Dorothy Howell, Mystery AuthorDorothy Howell, Mystery Author About DorothyBooksOther WorksContestNews And Events

Excerpt from Messenger Bags and Murder

“He said what?” Marcie screamed.

I pulled my cell phone away from my ear, not surprised by her reaction—the only reaction possible from my BFF.

“Oh, my God, you’re kidding me,” she went on. “You’re totally kidding me. Tell me you’re kidding me.”

I didn’t bother answering because I knew she wasn’t ready to hear anything more—that’s how huge the news was that I’d just shared with her.

I was walking down the hallway toward the office of L.A. Affairs where I, Haley Randolph, with my I-look-smart-because-I’m-a-brunette dark hair, and my long they’re-the-only-thing-I-inherited-from-my-beauty-queen-mom pageant legs, worked as an event planner. It was Monday morning and, somehow, I was actually running a little ahead of schedule.

Weird, especially for a Monday.

“I don’t believe this,” Marcie ranted. “I absolutely do not believe this.”

The hallway was crowded with well-dressed men and women juggling briefcases, messenger bags, handbags, totes, and coffee in to-go cups, everybody scrambling to get wherever they were going. The building was located on the fashionable corner of Sepulveda and Ventura in prestigious Sherman Oaks, one of Los Angeles’s most sought-after locations. Everybody seemed anxious to get to their desk, hunker down, and surge into the week with renewed vigor.

Except for me.

But I had a good excuse.

I heard Marcie draw a huge breath and let it out slowly, a sign that she was winding down.

“Okay,” she said. “We’ve got to get together tonight. I have to hear everything. Everything.”

“I’ll text you,” I promised.

We ended the call as I pushed through the door of L.A. Affairs bracing myself, as usual, for the ridiculous are you ready to party chant our receptionist Mindy always hit me with as if I were a potential client, not an employee. I kept my head down, determined to ignore her, but when I didn’t hear anything I glanced up. A woman I’d never seen before sat behind the reception desk.

Okay, that was weird. Mindy had never—ever—missed a day of work.

Tempted as I was to ask what the heck was going on, I decided to just roll with it. It was Monday, I was early, and I’d just shared colossal news with Marcie. I didn’t think I could take anything else right now.

I headed past the client interview rooms and the cube farm, then turned down the hallway where the offices and conference room were located, and went into my private office. I loved my office—neutral furniture with splashes of blue and yellow, and huge windows that offered a great view of the Galleria shopping center across the street.

It was a new day, a new week, abounding with new opportunities. Conscientious workers all over the world would immediately dig in, get organized, set priorities, and formulate a plan for the day.

I wasn’t one of those people.

I dropped my handbag—a classic Chanel satchel I’d paired with my even-on-a-Monday-I-dress-to-kill black business suit—in the bottom drawer of my desk and headed for the breakroom. But before I’d taken two steps I spotted a large sheet of paper taped to my computer screen, with something written on it in red marker.

Okay, that was weird.

Weird, even for a Monday.

I looked closer. Report to my office immediately, was printed in huge block letters, the last word underlined three times. It was signed by Priscilla.

Priscilla was the office manager.

Okay, that was really weird.

She wanted me front and center with such urgency that she hadn’t sent a text, a DM, an email, or left me a voice mail? She’d actually handwritten a sign, walked to my office, and taped it to my computer? First thing? On a Monday morning?

Yikes!

Immediately, I launched into full panic mode.

Oh my God. Oh my God. What was going on? Why was Priscilla apparently on fire to see me? Was I in major trouble?

My thoughts raced backward. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done wrong—well, okay, there was that one thing. But that was it—no, hang on, there was that other thing, too. But Priscilla couldn’t have found out about them—not this quickly.

I drew in a few breaths trying to calm myself—I don’t really like being calm—because I couldn’t report to Priscilla’s office this rattled. For a moment I considered grabbing a client portfolio and rushing out on a made-up appointment, but I’m not big on suspense. No way did I want this thing—whatever it was—hanging over my head all day. I was going to march into Priscilla’s office and find out what the heck was going on.

As soon as I fortified myself with some chocolate and caffeine.

I hurried to the breakroom. It was crowded with employees—all female, all dressed in magnificent clothing—and wormed my way to the coffee pot on the counter, the office hotspot for gossip, speculation, and hearing—or starting—rumors.

Conversation flowed around me as I poured myself a cup and pretended this was just an average Monday morning. I didn’t hear anyone mention being called to Priscilla’s office.

I dumped several sugars into my coffee and hit it with a huge blast of French vanilla creamer, then stood around listening as other employees flowed in and out of the breakroom. Still, no one mentioned anything major going down, or news of a suspected lay-off or someone getting fired, or anyone else getting summoned to Priscilla’s office.

Oh, my God. Was I the only one?

Apparently so.

I finished my coffee but no way was I mentally prepared to face whatever awaited me. I grabbed a package of M&Ms from the snack cabinet, dumped it in my mouth, and left the breakroom.

The hallway was empty as I headed toward Priscilla’s office. My brain was hopping, thanks to the major chocolate infusion, which was good. No doubt I’d have to mentally bob and weave my way through whatever awaited.

Up ahead I spotted Kayla, my L.A. Affairs’ BFF. She was about my age—mid-twenties—with dark hair and a curvy figure. We were both event planners, spending our days organizing and executing the these-people-are-nuts events that our clientele of Hollywood insiders, the rich, famous, and power players of Los Angeles, demanded.

Since Kayla was my BFF, normally I would immediately spout off about being called to Priscilla’s office. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything—not yet, not until I knew what I was in for. I mean, really, if I was about to be fired I didn’t want that rumor whipping through the office—not until I’d first started the rumor that I’d learned a heinous secret about Priscilla and had resigned on moral grounds.

“How’s it going?” I said, trying to sound casual.

“Good,” Kayla said, sounding just as casual. “You?”

“Great,” I said.

“I’m great, too,” Kayla insisted.

We both stood there for a moment until I noticed we were a few feet away from Priscilla’s office. She seemed to realize it at the same instant.

“Did you get—” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Did you?”

“Yes! Oh, my God, what’s going on?”

We were both in high panic mode. Obviously, we were in this together—which was good because that left us the entire office to blame everything on.

“I have no idea what this is about,” Kayla said.

“Me either,” I swore. “I haven’t had any problems with anyone or anything.”

“Neither have I,” she insisted.

Of course, we were both lying—but it was good practice for when we got into Priscilla’s office.

Priscilla suddenly appeared in the doorway, her mouth open, drawing in a big breath as if she was readying to yell, then spotted us.

“Oh. There you are. Come in, come in.” Priscilla waved us forward with both hands.

She looked awesome, as always, dressed in a terrific suit, her makeup and nails done, her hair in a chic style. I considered her a good office manager, mostly because she left me alone to do my job and usually believed whatever b.s. I found it necessary to bestow upon her. I didn’t know what the heck was up with her today. I’d never seen her this frazzled.

“Sit down, sit down.” She closed the door behind us.

Kayla and I dropped into the chairs in front of the desk and exchanged a troubled look. A closed door and an insistence that we sit were not good signs. The only saving grace was that Edie, the Human Resources manager, wasn’t here—not yet, anyway.

Priscilla curled one leg under her and sat down, leaned forward with both elbows on her desk, and twisted her fingers together. “Something’s come up.”

It wasn’t her you’re-in-trouble voice, more like the universal someone-has-died voice. I didn’t know whether to be more—or less—upset.

“This morning, Rachel and Sienna were in a car accident,” Priscilla said.

Rachel and Sienna were senior event planners with L.A. Affairs. I knew them well enough to make small talk in the breakroom, but that was it.

Priscilla rushed on. “It was minor—well, somewhat minor. Neither was seriously injured, but both have been taken to the hospital for treatment. This has left us in a lurch.”

Okay, so obviously this wasn’t something awful directed at me. I wasn’t about to be fired, or reprimanded, or anything. But I did feel kind of weird realizing that I’d never even considered that being called to Priscilla’s office might be something good—which says a lot about the way my life had been going lately.

“You want Haley and me to take over their events until they get back?” Kayla asked.

“No.” Priscilla seemed to spin up even more, bobbing up and down in her chair, twisting her fingers harder. “Rachel and Sienna were enroute to HPA, the annual premiere gathering of hospitality industry professionals from across the country. The week-long event is highly exclusive. Only the very best in the field have even a small glimmer of hope that they will be included. Hospitality Professionals of America is extremely prestigious. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.”

My senses jumped to high alert. I’d heard rumors of HPA, but I didn’t think it was real, more like a myth. Sort of like Asgard and Atlantis—and four-inch heels that were comfortable.

“This is the first year L.A. Affairs was extended an invitation.” Priscilla plastered both palms on her desk. “And now this.”

Kayla and I exchanged another look. I didn’t know where this was going and, apparently, neither did she.

“It’s imperative that we have a presence at the event. To cancel at this hour ….” Priscilla shook her head. “It’s unthinkable.”

Hospitality companies lived or died by their reputations. If L.A. Affairs couldn’t manage to get two of their own employees to a conference, how would that look? Everybody would question whether the company was capable to staging high profile events. Word would spread. Other companies and clients would be reluctant to book anything through us. Our image would suffer massively.

“Therefore …” Priscilla paused, gulped, and drew herself up. “It’s been determined that you two should represent L.A. Affairs at the event.”

Kayla and I exchanged yet another look, this one a this-is-too-good-to-be-true look.

“I know, I know,” Priscilla said, twisting her fingers together again. “There are other senior planners here. More experienced. Higher profile planners. But, because of the caliber of events they’re executing at the moment, they can’t possibly attend the conference, can’t possibly be unavailable to their clients for the entire week. So, there is nothing left to do, no other option available, but to send the two of you.”

Oh my God, I was having my own personal Top Gun moment. Just like Maverick and Goose when they were selected to go to the flying competition after the first guys couldn’t make it, the place where only the best of the best got to go. Kayla and I were in those roles.

I, of course, was Maverick.

“HPA is being held at the Severin Retreat and Conference Center near Santa Barbara.” Priscilla leaned forward. “You must—you absolutely must—leave immediately. The launch activities begin this afternoon.”

“What about our events?” Kayla asked, gesturing to me. “The ones we’re handling for our clients?”

Okay, like I cared about the parties and luncheons I was organizing when I had a cool opportunity like this?

No way could I say that, of course.

“All of my events are handled,” I said, which was true. Actually, I’m really good at this job.

“Mine, too,” Kayla said. “But what if something comes up? I can’t abandon my clients.”

“Me, either,” I said. Of course, I could, but I didn’t want to say so.

“I’ll have another planner monitor the progress and get in touch with you immediately if problems arise.” Priscilla rose from her chair and waved her hand at her computer. “I’ll send you the itinerary and other pertinent information.”

Kayla and I popped up out of our chairs.

“We’ll go home, pack, and hit the road,” Kayla said.

“I’ll expect updates throughout the day, every day, from each of you.” Priscilla turned to me with semi-stink eye. “Each of you.”

“No problem,” I said.

I made a move to leave but Priscilla kept staring at us.

“This is a rare opportunity for L.A. Affairs to move into the upper echelon of the hospitality industry. Let me emphasize again how important HPA is to the future of our company,” Priscilla said, and swallowed hard. “And it’s in your hands.”

“We won’t let you down,” Kayla told her, with a confident smile.

Priscilla didn’t smile back. Actually, she looked as if she were feeling kind of sick.

“We’re going now,” Kayla said.

I followed her out of the office, then looked back. Priscilla collapsed into her chair, planted her elbows on her desk, dropped her face into her palms and shook her head wildly.

“Let’s get out of here,” Kayla whispered.

“Hell, yeah,” I murmured.

The only bump in the road ahead of me was my promise to Marcie that I would tell her everything at dinner tonight. It would have to wait. It suited me better, really. I kind of wanted to forget the whole thing for a while anyway.

I headed for my office, my spirits high, my steps light, Highway to the Danger Zone playing in my head. Now, instead of slogging through my daily grind, I was off to a fantastic retreat for a whole week.

What a heck of a way to start off a Monday.

No way could anything bad happen now.

No way.

 

All of Dorothy’s novels are available in paperback and ebook editions on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

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