The Fashion Hound Murders - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

Josie’s boss was coated in pork grease from his lips to his chin. Harry the Horrible sat at his desk in Suttin Services, munching happily on pork crackling.

Crack! Every time he took a bite, the crackling sounded like ice breaking in a pond. Particles of pork grease seemed to hang in the air.

It was seven-thirty in the morning. Josie’s stomach turned at the thought of pork skin for breakfast. But the way Harry ate, he could be starting lunch. She’d been summoned to appear at Suttin’s rat trap of an office for a surprise mystery shopping assignment. Harry’s surprises were always unpleasant.

Even in the sad, gray winter light, Josie could see the Suttin office needed a good cleaning. Battered file cabinets huddled together like refugees. Dented desks held tottering piles of yellowing reports. Harry was the head troll in this dank cave.

Josie was glad she wasn’t imprisoned at a dusty desk. She was a mall moll, and blended in with the splashing fountains, shiny marble and cheerful plants of the St. Louis shopping centers. Small, brown-haired and cute, Josie was the invisible shopper, on a mission to save Mrs. Minivan from retail indignities.

“You’re always whining that I give you dog assignments,” Harry said. “Well, this one is a real dog. Except now you’re gonna thank me.”

“I am?” Josie said.

“Trust me,” Harry said.

She didn’t. Josie couldn’t imagine calling a helpless newborn Harry, but her boss had grown into his name. Harry was hairy. Little dark hairs, like clumps of weeds, grew in his ears, his nose and on his knuckles. More hair peeked between the tightly stretched fabric of his white shirt and was tangled in the links of his stainless steel watchband. In fanciful moments, Josie wondered if Harry was a werewolf. She watched carefully, but his hairiness never waxed or waned with the moon.

This morning, his hands were slippery with pork grease. Harry waved the slab of crackling at her. “That’s all you have to do. Look at little puppies.”

“Where?” Josie asked.

“You’re supposed to mystery shop Pets 4 Luv. Cute name. Cute stores.”

Crack! Harry took another crackling crunch and gave a crocodile smile. He looked even slipperier, thanks to his glistening coat of pork fat. “First, ask the pet store clerk a few simple questions.” He counted on one greasy finger. “Then take some video of the doggies.” Another finger. “Then turn in your report. Easy as one, two, three. You get to use this cool purse cam. The video camera is in the purse strap. It has audio, too. This purse is a complete covert surveillance system. Real James Bond stuff.”

He held up a lumpy black purse and grinned. Josie could see his greasy prints on the fake leather.

“Harry,” Josie said. “The purse looks like something my grandmother carried. It’s huge.”

“Big purses are in style,” Harry said.

“That looks like a suitcase with a strap,” Josie said. “It’s ugly. I might as well have a neon sign that says ‘shoplifter at work.’ A mystery shopper is supposed to blend in, remember? Anyway, how do I get people to talk into the purse strap?”

“The strap is adjustable,” Harry said.

“So I say, ‘Wait a minute, let me fix my purse so I can hear you?’ Why do I need a hidden video camera for this assignment? I’ve always turned in written reports.”

“Time to keep up with the new technology, Josie.” Harry grinned again. The grin slid off his face when he saw Josie’s eyes narrow.

“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked.

“Nothing.” Harry sounded like her ten-year-old daughter Amelia when she was lying.

“Is that purse cam legal?” Josie asked.

“Sure,” Harry said. “There’s nothing wrong with taping your own conversation.”

“What about taping someone who doesn’t know I’m packing a purse cam?”

“Josie, if the salesclerk is doing her job, she has nothing to fear. All you have to do is ask some simple questions. Let me worry about the legal stuff.”

“What are those simple questions?”

“Uh, I don’t have them yet,” Harry said. “I’ll fax the questionnaire to you as soon as I get it. Pets 4 Luv is a big national chain, Josie. Those little pups are adorable. You’ll get paid to look at cute puppies.”

“Right,” Josie said. “Like I get paid to shop. Fax me the questions, Harry, and then I’ll let you know if I want this assignment.”

Now Harry looked like a hurt puppy. “You’re turning me down?”

Josie swore the man whimpered. “No, but I need more information before I agree.”

“Okay, Josie. But don’t forget. Christmas is coming and you’ve got a kid.” Now his smile turned into a snarl and his small eyes glittered amid the pork fat.

“Are you threatening me?” Josie asked.

“No, no,” Harry held up his greasy hands in protest. “It’s just that Pets 4 Luv heard you’re good and they want you.”

“I need to know more before I want them,” Josie said. “When will you have the questions?”

“In about an hour or so.” Harry tore off a chunk of pork rind with fat still clinging and said, “Would you like some crackling? It’s from my mom’s pork roast. She’s a fantastic cook.”

“Uh, no, thanks,” Josie said. “Gotta run. I’ll wait for your fax.”

She fled, afraid he might shake her hand good-bye.

Outside in the parking lot, the cold air felt refreshing after Harry’s pork-perfumed office. As she threaded her gray Honda through the heavy morning traffic, Josie tried to figure out what was wrong. Harry never gave her a good mystery-shopping assignment.

Pets 4 Luv. Why did that name seem familiar? Josie didn’t buy pet food. She knew that it was a national pet chain with several locations in St. Louis. She’d seen the ads, but had never been inside a store. Harry wanted her to visit two, and one was in –

The shiny black Cadillac in front of Josie slammed on its brakes. Josie skidded to a stop millimeters from its rear bumper. The car’s owner flipped her off. Horns honked.

Josie’s hands shook. She took a deep breath. That was way too close. She needed to get home, fortify herself with coffee, and research this assignment. Josie was glad her mother was driving Amelia to school this morning. She was too distracted to be behind a wheel with her daughter.

Josie parked in front of her two-family flat. Her mother lived upstairs. She was Josie’s landlord and live-in babysitter. The only way Josie could survive on her mystery shopping money was with Jane’s help. She crunched across the frozen grass to the sidewalk. There were salt stains on the concrete and dirty patches of ice in the corners of the wide porch. St. Louis had had six inches of snow three days ago, but it was mostly gone.

She opened her front door and called, “Hello?”

Silence. Amelia’s coat and backpack were gone. Their home seemed empty without her daughter. Amelia had been too quiet since her father Nate was murdered. She’d even cut down on visits to her best friend, Emma. Josie wished there was a way to restore the spark in her daughter.

She fired up the computer in her bedroom office – a grand name for a garage sale table and a fax machine – and searched the name “Pets 4 Luv.” After one headline, she knew why the chain was familiar:

“Puppy Luv 4 Sale: National Chain Caught Buying Abused Pedigreed Pups.”

Josie’s stomach turned as she read the details. Two years ago in August, law enforcement and animal rescue workers had raided a puppy mill in southwest Missouri. More than two hundred pedigreed pups were carried out. Later, some forty died of disease, illness and dehydration. The conditions at the puppy mills were horrific. The animals had no water, no medical care, and lived in dirty cages. Breeding females were forced to have one pedigreed litter after another until they died from exhaustion. The mill had been operating for years. A tractor-trailer load of Chihuahuas, pugs and Pomeranians shipped from the puppy mill had been traced to Pets 4 Luv. Records showed the chain had bought more than fifteen thousand puppy mill dogs at cut-rate prices and sold them for four or five hundred dollars each. That was six million dollars worth of misery – minimum.

Puppy mills fed the demand for celebrity dogs, Josie thought. Pop princesses were photographed with their pampered pups. Young women wanted tiny dogs they could carry in cute pink purses. Puppy mill dogs were cheap pedigreed pups sold for high prices. Their new owners didn’t understand the cruelty behind their four-legged accessories.

Josie clicked through photos of Hilary Duff and Paris Hilton with tiny Chihuahuas. Jessica Alba had a pair of pugs named Sid and Nancy. Christina Aguilera walked her fluffy papillons. Why did Christina’s pretty dogs have those revolting names, Stinky and Scratchy?

The celebrities and their dogs were well-fed and well-groomed. The puppy mill dogs were not so lucky. Josie winced at the videos of rescuers carrying out tiny dogs with matted fur, runny eyes and open sores. The dogs shivered and whimpered. Their rescuers looked ready to burst into tears.

Pets 4 Luv claimed it didn’t know that its dogs were from puppy mills. “All our purebred pups are raised at USDA inspected facilities and have American Kennel Club papers,” a company spokesperson said.

That was true. But animal rescue agencies said AKC papers were no guarantee of humane care, and the USDA didn’t have enough staff to inspect all the facilities. The pet chain escaped legal action, but the scandal damaged its reputation. It was boycotted by animal lovers. They campaigned for people to get animals from breed rescue organizations, shelters or humane breeders and avoid buying dogs from chain stores.

Good, Josie thought.

But why did Harry want her mystery shopping these stores now? My boss wasn’t just slick with pork fat this morning, Josie thought. He’s trying to slide something by me.

Her fax machine rang, then churned out the list of mystery-shopping questions.

Josie was supposed to visit two stores. She had to buy a twenty-pound bag of puppy chow at each one and ask the following questions:

(1) Where are your pedigreed puppies?

(2) May I see their breeder paperwork?

(3) Do you have their AKC registry papers?

(4) What are the name and address of the breeding facility?

(5) Do you have the vet records for the puppies and their parents?

These questions, Josie had learned from the animal rescue Web sites, were designed to help spot puppy mill animals. What was Harry getting her into? Josie dialed his office number.

“So, Josie,” Harry said in a too-cheerful voice. “Did you get the questions?” Crack! He was still eating pork cracklings. Josie wondered if he’d slide right out of the chair.

“Yes,” Josie said. “What I don’t get is why I’m mystery-shopping puppy abusers.”

“Aw, Josie, don’t be that way.” Crack! “Are you going to do the job or not?”

“Not. Not unless you tell me what’s going on, Harry. I saw the news stories about Pets 4 Luv. They’re a terrible company.”

Harry fell into a friendly wheedling tone. “Look, Josie, it’s not a big deal. A couple of years ago, the chain took a shipment of dogs from a Missouri puppy mill. The home office didn’t know anything about it. Some young district manager was trying to cut costs.”

“He cost them a lot of business,” Josie said.

“That’s why they fired him,” Harry said. “They also stopped buying dogs from puppy mills. It’s company policy. They put it in writing. And really, what damage did they do? All those pups went to good homes.”

“How do you know?” Josie asked. “Anybody who plunked down the money could buy a pup. I bet the stores never interviewed the new owners.”

“Hey, what are you?” Harry said, turning suspicious. “One of those animal rights loonies? Since when did you care about puppies?”

“Since I saw the Humane Society videos about puppy mills. Consider me a convert.”

“Well, since you’re such an animal lover,” Harry’s voice dripped sarcasm, “you’ll really want this assignment. Pets 4 Luv says it’s reformed. The head office in Milwaukee is suspicious of two St. Louis outlets. The stores are selling a really low number of pedigreed dogs – a lot less than the chain’s other stores in similar neighborhoods. The managers say it’s because of the bad publicity. But the Milwaukee headquarters isn’t sure. It would be easy for the store managers to buy a load of Missouri puppy mill dogs and pass them off as okay animals, then pocket the profits. Everyone wants pedigreed dogs since that Paris girl – I can’t think of her last name, some hotel – Marriott, Westin – ”

“Paris Hilton,” Josie finished.

“Right, one of those slutty blondes. Anyway, the girls all want them after Paris pranced around with that skinny thing that looked like a shaved rat.”

“Paris’ dog is a Chihuahua,” Josie said.

“Yeah, well, Pets 4 Luv got you a purse cam to mystery-shop their suspect stores.”

“I’m a mystery shopper,” Josie said. “I have a ten-year-old daughter. I can’t get involved in something dangerous. Who’s going to raise Amelia if anything happens to me?”

“It’s not dangerous, Josie. Anyway, you’ve got your mother,” Harry said. “She can bring up your daughter.”

“My mother! She doesn’t need to raise a child at age sixty-eight. I am not a private eye. Tell the chain to hire one. They have the money. Don’t the animal protection agencies investigate these matters?”

“That’s what they’re trying to avoid, Josie. Pets 4 Luv can’t risk more bad publicity. Private eyes can be bought. Reporters can cause more damage to the chain’s reputation if this story gets out. And it will get out. There’s nothing TV news likes better than pictures of dying doggies.”

“Harry,” Josie said. “I am not a private eye. I am not a reporter. The answer is no.”

“Think about it,” Harry said. “I’ll call you back.”

There was a pork-splitting crack! and Harry was gone.