Chapter 12 – Visit of the Mystery Man – May 1944
Since the meeting with the dockmaster, Ray had calmed down from the accident, although he still wanted to confront the captain of the vessel that forced him onto the wing dam. Consequently, both Ray and Tony covered their heads with a jacket, left their boat and followed the sound of the music that was coming from the paddle steamer. There was a gangplank leading from the dock to the bridge where someone was pottering about inside. They walked up the gangplank and tapped on the door. A look of surprise came on the elderly face of the man on the bridge, but he didn’t hesitate to open the door to let the two men inside and provide shelter from the storm.
“Who are you, may I ask?” The man said with a hint of a French accent as Ray tried to evaluate him. He had a kindly looking face, but like everyone else who seemed to have worked on the river for any length of time, it was weather-beaten. The King Edward style beard gave him a look of authority which was accentuated by the navy-blue captain’s hat that matched his smart uniform. He was a short man, stocky but he appeared well-built, and Ray was having difficulty putting an age to the man.
“We are the crew of the cabin-cruiser you forced onto a wing dam when you turned into this marina,” Ray replied with enough seriousness to sound indignant.
“What’s that you say?” The man said, “I saw no boat when I turned in here.”
“Obviously,” Tony added with a hint of sarcasm, which was met with an officious stare from the man.
“Young man, I was working on these rivers before you were born, in fact probably before your father was born and I have never had an accident,” the man replied indignantly but Tony wasn’t done.
“No, how could you,” Tony said, “you don’t see the other vessels that’s had to take collision avoidance moves to keep out of your way.”
“Alright, we’ve obviously got off to a bad start here,” Ray intervened. “but our boat is damaged. We were turning into the marina when you came out of nowhere and we were forced to turn sharply to avoid a collision. But then a wave hit us, lifted us right up and dropped us onto a wing dam.”
“Oh my, look I am so sorry, my company will pay for your repairs, don’t worry,” the man said, genuinely concerned.
“Oh, we’re not worried, in fact, we are waiting for someone to come and take a look at the damage right now.” Ray explained.
“In this weather?” The man asked.
“Our man is not going to be put off by the weather,” Tony said, “he’ll be here.”
“Well, I doubt he will be arriving by boat. This storm is not supposed to die down until the early hours of the morning, even then, the water may not be safe enough to head out.” The man explained then added, “oh how rude of me, let me introduce myself, my name is Jean Deschamps. I am the captain of this vessel, I have three crew plus eight entertainment and catering staff on board. We are carrying twenty passengers who are being entertained by a band for a fun night on the river.”
“Hi, my name is Ray, and this is Tony. We are on the last leg of a trip to St. Louis but I’m afraid this could be our last stop.” Ray said.
“My friend, I am so sorry about what has happened but really, I didn’t see you.” Jean said. The man was honest about not seeing another vessel when he turned into the marina, but it was probably more of a case of not expecting to see anyone else in these conditions.
“Is that a French accent you have,” Ray asked.
“Oui monsieur.” Jean replied in his native tongue before continuing in English, “I am originally from Quebec and have spent almost fifty years working the lakes and rivers. I have owned, lost, rented and worked on boats of all sizes and types, beginning with the small steamers working the St. Lawrence River near my home in Montreal. Then I gradually worked my way down to New Orleans and finally settled in St. Louis. A few years ago, I bought this baby and now I am quite content to run local excursions on the river.”
“But surely you knew the storm would be too bad for a trip to-night?” Tony asked, doubting the captain’s competency.
“Ah, my clientele does not mind if we are at dock, let’s just say that they partake in various activities that they wouldn’t be able to do on land or at least, a little cheaper. Did you know the government has introduced a tax on dancing?” Ray and Tony looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. “Of course, that’s just one of the activities that goes on during our cruises. My customers pay me very well to rent my boat and for my discretion.” Jean said conspiratively, with a little wink. “So, knowing we wouldn’t be able to travel very far this evening, I made arrangements to stay at this marina, if we are forced to stay here until the early hours of the morning, then so be it. I don’t think I will hear a complaint from my guests unless of course, we run out of drinks.” Jean smiled, mischievously. Suddenly, Jean’s eyes lit up “look, why don’t you join the guests on board. There’s music, drinks and plenty of food and I might add, there are also a couple of beautiful, unaccompanied women who would be glad to make the acquaintance of two handsome, young, men like yourselves.” Jean added lecherously.
“No, really, I don’t think….” Ray began to say, despite Tony eagerly looking through the window at the dancing that was taking place in the adjacent ballroom, he was just champing at the bit to have a little fun.
“Nonsense,” Jean interrupted him, “we’re going to be here all night because of this storm and in some small way it may compensate you a little for your inconvenience. Come!”
Without given them an opportunity to refuse Jean had opened a door to a room where a jazz quartet was blaring out some fast-paced music. Ray and Tony entered the room where they were immediately offered a drink of champagne and a choice of hor d’oeuvres from a silver platter. No sooner had they taken a sip of their drink, the first taste of alcohol since their trip began, they were approached by a couple of women. Most of the men were in a corner of the room playing what looked like roulette and if those chips were real, there was some heavy betting going down.
One of the women appeared to take a shine to Ray, she gracefully approached him and offered her hand that was covered in a black lace glove.
“Lady Ashdene, how do you do?” The lady said with a distinct English accent. All these people from so many different places, Ray thought, it was like a meeting of the League of Nations. Ray shook her hand and felt the softness of her fingers under the delicate lace, realizing he had not touched a woman since he had left home almost six months ago.
“Hi, I’m Ray, like a ray of sunshine.” Ray almost stuttered out the words, intoxicated by her stunning, beauty, her perfume and the way she presented herself. Lady Ashdene must have been in her early thirties and she was wearing a beautiful black pleated dress that exuded elegance. Her dark auburn hair was cut short, just reaching down to her shoulders over the collar of the white tight jacket she was wearing that accentuated her slim figure. To top off the ensemble she was wearing what Ray could only describe as a gaudy necklace that appeared to be gold studded with small diamonds and rubies, with matching bracelet and earrings. Between the forefingers of her left-hand, she was delicately holding a diamond-encrusted cigarette-holder containing a freshly lit cigarette.
“That’s a beautiful dress you a wearing Lady Ashdene,” Ray said, struggling to think of anything interesting to say.
“Why, thank you.” Lady Ashdene said, twirling to let the base of her dress brush lightly against Ray’s legs. “I was in Paris you know, spring to be exact, just before the start of the war and I went to visit my favorite French designer, Robert Piguet,” Lady Ashdene explained between short puffs of her cigarette, “the great man recommended a dress called ‘Café Anglais’ that was being designed by a young newcomer, Christian Dior, I think his name was. Well, of course, I just had to have it, me being English, I thought it was most appropriate, don’t you agree?”
“I must admit, it looks beautiful on you,” Ray replied. Just then, a loud cheer came up from the corner of the ballroom where the roulette game was being played. Both Ray and Lady Ashdene’s attention were automatically drawn to the excitement and they watched as a man was being congratulated by all the other men positioned around the roulette wheel. All the men were smartly dressed in evening dress of various styles.
“It looks like Sinclair has made a killing.” Lady Ashdene said, then after another quick puff on her cigarette she leaned into Ray and whispered in his ear, “once he’s had a few more drinks he’ll lose the lot.” Her lips brushed Ray’s ear, it was a brief, light touch but enough to send tingles through his body. She stepped back with the slightest of smiles on her face, she knew exactly what she was doing, Ray thought. She had still not let go of Ray’s hand from their initial meeting and now she began tugging at his arm as she led him to a door that looked as though it led down to a lower deck. Ray’s mind was in turmoil, as they walked past Tony who was dancing the jitterbug with another lady. Ray was a trustworthy, honest person and the thought of him being unfaithful to his wife was an abhorrence to him. Yet, this woman was leading him down a path to adultery and at such a stage in his marriage, he would have to live with this transgression for the rest of his life. Fortunately, his dilemma was solved when he saw a man walking past the back of the boat, heading towards his cabin-cruiser. It was the mystery man.