Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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18


The list of passengers sailing first-class had stayed pretty much intact as we sailed from Durban on a steamy February morning, although there were some changes along the way that continually gave the decks and public rooms a more international atmosphere. A wealthy movie maker from Delhi called Raj Kajaan had boarded with his contingent of two dozen relatives for the leg to Singapore. Although that would only take about two weeks, he brought a mountain of perhaps two dozen sea chests, each hand-carved from cedar and teak, trimmed in polished brass and stowed neatly by Thornley and his crew in spacious upper-deck cabins the movie man had occupied. The extra work for the baggage men was offset by the arrival of a young prince from Oman, who brought along his own army of servants, butlers and aides to personally attend to his sizeable trove of belongings.


Gone, at least for this segment of the voyage, was Senator Furbish, who had flown from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ostensibly on official business as a member of the maritime committee to drum up business for contract-hungry commercial shipbuilders in the United States. His visit there would lead back to the West Coast of the U.S. and on to Washington, where Furbish would fulfill some of his senatorial duties before rejoining the ship for its Pacific crossing. His departure gave rise to speculation that the senator was really on a mission to Vietnam to establish a dialogue with new government there, after the long war with the United States


But the fact that he had left Dandy behind on the Majestic also set tongues wagging that she refused to leave until she found Dumont, her poodle, which had mysteriously disappeared on board.


The ship steamed in a northerly course in calm seas off Madagascar, bearing for the Seychelles. Sal and I had been to a cocktail party in the Quarterdeck Ballroom, and as we entered the Parisienne, Ivan and Terry seemed to be an unusually chipper mood as they pulled chairs out to seat us at our table and handed menus to us.


Ivan recommended the grilled garlic prawns, served with spinach salad in sherry vinigarette. And as a starter, fiddlehead fern soup.


The other selections on the menu included crayfish and scallop cakes with mustard sauce and Californian asparagus, pork chops with mushroom wine sauce and peas with mint, braised red snapper with green onions, and ham with honey-apricot glaze and gingered carrots.


The desserts included lemon raspberry scones, peach chutney, and hutson trifle pound cake with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and kiwi fruit, covered with almonds and whipped cream.


We ordered white wine for starters, with Scottish salmon and caviar, and after some discussion agreed on the Australian prawns for me, and the crayfish, fresh from Tristan da Cunha, for Sal.


A wink from Terry signaled his approval as he took the order. Within a few minutes, our wine had arrived.


"Can you imagine? Seychelles. I wouldn't have even known the place existed a year ago," she said, taking a sip. "It's so far out there, it seems hardly possible we'll be there in a couple of days."


"Remember, we're going full-bore, day and night the engines are opened up," I reminded her. "Twenty-eight, 30 knots on calm seas, and we can make time. Let's see, 25 miles in an hour, 24 hours a day, and . . ."


"I get the point. But sometimes, it hardly seems we're moving."


I had given up on the math and was thinking about the turbines whining below, driving the two, six-bladed screws through the water. Over drinks one night a week or so back as we whiled away a couple of hours in the Ward room, Hatch had offered me a tour of the engine room, which was normally restricted to authorized personnel for security reasons. I figured the engineer's offer was prompted, at least in part, by the fact that he had a couple of drinks in him, but with my curiosity aroused, I quickly took Hatch up on the offer before he could change his mind. We had entered a nondescript hatch at One Deck aft and descended a narrow stairway to the power plant, a maze of pipes, gauges, valves, catwalks and electrical lines forming a mesh over the three boilers that pressurized 950-degree water to power the mighty turbines. A digital meter between boilers two and three unhaltingly clicked off the tons of oil needed to slack the mammoth thirst of the 110,000 horsepower plant, enabling it to turn the 18-inch diameter steel shafts spinning propellers measuring 30 and a half feet end to end. The heat and muffled roar of the place conveyed a raw, almost intoxicating sense of power.


"Something wrong with your wine?" asked Sal, breaking me from my trance.


"Sixty-five thousand tons of oil," I said. "That's what it takes to fill her tanks."


"Why don't you just start with a sip of this Chablis. Didn't Terry call it Montmain?"


"So we're chugging 500 tons a day, that's what's moving us. Let's see, that's 20 or so tons an hour, so about a ton of oil, more or less, every three minutes." I rewarded myself for the mental mathematics with a sip of the wine. "So, by the time we finish dinner, Madge will have burned up 20 tons of oil. So we must be moving."


Sal stared for a minute and smiled.


"I think you need a vacation," she said, taking another sip.


Our appetizers arrived as the casino crowd walked in, each taking their places at the table across the aisle. We waved and exchanged greetings, and by the time our entrees arrived the dining room was full.


A steady hum of voices from hundreds of conversations filled the air of the Parisienne, with an occasional clinking glass and loud laugh punctuating the human music. The soft sounds of a violin concerto in the background provided the rhythm.


The Montmain had begun to do its work as I started in on my prawns, settling me into a soft haze of culinary pleasure. Sal was fast at work on her crayfish, glancing up now and again with a smile and dabbing melted butter from her lips. I raised my goblet for another drink.


It happened to be that moment when an English woman seated across the room felt a cool, scaly sensation whoosh over the top of her foot. It had been years since the woman, a very proper dowager named Glynis Townes-Cockerbush, had played footsie with anyone, and she certainly wasn't amused by the funny business under the table. She grew impatient when the sensation failed to cease and moved from the top of her foot to her ankle, and then back around to the front again. Lady Glynis heaved a deep breath and rose to her feet.


"Why, I never!" she harumphed, glaring at the squat little bachelor across the table.


"Madam?" the gentleman asked meekly, before placing his serviette to the side of his plate and rising to his feet.


Now sensing the caress at mid-calf and seeing that her table mate had engaged in no impropriety, Lady Glynis lifted the tablecloth with a thumb and forefinger, her pinky pointed straight up. It was Booth, entwining himself, ever so slowly, about her leg.


"Ah ... ah ... " she said, reeling and dropping her napkin to the deck.


The little man lifted the tablecloth at his side.


"Good Gawd almighty! What? Great saints above, it's a blistering snake!"


The dowager's eyes went white and she plopped to the deck, sending her seatmates to their feet.


"Boa of some sort, I believe," the man continued in his English clip, without moving a step. "Some water for the lady."


Those were the last audible words uttered before a chorus of screams and gasps arose. In an instant, people from several tables rose in unison like a human swell over the small ocean of tables. Another man's voice finally rose above the clamor, "Look down there. Gads! Monstrous, this thing. Get back, I say, it's a killer snake!"


Two men, each decked out in tuxedos, were now standing on their tables, stretching out their arms to help women to the tops as if pulling survivors from a boiling sea. A tall man flung his dinner jacket behind him and nimbly hopscotched his way across the tabletops, oblivious as to whether anyone was still seated, making his way toward the door. Dozens of other passengers were climbing to their chairs, but a few of the terrified women stumbled to the deck as they got tangled by their gowns and shawls in their haste to arise. A stream of frenzied passengers made a beeline toward the doorway and got out, but the exit was soon jammed by the thickening mass. A din of crashing glasses and plates, hoots, screams and profanities completely drowned out the soft music that had filled the dining room just a minute or so earlier.


A few brave -- or just inquisitive -- souls, still not sure what had triggered the bedlam, gathered at the sides of the Parisienne, some gingerly lifting the linen tablecloths to see what all the fuss was about. But screams of "Snake! Snake!" filled the air, triggering a full-fledged panic. From the crowd of bystanders stood a willing combatant, a gray-haired, portly and inebriated gent, who dashed to a serving table and snatched a metal tray and skewer. Jumping to the table, he raised the skewer over his head and twirled it in cavalier fashion.


"Come out, you slimy serpent. Come along then -- here I am!" he yelled, just before losing his balance and falling in a heap to the deck.


I had managed to down my second prawn amid the chaos, unaware for a time that the anaconda had found its way from its stowage room, into an air duct and into the dining room from a vent under a serving table. Sal seemed to block out the fuss for a while, concentrating for as long as she could on her crayfish and wine; she rose once, then sat, then stood a second time, but seeing that the exit was jammed, took her seat again. We clinked glasses and went on with our meal.


As the doorway started to clear, a band of a half-dozen seamen showed up, each armed with a pillowcase and broom. They began their hunt through the half-empty Parisienne and, hunched over as if ready to spring into action, whipped away a table cloth at a time like frenzied matadors in a search for their quarry. With each fling came a crash of dinnerware, but no Booth.


Booth by now had loosened his grip from the leg of Lady Glynis, who lay stone cold, flat on her back, on the deck. She was not dead, the clue being the occasional heave of her sizeable bust. Booth had slunk his way from the underside of one table to the next, deftly eluding his would-be captors.


The haphazard search went on for several minutes, as the crewmen took turns jabbing their brooms under the few tables that were still covered. In the meantime, Nurse Frank entered, a businesslike scowl on her face and her trusty black bag clutched under her arm. She headed straightaway for Lady Glynis and stooped to one knee when she arrived. She took a quick reading of the woman's pulse and pulled up her eyelids to make sure everything was in order before digging into her bag for a syringe. Ordering two passengers who stood at her sides to stand closer and grasp the dowager, the red-headed nurse administered the injection. As Lady Glynis came to, Nurse Frank pulled a cigarette from her bag, lit it and took a deep draw, then cocked her head upward and blew out a big puff of smoke.


Amid this sideshow, the haphazard search for Booth was zeroing in on a couple of tables near the vent where the slithering interloper had first entered. As Booth was spotted coiled about the center stand of the table, one of the crewmen called out, "Get ‘im!" But their prying and coaxing was to no avail as the snake refused to loosen its cement-like hold. The crew leader, surrendering his authority to a higher order, now gave the commend: "Get Lefty!"


Of course, Lefty, who had been in the game room coaching Captain Goodrow on the finer points of Space Invaders, had heard the commotion and was already bounding his way toward the Parisienne. With his only hand clutching the ivory handle of the knife tucked in the rear waist of his trousers, Lefty brushed past the knot of passengers at the doorway. At once, he spotted the group of crewmen gathered about the table at the rear of the dining room and, unsheathing the dagger, stopped cold. He lifted the gleaming blade slowly toward the center of his face and began taking measured steps toward the snake, which was still coiled about the table support.


"Ah, Beelzebub, your time is anon. Meet Saint Michael. Give us your head now, slimy devil!" He paused for a moment, still staring. "Lads, get your sacks ready!"


The dining room was now silent, with those still present staring in disbelief at Lefty. Glaring at his prey, he inched closer to the table and slowly lowered the knife as he stood a couple of feet away. As he bent over and his arm arched back slowly, clattering and thumping sounds, followed by muffled voices, arose from the galley. The swinging doors burst open and Bin Peshcancalliven stepped forth, pulling his arms from the grasp of one of the cooks who tried to hold him back.


"Please, do not harm the serpent, Master Lefty," Bin said as he walked toward the table. "Look, I shall take him and all will be fine, you see? Please, the knife, put it away Master Lefty, OK?" Bin, whose gaze had not veered from Booth, was now on his knees, his forehead almost touching the edge of the table.


"Gentlemen, a sack, if you please," the Indian said as he reached out a hand. A half minute passed and Booth loosened his grip and poked his head forward. In a moment, a foot, then a yard, of the anaconda's body was extended, moving gently toward Bin. He reached out a hand and it passed under his palm, then into a pillowcase he held open with his other hand. Now a slow-moving stream of lime and brown, Booth was flowing into the pillowcase while Bin remained motionless. A minute or so later, the sack bulged, with all of the snake inside.


"The top, close the top," one of the crewmen ordered in a half-whisper. Bin held up his right index finger.


"Some help, please. We will go now," Bin said softly.


Two of the crewmen helped Bin lift the sack, each grabbing at the top in order to avoid touching the ripples of snake in the lower part. Bin did his best to keep the pillowcase from touching the carpeted deck and they grunted their way into the galley and disappeared.


By this time, the maitre d' and battalion of waiters who had reappeared were politely escorting the passengers from the dining room. Amid the chaos, a grand buffet in the first-class dining room had been hastily arranged. Even as Booth was being half-dragged through the galley, huge platters of beef, lamb, salmon, duck, turkey and ham were being prepared, along with huge bowls of potato, vegetable, fruit and pasta salads for a mid-evening feed.


Of course, few would appear entirely sober. Waiters, whose normal evening duties in the Parisienne were cut short by Booth's visit, were called back to duty after straightening out the mess in the dining room so they could serve cocktails in the Quarterdeck Ballroom. Sal and I made the best of our dinner and unscheduled floor show, and as I pulled back the last few drops of our Montmain, the announcement came over the tannoy: "All passengers are invited to a cocktail party, commencing in 15 minutes, in the Quarterdeck Ballroom. An informal dinner reception will follow. Thank you." Oddly, no mention of Booth.


As John Delon warmed up the band in the ballroom, Sal and I, among the last to leave the Parisienne, broke from the crowd being herded aft and detoured to the office, just to check on things. Sal was soon into the filing cabinet pulling out pictures and copy for the next day's paper, and I had flopped in the chair, intent on not looking into the closet. No use. I had noticed a day earlier that the screws had been changed in the panel where the galleon was hidden. The screws had those odd, kind of hourglass-shaped notches, like the kind that held in the metal housing around the headlight on Steve's car. We had to take the car to a mechanic once because Steve didn't have the right tool to change a headlight. And now I, even if I wanted to, couldn't get into that panel. Maybe that's good, I thought.


There was a knock at the door, and then it swung open and a miniature Corvette zoomed in. Without looking up, I greeted Grigg.


"Cheers. A Scrabble match tonight?" He parked the ‘vette under my chair. "Really, you two. You look as if you've been frightened away by a dreadful snake." He laughed, walked to the bookcase and picked up the Scrabble box.


"Set it up, Grigg," Sal said in resignation. "What is your first name, anyway?"


"Oh, Grigg's good enough," he said. "If you're uncomfortable with that, just go with dah-dah-dit, dit-dah-dit, dit, dah-dah-dit." He had the board set up in a minute, never for a moment considering translating the Morse for his given name. As was our custom, Sal went first.


Her letters were bland, but she squeezed out 36 points plus a 50-point bonus with "hyenoid." I took pleasure in spilling out my first try, "mortier," grateful for getting six tiles on the board but disappointed with the mere 10 points for my effort. Guess I went took fast. My D had barely hit its square before Grigg's long fingers were mixing his tiles into one of his obscure masterpieces, "mucosity," which he played off my I. It was good for 85, a single point less than Sal's bonus opener. It was going to be another one of those games. But he was sporting, never uttering even a syllable of reproach, patient always with my glacially paced moves. When the ship rocked, he would instantly spread his fingers over the played tiles to prevent them from sliding from their assigned spaces. He seemed to keep one eye pasted to the board while the other was trained on the race car, which ran repeated drag courses over the carpet and zigged and zagged between the chairs, behind the bar and occasionally into the closet. During brief pauses on his imaginary Indianapolis Speedway, he concentrated on his wooden tile rack and tapped code dits and dahs with his index fingernail, calculating in binary language possible moves for his next turn.


And so the game went on, while two decks below, the Delon orchestra's swooning sounds, lubricated by scotch, gin and champagne flowing from the open bar, guided passengers from their state of horror into a boozy fog bank of mirth.


A soft tap at the door, and Gordon walked in. Seeing the game in progress, he said a quiet hello, helped himself to a seat and lit a Dunhill. The mask of politeness concealing his boredom slipped off within a few minutes.


"Snakes running loose, ladies striking each other with trombones as if in some musical gladiators' pit, people's bodies getting accidentally dropped into the sea. What on earth is going on?" A pause. "Who's winning, as if I didn't have a clue." Gordon chuckled. Nobody answered.


"What's happened to our sense of, of dignity, prestige, propriety, pride?" Gordon said as Grigg steered the little Corvette between Gordon's legs. He backed it up and jerked it forward a couple of times, reminding me of a little dog sniffing a spot before heading off to a new little corner to explore.


"I heard Dandy's poodle is missing," I said. "Did they ever find it?"


"Did you see those people in the dining room tonight?" continued Gordon, ignoring my question. "Such silly asses. Now I can't blame the snake, wherever on earth he came from. It's the people, such panic and absolute mayhem, my God, like little tots they were, running about in such a state. Where's the dignity and grace gone, where's the coolness under fire, the stiff upper lip, eh?" The Corvette, at my feet as he spoke, now darted over to Sal's.


"Ah, it's all amusing enough, but when you add it all up, something's missing, don't you agree? Our age of greatness has passed us by. From the Caribbean to Africa and India to the Far East, we exported civilization to three-fourths of the world, and now what's left? Gibraltar. Hong Kong shall soon be gone. The Falklands? Hah! People don't even use the word great when they say Britain, haven't for years. All we have is our pointy little island sitting like the world's antique shop in the Western Ocean, don't you agree? Careful, don't drop it or it will break."


"It's already broken, wouldn't you say, Gordon?" said Grigg. "I think that's why I love the Morse so much, even though, no offense, Samuel dit-dit-dah-dit dah-dit-dit-dit was an American. I hope it's never supplanted by some other wonderful technical witchcraft that makes our lives even easier, what? Satellites, ah! Such awful stuff. Give me the sextant, an astrolabe. You know, there's something beautiful in that music of dots and dashes when you hear it come through the air to my headset. Hearkens back to a golden time before sonar and all of this other rubbish. By God, someday we'll be right dependent on computers if we're not careful."


"Yes, our golden times were the years of the Mauretania, Aquitania, the Franconia and the Carinthia, when first-class actually meant something. Now, just look at us tonight, it's all so homogenized, so, so Americanized. No class lines any more. No Empire any more. Now," Gordon went on, "don't you think America's time will come and go too? After all, you've just been turned back in Vietnam, haven't you? All those voices of discontent over in the states. Your economy is in a shambles. Good God, an actor may run for president."


"Maybe, over time. Things do go in cycles, but I admit I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it," said Sal. "The end? You're moving a little fast for us, Gordon."


"Oh, sorry. I do go on," he said.


"The Sumerians, the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Spanish and British, or sorry, the Great British. It's just cycles I suppose, but there's no mathematical certainty to it. History and civilizations aren't a big, endless cosmic sine wave. I think chance and luck have a lot more to do with it, and besides, what are we doing here? Look, we're supposed to be enjoying ourselves on a cruise. What are we doing getting bogged down in what may or may not happen? We'll all be dead," said Sal. Gordon was silent.


"So what happened to Booth?" I asked. Our conversation abruptly turned to speculation about the boa's whereabouts because of what had happened in the Parisienne several dozen tons of oil, and scores of bottles of liquor, earlier.


Grigg said he didn't know, but guessed he had been seized by officers and tossed overboard.


In fact, Bin and his helpers had lugged the hapless snake back to Bin's cabin under the watchful eyes of two hotel officers who had been assigned to the case by the staff captain. The decision on what to do with the snake caused a kind of mental paralysis, however. Officers were unable to come up with a location suitable for the serpent and, in truth, knew that some crewmen somewhere could get to him anyway. They were also unwilling to toss Booth overboard forthwith, fearing a backlash among some of the crew who had taken a liking to him. So, for the time being, they agreed to let Bin lock the snake in his wardrobe until the captain gave his command.


He wasted little time. The next morning orders came down from the bridge that Booth -- referred to in the official directive only as "living contraband" and "that menace and safety threat" -- would be dropped into the ocean at midnight local time (in order to avoid any attention from passengers) under the observation of the master himself.


Captain Goodrow's command positively floored Thornley, who spent the day in the Pig knocking back pints of bitter between frequent trips to Bin's cabin to say his teary farewells. By late afternoon, plans were well under way below decks for a grand sendoff for the condemned snake. Few shared the grief Thornley felt over Booth's impending doom, and in fact there was a sense of relief among the majority, who would no longer have to think twice about what may lay at their feet when they climbed into their bunks at night.


The crew say an opportunity for a grand sendoff.


By 6 o'clock, Booth had been festooned in a sequined pink leotard that had been donated by one of the dancers for the occasion. The legs, cut into separate pieces to stretch end-to-end over Booth, did not quite cover his considerable length. But a small league of attendants, crewmen and stewardesses who had braced themselves for the job by drinking half of a keg of bitter and a few fifths of scotch, made up for the shortfall by fashioning an Elizabethan-style ruffled collar around his neck. The going-away party for Booth took on the air of a mock coronation and quickly blossomed into a fancy-dress party with a King Arthur and Camelot theme.


A turntable and speakers were set up in the crew's party room on Seven Deck. The walls were decorated with bows and runners of cheap crepe and toilet paper. Crewmen, stewards, stewardesses and other attendants and staff , dressed as knights, nobles, kings and princesses, with an occasional serf and knave thrown in, paraded into the room, sporting wooden swords, leather tunics, gowns fashioned from bed sheets and suits of armor made of cardboard painted silver. A bar was opened up and the party was on.


A chair destined to become Booth's throne had been spirited away from the Seven Seas dining room and spray painted gold by Bin, who coaxed the exhausted snake onto the seat for the grand entrance. As Arch Toth, Alec Gutzan and Tiny carried the chair in, the disc jockey played the official coronation song, the BeeGees' "Stayin' Alive." The room broke into applause, broken up by repeated toasts to the serpent. When the throne was placed at the front of the room, Booth was crowned with a gold-painted inverted Dixie cup decorated with plastic jewels and fitted with a rubber band to hold it in place. With the formalities over, the serious partying commenced. With the exception of an occasional slither from his throne, Booth stayed pretty much in place, under the watchful eyes of Bin, who, incidentally, was costumed as a jester.


 


As the party crashed on to the sounds of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Doobie Brothers and Dire Straits below decks, two junior officers and a seaman gathered at the Six Deck hatch at 11:30 p.m. to prepare for the Captain's arrival. There had been more than idle suspicion that the wild snake's free reign on the ship had something to do with the disappearance of Dandy Furbish's poodle, and the master was determined to witness the disposal of the culprit.


Captain Goodrow ordered that "the thing," as he referred to Booth, be dropped from a hatch in the deck below where any passenger had access to make sure there would be no further escapes to public areas. Energized by a late round of Space Invaders, he arrived at 11:55 with a three-bar deck officer, who gave the command to open the hatch.


"Let's get on with it," the captain said in a flat clip. "Send for the thing. Let's not make a production of it, what?"


"Right, immediately, sir," said a white-suited hotel officer, one Chris Grigney, a blonde kid from York who looked all of 15 but had family connections that put him on the ship. With a twist, he was gone into the dark corridors to fetch Booth and his handlers, his starched suit providing a luminescent glow along the way.


A hush fell over the party room as the young officer entered.


"Wot, come to get ‘iz Majesty," slurred a drunken knight as Grigney walked in. " 'ere. ‘Ave a smoke and a pint first, before you kill our slithering king," he said as he extended a hairy, tattoo-covered arm and a fat fist gripping a pack of Player's.


Grigney ignored him and walked forward slowly, paying no attention to taunts of "creep," "puff," "bloody twerp" and "wanker."


Bin, wishing for no confrontation, arose from his seat a few feet from Booth's throne and approached Grigney.


"So you will need some assistance then, sir? I will bring him along straightaway." He turned to fetch Thornley, who was dressed in a black smock with a crest of a skull and crossbones on his chest, and Arch Toth, whose burlap serf's rags were splattered with spilled brew.


The three tipped Booth's throne toward a large pillowcase and the royal anaconda, highly stressed and barely slithering, slid in, crown and all.


" 'appy now, squire? Let's go to the execution," muttered Toth. Thornley looked like he was about to cry.


The three crewmen hefted the bag toward the door behind Grigney, who kept silent as not to provoke a riot as he marched to the exit. Chants of "Long live the king!" grew louder and louder as the men walked out.


Grigney, hoping to prevent any funny business on the way to the hatch, let the three pass so he could keep an eye on them as they carried Booth through the dingy corridor to the place of his watery execution.


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© By Buzz Adams