The Ivory Beast

• part 2 •

 

The emergency was over. Mahboob Chaudri had been right about the gunboat: it was Omani, sent out by a friendly government to guarantee the Americans safe passage through the troubled waters of the Strait of Hormuz.

The Coronado had stepped down from general quarters and kept steadily on course, with the Omani escort off its starboard bow.

Mahboob Chaudri crossed the empty mess deck and went up the ladder to Officers’ Country. His olive-green uniform blouse was drenched with the sour spoor of fear.

When he reached his compartment he swung aside the floor-length curtain and switched on the lights and gasped.

Seaman Apprentice Jensen lay stretched out on his back on Chaudri’s bunk, his head resting on the Pakistani’s pillow. The young bosun’s mate's throat had been cut, and the bloody straight razor which dangled from his right hand was Chaudri’s own.

• • •

"Not long. Not long at all." Doc Steen looked up from his examination of the body. "Maybe as little as 15 minutes. Certainly no longer than an hour. When did you find him, mahsool?"

"At 9:47, Doctor. Precisely 12 minutes ago."

"He probably did it during the alert, then," the captain mused. "But why, dammit? And why here, in your compartment?"

"Ah, excuse me, sir." Lieutenant Anthony Policastro, a swarthy New Yorker who barely cleared the Navy’s minimum height requirement, was the Operations Officer assigned by the XO to prepare an official report on the circumstances of Jensen’s death. "I think I can answer at least the first of those questions."

Chaudri pulled a clean white handkerchief from the hip pocket of his trousers and draped it over his palm. In the crowded compartment, he had to move carefully to avoid elbowing Captain Buck or the XO.

"The gunboat, sir," Policastro went on. "See, Jensen must have assumed they were Iranians, just like the rest of us. He figured they were on their way to blow us out of the water, so he — uh, sir? I don’t think you should be messing with that."

Making sure he touched it only with his handkerchief, Chaudri gently loosened the razor from Jensen’s limp fingers and wrapped it in the cloth.

Lieutenant-Commander Meacham put out a hand to hold back his deputy. "Just a second, Tony. What is it, Officer?"

"I am thinking, sir, that we should be dusting this — " He broke off to stare at the dead boy’s wrist. "Odd," he murmured. "Most decidedly odd." He knelt beside the body and pushed his hands beneath it and traced around its contours. He paused in surprise at the back of Jensen’s head and examined it closely.

Policastro folded his arms across his chest and scowled. "My idea is Jensen was a damn coward, sir. He couldn’t face the thought of waiting around for the Ay-rabs to get him, so he came up here and did the job himself."

Captain Buck rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Why here, though? I don’t like it, Tony. It doesn’t make sense."

"I’ll have to take him down to food storage," the doctor said, "put him in a body bag in one of the coolers. You’d think a ship this size’d have a morgue." He edged around Mahboob Chaudri, who was on his hands and knees peering beneath the bunk, and left the compartment to find two sailors to help him move the body.

"Are you looking for something, Officer?"

Chaudri drew a line in the fine white dust that powdered the floor, then studied the tip of his finger and licked it cautiously.

"Mahsool?" There was irritation in the captain’s tone as he repeated his question.

The Pakistani glanced up, and a glint of metal caught his eye from above. A bone in his ankle crackled as he got to his feet. He dug his fingers between the mattress and frame of the upper berth.

"Dammit, man," the captain growled. "What have you found?"

"John Jakovac," Chaudri replied, holding out a misshapen silver bracelet on his palm. He accented the initial syllable, as Jensen had done two days earlier, but he was sorely puzzled when he said it.

• • •

Though Seaman 2nd Peterson’s lasagna looked perfect and smelled even better than it looked, not one of the two dozen officers whose duty schedule allowed them to gather at noon that day for lunch seemed in the mood to eat.

"Anything on Jensen, Tony?" Captain Buck demanded.

The Operations Officer cleared his throat. "Not much to report, sir. I dusted the razor for fingerprints as Mr. Chaudri suggested, but Jensen’s were the only ones on it. He killed himself, Captain, there’s no doubt of that. The one thing I still can’t figure is what he was doing up here in the first — "

"No!" Mahboob Chaudri slammed down his silverware. "No, no, no, Captain! I am most terribly sorry to be interfering, sir, but it was my compartment the boy was found in, it was my very own razor which took his life, it was I who discovered his body. I cannot sit here and allow you to call his death a suicide. He was murdered, sir, he was most definitely murdered."

"Gentlemen!" The captain spoke above the immediate protest of his men, and at the sharpness of his tone they stilled as quickly as they had begun. "Murder, mahsool? I understand you’ve had some experience in these matters, but that’s a very serious charge."

"Indeed, sir, it is. I am, however, quite certain I am right. I spoke with Jensen when I first came aboard this ship. He seemed to be in perfect spirits. I am convinced he would never have killed himself."

"You’re convinced," Bill Kundo repeated, his eyebrows arched. "Well, you’re gonna need a damn sight more than that to convince me you’re right about this and Policastro’s wrong, mahsool."

"Yes, most assuredly," Chaudri nodded. "There is more. When Jensen was bringing my bags up to my compartment, he carried my heavy suitcase in his left hand, my lighter grip in his right. This indicates that he — "

"Oh, come on, now," the doctor scoffed. "I can see what you’re driving at, man, but it doesn’t wash. You’re saying Jensen was left-handed, and, since the razor was in his right hand when you found him, someone else must have slit his throat and put it there. That’s detective-story stuff, Officer, not evidence."

"I’m with Doc," said Lieutenant-Commander Meacham. "Just because he carried your bag in his left hand doesn’t prove he was left-handed — and, even if he was left-handed, there’s no way to prove he couldn’t have used his right hand to kill himself."

"After you left my compartment to take away Jensen’s body," said Chaudri patiently, "I was not idle. I found the poor boy’s bunkmates and questioned them, one by one. They were all agreed: Mr. Jensen was left-handed, and he shaved with his left hand, not his right."

"But what about the fingerprints?" Tony Policastro set his jaw angrily. "The only prints on that razor were Jensen’s, you can’t get around that."

"Precisely! But it was my razor, Lieutenant. I use it every morning, I used it this morning, before Seaman Peterson’s most excellent breakfast. If Jensen truly killed himself, why in the name of the Prophet would he have wiped my fingerprints from the handle of the razor before doing so?"

"My God," the captain whispered.

"Indeed, sir. And there is further proof, should anyone require it. Doctor Steen, sir, have you had an opportunity as yet to examine the back of the boy’s head?"

"The back of his head? Why — why, no, not yet. There’ll have to be an autopsy, of course, but I — "

"I thought not. And with the cause of his death so evident, there was no real reason for you to have done so." He pulled a thin strip of metal from his pocket. "But when I was looking for this bracelet this morning, I found a fresh discoloration at the base of Jensen’s skull. Surely he did not bruise himself by falling back on my pillow. No, sir, he was coshed, knocked out, and it was while he was unconscious that his throat was cut."

"But — but why, dammit?" Captain Buck pounded a fist on the table, and water sloshed from his drinking glass to dampen the crisp white tablecloth. "And what’s that bracelet got to do with it?"

Chaudri leaned forward and rested his elbows on the cloth. "I will tell you how I have reconstructed the crime. This prisoner-of-war bracelet represented an important commitment to Jensen, but it had been on his wrist for so many years that he sometimes forgot he was wearing it, he told me so himself. In fact, when I questioned his bunkmates I discovered that it was one of them who noticed this morning that it was missing, and called its absence to Jensen’s attention."

"You found it in the upper berth in your compartment," the captain recalled. "What was it doing up there?"

"It must have pulled off his wrist when he swung my overnight grip up onto the mattress. Perhaps it caught on the handle of my bag, or on the metal frame of the bunk. In any case, Jensen did not realize it was gone until someone asked him what had happened to it. Once he knew it was missing, though, he searched his own compartment and failed to find it, and after that I would imagine he spent some time retracing his recent movements as best he could remember them, looking for it. At last he thought of my compartment and went there, but I was out on the main deck, watching the sea."

"So he went in without you."

"Yes. On his hands and knees he looked beneath my bunk, and found — not his bracelet, but a packet of cocaine which had been hidden between the mattress and the spring."

"What!" Captain Buck was stunned. "Cocaine? On my ship? No, I’m sorry, mahsool, that’s impossible."

Chaudri shook his head sadly. "Nevertheless, sir, I found grains of a fine white powder on the floor beneath my bunk, and I assure you it was cocaine. Of relatively poor quality, perhaps, but most assuredly cocaine."

The XO stirred restlessly in his seat. "Let’s say it was cocaine. What was it doing in your compartment?"

"I should think that was obvious, Lieutenant-Commander. Before my arrival here, that compartment was vacant, which made it the perfect place to hide the drug so that someone could have access to it without running the risk of its being discovered in his own quarters."

"You’re saying it was one of us," said Kundo slowly. "An enlisted man wouldn’t stash contraband in Officers’ Country, he’d keep it down in crew quarters where he could get to it whenever he wanted it."

"Are you telling me one of my officers has been doing coke, then? Doc," the captain roared, "I want every man in khakis tested for substance abuse. There must be some procedure you can — "

Chaudri held up a hand. "That wil1 not be necessary, sir. I know who brought the drug aboard ship."

"You — you — "

"But of course, Captain. The cocaine belonged to the killer. During the alert, he came to my compartment to take it away, but when he reached my doorway he saw that Jensen had already found it in his search for his missing bracelet. He panicked, struck Jensen on the back of the head with his fist before the boy became aware of his presence. He looked frantically around the room, and saw my razor lying beside the sink, where I had left it after shaving this morning. So he lifted the unconscious sailor to my bed and cut his throat to silence him. Then he wiped his fingerprints — and, incidentally, mine — from the handle and pressed it into Jensen’s lifeless hand, cleaned up the spilled cocaine as best he could and ran off, not noticing he had left a small amount of the drug behind him on the floor."

Bill Kundo ran his index finger along the edge of the table. "And you say you know who it was?"

"Oh, yes, indeed. You see, I asked Jensen’s bunkmates when they had learned that I was to be a passenger on this voyage, and was surprised to find that they had not been told in advance of my impending arrival. One of them was in the Enlisted Men’s Mess when Jensen escorted me up the ladder to Officers’ Country and remembers wondering who I was. The others knew nothing of my being here until Jensen told them about me, later in the day."

"We didn’t see any need to make a general announcement to the crew," the captain frowned, "but what does — "

"I understand, sir. But your officers must have known I was coming?"

"Yes, of course. With you bunking up here and eating in our mess, I had to let the officers and stewards know ahead of time that you’d be traveling with us."

Chaudri smiled. "Then why," he asked, "if he was aware that I was coming, would the murderer have waited until the second day after my arrival before removing his contraband from my compartment?"

The faraway thrum of the Coronado’s powerful engines was the only sound in the room.

The XO was the first of them to understand. "He wouldn’t have," he said. "Not unless there was something that prevented him from taking care of it until this moming."

"Oh, no," said Doctor Steen. "Oh, Christ, no."

Mahboob Chaudri lifted his knife and fork and sampled his lasagna. "Most excellent," he said, though the meal had long since gone cold. "Perhaps you would be so kind, Captain, as to ask Seaman Peterson to leave his kitchen for a moment and join us, so that we may welcome him back from his long confinement to sick bay."

• • •

The low, dusty buildings of West Wharf lay off their port bow, the sagging warehouses of East Wharf hulked to starboard. Ahead, the broad expanse of the Custom House; behind it, shimmering in the heat, the tall minaret of the Memon Mosque and the towers of the city, Karachi, his home.

Along the quayside, hordes of brown-skinned men and women and children milled to and fro in restless excitement. Mahboob Chaudri, forward on the main deck of the Ivory Beast, leaned against its warm white railing and scanned their faces, searching, searching, his pulse racing with the sweet pain of expectancy.

And there, there in the front rank of the crowd, there they stood! Shazia, Arshed, Perveen, Javaid — his wife, his children, his family, his life!

"Mahsool?" The voice at his side was tentative, questioning. "Do you mind if I join you?"

Chaudri blinked in confusion, and the city before him disappeared. In its place were only cobalt and cream, the placid sea and the sky. The joyous homecoming of his daydream still lay a day and a night to the east.

"Not at all, Captain." His throat was dry, and the words emerged in a gravelly parody of his voice. "I would be most honored."

They stood there, the Pakistani and the American, side by side in silence, as the Coronado’s bow carved a passage through the Arabian Sea. It was late afternoon, and they had left the Strait of Hormuz and the Omani gunboat and the worst of the midday temperatures behind them.

"Drugs aboard my ship," said Captain Buck at last. "Drugs and murder." He shook his head sadly. "We’re in your debt, mahsool."

The little policeman shrugged modestly. "You were saying it yourself, sir. I have had some experience in these matters."

"Damn good thing you were able to find the cocaine. Without that, we wouldn’t have a shred of evidence against him."

A gentle breeze stirred Chaudri’s neat black hair and tickled his forehead. "There was simply no time for Peterson to have spirited the contraband away from Officers’ Country," he explained, "so I was certain he must have concealed it somewhere in the galley. But where? Where else but in a place where searching eyes would fail to notice it, even if they should happen to see it."

"It amazed me, the way you went straight for the right shaker. There must have been 20 of them on that tray."

"Indeed there were. But salt is coarsely grained, sir, where Peterson’s cocaine was fine. And in his haste to conceal the drug, he failed to add the grains of rice which were in all the other shakers to protect their contents from the humidity. The differences might not have been visible to one who was not looking for them — but I was looking for them, unhappily for Seaman Peterson." Chaudri fell silent for a moment, then faced the captain and asked a question which had been bothering him for several hours. "What will become of him, sir?"

"Of Pete, you mean? We’ll hold him in our brig until we reach Karachi, and from there he’ll be flown back to Bahrain under guard. He’ll have a trial, of course — Captain’s Mast, we call it. They’ll charge him with possession and use of a controlled substance and either first- or second-degree murder. I’d say first, under the circumstances. And given his confession, I don’t think there’s any chance he’ll avoid being court-marshaled."

"And his punishment?"

"He’s going to spend a lot of years behind bars, I’m afraid. And they’ll bust him down to Seaman Recruit and withhold his pay for the length of his sentence."

Mahboob Chaudri sighed, and buried his hands in the pockets of his uniform trousers. His fingers brushed cool metal. "This bracelet was quite important to young Jensen," he said. "Perhaps it should be returned to his wrist."

Captain Buck took the silver strip from the policeman’s palm. "That’s very thoughtful, mahsool. Thank you. I’ll take care of it myself."

Chaudri turned back to the sea, filled his lungs with fresh sea air and exhaled it slowly.

Ahead, in the distance, the sky began to darken.

"You know," the captain said, "I suppose I really ought to be angry with you."

"Angry, sir?" Chaudri looked up in surprise, but the man at his side was smiling.

"Because of you," Buck scolded, "we’re stuck with that damn Crockett’s so-called cooking till they can send us out a replacement from ASU."

Young Jensen was dead, young Peterson doomed to prison — but the sea was unchanged, the sky took little notice, and the Ivory Beast sailed on.

Mahboob Chaudri’s perfect teeth sparkled in the day’s last rays of sunlight. "Oh, dearie me," he said.

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