Disrobed for Death
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

Dying sure has a way of messing up things.

Monday morning, Susan Griffin’s only concern was how best her assistant should arrange the window in the Bawdy Boutique.

“No,” she said, pressing the cell phone to her ear and turning off her bath water. “Move the mannequin farther back and let the fan blow the skirt of the negligée through the door. The idea is to tease the customers, make them want to see more. A lacy bra draped over a chair and a bottle of wine with two glasses on the table will add intrigue. Once we get them into the store, we can show them all the new merchandise.”

While the assistant manager had lots of good ideas, Susan knew exactly how she wanted the window to look—suggestive, but tasteful. Her newly opened shop had stirred excitement in Palmetto, a sleepy little community a few miles south of Hammond, Louisiana. A far cry from New York, she would have to temper her approach. But her new business wasn’t the only reason Susan had decided to come home.

She shook the last thought from her head and concentrated on the boutique’s window. Of course, any change in the display would result in new protests from holier-than-thou, Myrtle Thigpen, whose goal in life was to shut down the boutique. It didn’t matter that the store’s name was just a draw; that the scant undies were only a small part of the inventory. The shop also carried casual clothes, accessories, and cosmetics.

The more she thought about Myrtle, the more Susan was tempted to add a can of whipped cream just to goad the old biddy, then thought better of it. Why give the frustrated spinster more ammunition? Myrtle had already declared Susan and her assistant, A.K., the Devil’s handmaidens, who were bent on destroying the morality of their town. Such claims were plain ridiculous, and so far, all of Myrtle’s efforts had come to naught, despite her many trips to the city council. What Myrtle didn’t know was that most of the members were ardent customers.

“A tower candle and a platter of grapes would be a nice touch,” Susan added, still considering the can of whipped cream. Nope, she refused to let the Devil get a foothold. “By the way, A.K, you did a terrific job creating the patio. If our business ever goes bust, you’ll have no problem finding work as a set designer. Then maybe you’ll give me a job.”

She was lucky to have found A.K., short for Anna Katherine. An ageless model, the woman exuded a charm and effervescence that made her appear much younger than forty. The redhead enjoyed hanging with a younger crowd and was always in the market for a good looking guy with a tight butt. Guess you could say she was a Cougar long before the term became popular.

Quick and witty, she also had a special knack for marketing. Her green eyes could spot just the right apparel and in five minutes pull together an ensemble that would satisfy the pickiest of shoppers. And when Susan had to travel, she could depend on A.K. to run the business, check on her apartment, and feed her cat, Marmalade, who didn’t cotton to just anyone. The kitty was so named because of the calico’s orange coloring.

“So who’s scheduled to work today?” Susan asked.

“Debbie and Sheila. They’re putting their things away now. The store opens in an hour. You gonna be here by then?”

“Probably sooner.”

Still holding the phone and swishing the water, she lit an aroma-therapy candle and removed her short wrap. A glance in the mirror revealed a firm body and a smooth, flat belly. At twenty-eight, and in her line of business, she was determined to stay in shape--no sagging breasts or flabby underarms for her. She extended a long, shapely leg and examined it for any signs of cellulite. So she wasn’t perfect. “Boy, I need to up the reps on my exercise program,” she said, giving her thigh a slap.

“You and me both,” A.K. responded.

Susan tested the water again. “I’d better go before my bath gets cold.”

With the display window occupying her thoughts, Susan paid little attention to the water that had splashed onto the floor, until the ball of her foot slipped on a wet tile. Like a trapeze artist who misgauged her release, she flipped backwards, arms flaying, reaching for anything to break her fall. There was nothing. And there was no safety net.

“Oh!”

The cell phone went airborne, and her head slammed against the floor. The cracking sound terrified her more than the pain. Surely, she had dislodged her brain. She stared up at the overhead light which slowly dimmed. Then everything went black.

When her eyes fluttered open, she noticed the candle had burned down about an inch. She lay there, afraid to move. Other than the invisible idiot beating a bass drum in her head, her mental faculties seemed intact. She raised one arm, and then the other, flexed her knees and wiggled her toes. Maybe she wasn’t hurt as bad as she thought.

Easing her head off the floor, she reached back with a shaky hand. Now she wished she hadn’t. A knot, the size of an egg, protruded from the back of her skull. Not good. Not good at all. Horror stories about such accidents flooded her mind. At first, the victim appeared to be fine, only to drop dead a few hours later.

Susan remembered talking on the phone. Had A.K. heard anything, realized something was wrong? What if she didn’t? It was important to get help fast.

She rolled over onto her knees and searched for her phone. It lay at the bottom of the tub.

Dizziness prevented her from standing, so she crawled forward, hoping to reach the phone in her bedroom. But the floor undulated like a giant tilt-a-world. A bitter taste rose in her throat, and the drummer inside her head swapped his sticks for a sledge hammer. She pressed her hands against her temples, curled into a fetal position, and prayed for the pain to stop.

Again, darkness enveloped her.

* * * *

“Debbie! Sheila! Susan’s had an accident.” A.K. grabbed her purse from under the register and bolted for the front door of the boutique. “It sounded like she fell. I’ve called 911. Soon as I find out something, I’ll let you know.”

Susan’s Pine Crest Apartment was less than two miles from the store, but in that short distance, A.K. ran three red lights and buried the needle on the speedometer. Speedy Gonzales had nothing on her. Thank goodness there were no cops in sight. She screeched to a halt inside the complex and raced in four-inch heels up the sidewalk with the agility of a gymnast.

“I’m coming, Susan.” A.K. knew her friend probably couldn’t hear her, but she felt compelled to shout. While not logical, at least it made her feel better. Her hand fumbled with the key and finally slipped into the lock. When the heavy door swung open, all five-foot, four of her hurried through the apartment and into the bathroom.

Susan looked like a naked pretzel, her dimpled butt and heart-shaped tattoo mooning the world. A.K. was reminded of their visit to the tattoo parlor. Each had dared the other, and later, there was a fight as to who would go first. Susan lost the coin toss and settled on the tiny romantic emblem. Not to be outdone, A.K. had opted for puckered lips with a scroll beneath it that said, “Bite Me.”

A.K. knelt and brushed the hair from Susan’s face. “Can you hear me?”

A moan escaped Susan’s lips as her eyelids fluttered. A. K. got a glimpse of Susan’s brown eyes, which seemed to have trouble focusing.

“You’re gonna be all right, honey. Help’s on the way.”

Sirens screamed outside.

“They’re here.” A.K. scrambled to her feet. “I’m going let them in.”

A.K. wasn’t about to let the EMS find her friend sprawled in the nude. Grabbing a beach towel from the closet, she covered Susan then ran out front and flagged the paramedics. Rushing back inside, she pointed to the bathroom. “In there. Hurry!”

The first paramedic brushed past her. “Did you see what happened?”

“No, I was on the phone with her. She shouted, and I heard a loud bang.”

He bent down and checked for a pulse. “What’s her name?”

“Susan Griffin.”

“And you are?”

“A.K. Williams, her friend and co-worker.”

Another paramedic wiggled past, carrying a backboard. “Ma’am, you need to step out.”

A.K. reluctantly moved to the living room. Minutes later, the men emerged. They had strapped Susan to the board and immobilized her head.

“We’re taking her to Lakeside Hospital.”

“She’s going to be okay, isn’t she?”

“You’ll have to discuss her condition with the doctor. We need to get her there as fast as we can.”

“Can I ride with her?”

“No, ma’am, you can follow in your car.”

Follow she did, so close she couldn’t spit between the vehicles. The hospital was located in Hammond, Louisiana, ten miles north of Palmetto, and they covered the distance in a matter of minutes. Frantic as she was, A.K. discovered that zipping through Hammond’s traffic behind a siren and flashing lights was exciting. The thought crossed her mind that she might be in the wrong profession.

No, wearing the same outfit every day was not her thing.

When they reached the hospital, she whipped into the Emergency Parking Lot and rushed back in time to see the attendants wheeling Susan through the doors. Once inside the emergency room entrance, a medical team jumped into action. A woman in magenta scrubs and wearing white tennis shoes hit a chrome plate on the wall and another set of double doors opened.

A.K. attempted to follow, but a nurse stopped her.

“Someone will be out to talk with you shortly,” she called back to A.K.

Susan disappeared down a hall with all the noise and clatter of a rock star’s entourage.

A.K. made her way across the waiting room and registered with a lady manning the information desk.

“Have a seat,” the volunteer said. “I’ll let you know the minute I hear anything.”

“How long will that be?” A.K.’s remark seemed to startle the lady behind the desk.

“I…uh…really can’t say. I’m sure it won’t be too long.”

An hour later, she still hadn’t heard any news, and that scared her. What if the injury was more serious than expected? What if she died? “Dang it,” she grumbled. “Don’t even think that way.”

“Did you say something?” the woman asked.

“Just muttering to myself.”

After picking the last of the nail polish off her thumb nail, A.K. decided she had waited long enough. Her plan was to hit the chrome plate on the wall and find Susan before Nurse Ratched could stop her. As she pushed up from her chair, the volunteer behind the desk called her name, and a man in green scrubs motioned for her to join him in the hall.

“How is she?” she asked, anxious for news and unable to read the doctor’s face.

“Ms. Griffin is disoriented and having trouble focusing, but that’s not uncommon with a head injury. I doubt she’ll remember me or our conversation, but I managed to get her consent to remove a small clot at the base of her skull.”

“You mean she has to have surgery?”

“The sooner, the better. Ms. Griffin came to and was lucid enough to sign a consent form. All the while she kept saying she wanted out of here as soon as possible.”

“That’s my Susan. What exactly will the surgery entail?”

“I’ll make a small opening at the base of the skull, just large enough to evacuate the clot. Afterwards, I’ll insert a catheter to drain off excess fluid and help us monitor pressure. She’ll remain sedated and in ICU until the swelling goes down, probably a day or two.”

“Then what?”

“We’ll move her to a step-down unit. I don’t anticipate any problems, and if her recovery is uneventful, it’s possible she can go home in couple of days.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

Blue eyes smiled down at her. “I don’t suppose it’ll do any good to tell you not to worry, but this is a fairly routine procedure. The anesthesiologist is administering something to relax Ms. Griffin. She’ll be coming this way shortly.”

Another set of doors opened, and A.K. followed the doctor’s gaze to a bed being wheeled out of the emergency room.

“You’ll have time to give her a hug. I’ll see you when it’s over.”

Before she could say anything, the doctor opened the door beneath an exit sign and scooted up the stairs.

“But...I didn’t get your name.” Her sentence tailed off as he disappeared. A.K. walked alongside the bed and squeezed Susan’s arm. “How are you, sweetie?”

“Never felt better.” Susan slurred her words, obviously feeling the effects of the medication.

“Doc said you’re going to be just fine.”

“Zat right?”

“Dang straight! And I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Susan squinted. “Is it foggy in here?”

“You’re groggy from the medicine. Try and relax.”

A.K. tucked a strand of Susan’s silky blonde hair under her surgical cap and gave her a kiss on the forehead.

Once again, Susan disappeared behind double doors.

* * * *

A.K. took a seat in the surgical waiting room and swallowed the lump in her throat. She wasn’t alone. The room was crowded with people, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones. Some propped against pillows, their clothes rumpled like their faces. Those were the family members and friends who had spent the night, obviously afraid they wouldn’t be there to say goodbye.

It was then that A.K. realized she hadn’t contacted Susan’s family. She pulled her cell from her purse and located her father’s number. No one answered. After thinking it through, she decided to wait. All she could tell them right now was that she hit her head and was in surgery. They were elderly and getting such news might cause them to have a heart attack. Telling them Susan had minor surgery and came through with flying colors might be best. That is, if the doctor was right. If he was wrong, he’d better have his insurance paid up.

Still unsure of her decision, she held the phone in her hand, debating whether to call Susan’s parents or wait. The lady behind the desk made the decision for her.

“Ms. Williams, if you’ll stand over there in the hall, the doctor will be out shortly.”

Like an actor on stage, A.K. took her place. She stared at the doors to the operating room like she had x-ray vision. A few minutes later, the doctor came out with a smile on his lips.

“Everything went well, and she’s in ICU. Come on. I’ll let you have a peek.”

She followed the doctor into the unit. The patient’s rooms surrounded the nurse’s station like the spokes on a wheel.

“Here we are,” he said, pointing to one specific room.

A.K. hurried to Susan’s bedside. “Doc said you did great, and you’re going to be out of here before you know it.”

Susan’s mouth twitched as if she was going to say something but didn’t.

“She’s sedated,” he said.

“Looks to me like she’s agitated.”

“I got the impression she’s rather head strong.”

A.K. cringed. No telling what Susan had said under anesthesia. While she was sweet as could be, Susan was a no-nonsense business woman. If she was hallucinating about her shop, it was anyone’s guess what she’d said.

“We’d better get out of the way and let the nurses do their thing,” he said as a young woman in scrubs entered the room. “Leave your number at the nurse’s station. If there’s any change, someone will call you.”

            “Better not be any change. You said she was going to be just fine, and I’m going to hold you to that.”

 

 

     

 

 



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