The Last Descent

A Travel Writer Mystery

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A murder at the Grand Canyon throws travel writer and amateur sleuth Jacob Smalls (“An ideal guide for journeying into unknown territories.”—Christopher Fowler) into a mob conspiracy of epic proportions.
Not only has Jacob Smalls just been dumped, his now-ex-girlfriend, fellow travel writer Jewel Rider, has wasted no time moving on. But when she cozies up to the PR man for a newly erected luxury hotel near the Grand Canyon, Jacob thinks he knows what Jewel’s really after: the inside scoop on the hotel’s owner, Gus Greenbaum, a gangster who built his desert oasis on bribery and intimidation. So after Jewel plunges to her death while hiking the canyon, Jacob isn’t ready to believe it was an accident.
As an excuse to do some snooping, Jacob joins a press trip to Gus’s hotel. Notes hidden deep inside Jewel’s backpack reveal that she may have had more dirt on Gus than she realized, and as Jacob follows her leads, he inches closer to the truth. But Gus is onto him too. One of his thugs seems to be watching Jacob’s every move. And now Jacob will need to use every trick in the book before he’s wiped off the map.
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 series

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Last Descent

Chapter 1

The “Grand Chalet Grand Canyon: Grand Opening!” gala press event was held in the basement conference room at the Hotel Herald Square, hitherto known to the travel-writer community only for its adultery-friendly afternoon rates. Each eight-top table’s centerpiece contained four double-size bottles of red wine; the organizer, Grant Flanders, prided himself on getting his invitees as drunk as possible, to put them in the best possible mood for his presentation. I found a seat between my friends Magda and Dov.

Jewel, being Jewel, arrived late, but she spotted my table immediately, winked at Magda, and bargained with Dov for his seat. He gave it up quickly—men were always taking her bargains, whether or not they were any good. Jewel was tall, slim, and stately when she moved, like an evil queen in a classic cartoon; she managed to look regal even in her preferred attire of hiking boots and Gore-Tex. Tonight she was dressed up, which for her meant jeans, nonwaterproof shoes, and a black T-shirt. All eyes had followed her across the room, even Grant’s, as he pretended to readjust his projector.

Jewel tapped my plate with her fork. “You don’t answer your texts,” she said.
“You dumped me,” I said.
“Yes—politely, respectfully, and with good reason.” She took a deep breath, in preparation for running through all those reasons again.
I nodded vigorously and poured her a drink. I had to hold the wine bottle with both hands. Jewel understood. “Sorry.” She nudged me with her elbow. She had never done that before.

She used to like to place her fingertips on my arm, or knee, or face, at any time, and hadn’t cared who saw. Intimacy never embarrassed her. She had demanded my innermost secrets two drinks into our first date. This new kind of joshing-uncle contact was meant as a kindness. She could touch me now without the risk of tempting herself or remembering how we used to touch, but she knew I would feel differently. All I could do now was take comfort in her pity.

Jewel was the reason I had come. I shouldn’t even have been invited. I occasionally bagged magazine and online gigs, but mainly I was a guidebook writer, specializing in Bolivia. Apparently Grant considered South America close enough to the American Southwest. Or perhaps Jewel had pulled some strings. In her text from the day before, she had said that she was going to Grant’s event to “take down the murdering enviro-terrorists.” I wasn’t sure what part of the phrase, if any, was metaphorical.

She leaned her head closer to mine. “That man,” she murmured, pointing to a man in a brown suit, “is the terrorist.”

“How do you know?” I asked.
“I’ve been working on him for weeks. Watch me turn the screws.”
Grant rapped his microphone against the podium and grinned as we all flinched from the electronic boom. Behind him scrolled the Grand Canyon’s unending, unrepeating, infinitely complex pattern of stone.

“Behold the new frontier in adventure luxury!” he commanded.

The unfurling image of the Grand Canyon was instantly replaced by a static image of the Grand Chalet Grand Canyon—massive natural beauty giving way to massive functional opulence. The Grand Chalet was designed in developers’ favorite Southwestern style, which meant it looked like the Alamo, if the Alamo were the size of the Pentagon. It was located in the Grand Canyon’s South Rim gateway town of Tusayan, a mile outside of the park entrance. I’d been to Tusayan, of course, a dusty strip of chain hotels, stupefyingly bland restaurants, and creeping traffic, and could only imagine how a resort like this would dominate the surroundings. Like the pyramids dominate Giza.

Grant flashed to the next slide: a squad of showgirls in sparkly bikinis, who he claimed were helicoptered in from Vegas twice a week. The more ironic half of the writers cheered. There were seven full tables, so about fifty writers altogether, but they managed to sound like the crowd at a spring-break pole-dancing contest. At many of the tables the wine was already half- gone. I looked around for Jewel’s terrorist. He was now seated at a table in the back, viewing Grant’s performance with what looked like sardonic appreciation. Both his smile and his suit spoke of a man accustomed to hotel suites with private elevators. His white hair was spiky and moussed, with a little boy-band peak at the top. Despite the youthful affectation, he looked completely respectable, but then, in the real world, killers are more often bureaucrats than pimped-out lowlifes. Standing next to him was an equally respectable-looking woman who had jazzed up an almost daringly grim black pantsuit with a brand-new Yankees cap. She suddenly turned to the killer and grinned devotedly, though the killer didn’t seem to be saying anything. A killer wouldn’t have to.

After the presentation, while the more optimistic writers were attempting to penetrate the chicken Kiev, Grant came by our table to apply the personal touch. On the way, he high-fived a passing waitress. His relentless confidence in his own good looks was, I had to admit, deserved. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and unwavering, even when he was caught staring. Women who didn’t know him said he looked brooding.

He whispered something to a woman at our table, pulled up a chair, and sat so close to her their shoulders fused.
“My wife, Victoria,” he said.

Victoria smiled half-ironically at his tone of easy possession and colored a bit in the cheeks. She seemed a little embarrassed to be proud of her husband. She had olive skin, midnight-black hair, and wide black eyes behind formidably stylish rectangular glasses. I couldn’t place her ethnicity. She might have been from some Pacific island that all of us mainlanders want to visit and all of the inhabitants want to escape.

Her smile faded along with the color but neither quite disappeared. Grant picked up her hand and kissed her on the wrist. He looked us over slowly and unleashed his spiel:

“The GC2—get it?—is the first real luxury hotel near the Canyon.” His voice was clear but low-pitched, as if the information were top secret and hadn’t been doled out exactly the same way to every other table.

“The spa offers mud treatments with real Sedona red dirt, loaded with energy vectors and mixed with foam skimmed from the most spiritual parts of the Colorado River. The chef makes a salad with local prickly pear grown with hydroponic technology.”

“What does that even mean?” murmured Magda.

“It means the cactus tastes like a porterhouse,” Grant explained. He had an excellent ear for sarcasm. “You’ve all got to come on the press trip in a few weeks. You’d love the place. The hotel’s just phase one. We’re transforming the whole town of Tusayan. We’re building shops, theaters, parking lots, art galleries, a festival street through the heart of town. We’re giving the place a new identity—a little bit of Sedona and a little bit of Vegas. We’re doing villas for jet- setters and hipster retirees. The place is gonna explode. Who wants to live in Scottsdale when you can live next to the Grand Canyon?”

“Big plans,” said Jewel, “for a desert town.”
Magda and Dov put down their forks. Grant, no fool, proceeded cautiously. “Big plans for any town.”

“Where will they get the water?” she asked.

“Not an issue—we’ve got a source. We’ve done studies. We’ve got scientists on staff. Used to be I didn’t know what a hydrologist was. Now I have beers with, like, eight of them at a time. They know all the environmental rules and they make damn sure we follow them.”

“But the rules keep changing,” said Jewel. “Local law used to prohibit any large hotel from drilling for groundwater, in order to protect the Grand Canyon’s water sources. But somehow the law was rewritten last year. Do you know how?”

“I hear it was bribery.”
“Me, I happen to believe in America.”
Jewel laughed. She had a talent for laughing easily and apparently sincerely at the lamest of jokes. It helped soften the intensity of her convictions. I noticed Victoria staring at Jewel. With a husband like Grant, she would always be assessing threats to her marriage from all those barely postcollegiate assistant editors and interns overrunning the industry. Victoria wasn’t that much older than they were and struck me as just as good-looking, but she would lack their powers of boundless admiration. Grant was not known for scrupulous fidelity. But Jewel was a different class of threat.
“Environmentalists hate development,” said Grant. “I get that. But we need hotels. Shutting off the Canyon to everybody but professional backpackers is a crime against nature. What’s the point of preserving a natural wonderland if only the high priests in hemp hiking pants get to enjoy it?”

“That man sitting in the back,” asked Jewel, “is that Gus Greenbaum?”
“The one in the Yankees hat? No. She’s the hotel’s general manager.”
“I said the man. The one in the mud-colored jacket.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s Gus Greenbaum. With his wife, Glenda. A very special woman. It’s a family business really, but with cash and corporate infrastructure. Gus flew in last night from headquarters. He’s so psyched for the national rollout.”
“I hear Gus Greenbaum is from Vegas.”
“That’s where headquarters is.”
“I hear he’s in the mob.”
A hush fell over our table. Someone had apparently committed some real journalism. Most travel writers backed off at the first sign of resistance, but I knew Jewel wouldn’t. She was an incessant truth-seeker. We had dated for several months. For the first two, I found her hilarious and fascinating when she wasn’t boring into me; for the last two, I found her fascinating and a little scary because she was always boring into me. Then she dumped me. She thought I was withholding something from her, and she was probably right. If only I knew what it was, what I might be guarding in my secret core that could have impressed her.

“Who told you that?” Grant asked.

“Law-enforcement contacts in two states, Nevada and Arizona.” Dov put his iPhone on the table and pressed Record. He made most of his living with Straight Outta the Boro, a travel site for “Jews Who Get Loose,” but like many of us, he liked to sell investigative gossip on the side.

“You hear a lot of bullshit. Mr. Greenbaum’s rich, he’s in real estate, he’s from Vegas. That’s enough for some.”

“Not for me,” said Jewel. “One of the activists I interviewed is a man named Freddie Bridgewater. He’s been spearheading the protests against your hotel, including the one last week where the protesters all got smashed up. Have you seen this photo?” She held up her cellphone first to him, then to the rest of us. It showed a uniformed security guard raising his club over a crouching woman. “That’s a Grand Chalet security guard.”

“Could be anyone,” said Grant.
“Any thug.”
“You should be mingling.” Victoria whispered this in Grant’s ear, but we all heard it. He turned to her, nodded, smiled, tucked a stray strand of dark hair behind her ear. He returned his attention to Jewel.

“All I know is the fanatics fought the cops,” he said. “Guess who lost? Look, I respect the environmentalists. I pack all my poop out of the backcountry and eat free-range granola. But some of them are dangerous wack jobs and most of them are deluded.”

He kept hold of his wife’s hand, as if it were a kind of power outlet.
“Mr. Greenbaum’s thugs threatened to cut Freddie Bridgewater’s balls off,” Jewel said. “Who told you that?”
“His friends.”
“You really should get the story in person when you’re talking castration.”
“I wanted to. Freddie Bridgewater hasn’t responded to my calls. Turns out no one’s seen him for the past week. They say he’s gone into hiding. The police won’t help.” “He’s probably on a peyote cleanse.”
“Can I speak to Mr. Greenbaum about this?”
“Absolutely. Except he just left.”

“No, he didn’t.”
“He’s about to.”
“He’s right behind you.”
“What’s the hubbub?” Greenbaum asked. He slapped Grant’s shoulder. Grant grimaced— presumably joking about the pain of the slap, presumably also disguising his genuine surprise and displeasure, maybe also his fear. He struggled to his feet, breaking his connection with Victoria.

Like all good journalists, Jewel read fear as getting warmer. “Mr. Greenbaum, local environmentalists claim your hotel is destroying the Grand Canyon and your staff is assaulting peaceful protesters. What’s your response?”
“My response is”—Greenbaum let his face freeze into an expression of cold fury—“Who invited you?” His face burst into a smile. Grant laughed; Dov and Magda joined in, relieved that he wasn’t immediately going to mutilate anybody.

Jewel’s half-smirk was all disdain, and not just for Greenbaum. “Do you think it’s funny to terrorize protesters?”
Greenbaum reddened, which made his white hair and eyebrows seem to glow in contrast. “Did you tell them about the monitors? The scientists?”
Grant nodded rapidly. “Absolutely.”
“Good! The truth comes from the instruments and the experts, not out of some protester’s ass. Excuse me, miss, but I get pissed off when I hear lies. What I know is that we follow the rules, every one of them.” As if an entire flock of rules had burst squawking into his office and each one had to be chased down and throttled.

Glenda Greenbaum was approaching our table as fast as she could in heels. Greenbaum must have heard her. He gave Grant a backslap that sounded like a balloon popping and turned away. This time Grant took the blow without flinching. Mrs. Greenbaum snagged her husband’s arm as he passed and redirected him to an empty corner. She gave our table a single backward, injured glance, as if we’d been tormenting a troubled child.
“What can I say?” Grant shrugged and started rounding the table. “You try representing a guy like him. He tells the truth and tells it hard. He’s not so bad. Honest, between us”—he stopped at Jewel’s chair—“it’s a different story with the locals. It’s like they’re racist against people who can spell. Especially if they can spell aquifer. Don’t quote that. They see hippie Sierra Clubbers as killing their jobs. Those protesters should be careful when the locals come around. So should you.” He put a hand on Jewel’s shoulder. She brushed it away like dandruff and flashed Grant a sly smile, one I recognized from the press event several months ago—the first time I had ever interested her.

She had spent so much time searching for my core and here she was pretending to be charmed by a man who had none. Or maybe she really was charmed—Jewel appreciated honesty.

Victoria was staring at the two of them and then suddenly at me. The worst thing, to her, was that I noticed too. She gave me a little shrug, as if to declare that she was unashamed. Never a good thing to have to declare.
Some time later, after Grant’s trademark vodka-spiked brownies dimanche à la Grant were served, the lent-out electronic equipment removed for its own safety, and Gus and Glenda Greenbaum decamped to their hotel, Magda and I opened the last wine bottle from the reserve stash. The party was diminished but not exhausted. Though the exalted salaried journalists (these days anyone with a salary was a superstar) were long gone, a dozen of us remained, including Magda and me and Dov, longtime New Yorkers who, with most of the night still ahead of us and the whole city at our disposal, had decided to stay right here, where the booze was free.
Magda pointed to Jewel and Grant. They had just returned from the outside, where Grand had probably had a smoke, and now they were huddled in a corner, chatting secretively but giving away the secret by touching each other’s shoulders, forearms, fingers. The universal sign of a date going well. What about him appealed to her? Many writers, male and female, will flirt to cultivate a source, but Jewel could never hide her distaste for people. Perhaps she interpreted his vulgarity as candor. And she was smart enough to detest his employer, not him, and he was crafty enough to sympathize with her cause. I hoped I wouldn’t always be so jealous, but for now, there was no escape.

“She’s injecting the serum,” said Magda. “She’ll find out everything he knows about Gus Greenbaum by the end of the night.”

“That’s not all she wants,” I said. “She likes him.”
“She’s drunk.”
Victoria had noticed them too. She had drifted away from the pack of drinkers toward their private party. Her face wavered between neutral and dismayed, as though she was trying unsuccessfully not to care. Grant had as yet committed no definable crime; he was just being a dick. And, after all, he was a dick, so how could she complain? Her rectangular glasses contrasted strikingly with her delicate features, her snub nose and thin cheeks. Unusual eyewear often accompanies an air of pretentious intellectuality, but on Victoria the glasses looked more like armor than fashion, as if the rims were there to intimidate anyone hoping to slip past them into her soul. I imagined how dramatic it must have been for Grant when she removed them for the first time.

She moved closer to them and I silently willed her on. I had seen how tenderly Grant had touched her, even more tenderly than he was touching Jewel now. What a jerk. He leaned forward to whisper something to Jewel, lips hovering drunkenly around her ear, like a bee around a flower. Jewel stepped back from him, and Grant stumbled and almost fell to the drink- smeared carpet. Victoria, who had been drifting closer, stopped, perhaps hoping Jewel was insulted and the danger passed. But Jewel and Grant closed in again, like tired boxers who know the clinch is the safest place.

Victoria took one last step forward, called out to Grant, and then wrapped her arm around his elbow, the one that wasn’t brushing against Jewel’s left breast.

Grant glanced at her, annoyed, the guy on the subway who’s caught you reading over his shoulder. Victoria, smiling, said something to both of them.

“We’re talking business,” he insisted, loud enough for all of us to hear.
“Asshole,” I said to Magda.
“Let’s get her out of here.” Magda absorbed her friends’ shame the way better writers absorb their friends’ secrets. I always loved that about her. Good writers make bad friends. I started moving.

Victoria grabbed Grant’s upper arm. Grant swung his elbow to free it, but he swung too hard, smacking her in the shoulder. The blow knocked her completely off balance.

But I was there. I caught Victoria from behind and fixed her on her feet. She turned and glared at me, as if I’d groped her. When she recognized me her face changed, but the outrage remained. Toward me or toward Grant?
“You’re not talking business,” she said. “You’re talking about Freddie Bridgewater. Among other things.” Toward Grant.
He smacked his hands together. “Don’t say that name.”
“Then leave with me now.”
Grant saw me and clenched both hands into fists, choking two invisible throats. His eyes started at my shoes and ran up my body like roaches.
“Why are you still here?” he said. “I only invited you because Magda begged me. You come drink my wine, and now you look at me like I’m some kind of jackass?”
“We’re all looking at you like you’re a jackass,” I said. “Come on. We can all leave together.”
“Better be careful.” His grabbed a nearby wine bottle by the neck and sloppily filled a glass.

He grinned at me.
“Grant, no,” said his wife.
“Watch me.” He jiggled the glass in his hand like a player shaking the dice. A few drops

sloshed out. I stood my ground. He took a quick breath.
Just as Victoria lunged forward to stop him, Grant flung the drink.
Victoria was now in front of me. The flying red blob slapped her right in the face. She stepped back but said nothing. Dark liquid smeared the lenses of her glasses and dripped from the frames.

While everyone, including Grant, was looking at Victoria, I grabbed his upper arm, spun him around, and drove him toward the nearest table. The breath burst from his lungs as he doubled over. I tightened my hammerlock and shoved his face down into a brownie plate. These kinds of moves are a lot easier to accomplish when your opponent is stumbling drunk. The side of his nose stuck out over a puddle of melted ice cream shot through with veins of chocolate sauce.

“Let go,” Grant commanded, but it’s hard to speak authoritatively with just half your mouth. “Vee, tell him to get off!”

I relaxed the pressure enough so that he could lift his face from the dessert. He jerked his head around to stare at me. No, past me. I kept my grip but glanced behind as well, suddenly afraid that his wife was about to jump me in his defense.

Victoria was there, but she wasn’t jumping. Her arms were crossed, her face still dripping with wine, her neck muscles as rigid as suspension-bridge cables. “What should I do?” I asked her.
“Make him leave.”
Grant tried to lift his head farther. I wouldn’t let him.

“Are you leaving on your own,” I asked, “or should I help?”
“I’m leaving. Why would I want to stay?”
I backed away and watched Grant straighten up slowly, vanilla ice cream streaking his cheek like clown tears. I tensed for his rush.
“Victoria,” he said. “Come with me.”
“You got to stay cool. It’s not safe to spout off. The Greenies might come back.” “As long as you don’t.” She wiped her glasses.

Jewel was already gone. Grant began the long walk out of the room, head up but eyes downcast to watch for all the detritus that might disastrously disrupt a drunk’s journey.

The writers who remained drifted away to gather their coats.

“He never used to do it.” Victoria was at my shoulder. From my sidelong angle, I could see her eyes behind the shield of her glasses, tracking Grant’s course out of the conference room. It felt like I was peeking under a curtain into someone’s home. “But now it’s all the time. Imagine what it’s like when I’m not around. The woman doesn’t even have to be beautiful. This time she was. They said she’s your girlfriend.”

“Used to be. What’s he so afraid of?”

“Gus Greenbaum. She’s right about him. He’s killed people.” We both glanced around the room. The Greenbaums remained gone.

“Do you have proof?”

“Grant does. And Jewel knows it. But he won’t tell her. She’s not worth the risk. None of them are worth it. I’m worth it. What am I supposed to do now?”

“Divorce him.”
“But I still love him.”
That was unfortunate. “So make him apologize. Then make him pay.” “I want to. I will. Can you take me home?”
“Sure. Where do you live?”

“Not my home. Yours.”

Her voice was suddenly demanding, her face persuasively alluring. But mixing revenge and romance has never worked out for me.

“Leave him first,” I said. “Then call me.” I gave her my card.

- About the author -

Formerly an editor and writer for travel guides, Jeff Soloway is now a book editor in New York City. In 2014 he won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

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The Last Descent

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The Last Descent

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