Sailing just a few degrees north of the Equator along the southern fringe of the Bay of Bengal, we were bearing east for the Strait of Malaca. The sky was cloudless but tinted with a warm haze that was quickly being devoured by the blazing sun. Even the 28-knot speed of the Majestic II barely provided any relief for the 15 or so crewmen who were at work honing their soccer skills on t'up.
Now proud shellbacks like them, we entered the equatorial zone with no trepidation over dunkings in fouled water. Sal and I got an early start on the paper, then took a couple of hours off at midday by the One Deck pool. The water was icy cool and taking a dip was fun, with the ship's rocking motion creating sidewards waves that playfully washed us from one wall of the pool to the other. That's where we were when Grigg showed up, radio control in his hands and his toy Corvette leading the way.
"Out, editors, come on, then. We've got some news," he said as he stood at the edge. We got out and, with no need to dry off, followed him to the deck bar. He gave us the news with a smile behind his beard.
The ship, he told us, received a politely worded challenge from the Luta Revolutionary Committee in China to a friendly football match when the Majestic arrives. Capt. Goodrow, ever mindful of protocol when he's not playing Space Invaders, sent the ship's acceptance through the radio room, and quickly mustered a team of volunteers, promising them full use of the most spacious area available -- t'up -- to get ready for the game. The boys jumped at the challenge (and at the opportunity to get out of their regular duties) and spent hours practicing their dribbling, passing, crosses and shots into a makeshift goal near the funnel platform.
Word of the game, Grigg assured us, was OK for a story, and we were always open to any kind of on-board feature. Sal asked Grigg if he could get Lefty to do a drawing to go along with the story, and I fetched the Polaroid from the office to get some shots of the players. We'd make the story long, since it was not easy in this neck of the woods to pick up any good short-wave stuff anyway, with Radio Moscow beaming everywhere and now even radio Vietnam chiming in on a couple of frequencies.
We were making headway on the paper by early afternoon when Hallsford bounded in. He kept talking about Singapore, to no one in particular, but Sal short-circuited his monologue.
"So what happened to that thing?" she asked. "Did they throw it off yet?"
"Yes, if that's what you call him."
"Back in solitary, you might say. Yes. You're not going to print it, are you? He's in some kind of box the chippies made, with a big lock on the door. They can't get any of the crew to throw him off, can you believe it? They refuse to handle the thing, say it violates their union rules. Good God. Anyway, he'll be off-loaded in Singapore or Hong Kong, I've heard. They eat snakes there, don't they? What was the blasted thing doing in your closet?"
Sal and I looked at each other and said nothing. Word of the snake in the closet was getting around the ship already.
"Anyway, the ugly thing's got a 24-hour guard, two of the junior hotel officers, standing like tin soldiers in front of that box."
Hallsford went back on about Raffles, Bugis Street and the other high points of Singapore and we went back to work.
Hallsford was gone by tea time, and Sal and I speculated over hot tea and biscuits about what could have happened to the galleon. We wondered who Joe, the former tea man, saw in the office, and agreed that Neptune must be the thief and that he must be behind the snake trick. But what good was pointing the finger at him? As Gordon had said, they were already keeping a close eye on Neptune.
We decided to get in line at the Captain's cocktail party that evening and listen to chatter from passengers. You never know: Somebody might say something that would shed even a dim ray of light on this galleon business.
The line was long. We were quiet, looking straight ahead as the queue moved ahead at its usual glacial speed, our ears perked up for gossipy tidbits. But no new secrets were revealed. The most interesting revelation, in fact, came from a woman behind us in the line telling about exchanging money at the ship's bank earlier that day.
"I asked this nice young man how many Singapore dollars I could get for a U.S. dollar," the little old lady told her friend in her proper British accent.
"He told me, `Two-hundred five.' So I asked him how many Hong Kong dollars, and he told me, `Four hundred forty-five.' So I told him, `Fine. I'll take Hong Kong dollars because you get more for your money."
Sal and I had stopped laughing by the time we got to the front of the line. Capt. Goodrow held out a limp hand and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I asked him how his Space Invaders game was coming, and Sal gave me a little kick, but he just smiled and told us to enjoy Singapore and that it's always a good practice to exchange your money on board.
We saw Gordon at the party. He seemed to be well over the shock of Booth's appearance in the office, and even joked about it. Fiona, Dottie, Danielle and Cookie were still giggling about the snake scene that had caused an uproar in the Parisienne, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the serpent was still on board, albeit incarcerated under guard and wracked with a relapse of pleurisy. The croupiers drifted off, still giggling and twittering about Booth.
Gordon, Sal and I each snatched another goblet of champagne from a passing waiter.
"So what was it you were going to show me?" Gordon asked. "Surely, you weren't setting me up for the bloody scare of my life."
I hesitated, but Sal spoke right up.
"It was, or had been, there. The galleon," she said quietly. "It was in our closet, for weeks. Somebody had put it in there, but heavens knows who. We have our suspicions."
"I don't know if someone's setting us up, or if that panel was just a convenient place to stash the thing," I said. "But it was there."
"How did you know it was there in the first place?" he asked.
"What? The snake or the galleon?" I asked.
"Galleon, fool," said Gordon.
"It hit me at a concert one night. Boom. It was funny. I could tell that something wasn't right because everything was in order in the closet. I know it sounds odd, but you remember how the storm in the Atlantic knocked things all over the place? Our office was no exception, it was a mess -- except for the closet. I could see that someone had been there, so I looked in and found it. A box, and inside, the golden galleon. It was beautiful. I was almost scared to touch it. Kind of gave me the creeps."
"So why didn't you tell someone, for God's sake?" asked Gordon. He didn't seem angry, just bewildered.
"Good question," I said. "To tell you the truth, I thought it would have looked pretty incriminating, wouldn't you think? `Here Gordon. Here's the galleon I've had stashed away in my closet for weeks.' "
"Indeed," he said thoughtfully. "Indeed. But you finally did decide to show me. And it wasn't there. I'm confused."
"We couldn't stand it any more," said Sal. "We wanted it out."
"So that awful snake was there instead. Let me see," Gordon said slowly, taking a sip. "My galleon is stuffed under someone's loo by persons unknown. The closet is too neat, so you get suspicious and find it, but decide to leave it and tell no one." He took another sip. "You get tired of the galleon and invite me up to fetch it. But a killer snake mysteriously takes its place and scares me half to my grave. And my bloody galleon is vanished. I must change my wines, you two."
"Do you believe us?" Sal asked.
"Why on Earth not?" Gordon said with a half smile. "No one says anything has to make any sense on this ship. Any news today, by the way?"
"Oh, yeah. Bhutto. In Pakistan, they finally did it. They hung our man Bhutto," I said.
"Finally hanged him then. What on Earth did he do, anyway?"
"I don't know," I said. "Bad horoscope. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time I guess."
"I see," said Gordon. "Kind of like you." He burst into laughter, took a final sip of his champagne and disappeared into the crowd.
By dinner, we had entered the strait between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. The ship was alive with floor shows, dancing and parties. From the upper deck of the Gallery, we watched the cabaret starring a tenor known for his performances with the New York Metropolitan and the Royal Opera House in Belgium. Everyone, it seemed, was in a mood to celebrate in anticipation of our arrival in Singapore.
By breakfast the next day, the pilot met the Majestic in the harbor and guided her to her berth along one of the many piers tending dozens of cargo vessels and tankers from all around the world. A ship entered or left Singapore's port every 15 minutes or so, making it one of the busiest ports anywhere. So it came as little surprise that there was no fanfare upon the arrival of the Majestic, which was the center of attention almost anyplace else she called.
Less than 100 miles from the Equator, it was sunny and baking hot on the concrete pier as we walked off the gangway. Near the docks, we boarded a three-wheeled, pedal-driven taxi. For a $1.50 fare, the driver skillfully managed his way through traffic to Change Alley along the waterfront, a cornucopia of electronic gadgets, jade and silk amid cluttered masses of assorted trinkets. The fun was not in buying, but dickering with slick young salesmen who no doubt were getting the better of us. Walking on through the spotless and crowded streets, we were constantly reminded by signs that littering -- and spitting -- is against the law. The no-spitting sign, of course, brought to mind my Granddad Buster and his tobacco chewing, and made me want to spit real bad. But I felt eyes were upon me and just swallowed hard and often. Then there were the circular, blue signs, warning, "Beware of Pickpockets."
We visited the Sakya Muni Gaya Temple, site of a 50-foot, 300-ton Buddha, and walked past the Victoria Memorial, Parliament, aquarium and National Museum. In between, we explored the side streets, lined with tiny eateries featuring Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian foods, shops brimming onto the sidewalks with a multitude of goods, and crossed little bridges over dank canals crammed with fishing boats. With sweat dripping from us from all of the walking, we scuttled our plans to have drinks in the posh Raffles hotel, where Gordon and a bunch of the officers had planned to meet, and instead found another pedal taxi to take us back to Change Alley. There, we settled for a view of the harbor and drinks at the Rose Restaurant a dozen or so stories above the city.
Rather than stay in town, we decided to rest up, shower and eat dinner on board before heading back to the city as the late afternoon shadows got long. At the gangway, we met up with Hallsford, Watson, Hatch and a bunch of the others who were still groggy from an afternoon of drinking at Raffles. We all climbed aboard four waiting pedal taxis and paid our fare up front for Bugis Street. The ride started off calmly enough, but after a block or two it turned into something of a race, with the drivers cutting wildly in and out of buses and cars, zipping past one another and cutting each other off now and again. Hallsford stood for a moment and yelled, "Ten quid to the first one there. Are we on?"
The answer came as riders started waving green pounds and dollar bills in front of the drivers, who were by now in jockey position, huffing and pedaling with all their might. Hallsford, who played the Ben-Hur part best as he stood in his pedaled chariot waving one arm while holding on with the other, arrived first. We all tipped our drivers handsomely for their efforts and in appreciation for having made it alive, and the 10 pounds Hallsford won turned out to be merely a token. He graciously declined his cash purse and offered to take it in beer, later.
Bugis Street was being closed to traffic as we arrived. Tables and chairs were being carried from every open door along the crowded street and set up curb-to-curb. While this was going on, we detoured to the next block where long stands of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, cheap watches and jewelry, clothes and radios, bootleg tapes and every other kind of junk-store knick-knack was being hawked and bartered. The smell of prawns grilling in spices and noodles simmering in huge kettles filled the air.
Some of the ship's crowd had drifted off, probably to a saloon or whorehouse somewhere, but Hallsford, Sal and I stuck together and met up with Jack MacIver along the way and got back to Bugis Street. Three waiters eagerly ushered us to a table where a smiling Australian merchant seaman had just finished a plate of prawns and rice and had settled into another big, brown, sweating bottle of Three Anchors beer.
It seemed as if the whole world was represented there, a sort of beer-swilling United Nations. Arabs in their native garb, and Africans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesians, all colors and races. But none of that mattered because all were assembled for a common purpose: to party.
A sheik surrounded by his bearded associates was escorted to the next table by no fewer than seven waiters and soon was buying trinkets for a woman sitting nearby. The beer was flowing and music blaring as a half dozen Australians climbed to the top of a flat-roofed public toilet and danced to a disco song; as a finale they mooned the crowd, lit rolled-up newspaper on fire and waved the flaming tails from their butts in time with the music, to the raunchy delight of the crowd. Waiters brought more beer to the table, and a couple of rounds later Hatch and a couple of the croupiers, Dottie and Danielle, joined us. MacIver had had a snootful by now and left, but the partying went on.
Soon, a dozen or so tan-skinned Asian beauties in feathery, sequined outfits and wearing gobs of makeup were dancing their way through the aisles, stopping now and again at tables. One of them, slightly taller than the rest and lighter skinned, looked familiar, but in my beery haze I couldn't quite make the connection, so I pointed her out to Sal.
"It can't be," she said, squinting for a better look. "Not Trevor Gages. Can't be. But it sure looks like ... "
The Australian guy leaned over, took a gulp from his bottle, and said, "Beautiful, aren't they? Malaysians, all transvestites of course." He took another gulp and winked.
Another round or two later I was out of money and so was Sal. For a moment I was worried how we would find our way back to the ship, but Hallsford ponied up the cash for a taxi ride back, a ride I do not remember.
Now our arrival in Hong Kong was more auspicious. The South China Sea was fairly calm as we sailed north off Vietnam, although the ship changed course sharply once to avoid what the bridge suspected to be a mine left over from the war. The sharp swing barely interrupted the soccer team's workout or shuffleboard matches, golf and morning workouts for passengers on the aft deck. In our office, the short-wave was picking up nothing but dead air and, on a couple of frequencies, chatter in Vietnamese, so we filled the paper with canned travel stories and news snippets we rewrote from a Times of London we were able to find in Singapore.
The Majestic II, looking worse for the wear with chipping paint, smears around the hatches and a few rust spots on her hull, attracted an armada of motorboats, fishing boats, junks, sampans and a sightseeing boat or two as we entered Hong Kong Harbor just after noon.
Still a British colony, the locals relished the arrival of the grand ship despite her somewhat shabby appearance. The British Union Jack was raised on the mast for the first time since Tristan da Cunha, and in a departure from normal practice, the captain sounded a long blast of her whistle as the ship glided by the harbor's most ignominious spot: where the former Queen Elizabeth had burned in 1972. The tired old liner had been bought at auction by a Hong Kong millionaire who dreamed of converting her into a kind of floating school, and after a troubled voyage she limped into Hong Kong. She was refitted, repainted and rechristened Seawise University. Now, she was reduced to scrap.
With the pilot now in command of the Majestic, we watched from the railing along the Promenade Deck as tugs carefully nudged the ship past the ferry terminal and in toward the pier at Kowloon on the British colony's mainland. Captain Goodrow stood on the bridge wing, giving orders through a portable radio. Spectators waved from the glass-lined shopping complex at the Ocean Terminal across the pier, and the passengers waved back as crewmen tied the giant ship fast and laid out the gangway.
Like the others on board, we wasted no time getting ashore, stopping first at the office to grab the camera. Hallsford, Grigg, Hatch and the rest of our friends were nowhere in sight as we headed below toward the gangway. A few stewards were still busy tending to some last-minute jobs, vacuuming carpets and pushing carts of linens to cabins. We met up with Harbold Rickards on the stairway and said a quick hello, but he too seemed to be in a mad rush to get ashore. Dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a stuffed, black shoulder bag, he seemed like he was ready for an afternoon of touring.
From the pier, it was a short walk to the ferry terminal. As if swept in a current of tightly packed people, we followed the flow through the gates, paid a copper Hong Kong penny each and boarded the Star Ferry for Hong Kong island. Back on the harbor now, we gazed at the gleaming high-rises of Hong Kong, poking like white fingers into the vista of dark green mountains beyond. As we put in at the dock, the riders massed toward the exits, pushing tightly against one another, until the gates were open. We then joined the human tidal wave that carried us to the concrete wharf and spilled us into the streets of Hong Kong.
Tea shops and bars, tailor shops, jewelers, restaurants and a mix of other businesses lined the streets below neon signs, mostly in Chinese, a few in English. All along the way, woodworkers, bicycle repairmen and other craftsmen carried on their trades along the sidewalks. Others bargained deals with poultry they pulled from wire cages stacked on the sides of the street and vegetables from farms outside of the city. At the jade market, long, low tables set up along the sidewalks gleamed with light green rings, pendants, figurines and unfinished pieces of the stone. We stocked up on useless souvenirs, and lingered as tea-leaf readers and fortune tellers peddled their services along the street.
We stopped and ate noodles from a stand along the street, and walked on for blocks in the Nathan Road-Canton Road district. As we grew weary from walking we got a taxi to the tram that climbs sideways up the mountain known as Victoria Peak. By the time we reached the top, the sun was setting beyond the craggy, steep mountains beyond the New Territories at the west of Kowloon across the harbor. As if lit on fire, Hong Kong took on a glow from the streets upward, while a thousand lights blinking on kept the city's pulse beating at a vibrant pace into the evening. A few fishing boats and sampans lazily plowed the harbor far below, leaving wakes that reflected the golden rays of the setting sun. They reminded me of the golden galleon.
A tap-tap-tapping sound awakened us the next morning. I lumbered to the door of the cabin and opened it, but seeing nothing turned and shut the door. The taps were coming from the hull.
"What now?" said Sal, still half asleep. "Is the ship breaking up?"
That's when I noticed a hemp rope swing in front of the porthole. I got closer and looked out. With my face pressed against the inch-thick glass, I began to make sense of what was going on: A man was suspended on the side of the ship, tapping it with a hammer.
"I've got to see this," I mumbled as I pulled on some clothes. "Come on. Bring the camera."
Forgetting breakfast, we ran for the Promenade Deck and looked down. Hemp lines firmly knotted to the rails supported planks fashioned from bamboo poles, from which local workmen went about their business. From the bow to stern, portside and starboard, dozens of men, all local workers, tapped and scraped every square foot of the ship. Some of them twisted portions of the hemp lines around their legs as a safety precaution in case they slipped. Above us, of t'up and around the funnel, the painting had already begun.
Looking up from the pier as we left the ship for the day, they looked like so many ants on a giant bulkie at a picnic, as the collective sound of taps built to a dull thunder echoing from the terminal wall.
We met up with Hallsford on the pier and decided to hire a driver for the morning to take us into the New Territories. Riding in a shiny, black BMW driven by a chubby Chinese fellow, we wheeled through villages and towns outside of Kowloon toward the border with China, where an expanse of rice paddies extended to the craggy, blue mountain ridges beyond our reach.
Closer to the port, mammoth highrises rose from land reclaimed from the sea with ponderous heaps of trash tossed aside by the city. We watched as they made more land from mountainous heaps of junk and garbage, which was being bulldozed and graded into the harbor. Overhead, jetliners provided a thrill show as they roared one after another toward the mountaintops. Each, it seemed, was destined to crash before slithering magically between the peaks to the hidden airport.
Like flags marking the new homes of the high-rise settlers, laundry fluttered in the breeze from bamboo poles jutting from the windows and balconies of the gleaming new 20-story apartment buildings. Tiny shops and eateries surviving in the shadows of the new buildings were doomed to this encroaching urban renewal, our driver told us as he pointed to the side of a hill being clawed away by mechanical diggers.
At the edge of the harbor, junks that were the homes of thousands of local people were jammed 10 deep for perhaps a half mile. Families cooked their meals, hung out laundry and tended their kids in this mass of vessels, which were tethered so tightly you could jump from one boat to the next. Boys squealed with delight as they took turns swinging from a rope suspended from the mast of one boat to another.
While we watched from land, passengers who hadn't left the ship for overland tours to Canton and Shanghai took in the sights from chartered boats in the harbor.
Among them was Senator Furbish, who had completed his side trip to Malaysia before flying back to Washington and on to Hong Kong to meet up with his wife. He had brought as a gift for Dandy a new dog, a Pekingese with evil little bulging eyes and a nasty, sharp yip, to replace little Dumont. While no one had absolute proof, it was generally assumed that Dumont had become Booth's main entree while he was stowing away. Dandy, who took to the silky-haired little dog immediately, was granted special permission to keep the pug-nosed dog in her cabin for the rest of the voyage in a fainthearted and indirect gesture of apology from the hotel staff.
For Booth, it looked like it was finally the end of his sailing days. Based on radio traffic Grigg had intercepted, the box containing the South American anaconda was to have been delivered that day to the local zoo, but with nearly everyone gone from the ship, on which Chinese workmen were still madly at work, no one we knew actually saw the transfer take place.
Crewmen took to the streets to get tattoos, get drunk, get deals on watches and jewelry at the countless boutiques and tax-free shops, or to just roam the crammed streets that gleamed through the night under shimmering neon and look for ways to spend their pay. Thor Trewargy chartered a hydrofoil to the glitzy gambling mecca of Macao across the bay. He wasn't that much of a gambler, but his business instincts took control on this venture. Knowing that the Casino would be closed while in port, Thor lured in the high rollers with barely an effort and packed the charter, turning over a tidy profit in tax-free "foldin' money," as he put it. He stayed a while and played with the fruit machines and a couple of hands of blackjack, but soon became bored with the scene and ordered the boat to Hong Kong island to do some shopping. After it dropped him off, Thor sent the hydrofoil back to fetch passengers who were ready to return to the ship.
Harbold Rickards was back on the nearly deserted Majestic counting money, and it wasn't the ship's. His trading mission to Hong Kong had been a day earlier, when he carefully packed a golden treasure from its latest hiding place on the Majestic into his black satchel. He pulled the strap over his shoulder and headed down the gangway, bound for the Star Ferry. Lost in the sea of commuters, he was soon in the streets of Hong Kong and making his way to the office of Yock Fu.
Like Blackbeard of St. Thomas, Fu was a trader in stolen treasures. He ran something of a pawn shop for valuables from the world over, some of which he scattered among the legitimate arts and antiques in his cluttered, rather drab little side street shop. His reputation was well-known world over among those who dealt in hot artifacts smuggled from museums, libraries and private collections, although his ability to judge authenticity of such items, while good, was not flawless. He had been sucked in once by a Frenchman peddling a phony VanGogh, but had scored well on a trove of priceless, solid gold figurines of Indians that had been salvaged from a sunken broad-hulled Spanish flute off Colombia's coast and spirited away from a museum where they were kept in Bogota. With regular, handsome gratuities delivered to Hong Kong authorities through his friends, Fu kept police and other snoopers well at bay and quietly went about his illicit business unhampered with the help of a trusted associate, Dun Sing.
Fu and Rickards had been acquainted for years, although Rickards, during his occasional calls in Hong Kong, turned out more often to be a curious looker and sometimes-buyer than a seller. This time it was different. Rickards, or Hah-bahd as he was called by Fu, had something to bring to his friend.
Fu had prepared for Rickards' visit with a special feast. Through his contacts in France, he had obtained a pair of ortolans, tiny songbirds also known as buntings that are considered a delicacy when cooked -- and eaten -- whole. The rarity of the birds that makes them a forbidden item in France, and perhaps the ritual that goes along with eating them, makes them even more enticing a serving.
After greeting each other in the shop, Rickards was led upstairs to Fu's flat, small but well-appointed with fine teak and mahogany furniture and paintings adorning the walls. Fu seated his friend at the dining room table and opened a bottle of white Bordeaux, a Chateau d'Y quem that would have sold for $100 on the ship. He snapped his fingers and an expressionless young man entered with two small platters, each with a silver cover, and placed one in front of each man.
"Orlotan, my friend," Fu said with a smile. "Enjoy. Remember, the serviette."
Each, in ritualistic fashion, draped the napkin over his head and found the tiny bird on the platter. Then, in one bite, they chewed meat, bones, skin and all. Nothing was said for a few minutes; the only sounds were crunching and heavy exhaling under the napkins as they savored and devoured their buntings.
Finally, Rickards reached for his goblet and took a drink, swishing the wine about in his mouth before swallowing.
"So sweet, tender, gentle to the taste," said Rickards, now pulling the napkin from his head. Fu smiled with satisfaction.
The two gradually finished their wine over roast duckling, fried rice with cucumber, and tiny cakes and souffles before settling down to business. Rickards opened his black bag, pulled forth crumpled newspapers and finally his prize, the golden galleon that had been whisked from behind the shards of broken glass in front of the Majestic II's jewelry shop during the storm months earlier. He placed it on the table.
"Ah, a beautiful piece, my friend," said Fu. "You are trading, selling? And where did you, ah, procure such a treasure?"
"Let us just say, it was lost, and then found. I am saving it for a later time. Yes, this I want to keep. But I am delivering it to you for safekeeping until I can return and retrieve it. On the next call or two, I shall be by again," said Rickards.
He knew the galleon was too hot to handle on the ship, with word having spread all over that the piece had been stolen. With the piece out of sight and off the ship, there was no way he could be called into question in the theft.
To Rickards, the galleon represented more than a jewel-encrusted trinket of gold. It had become a symbol of his years at sea, something too precious to be bartered or sold to a mere passenger with a bulging wallet or fat checkbook. Yes, Rickards knew the galleon was stolen, but he nonetheless viewed it as truly his. After all, he rationalized, how fair is it that some of those people were sailing first-class and living luxuriously in penthouses with money they had earned on the backs of others, or with money they had only because of their family names? What about his family? His Uncle Graham had spent a lifetime stoking furnaces and tending to these rich fools idling their days away on the Carpathia and Mauretania, and what to show for it? Stories, just stories. Nothing to see, touch or hold, just stories. And Rickards' own years, swabbing, swabbing, swabbing those damned decks, being dressed down by the officers. Two lifetimes at sea, and all work. Was this little shiny boat too much of a token of two lifetimes of service to these rich passengers? Hah! The boat will someday sit on my mantlepiece as a trophy for all these years of sweat, abuse, ashes, mops and tips from fat dowagers, thought Rickards. But for now, it must stay off the Majestic so it cannot fall into the wrong hands.
"Hah-bahd? You are in a trance, staring at that boat. Does it have magical powers, friend?"
"Not at all, Yock. Just thinking. You understand, of course. Yes, the boat, just set it aside and I will be back for it."
"You will take money then, as collateral? Five thousand? ten thousand, American?"
The question made Rickards a little uneasy, as it suggested that the galleon might be traded or sold off. Rickards thought of turning the money down to underscore the fact that he was not selling it or leaving it on consignment. But then Rickards' greed took the better of him.
"Ten thousand U.S. will be fine," he told his friend. "I shall return it when I come to fetch my little knick-knack."
Fu walked to his desk and produced the cash, some in $1,000 bills but mostly in hundreds, in nonchalant fashion from a carved, teak cigar box.
The two men spent another hour or so together, walking through the shop and discussing books, movies and politics, and speculating on what life might be like after Hong Kong, then a colonial jewel of free trade and capitalism, reverts to Chinese rule two decades in the future.
The two men decided to go out and catch a taxi to the marina where Fu kept his motorboat, and Fu turned the shop over to Dun Sing, who had come in while the two men had been locked in a friendly debate over the current British governor's rule of the colony. So engrossed had they become in the discussion that Fu had left the galleon among the treasures on display, quite forgetting to set it aside for Rickards. Perhaps he would have remembered if he had known of the "A Deo Rex" ring of Edward VI that was hidden in the boat's hull.
Sal's worries that Gordon no longer trusted us were eased when he dropped by to invite us to the ship agent's place for dinner. It was not to be a formal affair, he said with some relief.
He didn't mention the galleon on the Star Ferry or in the taxi as it zig-zagged its way through the late-afternoon traffic to the Brighton agent's office. We were escorted upstairs by an affable Jerry Yang, our host, to a brightly lit room with a large, round table. At the side of the room, a barman in a starched, white jacket stood at attention ready to take orders.
We started with a few beers and cocktails, but as the formalities lifted Mr. Yang placed a bottle of Chivas Regal in the middle of the table and disappeared for a minute before returning with a small tray with a silver cover. With a wide grin, he shook the tray and lifted the top, revealing a cock's head with its beak pointing roughly in my direction. The custom, he instructed us, was to take a drink if the beak was pointing at you. It was pointing at me, so I obliged. The shaking of the tray and lifting of the top went on as dinner trays of dim sung, moo goo gai pan, pork, rice, eggrolls and a dozen other Chinese foods arrived. The drinking game went on through our meal, which lasted well into the night.
The Chinese workmen were still on their bamboo platforms draped along the dark hull of the Majestic the following day, although the thunderous tap-tapping by then had died down to a more respectable drumbeat. I was grateful.
Sal convinced me the fresh air and some walking would help clear out my head.
"You've got Hong-over, Mr. Chivas?" she teased. "We'll shop." I was too tired and pained to argue; it was easier to follow.
"How many times did the rooster nose point at you?" I asked. "And why are you so chipper?"
"You clucked," she said, ignoring the question."On the table. With your arms flapping. Your legs digging. Want to hear more, Rooster Man?"
We meandered through the Ocean Terminal at dockside, which was crammed with shops full of jade, clothing, liquor, jewelry and of course food, and then headed onto the ferry to Hong Kong island to the botanical and zoological gardens on the hillside beyond the skyscrapers. Even here, the construction proceeded unabated on new buildings that were rising like spring dandelions. Scaffolds of bamboo rose to dizzying heights alongside the new towers of concrete and glass, swinging easily with the light breeze.
Shopping turned out to be a worthwhile venture. Sal, unable to contain her Anna Maria Salvini Moscarello inner self, found a food market that sold noodles resembling the kind you put in lasagne, and some tomato sauce and cheese. While she was happily assembling her stash for her next cooking frenzy, I commenced a search for English-language newspapers to use as fodder for the next couple of Mail editions. I easily found an Asian Wall Street Journal, a New York Times, a two-day-old Los Angeles Times, and a couple of British scandal sheets.
If that was so easy, I thought, there must be a chance of finding some Ring Dings. I asked the clerk, a young woman, if there might be such a product anywhere on her shelves.
"Ling Ding?" she asked blankly. "Oh, I think, there Ling Ding," she said after a few seconds, pointing toward a counter at the rear of the shop. She followed me back, and there was a whole box of the cream-filled cupcakes on the bottom shelf. I snatched the booty as if it were the Holy Grail, plopped it on top of my papers, and then decided to push my luck.
"Now, do you have something called Slim-Jims?"
"Srim Jim? Donno mister Srim Jim, sorry, no Srim Jim."
We went back to the counter where Sal had deposited her noodles, ricotta and other food. My eyes made one last sweep in a vain search of Slim-Jims, but the stony faced clerk was
already running up the bill on an abacus. I considered my shopping event a success anyway and we left.
After dropping off our odd collection of loot on the ship and catching a nap, we headed off for Aberdeen, a busy town tucked behind a tiny island in a snug little harbor on the far side of Hong Kong. At the ferry landing, we paid 1.30 Hong Kong dollars as we boarded a bus, and were off. We may as well have ventured on to a another continent, another world, as we rode toward the far end of the island, leaving the skyscrapers, glowing neon lights and traffic behind. Aberdeen was, well, China. No English, not many tourists, lower, smaller buildings, a slower pace. The dome light on the bus that said "Aberdeen" was the last English we would see for a while.
We walked along the narrow streets past tightly packed shops and homes before deciding on a restaurant. We certainly couldn't read the menu in the window, or the one the waiter handed us for that matter. The waiter, who seemed to be a patient sort, didn't know a word of English, so choosing our selections became a game of pointing at random on the menu. On my first couple of tries, I only got smiles or a shrug of his shoulders. I tried saying "rice" and "beer," but that too was in vain. Sal tried writing on a napkin, but he only looked on blankly. There was only one way left: gesturing. I pretended to hold a bottle and popped the imaginary cap with an invisible opener, making a "P-s-s-s-t" sound. The waiter's eyes widened and he nodded and said something. He was gone and quickly returned with two large bottles of beer and glasses.
There. Now for food. As if on cue, Sal and I made scissors-like gestures with our fingers and guided them into nonexistent bowls to clamp onto imaginary rice. His smile told me the waiter got it. As he started to turn, I got his attention and dipped the fingers into another fake bowl, and Sal followed suit. He nodded. This was more fun, almost, than eating. We didn't know it, but all eyes in the place were upon us as we went on with this charade. Finally, the young waiter spilled forth a cascade of words, presumably his suggestions on what we might order. We nodded affirmatively, setting off a round of applause from the other patrons who had been enjoying the show. Sal seemed a little embarrassed, but I just raised my glass and took a big swallow.
The food wasn't anything like I'd ever found in an a Chinese restaurant in the states, and not particularly good. But it was different. The bill was incomprehensible, so we just handed the guy some money and let him sort it all out.
Finding a bus on the darkened streets back to Hong Kong was tricky, but finally one showed up and we were soon back under the city lights. We made one last round on the crowded, lively streets, past the fortune tellers, hawkers bars and shops. I bought a bottle of champagne and we hurried to the Star Ferry. We had to get back to the ship before the gangway was lifted in advance of the midnight departure.
The pier was ablaze with lights and packed with local revelers as a band played dance music that was punctuated by an occasional rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Passengers snaked their way through the crowd for the gangway, where smiling officers ushered them aboard. The lights reflected a shimmering coat of fresh paint on the massive hull of the Majestic, and the white coat on the upper portions glowed like fresh snow.
Streamers were already starting to twirl down from the crowd assembling on the upper decks as we walked across the gangway.
As we looked down from the Promenade Deck a few minutes later, a costumed dragon was zig-zagging through the crowd on the pier. I popped open the champagne, letting the cork fly into the crowd, and poured drinks into the plastic cups we had quickly fetched from the office. Below, the gangway was being taken in and crewmen started removing the lines. The mood, for a minute, grew a bit somber as the band played "Rule Britannia." But just as the Majestic II began to inch away from the pier, the band livened things up as it struck up the theme song from the TV western "Bonanza." Now the tugs were pushing us out toward the harbor and the music was starting to fade. The Majestic sounded a long, deep farewell blast, causing me to jump. But I held on to my champagne glass. Before long, we were soon sliding into the moonlit night.