Hollywood legend Charlotte Graham visits China to sample Buddhist sculpture, ancient art, and a thoroughly intellectual murder in this contemporary cozy mystery
After four decades as a Hollywood and Broadway icon, Charlotte Graham is itching for a new adventure. So when a fortune-telling friend predicts that Charlotte is about to go on an exotic voyage—one which will challenge her as no trip ever has—and Charlotte’s stepdaughter invites her on an expedition to a remote oasis in northwest China, the legendary leading lady leaps at the chance to explore the unknown. But on reaching Dunhuang, Charlotte will be confronted with something she knows far too well: cold-blooded murder.
Forbidding and mysterious, Dunhuang is a hotbed of academic research, where archaeologists, paleontologists, and scholars of all stripes rub elbows and butt heads. When a scientist is found dead just after making a historic find, Charlotte doesn’t need the I Ching to know it’s up to her to find the killer.
Fans of Jessica Fletcher and Murder She Wrote will recognize Charlotte Graham as one of that special breed of amateur sleuth: a woman who wouldn’t dream of retirement and will never let a killer go free. Glamorous, elegant, and always entertaining, the Charlotte Graham series is truly one of a kind.
Murder on the Silk Road is the 4th book in the Charlotte Graham Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Murder on the Silk Road
A Charlotte Graham Mystery
By Stefanie Matteson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Stefanie Matteson
All rights reserved.
Grasping the coins in her perfectly manicured fingers, Kitty Saunders threw them down on the surface of her long pine kitchen table. They were antique bronze Chinese coins with a square hole in the center, and with Chinese characters inscribed on both sides.
After spinning like tops on the hard surface for a few seconds, the coins finally came to rest, and Kitty leaned over to study them, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Yang, yang, yin," she said. Picking up her pencil, she drew a broken line on a notepad. "Eight," she said. "Young yin."
Charlotte was mystified. Kitty was telling her fortune using the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of oracles. The I Ching had replaced the tarot cards as Kitty's latest fortune-telling enthusiasm. Before tarot cards, it had been the crystal ball, and before the crystal ball, it had been astrology. At one point, it had even been palmistry, but that was more than forty years ago now, when they were both starting out in summer stock on Cape Cod. Palmistry wasn't in fashion anymore. A social historian could have charted the fortune-telling fads of the late twentieth century from the history of Kitty's enthusiasms.
Kitty was about to throw the coins again. She was shaking them with all the intensity of a craps player on a roll in Las Vegas.
Charlotte remembered the first time Kitty had told her fortune. She had said that the three horizontal lines on the side of her hand underneath her pinkie meant that she would have three husbands. With only one husband on hand at the time, three had seemed like an unlikely number, but in fact the total had turned out to be four. So far, that is. Though she had no intention of marching down the aisle again, the powers that determined the circumstances of her life had always conspired to take her by surprise, and there was no telling what might happen in the years she had left. Actually, Charlotte had always considered the tally of her marriages to be anomalous. She had never intended to be the kind of woman who accumulates a string of surnames. She had always wanted the security that comes with mating for life, but everything about her life had turned out to be dramatic instead.
"Yin, yin, yin," said Kitty as the coins spun slowly to a stop for a second time. "Six. Old yin." Again, she made a notation on the notepad. This time it was a broken line with an x through the middle, which she drew above the first broken line. "The x shows that it's a changing line," she explained.
Her explanation meant nothing to Charlotte. "Don't I have to ask a question?" she asked as she peered over the tops of her reading glasses at the notepad on the other side of the table.
"Not with the I Ching. Although you can if you want to. But the I Ching will give you the answer to whatever's on your mind at the moment, whether or not that's the subject of your question."
"In other words, it intuits the question."
"Exactly," said Kitty as she shook the coins again.
"I guess the question on my mind is, 'What I am going to be doing next?'" After more than forty years in front of the cameras and on the stage (it was now 1984, and she had made her first movie in 1939), Charlotte might have been expected to have more job security than she had had when she was just starting out. But it didn't work that way: the actor's job lasted only as long as it took to shoot the movie or for the run of the show. After that, it was invariably a matter of twiddling your thumbs and waiting for a call from your agent. At least she didn't have to comb the columns of Variety anymore: her face was as familiar to three generations of moviegoers as a member of their own family. But the anxiety of those early years had never left her. In spite of her fame, there was still a fearful place in her heart that believed there would never be another job. She even had nightmares about it, the way other people had nightmares about failing final exams.
"If that's the question on your mind at the moment, that's the question the Sage will answer," said Kitty knowingly as she drew a solid line above the two broken lines of the reading.
"The Sage?" Charlotte raised a dark, winged eyebrow in an expression of haughty skepticism that was one of her screen trademarks, along with her clipped Yankee accent, her broad-shouldered jackets, and her long, leggy stride, as forthright as a man's.
"Now don't you go raising an eyebrow at me, Charlotte Graham," chided Kitty. "Remember the tarot cards? The easiest reading I've ever done. On the eve of the Academy Awards, I turn up the Wheel of Fortune card. It didn't exactly strain my powers of prediction to foretell that you would win an Oscar."
"It didn't strain your powers or anyone else's," added Charlotte. "Everybody and his brother was predicting I would win. I was odds-on favorite with Jimmy the Greek. I deserved to win."
"So? Sometimes everybody says someone is going to win, but they don't," said Kitty. "Which might very well have been the case for someone who had already won three Oscars. They might have thought you were hogging the awards, and they'd have had a point."
"So who's the Sage?" asked Charlotte, ignoring the comment. She had long ago learned that she was skating on thin ice when it came to discussing her career with Kitty, who had sacrificed her own career to marriage and motherhood, and was jealous of Charlotte's success.
"That's how the I Ching is referred to," said Kitty as she picked up the coins for the fourth time.
"My, my. Aren't we taking all of this very seriously?"
Kitty smiled as she threw the coins down on the table.
Actually, it wasn't that Charlotte had too little work. She had too much work. She'd just made four movies back to back, and now had offers for several more. They had kept her busy, they had brought home the bacon, and they had been competently — if not brilliantly — directed. But none of them had given her any satisfaction. They had been froth, light and easy. She wanted something she could sink her intellectual teeth into. In the past, she had always turned to Broadway when she got bored with Hollywood, but Broadway was just as boring as Hollywood these days. Musicals, mostly. Not that she had anything against musicals. She'd even done a couple, though her voice was nothing to rave about, as the critics had duly noted. But the plethora of musicals denied space to serious plays, especially those that put an audience in the uncomfortable position of having to think. Gone were the days when Miller was playing on one corner and O'Neill on the next.
Again, Kitty made a notation: another straight line.
Should she go for more of the same thing she'd been doing? A halfway decent script had recently come her way, with a role for a lively grandmother who is forced to curtail her glamorous lifestyle when she assumes the care of her grandchildren after her daughter dies. Or should she hold out for something more meaty? Maybe the I Ching would help her decide. God knows, she wasn't doing very well at it on her own. She'd read a dozen scripts since she'd been in Maine, but apart from the glamorous grandmother, nothing even remotely interested her, and a lot of it she found downright repugnant.
As Kitty picked up the coins once again, Charlotte gazed out at the rose -bordered cove that lay at the foot of Kitty and Stan's lawn. Though her roses at home had bloomed before she'd left, it would be another week or two before these came out; spring came late to the coast of Maine. The morning sun sparkled on the sea, and the sea gulls wheeled and dived above the surface of the water with raucous cries. She had fallen in love with this corner of Maine on her first visit to the Saunders, who had moved here after Stan had retired from his job in public relations. So much so that she had ended up buying a cottage of her own — not on the offshore island where Kitty and Stan lived, but perched on a pine-studded mountainside overlooking the harbor. It was her retreat from the craziness of Hollywood and the congestion of New York. In its peaceful solitude she could gather up her fractured self, like a Chinese monk in a misty landscape painting.
But that wasn't to say there couldn't be too much peace and quiet. She didn't know how Kitty and Stan could stand living here year-round. A few blessedly serene weeks was enough for her, and she had been here two already.
After two more throws, Kitty had finally finished. On the notepad was a stack of six lines: two broken lines, two straight lines, a broken line, and a straight line. Two of the broken lines had x's through the middle.
Kitty was now leafing through the gray-jacketed volume of the I Ching. Sitting next to her teacup on the table were a couple of books of interpretation.
"The verdict?" asked Charlotte.
"Just a minute," said Kitty, raising a pink-lacquered fingernail. "I'm reading." She read for a few minutes, a smile creeping across her lovely face. She had lost none of her good looks with age. Finally, she set the book down. "You're going on a trip," she said.
"Kitty, really!" protested Charlotte. "Couldn't you have been more original? How about, 'You're going to meet a tall stranger with dark hair who can't be trusted'?"
Kitty pursed her lips. She didn't appreciate it when Charlotte made light of her prognostications. "That's what it says!" She slid the notepad across the table to Charlotte; "This is Hexagram Fifty-six: The Wanderer."
"I'm going back to New York on Monday," said Charlotte glibly.
"Not to New York. To a foreign country, an unusual foreign country. Not Europe, but somewhere more exotic. According to the I Ching, you're a nomad, someone who's always on the move. In your professional life you're always searching for new challenges; in your spiritual life you're always searching for answers; and in your sexual life ..." Kitty looked up.
Charlotte considered. "A sexual nomad," she said, and then shook her head with amusement. "True enough, I suppose."
"The image is of a grass fire on a mountainside in pursuit of fresh fuel," Kitty continued as she read. "The position you are now in is of a fire that's lingered too long in one spot. Unless it finds fresh fuel, it will burn out. That's where the trip comes in: you have to keep moving to keep your creative fires burning."
Charlotte leaned back in the Windsor chair, and sipped her tea thoughtfully.
"I'd say it's pretty close to the mark," observed Kitty.
"Right on the mark is more like it," said Charlotte. Her opinion of the I Ching had suddenly gone from good-natured skepticism to serious respect. As a metaphor for her life in general and her current situation in particular, a fire on the mountain couldn't have come any closer to the truth. "What else?" she asked, her interest piqued. "Does it say where I'm going to go?"
The corners of Kitty's mouth turned up in a smile of triumph. "Actually, this reading is very interesting. Sometimes the readings can be pretty cryptic, but this one's as clear as glass." She pointed to one of the books that lay open on the table. "This book advises you to be adaptable; it says the country will be one in which the manners and customs will be very exotic."
"Does it say when I'm going to leave?" asked Charlotte. She hoped it would be soon. The idea of a trip was beginning to sound like the perfect antidote to her professional ennui. Although she had traveled widely, it was almost always work-related, and she'd never had the time to see the sights. She remembered a shoot in Capri on which she'd never gotten around to seeing the Blue Grotto.
"No," said Kitty, who had turned back to the I Ching. "But it does say that you should take along plenty of money. Also that you'll be traveling with a 'faithful and trustworthy friend'" — she emphasized the direct quotation — "who will be of much value to you on the trip."
"What else?" Charlotte prompted eagerly. By now, she was mentally spinning the globe in search of all the faraway places she had always wanted to see: the upper Amazon, the steppes of Central Asia, the source of the Nile, the roof of the world, the Taj Mahal, the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, the palm-fringed islands of the Pacific, the Pyramids of Egypt — the list went on and on.
"I'm not sure exactly," replied Kitty. "It says that you're going to find a home in foreign parts, but it always speaks metaphorically. I would interpret it as saying that as a result of your travels, you are going to establish a more permanent connection with this foreign country."
"More permanent connection?"
Kitty shrugged. "I can't be any more specific. It talks about a 'circle of friends' and a 'sphere of activity.'" She consulted one of the books of interpretation again. "This book talks about being honored by strangers, but only if you act appropriately; it says that you have to observe protocol."
"Phew!" said Charlotte, who was trying to take it all in.
"Wait, we're not finished yet," said Kitty. Taking up her pencil, she drew another hexagram on the notepad. "The I Ching is the Book of Changes. The two broken lines with the x's through them change into straight lines, which gives us another hexagram. The second hexagram sheds further light on the first."
Charlotte hadn't followed her, but it didn't matter. She sat back, and awaited the rest of her fortune.
"Here it is: 'Coming to Meet,'" Kitty announced, after consulting the index. Turning to the text, she studied it for a minute, and then said, "It's one of those cryptic ones, but I'll do the best I can."
"Shoot," said Charlotte.
"Your encounter with this circle of friends is predestined by fate and promises to be of some historical importance. But in order for the encounter to succeed, you will have to meet one another halfway. Both parties will have to be fully equal both to one another and to the situation."
Charlotte waited for her to go on, but she didn't. "That's all?"
"Sorry," said Kitty with a shrug. "That's the best I can do."CHAPTER 2
Charlotte left Kitty's right after lunch. Because the Saunders lived on an island, coming and going from their house depended on the tides. The island was joined to the mainland by a sand bar that was exposed when the tide was out. If you didn't cross over to the mainland during the two hours before or after low tide, you had to either wait eight hours until the bar was exposed again, or take a boat. After crossing the bar, Charlotte picked up her car and drove back to her cottage. In her lifetime on the move — sexual nomad, indeed! — Kitty and Stan had been her rock of stability. Other friends and acquaintances had come and gone, but Kitty and Stan and a handful of others had been the constants in her life. They had met on Cape Cod when they were starting out: Charlotte and Kitty as actresses, Stan as a painter. Kitty and Stan had gone onto other things — Kitty to being a wife and mother, Stan to a career in public relations — but they had remained friends. And although it astonished Charlotte when she thought about how little they had in common — Kitty and Stan belonged to a certain suburban type, as easily categorized as any common bird species (plumage: slacks of lime green or brick red; habitat: elegant country clubs on the outskirts of major Eastern cities; behavior: friendly, courteous, and as unconscious of the world-at-large as a horse wearing blinders) — it was a great relief to have friends to whom she was not Charlotte Graham, the movie star. Their presence in the summer community of Bridge Harbor was one reason she had bought her cottage there. She was a nomad, true; but even a nomad finds it hard to move into a strange community without knowing anyone. And they appreciated her company as well. Although they claimed not to mind their isolation — they had moved here so that Stan could pursue his dream of being a marine painter — Charlotte suspected that they sometimes got lonely in their secluded little offshore world.
Actually, it was Kitty and Stan who were responsible for her buying the cottage. Knowing that Charlotte had been thinking about getting a summer place for some time, they'd called her as soon as it had come on the market. They'd suspected that she wouldn't be able to resist it, and they had been right. From the moment she'd seen the cottage clinging like a limpet to the rocky mountainside, she had fallen in love with it. It had been built in the late nineteenth century by an artist, one of the area's first "rusticators," as they were called — the painters, writers, and intellectuals who first cultivated the area as a summer resort. Every evening, after dining at the hotel at the base of the mountain, the cottage's previous owner had made his way on foot back up the rocky mountain path by lantern light. And although there was now a road for cars, Charlotte often did the same. It gave her great pleasure to hike up the mountain after a pleasant meal at the big old hotel. She ate at the hotel most nights. Not only because she wasn't much of a cook, but also because her tiny kitchen wasn't equipped for cooking. It was the lack of an adequate kitchen that had soured many prospective buyers on the place. But not Charlotte: she had fallen in love with the kitchen window. The view from the sink was like looking into an elegant terrarium. A few feet away from the window was a wall of pink granite studded with mosses and lichens in shades of green and gray and gold. Tiny jewel-like ferns and flowers grew in its crevices. A fascinating still life that changed with each season, it was in direct contrast to the view from her veranda, whose peekaboo vistas looked out over the spires of pines and firs to the sails and masts of the boats in the harbor, and beyond the harbor, to the rocky green hills of the Saunders' island.
Excerpted from Murder on the Silk Road by Stefanie Matteson. Copyright © 1992 Stefanie Matteson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents