UNDER SPANISH FLAG
In the port of Tangier, on the last day of April, 1941, the fall of the Mediterranean evening was, as always, subtle and slow. Broken cloud, the color of dark fire in the last of the sunset, drifted over the hills above the port, and streetlamps lit the quay that lined the waterfront. A white city, and steep; alleys, souks, and cafes, their patrons gathering for love and business as the light faded away. Out in the harbor, a Spanish destroyer, the Almirante Cruz, stood at anchor among the merchant steamers, hulls streaked with rust, angular deck cranes hard silhouettes in the dusk.
On board the tramp freighter Noordendam, of the Netherlands Hyperion Line, the radio room was like an oven and the Egyptian radio officer, known as Mr. Ali, wore only a sleeveless undershirt and baggy silk underdrawers. He sat tilted back in his swivel chair, smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder and reading a slim, filthy novel in beautifully marbled covers. From time to time, he would remove his gold spectacles and wipe his face with a cloth, but he hardly noticed. He was used to the heat, the effect of a full day's sun on the ship's steel plate, and, come to that, used to these ports, hellholes always, Aden or Batavia, Shanghai or Tangier, and he was much absorbed in the noisy pleasures of the people in his novel. On the wireless telegraph before him, a gray wall of switches and dials, the ether crackled with static, his duty watch had less than an hour to run, and he was at peace with the world.
Then, from the static, a signal. On the BAMS frequency--Broadcasting for Allied Merchant Ships--and, he thought, far out at sea. He set the book face down on the work shelf below the radio, put on the headphones, and, with delicate thumb and forefinger, adjusted the dial for the strongest reception.
Q, Q, Q, Q.
For this message he didn't need the BAMS codebook--not since May of 1940 he didn't. It meant I am being attacked by an enemy ship and he'd heard it all too often. Here it came again, the operator fast and heavy on the key. And again, and again. Poor man, he thought. His fellow radio operator on some battered old merchantman, tapping out his final message, his ship confronted by a surfaced submarine or an E-boat raider, the shot already across her bows or her engine room torn apart by a torpedo.
What Mr. Ali could do, he did. Opened the radio logbook, noted the date and the time, and recorded the anonymous cry for help. DeHaan, captain of the Noordendam, would see it when he put the ship to bed for the night--he never failed to check the logbook before going to his cabin. If they had been at sea, Mr. Ali would have notified the captain immediately but now, in port, there was no point. Nothing they could do, nothing anyone could do. It was a big ocean, British sea power concentrated on the convoy routes, there was nobody to challenge the enemy or pick up survivors. The ship would die alone.
The signal went on for a time, fifty seconds by the clock on the radio array, and likely went on longer still, perhaps sending the name of the ship and its coordinates, but the transmission disappeared, lost in the rising and falling howl of a jammed frequency. Bastards. Mr. Ali watched the clock; five minutes, six, until the jamming stopped, replaced by empty air. He was taking the headphones off when the signal returned. Once only, and weaker now, the ship's electrical system was almost gone. Q, Q, Q, Q, then silence.
DeHaan, at that moment, was ashore--had just left the gangway of the harbor launch and approached a battle-scarred Citroen parked on the pier, taxi tarzan painted on its door, its Moorish driver stretched out in the back, hands clasped beneath his head, for his evening nap. DeHaan looked at his watch and decided to walk. The rue Raisuli was supposedly just beyond the Bab el Marsa, Gate of the Port, which he could see in the distance. He had been invited--ordered, he thought, that was the honest word--to a dinner given by a man called Hoek. Other than the fact that such things never happened, a perfectly normal request, so, one better go. Put on the shore uniform--double-breasted navy blazer over a soft gray shirt and dark wool trousers, and the tie, blue with a silver spaniel--and go.
Excerpted from Dark Voyage by Alan Furst Copyright© 2004 by Alan Furst. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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