I posted this story on my webpage when I had one, but I don’t think many people read it from my blog, so I’m sharing it here. For me, Christmas means cookies, and Jazzi thinks so, too. But delivering cookies gets her in trouble. You never know where you’re going to find a body:)
The Body Dressed Like Santa
The entire butcher block countertop of the kitchen island was covered with different kinds of Christmas cookies and tea breads. Jazzi had set out eight disposable aluminum pans to fill. For this time of year, she’d found some that were red and green for the holiday.
“I’m going to give each family two cookies per person of each kind,” she told Ansel.
Her tall, hunky Norseman frowned. “Will there be any left for us?”
The man loved his cookies. His holiday generosity ended if he didn’t get his share of goodies. Actually, he loved food in general. Since he’d moved in with her, he swore he’d never eaten so well. Neither had George, his pug, but George wasn’t a fan of sweets, so he curled on his dog bed in the corner to supervise.
“Okay, let’s get started.” Jazzi reached for eight spice cookies to layer in Jerod and Franny’s tin. Jerod’s kids, Gunnar and Lizzie, would have to fight her cousin for these. Franny didn’t even try. They were his favorites. Ansel took his cue from her and added spice cookies to the tins near him. When they finished, there were half a dozen left.
“Only six for us?” Ansel complained.
“Of those. We have lots more cookies to go.”
He didn’t look happy.
Chocolate crinkle cookies came next, then Mexican wedding cakes, oatmeal and raisin, sugar cookies, and peanut butter. She’d made double of the chocolate chip cookies. Those were the kids’ favorites. Ansel’s blue eyes lit up when she brought out the snickerdoodles and had a dozen left over for them. Those were his favorite. The fragile, fancier cookies came last—the cherry-coconut bars and macaroons.
When they finished, they bundled the tins up and added gift tags and ribbons, then got ready to deliver them. It was still early in December, so in theory, winter wasn’t official yet, but an inch of snow covered the ground and it was darn cold outside. Most of Jazzi’s family lived on the south side of River Bluffs, so they loaded the cookies and George into her pickup and headed across town.
River Bluffs was the second largest city in Indiana, but it still had a small-town feel. Its nickname for a long time had been the city of churches. People still thought of themselves that way, but traffic was heavier than it used to be and traveling across town took longer.
Gran and Samantha lived almost all the way to Ossian, so they decided to deliver to them first. Gran lived on enough property that, at eighty years old, she still put out a huge garden every year and kept chickens. Often, when she came to their house for the Sunday meal, she brought fresh eggs.
Gran grabbed Samantha’s hands and grinned from ear to ear when she saw Jazzi and Ansel at their door. When she saw the big tin of cookies, she almost pulled them inside. “Isn’t my sister, Sarah, wonderful, Samantha?”
Whenever Gran felt stressed, she reverted to bygone days, reliving her younger years, and Jazzi became her sister in her mind. Otherwise, Gran was as sharp as a Jeopardy contestant with more energy than most. Something must be bothering her today. Jazzi hated to see her upset. She had a special soft spot for her. She’d learned how to cook in Gran’s kitchen. Mom avoided stoves as much as possible. So did her sister, Olivia. But Jazzi loved puttering around with recipes, and Gran had been happy to teach her.
Samantha gave Jazzi a small smile and shrugged. “Your grandma’s been a bit confused today.”
Jazzi studied her. “Is something bothering you, Gran?”
She hugged herself, clearly upset. “Poor Brady, just because the body’s on his property doesn’t mean he killed him. He’s going to need your help to clear his name.”
Ansel frowned. “Brady?”
“Franny’s nephew,” Jazzi told him.
“Have you met him?” Ansel had been engulfed and welcomed by her family since he’d started working with her and Jerod. He knew most of the aunts and uncles. Had to. They showed up every week for the Sunday meal.
Jazzi shook her head. “Franny talks about him a lot, but we’ve never met.” Worry wriggled through her. Gran had been born with the gift of sight. When she saw something, it always happened. Jazzi had wondered why Gran hadn’t seen Aunt Lynda’s murder, but Gran explained that Lynda and the baby she’d given away were too close to her. After a little research, Jazzi found most psychics couldn’t predict their own futures.
Trying to calm Gran, she asked, “Is the body on Brady’s property now?”
“Could be. You’d better go look.”
“I will, Gran. And Ansel and I will help him all we can. Don’t worry about that.”
Gran blinked, satisfied, and reached out to pat her shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Jazzi. With your help, Brady will be all right.”
Good. Gran was back to being herself again. Kissing her goodbye, Jazzi watched Ansel pick up George to carry to the pickup. The pug didn’t like to get his paws cold and wet. He didn’t like to climb stairs either. The pug was spoiled rotten.
“What now?” Ansel asked as he slid behind the steering wheel.
“Let’s finish delivering the rest of the cookies and make Jerod’s house our last stop. We can ask Franny where Brady lives, then maybe we can grab Jerod to drive to Brady’s house with us.”
“Does Brady live close to here?” Ansel headed to Jazzi’s mom and dad’s subdivision on the southwest side of the city.
“Just over the bridge on Anthony, near the river, but I don’t know the exact street.” River Bluffs got its name from the three rivers that converge downtown. “Franny’s really proud of him. He came home from Afghanistan, confined to a wheelchair. He hasn’t let it slow him down, though. He’s married with two kids and has a good job in a factory as a software engineer.”
“Makes me want to help him out even more.” Ansel turned into Mom and Dad’s addition. When he knocked on the door, Mom’s two labradoodles ran to peer out the window and bark at them. The dogs loved company. They were almost as social as Mom—a hairdresser.
Jazzi heard the TV in the family room. Dad would be watching sports. Mom opened the door to invite them in, but Jazzi shook her head. “We have more deliveries to make, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the Sunday meal. We just wanted to bring you some cookies.”
Mom nodded. “Thanks, kid. We’ve been waiting for them. We’ll try not to eat them all in one night.”
With a wave, Jazzi and Ansel returned to the pickup to drive to her sister, Olivia’s apartment. As usual, Thane was there. Jazzi had put four of each cookie in her sister’s delivery, expecting him.
Soon, they were pulling into Jerod’s driveway, and Jazzi squared her shoulders, trying to bolster her courage to share her bad news. Jerod saw them on his front stoop, opened the door, and reached for the aluminum pan. He tore off the wrapping on his way to the kitchen.
“No one gets any of the spice cookies but me!” he called out.
Gunnar and Lizzie came running, grabbing for the chocolate chips. Franny came last. She smiled. “I love them all.”
Jazzi licked her lips, nervous, and Jerod raised an eyebrow at her. “I know that look. When we were growing up, you always licked your lips before you told me you broke one of our toys or did something stupid.”
“I didn’t do it this time.”
His frown deepened. “Then who did?”
“I don’t know.” She told him what Gran had said.
Franny’s freckles seemed to grow paler. She put her hand to her throat. “Gran’s never made a mistake when she sees things, has she?”
“No.” Jazzi looked at Jerod. “Do you want to go with us when we go to Brady’s? Neither of us has met him. He might not want to hear this from a stranger.”
Jerod turned to Franny. “Would you rather go? I’ll stay home with the kids.”
“Not me. I don’t want to search for a body. You go. Brady likes you.”
With a nod, Jerod went to get his coat. He grabbed two spice cookies on his way out the kitchen door. When they reached the pickup, he climbed into the backseat on the opposite side of George.
“Did you bring your pug to sniff out the corpse?”
“No, that would traumatize him. George is sensitive.” Not that she’d noticed, but who knew a six-five Viking would fuss over his fur baby so much?
Jerod gave them directions to Brady’s house, and it was late afternoon by the time they arrived. More houses than usual were decorated for Christmas up and down these streets. Colored lights glowed from gutters and bushes. A red sleigh sat in Brady’s front yard, filled with fake poinsettia plants.
Jerod led the way to Brady’s door and knocked.
“Give me a minute!” came a voice. A mid-thirties man with brown hair and sky-blue eyes opened it to welcome them. He looked up at Jerod from his wheelchair and frowned. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have stocked up on beer and snacks.”
“This isn’t a social visit.” Jerod introduced everyone, then explained.
Brady looked stunned. “You think there’s a body on my property?”
“I hope we’re wrong, but we’d better check it out. Mind if we look around?” Jerod turned to go back outside.
“Go for it. I have trouble moving this chair in the snow. I wouldn’t be much help.”
“No worries,” Jerod said. “We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
And for a while, it looked like for once, Gran had made a mistake. But then Jazzi looked at the muddied snow in the flowerbed beside the garage. Something was barely sticking above the dirt and she went to see what it was.
The toe of a black, shiny boot shone when the sun hit it. No one wore boots like that, did they? She called for the guys, and they came to check it out. Arming themselves with garden rakes from the garage, they scraped enough dirt away to realize it was the kind of boots Santa wore. A little more work and they found a red pantleg, hemmed in white fleece.
Jerod scratched his head. “Someone buried Santa here.”
Ansel pulled his cellphone from his pocket. “That’s what it looks like. He made his appearance a little early, didn’t he? I’m calling Gaff.”
Detective Gaff had worked with them when Jazzi and Jerod found Aunt Lynda’s skeleton folded in a trunk in their attic. He returned when Jerod discovered another body buried near their septic tank.
“Gaff? Sorry to bother you on a Saturday,” Ansel said when the detective picked up, “but we found a dead Santa and need your help.”
“Really? Santa?” If Gaff stopped taking their calls, Jazzi wouldn’t blame him.
Ansel explained. When he hung up, he gave them a quick nod. “Gaff’s on his way.”
Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi waited inside the house until Gaff and the crime techs arrived. Poor Brady kept staring out the back window toward his garage.
“Sophie and the kids will be home in an hour. They went to see a movie. Do you think everyone will be done by then?”
Jazzi shook her head and looked up expectantly when Gaff gave a quick knock on the door and stepped inside.
Gaff shook his head at her. “Too soon to know anything. The victim is dressed like Santa, though. His bag for presents was buried with him, but it’s empty except for a box with a pair of earrings.”
Brady moved his wheelchair out of the way so that Gaff could take a seat at the end of the couch. “Has he been there long?”
“It doesn’t look like it. It’s so cold, though, it’s hard to tell until there’s an autopsy.” Brady blanched at the word, and Gaff hurried on. “Have you been home all day today? Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
“I’ve been here, but I was working in my office on the other side of the house. Since Sophie and the kids were gone, I thought I’d squeeze in a few hours on a program I’ve been trying to get done.”
Gaff studied him. “How do you cope in a two-story house? Aren’t the bedrooms upstairs?”
Brady pointed to the chair lift attached close to the stair railing. “I have another wheelchair up there. I only go up for bed. Sophie and I still like to sleep together.”
“Can you stand at all?”
“With difficulty on two special crutches. Are you trying to decide if I could conk Santa on the head and bury him?”
Gaff looked up from his notes. “I don’t like to leave anything unanswered. How did you know he died from a blow to the head?”
“I didn’t hear anything. I’d notice a gun shot, even if the killer used a silencer. And if Santa was stabbed, you’d think there’d be a scuffle and blood.”
Jerod crossed his arms over his chest. “He’d have to wheel himself out there to bash the guy and then kneel in the snow to dig the hole. Did you see any wheelchair tracks? Anyplace where he’d balance on his knees to dig the hole?”
Brady smiled. “The detective’s just doing his job, but thanks for jumping to my defense, man.”
Jerod snorted. “You were in active combat. If you were going to kill someone, you’d be better at it than this.”
Gaff shook his head. “I’m just getting started, Jerod. Give me some credit, but I think that’s all I need for right now. The tech guys might be here for a while. If you don’t want your wife and kids to see us loading Santa onto a stretcher, you might want to call and let them know what’s going on.”
Brady nodded and reached for his cellphone.
Gaff stood to leave. “I’d wish you happy holidays, but you’re probably not in the mood right now.”
Jazzi walked him to the door. “Thanks for coming.”
“I didn’t have a choice. You sure know how to get a man’s attention. You keep calling with dead bodies for me to see.”
Laughing, she watched him trudge back to the garage to talk some more to his team. They stayed a little longer with Brady before he said, “You don’t have to babysit me. This shook me up for a minute, but I’ve been through worse. I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” Jerod asked. “This is hitting home base.”
“It’s my yard, but at least I don’t know the victim. At least, I don’t think I do. I didn’t have to watch any buddies die.”
“Okay, then. Take care, bud.” Jerod patted him on the shoulder. “If you need anything, call.”
On the way to the pickup, Ansel glanced back at Brady’s house one last time. “He lives right across from the levee the city built to protect this neighborhood from flooding, and he owns a corner lot. The levee’s high enough, if someone jumped Santa near the river, no one would see what happened.”
Jazzi frowned. “But why drag him to Brady’s flowerbed to bury him?”
“The river rises every time there’s a heavy rain. Isn’t it suppose to rain later this week when the temperatures climb a little?”
Jerod scratched his chin. “You think the water might wash the body higher on the riverbank. You could see it when you cross the bridge. Maybe the killer didn’t want it found.”
“But why?” Jazzi couldn’t fit all of the puzzle pieces together.
Ansel turned left on Anthony to head south to Jerod’s house. “If we find out who Santa was, maybe we’ll find out.”
On Sunday, Jazzi and Ansel worked most of the morning getting the food and house ready for the Sunday meal. The nine-foot Christmas tree was already up and decorated near the front window in the kitchen’s sitting nook. The banisters were wound with greenery and the fireplace was hung with Christmas stockings—five of them—Jazzi’s and Ansel’s, one for each cat, and one for George. The small tree Jazzi had put up in her apartment each year now sat on a side table in the living room. The meager amount of decorations she’d bought for her apartment wasn’t close to enough for the stone cottage. They still needed to buy more, but that could wait.
While Jazzi cut chunks of chicken breasts and salmon to drop into the seafood curry, Ansel put red table runners down the center of the long farmhouse table and the folding table they put up beside it. Jazzi helped him load dishes and bowls on the kitchen island for people to grab for the buffet-style meal. At the last, Jazzi added shrimp to the curry while Ansel loaded the bread pudding with its rum sauce along with the Caesar salad and rice.
They’d just finished when people started trickling into the house—a dozen in all. Jerod and Franny got there first with Gunnar and Lizzie. Jerod’s parents came next with Jazzi’s mom and dad, who’d brought Gran and Samantha, close behind them. As usual, Olivia and Thane hurried in last. Once everyone got their food and settled at the table, the talk turned to the body buried in Brady’s yard.
“Gaff called last night, and the victim was named Barry Yearwood,” Jazzi told them. “He’d just gotten out of the army, and his wife expected him home on Monday. She was worried that he wasn’t going to make it since bad weather is predicted out east later tonight. The weatherman predicted airports might have to close.”
“He must have come home early to surprise her.” Jerod gave a nod, apparently liking that idea. “That might explain the Santa suit and the earrings in the bag.”
Ansel reached for more salad. “Seems a shame that the guy made it through the military and got killed the minute he got home.”
That thought sobered Jazzi, but her mom shook her head in disbelief. “Do you know his wife’s name? Mariah Yearwood is a regular customer of mine. Her husband was getting out of the service soon. She talked about it all through the last haircut I gave her.”
Jazzi’s mom and sister ran a hair salon together and knew more people than Jazzi could keep track of.
“Gaff didn’t mention a name,” Jazzi said, “but I can ask him.”
Mom pursed her lips, thinking. “Mariah lived on base with her husband while he was stationed in the states but came back home when he was sent to Japan. She’s not the type of girl who likes to be alone. From a few things she’s said, I wondered . . . Well, it’s not nice to gossip, but she mentioned a friend’s name a lot.”
“A man’s?” Ansel asked.
Jerod piled seconds in his bowl. “Do you think she planned on divorcing her husband to throw him over for a new guy?”
“Oh, no. Mariah said her friend never sticks at anything. He’d never settle down. Her husband offered her the security and spending money she likes. His checks pay for her car and rent.”
Ansel raised a blond eyebrow at Jazzi. “Later tonight, you should call Gaff, just in case. He might want to check on some of this.”
She nodded but noticed that Gran was fidgeting with her napkin. They were upsetting her. She glanced around the table. “Are things getting busy for all of you? You’re all are super social. Are you invited to a lot of parties?”
They all got the hint. The talk turned to holiday get-togethers and events. Gran went for a second glass of wine, and the meal finished on a lighter note.
Before she and Ansel started clearing the dishes, Jerod’s dad turned to him. “You guys have got to be close to finishing the fixer-upper you’ve been working on. What’s your next project?”
Jerod scowled. “We haven’t decided yet. That’s bothering me, but we haven’t found something we think we can flip. We’re going to have to look harder.”
“Our garage has gone together with a couple more businesses close to us to help out a family we’ve adopted for Christmas.” Eli was a mechanic who worked on imported and high-end cars. “The house they rent is a disaster. I was thinking you guys might slap some new paint on the walls to cheer it up a little for the holidays. They can’t afford to. They can barely make ends meet.”
Jerod turned to her and Ansel. “We could do that, couldn’t we?”
Ansel looked excited. “I’ve always wanted to adopt a family for Christmas. They give you lists of what they want for presents, don’t they?”
Eli nodded. “It’s going to break your heart when you look at it. These people asked for the basics. We’ve collected plenty of money for them, more than they asked for.”
Jerod locked gazes with Jazzi. “Cousin?”
“Let’s do it. We have the time, and your dad has the money.”
Eli grinned, and so did Gran.
“I’ll bake them some pies.” Gran was always willing to lend a helping hand.
“We’ll pitch in, too,” Mom said.
If they were lucky, they could do more than just paint the peoples’ walls.
Jazzi didn’t think about contacting Gaff until the last person left and the house was quiet again. When he listened to her news, he sighed over the phone. “How do you always have information before I have time to ferret it out?”
She had to chuckle. “Luck?” Possibly bad luck. She’d rather not be involved in his investigations. He’d included her when he interviewed her friends and family about Aunt Lynda. Her death was an old crime with no new clues. The people involved were ones she’d known well for a long time, so he swore people told her more than they’d tell him. And he was probably right. If the crime hadn’t been so closely tied to family, though, he wouldn’t have let her anywhere close to his work. And she liked it that way.
He snickered. “You’re still a step ahead of me. Is there anyone in River Bluffs that someone in your family doesn’t know?”
“There has to be, but a lot of people go in and out of Mom and Olivia’s salon, Jerod and I have worked on a lot of fixer-uppers, Jerod’s Dad’s a mechanic, and Franny’s mom works part-time at a grocery store and volunteers at the pet shelter. We meet a lot of people.”
“I’m learning that.” He was quiet a moment. Finally, he said, “I’ll look into Barry’s wife more and get back to you. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“Any time.” But she sincerely hoped her involvement in murders had come to an end.
On Monday, Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi met at the house they were working on. The only thing that still needed done was installing new light fixtures so that the new owner could move in the next day. Jerod’s dad called with the family’s name and address that his work place had adopted. He gave them the list of things the parents and three kids had asked for. The list broke Jazzi’s heart. Sweaters. Sweat pants. Warm socks. A ham, green beans, and cornbread mix for their big meal.
Jerod hunched his shoulders. “This is just sad. My kids would never ask Santa for warm socks.”
Ansel glared at the list and shook his head. “I say we finish up here, then go shopping for these. We’ll deliver them now and tell the family to make a new list for Christmas morning.”
They didn’t dawdle. They got busy and by noon, they were ready to walk out of the house, stop somewhere for lunch, and go shopping.
They bought all the clothes and groceries, taking their time since no one would be home until after school and work. Then they drove to deliver them early. When they saw the house the family rented, though, they wanted to nail the owner to a wall, and they had the nail guns to do it.
A bucket sat under a leak in the ceiling.
“Bad plumbing,” the husband explained.
The porch sagged. The floors had chipped, faded tiles. But the place was spotless. When they left, Jerod gnashed his teeth. “No wonder they asked for warm clothes. Not one window had a storm on it. Drafts ran through every room. These people deserve better.” He pulled out his cellphone and called his dad. “How much money do we have to spend on these people?” He punched speaker.
“Five thousand dollars, if you need it. It’s all tax write-offs for us.”
“Mind if we try something else instead of painting the place?”
“It’s your call,” Eli said. “You guys know what you’re doing.”
They talked about it and drove straight to city hall.
“We’re looking for a house under five thousand dollars,” Jerod told the clerk. “We can fix anything but a terrible foundation. If we get a halfway decent day, we’ll even put on a new roof. We want to fix it and give it to our Christmas family.”
The clerk stared at them. “We have three houses marked to be condemned. They’re not worth fixing up. I’ll give you the addresses. If one of them works, you can have it. We’d like to see the neighborhoods improved.”
Jerod took the list and they went to search for a house. The first one was on a street that was lined with one horrible house after another. “Nope. It doesn’t look safe here.”
The second house was tolerable, but the third house had promise. “What do you think?”
They got out and walked around, peeking through windows. The walls looked solid. So did the floors, even though they were covered in ugly linoleum. The roof and porch needed repaired.
“We can make this one nice,” Ansel decided.
“It’ll take two weeks of hard work. I’d like them to be able to move in before Christmas,” Jerod said.
Ansel shrugged. “We’re between jobs. We have the time.”
Jazzi let out a breath. She’d been hoping for some time off. They were going to make a busy December even more rushed, but she’d like to see the people in a new home by Christmas, too. The men looked at her and she caved. “I’m in.”
They drove back to city hall, signed the paperwork, got the key, and returned to the house to take measurements and start working. This would be a quickie job—no sanding woodwork or fancy touches, no granite countertops or hardwood floors. Once they knew what they wanted to do, the guys went to order the materials and dropped Jazzi at home to load the sander into the back of Ansel’s work van. She’d already driven back to the project and started on the floors upstairs when they got back.
Jerod studied the three bedrooms and bath on the second floor. “The wood planks are decent. With some paint and stain, the rooms will look pretty nice.”
Ansel nodded. “While Jazzi does the floors, let’s gut the kitchen. If we call around, maybe we can get some of the people we buy appliances from to donate some scratched or dented ones to us. If worse comes to worse, we can buy used ones.”
“Good idea.” The guys went down to the kitchen and got busy. George didn’t like all the movement and noise, so moved to curl in a corner of the living room. She’d brought his dog bed inside with the sander. Ansel took the pug to work with them every day so kept one in the van.
They worked late and started early for a week until the house was starting to come together. They finally got a break on the weather and installed new black roofing shingles they’d gotten on sale. They didn’t get as lucky on the front porch and had to fix it on a day that was so cold, Jazzi lost feeling in her fingers. They didn’t have the time or money to install new wooden floors downstairs but got carpet on clearance for the living room and dining room, and they bought a roll of discounted linoleum in a brick pattern for the kitchen. It looked good with the bottom maple cupboards they installed. They couldn’t afford top cupboards so built open shelves instead.
Every ceiling and wall were painted when Gaff called.
“I finally cut a break on the Santa murder. Mariah’s boyfriend has been pawning diamond earrings and other jewelry. I found a pawnshop owner who identified him and what he sold. The items all match up to the items Barry bought with his debit card the day he was killed.”
Jazzi pressed a hand to her stomach. She felt sick. “So this was just a robbery? The boyfriend killed Barry over a few bucks?”
“Either that or he didn’t want to lose his new digs. He’s been living with Mariah for a while now. He’d have to move out when Barry came home. I’ve been watching her place, waiting to pick him up. No sign of him yet.”
“Thanks for letting us know, and good luck, Gaff.” The news was depressing, though. When she told Jerod and Ansel, Ansel scrubbed a hand through his white-blond hair, mussing it.
“The man served his country and came home to this? It stinks.”
Jerod’s lips pinched in a tight line. “When I go home tonight, I’m going to kiss my Franny. She wouldn’t take up with someone else when times got tough. My girl would see it through with me.”
They were waiting for appliances to be delivered and then the house would be done. No dishwasher, but a new refrigerator and stove. They both had scratches and dings, but they were on the sides no one would see. They’d had to go with new Formica counters and a stainless sink. The only rooms they couldn’t make as nice as they wanted to were the bathrooms. They’d had to settle on cheap tiles to line the walls around the bathtub, and they’d had that resilvered because they couldn’t afford a new one. The half bath downstairs barely had room for a toilet and sink.
By the time the delivery came and they finished for the day, the house was as good as they could make it. The furnace still worked, and the aluminum windows weren’t attractive, but they did the job.
On the spur of the moment, Jerod said, “Let’s go visit the family and bring them over. The house is in our company’s name. We’ll sell it to them for a dollar.”
“I want to fill the refrigerator and cupboards first,” Jazzi said. “I want a turkey on the top shelf, along with milk and eggs. I want cans of fruits and vegetables, and boxes of cornbread mix.”
Ansel laughed. “You always think about food.”
“And you’re lucky I do.”
That made him chuckle. “You shop while we collect the family. Call us when you have the groceries put away, and we’ll meet you here with them.”
They separated and by the time Jazzi called Ansel’s cellphone, she even had Christmas cookies she’d bought at a bakery on a paper plate on the counter.
Jerod had the husband and the family follow his pickup to the house. When they walked inside and stared around at the empty space, they looked confused. “It’s yours,” Jerod told them.
The man blinked. “Excuse me?”
“It’s yours. We’re fixer-uppers. The city gave it to us free, your Christmas helpers collected enough money, and we fixed it up for you.”
He shook his head. “How much is the rent? We can hardly afford where we are now.”
“No rent.” Jerod pulled out the deed and said, “We’re selling it to you for a dollar.”
“No rent?” The wife’s eyes went wide.
“Let’s hope that clears up some money for you.” Ansel nodded to Jazzi. “We wanted to make you feel at home.”
She opened the refrigerator and cupboards. The six-year-old girl squealed and ran to look at the turkey. “It’s so big.”
Jazzi’s throat tightened. It was twelve pounds, nothing special. The two boys saw the cookies and raced to them. “For us?”
“Look around. See what you think. And happy holidays,” Jerod said.
They watched the wife turn on the stove and clap her hands together when every burner lit. The father opened a bottom cupboard and said, “Kids, look. There’s so much food. How will we ever eat it all?”
Ansel reached for Jazzi’s hand and squeezed it. He rocked back and forth from toe to heel, he was so happy, and she loved her Norseman even more.
“We want to pay you for the new roof and everything you’ve done,” the husband said.
Jerod shook his head. “We got everything on discount. We paid for everything with donations from the businesses who adopted you. We all wanted to make sure you had a merry Christmas.”
When they finally walked to their vehicles to drive away, they looked in the windows and saw the family climbing the stairs to check out their bedrooms.
Before driving home, Jerod said, “’We done good.’ We can’t usually do anything like this, but I’m glad we did it this time.”
“We are, too. We’re going home to celebrate.” Ansel carefully laid George on the backseat of the van and tossed his dog bed next to him. He started to slide behind the steering wheel when Jazzi’s cellphone rang.
She switched the phone to speaker and they all gathered around to hear what he had to say. “Hate to ruin the end of your day,” he told them. “But I interviewed lots of people and wrapped up the case. Barry Yearwood got into New York and thought he got lucky. According to a buddy, they both snagged tickets to fly home before the storm hit the east coast. That made it so Barry landed earlier than expected. He told a clerk he meant to surprise his wife and rent a Santa suit and buy her tons of presents.”
Jerod groaned. “Oh, man, this just keeps getting worse.”
Gaff sighed. “Yeah, when we picked up Lance, he said the poor guy showed up at Mariah’s doorstep, knocked on the door, and walked in while they were going to town. He said Mariah tried to play it off, but I mean, how do you do that? Barry turned around and stomped away, yelling that she’d hear from his lawyer, that they were done.”
Ansel shook his head. “Why not call it off with Lance when Barry left the base? Why take chances?”
“She never intended to quit seeing Lance,” Gaff said. “She thought she’d make excuses to meet him on the sly and Barry would never catch on. She wanted Barry’s money and her fun. Then she remembered that Barry had really good life insurance in case anything happened to him in the military, more than enough to support her. She promised to share it with Lance if he made sure Barry didn’t file for divorce. Lance raced after him and caught up with him at Brady’s house. Bashed him on the back of the head and tried to hide the body in his yard.”
Jazzi shivered. “It’s a good thing Gran has the sight. Who’d have looked for him there?”
“I hate to say it, but your family helped me solve another case.”
Jazzi didn’t know what to say to that. Finally, she settled on, “Glad we could help, but I’d rather not make a habit of it.”
Gaff laughed. “I second that. Have a good one, guys. Happy holidays.”
“You, too.” Jazzi put the phone back in her pocket and shook her head. “At least this one didn’t take too long.”
Jerod nodded. “We have everything in good shape for Christmas. I say we take off until the New Year. Then we can get started on our next job. We could use a vacation.”
Ansel and Jazzi nodded in unison. Jerod could spend time with his kids over their school break, and they could spend time with each other. Now that was a happy thought.
You can find the Jazzi Zanders mysteries here: https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/book.aspx/37932