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Authors: Elaine Viets

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths, #Amateur Sleuth, #General

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BOOK: Dying in Style
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Maybe it was some sort of superhip statement. Josie looked again. Nope. Somebody had parked her old gum there. Yuck.

“May I help you?” a small, dark-haired woman asked. Her hair was in fashionable spikes. Her accent was exotic. She was sleek as a cat and just as self-satisfied.

“I was looking at the Chinese purse,” Josie said.

“It’s kicky,” the woman said. Her accent sounded Eastern European. “I say that right, yes? My name is Olga Rachmaninoff, like the composer.”

“Pretty purse,” Josie said. “But a child left fingerprints on the display cases.” Josie expected her to apologize, or reach for the Windex.

“You Americans,” Olga said. “You are crazy about cleaning. I sell. I don’t scrub like a peasant. Where I come from in Russia, we show customers the goods and they buy. If a customer doesn’t like them, we say, ‘Go to the shop down the street.’ Then we laugh. There is nothing in the shop down the street, either.”

“Right,” Josie said. That probably explained why this Danessa store was empty.

“Can I show you the purse?” Olga asked.

“I’ll just browse for a bit,” Josie said. She was happy to see a basket of eyeglass holders for $22.99 near the cash register. Good, she thought. I’ll get one for Mom. She’s always losing her glasses.

Olga rang up the purchase. She did not thank Josie for shopping at Danessa. Maybe a twenty-three-dollar purchase didn’t rate a thank-you in Russia.

Josie noticed that the basket of Danessa’s autographed photos was empty. She’d have to put that in her report, too.

“Can I use your rest room?” Josie asked.

Olga pointed at a door.

At least the rest room passed muster, Josie thought, back in her car. The rest of the survey was one thumbs-down after another. Perhaps this Danessa store was having a bad day. Josie still had two more.

By two-thirty Josie was fighting the traffic on Clarkson Road and wondering what she was going to do about her report. The highest rating she could give any store was Fair. At Covington, a jumble of purses sat on the store floor, as if they’d been dumped out of a packing box, and there was a burned-out lightbulb in the rest room. The clerk sleepwalked around the store, not bothering to greet her. Josie thought she could have walked off with the stock and the woman wouldn’t have noticed.

At the exclusive Greenhills store, Josie found a half-eaten candy bar next to a thousand-dollar clutch. The sales associate picked it up and said, “Sorry, my lunch.” That was the only thing she said to Josie.

When Josie went back to check the rest room (no paper in the stall), she noticed that the door to the loading dock was unlocked and ajar.

Danessa had serious management problems.

I still have tomorrow, she thought. Maybe it will be a better day. If I can give all three stores an Excellent rating tomorrow, my report won’t be so bad. And if I grow six inches and lose twenty pounds tonight, I can be a supermodel.

Josie’s report would be an unpleasant surprise. The Creshan Corporation would not be happy. Neither would Danessa. There was nothing Josie could do about it. What had she told her daughter yesterday?
I don’t change reports. Not ever. Not for any reason, no matter how much trouble it causes. Right is right.

I saw what I saw, and I’ll probably see more of the same tomorrow. There’s going to be hell to pay. What if my report kills the Creshan deal?

Then a thought struck Josie that was so frightening it took her breath away.

What if Mom finds out?

Chapter 3

“What am I going to do with three eyeglass holders?” Josie’s mother said. “I’ve only got one pair of eyes.”

Right now, they had an angry glare. The St. Louis glare was a powerful citywide weapon, and Jane didn’t hesitate to use it on her daughter. Her eyes bored into Josie like lasers. Josie knew her mother could see right through her.

She tried to fend off the glare with soothing words. “Mom, these are holders for your sunglasses, your reading glasses, and your distance glasses. You leave your glasses all over your home and mine. I got these for you at Danessa. You love Danessa Celedine.”

Any argument with Jane was three against one: Josie was fighting with her mother, her landlord and her babysitter, all at the same time.

“I like Danessa personally,” Jane said, “but I could get the same thing on the Home Shopping Network for half the price. You’re just paying for the name. If you were at Danessa’s shop, why didn’t you get me an autographed picture? Those are free.”

“They were out,” Josie said.

Her mother turned the glare on her full force. Josie tried to shield her face. “You’re spying on Danessa, aren’t you?” Jane said. “You’re going to give her a bad report. Danessa has a major deal in the works and you’re going to ruin it. I’ll never forgive you, Josie Marcus. Danessa saved our church.”

“Mom, I can’t discuss my assignments. You know that.”

Jane kept glaring. It was a preview of Josie’s own face in thirty years. Josie knew she would get the same trenches from her nose to her lips, the same crinkles on her neck, the same sag in her jaw.

“Mom, I’m a professional—and that’s how I’ll behave. If you need me I’ll be in my office.”

Some office. It was one corner of Josie’s bedroom. It didn’t have a door to slam or a wall for privacy. Josie’s office was a cranky secondhand computer, a fax and a printer on a two-dollar yard-sale table. The wooden chair was uncomfortable, but that was deliberate. It kept Josie from falling asleep after a long day.

As Josie headed for her office, she tripped over the foot massager her mother had bought on the Home Shopping Network. The darn thing nailed Josie on the shinbone, then landed on her shoe-squeezed toes.

“Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.” Josie hopped around the bedroom, rubbing her bruised foot. That was the only decent massage she’d ever had from the contraption. She didn’t have the heart to tell her mom it didn’t work.

Josie could hear her mother calling down the staircase, “I’ll be praying my daughter doesn’t ruin the woman who’s done so much for this city. Danessa has fifty million dollars riding on your words.”

Josie could feel the glare a whole floor away.

She woke up the next morning, as hopeless and leaden as the sunless September sky. She chose her disguise for the second day at Danessa with care. She didn’t want the staff to recognize her. Fat chance. They’d acted like she was invisible yesterday.

Josie picked an even more outrageous rich-lady outfit: a pink-and-red Versace suit with clamdigger pants. Josie had found it at an estate sale for twenty-five bucks. She plopped a red wig on her head and crammed her feet into the same toe-squashing Prada shoes.

Josie slipped out without seeing her mother that morning. Jane’s words from last night were still ringing in her ears. She gave Amelia an absentminded kiss and dropped her off at the Barrington School.

She approached the first Danessa store with resigned dread. At the Shoppes at Greenhills, there was no half-eaten candy bar on the counter. Today, an exquisite blonde was slurping a blueberry yogurt. She put it down when Josie entered, but only because her cell phone rang. “You want to fix me up with Barry?” the blonde howled into her phone. “That creakazoid has to be forty.”

As Josie roamed the store, the blonde raged about her aged date.

Using sign language, Josie indicated she wanted an eyeglass holder. The clerk rang her up, still talking on the phone. “I don’t care if Barry is rich. Old guys have saggy butts.”

At Covington, the sleepwalking clerk was replaced by a young woman with dead white skin and crimson hair. Her eyes were outlined in black and her lips were blood-red. The effect was intriguing. The young woman was listening to an iPod, but she unplugged the earbuds when Josie walked in.

Josie picked up a yellow satin purse. “Can you tell me its country of origin?”

The cool woman with the crimson hair shrugged. “Taiwan? Tibet? Something Third World,” she said.

“How much is it?” Josie said.

“It’s a cheapie,” Ms. Cool said. “Five hundred dollars, give or take fifty.” The price was too insignificant to check.

“Any special features?” Josie said.

“It’s a purse,” Ms. Cool said, and shrugged again.

Josie opened it. Inside, a tiny light illuminated the interior.

The sales associate had her iPod back on.

By one-thirty, Josie was at Plaza Venetia. This time, the beautiful saucer chandeliers and the plashing fountains failed to soothe her. Josie knew the Plaza Venetia store would be the worst. It didn’t disappoint her.

The store was empty. No customers, no staff. The gum was gone, but the gray patina of fingerprints still covered the Lucite stand with the Chinese takeout purse. Josie saw a snakeskin belt coiled like a hissing cobra on another stand. The price tag had real fangs: “2700.”

“Hello?” Josie said.

Silence.

Josie went through the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY door into the back area, a dreary section of concrete and cardboard boxes. “Anybody here?” she said.

“You’re not supposed to be back here,” said a blond giant in tight black leather pants. The woman’s arm muscles were as thick as her accent. She had to be at least six two.

“You’re not supposed to be back here, either,” Josie said. “You’re supposed to be on the floor, waiting on me. I’m a customer.”

The Amazon looked Josie up and down and sneered, “I’m sure you are,” as if she knew Josie’s Versace was from an estate sale.

I’ll get this rude creep, Josie thought. How many other innocent shoppers has she shriveled with that look?

“I want to see some merchandise right now,” Josie said.

“What?” the woman said insolently.

Josie picked the display that would be most difficult to reassemble. “That snakeskin belt,” she said. “The twenty-seven-hundred-dollar one.”

The woman sighed audibly.

“I didn’t catch your name,” Josie said.

“Mzm,” the woman mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“Marina.”

“You’re Russian?” Josie remembered from her history classes that Marina was the name of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Russian wife.

“Mmph,” the woman grunted. Josie took that as a yes.

A twenty-seven-hundred-dollar belt felt just like a twenty-seven-dollar one, Josie decided, except that the clasp was harder to figure out. She looked at herself in the mirror. Were her hips really that wide?

“I don’t think so,” Josie said.

Marina sighed with all the warmth of a Russian winter.

“I’ll take this instead,” Josie said. She bought yet another eyeglass holder.

Marina did not thank Josie for shopping at Danessa. In fact, she didn’t say anything after her last monumental sigh.

What was going on? How did this store survive with no customers?

Josie’s friend Alyce Bohannon might know. Her crowd shopped at Danessa. Maybe she’d noticed its decline. Alyce had the life Josie was supposed to have: the handsome husband at a high-powered law firm, the country-club membership and the stunning house. Still, Alyce was always eager to slip away from her perfect life and go mystery-shopping with Josie.

Alyce lived in the Estates at Wood Winds, a subdivision of mansions in far West County. Her neighbors included two TV anchors, a major league baseball star, enough lawyers to stock a courthouse—and the St. Louis power couple Danessa Celedine and Serge Orloff.

Josie speed-dialed Alyce’s number.

“Help!” Josie said. “I need information, but I can’t talk about it on the phone. Can I stop by your home?”

“I’m not there. I’ve just finished a committee meeting at the Junior League. How about meeting at Plaza Frontenac? Our usual place?”

“Will you have the baby?” Josie said.

“Justin is with his nanny.”

“You’re still my best friend,” Josie said, “even if you do have a nanny and natural blond hair.”

Josie and Alyce always met at the movie house. They’d duck inside, buy popcorn and rot-your-teeth movie candy, then sit at the tables in the mall. Josie arrived first. She bought an espresso and popcorn: conflicting doses of caffeine and serotonin.

Josie spotted her friend by her gliding walk. Alyce didn’t move like other people. She seemed to float. She had slate-blue eyes and the softest, silkiest blond hair. It floated, too. She’d gained about thirty pounds with the baby, and the extra weight made her miserable. Josie wished her friend had been born a hundred years ago, when people appreciated a little poundage.

Alyce tortured herself with a bottle of water. “What’s going on?” she said.

Josie swore her to secrecy, then told her what she’d found. “The Danessa stores are an absolute mess.” She crunched a handful of popcorn.

“I’m not surprised,” Alyce said. “Ugly rumors are floating around Wood Winds. I’m hearing that Danessa is short of money. She’s been firing staff right and left. If she doesn’t get that Creshan deal, she’s dead. There’s trouble on the home front, too. Danessa and Serge are fighting. They’ve had some real battles, but we can’t figure out what they’re about. Danessa’s housekeeper would know, but she’s not talking.”

Josie reached for more popcorn. Alyce watched her.

“I know Serge has been straying,” Alyce said. “Danessa caught him with Amy the Slut at the country club and made a big scene. No smart woman ever does that. Amy’s not worth it. You can’t take her seriously. Sex for her is like a handshake. Danessa dragged her out of the women’s locker room by the hair and bitch-slapped her in front of everyone.”

“Good heavens,” Josie said. “Why hasn’t any of this been in the papers?”

“Because Danessa has a good public-relations machine, and it constantly cranks out press releases and glamorous photos,” Alyce said. “How many Danessa stories have you read in the last month?”

“None,” Josie said. “I don’t have to. Mom reads them to me. I’d say six hundred seventy-eight stories on Danessa have appeared in the last thirty days. I’m not counting the quotes from Serge.”

“You couldn’t,” Alyce said. “The machine spits out Serge-isms by the hour. The man is a walking sound bite.”

“Photogenic, too,” Josie said. “He looks like a young Omar Sharif with that curly black hair.”

BOOK: Dying in Style
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