“What? A boat? I mean a ship? I could fall overboard and drown! It could sink! Look at what happened to the Titanic!”
My skuzzy boss, Fabio Scarpello, glared at me with-well, one could never really know what Fabio thought, so I decided not to even guess.
It was more than likely X-rated anyway.
He puffed on a relit cigar. “The ship sails from New York to Miami to Bermuda and back. Who the hell ever heard of an iceberg in those waters?”
I wanted to argue that there might be pockets of cold water out in the Atlantic that could form into an iceberg, but I knew my imagination was just trying to come up with some wild excuse not to go. I wasn’t going to mention my being prone to seasickness though. Fabio would turn that into something embarrassing.
After a few more puffs, he said, “Look, doll-”
“Don’t call me doll. Ever.” I sat straighter in my seat across from his mold-covered desk. Okay, maybe mold-covered was a bit strong, but I was guessing there had to be something growing beneath the used paper plates, coffee cups, piles of ashes and files. He had my folder in his hand.
“Pauline, Ms. Sokol or Investigator Sokol will do fine,” I started to sip on my decaf caf'e latt'e that my coworker, friend and roommate Goldie had made me earlier, then decided it more than likely had been contaminated when I’d walked into Fabio’s office.
He cursed under his breath. “Investigator Sokol is a stretch, but if you want to keep your freaking job, you better take this freaking case. High seas or not.”
A nurse on a cruise ship.
I should have been excited about the assignment. I mean, come on. Salty sea air, wind in my hair, sun, bronzed males, coral sand of Bermuda and…waves. My stomach lurched.
And back into the old nursing career. That same career that I kept vowing I would never go back to. Damn.
He shoved the file toward me. “Want it or not?”
Not would have been my first choice. Pauline Sokol was not one for change. Pauline Sokol was not one for water transportation. And Pauline Sokol was not one to be stuck out in some nautical God-knows-where, investigating medical-insurance fraud…alone.
Admittedly, I’ve never been out of New England for a vacation or any other reason, and that probably had something to do with my reluctance to try new things. Hope Valley, a very “ethnic” community, had been my home for thirty-five years-and I kinda liked my feet on Mother Earth.
But there were those nasty things called bills that had invaded my life. And they required being paid. And that required money. Sigh. I looked up to see Fabio tapping his cigar into the dirty ashtray.
Amid the flying ashes, he asked, “Well?”
I snatched the folder. “When do I leave?”
“Friday? It’s already Wednesday.”
“One of the staff nurses onboard got, er…sick. It’s perfect. Just perfect. Bon voyage, doll.”
I decided to ignore Fabio calling me doll again since my mind got stuck on the word Friday. April 13. Perfect. My new assignment would start on an unlucky day. I hurried out of his office and paused in the hallway for a breath of fresh air.
I spun around to see my tied-for-best friend in the world, Goldie, rushing down the hall. My other roommate and other tied-for-best friend in the world and Goldie’s “honey” was Miles Scarpello. Fabio’s nephew. Adopted. His saving grace.
There is a God.
Goldie dressed in Gucci, Prada and Armani. Sometimes from the ladies’ department, sometimes from the men’s. But I still loved him, and he always looked like a movie star. Today he ushered in spring with a pink, black, white and orange spiral-patterned sweater over black slacks and a pink camisole top. He wore a Sandra-Dee-blonde ponytail wig that looked more real than my natural blonde hair. Looked very sixties. And very beachy. How fitting.
Maybe I could borrow the outfit for my cruise.
“So, Suga”-he yanked me into his office, which looked like a cross between New Orleans (Goldie’s hometown) and the jungle. Gotta love his unusual taste-“what’s your new assignment?”
I held the folder out toward him as if it were a snake. “Here, you look. I don’t have the stomach for it so early in the morning.”
Goldie patted my head in a very Goldie-like sort of way. “Let’s take a look-see.” He ripped a pink-printed nail through the end of the envelope, and amid the tearing sound mumbled, “Shit.”
“Shit? What does shit mean?” I slumped down on the zebra couch, feeling a bit faint. I think the color drained from my cheeks upon hearing Goldie’s tone alone.
He looked at me for a few seconds. I had the sudden thought that he was making up some kind of lie. That hurt, but if Goldie lied to me, it would have been for my own good.
“I…well, what I meant was…Shit, you get to go on a cruise to some warm, sunny island, and I’ll be stuck in stupid Hope Valley, Connecticut, with temperatures in the fifties all month.” He took a gigantic swig of his coffee. Goldie never swigged.
I could only stare. Was Goldie really concerned with the temperature? Or had he seen something in the folder that I should be worried about? After several minutes of silence and then him offering me another latt'e over and over, I finally asked, “Gold, are you lying to me?”
“Yes!” flew out of his mouth on a breeze. He flopped onto his leopard chair and looked at me with a pitiable glare. “I’m sorry, Suga. But, Bermuda. Bermuda! Ber…mu…da!”
“I guess I’ll give you credit for your honesty about lying even though I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. As a matter of fact, I will take a regular latt'e, since I think I may need a dose of caffeine.”
Before he stood he said, “Your standard at Dunkin Donuts is hazelnut decaf. You don’t drink caffeine, Suga.”
“I do now. Seems as if I’m going to need it on this case. What is so wrong about cruising to Bermu…the triangle. You are worried I may get sucked into some paranormal triangle of ocean?”
“I’m sorry, Gold.” I jumped up and grabbed him in a hug. “I didn’t mean to…Wait a minute. Why am I consoling you? I should be the one being comforted. I’m the one going on this fool assignment.”
He eased free and looked at me. “I’m so sorry. I never should have said anything. I mean, folks sail to Bermuda every day. Planes fly overhead. And, well, bon voyage, Suga!”
“Bon voyage!” my mother shouted as she served me a piece of the ocean blue cake she’d designed for my going-away party. Inside was chocolate with a mousse filling.
All I could think when I heard that third bon voyage was, three strikes and you’re out.
“Thanks, Mother,” I mumbled as she set the dish in front of me. I loved cake. I loved sweets. I drank a very moderate amount of alcohol to avoid calorie overdose so I could have the sweets. Nothing could top chocolate. But right now I had this inner feeling telling me I should eat sweets like there was no tomorrow and drink plenty of liquor-because I was going on a cruise to Bermuda.
Not a worldly traveler, I did have a suggestion-prone kind of mind.
I remember once in grammar school when the nun told me I looked as if I had a rash on my arm. The idea ate away at me until a rash appeared. Of course, ever since she mentioned it, I had scratched at the skin over and over, even though it didn’t itch.
My sister Mary, a nun herself-well, ex-nun now-leaned forward, pulling my attention back to the party. “You’re getting to be such a professional with an exciting job, Pauline. Imagine. A cruise.” She leaned back and shut her eyes. She talked a good talk, but I figured Mary was saying a Hail Mary for my safety. She never did quite lose that “religious” persona.
Several nieces and nephews stabbed at the cake’s white waves fashioned out of cream cheese and frosting. Mother had outdone herself. Everyone ate and laughed and chatted.
I turned to see Uncle Walt, my favorite uncle who had lived with us forever, smiling. He leaned near and tucked a white envelope into my hand. “Meet some nice young man and have a ball.” His bald head grew ruddy.
“I’m going to be working, Uncle Walt.” I fingered the envelope. Had to be money. God bless Uncle Walt.
“Work. Ha!” He forked a piece of cake, ate it and said, “How sick can passengers get? A little seasickness? Meet someone. Dance. Eat. Old Widow Kolinsky tells me that cruises are the best. She said she danced so much heading to St. Martin, she wore out her shoes.” He chuckled. “Wore out her shoooooes!”
I smiled, leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’ll be sure to bring a spare pair. Thanks for the gift.” I winked at him just in time to catch Jagger in my view.
My face burned hotter than the candles on the cake my mother insisted on lighting even though I’d argued it wasn’t my birthday. I hoped Jagger didn’t think I was winking at him! I felt my tea rising in my throat at the thought.
He sat down opposite me and graciously smiled when my mother set a plate in front of him with half of the cake and a tidal wave of frosting on it.
“Here you go, Mr. Jagger,” she said.
Actually she gushed like a teenybopper, but no way was I going to admit to myself that my mother was flirting with “Mister” Jagger! Yuck! Even though he had only the one name-that we knew about-she insisted on using the title. I couldn’t help but cut her some slack because, well, Jagger had a way with women and obviously Stella Sokol was not immune. Guess I should have been glad my mother was a “normal” female and not think of his affect on her as icky.
“So, Sherlock, any questions before you set sail?” He took a sip of his beer. Gotta admire a guy who drinks beer with his cake-and damn, but I admired lots of things about Jagger.
I looked at him and realized that I was finally working on a case by myself. Jagger usually ended up involved. But not this time.
My heart skipped a few needed beats.
I was really going on my own.
Back in my condo, I flopped on my white-covered bed and looked into the dark little eyes of my joint-custody dog. Weighed in at seven pounds now after a doggie diet. “When’s the last time a cruise ship sank, Spanky?”
He looked at me, curled into a ball, and shut his eyes.
“Right. The Titanic. Ages ago. I know there have been fires onboard and epidemics of gastrointestinal problems, but in this day of modern-” I hugged my pillow.
I had to smile while I petted his squirrel-sized head. “Modern technology. No problem. Where’s my grocery list?” I leaned over, grabbed my paper and pencil and added bracelet thingie for motion sickness. God, I hoped the ship’s movement wouldn’t affect me, since admittedly, I couldn’t sit in the backseat of a car without needing Dramamine. Damn.
Spanky snored on, so I continued packing, making sure to grab my stethoscope, bandage scissors and several pens. Back to nursing. I knew it made sense that my skills would be best suited to the medical-fraud cases, but hell, Jagger wasn’t a nurse and he did fabulously. At least I didn’t think he was a nurse. No one really knew who he worked for.
I’d learned not to care.
Besides, male-nurse Jagger? Naw.
After several hours, I stood back and looked at my luggage. Full to the brim. I used the extra strap, which wrapped around the bag in case the zipper popped, that my mother had insisted on buying after seeing it advertised on television. I assured her my luggage wasn’t going to get thrown around like on an airplane, but being Mother, she had convinced me I didn’t want the world to see my panties if, God forbid, the zipper gave way. Not that I expected that tragedy, but I’d learned from infancy that when Stella Sokol said something was going to happen, look out-because it always did.
As kids we used to cringe and fuss when she’d say, “Don’t go out in the rain because you’ll catch your death of a cold.”
Even at our young age, we knew you had to come in contact with the cold virus in order to catch a cold, but inevitably, we’d go out, and the next day (always a Saturday), we’d get sick and have to spend our day off in bed.
So, I yanked at the strap to make sure my “essentials” weren’t going to be exposed, and shoved the biggest suitcase with my foot until it was at the doorway.
Tomorrow Goldie and Miles would drive me to the dock in New York City to start my next case.
That alone was reason to lose sleep tonight.
My night was not as sleepless and fitful as I had expected. It was worse. But the next morning, once my roomies had the car packed-and they wouldn’t let me lift a finger to help-we were well on our way.
The traffic on Interstate 95 was at its usual standstill near Bridgeport, so I snuggled up to Goldie’s shoulder while Miles drove. I shut my eyes.
Something nudged at my arm. I peeked out at Goldie and realized the car had stopped. I yawned, stretched-and screamed.
Goldie grabbed my arms and hugged me. “It just looks so big because we’re so close up.”
I looked out the window to see the “ship” I was going to be living on for the next few weeks or so-and strained my neck without being able to see the end of it. There had to be a million decks. “Don’t heavy objects sink like rocks in the water?” I mumbled.
They laughed, and Miles gave me a quick physics lesson and assured me that the Golden Dolphin, the mother ship of the Sailing Dolphin line out of the United States, was quite safe. Having done some Internet research about the private American line, he proceeded to tell us much more than we wanted to know.
I think Goldie even dozed off.
We shook him back to consciousness, and after Miles found a parking space, we all got out and stared at the ship.
The gigantic mass of white sat proudly at the dock, dwarfing the surrounding buildings. At least that’s how I saw it from that angle. Hundreds of passengers were waiting in lines for what I guessed was some kind of processing before embarkation. We asked one of the staff what was going on and found out they were checking passports and getting credit card info and whatever else was needed.
I looked at my friends. “Well, this is it.” After tearful goodbyes (mine) to Miles and Goldie, I turned to walk away then looked back. “I’m going to miss you guys.” I sniffled.
Both had dry eyes.
Now that hurt.
And it really wasn’t like them. Nope. Inside, they both had to be blubbering fools. “Well, I’ll keep in touch, although I have no idea how-”
Goldie waved a hand. “I can’t stand it any longer!”
“About time. I thought you two weren’t going to even shed one tear to see me go.”
They gave me a collective grin.
“What the hell is wrong with you guys? You’re acting…weird. Weirder than usual.” I chuckled.
Goldie grabbed my arm and spun me around. Despite my shouts to stop, Miles joined in the hug.
“What the hell? You’re going to make me seasick before I even get on the ship.” I yanked free.
Miles laughed. “You have your anti-nausea bracelet on. And”-he leaned near-“where’d you get that pink locket?”
“You like it?” I fingered it and smiled.
“It’s you. Not too pretentious. Not too much like real jewelry.”
“Jagger gave it to me. Inside is pepper spray. For self-defense.”
They looked at each other and then back at me. “You won’t need it!” they shouted together.
Once again they wrapped themselves around me, turning the three of us into a human pretzel.
“You guys are driving me crazy. What is going on? How do you know I won’t need my locket?”
“Because we are coming along!” shouted Goldie.
Always, when Jagger said something to me that was a shock (and that was quite often), my mouth would drop open, and I’d stare into space. This time I had the same reaction, but then I let out a shout, “You are? You’re coming with me?”
I looked at both of them and chastised myself for not being more astute. Miles had on white slacks, navy Polo shirt and sunglasses on top of his head.
Darling Goldie had the Sandra Dee outfit on, complete with blonde ponytail and a hat that matched the wild sweater. On his feet were flip-flops in the same colors.
Those outfits should have been my clue that they weren’t just driving me to New York City. Damn.
“Yes! Yes! We are coming along!” Goldie shouted.
He proceeded to dance me around while Miles explained how they’d decided to take a much-needed vacation. In my heart I knew they were coming on the ship to keep an eye on my safety-and, hopefully, would not have to rescue me from getting sucked under by the Bermuda Triangle. I shuddered for a second, and then felt a sense of calm.
Gotta love those two.
“Gold, you really are making me seasick, and we haven’t even boarded yet.” He stopped the dancing and smiled. “I’m so thrilled.” I stood on tiptoes and kissed each one on the cheek. “You guys are the best.”
Miles put a protective arm around my shoulder. “You deserve the best, Pauline.”
After a few more shouts and cheers, I left my friends to go get processed in as a staff member, with the promise that I’d find them later.
After I was checked in within an inch of my life by security, I headed up a slight incline of a gangplank. Once inside, I had to stop and take a breath. I wish I could experience this with Goldie and Miles.
The inside of the ship, like a lobby of sorts, was gold, purple, glass and chrome everything, and was decorated like a Las Vegas hotel. Glass elevators swam gracefully up the walls. Chatter filled the air, but in the background, soft music from a string quartet gave the Golden Dolphin the aura of what the Titanic must have been like.
The top of the ceiling was lighted glass in a very pale violet color surrounded by…more gold. Dolphins were painted swimming on the ceiling above, and it was as if the passengers were below the surface of the water.
Fountains in the center floor spouted colorful water shooting several feet into the air. Around the fountain were steps that led gracefully to a lower level. How fabulous.
For a second I couldn’t believe I was actually still in New York City. No horns beeping. No sirens screaming. No “scents” of the city.
It smelled like a fresh ocean breeze.
After asking several of the crew for directions, I found my way to my quarters, which were located across from the infirmary on the third deck. Very convenient. The crewmembers had to live several decks below the passengers, and even had their own recreation spots, I’d been told.
I opened the door to see twin beds along two walls, covered in white spreads, in a room no bigger than a closet. The walls, too, were as white as the two stuffed chairs. I guessed the cruise-ship industry had cornered the market on white. Instead of windows, there were tiny portholes in the wall.
Oops. My claustrophobia came to mind.
I ignored it, telling myself this was a job. A job that I needed and could do.
On a desk near the portholes sat a note addressed to me. It was from the nurse I had to share the room with. She introduced herself as Jacquelyn Arneau and said she was French. No kidding. Real French, as in, came from France for this job. Seems as if the crew was a mixture of nationalities. Jacquelyn also said which bed she’d already claimed and that she hoped I didn’t snore or spread anything of mine onto her side.
Suddenly I realized why the French were not number one on the list of favorite tourist nationalities.
Should be an interesting job.