San Diego, CA
On a beautiful clear day under a stiff breeze Montegar, a forty foot sailboat, rigged and equipped for bluewater sailing, slips into San Diego Bay past the Harbor Police office on the tip of Shelter Island.
Silas Tufts, forty-six, handsome, weathered and hardened, sits behind the helm. His movements sure, he looks only ahead.
Beside him, Beth Portman, recently eighteen, stands easy, hand on his shoulder. Exuding confidence, she, too, only looks ahead. They had no need to talk. They’d lived and sailed together for four years, they each knew what to do. And after the events of that morning, what was there to say?
“No use looking back. There’s no family or friends to wave goodbye to. This is not our home anymore, and it’s likely we’ll never be back. The last four years Death prepared Silas and I for this day, for this morning. It’s said that bad memories prepare you for life. If so, we’re ready. If I hadn’t met Silas, I wouldn’t have any memories any different than an ordinary eighteen-year-old girl. Even so, if I hadn’t met Silas, there’s a good chance I’d be dead. Funny how things work out.”
Death takes many forms: The Grim Reaper in all its many aspects, a mythological beast, one of four horsemen, a cloaked demon, an old woman with empty eyes. Or, an Albatross, large and dark, following you, watching over you, guiding you for its own enigmatic purpose.
FOUR YEARS AGO
Little ripples left behind by colorful eight foot Sabot sailboats sparkled in the late afternoon sun as the boats darted back and forth over a protected area of San Diego bay. Excited yells flew over the water when one boat stole the wind from another as they rounded the final windward mark to make a dash toward the finish line.
Fourteen year old Beth Portman crossed the line first with hands in the air and a victory shout. As she steered her pink Sabot toward the dock she spied her mother waiting for her. Beth waved happily, but frowned at her mother’s less than enthusiastic wave in return.
Beth knew that her mother, Diane Portman, had been a sailor most of her life and had cruised and raced in much of the world. She now managed a large real estate firm, yet still enjoyed watching the little boats flitting about as it reminded her of the freedom of her own sailing days.
Beth suspected something was wrong when her mom waited on the dock with hands in pockets and no welcoming smile. She barely had to think as she piloted her Sabot into the channel between moored boats leading to the dock. On a broad reach, the breeze over the port side, Beth’s boat raced toward the dock, closer, closer, narrowly missing the line of boats in their slips. With seemingly no room to spare, she rammed the tiller to starboard. The boat turned about its side mounted daggerboard in a doughnut of foaming water and headed into the wind, until it lost all forward momentum and gently kissed the dock at her mom’s feet.
Beth, a cute, normal, sparkly, fourteen year-old couldn’t help but raise her arms, index and little fingers extended, and imitate the roar of an appreciative crowd as the boat nudged the dock.
She beamed up at her mother, “Did you see me? I won! I won! Ha! Ha! I left that Nicky Albert in the dust. That’ll teach him to call me a ‘deck scrubber.'”
Diane forced a quick smile. “Yes, well, better than punching him in the nose.”
Beth managed an almost believable look. “I know, but you and dad told me to stand up for myself.”
“But no punching. Not the first one, anyway.”
“I know. I know. But I beat him fair and square this time.”
“I saw you baby, congrats.”
Beth held up a hand for a high five, but her mother’s lackluster response and the swift disappearance of her thin smile finally clued her in that something was definitely up.
Beth’s cheerfulness melted away, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
## ## ##
Silas knelt over Montegar’s headsail winch, hands deep into the greasy intricacies as Beth and her mother approached.
“Hello, Silas,” Diane called from the dock. “Permission to come aboard?”
Silas glanced over his shoulder. A crooked little smile quirked up a corner of his mouth.
“Of course.” Silas said as he wiped his hands on a grease-stained cloth, “You’re crew now. You don’t have to ask.”
Beth watched his welcoming smile fade when he studied her mother’s face.
“Diane, what’s wrong?” he asked, when they’d settled on the cockpit seat opposite him.
“My mother passed last night,” Diane said with a hitch in her voice. “Heart attack. So I won’t be able to sail to Cabo with you.”
Silas stopped wiping the grease off his hands. “Ah hell, I’m sorry to hear that. I only met her the once, but I do remember her.”
Diane managed a small smile. “She did have that effect on people.”
“In a good way,” Silas said warmly.
“Also, my dad’s been pretty sick and she was taking care of him. There’s no other family-.”
“I thought Uncle Silas was my uncle,” Beth interrupted. “He’s family.”
Diane cocked her head as she managed a small affectionate smile. “Silas is like a brother to your dad. He’s not really related, but close enough to have the uncle title.” Rubbing Beth’s back she said, “Plus, he’s a good and trusted friend.”
“So I don’t have any uncles or other relatives now except Grandpop?”
“You have me and your father. What more do you need?”
Beth rolled her eyes at Silas. “More relatives, more presents.”
Beth’s mother gave her an affectionate swat. “Don’t get greedy, sweetie.”
“I’ll make sure you get an extra birthday present,” Silas assured her.
“Okay,” Beth said, pointing at Silas and flashing a so-there grin at her mother.
“Anyway, Silas, there’s a lot of money involved and I need to go and take care of him and tie up the estate before the hyenas move in.”
Beth straightened up and bumped shoulders with her mother. “Mom’s the white sheep of the family.”
“Lucky for all of us that she is.” A look passed between Diane and Silas that spoke of past pain shared. Calloused fingers rasped at the black and gray stubble on his chin, “I know how much you were looking forward to the trip, so I can wait a week or two if it’ll help.”
“Thought about that,” Diane said, her mouth becoming a thin slit of pain and disappointment, “But who knows how long it will take to settle my mom’s affairs, and with the work commitments I have coming up, and Beth’s school our schedule is tight. So it’s pretty much now or never. Or next year, maybe.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m not disappointed. For once I was looking forward to some company.” Silas said, looking genuinely aggrieved.
“Mom.” Beth nudged her mother. Why couldn’t adults get to the important stuff? “Ask him. Ask him”.
“Neil and I discussed this this morning. We thought maybe, if you agreed, that Beth could still go. It would be good for her to get away at this time. And maybe she would be of some help in handling the boat.”
Another nudge. “Mom. Duh!”
“Oh. Well. I was planning to spend the week in a drunken stupor, so I guess she would have to handle the boat some.”
“Not funny, Silas,” Diane said, half joking.
Silas took Diane’s hands in his calloused ones.
“Diane, Beth is a natural sailor. I have no doubt she actually could sail to Cabo by herself if she had to. But are you sure you don’t want to wait until you can come with us?”
“Like I said, I have commitments coming up and–.”
“That’s not what I meant, Diane, and I think you know it.” Silas crooked his mouth as he gave her a knowing look. “Look. Even though I’m sort of Beth’s uncle, some people might question the intentions of an old fart like me sailing out of the country with a minor.”
Diane just stared, her mouth open with apparent incomprehension.
It was Beth who broke the long silence. “Uncle Silas, it’s not like you’re kidnapping me. Please. I really, really want to go.”
“Just Silas is fine Beth. When you start whining, “Uncle Silas it’s too rough. Uncle Silas it’s too cold,” that Uncle stuff will get really annoying.”
Beth gave him a mock punch in the leg. “I’m not the one who’ll be whining. You’ll be whining, Oh, Beth, I wish was as good at the wheel as you. Oh, Beth, please stand my watch, my old bones have to lay down.”
Sporting a big grin, he poked at her. “Old bones, huh.”
“Yeah, from Davy Jones.” Laughing, she poked him back.
Diane looked into Silas’s eyes for a long moment as they got serious again. “We trust you. Beth trusts you. We’d have never considered asking you if we didn’t.”
Silas’s eyes glistened. He nodded and squeezed her hand. “And Neil’s really okay with it?”
“Anything to do with being near a body of water larger than a kiddies’ wading pool is not okay with Neil. But, for some reason he loves this little water rat.” Beth’s face lit up at being called a water rat. “So yes, he’s okay with it. He did want me to remind you that he was Navy SEAL of the decade and an FBI missing persons expert and a top CIA black-ops agent.”
Silas chuckled. “And I thought he was a science geek specializing in desert geology. I’ll take care of Beth as if… she was my own.” A darkness passed over his face. “Better than my own.”
Diane touched his cheek, gripped his shoulder. “We know you will.”
Appreciative, Silas attempted a smile. “And I was a Navy SEAL.”
Somehow unnoticed, a large, black Albatross, perched on the bottom spreader of Montegar’s mast. It’s glowing eyes grew more intense as it watched the three in the cockpit. His head bobbed as if agreeing with all that was said. It seemed to dance from foot to foot as if excited by what it heard.
A few days later Neil Portman, a rangy, handsome, bespectacled man with searchlight eyes and tousled hair, stood with hands in the pockets of his well-worn hiking shorts at the west end of Shelter Island.
Beside him stood Judy Winehouse, Beth’s BFF, a thin, frail and pale girl with with dull brown hair. She held herself tight with the hope that no one could see past her strained half smile to the inner misery of losing her friend.
With just enough wind to fill her mainsail, Montegar ghosted past, leaving barely a ripple. The clacking of a winch, suffused with Silas’s mixed grunts, came from the mast as Silas cranked up the headsail. Beth, barely tall enough to see over the wheel, couldn’t keep still, her skinny ass wagging and hands beating the leather rimmed wheel to a beat only she heard. Beaming with excitement, she turned and waved her hands in one last gesture of farewell to her father and Judy until Silas yelled at her to mind the helm. The scolding didn’t dampened her grin the least bit.
Neil Portman was no SEAL. He understood water coming out of a shower, or in a desert mud hole formed by a geologic anomaly, but he didn’t get his daughter’s fascination with large bodies of water, or her desire to travel over them in a small boat. She was a healthy, happy, smart kid, her enthusiasm hard to dampen. He waved back at her, his heart thumping to see her so happy.
Though she couldn’t bring herself to smile, Judy waved, too. For two weeks she would be without her best friend to remind her what happiness was, and the idea terrified her.
Montegar swiftly sailed into the bay and with a last wave Beth turned away, looking forward to the open ocean.
Father and best friend finally turned away. Judy wiped her leaking tears and kept her head down. Neil had known Judy for over ten years and worried about her as much, if not more, than Beth. For Judy was a delicate girl whose problematic home life ensured she had little happiness in her. Beth being the only one able to coax a real smile from her.
“She’ll be back before you know it,” he told her. “Two weeks. Maybe less.”
Neil moved to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but thought better of it. “Judy, you okay? Everything all right?”
Judy glared after the diminishing sailboat, her mouth twisted in an uncharacteristic sneer. “My father would never let me leave like that. Never!”
Neil’s eyes narrowed in thought, and a chill that had nothing to do with the weather made him shiver in the San Diego sun as he slowly followed the moping girl to his car.
Behind Montegar, high and away, the out-sized, black Albatross soared. Not of any known species, its kind had followed vessels as long as there had been vessels, from the first primitive rafts to the latest huge warships. Unseen by any crew, the bird’s presence could never be denied when the time came, as it always did, to make itself felt.