As far as Keisha could tell, she was somewhere north of the Keys. Her inflatable was near enough to land that she could hear the wash of waves over the sandbars. The stench of burning plastics made her grab her breath for a moment. There was a ghost in the night sky, a hulk looming slantwise against the tidal mud and sand of some anonymous islet. Keisha rested, and let the current pull her closer until she could see the name across the stern; “La Fuente De La Alegría.”
The Calleres yacht lying dead, heeled over in the shallows.
She bent to push one-handed at the single oar at the back, and brought herself around to the low side, tied her flabby orange craft to a dangling chain. She rehearsed the movements in her head; get a jump start, grab the chain with her left hand first, keep the momentum going through the pain of her burned right hand and she ought to be able to grab hold of the scupper railing with her left before the pain made her stop. The whole idea was a nightmare, and if she failed in her first attempt, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t try it again.
Her plan worked, though it left her dizzy with the pain. Whining high in her throat, she crouched against the railing, cradling her blistered hand against her chest. The sour smell of quenched burnt wood filled her nostrils, wasted fuel, melted plastics. The tendrils of smoke, seeming solid in the nightmare dark, made her flinch.
Once the vertigo passed, she pushed herself up the deck. The fire had pretty much destroyed the helm, as on her own craft. But the Fuentes’ pilot had been caught in the fire. The sight and smell of burnt flesh made her back out, retching. She felt a scream, a howl, form in her throat, all those unshed tears crowding her eyes. A song formed in her mind, unheard since childhood;
Sometimes I feel … Like a motherless child …
She stepped carefully along the promenade deck, quick in and out along the four luxe cabins mid-deck. The fire left scorch marks looped along the walls in strange arcs. There were splatters of thick dark blood, reeking, lots of things flung around. Keisha scrabbled with her one hand and got a first aid kit out and open, tore open a packet of antiseptic cream with her teeth and slathered the burned hand with it, then clumsily wrapped a roll of gauze around it. Once she could no longer see the ruined flesh she was able to manage the tape to close it down, feeling the sweat prickle over her face and neck with the relief.
Valuables lay scattered in front of open safes. She threw dazzle into sweaters, tied them into clumsy bundles, and tossed it all out the portholes onto the main deck before she stepped into the crazily tilted gangway. Oddly enough, the emergency lights were working. Keisha moved carefully downhill, sliding sideways at the same time, but at least she wasn’t doing it in the dark.
She found the galley, and entered it cautiously. The lash of fire had left its mark down here too, and the doors were singed, or burnt, or twisted off of their hinges. Cans had exploded, splattering the walls and appliances with their contents. The room was humid, redolent with tomato sauce, sending Keisha’s nausea rocketing to the fore once again. She held her breath, and tried to search for undamaged food. A bag of catfood lay open on the galley counter, scattered over a canned ham that was burst open; Keisha brushed away the kibble, dug a chunk out of the meat with the knife from her pocket, and ate it despite the saltiness. She found a loaf of bread, and bottles of water, and took them out into the gangway where the reek was of burnt wood and scorched paint rather than spoiled food.
The yacht settled a bit, with a squeal of keel on sand that made her jump, and the gangway floor tilted and canted. Keisha could rest a hand on the wall that now sloped over her head as she went down. There were splatters of dark stuff sprayed on the gangways. Some of it looked like blood; some of it looked greenish, oily. There was another smell beyond the cooked-meat, burnt-plastic, fuel-spill symphony; a sweetish scent like rusting iron and rotting honey. The smell of fuel and fire got stronger and she turned back before she went all the way down to the engine room. Whatever had happened, it hadn’t left much for the scavengers. The money stuff was all on the upper decks, anyway.
She poked her head into the lounge deck, higher up, darker than the other decks, fewer lights. Stronger stench of rot. Oily smoke stronger up here, even though no air was moving from the vents.
Quick little rustle of something moving, a clink of chain.
Two huge greenish lamps blinked on in the darkest corner. Huge, slanted, feline reflections stared up at her. From the size, they sat in a head the the size of a leopard, or a cougar.
“Hi Kitty,” Keisha said softly, and the eyes blinked. “I got some ham for you, you hungry, hey kitty kitty kitty?”
Nothing like poking around in the dark, reeking of cooked ham, with a hungry cat chained in the lounge.
The eyes squinted not quite shut, and a tiny little voice spoke to her. A high, soft, frightened voice, pleading.
Keisha took a step downward, went back for the ham, thought about the cat food, left it in favor of a flashlight from a galley cabinet. She climbed back up again. No way was she leaving a cat chained up in this boat. Might take a fire ax to chop the chain, and how she’d get it off the cat’s neck, she had no idea. Not doing it any favors to chop it free and let it run the woods to strangle itself.
What the flashlight showed her was nothing she’d ever seen before. It wasn’t a cat. It wasn’t a leopard. It looked like a monkey, but it wasn’t any gibbon or howler, or any primate she’d ever seen. It was sprawled on the floor, and the four legs were shaped like human arms and legs. The face was not human. It flashed bright blue eyes, in a big gray-furred skull with stripes and swirls, its chin almost on the carpeting.
It opened its mouth, white fangs flashing, crying in soft little groans.
Keisha flipped the light out of its eyes, splashed the light along the wall. There was a body in there, at the back. It was bloated, pink skin stretched tight and shining. But it wasn’t human either, not with those whitish crablike claws fallen on either side of it, and weird jointed legs sticking out of the belly, dead and reeking. Keisha stumbled away, retching. She got out into the gangway, pointed herself downhill and vomited the ham, the water, the last of yesterday’s rum, until there was nothing left in her but a sense of unreality.
She forced herself up and back to the room, facing the weirdness, of the cat and the… bug.
The cat thing turned its head, hissed at the body with a sound like a waterfall, smacked at one of the remaining human-looking legs.
“You killed it, huh, kitty? Good for you,” Keisha said dazedly.
Another hiss at the dead thing. Then the creature started moving towards Keisha, crawling on long forearms, elbows sticking out, the fur coming up in stiff spiky bunches. The cat thing looked up at her, ears twitching. It raised a paw, which opened up into fingers and an opposing thumb. Pink-skinned palm open, pleading. Her stomach lurched again, but there was nowhere for it to go.
For a heartbeat, two.
Then the hand went down on the carpet, the head drooped down onto the forearm, and it rested, breathing hard.
“You gonna let me touch you?” Keisha slid the ham over, then cautiously extended her hand towards the creature. It sniffed the ham first, sneezed, and then leaned its head over toward her hand. Pulled itself forward, rested its head heavily on her fingers, sighed.
“Easy there, easy now,” Keisha murmured, and moved her fingers slightly, stroking the fur. It turned its head, bumping her hand. Big round cranium, big as her own. She stroked the cheek, along the ears. She expected the fur to be coarse but it was soft, and the whiskers were a fan of stiff silk. It nudged her hand with a dry, hot nose. “All right, we’re getting you off this boat, we’re getting you some water, don’t you worry.”
A chain close on the neck, yes, too heavy to be just decorative, some kind of fancy combination lock. But any decent pair of pliers would pull those unwelded links apart, thank god. She patted it, tried to trace the chain with the light. It was looped around a fancy chrome bar in the middle of lounge. The thing had crawled as far as it could.
Keisha took a deep breath, dizzy. “All right, you wait, okay? I’ll be back with some water, get you out of that chain, and then we’ll get out of here.”
Let’s see what use a one-handed sailor can be, Keisha told herself. She had to stop and take a breather every gangway, but she tracked down a long screwdriver and a pair of cheap pliers in a galley drawer that she stuffed awkwardly into her big ghetto-pants pockets. Then she carried a plastic bottle of water, leaning on railings as she climbed back up.
“Hey, you still there?”
Cat Thing was resting on its side where she’d left it, a harsh panting sound. It rolled over, blinked at her.
“Okay, you’re gonna have to help me here–” Keisha dared get a little closer, patted the forearm, and it looked at her steadily. “All right, have the water first.” She opened the bottle, and held it out.
It took the bottle from her in one of those hands, and tilted it neatly into its mouth between the fangs. The red tongue curled up inside the open jaws and it drank steadily. It held the empty bottle for a moment while its breath slowed down. Then it twisted the cap on, and dropped the bottle, causing another bout of nausea for Keisha at the sight.
“Okay, maybe you can help me here,” Keisha said. She held up the screwdriver, put it through a link on the chain, braced it with her foot. Then she pulled out the pliers, and tried to bend the link open against the shaft of the screwdriver. Her hand was too wobbly, and the screwdriver skittered out from under her foot.
Cat Thing watched her, eyes wide.
Keisha retrieved the screwdriver, and took Cat Thing’s hand, folded it around the handle, and placed it where she wanted it. She said, “Hold it still right there, okay?” and brought up the pliers to pull against the screwdriver. Cat Thing relaxed its grip, and the link slid off prematurely.
Keisha was about to swear when Cat Thing shoved her aside, lifted the screwdriver, and drove the tip of it upward into the middle of a hurtling dark shape. Then there were snarls, shrill whistling shrieks, raking hands, and one furry foot kicking upward. The shape catapulted overhead, and landed with a squishy melon-crushing noise on the other body.
The gust of rotting honey was intense.
Keisha rolled away, her stomach knotting painfully.
It was awhile before Keisha could pull herself up on her knees again, retrieve the flashlight. More crab parts, falling apart in her light, but not quite as decrepit as the first one. “Where the fuck did that come from–”
Cat Thing gave a squeak of mew, and touched Keisha’s arm, patting at her.
“I’m good, I’m fine–are you okay? You killed that thing with a screwdriver!”
Another mew, more patting touches.
“Are there any more of them on this boat?” Keisha demanded. No answer to that. Cat Thing just blinked up at her.
Keisha jerked up the flashlight at movement. A plume of smoke–dark, stinking, diesel-type smoke–was coming up out of a floor vent in the carpet. Then another. And another.
Cat Thing mewed softly. There was a raking open wound on the thigh that it hadn’t had before.
“Shit,” Keisha said. “Screwdriver.”
Cat Thing had a good firm grip on the screwdriver. It wasn’t letting go of it.
“Good,” Keisha said, approving of this. “You hang onto that. Hang on really good. Now, let’s get this damn thing open.”
Cat Thing tilted its head, let Keisha guide the screwdriver into a link half buried in soft fur. It added a thumb to the rather shaky pressure of Keisha’s hand on the pliers, and the link bent right open. There was a rattle as it fell to the floor.
“Okay, get you up on deck–”
But Cat Thing was already gone, scrabbling down the gangway on a hand and a leg-and-a-half and holding the screwdriver ready as a weapon.
Another unbelievably shrill steam-blast whistle, a panther-sized howl, thumps, and the windows in the lounge rattled with the force of whatever had hit the deck right above her head.
“Shit,” Keisha said, and stuffed everything into pockets while she ran. She was gasping when she came down on the maindeck.
Cat Thing was sitting sprawled on one hip by Keisha’s supplies, its growl rising and falling like a siren. The mess strewn along the deck showed what it had killed. Another of those nightmares, taller and thinner than the others, with some kind of unfolded, broken superstructure like a crazy gun platform. Thin wisps of acrid yellow smoke came up out of the deck beneath the bug’s body.
“Oh my god, poor kitty–” Keisha said, dropping things clumsily, and getting the water bottle out. “Drink some more. C’mon, please drink some more.” Cat Thing drank, still growling. It tried to get up, fell, tried again, her attention fixed on something on the deck; a dark flat thing near the broken pieces of the bug thing. Keisha scrambled up the slope and saw that it was a laptop, gashed and scarred. She kicked it down towards the Cat Thing, who reached out and skated it neatly into the nearest little pile of salvage. Keisha figured it was worth taking along; could have something important on it.
Getting the loot down quickly was a matter of grabbing down some cabin drapes, knotting the folds together, and tossing it gently into the lifeboat. Longer drapes got wrapped around Cat Thing, and the knot looped with some spare rope, and the entire ungainly burden belayed, one-handed, with loops dangerously secured around her own waist, lowered off one of the davits that had already lowered a life boat. She had to wait for exactly the right moment to release it, as the lifeboat came up in the swell at the right angle.
Then she had to use that overworked hand to belay herself down, falling a good three feet with an awkward thump against the bundle, rolling over onto her shoulders before she could get herself righted and start untying her companion out of the drapes.
Cat Thing didn’t struggle, just lay there in the blood-stained fabric. Good thing it seemed to be docile toward her–one good panicky rake of those hind claws and it could have ripped through the lifeboat’s bottom. Or hers.
“Here, kitty, drink some more. Here’s some ham. We’ll get you some help.” Keisha heard herself talking, continuously, and realized how weird it was. If there were more bugs around, they could just follow the sound of her voice–but she didn’t care.
Cat Thing needed to hear her talking, it reached out and patted her, mewed at her, whenever she fell silent, as if to be sure she was still there.
She started knotting up an oarlock loop that could secure the single oar at the back of the lifeboat, have her push them along like a gondolier or a tiny little Hong Kong ferry. She hadn’t got the good luck of an outboard motor on this. But the dark bulk of the Everglades mainland was gaining color in the false dawn light. Keisha got the line untangled from the ship’s chain, unshipped her one oar, and kicked off with the push of the swell to help her.
She’d waggled the oar back and forth hard and fast enough, for about fifteen minutes, when she felt the rip current grab them and start shifting the boat for her. In another ten minutes they’d tripled the distance from the yacht, heading in toward the first fingers of the mangroves.
Behind them, a plume of dark smoke trailed upward from an open porthole like a flare. Then another one. If it wasn’t burning outright, it sure as hell was smoldering.
“That’s gonna draw– company–” Keisha groaned, pushing on the oarloom again. She had blisters already, on a calloused hand.
Then she just leaned her weight clumsily back and forth, not watching ahead. She stared back.
The yacht swelled upward in an odd slow motion explosion, the fiberglass seams coming apart in soft, muffled crumping noises. The parted seams glared with green-lit flames. The decks collapsed on themselves again, until the upper decks had fallen inward into a broken-backed shell melting onto the beach. Spilled oil and diesel fuel spread out, burning sullenly across the surface of the water. The end of the Fountain Of Joy. She had been Eduardo Calleres’s pride, all lit up on the water at night. That might have been his corpse slumped over the helm, cut halfway in two.
Cat Thing shifted, with a little weeping cry of pain, and lay down in the bottom of the lifeboat. Kiesha began steering, working her way across the rip. Keep both of them alive, and moving.
Sometimes I feel… Like a motherless child… Whispering the song as she rowed.