Authors: Anthony Bidulka
As Errall and I searched for two seats together, I noticed the absence of Charity, Flora and Dottie. And that wasn't easy to do. With all of us still bound up in our identical puffy orange life jackets, we were a room full of trick-or-treaters wearing the same Hallowe'en costume. For the next fifteen minutes, we looked and listened and learned as various members of the crew were introduced and then proceeded to give us the lowdown on their particular area of expertise. There was Thera, the glamorous casino manager, Cynthia who ran the boutique where guests could purchase any of the items they found in their cabins, and Danny and Danae, the "gentleman" and "lady" on-board hosts whose responsibilities seemed to revolve around "entertaining" single travellers. The most important part of our presentation, we were told, was a full demonstration of the various hoots and toots and alarms, unique to The Dorothy, used to inform passengers of various events. These ranged from the common to the unlikely, from approaching port of call to setting sail to man overboard.
Although feeling a bit frazzled from the day's flurry of activity, our second wind now little more than a weak puff of air, we deposited our life jackets in our cabin and proceeded to the Pool Deck for the Departure Party. By the time we arrived, the area around the pool, gussied up with streamers and patio lanterns, was crawling with serving staff and ebullient guests.
"I guess this wasn't a personal invitation," Errall correctly surmised as she skillfully led us directly to a buffet table laden with a multitude of hot and cold tapas.
"Sure it was," I reasoned, "Just Judy and four hundred of her closest friends.. .this week."
We accepted champagne from a passing waiter and heaped a selection of food onto one plate for sharing.
"I don't think everybody here was at the life jacket drill," I wryly observed, comparing my scraggly shorts and T-shirt to the well-pressed, fresh-looking attire of many of the assembled. "Can you believe it?
While we were learning survival skills and how to book a bikini wax, they were taking showers and getting ready for this party!" I was mock-shocked. "We look like Tom Hanks in
and they look like Tom Hanks at the premiere."
Errall finished chewing on a cracker topped with gherkin slices and peach-coloured mousse. "But just think, Russell, in case of emergency, you'll be first in line for a good seat on a lifeboat while they'll still be busy shaping their eyebrows and loosening herbal wraps."
I chortled. "And speaking of people who didn't attend the drill, I still don't see my client anywhere. Do you?"
Errall groaned. "Oh why would you want to?"
I gave her a surprised look. "What do you mean?"
"She's horrid, Russell. Charity Wiser is a horrid woman. The way she treated the staff at that restaurant on the Ramblas last night. And how she spoke to Flora and Dottie too. Not a very nice woman."
"Oh come on," I said.
agree she's a little...loud and maybe a bit irreverent, but I think it's just how she had to be to make it as a woman in a tough business in the nineteen-forties. And I think Dottie and Flora know that and make allowances."
"And everyone else should too?"
"I don't think she's that bad, Errall." I would have liked to have added that some of Charity's traits were not dissimilar to Errall's, but seeing as we were going to be roomies for the next week, I decided that it was best not to mention it.
"Good evening," said a petite woman in a neat sage-green suit as she pulled up next to us, a high-beam smile on her face. "I'm Judy Smythwicke, the Cruise Director and so glad you could join me this evening."
She spoke with a Julie Andrews-inspired English accent. She was in the no-woman's land between fifty and sixty, with a precisely coifed bottle-blond do, careful makeup and a manner that made me think she was either going to scold me for not finishing my scone or break into a West End London show tune. "I do hope you've found everything to your satisfaction thus far?"
"Oh yes," I assured her, fighting temptation to mimic her accent. It's one of my less charming habits.
"Everything is just scrumptious." Oh my God. Did I just say scrumptious? By the look on Errall's face I was certain I had.
"How wonderful. Well, we have a superb evening for departure. The captain tells me it's smooth sailing ahead." I got the feeling that nothing short of absolutely cheery good news would ever slip from between Judy's lips. In public. "And speaking of which..."
Errall and I turned to greet two men and a woman who had joined our group. Each was wearing a sharp navy suit with the sparkling red shoe FOD insignia on one lapel. Beneath their tunics, instead of a staid white shirt, they wore navy and white striped sweaters with red piping around the collar and sleeves-very sporty. I looked down at my own travel-weary outfit and knew that Anthony, my boutique-owning friend who'd slavishly selected my clothes for the trip, was no doubt feeling a cold shiver down his back, wherever he was.
By the look in her eye I could tell Judy had also noted our couture, but gamely went on regardless.
"Please meet Mauro Corsaro," she said with unbridled pride, "our Executive Concierge, who we are especially fortunate to have aboard The Dorothy. He is one of only a handful of shipboard concierges who are members of the esteemed International Golden Keys Association."
We shook hands with appreciative nods pretending to know what Judy was talking about and then turned our attention to the man beside him who was introduced as the Staff Captain. Next to the Staff Captain was Giovanna Bagnato, who we learned was the ship's captain since its maiden voyage. Captain Bagnato was a dark-eyed woman in her early forties with lustrous black hair gathered into a bun and covered by her smart captain's hat. My eyes narrowed to see her smile grow noticeably more dazzling as her hand reached out for Errall's. We made inane chatter for a second or two and then they moved off, Judy in the lead.
I eyed Errall and thought I could see a bit of a blush in her pale cheeks. "You know she's going to be too busy driving the boat to spend any time with you, right?"
She shot me a quick frown. "Don't be an idiot. Come on, let's get another drink and head up front to watch the departure."
Oh gosh. I'd forgotten this thing was about to start moving.
I got through the departure with surprisingly little queasiness. A gay men's chorus singing Christopher Cross' "Sailing" and all-you-can-drink bubbly definitely helped. The Dorothy's bulk simply floated away from the Barcelona dock with barely a ripple in the water and before I knew it we were gone, sailing away on the dazzling Me
diterranean Sea. Truly amazing.
After a much-needed nap and shower, Errall and I were ready for our first night afloat. It was a casual night so I wore lightweight tan slacks, an open-necked, short-sleeved, fitted white shirt and designer flip-flops. I thought I looked pretty good and hoped Judy Smythwicke would see me and think so too.
Errall had on a sea-spray turquoise wraparound dress and low-heeled white sandals. A little early for dinner, we first made a martini pit stop at the Cowardly Lion lounge on Deck Nine before making our giddy way to Yellow Bricks, the main restaurant on Deck Four.
Yellow Bricks was a massive room dotted with round tables of various sizes, accommodating intimate dining for two up to parties of twelve. The tablecloths were gold lame and decorated with linen napkins of either chocolate brown, burgundy, purple or rust, with colour-matched candles and plate chargers. Three sides of the restaurant were floor to ceiling windows, which tonight showed off a dark sea with an occasional whitecap. As we were led to Richard Gray's table by a gold-suited host, I marvelled at how steady the floor seemed despite the active looking waters. As we approached, three men stood while two women and the Phyllis drag queen remained seated.
"I'm Richard Gray. Welcome," said one of the men. The first thing I noticed about Richard Gray was his hair. It was a startling silver despite his youngish age, probably mid-forties. It was thick and had a burnished appearance. His face was long, with a high forehead, thick jaw and strong chin. His eyes were light as polished chrome behind delicate, silver-framed glasses and he had an easy smile that produced high-definition cheekbones. He was about five-ten with a solid build. His clothing was pure cruise chic: twill cotton pants just this side of cream and a robin's egg blue, short-sleeved shirt with a cream-coloured collar. His glowing tan, offset nicely by his choice of clothing, was impeccable. "I'm so glad you could join us this evening. Please, everyone, take your seats." We did. "Let me introduce the table. Our new additions are Errall and Russell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. To Errall's left are Rob and Scott from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. Russell, to your right is Miss Phyllis Lindstrom from Minneapolis/St.
Paul, and next to me are Cherry and Melissa from San Mateo, California, celebrating their tenth anniversary."
We all applauded enthusiastically for the couple, then began small talk while perusing menus. I made a hurried survey of the room, trying to get my first sighting of the Wiser clan. And indeed, halfway across the room, sitting at two tables pulled side by side, there they were. Charity, I could tell even from this distance, was running the show and dominating the conversation-at both tables. There were fifteen of them in all, only five or six below the age of forty.
"So which of these characters are we.. .er, you.. .supposed to be keeping an eye on?" Errall whispered into my ear, doing her best 99 from
"Actually, none of the Wisers are at this table," I told her, taking a pass on the buns making their way from guest to guest.
"Oh. Won't that make it difficult for you to decide which one is a murderer?"
I hate it when Errall plays at being sardonic.
"I guess Charity thought it best if we ease into things slowly. We'll meet the rest of the family tomorrow night at dinner." I tossed my head in the direction of the Wiser tables. "But they're all over there if you want to get a look."
Errall did an admirable job of surveying the group without drawing the attention of the others around our own table.
"They're a motley crew," she commented after a moment. "I know Charity Dottie and Flora," she said.
"I'm guessing the rather regal looking woman who looks like Charity is her sister, Faith. And that must be her husband next to her. But who are the rest of them?"
Although the timing might not have been the best, I was happy to fill Errall in. It was a good rehash for me, kind of like cramming the night before a test. I eyed the Wiser troop and took a shot at identifying them. "I'd say you're right about Faith and Thomas. The hunky dark brute sitting next to them must be their son, Nick. Then their daughter, Marsha, with her hubby, Ted."
"The bland-looking couple?" Errall confirmed. "What
she doing with her hair?"
I gave Errall a skeptical look. "Are you sure you're a lesbian?"
She held up the back of her hand to me and sweetly asked me to pick a finger. As it turned out, I only had the choice of one.
"And next to Marsha and Ted are their three kids," I kept on. "The twin boys...I forget their names right now, N somethings, and the girl, Kylie or Kyla or something."
"Boy, you're really on top of this case, aren't you?"
And for the millionth time I asked myself, "Why did I bring her along?"
"The other sister is dead, right?" Errall continued, seemingly unaware of the thoughts running through my head.
"Hope. Yes. Many years ago. The other older guys must be her widower, James, and his son-in-law, Patrick, also a widower. And the black guy is Patrick's son-in-law, Jackson, also a widower. He's a jazz musician."
"That leaves one young woman. She's a doll."
I nodded my agreement. "Very pretty. That would be Harriet, Jackson's daughter."
Errall nodded, her eyes still on the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman.
With our Wiser tour complete, I didn't want to appear antisocial to our dining companions, so I turned to "Phyllis" and made a bit of a show of admiring her astonishing resemblance to the character played by Cloris Leachman on
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
She was perfect, right down to the thin, small-breasted body outfitted in a tight top and flared out pants, large bun of hair with a maze of crazy tendrils atop her head and short, unpolished nails. I said, "I'm surprised you're not dining with Mary and Rhoda." Really, what else was there to say? How's Lars?
"Those two bitches," she said in a gravelly growl loud enough for the entire table to hear. "They think they're so much better than me. Mary thinks she's so perfect and nice. And Rhoda...well, please, just look at her and look at me."
pretty funny," Cherry suggested helpfully from across the table, obviously not used to dealing with the sometimes considerable ego of drag queen mentality.
Phyllis turned an evil eye upon the slight woman, her mouth an ugly grimace and one painted-on eyebrow arched high into her hairline.
"You might be wondering how I put this table together," Richard broke in, smoothly diffusing a potential hair-pulling, bastard punch (the lesbian version of bitch slap) situation. "FOD is one of my favourite carriers on the sea, and whenever they try out a new route, such as this one, I like to make the voyage at least once myself so that I can speak knowledgeably about it to our clientele. And when I do, I like to spend time and, if possible, have dinner with the clients that are on board."
"So we're all customers of GrayPride Tours then?" Melissa asked.
"That's right," Richard told the table.
"How many people on this ship are your clients?" Errall asked.
He turned his fine smile on her. "We have eight separate groups, almost thirty people in total."
"Well, we're privileged to be the first seven," I said.
"Completely my pleasure," the dashing Mr. Gray responded with a wink and nod in my direction. Was he flirting or was that just his way? I decided I liked the attention and wanted more. So I thought up an inane question. "Can you tell us, in general, what type of people are your clients?"
"GrayPride caters almost exclusively to upscale GLBT clients.. .and their friends.. .mostly guppies..."
"Guppies?" Melissa asked.
He: laughed a nice laugh. "Gay yuppies. They've got money and like to spend it on exceptional service, exceptional food and wine and exceptional locales around the world. To answer your question, Russell, my typical client wants a bit of adventure-but nothing too dirty; expects to pay more-but not be taken advantage of; and declares a day perfect when he or she has been called upon to wear scrubby-but brand name-jeans and pricey-purchased not rented-evening wear in the same twenty-four hour period. They want the opportunity to dance, drink and suntan to excess--although in truth, rarely do."
Rob and Scott in particular were nodding appreciatively at Richard's incisive descriptions.
"You seem to know your customers quite well," I complimented, having to crane my neck to see his face past Phyllis.
"It's my favourite part of what I do," he said with a comfortable smile and-maybe I was imagining this part-a bit of a leer. "Getting to know my clients."
At that moment the sommelier arrived and stole Richard's attention from me. Errall leaned into me and whispered, "Help me."
"What is it?" I whispered back.
"We have to switch seats. These two next to me. One's a financial planner. The other is an accountant.