'The Oenone Yacht Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. The ladies, who are lovers, go for a trip to sea on a wealthy client's motor yacht.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
"Very nice, I could get t'like this, Fay, y'know."
"I believe ya."
"—er, is that the captain, on the front bit?"
"What? Did you say something, lover?"
Fiona, catching the jaundiced expression of the woman she loved most in all the world, took immediate evasive action after her wholly inappropriate remark—knowing full well how easy it was to rile Alice sometimes.
"Here's the, er, gangway. I'll go first, so's I can catch ya if you look like falling off."
A remark, of itself, not guaranteed to instill confidence or trust or even politeness in any interlocutor.
"Fay, get your ass up that gangway before I kick you onto the dam' deck."
Having reached the foredeck, though neither woman knew this terminology, they stood before the captain of the ship—a man who looked like a sailor, conducted himself like a sailor, and was a sailor.
"Har, ye'll be fer bein' the ladies the Man tel't me o'. Guests, or whateffer." His accent was pure West of Scotland, without acknowledgement of East Coast refinement at all. "I'm Captain George MacLurrie, in command o'this vessel. Forebye ye'll find yer cabin below deck; Harrison here'll show ye the way. Drinks in hauf an 'oor, in the main saloon, if ye both please."
With this lordly salutation he turned on his heel and vanished round the corner of the forward deckhouse before either woman had a chance to as much as say hallo; leaving them in charge of a thin fortyish, balding man who was clearly the ship's steward.
"Bob Harrison, ladies; take no notice o'the Captain's bearing; he's perfectly charming, really." Bob gazed at the women for a moment, before coming out with his question. "Luggage, ladies? We are goin' on a week's voyage?"
"Oh-ah." Fiona leaping to the fore like an Amazon. "It's in our car; that DeSoto saloon down on the wharf, there. The dark red one. We'll just go back an—"
"No trouble, ma'am." Bob in his element. "I'll just take you both below to your cabin then, if you give me your car keys, I'll see to all your luggage in three shakes of a lamb's tail. Follow me."
"What does Oy-none mean, anyway?" Alice on her usual drive for facts above all. "If it means anything, that is?"
"Pronounced I-nou-ni, ma'am." Harrison full of the required information. "Apparently an ancient Greek mountain nymph, an Oread. The Owner bein' that way inclined, ladies; intellectually, I mean."
Their cabin, after Harrison had shown them to it and left them in peace, turned out to be larger than they had expected.
"Plush-I'd even go so far as resplendent." Alice enamoured of her quarters right off the bat, surveying her domain with a wide grin.
"You'll be expectin' champagne an' caviar fer lunch next."
Their luggage, what there was that could be stuffed into one small and two large suitcases, providentially now arrived in the strong hands of a couple of sailors who looked more like circus roustabouts than not, then the ladies got down to the important activity of the day.
"You packed that ship's officer's uniform with the white peaked cap, complete with trousers sportin' blue flashes down their seams, even though I expressly forbid ya to, lady?"
"Well, a gal's got'ta look her best aboard ship, lover." Alice was unembarrassed, merely raising her right eyebrow slightly. "You said I looked fine, that time I wore it t'see what it did for me, back at the condo."
"Yeah, well, there was there, an' here's here—if ya get my meanin'."
Affecting not to have heard this critical remark Alice swanned across the carpeted floor to the two bunks; standing over them, scratching her chin with a rose-tinted fingertip.
"Singles—both singles—it's gon'na be a squeeze if'n we want to get up t'some nooky-hooky any night, lover."
"Only sayin'." Alice wholly unrepentant. "One has to be utilitarian about these things nowadays, y'know."
"Forget it—what's the next step in this jamboree, then?"
"Once we're comfortably settled,—an' you've squeezed yourself in'ta your sailor-suit, ducks,—we can go an' explore this wreck, I'm thinkin'."
"I'm up for it; we'll need to find the main saloon quick, anyway—Captain MacLurrie waiting there expectantly for us to turn up for drinks, like he said."
"Oh-ah, forgot about that." Fiona musing on the strange customs of seafaring types as she unpacked her suitcase. "Bit early in the morning for drinks, ain't it? I mean, it ain't ten o'clock, yet."
"When at sea, do as the seafarers do, Fay." Alice smirking gently.
For all the MV Oenone was a small craft of its type, a private diesel-engined yacht, its interior layout was somewhat complex; two lower decks and the engine-room, all connected by three long winding corridors and a couple of tight staircases only partially open to the outside world via small circular portholes.
The first deck, under the main deck, had a series of small round portholes on either side for various cabins; but the lower deck was window-less as was, of course, the engine-room. There were also various holds and the living-quarters for the crew to consider; so, all in all, the vessel was full of life and activity from stem to stern—or back to front, as Alice unwisely said out loud in the hearing of two passing crew, thereby earning herself dirty looks in return.
"Darlin'," Fiona addressing her partner, once they were alone in the corridor again. "Y'may look like a sailor, in that get-up; you may walk like a sailor, even more so after these approaching drinks we're havin'; in course o'time ya might even come t'smell like a sailor; but, ducks, it's my sad duty t'tell ya you'll never be a sailor, no sir'ree."
"Huh, thanks mightily; now I know who to come to for succor when I'm feelin' low." Alice sarcastic as an old-time Prophet eyeing heathen deities.
Finally, more by chance than knowing where they were going as Alice snappily pointed out, they found the main saloon; now occupied by half a dozen other people, headed by Captain MacLurrie.
"Ah, ye're here, then." He not wasting time on the mere politeness's. "This here's Mr Thomas Hobbes, the vessel's owner; but ye'll be knowin' him, in course. Here's Miss Alison Sanders, an' Miss Rebekah Todd-Daly. This's Mr Greg Harding, an' Leonard Thompson. Mr Thompson writes books."
MacLurrie delivered this last encomium in the tones of a University Chancellor sending a student down for using the wrong fork at dinner; eliciting a gentle smile from the innocent recipient which MacLurrie affected not to notice.
"Havin' important business up top, this ship not runnin' it's-sel', I'll leave ye all now, t'get t'know each ithir in ye're own ways. G'bye."
With this he stalked out, like a Roman Emperor, leaving the saloon the sole business of the mere owner.
"We-ell, er, yes; Mr—I mean Captain, MacLurrie's a character, and no mistake; but a fine seaman, all the same."
Thomas Hobbes had made his pile, or rather his Grandfather had made his, in pork; Edward Hobbes having come into pigs when said animals were at a low ebb in American trade circles, and thereby made his fortune when they picked up, the markets not the pigs. James Hobbes his son having managed, more by cunning wile and treacherous underhanded dealings than straightforward administration, to hang onto most of the subsequently assembled wealth his son, Thomas, now weltered in the on-going profits of a very assured and solid business, thank you very much—he being universally acknowledged as the present-day East Coast Tinned Meat King, nonpareil.
Other appurtenances, related to the depth of his pocket, included a large house in New York, another in Delacote City, NH, yet another in Los Angeles, and a ranch in Wyoming which he kept so private no person of social rank had ever been known to have been invited there. He having developed an affinity for the sea one morning when 8 years old, his nanny having taken him down to some unnamed beach, where he had seen both a cormorant spectacularly dive for fish and a small rowing boat, in the shallows, overturn necessitating the four men and women who were its sole passengers wading ashore drenched to the skin—happy times: the end result, in the fullness of said time, being the Oenone.
"Perhaps I can make a hand at introducing you to each other in a rather more personal manner than, er, Captain MacLurrie; bless his Scottish socks?" Thomas indicating, meanwhile, a long sideboard on which were laid out several bottles and glasses. "Please, fill your glasses, with whatever you want. I know it's early yet, but nothing I find aids friendly intercourse more than shared glasses of gin, or whatever; and this ain't rot-gut, either, I may assure you—straight from the legal firms, and Scotland."
There followed a couple of minutes wherein the assorted passengers got to know each other rather more easily and quickly than an ordinary cold introductory party would have done—nothing breaking down social barriers more than the person by your side asking if you took ice, tonic, angostura bitters, or more gin in your gin.
Rebekah Todd-Daly struck up a Turkish cigarette, using a fancy silver lighter; Greg Harding ostentatiously produced a gold case from which he extracted a long thin cigar which he filled the next five minutes in carefully examining, smelling, cutting the end off, and finally lighting with an old-fashioned lucifer match which, when ignited, pervaded the small saloon with a sharp throat-catching tang; Alison Sanders took a tiny lilac-tinted pastille from a miniature enameled metal box—"Oh, only Lavender and Aniseed; medicinal, y'know", she would have allowed if asked, not going so far as to readily admit to the soupçon of cocaine delicately flavouring the remainder of the confection. Leonard Thompson on being offered Madeira, shook his head with another of his trademark gentle smiles, settling for Évian water instead. Fiona and Alice, after consultation, poured themselves a weak sherry each; which neither actually tasted during the course of the following twenty minutes of idle chat.
"I've heard of these, er, yachts before, Mr Hobbes." Alice engaging in the on-going social chit-chat with enthusiasm. "Never thought I'd get to have a cruise in one of these same steam ships, though; and such a nice one as this."
"Very kind of you to say so, Misss Drever." Thomas showing away with all the social skills of the experienced host. "But steam yacht? Don't let Captain MacLurrie hear you say that; the Oenone having been diesel-engined since birth, y'see. A delicate point in marine circles, you'll allow."
"Thanks for the warning, Mr Hobbes." Fiona smiling in her turn. "Wouldn't want to give ol' MacLurrie a nervous breakdown. Looks like a fine ship-did you order it yourself, by the by?"
"Oh, no. It was built in 1901 for a Russian Prince, who subsequently got himself assassinated before the sale went through." Hobbes frowned as he brought the vessel's history to mind. "Then it was sold to someone in margarine; but that market hit the skids two years later, and the Oenone also skidded out of his ownership as a result. Then it became the property of old Magnus Steigershuyte, who was in bricks. But being old he kicked the bucket three years later, having sailed on the ship only once. After which it was bought by a consortium; to act as a sort of small private passenger ship, offering luxury cruises to the Caribbean and even the Amazon and River Platte."
"Boat's been around the block, eh?" Alice nodding wisely.
"You could say so, yeah." Hobbes smiling at the mental picture this conjured up. "By this time it was 1914 and, what with World events, she was laid up for a while. In 1917 she was commissioned into the Coastguard and spent the next ten years in Government service. She was struck off naval records in 1928 and laid up again, awaiting probable scrapping; then I found her and purchased her at once. A little refurbishing, and here we are."
"Some history." Fiona wrinkling her brow as she looked around the saloon. "Nicely furnished, too, if I may say—is this room lined in teak?"
"Walnut; the vessel's frame is steel, though the decks and interior are mainly teak, as you say."
"Are these people here all those you talked to us about, last Thursday?" Alice having lost interest in marine history and suddenly thirsting to get down to business. "How many're here—ah, four."
"Yes, Mrs Houghton called-off at the last minute; rheumatism or something—though it might have been gout, now I come to think of it."
Fiona gave her host a cautious look as she too grasped the reins of duty.
"Yeah, umm, meb'be we ought'a save this for a private chat somewhere, eh?"
"Very wise, but I can at least introduce you to, er, the others, yes?"
With this he escorted the ladies over to where a couple of his visitors were already getting to know each other.
"Mr Harding, Miss Todd-Daly, may I introduce Miss Fiona Cartwright and Miss Alice Drever, of Delacote City, NH. They're, ah, in Government service, y'know." Hobbes being all the expert ambassador imaginable. "Miss Cartwright, Miss Drever, allow me to introduce Greg Harding; he does something unconscionably dark and magus-like in stocks and shares in NY."
"Thanks awfully, old chap." Harding replying with a gloomy look and a hunch of his wide shoulders. "Makes me sound like Butch Cassidy, thanks all the same."
"Sorry, Greg," Thomas obviously not in the least so, turning to the lady. "And here's Miss Todd-Daly, she writes romantic novels under an alias, I believe."
"I believe I do." She not at all put out by her host's clear disinterest in her line of work. "And in so doing I probably make as much in a year as you do, Tom, ha-ha."
Rocking on his heels at this attacking come-back Thomas took a gulp of air and spread his lips in what would technically be called a smile, if there had been any trace of humor present.
"Ah, well, got'ta spread the love, y'know; excuse us."
A few steps to his left and they faced the other couple, standing by the sideboard examining the display of alcohol on offer.
"Say, Tom, where's the Green Fairy?" Alison inspecting her host with a certain air of disenchantment. "Gin's all very well, but ya need something with a kick, y'know."
"Sorry, ma'am, I'll ask my steward to order some for the next voyage." Thomas still exhibiting all the expertise of the Captain of an ocean liner at his dinner-table. "Meanwhile, here's a couple of my friends I'd like fine for you both to get to know."
The usual formalities being covered for the second time they all got down to discovering what made each other tick.
"Leonard writes books, as well as Miss Todd-Daly, I believe; though I have to admit I haven't read any of his, either."
With this admission Thomas put himself inexorably in the school of the Philistines, as far as both his guests seemed to think.
"Don't apologise for his not having the grace or intellectual capacity to read your works, Leonard." Alison obviously feeling it her duty to play the shepherdess to her companion's docile sheep. "Just because you write intelligent books, that hardly anyone can understand—"
Here realising she was only digging a hole deeper for them both Alison stopped short, fixing a less than enthusiastic eye on her host.
"Who're these two dames, then?"
Opening and shutting his mouth a couple of times, Thomas once more regained his poise; but not without considerable effort—this hosting business obviously being harder than he'd previously thought.
"Don't mind Alison, ladies, she comes from old money; its shady origins lost in the dust of the ages. Suffice to say she could buy half of New York, if so minded. Alison, you remember what I said last time, two months since, when we had this sort of conversation? Well, you're doing it again."
"Har-har-har." Alison clearly already suffering from an unwise intake of alcohol; mixed with other, ahem, stimulants of a more private nature. "Who'd ya say these two trol—er, dames was, again?"
Feeling it high time, Fiona took over the cudgels of hostess, a mean light gleaming in her dark blue eyes; this as yet unnoticed by Alison.
"We're both in Government service, ma'am." Fiona favouring the young lady with a cold stare. "If we told ya exactly what we do we'd be legally required t'clap the cuffs on an' take ya in'ta custody, lockin' ya up in a smelly dark cell fer years t'come—only sayin'. Wan'na make anythin' of sich?"
Alison's intellects, already heavily under the influence of who knew what, weren't up to this sort of refined give and take; instead she drained her glass, set it down on the sideboard with a rap, and turned her back on everyone, making for the saloon's door.
"Oh, she's left us—how sad." Alice being just as catty as was necessary in the circumstances.
"Well, ah, umm, at least you've both met everyone." Feeling this remark to be at best hardly satisfactory Hobbes looked embarrassed, gazing around as if himself searching for a handy escape hatch.
"We'll remember that gal, for certain." Fiona nodding quietly, but with an infinity of unspoken meaning as she exchanged glances with her inamorata.
"Come on, Fay," Alice taking up the duties of the one in charge. "Fiona an' I got'ta get back t'our cabin an' freshen up an' what-not. See ya later, Mr Hobbes. Come on, gal."
"—er, yes, er, goodbye; see you on deck, or somewhere." Hobbes attempting to grasp the reins of service once more. "We'll be leaving port in about half an hour."
"Ah," Alice, over her shoulder as she and Fiona exited the saloon door. "the game's afoot!"
Delacote City Harbor sat on the seafront, there not being a large river to hand; but it spread itself wide and handsome, there being a multiplicity of wharves, quays, jetties, piers and docks with all the necessary ancillary appurtenances—warehouses, offices, public buildings, coastguard, customs, and suchlike edifices. Combined with motor lorries, cars, horse-drawn rigs, and a small but both noisy and dangerous single-track railroad for shunters which ran along the main quayside, the Harbor exhibited a frenzied activity all day and most of the night.
The roads, lanes, and open quays were surfaced in a variety of materials, tarmacadam, wide flagstones, flat setts, and rounded cobblestones; all having been laid in place at varying times long past, and since apparently entirely forgotten about as far as maintenance went.
The waters too were a visible entity to themselves; the sea close to the piles of the wharves showing a permanent sheen of oil on its surface which never cleared, even after storms; the surface within 200 yards of the extended seafront being generally almost invisible as a result of the heavy constant marine activity.
Delacote City Harbor was a main Destination-Departure point for cross-Atlantic traffic in the form of passenger liners of all sizes; more reasonably sized passenger ships, and lowly cargo-passenger vessels making a profit any which way they could in a strong market. There was also much trans-shipment, of persons as well as cargo, between Delacote City and New York.
All this resulting in a cacophony of noise which actively hurt the ears of those not used to such energetic business in progress. To those who wished some iota of refreshment or shelter for a time from this hazardous activity the area surrounding the docks supplied a variety of refreshment rooms; hotels for the high, middle and low; bars of substantial tone, bars of lesser politesse but far more atmosphere, if atmosphere was what you were looking for; and low dens of a frankly savage nature where only seasoned mariners had any chance of survival within their fetid dirty interiors.
Altogether the Harbor exhibited an air, energy, and general outlook equivalent to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and most of the other cities of the plain, tenfold amplified; the whole area being anathema to the City Police Force across the board.
On the seafront the surface was host, apart from the mass of freighters and passenger ships, to a vast flotilla of tugboats of all sizes, strengths, and ages—two actually still being coal-burning side-paddlers. There were a total of 5 major Company's involved in the tug business in the Harbor, along with a plethora of individually-owned boats; these latter mainly working with the smaller incoming or out-going vessels. For the Oenone, now standing-off some thirty yards from the wharf where it had been moored—well away from the frenzy of the passenger-freight docks—it's sole helper was a steamtug of the Marine Tugboat Association, showing away ostentatiously with a light green funnel inscribed with MTA in large black letters, but by way of personal name simply hiding its blushes behind the somewhat anonymous sobriquet MTA.37.
It was presently attached to the private yacht by a single cable to it's stern, hauling the yacht more or less backwards while at the same time gently swinging it round to face the open sea. A simple operation, but still fraught with many dangers, not the least being the other shipping operations going on all round; each with little, if any, concern for the others. On the yacht the owner and several of his passengers had opted for the relative safety of the forward saloon to watch the unfolding drama.
"What's that dam' awful smell?" Alice responding to the panorama outside by getting down to the concerns which actually mattered.
"Ozone." Hobbes smiled understandingly, he having had this conversation multiple times previously, with former guests. "That, and oil, engine-fuel, the general seaweedy smell of the ocean, and all the scents and balms of the Far East and Indies combined. Isn't it enchanting?"
"Smells like an open latrine that urgently needs clearing out." Alice not to be deflected from her righteous criticism. "Is it the weather, or does it always smell as bad as this?"
"This is the air of the sea, madam." Hobbes now becoming ever so slightly annoyed by this unjustified opposition to the existence he enjoyed most in life. "The air of the wharves busily moving freight from all round the world; passengers from all countries; people of all nationalities working together; a vast business concern actually going about its multifarious activities before our very eyes—"
"—and nostrils," Alice not to be comforted under any circumstances. "I'll never get this dam' smell out'ta my dress, wash it how I may. An' what's all this rocking? I can hardly keep my feet, an' I can still see an' smell the wharf, over there."
Thomas Hobbes, faced with such determined Philistinism, sighed gently then faced his duty as host like a hero.
"A necessary side issue of life, ma'am." He glancing for support to Fiona standing by Alice's left elbow. "Don't you think so, Miss Cartwright? After all, the City needs all this, going on out there—and the accompanying, er, defects are simply to be endured as in throe in a higher cause, don't you think?"
"It's a Harbor, like all the others; take 'em as they are. We leavin' this one behind pretty quick, as it is." Fiona letting her cold utilitarian persona come to the fore. "Another hour, lady, an' we'll be out at sea with nuthin' but water from horizon t'horizon; you'll feel better then, at least there'll be less of a smell, anyway."
But this observation, meant to calm and comfort, only brought another topic to the critic's mind.
"Out there, y'say?" Alice turning to Hobbes with an expression of having just recently chewed on a particularly acidic lemon. "Where the weather has full sway over everything, y'mean? What's the forecast for today? Looks like there's a strong wind blowing; does that mean heavy waves? 'Cause if it does you can just tell that tugboat captain over there t'cease an' desist, an' push us back t'the wharf, is all; an' that's my last word."
"Al," Fiona sighing even deeper than Hobbes had done. "We've been over this before; not for the first time, neither. You don't get seasick on boats. We've proved that so many times I can't count 'em. You don't get seasick so, fer God's sake, put a dam' sock in it, a'fore I does, lady."
"Oh, thanks for those words of re-assurement; that makes me feel so much better. Wait till we go back t'our cabin, I'll give you what-for then, an' no mistake."
Fiona turned to her host with what she hopefully believed to be an expression of condolence and apology.
"Sorry about that—she's rather edgy this mornin', what with one thing an' another. She'll buck up no end when the ship's well out at sea; she lovin' the vast empty wastes of the open ocean, as she does, y'know."
"Hah!" Alice not to be cheered if she could have any say in the matter. "What cereal packet did ya steal that motto from, dear?"
"Come on, lover, let's head for the other saloon an' have a warming soothing cup of tea. Bye, Mr Hobbes; she'll be her usual cheery self in an hour."
In exiting the forward saloon and passing along the open deck something came into view which bucked the irate maritime critic up no end. Although by now they had left their berthing wharf some distance in the rear they were still passing along a series of other wharves and jetties, only 50 yards or so distant on their left hand. By one of these a medium sized cargo vessel was busily dis-embarking it's forward hold. Whatever this merchandise was it was all bound up in large crates some 10 feet wide by 25 feet long. On the wharfside a high crane towered in the air; it's long outstretched steel jib arm hovering 70 feet or so over the forward hatch. What caught Alice's attention, and that of her companion as well as many others on the wharf itself, was a loud explosion followed by a whirl of steel cables, snapping noises, and a further detonation as one of the cargo crates, already hoisted almost forty feet above the ship, fell back to the deck with a mighty crash, in a shower of debris, flying shrapnel, and a cloud of rusty dust.
"Ho, that' ain't good!" Alice pausing to gaze in awe at the scene, with a wide grin as at a fairground spectacle. "Did you see that, Fay? Wow!"
"God, woman, if it had been a car crash would ya still be laughin' like a hyena? Jest askin'."
But the blonde firebrand wasn't to be side-tracked by any mealy-mouthed moral issues.
"Car crashes is sad accidents, baby—this's just downright fun. God, look at all that dust an' smoke; wonder if it's caught fire?"
Sighing, not for the first time that day, Fiona gave up the fight as being unwinnable. By now a crowd of sailors and longshoremen could be seen assembling around the scene of the incident on the ship's forward deck.
"Looks like they've got it under control; mostly, anyway." Fiona grabbed her heartmate's arm and resolutely dragged her on along the deck. "Come on, I need that cup of tea more'n you do, now."
The second saloon, iin the main superstructure, was more of a quiet restful retreat than the more open forward example; it being furnished with leather armchairs which called out for the tired traveller to sit in them. On both sides were long sofas, again of dark red leather, while at the far end was a sideboard with all the appurtenances for either tea or coffee; Fiona making a hasty bee-line for the China-tea corner of this franchise.
"Hot an' sweet comin' up in a jiffy, darlin'. How sweet d'ya like it, agin'? Five, or six lumps?"
"Har-har, lady." Alice resting her tired frame on one of the long settees, awaiting her servant's attention like a Princess in her harem. "Is this how you're gon'na get me back for a little indisposition on my part this mornin', by makin' me fat?"
"Wouldn't think of such, dear." Fiona having a ready reply to this unjustified insinuation. "You'd only burn it all off again in seconds, in one of your blind rages, is all."
"Hoh, fightin' talk?" Alice now really beginning to enjoy herself for the first time this morning. "What I wan'na kno—"
But what Alice wanted was never to be known as the door from the deck opened to reveal Rebekah Todd-Daly clothed in a form-fitting sheath dress of mother-of-pearl translucence, wholly unfitted for its present surroundings.
"God," Alice immediately side-tracked by this gorgeous sight. "is there a county ball I haven't been invited to, or what? That's beautiful, Miss Todd-Daly."
"Call me Becky, fer God's sake; an' thank you kindly, too." Rebekah seemingly on fine form this morning. "I'm only tryin' it on t'get the feel o'the thing. I'm invited to a political bunfight later next week, an' I was wonderin' if this was perhaps a trifle too, umm, showy, fer the occasion."
Brushing the simple fact aside that it was clearly too showy for any occasion, Alice rose to greet their visitor like a grand lady in her country pile.
"Here, take a seat beside me, here. Fay'll be right along with China tea—another cup an' saucer, dear,—visitors."
"Har! Feel like a maid in a P. G. Wodehouse story." But nevertheless Fiona set-to creating a third example of the beverage that soothes and settles the nerves. "Coming right up."
Two minutes later the three women sat together on the long settee balancing steaming cups on their laps and getting down to that most enjoyable of morning activities—a real old-fashioned gossip.
"So, Miss Todd-Daly, I hear you write novels." Alice aiming for the heart of the matter right off. "Any good, are they?"
"Jeez, darlin', ya don't ask novelists that sort'a thing, right off." Fiona offended as all get-out by her companion's deportment, or lack thereof. "I apologise for my friend's manners, what little of such she has, anyway; it's her upbringing, y'know."
"Call me Becky, for Goodness' sake, everyone does," Becky smiling broadly, wholly unoffended. "and as far as quality goes, d'you need quality in a romance? My editor thinks it's just a matter of squeezing in as many sex scenes as possible inside one hundred and eighty pages, plot allowing."
Alice, an avid fan of the genre, considered this statement as if it were written on parchment.
"Sex? You mean, you know—actual, er, It?"
"Oh, yeah, baby, oh, yeah." Becky showing away like a B movie actress on a roll. "Like the lady says, if ya got it, flaunt it, why not?"
Fiona here came to the rescue of her innocent companion.
"Don't be a fool, dear, Becky's exaggerating a trifle." She sighed deeply, giving Becky a disapproving look. "Becky, one thing ya got'ta know about my lady-friend here; what she reads on the printed page, she believes as gospel. It's a sad character flaw, I admits, but I'm working on her education an' there's some hope yet."
"Ha-ha! No, I don't mean the real thing, if ya get my meaning—"
It was all too apparent that both Becky's listeners did.
"—I just titillate, if you'll pardon my French, my readers' desires with various scenes where the protagonists, for want of a better term, get together an' do the lovey-dovey thing, y'know. Nuthin' outrageous."
"Oh, that's a disap—er, I mean, oh, I see." Alice very definitely disappointed, all the same.
"Perhaps a change of scener—ahh, topic's in order, ladies." Fiona coming the grande dame when it most mattered. "What d'ya think of Alison Sanders, if I may ask?"
"I think, for all her money, she's on a slippery slope t'destruction, is what I think." Becky nodding knowingly. "She drinks like a fish; she takes, umm, stimulants not of a good kind; she thinks nuthin' of expence 'cause she's got too much moolah; an', lastly, she's a straight out bitch, through an' through. How's that for a quick character sketch among friends, ladies?"
Slightly staggered by this outspoken description of their fellow passenger, Fiona and Alice both took a moment to recover.
"Ahh, just guessin'," Alice coming it the crystal ball gazer. "but you've met the lady in question previous, I'm thinkin'?"
Becky raised an exquisitely coiffured eyebrow at Alice.
"Sharp—yeah, sort of, anyway." She pressed her crimson tinted lips together primly. "She owns shares in a monthly literary magazine; an', a coupl'a months since, when it reviewed my last effusion, she made dam' sure the review was written with a goose quill dipped in venom."
"Not an aficionado of yours?" Fiona now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Dam' straight—she hates my guts, t'be clear." Becky now snarling openly, like a tigress offered the vegetarian option. "One of these semi-Empresses who require total submission and adoration. In my last book I had a character refer to New York divas who swan around like Queens of all Creation—she took it personal, an' the next number of the '5th St. Journal' ripped my novel t'shreds. We don't like each other, no sir'ree."
Somewhat lost for words Alice took a moment to recover from this verbal gas attack on someone not actually present; then rejoined the fray, though now definitely wary of the outcome.
"Never met the guy; don't know him from Adam."
Both Fiona and Alice sighed inwardly at this reprieve from further verbal viciousness; Fiona leading the way to the brighter uplands of the conversation.
"Us neither; what about Leonard Thompson? You surely know him; he bein' a brother scrib—writer, an' all?"
"There's Grub St.; there's writin'; an' then there's literature, dear friends." Becky speaking like an Old Testament Prophet just getting the bit between his teeth and raring to go to it. "That bi—that loss t'Society, Alison Sanders, thinks I'm irretrievably a lodger in a dirty garret in the former; my editor hopes I can find a comfy niche with the second group; while Leonard resides exclusively in the elite Country Club that is the latter."
Alice took a moment to digest this comment; coming to grips with each subject in order of its appearance: then spoke with what she hoped was understanding.
"A modern day rival t'Henry James or Edith Wharton, y'mean?"
"Hah! Not quite, he not sullyin' his pen with mere low fiction—he writes moral essays on the state of the nation, the World at large; and the certain knowledge that everyone's goin' t'rack an' ruin in a handbasket, come what may." Becky made a face expressing both disapproval and approval combined. "In France they call him a litterateur; in Great Britain they call him a Literary Lion; in this here good ol' USA they call him a moralist/realist/Jungian/ Utilitarianist essayist—whatever the f-ck that means—forgivin' my Spanish, ladies."
Having by this time imbibed just as much China tea as their separate systems could stand both Fiona and Alice here rose to bid their companion a fond temporary farewell.
"Got'ta go, things t'attend to." Fiona attempting a ladylike exit, with little success.
"Yeah, lots of other passengers on this tub t'annoy yet, t'day." Alice, apparently somehow drunk on China tea, grinning broadly as she followed her helpmate to the door leading onto the open deck. "See ya around."
Once out on the privacy of the as yet empty forward deck Fiona felt it proper to castigate her companion.
"Al, y're some kind'a a gal, an' that's from the heart."
"Why, thank'ee kindly, lady." Alice not in the least embarrassed. "Nicest compliment I've had all week."
They sat on comfortable leather armchairs in Thomas Hobbes's private suite; portholes on both sides giving access to light and fresh sea air, while in the plush room a deep crimson carpet made the visitor feel as if they were floating on fine mist. Hobbes himself sat on a third armchair with a small table by his left hand loaded with all the appurtenances of a tobacco pipe aficionado, though he presently ignored these in favour of conversation with his guests.
"What time are we—ah, three-thirty, just past; seven bells here at sea." He drew his shirtcuff back over his wrist and focused on the ladies. "So, what do you think?"
Alice took the hook in an instant.
"Seven bells? Three-thirty? Ah, I see." When, of course, actually she didn't. "We was wondering what all the bell-ringing was, goin' on all day."
"It's a little old-fashioned, I must admit; but I like to keep the old customs going, y'know." Hobbes smiled gently, as if caught out at a childish hobby. "Anyway, to business."
"Yeah, well," Fiona nodding sagely at this return to the matters which really mattered. "as to that, not much, I'm afraid—"
"—early days, yet." Alice butting in, as was her usual routine. "In fact, still the first day,—umm."
"Thank you, Al." Fiona's tone one of a strict schoolmistress with an axe to grind. "Well, as far as your guests go, Mr Hobbes, we haven't had enough time to judge yet. What we want is the chance to engage 'em all in conversation—"
"—give 'em all the old third degree, in fact. Fay's great that way, y'know."
"Al, zip it, please." Fiona sighing quietly. "Mr Hobbes, we want to get right down to brass tacks with them all; but it'll take time, meb'be a coupl'a more days, if not longer."
"I appreciate that, certainly." Hobbes nodded in his turn, though glancing longingly at his pipe table. "This cruise is scheduled for seven days—out to the Grand Banks and back, which may help. One of the party on board right now—as we've previously discussed—is blackmailing my wife, for that little incident she was involved in four years back. What I want to know is—which person is it?"
"Hope you're not harbouring hopes of knocking them on the head with a belaying pin or stabbing 'em with a marlin spike, Mr Hobbes; then throwing them overboard?" Alice giving the seaman the benefit of her No.1 dire look. "Fay an' I won't countenance that, no-way. Highly unprofessional, as well as being completely illegal."
Hobbes sat back in his chair, as if stunned by this accusation; but recovered valiantly.
"Hah, the idea has it's merits, though." He attempted a smile, which failed on all levels. "Only joking; of course I ain't—I mean I'm not going to exact justice on the hoof, as it were—that's what the Courts are for. All I want is to know who—that's all. The rest I'll happily leave to the Justice system."
Mollified by this concession Alice sat more comfortably herself, looking to her heartmate to continue the debate.
"Ah, well, yes," Fiona caught off-guard, as so often by her revered better half. "we'll need time, to get to know the guests as individuals. Find out what kind'a personalities they own to, an' that sort'a thing."
"—yeah, being experts it shouldn't take us long to pinpoint who's got a shady past." Alice grinning with all the certainty of the trained private investigator. "Stands out a mile, when you know what to look for. Then a few more pointed questions, and we'll have them on the tip of our spears, as it were—no belaying pins necessary, mind."
"Al, fer God's sake give the dam' belayin' pins a rest; y'ain't funny anymore."
"No, no," Hobbes owning to his darker thoughts on the matter. "the idea did indeed occur to me, some days ago; but I gave it up as smelling too much of Robert Louis Stevenson, y'know."
Feeling pretty sure the present conversation had now reached its limits Fiona rose, staring pointedly at her companion, who finally took the hint, too.
"Come on, Al, we'll be about our business, then." Fiona giving the skipper of the ship a last glance as they headed for the door to the outside deck. "See ya at dinner, or whenever, Mr Hobbes."
"Yes, by all means, goodbye."
"Bye, Mr Hobbes." Alice no whit put out, though Fiona now had her right elbow in an armlock. "Hey, sister, what's with the rough stuff; I ain't even got a parkin' ticket."
"Isn't she a lark, Mr Hobbes; come on, Al, Mr Hobbes's got things t'do, bein'; the ship's owner, an' all."
"Yeah, sure—'bye, Cap!"
The yacht Oenone was by now, a full day after leaving harbour, well out to sea; which meant, here in the North Atlantic, even on a calm day there was still a powerful rolling swell, guaranteed to make landlubbers feel queasy; and, although by no means sick as such, Alice at least was by no means feeling fighting fit and ready for anything: this making itself plain to one and all at breakfast that morning, as she faced her heaped plate.
"What the fu-, er, I mean, what in hell's this cra-, er, stuff?"
Fiona, who had started digging-in as soon as her rear hit the seat by the table, glanced casually across at her companion's plate.
"Grilled tomatoes, devilled kidneys, poached eggs, an' spicy rice. All good stuff, gal."
Alice was obviously not of her lover's way of thinking.
"It all looks mighty like someone's just been sick all over the plate, just before I sat down." She taking no prisoners in the culinary critique stakes. "An' lookin' at it makes me wan'na follow suit."
"Quit carpin', gal." Fiona spoke, almost clearly, through a mouthful of poached egg. "Ful'la calories an' vitamins, an' oils, an' what-all else—dam' good fer a growin' gal—wolf it down, lady; you'll thank me fer it, later."
In response Alice silently pushed her plate aside, leaned over the table to corral a slice of dry toast from the rack; then sat back, nibbling this gastronomic classic in a forbidding manner, frowning darkly the while.
The other breakfasters' present seemed to be evenly split between those having similar problems in lowering the comestibles to where they were most needed and would do the most good, and those who were shoveling-up their food like starving refugees. Captain MacLurrie sat at the head of the table wolfing down, with apparent relish and the aid of a soup-spoon, a thick grey gooey substance contained in a deep soup-dish, over the glistening surface of which he had shaken an extraordinary amount of salt.
Thomas Hobbes, possibly as the result of sitting to the Captain's right and so being a close spectator of this activity, sat contemplating two long fat fried sausages and a lonely fried egg on his own plate with the air of someone who had, just the day before, decided to become a vegetarian.
Rebekah Todd-Daly, apparently full of verve and the joys of Spring, sat quietly hoovering up a heaped plate of kedgeree with the focused intent of the fanatic. To her left Leonard Thompson was engaged with a bloater, using his knife and fork to de-bone the corpse with all the intensity of a surgeon working on a delicate operation. On his left Greg Harding munched away at a deep plate of mixed nuts, raisins, strawberries, and tiny flakes of oats, all floating in a lake of, slightly discoloured, milk.
"Discovered it in Switzerland, y'know." He had addressed the astonished throng at the table when it first appeared, carried by the steward Harrison. "Bucks you up no end, fills you with energy, an' the capability of facing the day like a man—or, of course, a woman, as depends."
No-one else had, however, accepted his offer of sharing in this curious mixture of opposites.
Alison Sanders, sitting to Alice's right, looked as if she had endured a rough night; her eyes glowing an even lighter blue above dark almost black shadows under each orb; her face a curious greyish tone, and her general temperament that of the proverbial cat on a hot metal roof. In front of her on her plate she stared, almost cataleptically, into the face of a poached cod; each looking with almost similar mien at the other, and with almost the same level of sparking life.
"You alright, Alison?" Fiona feeling it necessary to broach the subject, before they had a real corpse on their hands.
"Yeah, yeah, leave me alone." Alison groaned melodramatically, then glanced around the table at her compeers. "Just had too much rotgut hooch, in my cabin, last night, is all."
This remark caught Captain MacLurrie's attention, at the other end of the table.
"Ne'er drink alone, madam." He nodding like an Old Testament Prophet castigating his followers. "Always leads, as quick as ye likes, t'the De'il's ante-chamber, wi'oot ony recourse t'a volte-face at the last meen'it. Always drink whusky in a group, madam; tak' my word on it, an' ye'll live, like ma own gran'dam, t'a hunnerd an' two."
Having delivered this homily, from a stern and righteous family history, he quietly leaned over his plate and re-commenced battle with his porage, like a hero.
The stern, or butt-end as Alice poetically described it, of the yacht seemed to roll with even more determination than the main body of the boat; at least this was Alice's firm opinion.
"Jeez, it dam' well rolls t'one side, then rolls over an' does the same on the other side." She gripped the stern-rail as if it were a lifeline. "Look at all this bloody water; all dark grey, an' lookin' as cold as hell. What in hell'r we doin' out here?"
"Earnin' a rich reward for services rendered, baby, is what." Fiona focusing on the point that mattered. "We finger Hobbes's blackmailer, an' return t'Delacote City as rich as—as Mrs Rockefeller."
"Hah, but is losing your bodily health, meb'be forever, worth it, lover?"
"God, get a grip, lady. Come on, let's take a hike t'the bows, an' watch where we're goin', rather than where we've just been."
The high foremast stood tall just in front of the superstructure, from which a long stretch of bow reached forward. The bulwarks were just over waist-high and made of white-painted steel plate. With the sea being calm, apart from the long roll of the swell, there were no sheets of white water slashing over the bows to drench the women as they stood there.
"Just as much dam' water here, as back'aways." Alice determined not to be hauled out of the blues at any price.
"At least we got the place to ourselves." Fiona pinpointing the positive aspect of the position. "Let's us have a private confab without eaves-droppers. So, what's your lay on the matter?"
"I think we should collar someone at random—don't matter a dam' who—hand 'em over to Hobbes with assurances they're the real true goods, an' let him keel-haul the victim, or knock them on the head with a belaying-pin, or just chuck them overboard with directions which way t'swim if they want t'return t'the good ol' States under their own power; that's what I thinks, then we can turn this tub around an' go home as quick's y'like."
Fiona paused to gaze with some anxiety at her lover, as they leaned on the top edge of the bulwark. Alice's short hair was blowing prettily in the breeze, and she seemed, by her looks and bright eyes, to be in the best of health, but there you were, who's to know these things.
"Let's go through everybody, one by one—"
"Miss Sanders," Fiona driving ahead with stern authority. "she ain't the perp, that's as clear as sunshine."
"For why?" Alice being drawn into the debate against her better instincts.
"She's an addict to about every dam' drug on the market, is why; and she ain't got any verifiable connection to Mrs Hobbes, any which way, which is also consequent t'the matter under discussion."
"Then," Fiona proceeding like a steam train with the right-of-way. "comes Leonard Thompson—he ain't it, either."
"Do tell, lover."
"He's an intellectual; lives in the higher reaches of academia like it was a world of its own." Fiona pursed her lips sadly. "Notice we've been on this boat nearly a day and a half so far, an' he ain't so much as given either of us the time o' day?"
"—'cause he hardly knows we're here, at all; or anyone else, for that matter." Fiona grinned slightly. "Ask him, at dinner or somewhere, an' he'll probably say he's at home or visiting a friend's apartment—doesn't have a clue he's aboard ship well out at sea."
"Ah, so intellectual he's a fool? Yeah, I get you, baby. Who's that leave, then?"
Shrugging her shoulders at her partner's attitude Fiona carried on down the list of suspects.
"Mr Harding's a cool one." Fiona frowned as she considered the man. "Works on the Stock Exchange in Wall Street—"
"Well, that marks him as a villain in anyone's book, right off, don't it." Alice nodded, as one who had arrived at the conclusion of a long-held problem. "Shall I tell Hobbes, or will you?"
"Not so fast, ducks," Fiona put out a hand to gently hold her lover's shoulder, just in case. "Thinking something, an' proving it true, are two different things; ain't ya learned anything in all these years you've been a 'tec?"
Alice turned with a light scornful smirk to her, on most days, revered partner.
"Got'cha, babe—God, you're so easy." She gave Fiona a light jab in the lower ribs, grinning widely. "OK, so we keep Harding on the suspect's list for now—who's left?"
"Miss Todd-Daly." Fiona frowned once more, making an inward note to use a double amount of face-cream that evening before going to bed. "Writes romantic novels—"
"—under an assumed name,—Rose Jenkins." Alice, getting into the swing of the thing for the first time that morning, visibly bucked-up. "That's suspicious as all get-out, for a start, ain't it?"
"Not really; you'd be amazed how many authors, all over the shop, are scared to write under their own names," Fiona shaking her head at the mysterious temperaments of the race in question. "Men writing under women's names; women writing as men; and all those who keep their own sex, but hide themselves behind other monikers."
"Iirrph." Alice expressing her disinterest in the subject, and bringing the conversation back on topic. "So, so far we're looking at Todd-Daly, or Harding as the possible perp?"
"That sums it up, yep."
"Well, what say we take an hour out, right now," Alice standing straight and tall, more or less; all thought of the sea cast aside for the greater interest of the game now being played out aboard the yacht. "You take Harding, I'll stick to Todd-Daly's side for a while; let's see what we can squeeze out'ta either of 'em. I saw Harding in the aft saloon, all on his lonesome; off you go, dear. I think Todd-Daly's down in her cabin; I'll go an' roust her out, an' engage her in idle chit-chat for a while; you never know."
" 'Miss Cameron Considers'."
"Miss Cameron, what does she consider? An' why, come t'that?"
"Miss Drever, I fancy we are not communicating on quite the same level." Rebekah Todd-Daly, faced with someone who had just frankly admitted to never having read any of her works, was a little at sea in more ways than the present. "It's only a title, meant to give the reader an idea of the general direction of the story's plot, and introduce the heroine, you see."
Sadly, it was scintillatingly clear Alice did not see, nor wanted to.
"How many o'these thing—er, books, have you written so far, Miss Todd-Daly?"
The famous author, relatively speaking anyway if you resided in the older states on the East Coast, sat back on her high-backed uncomfortable chair in her cabin, gazing at her visitor with ever-weakening liking.
"Nine, if mere sales figures mean anything; though they are finally beginning to create an audience, if I say so myself."
It seemed certain Alice did think Rebekah was speaking solely on her own behalf, but one mustn't be rude—especially at sea on a small yacht.
"Oh, thought it was mo—er, sell well, do they?"
"I live in an old house—by which I mean a classic of its style—in Todmorton, if that pinpoints my social standing any clearer for you, Miss Drever."
Realising at this point she was not making the friendly, all-gal's-together impression she wished to, Alice sat forward in her own chair and started spreading sweetness and light wholesale throughout the small cabin.
"It must be a great, uum, joy for you, to be able to bring happiness to so many readers, Miss Todd-Daly—"
"Jane, Jane Smith; that's my real name, if you're truly interested in the facts of the matter."
"I, er, mean, what did you just say, Miss, er,—Miss, er,—"
Seeing it was time for full open-ness on her part the author in question sighed heavily and made free with her personal antecedents.
"My actual, real, name is Jane Smith." She shrugged her shoulders at her mouth-agape listener. "For reasons which need not be gone into I thought it better, some years since, to face the world as Rebekah Todd-Daly. One thing led to another, and when I started writing novels my publisher suggested that, for sales reasons, I should choose a nom-de-plume."
"—which ended up being the now ubiquitous Rose Jenkins. You seem much interested in my, hum, literary disguises, Miss Drever?"
A long silent pause, as of Time growing older, wrapped the interior of the cabin in its grip for an appreciable period, as Alice grappled with this information.
"Disguises? In the plural, Miss, er,—"
"Yes, if you must know—though I fail to see why you should—I also write detective novels, as Bruce Carrington. Twenty-one so far; the next due out in a month's time. I make a pretty penny from those, too. More than from my mainstream novels as Miss Jenkins, if the truth be told."
Now it was time for the lady author to lose patience.
"Will you, for pity's sake, stop saying what?" The lady of many names shook her head disapprovingly. "It's merely a matter of sales and consumption—you give the reader what they want and, if it has any merit at all, they hoover it up like their breakfast corn-flakes; you can't lose, if you have any talent at all. So there we are."
"Well, I'll be dam'med."
"Humph, so nice of you to drop in, Miss Drever; let me escort you to the door—goodbye, goodbye."
Fiona was having even less success with Greg Harding.
"It's always better to be a bull than a bear, Miss Cartwright." So said the famous stock market engineer; sitting at a table in the stern saloon, otherwise empty. "Bull's go up, whilst bears go down. Never wise to be part of a falling trend, Miss Cartwright; getting out when you see the first signs, that's the secret of stock-market transactions, Miss Cartwright. Want to buy in, anywhere?"
Somewhat dazed by the constant repetition of her given name Fiona stared hypnotized at the large man opposite her.
"Not but what I won't admit it ain't precisely a buyin' market at the present moment, ma'am." Harding now off on a track he loved. "Stocks bein', by their very natur', delicate flowers, allus' apt ter dryin' up at a moment's notice an' thereby fallin' dead at yer feet."
"But there's some, stocks I mean, that have a pretty fair constant to 'em." Here spoke the expert in the field. "Banks, fer instance—an' oil companies. Now, if'n you really want to be in at the foundation of a healthy profit, ma'am, I can't do fairer than advise Quadruple Fields Composite Inc; they're on top form at the moment; twenty thousand'll get you, easy, five an' a half percent annual, without lifting a hair to push 'em along. Now, what could be better than that? Money, profit in fact, for nothing, ma'am."
"Don't get me wrong, ma'am." Harding now in a world of his own. "I'm a man of quite simple tastes an' needs; not wantin' ter go the whole hog jest fer the thrill o'the thing. If you get in'ta stocks fer the thrill o'the thing you'll pretty soon end up like that fella in Blighty, some years since. Once the head of a big concern, simply rollin' in the moolah; now, breaking stones in the prison quarry somewhere in Merrie England, ha-ha! No, you got'ta keep your mind sharp on the things that matter, ma'am. Take me, fer instance, did I tell you I'm a man of simple tastes?"
"Nothing over-the-top as far as my tastes go, ma'am." Harding here paused for a second to inwardly reflect on the simplicity of his social and personal life. "Give me pate-de-foie-gras for breakfast, with a flute of champagne; mushrooms in aspic, Cottilon-de-Meurville, Premier cru, and thirty year old Bleu d'Auvergne cheese fer lunch; and a simple hash of black truffles, asparagus tips, and Honduran saffron rice for dinner, and I'll thank you for such rough an' ready fare. That's me, simple as a backwoodsman, me."
Fiona, completely stone-walled, grinned widely, nodded her head, stood up, and made as ladylike an exit as was left to her, in the circumstances.
"Well, that seems to have gone as well as we could'a expected."
Alice, the women being back in their private cabin, was moodily reflecting on their recent interviews.
Fiona made a face, not of happiness, as she poured them both cups of coffee, made on the small stove in the tiny kitchen facility incident to each of the fine cabins on the yacht.
"So, where does this leave us, suspect-wise, that is?"
"Up a gum tree?"
"Hah, pretty much, sis."
A lengthy pause, one with plenty of past experience, filtered into the small cabin, making itself comfortably at home—then Fiona made an effort and came back to life.
"No-one." Alice on top of this idiotic question.
"What about Mrs Houghton?"
"Who? Oh, wait a minute—yeah, Mrs Houghton. She ain't here, called off sick, or something, didn't she?"
"We can still suspect her." Fiona having nothing to do with such sloppy thinking at this late stage. "You know what, lover?"
"If this was a fiction story, what we're doin' here, people'd be complaining about the plot, lack thereof, by now."
"Ha-ha, thank God we're solidly in the real world, then." Alice always aware of the certainties of existence. "So, what about the Houghton? We can't interview her, out here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and she comfy as hell back home in NY."
Fiona, never at a loss, reached over to the small table near their wide bed.
"Here's her file, packed with all the information Hobbes could offer, an' you could find out. Ought'a be something in it we can use."
"Took me three days on the telephone from morn t'night, t'get that file filled up, y'know." Alice expressing a certain level of self-pity at the memory.
"Yeah, yeah, so what." Fiona too far into her cold Holmes-like consideration of the facts to return to normal human feelings at such short notice. "Let's see—born uummphy-um. Education—aarrh University. Work—eermmph, would ya look at that; who'd a'thought?—"
"Nuthin'." Fiona continued her close perusal of the thin pages, crackling them as she turned them over. "Well, well, well.—"
"Oh, nuthin' important." Fiona deep in the file, hardly noticing her companion's increasing annoyance. "Spent some time iirph aah uum; two years haa-ah, who'd a guessed; now residing in NY, doin' eermph-uum-phiirph, ya don't say. This gal gets about, y'know."
"Fay, if I have to say What? just one more time, I'm gon'na hit you over the head with the frying-pan, just so you know."
"Eh, what?—I mean wha—, that is, did ya say something, dear?"
"Fay, love of my life, but God knows why, how suspicious is Houghton? A little? A mite? A handful? A cartload? Or guiltier than Capone an' Luciano combined? Tell me, for goodness' sake."
"Oh, is that all?"
Faced with a situation in which only one course was left open to her Alice, never one to hold back in a crisis, took it.
The physical particulars about the Grand Banks are that, if you were not aware of such, you wouldn't know you were there, probably.
"Y'sure, Mr Hobbes?"
Alice and Fiona, the next morning, stood on the bow deck leaning idly against the bulwark gazing out at a panorama of cold grey water stretching to the horizon in every direction.
"Nothing but bare water, all round." Alice continuing her criticism of the view on offer that chilly early morning. "Not another ship or boat t'be seen anywhere. Why, we might as well be out in the middle of the Atlanti—oh."
"Quite, Miss Drever." Hobbes had been the host to many other guests in this same situation on his steam yacht; but not one like Alice Drever, so far. He wondered if he liked the new experience, or not. "Newfoundland's just nor-west of us, as we sit now. Yes, the sea all round, for miles in every direction, is much shallower than the normal ocean bed—some fifty to three hundred feet, generally."
"Deep enough." Fiona curling a lip as she spoke.
"Sure, but not the thousands of feet to be found everywhere else over the ocean." Hobbes not to be put off by this uneducated view. "Why, it's a paddling pool, compared to the rest of the ocean. The currents bring nutrients to the surface, as well; which means it's a wonderful place for big-time fishing. Everyone comes here to fish—the Americans, Canadians, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and the Brits."
"Such a crowd, in fact, right now there's not a dam' vessel t'be seen anywhere in sight." Alice being catty, as by nature bound.
"These things are all relative, ma'am." Hobbes reverting to a polite sniffiness as reply. "Come the right seasons and you could almost cross several hundreds of yards of the sea's surface without getting your boots wet, vessel to vessel."
"Har." Fiona, for one, not convinced by this tall tale.
"The joys of Nature aside, what few of such there are—not many by the present looks of things—we got some information to tell you, Mr Hobbes." Alice steering the conversation to a topic the women were actually interested in.
"Oh, the, er, blackmailer, you mean?" Hobbes assumed a serious expression, obviously worried about what was to come. "You've found out which, umm, guest is responsible? Who?"
"No-one on your yacht, as we stand today, Mr Hobbes." Fiona hitting the red roundel in the centre of the target first try.
"God, everyone says What? on this dam' boat." Alice peeved as all get-out; ignoring the fact she herself was the major culprit of such. "Mrs Houghton."
"Jeez, Mrs Houghton's the blackmailer." Alice shook her head dismissively. "Fay an' I went over her file last evening, and what we deduced from it's contents is the certain fact she's the only one with opportunity, motive, an' desire to do the dirty on your wife."
Hobbes stood rigidly, gazing over the surface of the sea in an abstracted manner, hardly aware of where he was or who was with him; then he came-to once more.
"I'm amazed; last person in the world I'd have suspected. Why'd she do it, if I may ask?"
"Oh, the usual reasons—petty jealousy," Alice enumerated them on her fingers. "a desire to get back at your wife for alleged criticisms, a lust for power, and finally, the need for ready money. Everything you could ask for in a main-line blackmailer, in fact."
"And you are both absolutely sure of this?" Hobbes' cautionary character asserting itself as the news filtered through to his consciousness. "Wouldn't want to make a mistake in such a serious affair, you know; might mean thousands in damages, if she's innocent."
"Take it from us, Mr Hobbes, Mrs Houghton hasn't been innocent, of anything, since she was sixteen years old, an' that wasn't yesterday, even." Fiona saying it like it was, just for clarity.
"Well, well. Well, well, well."
Fiona stood to the right of the steering-wheel, Alice to the left, Mr Hobbes behind Fiona, and Captain MacLurrie prominently by the steersman's side; looking like the state of Officialdom personified.
"Aye, ma'am, these here are the Grrrand Banks, all awa tae the horizon all rrroond." Given the position of host to his guests on the bridge his natural Scottish brogue had taken over control with a vengeance. "There's cod, there's haddock, there's herring—mighty fine pickled herrring my ma used t'make fer oor breakfasts as cheeldren, I remember them fine—an' there's swordfish, if yer tastes gae that wa', an' scallops, crab, an' lobster galorre, too. Aye, there's some exceelent fishing tae be had oot here on the Banks, leddies. Are ye, by ony chance, fishers' yersel's, may I ask?"
Caught short, added to the need to be polite in trying circumstances as the sea was expressing its nature more boisterously that morning, Fiona and Alice exchanged a glance of apprehension before Fiona took courage to reply.
"Can't say we are, Captain." She paused to take a deep breath, rather than throw up as the heaving deck seemed intent on making her. "Aah, no, we've not had the opportunity to, umm, take time off to fish, at all."
"Weel, ye'll enjoy the next two days, then." Captain MacLurrie beaming from cheek to cheek. "Mr Hobbes, here, havin' jes' tel't me we'll be spendin' the next twa days anchored here or nearby; whiles you guests tak the opportunity tae catch a few feesh yersel's. Och, it'll be a grrrand beet o'sport, I'm thinkin', pardon the pun, leddies. Aye."
Fiona looked at Alice.
Alice looked at Fiona.
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.