A Travel Mystery Novel

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The Majestic's anchors held her fast in the coral base of the jade-tinted bay, her bow facing Charlotte Amalie, the bustling port of St. Thomas. Several launches had been lowered from their davits, past the glimmering white superstructure and charcoal hull to the water to carry passengers to the quay about a half mile in the distance. A few puffy, good-weather clouds lazily meandered past, but the sky was blue and the temperature in the mid-80s.

Off in the distance, the white cruise ship Angelina Lauro, half the size of the mammoth Majestic, lazed in the sun, as dozens of catamarans and sailboats tacked their way around the bay and along the green, palm-lined shores of the island.

On our ship, anxious shoppers, beach-hungry couples and camera-toting tourists queued up at the main hatch at Five Deck, peering at the white buildings along the waterfront as they awaited their turns to get ashore. Crew members who had leave for the day would take their places when the line thinned out to get ashore and revisit their own special getaways. The white, palm-lined beaches at Morning Star, Frenchman's Reef and Lime Tree Bay had already begun to fill up with scores of passengers and officers who had made off on the earliest trips to the island.

The launches spilled hundreds into the narrow streets and alleys of Charlotte Amalie, still in a way the haunt of buccaneers it had been centuries earlier. Dozens of shops lining the cluttered streets and hideaway alleys tempted visitors with their stocks of cut-rate, duty-free liquors, an endless array of jewelry, tropical clothes and other blandishments that suck the green from tourists' wallets.

Passengers free from the confines of the ship jumped in awaiting taxis that would take them to the three-century-old Bluebeard's Castle, now an upscale hotel overlooking the harbor, and to the stone tower once occupied by the pirate John Teach. While well-heeled passengers took tables at the French restaurant L'Escargot, or the Mountaintop Hotel to sip rum-rich banana daiquiris and take in splendid vistas of the islands, crewmen took their places at the crusty seats of little hangouts like Dirty Dave's and the Bone Shed to swill cheap beer, watch the strippers await inevitable ganja deals in some dark corner.

Hallsford caught us as we stood in the queue awaiting the next launch wondering where we would go once we got ashore. He was with Hatch, who looked much better in a Dundee United soccer shirt and cutoffs than in an Andrews Sisters getup.

"So tatty there," said Hallsford. "Come along with us to St. John. It's but a short ferry ride. We'll have plenty of time. Last launches back are at six."

"A lot less people and not so built up," agreed Hatch, who had tucked a snorkel, diving mask and fins under his arm. "You'll see the difference at once. Have you got your swimsuits?"

Sal was wearing a bikini under her sun dress. My cutoffs would suffice, I figured. I carried a small satchel with money, a camera and a few other odds and ends.

Our turn finally came to board one of the 24-foot launches, and we took seats along the side as it quickly filled up. We were soon motoring to Charlotte Amalie, with a light mist from the small waves cooling us from the sun's rays.

At the quay, we boarded a taxi van that zigzagged its way through the clutter of stores and shopping centers around the port, up and down the hills on winding, narrow roads that took us through settlements of boxy, pastel cottages, parks and walled-in resorts. At one hilltop overlook where we stopped briefly, Hatch pointed to the Majestic anchored off in the bay. It looked almost like a toy out there, but still large enough to be an island to herself. A narrow stream of gray smoke drifted from her funnel, while wakes from the tiny launches formed broken white lines to and from the pier.

The taxi stopped at the quiet Redhook Landing on the eastern end of the 13-mile wide island. We were lucky; the ferry was waiting. We quickly paid our fare and ran to the boat.

We took places along the rail for our ride across Pilsbury Sound, watching flying fish shoot out of the water for brief trajectories across the surface, while St. John appeared ever larger, like a giant emerald popping out of the sea, as the ferry made its noisy 20-minute run toward the island.

Hallsford, usually talkative and outgoing, seemed quiet and pensive, while Hatch provided a running travelogue of St. John, smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hatch was going on about Cinnamon Bay, after describing in detail the merits of Caneel Bay and Trunk Bay on the island's north coast, when Hallsford interrupted.

"So what do you suppose happened to Gages, Brian? Have you heard anything?"

"Very odd. Nothing. Not in his cabin or anyone else's; no one's seen him since our little gig. The crew, they've looked everywhere, but not a blasted thing's been spotted -- well, except for that wig, right, David? Odd, quite odd, that," said Brian, shaking his head.

"Wig? Trevor Gages is missing?" said Sal. "Wasn't he ... ?"

"Right," said Hallsford. "The third Andrews Sister. After the party in the Ward Room -- poof! -- gone! Vanished! Like Brian's said, nothing but the bloody wig's left of him."

"Right," said Sal. "Only two of the sisters turned up at the cabin party that night, isn't that right, Mike."

"Yeah, but I was seeing double by then anyhow," I said. "I don't know how anyone could tell anyway, with all that smoke."

"He's no help. What do you think?"

The ferry had arrived at Cruz Bay at St. John's western tip. We followed the crowd off the boat and into the village, a haphazard collection of tiny shops and eateries surrounded by steep hills. The sounds of reggae music drifted through the air, while the smell of cooking chicken and fish wafted in and out with the gentle breezes. If there was any formality to St. Thomas, it was gone here. A couple of burned-out hippie types with long pony tails, ragged, sun-bleached clothes and backpacks at their feet sat at a makeshift bar open to the sidewalk sipping beers, while preppyish vacationers and businesslike locals meandered this way and that. No one, it seemed, was in much of a hurry to get anyplace.

We followed Hatch across the park and down a narrow way until he turned sharply and headed up a shaded alley, his steps sending a couple of chickens scrambling to the sides.

"Come along then. I'm just hiring a car for the day," he reassured us as he continued to walk across a dirt dooryard toward a wooden cottage with maybe a tenth of its original paint left on it. A man emerged with a creak and slam of the screen door, chewing what I suspected was an early lunch. I wondered if we were in the wrong place.

"Oh, bloody Britishers, not a way I hire to them. You know the way they drive always on the wrong side. Get back on your boat where you can't do no harm. Wait, how much money you got, man?" said the short, bald man in his Caribbean clip, his white shirt contrasting with his dark brown skin.

"Bandit just like them all," said Hatch, turning to us with a smile. "Not a bleedin' ha'penny until we see four wheels, and not one of your cranking, stalling, claptrap rebuilds either, you thieving old brigand."

The two drew closer and then stopped for a moment. Ready to turn, I wondered when the punches would fly. But the two shook hands like old friends which, evidently, they were.

"Clarence, bloody long time but you're still as ugly as ever. Still ripping off the tourists I see. Such a relief."

"Tourists, no. Just Brits," said Clarence with a big smile.

"You remember Hallsford. And two of our friends, Americans working on the ship, can you believe it?" said Hatch.

We shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries before Hatch and Clarence got down to business.

"So what you need? I've got a couple of nice little sedans, a convertible, or a Jeep maybe? Just for today? Come take a look."

We walked to a lot at the rear of Clarence's house and briefly checked out his fleet before Hatch decided on a flat-nosed four-seater with a pink-and-white striped canopy. We took care of the rental fee inside the house and Clarence handed over the keys.

"And stay on the right side," he reminded us with a grim smile as we drove off.

Past Cruz Bay, we stopped at a couple of turnoffs to get a glimpse of the sea, with St. Thomas off in the distance, before making our way into the thick, verdant forest of turpentine, fig, palm and other tropical woods. We turned off at Caneel Bay, and then moved on to Trunk Bay beach, before settling on the spectacular Cinnamon Bay. We wasted little time before the four of us were splashing merrily in the warm water, diving, rolling, floating on our backs and taking turns with Hatch's snorkeling gear to marvel at the coral and rainbow formations of tropical fish. We walked the length of the beach, stopping now and again to sit in the shade at the edge of the woods and abide the insects to get a reprieve from the sun's afternoon heat.

"Do you think he's out there?" said Hallsford as we sat on a mound of flattened coral facing the turquoise sea. "I mean, the bloke just vanished."

"We've had two strange things happen during the last several weeks. The galleon is nicked. Then a crewman -- as much of a suspect at this point, I suppose, as anyone on the ship -- he just disappears. I'm wondering if he had something to do with the bloody thing getting taken, got nervous, and just, well, jumped," said Hatch.

"What about the galleon? Does anyone have any idea where it could be?" said Sal.

"Hah! As much of a mystery as Gages himself. And believe me, they have looked high and low," said Hallsford. "The stewards and stewardesses are even checking where they can when they do the cabins, although passengers aren't really, uh, suspect. But for some reason, the office at Brighton is taking this very seriously."

"What do you mean?" said Sal.

"Evidently, it isn't just the value of the bloody little boat itself, although that's no small matter. Don't let this get around, though it probably will anyway: It contained some sort of royal jewelry that is considered right priceless. This whole business has some people very nervous. They're determined to find it, if it can still be found," said Hallsford.

His story was checking perfectly with Gordon Woodsome's. I trusted Gordon, but couldn't help asking whether anyone thought it was an inside job.

"I guess anything is possible," said Hallsford. "But the fellow that runs the shop, he's on leave now, Mr. Woodsome, very unlikely he had any hand in it. He isn't the type to make off with something like this to line his pockets. For one thing, he knows he'd be immediately suspected and likely caught. Second, Gordon, of all people, is quite conscious of the significance of this piece. Seeing it lost probably anguishes him more than anybody else. I think he considered himself sort of a sentry for the galleon."

I remembered the night I first saw it, Gordon standing in the background as if policing the area. He seemed to have such pride in having the galleon in his shop.

"What about the wig?" said Sal. "Where did they find it?"

"I found it. Right on deck, aft, near the rail. As if he took the thing off and jumped straight away," said Hallsford. "That's what's so damned troubling about all of this."

Nobody spoke for a while. We all watched silently as a trim ketch glided slowly a few hundred yards off the beach and anchored. The people on board were soon jumping from the deck and splashing about in the water. Hatch, as if taking a cue, suddenly burst from his place in the sand and ran full-speed into the sea, and we all decided to follow him for another dip.

Breathless from our swim, we decided to see more of the island, driving on to Maho Bay, then Coral Bay at the much drier east end of the island, where the lush, green woodlands gave way to a more forbidding, desert-like brown on the steep hillsides. We stopped at a little open-air cafe with a sagging canvas roof and dirt floor in John's Folly, a little settlement just above a stretch of desolate beach place called Drunk Bay, for a couple of rounds of cold beer and platters of the house specialty of the day: red snapper and turbot.

We followed the same route back to the west end, taking time for a walk through the forest to one of many stone remains of sugar plantations that had dotted the island centuries earlier. Back in Cruz Bay, things were moving just as slowly as ever when we returned the car to Clarence. We walked through the village for a while, then along the quay, where young boys lined the sides with their fishing poles and nets, and waited for the ferry back to St. Thomas. The boat arrived on schedule and we were soon back in a taxi headed for Charlotte Amalie. What a relief, I thought, to see the Majestic again, resting peacefully at anchor, still puffing away, launches still running, as we crested a hill on our way back to town.

"Think of it," Hallsford said quietly as we motored back to the ship, "all of this fuss over a single golden toy. In the 1600s, fleets loaded to their gunwales with gold and silver plunder -- whoosh! -- swatted under by a single gale, right in these waters. The riches, the vast plunder, that must be down there."

Hallsford spoke as if convinced the galleon had been tossed overboard, another treasure claimed by the deep forever. If he, and we, only knew where the little ship was really stashed, right at this hour: in a shoe box, inside a wall separating two Boat Deck cabins on the Majestic. A wall panel in the closet of one cabin had been carefully, quickly removed, and then replaced and secured once again with screws once the box was hidden away.

The closet was in the editors' office.

We were awakened by the tannoy, with Capt. Goodrow's voice booming loud and clear from the speaker in our cabin: "Good morning. If you will look to the portside, you will see we are approaching the island of Barbados. We have unfortunately canceled our call to LaGuaira, due to weather and other safety considerations. Those with scheduled tours to Caracas may exchange reservations for tours of Barbados. We regret any inconvenience, and do wish you a pleasant visit in Barbados. We shall be docking shortly. Officers and stewards shall be available as always to assist. Thank you," he announced in his snappy British clip.

Just as Hallsford had said: The boilers had to be fixed, so here we were: Barbados, so named, our travel story had explained, for the beardlike vines that grow on its native fig trees.

I got out of bed and looked out the porthole to get a glimpse of the island, although I suppose I wouldn't have known Barbados from LaGuaira -- or Madagascar or Prince Edward Island for that matter. The ship was moving slowly, without making the usual waves that splash foamy water across the porthole in a way that makes you think you're looking at the glass door of a washing machine going full tilt.

I was leaning forward to get a better view of the island when a descending black box of some sort blurred past the porthole just a few feet from my nose and hurtled into the water. With the sudden movement, I instinctively jerked back, tripped over the bed and landed on my back on the deck. I hopped back up and jumped to my feet was scrambling back to the porthole when I stubbed my toe on the base of the bed. I let out a groan and a string of vulgarities before hustling back to the porthole to see what had fallen from the decks above. Bobbing around in the water was a big TV set, its antennas thrust upward by the impact and, somewhat pathetically, forming a rough "V" sign in its demise.

"Sal! Just like Hallsford said. Get up! Look, it's raining TVS! Big color TVS!"

"What? Are you dreaming?" she said, rolling over and pulling the blanket over her head. "What in the world are you going on about? What were you drinking last night?"

I pressed my nose against the porthole, and another one hit, a 21-inch screen, I guessed. RCA. Maybe a Zenith.

Sal crawled slowly from the bed and pushed her face against the porthole.

"Watch. There have to be more," I promised. Patiently, she looked, rubbed her eyes, and stared out again, only to see the waves rolling by.

"What did the captain say? Isn't that Barbados over there?" she said, still half asleep.

Her head jerked back as another TV set cannonballed into the water, sending a big splash against the hull and porthole.

"God. My Uncle Louie saved for years to buy a TV," she said in disbelief. "Now they're throwing them to the fishes."

I kept staring out the porthole but Sal quickly lost interest and headed toward the shower. "I guess Flipper and Charlie Tuna can watch themselves now," she said dryly as the bathroom door

shut behind her.

She had regained enough interest after breakfast to join me at Quarterdeck aft to watch the grand finale of the television toss. Some of the passengers had appeared on deck with big sets in their arms to make the effort themselves in a kind of protest against the sudden change in itinerary. Others paid stewards to do the deed. It was hard to count how many TVS were tossed by angry Venezuelans unwilling to pay the inevitable luxury tax on their new purchases, because they sank rather quickly, but an officer who had been watching the bizarre activity from its start told me he counted 50 or 60 flying overboard.

"Why didn't they just sell them to other passengers?" Sal asked him.

"I really don't know. Too mad, I reckon. Or they just didn't know English," he sniffed haughtily before walking off, shaking his head.

Because we would soon be in a port where English-language newspapers were sold, no Majestic Mail was scheduled for the day. We had a day off, yes, but decided nonetheless to put together some back pages for the following day's edition. Sal was writing a story about Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, and I was doing layout when the cabin door swung open.

A candy-apple red toy Corvette whizzed into the office, made a tight loop, backed up, and then darted straight toward my desk before coming to a stop. In walked Grigg, the radio controls in his hand and a big smile on his bearded face.

"So, what about a quick Scrabble match before we dock?" Grigg said. "It'll be an hour before we can walk off."

We cleared a desk, broke out the game and were just mixing up the tiles when a manila envelope appeared from under the door. Sal walked over and opened what turned out to be the latest dispatch from Lefty.

The cartoon showed a fish dressed in a WACs outfit jumping from the water next to the ship. "Gawd, but she looks familiar," a pointing officer says in the caption.

"Everybody knows Gages in missing," said Grigg. "Everybody. You're not going to print that, are you?"

Grigg was right; the hour-long Scrabble game was in its final plays (with our visitor trouncing us) while the ship was being nuzzled up to Bridgetown's huge, L-shaped quay by a pair of tugs. It was only a few minutes before she was tied up and the first officers walked off, passing a legion of engineers, pipefitters and boilermen dressed in white coveralls and carrying tool cases toward the ship. Their work below decks on the crippled Number Two boiler was about to begin.

From the Boat Deck, we watched the ship disgorge her motley band of passengers and crew to the broad, uncovered pier that shimmered under ripples of heat in the ferocious midday sun. Grigg, in a gesture of good sportsmanship, fetched three Heinekens from the bar at the Lido Deck and returned to where we watched the parade march forth. Sen. Furbish and Dandy, met by a white Mercedes near the gangway; our waiters, Ivan and Terry, on leave for the day; Cookie, Dottie, Danielle and Fiona in short sun dresses; Nurse Frank under a big straw hat; James and Howard from the casino; Lucinda, without her husband Sir Philly; band members, entertainers, stewardesses, barbers and shopkeepers among the crowds of passengers.

A bus, then another, and finally a third, turned up to fetch the Venezuelans, still fuming from the change in itinerary. We watched as they handed over their luggage and then stomped up the steps of the buses that would take them to the airport. One man carried a small TV to the side of the pier, set it down, and gave it a soccer-style boot into the harbor as a final demonstration of his angst before walking slowly to the waiting bus.

Many passengers, of course, stayed aboard and swam, sunbathed around the pools or sipped cocktails under the shade of overhanging decks while stewards flipped burgers, roasted hot dogs and dished out big bowls of fruit salad.

"They're all going to Paradise Beach," said a man who joined us at the rail. "Me, it's time for my pepper fix. You'll all come along, then."

He was short, black-skinned with rather straight, long hair, and wore a thick moustache. He was wearing a white jump suit that was the working uniform of technicians on board.

"Clement Sevigny, electrician. And you are the editors, correct?" he said.

"Sorry,'' said Grigg, "didn't see you sneak up." He made the introductions formally. "You're going to town, then?"

"Only if you'll join me. Ten minutes, and we shall meet at dockside. What do you say?" We agreed, then hustled back to our cabins to change clothes for the short trip to Bridgetown.

We met at the gangway and made the quarter-mile walk to the end of the pier, where a steel drum band was finishing its performance of Caribbean tunes to welcome the ship. In a little duty-free shop near the customs house at the top of the quay, huge supplies of Mount Gay rum, marked at 85 cents a liter, tempted passers-through.

Clement, Sal and I, and Grigg, his Corvette tucked under his arm and radio control tucked in his side pocket, jumped in a taxi and sped off toward town.

"Have you been in London?" asked Clement. His accent was fine-tuned, proper British.

"Not yet," said Sal. "We planned to go, but got sidetracked. And you, Clement, you know the city?"

"Oh, indeed. I am from Seychelles originally, but when I was young I was adopted by a captain from the Pacific & Orient line and taken to Britain, now my home. I was schooled just outside of London. Like my dad, I wanted to go to sea, and trained in electronics. So here I am," he said with a smile. "And here we are. Look."

As the taxi took us into the center of Bridgetown, my attention was drawn by a canal jammed with fishing boats and the hodgepodge of tile-roofed houses covering a hillside. We passed the Government House, where I noticed the independent island's flag, dark blue vertical bars at each end and a golden stripe down the middle, marked with the head of Neptune's trident. Clement tugged at my elbow and pointed out the window.

"Look. Bridgetown's own Trafalgar Square, a kind of small model of London's. Sort of makes me feel at home. And even a statue of Lord Nelson." The island had been settled by the British in the early 1600s and it was the maritime hero Nelson who kept his country's sugar profits from going to its longtime arch enemy, France. Thus, he became something of a local hero too.

Clement had ordered the cabbie to a place called the Pepper Patch, and the driver took us through a maze of side streets before dropping us in front of a wooden restaurant freshly painted in lime, its front windows at each side of the wide-open door shaded by broad brown wooden slats fashioned like Venetian blinds. Signs over the windows were made from flat pieces of driftwood, with rough, hand-painted words "Pepper" over one and "Patch" over the other. The facade of the place had an uncanny resemblance to a huge yawning face, eyelids at half-mast, as if ready for a long nap to pass another blistering afternoon.

Clement led us inside the dark, quiet dining room, where the only movement was from three smoke-stained ceiling fans that spun lazily. He picked out a table and, while pulling out a chair for Sal with one hand, held up the other, with four fingers pointing upward. Within a few seconds, a waiter appeared with four beers and glasses.

"Shrimp today, Mr. Sevigny. Your friends will like the specials too. Don't look at no menu. I'll get, I'll get, OK?"

"Make it hot, Luther. It can never be hot enough for me. For them, remember, they're used to the ship's cooking, so go easy."

"You do like hot pepper dishes?" Clement asked with a slight smile after Luther had disappeared. "Sorry if I was presumptuous, but I'm quite sure you won't be disappointed with the fare here. Just hold up your fingers for more beer if you need to cool your palates."

Clement explained, or rather confessed, that his desire for hot, spicy foods was cultivated not so much on his native Indian Ocean island home, but rather in England living with his adoptive family. His sea-captain adoptive father had lost any taste for bland English cooking after returning from voyages to the West Indies, South America, India, and of course the Far East.

"King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expected Columbus to come back with gold and silver and magnificent gems. And what did he bring back to Spain? Hot peppercorns," said Clement.

"And cassava, my friend. Mounds of it," added Grigg, who had placed his Corvette on the floor and was pulling the radio control from his pocket. "Today, I'm certain, he'd bring back a hold full of these lovely hot rods."

"Mike would load his ship with Ring Dings and Slim Jims," said Sal.

Luther returned with platters of fat shrimp served with a mix of rice and tomatoes cooked with chili peppers, curry powder and garlic in a broth of coconut milk and pineapple juice.

Sal and I ate slowly, sort of taste-testing each bite for the considerable bite it would give back, but the pace gave us time to talk.

Clement seemed reluctant to say much about his home in Victoria on the lush island of craggy mountains and sparkling beaches, but it became clear that his mother had become overburdened with seven children, of which Clement was next-to-youngest. As a boy, he spent most of his time around the docks, earning tips in dozens of currencies from seamen who let him carry their bags to the shore. Capt. Milton Sevigny, who had sailed to the island numerous times with P & O and previously with a smaller cargo line, took a liking to the boy and was eventually invited to Clement's home for a meal of fish and fried bananas. His mother than suggested that there was no future for her son in Seychelles, and surprised Capt. Sevigny when she asked him to consider taking him to England, by adoption if that was the proper channel. The captain was touched. He had two lovely daughters at home, but wished for a son who could carry on the family's seagoing tradition. He considered the plea of Clement's mother, and decided to make the arrangements for adoption.

The Sevignys' was a fine home in London, a three-story brick Victorian building with a small but well-stocked library, sizeable rooms, a slate roof and wrought iron fence about the yard. The Sevigny daughters welcomed their new brother with open arms, as did the rather proper missus.

"And you," Sal said to Grigg. "Tell us about yourself."

He hesitated as he adjusted the antenna on the radio controller, almost as if pretending he didn't hear the question.

"Cornwall," Grigg finally said as he raced the Corvette to one of the empty tables in the restaurant. "That's Cornwall where I started. Dad was a doctor, and insisted on a fine education for me. I'm the only son, no brothers or sisters. Private schools and tutoring, all of that sort of thing, then ... "

The car raced off to another table. "On to Oxford. I studied chemistry and physics, but eventually was drawn toward philosophy, and then took a particular interest in Eastern philosophy. I spent my days trying to sort out that perpetually confounding conflict between the divinely prescribed order and entropy in nature, and the same struggle between order and chaos in, uh, in our lives. The blokes who have degrees call it the human condition." His hand shot up, with four fingers outstretched. "It rather dominated me, so I escaped it all, academically anyway, and immersed myself in linguistics, learning Greek and brushing up on my Latin in the process. I dabbled in Turkish and Albanian from some old textbooks that somehow fell into my possession. The discipline of study was fine, but there were pressures from home to get on with my studies and get out and do something productive. It all built up to a point where I had to make my next call." The car careened to another table.

"Let's call this one Bedlam. Not the real one, but -- oh let's call it what it was, a mental hospital, a loony bin, how do you Americans put it? Nut house -- where I stayed for the better part of a year after what they politely call a nervous breakdown. Rather boring place overall, but you do get acquainted with some interesting chaps. One fellow, from Swansea, had been a radioman at sea during the war, but got it into his head that he would only speak in Morse code. Dah-dit, dit-dit-dah, dah, dit-dit-dit, and so on. A delightful, if slightly confused, chap. It turned out that none of the nurses or psychiatrists had or took the time to decipher his language because it was easier to just write him off as a permanently lost fishcake. But it was all there if you bothered to learn the code. That's what started me, I suppose, in radio. I learned the code one night and soon got rather proficient at it. We had wonderful conversations, that old gent and me, although people must have thought we sounded like a pair of nattering, stammering lunatics." Grigg took a sip of his beer. "Which, of course, we were."

"What was his name?" asked Sal.

"Dit-dit-dit-dit, dit-dah, dah-dit -- oh what the hell, Hank, in the Queen's English. Hank was his name.

"Anyway, I was eventually certified as having enough of my marbles to get out, and took some technical radio training in Kent. Now, well, here I am." He took another sip of beer. "You might say I'm the only one on the ship who's certified as sane."

We talked for a while longer, passing the worst of the afternoon heat by cutting into a couple of juicy mangoes and helping ourselves to chunks of the sweet fruit. We paid up and ventured outside again. Clement led us toward the busier section of town, where we caught a taxi for the posh Paradise Beach Club. Several members of the ship's company were on the beach, sunning and splashing in the waves, but we opted for sand chairs under a palm and laid waste to a couple of more beers. Gently massaged by the trade winds blowing across the beach, we dozed off until the blazing sun had turned into an elliptical orange orb, making its rapid descent into the Caribbean.

The sound of drums and punchy island music began to fill the air, and flaming torches had been set up along the sides of a large patio outside the beach club.

"The fire-eaters," said Grigg, gathering up his Corvette and hopping from his chair. "You will love the fire-eaters."

A crowd gathered around and clapped as a scantily dressed woman began prancing about the patio, circling before stopping and easily bending herself below the limbo stick. At about waist-height, it was lit, but her well-practiced art defied the flames and she cleared it again, deftly. The stick went down again, and again, until her shoulders were inches from the cement-tiled patio floor. Her toes seemed to pull her from under the scorching stick, to the joy of the crowd.

Then came the fire eaters, harmlessly placing golfball sized balls of flames at the ends of their wooden sticks into their mouths. That didn't amaze me too much, remembering the Fourth of July cookouts when we all got marshmallows to roast over the barbecue. Mine always turned into the same kind of flame balls, but I soon learned that a quick puff at the right moment extinguished the little blazes just as my jaws wrapped around the blackened marshmallow crust. The only price I paid to have others marvel at this feat of courage was ending up with a mouthful of soot and maybe a burned tongue from that sugary marshmallow goop that was hot as lava.

Finally came the man dressed raggy white pants, the bottoms torn away at mid-calf, and a long orange tunic, dancing about the patio stage as he held a large sack over one shoulder. The contents, jagged shards of broken clear, green and brown glass, were soon spilled onto the floor, covering a three-foot square. With the drums beating louder and in a faster tempo, the dancer, looking upward, took a tentative step onto the glass, only to stop, twirl around and begin another loping dance around the forbidding path. This was repeated by another false start, but as the spectators' anticipation peaked, he made his barefoot walk across the glinting little daggers. The audience loved it.

As the crowd dispersed from the patio, Clement told us about a jazz club called the Bel Air. We walked a while, before a taxi came along and took us to the bar, where a quartet played in a sweaty, crowded room upstairs. The music was fine, and a couple of hours passed before we headed up Nelson Street to Harry's -- the sign called it the "World Famous Harry's," then a place called Castro's Havana, and then a couple of more dives. Someone, I guess Sal, said it was time to go back to the ship. We decided to walk.

The streets were dark, but Clement and Grigg insisted they knew the way. Grigg lovingly placed his Corvette in the street and instructed us to follow its tiny little tail lights as he manned the radio controls. The car wavered and careened ahead of us, and eventually the quay came into view. At the end, the Majestic looked magnificent, aglow under the dozens of deck lamps, spotlights trained on her funnel and mast, and under lines of lights draped from the mast to the bow and aft ends of the upper deck. We would sail again at noon the next day.

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© By Buzz Adams