As a cucumber… Part II

The guy was classic eurotrash. Had a French accent you could mature cheese with, one which sounded so affected that you would have half a mind to tell him to cut it out, but one look at his outfit showed he was on the level in his eccentricity; red polka-dot bowtie, frilled sky-blue shirt, brown tweed jacket with dyed-green leather patches at the elbows, light-tan pantaloons and black-&-white spats completing what was a pretty picture. If by ‘pretty picture’ you meant ‘eyesore’. Still, he had a story to tell – yeah I know, who doesn’t? – and I was in a mood for listening.

“Drink? Sorry I ain’t got any wine… I’d offer you some cognac but it seems we’re fresh out. Coffee?”

He winced outlandishly. Seemingly the very thought of one of our uncultured cups of Joe passing his lips brought on something akin to momentary electrocution.

“Ok, I guess we’ll have to go dry on this one. Whatever ya got, spit it out, Étienne, I can’t spend all evening in your fine company.”

As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Étienne Cabet mighta been somethin’ of a kook, but he was a dab hand at spinnin’ a tale. If what he said was true, there’d be a lot of money in it…and a lot of heat, too.

Étienne’s great-grandfather – also named Étienne – was apparently a man of God, and some sort of Utopian Socialist to boot. Wrote a whole slew of books about how Jesus was into social equality, and woulda despised the hierarchical bullshit of the modern Church. Never read the stuff myself, but his Messiah sounds like someone I could get on board with. Anyway, this bible-bashing proto-Commie tried to help set up some sort of community on the banks of the Red River in Texas, but the whole thing fell apart amidst the usual disease and disappointment that these endeavours tend to result in, and the elder Étienne died a frustrated pauper…but not before establishing a few familial mantras that apparently had quite the impact on Étienne Jr when he learned ’em. Something to the effect of never letting the bastards in higher-up places put the squeeze on the truth. So, 90-odd years after grandpappy’s death, and half-a-century after his own birth, Étienne the younger came to see yours truly. He wanted to blow a story wide open.

To be honest, I couldn’t blame the bastards higher-up for trying to keep this one squeezed shut.

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It all starts with a Limey. Friend of Étienne’s – “a trustworthy comrade, Mister Coolcarrigan” – and a college professor by the name of Christopher Hill. Along with a few other politically-minded types, they’d set up this Communist Party Historians Group a few years back, and the Limey lecturer came to see his old pal Éttie when he came over to New York for a conference just the other day. It was over lunch that this Chris Hill told our peculiar Frog about some rumours that had been flying around, about a new Marie Celeste in South East Asia, about a desperate SOS message, a ship discovered with a dead crew on board, and an explosion which took this doomed boat to the bottom. What got Étienne all a-fluster though, was the fact the the authorities were trying to obliterate any record of the ship, trying to make it out to be a mythical ‘ghost story’, when there were witnesses all over the place and sources in the Coast Guard swore blind that the whole thing was true.

The ship, Étienne told me, was called the Ourang Medan. Now, there’s no paper trail proving its existence, but the ship that found it – the Silver Star – definitely DID exist, so there had to be somethin’ to it, even if the business was murkier than the alleys of Harlem after closing time. There were chemicals on board, he said. Seriously nasty chemicals. Stuff that’d be dangerous in a nuclear lab, let alone on the open seas. Seems Uncle Sam was tryin’ to move some illicit substances in secret, and took a little too much risk in the transfer.

So. In February of ’48, a distress call goes out in the Straits of Malacca. It’d scare a seasoned bull to death to hear it; “All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead”. This was followed by a burst of Morse code – gibberish apparently – before a final transmission, stating simply; “I die.” It’s picked up by a coupla US ships as well as some Military Listening Posts – British and Dutch, according to Étienne – and between them, they triangulate the SOS to work out the message’s origin. An American merchant vessel, the Silver Star, is closest and finds the SS Ourang Medan, totally adrift and seemingly lifeless.

The sailor-boys get aboard this steel coffin, and what do they find? A loada stiffs all over the place; the bodies of the Dutch crew, all contorted into positions of agony, eyes staring transfixed in their death throes, arms grasping at thin air and faces twisted in mortal horror. Even the ship’s dog, would you believe? Poor mutt. Even he wasn’t spared, a defiant snarl frozen onto his canine snout. Thing is, there wasn’t a scratch on any of the bodies. Not one. They all suffered, but from what?

Below decks, the sailors said they experienced an icy chill. Ya know what the temperature is in the Malacca Straits in February? Around 110 degrees. This was a pretty experienced crew, and they found no damage to the ship or any of its contents – such as they could ascertain in the short period they were aboard, anyways. The Cap of the Silver Star decides to tow the Ourang Medan to a nearby port, but no sooner have they got underway than his lookouts notice smoke billowing from the stricken vessel’s hold. The story goes that they barely managed to cut the tether before the Ourang Medan was lifted outta the sea by a huge explosion and immediately sank – had they not been so quick, the Silver Star probably woulda been dragged to the bottom too.

********************************************************************************

That was all Étienne knew for sure. Or so he said. The rest, he claimed, was just speculation on his part – but I know when there’s more to a story than I’m being told. The guy looked delighted to hear that I was interested – damn right I was interested! This guy looked like he had money to burn and a bottomless pit of a case to burn it in, and I hadn’t had a glass of good Scotch in months.

Murders can wait. Conspiracy theories and UFO are where the easy money’s at.

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…

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About Seba Roux

Gooner, Socialist, Historian, Slacker. That's pretty much all you need to know.
This entry was posted in Short Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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