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"I can offer you a fantastic deal if you sign up for membership now," urged Gloria, an account executive at Perfect Fit Sports Club. Sitting behind a desk in her office, she gave her customer a patronizing smile.
"I'm just here to register for the three-month trial membership," Marla Shore explained. Crossing her legs, she surveyed the girl's svelte figure, coiffed hairdo, and flawless makeup. You'd look better in a layered cut, pal, she thought with the critical eye of an expert beautician.
"How can you turn this down? Don't you want to save money?" Gloria persisted. "Normally, our contract runs for three years with an initiation fee of two hundred and ninety-nine dollars. But if you join today, I'll give you a hundred-dollar discount off that price. It's a real bargain with the forty-dollar monthly fee."
Just what I want to do with my money--tie up another monthly payment for three years. Marla wondered how often Gloria worked out, or if she even bothered. Heaven forbid the girl should break a manicured fingernail on one of the exercise machines. Not that Marla was so familiar with the gleaming metal devices. Owner of Cut 'N Dye Salon, her main form of exercise was to take her poodle, Spooks, for his daily stroll. She felt as out of place in a fitness club as a white hair on a brunette.
"I'm just interested in the free trial," Marla replied. "Is there someone who will show me around so I can get started?"
Gloria pursed her lips. "As a member, you'd receive a tour by a personal trainer. Otherwise, you'll be on your own." She sniffed. "I might add that people who come in for the free trial period never sign up formembership."
Why is that? Because you're so rude? "I don't buy anything unless I try it out first," Marla snapped.
"If you pay the full initiation fee at the end of the month, you'll be sorry you didn't join today. I'll even throw in a coupon for a free massage if you sign up now."
"Don't you understand the word no?"
The girl's face closed like a clamshell. "People like you never come back after the free offer is over." Opening her desk, she pulled out a form and scribbled her signature. "Here's your trial membership card."
Grasping her bag, Marla muttered an expletive before stalking out. This place would never get her award for courtesy to customers.
She began her self-guided tour in the lobby, which held the front desk, a juice bar, and a comfortable lounge with leather armchairs. A glass partition walled off the wet section with its whirlpool and aquatics area. Offices and massage suites branched from the opposite side where a staircase led to an upper level.
Now you've gone and done it, she thought, glancing around in bewilderment. Coming here had been a gross mistake. She could feel it in her bones as surely as the January chill that penetrated through the green-tinted windows facing the parking lot. Schmuck. You should never have let Tally talk you into this! It's your fault for gaining weight over the holidays. Her best friend couldn't make it tonight, so Marla had decided to get oriented by herself. Then, when she met Tally here on Sunday, at least she'd know her way around already.
"Is it always so quiet on Friday evenings?" she asked the receptionist, a ponytailed brunette focused on a computer.
The girl glanced up, her jaw working a piece of gum. "Oh, no, honey. Everyone's at the competition over at Dayna's Gym. I guess you weren't interested in the prize, huh?"
"A date with Mr. World Muscleman."
"You're right, I'm not interested. Where can I get changed? I came here directly from work but packed a bag earlier."
Pointing a finger, the girl said, "Walk through the wet area, and you'll come to the locker room." Her gaze surveyed Marla's denim jumper dress. "Are you new here, honey?"
"Yeah, how could you tell?"
A grin split the girl's face. "You have that lost look about you. Don't worry, you'll learn your way around. My name is Sharon if you need anything. By the way, I love your hair. Is that your natural color?"
Marla bristled. "Of course it is." Her brow furrowing, she patted her chestnut hair, curled inward at chin length. Even though her thirty-fifth birthday approached, she didn't look old enough to gray yet, did she? Maybe getting in shape wasn't such a bad idea. "I'm a hairstylist. Stop in at my salon sometime," she said, handing the girl a business card.
Glad she had worn rubber-soled shoes, Marla padded through the wet area, treading carefully along the slippery tiles. A whirlpool hissed and bubbled on her left, while on the right an aqua pool smelled strongly of chlorine. At the far end were doors to the sauna and steam rooms. I don't need to go in there to feel the humidity, she thought, perspiration rising on her upper lip. The place oozed dampness like a mangrove swamp.
In the rear, she pushed open the door to the women's lockers. Cool, citrus-scented air freshened the spacious area. Her quick glance noted polished wood benches, stacks of open cubicles, peach-and-turquoise floor tiles, and mirrored walls. Piped-in music played tunes from a popular radio station.
At least she was alone and could change in peace. But as she selected an empty cubbyhole for her street clothes, voices drifted her way.
"You're a murderer! I know what you've done!" a woman cried.
"I'm warning you, leave me alone or I'll file charges."
Marla's ears perked up. She recognized that smoky tone as belonging to Jolene Myers, one of her clients. Palm Haven was a small community, even though it counted as a western suburb of Fort Lauderdale, and she often ran into customers around town.
"I won't rest until you stop that torture," the unknown woman said. "Do you realize the pain and suffering you're causing?"
"Give me a break, Cookie. We're talking about laboratory animals here, for God's sake."
Marla rounded the bend and entered a tiled section with a row of sinks. Hairdryers and various toiletries sat on the counter. In front of a wall-sized mirror, the two combatants faced off. Jolene's eyes widened in recognition as she caught sight of the newcomer.
"Marla!" she rasped. "Will you tell this pest to get off my case? Our company goes out of its way to use the safest possible research techniques."
"Who are you?" the stranger demanded.
"Marla Shore. I'm Jolene's hairdresser."
"Oh yeah? Cookie Calcone here." Cookie, a diminutive woman, glared up at her. "Do you know what this twit calls harmless? Her scientists use the Draize irritancy test. They drip caustic substances into the eyes of rabbits to assess damaging effects. The test may last for days, while the animals are restrained to prevent them from rubbing away the chemical. Since their tear ducts work poorly, the stuff won't wash out. Blistering and ulceration of the cornea often occurs. Can you imagine the pain they suffer?"
"Well, yes," Marla began, but Jolene cut her off.
"Those tests are necessary. Better we should find out if a substance is toxic before it's applied to humans."