Becklaw's Murder Mystery Tour (Jo Anderson Series)

BECKLAW’S MURDER MYSTERY TOUR

DANE MCCASLIN

Josephine Anderson, youngest of the immense Anderson clan, has an itch to travel and to put some distance between herself and Piney Woods, Louisiana, and she is determined to scratch it with a stint as a traveling actor for a murder mystery dinner show.  With Beatrice Becklaw in the pilot’s seat, the troupe of four amateur actors hit the circuit – and hit the end of the tour when a real dead body stops the show.  Jo’s fondness for Miss Bea is the impetus to find out just who ruined the tour, and the person she least suspects is the one she needs to watch.  Set in the beautiful mountains of Colorado,
Becklaw’s Murder Mystery Tour
is proof that sometimes the confines of the family compound is the best place to  be, nutty family and all.

Prologue

After it was all over, I never knew who to blame: myself for thinking that I could leave my familiar life behind and remain unscathed, or myself for counting on the touring company to supply me with Life’s Great Adventure. Either way, I was fully culpable.

When it was all said and done I was one unhappy camper.

I left my home in Piney Woods with the hope that I’d never be back and with the sage advice of Crazy Great-Aunt Opal ringing in my ears: ‘Shut the door when you leave’. Of course, she was referring to the door of her assisted-living luxury apartment, ‘built with your comfort in mind’, and not the metaphorical door that swung shut behind me when I joined
Becklaw’s Murder Mystery Tour
as a ‘character actor’. Still, it was good advice, apropos to almost any situation.

My mother, the one-time belle of Piney Woods, Louisiana, was absolutely appalled at my decision to leave the stone monstrosity known as the Anderson Family Home. According to her, I should be focused on taming a man, bearing his children, and settling down in my own domicile. Since none of those options appealed to me, I was determined to get out as soon as possible.

From the moment that I first spotted the
Sears and Roebuck Wish Book
as a child and realized that something existed outside of our tiny burg, I was determined to see it for myself. Life, so far, had consisted of family Sundays, followed by a week of prescribed activities, ending again in the ubiquitous Sunday get-togethers. It was, in a word, boring.

Thankfully, I had siblings to distract me. Being the only girl in a family of seven brothers, I was alternately loved, harassed, petted, bossed, and protected, and I still consider the Seven Brothers Boot Camp as the single reason I was able to recover so quickly from what came to be known as the ‘Jo leaves Piney Woods and Discovers a Dead Body or Two’ incident.

It didn’t happen quite like that, as you might guess.

Chapter One

The morning was chamber-of-commerce perfect: azure skies tinged with the remains of a spectacular sunrise, a light breeze, and moderate temperatures. I stood at my closet trying to decide what to wear. My destination was Copper, Colorado, and I’d heard rumors that it was still cold in that part of the country. I finally settled on my go-to jeans, a long-sleeved thermal under a T-shirt, and a denim jacket. High-top tennis shoes completed my ensemble, and I felt ready to face any challenge – or weather change – the day might bring.

My mother’s bedroom door was closed when I passed it, and I stood for a moment trying to discern any sounds. Hearing none, I blew a kiss in the general direction of where she might have been standing had she come out to see me off and reached the front door just as the taxi’s horn blared.

Merla Mae Bonner Anderson, my mother and current matriarch of the Anderson clan, had definite ideas of how a young woman should behave, and leaving home to join a traveling acting troupe was not on the top of her list. I tried to explain it to her, showing her the brochure that had caught my fancy and had given me the impetus to get out of Dodge, so to speak. My seven brothers were jealous, happy, indifferent, and supportive, depending on whom I was speaking to at any given moment. My best friend Neva Anderson (no relation, as far as we know) was excited for me, but content to stay put.

‘You can send me postcards, Jo,’ she had said, stroking Merlin, the moth-eaten excuse for a cat that she doted on. It, of course, said nothing, instead wrinkling its pug-like nose at me. That could be construed as a comment, I suppose.

It was through Neva’s odd occupation that I was now a full-fledged member of Becklaw’s Murder Mystery Tour, or at least that’s how I remembered it. She was a prolific subscriber to magazines of all sorts, from
TV Guide
to
Soap Opera Digest
to
National Geographic
, and in the back of one of them she spotted an advertisement asking for character actors. I filled out the application, jumped through some logistical hoops, and almost overnight became part of a traveling troupe based in Copper, Colorado.

My mother had retired early the evening before, claiming a migraine, but we all knew she was just miffed at my decision to leave. The family had gathered to say farewell and wish me luck, and I guess I was expecting something like that from her. Which is why I had to kiss the air goodbye, instead of her soft, scented cheek. I was being punished.

Train service is sporadic at best in our neck of the country, so imagine my surprise when the 07:32 to Denver arrived at 07:32. Tossing away my lukewarm cup of station coffee, I grabbed up the two bags I had packed the night before and leapt up the steps into the passenger car. I chose a seat at the very back, hoping to snooze a bit on the eight hour trip. Since that was my plan, of course it didn’t happen that way. For some reason, I tend to attract either chatty older women, alarmingly like Crazy Great-Aunt Opal, or harried young mothers with at least three crabby, fidgety children. For this train trip, I got both.

Two very sick children, one convoluted conversation (this with a dotty old woman whose lavender hair kept toppling down her forehead), and eight very long hours later, my train arrived at the Denver railway station. We who were disembarking stood up, stretched our atrophied limbs, and climbed stiffly down the steel steps. I joined the horde of bodies moving toward the covered depot, scanning the throng for someone holding a sign reading ‘Becklaw’s’.

I quickly spotted a short, plump woman standing off to one side of the platform, her truncated arms attempting to hold the sign up high enough to be read above the multitude. Making my way over to her, I sat down my bags, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself.

‘I’m Josephine Anderson, ma’am, here for Becklaw’s,’ I stated as proudly as if I had announced my arrival in the White House. ‘I usually go by “Jo”.’

She lowered the sign, groaning a little as her arms came down from their perch above her gray head. ‘I’m Beatrice Becklaw, owner, proprietor, whatever. Glad you made it safely, Jo. And call me Miss Bea.’

I stared at her, somewhat shocked at her proclamation. For some reason, I had created a Mr Becklaw in my mind, a man whose presence would be both noble and noticeable. The person who stood in front of me was certainly neither. Without attempting to curb my staring, I looked her over: she was short, as I had already noticed, solidly built with plenty of cushion around the middle, and had a head full of untamed frizz that was scraped back as flat as she could get it to go. The part that wasn’t held down by a series of combs and pins stuck up in tiny patches, much like a bed of sea anemone waving in the ocean current. Still, her face was kind, and I could see that she would be a no-nonsense, commonsensical type of boss.

We shook hands, her grasp surprisingly firm. ‘There should be three more folks joining us, so we’ll hang out here for a little while, if you don’t mind.’ Miss Bea turned away from me, standing on tiptoe as she surveyed the people milling about the station.

I noticed a very tall young man standing to one side, a look of bewilderment on his large face. Next to him stood a young woman who seemed more concerned with applying lipstick than finding whomever it was she was there to meet.

‘Ah. I think I’ve spotted two. Jo, you go over there and grab them. It’ll be that huge man and the girl with him. I’ll keep an eye out for the other. Go on now,’ she ordered, all but clapping her hands at me.

I scooted, leaving my bags at her feet and hoping that no one would take them. The pair watched my approach, he with trepidation and she with bored detachment.

‘I’m here from Becklaw’s. Are you two …?’ My question hung incomplete in the air between us.

‘Yep. That would be us. I’m Leslie Newsome. This is Little John Smythe.’

Was she kidding?

Little John – if that was really his name – leaned down and effortlessly gathered up the myriad bags nestled by their feet. They followed me back to where Miss Bea stood, this time with slender young man at her side.

‘Miss Beatrice Becklaw, this is Leslie Newsome and Little John Smythe. Leslie, Little John, this is Miss Bea.’ I felt absolutely foolish uttering this introduction and I noticed that the other man made no attempt to hide his amused smile.

‘I’m Derek Robertson.’ He held out his hand and I noticed that, for all his slight appearance, his handshake was strong. I think that Little John noticed it as well because the look in his timid eyes got even more pronounced. I grinned to myself. This was going to be fun. We all turned to face Miss Bea, waiting for a directive.

‘We’re all here now, so we’d best be getting on to the lodge. You boys carry the bags. Jo, take this sign and put it in the trash bin. Leslie, you come help me down the stairs. Everyone ready?’ She looked around, her eyes as bright as a young girl’s. I could tell that she was definitely in her element.

We trooped
en masse
down the platform steps and onto the sidewalk that ran straight out to the parking lot. Near the edge of the lot I spied an old panel-sided station wagon, reminiscent of the vehicles my mother would drive in my childhood. That would be a Miss Bea-type of transportation, I thought.

I was right.

We piled into the wagon, Miss Bea taking the driver’s seat. She sat, I noticed, suspiciously higher than she should have, considering her stature. Taking a quick peek over the front seat, I spotted the pillow on which she had plumped her rather generous backside. I met Derek’s eyes in the rearview mirror and we grinned at each other. We were thinking the same thing, I was sure.

The drive out of the town and into the area outside of Denver was absolutely breathtaking. Having never been further from home than Alexandria, which was built squarely on a series of flat areas that fed into swampland, I was amazed at the size of the mountains surrounding me. The tops were still capped in white magnificence, the snow too high up to melt. The road, although a modern thoroughfare of divided highway, felt more like a magic carpet taking me further and further away from reality.

And I was more than ready.

The lodge – it was really an old house with a verandah snaking around all sides – was set back from the main road by way of a dirt path. I caught glimpses of the house as we bumped up the trail, passing trees glorious with new green leaves and fields of what appeared to be daisies. I must have sighed aloud in my delight, because Miss Bea chuckled.

‘I completely agree with you, Jo. It
is
lovely, isn’t it?’ She twirled the steering wheel in her dimpled hands and suddenly we were there, rolling to a stop in front of the house that was to be our base for the next six months.

I carried my bags up the steps of the house and into the screened porch. An odd assortment of chairs and tables stood about as if flung there by accident, and a series of doors marched down the length of the front wall that presented itself to us.

Miss Bea, struggling up the stairs with help from Derek, pointed with her chin at the door in the middle of the wall. ‘Jo, open that door, please. It shouldn’t be locked.’

I obeyed, a reflex honed by years of living with my mother and brothers. The door creaked a bit as I turned the knob, an old affair constructed of brass that had tarnished with time. The inside of the house was dim and cool, and I heard a faint scuttling sound somewhere to the right. I jumped.

‘It’s only a mouse, Jo,’ said Miss Bea briskly. ‘Nothing that can hurt you. Boys, you take the rooms at the very top of the stairs. Girls, you’ll have the rooms on the second floor. I use the bedroom down here. Hustle now. I want to have a quick meeting in the front parlor just as soon as you get your rooms settled.’

We hustled.

Leslie and I moved up the short hallway that led from the landing. Three closed doors lined the hall, and we opened all of them, peering in cautiously. I’m not sure of what I expected, considering the apparent age of the house, but what we found was comforting.

Two of the rooms had a large bed smack-dab in the middle of the room, a tall chest of drawers, a small table that functioned as a nightstand, and a rocking chair that sat in the far corner. There was the scent of newness in the air, and it occurred to me that the comforters and sheets were brand new. I took the room nearest the stairs, and Leslie the one next to that.

The third door opened up to a modern bathroom, complete with towel warmer and glassed-in shower. I briefly wondered if the rest of the house would prove as wellheeled. Miss Bea, in spite of her second-hand aura, must have money.

I could hear the sounds of footsteps tromping above me as I moved back into the hall and down the stairs toward the parlor as directed. The loud thumps would be Little John and the quicker footsteps would be those of Derek, I surmised. I already liked him. As for Little John, I would reserve judgment.

In a few short minutes we were all gathered together, seated on the various chairs and sofas placed throughout the rather large and airy room. Tall windows added to the feeling of spaciousness, and I was glad that there were no draperies to hide the fantastic view.

Miss Bea stood in the center of the parlor, hands clasped in front of her and lips pursed as if in thought. I suppose she
was
thinking, since she looked at each of us in turn, turning slowly, not speaking. She cleared her throat.

‘Folks, I am delighted to welcome you to Becklaw’s Murder Mystery Tour. It is my hope we can all work together to entertain the vast audiences that may call upon our skills, and that we will enjoy each other’s company. You will each have a specific character to portray, but we’ll get into that tomorrow. For the rest of today, I want you to talk to each other, explore the house and the grounds, and get some good rest. We leave in four days for our first engagement. Dinner will be ready promptly at six o’clock.’

She looked around the room again, those bright eyes missing nothing as she scanned our faces. I noticed that she looked a bit tired, but if she had settled this entire house by herself, I would expect her to feel that way.

With a sweet smile for all of us, Miss Bea left the room. I looked at Leslie, wondering if there would be a camaraderie based on our shared femaleness. She was staring at Derek with a frank expression of something akin to speculation on her face, and Little John sat looking at his large paw of a hand, picking at his fingernails and not meeting anyone’s eyes.

Since I had arrived first, I felt something of a responsibility for getting everyone over this first awkward silence. I cleared my throat, much as Miss Bea had done, and turned to Derek.

‘Have you had much experience with character acting?’ The words sounded stilted, and I could feel the beginnings of a blush working its way up from my neck to my face.

Thankfully, he chose to rescue me from my own discomfort. ‘Actually, this is my first time acting at anything. You?’ His eyebrows lifted a tad in query as he looked back at me.

‘It’s my first attempt at acting as well. That’s weird that she’d hire two newbie actors at one time, don’t you think?’

Leslie shifted in her seat, reaching over to pat Little John’s massive thigh. ‘It’s our first try as well. Do you think that Miss Bea is a little, well, off her rocker or something?’

Frankly, I was stumped. I had no idea how anyone, Miss Bea included, would be able to whip us into fighting form within four short days.

We were soon to find out.

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