For nine years, Michelle “Blackie” Maher and Chloe Bower had been best friends, and in that time, neither knew the other was born a thief. If they hadnt gone to Europe the summer after college graduation and become accidental criminals they might never have known, though if Chloe had thought about it, she would have seen it in Blackie all along. Blackie always underpaid on dinner tabs, borrowed money without paying it back, had an amusing and largely harmless amoral side to her, and a great ease in rationalizing it all. She liked to quote something her father said when she was twelve and they were wrestling a side of beef into the back of her Dads chevy after he swiped it from a meat wholesaler who had shortchanged him on some construction work:
“Its a sin to be too generous with the greedy, Blackie.”
Many people would have been surprised that these two very different girls had that of all things—crime—in common. Outside observers could never quite figure out how these two had ever bonded, matter and antimatter as one of Chloes boyfriends would later refer to them.
In fact, lawbreaking had been at the root of their friendship, nine years B.E., Before Europe. In eighth grade, theyd both been caught smoking in the john and sent to the same Stop Smoking program after school. They were the youngest reprobates in the class. After everyone else in the circle had talked about why they started smoking and how long they smoked, it was Blackies turn and she said, “All I can think of right now is that there are 30 smokers in this room and we could all be smoking and having a lot of fun.”
When they had to pick a “buddy” to help them through the course, Chloe picked Blackie. After class, they went off to smoke behind the 7-11—Marlboro reds for Blackie, Benson & Hedges menthols for Chloe. Neither wanted to quit smoking and they conspired to fake their smoke sheets for class and lie about their progress until they were sprung from the program. With this small, and unhealthy, act of rebellion, they became co-conspirators, the first step toward friendship.
Their pact required celebratory cokes, and the smoking of more cigarettes. Blackie showed Chloe how to “French inhale,” blowing the smoke out her nostrils like a dragon, and Chloe showed her how to blow smoke rings, perfect, silky gray Os. As they sipped and smoked, they discovered they liked the same bands and TV shows. More important, they disliked the same people, particularly one mean clique of girls who had invited Chloe to a premium slumber party recently then withdraw the invitation publicly the next day.
“I didnt want to go anyway,” Chloe said. “I was afraid Id fall asleep during the night and theyd call me dead and eat my heart and liver.”
“And suck the marrow from your bones,” Blackie agreed.
Nobody could have been more shocked that they had anything in common than they themselves were. Theyd seen each other in school and just always assumed they were in parallel universes. Chloe was cool, blonde, quiet, bookish, ambitious, and came from an upper-middle-class family with a well-known photography business that handled class photo and yearbook contracts in three counties. They belonged to a (not overly exclusive) country club, lived in a big two-story house in an established part of town and had fine china that not only matched but had been passed down two generations almost intact, with just the loss of a gravy boat.
Blackie looked tougher, a bit feral, with dark hair, dark eyes, a tattoo. She was friendly, got good grades without trying and never did more than she had to in school. Her father was a carpenter who had started his own business, her mother a homemaker and part-time Avon saleswoman, and they lived in a more modest house in a newer subdivision. Long after her fathers construction business became successful the family still drank out of mismatched glasses, two of which were survivors from a set Blackies grandmother won at bingo, which Blackie jokingly referred to as the “heirlooms.”
Their differences, as much as their similarities, helped them stay friends through high school and college. They had different ambitions, so there wasnt any negative competitive energy between them. They went for different kinds of guys, eliminating a common friction point between friends. They never much liked each others boyfriends, but this was less of a problem than if they had liked them too much, and at breakup time it was easy to say, “Youre better off without him,” and “Hell never find another girl like you,” and sound convincing.
Or, as Blackie said after Chloe was dumped by John Carey in senior year of college, “This is the best thing that ever happened to you. Youre free of that weighty albatross at last. Get dressed. Im taking you out to celebrate.”
Blackie was not surprised by these events. John Carey had been a yo-yo since Christmas, when his best friend got engaged to his pregant girlfriend. Chloe was infected with the matrimonial virus around the same time John, watching his buddy go down, was inoculated with the antibodies. One day hed be withdrawn and aloof to Chloe with no seeming reason, then hed feel guilty or turn needy and be loving, warm, and solicitous. Her confidence in herself was steadily eroded by the increasing drip-drip of his ambivalence. It had been a sad thing to watch.
A couple of months later, when Chloe caught the bouquet at a same-sex wedding reception for her favorite professor and his boyfriend, Johns ambivalence turned to cold hostility. It was obvious to everyone but Chloe. As Blackie noted, you could almost see that gotta go light turn on inside his head.
“What reason did he give for the breakup?” Blackie asked now.
“He pitched it as an artistic imperative—a great writer needs to have a lot of different experiences, he needs to know a lot of women, he cant be hemmed in by conventional relationships. Look at Kerouac, Lord Byron, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Ted Hughes,” Chloe said, mimicking Johns voice. “Its dangerous to keep a wild thing like him in a cage. . . . Hed only hurt me worse down the road—this was for my own good.”
“FUCKER! But hes right about the last part, its for your own good.”
“So I listed all the great artists who were greater for being married, like Gustave Mahler.”
“Chloe, you dont for one moment think this guy is going to be Jack Kerouac or Ted Hughes.”
“Hes got talent.”
“Hes clever and superficial. I bet you a buck he ends up in his dads investment business. Hes a tourist.”
“Do you think John will come back to me?”
“If he has any taste and intelligence at all, honey, he would. So in other words, no. Oh God, I hope not.”
“Dont say that, Blackie. I love him.”
Over tequila poppers and tapas at a campus bar, Chloe cried and drank and wondered aloud what to do with the rest of her miserable life if John didnt come back to her. They were both enrolled at Columbia grad school in the fall, but how could she go to New York if they were no longer together? Risk seeing him with some other woman, or women? And that summer they had planned to go to Europe together, but how could she go now—
“Youre not going to cancel Europe because of him, or Columbia in the fall, Chloe. Thats insane. Just abdicate your dreams to him?”
“Fu-uck it,” Chloe said, hiccupping. “Youre right. I should go to Europe anyway.”
“You should,” Blackie said, and an even better idea suddenly occurred to her. “I should go too.”
“Yes,” Chloe said. “Please.”
“God, yes. A little Italy, a little France, a lee-tle romance.”
The first sign that there might be some trouble on this trip was the choice of guidebooks. Chloe bought the upscale Mousseline Travel Guide, with its subtle, blue matte cover bearing no picture whatsoever, just the words, “Mousseline Guide to France” in plain white letters, an understated style reflecting the discerning, just-the-facts approach inside.
Blackie bought the backpackers Bible, the Lonesome Roads Guide, which was chatty, frank, and included offbeat advice on which hostels had chiggers and where to find the black market in Marseilles.
Neither one thought anything about it. They prepped for the trip with maps, web sites, and by watching old movies set on the Riviera, most starring either Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, and of course Cary Grant who, they agreed, played a great heterosexual. Though still depressed about John, planning for Europe took the edge off for Chloe.
The only person who felt any foreboding about this trip was Blackies father. He didnt want her to go, claimed it was because he couldnt replace her in the office. He was afraid to say the real reason out loud because of superstition that saying it might bring it about—that as an American she was a walking bulls eye when she stepped outside her nations borders.
So she wouldnt be identified as an American he bought her a backpack with a big glaring Canadian flag on it, two maple leaf lapel pins (in case she lost one), and several t-shirts. One said “Canada” in big red letters above a red maple leaf. Below that it said, “Were not America.” It was supposed to be a joke motto, poking fun at America and at Canadas own mythical lack of identity at the same time. To her father, who came from Canada, it was a kind of shield.
When he and his girlfriend and Blackies mom and her boyfriend came to see her off at the airport, he said, “You watch out for those rats and mashers over there.”
Mashers was his old-fashioned term for a wide variety of pickup artists, continental seducers, and white slavers. It was the same thing he said before she went to her first mixed party, to New York sophomore year, and before every first date.
Blackie said what she always said, “And theyd better watch out for me.”
When a married man is hitting on you, is it okay to rip him off? Especially if picking a few pockets helps you get over a broken heart? Chloe and Blackie upgrade their accommodations from no-star hostels to three-star hotels when they decide to let the philanderers who've been wrecking their trip finance their fun. But their escapade takes a turn when they hit the wrong mark in Monte Carlo and take off with a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. Chloe and Blackie's romp through Europe suddenly gets a whole lot wilder with good and bad guys in pursuit of the two attractive young women who were last seen with the now-dead man and his Ganesh statue. Crossing paths with a bitter newspaper man on a required "vacation," two Bombay thugs working for an Indian crime boss, a troubled British heiress fresh out of rehab, and one of their earlier victims out for revenge, the girls are in grave danger of being arrested, straining their friendship, or worse. Much worse. A wild goose chase of mistaken identity and international intrigue, "Bandit Queen Boogie is classic Sparkle Hayter.
Chloe and Blackie's romp through Europe suddenly gets a whole lot wilder with good and bad guys in pursuit of these two attractive young women who were last seen with a now-dead man and his Ganesh statue.