Mr. Peppermint tried hard not to stare;
it was too easily caught by other people, and he knew that at the
moment nobody was supposed to notice him. He opened another bottle of
champagne and poured it deftly, long practice serving him well as he
timed the rise and fall of the foam perfectly, filling glass after
glass with precision. As he finished, he nodded to the young woman
standing by to carry the tray off, and then glanced again towards the
distance, where a groom and a bride were caught up in an intimate
The couple didn’t look happy; Mr. Peppermint assumed the bride had just told her groom about the contract. He was glaring at her now, his expression one of outraged disbelief even though their conversation was still muted. Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Peppermint noted that a few more of the catering staff were heading towards him, and he busied himself opening another bottle.
The young man in front of him set his tray down and flashed a grin. “For a fairly cheap brand the stuff is really moving. Not that I’m being a snob or anything.”
“It does seem to be popular,” Mr. Peppermint agreed, “I think Mrs. Volomirik has just told Mr. Volomirik about the situation.”
“There goes the honeymoon,” Jellybean mourned playfully. “You’d think he would have at a suspicion or two, given who showed up on the Bride’s side of the church.”
“Love is blind,” Mr. Peppermint responded absently, keeping his eyes on the couple. Another caterer set a tray down and began unloading empty glasses as Jellybean picked his up and glided off, ever the consummate waiter.
“Licorice says a couple of limos just pulled up in the parking lot,” Jawbreaker murmured, sliding his tray in front of Mr. Peppermint. “Could be our wedding crashers.”
“We’ll know soon enough. Everyone’s in position?”
Jawbreaker nodded confidently. “Yep. Man, I hope you serve better champagne at your wedding. I wouldn’t use this stuff for salad dressing.”
Mr. Peppermint made a pained little moue. “I didn’t choose it, I just open and pour it.”
“Yeah, I know. Call it a job hazard,” came the light tease. “We’ll make sure you get quality bubbly.”
“Least of our concerns for the moment,” Mr. Peppermint pointed out as he finished pouring. “Status?”
Jawbreaker murmured something in the direction of his collar button and straightened up, looking alert. “We’ve got company.”
“Fashionably late,” Mr. Peppermint noted, and smoothly set the remaining champagne bottles down under the cloth-covered table. “Time to talk to the bride.” He moved around the table, heading for Mrs. Volomirik and her husband. He took the bride by her elbow, steering her off in one direction as Jawbreaker did the same for Mr. Volomirik in another, their co-ordination as smoothly done as a dance step.
At far end of the reception hall, the doors flew open, and loud shouts in guttural Russian echoed through the room. Guests scattered, driven by instinctive self-defense. A few glasses broke, and someone gave a startled yell at the sight of the guns toted by three large thugs.
They strode around the room, clearly searching for someone.
After a few moments of panic and confusion, the growing wail of police sirens cut in over the soft warbling of Karen Carpenter from the DJ’s booth, and the brutes glared at the guests. One of them spoke to the others, and they moved out of the reception hall, not running precisely, but certainly hustling with enough speed to disappear again within a few minutes.
Looking up from doorway of the kitchen, Miss Chocolate exchanged glances with Sugar Baby, the two of them alert, but amused. Sugar Baby gave a little sigh. “Shucks, they could have waited until the cake cutting.”
“Street corner guns for hire,” Miss Chocolate replied dismissively. “No class. Now if it had been you and your dad on the job—“
“—Oh we’d have hung on until the bride and groom drove off, totally. Car bomb if the client wanted to make a public statement, cyanide in the bridal suite champagne if they didn’t,” Sugar Baby sighed.
“Finesse,” Miss Chocolate agreed with a small grin. “A Shop specialty.”
Sugar Baby winked, and began picking up the catering supplies. “So now we’re in for police questioning, and it’s a damn shame our van got jacked, huh?”
“A damned shame,” Miss Chocolate agreed. “Considering we had a three foot cake, two cases more of champagne and all our paperwork and ID in it---along with the bride and groom.“
“Yeah.” Sugar Baby sighed. “I’m going to whip up some fake tears to make my mascara run now, if that’s okay with you.”
“Go for it,” Miss Chocolate nodded, and pushed the swinging door open enough to let herself out. The room was full of panicked guests milling around as the first of the police came into the reception hall. Miss Chocolate whipped out her cell phone and made a quick call. It buzzed twice and a familiar voice came over the line.
“Hey,” she replied, smiling. “So I figure I’ll be here until about seven or so, barring any further questioning. How are things in the truck?”
“Much quieter now that we’ve sedated Mr. Volomirik. He’s having a nice little snooze that should leave him well-rested for his wedding night.”
“Thoughtful of you,” Miss Chocolate murmured, “and romantic.”
“A little extra service we provide. Makes packing him on the plane to Cabo San Lucas that much easier,” Mr. Peppermint agreed. “The cake was lovely, by the way.”
“Mr. Volomirik sort of fell into it while we were having the discussion about the necessity of being quiet. Fortunately Mrs. Volomirik saved the topper and says to tell you she’ll treasure it.”
“Glad to hear it,” Miss Chocolate chuckled. She paused for a moment and added, “I’ll miss you—come home soon.”
“As soon as I’ve dropped off our Soviet sweethearts I will be winging my way back to you,” he told her in a lowered voice.
Miss Chocolate murmured something sweet, receiving something slightly scandalous in reply and had to hide her grin as she hung up.
Two days, on the outside—piece of cake.
David Phillips stood over a bolt of pale ivory linen and thought. Anyone looking at him would have assumed he was daydreaming; off in some fantasy far and away from the cloth under his stroking fingers.
They would be wrong though—this was simply the outward appearance of his greatest talent: envisioning. With his sense of touch on the material, David Phillips could concentrate and create designs for it by the hundreds. Time and experience had given him the ability to sort through his visions quickly, keeping the best and most expedient choices in mind, but the freedom to soar through endless creations all focused to the material at hand was unique.
Sometimes disquieting too. When he was younger and more impatient David had tried drawing everything as it came to mind, and found himself jumbling through messes instead of clear images. Later, when he’d leaned for focus, he’d figured out to keep paper and pencil close by; sheets laid out neatly in a row, ready for his quick sketches.
Back in his old job, David had learned to hide his ideas after a while; that if he left them out or shared them that they would end up as ‘triumphs’ of other costume designers around him. The first few thefts infuriated him, but afterwards he learned to keep them away from jealous, covetous eyes, storing them in black notebooks in a safe deposit box.
But this position at the Shop—being in charge of his own shop now, was amazing. The freedom to sketch and design openly; to follow his own patterns and not those dictated to him by petty and demanding overseers was proving to be a true delight. David loved running the Closet, and took to it with the devotion of a priest of fashion.
Everything mattered, from the mock-up of a UPS driver’s uniform all the way through African kaftans and grungewear. David kept abreast of everything on the streets of Las Vegas, and with the help of Josette, ran the Closet with enviable efficiency. Costumes went out and came back precisely on time; items were cleaned, pressed, stored and created on accurate timetables, and on top of it all, David managed to give each agent his personal attention.
At the moment, he was off the clock and thinking about the bride. Her long lines and eclectic style merged in his thoughts along with her general coloring and persona, a streamlined set of statistics that formed an image in his thoughts. The linen was a lovely polished bolt with a brocade in the fabric, lightweight enough for Vegas heat, but rich enough to give good lines to any dress made from it.
David smiled. He moved to the first sheet of paper and picked up the pencil, then quickly drew several lines, intersecting here, flowing there. After a moment, he shifted a step to the right and began to draw on the next piece of paper on the table. Within a few minutes he’d done three designs in a row, all of them different, all of them possible and beautiful.
A knock at the door made him look up. “It’s open,” David called softly and pushed his glasses up at the nosepiece. A familiar face peeked around, smiling.
“Not interrupting, am I?” Josette asked, a hint of awe in her voice. David went a little pink and shook his head; her admiration still made him blush, even though he tried not to. Josette slipped inside, glancing over at the sketches and then looking away quickly, as if she’d committed a crime in merely peeking. David waved her over.
“Come take a look and tell me what you think.”
Hesitantly Josette did, turning her thoughtful gaze down onto the sketches. She stared for a while at each of them, and stayed silent, making David nervous. He waited as patiently as he could, and just as he was about to speak, she cleared her throat. “They’re wonderful.”
“You don’t like them,” David interjected, but Josette cocked her head at him, her look amused and slightly annoyed. She flicked one long cornrow blade back over her shoulder and grinned.
“I love them; I’m just thinking about the complementing tones to go with each. Gold? Peach? Something to match the groom?”
“Any of those would work, or any thematic the bride may want—in this case, I was thinking small . . . chocolate touches,” David murmured. Josette’s smile widened, and she picked up the first sketch, looking at it more closely.
“Oh yesss! Maybe some tiny lace or vines in chocolate along the trim, and chocolate accents for the buttons and shoes and veil—“Abruptly Josette stopped and looked at David, wide-eyed. “Uhhh, that is, if you think it’s a good idea. And if it’s what the bride would like of course.”
David nodded, and spoke again, his voice soft. “I have in my trimmings collection, a set of eight, tiny chocolate enamel buttons in the shape of Hershey Kisses. If we used them right down the back of the dress---“
Josette squeaked in delight. “Yes! And we’ve got some of that sheer ivory netting with the scalloped edges in brown satin as well—it would make terrific veiling, or even underskirt if you wanted a fuller one.”
They jotted ideas on the sketches, filling the blank areas around the drawings with notes and commentary, and after nearly forty minutes all three pages were full, front and back. Josette sighed happily, and glanced at David in the little lull that fell over them. He picked up the papers and stacked them neatly. “Thank you, Josette.”
“My pleasure,” she told him gently. “Completely. I never thought—“ she paused for a moment, and gathering courage, continued, “—that I’d get to do this.”
“This?” David asked, slightly confused. Josette pulled her hands out of her smock pockets and waved them around the fitting room.
“This. Design things from the bolt. Be in on the ground floor of so much clothing! It’s like being Wardrobe mistress of the best show on Broadway, and it’s all for real. That’s a head rush, David!”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he nodded emphatically. “It’s just as cool making sure the Sugar High Catering costumes are right as it is coming up with original designs like these.”
“That’s it exactly,” Josette nodded. She glanced at her watch and gave David a quick look. “Oh, I meant to ask—would it be okay if I left a little early tonight? I have a date,” she murmured, looking down.
David’s shoulders slumped a bit, but he hid his disappointment and nodded quickly. “Oh, yes, of course—I can handle the returns tonight, that’s fine. Going out to dinner?”
“Oh no, just for drinks . . . “ Josette replied vaguely. “My sister set it up, and I sort of have to go. I’ll be in early tomorrow though, to make up for it, all right?”
“You don’t have to do that—“ David stammered, watching as Josette gracefully pulled her smock off and hung it neatly on the coat rack near the door. She scooped her ID badge out of the pocket and lightly tossed it up, catching it neatly.
“I know, but I want to. Besides, it’s a full moon tonight, and I don’t want to be out when the crazies are on the road, you know? Night—see you tomorrow!” With that she was gone, the door closing behind her with a soft click.
David blinked a little, and checked his own watch; costumes were due in by five. Sundown was at seven—that would be all right if everything went off without a problem, but this was the Candy Shop, and he was beginning to realize that predictability wasn’t possible here.
He carefully put the sketches away.
The private charter began a descent towards a little landing strip just north of Cabo San Lucas, and Mr. Peppermint smiled to himself, giving in to a moment of personal time. The Volomiriks were in appropriately touristy outfits now; the bride had exchanged her fluffy white gown for shorts and a bright yellow tank top, and her groom was decked out in shorts as well, with a garish Madras shirt. He was still groggy, but far less aggressive now; his dose of sedative was wearing off. He and his bride muttered in Russian to each other, and Mr. Peppermint listened to them bicker in whispers.
“Your father is a real prick, you know that? A diamond grade asshole, Tina.”
“Yes, well you were the one who insisted on a public wedding. If you piss a line in front of him, he’s going to step over it.”
“Fucking wolf turd.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know. But we’ll spend a few weeks here fishing, and then we can get back to Chicago and see Mama and Uncle Peter about the money.”
“I bet half my aunts wet their pants. Damn your father.”
“Let it go, Stan. We’re going to have a good time fishing. You like fishing.”
The groom seemed to brighten at this and gave a nod. In faintly accented English he spoke to Mr. Peppermint. “So we’re good, yeah?”
“We’re good, Mr. Volomirik. Your disgruntled father-in-law is being held for disturbing the peace, and we have several eyewitnesses that swear you and your bride got into a taxi. Everyone knows you’re on your honeymoon in Hawaii.”
“Sorry about . . . earlier,” Volomirik muttered, looking away. “I was a little . . . agitated.”
Mr. Peppermint gave a nod and just then the soft ‘bump’ of the wheels touching down broke into whatever reply he was going to give.
They landed, and taxied in; the Volomiriks were delivered to the hotel and Mr. Peppermint gave them all the necessary information before catching a taxi and heading to his own hotel much closer to the ocean.
The concierge at the hotel nodded and passed him his room key. “Senor Pimienta.”
He checked in and managed to relax once the sun began to set; escort work wasn’t always easy, but this had been a potentially dangerous trip and it still had the possibility to be a problem if anyone had leaked information. Anything was possible when personal grudges were a factor.
Mr. Peppermint didn’t bother with the lights in his room. Instead, he crossed the room and opened the sliding glass door. He stepped out onto the balcony, noting the full moon, and for a moment wished Miss Chocolate was with him. The scent of the ocean was on the evening air, and he was feeling the separation keenly. Mr. Peppermint allowed himself a lingering moment of melancholy and turned back inside the darkness.
The jab of the hypodermic against his hip startled him and turning he struggled. It was too late though, and even as he broke away from his assailant and tried to reach the door, Mr. Peppermint sagged and dropped, first to his knees and then flat out, on the carpet of the room.
“I hate ties,” Mike TeeVee muttered, glaring at his own reflection in the mirror. The face looking back was equally annoyed, but not familiar; he wore a full beard now, and had applied foundation to give him a darker skin tone.
“All men hate ties. I think it’s a genetic thing.”
“It’s a resistance to the noose,” Mike responded sourly. “Why don’t women wear them?”
“Because we’re stuck with bras and high heels,” Catherine replied absently. She came out of the bathroom and over to him, planting her hands on her hips. “Need help?”
“Sure,” he managed, stunned by her appearance. Catherine had the sleek, assured look of a Washington socialite ready for a night on the town, which was precisely what she was supposed to be tonight. She stepped closer, reaching to work a Windsor knot, and he could smell the subtle scent of Emerald Fire on her. “You look . . . . “
“Ha-cha-cha,” he rumbled, pleased to see her blush a little.
She lifted her head to look up at him, smiling. Catherine tossed her hair back a little and gave a sigh. “I’ve only been gone two weeks—“
“And it feels like it’s been fourteen days,” Mike softly teased, but with honesty.
“Then you’ll just have to give me a good welcome back after we wine and dine at the Gala this evening, won’t you?” Catherine replied saucily, tightening the tie. Mike took a deep breath as he watched her saunter back to the bathroom, knowing it was going to be a looooonnnnnng night.