Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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14


Dawn's misty weather gave way to bright morning sunshine as the Majestic II sailed into the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. Passengers lined the railings three and four deep to return the greetings of Mount Corcovado, the rock parabola rising from the city's edge to the heavens and topped by the 120-foot-high statue of Christ the Redeemer with outstretched arms. Almost as if by divine design, Corcovado's companion mountain Sugarloaf provided symmetry in this post-card picture view. Rising 1,200 feet almost straight up from the ocean's edge, Sugarloaf is somewhat shorter than Corcovado, but no less spectacular.


Awed, delighted and inspired by the view, passengers snapped pictures, stared silently, peeked through binoculars and waved cheerily to the flotilla of pleasure boats the ship had attracted like a magnet to its sides and wake as the gold-and-green Brazilian flag flapped from the ship's mast.


This mid-January day, in the 70s by mid-morning and promising to turn warmer as the sun rose higher in the sky, would turn out to be a perfect beach day for many of the passengers, and especially crew who had seen Rio before. But for us, it was going to be a day for sightseeing, since there was no paper to produce (we would still be in port the next day). Besides, how many more times were we likely to return?


As we steamed toward land, we took in the view briefly from the sunny deck while sipping coffee, but we moved to the Quarterdeck Ballroom ahead of the rest of the crowd to get our passports stamped and some money exchanged so we could make a quick getaway once the ship docked.


After the ship was secured and the gangway lowered, we made a beeline down the quay to the street, where a line of Volkswagen buses awaited passengers at the pier gates. There was no need to spend much time in this dingy, dockside corner of the city, so we followed others who were whisked downtown in one of the minibuses to one of the countless shops offering cut-rate jewels from salesmen who had perfected their pitches in English and learned to effectively glue themselves to potential customers until they made a sale.


Politely, we looked in one shop for a while and feigned interest, but while our salesman's attention was diverted for a moment by another mark from the ship, we slipped back out to the side of the broad, palm-lined boulevard and hailed a taxi. We didn't care if the cabbie didn't speak English, we just wanted to be out of there. The driver nodded knowingly, however, when I said, "Sugarloaf."


The cab, one of no doubt thousands of Volkswagen beetles in the city's fleet, cut in and out of traffic and proceeded to Flamenco Aterro, a huge park built on reclaimed land, and past hundreds of white high-rises forming an endless, giant picket at the city's face. We got out at the base of Sugarloaf and its shorter neighbor, Urca.


We gathered 210 cruzeiros, about $3.50, and bought tickets for a cable car ride that took us over the edge of the city, where the verdant woodlands and jungles below formed only a temporary boundary to Rio's breathless expansion. Our first stop was at the top of Urca, where we lingered for a while before continuing to the peak of Sugarloaf. We meandered off the main walkway onto dirt paths, where lizards and geckos darted this way and that. We also had company in the trees, where red and blue macaws babbled amid the chirping and cawing of other tropical birds. We sat on a garden wall by a little outdoor cafe and, while drinking small cups of black Brazilian coffee, tried to make sense of travel brochures Sal had brought along so we could plot our next move before heading down the mountain.


Back at the base, we took a chance with another cabbie, but this time the chemistry of English and Portuguese didn't mix so well. We asked for Mount Corcovado, but wound up in a place called Botacario, an old section of the city in which the labyrinth of streets running between whitewashed walls surrounding homes made us feel as if our taxi was a mouse in a giant maze. Our cabbie evidently lost his way to wherever he thought he was taking us. To make matters worse, we were soon into the barrios, where a seemingly endless mass of wood and metal shacks took their places on the overgrown hillside. That was where the cabbie stopped, opened the door and held out his hand. His first, and last, words to us were, "One hundred cruzeiros." Well, he knew one English word: One hundred.


We gave him the money and, seeing Corcovado above, cheerfully began our ascent on foot, following a winding street that gave way in places to broken asphalt, dirt and rocks. Occasionally, a stray pig, dog or chicken would accompany us for a few steps of the way, little temporary Totos on our uncertain march to the Oz above, but they were quickly drawn aside by the next trash pile to pick or poke at. The houses became scarcer and the woods around us became thicker. It was getting hotter and the road seemed now to go straight up. We had walked a mile, maybe two.


Out of nowhere, a bus appeared, but the driver seemed to show no inclination to stop until we hailed it by waving our arms as if trying to attract a plane while marooned on a desert island. Mercifully, the driver stopped and asked for no money, but we were soon left out at a ramshackle taxi stand. An orange and blue cab festooned with dingle ball embroidery around the windshields showed up within a few minutes, and the driver seemed to understand where we wanted to go when I pointed my finger upward, as if to say the top, and Sal made a cross with two of her fingers. The guy laughed and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, put one to his lips and passed the pack back to me. I decided to try one, struck a match on one of the blue "Majestic II" matchbooks I had in my pocket, and handed the little souvenir up to the driver. He seemed pleased, and tucked it under his windshield visor.


He drove with the stereotypical breakneck finesse of a Latino, passing other cars on blind switchbacks, blasting his horn frequently, with relish, almost as though one honk every seven seconds was national policy.


Sal and I glanced back and forth silently as the driver made his ascent, and finally we were at the base of Rio's most imposing landmark, the 700-ton statue of Christ the Redeemer. Sal paid the young man, although in our haste neither of us paid much attention to the amount. He seemed satisfied as we stepped from the car, staring at the grand colossus. A few clouds took turns shrouding the view for minutes at a time, but each was quickly whooshed away by the stiff, mountaintop wind. Stepping closer to the base, we looked over the precipitous edge and the city was laid out below: the monstrous, circular soccer stadium in one corner, Sugarloaf in another, the soft colors of the rooftops interrupted by glass and steel structures in the center, and highways jutting like so many tangled spokes in every direction. And at the edge, the wide strip of world famous beach forming a white ribbon along the shoreline.


After an hour or so, we boarded a cog train to bring us down to the base, figuring that we had enough erratic cabbies for one day. But our new challenge was choosing which of the buses lined up at the station would be the best to board. So we took a few minutes to move around and scan the strangers' conversations for English. I soon determined that the bus marked for El Centro would be our best bet.


We didn't know exactly where we were going, but found out that getting there was an amusement in itself, since the bus drivers, too, turned out to be a fright artist.


We passed dozens of lime cable cars, packed tight with passengers and some hanging onto the sides, rolling up steep narrow streets. The closer we came to El Centro, the tighter the bus became jammed. At each two-second stop, people flocked on and off. We decided to stick around for the whole ride, and after the driver finally motioned us off, strolled through a nearby shopping district, past pedestrian malls jammed with countless small shops brimming with goods of all kinds, from fresh fruits, baskets and leather to stereos and furniture, while shopkeepers clapped their hands to attract attention.


One of the shopkeepers helped us with directions back to the wharf. We got another pocketful of cruzieros from one of the money changers in the street, enough to get us a cab back to the pier. A couple of other white-hulled cruise ships, dwarfed by the immense Majestic, had docked in our absence at the far side of the quay.


As we approached the ship, I noticed a familiar figure leading a baggage man toward the gangway of our vessel; it was Woodsome, back from his leave. We greeted him and agreed to meet for drinks and dinner on board after we all had a chance to shower and change.


Sal slipped into an evening dress and I found a white jacket and bow tie and we all met at the appointed time in the Admiral Nelson lounge at aft. Gordon insisted on having our drinks brought on deck, which was now almost devoid of passengers. Most of them were in town for dinner or getting ready for a night at Copacabana. The sun slid to the horizon as we finished and he invited us to the Seven Seas restaurant, which was also quiet for the evening.


Over white wine, Caribbean shrimp salad, red snapper soup, shrimp Creole and pan-seared scallops, we brought Gordon up to date on what had been happening on the ship since he had left. He seemed not at all surprised by the odd goings on, and just nodded and occasionally smiled as we went on.


"And you know, Trevor Gages, the waiter is still on board," Sal said, leaning over the table. "You know him, the waiter. He just disappeared one night after a lot of partying, and everybody thought he was, well, gone. No one knew if he jumped off or what." Gordon seemed interested.


"All of a sudden, he shows up in our office, but not as Trevor," I continued. "He's got a new name, something like Candy, or Tandy, and he was dressed to the nines like a full-fledged fox. You know, a babe. Chick. A bird, whatever. Fooled me. Didn't look bad, actually." I took a sip of wine. Sal grimaced.


"I don't know where he's stowing away, or even why. All he said was Trevor is dead and his friends are looking after him. Thing is," I went on, "it's all suspicious. You know, with the galleon missing and all. Strange."


I had hesitated bringing up Trevor and the galleon, let alone why I thought Trevor's sudden appearance in our office was especially peculiar, but I guess the wine had loosened my tongue. "Maybe dressing up like one of the Andrews Sisters at that party turned his nut," I said. "Wonder if he's still on board."


This all must have sounded odd to Gordon, who was now listening intently. Sal, I decided, would soon know why I was so suspicious, after I show her where the golden boat is stashed. But it was too soon to show Gordon; I wanted to be sure it was there first.


"So very interesting," said Gordon. "If he's hiding it, they'll find it, you can be certain."


His resolute tone sent a chill down my spine. Why did someone have to creep through our office to hide the galleon? I didn't want the thing around at all.


"And I hope it's soon," said Gordon, who now leaned over the table toward us. "Didn't I tell you before that one of the royals would accept the galleon later this year in Southampton? I've heard now it's all moved up. Prince Charles will be in New York to accept it at the end of the world cruise." He hesitated a moment. "We MUST have it. Do you know what it would mean to Brighton if we had to say we simply lost it?" He laughed. "Too many promises have been made by people above me."


The waiters had served platters of cheese and biscuits and the dining room was all but empty. Waiters in their cream-colored jackets and bow ties cleared the few tables that had been occupied or stood at the steam tables, keeping a close eye on the last few diners still to be attended to. All of them, no doubt, were dying to finish their shifts so they could get back to their cabins, change for the night and get off the ship.


They would likely see passengers who had gone to the Lido, or to Copacabana to take in the glittering, upscale night clubs like the Zum Zum and New Kilt Club.


But some of the crew, who were more at home in establishments where the beer flowed freely and disco was just a background annoyance, found their after-hours excitement in a more earthy atmosphere.


Arch Toth, the crewman we had met at the Pig, had rounded up a few of his mates for a night at a noisy joint he had discovered some years back at edge of Rio for a few lagers and a night of cards. Along with Toth was an Indian who worked on the painting gang named Bin Peshcancalliven -- everyone just called him Bent Paintcan -- a tall, gangling baggage man and stowage tender called Robin Thornley, and Alec Gutzan, a wiry little jack-of-all trades seaman who, true to his given name, was a font of wisecracks, barbs and ethnic insults that had gotten him and his companions into fights and thrown out of pubs in countless ports dozens of times. Of the four, the quiet Thornley was by far the best card player due at least in part to his consistent lack of facial expression which was almost always hidden anyway by the long strands of greasy, black hair that draped over his face once he got into a poker game, concealing his face like theater curtains at the end of the final act. Gutzan, by contrast, had the light complexion of the redhead he was, and a good string of cards in his fist would almost be immediately be signaled by a beet-red glow to his face, almost as if it were a neon billboard blinking, "Good hand here ... Good hand here."


The motley quintet squeezed into a VW cab and jabbered on in Cockney while Arch, who knew the streets well, directed the driver by simply pointing his fingers left or right. The cab quickly whisked the foursome well beyond the downtown lights to a dingy quadrant at the edge of the barrios where gangs, prostitutes and packs of dogs roamed at large. The nervous driver stopped as ordered in front of a two-story structure whose powdery stucco barely clung to the stone walls. Dim lights shone weakly through the smoke-covered, barred windows, but the sound of lively Latino music blared out into the street, where a couple of dozen men and women loitered and guarded their motorbikes and hopped-up cars.


Arch and his disciples walked single-file through the crowd out front, ignoring a couple of taunts directed at Bin, and through the swinging front doors that looked as if they had been stolen from a Gunsmoke set. They got beers at the bar, found seats at a table and within seconds Thornley was shuffling one of the decks of cards he had pulled from his back pocket, casually laying them out on his arm and flipping them over before whisking them back into a trim deck in his hand for more shuffling. This went on for four or five minutes before he slapped the deck into the middle of the table to be cut. Gutzan dealt and the poker game began.


As if walls had been erected around their table, the foursome played intently, tossing British coins and pound notes onto the center of the table and playing their hands while swilling down beer after beer. Bin was hot early on, cleaning up a neat little stash. Then Gutzan got lucky for a few hands before the winning evened out after an hour or so.


The game began to draw a few side glances of patrons who seemed amused by the foreigners as they passed by the table. After a while, one or two men stopped to observe. Although they carefully kept their distance from the table, their presence bothered Gutzan, who muttered something about the "blasted greasers" and pushed away from the table to get a couple of more rounds of beers.


"Marinheiro?" inquired one of the observers, a short, squat fellow wearing a lime-green shirt. "Ah, seaman, you?"


The three Britishers looked up. "You play, Jose?" Thornley asked flatly. "Get in if you do."


He pushed Gutzan's chair with his foot toward the Brazilian, who hesitated a moment before taking the seat.


With a cigarette dangling from his lips, Thornley shuffled the cards until Gutzan returned and found the local man, whose name happened to be Joao, in his place. His face turned red, but Arch, knowing well his friend's hotheaded temperament, told him to get another chair, sit down and relax. Gutzan sat, the cards were cut again and Joao drew the high card. He shuffled competently and dealt the first card to his right in the Latino fashion before catching himself.


"Ha, no disputa," he said with a broad smile showing a big gold tooth.


He took back the card, reshuffled and dealt to Gutzan, who was at his left.


"Hey, wot's this funny business?" demanded Gutzan as Joao kept dealing.


"Shut yer 'ole," muttered Thornley as he flicked a cigarette ash on his denims and rubbed it in with the heel of his hand. "Let's see what 'e's got."


The five studied their cards and the four seamen began tossing their ante onto the table. Joao reached into his shirt pocket, which was crammed with scraps of paper and a little notepad, and found enough British notes to match the bets. By now, a half dozen men, including one who was fondling the handle of a knife tucked in his belt behind his back, were standing closer to the table, watching.


"Raise, marinheiro," said Joao, smiling at the expressionless Thornley. "How you say, fifty quid?"


Thornley quietly obliged and tossed the money in, apparently unconcerned that Joao had not yet put his 50 pounds on the table. The others backed off, showing nothing better than three of a kind and turning the game into a duel.


Joao stretched out his free hand and snapped his fingers. A friend behind him handed him a pen, and Joao pulled a leaf of paper from his little notepad and scribbled, "Carta de Credito = 50," smiled, and threw it on the stack of money.


"Wot ..." Gutzan said as he started to rise, but sat back down as Thornley calmly raised an index finger and placed his cards on the table: 5-6-7-8-9, all hearts. "Straight. And flush," he said, almost in a whisper.


Nobody moved for a moment, and then Joao placed his cards face up in front of him: four Jacks, and a Queen of spades. His gold tooth glinted in the light as he smiled again.


"No carga, marinheiro," said Joao, shrugging his shoulders, signaling he didn't have the cash to pay off. As if the words were a cue, Gutzan and Arch shot back from the table and jumped to their feet, but Bin and Thornley sat still. In the same instant, a knife sailed over Joao's left shoulder and pierced the air over the table, finally penetrating the surface -- right through the Queen of spades. Gutzan and Arch sat back down. Thornley reached for the cash on the table and grabbed all he could under the icy cold stare from the guy pulling the knife from the table.


The next move was Joao's, who took the paper IOU he had scribbled, handed it to Thornley and rose, motioning the four crewmen with a wiggle of his finger to follow him. The men got up and, with the Brazilians escorting them, headed for the door.


Joao led them behind the building and through a thicket toward a narrow, darkened street.


"This is not good," Bin said quietly. "Let's run for it."


Joao led the men past a couple of darkened houses to dilapidated wooden garage and motioned them in. One of the other men twisted a light bulb in a dangling socket until the light came on.


"Now, I pay," Joao said. He led the crewmen to a wooden box, dragged a couple of old tires from the top, flipped open the lid and gingerly opened a burlap bag inside.


"Aqui ... here," he said, again summoning the men with a wiggling finger.


Gutzan was the first to look inside.


"Wot?" A pause. "Wot the devil? I snake! A friggin' killer snake. A man eater, by God!" He jumped back.


The other three were now standing at the side of the box looking in with varying reactions of horror and guarded amusement. Bin, smiling broadly, reached in and clasped the serpent with both hands about its head and gave a little tug, only to feel it stiffen its immense body. He held on.


"He's only a boa," the Indian advised his friends. "He won't bite, I'll tell you."


"No, anaconda," Joao corrected him. "Not boa. Anaconda, marinheiro."


Thornley now understood this was his payment from the poker game. He shook his dark locks from his face and told Bin to push the monstrous thing's head back into the sack and scroll the sides up. Not one to leave a card game empty-handed, he decided to accept the collateral as his.


"I like him," said Thornley. "I'm keeping him."


"Wot you going to call him, then?" inquired Gutzan. "Satan? Lucifer. That's a good one for the slimy demon. Wait, wot about Edwin? Edwin Heath."


Thornley stared at the sack. "I reckon I'll call him Booth," he said without elaborating. "Yes, Booth. Gimme a bleedin' hand, mates."


He found a piece of string to tie around the top of the sack and, with the help of Arch and Bin, lifted it out. Gutzan was having none of it.


Thornley, Bin and Arch hefted what had been a flour bag from the box and shuffled toward the darkened door and followed their trail back the front of the noisy club, where the loitering crowd shouted, whistled and hooted at the crewmen. They evidently knew what was in the pulsating, wiggling bag and were enjoying the culmination of a grand gag on the foreigners.


The four, knowing taxis didn't run through the neighborhood regularly, huddled for a minute to figure out how they would get back to the ship. One of the men in the crowd crept up to the foursome, stood behind Gutzan and ran a finger up his spine while letting out a loud "hiss-s-s-s!" Gutzan jumped two feet off the ground and, once he had landed, swung around with both fists raised. But the other three, realizing the bleak odds of prevailing in a scrap in such a situation, held him back. The crowd of Brazilians went into hysterics, a couple of them unable to stand they were laughing so hard.


In a gesture of sportsmanship, or, perhaps, gratitude for providing so much fun, the fellow who had terrorized Gutzan left on his motorbike, a little Honda 90, to fetch a taxi. He returned five minutes later, still grinning, with a VW cab behind him.


Thornley, Arch and Bin hauled the snake-bearing burlap to the front and lifted it into the trunk, and the men piled into the car as the crowd of Brazilians whistled and hissed farewell.


The discussion on the way back revolved around how they would get the anaconda onto the ship. Gutzan's suggestions that they drop it at any corner were rebuked by Thornley, who had already acquired a peculiar fondness for the reddish-brown serpent. The idea of bribing security officers at the gangway was quickly dismissed. Staging a drunken fight to divert the officers' attention was briefly considered, but all agreed it would only get them a fast ticket to the Captain's Log. It was Bin who hatched the idea of grapefruits to camouflage the reptile at the gangway. The men nodded in agreement and ordered the taxi to stop at a grocery shop, where they loaded their arms with a dozen ripe, lime orbs. At the pier, out of the officers' sight, they packed the grapefruits on top of Booth after hefting him from the trunk. Booth, wondering what was going on, rose his head from the fruit, his tongue slashing the air in front of his snout. Bin once again grabbed the snake's head and pushed it back in amid the grapefruits.


The usual security contingent of two was on duty at the gangway as the three men -- Gutzan was still keeping a safe distance from the snake sack -- approached.


"ID's? Oh, we know you lot," said one of the men. "What the devil's in the sack? A load of loot from cards, then?" He laughed, quite amused with his jibe.


"Grapefruit, so very good in the morning," said Bin. "You would like one or two, sir?" he went on, opening the sack. "Juicy ones, you would like? Here. Here." He tossed a couple to each of the officers, who grinned and nodded the foursome aboard.


There wasn't a word among them as they carried the sack below, but once in Thornley's cabin, the whispering conspirators delved into where they would hide their slithering booty.


"I have just the place," said Thornley, as Booth raised his head from the burlap.


 


Disco music blasted from the wall of speakers at the edge of the massive dance floor in the club, thumping out mostly Latino hits mixed with English staples from the BeeGees. The inky black, smoky air was sliced by reflections from the glimmering mirrored ball rotating below the ceiling.


Like the music, the crowd was mixed: British and Americans from the Majestic, Germans, Italians and Dutch from the cruise ships also in port, and Brazilians, who seemed friendly enough and eager to mix and have a good time with the guests.


Drinks flowed from the island-bars placed throughout the club, which appeared to be an old warehouse and was called The Cowboy. This is where Sal and I found ourselves after dinner with Gordon, who had said he would stay on board to get organized and might see us later. We never met up, of course, but Sal and I did see Cookie, Dottie, Danielle and Fiona, who were traveling as a unit as usual. In fact, I danced with all four of them, and then a couple of bronze-skinned Brazilian girls, while Sal took to the floor with Watson, Hatch and a couple of the other officers who happened by.


Well into the wee hours but still before dawn, we caught a cab back to the ship, sharing it with a couple of singers, a husband-wife duo who sang breezy island songs in the ship's lounges. The couple, Americans who had met a few years back while working separate gigs in Puerto Rico, performed as Bruce and Bonnie Cullen, although their real married name Culbertson, and his real given name was Alvin. Names aside, the pair turned out to be quite friendly and invited us to join them in a nightcap. They fetched a bottle of champagne and four glasses from their cabin and we moved two decks up to get a better view of the sunrise.


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© By Buzz Adams