Normally the O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa in Blossom Valley, California, would welcome a little healthy competition. But it's no day at the spa when the rivalry with their chic opponent turns lethal. . .
Blossom Valley is abuzz with excitement over The Pampered Life, a brand new spa with a trendy menu of decadent services and employees who look like they jumped off the pages of a fashion magazineand Dana Lewis is worried it could ruin business. But when the swanky spa's owner is drowned in a mud bath, police suspect a healthy rivalry may have turned into deadly revenge. Now, with all eyes on the farm, Dana must sift through a tawdry list of suspects and catch a killer more fearsome than a botched chemical peel. . .
About the Author
Staci McLaughlin was a technical writer in Silicon Valley for eight years before becoming a freelance writer. She is currently a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of the LadyKillers, a group of thirteen writers who alternate posting daily blogs at www.theladykillers.typepad.com. Staci also blogs on her own website stacimclaughlin.com, where she offers more healthy-living tips to compliment those in her Blossom Valley mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
A Healthy Homicide
By Staci McLaughlin
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Staci McLaughlin
All rights reserved.
Esther O'Connell, owner of the O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa, burst through the kitchen door. Her gray curls were clinging to her forehead. Her plump cheeks were flushed. "We're ruined, Dana," she cried. She flopped into the nearest chair to catch her breath.
I felt a flutter of concern as I set the rooster-shaped mug I'd been hand drying on the counter. I hurried to where Esther sat, fanning herself. "What happened?"
"It's that new spa on Main Street. My friend Mary Beth stopped in the other day to see what all the fuss was about. She said it's fancier than beaded lace." Esther let her hand droop. "Who'll want to visit my ordinary old spa now?"
As the designated Jill-of-all-trades here at the farm, I knew it was time for some damage control. I pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. "People rave about your place. I know for a fact we've been booked all week."
The worry lines in her face only deepened. Esther was a fairly recent widow who had plowed her life savings into the place, and she constantly fussed about the financial status of the farm and spa. I couldn't say I blamed her. "They come here because we're the only spa in town," she said. "At least we were. Who's to say they won't switch to this new place?"
I rested a hand on her knee. "I say."
"Say what?" asked Zennia, the spa's creative and health-minded cook, as she walked in from the hall.
I hadn't heard Zennia approach in her Birkenstocks, but I immediately roped her into the conversation, knowing her serene demeanor would help. "Esther's worried about that new spa on Main Street."
Zennia didn't pause on her way to the refrigerator. She swung open the door and pulled out the lemonade pitcher. "People are always curious about a new business, but their loyalty will win out. Everyone loves Gretchen."
Twenty-four-year-old Gretchen Levitt, our newest employee, had started a few months back. Between her knot-melting massages and wrinkle-reducing facials, she'd quickly cemented her place at the spa.
"I hope you two are right," Esther said. "Seems like there's always something to worry about with this place." She rose from her chair and glanced down at her faded plaid shirt. "I'd better change. I have bunco in a bit." She trudged out of the kitchen, leaving Zennia and me alone.
I returned to the counter and picked up the dish towel before grabbing another mug from the rack. "Have you heard anything about the new place? It's called the Pampered Life, right?"
Zennia flicked her long black braid over her shoulder. The gray streaks were becoming more noticeable, but no way would Zennia dye her hair. Too many chemicals. "Right. I heard a woman from San Francisco moved up here to open it."
I set the dried mug on a cupboard shelf. "Well, I'm sure once the newness wears off, it won't impact Esther's place." Much, I added silently and mentally crossed my fingers. While customers seemed happy with our modest offerings, a full-scale spa that provided all the services we couldn't might draw people away. But I kept that thought to myself.
I finished drying the dishes and hung the towel on the oven door handle. "I'm going to run into town for my lunch break."
"We have plenty of leftover chickpea and seaweed salad, if you'd like some," Zennia offered. "It's chockfull of iron and magnesium."
"And the guests didn't gobble it all up?" I said in mock surprise. "I'm stunned."
Zennia gave me a knowing smile. "You'll come around one day."
"Today's not that day, I'm afraid. I have my mind set on a BLT." I licked my lips. "With extra mayonnaise."
Zennia clapped her hands over her ears. "Stop. Don't say such things."
Laughing, I headed down the hall to grab my purse from the desk drawer in the office. I spent most of my working hours here in the office, promoting the spa, although Esther occasionally asked me to serve meals, catch loose animals, and help with pretty much anything else that needed doing around the place.
I crossed the unoccupied lobby and pushed open the front door. A breeze tickled my skin, and the chatter of birds greeted me on the cool spring day. A flock of ducks drifted on the surface of the small pond near the front.
I walked to my aging Civic in the corner of the lot, climbed inside, and started it up. The engine had begun to make a funny squealing sound on colder days, but I'd decided to ignore it. Having just moved from my mom's house into a barely furnished apartment with my younger sister, Ashlee, I couldn't afford any additional expenses right now.
The drive down the highway was quick, and within five minutes, I was cruising the three blocks of businesses and restaurants that made up Blossom Valley's main strip. With the slumping economy the past few years, the downtown had experienced a considerable number of turnovers and vacancies, but I'd noticed a recent uptick in new businesses, and those that had managed to stay afloat during the downturn didn't look like they were closing their doors anytime soon.
Now I eyed the front of the Pampered Life as I passed by. If I hadn't known it used to be a hardware store, I'd have never guessed. The new owner had darkened all the windows, etching the words The Pampered Life in cursive script across the glass. A green-and-white-striped awning stretched across the front, and a redwood and wrought-iron park bench sat to one side of the door. A sandwich board on the sidewalk announced a Botox party next week, only ten dollars per filler. I reached up and felt the skin next to my mouth, wondering if twenty-nine was too young to worry about wrinkles. Still, even at ten dollars a pop, I wouldn't be getting Botox anytime soon. Or ever.
I drove to the next block and pulled into the Breaking Bread Diner lot. I parked between a dusty pickup truck and a motorcycle and walked inside. The stools that lined the counter were empty, and I settled on the closest one.
Betty, the waitress who normally took my order, was helping a customer at a nearby booth. She nodded in my direction. "Be with you in a minute, hon."
I nodded back and pulled my phone from my pocket to check for messages. I sent a quick text to Ashlee to see if she'd had a chance to pick up any toilet cleaner, and then I stuffed the phone back in my pocket. We were still working out chore duties, even resorting to a chart on the fridge. Ashlee's plan seemed to be to ignore the dirty dishes and grime-covered counters until I broke down and cleaned them myself. Sometimes her plan worked, much to my self-loathing.
Betty finished with the customer and made her way over to where I sat. "What can I get you today?" she asked.
"BLT and iced tea, please."
"Absolutely." An idea popped into my mind. "Say, make that to go. I have to run an errand right now."
"Sure thing. Give me ten minutes." She finished scribbling on her pad and stuck it in an apron pocket.
"I'll be back by then," I told her and slid off the stool. I pushed through the door and walked out onto the street, taking quick strides toward my intended target: the Pampered Life.
Now that Esther had told me how fabulous her friend thought the place was, I wanted to see it for myself. Surely it couldn't be that much better than ours. And if this spa was the greatest thing since laser-hair removal, then maybe I could collect ideas for Esther's place. While I loved our little spa, there was always room for improvement.
As I neared the building, I slowed to peer through the windows, but the tinted glass made it impossible to see inside. I pushed open the door and stepped in. Soothing piano music flowed from speakers mounted in the corners of the dimly lit space. The scent of jasmine reached my nose. In the corner, a small tranquility fountain burbled, the large marble ball in the middle spinning merrily. Three overstuffed recliners filled the small lobby area, along with several potted ferns. Photos of woods and meadows lined the walls. I was about to take my phone from my pocket to sneak some pictures when an ultrathin girl stepped through the archway at the back of the lobby and moved behind the counter.
"Welcome to the Pampered Life," she said. Her rose-red lips shone brightly against her pale skin. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No," I said, my voice sounding unnaturally loud compared to her soft lilt. "I noticed you opened recently, and wanted to stop by." I approached the counter, noting all the lotions and bath salts for sale on the shelves behind her, then looked down at the counter. "Oh, good. A brochure." I picked one up from the stack and flipped it open, eager to see what they offered.
The prices next to the list of services immediately drew my attention, and I stifled a gasp. They were charging twice what Esther charged for the thirty-minute massages, and even more for their facials. This place would make a killing if they could line up enough clients. My mind churned as I thought up promotional deals to keep our own customers from straying. We already offered a lunch and spa treatment package, but we might need to implement a loyalty rewards program or a bring-a-friend discount until the excitement over this new place waned.
I was only halfway through the list of offerings when the girl started talking again. "We have a wide range of services here," she said. "We do all types of massage, including Swedish and deep tissue, plus facials."
Everything we offered at Esther's place. I felt myself relax a notch.
The girl picked up a pencil and tapped it in time with her words. "Then, we've got the extras, like mud baths, Brazilian waxes, Botox injections ..."
My muscles tensed again. So this place wasn't exactly like Esther's. At least the farm had animals, a unique plus. The guests always commented on how much they enjoyed our ducks, pigs, and chickens. "Sounds like you've got everything I could ever need," I interrupted as she rattled off more items.
The pencil tapping stopped, and she nodded excitedly. "Yes, and we offer payment plans. The last thing you want to stress about is how to pay to relax."
"An excellent point," I said. Could we afford to institute payment plans at Esther's? I might have to run the idea past her.
"Hey, let me tell you about our wrap treatment. You start with an all-over body exfoliation—"
The girl broke off her explanation as a woman in her midforties entered from the back. With her perfect posture and tall, willowy frame, she was the type who could make yoga pants and a T-shirt look like formal business attire.
She appraised me for a moment and then turned toward the girl. "Jessica, do you know what we have here?"
Jessica shook her head, her eyes wide in anticipation.
The woman raised her hand and pointed her index finger at me. "A spy. She's a spy."
How did she know? I gulped as a wave of heat washed over me. I was in some deep seaweed.CHAPTER 2
I crossed my arms and tried to appear fierce under the woman's watchful gaze. "I'm no spy."
She pointed at my shirt. "Sure you are. It says so right there."
I looked down and sighed. Gordon, the spa's business-minded manager, had recently insisted on adding O'CONNELL ORGANIC FARM AND SPA to our work shirts, figuring it would be free advertising when we went into town for lunch or to run errands. I kept forgetting that everyone now knew where I worked simply by looking at my clothes. I offered a sheepish smile. "I forgot about that."
She grinned back, her smile instantly putting me at ease. "Don't worry. I'm only giving you a hard time."
She crossed the room and held out her hand. "I'm Carla Fitzpatrick, the owner."
I shook her hand. "Dana Lewis. I was grabbing lunch down the street and couldn't resist stopping by. How long have you been open?"
"About two weeks. Long enough to work out most of the new business kinks, although I'm still learning." She checked her watch. "Would you like a tour? I'm so excited my place is finally open that every time someone new comes in, I drag them around to look at everything."
I thought about my BLT, but the diner was notoriously slow with take-out orders. I had time. Still, I put a finger to my lips and tapped them while pretending to consider her offer. "Hmm, I don't know. Wouldn't I be fraternizing with the enemy?"
"We'll call a truce for today." She hooked her arm with mine, and together, we walked toward the archway like two pals on an afternoon stroll.
Jessica held out a slip of paper as we went by. "Erin called a while ago. She sounded upset."
"I'll deal with her later." Carla took the slip of paper and folded it in half without reading it. "My niece," she said to me.
On the other side of the arch, a long hallway stretched before us, with a door at the other end marked EXIT. A series of additional doors, some open, lined each side. Carla stopped partway down the hall, at the first open door. "Our nail station," she announced quietly.
I surveyed the room. Three chairs and three small tables with manicure and pedicure equipment and stools occupied the space. An older woman with a gray perm sat at one table while a young woman in a smock worked on her nails. The room smelled like chocolate, and I glanced around for the source of the aroma. If it was some type of air freshener plug-in, I wanted one for my apartment.
After a moment, Carla and I crossed the hall, where she showed me the waxing room. The room was tastefully furnished and pleasant enough, with a blanket draped over the table and a soft-looking pillow on top, but I still viewed it as some kind of torture chamber. I knew what went on in here. I hustled down the hall as Carla entered the last room on the right.
"This is my favorite room," she said over her shoulder. She switched on the light.
I blinked against the glare and looked around. The entire room was tiled, except for two large troughs in the back. What I assumed was mud filled both, the dark brown goo shimmering under the lights. With the extra warmth of the room and the soft saxophone music in the background, I could easily see myself sinking into that glop for a relaxing soak.
Carla watched me, her face full of pride. "Everyone who calls for an appointment wants to know about the mud baths. I use a secret blend of volcanic ash, mineral water, and peat moss. I think this room will be very popular."
I felt a tendril of worry worm its way through my gut. After seeing Carla's spa, with all its modern services and its comfortable atmosphere, the tent that we'd erected at the back of Esther's farm seemed downright amateurish in comparison. We didn't even have solid walls, for crying out loud. Maybe Esther was right to feel threatened.
"Well, now you've seen my place," Carla said.
"It's fantastic. You'll be a huge hit." But I wouldn't be telling Esther that. I stepped out of the room, and Carla turned off the light. I led the way down the hall, Carla following behind. When we got to the front of the spa, I turned around. "We should have lunch sometime. We could compare notes on the spa business." Even though we were direct competitors, Carla seemed like someone I'd like to hang out with.
"Great idea. Let me give you my card." She stepped behind the counter and extracted a business card from a shelf underneath. I tore a blank page off a pad of paper that sat near the phone and jotted down my number.
We traded, and I stuck the business card in the back pocket of my khakis, along with the brochure I still carried. I nodded to both Carla and Jessica, who gave me a wave and a smile, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The air outside the spa felt especially cool on my skin compared to the warmth of the mud room. I hurried back to the diner, worried that my BLT would be ice cold after all this time, but Betty was only now wrapping up my sandwich. She stuffed it into a paper bag with a napkin and set it on the counter with my drink before ringing me up at the nearby register. I paid for the food and trotted to my car, eager to eat my lunch before the hour was up.
Back at the farm, I followed the path along the vegetable garden, turned at the row of guest cabins, and crossed the patio area to the back door. The kitchen was empty, and I sat down at the oak table, pulling my sandwich out of the bag. The bacon was still warm, and I was savoring the salty crunch of the first bite when Gretchen walked in. She must have been in between spa clients.
Excerpted from A Healthy Homicide by Staci McLaughlin. Copyright © 2015 Staci McLaughlin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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