The Lost Man Prologue

Copyright @ 2021 by Eugene Hudson

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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author , except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

April 1945

Singapore/Pacific Theatre

The scent of the river tarennas permeated through the humid night as young Alex raced along the pathways on his way to the harbour. The sky was pregnant with rain, yet the heat prevented any precipitation from reaching the warm soil of Changi Bay. Panting as he ran, the 9- year-old dockhand ran to deliver the news to the steward of the Awa Maru, where she waited to embark towards Taiwan with a score of passengers and merchant seamen, among other precious cargo.

Even though the ship was designed as an ocean liner a few years before, the advent of World War II had altered her purpose. The Awa Maru, requisitioned by the Japanese Navy, was tasked primarily to serve as a relief ship under Red Cross auspices to carry vital supplies to Allied and American prisoners of war in Japanese custody. Under the Relief for POWs agreement, the Awa Maru enjoyed safe passage by all Allied forces because of its nature of aid—a most noble duty for the grand steel vessel.

In the eerie pale lights of the harbour, Alex gasped at the sight of the grey hovering leviathan ship that came into view as he padded along the wooden walkway on bare feet. He smiled at his feat and made for the ship to locate and summon its steward.

“Mr. Shimoda! Mr. Shimoda!” he cried when he saw the imposing frame of the steward, Kantora Shimoda. Shimoda stood on the deck, having a cigarette. Only the occasional glow of the cherry betrayed his presence there, where he went to reminisce about the horrors he had survived thus far. “Mr. Shimoda, are you there?”

“Hai,” the man replied coolly, still exhaling the smoke of his last drag. “I’ll be right down.”

With that, he flicked the cigarette butt over the rail and stepped down from the docked ship to address the dockhand. The skinny boy was waiting for him, gradually calming his breathing from the recent run.

“Has the shipment arrived, Alex?” Shimoda asked.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Shimoda. I’ll go and get the men, and they will bring you the crates just now.” The boy nodded and briskly took off running down the dock to summon the men.

Shimoda waited patiently, breathing in the humid air, rife with the smell of the heaving waves and the faint suggestion of jasmine from the nearby gardens. From the near distance, Alex led three lumbering figures. The three dock workers had powerful builds, no doubt adept at heaving the more challenging of luggage and cargo, but one of the crates proved to be almost too much for two of them. They were lugging a heavy wooden crate, one on each side of it, struggling to share the burden as best they could while their other colleague carried a single wooden crate just behind them.

The steward stepped back onto the ship to inform the captain of the cargo arrival. He found Hamada Matsutaro having a cup of black coffee as he always did before the ship sailed.

“Captain,” Shimoda exclaimed, “the cargo is here. You asked me to report when they arrive.”

“Excellent!” Captain Matsutaro smiled. “Come, men.”

He walked out, flanked by two Japanese soldiers, to meet the dockworkers outside.

“Good evening! I need those crates below deck, but I will show you where. Not with the other cargo. Come, come, bring them here,” he directed the robust men. They huffed under the strain of the weight as they carted the crates down two levels into the bowels of the ship, along difficult, narrow passages past the main cargo hold.

“Here, men, in here. Put the crates against those tarps and netting over there. I don’t want them to have too much moving space,” the captain said.

“Of course, as if this crate could be moved by anything,” one of the men muttered, exhausted. Their skin gleamed with sweat from the effort, but they finally managed to settle the heavy crates where Captain Matsutaro pointed.

“Thank you. Have a good night,” the captain said politely as the men started up to the main floor. Tired and panting like dogs, the dockworkers huffed a greeting and mumbled on, leaving the captain behind in the gloomy, stuffy little room that was designated for this consignment. He could not contain his excitement and called up to his steward to join him.

“Shimoda! I want you to see something!” he said with a sly grin. “Come on down and see this.”

Dutifully, the steward stepped below deck and down the narrow passage to the smaller room where the captain waited.

“Yes, Captain?” he said.

The captain grabbed a crowbar and started wedging open the larger crate. Dust and matter danced in the yellow glow of the light above as he laboriously loosened the lid and shifted it aside to reveal the contents inside.

Shimoda gasped, “Wait, is that…solid gold?”

“Indeed, my friend,” the captain chuckled as his steward marvelled at the stacks of gold bars that practically filled the crate. His eyes danced over the bars, the pallid yellow attesting to their authenticity, but while he gawked, the captain opened another crate and gestured for him to come and see what was inside. Already piquing his interest, the steward was enticed to see what it held, and he was not disappointed.

“This is unbelievable!” Shimoda muttered as his gaze fell on a myriad of jewels and diamonds, all safely contained in their respective boxes and bags. The diamonds reflected the light in an immaculate array of glitter that mesmerised the astonished Shimoda, and he could not help but crack a smile at the sheer beauty of the cargo. However, the captain was saving the best for last. With a mischievous wink, he rummaged through the wealth of precious stones and jewellery, sinking his hand beneath until he grasped an object carefully wrapped in packing paper. Compared to the gold and jewels, it looked rather unremarkable.

“Now, look at his,” the captain whispered as he pulled away the paper and revealed what looked like the top portion of a skull.

“What…what is that?” Shimoda asked, craning his neck to see what was still hidden inside the paper.

“This, my friend, is the most priceless treasure of them all!” the captain laughed. “They call him—Peking Man!”

“Oh! Oh, Peking Man. Yes,” the steward replied.

Kantora Shimoda knew that this was supposed to mean something good, but he had no idea what his captain was on about. Perplexity riddled his face, urging the captain to explain.

“Peking Man, Shimoda! Do you have any idea how old this skull is?” the captain asked rhetorically, his voice brimming with awe. “These bones, this skull cap in my hands is the fossilized remains of our ancestors from 750 000 years ago, the original human species. Our origin, homo erectus, right here in our possession! Can you imagine how precious this collection of bones is? I mean, these bones were found back in 1929 along with some tools and teeth and such. They excavated this in Zhoukoudian, but”—he lowered his voice—“Peking Man is reputed to have vanished in 1941 when a ship that carried it was run aground in an attack. Now, look. Hey? Hey?”

Kantora Shimoda was blown away by the sudden clandestine information and the secrecy of their latest cargo, and it prompted him to enquire accordingly, as any man would in the presence of such a find.

“So why are we hauling such rare and priceless items, Captain? We usually don’t endeavour to transport relics, do we?” he asked, but the captain waved a hand dismissively.

“We transport what we are charged to, Shimoda,” he said, clearing his throat. “After all, the impending increase in Emperor Hirohito’s war purse consists of many such rarities, and it is our duty to ship what needs to be shipped, right?”

“Yes, Captain,” Shimoda agreed with a stout nod. “Of course, Captain.”

Captain Matsutaro reattached the lids and secured them before draping tarps over the crates and switching off the lights before the two men went back on deck. As they walked onto the deck, Shimoda was still reeling from the majestic sight that had confronted him below a few minutes earlier. One would almost say that he was in shock. The story of Peking Man prevailed in his mind long after the Awa Maru embarked on its journey into the mine-infested waters that would carry them north.

Above the vast plateau of black ocean that breathed under their feet, the skies brewed with clouds. Here and there, distant flashes of contained lightning lit up the dark skies while the warm April wind caressed the South China Sea. The ship was heading for the Taiwan Strait further north, a journey that would take a few days. Kantora Shimoda spent most of his time wondering about the status of their involvement in this covert transportation of Peking Man, said to have been lost years before, but he eventually dismissed it as duty, to be followed without question.

A few days after they had set out from Singapore, the passengers and crew of the Awa Maru traversed the perilous waters, riddled by mines and enemy craft. Shimoda could not help being nervous every time they travelled along hostile waters, even with their exemption. It was a clear day, for once, when he stepped on deck to have a smoke. His thoughts ran the gamut between business, duty, wartime secrets, family, and his past while he sucked in the soothing smoke. His eyes relished the calmer weather, less humid too, than the season on land. For the first time in a while, Shimoda was feeling serene, taking his time to survey the beauty of the sea and regard it as more than a mode of travel.

“What secrets do you hold, Ryujin?” he asked the heaving waves, addressing the sea god with a measure of affinity. “So many eras, so many centuries, you have held everything lost at sea. Your wealth lies in not only possessions and vessels. You hold secrets, too. Not only are you teeming with life under the surface,” he mused, lazily blowing out smoke. “You hold souls of men—and that scares me more than any serpent.”

The ship had reached the strait between Taiwan and mainland China, her voyage almost completed, and Shimoda looked forward to three days off once they moored. As he admired the waves, he noticed a disturbance in the water at some distance. With the ocean relatively calm, it was easy to spot for an experienced sailor such as himself.

“Submarine” was all he said, recognizing the sure signs of a prowling submarine under the water, creating an anomalous current on the surface.

Kantora Shimoda flicked his cigarette and scarpered below deck, shouting, “Captain! Captain! Enemy vessel approaching!”

“What? How?” the captain started, but his steward babbled on, making alarm on the bridge.

“I saw movement in the water! We have a submarine, sir!” Shimoda exclaimed hastily, his eyes wide in warning as he raced back out on the deck to observe any movement to report. He had to make sure that he was not mistaken, but he certainly hoped that he was wrong, that he was just paranoid.

“Captain, due east! Check due east!” he shouted, but before the captain could respond, a deafening explosion shook the ship. A torpedo had collided with the Awa Maru, ripping a massive crevasse in the hull with immense force.

Inside, the crew and passengers panicked from the obvious assault on the vessel, running and screaming as they scarpered to find a safer part of the ship. Water gushed in from the tear in the side of the hull, engulfing all in its path and tearing the steel bolts from their fixtures to rupture the structure. A diabolical slurping thunder filled the entire ship as the furious waters rushed to fill it, virtually breaking the doomed vessel in half within minutes. As the ship sank to the depths below, the ocean claimed all the passengers and crew on board, save for one man—Kantora Shimoda—the steward who was knocked over and tossed over the railing on impact moments before the sea ate the Awa Maru and swallowed her down.