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.
(a Thanksgiving story from Lux)
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.”
“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.
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.
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
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.”
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)
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.