Shop Til You Drop Dead

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Shop Til You Drop Dead, A Hollis Brannigan Mystery

Hollis Brannigan, newly arrived in Los Angeles, left Kansas for the bright lights of Tinseltown—but working as a personal shopper for a prestigious concierge service isn’t a job she ever wanted. Life only gets worse when she’s assigned to D-list clients: Fading Hollywood stars, aging industry insiders, new clients with no name value, and most any nut case who stumbles into the office with money to pay their outrageous fee.

But Hollis doesn’t intend to spend her days making other people’s dreams come true. She’s focused on getting a position in the investigations department.

She gets a chance to prove herself by posing as an investigator for a missing dog case—but when she arrives at a stately Hancock Park mansion, she learns there’s no missing dog. Instead, she’s shown a secret room, a handgun, a vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase stuffed with cash, and is told she has to find a killer.

Now shopping for a murderer among L.A.’s exclusive shops and luxury boutiques, Hollis discovers scandals, lies, broken dreams, and enough old secrets to fill a Black Friday shopping bag. But suspects and evidence are as rare as a Rodeo Drive discount outlet, and a cunning killer may be much closer than she thinks.

Somehow, she must find the murderer before her shopping days—and maybe her life—are over!

“I’m not doing it,” I said.

Bailey gave me serious stink-eye and said, “You have to.”

I gave her serious stink-eye right back. “No.”

“It’s on her list, Hollis,” she told me. “You have to buy them.”

I grabbed the elastic-waist khaki pants by the hanger and jerked them off the rack.

“They’re hideous,” I said, and shook them at her. “I’m not buying them.”

“They’re hideous, all right,” she agreed. “I’d die if somebody bought those for me.”

“I’d kill if somebody bought them for me,” I told her.

And that about summed up the difference between me and my friend Bailey Redding—except for our appearance. I was five-foot seven-inches tall with auburn hair and green eyes. Bailey was a little shorter and wore her blonde hair spiked up.

Oh, and Bailey is from around here.

I hung the god-awful pants on the rack again. “There’s only so much I’ll do for money.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re the only person in this town who’ll say that,” Bailey replied.

She pulled the pants off the rack and shoved them into my arms.

I knew she was right and that this was what my life was all about these days. And, really, except for rare occasions such as this, I was okay with it.

We were in Macy’s on Flower Street in Los Angeles and, believe it or not, we were working—if you can define work as spending your days in fabulous stores, shops, and boutiques shelling out unseemly amounts of other people’s money.

Both of us were personal shoppers employed by the Fisher Joyce Group, a concierge service housed in a high-rise a few blocks away on Wilshire Boulevard. The firm’s motto was “Almost Anything for Absolutely Anyone,” and they meant it. There were experts on staff who could give fashion advice and defend a client on murder charges—and everything in between.

Bailey had worked for Fisher Joyce for a while now; I’d gotten this job a few weeks ago.

I’m not from around here.

“Do you need anything else?” Bailey asked.

As you could guess by the elastic-waist khaki pants, I wasn’t exactly buying for the Beyoncés of the world.

I glanced at my cell phone and the list of items my client had ordered today. She was Zella Mason, a screenwriter who’d made her mark in Hollywood back before I was born—and that was 23 years ago. Her sense of style had gone the way of those disaster movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, taking her career along with it.

“That’s it for Zella,” I said.

“No cotton panties with a double-lined crotch? How about a boxed bra?” Bailey asked.

“I hate you,” I told her.

Bailey knew I didn’t mean it, but if I really did hate her I would be justified in doing so.

She shopped for what Fisher Joyce had determined were B-list clients—second-tier celebrities, business women and professionals, people who cared about what they looked like and wanted to project a certain image, people who had actual taste and style.

My clients were referred to as off-listers—not to their faces, of course—fading stars, aging industry people, new clients with no pedigree, and most any whack job who stumbled into our office and could pay our outrageous fee.

Of course, our clients could always order what they wanted off the internet and have it delivered to their home. Or our A-listers could have their personal assistants do their shopping for them. But Fisher Joyce was the hot way to go, something to oh-so casually mention at cocktail parties, or at the makeup mirror in the ladies room at gala events.

As if those people needed another reason to feel special.

Bailey glanced at the T-shirts draped across her arm and consulted the list on her phone. “That’s it for me.”

I looked at my phone again for the last item on my shopping list, this one for a different off-lister.

“I need to stop by the shoe department,” I said.

We made our way through the lunchtime crowd. Eric, one of the clerks we knew—tall, thin, young, immaculately groomed—saw us coming, gave us a little nod and disappeared into the stockroom. We followed him in.

“Check out these little darlings,” he said, and whipped off the top of a shoe box as if he were a French chef presenting his latest gourmet creation.

Inside lay a gorgeous pair of cherry red stilettos from the smoking hot, newest designer on the fashion scene. Bailey and I gasped.

True, I’m not from around here, but you don’t have to be from L.A. to appreciate an awesome pair of shoes.

Eric slammed the lid on the box and glanced around.

“Don’t breathe a word,” he whispered. “I don’t want a riot to break out.”

Eric, like a lot of salespeople at the major department stores, shops, and boutiques in L.A., knew what our clients liked as well as we did and held back the hottest items for us, pumping up his commission in the process.

“They’re perfect for one of my clients. It will be a great surprise for her,” Bailey said. “I’ll take them.”

I didn’t fight her for the shoes since Zella was pretty much the fashion trendsetter of my client list—with one exception.

“Have you got my client’s shoes?” I asked.

Eric knew right away to whom I was referring, and pulled the box off of a high shelf.

Gloria Wyatt was one of my off-listers. She had a special place in my heart because she was the very first person I’d shopped for when I came on board with Fisher Joyce. If she had more prestige she’d have been assigned to Bailey or one of the other B-list shoppers. She owned the Glorious Nails chain of nail salons. Her shops were located in strip malls and catered to middle-class clientele, thus relegating her to me as an off-lister.

Eric rang up our purchases and we paid for them using the Fisher Joyce-issued credit cards assigned to each of us. The company was big on accounting. We shoppers had to answer for every dime we spent.

“Let me know when you get something awesome in purple,” Bailey said as Eric passed us our shopping bags.

He nodded wisely. “For you-know-who?”

“Yep,” Bailey said.

I didn’t ask who you-know-who was because we weren’t supposed to name names, both for privacy and to continue the illusion of mystery at Fisher Joyce. But if I asked Bailey, she’d tell me.

“I’ll call you,” Eric promised.

We wound our way out of the shoe department.

“Are you heading back to the office?” I asked.

“I’ve got one quick stop to make,” Bailey said.

“See you later,” I called.

I took the escalator down to the parking garage and loaded my packages into the rear of the brand-spanking-new BMW 5-Series I’d been assigned when I left Fisher Joyce earlier. Driving a cool car while on company business was a perk I hadn’t expected when I’d taken the job as personal shopper.

Truthfully, this wasn’t a job I’d ever aspired to. It wasn’t covered on career day at the high school I’d attended in Kansas City, Kansas—or KCK, as we called it—and it certainly wasn’t mentioned at the community college where I got my AA.

KCK was the younger sibling to Kansas City, Missouri, which had the airport, the baseball and football teams, the convention centers, and everything else that brought people into a city—and made them want to stay.

So why did I, Hollis Brannigan, leave and end up in Los Angeles several months ago?

It was because of my best friend since third grade, Brittany Maxwell. Actually, it was Brittany’s boyfriend Toby. No, really, it was the chick who came on to Toby at the Hero’s Bar and Grill and made him forget all about Brittany—until she caught them making out in the back hallway next to the ladies restroom.

It wasn’t pretty.

Brittany decided she’d had it with Toby. They’d dated since they were freshmen in high school and if his head could be turned that easily when he thought she wasn’t looking, well, Brittany said it was time for a change.

Two days later we were in my Chevy Malibu headed for the bright lights of Tinseltown. Brittany had been in pageants since she was three years old and knew she could make it in Hollywood. And me, well, things being what they were at my house, I was glad to go, too.

Brittany said that since I was tall—compared to her I’m a giant—I could easily land a movie deal too, but thought I should dye my auburn hair bright red because she’d noticed that in People magazine a lot of the young starlets had hair that color. Brittany was my best friend and I loved her to death, but when it came to giving out advice I questioned her judgment—her long-term relationship with that dirt bag Toby being a perfect example. I stuck with auburn.

Brittany and I found an apartment to share and eked out a living working as movie extras, waitresses, and servers for restaurants and catering companies. Things happened—things always happen—and Brittany ended up returning to KCK with Toby.

He’d missed her something terrible—or so he claimed in the zillion phone and text messages he’d sent starting the day we left KCK—and finally showed up at our apartment begging Brittany to go back home with him. I guess it was for the best. Brittany’s dreams of making it big in Hollywood hadn’t materialized, and she wasn’t all that crazy about the L.A. traffic, the crowds, and the glimpses of a lifestyle she’d love to have but saw no way of getting.

If it hadn’t been for the night I spent with Bob Seger, I’d have gone with them.

Instead, I maxed out my last credit card to buy an awesome business suit at Neiman Marcus so I could apply for the job in the investigations department at Fisher Joyce that I’d heard about from a girl who lived in our apartment building.

I’d figured I was a shoe-in for the position in the investigations department. Back in KCK I’d worked for Beau and Buster’s Used Car Emporium. They were my uncles and, no, those weren’t their real names. We carried our own paper—that’s used-car lingo for financing our customers’ vehicles ourselves—and ever since I was a sophomore in high school I’d been doing everything from checking credit to tracking down people who’d skipped out on their payments.

So I’d gone to Fisher Joyce in a killer outfit, and with what I figured were equally killer credentials, only to be told the position in the investigations department had been filled. Thankfully, my years of reading Cosmo, Elle, Marie Claire, and Mademoiselle magazines while verifying employment, talking to the credit bureau, and hunting down skips, paid off. The woman in H.R. recognized my flair for fashion and offered me the job as a personal shopper.

What can I say? I was desperate for a job—a paycheck, really—so I accepted the position but still had my eye on the investigations department.

I left Macy’s and drove back to Fisher Joyce, and pulled into the underground parking garage. I still had Zella Mason’s khaki, elastic-waist pants and Gloria’s shoes to process, but there was nothing else that required my attention this afternoon. I grabbed the Macy’s bags out of the back and relinquished the BMW to the valet.

I was supposed to head directly to the package prep room in the shipping department but I spotted Andy Edmund waiting for a car to be brought around for him; he looked thoroughly annoyed.

Andy worked in our investigations department. But believe me, nobody would confuse Andy with one of those hot P.I.s on television.

He was really tall and really thin, with light brown hair he was constantly fussing with. His biggest concern in life seemed to be that he would sustain a wrinkle in one of his expensive suits.

The general feel for Andy was that he was putting in his time, going through the motions as he worked his way up the management food chain. Somebody said he was related to the owner, but I think Andy’s the one who started that rumor, which was really crappy except I do kind of wish I’d thought of it myself. If so, maybe I’d be working in the investigations department instead of buying things I couldn’t keep.

“Hey, Andy,” I said, and walked over.

He tossed back his hair and spared me a look. “Oh. Hollis. Hi.”

Andy was not exactly running over with charm and personality, a failure that, I was sure, would serve him well when he was eventually promoted into a management position.

He shuddered. “I hate this parking garage. The smell is atrocious.”

“Heading out on a case?” I asked.

Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less about Andy, but since he worked in investigations and I wanted to work there too, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to let him see my face.

Hopefully he’ll have been promoted to another department by the time I get there.

“Yes, unfortunately,” Andy said, and smoothed down his tie. He glared at the attendants in the valet booth. “I don’t know why it takes this long to get a car.”

I’m sure the attendants heard him and chose to ignore his comment—just like they surely dragged their feet every time Andy wanted a car.

That’s what I would have done.

“It’s just the most ridiculous thing,” he declared and waved the portfolio in his hand. “Some rich bitch in Hancock Park lost her dog.”

When Fisher Joyce came up with their motto “Almost Anything for Absolutely Anyone,” they weren’t kidding.

“I hate dogs,” Andy said and uttered a disgusted grunt. “I hate cats, too.”

Andy hated everything—but himself.

“They should have hired you in investigations,” Andy said, smoothing his hair back. He shook the portfolio at me. “This is the sort of thing someone like you should be sent out on.”

Andy’s comment was insulting on many levels—not the least of which was the common knowledge that I wasn’t from around here—but he was so self-centered I was sure it didn’t occur to him. Besides, at the moment I didn’t care. I saw an opportunity and jumped on it.

“I’ll take it for you,” I said.

Andy froze, his fingers in mid-swoop through his hair, and looked down at me as if I were a wad of gum he’d just discovered on the sole of his Minolo loafers.

“You?” he asked. “Investigate a case?”

“Sure,” I told him and shrugged to indicate it was no big deal. “I go out there, talk to the owner, calm her down, makes notes on everything she says, and that’s it. I come back here, give you the info, and you turn it over to the techs to follow up.”

Andy didn’t say anything.

“And in the meantime, you can do whatever you want,” I said.

Now I had his attention. He pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes thinking, I was sure, of all the places he could hang out and not do any actual work.

Andy was definitely management material.

He looked me up and down then pursed his lips distastefully. “You’ll have to go to wardrobe.”

Fisher Joyce had a wardrobe department. The company was even fussier than Andy when it came to appearances. All the employees were required to project the right image when dealing face-to-face with clients, which meant we sometimes got to wear awesome clothes and drive really hot cars from the motor pool.

“No problem,” I said.

“And you’ll have to hurry,” he said, glancing at my shopping bag. “You can’t keep the client waiting.”

“I’ll be on my way in fifteen minutes,” I said.

“That should be fine.” Andy huffed irritably and glared once more at the parking valets. “If somebody could actually get a car up here!”

“Great,” I said, and reached for the portfolio.

Andy held it back. “Don’t screw this up.”

“It’s a missing dog,” I said. “What’s to screw up?”

Andy studied me for another few seconds then handed over the portfolio.

“I’ll remember this,” he said.

I think—hope—he meant that as a compliment.

I dashed into the shipping department near the valet booth, and into the prep room where our clients’ purchases were custom packaged before being hand delivered in one of the company’s vans. Another plus for our clients was that the prestige of a personal shopping service guaranteed their packages were not tossed in with those of the common folk, nor handled by the riffraff of commercial delivery services.

Apparently, wealthy, privileged people can’t be told often enough just how special they are.

I dumped Zella’s hideous khaki pants on a work table and folded them between thin sheets of pale blue tissue paper, then placed them inside a gray gift box, both bearing the Fisher Joyce company logo. I printed the purchase receipt that Macy’s had emailed to me along with the delivery label from the computer at the work-station in the corner. I sealed Zella’s copy of the receipt inside a gray envelope along with my business card and a pre-printed thank you note, both with the Fisher Joyce logo on them, then tied the package with a wide navy blue ribbon and handed it off to the guy in the shipping department.

All for a pair of elastic-waist khaki pants.

That’s Hollywood.

I did the same for Gloria’s shoes, then took the elevator up to the sixth floor and went through the double doors into the Fisher Joyce reception area. It was sleek, contemporary, with stainless steel, gray marble, and white furniture.

I gave the two receptionists a little wave as I passed by. They were women in their forties, the age where they still looked great but were old enough to not take any crap from someone who showed up without an appointment.

Sometimes, if the lobby was empty and the phones were quiet, they’d chat with me which I appreciated since I was still kind of new here. But I didn’t have time for small talk today. Andy had agreed to let me take a case, my shot at making inroads into the investigations department, and I didn’t have a minute to spare.

Not that I’d need much time, once I got to the client’s house. All l I had to do was make a few sympathetic noises and jot down the info about the missing dog.

What could be easier?