Preview, Mystery on The Delta Queen
Editor's Note: Mystery on The Delta Queen is still in production. Watch DeltaQueenNovels.com for the news of its publication. Meanwhile, here's a sample of the story. Enjoy!
She hadn't counted on the cobblestones when she decided to wear heels instead of those pretty, black patent-leather pumps. Last night in her hotel room, she had arranged and re-arranged her wardrobe for today. Her line of work confirmed her life-long belief in the importance of appearances. First impressions mattered.
The seriousness of her mission today was reflected in the fact that she would meet with the riverboat's young captain along with the other important witnesses among his crew as soon as she was aboard the boat and settled in her cabin for the cruise. A tasteful, businesslike image was what she meant to project. To that end, she had selected her black silk blouse with the V-neck. On the bare, bronze skin above her breasts, she displayed a delicate gold necklace with a single pink pearl that hung like a pale rain drop. A charcoal skirt complemented her trim figure and her long, golden legs.
But the heels were a mistake.
Gawd, Christine! she thought, as she pictured herself now wobbling down St. Louis's steep levee toward the spot where The Delta Queen, the legendary steamboat, was tied up. Teetering absurdly on the uneven cobblestones, she was as shaky as a new foaled colt, not yet accustomed to its own brittle legs and its complicated system of knobby knees.
Despite her predicament, though, the sudden horse imagery -- a favorite, actually, among her stable of the personal movies she played in her head from time to time -- made her smile at herself. She could even hear her dad chiding her with "Clop, clop, clop!" His husky voice would be mocking the sound of her heels clattering on the round, treacherous stones.
Horses always united Christine and her father, especially now that he was gone. She was Christine Apple, the name she had proudly reclaimed after last year's divorce. Her fine, old Lexington, Kentucky, family didn't own Appledown anymore, of course -- family stories told how moody Grandpa Willis Apple lost it in the Depression, along with his Jaguar, his wife and his favorite mistress -- but even though the Apples were no longer in the business of operating a horse farm, Christine had grown up among thoroughbreds. Her late father, a thoroughbred in his own right, came out of the Depression as Fayette County's most beloved trainer of other Bluegrass breeders' horses. And as far as Christine was concerned, she was lucky how things turned out. She would choose the stable over The Big House any day.
Horses were even indirectly responsible for introducing her to The Delta Queen steamboat decades ago. That was long before what was turning out to be their wobbly reunion today. Christine had been remembering that earlier day just last night at the hotel.
It was at the Kentucky Derby more than 20 years ago. Christine, then a starving journalism student at the University of Louisville, got swept along in a bevy of rich Bullitt relatives to a series of lavish Derby Day parties all around the city. Then in a boisterous, tipsy caravan, the Bullitts carried her along as they descended on Churchill Downs for the famed horse race itself.
Later, after collecting some modest winnings from the betting windows, a pair of comical older cousins -- the twins, Charles and Hollis Bullitt -- kidnapped her for another adventure. They would be among a select group of local dignitaries who had been invited aboard The Delta Queen for an hour or so, they told her, for the riverboat's annual race with the local steamer, The Belle of Louisville.
"You think we'll get to bet on 'em, Chrissie?" said Hollis, as he eased his Oldsmobile out onto the highway and headed for the river.
Lovable Hollis Bullitt would gamble on anything that moved, on land or on the water. In fact, sadly, all these years later, the sweet old man's continued passion for risk and for the prospects of an easy dollar had produced quite dire results. These unfortunate consequences of his life-long weakness for a gamble were what now had brought his cousin Christine down to the levee today, this time, alas, for professional reasons.
But on that much happier day years earlier, in the car on Derby Day, Christine knew enough to laugh at Hollis' suggestion. Riverboat races were just theatrics. They were not real competition, and certainly not events for serious gamblers like Hollis. Among the horsy set in which Christine grew up, the term "steamboat race" actually was a pejorative. Translated, it meant a cheat, a fixed horse race. Steamboat races were all just for show. But what a show! It would be an afternoon that Christine would never forget.
Unlike today's clear, bright July sky, that May day was cool and overcast, a study in grays and muted browns. But when Hollis turned the car to view the Louisville riverfront, it seemed to Christine that the sun had just come out.
The Delta Queen sat sparkling and shimmering on the calm, green water of the Ohio. Like a Christmas ornament, the grand old boat looked as if she were caught twinkling in a rare ray of precious white winter sunlight. All her railings were decked with red, white and blue bunting. Kentucky's royal blue state flag fluttered on the jackstaff, and American flags flew in a glittering array, lining the highest deck. A banner hung from the front of her tall white pilot house proclaiming in red and blue, "Hello, Louisville!" At her rear, her enormous red paddlewheel turned slowly, as if she were prancing in the paddock, eager and ready for a race.
Suddenly, as Christine stepped from the car, the air was filled with the harsh and mystical music of the calliope. Hollis, who would always be her favorite cousin, laughed at whatever he saw in her face at that precise moment. Above the roar, he whispered something in her ear -- she didn't quite catch all the words, but the hair of his finely trimmed gray moustache tickled her earlobe, which might have been his goal -- and then he pointed. Bursts of white steam rocketed skyward at the stern of the riverboat, syncopated with each weird and wonderful chord that came from the steam-powered piano. Meanwhile up on board, swaying passengers lined the railings and sang along with music.
"Camptown ladies sing this song, do-dah, do-dah,
"Camptown race-track five miles long, all the do-dah daaaaay...."
Charles, the more somber of the Bullitt twins, led them to the foot of the red-carpeted gangplank. There a white-uniformed officer intercepted them. Charles whispered a few words, then produced a sheet of paper from his blazer's inside breast pocket. Examining the sheet, the officer nodded, smiled and stepped back. Then the officer led them across the main deck to a pair of opened double doors and a bright, brass-plated stairway leading up. With Hollis holding her arm and Charles following behind, Christine mounted the stairs.
Into a buzzing Victorian parlor they emerged. It was a glowing room of mahogany and brass, of crystal and rich, floral carpet. Chattering people sat in over-stuffed chairs and on sofas and gathered around gleaming wooden tables with their white coffee mugs and their fluted champagne glasses. Fruit and cheese, bread and sliced meat filled several tables that lined one wall. Servers in white jackets stood by, ready with forks and knives. Cool light from the gray day turned golden in here, because it was warmed and recast by the stained glass accents on all the windows on both sides of the wide lounge. Jazz on a piano floated in from some distant room and the sounds of laughter drifted along above it all, as if joy were written right into the arrangement.
"The Forward Cabin Lounge," Hollis said reverently. "And look at this!"
Like a proud patron, he eagerly led Christine through the crowd to the other side of the room to admire the view from the foot of its grand staircase. Polished chocolate-brown mahogany columns stood like sentries on either side of the stairs, while matching mahogany banisters topped intricate filigree all the way to the top. Brass-plated steps led along wood-paneled walls to a room above, from which, Christine now realized, the jazz was coming.
"They built her in 1927," Hollis said. "She's the genuine article. Not some Disneyland ride, this old girl, but a real, honest-to-Sam-Clemens steamboat."
"Have you been on the Delta Queen before?" Christine asked.
That hooted answer came, not from Hollis, but from Charles who was still bringing up the rear.
"He's read a few books and now he's the expert."
"Charlie doesn't approve of books," Hollis said. (Only Hollis ever called Charles "Charlie," and then only when he was planning on sparing with him.)
"No, what I don't approve of, Christine," said Charles, "is shortcuts. You must know my brother lives in a world of tricks and shortcuts."
"Oh, and don't forget luck," Hollis chimed, winking at Christine as he said it.
"Yes, and luck too," Charles continued, warming to his text. He was enjoying his role as court curmudgeon. "And schemes and scams. Show Hollis a success story and he'll look for a trick in it."
"And?" prompted Hollis, for this was familiar play.
"And, of course, the 'trick' can never hard work and planning. Nothing to Hollis is ever as simple as it appears."
"Charlie! Charlie! You're boring our pretty cousin. Come with me, sugar." With a lascivious grin, Hollis added, "Let me show you my paddlewheel, my dear!"
Leaving Charles behind to explore on his own and accepting two glasses of champagne for them from a passing tray, Hollis led Christine through side doors and outside to a covered deck. Turning left, they strolled through the sweet, spring breeze of the river toward the stern of the boat, passing white laced curtains that covered the windows of cabins all along the way. The calliope had ended its performance for the time being, and in the resulting silence, Christine could hear the lap of the Ohio River against the side of the boat. It beat a gentle counterpoint to Hollis' equally persistent running commentary. Rounding the corner and sipping their champagne, they came to a stop just one deck above the red wooden paddlewheel. Looking down upon it from the smooth, teakwood railing, they could see it was motionless now, but still dripping from its earlier rotations.
"...weighs 28 tons," Hollis was saying. "It has lots of 28's, actually. It's 28 feet in diameter... and it's built with 28 bucket boards -- that's what they call the wooden planks...."
"Hollis!" Christine finally interrupted. "Why did you learn all this stuff?"
Her cousin was rocked back by her outburst. Then, his gray eyes twinkling, Hollis smoothed his moustache as he regained his footing. Taking her arm, he led her to continue their stroll around the other corner and along on the port side of the boat.
"What a clever woman you're going to be, my love!" he said after a moment. "Instead of the obvious question of 'how' did I learn all this -- since you already know the answer is books, books, books -- you've jumped right to the more interesting 'why'. Good for you!"
As they came to an exterior stairway, Hollis stepped aside so Christine could climb first. He followed two steps behind. One flight up, they arrived on a deck that was only partially covered overhead. It was lined with wooden doors for more cabins, each door bearing a numbered brass plate.
"The Texas Deck," Hollis faithfully reported.
Turning right, he guided her toward the bow of the boat, past a lounge from which came the jazz that now was a considerably louder. The piano Christine had heard earlier when they were inside now was joined by entire Dixieland band. Merrily, a cornet and clarinet wove an intricate musical vine over the rhythm of a banjo, a bass and drums, while the piano pounded chords of encouragement from the sidelines.
"The Texas Lounge," Hollis said.
Beyond the lounge, they reached a huge open deck at the very front of the boat. White wrought-iron tables and chairs filled the deck, where Derby Day celebrants already were gathering, each staking out a place from which to watch the coming race with The Belle of Louisville. Many were in period costume. Women in hoop skirts and bonnets. Men in beaver hats and wearing spats on their shoes. Colorful balloons had been tied to the railings, and waiters in white jackets were arriving now, some with trays of empty crystal glasses, others with more bottles of champagne in each hand.
Suddenly, The Delta Queen's whistle blew. It was a deep, brassy, stately sound that vibrated with something deep and ancient in Christine's chest. At the same instant, Hollis was turning her toward the pilot house, directly behind and above them. He pointed just as the second blast of the whistle came. White steam from the whistle shimmered against the black smoke that was suddenly pouring from the boat's stack.
Then the captain stepped from the pilothouse onto the wing bridge, a bull horn in his hand. He was a giant, well over six feet tall with shoulders that bulged under the gold-striped epaulets of his white shirt. His face was red leather with lines formed by a myriad of emotions, the kind of man you might see as the tough sergeant in a World War II movie. The captain glanced at his passengers -- he knew their eyes were on him -- then he removed the cigar that had been clenched in his teeth and, leaning over the wing bridge, began calling commands to his crew.
Christine followed Hollis to an open spot by the railing. There they could look down upon the main deck, where they had stepped aboard just minutes earlier. Deckhands in coveralls dashed about working with the lines that would free the steamer from the shore. On the levee, crowds of spectators cheered each blast of the whistle, each maneuver by the adept linesmen as they wrestled the huge ropes loose. In the next moment, the crew scampered back onboard and the red-carpeted gangplank was lifted by the boat's crane and rotated before the bow.
From the stern of the boat, the calliope was starting up again, this time playing "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee." Sizzling, brassy notes were greeted with another loud hooray from those back on shore, a joyous cry that was echoed by the lucky passengers onboard. Along the railings, costumed women with parasols waved colorful silk handkerchiefs, while men with Nikons and Pentaxes scurried about, looking for their next photographs. Some framed the Louisville skyline in the intricate rigging of the boat. Others knelt to snap a picture of a waving, wide-eyed child against the outline of the jackstaff and its flag. It was lighter now, too, the sun finally beginning to break through the day's mountainous clouds.
For the first time, Christine felt the boat moving. It was surprisingly gentle. It was as if the river merely were patiently reclaiming the boat with a light tug. Within a minute, The Delta Queen was in the middle of the Ohio River and pirouetting.
"She's always pointing upstream when she ties up," Hollis said, "but the race is downstream, so she has to turn. And here comes The Belle!"
Sure enough, while The Delta Queen was still turning to get into position, The Belle of Louisville came roaring, already under a head of steam. She was a much larger boat, also dressed up in flags and balloons and her decks were filled with waving passengers. Black smoke poured from both of her two huge stacks and white billows of steam rolled off her bow. Before anyone realized it, the race was on.
"Hey!" someone at the railing cried. "We weren't ready yet!" The protest was greeted by laughter.
"All's fair, darling," someone answered, "in love, war -- and steamboat racin'."
The calliope was silent again -- "We're conserving our steam," someone explained -- and to fill the silence, the Dixieland band now moved out to the Texas Deck with them. With a quick count-off from the cornet player, the band launched into a lively rendition of "Muskrat Ramble." Hands and arms reached out to each other and before long, amid the shouts and cheers, some passengers were dancing to music.
Watching the Belle's commanding lead begin to shrink, Christine turned to ask Hollis how fast they were going. However, she found she suddenly was alone. After a day of devoted attention, she had been abruptly deserted. Scanning the deck, she spotted her cousin hurrying around the corner.
Depositing her empty champagne glass on the nearest wrought-iron table, Christine turned to follow. It took a moment, though, to work her way through the growing crowd on the open front deck. The happy jazz had drawn even more passengers and visitors forward to the Texas Deck. Flags waved, and cheers were being organized for the newcomers. The two boats were edging closer and closer. Finally, Christine worked her way free of the mob and rounded the corner where Hollis had gone. However, by the time she got there, her cousin was nowhere to be seen.
She followed the narrow deck along the port side the whole the length of the boat. Just before reaching the stern, she spied him.
Hollis was standing side by side with his brother Charles. They were alone. All the others on board were enthralled by the race. But the Bullitt twins were not looking at the Belle and progress of the competition at all. Instead they were staring -- rather solemnly -- at something in completely the opposite direction. Since their backs were turned to her, Christine was able to approach closer and quietly without their noticing. As she did, she found that what the brothers were fascinated with was the water cascading over the paddlewheel.
It was magical. A gossamer-thin wisp of mist floated so peacefully above the rapidly-turning red wooden wheel. Rays of the sun, now piercing the edges of pink clouds to the west, caught that mist in precisely the right way, with a stunning, surprising result. A perfect rainbow curled itself around the roaring wheel's top edge. It echoed the graceful curve of the paddlewheel's lines. The rainbow hovered there for minutes, like a painting. Effortlessly, it glided along behind the racing boat.
"That was the precise moment that Hollis fell head over heels in love with The Delta Queen," Charles said with a tight little smile just days ago.
Charles closed his eyes and gathered his thoughts. "You got to remember, Christine," he said then, "that for all his reading and research, Hollis had never seen that big old wheel actually turning. That hour we all spent together on Derby Day was his first time on board. Funny how I can still remember that ... rainbow..."
The word did not come easily to Charles's lips. There was even a slight cringe as he said it. Was he embarrassed, Christine wondered, to be sharing such a tender memory, even with her, even at a time like this?
"More brandy, dear?" he said now.
Christine had joined Charles in the library in his house in Virginia, watching the summer sun go down over the apple orchard. She had been summoned here by the family, which had finally found a use for what they all considered her curious calling.
"Can you really find my brother?" Charles said quietly now, speaking in a whisper, as he refilled her glass.
That was her mission. And the trail led to The Delta Queen.