Authors: Marie Moore
Seattle, WA 98127
For more information go to: www.camelpress.com
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover design by Sabrina Sun
Copyright © 201
3 by Marie Moore
ISBN: 978-1-60381-961-9 (Trade Paper)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013932448
Produced in the United States of America
y sincere thanks for their help on
go to my faithful and tireless agents and friends, Victoria Marini and Jane Gelfman, and to the editorial team at Camel Press; Catherine Treadgold, Publisher and Editor, Acquiring Editor Jennifer McCord and their assistant, Emily, for their time and efforts in the publication of this book.
I also want to thank all of the wonderful friends, Linda Seale, Lockie York, Kathy Elgin, the ladies of the Holly Springs Garden Club, Grace and James McLaren, Marie and Ryan Holder, Susanna and Tudor Moldoveanu, Walter Cooper and Lois Sandusky, Beverly Massey, Charlene Roberts, Joan and Leslie Sigman, and Ruff and Susan Fant, who gave such fantastic parties and events in celebration of the release of my first novel,
I am also extremely grateful to Linn Sitler, Lyla McAlexander, Jonathan, Angie, Tom and Cindy Pittman, Terri Smith, and Amanda Tatro of Click Magazine, Charlotte Bray
and Macon Wilson of The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Emily Gatlin and Jack Reed of Reed’s Gum Tree Books, Judy Spencer, Helen Hancock, Joe Hickman of Lemuria Books, Ward Emling, Linda Jones and Barbara Taylor of
The South Reporter
, Lois Sandusky, William Mauldin, Philip Rucker, John Beifuss, Stephen Usery, Bruce McMillin, Marybeth Conley, Wang-Ying Glasgow, Jan Oglesby, Frank Hurdle, Donna Dafur-Lindsey, Sharlinda Murphy, Virginia Goza, Dottie Kerstine, and Susan Reichert of
Southern Writer’s Magazine
for their loyal support and help in the promotion of my books.
Special thanks go also to all the great reviewers
, bloggers and fellow writers who gave a fledgling author a much-needed boost, particularly 2013 Amelia Award winner Carolyn Hart and archeological mystery author Sarah Wisseman. I would also like to tell all those who nominated
for an Agatha Award as Best First Novel how very much I appreciate such a compliment to my work.
s always, my deepest gratitude is reserved for my precious girls, Marie and Susanna, and for Kathryn, who opened the door and made it all possible.
most of all, I am eternally grateful for my husband, Rook, who has cheered me on every step of the way.
* * * * *
For Alex, my little animal expert,
and in memory of all the cats in my life,
Jean, Tanny, Rick, Lucky, Bessie, Sammie, Mikey,
Big Stripes, and The Red Cat
Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry,
“Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees and find out.”
Just So Stories
, “The Elephant’s Child”
* * * * *
ho named this place ‘Leopard Dance’?”
“I did, darling, I did. In the very beginning, I named it. I am fascinated with leopards. Though terribly dangerous, they are also beautiful. And the beast is a self-sufficient, solitary creature. Like you. And like me.
, they call the cat. That is a Zulu word. It means both king and leopard. One must be careful in the presence of
Once again, Winsome’s words came to mind.
“Then there may be truth in what your drivers say.”
“And what is that, my love? What do my drivers say?”
“They say, ‘He who dines with the leopard is liable to be eaten
He laughed then, and smiled down at me, pulling me closer.
“That’s an old native saying, my dear, and it may be true. One must be very careful with a leopard.”
* * * * *
goose ran right smack over my grave on Monday morning, just as I climbed out of the subway at Prince Street in Lower Manhattan. I shuddered all over, shook it off, and headed uptown to my office.
That’s what we call it, anyway, back home in Dixie, when shivers just shoot down your spine for no good reason. There’s probably some real name for it, some medical term. I just don’t know it.
But you know what I mean, don’t you?
Some might say it was the brisk north wind that set me shivering, but they would be wrong. The wind was icy, no doubt about that. It sent my long, black hair swirling all around and blew my skinny little coat open. But the wind wasn’t the problem. No, not the wind.
I don’t have second sight, and I didn’t have a big premonition or anything, but I should have.
And every time I get that old, cold, nasty feeling, something bad happens pretty soon, trust me.
* * *
When I arrived ten minutes late for work at the travel agency, the faded posters in the windows had been replaced with a giant zebra-striped banner that read, “Need a getaway?
Give us a call!”
I pushed open the glass door and heard African chants and drumbeats instead of the usual elevator music. The walls were plastered with tribal masks and lion posters. The standard shots of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were gone.
My name is Sidney Marsh, and I’m a travel agent. I came to New York eight years ago for a summer internship with an agency and fell in love with the City, so I worked overtime until I managed to turn that little job into a career.
My mother, back home in Mississippi, nearly passed out over the idea of blowing off college and sorority rush for Manhattan, but she’s finally gotten used to it. Sort of.
Which is good, because I love New York and I’m not going back home anytime soon.
The agency I work for is called Itchy Feet Travel. Our name sounds kind of goofy, but it appeals to people and we’re pretty successful, even in tough times. We work really hard to send folks around the world happily and safely, usually with success. I have to admit that my last trip out, a Scandinavian cruise, was a big bomb. I refuse to think about that. What happened on that ship was totally not my fault, no matter what my boss thinks.
I was used to a pretty blah-looking office, so the Tarzan motif came as a complete surprise. Because most of our business is done over the phone or on computers, we don’t do a lot of decorating for walk-ins. The African transformation was a stunner.
Roz, our receptionist, had a Tilley hat—
a packable tan safari hat with a chin strap—crammed down on her orange do and a tan safari vest stretched across her double-Ds.
he did not look happy.
“Hi, hon, bedda hurry. You’re late for the staff meeting. Everybody else is in there awready. Big Bwana himself is on his way over. Be here in five, his driver said. Bedda move it!”
Wait a minute.
“There’s a staff meeting? What staff meeting? Nobody told me about any staff meeting.”
“One of these days, hon, ya gotta start checkin’ the sign-in announcements on ya computah. It’s been on there for two, three weeks. This is the big surprise Diana’s been hintin’ around about. The new product launch. Like I said, His Majesty himself is comin’ over to explain it.”
She pulled a mirror from her desk drawer and started clumping on more mascara.
“Wish I had those big eyes of yours, Sidney. Then I wouldn’t have to mess with this crap. It never stays on like it should, no matter what kind I buy. By the end of the day I look just like a raccoon. Bedda hurry on in, hon. Everyone else is there awready. What I’m tryin’ to say is, if you’re not in your chair when His Highness gets here, your ass is grass.”
I threw my
stuff down on my desk, smoothed my wild black hair, swirled on some lipstick, and scooted down the hall to the conference room. See, even though I’ve been living in New York for a while now, deep down, I’m still a Southern girl. Roz is right. I have long enough lashes that I don’t have to wear much eye makeup, but Dixie darlings
take time for lipstick.
I eased the door open, hoping to slip inside unnoticed. No luck. All eyes were on me.
“Well, Sidney. How very nice of you to join us this morning. Did you oversleep, dear, are you ill, or was your train just late again?”
Diana. Our manager. My boss. She stared at me, her cold blue eyes now icy slits, tapping her pen on the table. Diana, dressed in a flowing orange caftan, her silver hair pulled back into a smooth knot and secured with some kind of bone or tooth or something. Diana. Bitch Queen of the Universe, according to my best friend and colleague, Jay Wilson.
Jay had arrived ahead of me for a change, and was already in his seat in the back corner of the room. Giving me a wide smile, he pointed to his watch. He overwhelmed the folding chair, his big frame dwarfing the metal, his shock of red hair flaming against the taupe walls.
Before I could respond, Mr. Silverstein, owner of our agency, burst through the door with his wormy little assistant Andre fluttering along in his wake. Diana jumped up from the table to greet them and
, in all her gooey gushing, forgot about me.
Silverstein and his shadow must have swung by the wardrobe department at Central Casting on their way over. They were both decked out in full safari gear. I fervently hoped that they weren’t going to insist on pith hats and khaki shorts for all of us. I
admired my new black heels, Chanel knockoffs, purchased over the weekend in Lower Manhattan. I had no plans to trade those in for safari boots.
ladies and gentlemen, JAMBOOOOOOOOO!” Silverstein boomed. Everyone jumped.
Silverstein is a big boy, tall, with wide shoulders. He has the plummy bass voice of an anchorman, abundant curly silver hair, and the deep tan of an outdoorsman. The tan is fake, though. I know from a reliable source that it is sprayed on regularly at a salon near his office on Sixth Avenue.
Our leader has sharp brown eyes behind thick silver wire-rims and a pretty good build for his age. From the way he was posing, he clearly thought his bum and legs looked great in the British tan shorts and tall socks he was wearing.
It was rare to see Diana so flustered, but she was in the presence of the Mighty One. When he barked at her to dim the lights for his PowerPoint presentation, she tripped over her caftan and barely regained her balance before crashing into the wall. Jay winked at me and snorted a laugh.
“Your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen,” Silverstein began, nodding to Andre, who brought up the first photo on the screen—a postcard shot of elephants at sunrise.
“Welcome to ‘Fantastic Africa,’ a luxurious adventure tour custom designed just for our IFT clients, with, of course, as always, that special Silverstein touch and attention to detail. Next photo, please, Andre.”
Thirty minutes later, all the round thatched huts, tented camps, game lodges, and hippo pools were beginning to run together. I closed my eyes. I was planning my weekend in my head when the sound of my name attracted my full attention.
The lights were back up and everyone was staring at me, obviously waiting for me to say something.
“Excuse me, Mr. Silverstein,” I managed, “I’m afraid I didn’t quite get that. Could you repeat it, please?”
“Of course, Sidney, of course,” he said, his voice a deep rumble, “and I don’t blame you for being flattered and completely overwhelmed, my dear. After all, it’s not every day that one has the honor of being personally chosen—by me no less—to lead the very first group from Itchy Feet Travel ever to set foot on African soil.”
What? Oh, dear Lord
, I thought,
dear Lord, not me! Why me? Leading old ladies on safari? What have I done to deserve this?
“I can’t emphasize enough,” he continued, oblivious to my stricken face and the short bursts of smothered laughter coming from Jay’s corner, “how big this is going to be for our agency. Really, really big. Times are hard and I have decided that something like this is just what we need to get people traveling again, and more importantly, traveling
. We are investing significant capital in this venture and failure is not an option. So it goes without saying that we must all get behind it and push, push, push! I want you all to understand, particularly you, Sidney, that our first trip out must be flawless. Do you hear me? Flawless.”
“Flawless,” Andre repeated.
Silverstein stared through his big glasses into the back corner of the room, focusing on Jay.
“And you, Jay Wilson, you lucky duck, will be assisting Sidney in escorting the very first safari group ever from Itchy Feet Travel. We will be offering our clients a deluxe ten-day tour to Cape Town, South Africa, including a safari at a private game lodge near the world-famous Kruger National Park. Did I mention that there will be no
slipups? No slipups. I want this first trip to be perfect. Do I make myself clear?”
The lucky duck nodded.
We all nodded.
Diana glared at me. She must have thought I was smirking, and I was, but not at her. No, my happy little smile was an expression of satisfaction because the gleeful snorting from the back corner had ended abruptly when Jay’s name had been mentioned as the other tour escort.
Escorting a group of any age to Africa would be challenging. But Jay and I don’t usually escort just any group. Our specialty is senior citizens, and escorting them is never exactly a breeze, even on a simple trip such as New England leaf-peeping. Some seniors are not in such great shape.
Stuff happens. Guiding our agency’s main senior group, the High Steppers, on a first-time safari in Africa would be a nightmare.
Nothing but silence from the back corner. Jay’s heart had probably stopped.
“I would like to remind Sidney and Jay,” Diana said, acid dripping from every word, “that there must be no repeat of their last trip, when several of our clients turned up dead.”
Mr. Silverstein didn’t like the interruption.
“That will do, Diana,” he said, waving her into a chair. “Everyone here knows what happened on that ill-fated cruise. The authorities have dealt with it and that case is closed. Today is not the time to bring that back up. We have exciting news to share here today.”
“Exciting news, really exciting,” Andre said.
Diana sat, eyes narrowed, her mouth in a thin line.
Sidney,” Mr. Silverstein said, beaming back at me, “in preparation for this product launch we are sending you and Jay on a fam trip next Wednesday. The fam will be hosted by the hotels, the inbound tour company, and the game lodge we are using for our tours.”
My ears perked up at the words “fam trip.” That got my full attention. Fam is short for familiarization. On a fam trip an agent is sent to check out a destination so he or she will know how to sell it. There are no clients on a fam trip, only a group of agents. Fam means a little education and a lot of fun. I shot a glance at Jay. He was smiling again.
“I want you to experience firsthand everything that we will be offering our clients long before any of them arrive in Africa. That way you can sort out in advance any problems that might occur with our arrangements. As I said earlier, on this first-ever African safari offered by Itchy Feet Travel there will be no problems, no slipups, no mistakes.”
“No mistakes,” Andre repeated.
Silverstein leaned over the podium, staring me down.
“It is your job,
Sidney, to anticipate problems and solve them in advance. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
The steely eyes focused on him.
“And please remember, both of you, that I will hold you personally responsible for any glitches that are not resolved.
Silverstein gave us each another
We both nodded.
check your shot records and passports,” he finished, “because you are leaving Kennedy next week on a direct flight to Cape Town.”
I couldn’t believe it. What great news. A fam trip! Not just any fam trip, a deluxe trip to
South Africa. Not even the specter of the inevitable old folks’ safari to follow could dim the joy of that moment. I mean, I was not just surprised, I was blown away.
You see, travel agents
may be a dying breed. Very few of us survived after the pencil pushers and big financial wizards at the airlines decided to cut us out of the pie, effectively killing off their huge, nationwide, non-salaried sales force. I’m no MBA, but that seemed pretty dumb to me. But for those few of us left standing, stuff like fam trips is what keeps us in the biz.
Back in the day, great perks were the norm. Free passes to airline clubs, free drink coupons, comp tickets and upgrades, invitations to cocktail parties, dinners, and breakfasts ...
not anymore. Those little goodies are now the stuff of legend for the frontline agent. Even the fam trip is sadly diminished. Times have changed. The sweet life is over. Now you usually pay a reduced-rate for pared-down fam trips and those remain only because agencies and suppliers have to do some boots-on-the-ground education in order to sell the product.