Deep Blue Ch. 09byWine_Maker©
Chapter Nine: Legwork
I woke up in the warm and secure embrace of my husband and smiled sleepily at him. Last night, I'm not sure exactly when, we woke up to the sounds of someone else in the suite getting very lucky. At least, the lady in question sounded like she was having the time of her life. That sparked a divine early morning lovemaking bout of our own. Afterwards we curled up against each other and went back to sleep.
Without waking Ted, I gently disentangled myself, slipped out of the bed and padded quietly into the shower to get ready for the day. Twenty minutes later, I was out and dressed. I considered waking Ted up but decided I'd go scout out the suite and see about ordering breakfast first.
The first thing I noticed was that Trish was no longer on the couch. Her blanket covered the cushions but the pillow was gone. That was interesting. I wondered where, and more interestingly, who she'd slept with last night. I grinned and decided that I'd find out in good time. It sure appeared that Trish was spreading her wings, though.
There were no other sounds of movement so I figured I must be the first one up. I called room service, ordered a meal big enough for everyone in the suite, and walked from door to door, knocking and announcing that I'd ordered breakfast. Then I stepped out onto the balcony and sat down to watch the sea.
The sun was barely over the horizon and the light made everything seem perfect. The sharp scent of the sea tickled my nostrils and I lost myself in the solitude. In the ship's wake the sea was churned, white on blue. The sky was almost a match, in spirit if not color, with the thin white clouds painted on a cerulean background.
A single gull followed in the air behind us, forlornly looking for a handout. It reminded me that even if I couldn't see the land, it was somewhere close. The engines were surprisingly quiet and I gloried in the peace this wonderful scene raised in me.
My thoughts strayed to the events of last night, and I sighed to myself. Even retired, Hawk seemed to be a magnet for trouble. Although she always came out ahead, I wished for a more peaceful life for my friend. That drew another sigh from me, as I knew that Hawk would be crazy bored by a life like that. I wondered how Gretchen was able to accept that part of Hawk's life. Thinking of Gretchen made me smile, in part out of relief that she had come out of her ordeal relatively unhurt, but more because she was the really great thing that had come out of Hawk's last adventure. In fact, as I thought about it, every Hawk murder case led to someone finding their heart's desire, someone they could love, marry and grow old with. I wondered if this case would have a similar ending.
Everyone was finally coming out of their rooms when the buzzer broke my reverie and announced breakfast. Trish came out of Sandy and Keven's room and helped me take everything to the table on the balcony. I kept casting curious smiles at her, and it only took a minute for her to start blushing.
"Did you hear the screams this morning?" I asked innocently.
Her blush deepened. "Ah, yeah. I'm sorry about that."
I laughed. "Don't be. It sounded like you had a wonderful time."
She smiled at me. "I did. Keven and Sandy were terrific."
The others joined us in pairs and we all dug in. Gretchen looked like she was feeling a little better. Curiously, it was Hawk that looked like a truck had run over her. Sandy and Keven distracted me when they each gave Trish a good morning kiss that left no doubt in any of our minds that some of us had indeed gotten closer. Gretchen smiled at Trish with unabashed pleasure.
I smiled, too, as I turned back to Hawk. "Are you okay, Hawk?" I asked.
She waved an English muffin at me. "The twins gave me hell last night, I had stupid dreams about Skip, and my back is killing me. Other than that I'm fine."
"Foregoing the caffeine before bed will stop the dreams," Sandy advised, "and a heating pad and a massage at the spa will help your back. No hot tub, though. That would be dangerous for the twins."
"I don't have time for any of that," Hawk said, taking a bite of her muffin. "I've got a killer to track down and a mystery to solve."
"Are you sure that's smart, given your condition?" I asked, taking a bite of my own food. The eggs were wonderful.
Gretchen jumped in before Hawk could reply. "What would you do first?" she asked. I shot her a look of surprise, but she just gave me a tiny shake of her head. I couldn't believe that Gretchen, of all people, was okay with this.
"This all revolves around Skip," Hawk said, giving me a smug smile. "I need to start by finding out who he knew on this ship. I remember that he was meeting someone in the casino. Then there are the erotic authors: one of them may know something."
"Then Ted and I can ask the questions," I said reasonably. "I do know how to question people."
Hawk didn't look happy at that. She looked even less happy when Gretchen nodded.
"That's an excellent idea," Gretchen said. "I could go with you."
"No," Hawk bristled, "you can't. The doctor told you to take it easy and I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"Then I could join you in the spa for the massage," Gretchen purred, springing her trap. "That way you can keep your eyes on me."
Hawk flushed and everyone else laughed.
"You walked right into that one," Jo crowed. "I saw that coming a mile away."
"Very funny," Hawk muttered. "Okay, you win. I'll let you do the initial footwork. What'll everyone else be doing?"
"Well," Jo said, "I don't have any skills that would help in that, but I'll drag Earl along and we'll keep you two company, and since I'm not pregnant, I think a hot tub sounds wonderful."
"As your physician I need to keep an eye on you, Gretchen," Sandy said piously. Then she grinned. "A tub and massage does sound wonderful." She looked over at Trish. "Come with us Trish."
The girl smiled and nodded. "You guys sure know how to enjoy yourselves."
"Okay," I said with a smile at them all. "You go have a good soak, a massage and let the spa give you a mudpack while Ted and I get the questioning started. We'll try to catch up with you before you're done."
The girls all looked excited about the spa, but the men looked dubious. That sparked even more good-natured laughter and teasing. All in all, the breakfast was a resounding success. -----
An hour later, Ted and I were in the casino. It was similar to the ones in Vegas, but simultaneously more classy and less glitzy. Maybe there was a sliding scale on how that worked. The tables and fittings were all brass, dark wood and glittering crystal. The whole place just screamed "money."
If I expected it to be empty of people, I was sadly mistaken. While it was far from full, there were at least a hundred people there gambling. Looking at them, I judged that they were the last of the late night crowd, and they looked tired.
The staff was alert and professional, though. I cornered one of the waitresses and asked her how I could find out who was on duty here yesterday afternoon. She pointed me to the bartender.
When I walked up to the bar, the man smiled at me and stopped wiping the counter down with his rag. "What can I get you, Miss? Of course, I'll have to see some ID because you don't look old enough to be drinking."
I laughed at his rakish compliment. "Flatterer! I'm looking for someone who might have seen a passenger in here just before we left dock."
The man performed a bow with a flourish. "My pleasure. As to the passenger, I was here yesterday afternoon for a little while and I might be able to help you. What does this passenger look like?"
I described Skip and the bartender snapped his fingers. "I did see that guy. We weren't open to gamble yet, but he was in here meeting another man. They sat at one of the tables against the wall and were bent over like they were discussing state secrets."
We couldn't be this lucky. Nonetheless, it was hard to keep the eagerness I was feeling from coming out in my voice. "Can you describe the man he was meeting?"
The bartender shrugged. "I wasn't watching them that closely, I'm afraid. I can tell you he was normal sized and had dark hair. They were here, I don't know, maybe half an hour?"
I hid my disappointment and smiled at him. "That's been very helpful. Thank you."
Ted slipped a bill into the tips jar and escorted me back out of the casino. "That wasn't very helpful."
"Sure it was," I disagreed. "We didn't know if he was meeting a man or a woman before. Or possibly several people."
Ted shrugged. "Sure, but how can we know who he met?"
I thought furiously. "Well, if Hawk can get some help from Hans, she could get the camera footage from the casino."
Ted rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That's true, but it's a big if. What now, O great investigator?"
"We need to talk to some of the erotic authors," I said, heading for the ship's courtesy desk. "We might be able to get a list of people that signed up in advance for the awards."
The girl at the help desk checked for me, but could only tell me the name of the man that paid for the room, Stan Bombeck. I asked her to call his room for me and she pointed at the courtesy phone and dialed on her system. I picked up the phone and listened to the tones as she dialed.
A sleepy sounding man answered the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"
"Mister Bombeck," I said, "My name is Lisa Stansbury. I'm sorry to wake you so early but there was an incident last night involving one of the authors at the awards ceremony. Can I meet with you to discuss it?"
There was a muffled curse and then a sigh. "Sure. How about I meet you somewhere where I can get some food in about half an hour?"
"That's perfect," I said. "We'll be in the dining room on the main floor." I described Ted and myself so he would be able to find us and politely ended the call.
"You're a genius," Ted assured me.
I smiled in pleasure, and we went to get some coffee and wait.
Stan Bombeck came up to our table almost half an hour later. He was in his forties and a bit portly, but not an unhandsome man. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt that proclaimed the benefits of aromatherapy.
"Mrs. Stansbury?" he asked. At my nod, he sat down and shook our hands. "That coffee looks good. Do you mind me ordering something? I'm starved."
"Go right ahead," Ted assured him. "We've already eaten so don't mind us."
Shortly he had ordered and had a coffee of his own that he held up in reverence before sipping. "Coffee, the nectar of the gods." He set the cup down and sighed. "Okay, lay it on me. What did they do? Get into a fight? Moon someone? Get caught having sex on the Promenade?"
"If only it were something that easy," I sighed. "I think one of your authors was thrown overboard last night."
Stan blinked at me, obviously taken aback. "What? Thrown overboard? This is a joke, right?"
"We found Skip Niccio's jacket on the deck by the rail last night," Ted said. "It was torn to shreds and bloody. Obviously if he was thrown overboard, there wouldn't be an easy way to prove it, but it sure looks that way."
Stan looked at both of us in shock. "Well, I certainly hope you're wrong, but if anyone was going to be thrown overboard, it would be him."
I glanced at Ted and then spoke softly. "Why do you say that? I've heard he was a bit temperamental, but that's certainly not enough motive for killing someone."
"Until this cruise," Stan said, accepting his breakfast from the server, "I'd never met him in person, but I'll tell you that for all the exceptional writing he produced, he also produced a lot of ill will. Frankly, though, I don't think he was targeted for being an ass."
He dug into his food and waved his fork at us. "I really should have canceled this cruise for the ceremony with all the other trouble."
"What other trouble?" I asked, sipping my coffee.
"The murders," he said mysteriously.
"There've been more?" I asked, shocked.
Stan nodded. "If I'd heard about the one in Miami before we set sail, I'd have jumped ship myself. I can't take credit for figuring it out, though. Some reporter did. Over the last four months, according to the news report, someone has killed four erotic authors scattered all across the country. Skip would make five, if he is dead."
Ted frowned and glanced back at me. "You're taking it pretty calmly. Wouldn't such a small community notice some of their own dropping off the radar like that?"
"Just because I eat when I'm worried doesn't make me calm about it," Stan retorted to Ted. "Until right now, I wasn't sure that the reporter wasn't just wacky. All of us use aliases, and you wouldn't believe how often an author, even a well-known one, just drops off the face of the earth for a while. I can't even put the names in the paper to the screen names of any authors."
"What name do you write under?" I asked, trying to move back to a less confrontational tone.
"Night Stranger," Stan said, digging in even more deeply to his food. "Though I'd appreciate you not being too free with my identity."
"That's an interesting name," I said brightly. "I'll have to try and find some of your writing. Back to Skip. Is there anyone here that you know of that has an issue with him?"
"Something worth killing over?" he asked. Then he shook his head. "Even after that fool stunt of his last night, telling everyone he wasn't going to post the conclusion to his saga, I can't see anyone throwing him off this ship. When all is said and done, it is just a story. Given that it's posted for free, more of an internet ego thing for those of us who write, there isn't even any money involved."
"Maybe it was an accident," Ted said. "Perhaps they fought and no one ever intended to do something so drastic."
Stan nodded his head in agreement. "I can see that possibility, although I wouldn't downplay the power of ego. You see, he stepped on a lot of toes with that crazy announcement, and I can't help you with any names there, but he did single out one other author to tear to shreds in group-discussions. Right in front of him, as it turns out. If that isn't a blow to the ego, I don't know what is. Southland38. I don't know his real name but I may have his room phone or something in my room."
"If you could help us out with that, it would be a big help," I said.
"Oh, I guess I should have asked, but you're with the police, right?" he asked.
"Close," I said. "I'm an officer of the court and I'm assisting in an investigation into the incident." That was true, even if the court had no jurisdiction here.
"I see," he said, not really seeing. "If you'll give me a number, I'll call you as soon as I get back to my room."
"Perfect," I said. "We appreciate your cooperation, and we may be getting back in touch with you for more information at a later time."
"I'll be happy to help," he said. "I may not have liked Niccio, but I want to see this turn out right."
I rose to my feet and we shook hands before Ted walked out with me.
"Can't you get into trouble for that?" Ted asked.
"Yelled at, perhaps," I said with a grin. "Anyone can ask questions, and if you think about it, I didn't lie to him."
"You bent the truth into a pretzel," Ted accused me.
"Yup," I admitted with a grin, "but if you ask Hawk she'll tell you that all's fair in questioning. At least as far as deceiving the subject."
"Do you believe him?"
I shrugged. "One thing I have learned is that people lie. He did take this awfully well. Don't worry. Hawk will open him up if he's playing some kind of game. Now the next item on the agenda."
"Oh," Ted asked suspiciously, "what's that?"
"Getting into Skip's room for a look around," I said.
Ted frowned at me and shook his head. "Let Hawk try to get some leverage first."
As much as I wanted to go and look, I reluctantly decided he was right. We should run it past Hawk before I did something that drastic.
Stan called while we were discussing it and gave me the phone number to Southland38's room. I called but no one answered. I'd have to try again later. At least with the number, I could probably track down his name.
"Fine," I conceded to Ted, "you win this one, but that just means you get to go to the spa with the rest of us. I think a seaweed wrap will do you some good." I said wickedly.
"Only if you're a mermaid," he said with a kiss.
With that, we headed to the elevators to find the rest of the group.
The spa was a very modern looking affair of marble and chrome. The almost overwhelmed staff bustled through the bright and airy lobby. They escorted us into gender-separated rooms to undress after I explained we were catching up with our party. I locked my clothes and purse into a locker and pinned the key to my robe.
Once I was in the bright white terrycloth robe, a woman escorted me to the mud room. There, laid out on tables next to each other, were all the girls. Mud covered their bodies and they had slices of fruit over their eyes.
Hawk looked so funny I wished I had a camera. Her belly was like a chocolate mountain.
"Well, well. Look what we have here?" I drawled, slipping out of my robe, putting it under the remaining table, and lying down.
"Lisa?" Hawk asked, her ears perking up. "What did you find out?"
I laughed at her eagerness. "Let me get slathered down and then I'll tell you."
Hawk grumbled, but let the woman get me covered in mud without any real bitching. When my eyes were covered and the woman had left, Hawk cut loose. "Okay, she's gone. What did you find out?"
I relaxed into the table and filled them all in on what I'd learned.
"It's not going to be easy to track people down by aliases," Jo said. "They could be any of the passengers."
"It can't be impossible," I said. "Someone has been figuring out who they are. At least four of them have been tracked down and murdered, according to a news report."
"And when we find out what that method is," Hawk said, "we'll be close to knowing who the killer is."
We all lapsed into silence, letting the mud do its work. If the past were any indication, things would be crazy as soon as Hawk got her teeth into this case for real. I heard the attendant come in to check on us, but she didn't interrupt our relaxation and went back out a minute later.
I relaxed so much, I slipped into a doze and awoke with a start when the attendant tugged on the towel under me.
"Time to wash you off and send you on to the masseuse, dear," she said cheerfully. Deftly, she plucked the slices of fruit off my eyes and helped me to a sitting position. I saw that two other ladies were helping the rest of the girls.
The entire flock of us quickly washed off and wrapped in our robes before being hustled down the hall to individual massage rooms. "Would you like a masseuse or masseur, dear?" the woman asked as she started closing the door behind me.
"Masseur," I said. "I need a nice, deep massage."
"One husky man coming up," she said. "Slip under the sheet face down and he'll be here in a few minutes."
I lay on the table and put my face into the special padded rest with an opening so I could breathe. The cool cloth caressed me from my feet up to my neck, and I discovered that my skin was alive with tingles. I loved a mudpack.
The door opened and a large man in a crisp white ship-suit came in. "Good morning, I'm Claude. How would you like to be massaged today?"
"Lisa," I responded. "All over and as deep as I can stand."
"You got it," he rumbled and sprayed lotion on his hand from a bottle in the belt at his waist.
An hour later, I felt like putty. Claude had taken me at my word and dug deep into the muscles of my body until they screamed. Now that he was done, I lay for a moment in a euphoric cloud. I don't think my body had ever felt this good except after great sex. It took all my willpower to climb to my feet and slip the robe on.