Texas high school teacher Jocelyn Shore and her cousin Kyla are on a once-in-a-lifetime guided tour of Egypt with a motley crew of fellow travelers when the most odious of the bunch, a nosy, disagreeable woman named Millie Owens, takes a fatal fall off of one of the great pyramids. And that's only the beginning of their troubles.
From the jovial doctor haggling for trinkets he doesn't want to the mysterious imposter wearing someone else's clothing to the attractive stranger traveling alone, this group of tourists is carrying more than one kind of baggage. Add a mistaken identity, a priceless necklace, and another unexpected death, and Jocelyn finds herself reluctantly trying to unravel an intrigue that threatens to end not only her vacation, but her life.
Janice Hamrick's Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books Competition winner Death on Tour is a delightful debut and the beginning of a wonderfully charming cozy series featuring Jocelyn Shore, the determined teacher who always seems to get wrapped up in a mystery, against her usually very sound judgment.
About the Author
Janice Hamrick is the author of the Jocelyn Shore mystery series. The first, Death on Tour, was the winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition, a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and a nominee for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Awards Best First Mystery. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Death on Tour
By Janice Hamrick
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Janice Hamrick
All rights reserved.
DEATH OF A TOURIST
The body lay facedown in the sand beside the giant stone blocks of the great pyramid of Khafre. Overhead, the blue sky flickered dimly through a haze born on the khamsin winds whistling relentlessly from the desert. The morning air was still cool and very dry, but full of the promise of heat to come. Men wearing head cloths and flowing tunics ran back and forth like ants, shouting in Arabic, while camel drivers stood beside their indifferent animals, craning their necks and talking excitedly. Policemen carrying automatic rifles guarded the perimeter of the crowd, looking alert and dangerous, when only a few minutes before they had been sleepy and bored.
Our tour group stood huddled together in a little knot a few yards from a brightly colored heap of clothes that had once been Millie Owens. Every few seconds, one of us broke from the herd, caught a glimpse of the body, and hurried back to the safety of the circle. It seemed impossible that the body was really there, that it wasn't some horrible mistake, and that Millie wasn't really just resting and would soon bounce up and start annoying us again. I wished she would.
Almost, anyway. I'm a high school history teacher, and I'm well acquainted with the full range of human behavior, but I'd never seen anyone who grated on the nerves of an entire group like Millie Owens, not even in PTA meetings. To be honest, the sight of her dead body lying at the base of the pyramid was not nearly as disturbing as it should have been. I glanced around at the faces of my traveling companions of the last two days. Everyone looked worried, but no one was crying, unless you counted a pair I called the ditz duo, who were wailing and whirling around like the dervishes we were supposed to see at dinner tonight. Our guide, Anni, was halfheartedly trying to calm them. The rest of us stood in shocked silence. Shocked, yes, but not grieving.
What bothered me the most was that it seemed that no one had seen what had happened, or at least no one was admitting it. Granted, the morning light was barely kissing the stones of the pyramids and the inevitable tourist hordes had not yet descended, but literally scores of people milled about. The hawkers with their postcards and plaster statues of Horus. The dozen or more carriage drivers with their unenthusiastic horses. The tourist police, managing to look both incompetent and frightening at the same time. Our own group of twenty-two, now down by one.
So how was it that no one had seen a fifty-five-year-old woman climb onto a pyramid and fall to her death? Our group could probably be excused because most of us spent a good deal of effort staying away from Millie. A buffer of twenty paces was the minimum required to avoid interaction. Just last night, I'd been scouring through my Egyptian phrase book for the correct phrase for "pepper spray." Not that I'd have really used it on the old bat, but it would be nice to have, just in case I could take no more. Millie was one of those intense, pushy women who seemed to be in constant motion. Her mouth moved in an unending stream of fatuous observations, idiotic questions, and catty gossip. While the rest of us were still making introductions, she somehow knew everyone's names, and a great deal more. She had a way of weaseling out details and then making rather shrewd guesses to fill in the gaps, and she wasn't above snooping. I'd caught her going through my backpack on the bus during the very short trip from the hotel to the pyramids, less than an hour ago, and she'd just gazed unblushingly at me and handed it back.
"Diarrhea already or just playing it safe?" she'd asked loudly, an embarrassing reference to my Imodium.
I'd glared at her, unable to think of a snappy retort quickly enough. I suppose I should be grateful I hadn't been carrying anything worse. And I was pretty sure she'd stolen the new strawberry lip balm I'd bought the day before at the hotel gift shop.
Millie was ... or had been ... living proof that no one ever really changed after high school. In a school the size of the one in which I taught, I saw a dozen Millies every day. She was the kid who bounded into a group of pretty, popular girls like a slobbering stray, oblivious to the discomfort she caused, clueless to the social cues that might have allowed her to join in. The nicer girls tolerated her for a few moments before suddenly remembering homework or prior commitments. The meaner girls were openly rude, cutting her with razor-sharp tongues before flouncing away in disgust in the face of her hurt incomprehension. The Millies of the high school world broke my heart, but that didn't make them any easier to tolerate in the adult world.
Not surprisingly, our Millie had been traveling alone. She had droned on at great length about her traveling companion's attack of appendicitis striking only hours before their plane was scheduled to take off. I decided that this "traveling companion" was either fictitious or had burst her own appendix with an ice pick. My own traveling companion, my cousin Kyla, backed the former because she contended that no one would have agreed to come with Millie in the first place. My money was on the latter because, as I pointed out, there's no explaining how one chooses one's roommates. It took her only a second.
"Bitch," she said admiringly.
But that was all yesterday. Today, the March sun was brilliant even through the haze, and poor, sad Millie Owens was dead, which no one could have wished for her. And something had gone seriously wrong with our beautiful trip to Egypt.
I leaned against the stones of the pyramid, cool in the morning air, and wondered how many others had done so throughout the millennia since they had been carved. Maybe not many. Had the Egyptians spent much time in their cities of the dead after the pharaohs had been laid to rest? The huge necropolis had been a thriving community, almost a small city during construction, but what about afterward when the work was finished and the new pharaoh was far away fighting wars or building new monuments? I imagined an unearthly silence enveloping everything as the wind pushed the sand higher around the stones until they were all but swallowed by the desert.
Pretty much the opposite of what was going on now. The police were now moving among the vendors. I'd never heard so much shouting to so little purpose. Even after two months with my Pimsleur CDs, I could not understand more than two or three words of Arabic, but I could tell that they were getting nothing out of the bystanders. Wild gestures, head shakes, points and shrugs, but not one coherent statement as far as I could tell. Somehow, impossibly, Millie had climbed up onto one of the gigantic blocks of the pyramid and then fallen to her death.
It just made no sense. Large though the blocks were — and they were far too big for an out-of-shape tourist to climb without help — they just weren't that tall. A fall of five or six feet at most. Far enough to break an arm, or a hip, I thought, glancing at the wizened, ancient figures of Charlie and Yvonne de Vance, but a neck? Maybe if she'd managed to get up to the second layer and somehow bounced off the first.
One of the policemen beckoned to our tour guide, Anni, who joined him a few paces away. Anni was a lovely and interesting mixture of traditional and modern Egyptian. A little younger than me, probably in her midtwenties, she had large dark eyes made to seem even larger by kohl eyeliner and thick mascara. She wore a lightweight turtleneck shirt carefully pinned to her headscarf to ensure that no part of her neck or hair showed, but over that she wore a t-shirt with an I WorldPal logo. Jeans and tennis shoes completed the outfit. In one hand, she held a pink Hello Kitty umbrella, which she used, not for protection from nonexistent rain, but as a beacon for gathering her small flock around her. Everywhere we went, we followed Hello Kitty like a row of ducklings following their mother.
Now she began a rapid torrent of Arabic with the policeman. The only word I understood was "la," which meant "no." She said it a lot.
My cousin Kyla joined me beside the stone, looking worried. She is far too careful about her clothes to lean against a dusty pyramid, but today she stood stiffly upright a pace away, looking striking as always. Her long dark hair, the exact color and texture of mine, was pulled into an elegant twist, gleaming in the sun. I'm not sure how she managed it, but her tan slacks and lemon shirt still looked crisp and pressed. And now, while the rest of us fretted, she looked perfectly cool and composed.
A façade. I could tell she was as worried as anyone.
"What do you think is going on?" she asked under her breath.
"I think they're going to arrest us all and throw us into Turkish prison."
She gave me a look. Kyla may look slim and elegant from a distance, but she is basically a pit bull without the fur. Back home in Austin, she leads a team of software developers with a great deal of organization, energy, and blunt speech. She also deeply believes that she is fully capable of handling any situation at any time, which I am happily and constantly pointing out to her is just not true. In return, I'm pretty sure she considers me weak and cowardly, mostly because she has called me both to my face. Still, there was no one I would rather have with me on any kind of adventure, and when I invited her to join me on a tour of Egypt, she said yes almost before the words were out of my mouth. Of course, she then spent the next six weeks trying to talk me into skipping the tour group and going about on our own, which was completely crazy. I'd wanted to go to Egypt my whole life. The pyramids, the mummies, the Nile. A dream trip, the fulfillment of a childhood desire. But go without the protection of a group and a guide who at least spoke the language? In a country where guards with machine guns stood on every corner and escorted every busload of tourists? No way. And if Kyla thought I was a coward, I could live with that. Of course, it seemed that even tour groups couldn't protect you from everything. Millie's death could hardly be considered part of the normal WorldPal package, but I knew if it interfered with our trip, Kyla was never going to let me hear the end of it.
I turned my thoughts back to the accident. The whole thing bothered me, and not just because a lonely middle-aged woman was dead.
"How do you think she got up there?" I wondered aloud.
She glanced behind me at the huge blocks. The top of her head barely cleared the upper rim of the stone. "I could get up there if I wanted to," she announced.
"So could I, if a lion was chasing me. But not any other way. And she was a lot older than we are."
Kyla considered. "She was pretty wiry," she said doubtfully. "I mean, look at Flora and Fiona. They must be about a hundred, but I've seen Fiona tossing suitcases like a teamster."
I ignored this. "And even if she did climb up and fall, how could that kill her?" I eyed the sad little heap from where we stood, but there was no way I was going over to check.
"Stranger things have happened," she answered.
Maybe, I thought. But I couldn't think of any.
One by one, the rest of the group joined us against the side of the pyramid. The youngest members of the group, two teenage boys called Chris and David Peterson, gave a hop and hoisted themselves onto the blocks, demonstrating how easy it was if you were a teenage boy. I could see their plump little mother open her mouth to call them back and then think better of it.
A few paces away, the Australian woman, Lydia Carpenter, dug in her purse for cigarettes and moved downwind to light up. Her husband, Ben, joined her, and the two of them stood with their heads together, conversing quietly. I watched them with interest. Lydia always carried a little metal box into which she dropped her ashes, even here in the desert, with nothing but sand and dust at her feet. Which didn't seem to be good enough for some people. Jerry Morrison, a lawyer from somewhere in California, gave a snort of disgust and muttered something about a "filthy habit" in a stage whisper. He was traveling with his adult daughter, who joined him in moving away and turning their backs. Lydia and Ben stared at them with contempt.
One of the men in our group, a dark-haired giant with a booming voice, began talking about Millie a few paces away, and Kyla and I both perked up our ears and moved forward a step or two to listen.
"No, she is definitely dead," he said, speaking to a young Asian couple, who were looking worried. Noticing our interest, he gave a small shrug. "I'm a doctor. I checked her pulse before the police pushed me away."
"I don't understand how she could die from a fall like that," I said.
He nodded. "She may have caught her head on the stone and broken her neck. They wouldn't let me examine her more thoroughly, but there was blood on the back of her neck, at the base of the skull. A tragic accident."
I wished I could remember his name. Subdued now, he was ordinarily an exuberant personality with the dark skin of his Indian ancestors and the kind of voice that needed no microphone. He could easily have been obnoxious, but somehow instead managed to be extraordinarily likable.
Kyla held out her hand. "Kyla Shore. Sorry, I've forgotten your name."
He beamed at her, forgetting to be somber. "DJ." His huge hand swallowed hers. "DJ Gavaskar from Los Angeles. And this is my wife, Nimmi." He beckoned enthusiastically and his wife joined him.
Nimmi was a small woman, slim and catlike. Gold gleamed from her ears and throat, her shirt was of beautiful raw silk, and her bag was a large Louis Vuitton that probably cost two week's salary — mine, not hers. Dressed to impress. She was the kind of woman it might be fun to dislike at first glance, but her eyes and smile were as warm as her husband's, and I found myself returning her smile. She held out her hand and gave me a ladylike fingertip handshake. Her fingers were cool and small, like a little bird. I instantly felt large and clumsy.
"Of course we have met, but it is difficult to learn so many names at once," she said with a smile.
"Jocelyn Shore," I told her.
She smiled and glanced from me to Kyla. "And are you twins?"
I didn't dare look at Kyla, although I could sense the sudden arctic chill coming from her direction.
"No. Actually we're not even sisters. We're first cousins."
"Really? Well, the family resemblance is striking. You are both beautiful girls."
I gave a polite smile, feeling my face redden a little. It always puzzled me how people could say such extraordinarily embarrassing and personal things right to your face without a hint of self-consciousness. And Nimmi was not nearly old enough to get away with calling me a girl.
DJ broke in. "I was just telling Keith and Dawn that I'd examined the body."
Nimmi gave a delicate shudder. "So tragic."
I glanced at the other couple. I didn't know much about the Kims yet, other than they were from Seattle and either one or both of them worked in a lab researching food additives. I liked the way they held hands whenever possible, and kept their eyes on each other when it wasn't. I suspected they had not been married very long.
Another half hour slipped away and the group attitude changed subtly from horrified shock to annoyed boredom. I've noticed it often, the development of a group personality, completely independent of the personalities of any of the members. I saw it in my classes. Somehow one period of world history became fascinating and enjoyable, while the next was complete agony and I struggled to keep the kids awake. A group of adults is the same. After only a few hours together, we'd already gelled into a single entity with its own needs and agenda. Looking around, I could see that while any one of us would claim we were filled with concern and sorrow, the group as a whole was tired and bored and wanted to get on with the day. After all, we had only a week in Egypt, and no one was exactly brokenhearted that Millie Owens wouldn't be monopolizing our guide's attention, snooping through bags that didn't belong to her, and asking the most painfully brainless questions ever asked in the history of human speech. The group was ready to move on.
At last, Anni rejoined us, looking appropriately somber and concerned. She did a quick head count in Arabic under her breath.
"Where are Flora and Fiona? Does anyone see them?" she asked.
Excerpted from Death on Tour by Janice Hamrick. Copyright © 2011 Janice Hamrick. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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
1. Death of a Tourist,
2. Carpets and Creeps,
3. Mummies and Mishaps,
Monday, Cairo to Aswan,
4. Planes and Papyrus,
5. Islands and Intrigue,
Tuesday, Abu Simbel,
6. Changelings and Challenges,
7. Monuments and Murder,
8. Ships and Shoplifting,
9. Hawkers and Horses,
10. Lounges and Lizards,
Thursday, Valley of the Kings,
11. Tombs and Troubles,
12. Necklaces and Knockouts,
Friday, Queens and Karnak,
13. Headaches and Hatshepsut,
14. Karnak and Chaos,
Saturday and Beyond,
15. Resolutions and Reunions,