Mystery Author: Strong Women, Great Stories

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I write three series: The Loser Mysteries, The Dead Detective Mysteries & the Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) Mysteries as well as stand-alones that offer readers "Strong Women, Great Stories."
These days I also answer to Maggie Pill, who writes a cozy sleuth series. Maggie is a lot like Peg, just younger, cooler, and funnier.

Friday, December 4, 2015

30 Days of Christmas Day 10: A Holiday Short Story

My gift to you today is a short story published a few years ago in a Christmas anthology. If you like your stories warm and fuzzy, this one isn't for you, but if you like a little twist--have at it!



Happy Holidays Times Three

by Peg Herring


Cass greeted the men who joined him at the back of the almost-empty Starbucks, raising a beefy hand to each but not raising his equally beefy frame from the seat. Despite the December bluster outside, Cass sipped a Coke he’d brought along with him. The kid set down something frothy and steaming; the African’s drink was straight-up coffee, large and deep black, like the man himself.
Introductions were brief: “Zar, Mel. Mel, Zar.” Cass revealed only enough information to prove suitability for the proposed enterprise. None of them wanted to know more than that. Mel, a twitchy, nervous kid with a sinus problem that signaled deeper concerns, was an excellent driver. He worked at a used car lot, was desperate for cash, and wasn’t picky about how he got it. Mel fit nicely into Cass’ plan.
A citizen of Kenya who’d let his green card lapse, Zar suffered from dashed delusions of grandeur. Life in America had brought no Cadillac, no easy lifestyle. Zar wanted to go home to Nairobi but preferred to return in style. Deportation was unacceptable, so he needed cash. What mattered to Cass was two things: Zar had worked as a security-systems installer until his recent firing, and he was more afraid of the INS than the Chicago police.
Cass got down to business. “We’re going to pick up some items that can be broken up for resale. A certain person helped me learn the owners’ holiday plans, so we know the three prospects will be each away from home on a specific date in December.”
Both men watched Cass carefully, Zar frowning as if to catch every nuance of the message, Mel eagerly, waiting for the payoff. “So which one do we hit?’
“All of them.”
“What?” Mel spoke; Zar merely frowned, waiting for further explanation.
“Over six days we pull off three jobs where there’s an empty house, a good score, and a reasonable time before the thefts are discovered. Each homeowner will be away for the holiday he celebrates.”
“Let’s hear what you’ve got.” Although Mel was the vocal one, Zar’s face revealed his willingness to hear more. They were in.
Cass told them some of it. His girlfriend Marilyn, who worked in a certain jewelry store, was great at chatting up the customers, making apparently idle conversation while she discovered whose homes would be empty when. It was Cass’ job to figure out how to get in, how to get out, and how to get away.
***
When Levi Goetz brought in a brooch with a loose stone, Marilyn had asked if his wife liked antique jewelry.
“No wife,” Levi answered. “Just a daughter who says this piece is ugly. She’ll sell it when I die, along with everything else.” He turned to go. “I leave for two weeks in Florida tomorrow, but you can deliver it to my house any day but the 21st. No staff. It’s the first day of Hanukkah.”
***
“So we steal the pin on the twenty-first?” Cass was learning that Mel had no class. He was like a puppy you wanted to smack but shouldn’t. The guy couldn’t help it.
“Yes. Get us a forgettable car for the night.”
“I’ll switch the plates too. If anyone remembers the number, the cops will think they got it wrong.”
“Great.”
“The security system is my job.” Zar’s confidence pleased Cass no end, but he frowned when Zar added, “Mel and I have talked, and we believe the three of us should stay together for the six days.” He smiled thinly. “It will keep us all honest.”
Cass knew he was the concern, since he planned to hold the stolen goods until all three jobs were finished. His companions were afraid he’d use their skills and leave them out of the pay-off. He shrugged. “Fine. We can stay at my place. Now are we ready for Mr. Goetz? It should be an easy score.”
And it was. Mel stood watch from down the street in case someone took an interest in the two men entering Goetz’ house. Zar handled the antiquated alarm efficiently, and they entered the musty old house, bypassing a beautiful old Menorah too big to cart away.
Cass took apart the ancient safe in no time at all, spilling the brooch from its velvet pouch into his hand with a gleeful grin. “Step one, complete!”
But it wasn’t quite that easy. They left the house, separating and circling around to the next block as tiny, stinging flakes of snow hit their faces. Zar carried a gym bag slung over his shoulder like a guy headed to his athletic club for a workout. Inside it were their burglars’ tools and the jewel-studded brooch.
As they reached the car, Zar’s restless eyes revealed his nervousness. Mel was a wreck, but he was also ecstatic. “Did you get it? Can I see it?”
“Calm down,” Cass ordered, smiling at the kid’s enthusiasm. “Let’s get out of here in case some little old lady is looking out the window instead of lighting her Hanukkah candles.”
Mel hit the remote as Zar moved to the passenger side. They all froze at the same moment. Across the back seat lay a body, a woman who might have been sleeping except for the large knife sticking out of her chest.
“What the--?”
“Shut up,” Cass ordered. “Get in the car.”
“But she’s--”
“Shut up. We’ve got to move fast.”
Mel finally got it. They were holding a stolen brooch. There was a dead woman in their car. They needed to deal with this disaster somewhere other than here. Gulping back their reluctance, the men opened the doors and got in. Mel drove, Zar sat in the front. Cass clambered into the back, actually sitting on the corpse’s feet. In seconds they were safely away.
An hour later they dumped the body under the El tracks in a spot people avoided, at least the kind of people who might actually report a dead body. Cass did the heavy work while the other two stood lookout. As he came back to the car Mel asked, “Who do you think she is?”
“No idea.”
“Who put her in our car?”
“Couldn’t say.”
“How did they get her in it? I know I locked it.”
Finally Cass growled, “Kid, I don’t know. Zar doesn’t know. We got handed a load of crap, and we got rid of it. Let’s concentrate on the next job.”
“We’re gonna go on?”
“Why not? This had nothing to do with us. Somebody needed to get rid of a body, and for some reason they chose our car.”
Mel looked doubtful, but Zar added, “I for one do not want to give up future money because of an unlucky circumstance.”
As December 25 arrived, bringing the pretty, fluffy snow every Christmas should have, the three approached the house where Michael J. Smith would be found had he been at home. Every home on the block was decorated for Christmas, some minimally and some with the manic conspicuous consumption only Americans achieve.
***
When Smith had brought in a stunning diamond necklace for insurance evaluation Marilyn asked, “A gift for your wife?”
The man’s grin was rueful. “A peace offering due to a small indiscretion.” The way he regarded the attractive Marilyn’s chest hinted Mr. Smith had not yet learned his lesson. “We’re going to ski Vail and come back home late Christmas day. I want my wife to find the box under the tree. She’ll be totally surprised.”
***
And so would he, Cass thought with a chuckle. Anyone so dumb as to leave a prize like that out in the open deserved to get it stolen. Especially after bragging about it to a clerk whose boyfriend happened to be a jewel thief.
Smith had no live-in servants, so the house was empty. The problem was that the guy’s alarm was pretty good. Cass was glad for Zar’s expertise, because he couldn’t have handled this particular system. Ironically, there was a damn good safe in the house, but Smith’s Christmas spirit had overcome his common sense.
Cass approached the massive fir on hands and knees lest some passer-by notice movement. The tree was decorated in peach and white, which irritated him. “Christmas colors are red and green,” he told Zar. “People should stick with that.”
Outside the two performed their dance of separation and reunion again, reaching another “borrowed” car several blocks away as Mel crossed the street to join them.
When they reached the vehicle Mel gasped, Zar groaned, and Cass muttered, “I don’t believe it.”
This time there was no knife, but the white face and the chest wound confirmed death. And to make things worse-- “It’s the same girl.”
It was the body they’d disposed of four days ago. Cass reached out and touched the ankle that extended toward him. “She’s really cold.”
“No surprise. It’s freezing out here.”
“Someone brought her back to us.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do we do now?”
Cass seemed to shake off his confusion. “We go. We get rid of the body again. Then we figure this out.”
This time they drove into Wisconsin, watching carefully to assure that no one followed. Finding an unattended rest area, they pulled in. Cass carried the body, wrapped in an old blanket they’d found in the trunk, far into the surrounding woods. Mel and Zar hollowed out a place in the deep snow, and he laid the dead woman face down in it. They kicked snow over her until she was no longer visible. “Good till spring, probably,” Cass said by way of graveside service.
It was noon on Christmas Day before they returned to town. “Good thing the dealership’s closed,” Mel muttered. They dropped off the car, walked to where Cass’ Pontiac sat, and got in. Zar took the necklace out of the box and laid it across his lap, a visible reward for an unsettling night’s work.
“So do we quit now?” Mel sounded hopeful.
“I vote no.”
“But somebody’s out to get us.”
“Well, they didn’t. And now that we know, we’ll be more careful.”
“They know where we’re going to be. They get into the car. They found where we put the body.”
“So they followed us. They have some way of unlocking the car.”
Mel frowned. “Maybe the tennis ball thing.”
“What?”
“You drill a hole in a tennis ball then push it up against the lock. The air pressure opens the door.”
“Whatever.” Cass was impatient. “We’ll be sure they don’t succeed again.”
“So we do the third job?”
“Yes.” Cass’ gaze moved to Zar, who straightened as if throwing a weight off the back of his neck.
“I agree. But we keep careful watch every step of the way.”
“But it goes down tomorrow, and we haven’t slept. Ain’t you tired?”
Cass grinned with a glint of his old confidence. “When we’re rich we can sleep all we want.”
December twenty-sixth dawned cold and clear. Mel was almost manic. “I should stay by the van. Maybe they won’t--”
“We hid her good, and we need you inside to help find the safe. Now relax.”
Mel started their latest “loaner” and accelerated smoothly onto the road. They were dressed as repairmen, and their van had a magnetic logo strip that read “Werman Plumbing.” Each man had a toolbox and a hat with the same logo. They’d practiced the businesslike, head-down walk of repairmen on the job. Cass even had a clipboard with a phony repair order. If anyone asked, they were ready.
Martin Chisolm, prominent African-American attorney with an eye to future political office, had recently purchased a jeweled Nemji doll. Unlike most Nemjis, this one sported real gems that were worth plenty. Chisolm had brought it to the shop where Marilyn worked in order to have it mounted on a base. He planned to present it to the African-American Center during Kwanzaa, undoubtedly to generate a photo op and lots of good press for himself.
***
“I’m not sure I understand Kwanzaa.” Marilyn had batted her eyes at Chisolm.
There followed a lengthy description of its origins, observances, and benefits for the community. In the process Marilyn learned that Chisolm and his family would host the festivities at Fosco Park on the first day of Kwanzaa. Presentation of the doll was slated for the third day of Kwanzaa, December twenty-eighth.
“If you leave the box behind,” Marilyn told Cass later, “he won’t realize it’s gone for a day, maybe two.”
***
Puffing cloudy breaths into the frigid air, the men made a show of ringing Chisolm’s doorbell and waiting. Zar walked around the house as if looking for signs of life. An expert maneuver disabled the alarm, and he returned to the front with an exaggerated shrug to indicate frustration. Zar pretended to ring the bell again, and Mel blocked the view while he popped the lock. The door swung open, and they pretended to speak with someone inside the house. Cass indicated the truck, showed his clip board, and nodded several times. Finally they went inside and closed the door.
On a table in the foyer, Kwanzaa gifts lay scattered around a centerpiece: the fruit, grain, and cup laid out on a mat along with seven candles. Under it all lay a brightly-colored cloth of black, red, and green. Cass had hoped the doll would be on display, but it wasn’t.
They’d been unable to ascertain ahead of time where the safe was located. Plumbing repairs, however, are notoriously time-intensive. They split up, spent half an hour searching likely places, and were finally rewarded when Mel called, “It’s in here.”
Cass went to work. “Not the worst I’ve tackled,” he muttered, kneeling over the spot in the floor where the safe was situated. “Maybe a half hour.”
It was more like forty-five minutes, but the doll was worth it. Its leather coat was studded with rubies, its eyes were diamonds, and what looked like gold wire wrapped its arms, legs, neck, and middle.
They put the doll in a toolbox, cleaned the place of anything that might identify them, and left. The van sat at the curb, and, recalling earlier experiences, they approached with caution. Mel peered into the front seat and sighed with relief that was, sadly, premature. When they opened the back to stow their new-found wealth, there was the body, now slack, smelly, and much the worse for wear. Mel retched, and Zar’s dark face turned slightly gray at the sight.
“Damn,” Cass whispered hoarsely.
The smell from the van was disturbing, but something caught Zar’s attention. “There’s a note.”
Cass leaned in, gingerly took the single sheet of paper from off the corpse’s chest then shut the van doors to hide their macabre cargo. Four words gave a single, unequivocal command. “Give it all back.”
“Who are these guys? What do they want?”
“They want us to give back what we have taken.” Zar sounded resigned.
“But why? How?”
Mel’s questions were really starting to wear on Cass. “I don’t know.”
Zar looked around nervously. “Someone knows where we’ll be and what we’re doing. They know where we dumped the body. Twice. They know a lot about us.”
“But wh--”
“We don’t know, kid. Get it? We don’t know!”
“It’s your contact at the jewelry store. You said she knows about the jobs.”
“It ain’t Marilyn.”
“It has to be. Maybe you don’t know her as well as you think.”
“That’s her.” Cass’ voice was almost a whisper.
“What?”
“It’s her in there. I didn’t want to scare you. I needed the money, but now...”
There was a shocked silence. Mel’s eyes kept sweeping the area. “I say we do it.”
“Do what?”
“Give the stuff back.”
“No!” Realizing their argument was public, Cass forced himself to control his reaction. “No. We got the stuff. It’s ours now.”
Zar looked from one to the other, thinking it over. “I agree with Mel. It is not worth the risk. If they killed your woman, they will kill us, too.”
“But it doesn’t make sense.”
“No, it does not, but they could call the cops even if they do not kill us. Who is to say we did not stab your woman?”
“So we go back to return the stuff and the cops are there waiting for us?”
A pause, then Cass said, “I suppose we could mail it.”
“Mail it?”
“Yeah, make up three parcels, drop them at a post office, and get clear.” His jaw went tight. “But no. There has to be a way to keep what we’ve got.”
Neither Mel nor Zar wanted any part of going further with their scheme. “It’s pretty clear somebody’s serious about making us give the stuff back,” Mel argued, and Zar nodded, his eyes darker than usual.
Cass offered to take the responsibility, fence the goods, and deliver their cuts to them, but they refused. He couldn’t tell if it was due to the corpse in the van or general mistrust, but they were adamant. In the end Zar returned to the post office idea. Mel agreed, effectively out-voting Cass, and they made a plan. Cass went along, still muttering about diamonds and living on the Mexican Riviera.
“It is over, Cass,” Zar said firmly. “This is something we did not foresee. We must make the best of it while we can.”
The redemption Mel and Zar demanded began with stopping at a dollar store where they picked up supplies. Wearing surgical gloves, Zar rolled the items in bubble-wrap and placed them in three generic mailers, the brooch in one, the necklace in another, and the doll in a third. He closed them securely with brown mailing tape. Visiting the public library, they printed off a mailing label for each of their three victims. Still wearing gloves, Zar taped the labels on the front of each package.
Once the parcels were ready, they stopped at a Goodwill store to buy three different baseball caps and three non-descript hooded sweatshirts. At three different post offices Cass mailed a package, wearing his makeshift disguises. Zar and Mel didn’t follow him inside, but they watched through the glass to be sure he did as they’d agreed. No one else paid him any attention at all.
“It should be okay,” Cass said when they’d finished. “How hard are the cops gonna look for thieves who returned what they took anyway?”
“What about Marilyn?”
Cass stared at the rear section of the van with obvious repugnance. “Head for my place, and make sure we aren’t followed.”
Mel was good. He ducked and dived through traffic without breaking a law or drawing notice. They were as sure as they could be when they arrived at Cass’ building that no one was behind them. “If they know what we’re doing, they know where you live,” Zar said.
“I thought of that. We won’t be here for long.” Cass’ apartment was on the ground floor, accessed almost directly from the parking lot. His beat-up Grand Am sat in front of 3A, and Mel parked the van next to it. Leading the way to a row of storage units for the apartment dwellers, Cass opened one with a small silver key. “We’re gonna need a few things from here.”
He ducked inside the crowded space and came out with an old sleeping bag. “I’ll put Marilyn in this. You guys find some rope and the spud that’s here somewhere.”
“What’s a spud?”
Cass rolled his eyes and sighed. “The handle looks like a shovel but the blade is a lot smaller. It chops through ice.”
When Mel and Zar arrived with the two requested items, Cass was just zipping the sleeping bag closed. Mel seemed relieved the corpse was no longer visible. “We’ll drop her into a lake with some weight attached,” Cass announced. “I’d like to see somebody bring her back from that.” As he wiped his hands on the outside of the bag, the others looked away. He was one cold customer.
Mel removed the insignia so the former plumber’s conveyance was simply an unremarkable green van. Well past midnight, they started off toward a lake Cass said was fairly deserted this time of year. “I ice fish, so I know all the good spots.”
Still watchful for tailing vehicles, they moved through the suburbs and into a less inhabited area. From the back of the van Cass directed Mel with curt commands, apparently unconcerned about sharing space with his dead girlfriend. The smell alone was enough to make the other two sick, and for once Mel had no questions.
At the lake, they piled out of the van into a wind so cold it burned. Pulling the sleeping bag from the back, Cass hefted it onto his shoulder. Mel got the spud, the rope, and a flashlight. Zar rolled the van’s spare tire along beside them to provide the weight. As the three trudged out onto the frozen lake, Mel’s question gene kicked back in. “How do you know the ice will hold us?”
“It’s a foot deep. That’s good enough.”
“So we gotta dig through a foot of ice?”
“Yeah.”
“Why can’t we just bury her somewhere?”
“Can’t dig frozen ground. Besides, this is better. The ice fills in the hole, the wind blows away our tracks, and no one can tell we were here. If she’s ever found, the water will have ruined any evidence.”
“Oh.”
Mel and Zar took turns chopping at the ice while Cass forced his cold fingers to tie the rope around the sleeping bag and then the tire. Once Mel’s clumsy effort hit slush, they worked to widen the hole sufficiently for their purpose. When they judged it was large enough, Cass used the spud to puncture the tire. Then he rolled it into the hole.
With the heavy wheel tied to it, the sleeping bag with its grisly contents disappeared with hardly a sound. Watching it go, Mel said in an attempt at sympathy, “Sorry about your girlfriend, Cass.”
“Yeah.” There wasn’t much emotion to it, like maybe Cass and Marilyn hadn’t been that close.
Back in the city, the three men separated. Mel returned the van to the car lot, intending to put in his normal day’s work, despite recent dreams of massive wealth and nights in Vegas. Zar simply faded into the night, no closer to Africa than when they began.
Cass returned to his apartment, letting himself in with a sense of relief. It was a long time since he’d been warm, and he’d had a long, stressful week. It was all worth it when Marilyn greeted him with an enthusiastic kiss.
“Everything go all right, baby?”
“It went great. Blow-up Marilyn is at the bottom of Lake Cronus.”
“Good for her. I was tired of playing dead.”
Cass grinned. “But you did it so well! The makeup job got better each time."
"Getting the dummy-full of kitty litter into the van while they were hunting for the spud took some doing.” 
"But we did it."
Marilyn shivered. “The worst part was being cold—that and getting the limburger smell out of my hair. But you played them real good, sweetie.”
Cass wasn't particularly modest. “It was kinda fun letting them convince me what to do next.”
“They went for the post office idea?”
“Like shoppers at a holiday sale. I put stick-on labels over the originals before I slid the packages over to the postal clerk. Mailed the packets to myself.”
Marilyn shivered. “I thought for sure one of them would touch me to see if I was really dead.”
“Who wants to touch a corpse?  They were glad to let me handle it–I mean, you.”
Marilyn rubbed her hands together. “So our plan worked. Three scores and no divvying.”
Cass opened a beer and sat down beside her on the couch. “Now we just sit back and wait for the mailman to bring us holiday joy. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Kwanzaa Peace, baby.”

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