When Emily Andrew lands in the Land of Oz—Australia, that is—she and her hearty group of world-touring seniors know they're not in Iowa anymore. Winter is summer, drains drain counterclockwise, and all the comforts of home are, well, back home. Even Emily's love life is upside down: her darling detective Etienne Miceli has yet to propose, while gorgeous tour director Duncan Lazarus is vying to be more than just mates. Emily is preoccupied calming the group's jitters about the outback's killers, from sunstroke to snake bites. But when a fellow traveler turns up dead, Emily fears something far more toxic has struck: human greed. Someone has stumbled upon a natural wonder that could turn science on its head -- was this priceless discovery the catalyst for murder? Before the dust settles, a second untimely death occurs. If Emily can't stop a killer in their tracks, this Aussie adventure just may be her last.
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If you were to ask your average American to locate the West Coast on a map, he'd rap a knuckle on California. If you were to ask your average Australian the same question, he'd slap his hand over the lower right hand corner of his country to indicate Victoria -- a state whose southern border flanks the sea, but whose landlocked western border is a whopping fifteen hundred miles away from Australia's actual west coast. Which, comparatively speaking, makes it the geographical equivalent of Iowa.
There's a simple explanation for this anomaly.
It's Australia. It's complicated.
We'd spent our first full day Down Under motoring along Victoria's Great Ocean Road, a one-hundred-sixty mile, two-lane, roller coaster of a highway with panoramic views of the Southern Ocean's golden beaches, pounding surf and wind-tortured bluffs. In the late afternoon we'd arrived at Port Campbell National Park so we could ooh and ahh over the chimney stacks of rock that rise from the sea like gigantic lumps of coal. Our travel brochure refers to these craggy monoliths as, "The Twelve Apostles," and they were nothing short of spectacular. With the fearsome Southern Ocean gnawing at their base and the sun gilding them with blinding light, they were the most dazzling natural wonder I'd seen in my fifteen month stint as a tour escort.
"What a gyp," Bernice Zwerg grated in her ex-smoker's voice. She crab-walked over to me as we gathered inside the protective shelter of the visitor center, waiting to reboard our tour bus.
"Why is it a gyp?" I wasn't surprised by Bernice's negative reaction to one of Australia's most breathtaking landmarks. Bernice hated everything.
She held up her travel brochure and squinted at me down the length of her blue-zinc-oxide-covered nose. It was January, the height of summer in Australia, so all the seniors in my group were taking measures to prevent sunburn. Bernice's nose matched her sandals today, a striking example of how fashion savvy she'd become since her bunion surgery.
"Twelve Apostles? Did anyone bother to count them? There's only eight. I paid to see twelve, so I'm looking into my future and seeing -- refund."
"Maybe the Aussies have a different numbering system," offered Helen Teig as she dragged her three-hundred-pound frame toward us. She used her travel brochure to fan her face, which had turned candy-apple red in the hundred-degree heat and body-battering wind. "Maybe 'twelve' to them is 'eight' to us."
Bernice rolled her eyes. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. Hey, you." She thwacked the arm of a ruggedly good-looking tour guest whose pale green bush outfit and wide-brimmed Akubra hat hinted that he was either a homegrown Aussie or a seasoned Travelsmith shopper. His name tag identified him as Heath Acres. She flashed three fingers before his face. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Wot's she want to know?" shrieked the grizzled gnome of a woman who clung to his arm.
"She wants to know how mini fingahs she's holding up," he said in a vowel-altering Crocodile Dundee twang that labeled him as a local.
"Why? Can't she count?" The little woman fixed Bernice with an impatient look. "Three fingers. Wot are you? Stupid?" The woman's hair was a wild, windblown cotton ball. Her eyes were pinpricks of brilliant blue in a face so deeply seamed with wrinkles that she looked as if she'd spent the last thousand years smoking Marlboros in the desert. I suppressed an uneasy shudder as I studied her face. Oh, my God. I was on a two-week tour of Australia with the world's oldest living human.
"Excuse me. There used to be twelve," said a tall, chestnut-haired, middle-aged man in neatly pressed walking shorts and sandals. "Unfortunately, time hasn't treated them kindly. Four of them have collapsed into the sea, and there's another that looks to be on the verge." He punched a button on the fancy digital camera that hung around his neck and angled the display screen toward us, poking the screen with his forefinger. "This one here. Did you notice? The base has been all but eroded away. In another few years there may only be seven."
"The Magnificent Seven," said Helen, hand splayed over her ample bosom. "I loved that movie. Yul Brynner was so . . . so . . ."
"Bald," snapped the thousand-year-old woman.
"As a bowling ball," agreed Helen. "Yul was a real trendsetter when it came to hairstyles."
"Those are some great pictures," Bernice allowed as she hovered over the man's camera. "I've got a digital camera. How come my shots don't look like yours?"
Whoa! Had an actual compliment just escaped Bernice's mouth? Grab your bobsleds; hell had officially frozen over.
"I'd better be a halfway-decent photographer," the man said, laughing. "It's how I make my living. Guy Madelyn." He gave her a smile that animated his face. "Weddings are my specialty, so if you're ever in the market for a high-priced wedding photographer, I'm your guy. Pun intended."
Bernice peered up at him, doe-eyed. She gave her name tag a demure touch and her stubby eyelashes a seductive flutter. "I'm Bernice. Did I mention I'm a widow?"
She was twice his age and half his height, with a dowager's hump that rivaled Ayers Rock. Oh, yeah. That was gonna fly.
"I got pictures!" Nana shuffled toward me in her size five sneakers. She was wearing a duckbill visor, white capri pants, and a shell pink T-shirt embroidered with flowers, songbirds, and the words, IOWA'S NO. 1 GRAMMA. My brother Steve's family had splurged last Christmas and bought her one in every color, which had aroused a bit of envy among her friends. T-shirts bearing the words Best, Greatest, or No. 1 were all the rage at the senior center.
"You wanna see, dear?" She handed me a fistful of Polaroids, narrating as I flipped through them. "That's the wooden walkway leadin' to the lookout points. And there's them scrubby bushes growin' beside it. Don't know how that pink flower ever managed to sprout up in the middle of all them brambles, but it sure is pretty. That's Dick Stolee after the wind blew his baseball cap off his head." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I was waitin' to shoot the expression on his face when his toupee flew off, but it just sat there. It was pretty disappointin'. He must be springin' for better glue than what he was usin' in Switzerland."
Guy Madelyn craned his neck to peek at Nana's shots. "Have you tried a digital camera? I'm sold on mine."
"Already got one," Nana said, "but it's too much fuss. Pricey batteries. Pricey memory cartridges. Pricey photo paper. Monkeyin' with every picture you download. So I'm back to my Polaroid. Pixels might be the in thing, but I'll take instant gratification any day."
I flipped to a photo of an isolated limestone tower.
"Can you guess which apostle that is, dear? I think it's a real good likeness."
Bernice burst into laughter. "The rocks don't have names, Marion. Someone called them the Twelve Apostles as a marketing gimmick."
"That's St. Peter," Nana continued, "and the puny one in the next shot is Judas. You can tell 'cause it looks more sneaky than them others."
"Which one's Dopey?" asked eighty-nine-year-old Osmond Chelsvig, hobbling over to us on the bone white spindles that were his legs.
Osmond's inability to distinguish dwarfs from apostles wasn't surprising, considering he hailed from a long line of agnostics.
"Excuse me." Guy Madelyn was suddenly at Nana's elbow. "Would you mind if I take a closer look at your photos? You seem to have captured some unique angles that I missed entirely."
"No kiddin'?" She handed the stack over, smiling broadly as he examined every snapshot. "I didn't think they was so special, but the light here's real bright, so it makes everything look good."
"You're being modest. The Australian light isn't what makes your shots so outstanding. It's your composition. Your contrast. Look at this shot." He flashed it at the handful of guests circled around us. "You've turned an ordinary pink flower into something extraordinary. And on a Polaroid camera, no less. You have an incredible eye." He lowered his gaze to her name tag. "Marion Sippel, eh? I'm not familiar with your name or your work, but tell me I'm right in assuming you're a professional."
Nana gave a little suck on her dentures. "I do have some professional trainin'."
"I knew it. Where did you study? The Royal College of Art? The Brooks Institute?"
"Windsor City Senior Center. They run a two-hour minicourse last November. It was real in depth."
He let out a belly laugh. "You took pictures like this with only two hours of training?"
"It was s'posed to be four, but we run into a schedulin' conflict with the low-vision group's Christmas cookie and pickled herrin' exchange."
He shook his head, awe in his voice. "Mrs. Sippel, if you'll allow me an unbiased opinion, these photos are nothing short of Ansel Adams caliber. I'm speechless."
"Lemme see those," said Bernice, snatching the stack from his hand.
"Me, too," said Helen Teig, grabbing a fistful from Bernice.
"Careful!" Guy shouted as Nana's photos made the circuit, passing from hand to hand. "Don't get your fingerprints on them. Have a quick look, then give them back."
Amid the buzz of enthusiasm, he turned back to Nana. "Have you ever thought of turning professional, Mrs. Sippel? Hollywood glitterati are willing to pay ridiculous amounts for wedding photos these days, and the photographer they're clamoring for is me. But I'm having trouble going solo. Too many remarriages to keep up with. I've been looking to hire another photographer, but I haven't found anyone suitable -- until today. Are you available? I'd start you out as an apprentice, but with your talent, I could probably guarantee you a six-figure salary."
A hush descended over the crowd. Limbs froze. Mouths fell open.
Bernice hit a button on her digital camera and shoved it in Guy's face. "I take some pretty good pictures myself. See here? What do you think of that contrast? And look at this one. Have you ever seen better composition?"
"My Dick takes better pictures than that," Helen claimed. "DICK! WHERE ARE YOU? GET OVER HERE!"
"I've taken some mighty fine pictures," said Osmond, elbowing Bernice out of the way. He angled his camcorder display screen in front of Guy. "My scenery's moving, but if you see anything you like, I'd be happy to freeze-frame it for you."
"This is Mushroom!" cried Margi Swanson, waving a snapshot of her cat in the air. "I took it myself. You think I have potential?"
"Get out the way!" snarled the thousand-year-old woman as she pushed toward Guy. "I've got a photo for you."
I stood on tiptoes to sneak a peek at the sepia-toned picture she handed him. The print might once have been glossy, but time and touch had dog-eared the corners and dulled the finish so much that all I could see was an irregular pattern of creases cobwebbing an image that was no longer clear.
Guy studied it for a long moment in the manner of one accustomed to handling other people's photographic treasures. "A lovely picture," he said kindly. "But if you want to preserve it, I'd suggest a frame rather than a wallet. Or perhaps a photo-restoration process. They'd have this looking good as new in no time."
"Come along, luvy," said the young man in the bush outfit, tugging on the crone's arm. He retrieved the print from Guy and gave him an appreciative wink. "Photo of her mum. You know how that goes, mate. She shows it to everyone."
"No problem. Would everyone please start handing Mrs. Sippel's photos back? I don't want to lose track of any."
Bodies shifted. Elbows flew. I got jostled left and right and suddenly found myself ejected from the crowd like a stray pinball. I skidded to a stop on my new ankle-strap wedges and looked back at the melee. Geesch! Who'd have guessed that one teensy compliment could start such a feeding frenzy?
I looked across the room to find a man beckoning to me. But this was no ordinary man. This was Etienne Miceli, the Swiss police inspector I'd fantasized about marrying.
"Come join us!" shouted his companion.
And this was no any ordinary companion. This was Duncan Lazarus, the doggedly persistent tour director who fantasized about marrying me. The two men had become "buds" since they'd met two months ago and seemed to be enjoying the kind of intense male friendship that's so ballyhooed among Marines, fraternity brothers, and belching-contest finalists.
"Be there in a sec," I shouted back, still unnerved by the prospect of juggling both of them for the next fourteen days. But this had been their idea. They insisted on going head to head on a level playing field, like players in a Survivor challenge, and no argument on my part could change their minds. So here they were, vying for me as if I were the lone bucket of chicken wings on an island whose only other food source was sand flies. This pretty much confirmed something I'd been unwilling to admit until now.
I hated reality TV.
As I marshaled my courage to join my two suitors, the crowd encircling Guy spat out another guest who came hurtling straight toward me. "Eh!" I cried, sidestepping her before her sturdy Birkenstocks creamed my open-toed wedges.
"Oops! Sorry." She paused for breath, shivering as she stared back at the mob. "I didn't mean to get caught in the middle of that." She patted down her oversized blouse and hiking shorts as if taking inventory, before flashing me a smile. "I've never seen people get so maniacal over photographs. I specialize in chopping off heads, so I don't even own a camera. I learned long ago that postcards are the way to go. I'm Claire Bellows, and you're obviously not part of the Aussie Adventures tour since you're not wearing a name tag."
I returned her smile. "Emily Andrew. I'm part of the tour, I just don't do name tags."
"I like that idea." She removed her ID and stuffed it into her breast pocket before wiping beads of perspiration from her brow. "We're not schoolkids, right? I hate name tags, and I'll be stuck wearing one for a whole week after the tour is over."
"Yeah. Scientific meeting in Melbourne. How 'bout you?"
"I'm on the job as we speak. Official escort for a group of Iowa seniors who are in the middle of that mob over there."
"So you're not alone?" Claire Bellows reminded me a little of Rosie O'Donnell -- dark-haired and heavy-legged, with a directness that oozed confidence. "I always travel alone. When you're by yourself, other tourists feel sorry for you, so they adopt you. It's a great way to meet new people. If I keep at it, I figure I'm bound to run into Mr. Right one of these days. Are you married?"
"I used to be." I let out a sigh. "It's a long story."
"I've never been married. I'm thirty-seven years old, on a career track that has my head pressed against the original glass ceiling, and unless I can reinvent the wheel and wow my company's CEO, that's where I'll be stuck until I'm ready to hang up my lab coat. So I've officially entered the marriage market." She wiggled ten brightly polished nails. "I even got a manicure to kick off the event. First one in my life. I want it all -- husband, two-point-three kids, dog, gas-guzzling SUV. I hit the snooze button on my biological clock when I started work and the alarm is about to go off, so I'm pulling out all the stops. Guaranteed, I'll be walking down the aisle in the next few months." She nodded emphatically and glanced around the room as if scouting out likely prospects. "Do you have time to date much?"
"Um . . . dating is a problem."
She opened her collar wider, fanning herself with the placket. "Well, don't be surprised by what you find when you get back into the dating scene. If you don't have good instincts, you're going to end up disappointed." She bobbed her head toward Etienne and Duncan. "You see those two hunks over there by the window? Case in point. The two best-looking men on the tour, and they're taken."
My neck grew warm with self-conscious guilt, but in my own defense, this wasn't my fault! I wasn't flaunting them like trophies. I hadn't even invited them to join me on the tour! What was I supposed to do? Send one of them home? They hadn't even bothered to buy cancellation insurance!
Claire let out an anguished moan. "It never fails. The gorgeous guys are always gay."
I jerked my head around to stare at her. "What?"
A gust of wind whistled through the room as our guide banged through the main entrance, his navy blue uniform putting him in danger of being mistaken for a United States Postal Service worker. His name was Henry, and in addition to narrating our travelogue, he drove the bus, prepared and served midmorning tea and cakes, directed us to the restrooms, counted heads, snapped guest photos, maintained our vehicle, treated minor injuries, exchanged currency, and could belt out a rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" that made your teeth vibrate. I was dying to see what he'd do for an encore.
"If I can trouble you for your attintion!" he called out. "I apologize to those of you waiting to board the Aussie Advintures bus, but one of our tires has blown, so I'm waiting on a mechanic from Port Campbell for assistance. No worries, though; we'll only be delayed an hour or two. Sorry for the inconvenience."
Groans. Hissing. "What are we supposed to do for two hours?" a disgruntled guest yelled.
"Introduce yoursilf to your mates!" Henry suggested. "You're in this for two weeks togither. Give it a go."
Claire gave my arm a squeeze. "I'm a little stiff, so I'm going outside to walk off the kinks and check out a minor curiosity. See you on the bus."
"But wait -- " I sputtered as she broke for the door, followed by a slew of other guests. I had to set her straight about Etienne and Duncan before her imaginings became grist for the rumor mill. If there was one thing I'd learned in Ireland, it was to nip a vicious rumor in the bud before it had a chance to blossom.
Battening my hair down with a bandanna, I signaled Etienne and Duncan that I had to leave, then exited the building, bracing myself against the brutal force of the wind.
The sky was electric blue, the sun so hot that it rippled the air. I shivered at the hostile acres of briars and brush that stubbled the cliff top, then stepped onto the slatted walkway that knifed through them, noting the frequent signs that cautioned visitors to PLEASE REMAIN ON THE WALKWAY. Oh, sure. Like there was someone on the planet who'd willingly stray off it?
I spied Claire and the other guests a city block away, hustling full speed ahead in spite of the heat and head wind. I couldn't chase her down in my five-inch stacked heels, so I trudged behind for an exhausting five minutes, cursing when I reached the brow of the cliff, where the walkway split into a T.
I squinted east and west, wondering which way she and everyone else had gone. Nuts! This called for serious deductive reasoning. Eenie, meenie, meinie, moe . . .
Interrupted by the sudden clatter of footsteps behind me, I turned to find Guy Madelyn hiking my way. "The wind's a pain," he called out, his shirttails flapping around him, "but at least it keeps the flies from tunneling up your nose." He paused beside me and nodded seaward. "Did you know that if you leaped off this cliff and started swimming south, you wouldn't run into another landmass until you reached Antarctica?"
"Assuming you leaped at high tide."
He raised his forefinger in a "Eureka!" kind of gesture. "Timing is everything. I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name in the visitor's center."
"Emily Andrew. You want to hire my grandmother as your new crack photographer."
"Mrs. Sippel is your grandmother? She has some fine photographic genes. Did she pass them on to you?"
"I got the shoe and makeup genes." I regarded him soberly as he opened the lens of his camera. "Were you serious about wanting to hire Nana?"
"I'll say! And I'd like to sign her up before the competition finds out about her." He scanned the horizon through his viewfinder before motioning me toward the guardrail. "Could I get a shot of you with the great Southern Ocean as a backdrop? I don't charge for my services when I'm on holiday."
Was I about to be discovered? Oh, wow. I might not have made it as an actress, but could Guy Madelyn transform me into a cover model?
I struck a pose against the guardrail and emoted like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Sexy. Sultry. Windblown.
"Can you open your eyes?"
I tried again. Sexy. Surprised. Windblown.
"Maybe we should try this from one of the lookout points. We're getting too much light here."
Which I interpreted to mean, it was a good thing I was otherwise employed, because I had no future as a cover model.
"So you're not here to shoot a wedding?" I asked as I walked double time to keep up with his long strides.
"Family reunion. It seems the Madelyn side of my family played as important a role in Australian history as the Mayflower passengers played in American history, so when my wife and kids fly out from Vancouver in a couple of weeks, we're planning to meet all the Aussie relatives for the first time. The kids are really fired up, which is remarkable since they're at the age where nothing impresses them. But I think they're finding the idea of celebrity status for a few days 'way cool.'"
"Because they're related to a famous photographer?"
He laughed. "Because the town is planning to honor us with an award to recognize the contribution my ancestors made toward populating this part of Victoria. We've dubbed it the Breeder's Cup. The kids figure we'll be the only family in British Columbia with a commemorative plaque for inveterate shagging, so that gives them bragging rights. Kids, eh?"
Noticing a discarded candy wrapper littering the wayside, I ducked beneath the guardrail to pick it up, frowning when I realized what I was holding. "This is one of Nana's photos. What's it doing out here?" It was bent, and a little scratched, but in good shape otherwise. I showed it to Guy, who threw a curious look around us.
"I was positive all your grandmother's photos found their way back to her. People can be so damned careless. I hope this is the only one she's missing."
"Dumb luck that I found it." I slipped it into my shoulder bag for safekeeping. "So, where did your ancestors emigrate from? England?" I knew everyone in Australia was an import, except for the Aborigines, who'd been roaming the continent for either four centuries or sixty thousand years, depending upon which scholarly study you wanted to believe. Yup. The scientific community had really nailed that one.
"Portsmouth. They set sail in the early eighteen hundreds on a ship called the Meridia, and fifteen thousand miles later wrecked on a submerged reef along this very coast. My relatives were among the lucky few who survived." He bobbed his head toward the open sea. "Look at all that water. If you took it away, do you know what you'd find? Sunken vessels. Over twelve hundred of them. More than anywhere else on earth. This whole place is a graveyard, which hammers home a very salient point."
"Air travel is a wonderful thing."
We followed the walkway through a stand of trees that were as stunted and gnarled as Halloween ghouls, then descended a short flight of stairs to a lower level with sweeping views of the deeply scalloped coastline and the thundering --
Guy suddenly ducked beneath the guardrail and charged through the underbrush, heading straight for the cliff's edge. Eh! Were Iowans the only people who ever observed the rules?
"What are you doing?" I screamed after him. "Didn't you read the signs? You're supposed to stay on the walkway!"
He dropped to his knees twenty feet away and rolled something over.
Oh, God. It was a body.
Copyright ©2006 by Mary Mayer Holmes