HH and I paid a decent amount of money for a pre-lit tree that didn’t light this year. It’s only a few years old. We’re not happy, but he thinks it’s the remote, so we decorated the tree anyway. It’s beautiful, but it would be MORE beautiful if it lit. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I wrote a short mystery for Lux about a tree lighting ceremony. I hope all of your lights worked this year, and happy December!
Lighting the Tree
(a Lux Christmas story)
I heard the mail truck and pulled on my winter coat. Our mailbox was at the end of the driveway, a short walk, but it was snowing and the wind had an edge to it. Keon usually sprinted out to grab the stack of ads and letters, but he was upstairs changing into his drawstring pants and chef’s coat for work. I sifted through the envelopes as I returned to the house. Most of them ended up in the trash, but there was one in fancy stationery that I saved for Keon. When he came downstairs, I handed it to him.
He frowned at the return address. “I don’t know anyone in Everton. Probably some kind of advertisement.” But after he opened it, his frown grew deeper.
“What is it?” I took off my coat to hang in the hall closet, then wrapped my arms around myself. The house was warm, but the cold dampness had sunk into my bones.
“A country club south of here has invited me to represent Seafood & Catfish at their tree lighting ceremony for the holidays. They want to have samples from well-known chefs for people to try during the celebration. One of their local chefs agreed to provide BBQ ribs, the guy who owns The Cellar from downtown Summit City is making etouffee. Claus, the owner of the Rathskeller. is doing sauerbraten and German potato salad. The chef who volunteered for fish or seafood had to back out, though. Some kind of emergency.”
“So they want you to take his place?”
Keon nodded. “It’s really short notice. The event’s on December first, only one week away. They need an answer now.”
“Do you just provide the food, or do you need servers?”
“Just food stations set up on long tables. Someone would have to stand behind the table to dish up portions, though, and answer any questions.” He raised a dark eyebrow at me. “You’re good at that at the community center.”
I grimaced. His brother, Tyson, talked me into volunteering there more than I wanted to. Keon and I were doing a holiday meal there the Monday before Christmas. We always chose Monday or Tuesday, since Keon had them off at the restaurant. We had to cook and serve that food, too, but we had so much, and those people had so little. How could we turn Tyson down when he couldn’t get anyone else?
Keon grinned at me, guessing my thoughts. “My restaurant’s new enough, it might be nice to get some publicity from out of town.”
I snorted. “You were voted best new seafood restaurant in the newspaper food column.”
His grin grew wider. He was proud of that. Had every right to be. “That was nice, but Everton’s only forty-five minutes from here. If people decide to drive to town for a fancy dinner, we’re on the south side. They might think about checking us out.”
“What day is December first?”
“A Saturday. The restaurant’s going to be busy. Mark and I are already planning a special December menu for the month.”
“I want to see what you come up with.” I’d bet they were offering some great holiday dishes. “If you decide to do this tree lighting event, what would you serve?”
“They want to keep the costs low enough, they’ll make a profit to give to local charities, so I can’t get too extravagant. They’ll reimburse us for the ingredients, but that’s it. So I need something that’s special, but not too expensive.”
“Fried calamari?” I loved the stuff when it was done right. Sadly, that didn’t always happen.
“I’m leaning toward shrimp beignets with a dipping sauce.”
“I need to pinch myself.” Beignets with seafood in them? I might buy every one he made just for myself.
He laughed. “I’ll make some on my night off for you, but we’ll need a lot of them for Everton. We’ll give each person three.”
As long as I got some, I was fine. “So you’re going to give this club a call and help them out?”
He nodded. “I’ll talk to Mark about how to work it into our schedule. Maybe we’ll serve them at Seafood & Catfish that night, too. December’s going to be a mad scramble, but this will be good publicity.”
He was giving me the look he always used to get what he wanted, but what the heck? He was right. This would be good for his business. I sighed. “I’ll serve at the country club while you and Mark handle the restaurant.”
He pulled me into a hug. There was nothing better than being surrounded by muscle and sex appeal. Why had it taken me so long to make this man part of my life? Then he let me go. “Sorry. I have to get to the restaurant. We’re doing oyster dressing with oysters Rockefeller as our special tonight.”
I wrinkled my nose, and he laughed. “I’m glad not everyone hates oysters as much as you do.” And then he was off.
I glanced at my watch. It was only a little after one. I had plenty of time to work on my freelance article due the middle of December—My assigned topic: Are Small Town Americans Really Rednecks? I wondered who’d thought up this one. I was a little nervous about it. I’d grown up in Chicago before I moved to Summit City. I wasn’t sure I could really grasp the feel of a small town, its mindset. But I was doing more research than usual, and I’d been visiting towns nearby. I intended to do my best to get it right. At the moment, though, small towns felt like everywhere else. There were liberals and conservatives, free thinkers and knee-jerk fatalists. Cities had those, too.
On December first, I drove to the restaurant at six to help Keon pack all of the food he’d made into his van, then followed him to Everton in my yellow Bentley. We found the country club on the north side of town, a half hour drive from Summit City. Together, we began to carry in the metal serving pans and began to set up our spot.
Two stations down, Claus lit the heaters under his sauerbraten. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”
Keon gave him a friendly salute. “I wasn’t scheduled, but the person who was, had to cancel.”
Claus gave him a look. “I don’t blame him. I would have canceled, too.”
I felt a frown forming and asked, “Why? Did something happen?”
Claus turned to us, ready to explain, when the manager of the club came through the door and started toward us. Claus grimaced. “Good luck.”
Good luck? Why did we need luck when we were providing food for the event?
The manager’s eyes widened when he saw Keon, and he stopped in his tracks. “You’re not white.”
Keon stared at him. “Never have been. Most chefs who serve catfish aren’t. Does it matter?”
“I thought. . .” He faltered to a stop and glanced farther down the line to a chef we’d never met. Must be the local guy. “The last seafood chef from Summit City wasn’t white either, was going to serve a fish fry. Brendan, our BBQ chef, told me about the write-up in the paper for your place, more upscale.”
I tried to smile to smooth things over, but something about the man threw me off. “Keon made shrimp beignets. Are those upscale enough?”
“A perfect choice.” The man hesitated. “But if a black chef is standing behind the table, no one will try them.”
Keon crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m black. I can’t change that. You reached out to me, not vice versa. And I tried to come through for you.”
“I appreciate it. I really do.” The manager ran a hand through his graying hair, clearly agitated. “But this is Everton. People are more conservative here.”
“Conservative or racist?” I asked.
“Not one black family who comes here, stays here,” he said.
I could feel my anger rise, but Keon reached out and touched my shoulder. “We didn’t come here to talk race. We came to supply good food and get publicity for our restaurant, and to earn money for charities. I have to get back to the restaurant anyway. Are you still okay serving the food?”
He was telling me to let it ride, but it was hard. How could this not bother him when it bothered me? But Keon always looked at the big picture, and I tended to nitpick more. I knew I sounded agitated but couldn’t help it. “What do you want me to do?”
“What we’d planned, stand behind the table and pass out food.”
I wanted to throw it at the people who came through the line, but that wouldn’t do. I took a deep breath. “I can do that.”
He reached for me and gave me a quick hug. “Sell the food and my restaurant. Forget the rest.”
I gritted my teeth and nodded. He went to shake hands with Claus and wish him a good night, and then he left to return to work.
Once he’d gone, the manager came close to talk to me in a low voice. “Do you work for him?”
“No, I live with him. We’re engaged.”
He stared. “How do your parents feel about that?”
“Hard to tell. They’re dead.” I locked gazes with him. “And you’re annoying.”
He blinked and glanced out the door. “Is that your yellow Bentley out there?”
“Why? Are you prejudiced against the color yellow, too?”
“I’m just trying to understand why a girl who’s pretty and rich would end up. . .”
I put up a hand to stop him. “Don’t say it. It’s none of your business, but the truth is, I haven’t met a man who can measure up to Keon. Do you want me to serve his food or not?”
He winced. “It’s not me. I just know my clientele.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Glancing at the clock, I said, “Make a decision. Do I stay or go? Isn’t it about time to get started?”
He glanced toward Brendan again, who’d given a sharp shake of his head. They locked gazes. Then he looked up and down the line, rubbing his forehead, agitated. “Stay. We need you, but I’d better get ready.” He hurried into his office.
I sighed with relief when he left, and Claus gave me a sympathetic look.
“Stupid, isn’t it? I started in the business in New Orleans and learned from some of the best black cooks down there. This guy drove Rufus away. He makes some of the best fried fish I’ve ever eaten, but he wasn’t welcome here. He wasn’t too happy about it either.”
“Why would he be? Is it the manager or the members of the club?” I asked.
Claus shrugged. “Don’t know. Don’t care. I’m just glad they like Germans at the moment.”
I laughed. I’d read Summit City’s history and during World War I and World War II sentiment wasn’t friendly toward anyone with a German background. The German bank in town even changed its name to Lincoln National. Prejudice wasn’t anything new. The Japanese didn’t fare any better during World War II.
A few minutes later, the manager went to open the doors of the club, and people poured in. Two bars were set up, and while some people found seats, others went for drinks. The lighting ceremony was the first thing on the agenda, and everyone flocked back outside around the huge tree near the entrance. Christmas music set a festive mood before the manager gave a welcoming speech and flipped on the myriad of lights. Cheers rose, and people began to drift back inside. The ceremony over, it was time to try the food. “It’s for a worthy cause,” he announced. “All of the profits go to our local charities.”
People flowed toward us, and Keon’s shrimp beignets had a long line that kept me busy the entire night. Comments were enthusiastic.
A man with silver hair who looked distinguished got back in line again. “These are so good, I bought another ticket so I could have seconds. They remind me of New Orleans. I order them from my favorite black chef every time I go there.”
I smiled. “The chef of Seafood & Catfish is black, too. He likes to make expensive seafood with a southern comfort twist.”
“Works for me. Tell him they’re delicious. Does he have them on the menu?”
“Not all the time. He changes his specials every month, but he’s serving them tonight.”
The man rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, handing me a business card. “If he makes them again, and you’d be kind enough to give me a call, I’d drive up to order them.”
“It doesn’t bother you that he’s black?”
“Why would it?” And then he grimaced. “You’ve talked to the club’s manager, haven’t you?”
“He asked Keon not to stay to serve here.”
“Ridiculous, but that’s Farlington. A big fish in a small pond. He isn’t living in the real world. He’d probably look down on royalty.”
I added an extra beignet to his plate. “You’re a winner. Have a nice night.”
He bit into one as he was walking away and gave me a thumb up. But he’d made me think. I couldn’t judge the entire community of Everton by the way the club’s manager treated us.
Chefs were starting to pack up their food to leave when a man ran into the club, yelling, “Farlington’s body is under the Christmas tree!”
The room got instantly quiet. We all looked toward the door.
“Did you call the police?” I asked.
The man nodded. “The back of his head is caved in. It’s all bloody.”
“Did you check for a pulse?”
He frowned at me, trying to focus. “His pulse?”
I left the line and started outside. Farlington’s body was crumpled to one side of the tree. I knelt to feel his wrist. Nothing. I pressed my fingers against the pulse point at his throat. People circled me, watching anxiously. “I think he’s dead.”
“But how? We were all inside,” someone said.
I shook my head. “He’s so close to the building, anyone could have slipped in and out without being noticed.”
People glanced nervously at one another. We were beginning to move back inside when two police cruisers pulled up and parked. The officers followed us in, and the older of the two called out, “We don’t want anyone to leave the building until we get to question you. So why don’t you take your seats, and we’ll get through this as fast as we can?”
Some of the people headed to the bar to order more drinks. Others glanced at the food table. I shook my head. Every beignet was gone. I glanced down the line at the other stations. They were empty, too. Usually, a sign of success. The club members liked everything we’d served. I looked around the room. I’d been on my feet all night, and they were beginning to hurt. I meant to find a chair to sit down when the older cop pointed and motioned to me. “You first. Let’s go in the manager’s office to talk.”
Why me? I started to follow him, my nerves twitching, when he said, “Let me introduce myself. Jason Newsome. You’re a friend of Pete’s, aren’t you? He and that pretty girl of his were at my place tonight, having supper with us, when we got the call. He was pretty sure you’d be here, serving food.”
Pete, our detective friend who’d moved in with Keon’s sister. I nodded. “Gabbie’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since grade school.”
“Pete said you’d be the one to talk to, that you’re an ex journalist and notice things.”
People were listening, but I realized he meant for them to. He didn’t want to make me look like a suspect but a witness. “I’ll try to tell you everything I had time to see.”
He nodded and patted me on the back. “Good girl, we’re going to need some place to start.”
Once he had his pen and paper ready, I told him about Farlington’s reaction to Keon and Rufus.
“And Claus said Rufus didn’t take being dismissed very well?”
“That’s what he said. I wasn’t here. I almost thought Farlington was going to send me away, too, when he learned I was living with Keon, but he kept glancing down the line at the local chef, Brendan, and decided to have me stay.”
“Because Brendan wanted you to?”
I frowned. “I don’t know. Brendan didn’t look like he could make up his mind, but he was the one who’d recommended Keon’s restaurant.”
“Farlington kept insisting that sending Keon away wasn’t anything personal, that it was because his clientele wouldn’t approve, but the nicest man came through my line and laughed at that.” I dug out his business card. “Winston Fisher. He was charming.”
Jason smiled. “He’s one of our local doctors. Lost his wife a while ago. Travels once a year to do charity work in underprivileged countries. One of our best. Glad you met him so you don’t think everyone here’s like Farlington.”
“You’re not if you invited Pete and Gabbie to your house.”
He smiled. “Well, thank you. I grew up in Everton but spent some time working vice in Summit City before I came back. That’s how I met Pete.”
Vice was a tough job. I’d covered it for the Chicago paper I’d worked for before I moved to Summit City. “Hope things are quieter for you here.”
He shrugged. “Mostly, but every town has its moments. Thanks for talking to me. You’ve helped. If you want to leave now, feel free.”
The younger cop was questioning people who’d attended the tree lighting, so Jason called for Claus to talk to next. As I walked to the serving table and stacked empty metal pans together to carry to my car, Brendan frowned at me. “Is he letting you go?”
I motioned to the husband and wife who were tugging on their coats to leave, too. “As soon as they’ve questioned you, you can head home.”
“But why not keep you longer? You’re the only one here who argued with Farlington before the dinner started.”
I stared. “If I recall correctly, Farlington harassed me. I only asked if he wanted me to stay to serve or not.”
“But you were angry with him.”
“That doesn’t mean I killed him. Besides, I never left this room.”
“Can anyone vouch for that?”
“I can.” Winston Fisher stood up. “I was keeping a close eye on her table, hoping she wouldn’t sell out so I could come back for seconds.”
Brendan scowled at him. “You watched her every second? That’s hard to believe.”
“I watched her enough that she wouldn’t have time to sneak outside and bash Farlington over the head. Besides, look at her. There are no blood spatters anywhere. None on the white apron she’s wearing and none on her clothes.”
“Maybe she took off her apron to kill him.”
I removed my apron. “No blood.” Then I put it back on. When I loaded the dirty pans, I knew I’d need it.
Jason had walked out of the office with Claus and studied Brendan. “Where’s your apron anyway? Why take it off when you have all of those pans smeared with barbecue sauce to load?”
“I spilled sauce on it. It looked bad.”
“Can we see it?”
Brendan looked around his table. “I don’t remember where I put it.”
Jason’s glance swept the room. “No worries. We’ll all help you find it.”
People glanced at each other, then got up to search. A man came out of the men’s restroom waving it in the air. “It was in the bathroom trash.”
Jason went to open it. Splotches of blood covered it. He motioned to the younger cop. “Cuff him. Let’s finish this discussion at the station.”
Brendan turned on me. “Farlington shouldn’t have let you stay. You’re worse than your boyfriend. He can’t change the color of his skin, but you chose to live with him. It’s against everything sacred.”
Jason’s lips pressed together in a tight line as he grabbed Brendan’s arm and marched him to the squad car. Winston Fisher came to stand next to me.
“Don’t let Brendan bother you. People tend to interpret the Good Book according to their own world views.”
He was such a nice man. “People like Brendan don’t bother me. And people like you give me hope.” I dug out his business card and winked at him. “I think you’ve earned a supper at our place, though, and we’ll make shrimp beignets as an appetizer.”
“You and your husband will cook for me?” He gave a small sigh. “I’ll enjoy that. Holidays have been a little lonely since my wife died.”
Keon and I weren’t married yet, but we were getting there. And if we could make this man happy for a night, it would be our privilege. “I’ll give you a call and set it up.”
Jason returned to the room after watching the young cop drive away. “Let’s break this party up. Time to go home. The techs are here, and we want you out of our way.”
I pulled on my coat and put my pans on a cart to push to my car. After loading them in the trunk, I started for home, cranking up the heat on the way. Keon owed me a special supper for the work I did tonight. But not beignets. I didn’t want to see any of them for a while. Not until we had Winston Fisher to our house to eat supper.
I turned on the radio, and Christmas music filled the car. December. It could be hectic, and holidays didn’t make everything right with the world, but they made life more wonderful.