A post with a fact-finding delegation to Iraq seems like the perfect way for Veronica Nash to escape troubles at home. When an official vanishes on the voyage out it looks like there’s more to the mission than meets the eye.
Monday, 20th August 1923.
Veronica heard her name and a hollow knocking sound echoing through a dream about Claire. She mumbled and turned over.
In her dream, Claire smiled. “Lazybones,” she said, blowing a kiss.
“Mrs. Nash!” Her name came again, accompanied by an urgent knocking that finally penetrated her sleep.
Veronica opened gummy eyes and squinted through the half-darkness at the door to an unfamiliar room. The bed moved beneath her with a long, slow surge. She was its only occupant. Where’s Claire? Memory returned. It’s not our bedroom. It’s my cabin. Of course. I’m aboard the Princess of India, alone, at sea.
“Who is it?” she called.
“It’s Steward Kristadasa, madam. Please, you must come at once.”
Alarmed, she sat up. “Is the ship sinking?”
“No, no.” The Goan steward’s voice conveyed impatience. “Please forgive the early hour, but there is an emergency. Sir Kenneth Messenger wishes to speak with you.”
“Sir Kenneth. Right.” She glanced at her travelling alarm clock on the bedside table. Half-past seven o’clock? “Wait a moment.”
Veronica wiped her face in tepid water from the vanity then chose clean clothing from the few items she’d unpacked the previous day. She dressed quickly and ran a brush through her fine blonde hair. She paused a moment to check the spot on her scalp where a murderer had torn out a clump of hair over four weeks previously. Enough had grown back, and a little judicious styling served to conceal the place. Once she thought herself presentable enough to face the delegation’s chief, she opened the door to the steward.
Mr. Kristadasa escorted her through the labyrinth of passageways and stairs up to Sir Kenneth’s suite in the first-class section. The steward knocked, opened the door, and ushered her into the cabin before departing.
Veronica found herself standing before Sir Kenneth Messenger MP, Minister without portfolio and chief of the fact-finding delegation to Iraq, of which she was a supernumerary member. Messenger sat writing at a desk beneath a closed porthole. The electric light cast his craggy features into sharp relief and set the grey at his temples in strong contrast to his thick, wavy black hair.
His principal aide, John Marsh, stood beside him, holding a sheaf of papers. On first acquaintance, she’d guessed Marsh to be in his middle thirties, but this morning he acted like a much older man.
Messenger turned around to regard her with penetrating dark eyes and a grim expression. “Good morning, Mrs. Nash.”
Veronica advanced into the cabin and stopped a few feet from the minister. “Good morning, sir. What may I do for you?”
He looked up at her from under thick greying eyebrows, his gaze sharp in spite of the early hour. “Do you know the whereabouts of Mr. Audley?”
She blinked. “Mr. Audley? Why, no.”
Messenger shot a glance at Marsh, who frowned.
Veronica looked from one to the other. “Is there something wrong?”
Marsh addressed her. “Mr. Audley was supposed to be here for an early meeting an hour ago. When he didn’t show, we sent the steward to his cabin. Audley wasn’t there, and the steward reported that the bunk hadn’t been slept in. The fellow looked in the saloons and lounges, but he’s not in any of them.”
“How curious,” Veronica said.
Messenger sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It seems Mr. Audley is missing.”
Marsh spoke up. “You were the last to see him, I believe, Mrs. Nash.”
“That was yesterday evening when I escorted Mr. Audley to his cabin because he felt seasick. I left him there at eight o’clock or thereabouts.”
Marsh gave her a doubting look.
Veronica stiffened with growing outrage. “Surely you’re not implying he spent the night in my cabin, Mr. Marsh?”
“Of course not,” he retorted, although by his expression, it was exactly what he’d implied.
“No one is implying anything, Mrs. Nash,” Messenger interposed, shooting a hard glance at Marsh. “Be that as it may, it seems Mr. Audley is missing. Since he became engaged recently to a lovely young woman, I very much doubt he’s wandering far afield, so to speak.”
“Is anyone currently looking for him?” Veronica asked.
“Not at present. I’ve notified the ship’s captain, and unless Audley shows up for breakfast, he’ll put out a call for him over the public address system. If that doesn’t produce a result, the captain has promised a search of the entire vessel will be conducted, beginning at nine o’clock.”
Messenger’s valet, a cadaverous-looking man somewhere in his fifties with slicked-down dark hair, appeared through a doorway from an adjoining room. Glancing at Veronica, he turned to his employer and coughed politely. “I have laid out breakfast for you, sir.”
Messenger nodded. “Very good, Stokes. I shall be there directly.” As Stokes bowed and retreated, Messenger flipped a hand at Veronica. “Thank you, Mrs. Nash. You may go, but please hold yourself in readiness should I need you.”
Veronica bobbed a curtsey and departed, feeling Marsh’s eyes on her until the door closed behind her. She paused in the passageway. What on earth happened to Matthew Audley? In spite of what Sir Kenneth said, might he have found a romantic assignation aboard, and so soon?
She headed toward her cabin, intending to complete a more thorough toilette. She was thankful that her sense of direction hadn’t lost its edge as she negotiated the ship’s interior. As she neared her door, the door to the adjoining cabin opened.
A pretty young red-headed woman peered out at her. “Hello!” she said.
“Hello,” Veronica responded with her hand upon the latch of her door.
The woman emerged into the passageway. “I’m frightfully sorry to be nosy, but what was all the noise about earlier?”
Veronica looked her over, noting her boarding school accent, off the peg but presentable clothing on a curvaceous figure, and lowered her estimate of the woman’s age to late teens. “I’m sorry you were disturbed. It was a message for me. It seems a gentleman from our delegation has gone missing since last night.”