A Travel Mystery Novel

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The Journey Begins

From the Sequoia Hotel, a century-old brownstone misplaced and all but hidden among the gray towers of Manhattan, it's an easy shot to the 48th Street Pier on the West Side. It had been suggested by our new employer that this charming old lodge would be a convenient and suitable place to spend the night before shipping out.

We arrived on a Thursday evening. My brother Steve and his petite wife Marie dutifully drove us from Baltimore in their aging but reliable Ford station wagon, which provided adequate room for our luggage -- a beaten foot locker that lacked the solid construction to be considered a steamer trunk, four suitcases and a bag containing Sal's gowns.

After checking in, I asked the bellman to leave our luggage in the lobby; it would be sent by cab to the ship once I attached the bright orange tags from the Brighton shipping company and marked them with our assigned cabin number: 5214. He assured me the bags would be sent at once.

Having taken care of the business at hand, the four of us filed into a small, dimly lit lounge off the lobby, settled on a table and ordered drinks and sandwiches. Steve and Marie had politely declined to stay around for the ship's send-off the next day; they needed to get back to their jobs. Sal and I understood; besides, we explained, we needed to get aboard and start work first thing the next day.

"So," said my older brother, picking up a half of the BLT club, a grin on his face, "this is it. Your last home on terra firma. Last meal on terra firma. Better make it a good one; you know how those boats rock."

His humor was good-natured, but it did trigger a slight spasm of nervousness: What if we got seasick? We were going to be on this vessel for months.

"It's not a boat," I said somewhat defensively, falling for his tease. "It's a ship. She's got stablizers. And if they don't work," I said, picking up my bloody Mary, "we've always got this."

We laughed, finished our meal, said our farewells, promised to meet when the ship called and vowed to send postcards from wherever. In a payback for the seasick jibe, I told Steve to expect postcards showing palm trees, white beaches and turquoise seas. We watched as they left to fetch their car, which would take them back to the world of traffic jams, nine-to-five jobs, bagged lunches and mortgages.

Sal and I had vacated our apartment, sold or given away our furniture -- most of it was of the generation-old castoff variety familiar to so many other newly married couples -- and sold our cars. The rest of our belongings -- books, dishes, pots and pans, my tools and a few other odds and ends -- were stored in the already stuffed attic of her parents' house in the Baltimore suburbs. We had given proper notice and left our jobs, hers as a graveyard shift makeup editor on a little daily paper that came out afternoons in a little steel-making town called McCannonsburg. I had been a day copy editor working out of a storefront office in a strip mall for another daily that was flung on doorsteps every morning throughout a suburban swath forming a kind of crescent west of the city.

With our modest apartment, free weekends and odd collection of friends, life was fine. We hadn't gone looking for a new job, let alone a job at sea, and on the last of the great luxury liners at that. It came to us, in the form of a want ad buried in the back pages on a trade magazine. The ad got to the point quickly: "Dream Job. Produce a daily newspaper published aboard the Majestic II." That got Sal's attention. "Experience reporting, page design and editing required." That was us. "Married journalists preferred." That was the clincher.

"We're applying," she had said. I nodded.

There were a couple of interviews at Brighton offices in New York, the obligatory writing samples, tear sheets, reference checks and so on. We would start, we were told, in mid-December for a trans-Atlantic crossing to Southampton, England.

Neither of us had ever set foot on a boat larger than, say, the Staten Island Ferry, although we had once gone aboard the ghostly pale flagship of Admiral Dewey, the Olympia, which is berthed like a fat old duck in Philadelphia. But any kid who grows up in a port city at some point dreams of getting on one of those ships that come and go just like the tide. Both of our lives had been tied more closely to the sea than I had ever realized before.

Sal's grandfather and been a boiler maker for 40 years in a big Norfolk yard, and I had a grandfather who had been a pipefitter in a now-defunct shipyard outside of Philadelphia. Part of his job was sailing on shakedown cruises, a duty this natural landlubber of a man accepted but disliked, because it kept him from his evenings by the radio or, later, in front of the TV. One of my earliest memories is seeing a newly built Navy destroyer my grandfather had worked on slide down the ways into the Delaware River. I cried, I was told, because I thought the ground around us was moving instead of the ship as it glided down the greased timbers. It seemed so huge. But at roughly 30,000 tons, the vessel was only a peewee -- less than half of the tonnage of our ship, and likewise only a fraction of the Majestic II's nearly 1,000-foot length.

I had read pirate books as a kid, and remember being awed by stories about tropical islands in the Pacific, ports in the Mediterranean, and about gales, air attacks and other brushes with eternity sailors experienced. And, of course, I watched "Love Boat" on TV. Suddenly, with no planning, plotting or even slightest expectation of ever going to sea, my number came up.

A vicious wind swooping from the steely sky gave the December chill a nasty edge as we waited for the next taxi to roll toward the Sequoia. We climbed in and told the driver to take us to 48th Street, the pier. His eyes were visible in the rearview for an instant, and then the cab lurched into the traffic.

The morning's quiet streets held none of their usual attraction, and were only a nondescript blur as the cab made its way across town. The cab turned, shrieked to a stop at a relight at 39th Street -- the wait seemed interminable -- and hurtled on a few more blocks until it was pointed toward the Hudson River. That's when she came into view.

First to appear was her gleaming white foremast stretching high above the bridge. The starboard bridge wing reached gracefully toward the pier, high above a narrow passage of murky river. The towering, black funnel, neatly sheathed in a white outer lining, puffed a steady stream of black smoke.

As we approached, the West Side elevated highway running perpendicular to the docks momentarily obliterated the rest of the superstructure, but as we got closer, the open decks and trail of white and orange launches suspended neatly from their davits came into view. Below, the massive charcoal black hull formed an imposing wall ending beyond the pier, where a tug puffing little clouds of black diesel exhaust in an even cadence lay motionless, as if impatiently surveying the big task ahead. I focused on the great ship's bow, where just above the massive anchor our new address appeared in gilded letters outlined in black: "Majestic II." "Home, sweet home," I thought, smiling.

The cab abruptly squeaked to a stop, double-parked, and the cabbie whose face I had not seen was instantly staring at me. I handed him some bills, probably too many, and his nonchalant expression told me the deal was done. We popped the doors open and, as if catapulted from the rear seat, sprang out.

Sal and I moved in a half run toward the pier, shambled up the concrete steps and, dodging little mountains of suitcases and skirting anxious-looking folks wearing odd arrays of mixed-seasonal attire, shoved open the glass door to make our way into the cavernous steel and concrete structure. Inside, knots of travelers stood about, looking as if they were waiting for lost or late relatives who would take them home. In a corner was a ship's officer, his epaulets marked with two gold stripes, hugging a sobbing blonde. Another officer, wearing a white cap and formal navy blue jacket decorated with three gold shoulder stripes, chatted with a half-dozen middle-aged travelers. As we slowed our pace toward the middle section of the pier, a line of boarding passengers appeared amid the crowd, as baggage men hustled luggage onto carts that would soon disappear across the gangway into the gaping midships hatch.

"Our passes," I said as we stopped. "We're supposed to meet Mr. Tremblay here." Conrad Tremblay, Brighton's agent in New York, was the gentleman who had hired us to provide a service only available to passengers on first-class liners: making sure they had a daily newspaper every day at sea. My anxiety over how we would get tomorrow's newspaper out was outweighed only by the nagging worry that we wouldn't get aboard.

Almost instinctively, I looked toward the far end of the pier where the tug was still puffing, puffing, puffing ...

"Wasn't he supposed to meet us here?" she asked. "He said 11 o'clock, and ..." Our attention was drawn by a body of youngish-looking people, chatting noisily as they strode our way. Their British accents were easy enough to detect as they breezed past, but the clipped words and idioms were a bit foreign-sounding for East Coast flatlanders. The half dozen Britishers walked to a ticket attendant's desk, and without getting in line, casually, one-by-one, held up little lime cards, before they followed the suitcase trolleys aboard and disappeared beyond the hatch.

We followed their trail to the desk, where a uniformed gent -- obviously not an officer for lack of epaulets -- turned from waiting queue and asked if he could be of assistance.

"Mr. Tremblay," said Sal. "Would you know where we could find him? He has our passes."

"For the crossing, madam, today's? Mr. Tremblay?" said our perplexed attendant. Again, I found myself glancing toward the impatient little tugboat, finding relief in the fact that it had not moved.

"He's the New York agent for the line," I said. "Has our passes. We're going to be working on the ship."

The ticket man blinked, stared at me for a second or two, slipped his hand under the desk and pulled forth a microphone. Then, staring again, he summoned our contact. "Please, to one side sir, madam," he said after making his announcement, which seemed only to mix with the din. "He shall be right along. Next, please."

It wasn't very long, perhaps five minutes, before Mr. Tremblay, wearing a three-piece blue suit, appeared. "Well," he said, a polite smile on his face as he held out his hand. "Are we ready? Let me walk you aboard."

Mr. Tremblay was not a man of many words, but those were all I wanted to hear. He casually produced a folder of tickets from the breast pocket of his suit and, handing them to the attendant, motioned us toward the door and gangway. "We will need to have a Mail ready for tomorrow," said Tremblay. "Do you see any problem there?"

I suppose walking across the gangway should have been a momentous event for us, the symbolic beginning of a new endeavor. Some people were dishing out five figures to take a week-long cruise. We were getting paid to live here. But as we stepped toward the entry, my thoughts were on the practical: Where is our cabin? Our office? The press? And how will we ever find our way around this floating town?

"Welcome a-bawd, seh, madam," a one-stripe junior officer who sounded as if his nose was stuffed up greeted us as we entered the midships lobby. Hearing the accent, it was as if we had just crossed the Atlantic instead of a narrow strip of New York river. The circular lobby was brightly decorated in a lime shade, the curved walls broken up by pastel prints of old sailing ships. Broad strips of light wooden molding artfully surrounded the pictures. The cream-colored ceiling was a flat-domed affair, shedding light indirectly from lamps craftily hidden in recesses at the base of its circumference.

In the center of the lobby was a circular divan, its center of polished teak raised and adorned with a variety of ferns and tropical plants that complemented the light green walls. The thick, forest-green carpeting was obviously new, its factory smell blending with pleasing aromas wafting from the galley and the pungent, sour odor of river water.

Stewards, uniformed in dark trousers, white shirts, gold vests and black bow ties, darted this way and that, arms full of suitcases, blankets, linen. Maintenance men and engineers in smudged white jumpsuits passed by the lobby's portside opening.

Mr. Tremblay hardly had time to give a tour, his movements now showing that he was aware of the 1 p.m. sailing time. He guided us toward the broad, arched opening leading to the maze of hallways, passages, stairways, lifts and ladders.

"This is Two Deck," he said, half declaring, half asking, his index finger lightly crossing his lips, eyebrows slightly furrowed. The finger moved away and he picked up speed. As we walked, Mr. Tremblay told us our cabin would be on Five Deck and our steward could show us the way later. But it would make sense now to show us the way to our office, four decks above, on Boat Deck.

We avoided the elevators, now monopolized by grim-faced stewards trying to get through the most daunting challenge of their business other than dealing with seasick passengers: making sure everybody had the correct luggage.

After huffing our way up the broad stairway, we turned right -- toward aft -- and took a few steps down the dark paneled corridor of first class cabins before stopping. Mr. Tremblay fished around in his side coat pocket and brought forth two sets of keys, one for our cabin and one for our office. With a smile, he tossed Sal the cabin keys and unlocked the door.

Spacious by maritime standards, the stateroom was bright with laminated paneling, powder blue carpeting and two immense windows -- no portholes this high up -- affording a view across the wooden promenade deck and, once we got going, the sea. Dark cranberry velvet curtains were pulled to the sides of the windows, which were gracefully rounded at the corners and measured, I estimated, three feet square. Big gray metal desks, each topped with a typewriter, faced each other between the windows, and behind one of them was a filing cabinet. A couple of plain but comfortable looking stuffed chairs, a floor lamp and an end table filled out the complement of furnishings assigned to what would be utilitarian space rather than first-class digs like those of the neighboring cabins. However, the remodelers who gutted all the posh trappings had the forgiving spirit to leave in the bar, albeit unstocked save for a half-full bottle of cognac. The adjoining bathroom was likewise spacious; standard equipment included a bathtub and bidet.

"Your typewriters, short-wave radio," Mr. Tremblay said, motioning toward the desks, "and the files there are full of background on the ports, pictures, and lots of information on the ship. This voyage will be mostly Americans, so try to go heavy on the U.S. news, football scores and so on. Any questions?" He was glancing at his watch. On deck, passengers were beginning to drift toward the railings, some of them breaking out little black cameras, others, bottles of champagne .

Soft music on the intercom was interrupted by an announcement from the bridge: "All visitors are asked to please disembark by the midships gangway. We repeat ..." We shook hands with our agent, whose expression hinted that he wished it was he who was about to sail. He turned slowly and walked toward the door before looking back. "Oh yes, by the way, pay day will be every other Wednesday. See the ship's bank. Bon voyage," he said in a quiet, polite tone before walking out.

We were silent for a moment after the door closed. It seemed like a time for a quick toast, and I soon found a couple of plastic cups behind the bar. Sal poured a little cognac in each. We kissed, took a sip, and decided to take a walk on deck. We walked aft, stopping at the railing to see crewmen on the pier removing the ship's lines from mushroom-shaped iron cleats.

Looking aft across the expansive lido decks were swimming pools, one each on Two Deck and One Deck. Empty and covered with nets, the pools were surrounded by seats painted in a bright array of oranges, blues, reds, colors that seemed out of place on this dreary December day. Raised, gracefully curved walls of slanted glass panels embedded in white steel formed the walls at the edges of the three lower decks that extended, like giant steps in a mansion's grand staircase, toward the fantail. Through the glass, I could see two more tugboats on the scene, moving gently toward the stern. I noticed a faint vibration at my feet. Then, out of nowhere came the deep, almost deafening blast of the ship's whistle, a bass so low that it vibrated in my chest. It so startled me that what was left of my cognac was now on my shirt. Sal's plastic cup dropped out of her hand and before the hoot had stopped, had sailed blithely to the deck below, landing cleanly on its base. If we had been able to hear it, I'm sure the cup would have made a crisp pop as it hit.

A young officer about ten feet to my right, also taking in the harbor sights as the ship prepared to cast away, was obviously enjoying the unrehearsed sideshow. The top of his round, white cap was over the rail bobbing up and down. The awful blast over now, we could hear his gales of laughter. He lifted his head, his hands still white-knuckling the wood-crowned railing. He wore a dark officer's coat, one gold stripe at the base of the sleeve. The man turned toward us.

"Sorry," he said, his face slightly rosy as he struggled to gag his guffaws. "That hooter, quite a shocker the first time, isn't it?" The lilt and hard "t's" sounded so British.

I was still slightly embarrassed, but quickly coming to grips with the fact that I had squandered my first opportunity on board to look suave. Sal was in near hysteria.

The officer reached in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He slid one finger into the bottom of the square red packet, flipped the top with his thumb and swept his hand toward me, offering one of the smokes that arose magically. I'm not a big smoker, but since he had had a laugh on me, I decided to take one of his Dunhills. He plucked a second one from the pack for himself and flicked a silver lighter for me, then himself. "And would the lady like a cigarette?" he said as the pack moved toward her.

"Oh no, thank you, I don't smoke," Sal said, composed once again. She pushed strands of jet black hair behind her ears.

"You'll get used to the sound. Are you crossing both ways? By the way, I'm David Hallsford. Hotel officer." He bowed slightly from the waist, "At your service."

"Mike McGeehan. Ship editor. At yours," I said, offering my hand. "And . . ."

Sal introduced herself.

"It appears we're getting under way just on time. Amazing," said Hallsford, smoke drifting from his nose as he gazed over the Hudson. I noticed the horizon had changed as I looked out. The tugs had nudged the great ship from the pier, so her stern was facing toward the George Washington Bridge upstream.

"Editors? Well then you'll be with us a while. Welcome aboard! Have you found your way around the ship?" asked Hallsford.

"I think we know the way back to our office, and we'd better get there so we can start working on the paper," said Sal. She knew she had found a much-needed tour guide. "David, do you know where the press room is? We'll have to get our pages there tonight, and we're not quite sure . . . "

"Oh, yes, Seven Deck, midships, `C' stairwell, can't miss it," he said. "Must be off. We'll meet again, I'm sure."

With the ship now shifting into the main channel, the breeze was picking up and I was getting chilly, especially under the big wet spot of spilled cognac. It was time to get to work.

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© By Buzz Adams