On-Your-Toes Thriller // Mrs. John Doe Book Excerpt
The man across the aisle was looking at her again. Well, it seemed that way to Nora, but she couldn’t really be certain; perhaps she was merely being vain. She glanced briefly over at him and changed her mind. No, she thought, I’m imagining it; he’s watching a movie, something with Tom Cruise, and he’s wearing earbuds. He was Hispanic or Middle Eastern, or maybe Greek; she couldn’t always pinpoint nationalities. And he was half her age, but age considerations didn’t necessarily deter males from exercising a roving eye. Here came the pretty flight attendant with the drinks cart, and now he looked up and smiled. He had no interest in Nora, whereas with the girl, he was indulging in what Jeff had always called window-shopping.
She rested her head back against the enormous seat and closed her eyes. She hadn’t traveled much lately, but Jeff’s constant continent hopping had apparently caused their joint airline credit account to all but glow in the dark. When she’d called them yesterday to book the round-trip ticket—Coach, please, open return—she’d immediately and cheerfully been bumped up to first-class. So, here she was, closing in on Heathrow at just about two o’clock in the afternoon, London time, dreading the ordeal ahead in impressive luxury.
She’d slept a little, and she’d eaten some of the excellent meal she’d been served, but she’d declined the offered wine and Champagne. She remembered her late mother’s adage that nerves and alcohol were never a wise combination. At least she was mercifully alone: Dana had wanted to come with, as she’d expressed it, but Dana had been denied. Nora had gone into the city to see her daughter before her flight, and they’d had a long, emotional talk in the cramped, cluttered rooms Dana was sharing with two other girls, all ramen noodle soup and back issues of Cosmo and strewn underwear. She’d left her daughter weeping there and hurried to Kennedy for the midnight flight, which took off two hours late. Now, at nine in the morning, New York time, she merely felt numb. Emotions could come later, she decided. Today, she would get through this.
The sky above Heathrow was overcast when they landed, and the tarmac outside her window was glistening. There’d been rain this morning—on the last day of June. Welcome to London, she thought as she hitched her black Coach bag over her shoulder and disembarked. The black-haired, dark-eyed young man from across the aisle, the one she’d thought was watching her several times, paid no attention to her as they made their way through carpeted corridors to the international arrivals area. She was the first passenger through Immigration, and Bill Howard was waiting there for her, solemn, dressed in black. As usual, he’d somehow managed to get through the barriers into the restricted section. He folded her in his arms, and she nearly sagged against him before collecting herself. After a moment, he gently drew away from her and said, “Let’s go.”
The other passengers were forming lines for baggage claim and Customs, but Bill flashed a leather card case at the nearest uniformed officers and led her away to the exit. A limousine was stopped at the curb, and a big, muscular black man in chauffeur livery was already stowing her suitcase in the trunk. The boot, she reminded herself: This is England. Hood and trunk are now bonnet and boot, and steering wheels are on the right because they drive on the left. She wondered how they’d managed to get her bag here so swiftly, but she didn’t ask. She didn’t ask about Customs either. She knew from experience that Bill’s ID card was by way of being a magic wand.
As the driver opened the rear door for her, she noticed the young man from the plane getting into a taxi behind them.
The car moved into the stream of traffic heading for the city, and she finally took a good look at Bill Howard. She’d known Bill and his wife, Vivian, for about fifteen years now, ever since he’d begun working with Jeff. She’d last seen him three years ago, when she’d come over to join Jeff for four glorious weeks, during which she’d managed to see every new play and musical on offer in the West End. A working holiday.
Bill looked older than she remembered, thinner on top and thicker through the middle. His mustache had gone completely white under his aquiline nose and ice-blue eyes. He would be in his late fifties, she figured, perhaps five years older than Jeff, and his face and form were what she secretly classified as typically British: tallish, squarish, oddly formal, handsome and patrician in a David Niven sort of way. She’d never found him particularly appealing, though she could see how a lot of women would. Vivian, as chic and warmhearted as her husband was tweedy and correct, was much Nora’s favorite of the pair.
“How’s Viv?” she asked him now.
“Oh, fine, fine,” he mumbled with a little wave of his hand. “She’s looking you up at the hotel this evening, so you can see for yourself.” He glanced through the partition at the back of the driver’s head and then turned to face her in the backseat, cutting his gaze swiftly from her to the driver’s head and back again. Nora met his gaze and nodded, letting him know that his message had been received. The walls have ears.
“We’re dropping you at the Byron first,” he went on. “Do you want to rest up a bit before—”
“No,” she said. “I want to get this over with, and the airline has already made me two hours late.”
“Then I shall take you myself. We’ll check you into the hotel and go directly on from there. After that, Viv will meet you for dinner back at the Byron at eight o’clock, if you feel up to it. I’m afraid I can’t join you. I have an important meeting this evening that I couldn’t postpone—a minister I’ve been trying to have a word with for several months. It’s rotten timing, but there it is.”
“I’ll be all right,” Nora assured him. “And Viv will keep me company tonight. You do what you have to do. I’ll be fine, really.”
“Yes,” he mumbled. “Quite. Well, then . . .”
Nora reached over to cover his hand with her own. “Thank you for doing this.” She nearly smiled when she saw his bright red blush.
Author Tom Savage
Tom Savage is the author of six suspense novels: Precipice, Valentine, The Inheritance, Penny for the Hangman, and Mrs. John Doe. He wrote two detective novels under the name T. J. Phillips, Dance of the Mongoose and Woman in the Dark. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and anthologies edited by Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, and Michael Connelly. His short story, “The Method In Her Madness,” was nominated for the Barry Award. His bestselling novel, Valentine, was made into a Warner Bros. film. In his younger days he was a professional actor, and he also wrote a Broadway show, Musical Chairs.
Tom was born in New York and raised in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He attended Point Park College and Hofstra University, majoring in drama and minoring in English. After acting and writing plays, he worked for many years at Murder Ink®, the world’s first mystery bookstore. He’s a member of Actors Equity Association, ASCAP, the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers, and International Thriller Writers. He has served as a director on the national board of MWA, and he’s served several times on the Best Novel committees for MWA (Edgar® Awards) and IACW (Hammett Prize). He is a founding member of MWA’s Mentor Program, assessing and encouraging new mystery writers. He lives in New York City.