It all seemed so clear on my way down. I heard a scream, Sal, then a man's voice, "O'erboard, o'erboard!" I even saw the damned galleon, in front of my face, as if teasing, laughing, glad to have been finally set free. I heard a whomp! of Rickards hitting the water. I tried to stay pencil-straight, pointed my toes, and felt the cold water surround me. I felt ready to die.
Not yet. On my way back to the surface, I pointed myself away from the ship, remembering granddad Buster's stories about men being sucked under and chopped up by the screws, and with everything I had, pumped my arms to pull me away from the liner. In almost total exhaustion I looked back. The Majestic was now past us. I began to duck under to avoid the huge wake that would soon hit, but just as I tucked my head I noticed a sparkle, a glimmering reflection of something on the water. The galleon was five, maybe seven feet away, barely floating, on its side. Should I try to retrieve it, or was it, for one final time, tempting me to wager my mortality? Gold, it's killed so many people, I thought, still pumping my arms. I stopped, treading water. The ship's wake drew closer. Rickards was gone -- nowhere in sight. The galleon was still there, bobbing once, twice, now slipping under a wave. I swam back, grabbed it and shoved it under my shirt just as the wake hit. It pumped my shivering body up five or six feet, then slid me down its back to flat water. I turned around. The moon cast shadows from the long pilings supporting Ambrose. My salvation. My legs were stiffening. My arms hurt. I've got to get to Ambrose. Get to Ambrose. I kicked my legs to keep afloat.
By this time, the Majestic's engines had reversed and two launches were creeping down her hull, into the darkness, below the shimmering lights on the upper decks.
Farther up the narrows, the harbor pilot stood in his bobbing boat, waiting to approach the Majestic in the channel between Brooklyn and Staten Island. While he waited his radio picked up a report from the Majestic's bridge to the light station: Two men overboard. The pilot revved the engine and sped toward the sea. Officers from Ambrose, meanwhile, prepared for a rescue operation.
Of course, I was unaware of any of this, as every ounce of strength I had left was to get to Ambrose's long legs. As I grew faint in the cold water I stopped to tread water again, kicking off my sneakers and reaching down for a moment to make sure the galleon was still there. I kept pumping a slow breaststroke toward Ambrose's legs. Get me to Ambrose.
I was losing any feeling in my arms. My mind said they were working, but it was as if they weren't there. I looked up to see Ambrose's legs. Now, everything was white, so bright it was almost blinding. Where are my legs? Tread. Kick the water. Where's Ambrose? I tried to call out, "Ambrose!" but nothing came out.
Whapp! Whapp! Whapp! It's so bright, it must be noon. It's so warm and bright. God, we must be in Bombay, I'm thinking. It's those big concrete squares, like a maze, the outdoor laundry. Whapp! Whapp! Whapp! A hundred men are beating soaking clothes against the sides of the maze, and I'm being carried over the pools of gray, soapy water. I'm flying. Now I stop. Someone's talking to me. Joe, the tea man, he looks up and smiles, he's talking to me, but I can't understand him. His face changes right in front of me: Now it's Gages, Trevor Gages.
"Gages, where have you been hiding?" I ask. The words pour out easily; I'm talking without speaking. He just smiles back, bows his turban-covered head and looks back up. But it's a
different face, an old man with a ruddy face. He extends an arm of white bones, just bones, and hands me a gold medal with a crimson ribbon, then resumes his chore. Whapp! Whapp! Whapp!
The sound gets louder and louder, deafening, so loud I can't stand it. I try to hold my hands over my ears, but can't move them. I try to close my eyes, but they won't shut. Now, I'm riding in a cable car, a mile above the ocean, through steamy clouds of white, and all of a sudden it drops toward the sea. Neptune appears next to me. He smiles, then holds a hand over my face. I don't try to stop him. Can't, anyway, because my arms don't work any more. So I just think the words to him: "Hey, am I in hell? Am I in hell?" We keep falling, but never seem to hit the water.
It's getting hard to breathe with Neptune's giant hand covering my face, so I guess I'll just stop, right here and now. You win, Neptune! His dark hand comes away slowly and I look back up, but it's not Neptune's face any more. It's Buster, Grandaddy Buster.
"Thanks," I think to him. "Hey, it's cold here. Where'd the tea man go?"
Now, I'm hearing a beep! Beep! Beep! Buster's face has faded and someone I don't recognize is looking at me. This guy's all in white, but it can't be an angel, no, because Neptune was just here. My eyes hurt, but I look up anyway.
"Am I in hell?" I ask. "Where's Joe, the tea man?"
The man in white pulls something from my face, then turns to his side and speaks to someone else.
"He's back," he says calmly, then turns back and looks at me. "Take it easy, guy. Relax. What are you trying to say?"
"Where's Joe? Hey, am I in hell?"
He smiles. "No, not quite, although it's been described in similar terms. You're in Brooklyn Medical, and you're lucky to be here. We thought you weren't going to pull through."
Now Sal steps to the side of the bed, leans over and kisses me on the bridge of my nose. The doctor and a nurse leave the room.
"You were out for hours. They said you were barely floating when they pulled you into the boat," she said, smiling but with tears filling her eyes.
I looked up at the white, square ceiling tiles for a minute.
"Any of that lasagne left?" I asked.
"Oh, stop it." Another minute passed. I was exhausted. My legs throbbed and I still couldn't feel my arms. Now I remembered something about what happened, but it didn't seem real. Did I really fall off the ship?
"Did they find Rickards?" I asked.
"They're looking. Nothing yet," she said.
"The galleon. Did they save it?"
"It was in your shirt. They couldn't believe you had it when they fished you out. You must have been freezing in there. They were surprised, amazed, you made it." She started to cry. I closed my eyes for a minute.
"Where's the galleon?" I asked.
"Captain Villard has called every half hour to ask about you. He didn't have any idea you had the galleon. I told him you saved it, and he couldn't believe it. He asked if I was sure, and I explained everything to him. It was if he knew what happened all along, but I'm sure he didn't. He sent one of the officers over to pick it up. Now I suppose they can go ahead with their ceremony," she said. "The captain wants to see us tomorrow."
A couple of minutes passed while I tried to piece together everything that happened.
"They helicoptered you from Ambrose light to the hospital after they pulled you in," she said. "Oh, you scared me."
Sal told me the pilot boat found me a quarter of a mile from the light station, maybe 15 minutes after I went overboard. The pilot's first mate dragged me out of the water just as I was going down and the boat sped me to Ambrose. Crewmen from Ambrose brought me aloft to the light station's deck, where a helicopter awaited. The chopper brought me to the hospital. The bridge radioed for a police car to meet Sal at the pier once the ship arrived and take her to the hospital, where she waited into the early morning for me to come to.
"I was in a helicopter, huh?" I said. "I knew it."
"You knew? How? You were out for the count."
"I heard it. I'll explain later. Is the ship in? Where's our stuff?"
"It was late getting in. I was nearly insane waiting for the gangway to be set and there was all sorts of commotion, all kinds of rumors. Everybody's left the ship by now. The company got me a room for the night, but I don't think they're going to let you out of here yet."
Sal stayed with me the rest of the night, then took a taxi back to the hotel to round up our belongings. She met me at the hospital that afternoon, bringing in a fresh set of clothes and leaving the rest of our luggage in the taxi while it waited to pick us up. The driver was silent, unlike our cabbies in Hong Kong, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as he steered us back to the pier. I felt a sense of deja vu as we approached the ship; it reminded me so much of the first time we had set eyes on the Majestic II.
Her foremast still gleamed bright, stretching high above the bridge, whose wings reached out over the murky Hudson water. Only a few straggling passengers and a crewman or two were left on the pier as we stopped and the cabbie unloaded our suitcases and sea chest. We paid him and then went inside, laying our luggage, and my stack of Majestic Mails, next to one of the information desks. Sal asked the attendant if Mr. Temblay from Brighton had been by. The attendant looked back with some puzzlement and got on the phone. In a minute or two she answered, "I'm sorry, I don't believe he is with the company any longer."
We proceeded to the ship and were stopped at the gangway. A security officer stopped us.
"I'm sorry, entry is restricted," the officer told us coolly. "Do I recognize you? Weren't you the editors on the world cruise?"
"Why, yes," Sal said. "The captain has asked to see us and we need to get on. Can't you please radio the bridge?"
The officer stepped aside and spoke on his radio, keeping watch on us all the while, and after a minute or two turned back.
"Step this way, please," he said with a half smile.
We followed him to the Midships entry, then aft toward the Gallery, and finally to the Lido Deck, where a crimson carpet had been rolled toward a podium and chairs were being laid out in neat rows.
Gordon appeared by our side.
"Thank God, you had us so worried. Are you all right?"
As I nodded he reached both of his arms around me and pulled me so tight it almost knocked me out.
"This way," Gordon said. "The captain would like to see you." We stepped behind the podium, where Capt. Goodrow was chatting with some dark-suited men, and waited for a minute or two. He finally turned around and smiled.
The captain shook my hand, then Sal's.
"Let me show you something, step over here," he said, leading us to a table. Inside a glass case, the golden galleon rested at last, her bow pointing upward from a gilded shell of a wave, royal blue and bright lime banners streaming from her masts, pearls and amethysts gleaming from the decks. Even her little golden anchor was still intact.
"Mr. McGeehan, our presentation shall proceed as scheduled at six this evening, just before we sail," he said. "Thanks to you. I am so grateful for your service. Gave us quite a scare there, what? You look well recovered from that awful ordeal. How are you?"
"OK, I suppose, just a little tired," I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hallsford approach, then Watson and Grigg. "May I ask a question?"
"Please do," he said. "You would like to go around again? Perhaps I can ... "
"No, sir. The tape. Did you hear the tape?"
"Yes, the tape recording of Mr. Rickards when he came to take the galleon. The night we went overboard. That was last night, wasn't it?" I said.
Gordon looked to his side, shuffled a bit and then looked down at his black shoes.
"Oh that. Yes. Funny thing. I heard Gordon saying a few words, you know, one, two three, testing, something of that sort. Then it was Big Ben, with those gongs they play before the BBC news comes on. And then the announcer, saying `Seven o'clock, Greenwich Mean Time.' Odd. Was there something else?"
Gordon looked up and smiled meekly.
"I suppose I pushed the wrong button," he said. "I never was very good with electronic gadgetry."
Hallsford and Grigg laughed. I felt a tinge of anger shoot through me before I burst out in laughter too.
"Well enough. The galleon is accounted for and we shall go on with our presentation to His Highness. Six sharp," said Captain Goodrow. "I'm so sorry we cannot extend an invitation to you. Security and all that rubbish, you know."
"We understand," I said. To tell the truth, I wasn't really that disappointed, because now I just wanted to get home. Something told me that security was less important to the captain and his Brighton bosses than making sure the prince would never know the truth about the strange odyssey the little ship had been through. Company politics. And another story, never to be told.
We shook hands and walked to the gangway. Sal hugged Gordon, Hallsford and Watson, but Grigg backed off.
"I don't care for farewells," Grigg said. "Now, when shall we meet for a Scrabble rematch?" We laughed, then everyone was silent for a moment.
"Shall we go across the way to Jose's for a final pint?" said Watson.
"No, we can't. Michael, Steve will be waiting. Our bags. We'd better go," said Sal.
We turned toward the pier and took a step down the gangway, then I turned around to see the three standing in the open hatch. I took a step back.
"What about Neptune?" I asked.
"Dreadful accident," said Gordon. "There was so much commotion, you couldn't have heard what happened to him." He took a step down the gangway toward me and lowered his voice.
"They found his body in the engine room -- God knows why he was there -- it was behind one of the engines. What a horrid sight! He must have taken a fall, maybe been pushed, but more than likely slipped on the grease or something. No one knows. What I've heard is that it had something to do with that horrible snake, which he apparently had hidden down there. They found it -- ugh -- sprawled out dead, on top of him." He leaned forward. "Without its head. Bloody awful stuff, what?"
He was silent for a moment. "Not a nice picture to leave you with."
"No, not very," I said. "Are they investigating?"
"Who?" said Gordon. "Ship's security? Hah! As I said, dreadful accident. My guess, that's the way it will be recorded. It happened at sea. No legitimate police agency will touch it, and life must go on the Majestic, you know."
"Yeah," I said. I shook Gordon's hand, then turned and joined Sal to walk down the gangway for one last time.
Steve and Marie had double parked in front of the pier and were waiting for us near the attendant's desk when we returned. With a large contingent of cops outside clearing traffic for Prince Charles' arrival, there was no time for sentimentality, so we hustled our bags, the sea chest and my papers into the back of his wagon. I was glad to see my brother and relieved that we would soon be on our way home.
New York street crews were fixing British flags to lamp posts as we made our way through the traffic, which was lighter than I had ever seen it. There were more bicycles on the streets than I had seen since we were in China, and roller skaters were everywhere. I took a last look at the Majestic II as we drove off, watching until only the tip of her funnel was visible.
As we entered the darkness of the Lincoln Tunnel, Marie opened a bottle of champagne and handed us little plastic cups.
"Well, world travelers, let's hear about it," she beamed. Steve reached a hand with his cup to the top of the seat and we clinked cups. "Do you have your land legs yet?"
Steve took the ticket at the entrance to the crowded New Jersey Turnpike, but my mind was on lonely Tristan da Cunha. I told them about the descendants of stranded sailors whose longboats swarmed toward the Majestic from their volcanic little island, and the boys who played rock on guitars without strings.
The car radio babbled headlines as we drove along, and with the volume turned down I paid little attention to it until I heard the announcer saying something about a missing officer from the Majestic. Sal leaned over the seat and hit the channel changer.
"We need a break from the news," she said. "Anybody for some music?" Steve tuned to a station playing '40s hits. It reminded me of John Delon's band.
Passing under the lineup of jets streaking toward the Newark airport, Sal was telling how we floated on gondolas over Rio and got lost on our way to Corcovado. And while the Grover Cleveland rest stop passed by in a blur, I was guiding Steve and Marie through the Panama Canal. We told about John Delon's band, the food, the Gallery, the pools, and crossing the equator. We mentioned Neptune, but nothing about the galleon.
At the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we were racing our way through Singapore on pedal bikes, and as we passed the Chesapeake House, we were in our fifth course at the Chinese inn with Mao looking down on the odd sight of visiting westerners. We drove past the Maryland House, and I began to feel like I was someplace I recognized, but it still looked different. It was dusk, and both Sal and I were tired. Neither had said a word about the scene at Ambrose.
We arrived at Steve and Marie's townhouse, in a complex hidden behind endless strip malls and car dealerships along Route 1 just outside of Baltimore. They had just moved there a couple of months earlier, from a brick rowhouse in the city. I wanted to see Baltimore again, eat crabs and slug cheap Chesapeake beer at one of the corner bars, where there's no disco music on the jukebox. Another time, maybe tomorrow. Steve and I carried the luggage inside the townhouse, which was so new you could still smell the fresh paint and plaster on the walls.
Sal had packed the model Chinese junk back into its box and I gave it to him. As he opened the flap, a pack of Ring Dings fell to the floor as he pulled the wooden boat out.
"What's this, a bonus?" he asked as we all laughed. "They must serve better desserts than this on the Majestic."
"It's a long story," I told him.
Sal flashed through some of the photos she had taken in the Caribbean, Rio, Cape Town and Bombay. As she gave her travelogue, I could only think of Ambrose Light, its long legs casting a
shadow on the water as I reached out toward the galleon. My eyelids were slipping shut and I knew I needed to sleep.
"Which way to our room?" I asked.
I got up and found my suitcase and followed Steve up the steps.
"Sorry, but I'm beat," I told him. "Tomorrow, you and me, we'll go down by the waterfront and have a couple, and I'll tell you more. It's been a long couple of days."
My brother slapped me on the back and told me to sleep as late as I wanted. He'd cook breakfast, whatever I wanted, eggs over easy, or scrambled, some scrapple on the side, maybe some pancakes too. He closed the door and walked back downstairs.
I took off my shoes and socks, unbuttoned my shirt and plopped my suitcase on the bed. I flicked open the latches and started pawing around for my toothbrush. Something sparkled as I brushed my socks aside. I bent over and saw a ring. I looked closer. More sparkles.
"I'll be right up, dear," I heard Sal say from downstairs.
I picked up the ring and looked closely. Tiny diamonds studding the face sent reflections from the light dancing around the ceiling as I turned it side to side. The diamonds surrounded an emblem of some sort. I looked closer. A flower, red rose, its stem curling into a monogram.
"Oh, God," I said under my breath. My heart was beating fast and my legs felt wobbly. I sat on the edge of the bed, still holding the ring, then looked inside the band, where three words were crudely etched into the gold: "A Deo Rex."