“Tell me this isn't happening.” My stomach churned as I took a step toward the dangling corpse of Carolyn Crabbe. Even from across the room I recognized her bottle blond helmet of perfectly shellacked hair and the bright blue suit I'd seen her in earlier.
Richard opened his mouth and then closed it again. I had rarely seen him speechless.
“Is that reallyâ¦?” Kate's voice faded and she clasped her hand over her mouth.
I looked away, grateful that the body wasn't facing us. “It's Carolyn Crabbe all right.”
“We should get her down from there.” Kate's voice was barely a whisper. “How awful to be hanging like that.”
“I think she's beyond saving, Kate,” Richard said. “But why don't you go get Security? Annabelle and I will wait with the body.”
Kate looked at Carolyn and gave one last shud
der before hurrying out of the ballroom and closing the door behind her.
I took a long, deep breath to keep from being sick and looked away from the body and around the ballroom. Rows of gold chairs were covered in sheer burgundy organza and draped with strands of iridescent beads. We'd covered the stage in heavy gold damask and tall arrangements of crimson flowers perched at the corners. The slightly raised ceremonial platform, or
, for the Persian ceremony was filled from end to end with ornate gold candelabra, bowls of honey, trays of sweets, and a large gilded copy of the Koran on a pedestal.
“Now what?” I sighed. “The ceremony starts in less than an hour.”
Richard held up a finger. “Correction, Annabelle. The ceremony
going to start in less than an hour.”
“I suppose it would be too much to hope that we could get the body cleared out and still pull off the wedding?” I bit the edge of my lip. “It's not like there's any blood.”
Richard put a hand on his hip. “Somehow I think that a dangling corpse will put a damper on the festivities, blood or not.”
“Maybe we could keep Carolyn's death quiet and move the ceremony to another room,” I said, making a mental calculation of how long it would take to move the numerous items on the ceremonial platform, and felt a huge headache coming on.
“Does the platform for the ceremony have wheels that I don't know about?” Richard nar
rowed his eyes at me. “We could always roll it out the door and into another room.”
“Believe me, if I could fit it through the doors, I would.”
Richard shook his head at me. “I was only joking, Annabelle. I doubt the hotel would look too favorably at having a ceremony wheeled through their lobby.”
“Nothing else can fit in that lobby.” Fern's voice startled me as he walked into the ballroom behind us. “There are bridesmaids as far as the eye can see. For once I think the Don Juan of the wedding photography world has his hands full. I don't think even Maxwell can flirt with that many girls at one time.”
I whirled around. So much for keeping this disaster low profile. “What are you doing here? I thought you were with the bride.”
“She's about to leave for her monument portraits so I thought I'd come take a peek at the room beforeâ¦” Fern did a double take when he caught sight of Carolyn Crabbe dangling in midair, then a look of comprehension crossed his face. “So this is why you wanted to keep people out of the room. Very clever, you two. The story about the bonfire was a nice touch.”
Richard sucked in his breath. “You think we had something to do with this?”
“Well, that is Carolyn Crabbe, right?” Fern tapped his chin and looked pointedly at Richard. “And she did tell people that you were difficult to work with a few years back, didn't she?”
A flush crawled up Richard's face and a vein in his temple began to pulse. “What? I never heard that.”
“Oh?” Fern gave a nervous giggle. “I could have sworn that you had. Never mind. It clearly isn't important now.”
“We found her like this,” I explained. “We had nothing to do with her death. It looks like she hung herself anyway.”
“Talk about letting your clients push you over the edge.” Fern nudged me with his elbow.
“You think this is a suicide?” Richard asked me.” Are you deranged?”
“What? You don't?” I looked from him to Fern and back again.
“Don't you find it a bit odd that Carolyn would hang herself while she's running a wedding?” Richard glanced at the deceased and lowered his voice. “She may have been an unpleasant, over-bearing, controlling diva, but she never let anything ruin a wedding.”
Fern bobbed his head in agreement. “She could be an unbearable prima donna, but she was always a professional about it.”
Ringing endorsements if I'd ever heard them.
“So you two think someone got her up on the balcony, tied a veil around her neck, and pushed her off?”
“It would be easy enough to slip the noose around her neck while her back was turned and push her over the edge,” Fern said. “And, trust me, tulle is stronger than it looks.”
Richard cocked an eyebrow at Fern. “You know this hypothetically, of course.”
Fern crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Of course.”
“So it had to be someone who knew her,” I said.
“Everyone knew Carolyn,” Richard reminded me. “She's been in this business for almost twenty years. There's no one she didn't know.”
“Or didn't tick off,” Fern added.
I sighed. “I'm glad I'm not the only one.”
“She couldn't stand other wedding planners.” Fern nodded solemnly. “When did you have a run-in with the darling diva?”
I gave a dismissive wave. “It was nothing. Carolyn wasn't too happy that we were going to be using the hallway for portraits. She wanted to set up her escort card table early, and our photos were ruining her plans. She warned me not to get in her way.”
“You mean today?” Fern's voice barely rose above a whisper. “You had it out with Carolyn right before she died?”
Richard rubbed his temples. “Maybe we shouldn't mention this to anyone else.”
“Why not?” I said. “I didn't have anything to do with this. I barely even knew the woman. Anyway, she's the one who threatened me.”
“You know how touchy the police get about people turning up murdered after an argument.” Richard shrugged. “They might jump to the wrong conclusion.”
“He's right.” Fern patted my arm. “You don't want anyone saying you killed the competition, Annabelle.”
The ballroom doors flew open and a loud voice filled the room. “I knew I'd find you here, Annabelle Archer. You didn't think you'd get away with this, did you?”
“Giancarlo?” I strained to make out the figure in the doorway.
“I've been looking for you everywhere.” The stocky banquet captain strode into the room. “A bonfire is against the fire code, even if it is a sacred part of the ceremony.”
“What?” I'd almost forgotten about what had seemed like a huge crisis only moments ago.
“Didn't you tell her?” Giancarlo's dark eyebrows were furrowed into a single line as he turned to Richard, and then his mouth dropped open.
“We have a bigger problem than a fire code violation,” I explained.
The imperious banquet captain staggered back a few steps. “My God! Is that Carolyn Crabbe? What is she doing in here? Her wedding is in the East Room.”
“I don't think being in the wrong ballroom is Carolyn's biggest concern right now,” Richard muttered.
“We have to get her down from there.” Giancarlo waved his arms over his head. “It's very bad for the hotel to have a body hanging from the balcony of our ballroom.”
“I'd say it's worse for Carolyn,” Fern whispered to me behind his hand.
“You shouldn't move the body.” Richard hurried after Giancarlo as he headed for the stairs to the second level. “The police will be here any minute and they won't want the crime scene tampered with. Trust me on this one.”
“The police?” Giancarlo shook his head vehemently. “Oh, no. We can't have the police in here. They will make a huge scene. We have too many holiday tourists in the hotel for that.”
“Well, you have had a death in the hotel,” Richard insisted, matching Giancarlo step for step. “You have to let the police do their job.”
The argument continued in muffled voices as they disappeared into the stairwell at the end of the room.
“This I have to see.” Fern clapped his hands together. “The city's toughest banquet captain going head-to-head with Richard.”
“It does seem like a fair fight,” I agreed.
Fern rubbed his hands together gleefully. “If only we had popcorn.”
Richard and Giancarlo appeared above us on the balcony with Carolyn hanging below them.
Giancarlo leaned over and grabbed the tulle. “I'm going to pull her up.”
“You can't disturb the body,” Richard said, trying to push him out of the way. “It's against the law.”
“No one tells me what to do in my hotel!” Giancarlo bellowed, his face purple from exertion.
I tugged Fern's sleeve. “Maybe we should go get help.”
“Are you kidding?” He didn't tear his eyes off the grappling men. “And miss this? Next they're going to be pulling each other's hair.”
I put a hand over my eyes. “I hope the police get here before we have two crimes to report.”
“They're on their way,” Kate said as she walked back into the ballroom. “What's all the racket?”
I motioned to Giancarlo trying to pull Carolyn's body up with one arm while holding Richard in a headlock with the other.
“Let go!” Richard screamed. “If you rip my Prada jacket, I'll sue.”
Kate's eyes widened. “I don't think I've ever seen Richard fight. Talk about a fish running out of water.”
“You mean a fish out of water?” I asked. Kate loved using colorful expressions, but I had yet to hear her get one quite right.
“That, too.” Kate didn't take her eyes off the fight. “Oh, I bumped into Margery and Lucille in the hallway. They're looking for Carolyn.”
Margery and Lucille had been Carolyn's assistants for almost as long as she'd been planning weddings. Although they were the same age as Carolyn, neither woman had ever seemed to mind playing second fiddle to the domineering diva. I'd always found the assistants much more personable than the grande dame herself.
“What did you tell them?” I asked.
Kate darted a glance behind her. “Nothing,
but I think they were a bit suspicious of me.”
“Yoo hoo!” a warbling voice called out from the door. Carolyn's assistant, Lucille, stood in the doorway in a navy blue knit suit with gold buttons. She wore her white hair cut short and immaculately arranged. Lucille struck me as the grandmotherly type of wedding planner who excelled at holding hands and wiping away tears. The perfect balance for Carolyn's abrasive personality.
“Lucille.” I ran to intercept her before she could see Carolyn. “How nice to see you.”
Kate joined me in pushing her back toward the hall. “Let's step outside to chat.”
“If you don't let go of me this instant, I'm going to call my lawyer!” Richard shrieked from the balcony.
“I'd like to see you try it!” Giancarlo screamed back, and hoisted the veil up a few inches. Carolyn's body lurched up and spun around to face us.
“Carolyn!” Lucille cried out and pushed past us toward the swaying corpse.
“Crap.” I ran after Lucille.
“Did you find her?” Margery, Carolyn's other assistant, poked her head in the door.
“I've almost got her,” Giancarlo huffed as he leaned back and pulled hard, swiping at Richard with one fist.
“Lucille, get back here,” Margery cried as Lucille ran around under Carolyn's swinging body.
“I can catch her.” Lucille ran up onto the ceremony table with her arms stretched out. I covered my eyes as she trampled the ceremony arrangements.
“Put her back down or else.” Richard dodged the enraged captain's blows as he tried to land a few kicks of his own.
Giancarlo stumbled forward and the veil slipped out of his hands. The body dropped a few feet and snapped back as all the slack gave way, and then the fabric of the veil began to rip. Giancarlo and Richard stopped grappling long enough to watch from above as Carolyn plummeted to the ground.
Lucille held her arms open as Carolyn fell on top of her, and she staggered for a second under the weight of the body before her knees buckled and she landed with a crunch on top of the elaborate ceremony platform. I watched through my fingers as Carolyn's head flopped face first in the bowl of honey.
Fern gasped and turned to me. “I must say, Annabelle. No one does weddings like you do.”
“I think it's safe to say that we won't be getting back in there any time soon,” Kate said as the hotel security officers slammed the ballroom doors on us.
“Not that the ceremony is salvageable.” I shook my head. “Almost everything got broken.”
“Well, a dead body did land on top of the
.” Kate gave Richard a pointed look.
“Don't look at me,” Richard said. “I told that despotic banquet captain not to fiddle with the body.”
“What are we going to do without Carolyn?” Lucille sobbed into Margery's shoulder. “We have a wedding starting in ten minutes.”
“Here, honey.” Fern held out a hemstitched linen handkerchief with a flowery embroidered
, and then began to sniffle as he watched Lucille cry. He started to dab his own eyes with the handkerchief before Lucille could take it. “Here come
the waterworks. I can't watch someone cry without crying myself.”
Richard rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heaven's sake.”
“At least you still have a wedding,” I reassured the two older women. “Ours will have to be postponed for several hours, if it can even take place at all.”
“It's not like you haven't done lots of weddings before.” Kate patted Lucille on the back. “I know Carolyn is a huge loss, but you two will be fine.”
“You never worked with Carolyn, did you?” Margery ran her fingers through her dark burgundy hair and looked at the floor. While Lucille stood out with her perfectly styled white hair and grandmotherly persona, Margery always looked a bit out of her element to me. With a nondescript brown suit, a dye job that made her hair look almost purple, and almost no makeup, she certainly didn't look like a high-profile wedding planner's assistant. I'd once heard Carolyn say that no bride would ever feel threatened by Margery. I wished I could say the same about Kate.
Lucille raised her head and wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. “She was such a perfectionist that she insisted on doing all the ceremonies herself. She liked to send the brides down the aisle personally, so Margery and I took care of details like putting out menu cards or loading people into buses.”
“Sometimes she would let us help getting the ushers set up, but the processional was all hers,” Margery added.
My eyes widened. Carolyn's assistants were at least thirty years older than me and they'd been working in weddings for the past twenty.
“You've never sent a bride down the aisle?”
“I wish you were that much of a control freak,” Kate said so only I could hear. “I hate coordinating ceremony processionals.”
I agreed. One part of wedding planning that I would never miss was the last nerve-wracking minutes before the bride walked down the aisle. It seemed like the majority of guests arrived in the final five minutes and had to be hurried to their seats in record time before lining up the mothers, grandmothers, and even stepmothers to be seated. Then the groomsmen were off down the aisle, followed by a gaggle of bridesmaids, the ring bearer and flower girl, who usually either began to cry or wet their pants. Then, finally, there was the bride. It told me a lot about Carolyn that she had insisted on running the processional herself for the past twenty years. She was clearly off her rocker.
“It's not hard to run a processional,” I lied. “You'll be fine.”
Richard rubbed his neck where Giancarlo had held him in a headlock. “It's not rocket science, that's for sure.”
I shot him a look. “Thanks, Richard.” I turned back to Lucille and Margery. “Do you have a list of who walks when?”
Margery produced a packet of folded pages from a leather portfolio.
“There you go,” Richard said, waving a hand at the wedding timeline. “I've always said that as long as you have a good timeline, a trained monkey could run things. Right, Kate?”
“Absolutelyâ¦” Kate began, then closed her
mouth and glared at Richard. “Very funny.”
Richard stepped out of Kate's reach and scooted behind me. Before Kate could chase after him, a willowy blonde in a long forest-green bridesmaid's dress rushed across the hall from the East Room. Her eyes darted back and forth between Lucille and Margery.
“Aren't you with the wedding planner?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. “Angela wants to know if we're going to start on time.”
Lucille gave her a blank look. “Angela?”
The bridesmaid gave an impatient sigh and began tapping her foot. “The bride.”
“Of course,” Margery pushed Lucille off her shoulder and regained her composure. “We're on our way to start the ceremony.”
“You'd better hurry.” The girl tossed her long hair off her shoulder. “Because the ushers don't know what they're doing and everyone is standing around at the back. The carolers aren't even singing.”
“Carolers?” Richard gave me a look that told me exactly what he thought of carolers singing at a wedding.
Lucille bobbed her head of perfectly coiffed white hair up and down. “The bride wanted a Dickensian feel to the wedding. A nice holiday touch, don't you think?”
“Nothing like a little Charles Dickens squalor and misery to put you in the wedding mood,” Richard said under his breath.
“We're on our way,” Margery called to the bridesmaid's back as she flounced off. She turned to me. “You have to help us.”
“What?” I took a step back and shook my head.
“No. We have our own mess to deal with.”
“It won't take very long,” Margery begged, clutching my hands.
“Please,” Lucille pleaded through red, puffy eyes. “We can't do this alone. Not after losing Carolyn in such a horrible wayâ¦” She collapsed into tears again.
“Of course we'll help you,” Fern cried, and flung his arms around Margery and Lucille. He wiped his own tears away with a dramatic sweep of his handkerchief. “You can count on us, right, girls?”
I felt overwhelmed with the desire to beat Fern to death with his hairbrush.
Kate shrugged. “We might as well throw in the trowel and do it.”
“Throw in the trowel?” Richard tapped his chin and smirked at me.
“Fine,” I said. “But let's hurry. We still have to break the bad news to our bride before she hears it through the grapevine.”
Lucille and Margery led the way to the East Room across the hall. The bridesmaid had been right. The wedding was total chaos. The room had been set up for the ceremony with rows of gold chairs with green velvet cushions, but no one sat in them. Guests mingled in the aisle while the groomsmen stood talking to each other against the wall of gold curtains in the back. A string quartet sat silently at the front of the room near the enormous gold mirror that took up most of the wall, while a group of costumed carolers huddled inside the door.
“Margery, you have the order that the grooms
men process in, right? Can you take care of them?”
Lucille shook her head at me and whispered, “She's blind as a bat without her glasses. She probably can't even tell the groomsmen apart.”
I quickly formulated Plan B and turned to Kate. “You're the expert with men. Can you whip these groomsmen into shape and have them start seating guests?”
Kate eyed the group of tall tuxedo-clad men clustered in a corner and tugged the neckline of her top down. “Is the Pope Baptist?”
I was about to correct her but decided we didn't have time. She headed off in the direction of the groomsmen with her hips swaying from side to side.
I turned to Fern. “Can you handle the bridesmaids?”
“Are those tramps chewing gum?” Fern sucked in his breath. “Don't you worry, Annabelle. I'm going to take them to the hall and get them shaped up.”
I smiled thinking about what Miss Bossy Boots Bridesmaid was in for.
I turned back to Margery. “Why don't you tell the carolers to start singing and cue the processional music for the string quartet?”
“Should I go get the bride and the flower girls?” Lucille whispered to me once Margery had made a beeline for the carolers.
“That would be great, Lucille.”
“Well, it looks like you've got this under control,” Richard began, backing out of the room.
“Not so fast.” I grabbed him by the sleeve. “I need you to help me with the bride and flower
girls. I can't trust Lucille not to fall to pieces again.”
“Fine,” Richard said with a huff. “But I hope you know how much you owe me for today.”
“I know, I know.”
“This is giving the Martin wedding a run for its money.”
“For the hundredth time, Richard, I had nothing to do with the cat theme.”
“May I remind you that the invitation was issued by the couple's cats? That may have been the only time in the history of the world that the words âMuffles' and âSnuffy' have been engraved on Crane's paper.”
Richard held the door for me as we went out into the hallway to meet the bride. “What on earth?” I stopped short, and he nearly crashed into me.
About a dozen little girls in white flower girl dresses with green velvet sashes were gathered in the hallway around the bride. Some wore floral halos and others carried round pomanders of crimson roses on ribbon strings. The angelic-looking flower girls were currently using the pomanders to whack each other, and at least half of the girls were crying. Lucille had a vacant smile on her face as she stood behind the bride, holding the cathedral length train. The petite bride had dark hair and pale white skin and looked equally dazed and unaffected by the wailing children. I wanted some of whatever she and Lucille were on.
I snaked my way through the children to Lucille. “How many flower girls are there exactly?”
“Ten, I think.” Lucille glanced at the girls. “At
least there were ten. We might have lost one on the way here.”
“Lost one?” My voice came out as barely a squeak.
“Annabelle.” Richard pushed his way around the flower girls like they were lepers. “You know how I feel about children.”
Richard wasn't fond of children or animals. Both were too unpredictable and messy for his liking.
“I know, but you can't leave me with them. Look how many there are.”
“Exactly my point. This is like herding kittens.”
Margery poked her head out of the ballroom door. “We're seating the mothers, and then sending the groomsmen down. The bridesmaids are next.”
“Chests out, ladies.” Fern clapped his hands as he led his now orderly line of bridesmaids to the door. “If you're going to wear a strapless gown, you might as well flaunt it a little. I saw a lot of single men in there. Work it, you two-bit hussies.”
Not exactly the pep talk I gave bridesmaids, but Fern could get away with things that would get me fired on the spot.
“Help me line up the flower girls in pairs,” I said to Richard as I pulled two girls by the hands and planted them behind the last bridesmaid. Richard guided two tiny girls into place with a fingertip on each of their backs.
“They won't bite you,” I said.
He eyed the flower girls with suspicion. “You don't know that for sure.”
We corralled the remaining girls into a semblance of a double line as the ballroom doors opened and
Fern started sending the bridesmaids down the aisle. One of the smallest flower girls began to cry and threw her arms around Richard's leg.
“Get it off! Get it off!” Richard shook his leg.
“Richard, calm down.” I bent down to the little girl's level. “Don't you want to let go of the nice man and walk down the aisle?”
She shook her head and tightened her grasp on Richard. I looked up at Richard and shrugged my shoulders.
“What?” Richard returned my shrug. “I'm supposed to walk around like this for the rest of my life?”
“Can you help me with her veil, Annabelle?” Lucille called from behind the bride.
Richard grabbed my arm. “If you think you're going to leave me alone with this child, you're out of your mind, Annabelle.”
“You can handle it, Richard. She can't be more than three years old. Anyway, I'll only be a few feet away from you.”
Richard looked down at the little girl wiping her running nose on his pants, and he tightened his grip on me. “I'm warning you, Annabelle. If you take one more step, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth.”
Knowing Richard, even a witness relocation program wouldn't do me any good if I abandoned him with a wailing child clinging to his now sticky Prada pants.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and saw the color drain from Richard's face as a deep voice spoke from behind me. “I think you'd both better come with me.”