THE BRIM REAPER
Style in a Small Town Mystery #3
Paperback ISBN: 9780984965245
eBook ISBN: 9780984965342
Amateur Sleuth Samantha Kidd is in over her head.
With no job prospects on the horizon, former fashion buyer Samantha Kidd convinces boyfriend and shoe designer Nick Taylor to give her a job. But when close friend Eddie asks for help with an exhibit of vintage Hollywood costumes, she splits her time between romance and comedy--until a dead man claims all of her attention. Brimming with good intentions, she loops in the cops, but after one too many cloche calls, she's knee-deep in mystery. If she can tear the lid off the investigation, it might mean a feather in her fedora. And if she can't? She might get capped.
The Brim Reaper is the third cozy mystery in the delightful Style in a Small Town mystery series. If you like zany capers, feisty characters, and funny mysteries, you’ll love Diane Vallere’s humorous mystery.
Buy The Brim Reaper for an escapist reading romp today!
1: Stop Signs and Sale Signs
It was hard not to overhear the argument. Two deep male voices shouted at each other from the office of the art museum. I stood at the back entrance of the Ribbon Museum of Art by a rotating exhibit of influential fashions. I wasn’t sure if I should continue inside or pretend I hadn’t arrived yet.
Across the exposed concrete floor was a flight of stairs that led to the main display space. I could cross the floor, get up the stairs, and pretend I’d been there all along. If I didn’t need to check in with someone in the office, I would have tried to do just that.
“I don’t care how much publicity it will bring. I’m not doing it!” one voice said.
“You might own your store, but you’re not in charge here,” said the other.
I took a tentative step onto the concrete.
“I’m here because of my experience and connections. You want them; you let me do things the way I see fit.”
“That wasn’t the arrangement.”
“If you’d been up front about the arrangement from the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Had there been clothing on the naked mannequins placed around the cavernous gallery, the sound might have been muffled. Instead, the voices reverberated off the walls and magnified like a conversation yelled across the Grand Canyon.
“You don’t need to know everything I have planned.”
“You’re right. I don’t need to know anything you have planned. I quit.”
The man who stormed out of the office was red in the face, an unfortunate color combination with his royal blue glasses. He was bald but had a sculpted white mustache and beard, and he looked like a patriotic ad for blood pressure medicine, or at least the “before” photo for someone who might need an intervention. He wore a black suit with a white T-shirt underneath, no socks, and shiny black wingtips. The leather soles of his shoes made a snappy sound as he crossed the marble foyer. He pushed both palms on the inside of the entrance doors, but it was Monday, and the museum was closed to the public. The doors flexed outward a few inches and then, bound by the heavy chain and padlock on the opposite side, snapped back toward the man, knocking him in the head.
“Are you okay?” I rushed to him, my sandals making their own staccato clacks across the floor.
He cursed and slammed his balled-up fist into the back of the door. “Who are you? My replacement?” he asked over his shoulder while massaging his hand.
Since I wasn’t sure what my role at the museum was other than showing up to help a friend, I answered with an introduction. “I’m Samantha Kidd. I’m here to help with an exhibit of vintage movie costumes. Is your head okay? The doors whacked you pretty hard.”
He fanned his fingers out and looked at the back of his hand, and then he touched his forehead, where a red lump was already forming.
“That man is an idiot.”
Before I could answer, the injured man’s cell phone rang. He scowled at the display and dropped it back into the breast pocket of his jacket. On the sixth ring, he fished it back out, answered the call, and held the phone out to me.
I put my hands up and shook my head, but he nodded and held it closer.
Before I decided to take—or not take—the phone, a voice came through. “Engle? Are you there?” Pause. “I want you and your stuff out of here by midnight.”
The bald man pulled the phone away from me and put it to his head. “Midnight is too late for me. I’m out of here now.” He shoved the phone into his pocket without hanging up. He looked at me. “If you want to help, tell your friend to get as far away from this exhibit as he can.”
He strode off in an angry path to the back door.
I counted to ten before realizing I had to approach the man in the office, presumably the other side of the conversation. I kept counting and reached twenty-seven. When no other angry people appeared, I click-clacked my way back to the office and tapped on the door. There was no answer. The door was cracked, and I pushed it open.
“Hello?” I called. The office was empty. “I’m Samantha Kidd, and I’m here to help with the exhibit. Hello? I need a museum pass.”
I stepped inside and looked behind the door and behind the desk. As far as offices went, it was bigger than I would have imagined. A row of white bookshelves filled with coffee table books about costume design, fashion history, famous designers, and art filled the back wall. A steel desk sat in front of the bookcases, and an olive-green ergonomic chair was pushed away from it like someone had stood up quickly.
“What are you doing in here?” a voice behind me asked.
I spun around and faced a thin black man. He pushed past me to the desk. A silver plaque bearing the name Thad Thomas sat by the back of the computer monitor. Like the angry man earlier, this man was bald, though his baldness was worn as a style choice, not an inherited trait. His bright green eyes were trained on me. I’d never seen eyes so green before. My money was on colored contacts.
“I’m Samantha Kidd,” I said for the third time that morning. “I’m here to help with the exhibit.”
“The exhibit is upstairs.”
“I was told to check in with someone in this office.”
As he looked past me to the desk and around the office, presumably to see if I’d pocketed anything while in the office alone, I took in his outfit. Blue-and-white-checkered shirt with a yellow bowtie. Dark denim jeans. Frye boots.
“Why didn’t I hear you?” I asked.
“Your boots. They should have made noise on the marble floor. Why didn’t I hear you?”
“Frye boots don’t come with rubber soles.” He stood straighter and focused on me. For the briefest second, I regretted my black strapless jumpsuit, my silver leather blazer, and my lime-green obi belt. I stood by the pink shoes.
“Tell me again why you’re here?” he asked once his full-body scan was complete.
“Eddie Adams asked me to help with the exhibit.”
“You’re here to help Eddie?” His condescension deflated. “Go on up. I’ll get you a pass this afternoon.”
The Ribbon Museum of Art had been part of the city’s history since the late twenties. As a child growing up in Ribbon, I’d been on more than one field trip to the imposing building during elementary school. I discovered “Jazz Under the Stars” during my teens and had a few dates at the planetarium across the parking lot.
The building was one of my favorite places in Ribbon. A spacious foyer, with admissions on the left and the gift shop on the right, gave way to a flight of wide marble stairs. Ten steps up was a landing, above which was a massive window that looked out over the manicured grounds. The staircase split into two additional flights, one to the left and one to the right, both leading to the upstairs gallery space where I found Eddie.
Eddie Adams, visual manager for the local retailer Tradava and extender of the invitation to work for zero pay, was knee-deep in Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap. His hands were wrapped around a white armless mannequin that he was trying (unsuccessfully) to anchor onto a chrome pole base. Behind him stood an army of similar limbless mannequins. At least two were headless.
Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. His bleached-blond hair, left uncut for the past several months, was tucked behind his ears. He planted his black-and-white-checkered Vans on either side of the mannequin and tipped it to the side.
“This place smells like garlic and mothballs,” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“Give me a hand.”
I waved my hand in front of my nose to dull the smell and walked to where he stood. I picked up a long white leg and snapped it onto the torso, and then I tipped the chrome pole and poked around under the butt of the mannequin until the pole slid into the opening. All in all, it was an embarrassing display of, well, visual display.
As the base slid into the figure, Eddie shifted the weight of the mannequin toward me. I wrapped my arms around her slight waist, and my strapless jumpsuit dropped a couple of inches. I dropped the mannequin and hoisted up my neckline.
Eddie grabbed the torso and staggered backward under the weight of it. He pushed it back to a standing position. “Dude?” he asked.
“I had to adjust.”
He scanned my outfit. “I thought I told you to dress appropriately.”
“What’s inappropriate about my outfit?” I turned away and faced the mirror that was propped against the wall. Any regrets I’d momentarily thought when the man downstairs had given me the once over vanished. The jumpsuit had been left over from my J-Lo phase in the early millennium. Every piece had been rediscovered after a recent closet purge, which resulted less in a purge and more in fashions-through-the-ages.
I grabbed the base of the column, helped Eddie move it a few feet to the left, and then backed away as he righted it and lined the straight edge of the base to a perfect parallel with the wall behind him.
“How’s the job search going?” he asked.
“How much do you think I could get for a dozen satin cargo pants from the mid-nineties?”
“That well, huh?” Eddie flopped down on a pile of bubble wrap. A burst of popping sounds shot from under him.
“The main problem is my recent work history. I was a buyer at Bentley’s for nine years, which was great, but it feels like another lifetime ago. After that, I moved here and worked at Tradava for a week. Six months later I worked at Heist for something like that too. So basically my resume makes me look like a flake.”
“I might have a lead for you. That’s why I wanted your help. I can’t pay you, but I thought I could be a reference. Give you something to fill in the gap in your employment until you find a job.” He kicked his feet out in front of him. “But it doesn’t really matter, I guess. This whole project has been trouble from the start. You showing up looking like an extra in a hip-hop video is just the icing on the cake.”
“Why would my outfit have anything to do with your project?”
“Because my project could very easily become your project.”
“I’m not following.”
“Your major was the history of fashion, right? This exhibit encompasses that. We’re getting loans from some of the best private collections of clothing in the tri-state area, along with a couple of local hat stores and one designer from Hollywood.”
I leaned forward. “The museum’s putting on an exhibit on the history of fashion? Here, in Ribbon? You’re in charge of it? The whole thing? I would love to be involved with something like this, except my experience is in retail buying, not visual.”
“That’s where the opportunity comes in. I’m in charge of the installation. I’m giving you a foot back inside the door.”
“So why’s my outfit a problem?”
“I need you to be my liaison with the sponsor.”
“Who’s the sponsor?”
Tradava. The local department store that had promised me a job but delivered a homicide investigation—and then sent me a very polite letter that said they were dismantling the very department I’d been hired to work in.
As soon as I heard the name of the store, I tensed. I turned away from Eddie and pushed my fingers into my long dark brown hair, boosting the roots. “You’re the curator of the exhibit?”
“Guest curator. More like exhibit merchandiser. Last year the museum sponsored a visual competition between a few different retailers. Tradava won. The prize was the chance to guest curate an exhibit. It took a while for the board of directors to agree on the exhibit concept and for the director to obtain loans from collectors, but once they green-lighted it, I’ve been on an almost impossible deadline. If you’re looking for something to tear you away from your job search, I could use your help coordinating the exhibit. You never know what it could lead to…”
“Maybe I should forget about Tradava. Maybe what happened is a sign that I shouldn’t work for them.”
“Sign-schmign. You need a job. They’re hiring. Sounds like a match to me.”
“You don’t believe in signs?”
“I believe in stop signs and sale signs. Everything else is woo-woo.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, turning to face him, my hands on my hips.
Eddie’s normally unfazed expression was suddenly fazed to the max. I looked down to make sure my jumpsuit hadn’t accidentally left me exposed.
“Dude! Move!” he cried out. He jumped out of the chair and came at me with the force of a cannon, catching me off guard and knocking us into a shipping container of Styrofoam peanuts.
A crash sounded behind him. I lifted my head and looked at where I’d stood. A beam of track lighting had fallen from the ceiling, landing on the white mannequin Eddie and I had assembled. She lay crushed on the floor, a pile of broken plaster and limbs.