steamboat on the Mississippi. At least Montaigne was following a Leathers tradition, even if she wasn’t family.
Only he was the only haint. All the other supposed ghosts existed only in the pamphlets the current owners of the boat distributed, with sometimes lurid details of the “haints” aboard. Wilbur had seen the pamphlets and read the stories of the ghosts who reputedly were aboard: for instance, eleven-year-old Lizbeth Hamilton, touted as a “wispy, translucent figure seen on the darkest nights on the main deck, where she died in a tragic fall.” Wilbur had actually witnessed Lizbeth’s death in 1978 as the Natchez was steaming downriver from St. Louis and passing Cape Girardeau. Lizbeth had been dressed in a Billy Joel T-shirt and jeans, her brown hair in pigtails with strands escaping from baby blue ribbons. It had been windy and rather cold that October night, with a light drizzle spraying the decks. Lizbeth’s parents had booked passage for Vicksburg to meet relatives. The Natchez, under new ownership and new captainship again, was—in Wilbur’s view—growing increasingly shabby and sloppily run. Lizbeth had left her parents’ cabin on the boiler deck; Wilbur heard her running footsteps from where he was prowling on the texas deck, and he glanced over the railing in time to see her slip on a thin layer of ice that had formed on the deck. Her momentum took her to the railing; she clutched at it, screaming in panic, but the railing was loose and Wilbur heard the crack of rotten wood. Lizbeth went over still holding the broken railing, falling hard onto the main deck and breaking her neck.
But no ghost had risen from her poor corpse. No ghost haunted the main deck, or any other. Not the passenger named Robert who messily committed suicide in 1958 in his stateroom; not the wife found by her husband in flagrante delicto with another man in 1963—her lover fled naked for his life before jumping overboard to safety, but the husband had strangled his unfaithful wife to death before the then-captain and crew, alerted by the uproar, overpowered him; not the drunken and clumsy idiot who managed to fall backward over the railing into the thrashing paddle wheel in 1988.
Those who died on the Natchez—and there had been a few more over the years—never stayed on the Natchez. Wilbur had no other haints as companions, despite the owners’ advertisements, intended to entice and titillate potential passengers.
Of which there were currently quite a few. The Natchez was readying to leave her home port of New Orleans and head upriver, first to St. Louis, then back down the Mississippi a bit to the confluence of the Ohio and on up the Ohio to Cincinnati, where the steamboat would be part of Cincinnati’s periodic Tall Stacks festival. Many of the passengers had booked passage specifically to attend the festival, though there were also those who were traveling to one or another of the towns and cities along the way.
For Wilbur, the Tall Stacks festivals were a somewhat bittersweet reminder of old times: a dozen or so steamboats lined up along Riverboat Row, even if the majority of them weren’t real steamboats anymore but pale imitations—diesel-powered excursion boats whose paddles were there purely for decoration, or overgrown abominations like the American Queen. The festival reminded him of tales that his father had long ago told him, woven from his own childhood growing up with Wilbur’s grandfather Thomas Leathers, who had built and captained the first eight steamboats named Natchez.
Still, Wilbur would normally have been looking forward to Tall Stacks, especially since his Natchez was scheduled to race against the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen once they arrived. A previous Natchez had famously raced (and lost to) the Robert E. Lee, a scene celebrated in the huge painting that dominated the main salon on the boiler deck.
But the rumors Wilbur was hearing rather dampened any enthusiasm he might have mustered. Wilbur “talked” often enough with Jeremiah Smalls, his one confidant on the Natchez and the boat’s chief pilot for the last dozen years. According to Jeremiah, it appeared that the current owners of the Natchez were considering “options” for making the boat more profitable—and some of those options terrified Wilbur, seeing as this boat was also his prison.
Over the years, then the decades, Wilbur told himself that his was a just sentence; he’d killed Carpenter in a rage, and so he deserved this exile on the boat he’d built for committing the sin of murder. He deserved losing Eleanor, who must now be ninety years old or already dead. He deserved the punishment of never knowing his son or daughter, if Eleanor had perhaps remarried and had other children, if perhaps there were grandchildren of his out in the world.
Justice. Karma. Payment for his sins. Wilbur had been brought up Methodist, but he’d lost his faith somewhere along the way. He didn’t know if there was a God or not, but whether it was God’s hand or simple fate that had marooned him on his own vessel, it was his sentence to bear.
It was a bright day in New Orleans, and Wilbur hadn’t taken in steam in hours. Even filled with steam and willing himself to be visible, in sunlight he’d be little more than a passing wisp of cloud, perhaps a stray, soggy refugee from the stacks or the ’scape pipes or a leaking radiator. But Wilbur was content to be invisible at the moment. He walked the main deck—at least, that was his perception of what he was doing, though he’d seen his reflection in a window or mirror many times over the decades, and to an outsider, he was a specter gliding soundlessly just above the boards. There were far more people on board than usual for the Natchez; it was looking like this would be a profitable trip, and he entertained the thought that this might change the minds of the consortium that owned the boat.
As he turned the corner of the promenade and moved toward the gangway leading to the dock, three young men, laden with odd pieces of equipment, were coming toward him, talking excitedly among themselves. They’d come aboard the night before: two brothers, Ryan and Kevin Forge, and Sean Venters, a cousin. According to Jeremiah, they had a cable television TV show (both cable and television being technologies that simply made Wilbur shake his steamy head in mingled wonder and disgust) called The Dead Report, where they investigated the paranormal. They were aboard looking for the Natchez’s nonexistent ghosts … and especially Steam Wilbur.
“The EMF fields are fluctuating like crazy,” Sean was saying to Ryan as Kevin filmed their interaction, walking backward. “We’re close to something.” Wilbur had to step/glide aside quickly to avoid having Kevin pass directly through him—he didn’t intend to give the ghost hunters anything to talk about on their show.
“Supposedly there’s a ghost around here—a little girl named Lizbeth,” Ryan said. He was dark-haired and muscular, with tattoos crawling his arms (another new societal change that made Wilbur shake his head—even the sailors Wilbur had known in the war hadn’t defaced their bodies this much). “If we can find a cold spot, maybe we can make contact with her.…”
Wilbur let the trio pass him, then continued around to the dock side of the ship.
The Natchez was bustling with activity everywhere. The dock side of the main deck was swarming with visitors and passengers, the air was alive with chatter as deckhands and roustabouts doubled as bellboys, carrying luggage from the dock onto the steamboat and up to the staterooms and cabins on the boiler deck.
Wilbur could see Captain Marjorie Montaigne looking like she’d just stepped out from the late 1800s in her captain’s uniform with its ostentatious piping and embroidery. Montaigne had taken over as captain of the Natchez almost a decade ago; as far as Wilbur was concerned, if none of the captains since his death had been as competent as he’d been, he had to grudgingly admit Montaigne had managed to turn around or at least stop the decline of the Natchez during her tenure.
She was also a lesbian, and admitted that openly—another new societal twitch that Wilbur didn’t quite understand or agree with. In his day, one kept such things tightly closeted and one never talked about them. Still, he had to allow that Montaigne did her job as captain well enough, and though it was still a rarity to see a female captain on the river, she was more than a match for the sometimes crude and misogynistic crewmembers. Wilbur’s own aunt, Blanche Leathers, had become captain of the Natchez way back in 1894, long before women were at all common in the workplace, let alone running a
Captain Montaigne was greeting arrivals at the gangway leading down to the wharf as Wilbur drifted past her, unseen. He’d overheard earlier talk from the captain that there might be several wild card aces among the entertainers as well as the passengers at various points along the cruise; in fact, the Jokertown Boys, a joker boy band that had been famous a decade and a half ago, had been aboard for some time now, having most recently played the night before. Their supposed music failed to impress Wilbur, who still preferred the big band sound of the ’40s and early ’50s, or classic New Orleans jazz. The band’s keyboardist, “Gimcrack”—a stupid name, in Wilbur’s opinion—had also been hired to play the boat’s calliope during the cruises, though at the moment it was silent, the boilers still waiting to be fully fired up tomorrow evening when the Natchez would be under way.
He saw Kitty Strobe, the junior pilot for the Natchez, walking toward the stairs, probably heading up to the pilothouse to help Jeremiah with preparations for getting under way. As usual, despite the New Orleans heat, she was wearing a large baggy sweater and long pants, as well as large dark sunglasses. Wilbur smiled to himself: he knew why she dressed that way, even if no one else on the boat was aware of it.
Captain Montaigne was speaking with a man who looked distressingly like a cartoon fox, accompanied by a woman who sported cat’s ears, nose, and whiskers in an otherwise normal face. Jokers, Wilbur thought. Or aces … “Mr. Yamauchi, Ms. Otto, welcome aboard,” the captain said with her Cajun accent. “I’m glad to see both of you. Your equipment and luggage arrived yesterday. I have your stateroom ready; your luggage is there waiting for you. I assume you’ll want to take a look at the Bayou Lounge, as that’s where you’ll be performing your act; I’ll have one of the deckhands escort you up there. The Jokertown Boys will be sharing the bill with you.…”
Her voice trailed off as Wilbur drifted on past her and up the staircase, causing a descending deckhand to shudder as Wilbur passed partially through the man. Since the boilers were still cool, Wilbur was invisible, barely warm, and relatively dry at the moment.
Wilbur continued up past the boiler deck and texas deck until he was standing on the open hurricane deck atop the boat. Wilbur stood near the calliope, a classic Thomas J. Nichol–built steam calliope salvaged from the sunken remains of the side-wheeler Island Queen, destroyed by fire. Wilbur had paid to lovingly (and expensively) have the calliope restored. The acquisition of the calliope had been one of Wilbur’s proudest accomplishments when he’d built this iteration of his family’s Natchez boats, that and the fact that he’d also been able to salvage murals and paintings from the eighth Natchez, built by his grandfather.
He’d built the Natchez to be as much a part of him as he was now part of it.
Neither Jeremiah nor Kitty Strobe was in the pilothouse, so Wilbur continued up the short flight of stairs and into the enclosure. There was the bell made of 250 melted silver dollars that Wilbur had salvaged from the SS J. D. Ayres; the steam whistle from a steamboat that sank in 1908 on the Monongahela River; the massive white oak and steel wheel from the Hamiltonian, and the ornate control and communications panels, refurbished and modernized over long decades by the boat’s subsequent owners, far different from the time when Wilbur had stood here. Alive. With Eleanor at his side.
Eleanor … The pilothouse’s expansive windows allowed Wilbur to see the river and New Orleans in all directions. From his vantage point, he could view the wharf, the French Quarter, and nearby Jackson Square. He looked out over New Orleans, wondering if she was still there somewhere, wondering if their child was out there as well. Eleanor, what kind of life did Carpenter steal from us? Where would we have gone, what would we have become?
Of course, he’d also stolen Carpenter’s life. He’d sometimes wondered if Carpenter had had a family, if his wife and maybe his kids had expected him to come home for dinner that February night so many decades ago. I’m still paying for that. I wonder if Carpenter’s doing the same somewhere, or maybe everything just ended for him then, even if it didn’t for me.…
Wilbur turned his gaze eastward past the huge stern wheelhouse and down the wide Mississippi. That was where the MS Gustav Schröder, a rusting, decrepit cargo ship flying the Liberian flag, was moored near the river’s intersection with the Intracoastal Waterway, guarded by the Coast Guard cutter Triton and boats from the New Orleans Port Police—all of them five miles downriver. With the river’s curves and all the other river traffic, Wilbur couldn’t make out the ship from this distance, but Schröder had been the subject of lots of talk and gossip and arguments aboard the Natchez in recent days. The vessel was reputedly stuffed with more than nine hundred refugees from Kazakhstan, wherever the hell that was, and the Schröder was out of fuel and food. According to the news reports from Jeremiah’s radio, a very few passengers with the proper papers had been permitted to disembark; the rest were still aboard, forbidden to come ashore.
That seemed to please the majority of the crew, from what Wilbur had overheard.
“We don’t need those fuckin’ foreign jokers,” Mickey Lee Payne, the assistant “mud” clerk, had declared only two nights ago, down on the main deck where the crew had gathered in one of the bunk rooms. Mickey Lee, in Wilbur’s opinion, was mostly a scrawny, loudmouthed bigot; if Wilbur were captain, he’d have the man tossed off the boat.… Though he had to admit that his own grandfather had probably been a bigot of the same stripe. “We got enough of our own freaks. Who the hell knows how many of ’em might be infectious? Did you fucking see the pictures from over there? Christ! Thousands and thousands of people died, and the rest went bugfuck. They were eating fucking babies. You ask me, that new guy that took control over there has the right idea getting rid of the jokers. I say we need to do the same kinda strong leadership: close the damn borders, send ’em back, and good riddance.” There’d been a rumble of general agreement with Mickey Lee’s statement from many of the crew.
For Wilbur, Kazakhstan and its problems seemed as distant as the moon. His world was the Natchez. No, it was good enough for the moment to simply stand in the pilothouse as he had back when he’d still been alive and look out over the Quarter, watching the bustle on the dock and on the river around him and anticipating another voyage upriver, even if he was no longer the boat’s captain. He thought about the steamboat race that would be the showpiece of the Tall Stacks festival in Cincinnati, imagining the Natchez steaming past her competitors. In that moment, he would feel some satisfaction. In that moment, he might see the Natchez less as a prison and more as the boat he’d been so proud to create. His legacy, born of imagination and memories and the dreams of his ancestors. The only child it would seem he’d ever know.
He could imagine that sweet moment already: his Natchez demonstrating what a magnificent boat she was, even in her seventieth decade. He caressed the wheel in front of him, stroking it like a lover, laying his hand there and letting it sink gently into the wood, merging his being with the boat. Part of me. Always part of me …
It was a beautiful day. There would be beautiful nights to come, as well, with a nearly full boat, the steam up in the boilers, and the paddle wheel lashing the brown water of the river as they moved upriver. Soon. Very soon. Eleanor, I’m afraid I’m leaving you again, if you’re still out there. And this time I don’t know if I’ll be back.
Wilbur shook his head at the thought and scowled. His exile on the Natchez was only bearable when they were on the river with the paddle wheel thrashing the water. Soon …
The rest of the time … well, that was hardly worth thinking about.
By John Jos. Miller
BY THE TIME BILLY Ray had arrived on site the MS Gustav Schröder had been anchored downriver from the New Orleans passenger ship terminals for almost two days. He and his SCARE team—part of it, anyway; the rest hadn’t yet arrived—stood on the north bank of t
he Mississippi River. The Schröder was anchored downstream, with the Triton, a Coast Guard cutter, anchored nearby to make sure none of the refugees slipped away. There was no doubt that the Van Rennsaeler administration was determined to keep the Kazakh refugees off American soil, though possible sanctuary in the French Quarter was only a moderate swim away.
Ray eyed the Schröder dubiously from his vantage point on the riverbank, which was adjacent to a small dock near the cruise ship terminal where a Port Police launch was moored. The freighter was too distant to discern details, but Ray was pretty sure that she was no titan of the seas.
“How many refugees did AG Cruz say were crammed on that tub?” he asked, frowning.
“Nine hundred and thirty-seven,” the Midnight Angel said quietly at his side. Her voice was empty of inflection. She could have been talking about sacks of potatoes, not people.
“She doesn’t look big enough to lug nine hundred and thirty-seven toasters across the Atlantic, let alone that many people,” Ray mused.
He glanced at her as she stood next to him, SCARE Agent Moon by her side. In human form Moon was a small, deformed joker who could barely crawl, but the wild card had given her the power to transform into any canid species she could envision, living or extinct, from the Chihuahua to the dire wolf. She was currently a big, fluffy sable collie whose resemblance to TV’s beloved Lassie was uncanny. Ray knew she’d chosen her most friendly form intentionally for the Angel’s benefit as it was the most comforting avatar in her repertoire. Ray caught Moon’s eye and nodded. Her tail thumped the ground sympathetically.
The Angel was staring into the distance, at nothing, really. She was gaunt, her eyes sunken and blank. That was better, Ray reflected, than the haunted look they usually had, an expression she’d rarely been able to shake since their return from Kazakhstan. A month ago, deep in a fit of despondency even greater than usual, she’d shaved off the mane of thick, dark hair that had hung down to her waist. The new growth was streaked with white. She no longer wore her leathers, even on a mission, for they reminded her too much of the nightmare of Talas. Instead she had on khaki slacks and a thick, long-sleeved, shapeless pullover. Despite the heat and humidity of the New Orleans summer day, her face was pale and sweatless.