HENNING HERRING

Herring was restless. He was expected in Denmark. He was taking over the company, stepping into the shoes of the great, late Harald Magnus Herring. His stupid father Harald, who had plunged off the Langelinie pier and drowned in the gloomy Oresund sea.  

"This is unusual, very unusual," he greeted Laila, seizing her elbow, and pulling her up the ramp. Laila yanked herself free and fled back down. Herring caught up with her, fury in his face.

"I am trying to help you! Do you understand?" he hissed, but revised his manners, and in a gesture at once courteous and autocratic, proffered his hand. "We don't have time for nonsense!" he reminded her, and Laila finally resigned herself. 

He led her to the deck house, made reassuring introductions to the crew. She was shown her cabin, a barebones affair with a small bathroom and a single porthole. They traveled for ten days, accompanied by the hum of the engines, keeping largely out of each other's sight, except for dinner, prepared by Herring's personal chef, and served in Herring's private rooms. Herring ate ravenously and didn't bother much with conversation, and this suited Laila fine. They had two significant exchanges, the first on the day the hyper-tanker set out into open water. It was a bright afternoon, and Laila and Herring met out on the navigation deck, the view swept clean of the dust and filth clogging Shanghai.

"What are you running away from? Just the facts, please," Herring demanded in his curt way. 

Laila pretended not to hear. Herring's fingers drummed against the spotless railing.

"Leaving in the middle of the night, boarding this tanker, of all transport options, not one I consider optimal for your type, then triple locking your door at night." He shrugged off her surprise. "Of course, I am watching you, what do you expect? I don't know you, and frankly, you are excessively nervous for someone your age. What are you, twenty-four, twenty-five? Too young to be scared to death."  

Laila stared fixedly at the water.

"Have you lost your tongue, lady?"

"Why agree to let me travel on your ship?"

"I am doing Sørensen a favor."

She glanced at Herring. "Do you know Knud well?"

"I know Sørensen senior. An old friend of the family. Very good friend. Facilitated many things  for the business."

Herring grinned with fidgety eyes. They seemed to ceaselessly process data, about her, the ship, the crew in the background, the hiss of the hyper-tanker slicing the ocean.

"How did Knud get such a pretty girl?" he suddenly asked.

Laila kept silent. Herring cleared his throat. "Well! Knud is a sharp boy, like his father obviously, but if you ask me, he is focused on the wrong career. I would hire him, put him to good use, but he wants to work for the government, be a diplomat. I have met a few diplomats in my lifetime, I can assure you, they are worse than useless. They always find something for people to disagree about, because otherwise they would be out of a job. That is my view anyway."

Laila burst out laughing. After a second, Herring threw in his own high-pitched laugh.

"Knud didn't tell me much," he said, "about you. About your problems. And if you don't want to tell me, for the sake of Knud's father, I will respect that. But don't think I am a fool and pretend for a single minute that everything is peachy roses, because I know it is not. Do you understand?"

Laila nodded. Herring patted the railing. 

"Fine. We have an agreement then." He smoothed his hair, which a sudden breeze had dislodged. "And now excuse me Laila, I have to make arrangements for my return. My father drowned himself a few weeks ago. With his wheelchair." He paused. "A very expensive wheelchair."

He turned on his heel and was gone, and for the next nine days she only saw him at dinner or from afar, a thin black-clad figure wandering across the deck. Their second exchange was longer, but Laila said even less. It was Herring who talked, in that relentless, alarming way he had of ejecting words. The exchange started and ended with dinner, the last they shared before docking in the rainy Copenhagen port.

"I have a lot of money, Laila," Herring began. "Whatever your problem," he put down knife and fork, pinned his small, glittering eyes on her: "Money can solve things."

Laila absently admired the food, little piles of color on delicate tableware. Steamed potatoes,  sautéed spinach, a dollop of carrot puree on salmon. The hand-painted plates were the most fragile thing she had seen in a long time.

"And now that my father has passed, I control everything. You know what this means? It means more money. More influence. Life is simple if you can grasp this: success begets more success." Herring's gaunt face burned with vitality. "If you marry me all my money and influence will be put to solving your problem. Or problems. Whichever it is. You need protection? I will buy it for you. We build you a bullet-proof house. Two if you like. You will have bodyguards. No one will be allowed to approach you, unless you give explicit permission--" 

Something in Laila's face made him stop, sharpen his jaw.