Dawn found the Majestic II off Balboa near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, where she lay at anchor awaiting the go-ahead to begin her passage. The sparkling blue waters of the open sea a day earlier had turned a darker hue under a thick expanse of clouds that showed no promise of allowing even a sliver of sun to slip through.
Flat arms of brown land reached partway around us, stretching from dead forward to midships on both sides, before retreating and finally vanishing into the horizon at starboard and port. In the middle was a faint scattering buildings making up the port of Balboa. In the bay, the Majestic seemed like the queen bee among the workers; from the fantail, a dozen oilers, container ships and a couple of naval vessels lay scattered about us, resting at anchor for a turn to transit the canal.
By noon, the aft Lido deck was covered with a polka-dot arrangement of beach tables, each skewered with an umbrella of alternating crimson and white arcs and marked with the name of a well-known vodka distiller that would soon be throwing an afternoon transit party.
Table-by-table, stewards popped the umbrellas open with no concern whatsoever of seeing the wind create havoc. The air was so still and heavy it could have been cut into cubes and tossed overboard.
Passengers, drearily roaming the decks with cameras looped about their necks loaded and ready to document the transit, began filling the tables while we lay at anchor. They moved about like mummies in tropical wear, as if in trances induced by the low pressure and steam-bath heat. Their faces dripped perspiration and shirts turned soaking wet with even the slightest movement. They took their seats and waited for stewards to arrive with trays full of bloody Marys, vodka collinses, vodka martinis and vodka and orange juice, while the barman, a portly Mexican hired in Acapulco just for the occasion, flashed toothy smiles as he poured drinks and loaded trays, happy as a well-fed polar bear sitting on an ice floe.
The Majestic's wait at the Pacific entry would not be long, thanks to her toll of $72,000, which I assumed included her admission to jump the queue of other ships awaiting their turns. The anchor was slowly hoisted from the deep and the thrusters angled the ship directly in line with the white cruise ship, the Pacific Princess, that was now gliding toward the first lock. Passengers barely noticed as the Majestic's engines were powered to dead slow and the ship inched toward the narrow incision between the two continents. Like floating pawn pieces being positioned on a watery chessboard for their next moves, a tanker sailing under the Liberian flag appeared in the distance behind our stern while a cargo ship slid into place behind the tanker.
All the while, the sky grew darker under a thick blanket of a cloud. The passengers under the umbrellas kept on drinking and paid little attention until the first raindrops fell. Even as the rain picked up, a few dedicated drinkers stayed at their tables, and simply slid their chairs closer to the tables while letting the rain, now making drumbeat sounds on the plastic above them, drip from the umbrellas and wash down their backs, a relief from the oppressive heat. Most scrambled indoors or under the Lido canopy to await the buffet luncheon that would soon arrive.
Sal and I had spent most of the morning working on the back pages of the Mail, hoping the head start would give us time in the afternoon to see the 50-mile transit. We arrived at the Lido amid the steady rain, which heated up on the freshly varnished wood deck before rising in waves of steam.
We took our places in a fast-moving line and loaded up with lobster salad, shrimp and rolls before dashing to one of the many tables that had opened up, quickly placing our plates under the umbrella and paying little attention to the rain. A steward with sopping wet hair appeared almost instantly, ready to take our orders, and quickly arrived with a bloody Mary and vodka collins. We raised our sweating plastic glasses, clinked them. Sal laughed: "Look, land is closing in on us."
The wide arms of the isthmus were now embracing the ship into a bosom of green hillsides, which slowly drew closer as we approached the Miraflores Locks. As we walked toward the rail, I wondered how the Majestic could get through this narrow slit, but the story in our paper that very morning assured that ours would be the largest passenger ship to transit the Big Ditch.
Men had dreamed even in the 1500s of such a project, and the French had attempted the feat in 1882, but were defeated by lime fever, cholera and malaria. Medical advances enabled the Americans to complete the job in 1914, at a cost of thousands of lives. The Republic of Panama would be taking over operation of the canal in the near future, 1979. Its full ownership would not take place until way ahead in the year 2000. The date sounded unreal, too far into the future to imagine. Who knows what the world will be like then, I wondered. Would the dire warnings of the depletion of oil come true? There were already gas lines back home, and the captain of this very ship was fretting over where the next load of fuel oil would come from, and at what cost. What would become of Majestic, I asked myself, as I looked up and watched the smoke billow from her single stack. We returned to our table and finished lunch.
Now, as the rain began to lighten to a soft mist, I found myself running from side to side of the vessel to see the ship begin to slide dead ahead, as if into a funnel. Sal had become sidetracked, talking to some of the passengers who had returned to the open deck to view the transit. The captain, meanwhile, had temporarily given up command as a canal pilot took the helm to guide the ship through.
The Majestic was pulled into position in the first lock by "mules," electric engines running on tracks parallel to each side of the 110-foot wide waterway. The massive gates -- 72 feet high and seven feet thick -- began to close off our stern and, like a child's toy in a rapidly filling bathtub, we began to rise as nearly 9 million cubic feet of water began gushing into the lock chamber. We had begun our ascent of the Continental Divide, 54 feet in the first pair of locks.
As if in a slow-motion movie, the ship rose into the steamy air until we were towering above the concrete apron forming the sides of the canal. Looking down, I could see just a couple of feet between the hull and the canal wall.
I dashed forward and ducked in a forward entry, trying to remember the way to the fo'c's'le. Like a mouse in a maze, I sensed my way through a series of hatches and corridors below decks until I saw light streaming in from a hatch that had been opened. The fo'c's'le was not open to passengers, but there was no one around to turn me back. The only ones there were crewmen splashing about in a pool they had fashioned for themselves by raising a steel, square deck hatch from its place over a storage hold, then flipping it and lowering it upside-down. By the time they had consumed a case or two of beer, it was filled with water and the soft rain had stopped.
They paid no mind to the greater engineering spectacle unfolding around us. Just off the bow, the Miraflores Lock's gates opened slowly, creating little whirlpools and eddies as they made their arc through the tea-colored water. Within a few minutes, the mules were tugging the Majestic toward the next set of locks.
Like a sleepy sentry at on duty at an exotic guardpost, I remained at the forward peak of the fo'c's'le as the gates ahead drew closer, then closed, and the slow ascent began once again. Mesmerized by the spectacle and somewhat hazy from the heat and drinks from earlier, I hardly noticed the splashing and laughing in the makeshift pool on board. Someone tapping me on the shoulder startled me, and a dripping wet crewman handed held out a can of beer.
"'ere mate, cool it off a bit," he said before heading back to the pool. I nodded thanks and returned my attention to the spectacle before me.
Sal by this time had seen enough of the transit and decided to get back to work on the next day's Mail. She left the aft deck and proceeded past passengers who were now draping themselves over every linear foot of the Boat Deck railing to watch the transit. A blast of cool air from the interior of the ship rushed forth as she pulled open the oak door and stepped inside to the carpeted hallway. As she began her turn around the corner, a tall, shadowy figure appeared, perhaps 20 feet down the hall, near the door to the office. She knew instantly it was Neptune and, instinctively, pulled back. She heard a jangling sound, like keys in a door lock, and waited. A door opened and closed. "He's in the office," she thought. Then, without thinking, she muttered to herself, "Bastard."
"Madam?" said a steward as he brushed by her. "All right?"
"Bathroom," she said. "I think I misplaced my keys. I believe I left them in the bathroom."
The white-uniformed steward stood for a moment, then turned and continued on his way. Sal pushed open the door and was back on the sweltering deck.
Like clothes hanging out to dry, passengers were still draped over the rail, peering at the canal and at the brown and green hills in the distance, pointing this way and that, snapping pictures. Sal took a few steps to the third window from the door, the cabin window, and looked inside. The curtain had been drawn. She took another half step, in front of a narrow sliver between the edges of the curtains. Sal peeked in. Sure enough, it was Neptune.
Sal backed away for a moment and felt a rush of anger course through her body. She peeked back in. Neptune was propping a chair against the doorknob. Now he was bending over to pick up a box, it looked like a big shoebox, and carrying it toward the closet. The closet light flicked on.
"Bastard," she muttered once again. An elderly woman wearing a straw hat turned around for a moment and displayed an unforgiving scowl. Sal grinned back, but she was burning inside.
Her first thought was to go to the cabin, unlock the door, pound on it, and ... no, no good. Get help. Michael. No. Hallsford. I don't know where he is either. Gordon. Is he in the jewelry shop? Probably socializing. Watson? Where are these men when you need them? And what was Neptune doing in there? She stood back, away from the window, staring now at the backs of the passengers. Then it hit her. "God," she thought. "It's the galleon. He's putting it back."
My beer was long gone by the time we cleared the Pedro Miguel locks. As the ship crawled forward, it seemed at times to be headed straight for the muddy banks ahead, but the daymarks guided us through the snake-like passageway. The rain continued to hold off, but the temperature was still steamy. The makeshift pool over the cargo hold had by now drawn a sizeable crowd, perhaps 50 or 60 crewmen. A couple of kegs had been rolled to the center of the fo'c's'le and a stereo was blasting disco songs. A soccer game had broken out and some guys were standing on the thin edges of the steel pool and dropping backwards into no more than three feet of water to cool off. But the bravest and drunkest of the lot were climbing mirthfully into a mesh net used for hauling cargo so they could partake in what turned out to be the grand sport of the afternoon.
With the net loaded with a half dozen or so men slithering about like a catch of pearly-skinned codfish, it was hoisted by one of the twin cranes at the foredeck and then dipped into the pool. This went on for some time, miraculously without serious injury, until one of the crane operators decided to take the game a step further and began swinging the boom over the side of the ship and letting the net drop 20 or so feet before hoisting it again and returning it to the deck for the climactic plunge into the steel pool.
Soon, several hotel officers appeared on the steel deck to call a halt to the frivolity, while a three-stripe officer standing still as a statue of Admiral Nelson himself on the bridge wing stared coldly through binoculars.
The cranes were quickly shut off and crewmen began scurrying into the forward hatch, leaving their keg and boom box behind. A few of the drunkest souls who didn't get away in time were collared right on the spot and given the honor of having their names appear first on what would be a lengthy Captain's Log.
Pretending to be invisible, I remained at the peak of the bow, trying to appear as if I not only was allowed to be there, but had a right to be there, and belonged there, like a rare male figurehead clothed in cutoffs and a Baltimore Colts t-shirt clutching an empty can of brew, staring bravely into the beyond. It worked all right for a while, but soon one of the officers sauntered over to tell me to scoot. I was lucky; it turned out to be Hallsford.
He was quite sporting about it, and while walking me to the hatch advised me to get back on the aft deck so I wouldn't get mixed up in this mess.
"By the way, I rather expect the kegs will be in the Wardy tonight," he said with a wink.
Sal had abandoned her peeking post outside the office and walked to the Lido Deck, where the vodka party was beginning to break up. After all, the Captain's cocktail party would be getting under way in just a few more hours.
Gordon was alone at one of the tables, dressed in a white tropical outfit with a straw hat, nursing a vodka tonic and staring off at the landscape drifting slowly by. His red an gold Dunhill pack and gold lighter were neatly placed in front of him. Sal sat down.
"So here you were," she said.
"Beg your pardon?"
"Oh, never mind."
"Is the paper all finished so early? Or did you leave it all to your husband?" asked Gordon, taking a final sip of his drink.
"Oh, it's almost done. Haven't seen you around lately. What's up?"
"The usual. The passengers just aren't buying anything this leg, a miserly lot they are, so it gives me a chance to catch up on some things. And worry. But I won't bother you with that. Are you going ashore in Colon?"
"I suppose. What's there?"
"Tatty place. Dreadful, a mugger's paradise, if you ask me. No good restaurants, nowhere fun to shop; it's barely worth the walk from the gangway. Of course, if you haven't seen it ... " He stopped for a moment while a steward came to the table. Sal ordered a club soda, and a nod of Gordon's head affirmed his order.
The conversation drifted off into ship gossip, with Sal serving up tidbits about the Japanese stowaway now working as an aide to Capt. Goodrow, and the captain's growing concern about the missing galleon.
"Haven't you heard, they're going to start charging an extra assessment for every passenger boarding just to cover the cost of oil. A head tax, if you will. Oh, I can hear the squawking now," said Gordon.
"And I think passengers are mean with their money now. Look, that's where my business is going," he said, pointing to the plume of smoke rising from the funnel. "Let's go have a look at the eighth wonder of the world," he said, rising.
The two walked to the railing and looked out as the ship slithered easily through the Galliard Cut, an eight-mile section that had once been solid rock forming the spine of the isthmus. As if the excavation was not a monumental enough task alone, mudslides during construction and soon after its opening provided further frustration for the builders. In the area where the mud had poured down so many years earlier, people stood on a concrete platform and waved as the Majestic squeezed past. Gordon pointed to a lonely, weather-beaten plaque in the center of still-exposed rock honoring those who perished during the project.
"All so we can sail through today," said Gordon. There was a long silence.
"I've about given up on the galleon," he said, looking down. "I'm composing a cable to the Brighton office to suggest they abandon the whole bloody affair with Prince Charles and the presentation in New York. By God, we're going to arrive in a fortnight and it's just vanished. So embarrassing, not just for me, but for all of us in the ship's company."
"You haven't sent it?" asked Sal.
"Not yet. I haven't had the nerve, to be quite honest," said Gordon, taking another sip.
"Have you run this by the captain?" she asked. He was silent for a minute.
"I was going to bring it up tonight, after the cocktail party. Bad timing, I admit. He's always in such a dreadful mood after having his hand clenched so unmercifully by all of those passengers who actually think the captain will remember who they are. But I think tonight's the night."
"Don't. Don't do it," said Sal. "Come by to play Scrabble tonight and we'll talk. Don't send that cable, not yet."
"Do you know something? Tell me," said Gordon, taking off his sunglasses. "Come on then, tell me."
"Scrabble tonight, after dinner," Sal answered.
They finished their drinks and left the deck. Gordon, heading back to his cabin, was now thoroughly puzzled. Sal wasn't certain the galleon had been returned, but she was going to find out. She cut into the aft deck entry and headed past the Gallery to the office.
I was still on Boat Deck as the ship plowed slowly through the manmade Gatun Lake, the islet-splattered source of water in the center of the isthmus that filled the locks day after day for the procession of ships transiting the canal. As the Majestic headed into a channel beginning the 24-mile trip to the final series of three locks at the Atlantic side, I finally decided to get back to work.
Sal had finished the back pages, but the front was empty. A gaping white space on Page 1 was the product of a day's drinking, staring at the canal and watching Neptune break into our office.
"What are we going to use on One?" she asked, leaning forward on the typewriter. "We've got Three Mile Island inside, the evacuation and all. The fall of Kampala in Uganda, and a story about a car bombing in London. The next strongest stuff, from VOA, is about inflation in the U.S. I've got the gold prices in, the crossword, even a feature about the officers' talent show." She stopped for a moment. "We're out of stuff. No more news."
I sat down and looked at my watch.
"Our tea ought to be getting here soon," I said.
"You're a large help."
"Did you see those locks? Incredible, those megaton gates. Then the canal opens up to a huge lake in the middle of ... "
"I'm not interested unless you can write a story about it. A good one" she said. "See any alligators?"
"Well, I did see quite a swim party way up on the bow. Unreal, they were swinging nets full of guys from a crane, then dipping them like drunken clams ... "
"What have you been drinking?" she asked.
"Really. Ah, can't use that anyway. They'd put us off in Colon. Captain would hang us if he could tear himself away from Space Invaders long enough." I looked at my watch again to see how much time we had left to invent a front page.
"Thirty-first, my watch says. This is March, right?"
"Very good. Yes, this is March. Now we're starting to get somewhere. I do love the way you keep up on things."
"That means tomorrow's April First." I smiled. "Our problems are over. Providence has rewarded us once again. Let me have that typewriter."
"Oh, no. No April Fool's gags. That's infantile. They do that on college weeklies. Forget it and grow up," said Sal.
"How about this: Tenth planet discovered; scientists call it, let's see. Yerputon. Gimme the typewriter. Gimmie, and I'll buy you a drink later." I nudged her out of her place at the desk and started typing, just as the afternoon tea arrived. The guy set it at the edge of the desk and quietly left.
"Fai come credi," she muttered.
"Voyager One has sent back photographs of a small, dark planet midway between, let's see, yeah, midway between Uranus and Neptune. Like it?"
"Positively tasteless," said Sal. "I hate both of those names."
"Doctor Alfred Yerputon -- get it? -- discoverer of the phantom planet, says scientists aren't sure if it's one of Uranus' moons since it has its own orbital trajectory around the Sun."
"Worse," said Sal. "That's sophomoric babble and you're torturing me to death."
I took that as a compliment and kept typing. It beat pounding out stories about the Ayatollah and Zbigniew whatever-his-name-is and Bhutto and Idi Amin. Soon, my 350-word lie was complete, and Sal was rifling through the filing cabinet. I asked her what she was looking for.
She produced a photo of Goofy, the Disney character, and slapped it on the desk.
"I suppose this will do," she said grumpily. "Let me sit there. Mi lasci in pace. Vamoose."
I sensed her muse was being reawakened and quickly moved out of her way. She began typing.
"ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A detachment of U.S. Marines quietly took control of Disneyland yesterday, not for a training exercise as originally planned, but for conversion of the southern California amusement park to a military base."
I peeked over her shoulder.
"This is so-o-o childish," she said without stopping her typing.
"Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who made the announcement that left millions of Disney lovers reeling, said, `All the world's not a cartoon. It's time to show that the U.S. military is not some Mickey Mouse outfit.' "
I backed off as she kept on typing, pondering possibilities for the next fictional report.
"Hey, I've got it. What about the Eiffel Tower, no, the Tower of Pisa, it leans too far and collapses? You finished with that typewriter yet?"
"Dreadful and insipid," she said as she got up. "Don't let anybody die."
Thus was the story line for the next fable that would help fill up space on Page One. I limited the fatalities to a score of pigeons and a couple of dogs.
Now that Sal had conspired in this exercise of journalistic deceit, it was easy to persuade her to collaborate in a final make-believe centerpiece to anchor the page. We bounced ideas back and forth.
"How about new Titanic to be built?" I suggested.
"No ship stories, please. We're in enough trouble now."
"Who could possibly care?"
"You'll like this. Disco declared a crime in Alabama."
"You mean it's not yet?"
"President has affair?"
"It might be true."
"All right. How about: Berlin Wall torn down."
"Sure. The most naive sucker wouldn't believe that. What's your next idea, Soviet Union collapses?" she asked. "Or U.S. balances budget and pays off national debt?"
That shut me up for a minute.
We finally settled on something to get the British blood pressure up, while perhaps sending a little extra business to the Majestic's bars so not everybody on the ship would be mad at us. "Gargantuan tax sends British booze prices soaring," the headline would trumpet.
"LONDON -- A special session of Parliament was called to establish a mini-budget to generate new revenues, and the outcome could be 80 to 90 percent increases in the price of spirits, wines and beer in Britain."
We collaborated on the body of the piece, winding up with a bogus quote from Prime Minister James Callaghan: "I'm seriously considering cutting back my own intake now."
"This is awful," said Sal, as she typed the final words. "I don't know if we should ... "
"Let's take it down to the printer's so it'll be too late to change our minds," I said. "Is the page dummied in?"
The Majestic by now had cleared all three Gatun locks and was making way for the quay at Colon.
Sal offered to take the pages below decks while I got ready to go ashore. I balked at the offer at first, figuring she might be tempted to toss them overboard. But I concluded that the April Fool's mockups would make it to press because she wouldn't want to spend the rest of the day and half the night worrying about what we would use for stories. In fact, I guessed she was curious as to what the reaction would be.
Jack MacIver was just starting to get to work when she arrived. She slapped the flats and copy in the usual place.
"Do you have an extra one of those little wrenches, what do you call it, trox, or trix or something like that?"
"Aye. And wot do ye be needin' the torx for this time missus, to tighten up the screws on one of your daffy tomes?" MacIver asked with a sneering grin.
"You haven't seen daffy until you read what's going in tomorrow's paper," she said. "So, about that wrench. Shall I pick you up a bottle of scotch in Colon? I can deliver it, oh, half-nine or so. What'll it be, Johnnie red? A blackie? Oooooh, smooth stuff. So, do you have one, a torx?"
MacIver, not one to reject a bribe, turned and began digging through Blue's tool box, where he found the torx driver and a spare.
"Do ye want both?" he asked, handing out one in each hand.
"This will do just fine," she said. "See you at half-nine. And, oh, don't mention about the torx, right, Johnnie Black? And, oh, why don't you start typing in the copy now?"
He nodded and she headed off. But instead of going back to the office or cabin, she followed the darkened corridor below the public decks and went to the Chinese laundry, where the crew remembered her and treated her like a long-lost relative.
"Your noodles, sauce, they are all still here, safe and sound, all the way from Hong Kong," one of the smiling workers, Lee Feng, told her as she pulled a box filled with the ingredients from a cupboard. It looked as if the boxes of noodles and jars of sauce hadn't been moved since she left them there weeks earlier, judging by the thin film of dust on top of the boxes -- and a crumpled ball of money wedged between a box and sauce jar. The money was her change from the store where she had bought the ingredients.
Sal now remembered she had left the wad of Hong Kong dollars there in her haste to drop off the food and get back to work after the Hong Kong call. She grabbed the ball of money, and smiled as she flattened out the bills. She handed the money to Lee Feng.
"Oh, no thank you," he said politely. "But you may leave it in the cupboard if you wish. No one goes there. We call it `Sal's Italian cupboard.' And, oh yes, the cheeses, look, right in the fridge."
"That's OK," said Sal. "The money, please, take it." Lee refused once again.
"Would it be all right if I came down, say in the next few days, to use your oven again?"
"Oh yes, OK, OK," Lee said with a bow. "Any time, come down."
Sal left the money in the cupboard once again, said thanks and left.
The clouds by late afternoon had been mostly devoured by the sun, and baby blue hints of sky appeared again. The sea on the Caribbean side of the canal was deep blue and choppy, and a light but steady wind was kicking up whitecaps as we eased toward the quay. A half-dozen ships awaiting passage to the Pacific side had anchored in the bay off the entry.
Colon was not quite as menacing a place as Gordon had warned, but it was no Acapulco either. The call was scheduled to last only a few hours, and I wondered why, with all the work involved in docking, the port was even part of the itinerary. Another place to see, I guessed. Maybe a cheap oil fill-up.
The wind that fanned us with warm, sea-scented air on deck seemed to disappear as soon as we cleared the gangway, and the air suddenly turned dank and sultry as soon as we set foot on land. We joined a procession of passengers and crew walking a palm tree-lined road leading to town. Nurse Connie Frank, a cigarette dangling from her lips, was at the head of the motley brigade, with Tina Kane and Lori Pierce, by now known by the ship's staff as LaLa Lithium and Thelma Thorezene, each hanging onto an arm. The three, all sporting sun dresses and wide-brimmed straw hats, formed a kind of flying wedge for the rest of the parade that followed.
Thor Trewargy, puffing a cigar and shaded under a tan felt cowboy hat, was escorting Lucy, who wore black leather hotpants. Her white t-shirt matched Thor's, which bore a big "Pow's Paw" logo on the front and the words, "Runner-up, 1st Annual Majestic Arm Wrestling Championship" on the back. Grigney, alone, stalked by, and Bruce and Bonnie Culbertson, who had just finished a gig in the Admiral Nelson as we completed the canal transit, said hello as they walked by. We met up with Grigg, who had been to the place a number of times before and assured us it was no worse than Bridgetown, Barbados.
"Not taking the Corvette for a walk today?" I asked Grigg.
"Dah-dit, dah-dah-dah. Batteries are weak," he said. "Scrabble tonight?"
We walked along sidewalks, a kind of mosaic of pink-and-white blocks made with a coral base, shaded for much of the time under bright canopies of the shops. Following Grigg's gait, we eventually wound up in a cantina called the Olympic, a tatty place, as Gordon would have put it.
The two ceiling fans did little to move the air in the sweaty place, which quickly filled up with crewmen bellying up to the bar and carrying armfuls of dripping cans of Budweiser and
Falstaff to the tables. My stomach felt queasy as I saw the satanic rockhead Neptune shuffle into the place. I avoided eye contact, fearing the loathsome lout would seek revenge for the fireworks episode in Honolulu. I know he saw me, but, except for one sideways glance toward our table, he minded his business and stayed his course to the bar.
When I saw him duck into the head, I suggested we vacate the premises and Sal was quick to agree. Grigg and the two of us vanished, our beer cans in hand.
Knowing we were within the influence of American culture, I figured this would be a good place to scout out some Ring Dings and Slim-Jims. We checked a few of the shops, which were jammed with everything from switchblades to soap and might have sold anything legal or illegal, until I found one that seemed to specialize in junk food. While snatching several packages of my
favorite treats from a dusty shelf, Sal and Grigg moved to another corner of the store where they found liquor. As I paid up, Sal plopped a bottle of Johnnie Walker black on the counter. "Jack MacIver asked me to pick it up," she said. "Like he needs it, right?"
Then she plopped a bottle of Cointreau on the counter.
"And Gordon's coming by, for Scrabble."
Dinner sittings had been delayed due to the abbreviated, late-afternoon call in Colon. We barely had time to dress in our formals for the pre-dinner cocktail party in the Quarterdeck Ballroom, but it was under way just as the sun was making its speedy tropical dive to the horizon. A long, deep blast of the Majestic's whistle signaled that the ship, too, was under way, bound for San Juan.
Gordon quizzed us about Colon, and Cookie, Danielle, Dottie and Fiona were buzzing about the scene that afternoon on the fo'c's'le, though none could properly pronounce the section of the ship after a day of free vodka, cheap bars in Colon and, now, lots of champagne cocktails at the Captain's bash. Hallsford, who joined us as John Delon's band took a break, was loyally tight-lipped about the goings-on on the foredeck, but reminded me that the Ward Room would host a party later that night.
I let Sal order dinner: smoked sturgeon with chrane sauce and pate for appetizers, consomme, Waldorf salads, boiled filets of plaice and poached halibut with asparagus spears for the main course, and a half bottle of Sancerre to wash it down. Sal went for the raspberry mousse for dessert, but I took a buy, knowing I had Ring Dings waiting for me back in the office.
With the paper finished, the night was ours.
Gordon was the first to show up, still spiffed up in his white dinner jacket and black bow tie from the evening's earlier social events. He gave his usual quiz on what would be in the
next day's paper as he stepped to the bar to search for a bottle of suitable liquor. He feigned shock upon finding the bottle of Cointreau, and poured a drink while Sal set up the Scrabble board.
Just as John Delon's band was getting warmed up for the night's menu of swing-era songs, Grigg arrived, wearing his officer's whites. Sal made him promise not to speak in Morse for the duration of the game, and he agreed, on condition he could smoke a cigar. The game was on, with relatively little chit-chat.
"So, why did the ship bother to stop in Colon for such a short time?" I asked. "Seems like a lot of work for a few hours."
"Oil," Gordon and Grigg answered simultaneously.
"Venezuelan crude to top off her tanks, wouldn't you say, Grigg?" asked Gordon.
"Most decidedly," he said, his thoughts two or three moves ahead. "Dah-dah-hah, dit-dit, dit-dah-dit-dit. Oops, Sorry."
A few more moves into the game, Grigg was piling up an unsurprising lead, Sal delivered the real news.
"It's here, Gordon. Back in the closet, behind the panel, I'm sure."
"The galleon?" his eyes opened wide. "Where I met that dreadful serpent? No! How do you know?"
"I was walking back here, just this afternoon, before I saw you. And he was in here."
"Who?" I asked. "The creep? Neptune was in here?"
"As I was saying, I know it was him, and he had a box that he carried over to the closet. I didn't actually see the boat, but what else could it have been?"
"A little snake," said Gordon, taking a sip before guffawing at his joke. "Is this an early April Fool's prank? If so, it's a cruel one."
Everybody was silent for a moment as we sat around the Scrabble board.
"Why don't we have a look then?" said Grigg, letting out a puff of cigar smoke. "Come on then, let's see if we can get that panel open. Why, the captain would be most pleased to ... "
Sal grabbed her purse, opened it and pulled out a torx driver.
"Oh, so well-equipped for a lady in a lime chiffon gown," chided Gordon. "Do you have a spare tire jack in there?"
"Very funny," she said. "Shall we look or just dish out sarcasm?"
Grigg snatched the tool from her, laid his cigar in an ash tray and walked to the closet, while Sal and I followed. Gordon, taking no chances, stayed in his chair and lit a Dunhill.
"Michael, the door," ordered Sal. I propped a chair against the doorknob and made sure the curtains were drawn.
"I shouldn't be doing this, you know," said Grigg as he began unscrewing the fasteners. "Could get me on Captain's Log, or worse."
"Shush, and hurry up," said Sal.
Within a couple of minutes the screws were all out. Grigg pried the panel out with a wire hanger and reached in.
"Dusty in there," he said. "Look at me whites."
I borrowed Gordon's lighter, held it by the opening and flicked it. Grigg reached to a shoebox under the pipes and pulled it out. Without opening it, he walked it across the room, holding the box with both hands, and handed it to Gordon. Gordon set the box on the table in front of him and looked back at us.
"You'll swear, now, this is no prank?" he said, looking at me.
"Swear? I didn't even know the damn thing was here," I answered.
He pulled the top off and removed a layer of tissue paper. The golden boat gleamed from the box.
"Good God, that's it," he said. "Let's have a better look."
Gordon carefully pulled the boat from its resting place, set it on the table and inspected it, his eyes covering every millimeter from bowsprit to stern. Every jewel was in place, and aside from a very slight bend on the mainmast, was in perfect shape. There was a long silence.
"This is the kind of April Fool's surprise I like," he said. "What now?"
"Take it at once to the captain, at once," suggested Grigg, who had a nervous look on his face as he recovered his cigar. "He's gone almost mad over this."
"It must go back to my shop," said Gordon. "That's where it was taken from and where it belongs. I should take it now."
"You're both right," said Sal. "Both right, but both, well, very wrong. Think, and listen.
"Yes, we should bring it to Captain Goodrow, it's the right thing to do and it would end all of the mystery over where it's been. Sure, but what's the first question he'll ask?"
"Yes, I see," said Grigg. "Who took the galleon?"
"No, that's the second question," said Sal. "The first question is, where did you find it? He'll want to know, and we'll have to tell him. And tell him what? In the editors' office, of course."
"Let's tell him someplace else. Anywhere. On deck. Below decks. A lift. In a loo, for God's sake. Left by your door like one of those abandoned babies you read about," said Gordon.
"Don't you see? Those lies won't hold water," said Sal. "The officers have been crawling over every space on this ship, every lifeboat, every corner. You see what I mean? Whatever we say, it won't pass the straight-face test."
"That MacQuarrie fellow, Neptune, he must be more clever than I thought," said Gordon. "Conniving, manipulative demon."
"He's framing us," I said. "He's got us boxed in."
"Frankly, I don't think he's that smart," said Sal. "And I don't think he cares a bit about that galleon. And if he had stolen it for himself, it would have been pawned long ago. In Hong Kong. Japan. Honolulu."
Everyone was quiet again, the Scrabble game quite forgotten, as the Majestic steamed for San Juan, John Delon's band played and the disco music began its thumping beats on the deck below us.
"Suppose I say it was left at my shop?" suggested Gordon. "Just returned, in the night."
"You don't think security's watching that place while we sleep?" said Grigg. "And think, for a moment, what will your shop owners say?"
"Quite. I'll hang," said Gordon. "So, then, suppose we keep it locked away in the shop, and not say a word until we arrive in New York?"
"And you don't think Neptune can find his way into the shop, too?" said Sal. "He can get into anyplace, it seems. He unlocked his way into our office, didn't he?"
More silence. Gordon refilled his glass and Grigg paced back and forth, puffing the last of his cigar, lost in thought. I snitched one of Gordon's cigarettes and lit it, and offered around some of my Ring Dings. There were no takers. Then Sal stood up.
"We have the galleon, right? Think of it as bait. And Neptune is just a pawn, a big, stupid one at that, who's covering for somebody else on this ship. I think we can flush out whomever that is, the one Neptune's covering for."
Grigg stopped pacing. "How do we do that?"
"First, find a safe place, not here, to keep the galleon," said Sal. "Gordon, I know you don't like this. But, can you trust Fiona?"
"Well, then, Cookie?"
"Cookie? Good God, that galleon is worth a fortune, don't you see?" said Gordon. "It's not a matter of trust, but putting a fortune in the care of Cookie, why, that's just ... "
"Wait, I think I have it," said Sal. "Fortune. Cookie. Of course, the Chinese."