Precious Cargo

Kevin Keating

On any other summer day, someone would have spotted Anson flailing in the heavy surf, a conscientious mother lathering sunscreen on her toddler under one of the pastel umbrellas that dotted the beach, a divorced dad helping the daughter he hasn’t seen in two weeks build an elaborate sandcastle near the water’s edge, weekend boaters sunbathing aboard their pricey pontoons and bowriders, but on that unusually cool August morning, as a light fog rolled in off the lake, the beach was completely deserted. In the bay, anchored near the breakwall, a lone cabin cruiser named the Lady Cordelia bobbed up and down in the heaving white waves. Atop the grassy hill overlooking the lake, Sister Agnes picked plastic bottles from a garbage can inside the picnic pavilion and whispered prophecies about the creature rumored to lurk along the steep shale cliffs. On the fishing pier, two middle-aged men passed a brown paper bag back and forth and searched their shirt pockets for fresh cigarettes. From time to time they checked their lines to see if they’d hooked a yellow walleye or largemouth bass. Neither gave any indication of having seen the teenage boy struggling to stay afloat. After last night’s torrential downpour, no one was supposed to be in the lake. Earlier that morning, park rangers posted signs warning swimmers of dangerous currents and raw sewage spills. Regardless of the weather or the season, there was always a sign that read “No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk.”

Anson was a strong swimmer, but as he snorkeled back and forth beneath the pier, he became disoriented. The waves pushed him away from the pylons, and he furiously kicked his legs just to stay in place. He and Hawke came here almost every day in search of lost treasure. Over the course of that long summer, they’d found wallets stuffed with slimy bills and expired credit cards, a platinum wedding band crusted over with a thick patina, a mason jar filled with pennies, a seashell bracelet, an aluminum baseball bat, a set of car keys, an antique pocket watch that read four past midnight beneath its fogged crystal.

Today, Anson expected to find nothing more than the usual assortment of soda bottles and crumpled beer cans, but as he powered through the swirling gray silt and seaweed, he saw something that startled him, and for one terrible moment he thought Sister Agnes had been right all along about the monster. A small figure emerged from the deep and seemed to speak to him through its gaping mouth. With its glassy green eyes and tendrils of long, dark hair, it reminded him of those cherubic apparitions that came to saints and sinners in the midst of a trance. In a panic, Anson tried to adjust his mask and snorkel, but this only made matters worse. Foul lake water found its way into his rubber mouthpiece and he started to gag. He didn’t realize how far he’d drifted from the pier until he shot to the surface and saw the distant downtown skyline materialize like a mirage above the breakwater. By then the summer sun was beginning to burn through the mist, and the lake stretched before him vast and empty as any ocean.

On the beach, his friend Hawke hopped around on one leg like a badly wounded frog. He slipped on a pile of pink sedimentary rock polished smooth by centuries of wind and waves and flopped face first into the churning surf. Hawke, who’d been reluctant to explore the lake on such a tempestuous day, found his footing and acknowledged Anson’s strangled cries for help. He strapped on his mask and beat a diagonal path toward the pier. Anson, losing strength, sank beneath the surface and saw the thing, whatever it was, spiraling beneath his legs. He reached out a hand just as Hawke snagged his arm and pulled him toward safety. After an exhausting fight through the impressive whitecaps, both boys made it back to the beach. Like a pair of wounded crabs, they crawled above the waterline and collapsed gasping in the cold sand. On the pier the oblivious fishermen sat on their five-gallon buckets and daydreamed about a big catch.

Hawke let out a long, scratchy wheeze and said, “Told you to wait for me.”

Anson rolled on his back and pulled off his mask. “I saw something out there.”

“Crazy woman filling your head with ideas.” Hawke sat up and spit into the surf. “What was it this time? A mermaid?”

“Something valuable.”

“What then?”

“A doll.”

Hawke yanked off his fins and scowled. “You almost got us killed—for a doll?”

“An expensive one. Like from the catalogues. They cost a hundred dollars.”

Hawke sniffed. “A hundred dollars.”

More than a hundred. Probably got swept away in last night’s storm.”

Hawke stood up and brushed wet hair from his pale blue eyes. “Why don’t you listen to me? Is that so hard to do?” He gave Anson a sharp kick to the ribs and then stomped across a minefield of spent cigarette butts and sharp pop tops.

Anson lay there, massaging his bruised side and feeling ashamed of having failed his friend. Above the crashing waves, he could hear the sharp screech of gulls wheeling over the waste treatment plant at the end of the strand. After rinsing his mask and snorkel, he followed Hawke up the hill to the picnic pavilion where they sat shivering in the parting mist. Behind them, lurking in the shadows, Sister Agnes swatted the swarming flies and inspected a promising trashcan. No one knew her real name, but some people said she used to be a Catholic nun who for many years lived a life of quiet contemplation in a monastery on one of the remote islands in the middle of the lake. Anson, who served Mass every Sunday, felt vaguely obliged to help her, and at the end of each day, before trudging back to the apartment, he tithed her ten percent of his haul. Though she was glad to accept nickels and dimes, she much preferred bottles of wine if the boys managed to find any. She wasn’t particular about the vintage.

Now, she shambled over to a nearby table and with one hand bracing her lower back eased herself down on the creaking wooden bench. “I thought it had you that time for sure,” she said, nodding her head with self-satisfaction. “You, Anson! I said, I thought it had you.”

“Thought what had me, Sister?”

“The serpent! What else?”

“It wasn’t a serpent I saw out there.”

Sister Agnes laughed and pulled a loose thread from her pink gloves. Even on the hottest days, she wore wool gloves and a parka lined with thick, matted fur. “Oh, the serpent knows how to use bait to lure its victims. It’s lived here for centuries and knows many things.”

“One of the old gods, Sister?”

“That’s right, boy.” She glared at him. Sister Agnes refused to tolerate even a hint of sarcasm from a high school sophomore. “The serpent was here long before the first missionaries rowed across the water and set foot on this soil. It was here before the Iroquois. It was here even before the first men came across the glaciers hunting mastodons.”

Hawke rolled his eyes and walked toward a willow tree near the pavilion. “You’re insane.”

“That’s what those cloistered hens used to say about me. Thought I was touched, or worse, a dangerous heretic. But that’s only because they were envious and resentful that the old gods elected to speak to me instead of to them. Go on, laugh all you want, boy, but I’m telling you this lake has many gods, and the serpent is the least forgiving among them. It has no remorse. It takes the weak and the strong alike. I’ve seen it snatch small children and grown men.”

Hawke grabbed a fallen branch from a circle of dead yellow grass and tested its point for sharpness. “Then I’ll try to harpoon it.”

She slapped the table, crushing a scurrying black ant under her fat fist. “Better respect the gods, boy, or they’ll come for you!”

“Don’t worry, Sister, we’re done with this snorkeling bullshit.” Hawke gazed out over the shimmering lake. “Second time I’ve had to rescue this skinny, little worm.”

Anson squirmed on the bench. “I’m telling you, there was something out there. It wasn’t my fault.”

“Wasn’t your fault.” Hawke slashed at the air with his stick. “I’m tired of this small-time crap. Time to make some real money. And we all know where the real money is.”

He gestured to the Lady Cordelia rocking back and forth in the bay. Typically, on a sweltering August day, an entire armada of motorboats would weigh anchor in a tight formation along the beach. The skippers and their mates, after sunning themselves on deck, would cannonball into the lake and make their way to the open-air tiki bar where they spent entire afternoons listening to a calypso band and ordering round after round of tropical drinks. At the end of the day, their bellies bloated with banana daquiris and piña coladas, they would stumble through the sand and doggy paddle back to their boats.

Anson squinted and scratched his head. “You wanna steal boats now?”

“No, moron,” Hawke said. “I wouldn’t trust you to handle anything that complicated. A big cabin cruiser like that gets less than one mile to the gallon. That’s what my old man tells me anyway. He’s tight with a dollar. Hardly ever leaves the marina. Says he doesn’t like burning his money on the lake. But whenever we go for a short cruise, he always has lots of cash on hand. The same with these boaters. Plenty of money stashed in their holds.”

Anson shrugged. “So?”

“So, idiot, while the captain and crew are at the bar sipping suds, we’ll snorkel over to the boats and slip aboard unnoticed. We’re guaranteed to find a hefty roll of bills, a carton of cigarettes, a box of cigars, maybe even a nice bottle or two of wine for the good sister.”

Sister Agnes flicked a small spider from her knee and cackled. “Yes, you two look like a couple of modern-day buccaneers.”

“That’s right,” said Hawke, “and with the money we make, we’ll buy a flag with a skull and crossbones.”

“Pirate outfits, too,” said Sister Agnes. “Make sure they come with hooks and wooden legs and eye patches. And don’t forget the bottle of rum.”

Anson crossed his arms and stared at the ground. “I dunno…”

Hawke returned to the pavilion and, raising his stick, slowly approached Anson. “As far as I’m concerned, those greedy bastards deserve to get robbed. And with you as my first mate, we’ll become the most notorious pirates this lake has ever known. Untold riches, me hearty, untold riches.” He leaned forward until the stick’s sharp tip brushed against Anson’s throat. “Only this time, if you screw things up, I’ll force you to walk the plank and feed you to the serpent. It’s hungry this time of year, isn’t, Sister? Very hungry.”

While he admired Hawke’s ambitious nature, Anson was also intimidated by his recklessness and notoriously short fuse. Due to poor grades and his aggressive behavior in and out of the classroom, Hawke had been held back a year at Saint Dismas Day School for Boys. A lean and ropey lacrosse player with an angry scar on his left knee, he stood a head taller than Anson. In the corridors on his way to class, he slouched and sneered as if everything in the world either bored or annoyed him. He never turned in his work on time and had a tendency to mock and torment his teachers. Although his mother bought him name-brand outfits, he insisted on wearing greasy baseball caps and faded t-shirts excavated from the bottom bins at thrift shops. He lived with his family far from the city in an enormous English Tudor situated on a wooded three-acre lot. Anson had never been invited to his home, but from his classmates he knew the house had an infinity swimming pool with a waterfall, a putting green, a tennis court, and a greenhouse where his mother cultivated award-winning exotic plants. Anson, a scholarship kid from a working-class neighborhood of dingy apartment complexes and tiny brick bungalows, was in honest awe of such wealth and carefully watched Hawke for clues on how to behave like an aristocrat.

Working the beach had been Hawke’s idea, and before school let out for the summer, he recruited Anson to serve as his lookout. Hawke needed someone with street smarts to watch for the undercover cops who regularly patrolled the beach. In their navy-blue windbreakers and mirrored sunglasses, they were easy enough to spot. Anson and Hawke communicated through a series of whistles and hand gestures, and by the second week of June they managed to accumulate a small treasure trove of designer sunglasses, flip flops, Frisbees, portable speakers, binoculars, playing cards, even a couple bags of quality weed. Anson was mystified by the number of people who hid their valuables in tote bags and under towels. Coolers were by far the easiest things to plunder, and on any given day they always pilfered a six-pack of ice-cold beer and the occasional bottle of tequila. One afternoon, while observing a married couple snorkeling in the bay, Hawke decided it was time to “expand operations” and explore the lake bottom. He patiently waited until the couple took a romantic sunset stroll along the beach, and then he made off with their gear. Quality stuff, as it turned out, purchased from a dive shop.

Now, as a warm southerly wind calmed the waves and the lake became as smooth and clear as a piece of polished glass, a number of boats from the nearby marina appeared on the horizon. They motored into the bay and weighed anchor along the long crescent of brown sand. At the tiki bar, the celebratory sounds of a steel drum and bass guitar floated down to the water’s edge and lured the boaters into the lake. Hawke didn’t hesitate. He marched to the beach, slipped on his fins and mask, and plunged into the water. Anson, still haunted by the mysterious creature he’d seen earlier that day, scanned the lake for any unusual ripples spreading across the surface. Unsure of their prospects, he geared up and swam over to Hawke.

The first boat they boarded, a bowrider named the Deep Seacret, turned out to be a total bust. In a cup holder they found a can of artificially sweetened iced tea, and in the port console they uncovered a pile of ropes and a pair of worthless water skis. The next boat wasn’t much better. Partitioned with billowing muslin sheets imprinted with elaborate mandalas and decorated from bow to stern with busts of smiling Buddhas, the Vallejo looked like some kind of aquatic temple for transcendental meditation. In frustration, Hawke hoisted an elaborate cast iron teapot over his head and ceremonially tossed it over the side.

Further from shore, anchored near the breakwall, the thirty-six-foot cabin cruiser Lady Cordelia proved far more promising. At the stern the boys pulled themselves onto the swim platform, and after removing their fins and masks began to search the boat. The vessel was a mess. Liquor bottles rolled across the deck and cigarette ashes covered the white upholstery. While Hawke went below deck, Anson climbed the ladder to the flybridge where he kept an eye out for anyone who might be swimming back from the tiki bar. The keys, he noticed, were still in the ignition, and for one thrilling moment he was tempted to fire up the twin engines and push both throttles forward. Everything on these new boats was fully automated, that’s what Hawke told him, and by pressing a simple button on the control panel, he could raise the anchor and watch it disappear into the hold.

As he stood at the helm, he looked north to the mythical coast of Canada and daydreamed of the Lady Cordelia skipping across the waves. He’d never seen the lake from this vantage point, and the sheer size of it suddenly filled him with dread. He was used to seeing chain-link fences everywhere he turned, sagging power lines, crumbling brick walls covered in obscene graffiti, narrow alleys piled high with refuse, entire city blocks poisoned by billowing black clouds of bus exhaust. Out here on the lake, there was a strange and unsettling silence. Anson heard no sirens or jackhammers, no trains thundering overhead on steel tracks, no angry voices passing through cinderblock walls. The Lady Cordelia rocked gently back and forth, lulling him into a tranquility he guessed would be short-lived. He closed his eyes, listening to the waves lapping gently against the hull, and with a contented smile he sank into the skipper’s seat.

A boat, he decided, was a kind of private refuge where affluent seafarers came to escape the madness of city streets. Maybe one day, if he made the right kinds of connections at Saint Dismas, he could earn a decent living and own a boat just like this one. He knew it was unwise to indulge in fantasies, and this one came to an abrupt end when he heard Hawke’s muted scream and a heavy thud below deck.

Hawke burst gasping from the cabin and scrambled to collect his snorkeling gear.

“What the hell are you doing!” he hissed up at Anson. “Get down here. We have to get the off this boat.”

From the flybridge, Anson heard the irritated grumbles of a very drunk man and then saw a great bald head emerge from the cabin. After slurring few incomprehensible syllables, a great big mountain of a man appeared on deck. Dressed in baggy cargo shorts and a tank top, he leaned heavily against the starboard gunwale and reached for a bottle of spiced rum rolling across the deck. There were happy drunks and there were mean drunks, Anson had seen more than his fair share of both, and he was mildly relieved when the man began to laugh.

By then Hawke had strapped on his mask and fins and had already made his clumsy way to the swimming platform. He looked over his shoulder and with the snorkel stuffed in his mouth gave a little cry of alarm.

“You taking me back to the marina already?” the man said. “Is it cocktail hour at the club?” Using his teeth, he pulled the cork from the bottle, tilted his head back, and poured the brown liquid own his throat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his huge hairy hand and said, “Wait a second. I know you. You’re John Hawke’s kid, aren’t you? Hey, you old enough to operate a watercraft?”

At the mention of his father, Hawke belly flopped into the lake and started swimming back to the beach.

“The hell you doing, kid? Where you going? Hold on.”

His eyelids fluttering, the man tossed the empty bottle aside and fell hard against the gunwale. He slid to the deck, his hairy gut protruding from his shirt. On the flybridge Anson remained perfectly still. He watched the man crawl on hands and knees and reach for another bottle.

“Need someone to take me back. Trouble otherwise. Big trouble. Mommy will be angry with me. Oh, yes, mommy will call her lawyer again.”

He giggled and raised the bottle to his lips. Then his smile began to fade, and for just an instant his cloudy blue eyes seemed to clear.

“Wait a minute…” He looked around the deck and let the bottle slip from his trembling fingers. “Hold on one fucking second.”

The man struggled to his feet, nearly falling overboard in the process, and careened into the cabin door. He rubbed his forehead and disappeared inside. Anson knew this might be his only opportunity to escape and was about to slide down the ladder when the man let out a blood-curdling scream. Even Hawke, who was swimming hard and had nearly made it safely back to shore, turned his head. The man stumbled from the cabin and stood swaying wildly at the stern.

“Where is she!” he cried across the water. “Where is Cordelia?”

His lower lip trembling, he began to whimper like a child and pressed his huge hairy hands against the side of his head. Tears streamed from his bloodshot eyes. “What have you done with her? What have you done with my little girl?”

The man spun in a circle, gasping, choking. Slowly, he lifted his his head until his eyes locked onto Anson’s.


Anson, still seated in the pilot’s seat, raised his eyebrows and pointed at his chest.

Never taking his eyes from Anson, the man picked up an empty bottle and made his way to the ladder. Saliva bubbled from the corners of his mouth. Snot dripped from his flaring nostrils.

“Where is my daughter?” he spat. “I’ll kill you, do you understand me? I’ll fucking kill you.”

He managed to climb three rungs before he lost his grip and crashed to the deck. He lay flat on his back, his right leg twitching, drool dribbling thickly down his unshaven jaw. Anson, quaking in terror, looked down on the body and then against his better judgement descended to the deck. He reached out a hand and cautiously touched the man’s heaving chest. When the man didn’t stir, he peered into the gloomy cabin but from the sunny deck couldn’t see inside very well. He inched closer, and before stepping inside looked a final time over his shoulder to make sure the man was still unconsciousness.

Inside the cabin Anson found a small galley stocked with boxes of cereal, a loaf of wheat bread, packets of jelly, a jar of peanut butter, a bag of goldfish crackers. Out of curiosity, he opened the cabinets, but aside from a diver’s watch that he might be able to pawn, there was no one here and nothing of value worth taking. He continued forward and until he reached the v-berth.

“Hello? Anybody in here?”

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloomy cabin, but eventually he saw a pink sleeping bag and dozens of stuffed animals arranged neatly along the shelves. The place smelled of sugar and scented soap and just a hint of mildew. The elephants and chimpanzees watched him as he lifted the sleeping bag and looked under the big fluffy powder blue pillows. Wedged between the cushions, he found a bracelet and storybook about a girl and her puppy.

Anson turned around and walked back to the deck.

The man was snoring soundly, a bottle at his side.

Anson sat on one of the folding seats and took his time putting on his snorkeling gear. He felt nauseous and refused to dwell on the scene that was sure to unfold when the man finally woke up. With a sigh he stepped onto the swimming platform and lowered his mask. After taking a deep breath, he jumped into the water, and although the lake temperature was warmer than usual this summer, the water sent a shock through his system.

He floated for a moment on the surface and watched the August light play on the shining white hull of the Lady Cordelia. He adjusted his mask, but before swimming back to the beach he saw the distant figure of Sister Agnes emerge from the shadows of the picnic pavilion, her arms raised high as if trying to conjure up a summer storm. On humid days like this, unpredictable lightning storms sprang up with alarming speed, and he fully expected to see a dark line of clouds forming on the horizon.

Anson dipped his head beneath the surface, hoping to spot the serpent, and made his way back to his friend waiting for him on the beach.

Kevin’s first novel The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. His second novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015) was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.