Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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9

The Islands: TVs Overboard, Save the Rum


The midnight buffet had a Christmas celebratory air to it. Festive music was piped in to the sprawling dining room, and most of the dinner tables had been cleared away to make room for mobs of passengers eager to try out the late night fare. Lines were quickly forming in front of the amply stocked tables and cooks began dishing heaps of culinary specialties onto the china plates of the elegantly dressed passengers.


Spanish was clearly the second language on this voyage; a number of Venezuelans had boarded in New York for the first leg of the world cruise to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and then LaGuaira, the port of entry to Caracas. I struggled with little success to decipher what some of the South Americans were saying as they passed through the buffet line, but my high school Spanish was too blurry a memory to make out much of it.


"All right?" came a voice from behind us. It was Hallsford, with the standard British salutation for the American phrase, "How ya doin'?"


"Look who's at the top of the queue, will you," said Hallsford, now alone.


"Where's your date?" inquired Sal.


"An early night. Had to get back to her parents' cabin, you see. In the queue then, right at the lobster tails, that's Sir Philburton Dick. And his wife behind him, Lucy, or Lucinda, more formally."


I could see Sal silently flashing through the Commend List, drawing blanks on our subject, an elderly man with a silver-gray crew cut, a neatly cropped white moustache that was still long enough to curl up at the ends, handlebar-fashion, and a face almost as red as a radish. He was slightly stooped, and moved along slowly with the help of an ebony cane topped by a knob of ivory. The walking stick seemed a perfect complement to his outfit of black trousers, a white, waist-length double-breasted jacket that had a military cut to it, and black bow tie. Sir Philburton carefully leaned the cane against the tables with each deliberate step along the buffet line.


Lucy was much younger, perhaps by 30 years, and was attractive, with long black hair and a dark mole to the side of her nose. She appeared to be Filipino.


"A World War II hero of sorts in England," Hallsford informed us. "A lieutenant major in the army," continued Hallsford, pronouncing the man's rank the British way, LEFF-ten-ant.


"He helped direct commando raids in Norway and France, and later served in Burma in Allied operations against the Japanese. Had been captured once or twice, but managed to escape and help marshal enough straggling troops to repel Japanese attacks. Served under the shadow, you might say, of Lord Mountbatten ... "


Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten. First Earl Mountbatten of Burma," said a uniformed gentleman who approached. He wore four gold stripes on his epaulets, with thin silver ribbons between each. "Officer Hallsford is quite correct," the senior officer continued in his proper British accent. "Sir Philburton indeed served with great distinction, under one of Britain's most distinguished. Let me introduce myself ... "


Hallsford picked up the cue and introduced us to D. Harbold Rickards, the ship's purser, in effect Brighton Line's financial controller on board, the man in charge of keeping track of this floating luxury hotel's money. In a way, Rickards had more sway than the captain. Despite his spit-polished, formal demeanor, the black-haired, bespectacled purser seemed affable and easy-going enough; he was even chatty and at times self-effacing.


"Our distinguished guest Sir Philburton has sailed with us perhaps two dozen times and at least on two world cruises. You might say he's one of the family. Over the years he's collected a chestful of medals and received countless honors, but he's not the sort to make a show of it. He's a private man, eh?, prefers to keep to himself. Funny, most of those who recognize him on board, the British in particular, respect his privacy and let him be. The rest simply would not recognize him and treat him like anyone else, which is, as I say, just as he prefers. He must be well into his 70s by now," said Rickards. "'ave you met Captain Goodrow?"


Before I could say something indiscreet, like we had just seen him humbled by imaginary computerized aliens while he sang "MacArthur Park," Sal chimed in, saying we had become acquainted and that we had talked about making a visit to the bridge.


"And such a shame about the boiler," she said. "I hope it doesn't throw us off the itinerary. We're still on course for St. Thomas?"


Rickards' black eyebrows jumped slightly above the top of the frames of his horn-rimmed glasses.


"Oh, by all means" said Rickards, smiling. "Of course, I'm just the purser, you know. I don't steer her. Now, after St. Thomas, some adjustments in scheduling may be called for, perhaps not. But that's, how do you say, off the record."


Hallsford, sensing his boss needed a quick change of conversational course to get out of the verbal shoals into which Sal had steered us, motioned us over to the buffet line.


"And do you like the cuisine on board?" said the purser as we took our plates.


"Wonderful," said Sal, taking little helpings of sweets while I loaded up on lobster, salad and roast beef. "The selections are marvelous and it's hard sometimes to make a choice from the menus. If only there were more Italian dishes. That's just me, of course. I grew up in an Italian family, you see, and I love to cook pasta."


"So funny," said Rickards, poking a jumbo shrimp in dip and sloshing it around a bit. "I'm a bit of an aficionado myself. Ah, to have a plate of lasagne. I used to sail with a line that called at Mediterranean ports, and the ... "


"You're on!" said Sal.


"On?" repeated Rickards, smiling.


"I shopped at a place called Profenno's in New York and picked up a few things I'm anxious to whip up into a real feast. Let's just say it will be a slight variation from the usual ship's fare."


"I'll be delighted," said Rickards.


The conversation drifted on until the crowd in the Parisienne began to thin out and Rickards, professing surprise at the time as he looked at his watch, said he must retire for the night.


He had barely stepped away before Sal started quizzing Hallsford about the change in scheduling. With one boiler on the blink, said Hallsford, it was decided to scuttle the slightly westward course to LaGuaira. Instead, we would steam due south and follow the Antilles to Barbados, where a crew of pipefitters was already on call to fix the boiler. We would in all likelihood make up for lost time on the next leg of the voyage, to Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil.


Of course, Brighton would fly the suddenly displaced Venezuelans back to Caracas from Barbados, said Hallsford.


"But they still won't be very happy," he said with a devilish smile.


It seems many of the Venezuelans had bought color TV sets for dirt-cheap prices in New York, with plans to carry them ashore in LaGuaira. Venezuela had an extraordinarily high duty on foreign sets which, in effect, made them twice as expensive as the domestic makes. But with customs officers in the shipping port notoriously easy to bribe, passengers expected no problem bringing their U.S.-imported TVS in. However, customs people at the airports were almost impossible to bribe, and those who could be demanded extortionary payoffs.


"When the Venezuelans find out we're not going to LaGuaira," Hallsford said, "it shall rain tellies overboard. Such a pity."


"Of course, you'll let the captain announce the new itinerary," said Hallsford, looking for reassurance.


"Sure, if you can tell us the latest about the galleon," said Sal, smiling.


Hallsford blinked and hesitated for a moment to collect his thoughts.


"I know it was very precious to the company, but, truthfully, I don't think they've got a clue what happened. The theft was so fast during that storm, and all of the burglar alarms on the ship were either kaput or buzzing. Only took a second or two for our thief."


Hallsford hesitated for another moment, and then continued, "Inspections are being done below decks in crew quarters. But suppose our crook was a passenger? Myself, I don't think it's on board any longer."



The gray clouds that had dominated the skies over the North Atlantic for weeks were breaking up, leaving ever-widening gaps of blue as we sailed farther south. Temperatures were getting more temperate and the cobalt tint of the ocean was giving way to a sun-sparkled azure. Winter had turned to spring overnight.


The sunshine splashing the decks teased passengers appearing in ever-larger numbers outdoors into removing their jackets and rolling up their shirt sleeves. More and more people were showing up on the shuffleboard court, jogging in sweat suits, relaxing in lounge chairs along the port and starboard decks and at the circular tables that formed a multi-colored polka-dot pattern around the pools. Protective nets over the pools would soon disappear and people would be swimming, but the hot tub was already fired up for the first few takers. Stewards were setting up the skeet-shooting area at the aft railing and, as if pitching a big army tent, were hoisting into place the golf driving range -- an enclosure of green canvas and netting over a square of plastic grass.


Black smoke from the funnel curled eastward before dissipating, miles off, in the steady ocean breezes. The Majestic swayed ever so gently as she bore south, the rocking creating a swooshing sound as the giant steel hull forced frothy white waves off her sides and into her wake.


From the open bridge deck below the helm and above the Ward Room, the skies ahead looked clear. Tankers and container ships dotted the horizon.


In our office, radio reception was almost perfect for short wave, and there were even some faint signals from the AM-FM bands in Georgia and Florida. The paper was well under way, thanks mostly to canned travel stories and pictures depicting St. Thomas as the one-time pirate haunt, and present-day shoppers' and beach-lovers' paradise.


Early afternoon seemed like the perfect time to answer Chef Batterstoke's note with a call. We easily found our way to the galley just forward of the Parisienne, and were directed down a wide corridor formed by the stainless steel counters and cases, refrigerators and freezers on one side, and black stoves and ovens on the other. Hundreds of well-used, but shining pots and pans of every possible size swayed to and fro from hooks above the food-preparation area, where cooks were busy making pastries, and preparing meats, sauces and soups. Aromas of a hundred kinds slithered through the air as we walked to the far end of the galley where the chef's office was tucked beyond an open pocket door in a corner.


Sal tapped gently on the jamb and the big man arose from his desk, slipping his wire-rimmed reading glasses into a white chest pocket as he held out a beefy hand. He was wearing a puffy toque, as was everyone in the galley.


"Yes, yes, yes, come right in," said Batterstoke, a tall and burly man -- not fat -- with reddish eyebrows. "So nice of you to come down, Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan."


There was a brief, uncomfortable pause as he gazed at us with his piercing blue eyes.


"You sent for us, sir?" I said.


"Of course, of course. I didn't mean to alarm you at all. Just wanted to say hello." There had to be more.


"Actually, one item I wished to discuss," said the chef, still beaming with a big smile. "Those ladies with the, what is it called, beauty spa cruise or whatever. I say they're going to drive us to madness. They've sent these diet menus down and my understanding is they were planning to have them printed in the Mail. Good job you're doing, by the way.


"In any case, we have a carefully planned menu for our passengers and try to do our best to honor their special requests. But if those menus get out to all the passengers, why, I'm not sure we're prepared to serve hundreds of their specialities." He stopped for a moment, turned, and snatched a couple of typewritten pages from his cluttered desk.


"Such as this one: leek, asparagus and potato frittata." His face screwed into a fitful, sour grimace. "Never could countenance leeks, personally, but that's beside the point. And these spinach souffles, really. Look at this, Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan."


The chef handed over a long invoice of food the ship took on in New York, showing 83,000 eggs, 215 pounds of caviar, 2,600 gallons of milk, 28,300 pounds of beef and 600 pounds of Kosher food. "You don't see leeks anywhere, do you?" he asked with a rumbling laugh, adding under his breath, "A ship's no place for leeks.


"It's not unusual in port to take on ten or so tons of fruit, and a like volume in vegetables. Leeks, they're always a chancy order."


"You might as well see this one, too, since the bills all come to me anyway, " the chef said as he handed over another pink invoice, showing the bars' incoming cargo: 12,000 bottles of beer, 1,260 bottles of champagne, 80 cases of scotch, 91 cases of vodka, 110 cases of gin and scores of cases of various other spirits.


"I hope there are no leeks in that order, eh?" he said, enjoying another pun with a joyous bellow.


"I didn't see any peanut butter or Ring Dings," I said.


"Sorry?"


"Just kidding Chef. Here, have one of these." I handed over the Slim-Jim I had smuggled into the galley in my pocket.


The chef fondled it a minute, then, with his eyes closed, gave it a sniff. Without another moment's hesitation, he squeezed the base of the wrapper, popping the skinny sausage out like a miniature rocket. He trapped it against his belly and lifted it to his lips, and again shutting his eyes, took a nip off the end. Once again in a state of culinary concentration, the chef munched rapidly, moving the little ball of processed meat about his mouth and sending his jowls into a bouncy jiggle.


"An odd texture, rather light but seasoned thoughtfully ... charming. Yes, charming," he finally declared. "Do all of you Americans eat these?"


I decided to accept his compliment as sincere while ignoring the question.


"A cup of tea, Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan?" The chef had already motioned to an assistant across the galley with a sweep of his hand, and within a couple of minutes the tray had arrived.


"You know," he said as he sipped from the cup, his bulbous pinky extended straight out, "to get these blasted leeks I'll have to broker something with the Chinese laundry men down below. Not a problem, mind you, those fellows are most cooperative and gracious. Insist on doing their own cooking, you know, and indeed they do a smashing job of it." He leaned forward and half whispered, "More than once I have enjoyed dining from their magic little woks. Love using those chopsticks too," he said with a scissors-like gesture of his fingers.


"Are the beauty spa women sticking to the diets they send down?" asked Sal.


Chef Batterstoke took a big swallow of tea and leaned forward again.


"You wouldn't believe their orders to room service. Blimey! The beef Wellingtons, Alaskan king crabs, lobster tails, oysters flambe, the chocolate mousse, raspberry scones and, well, I could go on and on. Not what I'd call beef and kidney pie lovers, you understand. An outright fiddle, if you ask me. But, of course, none of this is for print."


He tipped his cup to finish his tea and abruptly stated that he had to get about his work.


"Would there be a chance I could pop a lasagne into one of your ovens, just once, when it's not busy?" asked Sal.


"Of course, just give me a little notice," the chef said with a smile. "That Rickards, now, he'd kill for a lasagne. I just don't have time."


We shook hands and headed back through the galley, where the pace was already picking up for the evening's serving.




The newspaper had come together easily, thanks to the good radio signals and ample filler copy on St. Thomas. Dinner for me had been roast tenderloin of been with tarragon, smothered with sauteed mushrooms with arugula, while Sal had opted for the roast goose and apple crisp.


John Delon and the band were in full swing in the Quarterdeck Ballroom and Cecile Boucher and the dancers were doing their act in the Gallery. A magic act with card tricks, mind reading and the like was being staged in the smaller Admiral Nelson Pub, while early and late movies were being run in the Theatre. The bars and nightclubs were doing a booming business, and the casino was packed, with people lined two and three deep at the blackjack tables.


The ship was now taking on a more tropical look; officers had shed their navy blues and were decked out in the white uniforms signifying entry into warmer climates. And white, I thought with pleasure as we headed to the Ward Room at Hallsford's invitation, would be the official color for the weeks ahead. The tropics!


Gales of laughter over the sound of swing tunes of the ‘40s rang from the Ward Room as we approached. Inside, officers bellowing in hysterics formed a tight circle around three of their own dressed up as the Andrews Sisters in the trio's best-known outfits: khaki skirts, long-sleeved shirts and army caps, black ties and patent leather pumps. Each wore a rolled hairdo wig that reminded me of Lily Tomlin's getup in her phone operator schtick.


With scratchy sounds of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" playing in the background, the three saluted, sidestepped and twirled themselves around with near-perfect timing as if they were Maxine, Patty and Laverne themselves. Their well-rehearsed movements put them in a league, almost, with the Supremes in their prime.


The three barely took a breath before launching into the jitterbugging sound of "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," following it with "Rhumba Boogie" and "Rum and Coca-Cola."


Staff Capt. Villard was laughing so hard he had to be held up by a younger officer as the trio kicked, backstepped, pointed and gestured in unison, without missing a beat of the music.


Sal recognized one of the lip-synching sisters as Brian Hatch, the engineering officer we had met in Southampton. The second was Damon Shields, the cruise director, and the third was a crewman named Trevor Gages, who worked closely with the bridge officers in his duty maintaining the ship's 22 launches.


The party stretched into the wee hours of the morning, about the time the casino crowd started to spill out after a busy night. We remembered Cookie's invitation during dinner to her cabin for a little party as soon as the casino was closed for the night.


Walking into the place was like trying to elbow your way into one of those telephone booths college students packed during the ‘50s, only it was so thick with cigarette smoke it might as well have been a campus homecoming bonfire.


Everybody was smoking, and in the British style, offering each other a cigarette every time they lit up, inducing everybody to smoke even more.


The bathroom became the bar and no one seemed to mind the noise, cramped atmosphere and eye-searing haze. Soon, Hatch and Shields showed up, still in drag as the Andrews Sisters, but said they had lost track of the third member of their trio. We left about the time the crowd launched into sloppy, boozy verses of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and took a walk on deck to air out our lungs. I had, in truth, smuggled out a Rothman's offered to me by one of the bank guys, smoked it while we strolled and finally flicked the butt into the sea.


The predawn air was cool, showing promise that the day's temperatures would have even a more tropical glow. As the stars began to wash out in the first faint light of the day, we decided to go to bed.


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© By Buzz Adams