"The Best-Laid Plans" was published in the anthology
Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional
(Wildside Press, April 2016)
It was nominated for the 2016 Agatha Award.
by Barb Goffman
It’s a good thing my fans couldn’t see me. Between my narrowed eyes, pursed lips, and burning cheeks, I probably looked like the killers I wrote about.
My hands shook as I raised the newest copy of Mystery Queen Magazine back toward my face. I’d opened the glossy issue so happily just a few minutes ago. Sitting on my chintz loveseat, a cup of Darjeeling tea in hand, I’d eagerly begun reading the cover article about the future of the traditional mystery. I’m considered one of the grande dames of my profession, and I’d been thrilled when a Mystery Queen writer sought out my opinion a couple of months ago. I’d expected this resulting article to be the beginning of a wonderful month, culminating with the annual meeting of Malice International, one of the world’s most prestigious mystery conventions. It celebrates the traditional mystery no matter where on earth it’s set. And this year, they’re honoring me for my lifetime achievement.
So imagine my surprise when I read this:
“The traditional mystery is at a crossroads, with Malice International clearly trying to straddle both routes. Stalwart Eloise Nickel”—Stalwart? They might as well have called me an elderly hag—“represents the old guard of lighthearted mysteries focused on the warm setting and eccentric characters, what many these days would call the cozy subset of the genre. Kimberly Siger, who will be Malice’s guest of honor this year, represents what some call a more modern type of mystery, with a darker mood, deeper characters, and plots that are edgier and more complex.”
Son of a . . . Sure, plotting hadn’t ever been my strongest suit, but my readers were in it for the comforting small town, the characters who are like old friends, the clever puzzle. Who needs a complicated—or in Kimberly’s books, convoluted—plot? Or violence on the page? And since when did Kimberly write deeper characters than me? Just because they’re filled with angst they’re deeper? The nerve of that magazine.
“‘Eloise and I represent both ends of the mystery spectrum,’” the article quoted Kimberly as saying. “‘She writes quiet mysteries. They’re cute. Cozy. I grew up reading Eloise’s soothing books, and I understand why her readers love them. But a growing number of readers, especially—to be honest—younger ones, often want to toss out their cup of tea and drink some high-octane java. That’s where my books come in.’”
That bitch! My fingers curled into claws, eager to squeeze Kimberly’s pasty neck. Until now, I’d been eagerly anticipating the convention, trying not to focus on the fact that Kimberly would be the guest of honor. She was a user—something I’d learned firsthand twenty-five years ago, when I was a rising star in the industry and she had her first book out. We met at the bar at Bouchercon Philadelphia. She was micropublished. Her contract was lousy, but her writing showed promise, so I gave her tips and introduced her to a lot of important people. Kimberly used every bit of my help, gaining an agent and a new publisher before leeching onto bigger authors and dropping me like a bloody knife.
Considering our past, I’d been less than delighted to learn we’d be sharing the limelight at Malice. But I’d been willing to do it because of the great honor the convention was bestowing upon me. But for Kimberly to effectively call me and my readers old and say my writing was out of date in Mystery Queen just weeks before the convention? This was war.
I leaned back on my loveseat and read the rest of the article. My quotes were on the next page. I’d emphasized that the traditional mystery was like a big tent, and many subgenres could fit in it. I’d been polite and inclusive, not passive-aggressive like Kimberly. I wish the reporter had told me what Kimberly had said so I could’ve stood up for “quieter” mysteries. My fans deserved nothing less.
I was about to hurl the magazine across the room when my phone rang. It was my agent, Janette Meade.
“How the hell did this happen?” I yelled when I picked up.
Janette sighed. “I see you’ve read the article.”
“Article? That’s no article. It’s a hatchet job. Kimberly made me sound elderly, out of touch, and boring.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Are you kidding? And now I’m supposed to smile and play nice with her at the convention?”
“You know there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I guarantee your interview and panels at Malice will be packed now with everyone waiting to see how you respond. It will be your opportunity to tell your side of it. Besides, the convention is filled with your people. Cozy readers who love tea. Kimberly has probably angered a lot of them. You go to the convention with your head held high, and you’ll come out smelling like a rose.”
I thanked her and disconnected. Janette was right, I realized as I sipped my tea and its fruity scent began soothing my nerves. A lot of people would be mad at Kimberly because of what she’d said. If I went to the convention taking the high road, pretending I wasn’t bothered, I’d gain more respect and more readers. This could work out well for me in the end.
And if Kimberly were to have a little accident during the festivities—nothing fatal, just painful—well, those things do happen.
I laughed long and loud. Who said I wasn’t good at plotting?
As expected, I wasn’t the only person angered by the Mystery Queen article. Within hours, the normally collegial mystery community was in an uproar, with cozy fans expressing their outrage on social media. They weren’t old (well, not all of them), they were tired of being condescended to, and there was nothing wrong with a light mystery, they said. One particular quote stayed with me: “Sleeping around doesn’t make a character edgy, and liking tea doesn’t make her boring. I’ll take a smart heroine in a quiet book any day over a cynical one who pretends to be an action hero.”
In other words, Kimberly, take your high-octane java and shove it!
I didn’t comment publicly about the hullabaloo, and my fans’ outrage was still boiling over three weeks later when I arrived at the convention. I couldn’t have been more delighted as I pulled my suitcase into the lobby of the Hyatt Victorian early Thursday afternoon. A group of people sitting in the lobby bar under a white banner welcoming Malice International’s guests rushed over to me.
“Eloise, welcome!” Convention Chairwoman Verbena Daffodil enveloped me in a hug. “We’re so pleased you’re here.”
I received hellos and hugs from others on the Malice board, as well as some friends and fans. My old buddy Taffy Harig whispered to me, “Don’t worry. She’s not here yet. And no one will care when she arrives.”
I doubted that, but I appreciated the sentiment.
“Can I get my picture with you?” superfan Lou-Anne Dove asked.
Moments later, that selfie was uploaded to Facebook for the world to see with the comment that “Eloise Nickel is in the house.”
Indeed I was. And I couldn’t have been more excited. I dropped my suitcase in my suite and returned to the lobby bar, where I spent a lovely few hours catching up with, well, it seemed like everyone in the world. I’d attended Malice regularly for years, and while my readers had always been happy to see me, I’d never experienced such adoration before. Over and over they told me how they loved my books and my main series character. They whispered how inappropriate they thought Kimberly had been. They asked for my autograph and to take photos with me. Of course, I obliged each time. I barely had a moment to breathe. Being the lifetime achievement honoree certainly had its benefits.
But so did being the guest of honor. I hadn’t noticed when Kimberly walked into the lobby, but I figured it out pretty damn quick when the bar erupted in excitement and people ran toward the hotel’s front doors. Not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people. It gave me the chance to reach into my purse for my lip balm. My aloe-vera lip balm. Kimberly was allergic to aloe. It’s one of the things I remembered from being her friend so many years ago. Aloe made her skin itch and burn upon contact.
I slathered on the balm and watched Kimberly head to the bar. I planned to kiss her hello so everyone could see I was the bigger person. She looked better than I’d expected. Still thin from her love of exercise. No gray in her wavy, dark-brown hair. No lines by her eyes or mouth. Her skin was tight, her teeth, sparkling. Clearly she’d had work done.
“Kimberly.” I rose and opened my arms in a welcoming gesture.
Her eyes narrowed for a second, seemingly confused. But she plastered on a smile and stepped toward me. Revenge step one, here I come.
“You’re here,” Malice board member Cherub Lapp shouted, jumping between us and hugging Kimberly. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all year. You are one of my absolute favorite authors. Can I buy you a drink?”
Kimberly grinned. “That would be a perfect way to start the weekend. Thank you.”
And before I knew it, Kimberly had turned from me, and my chance was lost. Damn that Cherub.
Thankfully, I had additional plans.
Shortly before seven p.m., I returned to my room to change and throw some necessities into my purse. The Malice board was having dinner at Morton’s steakhouse with all the honorees. I planned to sit next to Kimberly to show everyone there were no hard feelings.
I also planned to wipe some aloe gel on the tines of Kimberly’s fork when she wasn’t looking. If aloe burned her skin on contact, it would be doubly agonizing inside her mouth. Maybe it would hurt so much she wouldn’t be able to participate in any of her panels this weekend. Or her honoree interview. Maybe she’d even end up in the hospital.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
So it was with a contented heart that I entered Morton’s that evening. The restaurant smelled delicious, and the sharply dressed waiters and crisp white tablecloths throughout the dining room set the perfect mood. Malice had reserved a private room in the back. I walked into it eagerly—and my eyes bugged out. Before me stood one long table with place cards on it. Assigned seating? And Kimberly’s chair was at the other end of the room from mine.
Gritting my teeth, I sat by my name. Verbena took the chair at the head of the table, beside me, and leaned toward my ear. “I’m so sorry about that unpleasantness in Mystery Queen. I took the liberty of assigning seats tonight so there would be no chance you’d end up sitting next to Kimberly. I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course it is.” I squeezed her hand. “Thank you.” Verbena was always so gracious. So thoughtful. It took all my willpower not to break her fingers.
But it was only Thursday night, I reminded myself as I reached for a crispy roll. The convention would run through Sunday afternoon, and I had more plans for Kimberly. I’d bide my time until tomorrow.
Friday came, and I went to the hotel restaurant for an early lunch with friends. I figured if we arrived around eleven o’clock, before the crowds, I’d be able to finish my meal in plenty of time to get to my one o’clock panel before anyone else did. Kimberly and I were both scheduled to be on that panel, and I had some plans for her water glass, plans that required privacy.
The restaurant wasn’t crowded when we arrived, yet it took nearly ten minutes for our waiter to come and take our drinks order. By the time we ordered our food, another ten minutes had passed.
“Eloise, don’t worry,” my friend Taffy said upon catching me glance at my watch for probably the fifth time. “It’s only eleven thirty. You’ll get to your panel on time.”
I nodded, livid inside. On time wouldn’t be good enough. I needed to get to the panel room well before one.
Finally our meals came. As I speared my first forkful of ahi tuna salad, a woman stopped short while passing our table, her eyes wide. “Oh my God, you’re Eloise Nickel,” she cried. And suddenly a troop of women were fawning over me and my author friends. Normally I’d have been thrilled, but wow, this timing was bad.
I took photos with them all, trying repeatedly to eat some of my food. But the restaurant was growing more and more crowded—the morning’s author/fan speed-dating event had just ended—and for every fan who had their fill of me and walked off, another two spotted me.
“I love your decorator series,” superfan Lou-Anne gushed, towering over our round booth, her brown eyes twinkling in the light.
“Your Mystery of the Empty Closet was beyond wonderful,” added her friend Jamie Bix about my newest book.
“And your titles are divine,” Lou-Anne said. “They always remind me of Nancy Drew.”
A grin stretched my cheeks. “That’s on purpose,” I said, delighted that she’d noticed. “Early in my career, my editor suggested coming up with Nancy Drew-type titles, hoping readers would have a good association with the books even before they read them.”
“Well, it works,” Jamie said.
Before I knew it, these two fans had squeezed into our booth and we all dived into a discussion about mystery titles. This was the beauty of conventions like Malice, having the opportunity to meet your readers and chat about books and—
Oh no! I checked my watch. We’d been talking for ages. The panel was scheduled to begin in twenty minutes. “I’ve got to go,” I blurted, interrupting Taffy.
Her jaw dropped. “Wow, how’d it get so late? But don’t worry. There’s plenty of time before the panel. I’ll pay for your meal, Eloise. You head over. We’ll see you there.”
Normally I’d never let Taffy pick up my lunch tab, but time was fleeting. I thanked her, grabbed my bookbag, and hurried off. Well, inched would be a better word for it. So many fans stopped me on the way, it took ten minutes to reach the panel room. I walked in and . . . damn. At least fifty people were already there.
But not Kimberly. In fact, the dais was empty. No other panelists had arrived. No moderator. I could still make this work.
I strode toward the front of the room, avoiding all eye contact, determined to forestall further interruption. When I stepped up on the riser, I sat behind the panel table by a pitcher of water with slices of lemon floating in it. I set my bookbag by my feet and reached inside. Aah. There it was—the small eyedropper full of aloe water that I’d brought from home. My fingers slid around it. Then with my other hand, I grabbed the water pitcher and—
“Ms. Nickel.” A balding man with glasses and a mustache reached out from the floor and grasped hold of the pitcher. “Please, let me do that for you.” Wrenching the pitcher from me, he introduced himself as the room monitor. “I’m sorry. I should have gotten here earlier to fill these glasses.”
As should I.
He filled all five glasses, put out our name placards so the audience could tell who was who, and then returned to his seat in the audience. After checking that I was sitting beside Kimberly—Verbena wasn’t here yet to mess that up again—I quickly revised my plan. I picked up my glass and pretended I needed something from my bookbag, glad that a large white cloth covered the table so my legs—and hands—couldn’t be seen. With my glass in one hand, I leaned down behind the table to empty the eyedropper contents into the glass and—
“Eloise, did you lose something?” Verbena asked, taking a seat on my other side.
Blast! Verbena was the moderator, and damn if she didn’t have the worst timing.
“I was checking that I turned off my phone.” I glanced up over my shoulder while squeezing my palm closed. “I’d hate for it to go off in the middle of the panel. Talk about embarrassing.”
Verbena laughed. “I think our audience would cut you a little slack.”
Smiling, I once again reached down toward the floor, aimed the concealed eyedropper into the glass, and pinched it empty. Success. Finally. I straightened up and set the glass beside the one originally meant for Kimberly, unable to stop grinning. I waited a few seconds, then picked up Kimberly’s undoctored glass and took a big gulp from it, leaving a lipstick stain behind. Her glass was now mine, and there was no chance our glasses would get mixed up. My lips were puckering from the sour-tasting water, but it was worth it. This hotel always put out flavored water for the panelists, and the lemon tang would mask the taste of the aloe in Kimberly’s glass.
Moments later, she hustled up onto the platform and slid into the open seat beside me.
“Sorry for cutting it close, Verbena,” she said. “I had to run back to the room. My hair was feeling ratty.”
Typical. Kimberly had always been big on freshening up so she’d look just right. Too bad she didn’t spend as much time working on her personality as she did on her appearance.
“No problem,” Verbena said.
Kimberly nodded at her, then smiled so sweetly at me you’d think she mistook me for one of her fans. “Having a good time, Eloise?”
“I’m having a wonderful time,” I said.
And soon, it would be even better. While most people used aloe water to treat constipation, too much of it could cause cramping, bloating, and severe diarrhea. Who knew what it would do to allergic Kimberly? I could hardly wait to find out. C’mon, Kimberly, drink your water.
The toastmaster and the international guest of honor joined us on the panel, and Verbena tested her microphone.
“I’d like to welcome everyone to You’ve Got Fan Mail,” Verbena said to the packed room, “where we ask our honored guests to share fun letters they’ve received from fans over the years. So let’s get right to it. Kimberly, I hear you’ve got a doozy to share.”
“I do,” she said, flinging her arms out. Her hand slammed against her glass, knocking it over. Oh no! All my precious aloe water began seeping into the tablecloth. Kimberly and I both grabbed for the glass at the same moment, causing it to roll away from us, off the table.
The room monitor jumped from his seat. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you a new glass,” he said and hurried into the hall.
Kimberly turned to me and smiled again. “Isn’t he helpful?”
I bit my tongue to keep from cursing.
By the time late Saturday morning rolled around, I was beyond frustrated. I’d planned multiple ways to screw with Kimberly, but I hadn’t imagined I’d need to try so many of them. No matter. I knew her hour-long honoree interview had begun at ten thirty, and at noon we both were scheduled to sign books. Surely in the half hour between the interview and the signing, she would return to her room to freshen up. That’s when she would clasp her doorknob, and all the beautiful pepper spray I’d just spritzed onto it would rub off onto her hand. Her skin would begin to sting, then burn. If she rubbed her hand against any other part of her body, the pepper spray would spread, as would its effects. Oh, the things you could learn on the Internet.
I headed down the hall to my room, grateful that the hotel’s two nicest suites were on the same floor and that the convention had arranged for Kimberly and me to each have one. In about twenty minutes, right around when Kimberly would return to her room, I planned to prop my door open so I could hear her screams. It would be glorious. I could hardly—
“Aaaaah! ¡Dios mío!”
I dropped my bookbag and turned. Sweet Jesus. One of the hotel maids was screaming outside Kimberly’s room with her hand outstretched. She must have just tried to enter the room to clean it. I swallowed hard. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone else might touch the knob. Why hadn’t I anticipated that? Oh, that poor woman.
I nearly hurried to help her, but if I revealed what the substance on her hand was, I’d be discovered as the culprit. I couldn’t let that happen. So with my stomach knotting from the terrible guilt settling in it, I walked to the elevator to go to the lobby bar. As the glass-walled elevator whisked me down several flights, I hoped that maid was assigned to clean my room, too. I intended to leave her a huge tip.
Nearly an hour later I entered the large atrium the convention used for its signing area. From the number of tables and placards set out, it appeared at least forty authors would be signing at the same time. Kimberly and I and a few other bigger-named authors were assigned to a table in the center of the room, where longer lines could be accommodated.
I settled into my seat, slid my hand into my bookbag, and clutched the container of aloe gel I’d brought from home. My next plan was to rub a thin coating of the gel all over a hotel pen. I’d then hand that pen to Kimberly, asking her to autograph one of her books for me. But now I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I could still hear that maid screaming, and Kimberly’s pain would be worse because of her allergy.
Maybe I should let my grudge go and be the bigger person. I’d been acting crazy.
Kimberly walked into the atrium and took her seat a few chairs down. Another author whose name escaped me scurried up to her.
“Your interview was fantastic, Kim. And you’re right. The only way for the traditional mystery to succeed in this thriller-centered world is for it to become faster paced,” she said leaning in, lowering her voice. “We need strong women characters who kick ass, not amateur sleuths who knit.”
My mouth nearly hung open.
Kimberly laughed. “And not amateur sleuths who decorate houses and solve mysteries with the same poison over and over.”
Oh my God. Did she think I couldn’t hear her? That was a direct jab at me. That effing bitch. My revenge plans were back on.
I smeared the aloe gel on my pen, grabbed Kimberly’s book, and hurried over to her. The other mean author smirked as she walked away. If it wouldn’t have been obvious, I’d have tripped her.
“Eloise,” Kimberly said. “You’d like me to sign your book?”
I set the book—her newest hardcover—down before her and held out my pen. “Yes, I wanted to get your signature before they let the fans in. I know both our lines will be long.”
“You’re right about that.” Kimberly reached for my pen, then stopped and shook her head. “What am I doing?” She jerked her hand back and pulled an expensive-looking pen from her blazer pocket. “My lucky pen. I only sign with this one. Now, should I make this out to my dear old friend Eloise?”
I could swear she emphasized the word old. Seething, I nodded yes.
My honoree interview was that afternoon, and I was so enraged with Kimberly that when the interview ended, I had little recollection of what I’d said. Had I stuck up for quieter mysteries? Made all the points my agent had encouraged me to make? I had no idea.
I guessed it went well because a bunch of fans happily mobbed me right after. “Ladies,” I said, “let’s go to the bar and relax.” I needed a drink. Badly.
Minutes later we settled at a table and ordered. I tried to focus on what these fans were saying to me, but I couldn’t keep from scanning the room. Was Kimberly here? I had to find her. The convention was more than two-thirds over, and Kimberly hadn’t suffered at all.
She had to suffer.
Suddenly, there she was, entering the bar with a group of friends. She dropped her bookbag onto a chair, laughed at something someone said, and headed toward the ladies room. This was my chance. I grabbed my bookbag, excused myself, and hurried after her.
I entered the restroom just as Kimberly closed the door to her stall. The lavatory was otherwise empty. Perfect. I reached into my bookbag, pulled out a large water bottle, and turned on a faucet. The running water would mask the sound of me pouring my bottle—filled with vegetable oil—all over the floor right outside Kimberly’s stall. When she opened the door, she would slip and maybe break a hip. Oh, how I hoped so.
I unscrewed the top of my water bottle and—
“Eloise Nickel, it is you,” a freckled woman said, entering the restroom. “I missed your signing. When I spotted you across the bar just now, I thought, perfect solution. Would you sign my book?”
She thrust one of my earliest books at me. I stood there, my mouth hung open. Had this woman actually followed me into the restroom and asked me to sign a book? Had she no propriety?
“Now?” I stammered.
She nodded like a bobblehead doll. “And Kimberly, Ms. Siger, I know you’re in here too,” she said. “Could you also sign a book for me? I’ll hand it to you under the stall door.”
Kimberly flushed her toilet and stepped out of the stall. “Here would be easier.” Her smile looked real, but her icy tone indicated she was as annoyed as I was.
We each signed the woman’s books. She thanked us profusely before scurrying away. Kimberly rolled her eyes and walked to the sink. “Did you finish filling your water bottle, Eloise? Should I shut off the faucet for you?”
Dumbfounded, I nodded.
She washed and dried her hands while I stood there, trying to comprehend what had just happened, how my chance had slipped away. Again.
“You know,” Kimberly said, her hand on the door, “if I were you, I’d spill that out and ask the bartender to fill it with bottled water. You’re not really going to drink water from the bathroom sink, are you?”
She made a gagging noise as she left the room.
I hardly slept that night, tossing and turning, furious that Kimberly kept sticking it to me, while eluding my plans again and again. By morning I was bleary, but I knew one thing: I would not leave this convention without getting satisfaction.
All my aloe schemes were out. It was like they were cursed. So I had to improvise. I recalled that nasty author from the signing yesterday, the one I’d wanted to trip. And I remembered how Kimberly often took the stairs, despite that—or perhaps because—there were four exceedingly long flights between the main level of the hotel and the lower one.
I’d follow her discreetly. Eventually she’d take the stairs down, and I’d walk with her. And clumsy me would wobble, tripping Kimberly. She’d tumble down, spraining an ankle or wrenching her back. Anything painful would do.
Finally, in the late morning, I saw her enter the stairway door. I dashed after her. But when I pushed open the door, she wasn’t there. Had she run down the stairs?
I hurried down the first flight to catch up with her, turned the corner, and suddenly I was flying. Tumbling over and over, my head banging against the cold steps, my right hip screaming in pain, my mind getting fuzzy.
When I reached the bottom, I knew something was drastically wrong. Blood was pouring from my temple. I became lightheaded and began to shiver. They say that people don’t die from stairway falls in real life as often as it happens in fiction, but it was possible. And now I was living it. Or rather, I was dying from it.
I heard someone clomping down the stairs and blinked my eyes open. Kimberly.
“That was quite a fall.” She smirked. “Did you think I wouldn’t figure out you were up to something, Eloise? That business with my water glass. And that pen you wanted me to use so badly. And the sabotage to my hotel room doorknob?”
She squatted down so our faces nearly touched. “But you were only trying to injure me, right? Maybe if you’d tried to kill me you wouldn’t be in this position.” She laughed. “You were always way too cozy for your own good. Rest in peace, old friend.”
With my last bit of strength, I reached up and raked my nails across her cheek. Kimberly screamed. She wouldn’t be able to hide that injury. And I’d die with her skin under my fingernails and a smile on my face.
That’s the beauty of being a cozy author. I could always plot a good twist in the end.