Emily Andrew is earning some much-needed green by navigating the twisting roads of Ireland with a group of seniors, including her beloved Nana. But once the hearty troupe from Iowa lands on Irish sod, trouble starts brewing: there's a death-defying incident with a horse-drawn carriage . . . and a gender-bending encounter with Emily's ex-husband Jack, now known as Jackie. No wonder Emily has come down with a smarting case of hives!
The plot thickens like Irish stew when the group settles into Ballybantry Castle, where a ghost is said to wander the halls. But it's no blarney when a very real corpse turns up in one of the guest rooms. While the murderous malarkey has Emily step-dancing as fast as she can, one sure thing emerges from the mists: not even St. Paddy himself could drive out the spiteful serpent that slithers among them!
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The guidebook says the weather in Ireland is normally wet, except when it isn't, which can be often, or not often at all. The sun can shine, mostly when it's not raining, but it rains most of the time, except when it doesn't.
In other words, the weather in Ireland is a metaphor for my life.
I'm Emily Andrew, twenty-nine-year-old once-married working girl with a degree in theater arts, currently employed as escort for a bank-sponsored group of Iowa senior citizens on a ten-day tour of the Emerald Isle.
Going back to my weather metaphor, my life had been sunny when I'd moved to New York City after receiving my B.A., married fellow actor, Jack Potter, and landed a part in a Broadway play. The rain started when Jack began wearing my underwear. The deluge hit when he left me a note one night telling me he was running off with his leading man's understudy.
When the shock wore off, I did what any native Midwesterner with no money to pay Big Apple apartment rent would do. I moved back to my hometown of Windsor City, Iowa, had the marriage annulled, and found a job where I could use my acting skills. Phone solicitation.
For three years I was the premier fund-raiser for Playgrounds for Tots, until the president of the organization was arrested for fraud because there was no organization.
He went to jail. I went to Europe. Not as a fugitive from justice. I had a long-standing commitment to be my grandmother's companion on a seniors' tour of Switzerland, so off I went, hoping to ease my jobless woes by experiencing the vacation of a lifetime.
It turned out to be an experience, all right. We were promised temperatures in the seventies. Spectacular views of the Alps. Gourmet cuisine. What we got was bone-chilling cold. Dense fog. A steady diet of cornflakes. And three dead guests.
The one ray of sunshine on the trip was that I met the man of my dreams. Etienne Miceli, the police inspector who investigated the three deaths. He's everything my first husband wasn't. Forthright. Dependable. Heterosexual. We've been communicating by phone and e-mail for eight months now, and you might say our relationship is at a crossroads. It's too intense not to be together. But he lives in Switzerland. I live in Iowa. See what I mean about my life? Rain. Sun. Rain. Sun. Not unlike the weather in Ireland.
"Dublin's nothin' like I imagined," said my grandmother. Her voice vibrated as we jounced down one of Dublin's most traveled thoroughfares in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. Nana was known as "a sport" in her retirement village back in Iowa. She'd won millions in the Minnesota lottery the day my grampa passed away, so in her golden years, she had the means to go anywhere and do anything, and she was taking full advantage of the opportunity. "Is it like you imagined, Emily?"
"I imagined rain." I peered skyward in search of storm clouds, but found only a brilliant wash of blue. Windex blue. Like Etienne's eyes. I sighed with the thought. In Dublin for five hours and already I was suffering the first pangs of loneliness. I needed to snap out of it, else it would be a very long ten days.
Our hackney driver tipped his head to the right. "Shaint Shtephen's Green," he said in a lilting brogue. "Firsht enclosed in 1664. Twenty-two acres of manicured lawn, ponds, and quiet in the middle of Ireland's busiest shity."
Cute accent, but he could use some speech therapy for the lisp.
"Remember that statue a Molly Malone?" Nana whispered, referring to the shapely bronze sculpture we'd seen on an earlier walk down Grafton Street. "Why do you s'pose they made her so bosomy? Did you see the cleavage? I bet she was wearin' one of them push-up brassieres. Probably where she got that nickname, 'Tart with a Cart.' "
"Wait a minute. I wear a push-up bra, and I'm not a tart."
Nana patted my knee. "Of course you're not, dear. You marry the men you sleep with. I think that's very commendable. Oh, look! A double-decker bus. I've always wanted to ride in one of those. Haven't you?"
I'd never given public transportation much thought. What I really wanted was to be one of the great stage actresses of the century. Windsor City boasted only a small community theater, so the odds were against me, but I remained optimistic. Entering a new century had given me an extra hundred years to make a success of myself.
"Easy, Nell." Our driver steadied his horse as she chafed against her traces. "She's frishky today. To your left is the Shelbourne Hotel." He guided us past the elegant redbrick building where our tour group was scheduled to spend its first night in Ireland. "Built in 1824. They sherve a brilliant afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor's Lounge at half-three."
The wrought-iron railings and flower-glutted window boxes reminded me of the quaint little hotel where Jack and I had honeymooned so many years ago, and, recalling our wedding night, I smiled. Poor Jack. He'd possessed the extraordinary good looks of a Greek god but the brain chemistry of a Greek goddess. And it had taken me only two years to figure it out. Am I a quick study or what? I hoped he'd found happiness with his partner, living in upstate New York, laying kitchen tile, but that didn't seem the kind of existence that would make him happy. Jack was happiest when he was onstage, sporting layers of pancake makeup and eyeliner. But he was probably happier now than when he'd been married to me. And so was I. Mostly because I didn't have to share my underwear anymore.
As we rounded the north corner of St. Stephen's Green, I sat back in my seat, soaking up the Dublin atmosphere. The hordes of people. The crush of traffic. The blare of horns. The stench of diesel fumes.
"Do you smell that?" Nana asked suddenly.
"Diesel. Must be the fuel of choice over here."
"That's not it. Smells more like" -- she inhaled deeply -- "alcohol." She plucked her guidebook out of her Golden Irish Vacations tour bag and flipped through the pages. "I remember readin' there's a Guinness brewery nearby, and they give away free samples at the Hopstore."
"But Guinness is dark beer. You don't like dark beer. You don't like beer, period."
"I know, dear, but I like free samples. Look here, the Guinness brewery is number seventeen on the map. Maybe our driver could drop us off if we pass by. Should we ask?"
I gave her one of my patented "It can't hurt" shrugs and leaned forward, tapping the driver on his back. "Excuse me. If we pass the Guinness brewery, could you -- "
In the next instant he slumped forward and landed on the floor of the carriage with a thump.
Nana gasped. "You didn't need to push him, Emily. A polite tap would a worked."
"I didn't push him! Oh, my God. What's wrong with him? Is he dead? He can't be dead. This can't be happening again!" I'd discovered those three dead bodies on the last tour we'd taken. If it happened on this trip, too, I'd be labeled a jinx and could probably kiss my tour escort job good-bye.
We popped out of our seats for a better look. "Does he look dead to you?" I asked.
"All's I can tell from this angle is that he's bald."
"I'll check his pulse."
"No!" yelled Nana. "Grab the reins!"
My gaze fell on the leather straps that were slithering out of the driver's hand. I lunged across the back of the seat, arm extended, but they disappeared over the dashboard before I could seize them. I looked at Nana. Nana looked at me.
"Uh-oh," I said. The carriage swayed suddenly, then lurched forward as Nell discovered her head. With no driver to guide her, she broke away from her traditional route, jumped the curb, and shot down the sidewalk at a full gallop. BUMPITY-BUMP. BUMPITY-BUMP. Nana tumbled back into her seat. I clutched the driver's seat for support. Pedestrians leaped out of the way at our approach. Into bushes. Onto the hoods of parked cars. People gawked. People pointed. I saw a group of Japanese tourists crowding the sidewalk ahead of us. "Get out of the way!" I screamed, flailing my arms. "Move!"
I heard excited chatter and a symphonic click of camera shutters as we screeched around them on two wheels and swerved onto the main walkway of St. Stephen's Green.
"Do somethin'!" Nana bellowed at me.
"Make the horse stop!"
"That wasn't part of my training!" On the other hand, if the horse were choking, drowning, or needed CPR, I'd be your girl.
"Cowboys did it in the old movies all the time!" Nana yelled. "Jump on her back and grab her reins. I'd do it myself if I wasn't wearin' my good panty hose."
I knew nothing about horses. I was from Iowa. I knew about seed corn, which wasn't really helpful in this situation. I did have an idea though. "HELP!" I cried. "Somebody help us!"
The park became a blur of trees, shrubs, and flower beds as Nell raced across a lush stretch of lawn that looked like the course at Pebble Beach, only without the ocean view. Fat clods of grass flew left and right beneath her hooves. Divots here. Divots there. BUMPITY-BUMP. BUMPITY-BUMP. Uh-oh. This wasn't good. Parents grabbed their children and ran for cover. Oh, my God. What if we plowed into someone and killed them?
I craned my neck to peek at our driver again. The violent jostling was causing his body to skid toward the open end of the carriage. One major dip in the terrain, and he'd shoot out of the vehicle like a log out of a flume.
I needed to do something.
"Look at that pretty circle a red flowers up ahead," Nana said in a high vibrato, as we approached a major intersection of pathways. "Be nice to stop for a picture."
We were beyond them before I had time to blink.
"I don't mean to complain, dear, but we're missin' all the good photo opportunities."
I scrambled over the backrest of the driver's seat, crouching precariously on the cushion. "Whoa, Nellie!" I yelled.
THUMP-THUMP. The carriage pitched sharply to the right, bouncing the driver across the floor. I grabbed a fistful of his jacket to keep him from falling out. I looked up.
Dead ahead was a stand of trees, and Nell was racing straight toward them. "Hold on tight!" I yelled to Nana.
I ducked low on the seat. WHUP-WHUP! WHUP-WHUP! Foliage thrashed the sides of the carriage as we whipped between two trees. I heard an ominous creak. I opened one eye to see what was ahead.
We hit the pond at breakneck speed and hurdled the concrete lip like one of the losing drivers in the chariot race in Ben Hur. Off flew a front wheel. Off flew a back wheel. Creeeeek! KABOOM! The sudden stop catapulted me off the seat and into the air. I landed on my back in a foot of water that shot up my nose all the way to my brain. Snorting, sputtering, and blinded by streams of nonwaterproof mascara, I jackknifed upward to hear a man shout, "You there! There's no swimming allowed in the pond!"
I let out a startled yelp as our driver's body sluiced out of the carriage and landed eyeball-to-eyeball on top of me.
"That goes for him too!" the man added.
Most single women who visit Ireland probably dream of having their bones jumped by an Irishman as witty as Oscar Wilde, as inspiring as William Butler Yeats, and as handsome as Pierce Brosnan. That my bones were being jumped by a short, bald guy who didn't appear to be breathing was fairly typical of the direction in which my life was headed. All that was missing was the freelance photographer who would snap my picture and sell it to a tabloid newspaper. I could see the headlines now: Tour Escort Has Sex with Dead Man in Pond! That would go over really well in Windsor City.
It was at that moment that I heard the unmistakable whirr of Nana's new Polaroid OneStep camera. "Smile, dear!"
"Here's one of the pond in Saint Stephen's Green." Nana handed Tilly Hovick a photograph as we stood at the front desk of the Shelbourne Hotel, waiting for our room keys. Tilly was a retired professor of anthropology at Iowa State University, and was slated to be Nana's roommate for the duration of the tour.
"Interesting composition," Tilly said as she inspected the Polaroid through the magnifying glass that hung around her neck. "Who is that man lying on top of Emily?"
"Our driver. He passed out and crashed us into the pond. Then he fell on top of her. We thought for sure he was dead. Then his cell phone rang, and he answered it. He would've laid right there talkin', too, if Emily hadn't done somethin'." Nana handed Tilly a second photograph. "This one's of Emily kneein' the driver in his privates." And a third. "This is the driver curled up in pain after Emily kneed 'im. And you can see there, he's still talkin' on his cell phone. That was pretty impressive."
"What caused him to pass out?" asked Tilly. "Seizure?"
"Sloshed," said Nana. She handed Tilly a final photo. "This is the policeman who dragged Emily outta the pond and gave her a written warnin' for swimmin' in an unauthorized area."
Tilly, who made ordinary mortals quake with her legendary bluntness and direct stares, stabbed a long finger at the policeman's photo. "Did you get his name? We should march right down to the Garda Station and file a complaint. This situation was not Emily's fault. She was treated unfairly." She turned to me. "And if I were you, I'd sue the carriage company for damages. Look at you. You look like one of the contestants on Survivor."
I caught a glimpse of myself in the gilt-framed mirror decorating the lobby wall. Ehhh. My dark brown hair was a wild, dripping mop of corkscrew curls. Mascara circled my eyes. My new rayon blouse and skirt clung to my five-foot-five-inch frame in a series of wet, misshapen folds. I didn't look as good as a Survivor contestant. I looked more like "Alice Cooper meets Xena, Warrior Princess."
Nana regarded Tilly with a twinkle in her eye. "You watch Survivor?"
"Reality television, Marion. Anthropology for the masses. I think of it as a modern version of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa without the monographic analysis."
"I think of it as Days of Our Lives without the script."
Tilly looked pensive. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but in a sense, you're perfectly right. That's a very astute observation. Do you have a favorite contestant?"
I'd been concerned that Tilly and Nana wouldn't be compatible as roommates. Tilly had a Ph.D. Nana had an eighth-grade education. Tilly was five-foot-eleven, built like a beanpole, and carried a fancy walking stick. Nana was four-foot-ten, built like a fire hydrant, and carried a really big handbag. Tilly had never married. Nana had been married to the same man for over fifty years. Survivor was the only thing they had in common, but, come to think of it, that was probably a lot more than most married couples had in common. Heck, they'd probably become fast friends.
I waved my arm to catch the notice of a desk clerk. My appearance was making me nervous. I needed to change my clothes before someone issued me a written warning for shedding water in an unauthorized area. "The key to room four-ten, please? And I'm in something of a hurry."
Bernice Zwerg shuffled up to us at the front desk and looked me up and down. "Is this a new look for you, or did you find another body of water to fall into?" Bernice had the body of a rubber chicken, a dowager's hump that made her clothes hang funny, and a voice that screamed of eight packs of Marlboros a day before she'd finally kicked the habit. She'd accompanied us on our earlier tour to Switzerland, so we had history.
I narrowed my eyes at her. "I was a victim of circumstance."
She flashed me a tight little smile that said she'd heard that one before. "I thought you'd want to know that the other bus just arrived from the airport."
Since our flight from Des Moines had arrived so early, the tour company had bused us the short distance to our hotel rather than make us wait at the airport for the other flights to arrive. We were expecting a contingent of people from the East Coast and a few stragglers from the Continent to add their numbers to the twenty Iowans I was escorting.
"I heard a bunch of people from New York will be joining us," Bernice continued with a sour look. "They'll probably be loud. And pushy."
Which meant Bernice would fit in with them just fine.
"What have you got there?" Bernice asked, snatching the photos from Tilly's hands. She flipped through them quickly. "Looks like Emily having sex with a dead guy in some pond."
"He wasn't dead," Nana objected. "Emily would never engage in necrophilia, would you, dear?"
I shook my head, remembering those occasions when making love to Jack had been like having sex with a corpse. But we'd been married, so in my case, the necrophilia was legitimate.
"How come you don't have a digital camera?" Bernice asked Nana, handing the photos back. "Polaroids are old technology."
"I'm waitin' for the price to come down," Nana said in a no-nonsense tone. She might be a millionaire, but her Midwestern frugality still reared its ugly head from time to time.
"Room four-ten," the desk clerk said, handing me my key.
"I'm going up to change, so I'll see you later," I said to Nana.
Bernice gave us a squinty look. "What? You two aren't rooming together?"
"Escorts get rooms by themselves," said Nana, "so I'm roomin' with Tilly."
"Tilly?" Bernice sucked in her cheeks. "When I asked you to room with me, you said you already had a roommate, so I assumed it was Emily. You never said you were rooming with Tilly. I'm supposed to be your best friend, Marion. What's the matter? I'm not good enough for you anymore?"
"Tilly asked me first."
"Oh, I get it. It's on account of the mashed peas, isn't it?"
Back in December, Nana had slipped on some mashed peas on the floor of the senior center and bruised her tailbone. She'd had to sit on an inflatable doughnut during the entire holiday season, which didn't work out too well during midnight mass, when my nephew punched a hole in it with his Moses action figure with authentic scale-model staff. All Nana could say was that we were lucky David hadn't brought his G.I. Joe. Joe carried his own grenade launcher.
"I don't blame you for that at all, Bernice, but you were the person in charge a cleanin' the floor after the Christmas luncheon. And you didn't do it."
"Couldn't be helped. I had to leave early to catch the bus to the casino. But you know about the pea situation. Every time we have a luncheon for the low vision people, they leave mashed peas all over the place. How come you don't serve a vegetable they can see? You're on the food committee. You ever think about serving broccoli spears?"
Hmm. My guess was, Bernice was going to be the first one voted off the island.
Thinking it might be best if the ladies mediated this themselves, I waved to Nana and slipped away. As I headed to the elevator, I looked toward the lobby to find a troupe of people muscling their way through the front door behind a willowy blonde who was all legs and teeth. Ashley Overlock. Our tour guide. She'd introduced herself to us at the airport in a voice that dripped Southern charm, then sent us on our way, but the men were still suffering palpitations from the initial meeting.
I shook my head. Men were so blind. Couldn't they see all her phony reconstruction? I ticked off the list. Bleached blond hair. Collagen-injected lips. Capped teeth. Silicone-enhanced breasts. Acrylic nails, or maybe they were silk wraps. I couldn't tell from this distance. Her legs started at her neck and were definitely her own, but wearing those spike heels was bound to give her varicose veins. In a few years she'd be forced to wear support hose under that six-inch miniskirt of hers; then we'd see how many heads she turned. Of course, there was one benefit to the support hose. She wouldn't have to shave her legs so often.
The commotion in the lobby continued as every male with traceable testosterone found an excuse to mill around Ashley. Scarlett O'Hara at the barbecue. Geesch. The scene made me grateful I wasn't one of the beautiful people. The ogling. The gawking. The fawning. How did she stand it?
"Y'all need to proceed to the front desk to pick up your room keys," I heard her call out. "No, I don't need assistance. Y'all just take care of yourselves. Yes, I already have plans for dinner. No, you don't need to know my room number. The front desk is right through there. Just keep moving."
I pressed the elevator button and sidled up to a plant, hoping to camouflage myself as a potted palm while the tour guests swarmed the front desk area. A full five minutes later, the door opened and I scooted inside the car, followed by a woman who announced, "Fourth floor," as if I were the elevator operator. And she didn't say please. She obviously wasn't from the Midwest. My guess was . . . New Jersey.
The doors glided shut. The elevator hummed to life. "Are you on your way to a costume party?" she asked as she lounged against the handrail. It didn't help my mood any that she was a gorgeous brunette with the most exquisitely applied makeup I'd ever seen. Razor-thin eyeliner above and below the eyes. Lips perfectly outlined and stained. Foundation and blush that made her complexion appear luminous. I knew of only two groups of people with the expertise to apply makeup so precisely: makeup artists and Texans. I revised my first opinion. Okay, she was from New Jersey by way of Dallas.
"I don't always look like this," I said. "My mascara ran."
"It's a shade too dark for you anyway. Brown would be better. Have you ever had your colors done? My guess is you're an autumn."
This was handy. Take an elevator ride. Get an instant color analysis. I wondered if this was part of the tour package.
She smiled. I smiled. I lowered my gaze to the floor. Whoa! She had the biggest feet I'd ever seen, but great shoes. She must have to order out of a catalog.
"Emily?" she said suddenly.
I checked to see if I was wearing a name tag. Nope. How did she know my name? I exchanged glances with her, thinking she looked vaguely familiar, but unable to identify her. "I'm Emily, but I'm afraid I don't know who you are."
"Emily!" She rushed at me, smothering my face with kisses and enveloping me in her arms. "It's me! You don't recognize me, do you. It's Jack! Well, Jackie now."
I tried not to look as confused as I felt.
"Jack Potter!" the woman burbled. "Remember? Your ex-husband."
Copyright © 2003 by Mary Mayer Holmes