Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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7

Southward Bound


It was just a few days before Christmas, but the streets of New York's West Side didn't look very Christmasy. There was no snow in sight; the only white in the air was from occasional whirlwinds that blew little blizzards of paper trash across the sidewalks and streets. The air was a cold and damp. Only a few measly decorations strung here and there attested to the season. A faded cardboard sign spelling out ``Merry Christmas'' in a script of candy cane outlined in fake pine boughs was strung in the window of a little Italian restaurant a couple of blocks from the pier. In a deli up the street, someone had sprayed some fake snow on the window into big block letters that simply said ``XMAS.'' The sprayer, working from the inside, had managed to get the letters in the right places, but the ``S'' came out backwards.


The Arab oil embargo manifested itself on the streets, which had become the domain of lime cabs, with an occasional limousine, truck and bicycle showing up here and there on the uncharacteristically wide-open boulevards. I felt relieved I no longer needed a car and would not have to sit in hour-long lines waiting to pump gas.


The ship was now tied up at 48th Street for a quick, half-day turnaround. With scheduled castoff at 5 p.m., there was time to do a little shopping. Sal and two of the croupiers, Dottie and Danielle, had been among the first down the gangway after resolving to pick up a few things at Macy's downtown. I headed out alone a little later to pick up a few provisions of my own. A cramped little grocery store a couple of blocks from the piers had all I wanted: Two six-packs of Budweiser to help stock our bar, a box of Ring-Dings, a New York Times, Daily News, Sporting News and a couple of dozen Slim-Jims. I told the guy to throw in a box of Marlboros too, what the heck.


My arm curled around the shopping bag, I headed back toward the docks, but detoured and ducked into a divey little bar, Jose's, just across the street from the pier. My eyes panned the place as I shuffled toward the bar. I recognized several of the patrons as crew and officer from the ship, among them Grigg, who had a sandwich and a tall glass of beer in front of him. I plopped down next to the radioman, setting the bag on the floor between my legs.


"So what's up, Grigg?"


"Cheers. Just popped in for a brief libation and a bite after doing a bit of shopping for the nephews. Let me show you."


Grigg reached down and set a shopping bag on his lap, then pulled forth a black model Porsche and a hand control.


"Two of these, a Porsche and a candy red Corvette. They'll love them, but these radio controls are a mite touchy. I'll have to run them through a shakedown trial up on the sun deck before turning them over to the little rascals. Who knows? I might just keep them myself.


"And, look 'ere ..." Grigg said as he pulled out a square box. He lifted off the top and slipped his fingers through a brown strap. What looked like a fat snake made a menacing sucking sound as Grigg pulled upward, until finally, the whole thing popped out of the box and huffed out a couple of faint notes.


"Me new squeeze box. May the old one rest in peace."


I made a mock sign of the cross. "No hope for the old one, huh?"


"Kaput," said Grigg as he looked down, shaking his head. "That was one nasty go around between those two tarts. My concertina didn't have a chance."


"I feel bad about that, Grigg. To tell you the truth, I thought I was going to wind up in worse shape than your old squeeze box," I said.




It had been one hell of a fight, just over who would be the queen of the health and beauty cruise. Lori Pierce vs. Tina Kane, a one-time actress who had made a few forgettable movies in the '50 and early '60s, the heyday of Brylcream and the Four Freshmen. Her cinematic monstrosities were mostly set on college campuses, where everybody was white and drove little red sports cars, all the girls were platinum blonde and looked like their breasts were mounted in crushproof Dixie Cups, and the guys all wore letter sweaters. The insipid plots in Tina's frat-row favorites like "Sorority XOX" involved bevies of brainless coeds getting the star hooked up with some equally moronic Troy Donahue clone cast as a lonely football jock. Tina crowned her acting career with a couple of horror movies, one of which included a couple of scenes in a classic rail-car diner that was under attack by a mountainous, evil blob created by the awkward special effects of the day.


The years hadn't treated Miss Kane too badly. Her face had picked up a few lines that were usually brushed into oblivion by ample makeup, and the jowls she had developed gave her more or less a matronly look. Her hair, of course, was still platinum. And that dark little trademark mole on her left cheek was still there. Apparently some people out there remembered her, so her agent managed to persuade the Brighton Line to book Tina on the Majestic as a beauty consultant.


Miss Kane had kept a low profile after boarding the ship in Southampton, hoping to quietly soak up as much luxury as possible before bursting onto the scene as beauty spa director. Tina and Lori were supposed to have been dual headliners when the beauty cruise got going. But Lori, perhaps sensing Tina would get too much attention once the program got under way, staged a pre-emptive strike by getting a story proclaiming her sole beauty cruise queen into the Majestic Mail. Sal and I, as it turned out, had been unwitting co-conspirators.


As the ship steamed toward New York one clear morning, Tina was being served breakfast in her Upper Deck, first-class cabin, poised to loll away another day before making her grand public appearance. Then she opened the "Majestic Mail" that was on her tray.


She flew into a rage when she saw the headline, "Cosmetics Exec Trims Sails for Beauty Cruise," and hurled the tray of morning tea and pastries across the cabin while vowing to have "one hell of a row with that little strumpet." Word travels fast on a ship, and stewardesses are not given to secrecy when there's a juicy story to be told.


Tina marched to the office of the cruise director, Damon Shields, and demanded to see Miss Pierce at once. She didn't fall for Damon's usual trick to calm irate guests -- a gin and tonic, heavy on the gin side, no matter what time of day -- and berated the poor devil until he finally agreed to telephone Miss Pierce.


"Let me try, yes, backstage, Quarterdeck Ballroom. I believe Miss Pierce is arranging her display ... "


"Aha!" shouted Tina, her eyeballs bulging. "Aha!" She stormed out of the One Deck office, hardly aware in her ire that she was still wearing a pink bedrobe, slippers with matching pink fuzz trim around tops, and not a speck of makeup. A small parade of followers that formed in Tina's frothing wake was hardly able to keep up with her gait as she stalked toward the midships stairway: a stewardess, a hotel officer or two, Joe the tea man and poor Shields, who like the rest had to pick his stride to a trot every few steps to keep up with the livid Tina. Clive Tewell, the assistant shop manager, caught sight of the bizarre procession as he was walking by, but instead of joining in with the others, sprinted to our office to find out what all the commotion was about. Grigg happened to be there at the time, trouncing Sal and I in a Scrabble game. Even playing as a team, we were usually hopeless against Grigg, a master player who knew every trick word from "ai" to "zloty" and rarely looked at the board, having memorized every play from the start.


"She's in a frenzy!" Tewell blurted as he swung the door open. "She's in an absolute rage! Godawful. I think it's ... " he closed the door in a gesture of discretion and lowered his voice. "I believe it's Miss Kane, the has-been actress on the Commend. What's set her off?"


"What on earth are you talking about, Clive? Calm down," said Sal.


"She looks positively frightful without her usual gobs of makeup, but I'm quite certain it's Tina Kane who's storming down the corridor toward midships. She's in such a state, I think she's going to maim somebody," said Clive, a twisted little smile forming at the edges of his mouth.


"Commend List, you said? Where's that list, Sal?"


Sal seemed to turn white as she slid her desk drawer open to get the list, but instead of handing it over she started leafing through the pages. I watched as her dark eyes scanned the lines, back and forth, back and forth, as if in fast motion. Then they froze to a stop, so you could almost hear the squeal of her pupils as they clung fast to the giveaway line.


"Oh! Ooooh! That bitch!" she hissed, glowering at the page.


"Who? Gimme that," I demanded.


Still staring straight ahead, Sal slid the Commend List across the desk. Sure enough, Tina Kane's name was there. "Screen star, co-director of the Majestic II Health and Beauty Cruise."


"The old gal's been upstaged," I said. "Let's go see what's happening."


Grigg, taking it all in, emptied his tiles on the board to spell out "hirsute" for a 50-point bonus on top of a triple word score, then quietly excused himself and promised he'd see us soon.


Sal and I were on our feet and I instinctively tucked a pencil behind my ear before folding the score sheet and stuffing it into my shirt pocket. My next instinct was to grab the camera, but I decided to leave it behind. Discretion was important, even if we were about to observe a bare-fists slugfest between a half-dressed, frenzied movie star and her unsuspecting, excessively pancaked prey. We flew out the door.


Without a word, we headed toward midships and bounded down the carpeted staircase. A two-stripe officer was on a brisk march toward the Ballroom, so we followed him into the grand hall and up the steps to the stage entrance, and then behind the maroon curtain.


Lori Pierce, wearing a dark business suit with a neat little puffy white bow at the neck and made up like a glamour-mag model with bright red lipstick and purple eye shadow, stood behind stacks of cosmetics cartons that would become her castle walls of defense against the panting dragon in pink at stage center. Tina, standing a few feet away from Lori, glowered.


"Oh, Lori. Lori Pierce," she said softly. There was a brief pause. "I'm gonna kick your conniving little hotshot ass!" she growled, as a slippered foot shot from beneath her bedrobe and knocked over a couple of cartons. "Fight, princess!" Her dukes were up.


"Now, Miss Kane," said an officer as he started toward Tina, but Joe put his snake-festooned forearm to the man's chest and told him, "Hold off. It's good."


Tina leaped over the cartons hands-first, attempting to grab Lori about the throat. But there was some fight in the makeup lady, who swung with her right fist and caught her attacker across the jaw, the contact making the sound of an apple being dropped into dish of Jello. Tina shook her head for a moment, then came back with a poke to the left eye of the cosmetics executive, who let out a shriek. A second officer moved to the scene of the fray to break things up, but Tina, without turning around, jabbed him crisply with an elbow to the nose, sending a stream of blood down the guy's white shirt.


The officer retreated, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket as he backed toward the curtain. Tina, spotting another officer making his gallant approach, picked up a small carton of mascara and hurled it. The contents scattered as the box smacked the officer in the forehead, sending him down in a daze.


Frozen in fear for the few seconds it took for her attacker to ward off the officers, Lori shambled up the cartons of makeup and leaped to the rear of her fortification. Her eyes darted back and forth before catching sight of a trombone case. Her hands trembling, she picked up the black case as if to hurl it, but the clasps gave way and the brass instrument spilled to the stage with a clang-thump. Lori picked up the trombone and began flailing it wildly back and forth to keep her attacker at bay. The motion sent the trombone slide shooting out like a torpedo and caught Lori in the side of her mouth, stopping with a ping as it broke a tooth. Tina let out a growl, picked up the slide and calmly tossed it aside as she continued slinking like a puma toward the retreating Lori Pierce, who now found herself in a new fortification of black cases containing the Delon orchestra's instruments. In a frenzy, Lori picked up drumsticks, trumpet cases, music stands -- anything she could get her hands on -- and pitched them wildly at Tina, who immediately hurled back anything that came her way. Amid the chaos of crashing musical instruments came orderly musical notes in the tune "Ain't Misbehavin'."


It was Grigg, stage right, providing the accompaniment with his squeeze box. His shoulders rocked back and forth merrily as his fingers gingerly danced over the buttons, and there was a hint of a grin beneath his thick beard.


Grigg must have been through a couple of verses before Tina noticed. With a snare drum over her head and ready for launching toward Lori, Tina's eyes turned and focused on the radioman, who now seemed happily absorbed in his little concert. Tina let the drum fly, but Grigg spotted it at the last moment and ducked. His music never stopped even as the snare hit a tuba case behind his left shoulder with a thunderous crack.


Lori, wasting no time while Tina's back was turned, yanked a xylophone from a corner of the stage, threw off its cover and, tromping with the pointed tows of her sporty pumps, released the brakes on its casters. Emerging from her fortification, she lined up the instrument, took a couple of warmup pushes and then gave the xylophone a shove with everything she had, letting out a little "ugh" as she set it into motion.


The instrument caught Tina squarely in the small of the back just as she was turning around, still huffing from her exertion from hurling the drum. The force knocked her to one knee, giving the energized Miss Pierce just enough time to pick up a cornet and sent it whishing, end-over-end like a drum major's baton, just past Tina's head and plopping harmlessly into the stage curtain. Tina, back on both feet, was now hurling perfume boxes at Lori, who had jumped back behind her fortification. With the gentle rocking of the ship, the wheeled xylophone zigzagged chaotically about the stage, crashing into a piano and scattered remnants of the battle as the two women engaged in a full-scale exchange of the heavy artillery of horns, saxophones, cosmetics boxes and an occasional fiddlestick.


As the war raged, Joe, who had stood transfixed through the hostilities, walked toward a control panel at the rear of the stage, never taking his eyes off the two women. He pushed a button and the stage curtain slowly opened. Grigg took this as a cue to change tunes as well as instruments. He set down his squeeze box and picked up a penny whistle he had tucked in his white jump suit, and launched into the William Tell Overture. The 50 or so spectators who had gathered in the ballroom applauded wildly, some clapping their hands over their heads. But the final act was yet to come.


Now totally possessed by her fury, Tina high-stepped toward the piano and, without losing a furry pink slipper, clambered to the top, her toes striking a devilishly fearsome chord as they tromped on the low keys. In a leap she was on top of Lori, who was unable to back away because of the fortress of instrument cases that surrounded her.


With her beefy legs astride the smaller Lori Pierce, Tina picked up a stray trumpet, its bell dented and misshapen by the fight, and lifted it over her head just as Grigg was just building up to the high-pitched crescendo of the overture.


What was Tina going to do with that trumpet? I felt myself moving toward the women, sensing something awful was about to happen. But my legs seemed mired in quicksand, just like in a dream when I try to run from a bear or wolf and can't. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Joe, Shields, an officer, begin to move toward the tangled combatants.


But before anyone could get close to her, Tina's fingers let go of the trumpet, which dropped harmlessly behind her back. Her chest heaving, Tina rose and stepped over the dazed Lori, and shuffled a few steps to the side of the stage. The music had stopped and everything was silent, until, with one last burst of fury, the betrayed beauty snatched Grigg's concertina by its leather handle, flung it open and twirled it lasso-style a couple of times before letting it fly. This time, it was I who had to duck for safety, letting the squeeze box sail by and crash into a wooden music stand. It slithered to the floor with a final weak, pathetic wail of notes, its bellows tattered and utterly destroyed.


The death of Grigg's squeeze box brought a ghoulish laugh from Tina, who howled louder and louder by the moment. In the background came a steady clop-clop-clop of shoes up the stairs, then across the stage, accompanied by a heavy odor of perfume and a burning cigarette. It was Nurse Connie D. Frank. Expressionless and looking straight ahead, she kicked instruments out of her path as she walked toward the reeling Tina Kane. She reached into her small black bag and produced a syringe.


"Curtain," the nurse ordered sternly, a lipstick-tattooed cigarette dangling from her mouth. "This won't hurt, love," she said in a businesslike monotone as she lifted Tina's bathrobe and gave her an injection.


As the maroon curtain closed, Connie helped the woozy Tina to the stage floor, where the fighting pink lioness finally slumped harmlessly. Joe began picking up the instruments, an officer went to help Lori Pierce to her feet, and the rest of us slinked, eyes downcast, from the stage.




Grigg was fingering his new concertina, blowing out a chord now and again as we sat at Jose's bar.


"Needed to upgrade anyway, you know. This will fill the ticket, sure," said Grigg.


"What ever inspired you to play that squeeze box while that rumble was going on?" I asked Grigg before taking a final swallow of my beer. "Not that the music was bad."


"Why did you bring a pencil and paper?" the quiet radioman responded. "It's what we do. You write the story. I provide the musical accompaniment, all for the big play that goes on and on. Aye, as the bard said, it's all a stage." He nodded toward the Majestic II, looming at the docks outside the dingy window of Jose's. "Especially on her."


We gathered up our shopping bags and headed across the street, under the elevated highway and back toward the gangway. Far above our heads, the Boat Deck railing was already lined with waving passengers, even though there was still an hour to go before sailing.


As we walked down the pier, I felt a little more like part of the ship, recognizing many of the crew and officers headed back to the Majestic. I waved to Ivan and Terry, our waiters, nodded to James and Howard from the casino. A number of band members among the stream of staff headed to the gangway carried black instrument cases back to the ship.


"It'll be a good week for the music shops in Manhattan, won't it?" observed Grigg. "The rentals, the repairs -- the money. They'll think we hit another hurricane. But, ah, the show must go on. Carry on, mate."


I said so-long and headed straight to the office, avoiding the excitement on deck as sailing time drew closer. It was time to get to work. As I unlocked the door and swung it open, I noticed two envelopes on the carpet. Ah, fan mail. I set my bag of beer, newspapers and Slim-Jims on the floor.


Inside was the larger envelope was mysterious Lefty's latest contribution, a cartoon showing an overweight woman with a medieval mace slung over her shoulder and a hand clutching a piccolo. One eye was black and a sleeve from her bathrobe was torn off, baring a beefy arm sporting a skull-and-crossbones tattoo. One of her fuzzy-slippered feet was propped in triumph on the belly of a woman lying prone on the floor. In the background, were scattered horns and drums, and a stage curtain rapidly closing. "How's that for a REAL makeover, Dearie?" said the caption.


Attached was a small note: "Too impertinent, perhaps? Won't be `hurt' if you can't use. Cheers, L."


"No way this'll get in," I said half aloud, barely able to hold back a smile. "Our ass'll be grass."


In the next envelope was an invitation, written with a fountain pen in neat backhand script.


"Dear Editors,


"Would appreciate if you would please come by the Galley office, Upper Deck forward, any time soon, to discuss `beauty spa' menus.


"Yours,


"Chef Nigel Batterstoke"


The word that stuck out was ``soon,'' never mind the ``any time.'' I would wait for Sal's return, I decided as I wondered whether Batterstoke would prefer us fried, pureed, steamed or just chucked into a big soup. I threw my coat on a chair and tuned in the receiver to WINS. It was such a treat to be able to load up on news in a news-crazy port where a thousand stations screamed the headlines, rather than having to scrounge for tidbits as we sometimes have to do at sea, tuning the dial with a safecracker's concentration to pull in faint BBC or VOA signals. Tomorrow's paper would be cake.


I paged through the Times and News, sat at the typewriter and propped Lefty's cartoon against the lamp. Nah. No rumble story today. And no rumble cartoon.


"Cleveland, on the verge of defaulting on loans, is preparing to lay off city employees in an effort to dodge bankruptcy ... " came the lead of the first story.


"Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza continues to cling on to power amid efforts to oust him ..." I was rolling.


"The French government is offering cash bonuses to families with three or more babies. President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, citing the declining birth rate ... " Something light for the front page.


"Anybody home?" The door swung wide open and Sal was back, a big smile on her face and a shopping bag in her arms. "How's the paper coming?"


"Good. What did you bring? Some Christmas decs for the office?"


"Close. What did I always make for Christmas dinner?" She pulled out a big box of lasagne noodles. "Ta-ta. I was in an Italian grocery, Profenno's, and the aroma, ah, Mama mia!, I just couldn't resist. Dottie and Danielle are just dying to try my lasagne. They're sure I can use the ovens in the Chinese laundry below decks ... "


"Why not the main galley?" I asked, handing her the note from Chef Batterstoke. "Maybe you can use it when we visit." There was a slight pause as she read the note.


"When should we go?" she asked as she set her bag on the desk.


"They're doing dinner now. Too busy," I said. "Let's go down tomorrow. You can get that mozzarella and cottage cheese and stuff into a fridge tonight. And -- shoo-eee -- I can smell that garlic now. Guess we're safe from vampires tonight."


"Smart. Why don't I start on some pages?" said Sal, walking to the closet to get some layouts. "Did you knock these over?"


The stacks of page dummies had fallen over and lay scattered on the carpet. Sal straightened them up, grabbed a few and walked back to her desk to start designing pages for the next day's paper. The ship's rocking toppled the stack, I thought. But we've been in port. Ah, next story. What's that despot doing in Tehran?


With the scent of garlic filling the office, we filled pages quickly, with interruptions now and then by passengers stopping by the deckside windows and peering in for a moment before meandering off or heading back to the railing. By this time, the sun was touching the horizon over New Jersey and streamers of various pastel colors cascaded from the Boat Deck, forming the ship's only tie to the pier. Passengers called to friends and families on land, waved, cheered, threw kisses and raised champagne goblets. John Delon's band's swing numbers, played on newly tuned and rented instruments in the Quarterdeck Ballroom, sounded over loudspeakers on deck. As the first notes of "Anchors Aweigh" came through, our 72,000-ton city of steel began to inch ever so slowly from Gotham's concrete finger toward the Hudson's channel. The deep hoot of the ship's whistle sounded for five seconds, officially bidding farewell to the port. A wave of indigo crept westward across the sky as our trusty tugs hove the Majestic to, muscling her bow in a slow arc toward the south. Toward the Caribbean.


As the crowd on deck began to thin out, Sal and I found places at the railing to watch the metropolis go by. Silently we watched until Ambrose's light reflected from within the wake off the grand ship's stern. The cool air didn't bother us; we knew we would be skipping winter.


Inside, the hordes had already made their way to the dining rooms for their first dinner of the world cruise. We still had to finish tomorrow's newspaper, so we decided to skip the formal sitting and order some sandwiches later. I popped open a beer and squeezed a Slim Jim from its plastic wrapper as I sat at the desk and flipped on the radio.


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© By Buzz Adams