'Fade down the lights, please,'
an unseen male voice said through the speakers that had been placed everywhere in the highly exclusive private salon of the famous Top Of The World restaurant.
When the lights faded away to nothing, the din of the more than fifty - increasingly excited - birthday guests sitting around a large horseshoe table grew to a steady buzz, occasionally punctuated by tipsy giggles from one of the lady guests.
'May we have absolute silence, please... silence, please... thank you.'
Once the excitable guests had settled down, a spotlight was turned on that shone directly on a pair of double doors that connected the private salon to the other parts of the restaurant.
Moments later, the professional entertainer who had addressed the guests began to sing the age-old birthday song, and soon, all the guests chimed in - not all in the same key, or even the correct one for that matter.
'Happy Birthday to you... Happy Birthday to you... Happy Birthday, dear Lana, Happy Birthday to you...'
the entertainer sang as the doors opened and two waiters wheeled in a cart loaded with a birthday layer cake of gigantic proportions. An intricate sculpture made of candied sugar had been placed on top of the five-feet tall cake, acting as a support for a cluster of candles that formed a big '30'.
The guests immediately shot to their feet clapping and cheering wildly at the cake, and several took pictures of it, bathing the cake, the tuxedoed entertainer and the two waiters in a sea of flashes.
The cart was slowly wheeled down the center of the horseshoe until it reached the end, and Lana Ferguson, recently turned thirty and presently bathed in a cone of light from the spot that was strong enough to peel off the professionally applied makeup that gave her a golden hue to accentuate her Irish green eyes and long, golden-blonde hair.
Standing up and grabbing a long knife with her gloved hand - the emerald green silk glove reached up to her elbow - Lana felt intensely uncomfortable as every single pair of eyes in the entire room were trained on her. The strong light made it impossible for her to see beyond the cake, but she knew that the guests were scrutinizing her like a side of beef at a meat market.
Gulping, she somehow managed to screw a smile on her face and leaned forward to cut the cake, mindful that her $5000 emerald green dress - that made her feel like a huge, green cream puff - wouldn't get stained.
"No, the lights... the candles, darling... blow out the candles first," a man said quietly from somewhere on her left. Recognizing the voice as her father's, Lana let out an embarrassed, endearing, snicker that made all the guests go 'Awww'
Putting down the knife, she took a deep breath and leaned in even further. With an almighty effort, she blew out the big '30', sending a large plume of smoke towards the ceiling.
As if on cue, all the guests cheered wildly and went back to taking pictures and video of the blushing birthday girl who responded by picking up the knife and cutting a large slice out of the top layer of the cake.
When she offered her father the first slice with the words: "I'm on a diet," the cheers turned to a storm of laughter that gave her a much-needed - if short-lived - reprieve.
Her father laughed along with the rest of the guests, snatching the plate from his daughter's hands and putting it in front of him. "Thank you, darling. I've never said no to cake."
The slick, tuxedoed entertainer cleared his throat and turned his microphone back on. "And now," he said in a voice as soft as melted butter, "it's time...! For...! The cakes...! Cakes for everybody! Let's enjoy ourselves! Let's dance! Let's sing! Let's... bossa nova!"
With a never-ending slide, the entertainer moved back out into the center of the horseshoe and began to belt out a show tune inspired by South American rhythms. While he was singing, the double doors opened again to reveal several groups of waiters pushing carts loaded with smaller birthday layer cakes for all the guests.
Having already finished his first slice of cake, sixty-five year old Alfred Ferguson put down his pastry fork and leaned in towards his daughter. "Isn't this a magnificent party, Lana? The entertainer is pretty good. I must recommend him to some of my clients," he said, straightening his bow tie so it lined up with his tuxedo.
"Yes, Daddy, he is excellent," Lana said, trying to sound as sincere as possible. Even while she was speaking, she felt a bead of sweat trickle down the top of her heavily powdered cleavage, but she knew it would turn into a minor scandal if she did anything about it, so she forced herself to ignore it.
"Once the cakes have been eaten, why don't you do the first dance with Jason?" Alfred said, smiling broadly at his daughter.
Lana looked to her right at the impeccably dressed, impeccably groomed Jason Connell who was busy chatting with his dinner neighbor. In his early thirties, Jason was the well-off son of a well-off stock broker, and as such, the perfect future husband for her, the well-off daughter of an even more well-off merchant banker.
Studying his plucked eyebrows, his heavily gelled hair and his classically shaped, handsome face, Lana had to admit that he looked good and that he would most likely turn out to be a good husband for someone - but to her, despite her father's misconceptions of the nature of their relationship, he was just a beard.
Sighing inwardly, she turned back to her father and offered him a wide, warm smile. "Oh, that's a good idea, Daddy. I'll do that."
Half an hour later, Jason swept Lana through the hall to the sounds of one of Johann Strauss' evergreen waltzes; moving with grace and agility, the two people awed the guests with their dancing skills.
As the waltz ended, Alfred went into the center of the horseshoe and held up his hands. "Ladies and Gentlemen, honored guests... it's time to give my little girl her birthday presents. Now, let me tell you, when she was but knee high to my office desk, her mother and I never had any problems finding presents for her... if it was pink, she was satisfied." - The guests all laughed - "But these days, it's a bit more difficult. However, I love challenges... in fact, I'd say that I wouldn't be where I am today without welcoming the challenges. Therefore, sweet Lana, take a look at the table at the far side of the hall," Alfred continued, pointing at a table beyond the horseshoe.
Licking her lips in excited anticipation, Lana moved away from Jason - remembering to bow to her dancing partner first, like she was supposed to - and scooted over to the table.
The table was loaded with presents, but one in particular caught her eye. It was a sixteen by sixteen inch platinum picture frame displaying a brownish, seemingly very old piece of paper that had a lot of wiggly lines on it that came together to form some kind of map.
"Oh, Daddy, you shouldn't have!" Lana exclaimed as she picked up the platinum frame to study the map closer. Cray's Point, Reaper's Den, even something called Blackbeard's Castle; all the names on the map were exotic and colorful, and held promises of great wealth or possibly quick death. "Oh, Daddy... is this... is this a treasure map?"
Walking over to stand next to his daughter, Alfred put his hand on her elbow, careful not to knock the frame out of her delicate hand. "It is indeed, my daughter. I know how much you enjoy history. This is supposedly a genuine treasure map from the time of Edward Teach, the great Blackbeard. I was thinking that you could travel down to the US Virgin Islands on your vacation instead of just burying your nose in dusty, old books. That's living history right there," he said, pointing at the frame.
"I love it so much, Daddy," Lana said and carefully put down the frame. Once it was securely on the table, she wrapped her arms around her father and pulled him into a big hug.
"Well, I'm glad. Now, the next present is from..."
The first thing Lana did once she got out of bed the next day - at one in the afternoon - was to power up her laptop and go online to search for anything and everything she could find on the US Virgin Islands, Blackbeard and the possibility of finding treasure in the Caribbean even three hundred years after the reign of the sea pirates had come to an end.
Snickering happily, Lana rose from her swivel chair at her work desk in her den and padded on bare feet over to the large windows overlooking the park that was located in front of the exclusive apartment complex her flat was in. After cracking open one of the Venetian blinds to check that the groundsmen were grooming the lawns like they were supposed to, she padded into her kitchen and turned on her coffee machine.
Once it was blubbering merrily, she picked up the small phone on the kitchen wall and pressed zero to call the reception desk on the ground floor.
'Reception, it's Lauren. How may I help you?'
a pleasant female voice said.
"Hello, it's Lana Ferguson in 3C. I'd like three golden slices of toast, some jam of the chef's choice and a grape fruit, please."
'Noted, Miss Ferguson. It will be delivered shortly.'
"Thank you, Lauren. Just tell the bellboy to leave it in the corridor. Goodbye," Lana said and hung up.
Nodding in a thoroughly satisfied manner, she went into the bathroom, stepped out of her purple silk pajamas and activated her jet shower.
Fifteen minutes later, Lana unwrapped herself from a large, fluffy towel and threw it on the unmade bed. Briefly standing naked in her bedroom, she purposely avoided looking at herself in the large mirror on the side of the wall and went straight into her walk-in closet to find a new set of underwear to put on.
Once she felt decent, she went back into the bedroom and picked up the pair of comfortable blue jeans and the sweatshirt she had laid out the night before - or rather, at four in the morning when she had been chauffeured home from her birthday bash.
By the time she was fully dressed, the coffee machine had already sent out an electronic ding
that indicated that it was ready. Humming one of the show tunes the entertainer had performed at the party, Lana took her keys and unlocked her front door to wheel in the food cart the bellboy had left outside.
After she had put strawberry and blackcurrant jam on the slices of toast, cut the grape fruit in half and poured herself a large mug of coffee, she put a $10 tip on the cart and pushed it back outside.
"And now it's time for St. Thomas," she said out loud and skipped back into her den to see what the search had brought.
"Hmmm, that's interesting..." she said fifteen minutes later. Pulling her right leg up underneath her, she got comfortable on the swivel chair and began to study one web site in particular.
Called 'Fishing With Skip Swain', it was a colorful site with dozens of pictures of the deep blue sea and glorious white beaches, and of huge marlins and other kinds of fish the customer could supposedly catch while sitting on the back of Captain Swain's fishing boat, the eighty-footer 'Argo'.
As Lana clicked around the site, she became more and more convinced that she had found the right Captain for her treasure hunt. Finally finding a page with pictures of the boat and the crew, Lana put her leg down and leaned forward on her chair to try to see the details of the far-too-small photo. "Oh, why didn't they make it clickable...? It's so damned small I need Daddy's glasses," she mumbled under her breath as she tried to search for some way to enlarge the tiny picture.
The photo showed two people - a Caucasian and an Afro-Caribbean - standing in front of a long, brown boat. Both tall, they were dressed very differently: the person on the left wore black shades, a floppy hat, blue Bermuda shorts and an impossibly loud and fairly baggy Hawaiian shirt, and the person on the right wore a black or deep blue boiler suit with a shiny zipper on front.
"All right, there's the caption," Lana mumbled out loud, chasing around on the page. "Skipper Joey Swain (left) with Dom Hofstaedter, first mate and mechanic. Huh. Well, that sure doesn't say much... oh..." she continued, quickly clicking on a link labeled 'more'.
'Skipper Joey Swain is a highly experienced off-shore fisherman and scuba diver. Following a six-year career in the US Navy as a diver, Joey created 'Fishing With Skip Swain' from scratch which has since grown to become one of the major fishing tour operators in St. Thomas.'
"Oh, that sounds pretty good... a Navy diver... they know what they're doing. I'll bet I can persuade him to organize a treasure hunt," Lana said and began to chew on her index finger again. Eager to move on, she clicked on another 'more' and began to read the next caption.
'Dom Hofstaedter, a native of St. Thomas, is a gifted mechanic who learned the ropes at the local shipyard. Now, Dom works tirelessly to keep the Argo's twin Napier engines purring to provide an unforgettable experience for their customers.'
Nodding enthusiastically, Lana slammed her hands together in a resounding clap and let out a cross between a squeal and a laugh. "Oh yeah! They're gonna be perfect for my adventure!" she said and skipped over to her cell phone.
After finding her father's number in the registry, she quickly called him and threw herself onto her leather couch while she waited for him to pick it up.
Alfred Ferguson harrumphed loudly as he put down his fountain pen and reached for his cell phone, interrupting 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King'
before it could play for a second time. A quick glance at the display told him who the caller was, and he closed the file he was looking at and waved his secretary off. "It's my daughter, Miss Stern. We'll have to continue the dictation later," he said, leaning back in his leather armchair.
"Very well, Mr. Ferguson," Rebecca Stern said, straightening her gun metal gray skirt as she rose from her chair. With a brief nod at her employer, she held her notepad and her pencil in a firm grip and walked out of the office.
As his secretary closed the door behind her, Alfred pressed the small button and held the phone to his ear. "Good afternoon, darling. Is something wrong?"
'Oh no, I'm just so excited!'
"Well, that's good. Over something positive, I hope?"
'Yes, yes! I've found the perfect tour operators for my little treasure hunt on St. Thomas! It's called Fishing With Skip Swain. You can find it online if you want.'
"Oh, you know I can't do anything with those computers. What did you call it? Fishing With...?"
'Fishing With Skip Swain, Daddy. I've looked it up, Joey Swain is a retired US Navy Diver.'
"Oh... well, that's... uh..." 'Not exactly reassuring,'
Alfred continued in his thoughts. 'A sailor is a sailor 'til the day he dies... and my little girl would be a fantastic catch for any red-blooded man.'
"Uh... interesting," he said out loud, rubbing his brow.
'It's not just interesting, Daddy, it's really exciting!'
"Have you booked a hotel yet?"
'No, no, I wanted to tell you first.'
"Uh, thank you. Listen, Lana, I..."
'Well, it was your idea, you know...'
"I know, I know, it's just... I just don't think you should go alone," Alfred said, knowing full well that his daughter wouldn't take his caution too kindly.
The frosty silence at the other end of the connection proved him right.
'I can take care of myself, Daddy,'
Lana said coolly a few heartbeats later.
"Oh, I know, sweetheart, it's just that... uh, I'd feel a lot safer if you had some company on the trip."
'I can't ask Jason to come with me. He's such a busy man, Dad.'
"I'm aware of that. I was thinking more along the lines of a chape-"
Biting his lip, Alfred had already begun to figure out how much it would cost him to hire a professional security escort when he realized that the perfect chaperone was already working for him. 'Miss Stern!'
he thought, breaking out into a wide grin. 'The Ice Queen would be able to keep my daughter at a safe distance from any exploring sailors. Why, she even has her hair in a bun, like an old-fashioned school marm!'
'Daddy? Are you still there? Hello?'
"Oh, I'm still here, darling," Alfred said and moved forward on his armchair. "I've just come up with the perfect plan. Do you remember Miss Stern? Why, I think she would be-"
'Oh... Rebecca Stern, Daddy? She's such a stick in the mud... I'd rather have someone closer to my own age, if you don't mind. I know you have younger secretaries as well. What about... oh, what's her name... the redhead from accounting?'
"Come now, young lady, Rebecca Stern isn't quite that bad. She just takes her job and her life very seriously."
'I'll say! Her name couldn't be more appropriate.'
"Uh, yes. That's quite odd, I'll give you that... but for the age thing, well, darling, that's exactly why it needs to be someone older. Sending two wildcats would be even worse than just one. Listen, sweetheart, I'll ask Miss Stern. She might not even say yes. Put off booking your trip for an hour or so; I promise to call you back as soon as I have her answer. Do we have a deal?"
'Oh... okay, we have a deal, Daddy. Bye, bye. Love you.'
"Love you, too, Sugar. Bye," Alfred said and closed the connection. After tapping the phone against the tip of his nose a couple of times, he stretched out his arm and pressed a button on the intercom on his desk.
'Yes, Mr. Ferguson?'
Rebecca Stern said from the outer office.
"Miss Stern, please come back in. I have a proposition for you."
'Yes, Mr. Ferguson.'
"And there we have it, Miss Stern," Alfred said, patting his secretary on her shoulder as he walked around the back of the chair she was sitting on.
"A trip to St. Thomas?" Rebecca Stern said in a puzzled voice. Forgetting all about her business manners, she furrowed her brow and began to scratch her cheek.
"In the Caribbean?"
"Yes. Are there any other St. Thomases?" Alfred Ferguson said with a cheeky gleam in his eye.
"Hmmm... I don't know, Mr. Ferguson."
In her mid-forties, Rebecca Stern was a clean-cut, no-nonsense woman who felt most comfortable in what she called her daily uniform: a gun metal gray skirt and blazer jacket over a white shirt she always kept buttoned up to just below her chin to hide what she felt was an ungainly, overweight body. Not a believer in jewelry or accessories, she didn't even wear nail polish or lipstick - instead, she let her chocolate brown eyes and her ash blonde, shoulder-length hair that framed her round, but far from unpretty, face speak for themselves.
What Alfred Ferguson didn't know was that Rebecca Stern was a lesbian - and in fact, the only person Lana Ferguson had ever confided in. Those thoughts and more flashed through Rebecca's mind, but in the end, she came to the conclusion that Lana was too inexperienced in the matters of the world to take care of herself, and that she would need all the protection she could get. 'Especially from a couple a' sailors!'
"All right, Mr. Ferguson, I accept. I'll accompany your daughter. When do we leave?" Rebecca said, shifting her legs to cross them the other way.
"Oh, I don't know yet. I promised I'd call her back when I had your answer. I'll do that now. Perhaps you could stay while I do that?"
"But of course, Mr. Ferguson."
The split second Lana's phone rang, she jumped up from her swivel chair and dove onto her couch. Sweeping the phone off the table with a slightly less-than-graceful gesture, she quickly spun onto her back and put the phone to her ear. "It's me," she said with bated breath.
'Hello again, Darling. Well, I have good news. Miss Stern has accepted. She'd very much like to come with you.'
"Oh, well... that's... that's very nice, Daddy," Lana said and scooted up so she could put her head on the armrest of the couch.
'Yes, I thought so. Are you going to book the flight and the hotel now?'
"Yes, I am. Please tell Miss Stern that I'll send the details to her in an email."
A slightly prolonged pause followed, prompting Lana to check if the connection was still active. "Daddy?"
'How come you have Miss Stern's email address, Lana?'
Lana thought, thinking back to the reason why she actually had it - an office party two years previously that had seen her drink too much rum-laced punch. When the alcohol had hit her empty stomach, she had felt an unstoppable urge to connect with someone and lament the fact that she had been forced to hide her sexuality from her parents since before her sixteenth birthday. That someone had been Rebecca Stern; a blessing in disguise as it had turned out.
Swinging her legs over the side of the couch, Lana sat up straight and ran a hand through her long hair. "Oh, I have it in case you didn't answer a call... perhaps you'd be in an important meeting... or something. With the email, I could leave a message."
'Oh... of course. Good thinking, sweetheart. Well, I'll leave you to it. I'm sure you'll give your credit card a good workout. Please send Miss Stern a mail once everything has been sorted out.'
"I will, Daddy. Please thank Miss Stern from me." - 'Not the least for keeping my secret,'
Lana thought, biting the inside of her cheek.
'Oh, that's a given, Sugar. Talk to you later.'
"Bye, Daddy," Lana said and closed the connection. Sighing deeply, she put the phone back down on the coffee table and shuffled over to her laptop. A few moments - and dark thoughts - later, she flipped open the lid and continued writing the email she was preparing for Joey Swain.
'New York City, April 7th, 2012.
Dear Mr. Swain,
I know this is on terribly short notice, but I'd like to book your services for
a seven-day period: Saturday, April 21st to Saturday, April 28th.
To compensate for the lateness of my mail, I am willing to add a bonus to your
regular going price of $2998 for the week by offering you an additional $1502,
making it a round $4500.
If you can accept my boking, please prepare your boat for two passengers,
myself and another woman. If absolutely necessary, we can share a cabin;
however, I would greatly prefer a single cabin, for the sake of privacy. I hope
such an arrangement will be possible.
I read on your web site that a full scuba certificate is compulsory; neither of
us have one yet, but it will be in order by April 21st.
Please get back to me as soon as possible with your reply - I'm hoping it will
be a confirmation.
Thank you in advance.
After reading the letter several times - and finding the typo that had snuck in when she hadn't been paying attention - Lana moved the cursor up to her email-client's Send button and clicked on it.
"Well..." she said and leaned back on her swivel chair. "That's that. Let's see what happens. All right, in the meantime, I better go on a scouting mission for some new clothes... after all, I can't show up in my old rags," she mumbled to herself as she opened a new tab in her browser and began to type in the name of a well-known online retailer.
Meanwhile, more than sixteen hundred miles further South, Josephine 'Joey' Swain - now thirty-eight but as fit as ever - was rudely stirred from her afternoon nap by her laptop playing a sound bite from Star Trek The Next Generation, making Lieutenants Worf's deep voice send an echoing 'Captain, incoming message,'
through the relatively small pilot house of the Argo.
"What the hell...? Who installed that?" she said, lazily scratching her chest. When the scratching wasn't effective, she undid another button in her well-worn blue-and-red Hawaiian shirt and reached inside to give the offending spot below her left breast a good rubdown.
Feeling much calmer after the crisis had been dealt with, Joey pushed her floppy hat back from her sky blue eyes and got up from her old wooden Captain's chair. After going through a very thorough yawn-and-stretch routine that made all the joints in her back pop and creak, she shuffled over to the laptop that had been placed on the window sill.
Once there, she took a moment to look through the window and down at her first mate, Dominique Hofstaedter - better known as Oily Rags, or just Olly Rags - who was sunbathing on a towel on the forward deck; as naked as the day she was born, she was doing her damnest to look like a Caribbean Queen as she lay there with a glistening sheen of perspiration covering her shapely, chocolate brown body.
Shaking her head and chuckling out loud, Joey concentrated on the laptop and the email that had just arrived. "Dear Mister Swain, har! Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, forty-five hundred bucks! Awright! Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, April twenty-first... shouldn't be a problem," Joey said, shuffling over to her plotting table to find her order book.
Quickly leafing through the mostly empty book, it didn't take her long to arrive at the blank page otherwise known as April, 2012. "Uh-huh, like I said," she mumbled and returned to the laptop to read the rest of the mail.
"Single cabin... uh-huh. All right, we can do that," she said, making a little note in the order book. " 'For the sake of privacy.' Boy, is she in for a surprise... the Argo isn't a cruise liner. We only got six cabins... one for me, one for Olly, two for the guests and two for various supplies," Joey said out loud, wishing she had a fresh cigar to chew on instead of her cheek.
Suddenly getting an irresistible urge to light up, Joey began to pat herself down but soon realized that she had left her cigars in her cabin. "About face!" she said out loud before shuffling off to get her indispensable stogies.
A scant minute later, she pulled the curtain to her cabin aside and went straight for the case of cigars that she had mistakenly left on the minuscule table next to her bunk. Holding her favorite Zippo under the tip of the stogie, she huffed and puffed on it to get it to ignite. When it finally caught, she inhaled deeply and sent out a pale blue cloud of smoke that slowly dissipated towards the low ceiling of the cabin. "Oh yeah, this is life..." she said and sat down on her bunk.
Looking around the small cabin, she realized that she needed to clean up the mess left behind by her latest female acquaintance who had been with her the night before - a pair of panties and a broken pair of cheap sunglasses.
Shrugging, she picked up the sunglasses and threw them into the trash. The panties weren't an expensive brand, but the thought still crossed her mind to find the female acquaintance and hand them back to her - then it dawned on her that she didn't know the woman's real name, only her stage name from the dance club where they had met.
Letting out a grunt that sounded like a cross between a snort and a cough, Joey tried to hold the panties against her hips, but when they proved to be at least five inches too small for her, she shrugged again and threw them into the trash. "I guess she did kinda have snake hips," she said and got off the bunk.
Moving back out of her cabin, she closed the curtain - chuckling at the little sowed-on patch that said 'Kaptin's Kwarters' like she invariably did - and checked the two guest compartments to see if any embarrassing items had been left in there as well.
When she had established that they were fairly clean and presentable - or as clean and presentable as they could be aboard a re-fitted ex-US Navy Fast Patrol Boat of 1966 vintage - she pulled the curtains to and moved down to the end of the narrow corridor to get to the forward hatch.
Stretching up to her full height of five foot eleven, Joey reached up and loosened the large wheel that locked the hatch in place. Stepping up on the built-in metal ladder, she climbed up into the hatch and stuck her head out on the forward deck, right next to Olly's nude, Goddess-like body.
"Hey, Olly," Joey said, puffing on her cigar and wiggling her eyebrows like a wannabe Groucho Marx.
"Hey, Skip," Dominique said in a rich, velvety voice that held a distinct trace of the local dialect. The forty-two year old native of St. Thomas rolled over onto her right and propped her head up on her arm, making her full bosom slide towards her right.
"How's the sun today?"
"No," Olly said and ran her hand down her stomach and onto her ample hipbone to show Joey the perspiration.
"I don't know why you bother... I don't think you can get any browner, Olly," Joey said, looking admiringly at the older woman's swooping curves.
"Oh ha, ha. I'll bet it took ya an hour to come up with that one."
"Yeah, more or less. Do you want me to add some sun tan lotion...?"
Pointing at the half-used bottle next to her shoulder, Olly shook her head. "Naw, I got it covered... literally."
"Okay. Shit. Anyway... believe it or not, we've actually got ourselves a booking," Joey said, putting her arms on the edges of the hatch. "In two weeks' time. A nice lady from New York City called Lana Ferguson. She's offered us forty-five hundred dollars for a week. I think we'd be a couple a' raving imbeciles if we turned her down."
"Sounds good, Skip. What's the catch?"
"Well, I'm not sure there is one."
Letting out a loud laugh, Olly flopped onto her back and took a wide-brimmed hat that she used to fan her face. "Trust me, Joey. There's always a catch. What is it?"
"Uh, she said that she'd be travelling with another woman...? Other than that, I can't see any drawbacks, Olly. We really need the dough, you know that."
"Oh I know that, all right. I'm still surprised how high my last paycheck bounced when I tried to cash it in!" Olly said, chuckling darkly.
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I guess the money hadn't cleared yet... or something."
"Or something. Hey, perhaps this Lana and the other woman are secret lovers trying to get away from their husbands?"
"Uhhh... that's not the vibe I got from the email, Olly."
"Or a couple a' nuns on the run from a convent?"
"Now that's definitely not the vibe I got," Joey said and knocked off some ash onto the deck. "Ah, we just have to wait and see. I'll go back up and answer the email right way. Which reminds me, did you install that new sound the laptop makes when there's a new mail?"
"If you didn't do it, I guess it musta' been me, Skip," Olly said and rolled over onto her stomach. Raising her lower legs in the air, she began to swing them back and forth while she looked at Joey and waited for the inevitable answer.
The inevitable answer wasn't long in coming - "Cheeky so-and-so," Joey said and gave Olly's ample butt cheeks a couple of gentle pats before she slipped back down the hatch, hearing Olly's characteristic velvet chuckle as she did so.
Five minutes later, Joey clicked on Send to mail her affirmative answer back to Lana Ferguson from New York City. Nodding to herself, she closed the lid of her laptop and sat down in her Captain's chair - almost at once, she got back up and went over to the fridge where she got herself a cold can of beer.
Cracking it open, she took a few long swigs before sitting down to resume her nap. Sliding her floppy hat forward - mindful of the fiery tip of her cigar - she leaned back in the chair, let out a contented sigh and a small beer-induced burp, and snuggled down.
Punching the air in delight, Lana spun around three times on her swivel chair to mark the special occasion. Letting out a loud "Yippie!", she immediately clicked on Print to have a hard copy of the email in case something would go wrong.
"Oh, this is going to be the greatest adventure of my life!" she said ecstatically, jumping up from her chair. When she realized that she better book the flights and the hotel at once so she wouldn't run into any sell-outs, she sat down again and began to click furiously to find the best airline for the task - a few minutes later, she had booked two return tickets from New York-JFK to the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, the only major airport in the entire US Virgin Islands area.
Once that was done, she continued with the hotel reservations, finding a very nice holiday resort in the heart of Charlotte Amalie, the capitol of St. Thomas.
Quickly clicking on the Print button, Lana snatched the pages even before they had fully cleared the printer. A thorough double-check later, she put the airline booking confirmation, the hotel reservations and the mail Joey Swain had sent her into her top desk drawer and closed it with such reverence that it bordered on the obsessive.
While she had the laptop up and running, she quickly put together a mail for Rebecca Stern with the dates and details the stern secretary slash chaperone would need. About to click on the Send button, Lana suddenly felt unsure of the tone of the letter, and decided to go back to re-read it.
'Dear Miss Stern,
I've booked two tickets for AmerAir on Saturday 21st, 2012 at ten a.m. Because
of the heightened security these days, we need to be there at eight at the latest.
On St. Thomas, I've booked two adjacent suites in the Long Bay Resort on Alton
Adams Drive. It's only a four star hotel, but the suites look pretty good.
I'll swing by with your tickets. See you then.
"No, it's too impersonal," Lana said after a little while. Pushing up her sleeves, she moved back to the keyboard and added, 'Thank you for wanting to come with me to St. Thomas. I realize that my Father put you on the spot, but I'm really grateful that you've accepted the terms. I'm hoping this trip won't cause too many problems for you on a personal level...?'
"Yeah. Much better. After all, we're going to be really close together for a full week... if we're not on friendly terms, it'll be hell," Lana mumbled quietly before clicking on Send.
"Great, that's done. Oh, and my new outfits will be delivered within a few work days... couldn't be better, could it, Lana?" she continued, putting her hands behind her neck and whistling a happy little tune.
Her happy mood only lasted for less than a minute. Suddenly overcome with the strangest feeling in her heart - perhaps even a premonition of something she couldn't quite grasp what was - Lana felt she needed to take a step back from the events, and she leaned back in her chair and began to ponder what the grand adventure might mean for her.
'It's not the treasure... realistically, I'll never find any. No, it's... it's finding myself. Yes... It's finding out who I really am. I'm thirty years old now and I don't even dare tell my Daddy that I'm... who I am. But on such a trip, I could make a fresh start. I could talk to Rebecca Stern about her experiences... a heart to heart, perhaps... if she'd talk to me.'
Sighing deeply, Lana rubbed her face and moved away from her laptop. Shutting it down and closing the lid, she decided to clear her mind of the unexpected dark thoughts by going to the gym room in the basement of the apartment building.
The Wellness & Fitness Center was as busy as always and she needed to wait for a few minutes before her favorite exercise equipment, the treadmill, became available. Stepping onto it, she quickly punched in the data on the electronic touch screen - the tempo, the music she wanted to listen to and the movie that would be playing on the eighty inch flatscreen TV in front of the treadmill.
Deciding on a music selection called Ethnic Rhythms and a movie called Hawaii at Dawn, she plugged in her own earphones, hit Start and began to jog in place, slowly climbing in tempo until she was at the level she preferred, hoping that it would blow away the dark clouds that had suddenly invaded her golden fantasy.
Two weeks later.
Stepping out of the historical terminal building on St. Thomas, Lana stopped in the middle of the forecourt and took a very deep breath to fill her lungs with the clean, but warm, island air.
"We have arrived," she said quietly to herself as she took off her sunglasses and her wide-brimmed, floppy hat to be able to take in the sights. Everywhere she looked, she could see nothing but clear blue skies and plenty of tropical vegetation, and her nose immediately picked up a certain exotic scent she most decidedly wasn't used to from New York City.
"We certainly have... now how do we get to the hotel, Miss Ferguson?" Rebecca Stern said, pulling along their fully stocked baggage trolley.
Groaning inwardly, Lana put her sunglasses and her hat back on and turned around to face her travelling partner. "Miss Stern, how often do I have to tell you that I want you to call me Lana...? Please!"
"And how often do I have to tell you that it makes me feel uncomfortable? I prefer to call you Miss Ferguson, so that's what I'll do," the stern chaperone said, adjusting her gray suit and white shirt that had already begun to get a bit constricting in the stifling heat. "Oh, there's a shuttle coach. Perhaps the driver will know how to get to the hotel," she continued, pulling the trolley towards a row of coaches parked at the curb.
Sighing, Lana took off her sunglasses again and looked at the gray figure who stuck out like a sore thumb among the bright colors that everyone else wore, including herself. She had been unable to decide on what to wear until the very last moment, but ultimately, she had sent back most of the Safari-style clothing she had bought because she had come to realize they would most likely be horribly impractical. Instead, she had settled for a few, classic garments, like t-shirts and Bermuda shorts, and the breezy, yellow, Brazilian-style pant suit she was wearing now.
When Rebecca Stern waved at her to get her to come to the coach, Lana sighed for the umpteenth time since they had left NYC and began to walk along the sidewalk to get to the white shuttles.
"Miss Ferguson, the driver has explained that we can just hop onboard with our luggage. He doesn't have a stop at the hotel itself, the bus can't get up the narrow streets, you see, but he's promised to let us know when we're close to the hotel," Rebecca Stern said, standing in the open door.
"Well, that's something at least. I'll buy two tickets. Would you mind handling our bags?" Lana said and stepped up into the coach, sending the driver a friendly smile as she reached for her purse.
"No problem, Miss Ferguson," Rebecca said flatly, looking with a great deal of resignation at the five heavy suitcases on the baggage trolley.
"Miss Ferguson, will you relax? We're only going twenty-five miles an hour!" Rebecca Stern whispered to a visible spooked Lana who was clenching her fists so hard that her knuckles had turned white.
"But we're driving on the wrong side of the road! What is he, nuts? You said it would be all right!" Lana said through clenched teeth. Unclenching her fists, she immediately grabbed the backrest of the seat ahead of her to have something to do with her hands.
Rolling her eyes out of sight of her employer's daughter, Rebecca leaned in towards the frightened woman and spoke in a voice she usually only used for her sister's children. "Miss Ferguson, on the Virgin Islands, everybody drives on the left. It's the law here."
"Nonsense, isn't it a part of the United States? Unless I'm really, *really* mistaken, we don't drive on the left!"
"Well, they do here. Why don't you relax a little and look at the beautiful landscape? Look at the picturesque way the city stretches up the hills," Rebecca said and pointed out of the window at the hundreds of large and small houses that had been built scaling the hills of the central part of the island.
Forcing herself to calm down, Lana looked out of the windows of the shuttle coach. Slowly beginning to appreciate the local flavor a bit more, the lush vegetation, the vivid colors and the sight of street vendors hawking various items from pushcarts instilled a sense of adventure in her that she didn't know she was capable of fostering.
Leaning back in the seat, she let out the nervous breath she had been holding ever since she got onboard the coach, and let herself be awed by the splendor of the island.
Fifteen minutes later, they waved at the bus driver as he drove off with a few honks. Turning around, Lana picked up two of her own bags and quickly ran across Long Bay Road, the busy street that separated the main part of Charlotte Amalie from the harbor.
Reaching the other side, she put the bags down again and looked out over the many yachts moored in the harbor, trying to find the easily recognizable silhouette of Skip Swain's boat, the Argo.
When she couldn't spot it anywhere, she scrunched up her face and began to wonder if they were about to run into problems. As Rebecca crossed the street with the remaining three suitcases, Lana tapped her shoulder and pointed at the harbor.
"Well, there's the harbor, but I can't find our boat."
"Didn't you get its berth number?"
"Uh, berth number?"
"I'm sure the piers must be numbered somehow. Or perhaps we could ask in the harbor master's office," Rebecca said, nodding towards a low building on the other side of the street.
"Good thinking, Rebecca," Lana said with a smile, hoping to warm up the frosty air that had somehow developed between them. "Tell you what, let me take one of your suitcases. I can handle it," she continued, bending down to pick up the smallest of the three bags Rebecca had hauled across the street.
"Oh... thank you, Miss Ferguson."
Groaning inwardly, Lana shot her chaperone an exasperated look. "Lana, Rebecca. My name is Lana."
"Miss Ferguson," Rebecca Stern said strongly to underline her preference, "once we get to the hotel, I would very much like a shower. Can we put off looking for the ship until I've had one?"
"If you can't wait, you're free to go down here on your own... but please don't get involved in any kind of trouble. If you're accosted, I'll lose my job."
"I can take care of myself, Miss Stern!" Lana growled and picked up her own two bags and the small suitcase. "Come on, let's get to the hotel. It's not far," she said angrily, stomping up one of the narrow streets in a huff.
An hour later, a freshly showered Rebecca and a grumbling, impatient Lana walked through a gate welcoming guests to the Long Bay Yacht Haven Grande and into the harbor itself.
Still not sure where the Argo might be moored, Lana decided on venturing out onto the first pier to look for it. Along the pier, she spotted many expensive, beautiful yachts, but not the one she was looking for, so when she reached the end, she sat down on a concrete bollard to come up with a strategy that would help them.
Pushing her floppy hat back on her head to see better, Lana shielded her eyes from the murderous sun and slowly moved her head from left to right while she scanned the rest of the harbor.
"Can you see anything, Miss Ferguson?" Rebecca Stern said, wearing another of her patented gun metal gray suits over a white shirt that had been buttoned up to just below her chin.
"Not yet," Lana said, secretly wondering how on Earth the uptight chaperone could survive wearing such an outfit in the stifling late April heat. Even in her breezy pant suit, Lana could still feel the occasional drop of sweat run down her back and her stomach, and she was almost afraid to think how hot it would be underneath Rebecca's tightly buttoned shirt.
Standing up, Rebecca scanned the harbor as well, looking in the other direction to Lana. "It's quite a large boat, isn't it, Miss Ferguson?"
"Well, on the original web site, it said that it was an eighty-footer, yes."
"I think I've found it... or at least, a boat that size... the only one in the harbor," Rebecca said, pointing at a boat several hundred yards away on the far side of the Long Bay Yacht Haven Grande.
"Oh! Where?" Lana said and shot up from the bollard.
"There," Rebecca said, crouching down to show the shorter Lana exactly what she meant.
Staring at the boat that was held in battleship gray instead of mahogany brown like it was supposed to be, Lana had to rub her eyes several times. When the behemoth was still ungainly even after the third rub, she just knew deep down inside that she'd been had by the promotional pictures on the web site. "What. The. Hell. Is. That. Thing?" she said in a dark, menacing voice.
"Looks like some kind of war ship," Rebecca said flatly, taking a sliding step back from Lana and the explosion she was sure would follow.
Fifteen minutes later, Lana came to an abrupt stop at the end of the pier the farthest away from the city. The four-foot wide name painted onto the hull of the ungainly war ship confirmed her worst fears - 'ARGO - St. Thomas, US VI.'
She quickly rubbed her eyes again to make sure that she hadn't been hallucinating the whole time - but no, the boat remained in the water in front of her.
Moored to the pier with no less than four heavy ropes, the long and curiously low boat bobbed gently up and down as the waves hit its battleship-gray hull. The Stars and Stripes flew proudly at the stern of the ship, but that was the only sign of life, apart from an unseen transistor radio blaring out an old rock'n'roll hit - appropriately enough, Trouble in Paradise by The Crests.
Feeling her enthusiasm and her sense of adventure get flushed down the proverbial toilet, Lana walked slowly along the length of the boat to take in the entire ghastliness.
The boat was undoubtedly a re-fitted war ship, that much was clear from the broad-shouldered, no-nonsense design, the microscopic portholes and an odd contraption at the stern that looked like it had been a machine gun nest once upon a time.
The bridge of the boat was far lower than usual, and it seemed to be armor-plated and reinforced with strangely-shaped windows which gave it an odd, flat-top-like appearance. On top of the bridge, four unusually long antennas swayed gently in the breeze blowing in from the ocean.
"This is not a fishing boat... this is the frickin' USS Enterprise!" Lana exclaimed loudly, throwing her hands in the air. "The only thing missing is a couple a' frickin' torpedo tubes!"
Even though the gangway was lowered, Lana stomped right past it to get back to Rebecca - her next stop, the harbor master's office.
Lana and Rebecca both had to do a double-take at the size of the harbor master when he opened the door to his office a little while later. In his mid-fifties, the man weighed at least three hundred lbs., a fact that was very much underlined by the sheen of sweat on his dark brown face and in the way his white uniform was nearly bursting at the seams as it tried to stretch across his gut.
"Oh..." he said in a surprised voice as he saw the two women waiting outside. "Good afternoon, ladies, I'm-"
Lana Ferguson didn't have time for trivialities; instead, she just barged into the office and stepped up to the desk, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot on the wooden floor. "I'm here to file an official complaint over one of the boats moored here."
"- Everett Pearce," the man continued, chuckling in a deep rumble that made his large body shake. "I'm the harbor master, but I suspect you know that already."
Stepping into the office, Rebecca shook hands with the man. "We do, Mr. Pearce. I'm Rebecca Stern and this is Miss Lana Ferguson. Sorry for intruding like this, but we have a little situation."
"I can tell," Everett said as he closed the door and inched his way around the desk to get to his swivel chair. "You said you were here to file a complaint?"
"That's right," Lana said strongly. "I have been played like a fool by one of the tour operators."
"Oh? Which one?"
That information made Everett Pearce stop what he was doing and stare at the irate woman with an unreadable expression on his face. "Joey Swain?" he echoed after a few seconds.
"Joey Swain, indeed, Mr. Pearce." Eyeing the harbor master's computer, Lana suddenly realized that she had the perfect evidence at her fingertips, and leaned forward to tap on the plastic casing of the monitor. "Are you online, Sir?"
"Well, if you go to Joey Swain's web site, you can see exactly what I mean, and in living color, I might add. Please do!"
"All right, all right," Everett said, clicking away to start his Internet browser. A few seconds and a quick search later, he entered the web site and soon found the promotional photos.
"There! That's the boat, Mr. Pearce!"
"I'm sorry, Miss Ferguson... I'm not sure what you're getting at," Everett said, wiping his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief.
"That's not the way the boat looks now... now, it's some kind of... of... war ship!"
Smirking, Everett Pearce leaned back in his chair. "Well, I don't know how to tell you, but it's always been a war ship. It's a re-fitted fast patrol boat from the Vietnam war. I can't see the big problem, Miss...?"
"War ships are cramped and noisy and uncomfortable and... and I'll be damned if I'm to spend a week at sea in such a thing... I've transferred nearly five thousand dollars to Joey Swain's account, and I want my money back, Sir!"
Everett sighed and rose from his chair to go over to his filing cabinet. "Look, Miss Ferguson," the harbor master said as he pulled out a file and sat down at his desk, "I see what you mean, but I can assure you that they're not trying to fool you. Joey Swain, Olly Rags and the Argo are very well known around here... and much-loved, I might add."
"But Mr. Pearce! Look at this picture," Lana said and shot up from her uncomfortable armchair. Reaching over the harbor master's desk, she turned his monitor around and tapped her index finger on the plastic surface. "That's what I paid for, not a battleship!"
Looking decidedly fed up with the increasingly bossy tourist, Everett Pearce leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "Do you know why it looks different now, Miss Ferguson?"
"Of course not, Mr. Pearce. How could I?" Lana answered abruptly, mirroring the harbor master's posture.
"It looks different now because Joey just worked non-stop for an entire week giving it a new coat of paint so it would be in tip-top shape for the next guest... which I'm guessing is *you*, Miss Ferguson."
"Oh... uh... okay," Lana said, suddenly feeling mightily embarrassed. Deflating like a leaky balloon, she sat down on the chair and began to chew on her lips, unsure how to continue the conversation.
Grunting, Everett reached for his cell phone and flipped it open. "I'll give Joey a call. When she gets here, you can square it among yourselves. It's not really a job for the harbor master."
Rebecca picked up the unexpected qualifier at once, and she furrowed her brow as the implications began to swirl around in her mind. Looking at Lana, she could see that the dots hadn't yet been connected, and she suddenly felt a need to get the two out of them out of there before Lana would realize that the color of the boat wasn't the only thing she'd had misconceptions about.
Lana, still oblivious to the finer details, let out an quiet snort and began to fiddle with her fingernails. "You do that, Sir. I just wish he had been clearer on the type of his boat in the original mail he sent me."
"Who's 'he', Miss Ferguson? Joey Swain is a woman," Everett Pearce said, furrowing his considerable brow.
"I... beg... your... pardon...?" Lana said, opening up her face to such an extent that it became several inches longer than usual. Rebecca just groaned and clapped a hand across her eyes.
"Josephine Swain... but please don't tell her I mentioned her real name, she'll kill me slowly... Miss Ferguson, with all due respect... I think you need glasses," the harbor master said. When he got in touch with Joey, his face lit up in a smile and he leaned forward to look Lana in the eye. "Hey Joey, it's Everett. We have a little problem over here."
Unable to hold the large man's pointed look, Lana just smirked and looked down at her fingers.
'Hey, Everett. Wow, it must be an epidemic or something. I've got a problem, too. My only customer of the entire month is running late. I've just been on the horn with the airport and they say that she and her friend were on the plane... but they haven't shown up here,'
Joey's dulcet tones said from the other end of the connection.
"Well... your customers are here, Joey. Seems there's a small problem with your boat."
'Uhhh... like what? I mean, it's still floating and everything.'
"You better come over to the office and find out for yourself. Okay?"
'Sure, Everett. I'll be with you in, oh, ten minutes. I just need to pull up my pants. You kinda caught me on the crapper.'
"That would be best, Joey. See ya," Everett said and closed the connection. "She'll be over shortly," he said to Lana and Rebecca.
"Oh, goodie. I can't wait," Rebecca mumbled, rubbing her face.
Finding a fan in his top desk drawer, Everett leaned back in his chair - making the swivel chair creak and groan under his weight - and began to fan himself. "Ladies, let me tell you a story about Joey Swain. Just over two years ago, my little boy Bobby visited me at work in conjunction with a project his pre-school class was doing. I had a really busy day and couldn't stay in my office the whole time. When I got back from collecting the harbor fee from a Venezuelan yacht that had arrived over night, I was startled to see ambulances and the police waiting for me. I soon learned that my son had ventured out on his own and had fallen off one of the piers."
"Oh, God," Lana exclaimed. "Wh-what happened to him? Was he all right?"
"He was fine, Miss Ferguson, because of Joey Swain. You see, Joey happened to be on the deck of the Argo out on the farthest pier, and she watched him fall in. Without hesitation, she stripped down to her bare essentials and took a swan dive off the top of her boat... and *swam* across the harbor to save my boy, faster than anyone had ever done."
"When she reached the spot where he had fallen in, she dove to the bottom of the harbor and rescued him. She was able to get him up in time, and today, he's as fit as a fighting rooster. And that is all Joey's doing. So please, Miss Ferguson, cut her some slack."
"Yes... I... well. I hadn't expected such a dramatic story, Mr. Pearce. So she really is a Navy diver?" Lana said, chewing on her fingernails.
"Oh yes. She was dishon... uh..." - Everett realized he was about to relay a little too much information to complete strangers, so he bit it back and went another route - "She retired a few years ago. Of course, with Joey being Joey, there's always a little twist to the story. Now, I've never been the fastest man on earth, so by the time I got there, she had already climbed up on the pier, standing there like some kind of water goddess in nothing but her Navy tattoos and a pair of soaked minis, watching the paramedics treat my boy... and holding a fine issued by the police for being topless in public."
"God, no! How rude!" Lana said loudly, slapping her hand down on her thigh.
"What's rude?" a dulcet female voice said behind them, causing Rebecca and Lana to turn around and look at the doorway.
"Everett, you didn't tell them that old story, did ya?" Joey continued as she closed the door behind her.
"Of course I did, Joey. Welcome. This is Miss Stern and Miss Ferguson," Everett said and pointed at Rebecca and Lana respectively.
Lana was on the brink of swallowing her tongue when she got her first close-up look of Joey Swain. Looking nothing at all like the blurry picture Lana had found on the web site, Joey was tall, beefy and broad-shouldered with a full, but not heavy, bosom, luscious lips and a gorgeous face with the bluest eyes Lana had ever witnessed. 'Wow... *that's* a woman... a woman with a capital W,'
Lana thought, instinctively licking her lips at the sight.
Rebecca - being more worldly and experienced - was slightly less awed by the retired diver, but she still got up from her chair and put out her hand. "Hello, Miss Swain. We've heard a lot about you," she said in a friendly voice.
"Have ya? Why am I not surprised. And it's not Miss Swain, okay? It's Joey or Skipper. I won't answer to anything else," Joey said. She briefly checked out the woman with the bun in her hair, but soon zeroed in on the cute, little blonde who was still sitting in her chair, wearing a reddish facial color that reminded Joey of a lobster's rear end.
"Hiya, Miss," Joey said and stepped forward with her hand stretched out ahead of her.
Smiling nervously, Lana rose from her chair and put out her hand.
The split second their hands touched, a small arc of electricity jumped from Lana to Joey, making the tall woman move her hand back at the speed of light and let out a pained hiss. "Ouch! Hell, talk about a bolt from the blue...! Man!" she said, waving her hand back and forth to get rid of the numbness.
Putting her hand to her mouth, Lana gulped loudly and turned even redder. "Oh, I'm... t-terribly sorry, Mr. Swain..."
"There she goes again with the Mister thing. Lady, you need some glasses," Everett said and reopened the file, hoping to finally get some peace and quiet so he could get back to the paperwork he'd been doing.
"I'll see to it, Sir," Rebecca said and put her arm around Lana's shoulder. "Come on, Miss Ferguson, why don't we go outside? I think you need some fresh air."
Grinning broadly, Joey opened the door and held it open for the two guests. "Apres-vous, mademoiselles," she said, bowing slightly as Rebecca led the near-comatose Lana out of the office. "See ya, Everett," she continued, saluting the harbor master.
"Bye, Joey. Take care of yourself. These ladies are a couple of landlubbers if you ask me," Everett said before flashing Joey a wide grin.
"Uh-huh," Joey said, closing the door behind her.
"Do you speak French, Miss Sw... uh, I mean Skip?" Rebecca said as she put Lana down on a wooden bench outside the office.
"Not really, but I guess I've picked up a few things here and there. Listen, I think your friend here's got heatstroke. I know the red is particularly noticeable on her because she's so fair, but that shade isn't natural," Joey said, crouching down next to Lana.
Reaching up, Joey touched Lana's cheek with surprising gentleness, a gesture that only caused the blonde woman to blush even harder. "Miss Ferguson, are you all right?"
Unable to speak for entirely embarrassing reasons, Lana just nodded and shrugged.
"Okay..." Joey said and scratched her cheek. Looking around, she tried to find something she could use as a fan, but came up short. "Tell ya what, why don't ya come back with me to the Argo? I've got a lovely fridge filled with all kinds of cold drinks. I'm bound to have something for your tastes...? Eh?"
"Okay," Lana squeaked. As she tried to get a grip on the four billion thoughts that were racing through her mind, she was unable to find the one that would explain why this woman - impressive though she was - had had such a huge impact on her so quickly. 'All right, she's one of the most beautiful... and sexy, God...! ...women I've ever laid eyes on, but... it's not like I've lived in a cave for the last fifteen years. But, oh God... when I locked eyes with her, I felt it... felt it inside... felt every single one of my inner muscles clench and unclench at once...'
Getting up, Lana leaned against Rebecca rather than Joey - she simply didn't dare get too close to the woman-with-a-capital-W. After a few seconds, she loosened up and was able to walk up the same pier they had used earlier.
Joey put her hand on her hips and tracked the two tourists with her eyes. After a few seconds, she let out a throaty chuckle and followed them back to her boat.
"Put your leg here, Miss," Joey said, trying to guide the wobbly Lana onto the gangway.
Miraculously, Lana was able to walk up the gangway unassisted, but as soon as she reached the top, she hurriedly leaned against the battleship-gray bulkhead and looked down at Joey and Rebecca who were still standing at the foot of the gangway.
"Is she always like this when she's in the sun?" Joey said out of the corner of her mouth.
"I wouldn't know, Skip. This is the first time I'm accompanying Miss Ferguson," Rebecca said, easily ascending the gangway.
Walking up behind Rebecca, Joey found herself wondering how in Sam Hill the overdressed woman was able to stay cool underneath all those clothes. "Oh... what's your relationship, anyhow...? If ya don't mind me askin'."
"I'm the secretary of Miss Ferguson's father. As you probably know from the emails, Miss Ferguson is here on a treasure hunt. She was given a historical treasure map for her birthday. Supposedly one of Blackbeard's maps, actually."
"Oh, is that a fact? Well, Miss Ferguson... I might as well tell ya sooner rather than later," Joey said and waved her floppy hat in her face to get some air. "Ninety percent of the so-called genuine treasure maps are faker than a three dollar bill."
"This one is real," Lana squeaked, staring at a few drops of sweat that had pooled on Joey's exposed throat. 'Soon, those drops of sweat will fall down... down between her breasts... her round, full, brea- oh, snap out of it!'
Misinterpreting the new wave of red that covered Lana's face, Joey began to wave her hat in the blonde woman's direction to bring her some air, too. "Uh-huh? Well, for your sake, I hope you're right. Come on, let's go below. The pantry and your compartments are down there. My first mate, Olly Rags, is up in the city right now so you won't meet her until later," Joey said and pushed Lana towards the staircase that led down.
"Olly Rags? I thought your mechanic's name was Dom Hofstaedter?" Lana said, turning around at the top of the staircase.
"Oh, it is. I just call her Olly 'cos her hands are always kinda dirty when we're at sea. The oil, eh?"
"Her hands? Her?! Is Dom Hofstaedter a woman, too?!" Lana said, spinning around so abruptly that she almost fell down the stairs.
"Jesus, watch it, lady!" Joey said and grabbed both Lana's shoulders with her strong hands. "My insurance agent will roast me over an open fire if you break your neck before we've even left the harbor! Man!"
Brushing off Joey's hands, Lana let out an impressive huff and walked down the stairs to get to the compartments. "Oh, I'm quite fine, thank you!"
Joey kept standing at the top of the stairs, staring at the feisty woman and scratching her hairline in a very puzzled fashion, trying to come up with reasons why the blonde woman was so temperamental. Not arriving at any conclusion whatsoever, she just shrugged and followed Lana down the stairs.
Rebecca just sighed deeply.
Below, Lana moved up to the first compartment and pulled the curtain aside. What she saw made her chin begin to quiver - the tight quarters consisted of a bunk, a very small table and a metal closet that had been bolted onto the wall. The tiny porthole at the end of the cabin was open, allowing a few rays of sunshine to creep in, but other than that, it was very dark and gloomy.
"We've prepared two compartments for you like you requested, Miss Ferguson," Joey said, standing in the doorway.
"Oh... thank you... well... it's not really what I expected... more like what I feared... actually..." Lana said quietly. "And why does it smell like cigar smoke in here?"
Slowly losing her patience with the spoilt New Yorker who seemed to change her mood faster than a cormorant could dive for a herring, Joey felt like one, giant question mark on the inside. Grumbling inwardly, she began to tap her fingers against the bulkhead.
"It smells of cigar smoke in here 'cos my cabin is just down the hall and I smoke cigars. Look, Miss Ferguson, it's not my problem that you didn't take a good look at the web site. We haven't hidden anything from you, hell, we've even spent more than three thousand bucks on gettin' the ship painted, for Cripe's sake!"
The moment the heated words left Joey's mouth, she felt a pang of regret but knew that it was too late to do anything about it. 'Great, you foulmouthed shmuck. Forty-five hundred bucks down the drain... now she's gonna high-tail it outta here...'
she thought, scrunching up her face.
When Lana didn't shout at her but began to sob quietly instead, Joey's eyes popped wide open and she felt like the biggest heel on earth, unsure of what to do. "Uh..." she said, instinctively stretching out her arms.
Turning around, Lana flew into the Skipper's open arms and wrapped herself around the strong, Hawaiian-shirt-clad torso. "Oh, I just wanted a grand adventure but now I'm stuck on the USS Enterprise and nothing is like I expected it to be and you're not even a man and I can't... ohhhh!"
Joey held the sobbing woman tight, rubbing her hands up and down the petite back all the while staring wide-eyed at Rebecca who just shrugged in return.
"Okay... uh, Miss Ferguson...? Miss Ferguson?" Joey said quietly, almost like she was afraid the wrong word could set off a new round of sobbing.
"What's going on?"
Deciding to help the skipper out of the awkward situation, Rebecca moved in between Joey and Lana and took over the duties of holding the sobbing blonde. "Skip, I think I can explain," Rebecca said, pulling Lana's arm over her shoulder.
Ten minutes later in the forward pantry, Lana blew her nose loudly in a napkin and then looked around for a trash can to throw it in.
"It's behind you, Miss Ferguson," Joey said, sitting the wrong way around on a chair.
"Oh, thank you," Lana snuffled and threw the piece of well-soaked paper in the can, looking - and sounding - like a blubbering mess.
"Miss Ferguson, I'm sorr..." Joey said, but soon came to a halt because she was slightly worried over the blonde's reaction. Taking a deep breath, she decided on trying a different approach. "Miss Ferguson, I can definitely understand wanting to break free from the suffocating conditions you're living under, but... sheesh... I wish you had gone someplace else to test your boundaries, 'cos, frankly, you had us all going at it like crazy to prepare for your arrival. I know that my first mate will be very upset if it was all for naught."
"I'm sorry," Lana snuffled, in dire need of a new napkin to blow her nose in.
Baring her teeth at the horrendous sight of two, sickly green lines sliding down the grown woman's upper lip, Joey hurriedly reached behind her, grabbed a full box of tissues and shoved it across the table. "You might wanna, uh..." she said, pointing at her own upper lip.
"I know..." Lana said between a sob and a snort.
Commotion up on the deck made Joey step off the chair and stick her head out of one of the portholes in the pantry.
Outside, Olly slid to a halt on her mountain bike, jumped off it and carried it up the gangway, not spotting Joey's face in the porthole until she was almost at the top. "Oh, hey... I couldn't find 'em anywhere! God only knows what has happened to them," the mechanic said and threw her hands in the air.
"I know exactly what's happened to them, Olly. They're here."
"Aw hell, and here I've toured half the Goddamned island to find 'em. Shit!" Olly said and let out a hoarse chuckle.
"Come on down and say hello. They're dyin' to meet ya," Joey said and moved back in.
Inside, Rebecca had helped Lana create a cold compress by pouring some cold water on a wad of tissues that she was holding against her eyes so they wouldn't turn puffy. "Was that your mechanic, Miss Swa... uh, I mean, Skip?"
"That's right. She'll be in shortly. Uh, meanwhile, how about a beer or something? I got a few cold ones...?"
"No, thank you. I don't drink beer, actually."
Staggered by that revelation, Joey pretended to sway gently in the non-existent breeze. "Wow, no shit? What, for religious reasons?"
"No, I just dislike the taste."
"Huh, imagine that. I love the taste of beer. Whatever," Joey said with a laugh.
Behind them, Olly stepped into the pantry, having changed into a squeaky clean, dark blue boiler suit that she had saved for just that occasion. It was too hot to zip it all the way up, so she had left the zipper head at one-quarter mast just below her belly button - revealing with striking clarity that she wasn't wearing a bra.
"Hi, everybody, I'm Dominique Hofstaedter, but everybody calls me... hey, what's going on here? Have you guys been fighting?" Olly said when she noticed the cold compress on Lana's face.
"Long story, Olly. This is Miss Rebecca Stern and Miss Lana Ferguson," Joey said, pointing at Rebecca and Lana.
"Okay...? Hello, pleased to meet ya," Olly said and put out her hand.
Just standing there like in a trance - or like an automaton - Rebecca had completely forgotten all her manners. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't tear her eyes away from the long V she could see of the black woman's skin, nor from the ample chest and the way the two peaks tried to push their way through the fabric - nor from the mechanic's gorgeous face, for that matter.
"Wow, I haven't felt this scrutinized for years... great to know that I can still snare 'em in," Olly said to Joey when her outstretched hand was thoroughly ignored.
Laughing, Joey walked around the table and tapped Rebecca's shoulder.
Startled, Rebecca snapped out of it and blushed fire engine red when she realized that she had been most rude.
"Oh great, now she's blushing, too. You'd think they'd never seen a couple a' Sisters before, huh?" Joey said and let out a loud laugh.
Finally able to breathe again, Rebecca shook her head and stepped forward to shake hands with the sexy mechanic. "I'm... I'm... I'm... uh, terribly sorry, Miss Hofstaedter. I'm just... I was just..."
"I know. Doesn't bother me none," Olly said and swept her short hair away from her face with both hands in a gesture that opened up the boiler suit even more.
"Olly, that's just eeeevil," Joey said in a mock creepy voice. Clearing her throat, she turned back towards the two tourists and sat down at the table. "Listen, I've got an idea. Why don't you go back to your hotel and spend the night there? Then, tomorrow morning, one of you could come back and tell us what you've decided to do. If you want to go back to New York, I'll wire your money back to you, Miss Ferguson... it'll be a little while, but I'll send it, I give you my word. And if you choose to go on the trip, well... we'll set off when you get here. How's that?"
Putting away the cold compress, Lana nodded a couple of times, looking a little better. "That sounds like a very fair deal, Miss Swain."
"Hey, it's Joey or Skip. Like I said before, I won't answer to anything else," Joey said, tapping her knuckles on the melamine-plated table.
"All right... Joey. I appreciate it. Sorry I made your shirt wet before," Lana said and began to rise from her chair.
Leaning in, Olly put her face near Joey's and wiggled her eyebrows several times. "You've only known her for ten minutes and she's already made your shirt wet? That's gotta be some kind of record, Skip," she whispered.
"Shaddup, Olly. She cried on it."
"Awwww, you made her cry? What kind of Skipper are you, anyway?"
"Go fiddle with your engines, Olly!" Joey whispered back, nudging Olly in the ribs.
Walking around the table, Lana grabbed the stunned Rebecca and began to lead her out of the pantry. "No matter what, we'll be in touch. Thank you, Joey... and, uh, Olly," Lana said, nodding respectfully at the two tall, buff women.
"You're welcome. Come on, I'll help you get up," Olly said, guiding Lana and Rebecca out of the door and through the narrow hallway.
Back in the pantry, Joey took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling in her bones that if the fiery, unpredictable blonde accepted, there would be plenty of drama and histrionics on the trip.
As the bell on the nearby church tower struck one a.m., Lana silently opened the French doors of her hotel suite and stepped out onto the balcony only wearing a blue pajamas and a pair of bathing slippers - even though the temperature had dropped a great deal from the afternoon, the night was warm, leaving very little danger of her catching a cold.
Unable to sleep because of the many thoughts tumbling around in her mind, she began to study the slumbering city. Because it had been built on a hillside, she was able to see a large number of houses and shops from her vantage point; there were lights in some of the windows, but most were black. Faint traffic noises rose up from Long Bay Road, but they weren't intrusive at all.
In the far distance, she could see the rays of the moon reflected in the calm waters of Long Bay. She tried to look for Joey's boat, the Argo, but the harbor was too far away for her to see any details, apart from a row of brightly-colored dots that were gently bobbing left and right - the lanterns on top of the masts in the Yacht Haven.
Letting out a long sigh, Lana leaned forward and put her elbows on the balcony's metal railing. 'I wonder what Joey's doing now... Sleeping? Playing cards with Olly? Maybe she's in a tavern somewhere having a drink? Oh, why do I even care about her...'
The metal railing proved to be colder than anticipated and a brief shiver ran across Lana's body. Standing up straight, she rubbed her upper arms and went back inside, leaving the French doors wide open to let the gentle, warm breeze in.
Sitting down at the suite's desk, she began to toy with a fountain pen and a stack of paper to have something to do with her hands. 'I have no idea what I should do. Should we drop everything and go home? Should I swallow my pride and go on the treasure hunt? No, it's not even pride... God, I've been such a fool... I'm just a blind, naïve fool. Woefully unprepared and simply living an illusion, a frickin' Technicolor fantasy world. How could I have been so stupid that I actually believed that this was something that I could do? Little, naïve me who can't even make her own Goddamned breakfast! I'm thirty years old and I've never, ever had a serious girlfriend because I'm too frickin' scared of how my father would react when he found out!'
Jumping up from the chair, Lana began to pace back and forth in the suite. Reaching one end, she huffed loudly and spun around to go back the other way. 'But what should I do, dammit? Should we stay or should we go? No, I can't go... I just can't. I won't! If I chicken out now, if I run back to Daddy with my tail between my legs, I'm done, I'm frickin' finished... I'll never be more than an awkward, unnatural Daddy's Girl. The only future for me will be with Jason Connell and two-three-four kids of our own and... God, that's not what I want.'
Gradually slowing down, Lana buried her face in her hands and let out a long, heartfelt sigh. 'I have to do this... I have to do this if it kills me. I have to go on this trip. That's the only way I can grow as a human being. Oh, if only Joey had been a toothless, old hag with bad teeth and warts on her nose... but she's so sexy and beautiful I almost came when she first spoke to me.'
Snickering at that mental image, Lana shook her head and ran her fingers through her long, golden-blonde hair. Suddenly overcome by a very wide yawn, she took that as a sign that she had finished debating with herself - the result: she was going to go with Joey and Olly on the treasure hunt. If Rebecca Stern wanted to come, all the better, but she didn't want to force the secretary into doing anything she wasn't prepared to do.
"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," she mumbled out loud, once again chuckling when she realized how excruciatingly, mind-numbingly nonsensical the whole deal had been until that point.
Yawning again, she quickly closed the French doors and went into the bedroom to get some rest.
"And there you have it, Rebecca. I've decided to go on the treasure hunt. I'll of course accept whatever you decide on. It's totally up to you if you want to come with me or go home," Lana said the following morning as she put some strawberry jam on a slice of toast in the breakfast restaurant of the Long Bay Resort hotel.
"I need a moment to gather my thoughts, Miss Ferguson," Rebecca Stern said and leaned back in her chair, for once loosening the top button of her white shirt. Picking up her glass of orange pulp, she slushed the thick fluid around again and again, hoping that the hypnotic sight would provide the answers for her. When it hadn't done so after a little while, she sighed and emptied the glass in three gulps. "I'm coming with you, Miss Ferguson."
"Listen, Rebecca, you don't have to go on the trip if you don't want to. Don't feel obliged to watch over me just because my Dad told you to. I could call him and-"
"That's not why, Miss Ferguson."
"No? Oh..." - suddenly feeling the Great Insight giving her a nudge in the side, Lana ducked her head down between her shoulders and let out a little snicker - "it's the mechanic, isn't it? It's Dom Hofstaedter?" she whispered.
"Yeah," Rebecca said dreamily, fiddling with the edge of the empty glass.
"Boy, this is just the weirdest thing... I mean, what are the odds, Rebecca? What are the odds that all four of us are... you know..."
"One in a billion, at least."
"If not more. Wow. Oh... you don't suppose..." - furrowing her brow and looking around to see if anyone was in earshot, Lana leaned in towards Rebecca to be able to speak very quietly. "Uh, you don't suppose she and Joey are... uh... together, do you?"
"To be honest, I don't know, Miss Ferguson. It didn't appear that way to me."
Drawing a pattern on the white tablecloth, Lana's complexion regained some of the reddish color it'd had the day before. "Oh. Good," she said halfway under her breath, concentrating hard on her fingers.
Rebecca scrunched up her face as she suddenly realized that the job she had been tasked with by Alfred Ferguson - to protect Lana from rowdy, horny sailors - was still as valid as it had been when he had given it to her. The only thing that had changed was the basic anatomy of those rowdy, horny sailors. "Hmmm..." she said out loud, prompting Lana to look up and shoot her a puzzled look.
"Nothing, Miss Ferguson. So, if we're going on a treasure hunt, it means that we'll be taking our travel bags. Good thing I didn't unpack them last night."
"Yeah... the swimsuits and the rest of the scuba gear. Hmmm, I wonder what kind of swimsuit Joey and Olly will be wearing once we find the first spot on the map...?"
"Oh, we better not go there right now, Miss Ferguson," Rebecca said hastily, patting the back of Lana's hand - but unfortunately, she was unable to stop her mind from drawing a few pretty pictures on its own accord, and soon, both women sitting at the breakfast table were sharing a few juvenile snickers.
"Hey, Skip?" Olly said loudly, standing on the rear deck of the Argo sorting out a large coil of rope.
Joey said from up on the bridge.
Shielding her eyes from the sun, Olly glanced at the two women walking towards the Argo, each carrying a medium-sized travel bag, "We're about to have company."
"Yeah? Is it Everett?" Joey said, appearing in the doorway. When she caught a glimpse of the recognizable figures, she took off her sunglasses and cocked her head. "No, it's not Everett. Hmmm. Imagine that. You know, Olly, I didn't think they'd come."
"But come they have," Olly said and hung the coil of rope on a large hook.
Putting her sunglasses back on, Joey snatched her floppy hat and jumped down from the bridge. "Quick, how do I look?" she said as she put on the hat.
The Hawaiian shirt Joey had put on was red-and-blue instead of blue-and-red, and the Bermuda shorts were pale blue instead of dark blue, but those were the only differences from her usual outfit. "Mmmmm, you're a whole new woman, Skip."
"Thanks, Olly. 'Preciate it."
Laughing out loud, Olly zipped up her boiler suit and went downstairs to go through the pre-start checklist for the engines.
After adjusting the row of buttons on her shirt to make it line up just right, Joey waved at the two tourists while she walked down the gangway. Meeting them halfway to the boat, Joey shook hands with the two women. "So... this doesn't look like a goodbye," she said, nodding at the travel bags.
"No, it's a hello, actually," Lana said, putting down her bag on the pier. "We've decided to go on the treasure hunt."
"Good." Taking a step back, Joey scrunched up her face when she realized that the older of the two women was still wearing the gun metal gray skirt suit and the white shirt, and that the shirt was still buttoned up to just below her chin. 'At least Lana is wearing a tank and shorts,'
Joey thought, shaking her head slightly.
"Look, Miss Stern..." Joey continued, "I'm sorry, but it would be near-suicidal to wear that outfit once we're at sea where the sun is felt so much stronger. And even apart from that, my rules won't allow it, I'm afraid."
"Oh, that's all right, Miss Sw... uh, Skip. I have breezier clothes in my travel bag," Rebecca said, giving her bag a little shake.
"Oh. Okay. Well, with that settled, why don't we go aboard and head out to sea?" Joey said and picked up Lana's bag.
"You don't have to do that, Joey. I can carry my own bag," Lana said, trying to snatch the bag back from Joey's strong hand, but the Skip was insistent.
"Nope, I got it. Tourists first," Joey said with a broad smile, moving aside to let her two customers through.
As Rebecca put her bag on her bunk and unzipped it, she suddenly felt someone observing her. Turning around, she found herself face to face with Olly who was standing in the doorway, holding the curtain aside.
"Hi," the mechanic said, wearing a sweet smile that immediately created an equally sweet tingle in the lower part of Rebecca's gut.
"Hi," Rebecca replied. Feeling a new blush coming on, she decided that the direct approach always worked best, and she went up to the mechanic and put out her hand. "We weren't properly introduced yesterday. I'm Rebecca Stern. How do you do."
"Hello, Rebecca. I'm Dom. Dominique Hofstaedter. But everyone calls me Olly Rags or just Olly," Olly said and gave the secretary a strong handshake.
"I'm sorry for being so blunt, but... Hofstaedter...?"
"Yeah, I know, right?" Olly said with a laugh. "There's a perfectly good explanation for it. My Dad's from the Netherlands by way of the Dutch Antilles. He used to be a sailor, and one day, he had shore leave where he met my mother and you're looking at the rest of the story."
"Oh... I see. Well, I guess it happens a lot... with sailors, I mean," Rebecca said with a gleam in her eye.
"Oh you better believe it does, Rebecca. And while we're on that kind of subject, I don't think you can wear... uh, that," Olly said and touched her own chest to allude to the white shirt and the gun metal gray suit.
"I know, I know. Miss Swain has already told me. I have some lighter clothes here... if I could only have two minutes of privacy, I could slip into something more comfortable," Rebecca said and dug into her travel bag. After a little probing, she found a white, long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of shorts that she held up.
"I'll leave you to it, then," Olly said and pulled the curtain to. A split second later, she moved it aside again and peeked in. "Hey, Rebecca... d'ya think you'd like to share a drink with me a little later on? I don't know when we'll be heading back tonight, but even if we're back in port when the sun goes down, I guarantee it'll take your breath away. Like my mother says, you ain't lived until you've seen a Caribbean sunset."
"Us old girls need to stick together. The Skip and your friend are nice kids, but they're just too young to know much about life... right? And I'm sure we could find something to talk about," Olly said, grinning broadly.
"Oh, well... I'd love to, Olly... but I don't drink beer. I hate the taste."
"No shit? I can't stand that bitter crap, either. I was thinking about a soda pop, actually," Olly said with a wink.
"Oh... in that case, you're definitely on," Rebecca said, matching the wink with one of her own.
"Neat. By the way, you need to come to the pantry in ten minutes' time. The Skip wants to tell you a few things before the departure."
"I'll be there, Olly."
Ten minutes later, Rebecca stepped into the pantry where the others had already assembled and quickly found her place behind the melamine-plated table.
"All right," Joey said and stood up to her full height, assuming an air of authority that she hadn't had before. "There are some things you need to know before we set off. I call these things my ground rules. These ground rules were created to keep you safe, and thus, they're not up for debate at any time. Ground rule number one, this is my boat. I'm the Skipper and I have the final say about what is done, where it's done and for how long."
"Two, once we're at sea, whenever you venture outside on the forward deck, the side paths or the rear deck, you are to wear a lifejacket at all times. It needn't be inflated, but you need to wear it. If you fall in, we might not be able to hear you at once," Joey said sternly.
"Uh, Skipper?" Lana said and raised her hand in the air.
"I really hope that we won't fall in accidentally, but if one of us do, couldn't we just scream? Wouldn't you be able to hear that?"
"The engines are noisy, Lana. And the sharks are hungry."
"Oh, God..." Lana said, suddenly growing quite pale.
Nodding quietly, Joey seemed to lose track of her thoughts momentarily, but she was soon back on course. "Which leads me to ground rule number three... and I can see that you've paid attention, Rebecca. Three, while you're on this boat, you are to wear simple, light clothes and light shoes at all times. If you fall into the drink wearing heavy clothing, you'll get sucked down, lifejacket or not. In shorts, a t-shirt or a tank top, you'll at least have a fighting chance to stay afloat."
Lana turned her head to her right, looking at the strange sight of Rebecca Stern in something else than her trademark gun metal gray uniform. She had to admit that the secretary was actually an attractive woman, a facet to her that was completely lost once she donned the gray.
"Four, and I doubt this will be a problem... for once. I will not allow the consumption of alcohol on my boat while we're at sea. Anyone of you lovely ladies have a history of alcohol abuse I should know about?" Joey said, leaning forward to sniff the air.
When both Lana and Rebecca shook their heads, Joey let out a little laugh. "Didn't think so. All right, where was I...? Oh yeah, since this isn't a fishing trip, we can skip those rules. But not the ones relating to the diving. This is where I need to see your scuba certificates."
"They're in our neck purse, Miss Ferguson," Rebecca said, getting up to retrieve them, but Lana just waved at her and scooted away from the table.
In a flash, Lana returned and handed the Skipper the two documents. "Here they are, Joey. There shouldn't be anything wrong with them."
"Thanks, Lana. Okay... hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm... oh, you've got pretty high marks in underwater perception, that's good, Lana. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm... okay, they're up to scratch," Joey said and handed the documents back to Lana. "Still, you're rookies. Ground rule number five, under no circumstances are you to perform a dive without me being present. I know a thing or two about the world down there, you don't. I'm sailing out with two breathing guests, I'd like to go back with two breathing guests, not one tied to the rear deck wrapped in plastic and one weeping over the friend she lost. You got that?"
Shocked over the direct language - but both understanding the necessity - Lana and Rebecca nodded as one.
"Good. Since you're not experienced divers, I need to check your gear before each and every dive. I know how easy it is to go into a panic down there..."
Once again, Joey seemed to zone out, and Lana made a mental note to ask the Skipper or Olly what that was all about.
Snapping out of her dark thoughts, Joey stood up straight and clapped her hands together. "Anyway. Olly, do you have anything to add?"
"No, Skip," the mechanic said.
"Right. We leave in half an hour. Ladies, you are welcome on the bridge while we sail out of the harbor... just don't fiddle with any knobs, okay?"
The small flash of humor was an effective tension-breaker, and Lana and Rebecca both let out matching nervous laughs while they moved away from the table to finish their preparations.
As Lana walked past her, Joey put a gentle hand on the tourist's elbow. "Lana, I need to take a look at the so-called genuine treasure map before we take off. I'm only planning to do a practice dive today, but I need to know exactly what it is we're aiming for."
"Of course, Skip. I have it in my bag," Lana said, secretly enjoying the feel of Joey's callused hand on her bare arm.
"All clear, Skip!" Olly shouted as she jumped back onboard the Argo after having released all four moorings. With an almighty pull, she retracted the gangway and stowed it vertically on six hooks on the side of the bridge.
"Number two is running a little rough, Olly!" Joey shouted back from her position on the bridge.
"I'm on it," Olly said, opened a hatch on the rear deck and disappeared down a ladder that would take her to the engine bay. A moment later, the sounds of the twin Napier Deltics matched up, and the engine note changed to a potent, throaty rumble.
"Wow, this really is the USS Enterprise," Lana said to Rebecca, standing in a corner of the bridge and staring wide-eyed at the hectic activity.
"Yeah, no kidding..."
After pulling a cover off an old-fashioned, brass speaking tube, Joey leaned in and said, "Olly?"
'All set, Skip. It was just a loose plug.'
"Right. Pulling out," Joey said and set the engine room telegraph to 'All ahead, slow.' Reaching up above her, Joey pulled the cord for the fanfare horns, making them toot once to let the other vessels know that another ship entered the waters.
'All ahead slow, aye, Skip!'
Olly said from the engine bay.
Joey nodded and began to turn the wheel to port to clear the pier. Soon, the Argo slid away from the wooden pier and into the harbor with the engines burbling merrily, clearly eager to deliver their maximum punch as soon as it was called on them.
"Oh my flippin' God, that was fun!" Lana exclaimed, holding her hands in the air.
"This can't be your first time at sea, Lana?" Joey said and made a slight course correction, aiming at the mouth of the harbor and the vast ocean beyond.
"I've only ever tried the small passenger ferries that sail on the Hudson! This is totally different!"
"Well, the basic concept is the same," Joey said with a chuckle. Clearing her throat, she leaned down towards the speaking tube. "What's cookin', Olly?"
'Everything's lookin' pretty good, Skip. It was just a hiccup. We're good to go.'
"Excellent. Once we've cleared the buoys, you can come up for air."
Turning around, Joey offered her two passengers a wide grin. "It was just a hiccup. It's gonna be a couple of hours before we get to the first spot. I think you should go below and kick back some. Diving is hard work and it can really sap your strength if you're not rested. I'll whistle for ya if something exciting happens en route."
"Oh, that's a good idea. I need something to drink, anyway," Rebecca said and moved towards the small flight of stairs that led to the cabins.
Lana kept hanging around, almost like she wanted to say something to the skipper, but in the end, she just smiled and followed Rebecca below deck.
Nearly two hours fifteen minutes later a few miles off the coast of the South-Eastern part of St. Thomas, Joey gradually reduced the speed which eventually brought the Argo to a halt.
As the boat bobbed up and down on the gentle, sky blue waves, Joey took her binoculars and swept the entire horizon looking for other ships - and shark fins.
Down below, Lana felt the engines gradually slow down and then come to a full stop. Letting out a whoop, she swung her legs over the side of her bunk, hurriedly put on a pair of flip-flops and grabbed her travel bag.
Unzipping it at once, she took her scuba gear and laid it out on the small table. "Swimsuit, goggles, swim fins, snorkel, regulator, pressure gauge, lead weights... God, I hope the tanks aren't too heavy... back in the class, I could hardly move once they were strapped to my back... I better ask first."
Before changing into her swimsuit, Lana tried to listen for Joey or Olly so she wouldn't get caught with her cheeks in a breeze, but could only hear Rebecca go through the same procedures she had just completed. "Rebecca, have you changed yet?"
'Almost there, Miss Ferguson!'
"Ummm, once you're fully dressed, would you mind standing guard at my curtain? I... uh..."
'Sure thing, Miss Ferguson. I'll be there in a minute.'
"Great, thanks," Lana said and held up her swimsuit. Looking at it for the first time since she had received the parcel from the online retailer she had bought it from, she began to feel that it was a bit too much - or rather, too little. Thinking back, she wasn't sure she had *ever* worn anything quite that revealing.
Suddenly wishing she had followed her senses instead of what the fashion magazines said, Lana bit her cheek as she took a closer look at the emerald green swimsuit. "Oh, God... was this such a good idea?" she mumbled, staring at the outfit that the advertisement had promised would feel like a second skin.
At the same time, Olly came up to the bridge, wiping her hands on an oily rag. "Gauges all lookin' good now, Skip. Don't know what the hell that hiccup was. Never seen anything like it, and it didn't return," she said with a shrug.
Shrugging, Joey waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "Ah, they're just getting old. I mean, they're even older than you. They'll fall to pieces sooner or later."
"If we didn't have company, you'd already be squealin' by now, Skip," Olly said quietly, adding a sly, little wink.
"Promises, promises," Joey said and lit a cigar. Blowing out a cloud of smoke, she turned towards the stairs to the cabins. "It's funny, though. I woulda thought our guests would've been up he-" - she never finished the sentence, because at that exact moment, Lana climbed the stairs and entered the bridge wearing the most form-fitting swimsuit the Skipper had ever seen.
Even Olly stared wide-eyed at the emerald green piece of fabric that hugged the blonde's body so tightly that only the color gave away that she wasn't naked.
"I know... you don't have to say a word," Lana squeaked, feeling the most embarrassed she'd ever been in her entire life. She tried to fold her arms across her chest but that left another part of her anatomy clearly visible. "I... oh, God," she squeaked, moving a hand down to have her swim fins cover her crotch.
"Well, it's, uh... kinda... almost not there at all," Olly said with a saucy grin.
Joey just began to puff deeply on her cigar, thinking that the blonde had one of the top five sexiest bodies she had ever witnessed in real life. 'Hell, make that top three!'
she thought after giving the blonde's firm bosom, toned stomach and shapely legs an extra check.
A few seconds later, Rebecca tapped her knuckles on the doorjamb and peeked into the bridge, seemingly not too keen on flashing her own swimsuit. "Have you all dropped dead yet? I hope you have 'cos I'm... uh... coming. So to speak," she said, slowly climbing the stairs.
Comically, Rebecca was wearing a gun metal gray swimsuit in a very nice and somewhat old-fashioned cut that wasn't anywhere near as revealing as Lana's, but that still showed that she was very much a woman.
"Why Rebecca Stern, you look fabulous," Olly said, pretending to swoon.
"No I don't. My boobs are sagging and I have a disgusting roll of fat on my gut and my butt," Rebecca mumbled, not wanting to look either of the other women in the eye.
Grunting, Olly moved over to the embarrassed woman and gave her a really close inspection. "Like I said, Rebecca... you look fabulous," Olly said once she had given Rebecca a thorough check from all angles.
"I think so, too, Rebecca," Lana said, rubbing the secretary's arm.
"Thanks, everybody... but I know I don't," Rebecca mumbled.
From her vantage point at the other side of the bridge, Joey let out a large plume of cigar smoke and a small chuckle. "Hell, personally I think we all look fabulous. Right, Olly, wouldya mind dragging out the tanks? I'll go change and then we'll take our first plunge into the wonderfully wet world below. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Skip," Olly said and saluted Joey. On her way past Rebecca, Olly briefly leaned in and gave the other woman a quick peck on the cheek. "You turn me on," she growled for Rebecca's ears only, adding to the secretary's acute embarrassment.
A few minutes later, Lana and Rebecca, sitting on a small bench on the rear deck, tested their equipment and got ready to put it on while Olly released the locks and swung the rear gate open to reveal a diving platform.
"All right, let me see your gear," Joey said, climbing down the stairs.
Looking up from her preparations, Lana immediately choked on some saliva when she saw what the Skipper was wearing - instead of the tacky Hawaiian shirt and the loud Bermuda shorts, she was wearing a black Neoprene swimsuit with long, cobalt blue lightning bolts that stretched down from her shoulders, over her bosom and all the way down to her pubic bone, seemingly pointing directly at her center.
Choking, hacking, coughing and spluttering, Lana was forced to lean forward, completely red in the face from the coughing attack that didn't come to an end until Rebecca pounded her fist rhythmically into Lana's back.
Joey, smirking broadly, knelt down in front of the red-faced Lana and checked her pulse, just to be on the safe side. "Mmmmm, yeah, kinda fast but you're still with us. So, your equipment...?"
"It's... all... yours..." Lana croaked, pointing at her gear.
"Ready?" Joey barked from the end of the rear deck, looking sternly at the two rookies. When she got two identical nods from Lana and Rebecca, she pointed at her mechanic. "Olly, once we're in, hoist the diver flag, okay?"
"Like always, Skip," Olly said, holding a neatly folded Diver Down flag.
"And here we go," Joey said and let herself fall backwards into the ocean. She resurfaced a split second later, treading water while she waited for her guests to follow her. "Rebecca!" she said in a voice muffled by the breathing mask.
Gulping loudly, Rebecca let herself fall backwards, letting out a wild squeal when the unusual motion made its presence felt in her stomach.
Standing up, Lana moved over to the far end of the rear deck and turned around. When she heard the Skipper yell her name, she crouched down and fell backwards.
The ocean was warmer than she had expected - and much, much warmer than the swimming pool she had practiced in for her certificate - but it was still an extreme shock to her system. At first, the feeling of water over her head and the lack of solid ground under her feet meant that she felt like she was falling to her death, and she instinctively drew several very deep breaths.
Once the first shock had passed, she found herself bobbing back to the surface, helped there by a pair of strong hands. Staring around in a wide-eyed daze, she soon spotted Joey smirking at her and asking her a question in sign language; an okay-sign that she formed with her thumb and index finger.
Sheepishly, Lana nodded a few times and returned the okay. It didn't take her long to feel natural in the water, and she was surprised to feel that the modern equipment used on the Argo weighed so little she could hardly feel it on her back.
Once Joey had made sure her two rookies were settled down and ready for more, she raised her hand in the air to make them pay attention. When they were both staring at her, she made a thumbs-down gesture with her hand and flipped around in the water, going downstairs.
Lana - wanting to perform the flip just as graciously as the experienced diver - did her best, but ended up looking like a pregnant elephant losing her footing in a mudslide.
Rebecca fared better and she earned herself a nod and an okay-sign from Joey when they met a short while later.
Together, the three divers slowly descended to the sandy bottom of the sea. The point Joey had chosen to do the first practice dive was close to the coast, and the ocean floor was less than thirty feet below the surface.
Once they made it there, Joey stayed back but kept a very close eye on the two rookies as they frolicked in the clear water. It was obvious that they weren't always aware of their surroundings, and when Rebecca was suddenly close to having her air line snag on a curved rock, Joey thrust her hand up in a stop-sign.
Snapping back to reality, Lana and Rebecca both stopped playing around and looked at Joey who immediately swam close to Rebecca and pointed at the rock.
Understanding the danger, Rebecca nodded and swam away from the small spot, prompting Joey to send her an okay-sign.
Lana began to observe the ocean floor, seeing lots of little rocks and other protrusions she hadn't seen before. Turning around, she began to skim along the surface of the floor in a large arc that would eventually take her back to Joey and Rebecca.
Halfway around the arc, she suddenly found herself sharing the space with a large shoal of brightly colored fish. The magical sight overwhelmed her so badly that she squealed into the mouthpiece, creating a string of bubbles that spooked the fish into dispersing in an almighty hurry.
A split second later, the large rock on the ocean floor she had used as a pointer to find back to the others began to shift in a way that made her want to rub her eyes.
As the manta ray raised itself from the ground, it kicked off the sand it had used to disguise itself and took off, heading away from Lana and into the sea beyond her range. 'Oh boy! It's probably upset with me 'cos I frightened off its lunch!'
she thought, giggling through her mouthpiece.
Looking back up, Lana realized that she had drifted too far away from Joey and Rebecca and that she needed to get back at once. 'If there's one thing I want to avoid, it's to have Joey mad with me. I'll bet she has a vocabulary that could strip the paint off an aircraft carrier...'
Lana, remembering the specifics from her scuba course, took off back towards the other two divers by using her legs and swim fins to get a flying start from her position near the ocean floor. Half a minute later, Lana reached Joey who was looking at something Rebecca had found under a rock.
When the three divers assembled deep under the Argo, Joey pointed to her oxygen gauge on her arm, prompting Lana and Rebecca to do the same.
Startled to see that she only had twenty-five percent left of her air, Lana beat her hands on her chest to indicate to Joey that she had a low air supply.
Nodding, Joey tapped both Lana and Rebecca on their arms and held her hand in a thumbs-up sign that indicated that they should start the ascent.
Two minutes later, Olly put out her hand and helped Lana up on the rear deck of the Argo. Once the blonde diver was sitting on the warm planks, she took off her mask and began to crawl out of the rigging for the tank.
Breathing unrestricted for the first time in half an hour, she closed her eyes and allowed the rays of the sun to put some heat into her body that had been chilled more than she had expected.
When Rebecca broke through the surface a short while later, she had a bit of trouble getting up on the rear deck, but a good pull by Olly and an equally good push by Joey eventually sent her up on the boat.
As she took off her mask and her tank, she let out such a wildly ecstatic whoop that the other women couldn't help but laugh at her enthusiasm.
"I hope that was from enjoying the experience and not because you have a crab in your swimsuit, Rebecca," Joey said as she pulled herself up on the rear deck with no effort at all.
Dragging off her tank, Rebecca clambered to her feet and began to shake Joey's hand, pumping it up and down like the arm of a well. "Oh, God! That was the most awesome thing I've ever done... ever! I... was... it was... oh, God!"
"I know exactly what you mean, Rebecca," Joey said, pulling her hand back from Rebecca's slippery grip before her shoulder would pop out of joint.
"Miss Ferguson, don't you think that was awesome? God, I can't even describe it!" Rebecca said, spinning around to find someone else to connect with.
Moving her wet hair back from her face, Lana laughed out loud at the secretary's antics and joined her in an impromptu victory dance, feeling strangely thankful to her father for insisting that Rebecca came along on the trip. If he hadn't, she would never have seen the other side of the otherwise so buttoned-up woman - the human underneath the gun metal gray uniform.
After Olly had pulled down the Diver Down flag from the mast, she folded it neatly and stowed it in a corner of the rear deck. "Awww, first timers... ain't it cute?" she said, wrapping an arm around Joey's wetsuit-clad shoulders.
"Yeah. Is the water ready, Olly?"
"Yep. I have the showers rigged up on the forward deck. Two fifty gallon drums should be enough for all of you."
"Okay. Hey, ladies... listen up, please. Hello!" Joey said, emphasizing the last word so strongly that Rebecca and Lana once again stopped playing around.
"Thanks," Joey said once she could hear herself think. "We've set up a shower on the forward deck. I strongly suggest you use it."
"A sh... a shower? Out in the open?" Lana said, suddenly remembering that she was wearing next to nothing in the presence of others. Taking her fins, she placed them against her front so she wouldn't feel so exposed.
"Yeah. We need to wash our suits and ourselves to get the salt and the bacteria off our bodies."
"Uh, Skip... I mean, can't we... couldn't we... uh, do it a little later... or, uh, below deck?" Lana said, biting her lips.
"I'm guessing your instructor at the scuba class was a man, right?" Joey said, taking off her swim fins.
"Yes... but what's that got to do with anything?"
"It's not as important for men, but because we gals are a bit more open to the world, if ya catch my drift, we can develop a really nasty urinary tract infection if we don't get cleaned up pretty quickly."
"Oh... ewwww," Lana said, instinctively crossing her legs.
"Hence the shower. And no, we can't do it below 'cos we need too much water. There aren't any ships in the vicinity, Lana. Nobody can see you. I know public nudity is a big no-no for you big city girls, but the alternative is quite awful. Trust me, I know exactly what I'm talking about."
Gulping audibly, Lana and Rebecca looked at each other. It only took them two seconds to agree to showering in public.
"I'm going first," they both said as one.
"And I'll go last," Joey said, chuckling at the horrified look on the faces of her two guests.
"Supper's ready! Come and get some!" Joey shouted into the narrow hallway, balancing a steaming tuna and pasta casserole over to the fully set table.
In her cabin, Lana swung her legs over the side of the bunk and scratched her itchy hair. When she realized that she had slept for three straight hours instead of the fifteen-minute power nap she had planned, she shot to her feet, put on her flip-flops and hurried into the small bathroom to relieve herself of the large amount of water she'd consumed after her dive.
A few minutes later, she stepped into the pantry that had been converted into a miniature dining hall. Four plates, four glasses and four cans of soda had been put on the small table, creating a very cozy - but fairly cramped - atmosphere. Rebecca had placed herself next to Olly, leaving a space open for Lana next to the Skipper.
"You better hurry if you want some of my world famous tuna casserole, Lana," Joey said and scooped up a large spoonful of the deliciously smelling food.
Lana's stomach replied for her by growling loudly, something that made the others raise their glasses and salute her.
"Oh... if I had known we'd be five, I'd have set another plate," Joey said, winking at the embarrassed Lana before taking a sip from her Coke.
"Ha, ha. I'm just hungry," Lana said and sat down next to Joey. "Diving makes one hungry, you know."
"Oh, I know. Do you want me to open your can for you?"
Looking at the Skipper to see if she was trying to mess around with her, Lana was surprised to find that Joey's face was nothing but sincere. "Uh... no, I got it. But thank you, Joey," she said, looking at the can of Coke. "Oh, I know I'm going to be really annoying now, but you wouldn't happen to have a Diet Coke, would you?"
"Sure," Joey said, took the Classic Coke and inched over to the refrigerator. Moments later, she put a Diet Coke down on the table. "Here ya go."
"Oh, thanks. I always drink Diet Coke," Lana said as she cracked open the can and poured the sticky brown liquid into her glass.
"Noted for future reference," Joey said with a broad grin before she went to work on her pile of tuna and pasta casserole.
"Yeah... okay. Looks like we were five at the table, anyhow," Joey said, staring into the completely empty pot less than fifteen minutes later. "I didn't even get a second helping of my own casserole!"
"Uh... sorry. That was me," Lana said, pushing away her empty plate.
Chuckling, Rebecca emptied her glass and pushed it into the center of the table. "It's so unfair. I don't know where you put it all, Miss Ferguson. Look at me, I can't even walk past a pizza parlor or a bakery without gaining five pounds."
"Rebecca, like I told you more than once... hell, more than twice," Olly said, leaning in towards her bench-mate. "You look fantastic."
"Thanks, Olly, but I know I'm too fat," Rebecca said, toying with her glass.
"Skipper, we have grievances," Olly said somberly to Joey. "We need a vote. All those who think Rebecca Stern is too fat say aye."
When the only sound heard was the waves gently slapping against the hull, Olly tapped her knuckles on the melamine-plated table and leaned in towards the secretary. "The vote is in. You're not too fat. Hell, you're not even fat at all, Rebecca. You're round, sure, but round ain't fat. I'm round, too... and lemme tell you, round girls can go *all* night. Not like those skinny kittens over there who have to catch a breather now and then," Olly whispered huskily, pointing her thumb at Lana and Joey.
Predictably, Rebecca blushed fire engine red and snickered in an embarrassed fashion, but didn't dare look up at any of the others.
Lana felt a blush begin to sting her own cheeks, and it didn't get any better when she happened to look up and lock eyes with Joey, who happened to look at her at the exact same time.
Pushing her chair back to get away from the saucy air that had suddenly invaded their supper, Joey took the plates and got up. "And with that out of the way, how about we discussed what tomorrow may bring?"
"Have you had time to look at my treasure map while I was sleeping, Joey?" Lana said, reaching over the table and giving Rebecca's hand a little squeeze to show her support.
Clearing the table of the last items, Joey put them in the small sink next to the refrigerator. "Yes, I have, actually," she said as she sat back down at the table. "I've seen a lot of fakes over the years, but I have to admit that it looks... well... less like a fake than I had anticipated."
"Ummm... in English, please...?"
"Well, I... hmmm. There's a chance it could be real."
At that piece of very unexpected news, Lana's eyes popped wide open and she let out a cross between a squeal and a surprised snort. "Oh... wow!" she said, practically letting her jaw drop down on the tabletop.
"Mmmm-yeah. Do you know where your father bought it?"
"Hmmm. Lana, would you mind getting it? I need to point out the things I've discovered."
"Back in a flash!" Lana said and hurried away from the table.
A scant minute later, Lana carefully unfurled the ancient scroll and put salt and pepper shakers and two glasses on the four corners to hold them down.
"All right, this is the route we took today," Joey said, moving her index finger from the central part of the island where the port of Charlotte Amalie was, round the south-eastern tip and up the east coast. "And this is our current position," she continued, tapping her finger down on the map at a spot just east of St. Thomas.
"Uh-huh?" Lana said, moving closer so she could see better. Doing so made her arm brush against Joey's right breast, forcing her to gulp and pull back in an almighty hurry. "Oops, pardon me," she said, trying to act as nonchalantly as possible.
Joey just grinned and kept going. "Uh, yeah. Now, as you can see, someone has written something in an illegible hand and there's an arrow there as well, pointing at a part of the sea that I happen to know hides one of the largest sandbanks in the area."
"A sandbank?" Rebecca said, scrunching up her face. "Isn't that dangerous?"
Smiling, Joey leaned back and put her hands on her hips. "To the huge sailing ships they used back then, sure, but not to the modern flat-bottomed boats like the Argo. Even so, we can't get too close, but we can swim in. No problem at all... none whatsoever. The depth is roughly fifteen to twenty feet so it'll be even shallower than your practice dive."
"Where is it, Joey?" Lana said, trying to keep her arms closer to her body so she could get closer to the map without bumping into anything embarrassing.
"Eight miles further north."
"Oh! But then we could-"
"Not today, Lana."
Lana briefly opened her mouth to fight for her idea to carry on the expedition instead of going back to port, but then remembered Ground Rule number one - it's Joey's boat and she has the final word. "But we will return tomorrow, right?" she said, putting her fingers across her lips.
"Oh, sure," Joey said, realizing cheerily that Lana had remembered what she'd been told, even if it had almost killed her to keep quiet. "Of course, there's no guarantee that we'll find anything at all there."
"Oh, I'm aware of that. But it's a treasure hunt, after all," Lana said, nodding thoughtfully.
Closing the scroll, Joey handed it back to Lana who immediately put it into the cylindrical case she had it stored in. "Right," Joey said and clapped her hands together. "The sun will set in half an hour so nothing more will happen today. We're going back to Charlotte Amalie now. Ladies," she said, taking a little bow to show that the meeting was over.
"Oh!" Rebecca said and put her hand in the air.
"Thank you for supper, it was delicious. Should we have some form of kitchen duty plan? If I'm up first, I wouldn't mind doing the dishes tonight."
Olly shook her head vigorously and stepped in to put an arm on Rebecca's shoulders. "No dishes for you, Rebecca. Once we get going, you're coming with me up on the top of the bridge. We're gonna get two deck chairs and then we'll watch the Caribbean sunset together as we cruise into the harbor... and dishwasher hands don't come into the picture."
"End of discussion. Skip?"
Grinning broadly, Joey nodded and moved her hands in a gesture that said, 'off you go, lovebirds.' "I'll do the dishes myself."
"We'll do the dishes," Lana said, matching the Skipper's grin with one of her own.
Zipping her boiler suit a bit further down to show just a bit more skin, Olly let out a throaty chuckle and wiggled her eyebrows. "Great...! I'll be downstairs to go through the pre-start checklist. Meet you up top in a little while, Rebecca," Olly said and stole a kiss from the secretary's cheek.
Twenty minutes later, Rebecca quickly said Hi to Joey and Lana as she climbed up past the bridge on her way to the top. "I'm wearing my lifejacket, Skip!" she said, smiling shyly.
"I noticed," Joey said with a grin, busy steering the Argo back to port.
Once Rebecca made it to the top, she was amazed to find that it was completely flat and much larger than it appeared from below. The four antennas were bent backwards from the headwind which made them send out an otherworldly, but strangely harmonic, whistling song, and in the middle of it all, Olly had put up two deck chairs and a small cooler box.
Feeling her insides begin to tingle in a warm, delightful fashion, Rebecca couldn't stop an excited little giggle from escaping her lips, and she decided to pinch her arm just to see if she was dreaming - she wasn't.
At first, she was afraid that she wouldn't be able to keep her balance on the roof of the bridge, but she soon discovered that it wasn't too bad. 'I wouldn't want to be up here in a storm, though,'
she thought as she moved over to the nearest deck chair.
Sitting down, she realized that Olly had put the cooler box between the deck chairs, but in a flurry of bravery, she reached down, removed the box and pulled the other chair closer to hers so they were up close and personal.
Two minutes later, Olly appeared on the roof, wearing her trademark dark blue boiler suit. When she noticed that Rebecca had moved the deck chairs together, she broke out in a foxy grin that didn't even fade when she spotted the life jacket.
"Hi," Olly said huskily, sitting down next to the secretary.
"Want something to drink?"
"Not right now, thanks."
On the western horizon, the sun slowly began to set, creating a breathtaking array of colors across the sky and the few, scattered clouds and jet contrails. One cloud in particular was lit up and transformed into a bright splash of deep purple against the golden sky.
"Wow, look at that!" Rebecca said and pointed at the cloud. "You were right about the Caribbean sunset... it's gorgeous!"
"Mmmm," Olly said, looking squarely at Rebecca's profile instead of at the sunset.
When Rebecca felt Olly's eyes on her, she looked to her left and locked eyes with the mechanic. A sense of warmth and happiness bubbled up inside her that eventually turned into a broad, if slightly shy, smile.
"There are plenty of gorgeous things down here, Rebecca... and I'm looking at the very best part of it," Olly husked, seeking out Rebecca's hand.
Rebecca didn't need much persuasion to take Olly's hand and give it a little squeeze. Pulling their entwined hands closer, she let them rest on her stomach and ran her free hand up and down Olly's strong arm, just to show that she was enjoying the moment.
Suddenly all the stars aligned right, and as a result, the two women moved as one. Reaching over at the same time, they went in deep for a kiss that started fairly chaste but that soon grew to something much more.
When their lips touched, a good-sized jolt went though Rebecca's system that made all her nerve ends stand on edge and cry out for more - a lot more - but even as her body reacted to the sweet touch, her mind raised a bright red warning flag. "Dominique..." she whispered as she pulled back from the mechanic's luscious lips, "I don't want to be a simple holiday catch. Let's take it slowly."
"Oh, Rebecca... you wouldn't be," Olly whispered back, running her fingers down the side of Rebecca's face and onto her throat.
"I know. Let's just enjoy the sunset. Okay?" Olly said, kissing the tip of Rebecca's nose before she went back to her own deck chair.
"They're so quiet. What do you suppose they're doing up there, Joey?" Lana said, sitting in Joey's Captain's chair.
Looking at her guest, Joey settled for letting out a hoarse little laugh that didn't leave room for misinterpretation.
"Oh... I... oh."
Biting her fingernails, Lana briefly looked at the Skipper and then out into the dusk. 'Oh, Lana Ferguson, you big chicken... why don't you ask Joey if she has any plans for tonight...? Come on, come on, you miserable coward!'
Lana turned back to Joey, thinking that she had the question all lined up, but just as she opened her mouth to ask, her courage flew out of her and she hurriedly closed her mouth again. A couple of heartbeats later, she got up from the chair and pretended to yawn. "Oh, I think I'll go below and catch some shuteye."
"That's a good idea, Lana. You'll know when we dock," Joey said, making a small course correction.
"Mmmm," Lana said as she went down the stairs to the cabins, mentally whacking herself over the head for her weak backbone.
After knocking three times on the metal door post without getting a response, Joey quietly pulled aside the curtain to Lana's cabin and peeked in.
When she spotted Lana flat on her back on her bunk, mouth agape in slumber, she let out a little chuckle and moved into the cabin.
The Skipper's presence alone was enough to stir Lana from her nap, and she soon sat up and wiped the sand out of her eyes. "Oh... I dozed off... again. What is it with me and sleeping on this boat? I never sleep this much back home..."
"It's either the sea air or the gentle rolling of the waves... works every time. Listen... uh, Lana... I was thinking," Joey said, sitting down next to Lana's bare legs. "Would you, uh... be interested in going out tonight...?"
Lana instantly cocked her head, furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes, not quite believing her ears. 'What a minute... what did she just ask me? Did she just ask me what I thought she asked me? Nah, there must be some kind of misunderstanding...'
Joey - feeling like she'd just had her earlobe tweaked - took Lana's facial expression entirely the wrong way and quickly moved up from the bunk so she wouldn't be seen to be intruding. "Oh, okay, I can see you're not. Well, anyway, I just wanted to ask-"
"Hold it, hold it, hold it," Lana said and raised both hands in the air. "I've just been sleeping... my brain is only running at one-third of its regular speed right now. Would you please run that by me again?"
Taking a deep breath, Joey let it out slowly, making a face as she did so. "Uh, Olly and I are going up to a tavern called The Bait and Spear and we were... no, actually, I was wondering if you'd want to come along... or something," the Skipper said, thrusting her fists so far down the pockets of her shorts that she was able to touch the lower seams with her index fingers.
"Ohhh. Yes, please," Lana said with a smile.
"Goodie," Joey said, returning the smile. 'Aw hell, I just morphed into a schoolgirl there, didn't I? Man, that hasn't happened to me in decades. But this little cutie-pie is different... so incredibly, mind-blowingly different from the other chicas I've spent time with recently that it's almost a night and day experience... damn! The next thing you know, you'll be buying her flowers and shit, ya big lug!'
Getting up, Lana yawned and ran a hand through her hair that still itched like crazy. Growling, she began to scratch her scalp, but it didn't really help.
"Looks like your scalp doesn't like the salt... perhaps you'll need to wear a hood tomorrow, Lana," Joey said, digging into the breast pocket of her Hawaiian shirt to find a cigar.
"Could be... I don't have one, though."
"Oh, we've got a couple in our supplies. We should have one that fits ya," Joey said and flipped open her trusty, old Zippo to get ready to light up.
"Skip, are you going to smoke that?"
"That's the plan, yeah," Joey said, making the cigar bob up and down in her mouth.
"If I asked you really, really nicely, would you put it away?" Lana said and sent the Skipper a pointed - but not unfriendly - look.
Clicking the Zippo shut, Joey chewed on the tip of the cigar a couple of times but then put it back into her breast pocket.
"Thanks, Joey. I'm not good with smoke of any kind."
"I am," Joey said with a shrug. "Ah, what the hell. I'll live. So, Olly is at the helm at the moment... I guess we'll be back at the pier in about ten-fifteen minutes. Do you want to go back to your hotel to freshen up first, or...?"
"No, I think I'm good. Yep, definitely good," Lana said, pretending to sniff her armpits.
Joey, thinking that Lana couldn't possibly smell bad even after a day working in a pigsty, grinned broadly and reached out to thump the blonde's shoulder. "That's great, Lana. Hey, coming along worked out pretty well, didn't it? I'm certainly glad you didn't bail on us. You and Rebecca are really fast learners... it's been a load of fun, in my opinion."
"Yeah... yeah, it has, Skip," Lana said and cocked her head again, trying to read the intentions of the tall, blue-eyed beauty. She almost opened her mouth to ask Joey straight out if the plans of the evening included going out on a real date, but her own courage abandoned her all over again right at the least opportune moment.
Feeling scorched by the intensity of the Irish green eyes, Joey turned around, moved the curtain aside and went into the corridor to get away from them before she did anything stupid - like kissing Lana senseless. "Yeah, uh... and let me tell you, that's not always the case when it comes to my customers. Some of them... Jeez! Oh, uh... I better go. See ya in a little while, Lana."
"See ya, Skip," Lana said, scratching her hair. 'Okay, what on Earth was that all about...?'
she thought when the curtain fluttered down.
Out in the corridor, Joey looked towards the heavens for guidance. A few seconds later, she rolled her eyes repeatedly and went over to the staircase. 'What the flying flip just happened there...?'
she thought as she ascended the stairs to get back to the bridge.
An hour later, the four women turned right off the well-lit Long Bay Road and into a sinister, semi-dark side street that held a faint whiff of urine and other waste.
The street was the personification of what Rebecca had been worried about when she had thought about protecting Lana from rowdy, horny sailors, and she looked nervously over her shoulder at the times where they walked in the shadows between the sparse light posts.
Lana, sharing every bit of Rebecca's nervousness, sought out the secretary's hand in the semi-darkness and was relieved to feel her strong grip. Gulping loudly, she moved to her right so she was closer to Rebecca in case anything went wrong.
As the unwritten regulations dictated, Joey had taken the point and she strode up the street like she had been there a hundred times. Engaged in an animated - and somewhat bawdy - conversation with Olly, she didn't notice that her two guests were uncomfortable until Lana let out a squeal over something she had seen in an alley they had gone past.
Practically jumping up on tip-toes from the sound of Lana's high-pitched squeal, Joey spun around and put a hand on her wildly beating heart to get it to calm down again. "Jesus, Lana! You scared the living shit out of me! What the hell was that all about?"
"I think I saw a dog eating a rat in that alley we just went past!" Lana said in a hoarse stage whisper.
"Well, if that's what you think you saw, you probably did," the Skipper said and turned back around. "Damn, now I really need a smoke," she continued, reaching into her breast pocket to take the cigar she had wanted to smoke earlier. With a flick of the wrist, she worked her Zippo and was soon puffing away on the stogie.
Walking along, Lana spent the next fifty yards constantly looking over her shoulder to see if the demon dog would mistakenly think they were on the menu as well. When nothing had happened after a little while, she let out a sigh of relief and scooted even closer to Rebecca.
A few minutes further on, they reached a tavern that was so boarded up that it looked like it wasn't open for business. The facade to the side street consisted of two windows and a door, but everything had been covered by planks that had been placed in big X'es.
When Joey went up to the door and raised her knuckles like she was about to knock on it, Lana stepped forward and put her hand on the Skipper's arm. "Joey, wait a minute... I'm not sure this is such a good idea. This looks like something out of a third-rate horror movie. Can't we go up to our hotel and get a drink there? They have a fantastic bar in the restaurant where we can sit in real booths."
"Well, I'm sure they do, but this place is only horrible on the outside. The Bait and Spear is the original St. Thomas tavern. It's been here for nearly ten generations," Joey said and took a deep puff on the stogie.
"And they haven't done anything to it since then," Rebecca added flatly, looking at the run-down exterior of the tavern.
Knocking off the ash, Joey put the cigar back in her mouth and pushed it over into the corner of her mouth. "Yeah, well... no, you won't find it in any of the tourist brochures, that's true, but in there, you'll find a genuine St. Thomas atmosphere. And besides that, the owner is a very good friend of ours so we can get the booze for next to nothing."
Looking at each other, Rebecca and Lana communicated silently for a few seconds, eventually ending up with identical shrugs. "Okay. But if we don't like it, could we please go somewhere else?" Lana said.
"Sure. That's a promise. Okay, you gotta line up so Barrett can see you," Joey said and put her hands on Lana's shoulders to guide her into position.
"Uh... who's that...? And what for?" Rebecca said.
"You'll see," Joey said and went up to the door. After tapping a secret code - twice, a brief pause, once, a longer pause and finally twice more - she took a step back and waited for Barrett Gittins, the bouncer, to unlock and open the door.
Moments later, the wooden door creaked open to reveal a man who completely filled out the doorway. Standing at six foot nine and weighing in at three hundred lbs., the St. Thomas native wore boots, black jeans, a dark blue fisherman's pullover and a colorful, knitted rasta-cap to cover his bald head.
Looking down at the group of much shorter women, Barrett's meaty face cracked open in a smile when he spotted Joey and Olly. "Hey, Joey! Welcome back," he said in a deep, rumbling voice as he put out his hand to welcome in the four guests. "You too, Olly Rags, you gorgeous creature. Girl, whenever you feel like changin' teams, just let me know. I'd like to offer myself as your first!"
"Awww, I'll make a note o' that, Barrett. It'll be the same week we have two Thursdays," Olly said on her way inside, pulling a mortified Rebecca with her.
Once Rebecca and Olly had gone in, Joey put a hand on the small of Lana's back and guided her inside. "Hey, Barrett. I'd like you to meet Lana and Rebecca, our customers."
"Pleased to meet ya," Barrett said and put out his large paw. After shaking the women's hands with surprising delicacy, he pointed a fat index finger at Joey. "Oh yeah, were these lovely ladies the guests you painted the Argo for?"
"That's right, Barrett. Is Miguel in?" Joey said and steered her small group over to a table next to one of the boarded-up windows.
"Naw, he's off doin' something I'm not really sure what is. He'll be back later on, though. Maria is working the bar tonight, but she knows the arrangement, so when you're ready for drinks, just do the usual stuff."
"Great. Thanks, Barrett," Joey said as she pulled out a pair of chairs for Rebecca and Lana. "Have a seat, ladies. What can I get you?"
Rebecca started looking for her purse, but Joey just shook her head. "Everything's on me."
"Oh, okay. Well, in that case, I'd like a... uh... a Margarita, please. Uh, if they have it?"
"If it exists, Maria can fix it for you... and if it doesn't, she'll create it. Lana?"
"Oh, I... I don't know. I'm not used to going to clubs and stuff," Lana said, craning her neck to take in the unusual establishment before she sat down.
The tavern was more spacey and a lot cozier than the crummy exterior had suggested. Built solely of dusty, deep brown timber logs, it had a fairly low, wooden ceiling and a floor clearly made of old deck planks, and here and there, smaller, round logs came down from the ceiling at odd angles to create a tight, secluded atmosphere around the ten tables.
A few items related to life at sea in general and fishing in particular adorned the walls, but the sparse displays managed to stay on the good side of tacky. Turning her head the other way, Lana could see a very pretty dark-skinned Latina behind the bar counter, polishing a glass while talking to one of the patrons.
In fact, everywhere she looked, local St. Thomasians were talking and laughing amongst themselves, enjoying beer or drinks - and always smoking - and all in all, everyone seemed to have a good time at The Bait and Spear.
As Lana had feared, clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke hung heavily in the tavern, making her sensitive throat choke up almost at once, and she had to wave her hand under her nose to get it to dissipate.
"Oh... I really don't know... what can you recommend?" she said after a brief bout with indecision. Noticing that Joey was still holding the chair for her, she offered her a quick smile and sat down.
After helping Lana get her heavy, wooden chair pushed in, Joey leaned down to get close to Lana's shoulder. "A spiced rum. We're in the Caribbean, after all."
"I'd like that, please. Thank you," Lana said and got comfortable on the surprisingly plush cushion.
"Gimme a rum, too, Skip," Olly said, pushing a small candle aside so she could have an unhindered look at Rebecca.
"All right, two rum, a Margarita and a beer. Yup," Joey said and spun around on her heel.
"Ho! Ho! Down the hatch!" Joey shouted and chugged down a shot of spiced rum from a small, unlabeled bottle Maria had given her for free in addition to the other drinks she had bought.
" 'atch!" Olly shouted back, matching Joey's movements by leaning her head back and gulping down the golden drink.
Lana just stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the two experienced sailors. Sighing deeply, she looked down at the shot she was holding, wondering why it smelled like something was burning. Looking up, she locked eyes with Joey who smiled back at her.
Not wanting to die any time soon, Lana just took the tiniest sip of the shot, fully expecting to have her innards shoot out of her ears. When the drink was far richer, smoother and tastier than she had anticipated, she looked up at Joey in surprise.
Recognizing the look, Joey let out a belly laugh and poured herself another shot from the small bottle. "Yeah, I know. You won't get any of the tourist rat poison here, Lana. This is the family recipe, the real deal. That recipe has been here even longer than the tavern, for hundreds of years. It's potent, but damn good."
"I'll say... I could get used to this," Lana said and took a larger sip. When she discovered that the second sip tasted even better, she felt brave and chugged down the rest in a single gulp, earning herself a round of applause from Olly.
"God, Miss Ferguson!" was Rebecca's predictable reply.
"I'm fine, I'm fine, Rebecca. Don't you want yours?" Lana said, pointing at Rebecca's untouched glass.
"Is it strong?"
"I'd rather not, then."
Lana reached out for the glass, but before her fingers could connect with it, Joey had snatched it up and poured the contents back in the bottle. "Ah, that's probably not a good idea, Lana. Easy does it, you know."
"Oh... okay. Uh... I know this is the second time I've made you do it, but do you think you could get me a Diet Coke?" Lana asked, trying to shoot the Skipper a pair of very round, Irish green doe-eyes.
"Oooooh, how could I say no to eyes like that?" Joey said, nudging Olly's ribs with her elbow. "Sure, no problem. D'ya want some white rum in it, Lana?"
"No, just the Diet Coke, please."
"Comin' right up," Joey said and got up from the table.
As the Skipper walked across the wooden floor to get to the bar, Lana followed her with her eyes. Soon, the shot of spiced run in her gut and the sight of Joey's gently wiggling hips mixed together and created a few colorful, uncensored thoughts that left her tingling and quite short of breath.
Shaking her head to get rid of the images, she looked away from Joey only to find Rebecca and Olly cooing at each other and holding hands across the table, clearly lost to the world.
'If I wasn't such a chicken, that could be me and Joey right now... oh, well. She's so experienced she probably doesn't have time for someone like me,'
Lana thought and sighed again.
At the exact same moment the bell on the nearby church tower struck eleven p.m., Joey, Olly, Rebecca and Lana came to a stop in front of the Long Bay Resort hotel. The door man - wearing a stylish uniform - shot the two sailors a slightly pointed look, but Joey just returned it in kind, making him go away.
"I've had a fantastic evening," Rebecca said, clinging onto both Olly's hands.
"So have I, Rebecca. Man, I'm so glad this isn't goodbye but a see-ya-later," Olly said and leaned in to nibble on Rebecca's earlobe.
"Oh God, there they go again," Joey said in a mocking voice, shielding her eyes with her hand.
"Ah, shut up, Skip. That's just babe envy talkin'," Olly growled back. "And you don't even have a reason for it!" she continued, throwing her head in Lana's direction.
Thrusting her hands into her pockets, Joey began to shuffle around on the spot. "Uhhh... ha, ha."
"Sheesh," Olly said and went back to Rebecca's earlobe. "What the hell is wrong with the kids today? Can you tell me that, hon?"
"No, but I know exactly what you mean, Dominique. Listen, I'm..." Rebecca said, debating very hard with herself whether or not she should invite the mechanic up to her suite. Feeling her libido fight an all-out tug of war with her common sense, she finally arrived at a workable - if frustrating - solution. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly and moved away from Olly's probing lips. "See ya tomorrow... okay?"
Moving back from Rebecca's ear, Olly stole a quick kiss, but kept holding onto the secretary's hands. "Oh no, look at that... I think someone has glued our hands together!"
"Cute, but... see ya tomorrow, Dominique," Rebecca said and pulled her hands free of the mechanic's warm touch.
Pretending to sob - and earning herself a throaty groan from Lana and Joey at her theatrics - Olly pointed up at the black, starry sky and said: "The damn sun better move its ass back here in a hurry, that's all I'm sayin'!"
"Yeah-yeah Olly, you old, half-drunk smoothie... it won't happen any faster just because you've got an itch in your pants. So, good night, Lana," Joey said and put out her hand, hoping that Lana would shake it.
Lana did something better. Instead of tamely shaking hands, she pulled the unsuspecting Skipper into a strong hug that ended with the two of them sharing a very brief, very chaste kiss on the lips. "G'night, Joey. Sweet dreams," Lana said, offering the baffled Skipper a dazzling smile.
"Oh, her dreams are gonna be really sweet, all right... look at that smirk on her mug," Olly said, pointing at the goofy grin that was plastered all over Joey's lips.
"Shaddup, Olly," Joey mumbled.
"Yeah, right. Good night, ladies," the mechanic continued and wrapped her arms around her friend's shoulders.
" 'Night, Olly... Joey," Lana and Rebecca said as one, waving at the two sailors as they began a slow walk down the sloping street.
Once Joey and Olly were out of earshot, Lana and Rebecca turned towards each other - a split second later, they both broke down in a very bad case of the giggles.
"God, I can't believe this is happening... I mean, how can it be happening...? To me, of all people," Rebecca said as she and Lana walked arm in arm towards the front door of the hotel.
As the door man held the double doors open, Lana slid inside and let out a little laugh. "I don't know, but I wish it would happen to me, too."
"Nuh-uh, you can't have Dominique... she's all mine," Rebecca said, bumping shoulders with the blonde woman on their way over to the stairwell.
"Noooo, not Olly... the Skip! Joey Swain, keeper of the most gorgeous blue eyes I've ever seen outside of a photoshopped ad." Suddenly sobering, Lana pulled Rebecca to a halt at the first landing and put her hands on the secretary's upper arms. "Is something wrong with me? I mean, you'd say if something was wrong with me, right?"
"Lana, there's nothing at all wrong with you. Olly and I just connected at first sight. Maybe it'll just take a little longer with you and the Skipper... hey... why do you look at me like that?" Rebecca said, furrowing her brow at the curious look on Lana's face.
"You called me Lana! God, for the first time ever!"
"Well... lust makes a woman forget her manners..." Suddenly breaking out into a huge blush for revealing something like that, Rebecca pulled Lana into a hug and gave her a little crush. "I'm tipsy...!"
"You could call it that, yes... I'm not surprised, after three Margaritas. Come on, let's get the rest of the way upstairs so you can pass out on your bed," Lana said and put her arm around Rebecca's waist.
On their way back down to the Argo, Joey and Olly's mood couldn't be more different. Olly was whistling loudly and occasionally breaking out into a bawdy song, but Joey was sulking with her clenched fists firmly thrust into the pockets of her shorts.
"Aw, lighten up, Skip. Ain't life grand?" Olly said, bumping shoulders with her boss.
"For you, maybe."
"Come on, Skip... what's the matter? Did you forget what to do with a girl? Hey, lemme show you. First you lean in, like this... then, you pucker up your lips like this," Olly said and moved so close to Joey that they were almost breathing the same air.
"Oh, get away, Olly...! I didn't forget. I think she's just a cold fish."
"Uh... who are we talking about, exactly? 'Cos I thought we were talking about-"
"Lana? The blonde woman with the green eyes who just kissed you goodnight? A cold fish? Hello, earth to Joey Swain...?" Olly said and pulled the two of them to a stop outside a tourist store that had closed down for the night. "What about her makes you say that she's a cold fish...? 'Cos I'm not seeing it, frankly."
"Ah, it's just... I don't know. She seems so on-and-off. First she shoots me a fiery look, then it's nothing... then she stares at my wetsuit like her eyes are about to roll out of her head, then she says absolutely nothing at all when we're alone on the bridge... I don't know," Joey said and resumed walking back to the boat.
"Unless I'm seriously drunk, I coulda' sworn she just kissed ya, Skip?"
Sticking her fists back into her pockets, Joey shrugged and picked up the pace, hoping that it would make Olly less inclined to ask further questions. "That wasn't a kiss, Olly. That was just a chaste peck on the lips... it was the spiced rum talking. Ah, no big deal. She looks great, but there are plenty of great looking girls out there."
Olly slowed down briefly and rolled her eyes repeatedly, but soon caught back up with her Skipper. "Oh, sure there are... but there's only one Lana Ferguson," she whispered for Joey's ears only.
After checking the depth gauge, the weights, the snorkel, the mask, the tank, the oxygen gauge and finally her wristwatch, Lana sat down on the small bench on the rear deck of the Argo and let out a long sigh.
She was bothered by the weight of the air tank that was strapped tightly onto her upper back, especially because the tank was much larger than the one she had used for her practice dive - she simply needed more air than the smaller tank could hold - and also by the two shoulder straps that cut into her skin because of the added weight.
Sighing again, she put on her swim fins and the tight, black neoprene hood she had borrowed to protect her scalp and looked across the rear deck at Rebecca who was going through the same procedures, except that she still had the smaller tank.
Olly stood at the railing with a pair of binoculars, sweeping the entire horizon from north to south.
"Is anything wrong, Olly? You look a little worried today," Lana said, once again checking her gear.
"Not really. There's a fishing boat some way off to our starboard side, but they've been holding station for the entire time we've been here," Olly said, adjusting the zoom on the binoculars.
"A fishing boat? If they came closer, could Joey get caught by a hook or something while she was down there...?"
"Oh. Okay," Lana said, sighing again.
"... but they might attract sharks," Olly said quietly, causing both Lana and Rebecca to stop what they were doing and look up in a panic.
"Sharks...?" Lana whispered, thinking about all the horrific stories she'd heard about shark attacks.
Putting away the binoculars, Olly sat down next to Rebecca and put her arm around the secretary's waist. "Mmmm. I think we'll be fine. There aren't any seagulls hovering over the boat, so I don't think they've caught anything yet."
"But they might...?" Rebecca said, leaning into Olly's touch.
"Olly, what should we do if we see a shark down there?" Lana said, slowly feeling like she should be biting her fingernails over Joey's safety.
"Depends on what kind of shark it is, Lana. Yeah, I know, that's not an answer, but it really does depend on that. What you gotta remember is that there's more than one species... we've got dozens of different sharks out there. Some of them couldn't care less about you and some will be looking to use your thigh bone as a tooth pick.
"Brrrrr," Lana said, getting a bad case of the shivers.
Leaning in to give Rebecca a quick kiss on the cheek, Olly began to run her fingers through the secretary's ash blonde, shoulder-length hair, earning herself a few giggles in the process. "Mmmm. Some of them can be mean and nasty, all right. But the worst shark of all is still mankind in general."
"You know, Olly," Lana said and shuffled around on the hard bench which cut into her only partially covered rearward-facing cheeks, "back home in New York City, people talk a lot about the environment, but it's never really connected with me before. I've always considered it a load of hot air by the holier-than-thou crowd... but since we've been here... wow. Here, the environment isn't just something we read about on web sites... here, we're really... uh, here. In the middle of it... pardon my limited vocabulary," Lana said and chuckled.
"I concur. Being here has really opened my eyes," Rebecca said.
"That's great, guys. We definitely need more people to see what-" - Olly was cut off mid-stream by Joey resurfacing behind the Argo. Jumping up, the mechanic went back to the rear deck and knelt down. "What's up, Skip?"
Not bothering to take out her mouthpiece, Joey just pointed at Rebecca and Lana and then displayed a thumbs-down, wordlessly telling Olly to give the gear of the two tourists a final pre-dive check.
"Okay, Skip. All right, you're up. One at a time, please," Olly said to Rebecca and Lana.
Rebecca got up first and flapped over to the rear deck, hunched over from the weight of the air tank on her back.
After checking Rebecca's equipment, Olly gave her a thumbs-up and watched the secretary kneel down and disappear into the deep blue sea. "Lana, it's your turn," Olly continued, checking the gauges for malfunctions and the hoses for any unseen kinks.
"Hey... don't worry about the sharks. The Skip is far too experienced to let anything happen. I always say she's part mermaid... she can sniff out trouble at five leagues' distance! Okay?"
"Okay," Lana said through her mouthpiece, nodding and showing the okay-sign when she realized Olly hadn't understood her.
Walking up to the edge of the rear deck, Lana knelt down and let herself fall backwards into the ocean, soon feeling the water rush over her head.
Once she was in, she quickly twisted around on an axis to try to find Rebecca and Joey - but when she did, she discovered that because of the larger tank, her center of gravity had changed since her first dive, and she found herself tumbling sideways for several seconds until she could regain her balance.
Needing a moment to catch her breath and re-focus from the dizzying roll, Lana remained stationary in the water for a few seconds, but then continued towards her two diving mates who were further below, near the sand shoal they were going to explore.
Finally arriving at Joey and Rebecca, Lana was met by a questioning okay-sign from the Skipper that she responded to by returning the okay-sign and nodding.
Nodding back, Joey momentarily left her two rookies to dive even closer to the sandy ocean floor. Skimming the surface, she swept the area a couple of times before holding her hand up in an invitation to Lana and Rebecca to join her.
Lana, still struggling with the heavier tank, tried valiantly to comply, but after a few seconds, it was quite clear to Joey that the rookie diver was having difficulties with the changed center of gravity, and she decided to pull the plug on the dive.
After holding up her hand in the stop sign, she immediately made a thumbs-up and went over to support Lana on the ascent.
"Shit... shit, shit, shit!" Lana said, thumping her fist down onto her thigh. "I'm sorry, Skip... I screwed up," she said, breathing deeply as she sat on the rear deck of the Argo with her legs and swim fins dipping down into the sea.
"It wasn't your fault, Lana," Joey said, putting a comforting hand on the blonde's shoulder. "The tank was just too heavy for you. It happens, don't beat yourself up because of it. Hey, Olly, the small one wasn't enough and the large one was too heavy... d'ya think it would work with two small tanks on a twin rig?"
"Dunno, Skip, but I'll give it a shot... it's gonna take me about ten minutes, though," Olly said and moved over to stand next to the bridge. "Hey... you okay, Lana?" she continued, leaning against the pilot house.
"Yeah, yeah, I am... thanks, Olly."
"Great. I'll be back in a little while," Olly said and walked up the starboard side path.
Once the mechanic had left, Lana looked out over the ocean and sighed deeply. "I'm just a little peeved with myself. You know, Skip, this tank was even heavier than the one I wore when I got my certificate. It was just too big for me. I couldn't control it at all."
Sitting down on the small bench next to Rebecca, Joey took off her swim fins and wiggled her toes in the strong sunshine. "Well, there's your answer, then. The right tank is vital when it comes to having a successful dive. Ah, don't sweat it. How many dives have you had now?"
"Uh... counting the ones at the course, five."
"Lana, I've been down there more than two thousand times and it still isn't routine," Joey said and clapped the swim fins together to get the excess water off them.
"Wow... really? Olly did say that you were part mermaid..." Lana said and reached out to put her hand on Joey's calf.
Liking the touch, Joey let out a little laugh and patted Lana's hand. "I wonder if they'd let me join their trade union with my tattoos and everything...? Perhaps I could be some kind of human-mermaid liaison...?"
Chiming in, Rebecca pretended to think hard about the question. "Oh, I don't know, Skip. We did have tuna casserole last night... might kill your chances," she said, earning herself a couple of laughs.
Out of the corner of her eye, Joey suddenly spotted the fishing boat slowly coming towards the Argo. Snatching Olly's binoculars, she zoomed in on the name at the bow of the small pleasure craft. "Oh, great, it's the Ginny Tonic. Larry Pickett's boat. Oh, swell... just what we needed."
Hopping up from the rear deck and flopping over to the railing on her swim fins, Lana shielded her eyes from the sun and looked out towards the other boat that had come quite a lot closer than when Olly had observed it earlier. "Why does that sound familiar...? Is it someone we should know about?"
"Nah. He's just a pain in the ass. A pain in *my* ass! A real Dapper Don. He's one of the other fishing tour operators, and as such, one of our worst competitors."
"Lawrence Pickett, of course! I checked out his web site before I found yours," Lana said, suddenly realizing that they were about to visited by what looked like a group of three or four tourists in addition to the captain at the helm.
"Well, I'm glad you continued with your search. Of course, Larry is just a walking dickhead, so if you had chosen him, you'd already be back in the Big Apple by now," Joey said surly.
Lana looked down at herself and felt a chill creep up and down her spine - once she had survived the initial, heart-stopping embarrassment the day before, she had grown accustomed to wearing the skintight emerald green bathing suit in the presence of Joey, Olly and Rebecca, but now she felt horribly exposed. "Uh-oh...!" she mumbled, thinking hard and fast what she could do about it.
Rebecca immediately understood her friend's predicament, and she hurriedly took off her swim fins and ran down the stairs. Less than half a minute later, she came back with two identical white bathrobes, one of which she threw over Lana's shoulders while putting on the other herself.
"God, thank you, Rebecca... I love you dearly," Lana said and quickly put her arms down the sleeves, closed the robe and tied the belt across her stomach.
Joey - being more dressed and less sensitive - stood up and walked over to stand next to Lana. Leaning forward, she put her elbows on the railing and waited for the Ginny Tonic to close the distance between the two boats.
It wasn't long before the captain of the other ship took off his white cap and waved it in the air. "Ahoy, Argo! Are you in trouble?" he said in a smug, condescending voice.
Lawrence Pickett was a skinny man in his late forties with a narrow face and a hawkish nose, and he was wearing a classic sailor's outfit made to look exactly like the ones he had seen the upper echelon wear in the glittery magazines - navy blue pants and a matching vest over a white shirt, and finally a white Captain's cap that he put on a bit crooked to give an illusion of class and swagger.
"No, Larry, are you?" Joey replied laconically.
"Always the joker, Swain. Scuba diving, eh? Can't be a lot of money in that...?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised, Larry."
"Anyway, I just saw your old bucket and I thought I'd pay you a visit. I got some nice folks with me from Quebec. They can't understand that it hasn't rained yet in the week they've been here!" Lawrence said and let out an obnoxious laugh - the people in question leaned over the railing and waved at the divers.
Lana and Rebecca duly waved back, but Joey remained passive.
"Yeah? Well, I got some nice folks with me from New York City who can't understand how someone with a head your size can even steer a boat," Joey said.
An evil silence filled the air between the boats for a couple of seconds, but then Lawrence Pickett let out another of his obnoxious laughs, apparently treating the barb as a joke. "Always the joker, Swain... always the joker. Where' you headed?"
"Nowhere in particular," Joey said, knowing that if she mentioned the treasure map, the entire island would know about it by nightfall at the very latest.
"Yeah? We're going to swing by the British Virgins next. Heard someone found some Marlin over there."
"Right. Good fishin', then," Joey said and moved away from the railing, hoping that Lawrence would catch her drift for once.
Miraculously, it seemed that he did, because after tooting his fanfare horns, he steered away from the Argo, and a couple of minutes later, the Ginny Tonic was already a good distance away from them.
"Wow, what a... what a... blowhard," Rebecca said as she took off her bathrobe.
"Mmmm," Joey said, sitting down on the small bench. "And he was even in a good mood today. He's probably milked those Canadians for a lot more than the trip is worth."
Flopping back to the spot at the edge of the rear deck, Lana took off her bathrobe and sat down again, soon putting her legs over the side of the boat. "Holy cow, am I glad I didn't choose him. Wow, I would've slapped him across the face before we'd even left the harbor," she said with a giggle.
"Well, if you had, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. He tried to buy me out about six months ago. I had a little cash flow problem just before Christmas and he came in flashing a wad of green."
"Oh, Jeez, that makes me dislike him even more... what happened?" Lana said, turning around so she could look the Skipper in the eye.
"He wanted Olly to stay for entirely personal reasons... you know how some people just can't fathom the obvious, right?"
"Uh... yeah," Lana said with a dark chuckle.
"Anyway, Larry wanted Olly's services but she turned him down... no, actually, she kneed him in the groin. He sorta lost interest after that."
"Ooooh...!" Lana and Rebecca said as one.
Arriving back with a new harness, Olly carefully put the twin rigging down on the deck and dusted off her hands. "Hey, was that Larry Pickett's voice I heard just now?"
"Sure was, Olly. The Ginny Tonic was over for a social call," Joey said and got up to help the mechanic strap the harness onto Lana's back.
"I shoulda known... I felt like throwin' up," Olly mumbled as she knelt down behind the blonde diver.
Looking over her shoulder, Lana put out her arms so the shoulder straps could slide over them. "Would it help if I got up?"
"Naw, I got it... almost there," Olly said, reaching around Lana to close the belly strap. When the two ends came together in a loud, robust click
, she gave Lana's shoulder a little squeeze. "There ya go, Lana. This should work a lot better."
"Well, it's definitely easier up here on dry land," Lana said, wiggling around to test out the new modification. "I think this'll work, actually."
Joey quickly crouched down and gave the air hoses and the locks a final check. "Yep, should work. All right, let's get back down there. Time's a-wastin'."
A few minutes later, the three divers assembled at the ocean floor, moving around in a pre-designed pattern that offered them the most efficient way to search the sandy shoal they were at.
Lana, feeling a lot more comfortable with the twin tanks, tried out different moves and maneuvers just to see how the center of gravity had shifted again. Most of them worked, but she still couldn't flip over without looking like a pregnant elephant on ice, no matter how hard she tried.
Growling under her mouthpiece, she noticed that she had fallen a little way behind Rebecca and Joey, and she flapped her feet hard to catch up.
Behind her, out of her line of sight, the flapping motion created a disturbance in the water that stirred up some sand. As the sand moved around and fell down again, it revealed a small artifact that shone brightly in the semi-clear light.
Once the three divers had reached the end of their search area, Joey held up her hand in the stop-sign. Hovering in the water, she waited for Rebecca and Lana to catch up with her, and once they had, she pointed at both of them and then at her own oxygen gauge.
When both rookies showed her an okay-sign indicating that they were still in the green regarding their air, she returned it and made a ninety-degree turn to try out a new area.
Swimming slowly along the sandy bottom, Joey kept her eyes glued to the floor in the off-chance that they would actually find anything at all, but after the second leg of the search had been as fruitless as the first, she began to have doubts on the value of their location.
Stopping at the end of the leg, Joey held up her hand and waved Rebecca and Lana over to her. After once again asking them about their oxygen supply and getting a positive answer, she showed them a series of signals that said that they should remain in place while she scouted ahead.
Lana and Rebecca both nodded and sent the experienced diver okay-signs.
As Joey flipped around and swam away, Lana had to do a double-take at the speed the Skipper was able to move at when she didn't have to drag the two rookies along. In three strokes, the former Navy diver was up and gone, and it wasn't long before she was completely out of sight.
Feeling curiously agitated for some reason, Lana began to look around at her surroundings to see if anything had triggered her sixth sense. In the meantime, Rebecca had moved a few feet upwards and was looking at the underside of the Argo's long, broad-shouldered hull that was floating on the surface a good fifty yards away, but Lana knew that it couldn't be something as simple as that.
Looking around at the empty space around them, she began to work herself into a bit of a state, practically sensing that something major was about to happen - then she remembered Olly's words about the many species of sharks, and how the creatures could be attracted by the fishing boat that had been near them.
Lana felt her heart rate go up quite dramatically and she felt chilled to the bone - not the best condition to be in thirty feet below the surface of the Atlantic ocean. Her movements became gradually more frantic and she suddenly began to breathe far too hard for her own safety.
The only thing saving Lana from going into a full scale panic attack was the sight of Joey returning fast, but even then, she trembled quite badly and had trouble staying in place without using too much of her strength.
Gliding through the water, Joey could see from thirty yards' distance that Lana was in poor shape, and she mentally whacked herself over the head for thinking that it would be all right to leave the two rookies alone. Quickly moving very close to the panicky diver, Joey gently grabbed hold of Lana's upper arms and exuded a perfect calmness, almost like she was trying to share some of her own strength.
After a few seconds, Lana calmed down enough to wave her hand over her head, showing the experienced diver the sign for 'I'm in trouble.'
Nodding, Joey showed Lana an okay-sign and a thumbs-up, and then began a slow ascent, not forgetting to alert Rebecca that they were going up.
Once the three drivers resurfaced some seventy yards away from the Argo, Lana hurriedly removed her mask and her mouthpiece and took several deep breaths as she treaded water. She felt mightily relieved at being able to look at the blue sky, but at the same time, she felt like the world's biggest loser for going into a panic without any reason whatsoever.
Leaning her head back, she let out a bitter chuckle that was soon followed by a few equally bitter tears. "I'm sorry, Skip. I'm such a fuckup."
"Don't worry about it, Lana," Joey said after pushing her mouthpiece to the side. "I've done much worse myself. Can you get back to the Argo unassisted?"
"Yeah... yeah, I can," Lana said quietly, thankful that she hadn't been yelled at.
"She doesn't have to, I'll help," Rebecca said and moved in close on the other side in case Lana needed a hand.
"Thanks, Rebecca. I think I got it... but I guess four swim fins are better than two... especially considering that mine are attached to two left feet..."
Putting her mouthpiece back in, Joey moved around the other side of Lana and swam next to her, keeping a very close eye on the petite woman's progress.
Half an hour later, a freshly showered - and still emotionally crushed - Lana sat in the pantry, holding a Diet Coke and practicing her thousand-mile stare. Sighing deeply, she shifted on the chair to cross her legs the other way.
Knocking on the door post, Joey popped her head inside the pantry to see if her guest needed anything. When she saw that the expression on Lana's face resembled something from a rainy day, she moved into the pantry and pulled out a chair.
"Hey. You're being too hard on yourself again, Lana," Joey said quietly, putting her elbows on the melamine-plated table. "You panicked, yes, but we all came back in one piece. That's the most important part."
"Thanks for being so lenient with me, Skip. I know you'd much rather give me a stiff dressing down instead."
"Well, you should 'cos I fucked up," Lana said with a shrug. When the Skipper didn't offer a reply to the contrary, she took a long swig from the Diet Coke.
Nearly half a minute went by before Joey leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs at the knee. "Let me tell you a story about fucking up, Lana," Joey said, toying with a loose bit of plastic on her flip-flops. "Once upon a time, a young rookie had her tank seize up on her at sixty feet in murky waters at the bottom of an industrial port, not because she was unlucky, but because she thought she was immortal. You see, she had treated the tank carelessly by not checking the air valves. If that rookie's instructor hadn't paid attention, she would have been six feet under by now instead of being here, chatting with you."
"Yeah, so I know what's involved in fucking up. What happened to you today was bad, I know that, but you didn't do anything wrong, Lana. You kept a level head and you didn't fly off the edge. Trust me, what you did was babypoop compared to what some of the people I've dived with have done. Jeez, I remember one guy from Jersey who actually pulled off his snorkel down below because he thought there was an ant in it."
"Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Joey, but... I just can't get over the fact that it was all my own doing," Lana said and propped her chin up on her arm.
"What actually happened down there?"
"I began imagining things. I guess I stupidly started to believe that something was about to happen. Probably something bad, but uh... I... uh... while you did the initial dive to check out the site, Rebecca and I spoke to Olly about fishing boats... and sharks. And no, it wasn't Olly's fault... it was my fault and my fault alone. Rebecca could rise above it, I should've been able to do so as well."
"Hmmm"-ing out loud, Joey reached into her breast pocket and produced a small bundle that she had wrapped in a napkin. Treating the item very carefully, she unfolded the napkin and pushed it into the center of the table. "Something did happen down there, Lana. Look. It's a stainless steel spoon."
"Wow..." Lana said, suddenly snapping out of her dark thoughts. Pulling the napkin closer, she picked it up and began to study the spoon with laser-like intensity.
"Now, Lana... before you get all excited and call CNN on the satellite phone about a possible treasure cache, let me tell you that it's obviously not from Blackbeard's period. No, I'm guessing it was dropped into the sea fairly recently by someone on an adventure cruise. It could even be from Larry Pickett's boat for all we know."
"But it doesn't change the fact that you actually found something... well, you and Rebecca, of course. People waste years and years of their lives simply to find a fragment of something, and here you are, finding a little treasure on your very first, proper dive. So you see, it wasn't a complete fuckup, was it?"
Leaning forward, Joey put a warm hand on the side of Lana's face and began to caress her cheek with her thumb. "You actually did pretty good, all things considered."
"I guess..." Lana husked, leaning into the touch.
The tender moment only lasted for a few seconds, but when Joey leaned back in her chair, she felt quite a lot less confused about the state of affairs between herself and Lana than she had done before she had caressed Lana's cheek.
Smiling shyly at each other, Joey and Lana sent out identical, clear and unencrypted messages that said they were both ready to take their budding relationship to the next level - which meant one step above purely platonic.
Joey didn't need a second invitation, so she got up from her chair, moved around the table and sat down next to Lana. Seeking out the blonde's hand, she took it once it was offered to her and gave it a little squeeze, keeping it underneath the table for the time being.
"Listen, Joey, do you think we could go out again today? It's like falling down on your skis, you have to get back up at once," Lana said, scooting closer to the Skipper.
Looking at the clock on the wall that read a quarter past four in the afternoon, Joey scratched her hairline with her free hand. "I wouldn't know, I've never tried skiing. For skis, you have to have snow and cold weather and brrrr, no thanks."
"Silly! But the diving?"
"I can't say right now, Lana. I need to check the weather first. It's changed since you came down here. The horizon to the east is quite dark. I've tried diving in a storm and, uh, I can't recommend it. No, I think we should wait until tomorrow."
"Oh... but-" Lana started to say, but suddenly remembered the first ground rule: The Skipper has The Final Word. "Oh. Okay."
"You were about to say something?" Joey said after a little while.
"No, never mind. What are Rebecca and Olly doing? It's so quiet... I wonder if they're in some kind of trouble...?" Lana said, scooting even closer to Joey.
"Well, they are... of the kissing kind. That's why I came down here in the first place, they were breathing so hard up on the bridge they didn't leave any oxygen for me..."
"Oh... while we're on that subject... I, uh... I guess I wouldn't object to a kiss right now myself," Lana said quietly, turning her head to give Joey's profile a closer look.
Breaking out into a shy smile, Joey moved her hand upwards until it rested on the back of Lana's head. Mussing the blonde hair, Joey leaned in and a bit down until their lips were only inches apart.
The air between them was already electric and it only grew more intense when Lana decided to cut to the chase and moved forward, claiming the Skipper's soft lips in a kiss that began slow but soon evolved into something far stronger.
Once the need for air overcame the need to stay connected, Lana pulled back and broke out in a wide, charming grin. "Wow... we should have done that earlier... like last night at The Bait and Spear."
"You kiss like a dream, girl," Joey husked, ready to take it to second or even third base right away - but unfortunately for both of them, reality caught up with them in the shape of Olly Rags knocking on the door post.
"Skipper, I'm sorry to be a thorn in your shorts, but you need to come up to the bridge. We just got a severe weather warning from the NHC," Olly said before backing out of the doorway.
"Shit... thanks, Olly!" Joey said and scooted away from the table.
Bolting upright, Lana hurriedly put a hand on Joey's leg to get her to slow down. "Wait... what's the NHC?"
"It's the National Hurricane Center, but don't take that literally, they're just the weather people... Oh God, this is gonna sound so pathetic... but I'm sorry, baby... I gotta go," Joey said with an apologetic smile on her lips.
Lana let out a belly laugh and went the other way around the table as she followed Joey out of the pantry and down to the stairs.
Tuning the radio to the US Coast Guard frequency of 2182 MHz, Olly quickly turned up the sound so they could hear the weather warning that ran in a non-stop loop.
'National Hurricane Center, Miami Florida. Update 405 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, Monday April 23, 2012. Offshore waters forecast for the southwest and tropical North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea.
Severe weather warning. Repeat, severe weather warning. Low pressure front south east of US Virgin Islands. Wind speeds will increase to fresh to strong. Warning, gale force winds over the basin through this evening. North westerly winds will increase Monday afternoon ahead of a front moving north west through the West Atlantic. Expected to strike St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island late Monday afternoon or early evening. The front will weaken and slow down as it reaches...'
a female voice said in a sober but not gloomy tone.
"A gale warning, just what we needed," Joey said and scanned the south-eastern horizon with her binoculars. In the far distance, the sky had turned a shade of gray that the experienced sailor knew all too well. "Yep, she's out there, all right. I'll give her... oh, hour and a half, maybe an hour and forty-five before she's here."
"But... but what are we going to do, Skip?" Rebecca said, twisting her T-shirt in her hands.
"Don't worry about it, Rebecca. We have plenty of time to clear it. Olly, I need a word," Joey said and put away the binoculars. Turning towards Rebecca and Lana, she offered them a quick but reassuring smile. "Ladies, I'd rather you went below. I promise that Olly or I will be down in a little while to tell you what we're going to do. Okay?"
"Okay, Skip," Rebecca said, but the look on her face showed that she wasn't particularly thrilled about the situation. Unwrapping her fists from her T-shirt, she turned around and walked down the stairs to get to the cabins.
Lana stayed a little while longer, holding her hand across her mouth. After a brief pause, she nodded and followed Rebecca below.
Turning to the plotting table, Joey quickly began to work out what they could do to avoid the storm. After making sure their guests were out of earshot, she sighed deeply and tapped her index finger on the charts. "We don't have enough time to go back to Charlotte Amalie, Olly."
"Yeah, I kinda figured that... but I didn't want to cause any alarm while the girls were here," Olly said, fiddling with her zipper.
"There aren't any good sites along the coast we're at now, but there is something we could do... it would mean that we'd have to head into the storm, though."
"Hook Island, Skip?"
"Exactly," Joey said, tapping her finger on a small, uninhabited island to the north-east of St. Thomas. "I reckon we could be there in an hour and twenty. Maybe less if we give the old Napiers a good kick."
"They're up for it... and we've definitely got enough fuel, even if we squeeze 'em a little. We can always run at a reduced pace on the return trip," Olly said, calculating the fuel consumption rates in her head.
"Mmmm. Have you ever been to Hook Island?"
"No, but I've gone past it a couple of times."
"I've been there, but only in smaller boats. There's a small bay slash large lagoon surrounded by a rocky ridge to the north-west of the island. We could enter the lagoon and drop the anchor close to the shore... it should be deep enough for the Argo. Also, I think the ridge will shield us from the worst of the storm."
"And then head ashore or what?"
"Yeah, in the dingy. I mean, I reckon you and me could handle it, but I'd rather not risk it with Lana and Rebecca."
"Good point, Skip."
Nodding, Joey moved over to the controls to check the gauges. "Besides, you know how difficult it is to get the stench of vomit out of the cabins."
"*Very* good point, Skip. Avoidin' any Landlubber Fountains would definitely improve my day," Olly said and laughed out loud. Pulling her zipper all the way up, she pointed her thumb at the rear deck and began to move towards the stairs. "I'll be in the engine bay working on the pre-start. If we're gonna give 'em a kick, I need to check up on a few things first."
"Okay, Olly. I'll hail the Harbor Master on the radio to tell him our plans so he won't worry about us when we don't return to Charlotte Amalie. Then I'll go downstairs and brief our passengers."
"... so that's what we're going to go," Joey said five minutes later down in Rebecca's cabin where both the secretary and Lana were sitting on the bunk, holding each other's hand for comfort.
"And you're sure we can get to Hook Island before the storm hits us, Skip?" Rebecca said, once again twisting her T-shirt in her free hand.
"I can't say for sure, Rebecca. Storms are notoriously unpredictable... that's why they're often named after women, ha ha," Joey said, but soon realized that the attempt at humor went down like a lead balloon. "Uh, anyway, we have a fair shot at it."
Shuffling around on the bunk, Rebecca ended up sitting on her ice cold hands to try to get some heat back into them. "I've experienced a tropical storm once, back when I was only a little girl. My parents and I were visiting my mother's family in the Florida Keys when it hit us... I can't remember the name of the storm, but for years afterwards, I used to wet my bed if the wind was up, even if it was just a summer breeze..."
An uncomfortable, embarrassed silence filled the small cabin, causing Rebecca to look down at the floor.
Nodding, Lana leaned in towards her friend and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "We'll protect each other, Rebecca... won't we, Skip?"
"Of course we will. We're a team, aren't we? And don't forget, this has only been categorized as a gale, not a tropical storm. Anyway, from what I remember, the beach inside the lagoon is wide and sandy so we shouldn't have a problem finding shelter in case the rain gets heavy. We'll bring some supplies and stuff... who knows, it may even end up being cozy."
Rebecca let out a dark chuckle that proved that she didn't quite believe the Skipper's words. "Thanks for trying to comfort me, Skip. I just wanted to let you know about my fear of storms before I turn into a blubbering mess without warning..."
"Oh, by the way, we're going to run the engines a bit harder than what you've heard so far, so they'll sound differently. Just so you know, okay?" Joey said and moved out of the cabin to go back to the bridge.
"Okay. Thanks, Skip."
As Joey moved the curtain back down, Lana got up from the bunk and followed the Skipper into the corridor between the cabins. "Joey, wait up, please," she said, putting her hand on Joey's elbow.
"Look, I really gotta-" Joey said, but Lana shut her up by standing on tip-toes and claiming her lips in a sweet, little kiss meant to bring plenty of good fortune.
"Good luck. That's all I wanted to say," Lana whispered and winked at the Skipper.
"Hell, you can wish me good luck anytime, hon," Joey whispered back in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Popeye the Sailor.
A few minutes later, the engines roared to life, sending the customary vibrations through the hull and into the cabin where Rebecca had huddled down on her bunk to preserve her strength. "That was the engines, right?" she said, cracking open an eyelid.
"Yeah," Lana said, sitting on the chair reading the first few pages of a dusty, old pulp detective novel she had found in the metal locker.
Soon, the engine note changed from the quiet burble it had been the entire trip to a deeper, growlier song that gave a hint at how powerful they actually were.
When the engine note changed again to a full-blown, bassy roar that went straight into their chest cavities, Rebecca forgot all about her discomfort and swung her legs over the side of the bunk. Getting up in a hurry, she quickly moved over to the porthole and peeked outside. "Whoa! Whoa, come take a look, Lana...! Holy mackerel, we must be going at... gosh, forty miles an hour, if not more!"
"What? Let me see," Lana said and moved over next to her friend. "Wow, you're right... look at those waves flying by... I guess that's why it's called a Fast Patrol Boat."
"No kiddin'... boy, am I glad I'm down here instead of up on the bridge. I'm sure the Skipper and Dominique have their hands full going at this breakneck speed!"
Blinking a few times, Lana went back to the chair and picked up the book. After a few seconds, she put it back down and began to chew her fingernails. "I wish you hadn't said that, Rebecca... now you've made me
nervous...!" she said with her index and middle fingers stuck firmly in her mouth.
"Oh... sorry. You can use my bunk if you want to," Rebecca said, far too preoccupied with looking out of the porthole to worry about being frightened of the impending storm.
"Mmmm... I might," Lana said and tried the book again. Finally giving up after reading the same paragraph three times in a row, she put it away for good and folded her legs up underneath her, feeling the strong vibrations of the engines permeate her entire body.
Thundering along at thirty knots, the Argo cut through the growing waves like they weren't there at all, easily riding the foam-tipped crests on its way to Hook Island.
On the bridge, Joey kept a firm grip on the wheel and a close eye on the gauges, the compass, the barometer and the ominous steel gray cloud that blossomed quite rapidly in the eastern sky.
Pulling the cover off the brass speaking tube, she leaned down towards it without taking her eyes off what mattered. "What's up, Olly?" she said loudly to be heard over the roar of the engines.
'A-okay so far, Skip! It's hotter than hell down here and my ears are ringing but other than that, it's A-okay!'
"Thanks, Olly," Joey said and moved back to the wheel, leaving the tube open in case Olly needed to speak with her.
Reaching over, she turned the radio back up, but the weather warning message hadn't changed since the first time they had heard it. "Mmmm... this is going to be a closer shave than I had expected it to be..." she mumbled to herself as she saw the first lightning bolts deep inside the storm cloud.
Twenty minutes later, the waves had grown so large and angry that Joey had to reduce speed to first twenty, then fifteen knots in order to keep the Argo in one piece as it crested the waves.
'How much longer, Skip?'
Olly said from the engine bay.
"A few minutes. I have the island lined up. The sea is kinda choppy now but-"
'No shit, Skipper!'
"Ha ha. As soon as we get leeward of the island itself, it should calm down. I can see the inlet to the lagoon clear as day, Olly. Stand by."
Making a course correction to get closer to the inlet, Joey allowed her mind to wander briefly. "Jeez, I wonder how Lana and Rebecca are holding up down there... I hope they're not puking their guts out..." she mumbled to herself as she compensated for the strong currents.
Furrowing her brow, she changed the engine room telegraph to 'all ahead, slow' to give herself some time and space to maneuver.
'All ahead slow, aye, Skip,'
Olly said from the engine bay, and at once, the engines changed note again, slowing down to the pre-set pace.
In Rebecca's cabin, Lana and Rebecca had swapped positions - Rebecca was on the chair, looking a little green around the gills, and Lana was in the bunk with a facial color that was a perfect match for her Irish green eyes.
"Gawwwd..." she croaked, hoping that the torture would soon be over. Out of morbid curiosity, she tried to remember the last time she had thrown up, but the perpetual up-down movement of the ship prevented her brain from functioning normally.
When the rolling boat suddenly gained a left-right movement in addition to the up-down, Lana was first pushed up against the bulkhead and then very nearly off the bunk. "What the hell is she doing up there...?!" she barked, unsuccessfully trying to grab hold of one of the bunk's posts.
Rebecca scrambled to her feet and fumbled over to the porthole to see what was going on - "Oh... we're nearly at the island now, Lana. The waters should get a lot calmer in a hurry..."
The words had hardly left Rebecca's mouth before the Argo settled down into a gently pitching roll that quickly gave way to a smooth ride once the patrol boat entered the calm waters near the island.
Looking to her left, Rebecca could see that the hard rocking had been caused by the boat crossing the surf on the way into the inlet. "Lana, come take a look... we're at the island now. We're going into a lagoon of some kind."
"Gawd, I'm glad that's over," Lana croaked as she swung her legs over the side of the bunk. Groaning loudly, she got up and wobbled over to the porthole to see for herself.
Opening one of the sliding windows in the bridge, Joey stuck her head out to get a feel for the air. Recognizing that they still had some time - but feeling the first drops of rain on her face - she moved back inside and closed the window.
"Olly, you can come up for a breather now," she said into the speaking tube.
'Thanks, Skip. Jeez, this was hard goin'!'
"I know. I owe you one."
'Oh, you better believe you do!'
Chuckling, Joey maneuvered the Argo into the inlet, scouting ahead and soon seeing that she had been right about going to Hook Island - the entire inner part of the lagoon was one, large sandy beach that shone quite brightly in the increasingly murky conditions.
On both sides of the horseshoe-shaped inlet, heavy tropical vegetation reached down to the surface of the water, and to the north, a rocky ridge rose to nearly two hundred feet above it, creating a very cozy - and well-protected - cove against the storm.
Joey soon turned off the engines and let the Argo drift the rest of the way into the lagoon. Timing it perfectly, the forward motion stopped just as it came up to the far side of the lagoon where the darker color of the water gave away that it had a greater depth than the other parts.
With a flick of a switch, Joey activated the bow and stern anchors, and soon, a metallic rumble followed by two huge splashes proved that the anchor chains had deployed as they should.
"Ladies?" Joey said after knocking on the door post to Rebecca's cabin. Before she pulled the curtain aside, she sniffed the air for traces of vomit, but realized - to her great relief - that there weren't any.
'Come in, Skip,'
Lana's voice said from the other side of the curtain.
Pulling the curtain aside, Joey stepped in and leaned against the bulkhead. "How are you holding up?" she said with an apologetic smile.
Getting up from the bunk, Lana quickly crossed the cabin and wrapped her arm around Joey's waist. "Oh, it did get kinda hairy there for a while... but we were cool as cucumbers, weren't we Rebecca?"
"We were... right down to the color," Rebecca said with a broad smile. Turning back to the chair, the secretary quickly put the final items into her travel bag and then zipped it all the way 'round.
Grinning, Joey pulled Lana closer to her and gave her a little squeeze. "Well, that's good. I was worried I'd have to put on my snorkel and my tanks just to get in here."
"Oh, ha ha. Just so you know, we didn't even consider throwing up," Lana said and poked the Skipper in the ribs.
"Good. Listen, we're going ashore in the dingy now, so you need to wear your lifejackets. Also, I think we'll probably be spending the night there, so if you have-"
"Whoa, wait a minute... spend the night there?" Lana said and took a step back. "On the island... where there's snakes and spiders and mosquitos and probably a few cannibals as well...?"
"Hook Island is uninhabited, Lana," Joey said with a grin.
"But you're not denying the rest?"
"Well, this is the Caribbean... you gotta expect to run into a few critters now and then."
"Anyway, we're leaving in five. Once you're packed, come to the rear deck. Olly is launching the dingy as we speak. Okay?"
"Okay, Skip. I'm ready now," Rebecca said and picked up her travel bag. "I better leave so you can snog in private," she continued, winking at Lana and the Skipper as she walked past them.
Pulling Lana closer to her, Joey said a brief "Thanks," and returned the wink. Once they were alone, Joey turned Lana around and held her at an arm's length. "Told her, did ya?"
"That we kissed? Yeah. Oh, pardon me, I didn't know it was a secret," Lana said, moved in very close and wrapped her arms around Joey's strong torso.
"Mmmm, it wasn't."
"We could do it again, couldn't we? I mean, just to prove that we actually did kiss...?"
"We sure could," Joey said and leaned down towards Lana's enticing lips. Closing her eyes, she let the fiery blonde take her mouth in a ravishing kiss that left her wanting much more than they had time for.
"Are we ready?" Joey said five minutes later, balancing at the stern of the dingy while wearing a huge, ungainly, bright orange lifejacket.
Olly, clutching a cooler box with the supplies, just nodded, but Lana and Rebecca sent the Skipper an okay-sign with their hands.
"Okay then, off we go," Joey said and pulled the cord for the outboard engine. The Kawasaki purred to life at the second attempt, and soon, the dingy traveled across the seventy yards of slightly choppy water until it reached the sandy shore at the far side of the lagoon.
Turning off the engine and pulling the screw out of the water, Joey let the dingy run as far up on shore as possible so they wouldn't get their feet wet.
"Wow, it's over already... reminded me of the rides at Coney Island," Lana said as she jumped from the dingy, holding onto her travel bag. After putting down the bag at the top of the white beach, she ran back to the small craft and helped Rebecca ashore.
Once the dingy had calmed itself, Olly got up and wobbled over the edge of the rubber craft, balancing precariously with one foot in the dingy and one foot on dry land. "Oh, shit... help!" Olly said and let out a belly laugh when she realized she didn't have enough propulsion to clear the dingy.
Deciding that the involuntary balancing act was a bit too much of a good thing, Joey jumped out of the dingy out of turn and hurried up to help her first mate get the heavy cooler box safely ashore.
"C'mon, Olly, I got the box," Joey said, putting her arms under the heavy, cumbersome crate.
"Jeez, Skip... we better use all this stuff. What the hell did you bring?"
"Oh, we will, we will. Okay, I got it, I'm backing up now," Joey said and shuffled backwards across the sand until she had cleared the dingy. Turning around, she put down the cooler box on the beach and opened it to reveal a full load of soda cans, an unlabeled bottle of spiced rum, various equipment for the barbecue, a guitar and finally three plastic dinnerware boxes, one with six lbs. of sausages, the other with three lbs. of potato salad and the final one with the cutlery and little bags of mustard and ketchup.
Staring wide-eyed at the massive amount of food, Olly zipped her boiler suit down to half-mast and reached in to hold her fingers between her bare stomach and the fabric. "Okay, look at this, Skip... see how little room there is now? Wanna guess how little room there'll be once we're through that load?"
"We don't have to eat it all, ya know. It's just for all eventualities," Joey said and put the lid back on the box.
"Like what? That the world has gone under while we've been sitting out the storm...? Jesus, Skip!" Olly said and let out a new belly laugh.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh all you like. I also got the satellite phone," Joey said and patted her breast pocket. "I had to leave my stogies behind... Lana doesn't like the smoke."
"Poor you. What's up with the guitar?"
"Well, once we get the barbecue going, I thought we might, you know, sing a couple of songs and stuff. Pass the rum... and stuff. You know."
"Wooing and Cooing, Skip?"
Chuckling, Joey shrugged and sent Olly a crooked grin. "Hey, we might as well get the most out of the situation, right?"
"Skip, did you plan this storm?" Olly whispered in a conspiratorial voice.
"Naw... but it worked out pretty good in the end. Hey, I think Rebecca is wondering what's keeping you," Joey said and nodded towards the secretary who was sitting on the beach with her legs folded up underneath her, looking out over the lagoon.
"Yeah, and Lana is looking suspiciously like she can't wait to get her fingers on you." - leaning in very close, Olly wiggled her eyebrows and whispered: "Or in you."
"Ah, shaddup Olly," Joey said and let out a cheesy snicker.
An hour later, the sausages were sizzling merrily on the barbecue, letting out the occasional pop and crackle that were matched in much larger scale by the thunderclaps that came from the storm cloud that was passing by a few miles to the south of Hook Island, and the creaking and groaning branches of the tropical vegetation around the lagoon.
Feeling calm and protected, Lana and Rebecca both sat between their partner's long legs; Lana leaning back against Joey's front, and Rebecca leaning forward to tend to the barbecue while Olly had her long, strong arms wrapped around her waist.
"God, this is life..." Lana said quietly as she looked at the smoke signals that rose from the barbecue. Sighing contentedly, she took a swig from her glass of Diet Coke and reached down to caress Joey's thigh.
Giving Rebecca a little squeeze, Olly leaned forward and rested her chin on the secretary's shoulder. "How are you holding up, baby? With the storm, I mean?"
"Just fine, Dominique. Just fine," Rebecca said and sent the mechanic a warm, wide smile.
"Mmmm. We're the luckiest women in the world," Olly said dreamily.
Rebecca and Joey both nodded at the undeniable truth of that statement.
"So, I think the sausages are done... who'll get the plates and the potato salad?" Rebecca said as she stabbed the nearest sausage with a fork.
"I'm on it," Lana said and scooted away from her warm backrest. Quickly moving over to the cooler box, she bent down and gathered up the plastic container with the potato salad without realizing that her shapely rear end was pointed practically straight up in an inviting gesture.
Olly and Rebecca noticed at once, and one of them let out a wolf call that caused both Joey and Lana to blush quite badly.
"Oh, grow up!" Lana growled, holding the potato salad.
"Wasn't me, Lana!" Olly said, and Rebecca quickly shook her head to show that it wasn't her, either.
"Uh-huh? Well, I don't think it was the Skipper... was it, Skip?"
"Nope," Joey said.
"Maybe it was the Klabauterman," Olly said and began to look around like she was searching for something - or someone.
"Who?" Lana said as she popped the lid off the container.
Tightening her grip on Rebecca's waist, Olly began to speak in a voice half an octave deeper than her already rich timbre, "The spirit of the sea. He's not visible yet, Lana. Perhaps you'll meet him at the magic hour... when dusk gives way to night."
Lana blinked a few times and began to bite her lips. Turning to look at Joey, she hoped that the Skipper would say something reassuring, but when a visible shiver ran over Joey's body, it quickly transplanted itself onto Lana's. "Oh no, not ghost stories... not here, not on a deserted island...!" she croaked, almost dropping the long-forgotten potato salad.
Joey just nodded.
"Nooooo..." Lana whined, already dreading the dusk.
"Hey, are we gonna eat or what? Like I said three minutes ago, the sausages are ready!" Rebecca said, completely ruining the meticulously staged tension.
Breaking out into a laugh, Olly gave Rebecca a good squeeze and then reached down for her plate. "I'm ready, baby!"
"Oh you miserable, no-good sailors! Always trying to scare the stuffing out of us landlubbers with all your damned superstitions and tall tales!" Lana growled as she slapped a ladleful of potato salad onto Olly's plate.
Holding out her own plate, Joey laughed and blew Lana a kiss to make up.
Once a good deal of the sausages and the potato salad had been consumed, a contented silence fell between the four women. Sensing that it was the perfect time for a little singing, Olly reached behind her and took Joey's guitar.
Putting the strap around her neck, she gave it a quick tune-up and then let it rest in her lap. "Any requests?" she said, laughing. "No, it wouldn't work anyhow. I only know a couple of songs... but I wanted to take the guitar first, 'cos once the Skipper's pipes come out to play, my stuff will just fade into the sand."
"Excellent... I'd love to hear you sing, Dominique," Rebecca said and ran her fingers up Olly's thigh.
"Whatcha gonna sing for us?" Joey said, still sitting with Lana resting against her front between her long legs.
"Oh, a little song that goes something like this... Blow A Gal Down."
'As I was a-walkin' down Paradise Street, Lord what did I see?
A pretty young damsel I chanced for to meet
She was round in the corner and bluff in the lay
But I set all sails and cried "oh what the hey"
I threw out my hawser and took her in tow
And yardarm to yardarm away did we go
She said to me "Ma'am, will you stand the treat?"
"Delighted," says I, "for a charmer so sweet"
It was up in her quarters she piped me aboard
And there on her bed I cut loose with my sword
But just as me tonguey was forging ahead
She shouted "My wife!" and jumped out of bed
She was seven feet tall, had a chest like a horse
And right for my jawbone she plotted her course
She loosened my rigging, she kicked me in stays
I flew down the stairs like a ship on the ways
I chanced on a packet that happened on by
And when I awoke I was bound for Shanghai
So I'll give you fair warning before we belay
Don't ever take heed of what pretty girls say...'
As Olly played the final sequence of notes, Lana began to clap and cheer. Putting two fingers in her mouth, she let out a whistle strong enough for a flock of birds to take off from one of the nearby trees. "Oh, that was too good, Olly!"
"Thanks, Lana. Hey, hon, did you think it was good, too?" Olly said, tickling Rebecca who was sitting with her hand across her mouth, having turned to a red-faced, human sculpture halfway through the performance.
"Uh-huh," Rebecca mumbled after a little while.
Laughing, Olly took off the guitar and handed it to Joey. "Give us all you got, Skip. Make it a good one 'cos I think the Gods are listening," the mechanic said, pulling Rebecca into a crushing embrace.
"Asleep in The Deep," Joey said and put the strap over her shoulder.
Lana quickly moved away so she wouldn't impede Joey's playing. Turning around, she folded her legs up underneath her on the blanket and leaned down to prop her head up on her arms, ready to be awed.
When Joey began to sing in a crystal clear mezzo-soprano, Lana felt her jaw go slack. The haunting words and the way they were sung hit her so hard that she teared up almost at once, and she felt herself falling head over heels in love with the gorgeous, blue-eyed, black-haired woman who had proved yet again that were was much more to her than met the eye.
'Stormy the night and the waves roll high,
Bravely the ship does ride,
Hark! while the lighthouse bell's solemn cry
Rings over the sullen tide.
There on the deck see two lovers stand,
Heart to heart beating, and hand to hand;
Though death be near, she knows no fear
While at her side is the girl most dear
Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings
sailor, take care
Danger is near thee,
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep,
so beware, beware
What of the storm when the night is over
There is no trace or sign.
Save where the wreckage has strewn the shore
Peaceful the sun does shine.
But when the wild raging storm did cease,
Under the billows two hearts found peace
No more to part no more of pain
The bell may now tell its warning in vain.
Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings
sailor, take care
Danger is near thee,
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep,
so beware, beware.'
By the time Joey's voice died down and the guitar was lowered into her lap, the small party had grown silent; simply looking at the singer and at each other, all four women pondered the song's haunting lyrics and how it related to themselves; pondered the dumb luck that had brought them together, their immediate future, and most of all, how a life without their chosen partner suddenly seemed impossible.
Sniffing quietly, Lana wiped her moist eyes on her sleeve. "God, that was beautiful, Joey..." she whispered, reaching out to put a trembling hand on the Skipper's thigh.
"Thanks," Joey said and took off the guitar.
Grabbing the bottle of Miguel's homemade rum, Olly unscrewed the cap and took a little sip. "Skip, I've told you before and I'll tell you again... if I had a set o' pipes like that, I would never have joined the Navy. I would've headed straight for Vegas and a million dollar contract."
"And like I tell you every time you say that, I only sing when the right mood hits me," Joey said and took the bottle Olly handed to her. Looking at the golden liquid, she sighed, but took a sip anyhow. "Anyway... drinks are on me."
"If you don't mind, I'd like a glass," Lana said and reached into the cooler box to find the glass she had used for her latest Diet Coke.
"Sure," Joey said and poured a little amount into Lana's glass. "Rebecca?"
"Oh, I... no thanks, Skip. I'll take another can of Fanta instead, if you don't mind."
"Doesn't bother me none," Joey said and took another swig from the bottle.
As the rum began to take hold, Joey parted her legs and patted her stomach, silently asking Lana to return to her comfortable nest. Lana didn't need to be asked twice, and she quickly got up from the blanket and sat down between the Skipper's mile-long thighs.
"So... the Klabauterman," Joey husked into Lana's ear.
"Oh no..." Lana whined, but Rebecca and Olly booed her and waved their hands at Joey to get her to tell a scary story.
Taking a deep breath, Joey closed her eyes and began to think back to one of the darkest times of her life. "I've seen him," she said in a quiet, somber voice. "And I've fought him. I so nearly lost my life. I felt his cold fingers on my chest, trying to seize my heart... my life. And to this day, I don't understand why he passed me by and took the man next to me instead."
As Joey spoke, Lana slowly began to realize - with a rising sense of horror - that the tale was true; that Joey Swain really had dueled with death. When the Skipper's voice trailed off momentarily, Lana held her breath, afraid of what would come next.
"We were on a live training mission in Norfolk... the objective was to attach three magnetic mines to the hull of a decommissioned ship, arm them and detonate them. There were six of us, five guys and me, working in teams of two. We were dropped from an insertion craft and swam the rest of the way into the harbor... a mile or so on the bottom. Nothing major. At first, the mission went well, but soon, it all fell apart," Joey said and took a swig of the rum.
"The water was too murky, the current was much stronger than the intel said it would be, my diving buddy's shielded flashlight stopped working... eventually, he fell back from the rest of us. By the time he found the target... I was carrying the mine, by the way... he was already exhausted from fretting about, but I knew we needed to get on with it. By sheer determination, my diving buddy and I completed the task by attaching the mine and arming it. Then we had to leave before it detonated."
"God, they really sent you out with a live mine?" Lana asked, holding her hands to her chest.
"Well, it didn't carry a big charge. Enough to... well, I'll get to that in a moment."
"It's all right," Joey said and mussed Lana's hair. The smile on her lips soon faded as her mind returned to the murky waters. "Getting away turned out to be our biggest problem. My buddy was so tired from losing his directions going into the hot spot that we were lagging behind more and more going away from it... and then the mine detonated. We were too close and the shock wave hit us hard. I've never felt anything like it... it was like all my bones were ripped apart from each other and then put together the wrong way... it only knocked me out for a few seconds but my diving buddy wasn't so lucky. He lost consciousness and began to float downwards. I tried all I could to save him, but I wasn't strong enough to fight against his dead weight with all our equipment. We were rescued eventually, but... I survived. He didn't."
Staring into space for a little while, Joey eventually nodded to herself and took a long swig from the bottle of rum.
Pulling back from her dark thoughts, Joey suddenly realized that Lana was sobbing quietly in her arms. "Shit... I'm sorry for killing the mood," Joey said and mussed Lana's hair.
"I'm just glad that you're here, now..." Lana said between sobs.
"Mmmm. You want a bit more rum?"
"No, thank you. I'm dizzy as it is."
"Okay," Joey said, humming into Lana's hair.
Getting up, Olly dusted off her rear and moved over to Lana and Joey. "Skip, your story convinced Rebecca and me to get to know each other better... we never know when the show's over so we might as well get the most out of it while we're still here, right?"
"So I was thinking that we could toss a coin on who gets the warm spot by the barbecue...?"
"Oh... yeah, okay. Good thinking, Olly," Joey said and reached into her breast pocket to find a coin.
"Heads," Olly said, putting her hands on her hips.
"Which makes me tails," Joey said and flipped the coin in the air. Following it with her eyes as it came down on the blanket, Joey tapped Lana's shoulder.
"Yes?" Lana said, sniffing.
"I need your help. Which side is up on that coin there?"
"Shit!" Olly said out loud, punching the air.
"You're just gonna have to create your own heat, Olly. Ah, it's a warm evening. And the rain has stopped, so..." Joey said with a grin as she put the coin back in her pocket.
Returning the broad grin, Olly ran a hand through her short hair and began to play with her zipper. "Yeah, yeah... I guess we have to give it an extra heave-ho tonight to stay warm."
"Go on. I know you got what it takes, killer."
Chuckling out loud, Olly turned around and helped Rebecca up from the blanket. "Baby, we lost the coin toss... we just have to do it the old-fashioned way," she said and pulled the snickering secretary into a hug.
Lana briefly furrowed her brow, but when she recognized the unbridled look of lust on her friend's face, her cheeks grew red and she had to look down at the sand.
"See ya at dawn, Skip!" Olly said, shooting Joey a wave that the Skipper returned in kind.
"Bye, Lana! Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Rebecca shouted, giggling loudly.
"Have fun, Rebecca!" Lana said, suddenly feeling even more dizzy and knowing it wasn't just the rum influencing her. 'God... I wonder if... I wonder if... no. I better not get my hopes up. But I'm so happy for Rebecca... she really deserves it.'
Turning around, Olly and Rebecca gave each other a little kiss and then went hand-in-hand into the dusk, away from the barbecue site.
Once their friends were out of sight, Joey chuckled and mussed Lana's hair again. "Hey, Lana, would you mind if I got up now? My butt's going numb from sitting so long."
Shaking her head, Lana scooted forward and turned around. While Joey stretched her long legs and brushed the sand off herself, Lana's heart began to beat harder and harder in her chest. Looking at the Skipper cleaning up the camp site, Lana's mouth suddenly grew dry and it seemed to her that all her fluids pooled at a place due south.
A warm, pleasant tingle ran over her, but she forced herself to ignore it, like she had done so many times before in her adult life. "So... uh..." she said in a shaky voice that she didn't realize sounded quite different to what it usually did until Joey looked at her funny.
Putting the dirty dishes into a plastic bag in the cooler box, Joey cocked her head and looked at the blonde beauty who was still kneeling on the sand with an unreadable expression on her face. "Yeah?"
"So... are we going back to the boat, or...?"
"No, the sea is still too choppy," Joey said and looked out over the foam-topped waves inside the lagoon. "It wouldn't be comfortable for you."
"Oh... thank you. So I guess we'll spend the night here? On the beach?"
"That's the plan, yeah," Joey said and closed the lid of the cooler box. Dusting off her hands, she went back to Lana and sat down next to her.
The close proximity of the gorgeous woman wreaked havoc with Lana's body, and a split second later, she grabbed hold of Joey and tumbled onto the blanket, engaged in a kissing frenzy that surprised her just as much as the astonished Skipper.
"Whoa!" Joey said around a series of wet kisses. "I..." - kiss -
"We..." - kiss -
"Lana...!" - kiss -
"Whoa!" - kiss -
"Gawd you're..." - kiss -
"...a good kisser, baby!"
Finally able to reciprocate the sneak attack, Joey turned Lana over onto her back and lowered herself down to claim the blonde's soft, enticing lips in a deep, searing kiss that caused untold pleasures for both of them.
Three hundred yards further along the horseshoe-shaped beach, Olly threw down the blanket she had been holding and knelt onto the sand, inviting Rebecca to join her by zipping her boiler suit down to half mast.
"I'll be there in a sec, Dominique," Rebecca said, snickering loudly when she spotted Lana and Joey kissing frantically. "Look!" she said, pointing back at the original camp site.
"I guess you were right... they just needed some space. Hey, baby, I think what they're doing is called kissing. D'ya wanna try to see if we can do it as well? C'mon..."
Snickering again, Rebecca sat down next to Olly whose face and body had never looked prettier or sexier to the secretary. Moving closer to the dark-skinned woman, Rebecca reached up and pushed the boiler suit off Olly's shoulders to reveal her full bosom.
"You're so beautiful, Dominique..." Rebecca whispered hoarsely as she knelt down and claimed Olly's lips in a kiss that held promises of much more.
"Hell, look who's talking," Olly whispered back, nibbling at Rebecca's lips. "Let me help you with that," she continued, reaching up under the t-shirt and began to pull it off.
Stilling Olly's hands with her own, Rebecca moved away from the kiss and briefly looked towards the heavens. "No, wait... wait, please," she said, locking eyes with the mechanic.
"Okay...?" Olly said and moved her hands back down.
Sighing, Rebecca looked at Olly's perfectly sculpted body and then down at her own curves that she suddenly felt resembled a beached manatee. Not knowing what to say or do, she just rubbed her brow and leaned back on her thighs.
"Rebecca, if you're having second thoughts about making love, we can just cuddle all night. Falling asleep in the arms of a pretty girl is one of the best things I know," Olly said, gently running her fingers up and down Rebecca's arm to try to coax a smile out of the secretary.
"Well, I'm not, but... I just feel so dumpy," Rebecca said quietly.
"Dumpy? Nah. Not even close. You're round, yeah... but never dumpy."
Rebecca just shrugged, unsure of how to proceed, but when Olly began to nibble at her neck and throat, she couldn't hold back a sensuous moan that betrayed how much she wanted - and needed - to be thoroughly loved.
Moving in very close, Olly put her hands on Rebecca's back and pulled her tight. "Baby, I have a suggestion..." she whispered. "Lie down and let me make love to you. You are a beautiful woman from head to toe, and I'll prove it by loving every inch of you. I promise that I'll make you feel safe and comfortable... I promise that I'll do everything I can to make you come, again," - nibble -
"and again," - nibble -
Chuckling through a veil of tears that had suddenly appeared in her eyes, Rebecca kissed the side of Olly's head and then pulled back to take her t-shirt off. When the cool evening air hit her heated, super-sensitive breasts, the sensation was so strong that she felt a tingle race through her entire body and her nipples grow rigid almost at once.
Before long, the tingle came to a stop at her center that began to throb mercilessly, begging for some urgent attention.
"Dominique... I... please make love to me," Rebecca said and went to lie down on the blanket. Turning around, she unbuttoned her shorts and raised her hips to pull them off, but Olly put a hand on her thigh before she had time to do so.
"I got 'em, baby. That's my job," Olly said and quickly stepped out of her trademark boiler suit and her panties; her dark brown skin and strong, curvaceous body seemingly giving off an otherworldly sheen in the early dusk.
Moving forward, Olly pulled Rebecca's shorts off and leaned down to lay a string of little kisses on the inside of her thighs, going further and further up towards the skin-colored panties. Once she reached them, she placed a gentle kiss on Rebecca's heated center before hooking her thumbs inside the elastic band to pull them off.
Rebecca raised her hips again to ease Olly in her quest, but when the underwear had been removed, she felt so vulnerable that she couldn't stop a brief shiver from running down her body.
Noticing the shiver, Olly reached up to grab Rebecca's hands and give them a little squeeze. "Let's take it nice and slow, baby... there's no rush," she whispered and slid up Rebecca's body, kissing her ash blonde patch of hair, her stomach and both breasts on the way up to the secretary's waiting lips.
Lana was panting heavily, lying flat on her back on the blanket and staring up into the bluish-black sky.
Next to her, Joey was lying on her right side with her head propped up on her arm, looking at Lana with lust shining brightly in her eyes - and not caring the tiniest bit what happened with the storm that was still raging further to the south of them.
When Lana's breathing evened out after a few seconds, she let out a chuckle and put her hands behind her head. "I'm sorry I kinda bowled you over there, Skip."
"Eh, I think I'll manage," Joey said with a throaty chuckle. When Lana didn't seem to want to go on, the Skipper let out a little sigh and snuggled down next to the blonde woman. "I get the feeling you have something on your mind, Lana...?"
"I do. Several things."
"Well... I'd like to hear them," Joey said, leaning in towards Lana.
Sighing, Lana moved her hands down from behind her head and put them across her stomach. Moments later, she sought out Joey's hand, giving it a little squeeze once the connection had been established. "I can't believe we've only known each other for forty-eight hours. It's Monday... we only arrived on Saturday, and yet, everything in my life has been turned upside down."
"In a good way, I hope?"
"Oh yes. And not just for me... look at Rebecca and Olly. Can you believe the passion going on there?"
"Yeah, that is hard to believe, I agree," Joey said and let out a brief chuckle.
"Joey? Have you and Olly ever... you know?"
"Well... it was pretty good, but we never pursued it. We were having financial problems at the time and I guess we both needed a friendly touch."
"Oh..." Lana said quietly.
"Does that bother you?"
"No... uh... not really. You're both adults."
Rolling over to her right side again, Joey put her arm across Lana's waist and gave her a little squeeze. "What's really bothering you, Lana? I know it can't be me and Olly sharing a roll in the hay two years ago...?"
Lana took a deep breath, but she let it out again without speaking. A little while later, she shrugged and mumbled: "You'll laugh."
"Oh come on... I'd never laugh at you, Lana!"
"I... I've been with a man, but never with a woman. I've never touched a woman intimately... never had a woman touch me in that way... never gone beyond kissing and a brief, embarrassing, semi-drunk, topless cuddle that didn't work for me at all. God, I'm a thirty-year old l-... woman who doesn't even know how... h-how to..."
"Lana, that's nothing to be ashamed of," Joey said in a quiet, soothing voice. Leaning down, she wanted to kiss Lana's lips, but at the last moment, Lana turned away from her.
"It is to me, Joey... Jesus, I'm so frickin' pathetic! I'm so afraid of my father finding out about me that I daren't even visit adult web sites on my own frickin' laptop!" Lana said and pounded her fist into the sand.
"That's why I've been so... so... Joey, you turn me on. You've turned me on ever since we first met in the harbor master's office two days ago!"
"Uh, okay," Joey said, looking at where her fingers had been zapped by the static electricity when they shook hands.
"But acting on my lust scares me shitless just thinking about it! Do you understand how frustrating that is?" Lana said and covered her eyes with her arm.
Getting up, Joey turned around and sat cross-legged on the sand, sending Lana a look that was a mix of love and sympathy. "You said you've been with a guy?"
"Yeah. Five years ago with a man I pretended was my boyfriend. Because my father is a big shot up in New York, it was... and still is, actually... expected of me. I don't know what the hell I was thinking, but he was there, and... we had sex a few times. God, I hated it so much."
"What'll happen if your father finds out that you're a lesbian, Lana?"
"...I don't know, but I get a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. He'll react badly, I just know it."
"Did you consider that he might be okay with it...?"
"He won't be. No chance. How did your Dad react, Joey?"
"Well... I guess he slapped me across the face and kicked me out on my ass."
"You see?" Lana said, shooting Joey a pointed look.
Sighing, Joey began to run her fingers up and down Lana's calf. "Yeah, but here's how I really see it... you are a woman who loves women. I say, act on it. If other people have problems with that, fuck 'em. Fuck 'em all."
"God, I... I want to act on it..." Lana said in a tiny voice.
"Then let's do it... to paraphrase something I read once, 'better to have screwed and lost than never to have screwed at all'."
Snorting loudly, Lana covered her eyes with her hands and let out a loud laugh. "God, you certainly have a way with words, Joey Swain!"
"Why thank you, darlin'," Joey said and used a very flamboyant gesture to flick her hair away from her shoulder.
After making sure that Rebecca's lips were well-kissed, Olly slowly moved down the secretary's body, placing a line of kisses on her collarbones and the swell of her breasts.
Once she found Rebecca's nipples that were already standing to very strict attention, she lowered her mouth down onto the right one and began to suck very gently on it.
The deep moan that emanated from her lover-to-be told her that she was doing it right, and as she let her tongue flick over the hardened nub, she reached up to squeeze the other nipple between her thumb and index finger.
Engaged in her favorite pastime, Olly let her tongue run around the ring of small bumps at the base of Rebecca's pink nub, feeling the nipple grow even harder in her mouth.
When Rebecca let out a new moan that was even more passionate than the first, Olly closed her mouth on the right nipple and squeezed it very gently between her lips. As her goodbye present, she let her tongue dance slowly across the tip of the trapped peak before she opened her lips and slid over to the left breast.
Inside Rebecca, the fire grew each time Olly worked on her sensitive breasts, and it wasn't long before the flames pooled together to set her core alight. Moaning a soft "Oh, baby," Rebecca felt her hips move upwards of their own accord to gently press against Olly's firm stomach and her soft breasts.
For the first time in a very long while, Rebecca felt completely safe in the arms of a lover, and it allowed her to let go and grow bolder than she would normally be. "Baby... I need you a... a bit lower," she whispered, gently putting her hands on Olly's head and pushing it further down.
Olly caught on at once and left the two peaks behind. On her way down to Rebecca's glistening center, she made sure that every last inch of the secretary's skin was well-loved - like she had promised she would - by kissing and stroking the underside of her full breasts and her sides and stomach.
Laying down a line of little kisses and caressing the heated skin with her long, agile fingers, Olly eventually reached Rebecca's ash blonde patch of hair. Taking in the excited, musky scent of her lover, she paused and looked up, just to be sure that Rebecca wanted her to go ahead.
When Rebecca answered by whimpering and pressing her abdomen upwards, Olly resumed her slow descent by kissing the patch of hair before moving further down. A last-minute decision to move to Rebecca's round thighs instead of stopping at her center earned her an impatient groan, but Olly just grinned and concentrated on making sure that the soft, tender skin on the inside of Rebecca's thighs was well-loved.
"God, baby... don't stop now," Rebecca whispered, pulling Olly's head back up towards her highly sensitive rose.
Moving upwards, Olly opened her mouth and placed it over Rebecca's slick folds, appearing to devour her whole - then, she ran her tongue from the lowest part and all the way up the outer labia, stopping to give special attention to the swollen bud at the top.
When Rebecca felt her clit being pleasured by Olly's tongue, she arched her back off the blanket and let out a hoarse, breathless cry, not caring a damn bit who could hear her.
Pausing briefly to grin at her lover's reaction, Olly extended her tongue and went a bit further down to play around with Rebecca's folds, determined to fulfil her second promise - to make Rebecca come again and again.
Lana sat up and pulled her legs up towards her chest, shielding herself, but at the same time, adding just the tiniest amount of pressure to her already quite sensitive center. "Will you show me how do it, Joey? Will you show me how to make love to a woman?"
"Baby, do you even have to ask? First, we take our clothes off," Joey said and whipped off her Hawaiian shirt so fast that the center button went flying. Quickly kicking off her flip-flops, she began to pull the Bermuda shorts down, but then stopped. "Just tell me if I'm going too fast for ya," she said, wearing an impossibly cheeky grin.
Chuckling, Lana put her chin down on her knees, blushing slightly as she marveled over Joey's beefy upper body and full, but firm, breasts. "Oh, maybe just a little."
"Okay," Joey said and moved over to kneel in front of Lana's legs. With a gentle tap on the blonde's right knee, Joey convinced the shy woman to spread her legs to ease the access. "Right. First, we take off our shirts. Like this."
Reaching out, Joey pulled Lana's T-shirt up, doing it very slowly so she wouldn't accidentally tickle her. "Okay," Joey said, admiring Lana's moderately sized but perfectly shaped bosom. "Then we take our shorts off so we can get to the best place on Earth. I need you to work with me now, Lana."
Smiling goofily, Lana raised herself up which allowed Joey to pull her shorts down.
"Right. The best is yet to come," Joey said and whipped off her own Bermuda shorts, revealing that the pair of boxers she was wearing showed just how much she was looking forward to what was about to happen.
"Oh..." Lana said, staring at the damp patch at Joey's center.
Locking onto Lana's eyes, Joey reached down and began to fondle herself through the soaked boxers. "That's how much you turn *me* on, baby," she whispered hoarsely.
"Gawd..." Lana croaked, instinctively licking her lips. The physical evidence of Joey's excitement sent such a strong jolt through her that she thought she came right there and then.
Feeling her inhibitions short-circuit - and moving on an instinctive autopilot fueled by pure passion - Lana sat up and pushed Joey back. At the very last moment, she remembered that she was still wearing her panties, but she quickly reached down and tore them off.
Embracing Joey's strong torso with both arms, Lana mounted the Skipper's muscular thigh and began to rock back and forth, grinding her slick, swollen folds hard against the silky smooth skin.
Already panting quite hard, she buried her face in the nook of Joey's shoulder and began to moan rhythmically. The moans soon turned to groans that gradually grew in volume until they could be heard over most of the beach.
Riding Joey's thigh harder and harder, it wasn't long before Lana felt the orgasm begin to build within her. As her superheated skin was stimulated to such a point that she felt fully united with her strong lover, the fire seemed to seep back inside her, heating her up from the inside; building to such a level that she had no choice but to let herself be thrown over the edge and into Joey's waiting arms.
Unable to stop the grinding motion, Lana bucked hard and dug her fingers into Joey's strong back as the orgasm screamed through her, forcing her to throw her head back and let out a wild, sobbing cry that left her throat quite raw.
With the fire slowly leaving her system, she stilled her motions and let herself fall forward, sobbing quietly against Joey's broad, yet wonderfully female chest as the afterglow began to fall on her like a golden shroud.
Joey was so astonished - even gobsmacked - by the fiery passion that had emanated from her new lover that she hadn't had time to join her in the quest for pleasure, but Lana's explosive display certainly hadn't done anything to ease her own condition.
With a center that was throbbing mercilessly and practically begging for immediate action, Joey lowered the panting Lana down on the blanket and quickly slipped out of her soaked boxers. The simple touch and the chilly air that swept around her heated folds were nearly her undoing, but she willed herself into saving it for when she and Lana could do it together. "Baby, that was amazing..." she whispered as she knelt down next to Lana, running her hands over Lana's flat stomach.
Lana coughed dryly a few times but moved aside to let the Skipper find room next to her. Once the two women were side by side, Lana placed several deep, loving kisses on Joey's lips. "Thank you for letting me do my thing, Joey... I'm sorry you weren't in on it. I c-couldn't stop... I just c-" she whispered, still swirling around in her afterglow.
"Shhh, it doesn't matter. Lana..." Joey whispered back, grabbing Lana's arm. "But please... I need you... I need you now," she continued in a strained voice, lowering Lana's hand to her incessantly throbbing center.
"Oh..." Lana said once she realized what the Skipper wanted her to do. Suddenly feeling her own fire re-ignite, she slipped her middle finger down the length of Joey's slick folds, just barely allowing her fingertip to venture inside.
The response was immediate - Slamming her eyes shut, Joey let out a low, husky moan and began to push her abdomen against Lana's fingers to show that she was fully ready for her.
Lana didn't need a second invitation and carefully inserted first one, then two fingers into the Skipper's slick, burning hot opening. Once she had given Joey's inner muscles an opportunity to get used to the foreign objects, she began a slow, gentle, rhythmical grind that sent just as much pleasure through herself as it offered Joey.
Moving up towards Joey's mouth, Lana began to alternate between kissing the gorgeous Skipper and nibbling at her lips, her chin and her throat. When Joey responded favorably to a nibble at a spot under her right ear, Lana went in for the kill and began to work the spot without remorse, earning herself several long groans in the process.
Improvising - but going by what she liked herself - Lana slowly increased the tempo of the grind and added a few occasional twists that made Joey buck into her hand and let out a few moans. "Do you like it, Joey? Please tell me if you don't like it..."
"God... it's so good," Joey breathed, nodding vigorously.
When the Skipper's breathing became deeper and the color of her eyes changed from azure blue to a much darker color, Lana knew she was about to come, and she increased the tempo again to help her do it.
Suddenly Joey slammed her eyes shut and closed her legs, trapping Lana's hand and locking her fingers in a deep thrust; opening her eyes again a few seconds later, she stared directly into Lana's green orbs, binding their souls together as she rode the top of the wave.
Then they both came, literally in each other's arms. Both women moaned and bucked against the other; Lana drowning in the unexpected, thrilling orgasm and Joey simply hanging on for the ride.
Joey's first, wild orgasm gave way to a second, slower one that originated somewhere deep inside her and that rolled through her like a warm tidal wave, spreading a feeling of bliss through her entire system.
Finally relaxing - but still panting hard - she spread her legs and reached down to pull Lana's hand out of her. After slumping over bonelessly, she let out a few chuckles and buried her face in the nook of Lana's shoulder.
Lana couldn't quite understand how it was possible to come from someone looking at her, but she wasn't complaining. Instead, she pulled the edge of the blanket on top of both them to give their naked bodies some protection from the chilly air.
"Thank you for making a woman out of me, Joey," she whispered as she held onto the Skipper's firm - yet boneless - body.
"Thanks for making a mess out of me, Lana," the Skipper replied hoarsely a little while later, giving Lana a squeeze underneath the cover.
"Anytime, baby. Anytime," Lana whispered and broke out into a heartfelt, relieved chuckle.
'Oh... oh... oh... oh... oh...! oh...! oh...! O-H-H-H-H!'
Raising her head, Lana looked around in a confused daze to see where the moaning had come from. When she remembered that Rebecca and Olly were further down the beach, she lowered her head onto the blanket and let out a series of little chuckles. "That was Rebecca... wow... Gawd, she was loud!" she whispered, not quite believing that it was really happening.
When a deeper, but no less passionate, groan shot up the beach a minute later, Joey stirred underneath the blanket. "And that was Olly. Perfect score for the All Girl Team."
Lana, feeling like she was about to die of embarrassment when she realized that she had been just as loud herself, did what came natural to her and pulled the naked Skipper close so she could bury her blushing face in the tall woman's dark mane.
Concluded in Part 2