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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter appeared in the May/June 2024 issue.

Chapter 9

System control in Mérida was very casual. They even raised a round of applause for José and his fiery descent to the downport.

“I think I like it here” said José.

“If we can’t find a cargo or fare, we could be here a while,” said M’Elise. “Or if the paperwork is too bad.”

Customs, predictably, came out in force to process the dead bodies. With officiousness tempered by the solemnity of the occasion they determined it was not going to be a simple matter.

“Look, why doesn’t everyone take the day off,” said M’Elise. “We’ve got to apply to leverage their credit accounts to provide funds for the transfer. Let alone shipping a cadaver across national boundaries… It gets complicated.”

“No problem,” said José. “The Solar Corona here is good. You’ll do well.”

And after a three day marathon struggle it was all done. “The Solar Corona really is good here,” said an exhausted M’Elise in the bar they had adopted.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her drunk,” said Squirrel.

“It’s like a solar eclipse,” said O’Riley. “Rarely seen, but lovely to behold. She’s much nicer when she’s drunk.”

“Fabuloso!” she cheered, toasting with José. “Hel’s ledger, that’s the most complicated procedure I've ever seen.”

“Do tell,” said the old main, resignedly, clearly wishing otherwise.

“So we, like, had to assert power of attorney over a dead person, and attach a floating executor to a document to travel with the will. Only there wasn’t a will so we had to get into death-without-a-will legislation and establish a will in virtuoso…”

“Fabuloso!” cheered José, not following.

“It took a day to explain what to do, another day to work out it could be done, and the final day they were working as hard to make it happen as I was.”

“Maybe they just wanted to pain to end,” said the old man, sipping his absinthe.

“No, really, at the end when we got it all done the stationmaster himself came down to sign it!”

“Seriously?” asked Squirrel.

“Seriously! He signed my passport stamp right here,” she fumbled for her paperwork.

The old man poured her a shot from his bottle. “What's that?” she asked. “It’s green.”

“It’s distilled essence of wormwood,” he said.

“OK.” She tossed it back, paused a moment, then screamed.

“It contains the bitterest substance known to man” the old man explained. M’Elise started wiping her tongue on the bar mat.

“She’s beginning to sound like you on the bridge” said O’Riley to Squirrel.

“She did OK,” said José.

“Yeah!” Squirrel said defensively. “I nearly bit my tongue through but I did OK. Captain said so!”

“Water!” gasped M’Elise, the power of speech slowly returning.

“A Solar Corona for the speechless lady” ordered O’Riley.

“Close… enough” panted M’Elise, drinking heavily. “Why… you… drink?” she asked the old man.

“It’s good for my digestion.”

“Not to mention being extremely alcoholic” said a new voice. They turned to find a local gentleman had joined them. He wore clothes in the local style. A cream colored heavy linen jacket and a bright single color waistcoat, red in this case. He held a glass with a similar green liquid. “The key, señorita, is to sip it.” He demonstrated. “Although I will admit it is an acquired taste.”

M’Elise coughed a few times, tried to introduce herself, but failed. Giving up she passed him a business card. He accepted it with a bow, unfolded some glasses and read it thoroughly. “Then you are all the crew of the José Fabuloso?”

“At your service” said O’Riley, raising his glass.

He returned the salute. “Then you are the people I’m seeking.” He addressed the old man. “Captain, do you have a few moments for an old man?”

“Sorry, my dad is the captain” the old man said, pointing at José. The gentleman put his glasses on, and looked from one to the other, confused.

“A misunderstanding in an adoption clinic,” said O’Riley.

“We’re kind of a mixed up crew,” said Squirrel.

“I am sorry” he said, still not sure whom to address. “I am not used to the ways of foreigners. But I will take the time to understand you if you will take the time to understand me.”

“José Fabuloso wants to understand everyone!” said José.

The gentleman laughed quietly. “But you have been kind to tell me who you are and I have not. I am Luis Benitez, son of Ricardo and Jessica, both sadly departed. I have no children of my own, but am proud to have two brothers, one sister, eight nephews and nieces and four grandchildren.” He beamed at them.

“Good health to them all,” said M’Elise hoarsely.

Luis smiled in surprise. “So your customers are not all strange to you. What joy!” She saluted him with her bottle. “It is the seventh year of the marriage of two of my grandchildren and I wish to give them something special. They are much more knowledgeable in the ways of foreigners than I and this is good for the family. I wish to encourage this and give them time amongst foreigners for this momentous occasion. They are near strangers to one another and so in learning to see those who are even stranger, they will see themselves more closely.”

“How can they be strangers if they have been married for seven years?” asked Squirrel.

“It is my people’s custom to marry young” explained Luis. “Formally by family arrangement. It brings understanding and prosperity between and within our society. But the families need time for this to develop. So it is only after seven years that the couple begins to live as one.”

“We have very reasonable charter rates… ” began M’Elise.

He shook his head. “We should talk of money last of all. I wish to know what sort of people you are. If I am satisfied with you, then we will find a way to pay whatever price you wish.”

José put his bottle down and hugged Luis warmly. “You are like a father to me!”

Luis, and most of the crew, looked confused. M’Elise cleared her throat and tried to talk again. “Noble grandfather, we will be pleased to meet with you at whatever time you find suitable to answer any of your questions.”

This seemed to please him very much. “Thank you! Thank you! I have apartments very near the port. Here, I will give you the address. Please come tomorrow, any time.”

He clasped each of them, formally, by the hand, as well as several of the other patrons he seemed to know before leaving.

“That was weird,” said O’Riley.

“Weird seems to be standard practice for this ship,” commented Squirrel.

“It’s a weird galaxy out there. The more you travel, the more weird things you see.” M’Elise finished her Solar Corona. “At least it’s a fare.”

“I think it’s the first reasonably unusual thing to happen so far,” said the old man.

“Aye, completely” said O’Riley. “Imagine thinking you were the captain!”

“Fabuloso!” cheered José.

“What do you think he’s going to ask?” said Squirrel.

“Probably the question about crossing a river in a row boat with three farm animals” said M’Elise. “The trick is to juggle them or something.”

“What if I don’t want to answer his questions?”

“We need the fare,” said M’Elise. “Just answer them. Be vague. He’ll insert whatever interpretation he wants into them. His mind is already made up.”

“Just another stupid rich person?” asked the old man.

“No,” said M’Elise. “I think he’s the other sort. He’s used to money. It doesn’t matter to him anymore. He’ll still spend it to get exactly what he wants, but he’ll just do it to get what he wants, without caring if people know how much he’s spending. It’s like conspicuous consumption without the conspicuousness part of it. I’ve heard it happens when you get old.”

“If you only knew,” said the old man. “If you only knew,” he finished his bitter drink.

“What do you mean you aren’t going?” M’Elise demanded of the old man.

“I’ve got no passport. They won’t let me past the port. That’s why it’s called that. Past the port, passport. Get it?”

“I just got two dead people transitional citizenship. You don’t think I could get you a passport?”

“How about I’m a cranky intractable old man who you aren’t going to budge?”

“I just spent three days battling port authority bureaucracy and won. Do you think I’m frightened of you?”

“How about this dust top berth has no security and someone has to make sure no one scratches this overpriced fancy ship’s paint?”

She gave him a sour look. “OK. I’ll buy that. But if we lose this fare because of you I’ll backdate your pay cut to the big bang.”

He fished in his pocket and handed her an envelope. “Here’s a handwritten apology to him on ship’s stationary. He seemed a decent sort. It’s only fair.”

She took it in surprise. “Let’s hope so.”

They were traveling light so customs gave them a wave through. The immigration officials had heard of M’Elise’s efforts and were extraordinarily helpful.

A local with a dark hood and wide brimmed hat took them on a slow moving conveyance toward the address they gave. Dust seemed the order of the day and lacking the hats and scarves of the locals, they were soon coughing and their eyes streamed tears. Seeing this, the driver stopped and laboriously put up a screened top and walls that would normally be saved for days when the dust was bad.

“I must check out the local cosmetics,” said Squirrel, peering into a small mirror and trying to repair her makeup. “Anything that can stand up to this sandblasting has got to be worth buying.”

José wiped his eyes clear and blew dust off his mustache. “It sure is dirty!”

“I guess that’s why the beer is so good” ventured O’Riley.

M’Elise sat quietly looking out the small clear panel at the passing streets.

“Nice work back at immigration, M’Elise” said Squirrel. “I don’t think I’ve ever been given a thirty six month visa to somewhere I’m never planning on going back to.” M’Elise grunted an acknowledgement, not turning from the window. Squirrel caught O’Riley’s eye and drew his glance to M’Elise.

“M’Elise, luv. Have you got a feeling about this?” O’Riley asked.

“No,” she said. “But I didn’t have a feeling about the last minute passengers we took to Port Newark either.”

“Ancient history,” said O’Riley. “That was weeks ago.”

“It was a dump,” said Squirrel. A little unnerved at M’Elise’s despondency. “It needed a cleanup.”

“I just wonder how many died.” There was a moment’s silence.

“Maybe no one” said José. “There were a lot of lifeboats.”

“We won’t know till the news catches us,” said O’Riley.

“If we take this fare, the news will catch up with us” said M’Elise. “He wants to know what sort of people we are. Sometimes I wonder myself.”

They all thought about that for a while.

To be continued…