When Tobi Tobias opened her own advertising agency, Carter McDade was there for her every step of the way. A brilliant hairdresser, Carter has just landed his dream project: doing hair and makeup for a theatrical production of Rapunzel. But the dream turns into a nightmare when he runs into Fiona Renoir, a cruel, talentless starlet who won't let Carter touch a hair on her head.
To get Fiona out of Carter's hair, Tobi hires the difficult actress for a bit part in her latest commercial. But true to character, Fiona is a terror on set, and Tobi is starting to think she's made the biggest mistake of her life. But things get even worse when Fiona drops dead in the hairdresser's chair, and the only suspect is the man left holding the tainted hair dye, Carter McDade. And unless Tobi can prove his innocence, he'll never do hair in this town again.
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Hell had officially frozen over. And, oddly enough, there was no swell of background music, no thunderous blast like I'd always imagined.
There was simply crunching.
Loud, deliberate crunching.
In fact, it was the cruncher and the crunchee that had turned the fiery flames of the dreaded underworld into the clichéd icicles referenced at the end of virtually every nasty breakup.
My best friend, Carter McDade, was standing less than five feet from my sofa eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs.
That's right, Carter McDade — the same guy who lectured me daily on the gaps (okay, seismic gullies) in my eating habits. The same guy who could draw a textbook food pyramid in mere seconds. The same guy who'd willingly and happily choose broccoli in a head-to-head with a Caramello bar.
Which is why his puff-crunching pointed to one indisputable conclusion: Carter was stressed. Big-time.
A rarity in and of itself, Cocoa Puffs or no Cocoa Puffs.
My upstairs neighbor was the most positive human being I'd ever met. One of those happy-go-lucky, always-has-a-smile types. You know, the kind of person everyone needs in their life, but few are fortunate enough to have.
I was one of the fortunate.
I was also dumbfounded. Utterly and completely dumbfounded by what to say and how to say it. So I took the not-so-subtle approach.
"What's wrong, Carter?"
Now I'll admit, I have a leg up when it comes to deciphering puff-talk (it is, after all, my second language), but I was feeling pretty proud that I could decode it from even the most novice of crunchers.
"Nothing? Nothing?! Do you realize what you're eating right now?"
Carter looked at the bowl in his left hand and then the spoon moving toward his mouth with his right. "Uh-huh."
"They're Cocoa Puffs, Carter! Co. Coa. Puffs. As in chocolate — or as you call it, sugar central. You know, void of roughage. In fact, if I do recall correctly, you refer to them as the downfall of mankind. The reason for society's ills."
I guess I thought if I really hammered home the point, it might sink in. Then again, I was living proof that tactic failed. Just ask my mother.
Besides, it was hard to hammer home drawbacks when I didn't believe a word of what I was saying. Why? Because I, Tobi Tobias, am a chocoholic. And proud of it, I might add.
So I did what any good chocoholic would do. I sauntered into the kitchen, grabbed my Bugs Bunny melamine bowl and matching spoon, filled it to the brim with the last of the crunchy brown puffs (don't worry, I've got four more boxes in the cabinet over the stove), and headed back into the living room. I mean, let's face it, the expression "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" was coined for a reason, right?
Not that my commiserating helped. In fact, when I returned, Carter showed no signs of having noticed my departure or subsequent return. His facial expression was still void of its trademark smile, and his eyes held a vacant look. Somehow, though, I managed to coax him onto the sofa.
"C'mon, Carter, spill it. It's Fiona again, isn't it?"
Call it a lucky (or, really my only) guess, but it was worth a shot. And judging by the look of complete mortification on his face as my words (and thus, his choice of food) registered in his subconscious, I'd hit the jackpot.
"Oh, good God, please tell me I'm not eating what I think I'm eating." Carter squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them slowly, cautiously. A tortured gasp escaped his mouth, along with a partially chewed puff.
"It's okay, Carter, really. It's been a long time coming. And it's not a good idea to keep depriving yourself of the finer things in life." I reached out and touched his shoulder, a teasing smile tugging my lips. "Thanks for letting me be a part of your spiritual awakening."
If looks could kill ...
He rolled his eyes upward and then frantically wiped his tongue with the sleeve of his cable-knit sweater. "Ugh, how on earth can you eat that stuff?"
"Same way you just did, my friend. One yummy spoonful at a time." I winked and popped some puffs into my mouth. I knew I was being ornery, but I couldn't help myself. Let's face it, I'd endured more pontificating about my eating habits from this man than I could possibly recall. So this was, in a way, sweet justice. Payback. Comeuppance at its finest ...
"My mind was compromised." Carter released a long, slow sigh and wiped his tongue one more time. "I swear, Sunshine, that woman will be the death of me yet. Mark my words."
I took the bowl from his shaking hand and set it on the end table to my right. It never ceased to amaze me how fast the sugar rush hit the chocolate virgins. Especially the stressed ones.
"What'd Princess Fiona do this time?"
"In the interest of time, it might be better if I tell you what she didn't do." Carter pushed off the couch and wandered over to the window. Drawing back the curtain, he peered outside. "Have you ever noticed the way Ms. Rapple kinda looks like Gertrude? Around the eyes and snout — I mean, nose?"
That did it. I laughed. And snorted. Loudly.
"I'm serious, Tobi. The eyes droop in almost the exact same spot, and the nose, well, it's a perfect match. Right down to the persistent wetness."
Thinking about my next-door neighbor, Ms. Rapple, was enough to make my stomach turn. The old biddy was something of a thorn in my side and had been since the day I moved into my apartment at 46 McPherson Road. In fact, I'm not sure I'd even turned the key in the front lock before she'd descended on me with her over-the-top questions, mean-spirited honesty, hideously bad breath, and her yippity-yappity dog, Gertrude. Fortunately, having Carter in the apartment above me, and Mary Fran and Sam Wazoli living above Ms. Rapple, made the situation more bearable.
Still ... was I wrong for hoping she'd win the lottery and move out into the countryside? Or, even better, to another continent entirely?
Carter, I knew, felt the same way about our elderly neighbor, though he tried his best to smooth over her abrasiveness with his normally sunny disposition. When that didn't work, he resorted to other things. Like ducking to the side of windows in true surveillance mode.
"You better come away from there, Carter. If she catches you looking, she'll be knocking on my door looking for some conversation." The thought made me cringe.
"The only conversation she's interested in these days is one that involves talk of your grandfather."
I shivered. "Don't remind me. She stops me every single day to ask when he's coming to visit. It gives me the heebies."
My Grandpa Stu was my rock, my grounding force. We'd been nearly inseparable since the day I was born — he teaching me how to navigate through life, me offering sticky kisses and half-eaten lollipops in return. The closeness we'd shared during my formative years hadn't changed as I grew into adulthood. If anything, it had strengthened as I went from thinking my Grandpa Stu was the smartest man in the world to knowing it.
But we no longer had uninterrupted days and a common front porch at our disposal. Instead, we had weekly phone conversations and a handful of visits each year — times I cherished as much as any from my youth.
Except maybe the last visit.
Don't get me wrong, having my Grandpa Stu in my apartment for a week had been wonderful. He'd helped me through a trying time that included a dead body and my professional reputation (don't ask). Unfortunately, that same visit had also marked the beginning of a budding affection between my once-smart grandfather and my perpetual thorn. He called her "Martha," his voice softening whenever he said it aloud.
Needless to say, I've had my share of nightmares since that visit. The worst, though, was the one in which my grandfather was sporting a hand-knit sweater identical to one worn by both Ms. Rapple and her dog.
I shook my head against the unsettling image and forced my thoughts back to the subject Carter was working valiantly to ignore.
"C'mon, Carter. What's the deal with Fiona?"
He let the curtain slip through his fingers, his body stiffening in response. "Okay, okay."
I scooted over on the sofa to make room as he dropped his wiry body down with a thud. "I told you we just started casting for Rapunzel, right?"
Carter stretched his feet out and propped them on my new-to-me coffee table. "I like this table by the way. Nice lines."
"Impressive topic shift, but it's not gonna fly." I bent my legs at the knee and pulled them under me, hugging a throw pillow to my chest. "So ... Ra-punzel?"
He stuck his tongue out at me and rolled his eyes. "Okay. So, of course, the Frankster wants the lead to go to his amazingly talented niece."
Did I sense a defrosting in Carter's opinion of his one-and-only nemesis?
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but did you just call Fiona amazingly talented?" I asked for clarification purposes.
"The boss's words, not mine. I'd choose something more, oh, I don't know — fitting. Like world-class troublemaker, evil's lone spawn, or irritant extraordinaire."
So much for defrosting.
"I take it you'd rather she didn't get the part?"
"This is Rapunzel, Sunshine. Fiona's hair barely touches her collar. And she won't even consider hair extensions." He stopped, inhaled sharply, and then threw his head back against the couch. "She wants to wear a wig."
The reason for Carter's unexpected tumble off the broccoli wagon was suddenly crystal clear. If anything, I was stunned it had stopped at Cocoa Puffs. This little development could have landed him at the checkout counter of Death by Chocolate on North Euclid.
"A wig? Does she not realize what you do?"
"Oh, she realizes it. She just gets her jollies out of pushing my buttons. Has since the day her precious uncle — aka my boss, aka the Frankster — introduced us. Probably because my greeting lacked a bow and the obligatory peck on her hand."
It's true. Carter is, hands down, the nicest, sweetest, most genuine guy I'd ever met. But he doesn't kiss up to anyone. Ever. He speaks with his heart twenty-four/seven and doesn't give a hoot who you are or what you do for a living.
"Are you going to let her use a wig? I mean, isn't the whole hair thing why you're there in the first place?"
He pulled his legs off the table and sat ramrod straight. "Exactly! And I was salivating at the idea of doing this show. Not just because there's a chance it could be our last show ever at the theater, but because it's Rapunzel, Sunshine! Think about it — the extensions, mixing up just the right shade of golden blond, creating soft curls that are the envy of all ... Oh my God, it was going to be so awesome."
It was hard not to notice the way his wistful tone morphed into anger as he continued, his voice growing deeper and more wooden with each subsequent word. "But now, I'm not sure I'll even make it past Monday morning, thanks to Princess Fiona."
I'd never seen Carter quite like this before. Sure, he was theatrical; it was part of his shtick. But there's a difference between being theatrical and being a drama queen, and Carter was suddenly blurring the line.
"C'mon, Carter. Just because she doesn't want you to do her hair doesn't mean you're going to lose your job. You know that." I tugged at a loose thread on my throw pillow and waited for him to come to his senses.
"You might've been right, Sunshine, if I hadn't let her bait me into a fight. With her uncle standing less than ten feet behind me."
"You didn't know he was there?" I asked, though why I'm not quite sure. The answer was obvious, wasn't it? Carter had, after all, resorted to chocolate.
"Nope. Not a clue. But Fiona did, I'm positive of that." Carter pushed off the sofa and wandered around my living room, stopping from time to time to look at a few framed photographs he'd seen a million times over the past two years.
"But you just disagreed with her on the hair stuff, right?"
Carter snickered. "Disagreed? Oh no. Let's just say I kinda unleashed the past six months of Fiona-inspired frustration. And once I started, I couldn't stop."
I gulped. "How bad did it get?"
"Depends on what you call bad." Carter stopped at my draft table and picked up a sheet of paper with colorful block letters across the top and rough sketches in a series of hand-drawn boxes along the bottom.
"Try me." I tossed the throw pillow onto Carter's empty spot and stood. I'd spent the better part of the day working on my campaign ideas for Pizza Adventure but wasn't necessarily ready to share them with anyone yet. Even Carter, my biggest fan of all.
"Well, let's see — I told her how sick I was of her temper tantrums during rehearsals, her constant screaming at the lighting guys, her Gestapo-like tactics when it comes to making sure no one even so much as thinks about eating something with peanuts anywhere in the building lest she break out in hives or whatever the hell happens to her, and, of course, her blatant hogging of the press anytime the theater actually gets show coverage these days."
My mouth dropped open.
"Wait." He held up his hand, crossing guard style. "Trust me, Sunshine. It gets better."
"There's more?" I asked.
Carter nodded. "I called her a spoiled brat with no chance in hell of ever making it as an actress."
Okay, so maybe the notion of a new job wasn't so drama-queenish after all.
What to say ... what to say ...
"Bad call, huh?" Carter cocked his head to the left and studied the paper that held hours of my brainstorming and subsequent doodling. "Say, this is cool. That's a kid dressed like Batman in that second box, isn't it?"
"Uh, yeah." I reached for the paper, but Carter pulled it away and read the words in the box aloud. "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, Pizza Cave!"
I looked around his shoulder and followed along as he came to the next box. "And now he's having his party in the cave with his buddies, right?" Carter asked, pointing.
I nodded. "So, what do you think?"
"I think it's awesome. They do parties for thirty-four-year-olds too?"
"Actually yeah. Though you might prefer their beach locale."
"Hey, I like pizza as much as the next guy, but I'm not driving to the coast to get some." Carter turned and leaned against my draft table, crossing his legs at the ankles.
"You don't have to drive to the coast." I nudged him to the side and pulled a photograph from the bulging envelope to the left of my shading pencils. I handed it to Carter, pointing at the large, warehouse-like space that would soon be known throughout the metropolitan St. Louis area as Pizza Adventure — You pick the place, we'll bring the pizza. A catchy little slogan if I must say so myself. "Dom and Gina Paletti have big plans for that space."
"This is the pizza place?" Carter crinkled his nose upward and nudged his chin in the direction of the picture. "Looks kind of industrial or something."
"It did. But look what they're doing with it." I reached for the envelope and extracted a mixture of hand-drawn sketches and actual rudimentary photographs I'd gotten with my point-and-shoot. "Here's the cave. And see? Those are the tables you eat at inside the cave."
Carter grabbed the picture from my hand and whistled under his breath. "This is amazing. Wow, wow, wow."
"Wait. It gets better." I handed him the next picture, one that depicted a Drive-in Movie room complete with tables inside car-like shells and a full-sized movie screen in front. "If you sit in this room, you can watch old cartoons like Bugs and Road Runner while you eat your pizza."
"Did you say Road Runner?"
I laughed and passed him the next photograph. "Now let's suppose you weren't a cartoon kind of guy. You could opt, instead, to eat on an island with thatched-roof tables, tropical birds, and bongo drums playing in the background."
He whistled again. "How many of these rooms are they going to have?"
"The plan is to have eight to start with. If it takes off as we think it will, they have room to add another four or five."
"Think they'll have a hairdresser room?" Carter handed me back the small stack of photographs and pushed away from the draft table. "I may be looking for employment sooner rather than later."
I hated seeing him so defeated, so unhappy. It was like the world had slipped off its axis and it was up to me to set things right. How to do that was anyone's guess, but I knew I had to try.
Excerpted from "30 Second Death"
Copyright © 2017 Laura Bradford.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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