“Thank you for shopping at Eau, Mrs. Wortham. Have a fashionable night.” Aura said the formulaic words rapidly in a monotone and smiled mechanically at her customer as she dropped the receipt into the bag. It had been a long evening.
Mrs. Wortham regarded her with a steely gaze and said, “Girls today run around half-dressed. Harlots.” She picked up the bag containing a few discounted items from the closeout table and sauntered toward the exit. She made two of Aura and needed more help than the support garments she had just purchased would give her to push her bulges back into their proper places.
Oh, yeah? What about the sixties when nobody wore bras? And ran around naked? Aura wished she had the guts to shout those words at the departing figure. She had seen the Woodstock movie. Besides, her skirt wasn’t that short. And although the top she wore had spaghetti straps, she also wore a strapless bra underneath. When you worked in the Lingerie Department you had to wear a bra. If women stopped wearing bras she was out of a job. And she needed the job.
She took a quick look around. The only customer left in the Lingerie Department was a man. She glanced at her watch. Ten minutes to closing. It couldn’t come soon enough for her. But her evening wouldn’t end then. She was supposed to meet her boyfriend, Eddie, for a late snack. Usually, the thought of seeing Eddie excited her, but tonight she was almost too tired to care. Not only that, she had a math test tomorrow afternoon, and only tomorrow morning to study for it. She needed to get up early. Talk about burning the candle at both ends.
Aura had worked in the Lingerie Department long enough not to be surprised by a man shopping here. At first, she had thought the men were perverts trying to spy on the women in the changing rooms. However, they bought bras and panties by the dozen, and occasionally some of the more exotic lingerie on display. Were they shopping for their wives?
When she had asked Belinda, her co-worker, Belinda had laughed and said, “They’re cross-dressers.” Aura hadn’t quite believed her, but she noticed they usually did buy the larger sizes. Cal State Long Beach wasn’t the only source of her education these days.
Yes, the man was approaching the checkout counter carrying several items, including a miracle push-up bra. It would be a miracle if he had anything to push up. He looked familiar; perhaps he had shopped here before. His demeanor and movements were masculine. She couldn’t immediately discern anything about him that would lead her to believe that he was gay or in any way abnormal. Of course, gay people weren’t abnormal. That had been drilled into her head at school. And cross-dressers, she had learned from Belinda, weren’t necessarily gay.
He was medium height and his hair was too short to assign a color. He wore lug-soled shoes, jeans and a T-shirt that read, “Southpaws do it left-handed.” Being left-handed herself, Aura felt a sudden kinship to him. He looked her in the eye as he placed the merchandise on the counter, as if daring her to make a remark about his purchases.
“Would you like to use your Eau charge card to pay for these?” Aura asked, automatically, before she remembered that not many men had Eau charge cards.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, taking the card out of his wallet and placing it on the counter.
Aura glanced at the name on the card as she picked it up. Peter Roberts. She was trained to remember customers’ names. “Has the rain, stopped, Mr. Roberts?” she asked as she rang up the sale. Trite, but she wasn’t going to chat with him about the fit of the garments.
“Yes. The moon was out when I drove here,” Mr. Roberts said.
She placed the items in a purple and white Eau bag. In addition to the bra, he had purchased a pair of thong panties. Aura tried to picture him wearing those. She saw that he was eyeing her. She was used to having men eye her, but in this case her feelings were mixed, and she wasn’t sure what his motivation was.
To mask her confusion, she went into the standard patter: “Thank you for shopping at Eau, Mr. Roberts. Have a fashionable night.”
It sounded silly saying this to a man, but he responded, “You know what I like about shopping here? This is a high-class place.”
He winked at her, picked up his bag and walked off. Having a man wink at her sometimes gave Aura a thrill, but this time she discounted it as she watched him stroll away. She wondered what he was really like. Then she came to herself with a start. It was closing time.
She needed to check the changing rooms for any garments left by careless shoppers, and then finish her paperwork. She hoped the rooms weren’t a complete mess, because Belinda, who usually worked the evening shift with her, had been called to another department a short while ago to close up for a clerk who had become ill.
An opening in the wall twenty feet to the left of the checkout counter led to the changing rooms. Actually, they were no more than cubicles, each with hooks and a mirror on the wall, a bench and a swinging door that didn’t latch and stopped well short of the floor. The doors swung out but not in, and were on springs. Aura checked the three cubicles to the right of the opening, picked up a couple of bras, thankful there weren’t more, and then turned to the three cubicles on the left.
Something was sticking out from under the door of the second cubicle. She tried to convince her brain that she wasn’t seeing what her eyes told her she saw, but while her mind went through this exercise her body took several quick steps and swung open the door to the cubicle. Then she screamed.
# # # #
“Now, Ms. Stack, would you please tell me exactly what you saw when you came in here.”
Aura sipped water from the paper cup she had been given and tried to clear her head. The nicely dressed man standing in front of her looked like a policeman, but he wore a suit instead of a uniform. She felt trapped, sitting on the wooden bench in one of the cubicles, with her back against the mirror, facing the doorway. The detective stood in the doorway, blocking her exit, which is what prompted her claustrophobia.
But these were the only seats in the Lingerie Department, and she was having trouble standing. You didn’t put chairs in a department store because you wanted people to shop, not sit. She wished Belinda were here to give her support. She pictured herself scooting under the cubicle partition and disappearing into the night.
She’d better answer the question. She spoke haltingly. “The first thing I saw was her hand. It was sticking out from under the door.”
“So anybody who walked in here would have seen it.”
“If they had looked to the left.”
“But even if they had gone into a cubicle to the right they would have seen her when they came out.”
“I guess so…yes, they would.”
“That means nobody came in here between the time of the murder and when you came in to clean up.”
“I guess not.”
“So the killer and the victim were the last customers in the dressing room.”
“I guess so.” That made sense. The detective knew what he was doing.
“Okay, so what did you do when you saw the hand?”
“I opened the door of the cubicle. And then I screamed. I ran…”
“I know; you ran to get help. But I want you to tell me exactly what you saw.”
The question didn’t make sense. The victim was still lying where Aura had found her, and police types were bustling around the young woman, not fifteen feet from where they talked. Fortunately, Aura couldn’t see her because of the walls of the cubicle in which she sat. But all the detective had to do to see what she had seen was to walk over and look at the victim. She hesitated.
“I know it sounds silly,” prompted the detective, “but it may be important.”
“I saw the young woman lying on her back. Her eyes were open, and at first I thought she was staring at me. But she didn’t move. And she wasn’t wearing anything above the waist. And this bra was around her neck.”
“We think she was strangled with the bra. We’ll verify that, of course. Did you see her go into the dressing room?”
“No…that is, I saw her looking at bras. But when I’m waiting on customers my back is to the changing rooms.”
“How long before you found her did you see her in the store?”
That was a hard one. Time went by rapidly for Aura when she was busy. “Maybe ten minutes. Or fifteen.”
Did you hear her scream?”
“No.” Another stupid question. If she had heard the scream she would have run in and discovered the murderer.
The detective must have seen the expression on her face. He said, “If she was strangled and taken by surprise, she wouldn’t have been able to scream. Did you touch her?”
“No.” The idea gave her the creeps.
“Did anybody else touch her before we got here?”
“I think the supervisor checked her neck for a pulse. But that’s all.”
The detective nodded. “We’ll be checking for fingerprints.”
“Mine will be on the door.”
“I know. But there may be others.”
Probably dozens of others.
Aura uncrossed her legs and crossed them the other way without looking at the detective. She wished his questioning would end so she could leave. She should be with Eddie right now. Ohmygod! She had completely forgotten about Eddie. He would be waiting for her at the café. And fuming.
“Who was your last customer?” the detective asked.
The detective’s eyebrows went up.
“We get men…” She hesitated, but decided this wasn’t the time to launch into an explanation involving cross-dressing.
“Did he come in here, do you know?”
She was about to say that men weren’t allowed in the changing rooms, but then she understood his meaning. “Not that I know of.”
“Could he have come in when you weren’t looking? Like when you were serving another customer?”
“I suppose so.”
“If the victim was strangled, it was done by somebody who was quite strong.”
Like a man.
The detective showed some excitement. “Did he buy anything? Do you happen to know his name?”
“Yes. He paid with a credit card. His name is Roberts…Peter Roberts.”
“And of course you have his credit card number.”
“Great. Just a few more questions, Ms. Stack.”
# # # #
Aura thought she would dread returning to the Lingerie Department at Eau on her next scheduled shift two days later, but to her surprise when the time came she felt all right about it. Maybe it was because the police had arrested Mr. Roberts. She had read about it in the newspaper. The paper had screwed up on one detail—it had referred to the victim’s name as Elizabeth Johnson. Her name was Elizabeth Jones.
Belinda was already working Lingerie when Aura arrived in mid-afternoon. Belinda’s skin was as dark as Aura’s was light; Aura thought she was beautiful, especially with her black hair done up in elaborate styles, which she arranged, herself, with the help of her mother. Aura wore her own brown hair long and straight, and Belinda admired that. Go figure.
They both waited on customers for half-an-hour before there was a lull and they had a chance to talk.
“You had quite a time the other night, girl,” Belinda said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.”
“It’s not your fault,” Aura said, “but the way the cop grilled me made me nervous. I thought at first he suspected me.”
“You’re not big enough to have done it, from what I read in the paper. This girl was strangled with a bra in a cubicle. It took someone pretty powerful to do that. But you were the one who found her. That must have been horrible.”
“Yeah, it was,” Aura agreed, but she didn’t really want to go into the gory details. “She was young and very pretty.”
“I checked out those cubicles as soon as I got here to make sure nobody was hiding in one. And I’ve been keeping my eye on them ever since. It said this guy…”
“Roberts, was arrested. He must have followed her in to watch her undress and then when she saw him and threatened to report him he grabbed one of the bras she was trying on and strangled her.”
“That’s very interesting, but that’s not what happened.”
“I thought you didn’t see it.”
“I didn’t, but I’ve been thinking about it.” Aura had spent a sleepless night thinking about the murder, and she had almost failed her math test as a consequence. “First of all, Elizabeth wasn’t strangled with one of the bras she was trying on. The killer took the bra in with…him.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because the bra she was strangled with was about a 38D. And she couldn’t have worn more than a 34B. I got a good look at both her and the bra.”
“I trained you well at analyzing the customers, girl. Did you tell the police that?”
“No, because I was dazed and confused at the time I talked to them. I didn’t start putting the pieces together until later. But they have the bra that was used as a weapon and the ones she was trying on.”
“Maybe they’re not as smart as you are. Okay, what else did you figure out?”
“She was strangled from behind. I could tell from the way the bra was wrapped around her neck and because she was lying on her back. She would have fallen that way. Of course, that’s the easiest way to strangle a person, because you have to cut off the windpipe, and the windpipe is in front, so to get leverage you have to…”
“Be behind. That’s logical, but why is it relevant?”
“Because that means she wasn’t facing the murderer.”
“So she was taken by surprise.”
“But she couldn’t have been. You know, yourself, the way the mirrors are arranged, even if her back was to the door she was facing the mirror. So she would have seen the killer as soon as he opened the door, even if he did it quietly.”
Belinda had an admiring look on her face. “All right, I’m with you. What else you got?”
“What would you do if you were naked from the waist up and you saw a man in the mirror?”
“I’d grab my boobs and turn around and confront him. And if he threatened me, I’d scream.”
“Exactly. But Elizabeth didn’t do either of those things.”
“Okay, girl, you’ve got all the answers. Why not?”
“Maybe she wasn’t startled by the killer—at least, not at first.”
“And that would be because…”
“When the customers have gone, you and I are going to reenact the crime.”
# # # #
It was ten minutes to closing and there wasn’t a customer in sight. It had been a slow evening. Aura saw this as an opportunity to test her theories. She picked up a bra from the closeout table and took Belinda into the changing area.
“This was the cubicle,” she said, opening the door. “You can play the customer.”
“Thanks a lot,” Belinda said, but she stepped inside.
Aura closed the door on Belinda and said, “You’re facing the mirror. You’ve taken off your top and are about to try on one of the bras. Somebody opens the door and you see that person in the mirror.” She opened the door with her left hand. “What do you do?”
“Since it’s you, I say, I’m sorry, ma’am, but this cubicle is taken.” She spoke with exaggerated sweetness.
Aura laughed and said, “But you’re not scared or outraged, like you would be if the person were a man.”
“So you’re saying the killer was a woman.”
“Exactly. Not only because of that, but a couple of other things as well. Mr. Roberts bought some stuff and paid with a credit card. Would the killer leave his name and address? And the murder bra was brought in here by the killer. That means either she was going to try it on or the murder was premeditated. Mr. Roberts wouldn’t have been going to try it on. For one thing, the bras he bought were 40’s, not 38’s. And even if he were a Peeping Tom, why would he premeditate a murder? That doesn’t make sense. Peeping Toms don’t kill people.”
“Girl, you’re amazing. Who do you think did it, then?”
“In a minute. There’s one more thing that just occurred to me. The way this cubicle door opens, you have to open it with your left hand. Let’s say I’m the murderer. I’m still holding the door open with my left hand because there isn’t room in here for both of us and I can’t let it shut. Now I want to swing this bra around your neck quickly and efficiently so you won’t have time to scream. It’s awkward for me to do that with my right hand.”
“I know. You’re left-handed. You’ve told me that enough times. It’s supposed to make you a better athlete. But we already agreed you aren’t the killer.”
“Mr. Roberts is also left-handed.”
“In a minute you’re going to tell me his life history.”
“No need, since he’s not the killer.” Aura paused for effect. “But I think I know who the killer is. I had another customer just before Mr. Roberts. A Mrs. Wortham.”
Belinda stopped playing the victim and turned around to face Aura. “So who is this Mrs. Wortham and why is she the killer?”
“She’s a big lady, bigger than you, but not built like an athlete, like you are. But I’m sure she’s got plenty of heft. She paid cash, but I remembered her name because she’s been in here before.”
“The lessons I gave you on remembering names must have took.”
“All my success I owe to you.” Aura meant it. “She probably hoped I didn’t remember her. The bras she bought were the same size as the murder weapon.”
“I trained you too well. You’re going to get promoted before I do.”
“So why did she do it?”
“She hates young people. Every time she comes in here she talks about how terrible young people are—how they act, what they wear. Especially what girls wear.”
Belinda thought about that. “So she sees this sweet young blond thing come in, struttin’ her stuff, and something blows in her brain. She takes one of the bras she’s looking at, follows her into the changing room—and the rest is history.”
“Or herstory. Of course, I can’t prove it. Do you think I should tell this to the police?”
“Did you call her by name?”
“She may come back looking for you when she thinks about that.”
Aura felt a stab of panic. “So I’d better tell the police, huh?”
“I think so. Maybe we can give them a better story if we can figure out the details of how she did it. You mentioned swinging the bra around her neck. I’m right handed. Let me play the killer for a minute and you play the victim. You can be Elizabeth Jones.”
Belinda edged past Aura into the doorway. To make room for her, Aura had to move to the back of the cubicle.
Aura said, “What paper did you read about the murder in, yesterday’s Times?”
“And you didn’t see anything about it on TV?”
“You know as well as I do, when you’re going to school and working you don’t have time to watch TV. Here, give me the bra and let’s simulate what happened.”
Aura hesitated. “I don’t think we really have to do a simulation. I don’t like tight things around my neck.”
“Come on, it’s just pretend.” Belinda had her arm out, reaching for the bra.
Aura felt claustrophobic again, with Belinda blocking the doorway. She was having trouble breathing. She dropped to the floor and half-scooted and half-rolled under the partition into the next cubicle.
“What are you doing, girl?” Belinda asked, standing on tiptoe to look over the partition at Aura.
“How did you know Elizabeth Jones?” Aura asked. She climbed up on the bench, her back against the wall opposite the partition from where Belinda gazed at her, and kicked off her shoes.
“I never saw her in my life.”
“You knew her correct name when it was wrong in the paper. You knew she was blond and there was no reference to it.”
Belinda looked at Aura for several seconds, her face registering several emotions. “Damn. I did train you too well. I figured when I took off so I wouldn’t be around when the body was discovered that I wouldn’t give myself away by reacting wrong. But you were too sharp. Now I gotta take you out.”
“I’ve had karate lessons.”
This was a lie but Aura hoped it would deter the larger woman. It wouldn’t do any good to scream; nobody else was in the department. She couldn’t make a run for it because she was in the last cubicle. Belinda’s cubicle was between hers and the entrance to the changing area. If only she’d been able to get to the cubicle on the other side of Belinda. But Belinda had been standing in her way.
To buy time, Aura said, “You haven’t answered my question.”
“We went to high school together, Miss Elizabeth Jones and I. And the bitch stole my boyfriend. There’s nothing worse than losing your boyfriend to a white chick. I was humiliated. And she wasn’t as good looking as you are. So when I saw her come strutting’ into the store the other night I picked up a nice big bra. She recognized me when I opened her cubicle door so I starting chatting to put her off guard. But you’re right, it was easier for me to swing the bra around her neck because I’m right handed. I got it tight before she could let out more than a muffled scream.”
Belinda played basketball, and Aura was no match for her, physically. She had to act now. She said, “You won’t get away with this one because there’s no one else here. So let’s make a deal.”
“Sorry, Aura, no can do. You’re too addicted to the truth.”
In two strides Belinda was out of her cubicle and swinging open the door of the one Aura was in.
The instant Belinda moved away from the partition separating their cubicles, Aura took a long step on the bench across her cubicle to that partition. Fortunately, her skirt was short. She gripped the top of the partition with both hands and used her soccer training to swing her left leg up on it. She took off from her right foot, slid her left leg over the partition and kicked her right leg high, so that she rolled over into the cubicle Belinda had just vacated. She managed to gain a new grip on the top of the partition to keep herself from falling, and felt for the bench with her feet.
Belinda was delayed for a moment because the door to the corner cubicle opened outward and she had to go around it to enter. She slammed the door open, came into the cubicle and grabbed at Aura’s hand, just as she was regaining her balance in the next cubicle. Fear gave Aura the strength to jerk her hand free from Belinda’s grasp and jump to the other side of the cubicle.
Without pausing, Aura repeated her acrobatic maneuver to swing herself over the next partition and into the cubicle beside the entrance to the changing area. She landed on the bench. This quickness caught Belinda by surprise, and Aura gained a fraction of a second before Belinda reacted and raced back out of the cubicle she was in.
Aura had a momentary thought of exiting from her current cubicle via the door, but she realized that would take her right into Belinda’s arms, especially since this door, like the others, opened the wrong way for her purposes, and she would have to go around the open door to get to the entrance to the changing area.
Aura decided her only hope was to go over the last partition, which was right beside the entrance, the same way she had gone over the other two. She swung her legs up and over as quickly as she could, but this time there was no bench to land on and she had to drop all the way to the floor.
She didn’t get a good grip on the partition as she rolled over it, and she landed awkwardly on her stockinged feet and her hands. Suppressing a cry of pain, she got up and tried to run, just as Belinda rounded the corner of the cubicle and made a grab for her leg. Aura kicked hard back at Belinda and pulled free of her grip. She stumbled and almost fell. From the sounds behind her, she thought she had knocked Belinda off balance, also.
Aura was out of the changing area and back in the main store. Again she tried to run, but her foot hurt. She had to ignore the pain. She accelerated to a limping gallop. In addition to playing soccer, she had been a sprinter on her high school track team. But Belinda was right behind her, uninjured.
Nobody was in sight in the Lingerie Department. Aura zigzagged between display cases of lingerie, and then turned right, toward the store entrance. Where was everybody? People had to be closing up in other departments. She needed to escape from Belinda’s footsteps, which hammered in her brain. Belinda had her shoes on, which might be slowing her down a little, but the pain in Aura’s foot was getting worse. She didn’t know how long she could keep running.
Aura ran between rows of clothing in slow motion, floating in a cloud of pain. Through an opening in the cloud she spotted their supervisor, Ida, talking to one of the clerks in Jewelry. Both had their backs to her. With a supreme effort, Aura rounded a kiosk and raced up to Ida, throwing her arms around the larger woman to steady herself, but almost knocking her down.
Ida recovered her balance, turned and said, “What the…? Aura! What is going on?”
“I know who the murderer is,” Aura said, gasping for breath. “Call the police.” She looked around for Belinda, but Belinda was nowhere in sight.
# # # #
“I still don’t understand how you outran her with your foot like that,” the detective said, shaking his head. “You may have a broken bone, you know.”
Better to have a broken bone than to be dead, Aura thought. They had finally found a chair for her to sit on, and her foot was resting on a padded stool. The detective had carried her into the changing area so that she could explain what happened in there. He was ruggedly handsome, so that wasn’t a bad thing.
“We’ll pick up Belinda; you can be sure of that,” the detective continued. “And if what she told you about Elizabeth Jones checks out we have a good case, even if Belinda denies that she said it.”
They had already determined, with Ida’s help, that Belinda hadn’t really been called to another department the night of the murder. She had left the store, instead.
The paramedics were on the way to transport Aura to the hospital. She hoped that wouldn’t take all night. She had an English test tomorrow. And she had been going to meet Eddie again. She hoped he would show more understanding about tonight than he had about being stood up the night of the murder. If not, maybe it was time for a new boyfriend.