The call came in at eleven p.m. on a Saturday night, when all hell was breaking loose uptown. A full moon in August always brings out the lunatics, but this call came from pier 18, down at the docks.
Detective Shirts and I arrived on the scene just after midnight. The tramp steamer, the SS Leaward , was a pretty run-down vessel registered in Mauritania, according to the Harbour Master.
“She looks pretty skanky,” said Shirts. “Maybe shipping arms.”
She’d only docked a couple of hours ago, and as we climbed the gangway, we passed Watts, the coroner.
“Where’d you think you’re going, Watts?”
He was a little guy with a fat belly and three strands of hair. Always looked like he was about to fart. He stifled a burp and said something about forensics already being inside.
“You mean aboard?”
“Yeah. Whatever. Milly’s waiting for me at home. Good luck with this one,” he quipped and hurried down the gangway.
I gave Shirts a nod and we boarded. The captain met us. On first sight, he seemed like a straight-up guy: bearded, grizzled, nattily dressed. You know, the way a ship’s captain should look. He admitted to making the call, but when I asked him to run down what had happened, he turned stoic on me.
“Sir, you called in a homicide.”
He looked shocked. “I certainly didn’t! I called the authorities in on a natural death. No one murders anyone on my ship!” The man was slurring a little and I thought I smelled booze.
“Coroner’s not so sure about that, Cap. Why don’t I just take a look?”
The Captain pointed towards the cabins. “Down there,” he said. I could see the guy was having a hard time holding it together. He turned away and stifled a sob.
Shirts and I proceeded below deck to the cabins. It wasn’t hard to find the crime scene; the police photographer was letting off flashes like it was New Year’s Eve. I figured it was an ugly one â€“ lotta blood and such. Turns out, I was wrong.
“What’s the story, Shutterbug?”
“Hey Hank, you gonna love this one.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, poking my head into the cabin. “Yowzah!”
Shirts stood behind me, craning to see over my shoulder. He let out a low, slow whistle.
The room was almost all bed, and on top of it was the sexiest dame I’ve ever laid eyes on. “Shame she’s dead.”
“You wouldn’t be getting an eyeful if she wasn’t,” snapped the medical examiner, Betty. “She was a classy broad, Hank.”
She made a beautiful corpse, that’s for sure. Platinum blonde, breasts the size of grapefruits, the sweetest hips you ever seen and plump, clean-shaven pussy. “Cause of death?”
“He’s not showing me any love, Besty. What’s your best guess?”
“Hard to say, Hank. No external injury, no blunt force, no strangulation marks or petechial hemorrhaging. If she weren’t so young, I’d say she died from old age.”
I walked around the body, noticing the surrounding area. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” said Betty. “There’s fluids everywhere. More than I’ve ever seen. Whatever happened in here, someone had a lot of fun.”
“Can’t say for sure. There’s certainly intercourse, some of it pretty rough, but not the bruising you’d expect. No tearing either. I’ll be able to tell you more when I get her back to the lab.”
I glanced in the wastepaper basket and whistled. “Oh, Betty, dear!” I held up the basket and titled it. It was almost half full of used condoms.
“Yup, I’m on it.”
There was a small dressing table with cosmetics, perfume, and clutter on it. The gold lamÃ© clutch purse yielded a passport. I passed it over to Shirts.
“Sandra Marie Baxter, 32. Born Trenton, New Jersey.” He paged through the document. “She’s been a lot of places. Hong Kong, New Delhi, Buenos Aires, Gabonâ€¦ Hey, where’s Gabon?”
“No idea.” I turned back to Betty. “So, at the moment, you got nothing for me?”
Betty stood up, secured her black evidence kit and shook her head. “Nada, Hank. This gal’s a mystery.”
“What’s your gut say? Homicide?” Betty might be young and a little butch for my taste, but she was good at her job.
She shrugged, pulled out a cigarette and lit it, then blew a thin stream of smoke across the little room. “Well, it could be drugs. Look at her, Hank. How many murder victims have you seen with that expression on their face?”
I looked at Ms. Baxter’s beautiful, dead face. It was hard to keep my eyes off the rest off the rest of her charms, but sure enough, Betsy was right. The woman looked pretty happy.
“See if you can find anything that could indicate drug use, Shirts.” I said, leaving the stateroom. “I’m going to pry some more out of the captain.”
Back up on deck, I found the captain in the wheelhouse. He was slumped over his charts, crying boozily.
“Hey Cap, wakey, wakey!” I pulled him back by the collar and he gazed up at me with red, unsteady eyes. “Who was the dame? She a paying passenger?”
“Whoâ€¦wasâ€¦theâ€¦dame?” he parroted. “Sandra, Sandy, queen of the sea, beach princess, mermaid of my salty heartâ€¦”
The guy wasn’t in a condition to give me anything. I went back down on deck to see who else I could talk to. There was a light on in one of the cabins on the upper deck. I knocked at the door. It was answered by a fair-haired man in a crewneck sweater.
“Detective Hank Ransom.” I flashed him my badge. “Can we talk?”
He stepped aside and I walked in to what must have been the Mess. Five guys were sitting around a table, drinking. I really couldn’t tell if they looked sad or guilty as hell.
“Anyone know who the dead woman is?”
The all nodded silently.
“This ain’t a game, people. This is a police investigation!”
They nodded again.
“So,who was she? Where’d she come from?”
The big burly blonde guy at the end of the table spoke: “Zandra. I think she was from America, ya?”
“And you are?” I pulled out my notebook and started writing.
“Sven Bjornstrom. First Mate.”
“Was she the only passenger, Sven?”
The man looked at the rest of them. “The one and only. Right guys?”
He picked up the almost empty bottle of scotch and filled the shot glasses on the galley table. “To Zandy!” he chanted.
They all raised their glasses and repeated his toast, knocking the liquor back.
“Soâ€¦I gather this Sandra was pretty popular with the crew?”
“Popular? Popular?” piped the red-headed man in the plaid shirt. “That’s a bit of an understatement, laddie.” He had a strong Scottish lilt.
“And you are?”
“Ian McDonald. First Engineer.”
“You liked her?”
“I loved her, man. With a passion that wouldn’t be quenched!” His voice quavered. “She was a beauty, and it was my honour to stoke that bonnie boiler of hers whenever she wished it.”
There was general, drunken agreement around the table. Someone filled the glasses again and there was another toast.
“A Sandy, la mujer de mis suenos!” piped a small, swarthy guy in the corner.
I fixed my gaze on him. “And you are?”
“Juan Diaz Martillo Jimenez.”
“Cook!” The Scot yelled back. “You’re the bloody cook. We don’t have chef’s on ships.”
“Jes, de cook. I’m de cook.”
“And you knew her, too?”
“Knew her?” The small man stood up, adjusting his trousers and puffing out his chest. “Knew her?”
He walked around the table until we stood eyeball to eyeball. Or would have, if I’d stooped a little. “Soâ€¦ I gather you knew her.”
He fixed me with his stare. His lower lip trembled. “Biblically, SeÃ±or. I knew her in every way there is to know a woman.” He turned back to the table, grabbed a glass and shouted “Ã“tro!”
This was getting a little weird. I pulled out a chair, took a seat and scanned the table. “So, let me try and get this. You all had relations with this woman?”
Slowly, the heads around the table started to bob.
“Every one of you?”
“She was insatiable,” whispered McDonald. “You can’t possibly imagine. From the time she joined us in Macau, she only stopped to sleep.”
“I rememberâ€¦” muttered Sven. “Oh, that first night. Thank god we were in the tropics. On the deckâ€¦do you remember?”
The table gave a collective groan. A tall, thin Indian gentleman, who hadn’t spoken, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to weep. “Everyway, everyway I knew. There weren’t enough positions in the Kama Sutra for that woman. She wasâ€¦ a love goddess!” he sobbed.
There was a knock at the stateroom door and Shirts entered. He bent over and whispered in my ear. “Betty’s got some prelim findings.”
We stepped out onto the deck. “Shoot, Shirts.”
He flipped the pages of his notes and read: “Five different semen donors, she says. No internal injury. A lot of sperm in the stomach. Made some joke about the victim living on the stuff.”
I shook my head in frustration. “What’s the cause of death, damn it?”
“She says she’s still looking.”
“For god’s sake, Shirts. This is ridiculous.”
“Too damn many. Seems like every member of the crew was sleeping with her.”
Shirts whistled. “That’s one for the files.”
I shook my head and raked my fingers through my hair. It was almost two a.m. and I was nowhere. “I’m going to have to interview them one at a time. Tell them to go to their cabins, and I’ll see them individually. Ask the Swede to stay.”
I stood by the railing, looking out over the dark harbour and into the greasy night. Behind me, the crew staggered out and dispersed.
* * *
When I returned to the mess, Sven had his head buried in his hands and a huge bulge in his pants.
“Sit down, Sven.”
Despite his size, he nodded and sat down like a lamb. “I can’t get her out of my mind. I’ll never forget her.”
“Sure thing, Sven. Tell me, can you think of anyone who would want to harm Ms. Baxter?”
He raised his head and looked sullen. “No one would ever hurt her. We all loved her.”
“Yeah, but human nature being what it isâ€¦ most men would feel bad about sharing a girl like that.”
“Why? She was so generous. There was plenty to go around, Detective.”
I didn’t buy it for a second and I told him so. “Someone got greedy, Sven. Maybe you?”
He gazed at me, bleary-eyed and tired. “You can’t be greedy when there’s a full plate in front of you.” Sven sighed. “You don’t understand. She would do anythingâ€¦ anything. Ever had a woman like that, Detective? She loved my cock. She said so. Before I went on duty, every morning, she’d come to my cabin andâ€¦ Oh, that woman could suck cock like no one on earth.”
“When did you last see her alive.”
“Just before dark. She wanted it doggy style, in the galley. I couldn’t refuse,” he said helplessly.
I nodded, getting the picture. “Okay. Well, that’s all for now. But don’t think about going anywhere far,” I warned him.
* * *
Sven left and Shirts sent in the next man. It was the Spaniard with the long name.
“You were also intimate with the victim?”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
“And when did you last see her alive?”
The man thought for a moment, then his face screwed up into a mask of anguish. “Perhaps, just before dinner? Yes. I’d made a nice chocolate mousse, and I brought her some to try. In a bowlâ€¦” the slight man started to weep.
“Pull yourself together, now. What happened then?”
“Then? Then? She tasted some on her finger and then lay back on this very table, this one right here, and opened her gown. Dios mÃo!” He took a deep breath and shuddered. “She said, â€˜Juanito, come here.’ And she poured the mousse all over her little conejito and begged me to lick it off. Chocolateâ€¦I love chocolate. She said, â€˜Desert first, then the meat.’ It got all over my dick, but I didn’t care. Anything for mi Sandy.”
I loosened my collar. It was getting hot in the room. “And that’s it?”
“It? What more do you want? She’d exhausted me! She reduced me like a wine sauce!”
“And you never saw her alive again?”
He started to ball again. “No, never again. Ay, mi Sandee-ee!”
“Shirts!” I yelled.
The door opened. “Yeah, Hank?”
“Take this guy away, will ya? Bring me the Engineer.”
* * *
“Can you tell me the last time you saw Ms. Baxter alive?”
“About half-past seven, I think.”
“And she was fine, then?”
The Scot grinned. “Well, she was certainly fine when I left her, laddie.”
“How did she look to you?”
“Verrry sweaty. I’d just finished giving her a good arse fucking.” His gaze drifted away, out the porthole. “That was a woman! Not like some of the prissy little misses you meet on the docks. She loved to be filled, man. Loved it.
“Ask the Captain. One night, off the coast of Madagascar, she wanted us both. He took her arse and I had her sweet little cunny. What a night that was. The dolphins could hear her cries of passion; they kept bumping up against the hull, rubbing themselves raw.”
“Andâ€¦soâ€¦ you left her at seven-thirty,” I muttered, trying to get the interview back on track. “And she was happy?”
McDonald looked at me a little wistfully. “As happy as she ever was, laddie, when she wasn’t fucking, or sucking, orâ€¦”
“Okay. I think I have enough here,” I said. “You can go now. But don’t leave the ship.”
The Scot got up and smiled. “Where in the world would I be going, man? There’s nothing out there to compare with Sandy.”
* * *
Finally, I asked Shirts to bring in the ship’s doctor, Dr. Bannerjee.
“Sit down, Doctor.”
He took a seat, looking a little frightened.
“When did you see Ms. Baxter last, Dr. Bannerjee?”
“Oh, about ten. Yes, very close to ten. We had just come in to port.”
“And how was she, at that time?”
The doctor blushed. “A little tired, perhaps.”
I stifled a laugh. “And why was that?”
“Well, I’d been teaching Sandra about Tantric sex, you see. We’d been postponing orgasm for quite some time. And, when it finally came, it was most satisfactory.”
“Andâ€¦how long, exactly, had you been â€˜postponing orgasm’?”
“About two hours.”
“I don’t get it. Can you explain that a little?”
“With pleasure,” the doctor said. “We had stimulated each other in various ways. I had licked her yoni while she sucked my lingam until we couldn’t bear the stimulus any longer. Then I penetrated her, in the yab yum position and we worked at keeping ourselves right on the edge. It’s wonderful, you know. You should try it with your wife. Very good for your heath, too.”
“I’m not married.”
“Well, I’ve taught Sven and heâ€¦he’s an extremely flexible man.”
I cringed and hoped it didn’t show. Sven was an awful large guy. “Is there anything that could possibly hurt her about this â€˜yab yum’ position?”
“Oh, no! It is one of the fundamental tantric positions. Very good for beginners. The depth of penetration is excellent, and as the lingam starts to pulse with life energy, it transfers over to the yoni in spasms of joy. Sandra was a very talented beginner. Perhaps in a previous lifeâ€¦”
“So, you don’t think it had anything to do with her death.”
“Wellâ€¦ I hope not. Before I left her, I did teach her some self-stimulation techniques, though. Just in case there was no one on the crew who could oblige her. Every man has his limits, you know.”
“And what did that involve?”
The doctor looked sheepish. “Just some techniques. How to stimulate your chakras during orgasm to draw it out. Perhaps she tried to prolong it excessively?”
I shook my head. This was all beyond me. “But none of this could be fatal, right?”
“Wellâ€¦one shouldn’t abuseâ€¦”
Shirts burst in the door. “Hank? The coroner has come back with his findings. We’re off the hook. Death by natural causes.”
I thanked Dr. Bannerjee and got up, feeling dog tired. Walking out onto the deck, taking a deep breath, I said: “You’re shittin’ me.” The sun was coming up.
“Nope. Coroner says no foul play. He says, basically, she fucked herself to death. Coronary failure.”
“Christ. I didn’t think that was possible.”
Shirts laughed. “I thought you’d be glad. After all, at least this one had a happy ending. Come on, let’s clock off.”
We strolled up to the gangway. The Captain had sobered up; he was standing by the railings, looking forlorn.
“I’m sorry for the disruption, Captain. Seems you were right after all. There’s been no murder on your ship.”
The captain nodded slowly. “Do you know what a ship’s figurehead is, Detective?”
“Sure, isn’t it that carved statue that they strap on the front of boats?”
He gave a weary chuckle. “Something like that.”
“Well, most ships have them at the bow, but we had ours inside. I’m going to scrap the ship, Detective.”
I looked around the deck, a little confused. “The ship’s a little run down, Cap, but isn’t that a little over-dramatic? She’ll be fine with a little sprucing up.”
“A ship can’t sail without her figurehead, Detective, and ours is gone.”