Friday, November 22, 2013

Ms America and the Whoopsie in Winona by Diana Dempsey Chapter 1

Ms America and the Whoopsie in Winona (Beauty Queen Mysteries, No. 4) by Diana Demspey

(Beauty Queen Mysteries, No. 4)

Beauty queen Happy Pennington loves Christmas, but this year murder gets in the way of the tinsel and the candy canes …

In snowy small-town Minnesota—where Happy and her beauty-queen BFFs are cutting the ribbon at a new big-box store—Happy discovers that nothing, and no one, is what it seems. Society matrons worship Norse goddesses. Victorian mansions hide salacious secrets. And prominent families feud in the strangest ways. Maybe that’s why Happy’s host ends up dead.

Just in time, heartthrob Mario Suave swoops in to help Happy any way he can—especially under the mistletoe. And that Christmas mystery is Happy’s to unwrap …


Sadly, many people labor under the misapprehension that a beauty queen’s life is nothing but glamour from dawn till dusk. Yet here I stand, Ms. America Happy Pennington, dressed as a sexy Santa in a red velveteen monstrosity, preparing to preside over the opening ceremony for the new Giant W big box store in Winona, Minnesota.
If that doesn’t disabuse you of the all-glamour all-the-time fantasy, I don’t know what will.
The teenage girl manning the public-address system cranks it once again into life. “Sale on bloat-free suppository laxatives, aisle seven!”
My beauty queen BFF Shanelle Walker sets her hands on her hips. Like our partner in crime Trixie Barnett—the reigning Ms. Congeniality—she’s done up as a hot-to-trot elf in an emerald-green minidress complete with capelet and lace-up high-heel boots. I will say the color looks fantastic against Shanelle’s cocoa-colored skin. Their hats—green versions of my red Santa cap—perch awkwardly atop both Shanelle’s tumble of black waves and Trixie’s chin-length copper-colored bob.
“I swear,” Shanelle says, “if that infernal teenager makes one more announcement, I am going to boot-kick her all the way to the North Pole.”
“She is a little over enthusiastic,” Trixie agrees. “But this is a big night.”
From our vantage point behind a display of inflatable fruitcakes—yes, you read that right—I assess the gathering throng. “Half the town may show up to this thing.”
I am exaggerating. I’m told Winona boasts about 27-thousand residents. But I bet a few hundred are already massed on the other side of the cash registers, escaping the frigid temps and ogling the discounted merchandise. They won’t be able to get at it until 7 p.m. at least, when the speechifying is concluded and the opening ribbon cut.
Shanelle squints her eyes at the crowd. “I don’t see your dad, Happy.”
“You see the couple who are both wearing two-foot-tall Christmas tree hats?”
“There’s your dad!” Trixie cries. “Wow, does he look happy.”
I am forced to admit that even though he’s sporting the tackiest headgear this side of Minneapolis, yes, Pop does look happy. And it is largely due to Maggie Lindvig—Winona native, Cleveland transplant, and Pop’s lady love. I watch multicolored lights blink atop Maggie’s longish brunette hair. She may be in her early sixties but she still favors a sex kitten look, with tight clothes and a shimmy in her walk. “Those hats were Maggie’s idea. Pop keeps telling me how many fun things she thinks of for them to do.”
“She sounds pretty different from your mom,” Shanelle observes.
“That must drive your mom batty,” Trixie says. “I wish she were here, too.”
“Apparently December’s a busy month in the used-car business. She claims she can’t get away.” Ever since my mother took a job as receptionist for Bennie Hana, notorious in the greater Cleveland area for executing a karate chop in his TV commercials about chopping prices, she’s become surprisingly slippery. I’m convinced only some of her elusiveness is due to her new 9-to-5 gig. The rest I attribute to her burgeoning social life, which also revolves around one Bennie Hana.
Again the P.A. system blares. “Santa toilet-seat cover and matching bath rug in aisle three!” the teenager chirps. “Trim the family throne with Old Saint Nick!”
I lay a restraining hand on Shanelle’s arm as I turn to Trixie. “I wonder what you’ll think of Maggie’s sister Ingrid.”
“She’s one of the people giving a speech, right?”
“I’ll be amazed if that woman lets anybody else get a hold of the microphone,” Shanelle says. Like me, Shanelle arrived yesterday, so she has the lay of the land where the Lindvig sisters are concerned.
“It sounds like Ingrid had a lot to do with convincing Giant W to put an outpost here in Winona,” I say.
“At least to hear her tell it,” Shanelle adds.
“She’s a big muckety-muck in town,” I go on. “Organizes a lot of social events, serves on all the committees—”
“—takes credit for everything,” Shanelle adds.
“I get the picture.” Trixie nods sagely then brightens. “Well, we should be thanking her because if Ingrid didn’t get this brand new Giant W for Winona, we wouldn’t be seeing each other again so soon!”
“Truth is, we have Maggie to thank for that, too. She’s the one who suggested to Ingrid that we be part of the opening.” Ingrid made sure this is an official Ms. America appearance, organizing it with Atlanta headquarters, but it was Maggie who got the ball rolling. And I know why: she’s trying to get on my good side and thinks booking pageant gigs is a way to do it. It’s clear all she wants for Christmas is an engagement ring from Pop and she knows that’s more likely to happen if I’m on her team.
Problem is I’m not ready to play ball yet, and I may never be.
“I can’t wait to look around Winona more,” Trixie says. “This town is so cute! Especially with all the Christmas decorations up.”
“I’m thinking we can get some of our shopping done while we’re here,” I say.
“Nothing like a small-town Christmas,” Shanelle says. “I put some bubbly in the fridge so we can kick off our celebrations as soon as we get back to Damsgard.”
Trixie’s hazel eyes widen. “We’re staying at a house that’s got its own name? That’s like Tara in Gone With the Wind!”
I bet Ingrid wouldn’t mind being likened to Scarlett O’Hara. “Damsgard isn’t that big but it is pretty impressive. It’s named after some mansion in Norway.”
“A lot of folks in these parts are Norwegian,” Shanelle says. “Like Ingrid and Maggie. And Ingrid’s second husband, who left her the house.”
“It’s awfully nice of her to put us all up,” Trixie says.
“And,” I add, “there are so many bedrooms we don’t even have to share.” Though the second those words leave my lips, I feel a teeny tiny bit glum.
The last time I was a guest in somebody’s house was last month in Miami, when we all stayed at Mario Suave’s Spanish-style manse. It may not have as many bedrooms as Damsgard but it’s pretty splendiferous. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that some large fraction of the appeal of Mario’s home’s derives from its owner—pageant emcee and host of America’s Scariest Ghost Stories—whose hotness, smartness, and all-around scrumptiousness continue to haunt my dreams. And, I will admit, sometimes my awake moments, too.
That would be A-OK if I weren’t married to Jason Kilborn, my high-school sweetheart and the father of my 17-year-old daughter Rachel. The self-same husband who just the other day threw me for a loop so big, I’m still spinning in circles.
The public-address system succeeds in distracting me. “Not done putting up your holiday d├ęcor?” the teenager inquires. “Then check out our Shotgun Shell Christmas Wreath in aisle nine! Less than thirty bucks when you mail in the ten-dollar rebate!”
“My wreath at home has red twigs and rhinestones,” Trixie whispers. “Rhett thinks that’s tacky.”
I’m about to make an uncharitable observation about the Giant W’s merchandise when Ingrid bustles up to our trio. She’s one of those women who look wispy and ultra feminine but in fact are totally take-charge. She’s got platinum blond hair styled in a sleek bob and a svelte build she’s showcasing in a red satin dress with jeweled detailing. Unlike her sister, she has enough sense not to sport pine-needle headgear.
She homes in on Trixie and extends her hand. “You must be the third beauty queen. I’m Ingrid Svendsen.”
“So nice to meet you!” Trixie says. “I’m—”
Ingrid swings her head toward me, brandishing the opening-ceremony schedule. “You’re clear on your marching orders? Why aren’t you in the sleigh yet?”
“We were just about to—”
“Remember to be quiet while the mayor is speaking. I don’t want you drawing attention to yourselves during his speech.”
Behind Ingrid, Shanelle shoots me a look. I know what she’s thinking. Ingrid doesn’t want us drawing attention to ourselves during her speech. Not to be immodest but I don’t think you should invite beauty queens to an event if you don’t want heads to turn. Just saying.
Ingrid resumes her instructions. “And keep quiet when the lights go off for the Christmas tree lighting, too. Don’t ruin the drama of the moment.”
“You won’t hear a peep out of us,” Trixie assures her.
I steel myself before I speak again. “I think only two of us should ride in the sleigh.” I watch Ingrid’s brow lower. “Shanelle and I did a trial run earlier and I’m not sure it can handle—”
“Nonsense! Three is what we planned.” Ingrid spins away.
Our trio has a moment of silence. Then, “She’s not the nicest person I’ve met so far in Minnesota,” Trixie observes.
Shanelle harrumphs. “Just you wait till you get to know her better. You ask me, it’s no accident she’s got two husbands in the grave. If I were married to her I’d probably want to punch out, too.”
“I hope for your dad’s sake Maggie’s nicer than her sister,” Trixie says to me.
“She is.” That doesn’t mean I want her as a member of the family.
Shanelle pokes my arm. “Girl, you really worried about that sleigh? I want to survive this holiday season.”
“I never even heard about a sleigh until now,” Trixie says.
“They put it in special for the opening ceremony. I’m only a tiny bit worried about it. It’s on an elevated track,” I explain to Trixie, although by now she can see that for herself. I lead us toward the sleigh, lying in wait at the rear of the store. Here and at the front, just behind the dais, are the two places where the track is at floor level. It’s like an in-store rollercoaster. “It just seemed so herky-jerky when we were in it this morning that I got scared it might not take all our weight.”
Trixie eyes the sleigh with suspicion. “Tell me again when I sing my song?” Since Trixie’s the only one of us with any voice to speak of, she has the dubious honor of belting out the Giant W holiday song, set to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
“Your music is supposed to start when the sleigh does,” I tell her. “When we stop at the dais, jump out and start singing. Shanelle and I will be right behind you.” I start climbing into the sleigh. “Come on, let’s get into this thing so it doesn’t take off without us.” Ingrid would really read us the riot act then. I’m halfway in when I freeze in place hearing the P.A. system’s latest 411.
“Smoked chunky kielbasa only four dollars and ninety-nine cents a pound!” the teenager announces. “Aisle thirteen!”
“That’s a good price!” I cry. “Especially for smoked chunky.”
“You can get it when the festivities are over.” Shanelle gives my backside an encouraging push.
We settle ourselves on the sleigh’s bench, Shanelle in the middle and Trixie on the far end. The Giant W’s overhead fluorescents blink a few times to signal that the festivities are about to begin.
Trixie takes a few deep breaths. “I’m always nervous before a performance.”
Shanelle pats Trixie’s leg as I assure her she’ll do great. Though that’s easy for me to say. I don’t even have a speaking part. All I have to do is cut the ribbon.
As the hush of a deep winter’s night settles over the Giant W, the cheerful opening notes of “Jingle Bells” blast from the sound system. Before I can get the words “Brace yourself” past my lips, the sleigh takes off.
“Whoa!” Shanelle yelps.
“This thing should have seat belts!” Trixie cries as the sleigh zooms heavenward and we three are slammed back against the bench.
Just that suddenly it jerks to a stop. I catapult forward, barely able to prevent myself from launching out of the sleigh. I have a devil of a time keeping my Santa cap on my head, my meta-grip bobby pins, which perform so well on pageant night, stretched to their limit by this monster of a ride.
“Happy!” Trixie cries. I’m sure her panicked vibrato carries to the front of the store. It might have carried all the way to Lake Winona. Ingrid will not be amused.
I manage to return my butt to the bench a nanosecond before the sleigh takes off again. We three queens clutch one another for dear life. I knew I was right to be worried about this thing!
Finally the abominable conveyance plummets to floor level and lurches to a stop behind the dais, just past the 30-foot-tall silver Christmas tree that soon will be ceremoniously lit. Trixie doesn’t so much jump out of the sleigh as pitch out. Shanelle and I follow on unsteady legs, her elf and my Santa cap seriously awry. Ingrid glares at us but my whiplashed neck and I are past caring.
Seconds later Trixie bursts into the Giant W holiday song:
W, W, bargains every day!
Oh, what fun it is to fill my shopping cart this way, hey!
W, W, discounts every day!
Oh, what fun it is to bring a bargain home today!
Dashing through the aisles,
A coupon in my hand …
As Trixie masterfully whips through the refrain, Shanelle and I clap to the beat. A photog from the Winona Post captures the moment for posterity. I catch my breath and Pop’s eye. Like everybody else in the crowd he’s bundled in his winter coat. I note that both his and Maggie’s Christmas tree hats are now unlit. Ingrid probably made them turn them off so they wouldn’t draw attention from her speech. Pop winks at me like he’s done a million times before as I stood on one Ohio stage or another competing in some rinky-dink pageant. He’s been such a good dad. I just wish he and Mom were still together. Their divorce is this year’s lousiest development. Heck, I’d give back my Ms. America crown to see them reunited.
Trixie sings the chorus one last time, drawing out the final phrase “bargain home today” with a flourish. Shanelle and I cheer along with the crowd and then our trio goes to stand at the back of the dais, right in front of the Christmas tree.
No surprise, Ingrid kicks off the proceedings. “Happy holidays, fellow citizens of Winona!” she brays. “I’m so glad you could join us this evening to celebrate the opening of the Giant W in our fair city! Of course as soon as I heard— ”
As Shanelle predicted, Ingrid proceeds to take credit for luring Giant W to Winona. There are two men on the dais with her waiting to speak—the mayor and a store executive—but it takes forever for her to cede the mic and retreat to the rear of the dais to stand in front of the sleigh. The suit kicks off with a lame joke about a reindeer in a bar before detailing the Giant W’s many charms.
Finally the mayor takes control. “What do you say we light the Christmas tree?” he calls, and as the crowd roars its approval the overhead fluorescents switch off and the Giant W is plunged into darkness. Indeed it is a dramatic moment, and as Ingrid ordained I remain as silent as Santa creeping down a chimney.
I keep expecting the tree’s lights to blaze on—I know from this morning’s run-through it’s decorated with about a thousand strings of multicolored W’s—but they never do. In the distance a train’s lonely whistle pierces the evening quiet. The crowd inside the Giant W begins to shuffle and murmur. Then several feet to my right, where Ingrid is standing, I hear a sharp popping sound.
I gasp. Trixie clutches my arm. “What in the world is that?” she cries. I’m afraid I know but I don’t dare say it aloud. A few screams rise to the ceiling while I hear a thump, like a heavy sack dropping. Then the sleigh noisily whirrs into life.
“Turn on the lights!” the mayor hollers and none too soon we are all once again bathed in their fluorescent glow.
Now it’s Shanelle grabbing me. “Where the heck is Ingrid?”
She’s not on the dais with us anymore. The mayor and the suit still are, but not her.
Overhead and to our left, near the furthest cash registers, the fast-moving sleigh jerks to one of its famous stops. To my astonishment I see that it’s not empty. Nor does its cargo remain inside.
Ingrid Svendsen, snazzy red holiday dress and all, pitches headfirst from the sleigh like a duffel bag being tossed onto an airplane’s conveyor belt. I thought I heard a gunshot and now I know I did, because there’s no mistaking the bloody wound on Ingrid’s chest. The crowd shrieks in horror. We all watch in morbid fascination as the hostess of the evening’s festivities belly flops onto the linoleum floor of Winona’s brand-new Giant W, narrowly missing a register and upending a display of Christmas sweater wine-bottle covers.
On cranks the P.A. system one last time. “Ceremony’s over! Clean-up at register five!”

To be released Thursday, November 21, 2013 …

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