It doesn’t help that her name’s Bubbles. Or that she’s a gum-snapping hairdresser with Barbie-doll curves pinched into hot pants and a tube top. Or that she’s saddled with a sleazy ex-hubby, a precocious daughter and a shoplifting mother. What can a beautician do to add new highlights to her image? For starters, trip over a corpse, and implicate a wealthy town socialite in the crime. Now, with a well-muscled photographer by her side, Bubbles is playing star sleuth. But as the investigation unravels, her shining moment grows as dark as a shopgirl’s roots. However dangerous her new career, at least the hottest graduate of Two Guys Community College is finally busting loose—and this time she’s really giving Lehigh, Pennsylvania something to talk about.Chapter One
Sarah Strohmeyer won the 2002 Agatha Award for best first mystery for Bubbles Unbound.
For most of my adult life, people in this town have passed me over as just another dumb blonde fascinated by sex, soap -operas and gossip. My name, Bubbles Yablonsky, doesn’t help matters any. Nor does the fact that my profession is hairdressing, my body resembles a Barbie doll’s and my fashion weaknesses are hot pants and tube tops.
Okay. So, I might not appear to be the brightest bulb in the vanity, but I know something even the police don’t know. I know what really happened to Laura Buchman. Or, at least I think I do.
Like I told my boss and best friend, Sandy, seventeen-year-old cheerleaders as lively as Laura don’t off themselves, not here in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. Lehigh is a no-nonsense, gritty steel town on the Jersey border. Here we treat our cheerleaders with a reverence customarily reserved for minor saints. Here the most important accessories a girl can wear are a homecoming crown on her head and a pom-pom in her hand. A cheerleader from Lehigh would be crazy to give that up.
And Laura was not crazy. Foolish, maybe. Naive. Girlish. Even reckless. But not crazy. I know because I did her hair the day of the so-called suicide. That was ten years ago.
Sandy’s House of Beauty, my place of employment, hasn’t changed much since then. It is still a circa 1960, pink-walled hair salon located on the South Side, four blocks from the maroon Lehigh Steel blast furnaces and right next door to Uncle Manny’s Bar and Grille. This way the men can grab a beer and watch a game at Manny’s while their wives get a comb and set at Sandy’s. Many a Lehigh marriage has been saved by this arrangement.
It’s a pretty tight community of Poles, Slovaks, Germans and Italians on the South Side. Frowning babushkas keep their tidy homes spotless, right down to the sidewalk cracks they scrub with toothbrushes. Every porch has a red geranium for color and a green plastic welcome mat for wiping feet. Every door is decorated with cardboard hearts, leprechauns or ghosts, depending on the nearest upcoming minor holiday. Every kitchen is filled with the spicy aroma of sausage and sauerkraut for dinner, which is served promptly at five. Every woman over forty gets her hair done at the House of Beauty.
We do a big blue-hair business at our salon, which is why the conversation stopped when Laura arrived as a walk-in that Friday morning in September looking as cute as could be. She was wearing a bright white cheerleader’s sweater on which was embossed a big brown F. I assumed F stood for Freedom High School, known in our part of town as the “rich kids” school. Her wavy hair curled into a natural flip at her neck, and her overall demeanor was perky, perky, perky. Standing still she was exhausting.
Her hair, though, was a mess. Roots so dark they screamed for immediate emergency highlightspronto.
“Can you take me?” she asked, holding out a golden strand.
“Honey,” I replied, steering her toward my chair, “it’d be a violation of the stylists’ code of ethics not to.” I launched into a major discussion of treatment options.
“Actually, I’m not looking for more highlights. I want to go black,” she said, appraising herself in the mirror. “Jet black.”
“Black like death.”
“Freedom cheerleaders go black like death, then?” In Lehigh, we often turn statements into questions by ending them with then or say. Keeps the conversation going.
“They do when they’re singing backup.”
I warned Laura that once she went black, there was no turning back. She’d either have to keep it black or grow it out.
“Do it!” she said eagerly. I snapped a plastic apron around her shoulders, mixed the dye (Mediterranean Night) with peroxide and began squirting it over Laura’s scalp, setting the timer for thirty minutes.
In the meantime, I handed Laura a Diet A-Treat Cola. She kicked off her sneakers and relaxed, began to open up. I tend to have this effect on clients, especially women. They trust me with their most personal secrets, most of which center around how much they despise their in-laws or other clients at the salon. When they talk, I keep my mouth shut and my ears open. You’ll get no judgment from Bubbles Yablonsky.
Laura spent most of the wait raving about a garage band called Riders on the Storm and the to-die-for lead singer who sounded to me like he was overdue for a turpentine scrub and rabies shots. Laura said she had a major crush on him and that, on the following night, he was going to play down at The Mill, an old hippie hangout by the park once renowned for regular drug busts. He asked her to do vocals. Hence the radical hairdo and her efforts to drop five pounds by Saturday.
I rinsed out the dye with warm water. On her forehead Mediterranean Night left a thin line of black that I removed by rubbing it with cigarette ashes, an old hairdressing trick.
“Your parents must like him, say?” I asked, knowing full well the answer to that one.
“Uhm, it’s just my dad and me, and he’s totally out of it because he’s never home,” she said as I massaged shampoo behind her ears. “If he knew half the stuff that went on under his roof when he was out of town, he’d flip.”
Ding! Off went my internal maternal warning bell. I conditioned and rinsed her. Then I sat her up and wrapped a green towel around her head. “Like what kind of stuff?”
Laura hesitated. Could she confide in me?
“Like all the parties,” she said finally, “and friends of friends I hardly know who do it in his bed.”
Laura didn’t explain further, and I didn’t press. How many times have I regretted that?
“She was slumming it, coming here to the House of Beauty, you know,” observed Sandy as we watched Laura step into her shiny, apple-red Honda Accord. A gift from Daddy, no doubt. Kids on the South Side don’t drive red Accords. The only red vehicles they drive are rusted.
“Probably she didn’t want her regular beautician to get wind of her skipping school and singing backup down at The Mill,” said I, the sudden voice of reason.
“Hmmm, I wonder. If you ask me, what that girl needs is a mother.”
The next day Laura was dead. Her lifeless body was found behind her house on a chaise longue in the pouring rain.
It was all over the TV news, complete with special reports on the intense peer pressure facing today’s cheerleaders and shots of friends gathered on the Buchmans’ front lawn, hugging and crying. As Sandy rightly assumed, Laura Buchman was from the privileged side of town, near Camelhump. She lived in a modern, cedar-sided house amidst crushed stone, trimmed hedges and an in-ground swimming pool.
None of the news reports mentioned her budding career as a groupie, the Buchman central party house or the scummy boyfriend rock singer. The coroner was mum about the cause of death, except to say preliminary examinations pointed to suicide. Already rumors were flying around town that Laura had killed herself with drug-laced Slim Fast, a freshly blended pitcher of which was discovered in her refrigerator.
“So, that’s why she didn’t care about turning black,” Sandy said. “She knew all along she wouldn’t need a color correction.” Sandy, who had obviously missed her calling as a nurse, handed me a cup of water to calm me down. She even looked like a nurse, from her neatly permed, short brown hair to her blue polyester uniform and sensible-soled Florsheims.
“She didn’t kill herself,” I said, staring at the water.
“Oh? And how do you know?”
“A girl doesn’t commit suicide right before singing backup for a guy she worships. At seventeen you live for that.”
I could not understand why the police weren’t more suspicious, too. It made me angry. “My question, Sandy, is why somebody doesn’t care enough about this girl to at least look into the possibility that she was murdered?”
Sandy held up her hands in surrender. “Don’t yell at me, Bubbles. Yell at the police. You know how they think. They think murders just don’t happen on that side of town.”
That seemed like a stupid policy to me, so I put a call in to the cops about Laura’s last hair appointment. An overworked dispatcher took down the essentials and promised a response. I didn’t hold out much hope, though. Lehigh’s finest is essentially an oxymoron, and as I predicted, the men in blue never stopped by.
For the rest of the day I obsessed about Laura’s death. Twice I left clients too long under the dryers so that their scalps turned the color of boiled lobster. Once I nearly nicked off part of an ear.
“You better go home early,” Sandy said, picking up a pair of scissors I’d dropped for the fifth time that day. “Go get Dan the Man, that lame husband of yours, to wait on you for once.”
Dan the Man was not one of Sandy’s favorite acquaintances. Sandy’s low opinion of Dan stemmed from her fairly accurate observation that he treated me like soap scum. I put Dan through law school by shampooing days at the House of Beauty and waitressing nights at the Tally Ho Tavern after our daughter, Jane, was born. Jane’s infancy was a blur of diapers and cream rinse, talcum and beer, thanks to him.
And what did I get in return? Bupkis. No champagne, no roses, not even a “Thank you, Bubbles, for working two jobs so I could get a degree” note.
I pointed out to Sandy that Dan was busting his butt at work these days, trying to make enough money to move us to the suburbs. Two years earlier we’d bought my childhood home, a brick row house on West Goepp, from my mother, who was itching to live with her buddies at the brand-new high-rise apartments on the east side of town. The house became nothing more than a cramp in Dan’s style. He wanted wide green lawns, a media room and landscaping. Our yard the size of a postage stamp was not cutting it for him.
So, I took Sandy’s advice and went home early.
I trudged up the steps of my cement front porch, let myself in with the key and zeroed in on a black brassiere hanging from a living room lamp.
“What’re you doing home?” accused a pantsless Dan the Man, his Jolly Roger hoisted high and waving in the breeze. He jumped up from the couch and grabbed the brassiere to shield his private parts, as though I’d never seen them before.
“Who’s she?” asked a strange, nearly naked woman splayed on my couch, wearing my terry-cloth bath-robe.
“Come back in fifteen minutes, Bubbles,” Dan instructed, glancing at a brand-new Rolex. “We’re just finishing up.”
And I was finished with my thoughtless, ungrateful pig of a husband. Sandy was right. Dan treated me like dirt. It took no time at all for my high-heeled pumps to deliver a swift kick to Dan’s jewelsand I don’t mean the Rolex. As for the home wrecker? I popped her collagen-filled red lips with a neat right hook.
Dan was so incensed by my reaction, he packed up and left that night for good. Dummy that I am, it hadn’t occurred to me that Dan’s plans to get out of West Goepp Street never included me and Jane in the first place.
“You gotta take action,” Sandy advised that night as we gathered around my kitchen table for a private pity party of Newport Lights and Bartles & Jaymes. “You’re too good a person to have to suck this up, Bubbles. You have to get back at Dan. You gotta make him pay.”
“I gotta get more education, like Dan did.”
“You gotta be someone Jane can look up to.”
“I gotta find out who killed Laura Buchman.”
Sandy tapped an ash. “It’s a tall order. How’re you going to do it?”
But I was barely listening. My mind was running over the day, from Laura’s supposed suicide to Dan’s infidelity. And from the recesses of my supposedly vapid brain bubbled up the absurd notion that the two events were somehow connected.
I later discovered that my hunches about Laura’s murder were correct and that, yes, indeed, there was a connection between her and my ex-husband. Unfortunately for me, though, a group of Lehigh’s most powerful elite was determined to keep the circumstances of her death a secreteven if that meant permanently silencing those who uncovered the truth.
And Bubbles Yablonsky was no exception.
Over the next ten years, Laura Buchman’s visit and death became a distant, albeit haunting, memory. Between the divorce and raising Jane, I had other recreations. Like inventing schemes to wreak revenge on Dan, none of which worked very well.
Then providence tossed me a bone when Dan made the foolish mistake of asking the court if he could stop paying me the whopping $150 a month in alimony.
Now, $150 a month doesn’t sound like much to pay an ex-wife who put you through law school, especially if you are a promising lawyer such as Dan. But money wasn’t the issue; getting me out of his life was. To understand why, it helps to understand Lehigh.
Lehigh is a town of haves and have-nots. The haves are steel excecutives and their families who inhabit well-groomed developments north of the river. The men play golf at the Greenbriar Country Club where the women, who tend to be genetically adept at growing perennials, play tennis three days a week. Once a year the company flies the whole family to a beachfront resort in North Carolina for the annual executive physical or to South America on the pretense of checking out copper mines. Full-time maids are not uncommon.
I, on the other hand, am a poster girl for the have-nots. We live south of the river in brick row houses. Most men in our class work in the dirty, dangerous steel mills where blast furnaces and coke ovens radiate suffocating heat. On the weekends we shoot pool, go bowling and drink Rolling Rock. Each summer we hit the boardwalk at Wildwood, New Jersey, and eat fried dough with powdered sugar on the beach. It’s pretty simple. What the haves have, we, the have-nots, don’t.
Dan desperately wanted to be a have. He was so desperate that despite his love of cabbage rolls and the World Wrestling Federation, he decided to try and pass himself off as a WASP after our divorce. He went full Biffbow ties, Brooks Brothers suits, preppy nickname. Even dyed his hair a yachting, sandy blond.
To his credit, Dan made tremendous inroads into this world by marrying Wendy Hauckman. While Wendy was no Princess Diana, she was the heiress of the Hauckman’s Cheeseballs empire. In marrying Wendy, Dan set himself up with bucks, beer nuts and bright orange cheese doodles for life. Every man’s dream.
However, Dan still worked for a slip-and-fall law firm that advertised on the cardboard insert of yellow pages that they don’t get paid until you get paid. Most of Wendy’s country club friends were appalled, frankly, that Dan’s clientele relied on bail bondsmen to spare them temporary incarceration.
Dan determined that what he needed was a corporate legal job. What he needed was to sever any ties to his working-class past, including me, a Polish--German-American embarrassment who barely squeaked through beauty school at Northampton County Vo-Tech.
At the alimony hearing, the judge agreed with Dan about the $150 a month. However, the judge ruled that, seeing as how I had put Dan through law school, it was only fair that he should pay for my continuing education. Dan coughed back a smile like a naughty boy caught stealing a cookie. He’d read my high school transcript.
I walked up to him after court and tapped him on the shoulder. “I don’t know what’s come over me, Skippy. I suddenly got a burning desire for knowledge.”
“I’ll alert Harvard,” he replied, clicking shut his gray calfskin briefcase. “And you got it wrong as usual. It’s Chip, not Skip.”
The very next day I showed up at the doorstep of the local community college, which is run out of an abandoned Two Guys Department Store. I was interested to read in the community college brochure that there’d been a small hike in tuition recently, to five hundred dollars per course.
I took almost every course the community college had to offer. Accounting. Business. Chrysler Dealer Apprenticeship. Entrepreneurship. Funeral Service Provider. Medical Transcriber. Plastics. Welding. Animal Cosmetology.
You name it, I studied itand failed it. Bombed. Flunked. The big goose egg. Six years of community college down the tubes. I’m a hard worker and I try. I’m just not very strong in the academic department, especially when all I had to lose was Dan’s money, eighteen thousand dollars of which I’d managed to misplace.
“Give it up, Bubbles,” advised my weary guidance counselor with the office in Aisle 5, Sheets and Towels. “Stick to hair-dressing.”
I was about to take her advice and call it quits when my life took a sudden turn for the worse. All our clients started getting their weekly comb and sets at Cuts for Less in the brand-new Lehigh Valley Mall. My tips dropped off dramatically, and I was strapped for cash.
There was no way I could be disloyal to Sandy and work at Cuts for Less. And there was no way I could stay with the House of Beauty and survive. My savings account contained just enough money to pay a minor repair bill on my Camaro, my Visa “tin” card had hit its three-thousand-dollar max and I wasn’t sleeping very well.
To make matters worse, Jane was beginning to notice our precarious financial status. “Everything in this house is generic,” she observed one night at dinner. “We have generic toilet paper. Generic soda. Generic coffee. Even generic mac and cheese. How much does that cost? Thirty-nine cents?”
I winced. “Actually, it’s a quarter with an in-store double coupon at ShopRite.”
“Aww, Mom,” she clucked sympathetically, “I didn’t mean to bum you out. I know you kill yourself to make ends meet. You can’t help it if you’re always down on your luck.”
I nearly broke a plate. Geesh! I didn’t want my daughter to think of me as always down on my luck, especially since her dad was dining on Black Angus steak and Perrier these days. Jane was completely unaware that Dan’s new fortune was not his own. All she knew was that his fifteen-room suburban palace and Eddie Bauer SUV made her life with me look desolate.
I got the impression she was wondering what was wrong with her lazy, loafing mother. What kind of loser lives in the same run-down house she grew up in, buys generic hot dogs and flunks every course at the community college?
Don’t get me wrong. Jane isn’t a bad kid. She’s a great kid. Sure, she owes her hair color to the magic of Kool-Aid, which she washes into her hair nightly. Other than that you can’t find a nicer or funnier -sixteen-year-old. Or smarter. Member of the Liberty High School Math Team, president of the debating club.
And that was another thing. College. How was I going to pay for Jane’s college? This is why I needed a new career. It was either that or give up altogether, go on welfare and beg for scholarships.
“No Yablonsky’s going to go on welfare, and that’s final,” pronounced my mother, LuLu, when I picked her up to take her to my house for Sunday chicken. “What? You think your grand-father fled Gdánsk and escaped the Soviets just sose we could move to America and live off the state like Commies? I should slap you upside the head for that talk.”
There was no getting around LuLu Yablonsky. She might have the stature of a circus midget and the figure of a pickle barrel. She might brew dandelion beer in the bathtub and play the boombas past dawn, but she was four feet, five inches of pure power. If LuLu said no, then no it was.
So, I headed back to the department store community college, this time with solemn promises that I would pass my courses, whatever courses were left to take. My guidance counselor heaved a sigh and suggested journalism.
“Journalism?” I asked. “What’s journalism?”
“Perhaps we ought to forget it.” She put the forms back in the drawer.
I grabbed her wrist. “Please. Give me a chance.”
“Okay, but we’re at the end of the line, Bubbles. Flunk this and the only course left is taxidermy.”
Stuffed squirrels? Ugh. Journalism, whatever it was, was sounding better and better.
Well, I eventually found out what journalism was, and I’m pleased to say I was a natural. Because when you combine all that asking, snooping, investigating, not to mention the who, what, where, when and why stuff that reporting requires, it comes down to one word.
And gossip is how a neighborhood hairdresser like me earns her bread and butter. After years and years in the beauty biz, my sympathetic ear was superbly tuned for human tragedy.
Take the time our journalism class took a field trip to the Northampton County Courthouse to watch a trial. I missed the trial because I ended up in the courthouse bathroom comforting a sobbing woman. It took me almost an hour of commiserating and an entire roll of Charmin to calm her down.
When she finally got hold of herself she confessed that she was racked with guilt because her boyfriend had been charged with murdering her good-for-nothing, abusive husband when it had been she who’d shot the SOB all along. By the end of the day, she agreed to turn herself in and provide me with an interview. An exclusive interview, I might add.
“Have to hand it to you, Yablonsky,” said my journalism professor, Mr. Salvo. “You got the knack.”
I beamed with pride. I mean, Mr. Salvo was more than just a journalism professor. He was also night editor of the News-Times, the Lehigh Valley’s largest newspaper. Night editor for twenty years and looked it, too. Thin white skin and tiny eyes like a mole.
Unfortunately, while Mr. Salvo had the authority to assign me freelance articles, he couldn’t hire reporters full time down at the paper. Only the editor-in-chief, Dix Notch, could do that, Mr. Salvo said, and Notch ordinarily required two years experience at a smaller newspaper before he’d look at a résumé. (Like I even had a résumé, ha!)
“I can’t wait two years, Mr. Salvo,” I whined. “I need another job now! A good job. A career.”
Mr. Salvo poured himself a cup of coffee from his thermos. “Why the rush?”
I explained about my cash situation and the House of Beauty. How I wanted to make Jane proud of her mother so she wouldn’t think of me as some down-on-her-luck sad sack, how I wanted to send her to college and maybe even move off West Goepp Street.
Mr. Salvo stroked his nearly hairless chin and pondered this. “What you need, Yablonsky, is a big break. A story so gripping Notch will waive the two-year requirement and hire you on the spot. You know, since the News-Times got bought by Garnet Corporation we pay better than most newspapers our size.”
“How much better?”
“Starting reporter like yourself? I’d say thirty-five thousand dollars plus stock options, full benefits including dental and two weeks vacation.”
I imagined how Jane would react if she heard that I was a staff writer for the News-Times with stock options, two weeks vacation and dental. “Mr. Salvo, how do I get a big break?”
“If I knew that, Yablonsky,” he said, patting my shoulder, “I wouldn’t be teaching at a community college run out of some bankrupt department store, now would I?”
I continued to slog away down at the House of Beauty, picking up meager tips here and there. I finished Mr. Salvo’s course with a 4.0 and accepted as many freelance assignments as I could from him. I wrote about spelling bees and historical society meetings, mistreatment of racing greyhounds and how to avoid Lyme disease. Blood shortages and storm damage. Strawberry picking and Fourth of July reunions of immigrant families.
But as I stepped over squished strawberries and petted anorexicand often flatulentgreyhounds, I couldn’t help wondering if this was all just a waste of effort. What made me think that I, Bubbles Yablonsky, hairdresser, would ever come across a story important enough to be the big break?
I had no idea at the time that Laura Buchman’s death was the key to the biggest story to hit Lehigh in a decade. Or that Iand I alonehad heard the most significant clue to her murder. It took me an unexpected telephone call, one mutilated body and a series of misadventures to realize that.
Mr. Salvo calls this my big break, but I prefer to think of it as Laura Buchman reaching out to me from the grave. Like I said, women tell their hairdressers the deepest, darkest secrets.
Reprinted from Bubbles Unbound by Sarah Strohmeyer by permission of Signet, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001, Sarah Strohmeyer. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. “Meet Bubbles Yablonsky, beautician-reporter-sleuth and blazing star of Strohmeyer’s entertaining, establishment-bashing debut.” Publishers Weekly
“Pennsylvania's answer to Erin Brockovich.” Jennifer Cruise, author of Tell Me Lies
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