Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Read Chapter 1 Slay Bells and Satchels by Dorothy Howell



The Summer Santa Sale at Holt’s Department Store becomes a Christmas nightmare when sales clerk Haley Randolph finds a murdered elf in the store’s giant toy bag. Haley, a crazed fashionista obsessed with designer handbags, could find herself “bagged” if she doesn’t untangle this mystery quicker than Saint Nick can slide down a chimney. But Haley has another problem: Can working with hot private detective Jack Bishop put her on Santa’s “naughty” list?

Chapter 1

“Ho-ho-Holt’s for the holidays!” everyone in the training room shouted.
Everyone but me, that is.
There’s only so much I’ll do for a lousy eight bucks an hour.
Yet here I was stuck in another coma-inducing training session at Holt’s Department Store. I’d taken my usual spot—the last row behind that big guy who works in Men’s Wear—where my eyes could glaze over unnoticed.
This meeting was for the kick-off for today’s annual Summer Santa Sale. All kinds of special things were planned. We employees had already been subjected to several of these meetings over the past few weeks, where details of the event had been discussed.
At least that’s what somebody told me. I’d drifted off.
That happened a lot.
Luckily, my crappy sales clerk job here at the equally crappy Holt’s Department Store wasn’t the sum total of my existence.
I, Haley Randolph, with my I’m-tall-enough-to-model-but-I-don’t five foot nine inch height, my I-could-be-in-a-shampoo-commercial-but-I’m-not dark hair, and my beauty queen genes—yeah, okay, it’s only half of them—had a really great life, despite my current employer.
Honestly, my job situation had always been … well, to be generous I’ll say sporadic—which was totally not my fault. I swear. It’s just that I haven’t found my niche yet.
But I’ve tried. At the age of twenty four—which was starting to scare me because, oh my God, thirty wasn’t that far away—I’d already worked as a life guard, file clerk, receptionist, and two unfortunate weeks at a pet store. I thought I’d hit the job lottery last fall when I went to work for the all-powerful, all-knowing Pike Warner law firm. But then there was that whole administrative-leave-investigation-pending thing—long story.
I was also pursuing my B.A.—at least, that’s what it said on my résumé. I didn’t like college. It seemed a lot like high school all over again, except nobody cared what you wore.
So as not to overwhelm myself, I took no more than two classes per semester. My grades had been good, thanks to my awesome cut-and-paste skills, and because I have the uncanny ability to choose a seat near a smart person who doesn’t cover their paper.
It’s a gift, really.
But now it was summer and that meant—yeah!—I wasn’t slogging my way through some dull, boring college class. My best friend Marcie Hanover and I were giving killer purse parties and raking in the cash. I had a fabulous apartment in Santa Clarita—about thirty minutes north of Los Angeles, depending on traffic—that I adored. Ty Cameron—he’s way hot—was still my official boyfriend.
At least he was the last time I heard from him, whenever that was.
Ty’s ancestors founded the Holt’s department store chain back in the day. Yes, it was the same Holt’s where I worked as a sales clerk—long story. He was the fifth generation of his family to be totally obsessed and out of his mind consumed with running the business to the exclusion of all else.
Nobody seemed to understand why Ty and I were dating—including me. Months passed before we did the deed and became official boyfriend-girlfriend. He said he was crazy about me. I could stand to hear some specifics but he hasn’t given any—not that he’s really tried.
I was crazy about him, too. The only specifics I could come up with were that he’s handsome, successful, and looked great in an Armani suit—which made me sound kind of shallow. I’m not. There was something deep going on between us. I just didn’t know what it was.
Ty seemed to think we had an understanding about his job.
He would be wrong.
The only understanding I had was that if we had a date, he should actually show up—on time would be nice—and not spend the entire evening texting and blabbing on the phone about yet another problem at Holt’s.
Was that too much to ask?
Apparently, it was.
And, apparently, it was too much to hope that this butt-numbing Summer Santa Sale meeting would end soon. I mean, jeez, it wasn’t like we hadn’t heard all of this info before—or that any of us actually cared about it in the first place.
During a few lucid moments in previous meetings, I’d learned that this sale was a huge event previewing the upcoming holiday merchandise at super low prices—I figured it was really just a way to get rid of all the crappy Christmas merchandise that didn’t sell last year, but hey, that’s just me.
This morning everyone had reported for work an hour before the store opened to attend this one last somebody-please-kill-me-now meeting. The sale was a huge deal—to management, who had compensation packages, that is—and everyone up the corporate ladder was anxious to max out their bonus, courtesy of our hard work.
Although, as Jeanette, our store manager, had pointed out on numerous occasions, this time there was indeed something in it for the rest of us. A contest for the employees also kicked off today.
We sales clerks were supposed to hunt down customers in the store—yeah, like we were really going to do that—or accost them—my words, not management’s—while they were trapped in the checkout line, and ask them to make a monetary donation that Holt’s would use to buy toys for underprivileged children when Christmas actually rolled around.
We’d been given little booklets with Christmas trees printed on them along with bar codes that would register their donation at checkout. In turn, customers would receive a discount on their orders. The store in the Holt’s chain that collected the most donations won a prize.
Or something like that. I don’t know. The whole spiel had turned into blah, blah, blah every time Jeanette explained it.
“One more time!” someone shouted, jarring me out of a perfectly good daydream.
I hate it when that happens.
The daydream was about an insanely fabulous handbag I’d found in Elle magazine last night. It was the Breathless, a satchel constructed by vision-impaired Italian artisans using only their highly developed sense of touch to select buttery leathers, richly textured fabrics, and multi-faceted crystals, while working only on national holidays, wearing velvet capes passed down from their ancestors living in seclusion high in the Andes Mountains—or something like that. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting that confused with the movie I was watching just before I fell asleep. Anyway, the Breathless was an awesome handbag and I absolutely had to have one.
At the front of the room Jeanette raised her arms, indicating that all the employees should stand. We clamored to our feet.
Not to be unkind, but Jeanette had put on a little weight lately that had all settled around her middle. She was in her fifties so I guess she either thought that was okay, or in her head she was twenty years younger and forty pounds lighter.
The really troubling part was that Jeanette insisted on dressing in Holt’s women’s wear. Don’t ask me why. She made major bucks and could afford really nice things.
No way anyone with enough good taste to so much as glance at the cover of Vogue magazine while standing in the grocery checkout line would think Holt’s clothing should actually be worn and not sent immediately to the recycle bin.
Honestly, shouldn’t there be some law against Holt’s filling their racks with these hideous clothes and having them lie in wait for unsuspecting customers? Where were the fashion police when you needed them?
In what I could only hope was a nod to today’s launch of the Christmas-themed sales event and not a preview of fashions to come, Jeanette had on a white two-piece suit accessorized for no known reason with large black buttons up the front.
She looked like a snowman on steroids.
“Everybody! Let’s hear it!” Jeanette shouted. “Ho-ho-Holt’s for the holidays!”
The employees cheered along with her, just as if we gave a rip one way or the other that the sale was a success, and weren’t doing it because we needed to keep our jobs.
“Now let’s get out there and have a super Summer Santa Sale!” Jeanette said, our cue that it was time to get to work.
Since it was my personal policy to always be the last person to enter the training room for a meeting, I compensated for this by being the first one out the door. Bella, my Holt’s BFF, fell in beside me.
Bella was about my age, tall, coffee to my cream. She’d worked here longer than me and didn’t like it either—thus, our close friendship—but she was sticking it out to save for beauty school.
Bella’s goal was to design hairstyles for the rich and famous. In the meantime, she practiced on her own hair. I guessed she was going with a Christmas theme, in keeping with the Summer Santa Sale, because this morning she’d styled what I was sure was a wreath atop her head.
The red bow gave it away.
“It’s b.s.,” Bella grumbled. “You ask me, it’s b.s.”
Standing in the doorway was Colleen, one of the sales clerks. To be generous, I’ll call her slow—and believe me, I’m being way generous.
“Happy holidays,” she said, and held out two Santa hats, the red ones with the white fake-fur band and fuzzy ball on top.
Bella and I froze in front of her.
Was there no end to the humiliation minimum wage employees must endure?
“It’s a hat,” Colleen said. “You put it on your head.”
“It’s b.s.,” Bella snarled. “That’s what it is. It’s b.s.”
She snatched the hat out of Colleen’s hand and moved on. I did the same.
“I am not putting that thing on my head,” Bella declared, as we walked down the corridor toward the sales floor.
I was with Bella on this one. No way was I dealing with hat-hair—not even if I got an upper management salary package.
That’s how I roll.
We headed through the store to our assigned corners of retail purgatory—today, it was the Domestics Department for me, Children’s Wear for Bella—and I had to admit the store looked great. The display team had gone all out turning the store into a holiday wonderland in an attempt to evoke feelings of home, hearth, and family, thereby playing on our customers’ emotions in an effort to wring a few more bucks out of them.
In the center aisle was a line of towering Christmas trees, each fully lighted and decorated to the hilt, guarded by a small army of three-foot-tall wooden soldiers. Swags of garland hung from the ceiling, along with wreaths, stockings, and thick red ribbon.
Nearby were display shelves filled with boxed ornaments, tree skirts, lights, and garland. Nativity scenes, angels, and nutcrackers sat on another shelving unit. Another display held gift bows, wrapping paper, and greeting cards. Boxes of candy, nuts, and peppermints—jeez, I really hope that stuff’s not left from last year—and bottles of Bolt, the Holt’s house brand energy drink, were positioned close by.
Through the big plate glass doors at the entrance, I saw about two dozen customers already waiting for the store to open. A number of them wore full-on Santa costumes—red suits and hats, black boots, and long white beards.
“What’s with the outfits?” I asked.
“Part of the sale,” Bella said. “Wear the suit, get a fifty-percent discount.”
Nice to know we employees weren’t the only ones Holt’s subjected to total humiliation.
“Haley?” someone called.
Thinking that somehow a customer had slipped into the store early and needed my help, I started walking away faster.
Now I recognized the voice. It was Jeanette. All the more reason to feign ignorance and stride away quickly, but I figured she’d just continue to pursue me.
I’m pretty sure they covered that in the Holt’s management training course.
I stopped and waited while she caught up to me.
“Haley, Rita won’t be in today,” Jeanette said, panting slightly.
This boosted my day considerably. Rita was the cashier’s supervisor.
I hate Rita.
I could only hope she had some sort of drug resistant staff infection—call it my little Christmas wish.
“I need you to take over for her,” Jeanette said.
In keeping with my own personal say-no-to-additional-duties policy, I said, “I can’t do that, Jeanette.”
Apparently, Jeanette had her own ignore-employees-who-claim-they-can’t-take-on-additional-duties policy.
“You’ll have to be the elf wrangler today,” she said.
She wanted me to be the—what?
Jeanette nodded toward the rear of the store. “They’re getting ready in the assistant manager’s office.”
There were elves in the store, getting ready for something?
Maybe I should start paying attention in the meetings.
Jeanette glanced at her watch. “We’re opening in eleven minutes. Those girls have to be in costume, hair and makeup done, and in place to greet the customers when the doors open.”
I had no idea what the heck she was talking about, so what could I say but, “Okay.”
“I told Corporate that hiring actresses this year was a bad idea. First day on the job and they’re already running late.” She huffed irritably. “You’ll have to supervise the contest entries and the drawings.”
There was a contest and a drawing?
Jeez, you space-out in a couple of meetings and you miss all kinds of stuff.
Jeanette gestured to the front of the store. Near the entrance on a little platform sat a full-sized, heavy cardboard fireplace, complete with stockings. A decorated Christmas tree sat next to it, alongside a big green hopper. The display was surrounded by red velvet ropes held up by huge candy canes.
Where did that come from?
“Be sure there’s always an elf standing there to greet the customers and have them fill out an entry form,” Jeanette said. “A winner has to be drawn every hour, on the hour, so make sure one of the elves is in place. The rest of them will circulate through the store asking for donations for the children’s charity.”
Jeanette didn’t wait for me to say anything—which was probably wise on her part. She turned to leave, but stopped immediately.
“Thank goodness,” she mumbled. “Here they come.”
Down the aisle came a bunch of young, pretty girls, all of them decked out in elf costumes. I guessed they were all in their early twenties, differing in heights, but not a size larger than a six among them. They wore green shorts and vests over red and white striped tights and long-sleeved tops, and green, pointed-toed elf shoes. Everyone had on a Santa hat, bright red lipstick, and big circles of pink blush on their cheeks.
“Good, we’re all set,” Jeanette said, taking one last look around. “When the customers come in—”
She stopped abruptly and her gaze drilled into me.
“Where’s the giant toy bag?” she demanded.
The giant—what?
“The giant toy bag is supposed to be right next to the fireplace,” Jeanette declared. “It must still be in the stockroom. Get it, Haley. It has to be in place when the customers come in.”
I headed for the rear of the store, pausing only long enough to ditch my Santa hat behind a display of T-shirts. The entrance to the stockroom—one of them, anyway—was located beside the customer service booth near the hallway that led to the employee break room, the training room, and the store managers’ offices.
I went through the swinging door into the stockroom. It was as quiet as an evening snowfall back here. Unless the truck team was on duty unloading a big rig filled with new merchandise, nobody came in here often. The rear door by the loading dock was propped open for the janitor. The store’s music track played “Jingle Bells.”
I spotted a red toy bag right away. It was a giant, all right, just as Jeanette had said. It sat on the floor in front of the huge shelving unit that held the store’s entire inventory of Christmas decorations.
Half the contents of one of the shelves was scattered on the floor, which was weird, but I didn’t have time to clean it up. I’d come back and do it later—not that I was all that concerned about maintaining a neat, orderly stockroom, but I never passed up a chance to escape the sales floor.
I grabbed the bag. Yikes! It wouldn’t budge.
I pulled it again using two hands. It moved maybe a couple of inches.
Jeez, this thing weighed a ton.
No way could I carry it to the front of the store, and dragging it would take forever. Even loading it onto one of the long, thin U-boat carts we used to transport merchandise wouldn’t be easy.
There was nothing to do but take out some of the toys.
I pulled open the draw string closure at the top of the bag and—
Oh my God. Oh my God.
There was an elf inside.

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