Not listing the previous chapters this time because, this time, all six chapters of the first part of the story are here. "Here" meaning below the orange antimacassar of course.
If I had a team of writers I might have taken excerpts from the chapters and bound them together with some sort of plot. Like a frittata. Perhaps having all the characters in a rustic log cabin stranded by a convenient blizzard. But ships don't usually have log cabins and blizzards (maybe Disney ships do, I wouldn't know) so pasting the previous will have to do. Please let me know what you think.
Otis and Evan: a serialized novel by jabney.
Chapter 1 - A Relic is Born
I appreciate the sentiment behind getting a heads-up from my friends about me being framed for murder back on (or eventually to be framed on) the space vessel where I was born quite some time in the future. As for appreciating the actual visit. Not so much. Being accused along with my partner-in-crime, Otis Ferg, the only way we can get back is to leave Control and Jerome behind. We could have dealt with the clowns on the Scientific Integrity Team on our own. But now?
"That would look odd," said Otis, "Sherlock Holmes would have said as much."
"But in fewer words, Otis, I'm sure."
"Perhaps, Evan," Otis said as he and I talked alone.
"Jerome said he would stay if one of us agreed to go back to the vessel in black-face."
"And I would, too," came a voice from the other room.
"Not a chance, bro. Not after singing "We Shall Overcome" at Wilberforce's tomb..."
"Went over well did it not?"
"Not the point Jerome. Actually that is the point. Maybe you create an atmosphere of racial harmony. And the African colonies don't break away from Great Britain for several hundred years more."
"Besides, Jerome, you get to run the playlist in the Smiley Grill."
"Hey you guys can leave me your playlists if you'd like."
"Why don't you recruit that docent Doxy to help you," I said.
"Good call," said the woman walking into the room. She looked refreshed. "I have been talking with Dr Watson, and based on Dr Watson's experiencing the cheese-curd-cubed effect I feel that the pair of them should not be near another time travel experience at present. I sent them to the north of Scotland. That should be far enough."
Jerome said, "That reminds me, Mr Holmes asked me to calculate the amount of transmit mat that Control and I will need to get back to our time and to give you the rest. Here it is." He handed us each a few trimmings.
"So that's what Mr Holmes meant."
"Meant by what Evan?"
"Over and up. Over to the U.S.A. and up the calendar as far as the scraps will take us. The further into the future we can go, the fewer the chances to muck up the timeline."
"So after Jerome and I leave, do the two of you have to hop a junk freighter to America?"
"Hardly, Control. At worst Evan and I each possess an electronic almanac that contains almost every market closing stock price and final sporting event score since the dawn of numbers. Sherlock Holmes has given me the names of five bookmakers and ten brokers that he assures me have behaved as scoundrels."
"And at best?"
"These!" I said and pulled several pairs of sparkling blood-red stones from my pocket.
"Aren't those the Rubinellas they have on the 4 AM infomercial?"
"The same, Jerome. The infomercial that said a jeweler couldn't tell it wasn't real until they saw a Rubinella being made. I got these and a bunch of Emerellas for a launch commemoration day parade crew. They went with green."
"And I suppose Mr Holmes has the name of a rascal jeweler too," said Control.
"Several," said Otis. "How about Heffnoy and Hartoof? Or Grumpledys?"
"Dr Watson was kind enough to offer to lend me his scales," (Grumpledys has been said to shave the edges of gold coins passing through its counting rooms) "But that won't be necesarry. Using only one pair of Rubinellas, Mr Holmes has secured ample letters of credit for me and for Otis."
"And quite a letter of introduction from that inspector."
"And he never met either one of us. But Sherlock Holmes says we're OK so ..."
"So," Otis continued for me, "This inspector only knows one person in the U.S.A. to whom to write. The former police chief of New York City."
"A former police chief of a major city sounds like a good contact - for a white man."
"I'm not so sure, this fomer police chief is Theodore Roosevelt and he's now the President of the United States, So we have to buy new clothes and travel first class from London to New York."
"I'm surprised Sherlock Holmes allowed that," said Control.
"He didn't. This was at the inspector's initiative and the letter had already begun its way through diplomatic channels by the time Mr Holmes found out. What was it Dr Watson said as they boarded the train to the moors? Oh yes I remember. "He'll take out his anger on the grouse. Ought to good for a few meals this time.""
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were not there when Jerome and Control returned to the future. Otis and I had been told we were welcome to stay a while, but I can sense the look that goes to the trifold and the questions that don't quite form on the lips. We need to go. Before we go, though, we had to find a safe place to hide the first copy of the trifold's contents. Otis nested the back-up chip in a piece of antistatic foam and then glued a piece of velvet atop the chip. "Martyr's bone fragment or piece of the true cross?" said Otis.
"Stain it so it could be either," I said. "Here, let me write the note." I scrambled around for something crude to write with, finally settling on a charred stick. I wrote, "Forgive me saint..." "Otis, what's popular letter to start a saint's name with?"
"Just one letter?"
"Not even a whole letter. A fragment of a letter will do. One tantalizing fragment."
"A vertical stroke, that fits a lot of letters."
"And therefore it fits a lot of saints. Each of whom could be be represented by that piece of bone. And each of whom has devotees eager to build a reliquary worthy of protecting and preserving a mysterious treasure from another time. Think of it Otis, a relic is born."
Chapter 2 - Fish, Chips and Hyphenated Names
"We'll probably go to Hell for this Otis," I said as we left the crudely wrapped package on the altar facing the plaster-baroque splendor of Saint Lacrimosa's.
"Nonsense Evan. If anything, what we've done will probably increase the faith of the faithful, erase the doubts of the doubtful and boost the commerce of the commercial. A relic, even a counterfeit relic, has the power to change history."
"And that's precisely what we are not supposed to do, Otis. The timeline is sacred."
"Sacred to who? Certainly not to you or me. We're here in the past are we not?"
I could not dispute Otis's point that we had traveled to the past. If the smell of horse manure rising from every boulevard wasn't reminder enough, the stench wafting from the side-street tenements served as a most unsavory exclamation point.
Otis continued, "Every time we inhale or exhale as little as one single breath we alter the physical reality of the past. Our corpses, should we be unable to get back to our own time, will add to the weight of this world when they are buried. And should we opt for cremation..."
"Everybody should. Cremation is far better than burial."
"That, my dear Evan, is a matter of deep personal choice. Six feet deep, in fact."
I groaned and laughed at the same time. "Otis, like most tech-heads that we know, I appreciate the art of the pun. Sometimes, though, your superior tech skills seem to lead you to underestimate your audience. That "Six feet deep" addendum for instance. It was not needed. There were alternatives."
"What are suggesting Evan, that I should have spoken the first "Deep" in italics? Or maybe used air quotes. I knew a girl once that used air quotes. Irritated the crap out of me. Anyhow, as I was saying, even if we were to opt for cremation, the smoke rising from the chimney of the crematorium would add to the air pollution. Not to mention the calories of heat produced and vented to the atmosphere, the depletion of fossil fuels..."
"Yeah yeah, and the ink used for printing the obituaries. I get your point. But we can't go around preventing tragedies simply because we have the advantage of hindsight. Warning Archdukes to be wary of anarchists might save one member of the nobility but perhaps at the cost of hundreds or thousands of lives of common foot-soldiers. A delay in the start of World War One would have meant that much more time for some bright young chemist to perhaps have developed some gas far more destructive than mustard gas."
"Mustard, hmmm. I wonder if they have already started putting yellow mustard on hot dogs here in the early twentieth century? Perhaps when we get to America."
"Hot dogs, Otis? We will be crossing the Atlantic in a first class cabin, and gentlemen of our class would never use such a crude term as "Hot dog"."
"OK, frankfurters then. Frankfurters with raw onions, Chicago-green relish and yellow mustard."
"Now that you mention it. But nothing fancy. I'm sure we will have our fill of lobster, champagne and caviar on the ship. Which, by the way Evan, we have yet to choose."
"Mr Holmes said we should pick one that's big enough to allow us some degree of anonymity. I'm still researching." As we continued to walk along the streets of this rather shabby part of old London, a very intriguing odor managed to waft its way toward us overcoming the general background note of horse manure and the lack of good sewerage.
"Look, Evan! Fish and Chips!"
"Just what our arteries are crying out for, Otis. Still, when in Rome..."
We entered the shop, placed our orders and soon walked out with crispy pieces of breaded fried fish and french fries wrapped in a cornucopia made from newspaper. We ate in silence, enraptured by the deliciousness. Then Otis said, "Oh, oh oh!"
"Swallowed a bone or something?" I said half worried, half amused.
"No Evan, look. Right next to where the dorsal fin would have been."
I don't take much stock in portents and omens, but in a pinch, why not. There it was, grease-smeared but still legible,
Excitement Builds For Mauritania Maiden Voyage - Only A Few First Class Cabins Remain UnbookedI looked at my newspaper cone and, other than a greasy corset ad, there was nothing I was tempted to show Otis. And I resisted that temptation. The man is already over-sensitive about his weight. Mostly imaginary, I think. "Then the Mauritania it is, Otis. Let's book passage."
"And what name will you be using Evan?"
That was a good question. I do have a last name, but it is a long multi-hyphenated name. So long, in fact, that I have to look it up each time its use is required. To cut and paste from my tri-fold is one thing, but in the dawning years of the twentieth century, the public use of such a device would be certain to draw unwanted attention. "I've got it, brother!"
"You don't mean..."
"Yes Otis, I'll be your younger brother, Evan Ferg. How did you come by that name, by the way? I mean you've often said you don't know the identities of your parents."
"I don't. Although I have my suspicions. But yes, I'm a genuine bastard, and like all genuine bastards left to the tender mercies of The Turing Memorial Home For Abandoned Infants, I was given a machine generated last name. With an algorithmically harmonious, culturally 'appropriate' first name chosen from a list. I could have changed it, but it's a lot easier to learn than one like yours."
"You've seen my name, I suppose?"
"Yes, when you first applied to systems. The selection committee had a good laugh over that. At least the men did."
"And the women?"
"They seemed to be rather sensitive about the whole hyphenated name thing. Didn't find the geometric ramifications at all amusing. How do you feel about it?"
I said, "It is what it is. It's only fair. And it no doubt serves to fortify the bonding instincts of the mother."
"As if nine months with a full womb and a couple of years having the little darlings suckling from a pair of breasts weren't bonding enough," said Otis, "Not that I would remember the former nor know about the latter, of course."
"You must be lots of fun on a date, Otis," I said with what I hoped contained just the right mixture of sarcasm and empathy. "So what you're suggesting is that using only the father's last name improves a father's bonding instinct?"
"I didn't say that, you did. But when you think about it, other than one moment of fun nine months before ever seeing the kid, what else does the dad have invested in a new baby? I'm speaking non-fiscally of course."
"He has the continuation of his genes, for one thing, Otis."
"Under the total control of the mother, Evan. In our culture, propagation is totally at the whim of the mother."
"If the father's not willing Otis, I don't think much propagating is going to get done."
"He's a man, and if he is heterosexual and still capable of penetrating a vagina, he'll be willing."
"Let me revise what I said earlier about you being lots of fun on a date, Otis, I should have said it would be a miracle for you to go on any dates at all!"
"I wonder how Control is doing back on SS Oligarch?" Otis said, in a bank-shot change of topic.
"And Jerome," I said, "Don't forget Jerome."
"Jerome is more your peer, Evan. You and he could talk in much the same way Control and I do ... or did." I sensed a note of sadness in my former boss's voice. Interesting, I think I, Evan raised in a pretty conventional family, may be adjusting to our new situation better than the officially rootless Otis.
A cab approached, I hailed it, and in as positive a tone as I could muster said, "Cabby, the Cunard Lines booking office please."
Chapter 3 - Starch
The "Mauritania?" Otis said in a nervous sounding voice, "Isn't that the one the Germans sank right around this time?"
"Shhh" I whispered, "You're thinking of the sister ship, the "Lusitania," it's not due for several years and you are talking too loud."
"You mean "Loudly" mister perfectionist? I'll have you know I did pay attention to things other than technology and computing in school."
"Well "Brother" you should pay closer attention to our current situation. We have traveled back to 1907 and we are actually on Earth, neither of which either of us can lay claim to having any degree of expertise as to."
"Evan, I appreciate that you want to fit in as unobtrusively as possible, but that syntax? Talk about stiff."
"It goes with the stiff collars," I said. "Who the Hell invented starch?"
"Mr Ferg and Mr Ferg?" said a voice that interrupted our conversation. Otis Ferg looked in the direction of the voice and Otis Ferg's elbow alerted me that I should too. This "Brother" act would take some getting used to.
We were escorted to a large, comfortable looking stateroom, and I whispered to Otis, "I believe they used to tip back in these times. Any idea how much?"
Otis literally scratched his head and put on a puzzled look. The steward must have had very good hearing, because he answered, "It is customary for first-class passengers who choose to leave a gratuity to do so only at the end of the voyage. Will there be anything else before I unpack your luggage?"
Otis said, "Oh you don't need to unpack..." I gave him an unobtrusive kick.
I quickly said, "Please excuse my brother, Otis, as he recently left the monastery and is still adjusting to life without a vow of poverty."
The steward's gaze softened a bit and I detected the hint of a brogue which hadn't been there earlier and he said, "Ah, as dear old Father Toomey used to say, "Stories of the riches of the frugal life are often inflated." Of course, judging by the size of his cassock, so was Father Toomey. Rest his soul." The steward smiled wistfully and made the sign of the cross. I did likewise and, after another unobtrusive kick, so did Otis. "Your seating is the first seating at dinner, gentlemen. If you are no longer committed to holy orders, Mr Ferg," he said looking at Otis with what now was almost a roguish smile, "I believe you will appreciate some of your table companions."
Otis said, "'Tis mostly in the hands of the Lord. The future I mean."
"Mostly? Mr Ferg."
I said with a laugh, "My dear brother did not succumb to lures of Calvinism, I assure you. Now, can you direct us to the smoking lounge?"
We got the directions, which included a ride on the ship's elevator, "The first one ever at sea," said the steward with just a touch of pride, and eventually we found ourselves in room with stuffed armchairs. Across the back of each chair was a stiffly starched antimacassar.
"A monastery, Evan? What made you think of that?"
"No, not clever at all. Considering I was brought up an agnostic. How am I supposed to play the part of a de-frocked monk?"
"Not de-frocked, simply an initiate who realized that the monastic life wasn't his calling."
"But what if I'm called on to administer, what do they call them, 'last rites' or something?"
"Look as solemn as you can and say you are not worthy. Besides, the steward doesn't seem all that sanctimonious if you ask me. The man was practically arranging a date for you and we haven't even had our appetizers. And before you chide me about leading you to the smoking lounge, it's one of the few places we can talk furtively without drawing too much attention to ourselves."
"Seriously Evan, how could so many people have done something so unhealthy as smoking tobacco?"
"It's supposed to be relaxing. So light a cigar and rest your head against the antimacassar. Like this: I trimmed the end of a cigar, following the lead of a distinguished looking gentleman across the room, struck a match and inhaled a shallow breath. Not that bad, I thought to myself, and leaning my head back on the gleaming white antimacassar said, "Ouch! What did these Edwardians see in all that starch."
Chapter 4 - Kelly the Smoking Cat
Then, as if in counterpoint to the rather stiff, but rather grand, ambiance of the first class smoking lounge, something furry casually walked-on to my lap.
"Kelly, don't you go bothering the passengers. This is first class, not steerage, you know!" It sounded awfully like the voice of our steward, but how did he get from our cabin to the smoking lounge that quickly? And how did he grow a mustache that quickly. Otis gave him a puzzled look. I might have too, but I was occupied in an elegantly synchronized petting ritual with a small cat. Organized and directed by the cat.
"Kelly?" I said to the two-legged determined-looking disciplinarian who was rapidly approaching the quite relaxed Kelly.
"She's a rascal, that one. I'm so sorry sir."
"Not at all," said Otis, "Evan is no doubt honored that Kelly chose him over somebody from steerage. And he doesn't seem to be in too much pain." This said as Kelly started to give me a gentle bite on the finger she had been licking. I drew my hand away quickly. The cat looked at her uniformed pursuer then resumed licking.
"That's the way to do it sir, don't let 'em start biting but let 'em keep their dignity in the process. Good job, sir."
"Name's Evan," I said, "Evan Ferg."
"Then would the other gentleman be Mr Otis Ferg?"
"Correct, sir. Do you know all the passengers by name?" Otis said, with as look that said, I'm prepared to be impressed.
"No sir, as of right now, the only first class passengers I know the names of are the ones my brother James has been reciting ever since he got his copy of the manifest for his rooms."
"His rooms?" Otis said.
"Young James is determined to make Purser someday. That requires attention to detail, as our village priest, Father..."
"...the late Father Toomey?" I said.
"...Why yes sir!" (he crossed himself and, after a harumph from Otis, I did too,) "Has James been talking your ear off already?"
"Nothing like that," said Otis, "In context, your brother's conversation was quite appropriate to the occasion."
"I'm glad to hear that sir. But I might suggest that you treat his further efforts at story-telling in much the same way as Mr Evan Ferg treated Kelly's initial attempt at nipping him with her teeth."
"No need to go reminding her of that," I said as Otis reached over and started to rub one of the paws of the audibly purring cat, "We're all the are best of pals already."
"Uh, Mr Otis Ferg, I should warn you..." Too late. Kelly let Otis know of her disdain at having a set of human nails so near her own painstakingly sharpened claws by giving him a quick demonstration of her superior armament.
"She can be quite the hellion when she doesn't get her smoke, sir."
"The cat smokes?" said Otis.
"Oh not cigars like you gentlemen are smoking. No sir, she likes to have her hashish, does our Kelly."
"Tell me, uh..."
"Jerry, not Gerald? And your brother is James, not Jimmy, right?" Otis said as Jerry nodded appreciatively. My friend continued, "So Jerry, where might Evan or I find the fumes capable of mollifying our good friend Kelly?"
"That'd depend sir. When we were in port, Kelly liked to sit next to some upholsterers from the Ottoman Empire when they'd finished their work for the day. Wouldn't touch the mint tea, but she was awfully attracted by that hookah."
"Ah, so we'd need a hookah, then?" said Otis.
"No sir. Kelly doesn't concern herself with the method. But that's the problem, see. When she's around that kind of smoke, she doesn't concern herself with other things either. Things like balance."
I stroked Kelly's nose and said, "That could be a real problem for a ship's cat while at sea."
Otis said, "We'd want to keep her indoors for several hours after, then. Do you think your brother would object if Kelly visited our cabin?"
"I think James would go along with that, sir. As long as you made sure there was a litter box and a bowl of water in the room."
"And food too," I said.
Jerry laughed and said, "Kelly does quite well for herself in that department already sir. Has half the crew convinced she's starving. As if!"
"We'll be sure to help her watch her waistline, then," said Otis. "Only low calorie lobster and caviar for the queen."
"Good luck finding anything low calorie on this menu," I said, pointing to the cream-colored sheet of heavy paper sitting on the mahogany table next to me. This must have been a cue for Kelly, because she moved from my lap onto the table, making sure to block the fattening printing from our view. Did I mention that I like cats?
Chapter 5 - The Calm Before
Jerry finally convinced Kelly the cat to walk from the table, across three-quarters of a lap, then a sharp turn down a thigh to perch, momentarily, on a knee (all the aforementioned body parts being my own) then to jump, most ladylike, to the floor. "Nice to have met you, Kelly," I said as she negotiated closer and closer to Jerry, postponing the inevitible scooping-up that she knew was coming.
Once scooped-up, Kelly wriggled a bit before sighing with her body language and casting me a look that was either reproachful or flirtatious. (Hard to tell with a cat.) "He'll see you later Kelly, if that's alright with you Jerry?" said Otis, and Jerry; busy thwarting Kelly's escape attempts, nodded yes. Otis continued, "Can you or your brother arrange for Kelly, a litter box and some of that, what do you call it? "Hashish?" to be brought to our cabin after dinner?"
"Yes sir. 'Course that means the grand duchess here will be arriving in a cage. Which means she'll be arriving in a dudgeon of some sort. With your permission sirs, I'll be exiting the cabin and closing the before Kelly makes her leap of freedom. That way you get to be the heroes."
"I'll let Evan have that particular honor," said Otis, "I'll be making myself useful testing the hashish."
"So my face becomes a reminder to Kelly of the indignity of her hated cage, while your face, softened by a cloud of hashish smoke, becomes a beacon of freedom drawing Kelly inexorably to a lap other than mine. Otis you're too kind."
"It's not so much your face as reminder you need worry about sir," said Jerry, "As it is your face as target. I'll bring along a perfume sprayer."
"So you can smell nice for the doctor, Evan."
Jerry laughed, "Not perfume sir. Water. Her nibs here does not like being sprayed, but it's not as if you were hitting her. You'd never hit a cat would you sir? I mean, I don't like mixing hitting with cats."
Otis said, "Never on my part of course. Although Evan did once punch a man that he caught hitting a cat."
"And I would do it again Otis, he deserved to get hit."
"Perhaps, but next time try to win the fight in less than fifteen minutes. Please."
"If he hadn't been blocking my punches with the cat I would have whipped him a lot earlier. He couldn't have been more than 30 pounds heavier."
Jerry looked at me with what seemed to be newfound respect. I wasn't fishing for admiration with that story. To be honest, I had quite forgetten Jerry was there. But Jerry and his brother James would be executing quality control for the bulk of non-dining goods and services scheduled to cross our paths as we cross the Atlantic. Leaving a good impression probably wasn't needed but wouldn't hurt when it came to dealing with the serving classes. At least that's what I thought at the time. But then at the time we had not met Alphonse.
The first-seating chimes sounded in the distance. I turned and said, "Shall we be off for some of that, what do you call it Otis, "Dinner?"
"Very funny, Evan. I just didn't want Jerry to think that we're a couple of stoners."
"We're not?" For some reason that struck Otis as hilarious and since my newly-minted brother does have an infectious laugh, by the time we reached the first-class dining room, he and I were almost in tears. The stony looks we received as we sat down in front of our respective name placards were in sharp contrast to our ebullient mood. And the stoniest look of all came from an angular-faced man who stood by our table with a towel draped across one arm. My attempt to make a Linux penguin joke fell completely flat with all except Otis, who seemed to find it mildly amusing. Nobody else got it of course, least of all the man with the towel.
Chapter 6 - First Seating
A bit of explanation before you decide I'm a total dick. I mean, I've waited tables myself and I've never forgotten what that's like. And snaking somebody's table isn't what you do if you want to be popular among the other waitstaff. But consider: entering the first class dining room, although there had been the normal disguised chaos that underlies any successful service, this crew seemed to take things a lot more seriously than most. White gloved waiters were removing settings from a long table while a white gloved supervisor stood over them glowering. Perhaps because of this, there was some confusion as to who was waiting on our table, so we found our seats on our own. I suppose that was our first mistake. Otis contends that the acts of being young and in a jolly mood were enough to get Alphonse's disapproving attention. I would have added the acts of being good looking and out-of-reach, to Otis's bill of attainder. But Otis usually blushes and deflects at any positive mention of his looks, and, as for being out-of-reach, Otis has written several books on the subject. So no mention to Otis is better odds than trying to score points with him for cleverness.
Who knows, maybe when I'm sufficiently drunk and hostile...but that's one of the things I like about myself. On the very rare occasion that I do get drunk, I don't get hostile. Getting stoned, weeded, baked, whatever you like to call it, is a state I much prefer to being drunk. But I use cannabis to get work done, and smoking doesn't have the abandon-all-care feeling that going on a good old fashioned drunk does. At least not smoking the cortex-friendly strains that I enjoy. The sub-medicinal strains I like tend to have a "We're off to..." effect on me. It's the "...s" that can get you lost, especially a "..." that is too much fun at first. Those ideas often go to /dev/null before you get to jot them down. The theory is that if it's a good enough idea or a good enough line or a good enough chord or a good enough what have you, it will come to you again. My local muse doesn't work that way. My muse seems to turn up when it's a multi-day obsession on a multi-day bake.
Otis likes a good buzz too, but Otis's preferred high comes from numbers. Being able to read, write and think machine code directly isn't a widely sought after talent in the early 1900s. So when Alphonse asked Otis what it was that he was passionate about... But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"Miss Barbara sends apologies and says, "The Countess is dealing with shipboard issues requiring her immediate attention and has asked that I assist her. Therefore I insist that you do not wait for us to begin dinner. I shall trust that Alphonse will look out for our interests until we arrive. Signed, Barbara Merrydew." Alphonse cleared his throat and than said, in a voice that said any question mark was a mere formality, "You gentlemen will no doubt wish to wait?"
I started to say, "Not really," but Otis spoke first: "Food can wait, but please bring us some wine. And pack us a doggie bag of anything we miss."
"A "Doggie what" sir?"
Otis explained doggie bags to Alphonse who seemed, to me at least, to be handling his inner-horror of the concept rather well. So well did he suppress that inner-horror, though clearly it was there, that Otis seemed to feel comfortable loosening-up. "Alphonse, is it?" The tall man standing over us nodded in the affirmative, stiffly. Otis continued, "And the note from Miss Barbara, it is Miss, right?" Again, a stiff nod from Alphonse. Otis went on, "Anyhow, the note from Miss Barbara seemed to suggest that you knew them. Have they sailed with you before?"
"No sir," said Alphonse, "I had the privilege of helping Miss Barbara and the Countess with a matter when I was employed by Major Butt."
"Major Archie Butt?" I said, "Of Theodore Roosevelt's inner staff?"
"Major Archibald has no civilian rank amongst President Roosevelt's staff."
I said, "Yet many civilians defer to his judgement, so I've heard."
"One hears many things," said Alphonse, "Especially aboard a ship."
"What sort of things, Alphonse? Tell us," said Otis.
"Something about a curiously complementary letter and the two unknown gentlemen carrying it, I believe."
I said, "Who have, no doubt, only the best of intentions toward the addressee."
"One would hope," said Otis, "Nevertheless, good craft dictates that an individual feeling an older, more established, loyalty to the addressee should keep a watchful eye on the newcomers, and to not spit in their soup."
"Would a mother spit in any child's soup? Even a naughty child's," said Alphonse as he raised his chin, almost threatening to smile, and went to fetch us some claret.
When Alphonse had left, Otis leaned across the table and said confidentially, "I think Mother will be sailing with us this crossing."
I said, "Maybe more like Auntie. Auntie Alphonse."
"Who just happens to know Major Butt," Otis said. "We read all sorts of speculation about him in the traces of rainbows course in 8th grade."
"We called it, "Dorothy's secret friends,"" I said, "But the idea was probably the same. Thing is, we had a pretty strong cohort of gay kids, so woe be to any textbooks or teachers that tried rainbow-washing someone from the past just because that person met or did not meet certain political or cultural criteria."
"So was Major Butt, America's Lawrence of Arabia?" said Otis as Alphonse emerged, genie-like, at table side.
"Begging your pardons sirs, but I am not aware of any excursion into Arabia by Major Butt. As for friends from America named Lawrence, for I am certain that is what you must have meant, I believe the Major may have had a whist partner by that name," and at this, Alphonse's eyes darted furtively yet piercingly toward a long table with a sensuous-looking old man seated at its head, four women, two on each side, though there had been room for four more, and standing at the foot a calm, business-like eunuch doing calm eunuch-like things. Like keeping an eye on his boss's harem. And the room.
"And who holds the cards at that table, Alphonse?" Otis said gesturing toward the old man's table..
"I am certain I should not be privy to that sort of information sir, but if I were to gamble, my money would be on the seemingly testosterone-challenged man standing at the end of the table. At least while his looks last." I glanced at the table using a napkin to hide my face. The eunuch saw me and Otis,
"Guess he's making a eunuchy note to himself," I said, but Otis was paying attention to the exotic standee.
"I wander if he decided to keep...oh wait, this is pre WW I so it wouldn't have been his choice. Not back then."
"Which is now, dear Otis, and removing only the testicles means less urine splatter, so the smart households let their eunuchs keep their penises. Then. Which is now, I might remind you. So as tempting as it might be to you to host the be-turbaned hunk with the scimitar, you're still too too tempting a target for that lecherous old shiek."
"Evan, I think you're jealous."
"We're brothers Otis, that would be incest. But if I were to be jealous I would be jealous of the whole package. So you make sure and keep yours."
"Package and holes safe and protected by three layers of security protocol. But I'm not the one the Rocky Picture Show lookalike there has eyes for." There were three of us in earshot: Otis, me, and Alphonse. I could tell he wasn't referring to Alphonse.
"Why not," I said, "And if the Major's former helper, Alphonse, here would like to bring the doggie bags to our cabin at a time when our muscular friend will be visiting, we would have no objection to his reporting what he hears to Major Butt,"
Alphonse said, "And what is the sweet little puppy's name?"
"We're having Kelly and she's a cat. No dogs allowed!" I said.
"And a hookah. I think," said Otis, "From some Ottoman Empire upholsterers."
"Is that so, sir?" Alphonse said as he raised his shoulders and walked away seeming almost jaunty.