes where the truck would go. They then chain the thing to the deck, tighter than a sailor before payday. "In the winter, the seas get really rough," says Boyce. "We once had a trailer full of Christmas presents split right open." While he's talking, I look for signs of the dame. If you had to stash a body, this would be a great place. There are a couple of crewmen up here, painting the equipment. God, I hope she's not overboard. I lean over the side and gaze at the bow slice through the great ocean, trying to sort out this case. Why her? She never did anything to hurt anybody. She was gentle, and peaceful - just the kind of company a man needs on a voyage like this. These men spend ten weeks, sometimes four months at a time on this ship, and then they get that much time off. It's great having months off to relax at home, but working away from home that long is hell on a family, and Diomede... well, Diomede really helped to pass the time on this ship. Worst thing is, nobody seems to care that she's missing. Of all the ships in the world, she had to pick this one, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna let her go! I decide that Boyce isn't in on this, neither are the crewman - call it a hunch, but I scram.

I search the lifeboats (old trick) and head inside for the galley. This ship runs on food, and Steward Michael Meany and his team cook up some excellent grub. Sure, he's a great cook, but I'm not gonna let him snow me. I'll get an answer out of him, all right. "Where's Diomede?" I demand, before he can grab the cleaver. "Where is she?"

"Relax Mark, you look upset," he says. "How's your stomach? Boy, you should be on this ship in rough seas! You ever tried cooking in a kitchen that rocks and heaves like it's in the middle of an earthquake and a tornado? It's not easy - try cooking soup. I can't even keep oil in the fryer!

Meany is cooking a batch of pork chops for tonight's meal, but he isn't cooking up an alibi, so I move on. Something tells me he didn't do it, even if I don't like the way he looks with that knife. I make myself scarce and head for the officers' decks. I pass the laundry room, the crew break room and I even scour the video library, but I turn up nothing. I'm running out of suspects fast, and I don't feel I'm any closer to cracking this case.

I sprint up to the bridge, and try to act calm. We're slipping through the Pacific Ocean at a steady 21 knots - a good clip for a ship this size. I meet 2nd Mate Thomas Stark, and before I can corner him, he let's rip with another of his precious jokes. "Mark, why did the chicken cross the road? To get his copy of Time Magazine. Get it? Neither do I - I get Newsweek." Man, that one could kill. Making this run with such a jokester must be murder. I ask him about Diomede. "I haven't seen her today," he says, with guilt across his face. No one else on the bridge claims to know anything. I grill them for hours, but come up empty. I check the radio-fax machine for any clues - just the latest weather charts. All this technology - radar, radios, GPS - and I still can't tell which one of these guys is lying. I'm running out of time. The tugboats pull up to help us in the bay, and I know that once we hit the dock, this is a whole other story.

That's it, there's only one man left on this ship, and only one room I haven't searched. It's a sorry time when you have to accuse a ship's captain of a crime, but I have no choice. I take the flight of stairs down from the bridge to the captain's quarters. He's waiting at his door for me.

"Mark, why don't you come in for a minute? I want to talk with you," Captain Severino says, through a guilt-ridden smile. Sure, I'll come in, and I'll nail you, you abductor, you! I enter the cabin, scanning the place for evidence. "Mark, are you all right?"

"Sure, I'm fine," I answer, smartly. Severino had the time, he had the opportunity. I've played this game before, and something tells me I am in the right place. I know that the victim is somewhere in this cabin, and I'd put a C-note on the bad guy standing right in front of me. All I need to do is close this case.

"It's just that - have a seat - It's just that, my crew tells me that you've been acting a little odd," he says. I sit on the edge of his bunk, and look him square in the eye. They say you can tell a killer by the look in his eyes. "Are you sure you're OK?" he says. Am I OK? I'll give you OK, you... you think that because you're the captain of this ship, you can do whatever... "Can I get you something? A drink?" This guy is good. He knows I have him, and he's just gonna play with me. Maybe he'll try to frame me, but I'm smarter than that.

"Diomede misses you." I try a psychological bluff - I'll break him.

"Misses me? Why, she's up on the bridge, isn't she? Here, let me fold up my bunk, and you can sit on the sofa." He is calm as a sheltered bay, but he didn't make it to Master Seaman on his looks. I'll just play his game for a while.

"Sure." I get up off his bunk so he can convert it. He pulls the pin, and lifts the mattress, and... Well, let me tell you, I've been in this business for too many years, now, and I've never seen nothing like this. Just when you think you've got somebody nailed, he slips out of your grasp. Just when you think you have a case solved, the thing cracks wide open, or worse yet, you find that there is no case. Severino converts the bunk to a sofa, and what do you know, but Diomede leaps out from below! The little tramp had been hiding there, safe and sound, the whole day. What an exotic dame.

That darned cat

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