Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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13

Booth Boards


The blundered sendoff for Sir Philburton was soon grist for the ship's gossip mill and became the subject of discussion at every cocktail party, dining table and chance meeting of new acquaintances on deck. Of course, gossip and hearsay was all it was and, if the captain had anything to do with it, all it would remain. While Sal and I weren't actually there when the body mistakenly slipped off its plank, we were reasonably certain of the chain of ghastly events, given the precision of detail supplied by Tony Watson, our officer friend who happened to serve as one of the six officers on duty in dress whites at the burial.


The note that Capt. Goodrow had sent to our office, suggesting that "any rumours as to the decorum of events taking place at the observance for Sir Philburton should please be disregarded, at least inasmuch as they pertain to publication," craftily avoided denying that something bizarre had happened. The message underneath the captain's obscure choice of words seemed to be, yes, something weird happened, but I would rather not read about it in my ship's newspaper.


Then, there was the cartoon from Lefty, which arrived under our door, ink still wet, before Sir Philburton could have hit the bottom. It showed a likeness of Sen. Furbish, wearing spurs and a ten-gallon hat, at the open hatch holding a fat cigar to a lighted fuse on a cannon. Inside the barrel of the cannon is Sir Philburton with a very worried look on his face. He is wearing a helmet and his medals dangle out almost to the deck.


Even if the cartoon hadn't been in such bad taste, it never would have seen publication in the Mail, but I slipped it in a drawer for a keepsake anyway because it was so well done.


As the episode dominated conversations among the fascinated passengers, the question of "Do you think it really happened?" developed into a kind of morbid parlor game, with the participants bolstering their arguments with grand assumptions, wild, uninformed assertions and a creative array of loose facts. The exercise passed the time and, as a bonus, gave an extended life and new sense of fame to the late Sir Philburton. Of course, Lucinda was still in mourning. And one other passenger was less than amused by the way things turned out: Thor Trewargy.


The ship's bearing was closing in on the coast of South America as it approached Natal at the far east end of Brazil's colossal 4,600-mile bulge into the Atlantic. The planned course would swing the ship as close as possible to the coast at the continent's great hump before swinging out to sea for some distance and making a sharp southwest turn into Rio. As Sal and I prepared pages for the next day's paper, occasional openings in the mist over the warm ocean offered passing glimpses of the shoreline from our office window. The diversion drew us more than once to the promenade deck to enhance our view, our first view, of South America, however vague it appeared through the warm haze. Another day at work on the Majestic II.


I was fiddling with the short wave and Sal was leafing through travel pieces on Rio when the phone rang. She took the call, and it was Thor. Not Mr. Trewargy; just Thor. He wanted to see us in his penthouse but he left no clue as to why.


"I think he meant now," said Sal, as she put down the receiver. She was now out of her seat and heading for the door. "Are we going?"


"Yes. But first, did I tell you about the ship -- the galleon? It's ... "


"Missing," she said. "You think Mr. Trewargy, uh, Thor, knows ..."


"No, no," I said. "Nothing about him. It's still on the ship, and it's closer to you than you think. Would you believe it if ... "


There were three quick raps on the door and an instant later a woman slipped across the threshold and in a single movement whipped the door closed. She wore a long skirt and a white blouse, with a bright orange scarf twirled about her neck and across her shoulders -- not exactly the kind of outfit, I thought, most women were wearing down here in the tropics. She was slathered with makeup and reeked of perfume. She gazed at Sal for a moment, then trained her eyes on me and smiled as she adjusted her hair.


"You like?" she asked as she did a quick pirouette before my astonished eyes. "It's the new me."


The baritone voice was the next thing I noticed. I stared back silently, trying to place the face. I knew it, but couldn't put a name to it. A croupier? Dancer? Stewardess?


"Trevor Gages? Oh my God! Trevor?" said Sal. "Is that you?"


"Oh, you impish rascals," she -- he? -- said, grabbing Sal with a big hug and then planting a sticky kiss with that candy-apple lipstick on my cheek. "How's tricks? Got anything to drink here?"


Trevor slipped out of the heels and yanked the auburn wig from his head. "How'd you guess? My makeup wasn't right, I know," he said with an impish smile.


I swallowed hard and took a deep breath.


"Trevor? I thought, we thought, you were, uh, dead. You just disappeared, so what were we supposed to think? Dead! So now you're here. Where have you been?"


"Dead? Oh yes, Trevor is dead, for all intents and purposes. Like I said, it's the new me. Tandy. Like I said, got anything to drink?"


"Candy?" I was utterly confused now.


"You can't drink candy, silly."


"No, the name. Candy?"


"No, Tandy, with a T. What've you got in that bar, then?" our guest said as he walked behind it and stooped over to check out the supply.


"Rum, rum, rum, Mount Gay rum. Is that all you ... ah, come here my lovely gin. Where's the ice and tonic then?" Trevor found a glass and an open bottle of flat tonic, mixed a drink and continued.


"So where have I been? Here, sillies. Right on Madge with you. The table-waiting routine just got so old, you know. So I just, rather, quit without telling anyone. No crime, right? I just borrow a few things to wear, here and there, you know, these rich passengers won't miss it. And it's so-o-o easy to stow, ah, find a convenient place to hang out, let's say. Oh, I've been around. You may not have noticed me, but I've seen you." Trevor took a long drink, then refilled the glass.


"So why are you here -- now?" asked Sal. "I mean, are you all right?"


"Fine. Fine. A few of my friends, very few, look out for me. But I do have a purpose for visiting.


"You know about that theft, that little ship someone nicked from the jeweler's. I gather it's worth a right fortune. Well, I can tell you, quietly, very quietly, they're tearing this ship apart trying to find the blasted thing. I must tell you, I have no idea, none, where it is. But I'm afraid that if they catch up with me, I'll be automatically suspect, and then who knows? And I have to tell someone, I have nothing to do with it. God! I'm not even interested in the blasted thing!"


"Well do you know where it is?" asked Sal. "Who took it?"


"Honest, darling, I haven't a clue. I do have some ideas of my own, but it's all just suspicion. I haven't heard anything below decks."


Trevor, or Tandy, hesitated a moment. "You're tall, Sally. Have any old things that might fit? I could let them down just a smidge. Oh, silly me! I wouldn't want to give you away," he said with a giggle before downing the second gin and tonic and grabbing the wig from the bar. "Well, must go. It's been a nice visit. Short but sweet."


"Wait," I said, almost like an order. OK, I wanted to believe Trevor, but his showing up here of all places, suddenly, from wherever he's stowing away, wearing stolen women's clothes, bringing up the subject of the galleon and then denying that he has anything to do with the little treasure that's hidden maybe seven feet away from where we're standing, it was too much. Maybe it wasn't that creep Neptune after all. I looked at Trevor, who was now adjusting his wig with the tips of his fingers.


"Yes, what is it?" said Trevor. "Have you got a mirror in here? Oh, just tell me. Is my hair perfect?"


"Oh, yeah, the hair's fine, just fine. But back to the galleon, the little gold ship. You're sure you know nothing about it? I mean, here you are, popping in out of nowhere, telling us you know nothing about it, it, well let's just say it raises suspicions," I said. "Nothing personal, Trevor, or, uh, Tandy."


The three of us were stone silent for a moment.


"Gold, is it?" Trevor said. "Gold? Who cares what it is? Let me tell you, Mr. Detective, if I had wanted that little piece of trash, I could have had it. And what's more, if it's worth anything, I would have left the ship in the islands and been gone!" Trevor burst into tears.


"I didn't have to come here. I only wanted to say hello. I like you two." Trevor was sobbing now, and I felt like a heel. "Oh, my mascara will be a mess," he whined.


"Hey, I didn't mean anything personal, it's just odd ... " I started to reassure him as he wrapped his arms around Sal and buried his face on her shoulder, still sobbing. Sal glanced up at me with one of those killer looks and patted Trevor on the back a couple of times, then glanced back and mouthed, "What now?"


I looked at my watch.


"Holy crow, we're late for our meeting!" I said. "You know, with Mr. Whatzaname, Thorezene. We gotta hit it, Sal."


Trevor sniffed a couple of times, then pulled out a tissue and blew his nose. "Just give me a minute."


Another few moments of silence passed while Trevor composed himself.


"I don't know what it is with that junky little boat," said Trevor. "It drives men so hinky. Well, I'm off. Maybe see you in Rio. And, of course, not a word about my little visit. Please?" Trevor stepped to the door, looked out, turned and winked to us, and slipped out.


Sal and I hardly exchanged a word after the door closed. I think she would have been angry if she wasn't so flabbergasted by the whole maudlin scene that had just unfolded. She grabbed her key from the desk and headed for the door, but waited for a minute to give Trevor a chance to clear. Then we walked out, locked the door and headed forward, so intent on finding our way to the penthouse suites that I forgot to tell Sal where I had found the galleon.


It took us a couple of tries to find the way, but we finally located the opening to a winding staircase in the foyer of a small, quiet lounge that also served as a passageway between the forward end and midships. We climbed the steps and headed down the broad corridor. Sal found the right door and tapped three times.


The door swung open and our host appeared: Thor Trewargy was wearing a long, mauve bathrobe, with silvery snakeskin cowboy boots on his feet and a big, welcoming smile on his face.


"Git on in here!" he said. "Jeez, you was quick."


He slammed the door shut and led us into the two-decked suite, invited us to sit and plopped into an overstuffed divan, but popped right up again. "Almost forgot. Champagne, you two? Got some ice cold right in the fridge."


We obliged, but Thor begged off, explaining that the stuff gave him gas. "Not that gas is so bad," he quipped with a smile and a snap of his fingers. A big, blaze-orange and black Pow'r Paw logo was emblazoned on the left breast pocket of his housecoat, from which he pulled a long, hand-rolled cigar.


The suite was palatial; it was furnished with ebony end tables and thick chairs stuffed with black velour cushions in the sitting room. Sparkling white drapes topped by gold-rimmed crimson valances were half-drawn at the sliding doors leading to a private veranda overlooking the sea. A large teak desk littered with charts and stock tabulations took up one corner, and the far wall was occupied by a floor-to-ceiling cabinet built to accommodate something few other passengers saw or, perhaps, cared to see: a television, which would be useful near ports or for occasional closed-circuit shipboard programming. Beyond a little pocket door was a kitchenette, in practicality, an elaborate wet bar whose shelves were fully stocked when the passenger took up residence. A curved, carpeted stairway swept gently to a plush loft that served as bedroom, as abundantly arranged with potted ferns and tropical flowers as the rest of the opulent surroundings.


We exchanged some small talk as Thor lit his cigar and took a couple of puffs and we sipped champagne. He planted one booted foot on the coffee table.


"Let's get right down to it. Y'all run a nice little newspaper down there, read it every mornin'. Say, when are they gonna finally hang that Zulfikar ali Bhutto fellow? Boy, they sure do play hardball in politics over there in Pakistan, eh? Anyways, I like your stocks, like the little snippets about this and that and mostly them crosswords. But I want to get mah little piece in," said our host with a confident smile.


Sal glanced over and I knew what she was thinking: Lori Pierce revisited. Uh-oh.


"Senator Furbish is on board, of course y'all know that. I take it he fired the gun salute for that English gentleman, Sir Dick Phillyburton or whats-his-name at the burial. Sorry to say I wasn't invited, but I guess it was a private thing. Well, that gave me an idea. I want to challenge the senator to a shootin' contest, right off the back of the boat, just a couple of old southern boys havin' a go to see who's got the best eye. What do you say?"


"Good idea, yeah," I said without thinking.


"Why, yes, the idea is fine, but what exactly were you looking for in the paper? I'm sure we can do the results, who got the best ... " Sal said, choosing her words carefully.


"Nah! A big ol' black headline, `Oil Man Challenges Texas Senator to Gun Duel.' You know, somethin' like that. Ah'll even make it interesting: a thousand bucks says this poor ol' Oklahoma gas hustler can outshoot the senior senator from the Lone Star State," Thor said as he plopped his big hand with a loud whap on the coffee table. "Nah. Ten-thousand. Hell, let's make it interestin'."


As he waited for a response, I took a long sip from the champagne goblet and let the fizz swish around my teeth, giving Sal the floor to offer another measured response.


"Have you checked with the cruise staff? They're the ones who have to decide if you can have the contest, the shoot off," said Sal. "And have you asked the senator? What does he say?"


He ignored the question about the senator.


"Shoot off! Perfecto! Ah like that. Not a problem there, ma'am. With what ah'm payin' for these digs, those glorified shoe-shine boys ought to let us fire guided missiles. Hey, sounds like it's a done deal. Good doin' business with you. Hey, how did a couple of Yankees like you get this job anyway? I thought this was an English boat."


Thor was pulling a wad of greenbacks from his side pocket, presumably to remunerate us for the story he wanted, but I nobly put up my hand and told him none of that was expected. All part of the job, you know. And, why Yankees? Because most of the passengers are American, Sal explained.


Sal then closed the discussion by telling Thor that she would check with the cruise staff, and if they said the shoot-off was OK, we'd do a story.


A little more small talk about the next call, Rio, and then we shook hands and made our way back to the office. It was getting near the top of the hour, and we had to catch the BBC broadcast. I was now wondering if Bhutto was still waiting for the gallows.


At Sal's suggestion, we detoured right away to Damon Shields' office, having learned from the Lori Pierce episode that these delicate matters involving titanic egos are best settled by the ship's official diplomats.


His door was open and Damon was decked out in a white uniform, looking somewhat harried as he worked at his desk. He glanced up for a second as we walked in, but then his eyes were back at the sizeable stack of paperwork in front of him.


"Reservations for a tour in Rio, I suppose?" he asked in a businesslike clip.


"Not exactly. Not at all," Sal said. "Mr. Trewargy, up in the penthouses, wants a shooting contest with Senator Furbish. You know, clay pigeons and all. Off the back of the ship."


Shields threw his pen down and looked up.


"A what?"


We took turns explaining the whole thing, and Shields soon recognized the awkward spot in which we had found ourselves.


"Ah, he feels slighted because he wasn't invited to the blasted burial," he mumbled as he picked up the phone to call an assistant and began dialing. "I have just the man to take care of this. By the way, does the senator know anything at all about this?" Shields asked, holding his hand over the mouthpiece.


I shrugged my shoulders.


Now working the twin roles of playwright and master puppeteer, Shields outlined the sequence of events to unfold in advance of the shoot-off, which was to take place at sea after we departed Rio. He would invite the senator to a cocktail party, and broach the subject after getting a few drinks into him. Shields would then arrange to have the rear railing and uprights near the skeet-shooting area painted, forcing a delay in the contest until after Rio and Montivideo. In the meantime, Shields would get back to Mr. Trewargy and thank him for suggesting the contest, then politely put him off. Shields cautioned us not to let anything get into the paper until he had spoken to the senator and was ready to give the go-ahead.


Relieved, I told him thanks and we left. The diversions had set us back on the next day's newspaper, so we grabbed a quick lunch on deck and brought it back to the office. Landfall would be within the next 36 hours, so Rio would be the big story. We worked into the evening, several times taking breaks to walk the decks in the sultry air and gaze at the twinkling lights off in the distance ashore. The anticipation was building as the Majestic began her approach to the Brazilian city of close to 10 million people, 15 beaches, spectacular mountain vistas and electrifying night life.


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© By Buzz Adams