Death on the Queen Mary
by David Benjamin
SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC — Trust me.
When I signed up for this trans-Atlantic crossing on the QM2 with my main squeeze, Hotlips, I wasn’t planning a busman’s holiday. All I wanted was to eat, drink, get up a five-day game of euchre and sack out on a deck chair with a hip flask and a Dramamine chaser.
But when you’re a private dick, it’s hard to cool your jets, especially when a fresh stiff turns up sprawled all over the ballroom floor in the Queen’s Room.
My name is Deuce Derringer, private eye by way of Canarsie out of Frisco and a stretch at Folsom off a bum rap on a chinchilla-smuggling bust. But that’s another story.
Even before the ancient mariner turned up deader than a Democrat’s hopes in Waukesha County, I’d spotted him with the busybody beazle. The smell of rat came off that broad like the rear end of garbage scow in a Galveston heat wave.
(Hotlips tells me I have a nose for crime, but there’s times I think it has a nose for me.)
The tough-looking bird was pushing him in a wheelchair, which wasn’t something that would catch your eye on this boat. You go to lunch here and you’re dodging senior-scooters and walkers from the bowsprit to the poop deck and tripping over canes like a machete man in a sugarfield. I’m no spring chicken, but in this crowd, I feel like Billy Budd among the peglegs.
My sixth sense told me to keep an eye on the two of them, because the elderly invalid — name of Colonel Jameson I found out later — kept slumping over and almost tumbling out of the chair. Half the time, he was just staring into space, except when he started wailing and waving his arms, yelling out “Where am I? Who are these swarthy devils? Damn your eyes, Sergeant Moresby!” She’d get a grip on him then, and start hissing in his ear like a ruptured gas line. Against my better judgment, I kind of sidled up to catch her drift and heard the dame tell the old drooler — her rich uncle, it turned out — to quiet down or he’d scare away all the ducks and geese and make the other hunters mad.
It seemed to me, right then, a little odd that here was a geezer didn’t know where the hell he was, forking over somewhere in the vicinity of five large for a boat ride and the poor bastard didn’t know whether he was afloat on the bounding main or crouched inside a duck blind in a Carolina swamp.
Soon as I got a load of what was sticking out of the whispering niece’s handbag — a Last Will and Testament with the name “Jameson” inked out in bold letters — I took it as my professional duty to watch that skinny babe like a beagle beneath a banquet table. Even though Hotlips told me, “Lay off it, Deuce. It ain’t none of your beeswax. Besides, didja know? They got thirteen bars on this barge.”
We found that out, in the flesh, by following Doris — that’s the nasty niece’s name — around. Old Uncle Jamey, he couldn’t hold a glass with both hands and a cargo-winch, but the conniving skirt stuck a straw in a dozen different glasses at every tap on the drunken Queen — from mojitos, mai tais and martinis to Singapore slings and boilermakers. She had the old coot so tanked that I swear I saw his eyes roll clean out of his head and bounce two or three times on the floor before Doris fielded them and shoved ‘em back in his face.
When Doris wasn’t pumping the nonagenerian nincompoop full of high-test hooch, she was wheeling him around the ship so fast that some of the deck chairs she clipped went flying over the rails. While the old guy hung on — white knuckles, clenched dentures and a steady scream to mark their progress. One of the crew suggested that Doris slow it down a smidgeon. She just said, “No, he loves this. Used to race jalopies on dirt tracks in the Punjab.”
Course, I didn’t believe that. Nor did I believe the half-dead codger could actually stay upright when Doris heaved him from his chair and dragged him onto the dance floor for the rhumba contest. But there they were. Doris looked stringier than a praying mantis but strong as a drayhorse, hauling her semi-mummified ancestor through ten minutes of uptempo “Besame Mucho” while he dug his fingers into her back, dusted the floor with his knees and wept uncontrollably into her bosom, asking over and over where she’d hid the crank handle for his Model A.
Course, I’d figured out what Doris was up to, and I had to hand it to old Jamey. He was taking a hell of a licking but he kept on ticking. After four days of pub-crawling, dance contests, overeating, careening around the deck and deadly-dull lectures by Limey profs in the planetarium, the geezer was still breathing and the nefarious niece was looking a little frazzled.
This was when I should’ve stuck even harder to the case, but I was worn out and Hotlips was feeling neglected. Of course, that was the very evening I heard the captain’s fateful request that the ship’s doctor hightail it to the ballroom lickety-split. As if he’d get there in time to save the moribund methuselah. Which he didn’t. I beat the sawbones to the spot and laid a finger on the old coot’s carotid, but didn’t feel anything but papery skin and not enough body heat left to melt lime sherbet.
I caught a glimpse of Doris, whose eyes were sad and dry, but she wore a smirk that was sharp enough to shave a Tortuga buccaneer and leave a rash behind. Because she knew the old fart’s pump had finally scorched its fusebox and she was scot-free and pure as snow.
I had nothing on Doris and no way to get her. But I had a hunch.
So, after they’d tucked old Jamey into cold storage in the galley, next to the rib roasts and New York cheesecakes, I followed Doris on her wee-hours constitutional. It was midnight on the sea, as the poet wrote, band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” I trailed the the not-nice niece to the Lido Deck, where — true to their nature — the lidos were hanging sleepily from the undersides of the lifeboats, chewing their cuds and scratching their wingpits with their hind flippers.
Doris slipped beneath them furtively and hurried to the rail, pausing to stare out at the whitecapped waves of the wine-dark sea. I watched from the shadows as she reached into her handbag and gingerly removed an object. It was too small, and the night too gloomy, for me to tell what it was as she swung her arm back and flung the object mightily into the drink.
But that’s not where it went, because devious Doris hadn’t accounted for a gusty wind that swept up from the churning swells. A sudden rogue breeze caught her missile in mid-plunge. A deck light glinted off the thing as it flew back toward the Queen Mary, straight to me.
I thrust a hand up, not knowing what I was reaching for. I felt a stabbing pain in the loveline of my palm, then a sudden, almost dizzying rush of exhilaration. For a moment, I could barely resist the urge to leap into the air, click my heels, sprint all the way around the ship and dance all night to the Memphis Blues.
It was all clear to me then. And Doris, who stood gaping at me, saw that the jig was up.
I looked at my pierced palm, where a slim hypodermic needle was sunk to the hilt, sending the last of its contents coursing through my bloodstream and leaving me pleasantly lightheaded. I realized I’d just consumed the last drops of a massive dose of adrenalin. The full hypo’s load was enough to accelerate, harmlessly, the pulse of a healthy person. But it would — and did — explode, like a water balloon dropped from a dirigible, the faltering heart of sweet pathetic Colonel Jameson.
And all over the needle were Doris’ fingerprints.