joan merrill, author of the Casey McKie mysteries 
murder and mayhem in the world of jazz
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And All That Sea, sample chapter

Wet. Cold. Paddle, kick. No, tread water. Remember Jaws. Don’t splash. Getting colder. Teeth chattering. So tired. Keep legs moving. Dark. What’s that noise? Are they coming back? Can’t see. Stay calm. What are those lights? Jesus, the lights are getting smaller. Shivering. Cold. Very tired. Please, ship, turn around. Please, god. Don’t leave me alone in the dark.
     “Casey McKie. Casey McKie. Please come to the purser’s office.”
     The disembodied voice woke me and I sat up momentarily confused, my heart pounding, trying to stop panting like a marathon runner.Jesus, what a dream. Dream, hell. That was a frigging nightmare. I took a deep breath, wondering why I was I having a nightmare when I couldn’t be more relaxed and carefree. When all I could see was the dark blue sea, its gently lapping waves, the cloudless, light blue sky. Me, who never had enough money for such a luxury, on my first cruise. But tell that to my racing pulse. Tell that to the mind that conjures up nightmares.
     “Casey McKie. Casey McKie. Please come to the purser’s office.”
     Why are they calling me? The only person I knew on board was Dee and, as far as I knew, she was in her stateroom, resting up for her gig tonight.
     "Casey McKie. Casey McKie. Please come to the purser’s office.”
     Okay, for crissake. I dragged myself off the lounge chair, grabbed my towel, and canvas carryall, slipped into my sandals and headed for the ship’s interior. I was on Deck Nine, signs telling me the purser’s office was on the main deck. But I’d be damned if I’d take the quick way down. I’d vowed to use stairs only while on shipboard, never the elevator. With all the food they served you, I needed all the exercise I could get.
     I wondered what the hell they wanted. Maybe I’d forgotten to sign for my Cuba libre last night. I hoped it was nothing to do with Dee being sick or worse. She and I had just been through a skirmish with a serial killer and I wasn’t ready for anything like that again. At least not until this R&R was over.
I’d been to the purser’s office yesterday asking about shore excursions. Maybe they had some information for me. I don’t remember signing up for anything.
     Maybe all this bliss was damaging my brain.
     I spoke to the Nordic-looking woman behind the counter. “I’m Casey McKie. You called me?”
     Her smile disappeared, her expression turning grave. Glancing at the passengers conversing with another agent, she spoke in a low tone, her voice slightly accented.
     “Would you come with me, please?” She directed me to enter a door to her right, with a plate warning would-be intruders: Crew Only.
     I moved to the left of the counter toward the door. My imagination began working overtime. Had something happened to Dee? A shiver of fear ran through me. Not again. I wasn’t ready for another life-threatening situation. I pulled my shirt tighter around me.
      Seated at a desk covered by a cluster of papers was a man of about fifty, wearing a navy blue uniform emblazoned with gold buttons, his brown wavy hair touched with gray. His dark blue eyes were grave, as though the responsibility for managing this huge ship weighed heavily upon him.
      He stood, waving me to the chair opposite his.
     “Ms. McKie?” He held out his hand. “Captain Vanderbeck. Please take a seat.”
      I complied, my gaze meeting his, my nerves jangling. ‘Yes, what is it? Is there some kind of problem?”
       It had to be something about Dee. Why else would the ship’s captain want to see me?
      His face was expressionless, his tone even. “I understand you’re a private investigator.”
      "Yes, that’s right?” What the hell does he want? I was an anxious as a cat on a you-know-what. “Can you please tell me what this is about?”
      His lips formed a thin smile. “Dee Jefferson speaks very highly of you.”
      My muscles relaxed. It doesn’t sound like Dee is hurt. Maybe someone has been pilfering trinkets from the staterooms and he wanted me to catch the culprit. I waited for him to get to the point.
      Leaning back in his chair, he glanced down at the papers on his desk, a frown wrinkling his forehead. “We have a rather delicate problem and would like your assistance.”
      Like the woman at the purser’s desk, he had a slight accent. Dutch, I suppose. This was, after all, the Royal Amsterdam Cruise Line. He looked me in the eyes, his facial muscles tightening.
       I sat up straighter, tensing for what would follow. He breathed in deeply. “I’m afraid one of our passengers has gone missing.”
       Great, a snake had just slithered into paradise.
       “We don’t want to alarm our guests by making an announcement. We are asking you to make some quiet inquiries. See if you can find out what happened.” He slumped back in his chair, seemingly relieved that he had finally spit it out.
       I peered directly in his eyes. “Someone missing? How do you know?”
       He met my gaze. “Her bed hadn’t been slept in last night. We consulted her traveling companions - her secretary and her maid - and neither knows her whereabouts –” He trailed off, his gaze shifting to the clock affixed to his office wall.
       I frowned. “Could she have spent the night with someone? Sometimes on these cruises –”
       He interrupted, shaking his head vigorously. “No, no, she is an older woman, and not the sort –”
       If he thinks lust ceases with age, he’s never heard of what goes on in retirement homes.
      "You’ve searched the ship, I suppose.”
       His voice was impatient. “Yes, yes, of course.”
       “Do you have any idea what happened to her?”
      He sighed deeply. “Well, we do know she got off at George Town, the port at Grand Cayman, but we’re not sure she returned to the ship. She may have stayed there.”
      “But don’t you check passengers when they leave and return?”
      He sighed. “Yes, they have ID cards to show, but on this particular day, our scanner was jammed.”
      “Do people do that? Decide not to return to the ship?”
       He frowned. “Not usually. But the countess has many friends and she may have met up with someone she knows at Grand Cayman. Her secretary said she’s done that sort of thing before.”
      My eyebrows rose. “The countess?”
      A slight smile formed on his lips. “Yes, that’s how she is known. She’s staying in the King Philip Suite.”
      I’d heard of that stateroom; it was the most expensive and elegant accommodation on board. “She’s wealthy, I take it.”
     His gaze shifted to the top of his desk, resting on the stacks of papers and folders. “Yes. Very.” She was kidnapped was my next thought. His, too, I imagined.
      I peered into his impassive face. “Would she leave her companions and luggage just like that?”
      He shrugged. “It’s possible. Apparently, she’s impulsive, according to her secretary. She could catch up with us at the next port.”
      "You mean charter a boat or plane?”
      The captain nodded, his expression tense.
       I thought this was wishful thinking. He didn’t want to believe something happened to one of his passengers and have to admit to lax security.
       I stared at his hands, which were clutched together on the desk top. “I see. She could afford it. And people get off the ship and rejoin it later?”
       “Yes, occasionally. People who’ve missed the ship for some reason. They meet us at the next port."
       He spoke with some animation, but his tone was unconvincing. He was in a pickle and didn’t want to face it.
       “Her secretary believes that’s what she did."
       I shifted in my chair. “Who knows she’s missing?”
       “Myself, her steward, Dirk Guundersen, who’s in charge of ship’s security, her secretary, her maid, Dee Jefferson and now you.”
       My mouth dropped open at hearing Dee’s name. “How did Dee Jefferson get involved?”
       He cleared his throat. “Well, we knew you were a private investigator and a friend of hers. We asked her about you.”
       I smiled. They checked me out. I wondered why she hadn’t mentioned it to me.
       “Well, I don’t know what I can do. You say you’ve searched the ship and it sounds as though you think she might have stayed ashore. But you have to consider she may have been kidnapped. Have you contacted the island police or the FBI?”
      He grimaced. “I asked the Grand Cayman police if they had any unclaimed bodies or have reports of a mugging. But no FBI; we want to handle this ourselves. We have no real evidence of foul play. We haven’t heard from anyone demanding ransom. Our main concern is our passengers. We don’t want to alarm them.”
      I suppressed a sneer. What he meant was he didn’t want to besmirch the reputation of the cruise line by contacting the authorities. And god forbid any one should mess with the itinerary.
      “So what do you want me to do?”
      He leaned forward, his arms on the desk, his voice grave. “I’ve arranged for you to sit at the countess’s table in the dining room. Ask the people there, her secretary, Gaylord Hollingsworth, and her maid, Ana. See if she spoke of friends on the island. See what you can find out – quietly.”
       I stared at the captain. “’But are you positive she didn’t return to the ship? Maybe she came back to the ship and something happened on board.” I remembered the case of the missing bridegroom, who disappeared from a cruise ship under mysterious circumstances.
      He took a deep breath. “Of course, I’ve thought of that possibility. But if she had returned to the ship, she would have been seen. And also I think her secretary and her maid would know. However, that is something I want you to consider in your inquiries. We do have the occasional passenger who takes his or her own life. It is a remote possibility. In your questioning, see if you find any hint of that unfortunate situation. I do not think that is what happened, but –”
      “You never know.” I finished his sentence. “Captain, I came on this cruise to relax, lie around in the sun, hear some good music –”
      He held up his hands. “I know. I know. I’m asking a great deal. And I’m afraid I have no budget to pay you –”
      I laughed. “So you want me to drop my vacation and work just for the heck of it?”
      He didn’t laugh in return; his voice was deadly serious. “No. No. I’m simply asking you to ask some discreet questions.”
      “Asking discreet questions is what I do. And I get paid for it.”
       He managed a thin smile. “Yes, of course. I cannot ask you to do this without compensation. I can offer you …
      “What, a bottle of champagne?
       The irony passed right over him; he answered with complete sincerity. “No, something more substantial, a balcony suite like Ms. Jefferson’s.”
        I was taken aback. He was making me the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse. I peered into his anxious eyes. “I’ll think about it.”
        Promising to get back to him later that evening, I left the captain standing at his desk, looking morose. Jesus, a possible kidnapping, suicide, or worse. But maybe it’s like he said, she just went off with some friends without telling anyone. I could spend a couple of hours asking questions, she comes back and I get to enjoy the rest of the cruise in a suite with a balcony.
        Was that worth giving up some of my leisure time?


    Copyright, 2014, Joan Merrill, All Rights Reserved