Shop Till You Drop - Chapter 1

Chapter 1

On Wednesday, Helen met a woman who could not frown.

The frownless female was another amazing customer at Juliana’s. The store was on Las Olas Boulevard, the fashionable palm-fringed shopping area in downtown Fort Lauderdale. After working two weeks there, Helen thought she’d seen every kind of expensive kept woman.

The woman who could not frown did not seem all that different from the other customers who were buzzed inside. You could not simply walk into Juliana’s. The elegant green door was locked to keep out undesirables: sunburned tourists in “I Love Florida” T-shirts, harried mothers with sticky-fingered children, and the hopelessly unfashionable.

This exclusive policy was never stated, but everyone on Las Olas knew it. Some women walked on by, never ringing Juliana’s doorbell. They knew the green door would not open for them.

Woe to those who tried and failed. A woman turned away from Juliana’s might tell herself that the clothes were overpriced and made for skinny little bimbos. That was true. But it was also true that Ms. Reject had been publicly branded as without style, and worse, that Juliana’s could not help her.

This added to the thrill of those who were admitted by Christina, the head saleswoman. When the green door swung open, some women had the same celestial look of relief and joy that wavering saints must wear when admitted into heaven.

But Brittney, the woman who could not frown, did not register any emotion at all, not even when she squealed, “Christina!” and air-kissed the head saleswoman.

Brittney was a longtime customer and a big spender. Helen could tell that by the way Christina had moved across the room, like a quick cat pouncing on her prey. She even hugged Brittney. Christina only touched people who spent lots of money.

As they stood implant to implant, Helen thought the two women looked enough alike to be sisters. Both had long blonde hair (dyed), plump pouty lips (collagened), and sapphire blue eyes (contacts). It went without saying that they dieted to starvation.

They were dressed alike, too. Both wore casual clothes that cost a fortune and stayed in style about two and a half seconds. By next season, Brittney would have given her thousand-dollar outfit to the maid, and Christina would have sent hers to the consignment shop.

Before she worked at Juliana’s, Helen had only seen these styles on MTV. Christina and Brittney wore low-rise pants tight enough to show the freckles on their butts, high heels and low necklines. Both bared their shoulders and flat tummies pierced with silver rings.

But Christina looked like Brittney’s older sister, although Helen suspected they were the same age. Brittney belonged in those revealing clothes. Christina looked a little too old for them. Maybe it was the lines running from her nose to her mouth, or the fine furrows in her forehead. The nights she spent crawling the South Beach clubs were starting to show in Christina’s skin.

Brittney didn’t have any wrinkles, and she hadn’t had a facelift, either. Helen had worked at the shop long enough to know what good and bad facelifts looked like.

“Let me see. Let me see,” Christina said, examining Brittney’s smooth oval face. “It looks perfect.”

“It worked,” Brittney said, in a soft, sultry voice that sounded like a sigh in a seraglio. “I’ve met a wonderful new man. He has a house in Golden Beach.”

Golden Beach was aptly named. Oceanfront homes there started at just under three million dollars. Brittney had a rich catch. She presented Christina with a small gold gift bag, packed with crimson tissue paper. “I brought you a little present.”

Many of Christina’s customers brought her little presents. Helen thought they were trying to curry favor, so that green door would always open for them.

Christina’s long, slender hand rustled around in the tissue paper like a small predator, and pulled out a Movado watch with a mother-of-pearl museum dial and a matching lizard strap. “Pink! The new color. Although my favorite color is green,” she said and laughed.

Brittney did not laugh. Maybe she couldn’t, Helen thought.

“Come on back and sit down,” Christina said, as if she was inviting a friend into her home for a chat. Helen was relieved when she saw Brittney head for the sitting area. Juliana’s sales associates were only allowed to sit if a customer sat first. If there were no customers, they had to stand. The owner spot-checked the security camera tapes to make sure that rule was followed.

Christina offered Brittney a drink.

“Evian, please,” she said, in that velvet whisper.

The super-skinny ones always wanted water. Christina hurried to the back room for Evian water. Helen and Brittney strolled past a single Hermes scarf draped on a mahogany sideboard that had once been in a Rockefeller mansion. (“This isn’t a rummage sale,” Christina had told Helen. “Never put out a pile of anything.”)

They passed two pale blue six-hundred-dollar blouses on a dark, sleek rack. Hanging next to them were the matching jackets. They were two thousand each.

Brittney spotted a spaghetti-strap knit top on a rosewood wine table. It was a turquoise knit edged with hot pink crocheted lace. Made of viscose and polyester, the scrap of cloth weighed little more than a Kleenex.

“How much?” Brittney said. Juliana’s never used price tags.

“Three-hundred-fifteen dollars,” Helen said. She could say that now with a straight face. When Helen first saw the top, she thought it looked like a K-Mart special, and that polyester and viscose belonged on trailer trash. Now she knew what it could do for the right woman. So did Brittney.

“It’s adorable,” she said, and draped it over one arm.

“We have the pants to go with it,” Helen said. Brittney didn’t reply. Her attention was captured by a snakeskin handbag. “How much?” she said, stroking it with exquisitely manicured fingers.

“Four-fifty,” Helen said.

Brittney draped the turquoise top over the snake bag and carried both to the back of the store. Three black silk-satin loveseats formed a triangle in front of a gilt-framed triple mirror. Behind the loveseats, on a black marble pedestal, was a porcelain vase filled with fashionable flowers that looked like sex toys and bath brushes.

Helen, a solid size twelve, sank into the loveseat. Brittney was so tiny, she barely disturbed the surface. Even her couch doesn’t wrinkle, thought Helen.

Helen wanted to hate Brittney, but she couldn’t. She liked the woman. There was something winsome about her. Brittney didn’t ignore Helen, the way some customers did. While she waited for Christina to return, Brittney said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. You are?”

“Helen Hawthorne. I’m the new sales associate.”

Brittney held out her hand and Helen shook it. It felt soft but strong. Brittney’s skinny arms were corded with high-priced gym muscle.

“How long have you lived here?” asked Brittney.

This was the polite greeting in South Florida. Almost no one was from here. No one you wanted to know, anyway.

“Not too long,” Helen said.

“She moved down here from Midwest,” Christina said, coming back with Evian and a chilled crystal goblet.

“Oh,” Brittney said. No one ever cared enough to ask where in the Midwest. Fort Lauderdale was a suburb of New York, which had no interest in the nation’s boring mid-section. The Midwest was the land of pot roasts and pot bellies. No one went there. No one would pry into Helen’s secret.

“And what did you do there?” Brittney said. Helen knew how to stop that line of questioning. She gave her real job title. “I was a director of pensions and employee benefits.”

She could see Brittney’s eyes getting a glaze on them like a jelly doughnut. But to be sure, Helen started reciting her job description. Even Helen could not endure the whole thing: “I planned and directed implementation and administration of benefits programs -- ”

“How nice,” Brittney said, hurriedly cutting her off. Helen relaxed. There would be no further questions about her past.

But Brittney ambushed her with, “Why are you working in a dress shop?”

“Working here has given me a new challenge and a chance to brush up on my people skills,” Helen said, hating herself for slipping into corporate speak.

Like all good liars, Helen stuck to the truth as much as possible. Serious jobs in Lauderdale were far outnumbered by dead-end jobs in shops and fast-food places that paid six or seven dollars an hour. Even Brittney, who’d never held a serious job in her life, knew that. It was why most of Juliana’s women dated rich old men.

“I was lucky to find this job within walking distance of my apartment,” Helen said brightly.

Some luck, she thought, resentfully. I make six-seventy an hour, no benefits, no commission until I’ve worked here six months. Helen wanted her wages to be in cash, off the books. She made thirty cents an hour less than the standard sales associate. The store owner explained why he was stiffing her. “I’m not taking out any deductions, so you’re really making more. You understand that you’ll have no Social Security, no health insurance, and if I fire you, no unemployment?”

Helen had understood. She wanted it that way. She did not want her name turning up in any computer data base. She did not want the court tracking her down. But the irony didn’t escape her. She’d fled St. Louis because she caught her husband -- make that ex-husband -- Rob with a younger woman. A woman who looked a lot like the customers at Juliana’s.

I used to make six figures, she thought, and now I’m selling bustiers to bimbos.

Christina directed the conversation back to Brittney, as was proper. “Let’s get a look at your new improved face,” she said. Brittney put her face up expectantly, as if waiting for an expert’s approval. Helen thought she’d never seen a more perfect oval. There was not a wrinkle, line, blemish or enlarged pore. The skin was smooth and velvety, the striking sapphire eyes large and clear and fringed with dark lashes. The effect was stunning and slightly scary. There was an odd deadness in this perfection.

“Doctor Mariposa did a splendid job,” Christina said, admiringly.

“I can’t thank you enough for sending me to her, ” Brittney said.

Christina shrugged. “I know all the good ones,” she said. “And all the bad ones, too. Did you see Tiffany’s eye job? She didn’t consult me first. The damned doctor’s got her so tight she can’t shut her eyes any more. Tiffany’s happy with his work. I haven’t the heart to tell her she looks like she’s permanently startled.”

“Surgery is so risky,” Brittney said. “Thanks for the warning. That way I won’t look startled next time I see her.”

“What did the doctor do to you, Brittney?” Helen asked.

“Injected my wrinkles with biopolymer," she said, shy but proud.

"What's that?" Helen said.

"It's like collagen, only better," Brittney said. "It's very big in Europe, but it hasn't been approved in the U.S. yet. I've heard Bo Derek had it done. Her forehead used to look like crepe paper."

She said it with wide-eyed wonder, and without a trace of bitchiness.Helen thought that Bo Derek looked darn good, with or without the alleged face work.

"Did you need surgery for this?" Helen asked.

"No, you get it injected into your face. It gets rid of the wrinkles, the ones around your mouth and nose, and the frown lines between your eyebrows. It's cheaper than a facelift. I had the lines around my mouth done for about six- hundred-fifty dollars and my forehead for another couple of hundred."

"Any side effects?" Helen asked. She was fascinated. She’d never heard of this stuff. She couldn't begin to guess Brittney’s age. Was she an old thirty? A young forty?

"None. Oh, your face swells up for two or three days and it really hurts, but after that, there's nothing. There are no allergies to worry about, because it's a mineral. It lasts longer than collagen. This treatment will be good for five years. Then I'll have to have it done again."

"You're sure there are no side effects?" Helen said. She couldn’t believe these injections didn’t have some risk.

"None," she said. Brittney thought for a moment. "Well, maybe one. I can't frown any more."

"You what?" Helen was not sure she’d heard right.

"I can't frown," she said. “I don’t know if it is permanent or not. But it’s not really a disadvantage. You don't get forehead wrinkles if you can't frown."

Now Helen understood Brittney’s curiously impassive face. Brittney couldn't move whole sections of her face. Helen wondered if an enormous surge of emotion would show on Brittney’s lovely features. What if she discovered her man in bed with another woman, the way Helen found her husband Rob? Could Brittney’s face still be distorted by rage? Or would her face always be smooth and impassive, even when she was fighting mad? Would that bottled-up anger hurt?

But then she remembered how Brittney earned her living. Like most of the women at Juliana’s, she was probably kept by a much older man, either as a mistress or a trophy wife.

"If I can't frown, that's good, don't you think?" Brittney said. "You don't want those emotions, anyway. They will just give you wrinkles." She was absolutely serious, and sweetly trusting. Helen bit back her sarcastic reply. It would be like hitting a puppy.

“I want Dr. Mariposa to do me,” Christina said. “She’s the best. She was a top plastic surgeon in Brazil. I don’t understand why they won’t let her practice in Florida.”

If Doctor Mariposa couldn’t operate in Florida, something was seriously wrong, Helen thought. Florida let all sorts of crooks and incompetents practice.

“It’s our gain,” sighed Brittany happily. “She can’t advertise the regular way, so there isn’t a long waiting list. The only drawback is Doctor Mariposa wants cash. But she has to in her situation. She can’t keep records.”

“Speaking of not keeping things, did you really dump Vinnie?” Christina said.

“I had to tell him good-bye. It was just too dangerous to date him any more.” Brittney crossed her long legs, and Helen noticed her cerise Moschino mules.

“How come?” Helen asked.

“Too many of his friends were dying,” Brittney said, earnestly.

“They were sick?” Helen said.

“No, silly. They were turning up in barrels in Biscayne Bay.” This was a favorite form of mob body disposal in Miami. In New York and New Jersey, the home of many mobsters of Italian extraction, bodies were simply dumped in the river. Then the dead did not rise until May, when the water warmed up. But here in Florida, it was always warm. So the Miami mobsters used barrels. The bodies stayed down until the decomposition gases caused them to rise and float.

“Six of them were found dead. Two more are missing, and the police think they’re probably dead.”

Helen did not know what to say.

“Vinnie is in construction,” Brittney said, as if that explained something. Maybe it did. Construction could be a rough business in South Florida.

“He’s also in import-exports.”

Helen had been in Florida long enough to know that was a code for drugs.

“Does he have a boat?” Christina asked, shrewdly.

“Oh, yes. A Cigarette boat.”

Helen took that as proof.

“The last ones were Vinnie’s good friend Angelo and his date Heather. They turned up dead last week. Now the FBI has been following me around, asking me questions and making my life miserable,” Brittney said. She looked like an indignant Barbie doll.

“The FBI are everywhere. Two of them even rang my doorbell at seven a.m. They asked if they could come in, and I had to let them. I couldn’t have the neighbors see me with the FBI. But I didn’t offer them coffee or juice or anything.”

Brittney acted as if she’d punished the agents severely. Helen listened, spellbound.

“See, Vinnie and I had dinner with Angelo and Heather about a week before they died. We didn’t know they were going to die, of course. They seemed just fine. Heather was wearing the cutest Dolce & Gabbana outfit. The black one that was in the last issue of Vanity Fair. D&G is so hot. Angelo must have really loved her,” she said, and this time, the sigh was sad.

“After their bodies were discovered, the FBI showed me the grossest pictures. Polaroids of those poor dead people. They were in awful shape from the water and the sun. Heather had always taken such good care of herself, too.

“That FBI agent said, ‘Did you have dinner with these people Wednesday, August first?’ I looked at those terrible photos and I said, ‘Would I have dinner with someone who looked like that?’” Brittney was trembling with indignation. “That’s when I told Vinnie that I couldn’t see him any more. It’s too dangerous to go around with him. That’s why he has a wife.”

“Vinnie’s married?” Helen blurted. Christina frowned at her and Helen felt like a hayseed from the Midwest, as she often did at Juliana’s. But Brittney was not offended.

“Of course he’s married,” she said. “His wife knows we date.” Helen thought “date” stood for another four-letter word.

The doorbell chimed. Christina buzzed the green door and it swung open to admit a young Asian woman with straight black hair down to her size-two tush. She was accompanied by a forty-something boyfriend with a bull neck and a bald spot. He had one hand possessively on the small of her back.

“You wait on them,” Christina said. “I’ll take Brittney.”

The long-haired lovely was named Tara. Her boyfriend was Paulie. Paulie had her try on everything in the store and made crude comments like, “Those pants really show off your ass.” Tara simply smiled and tried on more short, tight clothes. Paulie dropped nearly nine thousand dollars, a sweet sugar daddy indeed.

After the couple left, Christina congratulated her warmly. Helen barely heard her. She couldn’t get the woman who could not frown out of her mind. Helen was haunted by Brittney’s sweet nature and her oddly immobile face. She did not know why such a lovely creature would go out with a mobster. Brittney did not seem to understand that dumping Vinnie might not be enough. If all the mobster’s friends were dying or disappearing, then she might be in danger, too.

She wondered if Brittney would live long enough to get wrinkles.

Helen was not really surprised three weeks later when she read in the paper that the body of a ninety-eight-pound woman with blonde hair and sapphire-blue contacts was found in a barrel in Biscayne Bay.

But she was surprised whose body it turned out to be.

Published on  April 5th, 2016