Dorothy Howell, Mystery Author
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Excerpt from Tote Bags and Toe Tags

I took the elevator up to the fifth floor.  The doors opened and a woman in a navy blue business suit approached as I stepped out.  She was in her fifties, I guessed, neat, clean and composed.

“Miss Randolph? I’m Adela Crosby, Human Resources,” she said, smiling.  “Please follow me.”

Oh, wow, this was so cool.  I had a personal escort. They must have had a really important position in mind for me.

My annual salary grew larger in my head. 

Adela made small talk as we wound through a maze of offices.  Dempsey Rowland looked prosperous and sort of old school.  Thick beige carpet, dark wood furniture, oil paintings of fox hunts and sailing ships on the walls.  Everybody I saw seated in their office or walking the corridor was well dressed.  I couldn’t wait to go shopping for new business clothes.  Marcie would probably go with me tonight.   I’d get the new Temptress bag.  Oh, yeah, what an awesome way to start a new job. 

“Please be seated,” Adela said as she led the way into her office.  Atop her desk was a file folder with my name on it. 

We both sat down.  I was mega nervous.  I really wanted to work here—not that I knew what they did, or anything—so I forced myself to sit still and pay attention.

See how I’m already dedicated to this company?

“I’m looking at your job history,” Adela said, flipping pages in my folder.

I knot the size of a Prada satchel jerked in my stomach.  Yeah, okay, I’d changed jobs a few times—life ife guard, receptionist, file clerk, and two weeks at a pet store—but that was before I found my niche at Pike Warner last fall. 

A bigger knot jerked in my stomach.  Things hadn’t worked out as well as I would have liked at Pike Warner—there was that whole administrative-leave- investigation-pending thing—but  it had all turned out okay in the end.  Sort of.

“You’re currently employed at Holt’s Department Store?  A retail job isn’t easy,” Adela said.  “I can see you’re a very hard worker.  We like that here at Dempsey Rowland.”

I relaxed a little. 

“And you’ve just graduated from the University of Michigan?” she asked.

I tensed up again. 

“Quite an accomplishment,” Adela said, still studying my file.  “And I can see you come very highly recommended.”

I guess the recommendation came from someone at the company by way of Sarah Covington.  Wow, she really hooked me up with a great job.

I still hate her, of course. 

A couple more minutes dragged by, then Adela closed my file and folded her hands. 

“Mr. Thrasher heads up our Human Resources department,” she said.  “He’s out of the office for a while so I’m going to offer you a position in our contracting department.”

What the heck was a contracting department?

“How does that sound?” she asked.

I had no idea what that sort of position entailed.  I’d never heard of it—let alone had a clue of what it did.  So what could I say but, “Great.”

“It will be a full time position,” Adela said. 

My heart fluttered a little.  A full time position meant full time pay. 

“With benefits, of course,” she said.  “Medical, dental, retirement, everything.”

Oh my God.

“We’d like to start you out at seventy thousand per year,” Adela said.

Oh my God

Adela gazed across the desk at me.  I could see that she was talking but I wasn’t listening.  How could I?  Thoughts were pinging around in my head like waistband buttons at a chili cook-off.  

Then I realized Adela had finally stopped talking and was looking at me kind of funny.  Jeez, had she just asked me a question or something?  I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t paying attention—which I wasn’t, of course—but still.

Instantly, I channeled my mom’s I’m-better-than-you attitude.  Mom’s a former beauty queen.  Really.  On rare instances—like solar eclipses and now—something she taught me paid off. 

I downgraded Mom’s I’m-better-than-you look to my own I’m-giving-your-words-careful-consideration look.  I’ve found if I hold it long enough, the other person will eventually say something. 

Jeez, I wish Adela would say something.

“If you’d like to think over our offer and review the new-hire package, that’s fine,” she said.

Yikes!  She thought I was reluctant to accept the job here.  Quickly, I morphed my expression into my I’ve-suddenly-made-up-my-mind look. 

“Everything sounds perfect,” I said and managed to sit still when I really wanted to do a backflip off her desk.

“Excellent.”  Adela pulled a big folder from her desk drawer and passed it to me.  “I’m so glad you could come in today because we’ve got several other new hires going through orientation.  We’ll put you in with them and you can start working tomorrow.”

My heart hammered in my chest as I walked the corridor with Adela.  She was gesturing and explaining which department was which, where things were, who worked where.  At least I guess that’s what she was saying.  I drifted off.

All I could think was that I could stop by the Holt’s store on my way home and quit my job.

I’d call Marcie right away and give her the news.  We’d have to go shopping immediately.  Maybe she could leave work early today.

I’d go by Ty’s office and tell him.  He’d be so happy for me—as long as I wasn’t interrupting a meeting, of course.

Adela led the way into a large conference room.  Two men and a woman, all dressed in please-hire-me suits, were seated at the table clutching the same big folder as me.  I took the chair farthest from the front of the room—old habit.

A woman stood at the head of the conference table pulling a screen down from the ceiling.  My spirits dipped a little.  Apparently we were in for the Dempsey Rowland version of Death by PowerPoint.

Adela introduced me to the other new hires, then gestured to the woman at the front of the room.  

“This is Violet Hamilton.  Violet heads up our security department,” Adela said, then left the room.

Violet looked kind of old to head up much of anything.  She was a tiny woman, barely five-foot-three, and I doubted she weighed much more than the last pair of thigh-high boots I’d bought.  Her snow white hair was styled in an I-never-got-over-the-fifties helmet, and she had on a bright pink suit. 

She looked like Retirement Home Barbie. 

But maybe she had a little New Millennium Barbie in her.  A laptop sat on the conference table near her.  And perhaps she also had some I’m-Better-Than-You Barbie in her because a Burberry laptop case sat close by.  Granted, it was an older style—a special line of pink and black accessories they’d trotted out a few years ago—but it was a designer label and she was working it big-time.

“I’d like to stress to each of you the importance of completing your paperwork,” Violet said, gesturing to the folders we’d all been given.  “It’s mandatory that you answer each and every question put to you.  You will not receive your security clearance—and remember, you can’t work for Dempsey Rowland without it—until your background investigation is done.”

Wait a minute.  Security clearance?  Background information?  What the heck was she talking about?

“How long does it take to get a clearance?” the man—whose name I’d already forgotten—seated next to me asked.

Maybe this was something Adela was talking about in her office.

“There are different levels of clearances required for different positions here at Dempsey Rowland, so the time necessary to complete the background investigation will vary from person to person.  Weeks, sometimes.  Months, occasionally,” Violet said.  “We move as quickly as possible.”

I started to get a weird feeling.

“How far back does your investigation go?” the same man asked.

My weird feeling got weirder. 

“Years, decades.  Back to childhood,” Violet said.  “After all, we’re handling sensitive work for the government of the United States.  We can’t have anyone working here whose past is questionable.”

“What exactly do you mean by questionable?” I asked. 

Violet smiled kindly at me.  “No need to worry, Miss Randolph.  I can see you’re a nice young lady.  It’s not as if you’ve ever been in trouble with the law, have you?”

Did being a suspect in multiple murder investigations count?

“Or been involved in any organized criminal activity?” she asked.

Jeez, did that include the guy from the Russian mafia who owed me a favor?

“You’ve never been let go from a job under a cloud of suspicion, have you?” Violet asked.

Well, there was that whole administrative-leave-investigation-pending thing from last fall.  Would that be a problem?

“And everything you stated on your résumé is true, isn’t it?” she asked.

Kind of.  Sort of.  Well, except for that part about the University of Michigan.  And, well, maybe a few other things. 

What could I say?  Confess to everything?  Now?  Before I even got my first paycheck?  No way.  How would I explain it to Ty?  And what would happen when Sarah Covington found out I got the boot because I couldn’t get the security clearance?  I’d never live it down. 

“Haley?” Violet asked.  “Is there something you’d like to tell me?”

What could I say but, “No, of course not.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Violet declared. 

Oh, crap.

 

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