A New Short Story for you

I’m waiting on feedback from my critique partners, so decided to write a quick short story for you. I have fun with Noira and Speed. I hope you enjoy them, too.

A Debt Paid

(a Noira and Speed mystery)

By

Judi Lynn

Noira tried not to wake Speed while taking a shower and brushing her teeth.  She tiptoed out of the bathroom and into the closet.  Her guy had worked overtime, manning the EMS all weekend, and he was dragging.   He was off today, and she was tempted to use vacation time to be with him, but she had to get to the courthouse to work with Judge Herschel.  The judge had a big trial coming up, and Noira had to set court dates and organize crime photos. 

She went into stealth mode getting dressed and leaving the room, being careful not to clunk her cane on anything.  Stupid leg.  It didn’t work right since the accident.

Looking in the hallway mirror, she pulled her unruly chestnut hair into a ponytail and slapped on mascara and blush—good enough for a Monday—then headed to the apartment’s tiny kitchen.  Not that size mattered, at least, not in this instance.  Noira didn’t cook.  All she needed was a fridge and a microwave.  Empty cartons filled the overflowing wastebasket.  She’d picked up all of them, and Speed would take them to the trash. 

She was pouring coffee into her to-go cup when she glanced out the kitchen window and saw a guy carrying their neighbor’s TV to his pickup.   What the heck?  She fought to remember who lived there.  Erik…something.  That man wasn’t Erik, and Erik didn’t appear to be home.  Was he getting robbed?

She thumped out the back door and headed toward him.  “Hey!  What are you doing?”

He lowered the TV onto the hood of his truck and turned to her.  Not much taller than she was with a stringy build, he started to answer, but after one glance at her cane, gave a dismissive shrug.   “Butt out, lady.  It’s none of your business.”

It had happened to her before.  When people pigeon-holed her as an invalid, they didn’t take her as seriously.  A foolish mistake.  She held up her cellphone.  “Put the TV back or I’m calling the cops.”

He made a grab for her phone, but she raised her cane and jabbed him in the stomach.  Lips curled down, he started toward her.  She gripped her cane, ready to swing it.

“Keep your distance!”  Speed ran to stand beside her, jeans yanked on but barefoot and shirtless.  An impressive sight with his hard abs and broad shoulders.

The guy spread his arms.  “Hey, she’s the one hassling me.  I just came to grab a few things, and she’s threatening to call the cops on me.”

“Where’s Erik?”  Speed glanced to the apartment’s open door.  “One word from him, and we’ll be on our way.”

“That’s the thing,” the guy said.  “Erik’s dead.  I’m just trying to get what he owed me before the cops lock down his apartment.”

Speed glanced in the truck bed.  “How big was his debt?”

“A hundred bucks.”

“You’ve got a lot more than that you’re hauling away.”

The man’s jaw set.  “So what?  He’s dead.  It’s not like he needs any of this anymore.”

“He’s dead?”  Noira only knew him in passing but was curious.  He wasn’t much older than they were.  “I waved to him yesterday.  What happened?”

“The dumbass stumbled into a guy at the bar last night.  When the guy pushed him away, he fell and hit his head on a table, going down.  Didn’t get back up.”

Speed raised dark eyebrows, looking doubtful.  “What are the odds of that?”

“Don’t know.  Don’t care.  All I want is to collect what he owed me.”

“You’ve got more than enough already.  Put the TV back, Fingers.”

Noira shook her head.  Speed and his fellow EMTs used nicknames for each other.  It had become a habit with them.

“Fingers?”  When the guy started to argue, Speed reached for his cellphone.  “Are you going to try to take mine, too?”

The look on the guy’s face said he was considering it, then he shook his head.  “Nah, your girlfriend will call for backup when I take you down.”

Fat chance.  Speed lifted patients in and out of vehicles for a living.  He didn’t just look strong.  He was strong.  She and Speed stood and watched while Fingers returned the TV.  As he stalked toward his truck, Speed called, “I don’t work today.  I’m keeping an eye on Erik’s place till the cops get here.”

Looking none too happy, Erik’s “friend” slid behind the steering wheel and drove away.

###

Walking back to their apartment, Speed groused at her.  “What were you thinking going out there alone?  That man would have knocked you on the ground and kicked you while you were down to steal a TV.  Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“You needed your sleep.” 

“I could have gone back to bed after things got settled.  You could have been hurt.  Don’t do that again.”

She frowned at him, surprised, then gave a sideways smile.  “It’s sweet that you worry about me.”

“I don’t need any more worries,” he grumbled.  “You’re not a martial arts expert.  Don’t push your luck.”

“I have my trusty cane.”

He grabbed her shoulders and turned her to look at him.  “I know you don’t like being told what to do, but if someone kicked your cane out from under you, you’d go down hard.  Either that, or you’d have to hop on one foot to get help.  That man would have left you in the dirt and driven away with his TV set.”

She sighed.  For once, he might be right.  “Okay, I get it.  I’ll be smarter next time.”

“Good.”  He walked her to her car and gave her a quick kiss.  “Have a good day at work.  I’m going back to bed.  Bring home something good for supper.”

“But I thought you were going to watch over Erik’s apartment.”

He shook his head.  “So gullible.  Let’s hope Fingers is worried I might.”

At work, over lunch break, she told her friends about what had happened. 

Kitty’s green eyes grew wide with wonder.  “And Speed rushed out to rescue you?  With no shirt on?”

“Don’t drool,” Noira warned.  Kitty was only twenty-two and had a crush on him.  Not that Noira blamed her.  Her man was easy on the eyes and fun to hang out with.  Kitty didn’t drink enough or cuss enough to interest him, though.

Natalie, older than both of them with dark coloring and a tongue that dripped acid, smirked.  “I wish Fingers would have gone at it with Speed, then we could see his picture in the paper from his hospital bed.  Great nickname for him, by the way.”

Laughing on their way back to their offices, Noira put the matter behind her.   On her way home from work, she stopped to grab barbecue from Shigs and Pits, one of Speed’s favorites.   No pizza for a knight in shining armor, wearing low-riding jeans and nothing else.

He was in a good mood when they sat down to eat.  “I’ve worked with one of the cops who came to check Erik’s apartment and told him about this morning’s incident.  When I described Fingers to him, he said it sounded like the friend Erik went to the bar with last night.”

Noira sniffed.  “Some friend.”

“Yeah, I guess he stayed to answer questions about what happened and then split.  The man who pushed Erik off him was more upset than he was.”

“What happens now?”  Noira took a sip of wine to wash down her pulled pork.  “Does Erik have family close by?  Will someone empty out his apartment?”

“I guess his family’s scattered all over the place, and no one’s close enough that they want to bother with it.  A cousin asked if he left him any money in a will, and when the answer was no, he lost interest.”

“Sad.  What about his parents?  No brothers or sisters?”

“No one who wants to come.  His dad asked if he had enough money to be buried.  When they told him he had life insurance to cover it, the dad said ‘good enough, then I don’t have to send anything.’”

Downright cold.  But then, it wasn’t fair to judge.  Who knew what history the family had?  It looked like Erik would be stuck in the ground, and that was that. 

She and Speed decided to watch a movie to relax.  Noira poured another glass of wine and Speed got another beer.  They were watching the old Batman and Robyn when a light flashed around their darkened living room.  Speed got up to see what it was.

“You’re not going to believe this, but Fingers is back with a flashlight, trying to break into Erik’s apartment.”

“He’d risk going to jail over a TV?”  Noira paused the movie and pushed to her feet to see for herself.  Sure enough, Fingers was trying to jimmy Erik’s door open, using a credit card and a pocket knife.  “What an idiot.”

When he couldn’t get in, they watched his light bob as he made his way to the back of the apartment, thinking he’d have more luck with the sliding doors.  He didn’t, but they heard the tinkle of breaking glass.  Then the light moved around inside the building.

“That’s it.  I’m calling him in.”  Speed punched 911 on his phone. 

A short time later, a cruiser turned off its lights and quietly parked a few doors down from Erik’s apartment.  They watched the cops cautiously advance to the back, pull their guns, and call, “Freeze.”  Within minutes, they watched them lead Fingers to the back of their squad car, then drive away.

Speed shook his head.  “If Fingers had a brain, he’d have grabbed the TV and gotten out of there.  Instead, his flashlight beam bounced all over in the back of the apartment, the bedrooms and bathroom.  He must have been looking for something.”

“I doubt if Erik had anything worth the bother.”  She went back to the sofa to finish watching the movie. 

Speed came to stretch his legs on his corner of the sectional.  “We’re having a good night.  Double the entertainment.  Wish you didn’t have to work tomorrow.  We’d stay up late and party.”

“No such luck.”  She raised her legs, too, so that their feet met.  She wiggled her toes against his.  “A paralegal’s work is never done.”

He turned off the TV.  “Then we’d better hit the big finale before you’re too tired.  Poison Ivy’s tempting, but I’m not ready to go green.  I’d rather enjoy home comforts.”

He pulled her to her feet and they headed to the bedroom.

###

She was busy at work the next day when Hunter strolled to her desk and dropped a folder on it.  The beefy detective nodded at it.  “Your dead neighbor didn’t die hitting his head on a table.  He was a goner before his face met the floor.  Heart attack.  The thing is, we talked to his doctor, and his ticker was just fine.  Made him suspicious.”

She told him about Fingers breaking into Erik’s apartment last night.  “And he wasn’t there just to grab the TV.  Speed thinks there’s more to it than that.”

“Interesting.  Think I’ll stop by where Erik worked and chat up some of his co-workers.  Thanks for the tip, Crip.” 

His new nickname for her since she limped.  She wasn’t complaining, though.  After the car accident, she was glad she still had a leg that sort of worked.  That night, when she went home, she found Speed at the grill, babysitting two steaks.  The only time she cooked was when Speed worked his grill magic.  And then, it was nothing to brag about.  She opened a bag of salad and put a container of Ranch dressing on the table.  Then she nuked a bag of frozen corn and added butter and salt.  When Speed carried his steaks to the table, his eyes lit up.

“We’re feasting tonight.” 

She loved the man.  It took so little to make him happy.  “You know that Kitty worships you, and she’s a great cook.”

He patted his firm abs.  “I love food.  I’d eat too much and get fat.  Better to have a drinking buddy who loves pizza as much as I do.”  When she laughed at him, he arched a brow.  “Do you realize how pretty you are, and that there are men who wear suits and make lots of money who’d be happy to keep you in style?” 

She grimaced.  “You ruined it right there.  Suits.  What would I do with a man in a suit?  He’d tell me I drink too much wine instead of kissing me and putting me to bed.”

“I only do that when you drink too much red.  You get mouthy when you down wines that are too dry.”

“See?  You love me as is.  Who can ask for more?”

With a shrug, Speed raised his beer in a toast.  “I guess we’re meant for each other, then.”

She cut into her steak—perfectly medium rare.  “You have too many talents for me to ever leave you.”

His chocolate-brown eyes sparkled with humor.  “And you’re too interesting for me to settle for less.”

They’d finished eating and were sitting on the back patio, enjoying the evening, when Hunter walked around the building to join them. 

“Care to search Erik’s apartment with me?”

Speed blinked.  “What are we looking for?”

“Seems every time Erik had too much to drink, he bragged about having a key to a lock box with information in it that could make him rich.”

Noira snorted.  “Then why did he have to borrow a hundred dollars from Fingers?  And why did he live in a two-bedroom apartment across from us?”

“Because one of the guys he worked with said he was too chicken to actually blackmail whoever it was he had the dirt on.  Either that, or he wasn’t desperate enough.”

“That’s what Fingers was looking for?  The key?”  Speed was on his feet, ready to help look for it.

She sighed.  It was a beautiful night.  She still had a half glass of wine to finish, and her lawn chair was comfortable.  She didn’t want to move.

“Come on!” Speed said.  “Let’s go.  Let’s find the thing!”

Oh, rats!  She pushed to her feet, grabbed her cane, and grumbled.  She didn’t really know Eric, so this whole thing could be a joke.  But Fingers had believed him.  And he’d died suddenly from a bad heart he’d never had a problem with.  Grumbling more, she followed the two men to Erik’s apartment.

Hunter let them in.  “Where would you hide a key?” he asked.

The men opened drawers and began searching.  She went to the key ring lying in a bowl by the back door.  She held it up and pointed to a smaller key than the rest.  “What do you think?”

Hunter snarled an unkind remark.  “Who’d just put something like that on his key ring for anyone to see?”

“Hey, I always forget where I hide things,” Noira told him.  “I need to keep things simple.”

Speed studied it.  “Okay, so we have the key.  Maybe.  What now?  What does it unlock?”

Noira turned to Hunter.  “What bank did Erik use?”

Hunter looked in his notebook and made a call.  “He has a lock box with them.  Want to ride with me?”

Both men were surprised when they unlocked the box and found incriminating photos and papers for a major player in town.  It made her like Erik more.  He was like her.  Forgetful.  And he couldn’t make himself blackmail someone when he could have.  He must have had too much to drink and shared his secret with someone who didn’t have the qualms he did.  Someone like Fingers, who was with him when he died. 

“Have you gotten any info from the medical examiner yet?” she asked Hunter.

Her friend pressed his lips in a tight line.  “It looks like someone slipped eye drops in his drink.  Maybe a whole bottle of them.”

“And his drink didn’t taste funny?”

Hunter grunted.  “He probably couldn’t even tell, he was so drunk.”

“And he was at the bar with Fingers?”

“Bright girl!”  Hunter gave her a fist bump.  “You’re not bad, Crip.  You’d make a good detective.”

She wrinkled her nose in disgust.  “You enjoy what you do.  I enjoy sitting at my desk, scheduling and organizing.”

“What are you going to do with the stuff from the lock box?” Speed asked.  “That could put someone behind bars.”

Hunter shrugged.  “Not my case.  I’ll give it to my superior and he can decide.  The guy’s just going to lawyer up anyway, and it will be a miracle if he’s convicted.”

“But the trial would ruin his reputation.”  Speed glanced at the top photo and winced.  The woman in bed with him wasn’t his wife, a baggie of coke on the nightstand clearly visible.

“I’d say he deserves that.”  Hunter collected his evidence and then drove them home. 

Back in their apartment, Speed bent to give Noira a kiss.  “Good work, Holmes.  You helped solved Erik’s murder.”

“Not me.  We’re a team.  All I was worried about was Erik’s TV.”

He smiled and wrapped her in a hug.  “But it’s never that simple with you, is it?  There’s always more, and that’s what makes you interesting.”

Whatever made him happy worked for her.  She started to the kitchen.  She still had half a glass of wine to finish.

I’m excited

A while ago, a fellow writer sent me an e-mail, asking if I’d be interested in sending her a short mystery for a podcast that she and her husband produce. They perform the story with music. I thought it sounded wonderful. She wanted a short mystery with a theme of a last word before dying. Right up my alley!

T. G. Wolff is a wonderful writer herself. https://www.amazon.com/TG-Wolff/e/B07V6N9ZGN?ref=dbs_m_mng_rwt_byln I did a reading with her once but never knew she and her husband did a podcast, MYSTERIES TO DIE FOR. This will be season 4, and my story will be featured on June 3rd. I can’t wait!

Mysteries to Die For is sponsored by Down & Out Books. My story’s title was supposed to be the dying word the victim muttered. So mine’s titled Nuts! The protagonists are Nick and Laurel from the novel POSED IN DEATH. It’s their first anniversary, and they’ve rented a bnb in Michigan to celebrate. When they get there, though, they find the owner lying on the kitchen floor, gasping for air. They call 911, but the woman doesn’t live long enough to reach the hospital. She’s had an allergic reaction and every one of her EpiPens is missing. Hmm… How could that happen?

To celebrate the podcast, I’ve made POSED IN DEATH free on Amazon from June 2nd to the 6th. The Fussy Librarian will promote it on June 3rd. I hope people take the time to listen to the podcast on June 3rd. I’m excited to hear how it turned out. To have it performed WITH music? What a treat!

Here’s the cover for Nuts!

And here’s the info for POSED IN DEATH, free June 2-6.

A Free Short Story:

My second Lux novel, HEIRLOOMS TO DIE FOR, is free on Amazon, March 10-14. I haven’t spent time with Lux for a long time, so I thought I’d share a short story about her during the sale.

Don’t Put Off For Tomorrow…

(1)

When I got home late Monday morning, Sylvia and Lyndsay still hadn’t come to clean my house.  They were usually finishing by now, and I’d fix lunch so the three of us could gossip before they left.  Something must have come up.  I parked my yellow Bentley inside the garage then went to check the answering machine in my office. 

No message.  I was about to call Sylvia when her van pulled close to our back porch and she zipped into the house.  “Sorry I’m late,” she called.  “Both Ben and Jerry are sick, so Lyndsay’s staying home with them.  I ran to pick up a prescription to drop off at their place before I came here.”

“You’re a good grandma.”  She was nuts about those little boys, spent a lot of time with them.  “The house is in pretty good shape.  You’re getting a late start.  Why not make it easy on yourself and forget bothering with the basement and upstairs this time?” 

When I’d moved to Summit City from Chicago to go into business with the Johnson family, Keon was worried about my living alone, so I bought a sprawling ranch house in a gated community.  Then, lucky me, I lured Keon into moving in with me.  He’s a chef, so I not only scored a gorgeous husband, but one that loves to cook and entertain as much as I do.  This last week, though, we hadn’t had anyone over.

Sylvia ran a critical eye over the living room, dining area, and kitchen, then relaxed slightly.  “No supper parties?  Everything’s almost spotless.”

“Keon’s mom had the family over for a soul food carry-in.”  Which meant ten people invaded their condo.  Keon had three brothers and one sister who’d let me hang with them at their house in Chicago, and I loved every single one of them.  That’s why when they moved to Summit City, I did, too.

Sylvia grinned.  “I bet the carry-in was fun.”

“Always is.  I ate lots of meals at Keon’s parents’ house before I married him.  No one makes better fried chicken and mustard greens than his mom.”  I laughed.  “And no one makes worse macaroni and cheese than Gabbie, but she tried again this time.”

Keon’s sister was my best friend, had been since we went to grade school together.  A wonderful person.  A terrible cook.

Sylvia glanced at the clock.  “I’d love to yak more, but I’d better get busy.  This is Keon’s day off from his restaurant.  He won’t want me bustling around when he decides to put his feet up.”

I snickered.  “His feet are pounding the pavement right now.  The man loves to run.”

“If running made me look as good as he does, I’d…”  Then she snorted.  “No, I wouldn’t.  I’m over fifty and don’t care anymore.”  She went to the French doors where she’d left her cleaning supplies.  “Housework keeps me active enough.”

She’d sprayed the kitchen countertops and was wiping them down when her cellphone buzzed.  With a grimace, she looked at the I.D.  “Mind if I talk to my brother while I work?  He doesn’t call very often.”

“Go for it.”  I headed to the refrigerator to dig for snacks.  Keon and I had made salmon bruschetta last night, and we had some leftovers.  “I’ll eat in my office, out of your way.” 

She laid her cellphone on the kitchen island and pushed Speaker.  “Hey, Scott, how have you been?”

“I came to Summit City on an audit job and thought I’d stop by your place tonight, if you’re going to be home.”

Her whole face lit up. “That’s wonderful.  Can you come for supper?”

“That’s what I was hoping for.  Give me a time.  I get tired of eating out.  Then I can tell you about a client who’s threatening to sue me.  Says he’ll drag my name through the mud.” 

I stopped what I was doing to listen.  I can’t help it.  I’m an ex-crime reporter, so I’m nosy.  Sylvia stopped scrubbing to frown at her phone.  “Let him.  Everyone who knows you knows how honest you are.”

He started to answer when someone pounded on his door.  “Give me a second.  That might be room service.”  We heard him call, “It’s open!  Let me get my wallet.”  There were some rummaging noises, then a brisk, “Who are you?”  Then, “Hey!  What are you doing?  No!”

We heard a gunshot, then a thud.  His phone clattered to the floor.

“Scott!  Scott?”  Sylvia cried.

Footsteps sounded, and the phone went dead. 

I gulped.  “Oh my god!  Did someone just shoot him?”  I stared at Sylvia.  “Do you know where he was staying?”

“I didn’t even know he was in town.”

I reached for my phone and pushed Pete’s number.  He’s Gabbie’s husband and a detective.  When he answered, I explained what we’d just heard.

“His full name?” Pete asked.

I looked at Sylvia.  “Scott Brooks,” she said.  “He’s an accountant.  He travels to different cities to audit companies’ books.”

She’d used the present tense, and I hoped she was right. 

“If someone shot him in his room at a hotel, we’ll probably get a phone call before we can find him, asking us to investigate.  I’ll let you know when I hear something.”

Sylvia looked so pale, I was afraid she was going to faint.  “Sit down.”  I pushed her onto one of the bar stools at the kitchen island.   She reached for her cleaning spray and I shook my head.  “Forget it this week.  Was your brother married?”

She frowned when I used the past tense.  “No, he was always traveling, said it wouldn’t be fair to any woman.” 

No wife meant she might be planning his funeral soon.  I hadn’t heard one moan after the gunshot.  “Where did he call home?”

“Atlanta, but he never stayed in one place very long.”  She exhaled a long breath.  “We usually only saw him at holiday meals.”

I was about to comment when Pete called.

“He was staying at the new hotel on Main Street.  I’m there now.”

“Is he. . .?”  Sylvia couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I’m sorry,” Pete said.  “He died right away.  The bullet entered between his eyes.”

“What can I do?” Sylvia asked.  “Can I see him?”

I grimaced.  I hoped the gun didn’t blow off most of his face.

“We’ll need you to identify the body, and if you could answer some questions, it would help.  After I finish up here, I can meet you at the morgue.”

“The morgue?”  Sylvia gripped the edge of our black granite counter top. 

“Are you with Lux?” Pete asked.  “Maybe she could drive you here and stay with you a while.”

When she looked at me, I nodded.  “She’ll bring me,” she said.

“Good.”  He set up a time and then had to go.  “My techs are here.  I’ll see you later.”

I was pouring Sylvia and me glasses of wine when Keon walked in the kitchen.  Tall and lean, he stopped and frowned at our expressions.  “What’s up?”

Our cats raced to the kitchen when they heard his voice.  Pouncy, our Calico, rubbed against his ankles, begging for attention.  Grub, the fat gray cat, went to his food bowl and meowed. 

I filled him in while Sylvia gulped her drink.  She ran a hand through her drab brown hair.  “I have to call Len and Lyndsay to let them know what happened.”

Keon reached for a paper towel to wipe sweat off his forehead.  “Want me to shower and change to come with you?”

“There’s nothing you can help us with.”  I opened a can of tuna and scooped it into the bowl.  “But we haven’t had lunch yet.  You could have something waiting for us when we get back.”

“That’s playing to my strengths.”  He went to the water dispenser in the fridge and filled his glass, taking a few gulps to rehydrate.  Then he made two peanut butter sandwiches and pushed them in front of us.  “You might be with Pete a while.  You’d better eat something before you leave.”

He was right.  Sylvia shook her head.  “I can’t eat right now.”

Keon put her sandwich in a Ziploc baggie.  “Don’t get so hungry you get shaky.”

I gave him a quick kiss on our way out of the house.  I loaded Sylvia into my Bentley and drove to meet Pete.

(2)

Sylvia gripped my hand so hard, I winced, when she identified her brother.  Luckily, the bullet entrance wasn’t big.  Tears dripped off her jawline, and misery pooled inside me.  I hated feeling so helpless.  How do you comfort someone when a loved one dies?  It physically hurts to see them in pain.  Sylvia’s a strong, cheerful person, but she still clung to my hand as Pete led us to a private room to talk.  We sat around a small table, and he waited patiently for her to stop sobbing.  She fought to calm a bit, then nodded that she was ready to answer his questions.

He poised his pen over his notepad.  “You said your brother didn’t live in Summit City.”

Her voice wavered and she fought to steady it.  “No, he has an apartment in Atlanta.”

“Could his job have been what got him in trouble?” Pete asked.

“He said a client was threatening to sue him and ruin his reputation.”

“Did he give you a name?”

“No.”

“Did he have any close friends we could call?”

“Quite a few.  He and a few buddies went to sports events together, and he belonged to a group of bicyclists.  He was active when he was home.”

“Do you know any of his friends?”

“I’ve never met them, but there were some he talked about the most.”  She listed them.

“You said he came to Summit City on business?”

“Yes.”

“Do you don’t know what company he audited?”

Her face crumpled, then she gained composure again.  “Like I told you, I didn’t even know he was here until his phone call.”

“Did he have any bad habits like gambling or going to strip clubs?”

Her lips pressed into a tight line.  “No.”

Pete spread his hands.  “Just asking.  I’m trying to figure out who’d want to kill him.  If I know why, it helps me find out who.”

She grimaced.  “He didn’t talk much about himself when we got together.  He mostly wanted to catch up on the kids and grandkids.”

Pete thought a minute.  He asked a few more questions, and then it was time for us to go.  I was glad I drove. Sylvia was pulling in on herself, almost numb when I led her to my car.

On the drive back to the southwest side of town, I asked, “Do you want me to take you straight home?  Keon and I can drive your van over later.”

“You’d do that?”  Tears started again.  “I called Len, and he’s waiting for me at home.  I need a good cry.”

“Keon and I won’t even knock on the door.  I’ll drop you off, and when we bring your van, we’ll park it in your driveway and leave.”

“You’re a good friend.”

“It’s mutual.  If you need anything, call us.”  I reached her house and pulled close to the back door.  I watched Len let her in before I headed home.

When I walked in alone, Keon gave a quick nod.  “I wondered if Sylvia could hold up enough to come back here.”  He motioned to the kitchen island.  He had paninis ready to put on the press.  “You have to be starving.  It’s way past lunch time.”

I’m not the type who skips meals.  I sat at the kitchen island and inhaled my sandwich when he handed it to me.  “Sylvia’s a mess,” I finally said.  “Everything happened so fast, it’s going to take her a while to come to terms with it all.  First the phone call when she didn’t even know Scott was in town.  Then a gunshot.  Then identifying his body.  It’s too much.”

“Do you have any theories?”  He’d made a sandwich for Sylvia, in case she returned with me, and divided it in half for us to share.

“I think his job got him killed,” I said between bites.  “Pete will find out who he audited lately.  It’s going to be one of them.”  It didn’t have to be whoever hired him in Summit City.  It might be a firm from a month or two ago where he’d found a discrepancy and was digging deeper to find out why.  “Does your restaurant get audited?” I asked.

“I’ve never hired anyone to check the books.  I guess I trust our accountant.  I look over the finances once in a while, though.  It never hurts to keep an eye on things.”

My parents had taught me the same thing.  They’d left me more money than some small countries manage, and I trusted our family’s accountant, but I still checked on things myself once in a while.  And since I wasn’t an expert, occasionally, I hired outside help like Sylvia’s brother to make sure everything was up to snuff.  Geoffrey actually appreciated that.  Said it assured people that he was honest.

That made me think.  “I’d guess Scott went over books for estates, as well as companies.”

Keon caught my drift.  “And maybe someone was skimming and didn’t want to be found out?”

“It’s possible.  Some people are trusting.  They never question someone they’ve known a long time.”

Keon tossed our paper plates in the trash, then started to his favorite easy chair to relax.  It was his day off, and the cats followed him.  “It would be nice if you could trust people you’ve worked with a long time, but money can be a powerful temptation.”

I knew that all too well.  That’s why I loved the Johnson family.  A lot of people tried to befriend me for access to my money.  The Johnsons opened their arms to me—fed me, let me spend nights at their house—and never thought about how much I was worth.  They just knew my parents were gone a lot, and I needed something that felt like a home, a family.

Keon stretched his long legs, and Grub curled on them to sleep.  I sat in my favorite chair, and Pouncy jumped up next to me and pressed against my thigh. 

“Pete will let us know when he finds something,” Keon said. 

“Someone’s starting rumors about Scott on Facebook,” I told him.  “I saw a couple pieces of gossip about how incompetent he was.”

Keon looked at me, surprised.  “Incompetent?”

“If people doubt his work, they’ll question anything he reported.”

“Who posted about him?”

I shook my head.  “Too hard to find the source.  I tried.”

That offended Keon.  “How do you protect yourself from gossip online?”

“I don’t know, but every time I saw one of those posts, I asked for proof that this wasn’t just a smear campaign, and the comments stopped.”

Keon gave me a thumbs up.  “Good job!”

“I hope so.  It could all start again, but I hope not.”

“Does Pete know about it?”

“I told him.”

I doubted he’d have any more luck finding the perpetrator than I’d had.  I’d dug for lots of information as a crime reporter in Chicago and had lots of resources.  I knew a thing or two.   But so did the person behind the rumors.

(3)

Pete called on Tuesday.  I was taking a pot roast dinner out of the oven to take to Sylvia.  “Scott came to Summit City to check the books for a local bank, and I have his report.  Everything was good.  Before that, though, he was in Illinois, checking over the accounts of an estate to divide between three kids, and numbers didn’t match up.  There should have been more money.  And now Scott’s dead.”

“Sounds like a motive to me,” I said.  “Like someone was embezzling.”

“My thoughts, too, but Scott went over the books for a local company there, too, and found problems.”

I hesitated.  “So it could be either one.”

“Looks like it.”

I thought for a minute.  “Both were in Illinois?  I know a lot of people in the Chicago area.  Want me to put out feelers?  Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know.”

“Inside information never hurts, but don’t point a finger at anybody.”  He gave me the names of the family and the company.  “Let me know if you hear anything.”

I sent out e-mails.  “Do any of you know a Schenkel family or a plastic parts company called TCK?  Anything interesting about either?”  Vague enough that I might get lucky. 

On Wednesday, after Keon left for the restaurant, I had more time.  I hit my computer again, this time to research the Schenkels online, and I got lucky.  They made the news a lot.  The father and mother had done a lot of charity work.  Two of their kids didn’t get those genes.  After their mom’s death, they cut off every charity she’d supported.  Then they began battling over who got what.  The things they said about each other made me glad I was an only child. 

I felt sorry for the brother who’d gone to visit his mother—a widow—every week.  She’d been living in a nursing center for four years, and it wasn’t until they heard she might die that the other two showed up, wheedling to be her favorite.  It irritated her so much, she’d called her lawyer and told him to tear up her will, dividing everything evenly between the three.  She said she was going to make a new one.  But she died before she could. 

It seemed like the kids were back to square one, dividing the money between them, but the two who never came wanted it all and lawyered up to get it.

I sighed.  The son who sounded so kind wasn’t pushing to get more than the others.  He seemed to be fine sharing.  They’d all be rich, either way.

“What have you found?” Keon asked, walking in the door near midnight to find me still in my office.  When I told him, he shook his head.  “Isn’t that the way it usually works?  The kids who do nothing expect the most.  What about the company Scott was investigating?”

“Pete’s looking into it.  I told him he could use my accountant if he needed him, and he gave him a call.”

Keon started to the kitchen, ready to relax with a beer.  “Geoffrey’s good.  If Scott found something wrong, so will he.”

I turned off the computer and went to get a glass of wine.  “I want Scott’s killer punished.”

Keon patted me on the back as he walked to the screened-in patio.  “I think it’s nice that you care this much about your friends.”

The cats followed us, roaming the perimeter of the porch in search of something interesting.  I sat back, satisfied with what I’d accomplished, putting my feet up on our large hassock.  Soon, so did Keon, and before long, my husband was playing footsie with me.  A promising sign.  His brown eyes locked with mine, and we ended up going to bed a little earlier than usual, but we didn’t sleep.  The alarm woke us.  Keon’s prep would take longer since his sous chef had the day off.

After he left, I went to my office to work.  I’d lost writing time digging for information about Scott and his clients.  I needed to work on an article I’d promised a magazine with a short deadline.  I’d just pulled the manuscript up on my screen, though, when an old friend called.  Janis and I had worked on the same newspaper when we’d graduated from college.  I was a young crime reporter.  She wrote for their society pages.  Glamorous and rich, she had so many connections, there was nothing that happened in Chicago that she wasn’t invited to. 

“Hey!” I said when I saw her name on my I.D.  “It’s great to hear from you.” 

It really was.  Janis, with her poise and style, had always made me feel like a backwoods hick, but when we were alone, we enjoyed each other’s company.  Sitting on stools next to each other in a bar, she told it like it was.  I heard the real inside scoop.  She couldn’t put it on paper, of course.  She wasn’t supposed to dig for the truth.  She was supposed to report the glitter and glamour of the elite.    

Her first words put me in my place.  “You didn’t invite me to your wedding.”

Really!  I rolled my eyes, not that she could see me.  “That’s why you called?”

“No, but it reminded me that you didn’t invite me.”

“We didn’t invite anyone but family.  We kept it small, and it was a double wedding.  We gave all of our extra numbers to Keon’s brother and his fiancée.”

“That’s so like you.  Did you even go glam when you hitched up?”

“I bought a floor length wedding gown.”

She laughed.  “Did it cost over twenty bucks?”

“Yes.  Are you happy now?”

“I’ll survive.  But I want you to know I’m getting married in August, and I’m going all out.  You and Mr. Gorgeous had better show up.”

Keon was gorgeous with his mocha-colored skin, rippling muscles, and chocolate brown eyes.  “We’ll be there.  And if you need anything, let me know.”

“My folks are footing the bill.  They’re just happy I’ve finally found someone.  When you got hitched before I did, they almost died of heart attacks.”

That made me chuckle.  Our families were always a little competitive, but I’m sure her mom and dad thought I’d be the last girl anyone would pick for keeps from our group.  “Give me the date, and I’ll put it on our calendar.”

“You’re not getting off that easy,” Janis said.  “You’re in charge of my bachelorette party.”

“What!”  I was so not good at planning events.

She laughed.  “It’s your penance for the news I’m going to share with you.  News I can’t report in the paper.”

Now she had my interest.  “Okay, you’ll get the best bachelorette party there ever was, even if you want pet penguins dressed in tutus for bridesmaids .  What have you got for me?”

“You asked me about the Schenkel family.  They’re all trying to screw each other to get the family fortune, but no one’s going to beat the daughter.  She’s screwing the old, trusted banker her mom made executor of the estate when she went in the nursing home.  He has a huge paunch, bad teeth, and thinks he’s a lady’s man.  No one else would touch him, but she’s giving him the ride of his life.”

“Eww.”  The image made me a little sick.  “Would he embezzle money from the estate?”

“If she meets him at many more hotels, there won’t be an estate,” Janis said.

“He doesn’t care about his reputation?”

“That man has never had a hot girl in his bed.  He’s not thinking with his brain right now.”

“What about prison?  Does he care about being behind bars?”

“We’re talking about a massive ego.  He thinks he’s so clever, he’ll never get caught.”

“How will he explain away a lot of missing money?”

“He’s thought of something.  He’s pretty smart.”

“My accountant’s going over the books.”

“Geoffrey?  In that case, he’s busted.  The daughter will be, too.  But that doesn’t mean one of them killed your friend’s brother.”

“I’d bet on it.”  I was feeling pretty sure of myself.  “You’re the best, Janis.  Tell me what you want and where for your party, and it’s done.”

“Palmer House.  Huge buffet and music.  Lots of champagne, and rooms for twenty girls to crash in when we can barely walk.”

“You got it.”  She hung up, and I made the reservations and all of the arrangements.  I called Pete to keep him in the loop, and when Keon got home, I told him my news.

Keon smiled.  “Sounds like you finally have a solid lead.  Good luck.”

“Oh, and Janis is getting married in August.  I have to be there.”

That made his smile widen.  “I haven’t been back there for a while.  I’ll arrange to get the days off.  You might not want to drive after all your fun.”

Smart man.  I’d have to keep him.

Geoffrey called late the next day.  “It’s the estate.  The business Scott was looking at is just run shoddily.  Someone should get it on track, but the errors are careless, stupid mistakes.  The estate, on the other hand, is masterful embezzling.”

I told him about Janis’s phone call without mentioning her name.

“I’m almost impressed,” he told me.  “It’s hard to slide something past a good auditor, but this guy got away with it the entire time his client was in the nursing home.  He trumped up repairs to the mansion, charges for mechanics who keep the car collection in good shape, and charities the wife supposedly supported.  He might have gotten away with it all except this Scott followed through on every detail.”

  When he hung up, I called Pete again to share the news.  If it had just been the embezzling, I wouldn’t have hated whoever did this quite as much.  But he or she had killed Scott to hide what he’d done.  The banker didn’t sound like the type who’d drive to Summit City to shoot somebody.  In my mind, that left the daughter.  And if she was the culprit, I wanted her to pay.

(4)

Keon and I invited Pete and Gabbie over for supper on Monday night.  He’d called earlier to tell us that he’d made an arrest.  Pete is a meat and potatoes type of guy, and Keon’s sister is fish and vegetables, so we made surf and turf.  Keon owns a seafood restaurant fused with soul food cooking, so the meal was in his wheelhouse.

We served filet mignons, orange roughy with Chilean pebre sauce, rice pilaf, and a huge salad.  I made lava cakes for dessert.  We ate first, then took our wine glasses to the patio to discuss the case. 

“Once you helped me narrow it down to the Schenkel’s daughter, everything came together,” Pete said.  “She used her credit card to book a flight to Summit City on the day Scott died.  She left the same night.  And she bought a gun while she was here.  The gun matched the bullet that killed Scott.”

“But why?” I asked.  “She was already getting more money from the settlement than her brothers.”

Pete got more comfortable in his lounge chair.  “Because if Scott reported the missing cash, her one brother would have demanded she pay it back or get less money or none at all because she’d cheated.  And money was the only thing that girl thought about.”

Keon shook his head.  “But she was already rich, wasn’t she?  Lux’s accountant said each kid got an exorbitant amount of money for their ‘allowances’ each month.”

“She blew through it,” Pete said.  “Always needed more.”

Keon looked disgusted.  “What about the executor of the will?”

“He’s going to prison for embezzling.  She did a number on him, but he should have known better.  He got her however much she asked for because he knew the minute she didn’t get what she wanted, he’d lose her.”

“Stupid.”  I had no sympathy for him.

Pete raised an eyebrow.  “You and Gabbie are so attractive, you’ve never been rejected over and over again.  It takes a toll.”

Gabbie wrinkled her beautiful nose.  “It’s not like you or Keon ever suffered either.”

Pete and I looked at each other.  We weren’t in the same league as Gabbie and Keon, but we were attractive enough to get by.  Thankfully, Keon loved my copper hair and fair skin, and Gabbie loved everything about Pete.

Pete sipped his wine.  “The thing is, this guy was passed over all the time.  I can understand how the girl manipulated him.  I don’t excuse it, but I can sympathize with him.”

That brought us back to the girl. 

Gabbie’s dark eyes sparked fire.  “The mother and father who raised these kids sound like nice people who donated to charities and cared about people.  It’s sad they ended up with kids who only cared about money.”

Keon shrugged.  “They must have spoiled them too much.”

“Not if the one son stopped by every week to see his mom,” I said.  “It sounds to me like the one son and daughter gave in to being rich.”

Pete nodded.  “Out of all of them, the daughter was the worst.  And now she’s behind bars.  I think we have all we need to prove she killed Scott.”

And that was the big issue.  If she wanted to be a crappy daughter and sister, that was her choice.  But she’d killed a good man, a man with more morals in his little finger than she had in her entire body.  She didn’t care about morals or ethics.  All she cared about was money.  And I hoped she’d rot in prison.  And I hoped my wonderful friend, Sylvia, would heal in time.

More Than a Turkey for Thanksgiving

I don’t want to treat Thanksgiving worse than I did Halloween, so here’s a short story to celebrate our day of thanks, too. Hope you enjoy it as much as Lux did.

The Works

(a Thanksgiving story from Lux)

by

Judi Lynn

Thanksgiving was fast approaching, and Keon and I had volunteered to serve a Thanksgiving meal at the community center his brother worked at, but we were doing it on the Tuesday before the holiday, because as always, my hunky chef had to work on actual turkey day.  Restaurants did a booming business then, and his was no exception.

The same people who’d contributed food to the center last year agreed to do it again.  That meant hams and turkeys filled its large refrigerators, and items were piled on its counter tops.  The center served free lunches every day, and usually seventy-five or eighty people went through its line.  Some of them came to the cooking classes on Thursdays, but only one winner was drawn to take home the food made during the class, so that crowd was thinner.  For Thanksgiving, though, it was easy to serve over one hundred people.

The Catholic church’s soup kitchen downtown was older and more established.  It often served three hundred people a day, but Tyson and Abraham’s center was farther away on Broadway and newer.  It wasn’t as big either, so the crowds were smaller.  We could still use extra help to make the big meal, though, so Abraham had put out the word he needed volunteers.

On the Monday before the meal, Keon and I drove his white work van to the center to start prep work.  We wanted to make as much of the food ahead as possible.  Keon didn’t work on Mondays, so we had plenty of time.  I was sautéing diced celery and onions to make dressing when a thin, young woman I’d never seen before, with short brown hair, knocked on the kitchen door.  When I opened it to invite her in, she glanced at Keon and asked, “Is this the person I talk to about volunteering to cook here?” 

I shook my head.  “Wait here, and I’ll get Abraham.  He’s the director.”  I knew that he and Tyson were circulating around the dining room, stopping to chat with the people there.  I went to get him.  When he stepped into the kitchen, I almost bumped into him, he stopped so abruptly.

I squeezed past him to see what was the matter.  Staring, he asked, “Libby?  I thought you’d joined the army.”

 She looked as caught off guard as he did.  She nodded.  “Right out of high school.  Meant to make a career of it until this happened.”  She nodded to her left leg and raised the hem of her jeans.  A metal pole was attached to a fake foot.

“Lord.  When did that happen?”

“Two years ago.  Ended my days as a cook at the mess hall.  Cost me time in physical therapy, too.  Now I get a monthly government check, but money’s tight.  I tried working a desk job, but it’s not for me.  I want to get back in a kitchen.”  She studied him.  They were almost the same height, an inch shorter than my five six, and both of them thin.  “What about you, Abe?  How long have you worked here?”

No one else called him Abe.  He preferred his full name of Abraham, but he smiled when she used the nickname.  “Started here two years after college.  I like it.”

“You always did want to help people.”

He nodded, then turned to us.  “Libby and I went through middle school together, then she went to one high school, and I went to a different one.  We lost track of each other.”

She grimaced.  “I lost track of everyone, didn’t have any free time back then.  Went to school and then to my job.  My folks needed the money.”

“What brought you back to Summit City?”  He moved farther into the room, letting the door close behind him.  “Your parents moved away after you joined the military.”

“My grandpa.  I took care of him until he died.”  She looked around the kitchen at all of the supplies.  “I was hoping that if I helped cook the Thanksgiving meal, you might give me good references to find a job.”

“You don’t need to volunteer to get a reference from me.  Anything for you, Libby.”

Her cheeks colored, and she ran a hand through her short hair.  “Thanks, but I’d like to help out anyway.  Do you still need someone?”

Abraham nodded.  “You’ll be working with them, Lux and Keon.  Keon’s a chef, so he might be picky.”

She frowned.  “Are you two together?”

We got that a lot.  I have fair skin and long, wavy copper hair.  Keon’s eyes and skin are the color of milk chocolate—delicious.

I nodded.  “We live together.  We’ve been friends for forever.”

“Is that why you’re brave enough to cook with him?  Is he picky?

Keon laughed at that.  “At my restaurant maybe.  Not here.  I brought recipes for everything we’re making.  They’re scaled for big amounts, but if you cooked in a mess hall, you’re used to that.  You up for green bean casserole?  Can you start today?”

“I can start right now.”  She took off her coat and hung it on a hook by the door, rolled up her sleeves, and washed her hands.  Her gaze didn’t quite meet Abraham’s when she said, “It was nice to see you again.”

It was his turn to glance away, looking awkward.  “Same here.”  He started to leave, then hesitated.  “If you need anything now that you’re back in town, let me know.  I’m glad you’re here.”  Then he scooted out the door before she could respond.

As we cooked together, I asked, “Were you two an item before you went to separate schools?”

Keon tsked and shook his head at me.  He was making the brine for the turkeys.  “Libby just met us.  You’re not allowed to get personal right away.”

Libby grinned.  “I was in the military, remember?  The guys didn’t tiptoe around anything.”  Her expression took on a faraway look.  “Abe and I had huge crushes on each other, but we were just kids.  And I was dirt poor.  He was bound for college, and I signed up for the army to get some training and make some money.”

I could feel a small smile tug at my lips, and Keon gave me a look.  It said Don’t Play Matchmaker.  He was no fun.  But I had helped to bring Pete, our detective friend, and his sister, Gabbie, together.  All it had taken was a small nudge.  And that’s all I’d do this time.  He rolled his eyes.  He knew my looks as well as I knew his. 

We spent a long time cooking together, and the more I got to know Libby, the more I liked her.  When we’d prepped everything we could and were getting ready to leave, I said, “It’s too bad the center can’t hire a part-time cook to make the free lunches it passes out.  The meals would be a lot better.”

Libby covered the cranberry sauce she’d made and put it in the refrigerator.  “Where do the meals come from now?”

“Tyson makes them from whatever he can get at the food bank, but he’s no chef.  Not even a cook.  The meals are pretty basic.”

She pursed her lips, thinking.  “Maybe I can talk to Abe and plan out some meals if he gives me ideas what ingredients they usually get.”

“That would be nice.” 

Keon raised an eyebrow.  When we finished cleaning the kitchen, and Libby left, he shook a finger at me.  “You’re weaving your web, Spider Lady.”

With a smile, I reached for my heavy jacket.  “I hope so.  Now I need to talk to Abraham a minute, then we can leave.”

Sighing, he tossed his jacket over his shoulder.  “I’ll hang out with Tyson till you get back.”  The Johnson brothers were pretty tight.  They enjoyed each other.

I went in search of Abraham.  I found him in his office.  “I was thinking,” I said when he looked up.  “You got a large donation for the center at Halloween, and if you had a part-time cook, you could serve a lot better meals than you do now.”

“How so?”

“Good cooks can take the same ingredients but think of a dozen different ways to use them.” 

He narrowed his eyes at me.  “You’re trying to tell me to hire Libby, aren’t you?  But maybe she needs full-time work instead of part-time.”

“Maybe, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask.  Just something to think about.”  And I started to the door.  “See you tomorrow.”

We’d have to be there early in the morning to get everything in the ovens and roasters to cook fully.

###

Libby walked into the kitchen on Tuesday a few minutes after we did, and we all got busy.  By the time it was one p.m., Tyson had the tables ready, Abraham had the beverage table set up, and we had a row of tables laden with food.  When the regulars got in line, Tyson stood behind one table to dish up, Libby behind another, Keon behind the meat to carve it, and I was at the dessert table.  Abraham manned the drinks. 

People came back for seconds and thirds.  The side dishes disappeared, and so did the desserts, but we had plenty of leftover meat.  When it was finally time to tear down the tables and put things back to normal, Libby went to Abraham.

“If we cut the leftover meat off the bones, we can use it to make more dishes.  Is that all right?”

“That’s a great idea.  I’ll help.”  As he started into the kitchen with her, he said, “A donor gave a large check to the center at Halloween.  I was thinking that hiring a part-time cook might be a good use for it.”

She turned to him.  “Would you consider me?  I’d like to start working part-time to see how my leg holds out before committing to a fulltime job.”

“That would be perfect.  It would work for both of us.”  He turned to Tyson.  “You wouldn’t mind giving up the cooking part of your job, would you?  Then you could spend more time tutoring and planning activities.”

“I’m no cook and know it.  I can help more people if I’m not stuck in the kitchen.”

Abraham grinned from ear to ear, and when he turned back to Libby, their gazes locked.  “When can you start?”

“Tomorrow?  Maybe I can stay a while today to talk to you about menus.”

Keon cleared his throat to get their attention.  “Does that mean you’re finished with us today?  Can you take care of the rest on your own?”

“We’ll be fine.”  Libby didn’t look away from Abraham.

“I’ll help in the main room, see if everyone’s doing all right.”  Tyson followed us out the door.  His dark eyes glittered with humor.  “Three’s a crowd in there, don’t you think?”

I walked with a lilt in my step, I was so happy.  “They’re going to make a great team.”

“Yeah, they got a lot more for Thanksgiving than just food,” he said.  “I’m betting they got the works.”

I liked that phrase.  The works.  The full meal deal.  Everything they wanted and more.  And both of them deserved it. 

Keon wrapped an arm around my waist as we walked to his van.  “You aren’t allowed to volunteer anywhere on Valentine’s Day.  Who knows what might happen?”

I leaned into him.  “We got the works, too, when you moved in with me.  I hope they’re as happy as we are.”

“Looks like they will be.  We all have a lot to be thankful for this year.”

True.  With Cook, one of my favorite people in the whole world, moving to Summit City when the lease on her apartment ran out, things were only going to get better.

November in Muddy River

October and Halloween are always fun, but November and Thanksgiving make me think of all of my blessings and the things that I’m grateful for. And November makes me think about family. In Muddy River, friends are often almost like family, so Hester and Raven invite Birch and her new coven to their house for the holiday. And they get a special surprise.


A Thanksgiving To Remember
(Muddy River short story)
By
Judi Lynn
 
 
Something was scratching at our back door.  I straightened from rolling out pie dough to glance around the kitchen.  Claws was sprawled across the wooden floor near the archway to the living room, and Blackie, Raven’s hellhound, was stretched in front of the oven.  I swear, that hound was always under foot, especially when Raven and I were cooking together.
The noise finally made Claws curious enough that he rolled to his feet to investigate.  Sniffing, he turned to me and a low noise rumbled in his throat, telling me to open the door.
Grumbling, I wiped the flour off my hands onto my apron and went to see who…or what…was there.  Raven stopped wrestling the turkey into a cooler filled with brine and came to stand behind me.  I didn’t need protection.  Whatever it was couldn’t be an enemy or it wouldn’t have gotten by my wards.  I pulled the door wide and stared in surprise.  A mother cat—gray with a white chin and a patch of white on her stomach—gazed in at us along with a dozen kittens of all varieties, one an orange tabby, another a tiger with dark gray stripes, a calico, and even one that looked Siamese.  What the Hecate was going on?
When I stared in surprise, my ocelot raised his paw and pressed on the storm door to open it, inviting them inside.  With a flip of her tail, the mother cat strode past us and headed straight to the living room, where she and her kittens curled on the rug by the fireplace. I turned to Raven, too shocked to speak.  He looked as surprised as I felt and shrugged.  “They must have come for a reason.”
A stiff breeze pulled at the storm door and I yanked it shut, closing the door as I returned to our wooden table.  Claws padded past us and went to lie with the cats.  I blinked.  “I don’t get it.  Familiars all get along, but these cats don’t belong to anybody.  They’re strays.  And the kittens are too young to be any protection for anybody.”
My fire demon’s lips curled.  “Maybe Hecate sent them here to grow up safely.”
I couldn’t stop a grimace.  “Thirteen cats.  We’re going to kill ourselves tripping over something furry.”
He laughed.  “We’ve survived worse than kittens.  I think we’ll manage, but we’ll have to buy big bags of dry cat food.  If they want any meat, their mom will have to teach them to hunt.”
I watched the way Claws kept a close eye on them and shook my head.  “My familiar’s besotted.  He’ll probably catch food to bring to them.”  And I’d never have believed it, but I’d never seen Claws so protective before.  Even Blackie wandered into the living room to lie with them and tolerated the kittens climbing all over him.
Raven went back to tinkering with the turkey.  “Birch and her coven are coming to celebrate Thanksgiving with us tomorrow.  Thirteen girls, thirteen cats . . .”
“I thought of that, but kittens?  No one gets a kitten as a familiar when they come into their power.”
He shrugged.  “Times are changing.  Demons never get familiars, period, but Blackie decided to stay with us.”
“With you.  He chose you.”
“And now we’re one big, happy family.”  Raven chuckled as a kitten swatted at the hound’s ear.
I pressed a hand to the bag filled with herbs and magic that always dangled from the leather cord around my neck.  Hecate, help me.  First, she’d sent Blackie to Raven, and now she sent us kittens?  I already trained young witches.  Was I supposed to be a nursery for familiars now, too?
I huffed out my frustration and got busy baking pies again. 
My coven and I always celebrated Yule Eve together, but they celebrated with their own families on Thanksgiving, so this year, I’d invited Birch and her new young coven to our house for the holiday.  Birch’s parents had retired from Muddy River and left her to run their shop so they could move away.  And her coven was finally full.  She had twelve young witches who’d joined.  Most of them had graduated from my school of magic, and they were all talented, but not very powerful yet.  That would take time.
Mates were always invited, too, so Lir would be coming with Birch.  Most of the other girls were still single, living with their parents.  I expected eighteen people at our house tomorrow.  When I’d first moved into the old, yellow Victorian, I’d knocked down the wall between the kitchen and dining room, so that I had a big enough area to seat my coven and their families.  Now, all I had to do was cook enough food.
After I slid two pumpkin, a pecan, and a pear pie into the oven, I started on two pumpkin rolls—Raven’s favorites.  He loved to help me cover the sponge cakes with a cream filling and roll them up.  Then I started making the dressing while he cut diamond shapes into the ham to stud it with cloves.  We worked all day, preparing the rest of the side dishes, and by the time we’d done all the prep work we could, we reheated leftover chili for supper.
As usual, Blackie came to sit beside Raven and beg.  Claws wasn’t partial to people food, and the cats didn’t show any interest either, but a hellhound was just a big, overgrown dog, and Blackie whimpered for treats.  I shook my head and went to the pantry, returning with a ham bone.  Lots better than feeding a hound something spicy.
Blackie took it into the living room to gnaw on in front of the fireplace.  When I looked again, a dozen kittens lined up to chew on it, too. 
After dinner, we carried wine into the living room and tried to read.  Kittens crawled up and down us and jumped at our books, knocking them out of our hands, until my patience was gone.
“Enough.”  I shooed them all away, then called for a protective bubble to circle Raven and me.  Then we could read in peace.  I put another shield over the opening to the kitchen so that no one nibbled on any of the food we’d prepared.  And after we climbed the stairs to bed, I closed our bedroom door, locking them outside.
When we opened the door in the morning, the rejoicing was downright comical.  Everyone wanted attention.  The kittens tugged at our pajama pants, begging to be petted.  Blackie and Claws wanted outside.  When I opened the kitchen door for them, everyone followed them through the backyard to the river bank at the back of our property, looking for breakfast.
I shook my head, watching them hunt.  There was no breeze today, so the temperature felt almost mild.  “Nothing will be open today, but we’ll have to drive to town tomorrow to buy food for them.”
We got busy, loading things into the oven for the big meal.  Birch and her coven were coming at two.  We drank coffee, then sipped wine while we worked.  Birch and Lir were the first to arrive.  Lir stopped in the arch to the kitchen and sniffed the air. 
“It smells good in here.”  The aroma of roasting turkey mingled with the onions and spices I’d added to the roasted vegetables.  The mulled cider and wine added a fruity note.
Birch hung her jacket on one of the hooks by the back door and went to ladle some of the cider into a glass mug I’d put on the counter.  She frowned, glancing around the kitchen.  “Where’s Claws?  He always comes to greet me.”
I nodded to the river.  “He’s hunting with his new friends.”
“New friends?  You mean Blackie?” 
But before I could answer her, there was a quick knock at the door, and more people streamed into the kitchen.  We were lining up to fill our plates, buffet style, when Claws scratched at the door.
“Prepare yourselves,” I warned, letting him inside.  He was followed by the mother cat, sleek and white with green eyes.  She stalked directly to Birch, and I realized she was a perfect match for Birch’s white-blond hair and emerald eyes.  The kittens followed in single file, and each went directly to a girl with the same coloring they had.  The Siamese went to Alizon with her straight, sandy-colored hair and dark eyes.  A tawny kitten with blue eyes chose Opal with her creamy complexion and pale baby blues.  The orange tabby meowed for Allegra–with wild, carrot-orange, curls–to pick it up.  And the tiger cat sat on Selma’s shoe, claiming her with her streaked, highlighted dark hair and light brown eyes.
Raven shook his head.  “Hester sent kittens who were color coordinated for each girl.”
I smiled.  Familiars chose their owners, not the other way around.  But these kittens were handpicked by Hecate for the witches they’d bond with.  Even their powers matched.  These girls had a long way to go to reach their full magic, and the kittens would nurture them and grow with them.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Birch reached for the mother cat and pressed her to her chest, hugging her close.  “I was beginning to think I’d never get a familiar.  This is the best Thanksgiving ever.”
Laughter and purrs filled the kitchen.  Claws came to sit beside me, and Blackie nuzzled against Raven’s leg.  I let out a long, contented breath.  Hecate meant for this new coven to prosper.  Joy surged through me, and I pressed my hand to my pouch and whispered a thank you.
Raven wrapped his arm around my waist, joining in the blessings.  Then he laughed and called, “Time to eat!  There’s plenty of food for everyone, even familiars.”
Blackie raised his ears and hurried to Raven’s seat at the table.  Each person filled their plate, and a cat sat next to each of us, waiting for tidbits of our feast.  As I looked around the room, I knew this would be a Thanksgiving to remember.  One of the special ones.  Food and friends and blessings.  What more could a witch want?
 
 

Jazzi meets a ghost

This week, for my October Halloween story, I have Jazzi and Ansel attend a house walk, and Jazzi sees a lot more than renovations and decor.

Halloween Open House

by

Judi Lynn

Jazzi climbed out of the pickup before Ansel could circle to open the door for her.  Her tall, handsome Viking grinned.  “Excited much?” he asked.

She pulled the booklet with the houses open for viewing from her jacket pocket.  “We get to see what other people have done to their houses.  Maybe we’ll get some ideas for our next flip.” 

The older neighborhood north of town was full of stately, larger homes.  The entire street, from Lake to State, about five blocks long, had banned together to do a Halloween walk to raise money for the Philharmonic, and twelves homes were open for viewing.  Cobwebs stretched across bushes in front yards.  Oversized spiders dangled from tree limbs.  Orange lights glittered in bushes and trees. 

Ansel grinned when they walked to the first porch and three life-sized witches, stirring a cauldron, cackled as they passed.  He’d bought the same decoration to put in their basement. 

A skeleton greeted them in the foyer of the three-story Georgian home.  A nice touch.  The volunteers inside were all dressed in costumes, but Jazzi’s gaze slid to the marble floor in the hallway, the wide dramatic staircase that led to the second floor, and the high ceilings with chandeliers.  A hostess gestured for them to start with the room to their left and circle to the back of the house, then the front room on the right before going upstairs.

The first room took Jazzi’s breath away.  The study was paneled in dark wood and lined with bookcases that went from floor to ceiling.  Every shelf was filled with books, some of them with worn leather covers and yellowed pages.  A velvety easy chair nestled in the corner with a floor lamp spilling light beside it.  As she admired the chair’s deep crimson, a lovely young woman chose a book from a shelf and settled onto its cushions, curling her legs under her.  She’d pulled her lustrous, dark hair into an updo and wore a long dress with puffy sleeves, a tight waistline, and a floor-length bell-shaped skirt.

Jazzi stared.  “Is that girl part of the Halloween theme?” she asked Ansel.

He followed her gaze and frowned.  “What girl?”

“The one in the chair.”

He shook his head, giving her an odd glance.  “I don’t see a girl.”

“But she’s. . .”  Jazzi stopped in mid-sentence.  The young woman was gone.  She rubbed her eyes, straining to see, but she wasn’t there.  Had she imagined her?

A man cleared his throat behind her, impatient for them to move on.  They were holding up the line.  She and Ansel hurried into the dining room, one of the largest she’d ever seen.  A gleaming mahogany table stretched long enough to seat twenty people comfortably.  White wallpaper sprinkled with violet-colored flowers adorned the walls, and a huge bouquet of white and purple flowers sat in the center of the table, directly under the heavy chandelier with its three tiers of crystals that lit the room. 

Jazzi could imagine dinner parties given here with the table set with fine china and crystal glasses.  Not her style.  She and Ansel invited twenty people to their family meal every Sunday, but they preferred casual entertaining.  Nothing fancy.  Still, she could appreciate a formal setting like this.

As they moved to the kitchen, she stepped back into a corner so people could pass her.  She wanted to take her time to enjoy it.  Kitchens were her and Ansel’s favorite rooms.  Every inch of this one had been renovated with white cupboards, granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances.  As she was admiring the hand painted tiles of the backsplash, the scene before her blurred.  The cabinets morphed to solid maple, and a pump provided water for the sink.  A black cast iron stove sat in the corner.  Blinking, she tried to make sense of what she was seeing and was about to leave when the same young woman entered the kitchen door.  Her arms full of produce from her garden, she spread it on the wooden worktable, then went to a simmering pot on the stove to check its contents.

“She isn’t real.”  Jazzi said the words aloud, and the woman turned to lock gazes with her.  Her cobalt blue eyes filled with tears and she whispered, “Help me.”

Goosebumps raised on Jazzi’s arms.  When she rubbed them to get warm, Ansel lowered his head to study her. 

“Are you all right?”

She shook her head.  Nothing was right about this.  Swallowing hard, she whispered, “She’s here again.  She asked me for help.”

He turned to the stainless-steel, six-burner stove, pinching his lips together.  “I can’t see her.”

“I can.”  But as she said the words, the woman disappeared.  Ice ran through her veins.  What was happening?  She looked up at Ansel.  “Do you believe me?”

“Yes, but I don’t understand it.” 

Bless him!  He didn’t doubt her, even when she doubted herself.

He sounded concerned.  “Do you want to see the rest of the house, or would you rather leave here to go to the next one?”

“I want to finish this.”  She wasn’t sure if she meant the tour or the woman’s story.

Ansel nodded and reached for her hand.  He held her close to his side. 

The living room was wide and spacious like theirs.  It had several seating groups and two easy chairs facing the large fireplace.  Fake flames crackled in the gas insert.  The room was warm and inviting with overstuffed furniture and antique tables.  They left to climb the stairs to the second floor. 

Five large bedrooms and three baths opened off a hall wide enough to walk side-by-side.  When they reached the last bedroom at the end, Jazzi took a deep breath.  The room ran from the front of the house to the back with its own private bath.  A king-size bed with a canopy was the main focal point.  Again, she stepped to the side to let people pass. 

The soft gray walls morphed to soft brown wallpaper with rose and white flowers.  The young woman bent to make her bed, pulling up a heavy rose-colored comforter and fluffing pillows to lean against the walnut headboard.  Then she turned, smiling at a man chuckling at some private joke, standing on the opposite side of the bed.  He was as dark and handsome as she was beautiful.  But as Jazzi watched, he faded from view.  When he was gone, the woman turned to her, tears spilling down her cheeks, and whispered again, “Help me.”

Jazzi had to stifle a sob.  The woman looked so sad, so stricken.  How could she help? 

Ansel tugged her closer to his side, offering her comfort.  He waited until she regained her composure.  When there was a lull in viewers, they went to see the master bath.  The tiny tiles on the floor suited the gracious style of yesterdays.  A clawfoot bathtub nestled against the far wall, and double vanities took up the wall on their left.  A walk-in shower sat opposite them. 

Jazzi motioned to the long, wood framed mirror above the vanities to comment on it when the double sinks faded, becoming an old-fashioned wooden wash stand, holding a bowl and pitcher of water.  She heard water sloshing and turned toward the tub.  With a gasp, she stared.  The young woman struggled in the clawfoot tub, raising her head above the bubbles in her bath to gasp for air, as a tall, heavy man with gray hair pushed her head back under the surface.  Water splashed across the floor until the struggles stopped and the man straightened.  When he turned to leave the room, Jazzi got a good look at him.  An aged version of his son.  He walked past them, unseeing.

Jazzi’s body shook, and she reached to hold on to Ansel to steady herself.  He gripped her and put an elbow under her arm to lead her down the stairs and out of the house.  The backyard was alight with pumpkin lights strung from one tree to another.  He led her to the back corner to stand in the shadows.

“What did you see?”  He studied her face in concern.

She choked out the words.  “Her father-in-law drowned her.  I just watched him.”

His lips pressed together in an unhappy line.  “She wanted someone to know.”

“I feel so sorry for her.  She looked so happy with her husband.”

“This happened a long time ago?”

She nodded.  “No running water.  A pump in the kitchen and wash stand in the bathroom.”

“It had to be close to when the house was built.  Probably at the beginning of this neighborhood.”

She let out a long sigh and leaned against him.  “I’ve never experienced anything like this.  I hope I never do again.”

He gestured at the pumpkin lights.  “It’s Halloween.  The time the veil between the two worlds is supposed to thin.”

“It’s never thinned for me before.”  And she liked it that way.  They stood there a little longer, letting her heartbeat slow down and the cold leave her bones, but when they started to leave, she jerked to a halt and tightened her grip on Ansel’s hand.

She was standing in a cemetery, surrounded by gravestones.  A tall, impressive carved monolith rose in front of her with DORANTE carved into it.  Her gaze shifted to the seven granite stones in a row ahead of it.  Ogden (1822-1901).  His wife, Hilda (1826-1904).  His daughters, Martina (1854-1942) and Lenore (1856-1879).  Martina’s husband, Lawrence (1853-1940).  Ogden’s son, Pierce ( 1859-1894), and Pierce’s wife, Camille (1861-  ).  As she frowned at the empty date for Camille’s death, movement caught her eye.  Camille’s ghost rose out of the ground from Pierce’s grave and whispered, “Help me.”

Jazzi nodded.  Now she knew what Camille wanted.  Turning to Ansel, she said, “We have to dig up Camille’s body and bury it where it belongs.”

“Do we know where to find it?”

“Her father-in-law buried her in her husband’s plot.”

“Are we going to finish the tour?”  He didn’t look as enthused as he had before.

“Not this time.  I need to call Gaff.”  Her detective friend had worked with her long enough, he might believe the story she was about to tell him.

###

Gaff not only believed her, he helped her dig into the cold case.  They found old newspaper clippings about how a young, beautiful wife disappeared three days after her husband died of a high fever from diphtheria.  She left no note, no way to find her.  She simply left and never returned.  The father of her husband reported that she was never a stable or dependable person, and that it didn’t surprise him that she’d run away.  She came from a rich family that spoiled her, and that while she gave a substantial amount of money to his son to start his business, her only interests were giving large dinner parties and entertaining herself. 

When Jazzi read the aged article to Ansel, he grimaced.  “The dad wanted his son’s business and knew that if he got rid of the wife, he could do as he pleased.”

That’s what she thought, too, and when she went with Gaff to meet Martina’s granddaughter, she was sure of it.  The young woman had the same dark coloring as Pierce’s ghost.  The girl sadly shook her head when Gaff explained that they’d come to question her about her missing relative, Camille Dorante. 

“My grandmother could never understand why Camille ran away.  She often told me what a beautiful, kind woman Camille was, and how perfect of a wife she was for her brother.”

“But Ogden never liked her?” Jazzi asked.

She shook her head.  “She was everything he despised—graceful, loving, generous.  According to my grandmother, her father was a hard man.  Her mother was just as cold.  But her younger sister, Lenore, was an indomitable spirit full of life and laughter.”

“But she died young?”  If Jazzi remembered, she was only twenty-three.

“Polio.  Everyone swam in the river in the summer, and Grandma suspected she contracted it there.  But Lenore never believed in clinging to sorrow.  She believed in living life to the fullest and instilled that in her siblings.”  The girl leaned forward.  “By the way, I’m Jennifer.  And I’m curious.  Why are you asking about this now?  It happened before I was born.”

Jazzi took a deep breath, feeling uncomfortable.  “I had a weird thing happen when I went on a house tour and saw Camille’s ghost as we went through her home.”  She explained.

“Camille’s buried in Pierce’s grave?”  Jennifer thought about that.  “The ground would have still been freshly dug three days after his death.  It would have been easy for Ogden to bury her over his casket.”

Jazzi nodded.  “We’d like to dig up his plot to find her bones.  I think she wants people to know what happened to her and to have a proper burial.”

The girl nodded.  “If you find her, my family and I will pay for her funeral and we’ll be there when she’s finally laid to rest.”

Two weeks later, it came as no surprise when Camille’s bones were found where she’d shown Jazzi they’d be.  No grass grew on Pierce’s plot or the empty one next to his.  It was as though Ogden’s sin had blighted it. 

True to her word, Jennifer and her husband paid for a lovely casket and were there when Camille was lowered into the ground.  They all sucked in deep breaths when the minute Camille’s grave was filled, lush grass spread over it and her husband’s.

Jennifer blinked back tears.  “She’s free now.  So is he.  He must have stayed behind with her.”

Her husband cradled her shoulders just as Ansel cradled Jazzi’s.  Even Gaff looked caught off guard.  Finally, they all turned to leave the cemetery.  On the drive home, Ansel reached to pat her hand.  “You did a good thing, but I don’t want to meet any more ghosts on Halloween, not even nice ones.”

She took a shaky breath.  “Agreed.”

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.