Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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25

From the Pacific to Atlantic


The Majestic crept across San Pedro Bay before dawn and tied up just as the sun was rising to a cloudless sky. The usual flotilla of small pleasure boats that greeted her elsewhere was nowhere in sight; the ship's only escorts were seagulls flapping and cawing noisily in her wake.


It would be short stopover in Long Beach, 14 hours from tie-up to sailing, but many of the crew, led by a contingent of Chinese from the ship's laundry, were making an early break for Disneyland, Hollywood and the mothballed Queen Mary. My nasty hangover, a memento from a Ward Room party, left me in no mood for lines or crowds.


"Let's go to a beach, there must be plenty nearby," Sal said over breakfast in the nearly deserted dining room. Our usual waiters were off for the day, and their substitute wasted no time in getting our grapefruit, poached eggs and kippers to the table. A beach. This is California. The idea sounded OK. "We'll just grab a few things, get a taxi, and we're there," she said.


Still slightly woozy, I agreed, although I harbored some reservations, fearing my evil shadow Neptune would show up once again to throw his black cape over the scene.


Sal was reading my thoughts, then answering them in Italian.


"Non ti."


"Huh?"


"Don't worry about him. I'm sure he's still nursing those flesh burns that drummer -- Milligan? -- gave him."


"Mulligan," I corrected her.


"Whatever."


We finished breakfast and went to the cabin to change and made a quick run up to the office to check on things. Never know when an anaconda may have taken up residence in your place of labor.


A couple of small envelopes had been slid under the door. Sal swooped them up and started ripping one open while handing the other to me.


"Oh, a fancy dress party, tomorrow night while we're at sea. Roman theme. Oh that ought to be fun. Why don't you be a slave, and I get something together and go as ... "


"This ought to be fun too. Look. Captain wants to see us," I said, handing her the other note. "He doesn't say why. Let's call."


Captain Goodrow's secretary said it would be fine to come up now, as he was free. I wasn't deeply disappointed our beach plan had gotten sidetracked, and was more than anxious about what he would want to see us for. The fireworks scene in Honolulu was my first guess.


We were escorted into his sitting room, where we sat nervously for a couple of minutes before Captain Goodrow bounded in.


"Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan. Lovely day, isn't it? Tea?"


"Thank you," said Sal. "And it is. Do you have any plans for the day?" What was she doing, schmoozing the man?


"Oh, not really anything terribly exciting. Some paperwork and a few other details to attend to. Dreadful, the price of oil these days. It makes running our little city quite the challenge. But that's not for publication, of course. In fact, none of this will be," he said with a rather stern edge to his voice.


"So it appears you escaped any lasting injuries from your fiery little escapade in Honolulu, Mr. McGeehan."


"Oh, I'm fine. It was just ... "


He cut me off before I could offer what no doubt would have been a lame explanation for what happened with Neptune.


"Never mind. I can't be drawn into details of these what happens off the ship, so long as the legal authorities don't make an issue of it -- and nobody dies."


 


The door opened and in bounded an Asian lad in a starched white steward's jacket. It was Takeo Shimada, the one-time stowaway, Space Invaders mentor, and now, apparently, the captain's factotum.


"Tea, Takeo, for three," Goodrow ordered with a sideways glance. The boy froze for a moment, clearly bewildered by the command.


"Tea?" he asked. "Tree?"


"Tea. Three," the captain repeated with a generous roll of the R as he said three and holding up three fingers for emphasis. The boy turned with a perplexed look and walked out the door.


"Actually, I'm concerned about the missing piece from the ship's jeweler's. You know, of course," Goodrow continued.


"The galleon ... " I said.


"Yes, everybody knows, I suspect," he went on. "Jolly good you've kept it out of the paper. So let's keep it that way."


"We know it's been missing, it turned up in our office, God knows how it got there, and now, well ... "


Now the captain cut off Sal.


"Yes, yes, of course. All quite mysterious. Never did I seriously suspect either of you would have any part of this."


I felt a sense of relief, but was a little concerned about the hint of equivocation when he said "seriously." I wondered if he had actually seen the galleon, close-up like me, beheld its exquisite workmanship, and peered inside to see the tiny box that held its even more precious cargo, the ring.


"Now, yes, the purpose of this. I must confide that Lloyd's of London have never insured the piece, some sort of oversight or technical confusion that I haven't quite sorted through yet. But I assure you it is priceless and, it may very well still be on board." He leaned forward. "I believe it is. Where is that boy with our tea?"


"What can we do?" asked Sal.


"Very simple. I am asking a few of the staff, several people actually, to keep their eyes and ears open. Do stay alert, and report anything you may hear directly to me.


"This matter has taken on greater importance than just a theft. Some very well-placed people will be visiting the Majestic to take their due possession of the galleon. Once again, this is strictly confidential, you understand."


"Yes sir, of course," I said, recalling the letter from the radio room Woodsome had shown us. "Confidential."


"I want -- ah, here he is finally, all the way back from the Orient, no doubt, with our tea." Takeo entered the room and nervously placed a silver tea service on the table between us.


"I want this to be resolved, and it will. Those who are responsible will be dealt with appropriately. Sugar? Cream?"


He poured three cups and sat back in his seat.


"Other than your explosive time in Honolulu, have you enjoyed the voyage?"


His question opened the gates to idle banter about World Cruise and the ports ahead, especially the Panama Canal transit, and his eagerness to rejoin his family at the end of the cruise. We finished our tea and bounded down to the gangway to get a taxi from the pier.


Sal spotted Ivan, our waiter, walking slowly toward the end of the pier, alone. She called out to him and he turned.


"Where are you going?" she asked.


"Ah, nowhere, just thought I'd have a bit of a walk about, you know." He squashed out a cigarette.


We walked on and at the end of the pier a big Chevy gas guzzler of a cab pulled up and the driver swung the door open from the inside. After all of the tiny cabs in foreign ports, the interior looked immense.


"What are ya looking for, a beach? Sunset? Huntington? Surfside? Which'll it be? What about Seal?" said the driver, displaying a mock impatience with pride and a smile.


"Let's check 'em out, one by one. Just avoid Darth Vader," I said. Thoughts of Neptune were haunting me again.


"Darth Vader?" the cabbie and Ivan asked, both at once.


"Never mind," I said. "This thing got air?"


The driver mumbled something, pushed a button and motored off. Whatever he pushed didn't work.


We stopped at Sunset for maybe a half-hour, then spent some time at Huntington, where Sal insisted on swimming while I stretched out in the sun. Ivan, whose chalky English complexion matched his shirt and contrasted with his black dress pants, indulged us, sitting cross-legged in the sand and smiling as the waves broke toward the beach.


He chatted easily about his kids, his years at sea and visits to foreign ports. But when I mentioned the Queen Mary he went silent for a few moments, gathering his thoughts.


"I was on the last one, and what a cruise it was," Ivan said at last. He lit a Player's.


"It was '67, she was bound for her final permanent berth, almost like a funeral march to us working aboard, it was," he recalled. "They'd done her up to give her an English flair, with old London two-deck buses parked at her aft and such. While rounding Tierra del Fuego, passengers were invited to board those bloody awful buses.


"But it turned out everybody wanted to go around the bottom of South America on an English bus, on the liner, all at the same time, you see?" he said as a puff of smoke escaped through his grin. "They all queued up, but there was some pushin' and shovin' they were all in such a hurry.


"So what happens? A bloody little melee, a right round of fisticuffs among these very proper gentlemen and I might say a few ladies too. Just to sit on an old bus, mind you. And it didn't stop there. They carried it inside to the dining room, where grown passengers started chucking rolls and such at each other," said Ivan. "Lucky someone didn't get nicked with a butter knife." He hesitated. "I wonder if those buses are still there?"


"You haven't been back to see her at Long Beach?" I asked.


"`Haven't had the heart. A right bloody shame."


An hour earlier, I had no interest is seeing the Queen Mary, but now my interest was piqued. Sal's coaxing persuaded Ivan to go along too.


We were soon in a taxi headed back to the pier where the Mary rested. At dockside, we stopped for a minute and stared at the ship before boarding.


Of course, the buses were long gone from Mary's sun-splashed aft deck, as were the massive boilers from deep in the hull that provided the steam to propel the 1,019-foot liner for three glorious decades. The three original funnels had long been replaced by lighter, aluminum dummies.


"She's no ship," growled Ivan as we walked aboard. "Just a shrine, to a different age. A relic, that."


The staircase at the Third Class entry was light oak, leading to a deck decorated in shades of brown, tan and gold and outlined in blue. Linen-covered wicker chairs in the semicircular Garden Lounge sat unoccupied, positioned toward a line of forward portholes.


The oak-paneled Smoking Room just below had been converted into a chapel, across the hall from what Ivan remembered as the ladies' and gentlemen's hairdressing salon. The ship's cinema was gone. "The beautiful clocks and figures in niches in the walls, they're all gone," said Ivan. "Where have they gone?"


Ivan's eyes lit up when he saw that the big marble fireplace was still in the First Class lounge.


"If I could have a quid for every ten times I fed coal into that, I'd be a millionaire," Ivan mused, with nostalgia dripping from his words. "The chimney ran directly into the funnel. That old fireplace, it took the chill off many a passenger on those cold Atlantic crossings." The room now was air conditioned.


Ivan seemed bewildered as we passed through the remodeled restaurant that was once the Mermaid Bar, which he remembered as a place of celebration for the multicultural mix of cabin-class passengers. The old Mary carried 700 first-class passengers, 700 in cabin-class, and 600 tourist-class.


"Mind you, class distinctions were strictly enforced back then, with locked gates and the whole thing," said Ivan.


The cabin walls retained their rich veneer or were decorated with wallpaper, unlike the soft-toned mass-produced plastic gloss coverings on the Majestic II's tourist-class cabin walls. The sinks were appointed with two taps each for fresh water, and two for saltwater, he pointed out.


And the First Class swimming pool was truly a work of art, unlike the rather utilitarian selection of pools for the masses on the Majestic II. The outer edge of its apron was lined by broad supports for an upper balcony, and topped with the graceful lines of a vaulted ceiling covered in mother of pearl, which he remembered had been picked apart by its temporary residents when the Queen Mary served as a troop transport from 1940-47.


We walked over most of the Queen Mary's seemingly endless decks, acres of them, including the covered Upper Deck. In the lifeless Bridge, the brass gleamed on the telegraphs from each of the dormant engines. Dead ahead, square windows afforded a view of the fo'c's'le and never-changing land ahead.


As we wandered from deck to deck, room to room, fore to aft, I wondered whether there were secret compartments where the booty of days gone by had been stashed. Was there a ghost of their Neptune haunting this ship? Was there a Booth? An eccentric radioman like our Grigg? An unfortunate pawn like Joe the tea man? I could almost hear the music of her era, hypnotizing and delighting passengers with his swing and big band Hit Parade selections. Was there stolen treasure still hidden away, forever forgotten, in some dark corner of the Queen Mary? Would the Majestic too someday become permanently docked with the precious galleon still hidden away?


Ivan had gone silent by the time we got back to the gangway. He was staring straight ahead as he lit a cigarette. I asked him what time it was.


"Time to get back to the ship," he said sullenly before taking one final glimpse of the Queen Mary. "The one that's leaving."


 


All the way back in the taxi, he was silent. Near the entrance to the pier, I stopped in a store to stock up on Ring-Dings and Slim-Jims. My supply had run out.


"Where did you put all your noodles and stuff for lasagne?" I asked Sal, remembering our shopping trip in Hong Kong.


"Mi lasci in pace," she muttered.


"Where do you think it is?" I asked Ivan.


"That stolen galleon?" he asked.


"No, her lasagne noodles."


"Maybe in the same place," he said.



Colin Cappesby had as little interest in his newly acquired booty, the galleon, as he had in the contraband he had given up in trade. And Nat Tarbell, sensing that the search for the stolen boat would grow ever more intense as the ship drew closer to New York, was only too glad to turn it over in trade.


At the appointed time, in his cabin, he did just that.


"'ere, and off with you," he told Cappesby as he handed over an old shoebox containing the boat. He had wrapped an old towel loosely around it, and the boat, miraculously after all of its exchanges, was still quite intact.


Cappesby, who had already rid himself of the Maui Wowie stash, wasted no time in returning to his cabin and placing the shoebox under his bed, where it would stay until he finished his next shift below in the Majestic's powerhouse. While the crew made ready for the sailing, a tanker pumped the last of its load of oil into the Majestic's tanks for the next leg of our journey.


With barely a splash of attention, the Majestic pushed from the Long Beach docks and made her way, alone again, into the darkness over San Pedro Bay, all aglow like a gigantic shimmering jewel, southbound for Acapulco.


 


Cecile Boucher was back aboard for her Cabaret show in the Quarterdeck Ballroom, while a magic act, Bruce and Bonnie Cullen's show, a standup comedian from Australia and a Scottish hypnotist were entertaining passengers in the public rooms.


Countless parties were getting under way, from crew the area below the aft deck to the Penthouse, where arm-wrestling runner-up Thor Trewargy was entertaining guests and still wondering where his galleon went.


Sal and I hurried to get the next morning's Mail assembled, which wasn't a huge chore, since radio was coming in with booming signals from the coast. The next morning's paper would tell of more trouble on land: Radiation was escaping from the crippled Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, and in Uganda, dictator Idi Amin was being toppled after his reign of terror. President Carter was about to abandon oil price controls, igniting fears of another wave of gasoline price rises. And in the U.K., Notts Forest thumped Chelsea six-nil, and Tottenham fought to a scoreless tie with Southampton in soccer. We didn't call it football in the headline because it might confuse the mostly American clientele on board. Ivan and the rest of the crew would know it was really football.


I trotted the layout flats down to printers', where Jack MacIver chastised me for my tardiness. Blue, sprawled on the press like a giant spider, kept quiet as he made a few adjustments.


I headed back at the cabin to get ready for the fancy dress party Sal was intent on attending. It looked like she was in a Cleopatra mood, judging from the getup she had borrowed. I asked her what I'd wear.


"Oh, I picked up a few things," she said, as if she had just run to the supermarket. "There, on the floor. Time to put on the Ritz, Mr. Slave."


A length of chains, luckily smaller than those attached to the ship's anchor, rested atop a couple of sacks of burlap. It couldn't be much worse than getting into my tux, I thought as I


silently held the dusty potato bag in front of my torso. Knowing there was no way of getting out of this, I abandoned any thoughts of protest.


"Got scissors?" I asked, slave-like.


We were soon ready. With her black mane combed out and hairsprayed cement-hard into a kind of triangle topped by a gold-foil crown that looked like a pair of garter snakes, heavy-duty mascara and gobs of lipstick, a chiffon gown and sandals, Sal looked close enough to the real thing. I soon had arm holes cut away from the sack and was wound in chains, barefoot.


"I'm ready for the ball," I announced.


A pair of First-Class cabins a pair of ship's bankers had somehow borrowed for the evening were draped in sheets, as were more than a few of the guests, who had fashioned a variety of togas and gowns from the prodigious supply of ship's linens. Fruit bowls brimmed with grapes, bananas, apples and an occasional pomegranate. A bandit, robot, "Planet of the Apes" character and so on filled out the crowd, which increased by the minute as the cigarette smoke grew thicker and disco music louder. A couple of ship's soccer players, who found easy costumes in their field gear, showed up. Lefty, of course, was a hit in his Captain Hook getup, which concealed a loudly ticking alarm clock.


The crowd was a mix of crew, officers and passengers, something not frowned upon particularly by the company, so long as it stayed relatively orderly. A help-yourself bar was open, but Lefty soon gave in to the temptation to dazzle the revelers with his mixing wizardry.


Hallsford eventually arrived in a tweed outfit that made him a dead-ringer for Inspector Clouseau, along with Watson, who was decked out in a black suit and bowler.



Down in the Pig, the 2 a.m. watch change brought in a fresh contingent of customers, who made their way to the queue to order their pints of bitter and ale. Every pitch and lurch of the ship, even on a calm sea, was noticeable so far forward in the ship. Men's knees bent and straightened with each rise and drop and the waves splashed incessantly against the side walls.


Neptune was alone at a square, wooden table in a corner of the dimly lit pub, where he'd been keeping company with succeeding rounds of lager for the last three or so hours, save the time he got up to play the electronic poker game every 15 minutes or so and belly up to the bar to get his pint pot refilled. His mood was even more foul than usual, with pain still returning in searing pangs from the burned flesh under his arm. Worse, he was embarrassed by that hairless elf Milligan, or whatever his name is, who had done him. Neptune swore to himself he would get him back, one night, maybe in Colon or San Juan, or wherever he gets a chance. Stirring his soup of anger and pain was frustration with Rickards, who was pressuring him night and day to find his precious galleon. Rickards' toady, was that all he was? All for what? A cabin of his own and the right to be preside over Neptune's court every time the ship crosses the Equator? So, what of it? Ah, maybe he owes his job to Rickards, but he wasn't a bleedin' detective for God's sake, searching high and low for that little piece of junk. It's probably long gone, he was telling himself, thrown to the deep two oceans ago. Where is the bloody thing?


"All right, M'Quarrie?" one of the crewmen asked as he took a table next to Neptune's. It was Hammer, now virtually recovered from the painful experience of having the monstrous squid tattooed on his back. "Ah, it'll hurt for a while. But look, I survived getting me Ike."


"Ah, piss off," growled Neptune. He let out a groan as he pushed himself up from the table, the exertion sending a fresh wave of pain down his arm, right to his fingertips. He half-stumbled to the loo to relieve himself of all the lager he'd been drinking.


He scratched his black beard and nipped a cigarette from his packet with his teeth as he waited in the queue to use one of the urinals. A couple of other crewmen were chatting in line ahead of him as he waited. He knew their faces, but like most of the others working on the ship, no names. They chatted on, their words almost drowned out by the din of the crew disco a deck down.


"A Vauxhall, runs OK, but not really a collector's item, you see?" said one of the men.


"Never mind now, tell me later," said the second guy, nodding his head back toward Neptune. The two men finished their conversation and, having completed what they came in to do, left.


Neptune took his turn. As he stood staring at the graffiti on the wall ahead, he wondered why they didn't finish what they were talking about in front of him. What was such a bloody big secret that he couldn't hear? Ah, was it about the missing galleon? There was only one way to find out.


Now finished, Neptune lit his cigarette and bounded out the door. The two crewmen were nowhere in sight. Just outside the door, he descended a metal stairway to the deck below and entered the crew disco, the same one where Booth had been crowned. Neptune hated that bloody snake, and hated Rickards for making him stuff the bloody thing in the editors' closet. Glad it was off the ship, he was, and by God he hoped the Chinese had cooked the damn thing. Neptune scanned the crowd for a minute or two, but his two marks were nowhere in sight. He left and stalked two decks of corridors where the crew's cabins were located, but saw only a straggler or two, probably coming off a watch or heading to one of the bars.


Neptune decided to go back to the Pig for more beer. On his way, he stopped as the pain from his burn shot down his arm one more time, and leaned against the wall. Glancing down the hallway, he spotted two men -- yes, they looked like the two who had been talking about a Vauxhall or something in the loo. They were quite a way down, but that had to be them, he said to himself. Neptune froze in his shadow for a moment as one man took out a key and opened the door. He heard it shut.


Neptune crept down the corridor, slowing his steps where he had seen the two. He listened for voices, looked for slivers of light at door jambs. He stopped. Room D-21, Neptune told himself. Remember that. He turned and left.


Inside, Colin Cappesby was finalizing a trade with a Denny Lane, a kid in his early 20s with whom he shared duties in the engine room since the Hong Kong layover. From the time he joined the ship, he had been known as "Penny Lane" by his mates, who couldn't resist the homophone with the Beatles song by the same name.


Penny had told Cappesby time and again about his car back home in Southend-on-Sea, or "Souf'end," as he called it, offering to sell it, now that he was now working at sea. Penny was unmarried and more or less alone, and there was no use in keeping his '63 Vauxhall any longer with nobody at home to take care of it.


"Expensive to store her. Much as I love her, she's a four-door, powder-blue-on-white creampuff of a thing, right, runs just as good as I got her from an aunt, but the expense, insurance and taxes and all that, you know ... " Penny was gabby, and Cappesby tried to turn the conversation to a trade once or twice, but finally gave up and just let the other fellow run out of words. "And the stares, everybody stops to look at her when we stop for petrol, not a classic mind you, but a right puffy old thing, right magic to drive her. So, you want to buy her then?"


"Well, not exactly," said Cappesby. He explained that he had come upon a rare artifact, something of a treasure indeed, that would no doubt fetch far more than the Vauxhall if sold in the right place, say Soho when we get back to England.


Penny Lane seemed unimpressed at first, but was nonetheless intrigued.


"'old on. Let me know if you're interested. If not, go and it's all over," said Cappesby, realizing he was now mimicking Nat Tarbell's style of hard bargaining. "If you're interested, I'll show you. What, then?"


"Go on, then, let's have a look-see," said Penny.


"First," said Cappesby. "I've got to tell you, not a word to anybody, you hear? Not a word. There are more than a few who would nick it off you in the blink of an eye if word got out. Hell, maybe kill you. Savvy?"


Penny took a deep breath, his eyes widened and he nodded.


Cappesby pulled an old alligator suitcase from under his bunk, opened it and began throwing out scraps of newspaper that concealed a shoebox. He opened the lid and removed the golden galleon. Penny Lane gasped.


"God, a right beauty. I've never seen the likes of it," he said. "Let me hold ..."


"Not so fast. Have we got a deal?"


"First, let me hold her," said Penny.


Cappesby handed over the box and Penny gently lifted the galleon out and held it up under the light, transfixed. A minute or two passed without a word being spoken.


Finally, he agreed to the trade, promising to leave the keys and his driving license as collateral. He would meet Cappesby at the Pig in 24 hours and then come back to Cappesby's cabin to pick up his galleon. The two men shook hands. Cappesby was glad to be rid of the loot and wondered what it would be like to drive a '63 Vauxhall. Better than a one-cylinder motorbike, he thought.


 


The fancy dress party had turned out all right. While it remained fairly orderly, it has also achieved the true measure of success: No one else could fit in the twin cabins, so the drinking, dancing and merrymaking spilled out into the hallway, drawing in like a black hole anyone who happened along. Those who wished to get to their cabins along the way simply had to stop


and have a drink or two first. As it wore down near dawn, a few of the officers coming off watch refused to let the party die and, in a kind of bibulous rescue operation, moved the proceedings to the Ward Room, with Lefty presiding.


 


With Baja California just beyond the horizon, we followed the direction of the coastline south and made the turn into Acapulco Bay, anchoring in its clear, azure waters. A line of white buildings covered the base of a green and brown ridge of hills on this sparkling day. The bay was filled with sailboats and yachts, many of them cutting circles around the huge ship, while fishing boats headed off in 20 different directions.


All the talk on board had been about going to see the famous cliff divers, but jaded officers who had been here before laughed off the idea, saying it was just a tourist-trap gimmick. Hallsford insisted we go to a beach, and said he knew just the right place.


We squeezed onto a jam-packed launch and in a few minutes were at the quay, where lines taxis were taking on groups of passengers and darting down the palm-lined street. Hallsford negotiated with the driver of the '57 Chevy we boarded and Sal ponied up five U.S. dollars for a ride to the Pacifica Grande Hotel about 10 miles away.


The orange dingleball fringe around the rear window never stopped dancing as the driver made a white-knuckled stunt drive through the narrow streets, hurtling past slower cars and trucks -- they were all slower -- and blasting his horn as Latino music blasted from his tinny radio. He nimbly negotiated the sharp curves along a mountainside road, keeping us on our side maybe half of the time. We began our descent and soon and were entering a long paved drive to our palatial destination, followed by a rich black plume of exhaust. The doors flew open and our driver grinned broadly, the gold in his teeth reminding me for a moment of the galleon.


The hotel before us reminded me of an Aztec pyramid, its marble-floored center wide open under a glass sunroof, with balconies facing inside and out.


On the beach side, a network of palm-shaded pools spilled into waterfalls and slides. A few daredevils leaped from a low-slung suspension bridge fashioned from rope and planks over one of the pools. Hallsford parked himself at the cabana for a drink and Sal and I decided to walk down the long beach, where horseback riders galloped merrily back and forth, often charging into the calm ocean.


It was only a short time into our walk before the sand was scorching our feet, sending us into a kind of fox-trot like the elderly passengers did on board when the sea was rough. The folks in the shade must have loved our hip-hopping antics and let out choruses of laughter. I could see why so many of the beach people here preferred horseback.


So, like the horses, we scurried into the water to cool our reddened feet. Walking in the water was OK, except the sun beating down from a perfectly cloudless sky made for an almost instant burn. We soon retreated for the shade, where the croupiers, Watson, and several others from the ship had shown up. The English, I was convinced, weren't really beach lovers anyway, especially if there was a well-stocked bar, particularly one with real ale, within sight of the sand. That was easy to understand, since there are so few real beaches in all of the U.K., and those that are there are usually being rained upon. I recalled seeing some perfectly respectable British passengers -- was it Rio? Cape Town? Doesn't matter anyway -- pop their blouses off, oblivious to the crowds around them, to soak up the rays wearing only their frilly, white bras on top. Drove the American women mad while the men just ogled in puzzled bliss.


Anyway, there was none of that for the crowd from the Majestic, who were perfectly happy to stay inside of the Mickey Mouse and Goofy T-shirts they had bought at Disneyland and


commence to partying under the palms. Given the hellish temperature of the sand, that was fine with us, so we decided to burn out our insides instead. We feasted on tacos, enchiladas, refried beans and burritos and washed it down with beer and shots of tequila.


The hours vanished.


As the sun began its rapid descent toward the Pacific, we passed once again through the magnificent hotel and caught a cab back to the ship. This time, it was a '54 Lincoln with a Packard goose for the front hood ornament. We were in a bit of a hurry this time, but the driver seemed to take his time, even stopping once or twice to let us take pictures.


 


Neptune had never left the ship during the Acapulco layover. The very morning after he had spotted Cappesby's cabin, he went to the purser's office, which was almost hidden in a little nook a couple of decks below the bridge. Neptune knocked, jiggled the handle and knocked again.


"Come in," said a gruff voice.


The place was small and cluttered with stacks of paper and envelopes on filing cabinets, a pair of metal chairs and on the floor. The only light, beaming from a lamp suspended over Rickards' desk, reflected from his starched white shirt and his ghostly pale face; the rest of the tiny place was in a shadow. The walls were bare except for a framed photo of his uncle, Graham Rickards, standing soldier-straight in his steward's uniform, with the dark hull of the Mauretania in the background.


"I need the key to Room D-21," said Neptune.


"You've found it? By God, I'll go there myself and ... No, no not at all. You've found my galleon, boy?"


"Don't know about that yet, but I think it would be worth me taking a look," said Neptune. "Can you get me the key? I don't want to waste your time. I'm tired of looking, every blasted launch and lifeboat, every nook and bloody corner. I just want to get this over with."


"Of course, yes. Wait here."


Rickards left the office and closed the door behind him, and in a minute or two returned. He tossed a key to Neptune. "Go have your look, then let me know what you've found," he said.


"What if I find it? Bring the thing back to you?" asked Neptune.


"Ah, yes, good question. Do I want it back here?" Rickards sat back in his desk for a moment and removed his glasses, thinking. "Practically no place is safe, with the entire hotel staff looking high and low, as you say. Except for maybe one. Listen."


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© By Buzz Adams