“Dolores Johnson writes with wit and panache. I love her sense of humor.”
---Diane Mott Davidson, author of Double Shot
In this latest installment of Dolores Johnson’s beloved dry-cleaning sleuth series, Mandy Dyer notices the new and improved appearance of her customer Ardith Brewster. The young woman has met a new but mysterious boyfriend at Dyer Cleaners’ open house party. When Ardith, a loan officer at a bank, turns up dead a couple days later, Mandy suspects the worst.
The only clue she has to go on is a mention of the unknown boyfriend’s sharp sense of style---so different from Ardith’s suit-and-tie co-workers. Mandy’s curiosity turns to horror when she finds that the victim in a similar killing had been in the cleaners shortly before her death, and what’s more, that the two women bore a striking resemblance to each other.
With only clothes for clues and the less-than-reliable help of her incorrigible employee, Betty the Bag Lady, Mandy presses on with her investigation in a race to find the killer before he has a chance to close out her career permanently.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’d noticed some subtle and not so subtle changes in Ardith Brewster’s appearance in the last few months.
She came in to Dyer’s Cleaners every week with a load of cleaning to be done, and until recently, her suits had always been in neutral tones—beige, black, or gray. Her blouses had been tailored, and she never had any slacks or pantsuits in the orders.
I sometimes wondered what she wore around home on the weekends. The only thing I could conclude was that she thought her wardrobe befitted her job as a loan officer at a bank here in the Cherry Creek area of Denver, where the cleaners is located. In keeping with her no-nonsense approach to life, she also wore her chestnut-colored hair in a tight little bun on top of her head.
But suddenly she began to show up with drop-off orders of brighter clothes—a sleeveless red dress with a jacket, a peach-colored suit with a frilly floral-patterned blouse, and even an embroidered full-skirted dress in purple. She said she couldn’t resist the purple dress because it reminded her of the lilacs that were in bloom around the city now that it was May.
I’m Mandy Dyer, the thirty-something owner of Dyer’s Cleaners, and I try to keep my opinions to myself about customers’ wearing apparel. Maybe that’s why I never ventured a comment until one Friday when Ardith showed up in a lemon yellow outfit, with her hair suddenly loose and curled around her face. If my own short, dark hair looked half that good, I would let it grow out to shoulder length.
“I like your new hairstyle,” I said. “It’s reallyattractive.”
She blushed at the compliment. Then she glanced around the call office, which is what we call the customer area of the cleaners, as if she were trying to make sure no one would overhear her.
“The man I’ve been dating likes my hair this way,” she said, bending over toward me as if she were revealing a big secret about how to launder money through her bank.
“Well, he’s right,” I said, somewhat surprised that she’d share even that much of her personal life with me. “It’s very becoming.”
“And I have to tell you, I never would have met him if it hadn’t been for Dyer’s Cleaners. I owe it all to you, Mandy.”
I was stunned. Not only am I opposed to people who try to set up their friends with dates but also the idea of playing matchmaker reminded me of my mother. God forbid that I might turn into Mom, whose goal in life seemed to be to find a suitable husband for every single woman she knew, especially me.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, drawing back from Ardith as if she’d accused me of robbing the bank. After all, we never even traveled in the same social circles, so how could I have had anything to do with the new man in her life?
“Do you remember back in March when you had that open house here at the cleaners?” she asked. “I believe it was the fiftieth anniversary of the day your uncle opened his first store in Denver.”
I certainly did remember, and boy, had that been a mistake. Who knew that so many people would show up for a piece of cake, a cup of coffee, and a glass of champagne? Maybe it was the coupon for 50 percent off, good for a month, which we offered to the many people who dropped by that afternoon. The call office had been woefully inadequate to hold the crowd, and I’d finally allowed people to spread out into the plant.
In fact, we gave some impromptu tours of the presses and cleaning equipment that day. I’ve known owners of dry cleaners who actually have big windows in the back shops of their plants so that passersby can watch employees at work on the equipment. People seem to be fascinated by the huge pieces of machinery that belch steam like prehistoric monsters or look like modern-day robots with mechanical body parts, but the day of the open house, I came to wish there was a pane of glass between the visitors and my crew. The tours disrupted work, and there were even a few items of clothing that had to be recleaned.
“I met him here,” Ardith said, interrupting my musings about the horror of that day. “He was such a nice dresser that I was immediately attracted to him.”
Not necessarily the best criteria for selecting a man, I thought, but being a dry cleaner, I let it go.
She smiled. “I guess you’re responsible for that, too, come to think of it. I mean for the sharp creases in his pants and the brightness of his freshly pressed shirt. So different from most of the men I know.”
I couldn’t help wondering about that comment. After all, she worked with bankers. Weren’t they supposed to be good dressers, always in suits and ties?
My morning counter manager, Julia, had come out of the back of the plant, and she must have overheard the conversation.
“So who is this man who swept you off your feet?” she asked.
I frowned at Julia, and Ardith’s face paled at the realization that we hadn’t been alone. “Oh, I can’t say. We want to keep our relationship quiet for now.”
That sent up a red flag with me. The guy must be married, I figured, and probably his wife was the one who kept him so well dressed. But surely Ardith was astute enough to avoid falling in love with a married man. After all, she had to analyze loan applications and be smart enough to decide whether or not someone was a good risk and would repay the loan.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best analogy. How could you compare love to money, unless, of course, you were my mother who was convinced that you shouldn’t consider one without the other?
Ardith may have realized what I was thinking. She seemed to want to justify herself. “We want to have time to get to know each other before we go public with our relationship. In fact, we’re planning to spend the whole weekend at home together—just the two of us.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I busied myself with placing her cleaning in a bag, along with a ticket I’d just printed out for her on our computer. I handed her a copy of the invoice. “I’ll be right back.”
I went through the door into the plant and found her pickup order on our conveyor. I was amazed to see that the invoice stapled to the garment bag indicated that the current work even had a pair of jeans. Lucille, who does our mark-in, had also identified a red-and-white dirndl skirt and a matching blouse in the order. Definitely not the type of clothes Ardith would wear to work. Maybe this mysterious new man in her life was going to be good for her after all.
I returned to the call office with the order and hung it over a hook on a rail at the end of the counter before I tallied up her bill. By then, Ann Marie had arrived for work, late as usual. She’s twenty going on fifteen, but the customers seem to like her rather ditzy personality, and at least she hasn’t quit on me. There’s a big turnover in this business, and just staying the course is a plus.
While I was retrieving the clothes from our conveyor, Julia must have told Ann Marie that Ardith had found a boyfriend here at the cleaners.
“That’s cool,” Ann Marie said. “I wish I’d meet someone here, but everyone is either sooo old or sooo married.”
Ardith, who must be about forty, seemed to get increasingly embarrassed. I wondered if it was because of the reference to “old” guys or if maybe it was because she was thinking about her married lover. Anyway, she couldn’t seem to get out the front door fast enough. She grabbed her clothes and handed me several bills as she left, telling me to keep the change, as if she were giving me a tip. I applied what was left over as a credit to her next order.
“That’s really nice,” Julia said as the door swung shut, “having a romance bloom right here in the cleaners.”
Perhaps she was comparing it to the unromantic way she’d met her husband and the father of her three children. She said he’d picked her up when she was walking down the street. If that marriage could last, I guessed I could be hopeful that Ardith’s romance would work out, too.
“What’s the guy’s name?” Ann Marie asked. “Maybe we can check him out on the computer.”
“She wouldn’t tell us,” Julia said.
“And don’t bug her about it the next time she comes in,” I warned.
I was looking at Ann Marie, but she had moved on to another subject by that time.
“You know,” she said, “maybe we should start a dating service. We could have a bulletin board where singles could, you know, put up notices that they were looking for a date.”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “This is a dry cleaners, not a dating service.”
I didn’t tell her that I actually knew the owner of one dry cleaner who had done just that. He also had another bulletin board where people could post notices for lost pets and people who would do lawn work. It seemed tacky, although I would rather someone found a missing dog or cat through my cleaners than a lover.
I also knew dry cleaners who had shoe-repair services, ran gift shops adjoining their plants, and had all manner of side businesses. It didn’t mean I was going to start any of those, either. I wanted customers to know that dry cleaning was our one and only business.
“There’s a Laundromat over by where I live,” Ann Marie said, “that has singles nights, where you can go and wash your clothes and meet someone at the same time.”
I shook my head. “That might be okay for a coin laundry, but not for a dry cleaner.”
She shrugged as I started to leave for the back of the plant. Julia was already waiting on another customer, and a second person had just entered the call office.
Ann Marie followed me through the door into the plant. “I still think we should have a bulletin board,” she said. “I could handle it for you if you want.”
I stopped in my path. “No. What I do want is for you to go back out front and wait on the customer who just came in.”
“Okeydoke,” she said, her blond ponytail bouncing as she swung around toward the call office. “It was just a suggestion.”
The next Tuesday, I stopped for breakfast on my way to work. I didn’t do that often, but this week was my plant manager’s turn to open up the cleaners, so I was meeting Travis Kincaid for breakfast.
Travis is a private investigator, and I’d nursed him back to health in January, after he took a bullet in the leg. I’m not a natural born caregiver, but I’d felt responsible for him getting shot.
We had a history that went back to high school, although I’d known him primarily by reputation, a reputation so dark that I once stood him up because, frankly, he scared me to death. In fact, if we’d had a category back then called “Most Likely to Go into a Life of Crime,” he would have won hands down.
That’s why I’d been shocked to find him on the other side of the law when I needed the services of a PI the previous year. He’d even told me that the mysterious scar on his cheek, rumored to have been from a gang fight back in junior high, was actually the result of falling off his bike. The scar gave him a dangerous look to go with his slightly cynical features, dark hair, and piercing eyes, and no matter how much he denied it, he seemed to attract women like a magnet. When I was taking him meals, women with sexy voices seemed to call him with the same frequency that telemarketers call me.
Is it any wonder I was a little skittish about committing to a serious relationship, even though he said that’s what he wanted? Never mind that we were even having trouble seeing each other now that he was back on his feet.
I worked days, and he’d been tied up at nights recently, working undercover at a loading dock, where he’d been hired to find out who was stealing electronic equipment off the trucks.
I’d been thinking about Travis and my trust issues, when I realized the restaurant’s only waitress, a plump blonde in her twenties, seemed to be ignoring me. In fact, she started to make an end run around me with a coffeepot after offering up refills to a bunch of construction workers at a back table.
I toyed with the idea of tripping her. Instead, I settled for yelling “Excuse me” as she went by.
She gave me an annoyed look.
“May I have some coffee while you’re here?”
She turned up a cup on the table, slopped coffee in it, and said hopefully, “That all you want?”
“I’m expecting someone else. I’ll wait to order until he gets here.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, and headed toward the kitchen. I opened a copy of the Denver Tribune that I’d purchased at a rack outside the door. I started through the paper, scanning the headlines.
I don’t even know what made me notice a small article on page ten, “Woman Murdered in Denver Home Identified.” Maybe it was because I lived alone, despite the fact that Travis kept making suggestions about us moving in together.
At any rate, I’d even turned the page before I went back to read the article. Any hope I’d had of enjoying breakfast was gone as soon as I glanced at the first sentence. It read: “A woman found strangled in her home in South Denver has been identified as Ardith Brewster.”
It couldn’t be Ardith from the cleaners. It had to be someone with the same name. I kept reading. “Police were called to the house Monday morning by a coworker at the Fulton Bank in Cherry Creek after Brewster, a loan officer at the bank, failed to show up for an important early-morning meeting.”
I still couldn’t believe it. I kept remembering how happy she’d been just days before, when she’d told us about the new man in her life, and now some bastard had taken all that away from her. Had it been a botched robbery, or someone intent on rape? It was all I could do to force myself to finish the article, but I had to find out. “It is estimated she’d been dead for at least twenty-four hours, and according to a police spokesperson, she was believed to have known her assailant. There was no sign of forced entry, and she appeared to be entertaining someone at the time of her death.”
Oh dear God. My heart felt as if it were about to pound out of my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Her words flashed in my mind like a blinking neon sign: “In fact, we’re planning to spend the whole weekend at home together—just the two of us.” As much as I wanted to deny it, I had to admit that the killer could actually be the man she’d met at the cleaners. Now I couldn’t stop reading. “The spokesperson said detectives are looking into a connection between Brewster’s death and three other homicides in the Denver area within the last few years. In all the cases, the women lived alone, appeared to have known their assailants, and were killed in similar ways.”
My hands were trembling, and I was near tears by the time I finished the article. I was already in shock about Ardith and her mystery man, but now I had this gnawing fear deep in my gut that one of our customers could be a serial killer.
Copyright © 2007 by Dolores Johnson. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents