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A Mersey Mariner

A Mersey Mariner

Book excerpt


The Amazon Rainforest
Distance to Liverpool, 6,000 miles
September 2003

Lit only by the brightly burning campfires in the small jungle clearing, the celebrations were well underway when Doctor Joseph De Souza seated himself on the ground beside his colleagues, Doctors Leonardo Barras and Marina Duarte, who were already enjoying their third drink of the strong, sweet tasting 'firewater' produced by their native hosts only at times of great celebration, such as this evening's festivities.

Glowing red, yellow and orange sparks from the wooden branches that fuelled the fires danced in the air, providing a natural and constantly changing effect of a miniature firework display. The faces of his two friends had adopted a red glow, a combined result of the fire's heat and the intoxifying liquid they were imbibing with great relish.

All around them, the tribesmen were dancing, laughing and becoming very drunk. As the latest tribal dance ended, with the warrior males enacting the hunting and final kill of a wild boar with great pomp and ceremony, their place was taken by a group of bare-breasted young women, their heads adorned with plumed, feathered headdresses, their skirts made of the same brightly coloured feathers. Their dance was one of celebration, in honour of their guests.

“Have I missed much?” De Souza asked his friends as Marina passed him a wooden mug of the intoxicating brew.

“Nothing we haven't seen at previous festivities,” Marina replied.

“Thought you'd have been here sooner,” Barras added.

“I wanted to be certain,” De Souza almost shouted in order to make himself heard above the chanting and the rhythmic beating of native drums. “We can't announce this without being one hundred percent sure of our findings.”

“But we have six confirmed cases, every one a successful treatment with no hint of a return.”

“I know,” De Souza replied as he took a large swig of the native brew. “But we did agree we wouldn't make any announcements until we reached ten positive results.”

“Which we'll have in another month if the others respond as we expect,” said Leonardo Barras.

“We could hardly prevent them celebrating when we told them the news about A'ginna,” Marina added, referring to the chief's daughter, herself one of the current dancers who were entertaining them and the rest of the tribe.

The sounds of the jungle occasionally assaulted the ears of the revellers. Even at night, the Amazon remained alive with wildlife. Numerous nocturnal species awoke with the coming of darkness and replaced the daylight dwellers on the ground and in the trees. Birds, monkeys, insects in their thousands all made the canopy and the floor of the world's largest rainforest a place of constant sound, a place where silence, if it ever came, would herald only the death of one of the world's last truly wild places. Covering over two million square miles, the Amazon rainforest encompasses nine nations, though 60% of its territory lies within the borders of Brazil. Rich in its biodiversity, one in ten of the world's known species lives in the rainforest, making it the largest collection of living plants and animals in the world, hence the constant cacophony of sound that surrounded those around the campfires.

As the night wore on, the revelry continued, the music, the dancing, the drunkenness that gradually overtook even the strongest of the tribal warriors, until eventually, the dancing gave way to a communal debauchery as the dancers, male and female, came together in a mass congress of sexual activity, at which point the three doctors decided to make a quietly prudent withdrawal from the festivities and more than slightly inebriated themselves, they staggered on unsteady legs back to their own accommodations.

* * *

Ten years earlier, wealthy British entrepreneur and explorer, Giles Pearce, together with his friend, Portuguese/English doctor Joseph De Souza and a dozen students arrived in the Amazon Rainforest. The students had replied to an advertisement by Pearce for both biological and anthropological students to join him on an expedition to a relatively unexplored area of the Amazon rainforest. Whilst there, they had the good fortune to stumble across a small and previously unknown tribe of native Amazonian Indians. The tribe welcomed the newcomers, and over a two-year period, the explorers learned the language, the way of life and the customs of their hosts, who were never anything but friendly.

Whilst living among the tribe, Pearce and De Souza noticed a high number of fatalities, from what at first they saw as an unknown illness that struck tribespeople of all ages, usually leading to death in a short space of time. This disease was entirely different from the instances of Dengue, Yellow fever, Malaria and Rabies the team had so far witnessed.

Eventually, Doctor De Souza was able to discover that for some reason, the people of this isolated tribe were highly susceptible to a rare form of cancer that struck without warning and usually led to death within weeks, rather than months or years. His interest peaked however, when he learned that a small number of sufferers inexplicably survived the disease and subsequently thrived, going on to lead normal lives.

Realising they could be on the verge of a great discovery, Pearce financed the building of a small but technically advanced research unit in the jungle, beside the tribe's village. Pearce hired microbiologist Doctor Marina Duarte and Leonardo Barras, a Consultant Oncologist, to assist De Souza in researching this strange medical phenomenon. His students were well paid and returned home with large paycheques, guaranteed well paid jobs, and each signed a vow of silence, never to reveal the nature of the work being undertaken by Pearce's team of experts. As each of them also went home with enough experience to ensure they would never go hungry again in their lives, they were all too happy to agree to Pearce's terms.

The tribal headman, Azilpueta, urged his people to assist their honoured guests in their work and over the next few years, De Souza, Barras and Duarte suffered failure after failure. There seemed no way they would ever discover the reason for the small but important survival rate from the disease.

Pearce paid for even more equipment to be shipped to Brazil, until so much work was taking place that he had to invest in a new, larger generator, whose ever-present throbbing became yet another constant in the lives of the researchers and the people of the tribe.

An outsider might have found it totally surreal to find such a modern, state-of-the-art facility in the midst of the rainforest, in the home of a primitive and unheard of tribe of indigenous natives, but of course, no outsiders ever came to the village, the location of which was known only to Pearce and his people.

It was purely by chance that, one day, two years ago, Marina Duarte finally made the all-important breakthrough.

Chapter 1

The River Mersey, Liverpool
Distance to Liverpool, 6 Miles

The Alexandra Rose sailed into the Mersey Estuary shrouded in dense, dank fog. The doleful tone of the ship's foghorn announced her presence to any ships in the close vicinity. An unhurried passage of just over three weeks had brought the ageing cargo liner, its crew and small complement of passengers on a slow voyage across the Atlantic from Rio, and the ship itself appeared tired and weary from the journey. Captain George Gideon rang the telegraph, signalling 'All Stop' and the Alexandra Rose's diesels ceased their rhythmic throbbing as the ship slowly came to a halt, and Gideon awaited the arrival of the Mersey Pilot Boat to escort the ship into port.

“Two days late, Mr. Neary,” Gideon announced to his first officer, Patrick Neary, who hardly needed telling. Gideon had made it abundantly clear over the last forty-eight hours that he blamed Neary, the fog, and anyone else who he came into contact with for his ship's failure to make port on time.

“Aye, sir,” Neary reluctantly replied as the two men peered out into the fog through the bridge windscreen, seeing nothing, and hearing only the monotonous call of the fog horn as it sounded its mournful warning to other shipping to stay clear. “Could have been worse if the fog had come down sooner.”

“Thank God it didn't, Mister. You know the bonus is gone though, don't you?”

“I know, Neary replied, “but the owners can't blame us for being delayed by fog, can they?”

“Us? Us, Mister Neary? They'll blame me, not you, or the fog or the engine failure we suffered halfway across the bloody Atlantic. Just me, as skipper. They can be bloody unforgiving bastards as you know. We get the bonus for docking in port, on time, and even one hour late and we forfeit the lot. Two days, we're late, two whole bloody days.”

Neary fell silent. Better to let the captain rant for a minute, get his frustration out of his system. Neary had sailed with Gideon for four years and knew the man well enough to be able to read his moods, anticipate his reactions and he knew that now was a time to keep his mouth shut and await the captain's next orders.

“I suppose the pilot will be late now, as well,” Gideon grumbled. “Better get Mister Gray to go round and inform our passengers we're now lying just off Liverpool, but there'll be a short delay in entering port as we wait for the pilot to escort us through this damnable fog.”

“Right you are, sir,” Neary replied as he thankfully departed the bridge and went in search of Robert Gray, the Alexandra Rose's second officer. Having found Gray in the ship's radio room, overseeing the radio operator's transmission of passenger telegrams to friends, relatives and business associates, probably bringing them up to date with the delay in arrival, he ordered the young second officer to carry out Gideon's order. With only six passengers on board, it wouldn't take Gray long to inform them all and report to the bridge.

Gray left the radio operator to his task, placed his hat on his head and set off to carry out his task as Neary returned to join Gideon on the bridge. It was there, ten minutes later, that a breathless and pale faced Robert Gray burst onto the ridge, hatless and looking as though he'd seen a ghost.

“Mister Gray, what on earth's wrong with you man?” Gideon shouted at the young man.

“Sorry sir, but he's dead, sir, dead as a doorknob.”

“Who's dead, man? Come on, pull yourself together and talk sense,” Gideon said to the young man, who was visibly trembling.

“The man in cabin six, sir. The Spaniard, Mister Gaspar. He's just lying there on his bunk sir, staring up at the ceiling with a terrible look on his face. He's dead, sir, I'd stake my life on it,” Gray said, his voice croaking with emotion as he relayed the information to his captain.

“Shit, shit and bloody shit,” Gideon exclaimed, his anger almost at boiling point. “How could he? How could he go and die on my bloody ship? And he's Portuguese, not Spanish, Mister Gray.”

Gideon was well aware of the potential jurisdictional problems that could be caused by a death at sea. He knew he had to summon the police, but, would the local police have the authority to investigate the death of the man in cabin six? He knew exactly what his first step must be.

“Mr. Neary, you have the bridge. Mr. Gray, come with me. We'll pick up Doctor Hanning on the way. I need to find out when the man died before we do anything. I presume you locked the cabin, Gray?”

“Of course, sir,” Gray replied, handing the captain his pass key.

Gideon and Gray quickly made their way below decks, calling first at the ship's sick bay where the ship's doctor, Mason Hanning quickly grabbed his bag and joined the two senior officers as they headed for the passenger accommodation, one deck further down.

By 2003, cargo liners were already something of an anachronism in the world of international travel. At one time, there were large numbers of such vessels plying their trade on the world's oceans, with travellers prepared to pay rather less than they would on a conventional passenger liner for passage on ships that provided lesser service and accommodation in addition to carrying cargo in the manner of a conventional freighter. The Alexandra Rose had been built in Glasgow thirty years earlier and had seen better days. She'd had two previous owners and was now owned by a small Australian company, being registered in that country with Sydney registered as her home port.

She possessed eight cabins in total, six double berths and two singles, giving her a maximum passenger carrying capability of fourteen passengers, making her small by cargo liner standards. On this voyage she carried three couples, with the two single cabins also occupied.

Though not palatial her passenger cabins were more than adequate. While not being able to compete with the large liners like Canberra or Q.E.2, ships like Alexandra Rose sought other means to keep their passengers happy. In this case, her owners had secured the services of two cordon bleu chefs, and a number of waiters with experience in some of the world's finest hotels and restaurants. A well spent refit of her dining room had turned it into the equivalent of a top class restaurant, such as may be found in London, Paris or New York and consequently she was able to attract passengers with discerning appetites, eager to enjoy a sea voyage while being treated to exquisite cuisine throughout their journey.

For now, however, this meant little, as George Gideon, Robert Gray and the doctor entered cabin six. Gideon's first impression on entering the cabin simply confirmed what Gray had reported to him.

His passenger, Alvaro Gaspar, lay unmoving on his bunk, his eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Gideon stood to one side and nodded at the doctor who stepped forward to make his examination of the man. It didn't take him long to reach his conclusion.

“I can confirm he's dead, Captain. What caused it, I can't say at this point.”

“Is it natural causes, Doc? Can you at least tell us that?”

“Sorry Captain, I can't say. From the look on his face, I'd guess at a heart attack, maybe a brain aneurism, but only an autopsy can confirm that and I'm not able to carry out such a procedure on board.”

“Can you say how long he's been dead, Doctor? It's important we know that.”

Hanning reached into his bag and removed a thermometer which he proceeded to insert into the dead man's rectum.

“Doctor?” Gideon questioned him.

“I'm taking the man's core temperature in an attempt to establish an approximate time of death, Captain.”

A Very Mersey Murder

A Very Mersey Murder

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