Ernie whisked me into the guardhouse at the foot of the dock. He checked behind me to make sure that I hadn’t been seen. As soon as he closed the door, I pulled a bottle of Plomari Ouzo from my bag and handed it to Bert. Ernie did a little happy dance and Bert cupped the bottle solemnly in his hands and raised it heavenward, as if presenting a newborn child to Allah for a blessing. Light from a bare overhead light bulb diffracted brilliantly through the clear liquid. His crooked, stained teeth worked the cork out of the bottle. He spat it into a corner. I handed Ernie a second bottle, holding two in reserve in my rucksack. And then I sat down to eat with the two men that I had been sent to kill.
During the weeks that I sailed across the Mediterranean I’d learned the key to managing Ouzo intake: drink slowly and continually eat mezedes. Bite. Sip. Talk. And repeat. Sven, our cook and resident alcoholic, claimed this method accounted for the fact that you rarely see a rip-snorting drunk Greek.
I’d had first-hand experience with the licorice-flavored drink’s anesthetic revenge of the incautious. Crossing of the Ionian Sea, three of us split a bottle of Giannatsi. Two joyous hours later the Ouzo turned on me. It was the one and only time I’d got nauseous aboard Neko II. Fortunately, my misery was short-lived. I passed out like a blown out candle. I didn’t hear a thing for twelve hours.
I was pleased that Bert and Ernie were not Ouzo aficionados. They finished off their meals within the first ten minutes of my arrival. Thirty minutes later each was lit. Arabic is not a language that is normally spoken; it is shouted. Fuel the conversation with 40 percent alcohol solution and it becomes deafening. Meanwhile, I nipped sparingly and nibbled frequently.
As the evening wore on and my mind limbered up, my thoughts kept turning back to Annie. It seemed like months since I had dropped her off at Ismaïlia so she could run off to chase this war. I silently prayed that she had not been killed – or worse – captured.
Annie would be mortified if she saw me plotting to kill the two men that sat beside me. She was a fighter, but she crusaded against war and killing. She would never forgive me if she learned of the acts I was about to commit.
Bert and Ernie weren’t much older than me. Each was probably married. Maybe they had children. I’d considered this before but forced the thoughts out of my mind, as best I could.
Sometime after midnight, Bert slumped over onto the seat cushion beside him with his bottle affectionately tucked under his arm, like a baby with a favorite stuffed animal. Ernie didn’t seem to notice that his companion had blacked out. He sat like a glass-eyed Buddha staring at nothing. The only sound was of diesel engines of the trucks bringing more wounded to the makeshift hospital in the warehouses behind the docks.
And then it dawned on me: if Ernie passed out too, neither guard would notice if we started our boat engines and sailed off into the night. In fact, they probably wouldn’t realize that we were gone until we were hours away from that godforsaken place. By then they would probably cut and run in the chaos rather than report that they had lost their prisoners. And that’s assuming that the Israelis don’t blow this harbor to kingdom come before these poor drunks wake up.
Ernie startled me by abruptly lifting his bottle to his lips and taking another long swig. Then his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell over backward.
A charge shot through my spine with the realization that this was the moment for me to act. In that instant any drowsiness from the Ouzo evaporated and I fished the revolver from the bottom of my bag. I stood and leaned over Ernie. He was out cold. I took his weapon from behind him. Then I took Bert’s AK-47 and a steel case of ammunition.
From the window I signaled the boat and Piest sprinted out of the shadows.
“They’re out cold,” I whispered.
I passed the rifles and ammo through the pane-less window.
“Have the Captain start the engines and come back for the radio.”
The first mate returned to the boat and I unplugged the power and antenna cords from the back of the shoebox-sized radio. I began searching the desk for any documents that mentioned our boat. Hopefully, the only records that showed that Neko II had been detained at Suez were in this office. Our first priority was to get away from the dock, but we didn’t want to leave behind any evidence that the Egyptians might discover and use to hunt us.
I kept one eye on my search and one eye on Bert and Ernie. I tensed and raised my gun when Neko II’s diesel engines started but neither Egyptian stirred.
All of the documents were in Arabic, but I found a dossier with Neko II’s hull number on the index tab. Inside were forms with dates, times, and what must have been a log of notes about our detention. I stuffed the entire folder into my bag.
By then Piest was back at the window and I handed him the radio. I looked around the room and cleaned up anything that a third person might have been in the room drinking with the two guards. As a parting gesture I left the remaining unopened bottle of Plomari Ouzo on the desk and exited awash in the satisfaction that I did not have to shoot anyone.
My relief did not last long. I was sickened to see Piest on the dock half way to our boat on his knees with a pistol to his head. It was the hawk-nosed Egyptian naval officer whom I had seen before I entered the guard shack a few hours earlier. His back was to me and he was yelling at the boat. I placed my hand on the revolver that was hidden in my rucksack and approached the officer from behind. The revolver no longer felt heavy in my hand.
He heard my approach, turned his head halfway toward me and barked out an order. I suppose he thought I was one of his guards. And then he saw that I was not.
Reflexively, the officer and I moved in choreographed unison; he twisted to face me and swung his pistol toward me. The rucksack fell away from my pistol and I raised it with two hands, took aim, and fired without hesitation. My bullet caught the officer in the neck. He dropped his weapon without firing it, both of his hands grasping at his wound. Blood pulsed through his fingers. In the darkness it looked black.
Simon and two other crewmen leapt from the boat. One helped the stunned first mate and the other two grabbed the Egyptian naval officer and dragged him over the rail onto Neko II’s deck.
The gunshot was indeed louder than I would have guessed. I wanted to go back to make sure that it had not awakened Bert or Ernie. But I saw the Captain on the upper deck in front of the wheelhouse waiving at me to come aboard. The boat had already been untied and was starting to idle away from the dock. I picked up the rucksack and ran. At the end of the pier I jumped for the boat. When I hit the gunwale friendly hands grabbed me and pulled me aboard.
My job was over. I didn’t know what to think. I was numb. I had killed but it was different from what I had expected. I had to shoot or be shot. This was so much clearer than the cold-blooded assignation I was preparing for.
But the horror of the night was just beginning. This was not the movies. The Egyptian officer did not drop and die the moment he was shot. He didn’t seem conscious, but his eyes were pressed tight as though he was in pain. He writhed on our deck like a hooked fish. He gasped irregular breaths that turned to gargles as his lungs filled with blood. Mostly he bled and bled. A great spring of blood flooded concentrically from under his body.
The crew gathered around and waited reverently for his body to give up its losing battle for life. When it was over we solemnly wrapped him in an old royal sail that we weighted with anchor chain. We cast his body into the deep gulf water followed by the radio and the AK-47s. Finally, we burned the dossier to remove the last evidence that we had been held captive by the Egyptian navy.
Neko II caught a favorable wind off of Sinai and was able to sail broad reach at hull speed traveling south-southeast. She felt alive again – awakened from the sleep she fell into when we last doused her sails at Port Sa’id to motor though the Suez Canal.
I climbed out onto her distinctive bowsprit and collapsed into the safety netting that hung from it like a hammock. I dozed, savoring the cool spritz of sea water from swells dashing against the bow.
I heard splashes beneath me and I rolled over to see dolphins playfully breaching in the bow wave. They were perfectly naïve to the concerns of mankind. I envied them. Soon they would bore of playing with Neko II and resume hunting and frolicking and lovemaking.
Finally dawn broke. Like the dolphins Neko II was free. But for me there was no victory.