He watched over the passengers as they got into the tram. They were all white. The company steadfastly refused African Americans. In his whole career, Martin had only seen two, and whoever let them on board got fired. Research showed that the white passengers didn’t want them on their vacations, and President Barack Obama didn’t change anything about this attitude. Rumor had it that the call center workers had to go through special schooling where they learned how to distinguish white voices and accents from black ones. The location from which the customers called was of great importance, too – the travel agency had the US mapped out down to the smallest details, and race was one of the key criteria. The trips were mostly sold via telemarketing, and when there was a suspicion that the callers were African American, they were told that the cruise was sold out. Their households didn’t get the company’s catalogues, even though the company printed them in the tons and forced them on all of white America. “We’re not interested in who it is, we’re interested in how much he’ll pay,” was the motto of the marketing experts at ADC, but there were some exceptions.
Martin wondered whether recent circumstances would affect the racist company strategy. Much like the book market, during the last couple of years, profit margins for the travel industry and ADC were underwater. Due to the economic crisis, ADC had canceled several of its routes – several of its ships got docked indefinitely in Dutch harbors because they couldn’t be filled with passengers. The number of deckhands was reduced, the bar band left, as did the massage therapist and the magician. Martin also had less money for the itinerary than he used to. Despite these impediments, he thought that the cruise was surprisingly smooth so far – if he didn’t factor in Mona. After an hour, the group returned from their excursion.
“I’m sure today’s walk was challenging even for the fittest among you. But I am convinced that the excellent lunch will restore your energy. You will sample the Austrian specialty tafelspitz, which is a beef tip cooked in vegetable broth with potatoes and vegetables, served by our head chef with an apple-horseradish sauce. If you like, you can also have some spaetzle, which are local dumplings with cheese. Enjoy your meal, and you will be able to find me by the ADC counter in the afternoon. Our kind tour guides have taught you the basics of German, so we can say “good bye” to them!”
“Auf Wiedersehen!” the tourists called out, and it sounded like “Off Wilder Stan.”
People boarded the ship with smiles on their faces. They had figured out the layout of the main deck by now – they had gotten to know the amenities and took full advantage of them.
“Willkommen home! Good Nachmitag ueberall! Hallo hallo, have a schoene day!” the captain offered his greetings.
“Thank you, yes, we feel at home here!” the Americans responded.
To Martin they gushed about the impressive beauty of the upper-Austrian town. Everything seemed “awesome” to them, great, and in the next several days it was Martin’s task to transform that “awesome” into “excellent.”
He stood by the company counter the entire afternoon.
“What can one see in Mauthausen – is it pretty there?” Jonathan asked.
“That is a former concentration camp not far from Linz. About 300,000 people died there.”
“Really? During Communism?”
“No, during the Nazi era.”
“Stalin was an ass, I’ve always said that.”
“Have you heard of Anne Frank? She wrote a diary…”
“Is that a girl from the crew?”
“Did they fire the poor thing?”
“You could say that.”
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“I’m reading Harry Potter.”
“Where did you get that?”
“From the library on board.”
“Which book is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How come you don’t know? There are many of them.”
“Really? I had no idea.”
“There’s at least seven of them. Maybe eight. Maybe there will be even more of them. Some series are continued after the death of the author. They develop endlessly: Dune. Twilight. Lord of the Rings.”
He desired her: her breasts, her thighs, and her warm hips. He took her hand. He asked her to talk about herself, but she was evasive again. He wanted to kiss her, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door. That happened very rarely. His colleagues usually let him be. If someone urgently needed him, they would call his cabin or his cell phone.
“Martin, open up!”
He recognized the voice of the first officer, the Hungarian Tamas. He jumped out of bed, straightened up a little, and cracked the door open.
“What’s going on? Come back later, I’ve got a visitor!”
“I saw everything,” Tamas exclaimed, white as a ghost. “Everything!”
“Let me in, please!”
Tamas’ voice changed from insistent to pleading. He tried to keep his tall figure upright. He had worked on rivers for the last 20 years and he often carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. His face was distorted with terror.
“What is happening?” Martin asked.
Tamas averted his look and moved his sweaty hair from his forehead. He advanced a bit into the cabin.
“It’s very bad…death…”
“Who? Arthur Breisky? I suspected as much…I knew it from the beginning, when I first saw him in Munich!”
He was reminded of everything that needed to be taken care of in case of a death. He had some distasteful paperwork ahead of him. If the tourist had died right at the airport in Munich or Bucharest, it would be the airline’s responsibility, which was an elegant solution. But anywhere else in Europe, ADC, which really meant Martin Roy, was responsible for the body. He felt sorry for the poor old man.
“No, Mr. Breisky is fine. I saw him at the bar with his oxygen mask just a moment ago.”
“Then who? I don’t understand…”
“It looks like a crime was committed.”
“Was something stolen?”
One time, a hotel manager disappeared with the entire crew’s tips, 6,000 dollars. Another time in Passau, two cooks broke into the ship’s safe, and they were never caught – they escaped to South America.
“This is worse. It’s about one of the women on the crew – Venera! It’ll be better if you see it with your own eyes.”
“What? Venera? That pretty Romanian? That’s not possible! Only yesterday…” Mona added.
She was sitting with her hair stuck to her face, and her eyes were bulging with fear. She was gathering her hair pins from the night stand, and trying to compose herself.
“You two don’t know each other,” Martin mentioned. “Mona, this is Tamas Kiraly. Tamas, my friend Mona.”
The thin 40-year-old Hungarian was from the Slovak town of Salka, a settlement on the right bank of the Ipel iver. He was excellent at tolerating exhaustion, and he spoke four languages. He was full of energy and was a dependable worker. As a confirmed bachelor, he didn’t need to take care of a family. An officer’s salary took care of a nice standard of living, though he did dress a bit sloppily. He started working at 6:30 every morning, met with the suppliers, and monitored the deliveries of goods and gas, in general looking after the ship’s management.
“Tell me first what happened!” Martin demanded.
“They probably killed her…”
“I’m coming with you!” Mona declared.
Martin didn’t really have room to run, but he hurried anyway, briskly passing the hallways of the below-deck with his aching leg. He passed by cabins filled with the sounds of sighing and endless conversations about money, the lack of which deprived everyone of happiness. A small crowd was gathered at the end of the hallway. Martin was panting as if he had just finished a marathon. The deckhands made way so he could enter, which surprised him, because he usually had to elbow his way through.
“The body was found inside, in the corner, behind the last washing machine,” said Dragan, the machinist.
Martin couldn’t have imagined the horror that he saw even in his most terrifying nightmare. The mutilated figure was sprawled out, completely indifferent to the hubbub around her. The naked woman looked like a victim, but at the same time also like a mute witness of a crime. Someone subjected her to a terrible butchery. They stabbed her stomach most cruelly, and cut up her face. He suppressed a wave of nausea.