"A journey of a thousand miles must begin
with a single step."
Graceful palm trees, an isolated white sand beach, the gentle waves of the blue-green sea.
Breathe in, breathe out, Mallory Marlowe instructed herself, hoping that the breathing and visualization technique her daughter had taught her would help steer her toward something along the lines of relaxation. Or at least ease her out of the state of near-panic in which she found herself as she sat in the waiting area of Paragon Publications, bracing herself for her first job interview in nearly two decades.
It wasn't working. The two cups of coffee she'd gulped down before dashing for the 9:57 Metro North train out of Rivington sloshed around in her stomach, and the cream-colored silk blouse that had seemed so fresh and polished early that morning already smelled like something a construction worker would peel off his back at the end of the day.
Forget Amanda's supposedly no-fail relaxation techniques, she thought grimly. Instead, Mallory fixed her gaze on the huge gold letters on the wall above the curved granite reception desk. The Good Life, they spelled out, proudly announcing the name of the magazine headquartered here on the twenty-fifth floor. Underneath, in letters only a few inches smaller, was the monthly publication's slogan, "Read The Good Life to Lead the Good Life!" along with half a dozen large, glossy photographs that represented some of the topics the magazine covered: fine wines, four-star restaurants, flashy cars, innovative home design, state-of-the-art speakers and televisions, and intriguing travel destinations.
Concentrating on the here and now wasn't working, either. With a sigh, Mallory concluded that it was time to resign herself to the fact that even if she breathed in every last molecule of oxygen in the entire building and imagined every tropical island she'd ever seen pictured in a tour company's catalog, she was still going to be a nervous wreck. Hardly surprising, she realized, since she'd never expected to find herself exploring new career opportunities at this stage of her life.
Then again, there were a hundred different things she hadn't expected to be doing in her forties. Like getting used to sleeping alone in a king-size bed. Making decisions about her two children completely by herself. And using that peculiar word every time she was forced to describe her status, the one that still didn't sound right whenever it emerged from her lips: widow.
Mallory's frame of mind didn't improve much as she observed the other two women who were perched on the tasteful caramel-colored leather chairs that formed a neat square in Paragon Publications's waiting area. One was flipping through a magazine, pausing every two minutes to glance at her watch and sigh. If she was trying to give the impression that squeezing in a job interview at one of the nation's top magazines was an inconvenience, she was doing a crackerjack job. The other woman kept punching the keys of her BlackBerry, scowling ferociously as if she was furious with it.
Their body language, which clearly communicated that they were both extremely important individuals whose time was worth a heck of a lot more than most other people's, was only part of what Mallory found so discouraging. Even more demoralizing was the fact that they were both so_._._._well, young. Neither of them looked much older than twenty-three. And if perfectly taut skin and hair with nary a gray strand weren't bad enough, their clothes were of a trendy variety that Mallory wouldn't be caught dead in.
Reflexively, she glanced down at her own outfit. A plain dark skirt, the cream-colored silk blouse that desperately needed airing out, a classic beige blazer. The silk scarf she had tossed around her neck in what she'd hoped was a jaunty, self-confident manner could best be described as ecru. Even her dead-straight, light-brown hair, today worn in a low ponytail, was fastened with a neutral-toned tortoiseshell clip.
She was depressingly drab, she decided morosely. In fact, the only color she'd allowed herself was a few swipes of a recently purchased plum-colored lipstick, the result of having heard on The View that bolder hues for cheeks and lips were all the rage this season.
A wave of panic rose inside her as she suddenly contemplated the very strong possibility that she fit in here at The Good Life magazine's offices about as well as an elephant.
She was seriously contemplating jumping to her feet, striding over to the elevator, and just getting the heck out of there, but before she could will herself to take such definitive action, she heard a woman's voice say pleasantly, "Ms. Marlowe, Mr. Pierce will see you now."
Mallory stood up. But instead of making a beeline for the elevator, she dutifully followed the young assistant in the very short, very tight skirt, thinking that here was another woman who had yet to see the other side of twenty-five.
Who am I? she wondered as they walked through a corridor lined with giant framed versions of the magazine's past covers, which, like the artwork in the lobby, all featured delectable food or the latest electronic gadget or some other component of the good life. This wasn't really the best time to be experiencing an identity crisis, of course, but actually trying to answer that question might have a calming effect. She began with the most obvious response, that she was a mother of two healthy, self-sufficient children. Her daughter, Amanda, who was twenty going on fifty, was completing a double major in economics and political science at Sarah Lawrence while trying to decide which would be more practical, a law degree or an MBA.
In fact, it was Amanda who had insisted that Mallory start filling her days with new people and new experiences. As of late she'd been acting like a mother hen, reversing their roles by endlessly lecturing her about how it was high time Mallory venture back out into the world again. She had finally stopped telling her daughter about all the times she politely declined well-meaning friends' invitations to dinner or begged off a girls' night out at the movies, wanting to avoid the inevitable speech about how Mallory should really start acting like her old self again.
As for her eighteen-year-old son, Jordan, she supposed he could be considered self-sufficient, at least in a general sense. After all, he was able to microwave his own leftovers, successfully complete simple errands like buying milk and postage stamps, and even, if pressed, do his own laundry. Of course, since dropping out of Colgate University just a few weeks after his freshman year was getting under way, he was also supposed to be looking for a job. So far, however, his only job, aside from keeping the couch warm and making sure the TV worked, was making excuses.
Mallory firmly reminded herself that during her forty-five years on the planet, she had done a lot more than give birth a couple of times. She was a college graduate with a degree in English. She had four years' work experience as an editor at a science journal. She also had nearly twelve years' experience as a freelance writer for the Rivington Record, covering every topic imaginable, from the Westchester County Garden Club's annual fund-raising tour to the antics of the local school board to the latest government scandal.
Surely a resumé like that qualified her to put together a monthly calendar of events that would help the magazine's readers cultivate something along the lines of "the good life." Especially since Carol at the Record had already put in a good word for her with the managing editor, who happened to be a longtime friend. Somehow, Carol had convinced him that Mallory was, indeed, someone who belonged on his staff. Whether it was because her boss was really that impressed with her work or, like Amanda, she simply felt it was time for her to jump back into life, she couldn't say.
Besides, how hard could the job be? Ever since she'd learned about the interview, she'd read every back issue of the magazine she could get her hands on. From the looks of things, she wouldn't be asked to write anything more complicated than "October 12-14, Annual Ragin' Cajun Crawfish Festival, New Orleans. For information, call 504-555-3423."
None of this was calming Mallory down in the least.
It wasn't until she was ushered into a large corner office with Trevor Pierce, Managing Editor on the door that she finally experienced something along the lines of relief. The man sitting behind the desk was a grown-up.
Probably in his fifties, she determined, judging from the flecks of silver in his dark hair and the crinkled laugh lines that appeared next to his hazel eyes as he smiled at her warmly.
But that wasn't all that surprised her. Mallory half expected to find the editor of an upscale lifestyle magazine like The Good Life wearing a silk smoking jacket and sipping champagne as he sat amidst framed photographs of his Ferrari, his vacation home on the Riviera, and his gorgeous model-thin wife.
Yet neither the man nor his office even hinted at the glamorous lifestyle the publication promoted. The photos on his desk were of two pretty young women in jeans and T-shirts who were grinning at the camera, and a large shaggy dog of unknown parentage. There appeared to be no room for any other personal effects on the desktop, given the haphazard stacks of paper that covered most of it. In fact, the only other clues as to who this man was when he wasn't playing the role of publishing mogul had been relegated to the windowsill: a New York Yankees cap, that morning's edition of the Daily News, and three cardboard coffee cups from Dunkin' Donuts.
As for the man himself, he seemed as unpretentious as his surroundings. For one thing, he chose to wear his hair a bit longer than most corporate types. Either that or he hadn't had time for a haircut in weeks. And while at the start of his day he'd probably been wearing a jacket and tie, they were both gone. The collar of his pale blue shirt was unbuttoned, and the sleeves were rolled halfway up his arms.
"So you're Mallory Marlowe," he pronounced, standing up behind his desk to shake her hand. "Carol has told me a great deal about you. You apparently impressed her as a very strong writer. Good at research, too. I've seen the clips she sent over, and I have to agree."
All this and I haven't even sat down yet, Mallory thought, feeling her cheeks flush.
"But please, have a seat," Mr. Pierce insisted, as if he'd been reading her mind.
"Thank you," she muttered.
"So," he said conversationally, settling back in his chair and folding his hands in his lap, "have you done much traveling?"
Mallory blinked a few times before realizing that it was probably a good idea to hide her surprise over his question. Carol certainly hadn't mentioned anything about having a passport being a requirement for the position. Must be some new outside-the-box technique for putting job applicants at ease, she figured. Chatting with them about their personal lives instead of getting right to the matter at hand.
"Uh, some," she replied.
"What kind?" he asked. "Adventure? Eco-tourism?"
"A little of everything." Launching into amusing anecdotes about the seven-island Caribbean cruise she and David had taken for their fifteenth anniversary didn't sound like a very good idea. Not when their biggest adventure had been almost missing the boat when the clerk at the duty-free store on St. Thomas couldn't figure out how to work the credit card machine. As for eco-tourism, the closest she'd come to eco had been packing her toiletries in small reusable bottles instead of using those plastic travel-size throwaways.
"Perfect," Mr. Pierce replied. "Exactly where have you traveled to?"
She hesitated again, aware that her answer wasn't exactly going to overwhelm him with her worldliness. As a child, she'd gone on the usual family vacations, traveling throughout the Northeast to visit relatives and making pilgrimages to Williamsburg and Gettysburg and Salem. But what she remembered most fondly were the trips to Florida over spring vacation, a three-day drive while packed into the backseat of her parents' Oldsmobile with her brother and sister.
Still, having spent her childhood exploring alligator farms and hot dog-shaped refreshment stands and gas stations that featured real live tigers in cages didn't exactly make her a world traveler. True, she'd always assumed that at some point in her life she'd see the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Pyramids in Egypt and all the other marvels the world had to offer.
Yet the trips she'd taken over the last couple of decades had leaned more toward the Disney World-Busch Gardens-Hersheypark variety, variations on the vacations that had been part of her own childhood. Throw in a few camping trips and a cross-country drive that involved almost as much bickering as sightseeing, and you'd pretty much have a complete list. In other words, most of her travel experiences had revolved around keeping the kids happy, which in turn kept her husband happy and therefore made for a peaceful few days all around.
As for Europe, Mallory and David had managed to sneak in a two-week overview of the great capital cities of London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam. But between getting on and off the tour buses and checking in and out of hotels, there had been little time left over to give the world's great monuments, art treasures, and historic wonders more than a glance. In short, she was hardly in a position to convince anyone that she was a seasoned traveler, especially the editor of a slick, glossy magazine like The Good Life.
Which brought her back to the question of why they were even having this discussion in the first place. Still, she realized she was warming to him. She was also slowly deciding that he was someone she could feel comfortable working for.
"Oh, the usual," she finally responded. "I've been all over the United States, Europe, the Caribbean." She shrugged, hoping he would interpret the casual way in which she threw out the names of these places as a sign that she was practically Arthur Frommer himself.
"Excellent," Mr. Pierce replied with a satisfied smile. "And now for the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: Do you enjoy traveling?"
Mallory had to think about that one for a few seconds. True, she had always found some aspects of travel stressful. The anxiety of standing on a street corner and poring over a map, struggling to figure out where you were and convinced you'd never find your way out of what was starting to look like a really seedy neighborhood. Not having access to your own coffeepot first thing in the morning. And always, it seemed, forgetting to bring the one thing that would have made such a major difference in one's comfort level: hand lotion, a nail clipper, that extra pair of shoes that was not nearly as likely to cause blisters.
Excerpted from Murder Packs a Suitcase by Cynthia Baxter. Copyright © 2008 by Cynthia Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.