When jealousy amps up to murder rock and roll on the high seas hits a sour note!
No Wake Zone
Instrument cases and amplifiers stacked to the ceiling divided the room into narrow aisles. A single bulb in the hallway barely penetrated the gloom, casting the space into pockets of light and shadow.
Outside, the wind whistled and howled, and rain battered the hull, muting all sound. At the beginning of one aisle, a drum kit was partially unpacked. Symbols and drumsticks sat next to a keyboard stand; the snare and kickdrum were still encased in their canvas shrouds. Two guitar stands and a foot pedal board sat nearby.
Farther into the room lay a body, sprawled amidst colorful bits of wood, lengths of wire, and steel strings. A pool of blood was forming under his head, creeping across the floor as the ship pitched and rolled with the storm. A torn piece of paper was clutched in his hand.
A shout disturbed the silence, followed by the slam of a metal door.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Four more steps. That’s all it’d take to get me through the door. I took two of them and then chickened out and reversed course for the third time. I gave myself a mental shake and an order to suck it up, Buttercup: I had to go in, no choice.
I snorted. Well, no real choice. If I didn’t reconcile with my father then my best friend and nominal boss, Ivy Michaels, would not let me buy into her café, and to be a full partner in the Cosmic Café I’d meet the devil himself; an aging rock legend should be a piece of cake in that competition.
It’d been over ten years since I’d willingly been in the same room with my dad. I hadn’t been able to avoid him at my mother’s funeral, but even then, our conversation had been minimal. After that, the only way I’d seen him was on the cover of tabloids.
I’d been happy to see he’d gotten sober, but that change wasn’t enough to lure me back into a relationship and I was fine with that; despite the opinions of Ivy and the shrink she’d made me visit.
I huffed. What neither of them seemed to understand was that my father’s sobriety or lack thereof was not the main reason I’d cut ties with him. My avoidance of my dad centered around the company he kept; specifically, the predator known as Richard Warner.
My stomach heaved at the thought of the man. Up until now, I hadn’t thought-The invitation had been last minute, and Ivy had pushed me to accept it before I could talk myself out of it.
Last minute shopping, packing, and getting coverage for my shifts at the Cosmic Café … only now, with the ship making its way out of the harbor, was it hitting me that Warner was probably on the cruise; all my life, where ever my dad went, Warner was never far behind. Why would this be any different?
I swallowed hard and backed away from the lounge doors. How would I avoid him? My hands began to shake … I couldn’t do this!
I paced the hallway and contemplated alternatives, but I knew there weren’t any, not really. If I didn’t buy into the café, Ivy would have to find another investor because the loan she’d gotten from her godfather had been called in. I cursed James Brogan and his legal troubles for starting all of this!
Of course, ranting at fate wasn’t going to help. What I needed was Dutch courage, just a shot or two of bourbon-heck, I’d settle for a glass of Pinot to calm my nerves, but my drinking was what had gotten me into the current mess … I rolled my eyes, just thinking about Ivy and the whole Christmas disaster.
I mean, so we'd been suspected of murdering the neighbor. We'd solved the case, and everything was fine. I didn’t know why Ivy was in such a snit almost three months later-
“Ma’am, this is a restricted area at this time, can I help you?”
I jumped and spun around to find a giant of a guy frowning at me. He wasn’t dressed in the ship’s officer uniform; those white shirts and shorts combo cracked me up, but even in his sport coat and chinos I could tell he was official, he had law enforcement written all over him. I gulped and pinned a smile to my face. “Uh, hey how ya doin?”
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Ma’am. This area requires a pass." Crap, I'll bet he was talking about the lanyard that was sent with the cruise tickets … I dug in my bag, but I was pretty sure it was sitting on the dresser in my cabin. Double crap … I met his eyes and tried to look cute.
My gaze skittered away because he wasn’t buying it. I noticed his name tag, Tyson Penshaw, Chief of Security. I shook my head. Just my luck to run into Dudley Do-right.
“Uh, it’s uh, I didn’t realize that I needed, and it didn’t go with this dress so-”
“Ma’am,” he placed his hand at my elbow and started to nudge me towards the atrium. “You’ll need a pass -”
“Kristina?” Chief Dudley and I both turned to see a tall woman with short, spiky orange hair striding toward us. She held a clipboard and was dressed in leather pants and a white t-shirt; gotta be with my dad’s band, though I couldn’t place her.
“It is Kristina Crawford, right?” She smiled and offered her hand. “I’m Nikki Hardy, Assistant Road Manager for Eclipse.” She pointed at my dress. “Love the outfit!”
Oooh, I didn’t know her, but she’d admired my lime green mini dress and vintage white go-go boots and seemed intent on rescuing me … I’d take it.
“Thanks, Chief, I’ll take it from here.”
Dudley dropped my elbow but didn’t back off. “She doesn’t have a pass, all entry to band areas are restricted to pass holders-”
“I know, I set up that policy.” She smiled but it was one of those firm, no-nonsense, back-off kinda smiles; I was really liking her now.
The security chief scowled. “If you compromise once-”
“Normally, I’d agree with you, Mr. Penshaw, but you know Chad Crawford, lead singer for the rock band Eclipse? The band you’re trying to protect?”
The security chief nodded.
“Well, this is his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in ages and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of so if you don’t mind, we’ll just make an exception this once,” it was her turn to guide me by the elbow, “have a great day, Chief, come along Ms. Crawford, we’ll get you another lanyard.”
Giving a little wave to the chief, I matched my steps to Nikki Hardy’s and then slowed as I realized she was leading me through the Alchemy Lounge doors I’d been trying to avoid when this whole mess started- crap, out of the frying pan and all that …
“Uh, so …” I stopped on the threshold of the door she was holding open. “Uh, so how long have you been with Eclipse? It’s pretty cool, you being the road man-”
“Go on, Kristina, he won’t bite.”
Okay, she’d seen right through me, maybe I needed to revise that liking her thing.
I fidgeted with the hem of my dress then realized I was probably flashing someone and smoothed the fabric back in place, not that it covered much more than the tops of my thighs; oh fudge, why had I worn it? I stood out like a sore-
“Hey, take a deep breath.”
I blinked and met her gaze. Her eyes were a vivid aquamarine, probably colored contacts, and they were radiating warmth and concern which was nice but also a bit weird; it was like she knew me. “Have we met before?”
I bit my lip. That had come out a bit more blunt and sharp than I’d intended, even for me.
She smiled and shook her head. “No, but your dad and I are friends” she shrugged. “He talks about you a lot.” She took my hand and gave it a slight squeeze. “Just relax, no pressure, breath in, that’s it, now let it out, all the negative energy is flowing out with that breath, you are lighter …”
Her voice was soft, really gentle like a warm breeze. I kept eye contact with her and found myself doing just what she said. In and then out … “Wow, how did you do that?” I shook my head and smiled. “I feel … well …” I shrugged.
“Lighter?” Nikki laughed and gave my hand a final squeeze. “It’s nothing, just a bit of relaxation technique. In my line of work that skill comes in handy.”
I frowned and then it clicked. “Oh, you mean stage fright?” I snorted when she nodded. “Chad Crawford has never been afraid of the spotlight in his life! He owns whatever stage he’s on.”
Nikki laughed. “Oh yes, no argument there.” She tipped her head towards the front of the lounge where a group of men were talking; my dad included. “Chad doesn’t have stage fright, but we all have our moments, and Cliff is a bit neurotic.”
I laughed because the bass player for Eclipse was just what she’d said, my mom had always said he was high strung. I grinned at Nikki and let her nudge me into resuming the trek toward my dad. “I won’t tell him you said that.”
She grinned. “He wouldn’t deny it!” She kept me chatting until we were within earshot of my dad. “Chad? Look who’s here!”
My heart kinda rose in my throat as my dad turned and rushed toward us.
“Kristina Carol! You came-”
His arms were wide, and I cringed, knowing he was gonna hug me. I’d missed him, I could admit that, but I wasn’t quite ready for warm and fuzzy. I stepped back and nodded. “Uh, I go by Tina now, Chad.”
The smile dropped from his face. “Uh, of course, I shoulda known.” He glanced at Nikki then lowered his arms, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his ridiculously tight jeans.
“How could you?”
He sighed and looked at the far wall. His jaw was set, and a nerve ticked in his cheek. I could all but hear his teeth grinding. I was regretting my tone, it’d upset him and now we stood in awkward silence; oh yeah, this was gonna be the cruise from hell, and worse, I had to do it sober.
Nikki cleared her throat. “So, is this your first cruise?”
I took back the not liking her thing. “Uh, it’s my first rock and roll themed cruise but my best friend, Ivy, and I did four days to the Bahamas.”
Nikki’s eyes widened. “Nice, the Bahamas are awesome, aren’t they Chad?” He grunted something as Nikki plowed on, bless her heart. “The Firestorm Tour did two nights there last year.”
I nodded but the chit chat went in one ear and out the other. I was busy watching my dad. He kept glancing at Nikki, and she’d give him this little head nod, kind of encouraging him or something; it was weird and familiar in a motherly …, no! It made me think of a long-married couple kind of thing; Nikki knew my dad far better than in a road manager way.
Huh, wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Nikki Hardy was probably ten years older than me? Maybe a little more. If I had to guess, she was forty, forty-one ish.
I did some mental math. Not cradle robbing exactly and he certainly didn’t look his age. I snorted. Chad Crawford wasn’t gonna disappoint his legion of female fans any time soon. He still had the long hair, golden brown to match his perpetual tan, barely any lines around his mossy green eyes, and his penchant for painted on faded blue jeans and form-fitting t-shirts proved his devotion to clean living … hey, that was probably a safe topic.
I waited until Nikki ran out of breath. “So, Chad,” he flinched, and I guessed it was because I was using his first name. I felt bad about that too, but I was only able to take one step at a time; meeting at all was the first one. “You’re looking good, keepin’ the groupies happy.”
Nikki laughed and my dad’s lips twitched for a minute before he joined in. “Smart mouth. It’s dedication to exercise and clean living.”
I nodded. “So, it wasn’t just a passing fad …” His sobriety was just as notorious as his addictions; the car wreck that had killed Kev Lerner, Eclipse’s drummer, had sent shock waves through the music scene. A tragedy all around, but the fact that Chad had been driving fueled the media frenzy to unbearable heights.
I had already cut ties with him by that point, but it was impossible not to hear about it on every TV station and magazine cover. The speculation had been that he’d be charged with vehicular manslaughter, but surprisingly, my dad had been legally sober at the time and the wreck was blamed on weather conditions; it’d been snowing heavily, an infrequent event even in the Georgia mountains.
His eyes clouded a bit, but he gave a half-hearted smile. “Nope, going on ten years clean, made it past fifty.”
I snorted. “Uh, past fifty-four old man, you’ll hit the big five-five this year.”
He mock-shuddered. “Why ya gotta remind me, kid”
I smirked. “You fishin’ for compliments?”
He snorted and shook his head. “Nah, jokes about age are just that; doesn’t bother me to hit another birthday.” He raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to the side. “Better than the alternative, don’t ya think?”
What I thought was gonna remain a mystery because a commotion at the back of the room drew our attention. “Ah, what now?” Chad made a disgusted sound and threw up his hands and Nikki started cursing under her breath.
I followed their gazes and gasped as my nightmare came true; Richard Warner was on the ship. My fingers curled into fists as a rock formed in my gut. Could this cruise get any worse?
Warner was drunk, high, or both. He ambled across the stage, getting in the way of the techs and roadies trying to set up. I searched for an excuse to leave and prayed he’d stay on the other side of the room.
“Nikki, I thought you’d-“
“I tried, Chad! I personally escorted him to his cabin, but he wasn’t happy about being on the lower deck.”
Nikki rolled her eyes and began telling my dad how Warner had pitched a fit after finding out he wasn’t staying on the private floors like the band members.
My father snorted. “What more does he want? It’s a free vacation for him and it isn’t like anyone expects him to actually work!” He snarled. "I still don't understand why Rob included him."
My eyes widened. Never before had my dad taken that tone or even uttered an impatient word about Warner; maybe there was trouble in paradise? One could hope-
“You idiot! I'm gonna break your neck if -”
A crash on the stage, followed by curses and threats drew my gaze back towards the stage in time to see a guy about my age with his hands around Warner’s throat.
Two roadies and Benny T, the new drummer for Eclipse were righting the equipment that Richard had knocked over but, in a testament to Warner’s popularity or lack thereof, no one seemed in any hurry to pull the angry guy off of Warner.
Nikki huffed. “I better break that up. That kid has murder in his eyes.”
My dad snorted. “If the fool had knocked over my bass, I’d look like that too!”
Nikki laughed and was about to walk over when one of the roadies stepped in and shoved Warner down the stage steps.
Nikki and my dad sighed in relief but my heart started pounding because Warner now had my dad in his sights. He was stumbling his way across the room, all the while griping to my dad.
I caught a few slurred complaints about his room but most of what he was ramblin’ about was unclear and I didn’t care. I just wanted far away from him.
I started to back away, no matter what Ivy or the shrink she’d made me talk to had to say, I was not dealing with my father and the walking waste of oxygen he called a personal assistant.
Chad turned and gave me an anxious look. “You’re not leaving? We’re almost done setting up. I thought we could have dinner before the meet and greet-”
“Well, lookee here! It’s my baby girl …”
My mouth went dry as the drunken fool closed in on me. I spun around and rushed to the exit, ignoring my dad’s calls to wait. My hands connected with the door lever.
Feeling like the hounds of hell were nipping my heels, I rushed through the door and straight into a wall of warm muscle.
“Whoa, where’s the fire?”
I tried to stop, but momentum was not my friend and my sudden reverse didn’t suit my high-heeled boots. My ankle twisted as one boot lost its heel.
My savior clasped my upper arms, steadying me as I leaned over, unzipping my vintage treasures. “Crap, they’re ruined!” I slid them off and looked up. The thanks died on my lips. “Ian?”
I closed my eyes and gulped. Really, what gods had I ticked off? Not only did I get close quarters with my estranged father, but the universe had seen fit to put my biggest fear and loathing in the form of Ricky Warner into the mix and now, now I got to run into my ex, who I had never wanted to be an ex, lover.
I forced a smile I was far from feeling. “Ian, um, what a surprise!”
A lopsided grin stretched across his handsome face. “Surprise is an understatement.” He shook his head, “What are the odds?”
I snorted. The way my luck was running, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Wishing the deck would split apart and devour me, I tried for casual and uninterested. “So, yeah, incredible, running into you, literally!”
He smiled, flashing the dimple that I adored. “How long has it been? A year, year and a half?”
Two years, four months, six days, and a handful of hours … but who was counting?
My hands started to shake. I couldn’t do this. The shock of the slime ball Warner and now Ian … I forced words past the lump that was starting to clog my throat. “Uh yeah … look, it was nice seeing you again, but I’ve got to-”
“Ian, are you not going to introduce me?
My gaze flew to the short brunette with bright red stiletto nails clinging to Ian’s arm like a limpet. My eyebrows rose. Oh yes? Did I also get an ex-lover’s girlfriend? Why yes, it appeared that I was to have that privilege. How did that saying about karma go?
“Uh …Tina this is, uh …”
The woman huffed and nudged Ian aside as she thrust her hand towards me. “I’m Doctor Judith Fogarty, Ian’s fiancée, and you are?”
Her words slammed into me like a sledgehammer. My stomach rolled and my heart started pounding again; I didn’t need this! My face felt hot, and I fidgeted under the woman’s stare. “Uh, I’m uh …” I forced my brain to function even though most of it was in shock. “Tina, um Tina Crawford.”
I glanced at Ian. He was staring at his fiancée. I frowned; Ian’s mouth was hanging open as if he was shocked, and he was glaring at her. I heard him say something to her then he turned to me and flashed a tense smile. “Uh, we aren’t, there’s been no discussion about getting married.”
The doctor huffed and glared at Ian. I shook my head, whatever was going on with Ian and his whatever she was, it was no concern of mine. That ship had sailed regardless of my heart’s continued ache… I bit my lip and tried to force down the tears that were threatening to fall.
Too many emotions, too many old memories, and too many tangled cords of broken relationships were tugging at me and all I wanted to do was escape; To curl into a fetal position, preferably with a bottle of bourbon, and block out the whole terrible, no good, very bad day.
I stammered a congratulations and turned, rushing toward a flight of steps that led somewhere; didn’t matter, anywhere was better than where I was.
Ian's hand closed around my arm. I paused on the second step and closed my eyes, begging for some kind of divine assistance because if I didn’t get out of there I was going to lose complete control of my emotions. I tugged and Ian released my arm. I half turned but avoided his eyes. “I’ve got to go, Ian but it uh, it was nice seeing you.” I set my bare foot on the next step. “Enjoy your cruise!”
He huffed. “Wait, please!”
The please got me. I turned and met his eyes for an instant before lowering my gaze to study the multicolored swirls on the carpet.
“Thanks, I won’t keep you.” He nodded back towards the lounge. “I gotta get in there, my band is playing this cruise, but maybe we could get together later? Drinks? Or Dinner?”
Small favors. A gig meant he’d be busy for a good portion of the nine days at sea. I glanced at him. “Uh, we’ll see. I’m here with my dad and we haven’t seen each other in about ten years so …”
Ian’s eyebrows rose. “Wow, I uh, you never mentioned your father when we were … I mean,” he shrugged. “Guess I thought he was dead. But that’s great you two are getting together, bring him to a show, I’d love to meet him.”
I smiled and started back up the steps. “We’ll see. He’s actually working on this cruise too, so our time together will be limited.” I pointed towards the Alchemy Lounge and told a little white lie. “Think we’re getting an early dinner before he has to be back in there …”
Ian frowned. “Your dad works for the cruise line? Or is he with one of the bands? What’s his name, maybe I know him!”
“My dad is Chad Crawford. I’ll see ya around, Ian.” I raced up the steps, ignoring his shocked questions.
I fell into the first empty deck chair I found and leaned over with my head between my knees. I wasn’t hyperventilating, but it was a near miss.
God! Why had I told Ian who my dad was? It came out before I had really thought about it because all I could concentrate on was Ian had a fiancée and Richard Warner was on-board, and how the hell was I going to make it through the next week without a drink?
But Ian was like a dog with a bone, and he would surely worry me to death until I explained how we’d dated for over a year and I had failed to mention my connection to one of his all-time favorite bands.
This was ridiculous; I needed a drink! Ivy and that shrink were unreasonable, no one could be expected to absorb the kind of emotional body blows I’d suffered in the last couple of hours without support.
I was weak, I freely admitted it, but one drink wouldn’t hurt, and Ivy would never know.
I scooped up my ruined boots and made a beeline for the Tiki bar.