The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte


He did not give her his hand. She lay on the floor, like Zas on the rug of the apartment in Madrid. Thousands of years had gone by, but that was the one thing he could not forget. He watched her lips move a little more, pronouncing words he couldn't hear because he had got to his feet and was looking around with a dazed air. He saw the block of emeralds on the table, the black revolver on the floor, the red pool that kept spreading and spreading, and El Piloto's back, bent over Tanger. He walked across his own desolate plain as he went through the room and down the stairs, stepping past the corpse of Palermo, who was lying feet up and head down, his eyes neither open nor closed, the shark smile frozen on his face, and his blood running down the stairs to the feet of the terrified receptionist.

The night air sharpened his senses. Leaning against the wall he felt the blood from his wound running down his side. The clock in the city hall struck once, at which point the stern of the Felix van Luckner slowly began to move away from the wharf. Beneath the deck's halogen lamps he could see the first officer overseeing the sailors on the forecastle by the hawseholes. Two men—undoubtedly the pilot and the captain—were on the flying bridge, alert to the distance between the hull and the wharf.

He heard El Piloto's footsteps behind him, and felt him lean beside him against the balustrade.

"She's dead."

Coy said nothing. A police siren sounded in the distance, approaching from the city below. On the dock the last line had been cast off and the ship began to move away. Coy imagined the darkness of the bridge, the helmsman at his post, and the captain watching the last maneuvers as the bow pointed between the green and red signals at the mouth of the port. He could imagine the shadow of the pilot crawling down the rope ladder to the launch. Now the ship was picking up speed, slipping smoothly toward the black, open sea, its shimmering lights reflected in the wake. One last hoarse blast of her horn sounded a farewell.

"I held her hand," said El Piloto. "She thought it was you."

The police siren was closer now, and a flashing blue spark appeared at the end of the avenue. El Piloto lit a cigarette, and the flare of his lighter blinded Coy. When he opened his eyes, he could see that the Felix von Luckner was already in open water. He felt an intense longing as he watched her lights grow dim in the night. He could smell the coffee of the first watch, hear the captain's footsteps on the bridge, see the impassive face of the helmsman lit from below by the gyroscopic compass. He could feel the vibration of the engines below-decks, as the watch officer bent over the first nautical chart of the voyage, newly unfolded on the table to calculate a good course drawn with rulers, pencil, and a compass, on thick paper whose conventional signs represented a known and familiar world ruled by chronometers and sextants that allowed a man to keep his distance from land.

Oh God, he thought, I hope they let me go back to sea. I hope I find a good ship soon.

LA NAVATA, DECEMBER 1999