Francis Meadowes has landed himself an enviable job lecturing on the history of crime writing aboard the Golden Adventurer as it cruises down the West African coast. His fellow passengers, including opinionated retired surgeon Klaus, mischievous elderly widow Eve, flamboyant designer Sebastian, beautiful American aid worker Sadie and her tedious but extremely wealthy aunt, are an eclectic group. But is any one of them capable of murder?
When one of the guests is found dead in bed and a second disappears overboard, Francis finds himself drawn into a baffling murder investigation where nothing is as it first appears …
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.55(w) x 8.74(h) x (d)|
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Tema, Ghana. Friday 21 April.
'Oh, yes, that rotting shark, dis-gus-ting!' the large Englishwoman was all but shouting. Despite the rattling of the minibus, Francis couldn't help listening as she swapped stories with the two tanned American guys sitting opposite her. They were discussing unpleasant local delicacies from around the world. The shark was what they insisted on giving you in Iceland; washed down with this 'local firewater' that 'kind of took the taste away but then again didn't'.
Cue laughter. But had she ever been to Malaysia and tried Durian fruit? asked the younger American. 'Oh my gad, the smell of it! It's like a gym sock.'
'What did that guy in Taiping say, Damian?' the other replied. 'That after you'd eaten it your breath smelt like you'd been French kissing your dead grandmother.'
The Americans were chortling, but the Englishwoman wasn't to be outdone.
'You remember those widgetty grubs we were offered at Uluru, Gerald?' she said, turning to her companion, a skinny fellow with a trim grey goatee. 'So gross, weren't they?'
'We didn't eat them, Shirley,' he pointed out.
'We just couldn't,' she admitted. She had three, if not four chins, wobbling below a face like a pink blancmange. Trying not to stare at her, Francis found himself wondering what she might have looked like when she and Gerald were young. She had a dainty nose buried in there somewhere, and intense, rather beautiful pale blue eyes.
'Ooh-loo-roo,' asked Damian, 'where's that?'
'In Australia. Haven't you been? It's the most sacred Aboriginal site in the world.'
'You mean, like, Ayer's Ruck?'
'The Aborigines call it Uluru,' Shirley replied, a tad self-righteously, but she clearly wasn't going to spoil her fun new friendship over a matter of parochial PC. As the Americans fought back with turkey testicles in Hong Kong and deep-fried guinea pig in Argentina, Francis tuned out. Through the tinted windows, under the cloudless cobalt sky, was the here and now of Africa; to each side of the potholed coast road, stalls on the orange earth, selling everything from bananas to motorcycle tyres. Happy Corner Shop Bar. In God We Trust Butcher. There was one ramshackle outlet that had fifty identical Pepsi bottles for sale. Women, swathed in colourful robes, walked languorously through the late-morning heat, carrying their goods and shopping on their heads; on individual braided topknots was balanced everything from a huge white enamel bowl full of pineapples to a teetering pile of black bin bags.
Over the other side of the coach, the competitive travel-boasting had advanced from delicacies to destinations. The worn tarmac coast road had degenerated to a rutted dirt track, so Francis strained to hear over the bumping and clattering. The Americans were now enthusing about Burma: '... temples laid out on the plain ... totally awesome ... you can take a balloon at dawn.' Shirley fought back with Georgia: 'Not the American one, the Caucasus ... stunning frescoes ... you just walk in.' But Brad and Damian had been in Antarctica which had been amazing: '... Like, armies of penguins ... you have no idea how huge the icebergs ...'
But – oh no – Shirley had been to Chernobyl. 'They only let you in for two hours. And you have to wash all your clothes afterwards. But it's extraordinary. Incredibly spooky. Wasn't it, Gerald?'
Brad and Damian couldn't top Chernobyl, but they didn't have to, because suddenly the minibus had turned on to smooth cement and they were into Tema docks, driving past tall stacks of oblong containers in red, rust-brown, pale blue, grey – MAERSK, MOL, CGM stencilled on their corrugated sides. Assorted vessels were moored up along the quay. Gulls swooped and squawked among tall masts. The fresh, salty tang of the ocean was mixed with the industrial whiff of engine oil. At one end, dominating the rest, was the gleaming bulk of a cruise liner.
'That's our ship!' Shirley cried, stating the obvious excitedly.
The minibus came to a halt in its shadow. Francis had been told that the Golden Adventurer was not large. Indeed, one of its merits, the PR people back in London had stressed, was that it was comparatively nimble, could go to places that more sizeable cruise ships could not. But to Francis, as he stepped out and stood looking up at it, it seemed substantial enough, with its five long rows of windows above the waterline. Portholes in the black hull, then above the encircling red line, where every surface was a gleaming white, small, round-cornered square windows, then much bigger ones, with sliding doors and slim, flush balconies, then another layer with a surrounding walkway. Above that, tall white railings circled the open-top deck, which bristled with masts and funnels and satellite dishes.
As the new arrivals got out and gathered in a loose gaggle on the quay, a silver Mercedes drew up beside them. The front door swung open and a uniformed chauffeur sprang out, ran round and opened the left rear door, from which disgorged an elderly woman in a large and floppy straw hat, a dark-blue silk knee-length dress, navy tights and tan leather espadrille wedges. The old fellow that followed her, helped out by the chauffeur, was correspondingly dapper: blue blazer over checked grey trousers, shiny brown brogues, Panama hat. He smiled round at the waiting group and then followed his urgently beckoning partner over to the narrow gangway that led steeply up to the walkway three decks above.
At the foot of this stood a Filipino crew member in a crisp white shirt and pressed dark trousers.
'This way, please, ladies and gentlemen,' he said, grinning as he gestured upwards.
As the others stepped on to it, one by one, the gangway wobbled visibly. Big Shirley looked terrified, holding tight to the rails as she manoeuvred herself carefully to the top, where there were more smiling staff to take her hands and pull her on board. A fresh-faced blonde with her hair up stood with a circular silver tray holding flutes of champagne. Another stockier greeter, with tight brown curls and a rather tense smile, offered flannels from a neat pile. Francis took one, gratefully. It was cool on his skin, delicately scented. Sandalwood, he rather thought.
'Sparkling apple juice?' asked the blonde. 'Or a Bellini?' Why not? It was after noon already and Francis had woken early in his unfamiliar hotel room. He took a Bellini and waited in line as the newcomers handed over their passports and were registered at a desk in a gloomy reception area with patterned blue and gold wallpaper and deep blue carpets. The elegant elderly couple – she still in the hat – were being given the royal treatment by a handsome fellow with four-stripe epaulettes on his white shirt and thick blond hair swept back from his forehead.
'So good to see you again, Mr and Mrs Forbes-Are-lee ...' His accent was almost cornily French, while Mrs Forbes-Harley was American, from somewhere on the East Coast, Francis thought; distinctly refained anyway.
'And you, Gregoire. How have you been keeping?'
After a minute or so of this, as Gregoire moved seamlessly on to a little old lady with a grey bun, Mrs Forbes-Harley turned round to take in Francis. Close up, her lipstick gleamed a deep maroon against the wrinkly brown crepe of the surrounding skin. Her coiffed blue-grey curls trembled as she smiled, revealing incongruous but magnificent white teeth.
'They treat you so well on this ship,' she said. 'This is our seventh time. We love it. I'm Daphne, by the way.'
'Francis,' said Francis, taking her extended hand.
'Good to meet you, Francis. And where do you hail from?'
'London, England? Oh, we love London. Brown's Hotel in Piccadilly, d'you know it?' She pronounced it as if 'a dilly' were some kind of exotic flower. 'It's one of our favourite hidey holes.' She gestured at her companion. 'This is my husband, Henry.'
'Nice to see you again,' said the old man, vaguely. Then he focused and smiled charmingly. 'It's Tom, isn't it?'
Daphne gave Francis an apologetic moue. 'You – haven't – met – him, Henry,' she said slowly, as if speaking to a small child.
The old man looked taken aback. 'Don't we know each other?' He paused, as if retrieving some distant memory. 'From Antarctica?'
'No, honey. Francis is new on this ship. We've never seen him before.' She switched on a thousand-volt smile. 'Are you travelling on your own, Francis?'
He could have told her that he was a crime writer and had been invited to lecture; and that in return Goldencruise had offered him the ten days for free. But he decided to enjoy being a man of mystery, for the time being at least. What was he? Newly divorced? An inveterate single? Gay? Wealthy, obviously.
'Do please consider us to be your friends,' said Daphne.
Now Gregoire was making an announcement: about the cabins, which were, he said, in the final stages of preparation, and would be ready for occupation immediately after lunch. 'So please, feel free to go on up to the restaurant, one deck above us 'ere, which is now open.'
With remarkable speed the passengers got moving. Francis heard the rising crescendo of Shirley's laugh dwindling away down the corridor.
He stayed where he was, taking a seat on a blue velveteen banquette, sipping his Bellini, noting that the peach juice was mixed with real champagne. No half-measures in this luxury zone. Below, on the quay, a few final bits and pieces were being loaded on to the ship; square crates hauled up on tense, quivering blue nylon ropes to the open top deck above. Urgent shouts accompanied the work; but none of them, thankfully, were for Francis.
He was glad to be away; to have escaped, even if only briefly, the pressures and distractions of his life in London. Not to mention the demise of his latest relationship, with the stimulating, sexy, but in the end impossibly solipsistic Chloe G —. What had happened to him? The temporary fame that had settled on him after he, a mere B-list crime writer, had solved the 'litfest murders' of Mold-on-Wold had led him to a strange place. For an autumn and a spring, he had found himself lionized. In public, there were requests to appear on TV and radio shows, to contribute his thoughts to this or that desperate rag: Of what quality in yourself are you most proud? What advice do you have for an aspiring writer? Has your colour ever held you back? Wine or beer? Steak or sushi? In private, there were invitations to little dinners in London suburbs, where he was often seated next to a suitable 'single' female, generally equally put out to be so obviously matchmade. On the couple of occasions he had followed up these thoughtful introductions of his married friends, he had found that things were not as simple as they seemed and there was a present or past attachment lurking. Chloe had been one such. In her late thirties, allegedly looking for someone to settle down with but in reality hung up on another, older man who had messed her around for years. In the end it had been easier not to try and compete; to back out and put a stop to intimacy and its complications. At least for a while. Back to lonely but straightforward celibacy.
After ten minutes or so, Francis got to his feet and followed the others through, out of the reception area and into a central landing from where circular stairs went up and down. He passed a young man with a bushy blond beard peering into a cupboard with a torch. Up one floor at the entrance to the restaurant, a maître'd in black tie was waiting to receive him. Another Filipino, another clean white smile. James said the name tag on his lapel.
'Good afternoon, sir. Please, take a seat.' James gestured through to the swathe of empty tables. There were bigger windows up here, mirrors on the walls and a lighter colour scheme, cream and gold, so it was altogether brighter. Shirley and Gerald and the two American guys were lunching together, but Francis didn't feel ready to butt into such gregarious hilarity. He walked over and found a table in one corner, with a view out in two directions: to the quays and containers and assorted masts of the docked ships one way; and then, to the other, beyond a distant breakwater, the open sea. He took out his notebook and settled in for some quiet thinking time.
But now James was upon him, beaming. A couple of yards behind stood a tall, red-faced gentleman with thick white hair and a matching moustache. He seemed to be twitching slightly.
'Would you like company, sir?' James asked.
To refuse would surely be churlish.
'Of course,' Francis replied. 'Why not?'
He smiled up at his new acquaintance, who grunted loudly as he bent to take a seat at a right angle from him. Klaus was his name and he was from Hamburg, Germany. A surgeon, though now retired. 'I must apologize in advance for my school English,' he said.
'Please don't. I have no German at all.'
'In the world as it is, you have no need to.' Klaus chuckled as he picked up the menu. Now was Francis having wine? Good. Was he familiar at all with German wines? No? So perhaps he would allow Klaus to choose?
There were, Klaus said, after he had tasted the Spätlese and they had clinked glasses, in his opinion three stages of an individual's life. The first, until about twenty-five, thirty even, was learning. The second, from thirty to maybe sixty, was working. And the third, which some unimaginative persons called retirement, was living. 'At last,' he grinned, 'you have got shot of your responsibilities. You have, if you have been at all clever, accumulated some nest egg or so. So now you have the freedom to do what you have always wanted.'
In this living phase Klaus was now in, he loved to travel. Sometimes his wife came with him; quite often she stayed behind in Hamburg. Klaus liked it either way, though each was different. 'When I cruise with Helga, it is all very nice, but we sit together at meals, and we have a drink after dinner in the bar before retiring to our cabin. When I am on my own, I get to know strangers. I explore. I am more, how-to-say, adventurous.'
He really did say 'how-to-say' and his th's were z's, like some character from a bad sitcom. Under the friendly surface, there was something, in the look from his cool grey eyes, if not menacing, at least controlling. You got the sense that Klaus was not a man who was used to being thwarted.
So had Francis ever been on a cruise before? he asked. No? OK, so perhaps he should explain that there were cruises and cruises. On a standard cruise around the Med, you would find all types, and perhaps all ages too. Such things were starter cruises. Then there were the huge American leisure ships, ten, twenty times the size of this, with passenger numbers in the thousands, which went from island to island in the Caribbean.
'Horrible,' said Klaus, grimacing. 'Thankfully, I have never been on one.'
And then there was this kind of cruise, which was, how-to-say, top-end, but also for the more experienced cruiser, the traveller, if you like. Had Francis ever heard of the Century Club? No? To be a member you had to have visited over one hundred different countries. Not just states, or subdivisions of countries, like Wales or Scotland, but proper separate nations.
'And have you got your hundred?' Francis asked.
'No. I am not concerned with such nonsense. But there are plenty who are. And if you take this particular trip, the whole way from Cape Town to Dakar, you would be able to add at least twelve to your list. So you will find some who are here just for that.'
'How many countries have you been to?'
Klaus sat back. 'Sixty, maybe seventy. But then I do not have an obsession with stamps in my passport. What is the point of going to Monaco for two hours just to get the stamp? What do you learn? No, it is all very stupid.'
Klaus had travelled with the Goldencruise group before, he explained. To the Antarctic, another how-to-say adventurous location. And then before that along the north coast of Australia. 'The Kimberley, they call it, after one of your British colonial administrators. A very wild area. Plenty of crocodiles but no people. There were some Aborigines there once, but those convicts poisoned most of them.' He laughed, challengingly, but Francis wasn't going to rise to this sort of provocative non-PC; he always preferred to listen and let people reveal themselves.
As their starters arrived, there were loud shouts from below as moorings were untied; then a wobble as the ship moved away from the quay and out into the harbour.
'At last we are sailing,' said Klaus, raising his glass again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cruising to Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Mark McCrum.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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