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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue.

Chapter 7

Their status as the 1,000,000th customers of the Van Cove Arms only increased their reputation with the dock hands. O’Riley was not short of drinks the entire time they were there. M’Elise welcomed the publicity, even more when, the next day, a card was sent to them from a Lady Vanalika Visweswaran of Udaipoor requesting an appointment to review the facilities of their vessel with a one week charter in mind.

“Stationery! Audit it! I need stationery,” said M’Elise.

“Can’t you just send an answer over the wire?” asked O’Riley.

“These are rich idiots. They sent paper, they expect paper back. We have to show we are as willing to waste good money on outdated anachronisms as they are to be worthy of their custom.” She looked frantically through the drawers of the ship. “A pen too. We can’t print it. You can’t write on paper without a pen.”

“Oh,” said Squirrel, “I remember that from school. They used to take the dead feathers of birds and dip them in blood. It sounded icky. Are you sure?”

“Something like,” M’Elise typed furiously on the galley’s screen. “OK. I should have thought. There’s a stationery shop in port. Squirrel. More shopping for you. Can you run down to shop 1927 in bay C and get some stationery printed for us? Heavy bond, double weighted cream paper. Embossed ink, reminiscent of gold but not too shiny to read. The most italicized of italic fonts they have in the house for the title and something more legible for the rest. I’ll leave the logo design to you. Tie it in with the uniforms.”

“Damn. Where did you learn all this stuff?” asked Squirrel.

“Four years in the Merchant Academy on Botany Bay. I’ve been waiting years to use it.” Then M’Elise muttered “Glad my father’s money wasn’t wasted for a change.”

“I’ll never remember all that. Can you write it down?”

M’Elise grabbed her tablet and started writing. “Their ad says they only do wholesale. But use your charm and try to get less than a palette load out of them.”

Squirrel adjusted her cleavage and read through the tablet. “OK. I can do this.”

“If there is going to be a show, can I go?” asked O’Riley.

“No show,” said M’Elise. “Go pal around with your friends. We’ll need a cartload of quick-prepare luxury meals that snobs won’t complain about. Cheaply. See what you can find.”

“Even better! I’ll hit the bars right away!”

“You’ve sent the stripper shopping, the drunk drinking, I can’t wait for my assignment” said the old man.

“The toilets need cleaning” said M’Elise. He glared at her.

“Hey. I’m scrubbing the deck and José is polishing the brass. Everyone works on this ship.” He grumbled and stalked off.

Squirrel picked bits of lint from O’Riley’s jacket. “Damn. White is so high maintenance.”

They were all wearing the new dress uniforms. The fabric was a base white with blue piping along the edges. Two lines of blue and silver braid ran down the outside of the legs to heavy duty work boots with a blue-black polish. The gold eyelets in them matched the gold buttons of the jackets. The captain’s jacket added more gold braid to the epaulets and the peaked cap around the central starburst with a stylized narcissus.

Squirrel’s uniform was of the same color, but a different cut. It was primarily of a rich blue translucent material in several layers shot through with silver streaks and flecks in constellation patterns. The slits in the side and under the arms were vertically accented by the Y shaped belt and deep cut neckline. Her red hair had been teased to be tight and curly with the same silver highlights. She wore the stylized narcissus as a broach on one shoulder.

“High maintenance. What does it say that you picked it?” said the old man.

“It shows she knows what she’s doing.” M’Elise smoothed the lines of her dress pants, her expression drifting between worry and a silly grin. “White is high maintenance. It’s the dumbest color ever for work wear. So it shows you’re prepared to expend stupid amounts of money keeping it clean. It makes rich people feel better about forking over large amounts of cash to you.”

José polished the gold buttons of his jacket with relish. “They’re very pretty.”

“Yes” smiled M’Elise. “I like them. It’s good to be in a decent uniform again. Thank you, Squirrel.”

Squirrel looked oddly touched. “I think that’s the first nice thing that’s been said to me on this ship.”

“I say nice things to you all the time,” protested O’Riley.

“Especially when you’re looking down her cleavage” said the old man. Squirrel straightened up suddenly from picking lint off O’Riley jacket and glared at him.

“If the good saints put blessings in my path, who am I to deny them?” he asked piously.

She pressed a stiletto heel on the top of his foot. “Just remember, I’m as tall as you in these.”

A gentle ringing tone sounded throughout the ship. “She’s here,” cried M’Elise.

“Customer on deck! Customer on deck!” cried O’Riley with a mock intercom voice. “Engage the background music, set the espresso machine to full!”

Squirrel giggled despite herself. M’Elise shot him a glare and headed for the airlock.

“I bet she’s pretty,” said José. They heard the airlock work and M’Elise’s voice indistinctly echoed words of flattery.

“Money is always pretty” said the old man.

“I don’t know,” said O’Riley. “The prettiest thing I ever saw was a crystal glass full of the amber tears of the saints after six months in juvie. Ah! That was sweet.”

“Or your baby’s first smile” said Squirrel, lost in thought.

“M’Elise is very pretty when you can make her smile” said José.

“Fine” said the old man. “Leave the money to me then.”

Conversation was cut short as M’Elise entered the room. “Lady Vasweswaran, may I present the crew of the José Fabuloso.” The Lady Vanilika Vasweswaran swept into the room. She was tall and lithe with nut brown skin, piercing green eyes and jet black hair with a fullness and luster only achievable through extensive, frequent and expensive treatment. She wore a tight bodice of a rich yellow with intricate gold trim. Around this was wrapped yard upon yard of the finest and most sheer yellow silk with a highly embroidered edge of entwined aquatic creatures which draped over her shoulder. Her brow, ears, neck, wrists and fingernails were adorned with gold, nearly the hue of her dress, clearly showing it had only the most passing familiarity with any base metal. “Charmed” she said simply.

“This is our Captain, José Fabuloso, of great reputation throughout the region.” He bowed formally and she inclined her head. “Our extremely skilled concierge, Squirrel, is willing to see to your every need during your trip.” Squirrel smiled expansively and curtseyed deeply. Vasweswaran smiled back civilly. “And our Chief Engineer Lieutenant O’Riley. Learned his trade in the wars and is up for anything.” He saluted and she eyed him in a very speculative way. “This is the ship’s lounge, which you are free to… lounge in. Although we’re quite happy to bring all of your meals to your suite.”

“What about him?” asked Vasweswaran, pointing at the old man.

“He cleans the toilets” said M’Elise, levelly.

“What’s his name? He looks familiar.”

“Aloysius P. Wilberforce” said M’Elise before the old man could say anything.

“That’s for too long for a janitor. Can’t you just stitch ‘Al’ onto his lapel?”

“I'll have him branded immediately. Now the guest suite is over here…” The machine in the corner of the galley made a loud ‘ding’ noise.

“Oh! Espresso!” said Vasweswaran her face lighting up.

“I’ll get a cup just for you,” said Squirrel enthusiastically.

“We can serve you in the suite and you can take in the luxury of the experience.” Vasweswaran deigned to let herself be lead off.

“I am satisfied,” she declared, several cups later, from the fainting couch in the guest cabin.

“Fabulous,” said M’Elise. “I am sure you will find the service well worth the price!” Squirrel spirited away the empty espresso cup.

“It’s far better than the dreary hotel I’m staying in. I’ll have my things sent here immediately.” She raised a warning finger. “I’m very particular about them. I will unpack them myself.”

“But, of course! Everything as you wish. May I enquire as to when you wish to depart?”

“My sorority sister and dear friend Sundarshina Chemmanoor will be joining me. I expect her within the day. We can leave as soon as possible after that.”

“Certainly, ma’am. The more the merrier. And where shall I have the captain plot a course for?”

“Mérida downport.” Vasweswaran said as if M’Elise should already know. M’Elise looked a little confused as if she heard wrong. “We are bringing something to my uncle there, on expedition to the ruins.”

“I will have him lay course immediately.”

“Such a quaint little ship. I’d hardly have noticed it but for that piece in the local news” she said with a slight edge to her voice.

“Sweet serendipity” said M’Elise, trying to smooth things over. “We try to remain exclusive.”

“Oh, such a darling” said Vasweswaran as Squirrel brought in another cup of espresso. She beamed a golden smile at her as she took the cup. “Oh! Just one more and I really must go.”

The airlock door snicked shut as only expensive machinery could do. M’Elise stalked back to the galley. “Flask” she demanded of O’Riley. He produced it instantly and uncorked it. She took a swig and made a bad face. Squirrel handed her a cup of espresso and she downed it in one swing on top of the liquor.

O’Riley took the flask back. “Tastes better than arse licking, eh?”

She slumped into a chair and put her head in her hands. “We seemed to have pulled it off.”

Squirrel took off her shoes and became substantially shorter. “I lost track of how many cups of espresso I poured into her.”

“At least we know how to keep her happy” said O'Riley.

“Is Mérida good for trade?” asked José.

“It sucks” said M’Elise, muffled. “Their major export is hemp.”

“Oh, really?” said Squirrel with interest.

“As in rope,” said M’Elise sitting up. “Low value, high bulk. It would be great if we were a government Junk and not a shiny roller skate.”

“I can think of a few other by-products that are low mass and high value,” said Squirrel.

“It’s a good source for pre-Hiatus artifacts” added the old man.

“Please. Can we try to stay above board for at least ten minutes?” pleaded M’Elise.

“As above board as we can in a hot ship,” said O'Riley.

“Something will work out,” said José. “It always does.”

“Hey, if we’re here for another day we can do more shopping!” said Squirrel. “When do we get paid?”

M’Elise dragged over a stylus. “Well, she paid in advance and I stiffed her double fare for the second passenger. So we’re solvent. No bonus, but I can make payroll.” There was general enthusiasm.

To be continued...