Welcome to Bannville, MS, home of the Banned Library and set right in the middle of the dark piney woods where drugs, violence and dark forces are as abundant as the humidity. Our narrator on this journey is Evan Banned, one time director and current owner of the library now trying to bring it back after it burned to the ground and then, right after it reopened, was closed due to funding. Will Evan get the library back on its feet? Where did the Caribbean cruise tickets come from? Why is Evan’s Uncle Ted looking for him?
So I’m on a boat. Cue the music, I guess. I can still make that joke, right?
Actually it is a ship, the Dark Water Crescent, a cruise liner that set sail yesterday from New Orleans. Seems I somehow had a ticket and all my expenses paid for this little journey and I have no idea why. But, who looks a Caribbean gift horse in the mount, huh? Me. And as soon as I got on board the boat yesterday I found out why when my Uncle Ted met me at the boarding.
“Evan!” he boomed from across the sea of people. A large man, a six foot tall walking barrel with a giant white beard, Uncle Theodore "Ted" Banned grinned enough to to show all his teeth as he moved toward me in the crowd. People moved out of the way from this giant, Santa-looking man and paused to gawk at his bright floral shirt and waving hands.
“Uncle Ted?” I said.
“You got my messages! Thank gods. Your mother told me you’d been in some trouble.”
“Some. Thought it might be a good time to get away.”
“Exactly what I hoped you would say. Walk with me, boy. Leave your bags here, they’ll take care of them.”
He waved a hand at the attendant and the man nodded. The attendant handed me my tickets and wished me a good journey. A fairly popular boxer in his day, Uncle Ted still had muscles that bulged all over his body. Even though we were almost the same height, he dwarfed me in both mass and personality.
“Don’t I need to show I.D. or anything?” I said.
“No, need. You’re my guest. You do have a passport, right?” Uncle Ted said.
“Uh, not exactly. I didn't have a ton of time-”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the ship then, don’t leave it. Hate that you won’t be able to see the Cayman’s, but there’s plenty of fish around the boat,” he said, watching several women carry bags to the check in counter, “Plenty of fish indeed.”
He lead me to a small door that read “Staff” that lead to a gangplank. In minutes we were in the crew quarters of the ship, headed up.
“Uncle Ted, but where are we going and do you work here?”
“Work here? Ha! No, boy, I own this ship. And I’m putting you up in the top quarters.”
“Own it? How? Mom said you were doing real estate or something.”
“Moving real estate of the sea. With all the accidents in the last few years, these cruise lines needed somebody to step up. I came on a few years ago as a celebrity, and made a tidy profit. Then went in on my own with a few partners. I own a bit of this old girl and have the run of her. She’s great, right?”
“Yeah. I love it.”
“Wonderful. I also had a question for you. You don’t have to answer, but hear me out. That old library is done for. Just done. You need better than that little town. What I’m saying is, how’d you like a job on the Dark Water Crescent?”
“Library job. You know, keep the internet going, hand out passwords, get some bestsellers. Entertainment for the guests. She goes out once every few weeks, so there’s downtime and you can make some money at it.”
“I dunno, sir. I’ll have to think on it. I kinda almost got the library going again.”
We walked out onto a corridor overlooking the harbor. New Orleans stretched out before us, downtown in the distance. A small crowd stood below us, waiting for the boat to leave. Uncle Ted waved and the crowd waved back and some even cheered. We kept moving up another flight of stairs.
“Hmph. I've heard. Look, like I said. Take your time. You’ll have a week on board. That’s the other thing. About your room.”
“Yeah?” I said, realizing the price of a free Caribbean cruise would not just be a job pitch by my crazy, apparently well off uncle.
“I had to pull a few strings to get you on board this week, it being the cold season. Whole ship’s packed to the gills with people so you’re gonna have to share a suite room with someone.”
“Who? And what’s a suite room?”
“Dunno who. Whoever bought a ticket for the room. Single, though. We do try to match people. Like the dorms. And you’ll love the suite room. Unique to the Dark Water Crescent, the suite rooms are a single large unit with two offside units.”
“Like a main room and two bedrooms.”
“Yes. Waste of space, but very luxurious. You won’t spend much time there anyway. Always a party. Especially at night on the lido deck. That’s where I’ll be. Promise you’ll meet me there.”
Ted stomped as he walked on the matted carpet. I caught a glimpse of the decks below us through a window. A pool with party decorations around it. A large open court below it with a basketball hoop. People milled around, looking at the dark water of the Mississippi as it met the Gulf. Staff in bright white uniforms stood among the people, some with trays of food or drinks.
“Ah, here we are,” Uncle Ted said, “Your room. Nice view from up here. Can’t say you’ll have quarters like it if you join us, but-”
He opened the door to the room and stopped. A woman, blonde and shapely in a red bikini, stared back at us. She cleared her throat.
“Wrong room?” she asked.
Uncle Ted looked at the key in his hand and the door, “No. This is my nephew’s room. You must be the lucky bastard’s roommate?”
“I don’t bloody think so,” the woman said with an accent that clipped words in a sing song fashion. She made no move to cover herself, but did begin gathering items and placing them in a bag, “I was assured there would be another woman in this suite.”
“T. Graham? The one that has been writing me emails?”
Her face brightened then and her body seemed to relax. I tried not to notice.
She said, “Mr. Banned, then?”
“I am Ted Banned and this is my nephew, Evan. Hate it but it seems there is some confusion, from your emails I thought you were a man,” Uncle Ted said.
She laughed then and I found myself grinning like an idiot. “Well that is embarrassing, but I’m not who for,” she said.
“Yes, well,” my uncles face turned red and he put a hand on his neck, “I, um, oh, your cargo! Is it on board as you wanted it?”
“You may have to ask my partner Felix on that one.”
“Yes, Mr. Minx. I have his emails too. He here?”
“I think he may have gone to the bar. The idea of all this water travel… I think he may be sick.”
“Oh, poor man. Although as soon as we are underway he’ll see there’s very little rocking about. I’ll talk to him as soon as I get this room thing sorted out. Oh, and Evan, here.”
Ted gave me two key cards, one white and one white with a red stripe, “I want you to really think about that offer while you’re here. Check out the boat. The white one’s your room key… for now, I guess. The other’s for staff entrances. Look around the place, meet the crew. Good bunch. And tonight, don’t forget.”
“Party on lido deck.”
“Right,” he said, “Be sure Miss Graham gets there.”
He waved at Tisha Graham and left. She looked at me.
“Are you coming in or out, Mr…”
“Evan,” I said, “No mister. Banned. Last name.”
I fumbled the words and closed the door behind me. Now we were alone. She continued to put items into her bag. A glint of sunlight from the large windows caught a flash of chrome or polished steel.
“So, um, looking forward to the trip?” I said.
She cast a glance my way and smiled. It lit up her face and caused her eyes to sparkle, “Oh yes,” she said, “I've been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Did your uncle say that was a master key?”
I held up the red striped card, “Yeah. He’s trying to get me to come work for him, I guess.”
“What do you do?”
“Librarian,” I said.
Her smile grew larger and brighter, “Well, then. This may work out after all. I was just going to the lido deck to get some sun. Join me?”
“What about the room?” I said.
She walked closer to me, her bag over her shoulder. She put a hand on my chest, “No, I think we’ll be fine,” and then she opened the door. “Last chance,” she said. I could not place the accent, but stared at her lips as she formed the words.
“I’ll meet you there in a second,” I said, and she left without a word.
I waited for Ted to come back but after half an hour I decided to go talk to Tisha. I found her by the pool waiting for me with a pitcher of margaritas. We talked and had fun.
The boat left port soon after. We waved to the crowd below as the boat slid away from shore. Soon New Orleans was a spot on the horizon and the muddy water turned a deep blue. We spent the rest of the day talking about nothing and enjoying as the warm wind blew in off the water and the sun shone down. Later, Tisha and I arrived back at the suit to find our bags had arrived. We went to our separate rooms and changed for the evening’s party by the pool.
Uncle Ted was not there. Tisha and I danced and drank, but she seemed distracted, as if she were looking for someone. We separated and mingled. As usual, I made friends with a bartender. His name was Jeff and he knew my uncle. Jeff said he had seen the old man talking to someone earlier and had left. He then attempted to juggle two bottles of inexpensive whiskey and one nearly caved in his skull.
I walked away and to the rail and looked out on the ocean. The stars reflected off the calm water as the boat cut through the night.
I looked for Tisha later, but could not find her. I went back to the room and lay in the small room that was my personal space.
I lay in bed wondering if I could like this life. Sailing every few weeks across the Caribbean, a public librarian to the vacationing public. Even in my drunken state, though, I knew I belonged in my library. Maybe Uncle Ted had the money to help me out. I would ask him when I saw him later.
The problem is, he has not been around today. In fact, no one has. Well, Jeff the bartender has, but I know him way too well already. He still doesn't know how to juggle those bottles.