In the Line of Ire – Camilla Chafer

“Check us out,” said Lily, placing her left hand over mine so that we could view our engagement and wedding rings side-by-side. Lily had been wearing hers for a while now but my wedding ring was less than a month old. My left hand still felt the extra weight from the newness of the band. “We’re all grown up.” “I never thought we would live long enough to say those words,” I admitted. “There were some crazy moments,” agreed Lily. “Now zip me into this cocktail glass.” “Breathe in and suck hard!” I demanded. Lily sucked in a deep breath and I yanked the zipper of the neoprene costume upwards. She turned around, hopping slightly, thanks to the narrow stem glass that formed the leg compartment. “How do I look?” she asked, her face peeking out of the constricted head hole. “On a scale of one to crazy?” Lily nodded. “Twelve,” I decided. “Are you sure this will drum up more business for the bar?” We both turned to look at the long mirror Lily had recently installed in the employee bathroom. Lily’s costume was shaped like a martini glass, complete with a stemmed cherry that was perched on top.

I really “lucked out” with my outfit. I was a pint of beer. Amber-colored satin, topped with a rim of white, frothy foam that was made out of some kind of fluffy, synthetic fabric and couldn’t be allowed within a mile of a naked flame. Emerging from the middle of each of the costumes were our faces. Surprisingly, we weren’t even blushing but I figured that would change just as soon as we waddled outside with the stacks of flyers that Lily printed up to promote happy hour at the bar she owned and ran. “I think we look awesome,” said Lily. “I knew I should have gotten the wine glass suit for Ruby. I wish I’d covered all the bases: beer, wine, and cocktails.” “Rookie error,” I lamented as I shook my head, adding a dab of lip gloss until I realized it didn’t do anything to improve my look. Nothing could have.

“Let’s go outside and hand these flyers out to the passersby.” Lily attempted to hook her arm through mine as we headed for the restroom door. We both gave up when we got stuck in the gap. Eventually, Lily gave me a shove and the beer suit squeezed before the sides collapsed and I was thrust out first. I reached behind me and tugged Lily through, turning just in time to see her cherry stem hitting the top of the door frame and waggling back and forth. “How fortuitous it is that you just got back from your honeymoon and don’t have any cases lined up,” remarked Lily as we wobbled forwards. “So fortuitous,” I sighed. When I departed for my honeymoon, I was Lexi Graves, Private Investigator; when I returned, I was Lexi Graves, flammable beer glass. It wasn’t the career turn I chose or expected, but I did promise to help Lily out, especially since, as she pointed out, I didn’t have anything better to do at present. We waddled through the quiet bar and stepped onto the sidewalk, blinking at the bright sunlight.

“Happy hour at Lily’s Bar!” Lily announced loudly, shoving flyers into the hands of the two young men who were walking past. They took one cursory look and stuffed the flyers into their jeans pockets. “They’re a sure thing,” said Lily with absolute conviction. I handed a flyer to a mom with twins strapped in a stroller. “Overindulgence in alcohol is how I got these two,” she whined, pointing to her toddlers before she handed the flyer back while shaking her head. “Drink more responsibly,” called Lily, waving as the mom pushed her twins away. “Bit late for that,” I added but Lily had already jumped into the path of a group of neatly suited women. She was reeling off the cocktail list and trying to convince them to come to happy hour post work. I turned away, pushing a flyer into the hands of the next oncoming man. “Happy hour at Lily’s Bar.

Bring your friends!” “Lexi?” said my colleague, Tony Delgado. His mouth twitched like he didn’t know whether to laugh or ask the obvious. “Is that really you?” I sighed. Of course, I had to bump into someone I knew. “Good Lord, it is you!” squeaked my sister, Serena, who was married to Delgado. She gave me a head-to-toe scan before pulling a disgusted, but impeccably made up face at me. In her smart pantsuit and blouse, she appeared the exact opposite of me. Outshining me was one of Serena’s primary reasons for living so she took any opportunity very seriously. Yanking the flyer from Delgado, she raised her eyebrows. “Did Solomon already fire you?” she asked.

“No!” “You’ve only been married a month!” “He did not fire me!” “Why are you doing this?” Serena persisted. “What is wrong with you? What if someone sees you? What if someone I know sees you?” “Hi, Serena! Hi, Tony!” Lily waved cheerfully. “This is so embarrassing,” muttered Serena. “Do not tell anyone you know me, let alone, that we’re related,” she added as she pushed past us hastily. “No problem,” I replied, grinning as I handed Delgado another flyer. “Not a word of this to anyone,” I warned him in case he had any funny ideas. Delgado pulled his phone from his pocket and snapped a photo just as I blinked while making a face. “Fantastic,” he said, checking it briefly before looking thrilled. “Antonio!” Serena grabbed his hand and dragged him bodily after her. Not that he needed dragging; he followed Serena happily.

If she walked off a cliff, he’d probably follow her in a heartbeat. Whether Serena walked off or got pushed off, however, was another question entirely! “Delete that!” I yelled after him. “Send me a copy!” added Lily. I sighed. Not only would I have to live with the humiliation of knowing that photo was in circulation, now I also had to devise a clever way to get back at my favorite brother-in-law. To be fair, marrying my sister should have been punishment enough, but even that wasn’t quite as satisfying as actually punking him when he least expected it. “Happy hour at Lily’s Bar,” I said, forcing another flyer into the hand of the next man to cross my path. “I’m an alcoholic,” he said, gazing wistfully at the bar entrance. I snatched the flyer from him. “Keep fighting the good fight,” I told him.

“But…” He edged towards the bar but I blocked him. He headed to my left and I blocked him again. “Go to an AA meeting,” I said. “Now move along.” “Okay,” he agreed, his face falling visibly as he shuffled away. “I think we’re targeting the wrong people,” I said, turning to Lily. She was posing in the middle of a group of frat boys and beaming like a lantern as they took multiple photos. “Come to happy hour, but don’t forget your IDs,” she called out, waving as they took off, blowing her kisses. “They’re so cute,” she said to me. “I told them the prettiest girls in all of Montgomery work at my bar.

So they’re going to bring their friends when they come.” “The old one in the beer glass is kinda hot,” remarked one of them as they walked away. “I am not old!” I yelled after them. “And psycho too,” I heard the frat boy mutter. “That’s really sexy.” I turned to Lily. “I hope they behave themselves.” “Now you’re sounding old in the wrong way,” she said, giving me a look. “You need a nicer clientele,” I told her as I inserted several flyers into the hands of a group of men in business suits. “Happy hour.

Two-for-one drinks!” “Hot girls too!” added Lily and we suddenly got an observable reaction as well as a promise to arrive right after work. “See?” said Lily. “Will there actually be any hot girls?” “Yes!” said Lily. She quickly distributed several flyers to a group of pretty women. “Two-for-one drinks and lotsa hot guys!” she chirped as the women giggled and nodded before making fast plans to attend. “I see what you did there,” I said, preparing to hand more flyers out. The fixed smile turned to a real one when I saw the tall, dark-haired man who approached me next. “Lexi?” said Maddox, his eyes roaming over my costume. “I figured you’d have a tan from your honeymoon but you’ve turned really… golden.” “That’s the beer suit,” chipped in Lily.

She leaned over and the cherry stem bounced in front of my face and back up again. “Doesn’t she look great?” “She’s something else, all right,” said Maddox, biting the insides of his cheeks. “Did you lose a bet?” “No, I’m helping out a friend,” I snapped pertly as I handed him a flyer. “Tell all of your buddies to bring their fat wallets.” “Hah,” said Maddox. “I work in law enforcement.” “There’ll be plenty of hot girls,” added Lily. “Really?” asked Maddox. “No,” I said. “Ow! Lily! You kicked me!” “Not working for your husband anymore?” Maddox asked, swallowing hard when he said “husband.

” “Work is pretty quiet so I took the day off. Why do you have a tan? Have you been vacationing somewhere?” I asked. Maddox stilled. “Quick work trip abroad. Mostly outdoor surveillance.” “Do you have a tan line? We were talking about tan lines earlier,” chatted Lily. “Lexi barely has any. She already showed me.” Maddox raked his eyes over me and for a moment, I forgot I was dressed in a plush beer glass costume. “Interesting,” he said.

“Do you two strip very often just to compare each other’s tan lines?” “Doesn’t everyone?” replied Lily sarcastically. She shuffled away to distribute more flyers, repeating her marketing pitch to the group of women she next accosted. “What are you wearing underneath that rig?” asked Maddox. “I can’t answer that,” I told him, since I didn’t want to admit I was already starting to overheat in my gym shorts and tank top, the only clothing that I could fit under the costume without causing any chafing or making me sweat bullets. “No need. I have a good imagination,” he said. “But you’re a married woman now so I’m not sure if it’s illegal for me to have thoughts like that.” “I think you’re still safe,” I decided. Then I caught his meaning. “But stop thinking about me like that!” “Too late,” he said as he winked.

“I have a good memory; one that doesn’t involve tan lines either.” “It’s nice to see you,” I said. “In the flesh.” Maddox smiled as I pictured him in the flesh before I had to squeeze my eyes shut tightly to stop the image. I could not think about my friend like that even if he were my ex-boyfriend and I was born with a vivid imagination along with an excellent memory. “Why are you muttering ‘make it stop’ and drooling a little bit?” asked Maddox. “Do you want me to take you to the ER?” My eyes snapped open. “Nope. Totally fine. How’s the FBI business going?” I asked since it was the first safe question that popped into my head.

“Same old, same old. I’m currently working undercover so I might not run into you for a while.” “Anything exciting?” “You never know when you go undercover,” he said with a sad smile. Maddox and I met when he was an undercover detective for the Montgomery Police Department. Back then, he was masquerading as my boss, Adam Shepherd, at an insurance firm where I was the lowly, hired temp. After stumbling over our boss’s body, I fell headlong into a mystery that I was bound and determined to solve. At the conclusion of that case, a lot of wonderful things emerged: a wonderful relationship with Maddox and a job offer from Solomon. My relationship with Maddox ended prematurely due to a stupid miscommunication but we still managed to maintain a friendship. And I married Solomon. “Let me know if you need anything,” I told him.

“You’re at the top of my list,” he said. Then he leaned in and attempted to kiss my cheek but had to struggle due to the position of my face inside the plastic foam. He kissed the tip of my nose instead. “You look pretty cute,” he said before he left. “Did you give him a flyer?” asked Lily. I looked at the flyers still in my hands. “I have no idea,” I said. “Heads up! Incoming! Make sure they all get flyers,” said Lily, nodding to the approaching group. “Try and really look like you want them to come to my bar. Smile!” I smiled until my face hurt and within an hour, nearly all our flyers had been distributed.

“Hah-hah!” giggled a voice behind me as someone planted hands on my back and shoved me hard. I went sprawling, my hands hitting the sidewalk to prevent me from doing a faceplant. I winced as my palms grazed the gravel on the hard ground. Wriggling around like a severely angry snake, I tried to get back on my feet. All my efforts failed. I was stuck, my legs and arms flailing and waving in the air like an overturned bug. The gang of mischievous boys giggled as they hurried past me, pointing and laughing while Lily scolded them. I flopped my head back and stared up at the sky, wondering if mine and Lily’s friendship was worth suffering so much humiliation. Lily leaned over me, the cherry on top of her costume bobbling down in my face. “Those little bastards,” she said.

“I’m going to tell Jord to track them down and tell all of their parents.” “Now look who’s talking like an old person,” I said, raising my sore hand for Lily to grip. “Help me up.” Lily grabbed my hand and with a little teeter-tottering, managed to get me upright enough that I could kneel. Bouncing on my knees in order to create upward momentum while Lily tugged on my hand to balance me so I didn’t topple backwards, I got one leg straightened out and pushed up. “I have never felt so relieved to be upright,” I told her. “This is a beautiful moment,” agreed Lily. “Let’s go inside. I think I owe you a drink.” Solomon collected me from the bar an hour later.

By then, the beer costume was long gone, replaced with black jeans and a sky blue t-shirt. My damp hair was swept into a neat ponytail and I was on my second martini. Lily was behind the bar of course, opposite me, surveying the steady trickle of customers. “Hi,” said Solomon. He lifted my left hand and kissed the two rings on my finger. “Aww,” said Lily. “Did you two have a good afternoon?” he asked. “Meh,” I said, lifting one shoulder and dropping it. There was no way I would admit to spending my afternoon dressed up like a glass of beer. Solomon pulled up a bar stool near me and sat down before reaching into his pocket for his cellphone.

“I saw a funny video earlier. I think it might have been filmed right outside your bar,” he told Lily. “Two people were dressed up as giant alcohol vessels. Did you hire someone to do that?” “Oh, yeah,” said Lily, winking at me. “You saw a video?” I asked. “Where?” “YouTube. Seventeen thousand views.” Solomon turned his cellphone screen towards us and I watched myself floundering on the ground while Lily tried to pull me up. It didn’t seem that long when I was down there but now that I saw the video, it turned out to be a full three minutes in duration. “Seventeen thousand views?” I gulped.

“Twenty-four thousand now,” said Solomon. “Lily, your bar is going viral.” “That’s amazing!” Lily beamed. “Can you, um, see who the two people are?” I asked, transfixed by the horror I was glimpsing on the small screen. “No, but I figure that’s a good thing. You might want to hire them again,” said Solomon. “It’s pretty funny. Do you still have those costumes?” “Oh, yes,” said Lily, turning to me, her eyes widening. “Time to go home,” I said. There was no way I would go back out in that rig again.

I handed Solomon his phone and hopped off the stool before hugging Lily quickly over the bar. Then I grabbed Solomon’s hand and tugged him after me. Nobody could talk me into putting that costume on ever again. “You’re awfully eager to leave,” said Solomon. “I need to get you home immediately.” Solomon raised his eyebrows. “I’ll drive very fast,” he said. “No, it’s not like…” I paused. What was I thinking? “Okay, maybe like that,” I said. “I missed you.

Two weeks on our honeymoon and having you all to myself is over; now it’s back to the real world again.” “Do you want to take more time off?” he asked. “I thought you were looking forward to going back to work.” “I am,” I told him, squeezing his hand as we walked towards his car. “But I’m also looking forward to spending a quiet evening with you.” “I’m happy to hear that. I got you a gift,” he added. “A gift?” “Something I thought you’d like. It’s at home. Speaking of homes…” “We need to make a decision,” I finished for him.

Solomon had a lovely, large, brick house in Chilton and I had a smaller, but very delightful, yellow bungalow. Currently, we were living in the smaller home and hadn’t decided which home would become our permanent residence. There was no point in having one house sitting empty. “No, we just need to talk about it. We don’t have to make any decision yet.” “Oh. Okay.” The thumping that started in my chest instantly faded. We got into the car and Solomon drove home, pulling up at the curb. I unlocked the door and Solomon followed me in.

Waiting on the console was a bag from a high-end department store. I opened it eagerly and pulled out a gift box wrapped in silk ribbon. “This is so unexpected,” I said, utterly thrilled. From behind me, Solomon tucked his arms around me and rested his chin on my shoulder. “Open it up,” he said. I undid the ribbon and lifted the lid, then peeled back the tissue paper. Nestled inside was a purse that I’d been coveting for months. I pulled it out, more than delighted, and turned it over in my hands. “This is so generous of you,” I said, becoming more thrilled as I examined it closer. “Do you like it?” “Like it? I lo—” I stopped, frowning as I began peering closer.

That couldn’t be right. “What is it? You don’t like the color?” “The color is fine,” I said, growing more distracted. “It is the right size?” “Definitely.” “If you don’t like it, say so; it’s okay,” said Solomon. “No, it’s not that, it’s—” My face burned. This was mortifying. “Where did you buy it?” I asked. “Heavenly Handbags. They have a store in the mall. Why?” “You went down there and bought it?” “Earlier today.

Lexi, what’s wrong?” Solomon stood straighter, turning me by the shoulders to face him. I looked up at him, still holding the bag in my hands while a sick feeling filled my stomach. “It’s a fake,” I said. “What do you mean?” “It looks like a designer bag. Actually, it’s very good, but it’s a fake.” “Fake? As in counterfeit? Are you kidding me?” I shook my head. “It’s a very good fake but it’s definitely a knockoff. Solomon, I’m so sorry but you’ve been duped.” He stilled in disbelief. “Are you absolutely sure?” I nodded.

“Unfortunately, yes. See the pattern logo?” I said, pointing to the seam. “A real one would never cut the logo in half with the seam and the hardware isn’t heavy enough either. I’m sure if I looked even closer, I could find other details that are wrong too. Anyone could be fooled by it. John, you need to return this at once and insist on getting your money back.” “I am so embarrassed,” said Solomon. “I thought I got a nice gift for my wife.” “You did in your mind and I’m thrilled you thought of doing something so lovely,” I said. I dumped the purse back in the box and reached around his neck, kissing him but he didn’t respond.

“I’m not mad at you. I’m mad that someone sold you this as if it were an original; and worse still, coming from a high-end store like Heavenly Handbags!” Solomon wrapped his arms around my waist. “I’ll take it back tomorrow,” he told me, “and I’ll be sure you get a real one.” “You know I have everything I want already,” I told him. “Purse or no purse, I have you.” “‘Til death do us part,” said Solomon. He paused and I wondered if he was considering all those close calls I’d had. Then he confirmed that by adding, “But let’s try to make that later rather than sooner.” Chapter Two “Ninety-three thousand views,” I groaned. “Why do people watch that stuff? Don’t they have anything better to do with their lives than to gawk at a grown woman wearing a beer costume rolling on the ground?” “You watched it seven times,” said Lily.

We stood in her kitchen, two delicious, freshly-made, fruit smoothies in front of us. They were a pleasant change from the revolting, green smoothies she tried to convince me to drink before my wedding. I rolled my eyes, closed YouTube and set my cellphone on the table. “That’s not the point.” “It is the point,” Lily argued. “It means fourteen thousand people watched it six times each. Fourteen thousand individuals are better than ninety-three thousand although I’d prefer ninety-three thousand to know about my bar. Someone is still making a lot of money.” “Making money? How?” “Viral videos like those get a pay-per-click fee. The more views they receive, the more money they get paid,” she explained.

“Really?” “Yep.” “I want it taken down now and terminated forever. I’m going to complain.” I shot to my feet, fully determined to achieve my goal, before I realized I had no idea why standing up would make any difference so I sat down again. “On what grounds? You need to convince the person who shot the video. The account is called Purple Monster.” “Do you think they’ll be listed in the phone book?” I asked skeptically. “I think it’s probably a pseudonym,” said Lily. “There are strict rules on naming your children.” “Not strict enough,” I said, considering some of the ridiculous names I’d heard.

“How do I find Purple Monster? I can’t walk the streets shouting it out. People will think I’m crazy.” All I knew about Purple Monster was that the videographer must have shot it from across the street. Which meant they might have a business in the general area of Lily’s Bar. If they lived in Montgomery, I might be able to find them… eventually… although it would take a lot of time and effort. If the person were just passing through town, it would almost certainly be impossible to identify them. Locating them and persuading them to take the video taken down would be even harder work, and if any money were involved, all the more difficult. I wondered if I could even find the videographer with the scant information I had. Perhaps I should begin by making a list of surveillance cameras in the area? Maybe call in Lucas’s technical expertise? No, scrap that. Lucas would want to know the reason why.

“They don’t already?” asked Lily as she winked. “Ha-ha. Is that math correct? Only fourteen thousand people might have watched it?” I could only wonder. Lily nodded. “Pretty close. It could have been seven thousand people who watched it twelve times each.” “You’re just trying to make me feel better. You just want ninety-three thousand people to visit the bar.” “Not all at the same time but yeah.” “That’s still a lot of people laughing at me.

” “It’s not the first time. And it won’t be the last.” Recalling some of the hideous headlines I’d inadvertently instigated in the past few years made me seriously consider if now were a good time to think about leaving town. Perhaps Solomon and I could start somewhere completely new? Somewhere far away and remote. Possibly tropical! We could live the simple life in a thatched hut on a beach, drinking smoothies from coconut shells that dropped from the nearby palm trees and we could bathe in all the gorgeous waterfalls. There would be no mysteries. No dangerous people. And, more crucially, no video cameras. However, knowing my luck, we’d probably be raided by pirates on our first day in paradise. “Solomon bought me a gift,” I said, changing the topic.

“Ooh, really? What?” “That purse I wanted.” Lily squealed. “No!” “Yes, but also no. It was a fake.” Lily observed me for any sign of a joke. When she realized I wasn’t kidding, her jaw dropped. “No! Did you tell him? Did he know it was a fake?” I nodded, my face more serious. “I did tell him, and he didn’t know. He bought it at the mall from a store there, Heavenly Handbags. There’s no way they would knowingly sell a fake!” “He definitely bought it from there?” “It was in their gift box, their bag, and he had their receipt.

All of that was authentic except for the purse, which wasn’t.” “That’s terrible. What is he going to do about it?” “He took it back this morning. I think he’s pretty steamed about the whole thing. He’s also embarrassed that he got taken in by a fake but I don’t see how he could have known it was. The quality was pretty good and purses are not his general forte.” “Do you think all the purses they sell there are fakes? I bought one there last year.” “I’m sure someone would notice if they all were. I did straightaway.” “You, however, are a connoisseur in the field of accessories.

” I preened. “I am. I spotted it within seconds even though it was a decent knockoff, Lily. Good quality material, good stitching, only a few small details were wrong. A person who didn’t know their handbags as well as I might never have realized.” “We should visit the store. Perhaps there are more.” “I thought about that too.” “Let’s take Poppy on an excursion! She needs to learn this stuff. I don’t want her to get ripped off when she’s an adult.

” “She’s just a baby! She can barely manage to hold her head up.” “It’s never too early to learn street smarts. Serena told me all about the schedule she planned for Victoria when she was pre-toddler age. Do you think Poppy needs a more rigid agenda?” “No. She’s just a baby.” “But, Serena…” I couldn’t blame Lily for having new-mom nerves. Serena was a master in making everyone else feel inadequate. I reminded her, “Serena has to be the best, which includes her daughter too. I overheard her telling Daniel that Victoria already recognizes words, thanks to the immersive vocabulary and reading camp they attended on the weekend. “Poor Victoria.

Serena’s planning her whole childhood to be a tedious schedule of lessons.” “They go to play group twice a week too.” “Have you ever been to one?” I asked. “I have. It’s a whole bunch of highly competitive moms, all boasting about their child geniuses and belittling anybody who still lacks refined motor skills. They spend more time talking about which schools their children will be enrolled in than which parks they like to play in.” “Schools are important. We’ll need to pick a good nursery for Poppy soon, not to mention, kindergarten.” “I meant Ivy League.” “That’s eighteen years away!” gasped Lily.

“I know.” “Does Victoria’s dad support this strict lifetime plan?” “I think Ted has only seen her four times since she was born and three of those were spent complaining how hard being a parent was, how he couldn’t afford the child support fees, and he ended the last one early because he didn’t want to miss the football game.” Lily shook her head. “He’s still a jerk.” “Did I mention Ted drove off in his new Mercedes? Anyway, Delgado is an excellent stepfather. He never grumbles. He adores Victoria. He’s like a terrifying Mary Poppins.” “He is an excellent dad,” agreed Lily as Poppy began to gurgle from her bouncer on the floor. “Let me get Poppy ready and then we can go check out the store.

It’s time we busted someone for something.” “There will be no busting of anyone or anything,” I told her, “but I’m down for some light reconnaissance.” ~ Heavenly Handbags was situated in the west quarter of the mall among a row of high-end shops. It was, frankly, the kind of store shopping dreams were made of. The glass-fronted display cases featured several chic purses in beautiful jewel shades. Situated proudly on the middle display stand was the exquisite bag Solomon bought for me. “Ooh,” cooed Lily. “I’m in heaven. No, wait, I’m outside heaven. Let’s go in. Can we? Can we, please?” “If you’re good, we can even get an ice cream afterwards,” I said. “Cool.” “I sound like my mom,” I lamented as we walked inside, Lily pushing Poppy’s stroller ahead of us. Poppy had fallen asleep on the drive over and now snuggled contentedly. “How so?” “If we behaved ourselves in the store, she rewarded us with an ice cream.” “That sounds so nice,” Lily said wistfully. “Was that a regular thing? Did you get an ice cream after every store you visited?” “No, only occasionally…” I paused, not failing to notice Lily’s surprised and wishful face. Lily’s parents were both the absentee sort and as a result, Lily spent a lot of her childhood growing up at my house, one which was full of noise with one of my parents always in attendance. “Didn’t your mom ever do that?” “I don’t recall her ever taking me shopping, but her secretary did once for school stuff. We got burgers afterwards at a fast food place and she made me promise not to tell my mom. She was really great about it.” “Your mom?” “No, her secretary. Her name was Ellen. Wonderful lady. The most beautiful black braids all the way down to here.” She pointed to the middle of her back. “I think Mom fired her a few months later. I’ll take Poppy shopping for school supplies and we’ll get burgers and ice cream.” Lily stopped in the middle of the store, looking around in glee. I followed her gaze, taking in the sparkling, white-tiled floor and the irreverent, silver disco ball, suspended from the ceiling, which scattered colored lights across the pure white walls. Arranged on clear glass shelves were gorgeous purses of every description. Shoppers, totes, backpacks, clutches and briefcases. The stand in the center was reserved for the wallets, coin purses, and key fobs, all with vibrant colors that spanned the rainbow. “I want to move in,” I whispered. “Can I help you ladies?” asked the sales assistant. She was clad in a burgundy sheath dress and glossy high heels, just like her colleague who was currently with another customer at the cash register. Poker straight hair and perfect makeup gave her the appearance of the model’s advertising the purses in the blown-up photo on one wall. She looked young, confident and pretty; exactly what a customer might want to emulate. A small pin over her breast read “Amanda.” “We’re browsing for a birthday gift,” I lied “and I’d like to look at some purses.” “Of course. Please feel free to examine any purse you choose and let me know if I can help you,” she said, retreating gracefully. I examined the wallets first, since they were directly in front of us. The fabric was all correct, the zippers seemed to be the right weight and the brand names and logos were exactly as I expected to find them. I unzipped a couple at random and was pleased to see the linings were also exactly as they should be. Next, I moved to the purses on the left side of the shop, picking them up and putting them down, opening them and peeking inside. I later joined Lily who was checking out a pretty, pink tote. “That’s nice,” I said as she handed it to me. Again, I repeated my checks until I decided the bag was authentic. “I’m thinking of my own birthday now,” said Lily. “I’m going to email this idea to my parents’ people.” “Did you see anything you like?” asked Amanda, gliding towards us. “Not yet,” I said, “but I’d like to see the monogrammed tote in the front window. Is that the only one you have?” “That’s our display model. We have several more in the back in small, medium, and large sizes. The one in the window is a medium.” “I’d like to see it, please,” I said. It matched the one Solomon gave me and I wanted the opportunity to fully inspect it. Amanda walked over to the window, plucked it from the display case and presented it to me. I picked it up, turning it around carefully, scrutinizing the stitching and the cut of the fabric. Next, I opened it and thoroughly inspected the interior. “It’s a lovely bag,” touted Amanda, “and perfect for any situation from shopping to spending time out at the country club. There’s plenty of room for all your essentials and we have matching wallets to complete the look.” “I like it,” I said, “but I still want to think about it.” “Come back anytime,” said Amanda pleasantly despite the clear realization there would be no sale at that moment. “Is it ice cream time?” asked Lily as we exited. “It is,” I said. “There’s a stand over there.” We walked over and I paid for two cones. Mint chocolate chip for me, and strawberry swirl for Lily. We took them over to an empty bench and sat down to enjoy them. “I will always take Poppy shopping,” she decided as she licked the cone while rocking Poppy’s stroller with her other hand, “and we will always get ice cream afterwards. Mom stuff is nice and fun.” “Good plan.” “I liked all the bags. I didn’t look at quite as many as you did but I didn’t see any fakes. At least, I don’t think I did.” “They were all real so far as I could tell,” I agreed. “The last one I checked was the same as the one Solomon gave to me.” “Could it be that the store didn’t know? The saleslady said they had more in the back.” I thought about it. “It’s possible they don’t check every bag before the sale. Some might arrive in the store pre-boxed and they could just slip those into a bag for the customer. The store should really check all the new inventory but somebody might have gotten lazy. If that’s the case, the fake bag could have been inserted into their stock anytime from when it left the original factory to somewhere on the shipping route. The buyer wouldn’t know until it was deemed a fake or they took it in for repair or proper authentication. The store would be obliged to refuse any repair on a non-authentic bag and they would have to tell the customer. An embarrassing situation would ensue for everyone concerned.” “So what happened to the real bag?” Lily wondered. “The real bag must have been swapped for the fake. There’s no point just dropping a fake bag into the inventory unless someone just wanted to embarrass the brand.” “That’s what I thought too. The authentic bag was probably sold a long time ago, maybe for a discounted price. The purchaser wouldn’t know it was stolen. It’s an authentic bag. Someone was probably thrilled to get such a bargain, or it could even have been stolen for a gift. The recipient would never know it was stolen and even if they suspected something, how could they verify anything?” “Why not just take it and leave the box empty?” I shrugged, growing unsure. “Maybe if anyone spot-checked the inventory, they wouldn’t notice the fake bag but they would notice an empty box. Which would only sound the alarm much earlier than the thief preferred.” “All the same, they owe you and Solomon an authentic purse,” said Lily. I nodded and licked the last of my ice cream, thoroughly enjoying the refreshing treat. A moment later, my peace was shattered by the harsh sound of my name being called. I’d know that voice anywhere. I sighed as I opened my eyes to see Serena skidding to a halt in front of me. Well, not skidding, it was more of an angry slide in high heels. “I want to hire you!” she said, her face turning red. “I’m busy,” I replied. “You’re sitting in the middle of the mall, eating ice cream. Hello, Lily.” “Hi, Serena,” said Lily. “Poppy is learning numbers this week!” “I need to hire you,” Serena said, looking exasperated as she ignored Lily. “I’ve been ripped off!” “I’m not sure how you think I can help,” I replied. Serena shook a large, expensive shopping bag at me. “I want you to find out what’s going on with this!” Lily and I exchanged puzzled looks before Serena dropped the bag to the floor, reaching inside and pulling out a thick cardboard box. “I bought myself a gift for doing really well at work after winning several new clients,” she said, tugging at the box until it opened. Out spilled a large purse and the signature scent of expensive leather. “Oooh,” cooed Lily, reaching for it, her fingers still sticky with ice cream. “No ‘oooh’,” said Serena. She pulled the purse out of Lily’s reach. “More ewww! Look at it.” She thrust it at me, and waited with her hands on her hips. I grabbed the bag before it fell to the ground and examined it. The leather was nice but now that I got a good sniff of it, the scent seemed to mask a less pleasant odor, like inferior leather tanning. And the stitching was frayed around one handle. Now, I looked closer. Instead of the high-end hardware displaying the designer brand, the brand name was stamped on. “This is a fake,” I said. “I know!” Serena’s jaw stiffened. “I did not buy any fake merchandise yesterday but I sure had a fake purse when I got home!” Lily finished wiping her fingers on a tissue and reached for the bag, examining it all over. “Did you buy it from that store?” she asked, pointing to Heavenly Handbags. “I didn’t think they sold this brand.” “No. I bought it from the department store on the east side. Page’s,” said Serena. I handed the flawed purse back to her and she stuffed it into the cardboard box, replacing them both in the bag. “You should take it back,” I said. “I just did. The saleswoman took one look at it, declared it fake and told me that kind of scam wouldn’t work with her. I showed her the receipt dated yesterday and she said she’d call the cops. On me! The cops!” “She wouldn’t take it back?” “No, and she didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t swap the purse for another and this was what I went home with. I paid nearly twelve hundred dollars for it! I saved for a long time to buy it! And now I have a cheap knockoff. What am I supposed to do?” wailed Serena as tears pricked her eyes. “That’s why I want to hire you. I want my money back or the purse I originally bought.” “Leave it with me,” I said, taking the shopping bag from her. “I’ll look into it.” “Thank you,” she said, leaning down and hugging me so rapidly but briefly that I stiffened in surprise. “I didn’t know what to do and I don’t dare tell Antonio that I spent so much money on such a piece of crap.” “He would understand. It’s not your fault,” I assured her. “You saved for something beautiful and you deserve to enjoy what you paid for. I’ll find out what’s going on.” “I need to get back to work,” said Serena. “Thank you again.” “I’ll call you later to ask for more details. Is everything in the bag? Receipt?” “Yes, everything,” Serena confirmed before she hurried off. “Two fake bags,” said Lily as we watched my sister go. “That’s strange.” “Two knockoffs that came from the same mall but two different stores and within days of each other? It’s not just strange, it’s incredibly remarkable.” I pulled my cellphone from my purse as Poppy began to stir in her stroller. “Is Poppy learning numbers?” I asked. Lily pulled a face. “No, I panicked when I saw Serena and it just came out.” I laughed and Lily stooped down to comfort Poppy as she awoke and I placed a call to Solomon. “Hey,” I said, “Did you take the purse back yet?” “Not yet,” said Solomon. “I planned to take it back later today but something came up. I’m at the agency and about to have a meeting with the manager of the mall. I figured I’d take it up with her.” “The mall manager?” I repeated. “Huh.” “Something wrong?”

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