The Brush-Off: A Hair-raising Mystery

The Brush-Off: A Hair-raising Mystery

by Laura Bradley

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Overview

Make an appointment for intrigue at Reyn Marten Sawyer's
hair salon! Outrageous, flirtatious, and as colorful as a magenta mohawk, Reyn tracks twisted crimes, untangles tight knots,
and never, ever leaves loose ends.

Someone clearly meant business when they targeted San Antonio's hair salon king, Ricardo, who was fatally stabbed with a one-of-a-kind weapon: a sharp plastic hair pick. Reyn had loaned Ricardo the tool — and now she's not only mourning her friend and mentor's murder: she's also a suspect. And in the eyes of sexy detective Jackson Scythe, she's one alluring stylist who should drop her insistent sleuthing like a hot roller. But Reyn's wound a little too tight to stay out of the thick of things, including teasing and taming the stubbornly single Scythe while taking short cuts to catch a killer — and uncovering the past of a dead man, whose secrets will make Reyn's hair curl....

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451628081
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 02/01/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Laura Bradley, a former award-winning reporter and television news producer, has written three contemporary romances. Her first two novels were named finalists for the prestigious Holt Medallion award. She grew up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and now lives with her husband, three children, two dogs and a cat in San Antonio, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

"It's stuck!" he wailed.

Eardrums cringing, I pulled and pushed and squirmed harder just to avoid hearing any more of his contralto whine. Finally, red-faced and panting, I looked at the reflection of our contorted shapes in the mirrors surrounding us and had to agree. It was stuck. Which meant we were stuck. Together.

"Damn it," I mumbled, more to myself than to him. It was my fault I took the job. He'd told me exactly what he'd wanted, and I knew I couldn't do it. I told him I couldn't do it. But when he begged and whined, I'd agreed just to shut him up. Later, I'd tried to call and cancel, but he'd started in on how I was "The Best" (yes, including the capitals) and he didn't want anyone but me touching him...well, flattery works even when we know we're being buttered up. I was no exception, though I was still wavering between refusal and acceptance when he dealt the fatal blow. He had to remind me his wife was my best friend. Now, how could I say no?

This was why, I answered myself, with another stomach-clutching look in the mirror. I took a deep breath and got realistic. "I'm going to have to cut it."

"No! Reyn, no!" His bawl dissolved into a sob. Tears quivered on his fleshy cheeks. "You can't cut my hair! Not my precious...mi pelo muy bonito -- "

"Mario, I'm sorry, but I don't think we have any choice."

I tried to pry my cramped hand from the sticky handle of the brush, but it was no use. I'd thrown out my back with my last attempt at getting the round boar's hairbrush loose from his long, baby-fine strands when I put my foot up on the back of the chair to try to yank it free. So here I was, my denim broomstickskirt hiked practically up to my hips, one foot stuck between his back and the chair, the other dangling toward the ground, my chest draped -- a generous verb, admittedly, considering my barely-B-cups -- across the top of Mario's head, and my right hand attached by mousse, hairspray, and volumizer to the brush. My other hand was no help, being inextricably tangled in hair that had turned the consistency of half-dry molasses. Needless to say, I couldn't pull with all my strength. Still, never one to give up easily, I gave it one more weak yank; he squalled. With a frustrated sigh that was an ounce of self-control away from turning into a whimper, I relaxed my arms, making the muscles along the right side of my spine tighten frighteningly. I knew from experience those muscles would freeze in place, and I'd end up looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for the rest of the week. The handicap was good for better tips but frankly not worth the extra money.

"Why is this happening to me?" Mario sniffed. A tear dripped from the end of his nose onto the front of his mauve smock.

I thought of telling him the truth -- that he was a vain idiot. But I held my tongue, mainly because I could qualify for that moniker myself, at least the idiot part. "Well, Mario, I did tell you I'd never used these products together before, let alone so much at one time..."

"But -- but it's the only way I can get the volume I need." His liquid brown eyes met mine in the mirror with an anguished look that reminded me of my dogs when I don't let them in out of the rain.

He was never going to achieve the volume he wanted, but I wasn't about to tell him that. Not while I was within earshot of that ear-splitting, whiny wail. I wiggled the fingers of my captured left hand and began to feel them earn a measure of freedom. The throbbing pain in my back grew more insistent.

"I think," I began cautiously through clenched teeth, "I can get this hand free." I eyed a pair of scissors within reach.

"Oh, yes," he enthused, tears forgotten. "Then we can get some water. Maybe that will loosen it up."

"I can't reach the water, but I can reach the scissors." I tried to tone down the hopeful lilt in my voice.

"Aye-yi-yi-yi! Don't do it, Reyn. I'll tell Trudy, I swear I will."

I sucked in a breath and got ready to let loose on him. Someone beat me to it.

"Mario? You'll tell me what? What are you two doing down there?" a tentative soprano called from down the hall as we heard my front door, heavy with its beveled glass, clank shut.

Our eyes met in the mirror. His registered relief. Mine, abject embarrassment.

"Trudy?" Mario quavered. He turned his head toward the door. Or tried to. Our precarious positions wouldn't quite allow it without him taking half of my body with him, which he tried to do but only made it about a quarter of the way.

I should've been grateful to be rescued, but the fact that it was Mario's wife doing the rescuing completely squelched my relief. Why me? No one else on earth would go through the rest of her life making sure neither one of us forgot this horrible moment in time.

I had visions of being hounded every day by this embarrassment. I could be a poster girl for Just Say No...to Overstyling. Didn't they teach us to know our own limitations (and those of our customers) in cosmetology school?

"Where are you?" Her voice was getting louder -- a dreaded clue that she was obviously headed in the right direction. Damn.

"Down here, Trude, in Reyn's chair." Mario was crying again, this time for joy. And I always thought the phrase "drowning in emotion" was an exaggeration.

Trudy appeared in the doorway, and I craned my neck just in time to see her mouth fall open and her hands bury themselves in her shimmering copper tresses. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, save me...and spank my heinie," she breathed while tracing the sign of the cross -- forehead, chest, right breast, left breast.

Trudy was a Catholic with style. I admired that, although not as much as usual right at that moment.

"What's happened to you two?" she demanded after intoning a modified prayer for religious absolution.

"What does it look like?" I muttered with a surly glare at her via the mirror.

Trudy closed her mouth and opened it again. She shook her head and licked her raspberry lips. She rubbed her fingers with their raspberry-tinted nails over her eyelids. She smoothed down cotton-candy-pink silk over her buxom bustline. I wasn't quite sure cotton candy went with raspberry or that raspberry didn't clash with the highlights in her hair, but I wasn't opening up those color debates now. Finally, she said, "I wouldn't venture a guess."

"Very funny," I retorted, seriously eyeing the scissors as a weapon now instead of as an escape route. Trudy had recovered from her shock, and the twinkle in her contact-created aquamarine eyes hinted at the infectious giggle-snort I loved so much when we were laughing. At something or someone else, that is.

Mario, weakling that he was, had held his tongue, no doubt in the hopes that I would talk us out of the sticky situation. Seeing I wasn't going to try, he gave up his silence. "Trudy, mi corazón, Reyn threw out her back."

"While doing what, pray tell?"

"Trude, I wanted that look that I was talking to you about, you know, that early-nineties Michael Bolton/Julio Iglesias combination. It's just so romantic." He tried to crane his neck to look at me. "Trudy calls it a variation on a faux hawk. Get it? Not a mohawk because of the long hair." He looked back to Trudy. "But the lift and height on the crown, the curls...I wanted to surprise you for your birthday." Mario's eyes brimmed with so much earnestness I almost regained my sense of humor. Almost.

"Julio and Michael, huh? How come it looks more like Lyle Lovett, then?" she quipped with a straight face that broke into a grin the moment she finished the sentence.

Here came the giggle-snort.

Actually, it took longer than I expected, a testament to the fact that Trudy was really trying for restraint, although not hard enough. I knew I should be damned grateful she wasn't jealous, that she wasn't thinking the worst -- that I might have been in a clinch with her honey. But frankly, if she'd even entertained that idea for an instant, she wouldn't have been my friend for long, because Mario was so far from someone or something I'd want to be swapping spit with that I'd be seriously insulted if she even imagined it. Besides the fact, of course, that I would never do that to a friend. Except maybe a friend married to Harrison Ford...

Mario bowed his head, taking me with him and stretching my back. "Argh," I moaned.

"Oh, Dios mío, Reyn. I'm sorry," he sputtered, throwing his head back up, sending me off-balance, teetering off the edge of my stool, taking my hands and his hair with them. Mario screeched in pain. Trudy dove to grab me, or so I thought. She grabbed my arms instead, trying to save her husband's hair as my body continued its date with the floor. My body stopped in midair, and the excruciating tightening of my back prevented me from feeling anything in my shoulder when the telltale pop announced the sickening moment it dislocated.

Frantically, muttering a combination of curses and prayers, Trudy freed my hands as I collapsed onto the floor in a heap of misery.

Mario was crying. I felt a wave of comfort at his sympathy until I saw him patting the tangle of his silky jet-black hair and realized he was crying over the mess his coif was in, not the mess my body was in. Trudy jumped into his lap. They snuggled and nuzzled, and she sprinkled his face with kisses as I battled against the wave of nausea that threatened to dirty my just-polished oak floor.

"What do we have here?" asked a familiar voice with a smooth Mexican-American accent flavored with just a hint of affected aristocratic nasal. "If I'd known you were into this kind of thing, I could have sent you some more business, Reyn."

Head on the floor, I looked upside-down at the underside of the chin of the king of the beauty salons in San Antonio.

"You missed a spot shaving this morning," I croaked.

Ricardo threw his head back and laughed deep, low and toe-curling. It was his sensual signature and, I was convinced, the main reason he'd parlayed a mini beauty empire in our burgeoning South Texas city. It sure as hell wasn't because he could do hair. I'd always thought all his clients resembled teased Pekinese when they emerged from his enclave.

Not that I'd ever tell him that. His business acumen was unsurpassed, as was his power in certain circles, the styling salon circle being one of them. We'd once had a comfortable boss-and-employee relationship, one in which we argued but retained a mutual respect and a certain chemistry. After I went out on my own, the relationship evolved into a friendship that was contentious but close. Still, I knew he could and would blackball me in an instant if he wanted to. I valued honesty more than was probably good for me, and I wasn't always tactful, but occasionally I recognized when diplomatic skills were required. Now was one of those times, I told myself.

"She's not so bad off if she can use that rapier tongue of hers," Ricardo said in an aside to Trudy and Mario.

"My tongue's not what's hurt," I muttered, still surly.

"And what is, pobrecita?" Ricardo paused for dramatic effect. "Besides Mario's hair."

I sucked in a breath through clenched teeth and was briefly grateful that I was disabled. It kept me from unwisely wiping that smug grin off Ricardo's unnaturally beautiful face.

"She hurt her arm," Trudy put in generously. She said it without looking at me, as she was still in Mario's lap, fussing over his hair.

"My shoulder, actually," I corrected, feeling my blood begin to boil at the injustice of it all. I was doing my dumb friend's dorky husband a favor, which only got me into excruciating pain and was still the butt of every joke. Where was the justice in life? "I think it's dislocated."

Ricardo's brilliant grin -- upside-down -- made me dizzy. Why was he happy about my painful predicament?

"You're in luck, my dear Reyn. I can fix that for you."

Before I could get the "Sure you can" out, he'd reached down, scooped me up with deceptively slender arms, and done something indescribably painful in a bear hug that left me suddenly relocated. My ligaments protested mightily, but I was able to move my right arm. I wouldn't have to cancel tomorrow's appointments after all. Then the muscles in my back barked, and I was in pain again. A different pain, admittedly, but pain all the same. When you start cataloging the differences between throbbing aches and stabbing aches, you're in trouble, period.

Mario and Trudy looked at Ricardo in amazed and undisguised admiration. "Where'd you learn how to do that?" Trudy asked.

"Ah." Ricardo waved one manicured hand at the pair. "I used to be a paramedic. In another life."

"Dios mío." Mario's eyes widened. "You're reincarnated?"

I shook my head. I couldn't believe I'd let this doofus talk me into anything, his wife being my best friend notwithstanding. Trudy flushed to match her lips and nails -- raspberry red with embarrassment; it felt nice to pass some of that around. It was also nice to know that while love had made Trudy blind, it hadn't deafened her as well. Ricardo was regarding Mario with an air of condescending patience. "No, Big M, I was a paramedic before I found myself, before I realized my mission was to create beauty, instead of to heal."

Leave it to Ricardo to glorify doing hair above saving lives. He almost had me believing the swill. I was tasting bile again. I cleared my throat.

Suddenly, Ricardo's eyes hardened, and he bored a serious look through each of us in turn. "That revelation was careless of me. I want you to forget you know about that; it would ruin my image."

He was right about that. The legend of Ricardo was that he came from a moneyed, aristocratic family from Mexico City and had been the lover of every Mexican president's wife before he left to seek his fortune in our humble town north of the border. I knew the truth (except the paramedic thing), that he'd grown up in the poorest neighborhood in South San Antonio.

Orphaned at thirteen, he'd worked his way through high school doing anything for money while living like a transient, eventually to become one of the richest businessmen in the city. For the longest time, I could never figure out why he wouldn't be proud of what he'd accomplished. But, of course, I'd been naive. Older and more cynical, I now realized he might not have accomplished what he had without the legend. San Antonio society matrons didn't like the idea of a hardworking southside boy doing their hair and charging $200-plus for the favor.

"Reyn?" he demanded, breaking into thoughts I hadn't realized had drifted so far.

"What? Uh, sure, Ricardo. Not a word." Flexing my stiff fingers, I nodded distractedly along with Trudy's and Mario's eagerly bobbing heads.

"I can always trust you, Reyn." Ricardo smiled as he ran a finger along my jawline. "You're a good girl. Can't run a business worth a black bean, but you're a good girl."

"Gee, thanks, Ricardo," I huffed, planting my hands on my hips with barely a wince at my back's clutching response. "Just because I don't have my own personal empire doesn't mean I'm not a good businesswoman. Maybe I don't want to have twenty-five stores. Maybe I like life simple."

Ricardo laughed in pure disbelief. "Pobrecita! Maybe if you started sleeping with your clients, you'd have an empire of your own."

"No, thank you." I grimaced, more at the thought of him sleeping with the crones I'd seen in his chair than at me doing anything with any one of my customers.

Ricardo shot an amused glance at Mario before he looked back at me. "I don't blame you, Reyn."

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing. After all, I had to live with Mario and Trudy nearly every day. Ricardo's visits were few and far between.

"Maybe I'll have you run the salons when I retire," Ricardo offered with a strange light in his angular amaretto-colored eyes.

"I'll be too old to do you any good by then, Ricardo. You forget how well I know you; you live for that business. You're not giving it up until you have one foot in the grave." I dismissed his fantasy with a flip of my hand, then I winced. Even that hurt.

"Reyn, it will be much sooner than you think, so consider it. I'm serious." He glided over to my three-tiered tray of tools, fingering the pair of scissors and tapping his sleek black Italian loafer on the floor, while looking out the nearby window. "There's no one I would trust more to make sure my customers are taken care of while I yacht around the Mediterranean for the rest of my life. I have enough properly saved and wisely invested so that you could lose money with the salons and it won't matter."

"Gee, thanks," I muttered.

"Need a boat boy?" Mario chipped in hopefully.

Ricardo smiled lightly but kept his gaze focused out the window.

Something about the secret in his eyes made me uncomfortable. I wasn't sure if the shadow I saw there was sorrow or defeat. Perhaps he was tired of building his way up from scratch; he had sacrificed a lot -- no close friends, no wife and kids. Maybe he wanted to take some time off to explore all he'd missed. Or was something more sinister at work here? I glanced over at him again and decided I wasn't buying. Ricardo always did have a flair for the dramatic that complemented his selfish streak. Here I was suffering with a killer back, and he had me worrying about him. Enough was enough. I was tired and wanted to go upstairs to my bed and crash.

"Why'd you come by, Ricardo?"

He turned to look at me, the half-smile still on his full, sensual lips. His striking black eyebrows arched. "You mean, besides to offer you the chance of a lifetime?"

"Besides that." In the mirror, I watched as his fingertips toyed with the sharp tip of the scissors, then pressed it into the pad of his thumb. Hard. The cuticle of his nail turned white. I watched for blood. Maybe he wasn't as cool as he appeared on the surface. What was going on?

"I need to borrow one of your brushes," Ricardo answered. "The new metal round with the pick, for a special client I have coming in tonight."

"You must have a thousand of those at your shops," I pointed out mulishly, suddenly tired of trying to figure out his mercurial moods and odd innuendos.

"Ah, no," Ricardo said, frowning. "The supplier, he got me angry, hiking prices only for my stores and not for others. I refused to buy anything else from him or use his products, yet he does carry the only metal rounds that really work on certain hair types."

"I thought you'd stopped styling."

"I still have about a half-dozen of the old clients who started when I started. I reward loyalty. They keep it quiet, otherwise I'd have hundreds demanding the same treatment. How exhausting that would be."

With an affected sigh, he shook his perfectly proportioned head of burnished black hair, thick and brushed back off his forehead to flow smoothly and curl at his earlobes. It was a style I well knew was cultivated for the best impression. Medium-length dark hair on men bespoke ultimate success and an even-tempered personality, according to a Yale-sponsored survey that was well circulated among hairstylists.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mario studying it with tangible envy.

"I just sold my last one at the front this morning, and the rep won't be here until Wednesday. But you can take mine," I offered, heading gingerly to my supply tray. "I really don't use it as often as I used to when they first came out."

Ricardo stepped back to give me access to the tray but intentionally kept within my space. It irritated me. I'd spurned his advances years ago when we'd first met, and he'd never stopped -- in unspoken ways -- trying to prove how irresistible he was. I guess he thought one day I'd give in to his charm. The truth was, I considered him too slick to be attractive, too put-together to be my kind of man. I guess I like my men rougher and tougher. Give me a country cowboy over a couture king any day. I thought of Ricardo as a big brother, a friend, a mentor. He had given me my first job in the business a decade ago. I'd do a lot for him, but not that, and not because of his charm. I'd help him because I respected him and I owed him.

Trudy led Mario to the sink, wet his hair, and squirted about half the bottle of shampoo onto his head. I had visions of unending bubbles cascading over the sink and onto the newly cleaned wood floor. Of course, I had more important things to worry about, like my back, and getting everyone out of there so I could go to bed. I kept casting baleful glances at the floor nevertheless.

"Reyn, this is a mess," Ricardo observed with disdain as he began going through my cabinets. A blow-dryer fell out, bouncing off his shoulder, the end of the cord catching on his belt loop on its descent. "Everything so clean and neat on the outside, yet here, behind the scenes, complete chaos. You disappoint me." He plucked the metal tooth of the connection off his burgundy silk trousers and let it fall to the ground with a clatter.

I shrugged. It hurt. I glared. I wasn't about to explain my lifestyle to this prima donna of perfection. He'd never understand that I liked to shove stuff under beds and into cabinets. What were dust ruffles and cabinet doors for, anyway?

Ricardo had moved around the cabinets to the door that hid the utility area where I kept brushes to be cleaned and towels to be washed. I also kept the door closed. Another mess hidden.

"If the cabinets grossed you out, I wouldn't go in there," I warned.

"Normally, I would take your advice," Ricardo said from behind the cabinets. "But I need that brush. Now. You know how I despise tardiness, and I'm close to committing that sin."

Just as I realized my supply tray did not, in fact, hold the brush in question, I heard the door open, a condescending groan, and then his triumphant "Ah." I was in the process of straightening inch by painful inch when I felt Ricardo's trousers brush by my hip.

"You're a true amiga, Reyn. I owe you one."

By the time I'd straightened enough to look at the doorway, he was down the hall. I stepped into the cloud of Polo that followed ten steps behind him and wrinkled my nose at its cloying tanginess.

"No, I owed you double for your last favor," I yelled as the front door swished open.

"Bueno, so you still owe me one," he said as the door clunked behind him.

I turned my gaze to Trudy, who had, with only a small lake of bubbles at her feet, washed all the goop out of Mario's hair. She tenderly dabbed at his dripping tresses with a towel, as if they'd been critically wounded.

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I smiled instead. "All done? See you later."

Trudy shoved the swell of her raspberry lower lip out in a pout. "I thought we might stay, have a glass of merlot, talk."

"Oh, no. Your husband has done enough in one day. Sharing a glass of wine might require EMS."

Mario issued a small wail of protest. "Your back is not my fault."

"You're right, Mario, we can trace it to when I said yes. Now, scram."

"Ah, don't be that way, Reyn. Let us at least get you settled in, help you up the stairs," Mario insisted as he heaved his semi-flabby bottom up out of the chair. I wondered, not for the first time, why my best pal had chosen this man as her husband. Made me downright terrified of the Big L. What had my father told me when I was fourteen? Reyn-Reyn, you can't choose who you fall in love with, so let go, and leave it up to fate. This is not a good feeling for a control freak. Geez! No telling whom my funky heart would pick out. So far, I was still waiting to find out. Looking at Mario now, I was eternally grateful that my true love was still a mystery. Certainly, my Prince Charming couldn't be any worse than this?

I waved my hand toward the front door, and, grumbling all the way, they finally left me in peace, locking the door behind them.

My mind returned to Ricardo. Why had he really come? Did he have a hidden agenda, or was I psychoanalyzing something that I should take at face value?

A whine -- this one from the backyard and of the canine variety -- called me out of my reverie. I hobble-slid to the door at the opposite end of the salon, which led to home. It wasn't until after I'd let the dogs in, fed them, then dragged my own dogs up the stairs and collapsed into bed that I remembered. The brush in the utility room was the one with the plastic pick that, in a fit of frugality, I'd sharpened to clean other brushes and tools in my salon. Oh, well, too late now.

If I'd only known how right I was.

And how wrong life was about to be.

Copyright © 2004 by Linda Zimmerhanzel

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