The Secret of Isabella Meer

Private Detective Nicholas Chambers boards the SS Santa Rosa on a simple assignment. Cross the Atlantic aboard a luxury liner, pick up a female passenger and bring her back to the states. Soon an elderly woman is found dead. A second woman is missing, and mysterious forces aboard the ship are working against Chambers as he tries to uncover the secret of Isabella Meer.

Christopher J. Dacey

4 min read

One: SS Santa Rosa

It was just after five in the morning when I stepped onto a damp pier at the port of Providence. A light fog lingered in the air as the day waited for the sun to make its usual appearance. A high-pitched whistle screamed somewhere near the bow of the SS Santa Rosa.

The sleek ocean liner tied to the pier stretched just over five hundred feet in length. The ship had recently been requisitioned by the Army and painted in a dull wartime gray. She had long beautiful white lines painted along the hull on each side. There were two large funnels midship, with dark gray smoke pouring out of the forward one at the moment.

As I walked along the damp pier by the stern, I noticed two enormous screws submerged just below the waterline. Both were connected to the massive steam turbine engines buried somewhere deep inside the ship’s immense hull. An unsteady crane at the bow of the ship was lifting large wooden crates and equipment up onto the deck.

A narrow gangplank sloped down off the side of the ship near the bow. I walked over to it and noticed a dozen or so people already waiting in line to board.

Each passenger handed their paperwork to an imposing man in a freshly pressed white uniform who was standing at the top of the gangplank. Several service men were waiting their turn in line. They were admiring the skirted legs on a group of attractive young women from the Army Nurse Corps at the head of the line. Their legs deserved a little attention. I lifted the duffle bag I had abruptly packed the night before, threw it over my shoulder and started up the narrow gangplank.

Agent Valentine had told me almost nothing about the woman I was hired to pick up, other than giving me instructions to bring her safely back to the states. She would board the ship in the port of Amsterdam. She was traveling under the fictitious name of Irene Chambers. Mrs. Nicholas Chambers to be more specific.

He had advanced three hundred in spending cash along with a federal button and a nickel-plated forty-five to keep me company on the trip. I was wearing the latter in a leather shoulder holster as I boarded the ship and wondered if the tall man checking in passengers would mind my bringing it along.

I wasn’t crazy about this job, mainly due to the rogue German U-boats still threatening the Atlantic. But I had been given little to no choice in the matter.

“The job’s a cinch Chambers,” Agent Valentine had assured me.

A trip to Europe through an active war zone wasn’t exactly my idea of a relaxing vacation. Sure, the Nazi’s were on the run now, but there was still plenty of war going on over there to keep a man on his toes. With any luck, I would pick up the woman in Amsterdam and head right back to the states without attracting attention. The ship wasn’t expected to stay in port any more than a day or so.

As I approached the top of the gangplank, I overheard some of the conversation taking place just in front of me. The large gatekeeper was addressing the group of young servicemen now.

“You boys will need to check your service revolvers at the purser’s office,” he instructed.He’ll put them into safekeeping for you and you can pick them up when you disembark in the Netherlands.”

The group of anxious young men nodded obediently and handed over their passports. They joked to one another, appearing eager to get across the Atlantic and join in the fight. I could tell from the look in their eyes that none of them had ever seen actual war before. They were still thinking about the short skirts on the nurses who had just boarded, and how much more enjoyable the trip over was looking now. Their demeanor would likely change on the way back, when youthful exuberance was replaced with exhaustion and the fog of war.

My turn came up, and I stepped up to the tall man who was checking in passengers. He gave me the once over before asking for my paperwork. I handed over the ticket that agent Valentine had given me a day earlier. He looked at it quickly, before speaking.

“Passport please,” he requested.

I didn’t have a passport, so I handed him my driver’s license as a reasonable substitute, at least it seemed reasonable to me. A frustrated expression took over his narrow face.

“I don’t have a passport,” I admitted.

“How unfortunate for you,” he replied.

“My wife is returning from Europe unexpectedly,” I explained. “I was told I would be able to pick her up and take her back to the states. She’s ill and can’t make the trip alone. I know it’s a little unusual, but I believe it’s all been cleared by your captain,” I added, hoping that Valentine had made a call on my behalf.

The officer glanced down at his manifest and scanned the log for my name. He flipped through a few pages and finally found something of interest. He stared at the sheet for a minute or so, doing his best not to look surprised.

“Please wait here a moment Mr. Chambers,” he instructed as he abruptly walked off.

He strolled efficiently down the deck and disappeared through a small doorway midship. I could hear the groans of the passengers standing behind me in line who were clearly unhappy with the unexpected delay I had just created. I pulled out a pack of smokes, set fire to one and waited. Several uncomfortable minutes passed before the lanky ship’s officer reappeared through the doorway and scurried quickly back over to the gangplank.

“I apologize for the delay Mr. Chambers,” he explained. “Your paperwork is in order, and you’ve been assigned a first-class cabin on the Promenade Deck. That’s aft of the ship. It’s number four hundred and twelve. The captain has also requested that you join him for dinner tomorrow night in the main dining room, which is located midship between the two smokestacks.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“If you should need anything during the voyage, the cabin steward assigned to you is Li Chen. Have a pleasant voyage Mr. Chambers,” he added as he handed my license back, along with a brass cabin key.

I took the key, nodded and walked past him without saying anything else. I walked down the deck towards the stern of the ship on my way to my new home for the next ten days.