Murder on a Mississippi Steamboat – Leighann Dobbs

The mood in the forward lounge of the steamboat Miss Delta Belle was celebratory, but Nora Marsh could tell by the way her great-aunt Julia studied the room that she had murder on her mind. Nora could see why. The polished dark-mahogany paneled walls had a certain somber ambiance. The chandeliers that twinkled from above cast deep shadows into the corners, making them a perfect hiding spot for someone with malicious intent. The carpet with its swirls of emerald and gold would mask even the largest of bloodstains. And the many discreetly hidden side doors provided the perfect access for a killer to slip out unnoticed, leaving the body behind on one of the leather Chesterfield sofas to be discovered by the next person who came through the grand French doors. Not that her great-aunt was a murderer, heavens no! Aunt Julia was a famous murder mystery novelist. Well, Julia herself wasn’t actually famous because she wrote under the male pseudonym Ridley Howes. Ridley was famous. Julia was sworn to secrecy by her publishers. But that didn’t stop her from thinking about murder wherever she went. “So many interesting characters here.” Aunt Julia’s blue eyes twinkled as she reached over to the small table in between their club chairs and spread some caviar onto a cracker. She had keen powers of observation and her skills had come in handy more than a few times over the years when they’d had the misfortune to stumble upon a real-life murder, about which Aunt Julia had lent her advice—whether the police had wanted it or not. “You can say that again.

” Nora scanned the room, which held about half of the ship’s one hundred and ninety-five passengers. There were all types here: young women in lowwaisted beaded dresses, older women in crepe gowns with large flowers, men in suits or tuxedos. And hats galore. Nora herself was no slouch in the mystery-solving department, but whereas Aunt Julia was better at noticing things that were out of place and analyzing clues, Nora’s expertise leaned more toward human behavior. At least her high-priced doctorate in psychology wasn’t going to waste. The Miss Delta Belle was the showpiece of its kind and this was her inaugural voyage. The ship had been fashioned after the older steamboats that had dominated the Mississippi River half a century ago. Though the golden age of those boats had declined due to the advent of the railroads, the desire to stay in a unique hotel with good food and fine surroundings had not. The Miss Delta Belle satisfied that desire, and over the next four days the passengers would be treated to a leisurely trip down the Mississippi, complete with the best entertainment and meals. Aunt Julia, being very rich, and therefore very well known, had been given an invitation to join the trip by her dear friend Giles Hendricks, who owned the boat.

Naturally, Aunt Julia had invited Nora to accompany her. Nora had been joining her aunt on excursions for years and it suited them both just fine. Aunt Julia leaned over and whispered in Nora’s ear, “Take those three over there. Quite fascinating.” Julia tilted her head ever so subtly toward a small table where three people sat. Nora had seen them board the ship with an overabundance of expensive luggage. One of them was a strikingly gorgeous blonde in her mid-twenties. As Nora watched them over the rim of her glass, the blonde laughed and swatted at the man’s arm. Her husband? They were an unlikely pair as he was older, balding and paunchy. The third person was a gray-haired woman in a flamboyant dark-pink suit with the largest-featured hat that Nora had ever seen.

The gray-haired woman was the man’s mother, judging by the way she scowled at the blonde. “Looks like someone doesn’t approve of Junior’s choice in women.” Nora squinted at their ring fingers. The young woman had on long white gloves, but the man sported a thick gold band on his. “Obviously. I’d say the young thing married for money and mother is wise to that.” Aunt Julia swished her glass; the ice cubes in the non-alcoholic drink she’d been nursing like it was a Gin Rickey clinked against the sides. At least Nora hoped it wasn’t a Gin Rickey: ever since prohibition, Aunt Julia had been known to bring a flask or two of her brother’s bathtub gin on their trips. Nora frowned at the drink. “Auntie, is that—?” “And look at how nervous she is,” Aunt Julia interrupted Nora.

Whether she was so engrossed in her observations that she hadn’t heard her niece speak or because she didn’t want to answer the question, Nora wasn’t sure, but Julia was right about the woman being nervous. Though she was laughing at her husband, her eyes scanned the room. As Nora watched, she adjusted her hat—a smart navy-blue felt number with a wide brim—forward on her head as if hiding her face. “I wonder why she would be nervous,” Nora said. “Good question.” Julia’s gaze had already swiveled to the other end of the room. “And look at that gentleman there, the handsome one standing beside the bar.” Nora had noticed the handsome one. Not that she was looking. At the age of thirtyfive some older ladies might refer to Nora as a spinster, but Nora was a modern woman and much too young to get tied down.

She enjoyed traveling with Aunt Julia too much. But what was the harm in looking? Especially when the person in question had a pleasant olive complexion, thick black hair and dangerous brown eyes. “He’s also nervous. Look at him darting glances at the doorway. I heard—not that I was eavesdropping, mind you—but I heard someone say that he is quite a gambler. Perhaps he owes someone money.” “Now, Aunt Julia, don’t go making assumptions. You know what happens when you do that,” Nora said. “Yes, what happens is that I’m usually correct. His name is Max Lawton.

” Julia sipped her drink and glanced over at the man at the bar again. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I wouldn’t mind writing him into one of my books. Of course, I’d change the name.” As Nora watched the man at the bar, another man stood up from one of the chairs, stumbling against an older gentleman with a cane who had been approaching an empty seat. The stumbler was young, perhaps Nora’s age, and good-looking but not in the dangerous way that appealed to Nora. His good looks were more boyish, charming. Almost too charming. The old man looked about to topple over and the younger put a steadying hand on his arm. “Very sorry, sir.

My apologies.” The old man steadied, then brushed off his red silk vest, straightening his spine as if to gain some dignity. “Please do watch where you are going. What’s the hurry?” “This is just so exciting.” The younger man thrust his hand out. “Johnny Stokes. Are you sure you’re all right?” The older man eyed Johnny’s hand for a few seconds, then met it with his weathered one. “Doctor Percival Montford. And, yes, I’m fine.” Percival withdrew his hand, nodded at Johnny and then continued on his way.

Julia’s shrewd gaze had zoned in on him. “And that one, is he drunk? I could’ve sworn I saw him bumping into someone else earlier out on the deck.” “Drunk? Now, where would he get booze? I don’t think there is any on the boat, is there?” Nora looked pointedly at Aunt Julia’s drink. Julia shifted her gaze to Nora and made a face. “Oh this? It’s a bland soda water. Not very interesting at all. Certainly nothing with spirits in it. Where on earth would I get spirits? Perhaps the man has a medical condition. I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.” Julia finished her drink in one big gulp.

A flurry of activity near the sweeping French doors that served as a grand entry to the salon grabbed their attention. Delilah Dove had arrived. Delilah was a semi-famous singer who was providing the nightly entertainment on the trip. She was one of those rags-to-riches stories; girl from a poor family makes good. Nora thought she’d even heard something about Delilah’s brother being some sort of criminal. Aunt Julia had been told she was quite expensive. She came complete with a band and backup singers. Delilah comported herself with all the flair of a Hollywood star. She wore a scarlet gown that trailed behind her on the floor like the tail of a peacock. It had a long, flowing, chiffon scarf on the neck, which she periodically threw over her shoulder.

Nora presumed it was to attract even more attention since she’d already done it twice and hadn’t yet been in the room for five minutes. Heavy bejeweled earrings dripped from her ears and her neck glowed with red gems, the center of which was a ruby cabochon the size of an egg. A ruby-and-diamond bracelet glittered on her wrist every time she flicked the scarf. People flocked around her and she appeared to thrive on the adoration of the crowd. But even as she basked in the spotlight, Delilah’s eyes searched the room, coming to rest at the back. Nora followed her gaze to Max Lawton, his brown eyes narrowing as he returned Delilah’s look. What was that about? Nora turned back to the doors where a thin man in a dapper suit had arrived. He pushed through the crowd to stand next to Delilah, slipping his arm around her waist possessively. Aunt Julia had been watching too. “That’s Clifford Oxley.

He manages the dinner show. Giles told me he persuaded Clifford to leave the Gilded Goose in New York City. Quite a coup. Though I think it might not have been too hard to lure him away. Rumor has it Clifford and Delilah are more than just manager and star.” “Clearly.” Nora watched as Clifford kissed Delilah’s cheek. The crowd had thickened, so she could barely see them anymore. Johnny Stokes weaved around the edges bumping into people and Nora hoped he didn’t knock anyone over. Her gaze slid back to Max who was watching Delilah, his expression dark.

Maybe Clifford wasn’t the only one who had designs on Delilah. Is that why Max had been watching the doorway earlier? Had he been waiting for her to show up? “She is rather showy.” Aunt Julia studied Delilah. “I hear she’s all about the publicity. Even her stage name was carefully chosen to be memorable. Delilah Dove. Alliteration is always easier to remember, I use it in my books a lot.” “Well she certainly does know how to make a grand entrance. That’s one for your books,” Nora whispered, even though most everyone else had rushed to the front of the salon so there was no one around to hear her. “Indeed.

However, I find it much more interesting when one makes a subtle exit…” Nora glanced over to see her aunt’s gaze was now pinned on the opposite end of the room where the hat-adjusting young wife was tugging her husband through the side door. “Now there’s something mysterious to write about.” Vera Hinchcliffe breathed a sigh of relief as the door to the front lounge shut behind her and her husband Beauregard. Beau glanced behind him as if wondering what had just happened. “Really, dear, I think we could have stayed a bit longer. Dinner isn’t for three hours and mother is left in there alone and I—” Vera shushed him by putting an index finger to his lips. His mother was the exact reason why she’d dragged him out of there. She didn’t need her disapproving mother-inlaw discovering her little secret. Martha Hinchcliffe—or “the buzzard” as Vera thought of her—was always watching her, circling like a bird of prey waiting to swoop in and point out Vera’s flaws to her son. Martha had wanted Beau to marry one of her friends’ high-society daughters.

Someone with a matching trust fund. Vera, with her modest secretarial position and questionable family background, didn’t fit the bill, though if Martha knew exactly how questionable Vera’s background really was, the old biddy would probably have a heart attack. When Vera had first met Martha, she’d had the tiniest hope that they’d someday get along like family. Maybe Martha would become the mother that Vera never had. But no matter how much she’d tried to get Martha to like her, it hadn’t happened. Vera had tried complimenting Martha’s garish outfits, agreeing with her every word and even going out of her way to see all her needs were met like some kind of servant, but the more Vera tried to ingratiate herself, the less Martha seemed to like her. Martha could never find out the real truth; Vera had worked too hard to secure this marriage to lose it now. She turned to her husband, pouting her lips and making her eyes round and innocent. “Now you want me to look good for dinner, don’t you, pookums?” “You always look nice.” Beau smiled at her and the love in his eyes softened her cold heart a tad.

She’d married him solely for his money, but she had to admit she was becoming a bit fond of him. Him; not his mother. Which reminded her, she’d better get to their room before she was seen by the wrong person. She tugged Beau forward, the heels of her patent leather T-straps clanging on the metal stairs as they descended toward the cabin deck where their luxury suite awaited. “It will be nice to relax in our room, just the two of us.” “It sure will.” Beau reached back and pinched her butt playfully. “I’m going to need all that time to pick out my outfit and powder my nose.” She swatted his hand away, cursing her rotten luck. Of all people on board why did one of them have to be Agnes Banks? Who knew she was now calling herself Delilah Dove? What kind of a name was that anyway? Vera had almost fainted when she saw the giant poster with Agnes’ picture on it hung up in the front lounge.

Now she would have to go through all kinds of gyrations to avoid her, which might be tricky considering they were trapped on this boat for the next four days. And Agnes—now Delilah—would be singing at dinner every night. What if their table was close to the stage, or if she roamed around from table to table as many of them did? Vera could not risk it; she’d have to skip dinner, but how to do that without raising suspicion from Beau or the buzzard? Beau inserted the key in the door and opened it, stepping aside for her to enter first. Vera had seen to it that they had booked one of the largest, and most expensive, luxury staterooms. Beau could well afford it. And, of course, the buzzard had her own stateroom next door. Thank heavens they didn’t have to share a cabin. The room was like most lavish hotel rooms Vera had stayed in. Maybe a little smaller, but it had a queen bed, floral wallpaper and a separate bathroom. A large window looked out on the river.

Vera had left the window cracked open—she loved fresh air. A breeze fluttered the silk curtains and she got an idea. “Hachoo!” “God bless.” Beau turned to her, his eyes full of concern. “Pookie, are you feeling unwell?” Vera sniffled and batted her eyelashes at Beau. “I think I do feel a cold coming on.” Beau frowned. “Maybe you should rest, let me fluff the pillows for you.” Vera went into the bathroom and started the bath. She needed time alone to think.

She’d worked too hard to lose everything now. Beau and the buzzard could not discover her lies—it would be the end of easy street. Could her mother-in-law force an annulment if they discovered she’d lied about her past? She could not run that risk. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to resort to something drastic.

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