Prolog: SS Indigo, Twelve's Company: COMING SOON
SS Indigo is a tale of a group of strangers invited on a mystery Caribbean cruise by secretive billionaire Emol Litions - here is the pre-release Prolog: COMING SOON.
I’d been anticipating this trip for a long time. I had the sense it was going to be important. We’d been in business for a couple of years now, and I figured this could possibly be the big break we’d been looking for. Lithuania joining the European Union meant an influx of qualified and soon-to-be-legal workers for a much-needed gap in the UK hospitality market. It’s not as though business was bad, not at all, but this was the potential of finding a seam during the gold rush.
Most of the weekend, I’d been hanging out with Kipper and Jimmy at the Drovers, drinking beer and playing pool and poker. It was Sunday afternoon, and I was in the middle of a game of Brag. Amanda, my adopted admin, had popped into our office upstairs and brought down a fax that had arrived, and I folded my ace high to meet her. She had always been my favorite ever since I’d taken her on—a young girl, a groom, no qualifications, but sweet and full of enthusiasm. Three years on, she’d grown, and she was very grateful for my investment in her.
In her riding outfit, she handed me the fax with her usual sweet smile. “I thought you should see this.”
I went over to the snug and sat down to read it. For fifteen minutes, I pondered, reread it, and reread it again before carefully folding it up and placing it in my back pocket as though it were a winning betting slip from the Grand National.
I walked over to the bar where the stuffed Gentleman Fox that Diesel and Mick had once held ransom sat and ordered myself a glass of Liddesdale. It was only four in the afternoon, but why not? I’d been right—this trip was going to be a game changer.
Twenty-four hours later, I landed at Schiphol, left the terminal, caught a cab right next to where the big red AMSTERDAM letters are, and headed into the city. I asked the driver to drop me off in the main square. It was full of the usual stag parties, football fans—full of beer and likely stronger substances, singing their way into an evening of debauchery, no doubt.
Last time I’d been there, I’d found a locals’ post just down an alley a couple of blocks away, so that’s where I headed. It was quiet in Amsterdam, and apart from the tourists, it didn’t get busy for locals until much later into the night, often into the early hours and sunrise.
With little giving it away that it was a bar at all—dark wood door, black facade, no sign—the No Name Bar was just as I remembered, and I walked inside.
Amsterdam is a truly international city, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear the barman’s Northern Californian accent as he greeted me with what was obviously his standard question: “What can I get you, my friend?”
I paused for a second and looked him up and down. “I’ll take a Lagunitas?”
He looked at me, paused, and then smiled knowingly. “Not in Amsterdam, my friend. Wrong country. Where are you from?”
He was clearly impressed that I had spotted his accent after having heard barely a sentence, but what he didn’t realize was that this somehow had become my thing. Spoofing accents from my home country was kind of easy—the grate of Glaswegian, the pronunciation of Edinburgh, the poetry of Ayrshire. Across the sea, Dubliners were easy to establish against Belfasters. South of the border, it was even easier—from the hardly audible Newcastle drawl, across to the “Manchestor,” “Liverpooool,” and then Birmingham, Coventry, Londoners. But some of the accents, like those of specific Australian territories and US states, were harder to define.
For some, it was not just their accents that gave them away but also their dress and demeanor. The boxer-like swagger of a Scouser versus the bold confidence of a Cockney. The over-the-top glitz of the nouveau riche Russians versus the more utilitarian style of former Soviets. The straight-to-the-point New Yorker versus the bright-smiled Angeleno. The surfer-dude types of Northern California.
The bartender’s name tag told me I was speaking to Zach. As I mentioned, his accent gave him away, but his looks also fit the stereotype of a typical Northern Californian—although I suspected that he’d seen more than Sonoma County in his life. After all, he was five thousand miles away in Holland.
“Glasgow,” I said. “What about you?”
“That’s no Glasgow accent,” he said and smiled.
“Yep. I’ve been around a bit.”
He looked at me and nodded knowingly.
I already knew I liked Zach—it was another one of those things; I could immediately tell whether I would like someone or not. There were plenty of warning signs of who I likely would not like, and they were relatively easy filters: mullets were out, as were Bulgari watches, shell suits, sovereign rings, and Botox.
Over the course of my stay, and with the benefit of my being the only one in the bar, I got to learn more about Zach.
I’d always been a great believer that there’s a lot to learn in the confines of a bar, no matter where you are in the world. And today it was no different in the No Name Bar in Amsterdam.
Turns out that I was right, with Zach’s roots being in Sonoma and Marin Counties. He’d worked in Sausalito on the boats and taken his marine engineer qualifications at the Maritime Academy. After graduation, he’d traveled a bit, including in the Caribbean, Virgin Gorda, and made mention of Necker Island and how he and his brother had acted as hosts, tour guides, and all things water instructors to Sir Richard, his kids, family, and visitors.
The mention of Jet Skis, powerboats, scuba, and his Caribbean knowledge made my ears prick up.
Zach looked like he should be on a film set—not a modern-day Love Actually or a Gone with the Wind, but with his mustache and his square jaw, he reminded me of one of those pilot characters in the old World War II movies, sat around the piano in the officers’ mess, waiting for the scramble call, raucously singing “Roll Out the Barrell” before donning their gear and calling for “Chocks away!” as they sailed into the blue skies to have a dogfight or two with the Hun.
“What brought you to Amsterdam?” I asked.
He explained his travels from one city to another, mainly following beautiful girlfriends who never quite worked out how he’d expected. I could empathize with that. And how he was “in between girlfriends right now and looking for his next port of call.”
After half a dozen Heinekens, I gave him my business card. He gave me his number and email and held out his hand, revealing the Golden State Warriors tattoo on his forearm, one of his giveaways—the other a simple search on Facebook and reference to the Californian barman with a mustache, Zach.
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Zach Carter.” I smiled, nodded, and headed out for something to eat, to line my stomach for the night ahead.
It was May 8, 2003, Vilnius. The referendum to join the EU was just two days away, and the air was full of anticipation. A sense of nervousness prevailed. Was this Lithuania’s chance to finally recover from the grasp of the former Soviet Union, the threat of another invasion in the country’s long history of occupation? Was this an opportunity to return the country back to its status as the garden of the Baltic? Was this a chance to get a nation back to work?
I got on the Lithuanian Airlines flight after my night out on the canals. After my Ronson-lighter all-nighter, I was a little worse for wear as I boarded the LY-SBD Saab 2000 and took my seat: 4A, at the front of the plane, but hardly a premium experience.
Despite my state, I noticed an extreme state of orderliness during boarding—how quiet it was, the passengers obediently boarding and taking their seats. I rested my head on the window and fell asleep, or at least closed my eyes in a semiconscious state.
My subconscious heard the twin turboprop engines spring to life after a little coaxing from the pilot. An initial splutter and cough, then gradually ease into the familiar hum as they climaxed to full operating speed. The aircraft lurched forward as the brake was released and started the taxi toward the runway. Up, up, and away.
Eyes still closed, I thought back to my crossing the Atlantic years earlier in an old army Hercules, in my maggot, lying on the webbing down the center of the otherwise empty hull, like a hammock, listening to the drone of the engines as we flew.
On reflection, I’d spent quite a bit of time in the air—as a kid in the Air Training Corps, summer camps, Bulldogs, Chipmunks, doing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops at the tender age of fourteen. Family holidays to the Algarve, back in the day, when smoking was allowed in the rear rows. In the army, several flights on the good old Hercules, but, more interestingly, in the helicopter versions of flight, hedgehopping in a Gazelle over the fields of Ireland, the plains of Africa, and the rain forest of Central America. Abseiling from the Westland Wessex in the Arctic Circle. Then, more recently, my trips to Australia and the tortuous slog of a journey—almost twenty-four hours in the air, with a brief stop in Singapore.
I awoke from my shallow snooze, looked around me at the still strangely quiet and subdued payload, and reached for the brochures in the pocket in front of me. I needed hydration.
The first document was the safety card for the Saab 2000. On the back, the Crossair logo with the familiar Swiss flag was crossed out, but still visible, and a Lithuanian Airlines sticker had been carelessly placed alongside it.
I had heard the stories about sloppy airlines, especially in the former Soviet Union and in Africa. I remembered my old mate’s jibes at Aeroflot, or Aeroflop, as he would say, and his alternative name for Air Afrique, Air Tragique. That brought a smile to my face.
Ninety minutes into the flight, I managed to get a double serving of orange juice and a much-needed shot of vitamin C for my constitution before the Saab started its descent into Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, one of the three Baltic states. The other two are Estonia and Latvia.
Coming into land, I looked out at the gray skies and the even darker gray buildings below. Large apartment tower blocks sprouted around—as did the bizarre-looking chimneys painted with red and white bands, looking like something from a Pink Floyd video.
The tarmac appeared close below; the wheels touched down one by one; and after the plane shuddered, the passengers burst into a round of applause, some of them disregarding the safety brief and standing up in their seats. Seems they were just genuinely pleased to have touched down safely and alive—this was a first for me despite my airborne experience.
I remembered the humorous references. I thought of Totalitarian Airlines. I didn’t have the natural wit and turn of phrase as my friend Gary Mackay.
My phone lit up. A text. Gary letting me know he was on the other side of security waiting in his newly acquired Land Rover 110. What else? Everywhere I had ever met him around the world he had got hold of his favorite workhorse. We’re all creatures of habit.
I made my way down the steps of the plane to the tarmac below, my fellow passengers back to their obedient silence as the airport staff ushered us toward the terminal.
I approached immigration amid the ominous silence of the airport and the still extraordinarily quiet crowd of passengers. I handed over my British passport to the uniformed officer, and the National Guard soldier stood by his side, complete with Kalashnikov, at the ready, menacingly staring at me as if I had just gotten off a flight from Mars.
“What you do in Lithuania, Mr. Mitchell?” the immigration officer sneered.
“Visiting a friend,” I said.
He looked down to inspect my papers. “You are in business?”
“What business?” He continued his emotionless, intimidating stare.
“Recruitment” was my limited response—although there was much more. I didn’t want to overcomplicate the situation, especially as the soldier looked more than capable and willing to use his rifle.
“Is RekruitUK?” asked the officer.
I paused for a second, trying to work out how the hell he knew the name of my business. “Yes, that’s correct,” I said, trying to hide my surprise behind a poker face.
He approved my passport with a forceful stamp and slid inside of it a copy of one of my ads that had been in the local paper, along with a telephone number, a name, and 500 litas, around $150, in local currency. I looked him in the eye.
“He my uncle. I want you to call him. He looks for job.” The officer grinned, an attempt at a smile in that Eastern European sort of way that the old guard simply hadn’t quite got the knack of—it came across as even more intimidating.
“Yes, sir! I’ll call him.”
I put on my own version of a smile, picked up my papers with the new additions, and went on my merry way to meet Gary. I made my way to baggage claim, picked up my bag from the carousel, and hurried from the terminal to the arrivals pickup area in front of the building. I saw Gary’s Land Rover immediately, shot him a big smile, threw my bag in the back of the car, and climbed into the passenger seat. We exchanged the usual small talk as Gary navigated through the airport traffic.
“I hope things change if they get in the EU,” Gary said.
“What do you mean?”
“They know everything that goes on here and especially keep an eye on who comes in through the airport. Especially persons of interest—like you, Willy!” He looked over and grinned. “These people live in fear. They don’t like outsiders.”
Gary passed me a newly lit Marlboro Light. I thanked him, took the fag, and deeply inhaled the harsh smoke as I looked out the window. Ironically, a Philip Morris factory was in the industrial district we were passing. It stood all gleaming and new. I remembered the theory that they load their products with all the things that are bad and addictive for the human being, especially in emerging markets—makes them eat more, drink more, and smoke more and fattens their corporate coffers regardless.
Lithuania is nestled southeast of Sweden and Denmark, with Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast to the southwest. At the time, the country’s population was just shy of three million. My reason for being there? I was leading a recruitment drive for workers to come to the UK. We had a lack of people willing to wash, clean, cook, and wait, and assuming that the referendum result was yes, then Lithuania would be in the European Union, and the citizens able to fill these entry-level jobs and earn money. For many, that had been a thing of the past, and they were desperate for these new opportunities.
“You see, once upon a time, Lithuania, or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was the largest country in Europe, but that was a long time ago—over five hundred years, to be precise,” Gary said.
Over the years I had known him, Gary always knew the lowdown of his latest home, temporary or not, and there had been many in his time. Originally from Scotland, Glasgow, with his roots in the Highlands, he had lived in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and I had either been with him or visited him in many of those countries.
“You see, since the late 1700s, they’ve been occupied, first by the Russians, then again at the start of World War II, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again, until they got their independence after the wall came down in 1990.”
I nodded, taking in the information like an in-country briefing from my former combatant, soldier, and friend from the UK’s Special Air Service, the British equivalent of American Special Forces.
“With the Russian muscle flexing in Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the Lithuanians have been paranoid ever since that they would once again wake up one morning with Russian tanks on the streets, reoccupying what they, the Russians, believe is their rightful territory. And hence the paranoia!”
“And then you have the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad right around the corner.” I was referring to the isolated island of land under Russian control, and officially part of the sovereign state of Russia. This clearly added to the paranoia.
We pulled onto the cobbled streets at the bottom of the city center and headed to the familiar Shakespeare Hotel across from the cathedral. After entering through the archway, like an entrance to a fort, I dropped my bag off at reception, and then we ventured by foot to the main square for a beer and a bite to eat.
“You look like shite, Willy. Good night in Amsterdam?”
“Thanks, mate. You don’t look too clever yourself.”
We walked up the cobbled streets past the stalls of vendors selling their wares—everything from the works of local artists and painters to handcrafted jewelry; knockoff old Soviet uniforms, hats, and badges; and the ubiquitous babushka Russian dolls.
Clapped-out old Soviet-built relics as excuses for taxis hustled by with little to no regard for pedestrians. The residents of Vilnius obediently walked, mostly in twos, looking straight onward, seemingly nervous of distractions or the ever-watchful police keeping the peace and ensuring social calm and tranquility.
“We got an amazing response from the ads,” Gary said.
“I saw that,” I said, thinking of the immigration officer.
“Almost one hundred and twenty for each of the sessions.”
“I better get busy finding them jobs, then.” I pulled out the piece of paper the immigration officer had handed me. “Is this guy on the list?”
Gary unfolded the paper, the money still in it. “Who’s Igor Bromovich? And what’s the money for?”
“Just a little gift from homeland security.”
Gary pulled out his phone. Sasha was helping coordinate the expedition and within a couple of minutes confirmed that Bromovich, an unemployed but nonetheless fully qualified ship’s captain, was on the next morning’s session.
We meandered to the city square, past the Russian Orthodox church on the left, with the City Hall looking down on us from the top of the sloping cobbled square. We sat down in one of the several pop-ups in the center and ordered a couple of steins of Švyturys,and the waitress shared the menus.
“I could eat a bloody horse.”
“You might have to, mate.,”
“Pigs’ ears left or pigs’ ears right?” I said, remembering an amusing menu translation from the past.
We stayed safe and ordered a pair of cheeseburgers and sat in the late-afternoon sun as the evening closed in.
We sat and watched the locals strolling the cobbles in earnest, in pairs, staying focused, looking forward, compliant with the laws of the day—any groups of more than four constituted a civil disturbance, with the penalty of being locked up and receiving a heavy unaffordable fine. Threes were legal, but if you happened to bump into another group, you were over the limit and in danger of jail. Hence, twos were the acceptably safe norm for wandering the streets, as many seemingly liked to do, especially at this time of day.
I remembered Gary’s wedding a couple of years earlier: how Tom Tom the Piper’s Son had made the trip over from Scotland in his kilt and with his pipes; how the men of the wedding party, including me, donned kilts; and how we made the local television news that evening.
“How’s business on your end?” I asked.
“It’s OK. Making a living, doing all right.”
We had both spent a lifetime doing all right. Lots of hard work, opportunity, and fun, but neither of us had achieved anywhere near the ambitions we’d once held.
“Things will pick up and get better” was always the optimistic response.
There was no point in anything else. Without optimism and hope, we have nothing, and I had learned that from my travels to some of the most desperate places around the world.
Soon the burgers arrived. The waitress, a beautiful Lithuanian woman wearing the traditional national dress of a plaid skirt and white starched shirt, seemed intrigued by us two Westerners—a novelty in Vilnius back in 2003, the year of the referendum that set the stage for the nation’s entry into the EU the following year.
“I might have a job for our friend Igor.” I pushed another paper over the table as we began digging into our burgers.
Gary opened the fax Amanda had handed to me in the Drovers and read in silence.
Highly Confidential: Ship’s Crew Needed Mr. Mitchell: We are seeking key personnel for our luxury steamship Indigo and an upcoming private cruise around the Caribbean, leaving from St. George’s Caye, Belize City, on July 16, 2003. We are looking for the following crew members: 1. Qualified ship’s captain 2. Michelin / AA Rosette chef 3. Front-of-house hostess 4. Tour guide / host, with knowledge of the Caribbean Upon your acceptance of this retained search, we will provide you with a full job description, required qualifications, and experience for each of the positions for your review. Mr. Mitchell, you come highly recommended, and we understand that you have a good network of connections. We hope that you can help. Upon your acceptance of the project, we will wire US$10,000 for each position as a retainer for you to find the right candidates. Upon successful placement, we will pay you a further US$40,000, a total of US$80,000. Please contact me when you find the right candidates. I am confident you will not let us down. Mr. N. Waring Litions Industries
Gary looked up at me as I was into my second mouthful of burger.
“Who the hell are Litions Industries?”
I shrugged. “No clue, but if they want to pay me eighty grand, I’m not sure I care! What do you know about our man Igor Bromovich?”
It was an unfair question. I knew that Gary was a professional but also knew he wouldn’t know the answer to that. As I asked the question, the pretty blonde waitress arrived back at the table, this time with an envelope for Mr. Gary Mackay. He sat there and ceremoniously opened it in front of me with a big grin on his face and pulled out what was obviously a résumé, with IGOR BROMOVICH in big bold black print at the top of the page. I couldn’t help but smile back in admiration of my old friend.
“You don’t hang around, do you?”
“The early bird catches the worm, my friend,” he said as he scanned the document.
I recalled a time I’d been on the phone with him years earlier. I was in Hereford, he in Iraq, when I heard an explosion in the background. After a split-second silence, all Gary said was “Och, I better go, Willy. There’s been an explosion. Catch up soon.” Gary Mackay was a character for sure.
Burgers finished, we ordered another couple of Švyturys. The hair of the dog was proving its truth beyond the myth.
We caught up on all things since last time we had been together, a few months ago in Perth, Australia. We caught up on our wives—and girlfriends. “And may they never meet” was the usual toast. “To wives and girlfriends!”
“What about the other positions?”
“I think I have them covered.”
We had a big day the next day. Despite the urge to carry on, around nine, we headed back down the cobbled streets, traders packing up for the night, back to the Shakespeare. I waved Gary off in his 110 and headed to the hotel bar for a nightcap.
Last time I had stayed at the Shakespeare, I had persuaded them to stock a bottle of Liddesdale whisky, and sure enough, the bottle was still there on the top shelf, filled to the same level as last time.
I didn’t recognize the barman. He looked shocked that someone had ordered it. I smiled to myself at the satisfaction of knowing more than he. It was a thing. Having superior intel, deeper insights, a better knowledge platform, gave one an advantage, and although this may sound trivial, it became a thirst for me—and one that had proven helpful over the years. Knowledge is power.
I sat at the bar sipping my Liddesdale on the rocks while checking out the résumé.
Bromovich had qualified at the Klaipeda Naval Academy twenty-five years previously and had worked himself up in the merchant navy to captain several ships, including freight and transportation, and he had traversed both the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and California.
Interestingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the devastation of Klaipeda, its shift from major trading port to an empty one, Bromovich had worked for a couple of years as captain of a luxury steamship in the Baltic until that closed because of an accelerated bankruptcy and dodgy dealings of the Russian mob owners—a story I was familiar with and a reminder from the past, of one Mr. Dmitri Dankov.
I ordered another whisky. “Make that a double.”
I looked at the note from Litions Industries to double-check I hadn’t misread it.
TO BE CONTINUED...
LOOK OUT FOR WILLY MITCHELL'S 6th BOOK, SS INDIGO, TWELVE'S COMPANY COMING OUT SOON.
SS INDIGO is set to be released in the fall of 2022 through iUniverse Publishing and is available through most major online retailers, including IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and many more.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions...
Willy Mitchell is an indie author, writer, and storyteller.
Mitchell's first title was Operation ARGUS, and then the sequel Bikini BRAVO where a group of former Special Air Service operatives enter the dark and murky world of maskirovka and discover the lengths that some people will go to for power and greed.
Cold COURAGE tells the epic tale of Shackleton's 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition and all that was happening in those extraordinary times.
Book four, Northern ECHO, tells the story of two boys growing up during the punk rock revolution in the north of England, and how a dark secret keeps them apart until the end.
Gipsy MOTH is about his Aunt Nikki, her friend, and fellow Aviatrix Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart on the other side of the pond during the golden age of aviation.
SS INDIGO is due to be released by the end of 2022 and tells the story of a group of eclectic guests invited by a mysterious billionaire to a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. They all have one thing in common.