"Why did we stop?"
"We've struck something," the purser replied without turning.
"Is it serious?"
"Not likely, sir. If there's any leakage, the pumps should handle it."
Abruptly, an ear-shattering roar that sounded like a hundred Denver and Rio Grande locomotives thundering through a tunnel at the same time erupted from the eight exterior exhaust ducts. Even as he put his hands to his ears, the passenger recognized the cause. He had been around machinery long enough to know that the excess steam from the ship's idle reciprocating engines was blowing off through the bypass valves. The terrific blare made further speech with the purser impossible. He turned away and watched as other crew members appeared on the Boat Deck. A terrible dread spread through his stomach as he saw them begin stripping off the lifeboat covers and clearing away the lines to the davits.
He stood there for nearly an hour while the din from the exhaust ducts died slowly in the night. Clutching the handrail, oblivious to the cold, he barely noticed the small groups of passengers who had begun to wander the Boat Deck in a strange, quiet kind of confusion.
One of the ship's junior officers came past. He was young, in his early twenties, and his face had the typically British milky-white complexion and the typically British bored-with-it-all expression. He approached the man at the railing and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Beg your pardon, sir. But you must get your life jacket on."
The man slowly turned and stared. "We're going to sink, aren't we?" he asked hoarsely.
The officer hesitated a moment, then nodded. "She's taking sea faster than the pumps can keep up."
"How long do we have?"
"Hard to say. Maybe another hour if the water stays clear of the boilers."
"What happened? There was no other ship nearby. What did we collide with?"
"Iceberg. Slashed our hull. Damnable bit of bloody luck."
He grasped the officer's arm so hard the young man winced. "I must get into the cargo hold."
"Little chance of that, sir. The mail room on F Deck is flooding and the luggage is already floating down in the hold."
"You must guide me there."
The officer tried to shake his arm loose, but it was held like a vise. "Impossible! My orders are to see to the starboard lifeboats."
"Some other officer can man the boats," the passenger said tonelessly. "You're going to show me the way to the cargo hold."
It was then that the officer noticed two discomforting things. First, the twisted, insane look on the passenger's face, and, second, the muzzle of the gun that was pressing against his genitals.
"Do as I ask," the man snarled, "if you wish to see grandchildren."
The officer stared dumbly at the gun and then looked up. Something inside him was suddenly sick. There was no thought of argument or resistance. The reddened eyes that burned into his, burned from within the depths of insanity.
"I can only try."
"Then try!" the passenger snarled. "And no tricks. I'll be at your back all the way. One stupid mistake and I'll shoot your spine in two at the base."
Discreetly, he shoved the gun into a coat pocket, keeping the barrel nudged against the officer's back. They made their way without difficulty through the milling throng of people who now cluttered the Boat Deck. It was a different ship now. No laughter or gaiety, no class distinction; the wealthy and the poor were joined by the common bond of fear. The stewards were the only ones smiling and making small talk as they handed out ghost-white life preservers.
The distress rockets soared into the air, looking small and vain under the smothering blackness, their burst of white sparkles seen by no one except those aboard the doomed ship. It provided an unearthly backdrop for the heartrending good-byes, the forced expressions of hope in the men's eyes as they tenderly lifted their women and children into the lifeboats. The terrible unreality of the scene was heightened as the ship's eight-piece band assembled on the Boat Deck, incongruous with their instruments and pale life jackets. They began to play Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
The ship's officer, prodded by the gun, struggled down the main stairway against the wave of passengers who were surging up toward the lifeboats. The low angle of the bow was becoming more pronounced. Going down the steps, their stride was off-balance. At B Deck they commandeered an elevator and rode it down to D Deck.
The young officer turned and studied the man whose strange whim had inexorably bound him tighter in the grip of certain death. The lips were drawn back tightly over the teeth, the eyes glassy with a faraway look. The passenger glanced up and saw the officer staring at him. For a long moment their eyes locked.
"Don't worry, Bigalow. You'll make it before she goes."
"What section of the cargo hold do you want?"
"The ship's vault in number one cargo hold, G Deck."
"G Deck must surely be under water by now."
"We'll only know when we get there, won't we?" The passenger motioned with the gun in his coat pocket as the elevator doors opened. They moved out and pushed their way through the crowd.
Bigalow tore off his life belt and ran around the staircase leading to E Deck. There he stopped and looked down and saw the water crawling upward, inching its relentless path up the steps. Some of the lights still burned under the cold green water, giving off a haunting, distorted glow.
"It's no use. You can see for yourself."
"Is there another way?"
"The watertight doors were closed right after the collision. We might make it down one of the escape ladders."
"Then keep going."
The journey along the circuitous alleyways went rapidly through the unending steel labyrinth of passages and ladder tunnels. Bigalow halted and lifted a round hatch cover and peered into the narrow opening. Surprisingly, the water on the cargo deck beneath was only two feet deep.
"No hope," he lied. "It's flooded."
The passenger roughly shoved the officer to one side and looked for himself.
"It's dry enough for my purpose," he said slowly. He waved the gun at the hatch. "Keep going."
The overhead electric lights were still burning in the hold as the two men sloshed their way toward the ship's strong room. The dim rays glinted off the brass of a giant Renault town car blocked to the deck.
Both of them stumbled and fell in the icy water several times, numbing their bodies with the cold. Staggering like drunken men, they reached the vault at last. It was a cube in the middle of the cargo compartment. It measured eight feet by eight feet; its sturdy walls were constructed of twelve inch-thick Belfast steel.
The passenger produced a key from his vest pocket and inserted it in the slot. The lock was new and stiff, but finally the tumblers gave with an audible click. He pushed the heavy door open and stepped into the vault. Then he turned and smiled for the first time. "Thanks for your help, Bigalow. You'd better head topside. There's still time for you."
Bigalow looked puzzled. "You're staying?"
"Yes, I'm staying. I've murdered eight good and true men. I can't live with that." It was said flatly. The tone final. "It's over and done with. Everything."