A feisty fashionista goes shopping for suspects in this witty murder mystery from the USA Today-bestselling author…
Haley Randolph’s 25th birthday is just around the corner, and the full-time fashionista is ready to quit her credit card-paying job at Holt’s Department Store. All she has to do is make sure nothing goes wrong with the big party she’s planning at the Hollywood Haven retirement home. But when Haley finds the home’s assistant director sprawled on his bloody office floor, she sees her hope of keeping her job—not to mention the dream of owning a Sassy, the season’s hottest handbag—vanishing before her eyes.
Finding the killer is Haley’s only hope . . . but it turns out the list of suspects is longer than her last credit card statement. To make matters worse, Haley’s kind-of-ex-boyfriend Ty is now a suspect in a different murder. Solving two murders while planning the perfect party—and always keeping her sights on a Sassy—won’t be easy . . . especially now that there’s more than one killer ready to select Haley’s final outfit!
“A fun, lighthearted whodunit.” —The Mystery Gazette on Beach Bags and Burglaries
“A treat for those with a passion for fashion. No doubt this sassy heroine’s in for a long run.” —Kirkus Reviews on Purses and Poison
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Swag Bags and Swindlers
By DOROTHY HOWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Dorothy Howell
All rights reserved.
With age comes great wisdom.
Or was it power?
Or was it great responsibility that came with power?
But maybe that only applied to Spider-Man.
Anyway, I was staring head-on at birthday number twenty-five and was feeling pretty darn responsible. Truthfully, this wasn't a trait I'd ever noticed in myself — nor was it something my friends or family had commented on — but there it was.
I, Haley Randolph, with my tall-enough-to-model-but-I-don't five-foot-nine height, myVogue-cover-worthy dark hair, and my too-bad-they-weren't-more-dominant beauty-queen genes, had fully embraced this new phase of my life because, really, it totally benefited me to do so in the best way possible.
This unexpected turn was unfolding courtesy of my job as an assistant event planner with L.A. Affairs. While the name of the company made it sound like a call girl service, it wasn't.
L.A. Affairs was an event-planning company that catered to the elite of Los Angeles, the stars of Hollywood, the well connected, the power players, and the industry insiders. I'd come aboard on the heels of a couple of other jobs that hadn't worked out as well as I'd have liked — long story.
If I do say so myself, things have gone great for me at L.A. Affairs. Well, okay, there've been a few unfortunate situations — none of which were my fault — but every job has an occasional hiccup, right?
The upside to all of this was that my probation period would come to an end in mere weeks, which meant I'd then be given a job performance review. Once I had the HR seal of approval, I would be deemed worthy of permanent, full-time employee status.
Since I'd done such a great job — except for a glitch or two here and there — I wasn't sweating it.
I pulled into the parking garage that adjoined the building that housed L.A. Affairs. It was a beautiful early November morning. Really, the only way to know the seasons changed in most of Southern California was to look at a calendar. Our weather was always mild, the breeze calm, the sun shining, and today was no exception.
I swung my Honda into a spot near the elevators. Our location was on the prestigious corner of Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards in Sherman Oaks, one of L.A.'s many upscale areas. Nearby were other high-rise office buildings, banks, apartment complexes, plus the terrific shops and restaurants across the street at the Galleria.
I grabbed my handbag — a classic black-and-white Chanel that perfectly complemented my black business suit — and took the elevator up to the third floor. The hallway was quiet as I headed for the entrance to L.A. Affairs, but that was because I was running a bit late this morning — which had absolutely nothing to do with any sort of responsibility issue that might impact my entire future.
Okay, maybe it did.
And, really, I was sweating my job performance review — big time. I had a lot — a lot — riding on it.
Permanent full-time status meant that I would be eligible for L.A. Affairs' benefit package, which included medical coverage — thus my new look-at-me-I'm-responsible mode. That, in turn, meant I could cancel the medical coverage I presently had through my crappy part-time salesclerk job at the seriously crappy Holt's Department Store. And beyond that, it meant I could quit my job at Holt's.
I did a mental backflip just thinking about it.
"Are you ready to party?" Mindy, our receptionist, shouted as I walked into the L.A. Affairs office.
Mindy was pushing fifty, a little on the full-figured side, with blond hair that resembled one of those glass balls people decorated their gardens with. I was unclear on how she'd gotten this job, and even more unclear on why she was allowed to keep it.
She giggled and fluttered her lashes. "They make me say that."
Nor was I clear on why L.A. Affairs insisted she chant that ridiculous slogan.
"I know," I said. "It's me. Haley."
"Oh, so it is," Mindy said, chuckling. "It's just so busy around here this morning."
No one was seated in the reception area. None of the lights on her telephone console were lit.
"Oh, have you heard?" Mindy asked, doing her own version of jazz hands. "Big news today —"
Her phone rang. Mindy recoiled, twisting her fingers together.
"Oh, would you just look?" she said, shaking her head. "Another call already today."
Mindy lifted the receiver and pushed a button on the telephone. "Are you ready to party ... hello? Hello? Oh, dear." She punched another button. "Are you ready —? Hello?"
No way could I wait around for Mindy to answer the right line before I heard the big news of the day. I left, walking past the cube farm, the interview rooms, and turned down the hallway.
I'd taken the Holt's job about a year ago when I'd been desperate for some Christmas cash and my credit card balances had crept to troubling levels — plus Gucci had a fabulous new tote that I absolutely had to have. As things in life often do, Christmas had come and gone, my credit card balances had gone up and down like a bathroom scale before and after bathing suit season, and while I'd gotten myself that Gucci tote, it had soon after been relegated to the cool-a-month-ago-but-now-I-need-the-newest-style handbag repository in the closet of my second bedroom.
But I'd kept the job at Holt's, and not only because they provided medical coverage.
Anyway, a new, more responsible phase of life was upon me. All I had to do was ace my upcoming job performance review. And in the meantime, I had to make sure that all the events I planned came off flawlessly, without a single hiccup or glitch — or, at least, no hiccup or glitch that L.A. Affairs found out about.
Even though I'd just arrived at work, there was, of course, no way I was going straight to my office. Instead, I went into the breakroom where several employees were lingering over coffee before starting the day.
For me, one of the best things about working for L.A. Affairs was that absolutely nothing mattered more than outward appearances. Everybody dressed in fabulous business suits and awesome shoes and carried designer handbags. L.A. Affairs had a reputation to uphold, and we employees were expected to project a certain image at all times — which I was totally on board with.
I spotted Kayla, one of my L.A. Affairs BFFs, helping herself to coffee. She was about my age, tall, curvy, with dark hair. She'd worked here longer than I had and knew the inside scoop on almost everything that went down.
"Big news," Kayla said as I walked up. "Suzie went into labor."
This came as no surprise. L.A. Affairs was staffed by women, dozens of women, most of us in our prime life-is-going-to-change-big-time years. That meant somebody was always going into labor, or announcing a pregnancy, or getting engaged, getting married, dating some hot guy, or dumping some jackass.
Still, if Kayla deemed today's news big, something was definitely going on.
She glanced over her shoulder and leaned in a little. "Suzie's baby wasn't due for another two weeks," she said. "That means her events are up for grabs."
Even though I had yet to pour my first cup of coffee, I knew where this was going — someplace great for me.
"I'm calling dibs," I said, "on everything."
Wow, this was just what I needed to prove to HR that I was worthy of permanent, full-time employee status. I could swoop in, take over Suzie's events, and save management the headache of trying to divide up the work. What better way to demonstrate my commitment to the company and cement my I'm-the-greatest rating on my job performance review so I could quit my job at Holt's.
"Dibs on everything?" Kayla asked.
"Heck yeah," I said.
"Well, okay, if you're sure," Kayla said. She lowered her voice. "You'd better jump on it. One of Suzie's parties is being eyed by you-know-who, if you get my meaning."
"Damn," I muttered.
I knew full well who you-know-who was. Vanessa Lord, senior planner and captain of the Raging Bitch squad.
When I'd first come on board at L.A. Affairs I'd been assigned to work under Vanessa as her assistant planner. We hadn't exactly hit it off — long story. Since then, I'd been handling my own events and she'd farmed out her events to several other assistants, thereby spreading her venom among many employees. No way would L.A Affairs get rid of her, though. Vanessa brought in the biggest clients — which made her the biggest bitch — so we were stuck with her.
"I'm going to talk to Priscilla right now," I said.
"Let me know how it goes," Kayla said, and left.
I filled my coffee cup, then dumped in a few sugar packets and topped it all off with a generous splash of French vanilla creamer. I was facing a make-it-or-break-it moment. I needed all the help I could get.
I left the breakroom, then circled back and grabbed a bag of M&M's from the snack cabinet, dumped the whole thing in my mouth, and headed out again.
Priscilla, the office manager, had an office down the hall. As I passed I saw that she was elbow deep in file folders — already. So what could I do but dash into my office, drop my handbag in my desk drawer, and hurry back?
"Hi, Priscilla," I said, as I paused in her doorway. "Can I get you another coffee? I'm on my third cup. Wow, this morning is flying by."
"I know what you mean," Priscilla said, looking up at me.
Priscilla was midthirties, tall, thin, with blond hair she wore in a blunt cut, and as office managers went, she was a good one.
She gestured to the mountain of file folders surrounding her and said, "I was behind before I walked in."
"Been there," I agreed, and we both laughed.
Immediately upon entering the workforce right out of high school — what I referred to as my parade of jeez-I-thought-that-would-have-worked-out-better jobs — I'd forged a credo, of sorts, the first tenet of which was my strict don't-volunteer-for-anything policy. I knew I was going against everything I believed in — and everything that had served me so well — by taking over Suzie's events, but I had my eye on a big prize: I could quit my job at Holt's.
I decided to come right to the point. I mean, jeez, I didn't have all day to stand around. Precious time was slipping past and I hadn't even updated my Facebook page or made lunch plans yet.
"I want to take over for Suzie," I said.
Priscilla sat back in her chair, stunned. "You what?"
"I want to take over for Suzie," I said again.
"Everything?" Priscilla asked.
"Everything?" she asked again as her eyes bugged out.
Wow, I'd really made her day.
"All of her duties?" Priscilla asked.
I'd totally overwhelmed her with my generous offer, obviously.
"Of course," I told her.
"Oh, Haley." Priscilla slumped onto her desk. "You're a lifesaver."
I smiled my yes-I-know-I'm-great smile, confident that now Priscilla knew I was great, too.
"Suzie's leaving two weeks early created a real problem for me," she said, and heaved a big sigh. "This is wonderful."
"I'm glad I can help," I told her, still smiling.
"No, really, it's fantastic." Priscilla plastered her palms over her eyes for a few seconds, then shook herself. "I didn't know how I was going to handle everything."
She's totally impressed with me now, I thought.
"I knew it would be a nightmare," Priscilla went on.
I'm her favorite employee — ever, no doubt, I told myself.
"You've saved the day," she said. "Thank you, Haley. Thank you so much."
My yes-I-know-I'm-great smile was starting to wilt, so I left and headed back to my office.
Yes, this was a fantastic way to start my day and my campaign to secure permanent, full-time employment status. And surely it wouldn't be difficult. I mean, really, how many events could Suzie — almost nine months pregnant — be handling?
My future flashed in front of my eyes. After I proved myself with the flawless and exceptional execution of not only my events but Suzie's, too, I'd be a shoe-in for permanent, full-time employee status.
And I could quit my job at Holt's.CHAPTER 2
Meetings were, of course, the bane of every office employee's existence — especially when combined with a PowerPoint presentation guaranteed to dull the senses and numb the butt. I'd suffered through countless meetings in my long, arduous journey toward finding the perfect job, and had learned to survive by drawing on the skill-set I'd perfected in high school and college — looking as if I were paying attention while thinking about something fun.
Of course, cakes and cookies helped, too. I loaded my plate from the assortment on the refreshment table as everyone filed into L.A. Affairs' conference room. This was one of the many benefits I would continue to enjoy once I attained permanent, full-time status.
Vendors from our approved list provided us with scrumptious treats for our meetings at no charge, to keep reminding us how tasty their goods were so we'd keep booking them for events. While this wasn't illegal, it probably wasn't all that ethical — but, really, what did we care?
I helped myself to coffee from the refreshment table and headed for the chairs, which were set up theater style. At the front of the room was the podium. The video screen hadn't been pulled down from the ceiling, so there was still hope we could eat our snacks and get out fast, before this meeting cut into our lunch hour.
"Let's all be seated," Priscilla called, as she stepped up to the podium. "We have a great deal to cover today."
Priscilla didn't look as overwhelmed as when I'd stopped by her office earlier this morning. Obviously, my taking over Suzie's events in true superhero fashion had saved the day for her.
Damn. Wish I'd thought to wear a cape.
While my hard and fast rule on attending meetings was to sit in the back row — preferably behind a tall or large person where I could doze off as needed — I cut in front of two other girls and claimed the seat next to Eve, another of my L.A. Affairs' besties.
Eve knew all the office gossip — I mean, really, all of the office gossip — which made her my first choice in meeting buddies. Kayla sat down on the other side of me.
Everyone settled into a seat and the chatter died down. Priscilla started talking about some new vendors that had been added to our approved list. I popped a chocolate chip cookie into my mouth, and just as everything was starting to turn into blah-blah-blah, Kayla nudged me.
"This didn't take long," she whispered.
At the front of the room, Vanessa took over the podium. She was a little shorter than me and had black hair. Everything about Vanessa's appearance was perfect — her hair, her nails, her figure, her clothing, her styling — which was really irritating; if this were high school, I'd start rumors about her. Though she claimed she was only twenty-nine, I was willing to bet she'd made the turn into her thirties.
Vanessa began blabbing about her favorite subject — herself. As usual, she'd come up with another idea of how to better handle an event and felt compelled to share it with everyone — just as if we were interested. And, as usual, Vanessa had printed her suggestion on card stock — and included a photo of herself — that Priscilla was forced to hand out.
At this point, I drifted off.
I'd gotten a text from my best-friend-since-as-long-as-I-can-remember, Marcie Hanover, this morning. She'd been completely out of her mind over a new handbag she'd seen online — something I could totally understand.
While Marcie and I were different in appearance — she was blond and petite — we were in complete sync in our crazed devotion to designer handbags. We'd started a business selling knockoffs at purse parties that had brought in serious cash. Both of us were always on alert for the next "it" bag, and Marcie had definitely found one this morning.
I'd clicked on the link she'd sent and there before my eyes appeared the Sassy, the most gorgeous satchel I'd ever seen in to-die-for blue leather. My heart had actually started to beat faster at the sight. I absolutely had to have one — and I knew Marcie felt the same, which was why we were BFFs.
I munched on another chocolate chip cookie and let the Sassy satchel fill my mind as I mentally reviewed my wardrobe. A handbag in that particular shade of blue would look great with — wait. Hang on. The Sassy wouldn't go with anything I already owned. Oh, well. I'd just have to go shopping.
Just as I was visualizing Marcie and me hitting all our favorite stores, Kayla nudged me again.
"Yes, Haley has stepped up," Priscilla said, standing at the podium again, smiling and gesturing toward me.
Excerpted from Swag Bags and Swindlers by DOROTHY HOWELL. Copyright © 2015 Dorothy Howell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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