Dear readers, dear friends—my new cosy M/M murder mystery “Till Death Do us Part” will be released on June 24, 2020. Its French version has already been warmly welcomed by my French-speaking readers, so I hope you’ll also enjoy it. In order to make your mouth water, here’s a little excerpt of the first chapter…
CHAPTER 1 – Raphaël
How’s the SITUATION? Number one: I’m alive, which means the plane hasn’t crashed. A plus point. Number two: I’m dead on my feet. That’s so-so, even though being up and about at this time of night is rather normal for me—I rarely go to bed earlier.
Number three: the bed. Wait a second, let me do a bounce-check. Okay, not bad. The mattress is firm without being reinforced concrete; the bed is clean and not too dreadful, despite its, er, let’s say indefinable style. A bit worn and dated, like the rest of the ship.
Oh, yes. Here’s a scoop. I’m not at home, in my bed. No, I’m on a ship. The Queen of Egypt more precisely. I’m tempted to groan, “AT LONG LAST!”. For weeks Auntie has been talking about nothing else. The Queen of Egypt here, the Queen of Egypt there, and yadda yadda yadda. She was driving me mad with that patter. When Auntie has her mind set on something, she’s like a broken record. Her tune spins, clack, starts again; spins, clack, starts again. Makes you want to do yourself in after a while.
So. Basically, everything is fine right now. I’m alive, I’m on vacation, I’m lying on a comfortable bed. And my body is whining, “Let’s have a nap!” Indeed, I should get some sleep, maybe an hour or two. After all, it’s only four in the morning, for Christ’s sake.
But my little brain cells must be on standby because they don’t process what my body wants. They prefer flooding my head with random thoughts and odd memories. Even Jordan briefly appears in this merry-go-round. Very briefly, because faster than you can say “Loser”, I expel him from my thoughts.
You see how tired I am, though? Because Jordan! Jesus Christ!
I’m WEARY OF fidgeting on my bed. That’s why I stand up two hours later. If sleep doesn’t want to do me the honour, I can’t force it.
I open the thick curtains. The first sun rays are hesitatingly groping the country as though they wanted to check if the morning was ripe. The big, empty parking lot beneath my window still lies in semi-darkness. A lonesome man in black pants and a white shirt is smoking a cigarette on the gangway. Behind him I glimpse the steep bank and its dried-up lawn. Palm trees and bougainvilleas hide the road where we arrived.
I take a shower, grumbling all the while. I’m not a morning person. At all. I’m not a ship person, either.
I get dressed. Shorts, a short-sleeved button-up shirt with a Hawaiian print, flip flops.
With my fingers, I try to tame my curls. In vain, of course; they never do what I want them to do. I finally pull them together in a tight bun. There—that’ll teach them. Before leaving, I also grab my stuff—sunglasses, mobile, notepad, and a pencil.
I leave my cabin, now definitely in appropriate discovery mode, feeling like a little boy on the first day of his summer vacation in Boondocks-upon-Boredom. Appropriate. Because vacation, of course. Because Boondocks-upon-Boredom, too; in my eyes, anyway. One week of walking around with old codgers while staring at old stones—my, cheers, exactly my idea of having a ball! Last but not least, despite my passport proving the contrary, I don’t think I can call myself “adult”. Not too often, in any case.
The thick, red carpet in the corridor swallows the sounds of my steps. Fake candlestick wall lamps shed a pale light.
Before reaching the main stairs that connect the lower decks, I come across a swing door. It leads to the Amun-Ra Sun Deck. The fancifully named upper deck, that is.
I push the door open. And—gasp! Holy cow, this heat can’t be legal! Of course, what would you expect on a June day, especially in this country? Problem is, the ship is so heavily air-conditioned that you easily forget about the temperatures outside.
I’m standing at the foot of a spiral staircase. After unbuttoning my shirt, I slowly move upstairs.
The Amun-Ra Sun Deck is empty. Relief. My first meeting with the old codgers seems temporarily postponed. Birds are softly chirping in the trees on the bank, the river waters lapping against the hull of the ship. On the other side of the deck, I discover a bar, still draped in enigmatic shadows. To the right, several tables and chairs are dozing; to the left, there are four long rows of deckchairs. The whole deck is covered by green sunshades.
Of course, my pleasant loneliness doesn’t last long. That would have been too nice. I’m still enjoying the silence when I hear a swishing noise behind me.
I turn around.
At the foot of the stairs I discover a man in his thirties. He’s skinny, almost frail, and wearing a tracksuit. A pink one, if you please. Neat colour—give pink a chance seems to be the motto. The guy stares at me. He looks like a little mouse: a bit grey, a bit shy, a bit weaselly. His fine hair falls dolefully down to his shoulders like overcooked vermicelli.
We stare at each other for a moment, me from above, him from below. Finally, we smile, that’s what polite people do, and the man starts to climb the stairs.
I don’t want to exchange the usual commonplaces, so I slip away to the rail on the other side of the deck.
And finally, I get a panoramic view of where I am.
I admit, I’m dumbfounded. Before me, below me, right and left: the Nile.
Get it? THE BLOODY NILE!
Cobalt blue and wide, the river is flowing languidly towards the distant sea, its movement barely perceptible. The rising sun tints its waters orange and yellow, highlighting the low mud houses on the faraway shore. They look like tiny, rectangular blocks randomly piled up here and there. Their shadows throw long, precise shapes over each other’s walls. Several white or yellow buildings stand out from this cluster of cubes: mosques with filigree minarets pointing up to the sky. Some trees brighten up the brownish labyrinth with dusty green specks. Behind the city, the morning haze covering austere and rocky desert mountains makes the landscape look even more chimeric.
I flop into a chair and take a deep breath, completely overwhelmed.
This is Egypt! Egypt, damn it, right before my eyes!
I mean, I’ve seen documentaries and photos; I’ve even travelled to Morocco and Tunisia. But that’s nothing compared to what I’m currently taking in—and what I’m currently taking in looks like a fairy tale.
Fancy my lack of enthusiasm when Auntie told me, “Guess where I’ll take you in June? To Egypt!” Instead of saying, “Why, thank you, Auntie, you’re the best Auntie ever”, I pouted, because I’m an ungrateful oaf. I’ve actually been pouting—discreetly, mind you—until a minute ago. Fortunately, Auntie isn’t easily impressed by my antics.
I sigh with ease. The river flows slowly from left to right, silver reflections dancing on its surface. Two old, turbaned men with bronze-coloured faces pass in the distance, drifting over the river, a fishing net trailing behind their little boat. Their dirty white jalabiyas flap in the morning breeze.
They wave to me, laughing with the natural joy of people who have nothing but are perfectly happy.
Mesmerized, I sit on my chair for a long time while the young day is waking up around me. My gaze wanders every which way. I feel amazed and expectant at the same time, like an explorer back in the day who’s wondering what glorious adventures the next days may hold in store.
When I manage to focus on my closer surroundings, I notice that the man in the pink tracksuit is standing at the stern of the ship taking pictures.
I pull out my mobile, too, and shoot countless photos of the panorama. The legendary river, the fishermen, the cruise ships moored in front of and behind ours. The shore across the Nile. The hazy mountains. The pale blue sky.
Then, I take out my notepad and pencil. I fill three pages with my drawings, in my usual quick and concise manner. As always, my sketches remain fragmentary, but I think I’ve captured the essence.
After stowing everything away in the pockets of my shorts, I stand up. The mousey dude in pink is still hanging out at the stern. That’s why I proceed to the bow. At this time of day, it should be empty.
It isn’t. Just my luck. When I get closer, I discover a young man standing at the rail.
Where does he come from? Has he spent the night here or what?
I give him the once-over: his black hair is cut very short, the upper part kept much longer, in hipster fashion. His white T-Shirt reveals nicely shaped muscles, his shorts two comely legs that are tanned and covered with hairs looking like fine golden threads in the morning sun.
The man’s a looker. At least from behind.
He hears my quiet steps or senses my gaze and turns around.
Oh, hel-lo, there! My heart does a backwards flip. In my job I meet handsome guys aplenty. But this one is something else. He looks like a model, I kid you not. As if one of those unreal guys had stepped out of the glossy pages of Vogue Homme or GQ. Manly features, sensual mouth. Square chin, Roman nose, neatly trimmed designer stubble. The dense longer hair on the top of his head is styled backwards, falling behind his left ear in a lazy wave that looks annoyingly natural.
Alas, the beau doesn’t share my immediate interest. On the contrary, he reacts as if I were a monster. Luckily the rail prevents him from moving too far back, because otherwise he would have plunged into the Nile.
What a boost for my self-esteem.
The handsome cretin pulls himself together at last and eyeballs me from head to toe. His cold stare lingers over my naked chest for a second, and he frowns. I notice that his eyebrows are bushy but perfectly drawn and that his body-language expresses barely concealed aloofness and dislike.
Despite his hostile reaction, I murmur, “Hi”. Somewhat coolly perhaps, but still. I was raised like that. All right, I add “Asshole!” in my mind, because, hello?
The young man merely nods. A black lock falls over his eyes, he puts it back in place. He seems to hesitate, then turns his back on me again.
Okay, asshole. Go ahead, enjoy your moody brooding, I don’t care. I don’t need no mens, even if they’re handsome as fuck.
HALF AN HOUR LATER, THE sun has started its race across the pristine sky; the heat has risen some more as well. The hipster slash asshole is still sulking in his corner when I sit on a shady deckchair. Our meeting was unpleasant, but he and the guy in pink belie my initial prognosis, and that’s a good start. We’re at least three on this ship to contemplate our sixties from below.
With the back of my hand, I wipe off the sweat trickling down my chest and soaking my chest hair. I realize I’m thirsty. There’s a bottle of water in the fridge in my cabin. Let’s go get it. Never forget to drink, Auntie would say. Granted, she means alcoholic beverages only, but that doesn’t make her wrong.
The man in the pink tracksuit has apparently seen enough, too. When I get to the top of the stairs, he’s on the last step.
He’s waiting downstairs, holding the door for me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he remarks in an affable tone.
I look up in surprise. His beautifully deep baryton doesn’t match his puny physique and the mousey face. He makes an affected hand movement. “The landscape, I mean. The light.”
Automatically, I think, Oh. Family. “Very beautiful indeed,” I reply. “And ‘splendid things gleam in the dust’…”
Recognizing the Flaubert-quote, he laughs good-heartedly.
The swing door closes behind us. Another door slams softly somewhere down the corridor. In the first cabin, I hear a woman say heatedly, “… I think he got it. He won’t bother you anymore, tweety.”
Tweety! Smirk. I really wouldn’t want to be pet-named tweety.
We pass other cabins, the vague noises of conversations, no more than murmurs, drifting out. I can hear showers running as well. The ship is waking up. A nice smell wafts through the corridor, a woody, leathery perfume for men that strikes me as familiar. The pink, mousey guy in front of me must have sprinkled himself with it.
A few doors before mine, the young man stops. “See you later,” he says.
“See you later,” I reply. When I pass behind him, I get a whiff of his pronounced citrus perfume, very fresh, very pungent. Oh. He’s not the source of the leathery fragrance…
He turns the key and opens the door. “Mon chéri—are you awake?” he asks. The door closes behind him.
I was right. Mon chéri, not ma chérie. He is family. I’m not the only gay guy on this ship.
I walk to my door while rummaging in the pockets of my shorts. Let’s see… mobile… pencil… notepad… h-m. Where have I put my keys? Did I take them? Damn—don’t tell me I locked myself out…!
A yell. “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!”
I jump, turn around, gaze down the empty corridor. What was it? Who was it? Where was it? What am I supposed to do?
“MY GOD! MICHEL!”
A bad feeling bubbles up in my guts.