Macavity Award 2018 nominee, Best First Novel
Left Award 2018 nominee, Best Debut Mystery Novel
"Thomas makes a rollicking debut with this comic mystery featuring an unconventional protagonist who proves to have the skills of MacGyver. With its sexy overtones, this fun, character-driven novel will appeal to Janet Evanovich fans." —Library Journal STARRED review
Cyd Redondo, a young, third-generation Brooklyn travel agent who specializes in senior citizens, has never ventured farther than New Jersey. Yet even Jersey proves risky when her Travel Agents' Convention fling, Roger Claymore, leaves her weak in the knees-and everywhere else-then sneaks out of her Atlantic City hotel room at three a.m.
Back in Brooklyn, when she reads about smugglers stopped at JFK with skinks in their socks or monkeys down their pants, she never imagines she will join their ranks. But days after the pet store owner next door to Redondo Travel is poisoned, Cyd wins a free safari. Her boss, Uncle Ray, wants to cash it in for computers, but Cyd is determined to go. When Roger turns up at the Redondo clan's door, Cyd invites him along as her "plus one." And just like that she is thrown heels-first into the bizarre and sinister world of international animal smuggling.
She and Roger arrive in Africa, luggage lost, to find two of Cyd's elderly clients in a local jail. She manages to barter them out, only to discover smugglers have hidden five hundred thousand dollars' worth of endangered parrots, snakes, frogs, and a lone Madagascan chameleon in the clients' outbound luggage. When Roger steals the bags—is the U.S. Embassy in on the contraband ring?—Cyd and the chameleon helicopter into the jungle to go after Roger on their own.
Wondering if "plus one" Roger is actually a minus, Cyd dodges Interpol, faces off with a cobra, steals a diplomatic bag, hijacks a FedEx truck, crashes an eco-safari, winds up in a leopard trap, and is forced to smuggle snakes in her bra. It's a scramble to find the smugglers, save her clients, and solve Mrs. Barsky's murder before finding herself at the top of the endangered species list.
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Travel is my business. Or at least it was. After the last two weeks, no one may trust me with a drink order, much less their seat assignments, cabin preferences, or credit card numbers. Let's face it, travel is about trust: the instant you zip up that rolling bag, you're taking a leap of faith. You're putting your life in the hands of strangers. Total complete lying son of a bitch strangers, in my case.
If you're like most people, you just assume that every taxi driver, airline pilot, and bellboy has your best interests at heart. Of course they aren't criminals or terrorists. Of course they always check the brake fluid on that rental car. And, because 91.6 percent of travelers survive their vacations, most of the time you're right. It's the other 8.4 percent of the time you have to worry about.
That's where I come in. I'm Cyd Redondo and for the residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I'm the first line of defense. It's my job to anticipate and prevent any and all travel disasters for my clients, especially since lots of them have pacemakers or might not survive a bad fall. But this time the disaster was mostly my fault. And it happened because I really needed a vacation.
It was October, the month when the sun hung straight over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and shot through the row houses and churches all the way to Third Avenue. You'd catch it in the glint of a shop window or in a halo around someone's new bleach job and bouncing off the spider webs and skeletons draped across every yard; no one in Bay Ridge did Halloween halfway.
I'd been getting into the office before eight lately, as we had a big promotion on. I liked being up early, when I was only interrogated by three or four relatives before I could get out the door. I walked the six blocks to work, up 77 th to Third Avenue and down to 83rd. I usually went in the back way, as otherwise, Mrs. Barsky from Pet World would be straight over. She had a lot of ailments and conspiracy theories she loved to discuss — in detail. I needed coffee before I was ready for an alphabetized list of stroke medications. I came around the corner and saw the agency back door was open.
There might have been a logical explanation, but logic wasn't my strong suit. I pulled the black market Mace from my purse and moved just inside the door, squeezing past the extra water jugs and jabbing myself in the neck with the coat rack. I stood still for a minute, not sure if I should turn on the lights or surprise the hell out of whoever it was. I decided on lights; I wanted to see the bastard. Just in case, I unhooked the fire ax in the hallway. With the ax, the Mace, my red vintage Balenciaga bag (which weighed in at about forty pounds), and three years of kick-boxing classes, I could hold my own. I hit the central switch and heard the knock of the fluorescent lighting, but nothing else. There was a slight odor, like someone had left milk out overnight.
First, I checked the front office. My desk was right by the door so I could greet customers immediately and, if they had walkers, help them in. There was a desk for my usually absent, terminally lazy cousin, Jimmy, and bookshelves filled with my collection of every Fodor's Guide since 1970. The petty cash drawer still had $365.47 from yesterday.
I inched down the hall to our kitchenette and found nothing but a dripping faucet — until I saw Uncle Ray's office door was open. I stopped short. My Uncle Ray, a cautious man, always left his office locked. I braced myself on my four-inch heels and lunged in. Something lay on the desk, oozing bright, sticky red.
A massive royal blue parrot with bright yellow eyes, wrapped in our "Tanzania: The trip for the life you have left" brochure, was speared to my uncle's mahogany desk with a steak knife like some gruesome Tiki Room shish kabob. At first I thought it might be one of Jimmy's practical jokes. He was the kind of idiot who went in for whoopie cushions and rubber vomit, so I wouldn't put a faux pet corpse past him.
I touched the feathers. It was no joke; the bird was real. And it wasn't breathing. Could you do CPR on a parrot? After a minute or two I had to admit it was completely dead. I felt horrible for the tortured bird, and pretty freaked out myself. I had to believe bird homicide was out of even Jimmy's comfort zone. What kind of psychopath had been in our office?
I was shaking. It seemed smart to put down the ax. Where was Uncle Ray? Redondo Travel was his baby. I'd worked there since I was ten and handled the day-to-day business, but I wasn't in charge. I needed to calm myself down before I called him. He knew my voice too well and freaking out wasn't good for his blood pressure. I made coffee: a double espresso for me and a large, watery decaf for Mrs. Barsky, who'd be over any minute. Then I called my uncle's import/export office and left a message.
Ten seconds later, the phone rang.
"Cyd Redondo, Redondo Travel."
"Who died?" It was Uncle Ray. I sighed. He always knew.
"No one. Well, actually, some wildlife."
"We had a break-in. Nothing's missing, but there's a massacred parrot on your desk."
"A parrot. A big blue one. There's a serrated knife through the poor thing's chest. Should I call the Precinct?" We did all the travel for the 68th Precinct and they owed us big-time. Hence, the Mace.
"Don't overreact," he said in that loving, patriarchal way that meant because you're a woman and weak. "I'm sure it's just a prank, maybe one of Jimmy's friends. We can both agree he has some sleazy ones." He did. Still.
"Prank or not, the precinct should know. We can't leave parrot stabbers on the loose. Do you think the bird's Mrs. Barsky's? Should I tell her?"
"And wind up on WikiLeaks? Life is too short. I'm just glad you're safe. I'll make a quick call to the 68th, then call Gonzo for some new locks." Gonzo Gonzales, a long-time client, owned the locksmith shop four doors down. He summered on Lake Michigan, wanted his firewood pre-cut, and preferred an aisle seat.
"What should I do about the parrot? It deserves a decent burial at least."
"I don't want you touching that bird — it could be diseased."
I decided not to mention the CPR.
"Just lock my office, kiddo. I'll deal with it. By the way, how are the Tanzania packages going?" If I booked fifteen package tours, our partner company was offering a free safari for me and a plus one.
"I need six more to fill the quota. I've got seven 'possiblys' from the Gray Panthers, three 'I've always wanted to go to Africas' from Bingo, and four 'I'll ask my husbands' from Our Lady of Angels."
"In other words, time for a few cold calls."
"Exactly my plan."
"Great. Let's do a real push this week. I want you to win that trip."
"Of course I do."
I reminded him that I was headed to the cruise terminal in the afternoon.
"Drive carefully," he said. "Seat belt. Love you." He hung up.
It felt weird doing nothing about the whole parrot situation, but I trusted my Uncle Ray more than anyone. He had erred on the side of caution with me since I was four — when my dad died on the JFK Expressway, broadsided by a chicken truck on his way to a Mets game. Dad didn't believe in insurance so there wasn't any. In the end, Uncle Ray took me and my mom into his huge house on 77th Street to live with him and his wife, Noni, their four boys, and most of the extended Redondo family. My mother and I were outnumbered and overprotected from then on. As the only girl cousin, and the youngest, I was subjected to daily torture at home, but the first time anybody outside the family came near me, my three uncles and my ten "brousins" made sure it was the last. So, from the moment I moved into the attic room with the gummy wallpaper, someone monitored my every move. If I called the Precinct myself, Uncle Ray and everyone else in the family would know.
I made the sign of the cross, draped a yellow St. Pauli Girl bar towel over the murdered bird, locked the door, headed back to the front office, pulled up our Venetian blinds, and sat down. I looked longingly at a brochure for the travel agents' convention coming up in Atlantic City, but Uncle Ray would never say yes. I slipped it in the drawer. The phone rang at 8:01.
"Cyd Redondo, Redondo Travel."
It was one of my regulars from the Bingo hall, wanting price quotes on a summer rental in Maine. I suggested our Tanzania package as an anniversary present for her son and daughter-in-law, but she said she hoped the marriage didn't last that long and had I heard about Donna La Sorda and the UPS guy? I listened for another ten minutes, out of respect for her years and because I couldn't get a word in edgewise, not even "gotta go."
In our business, patience was key. The Internet made travel agents obsolete enough, but when you added suicidal pilots, cruise ship fires, and shocking fares, fewer people were traveling and fewer of those needed help to do it. Like any endangered species, we'd had to adapt.
Still, we had our pride and a paid-off building, so instead of selling out to a big firm, we now specialized in clients who were more comfortable with people than computers. In other words, seniors. And occasionally the blind. Granted, the majority of our target market would die in the next five to fifteen years, but it bought us time for Plan B, whatever the hell that was.
It was easy to choose this particular market because, as luck would have it, we were based in one of the few NORCs in the United States. In travel consultant vernacular, a NORC is a "naturally occurring retirement community." In short, people were born in Bay Ridge and never left. Our parents' high school classmates weren't golfing in Palm Beach; they were using walkers in Foodtown on Fourth Avenue.
That's why our new Tanzania safari package was a tricky sell — by the time most people are seventy-five, they don't really feel up to bouncing in the back of a jeep or running from a lion while covered in bug spray. Still, I was only six short of my free trip, so I wasn't giving up. My sell was heavy on pith helmets and khaki, insect repellent torches, egg yolk sunsets, free-standing bathtubs — with safety handles — rum drinks, and all things "Colonial." I used Out of Africa a lot.
I was just firing up the computer to e-mail the Quilting Club when my FedEx guy, cute as ever in his purple shorts, came through the door.
"Cyd? Would you sign for this Pet World delivery? I'm in a rush on the ten-thirties and she's not answering."
"Sure." I smiled, happy I'd remembered my Conga red lipgloss.
I put the box down on my desk and noticed Mrs. Barsky's cold coffee. She was usually in my office the moment she sensed movement. Every day I counted her pills as she sucked them down with my decaf, to make sure she didn't miss any before she opened for business at eight-thirty sharp. She'd only varied that routine four times in my memory, once for each stroke.
I'd been so thrown by the parrot, I hadn't even checked to see if she'd had a break-in too. I was scum. I grabbed the phone and dialed. After her husband died, she'd sold her house and moved into a cute, if pungent, walk-up over the pet store. I could hear her faded pink rotary phone ringing over my head.
I admit, I've been known to complain about Mrs. Barsky. She moved slowly, talked fast, had eight thousand conspiracy theories, and made frequent madcap requests — like would I get her fifteen lime green shower caps at the 99 Cent Store?
Still, she had sold me my one and only goldfish, Vince. And she had been my style icon in the day, with her miniskirts, flared pantsuits, and DayGlo fishnets to die for. She remained the octogenarian version of Angie Dickinson, and though her blond flip now came from Wig Explosion, she still tossed it back whenever she lit a cigarette. Hence the strokes.
Her smoker's voicemail kicked in: "I'm in the store."
I reached into the drawer for her keys. Dammit. Jimmy hadn't put them back. I headed next door.
The light was on, but the door was locked. I couldn't see past the eight thousand birdcages, so I ducked next door into One Hour Martinizing.
"Have you seen Mrs. Barsky this morning?"
"She probably had another stroke." Mr. Tacchini crossed himself.
I grabbed one of his wire hangers. "If you hear a window break, it's just me."
"Knock yourself out." He went back to rotating suits.
I should have checked on her earlier. If something was wrong, it was on me. I straightened the hanger and maneuvered it through the letter slot and contorted my arm just enough to turn the inside lock, praying she was okay.
The slap of the pet store smell — part puppy, part gerbil droppings, part Clorox — was nothing compared to the racket the birds were making. Mrs. Barsky loved birds. Her mynah, Myron, had died last year and had gotten a bigger farewell than her husband.
Kittens were mewing in their metal cages and even the fish seemed agitated. I saw something hop on the floor to my left, but when I turned, it was gone. Nerves, I thought. I moved toward the counter and saw a stack of packing boxes and paperwork beside the "ferret hammock" display.
"Mrs. Barsky's a fox! Mrs. Barsky's a fox!" a cockatiel squawked, giving me half a coronary. I tripped, flying toward the floor and catching myself on one elbow, while my other hand slid on something acrylic. And blond.
Mrs. Barsky's platinum wig was splayed and horribly empty under my palm.
I turned to my right and saw her tiny head. Her real hair, or what was left of it, was pressed into tiny whitecaps under what looked like control-top panty hose. I reached for her neck, hoping for a pulse, and got nothing but wattle. I knelt into CPR position as I grabbed my phone, calling 911 between breaths. After seven minutes of trying, all I could do was hold her hand.
One of my old school friends, Hank, was the first uniform through the door, followed by three other guys from the neighborhood. They all nodded as Hank pulled me up. He and I had played doctor in second grade. I guess, with him, it stuck. Hank worked on Mrs. Barsky for another five minutes, then closed her eyes. He called the coroner, then patted my arm.
"Cyd. There was nothing you could have done."
In my experience people only said that when there had been. "We had a break-in last night, maybe she heard it and it pushed her heart over the edge."
"The woman was eighty-three, she'd had four strokes, she was still smoking — a flea bite could have pushed her over the edge." He pointed to her freshly scarred and bitten hands and forearms, the price of pet-shop ownership. "Okay?"
"Okay." I wasn't okay.
"Do you want me to call Joni?" Hank patted my other arm.
I shook my head. "No, I'll do it." Joni, Mrs. Barsky's daughter and my former babysitter, lived in Syracuse. I moved away from the body and called her at work.
"Those damn cigarettes," Joni kept saying over and over. She wouldn't be able to get down until the next day and would I please put up a sign and lock up the store? I had been the flower girl at her first wedding. I said of course.
Joni hesitated. "And could you take care of the autopsy?"
"The autopsy. Remember? It's in her will."
I did remember. She wanted proof the government had it in for her. After her son, Bobby, was wounded in Vietnam, she had chained herself in protest to the bike rack outside the local Army recruiting station and wound up in jail. She was convinced she'd been under government surveillance ever since.
"Mom will feel better wherever she is if she knows she wasn't poisoned by the CIA. Of course she was crazy, but I promised her. You know Dr. Paglia, right? He won't talk to me after that whole prom night fiasco."
"Okay. Do you know where Bobby is?"
Joni sighed. Her older brother Bobby, a former Green Beret, had shipped out in the last days of the Vietnam war, decided he liked Southeast Asia, and stayed. Though he called his mom on holidays and sent the occasional postcard, he'd only been home twice in thirty years. His absence had broken Mrs. Barsky's heart. "Last address I had for him was someplace in Indonesia, but his birthday card came back."
"E-mail?" I asked.
"No way. He's as paranoid as Mom." Joni hung up.
There was a knock on the window. I had completely forgotten about Gonzo. He was waiting outside Redondo Travel in freshly pressed overalls, his thick black hair gelled off his forehead, stiff as marzipan. He had a shiny silver thermos, a tool box the size of Connecticut, and a burlap bag. The locks were already done.
Excerpted from "Lost Luggage"
Copyright © 2017 Wendall Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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