Authors: Joanne Pence
An Angie Amalfi Mystery
This book is dedicated to the memory of my father
Robert Joseph “Poncho” Lopez
From the pier a massive boom swung boxcar-sized containers onto the ship. First, they filled the freighter’s hold, then were stacked three and four high on the main deck. Instead of the officers and crew creating a welcoming, partylike atmosphere for arriving passengers, this crew was busy working.
Angelina Amalfi looked up at the freighter with trepidation. The
wasn’t the least bit inviting. Dark gray and white, its main deck was long and flat, and at the back was a huge structure several stories high that resembled a boxy office building—except for the bridge that jutted out like wings across the very top. This vacation wasn’t going to be anything like the luxury cruises she’d been on before.
“Here we are,” she said with a quick glance at Homicide Inspector Paavo Smith.
“Great, Angie. Super. Let’s go.” He was smil
ing. Sort of. Actually, his mouth was plastered into the same strange smile he’d worn since he picked her up that morning.
She stared at him as he took her arm and helped her up the steep gangway. Paavo Smith rarely smiled, and he had never called anything super in all the time that she’d known him. He was careful, logical, cautious, and close-mouthed.
But then, maybe he had just decided to relax and enjoy this cruise, their first real vacation together. If so, that was just…super.
Stepping off the gangway onto the main deck, she felt as if she’d been plunged into a black-and-white movie. The flooring was the color of charcoal, the walls were a grayish white, and metallic gray paint covered everything else. Even the ropes had a grayish cast.
Behind a gray metal table stood a tall, middle-aged man wearing a black uniform with gold bands on the cuffs of the jacket. A few blond strands of hair were slicked across the top of his head. “I am First Mate Hans Johansen,” he said, extending his hand in greeting. “Welcome to the
.” His voice had a Scandinavian lilt.
“Thank you,” Angie replied as Johansen gave her and Paavo a packet of information about the ship. He handed Paavo two sets of keys to their cabin.
“You won’t need the keys for several days, though. We never lock our cabins while we’re at sea,” Johansen stated, standing a little taller as
he spoke. “Only in port. We trust each other. That’s the way of freighter life.”
Angie glanced at Paavo, thinking about a pair of diamond earrings she’d brought along for nightlife in Acapulco, their destination, but he didn’t notice. He continued to smile vacantly.
“You do have a safe for valuables, don’t you?” she asked the first mate.
“We do,” Johansen replied, his mouth taking on a wry twist. “Trust is one thing, but too much temptation is foolhardy.”
A youthful steward with dark hair and deep-set, bedroomy eyes hurried over to them and stopped in front of Angie. “Allow me to show you to your cabin,” he said, then picked up Angie’s carry-on. He gave a cursory nod to Paavo before turning all his attention to her again. “My name is Julio Rodriguez.” He clutched her bag against his heart. “I am from Chile, and I am so happy to be of service to you.”
“Thank you,” Angie said, taking Paavo’s arm. He seemed to scarcely notice.
“Watch your step,
.” Julio, walking backward, nimbly stepped over an air vent and a coil of rope. “All these hatches and vents and lines are easy to trip over.”
But he didn’t. She was impressed.
Sven Ingerson, the
’s other steward, stood on the main deck watching the freighter’s few passengers check in. One hand gripped the
rail, while the other pressed hard against his bilious stomach.
He’d been sick all night but hadn’t said anything about it. He didn’t want to be sent to a doctor or hospital and be unable to make this voyage. He needed to be on it.
He squinted against the glare of the sun. The headache he’d awakened with was growing worse by the minute, and his stomach continued to rumble.
A spasm of nausea rolled over him. The bottle of Pepto-Bismol he’d drunk hadn’t helped at all. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this weak or dizzy. It had to have been the pickled herring he ate yesterday, given to him by a young, pretty woman he’d met in Berkeley. When she’d offered it to him, she’d said her mother had canned it, that her mother was Norwegian—just like he was. The bitch. What had she put into the herring? Knowing Berkeley, it could have been some hallucinogen. But he wasn’t feeling high. He was feeling miserable.
Maybe this was his payback for combining pleasure with the business that had taken him to Berkeley in the first place.
He wondered if it was smart not to seek medical help. But he’d never failed on a job yet. Mr. Reliable, they called him. Why not? Easy job, easy money. And he wasn’t talking about being a steward.
He wiped the perspiration from his brow.
This was one job he didn’t want to mess up or
be too sick to handle properly. This one was big. Just from the way the Hydra—as she was called—had talked to him about it, the way her eyes flashed as she described what he had to do, told him how important it was.
Pretending to be a street musician, singing Norwegian folk songs, was too easy to warrant the thousand dollars he was being paid. That meant there had to be a lot more to it. She thought he was too stupid to understand that. But, in fact, he understood plenty.
The whole thing was like working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. He had spent many frustrating hours trying to fit all the pieces together so he could see the whole picture. He wasn’t at that point yet, but he would be soon. That would be when he’d make sure he’d get a lot bigger cut than a measly thousand dollars. For all he knew, this job might even make him rich.
Then he’d never have to work for that monster again. She was called the Hydra for good reason.
Angie and Paavo followed the white uniform of the steward toward the tall deckhouse at the back of the freighter. They were within reach of it when they heard shouts behind them.
A man ran toward the railing, yanking off a white apron that circled his waist as he went and flinging it back at his pursuers. As he reached the railing and started to climb over it, several of the crewmen grabbed him, pulled him back,
and wrestled him to the ground.
“What’s going on?” Angie asked, watching in horrified fascination as Johansen, the first mate, with the help of the others, quickly bustled the man off the ship, down the gangway, and into the port authority building.
“That was the cook,” Julio said. “He did not want to go to sea again, I guess.”
“The cook?” Angie couldn’t believe it. “Why was he trying to jump overboard? What’s going on?”
“I think it is nothing,
,” Julio said, escorting them back into the deckhouse to the elevator. “I think he is just tired of being at sea so much. It happens. We have other cooks.” Julio shrugged and then hit the up button.
“But…” Angie turned away from Julio. “Paavo, did you see that? It was crazy.”
“I saw it,” he said, then shrugged in a bizarre imitation of the young steward. “It’s nothing.” Then he smiled at her.
She wasn’t sure if it was the cook’s behavior or Paavo’s that was the more peculiar.
When the elevator doors slid open, they stepped into a small, utilitarian, gray-walled elevator—no carpet, no mirrors, not even Muzak. Julio pushed the button for the fourth deck.
“The cabins for passengers and officers,” he said, “are on the fourth and fifth decks instead of down in the hull like on a cruise ship.” He barely concealed his scorn for the competition. “Once, the cabins were all for officers, but now,
since we carry the big containers, we do not need so many crew. So, we do not need so many officers. It is bad for officers but good for me,” he announced with a smile. “Me and Sven Ingerson are the stewards for the passengers. You need anything, you call Julio. I will help you …both,” he added with a quick glance at Paavo.
“Thank you,” Angie said when it became clear Paavo wasn’t going to respond. He had slid his hands in his pants pockets and, wearing that same, insipid smile, stared up at the elevator light that blinked with the number of the deck they were on.
On four, the elevator doors opened and they stepped out into a short hallway.
Julio hurried ahead of them and unlocked the cabin door. “Here you are,” he said as he pushed it open with a flourish and waited for them to enter, then rushed past them to draw back the drapery. “Your room has big windows instead of tiny portholes, so you get lots of good light. You will see that everything is very—” His eyes met Angie’s, and he swallowed hard. “—beautiful.”
“Oh, my! This is lovely,” Angie said. The cabin was far larger than any she’d had on a cruise ship. Maybe Paavo hadn’t been as off base as she’d imagined when he pooh-poohed her suggestion to take a cruise on a big liner.
As Paavo stood, doing nothing, in the middle of the cabin, the steward padded closely after
Angie as she investigated the accommodations. In the stateroom, battleship gray was gone. Wooden shelves, a desk, and built-ins filled one side wall. Ahead, a rose-colored sofa sat below windows attractively covered with rose and white drapery. Facing the sofa was a coffee table and two green upholstered chairs. Off to the side was a separate bedroom with a closet.
“Officers lived very well here,” Julio said.
“You’re right,” Angie agreed, stepping into the bedroom. She pushed on the mattress of the queen-size bed, testing its firmness, and mentally calculated how she and Paavo would fit on it. The bed had a raised, padded edge around it to prevent anyone from rolling off during high seas. Not to worry—she had Paavo to hold on to.
“Here’s the bathroom.” Julio’s voice echoed from the small room off the entryway. Angie turned toward it, but he was already back in the sitting room.
“Here,” he continued, looking at Paavo, “is a wall bed”—his gaze turned to Angie—“in case you want it.”
Paavo didn’t bat an eye.
Julio raced to the other side of the room to a small chest in the wall of built-ins and flung open a door. “You have a refrigerator and snack bar. And over there”—he darted across the room just as Angie swung open the closet door, stopping barely in time to avoid a collision—“is the closet.”
“So I see,” she replied. A full-length mirror
was inside the door, and she used it to smooth her dress and fluff her hair.
“Call if you need me,
,” he said breathlessly, backing toward the door. He turned and pulled it open onto his foot, and left with a slight limp.
Angie noticed that Paavo was still standing in the middle of the room.
“We’ll be setting sail anytime now,” she said.
She frowned. “Paavo, is something wrong?”
He slid his hands in his pockets and walked to the window. Looking out at the harbor, he replied softly, “Everything’s fine.” Abruptly, he faced her. “Very fine, in fact.” He crossed the cabin to the snack bar. “I thought I’d wait to tell you about it…but this is as good a time as ever. Let’s see if they have anything in here that we can use to make this a proper celebration.”
Celebration? What did he have to celebrate? Or better yet, what did
have to celebrate? The possibilities sent her pulse racing. “Anything will do,” she said as she watched him paw through the contents of the snack bar.
“It’ll have to.” He stood up with a couple of cans of cola. “I’d hoped for something a little more elegant.”
Angie found two glasses. “It’s too early for elegant, anyway,” she said, pouring the cola. “This is fine.” She handed him a glass. “Now … as you were saying?” She couldn’t contain her excitement a moment longer.
“Angie, this is something you’ve been thinking about for a while. Maybe even—if I’ve understood you—hoped for.”
There was only one thing she’d been thinking about for a long time that involved Paavo—their future together. Marriage. She could scarcely speak. “Yes?”
His gaze met hers and held. “This might seem a bit sudden. But I’m sure it’s the right thing to do.”
She nodded with encouragement. He put his cola down on the coffee table. So did she, then stood and faced him, waiting.
“Angie, I’m leaving the police force.”
She hadn’t heard him right. As much as she would have been amazed had he actually proposed, this was an even bigger shock. “You can’t possibly mean that.”
“I do mean it. I’m quitting. When we get back from vacation, I’ll make it official. I already gave Lt. Hollins notice.”
She dropped onto the sofa, unable to stop staring at him. Something was wrong. That was the only logical explanation. “What happened?”
“Nothing. Being a cop, a homicide inspector, wears you down after a while. The constant brutality that you see, day in and day out. I’m tired, burned out—I’ll admit it. I lasted longer than most, but it’s time to try something new.”
Sitting there with her mouth hanging open made her feel decidedly stupid, but she couldn’t seem to shut it. To have him leave the police,
the dangers of that profession, was what she’d hoped for, prayed for, from the first moment she realized she loved him. But this news was so sudden, so unexpected.
“Do you mind?” he asked.
“Mind?” She was off the sofa like a shot and took his hands. “Of course I don’t mind. It’s just that I never thought…I heard your words, but I’m finding it difficult to believe them.”
“Believe them, Angie.”
She studied his face, but his expression was closed to her. “Just think,” he murmured. “We’ll finally be able to spend more time together. Do more. Plan more. This cruise is a new beginning for us. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Oh, yes!” She lifted her hands to his shoulders. The thought of not having to live with the constant, nagging worry about his work was like a miracle to her. An uneasiness about his sudden decision lurked just beneath the surface as she looked at him, but she pushed it aside, choosing to ignore anything that might interfere with her happiness. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she wrapped her arms around him and nestled her head against his neck as she replied, “It’s exactly what I’ve wanted for a long, long time.”