Terns of Endearment: New Excerpt
A new side-splitting Meg Langslow mystery from the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Toucan Keep a Secret.
Meg Langslow’s grandfather has been booked by a cruise line to give lectures on birds and other environmental topics as part of their ship’s education/entertainment itinerary, and Grandfather has arranged for a passel of family members to join him.
The passengers’ vacation quickly becomes a nightmare when they wake up to find themselves broken down and in need of repairs in the Bermuda Triangle. To keep the stranded passengers calm, Meg’s family and friends band together to keep things organized and provide entertainment. Some even take up the cause of nursing an injured tern back to health.
But things get even worse when a crew member announces to all that a woman has jumped overboard, leaving behind her shoes, shawl, and a note. The note reveals she’s the mortal enemy of group of writers who came on board for a retreat, and the group is split on whether suicide is in-character for her. Meanwhile, grandfather’s assistant Trevor seems to have gone missing too!
The captain decides not to investigate, saying he’ll notify American authorities when they reach their destination. But Meg’s father thinks they should find out whether there was foul play while the prime suspects are all stuck on board. Who wanted the writer dead? Why doesn’t the captain seem concerned? What happened to Trevor? It’ll be a race against the clock to solve these mysteries before they make the necessary repairs and return to shore.
Terns of Endearment is the twenty-fifth book in New York Times bestselling author Donna Andrews’ hilarious Mag Langslow mystery series.
“Do you really think there’s room for all this luggage on the boat?”
“Ship,” I corrected. “I know it’s only a cruise ship, but I understand it demoralizes the crew when you call it a boat. And don’t worry, the porters will handle everything.”
Trevor Ponsonby-West sighed and looked put-upon. Well, he was put-upon. Being put-upon was more or less his job. He was my grandfather’s personal assistant, which meant Grandfather delegated to him anything he didn’t want to bother with himself and couldn’t cajole his friends or family to do. Trevor’s job was demanding under normal circumstances and almost overwhelming when Grandfather traveled. And he traveled a lot. After all, even though he was now in his nineties, the world still expected to see Dr. J. Montgomery Blake rescuing endangered species, leading environmental protests, and appearing in the nature documentaries that had become such a staple on television channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet.
Trevor did a great job of getting Grandfather where he had to go, when he was supposed to be there, and equipped with whatever he needed to bring. If only he could do it without quite so much sighing.
“Oh, dear—I shall have to tip the porters.” He hunched his narrow shoulders anxiously, making him look more than ever like a tall but malnourished vulture, and stifled another sigh as he pulled out his wallet. “I should check to make sure I have some small bills.”
“I think you’ll need large bills to reward them for hauling all this.” I waved at the sea of luggage.
“True. And—Oh, there’s my phone buzzing again.” He pulled it out and glanced at it. “Oh, dear. I need to run an errand for him. Do you suppose . . .”
“Go keep Grandfather happy,” I said. “I’ll hold down the fort here.”
Trevor dashed off, looking anxious. This was his only other expression.
“Yes, it should be a wonderfully educational cruise!” Grandfather’s booming voice rang out from somewhere a little farther down the pier.
“You’ll be giving lectures on board?” A man in a sports coat and pristine dark blue denim jeans was scribbling in a small notebook as he stood near Grandfather—though not so near that he interfered with the efforts of the woman with the camera, who was circling constantly and occasionally snapping a picture or two.
“And leading nature walks on shore when we get to Bermuda,” Grandfather went on. “Due to its isolation from the mainland, it’s a unique ecoregion. Alas! We won’t have time to visit more than two of the islands—Bermuda’s not a single island, you know, but a chain of one hundred and eighty-four islands, although only twenty of them are inhabited.”
Evidently Grandfather had been boning up on our destination.
“And I’m hoping to get enough footage for a documentary on Bermuda,” he added.
“Planning to save any endangered species while you’re there?” the reporter asked.
“Well, I do hope to look into how the Bermuda skinks are doing.” Grandfather’s expression became solemn, as if the fate of the Bermuda skinks had dire implications for the rest of the universe. “It’s a species only found in the Bermudas, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has it on its Red List of Threatened Species.”
“Is it a rodent?” the photographer asked. From the way she wrinkled her nose slightly I deduced she had scant sympathy for endangered rodents.
“A reptile—to be precise, a lizard about this big.” Grandfather held his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart.
I could tell by the photographer’s expression that reptiles were not an improvement over rodents. If the Bermuda Tourism Authority were listening in, they’d probably worry that Grandfather was undermining their promotion efforts.
“The Bermuda skink is threatened by habitat destruction, of course, and predation from introduced mammals like cats and rats. But oddly enough, one of the biggest threats to their survival is litter.”
“Litter?” the reporter asked, thus saving me from having to.
“Many small lizards have friction pads on their feet that let them stick to surfaces they walk on, but Bermuda skinks have tiny claws instead. So if they crawl into an empty glass jar, or a discarded soda can—something with a slick interior surface—they can’t get out again. They starve or die of heat stress or dehydration.”
Was he serious? Probably. Damn him. I could see that once I got to the island, instead of relaxing and enjoying the scenery, I’d be restlessly scanning my surroundings for stray jars and soda cans that might contain forlorn Bermuda skinks in need of rescue.
“Can you face that way for a few minutes?” The photographer pointed to the right. “At the moment, the sun is at your back, and it’s almost impossible to get a good shot.”
Grandfather obliged, and lifted his head, assuming the triumphant pose he usually reserved for that moment in his documentaries when he succeeded in rescuing something, or at least not getting eaten by something. The photographer began to click in double time.
“How dreadful!” came a voice from behind me. “Even here I can’t get away from those ghastly paparazzi!”
I turned to see an older red-haired woman in a billowing orange floor-length caftan, holding a matching orange paper parasol. She was an imposing figure, only an inch or so shorter than my five foot ten, and while the caftan flowed rather than clung, I could tell she wasn’t particularly skinny. But not fat, either—stately. Her deep red, almost maroon hair clashed with the color of the caftan. If I were her, I’d have chosen a different dress—or a different and more plausible hair color. Maybe she thought the garish red roses painted on the parasol tied the whole ensemble together.
The photographer had stopped clicking her camera, and Grandfather looked annoyed. The reporter was staring at the caftan lady with a frown on his face, as if trying to figure out who she was. The photographer was watching the reporter, no doubt waiting for him to indicate whether she should aim her lens at the new arrival or go back to Grandfather.
The woman—the diva, as I mentally dubbed her—looked at me with an expression I recognized—the look of someone who is accustomed to having minions to do her bidding, and thinks she’s found a promising one.
“Is it The New York Times? The Washington Post?” Her voice was high, rather affected, and pitched so loud I was sure people on the next pier could hear her. “Well, it doesn’t really matter. Shoo them away for me, will you?” All the while she was standing up straight and holding her parasol at an angle that did more to frame her face for the photographer than to protect her from the sun.
“It’s The Baltimore Sun,” I explained. “And I think they’re here to interview Dr. Blake. Dr. Montgomery Blake, the naturalist,” I added, seeing the puzzled look on her face. “The one who’s giving lectures on the cruise.”
“Of all the—Hmph!” She strode off, looking highly indignant.
The reporter and the photographer were looking at me expectantly. I shrugged to indicate that I had no idea who she was. They turned their attention back to Grandfather.
“Dr. Blake, can we move a little way down the pier?” the photographer asked. “I think we can get a better background over there.”
Actually she seemed to be pointing not to another part of our pier but to a point farther along the waterfront where the tidy world of the cruise ships gave way to piers clearly designed more for utility than looks. Knowing photographers, I was willing to bet she wanted to pose him in front of a particularly dilapidated tugboat—or was it a fishing boat?—with the name Scurvy Rogue painted on its bow. Grandfather would love it.
“Excellent!” He began striding in the indicated direction, with the reporter and photographer, who both had much shorter legs, almost running to keep up with him.
“Shouldn’t he be boarding already instead of showing off for the press?” I turned to see Caroline Willner, a longtime friend who, to my relief, was joining us on the cruise. As the owner of the Willner Wildlife Refuge and an expert zoologist herself, she rivaled Grandfather in knowledge and far excelled him at communicating her knowledge to the public without sounding condescending or confrontational. More to the point, she was the only person I knew who could get away with addressing Grandfather as “Monty, you old goat!”—and one of only two people in the world who could make him behave. Since Mother, the other one, would also be aboard, I was guardedly optimistic that they could prevent his worst faux pas.
For the moment, I was even more relieved to see that Caroline seemed to have made it her next mission to ensure that the reporters didn’t distract Grandfather from boarding before the ship sailed.
“How much longer before they pull up the gangplank, anyway?” Caroline asked.
“Twenty minutes,” I said, after a glance at my phone. “And yes, he really should board soon. I’m more worried about whether the porter’s going to show up to deal with our luggage.”
Caroline studied the luggage with narrowed eyes before pulling out her own phone.
“They need more porters,” she said. “Or more efficient ones. I’ll sic your mother on the luggage. Then I can focus on chivvying Monty on board.” With that she strode off, phone in hand, toward the rather distant pier where Grandfather was happily posing next to a pair of gulls.
Feeling a sense of relief, I sat down on one of the sturdier suitcases, closed my eyes, and did some of the deep breathing exercises my cousin Rose Noire always recommended for times of stress.
After a few rounds of breathing, I gave up. I certainly hoped the all-natural herbal anti-seasickness remedies she was bringing along worked better than the yoga breathing. I opened my eyes, and began studying my surroundings. Which were not encouraging.
“Why Pastime?” I muttered, not for the first time. When Grandfather had let it be known that he was interested in doing the cruise ship lecture circuit, he’d gotten offers from several lines, including several of the top contenders in the educational and environmental cruise market. Pastime was a relatively new company, and from what I’d seen, they didn’t have their act together yet. Farther down the waterfront I could see passengers bound for other ships dropping their luggage off with eager, attentive baggage handlers and strolling on board. Those other cruise lines had it together. Why didn’t Pastime? This didn’t bode well for the rest of the cruise. And besides—
“What’s all this?”
I glanced up to see that the long-awaited porter had arrived and was inspecting our sea of luggage. He looked up at me and scowled.
“There’s a limit, you know,” he said. “Two suitcases per person.”
“I know.” I waved a thick wad of Pastime paperwork at him. “There are sixteen passengers in our party. I think you’ll find only thirty-two items of baggage there. Unless someone else has hidden their bags in with ours, hoping to weasel out of tipping you.”
That didn’t seem to improve his mood—even with the suggestion that I was not unfamiliar with the concept of tipping porters. And his surliness wasn’t helping my own mood, either. I had the sinking feeling that some or all of our bags were about to disappear into the luggage-handling equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, never again to be seen by mortal eye. I could imagine sighting the Flying Dutchman, its shredded sails inspiring a feeling of dread as its phantom crew hauled frayed ropes and stared balefully at the forlorn mountain of increasingly faded and battered suitcases tumbling carelessly about on its decks.
I shook off my wild imaginings, fixed my attention on the porter, and summoned up what Rob called my Mother Voice—the one that usually got results.
“I’m not boarding until I see these safely loaded,” I said. “They’re all properly tagged and ready for you.” I refrained from adding that they’d been ready and waiting for him for two hours, and me with them. He was glancing at some of the tags as if hoping to find a problem. Good luck with that, I said to myself. I’d made sure of the proper tagging. Attached to each suitcase with a stainless steel loop was a sturdy plastic luggage tag holder containing the appropriate brightly colored slip of paper listing the suitcase’s owner, the deck and cabin number, our sailing date, our destination, and several sets of letters and numbers that were meaningless to me but presumably would help the porter deliver each suitcase safely to its destination. It had seemed an admirable system when I read about it on the Pastime Cruise Company’s website. But that was before I’d met this porter. He was a sallow, surly fellow, about my height but much wider and burlier. His white Pastime uniform, with all its shiny gold buttons, bars, and miscellaneous bits of trim, seemed cut for someone slightly shorter with a much smaller beer belly. In his red-rimmed and slightly watery eyes I saw—a lack of intelligence? No, more a warning that whatever intelligence he possessed would be enlisted to ensure not the safe arrival of our luggage but his own immunity from blame for any disappearances that might happen.
On impulse I pulled out my phone and opened the camera app.
“I almost forgot—I’m supposed to be keeping the family back home posted on everything that happens,” I said. “All those exciting moments that will make them feel as if they’re right here with us. Smile!”
As I spoke, I took a step or two backward, to ensure that I fitted all thirty-two bags into the frame with the porter. Who did not smile as requested—instead, he looked put out, as if by documenting his proximity to our luggage I’d foiled his plans.
Or maybe I was just attributing sinister motives to a man who was overworked, underpaid, and tired of coping with temperamental passengers.
Still, just in case, I also took what I hoped was a subtle glance at the employee badge he wore on his left shoulder and committed his name to memory. Actually, it was such an oddly international combination—Gianpiero Mulder—that I’d probably find it hard to forget.
Just then Trevor scurried back. I was surprisingly glad to see him. Normally having Trevor around was rather like finding oneself suddenly in the midst of a swarm of gnats. But as long as I could transfer the gnat infestation to the annoying Gianpiero . . .
“Oh, good—you’re back.” I beamed at Trevor. “Perhaps you could help make sure Mr. Mulder here doesn’t encounter any problems sorting out our luggage and getting it to the right cabins. If it takes more than one trip, I can stay here and guard anything left behind.”
As I’d hoped, the mere request made Trevor visibly anxious over the possibility of the luggage going astray. He’d attach himself to Gianpiero like a starving leech. Whatever sinister plans the surly porter had in mind for our luggage were almost certainly foiled.
And to my relief, all thirty-two items of luggage fit—just barely—on the porter’s cart. I was free to board.
And about time. Caroline and Grandfather had already boarded while Gianpiero was loading the luggage. The Pastime employee at the foot of the gangplank had begun glancing at her watch and then frowning at me. The ship wouldn’t sail for several hours, but I knew from reading the pre-boarding instructions that they wanted all the passengers aboard as soon as possible so they could get the mandatory safety drill over with, to avoid delaying our sailing time.
I paused on my way to the gangplank and looked up at what would be our floating home for the next week. The Pastime Wanderer was a graceful, gleaming white ship, several hundred feet in length with half a dozen decks. Tiny compared with some of the enormous cruise ships I could see farther down the waterfront, where Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and the other better-known lines were docked. But those enormous ships carried enormous crowds—three or four thousand passengers for the bigger ones. The Wanderer, thank goodness, only had room for about two hundred.
And nearly all of them were already on board. I tore my eyes away from the ship and stepped forward to present my ticket and passport to the young woman in the white-and-gold uniform who was standing by a podium at the foot of the gangplank.
Copyright © 2019 Donna Andrews