Zoom on

Fifth day

By Hervé HAMON Sofitel Hambourg Alter Wall

Werner was almost perfect. Gray suit, gray tie, black shoes, but his turquoise eyes had maybe a bit too much sparkle, and his blond mustache was perhaps a bit too dashing. Even so, thought Katz, despite that, Werner was perfect, almost perfect, in his role as doorman. He wore the standard uniform with the mix of submission and offhandedness that marks a true professional – it was clear that there was an individual beyond the role, but he was kept at a distance, at the right distance. And Katz knew better than anyone that this took time to learn. He even said at times that it could not be learned, that it was innate.

It had only been three weeks since he had taken over the hotel, the group having decided to turn over this huge operation to a young director, or at least one who was relatively young. He spent an hour every day observing the personnel. He didn’t hide, he was casual, not intending to catch anyone off guard. He wanted to see but also to be seen, he wanted to leave his office behind and survey the territory. Katz was not yet 40 and he believed that a good director sometimes needed to put himself off balance.

A dark fog hung over the city. It was early December, nightfall arrived early, the Christmas lights would be coming on soon and it was about time. From the port, the smell of malt and hydrocarbons drifted in, carried on the rain.

Katz noticed the man, a client. But he was the only one who had been informed of the client’s arrival. The man emerged from the street looking confused, walking straight and with conviction but seemingly so weary that it was as if with each step he hung in mid-air. He was dressed in red overalls, some sort of heavy suit with reflecting strips, and his boots were covered in mud. His hair was greasy, his forehead, cheeks and hands looked grimy. His drooping eyes could hardly see. It seemed that he might collapse on the floor at any moment, yet at the same time it was as if some irresistible force were transporting him.

Katz watched Werner from afar and Werner was impeccable, hello sir, as was the bellboy, who tried to take the rubberized bag slung over the client’s shoulder but who did not insist when the client clung to the battered bag, mumbling something incomprehensible. The receptionist duly noted that the client had a reservation, and that it was even for a suite, but she did not flinch at the man’s appearance, handing him two magnetic key cards and wishing him a pleasant stay. Which the client did not seem to hear, repeating to himself in a strange language, “312, 312, 312,” and heading straight for the elevator. He did not excuse himself when he jostled a man in a business suit, who stepped aside, more surprised than anything else.

The lobby was full of people, beautiful people, as they say, a quality made obvious by a thousand details but above all by shoes – an article of clothing or an accessory can be deceiving, but not a shoe. A bemused chatter arose among these beautiful people, who were not so much shocked as amused, as if the hotel was offering its clientele an unexpected show.

Katz had intentionally not told anyone. He wanted to see how it would go, how the staff would react to a situation that was out of the ordinary – he was not far away, however, ready to intervene should it be necessary. But the staff was experienced, and they indeed proved that the hotel merited its reputation. The staff of a more ordinary, mediocre establishment would have been unnerved. But his hotel – Katz smiled at the thought – was classy, nothing fazed them.


Kellerman squinted as he entered the suite. There were too many windows, too much light, even though it was dusk. He rushed to close the blinds, turning on low-lit lamps, here and there, on the night table, the desk, in a corner of the living room. The suite was spacious and calm. The walls were light gray, neutral, not distracting or jarring. Coming from the cage-like place he had been, from the tanks and tunnels, he suddenly felt like infinity was stretched before him. But he didn’t want to indulge in it, he could not let himselfgo. Absolutely not.

The Company had meant well, they had wanted to treat him to a bit of luxury after what he had been through, but the Company had no idea what he needed. He could not relax, have a warm bath, undress, eat. He could not even sleep. And above all, he could not have a drink. Kellerman, like all sailors, knew that the moment for a drink was not in the heat of the action, an action that must be controlled and reasonable. It was not the time to drink, that’s all. He noticed that a bottle of fine wine had been put there for him, displayed in an open drawer. Which he quickly slammed shut.

He plopped down at the desk, slipping his computer out of its waterproof case. Every one of his muscles ached. Don’t go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep. If he slept, it would be the first time in three weeks that he would have really slept, and his brain would become fluffy, his memory would fade. Stay with it! He needed to stay on track, to stay with what had transpired, in the action, he needed to resist the idea that it was over. Paper. Where was there some paper? The elegant tablet with the hotel’s letterhead that he found before him was not paper. He called the bellboy. He wanted a notebook, a big one, a thick notebook with lined paper that would help guide his handwriting.

The bellboy had pink cheeks. He looked timidly at Kellerman’s sailing jacket, noting that despite his Germanic name, his eyes were a dark, brilliant black, as was his hair. He also noted his reddened cheekbones, the splotches like war paint on his face.

Ten minutes later, the client had real paper and a real pen. He bent over the first page and began laboriously: “Report on the rescue of the RSC Tania by Commander Felipe Kellerman…”
Lines of numbers, dates, hours and measurements flashed on the computer screen. His eyes moved from the computer screen to the paper, from the paper to the screen.


Two maids who had knocked at room 312 and politely requested permission to prepare the bed for the night – to turn back the sheet, deliver little candies, etc. — reported that they had been more or less told to get lost. It was nothing personal, nothing discourteous, just an unmistakeable indication that they were a disturbance. The suite’s occupant requested no food or drink. It apparently had not even occurred to him to remove his boots or heavy jacket. It was as if he didn’t feel the cold, heat, thirst or hunger.

If he had been accompanied by a woman, even several women, it would not have been troubling. Men, women, and all the follow the rules, they stray from them, they forget the time, they forget everything. But a man, one man alone, that was strange.
For this reason, out of principle, the director was alerted about the situation. And Katz smiled. He really did have a good crew.


Kellerman was not alone, not at all. He was elsewhere; he was far away. He was going back in time, as if moving upstream against a strong current, meter by meter. Three weeks ago, he had been on vacation with his wife in the sun, and the Company had suddenly called: A huge container ship, the RSC Tania, was sinking not far from Bremen.

His job was to save boats, to save people and cargos, his job was to direct rescue operations, and he had seen his share of disasters, he had seen hulls on fire, hulls gaping open. But what he discovered this time when the helicopter had eased him down at the end of a cord looked like nothing he had ever seen before.

The RSC Tania was tipped on its side, at an angle of 27 or 28 degrees, which was terrifying, because the ship could go under at any moment. Once the crew had been removed by helicopter, Kellerman inspected the ship, carefully observing the mountains of containers that filled the deck, like so many blocks of skyscrapers. They had not shifted; the dock workers had been pros. But above and below, everything could give way at any moment. And, worse, there were chemicals in those containers, dangerous substances: What was now simply an industrial accident risked becoming Bhopal at sea.

Kellerman was not naive. He knew that if his boss had called him, it was to sink him. When a job was especially complicated, when he was the only one left on the list, then, only then, would Travis call him. Because Kellerman was the best. And because Travis was jealous of him, and because he wanted to once and for all ruin his excellent reputation. Kellerman despised him, but didn’t shy from his tasks. There is such a thing as a sense of duty, after all.

First, the RSC Tania had to be towed to a sand bar, where it could rest while the tanks and holds were given a quick inspection, and long enough to pump out any water that might be there. Then, as a storm gathered, the ship had to be towed out to sea so that it would not break apart if battered by the waves, and then finally it had to be taken to shelter near the river mouth – but not too close: If the boat sank, and it was highly likely that it would, the wreck could absolutely not be allowed to block the port and its traffic.

So there, in the wind and chill, they had to determine why such a huge, powerful ship would have tipped over all by itself. Kellerman had installed himself on board with an Irish architect. They had no drinking water, no electricity, nothing but a cold desert of metal and enormous batteries for the computers. They were the only ones who slept on board. The sailors, who slept on tug boats moored nearby, had orders to leave the ship at night. During the day, they investigated the holds, tested tank after tank, squeezed into manholes. Everything was greasy, slippery, there were injuries, broken legs, a damaged spine. But in the end, they managed to find the error in the ballast that had caused the disaster, they were able to right the ship at least up to 9 degrees – which required that the dockers help unload the cargo – and they finally towed the RSC Tania to Hamburg’s floating docks, despite containers of fermented coffee that kept exploding unexpectedly.

The experts called it an exploit. Travis would no doubt be angry, and he would try to turn the adventure to his own advantage.
Kellerman was used to it and could not have cared less.

But it wasn’t over yet. After the mission, when the events were all still fresh, the maritime trial had to be prepared, and the insurance companies needed highly detailed, technical information.
Kellerman had to relate his intervention minute by minute, not forgetting or omitting a thing. He knew how clever and cunning the opposing lawyers would be, so he tried to think like them, anticipating their objections, erecting a wall of truth against which they would crash when the case was heard in London before the International Maritime Organization.

Why such meticulousness, such an obession with perfection? Out of loyalty toward the Company? Perhaps. But there was also something else in his obstination. He wanted closure, he wanted to pursue the mission to its final conclusion. He refused to leave anything dangling, not even the slightest detail.

Three days later, Kellerman was still awake and had not eaten anything substantial. He had not touched the blinds or the lights, and he had not removed his sailing jacket. He regularly sipped water from little plastic bottles, and when they were empty he crushed them ferosiously with one hand and throw them on the ground like so much crumpled paper.

The personnel assigned to his floor were becoming frightened.
This man who didn’t sleep, speak, undress or wash was disturbing. He was at once absent and present, a sort of maritime scarecrow. The two maids who normally took care of suite 312 were quite young, they were still a bit stiff in their strict gray uniforms. They were named Kirstin and Hannelore, and they seemed to be straight but they let themselves go after their shift.
Now they asked to be relieved. The man in suite 312 didn’t even snap at them anymore, he let them in, let them pointlessly straighten the bed, put new candies on the sheet that they had pulled back for no reason, wish him good night and then leave as if everything was fine – while he just sat there staring into space.
And that, Hannelore said, I’m telling you, that is totally creepy.

On the fourth day, Katz decided to intervene. He knocked softly at the door and waited awhile, but Kellerman didn’t answer. So the director took the liberty of opening the door. The man’s expression had not changed. But he was not writing anymore.
There was no gaze left in his gaze. His lips were puffy and didn’t look like they could utter a sound.
‘‘Mr. Kellerman…’’
The man didn’t move.
‘‘Commander Kellerman, my name is Katz, I’m the director of the hotel, I…’’
Kellerman was looking into dead eyes.
‘‘I’m responsible for you, Mr. Kellerman. You’re under my roof, you’re exhausted, you need to eat, you need some rest.’’
The sailor tried to speak, his lips moved a bit, but it seemed to be difficult. Katz leaned over him:
‘‘Yes, I’m listening, I’m listening to you.’’

Katz’s face was five centimeters from that of his client, who smelled horrible.
With an exhale, the commander’s mouth proclaimed something:
‘‘Lea’ me ‘lone…’’
And he closed his eyes. Rather, the slit that had been between his eyelids disappeared.
Katz stood up and left. He closed the door softly. The maids were waiting in the hall.
‘‘Get Werner for me.’’
When Katz relaxed, when he dined with friends, or with his wife and children, he liked to say that two beets had more juice than one — which was another way of saying that even the most confident director needed to get a second opinion sometimes, whether he had already made up his mind or not.
Werner listened intently, absently stroking his blond mustache with his finger, and then said: “Burn out.”
“Yes,” said Katz. “Professional fatigue syndrome.”
“This guy is wiped out, he’s shot.”
“You think we should call for help?”
“What does he do? How did he end up in such a state?”
“He’s a sailor, a commander. He’s just led an incredible rescue
mission, or so I’m told.”
“A rescue mission?”
“It’s his specialty.”
“The kind of guy who risks his life?”
“Yeah, probably.”
“And who obeys some higher calling?”

Werner suddenly looked at Hannelore and Kirstin.
“How is he with you?”
“He’s…. he’s not there.”
Werner fell silent, apparently deep in thought. Katz observed him, amused and intrigued.
“Which one of you has the highest voice?” Werner asked.
The two young women, stunned, looked at each other. Werner was waiting for a reply.
“I don’t know — me,” said Kirstin. “Hannelore, maybe.”
“What scares you, Hannelore?”
“Pardon me?”
“What are you afraid of? The dark, spiders, bugs, snakes, scorpions, ghosts?”
Now Katz was lost. But Werner seemed totally serious.
“Spiders,” Hannelore said, “hairy spiders.”
“We can try to play to his rescue instinct. You’ll imagine a spider, Hannelore, the most horrible one imaginable, and you’ll cry for help. As loud as you can. I’m betting that he’ll wake up, that he’ll come running down the hall to protect you.”

Katz put his head in a hands. For a long while. For two minutes, at most. Yes, he was perfect, Werner. It might work. It would probably trigger some Pavlovian reflex. But something was bothering him, something wasn’t right. Something was troubling him deeply.
“No,” he finally said. “Absolutley not. I can’t do it. I can’t have acting out like this. This man is under my roof.”
He shivered.
“Even for his own good?” Werner asked.
“Even for his own good.”
It was final. With his turquoise eyes, Werner looked squarely at his director.
“Shall we call for help, then?”

This time, Katz didn’t hestitate.
“No, we won’t call for anything. Nothing at all. We’ll wait. This guy has done something exceptional. He’ll come out of it on his own.”
Werner opened his mouth, shut it, turned and walked away.

Five days. They had to wait until the evening of the fifth day. The occupant of suite 312 had called. Then someone arrived from the outside, carrying a package that was said to be very important, and asked for him.

And at dusk on the fifth day, the door opened, and Kellerman appeared, impeccable in a blue uniform. A bit pale, perhaps. He asked the doorman for directions to the docks. And the doorman explained the directions and suggested that the concierge could provide him with a map. But he declined, stepping toward the threshold with determination.

“I think I’m going to have a drink.”

The doorman smiled a knowing smile. Werner really was perfect. Almost perfect.