Authors: Anthony Bidulka
"You have yourself a deal, Mr. Delmonico."
He laughed a throaty, raspy laugh and together they set off. Harry rolled her eyes.
"Have you known my sister-in-law very long, Mr. Quant?" James McNichol, seated at my left, sidled up and asked me in a shushed tone that was not meant for the others at the table to hear.
For a moment I was stymied. I couldn't admit to having just met her if I was supposed to be playing the role of her trusted legal advisor, but I also didn't want to be caught in a lie. "For some time," I said vaguely.
"Ah well, good then, in that case I was wondering if...man to man, you know.. .if you think I've got a chance there."
I waited for more. When I realized there wasn't any I looked at him and said, "I'm sorry, I don't think I understand."
"Oh come on, man, you know what I mean. Do you think I have a chance with her? You know, to court her. You'd have to agree she is one hell of a handsome woman. Wouldn't you say?"
"No, no, no, Mr. Quant. Not Dottie. Not my type. Not at all. Charity. I know it might seem a bit risque, what with she and I being in-laws and all. You do know that my first marriage was to Charity's sister, don't you? Well of course you do. But well, my goodness, certainly no one could think badly of us now. My dear Hope died sixty years ago. We had a short marriage, Mr. Quant, but oh how we loved one another. I had to move on though, hadn't I? I gladly raised our daughter Helen. And it was hard in those days for a man alone to raise a young girl. But I did it. Happy to. But when she was gone, married, and then passed on herself, I just had to move on. I was still a young man. Still virile, just as you are now."
"You remarried?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.
He gave me another of his famous winks along with a bit of a nudge in the ribs. "Well, not right away. I had a few relationships. Nothing untoward, mind you, not like young men and women do today, but I had some fun let me tell you. The dating life was for me, let me tell you. But, a man has to settle down sooner or later. So eventually, yes, I did remarry. Three times actually."
I winced, hoping he wasn't about to tell me all his wives died on him. Was I sitting next to a modern day Henry VIII?
"Twice divorced and once more widowed. I loved them all. They say you fall in love, really in love, only once in your life. That, my boy, is hogwash. I loved all my wives the same. It was just that a couple of them didn't love me quite as much," he said with a hint of disappointment on his handsome face. I was trying to find the name of the old-time actor James McNichol reminded me of. James Mason maybe.
"Sorry to hear that." I glanced over at Harry and Patrick who were being left out of the conversation.
They seemed content to sit mostly quietly in each other's company, with Harry every once in a while telling her grandfather a little story or giggling over something I couldn't hear. I turned back to James and asked, "So your last marriage ended...?"
"Oh Delilah. She divorced me about five years ago. Went off with someone else. It's okay I guess, if that’s what makes her happy. And I've been having some fun of my own since then. But I'm still a y...well, perhaps I can't say I'm so young anymore, but I got some time left in me, Mr. Quant, and I mean to use it.
I need a good woman to settle down with again." Another "if you know what I mean" wink and nudge.
I was beginning to know exactly what he meant. James McNichol, for all his experience with the ladies, was still a rather old-fashioned gent who lived in a world with rules that few other men adhere to any longer. When he talked about dating and courting and having fun, those activities did not include sex. So when he couldn't take it anymore and wanted to have sex, he had to find a woman who wanted to get married. Given his good looks, I could understand how he'd have little trouble finding suitable candidates.
Seemed like a waste of marriage certificates to me, but whatever. What I couldn't understand was how he could be so dim as to consider Charity wife material, especially when she, along with her life partner, had invited him on a gay cruise!
Our meal arrived and Harry left to retrieve Errall and her father. While we waited, I took another look around the room. Charity was entertaining her dinner companions, Dottie and the younger set, Flora and siblings Nigel, Nathan and Kayla (I checked their names in the dossier before I came), two tables over.
The boys seemed to be enjoying every minute of their great-aunt's verbal shenanigans, as if they were on a wild amusement park ride that could end at any time. They knew to take advantage of the thrills while the)' could. At the other extreme, Kayla looked sour and Flora dour. Sitting at the table next to ours, the fiver, was the woman Errall and I had decided last night had to be Charity's sister. Faith was a gentler version of Charity; softer in her facial features, the way she wore her hair, her clothing choices. Every so often, over the usual mealtime ruckus, I heard the mellifluous tones of her voice as she spoke to others at her table. With her relaxed updo, graceful neck and delicate hands, she was Snow White at eighty-four.
The distinguished-looking gentleman at her side was no doubt her husband, Thomas Kincaid. Next to him were their daughter Marsha and her bulky husband Ted-average Joe and Jane hopelessly trying to pull off Ken and Barbie.
Marsha and Ted were looking particularly ill at ease. As much as James McNichol seemed blissfully unaware that he was on a gay cruise, these two were painfully cognizant of the fact. Whenever the solicitous waiter with only an oil can-like apparatus over his charms or the waitress with "Dorothy is my bitch" tattooed on her belly happened by, their eyes would protrude from their heads like boiled eggs.
Then they would look at one another with self-righteous indignation-or at least Marsha looked indignant.
Ted appeared rather befuddled, as if he'd just beheld a unicorn and didn't know whether he should weep at its uniqueness or shoot it as game. And when one of these creatures had the audacity to come near enough to serve them something, they'd lean so far in the opposite direction they'd almost topple off their chairs.
Next to them, Marsha's slightly younger brother, Nick Kincaid, was harder to read. But he was one book I'd have no trouble taking to bed at night for some deep study. In fact, his dark, hirsute, handsome, Village People, super-butch facade was almost too perfect to be real. He was GI Joe on vacation.
The rest of the meal flowed by rather smoothly as I asked questions of the others, feigning polite interest when really I was assessing the possibility of each character as a possible murderer. My success in unearthing revealing facts, however, was less than stellar. Although Harry was a delight to listen to for her sheer exuberance, she talked a lot about nothing. Her father, Jackson, excused himself countless more times throughout dinner to grab a stronger-than-wine drink from the bar and have a smoke on the outdoor deck. (Errall joined him a third of the time.) Patrick Halburton was a quiet man who said little and, unless Harry was engaging him in conversation, spent a lot of time staring at his food. As for James McNichol, well, he was a long-in-the-tooth Don Juan with little on his mind but how to get into Charity's pants, or, in the meantime, how to get a better look down Errall's dress. Was Charity's resistance to his efforts a plausible motive for murder? I was debating this when from somewhere behind me came the sound of singing.
"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you..." It was the tin-coloured staff. They were marching, procession-like, from the kitchen, the lead one holding aloft a massive slab of red-icinged cake on a platter of tin and alive with eight sparklers burning bright.
The rest of the family joined in for the last bit of the song, "...Happy Birthday dear Charity-Grandmother-Auntie, Happy Birthday to you!"
The cake was deposited with a thump onto the table in front of the birthday girl. As the sparklers sputtered mightily to their death, their crackling light threw Charity's face into a sphere of otherworldly glow in which she basked like a movie star. She stared deep into the fizzing brightness, as if daring it to blind her. Dottie sat to one side of Charity, a content smile on her plump face; Flora was on the other, her cheeks burning red from the heat of the spitting candles.
"I'd like to propose a toast!" Charity rose from her chair and hoisted her ubiquitous martini glass into the air, which, I was coming to recognize, was one of her favourite poses. She was wearing a peach-coloured pantsuit of a slinky material that flared at her ankles and wrists. Her hair was up in a bun and her eyes were sparkling like gems-from alcohol or mischief, I couldn't decide. "To my family, who have attended, most without fail, each of my Charity Events over these last many years."
There was a general sound of people preparing to raise their glasses for a sip but it became obvious Charity wasn't quite done. I wondered why someone else wasn't delivering the birthday toast, but really, she hadn't given anyone the chance.
She continued. "And particularly I raise my glass to this Charity Event, aboard this stunning vessel of the sea, The Dorothy. An event like no other, not only for its location and luxuriousness, but because, my dear family, it is to be...our last!"
Protestations and sounds of surprise, sincere and otherwise, abounded.
Charity used the moment to rove the room with calculating eyes. I saw in her the look of a woman who often found herself alone, even in a crowd. The noise of the others was just that, noise. She wasn't listening to any of it. The game was playing out as she expected. The family members were playing their part well, albeit completely transparently and more than a little by rote. But there was something new this time-one of them wanted her dead. This time, these people were more than just pawns on her game board-they were adversaries...at least until the murderer was known. Charity knew how to deal with adversaries. She'd been doing it all her life. So even with stakes at the ultimate high, she exuded confidence because this was a game she was certain that she would ultimately win.
"Yes, our final Charity Event," she told them once more. "And let me tell you why."
A collective intake of breath. Me too. What the heck was she up to?
"Over the years," Charity began, taking a healthy sip from her drink. Realizing it was now empty she called out to a nearby server, "Raymond, you lovely, another please."
By the look on the waiter's face I guessed his name was something other than Raymond, still, he sportingly took away her empty glass.
"Over the years," she began again, "I have not been unaware of a certain...oh, what should I call it...a derision amongst many of you, not all, mind you, but many. A derisory attitude toward not only myself-and my fortune-but also toward my dear sisters, Faith and Hope."
A spattering of "no"s and "not true"s echoed throughout the room. I was having difficulty trying to both listen to Charity's words and monitor the family. From what I could see, most reactions were identical: dawning fear of what next would come out of this powerful woman's mouth. Well, except for Nigel and Nathan whose lips were turned up at the edges and whose naughty-angel faces wore looks that said, "She's gonna blow, dude."
"Oh yes, it's true," Charity crowed. "Do you think I haven't heard the rumours that are spread, the rumblings, the grumblings, the stories that are told? My favourite being the one about three sisters, who, although given the sacred names of Faith, Hope and Charity, by an ironic quirk of fate...have none themselves."
The unrest in the crowd was palpable. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the staff had ceased all serving duties and were standing at attention near the kitchen doors, either through prearranged orders from Charity Wiser herself or simple good sense.
"They say that sister Faith is without faith, having turned her back on God to take up with a man..."
I looked at Faith and Thomas. Their heads were bowed low, as if in prayer. Their daughter Marsha, however, appeared almost apoplectic in her simmering rage. Son Nick's face was a motionless dark stone.
"And they say dear departed sister, Hope, was without hope, having died at an early age, leaving behind a cruel curse that would deny all daughters who came after her the exact things she most hoped for and was denied herself.. .many children and a full and happy life."
I glanced around my table, at what was left of Hope's family. Harry, Jackson, Patrick, James. The men remained stoic in the wake of Charity's words. Harry released a single, shining tear.
And Charity barraged on. "And that I, Charity Wiser, am without a charitable bone in my body. That I am a bitch who has too much money and infamously gives none of it away!" She then called for her drink and a valiant waiter delivered it in seconds. She accepted it with a "Thank you, Roland" and took a deep pull of the gin.
"Well I must tell you, these words-your words-once made me furious." Her gaze burned around the room, sparing few. "Until one day, I was shocked to realize...that you were right."
More random sound bites from the family members, not sure how to respond but assuming they should.
"And so, it is my intention to remedy this situation," Charity told them. "You have already been introduced to my legal advisor, Russell Quant."
Gulp. Oh no. I was about to be pulled into this familial Mixmaster and couldn't reach the Stop button. I was as much a captive of this woman as her family was. Somehow, in a very short time, I'd become a piece in her game of Monopoly, free for her to manipulate. I only hoped I'd end up a top hat or sports car rather than a wheelbarrow or old shoe. All eyes in the room were either glued to Charity or me. Mine were on my wineglass, and I wished it were full of straight rye.
And then she said them, the words that would reverberate from one end of The Dorothy to the other.
The words that would become seared onto the minds of the Wiser clan members as certainly as a brand on a bull: "Upon the conclusion of this cruise, this final Charity Event, Russell and I will travel to Rome where we will meet with my lawyers and redraft my final will and testament."
I heard a glass break and others lowered heavily onto tabletops as if the owners had suddenly lost muscle control. I could smell the acrid scent of fear mixed with anger in the enclosed room. Somebody open a window! There was even a whimper. That may have been me.
Charity went on as if she'd done nothing more than announce the time and location of the morning buffet. "Although my dear Dottie's bequest will of course remain unchanged, with her receiving one half of my estate-of which she is more than deserving-the balance of my monies and assets will now be directed to restore this family's faith, hope and charity."
It was their greatest nightmare come true. I heard Nigel let out a "No way, man." Mouths were gaping open, jaws went slack, breathing was shallow. If only I'd known, I'd have arranged for an Emergency Response Team to be on hand, just in case.
"The resources of the Wiser estate shall now be divided up amongst various charities, including medical research on childbirth-related deaths and the Roman Catholic Church."
You could have heard a drag queen lip-synching.