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Handbags and Homicide: A Haley Randolph Mystery

Chapter One

“I’d die for that purse,” Marcie said.

“I’d kill for it,” I replied.

Thus, the difference between me and my best friend Marcie

We were at the Beverly Center, LA’s Mecca for expensive
handbags, and we’d come to worship at the altar of Gucci,
Prada, Fendi, and other high-end gods.

Calling Marcie and me appreciative of designer purses
wouldn’t do our neuroses justice. To say that we were
obsessive, compulsive, crazed white twenty-somethings might be more

We’d long ago faced the truth: we’re handbag

Marcie glanced at her wristwatch. “Guess you’d
better go, huh?”

I looked at my own watch. It matched the Dooney and Bourke
barrel bag I was carrying.

Nearly two o’clock. Time to go to my “other”

With great reluctance we left the Kate Spade display and the
black hobo purse for which Marcie had been ready to die and
I’d been willing to kill. The November, Sunday afternoon
crowd carried us through the mall toward the escalator to the
parking garage, and I had every intention of actually leaving.
Then, I swear, light suddenly beamed down from above, and really, I
swear, angels began to sing, and Marcie and I were frozen in humble

The Louis Vuitton store.

I gasped and she made that little mewling sound that I suspected
--- ugh, gross --- she only made during sex, and we both rushed to
the display windows.

Louis Vuitton. Now this was a company. These people knew how to
make bags. They knew their accessories. From keychains to steamer
trunks, they had it all. Handbag heaven, no doubt about it.

Then I spotted it. A gorgeous organizer at center stage in the
display window.

My stomach knotted and my heart raced. It took everything I had
not to lick the glass.

“I’m getting that,” I declared.

“It’s nearly seven hundred dollars.”

“I’m getting it.”

“But what about buying Christmas gifts?” Marcie

“Screw Christmas.”

“And your New Year’s resolution? You took that
second job so you could pay off your credit cards.”

I hate it when other people make good sense.

“I’m getting that bag,” I said again, mentally
etching the conviction into the lining of my brain.

“You’re going to be late,” Marcie said,
glancing at her watch again. “You know what happens if
you’re late.”

I was glued to that window. “Yeah, in a

“Now, Haley,” Marcie said with a fierceness you
wouldn’t expect from a petite, blue-eyed blonde. “Step
away from the handbags. Now.”

She tugged on my arm, breaking the spell.

“Thanks for talking me down,” I told her.

You can’t find a friend like Marcie just anywhere.

“See you,” she called, as I walked away.

I found my Honda in the crowded parking lot and headed north on
the 101 freeway, visions of the LouisVuitton organizer dancing
behind my eyes.

I had to get it. I had to. And I could manage it. I could.

Just a week ago I’d taken a second job at a department
store for extra money. I wanted to go all out for Christmas this
year, I’d told myself, really do it up right, give everyone a
fabulous gift. I wanted some things for myself, too, of course.

And there was that slight miscalculation I’d made in my
checking account.

So with my evenings and weekends free, I’d taken a part
time, Christmas-help job as a sales clerk at Holt’s
Department Store. It’s a mid-range store that carries
clothing and shoes for the whole family, housewares, kitchen items
and small electronics.

Holt’s wasn’t my first choice. I’d applied at
all the upscale stores --- the ones that carried designer handbags,
where I could avail myself to a sizable employee discount --- but
none of them had offered me a job. So I ended up at

Holt’s motto was “Of Course You Can,” the
you being the customer, unfortunately. As a sales clerk it
was my job to provide top quality service at all times, to assist
customers in every way possible, to go the extra mile for them, and
do it all with a big of-course-you-can smile on my face.

All of this for about seven bucks an hour.

Yeah, right.

Holt’s had policies and procedures in place to handle any
situation and they had been reviewed in depth during my
orientation, or at least that’s what someone told me later. I
drifted off during orientation.

I took the offramp and whipped around a couple of slow-moving
cars to get into the Holt’s parking lot, then cut off an SUV
and grabbed a choice space near the door.

I sat in my car for a moment looking up at the blue neon sign
that spelled out “Holt’s” in cursive. I’d
been here five days now and, so far, my journey to The Dark Side of
retail wasn’t great.

Not that I think I’m all-that, or anything. But, geez,
come on. Seven bucks an hour to fold merchandise, stock shelves,
and actually wait on customers? And smile at the same time?

Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way if I didn’t already
have a real job. Again, not to sound big-headed, but it’s
with the most prestigious law firm in Los Angeles, with sumptuous
offices located on three floors of the best building in Century

So you might think that I, Haley Randolph, with my long,
colt-like legs, shampoo-commercial-thick dark hair, and my
fifty-percent beauty-queen genes, have superior skills of some sort
to be sought after by such a highly regarded firm. I don’t.
So then you might believe it was simply destiny, serendipity, or
good mojo that got me the job. Nope. It’s that I’m a
heck of a partier and know how to pick a great club.

I woke up one Sunday afternoon about four months ago with a
business card clutched in my hand from some guy named Kirk Keegan.
An attorney at a law firm on Wilshire.

I shot up in bed. An attorney? What had I done last night?

I didn’t remember a car accident, or being in jail ---
I’d remember that, wouldn’t I? But I didn’t
remember this guy either, so could I really trust my memory?

He called later that afternoon and I stood horrified at the
sight of his name on my called ID.

Was he calling to warn me that the police were on their way to
arrest me and that I should make a break for the border, take a
room on the second floor of the Motel Marta in Cabo under the name
Juanita Rivas? Attorneys do that, don’t they?

Damn, I should have paid better attention in Spanish class.

I’m not big on suspense, so I answered the phone. Kirk
Keegan’s voice came through smooth and mellow, despite the
background noise.

“We met at the club last night,” he said.

We did?

“Yes,” I said, because I definitely remembered going
to a club. Otherwise, I was clueless.

“I was impressed with you,” Kirk said.

And why wouldn’t he be? I was carrying a beaded BJ bag and
had on the sweet little black dress I’d just bought at Banana

“So I wondered if you’re interested in Pike
Warner?” Kirk asked.

Pike Warner... Pike Warner.... Was that the new handbag line
from DKNY?

“Well, sure,” I told him.

“Be there first thing Monday morning. I’ll phone in
a recommendation,” Kirk said. “Human Resources is on
fourteen. You still have my card, don’t you? With the

I looked down at the bent, dog-eared business card I’d
spent the night with. Pike Warner was the law firm he worked for.
Kirk Keegan was offering me a job there?

I didn’t know the first thing about working at a law firm.
My knowledge of the law itself didn’t extend much past the
consequences of exceeding the speed limit, and then only if you got
caught, of course. I’d be completely lost. Totally out of my

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be

“Good. Keep me posted. Let me know how it goes,”
Kirk said.

The next morning I called in sick at the real estate company
where I worked using the touch-of-the-stomach-flu excuse, a
favorite of mine, and drove to the impressive office building in
Century City.

The HR lady had only recently arrived on Earth from another
planet, obviously, because she took one look at my job history ---
lifeguard, file clerk, receptionist and two weeks at a pet store
--- and decided I might fit in nicely in the accounting department.
When I announced I was pursuing my BA, which really meant that the
semester after high school I’d enrolled in community college,
taken two classes, one of which was PE, she immediately scheduled
me for the all-important Pike Warner employment evaluation. A test
to see if I actually had any math skills, something the finance
department seemed interested in.

Go figure.

I passed the test receiving, oddly enough, the exact score as
the guy sitting next to me, and was brought onboard Pike Warner and
made part of the Accounts Payable unit.

They gave me a huge salary --- well, huge by my standards ---
and my credit card balances had gone up proportionally. Christmas
was on the horizon. Gucci had come out with a new tote. And there
was that troubling miscalculation I’d made in my checking

So here I was, sitting in my car, staring at the Holt’s
sign, shoppers streaming into the store like picnic ants on a sugar
high, who expected to be catered to, waited on and indulged by a
minimum wage grunt wearing an of-course-you-can smile.

Though Thanksgiving was coming up, the store wasn’t
decorated for Christmas yet, like most stores were. Something about
a Holt’s tradition, I vaguely recalled from a lucid moment
during orientation. But the store was busy. Shoppers filled the
aisles, talking loud, letting their children run through the racks
of clothes.

Just inside the entry, Julie something-or-other sat at a table
inviting customers to complete a credit card application and
handing out half-pound boxes of candy for those who did.

Julie’s nineteen --- five whole years younger than me ---
small, cute and bubbly, the perfect person to sell credit, or so I
was told. I’d asked for the job myself --- you got to sit
down and look out the window --- but was turned down. Apparently,
my of-course-you-can smile needs some work.

The lines at the checkout were long, since only three of the
eight registers were open. I made my way to the rear of the store,
off the sales floor and into the area that housed our customer
service booth, which handled all returns, exchanges and
accompanying complaints, the restrooms, the employee break room,
and offices. Working in the customer service booth was a crappy
job. It took a special kind of person to handle it.

Just as well that my of-course-you-can smile was subpar,
I’d decided on my second day there.

I went through the swinging door marked “Employees
Only” to the break room. There were tables and chairs, a
microwave, refrigerator, vending machines and posters plastered all
over the walls about job safety, our rights as employees, the
current Holt’s marketing plan and a teaser about the
store’s upcoming surprise Christmas merchandise

Rita was in the break room too, standing by the time clock and
looking at her watch.

Rita hates me. But that’s okay. I hated her first.

Rita was in her late-thirties, only slightly taller than she was
wide, and had worked at Holt’s, apparently, since sometime
before the invention of the cash register. She always wore stretch
pants and knit tops with farm animals on them. The Dooney and
Bourke handbag I carried --- not counting the matching watch ---
cost more than all the clothing in Rita’s closet

“I was just about to put your name on the board,”
she told me, voicing her approval yet sounding excited at the

Rita was the cashiers’ supervisor. Holt’s hierarchy
of supervision had many levels. Store Manager, Assistant Store
Manager, Area Manager, Department Manager, Department Lead, and at
the very bottom rung of the ladder, minimum wage peons like me. All
the supervisors were designated by a number and they were forever
being paged to a certain department, which also had a number.
One-one to four-six. Two-three to seven-five.

It was at this point during orientation that my eyes had glazed

Rita was also the time clock monitor. If an employee was late
coming in for their shift, Rita wrote their name on the white board
by the frig. Yeah, just like fourth grade. If you got your name on
the board five times in one month, you got fired.

That I remember from orientation.

“And hello to you too, Rita,” I said, as I punched
my time card with a full eight seconds to spare.

“You’ve already had two lates,” Rita said, as
if my tardiness was some sort of personal insult.

“Thanks for keeping track of it for me,” I told her.
“I’ll let you know when I need an update

“I ought to tell Richard about this,” she said.

Richard was the Assistant Store Manager. And, believe me,
there’s a reason the letters “a-s-s” are in his
job title.

“Tell him what, Rita? That I was on time for work again
today?” I asked, giving her my screw-you smile. That one
I’ve got down cold.

I put my purse in my locker and hung my employee name badge
around my neck. I’d asked for a name badge that had
“Sue” on it, in case someone I knew caught me working
in the store and I could claim to be my own identical-twin cousin
or something, but apparently that was against company policy. Not
that I’m ashamed to work a second job, or a job at
Holt’s. But come on, I work for Pike Warner.

“You’re in ILA tonight,” Rita said, looking at
the schedule on the wall, as if I couldn’t read it myself.
She sneered at me and left the break room.

I gave her a minute then headed out to the sales floor trying to
remember what ILA was. They probably covered that in orientation.
From the corner of my eye I saw Rita glaring at me from inside the
customer service booth, so I strode across the sales floor as if I
actually knew which department I was supposed to work in

Holt’s is one-story. It’s big, but since it
doesn’t have “mart” in the title, it’s not
big enough to get lost in. Or hide from your supervisor.

“You. Excuse me. You. Over here.”

Thinking it was a customer calling me, I kept walking.

“Holly? Holly!”

I recognized the voice. It was Evelyn in intimates ---

Damn. Intimates department. The “I” in ILA.

I hate that department.

I love intimates --- which means “lingerie” in
retail-speak --- but Holt’s employees, at least the Christmas
employees, don’t get to wile away time picking out panties or
trying on bras, which takes all of the fun out of lingerie.

Evelyn wound her way through the racks. She was 40-ish, neat,
trim, and could pass for a junior high English teacher. Her idea of
a mid-life crisis would probably be switching to hoop earrings.

She took an exhausted breath. “Holly, if you don’t
mind, could you please ---”

“It’s Haley,” I told her.

Evelyn froze and color flashed across her cheeks. “Oh. Oh,
dear. I’m so sorry. I thought---”

“It’s okay,” I said because now I was feeling
sorry for her. “What do you need me to do?”

“If you don’t mind, could you please recover this
area?” she asked.

“Recover” is department store lingo for cleaning up
after swarming hordes of customers.

Evelyn looked at the clipboard in her hand and gave me an
apologetic half-smile. “You get a break tonight, but no

That’s because Richard does the employee work schedules
and cuts everybody’s shift fifteen minutes short just to
screw us out of a break.

“I’ll be back later to check on you,” Evelyn

The department was a mess. Bras were falling off hangers,
bikini, thongs and granny panties were all mixed together on the
display tables, someone had strewn two dozen packs of panty hose on
the floor.

Oh, well. That’s what I’m here for, I reminded
myself. To work. Make extra money for Christmas. Buy that Gucci
tote and the Louis Vuitton organizer. And do something about that
concerning miscalculation in my checking account.

I started straightening the panty hose, keeping my head down to
avoid eye contact with customers, listening to babies cry and the
mind-numbing music on the PA system. Every so often a voice would
break in paging one of the store supervisors to customer service,
the telephone or to a register.

A momentary lapse caused me to glimpse a customer at the bra
racks. I dropped to my knees behind the panty hose.

“Excuse me?”

Too late. She’d seen me.

I duck-walked around the end of the display, but I wasn’t
quick enough.

“Excuse me!”

She was twenty, maybe, wearing jeans and a low cut T-shirt, and
waving a bra at me.

I got to my feet. “Can I help you?”

I tried for my of-course-you-can smile but couldn’t quite
pull it off.

“This department is a mess! Totally! I can’t find

“Would you like to complete a comment card?” I

“No!” She shook the bra at me again. “I want
this bra! In beige!”

I took it from her. Only a 32B. How sad. I might have felt sorry
for her if she wasn’t being such a bitch.

I spent a few minutes looking at the style, then examining the

“We’re out of these,” I told her.

She huffed loudly. “Could you at least go look?”


I took the bra, left the department, walked down the aisle past
a couple of customers --- whom I avoided --- and through the double
doors to the stock room.

I love the stock room. It’s absolutely huge. Towering
shelves stuffed with crisp, new merchandise. A different section
for each department. There were naked mannequins, signs, fixtures
and lots of racks and carts for moving merchandise. It was quiet
back here too. The replenishment team worked early in the morning
restocking all the merchandise in the store, and the truck team
only showed up when there was merchandise to be unloaded. Almost no
one came back here at night.

Just inside the door was domestics, a rainbow of bedspreads,
towels and sheets. And a comfy place to sit too.

I pulled two king-size Laura Ashley bed-in-a-bag sets off the
shelf, sat down and stretched out my legs. Nice. I leaned back and
closed my eyes letting thoughts of that Louis Vuitton organizer
fill my head. I would get it. I just had to figure out how.

After a while I got up, put the bed sets on the shelf and went
back to the lingerie department. The customer was still there,
still fuming.

“We’re out,” I told her.

“Fine!” She stomped away.

I love this job.

I went to the bra racks and, yes, they were a mess. Totally. I
spent a few minutes straightening them, then headed for the stock
room. There were racks of bras back there. I’d seen delivery
trucks at the loading dock every day I’d been there bringing
tons of merchandise for the Christmas shopping season.

I wound my way through domestics, past housewares and up the
metal and concrete stairs to the second floor. A conveyor belt ran
alongside the stairs for large items, along with an overhead
conveyor for hanging items, and I was tempted to hop on and take
the easy way up. But it was early in my employment with
Holt’s. No reason to do all the fun stuff right away.

The lighting was harsh and it was chilly as I wound my way
through the shelves of merchandise to the far back corner of the
stock room where the intimate apparel was located.

There was Richard, the Assistant Store Manager. I’d heard
him being paged on the store PA over and over tonight. No wonder he
hadn’t answered.

Richard was face down on the floor. Dead.

Excerpted from HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE: A Haley Randolph Mystery
© Copyright 2011 by Dorothy Howell. Reprinted with permission
by Kensington. All rights reserved.

Handbags and Homicide: A Haley Randolph Mystery
by by Dorothy Howell

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Kensington
  • ISBN-10: 0758223757
  • ISBN-13: 9780758223753