Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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8


The festivities hadn't ceased with the sendoff from New York. As the Majestic II plowed her way down the Eastern Seaboard, the bands played into the night, sending an odd mix of disco, fortyish sounds and calypso beats throughout the ship. Now finished with tomorrow's edition, we stacked up the page mock-ups and copy and headed down to the printers', only to be drawn aft toward the Gallery where the sounds of brass filled the air. Passengers gazed over the railing toward the huge dance floor a deck below, where a band of Caribbean musicians tooted their trumpets to the tune of ``Feliz Navidad.''


Over and over, the same verses poured out like warm rum over ice, enticing the hundreds in the cavernous arcade below into a dancing, hopping, clapping and singing frenzy. Behind the foursome on the stage was a Christmas tree, slightly tipped and decorated with a few strings of lights and shiny foil strands, somewhat irreverently symbolizing the occasion.


We watched for a few minutes, then walked past the crowded casino and through the booming disco bar at Upper Deck before heading below decks to the print shop, where a smeary, post card-sized photo of a Santa Claus bent over and mooning toward the camera was taped to the door. Inside, Blue was hunched over the press and MacIver was handing him a socket wrench.


"The bleedin' 17 millimeter! This is a 13," Blue told MacIver, who sneered and mumbled an insult as he bent over a battered, red tool case at his feet.


"Ah, und wot've the elves from tupseed brut us good little lads?" MacIver said as he noticed us. "A four-pager, I hope."


"Six pages, sorry," said Sal. "What's wrong with the press?"


"Inking bloody unit's frigging up again, piece of shit it is. I don't want to have to stop it halfway through the run as usual," said Blue, picking up a rag to wipe inky grease from his hands. 	"Hope you don't have too much copy tonight, eh? Got everything all there? Pictures? Crossword? Adverts? Lots of pictures I hope. Everything fits?" said Blue, leafing through the stack of flats and copy. "Hate setting that type."


"It's all there," I said. "All fits, or should anyway."


"Good." Blue set the stack on the table and pulled a packet of tobacco and papers from the pocket of his white coveralls. "You, too?" he asked as he rolled a couple of cigarettes in about nine seconds.


"Sure."


"So. Hell of a way to spend Christmas Eve, isn't it?"


"It's different. Where are you from?" Sal asked.


"Ah, all over, mostly Liverpool," said Blue, exhaling a gray puff of smoke. "How do you like that tobacco? You Americans and those pansy cigarettes."


"It's OK," I said, feeling slightly lightheaded after a big drag. "You have a family?"


"Just me folks. I'm not married. Wouldn't do well with this gig, you know? Three months on and a month off. Half the crew go back as drunks, the rest as strangers in their own homes. Isn't that so, Jack?"


"Scouse," MacIver growled. "That's what we call 'em from Liverpool."


"And how about you, Jack? Where's home?" asked Sal.


"Glasgow when I'm not on this floating sweatshop. Some fine day I'll go back for good, sooner th' better."


"It can't be that bad," said Sal. "This is the Majestic, after all."


"For you, it's the Majestic. For us, it's work, drink, sleep, work, drink, sleep, three months at a time. Maybe a bit of time off at the ports. But no buffet tables, gourmet restaurants, shuffleboard and cocktail parties down below. This is steerage, man," said Blue. "Come on, I'll walk you through. Jack, we'll be back in a shake."


"Aye. Teak a thoosand shakes," said the Scotsman, reaching into his pocket and pulling up a silver flask.


Blue led us out the door and down a narrow steel stairway to the Eight Deck corridor. The dimly lit passageway was lined with tiny cabins -- I knew they were tiny because the doors were so close together -- and the odor of cigarettes, booze and oil loomed in the close, warm air. None of the light pastel wall designs, polished teak trim and carpeting common throughout the topside decks, only shadows, mazes of pipes overhead and a greasy, metal deck below our feet.


Blue stopped at one door and tapped, then knocked on another and again got no answer. We walked a few more steps and unlocked his own door, marked by a nude magazine pinup, and swung it open.


"Two of us stay in this little rabbit hutch," said Blue. "We call 'em niners. Nine by nine feet." The room was just big enough for a couple of cots, dressers and a bar to hang clothes on. There was no bathroom -- the common head was down the hall -- and no porthole.


"You can go days without getting outside. Without even seeing the sky or sea," said Blue. He smiled. "Isn't this majestic? Come along."


We continued down the corridor, zigzagged this way and that and entered one of the crew galleys, equipped with a big black stove, a stainless steel refrigerator and a long, wooden table and benches.


Then, up another narrow stairway, around a corner and forward to the Pig. Or more formally, the Piggin Whistle, one of the crew bars.


The wide door at the entry was propped open, and looking inside, I could see that the room was about as far forward on the ship as you could get. The walls, covered by fading tan paint, formed a pie-shaped wedge from the rear, where there was enough room for the rough wooden bar, a couple of casino-gambling machines and a couple of tables. At the opposite end, far forward, only a few feet separated the side walls. The motion of the ship was also quite noticeable here; even on a relatively calm night, you could feel the vessel's pitching constantly. It was like being in an elevator that goes up and down nonstop between two floors.


"Lager or bitter?" asked Blue. Having learned my lesson on ordering beer, I was quick to respond, "Two lagers. Pints."


"Oh, very good," came a voice from behind us. Perhaps a half dozen crewmen were in the Pig, sitting at tables playing cards, smoking cigarettes and chatting.


I reached for some money, but Blue assured me it was no good here because only chits, payable by crew members, were used. We raised our pint pots and took long swallows of the golden, slightly warm beer.


"Merry Christmas, Blue," said Sal.


He wished us the same, then walked to the juke box and dropped in a couple of coins. He smiled as Bing Crosby sang the first few words of "White Christmas."


"Yankees! Bloody colonials in the Pig, now this must be a first, isn't it, Blue?" said the same seaman who had spoken up before. He got out of his chair and approached the three of us, his knees bending and flexing to take up the up and down movement of the deck. Blue said nothing and just rolled another cigarette from his Drum packet.


The guy was about 40, wearing denims and a hooded sweatshirt and was several days behind on shaving. A strong smell of alcohol emanated from his breath as he spoke in a gravelly voice.


"How about it Blue?" he said with a mischievous grin. Blue took this as a cue to introduce us to the seaman, Archie Toth. Only Blue pronounced the last name "tooth."


"So, editors, then." He focused on us with one bloodshot eye, his other stuck in a squint, and took an extra long look at Sal.


"Yankee editors on an English ship. Now that's a bloody twist." Archie burst into a momentary guffaw, then zeroed in on us again.


"Do us a bit of a favor down here. Get some football scores in that paper. We don't mind if you put in all that rubbish about Tehran and strikes and all. But just get us some football. You know, British football. And cricket too, eh?"


"Sure. We'll get them in," I promised, somewhat nervously. The guy didn't seem like an outright threat, but he wasn't overly friendly either. I remembered I was packing a Slim-Jim, so I offered it as a peace token.


"Wot? Do you bloody smoke it?" he said, scrutinizing the package.


"No. Peel the wrapper off -- no, better yet, bite it off -- and eat it."


"Eat it? It looks like a salted dead cod. Why, it looks like your Hampton, Charley, after a night out in Soho," he called to a mate at his table before bursting into another bellow of laughter.


"No. Bite it and chew. It's good. I think so, anyway."


I was getting the hairy eye again, but Archie nevertheless peeled the wrapper and nibbled.


"Like eating a cigar ... sucking on a dead fish," he said, both black eyebrows going down in unison, before chomping off another piece. "Bloody Americans. Best thing we even did is cut you loose. Ta." Archie want back to his table, holding his Slim-Jim as if it were a cigar about to explode.


Blue got the final swallow of lager out of his glass as the final lines of "White Christmas" played, signaling it was time to get back to work. Despite the slight discomfort brought on by the ship's pitching, I considered it my duty to get all of my lager down -- and even finished Sal's -- to avoid insulting my host or inviting more jibes from Archie. I nodded to Archie and the others in the Pig and we followed Blue back to the print shop.


Sal and I took the lift back to Upper Deck and, with no particular destination, took a stroll. There was, after all, still so much more ship to explore.


Most of the passengers were at one or another of the band shows, in the Theatre for the evening movie, in the casino or hanging out in one of the nightclubs or pubs to await the midnight buffet in the Parisienne. We ducked into the Blue Star nightclub, a secluded, intimate little spot tucked into a quiet portside corner just forward of the Midships Lobby on Quarterdeck. The walls were covered by diagonal strips of mirror, separated by black strips of wood that matched the tiny, ebony-topped, chrome-trimmed tables. Each table had a little lamp, and the only other lighting was from a subdued glow of bulbs fixed under the overhang of the bar and under soffits running the width of the walls just below the ceiling. Blending into the darkness under his navy blue uniform of the day was our friend Hallsford, who caught our attention with a wave of his hand and called us to his table. While a male-female duo harmonized in "Yellow Bird" from the little stage, we chatted for a few minutes with Hallsford and the young lady he was escorting. We promised to catch up with them later and continued our walk.


We kept to portside, stopping now and again to watch the moon rise from the eastern horizon over the ocean, its glow becoming brighter as it began making its arc across the sky. Things were beginning to quiet down in the ship's public rooms; John Delon's band show had wound down in the Quarterdeck Ballroom, where musicians were packing their rented and newly repaired instruments. A few stray passengers passed us in the corridor, politely nodding as they walked back toward midships.


We walked a few more steps, and I pushed open the glass door to the game room, a broad, bright corridor running the length of the ballroom, but separated from it by a wall of glass panels and ivory-colored drapes. Lined with pinball machines and a half dozen ping pong tables, the game room by day was a noisy preserve for young pinball jockeys, set free with bulging pockets of quarters into their own little worlds of splendor and wild abandon. But the young gamesmen were in their cabins at this hour, and only one person was competing against a machine. No mistaking who he was, with the four bold, gold stripes on his epaulets and jacket cuffs. He was the captain. And he was singing "MacArthur Park" as he played Space Invaders, the game Gordon Woodsome loathed, believing it would bring down Western civilization.


Standing almost at attention in front of the computer game, the ship's master was oblivious to our presence as we slowly approached, his stare fixed laser-like to the screen, his fingers welded to the control panel. The captain was tall, about six-foot-three, and looked late-fiftyish with his gray hair that was combed to the side with a swooping curl about the temple.


"Spring was never waiting for us, girl," he sang, before interjecting, "Hah! You're dust!" And then the melody went on, "You ran one step ahead, as we followed in the ... Blast you, infernal vermin!..."


"Captain?" I said.


"Ah, yes, just a moment, my base is under attack just now."


The machine was sounding an ominous "Dum, dum, dum, dum" in increasingly rapid cadence, as the captain's fingers directed volleys of blinking greenish beams at the attacking aliens. I had to see this display, having seen no game more sophisticated than something called "Pong" on a TV screen. Ever so slowly, I slunk closer to the screen, keeping quiet as I observed the battle.


"I don't think I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that ... Zam! Idiot mutant! ... recipe again, oh no, oh n-o-o ... "


There was a pause as the "Dum, dum, dums" were silenced, but the captain had lost his extraterrestrial battle. His defense bases at the bottom of the screen had been laid to utter waste by the attacking aliens.


"Blast it. Next time, you shall pay, dear vile cretins," said the captain as he took a deep breath and backed a half step from the machine, pulling his big hands from the controls.


"A matter of time, and I shall prevail," he said with a slight smile as he turned toward me.


"Excuse me, sir?" I said.


"An elevated degree of manual dexterity, that's all one needs to subdue these little rascals." He paused. "Such magic, these machines. Have you had a go?"


Before I could answer, he had extended his hand to Sal and, bending slightly with a gentlemanly air, introduced himself.


"Heathcliffe Goodrow, master of the Majestic II. And you are, of course ... "


"Anna Maria, oh please, just Sal McGeehan, ship's editor. And my husband, Michael."


"Pleasure, Captain," I said, shaking his hand. "So, why aren't you in the bridge steering her?"


"Ah, no need. Steers herself. The wonders of modern navigation, you know. Satellites and computers to keep her on course. Loran, bow thrusters and stabilizers to keep her steady and make getting in and out of tight places easy. Full backups for radar and sonar. Plus my staff to double-check course and positioning. Shall we walk?" We started to step slowly toward the glass door as the captain continued.


"Did you know she has 16 watertight compartments? Each is monitored at a computerized control panel, so, in the event of some unfortunate occurrence, the watertight doors separating each portion slide snugly to. You shall notice, as time goes by, how they work, as we hold occasional drills. I do hope you take part. The satellite navigation finds our position, storm or calm seas, within the length of, oh, a football field. No, strike that, a pencil. Then the computers keep us on course. Couldn't get lost, I reckon, if we tried. You have been to a lifeboat drill, of course?"


The question caught me off guard. Instead of lying, I let Sal come up with an answer, but Goodrow graciously continued.


"Most important, those drills. Anyway, she's the jewel of the seas, last of her kind with her displacement and such, and first of her kind with such advanced technical design. You might say she's a little city, and I'm the mayor. Like her so far?"


"Wonderful," said Sal. "The shops, the people, the ports. We loved England, but we're anxious to see what's ahead. We'd love to see the bridge ..."


As she spoke, Peter, the navigation officer we had met during the storm in the Ward Room, approached and politely asked the see the captain for a moment. I could see Sal straining her ears as I backed slowly to catch another glimpse of the Space Invaders screen. Even as I stepped back, I could hear Peter mumbling something about "Number Two boiler ... she's weak ... ship won't do 29 knots ... " He seemed to be asking for a directive.


Capt. Goodrow looked toward the deck in front of him, silently nodding and rubbing his chin as the first officer spoke. A few seconds after Peter had finished reporting what I gathered to be bad news about one of the three boilers in the ship's power plant, the captain quietly told the officer to "put her down to 23" and "straighten the angle to Barbados," our next call. "I'll be up shortly."


"Very good, sir," Peter snapped crisply, before turning and heading off. Remembering his cruise ship manners, he stopped at the glass door and bade Sal and I a good evening. The captain turned to Sal and continued their conversation, as if there had been no interruption.


"Jolly good, the bridge. We shall see about making arrangements," he said. "Now, one minor matter." He paused, I surmised for effect. "That little scene, regarding Miss Kane, I'm sure you have heard. Dreadfully unfortunate. I'm glad to see you've chosen not to print anything about it. A very gracious course, I must say."


The man was a true politician. No wonder he got along with Slinky Furbish, I thought.


"It's been such a pleasure," he said, again offering his hand with the slight bow to Sal.


"Now, I must be running along to tend to a matter in the bridge. We'll meet again. Oh, and of course, a Merry Christmas."


He ambled off alone in measured strides, humming the melody to "MacArthur Park."



"I would have loved to ask him," Sal said quietly as we started our slow walk in the captain's wake. "What about the theft? What about the galleon? Do they know who took it? What about the ring? Just to see his reaction. He must know that we know, but everything is so, I don't know, so discreet around here. How many people haven't heard about the fight, really?"


"Like he said, he's the mayor and this is his town. Kind of sounds like something out of one of those old westerns, doesn't it?" I said.


"Maybe. But I'm going to find out about that golden boat and ring. Somebody on this ship knows," said Sal.


We had made our way back to Midships, where people were starting to abandon the bars and casino for the midnight buffet in the Parisienne. I was hungry for something better than a Slim-Jim.


Cooks in starched, spotless whites and wearing their puffy, white toques stood at both ends of a broad line of tables covered with huge platters of breads and rolls, sweets, meats, seafoods and salads. A platter of sumptuous cold lobster tails surrounded by smoked salmon and caviar canapes; salads of curried herring and marinated beets, and artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. A half dozen roast turkeys, garnished with red strawberry slices and green pepper cuttings; roast beef and ribs, hams, pickles and jellies. German chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, pastries and plum pudding. And in the center, a huge ice sculpture of a swan.


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© By Buzz Adams