Hal Compton was the greatest liar and coward the Great Lakes had ever hosted as a freighter Captain. A few hundred million tons of iron ore, grain, salt, and limestone is moved across the Great Lakes every year. Hal Compton, however, resolved to add several hundred tons of drugs, guns, and stolen goods across those very same lakes. He made a lot of money from this, but other captains always said that their ships would reflect the integrity of the crew and the captain.
Hal stood and stared out the porthole in his quarters that overlooked Duluth, Minnesota. His cabin was sparsely furnished. What furniture he did have was exotic and expensive, in the eyes of his crew at the very least. The floor was coated in a new beige shag carpet, and the walls were a deeply oiled redwood paneling. The bed was king sized and draped in a soft teal comforter with a brown throw adorning the foot of bed. There was a large steel trunk that sat passed the foot of the bed. Even the steel beneath the carpet buckled under the weight of the chest. A large chromium lock kept the chest clamped shut, permanently if Hal decided so.
Hal swirled some old sour scotch in a small crystal glass and took a moment to relax. Duluth was a port city in northeastern Minnesota on Lake Superior, and was one of the Twin Ports alongside the city of Superior, Wisconsin. The city was home to thousands of mariners and a few notable Captains that Hal had met once or twice. From the docks, the rest of the city spread up and over the hills and cliffs that surrounded Lake Superior. It was mid-November and a dozen or so freighters were docked up to wait out the storm season. The city was at its liveliest when the freight crews were visiting, but throughout the rest of the year it was quiet and uneventful.
The SS Morgan Fairweather rested quietly, held firmly in place by the steel clamps attached to Ore Dock #5. Large waves receded into Lake Superior from the shore and the sides of the dock, but failed to drag the Fairweather out into the frigid waters. The Fairweather was a large, steel, and self-loading lake freighter. Along with other seven-hundred-foot-long lake freighters and Bulkers, the Fairweather hauled grain and taconite to and from Ontario and Cleveland. Her home port was Duluth, Minnesota, in which she was currently resting. She was commissioned in 1956 by a now defunct steel company, and was finished in 1960 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works with no one to own her. Seventh months after the ship was first laid down, a young crime boss no one had seen before in Duluth offered to purchase the ship out of pocket. He paid for it in cash and no one argued. The port authority offered to cover half the cost of the ship, since the docks just wanted the ship to be gone. They did not care if it was sold or scuttled. Despite the views on it, the Fairweather was a beautiful ship when she first launched. Her name was painted in a bright white and clean font, while the hull was a Torino red, polished to the point of being reflective. Though within the last decade, she has tarnished and faded from glory.
Hal spit his scotch back into his glass and angrily picked up the bottle. With no one around to complain to, Hal set the bottle back down after a thorough inspection of its quality. The Great Lakes were notoriously cold in November, yet beads of nervous sweat were forming on Hal’s forehead. He stopped trying to distract himself and marched over to his steel trunk. He sat with his back against the wall of his quarters and placed his feet against the trunk. Hal let out a fierce grunt as he pushed with all his strength, while trying to refrain from pulling a muscle this time. The trunk gave way with an audible scream that echoed throughout the ship.
Hal jumped to his feet and quickly spun open the tarnished and slightly rusty door that sealed off his cabin. He poked his head and then stepped out entirely. He wanted to make sure the crew was gone. After pacing back and forth through the hall for a moment, Hal quickly jogged back into his quarters and shut the door softly behind him. Underneath the large steel trunk was a hatch with a simple plastic combination lock on it. Hal spun the lock until the numbers read out the day and year he was given the Fairweather. The hatch opened to reveal an opening into the now back section of the Fairweather’s cargo hold.
Hal was given the Fairweather three decades ago by the young crime boss who bought it, since he was looking to hire a freight captain that was down on their luck. Hal Compton was the perfect candidate for that, as he had just been fired from U.S. Steel for tearing a hole in the side of a freighter. Hal always claimed that the ice the ship hit was unavoidable, yet his skill as a captain kept his previous ship afloat long enough to reach a safe port. U.S. Steel executives told Hal he should have just sunk with the ship. After that, Hal gladly took the job offer from the young crime boss, yet there was one condition that Hal had to abide by. The ship was to be docked in Duluth during storm season and emptied of all crew. Hal would then give some of the young crime boss’s associates access to the Fairweather’s cargo hold. Hal was told it was to move some personal effects across the lakes, but he picked up on the illegal nature of this work quickly. Despite Hal’s own misgivings, he really did not care. The money was too good.
Hal did, however, go to great lengths to absolve his crew of his dealings. He knew these types of men would tear him apart for involving them in criminal matters, so Hal did everything he could to keep them away. He even went so far as to give the whole crew bonuses if they spent this time in Duluth with friends and family. That was what ultimately worked the best.
Hal left the hatch in his cabin open and made his way out onto the deck. As Hal stepped out from the Fairweather’s halls, a slight rainfall began to sprinkle the deck. Hal tossed his hood over the crown of his head and sauntered over to the edge. A pale moon illuminated a wall of clouds that encroached on the city, yet never seemed to get any closer. Hal rested his arms on the rails and looked out over Lake Superior. He squinted his eyes and tried to spot the lighthouse at Silver Bay through the clouds. Hal knew this was a waste of time. Silver Bay was fifty miles out, and there were other lighthouses in the way. Hal gripped the railing of the deck hard and leaned over the edge of the Fairweather. Her name was barely legible, and her belly was coated in rust and barnacles. Hal let out a shallow sigh and pushed himself back up over the edge. He spun around and sat down with the back of his head against the railing. Hal could feel the slight rising and falling of the Fairweather in the bay water, yet he felt a shiver rise through him as he heard the Fairweather’s old steel bones creaking.
“Yeah, I know. You’re too old for this shit,” Hal said lightly under his breath. Hal never took the time to sit on the Fairweather by himself. There was something about this ship that made it not feel like his own. Hal, of course, knew that was because he was using the ship to smuggle drugs and other assorted contraband across the Great Lakes, but he would not admit that to himself. He would rather ignore the cries of the Fairweather and drink his problems away alone.
For Hal, this trip to Duluth felt different. Hal’s soul searching was interrupted by a distracting flicker of light from the ship’s bridge. He jumped to his feet in a startle and almost slipped on the briny surface of the deck. The bridge door swung open and clanged against the exterior of the lookout. Out popped the head of the Fairweather’s first mate and second in command, Joshua Graham.
“Ah shit, uh, sorry Cap’n. I hit the wrong button, didn’t mean to interrupt your moment! I was just running my final check before we lock her up and leave her with the port authority. I’ll be right down in a quick, uh, yeah one second!” Joshua shouted out the door. A moment after he entered the bridge, the Fairweather’s fog horn sounded off and Hal tripped over the cargo grates in alarm. Joshua Graham was the fourth first mate that has worked on the Fairweather, and had quickly grown on Hal. He had a cool and calm demeanor when the Fairweather was sailing, yet had a refreshingly plucky attitude when the crew was finally off the ship and done working. Despite this, Hal was extremely concerned to see him in that moment. The ship needed to be cleared, and Joshua taking too long to check the equipment would put a huge hole in the usual plan. Before Hal could come up with a plan to get Joshua off the ship, the first mate came bounding out of the bridge and stumbling down the stairs.
“I am so sorry Cap’n, forgot that you are a bit skittish around loud noises. I really figured a Cap’n would get used to the fog horn, especially one who docks in Duluth...” Joshua gave an expecting look at Hal, seemingly hoping for some sort of laugh. Hal’s face was as equally unamused as Joshua’s was enthused, “Oh ignore me. Are you okay there? Took a bit of a spill huh?” Joshua spoke quickly and rarely stopped to breathe. He reached out an energetic hand to Hal who he slowly helped up.
“I’m fine Joshua. Thank you for being so thorough with your checks. Is the rest of the crew gone?” Hal was trying to hide his urgency, and it seemed to work as far as he could tell.
“Oh yeah, they all went into town a few hours back while you were working on finances back in your cabin.” Joshua answered questions directly and promptly, often with some sort of sarcasm.
“And yourself? Are you heading into Duluth?” Hal was trying not to seem prying. “You want to get rid of me Cap’n? Is that what I am hearing?” Joshua’s tone was
suddenly serious and dry. Though not a moment later he struggled to hide a small smile, “I’m just messin’ with ya Cap’n, though... to answer your question, I was, but I decided that I would just bunk in the bridge this time. Hope that isn’t some sort of problem?”
This was not at all the answer Hal wanted. Normally Hal would have delighted in listening to Joshua run a conversation by himself, yet now there was a sudden panic that washed over him as he realized the loading crew and their associates would be here soon.
“How about we go get some drinks, what do ya say? I’m a regular at this nice little pub just off the docks.” Hal attempted to sound genuine, but it came across as urgent. Hal almost flew into a frenzy when Joshua raised an eyebrow at the request.
“You mean it Cap’n? We’ve been sailing on Superior for a near decade now, and you’ve never once invited me or any of the crew out? Ha! Fuck it then, after you Cap’n!” Joshua was completely ecstatic in his response when he realized Hal was serious.
Hal let out a deep sigh of relief as his first mate started to head off to the docking ramp that connected the deck of the Fairweather to Ore Dock #5. Joshua had been right, Hal never invited the crew out with him; he hardly knew half their names. Joshua, unlike the other first mates before him, tried to get to know Hal. He, however, preferred to completely change out the crew as often as possible, and gave few responsibilities to the first mate. This was mainly so no one would ever become familiar enough with the Fairweather to find where smuggled material was stored. It was also so if the operation was ever found out, Hal would never be too attached to the crew, as he knew what would likely happen to them.
Hal and Joshua walked through the lattice work of steel beams that made up the underside of the old and now fragile Ore Dock #5. There was a thick, rusty fog that drifted over the walkway. The machinery whirred and chugged above them. The dock kept a full supply of taconite ready for the moment storm season ended, and the dock’s metal struts and supports buckled under the continuous weight. Hal always thought it was only a matter of time before the dock collapsed.
Hal and Joshua continued to walk in silence up the dock, when Hal spotted a group of men heading down the dock towards them. Hal couldn’t recognize any of them yet, though he figured they had to be there to load up contraband into the Fairweather’s already sick stomach.
Hal did his best to not make eye contact, but as they passed one another, Hal did notice they only had a few bags with them. Joshua stopped for a second and turned around, Hal grabbed him by the shoulder and tugged him onward.
“They’re just some cleaners I hired to scrub the bottom of old Morgan. Been neglecting her as of late, and I probably need to apologize to her somehow.” Hal chuckled a little bit, even he found his own bullshit to be funny.
“Well ain’t that sweet Cap’n. Let’s get out of here then and let the dock boys work,” Joshua shouted out his last remark. Hal never understood why Joshua liked to heckle members of the dock crew, but he always let it go. But those men were not dock crew, and Hal tried his best to shut Joshua up.
Hal sighed and gestured for the two of them to finally get off the dock. They picked up the pace as Hal spotted yet another man at the end of the dock. This was someone he recognized, and had completely forgotten about. Christopher Sheffield, or so he was called, was a messenger that informed Hal of changes to the current operation’s schedule. He was dressed in a clean cream-colored suit with a neatly ironed white shirt under that. His tie was a vibrant shade of red that matched the rims of his glasses. Christopher was staring at his feet and frowning at a speck of dirt on his shoes as the two approached. Hal forgot he would be having a meeting with him here in Duluth, and couldn’t have Joshua here for it, or even have him know about it. Hal had to think quickly, but nothing came to mind about how avoid what was about to happen. Hal and Joshua made it to the end of the dock, and before Hal could speak, Christopher chimed in.
“Howdy Captain Compton. I’m here with Gogebic, LLC, and I have been asked to sit down with you to discuss a change to your usual shipping routes. I, and those I represent, understand that you primarily deal in taconite, yet we are here to offer a delightful change.” Christopher had a cool and calm voice, although there were some evidently sinister undertones that Hal felt like he was hearing.
“If you are offering anything outside of shipping jasperite, we aren’t taking it. Taconite makes good money, and the Cap’n ain’t a fool. He and I both know that only jasperite will make us a large net profit.” Joshua spoke with authority and conviction that Hal himself had never mustered. Both Hal and Christopher were stunned by this, as Hal was still trying to figure out what to say and Christopher was only trying to hide his real intentions.
“And you must be the second in command. Christopher Sheffield. Pleasure to meet you.” Christopher recovered his acting composure and stuck out a hand in partnership to Joshua. “Has this charming man been filled in on our previous work together, Captain?” Joshua took
Christopher’s hand and shook it firmly as Christopher’s seething tone pierced Hal.
“Oh no, he hasn’t. He is right though, jasperite is the only thing that will make us any more money. With that said, my first mate and I are off to get something to drink. Feel free to join us. Otherwise I will discuss this with you in the morning.” Hal didn’t wait for a response and started walking to the pub. Joshua ignored Christopher as well and jogged off after Hal.
“What the hell was that Cap’n?” Joshua was straight to the point when he was upset.
“Nothing important. Those fuckers from Wisconsin have been trying to convince me to move old Morgan over there and work on Michigan. I said ‘fuck that,’ and they have been hounding me about it ever since. Forget about it, okay? Let’s get something to drink.”
By the time the two men got to the pub Hal had mentioned, it was two in the morning and everyone else was already in for the night. It was easy to be clandestine in Duluth, that’s what Hal really liked about it. He was friends with the owner of the bar and pulled out a set of keys to let himself in. The pub was a small older style Irish pub, and Hal preferred it to anything else around Duluth anyway. It had an open floor that was surrounded by small bar tables. The walls around the pub had booths with bright red leather benches attached to them, and the windows all had black curtains over them. Hal could tell the place only recently closed as there were still empty glasses strewn around the place. The owner preferred to clean that up when he came back in the morning. Hal didn’t mind. Hal took off his rain coat, tossed it over a table, and walked up to the bar and dug out a bottle of Bailey’s The two men sat quietly for a while, hoping to drink a conversation out of themselves.
"How many deadbeat daddies does it take to bring up one successful little shit, Hal?" a little under an hour had passed and Joshua chuckled as he swayed in his seat. He seemed drunk, but he teetered with the rhythm of the Great Lakes' waves. Hal pulled a peeling leather stool up to the bar and sat down with his Second. He couldn’t tell if Joshua was getting ready to tell a joke or going to answer his own question, so he sat with an attentive stare. Joshua downed a crystal tumbler of Vodka and tried to uncross his eyes as he prepared his follow-up statement.
"My daddy was a deadbeat, son to a hooker and a half-way home regular. His daddy wasn't much better, some southern white trash that thought the Klan was a bunch of real swell fellas... " Joshua trailed off into a deeper thought as he swirled two drops of grain alcohol around his empty glass.
He shook himself back into the moment and stood up with the confidence and posture of a battle ready general. Joshua then ducked behind the bar continuing his thought aloud as he dug around for some other spirit, "The daddy before him? Same story. Keep going another three or so daddies and what does that leave you with?" He said, pulling out a bottle of Everclear that the bartender used to clean glasses. The bottle said it was safe to drink, but the Captain assumed that did not include men who have already been through two bottles.
"That leaves you with six deadbeat daddies," Hal answered, unsure if the rest of Joshua’s thought was going to lighten the evening mood or be a downer. Hal had too much anxiety in him, he didn’t need a sob story to wash down on top of that.
"Damn right, Cap’n. Six deadbeat daddies. Those sons of bitches couldn't even fucking count that high. It took those six daddies to make me. Now I ain' t no daddy as you know Cap’n,” Hal wasn’t sure if he did know that, but vaguely remembered Joshua telling him that he lived alone. Joshua continued on with his rant, “but if I ever am, I sure as hell know I ain't no deadbeat. I make five-hundred dollars a day, eight months out of the god ... damn ... year. And I work for that. No cheating, no bullshit... Just work, work that I am goddamn good at." Joshua was pouring a glass for the two wanderlust sailors.
"Right you are! You aren't some deadbeat daddy. You're successful. You and I are going to keep that success right where it is: in the palms of our lake-fairing hands," Hal shouted out. The first glass of Everclear was already getting to his head and made his eyes feel hot and toes frigid. Hal knew he was full of it, and downed another glass to drain out the thought.
"To the sailors with shit dads!" Hal boomed with what was left of his captain's authority.
The evening was as light as it could get. Hal peeled off his rain overcoat and dug into his old, frayed, and wool frock coat, pulling out two untouched Cuban cigars. The sailors sat under the bar and drank the night away.
After the bar owner should have arrived in the morning, Hal was awake and struggling to get on his feet without falling onto the bar top. Hal’s head burned, and he couldn’t remember anything other than talking about daddies. He searched for his overcoat, and fished around for his wallet. He dug into his wallet and pulled out a few twenty-dollar bills and dropped them onto the counter, as collateral. Hal dropped his coat and wallet back onto a barstool and poured himself a glass of water from the dish sink behind the bar. As he leaned back and started drinking he noticed that Joshua was still asleep in one of the booths at the edge of the bar by some windows that had curtains closed over them.
The bar was dark and still hazy from the smoke of the still burning cigars. Hal wasn’t sure what time it was, though he assumed it was around six or so in the morning. As Hal was leaning back and starting to drink his water, the front door of the bar swung open and Hal spit out a mouth full in surprise. The light outside was blinding and Hal couldn’t see who was in the doorway.
“Oh shit, I guess I didn’t lock up the bar after we came in. Sorry about that. Starting the day pretty late huh?” Hal shouted across the bar to who he assumed what the owner coming in for the morning. However, out of the intense afternoon light stepped Christopher Sheffield.
He shut the door swiftly behind him, and removed his sunglasses. He was dressed in a stiff and clean black suit and had shiny black leather gloves on. Hal rubbed his eyes and shook his head, waiting for his eyes to readjust to the dark and hoping his headache would shake off too.
“I see your second in command is out cold. May we discuss the matter at hand then?” Impatience accented every syllable of his opening remark.
“Hey Joshua, get the hell up we have church in an hour!” Hal shouted at the unconscious Joshua. Joshua did not stir in the slightest as Hal’s voice echoed throughout the empty bar.
“Yeah, I guess now is as good a time as any.”
“I’m glad that you agree. I hope you understand that I am a very busy man, and I had no intention to spend more than one night in Duluth. You are my only client here, and this has been an unfortunate inconvenience. So, I will make this quick,” Christopher began, sounding more infuriated that this conversation is even happening.
“I’m sorry if I came across as disrespectful, but I felt like spending some time with my second and not dealing with our work the moment I get back from Silver Bay...” Hal could see the frustration and anger grow across Christopher’s face as he interrupted him. Hal cut himself short and let Christopher continue.
“Thank you for shutting your mouth. Now, our mutual benefactor is done with this branch of the operation. He has sent me to inform you that we are no longer in need of your services and the Fairweather is being scuttled to cover up any evidence that this operation ever occurred.” Christopher’s words were short and bitter. Hal almost felt like they came from above him, not from Christopher.
After a moment, the meaning of what Hal just heard dawned on him and his jaw fell wide open. His mind scrambled for a response that would turn this to his favor. He looked for leverage, a witty retort, anything to return some semblance of power to his own hands. After a few minutes of silence, a response rose out of Hal.
“What the fuck!” Hal shouted out. Neither of the men heard the sharp squeak of rubbed leather as Joshua jumped awake in his booth. “You’re doing what? You’re sinking her because you are done? Are you shitting me? If you are done, fine, fuck off. Leave me to my goddamn business. He can’t put me out of work and take her from me because he is done!”
“That freighter is filled with a near ton of chemical residue from thousands of shipments of whatever drug was on it last. Heroin, cocaine, meth, you name it. Not to mention the amount of hair, spit, and blood from the bumbling idiots that we hire to load her up with contraband. The Great Lakes are too expensive to maintain as a source of transportation. So yes, we are sinking her because we are done...” Christopher trailed off as he spotted Joshua sitting up and staring at them from his booth. Hal quickly traced Christopher’s vision to lock eyes with Joshua. Hal dropped his head onto the counter with a thud, and placed his hands over his head.
A slight draft in the room pushed the money Hal left on the counter off onto the dusty floor with a rustle. Hal tensed up as he could hear the leather of the booth that Joshua creak as he shifted his weight. Christopher looked back and forth between the two of them a few times. He then grabbed a bottle of liquor off the nearest table, uncorked it with his teeth, and downed a fair portion of it.
“Well this has been a colossal fuck up of a trip. Hal, deal with your first mate and get your shit together. The Boss will probably want to talk to you himself in a few weeks.” Christopher tilted his head back and emptied his lungs. He patted out some wrinkles in his suit coat and started to leave the pub.
“Did he even think about how many men this is putting out of work. I have a crew of at least thirty...” Hal started to beg with Christopher who raised up a single hand and turned calmly let stiffly to face him.
“Hal, I know you don’t give a shit about that. If you did, you never would have started all this. Did you really think you would still be doing this in another ten years? How many has it already been? Goodbye Hal.” Christopher’s sincerity made Hal’s head itch. Christopher disappeared out of the front door like a soft gust of wind.
Hal barely managed to dodge a copper whiskey glass that Joshua hurled at him from his seat.
“You motherfucker!” Joshua’s voice cracked as he was overwhelmed with frustration.
Hal didn’t react or twitch again, he just waited for a fist or another tumbler to connect with his head and knock him out. A minute passed, and nothing happened. Hal looked up to see Joshua pacing frantically back and forth across the room as he muttered and cursed to himself.
He stopped for a moment and stared with a fierce animosity at Hal. Hal never thought an expression of such anger could come across Joshua’s face. Joshua’s eyebrows twitched and shook rapidly, and it seemed that he was trying to figure out if this was real.
“Am I really supposed to believe that I have been working my ass off for all these years for your petty benefit alone? How the hell is this real! How the fucking hell did I not figure this shit out? How did you hide something like this? Fuck!” Joshua’s voice started to go out and wavered from the shouting. Hal wanted to quiet him down, but decided he didn’t want to have his ass handed to him in a solitary bar fight. “How many years have I worked my ass off to ferry shit up and down the lakes? How many fucking years? Taconite, salt, limestone... That’s what we move! Not fucking heroin! Heroin? Heroin? I can’t even say it with a straight face. You goddamn son of a bitch!”
Hal felt like the bar was going to collapse under the weight of Joshua’s rage. Joshua started shouting at the ceiling in complete incoherent bursts. He started pounding his fists against his thighs and wincing at the pain.
“Joshua... Stop it,” Hal’s voice faded into the storm that was brewing before him. Hal felt his guts twist as he watched Joshua devolve further into an animalistic rage. “I didn’t hire you to help me traffic drugs, Joshua...”
“You shut your fucking mouth and let me figure this out. I don’t want any half-ass explanations. No wonder your cabin is so fucking nice. I never worked on a ship that had a cabin with... what the hell kind of wood is that? Fuck it, what does it matter? Are you going to tell me that you had no choice in any of this? That you just happened to get wrapped up in this? Are you going to tell me that my work has nothing to do with any of this, that I am clean? Fuck you! You want to tell me that this has been going on so many years that I couldn’t hold myself responsible?” Joshua was honestly asking a question.
Hal wasn’t sure if he should answer or not. “Yes,” that was all Hal could muster up the nerve to say. Hal knew that he was completely full of it, but decided that was the best thing he could say to stop Joshua from killing him.
“Yes? Yes? Great, I’m so glad that I figured it out. God damn you. God fucking damn you Hal.”
Hal could tell that both men had the same sudden realization wash over them amidst the shouting. The Fairweather. Was it still there? Even Hal started to think he was dreaming, as none of this seemed to be the least bit in his control. Joshua, having the same thought, sprinted towards the door, knocking over chairs and tables that got in his way. Hal chased after his path of carnage and ran out of the bar.
The air pierced through Hal’s shirt as he felt his gut tense up and his core shiver. He struggled to keep moving as he slipped on the icy pavement. He ran down the bulkhead as Joshua gained distance. He jumped over icy, stiff winches and chains. Hal caught up to Joshua who fell to his knees panting rapidly. Hal looked up to see what made Joshua collapse. Several dozen small puffs of smoke rose from various struts that held up the storage racks of Ore Dock #5. The whole dock bent and twisted as taconite pellets spilled off the dock tons at a time. Hal witnessed on final flash and puff of smoke from a large cross beam that was bearing all the weight of the dock. The beam snapped, and several twenty-foot-long steel rods were sent flying in various directions. They crashed down onto other docks and one landed on another freighter a few hundred feet away. Ore Dock #5 shifted one last time and fell with the full weight of several hundred thousand tons of iron ore pellets on top of the SS Morgan Fairweather. It was unceremonious, as the Fairweather disappeared in an instant. “You goddamn son of a bitch,” Hal muttered to himself.
Fiction piece by Alexander Schindler