TRICK OR TREAT from the Grim Reaper

For October, I wanted to share a few short stories for you–Halloween stories. This time, I’ve thrown Lux and her hunky chef, Keon, into volunteer work at the local community center, where they’re making a Halloween snack every Thursday for the people who congregate there. But they have to worry about more than making pumpkin bread and popcorn balls when the center’s director receives threats from the Grim Reaper.

Trick or Treat

(a Lux mystery)

by

Judi Lynn

Keon’s brother, Tyson, could be too persuasive.  I disconnected our call and glared at the calendar on the wall.  Why had I agreed to volunteer once a week at the community center he worked at?  How did he always talk me into things I didn’t want to do?  It was my own fault for working long hours to finish my assigned article so that I’d have more free time during October.  I love autumn and wanted to enjoy it, but I shouldn’t have told him I didn’t have a deadline looming over my head.

Keon walked into the kitchen, looked at my face, and grinned.  “Whoa!  That’s your ferocious scowl.  What did he hit you up for this time?”  My hunky chef already had on the loose, drawstring pants he wore to work, along with a snug black T-shirt.  He looked darned good in them.  The white chef coat waited for him at his restaurant.

I heaved a frustrated sigh.  “I’m going to give cooking classes once a week every Thursday for the month of October.  Tyson wants me to make enough fun Halloween treats for everyone to take home with them.”

“Everyone at the center?”  Keon chuckled.  “That’ll be nice for them.  What if I help you?  What do you want to make?”

“You haven’t thought this through.  The class doesn’t start until one thirty and lasts an hour.  Won’t that rush you for going into Seafood & Catfish to prep?”  His restaurant was upscale but flavored with the roots of the soul food his mother made for them growing up.  Mrs. Johnson was a wonderful cook, but when her kids were home, she was always on a tight budget.

He reached for the hoodie he’d hung on the hook by the garage door.  “We’ll make simple stuff.  By one-thirty, Tyson’s already served the free lunches the center gives out.  I was thinking of traditional Halloween snacks like caramel apples, pumpkin bread, popcorn balls, and Rice Krispy treats topped with melted chocolate sprinkled with candy corn.  On the last Thursday, maybe we can even go in early and make something a little special for their lunch—pumpkin soup and “mummy” dogs—then do decorated cookies for their treat.”

“We’ll need at least fifty of everything.”

“No problem.  We can make everything ahead and then just demonstrate what we did for the classes.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that?  Simple.  But then, he was the chef and I was only a lowly home cook.  I loved inviting people over to eat supper with us, but that was a whole different thing than feeding a crowd.

He tousled my copper hair, making it crazier than usual.  “See?  This isn’t going to be so bad.  Remember how good we felt last Thanksgiving when we helped make a meal at the center?  Remember how much joy that brought them?”  We’d served it on the Wednesday before our family get-together.  Keon had twisted friends’ and suppliers’ arms to get lots of donated turkeys, hams, and sides.  Any leftovers were divided up and sent home.  I couldn’t believe how happy it had made the center’s regulars. 

Now, I felt guilty for being such a grouch about donating time to help others.   If Halloween treats made the holiday special for them, then why not?  I hugged my man.  “You’re a genius.”

“Not really, but I try to keep up with you.  Journalists think too much.  I have to work to get a step ahead.  When do we start?  Next Thursday’s October first.”

“Bingo.  One week away.  That’s when we’re up.”

“That’s not much notice.  Then it’s pumpkin bread for sure.  It’s easier.”

“And everyone loves it.”  I’d go to a restaurant supply store and buy lots of disposable loaf pans.  Then each person could take one home with them. . .if they had a home.  Not all of them did.

Keon dropped a kiss on my forehead and hurried out the door.  He had lots to do for tonight’s special—seafood chili.  I poured myself a glass of wine and headed to the living room.  I had plans for this evening, too.  I turned on the TV and started my movie.  When the first scene of Hocus Pocus hit the screen, I reached for the bag of popcorn I’d bought for this occasion.  I’d toyed with the idea of buying a black candle but wimped out.  Why push your luck at Halloween?

###

The Thursday class came faster than we realized, but when we left for the center, we took sixty loaves of pumpkin bread with us.  Then we set up the table to demonstrate what we’d done for residents who wanted to watch.  I’d printed out the recipe for them, even though I doubted they’d ever make it. 

Tyson sauntered up to thank us.  Keon raised an eyebrow at his brother.  “Next time you need our help, give us a little more notice, will you?”

With a grin, he admitted, “I didn’t think about doing this until Lux told me she had more free time than usual.”

“And you don’t think she’s earned that?  That maybe you should have left her alone?”

Tyson glanced at me, trying to gauge how irritated he’d made me.  “Sorry, Lux.  I did take advantage of you.  Does this mean fewer free suppers when I call at the last minute?”

Typical Ty, more worried about losing free meals than aggravating his brother or me, but that was part of his charm.  I glanced at the people starting to congregate for the cooking lesson.  “Let’s let it slide this time, but stop pushing your luck.”

His worried frown evaporated, replaced with a smile.  Keon’s warning hadn’t stuck.

When everyone settled in place, we added ingredients to the huge bowl on the table to demonstrate quick bread making, step by step, then handed out recipes and answered questions.  The longer the lesson went, the more people glanced at the loaf pans visible in the kitchen  

Keon motioned toward them.  “We made some earlier.  If you line up, we’ll pass them out.”

People sprang from their seats and hurried to the kitchen window.  We had enough for everyone there and some extras.  Abraham, the center’s director, waited until the last person was served before coming out of his office to see if he could nab a loaf or two.  He always kept a close eye on things, making sure things ran smoothly.  In his early thirties, short and thin with longish, light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, he looked nervous today.  Unusual.  He handled all kinds of small problems and emergencies here without getting ruffled.  He smiled when we handed him an extra loaf, but the smile was strained. 

“Are you all right?”  Something was bothering him, that was clear.

He tried for a careless shrug but didn’t pull it off.  “I got an odd text message today.  It felt like a threat.”

“What kind of threat?”  Who’d send mean messages to Abraham?  He did everything he could to help people in need.

He pulled out his cellphone and scrolled to the message for me to see.

ARE YOU READY FOR TRICK OR TREAT?  WHICH WILL IT BE FOR YOU?  YOU HAVE THREE WEEKS BEFORE I DECIDE.  THE GRIM REAPER.

A chill went down my spine.  Was this guy serious?  “Whoever sent this sounds like a loony.  You should call Pete.”

Tyson and Keon came to read over my shoulder.  Keon’s jaw set in a stubborn line.  “This might be some crazy who’s stalking you.  You can’t take a chance.  Lux is right.  Call Pate.”  Pete was the detective living with Keon’s sister and my best friend, Gabbie.  Abraham had met him before when we found out his previous assistant and her husband were drug dealers.  That’s how Tyson got a job here, to replace Amelia.

“So you think I should worry?” Abraham asked.

“Yes.”  Tyson pulled his cellphone out of his pocket.  “You call him, or I will.”

“Why risk it?” I asked.  “You just never know.”

Abraham made the call, but we couldn’t stay to hear what Pete said.  We had to leave so Keon could get to his restaurant on time.  Driving home, he asked, “Do you think this Grim Reaper is for real?  Or is some teenager having fun playing a prank for Halloween?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to research news articles on my computer tonight.  That message felt a little too real to me.”  After all, I was a journalist.  I’d been a reporter in Chicago before I’d moved to Summit City and gone freelance.

When Keon left for work, I plopped my fanny in my office chair and started looking for odd news about community centers and a Grim Reaper.  Unfortunately, I found articles in newspapers concerning two men that didn’t reassure me.  A volunteer who supervised a soup kitchen in southern Indiana had received odd notes from a Grim Reaper a year ago and had ignored them.  On Halloween, police received documents that proved he used the soup kitchen to sign people up for cheap rent in rundown houses he owned.  Most of them had no heat or running water. 

The year before that, a man known for his charity works had received similar warnings.  While away on a trip, his mansion mysteriously burned to the ground on Halloween.  When police tried to contact him at the charity auction he’d said he was going to, they couldn’t locate him or his wife.  They eventually tracked them down to a resort in Palm Springs.  No one would have ever been suspicious of how he spent his funds if the fire hadn’t started.  Had the Grim Reaper set it? 

I didn’t bother digging for more.  Those articles worried me enough.  Why had he chosen Abraham for this year’s threats?  Abraham was as honest and sincere as any person could be.  Regardless, I called Pete to tell him what I’d found.

“I don’t like it,” Pete told me.  “There’s a pattern, and it looks like this guy’s a wacko.  Do you think he even makes sure who’s innocent or guilty?”

“In the two cases before, he chose people he knew were guilty.”

“Then do you think he chose Abraham because of Amelia and Rob?  Abraham had no idea they were dealers.”  Pete had worked with Keon and me when a drug dealer had targeted Keon’s brother Tyson, and we’d discovered the dealer’s wife worked at Abraham’s community center where Tyson volunteered.  If the Grim Reaper chose Abraham because of that, it wasn’t fair.  Abraham had no idea what Amelia was doing.

“Maybe he hasn’t done his homework this time.”  I saved the articles to a new file and planned to add to them later. 

“Maybe.”  Pete sounded worried.  “You’d better warn Abraham and Tyson, so they can be more cautious than usual.”

“Done.”  And the minute I disconnected with Pete, I gave each of them a call.

###

I checked with Abraham during the week, but another text message didn’t come until the next Thursday we worked at the community center.  This time, we made caramel apples, and more people came than last time for the lesson.  We’d anticipated that and dipped seventy-five apples.  We had enough left over to give Tyson three to take home.  He lived in the basement of his parents’ condo, so he could share with Keon’s mom and dad.  We gave two extra to Abraham, too. 

The message had been the same as last time except for the timing. 

ARE YOU READY FOR TRICK OR TREAT?  WHICH WILL YOU RECEIVE?  YOU HAVE TWO WEEKS BEFORE I DECIDE.  THE GRIM REAPER.

“Did you try to reply to his last message?” I asked.  “To tell him you’ve heard about the two other people he chose and what happened to them, and you don’t deserve a trick?”

“I tried,” Abraham said, “but my text didn’t go through.  Pete told me the reaper probably used a burner phone and threw it away after texting me.”

I hadn’t thought about that.  I was glad Pete had.  He’d obviously tried to trace where the text came from.  Smart move.

When we left the center, I was more worried than before.  “What could the reaper do to Abraham if we can’t stop him?” I asked Keon.  “He can’t accuse him of skimming money or charging an outrageous salary for heading up charities or cheating the poor.  Abraham hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“Would he plant false evidence to make him look bad?” Keon asked.

I stared.  “Why would he do that?  So far, he’s tried to bring his own brand of justice to what he considers grave wrongs.”

“But who made him judge and jury?” Keon asked.  “People who take that route have something wrong with them.”

Why would he do that?  That thought struck a chord.  Why would someone reinvent himself as a Grim Reaper once a year on Halloween?  Had he suffered great wrongs at the hand of someone who pretended to be well-intentioned?  And if he had, how in the world would I find out what that wrong was?

When Keon left for his restaurant, I returned to my office to start digging for new information.  Halloween had to play a part in this, so I searched for newspaper articles for traumatic events in Indiana in October for the last twenty years.  If our reaper was older than that, I’d have to try again.  There weren’t as many hits to look at as I’d thought.  But a few things popped up that made me dig deeper. 

One article told about a three-car collision the night before Halloween that killed five people.  I skimmed what happened but didn’t see anything that seemed to tie into do-gooders gone bad.  Another article was about a house fire that claimed most of a family a week before Halloween.  The fire fighters decided a person fell asleep while smoking, and the lit cigarette fell between the couch cushions.  The fire spread from there.  I passed on that catastrophe, too.  Finally, I found an article about a teenage girl who went to her parents’ barn and hung herself on Halloween night because the choir director at her church had raped her.  Her brother had tried to shoot the choir director, but his father wrestled the gun out of his hand.  The director lost his job but never went to prison.  He claimed the sex was consensual, and the girl was almost seventeen, so legal.  No one could prove what the boy’s sister had told him.  Bingo.  That one I printed out to keep. 

I found one other article about a boy who was going door to door to deliver popcorn he’d sold for Little League when the coach’s son, bigger and stronger, beat him up to take the money.  When the boy told the coach what had happened, he and his wife swore their son was home with them when it happened.  They accused the kid of keeping the cash to buy himself a gaming system.  The coach was a businessman, involved in lots of local things, and when the boy’s parents made a stink about what happened, he turned the town against them. 

I printed that story, too.  And then I began to dig more.  The boy’s father worked at the man’s company.  He was fired a month later and no one else would hire him.  The family couldn’t make their house payments and had to move in with the boy’s grandparents in another town.  The grandfather was an alcoholic and beat the boy every time he drank too much.  I printed all of that out, too, and e-mailed the articles to Pete.  Two candidates who might become a Grim Reaper. 

After more digging, I learned both boys, grown now, still lived in Indiana.  And both had become filthy rich.  I was still doing background checks on them when Keon asked, “Have you solved it yet?”  

I jumped at the sound of his voice.  I hadn’t heard him walk into my office.  Then I shrugged.  “I have two candidates.  See what you think.”  I handed him my pile of printed articles.

He went to get a beer and stretched in his favorite recliner to look through what I’d found.  When he finished, he looked at me.  I’d turned off my computer to join him in the living room.  “Could be either one,” he said.

“That’s what I think, too.”

“It’s a toss-up.  Then again, neither of them might be the right guy.”

I grimaced.  He had to state the obvious.  “How was your night?”

“Busier than usual.  People must have been in the mood for shrimp scampi, our special.”

“What’s the special for the weekend?” I asked. 

“Bouillabaisse with crusty bread and a spinach salad.”

My mouth watered.  I’d snacked on hummus and pita for supper.  “I might come to give that a try.”  The only evenings he was home were Mondays and Tuesdays, but sometimes, if I went to his restaurant before rush hour, he could sit with me a while.  Such was life when you lived with a chef.

He grinned.  “I’ll save you a table.  Just tell me when.”  He liked it when I stopped in to try his food.  Not that I’d ever had anything I didn’t like.  Except for maybe the oysters Rockefeller he cajoled me into trying.  I’m not an oyster girl. 

He looked tired.  He’d started early at the community center, then left there to work a long shift.  “Want to head to bed early?”

His chocolate brown eyes gleamed.  “What have you got in mind?”

“Not that.  You look wiped out.  I was thinking about sleep.”

His lips curled but he didn’t argue.  A sure sign he was really dead on his feet.  I waited for him to finish his beer, then we went upstairs and were asleep in less than half an hour.

###

Pete struck out following up on my articles.  Both men had alibis on the Halloweens when something happened, but then both of them were rich enough to hire something done.  On the third Thursday at the center, Keon and I had made a hundred popcorn balls.  Even more people showed up for our cooking class.  And after they left, Abraham showed us yet another text from the Grim Reaper.

I skimmed it this time.  Yada yada.  One week to go.

Abraham tried to pretend that he wasn’t nervous.  How could he not be?  I was nervous for him. 

“I’m bringing my gun next week, and I’m staying with you every minute until November first.” 

Keon raised an eyebrow.  “Then I’m taking the day off to help out, too.”

I started to protest.  “Aren’t you busy on Hallo. . .?”

He shook his head.  “A lot of people stay home to pass out candy or have parties.  We’ll plan something that Mark and I can make ahead.  Maybe a buffet.”

What kind of seafood went with Halloween?  I frowned at him.  “What would you serve?”

“A local baker makes bread bowls shaped like cauldrons this time of year.  We could fill those with clam chowder.  I saw a picture of crabs arranged on a platter to look like a giant millipede.”

I shuddered.  Those things gave me the creeps.

He shrugged.  “We’ll think of something.”

Abraham put up his hand to stop us.  “I appreciate your offers.  Really I do.  But this reaper hasn’t killed anyone.  He tries to bring up some kind of scandal.  I don’t have one, so I should be okay.”

“He picked the wrong person this year.”  I crossed my arms over my chest, determined.  “Who knows what he thinks you’ve done?  I’m staying with you on Halloween.  That’s all there is to it.”

Keon nodded to me.  “Where she goes, I go.”

“Me, too,” Tyson said.

“We’ll order a pizza and have it delivered to your house,” I told Abraham.  Then I looked at Tyson.  He could eat an entire pizza by himself.  “We’ll order a few of them, and we’ll make a nice night of it.”  No one knocked on our door for trick-or-treating anyway.  My wealthy neighbors went to elaborate parties instead.

Abraham held out his hands in defeat.  “In that case, thank you.  I’ll appreciate the company.”

###

I didn’t stop digging just because we had a plan.  And before Halloween, I was pretty sure who our Grim Reaper was.  When I researched the coach who’d lied to ruin the boy and his family, I learned that twenty years later, someone built a new tool and die company only a few miles from the town he lived in.  That company made so much money and had so much business, it tanked the coach’s business.  By then, the coach’s son had joined in as a partner, and they’d invested to expand their building and hire more people.  When they lost most of their customers, they had to file for bankruptcy.  Workers who were laid-off got better jobs for better pay at the new place.

An apt revenge.  Even better, the new building was just outside the borders of the town that had turned on the family.  They didn’t receive one penny in taxes.  All the money went to the next town that began to grow prosperous.

I chewed my bottom lip in frustration.  The reaper was so meticulous about being fair, about being righteous—in his own way.  How could he not see that Abraham deserved praise, not punishment?

More determined than ever, Keon and I dressed and went to the center earlier than usual on the last Thursday we’d volunteered for, Halloween.  We both wore loose sweaters to hide our guns.  I hoped we didn’t need them, but I wanted to be prepared.  I wouldn’t let anyone harm Abraham.

We’d baked dozens and dozens of pumpkin-shaped cookies for our demonstration, and we brought all of the ingredients to make pumpkin soup and “mummy” hotdogs—wrapped in dough—for the free lunch, along with lots of varieties of chips.  So many people showed up, every table and chair were filled, and everyone got a small bag of cookies to take home. 

People lingered longer than usual, enjoying the apple cider and bags of candy we’d set out on the counter.  It was nearly dark when the center finally began to clear, so we were surprised when a mail truck pulled into the lot and a mailman walked inside. 

He glanced at us and asked, “Abraham Holmes?”

“That would be me.”  When Abraham walked forward, I tensed.  Was the mailman bringing a legal time bomb?  Some accusation he’d have to refute?  Was he a real mailman? 

“You need to sign for this,” the man said and handed Abraham a thick envelope.

Hands shaking, he signed, and the mailman turned to leave.  We all held our breaths as Abraham broke the seal and opened the envelope.  He tugged out what was inside and then stared. 

“What is it?”  I couldn’t stand the suspense.

Abraham glanced up at us, a stunned expression on his face. 

“Well?”  If I had to, I’d rip the papers out of his hand.

“It’s letter of thanks and a check for $100,000 for the center and another check for $10,000 made out to me.”

I couldn’t take it in.  I couldn’t react.  It was too much of a shock.

Abraham handed me the letter, and Keon and Tyson moved closer to read over my shoulder.  At the top of the page, in big, bold letters, it said TREAT.

My hand began to shake.  I was so relieved, I didn’t know what to do, what to say.

Keon saved me.  “Congratulations!”  He slapped Abraham on the back.

Tyson’s grin spread from ear to ear.  I skimmed over the letter.  At the end, it said, “I’ve satisfied my need for a just revenge.  Now I want to turn my attention to rewarding those people who’ve given generously of their time and resources.  I know your assistant betrayed you, but you didn’t let it affect your work for the center.  I hope this helps you help those in need.  P.S.  The $10,000 is for you.  You deserve a better life, too.”

Tears slid down my cheeks, and Abraham hugged me to him in concern.  “I’m sorry I caused you so much worry.”

I shook my head.  “Happy tears.  I’m so glad for you!”

We stayed to talk a little longer, then Keon and I packed up our things to go home.  On the way, he glanced at me, grinning.  “Not what you expected.”

“Every article I read was about retribution.  It scared me.”

“Your little boy’s grown up,” he said.  “He’s turned into a man and he’s come to realize hanging on to past hurts harm him as much as the people he’s punished.”

I smiled, hoping Keon was right, that the reaper was ready to reap happiness.  That would make this one of the best Halloweens ever.