Authors: Elaine Macko
Tags: #Cozy Mystery
An Alex Harris Mystery
Other Books in the Alex Harris series
Copyright © 2013 by Elaine Macko
All Rights Reserved.
The first indication my day would be a bad one was finding my reserve stash of M&M’s empty.
The second thing that cinched the deal was the dead body at my feet eight hours later. Literally. At my feet as my soggy shoe touched the hem of the dead woman’s pants.
Maybe I should start at the beginning. My name is Alex Harris and along with my sister Samantha Daniels I own the Always Prepared temporary agency. Business hasn’t been so good lately. As a matter of fact things have been pretty boring around our office, hence the empty stash of candy, so when an urgent call came in from one of our clients, the Poupée Mannequin factory, I took the assignment. Truth be told I just wanted to run off to the store for more candy, but figured I might as well go help a client at the same time. I handed off my only appointment of the day to my assistant, jumped in my car, and despite blinding snow flurries, happily drove over to the factory—after a quick pit stop for reinforcements in the guise of two one-pound bags of M&M’s.
While at the factory I hoped to talk with the owner, Mr. Poupée, about an upcoming job, but luck hadn’t been on my side and instead I found myself confronted by his unusually flustered assistant Elvira Scott.
“Please have a seat, Ms. Harris,” Mrs. Scott said formally. “I’m sorry you had to be dragged out on such a day but we need to get our mailing out today.”
I leaned forward. “It’s no problem. As I told you on the phone, I wanted to see Mr. Poupée. I know I don’t have an appointment, but, well, I’ve tried to make one.” I paused. It wouldn’t do me or my business any good to get on bad terms with Mrs. Scott. “I’ve been busy myself.”
I smiled, trying to soften my position. “I thought this might be a perfect opportunity for us to discuss the upcoming expansion.”
Mrs. Scott clasped her hands tightly together on the desk. “I told you I’ll speak with him as soon as I can.”
“I understand. Just let him know I—”
“Ms. Harris, please!”
I drew back at the shrill sound. Mrs. Scott could be difficult but I’d never heard her raise her voice before. It seemed we were both having a bad day. Maybe I should share my M&M’s.
“Why don’t I get you started on the mailing and I’ll see if I can arrange something for this afternoon. Will that do?” Mrs. Scott released her hands from their white-knuckled grip and stood up.
I followed her to the mailroom where I folded and stuffed, occasionally giving a wistful look at a paper cut wondering if the blood loss was sufficient to warrant a trip to the emergency room and a reprieve from folding and stuffing. My only help had come from the mailroom clerk who lent a hand in between his other duties.
At five-fifteen Mrs. Scott returned, looking more exhausted than she had earlier. “Oh. I did say I’d check on you, didn’t I? I’m sorry, I forgot.” Mrs. Scott sighed, her thin shoulders sagging beneath her sweater and her beleaguered expression belying the efficient executive assistant I knew her to be.
“No need to apologize. Andy’s been a great help,” I smiled at the young clerk who looked more like he should be modeling underwear for GQ. “I should be done in about forty-five minutes. I could drop them off at the box outside the post office on my way home.”
“No need. I don’t live far from the post office,” Andy offered. “I can wait until you’re done.”
Mrs. Scott shook her head. “No. I need you to drop off some other packages before the post office closes. Here’s some petty cash.” She handed Andy an envelope. “Send them out priority and leave the receipt on my desk.”
I usually dealt with Mrs. Scott over the phone. Today was the first time we met face to face in quite some time. Her thick salt-and-pepper hair covered her ears in a becoming style. The frames of her bifocals looked out of date and her blues eyes behind them tired. I studied her eyebrows for a second having never noticed how rounded they were¬. They seemed to give Mrs. Scott a sort of surprised look and the few age spots high on her left cheek gave the impression of a spotted owl.
Andy grabbed his coat and looked at me expectantly.
“You go along, I can handle the rest by myself,” I assured him while trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I should have been done with this job hours ago, but the old copier jammed three times and ran out of magenta toner and Andy had to run out and get more. I realized volunteering for this assignment hadn’t been one of my brightest ideas. At least I had my bags of M&M’s. I had been pretty much popping them all day. Did I mention I’m an addict?
Mrs. Scott turned to me. “Alex, we don’t usually do this, but since we know you well and you’re a friend of Mr. Poupée, I’m going to leave a key with you for the front door. You’ll be the last to leave so just press the red button on the security panel right by the door and it will set itself. I think Ruth is still here but she’ll be leaving in a few minutes and the factory’s been closed for an hour.”
She left before I could protest.
I shook my head and pursed my lips. “I could just kill her! She’s got a lot of nerve leaving me alone,” I huffed while I shoved yet another set of flyers into an envelope I had already filled. I tried to calm down, but since patience was never a virtue I possessed I didn’t see much hope in achieving that goal. Sitting up a bit straighter I intoned, “’Give us the tools, and we will finish the job’,” and wondered if Winston Churchill had been stuffing envelopes in a mannequin factory when he said it in 1941. I’ve been reading a lot about World War II and old Winston had something to say about everything.
With a sigh loud enough to compete with the grumblings of my sustenance-deprived stomach, I shoved another handful of candies into my mouth then hunkered down and had the mailing boxed and in the trunk of my car an hour later only to find the tires packed in with snow.
After trying to dig my way out with ungloved hands I went back to the building to find something I could use as a shovel, and now stood in the darkened, deserted factory. The glow from the lights out in the parking lot peeked in from a window high on the wall to my left and gave the cavernous room enough light to cast eerie shadows. I made out arms and legs hanging from hooks in the section closest to me while further into the factory I could see torsos of various sizes stacked against a wall.
It couldn’t have been creepier.
That’s when I stumbled. I stepped further into the factory, my eyes straining to see a broom or anything else I could use. My foot hit something and I tried to press forward but the object wouldn’t budge. A sense of dread started its slow creep up my body.
I took a deep breath and looked down at Elvira Scott, her beautiful hair matted with blood.
I moved my foot slightly and cupped my hand over my mouth as hot bile worked its way into my throat. My heart raced and my breathing reduced to quick gasps. I took another quick look at her face. Maybe she wasn’t dead.
Eyes that only an hour ago reminded me of a spotted owl with their rounded eyebrows now looked straight up at the ceiling. No living human could keep a stare going that long.
A deep red trickle from her lips had stopped at her chin. Next to Mrs. Scott’s head lay a mannequin arm, the metal joint at the shoulder covered with blood. And I knew for certain, as the factory closed in and draped me in claustrophobic horror, that Mrs. Scott had been murdered.
With this realization I opened my mouth to scream and then covered it just in time—whoever killed Mrs. Scott could still be in the factory.
I whirled quickly, sweat bathing my face—but saw no one. No sound. Nothing.
The complete silence terrified me. I stood totally still—or as still as I could possibly be while my heart threatened to jump out of my chest. At this point I would have loved to hear
, the sound of sirens and police cars arriving being my first choice. But the only sound was a sudden gust of wind forcing its way through invisible cracks. The cavernous building protested as the wind rattled panes of glass high up on the back wall; and then again as another gust swept up the outside walls.
With a few deep breaths my breathing returned to something close to normal and I shuffled back to the office. I pulled the door opened and this time didn’t bother to stifle my scream.
Then I screamed again.
Standing in the hallway loomed a tall man, his face cast in shadow, the soft light streaming from the reception area giving a halo-like effect to the crop of wild white hair covering his head. One hand clutched his heart while he slowly raised the other. Fearing a blow to equal the one that killed Mrs. Scott, I let out a third scream. The man continued to raise his arm and then touched something in his ear.
“What in god’s name.... Alex? What are you doing out here? And why are you screaming? I had my hearing aid turned up high. You scared me half to death.”
“Oh, Mr. Poupée. Thank God,” I said, finding my voice after straining it screaming into the face of the poor man. “We’ve got to get help…Mrs. Scott is...dead. Murdered.”
“Mrs. Scott is what? Red? Alex,
are you talking about?” Mr. Poupée took a step into the factory. “Oh, my! Elvira...”
I gently pushed him toward the door. “There’s nothing you can do. I’m going to use the phone in here,” I shouted, leading William Poupée back into his office. “You need to turn your hearing aid back on.” I tried not to sigh too loudly, but he probably wouldn’t hear me anyway.
I dialed 911 trying to keep my voice calm as I explained the situation and then turned to Mr. Poupée. “Will you be alright? I’m going to the ladies room but I’ll be right back. The police are on their way.”
He looked dazed, but I figured he would be all right for a few minutes.
I stood before the mirror in the ladies room and pressed the palm of my hand against my head in an attempt to get rid of a headache. I got a large red spot in the middle of my forehead instead. I clutched the sink, hung my head over the porcelain, and turned on the cold water splashing my face before I remembered my mascara wasn’t waterproof.
“That was a mannequin arm lying next to the body?” I asked the ashen face with black-rimmed eyes looking back at me. Who would do such a thing? I splashed my face again and reached for the soft soap container only to find it empty. I pulled a tube of ChapStick out of my pocket and dabbed a bit around my eyes, which smudged them worse than before and stuck the lashes together in spiky clumps.
I slunk down against the wall until I sat on the floor; a floor with God knows what living on it. I pulled my knees up and buried my head as my thoughts turned to Mr. Poupée. He couldn’t possibly be involved. As a child I played in his backyard, and other than beating my mother in a mean game of Pinochle, I felt certain the man wasn’t violent.
Or was he? In the far recesses of my mind I suddenly remembered how he wielded the pruning shears at the hedge along the back of his property leaving the lilac bushes nothing but bare stubs. Stub. Bloody mannequin arm. My mind raced and I worried I might go into shock. I shook my head vigorously trying to shake the thoughts away with little result. Could I be alone in the building with a murderer? I jumped up and turned around looking for something to use as a barricade but felt sure even seventy-something Mr. Poupée could knock over the small trashcan—the only thing available to place against the door.
I grabbed the edge of the sink and leaned toward my frightening image. “Enough!
If you’re going through hell, keep going
,” I said, and instantly stood a little taller. What with morale boosters like that no wonder the allies won the war, I thought, suddenly full of vigor. I wet a paper towel and gently wiped the black under my eyes managing to smear some across my right cheek.
Then I heard the welcome sound of sirens coming up the long drive. I ran my fingers quickly through my short brown hair, grimaced at the state of my face, and went to let the police in.
An ambulance and several squad cars pulled up.
“Mrs. Scott—I mean the body—is through that door.” I pointed toward the end of the hall as two men in uniform hurried past.
Stepping out of an unmarked vehicle, a tall man in a jacket suited more for a ski trip then a homicide site made his way up the path and entered the lobby. He stomped the snow off his casual shoes and then looked down at me. “I’m Detective Van der Burg.”
His expression made my face feel flush. “It’s not waterproof. The mascara,” I said to his blank look. “I tried to wash it but there’s no soap.”