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Josie’s boss just assigned her a coveted gig—mystery shopping at Soft Shoe, one of the hottest boutiques in St. Louis. But trying on their exclusive designer footwear isn’t the treat Josie expected thanks to Mel Poulaine, Soft Shoe’s top seller. His hands-on fascination with feet goes far beyond professional interest. Josie’s scathing report kills Mel’s career . . . and later that night, someone kills Mel.
Josie is determined to stay out of it. But when her neighbor’s daughter, Cheryl Malmy, becomes a suspect, Josie decides to investigate. It turns out “Perfect Cheryl” has more than a few dirty secrets in her closet, drawing Josie deeper into the seedy suburban underbelly. But can she trip up a killer who always seems to be one step ahead?
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"Josie, please, can I come in?" Josh was kissing her neck and her right ear.
Josie Marcus kissed him back. There was a deep silence, broken only by heavy breathing. "Sorry, Josh. It's a school night," she panted. "I have to be in by ten."
Josh unbuttoned the tiny pearl buttons on her shirt, then kissed the tops of her breasts. "I'll be very quiet," he said.
More silence. More kissing. More panting.
"My mother's upstairs," Josie said breathlessly. "She's got ears like a bat."
"Come to my place," Josh said. "There are no old bats. Just a big bed with fresh sheets and some very nice wine." He flicked open the front closure on her bra and said, "Oh my God."
Josie was glad the porch light was out. Her knees were weak. That must be why she was clinging to Josh. "I can't," she whispered frantically. "There's my daughter, Amelia. I have to be home for her." Josie refastened her bra.
"How about my car?" Josh said, kissing her again.
"It's parked under a streetlight," she gasped. When he kissed her that way, she could hardly stand up.
"We'll have the windows steamed up in no time," Josh said.
Josie almost said yes. Then she saw the curtains twitch at the house next door. Now she felt hot, but it was the heat of anger.
"I can't," she said. "Mrs. Mueller will see us."
"Who," he said between kisses, "is Mrs. Mueller?"
"The neighborhood gossip. She'll tell Mom and my life will be hell."
"Josie, how old are you?" Josh said.
"Why are we making out like horny teenagers on your front porch?"
"Aren't you glad I make you feel young?" Josie pulled away and buttoned her blouse.
"That's not how I feel," Josh said. "I may never be able to straighten up again. We're too old for this."
"No, we're exactly the right age," Josie said. "If we were teenagers, we'd be boffing like crazy. Only adults have these problems."
"Josie, please let me in."
"Josh, I really want to, but I can't." Josie tucked in her blouse. "We should have thought of this earlier."
"Are you kidding? It's all I've thought about tonight. But I wanted to take you to dinner like a gentleman instead of just jumping your bones. Look where it got me."
Josie laughed. Josh didn't. "Who the hell is this Mrs. Mueller and why is she so important?" he asked.
Josie studied him in the starlight. Josh was four years younger, smart and sizzling. Her friends wouldn't believe she was telling him no. Josh had a sensitive poet's face, a dangerous walk, and expert hands. He wanted to be a sci-fi writer, but right now, Josh was the best barista in Maplewood, producing sensational espressos and cappuccinos on his gleaming machine. When Josh was with Josie, he pulled out all the stops.
She kissed his nimble fingers and tried to explain the constraints on her life. "Mrs. Mueller rules the neighborhood," Josie said. "She's convinced I'm a slut, and I haven't done anything but wear a couple of trampy outfits for my job. If I go to your car, she'll have proof. She might even take pictures. She'll tell my mother, who is also my landlord and my babysitter and therefore has absolute power. It's a Sunday night. I have work tomorrow and Amelia has school. If I let you inside, we'll wake up Mom and I'll never hear the end of it. Even if we don't wake up Mom, Mrs. Mueller will be standing by with a stopwatch. She'll watch the shadows on the window shades and listen for the bedsprings."
"She sounds obsessed," Josh said.
"Mrs. Mueller has had this thing about me ever since I was fifteen. She caught me smoking behind her garage and ratted me out to Mom. I got even by putting a bag of dog doo on her porch and setting fire to it. Mrs. Mueller stamped it out."
Josh burst out laughing. "Mrs. Mueller fell for the flaming-dog-doo-of-death trick?"
"You may think it's funny, but she never forgave me. My name is mud. No, it's worse than mud."
"Why do you care what she thinks?" Josh kissed her so hard, her last few wits nearly fled.
"I don't," Josie said. "But Mrs. Mueller runs all the major church committees and clubs in the neighborhood. She rules Mom's social life. Mom thinks the sun rises and sets on that awful woman. To make it worse, Mrs. Mueller has this perfect daughter named Cheryl. She keeps rubbing Cheryl's achievements in my mother's face until Mom can hardly hold her head up.
"Josh, you're single, so it's hard to understand. If it was just me, I wouldn't care, but Maplewood is like a small town. Gossip about me will hurt my mother and my daughter."
"I do understand," he said. "I just don't like it."
"Amelia has a sleepover soon. Maybe we can be together then," Josie said.
Josh kissed her again. They stood hand in hand on Josie's front porch, looking at the clear November night. The old sycamore trees rustled and the houses creaked in the warm wind. It was one of St. Louis's famous freaky weather switches. The night was a springlike sixty-five degrees when there should have been frost.
"Look," he said. "A falling star. Make a wish."
Josie saw the curtains twitch again.
"I wish Mrs. Mueller would get hers," Josie said. "I wish she'd be so embarrassed she couldn't hold her head up in Maplewood — no, the whole St. Louis area. I wish she'd fall so low, she'd have to look up to me."
Josie got her wish. Every word would come true.
And she would regret them all.CHAPTER 2
Mel held Josie's right foot, slowly rubbing her arch with his thumb. His stroking fingers inched toward her toes. Josie tried not to flinch.
"Pink nail polish is so feminine," Mel said softly.
"Thank you," Josie said.
Yuck, she thought. I can't yank my foot away from this pervert. I have to pretend to like this. I have a job to do. Some job — having my foot fondled by a freak. If my mother knew, she'd hit the roof. What if my daughter found out?
How is Amelia going to know? Josie's sneaky side said. Are you going to tell her? God forbid your daughter should do this for a living.
Mel had stripped the pointy red Prada heel from Josie's other foot and examined it closely. Was he looking at the stitching or sniffing her shoe? Josie's stomach lurched.
Mel stopped stroking her stockinged foot and set it gently on his sloping footstool. She buried it in the soft padding. If only it was Josh massaging her foot. If only Josie wasn't in the Soft Shoe, the exclusive retro shoe shop in St. Louis.
The Soft Shoe was a perfect copy of a 1950s women's shoe store, with powder pink decor and salespeople who sat on old-fashioned slanted footstools, slipped off your shoes, then brought you stacks of styles to try on. The store was a shoe lover's dream.
Mel was its nightmare. He gave Josie the creeps, and she couldn't say why. He was slender and well dressed in a beautifully tailored gray suit. Maybe it was the pink carnation in his buttonhole. It made him look like an old-style gigolo. Mel wore too much cologne and his carefully cut hair was a little oily. That was it. Mel was oily. His manners, his hair, even his manicured hands were slightly oily, and he kept rubbing them.
"I see that you have an appreciation for quality," Mel said. "Prada is well made. Sexy, too. Plenty of toe cleavage, which men adore. Smart women know that."
Many smart women didn't know — or care — about toe cleavage, the hollow between the big toe and the second digit. But Mel's hand grew moist as his eyes drifted toward the tiny valley between her toes. Josie wished she was wearing her grandmother's black lace-up Enna Jetticks, which would conceal her feet completely. Except they might really excite Mel.
"You're looking for a high heel?" Mel smiled. All the man needed was a pencil-thin mustache.
"Yes," Josie said. "Something special." She smiled back. She hoped she looked winsome, and not like her feet hurt.
"I know all the styles that please men and make women feel pretty," Mel said.
Mel was the Soft Shoe's top seller nationwide. But the company suspected Mel might love shoes a little too much. Management was in dangerous territory. If they falsely accused Mel, he could sue Soft Shoe. Plus, the company would lose its best salesman. But if Mel really was a foot fetishist and the company let him prey on customers, there would be a nasty scandal — and more lawsuits. That's why Soft Shoe had hired Josie's company, Suttin Services, to mystery-shop the St. Louis store and target Mel.
Josie's boss, Harry, gave her the Soft Shoe assignment this way: "The company wants you to ask for a salesman named Mel," he said. "He's really into ladies' feet, if you know what I mean."
"You want me to investigate a pervert?" Josie had said.
"He's not dangerous, Josie," Harry had told her. "The worst he'll do is give you a foot massage. Might feel good on your tired tootsies. Listen, this Mel may not even be what they think he is. The company is a little suspicious, that's all. He's a shoe salesman who's a little too interested in women's shoes."
"Is he a foot or a shoe fetishist?"
"Both, I think," Harry said. "At least they've had complaints about both. How the hell would I know? I'm no freak."
Josie thought that subject could be debated, but not now.
"Look. They've had a couple of complaints from lady customers and they don't know how seriously to take them. Women can be crazy, you know what I mean?"
Josie had not called her boss on his sexist remark. Harry was hopeless. Besides, Josie got a bonus for special assignments and mystery shopping paid little enough. But now that Mel was sitting on his sloping pink stool, oozing over her foot, Josie wondered if the extra money was worth it.
"You wait here," Mel said. "I'll be right back."
Mel had an odd crouching walk as he ducked through the pink curtains into the back room. So far, I have nothing suspicious for my report, Josie thought. What can I say? He held my foot a little longer than usual? He rubbed my arch in a suggestive manner? I'll sound like a nutcase. All I have is my feeling that something is off about Mel.
Still, other women must have felt the same way, or Josie wouldn't be here. She would have to try on shoes until she knew for sure. She owed it to her sole sisters, as well as to the company.
Josie couldn't bring her mystery-shopping questionnaire into the store, but she knew the questions by heart. Right now, Mel had a perfect score. Had he greeted her warmly when she entered the store? Had he introduced himself in a positive manner and mentioned the store name? Had he waited on her promptly? Had he offered to bring out the high-fashion stock? Yes, yes and yes.
Here he was now, carrying shoe boxes stacked up to his chin. The Big Bopper sang on the retro sound track about Chantilly lace and a pretty face. Josie's mother had danced to that tune when she was young.
"I have a sassy pair of open-toed Bruno Maglis." Mel took off the shoe box lid with a flourish.
Josie studied the shoes. They were cute. If she could afford nearly three bills for shoes, she'd buy them. At least she was being paid to try them on.
"I like them," she said. "But I have on the wrong stockings. Mine have reinforced toes."
"Where did women get this idea that men don't like reinforced toes?" Mel said as he slipped the shoes on Josie. Sweat had popped out on his forehead, although it wasn't warm in the store. He wiped it with a silk pocket square.
"Some of us men long for the good old days, when women wore stockings with reinforced heels and toes," Mel said. "Unfortunately, panty hose have taken over everything. They're so orthopedic. Women have lost their affection for high heels. Why don't women wear heels anymore, like they did in the fifties and sixties?"
"Because they hurt," Josie said. She had to walk miles through the malls in heels for her mystery shopping. Spikes were torture.
"But heels do such nice things for the calf and leg. I'd think women would endure a little discomfort to look attractive," Mel said.
"Hobbling is unattractive," Josie said, and wondered if she'd blown her cover with her anti-heel remark. "I'll take the Bruno Maglis."
"May I show you a Kenneth Cole D'Orsay pump?" Mel was practically on his knees begging as he brought out the turquoise shoe with the open sides.
Mel slipped the pair on her feet. Josie stood up and took a few steps to the long mirror. The open-sided shoe was sexy, no doubt about it. Her legs looked terrific.
"Adorable," Mel said. "I'll be right back." He disappeared behind the pink curtains again, with that strange crouch.
Josie sighed. She was going to be here all day, with nothing to show for it but mauled feet. If Mel was misbehaving, she hadn't caught him at it.
Mel returned a few minutes later with another precarious pile of shoe boxes. "I have a gorgeous little sling-back with a stiletto heel," he said. "And an absolutely precious ankle-wrap sandal."
Mel opened the boxes like a courtier showing jewels to his queen. Josie tried them all on, wishing she was wearing them for Josh instead of Mel. After nearly an hour, she was knee-deep in a welter of rejected shoes. All she could say in her report was that Mel had spent more time than usual with her, and that it wasn't wasted time for him. She was buying three pairs of shoes — nearly a thousand dollars' worth of stock — or so he thought.
Damn. I'll have to come back here for another visit, Josie thought. Maybe then I'll figure out why Mel bothers me. There's something wrong about that man. I wish I could see it.
"You don't want to take these old shoes with you." Mel indicated her red heels.
I do, Josie thought. Because I'm returning everything I bought here today to another Soft Shoe, in Plaza Frontenac. Josie wouldn't get to keep those gorgeous shoes. Returning recently purchased items to yet another store was one of mystery shopping's less glamorous assignments. But it was an effective way to test customer service.
"Actually, I do want them," Josie said.
Mel looked sad. So did her resale-shop Pradas. Were they really so down-at-heels? Funny how shoes that seemed attractive when she walked into a store looked worn and dusty when she bought new ones.
"Then let me clean them for you," Mel said.
At least I'll get a free shoeshine, Josie thought. I can keep that.
Before she could say anything, Mel had her shoes in one hand and was heading for the pink curtains with that odd crouching walk. He reminded her of Josh on her front porch last night.
Suddenly, Josie knew what the salesman was going to do to her innocent Pradas. She ran toward the back room, flung open the pink curtains and caught Mel, crouching like a teenage boy behind stacks of shoe boxes.
"Unhand that shoe, you heel!" she thundered and ripped her stillpure Prada from his grasp.
Josie had him. After her report, Mel would never molest another pump.CHAPTER 3
"So you caught him red-handed with your shoe," Harry said.
Josie's boss grinned like a whacked-out weasel. He wanted Josie to repeat the story over and over. The man creeped her out almost as much as Mel.
"Tell me about this toe cleavage again," Harry said.
"Please," Josie said. "I'm trying to forget. The details are in my report. You read it. I rescued my shoe from a fate worse than death."
Harry laughed. It was a wild, honking sound, like the mating cry of a Discovery Channel beast. Josie hoped something large, smelly and in love wouldn't come galloping through his office door at Suttin Services.
"Have a seat," Harry said, when his laughter finally choked off.
Josie plopped into the beat-up wooden chair opposite his desk. It wobbled dangerously, then tilted to one side. Harry liked to keep his mystery shoppers off balance. She wondered if he'd sawed one chair leg shorter.
"Did you really call Mel a heel?" Harry said. "Where did you get that word? Nobody freaking talks like that. What century are you in?"
"The Soft Shoe was so retro, it seemed to belong," Josie said. "Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were playing on the sound track. The store was this ladylike powder pink. It just popped into my mind. Besides, what would you call Mel?"
"An asshole," Harry said. A small landslide of yellowing paper slid down the north face of his desk.
"Classy," Josie said.
"Hey, if the shoe fits," Harry said. "I read about guys like him, but I didn't think they really existed."
Most people wouldn't think Harry was real, either. He looked like a troll in a fairy tale — a Grimm fairy tale. Like his name, he was hairy. He had hair on his head, in his ears and in his nose. The joints of his fingers sprouted hairs like weeds in sidewalk cracks. He was also fat.
Harry was on the Atkins diet, but he'd never be a poster boy for the plan. He ignored most of its guidelines, except the one about eating meat. Harry always had a roast something in one hand when Josie saw him at Suttin Services. Phone conversations came with chomping and slurping sounds that were worse than the visuals.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "High Heels Are Murder"
Copyright © 2006 Elaine Viets.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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