Sample text for Murder on the Oceanic / Conrad Allen.


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Chapter One

March 1910

“What sort of weather have we got today?”

“It’s raining.”

“How do you know?” she asked. “You haven’t looked yet.”

“It always rains in Liverpool.”

“This is Southampton.”

“It makes no difference,” he joked, crossing to the window. “Choose any port in England and you can guarantee rain on the day you sail.” He pulled back the curtains and early morning sunlight flooded in. “There you are. What did I tell you?”

Genevieve sat up in bed. “It’s a beautiful day, George.”

“Then we must still be in New York.”

“Stop teasing!”

“Well, it’s completely out of character for Liverpool.”

“We’re in Southampton.”

George Porter Dillman knew exactly where they were but he could not resist some gentle taunting about the vagaries of British weather. It was a bone of contention between him and his wife. Having been born in England, Genevieve loved its climate. Dillman, by contrast, was an American who usually managed to be on the other side of the Atlantic during unsettled weather. His first visit to England had coincided with days of high winds and torrential rain. It was an indelible memory.

They were staying at the South Western Hotel, the best in the city and the place where wealthy and important passengers tended to spend the night before departure. George and Genevieve were far from wealthy but, since they were working as detectives aboard the Oceanic, they did feel that they had some importance. Posing as passengers, their job was to solve any crimes that occurred aboard and, in their experience, there was no such thing as a trouble-free voyage. Whichever shipping line they worked for, they invariably encountered major problems.

“I daresay that it will be no different with the White Star Line,” he said, slipping on his dressing gown. “We’ll have the usual share of villains aboard.”

“How many passengers?”

“Around seventeen hundred.”

“We could never police them all.”

“Our job is to work largely in first class,” he reminded her. “That’s where the richest pickings are and where we’re likely to have the biggest headaches.”

“I feel sorry for the passengers in steerage.”

“So do I. Conditions are far from ideal.”

“I wasn’t thinking about their accommodation on board,” she said. “They’re such easy targets before we set sail. Because they’re strangers in the city, they’re pounced on by all sorts of cheats, liars, and confidence tricksters.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “the worst are the ones who claim to be official money changers and tell people that they must convert their pound sterling into dollars before they go aboard. They either give their customers an appallingly low rate of exchange or somehow inveigle them into taking a voucher that can be redeemed on the ship.”

“By the time they discover the voucher is worthless, it’s too late.”

He nodded. “There are so many sharks around the docks.”

“We can only catch the ones who sail with us.”

“More should be done to protect emigrants before they leave,” he said, seriously. “They have little enough to lose. Most of them are only quitting their native country because they’re poor and unemployed. And the dreadful thing is,” he added, “that, after sailing three thousand miles, some of them will be turned back at Ellis Island.”

“I thought that America encouraged immigration.”

“Only if it can pick and choose who it lets in.”

Genevieve smiled. “Do you think that I’d be let in?”

“You’re married to me, so you’ll be especially welcome.”

“Even though you’re only an occasional husband?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, bridling slightly.

“Well, as soon as we step aboard the Oceanic, we split up. I go back to being Genevieve Masefield, spinster of this parish, and you are tall, handsome, debonair, unattached George Porter Dillman.”

“It works better that way.”

“I wonder.”

“Genevieve, we must put our duties first.”

“I’d just like to cross the Atlantic one day as your wife.”

“You will, darling.”

He gave her a reassuring kiss. They had met on the maiden voyage of the Lusitania and, because Genevieve had been so instrumental in helping Dillman to solve a murder, he had persuaded her to join him as a detective in the pay of the Cunard Line. They proved to be a very effective team and their work drew them ever closer together. It was while they were working for the P&O line that their romance really blossomed and Dillman proposed to her while they were sailing at night on the Marmora down the Suez Canal. The ship’s captain had performed the marriage ceremony on the following day.

“I’m married on land and widowed at sea,” she complained.

“I love you wherever we are.”

“Really?” She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I think that you only disown me on board so that you can flirt with the ladies.”

“There’s not much time for flirtation,” he said with a dry laugh. “Besides, what about you and your admirers? The moment you take off your wedding ring, they come buzzing like wasps around a pot of jam. And that’s all to the good,” he went on. “We each build up a wide circle of acquaintances, far more than if we operated as a couple.”

“As long as you don’t forget that I am really Mrs. Dillman.”

“Would I ever?”

He smiled fondly then looked at his watch on the bedside table.

“Breakfast should be here before too long,” he noted. “Will you have a bath before it comes?”

“No, thank you, George.” She stifled a yawn. “I haven’t even woken up properly yet.” She stretched her arms. “This does make a change from Liverpool. Why did the White Star Line move away from there?”

“For sound commercial reasons,” he explained. “Southampton has obvious advantages as a transatlantic terminal port. It’s deeper and its double high tides save long and costly delays for ships outside the harbor. Also, of course, it’s nearer to London than Liverpool and, more to the point, closer to France. That means we can call in at Cherbourg and pick up European emigrants and American millionaires who’ve been sampling the delights of Paris.”

“Americans are always so disgustingly rich,” she protested.

“An optical illusion, Genevieve. We have plenty of poor people, believe me. You only get to see the prosperous ones in first class.”

“The more money they have, the more arrogant they get.”

“That applies to people from any nation.”

“Americans are the worst.”

“I dispute that.”

“They act as if they own half the world.”

“In some cases, they do. It’s such a massive country with lots of opportunity for people to make their fortunes if they’re prepared to work hard enough. Well,” he observed, “there’s no better example of that than one of the passengers we’ll be taking back to New York---Mr. Morgan.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“Everyone has heard of J.|P. Morgan.”

“Ah,” said Genevieve, “now that name does sound familiar.”

“It ought to. He’s the most powerful banker on the planet. John Pierpont Morgan is a financier, steel magnate, and railway baron. He also created a huge shipping syndicate to dominate Atlantic trade. It includes the White Star Line. Be very nice to Mr. Morgan when he comes aboard,” he warned. “Indirectly, he employs us.”

“What kind of a man is he, George?”

“Oh, he’s just like me.”

“In what way?”

Dillman grinned. “He’s unique.”

When it was built in 1899, the Oceanic was the largest vessel in the world though this claim to fame was obliterated two years later by a German ship. The arrival of Cunard’s twin giants in 1907---the Lusitania and Mauretania---removed any pretensions that the Oceanic might have to superior size or, for that matter, to outstanding speed. It remained one of White Star’s flagships, offering extreme luxury and a placid ride to those who could afford to travel first or second class. The one thousand passengers in steerage endured a more Spartan crossing.

Manny Ellway was not allowed to savor any of the luxuries either. As a bedroom steward in first class, he was aware of all the extravagance that had been showered on the wealthier people aboard but he was in no position to enjoy it. While his charges would be occupying splendid staterooms, Ellway would be sharing a small cabin with three other stewards. One of them was an old friend of his, Sidney Browne.

“Hello, Sid. Good to see you again.”

“What’re you doin’ ‘ere, Manny?” asked Browne. “I thought you was sailin’ on the Adriatic.”

“So did I until Tuesday. I got switched to the Oceanic at the last moment.” Ellway beamed. “My luck is in at last.”

“I wouldn’t call it luck. Not on this ship.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s jinxed.”

“Rubbish!”

“It is, Manny. Two years after it was built, it ran down the British coaster Kincora, in fog. The coaster sank immediately. Seven dead.”

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Sid.”

“I’m only reminding you of the truth,” said Browne, lugubriously. “The Oceanic’s ‘ad one or two other scrapes as well. And in 1905, there was a mutiny aboard. Thirty-three stokers were later convicted.”

“I know all that.”

“This ship is cursed.”

Ellway chuckled. “You always were a miserable devil.”

They were in the little cabin that had been assigned to them and two other stewards. Browne had chosen a top bunk but Ellway opted for a lower one. He was unpacking his case and putting his clothes into a wooden locker. A big, red-faced man in his forties, Sidney Browne was an eternal pessimist, the sort of person who embarked on every voyage fearing the worst, and who felt robbed when it arrived at its destination without incident. Manny Ellway, on the other hand, was a genial character of thirty, a thin, sharp-featured man with a neat mustache beneath a hooked nose, and short, black hair that was bisected by a center parting. Nothing ever seemed to depress him. After fifteen years, Ellway had lost none of his enthusiasm for life at sea.

Browne, however, was filled with remorse and resentment.

“I ‘ate this job,” he confided. “I ‘ate the work, ‘ate the passengers, and ‘ate the bloomin’ sea. I should’ve been a boot maker like my father.”

“Then why aren’t you, Sid?”

“I lost my way as a young lad.”

“You could always take up the trade now.”

“At my age?” said Browne with a hollow laugh. “No bleedin’ ‘ope of that, Manny. Instead of makin’ boots, I ‘ave to carry on lickin’ ‘em.”

“Working for White Star gives us lots of privileges.”

“I never noticed any.”

“For a start, we get to see something of the big wide world.”

“Yes---through the port’ole of a tiny cabin like this.”

“We’ll have time ashore in New York.”

“Terrible place. Full of drunks. Can’t stand it.”

“Yet you always head for the nearest pub when we land.”

“Well, I’ve got to do somethin’ to occupy my time. That’s the other thing I loathes about this game, Manny. Too much ‘angin’ about.”

“There’s no pleasing you, is there?” said Ellway with another chuckle. “You’ve got a good job with a decent wage and you get to meet lots of interesting people. Think of all the men back in Southampton who’re still out of work. They’d give their eyeteeth to be where you are.”

“More fool them!”

“Count your blessings, Sidney.”

“I would, if I ‘ad any.”

“You’re sharing a cabin with me. Isn’t that a blessing?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You snore.” Ellway cackled. “Yes, and that’s the other thing I don’t like. You never stop laughin’.” He moved away. “I’m off.”

“Bon voyage, Sid!”

“Same to you,” came the sour rejoinder.

Browne went out and Ellway was left to put a dozen collars into his locker. He liked Sidney Browne. In spite of his melancholy, the other steward was a good friend, loyal and generous toward a chosen few, if openly hostile to others. Browne was also very conscientious and the passengers never saw a hint of his more somber side. Ellway had at least one good friend in the four berth cabin. Not that it mattered who teamed up with him on this occasion. It was a voyage that was set completely apart from the many others he had undertaken. His colleagues were simply crossing the Atlantic as a job of work. For Manny Ellway, it was far more than that. As he stowed away the last of his clothing, he gave a secret smile.

Fate had been kind to him. He would seize his opportunity.

Noise and hats. It was always the same. Whenever a ship set sail, Genevieve Masefield was struck by the combination of noise and hats. The tumult was deafening. Every passenger aboard seemed to be at the rail, waving to the crowd of friends and well-wishers below, and shouting their farewells over the sound of the Oceanic’s siren and the whir of its huge twin propellers as they churned up the water. Dockyard clamor added to the cacophony. Iron-shod wagons rattled over cobbles. Electric cranes gave off their distinctive whine. Steam tugs and lighters contributed their shrill wails. Thunderous boat trains arrived and left. Beyond the docks, a city of well over a hundred thousand souls generated its own pandemonium. And above it all was the ceaseless cry of the gulls as they wheeled and dived around the vessel.

Though she had heard it many times before, Genevieve was always taken aback by the sheer volume of noise. Then there were the hats. As she stood at the rail on the promenade deck, she looked down at a rippling sea of them. For the most part, the men wore cloth caps, homburgs, boaters, and bowlers though top hats were on display as well. It was left to the women at the quayside to explore the full range of headgear. There were hats with wide brims and low crowns, straw hats with flowers or bows, toques, bonnets, snoods, and enormous creations festooned with ostrich plumes or colored ribbons. Among the poorer sort, headscarves were worn. The Oceanic pulled slowly away from the landing stage. Genevieve waved until the cheering faded and the array of hats gradually began to diminish in size.

The young woman standing beside her turned an inquiring face.

“Have you been to New York before, Miss Masefield?”

“Yes,” replied Genevieve. “As a matter of fact, I have.”

“Is it really as wonderful as they say?”

“It’s a very lively city, I can tell you that much.”

“I shall want you to tell me much more than that,” said the other, eagerly. “From the moment we met, I felt certain that we’d be friends.”

Genevieve had fallen into conversation with Blanche Charlbury in the customs shed. Traveling in first class, Blanche was a handsome woman in her twenties with an engaging smile and an exquisite taste in clothes. A picture of elegance herself, Genevieve had to admit that she was outshone on this occasion by the trim Blanche Charlbury. The latter was wearing a smart, green, close-fitting two-piece suit of a kind that was featured in advertisements in only the most expensive periodicals. Her hat was trimmed with osprey.

“We speak the same language,” said Blanche.

“Do we?”

“Oh yes. You’re one of us. I could tell.”

“Thank you.”

Genevieve was grateful to have been accepted at face value and to have befriended someone so quickly. Blanche was going to New York to visit her brother, who had taken up a post in a bank there. She was filled with an almost girlish excitement.

“Dickon assures me that it’s the most amazing city in the world.”

“Dickon?”

“My brother. Is it true?”

“In some ways, I suppose that it is.”

“What sorts of ways? No,” said Blanche, dismissing her own question with a wave of her gloved hand, “tell me everything later when we can sit down in comfort. Oh, we’re going to have such wonderful time, talking to each other! I know it. And are you really traveling alone?”

“Yes, Miss Charlbury.”

“Do call me Blanche---please. Formalities always irritate me.”

“Then you must call me Genevieve.”

“Brave Genevieve.”

“There’s nothing very brave about crossing the Atlantic.”

“There is if you go unaccompanied. I like to think of myself as having plenty of confidence but I wouldn’t have considered this trip if Mark hadn’t volunteered to come with me.”

“Mark?”

“My fiance;.”

“Oh,” said Genevieve with mild surprise. “I didn’t see him earlier.”

“Mark is joining the ship at Cherbourg. He’s been in Paris.”

“That must have been nice for him.”

“Not really,” said Blanche. “He was working there. Mark is in the diplomatic service.” She suppressed a giggle. “Which makes it all the more astonishing that he chose me---for I’m the most undiplomatic creature in the universe.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Mark calls it an attraction of opposites.”

“He’s very fortunate to have someone like you, Blanche, and I’ll make a point of telling him that.”

“Thank you. A man needs to be reminded of such things regularly.”

“When are you going to get married?”

“This summer.”

“How lovely!”

“I can’t wait, Genevieve. It’s been such a long engagement.”

“Why was that?”

“Mark kept getting sent here, there, and everywhere so we had to delay things. But he assures me that he won’t postpone it again and I intend to hold him to that.”

“How did you meet him in the first place?”

“Dickon was up at Oxford with him. They were in the same dining club. I was introduced to Mark during Eights Week and that was how it all started. We’ve known each other for seven years now.”

“Long enough to get well acquainted.”

“Yes,” said Blanche, happily. “I know all his virtues and Mark has discovered all my vices. But they don’t seem to have frightened him off. In fact, he says he loves me for my fallibility.”

“He might have phrased that in a more romantic way.”

“He’s a diplomat, Genevieve. They don’t believe in romance.”

“But you do, surely?”

“Having a doting husband is all the romance that I need. I long for the moment when he slips on the ring and I become Mrs. Bossingham.”

“Is that his name---Mark Bossingham?”

“Mark Lindsay Reynolds Bossingham.”

“I look forward to meeting him.”

Genevieve was about to add a comment when she became aware that she was being watched. People had started to drift off to their cabins and spaces appeared on deck. Ten yards away, leaning nonchalantly against a bulkhead, was a tall, slim, angular figure. When Genevieve turned to look at him, she saw a well-dressed man in his thirties with striking good looks and a faint air of decadence. He gave her a dazzling smile and lifted his top hat to her before sauntering off.

Genevieve was annoyed. “That man was staring at us.”

“No,” said Blanche with a sigh, “he was staring at you. Johnny knows full well that I’m spoken for and, in any case, you’re much more beautiful than I. Johnny picked you out at once but that’s typical of him. He’s a ladies’ man in every sense.”

“You know him?”

“Very well. Everyone in my set knows the Honorable Jonathan Killick---though there’s nothing particularly honorable about Johnny, I’m afraid. He’s a complete rake but a very charming one at that. Watch out.”

“Why?”

“You’ve obviously caught his eye and that means only one thing.”

“Does it?”

“Yes, Genevieve. Like it or not, you’re going to see a lot more of Johnny during this voyage so you may well need me as a bodyguard.”

“I can take care of myself, thank you,” said Genevieve, politely.

“Lots of women believe that until they meet Johnny Killick. I was one of them but he almost got through my defenses. He can be so amusing when he chooses to be. You’ll soon find that out.”

“I’ll just have to keep out of his way.”

“That’s easier said than done. He’s like a shadow. Once he’s chosen his target, he’ll follow you wherever you go.”

Genevieve was alarmed. She could see trouble ahead.

Copyright © 2006 by Conrad Allen



Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Dillman, George Porter (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Masefield, Genevieve (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Morgan, J. Pierpont -- (John Pierpont), -- 1837-1913 -- Fiction.
Private investigators -- Fiction.
Oceanic (Steamship) -- Fiction.
Ocean travel -- Fiction.