Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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4


Just south of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, the Majestic gently sweeps to a northwest bearing, making for The Solent. The sea is calm, the sun peeks now and again through passing layers of clouds, and we'll put in soon at Southampton.


What storm? It seems like it was weeks ago, although only a couple of days have passed. The ship bears a few scars from the gale. But Madge must look fine from the shores, which encroach closer and closer as we glide toward landfall.


It's anticlimactic in a way; there are no skyscrapers or huge bridges, only a plain, flat English countryside at our sides, broken up by clusters of houses, villages, a high-rise here and there.


Because we were to be in port, there was no need to produce a newspaper today, so we spent what was left of the morning after we finally arose to organize the office and prepare a couple of back pages for the first paper of our return crossing. We weren't quite adjusted to the hour a day we lost eastbound, but we'd gain it all back after the turnaround in England.


Grigg, the radio officer, had stopped by early in the afternoon to introduce himself. An affable and slightly nervous sort, he seemed apologetic for not being more forthcoming about the storm when I had called the radio room. I brushed it off, acknowledging that he had more important things to attend to at the time, but as a gesture of goodwill, the thin, bearded Grigg offered to fix us up with a radio antenna and, if he could, dig out on old shortwave set to give us a better receiver.


By tea time, he had scaled the funnel and attached our antenna, actually nothing more than a thin wire, to a fitting about two-thirds of the way to the top. "And we must have that drink," he assured us.


Tea, by the way, was a serious matter on the ship. Everyone took tea. Americans are hooked on coffee breaks. On the ship, it's as if a big red light flashes at mid-afternoon, and everything stops. Stewards swarm through the cabins, staterooms, public rooms and offices carrying trays of teapots, cups and saucers, sugar and cream, and a few little cookies and rolls. They hadn't missed our office.


The knock came at our office at 3:02 p.m. the day after the storm while we were still at sea. A curly-headed chap popped in with his tray, looked back and forth a couple of times to see where to set the works down, and finally chose the bar.


"Tea. Yes," he said. "All set. All right?" His big smile revealed a missing tooth or two. His white shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his hairy chest, baring a gold chain with a kind of goat's horn trinket at the end. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up well above the elbows, like a stage curtain opened for the display of an intricate network of tattooed dragons, snakes, scorpions, skulls and spider webs.


"Tea? We didn't order any tea," I said as the steward placed the cups on their saucers.


"Oh, yes, tea," said the steward, still smiling. "I'm Joe. I'll bring you some tea. Every day. You're lucky today. Most of the tea sets, they're all smashed up by the storm." He gave a big grin.


I looked at Sal, who was out of her seat. "Tea. Yes. Certainly. We'd love some." She looked at me. "Every day. Now, you're Joe?"


"Joe, yes." He hesitated a moment, the smile temporarily replaced by a look of dejection. "Doesn't the gentleman like tea? I can take it back, not a problem."


"No," I said, "I like tea all right. I guess. Yeah, bring it every day, Joe."


Joe was right on time the afternoon the ship moved into The Solent; two knocks at the door, then it swung open and the tray went on the bar. Then Joe turned the cups upright on their saucers, spun around and was gone.


I filled the cups and we decided to take a walk on deck, joining the others strolling along and taking in the sight of land. We passed the markers at Spithead at the north of the Isle of Wight, bearing for Calshot Castle at a leisurely pace through the calm waters known for double tides that have created a natural deep-water harbor for the great liners that have passed this way through the years. As the banks drew closer, cars appeared at the edge of the water, occasionally blinking their headlights in a salute. The Majestic once again seemed solid and steady, a great moving island of steel, rather than a cork tossed about in a the raging sea that reigned a couple of days earlier. Madge's answer to the silent salutes from shore came, once again without warning, in a blast of her deep-throated horn just as Southampton's docks appeared. Only this time, Sal held onto her cup, and I managed not to drain the contents of mine onto my shirt. We both laughed.


The ship was now barely moving, easing her way toward Ocean Dock, the largest in a zig-zagging row of piers and quays at end of the harbor. Tugs nuzzled at the bow and stern to assist the giant ship toward her berth as dock crewmen stared upward, awaiting a toss of the lines. Baggage men appeared from the brown warehouse along the dock, ready with their carts to haul tons of suitcases for disembarking passengers, many of them still queued at British Customs tables set up in the Quarterdeck Ballroom. I could spot Peter, the bridge officer, on the bridge wing with a portable radio in hand, giving the final commands of the voyage.


The usual 24-hour Southampton turnaround had been stretched to 30 hours, giving extra time for repairs from the storm. Sal had decided that would give us enough time to catch an early train to London tomorrow and still make it back in plenty of time for the 9 p.m. sailing. Tonight, we would prowl around Southampton.


We headed back to the office, locked up, remembering to place the tea tray outside the door, grabbed our jackets and passports from our cabin and, once we cleared Customs, made for the docks.


Over the gangway and onto hard ground again, the lack of motion made it seem like I was walking on mud. We headed for town, not really knowing where we were going. After all, the travel stories in the "Majestic Mail" only talked about places like the Tower of London, Big Ben and Stonehenge.


"Hang on, editors," said a voice from behind us. It was Hallsford. "Have you any special plans for tonight?" he asked as he caught up with us.


We told him we were just going to walk around town and might stop for dinner someplace. Hallsford offered to be our guide. He and a couple of other officers were going out for the night and said we were welcome to go along, if we didn't mind their choice of haunts. We agreed to go along.


Past the docks we met up with one of Hallsford's fellow hotel officers, Tony Watson, and Brian Hatch, an engineering officer. We piled into one of those black, British taxis, which all look like they were made out of the same mold for a gangster's car on an old Untouchables show. I took a deep breath as we passed a sign that said "WAY OUT" and headed onto the left side of the road, half wondering whether the driver, on the right, could really know what he was doing in this backwards traffic setup.


Within a few minutes we stopped at the Cowherds, an old two-story Tudor inn with a multi-roomed pub on the first floor. As we walked in to the dimly lit, smoky place, dozens of people were sitting on benches at thick wooden tables, while others stood about, chatting and holding big mugs of beer. Dart games were in progress in a couple corners of the room, whose low ceilings were bisected by dark, rough timbers. In another corner, near a fireplace, someone was playing a concertina while people sang along.


Hallsford was pulled aside as soon as we walked in and drawn into a conversation with crewmen or officers he knew. Watson and Hatch said they needed to visit the loo. Sal and I drifted toward the bar, where I wedged myself a space and waited to give my order.


"Wot's yours, mate?" the barman said, finally.


"Could I get a couple of beers?"


"Sure you could. Wot would you like?"


"A couple of beers," I said, this time a little louder. "Drafts?"


"We've established that, mate. Wot kind?" the barman was either getting impatient or had picked up my accent and was having a little fun.


"English. British."


"Very good. We're in the right empire now," he said, before holding up his index finger. "I'll be back straight away."


As he waited on another customer, I listened to the exchange to see if I could pick up some fine points on ordering beer. The other guy orders two bitters and asked, " ‘ave you got some bloody colonials, then?" before taking his order and disappearing into the crowd.


"All right," I said to the barman as he returned. "Two bitters and a bloody colonial."


His eyes opened wide. The guy to my left spun his head toward me and stared for a second or two, a twisted smirk on his face.


"Two bitters, right," the barman said. "But I can't give you a Yank. Unfortunately, you already are."


"Guess so," I said, trying to figure out what we were talking about. "OK, let's start with the two bitters, right?"


"Right," said the barman. "Pints? 'alf pints?"


"Sure."


"Which, then, for God's sakes?"


"One of each"'


He turned, snatched a couple of mugs and pulled the tap, letting a rich, brown liquid spill forth.


"Oh, shit!" I said.


"Eh?" The barman turned toward me. "Now what? Change your mind on the bloody Yank?"


"No English money, not a cent, or pence, or whatever. Hold those ales, Jack, I've got to get some cash. You don't take American dollars, do you?"


"No," he said, plunking the mugs on the bar. "And they're not ales. They're bitters. We don't have many Yankee callers, luckily. Look, mate, take these and enjoy, courtesy of the establishment. And when you order, it's bitter, lager, ale or stout. Or just Whitbread. Have Courage. Cheers."


The guy next to me looked muttered, "It's true. Two cultures, separated by a common language."


I turned around to find Sal gone. I wound my way through the crowd, balancing the two bitters and occasionally sipping a bit off the top as I peered around the room. I found her at the dart board, where she had not only gotten herself into a game, but had taken it upon herself to give dart-throwing tips to her opponents who had probably only spent a quarter of their lives aiming their custom pointed projectiles from painted lines on pub floors.


Hallsford, Watson and Hatch finally caught up with us. We waited our turns for a couple of dart games and stayed a while longer before Hatch inquired, "Fancy some music?"


I was perfectly happy in my little bitter-induced glow, listening to the bawdy music coming from the crowd around the concertina player. But Sal seemed ready to move on, saying she wanted to go someplace where we could dance.


Another Untouchables taxi took us to the edge of town into a freight yard along the railroad tracks. We could hear a thumping, rhythmic sound as we got closer to a shabby warehouse that stood alone a few hundred feet from the road. As we got out, a weird collection of chain-and-leather bedecked characters, sporting safety pin jewelry and spiky, pink and purple Mohawk hairdos, glanced sinister, sneering looks our way. The mixed smell of pot and cigarettes drifted from a group that looked like it was lost from the set of a Star Wars movie.


"Who's playing? Is that the Young Rascals?" I asked one of the punkers playfully. Sal nudged me. "Or is that Paul Revere and the Raiders?"


A guy wearing big clodhopper boots, ripped up denims and a sleeveless white undershirt nodded his green, crewcut-topped head toward a telephone pole serving as marquee as he announced the headline group: "Vomit. They're magic, mate."


"Varmint?" I asked. Taking a closer look at the tattered playbill, I could see the group's name was indeed as the lad had said it, Vomit. To be followed by the Screaming Fetuses.


Watson called from the door and we paid a cover charge -- the guy at the door seemed happy with the five dollar bill I handed over -- and we walked into a thumping enclosure of musical and physical mayhem amid the lightning of powerful strobe lights. Vomit was jumping about on stage, its members appearing as if collective nervous disorders had been compounded by hives, sending them into a delirium of twitches, jerks, hops and an occasional agonized sprawl on the floor. Dancers hip-hopped about the place, like so many monkeys set free on an electrified floor. Some of them thumped and crashed into each other in a manner suitable for an NFL cheap shots video. Vomit wound up with one member's obligatory Mickey Mantle swing of his guitar into an amplifier, setting off a little-league explosion of sparks that barely caught the attention of the frenzied revelers. A few who noticed the finale applauded by hurling glasses, shoes and -- inexplicably, a tennis ball -- onto the stage. Luckily for Vomit, there were no chairs in the place.


The band members stalked off the stage, slamming shoulders with the Screaming Fetuses as they took over the mikes and amps. The next set was pretty much as the first one: clamorous electric sounds intertwined with a blasting beat and anguished screams through which an occasional obscenity could be deciphered. Instead of just staring, Sal and I decided to dance, hip-hopping like the rest but without the slamming. Hallsford, Watson and Hatch headed for the bar, where we later joined them to watch the circus of punkers perform.


Untouchables taxis took us to a couple of more pubs before the legal closing time arrived. As we walked out of the last pub, Hatch, a skinny, nerdy looking guy with short-cropped hair and horn-rimmed glasses, said we could wind up the night at a "speak" he knew. He directed the cabbie through a maze of a route through the deserted streets before asking him to let us off at a corner. We walked a half block, ducked into an opening below stone steps, and Hatch knocked three times at a darkened door. It opened a crack and a nervous-sounding voice said, "Brian. You've got company. Come in, then, don't take all night."


We hustled inside the cramped, crowded place, where you could barely see across the room for all the cigarette smoke. Hatch and Hallsford left for the bar to buy us a round and Tony started introducing us to fellow patrons of the speakeasy.


I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Gordon, wearing a half smile.


"Well, it didn't take you long to find this place," said Gordon. "Elegant, isn't it?"


"Not bad, but it's not the Majestic," I said. "Different."


"Have you heard?" he said, half whispering. "It's been stolen."


"What has?" I asked.


"The galleon. Gone. Whisked away. Snatched. Purloined." Gordon was now barely whispering. His eyes were wide open.


"Who? When?" asked Sal. "How did they get it? Where do you think it is? Do you have any idea?"


"Do you have any idea if how much it's worth?" said Gordon. "If it doesn't turn up, you have no idea what it means."


"What do you mean?" said Sal, continuing her interrogation.


"Listen, now's not a good time. We'll talk after we sail. Cheers." Gordon turned and walked back into the crowded room.


Hatch and Watson returned with the first of several rounds we downed while talking, mostly about the ship and our upcoming world cruise. We talked about the tropics, the beaches and palm trees we would see, and Hatch and Watson filled us in on the ports at Barbados, Rio, San Juan and Acapulco. But we were careful not to bring up the subject of the stolen galleon. It was late and we were all tired from our boozy night on Southampton. We walked halfway back to the ship through the still, cold night before a taxi showed up to take us the rest of the way.


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© By Buzz Adams