Steven Taylor was lying on a deck chair on a luxury ocean liner, calmly sipping a cocktail when he heard the scream. It seemed as if someone was in fear for their life. He rushed in the direction he thought the sound came from. On the way, we met him. 'Did you hear a scream?' he asked me.
'How could I miss it? It came in loud and clear as if the person was right next to me.' I nodded towards the third member. 'Tris here practically jumped a mile.'
He immediately became defensive. 'So would you if you were reading a murder mystery, Nick.'
'Enough chatter. Let's find out what happened.'
We ran down the companionway to where a large crowd had gathered. We were noticed and a path was cleared. The purser was blocking the door. 'Your Grace, gentlemen,' he bowed his head.
'What happened?' asked Steven.
'A young man was found dead in his compartment. Both the Captain and the ship's doctor have been notified.' He was quite nervous but who wouldn't be with a dead body around even if they weren't responsible.
'Will you let my friends and I take a look?'
'I don't know, sir. I realise your position and everything. . .'
'Oh, we won't touch anything. I swear on my mother's grave,' I said.
'I suppose so. You'll take full responsibility?'
'Certainly,' said Tristan. (He has that innocent look about him that people have a hard time turning down.) Once the purser had let us in, he turned to me. 'Your mother's still alive.'
'I know. That means we can touch a few things.'
On the floor lay a young man in a contorted position. His eyes were open, staring up at nothing. I shivered. Steven knelt beside the body and felt for a pulse even though he knew there wouldn't be one. I moved closer to the body and stood over it. I have this thing about death: I'm terrified of it. It scares the bloody hell outta me. I know that's a normal enough thing, but I just can't shake it. When I was into running cons, death was an everyday risk. Then I met James Stuart, duke of Edinburgh, a man who invites death with his actions practically all the time. If I was afraid of not living before, I am definitely petrified about it now since I have no idea of when it will come. Steven had said something. 'What was that?'
'This body is cold. He's been dead for awhile.'
Tris came back from the bureau and closet. 'Nothing important there; a few suits, a couple pairs of shoes. The usual.'
'Guess I have to check the pockets.' Steven searched the jacket and found an envelope. He read the name slowly. '"Sebastian Talbot."'
'So that's the poor guy's name.' Somehow knowing the name of the corpse made things more personal. Tris was looking at Steven in a strange way. 'What's wrong?'
'It just may be coincidence, but "Sebastian Talbot" was one of my aliases.'
'And an interesting coincidence at that, your grace.' We all turned to see the Captain and the doctor standing there. They walked into the room and Steven rose from his kneeling position. 'Have you ever seen this man before?'
'He could certainly pass as a double for you.'
Steven looked down at the body. 'Maybe. There is one difference, though.'
'And what is that?'
'He's dead.' He let the words hang there before speaking again. 'If you don't mind, my friends and I would like to leave now.' He walked to the door and we followed.
'One moment, sir.' Steven stopped and raised his eyebrows questioningly. 'The letter you placed in your pocket. Evidence.'
'Sorry. Fingers must be sticky.' He handed the letter back and we walked down the companionway to our suite.
'The captain seems overly suspicious,' I remarked, flopping onto the bed.
'He'd probably suspect Gandhi of murder,' Tris said with a wry smile.
'Then you thought it as well. I didn't want to say anything and be thought a fool. After all, there were no signs of a struggle or bodily violence.'
'What settled it for me was that a man does not scream like that when committing suicide. Now all we have to worry about is a murderer on a liner in the middle of the Pacific.'
'Nothing at all. A minor problem.' He was definitely worried as we were, as well as most of the other passengers were. What a fun, relaxing holiday this would be.
We spent the rest of the afternoon brooding over what had happened. Steven was under the suspicion that someone was trying either to frame him or kill him.
(For those of you who don't know of Steven Taylor's past--all five of you--let me explain. He was born in Edinburgh in 1920 and christened James Edward William Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales. In 1924, the Windsors fought for and regained the throne. The king, knowing what would happen, sent his brother away with the children (Steven has a sister, two years younger). The brother changed their names to Steven and Sarah Taylor and they moved to Connecticut in the USA. The uncle joined the CIA in the hopes of helping the children regain the throne. He carried their secret to his death after being discovered.
Eventually, Steven forgot his past and became an 'A' student. After his high school graduation, he decided to stay home and help his aunt run her boarding house and not go to college. Then came a major turning point in his life. He became a thief and used the nom de guerre of the Eagle. He was caught in the spring of 1942 but was sent to France to help in the Resistance. After the war, he returned home, won gold medals in the '48 Olympics, and found out his past. He abdicated in 1950 and became the duke of Edinburgh and no uses his criminal talents to solve mysteries.)
Anyway, he was convinced that the poor lad was just a warning to him and that he would be next. Tris and I tried to tell him he was wrong, but he wouldn't budge. He definitely had a stubborn streak.
At dinner we were invited to sit at the Captain's table. Steven decided to play nonchalant, act as if the fact that the dead man used one of his aliases meant absolutely nothing. The whole dining room was buzzing with excitement: the word had spread of the death. (I can't bring myself to say murder.)
'Well, your Grace, have you come to any conclusions?' asked some pretentious solicitor that the captain had probably dug up for the occasion.
'Conclusions to what?' Steven replied, sipping his drink.
'As to why that man was using your alias.'
'When I took the name on, that didn't mean that it didn't really belong to anyone.'
'Are you saying,' (the Captain now) 'that Talbot was the man's real name?'
'Surely that's all academic right now? We have no proof either way. He might have changed his name out of admiration,' remarked Tris.
' "Admiration"? What's to admire?' asked the solicitor, looking down his nose.
Steven refused to reply and I don't blame him. I would have come back with some verbal insult, but ignoring him was better. Instead, he turned to the Captain and asked if any progress had been made in the identity question.
'It appears that "Sebastian Talbot" is his real name. We found his wallet in his back trouser pocket which contained his driver's licence and other forms of identification--'
'All saying "Sebastian Talbot".' Steven mused on this then changed the topic. 'When do we arrive in Hong Kong?'
'Around noon tomorrow to refuel and pick up passengers.' The Captain didn't question why Steven changed the subject but welcomed it.
From there, the dinner conversation turned to trivial matters; the weather, the scenery, and the trip itself. I thought if I didn't getaway soon enough, I'd be a diabetic. We were all starting to sound like reporters for National Geographic. I excused myself, claiming to be tired. I went for a walk on the deck to re-think everything. The man couldn't have screamed, it hit me. The body was cold. Someone had found the body, screamed, then left before the crowds came. I went to the 'scene of the crime' and found a petty officer guarding the room. I flashed a fake ID and bluffed my way in. (Old habits die hard).
The outline of the body was taped on the floor. It had probably been moved to the sickbay. Steven had only checked the body and Tris had checked the closet. No one had checked the bathroom. There were no signs of struggle or violence; he could have been poisoned. I have a knowledge of these things as it had almost happened to me. I left the room and thanked the officer. I then headed back to the suite.
I actually heard them first. It's not that they were yelling in the companionway, it's just the fact that the place was so quiet. Good hearing doesn't hurt, either. (It certainly helps when you're running from someone!)
'That solicitor got on my nerves! He thinks I actually killed the man!'
Tris came back with: 'Don't worry. His case wouldn't get very far. You have a whole deck load of witnesses.'
They came in and I stood to greet them. 'How did the rest of dinner go?'
'You did the smart thing by leaving early. It was kind of hard for me to do that.' Steven collapsed in an easy chair and loosened his tie.
'I did some investigating while you were partaking of idle chit-chat.'
'Oh, really?' asked Tris. 'And what did you find out?'
'I think the guy was poisoned,' I replied bluntly.
'What brought you to that conclusion?'
'There were no signs of violence on the body; no blood, bumps, or bruises.'
'I can't believe I overlooked that,' Steven said, interested. 'Anything else?'
'You said the body was cold so he couldn't've been the one who screamed. Someone must've walked in, seen him, screamed, then left before anyone came.'
'That means that the person must have a compartment nearby because there was already a sizeable crowd when we arrived.'
He stood, straightened his tie, and began to brush off his clothes. 'Where are you off to?' I asked.
'To visit a doctor. Maybe I can get some details out of him.'
* * * *
He came back three-quarters of an hour later. 'Well, what did he have to say?'
'He was very polite and tried his best to get on my good side. He did everything but kiss my feet.'
'In other words. . ?'
'He didn't answer one of my questions.'
'Nadda. He answered them in such a roundabout manner that left me needing a compass to follow him.' He poured himself a drink and stood by the window.
'What did he do to get on your good side?' I asked naïvely.
'Let me guess,' said Tris. 'He'll do anything for you if you'll pull a few strings to get him off the ship and into a proper hospital.' Steven nodded. 'So, what about the body?'
'It was there--in another room--but he wouldn't let me see it. When I asked him about the identity, he became an objective pathologist: "Male Caucasian, 5'10", black hair, blue eyes", the whole bit. I asked him how long had he been dead and he replied that it was hard to tell, possibly four hours.'
'Did you believe him?'
'I'm not sure. How long does it take for rigor mortis to set in?'
'Because if it's less than four hours, the doctor is lying.'
* * * *
The next morning we had breakfast on the deck. Steven and I ate light--tea and toast--while Tris had pancakes. We tried to avoid talking about the mystery, but it seemed to be on all our minds. 'Do you really think the doctor's lying?' Tris asked.
'I did a lot of research myself last night. I read that rigor begins to set in after three hours.'
'Where did you read that? A medical encyclopaedia?'
'Straight from the doctor's office.'
'You didn't. . ?' Tris was incredulous.
'Broke in last night. I had to find out and I knew he wouldn't co-operate.' He took a sip of his Earl Grey. 'I also found out a few other things. Tris, isn't it customary for pathologists to keep notes on the inspection of bodies?'
'Yes. They're usually used for police reports and such.'
'That's what I thought. There were no notes.'
'What about the body? Did you see the body?' I demanded of him.
'Calm down, Nick. Yes, I did see it. It was cooling down. Not stiff yet, though. That holds your poison theory.'
'At least I got an idea before you. It's kinda sad that I was right.'
'You mean you'd rather he was shot or stabbed?' asked Tris sarcastically.
'At least it's quicker and probably less painful.' I looked past him towards the restaurant. It was then that I noticed the girl. She was, at a guess, in her mid-twenties and quite good-looking in a Nordic way. 'There's a girl over there watching us.'
'Of course,' said Tris. 'After all, we're sitting with one of the richest men in the world,' he glanced at Steven, 'though you wouldn't think it to look at him.'
The girl came over and stood nervously, wishing to talk. 'Pardon me, your Grace, sir, but I had heard you were trying to find out who killed Sebastian.' She wiped away a tear. She must be grieving.
'You were close to him?' asked Steven.
'Not really. A shipboard romance, I guess you'd call it.' She sobbed.
'Please, take a seat.' I stood and held out a spare chair for her.
'You found him, didn't you? You were the one who screamed.'
'I'm so ashamed. I didn't know what to do. When I saw him lying there, I just screamed. I couldn't stand to be there alone, so I ran. My compartment is just down the hall.'
'Why did you go into his rooms?'
'We were to have tea together and when he didn't show, I went and . . . found him.' 'When was the last time you had seen him?'
'Noontime. We had finished lunch and he said he had something to do before tea. Who could have done such a thing?'
'Now, Miss. . .' She hadn't given us her name.
'Catlin O'Rourke. You have to find out who killed him, your Grace. Please.'
'We'll do our best.' She finally took notice of us. 'These are my associates, Nicholas Adamson and Tristan Forbes. We have to ask you some questions. It shouldn't take long.'
'Certainly, your grace, though I don't know how I can help.'
'When you saw him at lunch, did he seem in a different frame of mind, frightened or apprehensive?'
'No, he was quite cheerful. That makes it even harder to accept his death.'
'Did he mention having any family?' I asked.
She seemed taken aback by that question. 'I think he said he had a younger brother. Michael, I believe his name was. Why?'
'The captain said that the brother of the deceased would meet the ship in Hong Kong.'
'The poor man must be heartbroken. Is he coming all the way from London?'
'Yes. A telegram was sent to the address in Mr. Talbot's passport. He probably took the first available flight.'
'Will you be there to greet him?'
'I don't think that is a task for us,' remarked Tris. 'It's more suited to the captain.'
'However, we will be there to see him off. We couldn't let him leave without giving our condolences.'
'You are so considerate, your Grace. All of you,' she added. 'I'm sure it will put his mind at ease.' She prepared to take her leave. 'I must go now. I've kept you from your breakfast. It's probably cold now.' She thanked us again and left.
'Well, what do you make of that? Old Talbot--or whoever--was havin' a bit of a romance,' I said to no one in particular.
'Probably using her as a cover,' said Tris.
'C'mon, you can't think he didn't have a heart?'
'He had to be into something shady to use an alias--a stolen one at that--and you can't afford to have romances.'
'Well, at least he had good taste.'
'Enough bantering, fellas. I can't think.'
I was tempted to say 'Never stopped you before', but the look on his face told me he was serious. 'What is it?'
'I think I've solved this mystery.'
'You know who the murderer is?' asked Tris.
'There was no murderer.'
'You mean it was suicide?' we said almost in unison.
'No. There was no murderer, because there was no murder. How can you have a murder when you don't even have a dead body?'
* * * *
We tried to get Steven to tell us what he meant but he only said 'You'll know soon enough.' That was three hours ago and we were coming into port now. People began to hover by the rails to see their first glimpses of the next exotic city on the itinerary: Hong Kong. I spotted Miss O'Rourke among the crowd and walked over to her. 'Hello, Miss O'Rourke. Craning to see the skyline of the Pearl of the East?'
'Oh, Mr. Adamson,' she was startled. 'Is that what they call Hong Kong?'
'I really don't know. It sounds good, though, doesn't it?'
She smiled, genuinely smiled. 'It does look beautiful,' she said, turning back to look at the land. 'Too bad Sebastian couldn't see it,' she said, sobering. 'Has his Grace come to any conclusions?'
'I'm sure he has, he just hasn't told us yet.'
She stared at me. 'What do you mean, he hasn't told you yet? Aren't you his associates? Don't you work together?'
'Only when he feels like it. Right now, he's off somewhere and neither Mr. Forbes nor myself know where.'
'One doesn't expect such behaviour from a duke,' she remarked.
'You must admit that he's not your "average" duke. He has a stubborn streak. He also likes to play his own hand and not be responsible to--or for--anyone else.'
She admitted she had heard stories of his exploits but didn't know how much truth was inn them. 'You know how some stories become exaggerated the further away from the source they get.'
'Of course. I think the man has a sixth sense. He knows when something is wrong. He may not know exactly what, but he will dig until he finds it.'
A loud boom echoed from the shore. 'What was that?' I smiled and explained the Hong Kong tradition. 'They are firing a welcome salute with the cannons. This tradition was started in 188_ when a British dignitary was coming for a visit. A welcoming salute was fired and the ship turned about to return to England because they thought they were under attack. It wasn't until they were almost home until they learned the truth. As "punishment" the cannons are always fired at noon.'
Miss O'Rourke looked at me in amazement. 'How come you know all about that?'
'I read it in the brochure.'
The docking was finally complete and on the pier we saw the waiting coffin. Beside it was a tall man who could only be Talbot's brother. I couldn't get a good look at him because of the distance, but that was soon remedied as he climbed the gangplank, the coffin being hoisted by a winch. He was dark, brown hair and eyes, and had a sharp nose and receding hairline. If he were Talbot's younger brother, then Hitler was a saint.
Tristan joined us at the rail. 'Is that brother Michael?' I nodded. 'Doesn't look like he's grieving, does it?'
'Definitely not.' I looked down at the pier. Word must have spread about the presence of a coffin. 'That casket is causing a bit of a stink down there.'
'The sight of one always does,' said Tris. 'Everyone has a morbid fascination about death. Some even about their own.' (Tris read psychology at Cambridge and every once and awhile throws out these phrases that make little or no sense.)
'Thank you, Dr. Freud.' I cast my eyes about the deck. 'I wonder what Steven's doing? I know he wanted to see the brother. Do you have any idea about what he said this morning?'
'According to him, there was no murder,' Tris answered as he watched Michael Talbot being led to the sick bay to view his brother. 'Poor guy.'
* * * *
An estimated twenty minutes later, I saw Catlin preparing to disembark. 'Are you sure you don't want someone to show you around?'
'Why, Mr. Adamson!'
'I know the historic sites inside and out.'
She smiled. 'I've read the brochure as well, Mr. Adamson.' My face must have shown my dejection because she agreed. 'You can take me to the barracks.'
' "Barracks"? What do you want to do with barracks?'
'I have to meet someone.'
'A brother? A cousin?' I asked hopefully.
'No, my fiancé.'
'Oh.' You can't say I didn't try. 'I understand.'
'It's not that I don't like you, it's just that I'm already engaged. Perhaps if we had met before. . .' She let it drift.
There was a sudden pounding of feet and a figure ran by. It looked like Steven but he turned out to be the second figure. 'Stop him!' he yelled at me. It couldn't be! It had to be! It was Talbot! He wasn't dead! So that's what he meant.
I hastily said good-bye to Catlin and joined in he chase. We were on the lower deck and I grabbed Tris to make him join in. Talbot ran away from the gangplank to avoid the security forces and went towards the upper deck. Tris and I separated, each taking a staircase. We had barely gone 100 yards when Talbot doubled-back towards us.
We had him cornered. Tris and I each stood blocking the stairs and Steven was behind him. At least we thought we had him cornered. He stood sideways, watching both roads of escape. I could almost see the desperation in his eyes. Then a new avenue opened for him. He took a deep breath, ran, and dove into the harbour.
Steven swore, shrugged his shoulders, and then followed. We could do nothing but watch from the rail.
The first head broke through the water and waved as if to say 'I'm fine'. Five feet away from him, the second appeared. From our angle, at that distance, they looked like twins. Which was Steven and which was Sebastian? The second waved at us then saw the first and swam towards him. The first saw him coming and raised a fist to defend himself.
B swung for A's head, but A grabbed with his left hand and jerked B off-balance. A then jabbed B on the jaw, sending him underwater. We waited anxiously for B to resurface but he didn't. Instead, he pulled A under by his legs. They thrashed about and an arm or leg showed occasionally. What scared me was that neither of them had come up for air.
'What's that?' Tris asked, pointing to the area of churning water. 'Is that blood?'
The foam in the fight area looked pink. 'Oh, God!' We ran down to the lower deck, keeping an eye on the water the whole way. 'He can't die! He just can't!'
'Why are you so worried?' asked Tris. (Don't think he's callous, he's just stoic.)
'He's paying for this trip!'
The police launch was nearing their location and I hoped they weren't too late. I stared at the spot and refused to move, didn't even blink. Then, there it was--a head. Whose, I had no idea, but either way, the tension was over.
He was holding the other across the chest as he swam towards the launch. The prone man was taken aboard first and the second climbed the ladder using one hand. He must have been wounded. The launch then made its way alongside the liner. We could see that the man sitting up getting his arm bandaged was Steven. He smiled and waved. I couldn't get over it. The man was almost killed and here he was, making jokes about it. He had cheated Death once again.
The captain himself helped Steven aboard and apologised profusely for misjudging him. 'Think nothing of it, my good man. I trust you have the others?'
'Others?' I questioned, stressing the plural. 'I thought there was only Michael.'
'Jamison was in on it as well.'
'In on what? You have a lot of explaining to do.'
* * * *
Tris was right, Steven did have a lot to explain, and that evening, over a celebratory dinner, he did just that.
'It was smuggling. Talbot--his real name, by the way--was going to use a false bottom in the coffin to smuggle goods back to London. Therefore, he faked his own death to fill the coffin.'
'How did you explain the "lack" of vital signs?' asked Tris.
'Dr. Jamison provided him with a drug--the name of which eludes me now--that lowers the vital signs to such a degree that they are undetectable. Nick made me think of it when he mentioned the poison angle. When I visited Jamison's office, I found his notes on the drug. It puzzled me as to why he would have the drug or even need to make notes.'
'How did you know about the smuggling?' I asked.
'After reading the notes, I figured that Talbot had faked his death, but the question was why. I became aware that the "body" would be shipped back to London and a coffin would be an excellent hiding place for God knows what.'
'So you never really knew, but only suspected in the beginning,' I remarked.
'Exactly. It wasn't until the mistake in age that I became sure.' He took a sip of his drink. 'Talbot told Miss O'Rourke about his younger brother Michael, then Michael shows up looking at least ten years older.'
'What happened in the sick bay? The two of you came running out like cyclones--at least it seems that way from Nick's description.'
Steven smiled and continued his story. 'I was outside listening in on a conversation between the captain, doctor, and grieving brother. The doctor said that poison was the logical cause of death and the captain added that it was quite mysterious and no one knew where he got the poison or how he could have been poisoned. Michael remarked that Sebastian had been living in the fast lane and that the family wasn't surprised at his death.
'Then I made my entrance. I don't remember my exact words, but I think it was something like "Maybe because they know better". Michael demanded to know who I was, but I think he already knew. He acted well when the introductions were made. He said that Sebastian admired me quite a bit. I reminded him that Talbot was once an alias of mine. He simply nodded.
'The captain then told him that I found the body. I remarked that it was amazing that his body never became cold. I put it down to the weather. I then went to the coffin and peered in. According to Jamison's notes, the dosage given to Talbot would last for twenty-four hours and the time was nearly over. With my mind wondering, I must have accidentally dropped my cigarette inside. Terrible, I know, but the amusing thing is that Talbot began to cough.'
'Michael must have been upset to see the plan fall apart,' Tris said.
'He probably proclaimed a miracle!'
'The face to see was Jamison's. I just wonder how much they paid him to give them the drug. They couldn't have brought it onboard themselves. Anyway, nobody moved until Talbot sprang up and ran right out of the room. I followed as fast as I could leaving the captain to take care of the others.'
'We know what happened next. When you fought in the harbour, we couldn't tell who was who.'
'Come now, Tris. Do you think I'm nasty enough to pull someone underwater? No, I was the first one up.'
'How? You jumped in after him?'
'I didn't allow myself to go very deep. When he pulled me under, he caught me unawares, but I managed to get enough air in my lungs. We threw a few punches--they're never as hard as you want them due to water resistance--before he pulled out a knife he carried in an arm sheath. I should have suspected, but I didn't.' (Steven used to use one himself.) 'In the struggle, I gained control of the knife and gashed him in the arm. In his pain, he lost most of his air, so I brought him up. Quite simple, really.'
Tris tapped me on the shoulder and nodded towards the door. 'Isn't that your friend?'
'I have no friends in Hong Kong. As a matter of fact, I know no one here.'
Steven also looked up and smiled. 'You'd better look,' he said.
I turned to the door and nearly choked. Catlin O'Rourke was coming our way with her fiancé. I was expecting to see an Adonis in a uniform, but this guy was totally average. He was about 6'1" with brown hair and blue eyes--nothing particularly striking at all. Maybe it was the uniform. Who knows?
'Oh, Mr. Adamson, Mr. Forbes, your Grace. How wonderful to see you here. This is my fiancé, Captain Alexander Healey.'
He stiffened when he was introduced to Steven, became all official. 'A pleasure to meet you, sir.'
'It's nice to meet you, Captain. Would you and Miss O'Rourke care to join us?'
'No, thank you. I just wanted to meet you after all Catlin has told me what happened here.'
'Oh that was nothing major. It was just a little exercise in detection.'
'I'd just like to thank you again.'
Catlin came over to me and kissed me on the cheek. 'Thank you, Nick, for everything. I meant what I said. If we had met at an earlier time, maybe something. . .'
The two left and I just saw the second woman I ever had feeling towards walk out on me. C'est l'amour.
'Nick looks depressed,' said Steven.
'Ah, you didn't know he tried to talk her into going on the town with him.'
'We'll have to change that.'
I don't think they ever fully could.