Read first chapter of “Meeting Murder”
Thirty-three thousand feet above North Carolina, shivering under an airline-issue blanket and praying for a smooth flight, Laurie Kilcannon was making a list. She liked lists. They reassured her that she had at least some control over the complicated logistics of events like the sales meeting she had planned. Besides, lists distracted her from thoughts of wind shear, failed landing gear, and cockpit voice recorders.
Six years of crisscrossing the country meant she had racked up enough miles to upgrade to first class on almost every flight. Having to fly in the first place was still the biggest sacrifice she made for her job.
Almost as if her nervousness had willed it, the pilot’s voice sounded over the public address system:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been advised by Air Traffic Control that we may encounter some mild to moderate turbulence for the next 25 minutes or so. We’re going to try to find some clearer air for you folks, but in the meantime we ask that you remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened. Thank you.”
Here it comes, Laurie thought. Still, he’d said “mild to moderate.” That’s not as bad as “moderate to severe.” That red-eye home from L.A. last October… but she didn’t want to think about that. List, work on the list, she scolded herself, picking up her pen, occasionally chewing on its cap. A little while later, her legal pad looked like this:
On-site To Do:
1. Set up mtg. ofc.
2. Book staff dinner thru CSM.
3. Meet w/ ground operator to cross-check A/D manifest against xfer schedule.
4. Meet w/ staff for wkng. agda. review.
5. Distribute staff skeds & assignments.
6. Meet w/ F & B team & Catering Mgr., review BEOs, confirm final GTEs.
7. Have B/O staff set up Box Rm., inventory all pkgs. ag. shpg. list.
8. Stuff welcome packets.
9. Cross-check rmg. list w/ E/A list.
10. Attend precon.
11. Do walk-thru.
The jumble of acronyms and abbreviations made perfect sense to Laurie, but nonetheless she worried that she had forgotten something.
That’s all I need, she thought – a screw-up on a product launch as important as this one. She knew Zephyrex was already being hailed in the media as the next “blockbuster” drug, a breakthrough medication that relieved not only seasonal allergies but tough-to-treat food allergies as well, with virtually no side effects. The company needed this drug to be a success. After a string of lawsuits and regulatory problems on older products, and with a sparse pipeline of new drugs, Connor Pharmaceuticals was mentioned in the media almost daily as a prime takeover target for industry giants like Pfizer and Glaxo.
Laurie had weathered one merger already, when Connor bought the sputtering European pharma company Offenbach, and she had no desire to go through another – not on the buyee side, anyway. Mergers meant consolidation, and that could mean the end of Laurie’s job. Next to fiery wreckage, losing her job was Laurie’s worst fear.
Well, I’m not doing myself any good by obsessing over it, she thought. I’ll talk to Wendell when he gets in on Saturday. He’ll give me the scoop.
She relaxed as she thought of genial old-timer Wendell McCarthy, Senior Vice President of Sales for Connor Pharma, and a frequent beneficiary of Laurie’s “spare time.” She arranged limousine transportation, lavish suites and special amenities for the higher-ups, and had planned more than one executive vacation in addition to her official duties.
She’d even set up a few trips for Eugene Stockton, her company’s president. Although only a manager, Laurie not only knew him, she called him “Gene” at his invitation.
Laurie sat up suddenly and smacked her fist on the tray table. “That’s what I forgot,” she muttered furiously, reaching for her pen and pad to write:
12. Have Becky check VIP suites before arrival.
Laurie Kilcannon was a good meeting planner, one of the best around, if her staff and colleagues were to be believed. But she wasn’t clairvoyant. If she had been, she would have added one more item to her list:
13. Find murderer.
A stiff but relieved Laurie shifted her laptop case from one shoulder to the other as she sweated her way through Miami International toward the baggage claim area. Once there, she knew, a smartly dressed hotel chauffer would take the heavy carry-on, and her “meeting planner” status would kick in – not that she had any illusions about that. To hotels, meeting planners were just dollar signs with feet. Sore feet at the moment, she mused as she negotiated the endless, identical hallways of the airport.
She trudged along behind a family chattering to each other in Spanish. Their small daughter, wide-eyed, wore a sundress with frilly ankle socks… she supposed she’d been almost the same at that age, although she couldn’t remember much. The dreamlike outlines of her lovely, laughing parents had given way long ago to the unchangeable fact that they were gone.
They’d been embarking on the trip of a lifetime, she’d been told, a trip they’d put off once they’d realized Laurie was coming. She tried to imagine them as they must have been that day. Happy, excited, thrilled to be making the long-dreamed-of journey to Italy at last. They’d said goodbye to Laurie at her aunt and uncle’s house, reassuring the little girl that they’d be back in ten short days with pictures, stories, and (most important of all to an 8-year-old girl) presents. She’d only cried a little then.
The real crying still waited for her, when her aunt and uncle, hiding their own tears, gently explained to Laurie that her parents weren’t coming back. Their plane had crashed. Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Matt, childless, had taken little Laurie in and loved her as if she were their own, and Laurie came to love them too. Later, she loved them for protecting her, welcoming her, never missing an “event” in her young life. Uncle Matt had even attended a ballet recital on crutches from a broken leg once, but it wasn’t the same. Her parents – her real parents – were gone…
She forced herself not to look at the little girl with the frilly socks anymore. The past is just that, she told herself – past. Resolutely forcing herself into the present, Laurie noticed several other experienced travelers, the ones who wore comfortable clothes and weary expressions like hers. The ones who carried the sweatshirts they’d worn in flight, knowing planes got cold no matter where they were flying.
Strangely, Laurie had never been to Miami before. Connor had held dozens of meetings in Orlando, but this time around those properties didn’t have the space she needed over the right dates. At least they were headed for a Hanover property, she thought as she glanced out the limo’s closed windows at a scene that looked like urban blight with palm trees. Like Marriott and Westin, Hanover valued its corporate clients, and attracted the best people in the industry to serve them. She hoped.
Whereas her trips to Orlando’s top hotels featured long miles of farmland (Laurie had been so surprised the first time she saw cows in Florida) the journey to the Miami Beach Hanover Hotel and Conference Center took her instead through an area that reminded her of Philadelphia. In August. She’d expected Miami to be hot, but this was really hot. It must be the position of the sun or something, she thought.
The view finally began to improve once they’d crossed the bridge into Miami Beach itself. The Fontainebleau Hotel shone dazzling white against the postcard pastels of smaller buildings. Getting a glimpse of a tropically turquoise, serene ocean, she could hardly believe that this area had been devastated by Hurricane Andrew just a few years before. Whether the residents decided to thumb their noses at fate or figured that type of storm wouldn’t hit again for a hundred years, they’d built back. And then some, Laurie realized as she saw construction sites everywhere against a gorgeous backdrop of sun and ocean.
A calm blue sea.
Even if she wouldn’t get to enjoy it, Laurie was glad to know it was there.
“Okay, everyone, let’s save some animals today!”
Jake started every AAPT meeting this way, and it always worked.
Over twenty volunteers, linked only by their professed concern for animal welfare, sat on folding chairs or found spots on the floor in the shabby upstairs space. Jake Pratt III looked fondly at the wildly diverse crew in front of him. The middle-aged hippies, the social misfits, the grandmothers, the disillusioned Ivy Leaguers…
He’d been one of the last group himself. Attended Princeton on a tennis scholarship, double-majored in English and History. Everyone expected him to walk the same path as his father had done: assistant professorship at a small college, suitable marriage to a socially acceptable classmate, transfer to a larger college, tenure eventually leading to Deanship.
Jake had other ideas, though, ideas fueled by his relationship with Lydia Emerson, the coed who combined an impeccable pedigree with radical ideas about animal rights. She’d joined AAPT, he knew, as a way of thumbing her nose at her mink-wearing mother, but the cause had become real to her, and through her, to Jake as well. Surprising himself, he’d found another career path, and if it involved a move to Miami Beach, so be it. The celebrity endorsements might happen at the national level of AAPT (where Jake knew he and Lydia would wind up eventually) but for now, this small regional field office more than sufficed. They did real work here.
Moving to Miami Beach had been a bit of a shock, he had to admit. He and Lydia both hailed from Connecticut and attended college in New Jersey. They were more accustomed to scraping ice off their BMWs’ windshields than remembering to apply sunscreen at all times. But the move had been a good one. AAPT needed a solid team at their Southeast Regional office, and after their Premarin protest made the news, the stock of AAPT’s Miami Beach office continued to rise.
At today’s meeting, as always, groups continued to chat, women and men with various hair lengths flirted and fidgeted. After what seemed like an hour, Jake began.
“You guys know why we’re here. AAPT gives a voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and reminds us all that protecting animals is the most human thing we can do…”
Sitting cross-legged almost at the back of the room, Vivian Linsky fell in love all over again. Jake was so handsome. That thick sandy hair, the Kennedy-ish bone structure, those too-blue eyes… she could stare at Jake for hours and never tire of the sheer pleasure of it.
Not that she knew much about pleasure, of course, unless the cheeseburgers she’d eagerly consumed before the Great Conversion could be considered “pleasure.”
She’d wanted to be a veterinarian until the animal rights movement (in the form of a fervent AAPT staffer at her local college’s Career Day) had changed her life forever. Vivian loved animals – after all, her chief circle of friends consisted of stray cats and dogs growing up – but she didn’t love science. Pre-vet students had to take a lot of science courses. Vivian had cleaned out cages at a shelter for two summers during college, when the boss at her other job would let her, and she saw herself as a champion for these smaller, more helpless beings. Unfortunately, the academic demands of her chosen profession – the idea of having a profession – proved too much for her.
AAPT represented the best of both worlds. As an AAPT volunteer, and hopefully as an AAPT staffer someday, she could say, “Yes, I’m taking pre-veterinary classes in college, and I’m active in the animal rights movement too.”
And that was before she saw Jake.
“…elephants being held in chains,” he was saying, “And the circus is coming to town. Chris and Gigi, I’d like you to organize the protests. Make signs, gather recruits, cause a commotion. Remember what Lydia’s told us: people only know what they see on TV, so court the media whenever you can.”
Someday I’ll be tapped to lead a protest too, thought Vivian.
“Now on to other matters… we all know that most pharmaceutical companies test their drugs on animals, and sometimes make their drugs out of them too. We spearheaded a good campaign against Wyeth-Ayerst not long ago. More people than ever know that ‘Premarin’ stands for Pregnant Mare Urine. The question is, how do we follow it up?”
Vivian raised her hand a few inches.
“Yes, Vera, what information do you have?”
“It’s Vivian,” she replied tentatively. “A friend of mine at the catering company where I work? Well, he takes jobs doing food and beverage stuff at big conferences for extra money when he can. He’s signed up for a spot on a Connor Pharmaceuticals meeting. Sometime next week, I think. Didn’t I read in the AAPT newsletter that Connor’s about to release a new drug that was tested on rabbits? Do you think that’s what this meeting’s about?”
Jake looked at her with new respect.
“Ve – I mean, Vivian, you may be right, and if you are, that may be just the opportunity we’re looking for. Who’s this friend of yours anyway?”
“His name’s Jeremy,” she answered, “And I know how to reach him.”
“Terrific. Contact him tonight if you can and find out everything he knows about this Connor meeting. It could be important for us.”
“I will. You can count on me.”
“That’s great. I knew I could. Now, on to the next order of business. Marcy, you’re in charge of mailings. How’s that going?”
Vivian was ecstatic. Jake needed her! Once she’d gotten the information from Jeremy, she’d celebrate. Maybe even with a cheeseburger. Not that she’d tell anyone from AAPT.
“Laurie, can I see you for a moment?”
Three hectic days later, Laurie blew her hair out of her eyes and glanced up from the pile of binders, manifests, and sticky notes spread out on the 6’ skirted table that would be her headquarters for the week. The office was nearly set up – copiers, fax machines, walkie-talkies, coffee break station, and at least five dozen people crowding what used to be an average-sized conference room. She’d been lucky to get almost everyone she wanted for her lead staff. The top freelance meeting workers were in high demand from companies like hers. Good freelancers made a well-planned meeting run seamlessly on site, but less experienced ones could unravel even the most thorough arrangements. Laurie treated her freelance “leads” like the pros they were. She had, in fact, learned much of her job from watching and listening to them on earlier programs. As a result, she usually got her crack department heads with no trouble.
Equally important to the success of a meeting was the hotel staff, Laurie thought as she looked up at Juan Herrara, one of the hotel’s Convention Service Managers and Laurie’s counterpart for this meeting. The two had been in close contact during the months of planning, but she met her CSM for the first time several nights ago while touring the facility. No pre-meeting site inspection with a well-respected chain like Hanover, unfortunately. Now Juan wanted to speak with her. A problem, Laurie wondered?
“Sure,” she answered, “You want to talk here or go somewhere else?”
“I thought we could head over to the café for a few minutes, if you can spare the time.”
Uh-oh. That sounded like a problem.
“Okay, let me grab a walkie and we’ll go.”
On site, she and all her staff wore walkie-talkies except when they slept. On busy programs (and there were no other kind), they often slept so little that the walkies barely had time to recharge overnight. Clipping the low-tech device to the waistband of her jeans, Laurie followed Juan out of the conference room that had been converted to Mission Control for the Zephyrex launch.
As soon as they sat down in the café, Juan with a cappuccino, Laurie with one of many Cokes she would drink that day, she cut to the chase.
“Okay, Juan, what’s the problem?”
He didn’t try to deny it.
“We’re overbooked tomorrow night, Laurie. I’m really sorry. You know how hotels operate. We book more rooms than we have, because the no-shows almost always balance it out. But we’ve got another meeting coming in tomorrow, and Reservations has been overrun with calls. It’s Association business, not Corporate, so the attendees have to pay their own way. We thought they’d barely make their contracted room block, but – well, we were wrong.”
“Who’s the group?” Laurie asked wearily.
“The American Association of Funeral Directors,” he answered with a straight face.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious – oh God, I didn’t mean to say that!” Juan struggled not to laugh.
Laurie glared at him.
“What’s our shortfall going to be?”
“At least 20 singles,” Juan replied, back in control. “Your double-doubles and suites are safe.”
“Thank God for that, anyway. I hate to do it, but I’m going to have to double up the staff.”
Laurie made sure her staff always got single rooms on site, a luxury that would have incensed the paired-up sales reps in attendance, had they known it. Sales reps, however, didn’t have shin splints and wrecked nerves by the end of a meeting, she reasoned.
“We’ve got around 50 staff on this program, mostly worker bee types, a lot of whom I don’t even know, so hopefully they won’t mind being doubled up too much. Or at least, they won’t tell me about it. I want to keep my leads in singles if it’s humanly possible, though. What if the shortfall goes beyond 20?”
“I’ll walk tourist traffic if I have to. You won’t have to double up your leads.”
“Walking,” Laurie knew, was when an overbooked hotel sent guests with confirmed reservations to a competing property. It hurt a hotel’s reputation and was an altogether unsatisfying option. She appreciated Juan’s willingness to do it.
“Thanks. Any other catastrophes looming?”
“Just possible bad weather and some protesters from AAPT. You know, ‘Animals Are People Too.’ They got their license to demonstrate from the county yesterday. Was Zephyrex tested on animals?”
“Rabbits, actually. Well cared-for rabbits. AAPT – Christ, that’s just what we need. You can keep them off the property, can’t you?”
“They won’t be able to go past the front gate, and that’s a quarter mile from the main entrance.”
“Alright, I’ll have the ground operator reroute arrivals to the side entrance. I do not want Gene Stockton’s limo accosted by a bunch of tofu-eating extremists in bunny costumes waving homemade signs at the tinted windows.”
“I’ll alert Security, don’t you worry,” Juan assured her, chuckling.
“What about the weather?”
“Well, Miami Beach is usually what I call a ‘self-cleaning city,’ with quick showers that pass through in an hour or so, but we might be getting some real rain later in the week. I’ll keep an eye on it.”
“Okay. Now let’s get back. We’ve got the preconvention meeting this afternoon, and I’ve got to have a staff briefing first.”
“Well, you need to be sharp for the precon, that’s for sure,” Juan joked. “You don’t want to be caught napping when all the hotel department heads thank you for your business.”
Grudgingly, Laurie chuckled. Precons were pretty boring, even if it was important to learn all the hotel people’s names.
They headed down the corridor, Laurie petite and unassuming in her polo shirt and thick auburn ponytail, Juan a more imposing figure at 6’4” in a well-cut navy suit. He’d boxed in college, and looked like Jimmy Smits’ more athletic brother.
“You know, I’m almost glad this overbooking thing happened,” Laurie said. “Every meeting has at least one disaster, and I like to get it out of the way early.”
“Let’s hope this is ours, then,” Juan smiled back at her.
Suddenly, Laurie shivered.
For pity’s sake, why did these hotels keep the air conditioning so high you could store furs in the lobby?
Vivian showered and dressed more carefully than usual, applying lip gloss and mascara in the small mirror above the sink. She wondered why those thirty extra pounds hadn’t fallen right off when she’d (almost) become a vegetarian. Must be all that pizza.
Even so, she hummed as she strained to button the waistband on her khaki shorts and added a pretty floral blouse on top. Last night Jeremy had told her plenty, and she couldn’t wait to share the information with Jake.
“You got class today?” her mother Earlene called from the grimy kitchenette.
“Class, then work,” Vivian shouted back, neglecting as always to mention her planned detour to AAPT headquarters.
It was one of her mother’s few days off from the hairdresser’s, and she planned to spend most of it waiting for a new dining set to be delivered. Sloppy, warm-hearted Earlene worried a bit about her only child.
Earlene used to dream of becoming a model (she’d been pretty enough, in her teens) or a famous actress, but then life had gotten in her way. She’d fallen for a guy, and her dreams changed from “famous actress” to “wonderful wife.” Neither dream had come true. The guy had gone, leaving twenty-year-old Earlene with a few shiny memories and an infant to feed. Over the years, she’d become so focused on the escalating needs of her little daughter that she’d all but forgotten her own dreams.
Modeling, of course, was out of the question once she had the baby. The schedule was impossible and the income unstable, plus Earlene never quite lost her “baby weight.” But more than that, pursuing her ambitions of modeling and acting seemed frivolous once she had Vivian. So Earlene cleaned houses, then waitressed at a local diner, then worked the checkout register at a nearby discount superstore.
When the layoffs came, she’d felt lucky to get a job answering phones and scheduling cut-and-color appointments at the salon. At least she got to sit down all day. After all, Earlene was 42, and her back wasn’t as strong as it had been. How Vivian juggled college courses (college!) with the hours she put in at the catering company, Earlene didn’t know.
“You work too hard,” she told Vivian, pulling a stray plastic curler from her head as she entered the miniscule living room.
“Don’t start with me, Mom,” she said almost angrily. “After all, it’s 1995, not 1895, and I’ve got to earn a living. You’re a fine one to talk, anyway. What did you work last week, 60 hours? Why are you home today, anyway? Are you sick?” she asked in a less belligerent tone.
“We’ve got some new furniture coming. And you know me. I like to work. Keeps me young. Speaking of which, how are your classes going?” she finished, settling into a well-defined hollow in the plaid couch.
Vivian rolled her eyes. Mom wanted to bond.
“I’m gonna be late if I don’t get going. Classes are fine, work is fine, everything’s fine.”
Well, if that wasn’t an opening, Earlene didn’t know what was.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so busy lately, honey. Maybe what we need is a vacation. You’ve always said you wanted to go to Disney World. How ’bout something like that?”
“What, did you finally win the lottery? That place costs a fortune,” Vivian answered skeptically.
“We could manage, and nicely, too. I’ve got some savings, you know. You’ll be graduating soon. What if I made the trip your graduation present?”
Vivian was intrigued in spite of herself. Over the years, she’d spent many hours with her mother poring over vacation brochures from the travel agency in the local strip mall, planning imaginary trips. One of Earlene’s best friends worked at the agency, and was always trying to book them for something. Still…
“You mean like a package deal, where we’d stay in a motel and eat at Denny’s every night except for the one time we’d go to that medieval place?”
Seeing Earlene’s face fall, she added, “Not that I mind! But, you know, a trip.”
“No motels,” said her mother. “We could stay at the Grand Floridian, even. Take the Monorail, go on all the rides, eat at a different fancy restaurant every night!”
“You did win the lottery.”
“Not exactly,” answered Earlene, so happy to see the eagerness on Vivian’s face.
“But even if we could stay in a place like that, where would we get the clothes?”
“Maybe we could buy some. Aventura Mall’s got a sale coming up. Why don’t we check it out?”
“Mom, are you sure you’re not sick?”
Earlene just smiled.
The shopping, the trip, the nice hotel and gourmet dinners… they’d make a welcome change to the workaday routine she and Vivian had fallen into.
All she really wanted, though, was to spend time with her daughter.
Thoughts of a trip sidelined, Vivian indulged in the favorite of her many fantasies as her 10-year-old Toyota rattled down Northwest 41st Street…
“Vivian, you look so gorgeous today, I can hardly keep my mind on my work,” Jake said as he eyed her appreciatively.
“Well, the animals aren’t going anywhere, are they? And you’ve got a lock on your office door,” she replied with a slow, sultry smile.
In her fantasy, the thirty extra pounds had fallen right off, and the hair she usually thought of as “bushy” framed her face in a cloud of curls.
Even better, there was no Lydia.
Slim, blonde, exquisite Lydia, Public Relations Director for AAPT and Jake’s live-in lover, simply didn’t exist. The perfect, patrician voice, which Vivian had once overheard saying “Thank God martinis aren’t made from animals” after a particularly contentious press conference, didn’t whisper into Jake’s ear. Instead she, Vivian, claimed the place by his side. Working together to save the animals, preparing delicious meals in their meat-free kitchen, making sweet, earnest love in their enormous bed…
“So, Vera, what have you heard?” Jake asked.
Vivian started, blushing. How had she made it to the AAPT offices so fast – and in that car, too? Then she sighed to herself. Jake still didn’t even know her name.
“My friend Jeremy told me that all the top brass from Connor Pharma are coming to this meeting to ‘launch’ their new drug to the sales reps. It’s Zephyrex. The one that was tested on rabbits.”
“That’s great!” Jake enthused, “For us, I mean. Not for the rabbits. Anyway, did Jeremy happen to mention when and where the big meeting is?”
“I asked him that. I figured you might want to stage a protest. It’s at the Hanover, and the big session happens the day after they arrive. May 8th, 8:00 a.m.”
“Terrific! We’ll apply for a demonstration permit, and if there are any questions from the press, Lydia can handle them. Thanks, Vera.”
“You’re welcome. And it’s Vivian.”
“Alright, everyone, let’s get started.”
Laurie had to raise her voice a little to be heard over the multiple conversations going on all around her. Most of the staff had arrived on schedule, and drifted into the office throughout the morning. The veterans were catching up on each other’s meeting horror stories, while the new ones just looked bewildered.
“We’re going through the Working Agenda in a few minutes,” Laurie began, “Even though I’m sure you all read through it on your flights.”
This was met with a lot of guilty snickering, and some panicked looks from the youngsters.
“And I hope you can all join me at the staff dinner the hotel has arranged for us tonight. But first,” she continued, “Staff assignments and schedules. Could you pass these around, please?”
“Sure thing, Laurie,” replied one of the returning freelancers.
“I know a lot of you are new to Connor Pharma programs, and some of you may even be new to meeting planning. Well, let me start by welcoming you and introducing myself. I’m Laurie Kilcannon, the planner for the Zephyrex launch. Thank you all for taking this booking. You’re the ones who will make this meeting shine, and it literally couldn’t happen without you.”
“Oh, God, I’m gonna cry. Who’s got a tissue?” came a voice from the back of the room.
“Hello again, Dash,” Laurie said with a wry smile. Tadashi “Dash” Tamaseko, one of her favorite freelancers, had given her a hug that almost collapsed a lung half an hour ago.
“No disrespect, Lauriebell. You know how I love your welcome speeches!”
“Thanks so much. And I know how you love checking meeting rooms and hauling boxes, so that’s why I made you lead on Breakouts!”
Dash buried his head in Marc Masterson’s shoulder and cried “Noooooo!” in mock horror. Running Breakouts was a dirty, exhausting job, but Dash had headed the department before, and Laurie knew how good he was.
“Everyone on the Breakouts team – it’s listed as B/O on the staff assignment sheet for you new ones – report to Dash once we’re through and he’ll fill you in on your exact duties. As many of you already know, ‘Breakouts’ are the small district-level meetings that happen on Wednesday and Thursday. But don’t let the name fool you. You guys will handle the setup for every meeting in the program. Now, on to Food & Beverage. Is Dagmar –?”
Loud voices interrupted from just outside the office.
“Let’s raid Laurie’s coffee break. The meeting planners always get the best food.”
A pair of VIPs barged into the room, then stopped when they saw the staff gathered in a circle.
“Oh! Sorry, everyone,” Wendell McCarthy said without a trace of embarrassment, “Fisher and I were just looking for a place to go over our slides. You mind, Laurie?”
“No problem, Wendell. Jim, glad to see you got in okay. Are your suites alright?”
“Amazing!” Jim Fisher replied in his familiar twang.
“You guys mind if we keep going? There’s a light box on that far table for your slides. And Wendell, the croissants look especially fresh today,” she added with a grin.
“Laurie, you always know the way to this old man’s heart. Go on with your meeting. We’ll stay out of your way.”
She turned back to her staff.
“Okay, Dagmar, you know you’re lead on F & B. We don’t have any tight turnarounds, thank God, but keep an eye on the final night banquet setup. It’s got full décor, floral, the works.”
“Ja, I noticed that on the Working Agenda. Many vendors involved. Do you think they’re up to it?” the “Danish Duchess” asked with a frown.
“They’d better be,” Laurie responded, “They know how important it is, though, and we’ve used all of them before. I’m pretty sure they can handle it.”
“Now, Recreation. Marc, that’s you. We’ve got lots of golfers as always, so start praying the weather doesn’t turn nasty on us before Tuesday. The reports look iffy at the moment. You might want to check out local tour options just in case.”
“God forbid,” Marc replied crisply, “The only thing more annoying than a bunch of rabid golfers is a bunch of rained-out rabid golfers. Don’t worry. I’ll keep them in line, whatever the weather.”
“Marc Masterson: Recreation Tyrant,” Dash interjected. Marc shot him a “shut up” look while the others laughed.
What a strange couple those two are, Laurie thought to herself, not for the first time. Dash resembled a rumpled puppy dog, irreverent and cheeky, while Marc paired the reserve of a banker with a seemingly endless supply of perfectly pressed khakis. The two had been together for eight years, owned a show-stopping brownstone in Baltimore, and refused to work separate meetings. I wish I could find that kind of love, Laurie mused wistfully.
“Okay, let’s get through this, folks. Becky’s lead on Special Services Desk. She’s not here right now because she’s doing our remaining VIP meet & greets – ”
“That woman is the sweetest thing on two feet,” interrupted Wendell, who had clearly been listening.
“Thank you, Wendell. I’ll tell her you said so. You guys on SSD, make sure you get Becky to brief you before major arrivals tomorrow. It’ll be a zoo, so try not to drink too much tonight, and get to bed early after the welcome packets are done. We open the Desk at 7:00 a.m. Our final department is Transfers. Becky’s handling the last few VIPs’ transportation, so you guys get to handle everyone else’s airport shuttle arrangements, lost luggage, and late limos. Our lead is Sue Palmer. Sue, I only hope this won’t affect our friendship.”
“What friendship?” Sue Palmer cracked. She’d run Transfers on dozens of Laurie’s meetings, and somewhere along the way she sort of adopted the younger woman. Lots of people knew Laurie had been an orphan since the age of eight. Sue was one of the few who knew why.
Staff assignments finished, Laurie reminded her leads about the precon later that afternoon and was about to review the massive, detail-laden “meeting Bible,” or Working Agenda, when another VIP arrived. Edward Tradd, Senior Vice President of Marketing, glowered at the Connor meeting planner.
“Goddammit, Laurie,” he shouted, oblivious to the staff meeting she was leading, “Did you check the view from my suite? It’s a goddamn parking lot! And the soap in the bathrooms – crap! You tell your hotel person I want some decent French-milled soap in those bathrooms by this afternoon. And a different suite, too!”
“I’m sorry, Ed,” Laurie said quietly, wanting to disappear – just as soon as she slapped his smooth blond face. “The hotel’s completely booked, so I’m afraid I can’t switch your suite, but I’ll have someone take care of the soap problem within the hour.”
“Fine,” he snapped, turning to leave. Seeing the other two VIPs running slides in the corner, however, he joined them at once.
“Wendell, good to see you, you crazy bastard! I see Jim’s giving you a preview of my presentation.”
Fisher almost choked on his croissant. Tradd’s presentation! Jim had been working around the clock on the strategic marketing analysis for Zephyrex, and his boss was taking full credit for it. Unbelievable.
“Very impressive, Ed,” Wendell said blandly. “What do you say we go rehearse it in the ballroom?”
“Sure. Give me a few minutes and I’ll join you.”
As Tradd sauntered out of the office, Laurie glanced over at his two colleagues. Jim Fisher was staring at Tradd’s retreating back, an expression of pure hatred twisting his otherwise pleasant features. She looked away quickly. His face had scared her.