The only transportation Laurel could find on such short notice was a fairly fast ship to Nome, Alaska. It was a two-day trip, but it left that day. She bought a ticket.
Nothing happened other than breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then breakfast, lunch, and dinner, before they got to Nome. Laurel walked down the gangplank wheeling her suitcase behind her. She rolled it into the ticketing office, plopped her purse onto the counter, pulled out her wallet, and said to the ticket agent “Ticket to Shanghai please, leaving today if you got it.”
It took two hours to obtain. It would have taken longer if she hadn't remembered to put her passport in the outer compartment of her suitcase, where she could get to it quickly. She still got a lot of peculiar looks from the ticket agent.
By the time she got the ticket, she barely had time to give her face a quick cold rinse in the bathroom and dash to the correct dock. She staggered up the gangplank all out of breath, practically crawled to her cabin, collapsed on the bed and sobbed herself to sleep.
A week and a half later Laurel left the cabin for a walk around the ship. Ten days of room service and video had her more tense than she thought she'd be – she found herself surprisingly anxious for a little human contact. The morning sun, the ocean breeze, the gentle back and forth of the ship woke her up from ten days' worry. She leaned against the rail and watched the rolling waves go by, releasing the scent of brine and an occasional whiff of rotting sea life.
She went to the dining room for lunch. She wasn't as anxious for human contact as she'd thought, but she didn't feel like she could just turn around and leave. Besides, she was hungry.
Lunch was buffet-style. She took green salad, macaroni salad, roasted corn and fruit salad – more kinds of salad than she'd seen in a while. A glass of iced tea, and she headed off to a table off against the wall.
She sat, sipped her tea and got the letter out of her purse. She got past the first ten words of so when a voice said “No meat?”
She looked up into the eyes of a pudgy but handsome middle aged man with gray hair brushed to the side, a Hawaiian shirt decorated with poinsettias and mid-thigh denim shorts. “Uh...no, no meat.”
He smiled. Nice expression, though his teeth were a little dingy. “Mind if I join you?”
He sat down. “Haven't seen you on deck. Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” She turned back to the letter. Maybe he'd get the idea.
Nope. “I'm Chuck.”
She looked up. He was still staring at her, munching on a chicken leg.
“Hi.” She looked down again.
“And what's your name?”
This was not going to be easy, was it? “Laurel,” she muttered, not looking up.
“Well, Laurel, why haven't I seen you up on deck all week?” In a voice that might have worked once upon a time with some desperately lonely high schooler, but she doubted it.
She still didn't look up. “Look, Chuck, do you mind? I've got to get this reading don.” Which wasn't strictly true - she'd read it over at least fifteen times – but he didn't have to know that.
“Okay, okay, I won't bug you.” But he didn't leave. Persistent bugger.
Laurel did her best to ignore him, eating lunch and reading the letter, but the creep's presence distracted her. She had the damn thing memorized, but found herself reading the same two sentences five times over without absorbing their meaning. Damn. She looked up. “Chuck, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm having trouble concentrating, would you mind moving?”
He looked her in the eye and his lips curled – maybe he meant it as a grin, but it looked more like a snarl. “Yeah, matter of fact I would, bitch.”
She stared at him for about thirty seconds. Couldn't quite believe what she'd heard. He just stared right back.
She finished her salad, stood up and headed for the door. Halfway there she head his faint “bitch” come to her ear.
She paused, considered going back and giving him a piece of her mind. Her blood pounded in her temples. The lousy mother...
What was the point? She walked out, went back to her stateroom, picked up the phone and ordered a veggie plate. Cost about one and a half times as much as the dining room lunch. The extra was worth it to avoid the creeps.
After another week in the stateroom, Laurel tried another meal in the dining hall. No creeps this time. She finished her food – good stuff – and strolled around the deck in the setting sun. The letter came to her mind. She had the thing memorized by now. The news was no better for having read it a few dozen times. No money. How do you get used to being poor after a lifetime, anyway?
And here came Chuck, looking her right in the eye. She couldn't pretend she hadn't seen him. Shit. She turned and walked away from him as fast as she could.
No good. His footsteps on the deck caught up with her quickly. “Excuse me, Laurel, we need to talk.”
She stopped, turned and faced him. “No we don't. Leave me alone.”
“Yes we do.” His expression – not the face of the creep she'd met yesterday. This was the face of...well, of someone you'd better listen to.
She took a deep breath. This was not going to go well. “Who are you?”
He kept his face still. Didn't even bother to smirk in triumph. That made it worse somehow. “My name is Charles Zellworth and I represent to people who sent you that letter I saw in your hand at lunch yesterday.”
Laurel swallowed hard. What to say? Questions flew through her mind – hos did he find her? How did he get on this ship? Why hadn't he identified himself yesterday? What did he and his employers want now?
No, she'd make him do the work. “Well?”
“Well, when can we expect payment from you?”
That's all they cared about, the cash. “Can I see some credentials, please?”
That got a reaction from him. He curled his lip in disdain, pulled out his billfold and rooted around in it.
Laurel considered running away, but where could she go? Even if she got away from him – even if she found a place to hide, the law was with him and the ship's crew would doubtless help him track her down. She stood still until he pulled out a card and turned it toward her. Sure enough, he was who he claimed.
He put the card back in his wallet and the wallet went back in his pocket. “All right, Laurel, when are you going to pay us?”
She had talked to lawyers before this trip. “I'll discuss it with you when we make port. Right now we're in international waters.”
Now he smirked. “Clever. Very well, I'll wait. But I'm not here alone. I'll have eyes on you 24/7 until we reach Shanghai. Don't go anywhere.” He turned and walked away.
Laurel watched him go. Don't go anywhere. Now there was a thought.
At 3:00 the next morning, Laurel took the plastic-lined waterproof backpack out of her suitcase, moved her tropical clothes and sunscreen and the letter and a few books and other necessities from her suitcase into the waterproof pack, and zipped it shut. She took her diving suit, flippers, aqualung and knife and put them on. She locked the stateroom. The key was on the desk inside.
With the flippers in her hands, she tiptoed barefoot to the deck rail, put the flippers on, checked her wrist compass. Looked around – no visible observers, despite what “Chuck” had said. She tipped herself over the side and splashed into the water.
It was freezing, although nothing compared to what it probably would have been a few degrees north. Thank God for the previous few months of practice in cold baths that she had started as soon as the letter arrived and she started to plan this whole business.
She spent the next few minutes treading water to warm up as she watched the ship sail off into the distance. Bye, Chuck. Bye, creditors. Bye, world. She'd never liked it much anyway.
When the layer of water between her skin and the diving suit had warmed, she checked her wrist compass again, turned three degrees to port and kicked off. In about an hour she'd either be on a tropical island or in some shark's stomach. Better than hanging around with no money.
After 45 minutes, the sun began to rise in front of her.