Fabric shop owner Polyester Monroe is back in business—this time getting wrapped up in a diabolical but crafty case of murder.
With opening day of Material Girl approaching, Poly is stocking up on lush fabrics, colorful notions, and best of all, a proprietary weave of velvet. But upon delivery, it’s not quite the blend she expected, being ninety-percent silk and ten-percent corpse. Crushed under a dozen bolts of fabric is Phil Girard. His wife, Genevieve, local tea shop owner and close friend of Poly, is the prime suspect.
Granted, Phil may not have been the perfect husband, but surely Genevieve had no reason to kill him! There’s just the small matter of Genevieve’s own incriminating confession: I’m afraid I killed my husband. Now, as Material Girl’s grand opening looms, Poly is torn between a friendship pulling apart at the seams—and finding a smooth killer with a velvet touch…
INCLUDES A CRAFT PROJECT
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The crash was louder than I expected.
Two men stood on the top rung of their respective stepladders on either side of the Land of a Thousand Fabrics sign, or rather, where the sign had been ten minutes ago. The man on the right had lost his grip on the L in Land, and it fell to the sidewalk in front of the store, cracking the concrete. The effects of weather and time, a decade since the store had closed for business but almost half a century since the store had first opened, had rusted the cursive iron letters in the logo. Bird poop and leaves were almost indistinguishable from the decorative font, and one of the metal posts that anchored the massive sign to the storefront had broken sometime in the past week. Since then, Thousand had hung in a diagonal slope downward. The men on the ladders were hired to remove the rest of the anchors so the sign could be replaced with my new sign, Material Girl, before I opened for business in six days. They’d rescheduled the job twice, and now I had less than a week before the registers were scheduled to ring.
It was eleven thirty on a Monday morning. The first time I’d scheduled this job had been on a Monday, too, because I knew most people would be at work, and the handful of hair salons on the street would be closed. I’d alerted the businesses on either side of me: Tiki Tom, who sold Polynesian ephemera to my left, and the Garden sisters, Lilly and Violet, who ran an antiques shop called Flowers in the Attic to my right. They’d both agreed to close for the day. The construction crew canceled at the last minute, leaving my neighboring stores out of a day’s business. I made it up to each of them with ten yards of a fabric of their choice. You work with what you have.
Two weeks later, an unexpected February downpour kept the crew from showing up for the job, which meant it was today or nothing. I didn’t love that a sidewalk of tourists and nosy neighbors had a front-row seat to my sign troubles, but the small town of San Ladrón had codes and zoning regulations, and a job like this had to happen Monday through Friday between the hours of ten and four. If it wasn’t today, I wouldn’t have a proper sign when I opened on Sunday.
“Polyester Monroe?” said a voice to my left. I turned to see a man in a red plaid shirt, faded jeans, and a yellow construction hat. He held a clipboard under one arm. His phone was Velcroed onto his belt below a generous belly. “Zat you?”
“Yes, I’m Polyester Monroe,” I said. “But call me Poly.”
“Is your legal name Polyester?”
“Then that’s what I need you to sign. Here, here, and here.” He pushed the clipboard in front of me and tapped the paper three times with the end of the pen.
I scanned page one of the documents. “I already signed the contract for the sign removal and a few notices from the city. What is this for?”
“Release form for the contractors. If anyone is hurt in the course of the job, you’re responsible. If any property is damaged in the course of the job, you’re responsible. If any—”
I pushed the clipboard back at him. “I applied for a petition through the city council. I have all the forms I need. They recommended you for the job because you have experience with this sort of thing.”
“Still gotta sign the release,” he said.
“And you still have to finish the job. The store opens on Sunday. I need a sign.”
“Lady, this is San Ladrón, not Times Square. You turn on your lights, you open the front door, and you hang out a shingle. If people want what you’re selling, they’ll come in and buy it.”
I took the clipboard, signed my full legal name by the Xs, and wrote the date after my signatures. “You should have had me sign it before you let it crash to the ground,” I said, and pushed the clipboard back at him.
The rest of the construction workers were scattered around, moving large chunks of concrete that had broken loose when the large iron Land had hit the sidewalk. My attempt to make the fabric store look new again, to make it more of a shining star than a sore thumb on Bonita Avenue, wasn’t exactly going according to plan. Tiki Tom and the Garden sisters were already conspiring against me. I had decided to placate them both with gourmet tea baskets from my friend Genevieve’s tea shop, who was heading this way now.
“You look like you could use a pick-me-up,” Genevieve said after handing over two of the three baskets she held.
Genevieve Girard was the owner of the small, French-themed tea shop called Tea Totalers. It was about two blocks east of my fabric store. I’d befriended her a few months ago when I first inherited the store. She and her husband, Phil, had met at the World Tea Expo, and after a typical courtship that involved flowers, candy, and twenty pounds added to her curvy frame, they married and set up shop in San Ladrón, Phil’s hometown. They plunked their savings into the tea store, but a poor economy kept them from making it the joint project they’d hoped. He went back to driving a taxi and occasionally picking up delivery jobs and she ran the store. A nice patchwork résumé, the new reality for the small business owner.
“Genevieve, you have no idea how happy I am to see you.”
She set the picnic basket on a public bench and flipped the wooden handles open. When she lifted the lid, the scent of buttermilk biscuits and mulled cider filled the air. Mugs, saucers, flatware, and napkins were attached to the inside lid of the picnic basket by elastic loops that had been sewn to the red-and-white checkered interior. She removed a mug and saucer, filled the mug with cider, and handed it to me. I took a sip, savoring the rich apple-and-clove flavor.
“This is heavenly,” I said.
“Try the biscuit. It’s a new recipe: I added pureed loquats to the batter.”
I took a bite. The flavors of loquats and cranberries complemented each other perfectly. “You’re a genius,” I said.
“Can you take out an ad in the San Ladrón Times and tell people that? I could use the endorsement.”
“Business is still slow?” I was mildly surprised. “I thought it picked up after you started promoting your proprietary blends of tea.”
“The only person who’s responded to those ads is a food distributor who wants me to sell out to the big grocery stores, and that’s not what I want for Tea Totalers. I need to get people to the store. Right now I have about five regulars—not that I’m complaining, so don’t you even think about not showing up tomorrow!—and a handful of walk-ins a week. It’s barely enough to pay the bills, let alone buy the supplies I need.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw two men standing on scaffolding that had been suspended from the roof of the fabric store. They looped thick ropes around the iron letters of the parts of the sign that hadn’t crashed to the sidewalk and slowly lowered the word Thousand to the ground. When I turned to watch what happened next, I saw another group of men move the iron word to the back of their truck, where they’d put Land. It was after twelve now, and there was one word left. I’d specifically asked that they take Fabric down last in case there were any snafus. Better branding than of or a. Now they could remove the iron bolts that jutted out from the façade and mount the sign I’d designed during the nights when I was too excited about the prospects of opening the store to sleep.
I did a quick calculation. At the rate the construction crew was working, they’d be at it for hours. Removal of the sign was one thing, but removal of the scaffolding was another.
“Wait here,” I said to Genevieve. I walked over to the foreman.
He held up his hand palm side out. “Hard hat,” he said, and pointed to a yellow helmet resting on the back of the truck.
I tucked the front of my auburn hair, cut in a style made famous by Victoria Beckham a few years ago, behind my ear and set the half-lemon-shaped hat on top of my head. The hat was bigger than my head and almost covered my eyes. I tipped it back so I could see. The foreman waved me forward.
“How long do you think you’re going to be?” I asked.
“This is an all-day job.”
“How can that be? The words are down, and that had to be the hardest part.”
“We gotta finish removing the iron. Then we gotta get your new sign in place and run the electrical. Then we gotta test everything. Then—”
“So, what does that mean? Three? Four?”
“At least. We go into overtime at five.”
“Zoning laws say you have to be done by four.”
“Then we’re going to need to pick back up tomorrow.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Not. Acceptable. This is a one-day job. You said so when you gave me the quote. You canceled on me twice.”
“Once. Couldn’t do much about the rain, lady.”
“You started at ten. You will finish at four. And by finish, I mean finish. Gone. Cleaned up. Out of here.”
“Those wall mounts are pretty rusted through,” he said. He pulled his hat off and rubbed the back of his arm across his forehead.
“Good. That means instead of trying to save them, you can save time by just cutting them off.”
He looked at the picnic basket behind me. “We could work a lot faster if we had food.”
“Don’t worry about food. I’ll take care of that. But this job? Done by four.”
He scratched his head and pulled his hard hat back on. “Deal.” He turned around and yelled to the workers. “Hey! Pick up the pace! We’re on a timetable.”
Genevieve was halfway through her third biscuit when I returned to the bench. “Can you do lunch for”—I twisted around and counted the various colors of flannel—“nine men on short notice? I’ll pay menu prices.”
“Poly, I can’t let you be my savior. You’re putting all of your money into the store.”
“Let me worry about my money. You worry about lunch for nine.”
“Fine. Lunch for nine. Can you drive to the store in half an hour? Phil took the truck to LA to pick up your fabrics.”
“See, you guys are my savior, too.”
When the lease had come due on their Saab, Genevieve had convinced her husband to turn it in and invest in a van they could use for deliveries. She’d had the logo for her tea shop painted on the side and hoped it would help raise her shop’s profile. As it turned out, most delivery orders could be handled by bike and the van spent more time sitting behind the shop than cruising the streets of San Ladrón. Ever pragmatic, Phil still took the occasional moving and delivery jobs in the greater Los Angeles area to justify the price of the vehicle.
When I’d first decided to reopen the fabric store, my parents had helped me sort through the bolts of fabric that had been in the store for decades. My uncle Marius had closed the store ten years ago, but left the interior intact. A surprising amount of fabrics were still in sellable condition. I hoped to one day be able to take the kind of trips that Uncle Marius and Aunt Millie had taken—Thailand for silk, France for lace, Scotland for cashmere—but until I established a cash flow, I had to do what I could on a shoestring budget. I sorted through the old inventory and then contacted many of the dealers in New York and New Jersey, spending hours selecting whimsical cotton prints, Pendleton wools, and a glorious spectrum of silk de chine. I offered to buy any bolts they had with less than five yards if they’d make a deal on the price and a few of them did. A few of them remembered my aunt and uncle and deepened my discount when I told them I was reopening the store. It was a start.
Still, I needed a hook, something to make people come to me. After two weeks of stopping by Tea Totalers every morning for a cup of Genevieve’s proprietary blend of tea, I got my idea. A proprietary blend of fabric.
It was no coincidence that I owned a fabric store and my name was Polyester. The store had been in my family for generations and I’d been born inside on a bed of polyester. Growing up, I’d been teased on a regular basis and often wished I’d been born on a less controversial fabric. Was there a person alive who didn’t think of the seventies when they heard the word polyester? Still, it was what it was. Instead of fighting my name, I decided to use it for a PR opportunity. I reached out to all of my contacts and finally found a mill willing to weave a custom blend of velvet using ninety percent silk and ten percent polyester.
I had experience working with blended fabrics in my former job at To The Nines, a somewhat sleazy dress shop in downtown Los Angeles, and I knew that ten percent of a synthetic woven into a fabric could change the drape and wearability of the cloth without dramatically altering the appearance. Fabrics that were woven with a synthetic blend resisted wrinkles and held color better than their pure counterparts. My former boss liked to use mostly synthetic fabrics that came cheap (and sometimes defective). Having grown up around the best fabrics in the world when Land of a Thousand Fabrics was in its prime, I’d always wanted to work with top-quality weaves. This was my opportunity.
My custom velvet had arrived at a distributor in Los Angeles late on Friday afternoon. The warehouse was closed for the weekend. Genevieve had mentioned that her husband was going to Los Angeles for supplies for Tea Totalers today and I’d arranged for him to pick up the fabric. It was a win-win.
Even though the store was locked up tighter than a drum, I had a few misgivings over leaving the crew to pick up lunch. The foreman saw me watching them and gave me a thumbs-up. I smiled a thin smile and walked around the back of the store to my yellow VW Bug. Five minutes later I was parked in front of Tea Totalers.
The tea shop was actually a small house that sat away from the street. A narrow sidewalk led to the front door. Small white iron tables and chairs with mismatched, faded cushions were scattered around the front interior. Inside, Genevieve had hung checkered curtains on the windows and tacked a few French posters featuring roosters and chickens on the walls.
Genevieve was a self-professed Francophile, and her shop was a testament to her love of the country. I’d secretly been working on a makeover for her store, including curtains, cushions, aprons, placemats, napkins, and tablecloths from linen toile, gingham check, and other French fabrics. I even found a bolt of place-printed cotton canvas, too heavy to use for apparel, with images of roosters on it. I planned to stretch the images over wooden frames and suggest she hang them like art. I couldn’t wait to surprise her with the concept, but I wanted to get it all together before it was done, and I wanted to find a way to use the new velvet in the design.
Genevieve was stacking sandwiches wrapped in parchment paper, sealed with stickers that featured the Eiffel tower on them, into a wooden crate.
“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t go fancy. I’m low on a couple of supplies. Jambon sandwiches with brie and Dijon mustard on croissants, with a side of pommes frites. Is that okay?”
“That’s not fancy?” I asked with a smile to my voice. “I think it’ll do. What time is Phil expected back?”
“Hopefully soon. He left yesterday so he could avoid traffic and be at the suppliers first thing this morning.”
We loaded jugs of iced tea into a separate crate and packed them into the backseat of my Bug. I returned to the store and parked out front so we could unload. Two men lowered the scaffolding, and sign removal ceased while a line formed by Genevieve. I stood behind, assessing the work that was left. In the background, a white van turned the corner. It pulled up to the curb behind the flatbed. The logo on the side of the truck, a white rectangle that covered the area to the left of the passenger side door, said Special Delivery. Underneath it said Have We Got A Package For You! Call Us 24 Hours A Day.
The driver of the van cut the engine and got out. “Is there a Polyester Monroe around here?” he asked.
“I’m Polyester,” I said.
“Rick Penwald. Have I got a package for you. A bunch of fabrics?”
Genevieve approached the van. “My husband was supposed to pick up her fabrics. Where’s Phil?” She looked at the logo on the side of the vehicle. “Where’s his van?”
“This is his van. He called this morning, made arrangements for me to come get it and make the delivery for him. He said he had some business in Los Angeles and wasn’t coming back right away.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Genevieve said. “Phil’s a deliveryman. Why would he hire you to make his delivery?”
“Not sure.” Rick pulled his black mesh hat off his head and wiped his forehead with his palm. “He probably wanted to surprise you with something.”
He held out a clipboard with sheets of paper attached and handed me a pen. “Sign by the Xs.”
I glanced at the form and then back at Rick. “I already paid for the fabric and I paid Phil for the delivery up front.”
“If I make a delivery, I have to have proof I made the delivery. This is proof of delivery. The form’s in triplicate. You sign the top one and take the pink copy in the middle. Press hard.”
The top copy was white, the middle pink, and the bottom yellow. Along the upper left side, a white sticker with the logo, website, and phone number for Special Delivery had been affixed to each copy. Across the center of the page, written in ball-point pen in surprisingly neat printing that tipped slightly backward, it said “12 rolls velvet. Prepaid. Signature for delivery confirmation only.” I zeroed out the totals field and signed my name at the bottom. I tore the pink page from between the white and yellow and set the clipboard inside the open window on the passenger-side seat.
I folded the paper up small enough to fit into my pocket and followed Rick around to the back of the van. He flipped through a ring of keys and tried three in the padlock before he found one that worked. He took the lock off and hooked it on one of the belt loops of his jeans, and then flung the back doors open.
Sunlight hit twelve large rolls of multicolored velvet, propped along the left hand side of the van. On the right were crates of vegetables, spices, and dry goods.
“Where you want it?” he asked.
“Inside the store,” I said. I unlocked the hinged metal gate in the front of the fabric store and propped the entrance open with a small black vintage sewing machine I used as a doorstop. Behind us, the colorful flannel army of construction workers sat alongside the building watching. Nobody volunteered to help. Rick grabbed a roll of velvet by the end and yanked on it, then positioned it over his shoulder and carried it inside the store. Behind him, Genevieve screamed. I ran to the back of the van and looked inside.
Jutting out from under the bolts of fabric was an arm.
I scrambled inside the van and rolled the fabric out of their stacked lumber formation to the side of the van with the dry goods. The arm belonged to a body that had been crushed under my new inventory.
And the body belonged to Genevieve’s husband, Phil.
Phil’s eyes were closed and his face was an odd shade of green. By his head, an empty jug with the Tea Totalers logo rolled into the crate of dry goods. Crumbs and flakes from some sort of pastry were scattered around his outstretched hand next to unused white plastic zip ties. I checked his carotid artery for a pulse but found none. “Somebody call nine-one-one,” I called to the construction crew behind me. The foreman grabbed his phone from his belt and made the call.
Genevieve cried out again. Rick ran out of the store and put his arms around her from the back and held her still. She fought against his embrace until she went limp from exhaustion. He let her go but kept his hands on her upper arms, as if to keep her grounded. He guided her to the bench, where she collapsed.
I remained in the van with the body. Even though I silently urged the paramedics to hurry up and get there, I was sure Phil was already dead. Minutes later I heard the sound of sirens growing louder until they were deafening. Strong hands landed on my shoulders and pulled me out of the van. Men and women in navy blue jackets and pants took my place. I stood on the sidewalk by the crack where my sign had landed earlier that morning and waited with Genevieve. Neither of us spoke.
Phil’s body was taken from the van by gurney. It was covered with a dull blue-gray blanket made of thick felted wool that would have itched if Phil could feel it. His body was moved to the back of the waiting ambulance. Doors were shut and the ambulance drove away. The lack of lights told me one thing. There was no reviving Phil Girard.
I looked back at the bench where Genevieve sat with Rick. Her hands were over her face and her body was slumped down. My heart went out to her. She’d moved to San Ladrón because Phil had family here, and her life was rooted in the life he had already made for himself. Without him, she was an outsider like me. Did whoever killed Phil know they’d created a widow in the process?
A black-and-white police cruiser pulled into the space that the ambulance had vacated. Deputy Sheriff Clark, San Ladrón’s resident police officer, who manned the mobile sheriff’s unit, spoke to a few of the construction workers who remained behind, eating their sandwiches. The foreman looked at me and said something to the deputy sheriff, who looked at me, too. He said something to the foreman and shook his hand. He turned to Rick. They turned their backs to me and shared a few words. They parted ways, with Rick moving to the side of the scene by the construction crew, and Sheriff Clark walking toward me.
I’d met Deputy Sheriff Clark a few months ago when a murder behind the fabric store raised questions we both wanted to answer. When the truth came out, I accepted that he had been searching for the same information I’d sought. Deputy Sheriff Clark was here to do a job, and I respected that.
“Ms. Monroe,” he said.
“Deputy Sheriff Clark,” I said back.
“What can you tell me about the man in the truck?”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” He nodded once. “He’s Phil Girard, Genevieve’s husband. He went to Los Angeles last night to pick up some fabric for me.”
“What kind of fabric?”
“I ordered twelve rolls of a special weave of velvet, and they arrived on Friday. The warehouse was closed over the weekend. I knew Phil and Genevieve could use the money, so I hired Phil to pick it up for me.”
“What makes you think they could use the money?”
“Genevieve is my friend and she told me,” I said. “It’s not common knowledge,” I added.
“Did you pay his expenses?”
“What expenses? I hired him to pick up my fabric and drive back. His van is electric, so there’s no gas expense. Besides, I don’t think deliverymen expect you to pay for their gas.”
“I’m talking about his overnight stay.”
“No, he must have arranged that himself. Genevieve said he left yesterday so he could pick up dry goods for her first thing this morning, get my fabric, and get back before rush hour.”
“So he was already going to Los Angeles to pick up supplies for her store?”
“I guess so.”
“But you hired him anyway because they needed the money.”
“Sheriff, don’t make this into something it isn’t. If I were to hire a delivery service to drive to Los Angeles and drive back, it’s entirely possible they’d be couriering something for someone else, too. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re picking up something for me. It’s not like sharing a cab.”
“Ms. Monroe, I appreciate your loyalty to your friend. I’m trying to establish a time frame for where this man has been. Is Mrs. Girard here?”
“Yes, she’s by the food,” I said. I turned around, but Genevieve wasn’t there. “She was here a second ago. Maybe she went inside to sit down?”
Clark followed me inside the fabric store, past the velvet that Rick had left there before we discovered Phil’s body. I was in the process of figuring out how I wanted to lay out the interior for the best possible shopping experience. The walls were lined with white wooden shelving, stacked full of silk, taffeta, satin, moiré, and other luxury fabrics. The center of the store was filled with large bins, about five feet square, piled high with their own colorful assortments: brightly printed jersey, polyester, cotton, gingham, calico. I’d been lugging the fabrics in poor condition to the back door of the store so I could toss them in the Dumpster out back, but so far hadn’t been able to bring myself to do it. Who knows, I reasoned, maybe once I peel off the first couple of yards, I’ll find that I can do something with what’s left.
When I didn’t see Genevieve immediately, I called out for her. She didn’t answer.
“I don’t know where she went.” I said.
“She left?” asked Clark.
I turned around and found him standing by the velvet.
“I said I don’t know where she went. Maybe the bathroom. With all due respect, Sheriff, she just saw her husband’s dead body. She probably didn’t take it very well.”
“Is this the fabric from Los Angeles?” he asked. He used the end of a pen to tap it.
“You said twelve bolts. Where are the rest?”
“The others are probably still in the van out front. As soon as I saw the arm jutting out from under the bolts, we stopped unloading.”
Clark poked his head out the front door and beckoned someone over. “Tag this fabric and take it to the unit.”
“Ms. Monroe, you know how this works. Until you hear otherwise, this fabric is evidence. Did anything else come out from inside the truck?”
“If you hear from Mrs. Girard before I do, tell her to call me.” He headed outside to the truck and I followed him. He walked to the back doors and used his iPhone to snap pictures of the interior. I turned off the sound on my phone and did the same. He turned around, and, too late, I shoved my phone into the pocket of my sweatshirt.
“Ms. Monroe, what are you doing?”
I went with the truth. “I’m taking pictures of my fabric. I already paid for it. I know you have to take it, but I want proof of what I’m owed.”
He studied me for a moment, then, as if satisfied with my answer, nodded. “In light of circumstances, I’m going to have to ask you to reschedule the balance of your work on the exterior of the store.”
“But it’s been rescheduled twice already!”
“That isn’t a request.”
I found the foreman and explained the situation. He communicated to his crew, who finished their sandwiches and then packed up their tools. Sheriff Clark spoke to Rick by the driver’s side of the van. I tried to listen in to their conversation, but the sound of the construction crew loading up their truck with cones and hard hats drowned them out. Rick climbed into the van and pulled it away from the curb.
“Where’s he taking the van?” I asked Clark.
“The police station. Like I said about your fabric, until we figure out what happened here, it’s evidence.”
The men in flannel piled into the back of the flatbed and the foreman drove it away, leaving me alone with the store, the scaffolding, and a mess of parchment paper and empty tea containers. Clark’s men carried the remaining roll of velvet out of the store. After I cleaned up the street, I went inside. I locked the front door behind me and climbed the stairs to the small Victorian apartment over the store.
I was met at the door by Pins, a small gray striped kitten I’d adopted after he and his brother were found in the Dumpster behind my store. He was about six months old and had grown out of his kitten appearance and into that of a frisky kitty. He maintained his playfulness, much like Needles, his orange tabby brother. I scooped Pins up, kissed him on his head, and carried him to the kitchen. He wriggled out of my arms and jumped onto the counter, onto a chair, and down onto the floor, where he buried his nose in his bowl. Needles scampered into the kitchen and joined him.
I fished my phone out of my pocket and called Genevieve. “It’s Poly.” I paused for a second and thought about what kind of a message to leave. “Call me back as soon as you can.”
I poured a cold glass of lemonade and sank into a chair by the table. Phil’s body in the back of the van sickened me to the point that I couldn’t think about anything else. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced a murder since coming to San Ladrón. I’d learned how the small town treated its residents and its outsiders. It was one of the reasons Genevieve had become friendly to me in the first place.
I’d met Phil Girard on a few occasions, but I’d never gotten to know him other than through Genevieve. I had gotten the feeling that Genevieve would have been happier to have him with her in San Ladrón than constantly on the road. The rare times I’d seen him at her tea shop, he’d been less friendly than tolerant. I’d tried to overcompensate with my own level of friendliness, but we’d never warmed to each other. Truth was, I didn’t think he deserved Genevieve.
Phil had been Genevieve’s ticket to acceptance in local circles. So what did that mean for her now? Was she enough of a part of San Ladrón’s community to be accepted on her own, or was she an outsider like me?
I also knew her financial troubles were worse than she’d let on, and now—well, I didn’t know what would happen now. I wanted to tell her that I would help her however I could. Friends need friends in hard times, I knew that. It was harder to go through something like this alone than with people to lean on. I had been lucky. Not only had I found a friend in Genevieve, but I had my parents to lean on, too.
I thought about what my dad had said when I first told him I wanted to reopen the store. Land of a Thousand Fabrics is a thing of the past. The world has changed since the store’s heyday. It won’t ever be the same. I knew he was right, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make it something new.
In the weeks after inheriting the store, I wrote up a business plan, applied for a loan, and moved into the apartment upstairs. My parents gave up their nights and weekends and helped me get the interior into shape. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected they were proud of my determination. Our hard work paid off, and the store was ready to open earlier than I’d planned. I thanked them with tickets for a cruise up the California coast. I assured them I could handle any last-minute emergencies that popped up. If only I’d known.
I spent the next couple of hours cleaning up the apartment. I didn’t think of myself as a sloppy person, but living alone in my aunt Millie and uncle Marius’s apartment, as opposed to living with my ex-boyfriend Carson in Los Angeles, gave me the freedom to toss my blazer on the sofa, leave my shoes in the living room, and only do the dishes once every couple of days. Tidying up turned into full-on cleaning. By the time the kitchen floor was scrubbed and all of the dark cherrywood trim had been Murphy-oiled, I knew I wasn’t just keeping up with neglected cleaning. I was burning off nervous energy.
I went downstairs. I’d been spending a lot of time getting the store ready to open, sorting through the inventory that I had, tagging some things with discount prices and acquiring others from my contacts in Los Angeles.
Inside the door was a wall of empty shelving. I’d taped a sign there a month ago. Polyester Velvet, it said. I wanted it to be the first thing people saw when they came into the store. But thinking about the velvet brought me back to thinking about Genevieve’s husband.
I’d seen his body in the back of the truck. He’d been buried under a dozen bolts of fabric. What did that mean? You couldn’t get a body under twelve bolts of velvet unless you started with the body first. That told me whoever had put the fabric in the truck had purposely stacked it on top of Phil. And that meant that person had something to do with Phil’s murder.
Was he killed over the business opportunity that Rick Penwald had mentioned? Or did his murder have something to do with the food he picked up for Genevieve? Was my fabric a convenient way to hide the body, or had someone known what he’d be couriering? And why had Phil hired another deliveryman to make the delivery to San Ladrón? He could have called Genevieve and told her if he was running late or if something had come up. Why had it been such a secret?
I picked up the phone and called Sheriff Clark. When he answered, I identified myself.
“Sheriff, does the medical examiner know if Phil was dead before the fabric was put on top of him?”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Monroe; that information is part of my investigation.”
“It’s just that, I was thinking, isn’t there a thing called a death mask? Can’t you test the fabric to see if someone was suffocated with it?”
“What are you getting at?”
“If you test my velvet, you should be able to determine if it was used to suffocate Phil Girard or if he was dead before the fabric was stacked on top of him.”
“And what do you think that will tell us?”
“I’m not sure, but it should tell you something.”
“Ms. Monroe, I appreciate the phone call, but I’d like to ask you to leave the investigation to me.”
“Have you heard from Genevieve?” I asked.
That concerned me more than I wanted to admit. I wished the sheriff good luck with the investigation, then hung up, walked downstairs, and headed to Tea Totalers on foot.
When I reached the shop, it was locked up tighter than a canister of herbes de Provence that needed to maintain freshness. Lights were off and chairs were upside down on top of tables. I checked my watch. It was approaching two.
It appeared as though Genevieve had come back to the store, but I had a hard time picturing her thinking rationally enough to do much more than turn off the lights and lock the door. But if not her, then who had closed up? And at whose direction?
Too many questions cropped up in my head. I walked around the back of the store, looking for signs that Genevieve had returned. I found a young woman outside of the building, stacking wooden crates like the ones Genevieve had used to pack the lunches.
“Excuse me,” I called out.
The woman looked up. She was a pretty blonde, her highlighted hair pulled into a ponytail on top of her head. Bright blue eyes and skin that seemed untouched by the California sun greeted me. She wore a shrunken aqua T-shirt with a picture of a Troll doll on it over a long-sleeved thermal. Faded jeans hung off her hips.
“I’m Poly Monroe. Who are you?”
“I’m Kim Matheson. I work here.” She looked at the back door. “I got a flat tire this morning and ended up running late. I called the store and left a message. Genevieve called me back and said she’d meet me here this afternoon to show me around.”
“When was that?”
She checked her phone. “Around nine.” She looked up at me. “She called me half an hour ago and apologized, said she had a family emergency. I told her I was here and she asked me to close up.”
“Did she tell you what the family emergency was?”
I looked at the empty crates Kim was stacking. “What are those?”
She looked embarrassed. “There was a set of keys in the Dracaena plant by the back door. When I got here, there were about a dozen crates of produce sitting outside. I didn’t think Genevieve would want them to go bad, so I unlocked the store and put everything away in the kitchen. I thought it might make up for me showing up late on my first day.”
“Today’s your first day?” I asked. “Genevieve never mentioned anyone else working here.”
“I saw the ad on Craigslist when I was on vacation. I’m taking a year off from school and I needed a job. We had a phone interview. We talked for forty-five minutes. Before we hung up, she told me the job was mine and I started today. I got the feeling she would have hired the first person who answered the ad, so I’m glad I didn’t wait until I got home. This place is perfect for what I have in mind.”
I studied Kim. She seemed sincere, but I wondered what exactly she thought she was going to get from working at Tea Totalers? I didn’t think Genevieve could afford to pay her much more than minimum wage, and it was possible she couldn’t even afford that.
“That probably sounded funny, didn’t it?” Kim said. “I want to open my own restaurant someday. I can get hands-on experience here, and Genevieve said if I did a good job she’d be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for—well, for what I need it for,” she finished.
“Genevieve’s great,” I said. “You’ll love working here.”
“Do you work here, too?”
“No, I own a fabric store down the street.” It still gave me a thrill to say those words. “If you get a chance, you should come to the grand opening. I inherited the store a couple of months ago and it’s been closed for a long time.” I pulled a coupon out of my pocket and handed it to her. She folded it without looking at it and pushed it into her jeans pocket.
I helped her move what was left of the crates to the kitchen. She locked up and looked around, confused. “Should I leave the keys in the plant?”
While I knew that San Ladrón had the appearance of a small, cozy town, I’d lived through my own nightmare and wasn’t as trusting as others might be. “Why don’t you give them to me? I’m going to see Genevieve later today.” I hope, I silently added.
“Okay, thanks. You’ll tell her I was here, right? And that I put the produce in the kitchen? And cleaned up a little, too, because it looked like she left in a hurry.”
“Sure, I’ll let her know.”
“Okay, thanks. Bye!”
I said good-bye and slipped the keys into my pocket. Kim walked around to the front of the store. She pulled a bicycle from alongside the restaurant and shook a few leaves loose from the handlebars. She pulled on a pink-and-white helmet and straddled the bicycle. A piece of paper fell from her back pocket and fluttered to the ground.
“Kim, you dropped something!” I called. She flipped up the kickstand and walked the bike forward until she reached the path in front of the store. “Kim!” I called again. She didn’t appear to hear me.
I jogged forward and stumbled over an exposed tree root. Kim turned around and looked at me, and then glided down the path out front of Tea Totalers and into a break in traffic.
The paper rested in the dirt. I picked it up by the corner and it unfolded. Along the top was the seal from the city of San Ladrón. Before I could stop myself, I scanned the page. It was a notice of a date and time to meet with a parole officer. The letter was addressed to Kim Matheson.
I folded the paper back up and tucked it into my pocket next to the keys, then thought better of it. It wasn’t mine to take. I let myself into the back of Tea Totalers and went to Genevieve’s desk. I pulled a blank sheet of paper out of her printer and wrote her a note: G—I came by to check on you. Your new employee dropped this after she left. Call me—Poly. I considered adding a note about the produce in the fridge, but didn’t. There was more than just a report of activities for me to talk to Genevieve about, and I’d tell her when I saw her.
I left the note on the keyboard and set Kim’s letter, folded, on the side. I drew an arrow as if there was any mistaking what I was referring to. When I set down the pen, my hand bumped the mouse. The computer made a chugging noise, and the monitor lit up.
Files had been left open. One was a database of the costs of running the tea shop. Expenses were listed in red; income was listed in black. I had no business snooping around Genevieve’s financial situation, so I closed the file and turned the monitor off.
I moved to the first of three large refrigerators that lined the wall inside the kitchen and looked inside. Plastic tubs were stacked on the shelves. Small labels identified the contents of plants and herbs I knew Genevieve used in her various blends of tea. A large bin labeled “catnip” surprised me. Did she grow it herself or buy it at the local pet store?
I closed the door and looked inside the second fridge. Two dozen plastic dollar-store pitchers of iced tea stood like an army ready to attack. The third fridge had been hastily packed with fruits and vegetables. Lemons, limes, oranges, and tomatoes filled uncovered plastic tubs like the ones used in the first fridge. Apples, pears, carrots, and celery jutted out from shelves. Bunches of radishes were pushed along the interior wall, and avocados filled the door. This must be the produce Kim had brought inside, because Genevieve would have known better than to refrigerate half of these items.
Having grown up in California, I knew how abundant different fruits and vegetables could be. I also knew how to store them until they were ready to eat. Half of the produce in the refrigerator needed to be removed and stored differently. If it had remained in the refrigerator overnight, most of it would have been worthless by morning. How did someone who wanted to work in a restaurant not know that?
I tucked the avocados into a brown paper bag, folded it up, and set it on a shelf next to a set of silver mixing bowls and then transferred the lemons and limes to a blue and white ceramic bowl that had been empty on the counter. The tomatoes went on a flat tray with an inch between them. I spaced out the remaining produce on the now-empty refrigerator shelves and checked my phone between storing each different fruit and vegetable, rebooting it between the limes and the tomatoes. Still no calls from Genevieve.
When I was done, I surveyed the kitchen. A plastic bag filled with individually wrapped croissants was tucked in the corner under the cabinet. I didn’t know that there was a proper way to store croissants, but since Genevieve had been the one to pack the lunches for the crew at the store, I assumed she’d been the one to put them away. Everything else seemed to be in order.
The paper Kim had dropped was still there. Feeling slightly guilty, I unfolded it and snapped a picture with my phone, folded it back up, and locked the store up behind me.
A steady stream of cars lined up behind the traffic light at San Ladrón and Bonita Avenue. Between cleaning my apartment and rearranging food at Genevieve’s, I’d burned up a fair portion of the day. Rush hour was officially on. I latched the gate in front of Tea Totalers and turned right. It was four blocks to the fabric store. I crossed the street and stopped off at The Earl of Sandwich, ordered a cucumber and avocado with sprouts on whole wheat toast for me and a side of sliced turkey for the cats. I added a bottle of water and waited while the woman behind the counter wrapped the turkey in tinfoil and put it and my sandwich in a brown paper bag. She handed it all to me and I left.
As I waited at the crosswalk for the light to change, I overheard a raised female voice come from Charlie’s Automotive, next door to the sandwich shop. A fiery redhead in a skintight leopard-print dress and red stiletto heels stood on the sidewalk in front.
“He wasn’t afraid for people to know. Why would he be? Half of San Ladrón would have killed to be in his shoes,” she said.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Suede to Rest
“An engaging new series.”—Sofie Kelly, New York Times bestselling author
“There’s a new material girl in town…a resourceful and gutsy sleuth.”—Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author
“Vallere weaves a tapestry of finely knit characters, luxurious fabrics, and…murder.”—Janet Bolin, national bestselling author of the Threadville Mysteries
“Polyester Monroe is a sassy protagonist who will win your hearts with her seamless style and breezy wit.” —Daryl Wood Gerber, Agatha Award-winning author of the nationally bestselling Cookbook Nook mysteries