MONDAY MOURNING AT THE 'CURL UP & DYE'


By Adrian Ludens



Grant Bradley read the contents of his wife Georgette's text and smiled. He snapped his cell phone closed and put it back on his belt. Then he paused and looked around to make sure no one saw him enter the Curl Up & Dye Beauty Salon.

Inside, Grant gave his eyes time to adjust to the soft fluorescent glow of the salon. He'd deliberately chosen a Monday morning, hoping for the fewest possible customers. His move paid off; the place looked deserted. Grant heard water running from what he assumed was the restroom in the back.

Glamorous, heavily made-up models looked down on him with knowing smirks from their framed posters on the walls. A girlish rainbow of combs and picks adorned each station. Grant felt like a trespasser and for one panicky moment was about to turn to leave when the door at the back opened and a pretty brunette stepped into view. Their eyes met and the girl jolted in surprise. Her reaction reminded Grant of a shock he'd received in his youth when he had touched an electrified fence on his grandfather's farm. He supposed he had startled her. His stature often had that effect on people. He'd used his size to his advantage many times as sheriff. Now he was reduced to scaring petite hairstylists because Georgette insisted he "try something new."

"Just here for a cut," he called. Grant's nostrils flared in revulsion at the alkaline odor that permeated the salon. There were other scents too. Grant tried to place them, but couldn't. "Are you open?"

"Yes, I'm open." The stylist bit her bottom lip and looked past him. "But I thought I'd locked up. My first customer of the morning wanted a perm and I dropped the chemical solution. I just finished mopping up. Have you been waiting long?"

"Just walked in. My wife recommended you." Grant summoned up a smile.

In fact, Georgette had threatened to withhold certain feminine favors until he agreed to get a more stylish haircut. She'd even clipped a coupon from a mailer and sent it along with him.

Grant surveyed the salon and its lone stylist. He found himself wishing he were doing something less stressful, like breaking up a roadhouse brawl. The brunette stared at the coupon sticking out of his breast pocket and Grant resisted the urge to cover it or crumple it up. Six months ago she would have been staring at his badge.

"Please follow me this way." She led him past several stations until they reached one nestled in the back corner. On the opposite side of the tiny salon Grant saw two sinks for shampooing and a pair of stationary hair dryers perched like vultures above empty chairs.

The stylist motioned for him to sit. Grant settled into the chair. His knees bowed as he hooked the heels of his cowboy boots on the metal bar of the footrest. The girl hurried back to the entrance for a moment and quickly returned.

The girl shook open a rectangle of shiny, black fabric and fastened it around his neck. "I'm Natalie."

"Grant."

"What are we going to do with your hair today, Grant?"

He considered his reflection in the large wall mirror. From the right angle he could still pass for Clint Eastwood's younger brother. Grant's nose had healed wrong after being broken back in the 80's when he was still a green deputy, but Georgette insisted it added to his rugged appeal. Grant looked at his hair in the reflection and sighed. Georgette wanted a more stylish cut and at her affectionate insistence, he'd stopped his twice-monthly visits to stoic old Wilbur Reno two months ago. Now he furrowed his brows at his unkempt appearance.

"My wife wants me to ask for something called a FO-huck."

He colored slightly at the sexual-sounding request. A smile dimpled Natalie's cheeks and for one horrible moment Grant was sure his wife had been putting him on. She'd tricked him into asking for what sounded like —

"A faux-hawk it is," the stylist announced and reached toward the counter. Her hand paused in midair for a moment and she moved a few steps to the next station. She rooted around in the drawers and at last produced a pair of shears.

"Wait a minute," Grant said. The stylist's smile fled and was replaced with a look of uncertainty. Grant and Natalie used the large mirror to make eye contact.

"Don't you need to put one of those little paper strips around my neck first?" he stalled.

Natalie looked momentarily puzzled but then her face relaxed. "You mean a neck strip. Lots of places use them when different customers have to share the same cape." She gestured at the garment covering him from neck to thigh.

"But each customer gets a new cape here?"

"Right."

Grant could think of no further tactics for delaying the inevitable and so he fell silent. Natalie ran her fingers through his hair and Grant tried to ignore the goose bumps that cascaded over his neck. He looked forward to Georgette doing the same thing under very different circumstances.

Natalie used the shears to snip away the length that had accumulated along his neckline. She started trimming the hair away from his right ear. Something buzzed on the counter. Natalie jerked and nicked him.

A tiny ball of blood bloomed on the helix of his ear. Natalie gasped and hurriedly grabbed a towel.

"I am so sorry."

"I'm sure I'll survive," Grant replied, trying to soothe her.

Natalie held the towel to his ear and gazed vacantly across the room. Grant sat in uncomfortable silence until she took the towel away, apparently satisfied that his ear had stopped bleeding.

"You can answer your phone if you need to," Grant offered.

Natalie flinched. "What?"

"Your phone buzzed earlier." Grant paused then added. "If it's important, I can wait."

"It's not important," the stylist said, her voice almost at a whisper. The cell phone buzzed again on the counter and Natalie ignored it. She moved to the other side and snipped his hair like someone pruning unwanted vines. Grant decided the girl must be having problems at home.

"Are you enjoying the beautiful weather today?"

Natalie's sudden question and false cheeriness took Grant off-guard. Then he realized she was falling back on the customary conversational niceties of barbers and stylists. Making small talk with the customer made the job seem to go faster for both parties.

"Sun's awful bright," Grant replied. "But I'm not complaining." He smiled at her reflection in the mirror but she didn't seem to notice.

"Married?"

"Wife sent me in," Grant reminded her.

"Oh, that's right." A brief flush rose on the stylist's pale cheeks. She grabbed a comb from the counter and ran it through the hair hanging over his forehead. Behind her the cell vibrated again. It reminded Grant of a set of clippers buzzing on the counter. Natalie steadfastly ignored the summons.

"Where do you work, Grant?"

"Nowhere now; I just retired. Used to be the sheriff."

Natalie looked as if she might burst out laughing or burst into tears. He studied her face for the telltale signs of domestic violence but found none.

Natalie finished trimming one side and walked around the chair to get a better angle on his remaining temple. The cell phone remained silent, but suddenly Grant became aware of a drone very much like the sound of faraway crickets. In truth there was no sound; this was more of a sensation Grant had learned to stay attuned to during his years in law enforcement. Like the cartoon conscience in that old film, the crickets signaled something of importance.

Grant gazed again at the counter top. He noted the cylindrical lidded jar filled with blue disinfectant and a few combs. He saw the little pink cell phone that seemed to distress the stylist whenever it buzzed. He noted the crumpled towel, stained with dots of his own blood. He saw the clippers, a hand-held mirror and a second, silver cell phone.

The crickets were really sawing away now.

It was at that precise moment that Grant realized that the pink phone must not belong to Natalie.

He swallowed.

The gleaming silver blade of the shears obscured his line of sight then and Grant's eyes readjusted. He could see Natalie's small fingers gripping the shears. She angled the blades and snipped his bangs so that both sides matched.

Grant hardly cared now. He'd fixed his attention on her nails, which were carefully sculpted and painted with a demure pearl shade. Her index finger was an exception; most of the nail plate had snapped off, leaving angry pink skin and a hairline of dried blood exposed.

Grant's mind quickly listed the facts and drew lines between them. He didn't care for the picture they created. He became so preoccupied that he didn't immediately realize Natalie was addressing him. He made eye contact with her in the mirror and watched her lips move. Grant cleared his throat and willed the mental crickets into silence.

"Beg your pardon?"

"Do you have a preferred product?" She motioned to a little cart with an array of gels, hairspray and mousses displayed in colorful rows. Grant almost shook his head, then leaned forward and scanned the selections. His eyes seized upon the most masculine-looking of the bunch.

"That one there," Grant said, pointing with his chin in the general direction of a flat container that reminded him of a shoe polish tin. Natalie picked it up and pried the lid off.

Grant held his hands out from under the black cape. "You tell me what to do and I'll follow your directions."

The stylist looked surprised. Grant shrugged.

"This old dog needs to learn some new tricks. If I let you style my hair for me, I probably won't be able to replicate your results when I have to do it myself."

Natalie nodded and held the can out. "Just dip a couple fingers in and scoop some product out onto your palm. A little will go a long way."

Grant dragged his index and middle finger through the cream-colored semisolid. It stuck to his fingers like paste.

"Now rub it briskly against your palm until the product is warm and soft, like lotion."

Grant complied and the goop coated his fingers and palm.

"You used a little too much, but that's okay," Natalie coached. "Take this hand, start at the back and just touch your hair with it. Let the product do the work."

Sure enough, wherever Grant touched, the goop he had selected stuck to his hair and left it standing on end. He touched random parts of his hair until he looked like a mad scientist. Natalie giggled and her pinched expression disappeared briefly. Then she mercifully stepped in to lend her assistance. She tugged lightly at his hair in some areas and smoothed down others. Then she stepped aside, apparently satisfied with her efforts. Grant peered at his reflection and tried not to grimace.

"So this is what Georgette wanted?"

"If she told you to get a faux-hawk, then yes, this is it."

"If I had red hair, I'd look like a rooster."

The stylist laughed again. Grant stood and stretched. He held his sticky hands away from the black cape and said, "I'll just wash up quick before I pay."

Grant watched the color drain from Natalie's face and felt his insides tighten. Her complexion became waxy; it was something he'd seen too many times in his law enforcement career.

Watching her carefully, Grant backed away toward the restroom. He moved three steps before the stylist found her voice.

"I can rinse your hands off in the shampoo bowl." She scampered toward the sinks on the opposite wall.

"I also need to use the facilities." Grant added. He'd reached the door to the restroom and reached out a sticky hand to turn the knob.

Natalie's face seemed to undergo a lifetime of changes in a span of seconds. Fear gave way to anger, which turned to blank denial. Then sheer terror cut a swath across her features, followed by remorse.

Grant turned the knob and surveyed the damage.

He knew at a glance the blond woman slumped in the corner was dead. The cape covered most of her limp body like an oversize gown. One bright blue eye stared in surprise, while a dark hole occupied the spot where the other eye should have been. A large red gash stretched in a mirthless leer across her neck. Grant noted the bloody shears in the sink, the crimson soup in the mop bucket and the gray strands of the mop head strewn on the floor like discarded yarn hair. The victim looked like a brutalized rag doll.

Grant thought of his granddaughter Cassie carting around her favorite dolly. He thought of his daughter Meredith and of Georgette, of course. He suddenly realized he did not miss his old job one bit.

Grant turned to see Natalie creeping up behind him with shears upraised. The stylist's mouth hung slack and her eyes were vacant; two cold voids from the depths of space. He realized she'd fought to keep it together for a long time, but the shock was finally setting in.

"Natalie." Grant said. She didn't respond. He raised his voice. "Natalie!"

The stylist's eyes focused on his. She still brandished the shears.

Grant made sure she was watching as he reached and pulled something from its case in his belt. He held the object under the shiny black cape and pointed it at the stylist. His palms were slick with sweat and he was surprised at how shaky and tired he suddenly felt. Thinking again of his family, Grant pulled himself together and invoked the memory of Eastwood draped in a poncho, carrying out a classic bit of spaghetti-western deception.

"I may be retired, but I still have a permit to carry." This statement, strictly speaking, was not a lie.

Natalie frowned and shook her head almost imperceptibly. "I should have locked the door before you came in instead of after," she mumbled and took a step forward. "I wish you hadn't come here."

"Bullet wounds hurt badly, Natalie. I don't want to add to your pain."

Tears welled in her eyes and he could tell his words had made an impact. She looked at him differently now. He knew she was listening. He pressed on. "It wasn't premeditated. I can see that and so will the jury. Prosecution will probably press for second degree," Grant carefully omitted the word "murder" and took a step forward.

The slightest ray of hope shone through on Natalie's face. She dropped the shears and when Grant nodded toward the closest chair, she meekly sat. He stepped forward and kicked the shears across the tile and out of Natalie's reach.

Grant pulled his cell phone from under his cape. He tensed, waiting for Natalie to run when she realized his ruse, but all the fight had left her. She remained slumped in the chair. Grant's fingers dialed three digits and he put the phone to his ear.

* * *

"It's a gruesome scene," Sheriff Mike McGwinn observed as he and Grant conferred in a corner fifteen minutes later.

"The victim must have bled out all over. She did a hell of a job mopping up," Grant admitted. "But the end result certainly isn't pretty."

"It certainly isn't," Mike said. His eyes wandered to Grant's new haircut.

Grant felt his face redden. Mike had been his best deputy but had never let Grant's status as sheriff get in the way of some good-natured jabs.

"I assume Georgette's responsible for your being here?" Mike had pulled a small notebook and stubby pencil from his shirt pocket.

Grant nodded and then tilted his head at the station counter in the far corner in a way that meant he too was ready to talk shop.

"The stylist acted a little skittish while she was cutting my hair. I realize now the bad smell wasn't just the chemicals they use to do perms. I smelled the blood.

"I haven't touched either cell phone, but I believe the pink one belongs to the victim and contains a series of text messages from the assailant's husband."

"The stylist's husband texted the victim while she was here getting her hair done?"

"That's my best guess. Phone vibrates, the victim pulls it out — like so many folks glued to their phones these days — and the stylist accidentally sees the message. She recognizes the number, realizes it's her husband who's sending the text and acts without thinking."

Mike mulled it over. "Must've been a pretty racy text message."

"They call it 'sexting'," Grant said. "Two people using their phones to flirt. But it's a slippery slope. Forget who you're married to and you get what happened today; a crime of passion in a world of technology."

Mike's eyes narrowed. Despite the tragedy, he seemed to be repressing a smile. "Grant, exactly when did you become an expert on 'sexting'?"

Just then the Grant's belt seemed to chirp and he retrieved his cell phone. Grant's eyes sparkled as he read the message from his wife. He looked up at Mike.

"I'll leave you to your crime scene, Sheriff," he said briskly.

"You old dog," McGwinn marveled. He no longer bothered to repress his grin.

Grant called back over his shoulder as he opened the beauty salon door. "Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks?"


Adrian Ludens has contributed to Woman's World, Big Pulp, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Recent anthology appearances include Blood Lite III: Aftertaste (Pocket Books), Blood Rites (Blood Bound Books), and Darker Edge of Desire (Cleiss Press). Adrian is the author of Bedtime Stories for Carrion Beetles, a collection of mystery, horror, and supernatural suspense tales. He lives in Rapid City, South Dakota. Visit Adrian here:


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