“Who’s Babette Lang?” Max Martell, my wingman in the salon and occasional worrywart, flipped the invitation back and forth in his hand. “And why is this”—he read the name on the RSVP again—“Merry Wrath inviting you to Babette’s bachelorette party?”
It was seven-thirty, Saturday morning, middle of June. Max had agreed to come into work before my two other employees to go over final details before I left for a weekend at Niagara Falls. Naturally, he was more interested in learning about Babette than talking details that were already fixed in his clever brain. He practically stepped on my sparkly heels as I traipsed from my office to my station, stuffing last-minute supplies into my black beauty bag.
I wasn’t trying to put him off, but I had other things on my mind. Top of the list: why was I invited to Babette’s bachelorette party? She’d sworn off men three years ago after Greasy Toes Ricco had persuaded her then slimy fiancé to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge with a cement block tied to his ankle. Lucky Babette, escaping that marriage! Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen her since that bachelorette party.
I ceased from shoving my flat iron into my bag and gave Max a tolerant look, making this as succinct as I could. “Babette is one of my best friends.” At least she was during our childhood. “Merry must be another friend who was in charge of sending out invitations to the party. It’s as simple as that.”
Max puckered his lips, telling me it wasn’t that simple. “I thought I was your best friend.”
Oh Lord. If I had to explain this one more time I’d take my scissors and stab myself in the temple. We weren’t teenagers anymore, and it seemed silly talking in terms of best friends. But for Max’s sake, I smiled and put on the voice I saved for kids when I cut their hair.
“You already know Twix was my best friend from ballet class. But before I’d met Twix, there was Babette.” I grinned at the memory of playing with my chubby, blonde friend, a year my senior. “We were inseparable. We lived two doors away from each other and were always getting into our moms’ makeup and jewelry. But that was then, and this is now. And you, my dear, handsome, gifted stylist, are my adult, male best friend.” Unlike a perm, flattery could never be over-processed.
Max narrowed his hazel eyes at me in suspicion, but my words must have touched a soft spot since the glum shadow on his face brightened, stopping him from grilling me further. Good thing, too. I was already late and didn’t want to miss my morning flight.
I inhaled the smells of hairspray and bleach that always hung in the air and took a final glance around Beaumont’s, making sure everything was in order. I’d made the mistake of leaving the shop for short periods before, and fortunately the walls were still standing when I’d returned.
Maybe I was being paranoid, but Beaumont’s was mine, from its rustic Mediterranean charm to the twinkling lights and stucco walls. The airy European theme didn’t exactly cry small-town Rueland, Massachusetts, but that was okay. It spoke to my French and Armenian heritage, which felt more fitting.
I slipped a quick kiss on Max’s fashionably stubbly cheek and looked up in silent prayer that everything would be fine while I was gone. Then I picked up an apple fritter from Friar Tuck’s bakery next door to eat on the road and jumped in my yellow Bug for Boston Logan Airport.
I veered out of the parking lot, patted for my beauty bag beside me, and screeched to a stop, smacking my hand on the dashboard before I flew through the windshield. Where was my trusty black bag?
I wrenched around and inspected the backseat. Whew. I was so rattled this morning, I didn’t realize I’d thrown it in the back beside Babette’s gift.
To be honest, I didn’t go anywhere without my beauty bag. This hadn’t always been the case. It all happened that infamous day when I’d nabbed a killer with a perm rod and a lot of pluck. It wasn’t one of my finer moments on account of the unsavory spot where I clamped the perm rod, but suddenly I became the world’s first beautician to catch crooks using her beauty tools.
Contrary to popular belief, I’m not Wonder Woman, and I’m not as kickass as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, even if we have the same hair. I’m a petite 5’4”, I have an eye for fashion, and people tell me I have exotic looks. In other words, I’m the last person anyone would suspect of apprehending a killer.
When I’m lucky enough to snag one, more often than not, it catches them by surprise. Ironically, it catches me by surprise, too. Truth is, I go from being in supreme control to questioning my moves and acting on impulse. Still, I learned long ago, never underestimate the many uses of a simple flat iron or razor. I had no plans this weekend of using my tools as weapons, but old habits die hard.
No sooner had I stepped off the plane in sunny Buffalo when my cell phone buzzed. Max.
I’d planned to get in some sightseeing and shopping, but instead I was being shuffled for the third time around the baggage claim, the pink boa I’d used as wrapping for Babette’s gift unraveling with each step. Amid being pushed and shoved by a hundred other passengers, some kid spilled grape juice in front of me, almost causing me to slip and break my neck. I like kids, but eek!
“What!” I was hungry and at my limit and didn’t mean to bark into the phone at Max. On top of everything else, my suitcase with all the party decorations hadn’t made it to Buffalo.
Max made a nervous peep. “Wanted to let you know everything is running smoothly.” Code for All hell’s breaking loose.
“What’s going on, Max? Where are you?”
“Since you asked, I’m in your office, hiding.” The creak I heard was confirmation he’d plopped onto my office chair. I could almost smell his heavenly cologne filling the room.
“What do you think? Miss Cuckoo, a.k.a. Phyllis Murdoch, strikes again.”
Phyllis is my second employee and couldn’t cut a straight bang if she had a two-by-four nailed to her client’s head. I’d tried to let her go in the past, but she’s a distant relative, and, well, guilt is an intricate thing when it comes to firing a family member.
I click-clacked over to the claims-counter line, dragging my suitcase and Babette’s gift behind me. “I’m afraid to ask. What’d Phyllis do now?”
“She’s re-perming one side of Mrs. Horowitz’s head.”
“Mrs. Horowitz?” Oh boy. God Himself wouldn’t be able to please that woman or take the wigged look out of her hair. Now Phyllis was working on her? Mrs. Horowitz also never made appointments. Figured she’d pick today to drop in and ask for a perm. “What are you talking about? Didn’t the perm take?”
“It took on one side. But Phyllis ran out of perm solution and had to open another bottle.”
Great. Not only was Phyllis starting the day running my business into the ground, but she was driving me into the red along the way. “What happened?”
“She snipped the perm bottle and, before she finished applying the solution, a daddy long-legs danced across the perm-rod tray, scaring the bejeebers out of her.” He chuckled to himself. “Naturally, Phyllis screamed like a banshee, squirting the spider and everything else in a ten-foot radius.”
“An-n-nd?” I rubbed my forehead, praying the hammering behind my eyes wasn’t the start of a headache.
“The shop’s a disaster, but the good news is the spider curled up all six legs and quit dancing.”
I didn’t want to split hairs because heaven knows I had enough on my mind, but I couldn’t let this detail go. “Eight, not six.”
Silence filtered through the line. “Eight not six, what?”
“Legs. Spiders have eight legs.”
I heard him sigh into the phone. “After Phyllis squirted the spider and its eight legs, there wasn’t enough solution left for Mrs. Horowitz’s hair. I told her as much, but did she listen?”
A man behind the claims counter motioned me forward. “Max, I have to go.”
“Fine. If you don’t hear from me again, you know it’s because I’ve strangled Phyllis.” He paused dramatically. “Or maybe I’ll let Jock handle her.”
At the mention of my third employee’s name, a shot of heat soared through me. Jock was ex-navy, an extraordinary stylist, and a constant mystery. He was also a combination of Hercules, Superman, and Thor. On top of that, he was God’s gift to women. If he couldn’t handle Phyllis and salvage Mrs. Horowitz’s hair, no one could.
“Lady,” the claims guy urged, waving me on.
I snapped out of it, swallowing dryly. “Just don’t burn down the place while I’m gone,” I said to Max, then hung up.
After wasting two more hours at the airport, waiting for the claims department to locate my party bag, I was promised that the airline would do its best delivering it to the hotel by tonight. With everything else that had gone wrong, I wasn’t holding my breath.
I dropped off my stuff in my room by mid-afternoon and made a mental note of the things I needed to do. First was food. My rumbling stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten since the donut this morning.
Next, I wanted to give Babette a hug and wish her congratulations in person on her upcoming marriage to Charlie. After a quick hello, I’d pick up the cake—my personal contribution for the bachelorette party. And, gee, if I were lucky, maybe I’d find some last-minute decorations. I could do everything at Higgly Piggly, the local grocery store where Babette worked.
I hopped in a cab, thinking how fortunate it was that Merry Wrath, the guest-list lady, gave me Kate Connolly’s name, the friend handling the food. Kate was thrilled at my offer to look after the cake. Sounded like she already had enough on her plate.
The cabbie chewed on his unlit cigar, playing tour guide as we passed one seedy hotel after another. “You ain’t gonna see much of the Falls staying at the Park Avenue Hotel or what we locals call the Park Avenue Dump. Girl like you should be staying at the Ritz. Or at least closer to the Falls.”
I smiled at his fatherly eyes glancing back at me in the rearview mirror. “I’m actually here for a bachelorette party.”
I’d caught a glimpse of the beautiful Falls earlier and understood why the landmark was the honeymoon capital of the world. But why have the bachelorette party here? And why was Babette working at a grocery store instead of the pharmaceutical company where she’d been?
“Bachelorette party, huh? Better be careful.” He swerved into Higgly Piggly’s parking lot. “Those parties can get out of hand, what with all the booze and goings-on.”
Ha. This was one girl who wouldn’t be drinking. I gave him a tip, thanked him for the ride, and jumped out of the cab before he could give me any more advice.
I pulled out my invitation that I’d snatched back from Max once he’d finished raking me over the coals and double-checked the party started at eight. Lots of time to get my jobs done.
I stuffed the invite back in my bag and took a huge, calming breath. I got here in one piece, the sky wasn’t falling—I looked up—yet, anyway, and the rest of the weekend would go off without a hitch. The tension eased from my shoulders, and my nervous insides relaxed. Yes. Everything was going to be fine.
Higgly Piggly was a large, clean food market, but it had seen better days. I wandered the aisles, keeping an eye open for Babette amidst the distant drilling, pounding, and other sounds of refurbishing in the store.
Butterflies tickled my stomach and instant memories flooded me of the fun we’d had dressing in our moms’ old gowns and pretending to be movie stars. Babette was not a shy child. She had no qualms, squashing her tubby body into a gown, prancing around the neighborhood, acting like her favorite star of all time, Marilyn Monroe.
Babette always did have a flamboyant side and a voice as smooth as silk. If anyone was going to make it to Hollywood, she was the one. Of course, once she moved to the other side of Boston at age twelve, and then to California a few years later, communication with one another had been sporadic. Far as I knew, she’d never gotten a crack at becoming an actress.
I turned the corner into the deli section and approached the sandwich counter for something to eat when I was distracted by a weird figure, twenty feet away, dressed as a tall rubbery foam hot dog, dancing a jig in goofy hot dog shoes while handing shoppers mini sausages on toothpicks.
The wiener curved like a banana a foot above the guy’s head and had a yellow squiggly line down the front. There wasn’t a lot of oomph in his step, but every time someone took a sample on a toothpick, he stuffed a tiny glass jar of mustard in their bag, then gave a hearty wave as if trying to make the best out of a sorry situation.
My mouth watered at the smell of the mini sausages. They looked good, too. Plump and juicy with those tiny dabs of mustard on top. I sidestepped closer, avoiding eye contact with the human hot dog, wanting to grab a sample without drawing attention to myself or being danced to.
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