A group of tourists has arrived in London—shaken by the mysterious death of one of their fellow travelers back in Zurich. Larkin’s Luxury Tours is represented by the public relations firm of Perkins & Tate—so it’s up to Douglas Perkins, with a little assistance from his cat, Pandora, to soothe their fears, boost their spirits . . . and prevent them from demanding refunds.
But after another member of the tour disappears, Doug will have to turn from sightseeing to crime-solving in this puzzler from a “consistently witty” writer (Mystery News).
“Marian Babson’s name on a mystery is a guarantee of quality writing wrapped around an unusual crime.” —Houston Chronicle
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I was lying back comfortably, up to my earlobes in hot steaming water. Pandora was perched on the end of the tub, trying to catch droplets of water as they dripped from the tap. Now and then, just to keep her on her toes, I lobbed a few drops at her from my end of the tub. After all, even a Siamese cat ought to be conversant with the Facts of Life, public-relations style. Anyone can handle a smooth, steady job that follows a predictable course; it's the way you manage the things that come at you out of left field that shows how good you are.
Pandora was catching on pretty well. She kept her main attention on those tantalising drops welling slowly from the tap, but slanted a suspicious cross-eyed glare at me when she sensed any movement from my direction. She had just neatly batted a drop back at me when the telephone rang.
I stayed where I was, reminding myself that it was supposed to be a sign of strength of character not to leap to answer the telephone if it rang at an inconvenient moment. Anyone with anything urgent to communicate could ring again later. Besides, what were they doing ringing after midnight, anyway?
Then I remembered that my partner, Gerry, was out with his latest bird. A dizzy type who owned a badly dented white Lancia and drove like a drunken Grand Prix driver. How she retained her licence was a secret shared between her and a series of susceptible policemen — although, perhaps her bank manager had an inkling of it when he canceled her cheques. Someday, however, the law of averages was going to catch up with her — if no other law managed to — and, if anyone was with her at the time —
I lurched to my feet, sending a great tidal wave sloshing over the sides of the tub and nearly swamping Pandora. Cursing me briskly, she leaped for dry land. Pausing only to grab a towel, I followed her into the office.
When I turned on the desk light, I saw a trail of gleaming wet pawprints marching across the pile of envelopes waiting to be posted in the morning. They were all stamped, too.
"You did that deliberately," I accused.
She sneered at me from the far corner of the desk, defying me to prove it.
There was no time to argue. I snatched up the receiver with a twist of my wrist, so that the telephone cord went snaking across the desk at her. Cursing me again, she dropped to the floor and headed for the pantry. There was a wet triangular patch where she had been sitting. I was immediately contrite. She was awfully wet. "I'll dry you off in a minute," I promised.
"What was that? ... Hello? ... Hello?" the receiver was yammering at me.
"Perkins and Tate," I said quickly, recalled to order. "Good morning."
"Oh, Lord — it isn't!" the voice at the other end said dismally. "Oh, Lord — it is! I'm most terribly sorry. I hope I haven't got you out of bed."
"Not at all," I said nastily. "Pandora and I were just having a bath."
"Oh, Lord, I'm sorry, old man. I had no idea. I'll call back later."
"No, no," I said hastily (from the distraught tone of his voice, he'd interpret "later" literally and ring back in half an hour and succeed in getting me out of bed). "It's all right. Pandora's a cat."
"Most of them are," he said gloomily.
I took a deep breath. "Pandora is a cat," I said slowly and distinctly. "Four-legged variety. Siamese breed. You did not interrupt an erotic interlude. You did, however, drag me out of my bath, and I am soaking wet and freezing. If you have anything urgent —"
"No, no," he decided. "It's not that urgent. Morning will do. I'm terribly sorry. I've been working, and I lost all track of time. If you could be here first thing in the morning —"
"Where?" I asked quickly, before he could ring off.
"Oh, I'm sorry." He was in an apologetic rut. "This is Neil — Neil Larkin. You know, Larkin's Luxury Tours."
"I know," I said, placing the familiar voice now. We'd done the overseas publicity to launch Larkin's Luxury Tours earlier this year. They had seemed to be well under way, the usual moderate success, which could be depended upon to build up into an excellent business — if nothing untoward happened. It was a bit early for us to be hearing from them again. On form, they should only require booster shots of publicity in the spring and autumn to keep them ticking over nicely.
"What's the matter?" I asked, scenting a rat as easily as Pandora could.
"Lord!" he said simply. "Oh, Lord! I can't go into it now. Just be here in the morning. You'll meet Tour Seventy-nine then, and you can see for yourself."
"Tour Seventy-nine —?"
"There goes my other phone," he said. "It must be Zurich again. I'll have to ring off. I'll see you in the morning. Bring a camera."
"Neil, wait a minute —" But he had rung off.
I hung up the receiver reflectively and went to make my peace with Pandora.
When I arrived at the Bloomsbury office of Larkin's Luxury Tours, Neil was still on the telephone. Unshaven, haggard, and rumpled, with an ashtray overflowing with cigarette stubs and a thick miasma of smoke clouding the atmosphere so that you couldn't distinguish anything in the far corners of the room — he must have been here all night.
He finished the call and nodded to me. "Doug, sit down. I'll fill you in. Kate's gone to Victoria Station with the bus to meet them. We'll liaise at the hotel and I'll integrate you into the tour. Then, if you can go around with them for a few days, taking pictures we can send back to their local newspapers — maybe do a few jolly little stories about their adventures in England. You know, make it sound to the Folks Back Home like they're having a great time, and maybe, by the time they get home and read the stories and listen to their friends kidding them about the trip, they'll be convinced they had a great time, too."
"What kind of a time are they having?" That seemed to be the pertinent question, at the moment. Neil hadn't stayed up telephoning all night just for the fun of it.
"Well" — he was obviously trying to look on the bright side — "things could have been worse. I gather from the courier that it wasn't bad at all, until they got to Switzerland. They'd been enjoying themselves — a bit tired, maybe, but tourists expect that. And they knew they weren't being chivied about the way they might be on any other tour, because this was a Larkin's luxury tour, and you know our motto: 'Leisure is the last luxury.' "
I sat down, letting him ramble on. There must be a point, and presumably, he'd get to it sooner or later. His phone rang and he answered it absently, "Larkin's Luxury Tours," then stiffened.
"Here? Where?" His voice rose in panic, and he scrabbled frantically in an empty cigarette packet, trying to find a cigarette that wasn't there. I threw my own cigarettes across the desk to him.
"You what?" He took a deep breath and stretched his mouth into a smile shape. (If you smile on the telephone, so the theory goes, the smile will come across in your voice to the listener at the other end.) There was no smile anywhere else on his face. "No, no, that's quite all right. I quite agree. It was the only thing to do, in the circumstances. ... Yes. ... Yes ..."
He lit the filter end of the cigarette and took a couple of deep drags before noticing it. He hurled it into the overflowing ashtray, where it smoldered vilely, and lit another one, taking greater care this time, although most of his attention was still centred on the telephone.
"Yes, I see. ... Yes, of course. ... Well, don't worry about it. We'll sort it out someway. And we'll get someone over to you at the hotel right away." (I didn't particularly like the look he threw in my direction as he said that.) "And the touring bus will be along as soon as we can get it there. You'll be back to normal just as soon as we can get you there."
He tucked the receiver between his shoulder and ear, still making assenting noises, and reached for a clipboard and a sheaf of papers. He tucked the papers under the clip and slid them across the desk to me.
I picked it up reluctantly. The top paper was headed "TOUR 79" and had a list of names under the heading. I stopped reading at that point. Instinctively I felt that this development boded no good for me.
"Yes ... that's fine. Yes, I'll be along personally ... with your English courier. By the way, how is —?" He pulled the receiver away from his ear and glared at it indignantly, then at me. "Those buggers hung up on me," he snarled.
"Too bad," I sympathised. "But remember, the customer is always right."
His brief glare reminded me that, at the moment, he was my customer. He pulled a desk drawer open savagely, snatched something out, and slammed it shut.
"They're here," he said. "Tour Seventy-nine. We've spent all night arranging passage on a private Channel yacht for them, but they didn't wait. They chartered a plane for themselves, and they're at the hotel now. Waiting."
"And Kate — whoever she is — is waiting at Victoria Station with the bus," I said.
"Precisely. I'll have to go and collect her." He ran his hand over his chin and seemed to realise for the first time that it was covered with stubble. "After I freshen up," he amended hastily.
"That's a good idea," I approved. "You might air this place out, too — if you're planning to bring them back here, that is."
"No, I don't think we'll do that," he said quickly. "I think the best thing to do, in the circumstances, is to take them off on a tour immediately. The City of London Tour, I think. The trouble is" — he frowned — "they weren't due until next week. So the bus they should have had, the Luxury Cruiser, is still doing Scotland and the Lake District with Tour Forty-three."
"Ah, yes, the good old Luxury Cruiser," I reminisced. (We had held the press party in it — reclining seats for twenty, a private loo, and a fully equipped cocktail bar. "Blind Drunk Through Britain," we had christened the tours privately.) "How's it doing?"
"About thirty miles to the bottle." He grinned, then seemed to remember that it was no longer a laughing matter. "I wish we had it here now. It's just what we need for this tour. Instead, we've had to pull the old minibus back into service — and we're wide open to complaints — it's not the sort of thing we promised them in our advertising. We'll have to try to keep to short day trips in and around London until we can have the Luxury Cruiser. Of course," he sighed, "this crowd are going to complain, no matter what we do. They're bound to. Their trip's been ruined and — even though there's nobody they can really put the blame on — they'll blame us, just the same."
"What ruined it?" I might never get an answer, but I was still in there trying.
"What?" He looked at me blankly. "Don't you know? Oh, Lord — didn't I tell you?"
"No," I said. "And I'm all agog."
"It's unfortunate" — he shook his head — "but it's nobody's fault. These things happen. You just hope to hell they won't happen to any tour of yours, but every once in a while, they do. They're bound to. Sheer law of averages. She was elderly. She hadn't been well. Her goddamned doctor advised a nice trip abroad, the way the old-fashioned ones still do. It wasn't his fault, either, I suppose. Most of the time, it gives them a new lease on life. Either they love every minute of it, or else they're so damned miserable their one ambition in life is to get the hell out of Europe and go home where they can die in peace and comfort in their own beds."
"But this one didn't." I had caught the drift of his conversation and was way ahead of him. "This one died in —"
"Zurich. Last night — no" — he shook his head groggily — "night before last. They found her yesterday morning — nearer noon, actually. They thought she must be overtired and they'd let her sleep late. No one went to check up — it was only when a chambermaid got impatient that they found her. It was all very unfortunate."
I whistled softly. "Unfortunate" was an understatement. Tourists want to get away from it all. The whole point of foreign travel is that, no matter how uncomfortable, how exhausting, it's still "different." An exchange of the old familiar worries, if you like, for new and strange problems, which, at least, have the merit of novelty and recalled in tranquility at home, may even have their funny side and make good stories.
The last thing they want is to be slammed in the face with mortality. That isn't why they're paying premium prices for a luxury tour.
"And what's worse," Neil said, "she was one of the collegians."
"Collegians?" I had a sudden, disquieting vision of a party of footballers and cheerleaders jogging around the Continent.
"Well, whatever you call them. They were a party from the same college town. They all knew each other, more or less. The other half of the tour came from all over; they didn't know any of each other before they met on the tour."
"I see what you mean," I said. It did make it worse. It meant one-half the tour was involved, more shaken and upset than the other half, who, while jarred and admitting the sadness of the incident, would still be resentful of the pall cast over their holiday and annoyed because the others were not so easily able to shake off the effect.
It was going to take more than a few pictures and sprightly stories in their hometown rags to convince any of them that they'd had a Fun Time. We were in real "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" territory.
"I'm sorry about this, Doug." He came out from behind the desk and grabbed my lapel, stabbing at it with the other hand. "I hate to throw you in the deep end like this, but there's literally no one else to do it."
I looked down. The silver, lark-shaped badge glittered on my lapel. "Larkin's Luxury Tours. Courier."
"Now, wait a minute," I said. "I don't know anything about —"
"Just fill in for an hour or so," he pleaded. "Introduce yourself, chat them up, take some pictures. We'll get there as soon as possible. But I can't contact Kate yet, she'll be on her way to Victoria with the bus. I'll have to have her paged there in about an hour — that was when they were due in."
I picked up the clipboard with the papers and list of names attached — I had known it boded no good. "Well," I said reluctantly, "as it's an emergency ..."
"That's it!" Neil pounced on the word. "That's just what it is — an emergency! There may never be a bigger one. Lord, I hope not!" He had my arm, urging me toward the door.
"This is great of you, Doug, I really appreciate it. You shouldn't have any difficulty, they're all nice people. Just a bit upset."CHAPTER 2
It wasn't one of the blatantly luxurious hotels. It was one of the small, tucked-away ones, where subtle elegance was a throwaway feature. There was no insistence on it. You were left to realise for yourself that you were reclining on a genuine Regency chaise longue, looking at your reflection in a Chinese Chippendale mirror flanked by Meissen wall sconces. The rooms didn't have desks, they had Carlton House writing tables, or davenports. The carpet might be Persian, Aubusson, or even Moorfields — you never knew your luck. Of course, if you didn't have some inkling of that luck, or tried pushing it too far, the management would very regretfully find that they were completely booked up at any future date you might wish to arrive. They can afford to choose their guests.
They were huddled together in the lobby when I arrived. Castaways, turning the usual hotel lounge arrangement of two sofas and two chairs into their own private, uneasy little island.
How long had they been here? I wondered. Since the telephone call to the office of Larkin's Luxury Tours? Were they that anxious to start on the tour of London? Or did they just want to be together for moral support, uneasy in the silences of their own rooms? Unhappy, in yet another strange country, not wanting too much time to think. After what had happened, who could blame them?
A tall, slightly stooped man with silver-gilt hair looked up and spotted the silver badge in my lapel. He said something to the others, got up, and hurried forward to meet me. I took a mental bet that this was Professor Tablor. (I had swotted up on the list of names in the taxi coming over.) Or was he too much the film typecasting of an academic? Perhaps the real Professor Tablor was the short, swarthy man talking to the dark, nervous-looking woman — who didn't look too happy about whatever he was saying.
The tall man stopped at close quarters and read my badge aloud. "Larkin's Luxury Tours. Courier." He dived for my hand, like a drowning man at a life raft. "They told us you'd be coming for us," he said, pumping it up and down.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tourists Are for Trapping"
Copyright © 1989 Marian Babson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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