Accompanying her grandmother on a seniors tour of Switzerland, Emily Andrew had envisioned a vacation straight out of a travel brochure: spectacular scenery, great food, and a classy European hotel, all worlds away from her rural Iowa hometown. But her dream trip quickly snowballs into mayhem when smooth-talking tour escort Andy Simon is found dead. To be sure, Andy was as randy as a mountain goat on Viagra, hitting on every miss -- Swiss or otherwise -- within striking distance. His constant advances were driving Emily cuckoo -- but had someone orchestrated his untimely death?
For savvy, resourceful Emily, leading the tour in Andy's place is only natural. But she can't remain neutral when a fellow traveler takes a fatal plunge -- she's convinced a murderer lurks among them. With precision timing, sexy Etienne Miceli steps in to investigate, and Emily warms to the suave detective. Still, with the group roster suddenly sprouting more holes than the local cheese, Emily wonders: is there a safe haven anywhere in the shadow of the Alps?
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"I am NOT sleeping with Andrew Simon for the next nine days!" My voice hovered at a pitch that could cause spontaneous insanity in dogs. I was squeezing the tour guide's forearm so tightly, his fingers had turned purple. "Major mix-up in the room assignments. MAJOR mix-up." I might have added that had I wanted to sleep with Andy Simon, I wouldn't have had to fly all the way to Switzerland to do it. I would have done it back in Iowa, like everyone else. But why ruin a man's reputation when he was doing such a good job of it himself?
The tour guide, who'd introduced himself at the Zurich airport as Wally, slid his attention from the hand I'd manacled around his arm, to my chest. A stunned look appeared in his eye. And why not? Thanks to the genius of Victoria's Secret, those of us who were modestly endowed could now flaunt awe-inspiring bosom beneath our turtlenecks. I had to watch myself though. My Click Miracle bra was set on maximum cleavage, so if I stood any closer, I'd poke his eye out.
"Have you misplaced your name tag already?" Wally chided. "It's supposed to hang right there, in the middle of your chest."
Wally was your typical boy next door with a few pounds on his bones and lines on his face. Beaver Cleaver at thirty-five. Brown hair. Receding hairline. Hazel eyes with no apparent eyelashes. Chipmunk cheeks. Pudgy around the middle. But he was half a head taller than I am, wore a suit that smacked of custom-made rather than off-the-rack, and he wasn't wearing a wedding ring. He had serious potential. However, if the only thing he noticed about my chest was the absence of a name tag, I figured we didn't have much of a future together. I consoled myself with the fact that he probably wasn't my type.
Of course, I had no idea what my type was anymore. The issue had gotten confused when I'd met Jack Potter seven years ago. I'd graduated from college with a degree in theater and was trying to peddle my talents as an actress in New York City. To pay the rent, I took a job as a ticket seller at Radio City Music Hall, where I worked beside Jack. We had so much in common, I suspected we were soul mates. He was an aspiring actor. So was I. He loved to shop. So did I. He was compulsively neat. I picked up after myself occasionally. And since both of us were having trouble choosing between eating or paying the rent each month, we decided to pool our resources and share an apartment.
The roommate thing might have worked if Jack hadn't had the body of a dancer and the face of a Roman god, or if I hadn't been consumed by raging hormones and lust. Within a year we became husband and wife. More good fortune struck when we were both offered parts in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Me, in the chorus. Jack as one of the brothers. But things deteriorated when he started borrowing my lingerie and makeup, not just for shows, but on a daily basis. Six months later he pulled a disappearing act and ran off with the actor who played Joseph's understudy. I moved back to Iowa after that, a little older and wiser, but my romantic life has been muddled ever since.
I squeezed Wally's arm a little harder. "My name is Emily Andrew. I don't wear name tags. And I don't sleep with married men."
Wally wrenched his arm from my grasp. "Do you mind? I have no feeling in my hand anymore. And look, you crushed the press on my sleeve." He gave his arm a vigorous rub and me an exasperated look. "We encourage all our Golden Swiss Triangle Tour members to wear their name tags, but of course, we can't force you." He looked me up and down, eyeing me like meat on the hoof.
I exercised regularly to keep cellulite from attaching itself to my five-foot-five-inch, 112-pound frame, so I knew I looked pretty decent in my favorite black leather skirt with the little slit up the side. But my hair was problematic. Not the color, which was a deep mahogany, but the texture. The minute a hint of humidity crept into the air, my coarse, wavy, shoulder-length hair acquired the kind of frizz that straight-haired people only achieved by sticking their fingers into electrical outlets. Since it was raining in Lucerne today, it was only a matter of time before I morphed into Little Orphan Annie, only with green eyes instead of the empty sockets.
"Aren't you a little young to be on a Golden Tour?" Wally finally asked.
"Traveling companion," I said. "I'm with my grandmother."
Nana belonged to a seniors' travel club run by the bank in Windsor City. The bank scheduled tours through a national company called Triangle Tours that arranged transportation, lodging, and a professional tour guide in the country of destination. Since many of the seniors were novices at foreign travel, the bank also provided a local escort to cater to the individual needs of the group. Nana invited me to accompany her on the trip because she said I'd be less bossy than my mother and a lot more fun than the other seventy-eight-year-olds in her retirement village. So being a sucker for flattery, I turned my back on the lure of Club Med for the opportunity to spend nine days in Switzerland with thirty white-haired seniors who made twenty-nine look young.
"Now," continued Wally, "who did you say you don't want to sleep with?"
"Look, Wally, someone made a mistake. I'm supposed to room with my grandmother, not Andrew Simon. In case you didn't know, Mr. Simon is our escort from the Windsor City Bank. He's being paid to accompany the group, not sleep with the guests."
Someone sneezed loudly behind me. I felt a hand caress the back of my neck. "Emily, honey, I just heard the good news. How do you suppose an old coot like me got lucky enough to room with the prettiest little trick on the tour?"
Andrew Simon was short, stocky, and stuck on himself. His year-round tan was out of a tube. His hair color was out of a bottle -- Surfer Blonde, which was something of an anomaly considering the only surfing you can do in Iowa is on the Internet. He'd married his sixth wife, Louise, three years earlier, and since then had whiled away his time swinging golf clubs by day and rehearsing lines for the local community theater by night. Louise was sister to the Windsor City Bank president, which explained how Simon had landed himself the cushy job of escort on the Golden Swiss Triangle Tour. He'd left Louise back in Windsor City, however, since the thought of flying gave her hives and caused her windpipe to swell shut. Not a good way to begin your Golden Swiss holiday.
I snatched his hand from my neck and stood toe-to-toe with him, our noses separated by bare inches, my chest every bit as inflated as his ego. "There's been a mistake. Your first name, my last name. Some out-of-touch administrator must have thought we were family and stuck us in the same room together. What's wrong with your eyes?" They were painfully bloodshot and weepy. "Are you contagious?" I took a giant step backward. He'd probably contracted a fatal disease on the plane and was infecting everyone within a six-mile radius. Bad idea for a holiday. Arrive in Switzerland. Die.
"It's that damned air on the plane. I shouldn't have worn my contact lenses. The pharmacist warned me, but I didn't listen. My eyes are so itchy, I feel like I have the worst case of hay fever in medical history."
He looked as if he had the worst case of bubonic plague in medical history. I inched back another step. I didn't want to be within hearing range when he peeled off his lenses. They'd probably dried out so badly, they were superglued to his eyeballs by now.
"About the room assignments, Emily, I don't know how that could have happened. The bank made all those arrangements. Frieda saw to it personally, and Frieda never makes a mistake."
Frieda Olson had been a fixture at the bank since the first ice age. At eighty-five she was still sharp as a tack and drove into work daily, but her glasses were thick as pond ice, which cast serious doubt on her ability to process paperwork. "I suspect you filled your travel form out incorrectly," I accused. He'd probably written ANDREW in the space for LAST NAME and SIMON in the space for FIRST NAME, which would conveniently give us the same surname and room assignment.
"Emily, honey, why would I do that?"
"Because I'm female and conscious?"
"Emily Andrew, are you hinting that I planned this mix-up?" His gaze drifted to my chest. It made me wish Victoria's Secret had come out with a padded underwire that lifted, separated, and launched rocket grenades. I seized Wally's arm again.
"Wally here is going to fix the problem. Aren't you, Wally?"
"Emily, dear! Don't bother our tour guide. I've worked everything out myself." Nana, who dutifully wore a name tag identifying her as Marion Sippel, was four-foot-ten, built like a bullet, and still wore her hair in tight finger waves that had been fashionable in the sixties. "I been talkin' to that nice Mr. Nunzio over there. I couldn't understand everything he was sayin' 'cause he don't speak real good English, but I think he said he'd share the room with me if you'd found another roommate. Italians are so hospitable."
I'd scanned the roster of travelers on the flight over, but I didn't remember seeing a Nunzio. Nunzio I would have remembered. "Where is this Mr. Nunzio?"
Nana pointed to a marble pillar in the middle of the hotel lobby. "He's the gentleman wearin' the black trench coat. Standin' beside Bernice Zwerg."
I stood on tiptoe. But for the absence of a print cloth draped about his head, Mr. Nunzio was a Yasser Arafat look-alike -- hair like a cactus, face like a ferret, knees like old potatoes. Knees? "He's not wearing trousers." Leave it to Nana. Three hours in Switzerland, and she'd managed to find what was possibly the only Italian pervert in the entire country.
"I did notice about the trousers, dear, but this is Europe. I thought he was makin' a fashion statement."
"Mr. Nunzio isn't on our tour, Nana. He'll have to room with someone else." I said this with more calm than I felt because if I let anything happen to Nana, my mother would kill me.
Nana looked disappointed. She was the most accommodating person I'd ever known. She'd hauled wood before the days of electricity, hauled water before the days of indoor plumbing, and hauled tail out of Minnesota after the roof of Grampa's ice shanty collapsed, killing him and the thirty-pound muskie he'd been struggling to pull in for the better part of the afternoon. She had them both laid out at the wake -- Grampa Sippel in a cherry casket and the muskie on a bed of crushed ice. The whole town of Brainerd, Minnesota, turned out for the viewing, and everyone in attendance had the same thing to say about Grampa: he'd caught the plug-ugliest fish ever to swim the waters of Gull Lake.
Nana moved to Iowa afterward to be closer to my parents, my married brother and his family, and me. She arrived a wealthy widow, not because Grampa was a piker who'd squirreled away every penny he ever earned, but because she won the lottery jackpot on the day Grampa's ice shanty collapsed. Seven million and change. People said it was tragic Grampa hadn't lived long enough to see the size of the check. Nana said he would have been more impressed by the size of the muskie.
Nana glanced back at Mr. Nunzio. "It's too cold to be runnin' around without pants. Cold air blowin' up a man's privates can cause real bad prostate problems. You think I should tell him?"
Simon burst out in laughter. "Go ahead, Marion. I bet he's dying to have you tell him what he should do with his prostate."
Nana's eyes turned steely. "A man should never laugh at prostate problems. Don't think I didn't see you lined up to go potty a whole lot on the trip over, Andrew Simon. Bernice was havin' to get up all the time to let you by."
Other people went to the rest room. Minnesotans went Œpotty' all their lives. Obviously, toilet-training in Minnesota was as life-altering an experience as marriage and visiting the Mall of America.
"Anyone tell you there's drugs you can take for potty problems these days?" Nana continued. "They even advertise 'em on the TV. I forget the names, but one of them ads shows a bunch a men about your age drivin' convertibles with little outhouses on the back. If we could find that nice pharmacist lady, I bet she'd know what the stuff is called. She might even give you some free samples."
All the color drained from Simon's face. With his suddenly white complexion and pink eyes, he was looking more and more like the Easter bunny. "And what's wrong with your eyes?" Nana added for good measure. "You're not contagious are you?" She took a step backward.
"My contact lenses." He spat the words out like BBs. "They're irritating my eyes. There seem to be quite a few irritants in the vicinity at the moment."
Wally took that instant to jump onto a nearby table and let fly a shrill whistle. Heads turned. The lobby of the Grand Palais Hotel grew quiet. "Okay, people. One word of caution about the elevator. The door doesn't open automatically, so when it stops, wait a couple of seconds, then open the door yourself. We're not in the States anymore. Everything doesn't run on automatic pilot. Your luggage will be delivered to your rooms within the hour. Get some rest and we'll meet here in the lobby again at six o'clock sharp and proceed into the dining room for supper. Any questions?"
I didn't have a question for Wally. I had a comment. I raised my hand. "Nana and I are going to wait for you on those comfy chairs near the front desk. When you have our room assignment figured out, let us know."
The Grand Palais, a century-old hotel overlooking Lake Lucerne, had the look of a Hollywood soundstage disguised as a European chateau. Pillars of polished pink marble encircled the lobby and rose twenty feet to a ceiling that reflected the sparkling brilliance of a half dozen crystal chandeliers. Gilt-framed mirrors the size of Beautyrest mattresses lined the walls. Oriental carpets spanned the floor. Furniture upholstered in rich cut velvet and standing tiptoe on delicate scrolled feet huddled in intimate groupings around the room. And then there were the finishing touches. The vases of fresh-cut flowers. The antique gold cabinets. The dozens of cut-crystal ashtrays accompanied by silver baskets brimming with tiny matchboxes. The Swiss had obviously failed to read the Surgeon General's report on the hazards of smoking. I ranked the Grand Palais a ten on the "old world elegance" scale, but for all its opulence, the hotel had one elevator to accommodate its multitude of guests. The shaft was located near the front desk, across the room from the burgundy velvet chairs where Nana and I sat waiting for our room key. If there was a silver lining to our room mix-up, it was that by the time we received our key, the line waiting to use the elevator might be shorter. Though we'd been sitting for ten minutes, and the line hadn't moved at all.
"What's the holdup?" Lars Bakke asked every time the elevator arrived at the lobby and went up again without releasing its passengers. Lars was a tall stringbean of a man who owned and operated a grain elevator just outside Windsor City, so he knew the skinny on elevators.
"You gotta open the door yourself!" Bernice Zwerg yelled at the shaft. "It's not automatic." Decades earlier Bernice had worked as a photographic model for Iowa Living magazine, but age and hard times had taken their toll. Her hourglass figure had disappeared, leaving her with a body like a rubber chicken and a dowager's hump that ruined the hang of her clothes. She had hair like a wire whisk, a voice like fingernails scratching a chalkboard, and a bank account that was running on empty. The only highlight in her life these days was that she was the undefeated champion of the five-yard dash in the annual Senior Olympics at the mall, a title the other contestants argued was undeserved due to the fact that she removed her hearing aid for the event and couldn't hear the starting gun go off, so she always got a head start.
"This place needs a bigger elevator," Solvay Bakke complained to her husband. "How many people does that one hold?"
"Three," I said, having seen the trio who'd squeezed in earlier.
Solvay shook her head in disgust. "Who's in there now?"
I knew that too. "Dick Teig, Dick Stolee, and Dick Rassmuson." The three men had attended grammar school together, lived in the same subdivision in Windsor City, and always vacationed together with their wives, though if they had their druthers, they might have opted to leave the wives at home. They enjoyed being referred to as the three amigos. I referred to them as the three Dicks.
Lars Bakke took control of the situation. "Those guys have been joyriding long enough. When that elevator gets down here again, someone yank the damn door open and get those Dicks outta there!"
I guess Lars wasn't fond of calling them the three amigos either.
Forty-five minutes later, Nana and I stood before our room in a high-ceilinged corridor whose only illumination was an occasional motion light. Our key looked like a brass Sugar Daddy attached to a square of leather that was stamped in gold with the number 3310. Nana measured its weight in her palm before handing it to me. "Your grampa coulda used this as a sinker. Don't drop it. You'll break your foot."
I inserted the brass part into a slot in the front face of the doorknob, then turned the knob to the left. "Wally said to keep turnin' until we hear a click," Nana advised. So I turned, and turned, and turned.
"Did you hear a click?" I asked.
"Nope. But my hearin's not so good anymore. You hear anything?"
"No." So I turned, and turned. I was glad Nana had asked me to accompany her on the tour. How did management expect old people to get into their rooms when young people couldn't even figure it out? This was worse than wrestling with the childproof cap on the toilet bowl cleaner. Two weeks from now I envisioned thirty elderly people from Iowa walking around with wrist braces and full-blown cases of carpal tunnel syndrome. The litigation alone would be enough to close the hotel down.
I glanced up and down the corridor and wondered why none of the other people on the tour were outside their doors, rotating their knobs. Obviously, Nana and I were the only guests from the tour in this wing.
"Shall I try, dear?"
I stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture toward the knob. "Be my guest. But don't fuss with it too long. You're seventy-eight years old. Your bones are fragile. I'll see if I can find a maid to -- "
All right. So there would be one frizzy-haired twenty-nine-year-old from Iowa in a wrist brace. "How did you do that?" I asked as she pushed the door open.
"It's like a one-armed bandit. I'm pretty good with slot machines. My bone density's improved since I been hittin' the casino circuit."
I tried not to knock her down in my haste to see what a deluxe room in a four-star Swiss hotel looked like. Recalling the elegance of the front lobby, I envisioned a four-poster bed, flowered settee, marble fireplace, panoramic view of Lake Lucerne. Maybe a chocolate mint on my pillow.
Nana stopped dead in her tracks and looked left and right. "Well, would you look at that. It's just like your college dormitory room, Emily."
With one exception. My dorm room had been bigger. "No, this can't be right." I noted the twin beds nestled lengthwise against the wall, the exposed pipe and hangers that served as a closet, the narrow desk and chair that sat below the shelf where the television perched. Bare walls. Brown carpet. White drapes. No chocolate mints. "We're paying three thousand dollars apiece for this room?"
"I've stayed in worse," Nana commiserated. "I've lived in worse. At least we got a bathroom with runnin' water...or was that only with the super deluxe rooms?" We exchanged horrified looks. Nana headed for the bathroom. I headed for the window. A spectacular view of Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus would go a long way to help me feel that our six thousand dollars hadn't been completely wasted. I threw open the drapes.
Yellow brick straight ahead and to either side. A service area and waste disposal unit below. Tiers of windows all around. I peered at the window across the way to find the drapery open and a man standing in the window recess. He was buck naked and had flattened against the windowpane the most hideously wrinkled body part I'd ever seen. Mr. Nunzio, no doubt. I winced at the sight. Just my luck. I was being mooned by an eighty-year-old.
"Good water pressure," Nana announced from the bathroom, "but I'm not sure about the shower. There's no safety strips in the tub, and the showerhead is in a strange place. And it has a weird dingus on it."
"Don't touch the dingus!" I snapped the drapes shut. Nana would go into cardiac arrest if she looked out the window. "We'll figure it out later."
She rejoined me in the bedroom. "I'm relieved the bathroom's so nice. But there's no washcloths. How do Europeans wash themselves without washcloths?"
"I guess they use their hands." I stood guard by the drapes, ready to concoct the mother of all excuses should Nana want to see the view.
"By the way," Nana said, "there's an elderly gentleman moonin' us from across the way so we'd best keep the drapes drawn for a while."
"How did you know that?"
"There's a window in the bathroom, dear. I got a clear shot of him. I don't know about men these days. Your grampa never woulda stuck his naked bum in a window for all the world to see. But let me tell you, he coulda. He had a fine bum, as hard and round as a rump roast, though gravity got to it in later years and it got pretty dimpled." She heaved a nostalgic sigh. "He photocopied it for me once. I wish I could remember what I done with it so's I could show it to you."
I winced again. This was much more than I ever needed to know about Grampa Sippel. "So do you want to keep the room, or should we request a new one?"
"Whatever you want to do, dear. But we're Midwesterners, and Midwesterners usually don't complain."
Right. But I'd lived in New York City for four years, which explained my occasional willingness to bellyache. I picked up the phone and punched a button.
"Front desk," said a curt male voice.
"This is Emily Andrew in thirty-three-ten. There's been a terrible mistake. We're in the wrong place. We paid for a deluxe room and you've given us a standard. When would it be convenient for you to move us to the right room?"
A pause. A clatter of computer keys. "Room thirty-three-ten is a deluxe room."
I eyed the narrow beds, the bare walls, the eleven-inch television screen. "You've got to be kidding."
"I'm Swiss, Madame. I never kid. Is there anything else?"
"How much would it cost us to upgrade to a super deluxe room?"
"There are no super deluxe rooms available at this time."
"Then place my name on a waiting list, and when one comes available, call me." I hung up the phone and shook my head. "I don't know, Nana. It doesn't sound too promising. We could be stuck here for a while."
"That'd be fine with me, dear. The room's not so bad once the shock wears off. It has a cozy feel to it. Kinda puts me in mind of your grampa's little ice shanty." She looked left and right. "Only your grampa had room for a La-Z-Boy recliner...and his TV was bigger."
Copyright © 2003 by Mary Mayer Holmes