Shoe Done It
Rita Jewel has a dream job selling fabulous clothes and accessories to the socialites of San Francisco at Dolce's Boutique. But when a pair of heels becomes a clue in a murder, Rita finds herself engaged in a high- end crime of fashion.
When I arrived in steamy Miami Beach that morning, it was already ninety degrees with matching humidity. Before I melted away, I headed straight for Collins Avenue and bought a vintage Lilly Pulitzer floral halter dress and wedge sandals with studded leather accents. After stuffing my old clothes in my Heys USA Exotic polka-dot carry-on bag, I walked out of the store in my new outfit feeling more like a native and less like a clueless tourist from San Francisco. In fact, I was there on business. To pick up a pair of shoes from a shop in South Beach for my boss Dolce of Dolce's Boutique.
The stilettos for her special customer were on hold at an exclusive atelier tucked between two other stores on a side street. The dazzling handmade silver shoes were safely wrapped in yards of white tissue paper, stowed in their box in a large shopping bag. Dolce had told me not to let them out of my sight.
"Must be a very special customer," I'd said, trying not to act too curious, which I was. Especially after I saw the hand-spun silver heels. How many people could afford gorgeous, expensive, one-of-kind shoes like these?
"All my customers are very special," Dolce had told me. Why all the secrecy? Dolce followed a code of ethics when it came to her customers that rivaled anything the AMA required. She expected me to do the same. No one was supposed to know what any customer bought, wore or how much they paid for it. But she couldn't stop the customers from talking among themselves, comparing shoes and jewelry, which I was sure they did. The important part of my mission to South Beach was to get the shoes back to San Francisco in time for the annual Golden Gate Garden Benefit tomorrow nightthe event that kicked off the fall social scene.
I made time to stop off at the popular Not Your Mother's Underwear Shop where the clerk talked me into the latest trend, high-waisted undies inspired by a popular TV show that takes place in the 1960s, along with some other to-die-for lingerie I couldn't resist. She assured me my selections "will make you feel beautiful even if no one knows you're wearing them." Given my Spartan social life, no one would. But I'd know, I thought as I put all the intimate items into my black-and-white polka-dot carry-on. Then I was back at the airport on my way home. San Francisco had been my home for only half a year during which I'd been lucky enough to land my dream job through a friend of my aunt back in Columbuswhich was selling clothes and accessories to the rich and well connected at Dolce's.
Five hours, two glasses of Chardonnay and a bag of complimentary pretzels later I stood outside the San Francisco Airport Arrivals waiting for Dolce to pick me up. I was shivering, wishing I'd had time to change back into my old clothes, when my phone rang. It was my boss.
"Rita, I can't believe this. Some idiot just ran into me on Van Ness. My car is totaled."
"What? Dolce, are you all right?" I asked anxiously.
"I'm okay. Just shaken up a little. Get in a cab and go straight home. See you first thing in the morning. Eight o'clock or earlier. And don't let those shoes out of your sight."
I hung up, unzipped my bag, pulled out a cashmere scarf and wrapped it around my shoulders. Poor Dolce. She sounded really upset. Who wouldn't be? Now, of all times. I just hoped she wasn't injured. Sometimes you're in shock and you don't know how badly you're hurt until later.
From out of nowhere a tall, rakish-looking guy pulling a Prada men's rollaway crashed head-on into me. I stumbled, and my open carry-on bag banged into his, flipped over and spilled my lingerie on the sidewalk.
"Damn, damn, damn," I cried as the one-of-a-kind silver shoes popped out of their shopping bag, broke out of the shoe box and skidded away in opposite directions.
"Sorry," he said.
"Sorry? Sorry doesn't do it," I blurted. My face flamed, my eyes smarted with angry tears. First, I went after the shoes. They must be worth at least a half year's salary and were only available from that one shop in South Miami Beach. After I retrieved them and put them carefully into their box inside the shopping bag, I scooped up my new sexy underwear from the ground and shoved it back into my carry-on bag. When I looked up, I realized how many people had stopped to stare as if they'd never seen lacy thongs or an underwire bra spilled at a taxi stand before. Miffed at the invasion of my privacy, I muttered, "I hope you all miss your connections." What a way to end an overnight business trip. My first and probably my last.
"Can I help you?" the guy who'd bumped into me asked in a strong foreign accent.
"You could help by watching where you're going," I said. But it wasn't his fault, not completely. I was the one who hadn't zipped up my bag when I took out my scarf. And he was pretty hot looking in a trench coat, knockoff designer jeans and wraparound shades. He could have been a member of Interpol or an international spy if his accent was genuine. So many guys faked it these days, their background, their education, their jobs. You never knew.
I gave him points for having politely averted his eyes from my underwear and focused on the shoes instead. They were definitely eye-catching. He looked genuinely concerned at my plight.
"Let me help you," he said.
What could he do? I'd already stowed the shoes back in the box and zipped my bag shut.
"You are going in to the city, yes?" he asked.
"Yes. I'm going to take a taxi."
"Me too. We can take together. It would be for me my pleasure." With that, he picked up my bag, bypassed the line and whistled for a taxi, which screeched to a halt two feet from the curb. It did occur to me as I got into the cab that he might be a homicidal maniac looking to kidnap innocent women like myself and sell them into slavery in his country. But avoiding that official taxi line was especially appealing given that I was on the verge of freezing my butt off. Sharing a cab would be cheaper than taking one by myself even though I could expense the cost. Dolce would appreciate my being frugal when possible. I decided to take my chances.
"My name is Nick Petrescu," he said.
"Rita Jewel," I said. We shook hands in the backseat of the cab.
"You're a tourist, yes?" he asked.
How galling to be mistaken for a tourist in my own town. Probably because my clothes were so glaringly inappropriate for this chilly City by the Bay. As Mark Twain said so aptly, "The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco." I sighed.
"No, I live here," I said. "What about you?"
"I am here to work a new job."
Because of his accent and being naturally curious, I asked, "Where are you from?"
"I am coming from New York. Oh, you mean originally. I am coming from Romania."
"Romania? Salut cum esti?" I couldn't help showing off what few words I remembered in Romanian, my minor in college.
He turned to me with a look of surprise on his rugged Romanian features. "You speak my language."
"Only a little. I'm afraid I can't remember much more than that. The classes I took were mostly reading and writing." I only hoped he wouldn't ask what I'd read or written. The truth was I'd only taken the classes to read about vampires, which I found fascinating, but the courses were harder than they looked..
"Your accent is excellent," Nick said.
"Thank you." I felt a glow of satisfaction. No one had ever praised my effort to speak Romanian before, certainly not my professors or my family, who were forever asking me, "What are you going to do with it?" If I'd known I was going to run into an honest-to-God attractive Romanian one day, I might have hit the language lab more often.
"Where you will wear the beautiful shoes?" he asked with a glance at the shopping bag on my lap.
"I won't. They're not for me. Much too… too much." I bit my tongue. I almost said "expensive." I knew I shouldn't discuss the shoes at all. But surely Dolce didn't mean don't even mention them to Romanians you meet at the airport. "I just picked them up for a customer where I work," I explained. Blame my loose tongue on my chattering teeth, goose bumps or lack of sleep.
"You work for a shoe store?"
"It's a boutique in Hayes Valley. We carry upscale shoes, clothes and accessories. What kind of work do you do?" I asked, finally able to change the subject.
"I am gymnastics coach for children," he said. "Do you know the Ocean View Gymnastics School on Vista Avenue? I came here to be teaching there."
"Never heard of it," I admitted. I hated the thought of exercising unnecessarily. "I take kung fu classes. My boss is a fitness freak, and she insists I know how to defend myself." From what or whom I had no idea. But working at Dolce's had so many perks that I would have signed up for skydiving if Dolce wanted me to.
"Your work is so dangerous then?" he asked, a frown on his face.
"The only danger is when two customers fight over the same item." No danger with the shoes I was hand-carrying. They were so pricey only one of Dolce's customers could afford them. Beside, the benefits of buying clothes and accessories with my employee discount were worth any danger I might encounter.
"The shop is just for women?"
"Women with lots of money and time on their hands. It's very exclusive."
"Like those shoes."
I shrugged in a noncommittal way. I'd already said too much. I was proud of myself for not spewing, "Yes. They're one of a kind." I didn't know any straight men who were the least interested in fashion. Was this that rare man who noticed what women wore or knew the difference between Dior and Chanel and wasn't gay?
I gave the taxi driver directions to my flat on Telegraph Hill. When the taxi stopped in front of the two-story building on the edge of the hill I sublet from a friend of a friend who got transferred to LA, Nick got out to carry my bag and walk me to the door. He offered to carry the shopping bag too, but I remembered my promise to Dolce.
"You must see my gymnastics class," he said, handing me a brochure from the studio. "Maybe I can change you from kung fu to our gym. Not only for children, but good for all ages. We learn handsprings, trampoline, tucks and how to say… cartwheels. Very important cartwheels to stay in shape. Not that you are not." He carefully looked me up and down. I hoped he was satisfied I didn't need any cartwheels. The thought of turning upside down made me dizzy. "Here is my card. Call for free lesson, okay?"
"Okay." I put the card in my purse and thanked him. Inside my dark, chilly flat, I was immediately hit with a bad case of post-assignment travel letdown syndrome. Sure it was great to meet a hunk in the airport, one who was an athlete and cared about his body and maybe mine too. But he hadn't asked for my number. He'd only given me his. So it was up to me to make the first move, which is not something I would ever do. If he wanted to see me again, he'd find a way.
A girl has to have principles and mine were handed to me by my Aunt Grace. She's my mother's older sister who while still unmarried has a much busier social life than I do, which isn't saying much. "Don't call him back." "Don't accept an impromptu invitation like 'Call for a free lesson, okay?'" And, "Don't ever ask him out." So where had these rules gotten me? Nowhere. Call me cynical, but Petrescu probably got a commission on any new students he enrolled.
I sighed and switched on the gas logs in my faux fireplace as the fog crept up the hill toward my house. Then I brewed myself a Cuban-style coffee from the bag of ground beans I bought at the airport in Miami and bit the head off a chocolate alligator I'd planned to give Dolce as a souvenir. Finally warm in a fleece Snuggie, the blanket with sleeves my mother gave me last Christmas that I would never wear unless I was really, really cold and completely alone, along with a pair of sheepskin UGGs, I played my phone messages.
The first was from Dolce.
"Rita, I'm sorry about tonight. I got hung up with the police, who blamed me for the accident. When the asshole hit me! Needless to say I'm going to fight it. I hope you got home okay. I never would have sent you for the shoes if it wasn't important. The shop has been crazy busy these last two days and I really missed you. It's not only the Benefit, but the opera season starting in a few weeks, the symphony gala, and you know how it is. Everybody's just got to have whatever it is they've got to have. As long as it's one of a kind. Which is the whole reason for the shoes. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. It gets to be too much. Yesterday I had to reorder those tights you like so much. You were right about those. They're so hot I can't keep them in stock. So glad you didn't have a problem picking up the shoes. I'm in a bind here with those frigging shoes. If I had to do it over, I'm not sure… I have to tell you-know-who tomorrow she has to pay up or forget the shoes. I'm not running a charity here. Can you possibly do me a huge favor and come in even earlier tomorrow? Don't say anything to anyone about the shoes. Take a taxi to work and guard them with your life. If word gets out, it could be bad, you know? I'm rambling. I've taken a painkiller and I'm washing it down with some Scotch. Uh-oh, someone's at the door. Tell me it's not her. See you tomorrow."
I was confused and worried about Dolce. Usually crisp and focused, she sounded scattered. I wondered if she should have gone to the emergency room to be checked out. Of course I was dying to know who she was talking about. And why the hush-hush about the shoes? One thing was for sure. Dolce, the consummate coolheaded businesswoman, was not her usual self. She needed her assistant, and I admit I liked to be needed. Who didn't? I'd go in at seven thirty, deliver the shoes, and finally find out who'd ordered them and why it was a secret. My own problem of whether or not to call the buff Romanian was too trivial to think about.
I looked at my "California the Beautiful" calendar on the wall. I had no problem with a crowded fall schedule. I didn't have tickets to the opera, the symphony or the charity affairs. But I loved finding just the right dress and shoes for someone who did have a full calendar. Not just the dress and shoes, but the right bag and jewelry to go with it. I'd always loved it. As a child I used to dress my dolls, then accessorize them. When they were completely decked out in shoes, hats, necklaces and stockings and dresses, I'd drag them around to the neighbors to see and be seen.
Now I got paid to dress socialites. And I was able to purchase whatever I just had to have with a hefty discount. It was the best job ever. The only downside was I never met any men at work. Or anywhere. The only man in my kung fu class was the teacher, Yen Poo Wing, who was always yelling at me to kick harder, jump higher and turn more gracefully. The only eligible man I'd met in months was Nick the gymnast. At least I assumed he was eligible.
Despite the strong Cuban coffee, I fell asleep on the couch, warm and secure in the knowledge I hadn't broken any of Aunt Grace's rules and wasn't going to. When I woke up the next morning, I went to my closet to find just the right outfit. It was Saturday and I knew the shop would be packed with last-minute shoppers with big plans for Saturday nightthe Benefit, the parties, whatever. I decided to wear a knit dress from the Marc Jacobs spring collection. It was no longer spring, but hopefully no one would notice. Dolce had special ordered the dress for a customer who then decided not to buy it.
When it arrived, the woman shuddered. "I had no idea the colors would be so bright. I'm getting a headache just looking at them."
Dolce never broke a sweat or lost her cool. All she did was turn around and insist I try on the blue vertical striped skirt with attached checkered blouse. The red blazer thrown casually over my shoulders completed the ensemble. "I know it's bright, but you've got the shoulders to pull it off," Dolce said, patting me on the back. When she said that, I wondered if maybe it was too bright and called attention to my shoulders that were admittedly a tad broad. "It's yours," she said. "Pay me when you can." That's the kind of warmhearted, generous woman my boss was. How could I refuse her anything she asked?
Today was the perfect day to wear the outfit with my new push-up bra and some hip-hugger panties. I buckled a wide belt around my waist, snapped on a vintage Bakelite bracelet, slipped into a pair of metallic ballet flats and called a cab.
"Lady, you got an hour wait at least," the dispatcher said. "Busy day today."
Dolce badly needed me to come early, so I took the bus. Some day I'd save enough for the Chevy Corvette I'd always coveted, but fortunately San Francisco was basically a small, pedestrian-friendly city and the bus took me almost to my door. One thing was for sure: I was the only person on the Nineteen Polk who was wearing Marc Jacobs and carrying a pair of handmade silver shoes in a shopping bag.
More than a few heads turned as I lurched down the aisle toward an empty seat by the window. Admiring glances I was sure. I was feeling good until I sat down, opened the Chronicle's fashion section and read that "Muted colors are fall's key look." I frowned, then folded the newspaper and stuffed it under the seat. No one could say I was muted today. Far from it. Ah well. It wasn't fall yet, not officially. But if I were in Florida now, I'd fit in perfectly. No muted colors in South Beach.
Just before eight I arrived at the Victorian mansion that Dolce's great-aunt had left her over a year ago. My boss had done a fabulous job converting it into Dolce's Boutique. I let myself in with my own key. The twelve-foot-tall entry hall with the original crown molding was lined with racks of filmy scarves and clunky costume jewelry. The real stuff was locked up in a glass case in the great room. That was the room with the marble fireplace and a curved bay window where the morning sun streamed in on the racks of gorgeous dresses. The kind of dresses suitable for evenings at the theatre, the symphony and coming-out parties in Pacific Heights.
Dolce must be in her office, the converted closet under the grand staircase that led to her charming quarters on the second floor.
"I love living above the store," Dolce always said. "How else could I live in an 1800s house in a happening neighborhood?" She never got a break, but maybe she didn't want one. She was totally dedicated to fashion and her customers.
I was about to knock on the closet-turned-office door when I heard voices. Dolce was not alone. I dropped my hand and stood shamelessly listening.
"I can't let you have the shoes before you pay for them, MarySue. What if something happened to them? A spill, a crack?" Dolce asked in a firm voice.
I was so shocked, I almost dropped my bag. First, I couldn't believe a Dolce customer wouldn't have paid in full for the shoes. And second, that the customer was MarySue Jensen, who was originally a Garibaldi, an old San Francisco family.
"Dolce, I've got to have the shoes. I've scrimped. I've saved. I've sweated for those shoes. I gave you a sizable deposit." MarySue sounded desperate.
"But MarySue . . ."
"I'm the cochair. I can't go without my shoes, can I? You know I can't. My dress is nothing without the shoes. You know it's true. When I saw the picture of them in Vogue, it was love at first sight. I had to have them. My picture will be in the paper tomorrow. And you'll be mentioned. Don't forget that."
"Publicity is nice, but money makes the world turn," Dolce said.
I nodded. I'd heard my boss say that before.
"We had a deal," Dolce continued. "You told me you'd have the rest of the money by today, so I ordered the shoes for you. You give me the money, I give you the shoes. Rita is on her way as we speak with the shoes in hand. You know I can sell those shoes ten times over, but I'm giving you first crack at them. But I have to have the money you owe me today. No checks. Cash or credit card."
I gripped the handle of the shopping bag tightly. I pictured MarySue, a tall, statuesque blond who was one of Dolce's best customers, facing off with my boss. It wasn't a pretty picture.
"I can't," MarySue said. "Not today. Things happen, Dolce, can't you understand? I thought I'd have the rest of the money today, but…" Her voice broke and there was a long silence. I wondered if MarySue was crying. I imagined her tears running down her face, smearing her mascara and leaving a streaky trail on her perfect skin.
"I'll hold them for you until six o'clock tonight," Dolce said. "I'll stay open late if that helps. As soon as you get the money, they're yours."
"You don't understand. I have to be there at six thirty with my shoes on. I'm the cochair. I can't appear in anything else. I have to have those shoes now." MarySue's voice rose.
"MarySue, stop, you're hurting me," Dolce said loudly. "Let go."
I froze. I leaned against the door wondering if I should burst in or call 911.
"Sorry. I didn't mean it. I'm not myself, Dolce. I've got a lot on my mind. If Jim finds out how much they cost, he'll kill me."
"There's no way he'll find out. My lips are sealed. Everything that goes on at Dolce's stays here. You know that. I took over the shop because this place is a safe haven just like it was for my great-aunt. I want my customers to feel the same."
"I know. They do. I love coming here. Everyone does. The atmosphere. Everything. I'll have the rest of the money next week, I swear I will. I just wish you'd trust me."
"Of course I trust you, but I'm running a business, MarySue. I want you to have the shoes, but I have expenses. The property taxes alone are out of sight."
"Your taxes are not my problem, Dolce."
"The shoes are your problem, MarySue."
I heard the sound of a chair being scraped across the refinished hardwood floor, then a loud thump like something or someone had fallen on the floor. I pressed my ear against the door. All I heard was the whir of a ceiling fan. I reached for the antique doorknob, but it wouldn't turn.
From inside I heard a cry. "Help!"
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