“I want this party to be perfect,” Tammie Grimsby said. “But I can’t take any stress. No stress at all.”
Oh, brother, Helen Hawthorne thought. The only stress in this woman’s life was on her spandex.
Tammie’s teeny white shorts showed the divide in her peachlike posterior. Her sports bra revealed considerable cleavage. Tammie’s stupendous diaphragm development produced a disappointing little-girl voice. The effect was outrageously, ridiculously sexy.
Why do I always get the weird customers? Helen wondered. But she knew the answer to that question. She was working in a weird business.
“This is a birthday party, right?” Helen said. She took the party orders at Jeff and Ray’s shop.
“For twenty guests.” Tammie sighed, and her implants heaved like ships in a storm-tossed sea. “My little boy must be the star.”
“What about a birthday cake?” Helen said. “Customers love our peanut-butter cakes.”
“Peanut butter makes my baby boy sick,” Tammie said.
“How about a nice garlic-chicken cake with yogurt icing?” Helen said.
“No cake, period,” Tammie said. “With twenty guests, there will be fights. Besides, they’re all on diets. I don’t know why I did this to myself. It’s too much stress.”
Tammie had invited twenty tiny dogs to her Yorkie’s birthday party. Helen guessed they would all be white fluff muffins, except the birthday boy. Malteses, bichon frises and shih tzus, all yipping, yapping, sniffing and shedding. Dust mop dogs. The whole party wouldn’t weigh as much as the well-toned Tammie.
Helen repeated the party line. “The Barker Brothers Pampered Pet Boutique in Fort Lauderdale prides itself on perfect pet parties,” she said solemnly. “Your Prince will have the best birthday money can buy.” If I can get his airhead owner to concentrate long enough, she thought.
Prince sat regally in the crook of Tammie’s arm. The Yorkie had the calculating eyes of a con artist.
“My itty-bitty baby eats only the finest filet. I have to hand-feed him,” Tammie said.
Right, Helen thought. I’d live on filet, too, if I could get away with it. On her pay, she was lucky she could afford hamburger.
The beady-eyed Yorkie stared at Helen, as if daring her to disagree. She didn’t begrudge the dog its soft life. Prince paid a high price for his filet. Helen saw the intelligence in the dark eyes, and felt oddly sorry for the little Yorkie. Prince could manipulate the addlepated Tammie, but he knew he was stuck with her. Helen was glad Prince was a five-pound dog. If he had two legs, the Yorkie could run a drug ring – or the country.
Tammie picked up the little dog, kissed his nose, and baby-talked, “You’re a particular puppy, aren’t you? Oh, yes you are.”
At twenty, fluffy blond Tammie must have been endearing. At forty, she was annoying. Rather like some of the Pampered Pet’s pampered pets, Helen thought sadly. Cute didn’t always age well.
“Those birthday cakes are ugly. Can’t you do something more artistic?” Tammie said.
Helen didn’t know how to answer her question. The cakes were bone-shaped, iced in white and decorated with sugar roses. Could you make a sugared bone more artistic?
Helen needed the shop diplomat. She signaled Jeff, one of the owners. Jeffrey Tennyson Barker looked like an elegant pedigreed pet himself, with his long nose, sensitive spaniel eyes, and thick brown hair.
The Pampered Pet was his baby. Jeff took a touching delight in his upscale boutique. He fussed endlessly over its racks of dresses and fake furs, jewelry showcases, and the glass cases of bonbons on lace doilies, all for dogs. The store also had a salon for grooming canine hair and nails. Jeff loved pleasing customers, even the impossible ones like Tammie.
“If you don’t want a cake, may I suggest our doggie bags?” Jeff said.
He pulled out a small bag dotted with black paw prints. “We fill it with treats for your guests. Each treat is beautifully prepared.”
They were, too. The display case’s pastel bonbons were delicately iced and decorated. They were all canine treats: doggie doughnuts, Barkin-Robbins ice cream cones, lady paws, and pupcakes – miniature cupcakes with sprinkles. Each doggie delicacy ran between one and three bucks.
“We’ll put together a tasteful bag for your guests,” Jeff said. “I’ll have some doggie treats from the bin for flavor and others from the glass case for color.”
Jeff lifted the lid on the bulk bin and picked out a cheese-and-bacon treat. His dog, Lulu, a beagle-dachshund mix, shot out of the back room like a guided missile. Her supersonic hearing could detect the opening of the bulk bin, although Helen’s ears caught no sound. Lulu stared at Jeff with soulful, slightly popped eyes. She adored cheese and bacon.
Tammie looked at the plain brown treat doubtfully. It seemed homely after the dainty dog bonbons frosted in organic icing.
“My Prince won’t eat that. He’s too picky,” Tammie said.
She set the Yorkie on the floor, reached into the bulk bin, and pelted him with cheese-and-bacon treats. Prince jumped back, surprised and confused. Lulu scarfed up the treats before the Yorkie could recover.
“See? He’s picky,” Tammie said.
Prince found a bit of turkey jerky Lulu had left on the floor and gnawed it happily.
“He seems to like that,” Helen said, pointing to the double-dog-slobbered jerky.
But Tammie was pawing through the racks of dog clothes. “I need a special outfit for my doggie on his day. Ooooh, this is perfect.”
She pulled out a blue sweatshirt embroidered with PRINCE. It had a matching bandana with a silver crown. Tammie shoved the dog’s head and front paws into the shirt. The outfit hung on him.
“Ooh. It’s too big.” Tammie stuck out her lower lip in a pout. She also stuck out her chest, giving Helen a look at more cleavage.
“It will have to be tailored,” Jeff said.
“I can take it to Evie, the seamstress,” she said. “The party’s this evening, but if I pay extra, she’ll fix it. But that’s sooo stressful.”
“How about a nice red shirt with ‘Happy Birthday’?” Helen said.
That shirt was a better fit, but Tammie wasn’t happy. “That color does nothing for his hair.”
“A leather Harley vest?” Helen said.
“Too hot,” Tammie said. “The blue will photograph best. Evie will just have to tailor it. The people at our country club are so snobby. They always ask: ‘What are you wearing? Where did you buy that?’ I don’t care about those things. I just put on this.” She indicated her exercise outfit with a flourish, like Vanna picking a letter. “I’m a very simple person.”
“I can see,” Helen said.
Jeff shot Helen a warning look. Tammie bent over to fish her cell phone out of her purse, and gave Helen another unwanted peek into her silicone valley. Tammie arranged an emergency tailoring session while Jeff rang up two-hundred-dollars’ worth of treats for the dog’s birthday.
“You’ll decorate the doggie bags?” Tammie said when she snapped her phone shut.
“Certainly,” Jeff said. “We’ll put colored ribbons on the bags. Does your party have a theme color, such as red or blue? Or would you prefer a rainbow assortment?"
"No rainbow," Tammie said. "I don't want anyone to think my dog is gay."
“My dog is a diesel dyke,” Jeff said sweetly.
Lulu stared at him. The Yorkie piddled on the floor. Helen wiped it up.
“My Princey needs his hair done for the party,” Tammie said. “How can I have him groomed if we have to go to the seamstress? I want this party perfect, but I can’t take the stress. I just can’t.”
“We have a delivery service,” Jeff said. “We can pick up your dog or take him home, or both. Do you want to leave him with us now for grooming? Helen will bring him back to your home for a small fee.”
Actually, it was a stupendous fee. But the customers didn’t seem to mind.
“No, silly, he has a fitting at the seamstress’s, remember? It’s ten o’clock now. Can your girl pick him up at noon? He has to be back home by four. The party is at six and Prince needs a nap before his big night.”
Jeff checked the date book. “No problem. Jonathon can take Prince.”
Jeff pronounced the name with awe. Jonathon was the prima donna assoluta of the Lauderdale grooming world. He was famous for his towering rages, which made him suddenly pack up his case of supersharp scissors and move to yet another grooming salon. He’d been at the Barker Brothers for six weeks now, and Jeff gloried in the groomer’s full date book.
“Good,” Tammie said. “I’ll just go back and meet the groomer.”
“No!” Panic smothered Jeff’s pride. “Jonathon hates visitors.” The star’s contract guaranteed him no personal contact with salon customers, and he’d quit other grooming shops when it had been violated.
But Tammie the gym rat easily outdistanced the sedentary Jeff. There was a shriek and a yelp from the grooming room, followed by an anguished cry: “I am an artist. I cannot work like this.”
His precious Jonathon was in distress. Jeff sped to his rescue. “Coming!” he shouted. Helen followed.
The star was majestic in his outrage – and his outfit. He wore a flaring royal purple satin disco suit.
“Get this bitch out of here,” Jonathon said. The gold medallion at his neck quivered with rage.
“Don’t you dare call him that. Prince is an unneutered male,” Tammie screamed.
“I wasn’t talking about the dog,” Jonathon said. His face was an unfortunate puce, which clashed with his purple suit.
Jonathon’s vintage seventies suit was outshone by his magnificent mane, streaked seven shades of blond. It was the envy of any woman who entered a beauty salon. Helen had never seen a hint of dark roots. She suspected Jonathon did his own hair at home with a complicated system of mirrors. Helen had no idea when Jonathon had the time. His own body rivaled Tammie’s for gym-produced perfection. He had a cleft chin, a chiseled Roman nose, and the tiniest feet Helen had ever seen on a six-foot man. That was probably why his purple platform shoes didn’t look like concrete blocks.
“You called me a – a –” Tammie’s teeny brain balked at the enormity of the insult.
“Please,” Jeff said. “It’s an honor to have your dog done by Jonathon.”
“Is it an honor to be insulted by that fruit?” she said.
“Every great artist has temperament,” Jeff soothed. “Everyone at your party will recognize a Jonathon cut.”
That did it. Tammie craved Jonathon’s cachet. She swallowed the insult. Jonathon’s complexion lapsed into a light lavender. The crisis was averted.
Todd, another groomer, came running out of the grooming room. In his simple jeans and T-shirt, he looked like a peasant boy next to the princely Jonathon. The effect was deceptively innocent.
“Tammie,” Todd said, “I’m so sorry he said those things to you. Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” Tammie said, her voice saccharine sweet. “I know what he is, just like I know what you are. Dare I say it in front of everyone? You’re looking in the pink.” She laughed. “And how are your dear parents? Mummy still famous for her entertaining in Okeechobee? Daddy still in silver trading?”
Todd looked stung.
Jeff stepped between them. He gave Todd a diplomatic shove back into the grooming room, then gently guided Tammie and Prince toward the door. “Helen will stop by your home at noon to pick up Prince,” he said.
“Tammie, where the hell are you?” A hulking figure darkened the grooming salon doorway. Helen couldn’t make out the face, but the guy was built like Shrek. Too bad he wasn’t as nice as the Disney troll.
“What’s taking you so long?” he said. “Quit standing around yapping. You’re worse than that damned dog.”
“Coming, Kent, sweetie,” she said. She scuttled out the door, Prince clutched protectively in her arms.
Jeff looked relieved. Helen wondered how long the troll had been there, listening to Tammie and Jonathon scream at each other.
The boutique’s bell rang.
“Helen, would you get that customer, please, while I talk to Jonathon?” Jeff said.
Two more birthday cakes and ten pounds of treats later, it was time to pick up Prince. Tammie and her husband, Kent Grimsby, lived about ten minutes from the Pampered Pet. Helen drove the shop’s hot pink Cadillac, a florid gas guzzler from the seventies known as the Pupmobile. She didn’t like pet pickups. The car was long as a hook-and-ladder truck. Helen was driving with a fake license in another name. She was on the run from her ex and the court in St. Louis and had to stay out of government computers. Driving with a fake license in a huge hot- pink car in the crazed Florida traffic was no way to keep a low profile.
But she couldn’t tell Jeff what was wrong. Instead, Helen drove slowly as a seventy-year-old. The car felt unnatural at this funereal pace. Outraged SUVs honked and roared around her as she steered the house-sized pink Pupmobile down U.S. 1.
How did I ever get reduced to this? Helen thought.
But she knew the answer. Two years ago, she’d been living in a St. Louis suburb, making six figures a year. She’d had a proper corporate job, a tasteful business wardrobe, and a silver Lexus. Helen worked long hours as the director of pensions and benefits. She had an expensively decorated minimansion in the right suburb, although she was hardly ever home to enjoy it.
Then she’d come home from work early and found her husband sleeping with their next-door neighbor, Sandy.
No, that was the problem. They weren’t sleeping. They were on the back deck having the kind of acrobatic sex Helen had only dreamed about. Helen picked up a crowbar and started swinging. Those impulsive swings unleashed another, wilder woman, one who would never meekly carry a briefcase. Now Helen was on the run in South Florida, working cash-under-the-table jobs to stay out of the computers.
She pulled the Pupmobile up to the kiosk at the Stately Palms Country Club. The ancient white-haired guard napping inside didn’t notice its long, lurid form. Helen tapped lightly on the horn, and the guard waved the Pupmobile through. She wondered why he was there. The old guy wasn’t even ornamental.
The Grimsby mansion looked like a convention center constructed on cost overruns. Helen expected a marquee in the yard to say: “Appearing this week –”
She parked the Caddy in the circular drive and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Hmm. Must be out of order.
Helen knocked hard on the dark polished front door. It swung open.
Odd. Usually a maid or housekeeper did door duty in the posh homes. Some even had British butlers.
“Hello?” Helen stepped into the entrance hall. “Anyone home?”
The double living room was decorated like a Palm Beach funeral parlor. Huge gold mirrors reflected tapestries, taupe fabrics, tassels, and fringe. The gloomy urns could hold several loved ones.
The house was designed to show off the Grimsby dough. Helen could not imagine the owners really living in the place. She couldn’t see Tammie eating popcorn and watching a movie or Kent the troll drinking a beer and barbecuing in the backyard. Did megamillionaires drink beer and watch movies?“
Hello?” Helen said, and tiptoed through the living room. Now she was in a dining room that seated twenty. The table looked like a mahogany runway. The candelabra could have lit up a castle. Over the sideboard was a painting of Tammie in evening dress. She looked like a nineteenth-century robber baron’s wife. The painting was signed with a flourish – “Rax.”
“Hello?” A little louder this time. The last thing Helen wanted was to be arrested for breaking and entering.
The breakfast room was next. Helen was sure she’d seen it in an old Architectural Digest. She wondered what you ate for breakfast in a room liked this: a souffle of nightingale tongues? Shirred eggs and lamb kidneys? Oats rolled on the thighs of Scottish virgins?
Helen grew more uneasy as she went through a country kitchen the size of a French province. The video room was bigger than the local multiplex.
“Anyone here?” The silence was unnatural. Did she have the right time?
Helen checked her watch. It was 12:02. Tammie may have acted like an airhead, but that party was important to her. She wouldn’t forget Prince’s noon hair appointment.
Maybe Tammie was taking a nap, recovering from the stress of party planning. Helen wandered through a labyrinth of halls hung with murky British landscapes until she found the master bedroom. The canopy bed looked like it slept six starlets. The miniature canopy bed next to it could hold one Yorkie. Both were empty. So was the master bath. The white terry robe on the door belonged in a hotel.
“Tammie? Prince?” she called. No one answered.
Now Helen was seriously worried. She eyed the bedroom phone. Maybe she should call Jeff. Maybe she should call 911. No, she couldn’t bring in the police. They’d ask awkward questions.
Helen kept searching for signs of life.
The French doors in the master bedroom opened onto the pool, which was slightly smaller than Lake Okeechobee. Gaily striped awnings – no wait, Tammie would never have anything gay – sheltered umbrella tables and teak lounges. Under a vast umbrella, Helen saw two tanned legs on a teak lounge, spread wide and unmoving. The toenails were bloodred.
The hair went up on the back of Helen’s neck. “Tammie?” she said.
Her heart slammed against her ribs. Helen felt dizzy. She’d stumbled on a dead body before. She never wanted to see one again. Please, she prayed. Please let Tammie be OK. What if the woman had had a stroke or a heart attack? It happened to perfectly healthy granola chompers.
Helen looked at the splayed legs and winced. What if something worse had happened?
It wasn’t natural for a woman to be so still. A fly crawled up one brown leg toward the knee. No manicured hand reached out to shoo it away.
Helen had to see the rest of the body, but she was too afraid to move.
“Tammie, please say you’re OK,” she begged.
Helen unfroze one leg, then the other. She moved carefully around the umbrella table, alert for blood spatters or signs of a struggle. No furniture was broken or overturned, but the waxed legs on the lounge had a lifeless, rubbery look. The two tall glasses by the chaise were unbroken.
Then Helen saw the rest of the body and gave a little shriek.
“Oh, don’t be such a prude,” Tammie Grimsby said. “Haven’t you ever seen a naked woman before?”