Fashion Faux Paw
A Dog Walker Mystery
It's Fashion Week in New York and Ellie's in charge of the dogs' modeling outfits that match their mommy-mdoels for a fashion competition. But before the first round closes, one of the designers drops dead of anaphylactic shock, her Epipen useless because someone's emptied it.
Ellie Engleman hoisted her packed tote bag over her shoulder, kept Rudy’s leash in her left hand, and balanced a Caramel Bliss coffee in the other. Then she stepped into one of the cavernous rooms that had been prepared to ready the participants for New York City’s most glamorous event. Fashion Week, a yearly celebration, was being held for the first time in the industry’s newly remodeled building near Penn Station.
She still couldn’t believe that she got to be on the sidelines. The winner of the grand finale competition of the show would capture a one-hundred-thousand-dollar prize and a two-year contract with Nola Morgan Design, known in the trade as NMD, a manufacturer of women’s high-end ready-to-wear. The line would be available in Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf’s, Saks, and other upscale mall department stores around the country by the end of next year.
Ellie knew the competition was garnering a lot of attention in the fashion industry. Thirty-five hopefuls had submitted designs based on their idea of what a typical modern woman might wear while at work or out on the town. Four finalists were chosen to compete by the CFDA, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and they and this contest were the culmination of Fashion Week.
She had first heard about it from Patti Fallgrave, one of her clients. As one of the models asked to strut the catwalk, Patti had an in with the committee, and she’d finagled a great job for her dog-walker friend once she learned canines were involved in one of the fashion shows. Ellie was now in charge of the models’ dogs, and would watch over them while their owners were fitted, accessorized, dressed, and had their hair and makeup done.
And for the final day, it was her responsibility to see to it that the dogs in her care were outfitted from head to tail in creations made by each designer to match their owners’ outfit. Whichever pair wowed the committee and Nola Morgan Design would win the prize.
As she entered the room, she scanned the mass of drinking straws with heads and noted that most of the women appeared to walk, talk, and act untouchable as they went about their business for opening day. Those who were the tallest had to be the models, especially since they were the ones who looked as if they hadn’t eaten in a decade.
And the rest? She’d bet her last dime that most of the hairstylists, makeup artists, designers, and runners participating in the show were on the same lettuce leaf and one cracker a day diet.
“Geez. Ya think anybody in this crowd knows how to swallow more than a single piece of kibble at a sitting?” Rudy asked.
She smiled down at him, her voice low. “We’ll talk about it later. For now, let’s just find our spot and stay out of trouble.”
“Hey, trouble is our middle name. We live for trouble. In fact, we’re trouble experts. We—”
She ignored his rambling and jerked on his lead for good measure. The security guard they’d passed on the way in had told her he had no idea where the canines were being kept, but she was welcome to find the area herself. From the amount of activity taking place in this room, she doubted anyone could help her locate the dog pens, which meant she and her boy had to check it out on their own.
After studying the mob of serious fashionistas, Ellie glanced at her work clothes. Her job for the next few days was all dog, so she’d dressed in preparation for poop stains, pee stains, food stains, puke stains, and anything else a furry, four-legged friend might have a paw in creating.
She wore a peach-colored sweater in a washable fabric, with no designer label, and Skechers Kinetix Response shoes, perfect for walking her usual ten-mile-per-day route. Her special touch for the event was her Calvin Klein Ultimate Skinny jeans, which she’d found on a half-price markdown rack. Her best friend, Viv, had insisted it was the least she should wear to work the world’s biggest fashion event, and she’d grudgingly agreed.
“’Scuse me,” a voice said as someone pushed past her with an overloaded clothing rack.
She darted out of the way and bumped into a girl carrying a stack of shoe boxes. The top box hit the ground and Ellie bent to pick it up. Repacking the four-inch, snakeskin Ferragamo heels, she took note of the size and gave herself a mental high five. The model who owned this shoe wore a ten, a full size larger than her. If she got really depressed about her size-twelve Calvins, she’d go barefoot and show off one of her best features: her shapely feet and their freshly pedicured toes.
She set the shoe box on top of the pile, and the person behind the cardboard mountain mumbled a thank-you and stumbled on through the crowd.
“Ellie! Hey, Ellie! I’m over here.”
Raising her head, she eventually spotted Patti Fallgrave waving at her from across the room. At six feet tall, the supermodel was easy to find in a normal crowd, but it wasn’t so simple locating her in this group of towering pencil figures.
Ellie edged through the bustling room, dodging worker-bees and half-naked women standing on podiums, waiting to be clothed. “I’m exhausted just watching all that’s going on,” she said when she reached her dog-walking client. “Is it always like this?”
Patti cradled Cheech—one of two Chihuahua brothers Ellie serviced—in her left arm and clasped Ellie’s elbow in her free hand. “This?” She laughed. “It’s nothing compared to showtime. Just get in sync with the vibes. And be careful of Rudy. Most of the people working this scene love animals, but they’re not used to having them underfoot. That’s why they hired you.”
They dodged another clothes trolley, sidled behind a group of mirrored tables and chairs where two models sat while hairstylists teased and sprayed, and stopped at an open area where a stretchy metal gate formed an eight-foot-diameter pen. “This is the best I could set up for you,” the supermodel said.
Sitting down on one of three chairs wedged between a water cooler and a long table filled with fruit, veggies, protein bars, and high-energy drinks, Patti pointed to a corner. “This is just one of several snack tables set up throughout the show. And around that corner is a patch of fake grass, where the dogs can do their business if there’s an emergency. After that is a door to the outside, so you can come and go with your charges as needed.”
Ellie took a seat and heaved a breath. Resting her tote bag on a knee, she peered at the shelf under the table, half-filled with more food and drinks. “And I guess I can store my stuff down there?”
“Absolutely. In fact, you should probably keep an eye on all of it, because there’s no security guard at this end. I’d make sure my cash and credit cards were tucked in my pocket instead of in the bag, in case someone stopped by and started digging. If you ask, they’ll tell you they’re looking through their bag, but it could be yours.”
Ellie shook her head. “They can look in my bag all they want, but the only thing they’ll find is canine gear. I brought gourmet biscuits, extra leashes, folding water bowls, a couple of old throws, and anything else I thought the dogs might need that their owners would forget.”
“Perfect. And guess what?” Patti raised an expertly arched brow. “I got you a runner. Kitty’s around here somewhere and she can’t wait to be your assistant.”
Ellie smothered a smile. She had an assistant named Kitty and they were herding a group of dogs? There had to be a joke in there somewhere.
“And the models and their babies?”
“They’ll be here soon. The designers are already on-site, of course, but they have yet to see the dogs in person. All they know is the breed.”
“Do you have that list I asked for? With the names of the designers, and the models and their dogs?”
Patti pulled a small spiral pad from her alligator bag and Ellie had to grin. It looked just like the kind her boyfriend, Sam, carried when he was on a case. In fact, it was exactly what she’d used in July, when she and Viv had run into a murder in the Hamptons.
“Here you go,” she said, passing her the tablet. “Janice wrote down the details. I hope it’s what you were looking for.”
“Your sister did a great job. It’s exactly what I wanted,” said Ellie, flipping through the pages. “So, what should I do now?”
Patti handed her Cheech, checked her watch, and tucked her own bag under the table. “Since there are usually three or four shows going on at the same time, most of the girls are modeling for other designers until it’s time for the NMD walk. For instance, I have a fitting for a Vena Cava evening gown; then I’m scheduled to show three outfits for another up-and-comer, so I have to run.”
Patti stood. “I guess your first job would be to keep my baby happy and wait for the mob to arrive. His travel bed is in my bag. Just get ready to meet some huge personalities while you wait for the models to drop off their dogs, and the designers to show up. If you’re into people-watching, this is the place to be.”
When she sauntered away with her shiny dark brown hair swinging down her slender back, there was no doubt in Ellie’s mind that her client was a supermodel. Patti commanded attention, even when she wore a tank top, faded jeans, and red leather ankle boots.
“Too bad a doll like Patti’s wastin’ her time on that hairball,” Rudy groused, giving the Chihuahua the fish eye. “I still say somebody should report him and his brother to INS.”
“Oh, stop.” Ellie kissed Cheech’s tiny nose, then placed him gently in the pen and dug his doggie bed out of Patti’s bag. “Cheech and Chong are not illegal immigrants. They’re bona fide residents of this country, and even if they weren’t, it’s none of your business.”
“I’m just sayin’—”
“Too much. Now let’s people-watch, like Patti suggested.”
“How about you let me sit up there with you? The less time I gotta spend down here with the hairless wonder, the better.”
She patted the chair next to her and trained her eyes on the passersby, while Rudy bolted into position and sat at attention. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw two famous faces. “Look, there’s Christian Siriano walking with Michael Kors.” She watched the men as they raced past, talking quietly. “Viv will die when I tell her who was here.”
Just then, a tall, attractive man arrived on the scene, along with a beautifully dressed older woman. Behind them strode two assistants, each carrying a huge box. “I’m Jeffery King,” the man said, grabbing Ellie’s hand. “And this is Nola McKay.” He nodded toward his companion. “We have gifts for the models and designers from Nola Morgan Design.” He flashed a bright smile. “And you, too, if you’re Ellie Engleman.”
“That’s me,” she said, matching his grin. She then shook the woman’s hand. “Ms. McKay, it’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work your show.”
“We’re happy to have you. Now if you don’t mind, I have a ton of things to take care of.” She nodded at the assistants, who were unloading and lining up baskets covered in colored plastic wrap onto the table. “I’ll let Jeffery tell you what this is all about.”
Giving a wave, she left the scene, and Jeffery took over.
“These are gift baskets, or swag bags, as we call them. You’re in charge of them until my sister gets here, so watch over them carefully. The swag in each basket adds up to about five thousand retail, and every one is tagged for its owner because the items inside were targeted directly for them.” He searched the line and picked up a basket wrapped in pale green plastic. “Patti Fallgrave handpicked the items in yours, so speak to her if you’re not happy with your loot.”
Ellie held the basket to her chest. “Thanks, and I’ll be sure to take care of these. Will you be around or—”
A tiny woman with blond spiky hair and a huge smile rushed over, clasped Ellie’s hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Kitty King, and I’m so sorry I’m late.” She gasped for breath. “I’m your assistant for the next four days.”
Two hours later, Ellie finally had the time to study her runner, who was no more than five feet tall and looked to be just out of high school. So far, the diminutive girl had worked her butt off, welcoming models, collecting their dogs, kowtowing to designers, and running errands for whoever needed her. She’d even held a one-sided conversation with Rudy, who had found an out-of-the- way spot under the table and made it his own.
In short, she’d been a breath of fresh air in the middle of high fashion chaos.
Because it was near noon, things had quieted down, so Ellie asked Kitty to sit with her next to the water cooler. “You seem to know everyone,” she said. “Have you worked in this industry long?”
“I’ve been an assistant for the past three years while I studied at Parsons School for Design. My brother—”
“The man who delivered the baskets?”
“Right. When he finally got his big break with NMD, the company sponsoring this event, I got a break, too. He’s their new Director of Promotions, so he’s my boss.”
The information had Ellie recalculating Kitty’s age. “Do you mind if I ask you another personal question?”
“You want to know how old I am, right?”
Pleased to see that Kitty was smiling, she said, “Sorry. You must get that a lot.”
“At least once a week, and I don’t mind.” When Rudy crawled out from under the table and jumped in her lap, Kitty ruffled his ears. “I mean, I’ll probably be happy that I have this baby face in another twenty years or so.” She ran a hand through her blond hair. “I’ll be twenty-five on my next birthday.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. And Rudy seems to like you, too, which is a good sign, considering he doesn’t cuddle up to just anyone.”
Her yorkiepoo gave a groan of contentment under Kitty’s gentle hand. “This chick is too much.”
Unaware of Rudy’s positive comment, Kitty said, “Your boy’s a cutie, but I’m into all dogs. What about you?” Then she giggled. “Oh, gosh, that was a totally dumb thing to say. Of course you are. I mean, you make your living working with dogs, so you must love them, right?”
“Dogs are the center of my life,” Ellie answered, hoping her sincerity showed. “When I rescued Rudy, he rescued me, and he’s become my best four-legged friend. I also walk some of the greatest canines in this city. It’s a treat being here with little guys, because they’re my favorite size.”
“Mine, too,” Kitty said, scratching Rudy under his chin. “But my building is a no-go on pets. As soon as my designs make money, I’m going to move to a place that will let me have a dog.” She heaved a sigh, leaned back in her chair, and surveyed the people still rushing past. “We may be here all night, even though the designers are supposed to be finished with their first piece by four. The initial runway walk is scheduled to close the day at five, but with everyone jockeying for Karen Hood to do their hair and Eduardo to do their makeup, it’ll be a miracle if they make it on time.”
Ellie’d been hoping to meet someone besides Patti who had an inside track on the fashion business—someone who could fill her in on industry gossip and secrets—and it sounded as if Kitty would be able to do just that. “I guess you know quite a bit about this contest? What it took for the designers to get here and all?”
Kitty glanced at the industry professionals walking around the pen, stopping at the water cooler, grazing the snack table, and interacting with the dogs. Sizing up the bodies covered in tattoos, alienlike hairdos, and strange clothing combinations, she said, “This business is crazy. You’ll meet folks from every walk of life here, all hoping for their big break. Each day is different, and I love it that way.”
She lowered her chin, and Ellie moved closer. “But not everyone in the industry is pleasant. There’s backbiting and smack talk, plus a lot of design theft.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Believe me, I know that firsthand.”
Before Ellie could comment, a dark-haired woman appeared before them. Dressed in red spandex pants, a red tunic, and red strappy heels, she parted the crowd with her presence, seemingly not worried that she was late to the festivities. After stowing a huge bag under the table, she set her mini Schnauzer in the pen with the models’ dogs.
She glared at Kitty. “This is the place where the dogs are being kept for the Nola contest, correct?”
Kitty brushed away her tears and sat straighter in her chair. “Hello, Lilah. How are you doing?”
The woman held her hand out to Ellie, acting as if Kitty hadn’t spoken. “I’m Lilah Perry, one of the four designers. You must be Ellie, the dog sitter.”
“She’s the dog professional, Lilah,” Kitty answered, her voice tight with displeasure. “And one look at the little guys in the pen should tell you where you are.”
“Oh, hello, Kitty,” Lilah said, as if seeing the girl for the first time. “What are you doing here?”
Kitty’s pink-tinted lips thinned. “I guess you haven’t heard. NMD and the CFDA hired me to assist for this gig.”
“Well, how lucky for you to have a bigwig brother working at NMD these days.” Lilah almost sneered. “I’m starving,” she announced, her tone demanding. “Is there anything decent to eat around here?”
Lilah’s voice was so loud just about everyone within shouting distance turned to stare. Couldn’t the woman see the table filled with food?
Standing, Kitty picked up an energy bar. “There’s plenty of fruit, and I hear these are good, with lots of flavors to choose from. They even have—”
“Aah! Are you trying to kill me?” Lilah’s voice rose to shrill. “There are peanuts in that bar.”
Kitty’s face flushed red. “Sorry, sorry. I forgot about your allergy. Let me read the list of ingredients. There’s got to be one here that doesn’t contain peanuts.”
Ellie continued to watch the show. The rude designer was as thin as a supermodel and quite beautiful, but she didn’t look healthy. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and her wrinkled forehead added years to her face.
The crowd murmured as Lilah kept muttering. “She knows about my food problems . . . clear the night of . . . could kill me . . . Thank God I have my pen.”
“That dame needs a conk on the head,” Rudy stated, watching Lilah retrieve her bag from under the table and begin to dig.
When she finished complaining, she ignored a flustered Kitty, who was still reading ingredients from the different bars, and flounced to Ellie’s side. Narrowing her hazel eyes, she inspected Rudy from head to tail. “I thought all the dogs in this contest were purebreds. This one certainly isn’t.”
The second Ellie heard the comment she wrapped her fingers around her yorkiepoo’s muzzle. “This is Rudy. He’s a pound puppy of the best kind, and he’s all mine.”
Kitty stopped reading the energy bars and glanced at Ellie. “You’ll have to forgive Lilah. Besides her peanut allergy, she has another severe affliction. It’s called overinflated ego.”
Several of the people standing nearby laughed. As if making a point, the designer put her hands on her nonexistent hips and nodded toward her mini Schnauzer. “My baby’s competed in conformation shows, so I know something about the canine world. I was assured I’d be fitting a purebred dog.”
“Just because a dog isn’t a purebred doesn’t mean they’re bad, or untrainable, or unlovable,” Kitty interjected.
Lilah’s kohl-lined eyes narrowed. “Poor you, still feeling sorry for yourself because you didn’t get one of the design spots.” She focused on Ellie, who felt as if she was sitting center court at the US Open. “Have you seen Cassandra or Yasmine? They’re my models, and I wanted to take a good look at them before their fitting.”
“Uh, no,” Ellie said. “But maybe I could—” She stifled a grin as a Bradley Cooper look-alike dressed in a black tank top and well-fitting black jeans strolled to her side.
“Hello,” he said, sizing her up from head to toe. “I’m Marcus David. One of the designers.” He shook Ellie’s hand with a strong grip that matched his generous biceps. “I heard I was getting a new plus-sized model. Is that you?”
Plus-sized model? Ellie didn’t know whether to be ticked off or pleased. To this group, plus-sized was a term for anyone who wore a size twelve or larger, but asking if she was a model . . . ? “Um, nope. I’m in charge of the dogs.”
He gave her another once-over. “Too bad. Not about the dog thing, but about the modeling. Your hair is fabulous, and so are your eyes. I could do a lot with you, if you wanted to change professions.”
“Marcus, really,” Lilah began. “She’s not exactly model material. Her shoulders are too broad, and her ass, well—”
“Well, nothing,” Marcus said, huffing out a breath. “I could do great things with that—”
“Maybe you should stick to designing for chubby women, since they do run in your family.” She folded her arms and shifted her gaze to Ellie. “This one reminds me of—”
“Excuse me, but I’m standing right here,” Ellie said. She nodded toward two women who had just entered the scene, one carrying a French bulldog, and the other who was dogless. “And I believe these are your models.”
Hours later, Ellie’s head was spinning. She’d spent the afternoon meeting several more people, all involved with the contest in some way, and heard everything that had led to the competition a dozen times over. The way she understood it, not only had the designers and models been handpicked, but the makeup artists and hairstylists were at the top of their field, too.
The amount of hours the designers had dedicated to this endeavor was mind-boggling. Four designers had been assigned two models each, one who met the fashion industry’s strict standards, the other a female of “normal” size, who represented the woman of today. The designer would outfit the two models in identical designs of day wear and evening wear, and finally, a third outfit for both the models and their dogs.
That meant three original designs for two women, and two canine outfits as well. It was, she decided as she watched the models being fitted into the first outfit, a huge task. In between observing the preparations, she’d taken the dogs out twice, made sure they had water and treats, and comforted them when they complained about being cooped up in the pen.
For some reason, the snappish Lilah Perry had added her mini Schnauzer, Klingon, to the group, automatically assuming Ellie would care for him with the other purebreds. Besides Cheech, there was a second Chihuahua, two Yorkies, two French bulldogs, another mini Schnauzer.
To make matters more complicated, a model named Cassandra had forgotten her dog, which made no sense to Ellie, but the missing animal wasn’t her problem. Unfortunately, the no-show had caused a heated flare-up between Lilah and her model, which made things uncomfortable whenever they were around.
Even though all the dogs weren’t able to communicate with her in the psychic manner she could employ with dogs she knew well, they seemed easy to work with and didn’t have the diva complex from which several of their owners suffered. Lilah Perry’s dog in particular had a very sweet disposition compared to that of his bossy mistress.
Jeffery King had also dropped by every so often to make sure things were on track, and Morgan Prince, the other half of Nola Morgan Design, had come to inspect the premises several more times.
On each visit, Jeffery had taken his sister aside for a private conversation. Ellie hadn’t been able to hear what they said, but their body language and facial expressions told her it had something to do with Lilah’s brash treatment of Kitty.
Right now, several of the models and designers were going through their gift bags, comparing items and guessing their retail worth. Besides the goodies, NMD was using the contest to launch a new perfume line with a product called Forever. The perfume was said to equal the best in the industry, but the unique way it was dispensed was its selling point.
Small pads held waxy strips the size of an address label. All the wearers of the perfume had to do was peel off the strip and place it on any pulse point or warm spot on their body. The strip would dissolve into the wearer’s skin while the scent stayed with them for hours.
Lilah picked up her basket and plopped down next to Ellie, as if they were close friends. Then she reached into her gift bag and pulled out her perfume pad. “Mmm. Mine is supposed to represent summer, so it smells like lavender and verbena. Who knew I was a freak for lavender?” Lilah asked as she stuck a waxy strip between her breasts. “Isn’t this great? I can smell it already. And look how easy they’ll be to carry.” She dropped the pad back into her swag bag and tucked it under the table. “I love it. Don’t you?”
Ellie dug through her basket, moving past a Bottega Veneta handbag, until she found her scent pad. Hers was decorated in a delicate green with gold leaf and labeled Spring. After giving the pad a quick sniff, she did the same as Lilah—peeled off a strip and tucked it in her bra. Moments later, a soft but refreshing aroma that did indeed remind her of a cool spring rain wafted to her nose.
When someone called out “five minutes,” the mob of models and designers scattered, racing to the area behind the runway to get a final review before stepping onto the catwalk. Seconds later, the show’s prominent emcee, Kurt Jager, announced the details of the NMD contest and its first design showing: day wear.
Ellie and Rudy tiptoed to the back of the crowd, hoping to sneak a peak at the runway. Music floated from the loudspeakers as the first contestant, Marcus David, began the day wear competition. She wasn’t sure she liked the black slacks with their wide cuffed legs and tight waist, but she did approve of the top his models wore, which consisted of a short, fitted red jacket over what looked to be a plain white blouse. But after Patti and Claire Smith did the usual walk to a goodly round of applause, they removed the jackets at the end of the runway and showed the pin-tuck detailing on the front and back that made the blouse interesting and unique.
Designer number two was Anton Rouch, a guy with a dark look in his eyes and a face devoid of expression. She’d only met him once, when he asked her which of the dogs belonged to his models, Lawan and Kate. He made no comment when he was introduced to a white Chihuahua and a Yorkie, so Ellie figured he wasn’t dog friendly.
The applause continued as the models strutted their stuff. Kurt Jager made appropriate commentary, even throwing in a few jokes during the walks. Designer number three, Fiona Ray, was introduced. Her models, Dominique and Crystal, both owned French bulldogs. The color scheme of Fiona’s day wear, consisting of oranges and yellows, was too bright for Ellie’s taste, but the audience seemed to love the pencil-slim, knee-length skirt and wide-shouldered jacket.
Last to show was Lilah Perry. Her models, Cassandra McQuagge and Yasmine, appeared professional, though the day wear Lilah had created was, in Ellie’s mind, far from appealing. The skirt, made of black leather or something like it, showed more thigh than any professional would want to wear, and the jacket looked tight and uncomfortable. When each model slipped off her jacket, the fitted black tee had no special detailing, which only helped to make the suit a bore.
The applause continued as all eight models reappeared and took another strut down the runway and back, lining up along the rear curtain. Then the four designers, the real stars of the event, strode front and center. But when the applause ended abruptly on a sudden gasp, Ellie shifted from behind the curtain to see what had happened.
“I can’t see. What’s goin’ on?” asked Rudy, trying to climb up her leg.
Gazing at the audience, she realized that everyone’s eyes were focused on the designers. “I’m not sure,” she answered, rising on tiptoe and peering between the heads of the backstage crowd. Then she spotted Lilah Perry, her hands clasping her throat as if she were fighting to draw air into her lungs.
Ellie shoved through the statuelike mob without thinking. The models and designers moved back when the emcee rushed over to lend a hand, and Ellie joined him. Lilah had dropped to the floor, her mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, her face swelling so quickly one could actually see the changes as they morphed her features into a puffy mass.
“She’s in anaphylactic shock,” someone screamed. “Where’s her bag? She carries an EpiPen.”
The emcee rose from his knees. “We need an EpiPen! Does anyone in the audience have an EpiPen!”
Ellie took off running, relieved to find the crowd parting, and raced to the food table. There, she dragged Lilah’s bag out from under it, dug inside, and found what she thought was an EpiPen. After pulling it out, she hiked the bag over her shoulder and shot back to the stage.
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