Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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6


The westbound crossing seemed to be pretty routine, at least as far as a newly installed editor could tell. The weather was clear, reasonably temperate for late December, thanks to a blanket of high clouds that sealed in warmth from the sea. The forecast showed nothing unusual ahead; the wind was light and seas relatively calm, an invitation for some of the braver passengers to play shuffleboard on the wooden decks at aft, or lay in lounge chairs under small mountains of blankets and take bouillon. The cruise staff broke out rifles for skeet shooting off the fantail. Joggers huffed the quarter mile around the boat deck and walkers strolled the hours away. Inside, bridge and pinochle tournaments were under way. People swam in the two indoor pools, took Turkish baths or relaxed in the sauna. The masseuse and masseur were booked through the day, as were the hairdressers, barbers and manicurists. People shopped in the Gallery, or passed the time with craft classes or lectures by special guests on board. People drank; a bar was always open somewhere and stewards and waiters were always ready to serve, no matter where you were. Some people took a book out of the ship's library, found a quiet corner and read. Some wrote letters and postcards. A few just daydreamed, or just waited patiently for the next meal to be served. Those who liked to complain griped. And everybody, it seemed, talked.


For the deck strollers, there was always something to see. A distant fishing boat or cargo ship was an adventure for many.


"Gimme those binoculars," one man standing on the port side ordered his wife as he scrutinized the horizon, like a battleship captain at the bridge zeroing in on a U-boat. More spectacularly, passengers sometimes got to see whales playing like oversized aquatic tag teams off the side of the ship.


The gripers could always find something wrong. As I was passing through the Quarterdeck main lobby, a kind of town square where the bank, tour reservation desk and post office were located, a woman with a scowl on her face stormed up to the information desk and demanded to know why the digital clock near the Theatre was three minutes slower than the clock outside the Liverpool Room at aft.	"A keen observation, madam," said the smiling attendant. "Our clocks are calibrated precisely to Greenwich Mean Time. Because the Theatre is slightly west of the Liverpool Room, it actually IS three minutes earlier there at any given time. On a westbound crossing, of course."


The woman was silent for a moment as she thought.


"Oh. Very well then," was all she said as she walked away.


Had the quick-witted attendant been less diplomatic but more candid, he might have said, "On a ship, you are in a time warp. You, like most people, have been used to watching a clock for most of your life. But time has little meaning here. True, freedom from time is hard to get used to, but you paid dearly for it. So please try to enjoy it."


Another griper on deck was ready to plop into her lounge chair and crawl under the stack of blankets a steward had delivered when she noticed that the white, crystalline film that coats everything on a ship's deck was also coating her seat.


"My chair is salty," she grumbled.


"We're not asking you to eat it, madam," the steward said calmly.


If anything besides oil propelled the Majestic II through the seas, it was gossip, rumors and idle patter, the product of unspent energy that builds up over hours and days, finding release in conversation that is usually of little or no consequence. Society has devised forums for such babble: the backyard fence, radio talk programs, and Congress to name a few. On a passenger ship, it is the cocktail party. We soon found out that the Majestic had a cocktail party for virtually any occasion. But, as on all ships, the most noted is the Captain's Party.


Of course we would attend the gab fest, and get our pictures taken shaking the hand of the Captain Heathcliffe Goodrow, just like the rest of the passengers. I, of course, sought to drink all I could before the party ended. Sal had more lofty pursuits.


She had pirated a copy of the "Commend List," a mimeographed roll call of the heavy hitters on board, by using her persuasive skills on Grigg, who demanded a Scrabble match in return. The list, marked "confidential" on its cover page, was a kind of Who's Who notice to pre-empt gaffes and embarrassments by the staff. Those on the list were not to be treated like ordinary passengers. Most of them were booked in the sumptuous penthouse suites on the Sports Deck, one above the Boat Deck. Sal wanted to see if any of the big shots would show up for the captain's bash.


The list included industrialists, big-shot attorneys, a string of repeat passengers and a sprinkling of media types, including a newspaper executive from San Francisco and publisher from Miami. A Madame Gartineau was traveling for the 31st time on the Majestic, several others had sailed at least a dozen times, and a few were repeat world cruise passengers. The president of Rolls Royce of North America was on board, as was a gold mining mogul from South Africa, a Canadian shipbuilding titan and a Sir Philburton Dick and his wife, Lucinda, from Britain. Most of them had boarded for the world cruise that would start in New York in a few days. A few names rang distant bells as I checked the list, but my scanning eyes froze to a stop on the line that listed Senator Christian Furbish of Texas and his wife, Dolores.


"Slinky! Slinky's on board," I said, slapping the Commend List on the bed in our cabin. I continued struggling with my cummerbund as Sal, her nose about a half inch from the bathroom mirror, dabbed on makeup with one hand and reached for her eyeliner with the other.


"What on Earth are you going on about?" she said, her head perfectly still for the eye treatment, only her lips moving.


"Senator Furbish, that blowhard from Texas who's popping up in the news all the time. You know, the guy who always uses stupid football cliches in his gung-ho speeches. `If we're gonna win this game, we can't sit on the sidelines pickin' our butts like waterbugs in a Loo-zee-ana flood. No-suh. We gotta move, we gotta focus, and we gotta hit hard,' " I said, mimicking Slinky's drawl. 	Silence from Sal's temporary salon.


"The guy who ran that bazillion dollar campaign to stomp out a challenger who kept saying Furbish stretches the truth every time he opens that Texas-sized mouth." I thought for a minute before dredging up from the Useless Political Trivia File in my head the genesis of the senator's nickname.


"Yeah. Furbish went around boasting he took down a big elk with a single shot on a hunting trip in Utah or someplace, `jest lahk a Texas Longhorn lahnbacker would lick a knock-kneed prep school quarterback.' But this Democrat, I think his name was Edmonds, found out that the big elk was really shot by one of the senator's bodyguards while Furbish was, uh, indisposed, standing by a tree relieving himself. Edmonds referred to the story in every speech. `Chris Furbish sure can stre-e-e-e-etch the truth, just like a Slinky,' he said. You know, the spring toy that walks down steps. Anyway, the name stuck."


"I think I remember him," said Sal, now combing her hair. "Republican. Nice-looking, dazzling silver hair. He spoke at the '72 convention. I believe he heads the committee that does shipbuilding legislation. Don't they call it Seapower and Maritime Affairs? Are you ready yet?"


I don't believe I had seen Sal so dressed up since we had been married. Her black hair was swept back and tied in silvery ribbons that matched her gray-silver gown. I stood at the mirror, adjusted my bow tie, buffed my shoes on the pantlegs of my tux, cupped my hand in front of my face to check my breath, and we headed to the Captain's party in the Quarterdeck Ballroom.


We stepped to the end of a long queue that had formed at the doorway, where, one-by-one, passengers shook hands with the gentleman in a navy blue uniform, with four broad, gold stripes at the wrists and on his epaulets. He was about average height, with thick, brown hair combed straight back. He cocked his head slightly with each introduction. A younger officer standing by gave the names of the couple as they approached.


Only it wasn't the captain they were meeting; Staff Captain Charles Villard was filling in tonight, for reasons unknown.	"Ah, the editors," said Villard as he took Sal's hand. "And you'll be with us through the world cruise? Marvelous."


He shook my hand, but not the way a stevedore would. He was easy and rather tentative, grabbing lightly onto a couple of fingers before quickly letting go, I suppose to pre-empt a bone-crunching vice lock that could be applied by any smiling, well-meaning macho male passenger.


The orchestra's bouncy music filled the ballroom, as waiters darted from one group of passengers to another with trays full of champagne and hors d'oeuvres of salmon and caviar. Sal scanned the area for people we knew, as I looked for the best place to block the path of the next waiter. She tugged at my sleeve and moved past a table stacked high with fresh fruit and cheese, toward the croupiers, Cookie, Dottie, Danielle and Fiona, who were decked out in their black gowns that would be their uniforms at the blackjack and baccarat tables later in the evening.


They were talking about the world cruise, but soon the conversation drifted to the inevitable: ship gossip.


"So where is the captain then, shuttered up in that suite of his again for the evening? What's with him?" said Fiona.


"Oh, who knows, maybe taking a turn at the wheel on the bridge. Or the laundry didn't starch his underwear just so," offered a giggling Dottie.


We quickly relieved the waiter of his burden as he showed up with his tray. "The flu, no doubt. 's goin' 'round England you know," he said with a wink before turning and disappearing into the crowd.


"Maybe it has something to do with the theft," said Danielle, sipping from the champagne goblet. The group fell silent for a moment. I gulped, not loudly.


"Theft?" asked Sal.


"Oh, you haven't heard?" said Danielle. "While we were in that storm, someone nicked some things from the jewelry shop. Thousands of pounds worth of, oh, bracelets, necklaces, I don't know exactly ... "	"The safe was lifted, that's what I heard," said Cookie. "But I don't see why that would stop him from coming to a silly cocktail party."


"I know," I said. I felt a slight nudge on my shoe, Sal's message to shut up. But I wasn't about to blab about the missing galleon.


"He's probably taking a break from all those lumberjack handshakes he has to put up with at these galas. So he sent in his deputy to get his hand squeezed all night instead," I said.


"That's just like John Wayne," said Cookie, giggling. "Do all Americans talk like John Wayne, or does he just sound like the rest of you?"


Sal was scanning the room, which was quickly filling with formally dressed guests and uniformed officers who moved from group to group, shaking hands and chatting a few minutes before drifting off again. Griffin seemed engrossed in a conversation, moving his hands in little circles as if he was explaining how the turbines worked. Nurse Connie D. Frank, in full dress blues, appeared from behind one of the half dozen columns lining the far side of the hall, sneakily flicking a cigarette ash into the pot of one of the rubber trees decorating the hall before snatching a goblet from the tray of a passing waiter.


The smell of a thousand fragrances of perfume, cut by cigarette smoke and the aroma of food being prepared in the galley, filled the ballroom. Cream-colored curtains were drawn over the windows at the sides. The orchestra played on an elevated platform of light wood, I suppose maple, but it was much smaller than the grand stage in the Gallery, where John Delon's band would play for Cecile Boucher's Follies later tonight.


"Who is that, the man with the handlebar moustache, over there by the third column?" Sal, still gazing, asked no one in particular. Cookie and Dottie turned and looked.


"The tall one there? Oh, Mr. Trewargy. He comes in the casino quite often. A Yank, uh, American. Some sort of millionaire and always with a different woman. I think someone told me he used to play your football," said Dottie.	To the British, it's almost irreverent to dignify the peculiar American game in which combatants gird in high-tech armor instead schoolboy shorts as football. So, to avoid impugning the game British love so deeply (Americans call it soccer) they invariably precede all references to the American game with the polite disclaimer "your."


I can't recall any football player named Trewargy, I thought as I popped the fourth or fifth - maybe tenth - grape into my mouth. I lost count because I had become involved in the universal sport of grape punting: flicking the little purple ovals with my thumbnail from the crook of my index finger straight into the air. I reckoned I had gotten the last grape 10 or 11 feet into the air, a perfect end-over-end boot, and snatched it in my gaping goal-post mouth before I felt Sal's eyeballs searing the side of my head, setting off a blaring ref's whistle in my head that stopped the play dead. Yeah, I had forgotten where I was.


"Mike," she said in one of those flame-thrower whispers through clenched teeth. "Time to leave the Rose Bowl. Puh-leese remember where we are."


A few passengers who had been watching my little demonstration politely turned away as I looked around. Most of the people in our group acted liked they didn't notice, although Dottie was evidently impressed.


"Remarkable," she said, her eyes wide open. "Such a gob."


The third or fourth tray of champagne had been served when Tony Watson, the hotel officer who had been with us in Southampton during the layover, approached our group with an elegantly dressed woman in tow. I hardly recognized Watson in his dress blues.


"Good evening, ladies, Mike. I'd like to introduce Mrs. Dolores Furbish, from Texas, who will be sailing on the world cruise with her husband, Senator Christian Furbish."


Mrs. Furbish looked like a middle-aged Barbie Doll, albeit a tad heavier, with a turned up nose, blonde hair swept in a French curl and looks that required very little makeup to highlight her natural beauty. She smiled and offered a hand to each of us, as if on the campaign trail.	"Oh, no need to be so formal. Please, call me Dandy. That's what my Daddy always called me, and y'all know how some names just stick, just like grits on granny's old fry pan," she said. "So you all work on this ship, traveling to all sorts of marvelous places. How wonderful."


We got through the small talk of where we were from and what we did on the ship. I decided to broaden the discussion a bit.


"And where is the senator this evening, Mrs., or, Dandy?"


"Oh, that Chris. Meetings all the time. He's with Captain Goodrow, and Lord knows what they could be talking about. He's fascinated with ships, you know, and serves on the steamship and navy, or seafarer ... oh the name of that committee so confounds me."


"Seapower and Maritime Affairs?" Sal said quietly.


"Oh, how does one remember those names of committees and such. Anyway, Chris, oh that Chris, he just wants to know everything about this ship, with the world cruise coming up and all. We hope we can stay on all the way around, but you never know when we might have to fly back to Washington, what with the next session coming up. Well, so nice to see y'all," Dandy said, once again offering her hand to each of us. She twirled around and placed her other hand in Watson's arm before walking off.


"So the captain's hobnobbing with one of your senators," Dottie half whispered after Mrs. Furbish had cleared earshot. " `Oh, that Chris. Oh, those meetings all the time,' "' she mocked. "That Chris, he just luhhves ships." What are they bloody talking about? Turning the Majestic into a Yankee battleship?"


"Maybe a rest home for doddering senators," said Cookie. "Or a floating brothel, or just tying her up for good and turning her into one of those tawdry floating hotels. Like they did with the Queen Mary. I know what; they're probably having a match on that new computer game they just put in the game room. All the crew are dying to get their hands on it ... Oh look, it's Lori Pierce, the makeup queen."


By the time I had a chance to look up, Lori had already made eye contact and was heading our way with an escort, a tuxedoed member of the cruise staff.


Like the bowsprit of a sail ship, her arm was outstretched as she made her regal appearance before our little crowd. The social staffer introduced us to the petite woman, a vice president of some cosmetics firm I thought I remembered from TV commercials. She was heavily perfumed and slathered in enough mascara, lipstick and eye shadow, I thought, to make the ship list slightly to one side. Lori immediately zeroed in on Sal.


"Now, Dah-ling, as you know I will be running the health and beauty program as the world cruise gets under way. My assistants will demonstrate our products on passengers, and we shall offer seminars on diet, exercise, makeup, all kinds of marvelous things I'm sure the ladies will find useful. Here," she flipped open her little gold purse and pulled out a calling card. "I'll come to your office at, shall we say 9 a.m. sharp tomorrow? We must talk. Mah-velous."


Her escort, standing behind her, shrugged and looked upward, as Lori spun around and flicked a little wave. "Tata."


"What was that all about?" said Fiona.


"I think she wants to get in the paper," said Sal.




Lori did want to get into the paper, and she got her way. At 8:30 the next morning, she called our cabin just to make sure Sal remembered their appointment, and by 9 sharp, Lori, reeking of a different scent of perfume, was in the office touting what she billed as her "Beauty Spa."


Her makeup assistants, she explained, would take "plain-Jane women" and turn them into irresistible beauties. There would be special exercise classes, diet menus and lectures on keeping trim and healthy.


"Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper," advised Miss Pierce, who obviously had skipped breakfast, and didn't mind us skipping ours, to make the meeting.


By 9:45 the interview -- it was more like a monologue -- was over. We used a publicity shot of Lori to go with the story and slapped in a sidebar full of sample menus to fill out the beauty spa package for tomorrow's paper. Anything to fill a page.	The rest of the paper was easy. With the help of Grigg's makeshift antenna, signals were coming in loud and clear on the short wave, giving us a full menu of stories by tea time. Joe was like clockwork as usual, and Gordon followed in his wake and plopped into a chair in the office.


"Where have you been?" I asked.


"Sooo busy. Getting ready for leave, straightening things out in the shop -- these passengers aren't buying a blooming thing. Just coming in to gawk. And Clive is distracted most of the time by that infernal new computer game, never mind jewelry. That blasted beeping, whining, whirring, and those little monsters and space stations on the telly screen. A devil's toy it is, for idle little minds. Where is our culture going? Anyway, what's in the news?"


"Ah, the usual" I said. "You got any?"


"You got any?" he mocked. "Such English. As if tutored by John Wayne. Have I any? Why, yes. Lori Pierce. She's driving me positively insane. She's had a dozen cases of cosmetics and such delivered to my shop for this beauty cruise of hers. She's always flitting in and out, checking this and checking that, chattering incessantly. `Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a ... ‘ "


"Pauper," said Sal. "We've had the pleasure. Check tomorrow's paper."


"Poor dear," said Gordon. "Have you heard anything about the galleon?"


"Nada," I said. "But the word's around that the shop was hit. The croupiers were talking about it at the cocktail party last night, but they didn't mention the galleon. I don't think they have a clue. They know something happened, but not what. Hey, you want some tea?"


"No, must dash. So much to do." Gordon rose. "Space Invaders, I think that's what they call it," he said as he stood at the doorway. "I should say. The culture is doomed."


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© By Buzz Adams