Waiting for someone to pick you up at the airport is like being forced to be eight years old again. Waiting at the curb for the school bus. Waiting in the corridor shoulder-to-shoulder with your line buddy until everyone in class has puffed out their cheeks, holding invisible “Quiet Bubbles” in their mouths until it’s acceptably hush-hush-hallway enough to march out to recess. Waiting for your mom to rescue you much too late from a disastrous birthday party, like when she forces you to go to Tommy Ryan’s, that annoying hair-puller. She promised I’d have fun once I got there.
Why do parents lie like that? Did she really need two hours’ peace that desperately? If she’d only leveled with me that she needed a break from my incessant chatter, I’d have gladly sat quietly in a dim room mentally thinking up rhymes for my teacher, Mrs. McRucker’s, name. That always amused my eight-year-old self.
My thirty-year-old self wasn’t as easily appeased.
Again, I edged out from under the shelter of the overhang to peer down the roadway, hurrying back when rain began dripping off the tip of my nose.
“Where is she?” I spoke to myself, even though several people also waited nearby. Perhaps like me they were waiting for someone—parent, spouse, pal, clown car—to swoop in and pick them up at the Portland airport. Behind me, the terminal. In front of me, past the large concrete overhang, soft Oregon rain. To my left, bored or anxious or annoyed passengers, resigned or worried or irritated that their designated rides hadn’t shown up yet. To my right, the MAX light-rail train loading passengers for the trip to the Portland city center or other travel hubs. I’d already watched seven trains on the two tracks come and go. But still no Viv.
Despite my exasperation at having to wait for her, I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about hanging out with her again. I hadn’t seen Viv in a few years, but we’d had some glorious adventures in the past. Sharing hotel rooms at writers’ conferences like two teenagers at a slumber party, sitting on panels, teaching workshops together, and going on that book tour. Oy, that book tour. Our first books were published within three weeks of each other, so we’d organized a tour together through eight states stretching from my home in Colorado to hers in Oregon, hitting every major city as well as many podunk towns in between.
Our publisher didn’t foot the bill for our book tour. Viv and I paid for everything out of our minuscule advances, so after every signing event, she talked our way into free meals, drinks, or hotel rooms along our route. After a while, I couldn’t remember what was the truth about us and what was the fictional embellishment she wrapped us in. Regardless, we seemed like the two most interesting women in the world. So what if it wasn’t completely accurate? At least it was entertaining, especially for us.
If I felt uncomfortable when she got too outlandish, Viv convinced me that it was what people came to hear. We were obligated to give them their money’s worth. When I reminded her we spoke for free, she said, “If they only met boring old us, they’d be disappointed. At least now they have awesome stories to tell at parties about the time they got to hang out with those two crazy writers.”
I laughed out loud. Did anyone actually remember any of her tall tales?
A man standing nearby smiled at me, then spoke with a British accent. “I shall go barmy if I have to wait much longer, but it seems you bloody well don’t mind waiting to be picked up.” He gestured toward the terminal. “I heard a bloke inside say there was a tie-up on the motorway.”
“Actually, I’m thinking about turning around and flying right back to Denver. Or at least going back in for a grilled cheese sandwich. With bacon.” I eyed the terminal doors behind us.
“Don’t like Portland?”
“I love Portland. But I’m here to speak at a writers’ conference, and I’m nervous. I’ve been on panels before, and taught workshops, but my friend Viv, who’s the organizer, wants me to give the keynote speech at the banquet on Saturday.”
“Are you an author?”
I nodded and thrust out my hand. “Charlemagne Russo. Charlee. I write mysteries. But I’ll bet you’ve never heard of me.”
He shook my hand and quirked his mouth apologetically. “Sorry. I don’t read mysteries. I’m Sir Richard Headley.”
“Ooh, I’m in the presence of royalty.” I gave a demure little bend of the knee, making him laugh.
“Nah, not really. Just pretending. Call me Ricky.” The posh British accent was gone, replaced by a flat Midwestern one. “I’m from Nebraska. Practicing my accents. I was in the Russian Politburo on the way here.”
I raised my eyebrows at him, hoping there was more explanation coming.
“I travel a lot—I’m a motivational speaker—and believe you me, every single person on this planet pretends to be something they’re not and feels like a fraud. And some of them actually are.”
“I’m sure you’re not.”
“Are you here to … motivationally speak?”
He shook his head. “Friend’s wedding. Haven’t seen him in years. Not really sure why I agreed. The things we do for friends.”
“Indeed. I’m even using my own hotel points and I flew in early because flights on Wednesday were cheaper.” I peered hopefully at the cars coming down the passenger pick-up lane, but they all stopped for other travelers. “I should have called a cab or taken the MAX, though.”
“Same here. I’m supposed to be taken for a tuxedo fitting, but I don’t know where. Otherwise I’d be in a cab.” Ricky glanced at his phone, then dropped it back in his pocket. “So, tell me. What does one do at a writers’ conference? Surely you don’t sit around and write.”
“Well, sometimes, depending on the workshop you’re in. It’s a group of writers, I think about three hundred this weekend. All different skill levels and all genres, although some conferences focus on just mystery or romance or sci-fi or whatever. It starts Friday afternoon with pitch appointments—”
“Writers who are looking for literary agents or publishers can get short meetings with them to see if there’s interest in whatever story they’re working on. The agents ask for a few chapters or the whole manuscript, and then the writer can spend the rest of the conference giddy with relief. Or they might get the brush-off and decide never to write another word as long as they live. Never, ever, ever.”
Ricky smiled and showed his dimples. “You seem to have some experience with that.”
“Yep. If you’ve never wanted to quit writing, you’ve probably never shown your work to anyone.”
“Is that all that happens over the weekend? People either get manic or depressed?”
“Nope. That’s just the fun part.” I smiled, hoping to get him to show those dimples again, and was rewarded. “There are also critiques of pages you submit—”
“Lots more. But there are also workshops about all kinds of writing-related topics, and you get to meet other writers, some of whom are famous—”
“No. Famous ones. I’m midlist. Nobody knows me.”
“I think you’re selling yourself short. You were asked to give a keynote speech at the banquet of a weekend conference. I’ve never been to one of these things, but I suspect that’s where they put the most famous of their faculty.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I told you, the organizer of this conference is a friend of mine. She couldn’t get anyone else.”
Ricky sighed at me like my father would have. “Tell me about your speech.”
I made a noise in my throat. “It’s called Seven Things I Know About Writing.”
“And they are …?”
My mind blanked. I squinched my eyes but that didn’t help, so I pulled the notes out of my messenger bag. I flipped and shuffled pages, all strike-throughs and scribbles, trying to identify any of the seven things.
Ricky held out his hand. “Can I see?”
I offered the pages. They shook gently as I held them out, which surprised me a little. My tremor hadn’t bothered me very much in the few weeks since I’d found out what really happened to my dad. I’d had the tremor for years, since his funeral, but maybe I could soon be free of it.
“You may need to Lysol your eyeballs after you read this,” I said.
He was holding the opposite end of the pages. “I’ll take my chances.”
I finally let go, and he pursed his lips while he skimmed the pages. “This is good.” He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. He cocked his head at me. “May I?”
I had no idea what he wanted to do, but he certainly couldn’t hurt that mess any worse than I already had.
He went back to the first page and circled single words. Then he turned to the blank back of the last page, flipping back and forth through the text as he wrote a list. When he finished, he stepped closer to me and pointed at the list with his pen. “These are the keywords for your seven main points. Now I just need to—”
I reached for the pages, but he held up one hand. He rewrote the list of seven words in a different order, then announced, “Achieve.”
“Well, I’ll do my best, but—”
“No. ACHIEVE is the acronym you need to memorize, and your whole speech will fall into place.”
He saw my confusion and pointed at each letter of the acronym and each of the keywords he’d written. “ACHIEVE. A for ability, to craft a story. C for courage, to put yourself out there. H for hocus-pocus—”
“Sometimes you need magic to make it all work right.”
Ricky nodded. “I for imagination …”
“For your story and for marketing and promotion.”
“E for editor …”
“Writing is rewriting, find an editor you trust.”
“V for voice …”
I thought back to my notes. “Your voice and your character’s voice are what make your writing unique.”
Ricky showed me his dimples again. “And last, E for earnings …”
“The goal of every writer. Professional writers get paid for their writing.” I nodded appreciatively. “You might actually be a genius, Sir Richard.”
“You should write a book about me.” He handed back the pages.
“Absolutely. But I’d have to make you a murderer. Would you settle for a sandwich as payment for dropping your knowledge on me?” I gestured with the pages toward the terminal behind us. “It’s way past my lunchtime. I’m starving.”
“Me too.” Ricky glanced toward the terminal, then down the road. “Maybe he forgot about me. Okay, let’s go get a—”
A horn beeped and an SUV rolled up. A harried guy leaned toward the passenger window. When it had rolled all the way down, he said, “Rick, man, so sorry I’m late. Accident on the freeway.”
“It was lovely to pass the time with you, Charlee, but it appears my chariot has arrived. Can we drop you some place?” Ricky picked up his bag and moved toward the SUV.
“No, my ride’s probably stuck in the same accident. I’ll be fine. Thanks anyway. And thanks for your help with my speech. I already feel better about it.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I am. Cheerio, pip, pip and all that.”
“Blimey, you cheeky monkey.” Ricky tossed his bag in the backseat, then settled into the front. After he hooked his seat belt, he gave me a wave and disappeared into rainy Portland.
“That right there was fate,” I muttered to myself. A professional speaker to help me figure out my keynote speech? I must have done a good deed in a past life. Or I owed the Universe one. Either way, I was happy to comply.
I reviewed the ACHIEVE acronym and tried to memorize the corresponding keywords. I could type them into my phone and use that for my notes. The idea of my nerves magnifying my tremor and making the pages quake like an aspen tree in the wind during my speech made me a bit queasy. I’d forgotten to ask Viv if I’d have a podium to rest my papers on. But this would be better anyway; I could use my phone with the acronym and the keywords showing. Uh oh. What if I forgot to charge my phone? When that had happened a few weeks ago, I’d almost gotten myself killed. Since then I’d been trying to keep at least sixty-five percent power, but who knew what would happen this weekend when I was out of my routine.
Curious, I pulled out my phone: forty-eight percent. Darn it. Better to memorize.
I had only reviewed keywords up to the C in ACHIEVE when Viv screamed up to the curb in her Toyota.
She popped the trunk from her seat but didn’t get out of the car to help or to hug. I lifted my rolling carry-on into it and slammed it shut, hurrying to avoid any more of the misty weather. My bangs were already plastered to my forehead, and I knew that when I shook out my braid later, after it dried, I’d have kinky hair that would make a witch proud.
I slipped into the passenger seat, dropping my messenger bag at my feet. “Hi. Did you get stuck in that accident—”
Viv roared away from the curb before I even got my seat belt buckled.
“Charlee, my daughter’s been kidnapped.”
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
(Psst …… Subscribers to my newsletter receive the free short story “Charlee and Viv’s Book Tour” that’s referenced in this chapter.)