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The cruise ship nudged against the dock, tugging at its hawsers with the pull of the Mississippi River current that ran to the gulf. Clean and sparkling white, even in the drizzling rain, the MTS Athena of the Vassos Lines towered above the slow moving line of boarding passengers. Maura O'Neal tilted her head to stare up at the ship. The rain dewed the creamy skin of her face and tangled her long, gold-tipped lashes. It ran from the brim of the bright yellow rain hat that shielded her emerald eyes, and traced in rivulets down the yellow poplin of her waterproof cape. A few drops caught in her hair, jeweling the shoulder-length auburn waves. A wry smile curved her mouth. It was a beautiful ship; of that there could be no doubt, but this was definitely not an auspicious beginning for a sunny Caribbean cruise.
The rain was not the only problem that had plagued this sailing. The Athena had been late coming into port; most of the passengers had been waiting since one o'clock for a departure scheduled for two in the afternoon. It was now well after four. Disaster had struck first much earlier, however. It was three weeks ago that Aunt Maggie had stepped off a curb in the French Quarter near their New Orleans apartment in her platform heels and fallen, breaking a small bone in her foot.
Aunt Maggie was no longer young. The injury was not serious, but it would prevent her from walking comfortably for some time. It was useless to hope to enjoy a cruise ship when one could not promenade the decks, the elderly woman insisted. And then there were the shore excursions, always enough to test the stamina of a long-distance runner, to say nothing of hisarches. She would not go. Maura must make the cruise alone. Maura knew what information was required and would probably be much better able to collect it without an old woman at her elbow every moment.
Maura's protestations were given no heed. Aunt Maggie was a headstrong woman. Actually Margaret O'Neal, famous writer of romance novels, she had been enthralling her readers with tales of love and adventure for twenty-five years, and trotting the globe looking for new, romantic locales equally as long. For the past ten years, since the death of her parents in an automobile accident when she was a lanky eleven year old, Maura had made her home with the elderly woman, her great-aunt. For the last three of these, she had acted as Aunt Maggie's secretary-typist, unofficially after she left high school and completed a business course at a good college, officially for the past several months.
It was true, however, that Maura's job included much more than taking dictation, typing manuscripts, and filing correspondence. It was she who supervised the frequent moves her great-aunt found necessary, both for her restless personality and her need for new backgrounds for her books. It was Maura who hunted apartments, saw that the utilities were turned off and on, and that milk and newspaper deliveries were commenced and canceled. It was she who did the general cleaning until a maid could be engaged, and in her spare time combed the book stores and libraries for research material to give her great-aunt's novels authenticity.
It was this last task that Aunt Maggie had been speaking of in connection with the cruise. For all her success, Aunt Maggie would no more think of taking a trip or vacation without an eye to story possibilities than she would read a book without noticing the author's style and command of words. Everything was grist for Aunt Maggie's mill. For this reason, she had fully intended, when she booked this Caribbean cruise aboard the Greek ship Athena, months before, to develop a romance around the voyage. She was determined that nothing should interfere with that plan.
"Really, Aunt Maggie," Maura had said when she was told she must go alone, "there's no need for you to pass this up. We can request a wheelchair and I can push you anywhere you want to go."
"I am not an invalid, Maura, and I refuse to be forced to answer all the asinine questions sure to be put to me concerning my lower limbs and my ability to get about by myself."
"I know very well how independent you are, not to say stubborn, Aunt Maggie, but I should think a cast on your foot would be self-explanatory."
"Possibly, but they would still want to know how I came to have it, and how can I say I fell off my shoes? It sounds senile."
"It will be pretty obvious if you wear one of your three-inch platform sandals on the other foot!" Maura said, smiling.
Aunt Maggie lifted a brow. "Yes, well, I despise old-lady shoes with squatty heels and laces. But before you wander even further from the point, let me tell you I don't particularly care about this cruise. I am already familiar with the atmosphere of a cruise ship and the Caribbean. There was that trip to the Bahamas we took that became Island Magic, if you remember?"
"That was years ago!"
"You needn't suggest there's anything wrong with my memory."
"I wasn't, and you know it, but things may have changed since then."
"Possibly," the older woman conceded, "and I will expect you to make careful and detailed notes."
Maura eyed her aunt suspiciously. "You are up to something, I know; I'm just not sure what. I have this feeling you are trying to get rid of me." "Maura, no! I would think you would prefer a little time to yourself. You should get out more, make friends. I love you like a daughter; you could not be more precious to me. But I worry that in following me about from pillar to post you have so little time to meet young men."
"I have had my share of beaus," Maura said, a teasing light in her eyes as she deliberately used the old-fashioned term.
"None of them serious."
"If you mean none I want to marry. I'll have to agree. I fear, Aunt Maggie, that you taught me to be too discriminating in my tastes."
"That's a good thing, of course, but there is a point past which a girl can be entirely too choicy."
Maura smiled. For all her pretense of hard-headed practicality, her great-aunt was a romantic of the highest order. "You don't really expect me to go on this cruise to find a husband?"
"Stranger things have happened," the older woman said, a defensive note in her voice.
"But shipboard meetings are notoriously short-lived."
Aunt Maggie sighed, looking with disfavor at her great-niece. "So sensible, and such a pity. I only thought if you were alone you would be more approachable. You would meet new people, have fun, go dancing without having to feel you were on duty every moment."
"I never feel like that!"
"I don't mean to command all your time," the older woman said with a shake of her head, "but you are so willing, so involved with the books, that it is difficult. I don't want you to neglect your own life for the sake of the imitation I create. I would be a monster of cruelly if I allowed it."
"I wouldn't worry," Maura said, her green eyes soft.
"Nevertheless, I do," Aunt Maggie answered. "That's why you will oblige me by taking this cruise. When you get back, I can then take advantage of you with a clear conscience!"
There was much more in the same vein. It became apparent, finally, that Maura's great-aunt was in earnest, that her determination to have Maura experience a little carefree gaiety was immovable. No obstacle was to be allowed to stand in the way. The current book was completed on time and put in the mail. A suitable female was found to stay with her great-aunt to help her dress, fetch, and carry, and be generally bullied. Maura could only agree at last, and begin to pack her bags.
The line of passengers inched forward. As Maura neared the gangway the reasons for the slow movement became obvious. Boarding the ship was to be accomplished upon little more than an old-fashioned gangplank. So narrow it had to be ascended single file, sheeted with embossed aluminum with cross-strips for footholds and with railings on either side of rope strung between supports, it presented no small difficulty. The aluminum sheeting gleamed wet in the dim light from the interior of the ship, and rain dripped from the looped rope. It scarcely looked wide enough for a wheelchair, even if one could have been maneuvered on the steep and slick incline, and her great-aunt would have been hard put to negotiate in on crutches. Perhaps, Maura conceded, it was just as well she had not tried to come. Aunt Maggie could not have stood another fall.
At the top of the gangplank, the ship's personnel were helping the embarking passengers, steadying them, giving them a hand. They could not reach those nearer the bottom of the narrow plank, however. Just ahead of Maura was an older woman who eyed the boarding arrangement askance, then took a deep breath and set her foot on the slippery aluminum. Almost as a reflex action after so many years of traveling with her aunt, Maura moved closer as she followed after the elderly passenger, on guard in case help was needed.
At that instant a gust of rain-laden wind swept the gangplank. The metal-clad incline swayed slightly. The older woman lost her footing and clutched at the rope railing. Maura moved swiftly to her side, catching her arm, supporting her until she was steady once more.
"Thank you," the woman said on an indrawn breath.
Maura shook her head, her smile polite, yet warmly encouraging. "This method of boarding leaves something to be desired, doesn't it?"
"Especially in this weather," the older woman replied with a grim nod.
"That's New Orleans for you, always raining, threatening to rain, or just drying out"
"All the more reason to be prepared for it."
There was a faint foreign inflection in the woman's voice that was difficult to place. A frown drew her brows together in a look of infinite disapproval. Dressed simply, but with a look of distinction in a black suit beneath a gray all-weather coat, the woman's dark hair was streaked with soft silver and drawn back from a center part to be confined in a knot on the nape of her neck. Though a little shorter and more portly than her own relative, there was something indomitable about the other woman that reminded Maura of her great-aunt.
Before they could speak again, they were greeted by the ship's personnel. The cruise director offered his strong arm to the elderly woman, bending solicitously over her as he asked for her cabin number and steered her in the proper direction.
The Athena was much like a floating hotel, with a lobby opening out from the entrance at the gangway, a purser's desk for reception, carpeted corridors leading to cabins branching off it, and the hum of an elevator to one side. For those too impatient to wait for the latter, there was a staircase that led to the upper decks towering the equivalent of seven stories above the waterline. Instead of being numbered from bottom to top, however, like a high-rise building, the decks were numbered from top to bottom. The lobby was, therefore, on deck six with cabins on the deck both above and below. The ship had only one class. Because of this, there was one great dining room and one main lounge. These were located on the deck four, along with the library and shopping mail. Above these were the more expensive staterooms, the promenade deck and lifeboat stations, and higher still, the lido deck with its bar and swimming pool.
Maura, glancing around her, trying to remember the layout of the ship from the brochure she had been studying while she waited to go on board, was aware that there were correct, nautical terms for the stairways and corridors of the ship. However, what she saw before her was so like hotel accommodations that they seemed unnecessary.
Aunt Maggie was not one to waste money on frills. The convenience and luxury of a topside stateroom was not for Maura. The cabin booked for her was on deck seven, the lowest passenger level of the ship. With a quick glance at Maura's ticket, the blonde assistant cruise director indicated the stairs, calling a steward to lead Maura to her room.
The reason for the guide soon became obvious. The elevator, did not descend to deck seven. Once down the stairs, the narrow, well-lighted corridors branched off with the multiplicity, the sharp turns, and sudden endings of a labyrinth. Quiet, warm, smelling faintly of diesel oil from the engine room Maura suspected was in the vicinity, the stretching companionways with their shining, brushed aluminum handrails and textured, cloth-covered walls seemed confusingly alike.
The steward stopped before a door, opened it for her, then waited for her to precede him inside. With accented English and smiling friendliness, he indicated the room's appointments. Maura thanked the man, tipped him, and closed the door after him as he went out.
As if to compensate for its location, the cabin was extra large, or at least it seemed large in comparison to the cubbyhole she had shared with her aunt on the first cruise they had taken together. It boasted not one porthole, but two. Glancing out, Maura could see the muddy water of the Mississippi River slipping past at what she judged to be twenty feet or so below the closed port-hole openings.
The furnishings of the room were durable, and of excellent quality. There were short drapes of heavy, jutelike material in earth and sea tones to be drawn over the portholes while in port. The spreads on the beds were of similar rough-feeling cloth in brown with rust and turquoise strips. The beds were turned at right angles, one beneath the portholes, and the other against the wall, with a console between them as a headboard holding a stationary lamp of heavy earthenware, a telephone, and incorporating a radio for piped-in music and news. At the moment, the strains of Greek taverna music were issuing from it.
Putting her shoulder bag down on the bed under the portholes, Maura made a quick inspection of the rest of the room. There was a long vanity dresser with another lamp on its surface, along with a brown pottery water carafe with a matching cup as its cover. The remainder of that wall was taken up by a double closet with drawers for clothing between them. The attached bathroom had a streamlined, European look in its fixtures, but these included a full-size tub instead of a shower. All in all, Maura thought, surveying the deep turquoise carpet, and the large mural of an Athenian owl on one wall, Aunt Maggie had not done too badly in her choice of a cabin. It was really too bad her great-aunt was not going to be there to enjoy it.
Maura was far too impatient to remain below for long. She changed into deck shoes and removed her handbag from her carry-on luggage. Putting everything else away, she took out the ship's brochure to use as a guide, then locked the cabin door behind her and made her way back to the lobby.
There was such a crowd of embarking passengers gathered around the elevator that Maura turned to the wide rail-lined stairs in order to reach the upper decks. As she stepped out onto the promenade she heard the announcement warning visitors to go ashore. She circled the deck, her footsteps sure and swinging, even on the rain-wet planking. A fine mist of rain still hung in the air, keeping most of the other passengers inside. The rails were nearly deserted as she leaned to watch the last of the supplies for the ship being loaded and the lines that held the vessel to the dock being taken in. The Athena's engines were idling with a low, rumbling noise. At the sound of a harsher motor, Maura moved to the port side of the ship where a tug belching black smoke was beginning to tow the great white liner out into the river, swinging her around, turning her downstream.
The ship's engines shuddered into life, sending smoke billowing in a rich black cloud from the back-swept stacks high above the decks. The ship's whistle blasted out a deep, vibrating warning. The tug answered in a sharper reply, then began to pull away from them in a churning, boiling froth of muddy water. They were moving under their own power. Big, white, and powerful, they were gliding away from New Orleans, leaving the city and its cares behind, reaching toward the one hundred and fifty miles of curving river that led from the port city to the open gulf, heading toward a week of unknown, unknowing pleasure.
Maura stood at the rail, her fingers gripping the wet, polished surface, her green eyes bright with unexpected elation. Excitement swelled in her chest and bubbled like wine in her veins. She had agreed to this cruise under protest, feeling in spite of her aunt's assurances that she was deserting her. Now, no matter how she might deny it, she felt curiously light and carefree, ready for whatever might happen. There was every possibility that she was going to enjoy the next few days. With a smile of irrepressible happiness curving her mouth, she took off her rain hat and shook back her hair, letting it blow in the damp and exhilarating wind of their passage.
The gray March evening drew in and lights began to appear along the river bank, the lights of the houses on the far outskirts of New Orleans and of the cargo ships anchored along the river, waiting their turn to load or unload at the docks. Tiring finally of watching the river traffic, the long lines of barges, the fishing boats, and the endless stream of ocean-going freighters from every port in the world, Maura left the rail at last.
She climbed the outside stairs to a higher level, wandering around the lido deck, skirting the swimming pool with its wet canvas cover, tilting her head to stare up at the glass windows of the bridge high above. She discovered the game deck marked off for shuffleboard, and located the exercise gym and the sauna. Passing through the lido bar, she took the inside staircase back to the promenade deck, noting with a smile the names of the various decks, each called after one of the Greek muses. On this level she found the movie theater and the children's nursery and, suitably set apart, the most luxurious staterooms, one or two with its own access to a small forward promenade.
Descending yet again, Maura looked into the main lounge and the dining room. There was a long line of people before the doors of the latter, trying to make reservations for tables. As she had no reason to be concerned over where she was placed, or with whom, Maura decided not to bother.
The library was closed just now, as were the small shops of the arcade that lined one of the corridors leading to and from the dining room. With duty-free merchandise a specialty, fragrances, liquor, cameras, jewelry of gold, coral, and pearls. Oriental silks and Caribbean cottons, the shops were not allowed to transact business except in international waters.
As she strolled back toward the main lounge where a number of passengers were gathering, a ship's officer in a dress uniform of black with brass buttons came toward her. His gaze traveled over her in a discreet, but thorough, appraisal, and nearing her, he smiled and spoke a quiet greeting, the light of interest in his light brown eyes, Without slackening his purposeful stride, he passed on, though Maura thought he glanced back when she was a short distance away. Though not tall, he had been rattier attractive in an engaging, mildly satyric fashion. Maura made a mental note to jot down a quick description of him for her great-aunt when she returned to her cabin.
It was time she was heading in that direction. She needed to unpack; that was, of course, if all her luggage had been placed in her cabin. There had been one suitcase missing. She should have checked to be certain it had been found before they sailed, but she had been too enthralled with the mechanics of leaving.
Turning toward the elevator in the small lobby outside the lounge, she pressed the button to summon it. It was as she stood waiting, scanning the brochure she still carried, that she came across a detail she had not noticed before. The ship had two elevators, one both fore and aft. The fore elevator served the convenience of the cabin passengers located in the forward section of the ship; the aft, those in the stern. The first terminated in the lido bar, the second at the promenade deck. The same was true of the stairwells on the ship. There were two of them, one fore and aft, in each case parallel to the elevator shafts.
While it was easy to see the advantages of such an arrangement, it was equally easy to realize the confusion it could cause among people unfamiliar with ships, people already disoriented from being in a strange place, and one that moved at that, eliminating outside landmarks. By purest chance, however, she had chosen the correct elevator, the one that would return her to the ship's lobby on deck six, from which point she could make her way down to her cabin.
Regardless, her misgivings were soon proven well founded. As she neared her cabin door, she saw an elderly lady with a vague air coming toward her. It took no more than a moment to recognize the older woman who had nearly fallen on the gangplank. Maura would have passed on with no more than a smile and a nod, but the other woman put out a hand to detain her.
"Forgive me for the imposition, my dear, but as ridiculous as it may sound, I seem to have misplaced my cabin. Could you possibly point me in the right direction?"
"I can try," Maura answered with a smile and a shake of her head. "Do you have your key?"
"Here in my hand. I know that cabin has to be here somewhere, because I saw it. But I went up to the lounge, and when I came back, it had vanished."
Maura looked at the number on the tag, then consulted her guide sheet. "Here is your problem right here," she said, indicating the diagram. "Deck seven, the one we are on, is divided in half by the engine room, and there is no connecting corridor between them. Your cabin is in the fore section, while we are here, in the aft. To get to your cabin, you need to take the stairs back up to deck six, to the lobby, then turn down again to deck seven, and then look for your cabin number."
"It does sound a bit complicated," Maura agreed, "but I expect it's fairly simple."
"You may be right," the elderly woman said, doubt plain in her voice.
"Would you like me to come with you?"
"I'm sure I can --" the woman began, then stopped. A speculative look crept into her fine, dark eyes. "Well, yes, that would be most helpful, if you can spare the time."
Maura swung around to fall into step beside her. "Time is something I have plenty of just now."
The woman introduced herself as Mrs. Papoulas. Her accent was Greek in origin. She had decided to take the cruise at the last moment, a sudden decision made scarcely a week before sailing time. Despite the last-minute reservation, she was not happy with the cabin she had been allotted.
"What seems to be the problem?" Maura asked as they passed along the corridors.
"It is stuffy, most stuffy, and smells of the oil used in the engines, the fuel oil."
Maura could not deny that she had noticed the smell also. "I expect it will improve, now we are underway."
"Such conditions should not be allowed to develop. Free circulation of air is most important to prevent people from becoming sick from the sea."
"Yes. Things were better, in my opinion, before ships became air conditioned, in the days when portholes could actually be opened for something less than an emergency."
"You may have a point," Maura agreed easily.
"But of course I have a point," the older woman snapped, reminding Maura once more of her great-aunt.
"A fresh sea breeze can be very pleasant," Maura said diplomatically.
"Yes. Tell me, Maura, what do you think of the Athena? Has she lived up to your expectations so far?"
"I think so. In some ways, the decor, the well-kept decks, and the streamlined cleanliness, she has even surpassed them. There may be a small problem with the location of the cabins, but I'm sure it will be fine as soon as everyone begins to know their way around. It's really a beautiful ship."
Mrs. Papoulas sniffed, but it seemed to Maura that in some curious way, she was pleased with the answer she had received. They spoke of other things, sketching in their backgrounds. Mrs. Papoulas was traveling alone and, it seemed, though she did not put it into exact words, she was doing so in defiance of her relatives, particularly a domineering grandson. Maura listened sympathetically, giving a hardy endorsement to the elderly woman's independence.
They reached the door of Mrs. Papoulas's cabin. Maura inserted the key in the lock and turned the knob, before handing the door key back to the other woman.
"Thank you, Maura. You have been very kind."
"Not at all. I was glad to be of aid." She smiled, and turned to go as the older woman opened the door. At that moment, she saw it, the dark cloud of smoke that hung inside the room. With a sharp exclamation, she swung back.
Mrs. Papoulas cried out, then with a mutter of exasperation in her native tongue, hurried into the cabin and leaned over to yank the plug of a small coffee pot from the wall.
"My own stupidity," she said fiercely. "How could I have forgotten? Though, if I had not been so long in finding my way, if this ship had been arranged in any sensible fashion, I would have been in time, and this would not have happened!"
Coughing a little from the acrid smoke, Maura moved to the telephone on the bed console to summon a steward. At a sound behind her she swung back. The elderly woman had slumped against the wall with her eyes closed.
"Mrs. Papoulas," Maura said sharply, "are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, it's nothing," the elderly woman said. "Just -- the excitement. Sailing, and now this."
"Here, sit down." Maura reached, with the phone still in one hand, to draw the elderly woman to the edge of the bed. The color was returning to her cheeks, and she was able to hold herself erect, yet as a precaution Maura took the smoking, hot pot from the woman's weak grasp.
Glancing at it as she waited for the ringing phone on the other end to be answered, she noticed that the dangling cord end was designed to be used with the European direct current that the ship utilized, instead of the alternating current common in the United States. Most tourists traveled with an adaptor that made it possible to use their American-made appliances, such as shavers, hair dryers, and curling irons, instead of buying special equipment. It crossed her mind that Mrs. Papoulas might not be a foreign-born citizen of the United States, as she had assumed. It was even possible that the woman had flown from Europe for the cruise, though Maura could see no reason why it should be necessary. There must be any number of ships leaving Europe for pleasure cruises if she just wanted to get away. And if it was the Caribbean that attracted the other woman, there were much closer ports than New Orleans.
The next instant, Maura dismissed the subject as she became involved in trying to explain that there was smoke in the cabin, but no fire, and no need for alarm.
If Mrs. Papoulas's cabin had been stuffy and smelly before, it was doubly so now. The steward, scolding about the use of unnecessary appliances, signified his complete willingness to bring coffee or serve his passengers in any way. He aired out the room, but it helped little. He was sorry, but there were no other cabins available; the cruise was booked solid. Yes, he would check to be certain, but he was almost positive that Mrs. Papoulas would be disappointed.
The steward was correct. Maura watched the discouragement that settled on the strong face of the older woman. On impulse she said, "It may not be an ideal solution from your point of view, but my cabin was fresh and airy earlier, and I would be happy to have you share it until your own has cleared out a bit, or as long as you like."
Surprise was mirrored on the older woman's face as she stared at Maura. "It is extremely generous of you to offer, my dear," she said. "But I couldn't impose."
"It would be no imposition, I assure you. I spoke to you about my Aunt Maggie, if you will remember? I am quite used to sharing hotel rooms, and that sort of thing, with her, and the accommodations in my cabin are ample for two."
"I am a stranger to you."
"So am I, to you. If you can bear with me, I'm certain we will get along fine."
"There aren't many girls your age who would dream of making such an offer," the other woman said, tilting her head with its weight of gray hair to one side.
"I'm sure you're wrong, but I'm accustomed to company, and I enjoy it."
"I wouldn't think of crowding you, except I am almost certain to be abominably sick when we reach open water later tonight, if I have to endure these odors. It is a mortifying thing to have to admit, under the circumstances, but I have little stomach for sailing,"
"Under the circumstances?"
"Did I say that?" Mrs. Papoulas asked, color tinting her cheeks. "A slip of the tongue."
"Well, never mind. It's no crime to be susceptible to motion sickness. We'll get settled, and get a bottle of pills for you. I saw the office of the ship's doctor just down the corridor from my cabin."
Mrs. Papoulas had not unpacked. In a short time, her luggage was sitting in Maura's cabin. The door had hardly closed behind the steward from the forward cabin, when Maura's steward appeared with her missing suitcase.
Mrs. Papoulas stared after the man when he had gone away again, pocketing his tip. "The rascals. They hold back one piece of luggage for each cabin instead of placing everything inside as they should before the ship sails. The poor passengers are so happy to see they missing suitcase that they are generous with their tips. The stewards are collecting handsomely for doing what is no more than their jobs."
"You may be right, but it seems to be the way of the world to exact extra payment for service."
"That doesn't make it right, and I don't like tipping, though I see little to do about it."
Maura glanced at the brooding look on the older woman's face, then with tactful determination, changed the subject.
Dinner the first night out on the ship was a casual meal. The passengers were not expected to get into formal wear so soon after boarding, and most opted not to change at all. Maura considered wearing the soft brown knit pant suit she had on, then seeing Mrs. Papoulas laying out a dress, decided instead on a long skirt and sweater. The skirt was a favorite paisley print with a matching shawl trimmed with gold fringe. With it was paired a short-sleeved knit top in material with a satin sheen that featured a scooped neckline.
The approval in her companion's expression as they left the cabin was her reward. The other woman strode along with a firm step free from any sign of her earlier weakness.
As they entered the dining room, Mrs. Papoulas spoke quietly to the dining-room steward, giving him the number of the table she had reserved earlier. With smiling deference, both she and Maura were led toward a quiet corner near the large picture windows.
Their waiter arrived in time to seat them, whipping open pristine, newly printed menus to place before them. He wished them a good evening as he filled their water glasses from a silver carafe, then stood with easy grace as he waited their pleasure. In his early twenties, classically handsome, there was a certain pride in his bearing, and not the least sign of boredom on his face. Other waiters much like him moved here and there, their movements swift, practiced, economical, each wearing a brown coat that blended with the brown, cream, and salmon color of the table setting.
As Maura and Mrs. Papoulas studied their menus, one of the other waiters hurrying past with a tray balanced on his shoulder lifted a brow at Maura then made a quick, curious, backward gesture of his head, as he spoke in liquid Greek syllables to their waiter.
Mrs. Papoulas sent a glance at Maura, a smile curving her mouth, before she beckoned to the young Greek whose name tag proclaimed him to be called Stephen, asking his opinion of a dish. Thereafter, they had more attention than would have been accorded royalty. Three different waiters vied to fill their coffee cups and keep them filled. They water glasses were topped again each time they took a sip. The fresh carnations in the center of the table were straightened, moved a fraction of an inch closer to the center. They were provided with more chilled butter than they could possibly eat, and enough hot, crusty rolls for an army. Stephen worked with quiet competence, bringing course after course, changing the table setting between each one, brushing every fallen crumb from the linen cloth almost as soon as it fell, plying them with meats, vegetables, sauces, and all the while keeping up a barrage of banter with his constantly passing fellow waiters.
Maura exchanged a look of wonder with the Greek woman. She had never been so pampered in her life, though she was used to the excellent service of the gourmet restaurants of New Orleans. The older woman returned her look with laughter lurking in her eyes.
At last, the patience of the Greek woman showed signs of wearing thin, especially when a man carrying a tray filled with dessert plates brushed her chair as he sidestepped to avoid a pair of waiters heading for their table, one with hot coffee, the other with ice water.
"Deliver me," she said, brushing at a spot of water on her skirt, "from such love-struck fools. They are certain, Maura, that you are an angel set down among them, or a movie starlet at the very least. They are all jealous that you are seated at Stephen's table, and fail to see why he has all the good fortune. In addition, they wonder if you have a man, also if you are a modern young lady, or if I am sitting with you to guard you like a dragon. They say your hair is like fire, and they wonder -- well, never mind. Suffice it to say that the Greeks are a curious people; they are fascinated by the intimate details of the lives of those around them."
Stephen stood like a statue, staring at the Greek woman, then with a groan of mock anguish, he began to apologize in accented English.
"No, no," Mrs. Papoulas said, holding up her hand. "No harm has been done, and I don't know when I have had a more diverting evening. I would suggest to you and your friends that you do not become too complacent, however. There are a few Americans who speak more than one language."
With that, Mrs. Papoulas and Maura rose to their feet and left the dining room. Maura was just as happy to get away. Such attention, though flattering, was also embarrassing. She did not quite know how to accept it, or what to think of it.
With the elderly woman, Maura sipped a glass of white wine in the main lounge, and watched the evening show. It included an informal welcome aboard the ship, a rundown of their itinerary of ports of call and the main attractions at each, an exhibition of several dances of the Caribbean, and a fine performance of Calypso music by a female singer from the island of Aruba. When the show was over, Mrs. Papoulas elected to return to the cabin. "It's been a long day," she said, "and these seasickness pills always make me sleepy. You mustn't think of coming with me, my dear. I'm sure that for someone your age, the night is only beginning. The ship has planned any number of activities for young singles, from disco dancing in the lido bar, to the midnight buffet."
Maura wasn't sleepy at all; she was still much too excited for that. She did walk with Mrs. Papoulas to the cabin they were sharing, over protests of the elderly woman, to be certain she did not lose her way again.
Returning to the lounge once more, she sat watching the dancing, enjoying the mellow, old-fashioned instrumentals. She was asked to dance several times, but refused, not being in the mood, somehow, for casual socializing. When one man, who was more than a little drunk, became too importunate, she left the lounge and made her way up to the lido bar. There, the decibel level of the disco beat was incredibly high, and the overhead lights in changing rainbow hues pulsed in time to the music, reflecting in a floor of polished steel.
The disc jockey, who was also one of the announcers from the show in the lounge, came to her table, insisting that she have a drink with him. She accepted a glass of wine, her second for the evening, and they tried to talk, a near-impossible feat over the noise. She danced once with the disc jockey, whose name was Brian, before he had to return to his musical equipment. Then, filled with an odd restlessness, she made her way from the bar.
The night wind was cool on the deck, and still damp, though the rain had stopped. Maura gathered her shawl around her and strolled along the wooden planking, listening to the hollow echo of her own footsteps. Lights shone from the windows and portholes of the cabins, reflecting on the water. Standing at the railing, watching the gliding, rippling wake, Maura thought that the muddy river water was becoming darker, giving way to the salty blue of the gulf.
Turning to walk once more, she let her light and easy treads take her to the prow of the ship. Here, there was a definite rise and fall to the railing. The night darkness stretched ahead of the great ship, though it was ringed on the horizon by red and orange lights that blinked off and on, with portions that burned steady in the shape of squares, like low-lying, fiery constellations against the black of night. The wind flapped the ends of her shawl and whipped her skirts about her knees. It blew her hair away from her face, lifting the long strands in the stylized, backward-flowing tresses of a figurehead. She was alone on the forward deck, and yet not alone, for behind and above her were the subdued lights of the bridge where the officers could be seen moving back and forth in the dimness.
Growing chilled, she started to move away, to go back inside. Further along the starboard side, a door opened, and a ship's officer appeared, the man she had met earlier in the day.
He came even with her, then with a word of greeting, turned to walk beside her, matching his pace to hers. He asked her name and with whom she was traveling, introducing himself as Third Officer Alexandros Maratos. Pointing out the lights she had noticed, he told her they marked the locations of oil rigs in the gulf, the drilling platforms and living quarters for the crews that searched for offshore oil.
"We are nearly in the gulf then?"
"Yes, that is so."
"I'm glad. It doesn't seem as if the voyage has really begun until we get beyond land."
He grimaced. "You may not be so happy in an hour or two. The sea is choppy beyond the river's mouth and the protection of land."
"That doesn't matter. I will enjoy a little rough weather."
"I will remember you said that," he told her, a smile touching his full lips.
Maura tipped her head to one side, alerted by something in his tone. "Remember, then, that I said only a little. We aren't in for a storm, are we?"
"Who can say?" he replied evasively, then pointed toward a fast-moving light approaching the ship. "Look there, it's the boat to take off the river pilot."
"A river pilot has been guiding us since we left New Orleans?"
"Yes. The course of the Mississippi is changeable, especially at this time of the year, in the spring. It takes a man with special knowledge to navigate it. Also, this is an American regulation of the Mississippi River Authority that we must follow."
The pilot boat sped across the water, rising and falling, wallowing a little with the swells. "Could I watch the transfer of the pilot from the ship to the boat?"
"Yes, certainly. It will take place just below us here."
The pilot boat, looking about the size of one of the ship's lifeboats, eased up alongside an open entryway in the lower portion of the cruise ship. Watching it roll in the waves gave Maura a much more accurate idea of the roughness of the water than she was able to get from the higher deck. A small platform on a metal framework was extended out from the ship. The uniformed pilot stepped out onto the platform, then judging the swell, swung from it onto the heaving deck of the small boat.
There was a brief commotion on the boat down below, and another man emerged onto the deck of the lighted cabin cruiser. Dressed in a gray business suit, carrying a small suitcase not much larger than an attaché case, he scarcely paused as he reached the space of open water between the two crafts. With a single lithe and muscular movement, he swung to the platform of the Athena, and disappeared inside. The motor of the pilot boat roared, and she sped away again, back toward the lights on the distant shoreline.
At the first sight of the new arrival, the officer beside Maura had stiffened. Now he straightened. "I am afraid I must leave you. It has been most pleasant speaking with you, and I hope you will allow me to see you again."
"What is it?" Maura asked. "Who is the man who came aboard?"
"I'm not sure," Alexandros answered, his dark gaze moving over her shoulder. "But if it's who I think, then he is trouble."
Copyright © 1980 by Jennifer Blake