The Ivory Beast
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 Chaudris
bunk, his head resting on the Pakistanis pillow. The young bosuns
mate's throat had been cut, and the bloody straight razor which dangled from
his right hand was Chaudris 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 Navys minimum height requirement,
was the Operations Officer assigned by the XO to prepare an official report
on the circumstances of Jensens 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
dont think you should be messing with that."
Making sure he touched it only with his handkerchief, Chaudri
gently loosened the razor from Jensens limp fingers and wrapped it in
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 boys 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 Jensens head and examined it closely.
Policastro folded his arms across his chest and scowled. "My
idea is Jensen was a damn coward, sir. He couldnt face the thought of
waiting around for the Ay-rabs to get him, so he came up here and did the job
Captain Buck rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Why here,
though? I dont like it, Tony. It doesnt make sense."
"Ill have to take him down to food storage,"
the doctor said, "put him in a body bag in one of the coolers. Youd
think a ship this sized 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 captains
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
"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 Petersons 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
Jensens were the only ones on it. He killed himself, Captain, theres
no doubt of that. The one thing I still cant 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
"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 youve had
some experience in these matters, but thats 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."
"Youre convinced," Bill Kundo repeated,
his eyebrows arched. "Well, youre gonna need a damn sight more than
that to convince me youre right about this and Policastros
"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 youre driving at, man, but it doesnt wash. Youre
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. Thats
detective-story stuff, Officer, not evidence."
"Im with Doc," said Lieutenant-Commander Meacham.
"Just because he carried your bag in his left hand doesnt prove he
was left-handed and, even if he was left-handed, theres
no way to prove he couldnt have used his right hand to kill himself."
"After you left my compartment to take away Jensens
body," said Chaudri patiently, "I was not idle. I found the poor boys
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 Jensens,
you cant get around that."
"Precisely! But it was my razor, Lieutenant. I use
it every morning, I used it this morning, before Seaman Petersons
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 boys head?"
"The back of his head? Why why, no, not yet. Therell
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 Jensens 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 whats that bracelet got to do with
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 Jensens 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, Im sorry, mahsool, thats 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. "Lets 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."
"Youre saying it was one of us," said Kundo
slowly. "An enlisted man wouldnt stash contraband in Officers
Country, hed 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 Jensens 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 Jensens 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 Mens 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 didnt 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
"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 youd
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 Coronados powerful engines was
the only sound in the room.
The XO was the first of them to understand. "He wouldnt
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
And there, there in the front rank of the crowd, there they
stood! Shazia, Arshed, Perveen, Javaid his wife, his children, his family,
"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 Coronados 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. "Were in your
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 wouldnt have a shred of evidence against him."
A gentle breeze stirred Chaudris 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 Petersons 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? Well hold him in our brig until
we reach Karachi, and from there hell be flown back to Bahrain under guard.
Hell have a trial, of course Captains Mast, we call it. Theyll
charge him with possession and use of a controlled substance and either first-
or second-degree murder. Id say first, under the circumstances. And given
his confession, I dont think theres any chance hell avoid
"And his punishment?"
"Hes going to spend a lot of years behind bars, Im
afraid. And theyll 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 policemans
palm. "Thats very thoughtful, mahsool. Thank you. Ill
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, "were stuck
with that damn Crocketts 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
Mahboob Chaudris perfect teeth sparkled in the days last rays of sunlight. "Oh, dearie me," he said.
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