Cruise Ship of the Cursed
Agent K surveyed the sparkling sea that reached out to the horizon. This cruise had been a dream of a lifetime, and she had won the Agency’s knitting contest to get aboard. (The doctor said the twitch in her eye would go away soon, as long as no one mentioned entrelac for a while.) She breathed the sea air deeply and exhaled slowly. She planned to enjoy herself for the next few weeks without a care in the world. No aliens, no government bureaucracy, just sunshine and relaxation.
That was the plan, anyway. As she settled into her lounge chair by the pool and slathered herself in SPF 45 sunblock, she sensed something was just a tiny bit off. She paused and glanced around the pool area, but nothing seemed amiss. She shrugged. It was a perfectly normal cruise, but she was still jumpy from her last assignment. A cloud seemed to pass over the sunny pool at the thought of her last assignment. The aliens had been too close for comfort that time. She shook her head to clear the dark thoughts and settled in with a copy of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitting Without a License as a little light reading.
The combination of warm sun, soothing garter stitch, and exhaustion soon caught up with her, and her head drooped slowly forward. The Agency’s top agent does not snore, so instead she indulged in a bit of deep breathing while her eyelids were closed. The gentle rocking of the ship lulled her. Children splashed in the pool and cabana boys served other patron briskly, but Agent K enjoyed her slumber undisturbed.
The afternoon wore on. The sun moved in the sky, and eventually Agent K discovered that while she had gone to sleep in the warm sun, she now was napping in the cool shade. It was getting a bit brisk here in the shade – the slight sea breeze that had felt so wonderful and kept her so cool now chilled her exposed toes. She got up groaning at the inevitable sunburn, stretched gingerly, and picked up her things. Time to head to dinner.
She sleepily made her way to her cabin to change for dinner. As she fumbled in her bag for her room key, digging in a squirrel’s nest of knitting project, cable needles, patterns, and various notions, her attention was drawn to a cabin down the hall. A young woman was arguing with a young man, the two of them tugging at something between them. They struggled for a moment, then the young woman won the tug-of-war, sending both them staggering back a pace. She gave a brittle laugh, waved whatever it was in his face, then stalked off. The young man frowned, then caught Agent K’s eye and hurriedly opened his cabin door and slipped inside.
Agent K probably wouldn’t have thought much of this incident if she hadn’t happened to be next to the young couple’s table at dinner. The woman was overly bright at dinner, and the man was slightly sulky. Agent K picked at her excellent dinner of filet mignon while stretching her ears eagerly to find out what the disagreement was about.
“I wish you’d stop sulking!” the young woman exclaimed. “It’s getting really old, Ben.”
“I just think you should let me take care of it, Jamie,” Ben said. “It’s very valuable and you never know who is going to try to take it from you.”
“Oh, come on, who do you think is going to try to take it from me?” Jamie rolled her eyes. “The only people who know that we even have it are you and me. It’s extremely doubtful that they’ve followed us onto the boat, even if they did know we have it. And the chances of someone on the boat finding out about it and actually wanting it are slim to none.”
“It’s that kind of talk that worries me,” Ben said angrily. “The chances are slim, but that doesn’t mean that no one will be interested. Someone may find out, and someone may decide to act.”
“Ben, has anybody ever told you you’re an old woman?” Jamie said contemptuously.
Ben set his drink down the click. He threw down his napkin, pushed his chair back, and stood up. He glared down at Jamie and said, “Fine. I will see you back at our cabin. Just make sure that you don’t lose it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” Jamie said. “Enjoy your evening.”
Agent K watched Ben stalk off as Jamie sat smugly at the table. Once Ben was out of sight, though, Jamie slumped down into her seat. She reached under her chair and pulled something into her lap. Agent K leaned casually back in her chair pretending to stretch. She couldn’t quite make out which Jamie was looking at though. It seemed to be something tiny, in a small drawstring bag. Jamie hurriedly rifled in the small bag, then pulled the drawstrings tight and stuffed the little bag back into her pocket. She glanced around the room as she did this, and Agent K looked carefully back at her dinner.
Agent K knew that she should mind her own business. She was here on vacation, after all. But something about this young couple and their furtive behavior had caught her attention. What had been intended to be a relaxing and uneventful cruise was starting to shape up as something more.
Dinner was starting to wind down, and Jamie continued to sit all by herself. Agent K continued to watch Jamie out of the corner of her eye. If Agent K hadn’t known that Jamie was hiding something to begin with, she would have known by the end of dinner. Jamie continually touched the pocket where she had hidden the drawstring bag, taking the bag out periodically and touching whatever was inside, then stuffing it back into the pocket. Agent K thought grimly that any pickpocket on the ship worth his salt would be targeting Jamie the minute she left her seat. Agent K ate her chocolate chip cheesecake thoughtfully, then got up just as Jamie did.
“Oh my, I’m going to weigh about 50 pounds more at the end of this cruise as I did at the beginning!” Agent K said ruefully, effortlessly catching up to Jamie as they headed out the dining roome.
Jamie had been deep in thought and started at Agent K’s voice. “Um, yeah, me too,” she said nervously, looking around the hallway.
“It’s a good thing I don’t eat like this all the time!” Agent said, tittering just a bit.
“No, no, me too,” replied Jamie.
“Aren’t you just down the hall from me?” asked Agent K. “I’m sure I’ve seen you before tonight. And that handsome young man you’re with. Is he your boyfriend?”
“Ben?” Jamie gave a brittle laugh. “Oh, no, we’re second cousins twice removed. I wouldn’t have taken one step with him otherwise.”
“Not very good company?” sympathized Agent K.
“Oh, he’s okay,” Jamie said. “He’s just a bit … nervous.”
“Nervous? Oh, yes, I was very nervous on my first cruise too!” Agent K fibbed. She crossed her fingers behind her back. “But this is my tenth cruise, and there’s nothing to be nervous about! These ships rarely sink.”
Jamie gave her a funny look, as if she were about to correct Agent K’s misapprehension. She opened her mouth to speak, but seemed to think better of it. By this time, they had reached the hallway where their cabins were.
“Have a good evening,” Jamie said with finality. “I’m sure you’ll have a great cruise.”
Agent K stood at the door to her cabin watching Jamie continue down the hall. The whole time since they had left the dining room, Jamie had been holding her hand either over the pocket with the drawstring bag, or dipping into the pocket. She might as well have been waving a red flag and yelling “Pick my pocket!” at the top of her voice. Agent K watched to be sure that Jamie got safely into her cabin, then entered her own cabin.
She had just settled down with a plain sock in self-striping yarn when the yelling started. She threw the sock aside and ran to the door. Jamie was standing in the hallway screaming at Ben.
“I told you I would take care of them, and I will! I don’t need you looking over my shoulder all the time!” she screeched. Ben looked apprehensively up and down the hallway where doors were popping open and curious heads peeping out.
“Now, now, I’m not looking over your shoulder,” Ben said feebly. “You know that I wouldn’t do that. I just want to make sure that they’re safe.”
“Oh, they’ll be safe, all right! I can handle it!” snapped Jamie, lowering her voice as she noticed the curious onlookers they were attracting.
“Excuse me,” said Agent K, stepping up to the couple. “Is there anything wrong? Can I help?”
“Not unless you know how to secure a priceless set of ivory and diamond stitch markers with someone constantly looking over your shoulder!” retorted Jamie. She clapped her hand over her mouth in shock. “Pretend you didn’t hear that! No one is supposed to know!”
“Stitch markers?” Agent K said curiously.
“Yes, stitch markers,” said Ben, looking daggers at Jamie. “No one is supposed to know about them, Jamie! It’s supposed to be a secret. Now the whole hallway knows! Nice work! They will hear about it, and that will be the end of that!”
“Are these knitting stitch markers by any chance?” ask Agent K.
“Yes,” sighed Jamie. She looked at Agent K for a moment, then seemed to decide that Agent K looked harmless enough and invited her into the cabin. Jamie closed the door before continuing. “They belonged to a royal princess, but were stolen in the late 1790s under mysterious circumstances. They’re said to be cursed – that anyone who tries to use them who is not their true owner will never be able to follow a pattern correctly. We’re on a mission to find the proper heir and return them so that no more knitters have to suffer the curse. It’s been a grueling process with way too many late nights spent on Ancestry.com.”
“Not only that,” added Ben, who seemed to have accepted Agent K’s presence with little more than a scowl at Jamie. “But we have to keep on the move because THEY are trying to stop us.”
“And who is “THEY”?” asked Agent K.
“We don’t know … exactly,” said Jamie. “All we know is that we keep having all sorts of inconvenient accidents. At first we couldn’t work out what was happening, but then the accidents seemed to focus on the stitch markers. The luggage that we decided at the last minute shouldn’t have the markers went missing at the airport. Not just once, but several times. We’ve been mugged by someone looking for a drawstring bag. The police caught that guy, but he said he was paid to steal the drawstring bag, and only the drawstring bag. He wouldn’t say who had hired him. We’ve had a couple of burglaries where nothing was taken, but the room we usually stored the markers in was ransacked. Well, I say nothing was taken. It was really nothing of value.”
“But who would break in only to steal lime jello?” burst in Ben.
“Hmm…” said Agent K.
“Anyway,” continued Jamie, “we are getting really close now. We’ve identified the proper owner of the stitch markers. We are posing as ordinary tourists, but we’ll get off at the next stop to give the markers to the rightful owner.”
“What happens when the owner gets the markers?” asked Agent K.
“According to the lore, the curse will be lifted,” answered Jamie. “The rightful owner can sell them, or give them away, or whatever he wants. From that point on, as long as the markers change hands willingly, there should be no more trouble. As long as we can keep them safe until the next port of call, we should be fine.”
“That’s two days away,” said Ben wearily. “We’re going crazy trying to protect the things, and it’s highly likely that whoever is trying to get them from us is on the ship right now, just waiting for an opportunity. If he or she doesn’t strike in the next two days, the markers will just be ordinary markers.”
“Right,” said Agent K, rubbing her hands together briskly. “I’ll help you out. I think I know who is after the stitch markers, and while you’ve done a bang-up job keeping them safe up to this point, the aliens’ efforts will likely be stepped up considerably.”
“The … aliens?” said Ben, staring at Agent K. Agent K waved a hand dismissively.
“Yes, aliens,” she said irritably. “Aliens exist, and they are on Earth to make sure that all wool is eradicated. If they can discover how to curse knitting notions, they’ll be well on their way to accomplishing their goals.”
“Um … aliens?” echoed Jamie in a stunned way.
“Yes, aliens,” said Agent K. “Right, now you’re in luck, because I’m a member of an elite corps of knitters who fight the aliens to stop them from taking away our wool. I’ve heard rumors of cursed knitting notions before, but I always thought they were myths. Anyway, it’s lucky I ran into you. Where are the stitch markers now?”
Jamie reluctantly pulled the drawstring bag out of her pocket and held them out to Agent K.
“No, I don’t want to handle them, just show them to me,” she said. No sense in risking the curse rubbing off onto her!
Jamie spilled a set of six stitch markers into her palm and showed them to Agent K.
They were amazing. The ivory was worked into a set of animals, each with two tiny diamond eyes winking up at her. A sheep, a llama, an alpaca, a goat, a rabbit, and a yak were posed in mid-step, with hooves or paws raised jauntily. The rings were of tarnished silver. No one had used these markers in a very long time, Agent K reflected sadly as Jamie slid them back into the bag.
“First things first,” said Agent K. “You are no longer to carry them around with you when you leave the cabin. They stay here in the cabin with us. I had you pegged as someone with something valuable the instant I saw you.” Jamie blushed and hung her head. “From now on, no one leaves this room. We’ll order room service as sparingly as possible and keep the door locked at all times. We’ll sleep in shifts, and only one person leaves the room at any time for bathroom breaks. Understand?”
Jamie and Ben nodded, and Agent K went to her cabin to fetch some gear. The next hour saw the three of them securing the room against all comers, and when the room was practically airtight, Agent K flopped into a chair with a sigh.
“We’ve done what we can,” she said, regarding the room with satisfaction. “I’ve set up an anti-teleportation device that should stop any aliens from appearing inside the room. If they do manage to get in through the porthole or door, they’ll find a wool net ready to descend onto them. The stitch markers as housed in a transparent wool case so that we can see them at all times but they’ll be protected from the aliens. Arm yourselves, and get ready for a long two days.”
All three of them picked up a set of knitting needles and some wool, and were soon knitting away. Agent K found that Ben and Jamie were already competent knitters and surmised that they had not succumbed to lure of those beautiful stitch markers. It was difficult – from a distance of only a few feet, the urge to use the stitch markers was overwhelming, but the Agency had trained Agent K well to resist just this sort of torture.
As they knit, Agent K told Ben and Jamie all about the Agency, and her own fascinating story of how she had become an Agent. She described some of her more harrowing and dangerous missions to a flatteringly wide-eyed audience. The evening wore on and slowly dimmed to darkness. The ship was a noisy place even at this late hour, but as the revelers trickled back to their cabins the noise faded. Ben and Jamie nodded off, but Agent K remained watchful.
She was rewarded for her vigilance when the door to the cabin slowly opened. She had not heard a sound, and Ben and Jamie remained peacefully asleep. The crack in the door widened, letting in soft light from the hallway. A tentacle tentatively wiggled into the crack, followed by an eyestalk which glared around the room. Agent K sat motionless, waiting for the alien to make its move and hardly daring to breathe.
The door opened wider and the alien slowly entered the room. Just as the slimy green creature was fully in the room, Agent K sprang into action. She yelled “NOW!!!” at Ben and Jamie, then hit the switch that turned on the light and dropped the wool net. Ben and Jamie rubbed their eyes and stared at the angry flailing alien in the middle of their cabin. The alien roared and tried to fling off the net, but he was well and truly trapped. Agent K gave him a minute to get his frustration out, then flicked the lights to get his attention. He subsided, but glared at Agent K with an angry red eye.
“Okay, time to talk,” said Agent K. “What do you want in this cabin?”
“I heard there was lime jello in here. Isn’t this the galley?” asked the alien, trying for nonchalance a bit too late.
Agent K rolled her eyes. “No, it’s not the galley. Why don’t you just admit what you’re really here for?”
“Why should I tell you anything? Who are you, anyway?” retorted the alien. “Just because I walked into the wrong cabin doesn’t mean anything. Here I am, minding my own business, and you throw this nasty wool all over me. Do you know how much this stuff itches? I’m going to need a vat of calamine lotion to stop the itching.”
“If you must know, I’m Agent K,” she replied. The alien suddenly stopped scratching himself with his tentacles and became very still, staring at Agent K.
“You can’t be!” he gasped. “They said this was a routine case! Just steal a few cursed stitch markers, nothing too it! Only a couple of dweebs to deal with, and I’d be home free. Now you’re saying you’re the Agency’s top agent? How did you get assigned to this case?”
“DWEEBS?!?” chorused Ben and Jamie.
“It’s just you unlucky day, I guess,” said Agent K, ignoring Ben and Jamie’s indignation. “How did you find out about the cursed stitch markers, and what were you planning on doing with them?”
“Nothing, nothing, we just wanted to look at them,” the alien said airly, shifting his eye around. “We just heard a rumor, that’s all.”
Agent K picked up a ball of wool from the table next to her and advanced menacingly toward the alien.
“You wouldn’t!” he gasped.
“Try me!” she said, unwinding a bit from the ball.
He gulped. “Okay, I’ll talk! We intercepted an email from an antique knitting notions dealer a few weeks ago. These dweebs…” Ben snorted angrily. “As I was saying, these dweebs were going about trying to find the rightful owner for a set of stitch markers. They were refusing to sell the markers to anyone, at any price. This, of course, was very suspicious, and emails starting flowing around the antique notions dealer network. We have spies and monitors who watch for this sort of activity, and we did a bit of research and discovered the alleged power of these markers. We tried several times to get our tentacles on them so that we could study them and figure out how to curse more notions.”
“Whose idea was that?” asked Agent K.
The alien smirked. “Oh, that was my idea! No one will want to knit if they can’t get past a little curse. It was one of my frequent bursts of brilliance.”
“I’m sure it was,” said Agent K dryly.
“Well, we kept trying, but nothing worked. We couldn’t get the markers. Then we heard that these dweebs were going on a cruise, and we decided to strike while we still could.”
“Stop calling us dweebs!” fumed Jamie.
“Whatever you say, moron,” said the alien. “How were we to know that the Agency would get involved? It was supposed to be a quick snatch and grab. Easy peasy.” He sighed despondently. “You are going to take me to the detention center with the lime jello, right?” He brightened a bit at the prospect.
“Yes,” Agent K said. “If you go quietly, you’ll have all the lime jello you want.”
“Do you have any on you now?” he asked hopefully.
He seemed to deflate a bit when he was assure that Agent K did not in fact have lime jello on her person, but did not resist when the ship docked and the Agency cleaner team came aboard to escort him off. Agent K watched as he was led from the ship, still boasting to the Agency cleaners about his brilliant scheme to curse knitting notions the world over.
It was almost an anti-climax when Ben and Jamie took the stitch markers to the elderly lady who was their rightful owner. She seemed oblivious to their import, and calmly agreed to sell them to Jamie for a pittance. Ben and Agent K watched with bated breath as Jamie cast on a complex lace swatch using the stitch markers. They breathed a bit easier as each row came out perfectly.
Agent K reboarded the ship, determined to enjoy what remained of her vacation. A deck chair in the warm sun called to her…