When he had applied for the position advertised as Crewman, Jim knew something was a little strange about the whole affair. He was told only what he needed to know, had to keep his nose out of the business and had to be prepared for anything. They paid well so he didn’t press them. He had to be multi skilled, for starters. He was good on boats, wanted to be an actor, played the guitar, had an electronic/electrical qualification and could abseil. Mr and Mrs Buckling had seemed very impressed with his list of qualifications and experience. Normally he had a problem with his resume because prospective employers normally didn’t like to see a five-page job list. They had been disappointed at his initial cut back one page and so he drew out his full job list.
He was told that after two or three jobs, he would be given more information about what the family business was all about but until then all he had to do was to take orders without question, do some strange things, mind his own business and be very discreet. If he got through a period without being difficult more permanent work would be offered to him.
When he first arrived at the port and looked out at the man-of-war, he hesitated, looked around before blurting out, ‘we don’t have to kill anyone, do we?’
‘No, at least we ‘aven’t had to yet.’ Came the reply from the Captain.
When they arrived at the ship general introductions came from all around.
The Captain was busy with an introduction to his first mate when a large, white bird flew in and landed on the Captain’s shoulder.
‘This is Krok.’
‘Nice to meet you Krok, are you going to krok or krow for me?’
The Captain looked at him with a puzzled expression.
‘They make a ‘krok’ when happy and ‘krow’ when feeling aggressive.
‘How old is he?’
‘Twenty plus years.’
‘Twenty years! He’s got to be the oldest Egret…’ at the look on Swash’s face, he realized this was one of the not up for discussion subjects. Jim continued trying to be helpful, ‘Cattle Egrets have a good distribution around Australia. When I worked on the cattle range we had a lot of colonies around. They ride the beasts and eat ticks and blood-sucking flies amongst other things. It’s odd though. They usually avoid marine environments.’
‘Uh…I’ll get you to contact my son and bring some grubs or somethin’, remind me to give you his mobile. Well ‘ere we are then.’ They had moved down a couple of levels to his new shared living quarters.
Jim was concerned that the Captain seemed to have little knowledge over his feathered companion but Krok looked healthy enough. He turned to wink at the bird who was eyeing him off with new interest.
He had a few weeks to settle in before Plan 416 would be executed. He put a note in his diary to remind the Captain about ringing the son, Swank. Strange names but he’d been around enough not to ask too many questions.
He found his way around as well as the people to report to. He carried out his duties loving the sea vessel and characters aboard. He had been briefed on the upcoming job and thought it pretty straight forward.
He played for the crew most nights and found that Krok Spiky, displayed in his magnificent breeding plume, would often join them.
He didn’t bump into Mrs Buckling that much, most of his duties were the late shifts. The Captain he saw occasionally but he mainly worked with two long term employees, Mac and Dave. Just like him, they had been given pseudo names.
He loved the night skies the most. The days were warm and nights clear. The stars were bright and twinkled, encouraging. Mac had a 15’ Telescope. It would take the three of them to get it up and then assist Mac to set it up. They studied the stars.
At day they would head toward their bunk room which housed twenty crewmen. They settled on their bunks, locking in any personal items in individual trunks. Larger items were kept in a separate room and keys were only given to the in-charge person.
‘What are ya writing now, Jim?’
It still took him a couple of seconds to register that he was being spoken to.
‘I’m writing a poem about the stars.’
‘Poetry? You a fag or something?’
Jim grinned at him. He’d been asked that before and took no offence. The first time he’d been asked that he ended up in a fistfight and came out with a black eye and broken rib. That fellow had told him that he should lighten up a little.
‘No. The women really love it when you write poems, especially for them.’
‘No kiddin’. My missus would look at me with a queer eye.’
‘I think he means a woman that you’re not married to Dave.’
‘Oh. I guess, never tried it, though. I met my missus down the pub. She was the bar supervisor and knew how to handle herself.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘One night I got a bit drunk and I asked her if she’d ever had, well you know, she had replied ‘no had you?’ and then she smacked me across the face. It was love alright. She wanted me bad. We were married four weeks after that.’
‘Wow, that’s romantic.’ Mac rolled his eyes.
‘Well, tell us your love tale?’ asked a defensive Dave.
‘Don’t have one.’ He paused significantly, ‘I got myself three.’ And hooted rather loudly, disturbing a nearby sleeper. He shut his mouth quickly. He leaned forward conspiratorially toward Jim, ‘I wouldn’t mind a poem or two.’
‘Twenty bucks a pop.’
Dave laughed quietly but rolled around his bunk indicated a greater amusement.
‘Guaranteed to impress.’
‘I’ll try one, but if it doesn’t work…’
‘What about you Jim, what’s your deal with women?’
Jim put down his pad and pen and picked up his guitar giving it a rough strum. ‘I once had a filly, who turned out to be silly, I once had a lady, who wanted 10 babies, I once had a chick, who ditched me quick, I once had a dame, who played too many games, I once had a lass, who gave me sass, I once had a bird who called me a turd, I now have a sweetheart but we are apart.’
‘What’ll you sing if your current sweetheart dumps you?’
‘I once had a sweetheart who let out ripper farts.’ He strummed the guitar violently at the end.
They all laughed, waking a grumpy crewman.
The Next Shift
Jim got up and remembered to ring Swank. He did so at 7pm knowing that a teenager wouldn’t like being woken up early on a Saturday. He didn’t know what to expect but what he heard on the phone was someone quick of mind and obviously intelligent. Not like the innuendo, he heard at all.
A day before the job, a couple of things happened.
He gave Mac the poem. The three of them went down to read it. Jim wanted to see their expressions.
The other thing that happened was that Swank came aboard, but Jim only heard this through second-hand news since he was asleep at the time. When he awoke the family were in their cabins already. He heard about the frisking and even though Mac and Dave wanted his opinion he shrugged only saying he didn’t know enough to have an opinion. In fact, he thought it ridiculous. If it was that much of a problem, why have the teen on the ship?
They carried out their duties getting ready for the job. They had short work shifts because they all had to be on deck at day to carry out the Plan.
He slept like a log as he always did and woke feeling fresh. He had learnt to do this when he was working as a barman, local musician and stockman.
He started at eight in the morning and knew he would be going till ten at night. The perks of being the ‘new guy.’
Plan 416 went like a dream. He received his share and contentedly crashed for a few hours to be ready to be back on deck at 3am.
After the Job
There were few people on deck. Most were catching up on sleep. They had sailed to an isolated island that had a ragged cliff coastline. They edged into a secluded harbour and lay anchor. They would stay there until the Captain cleared them to leave.
Jim had an hour break; he sat on a rope bale and gazed up at the stars and the dark outline of the coast. In his hand lay a box. He opened it up. The ring glistened in the moonlight.
When they got to port he was going to pop the question. He and Amy had been together for twelve years. The song he had strummed had all been about her. They had broken up a number of times and then got back together. It was always for the same reason he couldn’t commit. He couldn’t commit to her or to any job. He was determined to stay with this job. He couldn’t admit it to himself but it was perfect. He could use all his skills, move around, be apart sometimes, a break they both needed, and it paid well and would support them both. She was an artist, a struggling one at that and though he never said he could see why. But she had a passion for what she did and put her heart into it. She would joke and say that when she was dead, she would be famous. He doubted it but when she said that he began to realize how important she was to him. She was a good cook, cared for their house and their garden was like a painting. He thought she’d be better off landscaping but knew this would begin an old argument. She had had to work part-time as well and couldn’t afford the money or time to go back to school. Now she could though, he wanted to give her something in return for all her years of putting up with him.
He moved around a little on the bale. He actually felt at home with this job. The best thing was that you didn’t know what would happen a month from now. It was told to him by an experienced crewman was that they had to change personas to ensure they wouldn’t be captured. He always wanted to be an actor and had told the informant of that desire. He had replied that he was in the right job then. The more skills he had the more useful he’d be. Everyone got tested thoroughly first though. Apparently, he rated high on the first job.
He asked what happened to those that didn’t pan out. It was a mistake to ask. He got the evil eye and then told him to mind his own. He wondered if that blunder would be marked down somewhere on some mysterious register against his name.
He gazed back at the stars feeling a light breeze on his bare arms and face. He scratched his fingers the unfamiliar hair on his chin. He wondered when he would have to shave it off, it gave him a distinctive rakish appearance. It might appeal to Amy. Thinking of her again he tried thinking of different ways of avoiding explaining his new job.
He saw Mac approach with two soup mugs.
‘Here ya go. Fresh outa the can.’
‘Thanks. I was just wondering what I was going to tell my current sweetie about my job. Any suggestions?’
‘Easy mate, just tell her your working for a major merchant firm. Sometimes the job takes us to sea and other times on land. That way you can always tell her where you are and not get into any trouble. Didn’t the Captain or the missus, excuse me, Mrs Buckling tell you the cover?’
‘There was no time, I think they were a little preoccupied with things.’
‘No worries. The Buckling’s have a legit business called Buckling Merchant Holdings PTY LTD. Everything is covered.’
‘Everything…what if Amy were to ‘pop’ in and see me if we were onshore.’
‘No problems, mate, even that is taken care of.’
‘How?’ Jim was intrigued.
‘Well, we use a number of methods, distract, integrate or disperse.’
Mac was warming up to his subject but took a gulp of soup, Jim followed suit.
‘Distract.’ Mac said in point form, ‘we use methods to divert attention away from the unseen occurrence and deal with it. There is no right or wrong way but it usually works. Next, integrate. We use the person in the plan somehow, they don’t know it of course but it usually works really well and adds to our cover. The last, disperse. We just all wander off and leave the poor sucker to deal with the problem.’
‘Say, what does your Amy do?’
‘She’s an artist. Why?’
‘Could come in handy, that’s all, sometimes we do museum jobs and such like.’
Jim didn’t like the idea of involving Amy but this crew had been working together for years and the Buckling’s had a reputation amongst the Guild.
They finished their soup in companionable silence. Mac left complaining of aching joints and left Jim to finish his break.
Soon Jim was back at work. At 4am, just as he stood up, he heard the flapping of wings. A rush of air. A sharp pain on his shoulder and a few adjustments to wings and beak, Krok landed on his shoulder. Jim knew he’d have cuts and bruises but didn’t complain. The bird settled and they finished the shift together.