Henry was always looking for an opportunity to show off his towering intellect, the problem being it wasn’t as towering as he imagined. For forty years he’d been a chartered accountant who enjoyed the occasional detective novel, but since retirement it had become an obsession for Henry. From Holmes to Hercule, Marlow to Marple, Henry knew them all backwards.
“For heaven’s sake, dear, you’re a retired accountant, not an epicure,” I murmured as he picked fussily over his dinner, a trait he’d inherited from Nero Wolfe.
Henry had become more finicky in everything since retirement. Things had to be just right, from the creases ironed into his trousers each morning, to the one and a half spoons of Splenda in his tea three times a day, to his slippers just so beside the bed each evening. I had the feeling that he was going to make this holiday, our first in years, absolute hell.
His seasickness didn’t help. We had hardly left Sydney Harbour before that struck. I had just unpacked and we were sitting down to our first cup of tea when Henry suddenly made a dash to the toilet.
“I don’t feel well,” he moaned from the u-bend. “Bea, I’m not well.”
“Henry, you’re seasick. Come and have a lie down and you’ll feel better.”
Henry, being irrepressible, rallied for dinner, and we were in the restaurant in plenty of time for him to start criticising the service, the food, and the size of the complimentary cocktail.
It was the first night of the cruise, and it was “Meet and Greet Evening” aboard the Pacific Sunset. We were at a table with five strangers: two holidaying couples and a crewmember, and Henry was drawing attention to himself already with his disapproving Wolfesque sighs over the lobster thermidor.
“And what do you do, Mr Willmott?” asked Dr Neumann, a pleasant young Austrian chap, and the ship’s medical officer.
“Call me Henry,” said Henry, beaming around the table. “I was an accountant, but my lovely wife Bea and I are here celebrating my retirement. Now I’m an amateur detective.”
Henry paused for effect. No one quite met his eye.
“Really? How very interesting,” managed Dr Neumann at last.
The young lady next to the doctor bravely soldiered on. “Um, hi, my name’s Julie Mason, and this is my husband Kevin. We’re on our honeymoon.”
They looked at one another adoringly for a moment, as young couples do before forty years of Where are my keys, Bea? and Have you ironed my pants, Bea? takes the shine off marriage.
The last couple wore Versace. They were both tanned and bleached in all the right places, and probably waxed and buffed as well. They were a matched pair, except fot the good fifteen or twenty years age difference.
“Hello, I’m Violet Cavill-Smith,” drawled the bejewelled woman from behind a puff of cigarillo smoke and at least three facelifts. She brushed a manicured hand over the young man’s cheek. “This is my Jet, my fiancé.”
“Oooh!” exclaimed Julie. “You’re Veronica Saint-Just on Deadly Sins!”
Henry had been upstaged, but that didn’t stop him from contributing his usual claptrap for the rest of the meal.
“Motive, means and opportunity are the keys to solving any crime,” he pontificated. “Everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe knew that!”
Poor Kevin Mason, who had never heard of Philip Marlowe, found himself on the receiving end of a twenty minute lecture. It was a relief for everybody when we had to skip dessert as Henry’s nausea resurfaced. Dr Neumann was kind enough to see us back to out cabin.
“I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning,” he said. “If you don’t, my office is on B deck. Goodnight.”
“I don’t feel well, Bea,” Henry griped, but once sitting on our bed he shipped out his notebook and began scribbling away while I made our tea.
“Now really, Henry, can’t you put that away?”
Henry sipped his tea and looked smug. “I don’t suppose you noticed anything odd about that dinner, Bea, since you don’t have my mind, but I most certainly did! Would it surprise you to know that Jet, if that is his real name, is having an affair with Julie Mason?”
“Oh, Henry, leave it alone, won’t you?” I drank my tea in silence while Henry itched to display his powers of deduction, and finally relented. “Go on, then, how could you know that?”
“I have been studying lip reading,” Henry said. “During the man course I saw Julie Mason lean over to Jet and whisper Meet me later. How do you explain that?”
“Lip reading is not an exact science, Henry, especially if you’re a retired accountant.” I shook my head at him. “And I hardly think a girl on her honeymoon and a boy who is being kept in the lap of luxury by a soap star would risk it all on a fling. She’d lose her husband, and he’d lose his bankroll.”
Henry, being Henry, had an answer for everything.
“Whish is probably the reason Jet stole Violet Cavill-Smith’s ring!” Henry’s triumphant look wavered as his stomach rebelled. “Oooh, Bea, I’m not taking to the ocean at all!”
“Have some more sweet tea, Henry, and tell me about this ting theory. It will take your mind off the seasickness.”
“It’s not a theory, Bea,” Henry puffed, slurping his tea. “I have a mind like a steel trap. You’re not observant like me, so you wouldn’t have seen the pale band around her finger where she usually wears a thick ring. She seems like the sort of vain woman who would wear all her flashiest jewels to dinner, so why wasn’t she wearing her thickest ring tonight?”
“Maybe it fell down the sink,” I said.
But Henry was on a roll. “No, it’s far more likely it’s been stolen, and my money’s on Jet. He’s a real fancy man, Bea, a real player. A lady-killer! In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s planning on doing her in!”
“That’s quite a leap from a missing ring,” I said mildly. “Are you alright, dear? Do you need me to call Dr Neumann?”
“Ha! I’m not sure he’s even a real doctor. He certainly isn’t Austrian! Shall I tell you how I know?” Henry had gone quite grey while we spoke, and he clutched his stomach. “I wish we’d gone on the rail trip instead, but you wanted this cruise. I should have known better than to listen to you!”
“There, there, Henry,” I said soothingly.
He smiled grimly through his nausea. “Still, it has given me a chance to pit my keen intellect against this criminal plot. Motive, means and opportunity!”
I thought back to dinner. “But Henry, everyone seemed so nice. Are you sure, dear, that you aren’t just jumping to conclusions?”
“I suppose you think I’m just a silly old man!” Henry said indignantly.
“Yes, dear,” I answered, feeling a little sorry for him that he just wasn’t clever enough to figure it out in the end. “That’s why I poisoned your tea.”