The Chase Begins

2013: The Valerie Nintz ploughed into a huge grey wall of white capped water and yawed to port. Another smashed into her straining hull amidships. Dropping to the bottom of a deep trough, she shuddered under the impact and listed heavily. Twin screws and a rusted rudder appeared momentarily as her broad stern lifted clear of the churning sea. Wearily, she rose from the depths and broke surface, riding up into the freezing maelstrom like a breaching whale blowing sheets of water high into the air. With a roar they came crashing back down across her foredeck.

   The ship’s hull and derricks were rusting as were other parts of her superstructure, particularly around the windows of the once white bridge. She looked to be around twenty or so years old but she left the shipyard in Norway just ten years earlier. The Valerie Nintz was a one hundred and twenty foot trawler-processor with a crew of fifteen men that had worked out of Seward since her commissioning in 2003.

   Pierre Maurier sat in a fixed highchair on the bridge, drinking coffee from a blue enamel mug whilst gripping the large chromium wheel. His booted feet sat firmly anchored under the foot rail so that despite the ever changing position of the Valerie Nintz his eyes focused through the spray drenched bridge windows at the horizon each time the ship rose above the waves.

   Ten miles to the northwest lay the Fox Islands, part of the Aleutian chain and his normal route through to the Bering Sea. This time however, he was working his way west along the southern passage to one of the furthest in the chain, Agattu. If the Department of Natural Resources boarded the catch would be enough to avoid suspicion despite two days less in the fishing grounds.

   The horizon came into view again and Maurier’s eyes flickered. There was a faint smudge of black smoke, just visible against the dark sky. He judged the distance around five miles and wondered why his Mate hadn’t seen a blip on the radar or the lookout hadn’t alerted him. He was about to curse them when their combined warning made him jump.

   “Coasties.”

   Maurier looked sideways at the young lookout, Johansson, a big surly Swede dressed in oilskins and a watch cap that covered a shaved head. Johansson was leaning across the chart table, his huge hands training binoculars on the distant smoke.

   The Mate, Eric Nunn, came up behind Pierre and instinctively grabbed the back of the chair as the ship started to roll downward into another trough. He was half the size of Johansson with a full head of dark curly hair that poked out from beneath an old battered peaked cap. His duffel coat and jeans were filthy and crumpled and looked as though he had slept in them for more than a few watches. At sea for most of his fifty years, there wasn’t much anyone could teach him about trawlers, the Pacific Ocean or the Bering Sea – or vodka, the later in particular. He scratched the black stubble on his chin and patted Pierre on the shoulder.

   “What the hell are they doin’ around here?” He shouted above the roar of the sea and spray lashing the bridge windows.

   “They’re protecting us from the baddies,” replied Johansson sarcastically without putting the binoculars down. He grinned. “Maybe they heard we were coming.”

   “That isn’t funny,” growled Pierre, rubbing his eyes. Sleep had evaded them all for two days and this was the last thing he needed. If the coastguard boarded there might be a search, or hopefully he might have to do no more than show his papers. He didn’t doubt for a moment they would board if they wanted to. The sea was rough but not rough enough to stop a determined team of Coast Guards.

   Johansson put the binoculars down and stood up uneasily. “Two miles and we’ll be past the twelve mile limit.” He looked in Nunn’s direction.

   Nunn shook his head. “You know, sometimes I wonder how you ever put to sea.” He shook his head. “If we change course now they’ll wonder what the hell we’re doing going south into the Pacific when they know we’re supposed to be north in the Bering, fishing with the fleet. In two miles they’ll catch us for sure and then we’ll have them climbing all over us. The best thing to do is carry on like nothing’s happening.”

   Pierre knew the man was right and said nothing. They might get away with a call to make sure everything was all right. Maybe they wouldn’t get a call at all. There was a worsening storm to the north of the Aleutians and his decision to try and circumnavigate bad weather by taking the southern route was barely believable, considering no self-respecting captain would consider losing two days unless he was faced with nothing less than a typhoon.

   “US Coastguard calling trawler south of Cape Sedanka, respond please.”

   “Shit.” Pierre threw his mug across the bridge and jumped from the chair. He waved a hand at Johansson. “Take over, Tug.”

   For a man his size, Pierre could move quickly. Five foot six tall, his rotund figure suggested his occupation was anything but a fisherman. He was quiet and normally soft spoken but for all that, his reputation was one of being tough if need be with his crew and a man not afraid to speak his mind.

   “US Coast Guard calling trawler south of Cape Sedanka, respond please.”

   Pierre sat on the Mate’s chair. He rubbed his large nose and ran a hand through his mop of greasy white hair, trying to think of an appropriate response. He picked up the handset. “US Coast Guard, this is the Valerie Nintz out of Seward, over.”

   “US Coast Guard to Valerie Nintz, your course and destination please.”

   Pierre took a deep breath. “Sou’west to Amatignak, northwest to Cape Wrangell and then north into the Bering fishing grounds, over.”

   “US Coast Guard to Valerie Nintz. Close with us and make ready for inspection, captain.” 

   “Confirm inspection, over.”

   Nunn pulled an oilskin from the overhead locker and put it on. “I’ll go and check the cargo,” he shouted. He slid the bridge door open. Icy rain stung his face and blew past him across the deck.

                               “Go and tell our guest to hide,” ordered Pierre. He took the wheel from Johansson. Picking up a handset, he spoke to the crew. “All crew stand by for a Coast Guard inspection.”

   Johansson grabbed at the door as the ship rose up a mountainous wave. He fell heavily against the bulkhead. Cursing loudly, he regained his balance and stepped outside into the biting wind. More spray flew across the bridge, showering the chart table and deck before the door slammed shut.

   Pierre hauled himself up onto the highchair. A cursory inspection would reveal nothing and in the weather conditions that prevailed anything more detailed would be impossible to carry out. He was reassured anyway. The men were all handpicked and knew what was required of them. He watched the distant cutter, a one hundred and ten foot Island class craft with a top speed of thirty knots, changing course and closing on him. She carried a twenty-five millimeter Bush Master mounted on the foredeck and a crew of eighteen men. He was familiar with the cutter – she came from at Seward.

   An inspection might take a couple of hours. Agattu was still three days away, a total of six days from Seward provided they maintained an average speed of ten knots. Meeting the Nicholas on time was essential. More than four hours late and they would have to dump the cargo overboard with loss of pay, something the men wouldn’t be too happy about. There would be a problem with their guest too who would have to be returned to Seward. If the weather stayed foul then the inspection would be quick.

   Nunn and Johansson came back in to the bridge, their oilskins dripping water onto the deck. Nunn crossed to the chart table and began rolling the chart. Directly underneath lay another, a copy of the first but with a different course plot confirming the information Pierre had radioed to the Coast Guard.

   “They’re not going to find anything they shouldn’t,” said Johansson. “Our guest is tucked up in his little hole.”

   “The cargo is okay and it’ll take a full inspection to find anythin’ aft. They’ll only wanna’ check the papers, you’ll see.” Nunn picked up the binoculars and looked out of the window. “The men will be ready as soon as the Coasties come alongside.”

   Pierre sat, looking straight ahead, feeding the wheel through his fingers. He rang for half speed and settled back, watching the bow dip. Within a few minutes a Zodiac would draw alongside carrying one officer and three crew.           

***

At 23.50 hours a bright Aldis lamp flashed three times across the bay from Cape Sabak, the southernmost peninsular on Agattu Island. Pierre, his face bathed in the harsh green light coming from the control panel in front of him, breathed a sigh of relief.

He was good at convincing the Coast Guards the trawler avoided bad weather, particularly when the latest weather forecast warned of increased gale force winds in the Pribilof Islands area west of the fishing grounds, an area he normally set a course through.

   Pierre nodded in Johansson’s direction. “Return the signal, Tug.” He turned to Nunn. “Get all hands on deck. I want this finished as soon as possible.”

   Nunn left the bridge.

   Pierre judged they were no more than a mile from the anchorage. If things went to plan, with the shipment transferred inside two hours, they would be on their way shortly after. The German would also be gone. He didn’t like the aggressive attitude of the man or the way he issued orders. If it hadn’t been for Wesley’s call the day before the shipment arrived in Seward’s rail terminal he would never have taken the man in the first place.

   It was true there were limited funds available for the movement but he questioned the fact that only one pipeline existed. They were taking bigger risks now, more than ever before, especially with this latest consignment. At the meeting he argued for a new route. They could be be compromised at any time. The rest of the board had disagreed, pointing out that setting up a new route might be a good idea but it would be too expensive. Consequently, the vote went against him.

   Ninety minutes later, as the last crates swung up onto the Nicholas, the bridge door opened and Nunn stepped in, followed closely by Alexsander Kralj. He said he was Yugoslav but Pierre knew he was German. Tall and thin, he was dressed in a long leather coat over a navy suit and wore a trilby that masked half his face. Green light glinting off his rimless spectacles gave him a mysterious if not menacing appearance.

   “Well, Captain, all has gone well apart from the abominable food your so called cook has served up during the last six days.” He handed Pierre a large brown envelope. “From your head executive. I have counted the money myself so I hope there is no need to stay while you check it?”

   Pierre wanted to say yes but bit his tongue. “No, I’m sure if it’s wrong, Wesley will be in touch with him.”

   Kralj left without a word, followed by Johansson.

   “Perhaps I could arrange an accident for the bastard, skipper?”

   Pierre grinned at Nunn and opened the envelope. “No, let’s be well shot of him. Anyway, we’ve got something to be cheerful about.” He handed Nunn the envelope after removing two thousand dollars. “Pay the lads and let’s get under way. We’re late as it is and we’ve got time to make up if we’re to look healthy going home.”

   “You want me to burn these, by the way?”

   Pierre looked down at the handful of freight notes in Nunn’s hand. On each one, his name appeared; the shippers, a company called Griggs & West – Hydraulic Engineers – from Edmonton – Alberta – Canada. The contents of each crate appeared on the labels, some as derrick spares and others as parts for the ice breaker hydraulics.

   Pierre nodded. Labels told stories which if checked would prove a lie. The crates sat hidden inside ice boxes, bound for Moscow via the Siberian railroad from Vladivostok.

   Two hours later the Valerie Nintz was several miles north of Agattu, making slow passage through the merciless waves of the Bering Sea. With ice forming on cables and winches, her crew worked in the numbing cold, balancing on the tilting slippery deck.

   Pierre sat on the highchair and watched the chaotic scene. Every man worked at a specific task, often carried out in appalling conditions - conditions that could easily sweep a man overboard in an instant.

   Down in the confined space of the hot engine room engineer Eric Jepson fell sideways as the ship listed. Picking himself up, he rubbed a sore shoulder. It was then he noticed something wrong. The engine sounded right. He would have known if it missed a heartbeat. There was something out of place. He hadn’t noticed it before because he never really looked at the engines, just listened to the rhythmic beat. There were two thin electrical wires, one red and the other blue, taped together and laying half hidden across the top of one of the engines. He followed the route taken by the wires. As realization sunk in, his noisy mechanical world went black and silent.

   Pierre sat sipping coffee when the Valerie Nintz shook. Apart from the thunderous roar of the sea, the crazy corkscrew motion of the ship and the squeak of an enamel mug that swung on a hook above the wheel, he knew instantly that something was wrong. He gripped the sides of the chair. The ship rolled onto her side. Terrified, he watched a deck hand fly through the air past the bridge and into the sea. Tons of water smashed through the screen with a horrendous crash. Pierre took a deep breath and closed his eyes, praying for salvation, but the instant the icy water enveloped him he breathed out with shock and gulped water.

   Within seven seconds the Valerie Nintz and her crew had disappeared, leaving nothing to mark their passing.