I am welcoming Ermisenda Alvarez to Book’d Out today to share an excerpt of her self published novel Poisoned Waters.
Along with numerous solo works, Ermisenda began writing on role play sites at fourteen and completed her first crime novel at fifteen. Driven by the desire to evoke the kaleidoscope of emotions her favorite authors are able to, she kept writing. Growing up bilingual amongst her Spanish family in Australia, she found a love and deep appreciation for language and the power it wielded.
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?
Bloody mistakes, ugly scars, and beautiful lies. A tale of corruption.
This is the first chapter of, Poisoned Waters.
“I trust everyone. I just don’t trust the devil inside them.”
Troy Kennedy Martin
26th August 1955
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, liebling, 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.” Yes, please. 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. Liebling, 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, hoping he wouldn’t lose his break. While he was serving wine, spirits, and beer he noticed the mass of people congealing together. Several men were gobbling their appetisers, licking their thick fingers, and grinning with oily lips.
Benjamin tried to stay as invisible as possible. He served the customers with a soft voice and shy nods. A man in his forties arrived at the bar demanding two glasses of their finest wine.
Without hesitation, Benjamin prepared the drinks, but as he put away the wine bottle it knocked over one of the glasses. The sound of smashing glass pierced Benjamin’s ears and he cringed with the expectation of a beating. The flustered barman came over, prepared the second glass, and took it over to the middle-aged man, who, in the midst of the loud band, hadn’t heard the accident.
“How long can it take?” the man groaned, his German accent clouded his words. “You’re all pathetic. I don’t know why they bothered hiring you people.”
The German man walked off, leaving no tip, but instead a twisted smirk. Benjamin’s heart fluttered. It wasn’t the middle-aged man who had caught his attention, but the woman he was advancing towards. His eyes lit up, the weight on his heart lessened and fleetingly he smiled. She was beautiful, her snow white skin glistened and honey-gold hair cascaded down her back. He wondered how sweet she would taste.
Harold massaged his aching fingers. His British companions shared clever puns over their glasses, chuckling. The occasional spray of saliva was also shared. Harold sipped from his own drink but had not achieved the level of drunkenness his colleagues were currently at. On top of having a high tolerance for alcohol, Harold always seemed to either give up paying for expensive drinks or was unable to stomach much more than a few glasses.
The friends spoke in barely coherent babbles of what was once the reputable English language. He had studied with them at the same stuffy university; business had been their chosen area before they all diverged into specific streams. Their current usage of language suggested they hadn’t even completed their high school education. The stench of cigarettes and alcohol was suffocating him.
Taking his turn to leave, Harold moved off into a different direction. His old colleagues had barely noticed him leave. The moment he had detached himself from them he felt much more relieved. The loud noise was deafening and rather than degrade his senses he drifted to the doors that would lead him outside. A young waitress with a stony expression took his glass.
The doors were opened for him by the young boys who stood by. Harold gave them respectful nods which they returned. The wind bit at his neck and shaven face while tousling his dark blonde hair. His emerald eyes were squinted in protection against the wind. Harold moved out onto the deck of the cruise ship and touched the railing. It was so cold that he retracted as if he had touched something hot. The chilling weather outside was causing him to shiver and shake. Was there a storm coming?
He was still young, merely thirty, and yet he was acting and feeling like he was eighty. Wasn’t that the age when you left parties early, lost interest in getting intoxicated, and your muscles ached? Wasn’t eighty the age when you were meant to be widowed?
Trying to restrain the burning tears streaking his eyes he looked over the side of the ship. It was difficult to do so, the floor was slippery. He caught a glimpse of the heaving black waters that the boat sailed upon. Harold turned around, resting his sore back against the railing, catching his breath. It was hard to breathe out in this weather and the penetrating winds were only growing stronger.
A shadow scattered across his vision. As soon as he raised his gaze, tears leaked from the red rims of his eyes. “Harold,” her familiar voice cooed.
“Be gone!” he yelled, shutting his lids tightly. These phantoms that haunted him showed no mercy. They sunk their teeth into his fleshy mind when Harold least expected it. The tender caresses of his wife brushed past his cheek. Harold’s hands aggressively pushed it away, only to encounter nothing but air.
Slam! He felt the cool floor smack hard against his tailbone. The floor polished with an icy sheet had been pulled out from under him. The pain that shot through his body expressed itself through miserable groans from his chattering lips. Harold let his body lull; the back of his head hit the ground. His eyes drifted to the brightly spotted sky.
The sound of pleasurable sighs and sloppy kisses broke the silent night. A couple who thought they were alone found somewhere to hide on the abandoned deck of the cruise ship. Giggles erupted from the woman. Husky groans echoed from the man. Rather than torturing himself further, Harold closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see their sublime experience. He wallowed in his own self-pity.
Heat from the love made by the couple did little to extinguish the cold that was penetrating Harold’s suit. When Harold raised his hand to the back of his head he felt something warm and sticky. Hushed moans continued to be heard, not far from him. It was hard to see in the darkness. Darkness was encroaching on his vision.
Before he had another moment to consider his actions, a shriek pierced the night air. The scream was not one heard in the middle of making love but one that burst through a woman’s lungs in fear and pain. Harold scrambled to his feet, trying to place the location of the scream. He knew it wasn’t from the couple he had been eavesdropping on. The sound came from a different direction.
The dark, gloomy deck of the ship tilted dangerously. Harold grasped onto the railing but felt his feet gave way. Harold stumbled toward the location of the scream that had sliced his mind like a knife. The back of his head throbbed. Why couldn’t he hear the sound of footsteps? Why weren’t there lights on?
“Help! She needs help!” Harold tried to yell but only managed to whisper. His vision blurred before everything went black.
– end excerpt –
The strength of Poisoned Waters lies in its plot, which is complex yet easily navigated. The mystery surrounding Helen Gardener’s death twists and turns forging a complicated path though a melange of deceit, greed and blackmail. As the wealthy and enigmatic cruise host, Mr Phillips, pushes his own agenda, Helen is not the only passenger to meet an untimely end aboard the Diamond Royale, and the identity of her killer not the only secret revealed.
The author’s enthusiasm for writing is evident but not yet polished. This shows in Alvarez’s overgenerous use of adjectives and the uneven rhythm of the narrative. Overall Poisoned Waters would benefit from a professional edit to reign in some of its excesses, though I think Alvarez does demonstrate talent, which still has plenty of time to mature.