Monday, December 25, 2006

Mystery on a cruise ship


There’s nothing quite like an ocean cruise. The long haul flight may be a necessary evil when you’ve got pressing business in Bangkok, but it’s no way to start a vacation. We gorillas are creatures of the open air – we love to inhale sea breezes and stretch our limbs and swing from the railings and banter with dolphins. That’s why I’ve been a regular on a stupendous cruise ship that traverses the Indian Ocean, striking up a friendly acquaintance with George Fairweather, the vessel’s genial skipper.

On one these voyages, a few years back, the cabin phone rang when I was sitting in my private balcony, breakfasting on watermelon. It was Captain Fairweather, who urgently requested my presence in his quarters. When I got there, he was standing beside a curious-looking chap in a three-piece suit, who regarded me owlishly through tortoise-shell spectacles.

“Thanks for coming, GB,” said George. “I’d like you to meet Inspector Pierre Cocteau, an off-duty detective from Marseille.”

Monsieur Cocteau was a man of late middle-age with a neatly-trimmed beard. When I entered the cabin I heard him murmur “Ah, le gorille parlant!”, and he now addressed me directly. “Mr Bananas,” he said, “it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. You are spoken of much in the cafés of Vieux Port.” He extended his hand, which I grasped firmly and shook briefly.

“Inspector Cocteau has been helping us with a little problem that’s arisen, GB,” explained George. “Do you know Maria Geldenhuis?”

“The opera singer?” I inquired.

“The retired opera singer,” corrected the skipper. “Late last night she knocked on my door wearing nothing but a satin negligee. To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly.”

“Had she lost her way?” I asked. “It often happens when a passenger’s had too much to drink.”

“She may well have been drinking, GB, but she wasn’t lost. Some despicable forger put a note under her door inviting her to my quarters. She barged into my cabin and took off her gown before I could say a word. I had to throw a sheet around her! Here’s the note she got – read it yourself.”

I took the note from George and studied it impassively. Whoever had composed it knew his work well. The prose was terse but passionate, infused with the promise of wild carnal delights. After I had finished reading it, Monsieur Cocteau held out his hand to take possession of the document.

“If you will permit me to safeguard the evidence, Mr Bananas,” he said. “After making investigations this morning, I regret to have found other victims of such counterfeit invitations. Alas, my friends, we have a wicked phantom on the loose. But already I have my strong suspicions about the guilty person.”

“Who do you think it is?” asked George.

“The perpetrator of the crime is one who knows the first names of the passengers,” answered Cocteau. “He knows, also, the passengers who are travelling alone, with no companion to interfere with their freedoms. The man with this information is the purser of the ship. He keeps the list of guests and knows who inhabits each cabin.”

“Giovanni Pozzella!” exclaimed George. “But he’s been with us for years! What possible motive could he have, Inspector?”

“The satisfaction of the prank-maker is the humiliation of the victim,” declared the Frenchman. “He has joy in the lady’s blush; he has delight in the gentleman’s discomfort. A man who is respectable for many years may suddenly snap – zat! – like the elastic. I regret to have seen many such cases in Provence.”

“What shall we do?” asked George. “Even if it is Giovanni, we can’t just accuse him without evidence.”

“With your permission, Captain, I will observe his movements. Of course, I will do this with slyness, using my training as a detective, so he is unaware I am observing him. When he attempts to place a letter in the cabin of his next victim, I will catch him with the red hand.”

“Hum-di-dum,” mused George. “What do you think, GB?”

I scratched my neck and reflected. “Wouldn’t it be simpler just to warn everyone that a practical joker is distributing bogus love letters?” I ventured.

Monsieur Cocteau shook his head and clicked his tongue. “I cannot approve of such an action, Captain George. Can you admit to have no power to stop such tricks on your ship? It is a big damage to the authority of the Captain and to the Law of the Sea.”

Captain Fairweather stroked his chin. “I’d rather not make any announcements at this stage, GB. Let’s give the Inspector a chance to investigate first.”

I shrugged philosophically. “You could be right, Captain. Monsieur Cocteau, would you give me the names of the passengers who’ve received one of these notes? I’d like to do a bit of investigating myself.”

After Cocteau had given me the names on a piece of paper, I returned to my cabin and considered the facts logically. It didn’t take me long to deduce that the Frenchman’s hunch about Giovanni Pozzella was an idée fixe of the weakest calibre. A purser of ten year’s service would not risk his career to play juvenile games. Furthermore, mere possession of the passenger list would not have yielded him the required intelligence. The hoaxer must have observed that each pair of victims were on terms of sufficient cordiality to make the sentiments expressed in the note remotely plausible. And while the ship’s purser might have guessed of the amorous longings that heaved within the ample bosom of Miss Geldenhuis, he could not have possessed similar insights for the other guests on Cocteau’s list.

In all probability, the victims had socialised at some venue where their behaviour could be scrutinised by the trickster without raising suspicion. Not wishing to cause further embarrassment by questioning them, I made discrete enquiries among the catering staff. As luck would have it, one of them recognised the listed names as belonging to a bridge-playing group of twenty that met three nights a week. He had served them a finger buffet in the salon room they had booked for their tournament. The prankster was surely a member of that party and I racked my brains for a quick method of identifying the rogue. And then it dawned on me that it could only be one person.

Among the 500-or-so passengers was a 15-year-old boy by the name of Lionel Landberg. A mathematics prodigy of some note, he had recently won a scholarship to Oxford University, and his rather strict father had been persuaded to reward him for this achievement by taking him on a cruise. Lionel was unusual for a boy of his age in preferring the company of children younger than himself. Thus, he went about his business on ship followed by a platoon of diminutive flunkies, eager to absorb his precocious wisdom and chuckle at his sparkling wit. At the end of our first week at sea, Master Landberg had sought me out on the main deck, accompanied, as always, by his fresh-faced entourage.

“Good Day, Mr Bananas!” he said brightly. Could you tell me whether gorillas eat bananas when they’re having sex?”

His followers tittered in nervous excitement as they waited for my response. I smiled indulgently before making the following reply: “They might well do, laddie, but only if they were hungry. Perhaps you could answer a question that’s been puzzling me. Is it true that a human boy will lie on his arm before he masturbates so that his hand will feel like someone else’s?”

Poor Lionel blushed furiously, which did nothing to prettify his facial acne. “How should I know?” he snapped, before storming off angrily, pausing only to kick one of his disciples who had foolishly tried to follow him.

What led me to believe that Lionel was the note-writer was my recollection that he had captained his school bridge team. His participation in the on-board tournament seemed a virtual certainty, and I quickly confirmed as much with the catering staff. This left me in no doubt that he was the culprit. Reasoning that he would surely wish to share the details of his ingenious deception with his young fans, I made a series of unannounced visits to areas of the ship where the children tended to congregate. I eventually found Lionel in the video arcade, reading something aloud amid a cabal of his giggling admirers. They dispersed as quickly as motes of dust in the wind when they saw me approach, but I snatched the note from Lionel’s hand before he could trouser it.

“What ever are you reading, Lionel?” I asked.

His only response was a worried frown as I brought the letter to eye level.

“Let me see if I can make out what you’ve written……

Dear Archie: I want you as I have never wanted any man before. You must have noticed the way I was looking at you last evening. How I long to feel your strong hands around my waist. The thought of your body pressing against mine makes me moan with ecstasy. Yes, Archie, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve……

……I’d better stop there, I think. What a passionate young fellow you are, Lionel! Lucky old Archie is what I say. Who is he? Your best friend? Your scoutmaster? Your cat?”

“The letter’s not from me,” said Lionel sullenly. “Why don’t you read the signature at the end?”

“Good heavens, you’re right!” I replied. “But you’re definitely the bard who penned the words, aren’t you? – even as Shakespeare wrote the lines for Romeo and Juliet. I know genius when I see it. I wonder what Captain Fairweather will make of this.”

“Don’t tell him, Mr Bananas!” pleaded Lionel in a tone of piteous desperation. “My father would kill me if he heard about this. And the newspapers might find out as well. It’s horrible being famous. I’ll do anything if you’ll keep this quiet.”

We gorillas are merciful creatures and usually look favourably upon appeals for clemency. “All right, Lionel, I’ll hush this up for your sake, but there are two conditions. The first is that you must deposit one more spoof letter, the details of which I shall reveal presently. The second is that you must abandon all thoughts of further hoaxes. Think of this final letter as the last drag of a smoker who is quitting for good.”

************************************************************************
Next day, shortly before lunchtime, I received a message from the Captain to meet him on the bridge. When I got there, I found him in earnest conversation with Giovanni Pozzella.

“GB, you’ll never guess what’s happened!” exclaimed George. “Our anonymous fiend has now sent Giovanni an indecent note signed ‘Pierre Cocteau’. I’ve been trying to convince him that it’s a forgery and not from the Inspector.”

“But eez been followin’ me all over da place, Captain!” protested the purser. “Ee thinks I don’ see him, but I can tell.”

“That’s because he’s a detective, Giovanni,” explained George. “He can’t help following people. It’s part of his nature, like a…um…”

“Like a bloodhound?” I suggested

“Yes, exactly!” exclaimed the skipper. “Like a bloodhound.”

Right on cue, the human bloodhound arrived at the bridge.

“Ah, Inspector, I’m glad you’re here,” said George. “Mr Pozzella has received an obscene note signed in your name. It puts a whole new complexion on the case, don’t you think?”

Giovanni ground his teeth and scowled at Cocteau, but the detective remained unruffled. He took the note from George and read it without raising an eyebrow. He then folded it and handed it back to the skipper. “This piece of paper proves nothing,” announced Cocteau calmly. “Mr Pozzella tries to make an alibi by writing a letter to himself. It is a simple trick.”

“You French faggot!” exclaimed Giovanni in shocked outrage. “You want me to break your teeth?”

Cocteau regarded the ship’s purser with cool contempt. “You Italian men think you are so macho!” he sneered. “You cannot fool me. I have been to Milano. You are just as perverted as the rest of humanity!”

It was evidently time for the Captain to exert his authority. “Calm down at once, Giovanni!” he barked. “You can’t strike a paying guest on a cruise ship. Think of your career, man!” He then spoke to Cocteau. “I am absolutely certain, Inspector, that the Mr Pozzella did not write this note or any of the others. Please strike him off your list of suspects.”

“What list of suspects?” retorted Cocteau. “I have no other suspects. Who else could be the perpetrator?”

I couldn’t help sniggering at Cocteau’s dogged inflexibility, which caused the humans to look at me in surprise. “This is no matter for amusement, Mr Bananas,” said Cocteau sternly. “If you have information on this case it is your duty to expose it to me.”

“I’ve got information all right!” I said chuckling. “The author of the notes confessed to me a short while ago. And it wasn’t Giovanni!”

“Don’t leave us in suspense, GB!” exclaimed George. “Who is the blighter?”

“I gave the culprit my word that I would not reveal his identity. He, in return, promised not to misbehave in future. Naming him might lead to unwelcome publicity, Captain. You might become a laughing stock.”

George rubbed his cheeks and sighed deeply. “Well, GB, I respect your judgment and wouldn’t ask you to break your word. I suppose we can let the matter rest if there are no more fake notes.”

Cocteau, however, was far from satisfied by this denouement. “But this cannot close the case, Captain George!” he spluttered indignantly. “Where is the evidence for the statement of Mr Bananas? Even if we believe him, he had no authority to give a pardon. And how do we know that Mr Bananas himself is not the guilty one?”

George stared at Cocteau in exasperation. “First you accuse the ship’s purser and now you accuse my friend Mr Bananas!” he grumbled. “You’ll be accusing me next, Monsieur!”

“Now you say this, Captain, I have questions about your story with the opera-singing lady. You say you rejected her advances, but I have observed this lady and she does not behave like the scorned woman. If you and she are lovers, perhaps the other notes are a clever distraction to hide your affair.”

Captain Fairweather smiled benignly and walked over to the Frenchman, grasping his arm. “Inspector Cocteau,” he said warmly, “I’m enormously grateful for your work on this case. It’s been a true education to see a real detective in action. Our own Scotland Yard could learn a lot from your methods. Perhaps you should pay them a visit after the cruise. In the meantime, you’re here to relax and enjoy the facilities. Have you tried the coq au vin in the upper level restaurant?”

He then chivvied the bemused sleuth to the exit and sent him on his way.



Comments:
You've made me glad I checked your blog, GB. Mockery of the French is just what I needed after a heavy Christmas lunch. It's enough to get you that British passport you wanted.
 
That's what you get for relying on a French detective. A Belgian, now - that'd be quite another matter. They put more thought into things, you see, if only for fear of being sent back to Belgium if they screw up.
 
His nationality was an incidental detail. I've got nothing against the French. Anyway, Merry Christmas to both of you. I'm shortly off for a ramble in the wilderness and will report back on New Year's Day.
 
Beautifully written piece that!
Sure put a smile on my dial. :)
 
It would be interesting to know if any couplings actually occurred as a result of the pranks. Whole new oceans could well have been opened up for some surprised guests. Lurve is a funny old game and the likelihood of any one couple making a match at any one time is difficult to predict. Often an ample bosom will be all it takes.
 
Delightful, GB. I can't wait for the TV mini-series.
 
quite peachy my dear GB ~ an enjoyable read for sure ~ Have you ever noticed that a fine coq au vin can put to rest many a fearful issue? :-D
 
There's more to this story than Mr Gorilla Bananas is lettin' on.
'Landberg' whoever heard of such a name?

Merry Christmas Ms Redhead, nice chest I mean nice box I mean nice drawers I mean nice cabinet, you knew what I meant.

And a Merry Christmas to you Lady Daphne, (if they celebrate the English festivals on the Continong.)
 
Sam, you sound as if you have a sneaking admiration for Master Landberg. His name, Dr, has a fine pedigree. I've just noticed it's a fusion of 'Land Ahoy!' and 'Iceberg!'.

Thanks for reading it, Zuba, Daffers and Ms Red. Glad you enjoyed it.
 
Doc Maroon, Christmas isn't just an ENGLISH festival, silly! Over here they celebrate Noel, Kerstmis, Natale, Navidad, Bozego Narodzenia, Weihnachten and no doubt a few more versions I'm not familiar with. I had a very jolly one thank you very much and am about to have a very jolly nouvel an, nuove anno, ano nueve, neues jahr, nowego roku and new year, on which note I bid you and the venerable Bananas all the very best, and see you next year. Toodleoo boys! (and gels)
 
GB: you know there is a blackguard who has been passing himself off as Snoopythegoon and causing trouble and upset all around. Gould you not use your little grey cells (I expect they are quite big really) and discover who the wretch really is?
 
This is one of those conflicted moments where you can't decide what to do.

First idea, carry on in the same vein and ape this fella's writing.

Second idea. Don't.

Well done, there, whoever the fuck you are beneath that gorilla suit. I know how much it takes to do a thing like that, so well done. It takes a lot of work, and you did it dead right. Not a word out of place, which is very hard in a thing like that.

Yeah. Well done.
 
Have a drink.
chers
 
Pi, if he posts from Israel and only comments if he can bring up some Jewish point, I know exactly who he is. If not, I don't. It's up to the blog owner to deal with him as he sees fit. Happy New Year to you, Face and Bock the Robber. Glad you liked it, Mr Robber.
 
That sounds like him.
 
Great post. I was going to write something similar. Will check this blog more often I think.
 
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