The Corpse Wore Cashmere
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

Susan Griffin’s heart fluttered with excitement. The big day had finally arrived. Costumes of every possible description hung from garment racks, lined the walls, and filled the shelving units of the newly opened costume shop. Feather boas danced beneath ceiling fans, and hula skirts swished as if worn by invisible maidens.

“This is it,” she said.  “The grand opening of the Purple Pickle!”

With no space left to hang another outfit, Susan’s partner and best friend, A. K., pushed an unopened box of costumes beneath a display table. “Awesome, isn’t it? Our bank account is scraping bottom, but we’re ready. You name it. We’ve got it.”

A whiff of sizing and the scent of freshly painted props all but shouted, “I’m new! Pick me!” Everywhere you looked, the shop exploded with color.

“It’s like standing in the middle of a kaleidoscope,” Susan said as she continued to soak in the surroundings, quite a contrast compared to her Bawdy Boutique located next door. There, old brick, shuttered windows, and a courtyard entrance suggested an elegant yet somewhat clandestine setting. The Purple Pickle, on the other hand, all but screamed to passersby. Sculptured masks adorned the outside walls, topped by a giant purple pickle with long eyelashes and a sweeping grin. Only A. K. could come up with such an outlandish name and logo.

Susan sure hoped this venture would be a success, that they were doing the right thing in expanding. At least they had the Bawdy Boutique to fall back on if the costume shop turned out to be a bust. That hadn’t been the case when she’d opened the boutique. Susan had put all her money into the shop. Had it not been a success, she would have had to swallow her pride and beg back her job from the big boys of the fashion world.

The sound of customers gathering at the front door disrupted Susan’s thoughts. “A. K., we’d better get in costume. Seems we’re not the only ones anxious to get things underway.”

Susan unfurled a long, black cloak and draped it around her shoulders, but instead of feeling warm beneath the wrap, an eerie cold rippled across her skin. When she fastened the robe and slipped on a skeleton mask, it triggered a memory, one she wished she could forget.

It was two weeks ago when she’d treated her employees and their dates to a fun day of fishing on a party barge. Everyone had a line in the water, even if someone else had to cast it for them. All were hoping to win the prize for the biggest fish. But Susan’s carefree mood had turned solemn when she’d experienced a brief vision, a vision she had kept to herself. From beneath the murky water, eyes filled with terror had looked up at her. It had been the face of Lorraine Thigpen.

Susan thought back to when she’d arrived at the landing that day with Wesley as her date. Before boarding the party barge, they’d stopped by the Rusty Nail to register for the fishing contest. To her surprise, she’d spotted Myrtle Thigpen. A bar was the last place she’d ever expected to see this pillar of the church. But there she was, approaching one customer after the other, asking if anyone had seen her sister.

Myrtle had seemed especially happy to see Wesley. She’d rushed up to him, frantic, explaining that her sister had planned to meet someone for drinks at the bar and hadn’t come home. Myrtle had even pointed to Lorraine’s silver Lexus in the parking lot and said, “That can’t be a good sign.”

As a courtesy, Wesley had made a brief inspection of the vehicle, careful not to touch anything. Since nothing seemed out of order, he had suggested that Lorraine and her companion might have made other plans.

Myrtle had disagreed. While she didn’t approve of her sister’s past lifestyle, she wanted to believe that Lorraine had changed since returning home.

Because Lorraine had not been missing more than twenty-four hours, Wesley had explained that the police couldn’t declare her a missing person. He’d suggested Myrtle contact nearby hospitals to see if her sister had been in an accident, and if Lorraine hadn’t shown up by the time he returned from his outing, he had promised Myrtle he’d look into it as a favor to her. Although he mostly worked homicide, Palmetto’s sheriff department was small, and they often shared duties. Besides, he had worked missing persons in the past.

That had not been what Myrtle had wanted to hear. Hiking her nose in the air, she’d left in a huff.

Besides seeing Lorraine’s face in the murky water, Susan had reeled in a scarf, one Myrtle had bought at the boutique for her sister. That had convinced Susan that finding Lorraine would not bring good news.

Susan cringed, forcing the memory of that day from her mind. Now’s not the time. You have a lot riding on this opening. Pulling the cloak’s hood over her head, she turned to A. K. “What do you think?”

“Wow! Terrific, if you’re into creepy.” A. K., who had decided her real name of Anna Katherine was way too long, picked up an item from the counter and tossed it to Susan. “Here, you'll need this. What's the Grim Reaper without a scythe?” A. K. let go a creepy laugh. “Okay, my turn.” She twirled around, jangling the multitude of bracelets on both wrists. A green, midriff blouse, tied between her breasts, matched an ankle-length, off-the-hip full skirt. The material billowed as she continued to dance in circles. “So, how do I look?”

“Like a real gypsy. You might hide from others behind that latex mask and wig, but you could never fool me…not with those…well, you’d never fool me.”

A. K. hiked her thirty-eight double D’s even higher.

If the woman had any bigger boobs, she’d fall on her face, Susan thought.

Turning sideways, A. K. glanced in a mirror, obviously admiring her girls. “You know you can pick your size nowadays.”

“No, thanks. I’ll stick with what the Lord gave me. About your costume, aren’t you missing something?”

“Nope.” A. K. picked up a prop from a side table and rubbed her hand across the top. In her best Transylvanian accent, she said, “Gaze into my crystal ball.” Even beneath the mask, her green eyes flashed with laughter. “I’ve always wanted to say that.” Cocking her head to one side, she tucked the glass globe under her arm and gave Susan a more studied look. “Man, your outfit gives me the heebie-jeebies. Do me a favor. In case you have some mojo working, don’t stand too close.”

Susan grinned but knew A. K. wasn’t joking, not after what they’d been through. “Did you remember to put a sign on the boutique’s door?”

“Sure did. It tells everyone the shop is closed for the grand opening of the Purple Pickle, and if they join us next door, they’ll receive a coupon for ten percent off on their next purchase from the Bawdy Boutique.”

“Works for me.” Susan called to her employees, Debbie, Sheila, and Melanie, who were parading their costumes at the front door. “Okay, ladies, let ’em in.”

A crescendo of oohs and ahha filled the store as customers hustled down the aisles. They snatched up one costume after another and rushed to one of the many mirrors. Shouts erupted. Really? No way! Oh, yes!

“Looks like we’re off to a good start,” A. K. whispered to Susan. “Hmm, I see a customer who could use a little help.” She sidled over to a senior citizen who had several costumes draped over her arm. “That one,” A. K. said. “The crystal ball never lies.”

To Susan’s delight, customers continued to arrive, far exceeding the number at the opening of the Bawdy Boutique. That the Bawdy Boutique even survived was another story. It had gotten off to a rough start, thanks in part to one particular citizen who had been offended by some of the suggestive merchandise. To Myrtle Thigpen, the boutique had no place in the sleepy, little town of Palmetto, and she’d sworn she’d shut it down.

Gathering a band of followers, Myrtle had picketed the shop on a daily basis. Customers had to weave their way through signs to gain entry. They were glad they did. Once inside, they’d discovered the store offered more than scanty lingerie. Word had spread about the line of designer clothing, along with jewelry and other accessories. Before long, the shop had drawn the curious and the trendy. Clientele had come from surrounding towns, and sales had skyrocketed.

It took some doing, but Myrtle had finally given up trying to shut her down. Eventually, they had even become friends. Now, since the boutique’s bank account was in the black, Susan had decided to take A. K.’s suggestion and open a costume shop on the other side of the parking lot. With A. K.’s marketing skills and flamboyant personality, and a small but dedicated sales force, how could she go wrong?

Susan smiled as she watched her two youngest employees, Debbie and Sheila. Only a year out of high school, they exuded energy and optimism. They had chosen to dress as Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum and were bouncing from customer to customer, obviously enjoying every minute of the opening. On the other hand, Melanie, who was in her thirties and closer in age to Susan and A. K., came dressed as Elvira. With her good looks, she caught the eye of every man who walked through the door, most of whom got an elbow to the ribs from a jealous partner. But Melanie’s easygoing personality quickly won over even the most envious women.

Customers came from neighboring towns and many from New Orleans, all to check out the bargains. Business was non-stop, and by closing time, the store looked as if a hurricane had passed through. Most of the shelves were bare, the garment racks empty, and the painted props were barely standing. Best of all, the cash register was full. When the last of the customers headed for the parking lot, Susan gave a satisfied and exhausted sigh. She removed her hood and mask then shook out her long, blonde hair. A. K. followed suit and peeled off her latex mask. Her short, red hair lay plastered to her skull.

“Come here.” Susan fluffed her friend’s curls. “Much better. Hey, great job, everyone. Looks like our hard work paid off. What do you say we shut it down?”

“Don’t you want us to help straighten up before we leave?” Debbie asked.

“Nah, A. K. and I can handle it.”

“Thanks, boss.” Debbie cut her eyes at Melanie. “Next time we dress in costume, I’m coming as Elvira. You got hit on so many times you have to be black and blue. I should be so lucky.”

Melanie blushed. “I never knew work could be such fun.”

Susan was glad to see Melanie enjoying herself. Not long ago, her husband had been killed while serving an arrest warrant. Every time Susan thought about that night, her gut wrenched. Left with two children to support, Melanie was forced to find employment, and Susan was eager to do all she could to help her.

The employees gathered up their purses and headed for the front door.

“See y’all tomorrow,” A. K. called after them.

Susan locked the door behind them and flipped the closed sign to face outward. “This shouldn’t take long,” she said, picking up a few costumes that had fallen to the floor. While re-hanging a hula skirt, she paused to smooth the raffia grass. It was then that Susan’s mind drifted again to that day on the river.

She had kept quiet, hoping that what she’d seen had been just her imagination, but the nightmares wouldn’t stop. The woman who owned the scarf kept crying out to her, and she could no longer keep her fears to herself. She had to tell someone, or she’d go crazy. She crossed the store, stopped in front of A. K., and waited until her friend looked up.

Lorraine’s dead.”

A frown creased A. K.’s brow. “If you’re trying to scare me, you’re succeeding. I had a feeling you shouldn’t have worn that costume.”

“The disguise has nothing to do with it.”

A. K.’s shoulders slumped. “You didn’t hit your head again, did you?”

“No.”

Several months earlier, Susan had suffered a fall, resulting in a hematoma and surgery. While sedated, she’d found herself at the local funeral home, where she’d met Jack Evans, the victim of a pending murder. Later, she’d awakened in the hospital with only days to save him. She’d had a hard time convincing people about the vision, but eventually, both A. K. and Wesley realized she had been telling the truth and the would-be killer was caught before Jack was murdered. Now it seemed she was destined to get caught up in another investigation, whether she wanted to or not.

Taking the scythe from Susan’s hand, A. K. laid it on a table. “After what happened with Jack, I was hoping you had lost your ability to see things. I’d hate to go through something like that again—knowing a killer was out there, not knowing who, and suspecting everyone. My knees grow weak every time I think about it. Even so, I owe you big time for bringing him into my life. He’s…well, I’ve waited a long time for someone like Jack.”

Susan massaged her temples. “I’d give anything for things to be normal again, but I don’t have control over my visions. You can’t imagine how terrifying they can be. Last night, I found myself alone in the river, and something was pulling me down. I woke up gasping for air. You wouldn’t believe how real it felt. I actually checked the bed for water. How do you get something like that out of your mind?”

A. K. slipped her bracelets into a plastic box. “Do me a favor. Keep me out of your visions.”

Susan tucked a long strand of hair behind an ear. “It doesn’t work that way.”

A. K. returned the crystal ball to its box then locked eyes with Susan. “Okay, what exactly did you see that makes you think Lorraine is dead?”

“Would you believe her face beneath the water?” Susan scrunched her face in disgust. “Later, when I reeled in the scarf, I knew something terrible had happened to her. I can still feel that slimy, wet material.” She shivered at the thought. “I don’t know if I can ever handle cashmere again. After Wesley slipped the scarf into a plastic bag, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. My stomach wrenched, and I thought I was going to throw up.”

“Hey, maybe you got the wrong impression. Maybe Lorraine’s not in trouble at all. She likes to party. Could be her scarf just blew off. I wouldn’t put it past her to be living it up on someone’s boat.”

“I don’t think so. From what I saw, she was in trouble. Her face was twisted in pain, and her mouth opened like she was calling for help.”

“Ooh, that doesn’t sound good. Did you tell Wesley?”

Just the mention of the detective’s name helped to calm Susan’s anxiety. Along with wanting to own a boutique, Wesley was the reason she had left New York for her hometown. They once had something special, but over time, had drifted apart. She was hoping there was still a chance for them. With that in mind, she’d learned all she could about merchandizing and had saved as much money as possible. She’d been eager to escape the turmoil of the big city for the laid-back atmosphere of Palmetto, but Palmetto had turned out to be anything but. Not long after her homecoming, she’d found herself in the middle of the investigation where Jack Evan’s life had hung in the balance. Through it all, Wesley had stood by her.

“I know he would believe me, but I doubt his boss would. Sheriff Smith is a Jack Webb type of guy—just the facts, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure Wesley would prefer I not go public with my visions. People might think I’m nuts, and then my business would go to pot. Besides, Wesley’s on top of things, and the flotilla is dragging the river.”

“Fat chance they’ll find anything. The current is so swift Lorraine’s body could be in the Gulf by now.”

“Maybe.”

A. K. drew her lips together and shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking, but do me a favor—don’t get involved this time. Whatever has happened, it’s not your fault, and you’re not obligated to solve Lorraine’s disappearance.”

Susan gave a forlorn sigh. “That’s not my intention. Between the Bawdy Boutique and the costume shop, I have enough to worry about. But I had to tell someone, and besides Wesley and Jack, you’re the only one who wouldn’t think I was crazy.”

“I should be so lucky.” A. K.’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

“We’ve done enough here,” Susan said, glancing around the shop. “What say we call it a night and finish up tomorrow?” Not wanting to dwell further on the subject, Susan slipped an arm around A. K.’s shoulders. “I have to say you were spot on about opening a costume shop. We’re going to do great. There’s only one thing that bothers me.”

“What?”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever warm up to the name—Purple Pickle.”

A. K. laughed. “You will when the money starts rolling in.”

There was a knock followed by a familiar voice. “Is it okay to come in?”

“Of course,” Susan said, crossing the shop and unlocking the door. Wesley and his partner, Dylan Powell, shuffled past. Seeing Wesley brought a smile to her lips. “I didn’t hear you drive up.”

“We parked next door. Since the lights were on in the costume shop, I figured that’s where I’d find you.”

Wesley had worked all day at the landing, interviewing everyone. From the look on his face, things weren’t going so well. His hazel eyes lacked their usual sparkle, and the corners of his mouth tugged at his smile.

In the shadows of her mind, Susan heard a bell toll. “They found her, didn’t they?”

Wisps of sandy hair fell across Wesley’s brow as he nodded. “The flotilla recovered what we believe to be Lorraine’s remains, but we’ll have to wait for dental confirmation.”

A. K. gave Susan a quick glance. When she opened her mouth to say something, Susan shook her head, hoping A. K. wouldn’t mention her vision. Her friend apparently got the message. She said nothing and eased down onto a crate.

“It doesn’t seem right,” Susan said. “After years apart, Myrtle’s sister finally comes home, and a week later, she’s dead.”

“Not just dead, murdered. I imagine Myrtle will think about her sister being pulled from that river for a long time,” Wesley said.

Susan’s eyes widened. “Does she know? Is anyone with her?”

Wesley held up his hand as if to slow Susan’s barrage of questions. “We just left Myrtle’s place. The chief delayed talking to the press at the landing so I could tell her before the media blasted the news over the radio and TV. You wouldn’t believe the number of reporters at the landing. We couldn’t turn around without one of them in our faces. Until we know for sure the body is Lorraine’s, all I could tell Myrtle was that the victim was a female, and she should be prepared for the worst. I was glad a few of her friends were with her.”

Wesley didn’t speculate as to a cause of death, and it wasn’t like him to avoid eye contact.

“What are you not telling us?” Susan asked.

His voice lowered, almost to a mumble. “I don’t know how she died.  I just hope she didn’t suffer. We…we only recovered a head.”

A. K. sprang to her feet and clutched her arms. “Ew! Sounds like something out of a horror movie.”

“You got that right,” Dylan said. “I’ve seen a lot of gruesome sights, and this ranks right up there.” He rubbed the sides of his neck with both hands. “We’re looking at a real sicko.”

“This is Palmetto. Nothing like that is supposed to happen here,” A. K. said.

“But it did,” Wesley said. “Things have changed, especially after Katrina. The North Shore has seen a great influx of people.” He stared at A.K, but it seemed his mind was elsewhere. “Since we found the remains downstream from where Susan hooked the scarf, my guess is Lorraine met her fate aboard the killer’s boat and under cover of darkness. I doubt anyone saw or heard anything on the river, so I’m going to concentrate on the Rusty Nail. Maybe someone will remember seeing her, and if she was with anyone. Even better if they can put them on a boat.”

“It’s hard to believe,” Susan said. “Lorraine must not have suspected anything. She seemed so happy to be home. I can see her now with her light brown hair and amber eyes. More than anything, she so loved that scarf Myrtle bought her.” Susan paused. “How could anyone butcher another person?” The thought chilled her to the bone. “I hope she was dead long before…before…” She didn’t finish her sentence. Her lips quivered as she stared at Wesley. “You have to catch whoever did this.”

“I’d like nothing better.” Muscles around his mouth twitched as he steeled his face in defiance. “With so many people in and out of the landing, someone must have seen her. Nothing goes unnoticed in Palmetto.”

“That’s for sure,” A. K. said.

“I just hope my witness hasn’t left town.”

Wesley’s voice brought Susan back to the present. “What about Lorraine’s car?” she asked. “Is it still at the landing?”

“It’s been impounded, and so far, the crime lab hasn’t turned up anything.”

Susan unhooked her robe and laid it across the counter. All she could think about was Myrtle and how devastated she must be. “I should go see Myrtle. Maybe there’s something I can do.”

“I was hoping you would,” Wesley said. “It’s always difficult to interview anyone after such a tragedy, but it’s important that we do. I got nowhere with her. Since you two have become friends, you might put her more at ease. She and Lorraine must have talked about things. Maybe Myrtle will recall something that’ll help us. We’re going to need all the leads we can get.”

A. K. cleared her throat and frowned at Susan. “I thought you weren’t going to get involved.”

“I’m not, but Myrtle needs support…and answers. It’s the least I can do.”

A. K. sighed.

Susan didn’t have to be psychic to read A. K.’s thoughts—Here we go again.

 

 

     

 

 



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