Episode Twenty-one ♦ Boxed In

“I’m not feeling well,” Anita said to George, her cloth bag hanging from her right shoulder. “If we’re going to be arrested, I’d rather throw up in private. I’ll be back in a bit.” She winked and walked away. He set his valise at his feet and leaned on the railing of the Harmonie, three decks above the Mississippi’s waterline, sunglasses hanging from the neckband of his shirt. Any other day, the warm midday sun and light refreshing breeze would be glorious.

He watched passengers file off the riverboat – families on vacation and adventure travelers using Hannibal as a starting point for trips west. Each disembarking person crossed the gangplank and passed through a free-standing doorway, much like George had seen in Saint Louis. He remained convinced the doorway was a scanner and arrest was imminent without his Informateur.

Past the scanner, the bustling crowd of newcomers – people in jeans and sports shirts, dresses and walking shoes, airball jerseys and shorts – mingled with porters and touts from the town in period costume. Chattering tourists clambered into stagecoaches and wagons. Children offered apples and carrots to grateful, well-fed horses. Using muscles and mules, costumed longshoremen hauled baggage and cargo through a forward hatch of the Harmonie. The present mixing into a representation of an age long since passed into legend.

Taking a deep breath George exhaled disappointment, certain he would get no closer to the Tom Sawyer experience than this view. He rather fancied the idea of slipping into the pages of a beloved book, though maybe not this one. While admiring Mark Twain’s skillful creativity and use of colloquial language, George saw himself as a recluse overlooking the Vale of Grasmere, contemplating Leaves of Grass, or building the barricade with Marius after Lamarque’s death. Though it was hard for him to imagine a pistol in hand, George craved needing to fight for something, living a life of meaning, having a purpose to every day. Now a different fate awaited him and his traveling companion.

What was keeping Anita? Why did she wink?

He stood and scanned the deck. No sign of her. He turned around. A group of older adults followed a guide towards a stairwell. She was not there. While they had plenty of time to leave the ship and discover their future, he preferred doing it to waiting and thinking about what might or might not happen. Where was she?

George paced five steps away from his bag towards the bow then returned. He paced another five steps towards the stern and returned. Should he try to find her? Had she returned to their cabin? No. She was probably in the women’s lavatory. No. It was better to wait. George continued pacing along the deck, convinced she had been gone long enough to eat another breakfast and throw it up too. He stopped and watched a pair of teamsters maneuver a wagon carrying two large crates through the quayside host. To the south of the landing was a covered warehouse facility; beyond that, trees marched down rolling hills towards the mighty river still swollen with the spring melt.

“Mr. Winston?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to find a young woman in ship’s uniform, her insignia indicating she was a steward or assistant. George was unsure which. Her nametag said “Bonden.” She touched her right hand to a single daisy sticking out of the breast pocket of her jacket. “The purser and your wife are waiting below deck. May I help you with your bag?”

“I’ve only the case. It’s no bother. Thank you.” George picked up his valise; holding it a representation of control over his fate. “So where do I find them?”

“If you’ll follow me, sir.”

George trusted the simple flower and hoped better news awaited. He followed a couple steps behind, forward along the deck, down two flights of stairs, through the elegant grand salon, and empty dining room. She opened a door labeled “Crew Use Only” and they descended a final staircase.

Below deck the floors were bare; metal walls were covered in faded grey paint. The light was harsh and inconsistent. Staff scurried down tight, warm corridors wearing either ship’s livery or grey tunics, names stenciled across the back, and pants. George decided there were two classes of crew members: those allowed contact with passengers, who sported dress blues with a white shirt and tie, and those who inhabited an underworld of heat, toil, dirt, and sweat.

They passed a grey-suited worker, perspiration staining his armpits and back, carrying a carton of vegetables into the busy kitchen. In a dark alcove along the passage, pressed up against a closed hatch, a pair of women talked loudly. George, disbelieving, was certain one said, “He’s a total slut.” Craning his neck to look at the women as he passed, George wanted to stop and listen, but his escort continued marching down the corridor and disappeared around a corner. He sprinted so as not to lose her.

A left turn after another left turn, George was certain they had walked aft and fore in the maze of passages below deck, glad of the guide, knowing he could never find his way through the labyrinth. She made a couple more abrupt turns and paused outside a small room where Anita and Melville, the Harmonie’s purser, stood chatting.

“Enter Bonden,” Melville said to George’s escort.

“Sir, if I may?” asked Bonden.

“Yes?” Melville replied.

“There isn’t much time.”

“Thank you, Bonden.” Melville approached George holding out his right hand. George accepted the quick, firm handshake before the officer pointed to George’s sunglasses. “I’ll need those,” Melville said holding open his right palm.

George hesitated, looked to Anita and after her nod of reassurance, removed the glasses from the neckband of his shirt, and handed them to Melville. George turned to Bonden and said, “Thank you for navigating. I would have been out to sea without you.” He chuckled at the joke even as the rest remained stony-faced.

Bonden reached out a hand. George, surprised, took it. She said, “My pleasure, sir,” pressed something into his palm and released. Embarrassed, not expecting it, not knowing what it was, but understanding that it needed to remain secret, he slipped his hand into his pocket and hid the small, flat item there.

George wanted to ask what the plan was, but the conspiratorial attitude in the room kept him quiet. Melville handed Bonden the two pair of sunglasses and motioned to the doorway with his eyes. Bonden nodded and left.

“This way,” said the purser as he strode out of the office followed by Anita and George. Down another corridor they walked, George feeling lost but trusting he would understand any plan soon.

They entered a large, open hold with an assortment of shipping boxes, crates, and palettes. A few grey-suited workers used handcarts and lift-trucks to move items that could not be carried. George looked down a long row of crates and could see daylight through a large open hatch. He reasoned they were in the forward hold he had noticed minutes before from his perch on the third deck.

Leading the couple around the room’s periphery and away from the workers, Melville stopped. Hidden from view by stacks of shipping crates, he pointed inside a box and said, “Be patient. It will take time, but someone will come.” Melville offered no further explanation, a single daisy worn as boutonnière.

The box seemed much too small for them both. George, eyes wide, looked at Melville’s daisy, then into the purser’s steel grey eyes. While each dimension was over a meter, he was certain it was not by much. His head shaking and starting to sweat, George wanted to ask if this was their only way out, where they would be taken, who would help them, but the purser’s shifting eyes and glances over his shoulders made it clear time and discretion mattered. Anita squatted, backed inside, and held out a beckoning hand. George knelt, eyes fixated on a nodding Melville, before scooting backwards into the crate. Pulling his feet in closer than necessary, his bag to his left, Anita to his right, George wrapped his arms around his bent legs, trembling.

Melville moved the front panel into place and hollered. “Hey! You forgot one.”  In the darkness George felt dizzy and nauseous. Feet ran towards them, voices mumbled, hammers banged away at the crate. A final command. “Make sure it’s placed in see nine.”

In the darkness, sweating and shivering, George reached out for Anita, groping at her like an overeager teenager on a third date, finding her hand, squeezing it for reassurance, begging for comfort, much too panicked to speak.

The box moved.

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The crate had been still for a long time. Occasionally Anita heard phrases that lacked meaning for her. Light snuck through tiny holes and cracks, but she could not see anything outside the crate nor tell how George was doing. She reached for his hand, hoping to offer a bit of encouragement, but remained silent long after the noise outside faded away.

Anita leaned into George’s shoulder, turned so her mouth approached his ear, and said, “It’s okay. I went to him because I remembered the daisy in his buttonhole from the night when you showed me the map. If they are scanning passengers leaving the ship, we needed another way off.”

George’s clammy hand still trembled. “Did he say what would happen?”

“No, and I was too afraid to ask. Clearly, with a job like his, he’s going to have an Informateur. I didn’t want to take any chances he was being monitored.”

“So wha’d you say?” George asked.

“I touched the flower on his lapel and asked, ‘What’s the best way west?’ It was a risk.”

“Wha’d he say?”

“He smiled, stroked the daisy, and said, ‘Talk to a guide in Hannibal.’ Before I could say anything else he asked if we enjoyed our voyage. Then you appeared. I think he was waiting for us.”

“That woman gave me something. When she shook my hand.”

“What?” asked Anita.

“Can’t see it. Too dark. Bet it’s another clue.”

“Probably. And here I was worried we didn’t have anything to go on in Hannibal other than to find Sid and Mary.”

George let go of her hand. He leaned away from her for a moment. “Still can’t read it.”

“Well, just keep it safe. We won’t be in here forever.”

She rested her head against the back of the crate. Something was different with George. Patience had been little problem for him in the couple of weeks they had been traveling companions, but she didn’t know him very well. She understood he needed to roam, especially when stressed. He wandered the streets of Louisville and around the ship when she wanted time alone to think or rest.

She leaned back over so her arm touched his. “You okay?”

“I hate small, dark spaces.”

She found his hand, still cold and clammy. “Someone will come.”

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