Friday, December 20, 2019
Friday Night Frights Presents: Tankerman
Mort finished his biscuit and coffee, his breath steaming where he sat against a keel stiffener. The oiler's empty tank still had a petrol smell, though not so noticeable in this kind of cold. The shipyard's seven o'clock whistle wailed its distant summons. Teddy Jones--the pipe fitter Mort was helper to--would clamber down the ladder any minute now, so it was time to make with the artwork.
White chalk, in Mort's guiding hand, began to sketch a sinister figure on the rusted aft bulkhead. Tankerman had a tall hat with one side of the wide brim turned up in classic villain style. His Dracula-type cape was pulled across his body, framing the skull face between the high collars. The last touch was red chalk for the eyes. Mort's own hatred for his miserable lot blazed out of them.
High above at the forward end, grayish dawn light dimmed as someone came down, tool bag slung over a shoulder. Teddy reached bottom and dropped the bag with a grunt. "Mornin', mornin'. Heard the news?"
"About what?" Mort had come forward between risers, leaving his latest creation behind in the gloom.
The tall bro rubbed at his gray-flecked goatee. "Some welder got 'lectrocuted over on the carrier last night."
The Navy carrier under construction had been Mort's home base for months. He'd left behind any number of Tankermen in deep, isolated holds. One had even been sprayed over with brick-red paint in one of the aviation fuel tanks, destined to sail with the ship until the end of its days. But a shortage of men down at the ship repair end of the yard had gotten Mort and Teddy a week in the cold; this tanker was a bid job, and had to be out of here on schedule.
"How'd it happen?" Mort had gloved hands in pockets.
"Freak accident," Teddy said. "Friction tape came off a bare spot on his weldin' line. Somehow he got tangled in it on the way down. They found 'im hangin' there."
In an adjacent tank, the rapid chatter of an impact wrench started up. It was almost loud enough to cover the warning tone of the gantry crane as it moved on its tracks. Annoyed, Mort screwed in his ear plugs. "Where was this?"
"Up fo'ward, where we was workin' in the chain locker---down in the bulb space."
That gave Mort pause. He had taken advantage of Teddy having gone for a blueprint, making his way down to the cavernous nose bulb. These were designed to prevent ships from plunging too deep at the bow in heavy seas. Mort's quick sketch had graced it with a leering Tankerman.
"Funny thing," Teddy added, unrolling a print. "Ol' Doctuh Death was down there too."
". . .Doctor Death?" Mort's marrow chilled.
"You know--them drawins of that dude that looks like Oil Can Harry, 'cept for the skull face."
Was it Mort's imagination, or did he hear a sepulchral sigh, see a shadow pass across the aft stiffeners?
"Damn," Teddy swore. "I forgot the emery cloth. Run over to the tool room and get some." In addition to its abrasive use, emery cloth made a handy wrap for drawing cut lines around pipe.
Mort demurred. "You know. . . .one of those 'Doctor Deaths' is back there on the bulkhead. You wanna be alone down here?"
Teddy made a gold-tooth grin. "Go 'head on, man!"
Given little choice, Mort hustled up the ladder, bent on completing the task pronto. Naturally the tool room was busy. He was better than ten minutes getting the roll of cloth. The round trip took over twenty minutes.
Upon return to the pier, Mort was horrified at sight of an ambulance just pulling away. A fellow fitter named Shaffer sidled up to him.
"Your boy Teddy done had chest pains," he said.
"Did he. . . .see anything?"
Shaffer's mustache twitched. "See what? When his chest hurt, he hauled freight up the ladder and called for help. They'll check 'im out at the clinic and send 'im home. Nothin' to worry about."
"I'll get his tool bag." Mort used the excuse to hurry aboard ship and climb down into the holding tank. He made his way aft, past a few lights strung on a temporary line. Tankerman was no longer there. Only his outline remained, a lighter area against the bulkhead.
Mort clenched fists against his newfound power. "Death!--" His challenge echoed, directed at the more fitting name of the doctor. "This isn't how it works!"
He plopped onto a stiffener, head in hands. He'd have to find the foreman and get assigned to another mechanic. Then he'd scrap around and try to look busy, which made for a long day. Suddenly he straightened. Tankerman, aka Doctor Death, shouldn't be afflicting Mort and his fellow slobs out here on the waterfront. No--the problem lay with those office types in their cushy jobs, looking down with contempt at the hard hats. It was just a mater of getting into an office for a little wall art.
But first, Mort had to rein in this freak. He began to sketch with white chalk around the newly-vacated outline. When the line rapidly filled itself in, a stunned Mort dropped his chalk. The completed drawing filled in with black, and red eyes glinted in the grinning skull face. Mort backed away, tripped, his hard hat bouncing on the deck. This was a level of art beyond his ability, almost photographic.
The eyes looked down at him. Was it just that weird illusion of all pictures?--or did Doctor Death just make a dire promise?--that the ultimate price of infernal power would be Mort's soul.