Four Fabulous Days! Three Glorious Nights!
Join the 4th Annual Popular Literature Conference at the
Historic Riverbend Queen Hotel!!!
April 8, 9, & 10
Your Life Will Never Be The Same!!!
Victoria Prentice found the card as she sorted through her mail and stood transfixed by the tackiness of it. It wasn’t the first time she’d been disgusted by academic stupidity in the forty years she’d been teaching college students, but it was the first time she’d been both disgusted and involved. She’d agreed to deliver a paper at this circus so she could spend some time with her friend, Janice, but she wouldn’t have if she’d known that this was how they were going to publicize it. The card promised everything except live girls and free drinks. Well, there went her reputation as a scholar. What were the idiots thinking of? It was all very well to take a stand against academic rigidity, but shilling a lit conference as if it were Club Med–
She stopped, appalled by the fussiness of her own thoughts. A lifetime of independence and free-thinking and what did she have to show for it? She was sixty-two years old and petrifying as she stood there. I’m getting old, she thought. Old in mind. That’s a terrible thing. She’d spent too much of her life arguing over dead authors and dead literature, playing it safe, and now she was sneering at something lively. Getting smug. Isolated. Victoria felt a twinge of something that felt like dissatisfaction and shrugged it off.
She was not dissatisfied. She’d worked damn hard to get where she was, and she’d loved every minute of it. No, her life was fine, she just needed a jump start, a change of pace, to be with somebody who would jolt her out of her rut. Janice was all very well, but she was also happily married and stable as the earth. Victoria needed to be with somebody alive, somebody young, somebody like her nephew.
Exactly like her nephew.
Alec wasn’t exactly an infant, of course. She counted back. She was twenty-four years older than he was so… good Lord, he was thirty-eight. How had that happened? While she was slowly turning to rock, he’d been aging, too. Well, it didn’t matter. He was still younger than she was, still able to make her feel alive when she was with him.
I’m not ready to solidify yet, she thought. Alec would go to the conference with her. He always did whatever she asked since she never asked much, and once there, she could bicker with him over dinner and harass him about settling down before he hit forty, and generally use him to get an attitude adjustment while she watched him dazzle every woman in the place with his aw-shucks charm and farm-boy face. If her life was dull and stuffy and essentially over, at least she still had the energy to interfere in his. She fed the card into the fax machine and punched in his office fax number, and when it went through, she picked up her phone and dialed him.
“I just faxed you an invitation for a month from now,” she told him when he picked up the phone. “Accept it or you’ll rot in hell for disappointing your favorite relative who gave you the best summers of your life.”
“I accept,” Alec said. “And hello to you, too.”
Alec Prentice tossed the fax on his boss’s desk. “Three glorious nights, Harry. That’s what we both need.”
Harry Chase grunted and tossed it back, refusing to move his eyes from his computer.
“No, Harry.” Alec put the paper in front of the older man again. “Look at it.”
Harry glanced at it. “Great.” He stared back into the computer screen.
“That’s where I’m going next month. My aunt’s speaking at this conference and I’m going.” Alec waited and then said, “Harry, I’m going out of town three weeks from Thursday. Hello?”
“I know.” Harry ducked his grizzled head as he clicked a couple of keys. The computer screen flexed and rearranged itself, and Harry growled at it.
“Harry–” Alec tried again.
“I know.” Harry looked up from the screen. “You’re going to hear your aunt give a speech. You told me. I know.” His eyes shifted back to the screen.
“It’s a literature conference, Harry,” Alec said distinctly. “College professors.”
Harry’s eyes stayed on the screen. “So?”
“I was thinking of that guy who came up on the scan the other day, Brian Bond. He’s never pulled his con in Ohio, and he’s running out of states.”
Harry peeled his eyes off the screen and narrowed his eyes at Alec.
“Right.” Alec relaxed now that he had Harry’s attention. “This is a nice convention. According to my aunt, nobody’s reputation ever got made or unmade at a Pop Lit conference. They’ll all be rested, optimistic, and probably juiced. It’s prime stuff for Bond.”
Harry considered it, shrugged, and turned back to the computer. “It’s a long shot.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Alec surveyed the older man with disgust. “You used to be the first one on the trail. I know you’ve got twenty years on me, but you can’t be giving up yet. Two years in front of a computer and all of sudden you’re not interested in actually nailing the bad guys?”
“It’s a long shot,” Harry repeated. “The database isn’t.”
“There is more to life than a national database,” Alec said.
“Not to my life,” Harry said.
“Well, I wouldn’t brag about it.” Alec retrieved the announcement. “Bond usually works with a woman, right?”
Harry punched a couple of keys and the screen rescrambled itself. “Right,” he said as he read the profile. “A brunette. We don’t have much on her. His last hit was in Nashville, three months ago.”
“Maybe she’ll seduce me,” Alec said hopefully. “I’ll wear my glasses. It’s amazing how many people try to sell me things when I wear my glasses.”
Harry snorted again and Alec knew why: it wasn’t amazing at all, it was a calculated effect. He thought wistfully of how in the past he’d traded on his open face to perfect a doofus persona that included horn-rimmed glasses, a slightly vacant look in his eyes, and a smile reminiscent of an over-eager junior high kid. Con men had rushed to sign him up. He’d bought lake-front property, ocean-front property, exciting stocks, miraculous bonds, and, shortly after that, the con men had gone to jail while Alec smiled blankly at them.
It had been a great job, he thought now with some regret. He’d set his own hours and annoyed the hell out of self-important people who cheated little old ladies for a living. And then, just when he was becoming so well-known that it was getting difficult to convince cons to sell him chewing gum let alone phantom real estate, Harry had plucked him out of the field to work on his pet project, the Federal Fraud Database. It was important work and Alec was dedicated to it, but he missed the thrill of the hunt. He was solidifying behind a computer, turning into Harry Chase before his time. He needed to break out again, pit his wits against somebody agile and evil just one more time before he went back to being Harry’s computer heir apparent forever.
And that’s how long he was going to be heir because Harry was never going to retire. Alec examined that thought, a little surprised at the impatience behind it. He liked Harry. More than that, he respected him and was grateful to him. Harry had done a hell of a lot for him, pushed him for promotion, made sure he was in the right places at the right times, attached him to the new database project. He was Harry’s protégé and damn lucky to be so.
He just missed running his own show.
Maybe that was why he missed the field. He didn’t miss the endless hotels and the bad food and the lousy people and the lying. He missed calling the shots.
Well, maybe Bond would show up in Riverbend with the brunette and he’d get to call the shots one more time. He went back to the thrill of pitting his wits again. If the someone agile and evil he was pitting against was also female, attractive and immoral, so much the better. He’d been working too hard and dating too little. “I need a furlough, Harry,” Alec said, and Harry snorted.
“Dream on,” he said. “Go baby-sit your aunt. But call me if Bond turns up. I’ll need to put it in the computer. And let me know if he’s working with that woman, too. And get her name. We need the data.”
“She’s a brunette, “Alec said to no one in particular. “I wouldn’t mind being seduced by a brunette.” He looked down at the card again. “I could use three glorious nights, too. Hell, I’d settle for one glorious night.”
Behind him, Harry snorted again, and Alec ignored him and went back to fantasizing about succumbing to a dark-haired con woman in the line of duty three weeks from Thursday.
Two weeks later and two states away, Dennie Banks shoved her dark curls back from her face so she could glare at her editor unimpeded. “It’s just three nights a week from now, Taylor,” she told him as he frowned over the Four Fabulous Days announcement card. “It’s my weekend. I just need Friday after next off.”
“What if something happens on Friday?” Taylor’s weaselly little eyes squinted up at her.
“Like what? An emergency wedding?” Dennie tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “I write the for lifestyles and the women’s page. There is no late-breaking news on the women’s page.”
“You never know,” Taylor said portentously, and Dennie knew there was absolutely no thought behind the statement. It was Taylor’s version of “because I said so.” Most of the time, Taylor’s brain deadness did not bother her; in fact, it was one of the reasons she’d stayed working for him for twelve years. She knew Taylor, she could handle Taylor, so she stayed with Taylor.
Lately, though, that sameness bothered her, and the bother made her voice firmer than usual. “I’m flying out Thursday after next, Taylor. You won’t need me.”
“All right, Banks,” he growled. “But if anything happens, you better get your tail back here.”
“You bet,” Dennie said and left the office annoyed and unsettled. She plopped into her desk chair and leaned back, and then her annoyance evaporated and she smiled at the woman who had just arrived in the newsroom. Patience Hollinger was taffy-haired, patrician and, at the moment, apologetic.
“I’m sorry.” Patience tossed her purse on her desk. “I shouldn’t have said any of that stuff last night. It was none of my business.”
“No, I’m glad you did.” Dennie took a deep breath. “I thought about it all night, and you’re right. I’m turning into a potted plant here.”
“Look, I’m right about my life.” Patience dropped into her desk chair. “I couldn’t take dating those safe boring guys you have twisted around your finger–”
“I know,” Dennie said.
“–or reporting on the same damn stuff every day even if you are the best in the world at it–”
“I know,” Dennie said.
“–Or working for Taylor for twelve years and how you’ve stood that, I’ll never know–”
“Patience, I know,” Dennie said. “We had this discussion last night.”
“–but you’re not living my life,” Patience finished. “So who am I to judge?”
“My best friend for my whole life?” Dennie said. “That’s somebody to judge. And you’re right. I thought about it, and you’re right. But I can’t change bosses, men, and careers at the same time, so I decided to focus on one.”
“Oh, thank God,” Patience said, sinking back in her chair. “You’re quitting here and leaving Taylor behind.”
“Well, no,” Dennie said. “I need things like rent and health insurance. I have to stay with Taylor for awhile. And I can’t handle dating complicated men right now, so I’m just going to give men up entirely until I get the career thing under control. That’s where I’m making my change . . .” Dennie leaned forward and Patience did, too, until their heads were as close as the desks between them would allow. “I have a lead on this story.” Dennie glanced over her shoulder, but no one in the room was paying them any attention. “Janice Severs Meredith is speaking at the Popular Literature Conference in Riverbend next weekend.”
“Who’s Janice Severs Meredith? No, wait.” Patience held up her hand. “Janice Meredith. She wrote The Feminist Marriage, right? And Redefining Relationships? I heard her speak once. She’s brilliant.”
“She’s also getting a divorce,” Dennie said, and Patience gaped. “I know. I found about it last week. It’s still very hush-hush, but it’s due to break any time now. And I want the interview.”
“How did you find out?”
“I was interviewing this writer who was in town doing a book signing. Twenty, beautiful, but with the brain of a cranberry. She writes about the depth of angst in the twenty-something set.” Dennie rolled her eyes. “She wouldn’t know angst if it bit her. Anyway, I was getting nowhere with her, so I asked her about the writers who had inspired her, and she said that her future husband was her biggest influence and her biggest admirer. So I said, future husband? and she said, yes, and he was very intellectual because he had two books on the New York Times bestseller list right now.”
“Charles Meredith,” Patience said.
“Well, that’s what I said, and then she frowned and said that I couldn’t say anything because he hadn’t told his wife yet.”
Dennie nodded. “Like I said, the brains of a cranberry. And evidently the morals of a mink. So now all I have to do is track Janice Meredith down.”
“And drop this bomb on her?” Patience looked horrified. “You wouldn’t.”
“No, of course I wouldn’t,” Dennie said. “He must have told her by now, especially since Tallie dropped the bomb on me.”
“The future Mrs. Meredith. I promise, I’ll be careful not to hurt her. But–” Dennie swallowed, “–I’m going to get this story. You were right. I’ve been stagnating, only writing inconsequential stories because I didn’t have to go after them, because I was afraid I’d fail. This one is important, and it’s going to be tough, but I’m getting it.”
Patience looked as if she had reservations. “So you’re just going to walk right up to her and say, ‘So, Janice, about this divorce’?”
“No, of course not.” Dennie frowned. “That would be cruel and I don’t want to hurt her, she’s going to be going through enough. But she’s had such a huge impact on modern marriage, and I know what she has to say about divorce is going to be even more important. And I want to be the one who does the first interview where she talks about it. I’ll be careful, I promise. But with that interview . . .” Dennie glanced over her shoulder again. “If I can get that interview, I can get out of here and into the big leagues. One step at a time. I know you wanted me revolutionizing my life, but I can’t afford–”
“I think this is great,” Patience said. “I think you’re doing the smartest thing possible.”
Dennie felt the muscles in her neck relax for the first time since the night before when Patience had tackled her about her too safe life. Patience had stood in the middle of the tissue-papered aftermath of her bridal shower and said, ” Dennie, it’s time you moved on, too,” and the argument that had followed hadn’t been their first, but it had been their worst. “You’re getting by on your charm, Den,” Patience had said. “You’re not even using your brains. Go after life and stop sitting around waiting for it to come for you.” Dennie had been so insulted she’d stomped out, but after a sleepless night, she knew she hadn’t been insulted, she’d been terrified. Patience had been right. She’d been afraid, holding onto a safe life that wasn’t giving her what she needed, and now that she was taking steps to break away, she could feel the relief in her bones. “I wouldn’t have done this without you,” she told Patience. “Although I still can’t believe you’re deserting me after all these years to get married and move to New York. How could you?”
Patience relaxed back into her chair. “He sleeps with me. You don’t.”
“Some friend,” Dennie said. “Three more days, and you’re a married woman in another state, and where will I be? How am I going to survive without you around to pick me up when I fall?”
“Don’t fall,” Patience said. “Or better yet, learn to pick yourself up. You underestimate yourself all the time, Den. You can do the tough stuff, and you can do it on your own. You just have to believe.”
“Right,” Dennie said. “Believe. Piece of cake.”
“Don’t tell me it’s a piece of cake,” the brunette told her partner two weeks later. “We’ve been pushing our luck too long. This isn’t going to work. We have to get out. Please.”
Brian Bond rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Sherée, I told you, this time it’s foolproof. This time, it’s legal. We can’t lose.”
“No,” Sherée said. “I have a really bad feeling about this. I don’t think we should go.” She fidgeted a little, bending the card in her hand back and forth.
Bond checked his watch to show her how impatient he was. He didn’t really need to check because he always knew what time it was; success was in the details. “We have exactly forty-six minutes to catch the plane for Riverbend,” he told her. “We are going. Move it.”
“Did you hear me?” she asked. “Do you ever hear me? We’re going to get caught. We’ve got to stop this.”
“Can we have this argument on the plane?” Bond tested the lock on his suitcase one last time. “You know you’re going. You’ve gotten cold feet before and you’ve gone, so why even bother talking about it? Now get your bag. We’re out of here.”
“No, we’re not.” Sherée picked the announcement card up from the table. “You know your ‘four fabulous days’? Well, watch this.” She tore the card in half. “That’s you and me,” she told Bond, her voice quavering. “I’m out of here. You go and get caught. I’m staying out of jail.”
She picked up her bag and walked out the door, and Bond watched her go with some surprise. He’d had no idea Sherée had any backbone at all. Not that it mattered. He could do this one just as well without her. After six months, she’d become a pain in the butt, always needing reassurance, always looking over her shoulder, always looking guilty. Some women just weren’t cut out for crime.
He checked the mirror on this way out the door, smiling his best honest smile. He looked as if guilt never crossed his mind. It didn’t. “Trust me,” he said to the mirror, and the mirror beamed back the face of a tow-headed farm boy, right out of Norman Rockwell.
Brian Bond laughed all the way to the airport.
Sherée had turned in her plane ticket for Riverbend at the airport counter, consoling herself that the hefty amount of money she’d lost on the exchange was really Brian’s since he’d paid for the ticket originally. It wasn’t much consolation, and the loss of the money coupled with the fact that she hadn’t a clue what to do next made her depressed, and she didn’t like being depressed. If she wasn’t happy, it must be somebody else’s fault, and that somebody else must be Brian who should have been taking care of her, and he really should be sorry about that, but she was pretty sure he wasn’t. This was so depressing Sherée sat in the airport bar and stewed about it for awhile.
Eventually she noticed that this was not helping her situation in the slightest, and then she began to plan, a new experience for her. Walking out had been a good idea only as a threat, she realized. Taking care of herself held absolutely no interest at all for her. She was going to have to find Brian again and convince him to take care of her until she could find somebody else who could do the job better. It was stupid of her to have walked away without having another man to walk away to. Her only problem was, Brian was in Riverbend by now.
She should never have cashed in that plane ticket. It just went to show you, somebody else should have been there making the decisions.
Three hours later, Sherée got on the bus for Riverbend. By now Brian would have seen how wrong he was and be ready to apologize, or she’d make sure he was when she got there. Either way, at least she was doing something. Sherée leaned her head on the window and went to sleep, dreaming of validation and vengeance.