The Sea of the Vanities is a sea adventure with supernatural overtones. Like the sea, the story is as strong and harsh as it is beautiful and mysterious. The story opens as Richard Shaw, an insurance investigator from Lloyds of London, arrives in Rio de Janeiro. The year is 1849. He is there to discover why so many of the great sailing ships of the world are disappearing in the south Atlantic, never making it to or from the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the continent, a ship sets sail only to encounter murder, romance, the supernatural, and the pirates as they all rendezvous in Cape Horn. The protagonists from both ships eventually answer the question: is death to be feared? They respond differently, and the outcome illustrates our view of death; both the poignant and predictable, and the unexpected choices they must make.
Rio de Janeiro
Shaw clicked his pocket watch shut and set off again at a brisker pace. His evening appointment could prove interesting, and if it proved dangerous, so much the better.
As he walked along, smoke drifted from oil lamps and curled like sinuous snakes into the pink and blood red bougainvillea that trailed down walls and festooned trellised windows. The flowers tickled Shaw’s nose as he brushed against them, and his walking stick beat a rat-a-tat-tat across the bricks.
An evening stroll through the business district of Rio is discouraged for most Europeans wearing jewelry and fine haberdashery. Shaw had no worries. He carried nothing of value. Marching along, he was accompanied by the now familiar feeling of being stalked. A sheep in a pack of faceless and silent wolves would feel the same.
As he neared the water, the lamps appeared less frequently and the streets shortened and twisted into dead ends. He would have been lost if not for the sounds of activity coming from the harbor and the increasing stench of fish and decay.
Rounding a corner at full steam, he collided with a smarmy old man who reeked of something worse than the inside of a barn. Shaw apologized and made to go around, but the man grabbed his arm.
“Yes, err–?” Shaw felt in his pocket for a coin, expecting to contribute to the evening’s wine consumption.
Shaw tensed and nodded.
“I’m ye’ welcomin’ committee.” The old man gripped his arm and turned toward the docks. “This way, Sir.” Shaw noted the sarcasm that clung to the word “Sir”.
Shaw disengaged his arm and followed the stinking fossil another half block to the quay.
Dozens of tall ships lay at anchor before him. They resembled drunken ladies gently swaying from side to side as they spread white canvasses like petticoats above the water. Crews worked the night, heaving cargo aboard vessels that floated in the still water. Nearer the docks, clusters of cargo transport boats and water taxis rode at tether.
They stopped beside a dingy that rivaled the old timer in age and cleanliness. The old man sprung on board with the agility of a cat.
“All aboard, Mister Shaw!”
“I have an appointment with a Mr. Peech. Are you taking me to him?”
“That’s the idea, gov’ner.”
Shaw stepped into the boat, immediately doubting the wisdom of doing so. What if the man just robbed him and dumped him in the water? Yet, he wouldn’t sleep knowing he had not tried all avenues. If he must, he’d follow this disgusting creature. He had barely settled in before the old man poked the dock with an oar and they drifted into the bay.
As his escort rowed, Shaw sat upright. He inspected the grime encrusting the plank he sat on and assumed the backside of his suit had been ruined. The old man began singing in a discordant monotone.
He studied his companion. A cap pulled low over wisps of the old-timer’s gray hair obscured his features, but as they passed a gaily lit party boat, the lanterns illuminated the old man’s face, revealing a devious expression wreathed in amusement.
With his pocket watch held up to catch the light, Shaw announced, “My appointment is soon.”
“So it is, Mister Shaw.”
“Who are you?” Shaw demanded. He should have asked sooner.
“I told ye,” the old man cackled as he rowed. “I’m ye welcomin’ committee.”
Shaw recalled his conversation with Commander Florio of the local constabulary and shook his head. The man hadn’t believed him about the missing ships. Back in London, Shaw had watched Lloyd’s underwriters twitch every time they wrote a new policy on a vessel.
Historically, Cape Horn claimed hundreds of ships run under and de-masted as they entered the treacherous waters either from the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. The lucky ones succeeded in reaching the Pacific and the tiny ports of Chile. Occasionally, they attained Rio. But dead or alive, nearly all the ships were accounted for.
A junior clerk in Lloyd’s south London office had noticed that beginning in October and continuing through December, an extraordinary amount of ships went missing. As a senior investigator, Shaw’s assignment was to find out why.
A rumble of bongo drums and a clash of horns from the party boat caused Shaw to crane his neck. The band slid into an Argentine tango and couples danced and writhed with the beat. A few of the women lifted handfuls of skirts as their partners dipped them low over the deck. And a flash of white calf showed below a lacy garter. Shaw felt his face flush. The crowd on the boat clapped their hands as the music thumped and swayed; the rhythm intoxicating even at this distance. As he and the old sea dog inched away, drawing further into the bay, the lights of the party boat stained the water green and gold in long fingers that shimmered on the black water.
His thoughts drifted back to his assignation. From what he knew of the shadowy bar where he was to meet his informant, he might need more than his walking stick. A pistol perhaps.
Then he saw it. Like an enormous bird on the water, a large vessel with most of its lights darkened floated alone between their dingy and the open sea. Shaw’s unease settled in his stomach and rolled as the swells rose higher, rocking the rowboat like a toy. He gripped the grimy edges of the seat.
Shaw’s nerves jittered. “Enough of this. I wish to return to shore.”
“Peech on the Hussar,” the old man said. “Not on the wharf.” He cackled again. “He’s expecting ye, with open arms.”
While Shaw debated whether to try to overpower the old sailor and return to shore, or continue on towards his assignation in the hopes of finding information, an earsplitting blare of horns tore through the night air. Shaw would have jumped out of the boat but for the restraining oar the old man swung out.
A water taxi of at least five times the size of the dingy bore down on them. Foam billowed from its sides. The roaring of the taxi’s engines increased as it grew closer.
The taxi swerved leeward just before impact and the revelers on her deck cheered. Shaw’s scream died in his throat. The old seaman raised a fist, his curse a stream of invectives Shaw only half heard. The over wash from the taxi caught Shaw in a sudden veil of chilling water. With a crow of delight, the old man resumed rowing. Shaw lifted his drenched coat and let it fall again.
“You have no lights on this thing!” Shaw shouted. “They would have seen us!”
“Mebbe.” The old man rowed on.
Shaw stopped himself. Common sense said you did not argue with a criminous barnacle on the fringes of the Atlantic in the dark. A wrong word and the daft bugger could swat him with an oar and he’d be swimming.
The moonlight disappeared as they drew under the shadow of the ship. Shaw shivered, feeling as though an evil specter had passed overhead.
The swells of the sea pushed the dingy into the hull of the vessel with a solid thump. Shaw hesitated, then stood and reached for the Hussar’s ladder that swung loose above them. If this was to be the scene of his appointment, so be it. He climbed, the old man close behind.
Shaw had no fear of heights, but clambering up forty feet on a rope ladder above the sea at night seemed more threatening than scampering aboard a freighter in Dartmouth Bay at noon. In the stillness of the night, the only sound he could hear was the music from the party boat, and that just faintly. The lights of the harbor winked through the mist from afar.
Shaw grasped the rail above the deck and heaved himself on over.
The running lamps that ringed the deck smoked, which lent the scene an even hazier appearance. He saw dozens of men in the shadows, their faces and clothing distinguished from the darkness by muted colors. More of them languished in the rigging. Shaw pivoted. A score of them stood behind him. Their silence unnerved him; as if an icy hand had wiggled down his back.
The foghorn moaned from the entrance of the bay.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Shaw!”
A heavily muscled man, tattooed like a human painting, stepped from the shadows. He moved with the swaggering, bow-legged walk of a seaman. Small, cruel eyes gleamed under a red bandanna and his oversize arms and hands hung nearly to his knees. He reminded Shaw of an ape in a black wig. As he spoke, Shaw realized the multitude of sailors stood silent not out of curiosity, but in a strict form of discipline.
“Thank you, Mr.–”
When Peech smiled, Shaw knew the horror had arrived.
As Peech’s smile widened, something slammed into the side of Shaw’s head and the deck of the Hussar rose to meet him.