Malan waited for Lathal to join him for dinner in the bar outside Dining Hall E for 15 minutes. When she didn’t show up in that amount of time, he glanced at the watch on his wrist and figured his wife needed more time. What he didn’t know was exactly what time she’d show up.
Feeling restless, the young actor drifted, letting his feet take him wherever they wanted to go. Near the lobby, there was cozy seating area with comfortable leather chairs and sofas, softly dimmed fluorescent lamps and huge arced windows that offered a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean Sea at night. Usually he sought out such spots as refuges of relaxation and solitude, but it wasn’t appealing to or interesting him right now.
Hands in his pants pockets, he strolled down the long hallway past the ship’s library, small alcove bars, seating areas and closed shops, arriving at the casino. Musical twitter and bling of the sounds of the slot machines, coins jingling and noisy conversations of patrons assailed his thoughtful perspective. The multi-colored glow of the one-armed bandit standing in front of him seemed to stare at him with a challenge, "Feeling lucky, mister?"
What the hell! He’d take a chance. His fingers grazed over the few quarters he had in his pants pocket. He inserted the coin into the machine and pulled the handle. The fruits kept changing in rapid succession until finally the machine clicked to a halt, revealing two of a kind and one mismatched fruit but not a winning combo.
Everything in the room was rigged, he knew, and even if he played all night he could lose a small wade and might not even hit a jackpot on the machine. He should probably walk away and quit while he was ahead. Still, he hardly ever gambled so one more whirl wouldn’t hurt.
Pulling the handle toward him, he held the handle down longer to control how long the machine's gears spun. A computerized tune binged lyrically as the machine whirred. He prayed for the winning combination as he watched the fruits turn rapidly before his eyes. With each click, the motion became slower and slower until it stopped with mismatched fruits displayed on the face of the slot machine.
“I think you’re going about it all wrong,” a quiet voice said from behind him.
“Hmm,” he murmured distractedly, his eyes swept over his wife. She was positively glowing and radiant. A roguish, playful, boyish grin flicked across his face. “I’m not exactly where I told you I’d be, am I?”
“No, but it’s okay,” His wife smiled back at him. “We didn’t have a set time to be at dinner.” Her hands stroked the slot machine’s body and he imagined she was caressing him like that. Desire darkened his brown eyes and her hips swayed as she sashayed toward him.
She moved against him like a cat affectionately weaving in between its owner’s legs. "Want to try an experiment?" asked her tantalizing sexy voice
"Isn’t it illegal to have sex in a public venue?"
Laughing appreciatively, she snaked her hand into his pants pocket, pulling out a quarter. She held it out toward him. "Put this in the machine."
Wrapping his arm around her waist, he pulled her close to him. Her hand wrapped around his and together they put the coin into the machine. Together, their hands intertwined, they reached for the handle and pulled the handle down. They didn't care about the fruits randomly flipping on the slot machine that beeped melodically. All that mattered to her at the moment was him. His kiss was gentle, tender and passionate as his mouth, breath and essence mingled with hers. "Lathal, I love you," he murmured huskily. Kissing her again and again, he caressed her hands lovingly, holding them close to his heart, which he couldn't even feel in his chest. His heart was with hers, intertwined as one between them.
He was incredibly romantic, and she freely shared her all with him. Feeling his desire and need press against her body, she brushed against him with her body evidence of her cravings and yearnings for him. God she loved him. She whispered, "I love you, Malan."
The shrill ringing of a siren, followed by raining clicking of coins, interrupted the poignant moment. Out of the corner of her eye she saw flashes of the red light from swirling around them. As she gently pulled away, she realized they'd hit the jackpot. "Malan!"
He too realized what had happened when she said his name. Quickly grabbing plastic buckets sitting on top of the machine, they held it at the bottom to catch the coins raining out. As she scooped the change out of the metal drawer into her bucket, she looked at him. There was a twinkle in his eyes; he wore a broad smile.
Her eyes sparkled with pleasure. "You're a lucky guy."
"It's because I have you," he kissed her lips.
After a long moment, they disengaged; he draped his arm around her shoulder and steered her toward one of the cash out booths near the casino’s exits. Spying the rows of black Jack tables, she wanted to play even though he seemed ready to leave and have dinner. Looking up at him with longing in her bluish-green pools, she asked, “Do you mind if I play a couple hands at the black jack table?”
“Sure,” he replied easily holding the plastic container with their winnings.
They headed for the black Jack table. The dealer looked up at them expectantly as they pulled up a pair of stools sat the table. "Do you want to join the game?"
"I'm in," Lathal told him as he cut the deck and shuffled them
The dealer regarded her husband, "What about you?"
"I'm with her," Malan said setting the bucket on the table.
The dealer flipped her two cards. One was a face card and peeking at the second card she had a five of diamonds. She frowned and crooked her finger to beckon him. Casually leaning over, he whispered, "What do you have?"
"Fifteen,” she said in a hushed voice. “I could take a hit but with my luck I'll get a face card.” Her eyes met his. "What should I do?"
"You might get lucky,” he replied with a shrug, “You won’t know unless you go for it.”
The love birds may have been talking for a few minutes but the dealer regarded with a perturbed look like the young writer was holding up the game. “Well, lady, what’ll it be? She waved at him, the sign that she intended to stay. She regretted the decision a few minutes later when the dealer called and won with a 20.
Her frustration and disappointment showed; he lightly nudged her with his body. “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” He knew that she was just playing for fun; if she didn’t win this hand she’d stop having had her fun for the night.
This time the dealer let her cut the deck and then the young Bosnian dealer shuffled and dealt cards to the players. She had a five of spades showing and a five of hearts hidden. She could have split but decided she didn't want to spend the money. She tapped her finger on the table, indicating she wanted a hit. The dealer handed her an eight of spades. Eighteen. Her face brightened, and she waved her hand.
Malan watched her carefully. She must have something good this time because she hadn't consulted him for advice. Her good mood quickly changed to annoyance when the dealer showed he also had 18. At least she didn't lose anything.
The action repeated. She was dealt an Ace and a three of clubs, but she didn't get a chance to take it much farther because another player said boisterously, "Black Jack!"
Rolling her eyes in disgust, she slapped her palms against the table. He laid his hand on her arm. He exuded a calm collected presence while affectionately gazing at her. Steadying herself, she shook her head, "One last time for smiles and giggles."
Softly he kissed her lips. "Break a leg."
That was what she always told him. In theater, the statement wished a performer good luck -- so maybe it'd work like that here too. She returned her attention to the table where she had an Ace of spades showing, she peeked at the hidden card, which was the queen of hearts.
Quickly flipping the cards, Lathal said excitedly, "Black Jack!"
He chuckled as the dealer gave her a $1,000 chip. The dealer asked her, "Are you still in?"
"No, I'm out," she said sliding off the stool. "Thank you."
"Good luck," the dealer called after them.
Once again they headed for the exit; Malan assumed they’d be dining next but his wife meandered over to the craps table. Both of them preferred to take their chances with the cards than with the dice. Still he figured what the hell.
Before the dice were rolled, he plunked down the two free chips every ship passenger received when they boarded on the two, six, seven and 11. Then he stepped back and watched the action from the same spot his wife stood. A gambler threw the dice and he didn't change the position of his chips even though he didn't win much for several rounds. Standing behind her, Malan wrapped his arms around his waist, content with just holding her.
However, some of the other gamblers were unhappy with the way the dice were being thrown. There was a lot of muttered curses and grumbling at the table. Something needed to be done to change their luck.
A young male gambler's gaze swept across the table. His eyes stopped on her. He grabbed the dice from the table, holding them out toward her.
Lathal looked surprised she'd been selected for the task of throwing the dice. She glanced at her husband for help.
"Go ahead, Lathal," he whispered encouragingly, kissing her lips. "I love you."
"I love you, Malan," she murmured, regretfully sliding out of his embrace as she moved to the head of the craps table.
Handing her the dice, the male gambler leered at her, "Luck is a lady tonight."
This guy had had a bit much to drink, she thought, repetitively rolling the dice in her hands. She silently prayed for some luck, especially for them.
After everyone placed their chips, the gambler tossed her a flirtatious wink. "Blow me a kiss, Lady Luck."
Blowing the gambler off, Lathal casually flipped the dice onto the table. The table host announced, "Seven."
"Yes!" The male gambler crowed in delight. "Come on, Lady Luck, do it again."
Ignoring him, she shook her fist, carelessly throwing the dice onto the table. The table host announced again, "Seven."
"Wahoo!" The gambler shook his fists ecstatically. "Three times is the charm, my lady."
Her eyes tiny slits, cool anger flashed in her eyes as she frowned. His lady, her ass! This joker was getting on her last nerves! Glancing over her shoulder, she looked at Malan. She figured the male passenger with the crooked drunk sneer with the lewd catcalls was infuriating him. The calm composure on his visage contradicted with the crossed arms over his chest. He was tense because his temper was boiling inside him.
After juggling the dice in her hand, she dropped them to the table. The table host announced, "Seven."
"I bet the table isn't the only place you're lucky, Lady Luck," the gambler flipped her a suggestive wink and then saluted her with his drink.
Biting her lips, she held back a stinging retort that would only encourage the inebriated gambler. She held the dice in her hand for a moment and walked over to her husband.
Her eyes twinkled as she held out the dice. “Will you blow on these please?”
The pleasure and affection in his eyes met hers. “I can do better than that.”
She kissed the dice and then handed them to him. With measured graceful movements, he approached the table, shook the dice in his closed fist and forcefully chunked the dice against the table. The red cubes rolled over and the table host announced, “Snake eyes!”
"Arrrrrrrggggggghhhhhhh!" The gambler shrieked. He’d lost a large wad of money he had on the table because of that roll. His alcohol permeated breathe made Malan gag as the gambler got into the young actor’s face. “You did that on purpose.”
“Damn right I did,” his tone was measured, but with his temper rising Malan felt his military training fighting skills coming to the fore. He took a step closer to his intoxicated opponent. “I did it to teach you a lesson, and if you have a problem with it, we can step outside.”
His wife stepped between the two men, laying her hands flat on her husband’s chest. Her eyes held his beseeching him to stop before he did something he regretted. She was thinking about if anyone found out who he was and he fought the man win or lose the incident would make international news. “We don’t want to attract attention here,” she softly told him.
Tittering back and forth, the smashed passenger tossed another drink back and the glass that didn’t make it to the bar top clattered to the floor. The gambler sneered at Malan. “Only a pansy would use his woman to keep him out of a fight.”
Fury seethed in the young actor’s eyes; his fists were clenched and his shoulder swung slightly as if he were loosening up to throw a pitch. Rigid in her spot, his wife shook her head. “He’s not worth it, Malan.”
Critically analyzing his sloppily dressed opponent who sported grizzly remains of a beard, the gambler looked like he was about to pass out into a stupor. “You’re right,” he quietly replied, sticking his hands in his pants pocket. “Let’s go.”
As they walked out the door leading into the ship’s main hallway, neither of them looked back. The pair didn’t say anything for several minutes; all they could hear was music from the alcove bars or snippets of conversations from passengers walking in the hallway.
His arm linked around her, he gently bumped against her and asked, "Is that gambler following us?"
Peering over her shoulder, she answered. “No, I think he passed out.”
With a satisfied nod, he said, “We have to go the ship’s safety meeting at 9 in the morning so we better not mess around tonight.” She flipped him a flirty amused glance; he chuckled and then lightly brushed his lips on her blonde head. “Okay so maybe we’ll fool around a little.”
After dinner, they went to the theater for the magic show. The show was packed with ship passengers.
Malan had done some magic shows early in his acting career. He still performed magic, but only at family or friends’ parties. Lathal had seen him do his act a couple of times; she thought it was cute. The things he could do never ceased to amaze her.
After he and his childhood pal, Billy Markham, had chosen their theatrical profession, Hawk Markham, a renowned professional magician, taught the teens his craft. Malan took more of an interest and liking to magic than his buddy, who was more interested and liked the beautiful female magician’s assistants.
So Malan had worked as apprentice/assistant in Hawk’s magic show until his senior year in high school. That’s when Mr. Markham had mysteriously exited from his son’s life without a trace. Neither Billy nor his mother didn’t really know what had happened to Hawk Markham, but the newly married man suspected he’d run off with another woman.
The playboy personality trait seemed to run in the Markham family, a wry grin spread across his lips as Malan watched the show. Relaxed against the leather seat, his arms rested across his chest; his attention on the performer on stage. For a moment, he wondered if the cruise magician was Hawk Markham. This man didn’t look like Billy’s father but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a possibility. After all he hadn’t seen the renowned magician in seven years.
It couldn’t be Hawk. He wouldn’t be this obvious! Malan squirmed in his seat as the cruise magician’s performance made the tricks of the trade a little too apparent and appear phony. He coughed and muttered, “He’s palming it.”
Her husband had only intended for her to hear him but some other passengers had heard him as well and glared harshly at him. Amused Lathal glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. It wouldn’t do to chastise him because actors and performers were always critical of each other.
“Shh! We’re trying to enjoy the show,” chided a British passenger sitting next to his wife wearing a feather hat.
With an unapologetic look, he told the man, “He’s hiding it up his sleeve.”
The passenger turned his attention back to the show and saw that Malan’s observation about the magician had been correct. Quietly the couple conversed and they decided to leave the show. As the British couple gathered their belongings and rose to depart the theater, a long loud scraping noise like microphone reverb static echoed through the theater. Next the ship shook violently and seemed to stop moving and then the lights flickered out enveloping the theater in darkness except for the emergency lights.
“Now that’s some trick,” Malan murmured a feeling of foreboding and unease filling him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the magician said a microphone in his hand and the spotlight from the balcony shone on him. “I’ve been told by the captain that we’re experiencing some electrical problems, and so that means we’ll have to conclude our magic show for this evening.” There was a spattering of jeers and applause from the crowd. “The ship’s electric problems should be fixed in a couple of hours, but for now the captain has asked me to tell you to go back to your cabins for the remainder of the evening. Good night!” The magician repeated the announcement in Italian.
Well, it’s definitely not Hawk Markham. He doesn’t speak Italian but he could have learned. Malan shook his head chasing away his reverie and held his wife close to his chest while they waited for other passengers at the show to shuffle out of the theater.
“Personally, chap,” said the British gent, who scolded him during the show, as his body supported his unsteady jittery wife garbed in a mink and black feather hat. The pair stood near their aisle as the masses streamed out. “It’s not electrical problems. I think it’s much more serious than that.”
Silently Malan agreed because he had the same feeling, but he didn’t voice it. Brandishing flashlights the crew illuminated the paths helping passengers make their way back to their cabins. In the back of their minds, they planned on gathering up what they needed and finding their orange life vests that were kept in all the passengers’ cabins. Ironically none of the passengers who had boarded with them in Rome had been to the ship’s safety meeting. It was scheduled for the morning.
When they returned to their room, both of them started getting necessities they thought they’d need. He checked his backpack for their passports and his wallet, which were in the front pocket and then he packed his backpack with his camera, his travel-sized shaving/hygiene kit, his laptop that he shared with his wife and a few items of clothes, socks and underwear and a pair of tennis shoes. She shoved her medications, jewelry and personal hygiene items into her purse and carefully and tightly packed clothing basics into her tote bag.
Finished with their task and having placed two life jackets in a chair near the door exiting their cabin, the newlyweds sat on the bed. His hands were on his knees and she swung her legs as she rocked back and forth nervously. Sighing, he turned to her. “I guess we should try to get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” She didn’t sound nervous and uncertain.
Slanting his body closer, he tenderly brushed his mouth on her. Her breath caught sharply at the taste of his passion, which she responded to with equal fire. Her fingers drew around the edges of his shirt collar and down his chest as he rained hot kisses along her neck. Deftly her fingers unbuttoned his buttons and caressed his bare chest. He’d already peeled away her blouse. His tongue outlined the heaving mounds covered by her lacy bra; she airily sighed, “Love me, Malan.”
“Emergenza,” an authoritative voice said in Italian over the ship’s intercom. “Abbandonare la nave. Relazione con la tu a stazione muster.” The announcement was repeated several times in Italian.
As they both buttoned up their shirts, the young couple exchanged knowing looks. Their unspoken suspicions about the ship sinking had been confirmed. They had only understood two words of the announcement, emergency and muster. Donning their life vests, they grabbed their gear and exited their cabin.
Sleepy, drunk, excited and panicked passengers started flowing out their cabins crowding the hallway all at once. The British couple that had gone to the magic show saw them walk calmly following the illuminated directional signs for the nearest muster station on the wall. Touching Malan’s shoulder, the British gentleman, garbed in a black and white checkered robe, pajamas and black house shoes asked. “I say, good man, do you have any idea as to what the devil is going on?”
A serious expression in his brown eyes, Malan kept a tight grip on Lathal’s hand so they wouldn’t be separated in the chaos that had begun to ensue on the ship. “You were right. The ship’s sinking.”
“Sinking?” His wife, who had thrown a mink coat over her white sleeping gown, screeched wringing her wrists. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, Henry, what are we going to do?”
“Now, Marion, panicking won’t help us,” Henry gently chided his wife. “We’re going to go to the muster station with this nice American couple.”
Without grabbing any of their personal belongings, the British couple went ahead of them; some of the crew shouted orders in Italian and gestured to passengers to follow them. Their journey to the muster station was strenuous and challenging because the ship started to lilt to one side. A light layer of sea water had flooded the floor; Marion began bawling anew, raving that they were all going to die, drowning like the poor souls on the Titanic.
Climbing to the life boats was demanding and tricky. Passengers climbed a rope ladder up a steep incline; Marion didn’t help matters by looking down, which made her panic all the more. One of the ship’s bartenders held out his hand and assisted passengers in boarding the life boats. The British couple boarded before the Hamels and there was only one seat remaining.
“Ma’am, there’s a seat for you,” the bartender said in broken English and gestured to the vacancy on the bench.
Lathal shook her head, gazing with teary eyes at her husband. “I’m not going without you.” The young journalist looked back at the crew member. “We’ll get the next one.”
“We have to wait till this one returns from the shore,” the bartender told her, “and that could be 20 minutes or more.”
“Wait!” Henry chimed in gesturing toward the Hamels and the bartender. “There’s room for both of them here.”
The young journalist’s hazel pools communicated her thanks as she and her husband crammed their bodies onto the tightly packed bench after they boarded the packed life boat. As it descended, the ship’s balance slowly tilted more toward a 45 degree angle causing the boat to scrape and bang against the hull. Sparks flew as metal rubbed against metal; some of the women passengers screamed in terror. Once it softly hit the water, the a crew member, who none of the passengers could see clearly because his back was to them and he was garbed in black shifted the boat into gear.
As the boat skimmed across the water, Malan raised his camera to his eye and carefully adjusted focus. He flicked the timer to set it to take shots every few seconds while Lathal already in journalist mode had his laptop out on her lap scribbling what was going on with the ship.
The life boat’s driver kept glancing over at Malan as if he recognized him. It was beginning to unnerve the young actor. Satisfied with the smooth rate the ship was going, the driver stood up and gracefully moved toward the Hamels.
Malan tried to ignore the stranger but he couldn’t keep his camera lens in front of his eye as the man knelt down in front of him. “Hello, Malan,” the man whispered quietly.
Realization and recognition was in the young actor’s coffee colored eyes. The ship’s magician was Hawk Markham!