-Lee Strauss, author of Ginger Gold Mysteries
CHAPTER 1 - Murder on the SS Rosa
In the dismal autumn of 1918 Ginger Gold had vowed she’d never go back to Europe. Yet here she was, five years later in 1923, aboard the SS Rosa as it traversed the Atlantic from Boston to Liverpool.
“Isn’t a dinner invitation from the Captain reserved for very important persons?” Haley Higgins asked.
Ginger propped a hand on her tiny waist and feigned insult. “Are you suggesting that I’m not a very important person?”
“I’d never suggest such a thing,” Haley said lightly. “Only that I’m not aware of your connection to him.”
“Oh, yes. Father used to travel to England once or twice a year for business, and they had made an acquaintance. Of course this was some years ago, before Father fell ill. Captain Walsh recognized my name on the passenger list. It was nice of him to extend an invitation, was it not?”
Haley nodded. “I expect it to be quite entertaining.”
Ginger chose a billowy, violet dropped-waist dress with a hem that ended near her ankles, nude stockings with seams that ran up the back of her slender legs, and black designer t-strap heels. She clipped on dangling earrings and patted the ends of her bobbed red hair with the palms of her gloved hands. She made a show of presenting herself.
“How do I look?”
“Gorgeous, as always,” Haley said. Long since ready, she waited patiently in a rose-coloured upholstered chair. She was the sensible type, having only packed a few tweed and linen suits. She wasn’t much for “presentation.” It made getting ready quick and painless.
Curled up on the silky pink quilted cover on Ginger’s bed was a small short-haired black and white dog. Ginger scrubbed him behind his pointed ears and kissed his forehead. “You’re such a good boy, Boss.” The small Boston terrier’s stub of a tail wagged in agreement.
Ginger finished her ensemble by draping a creamy silk shawl over her shoulders. “Shall we?” Ginger said, motioning to the door.
Boss stood and stretched his hind legs.
“Oh, sorry, Bossy. Not you this time.”
The dog let out a snort of disappointment then circled his pillow before settling and swiftly fell back to sleep.
“I love the sea! Don’t you?” Ginger said as she and Haley walked along an exterior corridor of the ship. She extended her youthful arms and inhaled exuberantly. “It’s one of the reasons I love Boston. So invigorating. Makes one feel alive!”
“Oh, honey, listen to you!” Haley said with amusement. “Your latent Britishness is becoming more pronounced the closer we get to England. Makes one feel alive,” she added, feigning Ginger’s sudden use of an English accent.
Though Ginger considered herself a Bostonian through and through, she embraced her English heritage. After all, Massachusetts was part of New England.
“You’re jolly well right, old thing,” Ginger admitted with an exaggerated English accent. She laughed heartily, bringing a smile to Haley’s normally stoic expression.
“You sounded like your father just now,” Haley said.
Ginger placed a hand on her heart. “Oh, I do miss him.”
“In his honour I shall be thoroughly British for the duration of my time abroad.”
“And you’ll do it charmingly,” Haley said.
Ginger threaded her arm through her friend’s. “Soon-to-be Doctor Higgins,” she said. “We mustn’t keep the Captain waiting.”
“If you insist, Mrs. Gold,” Haley returned then added, “You know, I think he has eyes for you.”
“Pfft. How can you say that? We only met him for a second.” Ginger flicked her gloved hand. “Besides, he’s got a wife.”
“With men like the captain,” Haley said stiffly, “I hardly think that matters.”
* * *
A wide, modern staircase with lush red carpeting led to an elegant first-class dining room on the top deck.
“Posh,” Haley said. “I’m not sure I fit in here.”
“Nonsense,” Ginger responded airily. “You’re with me!”
Haley scoffed lightly. “An accessory? I’m certainly not flamboyant enough to suit your style.”
Ginger laughed, a spritely giggle her husband Daniel once had said reminded him of fairies dancing in a waterfall.
“You are on the inside, my dear Haley. That’s what counts.”
The red carpet continued throughout the restaurant accenting jade green and dusty rose upholstered chairs placed in groups of four around round, brass-trimmed chestnut tables.
“There they are,” Ginger said, and led the way to where their hosts were seated.
Captain Walsh was an attractive man of average height and weight. His thick dark hair greying slightly at the temples. He stood when he identified them, exuding authority. “Mrs. Gold. It’s a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is ours,” Ginger said, shaking the captain’s hand. His palm was large but soft and he wore a wide ring that brandished a flat section of jade. The sleeve of his shirt slipped past the four stripes on the cuff of his jacket, and Ginger noted a handsome cufflink, a shiny silver piece embossed with a fleur-de-lis.
Motioning to Haley, she added, “This is my companion, Miss Higgins.”
The captain’s smile remained as he offered his hand. “Good to meet you.”
Haley shook his hand with a vice-grip confidence. “Likewise.”
“May I introduce my wife, Mrs. Walsh.” The thin woman on his right wore a dated late-Edwardian smock that was cinched at the waist. Her overly upright posture indicated that she most certainly wore an antiquated corset. She nodded in greeting but refrained from offering a hand or even a smile. Ginger blamed the corset for her poor temperament.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Walsh.” Ginger took the seat next to the captain while Haley positioned herself beside his wife.
“Please let me express my appreciation at your kind invitation to join you on our first night,” Ginger said. “I’m sure these seats are much coveted!”
“It is my delight to have the daughter of Mr. Hartigan on board. Your father was a respectable gentleman, and I’m honoured to have known him. I only wish he were alive and with us here today.”
“As do I.” Ginger patted Haley’s arm. “Miss Higgins, his personal nurse through his last years, showed him the compassion and respect he deserved. She was also a tremendous comfort to my little sister and step-mother. I really don’t know what we would’ve done without her.” Ginger’s praise of Haley was sincere, but she also hoped a good character reference would erase any prejudice forthcoming due to her friend’s unorthodox attire.
“How fortunate that she could accompany you to London,” Mrs. Walsh said with a crisp English accent.
“Indeed, it is stupendously good fortune,” Ginger said. “Just as I was making plans to attend to my father’s London estate, Miss Higgins learned she would continue her medical training there.”
Mrs. Walsh looked astounded. “A lady doctor?”
“Many doors are opening for the modern woman, Mrs. Walsh,” Haley responded. “In fact the institution in question is the London School of Medicine for Women.”
“But why London?” Captain Walsh asked. “Though, I’m the first to acknowledge how fine the city is, surely there is a prestigious facility in America?”
“Yes, of course,” Haley said. “I completed two years at Boston University before enlisting in the war.” A shadow flickered behind her eyes, “You could say I was ready for a change of scenery.” The catalyst for change was Haley’s fiancé, who, despite potential social repercussions, had unceremoniously broken off their relationship to pursue another woman.
Before the captain or Mrs. Walsh could probe further Ginger interjected, ‘‘Miss Higgins served as a nurse during the war, both in France and England. She developed an affection for London, didn’t you, old girl?”
Ginger giggled at her use of the English parlance, and Haley smirked. “I did, indeed.”
A waiter took their drink order and when he returned Ginger accepted her glass of fine French wine with relish. “Even though we’re no longer in the States, I can’t help but feel guilty.” She cast a slight glance over her shoulder and giggled. “I half expect a federal prohibition agent to arrest me any minute!”
“You are quite safe,” Captain Walsh said with a smile. “This vessel is under the command of His Royal Highness who, on occasion, happens to enjoy a drink or two.”
Ginger sipped daintily as she allowed the fruity sensation to tingle her mouth before swallowing. She sighed with contentment.
Mrs. Walsh attempted to pick up her glass, but the captain moved it out of reach. “Not for you. You know what happens when you drink too much.” Mrs. Walsh’s lips pursed in anger, but she stayed silent.
Ginger and Haley shared a look. If the captain was watching out for his wife, he certainly wasn’t subtle. Ginger could feel the heat of Mrs. Walsh’s embarrassment reach her from across the table.
Thankfully, the meal arrived, dissipating the situation. Ginger’s mouth watered at the sight of roasted lamb with mint sauce, roasted potatoes and buttered green beans. The smell was heavenly. The chief cook, a rotund man with a ruddy complexion and dark eyes, hovered beside the captain, waiting for his assessment.
The captain made a point of chewing well, and followed the morsel up with a sip of chardonnay. “It’s good, Babineaux.”
After her first bite Ginger added enthusiastically, “Simply delicious!”
Babineaux nodded, then cast a glance at Mrs. Walsh. A look passed between them as the woman nodded her approval allowing for a smile. Had Ginger imagined it, or had something more meaningful than a culinary rating been communicated?
A beautiful woman sat at a table across the room. Ginger recognized her as Nancy Guilford, the famous American actress. In her company were several gentlemen—one Ginger thought to be particularly dapper—and a middle-aged female companion. Ginger admired Miss Guilford’s exotic long-waist ocean-blue, oriental gown trimmed in fur. Her wavy blonde bob exposed diamond earrings that glistened in the electric light, and her lips were thick and bright red.
“Patty, darlin’,” Nancy Guilford said with a loud, New Jersey accent. Her voice was surprisingly nasal. Not at all what a person would expect from such a beautiful and sophisticated face. “Hand me my ciggies.”
Her companion delivered a package of cigarettes, which Miss Guilford opened with long graceful fingers. She placed a cigarette into an ivory-coloured holder and held it to her lips. One of the men (not the dapper one, Ginger was happy to note) rapidly produced a brass lighter and offered a flame. Miss Guilford inhaled then let out a long stream of smoke in the captain’s direction.
Though it was a simple, routine, everyday activity—a mere inhale and exhale—Nancy Guilford had made a compelling performance out of it. Even if someone present hadn’t recognized the actress, her flair and charisma commanded attention. Ginger was sure the entire room noticed her. Mrs. Walsh, in particular, seemed agitated. She glared at the actress with jealousy and suspicion in her eyes.
Ginger didn’t think Mrs. Walsh paranoid in the least. The blonde stared shamelessly at the captain, going out of her way to present a creamy, bare calf when she crossed her legs.
The captain pulled at his collar and pretended not to notice. The four of them returned to polite conversation, interspersed with comments on the quality of the meal and the splendour of the dining room.
Throughout the meal the captain, when his eyes weren’t straying to the glamorous actress, watched Ginger in a way that left her feeling slightly uncomfortable. She feared Haley’s assessment of him was all too correct.