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Award-winning author Jeff Soloway debuts an entertaining new mystery series featuring a globe-trotting, caper-solving travel writer with a witty voice and a penchant for landing in sticky situations.
At a posh South American resort tucked into the lush jungles of the Andes, an American journalist has gone missing, leaving the hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas, with an international incident on her hands. Which is why she offers her ex-lover, travel writer Jacob Smalls, an all-expenses-paid trip to the resort in exchange for a puff piece extolling its virtues—and some behind-the-scenes digging into the disappearance. Intrigued by the prospect of winning Pilar back—and eager, as always, for freebies—Jacob hops the first flight to La Paz, Bolivia.
Although he hasn’t seen Pilar in years, Jacob finds her just as intoxicating as he did when they were together. But from the moment he hits the city’s cobbled streets, Jacob attracts all the wrong kinds of attention. Political flunkies and goons of all stripes try to scare him off the trail, while the missing woman’s not-quite boyfriend insists on shadowing Jacob’s every move. And amid ancient Incan hillside terraces, a world-class hotel conceals a secret that may kill.
Advance praise for The Travel Writer
“Travel doesn’t just broaden the mind; it can also get you killed. Sassy, cynical Jacob Smalls is an ideal guide for journeying into unknown territories.”—Christopher Fowler, author of the Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery series
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Travel Writer
The Hotel Matamoros, the Xanadu of the Andes, the super-resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome within the Bolivian tropics, was built to withstand earthquakes, mudslides, and drug lord assaults, but not scandal. The hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas, had gamely endured the twelve-hour flight from La Paz to face the scorn of a New York press conference, but she might as well have stayed home. Hilary Pearson, the New York–based travel editor, had disappeared—beyond that, Pilar had little of substance to say.
The air in the rented conference room was thick with righteous fury as she spoke. Reporters at the dailies were accustomed to being treated like children, but the mob of freelance travel writers and all-purpose hacks, admitted to the press conference in defiance of custom, grumbled and gasped at Pilar’s every evasion. Many of them considered Hilary Pearson a fallen comrade; many more saw in her mysterious disappearance a chance at scoring a paycheck from a national gossip rag. I myself had known Hilary, but that was not the only reason I was there.
A skinny young man in an orange shirt of East Village polyester rose to deliver his question, which he read verbatim from a legal pad. “Hilary Pearson is a travel editor herself and a veteran traveler,” he said, in an incongruously mighty voice. “If you couldn’t keep her safe on a press trip to your hotel, how can you guarantee the safety of your guests?”
Pilar brushed a breath of hair from her forehead and took a long gulp from her water glass, so her throat swelled like a frog’s. It didn’t matter; Pilar’s face would be beautiful even if she were spitting tobacco juice.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to host the president of Chile, the American ambassador to Argentina, and some of the most prominent executives and financiers in North and South America,” she said. “We place the utmost priority on the safety of our guests.”
A few snarky guffaws. I pitied Pilar and despised her dodges at the same time. But what choice did she have? She had no good news to present, or even hint at. Besides, her job was to pitch laudatory articles and butter up visiting writers and travel agents, not vaporize disasters. Behind her stood a Matamoros colleague, a squat brown man in a dark suit. He maintained a reassuring smile, but the tips of his ears flared red.
“Thank you for your questions,” she said at last, looking thankful indeed that the ordeal was over.
“Ms. Rojas!” I called, counting on my familiar voice to carry above the others. “One more!”
She saw me for the first time. If she felt any chill, she didn’t betray it. She nodded at me.
“One question,” I said slowly, to buy time to think up the question. “Just one. Who invited Hilary Pearson on this press trip in the first place?”
“I did,” Pilar said, and the room was suddenly silent. “I invite all the journalists. I just hope we find her soon.” With that she bent the microphone down like a drooping tulip and stepped back from the podium.
A few reporters rushed the platform to fire from close range as an underling gathered up extra press releases and the suited operative stalked off the stage.
“Jacob!” Pilar lobbed her unamplified voice over the scrum. “Come here!”
I approached her, enduring the heat-ray glares of the remaining reporters and fellow travel writers, many of whom I knew and all of whom would now mark me as a collaborator. I didn’t care. There she was across the podium, so close I could see the vertical lines in her made-up lips, valleys in the red half-moons. I had last seen her in Homosassa, Florida, a bit more than one year before. She had probably celebrated the anniversary.
“I could kill you for that question,” she said quietly. “But I was hoping you’d come. We have to talk. I don’t have much time.”
I pinched myself to keep focused. “I didn’t know it was you who invited her,” I said. “I’m sorry.” Ignoring a parting barrage from the reporters, she led me past a security guard and through a side door, which she closed with a grateful sigh. We were ensconced in a tiny office. Leaning against a desk was a glossy poster advertising “The World’s Most Fulfilling Resort.” At least she had the sense to keep it hidden away.
“I want you to come to Bolivia,” she said. “To my hotel.”
“When?” I said, wondering how soon I could raise the cash for the plane ticket.
“Friday. I wish it could be sooner. We’ll give you one week—meals, airfare, everything—and all you have to do is tell my boss you’re writing something nice about the Hotel Matamoros.”
I leaned back, my elation slinking away. All she wanted was a shill. “How much are you paying?”
“I can’t pay. But free tickets and a whole week at the Matamoros—how much is that worth?”
It was worth a lot, and ordinarily I’d snatch up the offer. Money wasn’t the issue. Most travel writers make less than cabdrivers; it’s the labor itself, preferably conducted at places like the Matamoros, that makes our lives worthwhile. At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin-star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my as yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether I could sell the thing hardly mattered.
But just because I have no pride in my work doesn’t mean I have no pride at all. Besides, embracing humiliation is no way to win back a lover—at least, not one like Pilar.
“Decide quickly,” she said. “He’ll be back soon.”
I guessed that “he” was the toad in the dark suit.
“I knew Hilary,” I said. “She was one of my first editors. I can’t write lies about her. Not even for a trip to the Matamoros. Not even for you.” I added a strangled chuckle, to let her know she didn’t have to take my last words seriously.
“I’m not asking you to lie, Jacob,” she said. “I’ve had enough of your lies.”
An uncomfortable silence congealed between us. I forced myself to tread humbly around it. “Even if I did write something nice, nobody’d print it. You know that. Not unless you’ve found Hilary safe and sound, hiding out with a cabana boy.”
“I don’t care who prints it. The article is just a cover so I can pay your expenses. I need you for something else. To help me find Hilary Pearson. She’s alive, Jacob.” The last three words, softly spoken, seemed to hover in the air like hummingbirds.
“How do you know? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I have evidence, but I can’t yet tell anyone, not even my colleagues. Especially not them. You can’t say anything either. She’s alive and I think we can find her, but we don’t have much time. I’m flying back this evening. You have to trust me.”
“I want to,” I said. “But help me. Show me this evidence. I can come back to your place right now to see it.”
She brought her fingertip to her mouth unconsciously, then jerked her hand away. She bit her fingernails when she was nervous. I couldn’t believe I still had that power over her. “They’re watching me very closely. Please, Jacob. I don’t know who else I can trust. You used to believe in me.”
“I always believed in you,” I said, “but I can’t believe in miracles.”
“Do you believe in monsters? You saw the one standing there with me. He’d strangle me if he could. Yes, I was the one who invited Hilary to visit the hotel. I knew her from my old job at Guilford. Now the managers say I should have watched over her. And they’re right! It’s a dangerous region, much worse than you can imagine, and I should have kept her with me. My boss will hear about what happened today. God knows what those wolves will write. I’ve never had to deal with anything like that before. It was very . . .” Her eyes cruised the air above my hairline as she searched for the right word. “Disorienting,” she said, disappointing both of us, I think. “I don’t know what else I can do, Jacob. I’m the only one who can help her, but I don’t yet know enough.”
“But what do you need me for?”
“Bolivia’s your territory. One of your territories, anyway. You have contacts. You knew Hilary. Didn’t you like her? Me too. You can ask the right questions, with my help. We’ll tell my boss at the Matamoros that you know an editor at Condé Nast Traveler. Or somewhere. He won’t suspect anything; he’s desperate for a good story.”
“There are twenty writers in New York who know the country just as well as I do. Why don’t you ask one of them?” I half suspected that she had.
“I don’t know them. I have faith in you, Jacob, despite everything.” She put her hand out hesitantly, and let it fall slowly, like a leaf, on my shoulder.
Miracles and faith—I couldn’t believe in either, especially not from Pilar. But when I told her I’d go, she smiled so suddenly and squeezed my arm so tightly, that I told myself I could suspend skepticism for as long as she could. The door opened, and the monster from the stage entered, bearing a crooked smile, as if irritation had numbed half his facial muscles. He was shorter than me, shorter even than Pilar, but his chest strained against his suit and I saw that his knuckles were scarred.
“Thank you for your questions,” Pilar said to me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful. I have to leave now.”
“Wait.” The man slapped his hand over Pilar’s shoulder, not at all like a leaf. “Get me a cup of water.”
Pilar, without glancing at him, turned toward the door and then, more slowly, her body visibly rotated by the tarantula hand on her shoulder, turned in the other direction, toward a watercooler just beside her. She bent, removed a paper cup from the attached dispenser, bubbled an inch of water into it. The hand remained on her shoulder the whole time. I could feel its calluses scratching my own flesh. She straightened and gave him the cup. He took it with his other hand and drank.
I had never seen her take an order before. At her old job at the public relations agency, she worked only with women, and even her superiors would only make suggestions or requests, which later she would tell me how much she resented. The monster held something more over her than the power to make her work late and get coffee.
“Perhaps I could help him,” the man said, returning the cup to her. Now she looked down at the hand on her shoulder, then along the road of his arm, but not quite to his face. He removed his hand from her.
He turned to me. “We do not normally grant private interviews.” His accent, surprisingly, was just a spice to his words. “Who is this?”
“Mr. Gonzales, this is Jacob Smalls,” Pilar said. “A travel writer. Mr. Gonzales is our head of U.S. marketing.”
She was either lying or flattering Mr. Gonzales. Or perhaps the job title described just one of the man’s duties.
“Is there anything else that you need to tell me, Pilar?” I asked. “To make my article express the Matamoros’s opinion even more effectively, I mean.”
“There is nothing more to be said,” said Gonzales. “If there is anything more, we will inform you immediately.”
“We appreciate your sympathy and your assistance, Mr. Smalls,” said Pilar. “I told you and all the others everything I know.”
“But surely Mr. Smalls wants more information,” said the man. “After all, you are a journalist, not a slave to commercial interests like ourselves. I know you serve nothing but the truth.”
“Not this journalist,” I said. “This journalist writes his hotel and restaurant reviews with great sympathy for a proud industry.”
“You don’t have to lie to me,” said the man. “You won’t change my opinion. I think all reporters are shit.”
“You can’t say that,” said Pilar.
“Why not? Mr. Smalls would never betray us. Would he?”
“You always tell me not to trust writers,” she said.
“He’s a friend of yours?”
“You won’t see him again?”
“No. I’m going home tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Tell him to take care what he writes. And then hope he obeys. For both of your sakes. I have unpleasant friends both here and in Bolivia.”
“Do you work for the Matamoros?” I asked. “Maybe you should try a different profession. Instead of hospitality.”
Pilar turned and raised a single eyebrow to me, an old signal, which I could never manage in return—she used to say that’s why she liked it. “Jacob,” she said. “Please.”
This man was threatening more than her job. And still she wanted me to defy his warnings and come to Bolivia.