Authors: Livia J. Washburn
Also by Livia J. Washburn
FRANKLY MY DEAR, I'M DEAD
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For Larry and Karen Mackey,
with thanks for their help
on rebuilding our home.
ark Twain once wrote, “I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was thenâ¦the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun.”
As I stood at the railing of the
, I knew what he meant. I had seldom seen anything quite so beautiful and serene as the great river. Sure, the scenery along the banks wasn't as pristine and unspoiled as it was back in Twain's day. I could see tall fast-food signs and electrical lines and jets winging across the blue summer sky. But out here in the middle of the river all I could hear were the gentle rumble of the boat's engines and the splashing of the paddlewheels as they propelled us through the water at a sedate pace. I felt the faint vibrations of the engine through the deck, and the sun was warm on my face. If you closed your eyes, I thought, it would almost seem like you were really back there and Sam Clemens himself was up in the pilothouse, guiding the riverboat toward the next quaint little river town where it would dock.
And then somebody's dadgum cell phone rang.
That's the way he said it, swear to God.
“Yeah, guess where we are?â¦We're on a riverboat!â¦Yeah, on the Mississippi. Helen wanted to come. But it's so freakin' slow, I think I could walk faster! Haw, haw!”
My hands tightened on the smooth, polished wood of the railing. I figured I'd better hold on, because a good travel agent never punches her clients. That's one of the first rules they teach you.
“What?â¦No, damn it, I told him those reports had to be finished by yesterdayâ¦What's he been doing this whole time, sitting around with his thumb up hisâ”
I couldn't let him go on. I turned around and said, “Sir!”
He looked surprised at the interruption. He was a big guy, balding, with the beginnings of a beer gut in a polo shirt. Played college football, from the looks of him, but that was more than twenty years in the past. Beside him, wearing a visor, sunglasses, a sleeveless blue blouse, and baggy white shorts, was a blond woman carrying a big straw purse and a long-suffering look. She was married to the loudmouth, more than likely.
He said, “Hold on, Larry,” into the cell phone, then took it away from his ear. “Yeah? What can I do for you?”
About a dozen other members of my tour group had lined up along the railing. I gestured vaguely toward them and said, “These folks are tryin' to, you know, soak up the ambience of the river, and your business conversation is a little jarring.”
“I'm sorry”âhe didn't sound like he meant itâ“but I got a crisis on my hands here.”
“I understand that. Maybe you could go inside to talk to your associate.”
He shook his head. “My crappy phone won't work in there. I'm barely getting any reception out here.” He put the crappy phone back to his ear and went on, “Larry, you still there? You tell that worthless little weasel to get those reports done by the end of the day or he's fired! You got that? And if any of this comes back on
head, he ain't gonna be the only one,
I didn't know whether to be mad at him for ignoring me or flabbergasted at the guy's language. I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard anybody say “Capeesh?”
“Yeah, yeah, you and Holloway both know where you can put your excuses. Just take care of it.”
He snapped the phone closed, looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged his shoulders as if to say,
Now are you satisfied, lady?
I managed to say, “Thank you.”
He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and moved off down the railing toward the stern.
His wife lingered long enough to say, “I'm sorry, Ms. Dickinson. Eddie's just very devoted to his business.”
“That's all right, Mrs. Kramer,” I told her. I had finally remembered their names. “I understand.”
I didn't, not really, but that's what you tell people anyway. I didn't understand why people would pay good money to take a vacation and then bring their work with them. I was devoted to my business, too, but if I were getting away from it, I'd get as far away as I could and stay there until it was time to go home.
Louise Kramer smiled at me and then followed her husband along the deck. He had already opened his phone and was talking on it again, but at least he wasn't disturbing the other members of the group as much.
had started upriver from St. Louis about an hour earlier, after the forty members of my tour group had gotten together for lunch at a restaurant not far from the riverfront. I had booked a private room so that we could eat together, and then everyone had gotten up and introduced himself or herself. I don't think that everybody who goes on one of my tours has to be all buddy-buddy with the other clients, but since we were all going to be together on a relatively small boat for the next twenty-four hours I didn't think it would hurt for them to get to know each other. After all, some people go on vacation tours
that they'll meet someone who'll turn out to be special in their lives.
Most folks, though, just want the scenery and the history. And, in the case of the
, the gambling. The side-wheeler was a floating casino.
Casino gambling is legal in most places up and down the Mississippi River, and there are numerous riverboats devoted to that purpose. Most of them are permanently docked, however. Some even have the engines gutted out so that they'll never move again, at least not under their own power.
was a little different. Built in the late nineteenth century, it had been lovingly restored and refurbished under the supervision of its current owner, a real estate mogul named Charles Gallister. From what I'd heard, he owned half the shopping centers in the greater St. Louis area.
In addition to being a very successful businessman, he was a Mark Twain buff. Because of his interest in the man some consider to be the greatest American author, Gallister had bought the riverboat and set up these overnight cruises to Hannibal, Missouri, the town where young Sam Clemens had grown up.
Gallister had the golden touch in more than real estate, too. Rumor had it that he was making a small fortune from the gambling that took place on the
All I knew for sure was that it was a powerful draw. When I decided to add the riverboat cruise to the list of literary-oriented tours that my little agency in Atlanta books, I hadn't had any trouble filling it up. This was the first time my clients had gone on the tour, so I figured I'd better come along, too, just to make sure there were no glitches. I had flown to St. Louis, leaving my daughter and son-in-law back in Atlanta to hold down the fort at the office.
I had been running tours like this for nearly a year. Thanks to a suggestion from a friend of mine, an English professor named Will Burke, I had concentrated on tours with some sort of literary angle. The
Gone With the Wind
tour, which included an overnight stay at a working plantation designed to resemble Tara from the book and the movie, was the most popular. Which sort of surprised me considering the fact that there had been a couple of murders on the plantation the very first time I ran the tour.
Since then I'd been a little leery of trouble every time I added a new tour to my list, but so far everything had gone smoothly. I didn't have any reason to expect that this riverboat cruise would be any different.
Laughter from the tourists attracted my attention. I turned to see a man in a rumpled white suit ambling along the deck. He had a shock of white hair, a bushy white mustache, and carried an unlit cigar in his hand. He nodded to the tourists and said, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal classâ¦except Congress.”
That brought more laughter and applause. The white-suited man waved his cigar in acknowledgment and went on, “I'll be dispensing more of the wit and wisdom of the immortal Mark Twain tonight in the salon, at eight o'clock. Thank you.”
The tourists applauded again. The Twain impersonator continued along the deck, coming toward me. He stayed in character for the most part, stooping over, shuffling his feet, and walking like an old man.
He greeted me with a nod and said in his gruff Twain voice, “Good afternoon, young lady.”
“Hello, Mr. Twain,” I said. I held out my hand to him. “I'm Delilah Dickinson. I put together one of the tour groups on the boat.”
He took my hand. His hand was a giveaway that he wasn't as old as the character he was playing. His grip was that of a much younger man.
“Very pleased to meet you, Ms. Dickinson. I quite fancy redheaded women, you know. I'm Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”
“You know, I can almost believe that,” I told him with a smile. “You've got the look and the voice down.”
He waved the cigar. “Thank you, thank you.” He leaned closer and half whispered, “You can't tell that I'm new at the job?”
That took me by surprise. He looked and sounded like he'd been playing Mark Twain for a long time.
“Not at all,” I told him. “You must be a quick study.”
He shrugged. “I have some acting experience.” His real voice was also that of a younger man. “My name actually is Markâ¦Mark Lansing.”
“I'm pleased to meet Mr. Lansing as well as Mr. Twain.”
I was happy that he'd referred to me as a young lady, too. When you get to be my age, which I refer to as the late mumbly-mumblies, and you're divorced and have a grown, married daughter, you don't often feel all that young. I was just vain enough to enjoy the attention from Mark Lansing, even though in reality he might be younger than me.
“Will you be attending my performance tonight?” he asked.
“I hadn't really thought about itâ”
“I'd appreciate it if you would. I could use a friendly face in the audience. Like I said, I'm new at this.”
“Well, all right, sure. I'll be there,” I promised.
“I hope you won't be disappointed.” He lifted a hand in farewell. “I have to circulate among the other decks and the casino. See you later.”
He shuffled offânot to Buffaloâand I went over to the members of my tour group who had gathered along the rail to ask them if anybody had any questions or needed any help with anything. Nobody did.
That gave me a chance to go back to my cabin for a few minutes and call the office. Unlike Eddie Kramer's cell phone, mine worked just fine inside the boat.
Luke Edwards, my son-in-law, answered. “Dickinson Literary Tours.”
“Hey, Luke, it's me.”
“Miz D! Are you on the riverboat?”
“I sure am. Everything's going just fine, too. I met Mark Twain a few minutes ago.”
“Really? The guy who wrote
?” Luke hesitated. “Wait a minute. He's dead. He can't be on that riverboat.”
“No, but an actor playing him is.”
“Oh. That makes sense, I guess.”
“Is Melissa there?” Luke is big and handsome and charming as all get-out with the clients, but Melissa has a lot better head for business.
“No, she's gone to the office supply place to pick up some stuff.”
“Any problems since I've been gone?”
“Uh, Miz D, you only left this morning. We've been able to manage just fine for the past five hours.”
“I know, I know. Anybody else sign up for that New Orleans tour yet?”
“Nope. Of course, I haven't checked the Web site in the past five minutes. Somebody could've e-mailed us about it.”
“Why don't you do that?”
“Right now? Really?”
I sighed. “No, you're right. I need to just relax and enjoy this tour I'm on. What's the point in being a travel agent if you can't get some fun out of it yourself?”
“That's it exactly. Just relax and let us take care of everything here. It'll be fine. You'll see.”
“All right. Tell Melissa I called, okay?”
“Will do. Don't worry about a thing.”
“I won't. Love ya both.”
“Love you, too,” he told me. I knew he meant it. They were good kids, both of them.
I closed my cell phone and slipped it back in the pocket of my blazer. Real estate agents and tour guide leaders would be lost without blazers. And everything was going along so smoothly that I was sort of at a loss to know what to do next.
I know, I know. I couldn't have jinxed myself any worse than by thinking such a thing. That realization occurred to me just as somebody knocked on the door of my cabin.