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“How can the holiday season be both melancholy and joyful?” I address the question to my Redtick Coondog, Sweetie Pie Delaney, as she snoozes by a crackling fire. Pluto, my black cat, is curled beside her. Outside, the night is chill but not bitter. It’s winter in the Mississippi Delta and the weatherman has teased us with the possibility of the impossible—a white Christmas. I’ve already blanketed my three horses and given them hot bran mashes. It’s time for Christmas cheer and a visit from my favorite lawman, Coleman Peters.
“Fa, la, la, la, lah!” I sing at the top of my voice, because I have to stop when Coleman arrives. I don’t want to make his ears bleed with my caterwauling. I love to sing, but I have no talent for it.
“Fa, la, la, la, lah!”
Sweetie Pie begins a low, mournful howl. She does that whenever she hears a siren or me singing.
“Thanks for the commentary,” I tell her. Instead of singing, I decide to check the bottle of champagne I have in the freezer chilling. It’s a special occasion. I have a holiday gift for Coleman, a pre-Christmas present. One I think he’s going to like.
“Put a bow on it!”
The command comes from the parlor near the Christmas tree. I whirl around and there, standing at attention, is a life-size nutcracker doll. Brightly painted and filled with the magic of my favorite ballet, he awkwardly steps forward, his wooden jaw opening wide. I could put my whole head in his mouth.
“That’s rather ominous.” I know it’s Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House. Jitty was my great-great-great-grandmother Alice Delaney’s nanny. The two women, one black, one white, survived the Civil War together, bonded by friendship and love rather than the law of property. Jitty has remained behind at Dahlia House to be my guardian. And tormenter, would-be boss, conscience, mother confessor, and keeper of the family history.
The beautiful music of the ballet comes out of nowhere, and Jitty the Nutcracker begins to limber up until he/she is moving with the grace and ability of a member of the Russian ballet. I had no idea that Jitty could dance like this. Perhaps it is just a spell cast by the mantle of Christmas, a time of wonder and possibility spread across my homeland. Whatever is happening, Jitty dances like an angel. She whirls and leaps and flies to the wonderful music that captures the essence of Christmas. Jitty brings to life the mystical land of sugarplum fairies, dolls who are alive, and one handsome prince. I have nothing to do but enjoy the show.
In the background is the beautiful cedar tree I cut out of a fence row and dragged back to the house by myself. It’s thirteen feet tall, at least—full and fragrant. Tonight, Coleman and I will decorate it.
Jitty does one more flying leap and lands in a perfect bow.
“Brava! Brava!” I clap loudly and whistle when she is done. Sweetie Pie lifts her head and gives a big yawn. Millie’s fine chicken potpie from the café has put her in a food coma. She is also no big fan of culture. If she’s going to applaud dancing, the Boot Scootin’ Boogey is more her kind of performance.
Pluto the cat stretches and rubs against my legs. It’s a ploy for more catnip. I give it to him in a clever little elf cat-toy, even though he’s done nothing to get such a reward. After all, it’s the season for giving.
Jitty returns to the parlor, morphing back into the beautiful woman I’ve grown to love. She is still sporting the ridiculous fake beard. She puts her hands on her hips and looks me up and down. “Looks like you’ve been snackin’ on the Sugar Plum Fairy. Girl, those hips could be deadly weapons. Pa-boom!” She cocks a hip at the dining room door and slams it with force.
Riding me hard is Jitty’s favorite sport. “Not even Coker would kiss you sporting that pathetic clump of white hair on your face.” I snatch for it, but she steps back. Jitty is quick.
“You leave my dead husband outta these debates. Coker and I had some mighty fine Christmases before the war took him.” She grows suddenly melancholy.
“I’m sorry, Jitty. I miss my family, too. It feels like I’ve been on my own forever.” In fact, I’ve been an orphan for a long time. My parents died in a car accident when I was twelve. My Aunt Loulane moved into Dahlia House and raised me until I went to college and then to New York City to try my hand at being a Broadway actress. That didn’t work out so well and I came home with my tail between my legs.
“The holidays can bring on a mean case of the blues, and not the good musical kind.” Jitty pulled the fake beard away from her face. “Lord, Sarah Booth, I hear in the Great Beyond that a white Christmas isn’t out of the question for Sunflower County.”
That news perked me right up. “The weatherman says the same. Snow! That would be awesome!”
“No promises, but it’s definitely a topic of conversation up there.”
“You know what I’d like for Christmas?” She knows what I’m going to say. A message from my mother or father, some sign that they’re still around me.
“I’ll do what I can, but no promises. There are rules, you know, and they’re there for a reason.”
“Five minutes. I won’t ask for more.” Sometimes Jitty can make that happen. Not often, but each minute is precious.
“Now what you got for that big lawman to chow down on? He’s gonna be hungry when he arrives, and not just for lovin’. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. An old saw, but true nonetheless.”
“If you start quoting ancient axioms like Aunt Loulane, I’m going to run away from home.”
Jitty gives me a dour look. “You’d better come up with a more credible threat than that. Now finish puttin’ up that mistletoe. There’s a car comin’ down the drive.”
She was gone in a puff of cedar-scented smoke just as I heard Coleman’s tread on the front porch.
* * *
“The door’s open,” I called, starting back up the ladder to hang more garland over the parlor arch. The door opened and I turned to give my winter date a smile, only it wasn’t Coleman. Madame Tomeeka, aka Tammy Odom, plowed into the foyer and stopped. Tammy is a friend from high school who also happens to be psychic. Judging from the frown on her face, she had bad news.
“What’s going on?” I climbed down. “Want some coffee?” Tammy doesn’t often drink alcohol, but she is always good for caffeine.
“Yes. I need something to give me a boost.”
I motioned for her to follow me into the kitchen, where I put the coffeepot on to brew.
Instead of sitting down, she paced the kitchen. “I fell asleep this afternoon watching a TV show.” I’d left some Christmas-themed dish towels on a chair and Tammy folded them in a neat stack. “I had a dream.”
“What kind of dream?” I busied myself at the sink. This was not good. Tammy’s dreams were often prophetic. “What did you see?”
“I hate coming here, spoiling your holiday with dire warnings.”
“You aren’t responsible for what you see, but it’s better for me to know.” She had me really worried, but I downplayed my anxiety. “What was the dream?”
“Sarah Booth, something big and wonderful is coming, but at great cost.”
I put a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. “Cost to me?”
“I can’t be certain,” she said. “You or someone you love.”
“Tell me the dream.”
Tammy eased into a chair, sipped the coffee, and sighed. “You were riding that big gray horse across the cotton fields. It was winter, the fields were bare, and you were flying. You had the biggest grin on your face, and I thought how much you looked like that tomboyish young girl I first met in grammar school. Hell-for-leather. That was how you did everything.”
“The horses aren’t going to be hurt?” It was my first reaction and worry.
“Oh, no. Not the horses.”
She shook her head. “The dream changed, and you were riding your horse into an empty town. The stores were all locked up. At the end of the street was a crèche, and you rode down there. It was so real. There were sheep and donkeys and three wise men with their camels. But the manger was empty. The little baby Jesus was gone!”
She was about to cry. I put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay.”
“You don’t understand. Everyone was searching for the little baby, and no one could find him. The wise men were frantic. Sarah Booth, I’m worried sick that something dark is going to happen this Christmas.”
“Now, Tammy, don’t get yourself all worked up over—”
The front door flew open with a huge bang. I darted out of the kitchen. If that was Coleman coming in, he was in a dither. But it wasn’t the lawman standing in my foyer. Cece Dee Falcon, Zinnia, Mississippi’s finest journalist and my friend, stood in the open door, her face drained of all color.
“Cece, what’s wrong?” She looked perfectly undone.
“You have to help me, and you can’t tell anyone.” She thrust a gift-wrapped, padded envelope into my hand. “This came for me today.”
I dumped the contents into my palm. A photograph of a pretty, pregnant woman looked up at me. A lock of dark hair tied with a ribbon fell onto the floor. And there was a note.
I unfolded the paper and stared at the typewritten words.
We have your cousin Eve. She is due to give birth Christmas Eve. We’ll exchange her, unharmed, for $130,000. Do not tell the law or she will die.
I read the note twice before I remembered Tammy in the kitchen. “Uh, Tammy is here, and don’t you think $130,000 is a very specific amount to ask for a ransom?”
“I knew something bad was going to happen.” Tammy stood in the doorway. She’d heard it all—and there was no taking it back. “That baby is gonna be born, and the mama is missing.”
“Hold on!” I held up a hand. They were both about to verge on hysteria. “This could be a setup.” The note didn’t have the feel of a real ransom demand. It was just … off somehow.
“Coleman is on his way—” I started.
“No!” Cece snatched everything from my hand and stuffed it back into the padded envelope. “No! I can’t involve Coleman.”
Tammy gave Cece a long, considered look. “Who is this Eve girl?” she asked.
“My cousin. It’s Carla and Will Falcon’s only child. When she was growing up, we were close, but I haven’t seen or heard from her in … a while.”
“So why are they contacting you for ransom money? Where’s her mama and daddy?”
Cece’s eyes filled with tears. “When I transitioned, Carla and Will thought I was Satan. They broke off all contact with me. And a few years ago, I heard that they turned Eve out in the street because she did something that disappointed them. I tried to find her and get her to move in with me. She couldn’t have been over sixteen. But she was gone, and I never got a lead on her. I figured she’d changed her name and was living with some friends.”
“So you didn’t know she was pregnant?” I asked.
“I don’t know anything about Eve anymore.”
“Then why would the kidnappers contact you?”
“Some folks think I inherited the Falcon land and fortune, but you guys know better. I walked away with nothing.”
I remembered the fight over the property. Cece had wanted to be herself more than she’d ever wanted money or land—even though she should have been entitled to it. She’d fought so hard to be Cece instead of Cecil, and the very people who should have cherished and helped her—her family—were the people who fought hardest against her dream.
“This girl sounds like trouble.” I hated to say it, but this kid ran away when Cece was going through hard times and could have used a loving family connection. Now Eve suddenly needed to be ransomed. I didn’t want my tenderhearted friend to be used.
“If you knew Will and Carla, you’d have more compassion.” Cece studied the picture of her cousin. “She’s about to pop. It says she’s due Christmas Eve.”
“If the picture is even real.” I sounded like such a bitter cynic.
“It’s real, and that is Eve. I remember one Christmas when she was six, I got her a bicycle.” Cece’s face hardened. “Carla poured gasoline on it and set it on fire in the front yard. She said Christmas wasn’t a time for gifts. To commercialize the Lord’s birthday was just asking Satan to grab hold of Eve. The child stood on the porch until the bike was just a smoking heap. She never cried. When the fire was out she took the bicycle into the woods and buried it all by herself.”
That memory was a perversion of Christmas. And what a terrible thing to do to a child. “You should have smacked that stupid woman in the kisser.”
Cece’s smile was tired. “It would only have made it harder on Eve. I bought another bicycle and kept it at my house for her. When she came over, I taught her to ride.”
“Some people don’t need to have children,” Tammy said. “Some people should be sterilized.”
Tammy was indeed in a dark mood. The whole missing-baby thing was preying on her mind. Tammy’s dreams, while frightening for me, were more terrifying to her, because she knew the power of the images that came to her. She was still living in the moment of panic from the missing baby in the crèche, and now she was confronted with a real live missing mother and child.
“I have to help Eve,” Cece said. “Whatever she’s done, I have to help her.”
“And we’ll help. I have some savings.” It was a paltry amount, but I would give it.
“Me, too.” Tammy put an arm around Cece’s shoulders.
“Scott and Jaytee said they’d send a bank draft. They’re in Scotland doing that tour. I told Jaytee not to come home. There’s nothing he can do.”
“I’m sure Tinkie and Oscar will contribute.” My partner in the Delaney Detective Agency and her husband would kick in. Tinkie and Oscar Richmond were loaded—and they were generous to their friends. “And Harold, too.” Harold Erkwell worked at the Zinnia National Bank that Tinkie’s family owned and Oscar ran.
“Why $130,000?” Tammy asked. “That is just a strange sum.”
“Very specific,” I said.
“Who knows why? Maybe Eve owes that much money to someone. Or maybe the person who abducted her has a specific financial need. All I know is I’ll have that money by the time they call with the deadline. I’ll give it without a second thought to make sure Eve is safe.”
“Coleman is on the way here, and we really should bring him in.” I said it softly.
“Absolutely not!” Cece was adamant. “We can do this without the law. The kidnappers will send more instructions for how to drop the money, and I’ll get Eve back, then we can call in the law hounds.”
Pushing Cece at this particular time would not be smart. To be honest, I didn’t know what I would do in such a situation. If she brought in the law and something happened to Eve, she would never forgive herself. If she didn’t … we simply had to get the young pregnant woman back without injury.
“Cece, why would anyone think you would pay that amount for Eve?” This was the key to figuring out who’d taken her.
“I don’t know. Only Eve would be aware how much I’d do to save her. She knew I loved her like she was my own.”
And yet she’d left town without an attempt to stay in touch with Cece. “We can assume that Eve told the kidnapper to contact you, because she believed you could—and would—help her.”
Cece nodded. “What hell it must be that she knows she can’t contact her parents for the ransom. She knows they won’t help her. How must that feel?”
Not very good. But Eve’s parental rejection wasn’t my biggest concern. Getting her and her unborn baby to a safe place for delivery and care was at the top of my priority list. “Cece, forget all of that. We have to make sure the money is raised and try to figure out who took your cousin.”
“That’s right. And I’m not much help. I haven’t been in touch with Eve for several years. Her parents said I was a deviant and a freak and that God would punish anyone who associated with me. They told me to stay away from her, and I did. I shouldn’t have listened to them.”
I glanced at Madame Tomeeka and read the same reaction on her face. There was a very good chance we might beat the eternal snot out of Will and Carla Falcon when we ran across them. Cece was one of the finest people I’d ever met. She’d suffered through high school and college, forced into a gender that didn’t fit her. And she’d saved her own money and taken action to change from Cecil to Cece. No living person had a right to judge her for that choice.
“Do you know where Eve lives?” It was a start.
“No, she left the area after her folks put her out. I never knew what the disagreement was about, and by the time I learned what Will and Carla had done, Eve was long gone. She was only sixteen. I hunted for her, but I never found her. I guess she changed her name and started a new life. Now she’s pregnant.”
“That was how long ago?” Tammy asked.
“About four years.” Cece paced the room. “I hate to dump this on you at Christmas, Sarah Booth, but can you help me?”
My friends would show up to help me even if hell was freezing over. “You know it. Tinkie and Oscar are in Memphis at a party. I’ll get her on the case first thing tomorrow.”
“And you won’t tell Coleman?”
“I won’t.” My gut clenched because I knew the high consequences I might pay. I’d hidden things from Coleman in the past, and we’d vowed not to do that anymore. But Cece was my friend. She was asking me to do something that she felt was necessary. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. “When this is over and Eve is safely back, Coleman will understand why I made this choice.” I said it with certainty, but it was more prayer than fact.
Footsteps coming across the porch told me the lawman had arrived for our rendezvous. He swept into the foyer on a wave of cold air and the smell of cut pine and wood smoke. I ran into his arms. “You smell like a camp out.” I burrowed close and inhaled. Coleman’s scent always contained a sliver of my childhood.
“Group of teenagers decided to start a bonfire at the Olson farm. Without permission.” He took off his hat and shucked out of his heavy jacket. “Tammy, Cece, happy holidays. It’s good to see you.”
“We were just leaving,” Tammy said. She was a worse liar than Cece, who was pretty awful. If Coleman asked what they were up to, they’d be hard-pressed not to tell the truth.
“See you at Harold’s dinner,” Cece said as she and Tammy rushed out the front door and closed it behind them.
“What are they up to?” Coleman eyed me. He knew suspicious behavior when he saw it.
“Oh, Cece has some bee up her bonnet and she’s got Tammy involved. Every holiday those two have to stir something up.”
Coleman went to the bar in the parlor and poured us both a Jack Daniel’s on ice. “Jaytee is out of town, so Cece is at sixes and sevens.”
“Yes.” I’d learned not to add more detail when fibbing. Just to roll with the minimal lie.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
And when confronted with a chance to tell the truth, to jump on it. “No.”
He pointed at the mistletoe I’d hung over the doorway arch. “Is that for me or some other man you’re expecting?”
“Not telling that either.” I slowly began to back away, but Coleman was quicker, and the truth was, I wanted to be caught. I melted into the heat of his kiss.
“Happy holidays,” I said when he finally released me, breathless.
“I thought we were going to finish decorating the tree tonight.” He looked at the big cedar he’d put in the stand. We had the strings of multicolored lights installed. Now it was time for the three hundred or so ornaments that were the Delaney family treasures. They’d hung on every Christmas tree since Dahlia House was built, the current generation adding more and more ornaments. I thought briefly of Aunt Loulane and how she’d insisted on following the traditions my parents had set—even when I’d tried to stop her. At the time I hadn’t realized what a kindness she was doing me. She kept up the chain of simple holiday traditions that connected me to my past. I owed her far more than I could ever say.
“Sarah Booth, are you okay?” Coleman brushed the hair from my face. “You look pensive.”
“I’m very happy, Coleman. I just miss the things I lost so young.”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Let’s finish the tree.” He took my hand and led me into the parlor. In a few moments, he had me laughing as we hung the ornaments, each with a story. When we were finished, he pulled me against him. “Let’s go to bed.”
It was the promise of a night of sweet intimacy. “I second that motion.”
I locked the front door, using the chain I’d installed after Tinkie’s unexpected entrance had left both Coleman and me in an exposed and embarrassing situation. I needed no urging as I followed him to my bed and into his arms.
* * *
The next morning, I woke before Coleman and dream-walked to the kitchen, remembering some of the highlights of the previous evening. Coleman was a take-charge man, and he knew his business. When I’d first moved back to Zinnia, I’d almost climbed in the sack with him. He’d been married then, and thank goodness we’d sidestepped that situation. I’d learned that for Coleman, honor was imperative. He would never have forgiven himself, or me, if he’d broken his marriage vows to the wackadoodle Connie. His ex-wife had even faked a pregnancy in order to keep him. By the time Coleman had learned the truth about her, it was too late for us. My wounded heart had festered, and it took a lot of time to heal. Now I was ready.
Sweetie Pie came down the stairs behind me and plopped under the kitchen table. “Aunt Loulane always said that things happen when the time is right,” I said to the dog, who gave a low, garbled little howl, and settled into a heap. She was snoring before her head touched the floor.
I put coffee on to perk and bacon to fry and then called my partner. Tinkie was an early riser, and she answered on the second ring. “We have a case. It involves Cece.” I looked furtively around the kitchen as the bacon sizzled. “And we can’t tell Coleman.”
“I knew it. I just knew it.” Tinkie was working up a head of steam. “I knew you couldn’t keep your word about being honest with Coleman. You know this will blow up your relationship.”
“Wait a minute—”
“No, you listen to me. Whatever secret you’re keeping, you’d better tell him. I mean it.”
“Come over. And keep your lips zipped if he’s here.” I hung up and sat down at the table. Tinkie sucked the energy out of me when she got in one of her moods.
No matter that I was annoyed, the smell of the frying bacon teased my appetite and I got out eggs and grits and bread for toasting. Nothing like a big breakfast on a cold December morning. Biscuits would be better than toast, but for some reason, whenever I stirred up a batch of cathead biscuits, they turned into hockey pucks. Safer to make toast.
The kitchen door swung open and Coleman, hair tousled, sat down at the table. “Something smells good.”
I passed by him and paused long enough to kiss his cheek. “Breakfast fit for a king.”
“You’re in a good mood.”
“How could I not be?” I felt a tiny flush as I remembered the past evening.
“I have to escort a prisoner to the Hinds County court today. I’ll be gone until about four.”
“Harold’s party,” I reminded him.
“Wouldn’t dream of missing it. What’s your plan for today?”
“Oh, not much. I’m sure I’ll get into something with Tinkie.” I forced a smile. The doorbell rang and I was, literally, saved by the bell. “That’s probably Tinkie at the front door. I left the chain on this morning.” I rushed out of the kitchen to let her in.
Tinkie stood on the porch in a gorgeous russet duster-type coat. She wore tall boots, tight jeans, and a beautiful forest green sweater. She looked like the colors of fall walking through my front door.
“Glad to see you learned to use a door lock.” She breezed past me and went to the kitchen, where Coleman was stirring scrambled eggs on the stove. “Yum. I’m glad to see Sarah Booth finally got some competent kitchen help.” She looked him up and down. “And help in other departments, too. She looks like you worked out a few of her kinks.”
“Tinkie!” I exchanged a look with Coleman as the blood rushed to my cheeks.
“Oh, don’t play innocent.” She laughed. “You two have been lusting after each other for weeks. You know the old saying. ‘If you got an itch, you just need to scratch it.’”
“There is no such saying.” I had to get in front of this train wreck of a conversation. “What’s Oscar getting you for Christmas?”
“He won’t say. What’s Coleman getting you?”
“I don’t know.” I was dying to find out, though. I loved presents. It was just the idea of a surprise that someone else picked out for me. My family had never been much for huge expensive gestures. We focused on intimate gifts with meaning.
“I hope it’s more of what he gave you last night. You look more relaxed than I’ve seen you in days. But how in the world is he going to put a bow on that?”
Coleman had toasted some bread and he quickly made a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and filled a go cup with coffee. “I’m out of here. You women are too bawdy for a man of the law. I don’t want to have to arrest Tinkie for lewd and lascivious behavior.”
“Oh, you’d love that.” Tinkie held out her hands. “Sarah Booth tells you her fantasies of handcuffs, doesn’t she?”
“Tinkie!” I was going to gag her on the spot. “Give it a rest.”
“Did you say arrest?” She almost cackled.
“I’ll call later.” Coleman took his coffee and his sandwich and beat a hasty retreat.
“You practically drove the poor man out into the cold morning without breakfast,” I told her.
“Don’t act so innocent. At least I’m not deceiving him like you are.”
And she had me there. “Cece won’t let me tell him and it involves her relative.” I gave her the details of Eve’s abduction. “Cece is afraid that if I tell Coleman, the kidnapper will know she brought in the law. She’s afraid Eve will be hurt.”
Tinkie’s foolishness had evaporated. “This is serious,” she said. “Cece has put you in a bad spot.”
“And one I’ll honor. She’s my friend and has been for many years.”
“And Coleman is your lover and the sheriff.” Tinkie didn’t mince any words.
“And he would do exactly what I’m doing—honor his word to his friend.” That was one thing I knew about Coleman.
“Okay, so then what are we going to do?” Tinkie asked. “After we eat this sumptuous breakfast.” She got a plate and began to help herself.
I followed suit and then we both sat at the table and ate. “We have to pay a visit to Carla and Will Falcon, Eve’s parents. And then we’ll find out where she lives, where she’s working, and backtrack from there. We have to find out who knew enough about her to believe Cece would pay a ransom for her.”
Copyright © 2018 by Carolyn Haines