BLURB: As Philadelphia's premier image consultant, Allison Campbell helps others reinvent themselves, but her most successful transformation was her own after a scandal nearly ruined her. Now she moves in a world of powerful executives, wealthy, eccentric ex-wives and twisted ethics.
When Allison's latest Main Line client, the fifteen-year-old Goth daughter of a White House hopeful, is accused of the ritualistic murder of a local divorce attorney, Allison fights to prove her client's innocence when no one else will. But unraveling the truth brings specters from her own past. And in a place where image is everything, the ability to distinguish what's real from the facade may be the only thing that keeps Allison alive.
A week later, Allison woke up with a horrible headache. It was Monday morning. She’d spent the past week tunneling her way around the Feldman murder, getting nowhere. Sasha Feldman hadn’t returned a single call and even Vaughn’s network of Main Line connections wasn’t panning out. On top of that, she’d spent the rest of her week working with Maggie in the hopes that they would forge a connection. She wanted to show Maggie—and the McBrides—what a lovely girl was underneath the Goth snarl. But Maggie resisted—and it was time for Allison to get her own schedule back on track.
She rolled over in bed, carefully to avoid sudden movements, and tried to remember what appointments she had for the day: Judge Lint at noon, his wife at one-thirty, a Dressing for the Seasons presentation at three. Could she get away with another hour in bed? She cradled her aching head in her hands. Yes, she would have to. She was fumbling around the bedside table for her meds when the phone rang.
“Allison Campbell,” she said without looking at the caller I.D.
“It’s me, Allison,” rang Vaughn’s voice. “You sound like a sailor the morning after a bender.”
“I feel terrible.” She glanced at the clock. “I’ll be late today. Wish I could cancel altogether. All I want is a double dose of Imitrex and a hot mug of tea. Anyway, what’s going on?”
“I’ll keep it short. McBride called. He says he needs to speak to you about the direction you’re taking his daughter.”
Allison twisted the sheet around one hand. “Oh, for Lord’s sake.”
“Did he say anything specific?”
Vaughn hesitated, which made her think Hank had said a lot more than whatever Vaughn was about to say. “Not really, just that you were not making the kind of progress he had hoped for. Tangible progress, that is.”
Ah, yes. Maggie wasn’t suddenly dressing like Catherine after two whole weeks. Allison could see why he was upset. The sessions of the past week had mostly gone like the first two, which meant Maggie had been as cooperative as a rodeo bronco. Nevertheless, to Hank, Maggie should be hosting her own talk show by now.
Allison said, “Well, he can kiss my you-know-what.”
Vaughn laughed. The sound, usually welcome and comforting, raked through her skull like the tines of a fork down a ceramic plate.
“Anything else, Vaughn? ’Cause if not, I’m going to knock my-self unconscious for a while.”
Again, he hesitated before saying no. He was sitting on some-thing. But right now, Allison was in too much pain to even care what—or why. She wanted to feel the fog receding, even if just a little bit. If she took the medicine before a full-blown migraine set in, she could get the pain to ebb, like an outgoing tide. If she waited too long, it grew into a tidal wave. It felt like tsunami time.
She said, “Just don’t book anything else for today. I’m going to take a power nap. I’ll see you by noon.”
“I’ll deal with him when I get in.”
Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Allison was set to ignore it until she saw it was Faye.
“Hello?” she said tentatively, the smallest noise amplifying the screaming in her head.
“Your birthday is coming up. I’d like to take you out.”
Surprised, Allison said, “That would be nice.”
“There’s a restaurant in the city. Trattoria Bianca. I’ve been wanting to try it.”
“Isn’t Philadelphia a little far for you? We can meet closer to home.”
Faye hesitated. “I’ll be in the city. A routine test. Nothing to worry about. I can meet you there at six-thirty. Will that work?”
Allison thought her sister’s invitation was odd. She never ventured into Philadelphia, much less alone. Why now? But Allison’s head hurt too badly to question. And sleep was calling.
“Sounds nice, Faye. I’ll see you then.”
Allison dreamed of Violet.
Even in sleep, Allison told herself it wasn’t real. The old woman in her dream, for the magic of slumber changed fifteen-year-old Violet into a toothless, graying senior, was pulling at her breast, needing to nurse. Violet’s face morphed into her mother’s face and then into Faye’s, with the features of each sliding and melting into the features of the next. Repulsed, she struggled to wake.
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
Allison rolled over. The buzzing seemed to come from her head, from the same depths that produced the perverse women-babies. Allison clutched at her chest. Dry. Clothed. She murmured “Thank God” under her breath.
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
The doorbell. Oh, man. Allison swung her feet over the side of the bed and glanced at the clock: 9:45. Still in a dream-fog, she walked to the window and peeked outside. No car. Buzz, buzz. Buzz, buzz. Buzz, buzz...
“What the heck?” Allison grabbed her robe and threw it on as she ran down the steps. “Coming!”
She heard a dog bark, and then the sound of pounding joined the buzzing. She knew she should’ve been cautious, there was, after all, a killer loose on the Main Line, but she never heard of a killer announcing himself with such a racket. She threw the door open. She was about to yell at whoever was pounding when all at once she took in the scene before her.
Maggie, a gash on her left arm and a bleeding wound on her hand, stood on the step with a monster of a dog next to her. Maggie was leaning over, grasping the dog’s frayed collar in her good hand. She wore a school uniform—pleated green skirt, white polo shirt, knee socks—and her school backpack was flung over one shoulder. Tears stained her face.
Allison couldn’t take her eyes off the dog. Her pulse racing, she pushed the door open wider and motioned for Maggie to come inside.
“Just you, Maggie. The dog stays outside.”
“He’s the reason I’m here. Please?”
The dog looked up at Allison, its lip curled in what looked like a sneer. It was truly the ugliest creature she had ever seen. It looked like a Boxer but had an oversized head and a severe under bite. Its teeth, yellowed and sharp, stuck out from its bottom jaw like an uneven picket fence. Drool dribbled from its mouth down to the front step. What looked like gum and tar matted the dog’s fur. A large bald spot in the shape of Florida was splayed across the beast’s back. Allison shook her head back and forth and backed away. Cujo looked ready to pounce and she doubted Maggie’s ability to hold onto him.
“I don’t do dogs, Maggie. I’ll get you some rope and you can tie him—”
“Come on, Allison. Please?”
Just then the dog broke free of Maggie’s grasp and ran into the house.
“Get him!” Allison slammed the door shut, leaving Maggie outside. Then she remembered Maggie and opened it again. “Come in here and get him! Hurry!”
Maggie called, “Here Brutus! Brutus, come!”
Maggie shrugged. “That’s what the collar says!”
Allison could hear the dog in the kitchen. “Get him!” Allison ran for the powder room and locked herself in. Her hands shook. She had to get hold of herself and then call Animal Control. What the hell were Maggie and some dog doing here anyway? Her heart pounded itself right into her throat. She couldn’t breathe.
Allison pressed her ear to the door. Silence. What was she going to tell Hank McBride if Brutus ate Maggie? I’m sorry, but I hid in the bathroom while a wild dog mauled your daughter? She had to get out of there. She willed her hand to the doorknob and turned just as she heard a tap on the door.
“You can come out now,” Maggie said.
Allison opened the door a crack and peeked out. She saw Maggie but no sign of the dog.
“Is he outside?”
Allison tucked her robe around her waist and pulled the belt tight. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to be calm, and opened the door. Still no Brutus, a good sign. But then she saw a granola bar wrapper on the floor near the kitchen. She was bending to pick it up when she saw a yogurt container. A few feet from that was an empty meat wrapper—she recognized the brown paper that once covered the hamburger she’d pulled out for dinner. Her head started to pound again.
“The truth, Maggie. Where is he?”
Maggie’s lips turned up in an apologetic smile. Then Allison heard it: the slurp-chewing of a wild boar. She followed the sound to the kitchen. The dog was eating out of her newest All-Clad pan—raw beef, cinnamon granola, All-Bran and yogurt.
“He was hungry, is all.” Maggie went into the kitchen and pulled out a chair. “He must’ve been half-starved.”
Allison grabbed the doorframe. She wanted the dog out of her house. “Hand me the phone.”
“I’m calling Animal Control.”
“You can’t! They’ll put him to sleep.”
“He’s obviously unhappy, Maggie. Look at his teeth. He can barely breathe. He needs to be taken care of. “
As though he understood her, Brutus put his head up and looked at her. A black paste of ground food stuck to his jutting lower teeth. Breathing and eating seemed to be competing needs and he choked and snorted his way through the food in his mouth as he stared at Allison. She looked away, half-convinced he was pleading with her, too.
Maggie stood in front of the phone, blocking it with her body. “No way, Allison. Just listen to me. Please?”
Maggie took the receiver off the wall and, phone in hand, crawled over to the dog. She put her arms around his neck and nuzzled his head against her own.
“Maggie, be careful! Not while he’s eating!”
Maggie ignored her. Brutus licked her cheek and then returned to the bowl. Allison had to admit, despite his disgusting table manners, he didn’t seem vicious.
“Now will you listen to me?”
Allison pulled out two kitchen chairs, placing one between herself and the dog. She sat on the other while keeping a watchful eye on Brutus. “But keep that mutt over there.” She sniffed. “He smells like the local dump.”
“He’s homeless. What would you expect?”
Allison glanced at Maggie’s arm, alarmed. “Did he bite you?”
Maggie shook her head. “He was standing in the middle of traffic when my friend and I were driving to school. We stopped. I chased him through the woods and cut myself on a branch or something.” Maggie’s eyes started to water again. “He was shaking when I found him.”
Allison steeled herself against Maggie’s tears. She had a dog in her house. No dogs were allowed in her house, especially not huge, teeth-baring dogs in need of doggie deodorant and an orthodontist. No way. This was simply another of Maggie’s attempts to manipulate.
“You should have brought him to your house.”
“Why bother? Daddy hates animals. He would never let me keep him. He would have had my mom take him to the pound or he would have shot the dog himself.”
Allison cringed at her last statement. She could certainly picture Hank being less than accommodating. But then, she didn’t want to deal with the dog, either.
She remembered Vaughn’s phone call, the fact that Hank had contacted her earlier that day. She hadn’t called him back. And now Maggie was here, not in school and injured by her run-in with Brutus.
She doubted this was the direction Hank McBride wanted to go in either. She saw her fee for this deal slipping away and along with it, her reputation and the money for her parents’ care.
Maggie said, “He’s so sweet.”
Allison looked again at Brutus. “He’s not that sweet.”
“You don’t know him yet.”
“Yet? Oh no, Maggie. I draw the line here. No dogs.”
“Wasn’t it you who told me people have the ability to shape their future? If you want to get over your fear of dogs, you can. You have that power. Please? Look at that face! Please, please, please?”
“I am looking at that face. Even if I wasn’t scared of him, I’d be worried about disease and fleas. There’s something wrong with his fur.”
The dog stopped licking the pot and sat next to Maggie, his flank against Maggie’s side. Making what sounded like a contented grunt, he sprawled on the floor, his head in Maggie’s lap. Maggie stroked his ears.
“Please? Just for a few days? It will give me time to find him another home.”
“Doesn’t he have a tag? Just call his owners.”
Maggie fingered the metal circle that hung from the dog’s collar. “I can only make out his name. The metal’s worn away.”
It did look as though he’d been panhandling for quite some time. Still, Allison said, “We should call the AASPCA to see if any-one’s lost him.”
Maggie just stared at Allison, a soulful pleading in her eyes.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Maggie. I have a life here. I work round the clock. There’s a reason I don’t have kids or pets...or plants, for that matter. You don’t even like me. Why would you want to trust me with a dog?”
“I like you a little bit.”
Allison looked at her, trying to decide if this was manipulation on Maggie’s part or the expression of real feeling. What she saw surprised her. While Allison had no doubt that Maggie wanted something—namely, help with the dog—there was also genuine warmth and trust in her eyes. Allison felt her resolve melting.
“Come here, let’s clean you up.” She walked over to the sink, careful not to turn her back to the dog, and pulled Neosporin and Band-Aids from a cabinet. These she laid on the counter. “Roll up your sleeves.”
She washed Maggie’s hand first. The scratches seemed superficial: a few long trails of dried blood covering thin lacerations. The arm was worse. A chunk of skin was missing, and the area around the wound looked red and puffy.
“You need to keep an eye on this. When was your last tetanus shot?”
“Like I know.”
“This could get infected. Tell your parents you need a trip to the doctor.”
“Um, no.” Maggie cocked her head to the side and rolled her eyes. Her dyed-black hair had blue highlights in the morning light.
“Then I’ll tell them.” Allison covered the wound with triple-antibiotic cream and a bandage, the whole time keeping one eye on the dog in case he decided a pot of raw meat wasn’t enough sustenance for one morning.
“You can’t tell Daddy. I will be so dead for skipping school.”
“I’m sure the school called your mother. She probably already knows—”
“Even if they did, she won’t tell. She’s afraid of upsetting my father. Everyone’s afraid of upsetting Daddy.”
“You saved that dog. They’ll be proud of you.”
“Yeah, right. If you haven’t noticed, Allison, Mr. Conservative Values is less about helping others and more about appearances. He doesn’t want that ugly dog saved any more than he wants to turn me loose to the media. Anyway, I told you. He hates animals.”
“There’s still your arm to take care of.”
“Will you keep Brutus for me? I know it’s a lot to ask, but I don’t have anyone else to turn to.” Maggie’s eyes were teary. “Please?”
Allison looked from Maggie to the dog. He did seem harmless enough, certainly nothing like her father’s wolf-dog, Thor. Maybe Jason would take him. She could put him in the basement until Jason arrived. What would an hour or two hurt? And it would make Maggie happy. She seemed so worried about the animal, and it was nice to see a human side of her.
“I’ll make you a deal. If you tell your parents you hurt your arm and get them to take you to a doctor—use whatever story you want—I’ll try to find a temporary home for Brutus until we find his owners.”
Maggie smiled. “Deal.”
As though on cue, Brutus let out a low, long fart. He looked quite pleased with himself afterwards, rolled over onto his side, gave a wheezy sigh, and closed his eyes again. Maggie laughed.
“Nice. All that All-Bran,” Allison said. “Anyway, so how did you know where to find me?”
“The Internet. You can find all sorts of stuff if you know what you’re looking for.”
True, Allison thought. No one had privacy anymore. “Who drove you here?”
“And where is said friend?”
“So I guess you need a ride back?”
Maggie nodded. Allison eyed Maggie’s clothes to see whether a spin in the washer was required first. Despite the uniform, Maggie had managed to accessorize à la London underground: that pentagram necklace, black Doc Martens, anarchy-symbol earrings and her signature bed-head hairdo. Mud streaked the white Polo and pleated skirt. Nothing a little warm water and soap couldn’t handle.
“Let’s get you upstairs and cleaned up. You can’t go to school like that. And you certainly can’t go home like that. Your mother will know something’s up. You smell like a barnyard and there’s dog hair all over your skirt.”
Maggie looked down at her uniform. “So what do you suggest?”
“I’ll give you some sweats. We’ll throw your uniform through the rinse cycle, and then I’ll drop you off at school.”
“In the meantime?”
Brutus farted again. The sound startled him, and he jumped up in surprise. Maggie giggled.
Oh Lord. “You can bathe that dog. If he’s bunking with me for a few hours, he needs to smell less like Eau de Waste-Treatment Plant and more like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.”
Review Rating: 4 LIGHTNING BOLTS
Review: Oh, this book was blast to read! Mystery, humor...the works! I loved Alison's character. She's witty, smart, and she doesn't take crap from anyone! She's an image consultant and good at her job, and of course, like many great mystery books, get roped into a bit of detective work as she lands herself in trouble! This is an excellent debut story and I'll be eagerly anticipating more!
The writing is excellent! Very good descriptions but still leaves plenty to the imagination. Twists and turns and plenty of surprise. Just what I adore in a mystery book. All right, Ms. Tyson, when do I get more?
Wendy Tyson wrote her first story at age eight and it’s been love ever since. When not writing, Wendy enjoys reading other people’s novels, traveling, hiking, and playing hooky at the beach–and if she can combine all four, even better. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again with her husband, three kids and two muses, dogs Molly and Driggs. She and her husband are passionate organic gardeners and have turned their small urban lot into a micro farm. Killer Image is Wendy’s first novel in the Allison Campbell mystery series.
Wendy has also authored The Seduction of Miriam Cross, a mystery that will be released by E-Lit Books on November 1, 2013.
Find Wendy at:
www.WATyson.com and on twitter (www.twitter.com/wendytyson) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/wendytysonauthor).
Find Wendy at:
www.WATyson.com and on twitter (www.twitter.com/wendytyson) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/wendytysonauthor).