Dorothy Howell, Mystery Author
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Excerpt from Slay Bells and Satchels

We headed through the store to our assigned corners of retail purgatory—today, it was the Domestics Department for me, Children’s Wear for Bella—and I had to admit the store looked great.  The display team had gone all out turning the store into a holiday wonderland in an attempt to evoke feelings of home, hearth, and family, thereby playing on our customers’ emotions in an effort to wring a few more bucks out of them.

In the center aisle was a line of towering Christmas trees, each fully lighted and decorated to the hilt, guarded by a small army of three-foot-tall wooden soldiers.  Swags of garland hung from the ceiling, along with wreaths, stockings, and thick red ribbon. 

Nearby were display shelves filled with boxed ornaments, tree skirts, lights, and garland.  Nativity scenes, angels, and nutcrackers sat on another shelving unit.  Another display held gift bows, wrapping paper, and greeting cards.  Boxes of candy, nuts, and peppermints—jeez, I really hope that stuff’s not left from last year—and bottles of Bolt, the Holt’s house brand energy drink, were positioned close by. 

Through the big plate glass doors at the entrance, I saw about two dozen customers already waiting for the store to open.  A number of them wore full-on Santa costumes—red suits and hats, black boots, and long white beards.

“What’s with the outfits?” I asked.

“Part of the sale,” Bella said.  “Wear the suit, get a fifty-percent discount.”

Nice to know we employees weren’t the only ones Holt’s subjected to total humiliation.

“Haley?” someone called.

Thinking that somehow a customer had slipped into the store early and needed my help, I started walking away faster. 

“Haley!”

Now I recognized the voice.  It was Jeanette.  All the more reason to feign ignorance and stride away quickly, but I figured she’d just continue to pursue me. 

I’m pretty sure they covered that in the Holt’s management training course.

I stopped and waited while she caught up to me. 

“Haley, Rita won’t be in today,” Jeanette said, panting slightly.

This boosted my day considerably.  Rita was the cashier’s supervisor. 

I hate Rita. 

I could only hope she had some sort of drug resistant staff infection—call it my little Christmas wish.

“I need you to take over for her,” Jeanette said.

In keeping with my own personal say-no-to-additional-duties policy, I said, “I can’t do that, Jeanette.”

Apparently, Jeanette had her own ignore-employees-who-claim-they-can’t-take-on-additional-duties policy.

“You’ll have to be the elf wrangler today,” she said.

She wanted me to be the—what?

Jeanette nodded toward the rear of the store.  “They’re getting ready in the assistant manager’s office.”

There were elves in the store, getting ready for something?

Maybe I should start paying attention in the meetings.

Jeanette glanced at her watch.  “We’re opening in eleven minutes.  Those girls have to be in costume, hair and makeup done, and in place to greet the customers when the doors open.”

I had no idea what the heck she was talking about, so what could I say but, “Okay.”

“I told Corporate that hiring actresses this year was a bad idea.  First day on the job and they’re already running late.”  She huffed irritably.  “You’ll have to supervise the contest entries and the drawings.”

There was a contest and a drawing?

Jeez, you space-out in a couple of meetings and you miss all kinds of stuff.

Jeanette gestured to the front of the store.  Near the entrance on a little platform sat a full-sized, heavy cardboard fireplace, complete with stockings.  A decorated Christmas tree sat next to it, alongside a big green hopper.  The display was surrounded by red velvet ropes held up by huge candy canes. 

Where did that come from?

“Be sure there’s always an elf standing there to greet the customers and have them fill out an entry form,” Jeanette said.  “A winner has to be drawn every hour, on the hour, so make sure one of the elves is in place.  The rest of them will circulate through the store asking for donations for the children’s charity.”

Jeanette didn’t wait for me to say anything—which was probably wise on her part.  She turned to leave, but stopped immediately.

“Thank goodness,” she mumbled.  “Here they come.”

Down the aisle came a bunch of young, pretty girls, all of them decked out in elf costumes.  I guessed they were all in their early twenties, differing in heights, but not a size larger than a six among them.  They wore green shorts and vests over red and white striped tights and long-sleeved tops, and green, pointed-toed elf shoes.  Everyone had on a Santa hat, bright red lipstick, and big circles of pink blush on their cheeks. 

“Good, we’re all set,” Jeanette said, taking one last look around.  “When the customers come in—” 

She stopped abruptly and her gaze drilled into me.

“Where’s the giant toy bag?” she demanded.

The giant—what?

“The giant toy bag is supposed to be right next to the fireplace,” Jeanette declared.  “It must still be in the stockroom.  Get it, Haley.  It has to be in place when the customers come in.”

I headed for the rear of the store, pausing only long enough to ditch my Santa hat behind a display of T-shirts.  The entrance to the stockroom—one of them, anyway—was located beside the customer service booth near the hallway that led to the employee break room, the training room, and the store managers’ offices. 

I went through the swinging door into the stockroom.  It was as quiet as an evening snowfall back here.  Unless the truck team was on duty unloading a big rig filled with new merchandise, nobody came in here often.  The rear door by the loading dock was propped open for the janitor.  The store’s music track played “Jingle Bells.”

I spotted a red toy bag right away.  It was a giant, all right, just as Jeanette had said.  It sat on the floor in front of the huge shelving unit that held the store’s entire inventory of Christmas decorations.

Half the contents of one of the shelves was scattered on the floor, which was weird, but I didn’t have time to clean it up.  I’d come back and do it later—not that I was all that concerned about maintaining a neat, orderly stockroom, but I never passed up a chance to escape the sales floor.

I grabbed the bag.  Yikes!  It wouldn’t budge. 

I pulled it again using two hands.  It moved maybe a couple of inches.

Jeez, this thing weighed a ton. 

No way could I carry it to the front of the store, and dragging it would take forever.  Even loading it onto one of the long, thin U-boat carts we used to transport merchandise wouldn’t be easy. 

There was nothing to do but take out some of the toys. 

I pulled open the draw string closure at the top of the bag and—

Oh my God.  Oh my God.

There was an elf inside.

Dead.

 

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

 

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