Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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27


The go-around over what to do with the galleon had ended in a compromise of sorts. No one was completely happy with the outcome, but all four of us agreed it was the best alternative, considering the sticky circumstances. We would keep it in a box that had held a model of a wooden Chinese junk I had bought for my brother as a souvenir, and keep it in what Sal insisted would be a safe place until it could be returned to its proper owner. We had retrieved the box from the closet and concealed the galleon by packing it under what was left of my personal stash of Ring Dings, a sacrifice I was hesitant, but at long last persuaded, to make.


Working as a foursome, we assigned Gordon and Grigg as lookouts for Neptune or anyone else who might become suspicious as Sal and I spirited what we code named the "junk box" down to the Chinese laundry.


"Oh, here to cook the special dish so soon?" said Lee Feng when Sal arrived. I waited by the door.


"No. I'm just dropping off a few more things," explained Sal. "May I leave them in the cupboard with my other ... "


"Sal's Italian Cupboard," said Lee. "Sure, sure. Not at all a problem."


Sal slid the junk box, tied shut with twine, into the cupboard, noticing that the little bundle of Hong Kong dollars was still piled there.


"I'll be back in a day or two, maybe after San Juan, to make the lasagne. Would you like one, or maybe two for yourselves?"


"Whatever you wish," said Lee. "Will you stay for some rice wine?"


It was getting late and Sal politely declined, knowing that our lookouts were out in the corridors getting more nervous by the minute. She said good night and the four of us scurried back to the elevator. Inside, we decided to go back to the office for a game of Scrabble. But we had barely begun before Gordon began second-guessing our decision.


"In less than two days, Prince Charles will be in New York to accept it, and as far as I can tell, no one from the ship's admitting it's gone, but it's here, I mean down there. How did I get talked into this?" he said.


"Grigg," he continued, "have you seen any traffic on the radio? Is everything still on, with the prince and all?"


"Not a blasted word," answered Grigg. "Of course, I'm not telling you this, you understand, that communication is all confidential. But, between us, I can't understand why the ship's not sent something back calling off this little presentation. For all they know, by God, the bloody galleon is all ready to be handed over."


"Gordon, it's safe now, and it will be in your hands when the time comes to present the galleon," Sal said. "We just have to find who was behind the theft in the first place. Once they do, they won't get it back. I promise. Just stick with the plan. Another, what, 36 hours or so, and it's all over."


She looked over at me.


"Look at it this way," I reassured Gordon. "I've got to get my Ring Dings back."


We went back to our Scrabble game.


 


 


Jack MacIver must have gotten down to typesetting before the bottle of scotch arrived because there were only eight or ten typos on Page One, a pretty good count by his usual standards.


Despite the typos, I thought the page looked all right. While the picture of Goofy didn't show him shouldering a rifle, the caption that said he was a Marine in costume patrolling the streets of Disneyland seemed convincing enough for an unsuspecting newspaper reader.


I folded the Mail and tucked it under my arm as we walked into the Parisienne for a late breakfast, while the ship made way across the Caribbean. On the way in, I overheard one of the waiters telling the maitre d' about what he had read in the morning's Mail.


"And, sure as I'm standing here," he said, "Yank soldiers dressed like Mickey Mouse or one of those cartoon creatures, they took over Disneyland, didn't they? Just like those Yanks, eh? Glad I got there before it was taken over."


I smiled in smug satisfaction.


"Guess he hasn't read the disclaimer on Page Two," I told Sal. She was silent.


Our waiters, Ivan and Terry, didn't mention the stories, but as we ate, I scanned the dining room to gauge the reaction. Here and there, someone would pick up the paper and point to a story, reacting with shrugging shoulders, a grin, a nodding head.


"Turn to Page Two," I thought.


We ate quickly so we could start early on the next paper, never mentioning the galleon as we walked up to the office. Lefty had been by. His cartoon of the day showed the Majestic sailing in a big circle around an oil drilling platform, to which it was tethered by a fat oil hose. "Next year's circumnavigation announced for Majestic II," said the caption. I slid it in a drawer. Fears about the oil shortage were now inspiring waves of gallows humor among the crew.


The phone rang. It was Staff Captain Villard, saying he was "unamused" with the April Fool's edition, although he admitted he had been taken by the report on British booze prices. The rest of it, he sniffed, was "tasteless, graceless and sophomoric."


I took the blame and confessed it was all my idea, offering as my only defense the disclaimer I had carefully placed on Page Two.


"Where?" he asked.


"Page Two," I said, picking up a copy of the paper.


"See, right ... right ... " My stomach dropped.


"Right nowhere," he grumped. "Well, it appears the printers have claimed their April Fools," said Villard, whose laugh somehow made me feel better.


I promised him no more April Fool's spoofs, which seemed like an easy promise, not knowing if we'd be on the ship for another year. Returning to his courtly manner, Villard wished me a good day.


He hadn't mentioned the galleon, and that came as a relief.


 


We cruised at a moderate clip for the next day on flat seas and under passing scatterings of puffy clouds. The decks were full as passengers basked in the sunshine in their deck chairs and strolled through the mild Caribbean wind. We skimmed past the Guajira Peninsula of northern Colombia and bore north just above Aruba as we made our leisurely way toward Puerto Rico. From late afternoon into early evening, a steel drum band played on the Lido, before the Cullens took over and entertained passengers under lights suspended over the deck.


The news came in fine day and night, BBC, VOA, Radio Canada over shortwave and exhibition baseball and soccer telexes from the Radio Room. Menachem Begin becomes first Israeli leader to visit Egypt. Nuclear cleanup tab at Three Mile Island estimated at a whopping $40 million. Trucking strike in the U.S. causes Ford and General Motors to lay off 70,000 workers. The Dow Jones Industrial average closes at 868, up 13 points. PM Callaghan is on his way out as Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher gains in polls.


Ah, life was much better on the ship.


But the galleon, it was a worry. Sal and I were spending nearly all of our time in the office now, hoping our presence would ward off Neptune, who would no doubt be back sometime soon to retrieve the treasure that was no longer there. Even though there was no paper for the next morning, we had gotten quite a good start for the following day's edition, which gave us most of the day off while the ship was in San Juan.


The Majestic veered on a northerly bearing as we sailed between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, then shifted due east for San Juan. We crept into port and tied up just before dawn.


Sal and I skipped breakfast in the dining room and instead had coffee and pastries that were being served on the aft deck. The Majestic II, having nearly completed her sail around the world, had taken her place as a regal centerpiece among a lineup of a half dozen white-hulled cruise ships that spent all of their time hopscotching the Caribbean islands. The gangways had been set to shore and thin lines of passengers were now making their way to the San Juan, the oldest city under the U.S. flag.


"What'll we do?" I asked Sal. "Do we give up a day ashore to stand guard in the office? I say forget Neptune and let's see what's out there."


I was just a little surprised when she agreed. We were soon off the gangway and walking along a boulevard, shaded by palms and giant fern trees, toward the narrow lanes of Old San Juan.


We walked past the multicolored facades of tile-topped homes and shops, noticing the ornate iron filigree on the balcony railings and arched gateways to the front doors. I bade a friendly "Buenos dias" to a black-haired woman who was busily sweeping her little brick-lined patio. She nodded, without looking up, and responded with a quiet "Good morning" in perfect English as she resumed her chore.


The winding, hilly streets led us to El Morro Castle, a Spanish-style fortress that rose in 1539 from a spit of land jutting into the coral-based waters. We followed the walkways along the periphery of the fort, stopping at times to peer over the bulwarks to the sea 140 feet below, whose crashing waves sent geysers of spray into the warm air.


After an hour or so roaming through the restored chapel, dungeon and supply rooms, we headed back toward the old city, where the sidewalks were now filling with more tourists eager to see the scores of restored buildings, and crewmen thirsting for their own whirlwind tour of the many bars dotting the neighborhoods. In fact, it was said that there was one bar for every 75 residents, the highest density in the world.


Most of the passengers had headed off from the pier in buses headed to for Loquillo Beach, or signed up for tours to the rain forest of El Yunque in the mountainous center of the island.


As we walked along, Sal spotted Hallsford and Watson walking out of a little bar, one of many that were beginning to pull in business for the day, and called out to them. They talked us into going inside so we could make some plans for the rest of the day.


Sipping cool pina coladas under a ceiling fan that spun lazily, we decided to hire a taxi for our private sightseeing tour. Hallsford asked the barman if he knew any drivers, and in a moment he was on the phone. Ten minutes later, our driver arrived.


His car was not the '50s variety we had seen in Mexico, but rather a sleek Cadillac of late-60s vintage, complete with killer tailfins, a plastic Blessed Family flanked by two bobbing-head Tony Perez dolls on the dashboard and flags on the front bumper, one bearing the Puerto Rican colors and the other the Confederate stars and bars.


The driver -- he insisted we call him Rico, and we spared him the obvious plays on his name -- revved the old motor, whose thump-thump-thumps attested to a terminal bent camshaft condition compounded by what I suspected to be a loose rocker arm or two. But we hopped in anyway and paid for the ride, in a sort of gamble that we'd complete whatever odd tour lay in store for us.


The bright pink car rumbled off, crossing a bridge taking us into the newer part of San Juan. After a few minutes Rico pulled over and stopped as we approached a line of high-rises.


"Look, right across there. Where the Great Wallenda fell off his tightrope," Rico said as he made a quick sign of the cross. "Here." He handed back a bottle of rum. "To the Great Wallenda."


We motored on to the palm-lined Condado Beach, known as the Gold Coast, with all of the luxury hotels and casinos and upscale shops rising beyond its sands. On we went, zigzagging in and out of traffic, surveying the side streets, parks, churches, museums and neighborhoods in a chaotic blur. Rico finally stopped the car so we could get a good look at a flying-saucer shaped disco known as the Spaceship, where he offered us another nip of rum, and then motored off to Cantano, where we wound up, not surprisingly, at the Bacardi rum distillery, in time for a short tour, speech on why there are bats on the company label, and of course, free samples. We were the last to leave, at the polite but pointed request of the tourguide.


The ride itself was well worth it, mainly because Rico would not let us know when he was changing his mind on where to take us. He would simply turn around, anyplace. With the twin flags flapping on the Caddy's sparkling, prodigious grillework, and Rico's smile almost as wide, he steered the hot-pink monster into a couple of thumping U-turns over grass and concrete medians, each time making sure the oncoming cars were at least 20 feet away. Then he would hit the throttle real hard, pushing the suffering cams to their limit and letting out a thick cloud of exhaust that triggered a cacophony of beeps, toots and Spanish expressions of disapproval accompanied by a mix of time-tried and creative hand gestures.


The adventure lasted most of the afternoon. Finally, the Caddy pulled us down the boulevard past the lineup of ships and our driver pulled over. Sal suggested we finish the day with a drink. I would have been just as happy to head back to the ship, but with Hallsford and Watson nodding their approval, I was hopelessly outvoted and therefore obligated to let majority rule.


We chose a tatty little pierside hangout where we saw some familiar faces, but after one drink Sal suggested we try something different. The next place was rattier than the first, dark, and a little scary with a few sets of unfriendly eyes peering back at us as we walked through the doorway, so we moved on, following the sound of loud rock 'n' roll.


"One more," Sal said, as if on a mission. We followed her up a wooden stairway and Hallsford suddenly stopped. I turned around. With an odd grin on his face, he said, "This is a place, uh, frequented by women bereft of virtue. Are you sure we want to go on?"


"Let's go," ordered Sal. We shrugged and followed.


The place was noisy and so smoky you couldn't see much beyond the tables lining the dance floor. Illuminated beer signs flickered like distant galaxies through the haze, and girls darted this way and that with trays of drinks. We stepped to the bar and ordered a round of beers, and as I sipped I began looking around for all the virtueless women Hallsford said would be here.


Sal, too, was scanning the crowd, a mix of seamen from our ship and the others in port, and local people. It was not a place for passengers, who more than likely were in the Club Tropicoro watching a floor show or at upscale places along the Condado strip sipping fancy rum drinks.


"Let's get a table," said Sal, picking up her glass and heading into the darkened haze. Once again, I shrugged, wondering what her attraction to this place could be.


We found a table, its top splattered with the remains of beer and chip crumbs left by the previous occupants, and sat. Sal was still scanning, rising now and again like a U-boat conning tower in search of something. Hallsford attempted to begin a conversation but couldn't compete with the blaring sound of Mick Jagger singing "Under My Thumb," so finally sat back in his chair and waited until the song ended to say something about the pink Caddy we had spent half the day riding around in.


That's when Sal's eyes became transfixed on a tall, shadowy figure entering the place.


"I knew it!" she said. "The creep is here. Just his kind of place, isn't it?"


My stomach was churning, and I wanted to leave. I was already hatching an escape route, into the smoke behind the tables and around his back so he wouldn't see me leave. Cowardly, maybe, but I didn't want to deal with Neptune.


"Michael, listen," Sal said, her eyes still trained on Neptune. "Let me handle this. But I want you to stick around."


Hallsford and Watson took that as a signal they were no longer needed at the table, so they finished their drinks.


"Meet you back at the Wardy, in, say ... " Hallsford started to say.


"An hour," Sal answered. "Better yet, walk slowly back to the ship. Very slowly."


Hallsford winked before getting up. Watson almost bumped into a waitress as the two left the table, and Sal called her over.


"See that tall guy over there, with the ugly beard and black hair?"


"Thee creepy-looking one?" she asked with a Spanish accent.


"Right. Here. Bring him some drinks," Sal said, slapping a 20 dollar bill on the tray.


"What are you doing?" I asked.


"Listen, let me handle it. You won't get hurt. I hope." She smiled, and I took a long gulp of my beer.


The waitress made a quick stop at the bar and delivered a glass to Neptune, then pointed toward the table where Sal and I sat. He turned his head and his demonic eyes peered through the haze, setting my stomach spinning like Rico's Caddy in overdrive. Just as the music started playing again, his dark presence was looming over my back. Sal looked up, then kicked a chair out from under the table. The monster sat down.


We sat like statues while another song played out -- I think it was "Just Another Nervous Wreck" by Supertramp -- and finally the din died out. I took another gulp. Sal spoke first.


"Find anything today?" she asked.


"No. How'd you know?" Neptune answered.


"Know what?"


"Know what, little tart. OK, then, I was looking for it. What of it?"


"Looking for what?" Sal asked.


"You know damn well what. The boat. The friggin' gold boat. And how'd you now I was looking for it?"


"I'm not stupid," she said. She sipped her beer and looked up into the haze.


"Right. Right. And if you're not stupid, you know you'd better give it back, and quick. Because stupid people don't want to get hurt," Neptune said. He glanced toward me. "Or accidentally tossed over a rail."


"Oh, you want it back. Guess what, Neptune, can I call you Neptune? I don't have it, and I don't want it. Does that surprise you? But I can get the golden boat for you," she said, leaning toward him.


"All right then, how much?" he asked. The waitress plunked three more beers in front of Neptune.


"Money? I don't want money, do we, Michael? Just tell me, Neptune, what do you want with that stupid little boat? Come on, Neptune, you're trying to get it back for somebody else, aren't you?"


"Ah, smart little editor, you are. You want me to rat out on him."


"On whom?"


"Nobody."


"Nobody? Oh, I see. Well, I think it's time to go. Michael, are you ready?"


"Ah, you probably know that too, don't you? So when you print your little story, both of our names will be in it. That's right, isn't it?" he said, he eyes aglow.


"No, just your name, because we don't know who's putting you up to this. So it's just your name. Neptune. Alan MacQuarrie, isn't that right? M-A-C Capital Q-U ... "


"Smart-ass little editor knows it all, don't you? I get to take all the shit for him, and I don't even want the filthy little toy. I tell you, I hate him."


"Hate whom? Oh, wait." Sal seemed to enjoy bluffing the ogre. "You must mean ... "


"Don't play me for stupid, missus. You know well as I it's the money man. The man with the money always wins, isn't that right? You're such a good speller, can you spell purser? I'll tell you how to spell that. The one who really runs the ship, that's how. Not the captain, no ma'am. It's 'cause the purser controls the money. Rickards is the real boss. And I'll tell you what else. That's why we all hate his bleedin' greedy guts. Mr. Rickards says he wants his galleon back, and I've got to get it or I'm off the ship," said Neptune.


"Now, about your poison pen story," he continued. "If you put my name in it, I'll ... "


"Neptune," said Sal. "Let's make a deal. Are you ready? No story, not even a word, and you'll get the boat, how does that sound?"


"That's right, not a word," I chimed in. That elicited another nasty glance my way.


"Tell him to shut his face up, or I'll take one firecracker I have left and shove it up his rosy ... "


"Michael, please let me finish this with Mr. MacQuarrie."


Neptune had emptied two glasses of beer, but two more arrived.


"All you have to do is bring Mr. Rickards to our office to pick up his galleon. There will be no story, no nothing. We'll just hand it over," said Sal.


"When? How soon?" he asked. His furry, black eyebrows were knotted as he stared into Sal's face.


"Oh, it can't be tonight, of course. A day or two. Once the ship is out of the Caribbean and we start back to New York. Now, listen, this is important. Don't tell him a word about this until I let you know, OK? Remember we want to keep this out of the paper, right? Now, where do we find you?"


The music started blasting again. He leaned forward and shouted F-9 forward, but Sal made him write it down on a napkin just to be sure. She folded the paper up and tucked it into her purse. She lifted her glass and clinked it against Neptune's. He leaned back in his chair and finished another glass of beer.


We sat silently again as the music played and more smoke filled the warm air. Neptune started straight ahead, as if he was mentally recounting bargain he had just made.


Sal tapped the bottom of her glass to the time of the music, a sign she was ready to leave. I got up and asked her to dance, which we did. We left when the music ended.


As I started for the door, Sal told me to wait a half minute. She walked back to Neptune's table, where he sat alone, still staring straight ahead, leaned over and said, "Remember, not until we tell you."


Hallsford and Watson had ducked into one of the local bars on their way back to the ship, standing like faithful guardians by the window waiting for us to pass by. They met us on the sidewalk.


"Any trouble with that MacQuarrie?" said Watson. "Menacing sort of devil, isn't he?"


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© By Buzz Adams