Mrs. Pierce sat up in bed, suddenly awake. She wasn’t a sound sleeper–she hadn’t been since she’d had her children in her twenties–and the smallest unusual sound would inevitably disturb her. She looked over at the clock to see that it was 12:47 am. What was that she’d heard? A door cabin door closing, she realized now, the veil of sleep fading. The metal catches were quite stiff on these cabin doors, and if one didn’t turn the handle as the door closed, the metal pushed against the strike plate and made a very distinctive clanging sound.
Mrs. Pierce knew that she would not be able to get back to sleep now for some time, so she switched on the radio, just as the BBC Radio 4 Shipping Forecast was being broadcast.
She lay in bed, trying to decode the report, with its strange-sounding names and numbers, and visualizing what ‘becoming cyclonic’ conditions would be like on a ship this size. And this ‘low’ in southern Scandinavia sounded quite ominous. And yet, the way the woman read the forecast, she felt oddly at ease. Her eyelids were just beginning to close again when the loud cymbals in “God Save the Queen” jolted her back awake, then the news began. In general, she avoided the world news: it was all too upsetting, and one couldn’t do anything about it, or so it seemed most days.
She switched off the radio and got up to stretch her tired limbs, hoping to release some extra energy and find sleep again. This didn’t seem to help though, as her mind was now too active to rest.
With a sigh, Mrs. Pierce decided she would go out and see if she could corroborate the weather report with the actual conditions. She changed into a pair of her “Saturday” casual trousers (Mrs. Pierce had never owned blue jeans since denim was strictly for people twenty years her junior), a warm turtleneck, a down vest, and hosiery socks, then slipped her feet into her favorite robin’s egg blue leather driving shoes.
Leaving her cabin, she was careful to turn the handle so the door closed almost soundlessly, then she made her way down the corridor. She was surprised to see another figure in the corridor, a man–surely that wasn’t the Major, at this hour, she thought, as she instinctively tucked her thin body behind a column as to not be observed, then poked her head out carefully to get a better look.
Oh dear, it was indeed the Major, and he was carrying a large duffel bag, making his way toward the ship’s center, his back turned to her.
Now, this was curious. Was the Major taking an excursion, in the middle of the night? Perhaps he was making a delivery of…what? What might be in that bag, she wondered…
She decided to follow him, discretely. Along the way, she leaned out over the side of the ship a couple times, looking for a small vessel. Perhaps the Major was planning a rendezvous with another party? But there were no other ships, just a calm sea. Mrs. Pierce did notice there was indeed an approaching low front–she could feel the wind picking up, and in the distance, could see white caps starting to form under the moonlight.
The Major disappeared into the Bridge, but Mrs. Pierce was determined to watch. She looked around for a way to peek into the side windows and not be seen. As quietly as possible, she moved a deck chair into position and proceeded to climb up onto it.
Now Mrs. Pierce was eighty years old, as we have mentioned before, but she was very fit. At home, she played golf three times a week, and tennis on her non-golf days. She had always watched her figure. So although she was old in years she was as agile as someone half her age. She peered into the window and was quite amazed to see the Bridge held no officers, at least that she could see from this angle, and there was the Major, leaning down next to a safe, and turning its dial to unlock it!
Astonished by this lapse in the ship’s security, Mrs. Piece looked on and watched as the Major pulled paper documents out of the safe, looked through them briefly, then proceeded to stash them in the aforementioned duffel bag. The Major looked up suddenly as if he’d heard someone approaching, so Mrs. Pierce ducked down quickly out of sight. Hoping she’d not been spotted, but also wanting to prepare for action in case she had, she deftly moved the deck chair back to its original position.
Mrs. Pierce had had to act quickly like this once before. Years ago, she and Mr. Pierce had been out at a restaurant and returned home to find burglars just starting to break into their home. Now, she remembered what the late Mr. Pierce had done in that tricky situation, and she had assisted. She grabbed a large cloth dinner napkin from a table and positioned it over her hand, and without hesitation, leaped onto the Bridge, her finger pointed forward to imply a handgun under the napkin. In the dim light, she hoped this illusion would be convincing. She pointed her napkin finger at the Major, who had resumed collecting documents and had not heard her rather grand entrance, perhaps due to the increasing wind.
“I don’t think those belong to you, Major,” she said slowly, and with authority. Quite startled, the Major jumped up in alarm, papers fluttering downward. He held his arms up and his face reddened.
“There’s no need for violence, Mrs. Pierce,” stammered the Major. “It’s….this is not what you think.”
“What you think I might think is not only irrelevant but likely wrong. I’m perfectly capable of connecting the dots. Now back up, slowly.” Mrs. Pierce gestured with “the gun” to a stationary closet. “In there you go, hurry now.” Moving toward him and still pointing with the pretend gun, Mrs. Pierce shoved the Major into the tiny closet, which she had happened to notice had a latch that could only be opened from the outside. She locked it closed quickly before he could overpower her with strength.
“Mrs. Pierce, Mrs. Pierce, please let me out, I can explain!” The Major rapped gently on the door, presumably to not arouse the crew, and continued to plead. “Please, don’t leave me here, I haven’t done anything wrong, not really…you must understand…”
She tested that he could not escape, then turned away from the door. That’s when she saw the ship’s 3rd mate, hands tied behind his back, his mouth gagged, and his body tied to a chair, and shoved into a corner.
“Goodness!” cried Mrs. Pierce, who ran to his aid, and removed his gag so he could speak. She located some scissors and cut the ropes, and once he was free he ran to get the Captain.
The Captain and Mrs. Pierce sat in his study, sipping hot tea; a blanket was draped around Mrs. Pierce’s shoulders. She knew it looked untidy but she was still so cold…it was the shock, the Captain had declared, adding more sugar to her black tea. The sun was rising and the wind was now whipping the ship which rode small but frequent white caps. They had been discussing what to do about The Major, who the Captain had moved to the ship’s below-decks car garage area, where there was a caged enclosure used for storing flammable goods or dogs on quarantine. The Captain had restored all the sensitive documents to the safe and changed the safe’s combination.
“Protocol requires we involve the local authorities at the soonest opportunity,” remarked the Captain. “On the other hand, I am technically the Master of the ship when we are away from port, and that means I can mete out justice as I see fit, according to Maritime law and tradition.”
“I see,” replied Mrs. Pierce. “And what would the land equivalent of a stealing offense get him? A fine? A night in prison?”
“Well, seeing as nothing was actually stolen, only attempted, I believe he would be required to pay a hefty fine, and a misdemeanor charge would appear on his record.”
“And what about assaulting a member of the crew? It doesn’t seem severe enough, what with his intention being corporate espionage and all. Won’t the shipping line’s owners want a chance to press charges?”
“Indeed,” the Captain nodded. “I would be remiss if I did not inform them.”
The Captain and Mrs. Pierce sat silently for some time, each one mulling this over in their heads.
Suddenly Mrs. Pierce set down her tea cup and gasped. “I’ve got it,” she exclaimed, her face bright now. She tossed off the blanket and stood. “The Major’s feeling quite guilty and embarrassed. If this were to get out publicly he’d be ruined. We can use that fact as leverage. In exchange for letting this issue be forgotten, we could offer him the opportunity to make it up to us. He works at the Home Office…has for years. And we know a certain young Scottish someone who needs his help, in the form of a valid passport!”
The Captain’s eyes lit up at this idea as well, and he stood and shook Mrs. Pierce’s hand, smiling. “Mrs. Pierce, you’re all right in my book. Let’s go free our prisoner, shall we?”