Poisoned Waters is set in the 1950s on a trans-Atlantic cruise from Southampton to New York. Helen Gardener is murdered during the voyage. The novel follows the stories of seven unfortunate characters and how they are affected by the death of Helen Gardener. Was it merely an accident? Mr Phillips, the owner of the ship, and sponsor of the cruise, rules with an iron fist, in search of something or someone.
Lies spiral out of control as the suspects try to survive the final days on board. Conflicted by their sense of morals, greed, and lust, they realise what kind of people they really are. Who will rise? Who will fall? Who was Helen’s murderer?
The crystal chandelier of the Diamond Royale’s Grand Hall glistened, showering raindrops of light all over the room. American swing, fast gaining popularity in post-war Europe, filled the air with a festive atmosphere. Passengers aboard the luxury ship bound for New York swayed to the beat of a live band, as they sipped blood-red wine, and savoured the taste of lust on another’s fleshy lips. While most clustered together in fits of giggles and chuckles, Sylvia strayed to the side, with a cigarette between her fingers.
The smoke danced up towards the ceiling as if trying to escape from her crimson lips. The smell of nicotine was pungent and it seeped through the black satin gloves she wore. Sylvia didn’t know why she had bothered to come aboard this cruise; it was full of hot air and nothing more.
The Grand Hall was littered with generals, lords, ladies and other members of the elite. The men whose eyes danced in her direction blubbered with loose and deeply intoxicated smirks. The desire to butt out her cigarette against their pupils grew.
Out from the crowd, a robust man caught her eye. Within seconds, he advanced towards her. Sylvia averted her eyes and took a long drag on the cigarette.
“My sweet pearl, Sylvia,” The man leaned in towards her; his cheek felt like sandpaper and she could smell his abhorrent breath. “Dance with me.”
“Markus, <i>liebling</i>, I still need a drink.”
Sylvia excused herself, hoping her husband would stop bothering her. His thin lips caressed her neck and his thick fingers found her buttocks. She resisted the urge to burn him with the cigarette.
After he pawed her with squeezes, sloppy kisses and German pet names, Markus agreed to fetch drinks. Without avail, Sylvia walked in the opposite direction. She just wanted to escape from her demanding husband for a few minutes. Crossing to the other side of the ship, she flicked the butt away and pulled another out of the case she had nuzzled between her breasts. On edge, Sylvia’s fingertips trembled, struggling with the lighter as the brisk wind made it difficult to light her third cigarette of the night.
“Need help?” A hazy voice with a heavy accent asked from just over her shoulder. His accent was strikingly familiar.
“Ja, alstublieft.” <i>Yes, please.</i> Sylvia responded in Dutch.
The young man’s eyes lit up. He couldn’t have been older than twenty five, nearly two decades younger than her husband. She quickly scanned his fitted suit and steely grey eyes. Taking her cigarette and lighter, he lit her cigarette before handing it back to her.
Extending a hand in thanks, she was taken off guard when he raised her hand to his lips. He held her gaze for longer than necessary as he brushed his lips across the top of her hand.
“Can I help you?” she asked, unnerved.
“May I have this dance?” Before he waited for her reply, he had already pulled her close.
“I am a married woman,” Sylvia pulled her hand away, unsure about his intentions.
“Sylvia!” She barely heard Markus over the music. She twisted out of the young man’s touch to see Markus shoving his way through the crowd towards them, a glass of wine in each hand. The flash of anger she saw upon his face dissolved the moment he turned to the man before her.
“Ah, you have met my beautiful wife, Sylvia Wrinkler. <i>Liebling</i>, this is the new accountant I was telling you about, Mr Jacobus van Tiel.”
Sylvia stared at Jacobus under heavy black lashes. There was something in that man she didn’t like. Everything about his appearance was sharp, rigid and stern, similar to Markus but without the sagging stomach and jowls.
Markus handed her one of the glasses as he sipped from his own. When he lowered the glass, the wine left a dark red sheen on his top lip. Sylvia tried again to excuse herself, feeling uncomfortable. But her husband gripped her wrist and the diamond bracelet she wore bit into her skin like a row of teeth. Her escape thwarted, Sylvia stood still and forced a dazzling smile.
Benjamin held open the galley doors as he slid inside with an empty platter. Working as a waiter for the Phillips family, the sinfully wealthy hosts of the cruise, was less than an enjoyable experience. He needed money and this was the first job he was able to achieve that paid him a reasonable salary for the week the cruise lasted. The heat of the kitchen swept over him and he frowned.
“Those honkies don’t stop eating. They’re like pigs,” Mary growled underneath her breath as she passed him by.
Ever since they had met, she had stuck to him like a fly. They shared the same dark chocolate skin and childhood discrimination, but he didn’t share her fierce hatred for the people they were serving. Growing up in London during the 40s meant that he did bear the scars of racism. Many people of both colours had provided him good experiences and subsequently snatched him away from the all-consuming hatred. Colour didn’t matter to him but it did to Mary who spat on their food. That young woman who had barely reached twenty knew a lifetime of obscenities.
Benjamin followed what his mother had told him. He had to keep his head low and try to not attract attention. He had to be grateful for what others gave him and he was trying his best to keep his job, earning his pounds. While at times he felt like reporting Mary, he couldn’t. They were connected whether it be by colour or age or something greater.
Hurriedly arranging more servings of caviar, Benjamin heard someone calling his name. The barmen needed an extra and Benjamin begrudgingly agreed,