Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


ANOTHER CRUISE

Our new group of guests arrived and it was clear that the crew and I would have to work harder on this trip. To start with, we had a full complement of eight this time; two married couples from Germany, one from Italy, and two middle-aged businessmen from Belgium. Most of them were new divers, and none had previous experience of tropical seas. We decided that there would be no more unescorted dives, and even if the guests went snorkelling near the boat, one of us would always either accompany or keep an eye on them.

There was also the ticklish matter of letting them know that on the previous cruise someone from this boat was killed by a shark, and reassuring them. A few of them have read about the accident in the papers at home, without, however, realizing that this was the very boat to whose passenger it happened.

There was also our new cook to be broken in. Her name was Nava and she was an Israeli girl from Eilat, physically plain, mentally unsophisticated, and with the typical young Israeli's self-assurance. She introduced herself as an accomplished cook although, when pressed for details, could offer nothing more than having worked as a waitress for a while. The trial dinner she had prepared was decent enough, but not quite up to Sinbad's previous standard. We had no choice but to accept her, but she would have to be coached and watched, and I kept hoping Maria would come back soon. Nava was not a skindiver either, which left us one guide short. She also grumbled at the plywood partition, and was further disappointed when the guests showed up and the only unattached men among them were the two plain and middle-aged Belgians. I dreaded losing her there and then or later during the trip, and asked Bob, Ilan, and Ron to flirt with her a little for God's sake.

Not only was the average age of our guests higher than the last time, but they were also more formal and reserved at first. However, by the time we finished our first lunch on board, the atmosphere has grown warmer and more relaxed. I also noticed that Ron was making quite a good job of flirting with Nava while helping her with the dinner. Maybe he really did think her attractive, and she would not jump ship after all. Just then there came a shout from the pier, in English:

"Ahoy there, Sinbad! Captain on board?"

I swore under my breath, excused myself, and went down to Yankele on the pier. He was in uniform, and if he was expecting an invitation to come on board to supply some local colour, it would not be forthcoming. The sight of an Israeli officer in the desert might warm the cockles of a Jewish tourist's heart, but all my guests were Christian, come for a politics-free vacation, and I was damned if I was going to turn Sinbad into an officers' club, to have my beer supply depleted and the women ogled every time Yankele or someone like him had a day off.

"Not again?" I asked him casually. He did not answer, looking at me as if expecting something. And indeed, there was something unfamiliar about his appearance; it took me a while to realize that he had shaved off his moustache, and also that there was a second leaf on his shoulder straps; they've made him a lieutenant colonel at last. He looked much more like an officer without the moustache; there was something literally stiff about his upper lip, and the lower one jutted a little in a manly and determined way.

"Congratulations," I said, shaking his hand. " I see they've given you an ultimatum: shave off that moustache or no promotion."

He laughed.

"Thank you, Cobi. No, you don't have anyone important or suspicious on board this time. I just stopped by to let you have these back."

He put his hand in his pocket and brought out Werner's diving watch and the spearhead.

"You don't need them anymore?" I asked.
"No, you can have them back now."

A short silence fell. I had a feeling that Yankele was waiting for me to ask about Max, whether he left as scheduled and so on; but for all I knew he may have had me watched that morning and knew all about the rooftop cafe and the binoculars.

"All right then," I said. "Thank you very much, and congratulations again."

"Thank you, Cobi. You have been a great help." I wondered whether he meant Max or his promotion.

* * *

Sinbad's cruise passed smoothly and without mishap. The crew and I had to work harder, and in addition to our usual duties we also had to help Nava out from time to time. She found cooking for eight guests and five crew in the small hot galley rather hard, and also discovered that she was prone to seasickness on the longer runs. We fed her Dramamine pills, and also started teaching her to dive, as a fringe benefit. I also promised her a generous bonus at the end of the cruise. Perhaps the greatest help was her romance with Ron. It started in the Zodiac in the stern, but afterwards visits beyond the plywood partition were reported by Bob and Ilan, whom she must have assumed to be fast asleep or slightly deaf.

The sharks of Sharm-el-Sheikh were on their best behaviour, and group after group of divers went down to watch them without any unpleasantness. Werner's death was fast receding into history; the tourist turnover was such that by the time we reached Sharm, most of the divers hadn't been there when the accident occurred. Our eight guests were as fascinated by the coral reefs as their predecessors, and the cruise turned out to be a great success. On the traditional camelback trip into the desert they did suffer from heat during the day, but the nights were pleasantly cool, and they did full justice to the shashlik and the sweet Bedouin tea. On the first night, after they retired to their sleeping bags, old Sheikh Abdullah and I had our traditional long talk over coffee and cigarettes.

"Abdullah," I told him, "I hear that this young new officer in Yankele's unit is trying to make a name for himself as the terror of the hashish smugglers, and is planning a few raids around here in a couple of days. They have also acquired a couple of specially trained dogs which can sniff out the stuff, so it would be no use hiding it too near the camp. Of course, I know that you yourself have nothing to do with such things..."
"Of course not."
"...but should you happen to hear of someone who keeps just a little for himself, you know, a word in time could save a lot of complications afterwards."
"This is most kind of you, Cobi. Should I hear of anyone like that, I shall certainly warn him, without, of course, breathing a word of who I heard it from."

For a while we sipped our coffee in silence and lit a new cigarette each.

"Have you any idea," Abdullah said at last, "how deep the water might be in the middle of the gulf, between here and the Saudi side?"
"Oh, very deep; it goes down sharply right behind the reefs, to a kilometre or more."
So if you dropped something heavy there, divers could not find it?"
"Certainly not; a diver can go down safely to no more than forty metres with the standard equipment; deeper than that he's in danger of sickness or death. There is some special equipment, very complicated and expensive, with which you can go deeper but they don't have it around here. What's more, if you dropped something to the bottom, the sand or the mud would cover it up in a short time, unless, of course, it was too light
"No, it seemed to be quite heavy; the six people who carried it to the boat were staggering under the weight of it."
"How big was it?"
"I did not see it myself, but I was told it was about as big as... of course I have no idea what was inside because it was wrapped or sewn in heavy canvas; but it was about as big as a man and seemed to be about twice as heavy. Major Yankele was one of the people carrying it. My cousin the fisherman could not recognize the others because the night was very dark, without moon."
"Then it must have been about a week ago."
"Yes, Sunday or Monday. The boat looked like a military inflatable one, with a powerful engine. They went out and then came back about an hour later without the heavy thing. They didn't notice my cousin watching them from behind a dune."
"Perhaps some night exercise, or they could have been dumping confiscated hashish."
"Perhaps."
"How many were they altogether?"
"Just six. Four of them came with the command car with the heavy thing, and two with the boat from the sea, from the direction of that navy base near Sharm. The six of them carried the thing to the boat, and then Major Yankele and another man from the command car put on safety vests and went out with the boat with the two who came with it, while the other two looked after the command car until they returned."
"Very interesting, and of course none of our business. Thank you for telling me, Sheikh Abdullah, and of course I won't mention it to anyone."
"Yes. There are all sorts of interesting things happening around here since you Israelis came."
"So it would seem, Sheikh Abdullah."

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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