EXCERPT from THE METHUSELAH GENE:
The SS Seven Seas was a big ship, a floating city tethered at berth, eagerly awaiting departure. Walter’s luggage consisted of one large suitcase, directed to Cabin 55. The freighter cleared, I watched from the Lido deck as we finally pulled away. Once out to sea, still no one showed at Cabin 55—not Walter, not the purser, not the police. So I went up the hallway, let myself in, and then stretched out on the bed. It felt wonderful, almost unreal, until I opened my eyes and saw my reflected profile in the mirror above me. Then it was a stranger that seemed to stare back at me. As much a stranger as the image of a playboy might have been, or even a Hoover salesman on vacation. Older by ten years, this guy was, and as though he’d just returned from a protracted Mideast conflict only to become the victim of a train derailment.
I decided to take a long hot shower, then I opened Walter’s suitcase. It contained clothes, mostly. Several festive pullover shirts still had their JC Penney price tags on them, from a Miami store. There was no incriminating evidence to link Walter to anything later, except for his syringe, which would no doubt have gone overboard, perhaps along with Jeffers’ body. And that bothered me. Why kill Jeffers? I wondered. Was Frank Fisher alone behind it, having been double-crossed like Kevin Connolly? Or was the ice pick for someone else? Either way, cruise ships made murder far too convenient. They didn’t have the security that planes did, either.
Carson Jeffers, Tactar’s now infamous V.P., is rumored to have panicked as the FBI closed in, and so took an overdose of barbiturates before jumping overboard . . .
A quiet murder at sea would not be Jeffers’ fate, I vowed. A quick end was too good for him, considering. He needed to be dragged through the media’s muck before being thrown in prison with the kind of men who would do real damage to his sense of self-importance. And I meant to send him there with a broken face.
There was no TV in Cabin 55. Not even a radio. Economy class, perhaps. The cabin seemed small, but it did have a mini-bar fridge. I broke the seal on it, and gazed at the liquors inside. A cocktail in celebration for making it this far? Whiskey Sour? Screwdriver? I decided on both, but not in celebration. It was for the pain that had returned to my hand and thigh. I drank three mini bottles, although it was a poor substitute for the Dilaudid, now gone. Real celebration would not come for me until a resolution did, when Julie and I had a safe place to call home. And it didn’t matter to me if that home was in Nevada, Australia, or Easter Island anymore, with or without the help of the Witness Protection Program.
I found a brochure in a dresser drawer that detailed the condos for sale on board. It described the SS Seven Seas as a 71,000 ton 780 foot luxury liner, which represented a new trend for the affluent. Buy a home from one thousand to three thousand square feet that sails the world, complete with full kitchen, one to three bedrooms, private whirlpool, terrace, and all the amenities, bells and whistles, for one and a half to five million dollars. There were over a hundred such suites available, in addition to the regular rooms, separated onto two private decks, A and D, with special catering, medical staff, and laundry service. Also a health spa, jogging track, putting green, helicopter pad, a massage therapy and beauty salon, pools, an office center, and even a pharmacy where all the prescription drugs and vitamin supplements people wanted were available in all sizes and potencies. Pills to pop to feel good, or at least better. Need a licensed stockbroker? No problem. There was an art gallery too, and a theater and lecture hall. Plus a library, a gourmet wine shop, and a nightclub. As a final touch, for those who wanted it all, there had even been a faux rock climbing wall constructed and attached to the rear smoke stack. And unlike any non-resident ship sailed by other cruise lines, like Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Royal, or Celebrity, the itinerary included stops in Nassau, at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Prix in Monaco, and the Carnival in Rio.
For further information, the brochure advised, simply contact on-board sales representative Ray Strickland.
* * *
Restaurant chatter is particularly festive on a cruise ship, I soon discovered, although I felt even more distant from it than usual here in the Jupiter room on the Promenade deck. A sustained high decibel level to the surrounding banter allowed me to selectively tune my ear much like a radio telescope dish does to background radiation emanating from all points of deep space. Turning my head slowly and focusing on the signals, then, I soon identified and deciphered many snippets of supposedly intelligent communication between the life forms out there huddled around their saucer shaped tables. What came to me included mumblings about Intel, imported beer, the Tour De France, senior pro golf, whale sightings, interior decorating for the colorblind, Leonardo as a name choice for a non Italian baby, premature liver spots, and the concept of Time itself.
There was that cursed word again. How much of it did I have left?
Unhappily, I didn’t know, and as I ate my Fettuccini Alfredo with roasted mushrooms, and sipped my lime flavored sparkling water, I heard or saw no sign of Carson Jeffers amid the many other mysteries of the universe. Even when my dinner guest finally joined me, and I was forced to contemplate a honey glazed hazelnut sherbet, I still hadn’t made any rational connections, and was becoming increasingly agitated. Because there remained several urgent phone calls I had to make before time ran out, and I needed to have something to say for myself when I called.
Ray Strickland had something to say, for sure. His clarity and motivation was not in question, at least. He even made sense, at least if I was who I claimed to be and not an amateur sleuth on a quest for the Holy Grail of absolution and justice. When his spiel was finished, I tried to ease into my questions as nonchalantly as one-armed man utilizing a can opener.
“So you’re saying I’d have complete privacy if I wished, with room service and catering. A special passkey is required, too?”
A light came on in Strickland’s eyes, like a reflection from the light he saw—or thought he saw—at the end of the tunnel. I remembered seeing the light when I bought my last lemon several years previously. Used car salesmen or upscale real estate salesmen, it made no difference. When they anticipated The Close, they moved toward it inexorably. But I wouldn’t be walking into the light this time.
“Electronic key,” he corrected me. “The code is changed monthly. And you can change your suite code as often as you wish.”
He practically beamed at me.
“So can I examine rooms on both decks?” I asked.
Ray blinked. Had he heard this request before, recently? The lines in his forehead perceptibly lengthened. Now he looked like a human being again, neurosis revealed—a fortyish man with graying temples who had finally been promoted out of the antiseptic fluorescent light of some office high-rise, determined to survive the high seas. “I’m afraid not,” he said, with studied empathy, “but we do have a model exactly like the suite you’re interested in.”
I felt like Carson or Kevin might have felt, looking for a way into my Alexandria apartment. “How about if I talk to someone already living in a similar suite? Do you have a list?”
“A list?” The lines in his forehead became chasms. “I’m afraid—”
“Okay,” I conceded, interrupting. I gestured defeat with a shrug.
“This is not the way to do it, sir,” he told me.
“You’re right, of course.”
“Our residents do not like to be disturbed.”
“If it were you on the list, I’m sure you would not like your name given to some . . . to another prospect.”
I yawned. “So the yearly maintenance fee is what, again?”
He froze for a moment before answering politely. “Fifteen thousand.”
“Sounds a bit steep, just for laundry and room service.”
“It covers more than that, Mr. Mills. It really is quite reasonable, considering.”
“Considering I just popped for two million? And considering food could be another twenty grand, to say nothing of drinks?” I chuckled.
He gestured broadly with his right hand, confident of his logic. “Look where you are, sir. On a floating palace, with the whole world coming to you, and with the scenery from your terrace always changing.”
“Mostly ocean, though. Makes me seasick just thinking about it.”
He was genuinely surprised. “What?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Guess I’ve had enough changing scenery in the last few years. Think it’s time for me to settle down, and feel the earth under my feet. The wide open spaces, without so many people popping pills when they’re not popping or bopping each other.”
The light died in his eyes, as if a switch had been clicked. He looked at my bandaged hand, then slumped a bit, put his elbow on the table, and finally shielded his face as if to hide shame.
“Tell me something, though,” I asked.
He looked up at me from between his fingers. As a newer recruit, he hadn’t seen this coming. He’d been so certain of victory that my reaction was a shocker and an embarrassment. Recovery took time, but I waited patiently. “Yes?” he said finally.
“Have you got any retired mafia types hidden away on board here?”