Bargains to Die For

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Bargains to Die For, A Hollis Brannigan Mystery

Hollis Brannigan, personal shopper at a prestigious Los Angeles concierge service, is assigned to D-list clients, but has her sights set on a position in the company’s investigations department. To hone her investigative skills, she takes on discreet investigations for fellow employees—as long as upper management doesn’t find out what she’s up to.

Hollis becomes embroiled in a murder when she discovers a young woman on the floor of an exclusive L.A. shop, draped in designer gowns. When Hollis rushes to give aid, another woman shows up and snaps her picture, declaring Hollis is the murderer.

While trying to keep her clients happy, keep her job, and prove her innocence, Hollis takes on a case investigating a cheating boyfriend whose mysterious midnight trips all over Southern California confound her. She finally gets a lead on her sister who vanished without a trace, but fears she’ll disappear again before Hollis can get to her.

Now shopping for a killer in L.A.’s most exclusive stores and luxury shops, Hollis discovers revenge, deceit, and ambition turned deadly. A cunning murderer lurks nearby plotting another crime—this time against Hollis.

She soon learns that pursuing a murderer and discovering the truth about her sister aren’t what she bargained for!

“I think the guy ought to be shot.  Shot.  What do you think?”

Taylor something-or-other, the woman standing in front of me who’d posed that question, seemed to expect an answer—one that agreed with her assessment of whoever the guy was.  Obviously, she didn’t realize a man who could—and would—perform that service had an office down the hall.

I wasn’t going to tell her.

We were standing in the breakroom of the Fisher Joyce Group, a concierge service housed in a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard that catered to the rich, famous, and power players in Hollywood and Los Angeles.  The firm’s motto was “Almost Anything for Absolutely Anyone,” and they meant it.  There were experts on staff who could give fashion advice, defend a client on murder charges, and everything in between—plus the man with the office down the hall, the company “fixer” rumored to have, well, killed people.

In the breakroom, amid a crowd of other women desperate for a first cup of coffee—me included—the clock ticked toward nine.  I had places to go, appointments to keep, things to buy.

“Well?” Taylor demanded.  “What do you think, Hollis?”

That’s me.  Hollis Brannigan.  Age 23, auburn hair, green eyes.

I’m not from around here.

The other woman forming our little triangle, blocking me from elbowing my way to the coffee maker, spoke up.  “Oh, really, it’s no big deal.  Really.”

“For chrissake, Marissa,” Taylor swore.

Taylor worked in accounts receivable.  I’d never officially met her until she’d approached me a few minutes ago; we’d exchanged a quick smile and a hello passing in the hall.  Marissa?  A clerk in the supply department, maybe.  I didn’t know for sure.  They were both in their early thirties, hair and makeup done, well dressed.  Friends, apparently, though based on what I’d seen so far I had no idea how that could have happened.

“Really.  It’s nothing.  Probably,” Marissa said—whined, actually.  “Jeremy is a good guy.  He’s—”

“No, he’s not!”

I glanced at the foot-square digital clock some kiss-ass in HR had mounted on the wall.  Subtle, huh.

“Look,” Taylor said, turning to me.  “I know this isn’t your department—technically.”

My department was hospitality.  I was a personal shopper, which would have been as glamorous as it sounded except that I was new at Fisher Joyce—new to Los Angeles, new to California—so I was relegated to clients so low on the Hollywood rich-and-famous totem pole they were referred to as off-listers.  Not even D-listers.  Basically, all they had going for them was that they could pay Fisher Joyce’s outrageous, ridiculous, who-in-their-right-mind would spend that kind of money to get something Amazon could deliver the next day—free.

That’s Hollywood.

“This guy, this Jeremy she’s so crazy about, she’s actually thinking about marrying him.”  Taylor hit Marissa with a hard look.  “He keeps taking off.  Leaving.  Overnight.”

“He’s visiting his mom,” Marissa said.

“Yeah.  Right.”

“He is,” Marissa insisted.

“He’s cheating on you.”  Taylor turned to me.  “Would you tell her?  Please?  Isn’t it obvious?”

“He loves his mom,” Marissa explained—whined.  “She has health problems, so he needs to go to her house every so often. He needs to help her with things.”

“Does he need to spend the night?  Does he need to borrow a splashy, expensive car to make the trip?”  Taylor looked at me.  “A Tesla.  He borrows a Tesla from some weirdo friend of his to drive an hour—an hour.”

The clock was ticking closer to nine.  The crowd thinned out.  The coffee carafe was down to dregs—salvageable, maybe, if I moved now.

“Okay, I get it.  You think this Jeremy guy is cheating.  I agree,” I said.  “What do you want me to do?”

Even though I was employed as a personal shopper, word had circulated that I’d solved a murder and had helped out with several discreet investigations.  I’d tried to keep it quiet.  I’d been instructed by the company’s owner, Alfred Joyce himself, to stick to the duties I’d been hired to perform.  But in a place this size, just try to keep a secret.

“Find out if it’s true,” Taylor told me.

Marissa winced.  “This is so wrong.”

“Find out where he’s really going and what he’s really doing,” Taylor said.

“We’re supposed to trust each other.”  Marissa, whining again.

“For chrissake, grow up.”

A woman who worked at the reception desk dashed into the breakroom, sloshed the last of the coffee into a cup, and raced out again.

Damn.

“Okay,” I said.  “Write everything down and I’ll—”

“Here.”  Taylor yanked a folded sheet of paper from her handbag and passed it to me.

None of my discreet inquiries went through the company’s investigations department.  The people who came to me didn’t want upper management at Fisher Joyce to know their personal business—plus they didn’t want to pay the exorbitant fee, even with our employee discount.  I settled for reimbursement of expenses and a Starbucks gift card for the opportunity to further hone my investigative skills and build my résumé; no way was I going to be a personal shopper forever.

I knew somebody in the investigations department that I could ask for help, but that option was risky.  Someone—well, me—had been suspected of accessing confidential data for personal use.  Thus, no electronic trail.  Old fashioned, back-in-the-day handwritten info only.

“He works for some photographer or something.  Some dead end job,” Taylor said.  “I wrote everything down.”

I slid the paper into my tote.

“Call if you need anything more,” she said.

Marissa made a little mewling sound.

“You’ll thank me for this,” Taylor insisted.

Marissa seemed to doubt it.

So did I.

***

I got to my home away from home—my cubicle in the hospitality department—three minutes before nine.  A few of the other personal shoppers and event planners were already there, the rest trickling in, most with coffee that I’d never gotten—which I blamed on that guy Jeremy for cheating on Marissa.  Another reason not to like him.

Most of my orders were texted to me by my supervisor Louise Thornton, but occasionally an established client would contact me directly.  I sat down, checked my email.  Nothing.  Maybe it would be a slow day.

I knew when the clock hit nine because my phone chimed with incoming messages, orders from clients sent to me by Louise.  Ding, ding, ding … ding, ding … and on it went.  So much for a slow day.

Personal shoppers at Fisher Joyce were issued corporate credit cards to use, and we were under a microscope, every transaction, every purchase, every dime, scrutinized.  Understandable.  Just because a client was okay with me spending fifteen hundred bucks on a scarf for them, didn’t mean it was okay for me to hit a drive-thru for a soda on them while driving back to the office.

Louise kept a tight rein on the corporate cards.  She kept a tight rein on everything—including herself.  She was always stressed, tense, uptight to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d actually imploded.  Her personal life must have been just as bad.  Even though she was still kind of young and fit—mid-thirties with an okay figure—she always showed up at the office disheveled.  Today was no exception.

I entered her office to sign for the corporate credit card I was using and managed to ignore the lipstick on her top lip only and the one earring she wore.

“Good morning, Louise,” I said, forcing an admirable amount of cheer into my voice, considering I hadn’t had any coffee yet.

Louise stared at her monitor, clicked her mouse with one hand, and thumbed her cell phone with the other.  Her knee jackhammered.

Louise doesn’t like me.  No, actually, she doesn’t trust me.  It’s my fault.  I realize that, I accept it.  I’m sure she wishes I’d get fired or, better still, that I’d quit—less paperwork.  No way was I allowing either of those things to happen.  So all I could do was continue to be diligent, responsible, and reliable—as I’d always been, except for that one time—and hope Louise would finally get over it.

I plucked my assigned corporate card from the divider on her desk and signed the log.

“Well, have a good day,” I said.

She made a sound, some sort of grunting noise.  I hung around long enough to see her change screens, access my personnel file, and note the time.  I left.

One of the cool things about working for Fisher Joyce was the cars I got to drive.  The corporation wanted their employees to be seen conducting business while tooling around Los Angeles in nothing less than a luxury vehicle.  When I got to the underground garage and waited to find out which awesome car the valet would bring around for me, I looked over the shopping orders Louise had texted and began planning my day.

First up was a stop at Addison Fair, a consignment shop too upscale to be called a consignment shop.  Of course, the name made no sense but that suited the proprietor fine.  Ruth catered to a well-to-do clientele.   The very last thing she wanted to attract was mall shoppers, tourists, and the curious.  Addison Fair carried designer brands—women’s clothing, handbags, shoes, and accessories—and were known for their vintage garments.  Their reduced prices soared into the thousands, way out of reach of most people.

I’d been in Addison Fair several times picking up items for my clients.  I’d dropped off things too, usually designer or vintage gowns owned by fading celebrities too embarrassed that they’d fallen on hard times to show up in person. 

I glanced over the rest of the shopping orders I’d gotten and planned out my morning.  Pretty easy, so far.  Easy enough that I could swing through Starbucks and grab a coffee on my way to Addison Fair.

Tires squealed.  A white BMW 5-Series SUV pulled up and the valet got out.  He waved me over as my phone chimed.  Instead of another client order from Louise, I saw a message from my best friend back home, Brittany Maxwell.  She was engaged and in the middle of planning her wedding.  As a best friend would, she made a point to keep me up-to-date on everything—absolutely everything … really, everything—that was going on with the preparations.  I put my phone away.  I’d have to read her message later.

The valet, a new guy I hadn’t seen before, held the door open.  I thanked him as I climbed in, drove up the ramp, and turned onto Wilshire Boulevard.

Impatient drivers, blaring horns, and reckless maneuvers had been jarring and distracting when I’d first starting driving in Los Angeles.  None of that where I’d come from, only courteous, no-after-you-I-insist drivers.  I’d lived in L.A. only a few months but I’d adjusted pretty quickly.  Driving along one of the most famous streets in the world, in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, was really cool, no matter how many drivers cut me off.

I hit the Starbucks drive-thru for a coffee and left it to cool in one of the cup holders as I drove west on Wilshire, then turned onto Robertson Boulevard.  This street was a magnet for celebrities who wanted to be seen.  The paparazzi and touristy star gazers frequented the shops, most of which offered unique merchandise alongside high-end designer labels, hoping for a sighting or a photo they could sell or brag about back home.

In an effort to shield her celebrity clients from looky-loos, Ruth had located Addison Fair a few blocks down from the prime locations on Robertson.  I turned down the alley and circled around to the VIP entrance in the back.

No Dumpsters, piles of garbage, or discarded junk here. There were lush potted plants and a carpet—red, of course—beneath an awning that stretched from the store’s double doors, allowing stars to exit their limo with little exposure to lurking paparazzi.  No security guard on duty this morning, I saw, making a celebrity sighting unlikely.  I parked near a silver Mini Cooper, jumped out, and stepped onto the red carpet under the awning.

Major celebrities, stars, and power brokers had stood on this spot and walked through the doorway, which made it really cool.  Yes, I’d lived here a while, but not so long that I didn’t still feel the thrill of the L.A. vibe.  I stood there for a while, closed my eyes, and breathed in.

I was a long way from home.

But never so far as in a moment like this.

I sighed and opened my eyes.

The double doors were unlocked, even though the store wasn’t officially open for business yet, so I walked inside.  The carpet was deep, the décor exquisite.  Opening off the hallway were offices, a restroom, and the employee breakroom.  Two salons, private rooms where upscale clients were pampered and catered to, were situated near the exit doors.  Straight ahead down the long hallway was the sales floor.

I used to tell Brittany about places like this.  Our we-can-never-share-enough phone calls had slowly morphed into what was going on with her, back home.   And now with her wedding coming up?  I understood.  Still, I wished things had turned out differently.

“Hello?” I called.

No response.

I walked farther down the hallway expecting to see one of Ruth’s assistants.  I didn’t know which one would be working this morning.  I’d met several of them, briefly, on previous visits.  I saw no one.

“Hello?” I called again.

I peeked into the salon on the right.  It was appointed with comfortable furnishings in neutral colors and racks for displaying garments.  No sign of an assistant.

Odd.  I pulled out my phone, checked my messages again to make sure I was there on the right day, at the right time.  I was.  The name of my contact had not been provided.

Oh, well.  She was probably in the bathroom, or maybe on an important call.  I’d grab the gown I’d come for, load it into the BMW, and by then I was sure I’d see her.

A few more steps down the hallway I glanced into the salon on the left.  I froze in the doorway.  The display racks were overturned.  Several gowns were strewn across the floor in a heap.  A small table was on its side, a leg broken off.

Beneath the clutter, a woman lay on her back, her arms flung beside her, her head turned at an unnatural angle, a shoe missing.  A stream of dark red blood oozed through her blonde hair and pooled around her head, soaking into the carpet.

“Oh my God …”

I rushed over and knelt beside her.  My heart pounded.  My hands shook.  I grabbed the table and moved it off of her.

“Can you hear—?”

I clamped my lips together.  No, she couldn’t hear me.  She’d never hear anything again.  Her eyes were open, big blue eyes, staring up at the ceiling.  Seeing nothing.

Behind me, someone screamed.  I turned.  A young woman stood in the doorway.

“What did you do?” she shrieked.

Stunned, I couldn’t speak.

“Oh, my God!  You killed her!”

She pointed at my hand, still resting on the broken table.

“You killed her!”