“I can’t believe anyone would pay a thousand dollars for a scarf,” Alyce Bohannon said.
“Excuse me,” Josie Marcus said, “but aren’t you the woman who spent a thousand bucks for kitchen knives?”
“Those weren’t kitchen knives,” Alyce said. “Those were carbon-steel blades from Williams-Sonoma. They were works of art.”
“And this scarf isn’t?” Josie said. “Look at that color: Halley blue. It’s three-dimensional. Feel it. It’s Italian silk. The weight is perfect. It drapes beautifully.”
Josie loved Halley blue. It was deeper than sky blue and richer than the color made famous by Maxfield Parrish. It was the blue of a bottomless lake. The color was magical with any skin tone from vanilla white to dark chocolate.
Josie held the scarf up to her face, reveling in its luxurious feel. Next to a Halley-blue scarf, her plain brown hair had glamorous red highlights and her brown eyes were deep and exotic. Her ordinary looks were her fortune, or at least her living. Josie was the ideal mystery shopper, able to melt into any mall. She couldn’t wear a scarf that made her stand out.
She traced the swirling bird-and-bluebell design with a manicured finger. Like all good designs, it was simple yet sophisticated.
“Josie, quit fondling that scarf before security picks us up,” Alyce said. “It’s pretty. But I could buy one almost as good at Target for thirty bucks.”
“I could buy a whole drawer full of knives there for the same price,” Josie said.
Alyce winced. “OK, so I’m conventional. I like my art in a frame.”
Josie held the blue and white scarf against Alyce’s milk white skin. The fabulous scarf turned her eyes into sapphire smoke and her pale hair into platinum silk.
“When you wear something this beautiful,” Josie said, “you are the frame for the art.”
“Honey, I’m the whole exhibition.” Alyce looked down at her generous curves. “I’m not built to be a clothes horse, Josie. I’m too practical to spend money on something that isn’t useful.”
“Nothing in Pretty Things is useful,” Josie said. “That’s the whole point of this boutique. I wish I could afford this.”
“You mean they don’t give you a thousand bucks to spend here as a mystery shopper?”
“Not so loud,” Josie said. “I’m supposed to be a secret shopper.”
“We’re housewives,” Alyce said. “We’re invisible. Those skinny sales associates are too busy being hip to notice us.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get them,” Josie said. “I have thirty dollars to spend here, but it’s not going to be easy to find something.”
“How about those gold earrings?” Alice said.
“You have excellent taste. They’re two hundred dollars,” Josie said. “I may be able to buy a scarf ring for the scarf I can’t afford. That’s twenty-eight dollars.”
“You know she lives on our street,” Alyce said.
“Who?” Josie said.
“Halley. Her house is trimmed in Halley blue. That color is a little loud for shutters.”
“Let me buy that scarf ring, and we can get out of here and talk,” Josie said.
Only one sales associate was free. “Saber,” her name tag said. She had dark red hair and an air of chic exhaustion. Saber ignored Josie and stared straight ahead.
Josie recognized her type. Saber was a Captive Princess. The Captive Princess knew the universe had made a terrible mistake. She wasn’t a salesclerk. She was royalty brought low. She did customers a favor by deigning to wait on them. They should be serving her. The Captive Princess took every opportunity to let the customers know they were inferior.
A lesser shopper would have begged, “Can anyone help me?”
Josie kept silent. She counted the minutes ticking off on her watch. One. Two. Three. At three minutes and fifty-two seconds, Saber finally said, “May I help you?”
“I’ll take this,” Josie said.
Saber picked up the inexpensive scarf ring with two fingers, as if it were a cockroach. “Anything else?” Saber was nearly paralyzed with ennui.
“This is enough.” Josie smiled sweetly. She couldn’t wait to write her report.
“You from New York?” Saber said.
“No,” Josie said.
“I figured you didn’t buy that here,” she said, with a nod toward Josie’s garage-sale Escada. “St. Louis is too Dutch and dumb.”
“That’s not fair,” Alyce burst out.
Josie was surprised. Alyce rarely spoke when she was mystery-shopping with Josie. But she was a fierce defender of St. Louis. She hated to admit her city had any flaws.
Saber stared at Alyce’s blue silk pantsuit. “How old is that?” She didn’t bother to hide her contempt.
“I buy classic styles,” Alyce said. “It’s five years old. OK, six.”
“Old enough to start school,” Saber said. “Too old to wear. That’s why Halley is moving her business to New York. St. Louisans have no style. New Yorkers understand fashion. This cow town doesn’t.”
Saber slouched into the back room and slammed the door.
“Thank you for shopping at Pretty Things,” Josie said to the air.
Alyce stood there, open-mouthed. “Did you hear what that little snip said?”
“There goes her score for personal service,” Josie said.
“How can she say that about St. Louis?” Alyce said.
“Uh, I hate to agree with Saber, but nobody would call us a fashion capital.”
“Some of the richest women in the world live here,” Alyce said.
“And buy their clothes in New York and Paris,” Josie said. “Where do your friends get their clothes? Chico’s, Ann Taylor, and Talbot’s?”
“There’s nothing wrong with those stores,” Alyce said. “They give good value.”
“Absolutely,” Josie said. “But they aren’t cutting-edge. Find one high-style woman in this mall.”
“Right at the end of that counter.” Alyce was too polite to point, but she radiated well-bred triumph. Josie followed her gaze to a classic type, the lady who lunched. The woman’s ash-blond hair was lacquered into impossible swirls. Her patrician nose was so heavily powdered, Josie wondered if she was hiding the telltale veins of a tippler. Some of those lunches were very wet.
“That’s a designer suit, isn’t it?” Alyce said. “That lumpy pink, green, and yellow weave looks like oatmeal with sprinkles. She’s wearing it with a mustard blouse. Those colors are so bizarre, she has to be rich.”
“Her suit is Chanel,” Josie said. “The bag is Kate Spade.”
“What about the scarf?” Alyce said.
“What scarf?” Josie said.
“She had a Halley-blue scarf in her hand a minute ago. She took it off the counter.”
“Alyce, there were three scarves on that counter,” Josie said. “I looked at one and put it back. You say she had the other. Now there are two. I bet she took it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think she stuffed it in her purse,” Josie said.
“Tell someone. You’re mystery-shopping this store.”
“Don’t have to. Security is already on the alert.”
“Where?” Alyce said.
“See that woman pawing the evening shawls by the door? Her hair is too black to be a customer here. She does her own color. No high-style salon would let a woman over forty walk out with coal-black hair. It drains the color from her skin and makes it look yellow. Also, it’s too short to be flattering for her face.”
“Why not grow it longer?” Alyce asked.
“If it’s short, suspects can’t grab it. Besides, her shoes are lace-ups.”
“So she likes comfortable shoes,” Alyce said. “She’s wearing a nice suit.”
“It’s secondhand, like mine. The hem’s been let down. I can see the line. She’s probably an ex-cop: Her shoes tie so she can chase suspects. Slip-ons would slip off when she ran.”
“She’s letting Ms. Chanel get away,” Alyce said. “The shoplifter is heading for the exit.”
“Security is playing it smart to avoid a false arrest,” Josie said. “The suspect has to be out of the store or she can say she meant to pay for the scarf. See the hard-faced blonde near the cash register? She’s the other security person.”
“How do you know this?” Alyce asked.
“Malls are my life,” Josie said. “I can’t tell you how many takedowns I’ve seen. Watch this one.”
The two security women tailed Ms. Chanel out the door. Josie followed the trio into the mall and took a seat on a marble bench near a planter. Between the leaves, she had a prime view of Ms. Chanel. Alyce sat beside her. “What –”
“Shhh,” Josie said. “The show’s started.”
The black-haired security woman flashed her ID at Ms. Chanel. “I’m with Pretty Things Enterprises, ma’am,” she said. “I’d like to ask you about the Halley scarf you have in your bag.”
“I am sure you are mistaken.” Ice encrusted each perfectly enunciated word.
“Please return to the store, ma’am, so we can clear up this matter.”
“I do not wish to return,” Ms. Chanel said. “I shall call my attorney. I have the receipt here.”
She pulled a receipt from her purse. Josie thought the blond security woman turned a shade paler. But the black-haired one studied the receipt, then gave a small smile. “Your receipt was issued at nine ten today at our Clayton location, ma’am. It’s eleven fifteen at the Dorchester Mall. You’re using an old receipt with a new scarf. Step inside, please, so we can discuss it.”
“I’m sure it’s a problem with your cash register,” Ms. Chanel said, but she didn’t resist when security steered her inside the store and escorted her to a door behind a Japanese screen. The scene was conducted so quietly, the customers didn’t notice.
“An old scam,” Josie said. “Ms. Chanel buys an expensive item at one store in the chain, and keeps the receipt in her purse. Then she goes to another store and shoplifts the same item. If she’s caught, she tries to convince security it’s a mistake. If she gets away with it, she’ll return it for cash at a third store in the chain, or sell it on eBay.”
“Do you think she’s a pro?” Alyce asked.
“No, a professional would have spotted security closing in and dumped the scarf or paid for it. She’s an amateur getting a thrill and a five-finger discount. I’ll bet her mortified family will bail her out, and it won’t be the first time they’ve had to deal with Mummy’s hobby. She’s pretty good, but security was alert.”
Bass thumps from loud hip-hop vibrated down the corridor, drowning out the soft classical music on the mall’s speakers.
Josie sighed. “I try to appreciate that music,” she said. “It’s supposed to be modern poetry.”
“Yeah, a lot of words rhyme with ‘bitch,’ ” Alyce said. “A store like the Gangsta Boyz Home is out of place at the Dorchester. Josie, you have to agree with that.”
Three baggy-pantsed teens came out of the Gangsta Boyz Home and shoved their way through the mall crowd, leaving behind a trail of outraged glares.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to shop with gangstas,” Alyce said. “I don’t feel safe. Jake would be furious if he knew I was at the Dorchester Mall. He made me promise I wouldn’t go here anymore.”
Statements like that made Josie glad she wasn’t married. She didn’t like making promises to a man – or sneaking around when she broke them.
“Jake’s afraid you’ll be attacked by the cane-and-walker crowd in Cissy’s Tea Shoppe?”
“Don’t be silly. Everyone knows crime is out of control at the Dorchester Mall, and it’s the fault of the Gangsta Boyz Home. All the good stores are moving out. I don’t know why it’s here.”
“Because the Dorchester invited them. The mall put in a gangsta clothes store and a video arcade. Those businesses aren’t for the tea shop crowd.”
“But why?” Alyce said. “Our crowd is so well-behaved.”
“And so tightfisted,” Josie said. “The women who shop here buy one cashmere sweater at Lord & Taylor and wear it twenty years. You can’t keep a mall open with that kind of spending. The mall wanted a younger crowd who spent money on clothes, sneakers, and CDs.”
“Instead, they brought in the people who shoplift them.”
“Alyce!” Josie said.
“Well, it’s true. Lucy Anne Hardesty’s mother had her purse stolen when she left the tearoom. The young thug broke her elbow. Ruined her golf game. Another friend was held up in the Dorchester parking lot.”
“I haven’t seen anything about a crime wave in the papers,” Josie said.
“Jake says that’s because the Dorchester is a major advertiser in the St. Louis City Gazette. Jake says they’re not going to report a rise in crime and risk the mall pulling its ads. ”
That was the other thing Josie hated about her married friends. The women quoted their husbands as if they didn’t have a thought in their heads. Yet Josie knew Alyce had put Jake through law school.
“Jake says – ”
“Hey! You! Stop!”
Josie saw one of the tough teenagers racing down the marble concourse, clutching something in his huge hands. The security guard made a flying tackle and brought the kid down hard. They rolled on the floor, while another guard jumped on top of the young man. A third yelled, “Call 911.”
“Those security guards are good,” Alyce said.
“They’re stupid,” Josie said. “Subduing a suspect like that is the best way to get slapped with a lawsuit. The kid’s bleeding. They hurt him. What did he take, anyway?”
“A biography of Donald Rumsfeld,” Alyce said. “Why would he steal a book when he could get it free at the library?”
“He isn’t going to read it,” Josie said. “He’s going to take it to another store in the chain and try to get a refund. If he can’t get cash, he’ll use the store credit to buy a CD. Where are his friends?”
“I don’t see them anywhere,” Alyce said. “I guess they took off.”
“Unless he was supposed to create a diversion for the real action,” Josie said. She heard a popping sound.
“Is that a car backfiring inside the mall?” Alyce said.
“It’s a gunshot,” Josie said, and pushed Alyce down under the bench. Two young men with shaved heads were running for the stairs.
“Help me!” A young woman with wide dark eyes, four eyebrow rings, and spiky pink hair staggered out of the athletic-shoe store three doors away. Her face was bleached with shock. She could only talk in short gasps. “Two men. With dreads. They’ve got a gun. They held up our store.”
Six shoppers with cell phones simultaneously punched in 911.
Josie ran to the young woman’s side. Her name tag said “Courtney.”
“Are you OK, Courtney?”
“I’m fine,” she said, but her teeth were chattering. Josie picked a sweatshirt off a display rack and wrapped it around her. Josie saw blue smoke and smelled cordite. “What happened? Did they try to shoot you?”
“They shot the cash register. Two guys in Crips clothes came in.” Courtney stopped to catch her breath. “The tall one had a Glock 9. It looked like the ones on TV. He said he’d shoot me if I didn’t open the cash register. My hands were shaking so bad, I couldn’t hit the keys. He pushed me aside and blasted the register. He scooped up four hundred dollars. His friend grabbed three pairs of athletic shoes. They got away with a thousand dollars all together.”
“But you’re not hurt,” Josie said.
“No,” Courtney said. “Except my ears are ringing. Shit. I don’t want to cry.”
Josie gave her a handful of tissues, and she dabbed angrily at her face, smearing her dark eye makeup. “I’ve never had a gun pointed at me before.”
Alyce poured a cup of coffee at the courtesy counter. It was black as old motor oil. Courtney took a sip and made a face, but she drank it.
“I can’t believe they’d hold up a mall shop in broad daylight,” Alyce said.
“It’s that freaking gangsta store,” Courtney said. “I don’t care if the manager did give me a raise. It’s not worth it. Today’s my last day.” She tore off her name tag and threw it on the counter.
Mall security and uniformed cops rushed through the store door. Josie and Alyce faded out the side entrance. They hadn’t seen the holdup and didn’t want to be questioned by the police.
“I need some coffee,” Alyce said. “Let’s go downstairs.”
They stopped at a kiosk for double lattes, then plopped down on the wrought-iron chairs in the mall’s indoor garden. A pink froth of flowers poured from terra cotta pots. Sunlight streamed through the skylights in shimmering shafts. The fountain’s soft patter soothed them.
“This is such a beautiful mall,” Alyce said. “It’s a shame I’ll never come back.”
“Why? Because you saw two thefts? That goes on at every mall in America.”
“Not where I shop,” Alyce said.
“Yes, it does,” Josie said. “I’ve seen the statistics: One million Americans shoplift every day. They boost roughly twenty thousand dollars a minute. I know the gangsta kids looked scary, but what really happened? A white woman stole a thousand dollars and so did some black kids.”
“No, you can’t explain it away, Josie,” Alyce said. “An old woman who shoplifts a scarf and an armed robbery are not the same. That holdup was frightening. Maybe I’m sheltered, but I like my life. I’ll never come back here again, not even for you.”
Josie shrugged. “OK, if that’s how you feel.”
“I do. My suburban neighbors can be crooks, but we don’t shoot people in malls.”
“You just hold them up on paper,” Josie said.
“That isn’t funny,” Alyce said.
It wasn’t. Soon more gunshots would shatter their lives. Nothing for Alyce and Josie would ever be the same.