Murder Takes the High Road
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
That saying about pride going before a fall? I was aching with the impact of my landing as I stood in the bar area of the Caledonian Inn, trying not to watch Trevor and his new boyfriend meeting and greeting our fellow tour members that first night in Scotland.
“We should be staying at the Argyll Hotel,” Rose Lane was saying. She was about seventy. Tall and slender, her silver hair grazing her shoulders in a long pageboy, she looked like an elderly fashion model. According to her tour group bio she was a retired accountant from Portland, Oregon. Or maybe the accountant was the tall woman with curly brown hair, lurking on the edge of the noisy room. The biosand faceshad begun to blur after the first six introductions.
Rose was still talking. Everyone in the room seemed to be talking. Which was natural. They were thrilled to be here.
Me…not so much.
“That’s where Vanessa murdered the bishop in Prey for Mercy. Besides, it’s a much nicer hotel,” Rose said.
“The Argyll is probably more expensive,” I replied, watching Trevor smile into Vance’s blue eyeswhich were close-set and a little beady, if you asked me.
Of course, no one, particularly Trevor, was asking me. And anyway, aside from being cross-eyed, Vance was an undeniably good-looking guy. Taller than me. Darker than me. Everything more than me, it seemed.
That probably sounded like I still had feelings for Trevor, and I did. Anger, hurt, bitterness. I did not want him back. I wouldn’t have had him back if he’d been offered to me on a silver quaich. That didn’t mean I wasn’t still torn up about everything that had happened. Which was why I should not have come on the toureven though it had originally been my idea and I’d paid for the entire trip.
I should have let Trevor win this one. I should have taken the high road. Failing that, the nearest exit.
“It is,” Rose agreed. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m sure we all want to make the most out of it.”
Vance leaned over to whisper in Trevor’s ear, and for a second I couldn’t remember what Rose was talking about. Oh, right. This ten-day tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands specially tailored to fans of famed mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Every stop and every stay was planned around a particular setting in one of the Rayburn books. The high point of the tour was to be the four days spent at Vanessa’s own castle on the island of Samhradh Beag.
“Who needs another drink?” Alison inquired, joining us. Alison Barnes was the tour organizer. A small, perky, red-haired thirty-something. She was American, but then nearly everyone on the tour seemed to be American. Alison peered at my empty glass, glanced unobtrusively at my name tag. “Carter? How about you? Rose, what would you like?”
“Nothing for me,” Rose demurred. “I’ll have wine with dinner.”
“Whisky and soda,” I said. I do better in unfamiliar social situations when I’m sufficiently lubricated. Tonight might require an oil can or two. Possibly an oil drum.
Rose launched into her complaint that we were not spending the night at the Argyll Hotel, and Alison’s heart-shaped face took on a hunted expression, which I imagined was the usual expression she wore by day two of these international jaunts.
Recognizing a good time to ease myself out of the conversation, I stepped backand onto someone’s foot.
“Ow!” the owner of the foot protestedwith unnecessary force, I felt, given that his foot was twice the size of mine. A few people glanced our way, including Trevor. Our gazes locked and Trevor scowled.
I scowled back. Still…not a good feeling to know someone you used to love now hated you. I turned to Ben Iams, the only other unattached male on the tour. “Sorry! I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s okay,” Ben said grudgingly. Peering at my name tag, he added, “Carter.” Ben was about fifty and traveling with his mother, Yvonne. I’d met them when we were checking in earlier that afternoon. According to his bio, Ben was a business systems analyst. He was tall, raw-boned and gangly. Not bad looking, but one of those guys who never quite grows into his frame. His hands and feet looked like they were swiped from another model kit.
There were about thirty of us crowded into the small lounge. Twenty of us were passengers on the tour. Twenty strangers with nothing in common but our love for Vanessa Rayburn. And, with one hundred and fifty-four novels to her name, there was a lot to love. Even so, ten days was a long time to spend with people you shared only one thing in common with.
If Trevor and I were still together, it would have been different.
No one was a bigger fan of Vanessa than Trevor, which was why I’d booked this tour for us nearly two years ago. How was I to know that by the time the tour rolled around, Trevor and I would be split upwith Trevor insisting I give my seat to his new Significant Other, Vance.
Which, if I’d had any sense at all, I’d have done. It’s not like I still felt any great enthusiasm for the trip, although yes, I too was a huge fan of Vanessa. I had already made up my mind that I wouldn’t be going, when Trevor informed me Vance was taking my place.
Which was sort of… Again?
Like a stubborn ass, I’d dug my heels in and informed Trevor he could go to hell. And the more Trevor demanded that I give up my ticket, the more determined I was to go on the tour.
And here I was. The winner. Trevor had had to break down and buy Vance his own ticket. And I would now have the pleasure of spending ten days in close quarters with the two of them carrying on like they were on their honeymoon.
Which…maybe they were. Not like I would have received an invite to the wedding.
A woman with wiry, wavy gray hair and rugged features to match Ben’s pointed at my name tag. “Last name Matheson. You’re a librarian and you live in Los Angeles.”
“Yvonne Iams.” She paused, her expression expectant. Why did so many of these people treat the introductions like we were all playing Mafia or Werewolf.
“Ben’s mother,” I said. That was safe enough. I racked my brain. Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition. “Retired…veterinarian.”
“Right! And where are we from?” she prompted.
Somewhere in the United States, obviously, though her accent was hard to place. Thankfully, Alison broke in before I had to confess I had no clue.
“Everybody! Everybody!” She clapped her hands together. “I just got word. Can the Tour to Die For people please begin moving to the lobby? The taxis have arrived to take us to the restaurant.”
“This is so exciting,” a small plump woman in a shiny yellow raincoat exclaimed as we began to file out of the bar. She beamed at me. I smiled back. I needed to make sure I did not end up in a taxi with Trevor and Vance.
I needn’t have worried. Trevor and Vance jumped into the first taxi, one of a train of old-fashioned black cabs, which departed in a cloud of exhaust into the rainy October night. Destination: Glasgow’s City Centre.
Two taxis later I squeezed in with Alison, the plump woman and her sistertwins Bertie and Edie Poe from Michiganand the elderly, elegant Rose.
“I can’t believe we’re here,” one of the twins said, scrunching against her sibling to make more room for Rose. “Glasgow at last!”
She pronounced it like “Glass Cow.”
“Is this your first trip to Scotland?” Alison asked us as the cab rolled away from the curb.
Bertie, Edie and I all admitted it was our first time out of the States. Rose turned out to be an experienced world traveler.
“It’s a beautiful, old city,” Alison said. “The biggest city in Scotland. In fact, it’s one of the biggest cities in the UK.”
“Third largest,” I said automatically. I try not to do that. Fact drop. It’s hard because in my work life I’m paid to be a know-it-all. It’s surprising how many people would rather ask the librarian than do the research themselves. Me? I love research. I love how one tiny piece of information can lead down a dozen different rabbit holes of astonishing discovery.
“You’ve been doing your homework.” Alison smelled like cigarettes, which was unexpected given her rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, fresh-from-teaching-Sunday-school appearance.
“Are you here on holiday?” the cab driver asked. At least I thought that’s what he said. It sounded more like Awreet, r yeez heron holiday? For a split second I thought maybe he was speaking in Gaelic to amuse the tourists.
The ladies filled him in and he obligingly pointed out places presumed to be of interest. I stared out the window at the bright lights, dark water and disappointingly modern landscape.
“That’s St. Patrick’s,” the cabbie said. “A Polish girl was murdered there about ten years ago. Her killer buried her under the confessional.”
If he’d hoped to shock us, he was talking to the wrong bunch of tourists.
“Prey for Mercy,” Rose said knowledgably. “I get chills just thinking about it.”
Alison said, as though we all didn’t know this, “Vanessa used the real-life murders of serial killer Peter Tobin as inspiration for her plot.”
“Vanessa relies on true crime a lot,” agreed Bertie. Or was it Edie?
Whichever sister, her comment was greeted with a brief silence as we all considered Vanessa’s intimate acquaintance with true crime.
Edieor possibly Bertiechanged the subject. “I’m not so sure about Indian food,” she said. “It always gives me indigestion. But I wouldn’t miss Chaophraya for anything!”
“Don’t worry. It’s actually Thai food,” Alison reassured her.
“Oh, that’s worse!” Edie’sor Bertie’ssister said. They giggled to each other at the thought of the horrors to come. At least they had a good attitude about it.
My own spirits lifted once we entered the twinkling heart of the city. The beautiful old Victorian and Edwardian buildings topped with gleaming domes and pointy spires, their ornate facades with pillars and columns and solemn-faced effigies and grand and glittering windows all reminded me of Peter Panor maybe just the Disneyland ride of the same name. I was happy to see the historic architecture holding its own against contemporary designs of steel and glass. It was a beautiful city, after all.
The caravan of taxis scooted in wherever an opening could be found and we scrambled out into the wet night. Despite the rain, the streets were packed with exuberant people, most of whom seemed to be looking for a party to crash.
“Tours to Die For, this way!” Alison shouted, racing from cab to cab in an effort to stop any of her flock from straying down the streets of the city Lonely Planet described as a “disarming blend of sophistication and earthiness.” I too felt the tug of adventure as I breathed in the perfume of exhaust and rain and damp stone and exotic aromas from the numerous restaurants along the way.
“There it is!” cried someone in the awestruck tones generally reserved for national monuments and famous film stars. We all turned to gaze in respectful silence.
Supposedly Europe’s largest Thai restaurant, Chaophraya occupied an impressive old building called the Townhouse on Buchanan Street. It was in this elegant and exotic setting that Queen’s Counsel Michael Patterson at long last proposed to Vanessa’s beloved series lead Chief Inspector Rachel MacKinnon. Choosing this particular spot for our first dinner together was a great way to begin the tour, as evidenced by the cries of delight and wonder as we hurried across the slick and shining road.
Alison shepherded us into the gorgeous lobby with its scarlet carpets, life-size golden statues and dark wood. We were led upstairs.
We were introducing ourselves when we were joined by Ben and Yvonne. There were more introductions and then Yvonne picked up the menu, frowned, and whispered something to Ben, who nodded gravely while offering a general, pained smile to the rest of us.
“I think in these circumstances a set menu makes sense, Mother,” he said mildly.
I loved my parents but I couldn’t imagine trotting the globe with them. However, Ben and Yvonne seemed to enjoy each other’s company, so…good for them.
“When you consider how much we’re paying for this trip!” Yvonne shook her head.
In fairness, this meal was supposed to be one of the most lavish of the trip, and though the menu was set, the choices were noted as “our most opulent dishes.” And really, who doesn’t occasionally long for a little opulence?
Gerda said in the determinedly upbeat tone of the battle-scarred educator, “This is wonderful. There are some lovely vegetarian choices.” She read, “‘Thai green spinach curry made with spinach, enoki mushrooms, straw mushrooms and sweet basil.’ Yum.”
“You’re the librarian,” Wilma said to me.
“Isn’t it funny how Vanessa’s books appeal to so many teachers and librarians? Maybe we’ve secretly got a murderous streak.”
The others laughed.
Yvonne said, “I always thought I’d like to be a librarian.”
“Oh yes?” I said politely.
“I have a very good memory. A very good memory.” It sounded a little ominous, and had I been on Chaophraya’s management team, I’d be expecting an unfavorable Yelp review momentarily
“A good memory is certainly useful.” More useful was a love of knowledge and learningand the ability to enjoy (or at least cheerfully tolerate) working around people who didn’t necessarily share that love. I loved books and I liked people, and libraries are where those two things intersect.
Ben said, “It’s a shame the way funding has been cut. Our library is only open part-time now.”
I started to reply but broke off as Alison paused by my chair. Her expression was that of someone about to deliver bad news. “Carter, it looks like you’re going to have a roommate after all.”
“Oh.” I tried not to sound as unenthusiastic as I felt, but I must not have covered too well.
Alison said apologetically, “Because you originally booked a shared room, we did warn you that if someone turned up needing a roommate”
“I know. It’s okay.”
And I did know, but I’d sort of figured since no one had turned up before the official start of the tour, I was home safe. It seemed not. Yet another reason I should have cancelled. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of sharing my sleeping space with a stranger.
“His name is John Knight and he’s another American,” Alison said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get his bio in time, but I understand he’s an insurance salesman from San Diego. Which is right around the corner from you. So that’s nice, right?” Her smile was hopeful.
Well, it was a one-hundred-and-twenty-mile corner, so…sort of. I summoned up another of those halfhearted smiles for her. “Sure. Great. When’s he joining us?”
“He’s flying in tonight.”
God. Not even a single night on my own.
I said with fake heartiness, “Great! I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
She looked relieved and moved on through the obstacle course of chairs, purses and people.
At the table behind me the conversation had turned, inevitably, to Vanessa’s notorious past. I glanced over tantalizing descriptions of fried sea bass with chili sauce, turmeric king prawns and massaman lamb curry while listening to the debate on whether someone convicted of murder should have been appointed to the Order of the British Empire.
This was a common point of contention even with Vanessa’s most devoted fans. Most agreed that her youth at the time of Donald Kresley’s murderand the fact that Vanessa had completed her full sentence as a model prisonermade for sufficient atonement. But awarding her a DBE, making her a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, was a step too far even for most Americans.
And yet the honor was rightfully bestowed on one who had made significant artistic contribution to the British Empire, and if that wasn’t Vanessa Rayburn with her 154-book-long, still-bestselling backlist, who was it?
“I think maybe she was awarded the DBE before the news of her real identity came out,” a woman said.
“No, that’s not correct.” The voice was female and definitely English. “I remember the fuss when it was announced. People picketed.”
“That was such a long time ago. Almost thirty years.”
“It doesn’t seem so very long ago to me.”
I missed the rest of the conversation as our server arrived and the important business of ordering cocktails began.
Once drinks and meals had been ordered, Alison rose and gave a brief welcome speech and then sped through the evening’s business.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, therefore timeliness is essential. All luggage must be out of the rooms and in the hallways by seven every morning so that Hamish can get them stowed on the bus. Otherwise you’ll have to carry your bag down yourself. Change seats on the bus every day to ensure everyone is getting a turn at the windows and do try to sit with different people each night at dinner. You never know. You might meet your new best friend on this trip.”
I glanced at Ben, who happened to be looking my way. We shared another of those self-conscious smiles and hastily averted gazes.
By the time Alison sped through the subject of paid toilets, tipping and daily menus, fragrant platters of Bangkok street-style pork skewers marinated with honey and coriander root, chicken satay, spring rolls, and savory mini-tartlets stuffed with cod and flavored with lemongrass and lime leaf, were circulating from table to table.
Rather than allowing us to relax and eat, Alisonproving that all tour guides have a sadistic streaksuggested we take turns rising to introduce ourselves to the group.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to pay attention, but I hadn’t eaten since somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, and the names and faces were beginning to fade into a hypoglycemic haze.
With the exception of Yvonne, who took notes, my tablemates nibbled on appetizers and listened politely as the Poe sisters, Rose, Trevor and Vance introduced themselves.
Trevor kept his opening remarks uncharacteristically terse. Vance burbled. There really wasn’t any other word for it. Or if there was, I didn’t want to work that hard to find it.
“I’m Vance Stafford. I’m a former model and actor, in case I look familiar to you. Nowadays I work as a dental hygienist.” He flashed a big white smile, giving the American Dental Association some free advertising. “I’m traveling with Trev. This trip is a not-quite-but-almost honeymoon for us.” He beamed at Trevor. Trevor smiled uncomfortably, met my eyes, glared, and looked away.
Vance sat down amid a chorus of “awws” and a smattering of applause. There we had it: the token cute gay couple. And my role? Wicked Queen?
I had made some bad decisions in my time, but coming on this trip? It topped the list.
Our table raced through the introductions, earning Alison’s approval.
At the table behind us were Jim and Laurel Matsukado from San Francisco, Wally and Nedda Kramer from New York, Daya and Roddy Bittywiddy, an English couple who resided in Devonin fact, the only non-Americans in the tour groupand Sally Daly, a self-described “divorcée” and bookseller from New Mexico.
Alison introduced our bus driver as Hamish MacLaren. Hamish looked to be in his late eighties and wore glasses that might have been borrowed from Mr. Magoo. He offered animated and absolutely unintelligible words of greeting, which received a hearty round of applause.
That concluded the formalities and we were finally left in peace to enjoy our really delicious dinner. Everyone seemed excited and enthusiastic on this eve of adventure, and the air crackled with happy anticipation
The meal finished with fresh fruit fondue. Ordinarily, sharing fondue with strangers would not be one of my favorite things, but I was so tired by then, I was past caring. We could have been scooping microbes from test tubes, and I wouldn’t have flinched.
At last, replete and exhausted, we headed outside into the wet night.
The Scherfs and Rices, having arrived in Scotland a day earlier, opted to explore Glasgow’s nightlife, but the jet-lagged rest of us made straight for the waiting taxis. I ended up with the Poe sisters again, and we were joined by Ben and his mother. It was a much, much quieter drive back to the Caledonian Inn. In fact, Yvonne was snoring softly, her head on Ben’s shoulder, by the time we arrived at the hotel.
I went straight up to my room, undressed, unpacked what I needed for the night, and used the hotel Wi-Fi to verify that no one urgently needed to hear from me. I wasn’t sure if I was reassured or disappointed when it turned out that I had so far not been missed.
I was brushing my teeth when the door jumped beneath a brisk and decisive knock.
John Knight, I presumed. I rinsed, spat, plastered what I hoped was a pleasant smile on my face and opened the door.
Not John Knight. My midnight caller was a wee five feet six in his stockinged feet, fair and not all that handsome when he was scowlingwhich was most of the time he was around me. In shortha!it was Trevor.
“I can’t believe you’d do this, Carter,” he said.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.