Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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2


Despite all the anxiety, putting together the first ``Majestic Mail'' was easier than either of us had anticipated, once we sorted out which of us was doing what. Sal fired up a multi-band Panasonic radio we had placed near the boat deck window and fiddled with the tuner. There was noise on the shortwave channels, but we quickly figured out that AM and FM broadcasts were our best bet while so close to port and within reach of commercial radio signals.


I found a tape recorder in the desk, popped in a cassette and we were off to the races when the 3:30 p.m. news came on. The continuing anarchy in Iran, which had dried up oil exports, was the top story. Martial law declared in Turkey got second billing. A 22-inch snowstorm that snarled Chicago played on Page One. The usual mix of floods, train wrecks and other calamities filled a briefs package, and what would become a daily staple of our news menu -- the daily gold prices -- took their due space. Sal dug makeup pages from the closet where hundreds of them had been stacked, and dummied mock-ups of the four-page tabloid. We guessed Mr. Tremblay had trimmed the paper's size, just for today, to four pages instead of the usual eight in deference to his newcomer editors. I dug into the files for a photo of the ship with the New York skyline in the background, cropped it nice and big for Page One, and captioned a peppy underline declaring the Majestic's five-day crossing under way.


We glanced up from our work as the liner glided by the piers, the World Trade Center towers, Battery Park, the skyscrapers of Manhattan and high-rises of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey. For people watching down on us, if they were looking at all, the scene must have been routine. New Yorkers have seen it replayed hundreds of times -- by this ship and her magnificent ancestors that are now all scrapped, sunk or listing neglected in maritime junkyards.


Our files bulged with stories of them all. The Mauretania sailed under turbine power during the heyday of trans-Atlantic crossings in the early 1900s, when ships were the only way to get across the ocean and back. The four-funneled pride of the Cunard line, owner of North Atlantic speed record, the Blue Ribband, from 1907 to 1929, carried throngs of well-heeled and desperate, and served a stint as a troop carrier during World War I. The Mauretania was retired to the scrap yards in the '30s. Her sister ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed by the Germans and sunk in 1915, and the indignation sparked by the loss of hundreds of lives further prodded America into World War I.


The Germans were fully involved in the trans-Atlantic passenger trade, launching such floating palaces as the Vaterland, regally outfitted for the most discriminating palates afloat with a Ritz-Carlton restaurant; and the Imperator, her stem festooned with a gigantic crowned eagle that looked absurdly out of place on the prow of a steel steamship, and her interior so laden with such niceties as marble paneling around steel bathtubs that she was hopelessly top heavy.


The Queens -- Mary and Elizabeth -- which served with pride and distinction for a combined six decades, taking time out during World War II to deliver troops, both ended their careers humbly. After a trip around South America's Horn, the Queen Mary was unceremoniously tied up for good and transformed into a combination a exhibit-hotel in Long Beach, California. The Queen Elizabeth, after being turned into a kind of floating university, burned in Hong Kong Harbor in 1972 before being salvaged for scrap.


The Ile de France, replete with decorative fountains, a dining room that seated 700 at a time and a three-decked smoking room, was equipped with sufficient bar space to make it a magnet for Prohibition-parched Americans during the dizzying '20s. The third France, sleek with her low profile and teardrop funnels trimmed with winglets, was out of service by 1974.


America's late entry into the transoceanic passenger trade was the handsome, red, white and blue-funneled United States, which in 1952 casually snatched the Blue Ribband with a New York-to-England crossing in just under three and a half days, averaging 35 and a half knots, a record that had not since been matched. The handsome owner of the Blue Ribband now rests, with a slight list, rusting and all but forgotten in Philadelphia.


And the Majestic -- the first Majestic -- the ship of many names, and namesake of the superliner which we now called home. She started out as the Bismarck, but the longest ship of her day was handed over to the British as a spoil of war in 1922. After providing passenger service through the late '30s, she became the H.M.S. Caledonia, a British training vessel. A decade later she sank, was salvaged and finally scrapped.


The glory years of the great liners that once docked three and four at a time along Manhattan's piers had given way to the age of the jet; cruise ships that ply the flat, warmer seas attract a new and different kind of clientele -- those who think of their vessel as a "boat." The days of the cheering gawkers and flotillas of smaller boats crowding the harbor to greet the finest liner of the day, sadly, were long gone.


So for us, there would be no accompanying armada of fireboats and pleasure yachts; our modest, faithful black tugs were our only escorts as the world's greatest port drifted past on this generally unremarkable day. But I still had the feeling that great steel ghosts were still in our midst, and all eyes -- including those of the grand copper lady holding the torch off our starboard -- were upon us. A late afternoon shadow playing off the Statue of Liberty's left eye for an instant seemed like a wink. For the first time I sensed something more than being part of this ship. It was like being part of a play, each act to begin when arriving at a new port, the curtain to fall as land faded away.


As we approached the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, a colossus of such stature that her towers are engineered slightly off plumb to account for the Earth's curvature, it appeared as if the Majestic II could not fit underneath. We found ourselves joining other passengers on deck peering forward to observe, only to see physics prevail over illusion as the mast and funnel shrank well below the span as the ship sailed on. Picking up speed, we plowed on toward Coney Island, sticking like an oversize thumb into Lower Bay at portside. Beyond there, like a lonely tollkeeper on an invisible highway, the Ambrose Light Station signaled our entry into the Atlantic, or, as we would hear the British say, the Western Ocean.


Out to sea. Straight away, only a deep gray-blue ocean reflecting off the dull, darkening pewter sky. As the twin propellers cut through the water, I sensed the motion of the great ship, gently rolling in even measures, pitching slightly, just enough to make me tread little more carefully to avoid stumbling. The musty air of the harbor was replaced by the invigorating, sweet breeze from the sea, as a fine mist began to dampen my face. Sal, holding my arm, smiled and suggested we find our cabin so we could unpack before dinner. We could finish the paper later.


We opened the heavy wooden door at midships and made our way through the corridor to the elevator, one of a half dozen or so on the ship. Down to Five Deck, and then, like so many other lost souls finding they way about the ship, traced cabin numbers until we were able to zero in on our target.


Cabin 5214 was on the port side, against the hull, affording us a porthole view of the world. There were two small single beds, a closet and bathroom, a sufficient bureau and a ledge below the porthole, which would be a handy place to keep books and other odds and ends we would pick up along the way.


With little ceremony, we stashed, folded and placed our clothes on hangers; hers naturally took three-fourths of the space but that was OK; I like to travel light. The social notice that had been placed on one of the beds advised us that formal dinner attire was not customary on day of departure. I changed my cognac-splotched shirt and Sal slipped into a dress before we headed back out. Sal grinned as she slipped a little schematic of the ship into her purse so we could find the way to our assigned dining room, the Parisienne, oddly named, I thought, given the historic rivalry between the British and French.


We retraced our steps through the labyrinth of tourist-class corridors, found the lift and, after quickly consulting the little map, hit the button for upper deck. As the stainless steel doors opened, we could see a line forming behind the doors of the Parisienne. As we joined the queue, I saw that waiters and maître d's were escorting the guests to their assigned tables for the crossing. The dining room came into full view as we got closer to the double doors. It seemed to be half the length of a football field, and perhaps as wide, its deck covered with a sea of powder blue carpeting. Each table was covered with a deep blue linen tablecloth, with a slender glass vase holding a couple of carnations at the center. The walls at the fore and aft ends of the expansive dining room were a patchwork of panels decorated with a matching dark blue velvet. At the center of the fore wall a stainless steel, oval-shaped outline of the Earth, about four feet across at its equator, protruded forth. A tiny red light marked our location as we continued to hug the eastern Atlantic shore. At the huge room's sides, tall windows lined the port and starboard walls.


"Good evening madam, sir," said the black-suited maître d' as we reached the doorway. "Mr. and Mrs. . . . "


"McGeehan," responded Sal, causing his eyes to shift suddenly from me to her. He quickly shuffled through a stack of three-by-five cards as he turned on his heels, and with a slight bow instructed us to follow him. We were seated at a table for two, about four tables in from the doorway, close to the port window.


"And, of course,"' said the maître d' in a businesslike tone, "if the location is not suitable, we can arrange for a new seating. Please enjoy your meal." He spun around and headed back to the doorway.


The menus at our settings offered two choices: Yankee pot roast and something called haggis, which Sal whispered was something Scottish and something I probably would not want to try tonight. Within minutes a couple of Mutt-and-Jeff -looking guys, wearing red jackets with thin black lapels and black bow ties, were standing at the table. The tall one introduced each in a deep, British clip.


"I'm Ivan, and this is Terry," he said with a smile. "Some wine before dinner?"


"Ivan and Terry? This is too great." I liked the sound of the names. "So you'll be our waiters every day?" I asked. The big guy looked at the diminutive Terry, a roundish chap whose light-red hairline was receding.


"Yeah, 'cept when we're on leave. And that's Sou'hampton," said the smaller guy, causing the two to bob about momentarily, almost laughing with glee. I could see we'd get along.


"Well, I don't think we'll need any wine tonight, you see, we still . . . " I said, knowing we still had to finish the paper and we were both dog-tired.


"We'll each have a glass. Red, please," Sal decided. There was a moment's hesitation, but my silence was the twosome's cue to spin about and get the wine. Sal was right; we'd been on the go all day and it was time to relax a little.


"So, what's this haggis?" I asked. Sal knows everything. She is a voracious reader and is especially conversant on anything having to do with food, owing to her years in the kitchen with her Italian mama, whipping up countless dishes of lasagna, rigatoni, baked ziti and spaghetti for a family that included four hulking, ever-hungry brothers.


Anna Maria Salvini Moscarello McGeehan smiled, her brown eyes opened a bit and peered straight into mine, and leaned over a tad toward me.


"A sheep's lungs, liver and heart, all gooshed together with fat and oats and a few spices." She waited a moment for that to sink in before delivering the coup de grace. "Then you cook it in the lining of the sheep's stomach. Sound nice, honey?"


I had another look at the menu. Scotch salmon with capers, foie gras from Strasbourg, consomme Indienne for openers, Yankee pot roast and, ugh, haggis for the main course, sides of stewed okra, roast and creamed potatoes . . .


Giggling from the table across the aisle distracted me. Four attractive young ladies seated with two men evidently had noticed our accents. I had barely turned toward the table before the blonde one addressed me.


"You're Americans." I didn't know if this was an indictment or just a standard opener, but the smile of the blue-eyed, rather chunky woman comforted me. "Are you passengers, or working on Madge?"


"Madge?" I said.


"Mother Madge," she smiled. "Majestic, silly."


"Oh, yeah. Yes. We're the editors. I'm Mike . . ." I started to get out of my chair but Ivan and Terry had come back to the table with our wine, ready to take our orders. "And this is Sal. Hold on a second."


"Do try the rolled ox tongue," counseled the young lady as I picked up the menu again. "It's lovely."


We ordered, but avoided the exotic stuff, and the waiters were gone again.


Sal picked up where I left off. "So you also work on the ship?"


"Oh yes. We're croupiers. I'm Cookie, and this is Dottie, Danielle and Fiona. So nice to meet you." The two men, James and Howard, introduced themselves.


One of the D girls, Danielle or Dottie, chimed in, inviting us to "a little party, about ten, in 5307, aft. Do stop by and we'll get a chance to talk."


We thanked her and waited for our dinner, which came along quickly.


After coffee, we headed back to the office to put the finishing touches on the Mail. A manila envelope had been slipped under the door to the office cabin, addressed simply to "Editors." Sal opened it and pulled out a square of heavy bond paper with a drawing on it. It was a cartoon, professionally done, showing the ship being tossed in huge waves. The underline said, "The dentist will not be drilling today." A tiny signature in a corner of the drawing simply said "Lefty." Sal smiled.


"Perfect," I said. "I've got a spot for this." I dummied the cartoon in a gap on the fourth page. Sal plucked a couple of more news stories to finish the world news briefs section, and the paper was ready for the printers. Now, all we had to do was find them.


"All right, seven deck, that's what David told us," said Sal, gathering up the page dummies and copy. "Near the C stairwell. C'mon."


"David? Oh, yeah, the guy when that damn whistle went off. Didn't he say midships?" I was trying to be helpful, but she was already out the door, headed aft like she knew her way around. I caught up and we found a lift, pressed the button for Five Deck and then bounded out.


A steward directed us toward the unmarked door opening to the decks below, the domain of crew only, then asked politely why we were headed "down there." We explained.


Just past the base of the narrow stairway was a door, the knob and area around it smudged with black ink. This must be the place. Inside was a little Heidelberg offset press about the size of a tiny compact car, a couple of tall-legged desks and a closed-off area that appeared to be the camera room. A short guy wearing a white, ink-splotched smock looked up from one of the desks. His eyelids drooped slightly.


"S'boot teem," he said with a bit of a grin. "S'all reet thoh. We'll get 'er on the rollers street awee."


As I was trying to decipher the first few syllables the second guy emerged from the camera room.


"Ah, you must be the new editors. Got those dummies then?" Before we could answer, he introduced the pair. "I'm Blue." His name belied his looks: long red hair, with a bushy beard matching the fiery strands that fell below his greasy collar. "And this is Jack MacIver." He gave the shorter fellow's name as if they were a single word.


Sal introduced us and we shook their inky hands before Jack MacIver took the page layouts and slapped them on the desk. Blue's big arm swooped down to pick up a couple of photos that had tumbled to the deck in the process. Noticing the Lefty cartoon, he said with a smirk, "Oh, you're running these. Hope the Ol' Man doesn't take offense."


"The Old Man?" I asked.


"The Captain. 'e's a bit of a prude about these things," advised Blue. "But it's your paper. Besides, it's less typesetting for us."


"Well, if you run into any problems, call us in 5214," I said, ignoring his counsel about the potentially offensive dentist gag. As the ship made a slight pitch, an empty scotch bottle rolled from under the desk and came to rest between the two printers and us. Like a soccer player toeing a ball, Jack MacIver gave the bottle a graceful boot without taking his eyes off us, placing it back in its previous hiding place without shattering it.


"Good luck, guys. See you tomorrow night," said Sal, and we were off.


Heading back up, Sal and I decided to get a look at the ship's public rooms, starting on Upper Deck. Just aft of the Parisienne we found the Midships Theatre. The velvet green curtains, pulled closed over the stage, swung gently to and fro with the roll of the ship, providing the only activity in the dimly lit place; no movie or concert was scheduled on embarkation day. Walking back out, we cut through a corner of the disco bar at the rear of the Theatre and peered through padlocked glass doors into the casino, decorated in a combination of black, red and white, save the green felt tops of the blackjack tables. Three rows of one-armed bandits stood silently, like so many fruit-eyed tin soldiers with red knobbed hands pulled back in salutes, ready for action once we sailed beyond U.S. waters. The adjacent disco was just beginning to show signs of life, with a disc jockey pumping out "YMCA," followed by "Disco Inferno" and a menu of other dance fever staples of the late '70s for the few non-dancers sitting at tables or leaning against the bar.


Deep-cushioned chairs supported by rounded steel frames were placed around circular glass-topped tables lining the small dance floor, which was devoid of activity other than the bombardment of multi-colored lights beating down in time to the deep base of the music. A white, baby grand piano sat closed and dormant to the left of the rows of speakers near the dance floor. Tables also lined the tall windows along the starboard wall, beyond which the foamy white wake of the ship formed an effervescent streak against the black sea. We meandered aft into the cavernous grand show hall, where bingo was played by day, cocktail parties were given by evening and floor shows staged by night.


At the fore end of the glistening wooden dance floor was a semicircular show stage, also devoid of activity this night. Dozens of glass-surfaced tables arranged in squares formed a giant mosaic over the deep-green carpeted deck surrounding the floor. At the deck above, a plexiglass barrier topped by a chrome railing lined the balcony overlooking the silent expanse.


"Where is everybody?" asked Sal. "It's so quiet."


"Maybe at Daffy's party, or whatever her name was," I said. She gave me one of her looks.


"Cookie, I think it was," she said. "C'mon."


We strolled farther aft and found a circular staircase leading us a deck above. We stared for a moment down to the dance floor, but the arcade of shops caught Sal's eye.


"The Grand Gallery. The Majestic II Grand Gallery," she said, as if reading from a ship brochure. "Let's look."


Shops lined the outer walls of the promenade that formed a ridge overlooking the show floor. A dress shop was stocked with everything from scarves, bathing suits and tennis outfits to formal gowns, and in the men's shop window were kilts, a polo outfit, Australian bush hats and even a few bowlers to go with the formal dark suits donned by mannequins. A souvenir shop window was filled with caps, ashtrays, lighters, cigarette cases, shoulder bags, thermometers, wine glasses and even a toothbrush bearing the official Majestic II logo. Inside the closed shop was a well-stocked paperback case and racks full of British, American, Spanish and German magazines.


A duty-free shop bulged with imported French wines, top-shelf Scotch, British gin, American bourbon and Russian vodka, as well as British and American cigarettes, Cuban cigars and tins of Russian caviar. A shoe shop -- one side for women, the other for men -- was next door. We stopped at the jewelry shop at the focal point of the arcade, right in the center at the forward end, a deck above the stage in the grand show hall.


My attention was drawn past the gleaming necklaces, pendants, earrings, rings, brooches and watches in the front window to a golden sail ship displayed inside the shop. Its prow was pointed upward, as if clearing a swell artfully created from an overturned gilded shell on which it was mounted. The edges of the galleon's sails were bordered with tiny, gleaming jewels that threw off shards of multi-colored reflections. Tiny rubies formed a cross on its square forward sail, and blue and lime enameled banners streamed above its four masts. The gunwales and stern were dressed with intricate filigree. Pearls, amethysts and tiger's eyes decorated the decks. Even the galleon's rigging and the little anchor dangling from the bow of the slipper-sized model were shimmering gold.


"Beautiful, isn't it?" came a voice from behind us, startling me. "There's only one of them. And it's here, on the Majestic."


I turned around to see a tall gentleman, sporting a neatly trimmed moustache that curled up at the ends, his light brown hair brushed straight back, not a hair out of place. He was impeccably dressed in a three-piece navy-blue pinstriped suit. Staring straight into my eyes, he looked as though he was waiting for me to speak next.


"I don't believe I've ever seen anything quite like it," I said, as Sal stepped over from the other window where she had been looking. "Quite a piece."


"Woodsome," the man said slowly. "Gor . . . "


"A which? A Woodsome?" I asked.


"Sorry," he said, trying to conceal a grin as he held out a hand. "I'm Woodsome. Gordon Woodsome. The shop's manager. And you must be Mr. McGeehan. And Mrs. McGeehan."


Sal picked right up where I had stumbled. "Very nice to meet you, Gordon. Now tell me," she said, "how did you know?"


"Oh, word travels very fast on the ship. One wonders why we even need a newspaper on board," Gordon stopped for a moment to savor his dry little jab. "So what will tomorrow's news say?"


"Oil shortages, snowstorms in the Midwest, some kind of civil strife in Turkey. The usual," I said.


"Nothing about storms at sea? This IS December," said Gordon. "Well that's good. Maybe it shall be a calm crossing after all."


"So you're the shop's manager. With this inventory," I glanced toward the window, spotting a silver tea service set out precariously among the glittering finery, "no wonder you're worried about storms."


Gordon beamed a confident smile. "You take it in stride, you know. It shan't be my first, Mr. McGeehan."


"Mike."


"Mike, and Anna Marie."


"That's Maria. But just Sal, please," she corrected.


"Of course. Mike and . . . Sal. Anyway, do let me know if you hear of any unseemly weather in our track. I'll be in the shop most of tomorrow. And we must have a drink. But now, I must be off. Very nice to see you." With a very slight bow, he turned abruptly and headed away.


As I took one final look at the glimmering galleon, Sal half-whispered, "So how DID he know my name? Anna Maria, nobody calls me that, except my mother."


"Like the man said, word travels fast. Hey, do you notice we're rocking more?"


"I think it's your imagination," said Sal. "C'mon. Let's find our cabin."


It was a good idea. The day had been so long and exhausting it seemed impossible that we had just been riding in a crummy New York cab just 12 hours or so earlier. We decided to skip the get-together with the casino crowd and found our way down to Five Deck and Cabin 5214.


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© By Buzz Adams