The front door rattled and footsteps creaked across the floorboards of Next Best Dress. Sam froze where she sat at her sewing table in the back room, fingers just shy of her big fabric shears. She took a deep breath and held it.
Silence. Then swish, rustle, swish, swish, swish.
“Mother? Back already?” Sam called, to give herself courage, because she knew it wasn’t Mother.
Mother didn’t creak, and Mother never came back early. At 12:15 she’d switched the sign on the door to “Closed” and moved the hands on the “Back By...” clock to 1:30. It wasn’t even one o’clock yet. Yes, the sign said “Closed,” but Mother hadn’t bothered to lock the door, because Sam had stayed to work in the back. Alone.
From where she sat, Sam could only see a narrow rectangle of the store, and inside that rectangle, all was peace and quiet and color-coordinated racks of vintage clothing.
A head bounced into view and rolled to a stop, staring at Sam with glassy green eyes, the stiff black hair fanned out around the vacant face. Sam knew that face--she’d repainted the chipped nose twice. It was Cleopatra.
Sam gripped her shears, got up, and prepared to meet whoever it was that had just decapitated Cleopatra.
“What’s going on out here? Who’s there?” Sam called as she walked into the main part of the store. Her voice echoed through the small shop and gave her confidence.
Next Best Dress was dim, colorful, quiet and a little musty, as always. Anastasia Romanov stood in the front window, staring out at the street, her hands half-raised as if in shock. Her mattted chestnut curls caught the late afternoon light. Maire Antoinette, who had never had a head, but concealed this deficiency with a broadbrimmed hat, stood beside her, hands on hips, indignant. Dust motes swirled around them both. Someone had just left the store in a hurry.
On the other side of the room, near the storeroom door stood Cleopatra. She was naked. Her head lay on the floor a few feet away. The little sign Sam had hung around her neck that said “Sold” in her mother’s pink cursive was propped against her stand.
Anastasia Romanov and Marie Antoinette were wearing 60’s style mini dresses in complementary pastel shades, and until about an hour ago, Cleopatra had been too. Then Sam had decided to use her to model the prom dress she was making for her younger sister, Chloe--an original Samantha Hill design--and she’d stepped into the back room to get her shears and some pins, and it had taken her longer than she thought to find the pins, but surely not enought time for someone to steal the gown. Except someone had.
“This is ridiculous!” Sam exclaimed as she ran for the front door of Next Best Dress. Then, “What am I going to tell Chloe?”
She scanned the street outside, up and down. The dress thief couldn’t have gotten far. Less than a minute before, the door had rattled closed behind her--or him. Did anyone on the street look suspicious? A woman with a big purse and a spotted chihuawa was strolling past--the dress might have fit in her purse if she crammed it, but as Sam watched the woman picked up her tiny dog and slipped it inside. So the purse was an improvised dog carrier, not a receptacle for stolen gowns.
Two men in ties and blazers were just walking into the Greenleaf Cafe across the street. One had a slim black suitcase ... not big enough for a dress like Sam’s over-the-top creation. And what would two businessmen want with it anyway?
Mrs. Baker jogged past, waving to Sam as she went by. Sam had never seen her wearing anything but leggings and oversize tee shirts from her husband’s landscaping business. Besides, she’d have to be a hardened criminal to return so soon to the scene of the crime and wave to her victim. Mrs. Baker was not a hardened criminal. There was nobody else.
She imagined herself calling the police. “I’m calling to report an assault and robbery,” she played the call in her mind. “A young mannequin named Cleopatra was ruthlessly beheaded, and the murderer made off with her priceless coture gown, an original from the famous Samantha Hill design house.” She almost laughed. It wasn’t hard to see the funny side of the whole situation, if she didn’t think about the part where she had to break the news to Chloe that her prom dress was gone. Vanished without a trace. Stolen.
Quincy Park, the rising young rock star, loved the dress from the minute she saw it. Sam didn’t realize until too late that Chloe had too.
“That’s quite the dress,” said Chloe, as Sam tugged and tweaked the neckline across Cleopatra’s unforgiving bosom. Chloe didn’t visit Next Best Dress often, because the vintage clothes gave her sneezing fits, but she’d come with Sam that afternoon to look at fabrics and plan a prom dress.
“This, said Sam, “is what happens when you design dresses to Wagner. I was going to create an entire collection and call it “Twilight of the Gods.” but it turned out to be ... I don’t know. Less Valkyrie, more mermaid, maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a bit ... too much, I think. But it was fun to make. Fun to imagine somebody else wearing it.”
“I can imagine wearing it,” said Chloe softly, as Quincy Park swung open the door of Next Best Dress and marched inside.
Quincy was wearing a purple flapper dress with fringe swirling around the knees, a vintage Next Best Dress dress. Sam recognized it. She’d planned to copy it before it was sold but Quincy snapped it up the day after it came in. She had tall black lace-up boots to go with it, and a rope of black pearls hung to her waist. When Quincy saw the glittering dress Sam was adjusting, her jaw dropped.
“That!” she exclaimed, pointing stiff-armed. “I have to have that!”
Sam gave the neckline one last tug and turned around. “You like it?”
“Yes,” said Quincy, clasping her hands for emphasis. “Yes. I love it. That’s the dress I will wear on the cover of my new album. I’m doing a photo shoot in the park by the broken fountain that has the big stone fish in the middle. There’s a perfect natural backdrop of dark pine trees. That dress is exactly the look I want. Sort of fishy ... mermaid, I guess. Metallic mermaid ... mermaid in armor?”
“Not ... Valkyrie?”
Quincy pursed her lips, put her head on one side. “No, definitely mermaid. But a cold and dangerous mermaid. I’ll give you that. How much are you asking for it?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sam saw Chloe’s shoulders droop as she wandered into the back room. As Quincy embraced her new dress and swirled it around her booted ankles, Sam could hear Chloe sneezing.
When Sam went in twenty minutes later, Chloe was lying on her back on a pile of fabrics, idly stirring a piece of turqoise gauze with one bare foot and reading a paperback mystery.
“Your feet had better be squeaky clean!” Sam exclaimed.
“Hey Sam, I wanted that dress.”
“What dress? The flapper one? Let me tell you, I wanted it too. I was so disappointed Quincy got it before--”
“No. I wanted the mermaid one Quincy Park bought today.”
“Really? My dress? You liked my Valkyrie/Mermaid Mashup Monstrosity?”
“Yes. I loved it.”
“Oh ... you didn’t tell me.”
“I didn’t exactly have time.” Chloe sighed heavily, rolled over and continued reading.
A stabbing pain in her big toe brought Sam to a stop just opposite the bakery. She looked down. One of her very own dressmaker’s pins was stuck in her toe, a yellow-headed one. She scanned the ground, and picked up a blue-headed one too. Whoever stole the dress must have come this way. And the thief hadn’t been in a great hurry to hide her (or his?) loot. If the dress thief had stuffed it into a bag immediately, then the pins would have fallen out inside the bag, not on the ground. “I hope you got poked a few times too, Gown-Snatcher,” Sam muttered. “This is ridiculous. Ridiculous.”
Sam began to walk again, uncomfortably aware that she’d been standing in the middle of the sidewalk, grumbling to herself like a crazy woman and brandishing those big fabric shears.What would her mother say? Her mother would certainly hear all about it, if not from Mrs. Baker, than from Mrs. Chipperson or Mrs. Rhodes ... if she hadn’t seen the whole show herself from the windows of the Greenleaf Cafe where she was probably still eating lunch.
She walked into the bakery. The bell over the door tinkled. Sam made a mental note to have one installed at Next Best Dress. Mr Van Dees was behind the counter, smiling at her from beneath his bushy salt-and-pepper mustache.
“Anything I can get for you, Miss Samantha?” he asked. “The donuts are fresh.”
“No. Thanks, though. I was wondering if you happened to see anyone go past here carrying a fancy gown?”
“Not that I remember. I’m sure I would have noticed.”
“It may not have looked like one, it may have looked more like a bundle of shiny silver fabric.”
“Hmmm ... Harrison Park went by just a minute ago on his bicycle. He’s an aspiring photographer, so he’s always loaded down with camera bags and othe equipment, and now that you mention it, I think he did have a bundle of shiny material under his arm. I assumed it was a lighting sheet, or a backdrop--something like that. I don’t know anything about photography.”