Hannah, her sisters and fourteen-year-old niece Julie set sail from Baltimore on a bonding cruise, and have a dramatic first night when Pia Fanucci, a bubbly bartender magician’s assistant whom Hannah befriends, narrowly escapes injury during an illusion. But while Pia may make light of the incident, it’s no laughing matter when Julie suddenly disappears. Has she gone overboard, or is she injured somewhere on the enormous ship?
To make matters worse, Hannah meets David Warren, a grieving father whose twenty-two-year-old daughter vanished without trace from an earlier cruise. With claims of a proper investigation proving to be an illusion too far, Hannah teams up with David and Pia in desperation. Can they see through the ship’s smoke and mirrors to reveal the identity of a dangerous sea-faring predator?
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'On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.'
W.C. Fields (1880–1946)
Philadelphia. The Birthplace of America. The Cradle of Liberty. The City of Brotherly Love.
Philly's only two hours away from my home in Annapolis, but I hadn't been there since the winter of 2008 when Navy trounced Army 34–0. I probably wouldn't have visited Philly on that mild day in May, either, or found myself sitting on an overstuffed chair in a restored brownstone near Rittenhouse Square, flanked by my two sisters, except for a bit of Fatherly Love.
And Aunt Evelyn, of course.
Evelyn was the widow of our father's older brother, Fred, who had died at the Battle of Inchon in 1950. She'd never remarried.
Ruth leaned into me. 'Look, Hannah. She's wearing the same outfit she wore to my wedding.'
I'd recognized it, too. A sequinned, ice-gray, gold-fringed tweed jacket and matching sheath that complemented her perfectly-coifed helmet of platinum hair. Her makeup, too, was perfect. Dark lashes, pale blue shadow, a touch of peach blush on her alabaster cheeks. Revlon's 'Love That Pink' – Aunt Evelyn never wore anything else – colored her lips and nails.
'I helped her pick out that suit,' Ruth continued brightly. 'At Nordstrom. Eleven hundred dollars, give or take.'
'She looks amazingly good, doesn't she?' I said.
Georgina, on my left, stiffened. 'No, she doesn't. She looks dead.'
We stared at the open casket – solid walnut polished to a high gloss and decorated with antique bronze hardware – where our late aunt lay on a bed of soft, almond-colored tufted velvet.
'Good for eighty-eight,' I amended, nudging Georgina lightly with my elbow. 'And under the circumstances.'
'Daddy owes us,' Georgina whispered. 'I'm here, but to tell the truth, I never liked Aunt Evelyn all that much.'
I shushed her. A shuttle bus from Riverview on the Schuylkill, the retirement complex where Aunt Evelyn had spent her final years, had just disgorged a stream of residents – on the high side of fifty-five and over – onto the plush, round Tabriz that decorated the marble floor of the funeral home lobby. As his sister-in-law's only surviving relative, Daddy stood at the door, greeting the mourners as they filed by ones and twos into the parlor where his daughters sat on straight-backed upholstered chairs opposite the coffin like a trio of obedient see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys.
I had to admit that spending extended lengths of time with Aunt Evelyn had always been an act of charity, at least for me. In the early fifties – when the use of tamoxifen and targeted drug therapies for breast cancer lay well into the future – she'd undergone a radical mastectomy. Following my own bout with breast cancer – I'm totally fine, now, thank you very much – Aunt Evelyn sensed in me a kindred spirit, one who would surely never – as had her ever-dwindling circle of friends and bridge partners – tire of hearing lengthy tales about her debilitating surgery, her lymphedema, her phantom breast pain – in exhausting, clinical detail. Even Mother Theresa would have been driven to drink.
'I have no patience with hypochondriacs,' Georgina continued, keeping her voice low. 'If anybody ever deserved the epitaph, "See, I told you I was sick," it's our own dear Aunt Evelyn.'
I bowed my head and stifled a giggle.
'She kept her kidney stones in a glass jar, for heaven's sake!' Georgina added, upping the volume.
'I didn't know that!' Ruth chirped.
A woman leaning on a walker swiveled her head in our direction, an artfully drawn ebony eyebrow raised.
'Shhhh.' I laid a hand on Ruth's arm. 'You were away at college during the kidney stone ordeal,' I told her. 'It was pretty spectacular. The pain was excruciating – for all of us.'
'The doctor let her keep the stones?' Ruth asked. 'Gross.'
'Not exactly,' Georgina explained. 'Every day Aunt Evelyn peed into a sieve until they passed. "I nearly died!" she quoted, pressing the back of her hand melodramatically against her forehead. "They were enormous! Big as marbles!" '
With a gentle hand on the man's arm, Daddy nudged a blue-suited octogenarian in the direction of his sister-in-law's coffin, captured the hand of a younger woman next in line in both of his while sending a scowl aimed at us over her red plaid shoulder. If we didn't clean up our act, there'd be hell to pay at the dinner we planned to have at Parc, a nearby brasserie, following the viewing.
Feeling chastened, I mused, 'You know, it's a shame that we only get together for occasions like this – weddings and funerals. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that there's always so much else going on that we really don't have time to visit each other properly. How long has it been since you've been to Annapolis, Georgina?'
Georgina bristled. 'I have four children, remember.'
As if I could forget. When Georgina's family came down from Baltimore for a visit – a short thirty-five-mile drive – it was like a military operation, requiring a movement order – ten typewritten pages, with appendices. Before I could think up a snarky reply, Ruth leaned across my lap and said, 'I think there's enough guilt to go around. I haven't been the best of aunts myself, but now that I have a full-time shop assistant at Mother Earth, there's no reason I can't pop up to Baltimore to visit with you and the kids more often, Georgina.'
I'd been about to elaborate on the amount of time I spend helping to care for my grandchildren – Chloe, Jake, and Tim – while my daughter Emily and her husband Dante are busy managing Paradiso, their luxury health spa, but I wisely kept my mouth shut. 'I think we should do something special,' I said after a moment. 'Just sisters. Just us girls.'
Georgina's sea green eyes sparkled with interest. 'Like what?'
I shrugged. 'I don't know. The idea just popped into my head.'
'Sisterly bonding,' Ruth mused. 'We could use a bit of that.'
Georgina squinted at a wall sconce, looking thoughtful. 'I know! We could go for a mani-pedi!'
Ruth, our superannuated flower child who had never, to my knowledge, even set foot inside a beauty parlor, let alone dipped her toes into a pedi-spa, grunted.
'With tea afterwards, and little sandwiches, or ...' Georgina bounced in her seat, looking directly at me. 'If we asked nicely, do you think Scott would spring for a weekend getaway package at Spa Paradiso?'
Although scenically (and expensively!) situated at the far end of Bay Ridge Drive on a bank overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Spa Paradiso was only three short miles from my home on Prince George Street. 'I mean away away,' I said.
'The Inn at Perry Cabin?' Ruth suggested, naming a popular luxury hotel in St Michael's on Maryland's eastern shore.
I shook my head. 'Further away than that.'
'The Mirbeau Inn and Spa in upstate New York? How about the Golden Door in Colorado?' Ruth's encyclopedic knowledge of luxury spas didn't astonish me, since she had copies of Feng Shui World, Aromatherapy Today and Tathaastu scattered all over her coffee table at home. 'Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe?' she continued.
Before she could whip out her iPhone and sign us up for some exotic hideaway in the Maldives where rooms start at $1400 per night, I raised a hand. 'Just so you know, I draw the line at treatments for the extremely rich and insane, like being massaged by snakes or elephants. Or soaking in hot tubs full of red wine.'
Georgina giggled. 'You're making that up!'
'Am not. There's a spa in Alexandria where teeny, tiny carp nibble dead skin off your toes.'
'Clearly, I lead a sheltered life,' Georgina whispered.
Several of Aunt Evelyn's friends wandered over to extend their condolences, so we squeezed hands, smiled and nodded as the orchestral strains of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' drifted out of the in-ceiling speaker directly over our heads. By the time our aunt's friends had moved on, the orchestra had segued into a piano and cello duet of 'Red Sails in the Sunset.'
As if prompted by the tune, Ruth said, 'How 'bout this? We could take a cruise. Didn't you and Paul have a fabulous time crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary Two?'
'It was divine,' I agreed with a grin. 'So classy. I should have packed my furs and brought along a pair of Irish wolfhounds with diamond-studded collars. And a man servant to walk them, of course.'
'Must have been nice,' Georgina pouted. She leaned across my lap in order to catch Ruth's eye. 'Scott and I aren't made of money, you know. And the twins are starting college in the fall.'
Ruth flapped a hand. 'After that mess with the Costa Concordia, not to mention the economy, which is tanking big-time in case you hadn't noticed, cruise lines are practically giving cruises away.' She patted my knee. 'Besides, we wouldn't be staying in the presidential suite, or whatever, like Hannah and Paul did.'
'Queen Suite, you moron,' I teased, batting her hand away. 'Paul and I had a plain vanilla stateroom with a balcony on the Queen Mary. Period. Nothing fancy.'
Ruth rolled her eyes. 'So you say, but I saw the pictures.' She began rooting around in her handbag. When she thought none of the mourners was looking, she pulled her iPhone out and swiped it on. 'Last week, one of my customers thought I looked frazzled and needed a break. We got talking about the Caribbean, so she forwarded an email about cheap cruises.' She tapped a few keys, then used her index finger to scroll quickly through the entries. 'Ah, here it is. Cruise for cheap dot com.' She squinted at the tiny screen, used her thumb and index finger to enlarge the image. 'Where do you want to go?'
I shrugged. 'Who cares? If we're going to be bonding, the destination hardly matters. It's the voyage that counts.'
'My vote goes to any place that takes U.S. dollars and they speak our language,' Georgina said.
'Quite a few cruise liners are home-ported in Baltimore these days.' Ruth leaned forward, addressing Georgina. 'The cruises listed here are incredibly cheap. Can you afford six hundred dollars?'
Georgina raised an eyebrow. 'Probably, but I'll have to discuss it with Scott first.'
'We'll all have to do that,' Ruth said. 'Husbands!'
'What about husbands?' While we had been plotting our getaway, Daddy had crept up on us.
Ruth blushed and dropped her iPhone back into the cavernous depths of her quilted handbag. 'Nothing!'
'Good. I'm relieved. I thought you were going to give me another pep talk about Neelie.'
Cornelia – nicknamed Neelie – was my widowed father's longtime companion. The Alexander girls – my sisters and I – thoroughly approved of Cornelia Gibbs and couldn't imagine why our father hadn't popped the question. It had been more than a decade since our mother died, but we knew from experience that there was little to be gained by pushing the man. There's not much you can tell a retired navy captain. They're accustomed to being in charge.
As if to prove my point, Daddy tapped his watch. 'Visiting hours are over, duty's done, and I'm starving. How about you?'
I glanced around the parlor, surprised to find it empty except for the four of us and the funeral home director, standing discreetly near the heavy oak door, hands folded, looking somber. And poor Aunt Evelyn, of course, whose last meal before her fatal heart attack had been a chicken cordon bleu served up on a white plate with gold trim in the Riverview's posh dining room, accompanied by a glass of fairly decent Chardonnay. In the shuffling off this mortal coil department, I figured that was a fine way to go.
There would be no funeral service for our aunt. She was to be cremated, as per her request, and eventually – when Arlington National Cemetery slotted it into their way-too-busy calendar – she would be buried there with her husband, Captain Frederick T. Alexander, U.S. Army, in Section 35.
'I feel almost guilty about going out for moule frites while she's ...' I nodded toward the coffin. ' ... well, you know.' I stood up and kissed my father on a cheek – warm, slightly damp and rough with stubble. 'You look exhausted.'
'I am.' He scrubbed a hand over his steel-gray curls as if trying to wake himself up, starting by stimulating his scalp. 'I'm glad we booked into a hotel tonight, rather than trying to drive back.' He linked one arm through mine and the other through Georgina's, then cocked his head in Ruth's direction. 'C'mon, Ruth. There's a bouillabaisse at the Parc with my name on it.'
It took only ten minutes to stroll from the funeral home back to our hotel at the corner of Locust and Eighteenth, directly across from Rittenhouse Square where bicycles were chained by twos and threes at intervals along the iron fencing. The evening was balmy, and the sidewalk outside the Parc Brasserie was crowded with couples dining elbow-to-elbow with their neighbors, seated on cane chairs at small round tables under burgundy-colored awnings that were so relentlessly French that even the numéro de téléphone was printed French-style – 21 55 45 22 62 – on the awning.
As the hostess escorted us inside the restaurant to a table for four, not far from the enormous zinc-surfaced bar where a variety of Belgian beer seemed to be on tap, Daddy said, 'I can't tell you how much I appreciate your support.'
'Are you kidding?' From her chair, Ruth reached up and curiously fingered the white lace curtain that hung from a brass rail over her shoulder as if she were considering whether to buy it. 'It's no secret that Aunt Evelyn and I weren't particularly close, but she was family, after all. I owe her something for that.'
'Ruth's lying to you, Daddy. She came to Philadelphia because of the molten chocolate cake with raspberry sauce you promised her.' I picked up the oversized menu, encased in plastic, turned to the back and scanned the desserts. 'As for me, I work cheap. After the moule frites, it's crème brûlée pour moi, s'il vous plaît.'
Two hours later, after desserts, cappuccinos and deeply warming glasses of Monbazillac, Daddy picked up the check and we wandered up to our rooms on the tenth floor. Daddy called it an early night, gave us each a hug, then disappeared into his own room just down the hall.
Georgina had to scan the key card three times before the light blinked green and the door decided to open but, once inside, she immediately kicked off her shoes and sprawled, spreadeagle, on the gray-green velvet sofa of the two-room suite the three of us were sharing. 'So, what about that cruise we were talking about?'
'Am I not allowed to catch my breath?' I dropped my handbag on the floor and crossed to the mahogany desk where I'd left my laptop. I flipped it open and powered it on. A few minutes later I was hunched over the screen, clicking around the website Ruth's customer had recommended. 'Do we want to sail out of New York or Baltimore?'
'Baltimore,' Georgina said without hesitation. 'Getting ourselves up to New York and back would add a couple of hundred dollars to the cost.'
'Right,' I said as I clicked on 'Baltimore' and waited for the screen to refresh. 'And I understand that parking is dirt cheap at the Baltimore Cruise Terminal, not to mention convenient.'
'How many days do you think we can afford to be away?' I asked a few moments later while scrolling down through a long listing of ships and sailing dates. 'Here's a five-day cruise to Bermuda and back, seven days to the eastern Caribbean. Here's one for nine days, twelve ...'
'Five hardly seems worth the effort.' Ruth extracted a Diet Coke from the minibar in the vestibule near the door and pulled up the tab. 'I'll have to check with my assistant, but if she can put in a few extra hours, I should be able to clear seven days, or even nine. Lord, I haven't had a proper vacation since Hutch and I went on our honeymoon. Georgina?'
Georgina shrugged. 'Depends on the dates.'
'There's a nine-day cruise that leaves in three weeks for the Eastern Caribbean,' I said. 'San Juan, St Thomas, Dominican Republic, Haiti ...'
'Who on earth would want to go to Haiti?' Georgina grumped.
'Can we afford twelve days, maybe?' I asked. 'Here's another one to San Juan, setting off on the twelfth of June, calling at St Thomas, St Maarten, Antiqua and Tortola, then back.'
'Sounds divine, but no way I could talk Scott into covering for me at home for twelve whole days,' Georgina said. 'Seven, maybe. Ten, max. He hates to cook.'
I turned around in my chair and grinned. 'That's why God invented McDonalds, Georgina.'
Excerpted from "Dark Passage"
Copyright © 2013 Marcia Talley.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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