Five years ago, we had a serious house fire. We had to live somewhere else for a year while our home was rebuilt. It was traumatic, to say the least (see previous post). My wise husband suggested, no matter how fraught life had become, I should be writing. Writing is my therapy, my way of processing. Harlan Coben says it this way, “If I don’t write, I hate myself. Simple as that. My life is out of balance.” Okay, I don’t hate myself. But my life is out of balance. Bob suggested I write something “fun” to counter the stresses in other parts of life.
But write what? Or, for a novelist, the question is, write who?
The summer between his junior and senior year of high school, my son Jonathan announced he’d like to train to be a bartender. I said, funny thing, so would I. So we did. We decided to take the course in 1 week. Hardest thing either of us had ever studied for. We studied together in the car for the hour and a half down to the school, we went to school all day, we studied the hour and a half back. There was a written test and a drink test–you had to make 6 cocktails randomly called out to you in four minutes. But! Once you are a bartender, a good deal of your job is talking to people. And for voyeurs like novelists, it’s hog heaven. Or vodka-heaven. Perhaps it would be for a sleuth. The irony is, I’m not much of a drinker. I’m in it for the mixing of flavors and the conversation. I sat down and started to write, wondering who would show up.
A young woman, at a train station. She was running away from her life in Los Angeles. Her mom is a successful, if controversial, comedian and her father is a well-known conservative pastor. Her name is Avalon, her best friend has just died. She is changing trains to head to her family home in Brooklyn.
A young woman, unexpectedly at a crossroads, not knowing for sure where she’s going or what’s coming next. A young woman searching for a home who loves hearing people’s stories–and who knows how to bartend. Sound familiar? She turned out to be someone I might enjoy travelling with through the changes in this crazy world. Perhaps you would, too. If you’d like to meet her, keep reading. Here’s the first chapter of Death in Tranquility, Book 1 from The Bartender’s Guide to Murder.
Chapter 1 Death in the Afternoon
“Whenever you see the bartender, I’d like another drink,” I said, lifting my empty martini glass and tipping it to Marta, the waitress with teal hair.
“Everyone wants another drink,” she said, “but Joseph’s missing. I can’t find him. Anywhere.”
“How long has he been gone?” I asked.
“About ten minutes. It’s not like him. Joseph would never just go off without telling me.”
That’s when I should have done it. I should have put down forty bucks to cover my drink and my meal and left that magical, moody, dark-wood paneled Scottish bar and sauntered back across the street to the train station to continue on my way.
If I had, everything would be different.
Instead I nodded, grateful for a reason to stand up. A glance at my watch told me over half an hour remained until my connecting train chugged in across the street. I could do Marta a solid by finding the bartender and telling him drink orders were stacking up.
Travelling from Los Angeles to New York City by rail, I had taken the northern route, which required me to change trains in the storied village of Tranquility, New York. Once detrained, the posted schedule had informed me should I decide to bolt and head north for Montreal, I could leave within the hour. The train heading south for New York City, however, would not be along until 4 p.m.
Sometimes in life you think it’s about where you’re going, but it turns out to be about where you change trains.
It was an April afternoon; the colors on the trees and bushes were still painting from the watery palate of spring. Here and there, forsythia unfurled 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 an eclectic blend of small village, arts community, ski mecca, gigantic hotels and Olympic facilities. Certainly there was somewhere a person could get lunch.
Perched on a hill across the street from the station sat a shiny, modern hotel of the upscale chain variety. Just down the road, father south, was a large, meandering, one-of-a-kind establishment called MacTavish’s Seaside Cottage. It looked nothing like a cottage, and, as we were inland, there were no seas. I doubted the existence of a MacTavish.
I headed over at once.
The place evoked a lost inn in Brigadoon. A square main building of a single story sent wings jutting off at various angles into the rolling hills beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows made the lobby bright and airy. A full suit of armor stood guard over the check-in counter, while a sculpture of two downhill skiers whooshed under a skylight in the middle of the room.
Behind the statue was the Breezy, a sleek restaurant overlooking Lake Serenity (Lake Tranquility was in the next town over, go figure). The restaurant’s outdoor deck was packed with tourists on this balmy day, eating and holding tight to their napkins, lest they be lost to the murky depths.
Off to the right—huddled in the vast common area’s only dark corner—was a small door with a carved, hand-painted wooden sign which featured a large seagoing vessel plowing through tumultuous waves. That Ship Has Sailed, it read. A tavern name if I ever heard one.
Beyond the heavy door, down a short dark-wood hallway, in a tall room lined with chestnut paneling, I paused to let my eyes adjust to the change in light, atmosphere, and, possibly, century.
The bar was at a right angle as you entered, running the length of the wall. It was hand-carved and matched the back bar, which held 200 bottles, easily.
A bartender’s dream, or her undoing.
Two of the booths against the far wall were occupied, as were two of the center tables.
I sat at the bar.
Only one other person claimed a seat there 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 ponytail. I felt his cold stare as I perused the menu trying to keep to myself. I finally gave up and stared back.
“Flying Crow,” he said. “Mohawk Clan.”
“Avalon,” I said. “Train changer.”
I went back to my menu, surprised to find oysters were a featured dish.
“Avalon?” he finally said. “That’s—”
“An odd name,” 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, olives.”
“Pimento, jalapeño, or bleu cheese?”
“Ooh, bleu cheese, please.” 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 obscure 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?” I asked. He wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Skål,” I said, raising my glass. “Glad I found That Ship Has Sailed.”
“That’s too much of a mouthful,” he said, flipping over the menu. “Everyone calls it the Battened Hatch.”
“But the Battened Hatch isn’t shorter. Still four syllables.”
“Troublemaker,” muttered Lesley good-naturedly. “I warned you.”
“Fewer words,” said Joseph with a smile that included crinkles by his eyes. “Fewer capital letters over which to trip.”
As he spoke, the leaded door banged open and two men in chinos and shirtsleeves arrived, talking loudly to each other. The door swung again, just behind them, admitting a stream of ten more folks—both women and men, all clad in business casual. Some were more casual than others. One man with silvering hair actually wore a suit and tie; another, a white artist’s shirt, his blonde hair shoulder-length. The women’s garments, too, ran the gamut from tailored 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 collar.
“Conventioneers?” 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 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 Lesley shook his head.
Most of the new arrivals found tables in the center of the room. Seven of them scooted smaller tables together, others continued their conversations or arguments in pairs.
“Marta!” Joseph called, leaning through a door in the back wall beside the bar.
The curvy girl with the teal hair, nose and eyebrow rings and mega eye shadow clumped through. Her eyes widened when she saw the influx of patrons.
Joseph slid the grilled oysters with fennel butter in front of me. “Want anything else before the rush?” He indicated the well-stocked back bar.
“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, then re-pocketed 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 barstools down, sat a Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and a fly plaid. It was predominantly red with blue stripes.
Wow. Mohawk clan members, 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 checked caller i.d. Fought with myself. Answered.
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; forget driving the train.
The line of waiting drink glasses was gone, as were Marta and Joseph.
I checked the time. I’d been in Underland for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. It was just past three. I had maybe forty-five minutes before I should move on.
That was when Marta swung through the kitchen door, 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 sale station, employing the NECTM—No Eye Contact Tactical Maneuver.
That’s when she told me Joseph was missing.
“Could he be in the restroom?”
“I asked Arthur when he came out, but he said there was nobody else.”
I nodded at Marta and started by going out through the front hall, to see if perhaps he’d met someone in the lobby. As I did a lap, I overheard a man at check-in ask, “Is it true the inn is haunted?”
“Do you want it to be?” asked the clerk, nonplussed.
But no sign of the bartender.
I swung back through into the woodsy-smelling darkness of the Battened Hatch, shook my head at the troubled waitress, then walked 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 the shared kitchen to the Breezy. No sign of Joseph. I turned my attention back to the bar.
Beyond the bar, 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. “It’s only 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 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. There was some vomit beside him on the deck, and a rivulet down his chin. I felt embarrassed to be seeing him this way.
Crap. He was always nice to me. Well, during the half an hour I’d known him, he had been nice to me.
What was it with me discovering corpses? It was certainly a habit of which I had to break myself.
Meanwhile, what to do? 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 to 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 softly. “I found Joseph.”
It took the ambulance and the police five minutes to arrive. The paramedics went through first, then brought a gurney around outside so as to not freak out everyone in the hotel. They loaded Joseph on and sped off, 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 seated there.
I looked at the bottles and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. “I think this calls for Black Maple Hill,” I said, only mildly surprised at my reflexive tendency to upsell. The Hill was a rich 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,” the man in the suit came to the bar. “Someone said Joseph is dead.”
“Yes,” I said. “He does seem to be.”
Marta swung out of the kitchen, her eyeliner half down her face. “Art, these are your oysters,” she said to the man. He took them.
“So,” he continued, and I wondered what meaningful words he’d have to utter. “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 three 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?”
As he asked, 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.
It was then 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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