Her dreams of a trip across Europe on a luxury train hadn’t included murder…
In 1937, with the clouds of war looming on the horizon, librarian Fiona Vancleave dreams of luxury train trips involving exotic places and romantic interludes. But when she wins a trip on the Orient Express, she quickly discovers that things aren’t quite as she envisioned them. While romance might be a possibility with fellow passenger, the enigmatic Winchester Barrington, IV, Fiona doesn’t know if she can trust him, especially when she finds herself suspected of murder. Alone in a foreign country, facing possible jail time or even execution is certainly not what she had in mind when she booked her trip.
He’s a spy, searching for an assassin, but he hadn’t expected to find romance…
Winchester Barrington, IV, scion of a wealthy Connecticut family, boards the Orient Express, ostensibly for a pleasure trip from Paris to Istanbul. In reality, he’s a spy for the United States War Department on the trail of a master assassin. His mission: to find and capture this elusive executioner. Among a growing list of suspects, including an Oxford Don, an American entrepreneur, a Chicago gangster, and two mysterious Turkish men, Win finds himself attracted to Fiona, a shy librarian who may actually be his quarry.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Senior Assassin by Sherry Fowler Chancellor, Fiona Vancleave wins a trip on the Orient Express in 1937. An English librarian, Fiona is thrilled to win this luxury trip from Paris to Istanbul. On board the train, she meets Winchester Barrington, IV, who is undercover for the US War Department, looking for a super spy. Because Fiona is shy and has a German-sounding last name, and because Germany is on the verge of war, Fiona becomes the main suspect when people start dying. Win falls for Fiona, but he is torn as he, too, thinks she might be the spy he’s looking for.
The story is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery, a cross between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. The storyline is intriguing, the characters charming, and the romance sweet. Chancellor gives an authentic view of what life was like for a “middle class” librarian, trying to mingle with “upper class” aristocrats on a luxury train. Simple things like having no one to button the top buttons on her formal gown, as she didn’t bring a maid with her and she can’t reach the buttons herself. If you’re looking for something an old-fashioned mystery/romance, it would be hard to go wrong with Senior Assassin.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Senior Assassin by Sherry Fowler Chancellor is an old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-type mystery. I guess today you would call this a cozy mystery. It takes place in 1937 and on board the famous train, the Orient Express. The heroine, British librarian Fiona Vancleave, has won a trip on the train for an essay that she wrote about its history. But the romantic vacation to exotic places that Fiona is dreaming about when she boards the train is not exactly what she gets. One of the first men she meets is an American who hears her last name and immediately accuses her of being a German spy, even though her accent is clearly British. When that man is killed, holding some of Fiona’s notes with his blood on them, Fiona becomes the main suspect. Ending up in a foreign prison, wrongly convicted of murder is not exactly what Fiona was hoping for when she boarded the train in Paris.
I thoroughly enjoyed Senior Assassin. Since I’m a big Agatha Christie fan, this book was right up my alley. It’s a refreshing change from all the blood and gore so prevalent in mysteries today. That’s not to say there’s no blood in the book, but Chancellor does keep it to a minimum. The plot is strong, the characters charming and well-developed, and romance sweet and heartwarming. This is the kind of book you’ll want to keep on your shelf to read over and over again.
For secrets are edged tools, and must be kept from children and from fools. ~ John Dryden, English poet, 1631-1700
Paris, France, 1937:
The station platforms at Gare de l’Est Paris were crowded with people off to various destinations. The sea of humanity made for lots of noise and bustle. Porters followed behind travelers and carried their bags and steamer trunks to be loaded onto eight different trains. Early morning fog seeped into the area from the openings leading out from the rail yard to the tracks. It was a cool day and passengers in heavy coats hustled toward the warmth of the cars. Steam hissed from the engine of the train on track number two and seemed to ooze from beneath it as well. Covered in a cloud of fog and steam, Winchester Barrington, IV looked down at his sister, Cordelia. “You better get on board before you get soot all over that new coat.”
She glanced down at the ankle-length fine-wool coat with a fur collar and smiled. “This old thing?”
“Yeah. That old thing.” He ran his index finger across the fur. “You’ve had it, what? A week?”
“Never mind about the age of my garment. What are you going to do after I board?”
“I’m scoping out the other passengers.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for me to stand here then so you don’t seem obvious?”
“No. Remember, I’m trained for this. I know how to look casual.” He tilted his head to indicate the locomotive. “Go on now. Board the train and get yourself some tea or coffee.”
“I still think this is a little incestuous, Barry. I don’t like it.” Cordelia frowned.
“It would only be incestuous, dear little sister, if we were going to actually bunk down together.”
“But the cabin steward will make the bed into a double since we’re ‘married.’ You know that.”
Barry grasped Cordelia’s upper arm. “I plan to tell him that you’re pregnant and on doctor’s orders to sleep alone.”
She swung her hand to smack him but he caught her wrist just short of her making contact. “Do not make a scene, Cordelia. Don’t. I need you on this mission but if I have to, I’ll leave you right here.” He leaned in to where his nose was almost touching hers. “Got it?”
“I have it, you monster, but we’re going to talk about this. I will not be pregnant. You’ll have to think of something else. I don’t care a tinker’s damn about your mission. You’re not going to bandy that rumor around on this train.”
“You’re not to use this trip to try to pick up men either. You can’t be your normal flirtatious self. You agreed to this plan, if I’d get you out of the house and away from mother’s constant chaperoning, so you better cooperate. Now get on the train.” He was tempted to throttle her but he’d been raised better than that. Nonetheless, the thought did cross his mind.
Cordelia let out a huge puff of air that made the fur on her coat flutter but she obeyed his command.
Once she was off the platform, Win concentrated on the other passengers as they boarded. He held a leather portfolio and took notes in such a manner as if to appear to be studying the station and jotting information for further reflection. It was a good cover in his opinion. He was pretending to be an engineer. Well, not really pretending since he had a degree in it but that wasn’t really his job.
He noticed a few couples, several single male travelers and one lone woman clutching a wicker bag that reminded him of a fisherman’s creel. She held it tight to her chest as if she feared someone would steal it. She glanced around as if in awe. She was blonde and a bit short for his taste. She had on a black coat and the skirt peeking out from the bottom was also black. Her hair was tied up in a severe bun as if she hated the thought of being perceived as feminine. In fact, it was scraped back so tightly, she must have had a headache.
Win puzzled over her. Could she be the person he sought? Was she trying so hard to be inconspicuous that she stood out? He shook his head. No. It couldn’t be. Besides, could a woman be as dangerous as he’d been led to believe his prey was? He’d read the dossier, after all. No. Not a woman and definitely not this one. She seemed too meek. He turned away and focused his attention on the others still in the process of boarding.
Two men caught his attention. One had the look of Peter Lorre about him. That fact in and of itself was enough to make him suspicious. The other one was so non-descript, Win made a note to engage him in conversation to see what he did for a living. He bet the man was a Fuller Brush salesman. He laughed under his breath. His father was friends with Alfred Fuller and he knew the man well.
The sound of “All aboard” being called by the conductor snapped Win to attention and with one last glance around the crowded, noisy, steamed-filled station, he stepped onto the bottom iron step that led on to the train. He held on to the rail, stared out past the shoeshine boys, and watched as a man in a trench coat carrying a duffle bag dashed past the other boarding areas. He was headed right toward where Win stood.
Win moved aside as the man leapt onto the now-moving train.
“Thanks, mate. Bugger that fog. My cab hit the car in front of us and I had to run the rest of the way.” The man swept off his hat and placed his bag on the floor. He held his hand out. “Mack Plant. Nice to meet you.”
“Winchester Barrington, IV. My friends call me Barry.”
Plant grabbed Win’s hand and shook it. “Barry it is, then.”
The conductor approached. “May I show you gentlemen to your quarters?”
Plant held out his ticket. “Indeed, dear chap. Thank you so much.”
The conductor glanced down at it. “Ahh. Yes, sir. You’re near the back.” He held out his hand for Win’s. “And you, sir, are near the dining car.” He pointed to his left. “That way. It’s the second door before you get to the dining car. You can make your way there or wait for me to come back from escorting this gentleman.”
“I can find it. Thanks.” Win turned toward the front of the train.
As the conductor led Plant away, the man called over his shoulder, “Would love to chat with you in the club car later, mate.”
“That would be nice,” Win replied. He walked on toward his cabin, mulling over what was not quite right about the man called Mack Plant. Was it his ludicrous name or was it the slightly trying too hard to be British accent and syntax?
As Win moved down the corridor, his mind turned to Cordelia and he wondered yet again if involving his sister in this plan was going to pan out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He couldn’t afford to let down his commander and his gut was warning him that he might do just that.
The cacophony of noise in the station overwhelmed Fiona Vancleave as she clutched her basket to her chest. It was all she could do not to cover her ears as she boarded the train. She’d been on trains before but mostly from her home in Worchester, England and there was usually only one at the station at any time, since there were only two platforms there.
The noise of the eight different platforms was overwhelming. There seemed to be people everywhere, with everyone seeming to know where they headed.
Excited to be on an adventure, the twenty-three-year-old librarian couldn’t settle her heart rate down as she watched all the activity.
The hustle and bustle of the porters and the other passengers gave her a thrill and once she was in her compartment, she sat and gazed out the window, transfixed by the scene.
She knew she looked like a country rube to the others in the sophisticated city of Paris but she was too thrilled to be there to worry about it.
It was her lucky day when she won the contest that allowed her to take this luxury trip across the continent. She could barely believe the day was finally here. What an adventure she was in for–or at least she hoped she was in for one. A knock at the door pulled her from her reverie. She moved away from the window but before she could touch the knob, a steward poked his head in. “Good day, mademoiselle. I am Lucien. I will be serving as your cabin steward. Would you like me to unpack your cases?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I can do it myself.”
The man bowed. “It is part of the service.”
“I really don’t mind doing it myself.” She was really a bit put off by the thought of a man plundering through her unmentionables. No way was she letting him unpack her stuff.
“If you insist.” He backed out. “Place your bags in the corridor when you’re finished and I’ll take them to the luggage hold.”
“Thank you, Lucien.”
He left and Fiona returned to her seat to watch the action until the train moved. It didn’t seem as if the stream of passengers was ever going to end.
With a large exhale of steam from the front of the train and a couple of blasts of the horn, the locomotive began to creep forward and out of the station. The huge monstrosity lumbered slowly until it was out of the rail yard, the city center, and into the relatively open area of the suburbs. Fiona sat, still watching out the window through this process, then shook herself back to attention.
Resolved to get unpacked before the steward came back and insisted on doing the job, she stood, pulled her suitcase off the rack above her head, and set it on the seat. She opened it and took out the two items on top. Before she left home in Worchester, Fiona and her best friend went shopping for a couple of formal dresses for her to wear on the trip. They were expensive but she needed to fit in with the others on the train so she’d spent the money.
The one in pale blue silk was her favorite. Fiona ran her hand down the soft material and thought about how it looked on her. It clung in all the right places and made her forget she was a librarian. It wasn’t often that she could play the part of a femme fatale but she planned to try on this six-day trip across the continent. It was probably the only chance she’d get in this lifetime, since she didn’t travel first class as a rule.
Making quick work of the other unpacking after she’d hung up her other evening gown, Fiona pulled her hair out of the severe bun she’d fixed that morning and combed it. She wanted to go to the lounge and get a drink and was determined to try to look less studious than she did each day at work. She found a thick barrette and pulled her hair back in it. Curls hung down her back and she tugged a few tendrils loose around her face to soften her appearance.
Satisfied, she zipped her suitcase closed and remembering what Lucien said, she opened the door and set it out in the corridor. After pocketing her key, Fiona walked past her case and down the hall toward the direction the conductor had told her was the way to public cars that included the lounge and the dining area.
She moved down the corridor swaying a little in motion with the train. She’d never been much good at keeping her balance on a moving vehicle and this time was no different.
Jostling along and hitting her hip on the wall periodically made Fiona giggle.
When the train took a curve, she really lost her balance and fell into a man walking behind her. “I’m so sorry. I can’t walk very well yet.”
“It’s all right, mademoiselle. It’s kind of like trying to find your sea legs on a ship, isn’t it?” The man removed his hand from her waist. He smelled like peppermints. “I hope you’re steadier now. Are you going to the lounge?”
“Yes. I am thank you.”
“Then allow me to escort you there. I’m Jacques Cassel.” The man was of average height and build, and he wore his medium brown hair a little long. He seemed as if he’d blend into a crowd easily and his manner was mild and pleasant.
Fiona smiled. “That would be lovely. Maybe I can stay on my feet between here and there.”
His lips curved into a grin that seemed a bit more menacing than friendly. “If not, I’m here to assist.”
Fiona shrugged off the unease his facial expression caused her and moved down to the lounge car with him. She sensed she was already in over her head and they weren’t even completely out of the Paris city limits yet. What made her think she was any match for the rich and idle? It seemed to her as if this man had already figured out that she was a mousy, poor librarian from the country and he was ready to devour her for dinner.
Her steward passed them and nodded his head at her. “Mademoiselle, may I collect your baggage now?”
“Yes, Lucien, that would be lovely. I left it out for you.”
She continued down the corridor with Monsieur Cassel behind her.
His peppermint scent wafted over her. When they arrived at the lounge, he opened the door and stepped aside. As she passed him on her way inside, he said, “May I know the name of the lovely lady I accompanied?”
“Fiona. I’m Fiona Vancleave.”
“I shall remember that, my dear, and hope to see you again and again as we travel to Istanbul.”
“I’m sure you will since this is really a small world in itself.”
“Perhaps dinner, then, some evening. I’d enjoy a drink with you now but am meeting a friend.” Cassel reached for her hand and lifted it to his lips. He placed a kiss on her knuckles. “For now, au revoir.”
When he let go of her hand, it was all she could do not to wipe it on her skirt. She couldn’t figure out why he gave her the jitters but he did and she didn’t like it.
© 2014 by Sherry Fowler Chancellor