Maggy’s pledge to behave solely as a tourist becomes trickier than she anticipated when the conference’s opening night event turns out to be a re-enactment of Agatha Christie’s classic, Murder on the Orient Express. As Maggy and Jake reluctantly set off on the night train to the Everglades to solve the ‘crime’, it’s clear that, as in the original novel, nothing is quite what it seems. And amidst rumours of careers taken, manuscripts stolen and vows broken, it seems that in the Everglades – as in life – the predator all too often becomes the prey.
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'They look normal. In fact,' I swiveled my head to survey the people in the South Florida hotel lobby with us, 'if it was July instead of November, we could be in Uncommon Grounds.'
Tennis togs, check. Golf shirts, check. Business suits, check. People with time on their hands and too much money in their wallets. Check, check.
Even the smells reminded me of my upscale coffeehouse back home in Brookhills, Wisconsin, though these were emanating from a small cart near the elevators. To one side of it, a stylishly dressed, fashionably slim, unnaturally endowed redhead (check, check, check) seemed to be holding some sort of planning meeting, the group around her listening attentively.
All of them were ... extraordinarily ordinary. 'Where are the Edgar Allan Poes with their ravens? The Sherlock Holmeses wearing their deerstalkers?'
Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik, my main squeeze – hell, my only squeeze, since my ex-hubby Ted ran off with his dental hygienist – looked down at me, blue eyes amused. 'You were expecting costumes?'
I shrugged. 'I worked on GenCon when the gaming convention was in Milwaukee and you wouldn't believe the outfits. Every kind of superhero imaginable. People wearing wings and not much else.' I sniffed. 'I don't even see a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot and what would that take? Tweeds and knitting needles? Some hair wax and a fake mustache? How tough would any of that be?'
'Might depend on whether knitting needles or wings are allowed on airplanes,' Pavlik said, but he must have heard the disappointment in my voice. 'Sorry, Maggy, but Mystery 101 is a crime-writers' conference for people who want to write mysteries, not a fan convention for readers. However, even if it were, I doubt you'd find it resembled a gamers' event like GenCon.'
The sheriff lowered his voice as the desk clerk signaled for the next person in line. 'Though if you're game, I'd wouldn't mind giving the "wings and not much else" idea a whirl.'
His breath on my neck gave me goose bumps, and I couldn't stifle the moan that rose in my throat just as the dark-suited woman in front of us turned to gather up her wheelie. She glanced at Pavlik and me and then skyward, as if to say, get a room.
Which, in fact, we'd do posthaste just as soon as she moved her butt toward the registration desk.
While Pavlik had been engaged to speak at the writers' conference, the whole idea of my tagging along was for us to spend some time together away from the impending winter snows and the demands of both his job and mine. Yeah, I know – county sheriff and coffeehouse owner might seem miles apart stress-wise, but you'd be surprised.
I twisted around and tangled my fingers in Pavlik's thick dark hair. 'What happens in Fort Lauderdale, stays in Fort Lauderdale,' I murmured before bringing his lips down to meet mine.
'A noble sentiment,' Pavlik said when we finally broke. 'Though remember: the conference organizers are comping me for my travel and the hotel room you and I are sharing, and paying me a speaker's honorarium to boot. I, at least, have to maintain some semblance of professional dignity in the lobby.'
I grinned. '"Not I, said the little red hen." And speaking of birds, maybe instead of wings, we —'
'Jacob? Jacob Pavlik?'
I turned to see that the redhead had broken away from her dispersing planning group and was swooping down on us, her crimson wrap dress billowing as it waged a losing battle to contain her after-market breasts. Before I knew it, those puppies were pressed against my sheriff.
Pavlik looked appreciative, if startled. 'Yes, but ...' His eyes narrowed and he pulled back to get a fuller perspective. 'Zoe?'
'Of course, silly.' The woman did a little pirouette. 'Didn't you recognize me?'
'Honestly? Not at first, and I'm supposed to be a trained observer.' His eyes were bugging out of his head. 'Wow. You look amazing.'
'Divorce.' She posed shoulders back, right hip cocked like an Angelina Jolie wannabe. 'It does a body good.'
As did a competent plastic surgeon, I'd wager.
'Well, that's great. Good for you.' Pavlik's eyes did a fly-by up the woman's leg to her waist and past her cleavage, before landing innocently on her face.
Like many people in law enforcement, Pavlik had the uncanny ability to enter a room and take in everything without seeming to. Though, in the current example, a pair of bodacious D-cups was admittedly hard for anybody to miss.
The clerk was signaling for us to approach the desk and since everyone appeared to have forgotten I was there, I cleared my throat. 'Umm, Pavlik?' I'd started calling the sheriff 'Pavlik' when he'd suspected me of murder – not as unusual a circumstance as that might sound – and had never gotten out of the habit.
It had become our little joke, but now, with this beautiful woman spidering all over him, my use of his last name seemed less ... cute. I mean, how was I supposed to mark my territory when I didn't even call said territory by its first name?
'I'm sorry?' Pavlik was still ogling Zoe.
'Jake, the desk clerk is ready for us.' I stuck my hand out to the other woman. 'Hi, I'm Maggy Thorsen.'
'Zoe Scarlett.' We shook professionally. Kind of.
'Zoe was with the Chicago Convention Bureau when I was the sheriff's office liaison to the bureau.' Pavlik, having put his eyes back in his head, seemed to realize an explanation was called for. 'We worked together a couple of times and when Zoe moved to Fort Lauderdale and became the conference organizer for Mystery 101 a couple of years back, she asked me here to speak.'
'And we're very glad to have you back.' Zoe was bouncing up and down. Or parts of her were.
'How nice,' I said lamely, thinking, Scarlett? Like Miss Scarlett in Clue?
The woman in question turned to Pavlik. 'Are you two ... together?'
Apparently she'd missed our clinch, or maybe that sort of thing was common behavior between strangers in a Florida hotel line. Either way, the conference organizer recognized the way the question sounded and actually blushed. 'I mean, I'm not sure a double room was specified.'
I glanced at Pavlik. Hadn't he told her I was coming?
'I'm sorry,' the sheriff said, 'I —'
'Missy?' Zoe called to one of her minions in the milling mass near the elevators, the millers seeming to have regrouped. 'We'll check with my assistant, but I'm sure it's just a matter of making sure there are enough towels and the like. Missy Hudson!' Zoe Scarlett put a command edge in her voice this time. 'I swear that girl just pretends not to hear me when —'
'Excuse me, ma'am,' interrupted one of a foursome of golfers that had fallen into line behind us, toting bags of clubs that could have stocked a Cro-Magnon arsenal. 'If you aren't quite ready to check-in, would you mind if we play through?'
'Oh, no. Not at all.' Zoe waved for us to step out of the line. 'We may need to handle our situation with the hotel's event coordinator anyway. You just go ahead.'
The men hefted their golf bags as a young woman of about twenty-five with hair just on the blonde side of brown reached us. 'I'm sorry, Zoe. Did you need something?'
'Missy, this is the featured speaker for our forensic track, Sheriff Jacob Pavlik. I don't believe you were on the committee the last time he spoke at Mystery 101.'
'Good to meet you, Sheriff Pavlik. I'm Missy Hudson.'
'Jake, please, Missy,' he said, shaking the young woman's hand. 'And this is Maggy Thorsen.'
'Oh, of course.' Missy flashed a smile at me. 'I received your email saying Ms Thorsen was accompanying you, which was no trouble at all, given that Zoe had already requested a suite for you.'
Again, Zoe flushed. 'Well, good. Not to worry, then.'
It didn't take a mind-reader to realize that Zoe Scarlett – and could that be her real name? – had designs on something more than putting on a kick-ass conference this weekend.
'Is that Larry? Thank God.' Zoe was looking past her assistant and toward the front entrance of the hotel.
I turned, following her gaze through the floor-to-ceiling windows to a lanky man who was stubbing out a cigarette as a curly-haired younger guy spoke to him. As we watched, Smoker held up a hand to Curly-top that seemed more stop-sign than farewell and stepped into the revolving door.
If 'Larry' was trying to get away from the kid, he didn't succeed. Curly-top followed him in.
'Missy, can you handle this?' Zoe asked, already moving away.
'This' presumably being Pavlik and me. 'Not to worry, we can just get back in line,' I said to Zoe's retreating back.
Then I noticed the dozen or so people who'd queued up since we'd moved aside. The way things were going, it would be hours before Pavlik and I were alone in his reserved suite.
'No need to do that,' Missy said. 'I have an inside track.'
Stepping to one side of the desk, she stuck her head through an archway. 'Excuse me, Louis, but we're getting backed up out here?'
A man came out, struggling into a red-and-gold uniform tunic. 'I'm so sorry, Missy. We'll bring out two more clerks immediately.'
'That would be wonderful. The people arriving now will be anxious to get checked in – and changed, of course – before tonight's event. And could you also give me the welcome packet for the Flagler Suite?'
The young woman certainly got things done. And pleasantly. My oft-irascible if not downright cantankerous business partner, Sarah Kingston, could take lessons from the mouths of babes.
Age-wise, I mean.
Raised voices drew my attention back to the entrance. Curly-top was nowhere in sight, but Larry the Lanky Smoker was talking to Zoe. He had a shaved head and handlebar mustache above a dress shirt and sports jacket, dark slacks and a pair of mated wingtips below. I recognized the style of shoes because it was one many of my former colleagues in the financial industry had favored while conducting business in the office or – in a more colorful version – on the golf course.
None of those shoes, though, had quite the panache of this pair. With strategically-placed patches of soft tan, dark brown, pale yellow and forest green, these wingtips didn't look so much like golf shoes as what golf shoes aspire to be when they grow up. The man wearing them expected to be recognized. To the point of demanding to be.
But I'd be damned if I could place him.
'If I must, I must,' he was saying to Zoe as he fussed with his mustache. 'But prior notice would have been appreciated.'
'I'm certain you were sent —'
'Here we go.' Missy, apparently not noticing the dust-up involving her boss, handed Pavlik an envelope. 'Everything should be in here, including your tickets for tonight's event. Since it's just barely six, you'll have time to freshen up and change before we meet in the lobby at seven-fifteen.'
'The lobby?' Pavlik echoed, as I saw any hopes of an intimate evening in the hotel suite circle the drain. But then Pavlik had been invited as an honored guest and being on the conference's dime would mean that he also had to be on the conference's time, not my own.
Bright side, this was his show and maybe they were taking us out to dinner. A nice seafood restaurant on the well-tended waterfront would —
'Yes, here,' Missy confirmed. 'And, please, by seven-fifteen for the bus to the station. Oh, and you did bring costumes, I hope?'
I perked up. 'Costumes?'
Pavlik glanced at me.
Wings, I mouthed.
The sheriff suppressed a grin. 'Nobody said anything about an event tonight, Missy, but you're paying me and comping us. The where and when are all we need to know.'
I admired the sentiment, if not the resulting postponement of nookie time.
'I'm so sorry.' Missy threw a concerned look at her boss, who was still deep in conversation with Larry the Smoker. 'Zoe didn't email you about our murder train?'
'No, but that's fine,' Pavlik said. 'By "murder train," do you mean like a mystery dinner theater, but on a railroad car?'
A similar train ran on weekends between downtown Milwaukee and Chicago's Union Station.
'Yes, though it's more "cars," plural, and we're just offering a mystery-themed cake and coffee. Not only is it cheaper and easier than full dinner service or even hors d'oeuvres on a train, but it gave me a great theme to build the event around.' Missy pointed to a sign.
'"Murder on the Orient Espresso,"' I read aloud, wondering why I, a public relations person turned coffeehouse owner – said coffeehouse even being in a historic train depot – had never thought of mounting an event based on Agatha Christie's classic 1934 mystery novel.
Though I wasn't above stealing the idea and smuggling it back to Wisconsin. 'What fun. Are you actually having espresso?'
'Yes. In addition to a full bar, of course.' She gestured toward the coffee cart. 'Boyce, the hotel's coffee vendor, will be onboard providing coffee and cake.'
I didn't point out that coffee – which could be easily brewed by the large pot – and espresso, brewed by the shot, were two entirely different efforts. Especially when dealing with a crowd. 'How many people will there be?'
'Fewer than twenty for tonight, which is a separate, ticketed event.' Missy frowned. 'I'd hoped for more, but then this is the first year we've done something on the eve of the conference.'
'That sounds like a very respectable turnout, and it'll give you a chance to get the bugs out for next year.' One of the 'bugs,' perhaps, being espresso for twenty. 'I own a coffeehouse in Wisconsin, so let me know if your vendor needs help.'
'Oh, that is so nice of you.' Missy gave me an enthusiastic if unexpected hug. 'This train event was my idea and I really do want to make it a huge success.'
The girl seemed to be starving for approval, something she probably didn't get a lot of from her boss – especially if Missy was trying to spread her wings a bit. Zoe, as mother bird, seemed more like the type to knock impertinent chicks out of the nest prematurely than to nurture them.
'Missy?' Zoe, as if she'd heard, came over with the lanky, bald man in tow. 'You and I discussed for weeks that Larry would play the role of our detective, Hercule Poirot, tonight. Yet he says you never even asked him to take part.'
Missy's eyes went wide. 'But Zoe, you said that you'd take care of ...' Then, probably not wanting to argue the point publicly, 'I don't know what could have happened. Sheriff Pavl — I mean, Jake didn't receive an email, either.'
'Email!' Larry actually snorted. 'I don't respond to email.'
Even Zoe, trying as she was to calm the waters, seemed surprised by that. 'But your "PotShots" is an online book review site. How can you not —'
'Precisely,' the man interrupted. 'Which is why I don't open my email. Do you really think I want to hear all the belly-aching from authors – whether newbies or established franchises – who seem to think I owe them a good review?'
PotShots rang a bell. 'Why, you're Laurence Potter.'
I felt Pavlik's surprise as Potter turned toward me. 'I am, indeed. And you are?'
'Maggy Thorsen,' I said, holding out my right hand. 'I enjoy your reviews.'
'Then you certainly can't be an author yourself.' Potter enveloped my fingers and drew their knuckles to his lips, a glint in his eye. 'How refreshing.'
'As refreshing as your critiques.' I took my hand back, willing myself not to reflexively wipe it on my pants. A rumored womanizer and sleazeball, Potter might be a nasty piece of work – as were his reviews – but he was also borderline charming and certainly entertaining. 'You sure don't pull any punches.'
A modest shrug, though I had a feeling that nothing Potter did was modest, and that what he did to appear modest was nothing like unrehearsed. 'Too many critics simply don't bother to review books that are dreadful. Personally, I don't subscribe to the old saw, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." In fact, I don't know why words uttered by some rabbit in a children's animated feature would be so revered in the first place.'
The words were 'uttered by' Thumper in Bambi. And it was 'say nothing at all,' not 'say anything at all.' Sheesh, if you can't trust a reviewer to get it right ...
'What about the old saw, "those who can't do, teach"?' a voice from behind me contributed. 'Do you "subscribe" to that one, Larry?'
I turned to see a chic woman with short, choppy black hair. She wore a deceptively simple white blouse over designer jeans – and not the department store kind. I'm talking denims that command upwards of a thousand dollars. And have waiting lists.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder on the Orient Espresso"
Copyright © 2013 Sandra Balzo.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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