Chapter 1

Flowers always make people
better, happier, and more helpful;
they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.
—Luther Burbank

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers,
looks around for a coffin.
—H. L . Mencken

When I was eight, I was convinced I could disappear. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. It wasn’t as if I saw dead people or thought I could beam myself to another planet. I did it all the time. Grown-ups and teachers would smile and glide past me to torture another poor kid who hadn’t cultivated this valuable skill.

It had been years since I’d thought about this long-neglected talent, but I prayed it was like riding a bicycle as I crouched in a shed, hoping the person who’d already killed two people would not see me or the women I was hiding.

“You in there, little girl . . . ?”

Four days earlier . . .

Rolanda Knox was formidable. I could attest to that. I pictured her laying out her uniform with all the pomp and ceremony of a warrior going into battle. Freshly pressed dark blue material. Shoes, belt buckle, and badge so shiny she could start fires with them if she needed to. This would be a grueling assignment and she’d need all her patience, experience, and powers of observation to ensure things went smoothly. Not that they ever did. No matter how prepared you were, something or someone always came along to gum up the works.

My name’s Paula Holliday. Rolanda Knox, who in my mind had earned the nickname “Fort,” had stared me down with a surprising ferocity two days before. Her actual words were “talk to the hand,” an expression I’ve never really understood but which commands a certain respect when the hand in question is almost as big as your own head.

I wasn’t listed in the official show directory, only in the addendum, and from her post at the entrance to Hall E, Rolanda had interrogated me as if I’d been trying to gate-crash the Pentagon. She’d even subjected the printed insert in my badge holder to the low-tech spit-and-rub test to make sure it wasn’t counterfeit. All weekend long I’d bear the traces of her smeared thumbprint. Knox was a security guard; and in this day and age, no one was getting into her convention center without proper documentation no matter how long it took and who was tapping her toes and glaring from the back of the line.

The young man Rolanda was talking to must not have had his papers in order, but he was persistent. He’d be no match for her if it came to a physical confrontation—but that was unlikely. He didn’t look stupid, just young and cocky in a T-shirt and baggy pants—too certain the quick smile and boyish charm, which had probably earned him a 90 percent return rate elsewhere, would work on this woman, too. He was mistaken.

The wall of polyester dared him to pass. It wasn’t just the wide expanse of fabric covering a well-muscled figure. And it wasn’t the badge. Who was impressed by authority anymore? It was a steely look in the woman’s eyes that conveyed her dead serious attitude. Stopping this boy would be no big deal. She’d be like a water buffalo swatting at a cattle egret: barely breaking a sweat. Then, something the kid said caused a slight chink in the woman’s armor, but she held her ground.

“Absolutely nothing,” she said. “Now, get that chicken chest out of my sight.” But this time she dismissed him the way you’d shoo away a pesky child.

He looked vaguely familiar−pale, with straw-colored hair and a mischievous Tom Sawyer expression on his face that could get you to paint the fence for him and thank him for it. The faded T-shirt read Happy Valley, and tied around his waist was a denim jacket covered with dozens of souvenir patches. He could have been any of the young workers hustling around the Wagner Center on Manhattan’s West Side on this early spring morning, but he wasn’t.

The boy scoped out the crowd, looking for an entrance with a less imposing gatekeeper or a sucker. He found me, just as my eyes lingered on him a second too long, struggling to remember where I’d seen him.

“Yo, Adrian.”

That was it. The art museum. The morning before I’d been jogging near the museum and couldn’t resist the urge to run up the steps and wave my hands over my head Rocky Balboa-style. To my utter humiliation the spectacle of a thirtysomething-year-old woman pretending to be Sylvester Stallone had been witnessed by someone who peered out of the shadows and applauded. He was huddled in the doorway, surrounded by bags. Something told me he wasn’t waiting for the Matisse exhibit to open.

I assumed he was a runaway. His belongings had been clustered around his ankles and his backpack had been punched down, probably used as a pillow. Like the jacket he’d been wearing, one of the bags bore patches from colorful destinations not generally frequented by runaways and homeless kids.

“She’s tough,” he said, walking over to me and motioning toward Rolanda.

“She lightened up toward the end. I thought you had her. What did you say?”

“I asked if last night had meant nothing to her.” He shrugged. “It was worth a try. Humor sometimes works wonders with authority figures.” He said it like a kid who had experience getting around people with equal parts of charm and flattery applied liberally with a shovel.

It would hardly have affected national security to let him slip into the convention center; but, in fairness, Fort Knox was just doing her job. Who wanted to be the one to let in the psycho-killer because he seemed harmless and had playfully suggested they’d had a tryst the night before? The show would open to the public in two days. I advised him to wait until then and buy a ticket.

“Can’t. I need to see one of the exhibitors before the show starts,” he said. “It’s super important.”

What constituted “super important” for someone halfway between skateboard age and first-real-job age was anyone’s guess. How urgent could it be? Knox shot us a look that warned don’t try any funny business, and I aborted the sales pitch before it came.

“I don’t have any extra badges. I’m a one-woman show. Just manning a booth for a friend. And I don’t know anyone else at the show well enough to ask.”

“I know a couple,” he said, looking around, “but they don’t know I’m here.” He eyeballed the rest of the exhibitors in line, preoccupied, furiously fingering BlackBerrys or sucking on coffees to help them wake up. He quickly calculated the odds and stuck with me.

“If you can’t get me in, will you deliver a note for me?” He took my silent intake of breath as assent. “Perfect.” He dropped his things on the floor and rummaged through his backpack until he found a scratch pad, pilfered from a budget hotel chain a half step up from the museum’s doorway. He pointed to my thick show directory. “Can I borrow that to write on?” He scribbled his note, then folded it over four times. “It’s private. You can’t tell anyone.”


Excerpted from SLUGFEST by Rosemary Harris.
Copyright © 2011 by Rosemary Harris.
Published January 2014 by Chestnut Hill Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.