Here is how I happened upon the murder that saved me.
Sometimes in life you think it’s about where you’re going, but it turns out to be about where you change trains. On my way from California to New York City I had taken the northern route, which required me to change trains in the storied village of Tranquility, New York. On that fateful afternoon the posted schedule informed me that, should I decide to bolt and visit Montreal, I could leave within the hour. The train heading south for New York City, however, would not be along until 4 p.m.
It was an April afternoon; the colors on the trees and bushes were still the watery palate of spring. Here and there, forsythia burst in insistent bursts of golden glory.
I needed a drink.
Tranquility has been famous for a long time. Best known for hosting the Winter Olympics back in 19-whatever, it was a weird blend of small village, arts community, ski mecca, gigantic hotels and Olympic facilities. I suppose you could see the part that met your fancy and turn a blind eye to the rest.
Certainly there was somewhere here a person could get lunch.
The train station, made of light-colored stone, was on the southern tip of the main street, which followed the shores of Lake Serenity. Lake Tranquility itself was actually in the next town over.
Across the street was a shiny modern hotel of the upscale chain variety. Just down the road, father south, was a large, meandering, one-of-a-kind inn called MacTavish’s Seaside Cottage. It looked nothing like a cottage, and there were no seas. I doubted the existence of a MacTavish.
I headed over at once.
The place was evocative of a lost inn in Brigadoon, had the highlands such a place. There was a square main building of only a single story with wings jutting off at various angles into the rolling hills beyond. Yet there were windows enough that the lobby was bright and airy. Two full suits of armor stood guard by the check-in desk to the left, while a life-sized bronze statue of two downhill skiers stood under a skylight in the middle of the room.
Behind the statue, straight back, was the Breezy, a sleek, glass-enclosed restaurant and bar that sat overlooking Lake Serenity. It had an outdoor wrap-around deck that was filled with greenery and tourists on this balmy day, eating and holding tight to their napkins lest they be lost to the murky depths.
Off to the right, in seemingly the only dark corner in the vast common area was a small door marked Weeper’s Gate. A tavern name if I ever heard one.
Sure enough, once I pulled open the heavy door, the pub name etched into leaded glass, I had to pause a moment and let my eyes adjust to the change in light, atmosphere, and, possibly, century.
Only two of the booths against the far wall were taken, one by a middle age tourist couple and one by three local women lingering over lunch. Two of the center tables had patrons who had finished eating and even settled the bill. A young man of 17 or 18 was bussing their table.
I sat at the bar.
The bar was at a right angle as you entered the room, and it ran the length of the wall. It was hand-carved and matched the carved back bar, which held 200 bottles, easily.
A bartender’s dream, or her undoing.
Only one other person was seated at the bar during this low time between meal services. He was a tall gentleman with a square face, weathered skin, and dark hair pulled back into a pony tail.
He looked me over as I sat down. As I perused the menu, I could feel his cold stare, so I gave up and stared back.
“Flying Crow,” he said. “Native American.”
“Tristan,” I said. “Train changer.”
I went back to my menu reading. I was surprised to find oysters were a featured dish.
“Tristan?” he finally said. “But you’re a—”
“Woman,” I answered. “I know. Flying Crow? You’re in a Scottish pub.”
“Ask him what Oswego means.” This was from the bartender, a lanky man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Oh, but place your order first.”
“Are the oysters good?” I asked.
“Oddly, yes. One of the best things on the menu. Us being seaside, and all.”
“All right, then. Oysters it is. And a really dry vodka martini.”
I turned to Flying Crow. “So what does Oswego mean?”
“It means, ‘Nothing Here, Give It to the Crazy White Folks.’ Owego, on the other hand means, ‘Nothing Here Either.’”
“How about Otego? And Otsego and Otisco?”
His eyebrow raised. He was impressed by my knowledge of bizarre town names in New York State. “They all mean, ‘We’re Just Messing with You Now.’”
“Hey,” I said, raising my newly delivered martini. “Thanks for coming clean.”
He raised his own glass of firewater in return.
“Coming clean?” asked the bartender, and he chuckled, then dropped his voice. “If he’s coming clean, his name is Lesley.”
“And you are?” He wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Skol,” I said, raising my glass. “Is this bar really called Weeper’s Gate? It doesn’t sound like a real traffic-driver.”
“Nah,” he said, flipping over the menu. “That’s just the name for the entry hall. The actual pub is The Crooked Elbow.”
As he spoke, the leaded door of which we spoke banged open and two men in chinos and shirtsleeves arrived, talking loudly to each other. The door opened again, just behind them, admitting a stream of ten more folks—both women and men, all wearing business casual. Some were more casual than others. There was one man with silvering hair who actually wore a suit and tie, and another in a white artist’s shirt, his black hair in a bun. The women’s garments, too, ran the gamut from suited to flowing. One, of medium height, even wore a white blouse, navy blue skirt and jacket, finished with hose and pumps. And a priest’s dog collar.
“Conventioneers staying at the hotel?” I asked Joseph. Even as I asked, I knew it didn’t make sense. No specific corporate culture was in evidence.
He laughed. “Nah. Conference people always eat at the Blowy. Er, Breezy. Tranquility’s Chamber of Commerce meeting just let out.” His grey eyes danced. “They can never agree on anything, but their entertainment quotient is fairly high. And they drive each other to drink.”
Flying Crow Leslie shook his head.
Most of the new arrivals found tables in the center of the room. Seven of them scooted the smaller tables together, others continued their conversations or arguments on their own.
“Marta!” Joseph called, leaning through a door in the back wall beside the bar.
A curvy girl with nose and eyebrow rings and mega eye shadow clumped through. Her eyes widened when she saw the influx of patrons.
I was glad my order was in. In fact, Joseph slid the grilled oysters with fennel butter in front of me. “Want anything else before the rush?” he asked, referring to the liquor behind me.
“I’d better hold off. Just in case there’s a disaster and I end up having to drive the train.”
He nodded knowingly. “Good luck with that.”
I took out my phone, but re-pocketed it without unlocking it. I wanted a few more uncomplicated hours before re-entering the real world. Turning to my right, I found that Flying Crow had vanished. In his stead, several bar stools down sat a Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and a fly plaid. It was predominantly red with blue stripes.
Wow. Native Americans, Scotsmen and women priests in pantyhose. This was quite a town.
Joseph was looking at an order screen, and five drinks in different glasses were already lined up ready for Marta to deliver.
My phone buzzed. I fought with myself. I turned it on.
I was grabbed by tentacles of the past.
When I looked up, filled with emotions I didn’t care to have, I decided I did need another drink; fuck driving the train.
The line of drink glasses was gone, as were Marta and Joseph.
I checked the time. I’d been in Underland for fifteen minutes, 20 at the most. It was just past three. I had maybe forty-five minutes before I should move on.
Marta swung through the kitchen door, and put her head down to stave off the multiple calls from the center tables. She stood in front of me, punching information into the point of service station, doing the No Eye Contact Tactical Maneuver.
“Have you seen Joseph?” I asked.
“No,” she murmured, not looking up.
“When you do, I’d like another drink,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
She looked up then, troubled. “Everyone wants drinks,” she said, “and I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“How long since you’ve seen him?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Ten minutes?”
A man in kitchen whites swung the kitchen door open. “Here’s the ice Joe wanted.” He set down a bucket with a thunk and disappeared.
So Joseph wasn’t in the kitchen.
“Could he be in the restroom?”
“I asked Arthur when he came out, but he said there was nobody else.”
I nodded at Marta, glad for a reason to stand up. I started by going out through Weeper’s Gate, to see if perhaps he’d met someone in the lobby. A family with four children checking in. No sign of the bartender.
I swung back through into the woodsy-smelling darkness of the Crooked Elbow, and shook my head at the troubled Marta. I walked past to the circular window in the door. The industrial kitchen was white and well-lit, and as large as it was, I could see straight through to the Breezy.
On this side, there was a hallway to the restrooms, and another wooden door that led outside. I looked back at Marta and nodded to the door.
“It doesn’t go anywhere,” she said. “Just to a little smoker’s deck.”
I wondered if Joseph smoked, tobacco or otherwise. Certainly the arrival of most of a Chamber of Commerce would suggest it to me. I pushed on the wooden door. It seemed locked. I gave it one more try, and, though it didn’t open, it did budge a little bit.
This time I went at it with my full shoulder. There was a thud, and it wedged open enough that I could slip through.
It could hardly be called a deck. You couldn’t put a table or even a lounge chair out there.
Especially with the body taking up so much of the space.
It was Joseph. I knelt quickly and felt for a pulse at his neck, but it was clear he was inanimate. He was still sitting up, although my pushing the door open had made him lean at an angle. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was one of pain or surprise.
Crap. He was always nice to me. Well, during the half an hour I’d known him, he had been nice to me.
What is protocol when one discovers a corpse? Should I call in the priest? But she was within a group and it would certainly start a panic. Call 911?
Yes, that would be good. That way they could decide if you call the hospital or the police or both.
My phone was back in my purse.
And, you know what? I didn’t want the call to come from me. I was just passing through.
I pulled the door back open and walked to Marta behind the bar. “Call 911,” I said. “I found Joseph.”
It took the ambulance and the police five minutes to arrive. The paramedics went through first, and brought a gurney around outside so as to not freak out everyone in the hotel. They loaded Joseph on and sped off, just in case there was anything to be done.
I knew there wasn’t.
The police, on the other hand, worked at securing the place which might become a crime scene. They blocked all the doorways and announced no one could leave.
I was still behind the bar with Marta. She was shaking.
“Give me another Scotch,” said the Scotsman at the bar.
I looked at the bottles and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. “I think this calls for Black Maple Hill,” I said, only kind of surprised at my reflexive tendency to upsell. The Hill was a smooth pour but not the absolute priciest.
He nodded. I poured.
I’m not sure if it was Marta’s tears, or the fact we weren’t allowed to leave, but local bigwigs had realized something was amiss.
“Excuse me,” said one of the men in a suit. “Someone said that Joseph is dead.”
“Yes,” I said. “He does seem to be.”
Marta swung out of the kitchen, her eyeliner half down her face. “Al, these are your oysters,” she said. He took them.
“So,” he continued, and I wondered what meaningful words he’d have to say. “You’re pouring drinks?”
It took only a moment to realize that, were I the owner of this establishment, I’d find this a great opportunity.
“Seems so,” I said.
“What goes with oysters?” he asked.
That was a no-brainer. I’d spied the green bottle of absinthe while having my own meal. I poured about 3 tablespoons into the glass. I then opened a bottle of Prosecco, poured it, and waited for the milky cloud to form.
He took a sip, looked at me, and raised the glass. “If I want another of these, what do I ask for?”
It was only then that I realized I’d dispensed one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite libations. “Death in the Afternoon,” I replied.
He nodded and went back to his table.
And I realized I wasn’t going to make my train.
Ernest Hemingway’s DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) absinthe
1/2 to 3/4 cup (4 to 6 ounces) cold Champagne or sparkling wine
Hemmingway’s advice, circa 1935: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
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