Nancy J. Cohen’s Bad Hair Day mysteries are a cut above the rest—rich, full, and stylish. Now her beautician-sleuth Marla Shore puts down her curling iron and picks up her skills at detection when she books passage on a cruise ship with a killer aboard. Soon it is full steam ahead toward mayhem and murder—in a case sure to have Marla going off the deep end.
Scissor-wielding sleuth Marla Shore is looking forward to a leisurely cruise with her fiancé Dalton Vail. Too bad Dalton’s teenage daughter and his parents are along for the ride. Instead of a seduction at sea, Marla is meeting the in-laws and hoping nothing goes too wrong. It is a vain hope. A mysterious envelope stuck into her cabin door read: “I know what you did and I have what you want.” If it had not been addressed to “Martha” Shore and obviously delivered by mistake, Marla might have feared it referred to the nudie pictures buried in her past. But that embarrassment would have been better than what the note does foretell: Troubled water lies ahead.
So instead of cruise control, Marla’s on high alert, searching for the note’s intended recipient before the cruise goes down the drain. If Marla does not find the culprit fast, this spunky stylist could end up with her own split end: caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Bestseller
“Delightful…think The Love Boat meets Sex and the City. A charming heroine and a hero to die for, pick this one up posthaste!” — MaryJanice Davidson, NY Times Bestselling Author
“Fans of vacation mysteries will enjoy watching Marla find her way through this light whodunit.” — Publisher’s Weekly
“Cohen’s latest Marla Shore novel shines with the compelling drama of an old-fashioned whodunit. A cruise ship is the perfect setting for this closed-door mystery.” — RT Book Reviews
“Overeating isn’t the only danger when a Florida hairdresser and her fiancé take a Caribbean cruise…When passengers start to disappear, Marla suspects lobster thermidor isn’t the only thing aboard that’s not kosher.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Hairdresser Marla Shore anticipates a leisurely cruise with her fiancé but a shipboard murder turns the outing into a mystery on the high seas.” — The TRITON Megayacht News
“I have never been on a cruise but this book by writer Nancy J Cohen has made me feel as if I have just spent time on one. This book stimulates every sense with a constant feeling of excitement as the ship goes underway…Whatever you do, don’t miss Killer Knots!” — A. L. Katz, Reviewing the Evidence
“Set on a cruise ship headed for the balmy Caribbean, stormy relationships and murder brew on the horizon. Maybe the hair stylist should have caught a clipper ship instead (ouch!). This Bad Hair Day mystery is a stylish read.” — Sunny Frazier, The Murder Circle
“Killer Knots lures you with balmy breezes, exotic ports of call, and an intriguing mystery. Kick back with your favorite tropical libation and enjoy the sailing.” — Betty Cox, Reader To Reader
Copyright © 2007 by Nancy J. Cohen
Are you sure I won’t get seasick?” Marla Shore asked her fiancé as they approached the Port of Miami via a bridge over the Intracoastal. Squinting at the white ships lining the pier like ducks on parade, she felt a twinge of queasiness in her stomach. Hopefully, her first Caribbean cruise wouldn’t be her last.
“These big ships have stabilizers,” Dalton Vail replied, focused on his driving. “It’ll probably be so smooth, you won’t even notice we’re on the water.”
The handsome detective spared her a glance. He wouldn’t admit to being excited, but she saw the spark in his gray eyes. She looked forward to sharing this experience with him and his fourteen-year-old daughter.
From the backseat, Brianna tapped Marla on the shoulder. “Look, there’s the Tropical Sun! Can you see it?” The teen had talked about nothing but their trip for the past few weeks.
“It has their signature lounge on top,” Marla pointed out, admiring the massive vessel’s sleek lines. Her attention shifted. “Do you have enough cash for parking?” she asked Vail as he followed signs to the garage. “It’s twelve dollars a day.”
“They take credit cards. Why don’t you and Brie get off here with the luggage? The cruise terminal is straight ahead. I’ll meet you at the entrance.” Pulling up to the curb, he helped them unload before jumping back behind the wheel and zooming away.
Marla grimaced as a stiff sea breeze blew wisps of her carefully coiffed hair about her face. Her hairstylist skills would come in handy on this voyage. Rummaging in her purse, she withdrew a few bills for the porter who checked their bags.
“Where do we go now?” Brianna said, confusion muddling her brown eyes. She wore her toffee hair in a ponytail along with standard teenage garb of jeans and a camisole top.
“Let’s wait for your father.”
Charter buses pulled up to the curb along with yellow taxicabs and a shiny metal Sysco supply truck. Cops wearing neon green vests directed traffic that added to the noise level. Seagulls squawked. Engines idled. Porters shouted. Airplanes roaring overhead made Marla’s blood pound in her ears.
Who said cruises were restful vacations? Mingling with three thousand other passengers doesn’t fit my dream of a tropical getaway.
Diesel fumes warmed by the summer sun mixed with the aroma of hot dogs from a nearby vendor. A passenger next to her crunched on a potato chip, his ample belly filling his shorts and flowered shirt. Oh joy. Eleven days to gain weight at endless buffets. It’s a good thing my new salon will offer spa services in addition to the usual hair treatments. I’ll be their first customer.
She knew Dalton was looking forward to the meals. He’d pored over the dining room pictures in the brochure. Same for Brianna, whose growing stage made her continuously hungry. Marla was more interested in checking out the shops and lounging by the pool. Forget the onboard salon. She’d take a peek, but that was one place she wanted to avoid on her vacation.
As Vail hustled across the street, she watched him with pride. His broad shoulders filled the Tommy Bahamas black shirt she’d given him for Father’s Day. Even with the silver peppering his ebony hair, his distinguished appearance made female heads turn in appreciation. She hoped this cruise brought them closer together as a family.
“Let’s go inside,” he said, taking charge.
At the door, a uniformed official checked their passports and ushered them into the terminal. They entered the line for U.S. citizens and shuffled along like sheep in a herd until they reached the counter. Vail collected their papers and submitted their passports, cruise tickets, and credit cards for their on board credit accounts.
“How does my hair look?” Marla asked, before she grinned in front of a mini camera that snapped her photo. Just getting to the ship was an ordeal. She couldn’t wait to get settled.
In the next room, another attendant handed them each a room key card which they signed on the back. Brianna’s eyes bulged when she realized she’d be able to charge her own purchases.
“All right! I hope I meet kids my age to hang out with on the ship.” Brianna stuffed the card into her Nine West purse.
“You will, honey,” Marla said, giving her an indulgent smile. “They have an excellent teen program. You’ll have your own activities and even your own newsletter every day.”
“Over here,” Vail said, directing them to the security detail. Like at the airport, they had to pass their carry-on bags through an x-ray machine while they walked through the gates. After they cleared, a guard waved them toward an up escalator. A long metal walkway open to the breeze awaited them at the top. Shaded by a blue awning, it led to the gangway onto the ship itself. But first they had to get past the pair of photographers who captured a quick picture of them in front of a Tropical Sun welcome aboard poster.
“I wonder how much that photo will cost,” Marla remarked. She shivered with excitement as they crossed a plank over a short expanse of sea. Once on the ship, they again had to present their key cards. A crew member swept each card through a machine that brought up their photo ID. Marla noticed a dispenser of liquid hand sanitizer just beyond. Great; they’d need it to prevent the norovirus.
“At last,” she said, once they were free to find their room. She glanced at the bank of elevators, the wide carpeted stairway, and two long corridors flanking either side of the ship. “Where is our cabin located, port or starboard?” she asked Vail, relying on his sense of direction.
“We’re starboard on deck eight,” he replied. “That’s on the right side of the ship facing forward. I usually remember because port has four letters same as left.” He nodded at the crowd waiting in front of the elevators. “It’ll be a few minutes until the mob clears.”
“We can take the stairs.” Wondering why he peered around as though expecting someone, Marla put her foot forward just as she spotted an auburn-haired woman waving at them. She’d come off the down elevator, accompanied by a tall man with receding hair, eyeglasses, and a broad grin.
“Dalton! Brianna!” The lady descended upon them, spreading her arms wide.
“Grandma,” Brie responded, rushing into the older woman’s embrace while Marla stared.
Grandma? Don’t tell me Dalton’s parents are here. Her vision wavered. She felt as though the floor had opened beneath her, and she’d dropped into Wonderland. Why did no one else act surprised? Dumbfounded, she stood there like a statue.
“You think we’d pay for your cruise and not come along for the ride?” Brianna’s grandmother said. “Besides, we wanted to meet Marla. At the rate your father is dragging his feet regarding a wedding date, this may be our only chance.”
She grasped Marla’s stiff hand. “We’re delighted to meet you. I’m Kate, and this is John. Or call us Mom and Dad.”
Vail hugged his father. “Dad, I figured you’d be looking for us down here.”
Marla stood back, struggling to comprehend. Dalton had known his folks would be on the cruise, and he hadn’t said a word? True, Kate and John had treated them to the vacation. Presumably the elder couple meant to smooth things over after Vail’s former in-laws created a strain between them. But if Dalton’s folks were anything like Pam’s parents, she’d plotz!
Not to worry. Kate and John flew in from Maine. They’ll have plenty to do on the cruise.
And she really should forgive Justine and Larry, who still mourned Pam’s death. It wasn’t easy for them to accept Marla as a potential stepmother for their granddaughter.
Kate linked her arm with Marla’s. “You’re prettier in person than in your picture,” Kate said with a warm smile. “I can’t wait to get to know you, but I’m sure you and Dalton would like to unpack. We’ll take Brie to our cabin. Her suitcase is already there.”
Vail frowned. “Huh? Why would it have been sent to your stateroom?”
“I guess you didn’t notice that her room number is different from yours. She’s staying with us so you and Marla can have some privacy. I hope that’s okay with you, sweetheart?”
Brianna’s expression took on a devilish gleam. “Sure, I have my own key anyway. As long as you agree that I don’t have a curfew.” She cast her father a smug grin.
“Now just a minute,” he began.
Vail’s dad made a dismissive gesture. “Let it go, son. Brie can’t get lost on the ship, and she’ll have a better time if she hooks up with some young people.” He exchanged a knowing look with Marla that made her like him already.
“We’ll catch up to you guys later,” Kate told Marla, squeezing her elbow.
Kate was certainly a touchy-feely person, Marla thought, appreciating how she appeared totally different from Justine, Pam’s mother. It might not be so bad having her future in-laws on board after all. Wanting to accommodate Brianna, she turned her attention to the teen.
“Are you certain you’re all right with this, honey? You know you’re welcome to stay with us. We want to spend time with you, and—”
“She’ll be fine.” Kate wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulder. “Take your time exploring the ship. We sail at five, then we have the lifeboat drill before dinner. We’ll meet up with you in the dining room.”
After trudging up the stairs, Marla and Vail sought their cabin. Feeling like a conditioned laboratory rat, she followed the coral carpet down a brightly lit corridor that seemed to stretch to infinity. Brass plates displayed room numbers, and when they reached theirs, Marla noticed an envelope tucked into a seashell decoration by the door.
“Look at this,” she said, showing Vail the scrawl that addressed the message to Martha Shore. “Someone must’ve spelled my name wrong.” Sticking it inside her purse, she unlocked the door to their cabin. “Yikes, my closet at home is bigger than this place!” Plopping her bags on the floor, she surveyed their home for the next week. There was barely enough space for their suitcases, let alone her and Vail.
A queen-sized bed stood against the opposite wall where a wide picture window showed a view of the pier. Other furnishings included a small night stand, a desk that served as a dresser with drawers, a desk chair, and a small loveseat facing a television mounted on a ledge.
She noticed Vail eyeing the TV and said, “If I’m going to lose you to sports games, you can find me on the pool deck. Hey, look in here,” she said upon peering in the bathroom. “If you turn around when you brush your teeth, you’ll be taking a shower.”
Vail excused himself to use the facilities while she examined a pile of papers on their bed: the Tropical Tattler newsletter, announcements about a preview art auction, gift shop flyers, and spa treatment specials. Always on the lookout for bargains, she stuffed them in her purse to read later and turned to her carry-on bag to remove her cosmetics.
From the bathroom, she heard a thump, followed by an explosive whoosh and a loud curse. The detective emerged looking shaken. “Jeez, if you sit on that thing when you flush, you risk losing some vital body parts. They aren’t kidding when they say to close the lid first.”
Marla laughed, putting her things down on the bed and walking over to kiss him soundly. “I can see one benefit to this cabin. We’ll have to snuggle closer.” They spent a few minutes doing just that until a knock sounded outside the door.
“Hello, my name is Jovanny,” said their cabin steward, a short young man with a swarthy complexion. “May I assist you with luggage?” Their suitcases had arrived, and they stood by while he dragged them inside. “Your cruise guide will tell you what goes on each day,” Jovanny said with a flashy grin, while Marla strained to understand him. He spoke as though he had a wad of cotton in his mouth. “Today we have lifeboat drill at five-thirty. Life jackets are in closet. Your station is deck seven, C-4. Okay, lady and gentleman? If you need anything else, please call me on telephone.”
As soon as he left, she returned to unpacking her bag. A loudspeaker blared, making her jump.
Ding dong, ding dong.
“Attention all passengers,” announced a deep male voice from a console on the desk. “According to SOLAS, International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, we are required to hold a lifeboat drill within twenty-four hours of sailing. When you hear seven short blasts and one long blast, this is the signal to proceed to your lifeboat assembly station. There will be no eating or drinking during this exercise. This is a mandatory drill even if you have cruised with us before.”
The man’s voice droned on, issuing further instructions, but Marla closed him out. She’d opened the envelope addressed to Martha Shore and pulled out a piece of paper inside. Narrowing her eyes, she stared at the typewritten words.
I know what you did and I have what you want.
Her blood chilled. Who would send this weird message?
She’d done a few bad things in her life, but mostly they’d been resolved. No one on board could possibly know about the erotic pictures she’d posed for when she was nineteen. That hadn’t been the best moment in her life, but she’d needed the money to pay for an attorney after Tammy drowned in a backyard pool. As her babysitter, Marla had been held accountable by the toddler’s parents. She’d finally put the tragedy to rest, so why would it rear its ugly head now? Nah, this had to be a mistake.
“What’s wrong?” Vail asked, giving her a curious glance. He’d started hanging up his suit jackets.
“Look at this note.” She thrust it at him.
Scanning the words, he scowled. “Gotta be some sort of joke.”
“Or it’s been sent to the wrong person.” Flushing with guilt, she grabbed the paper and tossed it into the trash. Nothing would ruin her vacation. “Forget about it. Let’s explore the ship. I’d like to make sure Brianna is happy with her arrangements.”
Vail opted for a snack, so they headed for the Outrigger Café on deck eleven. Unsure of where to go, Marla suggested they follow the trail of people holding drink cups. They found the dining room with several buffet lines, and Vail filled his plate with a juicy hamburger, French fries, pasta salad and herb roasted chicken, while Marla allowed herself coffee and fruit.
“How can you eat so much? It’s nearly time for dinner,” she said, sipping the brew.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be hungry again,” Vail answered, his mouth full. “How’s the coffee?”
“Rich and robust, with no bitter aftertaste. I saw a notice alongside the dispenser that says the brand is Hair Raiser Coffee. They must have the concession throughout the ship.”
His eyebrows lifted. “I hope that isn’t a portent since you do hair for a living.”
You and me both, pal. This is one week where I want to lie out and catch the sun, not help you catch killers. “Maybe I should serve the stuff in my salon. I’ll look it up on the Internet when I get a chance.”
After bolstering their energy, they strolled outside to preview the pool, Jacuzzis, and solarium. Then they went indoors to ride the glass elevator down, and ended up by Hook’s Champagne Bar on deck five. Marla stared at the nine-story central atrium in confusion.
“How did we miss the salon, spa, and fitness center?” she asked. “Weren’t they on the same deck as the pool?”
“I don’t know. They could be at the other end. We need to look at a diagram.” A couple of long blasts on the ship’s horn sounded. “Forget it, we’re about to cast off. Let’s take the elevator back up.”
Completely disoriented, Marla pointed to the carpet on their way aloft. “It’s a good thing the design tells you what day it is. I could easily lose track of time here.”
“I wonder if they change the carpet at midnight.”
“You can stay and watch. I’ll be too tired tonight.”
As soon as she stepped outdoors into the afternoon July sun, she felt the vibration increase and realized the ship had begun moving. Jostling for a position by the rail, she felt a rush of excitement. She watched the pier recede before they entered the outlet leading to open sea.
Strains of “Hot, Hot, Hot,” played from a steel band by the pool, where a costumed man on stilts led a line dance. Waiters hawked strawberry piña coladas as the drink of the day while the ship glided past Parrot Jungle Island, a fleet of anchored sailboats, cars racing by on the causeway, and mansions fronting the Intracoastal. A jet ski boat skipped along the water as the Tropical Sun neared the last strip of sand.
Marla tilted her head back, enjoying the fresh air and the warm sun that kissed her skin. They were embarking on a grand adventure, and her final view of the shoreline came with the realization that they’d have more than a week free from phone calls, work hassles, and chores.
Ding dong, ding dong.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” boomed a male voice on the public address system. “This is Captain Rick Larsen speaking to you from the bridge. Our mandatory assembly drill begins shortly. When you hear the emergency signal, please proceed to your assembly stations with your life jackets. Staterooms and public areas will be checked to ensure that all guests have exited these locations. Smoking, drinking, eating, and the use of cellular phones is prohibited during the drill. Thank you for your attention and cooperation.”
“Come on,” Vail said, signaling. “We have to go below.”
“Let’s take the stairs. I need to work off all the calories I’m going to consume.”
She gave a last glance at the late sun reflecting off the tall buildings of the Miami skyline. Forced activities might be the only cloud on the horizon, but she could tolerate even those if they took away the decision-making process. She’d dreamed of lying on a tropical beach with no decisions to make except which rum drink to try. That being her only goal for the cruise, she could be flexible otherwise.
Then again, she felt like a sailor at military inspection when they reported to their lifeboat assembly station. Upon their arrival on deck, a uniformed officer recorded the cabin number emblazoned on their vest fronts and directed them to join a group of passengers lined up in jagged rows. Squashed between an overweight fellow who sweated profusely and a mother of two whose younger child wailed at loud decibels, she struggled to fasten her life vest. The bulky jacket forced her neck up at an uncomfortable angle.
Vail cursed beside her. He’d gotten himself tangled in the straps and flailed helplessly while attempting to snag the buckle. Knocking into a muscular guy in the row behind, he mumbled an apology. The fellow must have been easily over six feet tall. He wore a bandanna and tattoos like a biker dude.
“No problem, buddy,” the tattooed man said with a grin.
“You have it on backwards,” Marla said to Vail. She bit her lip to suppress a smile. It wasn’t often that she saw her fiancé at a disadvantage, and when she did, she just wanted to take care of him. She assisted him in putting the vest on correctly.
A female staff member wearing all white–blouse, skirt, shoes, and visored cap–glared at her charges. “Listen up, people.” Everyone snapped to attention while she strode back and forth. “Make sure those straps are tight. Otherwise, if we have to pull you out of the water fast, we’ll yank on the vest and you’ll be left behind to sink like a stone. Come on, squeeze closer. This is how crowded it gets in the boat.” She pointed to the vessel suspended overhead.
“Do we get to sit in the lifeboat?” hollered one passenger.
“Sit, stand, or lie, you’ll be crammed in there. Oh, and another thing, if you have to jump overboard, cross your arms in front like this. Otherwise, the jacket may hit your head upon impact.”
“Oh joy. Something else to worry about,” Marla murmured.
“Your automated light will flash when you enter the water,” the officer continued. “It serves as a beacon. You can use the whistle to draw attention to yourself. Now, are there any questions?”
At her side, Vail blew the whistle attached to his vest.
“Nice move,” Marla crooned, “especially when you don’t know whose mouth it touched last.” She shifted her feet as she heard the familiar ding dong, ding dong from the loudspeaker.
“May I have your attention, please?” said a disembodied voice. “The general emergency signal that began the drill consists of seven short blasts followed by one long blast through the ship’s whistle and internal alarm system. If you are in your stateroom when you hear this signal, grab some warm clothing, gather any medications you may require along with your life jacket, and proceed to your muster station. If you are not in your stateroom, go directly to your station, where in a real emergency, a life jacket will be issued to you. Do not use the elevators, as they will not work in a power failure. Lighting along the floors and stairways will show the route to the assembly stations.”
Marla tuned him out, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasant possibilities. Instead, she contemplated how many times during the day these announcements would disrupt them.
Sweat dribbled between her breasts while she listened to the speaker repeat his message in several languages. “How long is this going to last?” she groused. “I’m dying from the heat.”
Vail regarded her from under his thick brows. “You’ll build up a good appetite for dinner. I wonder where Brianna and my folks are. You don’t see them, do you?” He stood on his toes to peer over the heads of taller figures.
Marla’s gaze caught on a handsome older man who murmured something into his companion’s ear. The woman, a blonde who looked about half his age, shrugged away. Not that it was any of her business, but she wondered if that was his wife or his daughter. She caught another person staring at the couple, a fellow with tousled dark hair, a shifty expression, and a camera with which he shot a quick photo of their profiles.
You’re imagining things, she told herself. He’s probably just snapping a picture of the lifeboat beyond. People are here to have fun, and so are you.
As soon as the ship’s horn blasted the all clear signal, she unstrapped her vest and yanked it over her head, mussing her hair. Jostled by other sweaty bodies, she proceeded indoors and followed the mob down the staircase to deck eight.
With a sigh of relief, she opened the door to their cabin and bounded inside to air-cooled comfort. “Man, is that thing bulky,” she said to Vail, as they tossed their life jackets onto the bed. “We’ll let the cabin steward put them away.”
“I need a shower, but it’s time for dinner already,” Vail replied, raking a hand through his hair. He gave her a rueful glance, as though he would have liked to linger.
Hustling to the dining room, Marla despaired of having a minute free. She could end up being busier on this trip than in her salon at home. At least you don’t have to cook or wait on customers, she thought gleefully as they were ushered to their table by the restaurant manager. Elegant white linens, vases with fresh orchids, subdued jazz music, and scores of uniformed waiters soothed her nerves as she took a seat.
“Typical of Brianna to be late,” Vail said in an indulgent tone. He grabbed a bread stick from a basket on the table.
“You’re just eager to stuff yourself. We’re the first ones here.” Marla nodded at the other empty chairs. “I’m glad we have a table for ten, so we’ll meet new people. Do you suppose the waiter will wait to take our orders until everyone arrives?” She glanced around the room, decorated with crystal chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows. “Some passengers may choose to eat in the café upstairs.”
“Who knows? Can you pass the butter, please?”
As Marla complied, some of their other table companions appeared. She was startled to recognize the older couple from the lifeboat drill. Even though the newsletter indicated this evening’s dress code was casual, they’d changed into fancier outfits than they’d worn on deck.
“I’m Oliver Smernoff, and this is my wife Irene,” the man said in a baritone voice. He wore a black suit that contrasted sharply to his graying temples. Most of his hair on top had receded, leaving him partly bald, but his even features and tall stature made him attractive for a man in his fifties. His wife wasn’t as young as she’d seemed at a distance, judging from her hands more than her face. The veins stood out on her overly tanned skin, making Marla rub her own hands and wish for lotion.
Irene attempted to smile, but her Botox-frozen facial muscles turned it into a grimace. She wore an elegant blue sheath dress and a necklace that shimmered with diamonds.
The newest arrivals, on the other hand, boasted a distinct age difference. “Thurston Stark at your service, and this is my wife, Heidi,” the man boomed to Marla and Vail. He was a big guy with a confident smile, hazel eyes, and wheat brown hair. With his broad shoulders, he might have been a football player in his earlier days. Heidi looked about thirty years younger, a typical blonde trophy wife with a vapid expression. She wore a black dress so revealing that if the ship rocked, her boobs risked tumbling out.
While Thurston and Oliver exchanged hearty greetings, their wives acknowledged each other with tepid nods. It appeared they already knew one another. Before Marla could inquire as to the nature of their acquaintance, more of their table mates arrived.
“We’re out of seats,” Marla noted to Vail in an undertone. “What happened to Brie and your parents?”
“You’re right.” Half-rising, he scanned the dining room. “I don’t see them anywhere.”
Marla twisted her neck to search for their familiar faces. “They must be sitting at a different table. Great, and I figured nothing could go wrong this week. Why am I always so lucky?”
Vail chuckled. “The way you’re a magnet for trouble, sweetcakes, we’ll be lucky to get off this ship alive.”