Half-Priced Homicide - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

“I need to see Vera right away,” the pocket-sized blonde said. Her voice was a sweet whisper.

Helen Hawthorne could barely see the woman’s curly head over the counter. She reminded Helen of a cream pie with her high-piled sugar-white hair and lush curves. A size two, Helen estimated, based on her years in retail.

Cutie-pie was no tourist vacationing in Fort Lauderdale. She belonged on fashionable Las Olas Boulevard. But Helen figured Cutie-pie would pay full price for her skimpy white dress, not hunt used bargains at Snapdragon’s Second Thoughts.

Cutie-pie dropped a stack of soiled men’s shirts on the counter. They landed with a thud that told Helen extra starch wasn’t what weighed them down. She hoped the dark red stain on the white shirt was ketchup.

“Do you have any dry cleaning for pickup?” Helen asked.

Cutie-Pie looked around as though checking for spies, then said, “Tell Vera it’s Angelina Jolie. It’s urgent.”

This Angelina wasn’t bringing up babies with Brad Pitt. Vera gave all her prime clothing sources celebrity code names. Vera had to make sure the up-and-coming lawyers, businesswomen and social butterflies who bought her designer consignment didn’t travel in the same circles as the sellers. Selling your barely worn clothes was a worse faux pas than sleeping with your friend’s husband. Like adultery, the real sin was getting caught.

But Vera cleverly provided Cutie-pie and her selling sisters good excuses to come into the store. Snapdragon’s also did first-rate dry cleaning and sold expensive knickknacks. Cutie-pie could say she was at Snapdragon’s doing her wifely duty and dropping off hubbie’s shirts.

“She’s in the back room,” Helen said. “I’ll get her.”

“Hurry,” the blonde said. “He can’t know I’m here.”

The sellers were always in a hurry. What if a friend came in to sell her castoffs? The shame would set off seismic shudders in their circle.

Helen didn’t run through the narrow store, packed with high-priced clutter. But her long, loping stride covered several yards at a time. She cut through bins of dirty laundry, dodged a display of designer purses, tiptoed past the Waterford and powered through the consignment clothes racks. Versace, Gucci, True Religion and other designer names flashed by.

After running nearly a block through this pricey obstacle course, Helen stopped at the print curtains leading to the office of Vera Salinda, Snapdragon’s owner.

She could hear a man’s voice say, “What do you think of me now? Do you love me?” His voice was the sort of whisper that made good women do naughty things.

Vera’s was light and teasing. “Love you? Keep performing like this and I’ll marry you.”

Oops, Helen thought. I’m interrupting a private moment.

“Please, hurry!” Cutie-Pie pleaded. Helen could hear her all the way in the back of the store.

Helen knocked on the door jamb, and Vera said, “Come in.”

Helen tried not to stare at the man next to Vera, but he was a fallen angel with a narrow waist, broad shoulders, and artfully tousled golden hair. He seemed surrounded by sunshine. Or maybe it was a halo.

“This is Roger,” Vera said.

“Who should be leaving,” Roger said.

“No, don’t go,” Vera said. “I still need you. I’ll be right back. Wait here.” She pulled the print curtains shut. Helen and Vera stepped into a dressing room. Vera’s sleek dark hair was like an ax blade. Her plump red lips looked like fresh blood. Her pearl white skin had an otherwordly glow in the underlit room.

“What?” she asked Helen.

“Angelina Jolie is here,” Helen said. “She wants to see you. She says it’s urgent.”

“Hell’s bells,” Vera said. “Not her. The only thing worse would be Kate Winslet.”

Vera hurried toward the front, adjusting her blood-red mouth into a scary smile. Tight black Versace jeans and a pink tank top showed off her gym-toned body.

Helen picked up the Windex and started cleaning the costume jewelry case, where she could watch and listen, but not be noticed. Snapdragon’s odd acoustics amplified voices.

“Chrissy Martlet, how are you?” Vera asked. She swung her cutting-edge hairstyle and leaned on the counter. Muscles rippled under her hot pink top.

“In a hurry,” Chrissy said. Her sweet breathy voice was a breeze through a bakery. “I have something to show you.”

She moved the soiled shirts to reveal a brown leopard-print purse with a Prada logo. “It’s a pony-hair purse. Still has the original tags and the certificate of authenticity.”

Pony hair, Helen thought. A purse made from a baby horse? She decided the material wasn’t any creepier than calfskin.

Vera ran her fingers over the gold Prada logo, prodded the hairy purse with her long, bone-white fingers, and unzipped it. Helen saw the brown signature lining.

“It’s the real deal,” Vera said. “I can sell it for four ninety five.”

Chrissy went even whiter. “What? That means I’ll only get half. Two hundred fifty dollars.”

“Two forty-seven fifty,” Vera corrected. “And that’s if I sell it.”

“I can’t do anything with that kind of money,” Chrissy said. Her sweet whisper changed to a thin vinegar whine. “That purse was three thousand dollars.”

“It’s like a car, Chrissy. Once you drive it off the lot, it loses its value. Leopard print is so last year.” Vera’s voice was harder than her fake nails.

“What about Tansey? Call her. She’ll take it.” Chrissy couldn’t hide her desperation.

Chrissy must be a regular, Helen thought, if she knows the names of the women who buy her clothes.

“Tansey hasn’t been buying,” Vera said. “Her ad agency is laying off staff.”

“Couldn’t you give me a little more money? I have the tags and the receipts. Unlike some of your sources, I don’t steal.”

“Nobody cares about your receipts,” Vera said.

“The police would.”

Chrissy returned to sweet-talking. “Please, Vera. You know me. My code name is – ”

“I know your real identity, Angelina,” Vera said, quickly cutting her off. “Hush. You never know who could walk in.”

With a screech of brakes, a black BMW with a grill like a hungry mouth slid into the loading zone in front of the shop. The driver’s door slammed. A man filled the shop door, blocking out the harsh August sun.

Chrissy looked frightened. “It’s Danny,” she whispered. “I think my husband followed me here. He’s getting suspicious. That’s why I asked your girl to hurry.” Chrissy hastily dropped the soiled shirts back on top the pony-hair purse.

Big didn’t begin to describe Danny Martlet. He was dark and threatening as a thunderstorm. His black eyebrows were like low-hanging clouds. His eyes flashed with barely controlled anger. He wore a navy suit, but didn’t sweat in the sweltering August heat.

“Chrissy, pumpkin, you’re up early,” he said. “It’s not even noon.” His smile showed sharp teeth that made Helen shudder.

“I’m taking your shirts in for laundering.” Chrissy’s voice trembled slightly. “Vera is the best dry cleaner in town. I want only the best for my hard-working man.”

“Be sure and show her that ketchup stain on my white shirt,” Danny said. He grabbed the Hugo Boss shirt, exposing the pony-hair purse.

“What’s that?” he said.

“It’s a purse,” Chrissy said.

“I can see it’s a purse. I also see that Gucci bag on your shoulder. Since when do you carry two purses? Are you trying to spend twice as much of my money?”

Helen heard him accent that “my.”

“No. I must have picked it up by accident.”

“Unless you were trying to sell it. This is a designer consignment shop. Was she bringing in that purse to sell, Vera?”

“I told her leopard print is so last season,” Vera said.

“You didn’t answer my question, Vera,” Danny said. “You sell designer clothes on consignment and my wife is addicted to logos.”

“So what if I am?” Chrissy exploded. “You want me to look better than all the other wives, but you won’t give me any money.”

“I don’t trust you around cash, sweetie,” Danny said. “It disappears at the touch of your little white fingers. But I let you shop as much as you want. You have unlimited credit at Neiman-Marcus, Gucci, Prada and every other major shop from here to Miami.”

“Did it ever occur to you I might want my own money?” Little Chrissy looked like a Chihuahua yapping at a Doberman.

“Then get off your lazy ass and make some,” Danny said.

“I can’t! I gave up my acting career when I married you.”

“I hardly think a mattress commercial and a straight-to-DVD movie counts as an acting career,” Danny said.

“I didn’t have a chance to develop my art,” Chrissy said.

Danny snorted. “The only acting you do is in the sack.” He meanly mimicked a woman in the throes of pretend passion: “‘Oh, Danny, more. More. More.’ More sex or more shopping, dear heart?”

Helen kept her head down and scrubbed the already clean display case. This was way too much information. They were talking so loud, she felt like she was inside their argument.

Danny’s diatribe was interrupted by the clip-clop of high heels. A jingle of bells signaled Snapdragon’s door was opening. Vera slipped between the warring couple and said, “Continue your conversation elsewhere, please.”

Danny dragged his wife by the arm to the back of the store. There was a tiny tinkling sound in their wake. Helen found a woman’s diamond Rolex wristwatch on the floor. Was it Chrissy’s?

She heard a dressing room door slam. She waited, then knocked on the door. Chrissy and Danny were facing each other in the cramped space. Her face was bright red.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Helen said. “Is this your watch, Chrissy?”

“Yes, thank you. The clasp is loose. That’s my next errand.” She absently fastened it on her wrist as her husband shut the door in Helen’s face. She caught snatches of their argument over the store’s low background music.

“What do you mean, am I cheating on you?” Danny said.

“I saw the way you stared at her last night!” Chrissy said.

“I wasn’t looking at her designer dress, that’s for sure.”

“No, you were looking at her fake tits,” Chrissy said. “Mine are real. So are my designer dresses. She wore a knock-off and everyone knew it.”

“And none of the men cared,” her husband taunted.

“You don’t love me anymore,” Chrissy said. “You want rid of me. That’s why you’re following me around. You want a divorce.”

“Cut the melodrama,” Danny said. “If I wanted you gone, your ass would be out the door. Gone. Over and out. Understand?”