“His throat had been cut from ear to ear, McFadden—he was almost decapitated. If I live to be a thousand, I’ll never get over the police pictures of poor Lars Amundson, lying there with his head dangling from his body. I get nauseated just thinking about it.”
Not as nauseated as I was becoming. I wrapped the remainder of my sandwich in the Food section of the Los Angeles Times and tossed it into the wastebasket at my feet. Taking pains not to drop the telephone receiver I’d wedged between my cheek and shoulder, I tried to be empathetic.
“That’s understandable, Mr. Erickson.” I picked up my glasses and wiped away a mayonnaise smudge from the left lens. “It must have been a terrible shock seeing one of your most valuable employees under such tragic circumstances. Before you continue, let me grab a pen and some paper.”
“Speak a little louder if you will, McFadden. I’m calling from Miami, and the reception on my end fades in and out.”
“All right,” I agreed, several decibels higher. I was scribbling frantically with the second ball point pen I picked up to accelerate the flow of ink—if it worked at all. “You said your name was Anders Erickson, right? And that you are president and chairman of the board of directors of the Nordic Caribbean Cruise Line?”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“And that this Amundson fellow was the chief officer senior of your ship, the Oslo Aphrodite . . . and he was brutally murdered two days ago in a bizarre fashion—”
“Right, and right again.” The replies were filtered through static.
“Before I go any farther, how did my detective agency come to your attention if I may ask? I’ve never done any work in South Florida.”
“Judge Alfred Barrington, one of our board members, is from Los Angeles. He recommended you. He told me how you captured the killers of his two daughters a couple of years ago and suggested I contact you.”
“Ah, yes,” I replied, basking in the warm glow of remembrance. “That was an investigative coup of the first magnitude, if I may say so myself.” I saw no point in confessing that prior to the Barrington case, I had accumulated very little experience in the investigation of homicides; that my usual cases were mundane fare such as matrimonial infidelity, missing persons, evidence procurement, insurance fraud, surveillance, and background checks for pre-nups and child custody cases.
“Where was the body found and by whom?” I continued.
“The <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=””>Oslo Aphrodite arrived at the Port of Miami two days ago and had cleared customs and inspection. The passengers and many of the crew had disembarked, pre-boarding maintenance had been performed, and provisions were being loaded aboard for our next departure. Lars’ body was found that afternoon . . . in a car at the port parking garage by a customer picking up his vehicle.
“And, here’s the scary part,” Erickson continued. “I’d no sooner returned to my office from answering questions at the Miami police precinct yesterday when I got a phone call . . .” He stopped speaking, in obvious hesitation.
“And . . .”
“That voice—I can’t get it out of my mind. It was a deep bass voice, it sounded like a man, and it rumbled, like it was coming through an echo chamber. It had a heavy accent that I couldn’t identify. It was sinister and . . . and chilling.”
“What did he say?” I asked on cue.
“He said . . . that . . . more of the crew would die . . . unless . . . Zunimba was appeased.” Erickson sounded shaken.
“Did it say who or what ‘Zunimba’ was? Did he mention what it might take to appease Zunimba?”
“No, he only said that one sentence.”
“So, the name Zunimba doesn’t mean anything to you?”
“No,” the president said before another pause. When he resumed, his voice had taken on a more businesslike tone. “McFadden, the problem is, the Oslo Aphrodite sails day after tomorrow for a thirteen-day cruise of the Caribbean. If this Zunimba makes good on his threat, our company could suffer irreparable financial damage. This is the high season for the cruise business, and any adverse publicity could turn the Oslo Aphrodite into a ghost ship.”
“I’m surprised your ship is still in port. Wouldn’t it usually have sailed out the next day after arrival?”
“Normally, yes, that would be the case. However, three dozen passengers from the last cruise came down with a viral infection and we were impounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re required to report to U.S. health authorities when cases of gastrointestinal illness exceed three percent of the ship’s population. We had to sanitize the ship from top to bottom which added a couple of days to port time.”
“A virus . . . which could have come from natural origins or possibly have been introduced aboard the ship deliberately. Did the caller say anything to make you believe you were a target for future sabotage or blackmail?”
“No. Again, the voice said only those few words. Listen, McFadden, if this Zunimba makes good on his threat, it could occur while the ship is at sea outside of U.S. territorial waters. The FBI won’t dedicate manpower to a cruise solely on the basis of a telephone threat, and the Miami police don’t have jurisdiction at sea. We have ship’s security, of course, but it’s minimal and Judge Barrington and I felt an outside private investigator may be more effective since he could move freely among passengers and crew without arousing suspicion.”
“Point well taken,” I said. “Did the Miami police share any information with you regarding their preliminary findings in the murder?”
“No, just the pictures taken of Lars’ body by the crime scene investigators. But, besides his head being nearly severed, there were two other things particularly disturbing about the body.”
“Go on . . .” My pen was poised to record the details of this morbid forensic melodrama.
“First, his shirt had been unbuttoned to his waist, and on his chest . . . a circle had been carved with a knife. Inside the circle were several strange markings—they were drawn with blood, presumably symbols of some sort.”
“That <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=””>is macabre,” I agreed. “What was the other disturbing—”
“He had a chicken—”
Static on the line drowned out the remainder of the sentence. I waited for it to subside and yelled, “Erickson, are you still there?”
“Yes,” he acknowledged, but his voice sounded distant and remote.
“You started saying something about a chicken?”
Some loud crackling and a few pops cleared up the transmission problem and the president’s voice came through loud and clear: “I said his tongue had been cut out, and the head of a dead chicken had been stuffed in his mouth.”
I dropped my pen and coughed nervously, while peering under the desk at the wastebasket—and the remainder of the chicken sandwich I’d been munching on when his call came in. “This sounds like some sort of cult-styled execution. Did Lars dabble in the occult?”
“Knowing Lars, I would strongly doubt it.”
These strange proceedings stirred my imagination. Quasi-facetiously, I said, “Perhaps he stumbled upon a secret ceremony in the steamy interior of some cursed island and escaped with his life, only to be hunted down by avenging assassins intent on punishing him for his sacrilege.”
“You’ve been working around Hollywood too long, McFadden,” Erickson snorted. “Lars was a square shooter; as good as they come. He wouldn’t be involved in anything like that.
“Look, I’d like you to come to Miami right away. I want to know who murdered Lars and why. And, I want you to be on the Oslo Aphrodite when she sails. Maybe the threat by this Zunimba guy is a bluff, but I’d feel better having someone on board who had some experience in these matters. Will you take the case?”
I wasn’t too crazy about the risk that a homicide investigation might entail, but my income flow had been on sabbatical recently and I had to do something with the bills that were accumulating on the corner of the desk, something other than watch the stack grow taller each day.
“Well,” I started to think aloud, “there’s the question of my fee . . .”
“I’ll pay you $3,000 for two weeks of your time, throw in a free cruise, and pick up any reasonable expenses.”
“You’ve got a deal. I’ll take the red-eye out of LAX and be in your office sometime tomorrow afternoon.” I decided to entertain a sudden thought: “Would you have any objections to me bringing a female operative along? Her presence will help disguise my true identity and cover up the intent of the mission.”
“Be my guest and . . . hey, can you hold a minute, McFadden? I’ve got an incoming call on my personal hotline.”
While he attended to his other call, I began to fantasize about the voyage. I had heard that cruise lines served eight meals a day and promised myself that I would strive for nothing less than perfect attendance at all seatings. Anything else would be a distinct disservice. My gastronomic euphoria was interrupted by a shout loud enough to make the receiver jump from my hand.
“What is it?” My daydream destroyed, I secured the phone in my hand and refocused. “You sound alarmed.”
“You better get here tomorrow,” Erickson shrieked, “as soon as you can.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“They just found another member of the Oslo Aphrodite crew—dead—murdered the same way as Lars!”