Man Bags and Malice, A Haley Randolph Novella
Event planner to the stars Haley Randolph reluctantly accepts the assignment of staging a wedding reception—for a reality TV show! But when the show turns out to be Brides on a Budget, Haley is horrified to learn she must obey the demands of the bridal party—no matter how tacky, convoluted, and horrendous.
Coordinating a reception that must include Sponge Bob Square Pants, Obi-Wan Kenobi, pink gingham, and a colony of penguins turns out to be the least of Haley’s problems. Bartender Bianca Grady is murdered and the prime suspect is Ben Oliver, a struggling journalist who is convinced Haley is trying to ruin his life.
Haley sees it differently—she was just trying to help out the guy with some insider info—but it looks as if this time Ben’s accusation might be true. If Haley can’t find Bianca’s killer, Ben could have a walk down the aisle that leads straight into a jail cell.
For better or for worse, Haley must salvage the hideous reception and stop a murderer before “until death do us part” becomes more than a wedding vow!
The Haley Randolph Series in order:
Handbags and Homicide
Purses and Poison
Shoulder Bags and Shootings
Clutches and Curses
Slay Bells and Satchels
Tote Bags and Toe Tags
Evening Bags and Executions
Duffel Bags and Drownings
Beach Bags and Burglaries
Fanny Packs and Foul Play
Swag Bags and Swindlers
Backpacks and Betrayals
Pocketbooks and Pistols
Messenger Bags and Murder
Man Bags and Malice
“Run,” Kayla hissed.
I glanced over my shoulder, barely seeing her in the dimly lit supply closet where I was hiding—I mean, checking inventory. I’d pulled the door partially closed and hadn’t turned on the light but she’d found me, as only a good friend could.
I knew by the tone of her voice that something major was going down, and immediately I jumped to semi-panic mode.
“Priscilla is hunting for you,” Kayla whispered.
Now I launched into full-panic mode.
Priscilla was the office manager. Lately, when she wanted to talk to me, instead of sending me an email or phoning, she’d started searching for me on foot through the halls of L.A. Affairs where Kayla and I worked as event planners. Apparently she suspected I routinely dodged her—which was totally true, of course, but still.
“I saw her check your office, then the client interview rooms, then the breakroom, then your office again,” Kayla reported, her voice low.
“She had that crazed look in her eyes,” Kayla said.
That definitely was not good
“What did you do?” Kayla asked.
“Nothing,” I insisted.
“Everything is okay with your events?” she asked.
“No problems with a vendor or a client?”
“So you’re clear on everything?”
Okay, all of that was a total lie but it had to be said.
“Maybe she wants you for something that will be good,” Kayla offered.
We both knew that was a total lie, too.
“You’ve got to get out of here. If you give her some time, she’ll cool off. Maybe,” Kayla said. “I’ll cover you.”
She grabbed a pack of printer paper from the shelf and stepped out of the supply closet. I stood behind the door, listening, my thoughts zooming through everything I’d done lately, trying to figure out what might have prompted Priscilla to hunt me down. I could think of only one thing—and it was tiny, minute, hardly worth mentioning. Really.
Yeah, okay, actually it wasn’t.
“Crap,” I mumbled.
I had to get out of there.
I was about to make a break for it when I heard Priscilla shrieking, her voice high and tense like the wild monkeys on one of those Nat Geo TV shows, asking Kayla if she’d seen me.
“Yes, I saw her,” Kayla said, sounding calm. “She was in the ladies room.”
The ladies room was on the other side of our office complex. See what a great friend Kayla was?
She pushed the door open and waved frantically at me. I dashed out of the supply closet and down the hall to my office.
I loved my office. I had it all to myself. It was decorated in neutral shades, accented with splashes of blue and yellow, and had a big window that overlooked the fashionable intersection of Ventura and Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks, one of L.A.’s most sought after locations. The view was great—I know because I’d spent a lot of time staring out the window.
I grabbed my handbag from the bottom desk drawer. It was a classic Burberry tote. I’ve totally lost my mind over purses. A number of people have suggested I’m obsessed with them—a title I hold with honor.
I had some actual work that I’d intended to take care of this afternoon, so I snagged the client portfolio I’d left on my desk. At the door I paused, checked the hallway and saw that it was clear, then fished my phone out of my pocket and headed for the exit.
Staring at your phone was one of the best methods available for ignoring everyone and everything around you, and this ploy provided excellent cover as I hurried past the offices, the client interview rooms, the cube farm, the reception area, and out the door.
Patterson International took up two floors of a towering office building in Pasadena, and every year they threw a picnic for their employees and their families on the grounds surrounding the building, a parklike setting with massive greenbelts, huge shade trees, sculpted shrubs, and blooming flowers. This year, for the first time, L.A. Affairs had been awarded the coveted job of staging the picnic. I’d been put in charge of the planning because I’d executed a number of events similar to this one, and believe it or not, I was actually good at this job.
Patterson was a high-profile company that made zillions of dollars and often treated their employees to lavish holiday parties, celebrations, and just-for-gee-whiz events. L.A. Affairs was anxious to ride this wave of corporate generosity to fatten their own bottom line, so everyone up the chain of command was anxious for us—meaning me, of course—to do a spectacular job, thus the reason I’d been dodging Priscilla more than usual lately. I was doing the required spectacular job, and having her look over my shoulder, ask hourly for updates, and grill me over details I’d already handled, only slowed me down.
I swung into a parking space at the Patterson building, grabbed my tote and client portfolio, and got out of my Honda. I’d been here last night to make sure setup was underway and had stopped by early this morning to check on prep, plus while I’d been hiding out in the company supply closet—I mean, checking inventory—I’d made calls to all the vendors and confirmed there were no problems. It was mid-afternoon now and everything was up and running and looking great, and the grounds were crowded with employees and their families.
Patterson had requested a country fair theme for this year’s picnic—actually, the Los Angeles version of a country fair—so I’d arranged for games (nothing that used any type of weapon), bouncy houses (which exceeded industry safety standards), face painting (organic-based paints), and shows featuring magicians, an acrobatic troupe, and musical groups (all with diverse performers). Tent-tops sheltered tables and chairs where guests could sit in comfort and enjoy a variety of food choices including vegetarian, vegan, organic, and gluten free, all harvested locally from sustainable farms.
There was music, food, drink, smiling faces, and laughter. Not a problem in sight, nor had there been one single complaint from Patterson throughout the whole process. Still, I doubted Priscilla had been stalking me through the office earlier to tell me what a great job I’d done.
All the more reason to hang out here as long as possible.
As I headed across the grounds, I spotted something way better than any of the entertainment I’d arranged for—Jack Bishop. He was totally hot. Tall, with a muscular build, dark hair, and gorgeous eyes. Today he had on jeans and a black polo shirt with BISHOP SECURITY printed discreetly on the front. I hired his company for lots of the events I staged—and not just because he was so good looking and that there was some kind of heat between us. Really. Okay, well, anyway, his firm did a great job.
“How’s it going?” I asked as we met near the games area.
Jack gave me an appreciative glance—which perked up my day since I was wearing one of my awesome black business suits and had my hair in a take-me-seriously-but-know-I’m-fun updo—then turned back to the gathering.
“One crasher,” he reported.
Crashers were always a problem at an outdoor event, especially here where other companies were housed in the building and workers from nearby businesses routinely enjoyed the lush grounds. That was why we’d issued wristbands to invited guests and posted PRIVATE PARTY signs. But no matter how many precautions we took, some jackass always tried to score a free beer.
“The guy took off pretty fast when he saw us heading his way,” Jack said.
I scanned the crowd and spotted several of Jack’s men, identifiable by their black polo shirts. I knew, too, that a few of his guys were undercover.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“A confrontation,” Jack said. “Care to guess where?”
I didn’t have to guess. I already knew, unfortunately.
I nodded toward the vendor situated across the grounds near the parking lot. Harper Brothers Wine and Spirits. I’d hired them before for other events.
Harper Brothers specialized in outdoor events—picnics, parties, festivals, crawls, and fairs. Their beverage wagon, a walk-in, enclosed, refrigerated trailer, was towed to events. It had taps built into one side that were sheltered by a pop up awning. A folding table served as a counter and was placed in front of the taps where the bartenders served guests. The inside of the wagon was stocked with kegs, wines, liquors, mixers, and garnishes, depending on what the event was contracted for. Today, it was beer and wine.
“Want to know who was involved?” Jack asked, though from his tone he was sure I already knew the answer.
“Bianca Grady. Again.”
We both watched as the two bartenders on duty pulled beer and poured wine. No sign of Bianca.
“I understand family loyalty,” Jack said. “But damn….”
Bianca was a regular with Harper Brothers. Gail Harper ran business. She’d recently taken over after her dad, who’d started the business decades ago with his now long-dead brother, had passed away suddenly. Along with the business, Gail had inherited her share of problems, Bianca being the worst.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The usual,” Jack said. “Bianca yelling, making a scene.”
“At a customer or a co-worker—or Gail?”
“Customer. The guy moved on like it was no big deal.”
Gail was finding her way after taking over the business and was doing a good job so I’d been okay with continuing to hire Harper Brothers, despite the ongoing situation with Bianca. But now with yet another incident instigated by Bianca, I wondered if I should re-think Harper for more events.
“So that’s it?” I asked.
Jack shrugged. “A lost kid, teenagers trying to sneak into the building, a few of the spouses hitting the wine pretty hard. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Let me know if anything major goes down,” I said.
He gave me a half-grin—Jack has a toe-curling grin—and moved away.
I decided to check out the beverage wagon, talk to Gail, and find out where Bianca was. The two bartenders on duty were hustling hard. They needed Bianca and I needed to find out from Gail what she intended to do about her missing employee. I’d contracted with her for three bartenders and now had only two to serve the growing line of customers.
My cell phone chimed. I pulled it out of my tote and saw that Priscilla had sent a text message. She must have realized I’d escaped the office unnoticed.
I dropped my phone back into my bag. No way was I dealing with Priscilla right now.
As I crossed the grounds, I looked over the vendors and the crowd to make sure everything was proceeding as planned but, honestly, my thoughts kept drifting back to earlier in the day when I’d been holed up in the supply closet.
Yeah, okay, I hadn’t really been checking inventory.
In between calls to vendors for today’s event, I’d been searching the internet for a Monaco bag. It was the latest, hottest, coolest bag on the market, an awesome satchel in midnight black embellished with pink chevrons. The bag, of course, was impossible to find and I, of course, absolutely had to have one, thus my internet search in the supply closet instead of at my desk—just in case I found one and started to drool or moan, or something.
My best friend since forever Marcie Hanover was likewise crazy about handbags and was also searching for a Monaco. I’d check with her later and see if she’d come up with anything.
Although my thoughts were crowded with my handbag search, a concern about whether to hire Harper Brothers again for future events, and wondering what the heck Priscilla was dogging me about, something familiar snagged my attention. I stopped and searched the crowd, then spotted a guy dressed in wrinkled khaki pants and a pale blue, stretched-out polo shirt, with a crappy black backpack hung on his shoulders.
I froze. Oh my God. I knew that guy. I’d recognized that awful outfit anywhere. Ben Oliver. What the heck was he doing here?
Ben spotted me at the same moment. Only he didn’t freeze. He whipped around and took off.
No way was I letting that go.
I hurried after him and, honestly, in my skirt and wedge heels I’d never have caught him, but he got hung up in a swarm of children racing toward the balloon guy.
“Hey, Ben, how are you—”
“Get away from me.”
He took off again, but I grabbed his arm—wow, he had a lot of muscles there that I’d forgotten about. Ben was a little taller than me—I’m five-nine—with light brown hair streaked with blonde. Good looking—but a terrible dresser.
“Look,” he said, his gaze boring into me. “Get away from me. Stay away. Don’t come near me. Ever.”
Okay, I could understand Ben being somewhat upset with me. We’d had our share of ups and downs—as friends, never anything even close to romantic—but that was all in the past. That’s what I’d thought, anyway. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in a long time since that last rather unfortunate incident. Obviously, he wasn’t over it.
Jeez, this guy could really carry a grudge.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He huffed irritably, then held up his arm displaying the Patterson wristband.
The last I’d heard, Ben was a reporter trying desperately to break a big story and make a name for himself as a serious journalist, so I was surprised to learn he was working for Patterson now.
“You’re not a reporter anymore?” I asked.
I’d been totally on board with Ben’s efforts to become a hotshot reporter, so I’d given him some insider tips. They hadn’t worked out as well as I’d have liked. Actually, they’d made his life worse—which I felt really bad about. I thought I’d kind of redeemed myself, but I guess not.
He paused, his jaw set, a deep frown on his face—which was actually kind of hot.
“No, I’m not a reporter.” Ben barked the words as if he thought it was all my fault and that, somehow, I should have known it. “I’m in the PR department. I write speeches, marketing stuff, interoffice memos, emails for the bozos in upper management who can’t figure out where to put a comma.”
“That sounds good,” I offered.
“It’s a crap job but I don’t want to lose it—so stay away from me.”
He turned to leave again, but I stepped in front of him.
“Look, Ben,” I said. “I know things were kind of rough between us in the past, and I’ve apologized for them. I’m sorry. Really. So can’t we put that behind us and move on?”
Ben rolled his eyes and shook his head at the same time, then opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out. I guess if you’re a writer and you can’t think of the right words to use, it must be pretty bad.
I knew I’d screwed up with Ben—although my heart had been in the right place and my intentions were good. So I wanted to make up for it. I wanted to make things right between us—and what better way to kick off a relationship salvage operation than with a free drink?
“Let me buy you a beer,” I said, and waved my hand toward the Harper Brothers beverage wagon.
“Come on, Ben, I’ve apologized before and now I’m apologizing again. Let me do something to make things right between us,” I said.
“No. I don’t want you screwing up my life. Again.”
“It’s just a beer. Come on, my treat.”
He stewed for a few seconds, looking petulant, then said, “They don’t have what I like.”
I glanced at the wagon and saw the three taps labeled with today’s offerings.
“No problem,” I said. “I know them. I hired them. They have other things inside. I can get you whatever you want.”
Ben fumed for a few more seconds. “Just one beer? Then you’ll go away and leave me alone?”
I’d kind of hoped this would make things better between us but Ben seemed to be hanging on to the past really tight. Still, at least this was a first step.
“If that’s what you want, sure,” I said.
“And you won’t say anything about how I’m dressed?”
Okay, that would be a heck of a lot harder to agree to. Ben desperately needed a makeover and I’d offered a number of times to take him shopping. He wasn’t interested, which I totally didn’t understand. He always wore khaki pants—I suspected they were always the same pair—and polo shirts in shades of blue that were faded and stretched out from way too many cycles in the washer.
“Okay, fine, if that’s what you want,” I said.
Still, Ben hesitated—which was starting to annoy me now.
“Look, it’s just a beer,” I told him. “We’ll walk over there, go into the wagon, and you can pick whatever you want. It’s that simple. What could go wrong?”
He glanced at the beverage wagon, then at me again but didn’t say anything.
Now I was officially annoyed, but I kept my patience—I don’t really like being patient.
“That’s it?” he asked. “A beer. One beer. Then you’ll leave me alone?”
“And nothing will go wrong this time,” I said. “I promise.”
We crossed the grounds together. At the Harper beverage wagon I saw that the two bartenders were still hustling. They were both girls in their twenties—about my age—dressed in tight emerald green T-shirts and denim shorts, hot looking and competent, the perfect attributes for maximizing tips. Bianca still hadn’t appeared.
“Hi, Haley,” Jewel called, as she shoved a bottle of zinfandel into the large bin of ice on the counter.
I’d known Jewel for a while and, in fact, I’d recommended her to Gail. Like the other Harper bartenders, Jewel worked as-needed. She also worked for other vendors I routinely hired, so I saw her often.
“How’s it going?” I asked, and stopped next to her.
“The usual—oh, hi.”
I realized she was eyeing Ben, standing slightly behind me. He looked away so I didn’t bother with an introduction.
“Where’s Gail?” I asked.
“I hope she’s tracking down Bianca.”
Jewel nodded toward one of the taps that had a plastic cup covering it, the signal that the keg inside the beverage wagon was empty.
“Not that anybody is all that anxious to have Bianca back,” Jewel said, “but she’s supposed to be changing the tap and we need it done.”
I glanced around but saw neither Gail nor Bianca.
“You called Gail?” I asked.
Jewel shrugged. “No answer.”
“I’ll try to reach her, too,” I said. “I’m going to get a beer out of the cooler.”
“Sure,” Jewel said, then smiled at Ben.
He didn’t seem to notice.
I walked to the rear of the beverage wagon, Ben on my heels, opened the door and climbed up the steps and went inside. It was chilly and dimly lit. A narrow passageway ran down the center, and on each side were coolers and cupboards; the kegs were off to the left, with hoses running to the taps outside.
“So what will it be?” I asked Ben. “Pick whatever—”
I stopped because something crunched under my shoe. Ben bumped into the back of me.
I looked down and saw bits of glass, a broken wine bottle, and—
“What the hell?” Ben muttered, peering over my shoulder.
A woman lay sprawled on her belly on the floor in a pool of wine and blood, a big, yucky dent in her skull.
“She fell,” Ben said, concern rising in his voice.
I might have thought the same, if it weren’t for the neck of a broken wine bottle protruding from her back.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Dead? Dead?” Ben got in my face. “You insisted I come in here, you insisted on it, and now there’s a dead person in here?”