The discount travel package to Italy seemed like a great deal: Emily Andrew could lead her globe-trotting Iowans on the trip of a lifetime and bring her family to boot. Maybe she should have read the fine print....Sharing their itinerary with a group of hyper-competitive aspiring romance writers is just a prelude to more Machiavellian drama than an Italian opera.
First, their hotel burns to the ground. Then, when Emily's lost luggage turns up found, the disgruntled literary ladies raid her clothing supply like she's a one-woman Gucci outlet. But the real killer is a contest sponsored by a publishing house -- and the depths to which the dime-novel divas will plunge to win a book contract. Amid backstabbing and catcalling, bodies start turning up -- in Emily's favorite outfits! Now, Emily will need more than a phrasebook to say ciao to someone with a hot and spicy passion for murder.
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There are lots of things you can't do in Rome.
You can't leave your belongings unattended without fear of having them ripped off. You can't talk in the Sistine Chapel. You can't exit the Colosseum the same way you entered. You can't buy a ticket aboard a bus from a vending machine that's out-of-order. And you can't take pictures in St. Peter's Basilica.
Don't get me wrong. You can try to take pictures of the towering marble columns, the gilded arches, and the dazzling mosaics, monuments, and altars. The Vatican encourages all kinds of photography. But the thing is, everything is so big inside the basilica, you have to stand really far back to get your shot.
"How do you s'pose they keep the floor in this place so shiny?" Nana asked as we stood near the monstrous holy water stoups in the nave of St. Peter's.
I marveled at the acres of gleaming marble that stretched before us. There was only one way to keep this floor looking as polished as an Olympic ice-skating rink. "Zamboni," I concluded.
Nana sighed with nostalgia. "Your grampa always wanted to drive one a them Zambonis. He said watchin' that machine resurface the ice sent chills up his spine. I never had the heart to tell 'im it wasn't the Zamboni what give 'im chills. It was his underwear. Cotton briefs don't cut it at a hockey game. You gotta wear thermal."
Nana stood four-foot-ten, was built like a fireplug, and despite her eighth grade education, was the smartest person I knew. To kick off the first day of our Italian tour, she was dressed in her favorite Minnesota Vikings wind suit and wore a Landmark Destinations name tag that identified her as Marion Sippel.
I never wore a name tag, but all twelve seniors in my tour group knew me as Emily. Emily Andrew -- the theater arts major who'd gone off to the Big Apple to become a serious stage actress, even landing a minor role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, only to return home to Iowa after my husband ran off with the dreamboat who donned Joseph's dreamcoat every time the lead actor was under the weather. Life has a way of turning lemons into lemonade though. I applied for an annulment, which returned me to "virgin" status in my mother's eyes, and I found permanent employment at the Windsor City Bank as the well-paid coordinator for its Senior Travel Club. I arrange day-trips throughout Iowa during the year and holidays abroad through national tour companies. Then I get to accompany the group as an official escort. It's a dream job that suffers only one major drawback.
People keep dying on me.
Nana assessed the floor with a critical eye. "You s'pose the floor's as slippery as it looks? This would be a bad time to fall and break my hip."
Unh-oh. I'd had a feeling all day long that some calamity was about to happen. It was like a ripple in the order of things. A disturbance in the force. Ever since my eerie encounter at an Irish castle last month, I'd flirted with the idea that I might be possessed of some kind of sixth sense, but to be honest, I hoped I was wrong. Living through disaster was bad enough. Being able to predict it would be right up there with tooth extraction by rusty pliers.
"The floor only looks like ice," I assured Nana, checking out her size five sneakers. They weren't Nike or Converse but appeared to be some off-brand she'd bought at Wal-Mart for ten bucks. She might be a lottery-winning multimillionaire, but she still knew how to save a dime. "Do those have latex bottoms?"
She shuffled her feet, making a loud, squeaking noise. "You betcha."
"You're all set then." But I suddenly realized I was hesitant to let her out of my sight. "Do you ever have feelings you can't explain, Nana?"
"Female intuition," she groaned. "Awful thing. I'm glad I don't get them intuitive twinges much anymore, and when I do, it's usually gas." She fixed me with a fretful look. "You're taller'n me, Emily. You see George anywhere out there?" She glanced around to see who was within earshot before whispering close to my ear, "Him and me have big plans these next two weeks...if we can steer clear of you know who."
George was George Farkas, an Iowa retiree with a prosthetic leg, a great sense of direction, and an expandable body part that was reputed to be of mythic proportions. He and Nana had developed the hots for each other on our trip to Ireland, but they hadn't wanted to raise eyebrows back home, so they'd kept the relationship under wraps. They'd been thinking of this trip to Italy as an extended date, until the unthinkable happened.
My mom got talked into coming along.
Nana went up on tippy-toes and in her best imitation of a periscope in search of enemy vessels, scanned the cavernous depths of the basilica. "You think I've lost her? She's been stickin' to me like denture cream ever since we left Des Moines. I swear when we get back home, I'm gonna strangle your father."
Dad had meant well. When Nana's assigned roommate, Bernice Zwerg, had to cancel her reservation to undergo emergency bunion surgery, he'd suggested my mom take her place. "It'd give you three girls a chance to spend some quality time together." I'd been a little frightened by the idea. Nana had nearly swallowed her dentures. I'd had to perform the Heimlich maneuver just to get her breathing again.
Nana wrung her hands beside me. "How's a mature widowed lady s'posed to carry on a serious flirtation with a fella when the woman's kid is taggin' along?" It didn't seem to matter that the "kid" in this case was fifty-eight years old. I guess the theory was, once your kid, always your kid.
"There's George," I said, spying his bald head, tartan plaid shirt, and chino pants at a second holy water stoup across the way from us. I pointed him out and aimed her in the right direction. "Remember to guard your pocketbook."
She massaged her oversized bag with a reverent hand. "We don't have to worry about no criminal element in St. Peter's, Emily. This is the safest place in all Italy. It said so in a travel guide your mother checked outta the library."
"Well, be careful anyway."
Mesmerized by the sparkle and glitter in every corner of the basilica, I dug my Canon Elph out of my shoulder bag and spun in a slow circle, dazzled. Wow. I studied the holy water font in front of me. In my parish church back home, holy water was dispensed in a metal container the size of a soup bowl. Here, it was dispensed in a marble shell the size of a man-eating clam and supported by two cherubs whose heads were as big as wrecking balls. I pondered the cherubs. Weren't they supposed to be itty-bitty creatures with tiny little wings?
Obviously, I'd been confusing them with Tinkerbell.
I wormed my way through the crowd, looking for a shot that would capture the essence of the basilica, and soon found it in the ceiling above me -- a gold-toned mosaic of a wave-tossed boat jammed with apostles. Outside the boat, a haloed Jesus stood atop the water, his hand extended in an obvious attempt to prevent a prayerful Peter from sinking to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. Aha! This was perfect. It had everything. Raw drama. Human emotion. Bible-based special effects. I took aim with my camera.
I couldn't fit all the apostles into my frame.
I changed the setting on my camera to panoramic print. I could fit all the apostles into the frame now, but I was faced with another teensy problem.
They no longer had heads.
Okay. So maybe I wasn't getting any great pictures of the world's most famous basilica, but on a brighter note, think of all the film I was saving!
I continued to wander, my shoulder growing numb from the sheer weight of having to shlep my bag around. But I was an escort. I needed to carry a lot of essential stuff. Over-the-counter medications. Itinerary information. Pocketknife. Sunblock. Address book. Post-it notes. Maps. Cosmetics. Cell phone. The bank had decided to spring for the cell phone to spare my having to battle Italy's notoriously bad phone system in case of emergency. It was a really good one, too -- the kind that could handle transatlantic as well as local calls. I was carrying my passport, money, and credit cards beneath my clothing in a neck wallet that the tour company, Landmark Destinations, had sent out to all its guests. They suggested this was the only sure way to protect currency and travel documents from the pickpockets and purse snatchers who preyed upon summer tourists.
At a side altar mobbed with people, I saw a glossy white sculpture perched high on a plinth behind a glass enclosure -- a depiction of Mary cradling the lifeless body of her Son. Around me, shutters clicked, lights flashed, film whirred. I could feel a palpable kind of energy as people pushed and shoved their way to the front, but I expected their excitement was fueled less from the idea that they were staring at the marble masterpiece than by the fact that this seemed to be the only statue in the whole basilica that could fit inside the frame of a thirty-five-millimeter camera.
I whipped my Elph up to my eye and zoomed in. I poised my finger on the shutter button.
"There you are, Emily." I froze at the sound of my mother's voice behind me. "Have you seen your grandmother? I've been telling her to stay close by me so I can protect her from being crushed to death by the crowd, but she keeps disappearing. I'm afraid this can only mean one thing." She let out a woeful sigh. "Her hearing's gone. First thing when we get back home, I'm calling the Miracle Ear people."
My mom stood an inch over five feet and was as soft and round as a pigeon -- kind of like a Midwestern version of Bette Midler. She had a moon face, round blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, a cap of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, and a fanny pack that bulged at her waist like an Igloo cooler. I looked nothing like my mom. I was taller and thinner, with an unruly mop of shoulder-length dark brown hair, cheekbones you could actually see, and enough fashion sense never to allow a fanny pack anywhere near my waist. Neither Mom nor I had inherited Nana's bulbous nose or Alfred E. Newman ears. Sometimes you just luck out.
Mom glanced beyond me, riveting her attention on the glassed-in altar. "Oh, my goodness, Michelangelo's Pietà. Did you know I have a photo of this very statue from the 1964 New York World's Fair? You have to get a picture of that, Em. Here. Give me your bag so you can maneuver a little better." She grabbed my shoulder strap with one hand, gave it a tug, and let out a surprised gasp when it broke loose from her fingers and fell to the floor with an echoing thunk. I stooped down to grab it.
So did she.
"You must feel so bogged down toting this thing around, Em." She gave the breathable nylon fiber a possessive pat. "Why don't you let me carry it for you?"
I manacled my hand around the strap. "You're sweet to offer, but I can manage. Besides, it's too heavy for you."
"Heavy? This little bag of yours? Really, Emily, it's light as a feather."
Sure it was. That's why it was sitting on the floor.
"Think how much nicer it would be for you if I carried it," she continued. "Imagine the wonderful things you could do if your hands were freed up."
I gave her an expectant look. "Like...?"
"Well...you...you..." She shot a quick look around her. "You could bless yourself. And with Vatican holy water! I bet the water here is much holier than it is back home."
This was so like my mom. It was bred in her bones to want to make everyone's life better, to be generous to a fault, to be responsible for everyone's happiness. But she always ended up going overboard, like putting whole heads of lettuce on a sandwich when a single leaf would do, or arranging the cold medications in your bathroom in alphabetical order during the commercial breaks of TV shows. She'd been on a tear about alphabetizing stuff ever since she'd started volunteering at the local library. Dad was doing his best to keep her away from alphabet soup, but it was a constant worry for him.
"Here's the scoop, Mom," I reasoned, trying to "outnice" her. "You want to show Dad what the inside of the basilica looks like, don't you? If you're saddled with my bag, you won't be able to take pictures yourself."
She crooked her mouth slightly and spoke in an undertone. "Maybe you haven't noticed, Em, but most of the statues around here are the size of forage silos. Who can take pictures? Besides, I read an article in The Catholic Herald that hinted it might be sacrilegious to take photographs in places as holy as this." She gave my arm an encouraging squeeze. "But don't let that stop you. If you didn't read the article, it probably won't count as a sin for you."
I hung my head and moaned. When Mom got an idea in her head, she could make the much touted "dog with a bone" look like a slacker. I wasn't a wuss. I mean, I could deal with rabid killers, runaway horses, and Irish ghosts, but dealing with my mom was a whole different dynamic. Through the years my family had learned there was only one sane thing to do when she got like this.
If I didn't, I'd be engaged in a tug-of-war over my bag that would continue until it was time to leave, and then I'd get no pictures.
I raised my hands in surrender. "Okay. You win." I stood up, hoisted my bag off the floor and looped the strap over her head and shoulder. She looked up at me with an exuberant smile lighting her little moon face.
"I'm so happy you're letting me do this for you, Emily, but do you suppose you could do me one small favor before you leave?" She lunged for my arm. "Could you help me straighten up? My knees have frozen solid on me."
Five minutes later, with her joints thawed and circulation restored, she was ready to be on her way. "Remember," I instructed, as I shielded her arm over my shoulder bag, "this place might be the safest place in Italy, but don't tempt Fate. Hold the bag close to your body and keep your hand over the zipper. Everything I own at the moment is in that bag."
"That was such a shame about your luggage, Em. I know they'll find it quickly though. I said a prayer to St. Anthony."
Everyone's luggage had arrived at the Fiumicino Airport, except mine, which had probably ended up in Rome, all right, but the one in Kansas. The Fiumicino Airport officials assured me they would track my bag down and rush it to my hotel; but just in case it was missing for longer than twenty-four hours, I wrote down names, badge numbers, and phone numbers. I threatened to contact the American embassy. Rome was the fashion capital of the world. If I ended up having to wear Nana's little lace-trimmed sweatshirts and polyester togs again, I'd create a commotion that would leave Alitalia Airlines begging for the kinder, gentler days of Attila the Hun.
I checked my watch. "Okay, we have ten minutes before we're due to regroup at the front entrance." We actually had a half hour before we were scheduled to meet our Landmark Destinations guide at the door, but Mom operated on Iowa time, so she needed to be at least twenty minutes early to be "on time." "Any questions?"
"Just one. Do you have any idea where I should start looking for your grandmother?"
The main altar of St. Peter's Basilica is an oblong of white marble that sits beneath a soaring bronze canopy. Four black-and-gold corkscrew pillars the size of giant sequoias support the structure. I snapped several pictures of the sculptures atop the canopy, then, as I framed my next shot, heard a click, click, click, click of stiletto heels on marble. "Hold up, Emily," a voice echoed out in a throaty whisper.
I glanced over my shoulder to find a tall, glossy-haired brunette hustling toward me. She had the face of a madonna, the body of a supermodel, and a sassy style that turned the heads of most men. Her legs were long and tan, and she wore a sexy white minidress that fit like a coat of spray paint. She was all sleek angles, graceful curves, and exact proportions, except for her feet, which were big as snowshoes. Her name was Jackie Thum. Before she'd had sex reassignment surgery to become a woman, she'd been a guy named Jack Potter, and I'd been married to him.
"I'm so glad you told us about the dress code here," she said, straightening the flutter sleeves that fell from her shoulders. "If you hadn't, I actually might have worn something totally inappropriate today."
I wondered what she'd consider more inappropriate than white spray paint. I regarded her arms. Oh, right. Spray paint without sleeves. "Out of curiosity, how did you get your minidress past the clothes police at the front door?"
"I sneaked in with a flock of nuns. The dress code guys were so busy arguing with a macho gorilla in a muscle shirt and running shorts that they never even noticed me." She removed what looked like a writing pen from her knit shoulder bag, held it to her mouth, and began speaking into it. "If you're visiting religious sites in Italy, check to see if there's a dress code. Bare arms and hairy legs aren't permitted in the church proper of St. Peter's; however, the clothes police might let it pass if you're planning to play bingo in the basement." She snapped the tape recorder off. "They play bingo here, don't they? It's a Catholic church. What Catholic church doesn't play bingo? Can you imagine the haul? I mean, this place can accommodate sixty thousand."
She held her minirecorder up for my perusal. "Doesn't this rock? It's the perfect gadget to help me chronicle your every move. I'll be James Boswell to your Samuel Johnson."
Ever since Jack had become Jackie, she'd been searching for her new niche in life. After ending up on the same tour in Ireland with me last month, she'd decided she might like a job like mine, so she signed up for this tour of Italy in the hopes of recording the dos and don'ts of the successful tour escort. I tried not to let it go to my head, but it was kind of flattering.
Jackie flashed me a smile that suddenly turned to horror. "Eh! Where's your shoulder bag?"
"Mom has it. She wanted to free up my hands so I could bless myself."
"You gave your shoulder bag to your mother?" Her brittle tone made it sound as if I'd given away my firstborn. "Jeez, Emily, that was brave of you."
Unh-oh. Was St. Peter's no longer the safest place in Italy? Was Nana's information outdated? OH, GOD! Was the travel guide Mom checked out of the library the 1952 edition of Frommer's? I swallowed slowly, a cold sweat prickling my forehead. "Why was it brave?" I asked hesitantly.
"Because you can get picked up by some really hot Italians in St. Peter's. You need to keep your cosmetic bag handy for those critical lip gloss touch-ups."
I waited a beat before thwacking her on the arm with the back of my hand. "Jack! You're married! What are you doing looking for men?" She'd eloped a month ago with a Binghamton, New York, hair designer named Tom whose specialty was corrective color and infliction of the choppy cut on unsuspecting heads.
"I'm married, Emily. I'm not dead."
I rolled my eyes, thinking if I came down with another case of stress-induced hives, I was going to kill her.
"Okay," she said, consulting a paper in the side pocket of her bag. "I made a list, and the next 'must see' in the basilica is" -- she turned around -- "this way." She banded her hand around my arm and dragged me half a mile down the center nave. We stopped before a mammoth five-sided pillar to regard a bronze statue of a fuzzy-haired man with a beard. "St. Peter," said Jackie. He was seated in a marble chair beneath an ornate canopy, one hand raised solemnly like Al Gore in a vice presidential debate, the other clutching a set of keys. I'd read someplace where the body of the statue might originally have been that of a Roman senator, with the haloed head and hands soldered on later. I had to compliment the Italians. St. Peter looked pretty darned good considering he might have been pieced together like Robocop.
"We need to get in line so we can kiss his toe," Jackie instructed.
I remembered back to my grammar school catechism and wondered what kind of spiritual reward we might receive for paying homage to this great saint. Partial indulgence? Plenary indulgence? In the days of the old Church, the faithful accumulated indulgences like frequent flyer miles and could use them to get out of Hell free. You didn't hear much about indulgences anymore. Wasn't that always the way? You just get locked into a great reward system and boom, all the perks expire.
"What significance does kissing his toe have?" I asked.
Jackie shrugged. "I thought it was the Italian version of kissing the Blarney stone. Hey, look. There's some of the people on our tour up near the front of the line. You see the tall guy in the rose-colored polo shirt? Silver hair. George Hamilton tan. Big bottle of water in a harness over his shoulder? That's Philip Blackmore, executive vice president of Hightower Books. They tell me he's a legendary marketing genius. He's supposedly the one behind Hightower's switch from literary to more commercial fiction."
It was Hightower Books who was sponsoring this two-week holiday to promote its unprecedented venture into the historical and contemporary romance market. The theme of the tour was Passion and Pasta and it provided an opportunity for romance fans and unpublished writers to rub shoulders with established writers, editors, agents, and other publishing luminaries. Guests were promised exciting excursions to historic venues as well as daily lectures from the experts on how to write a best-selling romance. My group of Iowans weren't particularly interested in the romance market, but when a slew of cancellations in the main tour occurred a couple of months ago, Landmark Destinations needed to fill up the empty seats, so they offered me some great discount prices, and I'd scooped them up.
"And you see the woman standing to the right of Blackmore?" Jackie continued. "The one in the floral muumuu with the horn-rimmed glasses and Cleopatra hair? That is none other than Marla Michaels. The Marla Michaels."
I gave the woman a quick look-see. "Who's Marla Michaels?"
Jackie stared at me in disbelief. "Emily! Do you live under a rock? Marla Michaels. The Barbarian's Bride? The Viking's Vixen?"
"Oh. That Marla Michaels. The world renowned" -- there was only one occupation I could think of where barbarians and Vikings would be commonplace -- "opera singer."
Jackie threw up her hands. "Marla Michaels is only the most famous historical romance diva in the world! Hightower lured her away from her old publisher by offering her a very lucrative contract that includes theme park rights and extended author tours to exotic places."
"She's a romance writer? How was I supposed to know that? I don't read romances." I cocked my head and smiled coyly. "But it seems one of us does. How do you know about her?"
"The seminar last night? She gave a talk? She autographed books? If you'd been less interested in complaining about your missing luggage and more interested in the theme of the tour, you'd know about her, too."
"Right. You read romances, don't you, Jack? Oh, my God. I bet you were reading them when we were married! That's why you were sneaking into the bathroom so much in the middle of the night. You weren't treating your athlete's foot. You were reading bodice rippers!" Wow. He'd kept a lot of things hidden in the closet back then.
"Are you guys in line?" I heard a chirpy voice inquire behind me.
She was one of ours -- a flaming redhead in her twenties who was snapping gum like a kid snaps rubber bands. The wording on her name tag read, Hi! My name is Keely.
"You're on the tour!" she said, aiming a finger at Jackie. "I recognize you from the seminar. I would kill for that leather bustier you were wearing last night. Can you believe this? Marla Michaels and Gillian Jones in the same room together?"
"Gillian Jones?" I asked tentatively. "Another romance writer?"
"I'll say." Keely popped a bubble, then sucked it back into her mouth. "Sixty-four weeks on the New York Times Best-seller List for A Cowboy in Paris. Eighty-six weeks for A Cowboy in Sydney. The reviewers said books about cowboys wouldn't have global appeal. Boy, were they wrong. She's the most successful writer of contemporary romance ever."
"She's standing behind Marla in line," Jackie pointed out.
Gillian Jones was waifishly petite with platinum hair cut close to her head and huge cactuses hanging from her ears. I suspected the oversized earrings might be her trademark. The Lone Ranger's was a silver bullet. Gillian's was desert vegetation.
"Marla and Gillian supposedly hated each other for a lot of years," Keely explained, "but now that they've signed on with the same publisher, I've heard they've become the best of friends. I want to learn so much from them. I don't mean to brag, but I've won every regional First Chapter contest ever offered."
"That's great," I enthused. I had a hard time writing postcards, so I admired anyone who could actually win a contest for putting words on paper. "But you're unpublished at the moment?"
"Prepublished," she corrected. "Unpublished gives the wrong impression."
Right. I guess it would give the impression that...you're not published.
"But I'm this close" -- she flashed a quarter-inch space between her thumb and forefinger -- "to getting published."
"Have you had any nibbles?" Jackie asked with girlish excitement.
"Not exactly." Keely blew a bubble the size of her head, then had to use her fingers to shove it all back into her mouth. "I need to complete the manuscript first, but finishing up should be a piece of cake."
"Are you close to the end?" I asked.
"Real close. Only thirteen chapters to go."
Thirteen to go? I couldn't imagine the fortitude it took to sit down every day and grind out page after page of fiction. I regarded her with even greater respect than before. "How many chapters have you written so far?"
"One. But like I told you, it's award-winning." She blew another bubble. I gritted my teeth. If she did that one more time, I might be forced to grab it out of her mouth and stick it in her ear. "What I really need is an agent," Keely confessed. "That's part of the reason I'm on this trip. Gillian and Marla's agent is here, so I need to impress her big-time. I'm hoping if she reads my award-winning chapter, she'll like it well enough to represent me. Her name's Sylvia Root. Ever heard of her? They call her 'the barracuda.' High-powered. Ruthless. Cojones the size of Jupiter. She's every author's dream. And by the way -- " She reached into her pocketbook, pulled out a business card, and handed it to me. "I run an online romance writers' critique service, so if you ever need help with your novel, e-mail me. I offer special rates to people I've met."
I skimmed her card. Romance Solutions. Become a published author. Manuscript critiques offered by award-winning writer, KEELY MACK. Reasonable fees.
"Whoops," said Keely, "there's my roommate. Gotta run. She wants to explore the grotto where all the popes are buried. She has this obsession with dead people. She wants to break into the market with the first zombie romance. Isn't that a kick? She'll probably start a hot new trend."
Good reason to stick to nonfiction.
The queue to reach St. Peter moved quickly. I kissed his little bare toe, then pondered what other part of the statue I'd be kissing if the early Romans had worn wingtips instead of sandals. "If kissing the Blarney stone imparts the gift of gab," I commented when Jackie and I were through the line, "what gift do you suppose kissing St. Peter's toe imparts?"
"I don't know, but if you start speaking in tongues, I'm outta here."
After oohing and aahing over the magnificence of Michelangelo's dome and Bernini's sunburst, we snapped some photos of the gilded lanterns surrounding St. Peter's tomb and headed back toward the entrance. "Hi, Jackie," gushed two blonde women wearing Landmark name tags.
A minute later a spit-polished man with a trim beard nodded at Jackie. "Ms. Thum."
I slanted a curious look at Jackie. "How do all these people know you?"
"It's called networking, Emily. Isn't that what a good travel club escort is supposed to do? I attended the seminar last night, introduced myself to all the guests, and the dividend is -- " She shot me a toothy smile. "They remember me."
"Of course they remember you! You were wearing a leather bustier!"
"If you lower your voice, I'll let you borrow it sometime." She sidled closer to me and spoke in a whisper. "That man who just acknowledged me? He's apparently a real biggie in the industry. Gabriel Fox. He's a senior editor at Hightower and is supposed to be editing both Marla and Gillian. Boy, I wouldn't want that job. Can you imagine the egos? Anyway, they call him 'the book doctor.' If there's anything wrong with a book, he's the guy who's supposed to be able to fix it. But you know what I don't get?"
I could see the red-and-green umbrella of our tour leader bobbing conspicuously in the air near the front entrance. "What don't you get?"
"All these wannabe writers are all in competition with each other, right? So how come they want to help each other so much? I mean, you should have been there last night. It was a lovefest! When a guy's in competition with you, he stabs you in the back and steamrolls you into the pavement. When a woman's in competition with you, she becomes your best friend! It makes no sense to me."
"Maybe you need to boost your estrogen level. It might improve your understanding." I spied everyone in my group huddled around a baseball-capped Duncan Lazarus and his umbrella. Grace and Dick Stolee, Helen and Dick Teig, and Lucille Rassmuson -- all of whom had gained a ton of weight since our trip to Switzerland last year. The Severid twins, Britha and Barbro, who were absolutely identical except for one characteristic, which they stubbornly refused to reveal. Nana and George. Alice Tjarks, the former voice of KORN's agricultural report, with her new camcorder. Osmond Chelsvig, with his double hearing aids and bigger camcorder. And Mom, listing like the Tower of Pisa beneath the weight of my shoulder bag.
"Estrogen, smestrogen," Jackie sniped beside me. "Women act really weird sometimes. And to think of all the money I spent to become one of you. I should demand a rebate."
Even before we could blend back into the group, Duncan stabbed his umbrella in the direction of St. Peter's Square and led the charge out of the basilica. I checked my watch. Three o'clock exactly. Duncan must be from the Midwest. A wave of humanity followed him out the door, but I worried about the head count. Not everyone on the tour was from Iowa. What if someone was late getting back? Uff da. It wouldn't be a good scene if we accidentally left someone behind.
"Why is he walking so fast?" Jackie fretted, as we emerged into blinding sunshine. "He has old people on this tour! And young people wearing extremely sexy but very impractical stiletto slides that make their feet look at least three sizes smaller." She clattered down the ramp that funneled tourists into the square and stopped short when she noticed something on the service road that flanked the ramp. She motioned to me furiously. "Emily, you've gotta see this. An honest to gosh Swiss guardsman."
I scurried over, cringing at the idea of having to wear blue and gold striped balloon pants with a matching doublet and spats to work every day. I knew the guards formed a small army that protected the pope, but I figured if they expected to be taken seriously by an invading force, they might need to rethink their uniforms. I mean, that's why GI Barbie wore fatigues instead of spandex, right?
Jackie snapped a picture of the pike-holding sentry standing before his little guardhouse. "Emily, would you take a picture of me standing beside him? Maybe Tom can hang it up in the salon to show his clients what I'm up to these days."
I glanced back toward the entrance of the basilica. I didn't see any Passion and Pasta people lagging behind, but waiting a few minutes for stragglers probably wasn't a bad idea. I didn't remember seeing Keely leave with the crowd. Her red hair wasn't exactly hard to spot. Could she still be snapping gum in the grotto? I could be a big help to Duncan here. In fact, if I could prevent some tour guest the agony of getting left behind, I'd be a real hero, which would kind of make up for my not attending the seminar last night and introducing myself to the immediate world.
"Okay," I said to Jackie. "Hand over your camera."
I kept one eye on the front of the basilica and one eye on Duncan's umbrella as Jackie scooted down the ramp and up the service road toward the guardhouse. She said something to the sentry, who ignored her completely, then posed close beside him and smiled up at me. "Pizza!" she yelled.
CLICK. I listened to her camera rewind itself. "You're out of film!" I yelled.
"You gotta take one more for insurance!" She fished inside her shoulder bag and brandished another cartridge in the air at me. "You want me to throw it to you?"
I gauged the distance between the guardhouse and me. Unh-oh. Not a good idea. Given her recent sex change, she probably threw like a girl. "I'll come down and get it!"
Casting a final look behind me at the basilica, I hurried down the ramp. The rest of the group was filing helter-skelter through the nearest columns and emerging onto what looked like a street beyond where the bus would no doubt pick us up. I jogged toward the sentry house, reloaded Jackie's camera, and snapped a shot of her standing on the other side of the guardsman.
"Thanks, Emily." She retrieved her camera. "You want me to get a shot of you with Mr. Personality?"
I waved her off. There was only one man I wanted to have my picture taken with, and he was in Switzerland.
As we hotfooted it back down the road, Jackie threw on her sunglasses and looked perplexed as she glanced around her. "Where'd everybody go?"
I pointed to our right. "Through those columns."
Jackie stopped short. "Hold up. I want one last picture of the square. Have you noticed that the square really isn't square? Why do they call it a square if it's an oval?"
"Jack! Come on! Everyone's gone. They're probably on the bus already!" I hurried toward the shadow of Bernini's columns and passed through the relative coolness of the roofed colonnade, ending up on what looked like a residential street. But as I paused on the sidewalk, I noticed a minor problem.
Fifty-three people had come this way, right?
I looked left at the deserted street and sidewalk. I looked right at the deserted street and sidewalk.
So if fifty-three people had come this way, WHERE WERE THEY NOW?
Copyright © 2004 by Mary Mayer Holmes