One of Our Whales Is Missing

In which Rick Renard, PR hustler par excellence, sets out to save Grimland's gentle giants of the deep. A short story
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The client had said he wanted an aggressive campaign, and that's what I intended to give him, starting with a documentary video depicting the cruelty of whaling. However, when I saw the Viking-dragon figurehead that Ragnar had affixed to the bow of the boat (a boat I—or, rather, Gansevoort—had paid for), I demurred. This was not the image we were looking to project.

We were standing on the dock, having a frank exchange of views, when a car drove up. The woman who got out was so beautiful she would have induced cardiac arrest in an Egyptian mummy. I stopped caring about how the Viking figurehead would play on TV.

She spoke to Ragnar in Grimlandic, and then gave me an ultraviolet smile and shook my hand.

"I am Harpa. I am Ragnar's voman."

It's been a while since they introduced themselves that way back home.

Ragnar and his crew—Johann and Tooki—continued getting the boat ready. Harpa had brought us food for the trip. I put aside my video camera and volunteered to help her bring it aboard.

"How you are liking Grimland?" She had dimples, the most amazing dimples, and hair the color of spun honey. Her eyes were like emeralds—the expensive kind.

"Rick, vy you are caring so great for the vales?"

"Magnificent creatures," I croaked.

She shrugged. "Just big fish."

"But Ragnar … ?"

"He's my fellow." She had a singsong way of speaking. "But sometimes he's"—she pointed at her head and rolled her eyes—"hooof."

"Hooof?"

"There is a name for. I'm not know in English. His doctor is giving him medicines. But sometimes he's not taking them, and then ve haf the big argumenting. I think he like the feeling vidout the medicine."

Ragnar shouted at me to hurry up. But I wanted to get to the bottom of this interesting-sounding aspect of the man I was about to put to sea with.

"Sometimes he's being very happy. Then sometimes very sad. He stay in his hut forever and not come out. I vorry."

"Bipolar?"

"Ya, that's it. Sometimes he's on North Pole, then sometimes—hooof—South Pole."

Ragnar bellowed at me to get aboard. The engines had started.

"What about his medicine?" I said. "Did he take his pills today?"

"He say he do. But I don't know. Anyvay, if he start to make like crazy, best you come back quick."

Ragnar insisted on a dedication ceremony. He broke a bottle of Black Death over the bow (I'm surprised it didn't take all the paint off) and grumbled some words in homage to Slagfinn. He insisted that I get it all down on video. I dutifully filmed it, though I had no intention of including it in the final footage. My goal was to create sympathy, not get us all thrown into the local mental asylum.

Between the North Atlantic swell and the diesel fumes and the anticipation of finding myself between a whale and a cannon-launched harpoon, I was not feeling totally 100 percent. I shot some B-roll of Ragnar and his crew and then curled up in the fetal position under a tarp. PR is not always the glamorous job it is made out to be.

A few hours later my sleep was interrupted by a commotion around the radar set. I felt the engines revving. I struggled to my feet and started filming.

Ragnar pointed to a blip on the radar screen. He altered course toward it. You could smell it from a mile off. If you are not feeling tip-top to begin with, the smell of a commercial whaling ship is not going to make you feel any better.

Ragnar got on the radio and began palavering with the captain in Grimlandic. He was grinning. I was not encouraged by this.

"What did he say, Ragnar?"

"That he vill shoot never mind ve are in the vay."

"And what did you say?"

"That I vill put harpoon in his behind!"

Just the Gandhi-like note I was hoping to strike.

Tooki, up on the bow, shouted and pointed, and there, a hundred yards off, I saw my first whale spout. Rick Renard is no pushover when it comes to the animal kingdom, but I have to admit it was a stirring sight.

Even more stirring, however, is the sound of a 60-millimeter Penthrite grenade harpoon penetrating the hull of your boat. I found myself on my back on the deck, covered with shards of fiberglass and Plexiglas. A leftover gene from my days as a TV reporter told me, Keep filming. Ragnar was covered with debris, but still at his station at the wheel. There was something heroic about it. He may have had his weak points, but he had the chops of a true Viking. I only wished he hadn't grabbed the hand mike and let loose so many X-rated epithets.

Suddenly Ragnar swung the wheel around and aimed straight at the whaler. Somehow I managed to keep shooting. The footage turned out well. It conveys what it's like to smash into a vessel ten times bigger than yours. I don't want to pat myself on the back, which still hurts, but I think Rick Renard showed grace under pressure, especially considering that the crew of the whaler began throwing heavy objects down on us as we scraped and bumped along its hull. Johann was knocked unconscious by an empty oil drum.

Tooki emerged from belowdecks covered with oil and dripping wet to report that we were taking on water at a rate deserving immediate attention; also that the starboard engine was emitting black smoke. A vote was taken to return to shore. I calmed my nerves by shooting footage of Tooki and the bloodied Johann—now conscious again—furiously bailing amid billows of oily smoke.

The police were waiting for us at the dock. They were very considerate to me personally. The one who put me in my cell said he had been to Chicago twice and had liked it very much. I gave him the name of my favorite steak place there.

The U.S. embassy officer who visited me in jail, a mere five hours after I called for rescue, had the bedside manner of someone who'd rather be reviewing visa applications.

"Nice of you to come so … promptly. I know how busy you must be in Grimland, here at the epicenter of diplomacy."

"You've broken locals laws, Mr. Renard," he said, practically yawning. "All I'm in a position to do is make sure that you are treated humanely and give you a list of attorneys."

"Thanks so much. I'll be sure to note at the international press conference I'll be holding shortly how helpful my government was after I was cast into this hellhole for the crime of trying to save a gentle giant of the deep."

He looked around the cell. It was actually pretty luxurious by penal standards, with a color TV and slippers.

"Well, I hope you survive your ordeal. I understand you're going to be released in an hour or so. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Yes: arrange for the repatriation of my remains."

"That would be a pleasure, Mr. Renard." They can be supercilious, these State Department types. It probably comes from spending the whole day saying "We have no position on that."

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Christopher Buckley

Christoper Buckley is an author, satirist, and novelist. His books include Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship. Buckley was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush.

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