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Taking the Titanic
With Scott Slaven
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Tuesday, April 9, 1912, 11:00 PM
The only thing that could save me was a losing hand.
Holding my breath, I slowly lifted my cards: full house.
I was a dead man.
I glanced around the table at my fellow players, then around the dark bar. There were only ten or so other patrons in the squalid place, and it smelled of beer, sweat, and urine—unfortunately, in reverse order.
All eyes were on me. I’d never had this kind of winning streak before—I couldn’t lose to save my life, quite literally. These toughs had obviously thought a swell coming into a dingy saloon like this one was an easy mark. But instead, I’d taken everything they had. And I doubted they would let me get away with it.
As I hesitated, the player next to me—Lennie, a mean, short little man—saw me look over at the pretty red-haired whore seated at the bar.
“Keep your mind on the cards, mate!” Lennie hissed. The other players grunted in agreement, but I noticed their eyes wandering, too. She was worth looking at: slim, full bosom, big blue eyes, and a sort of permanent half smile that said she knew exactly what a fellow was thinking.
There was nothing I could do but put down my cards.
You’d have thought I fired a revolver. At the sight of my hand, fists pounded the table and the men’s faces reddened with fury.
“Who’s this bloke think he is comin’ in here takin’ our money?” Lennie barked to the others.
But before any of the players could grab their weapon of choice, the woman loudly shoved her stool from the bar. It clattered to the floor with a bang, stopping all conversation.
“Hold up, gents,” she commanded. She slowly strode toward the table, hands on her hips with a haughty air. Lennie and the others were turned into schoolboys, struck dumb by her beauty and contempt. Without taking her eyes off the table, she reached down into the startled Lennie’s lap and lifted something—a playing card.
“What’s this then?” she asked, revealing a heavy Cockney accent. Lennie’s eyes bugged out and he visibly paled, shooting a look at his mates.
“It ain’t mine! I swear on me mother’s—”
Oskar, a weathered Swede who had bet and lost the most in the course of the game, slammed a fist into Lennie’s mouth. The other players leapt forward across the table, overturning it and knocking the woman to the floor. The small bar crowd erupted into delighted cheers—not in support of any one player but for the sport of a brawl. Beer mugs slammed against heads, bodies tumbled, and obscenities were howled.
I dodged a flying whiskey bottle only to see Oskar lunging toward me. But the prostitute threw her leg up, tripping him to fall face-first into a splintered wooden support beam. Knocked out, he fell with his face sliding down the column; by the time he reached the floor, his face was shredded.
I reached down and pulled the woman to her feet. Together, we ran for the exit and made it out just before a wine cask smashed into the door, shattering the front glass panel and sending wood splintering in every direction.
We paused in the middle of the rainy, gaslit street. I was new to Southampton and guessed that unless we were prepared to jump into the bay, our best escape was to head away from the docks. Indeed, my companion pulled me in that direction, and, at her mercy, I followed.
She led me down a maze of treeless, grimy streets at a run until at last we came to a two-story warehouse. As we folded into the darkened doorway, I looked around apprehensively. Though the streets seemed deserted, I had a strange certainty that we had been followed. A sudden scream—a woman’s—pierced the night.
“Nice hiding place you’ve chosen,” I muttered.
“Nice playmates you chose, luv,” she said, and gave me an appraising glance up and down.
“True, I overestimated their commitment to good sportsmanship,” I said. “Thankfully, Lady Luck was on my side.”
She snorted a laugh. “That I was, dearie.”
She reached into her cloak and pulled something out. “And it’s bloody lucky I have sharp eyesight. You flashed the card I was meant to find so fast I couldn’t tell if it was an ace of hearts or diamonds.”
She flipped the card she was holding over—a diamond. I grinned.
“Actually, it was supposed to be a heart, but it obviously didn’t matter. The gentlemen saw red and that was enough,” I observed. “Well, it was a good plan, but I’m afraid all we ended up with is our necks intact and our pockets empty.”
She gave me another lingering look and seemed to be making her mind up about something. Finally, she reached into her cloak again and pulled out—to my astonishment—a fistful of cash.
“You got my winnings?” I gasped, as I reached for the bills.
She pulled the pistol out of her cloak so quickly it seemed to have materialized by sorcery.
“Our winnings, luv,” she warned, nudging the end of the gun into my chest. I held my hands up sheepishly and she put it away to begin counting out the bills.
“How fortunate that we met today,” I said, accepting my share. “But I’m still curious as to why you approached me.”
“And I’m still curious what a bloke of your class is doin’ down here.”
I shrugged, trying to look innocent. “Hoping to meet a charming lass such as yourself.”
“Ha. I don’t usually work wiv partners, but you aren’t half bad,” she said. “In fact, I’ve got somethin’ a bit grander on me mind. Care to hear…?”
She turned away to look down the waterfront. Far down the seemingly never-ending docks, a massive dark shape was barely outlined in the dim night sky—but it shone with rows of glittering lights. It took a moment for me to recognize the stacked decks of an impossibly magnificent ocean liner, the one all of Southampton was buzzing about: the RMS Titanic.
Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 10:30 AM
“Is this your first time sailing, miss?”
“‘Mrs.’ Yes, my husband and I are on our honeymoon,” I replied to the little vicar at my side, as I scanned the huge crowd milling about the boarding area. “At least I think we are—he went to check on our tickets ages ago. Perhaps I’ve been jilted!”
I laughed lightly, but I began to wonder if, after eagerly agreeing to the plan the previous night, my new partner had decided against it after all. He had seemed awfully jumpy this morning when he picked me up, but then again, I knew very little about him. Somehow the thought gave me an involuntary shiver—though it might also have been due to the brisk afternoon. I pulled my cream silk jacket closer. With the line in front of me, I was doomed to at least another fifteen minutes of the vicar’s chattering.
“You couldn’t have picked a finer ship!” he droned. “Not only the largest and most luxurious, but also the safest.”
I glanced up. The four blood-red smoke funnels towered up above us as high as Big Ben. From the stern to bow the ship seemed to go on forever—endless windows that finally came to the bow where simple block letters in gold were emblazoned: TITANIC.
“Yes, the Titanic is a beauty—not unlike you, my dear!” the vicar smiled as he moved in closer. “It might be unseemly for a man of the cloth to say this, but I’ve never seen such extraordinary blond hair. As if made of cotton candy!”
I smiled politely; I’d been hearing the same line since I was thirteen.
“Sorry, darling, you wouldn’t believe the crowds.”
I turned to the tall man with the bushy black hair and a dashing moustache; in fact, all the nearby women turned toward him. Nigel cut quite a figure in his pin-striped suit and brightly colored bow tie.
“I was afraid you’d changed your mind,” I said tartly, though inside I was almost faint with relief. I turned to the vicar. “This is my husband, Nigel Bowen.”
“Delighted, sir!” the vicar exclaimed. Nigel nodded and flashed the grin that I had already seen charm shopgirls and cabbies alike. He then turned to me.
“I’m sorry, Celia, but first class is completely booked. We’ll have to stay in second class, after all.”
“Oh Nigel! You promised!” I said with a little stamp of my foot.
Nigel shrugged apologetically and took my gloved hand and kissed it.
The line surged closer to the front, and suddenly we heard a newspaper boy shouting from the edges of the crowd: “Southampton Streetwalker Strangled! Vicious Killer on the Loose! Read all about it now!”
I couldn’t help myself and gasped out loud.
“Oh, how awful!” the vicar said with concern. “He really shouldn’t be shouting such shocking matters in front of ladies.”
I looked over at Nigel, who was fumbling with our tickets and suddenly dropped them. When he picked it up I saw that his hands were shaking.
“Why can’t they move this line along?” he sighed with annoyance.
Just then a large man with epaulets on his shoulders and official-looking badges on his jacket approached us.
“Mr. Bowen? Mr. Nigel Bowen?” he inquired.
Nigel glanced at me in a funny kind of way before answering.
“Yes? Yes, what do you want?”
“I’ve good news, sir. A young woman in First Class has…well, ahem,” he stumbled as glanced nervously at me. “Her, um, time has come earlier than expected so her husband has taken her to the mothers’ ward. Their cabin is available should you still like to change to First Class accommodations.”
“Oh, how splendid for you!” the vicar all but shouted. “Though I am sorry to lose such delightful companions!”
We nodded to the little man, and Nigel led me along after the ticketing official.
“Is this ship still leaving on time?” Nigel asked him, impatiently. “I don’t see how you’ll get all these people on board in the next hour.”
I glanced over at him. “I wouldn’t have guessed you were such a nervous traveler, dear.”
“Oh, we’ll be on time,” the official said. “The White Star line prides itself on punctuality.”
The first class boarding area wasn’t as crowded as second but there seemed to be just as much excitement in the air. As I was telling a porter that our baggage needed to be moved to our new room, I overheard the official say to Nigel, “We’ll have to hurry but we just have time to change the names on the passenger list. Your wife’s na—”
“Oh, don’t bother with all that,” Nigel said, with irritation. Then he quickly changed his tone to a “we’re old pals” manner. “We don’t mind travelling under an alias—it’s rather romantic!”
The official looked curiously at Nigel. “I’m sorry sir, that’s not protocol. The White Star line prides itself on our accuracy—”
“And what a wonderful job you do!” Nigel exclaimed as he pulled his billfold out. “We so much appreciate how you’ve accommodated us with our new digs. Above and beyond the call of duty and all that!”
Nigel patted him on the back with one hand and, with the other, took the man’s hand to shake it—and to slip him a hundred-dollar bill. The official looked down at his hand and paused. Then he smiled up at Nigel and said, “Well…I do hope you enjoy your crossing, Mr.—er, Bjornstrom. Happy sailing!”
He lifted his cap to me and trotted off.
Nigel took my arm. “Let’s hurry, my love. We don’t want to have to tell our grandchildren we missed the Titanic’s maiden voyage…”
Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 7:30 PM
All eyes were on Celia when we entered into the First Class Dining Saloon on D Deck. As it was the first night out, everyone was still in traveling clothes, yet Celia still managed to look like she’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. Her maroon plumed hat put the finishing touch on a simple outfit consisting of a short vest over a blouse with a full wool skirt. I felt a tinge of pride that she was on my arm and causing such a stir.
We paused to take in the lavish features of the white-paneled dining room: intricately molded plaster on the ceilings, a tile design on the floor that was arranged to resemble a Persian rug, leather club chairs, and small lanterns on every table. Our cabin steward had told us that the dining saloon held five hundred people, yet it looked like easily twice that number was here this night.
A stiff maître d’ approached us with a clipboard containing the seating list.
“Mr. and Mrs.—er, Bjornstrom?” he asked, tripping over the pronunciation.
“Eh, close enough,” I said as he led us to a table—the largest one in the room. I very much wanted a drink, as I had all afternoon, since being flooded with relief when we finally pulled out of the dock. At the table, one of the top ranking officers was seated at the head, indicating this was an elite group. Attention from the ship’s crew was not something I would have opted for, but changing tables would have only made matters worse. We were seated and various introductions made. An obviously wealthy woman in her late fifties—a Mrs. Beryl Sedgwick—with small spectacles perched on her long nose, openly stared at Celia.
After a moment the woman said in a haughty manner, “I feel certain we’ve met before. But it must have been before your marriage as I am not familiar with the name Bjornstrom.”
Celia smiled with ease. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your acquaintance, Mrs. Sedgwick, whether under my family name, my husband’s name…or Mr. Bjornstrom’s.”
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 160 pages