"Oh no, the power went out again. It's the third time this month," Marla Shore griped to her salon staff. She tossed her blow-dryer onto the counter in disgust. "I'm going to murder that woman."
"You don't know that Carolyn is responsible," Nicole Johnson said while sorting foils for her next highlights job. "Just because she told the electric company to cancel your account before doesn't mean she's to blame again. It could be another outage due to a storm."
"Come on, ever since she opened her new beauty shop, we've been suffering one calamity after another," Marla retorted. "I'd already be suing her for putting honey in the developer if I could prove she'd done it. Do you know how long it took me to wash that goo out of Abby's hair? She smelled like a beehive. This shopping strip cannot support two salons, no matter what our landlord says."
"Carolyn's Hairstyle Heaven is no match for your Cut 'N Dye," Jennifer Cater said from across the room. "If you accuse her of resorting to tricks to undermine your business, she'll probably slap a lawsuit on you."
"You're right." Marla nodded at the blond stylist.
"Listen up, girlfriend," Nicole warned. "I see more trouble brewing on your face than in those summer storm clouds outside. Carolyn Sutton isn't worth your time of day. Just call FPL and see what's going on."
Marla turned to her client, Babs Winrow, senior vice president of Tylex Industries. "I'm sorry for the delay. I know you're in a hurry to make a flight. Just give me a few minutes to see what's wrong."
The attractive executive gave her a sympathetic smile. "This isn't a great way to start your workweek, is it? Go ahead and make your call."
Pulling a cell phone from her skirt pocket, Marla dialed the number she'd memorized out of necessity. "Your power is still connected," said a spokesperson for Florida Power and Light. "Have you checked the circuit breakers?"
"No, I'll do that next. You're sure nobody ordered my electricity cut off or canceled my account?"
"Yes, ma'am. You might check with your neighbors to see if they're having a problem. If this outage continues, please call us back, and we'll send the service crew out. One other place you can look is at the main connection. That might trip even if the circuits look okay."
"Thanks," Marla said before hanging up. The electrical box was located on a wall outside their laundry room in the rear. On her way past, she flung a pile of wet towels into the washer. "It looks good here," she called to Nicole. The switches were turned to the ON positions.
"Go next door and see if they're having a problem," Nicole suggested, her voice as warm as her cinnamon skin.
"Want me to go?" asked Luis, their new receptionist. After interviewing numerous bimbo types and computer illiterates, Marla had hired the Cuban-American whose charming smile and efficient manner persuaded her to give him a chance. His husky build along with dark hair, a trim mustache and beard, and sultry eyes made him a target for husband hunters, and Marla hoped she wouldn't lose him to one of them, because she relied on his competent manner. In the two weeks he'd been there, he had updated her database, initiated a better inventory system, and recalled each customer's name after a single introduction.
"I'll do it." Marla strode toward the door. "Babs, we could just go with mousse and a scrunch style, but let's see if we can get the power back on."
A few minutes later, she returned in defeat. "We're the only ones out," she told her staff, who stopped their work to glance at her. Missing the usual hum of the air-conditioning unit and the whirring motors of hair dryers, she grimaced. Even the curling irons were dead. Plate-glass windows in the front of the store brought in sunlight, but that wouldn't help them get through the day.
"I'll admit, it's strange." Nicole's chocolate brown eyes surveyed her. "It smacks of Carolyn's tactics."
"Tell me about it." Marla gritted her teeth. She'd been provoked one time too many by her longtime rival. Since moving into the same area several months ago, Carolyn Sutton had done everything she could to sabotage Marla's business. "If that woman is responsible, I'll kill her," Marla promised. "She's just aiming to make me lose more customers."
Rummaging in a drawer at the reception desk, she withdrew a set of keys. "I'm going to the meter room. Jenny, can you finish Babs for me? I won't charge you for today," she told her hapless client while striding toward the rear.
Pushing open the back door, she stepped outside and breathed in a lungful of warm, moist air. August in South Florida brought heavy humidity, and Palm Haven was no exception. Heat bounced off the asphalt as she headed for the solitary concrete bunker that housed the shopping center's main electrical circuits. It stood by the trash receptacle, where she sniffed the sun-warmed stench of garbage.
This is just how I want to spend my Tuesday morning. If the juice doesn't come back on at my salon soon, we'll turn as ripe as that refuse. It's stifling hot today.
Approaching the meter room, Marla held out the key but then noticed the door was slightly ajar. She pushed it open until it creaked to a stop as though it had hit something. The pitch-black interior didn't invite investigation, so she fumbled for a light switch. Nothing happened when she flicked it on.
Schlemiel, you should have brought a flashlight. Who knew?
Cautiously, she inched her way inside, wrinkling her nose at the stale smell. She'd only been here once before, when the electrician had to do repairs. All she remembered was a mess of circuitry and miscellaneous supplies belonging to the landlord. He'd been cited for safety hazards and ordered to clean up, but she suspected the paint cans, hoses, and scraps of metal were still around. Stepping carefully, she nearly tripped over an obstruction by the door. The thing was soft and lumpy. As she traced it with her foot, a prickling sensation crawled along her skin.
More light. She had to see what it was, right now.
Nudging the thing away from the door, she widened the aperture. A cry of horror escaped her lips. Surely that didn't look like a ... She still couldn't see well enough, dammit. The shopping center blocked the sunlight.
Kneeling, Marla prodded the form. Biting back a shriek, she rocked on her heels before thinking to feel for a pulse. Her fingers were inching from the hand to wrist when a clattering noise made her heart leap into her throat. She screamed just as a dark shape whizzed past, knocking into her with enough force to send her tumbling to the side. Before she could regain her senses, the door slammed shut with a resounding crash. Darkness overwhelmed her, closing in like a giant black hole swallowing her into its depths. Her body reacted with panting breaths and cold, clammy skin. Fighting the surge of panic, she crawled to the door. After hauling herself upright, she found the knob and rattled it until her teeth shook. The door wouldn't budge.
Get a grip. Forcing herself to think logically, she yanked her cell phone from her pocket and called the salon. "Luis, I'm stuck in the meter room, and the door won't open. Something must have gotten wedged in the way."
"I'll be right there, luv."
"Wait, there's a--" She stopped; he'd already hung up. Anyway, her imagination might be playing tricks on her. She'd been seeing enough dead bodies lately to conjure them in her mind. Or maybe another proprietor had electrical problems, came in here, and got a shock from the wiring. That must be it; one of the other shopkeepers must have mishandled the circuits and been felled by a jolt.
Marla waited at her post until she heard scratching sounds from beyond. "Luis, is that you? I'm inside." She pounded on the door.
A moment later, daylight blinded her eyes. "A piece of wood was jammed under the transom," Luis said in a solemn tone.
"Someone trapped me in here. You'd better see this." Gesturing, she hesitated to turn around.
"Sweet saints." He shuffled over. "It looks like ... Switch on the light, will you? I can't see well enough in here."
"It won't work. I already tried."
Giving a grunt of impatience, Luis strode to the mains and flipped a couple of switches. "No wonder our power was out. Somebody tampered with the main circuitry." Bright light from an overhead bulb flooded the interior.
"Oh my God." Marla stared down into the sightless face of Carolyn Sutton. She didn't have to assess her further to know the woman was dead. The odd angle of her neck told the story. Although she didn't like the woman, Marla had no wish to see her life end this way.
She met Luis's somber glare. "Hey, you don't think I had anything to do with it? I just pushed past the door and there she was. Then someone knocked into me. Whoever it was slammed the door and trapped me inside."
"The cops will want to hear the details. You'll have to call Detective Vail. I'm sure your boyfriend will be delighted to find you in the middle of another, er, unfortunate happening."
Marla groaned, imagining his reaction. Lieutenant Dalton Vail was the Palm Haven Police Department's chief homicide investigator. Barely five months ago, she'd helped him investigate the murder of a fellow found in her neighbor Goat's town house. Before that, she'd answered a plea from her ex-spouse, Stan, to solve the murder of his third wife, Kimberly. And earlier ... Heck, no one would be surprised that Marla had stumbled onto another body. But Carolyn Sutton? Right after Marla had blurted out that she wanted to kill the woman?
Speech having deserted her, she pulled out her cell phone and gave it silently to Luis. She wouldn't miss Carolyn, but her rival hadn't deserved an untimely death.
While he made the call to the police station, she walked outside, needing to escape the close environment in the shed. "Go back to work," she told him when he joined her. "Cancel my appointments, or see if one of the other gals is free to take my clients. I'll be here a while."
She knew the routine. A local cop responded first. After he took a quick look, he called his supervisor. Soon sirens pierced the morning air. A crime-scene van pulled alongside the solitary structure, followed by Vail's sedan.
Marla's heart thudded as she watched the detective's tall frame unfold from his car. Her anxious glance noted his peppery hair parted to the side, his steel gray eyes, and his navy suit that so well displayed his broad shoulders and narrow hips. Absent from his demeanor was any hint of their intimacy as he approached her wearing a stern expression.
"I hear you've been at it again," he said with a resigned twist to his chiseled lips. "Show me."
Marla breathed an inward sigh of relief. She detected no trace of judgment in his tone, merely curiosity. "In there."
His inspection didn't take long. When he emerged, he made a beeline in her direction. "Don't go anywhere," he commanded. Signaling to his team, he issued orders, then turned to address her. "Okay, give it to me quickly."
She started with their power outage at the salon, then repeated the story she'd told Luis. "I swear I didn't know it was her." Marla's voice shook, and she felt the trembling reaction descend to her toes. She swayed like a sapling in the wind, suddenly feeling sick to her stomach.
"Sit down by the curb, and put your head between your knees," Vail ordered, pushing on her shoulder.
Marla complied, swallowing huge gulps of air.
"I said I'd kill her. I didn't mean it. You know how awful she's been to me in the past, but I wouldn't ever do anything like that, not even to her."
"I know, sweetcakes." Vail's gentle tone brought tears to her eyes. He crouched beside her, patting her back.
A clap of thunder sounded, as though the heavens were admonishing her for past evil thoughts about the dead woman. Moisture-laden clouds advanced rapidly, blocking out the sun. Rather than seeing jagged streaks of lightning, she noticed the flash of cameras from the crime techs at work. They'd dust for fingerprints; something should show up on the switches or the doorknob.
"Go ahead," she told Vail. "You have work to do. Don't let me interfere."
"I could use your help. You know the people in these stores. I'll be interviewing them, but you can keep your ears open. We'll have to wait for the medical examiner's report, of course, but my bet is the victim's neck is broken. It doesn't look like an accident."
"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to keep my ears closed and my mouth shut. I don't want anything to do with another murder, especially not Carolyn's."
Shakily, she rose to her feet with Vail's assistance. Leaning into him, she allowed herself the momentary comfort of his embrace, not caring who observed them. Everyone at the police station knew they were an item by now, anyway. After his relentless pursuit, how could she resist the lonely widower and his thirteen-year-old daughter? They'd brought out a nurturing side of her she hadn't known existed.
"Carolyn's hair is wrong," she mentioned. "A chunk is chopped off by her face. It's not that way on the other side."
Vail broke their embrace. "What do you mean?" he asked, puzzled.
Marla pictured the hairdresser's bobbed strawberry blond hair, owlishly round eyes, and pencil-thin eyebrows. Carolyn had maintained herself well for a woman in her forties, although Marla didn't think miniskirts were quite appropriate. "She wore her hair angled, but one section looked hacked off. I can't see Carolyn doing that to herself."
"Good observation." Vail glanced at the entrance to the meter room. "You can return to your salon for now. I'll catch you later. Will you be okay?"
She nodded mutely, grateful for his intervention. Imagine if another detective had been in charge of the case. Assuming Carolyn's death turned out to be something other than an accident, Marla would be considered a suspect by anyone who didn't know her. She could well imagine the questions: How long have you hated Carolyn Sutton? Did you arrange to meet her alone behind the shopping center? Was the power outage a ploy to trick your staff? She'd already been the subject of police scrutiny after Mrs. Kravitz had died in one of her shampoo chairs. It wasn't an experience she cared to repeat.
She plodded toward Cut 'N Dye, wondering who would run Carolyn's salon now that the owner was dead. If Marla was lucky, they'd close the shop. That's nasty, and it gives you a motive for doing away with Carolyn. You should focus on who else had a reason to get rid of your rival.
"Marla, are you all right?" Nicole said, greeting her at the rear door. "Luis told us what happened."
"Just my luck that I was the one to find Carolyn's body in the meter room."
"Perhaps luck had nothing to do with it."
Marla gave Nicole a sharp glance, but she felt too drained to really consider what the stylist had said. Before her wobbly legs gave way, she stumbled to her station and sank into the chair. Customers bombarded her with questions, but she fielded them deftly. Been there, done that. She smiled weakly when Arnie Hartman from Bagel Busters rushed in.
Smelling like garlic, he still wore an apron over his T-shirt and jeans. "What's going on, shayna maidel?" he asked with a note of concern. "Police cars are outside."
Relating her story, she watched his face bloom with surprise and dismay. "I'd just said I could kill that woman," Marla concluded, noticing for the first time since she'd returned that the lights were back on.
"If wishes could kill, you might have done it, but not in this case. Is Dalton here?" Arnie said in a gentle tone.
"Ooh, I hope that hunk of a detective comes by," Jennifer's voice oozed from across the room. "You should see how this place heats up when he's in the salon."
Marla rolled her eyes. Her relationship with the handsome lieutenant had long been fodder for gossip in the salon.
As though he'd overheard their conversation, Vail ducked inside just as the clouds burst with a torrential downpour. Rain hammered the roof, competing with the noise of blow-dryers and the chatter of customers who'd resumed their participation in the rumor mill. Flicking droplets from his windblown hair, Vail regarded Marla with a wry expression. "Got your juice going again, I see."
Are you referring to the effect you have on me, or to my salon?
Suppressing her feminine reaction, Marla gestured to the nearest shampoo bowl. "You're overdue for a cut. Want me to work on you while we talk?"
Vail passed Arnie a look of understanding, as though they both knew the familiar action would bring her comfort. "If it makes you feel more in control, I can manage a few minutes. I sent my deputies over to the deceased's salon. Do you know if she's married?"
"No, she isn't ... wasn't. I guess you'll have to find the next of kin. Her salon staff might have that information."
Leveraging his large body onto a shampoo chair, he leaned back. The salon assistant, Joanne, hastened over to wash his hair.
Marla's glance lingered on him, then she turned to Arnie. "Thanks for coming over. I can always count on you being there for me. Jill is a lucky girl to have you."
Lowering his gaze, Arnie shuffled his feet. "Yeah, the kids adore her. She won't be happy to hear this latest mess."
Arnie, whose wife had died in a car accident, had been left with two young children. While Marla had always considered him a close friend, she couldn't conceive of feeling anything more than friendship for him and had been delighted when he fell for actress and public relations specialist Jillian Barlow.
"Tell Jill hello for me. I'll be all right, Arnie."
"Don't feel guilty. You're not the only one who won't miss that shrew. It'll give the yentas something to talk about."
He sauntered out the door just as a supplier walked in. Marla busied herself with a new order until Vail dropped into the seat at her station. Glancing toward the wall clock, she pursed her lips. Her immediate clients had agreed to be done by other staff members, but Marla could handle her later appointments. No sense in disrupting all their customers if Vail didn't need her.
"Fire away," she said, aware he was obligated to ask questions. Parting his hair with a comb, she let his silken strands run through her fingers. It brought to mind other places her fingers would like to roam, so she forced herself to focus on her task. That wasn't easy because snipping Vail's hair reminded her of Carolyn's missing clump. Bile rose in her throat. Later, she could allow herself a full emotional meltdown, not now. Her movements switched to automatic at Vail's first query.
"Tell me from the beginning how you met the victim."
She knew that tone of voice. Although it projected only casual curiosity, the glint in his eyes told otherwise. Marla had no reason for subterfuge, so she gave it to him straight on.
"After graduating from beauty school, I obtained my first job as a stylist in Carolyn's salon. That was before she moved away from Palm Haven to that other dinky location. She wasn't a pleasant person to work for. Carolyn would demean people in front of their customers and never had a good word to say about anyone. It didn't please her when I left a couple of years later to open my own salon. I took my client list and some of her staff members along with me."
"That must've made her mad."
"She bore a grudge against me ever since. It didn't help that my salon thrived while hers sank into obscurity. Carolyn moved her place to save money on rent, but poor business sense led to another failure. She just wasn't good to her staff, so it came as no surprise to me. Then she seemed to get financial backing from somewhere."
"Yes, I remember you told me she subsidized foreign students at the Sunrise Academy of Beauty."
Marla surveyed his cut in the mirror. Satisfied, she picked up a battery-operated electric razor. Bending his head forward, she proceeded to shave the back of his neck. Thank goodness he didn't sprout hair in his ears like her mother's boyfriend, Roger Gold. She shuddered whenever that fresser walked in the door. His bulk overflowed the chair, making it difficult for her to work around him. How unlike Vail, whom she yearned to touch in inappropriate places.
"Carolyn couldn't have afforded to move back to Palm Haven on her own," she said. "It was just to spite me that she got a space in the same shopping strip. Maybe she bribed our landlord."
Before Vail could comment, a young woman breezed into the salon on a gust of rain-laden wind. "I must speak to your manager," she said loudly to Luis in an accented voice. "Je suis ... I am from Hairstyle Heaven. Something terrible has happened to our owner, and we have no one to take charge."
Luis pointed to Marla. "You'll want to speak to Marla Shore."
"S'il vous plait, mademoiselle," the woman said, approaching her with an imploring gesture, "you must help us. We do not know what to do."