- Scent to Her Grave
- A Blush With Death
- Glossed and Found
Glossed and Found
Originally written under the name of "India Ink"
Murder is never pretty... When Venus Envy's new makeup artist vanishes on the night of the Thanksgiving Gala, Persia knows that something is terribly wrong. The police think Lisa drowned--her car was found parked near Lookout Pier, and a storm had raged through town the night of the dance. But Persia refuses to believe it. Lisa Tremont was terrified of water and would never have gone out on a pier by herself, and Lisa had just confided to Persia that she'd discovered what happened to a missing inheritance belonging to her and her sister. Could Lisa have stumbled too close to the thief? Working against the clock, Persia must find her friend while fending off escalating threats from her ex-boyfriend Elliot as the holidays close in with their glittering beauty.
Life was good, I thought as I brought my legs up to form a perfect V. My hands were behind me, pressed against the rubber exercise ball as I balanced on my butt, breathing slowly. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I focused on one of my favorite photographs that I’d framed and hung on the wall: a picture of a group of Shaolin monks from their U.S. tour during 2003. When tickets went on sale in Seattle, I’d been first in line and had soaked up every moment of the performance.
Someday I promised myself that I’d travel to China, to the foot of Songshan Mountain, where I’d visit the ancient Shaolin Temple. Of course, there were hundreds of tourists there, but I didn’t care. Ancient ruins begat ancient energy, and the whispers of the monks would still be engraved on the walls, in the statues, on the passing breeze.READ MORE
I sucked in another deep breath, gently bringing my focus back to the photograph. I’d built up to holding this pose for almost five minutes, and today I planned on taking it a step further. I cautiously lifted one hand from the ball, and then—inch by inch—raised the other hand, holding my arms straight out so that my butt was the focal point, the only part of me touching the ball as I balanced without support.
As I exhaled, willing myself to remain still, a loud pop startled me, and the next thing I knew, I hit the floor squarely on my tailbone, a thin yoga mat the only thing separating my ass from the hardwood. The thud shook the room. Blinking, I sat there wondering what the hell had happened. Then footsteps sounded from the stairway, and I heard Auntie calling me.
“Persia, Persia? Are you okay?”
“I’m in here,” I said, finding my voice. “I’m in my workout room.”
I stared at the floor a moment, debating on whether I should stand up. Was I hurt? Maybe; I didn’t think so, but it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. No sharp aches or pains, no feeling that something was broken. Just a general sense that all was not right with the world.
I was used to thumps and jolts from my martial arts classes and the self-defense classes I taught, along with numerous other activities—such as fighting off the occasional bad guy (or woman, as the case may be). But this…this was something else.
I’d never had an exercise ball break on me before. I usually replaced them once a year, not trusting them to withstand all the punishment I put them through for any longer than that. But I’d only had this ball… When did I buy it? Five… six months ago? It shouldn’t have burst, and even if it had sustained a small puncture, the damned thing should have deflated slowly.
“God almighty, girl! What happened?” Auntie bustled into the room.
I accepted her hand, gingerly pushing myself off the floor to tower over her. My Aunt Florence might be the most intimidating woman on Port Samanish Island, but she was still a good seven inches shorter than me, though she had me beat in the weight department.
“I have no idea. One moment I was on my ball, and the next thing I knew, I was viewing life from a distinctly different perspective.” As I examined the exercise ball I noticed it had ripped, not on the seams but across the ribs. “I think it was defective. Look at the way it tore open.”
“Never mind that. Are you okay?” Auntie asked, leaning down to pick up the bright blue rubber that ripped even further as she touched it.
“I’m in a little bit of shock, actually,” I said, unable to focus. I closed my eyes. My back felt stiff—I’d landed hard. My butt was sore, and my neck was beginning to ache. “I think I’m okay, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really know. I’m a little shaky.” I winced as I slowly bent over to touch my toes.
“You’d better make an appointment with Cynthia,” Auntie said. “Can you make it downstairs to breakfast? We need to be at Venus Envy early today.” She gave me a pat on the back and a nasty twinge in my glutes made me think that maybe I’d managed to injure myself after all.
An hour on the massage table would do me good. “I’ll call her, then take a hot shower. I’ll be down to breakfast after that.” As I cautiously crossed the hall to my study, a glance at the clock told me it was ten minutes after eight. I picked up the phone and dialed our masseuse.
Cynthia answered on the second ring. “Radiant Massage Therapy, Cynthia speaking. May I help you?”
I smiled. Radiant was a good word to describe her. Cynthia glowed, and she had a way of making every client feel special. “Persia Vanderbilt here. I just had a nasty little tumble off my exercise ball, and I think I should come in. Can you squeeze me in tonight at five?” I flipped open my Day-Timer and glanced through my appointments. The morning was taken up with clients looking for custom fragrances for the coming holiday season. I was cleaning up by making one-of-a-kind Christmas presents.
During the afternoon, I planned on drafting out my column for Pout Magazine. After I’d given them an interview about the ins and outs of being an up-and-coming young entrepreneur, the editor asked me if I’d be interested in writing a monthly beauty hints column, and I’d agreed. I could always use an extra five hundred a month, and the column would bring more attention both to Venus Envy and to my custom-blended oils.
Things had snowballed after that, with the column leading to a half-hour special segment on Northwest Island Living, a cable-access television show local to Gull Harbor and Port Samanish Island, where I answered callers’ questions about beauty, fragrance, and fitness. The show’s producers were trying to talk me into a regular spot hosting an early morning exercise and beauty show, which I was seriously considering. All I had to lose was a little extra sleep. And perhaps my dignity, if the show went the route my workout had gone this morning.
Cynthia confirmed me for a five o’clock appointment, and I penciled it in, then headed for the shower. I slid out of my leotard and turned on the water as hot as I could stand it, then took a shaky step into the glass-enclosed shower. What I really wanted was to fill the freestanding claw-foot tub up to the brim and just soak, but Auntie and I needed to be at the shop early, so bubbles were a luxury that would have to wait until later.
As the spray beat down on my back, I was aware of a growing ache in my tailbone. Damn, this was the last thing I needed. While the self-defense class that I taught was over until the end of January, I was signed up for a workshop on intensive bodywork for women that was supposed to start in two weeks—three days of grueling, push-it-to-the-max exercise and body detox work. The last thing I needed was a backache, neck ache, or any other type of ache threatening to bench me. I leaned over, back to the shower head, as the streaming water tapped out a staccato drumbeat on my coccyx.
After my shower, I slipped into a gray tweed walking skirt and a royal blue V-neck sweater that shimmered with sparkling white beads. The sleeves ended two inches below my elbow and my bluebell faerie tattoo wound around my left arm like an old friend tagging along for the ride. I changed my belly button ring for one with a delicate polished garnet in it—my birthstone. In a month and a half, I’d turn thirty-two years old. A pair of mile-high Chanel round-toed pumps completed the ensemble. Sweeping my waist-length hair into a thick chignon, I fastened it in place with a pair of black lacquered chopsticks and then headed down to breakfast, wincing a little as my lower back complained about the two flights of stairs.
Auntie had made a huge omelet with bacon bits, bell peppers, onions, cheddar, and diced zucchini. As I set the table, she fed apples, carrots, and pears through the juicer. I’d picked up the contraption a few weeks earlier, and we were on a juicing craze. I’d tried just about every combination of fruits and vegetables that I could think of—a few of which immediately ended up down the drain. Never again would I attempt to juice a kohlrabi.
As I settled down at the table, the muscles around my tailbone spasmed again, and I winced. “Damn, I think I threw something out. I’ll call Will and schedule an appointment before I head over to see Cynthia.” Will Cohalis was our chiropractor.
Auntie handed me a small plastic cup full of vitamins and supplements and the plate of toast. I buttered two slices of toast, swallowed the pills in three gulps with my juice, and dug into the omelet. “Yum, this is really good. I’m hungrier than I thought.”
“With the workload we’ve got coming up today, I figured we’d want something more substantial than cereal. We’re heading into the busiest season of the year, and there’s a nasty bug going around. I don’t want anybody out sick during the holidays.”
Auntie had gone on a modified health kick herself, hence the handful of supplements and antioxidants we were now taking with our morning meals. She told me that she might be as wide as she was tall, but she wasn’t about to let herself go. Her blood pressure was good, her cholesterol was spot-on, and she spent three nights a week at an aqua-aerobics class for older women down at the Gull Harbor Aquatic Center, known as the GAC for short.
When I was four years old, Auntie had taken me in after my mother died and my father abandoned me, and now—twenty-seven years later—I owed her for everything I had and everything I’d become. She’d been my inspiration and my comfort, and now that she’d bestowed upon me half interest in Venus Envy, her bath and beauty shop and day spa, she was also my business partner. Last year, I’d returned home to the eccentric, artsy, high-tech town of Gull Harbor after a tiring stint in Seattle during which I’d gotten involved with an embezzler. Now, it was as if I’d never left Port Samanish Island.
“What are you doing tonight, Imp?” she asked, clearing away our plates.
Imp was her nickname for me—short for impetuous—and it fit. I patted my lips with my napkin and pulled out my lipstick and compact. “I’m meeting Lisa at six thirty at the GAC for a half hour for another swimming lesson. Then Barb and I’ll connect at the Delacorte Plaza. Neither one of us has anything worth wearing to the Gala, and we’ve decided to play it up glam.” Done with breakfast, I carefully lined my lips with a burgundy liner and then stained them with Merlot Vision, the newest lipstick from Urban Gurlz.
Auntie slipped the dishes into the dishwasher. “How’s Lisa doing on her lessons? She seems like such a strong girl, to be so afraid of the water.”
We’d recently hired both a hair stylist and a makeup artist for Venus Envy, expanding our day spa offerings by double. Seth Jones was a master with the scissors, and Lisa Tremont was a whiz with makeup and manicures. Lisa and I’d become friends in short order. Although she was closer to our cashier Tawny’s age, Lisa was more mature. She’d been through the wringer, and it showed in both her attitude and her eyes. And yet she was terrified of the water and asked me if I’d help her overcome her fear. We’d been working together for the past month at the pool, one step at a time, trying to acclimate her with the more pleasant aspects of swimming.
“Childhood trauma. She almost drowned when she was five. She was swept out toward the ocean during a riptide, and her father didn’t notice at first. He finally saw her struggling in the surf and managed to swim out and save her before she went under, but by then, she’d freaked. She’s never been back in the water since. At least, never in anything bigger than a bathtub.” I eased out of my chair and slid into the new black leather jacket Killian—my boyfriend—had given me. It was tailored and fit me like a glove. So did he, for that matter.
Auntie wiped her hands on the dish towel. She was dressed in her usual mu’umu’u; today it was fuchsia, the color of her straw hat with the beloved and very-late Squeaky, who’d met his death via electrical cord. The bird was affixed to the hat with a glue that held stronger than steel. She shrugged into the long wool cape that I’d bought her for her birthday and plunked the hat on her head.
“Ready to go?”
I nodded. “Meet you there. And Auntie, please call the garage and have them stifle that beast of yours before Kyle finally gives in and slaps you with a ticket. He’s not going to look the other way forever, you know.” Baby, Auntie’s convertible, was louder than a jet engine and desperately needed muffling.
Auntie shrugged. “One of these days, my dear. One of these days.”
Our shop, Venus Envy, was on Island Drive, the main drag of Gull Harbor, Washington, the town that sprawled across a good share of Port Samanish Island in Puget Sound. We attracted the renegade techies and artists, the summer millionaires, and those fleeing the frenetic pace of Seattle’s java jive mentality. Oh, that’s not to say that caffeine didn’t still rule the community and that we weren’t still in the loop, but the islanders had managed to pull in the best of both worlds. Seattle was only a half hour away by ferry, and yet the island was removed, a world away from the grime and the haze and the concrete. We did get the rain—in fact, more than the city proper by a measurable amount—but we were tweeners—between urban and rural.
I pulled into my parking spot and dashed across the street, shielding myself from the rain with my handbag. The clouds were thick and looming ominous, the streets wet from the night’s downpour. Lucky for me, morning rush hour was over, and the matrons of the town hadn’t come out to shop yet, so parking was easy and the slick pavement clear.
Venus Envy was nestled between the Baklava or Bust Bakery on one side—owned by my best friend Barbara Konstantinos and her husband Dorian—and Starbucks on the other. Barb lived for Starbucks, while I thrived on black tea and lemon. On the corner was our favorite hang-out, the BookWich, a café-slash-bookstore where you could read and eat. Downtown Gull Harbor had all the charm of an old-fashioned town, with all the boutiques of a thriving metropolis. It was the perfect blend of tradition and cutting edge.
I dashed through the door. Tawny was already at work, and I saw that Seth had come in early, too. I waved at them as I headed back to the office. A few months back we’d been facing ruin, thanks to a ruthless competitor. After I’d managed to expose her dirty game, our customer base rebounded higher than ever, including a few clients who sheepishly returned after deserting us for Bebe Wilcox and her low-cost, low-quality wares.
But I had to admit, thanks to the crap that Bebe had pulled, we were smarter. We now kept all valuables locked in the office, our computer was secure, our files were backed up, and I’d created copies of my oil recipe journal, both on the computer and hard copy. Difficult lessons all, but vital.
I checked for messages as I slid out of my leather jacket and hung it up behind the door. The tranquil mauve and sea-green color scheme always calmed me down, even when I was in a rush, and now I exhaled slowly as I listened to the string of callbacks waiting for us. Most were for Auntie, one was for Tawny, and one was a client who had to cancel her fragrance consultation.
As I turned off the machine, I realized that my butt still hurt. Hopefully, Cynthia would be able to take care of it, but I put in a call to Will Cohalis and scheduled an adjustment for four fifteen, just to make sure. Finished with the morning administration, I left my purse in the bottom drawer of Auntie’s desk and headed back to my station.
My first two appointments were business as usual, but when I glanced at the schedule, the third name stood out in bold screaming letters to me. I glared at the writing and hurried over to Tawny.
“What the hell is this?” I shoved the book under her nose. “You know better than to schedule an appointment with the Albatross!”
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Tawny, she was a good worker, but she had a few specific orders that were sacrosanct. And refusing service to my ex-boyfriend Elliot was at the top of the commandments. I’d been compiling a long list of his stunts in the hopes of getting a restraining order, but he always stopped right before crossing the line. A few times I’d managed to chase him off by threatening to beat him to a pulp if he didn’t get the hell out of Dodge. He knew I could do it, too, and he knew that I would, if pushed.
Tawny paled. “Oh Persia, I’m sorry! Let me see that.” She took the book from me and squinted. “That’s not my handwriting. I’ll bet Seth took down the appointment when I was on break, and I just never noticed.”
“Oh Lord, I’m sorry, Tawny.” I let out a long sigh. Had I warned Seth about Elliot? Lisa knew, but when I tried to remember if I’d told Seth, I came up with a blank. “Forgive me? The sight of his name was just a shock.”
Tawny winked. “I’d have done the same thing. Maybe you’d better let Seth know, though, so it doesn’t happen again.” She glanced at the clock. “Do you think I have time to call and cancel his appointment before—”
The shop chimes sounded, and I grimaced. Even though I hadn’t turned around, I knew who it was. I knew as sure as I could smell the pathetic knockoff version of Calvin Klein’s Obsession. I whirled around, jaw set. Elliot stood there, a smile of triumph on his face.
What had I ever seen in this man? There must have been something that attracted me at one time, but over the past eighteen months, I’d totally forgotten what it was. I’d dated Elliot Parker, former accountant-turned-embezzler, for several years before moving in with him, never having a clue as to his criminal alter ego. Five years later, the Feds caught up with him.
I cut my losses and ran, leaving Seattle to return home to Auntie’s house. Elliot managed to finagle a deal and got off on a plea bargain, and he followed me to Gull Harbor, where he rented a dive, took odd jobs to keep himself alive, and pestered me at every turn.
“What the fuck do you want, Elliot? I told you to never darken the doors of this shop, and if Auntie finds out you were in here, she’ll hunt you down like the dog you are.”
Hands on my hips, I glared. In my heels, I was well over six feet and towered over him.
He stared up at me, his eyes glittering with thoughts that were hard to read, probably a good thing for both our sakes. “I’m a paying customer—”
I looked around. By now most of our customers knew about my volatile connection with the jerk, but I still didn’t like causing scenes in the shop if I could avoid it. However, there were only three customers in the shop, and they all gave me knowing smiles as I glanced at them.
“What you are is an asshole! Now get out before I help you find the door.” I took a step forward and glared.
He swallowed, the nervous tic in his face starting up. He hadn’t had that until he moved to Gull Harbor and took up drinking as a sport. “Persia, when are you going to admit you still want me—”
“That’s it!” I took hold of his elbow and within seconds had twisted him around as I propelled him to the door. He tried to break free, but I held fast until we reached the rainy sidewalk. As I let go, I whispered, “You come back, and I’ll have to get rough. Got it through that alcohol-sodden skull of yours?”
He coughed, backing away as I cracked my knuckles, and then without a word, turned and stumbled off down the street. Just as I thought, he was already on his way to being soused. As I dusted my hands on my skirt and headed back into the shop, I wondered what else was going to go wrong today.
By lunchtime, I was ready for a bowl of chicken soup and a sandwich. I’d created five custom blends for my regular clients, sorted out an inventory mistake that left Tawny bewildered and almost in tears, and tried to console an angry Lisa who had gotten yet another letter from the creditors who were hounding her and her sister.
“We’ll talk about it at the pool tonight. Maybe there’s something I can think of to help,” I said, staring at the demand for payment.
Lisa and Amy were trying to pull together the remains of their father’s estate after he’d died of a long and arduous ordeal with cancer. They were up to their necks in fending off the sharks who wanted their money from an estate that had fallen far short of everyone’s expectations.
She sighed. “It’s just been so hard, Persia. We’re trying to save the family house, but I’m not sure if we have time to save it.” An odd look crossed her face, and she shrugged. “I do have one idea, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work. I’ll know more soon, though.” I handed her a tissue, and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Luckily, Lisa wore waterproof mascara, or she’d be a runny mess by now.
I patted her on the arm. “Don’t cry. We’ll figure out something.” A glance at the clock told me I was running late. “I’m meeting Barb for lunch now, but we’ll talk this afternoon at the pool. I promise.” As Lisa nodded, I grabbed my wallet from Auntie’s office and waved as I headed out the door.
Barb was waiting by the door of the bakery, and as she swung out to meet me in stride, I could smell the delicious scents of fresh bread and pastries. She looked wiped.
“Busy?” I asked.
“The week before Thanksgiving?” She snorted. “Persia, we’re going down for the third time. Not only are people ordering breads and rolls and pies for their dinners, but we’re catering the pastries for the Gull Harbor Thanksgiving Gala tomorrow night.”
The Gala was an annual dance sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and various Gull Harbor small businesses. All proceeds went to the Helping Hands Center and the Port Samanish Island Food Bank. Tickets were one hundred dollars per person, and Auntie and I had decided to spring for Trevor, Tawny, Seth, and Lisa. They’d all be attending, dates included. It was the one posh affair of the year that was open to the public, and everybody who was anybody would be there.
“So not only are we run ragged,” she said, playing with her straw, “but guess who decided to show up just to make my life miserable?”
“At least it wasn’t Elliot. He dropped into Venus Envy this morning.” I shook my head, wondering just who’d gotten on Barb’s bad side. We’d been so busy lately we hadn’t had a chance to really sit and dish for several weeks. “Who’s the thorn in your side? Maybe we can take him—or her—and Elliot at the same time. Tie them to cement blocks, and toss them in the ocean or something.”
“Don’t I wish, but that’s not going to happen. Mama Konstantinos showed up a few days ago for a visit.” The look on her face said it all. Barbara and her mother-in-law were in a constant struggle over who had the most claim on Dorian. The battle was usually on hold, since Mama Konstantinos lived in Greece, but since she’d actually made a trip to the States, it was guaranteed that the war would rage with a renewed fury.
“You pick a place to stash the body yet?” I grinned at Barb, and she let go of the pinched look that was threatening to add a few wrinkles to the faint laugh lines that crept around her eyes. A decade older than me, at forty-two she still looked closer to thirty.
“I wish,” she muttered as we swung into the BookWich and waited at the hostess’s stand. Within minutes, Tilda was there to lead us back to a booth that afforded a little more privacy.
“Haven’t seen you girls in a while,” the older waitress said. Tilda was a good soul, and she treated us like we were her nieces. I always overtipped. Considering her age and how strenuous the job was, she deserved it.
“Busy, Tilda, so damned busy,” Barb said, sliding into the booth with one of those sighs that says it all. She leaned her head back against the seat, and I could see the strain tightening her neck and shoulders.
I slipped into the opposite seat and took a long drink of water. Tilda handed us menus and asked, “The usual drinks, girls?” We nodded, and she took off for the kitchen.
“Actually, what I want is a good stiff screwdriver right now. More vodka than OJ.” Barb inhaled deeply, then slumped. “I tell you, Persia, that woman is the root of all evil. I hate her—I really hate her. And Dorian adores her.”
“Doesn’t he see how she treats you?” I asked, playing with my glass. Just one more reason I never planned to walk down the aisle. As much as I liked Killian, I’d seen too many bad marriages. I’d rather have commitment than a license any day. In my book, the two didn’t always go together.
“You know Dorian, he never wants to make waves. And he never thinks she acts as badly as she really does. I can’t tell him what she says to me when he’s not around—he wouldn’t believe it. I just hope that having her on my turf makes a difference. She hasn’t been to the U.S. in six years, you know.” Barb shook her head in disgust. “So, what’s up with you? How’s Killian?”
“Well, other than almost breaking my butt this morning, I’m fine.” I gave her a slow smile. “Killian’s good, in more ways than one.” And that was no lie. Killian and I had been together since August, and the sex was so good that I almost thanked Bebe Wilcox for the trouble she’d caused us. Her machinations afforded me the opportunity to get to know Killian Reed, former owner of Donna Prima, a cosmetics company that Wilcox had managed to put out of business. Killian and I meshed in so many ways it was spooky; and like me, he wasn’t looking to formalize our relationship any time soon. We’d agreed to remain exclusive—the energy we raised between us was too intense for anything else—but that was enough for now.
“The Gala should be fun, at least,” Barb mumbled, her mouth full of a breadstick. She perked up a little. Barbara loved parties and playing socialite, and she did it well, without snobbishness but with a pizzazz few could mimic.
“I haven’t the faintest idea of what I want to wear. Something sparkly. The gloom’s really getting to me this autumn. I miss the sun.” I was a sun bunny at heart. I loved being outdoors, hiking, swimming, taking long walks on the beach. I still hiked and camped during the autumn and winter, but it was a hell of a lot harder when rain ruled the skies and fog rolled in to cloud the islands of Puget Sound.
Barb broke into a grin. “I know exactly where we’re going to shop tonight. A new store moved into the plaza last month. Sarina’s. Gorgeous dresses, designer wear. A real upscale boutique.”
I nodded as Tilda came to take our orders. An evening of shopping with my best friend may just be what the doctor ordered. Now, if I could figure out a way to boost Lisa’s mood, everything would be just peachy.COLLAPSE