Ah yes, the world of beauty. Everything is highlighted, plumped, thinned and lined. What if we mixed that world with murder? What a grisly contrast and that’s what Arlene Kay brings us today in Murder at First Blush.
Marketta Davis was Harbor Bay’s golden girl until the Chicago Art Institute sent her packing. She returns to her hometown, determined to succeed by operating a beauty emporium stocked with upscale products. Unfortunately, on opening night a grisly corpse litters the alleyway of her store. Marky and her partner Gemma Reid team up to save their business and their lives by finding the culprit.
I put on a brave public face.
Count your blessings, I told myself. Nobody likes a whiner. Most people would gladly trade places with you.
One sunny afternoon, I strolled down main street, reliving the familiar scenes from my past. The Soda Spot, our high school hangout still stood, looking somewhat the worse for wear, but the Harbor Bake Shop had been replaced by a sleek edifice that boasted fresh croissants, espresso, and bagels. Sign of the times, I supposed. A sense of nostalgia overwhelmed me as I recalled the innocence of those simple childhood pleasures I had discarded. Life in Harbor Bay wasn’t exciting, but it had provided me with security and comfort. Too bad my bid for the brass ring had fizzled out so spectacularly.
It took a chance encounter with an old high school pal to administer a healthy dose of reality and tough love to me. Gemma Watts, a vivacious redhead with a bellowing laugh, slapped me on the back and stated the obvious. “Okay. Stop moping around. You struck out. Now that you know what it’s like to be normal, what’s next? You’ve always had it way too easy. Blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect skin. You never even had one pimple during high school. The rest of us had to claw and scramble for everything we ever had. It’s your turn now. What’s your game plan?”
What indeed? I pondered this question as I assessed the business climate in Harbor Bay during my survey of main street.
“Things have changed in Harbor Bay over the past few years,” I observed. “Lattes, yoga studios, and hair emporiums all around us. Maybe this town is ready to accept something new.”
Gemma nodded. “Lots of upscale houses being built around the waterfront. Gentrification they call it. Good for business but kind of sad too.”
“How so?” I asked. “Isn’t that part of progress?”
Gemma shrugged. “Maybe. I kinda miss some of the old things though. You know, the soda counter and the penny candy store. The people are still the same though. A pretty nice bunch overall.”
Maybe that’s what I had missed in Chicago. Big cities are exciting, but they can be lonely too. Aunt Violet succeeded in conquering Paris. Unlike me she was fearless. Perhaps a smaller stage suited me just fine.
My parents urged me to teach art for the local school district, an underwhelming prospect at best. An entrepreneurial spirit stirred within me, but a lack of capital put paid to that idea.
Even my college mentor admitted that I had a flair for color. During art school I earned extra cash by working the cosmetic counters of some of Chicago’s premier specialty stores. That allowed me to gain expertise in their product lines and burnish my customer relations skills. My list of grateful clients included some of the city’s prominent matrons and trendsetters many of whom summered in Harbor Bay. Why not capitalize on those talents and connections? It wasn’t the Art Institute, but it was artistry of sorts.
“Ask your parents for some help,” Gemma said. “Lord knows, they could spare a few bucks for their only child. What’s wrong with running a cosmetics store anyway?”
“A beauty emporium, my dear. So much more upscale. Think of my Aunt Violet’s empire. Even she started with a single store.” I was teasing Gemma, but considering the empty store fronts I’d just seen, there was a grain of truth to it. Aunt Violet might be the answer to my prayers. When it came to business acumen Violet had few equals. If anyone could assess the prospects for success, it was Violet.
I crossed my fingers and called Violet at her office in Paris. Seeking advice was easy but asking for money was unfamiliar and somewhat humiliating. After listening to my ideas, Violet immediately switched to business mode.
“Harbor Bay has real potential,” she said, “especially with that summer crowd it draws. Quaint stores are a big draw in a place like that, and it doesn’t sound like you’d have any competition.”
Before I summoned my courage, Violet beat me to it. “How are you fixed for capital, Poppet? Most small businesses fall flat on their face due to start-up costs.”
I confessed that my funds were limited, in fact almost non-existent.
My aunt chuckled and said something in French that I didn’t quite understand. “Looks like you need an investor. Would I do? Sometimes I still miss Harbor Bay, believe it or not. The people. The sense of community. Those things are hard to replicate even in a glamorous place like Paris. Don’t ever discount them, Marky.”
I could barely believe my luck. Good fortune had smiled upon me and suddenly I’d found my future right in the very place I’d once abandoned. Gemma’s reaction was priceless. She slapped me on the back and did her version of a victory dance.
“I knew you’d make it,” she whooped. “Marky Davis, the star of Harbor Bay.”
I immediately enlisted her as my partner. Gemma was a certified aesthetician and a natural salesperson who never met a stranger. Plus, her local connections were far stronger than mine.
“Are you serious?” she asked, shaking her auburn curls wildly. “It’s like a dream come true. I don’t have any money to contribute but I swear I’ll work my fingers to the bone for you.”
I hugged my friend. “For us, you mean. We’re partners. Fifty-fifty. Even Stephen. You know the drill.”
Together we brainstormed an appropriate title. I opted for APHRODITE, a Temple of beauty, but Gemma nixed that right away. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “Way too artsy-fartsy for our crowd. You’ll scare away most potential customers who haven’t studied Greek.” She suggested something homey instead. “Not too homey,” I groused. “We’re trying for something friendly but different.”
Once again, my aunt came to the rescue. She had always called me Poppet. Poppet a friendly, affectionate term that made me smile. It was perfect for a shop like ours that stressed beauty with a light touch.
“Face it,” Gemma said with a smirk. “Half the women in town think lipstick is something exotic. Probably call you a hussy behind your back for lining your eyes.”
That was sobering news. I’d always seen myself as the wholesome type, not some femme fatale. Still, Gemma had a point. I’d asked her mother to quiz her friends about the issue while Gemma surveyed the under thirty crowd. The results jolted me but helped to inform our business plan. Women in Harbor Bay even those with generous incomes were intimidated by approaching a “fancy” place. “They don’t want to be judged,” Gemma said. “You know how off-putting some of those snooty places are. Who needs that? A name like Poppet sounds welcoming.”
“No problem luring the summer crowd into the store,” I said. “They’ll love it.”
“Yeah, but what about the other six months of the year?” Gemma asked. “Gotta get the locals involved too.”
We needed advice from someone in the beauty biz, and I knew just who to call.
Aunt Violet came to the rescue once more. “Look Marky,” she said. “European women care more about skin care than face paint. Facials, eye creams, massage, and the like. Emphasize that to lure the crowd in, then show ‘em how a touch of makeup can change their outlook. Oh, and once you get established, hire a mature woman too. Works like a charm.”
After we hung up, my head was swimming with ideas, advice, and fear. The vacant storefront directly on Main Street that I’d scoped out was the perfect location. If only the price was right.
Arlene Kay spent twenty years as a Senior Federal Executive before repenting of her bureaucratic ways and turning to crime. (writing) Assignments from Texas to Washington DC allowed this unconventional executive to observe both corporate and human foibles and rejoice in unintentional humor. These locations and the many people she encountered are celebrated in her mystery novels. Fans enjoy the intriguing plots and the snarky sense of humor spiked with the occasional hint of romance.
Ms. Kay holds graduate degrees in Political Science and Constitutional Law.