Excerpts from the stories collected in
Gift of the Murderer
I was glad I had saved Liz’s present for last. Maybe it would help make up for Mrs. Hamilton’s earlier abuse. “I believe this is for you,” I said, handing her the glittery gift bag.
“For me?” she said, looking pleased. “Who did this come from?”
“A good elf never tells,” I said solemnly. “Union rules.”
She smiled and opened the bag. I could see my cousin Clifford watching from where he was playing Christmas carols on his guitar. The present was from him, but he was too shy to want Liz to know that. Liz reached into the bag and pulled out a long knife, the blade smeared with something dark.
“What on earth?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I looked over at Clifford, but he seemed as confused as I was. “I think there’s been some kind of a mistake,” I said, but was interrupted by a shriek from a few feet away.
Mrs. Hamilton had keeled over in her wheelchair, and one of the other residents pointed at her and shrieked again.
Liz dropped the knife back into the bag and thrust it toward me so she could run to Mrs. Hamilton. I was only a few steps behind her, though I didn’t know that there was anything I would be able to do.
Liz put her hand on Mrs. Hamilton’s back as if to straighten her up and then jerked her hand away. I was the only one close enough to see that her hand was covered in blood. A hole through the canvas back of the wheelchair matched the old woman’s bloody wound.
I think Liz and I realized at the same instant that the smears on that knife had to be blood, which meant that I was carrying the weapon that had been used on Mrs. Hamilton.
The Walters family of Walters Mill might be Scrooges for most of the year, but when it came to the Christmas party, they really did it up right: fancy decorations, an open bar, plenty of tasty refreshments, and a disk jockey to play dance music. Even though I was there with my cousin Thaddeous instead of my husband Richard, I would have had myself a good old time if I hadn’t been so concerned with trying to figure out who murdered Fannie Topper.
Instead of having fun, I was devoting my attention to the three men that could have killed her. I didn’t really expect any of them to confess, of course. The idea was to try to figure out a motive for the killing.
First I chatted with Joe Bowley over plates of ham and roast beef. He looked like a man who enjoyed his food, but didn’t mind talking while he ate. Of course I couldn’t just casually bring up the subject of a murder that happened twenty–five years ago, so I got him to discuss barbeque. I thought that it would eventually lead to Fannie Topper’s barbeque place, but no such luck. I don’t know if he avoided talking about Fannie on purpose or not, but he went on and on about Buck Overton’s in Mt. Airy, which he hadn’t even been to since before Fannie was killed.
Next I tried dancing with Bobby Plummer, and I had to admit that he was a real good dancer. He was light on his feet and smiled gallantly when I stepped on his toes. He didn’t hold me so tight the way some men try to do, which made me wonder if the rumors about him being gay were true. Maybe he was just being polite. Bobby was in much better shape than Joe, so with him, I asked about exercise. Specifically, playing baseball. I thought sure that he’d mention the championship the Walters Mill team had won all those years ago, the party afterwards, and the murder after that. Nope. He talked about NordicTrack.
Finally I sat on the edge of the hall with Pete Fredericks. Getting him to talk about death was no problem, but it wasn’t what I had in mind. It seemed that Pete was going to be leaving the mill soon to work with one of Byerly’s morticians. I learned lots about what happened to people after death, but nothing about how one particular woman came to die.
When the party ended, I didn’t know a bit more than I had before I got there. And it was only two days before Christmas.
If I had had the sense God gave a milk cow, I told myself, I would have just bought Aunt Edna a sweater or a nightgown when I drew her name that Christmas. But no, I had to get it into my head that I was going to give her something she really wanted. That meant solving a twenty–five–year–old murder and laying Marley’s ghost to rest.
The Death of Erik the Redneck
I’d known Erik Husey ever since we were in grammar school, but when I looked at the smoking mess that had been Erik and his dog, Lucky, all I could think of was that I never thought he’d be that dumb. To go out in a rowboat and set yourself on fire with a cigarette when you’re so drunk that you don’t even think to jump into the water, is just out–and–out stupid.
An Unmentionable Crime
If Sue had been anywhere else, talking to anybody else, she’d have said, “Now don’t get your panties in a bunch,” but she knew Ida would fire her on the spot if she dared say such a thing to Annabelle Lamar while working at Petticoat Junction. Especially when it was her salmon pink panties that Miz Lamar was mad about.
It took Wynette a while to find the Ten Commandments in the Bible Reverend Sweeney had left for her to read while she was in the hospital. She thought they’d be marked, but they were just stuck in with the other verses. Finally she found them in the book of Exodus. There were commandments about stealing and killing and coveting, but nothing against hitting your wife.
Old Dog Days
“When did you last see him?” Andy asked Payson Smith, but instead of answering, Payson glared at his wife Doreen.
“Around five–thirty, when I got back from Hardee’s with dinner,” Doreen said. “I cook most nights, but it was so hot that day that I hated to get the kitchen heated up.”
Andy nodded understandingly, which he’d done for so many years that it looked pretty convincing. “Five–thirty yesterday evening.”
Then Brian piped up with, “It couldn’t have been yesterday. We had Kentucky Fried Chicken yesterday, and pizza the night before that. It must have been Wednesday.” The boy smirked, pleased with himself for proving his stepmother wrong, not to mention the dig he’d gotten in about her cooking.
“Jesus Christ, Doreen!” Payson exploded. “Are you saying my dog’s been missing for three solid days and you didn’t even notice?”
“You know I never go out back,” she whined, “especially not as hot as it’s been. Maybe if we got one of those above-ground pools…” Then, probably realizing that it wasn’t a good time to bring that up, she said, “Besides, it’s Brian’s job to take Wolf his food and water. He’s the one who should have figured out he was gone.”
Payson turned his glare onto his son, and it was Doreen’s turn to smirk.
“Well?” Payson prompted.
“You know I was over at Earl’s every day,” he said, whining just like his stepmother. “She knew that.”
“Since when do you tell me where you’re going to be?” Doreen shot back.
Andy could tell this was an old argument, so he spoke over them. “Then the last time either of you saw Wolf was Wednesday night, and since Payson was gone until late Friday night, nobody noticed he was gone until this morning. Is that right?”
Doreen and Brian nodded while Payson tried to decide which one deserved to be glared at more.
Andy wouldn’t have minded glaring a little himself, but his target wasn’t handy. Deputy Mark Pope was probably still at the police station, sitting at a desk he didn’t deserve.
If Andy’s wife had been there, she’d have told him it was his own fault.
Dan Jackson was as dead a man as I’ve ever seen, and as long as I’d been Byerly’s police chief, that was saying something. As far as I could tell, a heavy set of tires had rolled right over his head, and even though I’d known Dan my whole life, if it hadn’t been for the ID in the wallet in his hip pocket, I’d never have known it was him. I decided I’d lost my taste for watermelon for a while.
“You want me to check his other pockets?” my deputy, Belva Tucker, said, but I could tell she wasn’t thrilled by the idea.
“Don’t bother. Dr. Connelly can take care of it when he gets here.”
Belva nodded, relieved.
If I’d been a spiteful woman, I’d have made her do it because of the way she’d held back while I retrieved Dan’s wallet, which was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had to do. But since Belva hadn’t seen as many bodies as I had, I was willing to cut her a little slack.
“I better talk to Cole.” Belva turned to go, too, but I said, “You stay here and keep the critters away from the body.” That wasn’t spite–it was payback.