Seth Hazlitt eyed the crowded boardwalk with obvious distaste. “Not too late to turn around now, Jess,” he observed. “Buy a hot dog, see the sights. Or just go back to the hotel until tomorrow.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jessica scolded him. “We phoned from the airport and told them we were running late, and they’re holding the boat for us. Besides, you’re the only family Mark has left.”
“It’s hardly my fault his sister’s in jail for fraud,” Seth pointed out. “And it’s not as though we’re close.”
“Be that as it may, we’ve already bought the gift and flown all the way here.” Jessica scanned the pier, then brightened. “There we are, the Chicago Dolphin!”
Sure enough, the cruise ship was visible just a few hundred yards away, with velvet ropes demarcating a now-empty line for boarding.
“The worst part of having your wedding on a ship is that there’s no way to make for the exit after the reception starts,” Seth grumbled.
“Which means we won’t miss the cake.” Jessica patted his arm and stepped forward briskly, still carrying the opulent candlesticks purchased from the registry.
An attractive young woman in a blue satin dress came up beside them as they reached the end of the velvet rope lines, immediately touching Seth on the arm.
“You must be Mark’s Uncle Seth!” she exclaimed. “You look exactly like the photographs of your brother. I’m Julie Sands, Mark’s fiancee.”
The look of surprise on Seth’s face didn’t completely disappear as he struggled for the polite response. “There is a certain family resemblance,” he allowed, “so I suppose this is what Mark can look forward to in forty years. May I introduce my friend Jessica Fletcher?”
“JB Fletcher, the writer!” Julie gave Jessica a quick, immediate half-hug, careful not to dislodge the wedding gift. “Mark’s told me all about you, of course, and how you helped solve his father’s murder. We’re so pleased you could attend!”
“Thank you for inviting us,” Jessica said. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Julie. I’m sure Mark is a very lucky young man.”
Julie’s smile, already glowing, grew piercingly bright. “I couldn’t be happier to spend the rest of our lives together,” she said. “And I want to hear all about you, but I have to go get changed into my dress! You’ll be sitting at the family table at the reception though, so I expect we’ll have plenty of time over dinner. For now, if you want to board, the crew can show you to the upper deck!”
With that, she was gone, and Jessica gave Seth a bemused smile before turning to ascend the metal stairs onto the ship.
“She certainly seemed enthusiastic about Mark,” she commented as Seth followed on her heels.
“I suppose someone has to be,” Seth retorted. “Are we supposed to mill around the upper deck until the ceremony?”
“Right this way, please,” a man in an outlandish sailor’s outfit interrupted, gesturing them forward. His voice came with a Chicago accent so thick that Jessica wondered whether it was put on simply for tourists. “There’s a table just through the doors where you can place your gift, and then head on up the stairs to your starboard side.” He winked at them. “Starboard means right in nautical talk,” he explained.
“Has anyone told him this is Lake Michigan?” Seth muttered.
Jessica shushed him. “I hope you’ve gotten it out of your system, because we’re about to be pleasant for the rest of the evening,” she warned.
They deposited the candlesticks on a table stacked high with white and gold wrapped boxes, taking in the sight of twenty round tables with place cards and champagne glasses, then began the climb to the upper deck. Just as Jessica reached the top, she saw the boat began to pull away from the boardwalk, although there was hardly any sensation of motion aboard the huge ship.
“I hope we haven’t delayed things too much,” she observed.
“Next time we’ll tell them to go on without us,” Seth suggested, but he caught a glimpse of the pier retreating, glowing gold in the sunset, and gave a nod of appreciation. “Not a bad view.”
“Chicago has a very distinctive skyline,” Jessica agreed. “I imagine it’ll look even more beautiful when the sun goes down.”
They turned their attention to the deck then, and saw the lines of folding chairs before an arch of white roses, facing into the deep blue sky in the east. The deck was illuminated by strings of twinkling lights, and most of the other guests had already taken their seats.
“It looks like we’ll be sitting up front,” Jessica observed, and she led the way briskly up the aisle, wanting to get out of the way well before the ceremony started. Both front rows were nearly empty, but the bride’s side held a couple just a few years younger than Jessica and Seth, whom she immediately took to be Julie’s parents. The woman was tall and stately, with dark hair and exquisite jewels that Jessica suspected were real, even from that distance. The man was slouched forward in his seat, with a look that suggested either extreme annoyance or indigestion.
Jessica and Seth filed to their seats across the aisle, and just in time: a moment later, the speaker system sputtered into life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the Chicago Dolphin cruise ship for the wedding celebration of Mark Hazlitt and Julie Sands!” The announcer was clearly the man in the sailor’s outfit who had greeted them as they boarded. “I’m your captain, Russell Wentz, and on behalf of Mark and Julie, I’d like to welcome you all to a night to remember! We’re currently pulling away from shore at a speed of 20 knots - that’s the nautical term for approximately 23 miles per hour - to a destination about two miles from Navy Pier. The Chicago Dolphin will travel about three miles from shore over the course of the evening, and we’ll put some distance across the lake over your dinners, but we’re anchoring at a picture perfect location for the ceremony itself! For now, I’d like to invite you all to take your seats. The wedding will begin shortly. Finally, I’d like to remind you all to please put away your cameras, as the bride and groom have hired professional photographers to capture the moment so you can enjoy it.”
The announcement faded out with a crackle, and the few people who had still been milling about and pressing up against the railing hurried to the remaining empty seats. Jessica took a deep breath, taking stock of the surroundings. She always enjoyed weddings, and a wedding on a cruise ship would be a new experience for her. Besides, her last trip to Chicago had been interrupted by an unfortunate incident, and she was determined to make the most of this one.
The boat was large and modern, and the top deck had been decorated beautifully with gauzy white fabric and white and blue roses. The ceremony was to take place just in front of a small room on the deck, painted white and illuminated by rows of tiny twinkling lights. Behind their backs, the sun was setting over the city, and in front of them the sky was a beautiful blue and violet twilight.
Just then, three men emerged from a staircase on the other side of the deck, and a hush fell over the attendees.
First came a man who was clearly the officiant, in a black suit and clerical collar, a small pair of glasses perched precariously on his nose. He was followed by someone who could only be the best man, and the groom, in matching cobalt ties.
Jessica would hardly have recognized Mark Hazlitt. The only time they had previously met, he had presented himself as a mercenary, arrogant, emotionally stunted young man, more concerned with his father’s will than with his murder. He had butted heads with Seth and given Jessica a distinctly unfavorable impression, but the intervening months seemed to have done wonders for him.
Mark was visibly nervous, and his cold exterior had melted away to reveal that he was indeed capable of deep emotion. The best man gave him a reassuring clap on the back as they took their places just in front of Jessica and Seth, and Jessica saw Mark return the barest hint of a smile before turning to the aisle eagerly, hands clasping together before he remembered himself and dropped them to his sides.
He wasn’t kept waiting long. A moment later, the timeless notes of Handel’s Water Music Suite were broadcast across the ship’s speaker system, and the crowd turned as one to watch the staircase to the lower deck.
There was no flower girl - indeed, the entire passenger list had a distinctly adult aura - but a single maid of honor climbed the staircase, her gown the same deep blue that Julie had been wearing on the boardwalk. Her striking face was set in a regal smile, and her walk was poised and confident. On any other day, she would undoubtedly have been the most beautiful woman in attendance, but Jessica had been to enough weddings to know that no one ever quite manages to outshine the bride.
Behind her maid of honor, Julie appeared. Her dress was an elegant princess style, the fitted bodice and tulle skirt flattering an already shapely figure, and her dark hair was adorned with unseasonal white snowdrops. Jessica even heard Seth take a breath of surprise at her radiance.
She floated down the aisle unaccompanied, and Jessica firmly believed that in that moment, Julie Sands was the most beautiful woman in the world. From his face, Mark Hazlitt agreed. The two of them could barely take their eyes off one another as the minister began to recite solemn, familiar words.
The ceremony was brief but poignant; the officiant spoke of the choice the couple had made to walk through life together, and asked for the support of those in attendance as they continued their journey. The traditional vows were spoken, but the bride and groom had also prepared simple, heartfelt statements of their devotion. When Julie spoke of the way Mark made her feel, from the first moment she laid eyes on him, Jessica was reminded forcefully of her own wedding to Frank, and the years they had spent together. Seth’s eyes were wet by the end of Mark’s response, although Jessica knew he would steadfastly deny it by the time they sat down to dinner.
“When I met you, I was so blinded by everything I had lost that I had given up thinking there was something left to gain,” Mark said, his voice unsteady with emotion. “I see now how wrong I was, and I’m grateful every day that you’ve given me a future I never thought was possible.”
Julie threw her arms around Mark practically before he had finished speaking, kissing him passionately. The officiant, after a moment’s confused pause, spoke over the whistles and applause coming from the rows of guests.
“Mark and Julie, by the power vested in me, I now pronounce you married.”
The couple continued their embrace, Mark’s arms squeezing tightly round Julie, until they finally broke apart.
“Wow,” Julie said, and the guests hushed to hear what came next.
“Wow,” Mark agreed.
The best man stepped forward, positioning himself just beside Mark.
“You, uh, skipped the rings,” he pointed out, offering up two boxes in his hand, and everyone joined in the laughter. Mark took the larger of the two boxes, a little shamefacedly, and caught Julie’s hand.
“Just so everyone knows,” he said, fitting the ring to her finger.
Julie looked like she was tempted to kiss him again, but instead she took the second box and removed Mark’s ring, sliding it into place. The couple gazed adoringly at each other, and the best man discreetly removed the empty boxes from their right hands, ducking awkwardly as he passed in front of the aisle.
The captain’s heavy Chicago accent sounded over the speaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will proceed back down to the lower deck the way you came in, you may take your seats at the reception tables. The bride and groom will join you shortly.”
Chatter broke out again among the guests as they stood and filed downstairs, but Mark, Julie and the wedding party stayed rooted to the spot.
“Well, weddings have changed a bit from our day, haven’t they?” Jessica asked Seth lightly as they stood and surveyed the line to the stairs.
Seth snorted. “Carried away in the name of love! Maybe they haven’t changed too much after all.”
Jessica knew he was thinking of his brother and Molly, as much as his own wedding, but all the bitterness that had once been present had evaporated when he and Richard had reconnected.
“She made a beautiful bride, don’t you think?” Jessica asked.
“Beautiful,” Seth agreed. He cleared his throat suddenly. “I hope the cruise ship doesn’t have some subpar catering company with wilted lettuce and an overcooked chicken cutlet. I knew we should have stopped for hot dogs on our way.”
Jessica and Seth filed back across the deck at the end of the crowd of guests, noticing that nearly everyone around them seemed younger. As they neared the stairs, they encountered the man and woman Jessica had assumed to be the bride’s parents, and she smiled brightly.
“A beautiful ceremony, wasn’t it?” she asked. “I’m Jessica Fletcher, and this is my friend, Dr. Seth Hazlitt.”
The man looked slightly disgruntled at being spoken to, but the woman with him returned Jessica’s smile. “I’m Elizabeth Sands,” she said. “My husband, Maurice. We’re Julie’s parents. You must be Mark’s uncle,” she added to Seth.
“Ah, yes,” Seth agreed, nodding his head. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Sands.”
“Oh, please, call me Elizabeth,” she invited. “I believe you’ll be sitting with us at dinner. We’re so pleased you could attend. I know it meant a lot to Mark.”
Seth looked at least as uncomfortable as Maurice upon hearing that pronouncement. “I’m sorry we couldn’t have been closer before his father’s death,” he said.
“It’s what happens now that counts,” Elizabeth told him, still smiling, and elbowing Maurice into giving a curt nod.
“Good to meet you both,” he added, a fraction too late.
Conversation halted temporarily as they filed down the stairs one by one, into the dining room that was now illuminated by the glow of candles at every table, with the silhouette of the Chicago skyline visible from the windows on one side.
“Our table is right at the front,” Elizabeth told them, one hand on her husband’s back as she steered them effortlessly through the milling twenty- and thirty-somethings. Jessica and Seth followed the path she carved out, and sure enough, their names were set at a small table set for eight, just to the right of the three-tiered wedding cake.
“Won’t you take your seats?” Elizabeth asked, and Jessica and Seth settled by their place cards, backs to the crowd of people finding their own seats. The Sands sat against the window directly to Seth’s right, leaving four places between Jessica and Maurice.
“Julie and Mark will be sitting with us for most of the dinner, as soon as they’ve greeted everyone,” Elizabeth explained. “So will Daniel and Monica. That’s the maid of honor and the best man,” she added.
“So we’ll start the toasts, then?” Jessica inquired. Round trays with flutes of champagne were stationed by the door to the kitchen area, and from the look of the bar behind the cake, alcohol would be flowing throughout the three hours left on the cruise.
“Don’t worry, I won’t expect you to say anything,” came a voice from behind them. Jessica and Seth both turned to see Mark, his lips still pink from Julie’s kiss.
“Mark. Congratulations,” Jessica said warmly.
“Thanks, Mrs. Fletcher. I’m so glad the two of you could make it. Uncle Seth.”
Seth rose to shake Mark’s hand in a firm grip that said more than either man would say in words.
“Congratulations,” he said. “I hope married life suits you.”
“I’m sure it will,” Mark said. He nodded to the table. “I’ll be back as soon as I’ve caught up with Julie and made some of our rounds.”
Jessica caught a glimpse of Julie. She had used the brief interlude to change back into the blue dress she had worn on the pier, which seemed much more suitable for dancing, but the flowers were still in her hair and her face was aglow with happiness as Mark slipped his arm around her waist and slid seamlessly into her conversation.
“Hello, you must be Mrs. Fletcher,” someone said, and Jessica glanced up into the face of the best man.
“Daniel Purkey,” he introduced, holding out his hand. Jessica rose politely to shake it.
“Say, are you the Jessica Fletcher?” he asked. “J.B. Fletcher, I mean? Mark told me you were, but I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg.”
“Oh, I’m afraid he was entirely truthful on that point,” Jessica confessed. This was a conversation she’d had many times before, and from here it could go one of two ways: either a moment of polite small talk, or an intense conversation about where she “got her ideas” for the next two hours. She glanced at Seth out of the corner of her eye; still seated, he was unbending a little through the attentions of Elizabeth, who was laughing as he described the size of Cabot Cove and some of the local color. Maurice didn’t appear to be listening.
“That’s fascinating,” Daniel said, immediately. “You know, Mrs. Fletcher, I’ve read every one of your books.” He pulled back his chair and sat down, clearly expecting her to follow suit again.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Jessica said, returning to her seat.
“My absolute favorite is still The Corpse Danced at Midnight. I have to ask you, how do you know so much about murders, though?”
“Well, a lot of it is research,” Jessica confessed.
“Well, sure,” Daniel agreed, then continued to probe for the answer he wanted. “And what about old Mr. Hazlitt, huh? Mark told me all about how you figured out who killed him. Was that true too?”
“A lot of the credit there goes to the local police,” Jessica demurred.
“Yeah, but it was real crazy stuff, right? Locked rooms and Turkish cigarettes - I mean, your novels are more believable than that!”
“Well, you know it’s said that truth is stranger than fiction.” Jessica permitted herself the cliche, since the conversation showed no signs of slowing down, and she would likely have to save her stamina.
“Uh huh. Must be,” Daniel agreed. “You’ve been involved in other murders before, right? Is that where you get your ideas? Had you ever been involved in a murder before you wrote your first book?”
“Certainly not,” Jessica said. “At least, not to my knowledge. But I imagine one stumbles across quite a few more unlikely events when on book tours in exotic parts of the world than when teaching English in a little town like Cabot Cove, Maine.”
“Or maybe you’d seen one before and just didn’t recognize it,” Daniel offered. “You know, I always feel like I’ll find a dead body one day. You know, walking around in the woods or something and there it is! I mean, statistically, it has to happen sometime, right? I always kind of wanted to be a detective.”
Seeing an opportunity, Jessica took it. “What exactly do you do, Mr. Purkey?” she asked.
“Oh, Mr. Purkey’s my father,” Daniel said immediately. He pointed across the room in a haphazard way. “Big guy in the purple shirt. Calls it lilac. No, I’m Daniel. And I’m in medical school. After I found out that law school wasn’t for me. Turns out a degree in English isn’t as marketable as I thought it was. Unless you want to teach, which I don’t. No offense.”
“None taken,” Jessica replied smartly. “Medical school will certainly give you a share of dead bodies. What do you hope to specialize in?”
“Finding me a rich husband.” A young woman who Jessica recognized immediately as the maid of honor slipped into the seat beside Daniel. “I’m Monica,” she added.
“Monica, it’s a pleasure. I’m Jessica Fletcher.” Jessica held out a hand for Monica to shake across the table.
“Actually, I’m interested in orthopedics,” Daniel said. “How things work. It’s pretty fascinating once you get the hang of it.”
“To nobody except Daniel,” Monica said. Her lipstick, a bright red, left a mark on the glass of whisky she had brought to the table.
“Have you two known each other long?” Jessica asked. Monica’s teasing seemed a little too sharp, indicating that they didn’t quite like each other, or perhaps that they were a couple with an odd sense of humor.
Daniel shook his head. “Mark and Julie had us over together about two months ago, a little dinner party with a few of their close friends. They only met Monica on their engagement holiday last year, actually.”
“And you’ve known them longer,” Jessica guessed.
Daniel laughed. “Mark and I practically grew up together,” he told her. “Went to the same summer camps, same prep school when we got older. No, we go way back.”
“How nice,” Jessica began, preparing to say something about the importance of lifelong friends, and her own friendships as she had gotten older, but just then another voice sounded in her ear.
“Will you be wanting the chicken, fish, or vegetarian dish, ma’am?”
The accent was American, but Jessica would have known that voice anywhere, and she was barely even surprised when she looked up at the waiter and recognized Michael Hagarty. He gave her a meaningful look to make sure she knew he was undercover - as if there could be any doubt - and Jessica knew that the wedding was about to become even more unusual.
“The chicken is served pan seared with the skin on, the fish is a chipotle glazed salmon with a sprinkle of candied bacon, and our vegetarian option is a vegan acorn squash with a savory wild rice stuffing,” Michael continued, giving Jessica a meaningful look as she stared up at him over her shoulder.
“I’ll have the chicken,” she said finally, in a clipped tone that let him know exactly what she was thinking.
Daniel Purkey wanted to interrogate Michael at length about the entree dishes and their preparation, offering his own thoughts on why blackened grouper would have been a better choice, so Jessica turned her attention back to Seth and the Sands. Maurice was checking his watch, clicking his tongue irritably, while Seth and Elizabeth studiously ignored him.
“Did you get the chicken?” Seth asked. “I never want to eat fish on the mainland.”
“Oh, no, neither do I,” Jessica agreed.
“I have to say, I’m envious of you two, living on the coast,” Elizabeth put in. “Maurice and I love to vacation in New England, but I don't believe we've ever been to Maine. Seth was telling us a bit about Cabot Cove. It sounds absolutely charming.”
“Well, we're certainly attached to it,” Jessica smiled. Elizabeth was a marvelous diplomat, managing Seth’s surliness well enough to keep him engaged in conversation with two strangers. Then again, she probably had a lot of practice, being married to Maurice.
“So do you live in Chicago?” Jessica continued.
“Born and raised,” Maurice interrupted.
Jessica was a bit startled by his sudden foray into the conversation, but she had always prided herself on an ability to get people to open up.
Seth brightened with the air of someone who is suddenly on familiar ground. “So, are you Sox fans, or Cubs fans?” he asked.
“Bears fans,” Maurice answered. “Never cared much for baseball.”
Seth’s incredulity was evident. “I never heard of someone not growing up with one or the other,” he said, with more politeness than Jessica might have expected from him upon hearing that someone didn’t care for baseball.
Maurice gave a shrug that seemed to convey irritation with the line of questioning. He was saved from a more detailed response by the return of Michael Hagarty, bearing a round tray with champagne flutes.
“Pass this along, would you please?” He asked Jessica. The table was angled nearly against the wall between the room and the outer deck, and Michael would have been forced to bend over the length of it to hand a glass directly to Maurice Sands. Still, his selection of Jessica as an assistant was deliberate, as Seth was within easy reach.
Jessica was half tempted to make an acidic comment, something along the lines of ‘That’s hardly my profession,’ but she knew better than to call any additional attention to their erstwhile waiter. She merely raised her eyebrows and passed glasses down in turn to Maurice, Elizabeth and Seth.
Michael gave Jessica another flute, his fingers brushing hers in a way that was clearly not accidental as he set it down directly in front of her. “The happy couple should return for the toasts shortly,” he predicted, before depositing two glasses in front of Daniel and Monica. The two of them, squabbling animatedly, didn't seem to take any notice.
“I want to make a toast,” Seth said suddenly, making a bid for Jessica’s attention. Having never met Michael Haggarty, he was blithely unaware of the confusion and intent with which she was observing the other guests.
“I think that's a lovely idea,” she said abstractedly.
“But I don't know what to say.” Seth cleared his throat, a little embarrassed, and Jessica turned to face him fully.
“What sort of thing am I supposed to say?” he asked her.
“That it's wonderful to be here, that Mark and Julie are very much in love, and that you couldn’t be happier for them,” Jessica replied. “It doesn't have to be a production. But you will need to let Mark know that you’d like to say something.”
“That doesn't sound too bad,” Seth acknowledged.
“It's perfectly honest, and I’m sure it will be appreciated,” Jessica encouraged.
“It's wonderful to be here, they're very much in love, I, uh… I couldn't be happier for them,” Seth recited.
“Exactly,” Jessica said. “Here they come now.”
Sure enough, Mark and Julie were making their way back to the front of the room, Mark’s arm draped possessively over Julie’s shoulders.
When they reached the table and sat down, backs to the cake, Seth opened his mouth, leaned forward, and then froze.
Jessica interrupted. “Mark?” she asked. “If it's not too much trouble, I think that Seth would like to say something during the toasts.”
“Oh, of course!” Mark said at once. “That would be great, Uncle Seth. Uh, Daniel will be going first, of course, then Monica…”
“Seth can have the next spot,” Elizabeth said immediately. “I’ll go last.”
“Great!” Mark agreed. “Just great. And then we’ll eat!”
“Thank goodness! I feel like I'm about to pass out if I don't,” Julie added.
If Jessica wasn't mistaken, the father of the bride customarily gave the final toast, but she understood both that Maurice wouldn't be inclined to do so and that Elizabeth was aptly suited for the task.
“Well, wait no further!” Daniel exclaimed, with a bow that seemed more affected than gallant. He sprang to his feet, champagne flute in hand, and rapped on it enthusiastically with his fork.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he cried. “May I direct your attention to the two, the only, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Hazlitt!”
The chatter in the room died down as all eyes turned to the bride and groom.
“Thank you,” said Daniel. “Now for those of you who don't know me, my name is Daniel Purkey. I’ve known Mark since we were both knee high to a grasshopper and raiding the girls’ cabins at summer camp. And let me tell you, based on these early years, I never would have imagined he could get any girl as gorgeous as Julie.”
The guests laughed on cue.
“In fact, the first thing I said when he told me they were getting serious, was, what’s wrong with her?”
Jessica smiled politely, though Daniel’s back was to her.
“But all I can say is that Julie must have worked some magic on him, because Mark has changed since knowing her. Now, he still might have a bad habit of saying exactly what’s on his mind, and he definitely hasn’t gotten over his terrible fashion sense. But when I look at Mark today, compared to Mark back before he and Julie started dating... I see him happy, relaxed, and in love with someone other than himself. So I want to thank Julie for achieving the impossible, and wish them both many more happy years of being completely nuts about each other. To Mark and Julie!”
Jessica raised her glass and drank along with the other guests, and Daniel sank back into his chair putting an index card with scrawled notes beside his silverware.
“Whew,” he muttered to Jessica. “I was afraid that was going to end badly.”
Jessica was spared from a polite reassurance by Monica rising to begin her own toast.
“I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am for Julie and Mark,” she said, her words brimming with emotion. “Most of you are here for either the bride or the groom, but I first met the two of them as a couple, and I have to say, they are truly perfect for each other. They’re the kind of couple that makes you want to believe in love. And when they asked me if I would be part of their special day, I was so honored.”
“They only asked her two weeks ago when Julie’s roommate had a car accident,” Daniel whispered to Jessica. “Katie was supposed to be the maid of honor, but she’s still in the hospital with a punctured lung.”
“...and then Mark comes around the corner and asks what’s so funny!” Monica’s voice breaks into laughter at the end of the story, and the whole room laughs with her.
“So you see, I can’t imagine a world where these two aren’t together. Mark, Julie, I know your future is just as bright as the sunset on Lake Como. There’s this famous quote, about how marriage is about falling in love over and over again with the same person, but looking at the two of you, I know that’s not true. Because you’re just as much in love today as you were on the day I met you, and for some people, it only happens once. Congratulations to you both!”
Monica’s toast earned an enthusiastic round of applause, from everyone, it seemed, except Daniel and Maurice. Daniel clapped his hands perfunctorily once or twice, and Maurice glanced toward the kitchen in irritation.
Monica leaned across Daniel to hand Jessica the microphone, and she passed it to Seth in turn. He looked as if he had changed his mind, but it was too late to back out now, so he accepted the microphone and rose, looking straight at the bride and groom rather than performing to the room.
“Mark, and… Julie,” he said slowly. “It’s wonderful to be here, celebrating with you tonight. We can all see the love that you have for each other, and… thank you for sharing this moment with us.”
He sat down quickly, a little too heavily in his haste to get out of the spotlight, but the guests applauded him and drank eagerly. As Elizabeth took the microphone from Seth, Jessica could see Mark mouthing ‘thank you’ across the table.
She was feeling rather sentimental about the entire wedding, even as she knew she should remain on high alert with Michael present. But she understood how much it meant to both Seth and Mark to have this moment - Seth, in coming to terms with his late brother, and Mark, in reaching out to the only living family who could attend his wedding.
Elizabeth cleared her throat delicately, then managed to project her voice so it filled the room without seeming too loud for anyone at their table.
“First, I’d like to thank you all for your presence here tonight,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see so many friendly faces congratulating my beautiful daughter while she marries the man of her dreams. And wasn’t the ceremony wonderful?”
A round of applause met the suggestion. Elizabeth paused, then continued at precisely the moment it died down.
“You know, a part of me still can’t believe that I’m standing here, congratulating my daughter on her wedding,” she said. “Twenty-seven years went by so quickly! As most of you already know, Julie is the most wonderful daughter anyone could ask for. She has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known. She has taught me so much about generosity of spirit and love of life, even when I should have been the one teaching her. And I know she is going to be a perfect wife for Mark.
“I first met Mark about three months after they began dating, and right away, I could tell that Julie thought he was something special.” Light laughter followed Elizabeth’s sly pronouncement. “And soon enough, Maurice and I began to see him the way she saw him. Intelligent, accomplished, and, most importantly, willing to put our daughter before everything else in the world.
“Over the past two years, it has been our pleasure and privilege to know and love Mark, and to recognize that he and Julie belong together. I’m so proud of you both, and so honored to welcome you into our family. As the years go by, I know that the two of you will be blessed with continued love and laughter, and it will be our joy to continue to share your life together.
“To Julie and Mark Hazlitt!”
Jessica took a final sip of her champagne, and Mark rose again as Elizabeth sank back into her seat.
“Thank you all, so much!” he said, to the table and to the room at large. “It’s my great pleasure to say that our dinner is about to be served, and we hope you’ll all dig in!”
He hadn’t even finished speaking when Michael Hagarty was at Jessica’s elbow, bearing a tray of plates.
“If I could impose on you once again, ma’am,” he said, and Jessica passed along the entrees for Maurice, Elizabeth, and then Seth.
“I appreciate your assistance in this matter,” Michael said, leaving Jessica wondering whether or not it was a deeper meaning as her chicken - served with haricots verts almondine and a mushroom polenta - was finally set in front of her. She picked up her napkin, half expecting to find a secret message underneath, but nothing was out of the ordinary and Michael continued nonchalantly down the table, placing the salmon dish in front of Daniel Purkey.
“That was a beautiful toast, Seth,” Jessica said, patting his arm briskly, and he looked abashed.
“It wasn’t anything like his father would have done,” he said, “or like it should have been.”
“It was from the heart, and that’s what matters,” Jessica corrected him.
Across the table, the bride and groom fell upon their dishes with gusto. Remembering her own wedding, Jessica thought they had done well in giving themselves time to eat between rounds of congratulations.
She turned to Elizabeth as the most likely conversationalist at the table.
“I love the wedding colors. The blue really sets off the theme of a lake wedding.”
Elizabeth beamed. “Doesn’t it? Julie’s been planning this since she was a little girl! Of course reality doesn’t always measure up to your expectations, and we had to make a few tweaks here and there, but we thought it turned out marvelously. It helped that we had a whole year to prepare, after the engagement. Some young people get married so quickly these days.”
“Everything looked absolutely perfect,” Jessica told her. Around them, everyone seemed more intent on their food than their companions, and Jessica took a bite of her chicken. It was, unsurprisingly, perfectly prepared.
“There were a few last-minute glitches, of course,” Elizabeth confided as Jessica nodded her understanding and Seth,stuck between the two of them, tried to look interested.
“Daniel said something about the first maid of honor having an accident,” Jessica prompted. She wasn’t sure whether or not this line of questioning had anything to do with Michael’s presence disguised as a server, but clearly something other than the Chicago Dolphin was fishy.
“It was horrible!” Elizabeth agreed, warming to the topic. “She’s still in the hospital with a punctured lung. And the other car just took off, if you can believe that! We were just lucky that Monica was able to fill in on such short notice.”
“She did a fine job,” Jessica affirmed.
Elizabeth lowered her voice. “To say nothing of Carolyn’s conviction. Mark was terribly upset about it. Her money troubles are a great source of embarrassment, of course, but she’s still his sister and he loves her.”
“Of course he does.” Jessica had long ago mastered the art of brief agreements meant to keep someone talking.
“And then of course it wouldn’t be a wedding without eleventh-hour vendor issues,” Elizabeth sighed. “First it was a last-minute flower substitution, and then, if you will believe it, the cake almost didn’t come.”
“Really?” Although she was presenting as a perfectly intent listener, Jessica was also taking in the rest of the table. Seth and Maurice were both primarily occupied by their plates. Mark and Julie, having curbed the initial edge of their hunger, were leaning into one another and very obviously holding hands under the table; Mark’s right elbow kept bumping into Monica as he attempted to cut his chicken with the side of his fork.
Monica, for her part, wasn’t even trying to hide her boredom as Daniel monologued about how he and Mark had reconnected during his last year of law school. At one point, Julie disengaged from her absorption with Mark long enough to mouth “I’m sorry,” to her maid of honor.
“It was awful!” Elizabeth continued, blithely ignoring Daniel’s story about their trip to his father’s fishing lodge. “Because it’s one thing if your cake is late at an ordinary venue, but of course we were going to leave the shore at any minute! And so you see we weren’t at all bothered when you called Mark from the airport and let him know about your delay. We were just praying the cake wouldn’t be too much longer after the two of you!”
“What happened?” Jessica asked.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” Elizabeth confessed. “Some problem somewhere along the delivery route - it was absolute nonsense, and nothing but excuses from the bakery! It was a very near miss for our sunset departure.”
“I never would have known,” Jessica assured her. She glanced over Mark’s shoulder at the cake: ivory tiers with rosette piping and edible pearls, a topper of an attractive couple with a passing resemblance to the bride and groom. It was perfect.
Monica put her fork down and turned away from Daniel. “Does anyone have some paracetamol?” she asked. “I’m getting a headache.”
Julie and Mark both looked blank, but Elizabeth reached into her purse. “Is Ibuprofen alright?” she asked. “I never leave home without it.”
“That’ll be great, thanks.”
Jessica helped to pass the bottle down the table, and Monica helped herself to three capsules, washing them down with champagne.
Jessica, having temporarily exhausted her interest in the reliability of Chicago florists, turned to Daniel, who seemed not to have noticed Monica’s shoulder turned toward him.
“You were saying that you and Mark reconnected a few years ago?” she asked him.
“Oh, yeah,” Daniel agreed. “We hadn’t seen each other in - well, a long time. Probably since we were eighteen or so. That’s what, nine years? Longer? Anyway. It was the funniest thing. I had rented an apartment in Washington for the summer, doing a congressional internship, and Mark was there with Julie on vacation, and we just bumped into each other in the street! What are the odds of that?”
“Very low,” Jessica agreed. “So it wasn’t so very long ago. After his father’s murder.”
“Oh, something like two years ago,” Daniel said. “Anyway. It was just one of those things, you know? Like we’d never been apart. It was always like that with us. And I’d been feeling pretty down on the whole lawyer thing, especially with my internship, and we got to talking, and we all had dinner, and then we stayed in touch, and I did some good old-fashioned soul-searching, and decided to go to medical school. It was just a bonus that I ended up in Chicago, but it’s been a good year here.”
“You and Mark are clearly close,” Jessica agreed.
“He’s like my brother,” Daniel told her. “You know, if your brother was some dork who settled down with a nice girl and had a steady job and did everything the easy way. Just kidding. I love the guy.”
Michael Hagarty appeared at Jessica’s elbow again. “If you’re finished, ma’am, the bride and groom will be cutting the cake shortly.”
“Oh! Of course.” There was no sign of recognition or hint of warning in Michael’s eyes as he took her plate, but it served as a reminder to Jessica that the line of questioning wasn’t merely small talk, but was instead potential information gathering.
Jessica passed down the stack of nearly-empty plates Seth handed to her, and Michael bussed the table with a practiced efficiency as the captain’s voice came over the speaker system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Wentz speaking. As your plates are being cleared away, I’d like to direct your attention to the front of the hall, where the bride and groom are about to cut the cake! Let’s give them all a big hand of applause!”
The guests obliged enthusiastically, with several shouts of congratulations and one piercing whistle coming from behind Jessica. Mark and Julie took it in stride, laughing along before turning back to a world that consisted only of the cake and each other.
Julie took hold of the knife first, her small hands both gripped around the handle, and Mark put his hands over hers and guided them. They cut from the bottom tier, a piece that came out more than a bit uneven, Jessica could see.
In a manner that didn’t surprise her in the least, the couple deposited the slice of cake onto a small plate and each took a fork rather than using their hands to exchange the first bites. Their arms crossed in the air, and though Jessica could only see Mark’s face, she imagined they shared a look of amusement mingled with bliss.
Applause broke out again as fork met mouth, and Jessica joined in the infectious joy.
The waitstaff appeared to be in a hurry to get the cake out, and they were bustling around the table almost before Mark and Julie could take a step back, cutting with an expert precision as the newlyweds continued to share their plate. A young waiter approached Monica with two plates, telling her to pass them down, and they did so. The second set of plates came to Seth and Jessica. In her peripheral vision, Jessica could see Michael cutting slices of cake with a machine-like precision.
Jessica lifted her fork and took a bite. The cake was a rich devil’s food with buttercream icing, and tasted delightful.
“What the hell is this? It tastes metallic,” Maurice Sands’s voice sounded from a few seats down. “Disgusting. Did they forget the clean the knife?”
“Mine tastes fine, dear,” Elizabeth told him.
“It’s foul,” Maurice disagreed, pushing his plate away and taking a large gulp of champagne.
Apparently the sip was too large; Maurice spluttered, his face turning red, and he appeared to be choking. Jessica half-rose from her seat, but Seth was quicker. He was out of his chair and moving around the table faster than Jessica had seen him move in twenty years.
“Breathe, man,” he advised, placing his hands on Maurice’s collar and feeling for an obstruction, but there was none. Maurice, however, turned redder, and his own hands came up to claw at his neck. Someone gave a gasp that was partial scream; Julie, Mark, and several waiters had crowded just behind Seth.
“There’s nothing there!” Seth shouted, his confusion and desperation clear. “Does someone have an aspirin? Aspirin!”
Before their eyes, Maurice Sands asphyxiated. Less than a minute later, Seth was backing away, shaking his head.
“He’s gone,” he said. Julie let out a strangled cry; Elizabeth was stark white. “It seemed too fast for a heart attack, but - ”
“That’s because I don’t believe it was a heart attack,” Jessica spoke up. Every eye turned toward her. “I’ve seen something like it before. And I believe that Mr. Sands was poisoned.”
The captain, still in exaggerated sailor’s garb, rushed to the table. “I’ve called for the Coast Guard,” he said, all traces of the Chicago accent gone. “Is he - ”
“I have reason to believe he was poisoned,” Jessica repeated. Everyone turned to her except for Julie, who was sobbing into her hands. “By cyanide, most likely.”
Seth leaned back over the body. “Could be,” he murmured.
Around them, other wedding guests had leapt to their feet and come forward, crowding the table as they began to realize something was not right.
“He complained of an unusual taste to the cake, a taste which no one else observed,” Jessica continued, compelled to point out the facts regardless of her growing audience. “Moments later, he was struggling to breathe. Very few poisons act so quickly, but cyanide does.”
“There was nothing lodged in his throat,” Seth confirmed.
“But that’s absurd!” Elizabeth protested, her voice quavering. “Why would anyone want to poison my husband?”
“Perhaps because he was being pursued by the British government and a very dangerous criminal organization.” Michael Hagarty, still dressed as a waiter, had made his way through the crowd of people surrounding the table. He coughed and resumed his normal speaking voice. “Michael Hagarty, MI6.” He pulled out a wallet with a badge.
“Maurice?” Elizabeth repeated, in apparent bewilderment.
“No. As you well know, Mrs. Oliver.” Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth.
Michael glanced around the table. “I believe Mrs. Fletcher is correct in saying that Tony Oliver, alias Maurice Sands, was poisoned. And furthermore, it was done in cold blood, by someone at this very table.”
He turned to Captain Wentz. “I understand the Coast Guard will be arriving, and they’ll have jurisdiction over the matter,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’d like to isolate everyone who had an opportunity to poison Mr. Oliver’s cake, and see what we can get straightened out.”
The captain seemed dumbfounded, but he nodded. They should all fit in the pilot house,” he said. “Up on the upper deck.”
Michael nodded. “Perhaps you would do me the favor of encouraging everyone else to go about their business, and leaving the table alone,” he suggested. “Except for - yes, everyone sitting at this table, including the bride and groom, and the waiter who brought the slices of cake to the table.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Joe!”
The young waiter who had carried the cake to their table looked as though he was going to lose his dinner.
The captain raised his voice, projecting loudly enough to be heard over the murmurs of shock and the sound of tears. His affected Chicago accent came back, but his heart wasn’t in it, and it sounded harsh and inauthentic to Jessica’s ears.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, there has been a terrible accident,” he began. Jessica winced at the word “accident,” and Julie pitched a shrieking sob.
“Pursuant to regulations regarding incidents occurring in bodies of water, the Coast Guard has been notified and are on their way,” Captain Wentz continued. “I know this has put an understandable damper on everyone’s evening, but rest assured, we will do everything in our power to help the necessary process go as quickly and smoothly as possible. For the time being, I invite you all the enjoy our beautiful summer evening on the outer deck, and take full advantage of the upper deck bar at no cost. We’ll be roping off this area out of respect and to allow the Coast Guard full access to the area.”
“Was he poisoned?” a man near the table asked belligerently.
“Until we have information to the contrary, we will continue to treat this unfortunate occurrence as a natural, if untimely, death,” Captain Wentz said. “I encourage you to ignore the sensationalism out of respect for the family, who you all love, and because jumping to conclusions never helped anybody. Now, if you could all clear the area, we appreciate your full cooperation.”
The low mutters became a swell of noise in the enclosed space, but the guests and other waitstaff were quick to disperse.
“This pilot house - up the stairs?” Michael asked, jerking his head, and the captain nodded.
“If you’ll lead the way, Captain, I’ll bring up the rear,” he said. It was clear that no one would be splitting off from the group. They walked in single file, excepting Mark and Julie. Julie’s head was buried in Mark’s chest, her shoulders shaking as he guided her forward carefully. Monica, Daniel, and Seth all seemed to be in a state of shock. They walked silently, dazed. Elizabeth Sands - or was her name really Oliver? - had assumed the blank, frightened look of a wild animal caught in a trap.
Jessica hung back.
“Michael, what on earth - ” she began.
He took her into a quick hug, then gave her a smile that was dazzling even under the circumstances. “Always a pleasure, Jessica,” he said. “The whole sordid affair will come to light before the night’s out. Not to worry, you’re above suspicion.”
“I appreciate that,” Jessica said, “although you know it’s always the least likely person in one of my books.”
“Thirty years ago, Tony Oliver was supposed to turn Queen’s Evidence on an enormous counterfeiting and money-laundering operation,” Michael said. “Gave over a lot of the evidence, but held enough cards in his pocket to flee the country with his girl and a pretty fortune. We weren’t the only ones looking for him. Frankly, he needed our protection.”
He gestured to the stairs, and Jessica began to climb after the others.
“No, I believe we’ll find the killer is one of the most likely suspects in this particular affair,” Michael reflected behind her.
The pilot house was a small room on the upper deck, the backdrop to the wedding ceremony that had been performed just an hour earlier. Their dining companions and the captain were already inside when Jessica and Michael arrived. The room was the navigational seat, Jessica gathered, and they were cramped for space as they stood around. For the most part there were folded arms, blank looks, or scowls. Joe the waiter still looked as though he needed to find a trash can. Seth and Captain Wentz wore identical perturbed frowns. Monica and Daniel were standing side by side, not squabbling at all anymore. Julie’s head was still buried in Mark’s shoulder, and Elizabeth stood alone and white-faced.
“Why don’t you tell us exactly what is going on, Mr…. Havisham,” Captain Wentz asked, clearly an order with a likely-deliberate fumbling of Michael’s name.
“Agent Hagarty,” Michael corrected him. He leaned back against the door, turning his head to cast his eyes over everyone in turn. Seth was watching Jessica with a disgruntled recognition that meant he had realized just who Michael was, and was likely suspicious of potential schemes.
“Well, as I said earlier, the man’s name wasn’t Maurice Sands,” Michael announced. “It was Tony Oliver. Thirty years ago, Mr. Oliver was in deep with some very bad people.” He glanced at Elizabeth. “Would you like to continue the story? Once the Coast Guard arrive, it’ll be a quick matter to fingerprint and get a positive identification.”
Elizabeth did not respond, but Julie raised her head and turned. “That’s not true, is it, Mom?” Her voice was low and hoarse. “Dad was from Chicago. He lived here his whole life.”
Elizabeth’s mouth worked, but she remained silent.
“Tony Oliver disappeared for thirty years, with a pile of cash,” Michael continued. “He had dropped out of sight completely until last year. An anonymous tip came in, coupled with a picture taken from your wedding announcement in the papers.” He nodded to Mark and Julie.
“After that, we laid the groundwork to bring him in tonight,” Michael said. He gestured to himself. “I saw no reason not to let him attend the wedding. We had him in our sights, after all. But when he disappeared with his pile of dirty money, he left a lot of powerful, dangerous people looking pretty foolish. And we weren’t the only ones keeping an eye out for Tony Oliver.”
He sized up the room. “One of you had to have poisoned Mr. Oliver, make no bones about it,” he said. “And certainly not one of you will be leaving this ship until we have the right person in custody. At least, you won’t be leaving the ship without a shiny pair of handcuffs.”
He glanced at the captain. “Excepting yourself and Mrs. Fletcher.”
“Now see here!” Seth broke in, agitated. “I’d never met the man before tonight!”
“I can vouch for that, Michael,” Jessica confirmed. “I’m here as Seth’s date. He’s lived in Cabot Cove for over thirty years. He’s a doctor and a close personal friend.”
Michael looked at Seth with some amount of condescension. “Is that so?” he asked.
“I don’t see why Mrs. Fletcher gets excused so easily, either,” Daniel Purkey broke in. Jessica realized with a jolt that it was the longest he had gone without a monologue since they had been introduced.
“Mrs. Fletcher is above suspicion, boyo,” Michael said, his eyes flashing a little.
Jessica sighed and pursed her lips. She hardly needed Michael Hagarty defending her integrity. But before she could interrupt, Daniel continued, clearly regaining the confidence to address the room and enlighten them with his theories.
“No one should be above suspicion!” he declared. “Mrs. Fletcher’s own books would teach you that, if you’d read any of them. And I’ll tell you something else - this isn’t the first time she’s been involved in a murder! Kind of funny, don’t you think, that things just seem to happen around her?”
Michael sneered. “Playing detective, are you?” he asked. “I’ll tell you right here, you’re going about it the wrong way. Jessica, why don’t you enlighten him?”
Jessica shifted as everyone turned to her. “Really, Michael, I’m hardly a trained professional - ” she began, but he cut her off.
“Doesn’t matter. You know more about murder than anyone in this room, maybe even including myself. Tell them what we look for first in a murder suspect.”
Jessica had no intention of taking over the investigation, particularly before the proper authorities even arrived - for Michael was acting outside his jurisdiction, she knew - but her mind was already working, isolating details from the dinner, and she saw no harm in playing along. “Motive and opportunity, of course.”
“Exactly!” Michael clapped his hands together, gave her an approving nod and a rakish smile. “Motive, and opportunity. Now, everyone here in this room - if we put aside the captain and myself - had the opportunity to kill Mr. Oliver. We’re pretty sure the poison was in the cake, then, aren’t we?”
Seth nodded. “It makes the most sense, as Jess was saying downstairs,” he admitted.
“But the cake as a whole wasn’t poisoned,” Michael continued. “Else you, and you,” he pointed to Mark and Julie, “and the three of you,” indicating Elizabeth, Seth, and Jessica in turn, “would all be dead by now as well.”
“Which means someone poisoned it as it was brought to him,” Jessica finished, unable to stop herself.
Michael gave another nod. “Exactly. Now, we were passing dishes willy-nilly all night because of the way the table was right up against the wall. But the cake went through every person at that table before it made its way to Tony Oliver. So now we look for motive.”
He gave Elizabeth a shrewd look. “In cases like this, the most likely person is usually the spouse,” he said. “First person we look at, and like as not the one who did it. Far more likely, I should say. And poisoning has a bit of a reputation as a woman’s crime.”
“Michael!” Jessica scolded, and he had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Of course, that’s reputation only,” he said. “After all, this was an unusual case. The man in question was a fugitive who had angered the wrong people. People with long memories.”
He took a step away from the door and turned theatrically to the side of the room with Mark, Julie, Daniel, Monica, and Joe. “Which begs the question - apart from you, Mrs. Hazlitt - how well did the rest of you know the deceased?”
There was silence for a moment, before Mark spoke up. He squeezed Julie’s shoulders as he did so, and looked Michael straight in the eye.
“I met him about five months after Julie and I started dating,” he said. “You know how it goes, with the father of the girl you’re in love with, but we didn’t have any problems other than that. A few months later I told him and Elizabeth that I wanted to marry Julie. They seemed happy about it, and they even paid for part of our engagement trip.”
“We didn’t know him at all,” Monica put in, with a glance at Daniel. “Met him last night at the rehearsal dinner for the first time.”
Joe looked positively green. “I knew I should have let you stick to the front table,” he said to Michael. “I didn’t have anything to do with any of this. I’m just trying to pay for school, okay?”
“Are you getting to a point here, Mr. Hagarty?” Captain Wentz demanded. “I don’t know that I feel comfortable with you badgering customers aboard my ship. This is a job for the Coast Guard, you know.”
“The Coast Guard’s investigative services are stretched fairly thin,” Jessica supplied. “Even when the first responders arrive, they likely won’t be able to do much without a Special Agent, who may be based as far away as Ohio or Louisiana. If it means we stand a chance of going back to our hotels tonight instead of a Chicago jail cell, I’d be grateful to let Mr. Hagarty continue.”
“How do you know that?” Daniel Purkey demanded.
“It was background research for my novel, The Corpse Swam at Midnight,” she told him, a little sharply. Evidently he wasn’t such a great student of her work after all.
Mark looked down at Julie. “How do you feel?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “It’s all too much. But - ” she choked back a fresh sob. “I want them to find out who killed my father!” She bit her lip and looked at Michael. "Please."
The captain threw up his hands. “What the bride says goes.”
Michael eyed his suspects again, then turned his attention back to Elizabeth.
“You weren't facing anything from your part in the whole affair,” he said. “Limitations has well run out on that. But murder - that’s another matter altogether, and you don’t strike me as the type of woman to risk that.”
He broadened his gaze and raised his voice slightly. “One of you is hiding something from me,” he said. “But I’ll warn you, it won’t do you any good. You’re up against one of the finest sleuths this world has ever seen. And an MI6 agent as well.”
Jessica couldn’t help the warmth that stole over her upon hearing the compliment, but she kept her focus on the seriousness of the occasion.
“Thank you, Michael,” she said mildly. “I’m sure the Coast Guard Agent in Charge will perform admirably upon their arrival.”
“But in the meantime, you were sitting right there,” Michael pointed out. “I was focused on Oliver, not on the others at the table. Tell me, what did you notice?”
“Oh, I didn’t - ” Jessica demurred, but Seth snorted.
“Please, Jess. We all know you’ve got someone in mind.” He addressed the others. "She's the sharpest witness you could possibly have, and that's a fact."
Jessica coughed delicately. “Well, yes, I did have an opportunity to engage with most of the people in this room over dinner.” She glanced at Joe. “Except for Joe, of course, but I sincerely doubt that he was involved.”
“Thank you,” Joe whispered gratefully. He didn’t look nearly so sick, but he did look as though he might burst into tears, so Jessica hurried on.
“While an official investigation would, of course, include myself and Seth Hazlitt among the potential suspects, for the purpose of my own observations and hunches, I am free to discount us both immediately. I know I had nothing to do with the man’s death, and I know Seth through and through. He doesn’t have it in him, nor does he have any personal connection to the matter.”
“Noted,” Michael agreed. “So leaving aside yourself, Joe, and Dr. Hazlitt….”
“It wasn’t Julie,” Jessica said with certainty. “Unless she’s a far better actress than her interactions with Daniel indicate, then she had no idea of her father’s double life. And she may have been the only person in the world who truly loved him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Daniel protested belligerently, but no one was paying any attention to him.
“My mother,” Julie protested, and Jessica turned to Elizabeth.
“Your mother didn’t love your father anymore. I suspect she hadn’t loved him for some time. But that doesn’t mean she killed him, and certainly not at her only daughter’s wedding reception.”
Elizabeth inclined her head slightly.
“Being married to a man on the run from the law can’t be an easy life for anyone,” Jessica continued. “Particularly when the man in question is as disagreeable as Mr. Oliver was, for the duration of our short acquaintance. I imagine you felt shackled to him, as your partner in crime, and that you couldn’t have left him even if you saw it as financially feasible.”
Elizabeth gave another almost imperceptible nod.
“That sort of situation can create a powerful motive for murder,” Jessica allowed, speaking from experience. “But it’s perfectly possible for a spouse to make a death look like an accident, at home, away from prying eyes or detailed investigations. A much more logical course of action than a public poisoning.” Michael was nodding along in agreement with this.
“And I don’t believe for a moment that you would have interrupted Julie’s wedding,” Jessica continued. “No, from where I was sitting, you were a perfectly ordinary mother of the bride, invested in making sure everything went down to the minutest detail, and focused on giving your daughter a perfect wedding and a lifetime of happiness.” She raised her eyes. “The perfect wedding and the lifetime of happiness that you yourself didn’t have.”
Julie let out another sob.
Jessica turned her attention to what she had already guessed to be Michael’s top three suspects: Mark, Daniel, and Monica. Mark was still soothing Julie, one hand running through her hair, and he looked at Jessica with hopeless eyes.
“Just tell us who did it,” he said. “I know you can do it.”
“Hang on a minute,” Captain Wentz interrupted again. “What is this, some novelist coming in here and helping a man who claims to be a foreign intelligence agent, on a case that is clearly the responsibility of the Coast Guard - ”
“Jessica Fletcher caught my father’s killer,” Mark said simply. “And she’ll do the same for Julie.”
Jessica gave him a small smile. “Thank you, Mark,” she said. Although she had her suspicions, she felt that talking through the remaining suspects would help to convince the others in the room - and perhaps entice a confession. Raising her voice, she continued her assessments. “Mark is an unlikely killer for a few reasons. First, that he and Julie both were still standing by the cake while pieces were passed down the table to the rest of us. He would have had a considerably more difficult job ensuring that the right piece of cake found its way to the intended target. The second reason is a lack of motive. To the best of our knowledge, Mark has no connection to the events that took place thirty years ago. To all appearances, he loves Julie dearly, and would never intentionally cause her pain. He’s financially well off, well known as a young professional, and we have no reports that he and Mr. Oliver had ever fought. Indeed, Mr. Oliver’s presence at the wedding indicates that the match met with his approval.”
Everyone was now watching Jessica closely, including Captain Wentz. Daniel and Monica, as-yet unnamed in the iteration of suspects, were also the recipients of a few pointed glances.
“None of that is necessarily enough to rule Mark out as a suspect,” Jessica conceded. “It’s not impossible for him to have poisoned the cake, perhaps even without caring who received the fatal dose of cyanide. And the absence of a clear motive does not mean there couldn’t be something we had overlooked. But it is my belief that Mark was no more involved than Julie was, and we should turn our attention to other suspects.”
Daniel Purkey became very red in the face. “I don’t know what it is you think you’re implying, but you’re no detective, and you have no right to cast accusations around like that! I’ll have my lawyers contact you!”
“Daniel,” Monica said, taking half a step closer to Captain Wentz and away from Daniel. “How could you?”
“How could I? How could I?” he nearly bellowed. “How could any responsible ship’s captain let this egomaniacal, B-list writer try her hand at real life? She did it herself, I tell you! To drum up publicity for her second rate beach novels!” His voice rose sharply, until he shrieked. “You won’t get away with this!”
“If you’ll calm yourself, Mr. Purkey, no one has accused you of anything,” Jessica said, with just a hint of frost in her voice. It wasn’t as though she cared what Daniel Purkey said about her books, but flying off the handle did not impress her.
“You’ve done everything but say it outright!” he challenged.
“On the contrary, while I had some initial suspicions, I don’t think you would make a successful murderer at all,” Jessica contradicted him. “You’re impulsive, certainly, but not a planner. You’re a compulsive talker who couldn’t keep a secret any longer than last call. You may be a bore, but you’re not an idiot. You knew I was coming to the wedding, and that I had previously helped to solve real-life murder cases. And while several circumstances might have pointed to you as the murderer, such as your recent return to Mark’s life, or your knowledge of the law and the medical profession, there was an even more convincing suspect.”
No one had to be told who this suspect was. Monica fell back, brushing against the counter with computer equipment. “You couldn’t possibly think - ”
“I could and I do,” Jessica said. “Obviously, that will be for a law enforcement professional to sort out, but there are a few startling coincidences. The fact that you didn’t meet Mark and Julie until their engagement trip - in Europe - after the publication of her father’s picture with their announcement in all the major society papers.”
“What?” Monica protested.
“The same photograph that tipped off British intelligence to Tony Oliver’s assumed name likely tipped off his old associates as well,” Jessica pointed out, more to the room at large than to Monica. “Associates who would pay handsomely for someone to work their way into Maurice Sands’ life, and then end it.”
“But I never met the man until last night!” Monica’s eyes were wide, her voice desperately sincere.
“At a dinner you would not even have attended, had the original maid of honor not been in a nearly fatal car accident just two weeks ago,” Jessica reminded.
“This is circumstantial,” Monica argued. “It will never stick! Tell them, Daniel!”
“It does sound pretty circumstantial,” Daniel agreed, but his eye was on Monica, and he didn’t seem completely convinced.
“I would agree, except for the fact that you made a slip at dinner,” Jessica said. “You asked if anyone had a paracetamol. Not only do Americans usually refer to painkillers by their brand names, but the drug paracetamol is known in the United States by the generic name of acetaminophen. 'Paracetamol' is, to put it frankly, something that no American would ask for. Your accent is convincing, but I'll wager that you were brought up outside North America.”
The tiny room was silent enough to hear a pin drop.
Monica made a sudden, lightning quick break for the door, and Jessica was too startled to respond. Just as the maid of honor would have reached the handle, however, Elizabeth Sands tackled her to the ground. Monica fought tooth and nail, but a minute later, Michael had pulled her upright and cuffed her hands behind her back. He held her steady with one hand on her right bicep.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said politely to Elizabeth, who nodded, still mute, as she picked herself up slowly. Her hair was mussed, her face still blank.
“I’m sorry, darling,” she said to Julie, with some effort. Julie tore herself from Mark’s arms to embrace her mother.
“Well, Captain Wentz,” Michael said, unable to restrain the note of jubilation in his voice. “I believe that very nearly constitutes a confession.”
“So I’m free to go?” Joe broke in.
The captain looked around the room, gaze finally settling on Monica, who was panting and giving Jessica a look of utmost bile.
“I don’t want anyone leaving the boat,” he said slowly.
Just then, a knock sounded on the door, and it opened without waiting for a response. A member of the ship’s crew, dressed in the same implausibly nautical outfit as the captain, stood flanked by two men in dark, waterproof navy.
Captain Wentz gave a sharp, professional nod. “Coast Guardsmen,” he said. “I believe this lady right here has just caught you a murderer.”
Jessica felt a smile on her face, even as she knew it would be a long night, full of paperwork, explanations, and time spent in conversation with a certain incorrigible intelligence agent. She should have known better than to expect a normal vacation.