Jagger handed me a steaming cup of hot tea where we sat in the coffee shop near the main lobby. They didn’t have my usual hazelnut decaf, so Jagger made the correct decision to get me tea without even asking. I noticed the little paper label on the end of the string. Decaffeinated. Perfect. What a guy.
I didn’t have to go on duty today, which was a blessing. Since we each got a day off every schedule, now I could concentrate on my case. But every time I saw some guy in a suit, my heart skipped a beat. I hoped they found out who killed Jackie soon, since it didn’t feel too comfortable being a nurse on this ship. Hopefully, her murder had had nothing to do with being a nurse on The Golden Dolphin though. But it stuck in my mind.
I also didn’t want my friends’ and family’s vacations to be ruined. Hopefully, they wouldn’t find out about Jackie, but I doubted that the FBI wouldn’t question everyone onboard.
Jagger sat down with his black coffee and handed me half a bagel with cream cheese and lox on it. I thanked him, slid the lox out and into my napkin when he turned around, then took a bite. Tasted a bit fishy but good, since I was starving. “Thanks.”
He nodded. “So, what’s your plan for today?”
I held the bagel near my lips. Jagger was asking me my plan. He was actually acting as if it were my case. I was in charge, and he was just here to help. I could tell him what to do now.
“Well.” I swallowed, took a sip of tea, winced since it was too hot and watched Jagger add more milk to it from the metal container on the table. I set down my bagel, because if I kept eating while he kept doing these things, these so-unlike-Jagger-type things, my jaw would drop in shock and any bagel bites would cascade out. I took a sip of tea and smiled. “Perfect.”
“You have a perfect plan?”
“Er…yeah, but I meant the tea was perfect. Thanks.”
He looked at me over his cup. “The plan?”
I set my cup down. “No, I don’t have a detailed plan to relate to you. I just got here yesterday, got a short tour of the infirmary, met a few nurses and then my roommate was killed. Not a lot of free time in that scenario.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have gone out dancing last night.”
As soon as he said it, my eyes widened, and I could tell he wished he could suck back the words. Ha! Imagine Jagger wanting to take back what he said. I smiled inside so as not to make fun of him. “I’m always working, Jagger. Even when on the dance floor, I can scan the room, get information from the crew and bartender. Always on the job.”
Even I didn’t buy that.
Jagger merely gave me a look that said, “Yeah, right,” but he kept his mouth shut and ate and drank in silence.
Several passengers walked by carrying their coffee and sweets. They sat at the glass tables next to us.
“As soon as I finish, I’m off to the infirmary.”
He looked at me.
I moved my hand away from my hot tea so as not to knock over the cup when I said, “We. We are off to the infirmary.”
“Atta girl, Sherlock.”
“Hey, good looking, you come to snoop around?”
My eyes widened as I looked at Rico, who was working the nursing station today. How in the world did he know? My mouth went dry, and I couldn’t think of a lie.
Jagger pushed me forward. “‘Good looking’ is here to orient herself to the place before she has to start duty.”
Rico glared at Jagger for a moment. “Ah, the male host.”
I swallowed back a laugh. Apparently there was a very active crew’s grapevine around here-and the enigmatic Jagger was the juiciest grape this cruise.
I eased past Jagger. “Yeah, Rico, I’m here to snoop around, as you say. I want to be very familiar with the place before Monday.”
He smiled at me. I felt Jagger stiffen.
Yes! Obviously he’d noticed and didn’t like what he’d seen.
“No problem,” Rico said. “The place is empty. Just passed out a shitload of seasick pills. Other than that and a kitchen worker cutting his finger, the day is slow.” He waved toward the examining/treatment room. Have at it.”
When Jagger started to step forward, Rico stood. “Can I help you?”
Yikes! “Oh…him. Well, funny thing…” I looked toward Jagger for a life vest. Nothing. He left me drowning. “Seems as if we have a common friend back in the States-”
Rico laughed. “Pauline, we’re near the coast of the U.S., not off in some foreign land.”
I forced a laugh. Jagger remained silent, probably thinking Rico was a jerk. “True. But we just met…that is, Jag…um…Jay and I met at the dance, and I wanted to talk about our friend before he has to go back to work.”
I wished I could get sucked out the porthole.
Thank goodness a woman came through the doorway holding a napkin to her bleeding nose. Not that I was glad she had a nosebleed, but it gave us the opportunity to hightail it away from Rico while he tended to the patient.
Jagger and I went into an exam room, where I started to open drawers and look in shelves, all the while making ridiculous conversation with “Jay” about our fictitious friend. I was actually learning the layout of the place. If I had to treat a patient, I wanted to know what to do and where things were.
While Rico cleaned up the area, Jagger and I eyed a small desk area that held a computer and notepads. A file cabinet, marked STAFF, sat on the side.
“Look at that,” I whispered.
Jagger glanced toward Rico then over at the file cabinet. “Observant.”
Several passengers came to the reception desk and suddenly, voices started to escalate. Apparently they were complaining about the ridiculous cost to treat their mother’s nosebleed. Rico didn’t sound all too pleasant-more as if he’d been through this routine way too many times.
“Can I help you?”
I swung around to see a woman standing inches from me and staring at both Jagger and me. She had on a uniform, so I knew she was staff. I should have worn mine too, except that whoever had packed up my stuff to move me had made a mess of everything. I was going with the tall, blond FBI guy, who looked as if he could care less about a woman’s rumpled clothing. Thank goodness I found the wrinkle-free white shorts and navy tee shirt I now wore.
“Oh, hi. I’m Pauline Sokol, the new nurse.” I held out my hand, but she didn’t take it. The woman was nearly a foot taller than myself and had deep brunette hair that was piled on top of her head with a few sexy strands dripping down the sides of her perfect face.
Already I didn’t like her.
“I’m Topaz Rivera. I work the front desk here.” She stared at Jagger. “What the hell are you doing in here, Jay?” Her tone changed considerably, and she flashed what had to be fake eyelashes at him. How the hell did she know him?
I decided Topaz Rivera looked more like an exotic dancer than a receptionist. A receptionist? I needed to get to know her.
She slithered over to Jagger and whispered something in his ear.
“Topaz!” Rico shouted. “Get your butt over here!”
She winked at Jagger, curled her lips at me and cursed at Rico, but she did leave.
“Phew. Thought she’d never leave,” Jagger said.
Jagger’s eyes still looked in Topaz’s direction, so I slapped his arm. “The case?”
“Hmm? Oh, I told her the story about our mutual friend back in the States. She’s cool with it.”
“Shut up.” I turned toward the wall and rolled my eyes then looked back toward the reception desk. Soon fists might be flying. Rico got up and shut the door between us. Great. No one could or should hear us or see us snooping around, although I did want to hear what was going on out there if it involved billing.
“Perfect.” Jagger lifted the key to the file cabinet from his hand and unlocked it.
My mother could do that. She could produce a Dagwood-sized sandwich while you sat in her kitchen and you never saw her lift a finger. All of a sudden, poof, the sandwich would be on your plate.
I shook my head and decided not to even ask. There were many things that were better off not asking about where Jagger was concerned (and my mother too).
We gave a look through the windows on the doors toward the front desk and then turned our attention to the files. Jagger had already pulled out two. Jackie’s and Topaz’s. “Remy’s is already gone,” he said, while I contemplated why he’d picked the exotic dancer/receptionist’s.
After a few minutes, I realized any jealousy that involved me, Jagger and Topaz was unfounded. “She’s been the receptionist here for three years. Same time that Jackie’s been onboard.”
“And, you’ll have to check your files to see when the overbilling was reported, and how far back it goes.”
“It seems as if the passengers are none too happy with the rates charged around here. How can we tell if all the money is going to the ship or being skimmed off?”
“I’ll send an email to Adele at the agency and see what she can find out.”
We heard a crash and quickly stashed the files back in the cabinet. Suddenly, Rico flung the door open and wheeled in one of the crewmembers with an icepack to his cheek. Jagger grabbed my arm and we left.
Rico winked at me as we passed by. And Jagger’s hand tightened.
Once we were safely out in the hallway and no one was around, Jagger finally let go. Damn.
I was paged to the main desk, only to find my room had been changed. No swanky suite anymore. I was moved back down to the crew’s quarters only a few doors away from where I’d been with Jackie. The crew’s purser, Claude Bernard, gave me my key and said I was rooming with another medical staff crewmember. I figured it would be Betty. That would be a welcome relief. Despite knowing I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead, Betty was a heck of lot nicer than Jackie.
When I got to my new room and opened the door, I instantly knew my assumption was wrong. Where my original quarters had looked as if it had been whitewashed, this place was a den of black. Darkened curtains hung from the portholes. The bedspreads were red with black trim. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume the occupant of this place was practicing the oldest profession in the world, and I didn’t mean being a nun.
I noticed my suitcase next to the bed by the bathroom door and figured I’d have to make the most of it.
If this continued the way it was going, I kinda hoped the ship would travel to another dimension in the Bermuda Triangle. Right now some paranormal Holiday Inn was sounding better and better.
I lifted my suitcase onto the bed and started to pull on the zipper.
The cabin door opened and before I could turn around, I heard, “What the hell do you think you are doing here?”
Topaz stood in the doorway. I should have known. Who else would have “nautical brothel” d'ecor?
“Oh, hi. I guess I’m rooming with you.” I yanked the zipper until Topaz’s hand covered mine.
“No chance in hell. Don’t do a thing with that yet.” She let go and grabbed the phone.
I stood silently listening to her talk to someone, and then another, and then finally heard her say, “Captain Duarte.” Before I knew it, Purser Claude was at the door with another key for me.
“So sorry for the mix-up, Ms. Sokol. You will be in the cabin across from the infirmary.”
“The one Jackie was killed in?” My mouth went dry. Damn. I felt sorry reminding him about it.
He hesitated. “No, the next one. Rooming with Betty Halfpenny.”
Phew. “Perfect. Does she know? Because I’m getting kinda dizzy with all this moving around.”
He chuckled. “Betty is on duty, but yes, she knows. You will enjoy rooming with her.”
I looked at Topaz, who was now lying amongst the black and red.
“Well, it was nice,” I joked and then grabbed my suitcases.
“Let me,” Claude said.
Soon I was settled into Betty’s cabin. As the senior crew nurse, she’d been bunking alone. I hated to impose, but Claude had said there was no problem with Betty, and I wouldn’t be here that long anyway. He also had said to forgive Topaz, but she just had this “thing” about being alone.
The room was mostly done in white, but Betty had added some homey touches. A few frilly throw pillows, a tea service set on the dresser, and lacy off-white curtains over the portholes. It kind of had a British comfort, even though it still looked like a crew cabin.
Once unpacked, I flopped onto a bed and shut my eyes. I trusted this was the correct bed since the other had a hand-stitched yellow-and-red quilt neatly folded at the foot. Right now I couldn’t care less if Betty bounded in and shoved me to the floor. Mentally I was wiped out, even though I had to get up soon and do more snooping.
I rolled to the side and picked up the phone. I left messages for Goldie, Miles, my uncle and parents, telling them of my new room. Apparently they were all out having a grand time. Good for them.
I got up and went to the bathroom to wash up and get my blood flowing. After a cool facial splashing, I felt invigorated. I would see what I could find out. Soon it would be lunchtime and maybe I’d learn more about the crew.
Remy would be first on my list now that Jackie was gone.
As much as I wanted to forget her, Topaz warranted looking into also. The woman was not very nice!
Of course that didn’t make her a killer or someone who had committed fraud-but why didn’t she want me in her room? What exactly was her “thing” about being alone?
I had a feeling it wasn’t because she worried I might snore. Nope. Topaz Rivera seemed as if she were used to being alone. And how’d she manage that?
Her conversation with the captain did sound as if they were rather familiar. More fodder for my case. I took out the little pencil that I had gotten from Uncle Walt. He used it when he played golf so he could write down his scores. Then I took out my little spiral pad and jotted down all the notes I could about Topaz and Remy, and whatever else I thought was pertinent.
I stopped for a minute and tried to remember if Jackie still had on that woven friendship ankle bracelet (like the one Remy had worn) when I saw her body. Damn. I couldn’t picture it. Had someone taken it off? And if so, why?
I went by the infirmary on my way out for lunch. Betty and Rico were sitting and playing Texas Hold ’em, a poker game I’d seen my nephews play before. “Hey, how’s it going?”
Betty gave me a smile. I relaxed a little and started to believe what Purser Bernard had said, about her already knowing we were rooming together and that I’d enjoy it.
“He’s royally kicking my arse,” Betty said. She laughed. “I’m glad we’ll be rooming together, Pauline. You’ve had a terrible welcome onboard.”
I nodded and smiled. “Thanks. I was starting to feel very unwelcome indeed.” We all chuckled and then I excused myself to go eat, feeling way better than I had a few minutes ago.
I intended to eat with the crew today but as I stepped on the elevator, I heard my mother’s voice. “Well, it’s about time you decided to join us, Pauline.”
Mother was dressed in a yellow-and-green floral muumuu. She looked very Hawaiian despite her Polish features of a not so tiny nose and grayish eyes like mine.
Daddy had on white Bermuda shorts and a shirt that almost matched mother’s outfit, except it had hibiscus on it where hers had bird of paradise.
They looked eerie and adorable all at the same time.
I swallowed back an explanation of my prior plans and decided to join them. “Where are you off to?”
“Not the buffet, Pauline,” Mother said and stabbed at the main lobby button.
“Of course not. By the way, I just called you. I changed cabins.” Suddenly I wondered if they knew about Jackie yet. Damn. They would be so worried. Of course I had no intention of bringing it up and wondered if the FBI really was going to question all the passengers. I figured they would, but it would take some time. I imagined they’d start with anyone who might be involved or knew Jackie.
“What was wrong with your cabin?” Daddy asked.
They didn’t know. “Oh, something to do with the crew. I’m bunking with this adorable British woman, Betty.”
Thank goodness the elevator opened to the lobby and we stepped out.
I swung around to see Goldie and Miles hurrying toward us. All of a sudden, I felt as if I’d inhaled my mother’s pine-scented Renuzit. A warm feeling, a feeling of family, friends and comfort, settled inside me. Obviously I needed to be with the gang for a few hours.
“Hey, guys!” I ran forward and hugged them.
Miles held me a second too long. “What’s wrong?” he said.
I whispered, “I’ll tell you later,” and said much louder, “I really missed you two characters!”
Soon we were seated in the main dining room and ordering from the menu. I looked up to see Goldie staring at me, concern in his big green eyes. If mother knew why I had switched rooms, her look would be similar-with an added order to get off the ship immediately.
I winked at him and watched him stab a forkful of his Caesar salad. Goldie had on navy slacks with a white nautical-print sweater. Gold braids dangled to his designer epaulets, and a navy knot hung against his chest. Tiny blue earrings, like little waves, swayed from his earlobes. The added touch was a navy-and-gold headband which held up auburn and golden curls around his head. Looked very “I Love Lucy,” with a twenty-first-century chic.
I wondered who had more wigs, him or Dolly Parton.
My parents told us all about their “adventures,” from bowling to swimming (which meant standing in the three-foot section of the pool) to dancing to an old band that they said sounded like Les Brown and His Orchestra. We all smiled at how they went on and on until mother yelled, “Yoo-hoo!” and waved at someone frantically.
I turned to look where she was waving.
Jagger stood in the doorway. A blonde was on his left, a brunette on his right, and trying to get into the scene was a redhead who could give Goldie a run for his money.
My Caesar salad rose in my throat.
Mother made small talk with Jagger about his being here and wasn’t that nice, and I kept interrupting every time she started to say his real name. She scolded me and he excused himself. Probably more to get away from her and then to prevent her from blowing his cover.
“You really were rude, Pauline.” She summoned the waiter. “Is everyone ready to order their lunch?”
“My salad is my lunch, Mother.” I took another forkful and chewed.
“Nonsense. You need some protein.”
If she started to get into my lack of calcium, I would politely get up and leave. We’d been through that in the past. Before I knew it, my mother was ordering a steak, medium rare, for me and one for herself. Goldie and Miles went with the pan-seared tuna, while Daddy ordered kielbasa and sauerkraut. It would never compare to my mother’s though.
My mother fixed the same meal on each day of every week. Monday was meatloaf. Saturday was kielbasa and sauerkraut. How sweet that Daddy kept up the tradition when he could have had anything from prime rib to lobster.
“Could I speak to you a minute, Pauline?”
I turned to see Jagger standing above me.
Mother’s eyes gleamed. “Why don’t you join us, Mr. Jagger?”
Thank goodness he was alone and politely managed to get out of the invitation with the excuse that he was working. I got up and followed him toward the bar. Near the corner, he turned and stopped. “Why did they move you?”
“Which time?” I laughed, but Jagger didn’t.
I told him about playing “musical rooms,” adding how I was so glad to be bunking with Betty instead of Topaz.
“Topaz…interesting,” he said.
I tried to read his facial expression as to whether that meant she was a weirdo, as I thought, or that he was interested in her.
I went with the former, hoping to influence fate.
“Meet me after lunch on the deck where we were last night.”
I started to ask for directions, but thought I’d sound stupid, so I just nodded. I had noticed the waiter passing out dishes at our table. “Fine. I better get back before my meal gets cold.” Soon mother would be “yoo-hooing” me to come back. Before she made a scene, Jagger walked me over.
He held my arm very gently-only as if to guide me. Not any really good physical contact. When we got closer to the table, his grip tightened.
“Ouch!” I tried to swallow it back, but wasn’t fast enough.
Everyone at the table stared at me. I was ready to turn to Jagger and ask what the hell he was doing, and then I looked down at my plate.
There sat a two-inch-thick rib eye steak smothered in saut'eed mushrooms and onions. And standing at attention directly in the middle was a gold-handled dolphin knife.