Night Train to Memphis


By Elizabeth Peters

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An assistant curator of Munich’s National Museum, Vicky Bliss is no expert on Egypt, but she does have a Ph.D. in solving crimes. So when an intelligence agency offers her a luxury Nile cruise if she’ll help solve a murder and stop a heist of Egyptian antiquities, all 5’11” of her takes the plunge. Vicky suspects the authorities really want her to lead them to her missing lover, the art thief and master of disguises she knows only as “Sir John Smythe.” And right in the shadow of the Sphinx she spots him. . . with his new flame. Vicky is so furious at this romantic stab-in-the-back, not to mention the sudden arrival of her meddling boss, Herr Dr. Schmidt, that she may overlook a danger as old as the pharaohs and as unchanging. . . a criminal who hides behind a mask of charm while moving in for the kill.


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You're a Detour on the Highway to Heaven

(To: Great Speckled Bird)

When Mama lay a-dyin" on the flatbed,

She told me not to truck with girls like you;

But I was blinded by the glare of your headlights,

And wnt joy-ridin' just for the view.

CHORUS: You're a detour on the highway to heaven,

I am lost on the backroads of sin,

I have got to get back to the four-lane,

So that I can see Mama again.

Your curves made me lose my direction,

My hands from the steering wheel strayed,

But you were just one more roadside attraction,

It's been ten thousand miles since I prayed.

If you ever get out of the fast lane

And get back to that highway above,

I'll be waiting for you at the tollbooth,

In that land where all roads end in love.

Chapter One


The mountain meadow was carpeted with fresh green and starred with small, shy flowers. He came toward me, walking so lightly the grass scarcely seemed to bend under his feet. His hair shone silver-gilt in the sunlight, and he was smiling, and his blue eyes held a look I had seen in them only once before. Trembling, I waited for him to come to me. He stopped a few feet away, still smiling, and held out his hands.

They were wet and red and dripping. I looked from his bleeding hands to his face and saw blood erupt from it in spurting streams, from the corners of his mouth, from under the hair on his temples. Bright scarlet patches blossomed on the breast of his shirt. There was blood everywhere, covering him like a red rain. I stretched out my arms but I couldn't reach him and I couldn't move and the scream I tried to utter wouldn't come out of my throat and he fell, face down at my feet, and the back of his head wasn't golden fair but sticky scarlet and the blood spread out, staining the green grass and drowning the shy flowers and still I couldn't reach him…

"Oh God, oh God, oh God…" Somebody was whining. It wasn't I. I was blubbering and swearing—or was I praying?

Swearing. "Damn him, damn him!" I reached out blindly in the dark. There was something monstrous and hairy on my bed. I threw my arms around it and clutched it to my bosom.

Caesar stopped whining and began licking my face with frantic slurps. Caesar is a Doberman; his tongue is as rough as a file and about a foot and a half long. He has very bad breath.

"All right, okay," I gasped, fending him off and reaching for the bedside lamp.

The light helped, and so did the sight of my familiar messy bedroom, but I was still shaking. God! That had been the worst one yet.

Caesar's furry face stared worriedly at me. He wasn't allowed on the bed. I must have cried out in my sleep, and the gallant dog had leaped up to my rescue.

Clara was allowed on the bed. Caesar hasn't got over the injustice of this yet, but he can't do anything about it because he is terrified of Clara, who weighs approximately seven pounds to his seventy. I think he thinks she is a god. He slobbers with delight when she condescends to curl up next to him, and grovels when she raises a paw. She had retreated from her usual position, on my stomach, to the foot of the bed and was sitting up, eyeing me with that look of tolerant contempt only Siamese cats have fully mastered. In the dark seal-brown of her face her eyes looked very blue.

A shudder twisted through me as I remembered how blood had filled those other blue eyes.

It was the third time that week I had dreamed about John. The first one hadn't been bad, just an ordinary anxiety/frustration dream in which I pursued a familiar form along endless streets only to find, when I caught up with it, that it wore someone else's face. The second… well, never mind the details of that one. The metamorphosis of the body I clasped into a scaled, limbless creature that slid slimily through my arms and vanished into darkness had left a nasty memory, but it hadn't awakened me.

I knew the cause of the dreams. My subconscious doesn't fool around; it's about as subtle as a brickbat. I had told myself there was nothing to worry about, even if I hadn't heard from him for over a month, and I had believed it—sort of—until a week ago. Hugging my warm, hairy, smelly dog as a child would clutch a teddy bear for comfort, I remembered the conversation that had forced me (or my subconscious) to admit there was something to worry about.


"But I don't know anything about Egyptology!" I yelled.

Normally I don't yell when I say things like that. I mean, it's hardly the sort of statement that arouses passionate emotions. But this was the fourth time I had said it, and I didn't seem to be getting the point across.

The two men behind the desk exchanged glances. One of them was my old friend Karl Feder of the Munich Police Department. The other man was about the same age—mid-fifties, at a guess. Like Karl, he was losing his hair and starting to spread around the middle. He had been introduced to me as Herr Burckhardt, no title, no affiliation. If he was a colleague of Karl's he had to be a cop of some variety, but I had only known one other man with eyes as cold as his, and Rudi had definitely not been a police officer.

I knew what they were thinking. It was Burckhardt who said it. "I fail to understand, Dr. Bliss. You are an official of our National Museum, a well-known authority on art history. The Herr Direktor, Doktor Schmidt, has often said that you are his most valued subordinate."

"Yeah," I said gloomily. "I'll bet he has."

Schmidt has a mouth almost as big as his rotund tummy. He is as cute as one of the Seven Dwarfs and not much taller, and if he wasn't so brilliant he'd have been locked up long ago as a menace to society. Not that he's a crook. On the contrary; Schmidt thinks of himself as a brilliant amateur sleuth, the scourge of the underworld, and of me as his sidekick. As Watson was to Sherlock, as Archie was to Nero Wolfe, so Vicky Bliss is to Herr Doktor Anton Z. Schmidt. At least that's how Schmidt looks at it. My own view of our respective roles is somewhat different.

I said slowly and patiently, "Human beings have been producing works of art of one kind or another for over thirty-five thousand years. Even if you include only the major visual arts and restrict yourself to Western art, you have to start with Stone Age man, proceed through the Egyptians and the Minoans and the Etruscans and the Greeks, to early Christian art and Byzantine and medieval and Renaissance and… Oh, hell. What I'm trying to say is that nobody can be an expert on all those fields. My specialty is medieval European art. I don't know—"

"What about the Trojan gold?" Feder inquired. "That does not come under the heading of medieval European art, does it?"

I had been afraid somebody was going to bring that up.

Schmidt refers to the affair of the Trojan gold as "our most recent case." He doesn't often refer to it, however, because it had not been one of "our" most resounding successes. People had been looking for the gold, a hoard of priceless ancient jewelry which had vanished from besieged Berlin at the end of World War II, for almost fifty years. Educated opinion believed the Russians had carried it off to Moscow. Schmidt and I and a few other people had spent several weeks the previous winter following up a clue that suggested it had been smuggled out of Berlin before the Russians entered the city, and hidden somewhere in Bavaria. At one point I thought I had found the hiding place. Turned out I was wrong. Schmidt was still complaining about how I had misled him. Which I hadn't, not deliberately. I had been—well—wrong. Sometimes I am wrong.

Not this time, though, dammit. Feder was smirking at me as if he had said something clever. He was correct. The Trojan gold could not be described as medieval art.

I tried again. "That had nothing to do with my expertise or lack thereof. It was pure chance."

"But you recognized, from a bad photograph, that the jewels pictured were genuine. Some degree of expertise—"

"Anybody could have done that!" My voice rose. "The gold of Troy is famous. Everybody knows about it. Almost everybody… Let me put it this way, meine Herren; I could not pose as an expert on Egyptian art for more than five minutes without getting caught out. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting I accept the position of guest lecturer on a Nile cruise. In exchange for a free tour I will be expected to talk at least once a day on some damned temple or pyramid, and be prepared to answer questions from the people taking the cruise, who wouldn't be taking the cruise if they weren't already interested in and informed about the subject. Five minutes, hell! I wouldn't last sixty seconds. Why me, for God's sake? There are hundreds of people who know more about the subject than I do."

"But my dear Fraulein Doktor!" Burckhardt exclaimed. "Look at it this way. Never again will you have the opportunity for such a holiday. This is a luxury cruise; the boat is new, designed for millionaire tourists—suites instead of rooms, gourmet food, the best of everything. Passengers will be admitted to places that are barred to the ordinary tourist, the lecturers are all distinguished scholars—"

He waved a brightly colored brochure at me. I shied back. "That's just the point, Herr Burckhardt. Karl, will you please tell your friend that I am not an empty-headed blond bimbo, even if I do look like one."

Lately I'd been trying very hard not to look like one, swathing my too well endowed torso in loose jackets and my long legs in full skirts that flapped around my calves. I had let my hair grow long so I could wind it into a schoolmarmish bun. Nothing seemed to work. If you are tall and blond and blue-eyed and shaped like a female, some people assume you don't have a brain cell working.

Karl tried to hide his smile. "I warned you this approach would not work, Burckhardt. The lady is very astute. I imagine she already suspects why we are making this request."

I nodded gloomily. It didn't require a high degree of intelligence. The affair of the Trojan gold was only the most recent of several encounters I have enjoyed with the criminal element, if "enjoyed" is the right word. I do not enjoy being shot at, assaulted, kidnapped, and chased across the countryside. I didn't want to do that anymore.

"Something is going to happen on that cruise," I said. "What is it? Murder, hijacking, or just a simple case of grand theft which could easily lead to murder or hijacking?"

"If you will allow me to explain," Burckhardt began.

"That's what I've been asking you to do."

Burckhardt leaned back and folded his arms. "The information reached us via a channel which has proved particularly fruitful in the past. How our agent acquired the information we do not know, but he has never before failed to be accurate. He gave us three facts: first, that there is a plot to rob the Cairo Museum; second, the individuals involved will be on the Nile cruise which starts on November first; third, one or more of them is personally known to you. Now obviously we cannot halt the cruise or detain everyone who has signed up for it. We must have an agent on that boat. You are the obvious choice, not only because you—"

"Wait," I said. My voice sounded quite normal. That surprised me; even though I had half expected it, one of his statements had had the same impact as a hard kick on the shin. "Let's go back over that interesting assemblage of so-called facts, shall we? First, why are you guys involved? Why don't you pass the information on to the Egyptian government and let them handle it?"

"Naturally we have notified the authorities in that country. They have requested our cooperation. Are you familiar with the current political situation in Egypt?"

I shrugged. "Not in detail. Keep it short, will you?"

"I will endeavor to do so." Burckhardt steepled his fingertips and tried to look like a professor. He didn't. "The modern nation of Egypt did not attain independence until 1922. For over a century it was exploited, as some might say, by Western powers, and many of the most valuable antiquities were—er—'removed' to museums and private collections in Europe and America. Anti-Western sentiment is of long standing and it is now being fostered by certain groups who wish to replace the present government of Egypt with one more sympathetic to their religious views. They have attacked tourists and members of the government. If the historic treasures of Egypt were stolen by a group of foreigners—"

"I see your point," I said reluctantly. "Okay. Next question. Seems to me your information is very fragmentary. Why don't you ask this hot-shot agent of yours where he got it and tell him to dig around for more?"

Another exchange of meaningful glances. "Oh, please," I said. "Don't tell me. Don't tell me this is another of those plots. He's dead. Right? Found in an alley with his throat cut? Horribly tortured and… I don't believe this!"

"Believe it," Karl said soberly. "We had not wanted to tell you—"

"I can see why. It might have put a slight damper on my girlish enthusiasm for playing Nancy Drew."

"You would be in no danger," Karl insisted.

"And if I believe that, you've got a bridge you'd like to sell me cheap."

"Bitte?" Karl said, looking puzzled.

"Never mind."

"It is true. We will have other agents on that cruise; they will guard you day and night. The moment you have identified the individual—or individuals—in question, they will be placed under arrest—"

"No, they won't."

"Bitte?" said Burckhardt, trying to look puzzled. He knew perfectly well what I meant.

I spelled it out. "You can't arrest people because Victoria Bliss thinks they look like somebody who might once, maybe, have committed a crime. You'll have to wait till they do something illegal. And while you're waiting, I'll be sitting there like a groundhog on a superhighway at rush hour. If… they… are known to me, I'm also known to them."

"You will be in no danger," Burckhardt repeated.

"Damn right." I stood up. "Because I won't be on that cruise. Auf Wiedersehen, meine Herren."

"Think about it," Karl said smoothly. "You needn't decide now."

I was thinking about it. My acquaintanceship with the members of the art underworld is more extensive than I would like, but there was one individual with whom I was particularly well acquainted. His had been the first name that occurred to me—if it was his name. He had at least four aliases, including his favorite, "Sir John Smythe." I didn't know—I had never known—his last name, and even though he had told me his first name was John, I had no reason to suppose he was telling the truth. He hardly ever did tell the truth. He was a thief and a swindler and a liar, and he had dragged me into a number of embarrassing, not to say dangerous, situations, but if he hadn't come to my rescue at the risk of grievous bodily harm to himself—something John preferred not to do—I wouldn't be in Karl's office wondering whether he and Herr Burckhardt knew, or only suspected, that the "individual" they were after might be my occasional and elusive lover.


It took me a long time to get back to sleep after that grisly dream. I was not in the best possible condition to cope with Munich's rush-hour traffic next morning—short on sleep, tense with a mixture of anger, anxiety, and indecision. It was raining, of course. It always rains in Munich when somebody offers me a trip to someplace bright and warm and sunny.

I've lived in Munich for a number of years, ever since I wangled a job out of the funny little fat man who had been a prime suspect in my first "case," as he would call it.* He wasn't the murderer, as it turned out; he was a famous scholar, director of the National Museum, and he had been impressed by my academic credentials as well as by the fact that I could have embarrassed the hell out of him by telling the world about some of his shenanigans during that adventure. We had become good friends and I had come to think of Munich as my adopted home town. It's a beautiful city in one of the most beautiful parts of the world—when the sun is shining. In the rain, with fallen leaves making the streets slick and dangerous, it is as dreary as any other large city.

When I pulled into the staff parking lot behind the museum, Karl the janitor popped out of his cubicle to inquire after the health, not of my humble self, but of Caesar, for whom he has an illicit passion. I assured him all was well and hurried through the storage areas of the basement, praying Schmidt hadn't arrived yet. I had to go to the museum office to collect my mail and messages; if I didn't, Gerda, Schmidt's hideously efficient and inquisitive secretary, would bring them to me and hang around, talking and asking questions and ignoring my hints that she should go away, and then I would probably hit her with something large and heavy because Gerda gets on my nerves even when they are not already stretched to the breaking point.

I entered the office at a brisk trot, glancing at my watch. "Goodness, it's later than I thought. Good morning, Gerda, I've got to hurry, I'm awfully late."

"For what?" Gerda inquired. "You have no appointment this morning. Unless you have made one without informing me, which is contrary to—"

I snatched the pile of letters from her desk. She snatched it back. "I have not finished sorting them, Vicky. What is wrong with you this morning? Ach, but you look terrible! Did you not sleep? You were, perhaps, working late?"

She hoped I hadn't been working late. She hoped I'd been doing something more interesting. Gerda has one of those round, healthy pink faces, and mouse-brown hair, and wide, innocent pale blue eyes. She is short. I am all the things Gerda is not, and the poor dumb woman admires me and tries to imitate me. She also harbors the delusion—derived in part from Schmidt, who shares it—that men whiz in and out of my life like city buses, only more often. Little does she know. It was questionable as to whether John qualified for the role of my lover—three visits in nine months isn't my idea of a torrid affair—but for the past two years he had been the only possible candidate.

"Yes. I was working late," I lied.

She didn't believe me. "Ach, so. I thought perhaps Herr Feder—"

"Who?" I gaped at her.

She had sorted the messages, damn her. She waved two slips of paper at me. "He has telephoned twice this morning. He wishes that you call him as soon as possible."

"Thanks." This time when I grabbed my mail she let me keep it. "We will have lunch, perhaps?" she called after me as I headed quickly for the door.

"Perhaps." If I could just get out of Gerda's office before Schmidt emerged from his… I was in no condition to cope with Schmidt that morning. He's even nosier than Gerda.

I might have known it was going to be one of those days. Schmidt wasn't in his office. He had just arrived. When I flung the door open there he was, briefcase in one hand, the remains of a jelly doughnut in the other. Schmidt eats all the time. Jelly doughnuts are his latest enthusiasm, one he acquired from me.

He was wearing one of those trench coats covered with straps, flaps, and pockets—the style James Bond and other famous spies prefer—and an Indiana Jones fedora pulled low over his bristling eyebrows. The ensemble, which indicated that Schmidt was in one of his swashbuckling moods, was ominous enough, but that wasn't what brought me to a stop. Schmidt was singing.

That's how he would have described it. Schmidt can't carry a tune in a bucket, but he loves music, and he had recently expanded his repertoire to include country music. American country music. What he was doing to this tune would have sent the citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, running for a rope.

It was my fault, I admit that. I had heard them all my life, not the modern rock adaptations, but the old railroad and work songs, the blues and ballads. During the Great Depression my granddad had wandered the country like so many other footloose, jobless young men; he bragged of having known Boxcar Willie and John Lomax, and he could still make a guitar cry. I had once made the mistake of playing a Jimmie Rodgers tape for Schmidt. That was all it took.

In addition to being tone-deaf, Schmidt never gets the words quite right. "… I sing to my Dixie darling, Beneath the silver moon, With my banjo on my knee." Imagine that in a thick Bavarian accent.

He broke off when he saw me. "Ah, Vicky! You are here!"

"I'm late," I said automatically. "Very late. I have to—"

"But my poor Vicky." He stood on tiptoe peering up into my face. "Your eyes are shadowed and sunken. You have the look of a woman who—"

"Shut up, Schmidt," I said, trying to get around him. He popped the rest of the doughnut into his mouth and caught hold of my hand. Strawberry jelly glued our fingers together. A stream of water from the hem of his coat was soaking my shoes.

"Come and have coffee and tell Papa Schmidt all about it. Is Karl Feder annoying you again? Tsk! He should be ashamed, the old rascal. Or,"—he grinned and winked—"or is it another individual who is responsible for the disturbance of your slumber?"

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that Gerda was on her feet, leaning precariously across the desk as she tried to overhear. Schmidt had seen her too. Shaking his head, he said disapprovingly, "There is no decent regard for privacy in this place. Come into my office, Vicky, where we can be alone, and you will tell Papa Schmidt—"

"No," I said.

"No what? It was not Sir John—"

"No everything! Nobody disturbed my slumber, no, I will not come into your office, no, Karl Feder is not…" I stopped, clutching at the last ragged strands of sanity. Better to let Schmidt think Karl's reasons for calling were personal instead of professional. Or was it? The world was dissolving into chaos around me.

"See you later, Schmidt," I babbled, freeing my hand. "I have to—I have to—go to the bathroom."

It was the only place I could think of where he wouldn't follow me. I locked myself into a cubicle and collapsed onto the seat.

My hand was red and sticky. In certain lights, strawberry jelly looks a lot like fresh blood.

John was certainly a reasonable subject for anxiety dreams. He had more deadly enemies than anyone I'd ever met. Sometimes I was one of them.

When I first ran into him I was trying to track down a forger of historic jewels.* I had no business doing any such thing; it was a combination of curiosity and the desire for a free vacation that took me to Rome, and some people might have said that it served me right when I got in over my head. John got me out. He had been an enthusiastic participant in the swindle until the others decided to eliminate me, but, as he candidly admitted, chivalry had nothing to do with his change of heart. He disapproved of murder on practical grounds. As he put it, "the penalties are so much more severe."

I never meant to get involved with him. He isn't really my type—only an inch or so taller than I, slightly built, his features (with one or two exceptions) pleasant but unremarkable. I don't know why I ended up in that little hotel in Trastevere. Gratitude, womanly sympathy for a wounded hero, curiosity—or those exceptional characteristics? It turned out to be a memorable experience, and it may have been the worst mistake I have ever made in my life.

Another brief encounter, in Paris, was both embarrassing and expensive. I woke up one morning to find the police hammering at the door and John gone. Naturally he hadn't paid the hotel bill.

So why did I respond to that enigmatic message from Stockholm a few months later? I told myself it was because I wanted to get back at him for Paris, meeting his challenge and beating him at his own game. (That's what I told myself.) It was a relatively harmless little scheme to begin with—he needed me to gain access to an innocent old gentleman whose backyard happened to be full of buried treasure—but it turned ugly when a second group of crooks zeroed in on the same treasure. That was my first encounter with the hard-core professionals of the art underworld, and I sincerely hoped it would be my last. John was a professional, but compared to Max and Hans and Rudi and their boss, Leif, he looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy. They disliked John even more than I did, and from my point of view he was definitely the lesser of two evils, so once again we were forced to collaborate in order to escape. My negative opinion of him didn't change, though, until…

It was one of the more lurid incidents in a life that has not been precisely colorless. There we were, trying to row a leaking boat across a very deep, very cold lake during a violent thunderstorm, with an aquatic assassin holding on to the bow and slashing at me with a knife. I had just about resigned myself to dying young when John went over the side of the boat. He was unarmed and outweighed, but he managed to keep Leif occupied until I got to shore. They found Leif's body later. John never turned up, dead or alive. Everybody except me assumed he had drowned. After eight months without a word I began to wonder myself.

The matter of the Trojan gold* gave me an excuse to contact John, through the anonymous channels that were the only ones I knew. To be honest, I was surprised when he responded. He had once told me I brought him nothing but bad luck.

His luck didn't improve. He got me out of trouble a couple of times, and the second rescue resulted in a considerable amount of damage to John himself. This was decidedly against his principles. He had once explained them to me: "It is impossible to convince some people of the error of their ways without hitting them as often and as hard as possible. I simply object to people hitting me."

The Trojan gold affair had ended with another event John undoubtedly resented as much as he hated being hit by people. I had taken ruthless advantage of a man who was battered, bruised, and bloody to force him to admit he loved me. He had used the word before, but always in context—Shakespeare or John Donne or some other literary giant. The phrases I had wrung out of him that day were boringly banal and direct. They had no literary merit whatever.

It had been ten months since that momentous event. I had seen John only three times, but almost every week I'd received some message—a postcard or a silly present or a few words on my answering machine—just enough to let me know he was all right.


On Sale
Aug 6, 2013
Page Count
368 pages

Elizabeth Peters

About the Author

Elizabeth Peters was born and brough up in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s famed Oriental Institute. Peters was named Grand Master at the inaugural Anthony Awards in 1986 and Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1998. In 2003, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Malice Domestic Convention. She is also the author, as Barbara Mertz, of Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. She lives in western Maryland. Visit her website at:

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