USA Today-Bestselling Author: An irate customer and a business trip to Vegas turn a fashion-forward sleuth into a prime suspect for murder…Life is looking good for amateur sleuth/professional fashionista Haley Randolph. She's even close to getting her hands on the Delicious, the season's hottest purse--until she's hit with a curse from an irate customer at Holt's department store. When things start to go really wrong, Haley transfers to the new store near Las Vegas--and promptly finds the body of Courtney Collins, an old classmate, sprawled across the floor of the menswear department. Now Haley is suspect #1.
Everyone knows Haley was once jealous of Courtney, and Courtney was about to launch a spectacular line of designer bags. And, well, there weren't any witnesses when Haley actually found the body. Since she doesn't look good in prison stripes, Haley will have to get to the bottom of this mystery. Finding the killer won't be easy. . .and getting rid of this curse may mean going against everything a real fashionista stands for. . .
"Frothy. . . The well-crafted plot offers plenty of red herrings." --Publishers Weekly
"A laugh-out-loud wild ride for readers who hang on for the unexpected resolution." --RT Book Reviews
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Clutches and Curses
By DOROTHY HOWELL
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Dorothy Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter One"It's b.s.," Bella grumbled. "You ask me, it's b.s."
"Yeah ...," I said, flipping through People magazine. Bella sat across the table from me in the breakroom of the Holt's Department Store where we were both employed—notice, I didn't say worked. Around us, other employees came and went, clocking in or out, getting a snack from the vending machines or microwaving their dinner.
Bella had been on a rant since we'd sat down. Now, twenty minutes into our fifteen-minute break, she was still going strong. I'm not sure what she was talking about. I drifted off.
How could I not? I hadn't seen this week's People and I was way behind on my celeb news. Plus, it was their fashion issue and I absolutely had to know what was coming up for fall.
It wasn't just a simple need to know. It was way more than that.
I, Haley Randolph, with my print-worthy dark hair and my long pageant legs, had teamed with my very best friend in the entire universe, Marcie Hanover, and started a purse party business. In a matter of months, we'd gone from crazed, obsessive, twenty-something white girls to full-blown successful handbag businesswomen.
It helped that the brains behind our archrivals had been murdered—I mean that in the nicest way, of course.
Anyway, the purse party field was wide open now, and Marcie and I were taking full advantage. Marcie said we should keep our regular jobs—she's almost always right about things—so here I was still pulling down a whopping seven bucks an hour in a midrange department store with ungrateful customers, supervisors who insisted we actually work, and a clothing line that's greatest contribution to the fashion world would be making the "Don't" column in Glamour.
Of course, enriching the lives of deserving women through the sale of knockoff handbags and toiling away at one of L.A.'s least respected department store chains wasn't the sum total of my contribution to the world. I also attended college.
I'd cut-and-pasted my way to a B in my English class and pulled an A in health—thanks to the girl in front of me who never covered her paper—and finished up the spring semester in good shape, academically speaking.
I saw no need to overstimulate my brain by attending the summer session. Honestly, I didn't like college. There had to be a way to get a high-paying job where I could carry expensive purses and wear great clothes and make everybody do what I said, without slogging through semester after semester of school—and hopefully I wouldn't need a college education to figure it out.
"So, are you going?" Bella asked.
"Yeah ...," I said, turning another page.
"What?" Bella exclaimed.
I glanced up. Bella looked at me as if I had antennas coming out of my head and an anal probe in my hand.
Okay, so maybe I should have been paying attention.
"But it's b.s.!" Bella exclaimed.
The whites of her eyes shone in her dark face. Bella was black, tall, and probably close to my age, twenty-four. She worked at Holt's to save for beauty school. In the meantime, she practiced on her own hair.
I guessed she was experimenting with the celestial phase. Tonight she'd fashioned two spheres atop her head. It looked like a solar eclipse—or maybe a lunar eclipse. I don't know. I hadn't taken astronomy yet.
"What's b.s.?" Sandy asked, sitting down at the table with us.
I'd known Sandy since I started working here last fall. Like me, she was a sales clerk. We'd hit it off right away. Sandy was white, blond, and cute and had a boyfriend who routinely wiped his feet on her. She didn't seem to notice—that's how nice she was.
"That's what's b.s.," Bella declared and pointed to the bulletin board beside the refrigerator.
In foot-high red letters was a sign that read EMPLOYEE NOTICE, and an equally large red arrow pointing down to a typed memo.
Jeez, how had I missed that?
Maybe if they'd put stuff like that by the time clock I'd notice.
"Holt's is opening a new store in Henderson—that's right next to Las Vegas—and they're asking for experienced employees to work there for a few weeks to get the store set up," Sandy said. "I think it would be so cool to go there."
"I think it's b.s.," Bella told her.
"Holt's is paying for us to stay in a hotel," Sandy said.
"Some place off The Strip, I'll bet," Bella said. "What kind of trip is that? Sending us to Vegas but not letting us get close to the action?"
"Plus, they're paying us extra," Sandy said.
"How far do you think that little dab of money will go in Vegas?" Bella asked. "How are we going to see a show or eat at the buffet or gamble?"
"It's not a vacation," Sandy said.
Bella shook her head. "It's bs. That's what it is."
"Are you going?" I asked Sandy.
"I already talked to my boyfriend," she said. "He told me not to go. He said he might need me here. He says I'm his muse."
"He does tattoos," I said.
"It's art, Haley," Sandy said.
"The guy's a loser. He treats you like crap. You should dump him," I told her.
I give great advice. I should have my own talk show.
Sandy ignored my words of wisdom—what was up with that?—and asked, "What about you, Haley? Are you going?"
I was with Bella on this one. Staying off The Strip in some midrange hotel, eating at diners and working at Holt's—to say nothing of missing out on all the great shopping—was not my idea of a Vegas trip.
Before I could say anything, the breakroom door swung open and banged against the wall. Judging from the sour look on everyone's face, I figured that Rita, the cashiers' supervisor, was about to spoil everybody's day.
"Break time's over, princess," she barked.
I knew she was talking to me, though I didn't give her the satisfaction of turning to look at her. I already knew what she'd have on—stretch pants and a top with a farm animal on it—and that she'd be scowling.
Rita hated me. I hated her, too. Plus, I'd hated her first and then I'd double-hated her.
She'd jacked Marcie's and my purse party business idea and, thanks to her brainy partner, crushed us.
A few weeks ago, Rita had gone missing—long story—but she'd shown up again. Things hadn't turned out so well for her partner, so Rita was out of the purse party business.
I think she double-hates me back now.
"You're supposed to be serving Bolt." Rita stomped over to our table and pointed to the bulletin board. "Didn't you read the schedule? You're supposed to read the announcements."
I smiled up at her. "Why should I when I've got you as my P.A. to remind me?"
"Go out on the floor and relieve Grace," Rita barked, then stormed out of the breakroom.
The room emptied out—Rita had that effect on people—so I followed along with the crowd and found Grace in the children's department. Grace usually worked in the customer service booth, which was frequently my little corner of retail purgatory, too. Grace was young, went to college—she actually liked it, which was really weird—and always did the coolest things with her hair. Tonight it was spiked up and the tips were Martian green. She really pulled it off. Grace didn't like Holt's any better than I did, so, naturally, we were instant BFFs.
"What the ...?" I murmured when I spotted her.
Grace had on a bright yellow bibbed apron with a blue cursive H on the chest that matched the Holt's sign out front. A tray was strung around her neck by a strap. She looked like one of those cigarette girls you see in black-and-white photos who prowled the nightclubs back in the day. Except, instead of smokes, the tray held little paper cups of some kind of blood-red juice.
"Bolt. Holt's newest product," Grace said, pointing to the sign on the front of the tray showing a bottle of energy drink with a lightning bolt going through it. She set the tray aside and took off the apron. "We're giving out samples to customers. Didn't you see the memo?"
There was a memo?
"Just hand them out to customers and tell them they can buy a bottle at the checkout registers." Grace gave me a sympathetic smile. "Have fun!"
She walked away and I stared at the tray. Jeez, how much humiliation was I supposed to endure for minimum wage?
At least I didn't have to wear a hat.
I put on the apron and slung the tray around my neck. The juice sloshed around in the cups.
Oh well, I decided. This was better than actually waiting on customers. I headed down the main aisle toward the back of the store.
The first two customers I passed eyed my tray but I kept walking. Hey, if they wanted a sample, they would have said so, right?
As I passed the housewares department, I glimpsed a woman from the corner of my eye heading toward me. She had on khaki pants, a floral print shirt, and an I-need-help look on her face. I recognized it immediately and, thanks to many months of providing my own brand of customer service, kept my eyes forward, ignoring her with ease.
"Excuse me? Excuse me?" she called behind me.
I didn't inherit much from my mom. She was a beauty queen. Really. My one and only resemblance to her was my long legs, which made me an enviable five-foot-nine. Tall enough to be a model, had any of my mom's other genes not given up on me in the womb.
So I glided away from this customer as quickly and effortlessly as my mom had glided the moment she'd crossed the stage to claim her Miss California crown. And as she had when she'd accepted third runner-up in the Miss America pageant, still displaying grace, beauty, charm, and a fervent wish for world peace—even though she must have been disappointed enough to snap the heads off each and every judge, with no thought to sustaining cuticle damage.
"Excuse me," the customer called again. "Can you help me?"
She appeared next to me, panting and out of breath, forcing me to stop. She looked as if she could use a shot of Bolt, but I didn't offer it. Really, people should speak up if they want something, shouldn't they?
"I'm trying to find the—"
"I'm only here to distribute the drinks," I said.
I walked away.
Okay, so maybe handing out this Bolt stuff wouldn't be so bad.
I changed my mind a moment later when I saw Rita bearing down on me. She planted herself in front of me and glared at my tray.
"You haven't given out a single sample, have you?" she declared.
"Of course I have," I told her. "I gave out all of them and just refilled the tray."
Yeah, okay, that could have happened.
"Are you telling the customers where to find the bottles?" she demanded.
If I bothered to speak to a customer, I would tell them. Maybe.
"Are you telling them how much it costs?" she asked.
Jeez, how much was this stuff, anyway?
"And that they can charge it to their Holt's accounts?" Rita asked.
No way was I doing that.
"How about the nutritional facts?" Rita asked. "Are you telling them the nutritional information?"
There was nutritional info?
"Of course," I told her.
Rita narrowed her eyes at me, like she didn't believe me or something. Jeez, what nerve.
"Okay," she said, "so how much sugar is in a serving? How many carbs? How many calories?"
"Look, Rita, if you don't know this stuff, I'm not going to stand here and tell you. Read the brochure yourself," I told her and walked away.
At the end of the aisle I glanced back. Rita was gone. I ducked through the double doors near lingerie and into the stock room.
I love the stock room. Aisles and aisles of fresh new merchandise stacked on shelves up to the ceiling. The place is huge—two stories—with a mannequin farm, janitor's closet, returned-merchandise area, and receiving section where the big rigs backed in and the truck team unloaded boxes.
Since I worked evenings, it was almost always quiet back here. The trucks arrived during the day and the ad-set team didn't show up until after the store closed. As usual, tonight I had the place to myself.
In the domestics section of the stock room, I took off my tray of Bolt and pulled two Laura Ashley bed-in-a-bag sets off the shelf. I arranged them on the floor, then sat down.
Oh, yeah, I was liking this Bolt stuff more by the minute.
I settled back and got comfortable, then pulled my cell phone from my pocket. Holt's employees aren't supposed to have phones on the sales floor, but, oh well.
I saw that I had a text message from Marcie. I expected info from her about our next purse party, but instead she was asking me about my date tonight with Ty Cameron.
Ty had been my sort-of boyfriend for a long time, but since we'd finally done the deed, he was now my official boyfriend.
Not that much had changed about our relationship.
Ty was absolutely gorgeous. Tall, athletic build, light brown hair, terrific blue eyes. He's the fifth generation of his family to own and be totally and completely obsessed with running the Holt's Department Store chain—yes, the very same department store where I was sitting on Laura Ashley bed-in-a-bag sets, checking my texts while I was on the clock, and slaving away at minimum wage.
It's a long story.
Anyway, we've had our ups and downs—maybe a few more than other couples. Neither of us could explain our attraction to each other—though I wish Ty would put a little more effort into trying—but, for some reason, we're crazy about each other.
I guess it's a chemical thing.
A few weeks ago, Ty asked me to move in with him. I didn't give him an answer that day—he'd been in Europe for a while and we were busy doing the deed like rabbits—and he hadn't mentioned it again. Until yesterday. He'd asked me to go out for dinner tonight and said he wanted to talk about it.
I glanced down at the tray of Bolt drinks. The stuff didn't look so good, but I grabbed a cup and took a sip. Not bad. I chugged the rest.
In her text message, Marcie offered to come to my apartment tonight and help me pick out what to wear for the big are-we-moving-in-together date. I texted her back that, of course, I wanted her help.
I tossed down another Bolt.
A few minutes later my phone vibrated. Another message from Marcie, this one telling me what time she'd be there.
I took another shot of Bolt—jeez, this stuff wasn't half bad—and sent her a text asking for her thoughts on what I should wear.
While I waited, I knocked back another Bolt. Wow, this stuff tasted pretty good, after all.
Marcie messaged me, I drank another Bolt. I messaged Marcie again. I had another Bolt. We went back and forth, both of us suggesting outfits for me to wear. It had to be perfect. This was a big night.
Finally, Marcie texted that she had to go—she was at work and actually had to go do something for her boss, which was majorly inconvenient—so I put away my phone and shoved the bed-in-a-bag sets back onto the shelf.
One cup of Bolt remained on the tray. Jeez, how had that happened?
Well, no use carrying just one. I gulped it down and headed out onto the sales floor again.
As soon as I'd cleared the lingerie department, a customer popped up from behind a rack of bathrobes.
"You help me," she said.
The woman was old, sort of hunched over, with long black hair she'd tried—and failed—to put up in a bun. She had on a shapeless gray dress and about a dozen odd-looking necklaces. Her skin was dark and she had a funny accent, like she might be Eastern European. Romanian, maybe. I don't know. Is Romania still a country? I haven't taken geography yet.
She pointed to a rack of bathrobes. There was a creepy looking bump on the end of her finger.
"You help me. I need robe," she told me.
"I'm just here to serve the drink," I said and gestured to my tray.
"Drink? You serve drink in store?" she demanded.
She looked kind of squirrelly—not fun-at-a-party squirrelly, more like kill-you-in-your-sleep squirrelly.
I took a step back.
"I'll get you a drink," I said. "I'll be right back."
"No!" The woman waved her gnarled hand. "You American girls, you have everything. You give nothing! You're selfish, selfish, selfish!"
I had no idea what the heck she was talking about, but I wasn't going to hang around and find out—not for seven lousy dollars an hour.
Excerpted from Clutches and Curses by DOROTHY HOWELL Copyright © 2011 by Dorothy Howell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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