A Cruise and A Muse

A Cruise and A Muse

“Yesss!” Josh shrieked, “finally no more sitting in front of the computer,” whistling a happy tune he continued with the packing. 

“Swimming trunks – check.” 

He was looking forward to a fun-filled trip – his first ever cruise holiday, and that too with his best friends Bruce and Ryan. “Oops, forgot the sunscreen,” chattering to himself he stuffed a whole lot of things in his bag.

He could feel it in his bones – it was going to be an unforgettable trip.

Josh inhaled the crisp and briny air, and pumped his fist in the air- the harbor was teeming with ships. The excitement of celebrating his sixteenth birthday onboard a cruise ship was beyond the world. He waved on spotting his friends, but was taken aback by the presence of two unfamiliar faces. His steps caught a spring as he moved towards the group. 

“Hey, there you are. Our birthday boy”, Ryan welcomed him with a warm hug. Josh let go of his shoulder bag and it landed beside his feet. 

“What took you so long?” interrupted Bruce. “Now, don’t tell me you missed the station as you kept flipping through your favorite book again.” Josh nodded, with a cheery grin plastered on his face. “You and your mystery and crime books!”  Bruce muttered, faking a scowl. 

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could solve a real-life crime!” cried Josh. 

“These things happen only in books and movies!” dismissed Bruce, the realist.

Josh and Ryan high fived, “Dude! This is amazing, no wonder it’s called the Royal Mariner.” The cruise liner was a majestic beauty. 

“Oh, I forgot to introduce you guys. Josh, meet Jake and Philip. We bumped into each other – literally – when we were waiting for you.” With a warm smile, Jake held out his hand for Josh. 

Jake was tall with a heavy build and spoke with an accent. Philip just nodded his head to Josh. He on the other hand was slender with sharp features. 

There was something intriguing about their majestic Royal Mariner. The boys could already sense something unusual about it. “Seems my dream of solving a real-life crime is going to be fulfilled”, chuckled Josh. 

One by one all the passengers got in. All Josh could think about was to have an enjoyable vacation. With meals, entertainment, activities and fun, there was virtually nothing to worry about. The ship took off, blaring a loud horn, but a sudden jerk, after a few hours, jostled everyone. An announcement came through the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen! This is your Captain speaking. There is a minor technical issue that we are sorting out. There is no reason to panic. Do take this opportunity to stroll on the deck and enjoy the sea-breeze.” 

The passengers milled about on the deck, enjoying the spectacular view of the harbour, mesmerized by the cool breeze. 

One enthusiastic couple clicked a picture in the famous ‘Titanic pose’. Then a serpentine queue formed to click in a similar pose. In their excitement, people forgot they were in the middle of nowhere. 

Soon the ship roared with a loud boom. With the engine running again, many retired to their cabins, some went to the cafeteria and few stayed back to enjoy the sun. Ryan and Bruce decided to fetch a drink from the cafeteria, while Josh stretched himself at the pool bench with his book. “Here you go, your lemonade”, Bruce handed Josh his drink. “Dude you got your book out again. Enjoy the view, look around”, he snickered, pointing towards a girl standing all alone at the far end of the deck.

Josh couldn’t help but stare at the girl at a distance. There was something unusual about her, thought Josh. 

“Guys, I don’t know why but that girl just seems weird”, remarked Ryan, conflicting Josh’s thoughts. 

“Oh wait! Did that girl just move towards the engine room”, Bruce whispered. 

“Let’s go guys, time to have some fun” grinned Josh, leaving his half-drunk lemonade behind, for Sherlock Holmes had already entered his mind.

Josh figured out the door to the lower deck of the ship. A huge ‘ENTRY RESTRICTED’ board greeted them. The boys looked at each other and Josh pushed the door open. “Jesus!” cried Josh, at a loud bang, “we are locked!”

“I told you not to enter and see what we have brought upon ourselves.” Bruce’s shivering bones were noisier than his accusations. “If you were such a baby, why on earth did you come?” Ryan grabbed Bruce by his collar.

“Boys, it’s not the time to play the accusation game”, declared Josh, “just think of getting out of here. There must be some way out to break this bloody door.”

“Boys, did you see that?” Bruce’s voice was almost cracking. The moment the boys turned around; they saw the same girl approaching them. A deathly scream echoed in the room before it turned pitch dark.

“Where, … Where is she?” Ryan shrieked, “she must not be a human being at all, I guess.” “Hold on your horses guys, let us figure out how to get out of here” yelled Josh. 

Bruce again questioned, “where is she?” 

“I’m here!” a thin voice echoed. The three stood in rapt attention. Beads of cold perspiration crowded on their wrinkled foreheads. Somewhere a dove fluttered away. It too had sensed the impending doom.

“I’m here, next to you!” She asserted. And then she came out in the open. The boys screamed instinctively expecting to see something hideous. The girl screamed louder than the trio. Josh’s eyes popped out admiring her chiseled features, “what is your name and why are you here?” With a torch in her hand, she dispelled the darkness, shining it on the aghast faces – one by one.

“Don’t you think you should be the one answering this question,” she demanded, “even after reading the NO ENTRY sign, you three are here. You like to intrude in the lives of others, right?” Her eyes were red with anger. She continued, “this is my place and I seriously do not like any interference. Now you are responsible for whatever is going to happen to all of you”. The boys could feel the sound of their hearts beating fast.

“But, what have we done?” Bruce pleaded. “I have been here for a long time, no one ever knew about me. And now, you three have found the secret,” she muttered. 

“You were so beautiful,” Josh quipped, his cheeks turning warm. She blushed too. Bruce and Ryan were appalled at the sight of romance brewing in the engine room. “‘Were so beautiful!? I’m still alive you fool! I’m a stowaway not a ghost! You guys have a hyperactive imagination!” she let out a wicked laugh.

Josh’s heart skipped a beat. “Who are you?” 

“I’m the captain’s fifth wonder… I mean his fifth and youngest creation. Many men find me amusing and attractive so daddy dear shields me away here. Today I was out on a stroll and you guys spotted me. I ran at the speed of lightning yet got caught.” She spoke non-stop as if she had been quiet for years. 

“Princess-locked-in-tower scenario. Any of your books cover this Josh? If we play it right, one of us can get lucky tonight!” Ryan whispered. 

“Shut up! We should be more worried about this captain who locks his own daughter away,” Bruce shot back. The girl stepped closer to the trio just as they took a step back in apprehension.

“Can you please tell us your story. We are all ears. We promise this secret won’t be out,” Josh pleaded like a baby. The rest of them stared at him, amused at his behavior . While the girl tried to brush them off, the boys chorussed, “please tell us everything.” 

“At least tell us your name”, requested Josh as her sudden appearance had left him in awe. She walked towards Josh and gently placed her hand on his shoulder whispering, “The voyage is a good ten days. There’s ample time to be acquaintances.” Josh stood transfixed as she walked up the stairs, leaving them alone in the room. Her golden hair shone like a halo around her magnetic persona. And then like a flash of lightning they saw Jake and Philip run past the deck right then!

“Come on boys, we need to be out of here before the door closes” cried Josh and the three boys jolted out of the engine room just in time before the big iron door closed behind them. The boys were still panting. “Where’s the girl?” shot Bruce. 

“Damn, how can she disappear in just a blink,” a disappointed Josh uttered. 

“There’s something fishy about her…” Bruce muttered. An ecstatic Josh quipped, “let’s unfold the mystery.”

Josh followed the others out, deep in thought. What she had said did not make sense to him. Was the Captain just an overprotective father or a delusional madman? Or was the girl lying? “Ah, she could be a schizophrenic too,” he pondered aloud. “Blaming her poor dad for nothing.”

He couldn’t enjoy the rest of his day. The thoughts came and went like the ocean waves. His mind rode on the turbulent thoughts of the girl. It reminded him of her innocent smile.

The cruise went into slumber. The wooden floor of the deck witnessed a dodgy tap dance. Josh raised the collar of his jacket onto his face. There were chills on his face as well his spine. He felt something behind his back and screamed as the girl vanished into the no moon night. Oh that was a dream. Josh could barely think at the moment. Roving his eyes across the room he saw his friends fast asleep. Unwillingly, he tried to close his eyes. Finally, day one of this intriguing trip came to an end.

The sun shone on the tired freckled faces through the rectangular glass planes. Hunger pangs woke up Bruce while Ryan was disturbed by bowel urgency. Both rushed to attend to their inner callings, but Josh lay unmoved. He had overworked himself the previous night figuring out the real whereabouts of his Cinderella. Yet Bruce kicked him mischievously in the tummy, repenting it later. “Are you freaking insane”, Josh shouted. 

“Let me guess! You’re still thinking of that ‘fifth wonder’. Can see it in your eyes,” chided Bruce. “Bro, think of it as a dream and forget, we’re here to enjoy and not investigate about some random girl!” said Ryan. 

“No guys, I know something’s wrong. I have figured out a plan,” Josh announced. He would enter the engine room while Ryan would hold the door to prevent it from shutting down. Bruce would be a standby for the rescue act if something goes wrong. In no time the boys ran to put the plan in action.

Remembering Almighty, Josh stepped inside the engine room, with Ryan holding the door. “Thud” the door slammed and Ryan could do nothing. Josh was all alone inside. “Will you stop freaking me out”, shivered Josh as he saw the girl again, “believe me, I would do you no harm.” 

“I know, please sit down” she requested. 

Josh now sensing the situation to be in control a bit abided by her. “My name is Amanda and I came on this cruise fifteen days ago and never went back” Amanda began her story.

“What do you mean, you never went back?” shocked Josh asked. 

“I work here”, she replied, a tinge of hesitation in her voice. 

“Like in the cafeteria or something?” Josh wanted her to keep going.

“No. You don’t understand, it’s complicated. I’m here because of Jake and Philip”, she answered. 

“Jake and Philip. What about them?” 

“Well Jake, Philip and I grew up in the same orphanage. We are inseparable,” Amanda continued, “so when Jake was offered a job here, Philip and I pleaded with the captain to get us onboard, unaware of the hard times in store for all three of us. We are stuck here! Will you help us?” The question gave chills to Josh.

“Wait! Didn’t you say earlier that you’re the captain’s creation?”, enquired Josh. 

“Oh did I! It was a silly joke though”, Amanda tried to brush it off. 

‘Amanda, you need to be careful. This idiot should be trapped come what may,’ a cold voice buzzed in her head. 

Josh caressed her hands on seeing tears trickle down Amanda’s cheeks, “I am sorry if I have been prodding you too hard .” 

“Orphan girl… I have to lie, ” said Amanda. She sported a vampire grin as she gave a bear hug to Josh. Was the heart winning over mind? thought Josh.

If Josh’s heart was melting with love, Amanda’s brains were building up guileful plots. How meticulously she had planned to trap the threesome! She grinned from ear to ear wickedly remembering the accidental meeting bumping into Jake and Philip with the boys. There is no such thing called an accident. She gave a whimsical smile. For now she couldn’t bear the fake bear hug.

“You were telling me something Amanda,” Josh was desperate, “how were you, Jake and Philip stuck here? And how can I be of any help?” 

You half witted idiot! thought Amanda, beaming with a sense of victory for she had found not one but three scapegoats. “It’s a long story. But before I get into it, give me some time. Please explore the ship – after all you are on holiday. Meet me in the engine room at 8:00 tonight. Alone.” His curiosity fully piqued, Josh agreed.

The ship exploring would give Amanda time to set the plan rolling further. For she along with Jake and Philips had not yet discussed how to put those amorphous substances in the boys’ bags. It had to be done without rousing their suspicion. Though Josh had fallen for her, it was better to be safe than regret later. From under her breath, she dialed up Jake. 

“Need to see you urgently!”

“What is it you moron?” Jake snarled, “I told you we can’t meet like this. No one should know about us.” 

Oops! But I told Josh that we are, thought Amanda about her foolishness. While Jake and Amanda were plotting and planning, Josh set off to explore the cruise ship. 

The Royal Mariner was built for luxury. It had a huge deck with swimming pools and saunas. It also had an arts center where there were acrobats and dancers performing live shows. Lunch was buffet style with multiple courses. The boys tucked in like they had been starving for days.

“Gosh! I have never eaten this much in my life,” Bruce rubbed his hand over his bulging belly. 

“I think I’m gonna burst.” Ryan guffawed. 

“Ya! And you still wanted one more scoop of ice-cream.” 

“Let’s stroll along the deck for a while,” suggested Josh. 

“You guys carry on, I just wanna crash for a while,” and Bruce veered towards the room. 

Josh and Ryan were surprised when Bruce came running towards them, “I can’t find the room key card. Is it with you guys?” 

“Key! With us? Oh, come on Bruce you lost the key?” Ryan yelled. 

“Bruce you were the last one to come out of the room. So, you had it. Josh and I left before you.” 

“I saw the key at the lunch table. I think we forgot it there. Come on, let’s check quickly out there before, they clear the tables”, Josh replied.

They rushed to the restaurant, but much to their dismay could not find the key card. None of the staff had seen it either. They decided to inform the concierge, but wanted to re-check near their room. They were extremely surprised when they saw the card on the holder ! 

“Guys! Someone has been here!” exclaimed Josh on entering the room. Bruce shrieked, “what the… This is bullshit man! How could someone do this?” His eyes popped out at the scene ahead. The mattress was thrown on the floor, pillows butchered – with their feathers floating around. The cupboards were emptied of their contents, even their sneakers were strewn about.

“How could they… Is not the only question my friend,” Josh scratched his head, “who, why and what is more important?”

“Yes. But who?” Ryan and Bruce looked surprised. A loud crashing noise jostled them and all three rushed outside. “Hey, you. Did you see anyone near our cabin…..”, Josh called after the person who stood near a broken vase, but the shadow disappeared in a jiffy

Were they hallucinating? Or was it for real? Whether to focus on the havoc created inside or the broken vase outside? Who would want to mess with harmless sixteen-year-olds? Whoever it was, should not be allowed to spoil their holiday. Afterall, it was the question of his memorable birthday. 

“Bruce, Ryan this is getting murky!” Josh looked perplexed, unable to comprehend the unfolding events. “This is definitely not the birthday I had imagined. However I do have a feeling that we need to find Jake and Philip. They hold many answers. Do you remember what Amanda said about them?”

“I think the sensible thing to do is to complain to the ship authorities. It’s better than going sleuthing on our own,” said Bruce, the practical one. “ After that, let’s go and watch a show to take our mind off this. We are here for a celebration right ?” 

Josh wanted to disagree with Ryan’s idea. He was fascinated by Amanda. But he gave in and accompanied his friends to report the break-in.

“Someone broke into our room,” Josh informed the ship captain. “Hmm, did you spot anyone?” The look on the captain’s face didn’t please the boys. As Bruce was about to say something, Josh interfered, “no we didn’t. But I would like you to take this on high priority.” 

“Josh why don’t you tell him about what we saw near the doorway?” whispered Bruce. 

“Were you carrying something valuable?” The captain continued.

“No sir,” replied a confident Josh. 

“Are you guys smoking weed?” came the next query. 

“No sir, nothing like that too” Josh laughed out loud. 

“Okay, what was your friend mentioning about?” The captain glared at Bruce. 

Silence is golden, thought Bruce. He didn’t want to mess things with his untimely truth. Maybe there would be another right time to divulge it all but not now. “Nothing Sir I was just admiring the beautiful doorway,” he muttered feebly. 

They entered a belly dance show, only to come out of it in no time- the mystery haunting their minds. Leaving the show midway, they went to their room. A handwritten note was left on Josh’s bed – I hope you want a happy birthday, Dude!

“Guys, this is getting a little acute,” Josh commented to the other two boys, showing the note. 

“Maybe someone is trying to prank us?” Bruce tried to shrug off the note’s implication.

“Guys, could this be a bit performed by the crew here to keep us entertained?” Ryan suggested, unconvincingly. Putting up a brave front, the three continued with their plans for the evening. 

“So guys, are we ready for gala evening!” beamed Ryan, “I have heard that there’s a ball tonight. Snacks, drinks and much more fun, yeah.” 

“Dude calm down, we can’t go to the ball as it’s meant for VIPs not the regular pass holders like us.” Bruce brought him back to reality.

“Guys, can you believe what I found in the bathroom?” Josh shrieked, as he showed them tickets to the ball with a ‘Happy Birthday’ Note. 

After the initial excitement for possessing VIP tickets died down, Ryan commented, “We have only packed swimming gear, it seems.” Scurrying to the only onboard costume store, they purchased the required attires. While browsing, Josh caught a fleeting glimpse of Amanda’s reflection in the store mirror. He turned on his heels to check but couldn’t locate her. Maybe I’m falling in love...

While Josh was still tangled in his thoughts about Amanda, his friends prepared for their gala evening. “She said she was the captain’s fifth creation, then shrugged it off as a joke, then her orphan story – then the intruder in our room and doorway …and finally free tickets to the ball…..guys something is really fishy,” Josh aired his concern, but his words fell on deaf ears. Bruce and Ryan were focussed on selecting their suits for the evening. Josh realized he would have to solve the mystery on his own. So he joined his gang to get ready for the ball. 

A bunch of dreamy boys proceeded to the ball, hoping to meet some beautiful girls. 

“We are going to have the time of our life,” Bruce hummed an old english tune. 

“Did you see that”, Josh ran towards a stranger. “Hey! what are you doing with my bag?” 

The stranger’s reply shocked them, “I thought you would be at the ball enjoying the perks of getting free passes.” 

“Who sent you here? Where did you get the keys?” Josh grabbed him by his collar, “I’ll call security.” 

“No, no please don’t call anyone,” the young boy pleaded, “I’m a janitor here and two people gave me some money to get your bag.”

“I don’t believe this,” Josh seemed shocked.

“I know Jake and Philip are behind this,” cried Ryan. 

The ever calm Bruce quipped, “dude, we don’t know anything.” He turned towards Josh, “Could have been Amanda.” Josh blinked, scratching his head, ” What would anyone need from us!” The trio was in shock when realization struck. The boy had vanished, alongwith the bag!

Ryan and Bruce decided to split up and find the boy with the bag. Josh was befuddled. It was a battle between his brain and heart. His brain was screaming about the bag; while his heart was whispering his love’s name… 

Like Cinderella , he had to leave the ball, at the stroke of (ahem!) eight. He left the glitzy lights of the ball behind and headed towards the engine room. He could hear his heart beat loudly- young love !

A fruity fragrance welcomed him in the engine room, a welcome change from the musty smell he had encountered on his previous visit. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, admiring the fluttering candles. “Hi Josh,” a sensuous voice sent his heart thudding louder than the roaring sea.

“A-Amanda,” he whispered, “where are you?” and before you could speak any further, there stood in front of him – a gorgeous diva in a little black dress. His toes tingled with her touch. Caressing his face, she whispered into his ears, “I’m right here…”

Josh stood with his mouth agape.. Holding his arm, she led him out of the engine room to the deck. Josh felt the salty sea breeze on his face. The moonlight lit his beloved’s countenance making her look more angelic. I will never forget this moment – her, me, the moon and the waves, vowed Josh.

Hands entwined, they stood on the deck, in silence. Mellifluous waves complimented the jazz orchestra playing in the background. What’s happening to me, he wondered. Why am I getting lost in these deep dark eyes. Amanda twirled her locks, and came in closer. He could feel her warm breath mingling with his, “I like being with you,” she whispered, threading her slender fingers through his soft brown hair.

Only till the time I accomplish my goal, thought Amanda, till Jake and Philip take care of the bag, I need to humour this idiot… 

“The ocean waves are so calm and soothing,” murmured Josh, lost in a world away from reality. “Oh yeah,” replied Angela looking deep into Josh’s eyes. 

Unaware of Amanda’s intentions, Josh rejoiced in the ecstasy. He couldn’t believe his luck! He had never imagined being with a stunning girl like Amanda. Her faint fragrance was tingling him, arousing sensations unknown. Whoa! the boys will go crazy, I think they might even die of jealousy, a wicked grin swept on his face.

“Do you wanna smoke,” Amanda asked in her honey-sweet voice. 

“Uh, I have never tried it,” a shocked Josh replied. However, Amanda’s magic was weakening his resolve. 

“Try this, you will remember this for a long time” chuckled Amanda. 

“But, how did you get this?” queried Josh. 

“You enjoy the fun, darling, why think about the irrelevant matters” Amanda teased. “Here, have a puff and welcome your 16th.” 

Josh inhaled a puff. “What is this stuff?” he questioned between bouts of coughs. Amanda just grinned. Josh dangled over the handrails, “this feels divine, divinity from an angel like you is like my prayers answered from above.” Amanda knew she had to get him back to the engine room as his babbles grew louder. Things were going as per plan.

The ship would dock at Goa in another two days. All she had to do was to keep him off her buddies. Amanda cradled Josh in her lap as his gaze remained transfixed on her face.

“Where did Josh vanish?” grumbled Ryan. “Must be with his enchantress,” smirked Bruce. “We found neither the boy nor the bag! Good to know that at least one of us is having fun!” The evening had been pretty much ruined for them. “Let’s just go to the deck,” proposed Ryan. While Ryan and Bruce were contemplating whatever had happened so far, Josh was in a reverie. 

God, I feel I have landed myself in trouble. 

What was that shiny thing I saw which pierced my foot? 

Why did I land up here? 

Where’s my bag? 

My head will burst. 

His brain was fuzzy, thoughts drifting in and out of his head, Josh dozed off. It was only a couple of hours later when the sea breeze tickled him with a spray of salty mist that he woke up.

Amanda was nowhere to be seen.

Still groggy, Josh stumbled towards his cabin looking for his friends.They were not in. His mind raced through the events of the day, wondering where they could be. With no clue, whatsoever, he was fuming with anger. Just then, he remembered a shiny object which had fallen from his bag. He rushed to the room to check what it was? He shrieked in disbelief – it was a piece of diamond….

Is this for real, wondered Josh. “Now my friends are going to believe me. We are in for a real treat!, I feel like Sherlock Holmes and now my only target is to find the story behind this diamond,” Josh was beaming with pride and excitement, announcing this to no one in particular. But where are Ryan and Bruce, he wondered, must be wasting their time somewhere. With his imagination running wild, he felt like Sherlock Holmes, and yet a little scared at the same time. 

He decided to take a shower to relax his brain and plan his further action. As he soaked in the hot tub, he realised he had left the diamond piece on the mantle in the room. How could I?! Screaming he stumbled out of the tub, and dashed into the room. He was in for a shock – the piece was gone!

Josh turned hysterical. He had screwed up on the opportunity of becoming an investigator. As he was berating himself, Ryan and Bruce came running. “Josh did you hear of a diamond theft that has happened on the ship? There is a racket with a girl who’s committed this theft.”

“Amanda”, the two boys chorused. Josh disagreed, vigorously shaking his head. 

Bruce continued, “I always had my reservations about her. Josh, were you a part of the gang too?” he asked.

 “What rubbish! Are you nuts?” yelled Josh holding Bruce by his collar. 

“You are hurting me for her, you idiot. You have spent more time with her than us” shouted Bruce. 

“Stop it guys! Are we here to fight amongst ourselves or solve the bloody mystery?” demanded Ryan. 

“True! Let’s just join the pieces together, only then will we be able to proceed further”, said Bruce, having calmed down. 

The three boys looked at everything from a fresh perspective. “So when we entered the ship we bumped into two boys”, started Josh. “And then saw a girl who calls herself Amanda moving towards the engine room,” Bruce continued.

Josh jotted down the details on a notepad, “first she said she was Captain’s creation. Then she brushed it off, then she said she knew Jake and Philip. We lost our key only to find it in our room. And the room is in a mess.” Ryan sighed

“Then that boy in the doorway……and the invite”, Josh continued, “Free VIP passes to the ball…..then Amanda again in the engine room……that puff and……” 

“What are you saying dude?” Bruce interrupted Josh, “Err…sorry dude but I met Amanda again and my gut feeling said to follow her. We spent some time together and then she asked me to have a puff…..my head spinned after that…..and then all I knew was that I was in a room with a diamond which is now lost” Josh’s reply shocked them both. 

“Did you just say diamond?” Ryan couldn’t believe what his ears just heard.

“How come you had the stolen diamond?” Ryan questioned Josh. “How do you even know it’s the stolen one? None of us have seen it before” Josh replied. “He is right. But if it is the one that has gone missing then, dude, you were the last one who possessed it” Bruce said.

“How can you accuse me of stealing?” demanded Josh. “I just saw it in the room but it went missing before I could show it to you” he tried to defend himself. “Dude, you went with that girl uninformed and spent most of the evening with her,” Bruce continued. Ryan interrupted, “smoking and God knows what and then she disappeared again as per your statement and then this lost diamond story. Now you tell me, why should we believe your tales” Bruce questioned!. Josh looked at his friends helpless.

“Do you have an option?” said Josh with a tinge of regret and sadness, “If I get caught, then you both are partners-in-crime. Believe me, I lost it. Let’s start searching.” 

“What should we search first – Diamonds or the trio gang?” Ryan scowled. 

“We need to get out of this. Any clue, whatsoever,  will be helpful.” Josh said. “Come, let’s go and find out that janitor boy first.”

“Let’s start from the engine room itself. I am sure to find some clue there”, said Bruce. 

“Yes and from there we can disperse in different directions”, Ryan chimed in. 

“Josh I would suggest you try to find Amanda first as she is the answer to most of our questions while I will go in search of the sweeper boy and Ryan in search of the bag”, Bruce declared.

“Engine room is where all the answers to our questions lie,” said Josh. ‘She also insisted on meeting in the engine room.”

I wanted to have the best holiday ever, but now I feel it’s becoming a mysterious holiday. God knows what lies ahead. What are we gonna do? thought Josh.

The boys sneaked into the engine room and checked every nook and corner. “Hey… I see something there,” Josh pointed towards a corner,  “it’s my bag.” The boys carefully pulled the bag down and were astounded at the discovery. The bag was filled with diamonds. As the boys were staring at each other in bewilderment, they heard the sounds of footsteps .

Bruce hushed Ryan and Josh signalling them to take cover behind the heavy equipment. The boys were aghast as what they had been suspecting seemed to be unfolding –  Amanda, Jake and Philip-the mysterious threesome sauntered in.

“Come on guys,we need to be out of here asap, this is getting even riskier than we thought,” Jake whispered to his friends. 

“Amanda! Amanda! Where are you lost?” Philip shook her. 

“Umm…..nothing just feeling proud how I made a fool out of that idiot who thinks himself to be a dude.” 

“Will you grab the bloody bag and get out of here?” Jake ordered.

Ryan accidentally dropped the iron rod lying there! The boys froze in fear.

A total pin-drop silence followed the reverberating crash. The teenage trio stood rooted to their places while the miscreant-trio turned towards the source of the sound. “Well, well! What do we have here?” Jake sneered. “Boys, you shouldn’t have been nosy, now you made it difficult for us,” Amanda threatened. Josh  whispered under his breath to the other two, “On the count of three, dash!”

The three friends jolted out like a bullet, to the shock of Jake and his friends. “Quick, we need to see the captain before they catch us!” shouted Josh. 

“Captain! Captain! We have something very important to tell”, screamed Ryan, as the three barged into his cabin.

“You boys again! Did you find your bag or lose another one? Either case, I am in no mood to listen to your make belief stories. We are dealing with a major theft! Just get the hell out of here,” he turned towards the chief of security, ignoring the boys. “Ensure all rooms are checked, but be careful with the VIP guests. I don’t want unnecessary complaints from them.” 

“C-c-captain please hear us out,” Bruce’s pleas were of no use. The captain’s brows crossed as Josh banged on his desk, “hear us out!” Igniting his cigarette, the captain looked at Josh – with an amused look. 

“What if we want to tell you about the stolen diamonds?” Ryan’s question was straight. The captain looked at the boys. “How do you know about that? Look if this is some kind of a joke then you better be prepared for the consequences,”’ his bushy eyebrows knotted up.

“Sir, we know where the diamonds are! Please listen to us,” said Josh. 

“Fine, tell me! What is going on?” the captain finally gave in. 

“Well, it’s a trio consisting of two boys and one girl who are behind all this,” started Bruce.

“Two boys and a girl. Hmm, what about them?” They had caught Captain’s attention. 

“Their names are Jake, Philip and Amanda. We bumped into the boys at VT station. And met Amanda on the first day at the deck.” Ryan continued. 

“Ok. Keep going”, said the captain, suddenly interested in the information.

Ryan, Bruce, and Josh narrated all the events as accurately as they could. The Captain listened with curiosity, asking questions in between. “Hmm… that seems like a good story but let’s have a look at the bag,” the captain snapped his fingers with an impatience.

“Josh! You didn’t get the bag?” Bruce asked, his eyes popping out. “Like you both, I too was running for my life,” he retorted. 

Irked, the captain commented, “Smart move, boys. Let’s go to this room and see if your story really checks out.”

The group entered the engine room only to find nothing much to their disappointment. “I warned you not to mess with me”, the captain thundered. 

“Sir trust us, they were here!” Bruce lips quivered. 

“Guys look, this is Amanda’s scarf” announced Josh. A confused Ryan interrupted “How do you know that?” Bruce rolled his eyes at Ryan. 

“Sir, we are not lying nor are we imagining all this. Please believe us,” Josh tried to reason with the captain. 

“Seeing this empty room, I don’t think I can trust you. This is my last warning, enjoy your time here and don’t come to me anymore.” 

“But, sir, this is Amanda’s scarf, just..” The captain had already left the room before Josh could complete his sentence. 

“I hate to break this to you but those three saw us. Would we be safe?” Bruce looked at his hands, they were trembling with fear. 

“We need to be on our guard!” Ryan stepped closer to Bruce. Josh sulked. He was still nursing his broken heart. “Amanda must be under pressure or something ! I can’t believe she would do something evil.” 

The boys dragged Josh back out of the engine room. ” God! Please save Amanda. She must be trapped,” a worried Josh prayed. “Hope to get diamonds tomorrow” Ryan’s eyes twinkled like diamonds. Hope this ends soon were Bruce’s only thoughts. The three boys couldn’t wait for the sun to rise!

Back in their rooms, Bruce announced, “We should take turns to guard the door. What if someone attacks us? I will take the first shift. Ryan you go next. Josh please take the last shift.”

They wanted the gloomy night to pass quickly. “You know what guys, I’ve a feeling we may be close to finding the culprits”, Josh chirped. A tired and despondent Bruce replied, “only the morning that will tell us.”. They tried to look calm and cool, but each one of them were scared. 

Josh huddled under the blanket, but sleep was countless nautical miles away. He felt a shiver run over his spine. ‘Oh Amanda, I hope you are safe. I know you are innocent. Those bastards have trapped you in this net,’ he muttered under his breath. “Dude, I’m trying to sleep, for fuck’s sake will you shut your mouth,” Bruce glared at him.

“Relax guys, don’t forget Ryan you are next in line for the guard duty.” Soon the room fell silent as Bruce settled on the recliner, engrossed in his mobile. He didn’t know silence could feel eerie at this hour. Quickly bored of the game, he paced around the room straining his ears in search of sounds. At times the ship would blare the horn and at other times it was the sea crashing against the ship. 

Just as Ryan and Josh closed their eyes, Bruce sprang up from the recliner screaming, ”Guys, I just saw a shadow near the window, I think he had a gun!”

Thud, thud- a sound loud enough to awaken Hypnos terrified the boys. Alarmed, they waited for the door to collapse any moment. An eerie silence took over again.

The minutes passed like hours. Ryan and Josh went back to sleep, blaming Bruce for his hyperactive imagination. Fortunately, Ryan’s shift was uneventful. Soon, it was Josh’s turn. In no time, he heard a soft scraping at the door. 

“Josh, it’s me Amanda.”

He couldn’t believe his ears. Maybe she feels something for me too? “Josh! Don’t open the door now. The Captain is on the prowl so we have to wait,” she whispered. They sat on either side of the door like two star struck lovers. Amanda continued, “I’m sorry for what happened. I’ll come clean. At the orphanage, Jake and Philip took care of me and protected me from bullies. I’m under their control now and have to do whatever they ask of me. I boarded this cruise on their insistence to execute a diamond heist. I just can’t say no to them.”

“I hope you realise you are not helping them this way,” a concerned Josh replied. “It’s just a matter of time before you all get caught and end up in jail.” 

“From a lousy orphanage to the prison…” she sighed, “guess that is my destiny.” 

Josh asserted, “Leave this path, Amanda! I am here for you.” 

“Oh, you are so good to me, Josh! Even after I lied… I don’t deserve you!” sobbed Amanda.

“Amanda, you deserve the best things in the world. I will help you.” “What about your friends?” 

“Don’t worry about them. Just trust me,” 

Taking a deep breath, he continued, “And one more thing, I love-” he continued. 

“No, Josh,” she cut him off, “let’s just be friends and see where this goes. Open the door and I’ll give you the diamonds before Jake or Philip come looking for me. When we dock at Goa, please hand them over to the Captain!”

Josh opened the door slightly, “I need to go now, but remember to hand over the diamonds to the captain ONLY when we dock. I’ll explain later.” And with that, she left. 

Josh was determined to crack this mystery on his own. He formed a plan to be incognito for the next day while safeguarding the precious bag. I’m sure Jake would know by now Amanda has turned rogue, her life might be in danger. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect her’ He emptied his gym bag, and hid the diamonds in a secret pocket. I have to stay away from Bruce and Ryan, Jake might hurt them as well’ He scribbled a note and kept it on the side-table. With one last look at his sleeping friends, he left the room in the shadows of night.

The deck was mostly silent. Josh slid in and out of the shadows. He’d dare not go near the engine room. He had 24 hours to kill and a mystery to solve. He felt an adrenaline rush. He would start by investigating one of the unknowns in this equation – the captain’s involvement !

‘Hmm.. let’s see… Amanda specifically told me to handover the diamonds to the captain only. Why? Why does she trust him? Lost in thoughts he tiptoed towards the library, should I hide here? I think this should be a safe place, who reads books on a holiday anyway!

As Josh entered the library, he searched for a place to hide the diamonds. Oh the CCTV!, thank God I saw it. He tread in, avoiding the camera. Aah, I am going to hide the diamonds here. THE VOYAGE!

“Hey! What do you need?” came a voice from behind.

“Err. Nothing sir, I only want to read this book,” said Josh as he picked THE VOYAGE. Gosh! no peace even in the library, muttering under his breath he settled on a couch. He looked at the pages but his brain refused to register anything. It was overflowing with worries for Amanda and his friends. Where did these diamonds come from? How do I save Amanda? I hope I am not putting Bruce and Ryan in harm’s way…

There is only one way to get these answers, Josh thought to himself, I’ll have to sleuth around. Keeping an eye on the lone guy at the far end of the library, Josh paced towards the shelf from where he had picked up the book. He hid the pouch behind the books and jammed The Voyage in its place. Happy with his decision, he tread towards the Captain’s room, hoping to find some clues. 

Amanda trusted the captain but he felt a bit insecure. As an afterthought, he retraced his steps towards the library – the in-charge was far away from his hiding spot. Relieved, he proceeded towards the captain’s cabin. He froze in his steps as he heard a hushed voice, “we are doomed, the girl’s turned rogue! Both she and that silly boy are missing!”

“Don’t worry , I’ll take care of everything.”

Where have I heard these voices, why do they sound familiar?

“You better do that. And make sure there are no mistakes this time. It was your job to keep an eye on that silly girl and boy; which you have failed to do so. This is your last chance to rectify your mistakes. Now, don’t just stand here, Come on get moving, and get it done.” The man was furious and Josh shivered.

Tiny goosebumps cropped up all over Josh’s body. It was Jake and the Captain. What ! How! Why! Josh felt the ground underneath shaking.

Josh felt disillusioned as the Captain’s involvement dawned on him. They couldn’t be safe on a ship whose Captain had devious intentions. The gravity of the situation struck him. He had to warn his friends as fast as possible.

“But first let me take care of these two villains!”He muttered to himself. Josh shuffled with fear. 

”Oh, Captain, look our Sherlock Holmes is here, ” exclaimed Jake, grabbing Josh by his collar. ”Sir, please make yourself comfortable here, while we bring your gang for a gala celebration,” Jake hissed typing Josh with ropes. As the duo left the room in a hush, Josh discovered that the ropes had a loose end. ”I will teach you a lesson for life you, bastards, ” said Josh as he released himself from the chair. 

Well, well, this overcoat and hat perfectly match my identity of Sherlock Holmes, Josh’s eyes sparkled. Donning the hat and overcoat spruced up his detective spirits, and he followed the duo with determination, ensuring to be silent. “Oh God! these creaky shoes will definitely give away my presence,” he cautioned himself to keep moving. Voila….. what he saw was even a bigger mystery, the Captain knocked on the door to his room. Caught unaware he decided to hold back as he found himself is in a quandary. “He wouldn’t be knocking on the door with such precision if he had the intention of hurting Ryan and Bruce,” pondered Josh.

After a few knocks, Bruce opened the door. “Where is your detective friend?” Captain demanded. “Hmm, You mean Josh. He isn’t here.” Bruce replied hesitantly. “Alright, boys get these two clowns for the show. More the merrier.” The captain grinned. 

Philip and Jake dragged Ryan and Bruce out of the room. Josh froze to his hiding spot clutching the small map he had found in the Captain’s room. Determined to find the small “x” marked on it he sprinted towards the destination. Good, I have put all that NCC training to use, high time I use my sleuthing skills as well.’With determination he peered into the map. What is Jake’s gang upto? Wait, why is there a dot over the squash room? Let me start from there…

Before heading to the squash room I have to sneak in the library to get the diamonds, Josh thought. He tiptoed towards the library. The door was closed as expected but the small rod he had picked from the Captain’s room came in handy. After a couple of tries, the handle gave away and he was inside the library.

Josh was pacing his way to the place where he had hidden the diamond pouch. There you are! You are such a nasty thing making everyone dance to your tunes, commented Josh as he hurriedly but carefully took the pouch. Hurry Josh, before anyone spots you, vanish,and Josh sneaked out.

Rechecking the map under the dim moonlight filtering from a small window, he confirmed his next course.

The squash room was in complete darkness, except for a small overhead lamp at the reception area. As he looked around, something at the shoe-stand caught his attention. A florescent-hued post-it was stuck on the side. It read – Someone who wishes to get to the end, should find his way to the rock-climbing zone.

Excited, he made his way to the adventure sports area on the deck.

Wow! A whistle escaped his mouth as he reached the rock climbing zone. It was more than 30 feet tall! His heart raced with excitement, as a yellow post-it caught his eyes. See you at the top…

He tightened his shoe laces, eyes fixed on his destination. Tightening the harness around his waist, he embarked on the tortuous climb towards his destination. He slipped once or twice. He grimaced and adjusted his footing. At last he was on the top. There was another post-it waiting for him. He eagerly pulled it out to read.

“Wipe that grin off your face. This is not a game. Amanda’s life is in danger.

EHS YAM RO YAM TON EB NI EHT NOLAS

Solve it, and you may save her life.

Josh’s brows knotted up and his heart raced, then a wide grin formed on his face. This code was just like in the books-words spelt backwards. “SHE MAY OR MAY NOTE BE IN THE SALON!!” Where was the salon ? Josh remembered it was in the southern part of the ship. He made his way there, adrenaline pumping through his veins.

Stepping on the squeaky clean floors, he crossed over to the lower decks. Hmmm…. lemon grass wafting in the air calmed his senses. Shucks man, we should have got a massage done. Would have been fun.

Now, where is the salon? He thread his fingers through his hair, uff so long!

He found the 24×7 salon. The hairdresser there welcomed him. “Haircuts are complementary . We will throw in a head massage too!” She beamed. Josh agreed as it would give him a good excuse to look around. He had a very relaxing massage and cut when he noticed the message scribbled with lipstick on one of the mirrors

‘Haven’t you wasted precious time already? Where do you think the QUEEN is trapped?’

Josh shuddered on reading the note. Why did they offer me a complimentary haircut? Was it to distract me from my mission? To his shock, the lady who had cut his hair was nowhere to be seen.

He ransacked his brain. What did the code mean ? Even though he was desperate to save Amanda, he had to admit – he was enjoying himself tremendously. Where did a Queen live? In a CASTLE. There was a cafe called the CASTLE on the cruise ship. As the realisation dawned, he dashed to the cafe. 

Luckily, it was just opening up. Taking a seat, his eyes scanned the whole establishment for something out of place. Anything to hint at the next step for him. “Would you like to order something?”

A young girl, wearing a waitress’ apron approached him. “We have an exquisite spread of English breakfast at the buffet table. If you wish to have something else, please let me know. I’ll inform the chef and it will be taken care of.” 

“Sure, let me take a look first,” he smiled and went off to check the buffet. His mouth watered and stomach grumbled, boy am I hungry! He checked his bag, the precious stones were safe inside.

He tucked in some complimentary bread rolls and a glass of orange juice. When he reached his favourite dessert section, his mouth fell open. There, on a single slice of pastry, something was scribbled using the icing.’

‘Hot on trail? Cool yourself first!’

Excited beyond words and equally concerned for his friends and Amanda, he rushed to the ice-cream parlour for his next clue. Finding nothing amiss, he enjoyed a large waffle cone. The rumble in his stomach had  calmed. The waitress appeared with the cheque. She smiled and placed the bill pad on the table. Josh opened and a scribbled note along with the bill waited there. 

“Mumble Jumble. The Lion roared in the jungle. His jaws were big and wide. Fumbled words poured, so you better run and disguise.”

FN RGNOOHMF

Ha! Go Shopping!! This was so easy…

There was a spring in his steps as he moved towards the shopping arcade. The question was that the arcade was spread across a reasonably large area and searching for clues would be tough. Just envisioning Amanda’s delicate smile toughened his resolve to keep at it. Reaching the arcade, he tried identifying possible spots for clues. “How about I try to think like Amanda, where would she go?”

A young boy of about 8 years stopped him and said, “Can you help me with my puzzle?” Josh loved jigsaw puzzles, but he was on a Mission. He was about to refuse when the little boy said , “but they said this was your next clue !” 

“Who?“ 

“Two boys like you !” That must be Jake and Philip thought Josh.

Evil guys, muttering under his breath, he took the puzzle from the kid. He chuckled as he looked at it, “this is kids’ play. Such amateurs you guys are. Rolling up his sleeve, he sat down on the lounge chair. Spreading the pieces on the table, he got to work. “Amanda, I’ll find you in no time. That’s a promise.”

The puzzle was a picture of the Royal Mariner. Josh and the little boy huddled over a small table trying to fit the pieces together . After an hour they were done and they discovered that all the pieces except one were in place . “ A piece is missing !” exclaimed Josh. It was the piece belonging to the casino. This must be the next destination in this mad hunt !

“Thanks bud,” waving to the little boy, Josh ran towards the casino. Oh , now I get it. Queen, cards, casino. Bright lights and loud music from the slot machines greeted him. “Sir, your ID proof, a burly guard stopped him, “minors are not allowed in without an adult.” Josh felt like he was drowning in a sea of sadness.

“Actually, I came here yesterday with my parents. I seem to have misplaced my wallet, can I please have a look? My parents are pretty mad at me,” Josh told, with his best imitation of puppy eyes expression.

“Okay, but make it quick,” the guard ushered him inside and went back to his post. Josh looked around the empty casino, clearly people loved these activities in evenings, not this early in the day. He noticed a lit slot machine at the far end, while his other companions were muted. He approached it with guarded steps and pulled the handle to check his luck.

‘Haven’t got any coins to put in…’ His eyes popped out as 3 Queens came flooding on the screen. To his surprise, they were not like the regular queens. They were all in XXXXL size. He roared with laughter, what the… is this? Is this a joke, he looked around… Still there was no one to be seen. 

‘Whatever the eyes see isn’t always the truth. But I can make you see what others can’t. Have a peek in my crystal ball’. 

Josh was dumbstruck staring at the screen as he saw a picture of a lady with a crystal ball. “Tarot room! I saw it somewhere towards the auditorium”, Josh quickly made his next move. 

Hope Bruce and Ryan are safe. I’ve been so focused on Amanda, I haven’t thought about them at all… He had been lost in thoughts, and didn’t realize when he reached the reading room. Shining glass beads curtained the room, mild chanting music hit his ears as he slid the curtain open. Deep red walls adorned with weird looking paintings, a big circular table with a large crystal ball and a pack of cards nearby. The strange looking room was giving him creeps. “Hi handsome, come have a seat and tell me what do you want to know from my magnificent friend?”, said the lady pointing towards her crystal ball. “Err….I thought we’d met”, Josh tried to remember. “Well….maybe I am omnipresent!” she winked. Josh was utterly confused. “I know for sure I have seen her somewhere!”

“ You are the salon lady!” The lady chuckled, “we are all connected in some way or the other Josh.” 

“ How did you know my name?” 

“ Worry not about the past-it’s history. Focus on the future, that’s the mystery!” 

“Well how about the Cinderella story”, the lady asked in a hushed tone.

“Well I am in a hurry and do not have time for some fairy tale”, said Josh getting up from his seat. “Well don’t you want to know what brought you here”, Josh was startled and stared at the crystal ball, unable to decipher the lady’s smile and what he saw in the ball.

Amanda, Bruce and Ryan were sitting in a dark room. A gripping fear on their faces. The crystal ball glowed and rotated with ease, flashing a golden light on the walls. Oh no! His mind was flooded with questions. As he looked up to ask the lady, he realized with great shock, he was all alone in the strange room.

“Did she mention the Cinderella story on purpose?” Josh tried to reconnect the dots. “Jesus! that means something is going to happen at midnight”, Josh was worried. “God! I don’t want to think of something negative. Guide my way”, a sudden fear concerning Amanda and his friends’ well being engulfed him. He jolted out of the room like a bullet.

The mention of midnight made him look at his watch. “Seven, it’s almost dinner time. Midnight isn’t far and my intuition says it is going to be a big reveal so I better hurry.” He rushed past people as they began moving towards the restaurants and bars. And then it just struck him, “The next clue has got to be in the restaurant. That is where I’ll get the lead to where my friends are held hostage.”

Josh grabbed a plate of dinner, mechanically chewing his pasta. He had spent the whole day running around. He needed to piece everything together. If Jake , Ryan and the Captain are in cahoots together, why lead him on a goose chase? “ Think Josh, think !” He told himself

I need a shot of lemonade first, Josh cleared his throat. “Can I have a glass of fresh lime please.” 

“Sure sir! Right on your table”. A uniformed waiter put a tray with his drink on the table. The moment Josh picked up the glass, he saw a note sticking at the bottom. 

‘Amidst the star lay the shiny moon, like a princess captured by the goon’.

He swirled the pasta around his plate, his thoughts wavering directionless. I know the Captain is involved but why was Amanda insistent on handing over the diamonds to him? What’s with this latest clue? Taking slow slips, he pondered over the day’s events. Ah! I know where this clue is leading, his face lit up.

The cruise ship housed a state of the art planetarium, where every night they would be special shows. Hopefully that would be the last stop. He reflected on the day’s events. He had had the time of his life. It’s almost as though this chase was designed to give me a pleasurable experience, right from my head massage to my favourite snacks ! Isn’t it all too convenient? 

Josh was muttering as he made his way to the planetarium. “Whoa! This is huge.”, Josh’s eyes widened as he looked around. While he was introspecting, a screen display caught his eyes.

‘The stars dim seeming like hostages when the moon enters the dark phase once in its stages’, 

And then the time flashed, it was thirty minutes to midnight. His heart was thumping as he racked his brain in desperation. This has got to end here I’m positive, says my detective instinct. But where are you guys… Amanda……Bruce……Ryan do you hear me. He held his breath to make sure not the slightest sound escaped his senses as he manoeuvred through the aisles in the ascending brightness of the lights across the massive dome.

Having received no reply, Josh pondered on what he saw on the screen. There must be something related to dark in here. And just then his eyes fell on the door. Without ado, he barged in, “Guys are you here?” Still no reply. Just then Josh saw a dimly lit lamp and a note- 

‘the darkest door mostly leads to light’. 

He glanced upon a connecting door, wondering where it would lead to, he made his way.

He followed the doorway. It led to a spiral staircase, that led to a grand auditorium, complete with red velvet upholstery. A voice was projected through the auditorium . 

‘Welcome to your destination, weary traveller ! Are you ready to unravel the mystery of the Royal Mariner?’

Josh looked up, puzzled.

The lights were off. Josh couldn’t introspect. He was expecting the worst. Carefully making his way, he tried to go towards the projector when suddenly lights went on and before he could say anything, a loud cheer rang through the air.

‘SURPRISE!!!!!!!!’

Standing in front of him were Amanda, Jake and Philip. ‘Had Amanda turned sides again?’ Yet another door opened, and who should he see but the Captain. And accompanying him were none other than his buddies Ryan and Bruce ! 

“The whole thing was a set up, wasn’t it ?” exclaimed Josh as realisation dawned on him. The clock struck midnight. And then Josh saw his parents, of course, on the screen. 

Before he could comprehend all the details, the birthday song started playing and on the screen. Photographs flashed showing his journey of sixteen years. He was unable to control his expressions at this time. Tears and a smile appeared on his face, and he uttered “thank you… but all of you together?”

“The surprise is only half over,” announced the Captain with a grin as broad as the ship’s deck. Josh stood stumped, he thought he would choke. “ Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday….. and the birthday song rang around the auditorium. “We dock at Goa bang at midnight ringing in your birthday celebrations Josh.” It was the most beautiful surprise for Josh.

“We planned it well right,” Bruce commented, thumping Josh’s back hard. “So, everything..,” Josh’s voice choked. “Yes, buddy. Everything was planned by your two best friends with our help, of course and oh, what fun we had,” Jake finished Josh’s incomplete sentence. Amanda chimed in, with a cheeky expression, “And I’m very sure, you had fun too.” For a whole minute, Josh could only look from one person to another with his jaw dropping.

“What say, brother!”, said Amanda, looking at Bruce. “Br…..brother!”Josh could barely speak. “Dad, this is so exciting”, came another surprise for Josh.”Yes! Didn’t I tell you that I am captain’s fifth creation!” winked Amanda, looking at even more confused Josh.  “Just look at your expression dude!”,it was Philip this time. Only Josh knew how he felt.

About to burst like a loaded dam, he held back the force of embarrassment. Amanda was smiling and he didn’t want to seem like a baby. After all he was sixteen near to being an adult but fooled like a sprog. How he wished that at least Amanda be his! He would stay a fool all his life. But was she a fool to fall for a fool?

“Seriously guys, was this all to make fun of me!”, Josh finally had words to speak and anger to express. “No Josh….it was…..”, Amanda spoke only to be interrupted by Josh. “You guys made me dance to your tunes and how foolish of me to think of having solved a mystery”, said a furious Josh. “Pal, you need to calm down and give us a fair chance to explain.” Jake clarified

Still nothing could conceal his face showing signs of pure joy and gratitude. He had always prayed for an adventure, a mystery and a thriller , if not all rolled into one but this trip and everything about it had been so much more than what he had ever wished.

Looking over his best buddies and the newfound friends doubled over in laughter and merriment, he knew this would have to be his best birthday ever. And of course, the best vacation he could ever experience. 

The twinkling stars in the clear sky and the moonglade shimmering over the sea were witness to his most memorable moment in life. In all this, Amanda felt brightest to him but with new development, he was no longer sure what he or she felt about the other.  “okay tell me everything”. It was Amanda who spoke first. “I am Bruce’s cousin and Jake and Philip are my friends and this whole plan was to give a surprise of a lifetime. We planned this cuz you have dreamt of solving a real life mystery” 

Josh was satisfied now. With a glint in his eye, he moved an inch closer to Amanda. “Hey could we meet up for a coffee?” He managed to mumble few coherent words. The YES would be the icing on the cake. The best birthday would be the bestest. 

Amanda blushed at first as this was the first time she’d experienced the feeling. They both enjoyed their coffee. Next day, the ship docked at Goa. Josh’s parents were already there to welcome him. “Mom!Dad! Thank you for the best birthday ever. I had a time of my life and memories of lifetime.”

EPILOGUE

Josh straightened his glasses and ran his hand through his hair, which was showing the first streaks of grey. The Royal Mariner was docked and looked as resplendent as she had been, 20 years ago. She had aged like fine wine. He helped his wife and children aboard, juggling with the suitcases. 

“It’s our papa’s and mama’s anniversary ,” announced his daughter, Lindsay, rolling her eyes, much to the amusement of onlookers . “Papa, you promised to tell us the story of how you met mamma on this ship 20 years ago!” demanded his son, Darien.

“Well, your mother is a charmer, had always been,” said Josh admiring his wife. “I was on my first ever vacation on a cruise, hoping it to be my grand 16th birthday. And there I met my lady.”

“Oh stop it! Will you both help me a bit,” said Amanda with mock anger. “Mom please, let me listen,” pleaded their beautiful girl.

“Mom didn’t like me at first . She tried to lead me on a wild chase!” teased Josh. 

“That’s not true !” protested Amanda. “Kids, let’s freshen up and settle down a bit in our room. We will take you exploring later. How about we take you to the engine room, where our love story began ?”

“Eww! Engine room! All you found on the magnificent cruise was the engine room to romance!”, the children were clearly not happy. Josh and Amanda couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, your mom’s hideout! Imagine for one instance, I thought of her as a ghost!” laughed Josh, “though a beautiful one”

“A ghost ?” asked little Lindsay curiously. Her Brother Darien winced . “I’m afraid of ghosts !”

They unpacked, freshened up, and made their way out of their room, when they bumped into another family . “OMG- you are Josh Wallace , the famous crime fiction writer!” shrieked a lady “I’m a huge fan of your ‘Murder on the Cruise’ Series!”

“Well yeah!” replied Josh. “Would you mind giving me an autograph!”, the lady requested. “Dad, we’re waiting for you at the restaurant,” Josh’s family left. 

“Okay! So let’s continue”, said Josh as he adjusted himself on the seat and signalled the waiter for his order. “So mom used to spring up in the most unlikely of places and then disappear. Just like Anabelle the doll in the horror movies,” continued Josh.

“It was all part of the game to make sure Daddy had the best sixteenth ever!“ 

“And was it the best, daddy ?” pressed Lindsay. 

“I decided I wanted to be a crime writer and I met the girl of my dreams on this trip. So yeah, it was definitely the best celebration ever !” a proud Josh beamed.

“So Amanda and her gang made me experience being Sherlock Holmes and concocted a tale of lost diamonds”, continued Josh. “And never for once did I realize it to be a hoax”, Josh admired the wittiness of his wife. “So, I was getting clues in different forms until I reached the goal. It was indeed the best sixteenth ever. And then amidst the moon and serene ocean over a cup of coffee, I professed my love to her.”Josh was soon lost in the moment.

“By the way, even your grandpa and your uncle were involved in this game; they came up with the idea of diamonds! Those diamonds were fake imitations from Amazon,” giggled Amanda. “Talking of diamonds, that reminds me !” Josh pulled out a pouch from his pocket . “Amanda, my lovely wife ! Here are diamond earrings for our anniversary and this time one hundred percent original!”

“Oh Josh, they’re so pretty!’, exclaimed Amanda. 

“Well, not more than you” Josh held her hand and placed a delicate kiss. 

“Wow , you both still look cute”, Lindsay beamed at her parents. 

“You both are the perfect example of true love”, said Darien. 

Josh smiled, “So kids after completing our education, we’re tied in a wedlock and our happily ever after continues…..”
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Contributed by: Chandra Sundeep, Sakshi Bhatnagar, Amruta Wadekar, Saravjot Hansrao, Aparna Salvi Nagda, Amisha Shah, Lalitha Ramanathan, Sonam Sahoo, Aarti Roy, Alpna Das Sharma, Natasha Sharma, Vishwanathan Iyer, Siji Thomas, Sharda Mishra

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