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Death in the Middle Watch
A Carolus Deene Mystery
By Leo Bruce
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1974 Leo Bruce
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"A man died on one of our cruises a year ago," said Mr Porteous. "I don't want it to happen again."
Carolus looked at him coldly, thinking how obvious some people can be. Of course he didn't. The successful proprietor of Summertime Cruises was scarcely likely to want deaths to occur on the ships he chartered.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
"A Mr Travers. He just died. Nothing particular about it. He and his wife occupied separate cabins because he snored. The steward found him cold when he took him his tea in the morning. Might have been heart. He was a rich man too," he added as though heart disease was an affront to one who can afford to avoid it.
"What did the doctor say? Or didn't you carry a doctor?"
"Of course we did. I know the regulations. But unfortunately Dr Yaqub Ali was indisposed himself at the time. Seasick, you see. I don't know how a man can take a job as a ship's doctor when the slightest little swell turns him green and sends him to his cabin. He made an examination but I'm afraid it may have been a rather perfunctory one."
"Yet you buried him at sea?"
"His wife insisted on it. There was one thing poor Mr Travers had always wanted when he went, she said: it was to be buried at sea. He came from seafaring stock, I believe, though he himself was a bookmaker. I was against it. Rather morbid for people on a holiday cruise I thought. But the Captain persuaded me ..."
"Oh, you were on board yourself?"
"Actually, no. But of course Captain Scorer was continually in touch with me. He considered that so far from upsetting the cruisers, as we call them, a burial at sea would make a nice change. They get rather tired of deck quoits, you know, and he would conduct the service himself as he was required to do. I considered that if that was his view he should go ahead, and afterwards we had no complaints."
"Well, cruisers are apt to complain of the slightest thing. They might have said it ruined their holiday and claimed goodness knows how much in damages. We've had that before now when a woman went mad just before we reached Las Palmas and tried to throw the baby of some other passengers overboard."
"But didn't succeed, I hope?"
"Well, no. But it was a near thing. If it hadn't been for the deck steward having the presence of mind to shout to her that her knickers were showing while the mother of the child grabbed it back I don't know what would have happened. People will complain for the slightest reason."
"But to return to the man who died. You didn't suspect what is called 'foul play', I suppose?"
"Not at the time. We thought, the doctor and all of us, that it was a heart attack. But when these letters began to arrive, I had my doubts."
"You haven't told me about those."
"You shall see them. Type cut out of newspapers. You know the sort of thing. Posted in Paddington. Threatening that the cruise would end in disaster. The sixty-fifth cruise, that is, of the Summer Queen. All our ships are named Summer. There's the Mediterranean Summer, the Southern Summer, the Atlantic Summer. A gimmick, of course, but it works. It was on the Summer Queen that the man died, and it's the Summer Queen sailing on June the second, that we've received these letters about. They're the reason why I've come to you."
"Have you reported them to the police?"
"Yes, but the police can't send men on a cruise, can they? It would soon get about among the cruisers. There'd be complaints at once. I thought you would never be noticed."
"I can't say I'm very keen on the idea. A cruise to Cyprus doesn't sound my idea of a holiday. Especially with ..."
"Oh, we're not overbooked, There'll be plenty of room. You could even bring a guest."
That seemed to interest Carolus.
"If I do come," he said, "I should want to invite three guests."
"Three? I'm afraid that would entail rather a lot of expense to the company."
"Or the other hand, I should not charge a fee for my services."
"And you would try to discover what these letters are all about? You'd prevent anything more happening?"
"I can't promise that. I would do my best."
"I take it your guests would all be ... female? They would add to the gaiety of the cruise?"
"I'm afraid not. The only female would be my housekeeper, Mrs Stick. She has been with me many years. A holiday would do her good."
"And the other two?"
"Her husband. Named Stick, naturally."
"Naturally. And the third?"
"My previous headmaster. Mr Hugh Gorringer. He might add to the gaiety of the voyage. It depends on what kind of sense of humour you have. I find him quite amusing."
"Are these the only conditions you would consider? I would prefer to pay a fee. Anything within reason."
"Mr Gorringer is certainly within reason. So are the Sticks. Yes, I'm afraid those are the only terms on which I would accompany the cruise."
"I shall have to consider it. It's our best cruise, you know. A real luxury holiday. Lisbon, Tunis, Famagusta, Gib and home. All interesting places. The longest distance we run. The net cost of three passages ..."
"I'll leave you to decide," said Carolus. "Those will have to be my terms. And I can't promise startling results."
"You see, we don't know yet that anything very serious is going to happen. It may all be unnecessary. Your housekeeper is middle-aged?"
"Mrs Stick cannot be less than sixty."
"We need young people who dance and that sort of thing. Our officers are specially chosen."
"For what? Their looks?"
"Let's say their appeal. I have considerable experience in organizing cruises, Mr Deene. There is nothing that makes for success more than a crowd of young officers who give some attention to their passengers."
"And some, I hope, to the navigation of the ship?"
"Of course," said Mr Porteous briefly. "I suppose we shall have to agree to your terms. We must find out what these letters mean. We can't have any more heart attacks. It will give us a bad name."
"Will you accompany the cruise?"
"If you advise it, yes. I don't want to. I'm a home bird, really. Live in Sevenoaks. The wife won't come in any circumstances. She says the food upsets her."
"Why? Isn't it good?"
"Too good. Rich, you know. We pride ourselves on that. Plenty of choice. But my wife believes in simple things. Cottage pie. Fish and ... fried potatoes. That sort of thing. You can't have that on a Cruise. There'd be complaints at once. Breakfast's the only meal when you can supply what people are used to. Otherwise an all-French menu. You should see one of them. You would hardly recognize ..."
"I've no doubt. Mrs Stick will certainly enjoy herself."
"Mrs Stick? Oh, yes. Your housekeeper. I hope so. Perhaps she can contribute something to the ship's concert. Does she sing?"
"I don't know. I've never asked her. Mr Gorringer will be your man for that. Conjuring or ventriloquism. Most talented. But we have business to settle, haven't we? I would like to check up on the bookings. And I suppose you keep a file on the ship's personnel? I must examine these before we sail."
"Do. By all means. I shall put myself in your hands. Do you wish the crew to know that you have my authority?"
"Certainly not. I must make a firm condition that no one — absolutely no one, Mr Porteous — knows that I am anything but an ordinary passenger. I hope we are agreed on that?"
"And I must tell you that I take the matter seriously."
"I'm very glad to hear it. It is a serious matter. You'd he surprised how quickly people imagine there's something wrong with a ship. You can't expect them to make bookings if they think they're going to be murdered, can you?"
Carolus was getting rather bored with Mr Porteous.
"I suppose not," he said.
"We must prevent anything like that happening again. These letters are most disturbing to me. Most disturbing. I'm afraid I may be blamed afterwards if anything happens for not making them public. But how can I? We should never get a booking."
To discourage Mr Porteous from continuing. Carolus asked to see the letters and spent some minutes examining them. After a silence he said, more to himself than to Mr Porteous, "You know what these remind me of? The letters Jack the Ripper frequently sent to the police."
"Jack the Ripper? Surely you are not going to suggest that these letters have been sent by a homicidal maniac?"
"I merely said that there is a resemblance between these letters and his. They are obviously intended to frighten you and anyone else who sees them. Has anyone else seen them, by the way?"
"Certainly not. They have been in my safe. You are the first person to see them." Then he added thoughtfully, "But the identity of Jack the Ripper was never discovered, was it?"
"No," said Carolus. "Not until eighty years too late. You say no one has seen these letters? But one should remember the writer himself and anyone to whom he may have shown them. You notice he says, 'I shall not be far away.'"
"Yes. What does that mean? Either he'll be on the ship or he won't."
"Exactly. But I don't like it, Mr Porteous. If the writer is a schizophrenic and has booked a passage — no, you call it a cruise, don't you? — on June the second, it may well lead to something more serious than a funeral at sea which 'makes a nice change', as you call it."
"You really think so? You don't think I should cancel the cruise? It would ruin me. It would be the end of Summertime Cruises. And after all, these letters may be nothing but the work of a madman."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"Oh God," said Mr Porteous but with no suggestion of a call for divine help. "You make things sound worse than ever. A madman on one of our Summertime Cruises! You can't mean it, surely?"
"All I have said is that the letters you've been receiving closely resemble those sent by Jack the Ripper to the police."
"That's quite enough. Jack the Ripper! Do you know what it would mean if even a whisper of the name got out among the cruisers?"
"Nothing. They're not idiots, even if they have booked passages. But I agree that it will be best not to discuss the matter at all. I shall spend the intervening month obtaining information."
"How will you do that? You're not going to call on the cruisers, are you?"
"Certainly not. I shall employ a discreet professional. By the time we all go on board at Southampton, I shall know all that can be found out in a short time about your cruisers. And, of course, your crew."
"Yourself. Your staff. Summertime Cruises in general."
"I hope you're joking."
"Certainly not. I never joke about murder."
"Who said anything about murder? All we have had are some threatening letters."
"You have. By implication. You believe that Mr Travers on that cruise last year was murdered."
"I assure you it never occurred to me. I merely thought it was unfortunate that Dr Yaqub Ali was indisposed at the time and that the man's wife was so emphatic about burial at sea."
"That's only another way of putting it. I must insist that you treat me with complete frankness, Mr Porteous, before and during the cruise."
"I should not be employing you if I didn't intend to do that."
"Thank you. I'll take charge of these letters if you don't mind, and your passengers and crew lists. I have your private telephone number if there's anything else I need to know."
"You really anticipate trouble, don't you?"
"I'm sure you do, Mr Porteous. I have an open mind."
"You don't think ... I mean one hears so much about hijacking in these days. Explosions, too. You will notice that we have an Irish family aboard. From Sandycove, near Dublin."
Carolus gave his most cryptic smile.
"Any Arab terrorists?" he asked.
"You are being facetious, Mr Deene. But there is a lady who has spent several years in Libya."
"Of course. We should not accept bookings from the Palestine Liberation Front. We have no objection to Jews, though."
"That's kind of you."
"You know what I mean. Moshe Dayan and his kind would not be welcomed, but businessmen from Tel Aviv — that's another matter. And we bar all coloured people."
"Do you now? That's interesting. That may well be the key to the whole thing."
"I never know when you're serious, Mr Deene. We're very discreet about that. We make enquiries — privately, you know. You can't tell from names, nowadays. Somebody called John Heath-Wilson, for instance, may be black as your hat."
"Then you would not accept his booking?"
"No. But we wouldn't tell him so. We'd just say the cruise is overbooked."
"Very tactful of you. Has it ever occurred to you that these letters might be some sort of revenge?"
"I hardly think so. We don't advertise our principles."
"Have you ever heard of Black Power?"
"Only as a newspaper reader."
"I advise you to go into it a little more closely than that. You have, for instance, a Pakistani doctor ..."
"The only one I could obtain."
"Any other members of your crew, from Goa for instance?"
"Only in the galley. The chief cook is British. From Yorkshire. If you are supposing anything of that kind, you can forget it. My ship's personnel are loyal. Every man of them."
"Loyal to what? Or to whom?"
"The company, of course, Mr Deene. Have you never heard of commercial companies which inspire loyalty in their employees?"
"I have. They don't fill me with excitement. I shall study your crew list all the more closely now you've told me that."
"Do. Do." Mr Porteous sounded impatient. "Study it as much as you like. You won't find anything suspicious there."
"Not even Dr Yaqub Ali?"
"Certainly not. He graduated in Britain. School at Kidderminster, I believe."
"So that takes care of him?"
"Well, naturally. We can't go about suspecting everyone, can we?"
"Yes," said Carolus. "I'll see you on June the second. If not before. I'm quite looking forward to it."
"I wish I were. I tell you, Mr Deene, I'm scared. Thoroughly scared. And you say those letters might have been written by Jack the Ripper. What's more, you introduce the Colour Question."
"I beg your pardon. I do nothing of the sort."
"Well, racialism, then. But I've heard you're good at your job. I can't afford to ignore the danger. Let me say quite clearly that I shall consider the responsibility half yours if anything unpleasant happens."
"Oh, it will," said Carolus. "Make no mistake about that. To someone who thinks as you do, it's bound to happen. Meanwhile I'll bid you good-day, Mr Porteous."CHAPTER 2
Carolus leaned over the rail of the Summer Queen watching while the cruisers, as he had learned to call them, came aboard. The Purser stood beside him. They were near enough to the head of the gangplank to observe the features of arrivals but not so near that their conversation could be overheard.
"Yes," said Mr Ratchett, the Purser. "Mr Porteous asked me to give you any information you want. He says you're writing a book about one of our cruises. Not so very interesting, I should have thought, but perhaps you find people are always interesting, however ordinary they seem to others. Good heavens, here comes Mrs Travers!"
"You sound surprised."
"She's the widow of the man who died on one of our cruises last year. Surely Mr Porteous must have told you?"
"I believe he did mention something of the sort. So this is the lady who insisted on her husband's burial at sea?"
"She certainly did. I didn't like it. A long story about his always wishing for it. How did he know he would die at sea? Funny-looking woman, isn't she?"
Carolus saw nothing funny about the squat, severe-looking person, middle-aged and smartly dressed, indicated by Mr Ratchett, but he nodded vaguely, and noticed that Mrs Travers came straight up to the Purser.
"Here we are again," she said giving Mr Ratchett her hand. "I'm sure you didn't expect me, did you?"
"To tell you the truth, no," said the Purser. "I was afraid you wouldn't care to come with us again, Mrs Travers."
"Mrs Darwin, now," said the lady, with a harsh little smile.
"Darwin? Mr Darwin was on the cruise last year, surely? A charming fellow."
"He was. That's how we met. After my dear Tom died, he showed me great sympathy. We've been married for six months."
Excerpted from Death in the Middle Watch by Leo Bruce. Copyright © 1974 Leo Bruce. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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