Dorothy Howell, Mystery Author
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Excerpt from Pocketbooks and Pistols

Chapter One

What was I thinking?

During my entire twenty-five years of life I, Haley Randolph, with my it-makes-me-look-smart dark hair, my if-I’d-been-the-least-bit-interested-I-could-have-been-a-model five-foot-nine-inch height, and my not-nearly-enough-of-my-mom’s-beauty-queen-genes, had adopted certain codes of conduct to live by. They had served me well through many somebody-kill-me-now college classes and where-had-it-all-gone-so-wrong jobs. Only on rare occasions did I depart from these personal rules—and, honestly, I usually regretted it.

I sure as heck did this time.

“Have you got the paperwork? The forms? The checklist?” Rita asked.

We were in the why-do-customers-keep-buying-this-crappy-merchandise Holt’s Department Store where, in a moment of extreme desperation a year or so ago, I’d taken a job as a part-time sales clerk. Rita was the cashiers’ supervisor.

I hate her.

“What about the welcome letter?” she asked. “Oh my God, you forgot the welcome letter, didn’t you? I knew you’d forget the welcome letter.”

She hates me back.

During a what-was-I-thinking moment here at Holt’s a few weeks ago, I’d agreed to conduct the new-hire orientation. At the time, I’d been on a high over—something. I guess. I don’t remember, exactly. But whatever it was, when I’d come to my senses and realized what I’d volunteered for, I was sure that when the time came to actually do the orientation, I could figure a way to wiggle out it.

Another bad decision on my part.

So here I was.

We were in the training room. Chairs were set up theater-style awaiting the arrival of the new hires. On a table at the front of the room I’d laid out the materials needed to conduct the orientation.

“Did you include the notice about the mannequins?” Rita asked, glaring at my sort-of neatly stacked forms. “None of those new hires better come to me about the mannequins.”

Really, I double hate her.

“Did you read the new-hire orientation trainer’s guide?” Rita asked.

There was a trainer’s guide?

“What about the benefits handbooks?” Rita asked.

There was a handbook?

“I don’t see the memo on the mannequins.” Rita rifled through the forms. “You should know how important that memo is. You’ve worked here long enough to know this stuff.”

Yes, I’d worked at Holt’s for over a year, making me one of the store’s most experienced employees—not something I put on my résumé.

I didn’t need to since I already had an awesome job as an event planner at L.A. Affairs, a company that bent over backwards to satisfy every outrageous and idiotic whim of the rich and famous in Los Angeles and Hollywood. My schedule had lightened up considerably now that it was January. The holidays had been a blur for me as I’d planned and executed a number of this-year-it-will-be-perfect parties and family gatherings, and let’s-drink-too-much-and-act-like-jackasses-while-we-can business events.

Okay, so you might wonder why, with my fabulous job at L.A. Affairs, I still subjected myself to the crappy working conditions, the hideous merchandise, and the management staff here at Holt’s who actually thought we sales clerks should knock ourselves out to do a great job for nine lousy bucks an hour.

Believe me, there was a good reason.

While my job at Holt’s was nowhere near awesome, it did offer an if-this-is-a-dream-don’t-wake-me employee discount at sister stores Nuovo, a you-have-to-be-rich-to-shop-here boutique that sold the hottest, trendiest designer fashions and accessories. I wasn’t rich, but with the eighty percent employee discount, I didn’t have to be.

Reason enough to stay—for me, anyway.

We’ve all got our priorities.

“I know you’re going to screw this up,” Rita barked.

I’d had enough. Really, there was only so much I could take—especially from someone wearing stretch pants and a shirt with a bedazzled unicorn on the front.

“You don’t know anything,” I told her. “If you did, you’d have been asked to do the orientation. So move along. I have an orientation to conduct.”

Rita’s eyes narrowed until, I’m sure, she could hardly see.

“You’d better make certain these new-hires are properly trained, princess,” she hissed. “And I’d better not get any questions from them about the mannequins.”

I gave her stink-eye right back until she finally whipped around and left.

A few minutes later six newly hired sales clerks in various sizes, shapes, colors, and ages wandered into the training room. Some looked scared and overwhelmed, others eager and excited; one guy looked as if he’d been recently released.

Leave it to HR.

They took seats scattered across the dozen chairs. Several, who already seemed bored, plopped down on the back row and were, of course, likely to become my friends.

One girl took a chair front row, center. She wore her dark hair cut short and had on sensible pants, blouse, and shoes.

I knew she’d be trouble.

Her hand shot up.

There’s always one.

“Darlene here, Darlene Phelps. Are we having CBT training today?” she asked.

CBT training? What the heck was that?

Maybe I should have read the trainer’s guide.

This, however, was no time to admit it, so what could I do but channel my mom’s former-beauty-queen posture—back slightly arched, shoulders squared, chin up—and say, “Everything will be covered throughout the orientation.”

Darlene nodded as if I’d just divulged the nuclear missile launch codes, then grabbed a yellow legal-size tablet and pen from her tote bag and wrote something down.

I didn’t remember much about my own new-hire orientation—I’d drifted off—so I began by handing out the lanyards with their official Holt’s ID cards attached, then passed out the benefits handbook and the forms that had to be completed.

Darlene paged through the handbook, then raised her hand. “I have a question about our eligibility for profit sharing.”

Holt’s offered profit sharing?

“On page sixteen it covers the options for profit sharing,” Darlene said, then flipped ahead. “But contradictory information is on page thirty-six.”

I didn’t know which I was more surprised by—that Darlene had read the book that quickly, or that Holt’s had enough benefits to fill up thirty-six pages.

“Please hold all your questions until the end,” I announced.

Darlene made another note on her tablet, then asked, “Who is going to answer our questions? The store manager? Someone from Corporate?”

The very last thing I wanted was someone from the Holt’s corporate office in our store. My ex-official boyfriend was Ty Cameron, the fifth generation of driven, obsessive, control freaks to run the family-owned Holt’s chain of department stores. We’d broken up so I knew everyone at the corporate office was talking about me.

That’s what I would have done.

I ignored Darlene’s question and pushed ahead.

“I need everyone’s ID and Social Security cards,” I told the group.

It was standard procedure for anyone starting a new job in California—and probably other places—to provide proof of citizenship, so all the new hires had been instructed to bring the items to orientation.

Everybody dug the cards out. I collected them and opened the door.

“Continue filling out the forms,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Darlene’s hand went up again. I shot out the door and closed it behind me.

The photocopier was located in the store’s assistant managers’ office and I’d intended to go straight there. Really. But the vending machines in the employee breakroom called out to me—I mean, jeez, I hadn’t had anything chocolate in a while and my afternoon definitely needed a boost, so what else could I do?

The breakroom was equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, and vending machines. The walls were plastered with posters about upcoming Holt’s sales events—as if anyone but upper management really cared—and info about our rights as employees. Hanging above the timeclock was a clipboard with the daily work schedule. Along the back wall were lockers for our personal belongings. There was also a white board that Rita gleefully used to write the names of anyone who reported late for a shift—five tardies in one month and you got fired. Two names were listed.

A few employees sat at the tables flipping through our outdated selection of magazines and munching on snacks. I got a ten from my handbag—a mind-blowing Dolce & Gabbana satchel—and fed it into the vending machine. I started punching buttons and my cell phone vibrated in my pocket. The caller ID screen showed a message from Marcie, my best bestie. She’d sent me a link.

My adrenalin level shot up—and I hadn’t even eaten any chocolate yet.

This had to be good.

Marcie and I had been friends forever. She and I shared a love—okay, really, it was an all-consuming, totally out of proportion, way past obsession—love of designer handbags.

I clicked on the link and there, before my eyes, materialized the most gorgeous handbag I’d seen in my entire life—and that’s saying something. It was the Mystique, a blue leather clutch embellished with peacock feathers. My knees got weak just looking at it. I absolutely had to have it.

Immediately, I mentally put together the mission Marcie and I would undertake to find this much-sought-after bag—a grid pattern, color coding, north-south sweep of boutiques through Los Angeles, cross-referenced with online searches. We’d done this a bazillion times so—

Wait. Hang on. I didn’t have to do this any longer.

I grabbed my Snickers bar and two packages of M&Ms from the vending machine tray and sank into a chair. Marcie and I didn’t have to comb the city and the Internet, and fight the crowds at the stores to find the Mystique. We didn’t have to sweat it out on a waiting list. All I had to do was call Nuovo, tell them I wanted two of the bags, and they would put them aside until I leisurely strolled into their shop and picked them up.

It would be easy—but, somehow, kind of disappointing.

Weird, huh?

“You want to hear some b.s.?”

Bella walked into the breakroom. She was one of my Holt’s BFFs. Mocha to my vanilla, she was about my age, tall, with a flair for hair styling. She intended to be a hairdresser to the stars and was working at Holt’s to save for beauty school. In the meantime, she experimented with different looks on her own hair. I sensed she had some kind of geometric theme going because she’d fashioned her hair into the shape of a triangle atop her head.

“I mean, this is some real b.s.,” Bella said.

I didn’t bother commenting. She knew I always wanted to hear some b.s..

I ripped open a bag of M&Ms and dumped most of it into my mouth.

“A customer just tried to take off with an armload of jeans,” Bella said, feeding coins into the vending machine. “And get this—she had on flip flops. Flip flops. How’s she going to make a run for her car in the parking lot in flip flops? What’s wrong with people? Why aren’t they thinking ahead?”

“Did she get away?” I asked, and poured the rest of the M&Ms into my mouth.

“Fell down,” Bella said. She got her soda and dropped into the chair across the table from me. “Face-planted right in front of the doors. Busted her lip.”

“She’ll probably sue.”

“If she had any sense, she would.” Bella gestured to the stack of driver’s licenses and Social Security cards on the table. “You’re doing the orientation today?”

“Afraid so.”

“Where’s Lani? Why isn’t she doing it?”

Lani was the woman who usually conducted the orientation.

“She was a no-show today,” I said, and unwrapped my Snickers bar.

Bella shook her head. “There’s something weird about her.”

I couldn’t disagree, which was why I was okay handling the orientation alone.

“Got any good-looking men in there?” Bella asked, nodding toward the training room down the hall.

“One guy looks like he should be institutionalized, and there’s another one who might take first place in a serial killer look-alike contest,” I said.

“Figures,” Bella grumbled. “This place—”

“Ms. Randolph?”

Darlene appeared in the breakroom doorway. What the heck was she doing?

“The group has questions about the W-9,” she told me, holding up the packet of forms I’d given the new-hires to complete. “People are freaking out in there.”

I was pretty sure Darlene was the only one freaking out.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I told her.

Darlene hesitated, then finally left.

Bella rolled her eyes. “There’s always one.”

I finished my Snickers bar and dumped my trash, then stopped by the white board. I looked at the names of the two employees who had been late for work that Rita had listed, erased them, and left the breakroom.

I headed down the hallway to the office shared by the store’s assistant managers. Nobody was inside when I walked in. I spent a few minutes photocopying the documents, then put the copies in the file folder with Lani’s name on it and returned to the training room.

The only person still working on the forms was Darlene. Everyone else was either chatting or on their phones; one guy was asleep.

“Time for the store tour,” I announced, as I handed back their cards.

Darlene waved her hand above her head. “I haven’t finished my forms. I have questions.”

Oh, crap.

She started asking me something and, really, I drifted off. Something nagged at my thoughts, something kind of important that I was supposed to do.

Then it hit me—the mannequins.

Holt’s had recently purchases new mannequins on which to display our dismal array of so-called fashions. It seemed like a waste of money to me. I mean, really, you could drape the Holt’s merchandise on blocks of solid gold and it still wouldn’t make them desirable.

Every employee had been forced to endure a lengthy training session—complete with a PowerPoint presentation—given by somebody from Corporate about the new mannequins. We had been harangued for two hours about how expensive they were, how delicate, how fragile, how only specially trained technicians were authorized to dress them.

The entire mind-numbing ordeal actually came down to two things—don’t touch the mannequins and make sure the customers don’t touch the mannequins. I could have conveyed the essence of the entire presentation with those two statements.

Really, why wasn’t I running the entire world?

“Listen up,” I announced to the group. “About the mannequins. Don’t touch them. Okay?”

Everybody nodded—except, of course, for Darlene.

I was starting to not like Darlene.

“Is that a corporate policy?” she asked. “Or is it a store policy?”

Like it mattered?

“What if a customer can’t find the size they want?” Darlene proposed. “What if the size they want is on the mannequin?”

“Don’t touch the mannequins,” I said.

“So, you’re saying Holt’s is willing to lose a sale?” she asked.

“The mannequins are new. The company paid a lot of money for them. Don’t touch the mannequins,” I told her.

I mean, jeez, how hard was that to understand?

“But what about providing good customer service?” Darlene asked. “The Holt’s employee guidebook states on page three that we’re to provide excellent customer service at all times. How is refusing to take something off of a mannequin providing good customer service?”

No way am I cut out for doing new-hire orientation

“Are we supposed to offend a paying customer and lose a sale?” Darlene asked.

I’m definitely going to have to figure a way to get out of doing this again.

“Are we?” She picked up her tablet and pen, ready to write something down.

Okay, now I really don’t like Darlene.

“Well?” she asked.

I walked out of the room.

The new-hires fell in behind me as I headed down the hallway.

“First, we’re checking out the stockroom,” I told them, then led the way through the double doors.

I loved the stockroom. Its massive shelving units were stuffed to capacity with fresh, new merchandise. It was usually quiet back here, unless the truck team was unloading, except for the store’s canned music track that played quietly. Plus, it was a great place to hide out from customers.

I decided I’d let the new-hires figure that out on their own.

I led the way through the shelving units, pointing and explaining as we passed the mannequin farm, the janitor’s closet, and the returns area, then told them that the huge staircase led to the upper floor where smaller, lighter merchandise was stored. Two of the girls were whispering, another was texting. Everyone else was paying attention. Darlene, for some reason, was making notes on her tablet.

“This is the loading dock,” I said, doing my very best Vanna White hand gesture.

I hit a button and one of the big doors rose, groaning and clattering until it reached the top of its tracks. Outside, the afternoon sun shone in bright escape-now-while-you-can fashion, illuminating the building’s rear parking lot, the Dumpsters, and the backs of the other stores in the shopping center.

We walked out onto the loading dock. Some of the new employees seemed restless and I wondered if they were considering making a break for it—I know I was.

“Ms. Randolph? You said we were supposed to be careful with the mannequins,” Darlene said. “It doesn’t look like everybody knew about that policy.”

She pointed to two white legs sticking out from behind the Dumpster.

I got a weird feeling.

“Maybe the store needs another training class on the mannequins,” Darlene said.

I went down the concrete steps and peered behind the Dumpster.

The legs didn’t belong to a mannequin. They were attached to a girl.

She was dead.

 

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