Dinner smelled great and I was hungry but not so much for gourmet cuisine as for fuel for my tired body. I walked around the top tier of the dining room and found my table, number 42. It was a table for two with a great view of most of the dining room. It was a view I really wouldn't need. My client had balked on his Caribbean cruise, electing a business meeting in Belgium rather than relaxation on the beach. However, my services as his personal bodyguard were both specific and already paid for in full. I had the luxury of a cruise with a very nice suite with no duties and no responsibilities. I had no idea if the maitre de would assign someone to my table or not and it didn't much matter. I needed time to relax and that's all I wanted.
I had never been on this ship before. It was the newest of the line and had all the bells and whistles you would expect. The dining room was expansive and open with most tables on the main dining floor set for eight places. Only a dozen tables were set for two and those were all reserved in advance. Mine had been reserved for me alone so that I could keep an eye on my primary but he wasn't coming and I let the ship's steward know when I boarded that he could assign it freely. Cruise ship employees work for next to nothing and their jobs are demanding. I always try to do what I can to make it easier for them. Besides, who knew who might join me?
I surveyed the room as guests entered. They were split evenly between seasoned cruisers and first timers. The newbies were overwhelmed and the old heads tried hard not to look like first-timers. Most were dressed very casually. They knew there would be two formal dinners later in the week and weren't about to waste their more formal attire on the open dining evening of the first night. There were a lot of couples in their 40s and 50s but there were 60 to 70 single women, cruising together, all members of the Romance Writers of America. They were an entertaining lot, eager to renew old friendships and I knew most of them would renew old friendship with the Bordeaux being served with tonight's steak.
I spotted my tablemate long before she spotted me. She was one of those ageless grande dames who always carry themselves with grace and a sort of aloofness. She wore a dark dress that was probably popular in the 50s but didn't look terribly out of place tonight. The romance writers had her mild attention as she was ushered toward me. She looked as though she were trying to place familiar faces and having some success. I stood as a waiter held her chair for her.
She appraised me carefully, as though I might be for sale. Apparently I passed muster and she introduced herself.
"I'm Mrs. Haverhill," she said and extended her hand over the table.
"Danny. Danny January. The pleasure is all mine," I replied with my most gracious smile.
"Perhaps, Mr. January. We'll know for sure by the end of dinner though, won't we?" she asked and I liked her already. She had a twinkle in her eye like Mrs. Clause might have, as though she knew what I wanted for Christmas.
We both ordered the steak and agreed to share a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, not quite as heavy as the Bordeaux. We exchanged pleasantries about the newness of the ship and speculated about how they would staff a new vessel. While she engaged me in polite conversation, her attention was on the women writers below.
"Do you know who they are?" I asked.
"Do you mean individually or as a group?" she said without taking her eyes off the women below.
"I'm guessing you already know they are romance writers. Do you know some of them personally?" I asked.
"Oh yes. I know all of them but not the way you might think. I know them by their work."
Our salads came and we began to eat.
"How do you spend your time, Mr. January? When you're not cruising the high seas with old biddies?" she asked, smiling. "You're traveling alone or just gracing me with your presence tonight?"
"I provide personal security for people who may be at risk."
"You're a bodyguard. Does that pay well, if you don't mind me asking?"
"It depends. If you're good at what you do and have established a good reputation you can command a fair salary. I'm good at it and am paid well for my services," I answered as professionally as possible.
"You haven't answered my question, Mr. January. What would you charge me for your services?" she asked.
"Do you think you're at risk?" I asked, actually surprised by her question. I wasn't looking for work.
"Heavens no. I'm naturally nosy. Satisfying that curiosity without embarrassment is a privilege that comes with age."
I indulged her curiosity, "Mrs. Haverhill, I typically charge $2,500 per day plus expenses. Trips to dangerous locales might require and additional fee. Tonight, you can dine safely. No charge," I said smiling.
"That's very comforting. So, is this a vacation or do you have a client dining on board? Or am I allowed to ask? It's probably some oil sheik," she said with an air of mystery and looked down at the main floor for an Arab in flowing robes.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Mrs. Haverhill but I'm traveling alone."
"Oh, that's too bad. A sheik would have been fun. I've never met a sheik. Come to think of it, I've never met a bodyguard either. Is it OK to call you a bodyguard? I'm sure there's more to it than that."
"Why don't you call me Danny? My friends do."
She smiled. It was genuine and I got the impression that she was enjoying being far outside her normal routine.
"Danny, what's the danger in a place like this? What's your, oh...", she hesitated, searching for the right words. "What's your assessment of the risk here? Give me your professional assessment."
I smiled. She was enjoying this and I wasn't about to disappoint her. I responded without looking up, "The dining room is designed to seat about 400 people but there are only around 275 right now. The staff probably numbers 40 on the floor and probably the same number working the kitchen on this floor, behind you. There are nine exits, only two of which are being used by the public. There is a door directly behind you that leads outdoors and the lifeboats are on this deck. There are three men in this crowd who appear to have some sort of law enforcement training. All three are on the main dining room floor and are dining with what appears to be their wives. Only one of them appears to be carrying a concealed weapon. He's 5'10" or 5'11" and he's spotted the other two law enforcement types. He has a seat on the isle, facing the door and the kitchen. There are several military members on vacation, two on this deck and four or five below. There are 25 to 30 kids under the age of 16. They aren't a threat but they would be very unpredictable in a stressful situation. The crew has a staff with only four relatively poorly trained security personnel. They are all Italian and that's normal. I speak Italian which would come in handy should anything develop. They are probably all on duty now but will go to a rotation after the cast-off party. If there is anyone in danger tonight, it is probably the 50ish gentleman behind me. He's loud, slightly drunk, flashing cash and will know everyone in the casino 20 minutes after we get under way and gambling begins. I could go on but I think you get the idea."
I had plenty more but I figured that was enough to convince her she was safe for the evening, at least as long as she was with me. I resumed eating my salad. Her eyes had followed the course of my description and she checked out everything, nodding as she followed my assessment.
"What about you, Danny? What qualifies you so highly?"
"Ah, why the high price?"
"Yes. You must be good to command such a fee."
She was getting into areas I typically don't discuss unless it is with a client but I answered rather freely.
"I have a dual degree in Criminal Justice and Personal Security. That opens the door. I've worked in several federal law enforcement agencies and know how they work. Couple of black belts, driving school, that sort of thing. I've been doing this for four years. But you know why I make good money? I treat my clients with respect. They want that," I answered and she seemed to appreciate that last bit, too.
"So, if this boat has such little threat, why did your client need protection?" she asked, very much caught up in the intrigue of it all.
"Mrs. Haverhill. That's privileged information between my client and me. Your turn. Tell me about the romantic writers."
"They write romance novels. Some of them are good and they've been around a while. Some aren't so good and they won't be around for long. Many are new. Six of the new authors show particular promise. One is under contract to Harlequin and is untouchable for three novels. The other five that I'm interested in are shopping publishers for completed manuscripts. I buy manuscripts. I'm a publisher, Mr. January."
"Ah, so this is a shopping trip." I leaned back in my seat, smiling and appraising the writers anew. Her assessment of them was as succinct as my risk assessment. This was fun. I looked down, trying to figure out which might be the five available promising authors.
"One of your promising young authors is at the fifth table from the door, wearing the blue dress with white floral pattern. She is about 30, with wavy red hair and a light tan. She's the only one at the table eating fish. Is that right?" I asked, enjoying this thoroughly.
"Yes. That's Anita Long. Never published but is shopping an interesting sci-fi romance. Very well done. How did you pick her out?"
.... There is more of this story ...