Paisley MacGregor, a maid to the rich, made a dying request to send all of her wealthy employers on a first-class wake to spread her ashes around the world. Amy has her suspicions about these “mourners,” especially when one has a life-threatening “accident” at the first stop in Paris. And when a mysterious American stranger tagging along with the group has his ticket punched in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Amy knows she may have a killer on her tour.
Who was this stranger, and what’s the connection to someone in her group? Digging for clues while continuing on with the trip is a lot for Amy to manage, especially when another mourner has a possibly fatal encounter with a Hawaiian volcano. Back in the States, Fanny and Amy start to piece together a secret worth killing for, but someone is hot on their trail, and ready to send them on a one-way trip—to the morgue!
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By Hy Conrad
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Hy Conrad
All rights reserved.
At the sound of the electronic buzz, Amy Abel glanced up and let out a little moan. This wasn't her usual reaction to the sight of two smiling people bouncing into her travel agency and waving a check, but she couldn't help herself.
"We're so excited," said Donna Petronia. "Aren't you excited?"
Amy stood to greet them, stretching to her full height of five feet ten, then slipping off her heels, an almost unconscious reaction when people shorter than her walked into the office. She picked up her favorite red Lafonts from the desk, and the couple came more clearly into focus.
"The second annual mystery road rally," Donna chirped.
"I know you can't guarantee us a real murder this time," said Daryl.
Donna slapped his arm playfully. "He doesn't mean that. It must have been perfectly awful for you. And those poor people."
"I was just being naughty," Daryl apologized. "Still ... seeing someone actually killed while you're playing a mystery game ... That must have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
"For the victim, yes." Amy tried not to sound judgmental. After all, Daryl and Donna were just a couple of bored, rich New Yorkers looking for a thrill. "And you should be careful what you wish for."
Donna laughed. "Oh, we really don't want a murder, especially not one of us."
"No one wants to kill us," said Daryl with a kind of false modesty. "It's just the possibility that's so fascinating, isn't it? The feeling of danger."
"Donna and Daryl, about the tour ..." There was no easy way for her to say this. "I know I told you ..."
"It's not fully booked?" Daryl's smile dimmed by several watts. "Because we would've paid earlier. I offered to put a deposit down. On more than one occasion." He pushed the check across the desk.
"I know." Amy's eyes drifted past the shedding ficus toward the bathroom in the corner. Her mother had disappeared in there right before the couple arrived. Amy figured she had anywhere from another minute to ten. "Look." She spoke quickly now. "I'm not sure this is going to work out." She tried pushing the check back.
"What do you mean, not work out?" Donna pushed it back again. "Is this tour happening or not?"
"Um ... it's not." Amy hadn't firmly decided, not until the moment she said it. "It's probably not in the best of taste for me to organize another murder mystery, considering what happened." She tried pushing again, but now three hands were on the check, and it was two against one. She hadn't seen such fighting over a check since the last time her uncles were in a restaurant.
"But it's such a hot ticket," Daryl argued. "That write-up in the Times ..."
"I know," Amy said. "All the calls and the press. But I don't think I can do it again."
"Don't do this to yourself," Donna murmured, trying her best to look motherly. "For your own good, dear. You have to get back up on the horse...."
"On the dead horse," Daryl interjected. "Isn't that the expression?"
"No," Donna said, turning on her husband. "You beat a dead horse. You get back up on a live one."
"We're not doing anything with horses, alive or dead." It was a fourth voice, and for a moment Amy couldn't tell whose side it was on. Fanny Abel had stepped around the ficus, pasting on a smile that was broad, artificial and, to Amy at least, frightening. She was nearly a foot shorter than her daughter and weighed perhaps a few pounds less. "Sorry to interrupt — Donna and Daryl, hello — but it's probably easier, sweetie, to tell them the truth." She paused now, running her fingers dramatically through her auburn pageboy. "We are being sued."
"Sued?" All three of them said it at once, although Amy tried to hide her surprise.
"Yes." Fanny adjusted her smile to look apologetic. "I'm afraid the victim's family has slapped an injunction on all future mystery tours. Cease and desist. Something to do with intellectual property and how another tour would do irrevocable harm to the victim's reputation."
Donna's fleshy face contorted. "That doesn't make sense. First off, being killed has nothing to do with your reputation. Plus, Amy has every right to do another mystery. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any mystery games at all."
Fanny held up a red polished fingernail. "Then there's the suit from the accused's lawyers, saying how another mystery tour would be prejudicial to their defense case, since the real-life case mirrored a mystery game in which their client was involved. Did I say one cease and desist order? I meant two."
"But that makes even less sense," Daryl said.
"Well, don't look at me," Fanny shot back. "I'm not a lawyer."
Amy allowed herself a crooked smile. She was in safe hands. Fanny, bless her, was definitely on her side. And that gave Amy an advantage of about 1,000 percent. No one could beat her mother in a fight like this, especially when she only half understood the argument and was making things up as she went.
By the end of five more minutes, the Petronias had beat a confused, ignominious retreat, and the check lay torn in the bottom of a rattan wastebasket. Fanny had even had an extra minute at the end to fill the electric teapot and bring out the Earl Grey.
"I'll take care of the other cancellations," Fanny said. "To tell you the truth, I kind of enjoy it, except for the money part."
"I don't know what got into me," Amy said as she watched her mother push aside her keyboard and arrange the bone china she kept stored in the bottom right of the file cabinet. "I know we need the money."
"I'm the one who should apologize." The words sounded strange coming from Fanny's lips, unexpected and foreign, as if she had learned them phonetically. "I shouldn't have pushed you to do another mystery rally. But that's all my readers on TrippyGirl wanted to talk about."
TrippyGirl was the blog Fanny had started shortly after her daughter's European escapades, a combination of a little fact and a lot of fiction that followed a girl nicknamed Trippy, loosely based on Amy, and her adventures around the world.
"I thought I could do it," said the real Amy. "I did. But the idea of getting up every day and facing vultures like Donna and Daryl and treating death as some form of entertainment, which it is, of course — between books and TV and the news ..."
"But you've had to face the real thing, dear, more than once. You know what? I think you should forget about murders. Don't even read those cozies you're so fond of. It's not good." The tea bags were in the cups; the pot was whistling. Amy watched, the calmness growing inside her, as Fanny Abel eased the hot water over the bags.
Amy's Travel was the name on the door. Her first impulse had been to name it Amy and Eddie's Travel, except that people would always ask who Eddie was, and she didn't think she could bear that.
Travel had been their shared passion. Amy loved the exotic and the history of it, like the Edwardian splendor of the Victoria Falls Hotel in the heart of Africa, where they'd been given the honeymoon suite, even though he had just proposed. Eddie had enjoyed all this, plus the thrill of bungee jumping from the staggering height of a bridge just downriver from the falls.
"How many times will you get to do something like this?" he'd asked as a pair of sketchy-looking entrepreneurs tied the frayed bungee rope around his feet and nudged him out onto the platform.
"You mean jumping off a bridge on the border between two third world countries, over the friggin' Victoria Falls?"
"Exactly." Eddie laughed. Then, without another thought, he turned and whooped and dove out over the rapids. A world-embracing swan dive. "Whoooo!"
On that afternoon, he jumped the falls twice and talked her into doing it once. She was sick for the next four hours. No one had told her there would be so much bouncing and spinning involved, and that wasn't even counting the free fall and the snap. But it would become one of her proudest moments and fondest memories.
The memories all changed one month later, when Eddie was killed by muggers just a few blocks from their Greenwich Village apartment.
Nearly two years after the mind-numbing horror of that night, after retrenching completely from life and moving back into the comfort of her childhood home, Amy finally made another daring leap and opened up shop. Eddie would have loved it.
"If we don't do this," Amy murmured, blowing steam off the rim of the dainty white cup, "are we broke? Are we going to have to close the doors?"
"Yes, we are broke," her mother replied. "I mean, a travel agency in this day and age? But we're building some momentum with TrippyGirl. Some of them are booking little trips. Of course, everyone got very excited about the next rally, which apparently is not happening."
Amy sighed. "Mother, please."
"I can't help making you feel a little guilty. It's my job."
Before Amy could retaliate, the phone rang, the actual landline reserved for business. It was an odd enough occurrence that it galvanized their focus. Fanny lifted a finger, counted silently to three, and answered. "Amy's Travel. From the ordinary to the exotic. How may I direct ... Oh, hello, Peter." Her enthusiasm dipped. "She's not here at the moment."
Amy held out her hand for the receiver. Fanny ignored her. "Yes, I gave her your message, and she wants to call you back. But you know the travel business. Busy, busy. Yes, I'll tell her you need to speak to her. Bye-bye."
Amy watched her mother hang up, then cleared her throat. "How long has Peter been calling?"
"Two days. He says it's business and urgent, but I don't believe a thing that man says."
"Why?" Any normal woman, she thought, would be incensed that her mother was screening her calls. But that battle had been fought and lost years ago. "Has Peter ever lied to you?" Amy asked. "No. You just don't like him. Unlike some men who lie all the time and you still like them."
"There's more to honesty than telling the truth."
"Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt." It was Peter Borg himself, standing in the front doorway, tall, bland, and blond, but looking good today in a narrow-cut Marc Jacobs suit. "The door buzzed," he said, pointing behind him with one hand. In his other was his iPhone. "I guess you didn't hear."
"I told you she wasn't here," Fanny said without batting an eye.
"I know," Peter apologized. "But I was in the neighborhood."
Any normal mother, Amy thought again, would be embarrassed to be caught in a lie mere moments after telling it. Not Fanny.
"In the neighborhood?" she mocked and pointed a fat, accusing finger. "It's not bad enough that he makes me fib. No, he has to rub it in my face. If that's not dishonest, I don't know what is." And with that, she pivoted and marched off to the back office, slamming the door behind her.
Amy watched her go, then sighed. "I have no control over her. None."
"Why doesn't Fanny like me?" Peter asked. Tentatively, he sat down in a client chair, all the while keeping one eye on the back office door.
"Take it as a compliment." Amy pushed over her mother's untouched cup of Earl Grey. Peter picked it up without comment and sipped. Peter Borg was everything a normal mother could want for her daughter: handsome, hard-working and well-to-do. He was also devoted to Amy, although she'd given him very little encouragement. They had dated once or twice and been on a Caribbean tour together, for business. But there had never been that spark. For Fanny — and to a slightly lesser extent for Amy — it was all about the spark.
"I hope you're not going to do another mystery rally," he said, lowering the half-empty cup. "No matter how popular ... it won't be good for your reputation."
"You're right." Amy hadn't thought of that angle. She knew only that she couldn't go through with it. "I know you never approved, but ... it's not happening."
"Good." Peter scooted his chair forward, closer, planted his elbows on her desk, and steepled his long, thin fingers. "Because I have another proposal. Less work, more interesting, and probably just as lucrative."
And with that, Peter proceeded to outline his meeting two weeks ago with Paisley MacGregor.
Amy listened, her interest growing with each odd little revelation. She vaguely recalled the large, informal woman in her formal whites serving lunch one day, when Peter had persuaded Amy to come over. She'd known Peter was just showing off the maid. MacGregor had known. Everyone had known, and everyone had played along.
"And you fired her?" That was a detail Amy had never heard.
"I made up some excuse," Peter said. "But it doesn't matter, does it? She got sick and quit working. Then she died."
"Oh." Amy was taken aback. "I'm sorry."
"Oops. I should have said that at the beginning. She died three days ago."
"I'm sorry," Amy repeated, although it wasn't a surprise, given the story that he'd just told. "Did she have family?"
"MacGregor?" It was almost a snort. "No. Just her beloved employers. So, what do you say? I checked with her lawyers. I'm also a guest, so that gives me the right to involve another tour operator. You'll be paid well and get an around-the-world trip."
Amy hesitated. "I don't know."
"I'll split my commissions with you. Fifty-fifty."
"Why would you do that?"
"I need the help. You've worked with the rich and fussy. And I need someone who isn't attached to MacGregor. Even now it's a handful, contacting everyone and getting them on board. You've always wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Right?"
She must have mentioned this dream to him at some point. "You're spreading ashes at the Taj Mahal?"
"We'll be throwing MacGregor right into it."
"Eddie and I always wanted to go."
"The Taj Mahal at dawn. Something you'll never forget. And we're going to be flying private." There was a sharp gleam in his eyes.
"I've never flown private," Amy had to admit.
"A reconfigured seven-fifty-seven. I'm leasing it from some oil sheik. It seats twenty, with a crew of six. Everyone practically has a room. Of course, with us, there'll be only eight. Nine if you come along."
Amy was prepared to hear more. But then Fanny reemerged from the inner office. She was emotionally composed now, fluffing out the ruffles on her favorite beige blouse and checking the time on her Lady Hamilton.
"Hey, Fanny," Peter said smoothly. "How is TrippyGirl? I'm a huge fan, by the way."
Amy was surprised. "You are?"
"It's a great blog," Peter said, aiming the words at Fanny. "Although I think you may be getting some traffic from people who think it's about drugs."
"We get a bit of that," Amy admitted. "But Mom likes the name."
Fanny's eyes were still on Lady Hamilton. "Amy, dear," she said. "Don't you have to be somewhere for Marcus?"
"Damn it." Amy checked her own watch, then gathered her things — her shoulder bag from the desktop, her keys, and a newly purchased pair of Bebe Misfits, black and tortoiseshell. "Peter, I have to get moving. It's Marcus's birthday. Marcus Alvarez?"
"I know who Marcus is. Wish him a happy birthday for me." Peter was already walking her toward the door. He stopped her in the middle of the door's electric eye, and the door started to buzz. It kept buzzing as he looked deep into her eyes. "Promise you'll think about my offer?"
"Yes, of course. Although I'm not sure —"
"Think about it."CHAPTER 2
Amy had only a few dishes in her repertoire — squid in white wine (better than it sounded), beef cheek barbacoa (when beef cheek was available), guinea hen with pine nuts (hard to ruin) — all just esoteric enough to persuade her guests that (a) she was a real cook and (b) if they didn't like it, it was probably their fault. She had considered branching out tonight, but the last time you want to try out a new guest dish, she told herself, is when you're cooking for a guest. It was the perfect catch-22.
Her plan for the evening was simple. All day long she had refused to acknowledge Marcus's birthday, either on the phone or in any of their texts back and forth. But when he came home from work, he would open the door to the warm aroma of roasted guinea hens. She would be in the kitchen, wearing nothing but an apron and a smile and maybe a few spatters from the sauce, which would be totally delicious, by the way.
His apartment was on the third floor of an old brownstone. Marcus had given her a key, which Amy considered a positive step. Struggling with the grocery bags up the uneven stairs, she half listened to the muffled sounds filtering out from the other apartments — a playful toddler on the first floor, a pair of male-female voices somewhere upstairs.
It had been six months since Marcus had been free of suspicion by the police, nearly seven since they'd met for the first time in Monte Carlo. In the early days, she felt things were moving too quickly. Did he love her just because she'd believed in his innocence? Was it the excitement of the chase that made things so electric between them? But then, after the case was solved, after all the press and notoriety, then things did get slower. Predictably slower. Annoyingly slower.
This is a good thing, she kept telling herself. He might indeed be perfect for her, this olive-skinned, sharp-featured man with wavy jet-black hair. But maybe not. He could be so maddening, with his honestly dishonest behavior and his need to keep so much of himself private.
Excerpted from Dearly Departed by Hy Conrad. Copyright © 2016 Hy Conrad. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE - THE WAKE,
PART TWO - THE AFTER-WAKE,