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In the Shadow of Tall Stacks
by Stephen Leigh
February 27, 1951
MARDI GRAS WAS LONG past—a full three weeks ago, which unfortunately meant that the bulk of the tourists had vanished back to wherever they’d come from, which in turn meant that it had been a few weeks since the steamboat Natchez had last seen anything resembling a full house for its daily local cruises. At nine in the morning, it was sixty-seven degrees and ninety-seven percent humidity; not raining, though a thick, wet fog still cloaked the Mississippi and the wharf where the Natchez was docked near Jackson Square and the French Quarter. There was barely any breeze, and the fog seemed to squat on New Orleans like some gigantic and foul specter, muffling what little noise the not-quite-awake city mustered.
Wilbur Leathers, captain and owner of the Natchez, wasn’t entirely awake himself, admittedly. The steamboat’s engineer, Patrick O’Flaherty, had roused him an hour ago; he’d wanted to fire up the boilers and check questionable pressure readings in several of the lines before they left the dock to head upriver. The engineer’s knock had also awakened Eleanor, Wilbur’s wife. Wilbur had told O’Flaherty to go ahead, then dressed, kissed the sleepy Eleanor, and gone down intending to supervise the work. He’d also—at Eleanor’s request—started a pot of coffee in the tiny crew mess on the main deck. He held two steaming mugs in his hands as he emerged onto the foredeck. Wilbur heard the boilers to the rear of the main deck already producing a good head of steam and hissing through the ’scape pipes up on the hurricane deck. He sniffed the curling steam from the coffee mugs: his own simply black, Eleanor’s au lait and flavored with chicory.
Eleanor had told him only two days ago that she was certain she was pregnant, having missed her second time of the month a few weeks ago, and now experiencing nausea in the mornings. He’d hugged her tight, both of them ecstatic about the news. He was going to be a father. They were going to start their family. He already loved Eleanor more than ever, four years into their marriage, and he was certain that his son or daughter would only increase the bliss.
The only storm clouds on the horizon of their future were financial ones, though those were tall and plentiful.
Wilbur glanced eastward to where a dim glow heralded the sun that would eventually dissipate the fog. Wilbur judged that it would be an hour or more before the fog cleared enough for easy navigation: a shame. For several reasons, he wanted to be out on the river and heading north to Baton Rouge as soon as possible. Only four of the staterooms were currently booked, but it wasn’t likely that any more were going to fill on a Tuesday morning three weeks after Mardi Gras. They wouldn’t be entirely deadheading; there were crates of good china stacked on the deck due in Memphis by Tuesday next, as well as boxes of felt hats, shoes, and boots destined for the St. Louis markets, but those were barely enough to pay the bills.
Wilbur heaved a sigh, shaking his head.
“Is that my coffee, darling?” He heard Eleanor’s voice from above, and looked up to see her leaning over the railing of the hurricane deck, smiling at him and already dressed for the day. He raised one of the mugs toward her.
“Right here, love.”
“Then bring it up.” She scowled theatrically at him, with a grin lurking on her lips. “Unless you want to deal with a very grumpy wife all morning.”
He laughed. “Coming right up. But I still have to check on O’Flaherty.” Wilbur turned toward the stairs, then stopped. A figure was stalking through the fog and up the gangway of the boat. “Oh no,” Wilbur muttered. “Just what I need this morning.…” Then, loudly enough that the man stepping onto the Natchez’s main deck could hear him: “Mr. Carpenter, what brings you out so early in the morning?”
Marcus Carpenter was a burly, solid, and florid man in a suit that already looked rumpled and slept-in despite the early-morning hour—or maybe the man had been up all night. He looked sour and angry to Wilbur, but then Wilbur had rarely seen the man show any other emotions. “You know what I want, Leathers.” Carpenter glanced up to where Eleanor stood watching, then at the two mugs of coffee steaming in Wilbur’s hands. “Perhaps you and I should discuss this privately.”
“Perhaps we should,” Wilbur told him. He lifted the mug in his left hand toward Eleanor, watching from above, and placed her mug on the railing of the foredeck as Eleanor nodded to him. He took a long swallow from his mug and placed it alongside Eleanor’s. “Let’s go back to the boiler room,” he told Carpenter. “I have to check on my engineer anyway.”
Carpenter gave a shrug. Wilbur led the man back through the door of the main deck, down between the crates stacked there, and into the passage that led back to the boiler and engine rooms. Carpenter followed, and as they entered the short corridor that held the sleeping barracks for deckhands and roustabouts, his voice growled at Wilbur’s back. “Look, I ain’t here to beat around the goddamn bush. I want the money you owe to me and my associates, and I want it today, Leathers. You said you’d have it after Mardi Gras, but somehow none of us have seen a fucking penny so far.”
Such vile language … Carpenter’s habitual spewing of profanity wasn’t the only reason that Wilbur despised the man, but it certainly fit the image.
The heat of the boilers and the hissing of steam surged around them as Wilbur opened the wooden door at the end of the corridor. He couldn’t see O’Flaherty; the man must have gone farther astern to the engine room. Wilbur turned back to Carpenter, who filled the doorway of the boiler room as if blocking Wilbur from retreating that way. “Look, Mr. Carpenter,” Wilbur said, “Mardi Gras just wasn’t as profitable as we’d hoped, and I had some unexpected expenses for repairs on top of that—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Carpenter interrupted. “That’s the same old crap you handed me last time, and your excuses ain’t gonna pay back the loan we gave you or the interest you’re racking up. We’re not happy. When we’re not happy, my job is to ensure that you’re not going to be fucking happy either.”
“Give me just another week, Mr. Carpenter. I’ll get you at least the interest on the loan.”
“A week? And let you take off upriver and maybe never come back?” Carpenter was already shaking his head. He waved a hand at the boilers. “Not a fucking chance. You already got steam up, so there’s no ‘week’ for you or even another day. I need to see the goddamn green in my hand, and I need to see it now.” Carpenter took a surprisingly quick step toward Wilbur, a hand the size of a holiday ham reaching for him before he could retreat, grabbing Wilbur by the collar of his brocaded captain’s jacket and twisting. “I see that green or you’re going to be seeing red,” Carpenter told him. His breath reeked of cigarettes and coffee.
Wilbur glanced down at the hand holding him. His eyes narrowed as he felt heat rising up his neck: “that infamous Leathers temper,” as his mother and Eleanor both called it. “You’ll let go of me, Carpenter. Now.”
“Or you’ll do what?” Carpenter scoffed, the retort sending a spray of saliva into Wilbur’s face. With that, Wilbur sent a punch over the larger man’s arm, slamming his fist hard into Carpenter’s cheek; the man let go of Wilbur, staggering back a step. Then, with a shout, Carpenter charged back in, his huge hands fisted now. Wilbur tried to block the blows, but one connected hard with the side of his face, sending him down to the deck. Carpenter’s foot came back, the toe of his shoe driving hard into Wilbur’s stomach, doubling him over as all the air left him.
Through a growing haze of blood and anger, Wilbur saw a large pipe wrench on the decking under one of the boilers. He snatched at the tool, warm from the heat of the boilers, and brought it down hard on Carpenter’s shoe. He heard bones crack in Carpenter’s foot as the man howled. “Shit! You fucking asshole!”
Wilbur managed to get his feet under him, hunched over as he waved the wrench in his hand toward Carpenter. He took a step toward the man, raising the pipe again. “This is my boat, not yours!” he shouted as he advanced. “I built her and she’s mine. You’ll get your money in due time, all of it—I keep my promises and I pay my debts. Now get the hell off my boat or I’ll throw you off.” The curse word was an indication of just how furious Wilbur had become: he’d always been taught that gentlemen never cursed, and despite the fact that he heard profanity regularly from crewmembers, dockworkers, and the likes of Carpenter, he only rarely used such language himself. He took another step toward Carpenter, still waving the wrench.
What happened then would remain indelibly in his memory. As if in slow motion, he saw Carpenter reach under his suit jacket and pull out a snub-nosed revolver. The first shot went wild, hitting one of the steam pipes and sending a cloud of searing, scalding heat over Wilbur.
In that moment, even amidst the adrenaline surge and before Carpenter could pull the trigger again, Wilbur felt something shift and change and break inside him, the sensation taking his breath away and making him drop the wrench from the shock and pain. His body no longer seemed completely his. Wilbur was still trying to make sense of what was happening to him when the next two shots hit him directly in the chest.
He expected to feel pain. He didn’t—not from the steam, not from the bullet wounds. Enveloped in the surging, deadly cloud, he felt himself fall, sprawling and bleeding on the deck. Inside, though—that change was still happening, still tearing at him, even as he felt his body dying around him.
“You fucking asshole!” Carpenter shouted, standing one-footed and looking down at him as Wilbur tried to shape words, tried to shout or scream or wail, though nothing emerged from his mouth. “Maybe I’ll just take out the interest from that pretty wife of yours, you goddamn bastard.”
Carpenter spat on the body, turned, and started to limp away toward the foredeck and gangway. Toward where, Wilbur was very afraid, Eleanor would be. His rage engulfed him, as hissing and furious as the steam venting from the pipes. Within the steam, he felt power surge within him. He rose, screaming wordlessly as he rushed toward Carpenter.
The man’s mouth opened, his eyes widened almost comically, as if Wilbur were the vision of some monstrous creature leaping toward him as he lifted his hands to ward off the attack. Wilbur expected to feel the shock of their collision, but there was none. Instead—strangely, impossibly—he was inside Carpenter. “No! Fuck! You’re burning me!” the man shouted, and Wilbur heard that scream as if it were his own voice, and he heard Carpenter’s thoughts as well. Shit! Shit! It hurts. It’s burning me, and I can’t breathe! Can’t breathe … Carpenter’s hands flailed at his own body as if trying to put out an invisible fire, and Wilbur felt the motion of Carpenter’s hands as his own. Wilbur could see through the man’s eyes as well, and he saw his own body bleeding on the floor of the boiler room, eyes open and unseeing as steam continued to flow outward over it.
“Is that me? How?” he gasped, and he heard his words emerge from Carpenter’s throat. But he could also feel the searing agony in the man’s body, and Wilbur took a step away from the man as Carpenter collapsed on the floor, twitching and vomiting dark blood and bile before going still.
Stream wreathed Wilbur as he stared now at two bodies in the room: Carpenter’s and his own. “Wilbur!” he heard Eleanor shout distantly, and from the engine room farther to the rear of the Natchez, O’Flaherty also called out: “Cap’n? M’God, what’s happened here?”
The hissing steam around Wilbur died as O’Flaherty cut off the flow to the pipes. O’Flaherty hurried forward, glancing at Carpenter before crouching down alongside Wilbur’s impossibly disconnected and bleeding body, ignoring the Wilbur standing behind him dripping cooling steam.
“O’Flaherty,” Wilbur said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m right here. Behind you. Look at me, man.” He reached out to touch the engineer on the shoulder; his hand, pressing hard, went straight into the man, leaving behind a spreading wet stain on his coveralls. O’Flaherty, for his part, jumped up and slapped at his shoulder with a curse.
“Feck, I’m burned. I t’ought I shut off—” He stopped. He stared at Wilbur. His face went pale. “Sweet bleedin’ Jaysus, ’tis the cap’n’s haint,” he whispered, his Irish-accented brogue heavy as he scrambled backwards away from Wilbur like a scuttling crab, pushing with his feet and hands.
They both heard growing cries of alarm from the foredeck: Eleanor’s voice, as well as the deeper shouts of sleepy deckhands roused by the gunshots. O’Flaherty found his footing and went running toward the sound. With a glance back at the bodies (That can’t be me. That can’t be me lying there dead.) Wilbur followed. O’Flaherty had let the door to the boiler room shut behind him. Wilbur reached out to push it open; the door didn’t move but his hand went through it as it had into Carpenter and O’Flaherty. Wilbur drew back and tried again with the same result. This time, he continued to push—his entire body passing reluctantly through the door, like pushing through a sheet of gelatin.
He didn’t pause to wonder at that; he went through the corridor, among the stacks of crates, and out onto the foredeck. A couple of deckhands had gathered there, trying to find the source of the disturbance. O’Flaherty was holding Eleanor, who struggled in his grasp, trying to go toward the boiler room. “Yah should’nah see the cap’n that way,” O’Flaherty was telling Eleanor, “nor his haint.”
“I need to … I need…” Eleanor gasped, then broke into a deep sobbing as she sagged in O’Flaherty’s arms.
“He’s gone, Missus Leathers. Gone. I’m so sorry,” O’Flaherty whispered, clutching her. Wilbur could see the two mugs of coffee, still sitting on the foredeck rail. “At least he took that bastard Carpenter with him.”
“Eleanor, he’s wrong. I’m not dead.” Wilbur moved behind O’Flaherty so he could look into Eleanor’s face. “I’m right here.” Her gaze stared through him, a wisp contained within the fog-draped sunlight, as Eleanor continued to sob in O’Flaherty’s arms. He could feel his body cooling, water puddling where he stood. “Eleanor, O’Flaherty—talk to me!” Neither of them responded.
Wilbur reached out—careful not to press too hard—to touch Eleanor’s shoulder. He saw the fabric of her robe darken as his fingertips touched her, drops of water spreading out and steaming in the cooler air as Eleanor drew back in alarm. He pulled his hand back, startled. His world and New Orleans reeled around him suddenly in a drunken, wild dance.
“I’m not dead,” he whispered to Eleanor, to the fog, to the boat, to the river. “I’m here. I’m not dead. I’m right here.”
No one answered.
Copyright © 2017 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust