Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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28

The Last Leg: The Galleon Sails


The Majestic had been oiled up hours before the dawn sailing and left Puerto Rico back under the horizon by the time the first joggers and morning walkers hit the freshly varnished decks.


Sal and I were in the office by mid-morning working on the back pages for the next edition. The weather was holding up fine, but the atmosphere in the office was somewhat dreary; we knew that the world cruise, which had taken us to four continents, a dozen countries, across three oceans, across the equator twice and to spots of land we knew we would never see again, would soon be over.


The ship would convert for the months ahead to trans-Atlantic service and the community we had been part of would be broken up, its members going their separate ways, with a fresh crew and new passengers moving in to take our places.


And us? I knew I had to telex my brother Steve, to ask him to meet us at the pier in New York, to take us back to Baltimore, where we would start a new life. I had been putting it off, in a subconscious hope the trip would not end. I turned off the shortwave set and called the radio room. Grigg was not on, but another officer took the message and politely read it back: "Steve, Due in NY 8 pm Fri, hope you can meet us. M." Short and sweet. Not even a date, just Friday. It would be over so soon, not in months, or weeks. Just days. Up the East Coast, past Florida, Cape Hatteras, then a straight shot to New York. Time was becoming real again. A couple of days and some hours change.


At lunch, Terry and Ivan could barely contain their excitement knowing they would board planes in New York in just a few days to begin their leaves back in England. We wished them well and promised to meet up again, although we knew this would probably never happen.


The radio brought in news of the continuing truckers' strike in the U.S., the foundering stock market, oil shortages, inflation.


"Maybe we'll run out of fuel off the coast and just have to drop anchors and stay there," I said. Sal smiled but kept on typing.


"Sure," she said. "And maybe we'll get an offer to stay on. So you've sent that telex to Steve?"


Not a minute later, there was a knock at the door. Two hotel officers and a third man, his hair slicked down and wearing a brown suit and a wide, red and white tie, asked to come in. Sal and I looked at each other and stepped aside.


The suited gentleman brusquely introduced himself as a Mr. Thornton from Brighton Lines. This set me into a mild panic mode, thinking that he either wanted to know about the galleon, or wanted us to stay on for another leg. It turned out to be neither.


"We're examining space options," he explained matter-of-factly before suggesting we resume our work. It was clear from the comments we overheard as we pretended to make up the newspaper that our office was to become a first-class cabin. The newspaper, it appeared, would go the way of the Titanic.


Our Grim Reaper had left well before tea time, which brought a visit from Gordon.


"I've had to close the shop," he said. "Nobody is spending. God, I'll be redundant soon. This is just awful. Have you heard, some of the big shots from the company came on board in San Juan? They're going stem to stern, looking for places to cut back expenses."


"We just had a visit," said Sal.


There was a minute of silence.


"Everything is still on, our plan?" he asked.


"It's falling into place perfectly," she said.


Tea arrived and Gordon joined us, but he was not as talkative as usual and seemed nervous. He stayed until the next gongs of Big Ben from the BBC and left.


The blue skies of the Caribbean led to a milky layer of high clouds over the East Coast by the end of the afternoon, and there was an unusual coolness to the breeze off the ocean. The decks were clear but for a few straggling walkers, and most of the passengers were indoors getting ready for the final Captain's cocktail party of the voyage.


John Delon's band tried to pump some life into the Quarterdeck Ballroom with a medley of pop tunes, but it seemed like a wasted effort. People's minds were elsewhere: Were the suitcases packed and the stewards tipped? All the gifts bought for the relatives back home? All the bar bills paid? Would the limousines or taxis be at pierside in time for arrival in New York?


In what seemed more like a wake than a party, passengers criss-crossed the ballroom floor to say farewell to friends they had met on board; the men shook hands and women embraced and hugged. There were a few tears, even before the band started playing Barry Manilow songs. On the far side between two pillars stood Nursing Sister Connie Frank, with Tina and Lori at her sides. Small waves of well-wishers gave their regards to Thor Trewargy, who stood with Lucy at his side. Officers, who usually stood in little knots among themselves, mingled throughout the crowd to say so-long.


Sal looked wonderful in her silvery gown. I wondered when she would wear it again, and when I would put on my tuxedo again. We joined the croupiers and clinked champagne goblets in a sort of goodbye gesture, without ever saying the word.


At dinner, we ordered a bottle of red wine and filet mignon. We talked about what we would do when we returned home. Would we travel more, free-lance, or settle down and maybe start a family? There were no answers. We never knew what we would find before we arrived at any of the ports we had visited. We would see when we got there.


We were among the last to leave the Parisienne. Sal handed Ivan and Terry an envelope, our final cash gratuities for their service, as we left the table, then we stopped at the doorway as we were walking out and watched as the waiters cleared the tables and carried their silver trays to the galley. Back at the office, we put a few finishing touches on the Mail and delivered the flats to the printers. On the decks above, the corridors were busy as stewards pushed carts of luggage from cabin to cabin and delivered trunks so passengers could pack for their trips back home.


On the upper decks, the usual entertainment was in progress. But it did not seem like a night for comedians or a cabaret, John Delon's hit parade or a nightclub act or a disco bar. Sal stopped outside of the Theatre and read the marquee. Inside, the bright notes of a Beethoven piano sonata drifted forth. Without saying a word, we went inside and took seats as works by Schubert and Schumann were played. I closed my eyes as a Chopin flute and piano piece sent forth seesaws of haunting sounds, awakened by sprightly melodies that chased time away from the rest of the evening.


 


 


Our sea trunk arrived from the cargo bay and was placed at the cabin door. The sight was depressing. I bent over and dragged it in, and just stared at it for a minute or two. Finally acquiescing to reality, I flicked the latches and opened it, then plopped our two suitcases on my bed, opened them up, and began emptying the bureau. The drawers were littered with ticket stubs, pamphlets and maps that would be reminders of Rio, Cape Town, Bombay, Kagoshima, Dairen and a dozen other ports. I scooped them up, looked through them, then dropped them in a wastebasket. Sal was folding her gowns and winding the cords around her hair dryer and electric curler, and gathering up mascara and eyeliner and lipstick from the top of her dresser.


I looked out the porthole, where between wisps of foamy waves I saw a lining of steely gray, flat clouds meet the horizon. The slight pitch and roll of the Majestic reminded me that we were out of the calmness of the southern seas and back into the rougher domain of the North Atlantic. I went back to packing: the tuxedo, my swimsuit, a few t-shirts I hadn't traded in Sri Lanka. Painted wooden elephants I bought on the quay in Bombay. A blood-red pack of harsh Chinese cigarettes. Bootleg cassettes from Singapore that sounded like they were recorded in a bathroom. Some stamps from Tristan da Cunha. There was a light tap at the door and an envelope slipped onto the carpet. Sal picked it up and opened it. She read it to herself and looked over to me.


I took the note, marked with the Brighton letterhead, and skimmed through it. Brief, formal, polite. "Many thanks for your service ... due to increasing costs ... will no longer require best wishes in your future endeavours ... " I crumbled it up and tossed it into the waste can, where it landed on top of the pamphlets and stubs.


"Don't you hate the way they spell? Endeavours with a U, civilised with an S,'' I said. "For the last edition, let's spell it our way." She was crying.


"Doesn't matter," I said. "The printers will change it back anyway."


 


Getting to work on our last edition got her back on track. The news was pouring out of the shortwave, and now we were even picking up some AM signals from the Southeast. New York stations drifted in and out, but as their signals grew stronger and more consistent through the morning, I knew we were zeroing in on our final destination. It was like an obnoxious alarm going off after a long, beautiful dream.


The news came in: High winds from the Great Lakes blast Chicago with rain and snow, causing floods widespread blackouts. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger predicts gasoline will top the $1 per gallon mark. Truckers strike continues. There must be some good news someplace. Ah, here we go, baseball season is about to begin: Tom Seaver pitching for the Reds at Riverfront Stadium in the opener against the Giants' Vida Blue. I looked out the window. A lone passenger drifted by, hanging onto the rail and lifting his coat collar to protect himself from the stiff ocean wind. A white sheet of paper -- it looked like a copy of the Mail -- caught by the gust, swirled off the deck and was swept into the ocean.


Back to work on the last edition. I wrote the stories and handed the copy to Sal, who was dummying the pages. She went to the filing cabinet and pulled out a folder marked New York and laid the pictures and copy on the desk.


"A New York travel page?" I asked. "Who's going to read it? They'll all be going home."


"Not everyone. Besides, it'll take up lots of space," said Sal. "Let's go big with the pictures. Let me do the radio for a while and you take over the layout."


I sat at her desk and shuffled through the pictures, setting aside a few glossies showing views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with the Majestic II sliding grandly below its arch. A slight rock of the ship sent one picture to the carpet. I picked it up. Ambrose Light Tower, "the first sign of landfall for all ships making way for New York," said the caption. It intrigued me, this flat, prefabricated turtle of a structure propped up on four elephant-leg pillars in 70 feet of water, its tower sending beams 18 miles out to sea.


The first sign of landfall. Before any sign of Miss Liberty, the great edifices of New York, before the thumb of Coney Island or the busy harbor, a simple winking light, three flashes every seven and a half seconds. Your first welcome to America.


By New York standards, it cost almost nothing to build, two and a half million dollars. Architecturally simplistic and built to withstand hurricanes, its two decks housing a half dozen keepers below the flat, white helipad. Standing alone, doing its job. Forgotten. The first wink from the Big Apple. I dummied the picture on an inside page, nice and big. The first hello and our last good-bye. Ambrose.


 


By tea time, work on the paper was finished. Sal and I tipped the steward who had replaced Joe. We piled the flats on the desk and opened the curtains wide and just stared out at the sea, sipping from the cups and nibbling at crumpets. An hour passed and we said nothing, while the tannoy blared a run-on series of advisories to disembarking passengers.


Finally, Sal spoke.


"Where do we find Lefty?"


"Ward Room. Call the Ward Room. Call the bridge, they'll know. If that doesn't work, get the guy on the tannoy to call him," I said. "What, now we need a cartoon?"


"No. Invitations. We're going to have a party. Call Hallsford, order some gin and scotch and mixers. And beer. Cases." She was now on her feet issuing the orders. "Here, tonight. Everyone's invited. What are you waiting for?"


"Get Lefty, then gimme the phone."


Within an hour, Hallsford and Watson had delivered three or four cases of spirits and a half dozen bottles of champagne, stewards wheeled in dozens of liters of mixers and racks of glasses and goblets, stacking them neatly behind the bar. Lefty, located by Sal on her first call to the Ward Room, sketched out invitations of his own design, showing a sinking Majestic with partying passengers raising their glasses and mugs, and declaring, "Leave? Not till all the booze is gone." He gave his word to make copies, which were delivered in one of his manila envelopes in the usual way, slid under our office door.


We cleared our desks and delivered the flats to the printers, suggesting they finish early and join the party. Sal delivered the invitations while I emptied out our last pay envelope to pay for all the liquor.


By 9:30, people were showing up, and an hour after that the office was so jammed you could barely walk through, thick with smoke and loud with singing, laughing, half-shouted conversations and general, gleeful mayhem. The partying crowd even spilled into the bathroom where, on occasion, its inhabitants had to be forced, Japanese subway-style, into the main room while someone used the facilities.


The only time any space appeared between the crush of people was when Grigg's radio-controlled Corvette made a dash across the floor, forcing a Red Sea parting of humans. Grigg used the device quite skillfully to pave an opening to the bar to refresh his gin and tonics and, graciously, to refill the glasses of his host and hostess.


They were all there: white-suited hotel officers, radiomen, bridge officers and engineers, Dr. Angus Millan, stewards and stewardesses, John Delon's band members, our friends from the Gallery shops, bank and florist shop. Rock Roche and Gordon Woodsome, Cookie, Dottie, Fiona and Danielle. The printers, Blue and Jack MacIver, showed up. Even making a long cameo appearance was Staff Captain Charles Villard, who, once he losened up, insisted Sal and I autograph a copy of the April First edition. He said he was having it framed so it would hang in his local pub back home in Portsmouth.


Eventually, Grigg broke out his squeeze box and Hallsford kept time with the music by tapping one of the typewriters. Somewhere along the line, watches changed and we had a new crowd of revelers. Things started to get a little blurry when the dancers came in and people started leaping from the desks into armfuls of half-sodden crewmates, who chanted "O-o-o-o-o AH" as the trusting jumpers fell backward into waiting arms. No casualties, as I recall.


The only loss was one of the old, gray typewriters. An officer, I think it was Griffin, stood on a chair and made a short farewell speech, which led to probably the 800th toast of the evening. He then lifted one of the old clankers over his head and declared: "Let us now retire this venerable gray workhorse to the deep."


Griffin led a procession of partiers from the office to the deck, where after mumbling a few lines of mumbo-jumbo heaved the old Olympia over the rail. The splash was met by wild cheers. Sal looked over the rail, tossed her glass over and shrugged.


 


With our shipboard newspapering now complete, we spent the morning finishing our packing. I glanced through the final Majestic Mail that had been slid under the cabin door, stopping for a minute to check the travel page layout with all of the New York scenes. I laid it on top of a stack of all of the papers we had edited and tied a string around them. Through the buzz of my blistering hangover, I could hear Sal humming some tune. One by one, I set the suitcases next to the door, dragged our the loaded sea chest, then checked the closets and drawers one last time. Nothing there. We headed to the office.


My faint hope that the typewriter scene was only a booze-induced dream immediately vanished as I unlocked the door. Only one typewriter left.


Otherwise, the place was in surprisingly good order, except for a few stray glasses, gin, champagne and scotch bottles here and there, beer cans littering almost every square inch of flat surface, and a smell of stale smoke in the air. We tossed the trash in a garbage bag and borrowed a vacuum from a steward who was on duty in the hallway.


I sat at the desk and looked out the window. Sun was glinting through the clouds and the sea was fairly calm. A light offshore wind carried the plume of black smoke from the funnel toward the starboard side, where light wind it wove into a long trail of sooty black yarn. Looking at the sea, I estimated we were moving at a leisurely 24 or 25 knots, suggesting that we were ahead of schedule and the bridge was cutting back speed to save precious fuel.


"F-9, wasn't that Neptune's room number?" asked Sal.


"I think that was it. Yeah. What, we're going to give it back now? Don't we need to call ... "


"I'm going to send him a note. How does 8 o'clock sound? We'll tell him just to send Rickards, no one else, and we'll turn the boat over. Now, listen, we have to get our audience ready."


"Right. Like we planned. Gordon, Grigg. In the closet. Do we call the staff captain now?" I asked.


"Weren't you listening? We call him at the last minute, right, after he ... "


"Got it, got it, right. The lasagne. When do you cook? And, hey, do I get my Ring-Dings back?"


"You're impossible," she said impatiently. "Yes, probably. Please, don't screw it up. I write the note. Rickards comes alone for lasagne. Gordon and Grigg, in the closet, with the tape running. Did you check the batteries?"


"They're new. All set. Check. Let me test it while you write the note."


As Sal wound a piece of paper into the surviving typewriter, I plopped a tape into the cassette recorder, pushed the button and then shut it off before speaking. I decided to find Gordon and make sure he knew how to operate the thing. Not that I had no confidence in his technical abilities, but I had never seen him operate a device more complicated than his lighter.


By the time Gordon and I returned, Sal had left to deliver her note to Neptune. She stopped back afterwards, telling us she was going to the Chinese laundry to prepare two dishes of lasagne.


"One for our guest, one for the Chinese," she said. "We'll need three table settings and a bottle of champagne. Can you do that, Michael?" Then she left.


I sat down with Gordon and plopped the recorder on the desk. Gordon lit a Dunhill.


"Look, the tape is all ready. All you have to do is -- watch -- push the record button, see? The one with the red dot," I told him.


"Oh, for goodness sakes, any fool can work one of these," he said, blowing out a puff of smoke. "Hand it here then, let me give it a go."


He hit the button, said a few words and ran the tape back. It looked like he had it.


"Now, what time shall I arrive?" he asked.


I reviewed the plan with him.


 


 


I looked at my watch. It was 7:30. Darkness had fallen over the ocean but a faint halo of light reflected from the low clouds off the port side, a sign that we were drawing closer to land. I turned on the radio. New York stations were coming in loud and clear. The Majestic was beginning her arc from the sea toward land.


Three sharp taps at the office door brought me to my feet. As I opened the door Sal bounded in, looking like a waiter as she held a large, square pan with her extended arms. Under the tray was the junk box. The galleon was back. I took a deep breath as I closed the door.


"Good. The table's set. Let me put this down," she said. I could smell the lasagne.


She handed me the junk box.


"Right there, on the desk. Now, Gordon and Grigg, where's Grigg?"


The door to the bathroom opened and a red Corvette shot over the jamb and stopped at her feet. Sal was not amused.


"OK, your places. We can't mess this up. Go on, the closet, you two. Gordon, do you have the ... "


With a dour look on his face, Gordon held up the cassette player.


"OK. Go. Your places." Gordon and Grigg, walked into the closet and pulled the curtain closed.


A minute passed, without a word being spoken. Then another minute. Some mumbling from behind the curtain.


"Sh-h-h," Sal ordered with a harsh whisper. Another minute.


"Villard, he'd better show up. I left word, half eight, outside the door," she said, not addressing anyone in particular. "That Villard, can we count on him? He's got to be there or all we have is the tape. I wonder if ... "


A rapid succession of taps on the door. We both froze for a moment, then I got up and answered. It was Rickards, in his dress whites, alone. He smiled.


"Am I on time?" he said, as he walked into the office. I heard the click of the tape recorder. It sounded loud and clear, at least to me. I thought of saying something clever to allay any suspicions Rickards might have, but decided to keep quiet.


"Please, have a seat," Sal said with a big smile.


"Oh, that wonderful aroma," Rickards said as he sat. "You shouldn't have, really. Where on earth did you prepare it? With all of the commotion in the galley, why I ... "


"Oh, that's not important," said Sal. "Would you like some champagne?"


"If you'll join me," said Rickards, leaning back and seeming quite comfortable.


"Michael, please," she said, handing me the bottle.


I twisted the wire off the top and popped the cork, then mopped the hissing froth from the side of the bottle before filling our three goblets.


"Cheers!" said Rickards, holding his glass shoulder-high. He had a sort of smug half-smile on his face that suggested he was now in charge, ready to claim his booty. Sal left no hint that she had picked up the message.


"Here's to you," she said with a bountiful smile.


"So gracious of you, both of you, Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan. Oh, I know it's been a bother, having to store my little keepsake in your quarters here. If only you had not stumbled across it, the whole affair would have been, uh, less complicated, shall we say? By the by, where is it? In that box over there? Let's have a look."


"Oh, certainly. We're only too glad to return it," said Sal. "But first, if you don't mind telling us, why here? With so many places on this huge ship? Why did you have it hidden in here?"


The usual hum of the ship drowned out the sound of the tape recorder, but I knew it was running.


"It was the only place," he said with the same, self-assured smile. "You were such good little guardians. In and out, all hours of the day and night, you were. No one would dare come near this place, not knowing when one of you two might pop along." He took a sip of his champagne.


"And it worked so well for so long, until it came time to send in Mac -- oh, never mind that -- until it came time to retrieve it. I never was clear on how in blazes it ended back on the ship after Hong Kong, but that will all come out in time. Damned old Yock, greedy sot that he is. But I digress. So sorry about the snake episode," he took another sip, and mopped up a bit that dribbled down his chin with his handkerchief. "But rest assured, he's not poisonous. Just a bloody boa of some sort, excuse my language."


I refilled his glass.


"Now what on earth may have possessed you to poke about behind the panel, young man?" he asked me. "Were you trying to hide some sort of exotic drugs or something you found in one of those wog ports?"


He caught me short of a snappy answer, so I just latched onto the first thing that crossed my mind.


"Nah. Just looking for a place to stash my Ring Dings."


"Oh, Ring Dings, really," he said with a patronizing sneer. "What -- you can do better than that.


"So, enough of this gab. Where is my galleon?" Rickards stood.


"Of course," said Sal, rising from her seat. She walked to the desk, opened an end of the junk box and carefully slid her hand in. Slowly, she pulled forth the golden galleon, dragging out with it a couple of packs of Ring Dings, which plopped to the floor.


The exquisite piece worked its magic once again, leaving everyone speechless. Perhaps a minute passed while we all stared at it.


The silence was broken by an abrupt thank you by Rickards, as he leaned over to pick up the boat. "I must be leaving now. I do hate to run."


"Oh, please. Dinner, Mr. Rickards. Do have some lasagne," said Sal. "I made this especially for the occasion. Oh, just one slice and then be on your way."


"May I keep the box, the one you've been keeping the boat in?" asked Rickards, who was now holding the boat with both hands and standing by the door. "Or, do you have a sack about, that would do. How about in this closet here?"


He stepped toward the curtain and began to pull it open, still looking at us. I could see one of Gordon's shiny black dress shoes, just for an instant, before it vanished, almost like magic, behind the curtain.


In a second I was behind the bar.


"I've got just the thing here, Mr. Rickards. Right here, look, a nice box, no more gin bottles in it. Try this one."


Luckily there was just such a box on the floor, left over from the party, and I lifted it to the bar.


"Jolly good," he said. "Let me just place this inside ... "


Sal by now had cut a large slice of the lasagne, still steaming hot, and placed it on a china plate. She held it out toward Rickards.


"Please, just a try," she said, almost begging. He ignored me as I tried to refill his champagne glass, but Rickards slid toward the door.


"Never mind, I must leave you now. And thank you so much for guarding my galleon. It's been a pleasure," he said with a surly grin. "Now, son, if you'll excuse me ... "


He picked up the box and put the galleon in it, then grabbed a copy of the Mail and placed it on top. Then Rickards gave me a shove with his shoulder and reached out to the doorknob. In an instant, Sal was at his side.


"Oh, Mr. Rickards, I insist, you must have a taste," she said, before lifting the plate. I think Sal meant to smack him right in the face, just like it was a custard pie, but she was off target and it caught him in the neck. The gooey mess of hot cheese and tomato sauce oozed down his chest and the pasta plopped onto his black shoe. Through it all, Rickards held fast to the box, but I could see he was in a state of shock as he just stood there, staring straight ahead.


"Che piccato! Oh, how clumsy of me," said Sal. "Are you burned?"


Instinctively, I grabbed the box from Rickards as he stood there, shaking his head.


"Filthy tramp!" he yelled. I was out the door, but not sure where I would go next. I looked to my right, then to the left, where Neptune was standing. He had been keeping guard at the door and was now looming over me.


The oaf grabbed my shoulder but I nudged his hand loose and heard the sleeve tear. I bolted to the right, and fled down a flight of carpeted stairs in front of the lift, with Neptune in pursuit.


I began taking the steps three at a time, then leaping, a half flight at a time, until I got another couple of decks down. Where to go?


I saw an open elevator door and darted in, still clutching the box. With one hand I frantically pounded the buttons to activate the door, which seemed to have been set in slow motion.


Neptune was now at the bottom of the steps and I could see a demonic smile as he spotted me in the elevator car. He walked forward and thrust his hairy arm inside, toward my neck. Just then the door started to close but as soon as it hit his arm, it retreated.


I set the box to my side and grabbed the hand rails at the rear of the car, raised both of my feet and gave Neptune a shot, right in the chest, for all I was worth, which wouldn't be much if he caught me. With a grunt, he doubled over, so I gave him one more mule kick, hitting him in the head and shoulder, and the creep was out of the lift and staggering to the deck.


Once again, I went for the buttons and without thinking hit five, the lowest deck the elevator went to. The door finally closed and we were on our way. I had no doubt Neptune would follow.


The staff captain, amid all of this, finally turned up at the office, though too late to witness the lasagne episode. Sal issued insincere apologies, largely for the benefit of Villard, and Rickards was still seething with anger when Grigg and Gordon emerged from the closet, Gordon holding the tape recorder.


"What in blazes is this all about?" Villard demanded. "Will someone please explain, and one person at a time."


During a brief silence, Sal went into the bathroom the fetch a towel for Rickards, dampening one end of it under the tap so he could clean the gooey, burning lasagne from his uniform and scalded neck.


"It seems as if Mr. Rickards had a slight accident while he was trying to leave with the golden galleon," Sal said matter-of-factly as she tossed him the towel. "You remember the galleon, the stolen galleon, Captain? Why, Mr. Rickards believes it's his. Isn't that right, Mr. Rickards? Why don't you explain to the captain why you came here."


"Rubbish," he sneered. "Lies and pure claptrap. Why, it's not even here."


"No," said Gordon, placing the tape recorder on the desk. "It's all here. All on this little tape. We have it all. Would you care to hear it, Captain? Here, I'll just push this little button to rewind. There." The button clicked and Sal offered Villard a glass of champagne while the tape whirred back to its start.


"Now, I press `Play' so the captain can hear everything you said, correct, Mr. Rickards? Isn't that how this thing works?" Gordon said, his index poised over the button.


Villard took a sip of champagne, and another, then put the glass on his desk. "Let me have that, please," he said. "Mrs. McGeehan, where is the telephone?"


The staff captain dialed three numbers on the phone. "Please send security to 8203, at once," he said.


As he said the words, Rickards bolted from the cabin.


 



It seemed like an eternity passed before the elevator reached Five Deck. The door opened. I could hear the thumping of feet bounding down the stairwell. I paused for a moment, trying to time my getaway perfectly. I knew the infuriated maniac wouldn't fall for the mule-kick again.


When he was a half flight away, I hit the U button, for Upper Deck, the door slowly closed as Neptune ran toward me. Clunk! Just in time. I could hear his fists pounding on the metal door outside as the lift rose.


I figured I was safe if I could get several decks away, but then the little gong sounded and the car slowed down. We were stopping at Two Deck to pick up passengers.


The door opened and three women wearing jogging suits and big smiles appeared. It was Lori, Nurse Connie D. Frank, and Tina, headed up so they could take their nightly stroll on Boat Deck. I wanted to punch each of them as I waited for the molasses-slow door to close. Then I heard the thump-thump-thump of Neptune's feet, growing louder and louder as he got closer. I lifted the galleon from the box and carefully placed it in the hands of Tina, who was wearing a baseball cap with an embroidered palm tree and the words Lucky's Luau Club on it. I whipped off her cap and put it on top of the boat.


"Hang onto it, dear," I whispered. "See you on Boat Beck in a few minutes. And please, don't move the hat. It looks perfect there." Then I winked, picked up my empty cardboard box and hopped out of the lift. I pretended to be shocked when I turned and saw Neptune's head appear as he climbed the steps, then sped up another flight to One Deck, taking the steps three and four at a time.


I darted out of the stairway and bolted to the right, heading down the enclosed portside deck, still clutching the empty box. Looking out the windows for an instant, I could see we were near land because of all the twinkling lights. Where to hide? I stopped and looked to my right. "Engine Room. No Admittance," said the sign. That was the ticket. I opened the door and just as it clicked shut, I could hear a voice down the One Deck corridor.


"In there, you cretin. Engine compartment." It was Rickards, who was now insane with anger.


I tossed the box down the narrow, metal stairs and hopped down the flight, swinging must of the way as I held onto the handrails. I grabbed the box and darted to the left into the dimly lit, stifling passageway. The engines roared, but I could see an arc of light shoot in as Neptune entered. The light then went out and he bounded down the steps. I tossed the box on top of a vibrating, hot block of steel enclosing the power works, then hid in the shadows of a crevice, shaking and out of breath, hoping he would pass by. He did, but an instant later turned around. His eyes looked orange in the roaring inferno as he stared me in the face.


Using bolts to support my feet, I bounded up the side of the metal block and scampered like a spider on a hot grille over the engine, trying not to let my hands touch for more than an instant at a time. I knelt for a second and grabbed the empty box, still hoping the decoy would get me out of this mess. To my surprise, Neptune turned and disappeared into the darkness. Should I try to escape? Where was he going?


I began to slide back toward the front of the engine cover leaving the box hidden in shadows behind me, but Neptune reappeared, this time with company. Booth, the anaconda, was coiled about his waist a couple of times, his head firmly in the grip of Neptune's hairy hands. He stalked to the steel block, calmly unfurled the snake as effortlessly as if he were taking off a housecoat, and lifted the serpent to the top of the steel.


The sweat was pouring off me as the snake slithered toward me. I retreated, inching back, back, and then felt a depression in the metal. Quickly looking behind myself I could see the steel propeller shaft rotating steadily with a low-pitched hum, dim light glinting off its smooth steel surface. Neptune effortlessly climbed to the top of the metal and approached.


"'e wants you to give it back, like a nice Yank," Neptune said with an evil smile. "I'll bet you thought our little snake friend was gone, eh? Now 'e's on my team. The box, please. Where is it?"


"Stick it, moron," I said. Booth's head was now at my knees, his tongue wig-wagging about.


"You want it the bad way, then?" said Neptune, smiling. He picked up the fat part of the snake and placed it over my torso. He grabbed me around the throat and pushed my head against the rotating shaft, which seared my scalp as it sped mightily. I could feel Booth curling his back end under me and started to wonder whether the snake or Neptune would end up killing me. I knew yelling would not help, so I didn't even try. I was about to give up.


"OK." I could barely get the words out. "You win. Let me get it."


I saw his eyes dart back and forth once, then twice, before he loosened his grip. "Let me get it," I said one more time. It was my last chance. "But you got to get this thing off me."


Neptune backed off, then pulled back the snake, which had not yet begun to coil itself too tightly about my middle. He was a foot behind me as I crawled to the corner where I had left the box.


On my burning knees, I picked it up and looked inside.


"It's so beautiful," I said, before giving it a toss over the top of the propeller shaft. "Now it's yours."


As he crouched on the engine works, Neptune's eyes followed the box, which vanished into the black abyss beyond the greasy machinery. He leaned over for a moment to see where it went, with one hand holding Booth about the neck. I sprang to my legs and booted him in the back as hard as I could. He wobbled, but didn't fall. As he turned around I kicked him in the head. This time, he lost it and went head-first over the spinning shaft. By instinct, I suppose, he tried to grab the spinning metal with his free arm. In an instant, the shaft thrust him like a piece of straw to the steel surface below us. Amid all of this, Booth's tail end had become ensnared on the spinning shaft, curling him up in a second like a fishing reel gone mad.


As I turned, I heard a rapid thump-thump-thump of the snake's head beating against the edge of the engine top.


There was no time to watch, not that I wanted to. With my head pounding and scalp burning, I leaped from the hot block and made for the stairs, pulling myself up by the railings, and bolted out of the door. I barely made notice of the few passengers taking their final strolls about the ship, and sprinted toward the aft Lido Deck.


The women, the three women, they must be on Boat Beck by now, I thought. I've got to get the galleon back. I four-stepped my way up the curved stairway on the starboard side, tripping once or twice on the way, and looked forward as I stopped at the top step. A few passengers leaned over the railing, staring off at the ocean glimmering under a bright moon. Off in the distance was Ambrose, the light station, bidding its welcome.


Stalking forward at a quick pace, my eyes caught the reflection of a white coat, an officer's jacket. Rickards! My pace moved to a trot, then a gallop as he approached the three women, Tina, Nurse Frank and Lori. They stopped. At that instant I sprang to a full-throttle sprint, slipping after my first step on the slick deck, but quickly regaining my speed, determined to keep him from taking the golden galleon. As I bounded closer, Tina lifted her Lucky's Luau cap, revealing the galleon. I was 10 yards back as Rickards reached out to take it, but then he must have noticed me and looked back. By then I was there, right between Rickards and Tina, and faster than I ever snatched a champagne glass from a waiter's tray, I nicked the galleon, holding on to it tight with both hands. For a moment, I felt like Walter Payton taking the perfect handoff.


In total frustration, Rickards shoved Tina and knocked her to into the other two women, setting all three down like dominoes on the deck, and lit off after me. But the chase came to an abrupt end as Villard and a half-dozen other white-suited officers stood in a crescent formation on the foredeck, blocking my way to the bridge ladder. In a moment, the door swung open and Gordon, clutching the tape recorder, and Sal appeared. I stopped maybe 15 yards in front of them and, as I caught my breath, held the golden galleon over my head like a newly won Stanley Cup.


But the game wasn't over. Rickards, a maudlin sight with remnants of tomato paste, cheese and pasta still smeared about his neck and uniform, his eyes aglow and chest heaving, stopped and flipped back his splattered white jacket. Deck lights reflected from the golden hilt of a dagger tucked under his belt. In a flash, his fingers wrapped around it, and he pulled forth the foot-long blade, swaying it to and fro in front of him. He stopped for a moment as we all froze, one of his fingers at a time flicking menacingly over the hilt, letting glints of green sparkle from the emeralds embedded in it. Rickards then raised the dagger over his shoulder, and smiled. He moved toward me, slowly, one step at a time. I knew he was ready to kill. I held the galleon over the rail.


"Put it down, Mr. Rickards, or I drop the boat. The cheap piece of tin means nothing to me. One more step and it goes. Drop it there, and I'll hand it over. OK?"


Everything was silent for maybe 10 seconds, except for the splashing of waves against the Majestic's hull. Rickards took one more step forward, the dagger in his hand ready to spring forth in an instant. Then another, slow, deliberate step.


Behind him, maybe 20 feet away, a figure came quietly into view, moving toward Rickards. In the shadows, the figure bent over and placed something on the deck. Rickards was a step from me as my arm holding the galleon over the sea began quaking. Two tiny lights popped on at deck level behind him, and started a zig-zagging pattern toward us.


Rickards, unaware of what was going on behind him, extended his free arm to grab the galleon, his other holding the dagger. But just as he reached out, the candy-apple radio-controlled Corvette skittered between his legs, skidded to a stop and rammed his shoe, backed up and rammed it again. Rickards, startled by the attack, lost his footing on the slick deck, sending his leather shoes into zany dance. His dagger dropped to the deck. In desperation, he lunged at the galleon. As he did, the railing hit him just below the waist, sending his chest and shoulders lurching over the side. In a moment, he was tumbling into the sea.


As he went over, Rickards' shoe nudged my arm, jarring the galleon loose for an instant. I thought I had it back in my grip as I yanked my arm back, but it slipped free from my sweaty and greasy fingers. I tried to snatch it from midair as it wiggled loose, but it was just beyond my reach. I tried again, but leaned over too far and soon I was following the galleon, and Rickards, to the Atlantic.


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© By Buzz Adams