Lacey Smithsonian looked down at the unfortunate woman in the coffin and thought, Oh my God, that is the worst haircut I've ever seen.
And they say you can't die from a bad haircut. Even as that sentiment percolated through her brain, she added, You are such a bitch, Lacey. But she couldn't help it. It really was a bad haircut.
The haircut belonged to Angela Woods, "Angie" to her friends at Stylettos, the trendy Dupont Circle salon where she had worked until just a few days ago. Now Angie was the guest of honor in the polished maple casket at Evergreens Mortuary in the Nation's Capital.
At only twenty-five, Angie's sweet round face wasn't going to get any older. And that hairdo wasn't going to get any better. The deceased looked peaceful, if a little sad, laid to rest in the satin-lined box. She wore a dark rose silk jacquard dress with a lace collar that conflicted wildly with those strange short rainbow-colored clumps of hair sticking up in between patches of bruised bald scalp.
What on earth was she thinking?
Although Lacey had only known Angie casually, she remembered her as polite and demure. Her friends said Angie was committed to the proposition that every life could be improved with the help of a professional stylist. But there would be no more perms, colors, or highlights in Angie's attempt to make the world a prettier place.
At least the city didn't need any help that day. It was a beautiful Wednesday in April and there was a respite from the rain that had pounded the city into submission for the last two weeks. Cherry trees were exploding with blossoms, a pink snowstorm against a turquoise sky. On days like this, springtime in the Capital City is a wanton green feast that wraps itself around the heart. Days like this make Washingtonians forget that spring is usually a dreary, soggy endurance test that begins with endless drizzly fifty-degree days, then slams headlong into summer, drenching humidity, and ninety-degree heat, leaving psychic whiplash and a dull sinus headache.
Nevertheless, every spring D.C. is the scene of an invasion of curiously dressed tourists, Day-Glo families, busloads of polyester grandparents, and entire high-school classes wearing matching blue and orange neon T-shirts and baseball caps. They are nice, enthusiastic, and irritating as hell. The tourists hear the pumping heartbeat of spring. They answer unseen drums commanding them to swarm around the Tidal Basin in a yearly ritual as predictable as the swallows that return to Capistrano.
At least the tourist hordes Lacey had fought through to reach the mortuary, with their plastic cameras and camcorders, knew how to appreciate spring in Washington. A hundred thousand weak-eyed wonks would never see it, toiling in their anonymous beige and gray offices. The woman in the coffin would never again enjoy it.
Lacey wondered exactly what she was doing in a mortuary. But she'd rather be anywhere on a glorious spring day than back at her desk at the newspaper, opening stacks of press releases in search of something, anything, to write about.
"What did I tell you, Lacey? Is that not the worst razor job you ever saw?"
Lacey turned to see her own hairstylist, Stella Lake, standing behind her in the small viewing room. Stella was the manager of Stylettos. She had an image to uphold, so she had dressed carefully for the occasion: her best black Lycra leggings, red leather bustier, and black leather bomber jacket. For Stella, this was uncharacteristically subdued, even with the fresh manicure-bold red nails inset with tiny lightning bolts. The leather dog collar set off an asymmetrical crew cut-burgundy this week-that spiked defiantly from Stella's perfectly round noggin. It was a disconcerting look for a petite thirty-five-year-old woman with the beginnings of crow's-feet and a whiskey voice, but attention getting nevertheless. Stella was small but managed to seem much larger.
The woman was a genius with a pair of scissors-on other people's heads. Yet Stella considered herself her own best work of art, one that changed with the moon or the tides or simply bad hair days that cried out to try something new.
"To be honest, Stella, now she looks like most of your stylists. Except for the bald spots. And the bruises."
"No way! The hand that did that was not professional. Besides, what I'm saying is, punk dominatrix isn't her style. Angie was more of a Guinevere type, you know?"
"Guinevere?" Lacey asked. Stella was the queen of stylistic shorthand.
"You know, romantic. Long hair, long dresses. Pink. Angie liked pink."
"Pink?" Lacey had complicated feelings about pink. She actually liked it, but it seemed out of place in this town. Washington, D.C., was the epitome of a taupe, bland, beige, oatmeal kind of town, and heavy on black and gray. Hairstylists and other artistic types preferred a wardrobe of stark black and white. Pink was considered far too perky, except among the preppier Republicans.
Stella shrugged and lifted her eyebrows. They both took another look at Angie.
An eight-by-ten photo of Angie was set up on a table near the casket. The Angie in the picture had long golden-blond hair that cascaded in soft waves to her waist. It was glorious hair, the kind of hair that poets write about, the kind that comes to mind when little girls read about Rapunzel.
Just a few days before, Lacey had nervously surrendered her own locks to Stella, who installed dazzling blond highlights in her honey-brown hair. Stella had dared her. "What? It's going to kill you to try something new? Trust me, Lacey, it'll work. Besides, you were probably blond as a kid. I'm right, aren't I?"
Angie had floated through the salon, a serene long-haired Madonna wearing a pink Stylettos smock in a sea of buzz-cut punkettes wearing black on black and enough eyeliner for a tree full of raccoons. She stopped to assure Lacey in her soft Southern drawl that the highlights would be beautiful. Angie's chair-side manner was a good deal more soothing than Stella's.
Lacey looked back at Stella. "What happened to her?"
"What does it look like?"
"The paper's police log said suicide. But it didn't mention this monstrosity. Damn, Stella, it looks like she scalped herself in a fit of madness or was stone drunk or drugged out, came to her senses, took one look in the mirror, and killed herself. Is that possible?"
"That's what the police think." Stella pulled Lacey away from the casket as if the dead woman could hear them. The D.C. police had written off Angela Woods as a suicide, a "suicide blonde" as it were, and that was that.
Lacey knew the murder rate in the District of Columbia was astronomical, the rate of solved murders half the national average, the state of the morgue chaotic, and autopsy results as changeable as the weather. For years, the D.C. homicide squad had been a joke, and not even the funniest one in this town. The cops thought they had it all wrapped up, Stella told her. The detectives concluded that hairstylist Angela Woods slit her wrists at Stylettos Salon in Dupont Circle, using a Colonel Conk straight razor, a common salon tool, then wrote So Long with her blood on the mirror-which they termed the "suicide note." She bled to death in the chair at her station sometime late Saturday night.
Sunday morning, with a gigantic hangover, Stella opened the salon, discovered the body, lost her breakfast, and called the police. Stella figured alerting the police was a bad idea, but she didn't have a better one at the time. It wasn't like she could call her psychic (who should have warned her in the first place) or her acupuncturist.
The body was collected, sent to the medical examiner's office, released, and laid out for viewing on Wednesday. The funeral was scheduled for Thursday morning at ten.
Stylettos never opened the day Stella found the body. It remained closed on Monday while a special crime-scene cleaning company removed the bloodstains. Crime-scene cleaning crews: a growth industry in Washington, Lacey thought. Along with document shredding.
"It must have been pretty awful finding her."
"I've had better days." Stella chewed at one lighting-bolted nail. "There was so much blood, Lacey. I never knew there could be so much blood. The cops told me she was probably doing drugs. I said 'Look at that haircut!' They said Angie must've been into self-mutilation. Assholes."
"Drugs? Did they order toxicology tests?"
"Who knows! They sent her body to the D.C. morgue! It's a miracle they even got the right body to the mortuary."
"So you don't know. What about an autopsy?"
Stella shook her head. According to the media, the morgue was another abyss you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. The District was trying to clean it up and improve the office's image, but was fighting years of corruption and inefficiency, bad press, lack of money, bodies stacked in corners, and misidentified victims.
"I can't imagine her doing this. It's not her style, and frankly, it's a pretty piss-poor job," Stella concluded.
"The haircut or the suicide?"
"And why exactly did you want me to come here today?" Stella had been frantic on the phone: Lacey had to meet her at the mortuary. She stopped just short of threatening retribution on Lacey's head, or worse, on her hair, but it was implied that Lacey's freshly lightened locks would be in peril. "It's really awful, Stel, but what can I do?"
"I thought you'd be, you know, interested."
Lacey and Stella sank down on folding chairs and gazed at the flower arrangements. Lacey's eyes rested on a small basket of violets, sweet and sad, sent from the salon, and a showy arrangement of white roses, irises, and gladiolus, signed Always, Boyd. That would be Boyd Radford, owner of Stylettos, Stella's notorious boss. Sprays of pink carnations came from the Woods family. The subdued lighting made the coffin the focal point. The small room's dark wood paneling and deep burgundy carpeting were oppressive in spite of the bright flowers. Boxes of tissues were discreetly placed for the convenience of mourners.
"'Interested'?" Lacey waited.
Stella sighed loudly. "Well, since you are an expert, I thought maybe, who knows-"
"An expert!" What is she talking about? Lacey was aghast. "Stella, I write a fashion column."
"Like I said."
"An expert on what?"
"Style. Nuances. Like you wrote last week. 'Nuances of style are clues to personality.'"
"Well, yes...Wait. You don't actually read my column."
"'Crimes of Fashion'? Are you kidding? Like a Bible. Only more fun. And those 'Fashion Bites.' We love 'em. You should do them every day."
"Every day! It's hard enough to write 'Crimes' once a week. As for 'Fashion Bites,' they only bite when the spirit, or my editor, moves me."
Lacey did not want to believe anyone actually read her column, or The Eye Street Observer, the upstart daily newspaper in which it appeared. She thought of it as "The Little Paper That Couldn't," and she firmly believed the damn column would be the death of her. If not literally, then figuratively-the death of her dream of being a good reporter, a real reporter. Not a fashion reporter, or even an antifashion reporter, as she had decided to think of herself. She assumed her weekly sartorial diatribes were poured into the computer and then cast into the void. But as for people actually reading it, considering it, quoting it? Oh my God.
"And you thought that by just gazing at a dead woman, I could figure out what happened?" Only in the District of Columbia could people actually believe that some random idiot off the street, or, yes, even a fashion reporter, could solve a murder before the cops.
"I am not an investigator, Stella." Lacey struggled for a way to escape her stylist's mad notion. "Why not call a private detective?"
"Like, for a hundred reasons. One, they cost money. Two, I don't know any. Three, I got you."
"Oh, Stella." Lacey sighed. "I don't know what to say."
"Four, nuances. Lacey, look at her. These are big nuances here. Like a neon sign. And you have a nose for nuances." Stella started chewing another nail. This whole mess was ruining her manicure and calling the cops hadn't solved anything. "Well, it was a thought. So sue me."
"It's very sweet, but...What kind of a thought, Stella?" Leave now, Lacey. You don't want to know.
"You know how you always write that the way people dress reveals who they really are, like it's a key to their personality or something? Their hair. Their grooming. Their clothes. Like it's a language, right, or a code? About how it's good to express yourself if you know what you're saying. Like you do that Forties thing with your clothes. It says, you know, Rosalind Russell meets Rosie the Riveter. Brains, beauty, and no bullshit. Something like that. Am I right?"
Lacey couldn't argue with Stella, but she was stopped cold at hearing her own fashion philosophy distilled into Stella's pungent vernacular. Am I that transparent?
Stella proudly indicated her own leather bondage outfit, heavy on the zippers. "Take me. What am I saying here? Come on. This is an easy one. 'Punk Goddess with a Heart of Gold.' Right?"
On acid, Lacey amended silently.
"It works on me because I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm saying with my clothes. I wear what I mean. I mean what I wear."
"I wrote that?"
"Not in so many words, but I knew what you meant, you know."
"Stella, my column is a joke. I have no business writing it. It was a fluke. I'm still trying to get out of it."
"No way. You should be proud of it, Lacey. We read 'Crimes of Fashion' aloud in the salon every Friday with our coffee. I just figured you could take a look at Angie and figure something out."
"I'm not psychic, Stella."
"She didn't kill herself, Lacey! Look at her. This look says, 'I wouldn't be caught dead looking this way.' Maybe you could just tell people that. In your column, where people she knew could read it. It would mean something to them. To her."
It occurred to Lacey that Stella was the only stylist in Washington who had found a way to cut her light brown locks into a style that always fell into place effortlessly and even evoked a hint of early Lauren Bacall. She had to admit the new highlights were stunning. The lightened waves skimmed her shoulders, framed her face, and made her blue-green eyes look enormous. And she liked Stella, who always made her laugh. You're sunk, Lacey. She's got you by the roots.
"She had plans for her life." Stella reached in the casket and gently ran her fingers over the short tufts of Angie's hair. She clicked her tongue. "If it was suicide, it was assisted. You know what I mean?" Lacey sighed deeply and studied Angie. The woman in the picture. The corpse in the coffin. Stella was right. They didn't jive. "Nuances?"
Stella nodded. "Real big nuances."
But if Angie didn't kill herself...who did? Was it possible that some degenerate had spitefully hacked off her hair? Then what? Killed her? Or vice versa? Who wouldn't want to see her stylist dead at one time or another? Was it so far-fetched? Lacey's mind wandered back to notable hair disasters in her pre-Stella days. The perm that turned into a Brillo pad. The "trim" that rendered her a Joan of Arc look-alike. The highlights that turned green. Mayhem maybe, but surely not-
"Murder, Stella?" If the likelihood of a murder being solved in D.C. was merely remote, then the likelihood of a nice, neat suicide being reclassified as a murder, and then solved, was zilch. Stella shrugged. "But who would want to kill her? A client?" Lacey asked.
"Nah, everybody loved Angie. Unique, I know."
"What about a boyfriend?"
"None that I know of. She would have told me. You know how hard it is to find a decent male specimen here. Besides, Angie was totally choosy and completely into the career thing."
Lacey closed her eyes and tried to remember everything she knew about the dead woman.
Angela Woods was just coming into her own professionally. She had enjoyed a brief spurt of fame for magically transforming the latest fallen woman in a Capitol Hill scandal from a heifer into a fox-at least by D.C. standards. Angie was one of the few who had benefited from that ugly political potboiler. Politics in Washington is like Muzak in elevators. It's everywhere, and for most Washingtonians it eventually just becomes background noise. But even the political junkies, the vampires of Washington, who eat, breathe, and live every little congressional stab in the back and read party-line votes like a fortune-teller reads tea leaves, need hairstylists. Which is how Angie Woods and politics intersected.
Congressional staffer Marcia Robinson needed a makeover-and a miracle. The town's latest scandal celebrity was the ideal grist for the media mill: young, naive, and far from innocent. Marcia believed a little too wholeheartedly in her First Amendment right to take it all off on the Web-and to recruit exhibitionistic underage Capitol Hill interns.
When she received her own invitation for a chat with the perennial special prosecutor, big-haired, toothy, would-be sexpot Marcia needed a new image fast. When a woman faces the TV cameras in a Washington scandal, Bad Hair means Bad News.
"It was a work of art what she did to that woman, that Marcia Robinson."
"More like a public service." Lacey had featured the makeover in a "Crimes of Fashion" column: "My Life Is a Mess, but I've Never Looked Better!"
Angela Woods' last worldly accomplishment was successfully repackaging a frumpy, frizzy-haired cyber-tart as a sadder-but-wiser naif with silky blow-dried locks, a doe-eyed innocent who was chastened by her media ordeal but bravely bearing up. And Angela reaped the benefits of her brief notoriety. For her efforts, she was featured in the LifeStyle sections of the various local newspapers, along with a few fashion dos and don'ts for looking your best in the media glare. As Lacey had summed up in her own column: "Tame the mane, emphasize the eyes, and keep the mouth glossy and shut." Always good advice in the District of Columbia.
Angie's client book was suddenly full and customers were waiting weeks for an appointment. Stylettos saved all the news clippings, which Stella posted on the front door of the salon. The attention was not without its downside, however. It created a ripple of resentment among the happy little crew at Stylettos. And now Angie was suddenly dead.
Stella interrupted Lacey's reverie. "How about it?"
"I can't write a column saying she was murdered. Not without the facts." Unless no one reads it except Stella.
"Investigate! You're a reporter. Reporters do it on TV all the time."
"Not fashion reporters."
"You'll be the first."
"Oh yeah, why not an investigative stylist?"
"Are you kidding? In this outfit? Besides, I got work to do." Stella whipped out hair spray, a comb, and a blond wig from her bag. "For Angie's mom, you know? She's flying in tonight."\
"That's very considerate, Stel." Lacey's eyes started to tear. She grabbed a tissue.
"I get along really well with mothers, just not my own." Stella began to restyle the corpse for her last public appearance. "And Lacey, last week's column-'Never Wear Pink to Testify Before the Special Prosecutor'-was stellar. See you at the funeral."
"Hey, I didn't say yes! Funerals are depressing and I hardly knew her. Stella, are you listening?"
"You can start there. Your investigation. Killers always go to the funeral, don't they?"
"No, Stella. I said no. Besides, I have nothing to wear."
from Killer Hair by Ellen Byerrum , copyright © 2003 Ellen Byerrum, published by Signet, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher."