Home > Murder on a Mississippi Steamboat

Murder on a Mississippi Steamboat
Author: Leighann Dobbs

Chapter One

 

 

June 12, 1926

 

 

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 low-waisted 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 thirty-five 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.

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