Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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17


The alarm clock on a shelf just above my bed landed on my head, startling me out of a sound sleep and scaring me half to death. A second later the books all followed it to my pillow. As I sat up rubbing my forehead, I heard a groan of the ship's metal that's so familiar in high seas when the power of the waves stresses the steel joints of the vessel. I felt a rise, as if I were in an elevator, then a turn sideways, as if in a giant cradle, and more of our books and a vase took a dive from the shelf at the side of the bed. Then came the sensation of a drop and another sideways slide. I picked up the clock: 3:50 a.m., maybe an hour later, depending on our time zone. Another lurch and groan of the ship, and a loud crash outside in the passageway, perhaps a tray hitting the deck. I looked out the porthole; the sky was clear, no sign of a storm or bad weather.


"My God, what's going on?" Sal said as she pulled the covers back and sat up. I had no answer. No one had told us about the African Rollers.


Off the southern tip of the continent, massive swells were being unleashed by the confluence of powerful currents where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, and a watery welcome mat to Cape Town was being yanked from beneath our feet.


We couldn't sleep amid all this, and I was now anxious to see what the rollers looked like from the decks above. Fetching some clothes, I was thrown against the wall. Putting on my trousers, shirt and shoes was a clumsy affair that drew a giggle from Sal. I tossed her clothes to her while she sat on the bed to get dressed.


Like circus acrobats on a tightrope, we walked with arms spread-eagled toward the door, opened it and made our way down the corridor. A rolling tea tray, abandoned in the passage, made a tentative move toward the left wall, but as the next roller hit, it slammed into the right side as if pushed by a ghostly vandal, spilling its contents of biscuits, trays, teapots and dishes.


The lifts, evidently disabled by the motion, weren't running, so we made the ascent by the stairwell, clinging onto the railing with each step like a couple of drunks. At Upper Deck, we detoured into the hallway and to the disco bar, which was in utter shambles; large speakers were scattered about the dance floor, the electric piano was knocked over, and contents of the bar were scattered about the deck. As we looked, an officer came by to survey the damage.


"The galleys are a fitful mess. But breakfast, such as it is, shall be served as usual," he said. As the ship took another roll, a single goblet hanging precariously in a rack over the bar hit the deck and shattered. "Of course, the higher up, the greater a swing to these Cape Rollers. Devilish, aren't they? Can I help you with something?"


I gulped, thinking of what I would find in the office a deck up. Sal politely refused his offer and we headed up to Boat Deck. The ship took another big toss, freezing us in our tracks for a moment.


She unlocked 8203 and the place looked as if it had been ransacked. The filing cabinets were tipped over, the drawers had spilled out and all their contents were on the floor; the radio and recorder had also been pitched from their places, and the bookcase was down, with all the books scattered. Likewise, the contents of the bar had been emptied out but, mercifully, none of the bottles were broken.


Bewildered, Sal sat in a chair, and I walked to the drapes to let in some light. The scene to which we had grown accustomed during the past weeks, a panorama of blue ocean, changed as drastically as if a new film slide was being projected: Cape Town was before us. We were angled toward the docks, and a tug boat a quarter mile off was puffing its way toward the Majestic's bow. Beyond the docks at the shoreline was the wide, jagged skyline of white, tan and gray buildings; the glass faces of the city's skyscrapers glinted sparkles of orange from the rising sun. Rising in the city's background was the plateau known as Table Mountain, basking in a golden early-morning glow, its outer reaches cradling Cape Town as it awakened from its slumber.


Another roller sent the ship into a pitch, but it was gentle compared to the earlier swells. We had apparently entered calmer waters. We began to straighten up the office, stopping occasionally to see the port at Africa's southern tip draw closer. Soon we were being nuzzled toward a concrete pier, and passengers began appearing on deck to take in the sight. We had nearly finished cleaning up the office when there was a knock at the door. It was Bruce Cullen. His usual easy smile was gone.


With his foot holding the door open, he asked if we had a Polaroid camera.


"There's been a lot of damage to the instruments, especially drum sets," he said. "Not so much our stuff, but some of the boys in Delon's band and in the smaller clubs. We need some pictures, insurance reports, you know."


"Sure," I said. "Where is that camera?"


"We usually keep it in the closet. No wait, I used it the other day in Tristan," said Sal. "This place is such a mess. Oh yes ... " She reached under the side of the desk and pulled it up. "Let's go."


We went from the disco bar to the Quarterdeck Ballroom and a couple of the smaller bars, where damage was less extensive, and snapped a dozen or so shots. Bruce thanked us as we handed over the pictures.


Rather than going straight back to the office, we decided to duck into the Parisienne for breakfast. The rollers had taken their toll in the dining room, where waiters and busboys were cleaning up the last of the hundreds of table settings that had slid to the deck. The serving stations, where trays and most of the dishes were stored, got the worst of it.


Ivan told us that they knew about the rollers from past voyages, but they seemed to be particularly severe this time.


"Don't know why, must be the tides and phase of the moon or something," Ivan said as he put a plate of kippers before me. "All I know is I've been through here a dozen times, and this time they nearly threw my from me bed."


The lines had been tied to the deck and the gangway was being hoisted into place by the time we finished breakfast. We decided to tour the city, but returned to the office quickly to finish picking up the place. Putting the camera back in the closet, I noticed that all the flats were in a neat stack, 15 or 18 inches high, as though they hadn't been affected in the least by the ship's wild rolls. The flats, made of a heavy-gauge paper not as thick as cardboard but thicker than writing paper, were piled to the side of the wall panel where the galleon was hidden, and only partially in front of it. But I knew they had been moved, because I had made sure that they directly in front of the panel the last time I had opened it.


With so much to see in Cape Town, I didn't want to waste time worrying about the galleon, although that uneasy feeling came back, knowing that someone had been in here. I decided not to even mention my latest discovery to Sal, but when we left, I told her to make sure the office was locked.


Although immigration officers had boarded while we were still approaching Cape Town, they seemed to have been slow setting up their passport checking desk in the ballroom. Consequently, queues had formed at the tables. Sal said she knew it would be a half hour to 45 minutes before we could be cleared to disembark, so we decided to walk on deck while the queues got shorter. On deck, Clement Sevigny was standing at the railing, one foot on a lower crossbar, staring blankly at the city.


"Are you going into town?" Sal asked. "There must be a place that sells those hot dishes you like."


He turned slowly with a faint smile. "Do you want me to be your guide?" he asked with some sarcasm.


"We thought we'd go to Table Mountain, maybe a beach, just to look around. Have you been here?" I said.


"I cannot go. Or, put it like this, I don't wish to go. Have you forgotten where we are?" he hesitated a moment. "Look at me."


He still had that half smile. "We wouldn't be able to sit on the bus together, or even go to the same beach. This isn't my place, you see?"


I knew what Clement was talking about when I looked at his eyes, seeing anger, hurt and frustration. It made me feel awkward and embarrassed. But I wouldn't really understand the full scope of what he was talking about until we were ashore.


Graciously, Clement refused to go on about the unfairness of the apartheid policy that was still in force in South Africa, despite his feelings. He said he was needed on board for most of the day to run electrical hookups.


"It's very odd and ironic," he said. "I must stay on board, but, haven't you heard, two others are being asked to go ashore, permanently."


"Who?" said Sal.


"Then you haven't heard. What kind of reporters are you? You know Joe, the tea man from Malta. The chap with the tattoos. He's been a good worker. I've known him for years and he's never been in trouble, not a black mark, if you'll pardon the expression, on his record. Hardly ever drank. All of a sudden, bang, he's put off," said Clement, showing the angry eyes again.


"Joe? He comes around every afternoon like clockwork. Why him?" said Sal.


"Haven't a clue. I saw him in his cabin. He was mad. It was the first time, come to think of it, I've ever seen him so angry. Just throwing his gear into a bag, cursing, I suppose, but I couldn't right understand him," said Clement.


"Did he say why, what went wrong?" Sal persisted.


"Like I say, he was just ... " He stopped moment and looked down as baggage was being unloaded. "All I understood was, `The man, the money man.' Not Old Man, that would have meant the captain. No, just, `the money man.'


"And Joe's not the only one gone. Look, down there."


The first stream of passengers was filing down the main gangway to the pier several decks below. One of the first onto the concrete landing was wearing a long dress, white blouse and a wide-brimmed, straw sun bonnet. She seemed to have no difficulty hefting a large, brown duffel bag in one hand and suitcase in the other. Several steps from the pier, she turned toward the ship, and swung the bag onto her shoulder before turning and walking on.


"Gages!" I said. "Trevor Gages. Trevor's off?"


"For good," said Clement. "I feel bad for him. The fellow's just a bit mixed up, but he's not a bad sort. Just right mixed up."


"Where's he going to go?" Sal asked.


"I haven't a notion. I talked to him last night down in the hospital. He was still a little woozy from whatever drugs they gave him. I felt bad. I gave him my mother's address in Seychelles, though I don't know if he'll go there. He took the paper with the address and put it with his things, then said good-bye."


"He was stowing away, right? Did he say what happened, how he got caught?" Sal asked.


"He said some, but it was all rather jumbled. From what I heard from the other lads, it was a crazy scene."


 


 


Trevor had been stowing away in the unused area between decks, living on food snatched from the sumptuous buffets and whatever he could grab from the crew's mess when no one was around. He had been pilfering clothes from cabins while the ship was in port to stockpile his wardrobe of women's outfits, and had equipped his secret quarters with a radio and earphones and some books from the ship's library, which he read with the aid of a flashlight snatched from below decks. After staging his mysterious disappearance from the ship, he created a comfortable little nest in the "uncommitted" area, sneaking in and out when no one was around.


And, of course, it was the same vacant area in the ship's architecture where Thornley, Bin and company had decided to stash Booth. The snake's quiet presence was unknown to Trevor as he sneaked in and out of his hideaway dozens of times. But the peaceful cohabitation ended one afternoon in a living nightmare for Trevor.


A day out of Tristan, while Trevor was napping, the pleurisy-ridden snake silently sought out a warmer place for its own nap and slithered to the bed Trevor had fashioned from linens taken from the ship's ample supply closets. While Trevor slept, the anaconda had wrapped one quarter of its length around Trevor's right leg, good enough for two coils, and was starting its second coil around his waist. Trevor woke up when his leg, under the squeeze, began to feel felt limp and numb. Still with no idea how he had managed to ensnare himself so tightly in what he thought was his blanket, Trevor reached for his flashlight and snapped it on. Booth, his tongue waggling madly from his snout, was staring Gages in the face, nose-to-nose.


After a moment of silent horror, Trevor leaped -- or tried to -- from his bed, but was brought down to the steel deck by the anaconda's sheer weight. The serpent coolly coiled itself one more time around its prey's trunk and started to draw its powerful body tighter. While he could still scream, Trevor let out a shriek that echoed through the tomb-like steel chamber as if it were a megaphone, and attempted to drag himself closer to the hatch.


A full minute, maybe two, passed before Arch Toth heard a shriek, then a second one.


"The friggin' bloody monster's got someone," Arch said to himself. He rushed from the crew galley, down a short passageway and up a ladder to what he referred to as the door to nowhere, and heard a muffled cry for help.


Toth shoved the steel door open. His eyes widened and his body froze in terror as he saw the powerful anaconda completely coiled around the writhing Gages.


"Wot? Who is it? Trevor, is that you, lad? No, can't be. Gages? That you?" Toth said in disbelief. "What the hell are you doing in here? We thought you was bloody drowned. Good God, now look at you!"


Trevor weakly held out an arm that was still free and Toth tugged for a few seconds, but he could see that would not loosen Booth's vicelike grip. Toth made a couple of sudden jumps and jerky leaps in a lame effort to startle and perhaps distract Booth, but it appeared that the snake, after weeks of not eating, had developed an appetite and was not about to give up his meal. Or, maybe he just liked Gages.


"Be right back, son," Toth said as he bolted from the opening before turning back, shutting the hatch and starting off again.


He ran down the corridor, calling for Thornley and Bin, who by coincidence were on their way to Booth's hideaway to take him for his afternoon walk in the sun.


"Booth's twirled up on that kid Gages tighter than the stripe on a barber pole, by God. The boy's going to be porridge if we don't pull him off. Come along, move it."


The three men dashed to Gages' horror chamber and thrust the door open. Trevor was almost passed out.


"God's bloody cross!" said Thornley. "How are we going to pry that bastard off? 'e's on 'im like a slimy fat grapevine."


"Oh yes, I know the trick," said Bin quietly. "He is hungry. Excuse me, I will be right back."


Bin vanished and seconds later was on t'up forward, straddling a metal mesh fence around the ship's kennel that was tucked below the great steel platform at the base of the funnel. He placed one leg on the fake fireplug in the enclosure and whistled. A little white poodle trotted out from a wooden house.


"Come on, fellow, I am going to borrow you," said Bin, as he gently picked up the dog and looked at the silver tag on its collar. "Yes, my little Dumont. You are going to be a hero today."


Bin tucked the poodle under his shirt and, looking at both sides to make sure no one was watching, swung his leg back over the fence and sprinted back to the hideaway. Two or three times along the way, the small Indian ducked in dark corners to avoid passing crewmen and an officer making his cabin-inspection rounds. Bin kept his fingers wrapped about the dog's snout to keep it from yipping while patting its head to keep little Dumont calm.


Once back to the hatch, Bin motioned Arch and Thornley inside and told them to close the steel door. The flashlight, rolling gently from side to side with the ship's motion, cast an eerie display of long, hazy shadows as Bin unbuttoned his shirt and let Dumont jump out.


Booth's head popped up, his eyes fixed on the little poodle, which innocently sniffed the floor and trotted playfully about the chamber. The coils loosened, one at a time, as Booth's head followed the dog as if pulled by magnetism. Slowly, the snake's body followed, untwining itself as he attempted to a corner the poodle, which was quite unaware of the threat and continued to romp about.


Arch urged his mates to grab Trevor and run, but Bin, in his ever gentle, persuasive way, advised another minute of silence so as not to spook Booth back to his original position. Finally, with the snake almost clear, the three men moved in on Trevor, who was now passed out from fright and near-suffocation. Thornley slapped Trevor a couple of times to bring him around, and Bin found a half-full bottle of claret at the side of the makeshift bed and dumped it in Trevor's face. Gages shook his head and bolted upright, his eyes growing wider with each passing second, his body quaking ever more violently.


His eyes fixed upon the slithering snake, which was now moving in on Dumont. Booth's head made leaping, bullet-fast charge at the dog, which caused all three men to jump with fright. But it was too much for Trevor, who let out a scream like an air raid siren, bolted from the hatch and sprinted down the corridor. The three men decided to let him go, then calmly, coolly, closed the hatch behind them and went back about their afternoon's business, each taking off in a different direction. Of course, the three had quite forgotten about little Dumont.


A hotel officer making his inspection rounds in the crew area was the first to come upon the raving Gages, who reeked of alcohol and sputtered wild tales of giant serpents entangling his body. The officer called for help and the quivering, babbling Gages was escorted to a secure cabin next to the hospital.


The officers, convinced the stowaway was suffering from delirium tremens, suggested a potent sedative for their captive. The last thing Trevor remembered before he awakened 18 hours later was Nurse Frank standing over him, a slight smile on her painted face, clutching a needle that reminded him of the Empire State Building.


"There, love, let's see that bum ... "


 


 


We looked back at the city from the edge of Table Mountain. The sun was high and its full midday strength baked the craggy rocks, although a constant breeze provided some relief from the heat for us. Off in the distance, beyond the shaded avenues and pier where the Majestic waited, a swirl of dark blue sea curled into a current flanked by waters of a lighter, greenish hue at the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans intermingled.


We hiked some of the trails on the plateau after making the 3,000-foot ascent by cable car, and after a couple of hours returned to the base and hired a car to the center of the modern, efficient and orderly Cape Town. Tucked within neat neighborhoods of two-story homes and shops was the National Art Museum, which displayed a photo study of native tribes, spirit masks, clay vessels, statues, bronze figurines and sculptures, paintings and a variety of artifacts. We went to the botanical gardens, where Sal and I relaxed in the shade while plotting our next move, to Sea Point on the outskirts of the city.


From all appearances, the cost of living here seemed quite reasonable; at grocery markets, lettuce sold for 2 cents a head, and signs over street carriages loaded with fruit advertised apples and peaches for 2 or 3 cents each. The bus ride from Cape Town to Sea Point, which cost the equivalent of a quarter, afforded a view of neat cottages and midrises with large gardens and bulging with semitropical plants. But under the serene beauty and lurked a colder, less-friendly face of South Africa; liquor stores, pubs and restaurants were marked with signs that said "Whites Only," "Europeans Only" and "Non-whites Only," written in English and Afrikaans.


We climbed down from the top of the double-decker bus and walked past three or four beaches on the Atlantic side of the Cape of Good Hope, finally settling on a patch of the rocky, whites-only beach. Neither Sal nor I had brought along swimsuits, and although the water looked inviting, the conditions were less than hospitable. Due to the boulders, swimming in the open ocean was impossible, so concrete walls were built between the huge rocks. The water was icy, although, we learned later, it was much warmer on the Indian Ocean side. So we waded, knee-deep, to cool us off from the broiling rays of the afternoon sun.


 


I thought the tap at the door must have been Grigg's. He had just finished a stint on the night radio watch a day earlier and had promised to stop by for a Scrabble match. But in walked Gordon, just back from dinner, wearing a white dinner jacket and black bow tie. He sat in the chair near Sal's desk and pulled a Dunhill cigarette from the blood-red box and lit it with a gold lighter.


"You've survived the rollers, I see. Jolly good," Gordon said dryly.


We had left Cape Town and were steaming around the Cape of Good hope toward Durban on South Africa's east coast, where we would arrive the next day. That gave us the night off, since papers would be available in port.


"What's the surprise in Durban?" I asked. "A full-fledged tidal wave? Cyclone?"


"How's our friend Bhutto? Still hanging about in the wings, is he? Haven't they done the deed yet?" said Gordon. "Such drama, for goodness sakes."


"Sells papers," said Sal. "Watch for tomorrow's episode. Any gossip?"


"Oh, come then. You reporters have got know about the two put off in Cape Town. You must. The steward who served tea and that Gages boy. Such a dreadful scene."


"We heard some. Come on, out with it. The pencil's down. Fingers are off the keys. Tape recorder's off. Shoot," I said.


"All right, all right. Security's in fits. They finally figured out he was staying in an abandoned area somewhere aft. The ship's so huge, there must be a hundred of those little hideaways. They were sure they had solved it, you know, the theft. But they checked that place top to bottom, went through all his things. Oh, they found a lot -- earrings, a mink, jewelry, but no sign of the galleon. And they made sure he wasn't leaving with it when he went off the ship. Went through all his things before he walked down the gangway," said Gordon.


"Have you got any Cointreau and tonic in this place yet?" he said, getting from his seat and walking to the bar.


"What about Joe, the steward? What was his crime?" I asked.


"That's even more strange. After all, he wasn't running around trying to make a fashion statement in stolen women's outfits, was he? All I can get from security is that he was caught someplace where he shouldn't have been. Now what can that mean? But my instincts tell me that he was someplace close to the galleon. All I can see in this bar is rum and more rum! And gin."


I swallowed hard, remembering the afternoon the tea was left locked in the office. Joe must have seen something. The flats, they were all in a tidy stack after the Cape Rollers.


"But they checked his belongings too before he was put off, and nothing. No golden boat. Nothing! Of course, they had already fired the poor stiff, so they couldn't turn around and bring him back. Pity," said Gordon. "Hope he lands a job with Pacific and Orient."


"It shall turn up, though. The galleon is on the Majestic this moment. I know it."


I could see Sal glancing toward the closet; and Gordon, looking up from the bar, also noticed as she looked toward the opening.


"Aha, the game's over, you two. It's hidden in there, I know it. Let's have a look ... "


I felt like I had just gripped a 10,000-volt wire as Gordon stepped toward the closet and snapped on the light. He can't open that panel, no, please. We'll hang, yeah, just like Bhutto.


"What? What you looking for?" I asked.


"You must have some socked away in here. Some tonic. Can't drink gin straight, you know. It's not proper," said Gordon, who was now gently kicking aside stacks of papers and pawing around in the closet.


"Next port, we'll stock up," said Sal. "Tonight, I'll buy drinks. Let's go down a flight and see what's doing."


"Oh, you can take a hint," said Gordon. "What are we waiting for?"


I put on my tuxedo jacket and Sal grabbed her shawl and purse. She locked the door as we left.


The disco bar was back in working order a deck down, blaring out the awful tunes like "Disco Duck" and "Hit Me With That Rhythm Stick." I secretly wished that a few more of the speakers had taken a hit from the rollers so we could just listen to John Delon's graceful band tunes.


Looking like a stand of white birches in their starched uniforms, a dozen or more young officers loomed about the carpeted area off the dance floor, chatting up young ladies and sipping drinks. Lights from the distant shore twinkled in the darkness beyond the windows lining the bulwark.


Gordon found a table and the three of us sat. In a moment, a steward showed up and we ordered drinks, a Cointreau and tonic for Gordon, white wine for Sal and a pint of lager for me. The volume of our conversation was elevated to a something shy of shouts. Gordon opened his Dunhills and offered me one before taking a cigarette for himself and lighting both with his golden lighter. Taking a puff, he nodded toward the dance floor.


"She's back out, I see," he said. "Lucinda, poor old Philburton's widow."


I waited a moment and turned, as if looking toward the bar, and there she was, in a sheer black gown, being led to the dance floor by one of the senior officers.


"I suppose the mourning is over," Gordon said with a half smile, flicking an ash. "Such a dreadful scene with Sir Philburton. That was before Rio, wasn't it?"


"Yes, had to be," I said. "The burial was after we crossed the Equator, you, know Neptune's court and all. Did you know Sal and I went through all that razzmatazz?"


"David Hallsford talked us into it," said Sal.


"Oh, splendid. `A shellback, ye!' Did you find it appetizing, Sal?"


"I never was much of a fan of fish guts," she said.


"You know what that Neptune guy said to me?" I said, leaning over toward Gordon. "Something like, `Forget the galleon.' Sort of like a threat. That's odd, don't you think? I can't figure it out." I had my suspicions, but I wanted to know what Gordon thought.


"Neptune? He's played by that cretinous goon, Allan MacQuarrie. A low-class thug, he is, sort of the self-anointed schoolyard bully of the ship. Oh, pay him no mind; word of the theft is all over the place, you must know that, and he's just trying to intimidate someone, wagging his unshaven jaw like that," Gordon said before sipping his drink. "I would imagine security's watching him closely, wouldn't you say?" That gave me little reassurance, knowing that the galleon was stashed behind our office closet panel.


"Did Joe have the key to our ... " Sal started to say, but was interrupted by Hallsford, who appeared at our table. He greeted us and asked Sal to dance.


As they left, Gordon said, "Did Joe what?"


"I don't know, something like, `Did Joe have the tea?' " I lied. Gordon's only response was a lifted eyebrow and puff of his cigarette.


I'm not a big dancer, but as soon as Sal and Hallsford returned I took her back to the floor while "Jive Talkin' " was blasting out of the speakers.


"Forget about Joe and the key," I told her. "He doesn't have to know where it is, not yet." She nodded affirmatively and winked.


A fresh round of drinks had been delivered to table when we returned and Hatch and Watson has also pulled up chairs. With the blasting music, the conversation had disintegrated into separate dialogues, which were further disrupted as the officers took breaks to dance and get new drinks. Lucinda seemed to be shaking away her grief on the dance floor, as a string of officers and a young-stud passenger decked out in a rose-colored jacket, black shirt opened to the chest and luminous white shoes took turns whirling her about to the thumping melodies of "Gloria," "Dancing Is Dangerous," "Jump to It," and the ever-discreet "Give It To Me Baby." By the second chorus of "Gimme that stuff, that sweet funky stuff," Lucinda and her white-shoed suitor had ascended into a state of disco serendipity, lost in each other's eyes as they alternately shook their booties and then became entwined in another's embraces, reminding me a little bit of how Gages must have writhed under Booth's reptilian clamp a few days earlier.


Eventually, even the little dialogues at our table were annihilated by the noisy music that seemed to rock the ship in its own sway. At a break well into the evening, Gordon said it was time to turn in, and the officers invited us up to Ward Room, where a party was just dawning.


The place was packed and the smoke-filled air with filled with the sweet, sprightly sounds of a concertina. Grigg sat in the center of a tight circle of people, who swayed and clapped to the music, while a bartender who seemed to be working in fast-motion tried to keep up with the demand of those standing two-deep at the rail.


Working like a magician, or as if possessed by Demon Alcohol himself, I watched as the barman placed two pint mugs under taps, and as they filled mixed a Manhattan and a vodka and tonic. At the moment he placed the two cocktails on the bar -- napkins under each -- he swirled around to collect the pint pots, which were each filled to about a hair's width below the brim. He shut the taps with an elbow and swung around again the place them on the bar, without spilling much more than a thimbleful from each. I didn't recognize the fellow, an officer with two stripes on his epaulets, and in fact probably would have remembered if I had seen him before, because he was missing his left arm from the elbow down.


Hallsford sidled up to me and stood silently for a minute while I watched.


"He's not really that fast," he said quietly. "After all, Lefty doesn't have to make change for his customers. We all use chits here, you know. Now then, what will you and the missus have?"


When it was his turn to order, Hallsford asked for a pint and white wine for the editors.


The final word seemed to short Lefty's circuitry momentarily, freezing his machine-like motion as if rusted by a bucket of icewater. He plunked an empty mug down and bobbed his head sideways until he could see past the crowd at the bar.


"The editors? Ah, for them my speciality!" he said with a wink and grin, before turning and, as if he had been reprogrammed, going back to work again.


Hallsford turned toward us. "He calls it the `corpse reviver.' Number two, I believe."


In a minute or two Hallsford delivered the drinks, a strange concoction of lemon juice, Kina Lillet, Cointreau and gin, with a dash of Absinthe.


"When you finish that, he would like you to try `the mule's kick.' Oh, and here's his card. He asked me to give it to you."


Lefty? His card didn't exactly say that, but it must have been his. "Elgin McNash," said the bold letters in the middle. The smaller print at the top advertised used cars, land, whiskey, manure, nails, bongoes, fly swatters, marital aids, racing forms. And services at the bottom: wars fought, governments run, uprisings quelled, revolutions started, bars emptied, tigers tamed, portraits painted, parties crashed, orgies organized, computers programmed, art auctioned.


Lefty was a fairly short, squat guy with bushy black eyebrows that almost covered his eyes, and a ruddy, slightly puffy face. To disguise his baldness, long strands of black hair were swept like straight dark pencil lines drawn with a ruler over the crown of his head from a part that started about a quarter inch over the top of his left ear.


"He's the cartoonist?" Sal asked Hallsford. Grigg by now had the crowd hopping around and kicking to the airy tunes in a dance that looked like a cross between square and Morris dancing.


I took a couple of swallows of the drink Lefty had mixed.


"Oh, he used to draw cartoons for the Sun, you know. That turned out to be too sedentary for this bloke. He left London with some chums who had put their savings together for an old sailing yacht, and it was off to the Canaries, and then across to South America. They worked their way up the coast of Brazil to Guyana and then to the Caribbean, where they crisscrossed from Mexico to the islands and so on for some time."


Lefty had never been completely forthcoming about his Central American ventures to his shipmates, although his card teased at the truth.


But Hallsford had pieced together enough snippets of stories that leaked out when Lefty drank to be able to sketch a mosaic of his pre-Majestic days.


Lefty and his friends had spent the better part of two years rebuilding and rigging a castoff, neglected 140-foot schooner they had won at an auction in Southend-on-Sea, planning initially run charters for British tourists to northern Spain and on to the Canary Islands. The 50-year-old boat had had quite a diverse if not illustrious sailing history, starting out as a fisherman's yacht in the mid-20s. Despite design intentions, the schooner caught far fewer fish than it won races up and down the western coast of England and across the channel, and at one time was considered the fastest racing boat of its kind in all of England and Wales. During the war, the Royal Navy laid claim to Alice, painted her cream-and-green hull battleship gray, bolted a 50-caliber machine gun on her bow and, making the most of her remarkable speed and maneuverability, put her to work as a pilot schooner. The one-time racer's new function was to guide friendly cargo ships past mines and anti-sub nets and into harbor. Alice was restored to her original graceful colors after the war, and changed hands between three or four owners before Lefty and his crew got a hold of the neglected craft at the Southend boatyard auction, where she lay like a dusty jewel hidden amid rotting and rusting hulks on the block for a final lease on life.


Once Alice was again shipshape, sea excursions commenced from Bournemouth, England, across the channel and past the French coast to northern Spain. As a credit to her workmanship so many years earlier, Alice held up fine in the surf of the often-turbulent Bay of Biscay, but the passage was far too much for the passengers, who spent most of their time getting sick over the side or, worse, in their cabins. Even if they had done their share of the shipboard duties, as was expected, their fare was not enough to turn a profit for the four partners, whose seafaring skills were far sharper than their business instincts. On the second trip, the pleasure voyages came to an abrupt end in the Canaries, where Lefty arranged for the guests' air passage back to England. He and his friends departed, lingering southward along the African coast and waiting until they found a pattern of extended fair westward sailing weather. At the right time, they pounced, turning due west and made the short Atlantic crossing to Brazil.


As Hallsford had said, they made their way up the coast of Brazil, although they had no destinations or schedules, arriving finally in Guyana short of cash and provisions. It was in the aptly named port of Morawhanna where they agreed with a group of miscreants they had met in a pierside cafe to take on a cargo of several dozen bales of cannabis for a payment that would be made partially up-front and completed when they off-loaded to a mother ship out at sea, which in turn transferred the contraband to smaller ships along the U.S. coastline.


It was through their contacts with the drug-smuggling underworld that Lefty and his band learned of a money-making option they found somewhat more palatable than drug running: smuggling arms to Belize.


As it moved toward an elusive independence, the former British Honduras had become the object of threats by neighboring Guatemala, which had claimed the land since long before it became a British colony in 1862. Loosely organized militias quietly took shape in pockets of civilization amid the low mangrove swamps and tropical jungles of the heavily forested Belize. Intermediaries had directed Lefty and his crew to cays and tiny ports in Mexico, Panama and Honduras to pick up U.S.-made weapons for delivery to the militias. Once again, as a precaution, Alice's deck was fitted with a 50-caliber gun. At the no-nonsense urging of their suppliers, the four were urged to remove their British Union Jack and paint out their boat's name. They complied without question, and in a self-indulgent and cocky gesture of rebellion, flew a Jolly Roger on the main mast.


Like their British forebears who preyed on Spanish shipping in the days of the buccaneers, Lefty and his crew took an occasional swipe at unsuspecting yachtsmen passing in their vicinity, just to test the speed of their vessel. Subliminally, they were also testing the strength of their immunity from the law, since they believed their gun-running operation had the British government's tacit stamp of approval. In these raids, however, the "plunder" seldom added up to much more than a few cases of beer or bottles of the best liquor on board. In fact, some of the victims were more amused than terrorized when they sighted the approaching Jolly Roger and laughingly turned over the booty to the raiders.


This went on for a little over a year or so, until the four decided they had flouted the law and danced with peril long enough. Their breeches full of cash, mostly American dollars, and some gold, their retraced their steps back to Brazil, made the eastward crossing and headed back home.


"His arm," said Sal, who was now handing her drink, barely touched, to me. She lowered her voice. "How did he lose it? Was it the gun-running or drug smuggling? What went wrong out there?"


"It wasn't out there," said Hallsford, smiling. "Not at all. That happened after he got back to England. An accident on the motor way, the M-5, I believe. Quite undramatic, actually. He doesn't say an awful lot about it."


 


Hallsford continued talking, but I was being drawn toward the dancing as Grigg, now out of his seat, squeezed more songs out of his concertina while dancing a jig. The Ward Room kept filling up with more officers, guests and ship performers; Stuart Benton, the magician; Cecile Boucher and the dancers; members of John Delon's band, and Cookie, Fiona, Danielle and Dottie.


Lefty kept pouring out the drinks and chits were by now a forgotten formality. Grigg was singing randy sea tunes, substituting Morse code dits and dahs for the most vulgar words, and a couple of the officers had hopped to the tops of tables at Grigg's side, which served as go-go platforms from which they stripped to the waist in accompaniment. Grigg's entertainment gave way to a kind of musical free-for-all as revelers took turns belting out their favorite songs to the jeers and hoots of the crowd. We sang, laughed, danced and drank on until the morning's first light from the starboard windows cast a pewter sheen on the cigarette smoke filling the room. I don't remember going back to our cabin, but that's where I found myself after we had docked in Durban.


 


Luckily, the roads from the dock were smooth and the cabbie piloted his car in a gentle manner as we took off from the pier. The sun, now directly overhead, beat down with such intensity that I had run to the waiting cab as if seeking shelter from a pounding rain. Its reflection sent a glow from the ivory-colored buildings of Durban. The smooth highway ended as abruptly as the city limits, however, and we were on a bumpier road leading to an outer province of the tribal people.


"Look, the hills. It reminds me of West Virginia," Sal said as she nudged me.


I squinted out the window.


"Oh come, no 'angover can be that bad," said Hallsford from the front seat. "Take a look, man."


The car slowed down, made a sharp turn and descended a steep hill before stopping. Grass huts stood at the perimeter of an open area shaded by trees. A line of Bushmen wearing leather loincloths and headbands, some of them wielding spears, trooped down a path and organized themselves into a line and began dancing as we got out of the car. The activity started slowly in spiritless, almost lethargic motions. As we walked closer to the grassy field where they performed, I could see the tired, wan look on the faces of some, while they eyes of others reflected bitterness, distrust. Maybe hatred.


The joyless, almost dreary pace of the dance seemed to pick up as a column of camera-toting passengers paraded down another path from a shiny silver bus with tinted-glass windows and big whitewall tires.


The ship had booked land tours from Cape Town to the Kagga Kamma Game Preserve in South Africa's Northern Cape Province, which promised the tourists a real-life experience on the rocky land to which the clan laid a tenuous claim. The passengers spent a day with some of the remaining Kalahari Bushmen, watching them string bows, prepare meals and act out an existence that was no longer genuine. At the end of the previous day, the tourists had slept in native-style huts, all part of the tour package.


The Bushmen had once roamed about all of what was now South Africa, but those who didn't melt into the mass found themselves in a different element in the government park where they now eked out a living as tourist exhibits.


Passengers clapped their hands and snapped pictures of the Bushmen in what a tour leader explained was a traditional welcoming dance. But, even through my sandpapery eyes, I could see the dance was a desperate act of survival.


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© By Buzz Adams