Outwardly Seth didn't react as he watched Mrs. Hatfield misplay the four spade contract, but inwardly he groaned. True, she made it, but most of the other pairs would make it with an overtrick. In a pair game getting an overtrick was crucial. The elderly woman seemed pleased with herself. Seth said nothing. She was his most important client, and she didn't react well to criticism.
A few hands later Mrs. Hatfield put Seth in what should've been an impossible slam. Fortunately, he received a fortuitous opening lead followed by two defensive blunders. He sighed with relief as he watched his opponents berate each other for allowing him to make the contract. Had he failed Mrs. Hatfield would've blamed him.
Mrs. Hatfield was the ultimate results player. The only thing that mattered was a good result, not the correct bid or play. She really hated missing a makeable game or slam. Therefore she tended to overbid, especially when he was playing the hand.
At the conclusion of the session, they viewed the results. It was a disappointing 53% game. Combined with their morning 54% they finished the two-session event sixth in flight B, winning 2.3 gold points. Mrs. Hatfield compressed her lips, sniffed, and said, "We should've done better. We'll discuss the hands at dinner." She stalked off.
After her husband died, Mrs. Hatfield, a billionaire and in her eighties, decided she wanted to become a bridge life master. She managed to accumulate the 500 master-points necessary, but 50 of those were supposed to be gold points. Previously she'd only been able to win 18.7 gold, mostly playing with fellow members of her local bridge club in "gold-rush" events. Those were limited to "new," i.e. weaker, players.
She hired Seth, a bridge professional. Seth was, frankly, second-rate. He persuaded her to hire him by pointing out that since he had about 5,200 master-points, their average was under 3,000. That number was important because it was the cut-off for flight B at many regionally and nationally rated tournaments, where gold points could be won. If she hired a better pro, she'd have to play in flight A and compete against some of the top players in the country. There were still good players in B, mostly younger players on their way up the ladder, but nothing compared to many of the players she'd be up against in A.
Seth convinced Mrs. Hatfield to go on a regionally rated bridge cruise. Most of the players on the cruise were rich, elderly individuals. They'd been at the game for a long time. Some had accumulated more than 3,000 points but were generally not that good. Mrs. Hatfield would be able to play in B without meeting the good, up-and-coming, younger players.
The cruise, so far, had not met her expectations. They were on day seven of the fourteen-day cruise. Counting today's 2.3 gold points, they'd been able to win only 8.4 gold, plus a few other points that weren't gold. Mrs. Hatfield didn't care about those.
There were approximately 5,000 passengers on the ship. Only 200 of them were bridge players. Mrs. Hatfield booked herself into the top luxury suite. She booked Seth into a tiny room on the lowest level available to passengers. He figured it was little better than steerage. His roommate wasn't a bridge player. He told Seth he went on the cruise hoping to hook up with women. There were many more women on the ship than men. He invited Seth to come along as his "wingman." Seth wouldn't have minded doing so, but Mrs. Hatfield made it impossible. She was a bridge fiend. She wanted to play three sessions a day, morning, afternoon, and evening, even when the ship was calling at a port. Seth wondered how the old bat had the stamina. She was more than fifty years older than he was, and never seemed to tire. He was wiped out by the time the evening session ended. The upside was he made more money. She paid him $100 a session, far less than the top pros got, but about as good as he could expect.
At dinner, Seth wasn't pleased to find his arch-enemy, Mark Coman, at their table. He gritted his teeth and tried to be polite. He knew Coman wouldn't be there if Mrs. Hatfield hadn't invited him.
To Seth's horror, Mrs. Hatfield said, "Tomorrow we're going to be in port. Mark said Brenda decided to take the day off from bridge and go on a tour. Therefore, I've asked Mark to play with me. Since we've never played together before, we'll also play in the game this evening as a warm-up."
"You're welcome to play with whomever you please," Seth said in as casual a tone as he could while seething inwardly. "Of course if you play with Mark you'll have to play in A. The competition will be much stiffer."
"Brenda and Mark finished second overall in A today," Mrs. Hatfield said, putting a hand on Coman's shoulder. "They won 15.6 gold. I'm a better player than Brenda. He and I should be able to do just as well."
Seth nodded politely and murmured something, trying to act as if he didn't have a care in the world. Not only was he losing a client to the person he hated most in the world, but he was also losing money he'd counted on. There was no way he could get another client at this stage. Knowing how tight she was, he was tempted to remind her that Coman would charge at least $300 a session, but he didn't want Coman to know how little he was getting. Furthermore, he'd seen Brenda play. She was far better than Mrs. Hatfield. Of course, he couldn't actually say that. Hopefully, they'd do poorly, and Mrs. Hatfield would play only with Seth for the rest of the cruise.
The ringing of the phone awakened Seth. He had a raging headache and an upset stomach. The evening before he'd accompanied his roommate, but had been unable to hook up with anyone. His roommate was more successful and left with a simpering, fortyish woman. After that Seth tied one on. As he picked up the phone he noted the time: 9:44.
"Seth, get down to the bridge room right away," commanded Mrs. Hatfield imperiously. "Mark didn't show up. The game starts in about fifteen minutes. I need a partner."
The bridge room was actually two levels up from Seth's stateroom. He stumbled into it at 10:04, disheveled, in need of a shave, and with body odor that caused people he came close to back away. The tournament directors had accommodated Mrs. Hatfield by holding up the start until he arrived. She would've been better off if they hadn't. He couldn't think straight. The cards seemed to come in and out of focus. The game dragged on interminably. Finally, it ended.
Seth expected Mrs. Hatfield to lambast him because their 31% game placed them dead last. Instead, to his surprise, she took his hands in hers and said, "Seth, dear, I can see you're not feeling well. I'm pleased you made the effort to oblige me. Let me take you back to your room. Lie down and take a power nap. The afternoon session won't start for two hours. Perhaps you'll be more like yourself."
The next day, shortly before the afternoon session was to start, the ship's first officer along with an enormous security man came up to Seth. The behemoth looked as if he'd relish crushing Seth's skull.
The officer said, "My name is Collins. Please come with us, sir."
"What for?" Seth asked as the big crewman took hold of Seth's arm.
"A crime has been committed and we need to ask you about it," Collins replied.
"A crime!" Seth exclaimed. "I don't know anything about any crime."
"I demand you release him at once!" Mrs. Hatfield shouted. "The game is about to start. He's my partner. You can talk to him after the game."
"I'm afraid he won't be available for the remainder of the cruise, Mrs. Hatfield," Collins said. "The crime is rather serious. We can't take a chance that he'll jump ship at one of the ports."
One of the tournament directors, who'd come over to see what the commotion was, said, "I'm sure we can find a suitable partner for you, Mrs. Hatfield."
"We had a decent game this morning," the old woman said. "If I change partners will I still have a chance to finish in the overall?"
"I'm afraid not," the director replied.
"That won't do," Mrs. Hatfield said.
"Please come quietly, sir," Collins said to a protesting Seth. "We'd prefer not to put you in handcuffs."
"I'll accompany you," Mrs. Hatfield proclaimed. "I'm a stockholder in this cruise line. I'm sure we can get this straightened out so that you can play tomorrow, if not this evening."
Seth was led to an interior room below the lowest passenger level. He was told to sit on one side of a table. Mrs. Hatfield sat next to him. Collins sat across from them. The security man, who had to turn sideways to get through the door, stood with arms folded but looked on alertly.
"I demand to know why I'm being treated like a common criminal," Seth said as forcefully as he could.
"Mark Coman's body was discovered in his stateroom this morning," Collins said.
"I'm sorry he'd dead," Seth said with obvious insincerity. "What's that got to do with me?"
"He was murdered."
"Oh dear," Mrs. Hatfield said. "I knew you hated him because he got you barred from tournament bridge for a couple of years, but murder seems a bit much."
"I didn't kill him or anyone else!" Seth claimed as he stared daggers at her. She's giving them a motive for me, he thought. She's supposed to be on my side. What's going on here? "How did he die?"
"A fentanyl overdose," Collins said. "The ship's doctor thinks he was drugged first and then fentanyl patches were applied to his body. Of course, an autopsy will have to be done to be sure. The doctor withdrew fluids which will be used in a toxicology screen. The same type of patches was found in your stateroom."
"You searched my room?" an outraged Seth asked. "Don't you need a warrant?"
"The captain has the authority to order a search," Collins stated.
"I didn't have any fentanyl," Seth said. "I would have no idea how to go about getting some. How do you know they didn't belong to my roommate?"
"Fentanyl is, unfortunately, very easy to obtain. Your roommate cooperated in the search and was genuinely surprised when we found the patches. In any case, he didn't even know Mr. Coman. Tell us about you being barred from bridge."
"Go ahead, Seth," Mrs. Hatfield said. "It'll all come out anyway. Be upfront with it."
"Coman and I used to be bridge partners," Seth said. He frowned as he looked at Mrs. Hatfield. What's her game? "We wanted to play professionally. To be successful we needed a couple of big wins to attract clients. He came up with this… method of cheating." Seth flushed with embarrassment.
"Go on," Collins prompted.
"He claimed it would be impossible to detect what we were doing. He said that even if we were suspected, as long as we both proclaimed our innocence, we'd be safe. We vowed to do that."
"But evidently you did get caught."
"You know how on cop shows the police bring two suspects into different rooms and tell them the first one to come clean gets the break? Well, that happened to us. Coman broke our vow. The bastard claimed it was all my idea, which was a freaking lie. He got a sixty-day ban. I was banned for two years.
Seth recalled the humiliation he felt at the time. He had no skills other than bridge. He'd barely made it through college. He wasn't accepted into law school. His philosophy major was of little use. He'd had to move in with his mother and stepfather. They never let him forget he was living on their charity. His mother begged her brother-in-law into giving him a job. He had to take it for spending money. It wasn't enough to live on, and he was treated like dirt. Just like Mrs. Hatfield was treating him now.
Suddenly the light dawned. "You!" he shouted as he pointed at her. "You called me at a quarter of ten to fill in. How did you know Coman wouldn't show? He had fifteen minutes until game time."
"Well, ah, um, ah," Mrs. Hatfield stumbled for an answer. "We, ah, we arranged for him to get there at 9:30 to, ah, go over our convention card."
"That was the purpose of the game the previous night," Seth proclaimed. "Coman was famous for not showing up until there were less than five minutes until game time. He liked to make a grand entrance. This morning you were telling people how amusing it was to have dinner with both Coman and me since there was so much antagonism between us."
"I, ah, I was just sharing an amusing story," Mrs. Hatfield said, but wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Baloney!" Seth snapped, slapping the table with the palm of his hand. Mrs. Hatfield jumped. "You were setting me up! You were very solicitous when I was hungover. That's uncharacteristic. You brought me back to my room. I bet that's when you planted the fentanyl."
Mrs. Hatfield tried to get some words out, but all she could do was stammer. She flushed. Tears came to her eyes. She began to sob.
"I have inoperable cancer," Mrs. Hatfield said after she regained control of herself. "The doctors give me six months to a year. The fentanyl was to help me control the pain. I knew Mark had a history of cheating. I asked him to teach me how so we could win. I didn't have much time left to become a life master. I told him I'd give him $100,000. Unfortunately, he recorded me. He said unless I gave him ten million, he'd expose me. I offered $200,000, but he wouldn't budge. There's no way I could explain that much to my accountants."
"Why try to pin it on me?" Seth asked. "Wouldn't it have been enough just to remove him?"
"I wasn't sure if there was a copy of the recording somewhere. I needed a scapegoat. You had motive. With you out of the way, I could hire someone else. Well, it appears that I'll never be a life master. At least I'll die before they can send me to prison."
Why didn't the old biddy ask me? Seth thought. I would've done it for the $100,000, no questions asked. Now I doubt she'll even pay me for the games on this cruise.