Murder Is a Piece of Cake - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

 

“Joshcy.” The man’s voice was followed by a crunch like a roof caving in. “Hwcjsh wejing ghocinng?”

Josie Marcus was pretty sure she wasn’t getting an obscene phone call at nine in the morning. Then the man added a wet slurp, followed by another massive crunch. What was he doing with that phone?

“Excuse me?” Josie asked. “Who is this?”

The gulp sounded like a boa constrictor swallowing a whole pig, followed by juicy smacking. “That was good,” he said.

Now Josie recognized the caller – Harry the Horrible, her boss at Suttin Services. Josie mystery-shopped for the company’s St. Louis office.

Harry repeated his question. “I asked how’s the wedding going? You and Dr. Ted ready to tie the knot?”

“Almost. It’s five weeks away,” Josie said. “What are you eating?”

“A deep-fried cheeseburger.” Satisfaction oozed from Harry’s voice. Even Josie’s phone seemed greasy. She wanted to wipe it down. She wanted to wipe out the picture of Harry forming in her mind: Her boss had a thick brown pelt all over his body – at least the parts Josie had had the misfortune to see. Harry had hair on his flabby arms, fish-belly ankles and stubby hands. Hair peeked through his straining shirt buttons, but so far Josie had been spared the full view of his chest.

Only Harry’s dome was follicle free. Mother Nature had compensated by giving him a luxuriant unibrow. 

“Thanks for your wedding invitation,” Harry said. “I can’t come, but I got you a present. Wait till you hear what it is.”

“You’re going to tell me before I unwrap it?” Josie asked.

“You don’t have to unwrap this gift,” Harry said. “It’s your latest mystery-shopping assignment. I want you to shop wedding flowers and wedding cakes for a St. Louis wedding Web site. You can go as yourself – a bride shopping for her wedding.”

He paused dramatically, like a game show host announcing a gigantic prize.

Harry’s serious, Josie thought. He really is giving me a good assignment as a present. Well, it is a gift. Working for Harry has been awkward since I reported that surly sales assistant. I didn’t realize Saber was his niece. She deserved to get fired.

Since then, Harry’s given me nothing but bad assignments. I even had to mystery-shop pig ear sandwiches – and eat one.

Niece or no niece, Josie lived by her code. Her mission was to protect Mrs. Minivan, her name for the backbone of America’s shoppers. Mrs. Minivan was overlooked, ignored and disrespected. Josie fought to right those wrongs against the average shopper.

“You want me to mystery-shop wedding flowers,” Josie said. “Do you mean all the flowers – the bouquets and boutonnieres, church flowers and reception centerpieces?”

“Naw, just the whatchamacallits for the reception,” he said. “The centerpieces. That’s why this assignment is a gift. It’s easy.”

It would be easy, Josie thought. She’d spent hours deciding whether her bridesmaids should carry bouquets or wear wrist corsages. International trade treaties were signed after less debate.

She’d take this gift – and hope Harry’s anger had finally cooled.

“I’ll do it,” Josie said.

“Good,” Harry said. “I’ll fax you the details. I need you to start today with a flower shop called Denise’s Dreams. They sell other stuff, but our client only cares about the flowers.”

“That’s near my house,” Josie said.

“See, I told you it was a present,” Harry said.

Josie heard a rustling noise and guessed Harry was stuffing his take-out box into his office trash.

“Did you really eat a deep-fried cheeseburger for breakfast?” she asked.

“You need protein for the first meal of the day,” Harry said. “I need man food. The Carnival Diner makes deep-fried cheeseburgers. The chef used to work at the state fair. You should try his chicken fried bacon.”

“Does he deep-fry the patties?” Josie asked. “How does he keep the cheese from melting away?”

 “The chef takes the whole cheeseburger,” Harry said. “Meat, cheese, pickles, bun and all – batters and deep fries it. The cheese turns into a warm pocket of melted goodness. His french fries are sensational.”

“They’re battered, too?” Josie asked.

“Of course not,” Harry said. “That would be stupid. You gonna go to work? That shop opens at nine-thirty. You’re supposed to be a bride on a budget at Denise’s Dreams. At the other two, you have to say money is no problem.”

“I’ve had plenty of experience with wedding budgets,” Josie said. She and her veterinarian fiancé, Ted Scottsmeyer, had agreed to follow a budget. But their plan kept encountering unexpected expenses. Josie knew their wedding cake would cost about seven hundred dollars, but she hadn’t factored in the fifty-dollar delivery fee. This job would help pay for the cake and the delivery.

She dressed quickly, pulled the still-warm mystery-shopping paperwork out of her fax machine, read it and tucked the pages into her purse.

On the way to Denise’s Dreams, she passed Ted’s veterinary clinic and checked the parking lot. It was crowded with cars, but the big blue St. Louis Mobo Pet van was gone. Ted was making house calls today while his partner Christine handled the clinic patients.

She turned the corner and saw Denise’s Dreams. The shop looked like a mid-century bride’s dream: a one-story white rambler with ruffled tie-back curtains and a picket fence.

Inside, the front room was devoted to flowers. The hothouse flower smell was sweetly overpowering. A big cooler along one wall was crammed with cold, colorful blossoms. Pink roses and blue hydrangeas were massed around the counter. On closer inspection, Josie saw those flowers were silk.

A young blonde in a ruffled dress with blue ribbons in her hair was behind counter, arranging pink gladioli in a glass vase.

Behind her, Josie could see a room with snow drifts of bridal veils. In a third room labeled “Hair Jewelry,” Josie glimpsed a blue velvet Victorian sofa and a showcase sparkling with tiaras and jeweled combs.

The beribboned and ruffled blonde smiled and said, “May I help you? My name is Molly.”

At first Josie thought the slender saleswoman was a girl. But the harsh morning light showed tiny lines around her eyes and mouth. Molly was at least thirty, but she dressed like a little girl going to a birthday party.

“I’d like some information about flowers for my wedding reception,” Josie said. “I’m getting married in five weeks. I’ve chosen everything but the reception flowers.”

“Are you on a budget?” Molly asked.

“Definitely,” Josie said. Two points in Molly’s favor, she thought. She’d greeted me promptly and asked if I was interested in budget offerings.

“May I suggest silk flowers for your reception,” Molly said. “These look real and after the wedding, you’ll have a lasting memento.”

“I like live plants,” Josie said.

“We have a fine selection of tropical plants you can rent,” Molly said. “You can also rent the vases for your centerpieces. That will save money, too. Let me show you.”

She plunked a heavy binder with sample photos on the counter and they paged through the samples. Josie was impressed with Molly’s sales pitch. She didn’t pressure, but she gave several useful options. Josie selected one and Molly prepared a contract.

“I can’t sign it until I show it to my fiancé,” Josie said.

“Denise, the owner, or Rita, the other sales associate, will be happy to help you when you come back,” Molly said. “I’m getting married next week. This is my last day at work. I’m going to be a full-time homemaker, the career I’ve always wanted.”

“Who’s your fiancé?” Josie asked.

“Ted,” Molly said, her eyes turning dreamy soft. “He’s so kind and handsome. He loves animals.”

“I’m engaged to a Ted, too,” Josie said. “He’s a veterinarian. Next week Channel Seven is coming to his clinic to tape a pilot for his new show, Dr. Ted’s Pet Vet Tips. Each week, Ted will talk about how to care for pets. His first show is how to clip a cat’s toenails.”

“I don’t like Channel Seven – or cats,” Molly said, and made a face. “I’m sure my Ted would have nothing to do with that awful TV station. And cats are sneaky.”

Josie didn’t like this double insult, but she was on the job. She searched for a polite answer. “Channel Seven does sensationalize the news,” she said. “But

Ted’s show will be part of their community service programming. Once his show gets going he can move to a better station. I wasn’t a big fan of cats, either, until we got our cat, Harry. Now my daughter and I love him. He’s funny.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Molly asked. “I’m a dog lover. I have a little white Maltese, Bella. When is your Ted’s TV show taping?”

“Next Tuesday at eleven,” Josie said.

“That’s my wedding day,” Molly said.

Josie could see she was lost again in bridal dreams.

“Congratulations,” she said. “I think you were such a big help because we have so much in common.”

Next Tuesday, Josie would find out exactly how much they had in common.