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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year:THE PURPLE MAIDEN

The Purple Maiden - - Chapter Three - Wrong Wreck
MV ‘Franconia’, off the Cies Islands, Galicia. June 1999.
James Skinner

‘Captain, we’ve got a passenger who needs hospital treatment. Name of John Fetworth, age 78. I’ve got him in sick bay at the moment, under observation with a suspected attack of angina.’ The Chief Medical officer aboard the cruise ship had just finished applying an emergency oxygen supply to one of the passengers travelling on the return voyage to the United Kingdom. Captain Sylvester Brent acknowledged the report and immediately sent a message to the shipping agents asking for an ambulance to be available on arrival.

Juan Jose Mauro, widower, was the present Managing Director of the Jesus Mauro & Sons shipping agency in Vigo, an establishment set up by his grandfather and granduncle over a hundred years earlier to cater for the British merchant shipping companies that operated between the United Kingdom and South America. The constant transport of beef, wheat and other commodities in a northern direction by the British ships and the flow of Spanish emigrants to the promised lands of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in the other fed the financial and physical growth of one of the oldest commercial establishments in Galicia. As the regular passenger routes began to fade because of competition from air travel and container shipping, a new lucrative business took is place. Cruise ship travel was born. The agency had other equally important responsibilities with the United Kingdom. Due to the longstanding ties with Britain, the head of the Mauro family had always acted as British Vice Consul. It was not surprising therefore, that when the British Foreign Office, after centuries of consular representation, closed the consular office and the career representative retired, Her Majesty’s Government decided to appoint the existing head of the travel agency as the Honorary British Consul to continue offering consular service in the region. Since 1984 Juan Jose had carried out these duties. However, he was also reaching retirement age and the only successor to the firm was his younger daughter Yolanda. His two sons had taken different professional paths that had nothing to do with shipping. The agency was at an historical crossroads, staring at its own survival.

‘Sr. Mauro, we’ve got a sick passenger arriving on the Franconia. I’ve taken care of the usual arrangements.’ His secretary handed Juan Jose a note with the details including the ship’s arrival time: the following morning at 08:00. ‘I hope that daughter of mine could get her act together once and for all!’ thought Juan Jose, as he looked at a photograph of Yolanda that stood out among the other items on his desk. Her weekly postcard from Falmouth was clipped to its frame. ‘You’re nothing but heartburn!’

He went over the personal details of the passenger and then picked up the phone. He dialled the British Consulate in Madrid. It was not a normal case.

‘Freddy, sorry to bother you, but I’ve got another passenger that’s ‘hit the deck’. He’s from the Franconia and is travelling on his own. Name is John Fetworth, bachelor. Has a sister, Janet in a town called West Byfleet, Surrey.’ Juan Jose would normally hand back the information that included passport number and other details of any sick passenger to his secretary for the records in Madrid. At the same time he would phone the hospital to find out about the patient’s ‘snap shot’ condition and if possible speak to the next-of-kin. In John Fetworth’s case, it would be taken up by the Foreign Office’s Spanish desk in liaison with Madrid so that his sister could be briefed directly by London whilst Juan Jose monitored the situation with the hospital’s doctors. ‘OK, Juan Jose, what’s his present condition?’ asked Freddy, the Madrid Vice-Consul. ‘He’s still in intensive care, but stable. Doctor’s have stated a 70% positive rating.’ Freddy knew exactly what that meant, ‘I’ll take it from here, keep me informed as usual.’ They hung up.

Muros, Galicia.
St. Edmond’s Explorers Ltd. was not on Corporal Quiroga’s list. After searching through all known companies and vessels with criminal records or links with drugs that Sergio had registered over the last twelve months, this particular and assumed British company drew blanks. A proud character, and not wishing to appear ignorant before his boss, Sergio continued to rack his brains knowing that he was running out of time. ‘If this is a legit company, it wouldn’t be on the list, would it?’ He thought, ‘but then why would the boss want info on it?’ Colonel Lobeira was hard on his staff including the brilliant ones. Favoured ‘yes’ people and never took no for an answer. Sergio took the plunge. He walked straight into the colonel’s office, ‘Sir, do you have more information on the English outfit that I should know about?’ It worked. The colonel looked up at Sergio from his desk and picked a folder out of a drawer and handed it to him. The cover had the crest of the Spanish Navy. It was stamped with the word ‘Confidential’ right across the middle. ‘I’m glad you asked, Corporal. Shows initiative! You wouldn’t have found anything because there’s no drug connection.’ The Colonel went on, ‘they’ve got some sort of a diving contract that involves our navy. They’ve rented a local fishing boat at Carnota village. Commander Ortiz down in Villagarcia asked me to check them out just in case. Keep it low key. No need to arouse any suspicion. They could be as clean as a whistle. That’s all corporal!’ Sergio walked out of the room, ‘bastard!’

He spent the next two hours studying the details of St. Edmond’s Explorers’ diving contract, its penalty clauses included. It was all there and above board. The time period, the price tag, the weekly dive details back to Commander Ortiz’s offices. He then pulled out the location coordinates where they were meant to be working and walked over to a map of Galicia that hung in the main office. He took a pencil and pinpointed the 50 or so kilometres of coastline where the U-boat was supposed to be sunk. It was the area across the entrance to the bay of Muros and Noia less than a 100 kilometres away from Santiago. The more he mulled over the project the more he became discouraged. Sergio’s natural suspicion began to wane, drug trafficking seemed out of the question. ‘What a waste of bloody time!’ he thought. Still intrigued, he tried another hunch.

Sergio called one of his contacts in the ‘Voz de Galicia’ newspaper based in Corunna. He used his personal mobile where he kept his confidential numbers. ‘Berto? Hi.’ There was a pause. After a couple of reciprocal greetings, ‘no, I’m not in the office!’ Alberto, an old time school buddy of Sergio’s was always nervous whenever his friend called for information. ‘I can’t tell you over the phone… No…it’s not dangerous. No drugs involved!’ Sergio asked him to check in the archives of the newspaper for any historical news on U-boat movements during WWII off the coast of Galicia. ‘The number is U- 532, date November, 1944.’ Two hours later, Alberto was back to Sergio on his mobile, ‘sorry, nothing in our archives, amigo!’ ‘Thanks amigo, I owe you one.’ They hung up.

Sergio went back to his office muttering, ‘this whole project stinks!’ In his mind, the basic information, despite the skimpy historical records in the contract was flawed. They didn’t coincide with anything that dealt with the war in the North Atlantic. He couldn’t research further into the actual U-boat without going back to the Navy and that would mean going above his boss’ head. ‘Who’s really behind this anyway?’ he thought. A shiver trickled down his spine as he made another phone call; this time to the autonomous government’s department of culture.

During the many skirmishes between the British, French, Dutch and Spanish navies in the early XVIII century along the coast of Europe hundreds of ships on either side were either sunk by gunfire or by gale force winds and heavy seas. Some were eventually found and accurately recorded and others were on the ‘still missing’ sections of the history books. Those along the coast of Spain were under the protection of the Spanish Heritage laws and any exploration activity to discover or to salvage a historical wreck required specific permission from the government.
Sergio had spent days going through the government records in Santiago studying the fate of dozens of wrecks in the vicinity of the Southern coast of Galicia. Most of those involved in the famous Battle of Rande in the Vigo Bay were well recorded although never actually found. The magnitude of the search and the endless hours prodding through volumes of information was beginning to wear him down. He was also neglecting his main task of keeping up the records of the constant drug activity in the region. Colonel Lobeira eventually called him into his office, ‘should’ve called you off the job some time ago, Corporal. No use wasting any more time on those divers.’ ‘Yes Sir’. Sergio closed the office door behind him.
Taken off the job he asked for a week’s holiday.

Falmouth College of Arts.
Stan looked around the lecture room. There were 34 students in total from three different groups, two postgraduate and the other a fulltime Bachelor’s degree course.
‘Good morning! My name is Stan Bullock and I’m from the Coastguard Agency. ‘You’ll see from your program that I’m here to bore you for a couple of hours on the great world of ocean safety and other shipping niceties.’ He paused for a moment and added seriously, ‘I know it may seem odd and may in some cases…’ he was aiming and the younger ones, ‘…totally irrelevant, but I must emphasize that in a small town like this, and with the number of students passing through each year, many of whom come from the interior of their respective countries, the local authorities are keen that you are all aware of the dangers of any sport or activity related to the sea.’

Once he delivered his introductory warning, Stan swung into a personally prepared short seminar that not only covered the entire subject matter with eloquence yet flowed with the ease of a professional television program including image projection, sound and verbal commentary. He started with a short reference to the history of Cornish shipwrecks and salvages, followed with two similar presentations of his work as a coastguard. He ended the first session before the coffee break with a synopsis of modern day communication amenities that helped reduce the danger in today’s shipping world. ‘When you return, I’ll introduce you to a colleague who is a volunteer in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He’ll explain about our coastal safety codes as well as shore discipline, particularly during stormy weather.’ As he was replacing all his papers into a briefcase, one of the students approached the desk, ‘remember me?’
Yolanda Mauro, her long hair tied in a bun was dressed in a green frock that displayed small arrays of printed white flowers held together by a tight white belt around her waist. She was wearing dark glasses. Stan just smiled acknowledging her presence as yet another student. As he turned off his portable and his mind switched off the remnants of his lecture, the sound of her voice slowly sank in. Yolanda took off her glasses and stared at him. Stan purposefully blinked, ‘Yes! The Cheshire Cat! The singing and hollering Spaniard!’ For a moment, neither uttered another word. A true proud young Latin she felt hurt the night Stan rudely walked away from her table at the pub without warning, yet a certain spark of attraction had been fired within her. Stan finally broke the silence and said half-heartedly, ‘do I owe you an apology?’ Yolanda ignored his remark, ‘do you dislike Spaniards then?’

He was caught off guard. The tone of her voice was defiant. Stan had dealt mainly with the Spanish fishermen that were either contacting his agency or those that were brought in by the Navy for questioning suspected of breach of British law. He had even taken a crash course in the language to communicate with them despite the fact that he had never been to Spain. This was the first ever contact with one of their women folk. ‘And a real cracker!’ He thought. Lost for words he retorted sarcastically, ‘ever heard of the Merchant Shipping Act?’ Yolanda was taken aback. Her bewildered anger took over again, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!’ She began to walk away. Stan stepped in her path, holding up both his arms, ‘OK! You’re right.’ He slowly smiled and in broken Spanish continued, ‘peace offering?’ This time he was honest and Yolanda picked up the message. The ice was broken.

Muros fishing village, Galicia.
‘What’s up, hijo? Why the sudden break from work?’ asked his mother as she was chopping onions and preparing the evening meal. Sergio said nothing. She paused for a second, whipped her hands on her apron and walked over to where he was sitting. He continued to stare into space. ‘Well?’ He looked up at her, a mixture of sadness and anger were written across his face. He still kept silent. Ever since his father died in a nasty car accident, caused by a drunken driver when Sergio was only fourteen, his mind had been set in pursuing a career in the arms of the law. His mother at first was concerned because of his obvious obsession in vindicating his father’s death, yet on graduation day from the academy the tears of joy were there joining all other parents proud of their offspring’s future career in the civil guards. ‘I thought you’ve got what you wanted? What’s wrong then?’ Sergio got up and was about to leave the room without a word as his mother changed her tone and raised her voice, ‘stop right there! I’ve had enough of your brooding!’ He gave in. A Galician mother, widowed prematurely was a strong deterrent to the combination of his self-pity and pride. He turned and embraced her.

‘It’s just that I’m sick of sitting at a computer all day and just turning out statistics and reports for the other guys to take the glory!’ His mother listened quietly as Sergio continued to unwind, ‘I’ve been at it for 4 years now; even asked to be transferred to active duty. Zero response!’ He told his mother all about the latest case his boss had asked him to check out and how he thought that he was on to something when he was asked to forget they existed. ‘All they can think about is the drug problem.’ It was at that moment that his mother changed her tune and came up with a suggestion that would alter the course of his work.

‘How long are you going to be on leave?’ she asked. ‘Another couple of weeks,’ he answered, ‘why?’
The rain had been pouring down on the village for several days due to unusually cold and wintry weather for the time of year. Although the St. Edmond Explorer divers had been unable to continue with their diving they kept their work schedule active piecing together the collection of artefacts that they had successfully retrieved from the XVIII century Spanish wreck. ‘We’ve got another couple of months left before the contract runs out,’ said Percy Robertson optimistically adding, ‘that gives us one to find the coins and another to ‘you know what’. Eric Fuller was busy on the computer checking the structure of the wreck for the umpteenth time, picked up Percy’s comment, ‘I’m not so sure we’ll be able to make it! We’ve covered too small an area. The ‘Lady’ is a monster.’ Nigel McNeill, the leader of the team burst out, ‘OK then. What do we do? Pack it in, get paid by the Spaniards for finding bugger all, which incidentally amounts to only 20% and go back to oil rigs?’
At that moment, Corporal Sergio Quiroga burst through the front door, ‘everyone on the floor! Now! You’re all under arrest!’

Torquay, Devon
Janet Phillips, Conservative MP for Devon South received and urgent phone call from her secretary during a parliamentary recess in London. ‘Ms. Phillips, a Mrs. Robertson from Torquay has just called saying that her husband and two colleagues were arrested some weeks ago in Spain. They were doing some work for the Spanish government, doesn’t understand how they could have got into such serious trouble. Says she can’t get through to them and is pleading for our help. Thought you should know right away.’ Janet was not due to go back to Devon for another week, taking advantage of a short holiday before the summer tourist season. Her in-tray was usually full of citizen complaints whenever she returned home from London. She knew this could be serious otherwise her secretary would’ve waited for her return. ‘Do you have any other information, Susan?’ Her secretary filled her in with more details.

Freddy Walton at the British Embassy in Madrid continued to rant and rave about British politicians meddling in consular affairs as he spoke to his counterpart in Vigo. ‘We’ve now got a bloody MP on the act about those guys caught poaching off Muros. Can you check and see what the latest info is Juan Jose? I’ve even got the Ambassador in on the act.’ Juan Jose was taken aback. He had reported the arrests of all members of the St. Edmonds Explorers a month ago and had visited the civil guard’s station at Noia prior to their transfer to one of the Galician prisons near the town of Teixeiro where they were presently being held awaiting the judge’s decision on a trial. He had been able to obtain an English-speaking lawyer to represent them and as per standard procedure closed the file and left the rest up to Madrid. The families of all divers had already been contacted and informed of the Spanish judicial procedures. Theoretically, no more could be done.

His mother was right. ‘Use that instinct of yours, hijo. If you suspect something is wrong why don’t you check it out?’ She had said that night. Sergio spent the next week keeping a daily watch on the diver’s activities. It wasn’t until the eighth day that he realised that something was wrong. The divers were about fifteen miles off shore and had not moved for days. In his mind they had obviously found something. It was then that he decided to check out the bungalow where they were staying. Making sure that they were away, despite knowing that he was acting illegally, he took a chance. He broke into the dwelling. Sprawled out on a large table in the kitchen was the evidence he was looking for. There were dozens of items and artefacts taken from a shipwreck from the XVIII century. The irony is that their poaching had confirmed the discovery of the ‘Lady of Mercy’. However, none of the suspected treasure of silver or gold had been found.

Corporal Sergio Quiroga, at first reprimanded had subsequently been highly praised by his fellow agents for his personal detective work. The downside was that Colonel Lobeira sent him back to his IT system to continue to update the ‘drug rogues’ database. ‘What a waste,’ thought Sonia seeing the disillusioned look on Sergio’s face as he switched on his networking to enter more information on the latest hauls on the Galician coast
Routine as usual until the case filtered out into the British press.
© James Skinner September 2009

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