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"I can't believe it, JR. Me, here at Nordstrom, in the workplace department, in a suit. A business suit!"
As she ranted into her cell phone, Carmen stared at the dressing-room mirror's reflection with intense dis-pleasure. She stuck her tongue out at the image, then spoke again into the mouthpiece. "I mean, you know me, JR, the original antifashion thrift-shop junkie. I've been a retro hippie, a recovering Goth" she pivoted to get a view of the rear and made another disgruntled face "but I've never, ever, been someone who even looked at a straight, desk-sitting, member-of-the-office-staff-and-proud-of-it suit!"
On the other end of the line, JR, who had, poor thing, heard Carmen's tirades before, said mildly, "How does it look?"
She frowned again, then shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, I have no frame of reference. How is a suit sup-posed to look?"
"Well, does it fit?"
"I guess. The saleslady said this was my size and it isn't too tight or too loose, so yeah, I guess it fits. But it's gray, JR," she griped to her very best friend in all the world. "With these little pinstripes. And the sales-lady gave me this lavender blouse. A blouse. I mean, really. With buttons."
"Oh, no," JR said with mock horror. "Not buttons."
"And I'm going to have to wear hose. I never wear hose. Ever."
"Hey, kid, welcome to the world of grown-ups."
"Yeah, I know." Carmen sighed loudly, then made yet one more face at the mirror. "It's time. I get it. But I don't have to like it."
And she didn't like it, not at all.
Goldie Raquel Coyle, known as "Carmen" since age seven when she'd been introduced to Bizet's opera and had fallen in love with the tragic heroineto the point of insisting on a Spanish lady-of-the-night costume for Halloween that yearhad made every attempt in the world to not grow up. But she was one year shy of thirty, and it was, alas, finally time.
She had to get a job. A real job. Not a clerk at a used records store, nor a fast-food takeout counter person. Most definitely not a house-sitter/dog-walker/part-time errands runner. Those were items on her old résumé, and would no longer do. She needed money, real money. She had bills to pay.
Well, they weren't really her bills, but Tio's. The jerk. They'd lived together in her little house for three months and she'd had no idea he'd been dealing. None. He'd run up all kinds of debt on her credit card, borrowed money in her name from her friends. Never even paid his half of the rent and had spent her half. And she hadn't known. Not any of it. Not until he'd taken off, never to be heard from again. And the phone calls had begun, followed by the pounding on the door, and it had all been a nightmare. Big-time stress situation. Carmen hated stress, hated hassles. Avoided them like the plague. Which meantand she'd be the first to admit itthat she'd lived her particular time on earth too often under the radar, too often letting others clean up her mess after her.
Not anymore. She'd borrowed money from her family to cover Tio's debts and she would pay them back as quickly as possible. And this was the very last time she'd fall for another bad-boy type who was not what he claimed to be. She'd learned her lesson. About time.
"Carmen?" JR's voice in her earpiece pulled her out of her reverie.
"Does it have to be gray, JR? Couldn't it be, I don't know, yellow?A little sunshine to take away the gloom?"
She stared at the mirror. She'd already kicked off her sandalsfun, strappy things in bronze-, silver-and gold-dyed leather with a chartreuse rose on top that she'd picked up at the Nordstrom shoe sale not five minutes before coming up hereand was now on tippy-toes, trying to imagine herself in heels.
"Carmen," JR said, "I have a client coming in two minutes, so I have to get off the phone."
"Fine, desert me. I don't blame you. I look so drab. So boring." "Not possible."
"Possible, trust me. I"
The noise, a soft, explosive sound, like a special effect on a computer game, was followed by a yelp of surprised pain.
Carmen stood still, unsure of what she had just heard, aware only that it felt offwrong, somehowand that it came from somewhere nearby.
Two more of the same soft noises were followed by a strange smellsomething burning? And something wet had just hit her lower leg. She glanced down and saw a spattering of red on her ankles and bare feet. The fitting-room walls were open at the bottom; the red spatters had come from the room to her left.
Blood. It was blood. "Oh, my God." "Carmen?" JR's voice was sharp. "What is it? What's wrong?"
A woman's groan came from next door, followed by the soft thud of running footsteps in the dressing-room corridor. "Someone's hurt," she whispered into the phone.
"Who? What are you talking about?"
"In the dressing room next door to me." She reached for the door handle. "I think she's been shot."
JR drew in a quick, alarmed breath. "Stay where you are. Do you hear me? Can you lock the door?"
Too late. Carmen had already opened the door to the dressing room a tiny crack and now peered down the long corridor that led to the selling floor. A figure was just disappearing around the corner, but not before she had enough time to register a fleeting impression of a slender form dressed head-to-toe in black. Running shoes, sweatpants, sweatshirt, a black baseball cap, no hair visible.
Another groan of pain made Carmen open her door wide and step out into the corridor.
"Carmen?" she heard JR say.
"I have to see how badly she's hurt," she whispered into the phone.
"Don't you dare! Stay just where you are. I'm calling 911."
"Do that, "
The slatted dressing-room door had a vertical line of three holes punched in it. She jiggled the knob, but the door was locked, so she peered through one of the holes.
A young woman lay slumped at an awkward angle, on the floor, legs splayed. She wore a bra and panties; in her hand she clutched a navy dress with a small yellow-and-pink flower pattern, its tag hanging from the sleeve, as though she'd been about to try it on. Blood poured from her head and midsection onto the carpeted floor. The mirror was spattered with the red liquid.
Carmen felt bile rising in her throat, but she swallowed hard and ordered herself not to vomit. "JR," she said into her phone. "It's bad. Get an ambulance. I have to go."
Snapping the phone shut, she yelled, "Someone! Help!" as loudly as she could. Two dressing-room doors opened farther down the corridor, and two scared faces peeked out from them. "Get a doctor! Quickly," she told them.
Without waiting to see what they did, she lay flat on her stomach and crawled under the door and into the small room.
Carmen had never seen a dying person before, but clearly this woman belonged in that category. Her breathing was labored and rattled harshly in her throat, her eyelids were half-open, only the whites visible. And blood pumped out of her midsection with a horren-dously rapid, yet even, rhythm.
"Hold on," Carmen said, swallowing again to keep the contents of her stomach from coming up. "Help is coming."
The bleeding. She had to stop the bleeding. She got onto her knees and grabbed the flower-patterned dress, rolled it up into a ball and held it over the worst of the wounds, the jagged hole in the woman's stomach. In an instant, the dress was soaked.
"Hold on," she said again desperately, this time pulling off the suit jacket she was wearing and pushing it against the blood-soaked dress. She felt so powerless, so helpless to stop the inevitable. "Please," she said, aware that she was crying, "please hold on."
There was the sound of running feet again in the hallway, this time coming in her direction. "We're in here!" she called out. Someone tried the handle, but before Carmen could get up to unlock it, that same someone rammed against the slatted door, once, twice, three times. The door burst open. Carmen looked up to see a stocky, gray-haired woman standing over her.
"I'm a doctor," she said grimly. "Get back." On her knees, Carmen scrambled away from the take her eyes off the gunshot victim as the doctor worked on her. The breaths became louder and harsher, as did the awful rattling sounds emanating from her throat. This went on for several moments more until, at last, there was a loud, long sigh, and the woman was still.
The doctor attempted resuscitation for a few mo-ments more, but to no avail. She shook her head then stood, checking her watch.
It was over. A life had ended.
Others were gathered in the corridor now, an excited buzz of curiosity filling the air. Someone, a manager-type, was saying, "Please, stand back. The ambulance is on its way and we need to make room."
Carmen took it all in, suddenly dissociated, feeling as though she were seeing details through the wrong end of a telescope. Her gaze remained focused on the poor been trying on clothing in the privacy of a well-ap-pointed fitting room, just as Carmen had been doing next door. It had all happened so quickly. Why had she been shot? Who was she? Did she have a family? Children? Who would break the news to them? Would someone mourn her?
As her own breathing became labored she felt a scream rising in her throat. She clamped a hand over her mouth and, again, with a severe effort of will, tamped it down. This was not about her, she told herself. She was alive. But she couldn't stop the tears, nor the quaking sensation that seemed to affect every inch of her herself and rocked back and forth, fixated on death's latest statistic.
The strangest thing happened next. Earlier, she'd taken in the woman's awkward position on the floor, the bra, the panties, the flowered dress, but now Carmen's gaze landed on her feet. As her addled brain registered a bizarre coincidence, she gasped out loud: she and the dead woman must have both recently shopped at the famous, twice-yearly Nordstrom shoe sale, and, obvi-ously, the two of them must have shared the same taste. She knew this because on the victim's feet were the very same multicolored sandals that Carmen had bought not a half hour ago. The perky chartreuse rose on top was now stained brownish-red.
Her gaze fell on her own bent knees and she recoiled. She, too, was covered in bloodbare feet, legs, skirt, blouse. Even her hands. She stared at them, horrified. It was too much, way too much. Shivering, she leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. This was a nightmare.
But at least you're alive, a little inner voice re-minded her. The woman lying on the dressing-room floor could have been her, Carmen thought, and hated herself for the small surge of gratitude she felt that tragedy had struck someone else and not her. And then she stopped thinking at all.