“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale….”
Captain Bruno Bolton insisted on playing the Gilligan’s Island theme as every tour group excitedly made their way up the gangway for the morning fishing tour aboard the SS Minnow. Bruno maintained it added to the Hollywood experience for every visitor to L.A. I remained skeptical but happy to roll along with the charade up to the point where he called me Little Buddy.
While the fishing off Malibu rarely achieved the ‘world class’ standard we advertised, catching a couple of dopey halibut and a high-speed waterside tour of the beachside mansions of the rich and famous kept our TripAdvisor rating at a healthy three. Pointing out a random house and declaring it the home of Three and a Half Men always bought the happy snappers home with a smile.
The Minnow usually accommodated groups of up to twenty passengers, but the depths of winter and a rare week of rain had limited today’s tour to a family of six. Enough to cover costs, but nowhere near enough to top up my meagre wage with plentiful tips. As Bruno hid on the bridge, sneaking a final belt of morning courage from a beaten pewter hip flask, I hit the music and greased up my well-practiced ‘Welcome Aboard’ smile.
The City of Angels welcomed Beth, her parents and three much younger siblings from the depths of a bitter Minnesota winter. I figured Beth was either an early surprise or a first marriage legacy, but she looked more like a nanny than a sister.
In hindsight; the chill I felt as I settled the family on board had nothing to do with their grey snowbound life stories. Call it sailor’s intuition, déjà vu, whatever you like, but I felt an ominous spectre cloak the Minnow as we pulled away from our Santa Monica mooring.
Our regular passengers endured the mandatory safety briefing with vacant ocean gazing or phone checking, but not Beth. When her black shark-like eyes weren’t burning a hole through me as I recited from the battered welcome aboard script, they were darting left and right like she was by snapping and storing mental pictures. By the time I finished, Beth was mouthing every word as if it were her own.
I was usually ok with being followed around the boat by starry-eyed kids dreaming of a life of freedom at sea, but by not a delicate twenty-something woman in a thick grey plaid skirt, pearls and horn-rimmed glasses. Despite managing a polite and happy façade, I knew my attempts to avoid eye contact while busying myself with pointless tasks were betraying the fact she was freaking me out.
I felt Beth move in close beside my right shoulder as I set about preparing the fishing rods for each family member. She stood mesmerised as I carved chucks of frozen bait with a razor-sharp filleting knife and shared a secret breathless moan, each time the ruby-red pilchard flesh of the surrendered to cold steel.
With the fishing rods baited and cast, the family laughed and chatted excitedly as their baits settled on the bottom and they felt the first nibbles on their lines, but not Beth. She stood silently to one side, letting the line run out with the drift of the boat until I snapped the bail over, “There you go Beth, all you do now is wait for a bite and then reel the fish in.”
I was in the galley preparing snacks and cold drinks when the trouble started. As I juggled a full tray up the narrow galley stairs, I spotted Beth’s rod in the holder, but no Beth.
Head count, no Beth.
Port, no Beth.
I found Beth starboard, staring transfixed over the dark Pacific waters clutching my long bladed filleting knife.
Part panic, part relief, all adrenalin, I lunged, grabbing at her wrist, “Beth, what are you doing?”
With a surprising turn of speed and strength she wrenched her arm free. I heard my shirt tear and looked down to see dark blood spreading across the front of my white SS Minnow crew shirt.
She lowered her head, as if sizing me up for her next attack.
Eyes darker. Voice deeper, “Beth’s not here!”
© David Miller 2015