About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Hi, everyone. I'm Jackie Thum; I live in Binghamton, New York, and I'm a published author!"
We were seated at tables in our Helsinki hotel's overflow dining room, rising one at a time to introduce ourselves to the other tour guests who were part of our seventeen-day Midnight Sun Adventure. An open bar had loosened tongues and encouraged some guests to provide every detail of their lives from the day they'd left the womb, but Jackie hadn't wasted time with that. She'd skipped over her annulled marriage to me and subsequent gender reassignment surgery to focus on the most important thing in her life right now: her new career as a romance novelist.
"Here's my baby." She held up a hardback novel with a bubble gum pink jacket, clutching it with fingernails painted the same color. "It's only been out for two weeks, so I don't imagine any of you have bought it yet, but if you'd like to read it, I packed a few extra copies that I'd be happy to hand out."
The room exploded with applause that elevated Jackie to instantaneous celebrity status. Oh, God. I hung my head. She'd be impossible to live with for the next two weeks.
"I've never met a real author," a big-boned lady wearing too much sparkly face powder called out when the applause died down.
Jackie flung her mane of shiny chestnut hair over her shoulder and smiled with the white-toothed poise of a former Miss Texas. "I'll let you in on a little secret: we authors paint our toenails one at a time, just like everyone else."
"What's your book about?" asked a bejeweled woman who'd introduced herself as Portia Van Cleef from Florida.
"That's so sweet of you to ask!" All six feet of Jackie tittered with excitement. "I'll read you the inside cover flap. 'Pretty Little Secrets is the passionate story of Emma Anderson, an aspiring actress whose lust for fame is only surpassed by her lust for a man whose secrets -- ' "
"Excuse me, Ms. Thum," our tour director interrupted. Annika Mattsson was a tall, multilingual Swede who reminded me of Olive Oyl with a Dutch boy haircut. "Since dinner is scheduled to be served in a few minutes, perhaps you could arrange to discuss your book later? We still have a few introductions left."
"Oh." Jackie regarded the guests at our table who still hadn't introduced themselves and downsized her smile into a pout. "Sure. I was just trying to accommodate my public." She crushed her novel against her cleavage and sat down next to me, trying not to look crestfallen that her limelight had been dimmed so quickly.
"Who's next?" asked Annika.
I stood up. "Terve," I said, smiling at the thirty faces in the room.
"What'd she say?" asked eighty-nine-year-old Osmond Chelsvig as he fumbled with his double hearing aids.
"Somebody take that drink away from her," demanded Bernice Zwerg in her ex-smoker's voice. "She's tanked."
"Tehr-veh," I repeated phonetically. "That's Finnish for 'hello.' I'm Emily Andrew, and I'm the official escort for the twelve Iowa seniors who've already introduced themselves." They waved enthusiastically as I gestured toward their table.
"Someone actually pays you to escort people who are already on a guided tour?" asked a bearded man with Harry Potter glasses. "What would you call that? Double dipping or overkill?"
"She doesn't do that much," Bernice insisted. "It's a pretty cushy job."
Bernice, with her dowager's hump, wire whisk hair, and crummy attitude, was both a Senior Olympics grand champion and an ever-present thorn in everyone's side.
"I live in Windsor City, Iowa," I continued, "and I'm recently engaged to a former Swiss police inspector who -- "
"How many books have you sold so far?" called out a suntanned man who'd introduced himself as Reno O'Brien from sunny Florida.
Jackie sprang to life again. "Publishers are so secretive about those numbers, but I have a call in to my editor, so I'll let you know as soon as she gets back to me. I wouldn't be surprised if she had good news about the New York Times bestseller list!"
More clapping. Hooting. A shrill wolf whistle.
She patted my arm apologetically. "Sorry, Emily. What were you saying?"
"I've been planning our wedding for the last few months and I have everything done except for picking up the invitations and addres -- "
"How much money did they pay you to write that book?" asked another Floridian with a buzz cut and a voice that started in his boots. "I could write a book if they'd pay me enough."
Jackie wagged a finger at him. "Now, now, it's not polite to ask a person how much money they make."
"Why not?" asked Bernice.
"We're planning a September wedding," I said, raising my voice, "and -- "
"September Bride," Portia Van Cleef cooed. "Does anyone remember that TV show? It starred Spring Byington."
"That wasn't as good as Pete and Gladys," said Lucille Rassmuson, who'd joined Windsor City WeightWatchers five months ago and had already lost a whopping three pounds. "It was like I Love Lucy without the Cuban accent."
"You're wrong about the name of that show," Bernice challenged Portia. "It was December Bride. I oughta know 'cause my boy watched it every noontime when he came home from school to eat lunch."
A hush fell over the room. All eyes turned to Portia, who skewered Bernice with a look frigid enough to cause frostbite. "Did you just say something?"
"You bet. You got your months mixed up."
Portia's gold bracelets rattled as she adjusted the sleeves of her kaftan with the nonchalance of the very rich. "Does anyone else recall the correct name of the program?"
"I remember it being called September Bride," said Reno O'Brien.
"Me, too," said the man in the Harry Potter glasses.
"Does this mean Emily is going to have to switch her wedding date to December?" asked Margi Swanson, who was a part-time nurse and full-time optimist.
"I don't give a rat's ass what the show was called," said the man with the buzz cut. He caught Jackie's eye. "So how much money are we talking about? Fifty grand? A hundred? They pay you, right? You don't have to fork out money to print them yourself and sell them out of the trunk of your car?"
"Would you finish readin' what the book's about?" asked my grandmother, whose name tag read Marion Sippel, Iowa. Nana was four-feet-ten, had an eighth-grade education, and, despite her confusion with double-negatives, was the smartest person I knew. "Sounds like one a them potboilers. My Legion a Mary book club is lookin' for a summer sizzler that's heavy on romance and light on naughty words."
"I'd love to!" said Jackie, popping out of her chair and pausing breathlessly. "But only if it's okay with Emily."
Before Jack Potter had become Jackie Thum, he'd been the ultra-extrovert, the attention magnet, the guy who always made everything about himself. His breast size, hormones, and plumbing might have changed over the last few years, but two things had remained the same -- his enormous feet and his sense of self-importance.
It was comforting to know that some things never changed.
"Knock yourself out," I said as I sat down. I mean, what else did I have left to say, other than I was thirty years old, enjoyed a long-standing love affair with Victoria's Secret, and stumbled across dead bodies on every trip I took? I was hoping this tour would be different, but in case it wasn't, I'd brought along sympathy cards. If I was a jinx, I wanted to be remembered as a thoughtful jinx.
Jackie opened her book again, only to be interrupted when a hotel staffer rushed into the room, announcing something to Annika in frantic Finnish.
"The kitchen is about to send out our salads," Annika translated, "so we need to move into the main dining room immediately. We can finish our introductions at our orientation meeting tomorrow morning. Please take your glasses with you. You don't want to waste good wine."
My group was first out the door to claim the good seats by the windows and restrooms, but the remaining guests crowded around Jackie like hogs at the feed trough.
"When are you handing out your books?" asked the man with the Harry Potter glasses. "I'd like to read one."
"Ditto for me," said the large-boned woman with the face powder.
"So would I," said Portia Van Cleef. "In fact, I recommend that your novel be our next Hamlets book-pick-of-the-month so all of us can read it. Good idea, people?"
Every head in the room bobbed enthusiastically.
Portia smiled at Jackie. "Our book club was in existence long before these new TV book clubs, but our monthly selections obviously never received the hype of the media-driven picks. If we'd been given a little airtime, we could have made millionaires out of mid-list authors, too."
Jackie splayed her hand across her bulging chest. "Oh, my goodness. That would be so awesome, but I have to warn you, my book reads nothing like Hamlet. It's a good old-fashioned romance, with a smattering of suspense, humor, fantasy, horror, paranormal, police procedural, and action-adventure. I wanted to include a little something for everyone." She offered her book to Portia. "Here, you can have the first copy, and after dinner, I'll come down to the lounge and hand out the rest. I just wish I'd brought more!"
"Not to worry," said Portia. "I'm a renowned speed reader, so I should be able to finish this in one sitting and give it to someone else tomorrow."
"Anteeksi," said Annika from the doorway. "Excuse me, but you must take your seats in the dining room."
"I'm sitting beside Portia," said Reno O'Brien as he sidled up to her.
"I get her other side," barked the man with the buzz cut.
"Me and Jimbob wanna sit across from her," said the woman with the face powder. Jimbob was a tall skeleton of a man with hunched shoulders and a head like a Q-tip.
Portia smiled benevolently at her devotees. "You're too kind, spoiling me with all this undeserved attention. But I'm not the luminary of the day. Jackie is, so you should be heaping your attention on her." She grasped Jackie's hand as if they'd been siblings being reunited after spending decades apart. "Jackie, dear, would you be so kind as to allow all of us to accompany you to the dining room? Then you can tell us all about your wonderful novel."
"This is so flattering. How can I say no?" Jackie wrapped her arms around Portia in a bubbly bear hug and lifted her off the floor.
Kick-ass upper-body strength is one of the perks of being a six-foot transsexual. That, and a sliding vocal range that allows you to sing both soprano and bass in your church choir.
Portia jangled like a human wind chime as Jackie set her back on her feet. "Sorry," Jackie enthused as she plumped Portia's kaftan and straightened the necklaces dripping from her throat. "I must tell you, I love your hair. My husband is a master cutter and hair colorist, and he'd absolutely adore what you've done. I bet I even know the color. That combination of cornsilk and platinum -- society blond, right?"
Portia blinked her astonishment. "How could you possibly know that?"
"Writer's block. It's a long story." She seized Portia's arm and escorted her out the door, chased by guests who looked determined not to be excluded from the newly formed "in" crowd.
"Jimbob and me still hosey the chairs across from you!" shouted the woman with the iridescent makeup.
"That's Joleen Barnum," said the lady across the table from me. She pushed back her chair and winced as she stood up. "Durned stiff joints. She and Jimbob are the Hamlets' most recent residents. Poor things are having a hard time fitting in, but they won't have to worry about it much longer."
"Nosiree, they sure won't," said the man sitting beside her.
"I'm Lauretta Klick." She poked her finger at her name tag. "And this here's my husband, Curtis."
"Pleasure to meet you," he said, offering me a polite nod.
The Klicks were seventy-something, munchkin-short, and wore outfits that made them look like a set of salt and pepper shakers with bad haircuts.
"I guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other in the next two weeks," I said cheerily.
"Probably not as much as you think," Curtis allowed, exchanging a meaningful look with Lauretta.
I hated meaningful looks. They really made me feel out of the loop. I regarded Lauretta's name tag more closely. "You're from Florida, too? Everyone except my group lives in Florida. Do you all know each other?"
"We certainly do," said Lauretta. "We're one big, happy family. Isn't that right, Curtis?"
"That's gospel, Lauretta."
She took her husband's hand and hobbled toward the door. "We have the Hamlets travel agency to thank for making all the arrangements."
"They're full service now," said Curtis. "We wrote out a check and they took care of everything else. The Hamlets really know how to treat their residents. Nothing but first-class service."
"What are the Hamlets, exactly?" I asked as we exited into the main dining room.
The Klicks stopped short. "You've never heard of the Hamlets?" they asked in astonished unison.
Lauretta puffed up like a fresh-baked popover. "It's only the most desirable gated community for retirees in the whole country -- the biggest, the friendliest, the best laid out."
"They advertise on the golf network all the time," insisted Curtis. "How could you miss it?"
Lauretta patted his hand. "Curtis, honey, could be they don't get that channel in Iowa."
"Actually, Iowans are notorious for retiring to the Arizona desert," I said. "They'll take sand over salt water any day."
Curtis gaped. "How could anyone not want to live near the ocean?"
"It's a regional thing," I explained. "Iowans live longer when they aren't asked to guess if the tide is coming in or going out."
"That's a cryin' shame," said Lauretta, "because everyone wants to live in the Hamlets. Portia says the waiting list is so long, it could circle the globe twice. Just goes to show you that people know quality when they see it. Once you clear security and pass through the gate, you never have to set foot outside the community again."
"That's gospel," Curtis agreed. "We have our own medical clinics, shops, banks, churches -- "
" -- funeral homes," said Lauretta. "Two brand-new ones with flower stands suspended from the ceiling and viewing rooms in the round. Feels like you've stepped inside the starship Enterprise."
"We publish a newspaper that's better than the New York Times, and it's delivered to your mailbox for pennies on the dollar," continued Curtis. "We've got our own internal governing body, twelve executive golf courses, daily sports activities and competitions -- "
" -- dancing competitions, track and field events, competitive eating, pickle ball, golf cart races," Lauretta recited breathlessly. "Plus we have lots of special-interest groups: bridge club, gin rummy club, Scrabble club, Boggle club. You name it, we've got it. I bet you can't guess what residents call our community."
Only one term came to mind. "Summer camp?"
"Wrong!" hooted Curtis. "They call it utopia, because it's the closest thing to being in heaven."
"Don't let him fool you," Lauretta confided. "It is heaven. If I'd known retirement was going to be so much fun, I'd have skipped all those decades after high school graduation and gone directly to old age."
I smiled at their enthusiasm. "Your first day in Finland, and it sounds as if you're anxious to head home already."
The Klicks exchanged another meaningful look. "Oh, we won't be going back," Lauretta said matter-of-factly.
"Are you extending your tour?" I asked. "My group thought about the post-tour trip to St. Petersburg, but they were worried about their prescriptions running out before they got home. They probably don't have a Pills Etcetera in Russia."
"What Lauretta means to say is that we won't be going back at all," said Curtis. "No one will."
I regarded them in confusion. "Excuse me?"
"I don't want to alarm you, dear," said Lauretta, "but in a few short days, we'll all be dead."
Copyright © 2007 by Mary Mayer Holmes