“It would be cheaper to order the whole bottle,” the bartender said.
Tracy Carlton stared at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She still wasn’t used to her lighter shade of blond hair. “Charge me by the glass. This is the last trip I’m taking with my husband. I want to squeeze every dime I can from the old geezer.”
While the bartender poured another, Tracy watched the scene moving outside the ship’s window. Green meadows of perfect grasses flowed by as they navigated the Danube. She wondered if the Austrian government passed legislation requiring all farms and vineyards on the river be immaculate. It wasn’t like Tennessee. No junked vehicles, dilapidated houses, or garish gas stations marring the scenery. Not even a tree with a broken limb. Each home was perfectly landscaped, each car scrubbed and shiny. Piles of rubble turned out to be picture-perfect castle ruins.
An older man came by Tracy’s barstool and kissed her hand. Dapper with a thin, white mustache and a silk hankie in his double-breasted blazer, he didn’t look two-thirds his ninety years.
“Alone again?” he said.
“Ah, Jake.” Tracy lifted her champagne flute toward the ceiling. “My husband’s on the sun deck, flirting with the Ukrainian waitress.”
“In this heat? It’s blazing up there.”
She nodded. “I’ve half a mind to tell his girlfriend he’s cheating on her.”
Jake scowled. “He’s crazy to divorce you. Unacceptable.”
Tracy could feel her lips tremble as she went for a courageous smile. “Where’s Emily?”
“She’s on the sun deck too.”
“In this heat?” Tracy asked.
“Finishing the last page in her book.” Jake patted Tracy’s shoulder. “Won’t you join us? I always make sure we get the best seat at the front of the observation lounge. We can see the whole river.”
Tracy was amazed how easy it was to make friends on the ship. The close quarters and constant party atmosphere seemed to forge intimacy in a matter of days. She’d poured her heart out to Jake and Emily. She’d poured her heart out to almost everyone on board, including Jake’s great-grandson, the only teen on the cruise. He usually sat, an island to himself, bent over an iPad immersed in his games. An ideal audience, captive and resigned.
Tracy shook her head. “You and Emily enjoy your anniversary trip. I’ll be fine.”
Tracy watched Jake pick out prime club chairs overlooking the deck. Happy hour would begin soon. The room would fill with passengers. Anthony, the program director, would announce the next day’s shore excursions. And Tracy would still be alone. She turned back to the bartender.
“Jake proposed to Emily on the wharf in Vienna,” Tracy said. “They plan to renew their vows when we get there. Half the people on board are related to them.”
The bartender’s eyes whipped to the window. “Did you see that?”
Tracy kept her eyes on the mirror, adjusting a curl to lie on her clavicle just so. Though she was still getting used to the color, she really liked the longer length.
The bartender picked up a walkie-talkie. She tried to whisper, but her voice was hoarse with excitement. “Man overboard. Man overboard. Starboard!”
Tracy sipped her champagne and looked out the window. “Was he wearing white sweat pants and a gold parachute hoodie with his billion-dollar company’s logo?”
The bartender’s eyes slitted toward Tracy. “I did see a flash of gold and white.”
She sighed. “I couldn’t possibly have that kind of luck.”
Tracy pulled her Prada bag onto her lap and fished out a lipstick. She applied it with great care, making sure the color didn’t creep outside the lip lines the way poor Emily’s always did. Anthony rushed into the lounge, the gold-braided epaulets on his semi-military jacket indicating his rank as program director.
“Please save me from driving a Toyota the rest of my life,” Tracy said. “Please tell me my husband’s dead.”
Anthony stared. “How did you know?”
Tracy picked up a napkin and fanned herself. The lounge seemed stuffier than usual. Emily entered the room and Tracy stood, wobbly from the afternoon’s wine intake.
“I’ll be with Jake and Emily,” Tracy said. “I didn’t travel all this way to miss the scenic Wachau Valley.”
Anthony rushed to the dripping-wet man whose bright-red t-shirt shouted CREW in all caps.
“Where’s the body?” Anthony asked.
“Stowed in the infirmary. With this heat I don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep him. The police will meet us in Krems. ”
Anthony was sweating. Last week the flood. This week a heat wave. It never got this hot in June on the Danube. Ninety degrees? The ship’s air-conditioning unit couldn’t keep up, and the interior of the boat was beginning to swelter.
Now he had a dead body on his hands.
Anthony swerved his eyes. “Dutch alert.”
The crewmember quickly stepped aside.
“Captain Brandt,” Anthony said. “You look like you have bad news.”
The big Dutchman stood with his hands on his wide hips. The captain’s status as the best commander in the fleet was topped only by his reputation as the most dangerous man on board. He wouldn’t launch without his good-luck charms, his legendary yellow wooden shoes. But he steered the ship far better than his boat-sized clogs. Their casualty count was high.
The tulip patterns on his shoes pointed northwest and northeast. “I navigate this ship in four feet of water. I navigate this ship in Noah’s Ark flood. But panicky lawyers in skyscrapers scared sissies. Flood still too high, they say. We dump passengers at Krems.”
Anthony wiped the sweat from his upper lip. Even without the high water, the body and the broken air-conditioning left him with no other choice. But this decision was going to make him the most hated man on board. The captain poked Anthony’s chest.
“I steer boat. You steer passengers. No more old men overboard.”
The captain turned, the northwest shoe crunching the teen’s toes.
“Man, watch where you’re going!”
“Why won’t we be stopping in Vienna?” Jake asked Anthony.
Several passengers gathered behind Jake and Emily. They all stared at Anthony.
“The flood hasn’t receded as we’d hoped it would,” Anthony said. “The water’s too high to clear the bridge beyond Krems, and the wharf in Vienna is three inches under water. We’ll disembark in Krems and catch a bus to Vienna, where we’ll do our shore excursions. We’ll catch another ship in Budapest.”
Murmurs of disappointment and anger moved through the crowd. Jake’s fine, white mustache had a sheen of sweat at its edges.
“Unacceptable. This heat will dry the wharf by the time we get there.”
“We can’t clear the bridge.” Anthony refused to wipe the beads of moisture he felt forming on his bald head. He kept wearing the gold-braided jacket to make people think he wasn’t hot. “I promise you’ll renew your vows on the wharf in Budapest. A spectacular city! Another wonderful memory!”
“Unacceptable,” Jake said.
Anthony lowered his voice. “And then there’s Mr. Carlton’s unfortunate accident.”
“Ha!” Emily said. “That was no accident.”
Jake turned to Emily. “They’re trying to ruin our anniversary, dear. I proposed to you on the wharf in Vienna. It has to be exactly the same. Nothing less will do.”
The crowd applauded.
Jake stiffened, pulling his silk hankie out to mop his brow. “The air-conditioning is broken, and you’re just trying to make this easier on yourself by sending us on this detour. It seems I must take matters into my own hands.”
The crowd parted for the couple, cheering as they walked away. Emily smiled sweetly at her doting husband. Anthony tried to leave and the crowd closed around him.
The heat became unbearable.
The captain’s shouts resonated in the small confines of the ship’s bridge.
“This is mutiny! What are you going to do? We pass Krems already. We can’t go to Vienna. The water is too high.”
While his uncles finished tying the captain to the chair, the teen turned his attention to the ship’s dazzling array of electronics. He grinned at the twinkling lights and monitors. GPS, communications, alarms, radar, positioning, and voyage systems. Even the chart table had its charms.
“You said you could navigate this ship in four feet of water,” the teen said. “And you could navigate in Noah’s Ark flood.”
The captain looked at the teen suspiciously. “How you know I say that? You sneaky listen?”
“Better than touring cathedrals.” The teen tapped the captain’s yellow shoe with his flip-flop and pointed to his own three blue toes. “Cooperate or it’s your shoes overboard like Tracy’s husband.”
“If something happens to my shoes, all are dead.” The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Did you kill the Mr. Carlton?”
The teen dismissed his uncles and started rummaging through the captain’s compact refrigerator nestled near the helm. “Of course not. You’re going to be off duty for a couple of hours. Want a beer?”
“I don’t drink the alcohol,” the captain said. “Hand me a Pepsi.”
The teen took out two sodas and put a straw in one for the captain. “Chill, man.”
The captain was sweating. “Chill? I could smother in here.”
The teen pushed back the hood of his sleeveless shirt. “Seriously. If the air-conditioning isn’t fixed soon, Poppy Jake may keel over before we make it to Vienna. Now teach me how to drive this thing.”
The captain nearly choked on his Pepsi. “No way.”
The teen shrugged and pulled out his iPad. “Fine. I’ve been playing ‘Captain’s Voyage’ a couple of months now. Shouldn’t be that hard.”
Wearing Anthony’s gold-braided jacket and using his microphone, Jake had taken over the lounge for announcements. “We need to break up into teams. Number one priority is the air-conditioning unit.”
Anthony struggled with the ropes binding him. Tracy watched over him, a glass of Dom Perignon balanced delicately in one hand. Her other hand held a replica of a Viking dagger she’d confiscated from the gift shop. It waved up and down as the boat lunged, staying in the vicinity of Anthony’s neck.
“It’s going to take the kid a few minutes to learn how to drive this thing,” Tracy said.
“You don’t drive a ship,” Anthony said. “You command it.”
Tracy smiled, but Anthony turned his attention back to Jake. “Turn this ship around or you’re all in big trouble.”
“We can’t turn this thing around. It’s made to go one way.” Jake looked over his bifocals to his list. “Who here knows about air conditioners?”
The gay couple tentatively raised their hands. “I’m Carrier,” the tall man said. “He’s Rheems.”
“This boat is Swiss,” Jake said, “so I don’t know if the system is Carrier or Rheems or what brand. Don’t they all run on the same principle?”
“We’ll find out,” the tall one said. He and his partner carefully removed their new red Bavarian vests and handed them to Tracy. “Would you watch over these?”
She smiled, spilling a bit of bubbly. “Of course.”
Jake tapped his microphone. “Item two. We have a glitch with the music. I’d reserved the Vienna String Quartet, but we’ll miss our deadline.” Jake glared at Anthony, who glared back. “We’ll be arriving at sunset, which makes it even more romantic. Anyone play the accordion?”
The ship’s musician was locked in the kitchen after he refused to play at the ceremony. The rest of the crew had retreated to their quarters on the lower deck, taking a stash of booze and a promise of a stellar tip from Jake with them. In the lounge three people held up their hands and immediately began bickering over who should play.
“Who knows ‘What a Wonderful World’?” Jake asked. One hand remained in the air, the teen’s mother. The two contenders muttered accusations of nepotism.
Jake went down the list, finding a minister to perform the ceremony, in case the captain didn’t come around, and a wedding planner to make sure everything went smoothly. Like waking Emily up if she dozed off, as she was doing now.
Anthony tried to stand, but Tracy pushed the point of the dagger against his jugular.
“You wouldn’t kill me,” he said.
Tracy shrugged. “Whose husband did they find in the Danube?”
Anthony went still, keeping his eyes on Tracy but speaking to Jake.
“They won’t be able to fix the air conditioner. It probably needs a new condenser. The bridge is not far down river, and we’ll get stuck in the middle of nowhere in this awful heat. Meanwhile there’s a body rotting in the infirmary. Let the captain go. I promise, I won’t say anything about what’s happened.”
Jake raised his eyebrows. “My great-grandson says we can squeak under the bridge. So shut up.”
Sirens sounded and all eyes went to the shoreline. A caravan of gray and blue vehicles with Polezei in giant letters slowed their speed to stay even with the ship. Their blue lights gave a weird tint to the late-afternoon haze. Everyone lurched as the teen evidently hit the gas pedal. Voices in Austrian yelled warnings. The passengers waved back as if they were in a parade.
“Look at that,” Tracy said. “Even the police cars are scrubbed and shiny.”
Anthony whispered to Tracy, “Let me go, and I won’t press charges. I saw how your husband treated you.”
“He was a jerk. But I loved him. Truly. I was wife number three, and everybody said it would never last. But I got twenty-five years out of him, and I thought his wild days were over. On our last anniversary he told me he would love me forever.” Tracy pulled the dagger away from his throat and circled it in the air. “Then, at eighty, the old geezer thought he needed to replace his old trophy wife with a new one. Caught me off guard.”
Anthony had a tense smile on his lips. “A fourth mid-life crisis would surprise anyone.”
“We planned this trip last year, while we were still happy. Now it’s nothing but his grand farewell to me. Big of him, right? He’d planned to marry his girlfriend next week.” She took a long, slow sip of champagne and looked at the mirror again. “She has really long, really blond hair.”
Anthony nodded in sympathy, but his eyes kept darting to the shoreline. “You’ll get a good lawyer. No jury would convict you.”
“Of what? I didn’t kill him.”
Anthony flinched and Tracy noticed a trickle of blood on his throat.
“Oh. Sorry.” She set the dagger down on the Bavarian vests. “Your bartender is a witness. I was in here when my husband went overboard.”
“But as a widow, you get a lot more money than if he’d divorced you, right?”
Tracy raised her eyebrows. “How did you know he made me sign a stingy pre-nup?”
“Well, let’s see. Jake, Emily, their great-grandson, the gay guys, Olga—”
“The bartender,” Anthony said.
Jake tapped the microphone again as the siren sounds increased. “Who knows hostage negotiation?”
No hands. “Arbitrage?”
No hands. “Any divorce attorneys in the room?”
Two hands went up. “Get up top and negotiate two more hours for us.”
The room suddenly began to cool, the breeze bringing smiles one by one throughout the lounge. Slowly everyone began to clap.
“How did you do it?” Anthony hissed to Tracy. “Medicate your old man so he’d stagger overboard? Untie me now while you can still make a deal. Or I promise you, this won’t end well.”
The teen leaned over the GPS system and pointed toward the ship’s bow. “There he is.”
“Who?” the captain asked.
“Don’t know his name. I just know he has a blue outboard motorboat.” The teen began texting, then killed the ship’s engines. “He says we have clearance under the bridge.”
“How you know man in blue boat?” the captain asked.
“Crowdsourcing,” the teen said. He spoke into his cell phone to his uncles. “Everything off the sun deck?”
Their voices came over the speakerphone. “The canopies are down. The tables are down. We’re folding the chairs.”
All were silent as they approached the bridge. The teen’s uncles threw a rope to the man in the blue outboard. The little boat slowly pulled away until the rope was taut, and then its driver gently nudged the little boat’s engine. The only noise was the captain sucking the last of his Pepsi through the straw.
The teen left the captain and climbed the stairwell to the sun deck. He nearly lost his head before he pulled back inside as the bridge passed overhead. Listening, he waited for the sounds of collision, but none came. The light disappeared and he reached his fingers to touch the bridge’s support beams one by one. They were cool and rusty. The teen figured two inches of clearance, at most. Light appeared again and he popped his head out to watch the rest of the ship emerge into the sun. Cheers rose from the observation lounge.
Then he heard the cracks and pops of splintering wood.
The golden hour of the sun fell slant across Vienna’s wharf. Passengers and crew watched Jake and Emily renew their vows as the captain officiated. The water had receded from the wharf, but even the intense heat couldn’t dry it completely. Water lapped around the guests’ feet, sloshing through sandals and seeping into Nikes. When they said “I do,” two hundred cameras recorded the event.
The captain toasted the couple with his Pepsi. He turned to the teen, who was sending movies of the ceremony to YouTube.
“I told sissy lawyers in skyscrapers it could be done,” the captain said.
“Only one casualty,” the teen said. “Somebody left a chair on the sun deck.”
“It’s okay,” the captain said. “We use it to make bonfire.”
The teen pointed to the yellow wooden shoes. The captain’s feet were the driest on the wharf.
“We could start with those shoes,” the teen said.
“Ha, you think you are good captain,” the captain said. “They are what saved you.”
Tracy stood by Anthony, the dagger safely stowed in her Prada bag. He was wearing his jacket with the gold braids again.
“So sweet to watch Jake and Emily,” she said.
“How long have they been married?” Anthony asked.
“It’s their fourth,” Tracy said.
Anthony clenched his fists. A bit of blood seeped through the bandage on his neck. “Four years? That’s all they’ve been married? Four years? I figured sixty, minimum.”
“Four weeks,” Tracy said. “They met a couple of months ago on the cruise going upriver.”
Anthony’s face was as red as the gay guys’ Bavarian vests. “You mean we went through all this to celebrate four crappy weeks of marriage?”
“Look at them. They’re in their nineties and they celebrate life every day.” She tilted her head toward Anthony. “What about my husband?”
“I’m turning everything over to the police.”
“I’m worried about Emily.”
“Why?” Anthony asked. “Did she fall asleep during the ceremony?”
Tracy turned to Anthony and grasped the epaulets on both shoulders. “Be kind to her. She was only trying to help.”
Anthony pulled back and looked at Tracy. “Help?”
Tracy scanned the police surrounding the ceremony. They were on the Danube in boats, on the road next to the river in marked cars, in uniform edging all sides of the wharf. The divorce attorneys were making the rounds, assuring the officials they were in control while the guests on the wharf toasted Jake and Emily.
“We offered to keep our silence,” Tracy said, “but Jake and Emily insist no one cover up the truth.”
Accordion music filled the air with “What a Wonderful World.” Cameras captured shots of Jake and Emily kissing, holding hands, laughing. The wedding planner chastised the uncles for meting out champagne too slowly.
“Keep your silence?” Anthony said. “About what?”
“Emily’s a sleeper in more ways than one. She pushed my husband into the river.”
Anthony once again felt beads of sweat on his forehead. “What?”
“He wouldn’t stop flirting with the Ukrainian waitress.” Tracy sighed. “It looks like Emily will spend their next anniversary in jail. Because of her, I’ll be a rich woman. So I’ll do everything I can to help.”
Tracy let go of Anthony’s shoulders as the red faded from his face and his breathing became more even.
“Maybe that won’t be necessary.” He nodded to a tall brunette sharing a Pepsi with the captain. “You remember Jill, don’t you?”
“The gerontologist. Sure.”
“A quick diagnosis and perhaps Emily will never see the inside of a jail cell.”
Tracy waved her empty flute to an uncle, who filled it to the brim. “From assisted dying to assisted living. I say Emily deserves a toast.”
Copyright © 2014 Annelle Neel
Annelle Neel lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She holds an MA with a Writing Option from the University of Tennessee where she served for 16 years as a writer in development and alumni affairs. She is a member of the Knoxville Writers Guild. Her work has appeared in Willow Review, Colere, Hardboiled, Caliban, Forge, The MacGuffin and The Storyteller. annelleneel.squarespace.com