Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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12


The view is best, of course, from Top Deck, or as crew and seasoned passengers called it, "two-up," which was always abbreviated in shipboard conversation to "t'up." From the Boat Deck promenade at aft, stairways at starboard and port curled in quarter circles to a short mid deck, just longer than the two tennis courts, which abruptly ended at the forward end with steel bulkhead and a neat line of portholes. Top Deck, one deck above, was actually two up from the ship's main Boat Deck thoroughfare, hence, "t'up."


The Top Deck expanse formed the base of the flat, oval-shaped, elevated steel apron on which the towering, teardrop funnel rose 60 and a half feet slightly aft of the mid point of the vessel. The open deck stretched to a sweeping rise at the forward end formed by the rear of the bridge, and in dead center 13 decks over the keel, the white mast, from which radar screens rotated endlessly and pennants and national colors streamed. Between the funnel base and the forward rise, a bubble of glass formed an arc across the middle of the deck, allowing natural light to shine on interior portions of two decks below.


Top Deck was as high in the Majestic II as one could climb -- not counting the mast, which was strictly off-limits to all but technicians and senior officers. The open, oak-lined deck was a showplace of John Delon's band as well as blues and rock 'n roll entertainers while the ship rested at anchor, offering audiences late nights of starlit dancing and moonlit romance. And, yes, it offered the perfect site to view the mountains, shores, cities and quays of our ports of call by day. But today, there was only flat ocean to gaze upon as I leaned on the railing. I pulled a Slim-Jim from my shirt pocket, bit open the plastic wrapping with my teeth and kept staring at the sea. It was break time.


Minutes passed, maybe 15 or 20, as I watched the ship cut through the equatorial waters and send foamy waves and spray outward. I thought of our next call, Rio, wondering what adventures it would bring. Neptune's cold stare with his coal-like eyes popped into my mind, triggering volleys of questions about the galleon. I heard footsteps, but didn't turn to see who it was. Sal had found me.


"I caught the 5 o'clock on the BBC. The usual stuff, so most of the pages are filled. But do you know what David told me?" I looked around, but had no time to answer.


"Sir Philburton, the gentleman we saw at the midnight buffet, remember? He's dead. In his cabin. He looked awfully frail, didn't he? David says the old gent wanted to be buried at sea."


"Buried at sea? When did he die?"


"Oh, last night sometime. In his sleep I guess. Let's go."


"Burial at sea. That would be something to see," I said as I followed her.


We didn't exchange a word all the way back to the office. My mind had switched track from the galleon to Sir Philburton. I recalled the night we had seen him and his young wife, the black-haired one, yes, Lucy, and what was it Hallsford had said about the man, this decorated war hero ...


We walked into the office and Sal, two steps ahead, immediately walked to the filing cabinet and yanked open a drawer, then another, shuffling through papers until she found a commend list with his name on it.


"Not much on him in here," she said to herself. "You check with the social staff, get Damon Shields, and see what they have for bios. And a picture -- we have to get a picture. I'll call Rickards and get comment from the Captain. Can we get his widow, Lucy, Lucinda, whatever ... "


I didn't have any luck tracking down Shields, so I tried the Ward Room to see what some of the officers might know. The place was almost empty, save a couple of the off-duty engineers half sloshed an hour after their watch had ended, but they were barely familiar with Sir Philburton Dick and news of his death yielded only a couple of rude plays on his name and leering comments about his widow. I could see that this stop would get me nowhere, so I only had one beer with them before heading back out.


Another try at Shields' office failed to pay off -- it was locked tight -- so I bounded down to the printers, thinking they might recall stories about him that might have been written on one of his past voyages. Jack MacIver was on duty.


"Oh, sure, he woz eh fehn, fehn mohn," said MacIver. "A lefftenant fer Moont-bahten, wasn't he, his reet hond mohn in India durin' the war. But tha's aboot all I cahn recall aboot 'im. Toast to the old Philburton?" He produced a bottle from the back room and offered me a slug before taking a long pull himself.


"So, 'e's in the coolah, aye? Cahn't imagine they'd leave 'im lyin' aboot lung." He wiped his chin with his sleeve. "'e's a slider, right? Are they goin' to slide him off today?"


"Don't know, Jack. Sometime soon, I guess. Which cooler you think he's in? One of those big ones in the galley?"


"Oh sure, one of 'em. Hope they don't mix him oop with a beef Wellington before it's time for his fehnal shoo."


I thanked MacIver for his help and headed back to the office to see how Sal was doing with the story.


As I walked in, she was pounding the keys at the typewriter nonstop, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder. A big glossy photo of Sir Philburton in his formal attire, rows of medals dangling from his chest, his chin jutting upward in a patrician pose and his right fist stoically gripping a black cane, was sitting on the edge of the desk.


"And thank you, Captain," she said as she hung up the phone. "Find out anything?'' she asked me.


"Well, yeah. He's in a big fridge in the galley. And what's a leff-tenant? How about you, what did you find out?"


"That reminds me," she said, still typing like a Gatling gun. "My lasagna stuff. What cooler did that wind up in?"


It turned out that she had interviewed the captain, gotten bios and photos from the social staff, and even found out, as a side bonus, that Tina Kane was still on board. "The captain says she orders beef Wellington every night," she smiled, still typing. "Every night. Can you imagine? And where did you go the other night after the concert?" she asked, the jack hammering typing still in breakneck cadence.


I had honestly forgotten to tell her about finding the galleon on the office closet, but decided this wasn't the time to fill her in. Silently, I took over the page layouts while she finished the story, which she sailed across the desk for a backread.


Philburton Arnold Dick had been born on Dec. 31, 1899 in Nottingham, England, first of four children in an aristocratic family with ties to the royal Windsors that had for generations produced prominent naval figures. He had been educated by tutors as a child and, from the time he was 15, schooled in military sciences in private academies and in civil engineering in college. He served briefly on small ships patrolling the North Sea at the very end of the First World War, after hostilities at sea were by and large suspended, and remained active in the Royal Navy before settling into an estate in Derby with his beautiful bride, a Welsh girl named Nettie.


The '20s were a gay time for the couple, a swirl of social events, steamship voyages to the Orient, Mediterranean and America, and prosperity for Philburton's tobacco trading ventures. Ironically, he rarely smoked, except for an occasional puff on a fine cigar in the parlors of the Franconia, Carinthia, Mauretania, Aquitania and, of course, the first Majestic, the White Star liner for which he had a particular fondness, perhaps due to her being a prize in the war he had helped fight against the Germans. He saw the Majestic's transformation from the defeated land's pride, the Bismarck, to a ship worthy to sail under the British Union Jack complete upon a visit to the newly refitted vessel by King George and Queen Mary in 1922. Sir Philburton also had a keen devotion to the elegant Aquitania, the last of the four-funnelled Atlantic liners, whose master, Sir James Charles, died while in command of the great ship when it docked in England for the final time. The Aquitania, like Sir Philburton, had seen service to the crown during both world wars. A host to champagne parties, fancy dress socials and tennis matches for carefree passengers during peacetime, the Aquitania served as a troop carrier and hospital ship during war.


Sir Philburton's marriage had ended with his wife's death from tuberculosis in the mid-'30s before the couple had any children, and Philly, the only name Nettie ever used to address him, continued a quiet and unassuming life, hunting, dabbling in business interests and politics, from his estate until World War II broke out.


He answered the call of duty in 1939 and was summarily placed under the command of Louis Francis Albert Victor, Prince of Battenberg, whose title was later elevated and abbreviated to Lord Mountbatten. Philburton Dick was accorded the military rank of lieutenant major for reasons that were not entirely clear and that Philburton would never disclose, although it was widely assumed that he served in an intelligence capacity under the guise of administrator. In any event, he survived a number of torpedo attacks during a stint at sea early that was otherwise without great note.


Philburton's heroics were on land later in the war while serving under Mountbatten, then supreme allied commander of Southeast Asia. Working with American army engineers on assignment to build the Ledo Road, a 620-mile supply route from India that joined the Burma Road, he was injured in a dynamite blast in early 1943 that left him with permanent hearing loss and a leg injury that required the use of a cane. In the aftermath of the explosion, he tunnelled his way to an enlisted man who had been nearly crushed to death by earth and rocks jarred loose by the blast, dragged him to safety and administered first aid while awaiting medics. Despite his injuries, Philburton insisted upon seeing his assignment through its completion and was there to help celebrate, in his quiet, low-key way, as the Burmese city of Myitkyina at the road's terminus was liberated from the Japanese in August 1944.


With the war ending, he returned to England to recuperate, but came back to India to assist Mountbatten, then Viceroy, in transferring the teeming country to Indian rule, a major step in the dissolution of the British Empire.


His service completed, he returned once again to his homeland and, declining to advance in military rank, was named Sir Philburton. He was married in 1959 to Lucinda Ballafiore, an Italian beauty with bloodlines to British nobility, and resumed a quiet life in postwar, cruising occasionally with his young wife on the Queens Elizabeth and Mary, and numerous times on the Majestic II.


One of the last of the true British noblemen, his upper lip ever so stiff, quietly heroic and passionately protective of his privacy, Sir Philburton's paths had led many times to the great ships of a lost era of grandeur, the era of the empire that had once ruled the seas. It was now time for his final honor.


The plans came together overnight; with no mortuary on board, the ship's doctor was asked to do the best he could to prepare the body for committal the very next day. No doubt Capt. Goodrow had been apprised of Sir Philburton's wishes, as had the master of any ship on which the old gentleman sailed in his later years. The ceremony was to be simple but dignified, at high noon -- and on the Equator if at all possible. Of course, we had sailed across The Line, but South America's geography would play a fortuitous role in granting Sir Philburton his last wish. The Majestic had followed Brazil's long coastline for hundreds of miles in which it juts in an east-southeasterly direction, crossing the Equator off the estuary of the Amazon River along the way. The ship was now only a few degrees into the Southern Hemisphere. In honor of Sir Philburton, Capt. Goodrow ordered a northerly bearing so the ship could veer back up to zero degrees latitude and skip across the Equator for committal. The ship would then make a tight loop and, with a repaired boiler, the captain reasoned, make up for lost time to Rio.


Sir Philburton's death was soon the talk of the ship. While most passengers had never heard of him and only a few had only passing familiarity with the man through social events and dinners, there was a sense of loss of a distinguished member of this floating community; a neighbor, a distinguished war hero, a fellow seafarer, had died. Few were told of the final ceremony, and Sen. Furbish was among them.


Capt. Goodrow and the senator had made fast friends earlier on, and the captain thought it a diplomatic honor to have a representative of the American government, or, as he put it privately, "the Colonies," present for the committal. And, recalling the senator's hunting stories, he asked the Texan to fire a salute with a World War II-vintage .30-caliber Carbine that was kept locked away in the captain's cabin. The seven-gun salute would be fired, of course, just before a trumpeter from John Delon's band played Taps. The Anglican chaplain for the voyage, the Rev. Ted Stonegate, would fill the role of spiritual figurehead but would have a relatively silent part in the observance, and a half-dozen officers in white dress uniforms would form a gauntlet through which the small funeral party would pass.


Capt. Goodrow had personally attended to the details of what his officers should wear, where the platform bearing Sir Philburton's body would be placed and how the storage area surrounding the Four Deck double-hatch at starboard would be cordoned off and covered with plum-colored drapes. He also ordered the young doctor, Angus Millan, and four seamen to fetch the body from a special compartment that had been built on one of the walk-in refrigerators for such exigencies.


Dr. Millan and the seamen did as ordered: They hauled the body from the galley to the hatch area and laid it on a velvet-covered plywood platform, which was set over a fulcrum. With this seesaw-like arrangement, the whole works, at the captain's command, would be tipped to allow the body to slide neatly seaward. The crew carefully placed the body so that the platform was tilted inward, then backed away.


"Leave it," ordered the senior crewman, who was called Blackie. "Nah, we ought to put something on this back end, you know, in case she pitches before the party gets here. Here, Goldie, get this Union Jack spread over 'im like the Captain said. Neat, now, like the Queen's dinner table."


Goldie, a teen-ager who had been staring blankly through the macabre assignment, turned to get the folded flag from a card table that also held Sir Philburton's sword and a framed picture of the late nobleman.


"Bloody spooky, it is," toned a tattooed Irish seaman, Drake. "'nuf to give you bad dreams it is."


"Stuff it," barked Blackie. " `old the bloody back end down so we don't lose the old man."


" 'e ain't going nowhere, not in these seas. Lookit, it's calm as a bleedin' pond, not a wave or even a bloody ripple. Flat as that nose on yer friggin' face," said Drake, who nonetheless moved toward the back end as ordered.


A third seaman, a fat fellow known as Tiny, quietly shifted away from the platform and pulled a packet of Drum tobacco from the back pocket of his jeans.


"A bunch of flippin' infants, you are, fussing over this stinking old corpse," he said, now rolling the tobacco in a paper and placing the cigarette, bulging with tobacco like a small cigar, to his lips. "I'll just rest me fat ass on that end and leave all this jabberin' to you schoolboys, aye Doctor?"


Tiny sauntered over to the platform and sat at the lower, inward end, his great weight eliciting a slight creak from the plywood. As the huge man hunched forward, the back of his dirty, blue T-shirt rose, revealing the ripples of fat cascading down his posterior. The body shifted slightly, but stopped as Sir Philburton's head bumped up against Tiny's beefy back.


"There, now. Don't suppose this smoke will bother the old bloke now, eh? Yer comfy, then, Squire?" Tiny said, turning his head slightly toward the corpse as he struck a match along the side of the platform.


" 'ey, don't torch the whole bloomin' thing with that match, yer fat cow," barked Blackie as Tiny too a big puff on the cigarette.


"With all that blubber, she'd flare right up like ... " started Drake.


"Aye, joost like one of them Indian funeral pyres," Goldie chimed in, in his high-pitched voice, triggering hysterical guffaws from the lot -- except for Tiny, whose usual rose-colored complexion was now fire-engine red.


"And I'll kick each of yer asses to bloody kingdom ... " Tiny blurted as he sprang up. But as he rose, the cigarette packet sticking out of his rear jeans pocket caught the end of platform, tilting the whole thing upward and sending Sir Philburton's body sliding toward the open hatch.


"God's bloody cross!" yelled the panic-stricken Blackie as the corpse's feet shot out the open hatch. "Grab the bastard, imbeciles!"


Drake was the first to respond, leaping onto the platform and grabbing the body about the waist. His momentum carried both the body and Drake precipitously close to the sea before Blackie grabbed Drake about the ankles and held fast.


Tiny also came to the rescue by grabbing the back of the platform and yanking it inward. But he did it with such force that, like the tablecloth pulled from underneath a table setting, both Drake and the body were instantly on the deck, Drake on top of the rigid corpse. Sir Philburton's legs still protruded like a couple of boards from beneath the rumpled Union Jack out of the hatch. Tiny, meanwhile, stumbled backward and fell, with the sheet of plywood coming down on top of him.


Drake exploded in a bellowing "bar-har-har" of laughter, while Goldie, out of control in hysterics, wrapped his arms around the sniggering Dr. Millan so he could keep on his feet.


"Maniacs!" hissed Blackie, now enraged. "Get the bloody stiff back in here before the Old Man walks in and has all on the log. Get 'im ' up here!"


Even the aloof, silent Dr. Millan lent a hand, knowing he, too, would be held responsible for the mayhem if Capt. Goodrow or a senior officer happened by. The boys reset the two-foot high fulcrum and slid Sir Philburton back in place, then straightened the Union Jack over his body and tilted the platform toward the inside of the ship once again.


In all the confusion, Tiny's cigarette had rolled or been kicked toward a stack of paint cans hidden behind the dark curtain. Dr. Millan was the first to smell something burning and, half-bent over, sniffed his way to the source.


"Good God, men, fire! Get these paint cans ... "


Before he could finish, Blackie answered the call and bounded behind the curtain, where the cigarette had sparked a small fire in a carton holding gallon paint cans and several brushes. Blackie kicked one can from underneath the dark curtain, then another, and a third.


"Yah, she's spreading. Mind your heads, mates," he called, as a can of charcoal-colored paint came sailing over the fabric barrier, spilling half its contents as it made its trajectory. Instead of sailing out the hatch as intended, the can hit dead center of the upper end of the tilted platform. It hit squarely, with a solid thump, and sent the board see-sawing right down to the deck, not quickly, but too fast for the dumbfounded crew, moving as if in slow-motion, to stop it. Sir Philburton's body this time slid straight down the platform and hit the water, feet-first, with a splash. The weights that had been attached to it pulled Sir Philburton, just as he had wanted, beneath the waves. He was gone. Even the Union Jack soon was swallowed up by the sea.


"Chee-sus, Mary and holy Joseph!" said Drake, making the sign of the cross. His eyes bulged spookily from the coating of dark paint covering most of his head and upper torso. "May the Lord in heaven rest his English soul!"


"Flaming gates of hell!" said Goldie, dropping to his knees in astonishment. Dr. Millan was behind the curtain, stamping out the small fire and in the process splattering his white trousers with dark paint.


"Cooked! We're friggin' cooked, mates. Lookit this," said Blackie. "We might as well all jump out the doors and join old Dickerton or whoever he was."


" 'old on then," said Goldie. "We ain't cooked just yet. Listen to me." The mates, Dr. Millan included, stepped into a tight circle to hear out the young seaman's plan.


Drake, who had friends in the galley, would round up two 50-pound bags of potatoes and the largest a butternut squash he could find. Millan would lend -- that is, donate -- one of his dress-white uniforms, and the rest would clean up the mess while the doctor stalled the captain and kept him at bay with whatever lie was necessary until a new Sir Philburton could be assembled underneath a fresh Union Jack. There was no shortage of flags, especially British flags, on the vessel, and Blackie knew where they were kept.


The conspirators, knowing the consequences if they owned up, agreed that their desperate ploy was worth a try. They agreed to fetch the implements of their ruse and return in 10 minutes, not a second longer.


Drake and Tiny showed up with the two sacks of potatoes, which were placed on the plank. One was covered by the doctor's starched, white uniform jacket, and the other by the top of the trousers. The boys, taking pride in their creation, poured some of the spuds down the pantlegs and propped an old pair of boots up at the cuffs. The dark green squash was finally placed above the collar. They stood back after Goldie covered it with the new Union Jack and admired their work.


"Well, this is it," said Blackie. "Pray to Jesus no one looks under the flag. Doctor, the patient is all yours. You others, get this pigsty in right formal order."


Once the mess was straightened up, it would be up to Dr. Millan to let the captain know that the funeral could go on. He dressed in his best whites and, at 20 minutes to noon, summoned the master.


The six uniformed officers, representing pallbearers, arrived first and took their places alongside the opening where Lucinda, escorted by Rev. Stonegate, passed. Capt. Goodrow next entered, and behind him Sen. Furbish and his wife Dandy stepped in. Staff Capt. Villard, also in full-dress, joined the group, as did purser Harbold Rickards.


Capt. Goodrow stepped forward to begin the service, then nodded to Dr. Millan, as if to say, "Dismissed." But Millan refused to move. The captain pulled a black prayer book from his jacket pocket and proceeded.


"Remember, Lord, your servant Philburton, who was called before us, that You will grant him eternal rest and bring him to life everlasting ... "


Lucinda, her face covered by a gray veil, took a half step toward the platform, weeping aloud and mumbling in Italian as the captain went on reading.


"We pray, O Lord, that You deliver the souls of the faithful departed from everlasting darkness, and that Your light of mercy shall shine upon ... "


Lucinda, still sobbing, reached toward the edge of the flag and began to lift the corner as if to get a last look at her husband. Dr. Millan's face turned ashen, and his eyes bulged from their sockets as the flag was slowly scrolled back by Lucinda's petite hand. He stepped forward and wrapped his fingers about her wrist, gently but firmly, then stepped back with Lucinda in tow. He leaned toward the captain's ear and whispered.


"She mustn't, sir." In an even lighter whisper, he added, "Not a pretty sight under there, you know. Right shocking."


" ... Grant your leave, Lord, that our brother shall pass through the gates of death to into that holy light which You promised to Abraham and his ... " Capt. Goodrow continued in a slow monotone.


"For God's sake, stuff it," whispered Dr. Millan, feeling Lucinda's tugs toward the platform. "Sorry, sir, medical thing, that's all. I urge you, we let him go at once."


The captain cleared his throat. " ... ah, yes, as You promised to Abraham and to his seed. And so, we now, his brothers and sisters, commit the body of Sir Philburton to sea."


The captain nodded to Sen. Furbish, who stepped toward the hatch, cocked the Carbine and took aim at the emptiness over the ocean. Seven shots rang out, and a moment after the final one, the trumpeter sounded the first notes of Taps. The white-suited officers took their places at the sides of the plank, and after the first bar was complete, tipped it seaward. The presumed body of Sir Philburton tumbled through the gun smoke to the sea.


There was a momentary silence as everyone stood motionless. Then came the sound: Splash. And another splash. Capt. Goodrow's left eyebrow shot up, and Richards' head jerked to a half turn toward the open hatch. Dr. Millan's eyes were focused on the deck above. Lucinda Dick let out a wail.


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© By Buzz Adams