CHAPTER ONE

Never in my life have I seen a bridesmaid dressed as a showgirl.  Until I turn and look at myself in the mirror.

“Sally Anne Gibbons.”  I tug my rhinestone-encrusted push-up bra a tad higher.  “I cannot believe you’re making us wear this to your wedding.”

“This is Vegas, baby.”  Sally Anne lifts her double chin and glowers at me.  “Roll with it.”

My fellow bridesmaid Shanelle is attempting to pry her thong out of the nether regions into which it has largely disappeared.  “I haven’t flashed this much skin since I gave birth.  Are you sure you don’t want, I don’t know, a classier look?”

“It’s a little late for that now, don’t you think?  I’m getting hitched in fifteen minutes.”  Sally Anne’s inch-long red fingernails flip a coppery curl behind her ear.  “Besides, if I wanted classy, would I be getting married on the Strip?”

Shanelle and I glance at one another.  Perhaps a more rhetorical question has never been posed.

“What’s your problem, anyhow?”  Sally Anne smooths her sequin-studded sateen.  “You two prance around onstage wearing nothing more than a few inches of Lycra.”

True.  That’s what beauty queens do.  “But that’s in the name of pageant competition,” I remind her.

“This is in the name of wedded bliss,” Sally Anne shoots back.  “Which I am due for, big time.” 

As for myself, I’ve enjoyed wedded bliss for seventeen years now, half my life.  Safe to say I married young.  But I can understand what Sally Anne’s driving at.

“I’m 54 years old!”  By now she’s shouting.  “I’m a bride for the very first time!”  She throws her arms wide.  “I want a big fat shindig that nobody will ever forget!”

Shanelle straps on a spangled choker and hands me its evil twin.  “Well, if you have to wait that long, I guess you can do whatever the hell you please.”

“You got that right, sister.  Now let’s get this show on the road.  I don’t want to give Frank time to think twice.”  Sally Anne points across the bridal dressing lounge at two rather frothy items calling our names.  “Put on your headdresses and let’s skedaddle.”

Flowers in the hair?  Lovely.  A small veil?  A nice touch.  But Shanelle and I are called upon to sport two feet of ostrich plumes atop a spangled crown.

Shanelle sidles closer.  “How many ostriches gave their lives for these things?”

“Whole flocks of them.”  I settle it on my head.  “It doesn’t sit nearly as well as my tiara.”

Yes, I am the proud owner of a tiara.  From when I, Happy Pennington, representing the Great State of Ohio, won the title of Ms. America in the nation’s foremost beauty pageant for married women.  I’ve just begun my reign and so far it’s everything I ever dreamed it would be.  I didn’t win in quite the usual way but we don’t have time to get into that now.

Shanelle Walker, otherwise known as Ms. Mississippi, roomed with me on Oahu during the pageant.  Now she’s one of my best friends.

Sally Anne, not so much.  Because she’s the founder of Crowning Glory Pageant Shoppe here in Las Vegas, the largest full-service pageant-wear purveyor west of the Mississippi, I’ve known her for years.  And once you help somebody dodge a murder rap—another aspect of the long story to which I referred earlier—I guess they feel closer to you than they did before.

By the way, she asked me to stand up for her just last week, which is why Shanelle and I are only now getting wind of what we’re required to wear.  Sally Anne knew our sizes from Crowning Glory’s database, not that those are so hard to guess for our ilk.  Shanelle and I may illustrate that we beauty queens come in a variety of colors—me a pale-skinned brunette and Shanelle more a darkish toffee—but take any two of us and you’ll find that we’re pretty much all the same size: skinny and tall.

“One more thing,” Sally Anne says behind me.  I turn to see her holding out two, shall we say, unique bouquets.

“Are those … spray painted, Sally Anne?”

“You bet they are.  I got the brainstorm to spray gold metallic paint on white roses.  You’ve never seen anything like ‘em, I bet.”

It is safe to say that I have not.

Shanelle and I do one last check in the mirror as Sally Anne sashays out of the room.  We are also sporting white gloves that extend above the elbow and are ornamented by rhinestone bracelets.  “Is nothing real here?” Shanelle mutters.

“Let’s hope this romance is real,” I whisper back.  “I get the impression Sally Anne didn’t know Frank very long before he popped the question.”  And given what she told us, she probably said yes before Frank got all four words of the proposal out of his mouth.

Shanelle straightens her choker.  “Too bad you didn’t bulldoze Sally Anne into letting Trixie be a bridesmaid, too.”

“I should have.”  Trixie Barnett is our other best friend from the pageant.  She’s from North Carolina and is the reigning Ms. Congeniality.  “I miss her.”

“I do, too.”  Shanelle heaves a sigh.  “We can’t keep putting it off, girl.  We best get out there.”

“I suppose so.”  I feel unbelievably naked.  As the foremost representative of the Ms. America pageant, I am called upon to maintain a dignified appearance at all times.  That’s no easy trick in this getup but how can I not hew to the bride’s wishes?  The last time I was a bridesmaid I had to wear yards of iridescent blue satin fashioned into huge poufs.  At the time I thought it was hideous but now I miss all that fabric.  “Do you think maybe Sally Anne forgot to hire a photographer?”

Apparently she hears me from the hallway.  “Fat chance.  In fact, the whole shebang is gonna be streamed live over the Web.  There are hidden cameras all over the chapel.”

“Fabulous.”  I hope none of the cameras zero in on my thong.  I wish Sally Anne had popped for the fantail she reported having considered.  I force myself to step outside the dressing room into a sort of holding area behind the chapel.  We’re not in a church, mind you.  We’re in the Cosmos Hotel, one of the big hotels on the Vegas Strip.  And when I say big, do I mean big.  Of course, everything in Vegas is humungous.  They don’t do anything on a modest scale here.

Shanelle is peering into the chapel through a door left partly open.  I sidle next to her, righting my plumage as I walk.  Apparently these ostrich feathers do not care to point heavenward even on approach to a chapel.  “How many guests are there?”

“Seventy or so.  Hey, I see your mom.  It was nice of you to bring her to Vegas.  How’s she doing?”

“Only mediocre.”

“Still bummed about the divorce?”

“It’s not really that surprising.  They were married almost fifty years.  I asked Pop to come on this trip since he couldn’t go to Oahu but he didn’t want to.”  I don’t say why.  It bothers me, though since the divorce he has every right.  “Jason would’ve come but he couldn’t get off pit school this weekend,” I add.

She chuckles.  “Your husband, the NASCAR stud.  When he finishes his training, he’s gonna get hired on some pit crew, girl.  I just feel it.  You best prepare yourself.”

“I know.  I’m trying.”  I had to push Jason into pit school, even though he’s wanted to go forever, but now that he’s there he’s really getting into it.  I’m kind of taken aback by how much.

“And Rachel’s a senior now, right?  How goes the whole applying-to-college thing?”

“She’s studying for the SATs.  Which is why she’s not here this weekend.”  I don’t mention that Rachel has proposed a course of action other than college next year.  I cannot dwell on that possibility or I’ll get too upset.  Just so you know, I was Rachel’s age when I got pregnant.  I don’t let myself think about that much, either, but when I do I understand my mom a whole lot better.  “What’s the latest with Lamar and Devon?”

We’re just getting started on Shanelle’s husband and son when Sally Anne appears behind us.  “Follow me,” she instructs.

We wend our way to the wide corridor outside the chapel’s entrance.  It’s teeming with the usual Vegas horde, people on their way to or from the gigantic lobby-level casino, a midday show, a restaurant, or the Olympic-size pool beyond a glass panel.  And before us, behind wide double doors, is the Forever Yours chapel, which according to its signage offers nuptial services of the quickie or planned variety.

That’s not all that’s in front of us.

Shanelle sets her hands on her hips.  “Whoa!  Is that a Rolls Royce or is that a Rolls Royce?”

I’ve never seen one like it.  Convertible.  Mirrored exterior.  Hot pink leather interior.  Uniformed chauffeur behind the wheel.

“Of course it’s a Rolls.”  Sally Anne hoists herself atop the rear bench seat.  “This is Vegas, baby!” she chortles.

“Why does she keep saying that?” I mutter to Shanelle.  I attempt to follow Sally Anne into the Rolls but she leans forward and slaps my fishnet-stockinged leg.

“Are you crazy?” she demands.  “You think I’m gonna make my entrance with you two in the car?  Nobody’ll give me so much as a glance!  You walk behind.”

“No way!” Shanelle says.  “The bridesmaids always go first up the aisle.”

“Not this time, sister.  I want all eyes on me.”

I gesture to Shanelle to retreat.  It is Sally Anne’s Big Day, after all.

We get into position behind the Rolls.  A middle-aged woman in a pastel suit emerges from the chapel to huddle with Sally Anne.  I’m guessing she’s the wedding planner.

A few minutes later she gives Shanelle and me the high sign.  Apparently all systems are go.  The chapel’s double doors swing slowly open.

 By this point I wouldn’t expect anything traditional out of this wedding, but to my amazement I hear the opening strains of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” pipe from the music system.  On a more unconventional note, pink smoke billows from a fog machine, providing rather a contrast with the dignity of the processional music.  Of course, neither the Rolls nor the showgirl costumes are exactly elegant touches.

The Rolls moves forward.  Shanelle and I follow clutching our sprayed rose bouquets.  On both sides of the aisle guests stand and crane their necks in our direction.  Ahead at the altar I spy the tuxedoed groom and best man.

Frank Richter, Sally Anne’s intended, can best be described as burly.  He’s not the tallest of individuals, nor has he been gifted with a full head of hair.  Most of what remains has faded from brown to gray.  But I am happy to see that his eyes positively glow as they fix on his bride.

Frank’s best man is his nephew Danny.  He’s good-looking in a bad-boy way.  He sports stubble along his chiseled jaw line and clearly puts in the hours in the gym.  He has kind of a cocky attitude, too, I can tell, even though he’s just standing there.

“Are my eyes playing tricks,” Shanelle whispers, “or does the best man have a black eye?”

“He does.  That’s weird.”

Even stranger, though, is that by this point I am having trouble seeing what’s ahead of me.  The rose-colored smoke is doing a bang-up job of filling the chapel.

Beside me Shanelle coughs.  “Dang, I hope my asthma doesn’t act up.”

“What’s going on with this smoke?” a man bellows from the east forty.

Soon all I can see is the rear of the Rolls and Sally Anne’s hulking outline up top.  I note that Shanelle is no longer the only person coughing.  As we creep up the aisle, I hear hacking from every quarter.  An older woman stumbles past me making for the exit, her hand over her mouth.  It’s not my mom, though I can hardly imagine she’s sitting still through this.  Then I hear a few popping sounds.

“Now the damn Rolls is backfiring,” I manage to spit out.  I’m close to wheezing.  Poor Sally Anne.  She may have a hard edge but I want her to be happy.  I don’t think that’ll be the case if her wedding guests get asphyxiated.  I clutch Shanelle’s arm.  “Is it just me or are you feeling dizzy, too?”

“I’m way past dizzy,” Shanelle gasps.  “I can barely get air in my lungs.  I can’t take much more of this.”

“Then get out, Shanelle.  If you can’t breathe, get out.”

She needs no more encouragement to bolt.  And she has lots of company.  This chapel is emptying faster than a beach after a shark sighting.

I’m trying to decide whether I, as an official personage in this event, should take action to prevent Sally Anne’s wedding guests from suffocating when the bride herself rears up from the Rolls.

“Stop the music!” she yowls.  “And stop the goddamn fog machine!”

Good! —I think.  Sally Anne’s taking charge.  I’m surprised Frank isn’t.

I toss aside my bouquet and help Sally Anne eject herself from the Rolls, no easy task given her heft, her bridal gown’s voluminous sateen, and the fact that neither one of us can see more than two inches in front of her face.

But lack of visibility doesn’t prevent Sally Anne from stomping up the aisle once she’s cleared the vehicle.  “Where the hell is my wedding consultant?” she hollers.  “And what’s she using for brains?  We could all choke to death in here!”

I watch Frank emerge from the fog, waving his arms in front of him as if he’s cutting a swath through the stuff.  He tries to calm Sally Anne by taking hold of her arms but she’ll have none of it.

“I was promised perfection and this sure as shootin’ isn’t it!”  Sally Anne pushes past Frank to go further up the aisle.  I’m right behind her.  I am her bridesmaid after all, and my duty is to serve.

I would say that the main goal has been achieved.  Someone did turn off the fog machine and the air is starting to clear.  I can—sort of—see again.

Sally Anne is about to accost the reverend when she trips over something on the carpet.  I squint a few seconds and then realize that a man—in fact, the best man—is sprawled there, face down.

“Just what I need!” Sally Anne yells down at him.  “What did you do last night, Danny, go on a bender?”

“Sally Anne!”  I grab her arm to pull her back.  “Maybe he fainted because he couldn’t breathe.”

I kneel down and gently roll Danny over.  It rapidly becomes clear that he may not be breathing but it’s not because he fainted.  The bloodstain blooming on his chest is my first clue that it wasn’t pink smoke that did in Danny Richter.



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