A Cold Christmas: Holiday Excerpt

A Cold Christmas by Charlene Weir  is a Christmas mystery and the 5th installment of the Susan Wren Mystery series.

Brodie Farrell finds things for a living, and when she's asked to locate the whereabouts of Daniel Hood, she sees nothing suspicious in the request. She finds the young man, passes the details on to her client, and commends herself on a job well done. But when the young man is found brutally tortured and left for dead, Brodie is overcome with guilt.

Still blaming herself when Daniel asks for help, Brodie finds it impossible to do the sensible thing and walk away. He needs to understand what happened: Until the attack, he'd never known an enemy in the world. The men who hurt him were looking for someone named Sophie, and Daniel knows no one by that name.

Finding the authors of Daniel's misfortune, in the end, resolves nothing. It only leads them both into a deeper, more complex tragedy than either imagined possible…

1

It’s just a lousy cold, Caley told herself. I can do this. I’m indispensable. I’m the organist. No organist, no rehearsal. Eyes that wouldn’t open more than halfway made everything fuzzy around the edges. Like the man standing at the side of the church. When she blinked, he vanished and she couldn’t see him anywhere. The day-old coffee hadn’t been a good idea. It had tasted odd, and the caffeine wasn’t helping. She felt a little queasy.

Caley James picked up her feet carefully as she moved across the parking lot. Not because the surface was icy. It wasn’t. It was perfectly dry concrete with mounds of dirty snow bordering the edges. But her feet were numb and she seemed to be weaving. The frigid air caught her breath and squeezed pain through her sinuses.

Hampstead was experiencing the longest cold spell in the history of local weather. Brutal cold for eight days in a row and expected to remain that way. Her old car had a heater that reached tepid on its best days, which were long past. Her head felt enormously too large and sounds ballooned up as though through deep water.

The church, an imposing structure of native limestone, looked cream-colored and inviting on summer days. On cold winter days like today, with rippled clouds of gray above, it was drab and forbidding. The back door always stuck, so she yanked on it and almost fell on her face when it was opened from the inside by Evan Devereau.

“… money missing from the donation baskets,” Reverend Mullet, in the hallway, was saying.

Evan nodded, distracted, his mind likely on the music.

The warmth of the robing room made her cheeks sting. She started to stamp her feet to stir up some feeling in them, but lightning bolts of pain forked through her head on the first tap.

“You don’t look good,” Evan said. As choir director, upon his shoulders fell the duty of arranging the Christmas choral music. “You sure you’re up to this?”

“A snap.” Since her kids were home alone, she hoped he wouldn’t drag out the rehearsal.

He eyed her judiciously, hung his heavy coat over a hanger, and jammed it between all the others in the closet. Reddish hair cropped to a crew cut, easy manner, Evan Devereau was a wizard at coaxing glorious sounds from untrained voices—and he was one of the most completely good men she’d ever known. When he took her to the emergency room that time she’d cut her leg, he waited with her. That was more than her ex-husband had done when their baby was born. An impending sneeze sent her plunging frantically through pockets for a tissue.

“You don’t have a cold,” Evan said, “you have the flu. You can’t play like this.”

“I’m fine.” If she didn’t play, she didn’t get paid. If she didn’t get paid, the kids didn’t get Christmas. She tossed her ski jacket over a chair, but didn’t remove her scarf. It wasn’t so warm in here after all.

In the church proper, a single light high in the ceiling shone down on the huge hanging cross of burnished brass. It lit up the altar far below, white altar cloth and blue parament for Advent, silver candlesticks and wine cups. Dark red carpeting ran down the center aisle to rows of pews waiting in the shadows. She could barely make out the silhouette of a solitary man sitting in the rear.

As she slid onto the organ bench, her page turner took one look at her and scooted as far away as the bench allowed. When Caley looked again, the man in the back was gone. Watch it, she told herself, you’re turning into a nut cake. She rubbed her cold fingers, switched on the organ and then the light over the music rack. The choir members were shifting in their seats, clearing their throats and bringing themselves to attention. She played the prelude, pulled out a few more stops, and sailed into the oratorio. As the tenor rose to sing, she pulled out a mixture of stops.

“There were shep-herds at night in that same country, a-biding in the fields…”

Caley soared on the magic of the music, rising to crescendo, falling back to pianissimo, moving right into andantino for the soprano.

“And sud-den-ly there ap-pear’d a mul-ti-tude of the heav’nly host unto them…”

When the soprano finished, baritone Osey Pickett rose. He was just getting into stride when a tall slender woman with dark hair slipped quietly into a back pew.

She was Susan Wren, Hampstead’s police chief. Come to arrest me for strangling a pipe. Caley felt giggles bubbling in her chest. I’m not choking it, Chief. It already hissed when they hired me. Honest. I asked them to fix it. We can’t afford it, they said. Play around it. You don’t need it that often. Ha. I need it all the time. Like now.

“… with the an-gels all prais-ing God, prais-ing God and saying…”

Poised on the organ bench above the choir, in dizzying heights of shimmering air, she plunged into the music of Saint-Saëns. Her feet galloped across the pedals in racing bass. With a surging combination of reed stops, her hands scrambled to catch up.

Sound crashed from the pipes, ricocheted around the dark wood, sparked across stained-glass windows, raced up lofty curves of the barrel vaults, and …

*   *   *

Susan Wren was moving toward the slumped organist before the sound even died away. Osey, coming from the choir loft with the choir director, nudged the page turner out of the way.

“Caley?” Evan said.

“Stand back, Evan.” Susan put her fingertips at the corner of Caley’s jaw. Pulse strong, rapid. Skin hot. She lifted Caley’s eyelid; the pupil reacted normally.

“Osey, see if you can get Dr. Cunningham.”

He tossed straw-colored hair from his eyes and loped off in his long lanky stride.

Caley’s eyelids fluttered, opened, closed, then opened again. With bewilderment she stared at the choir clustered around her, all peering down. Had she died and been laid out in a casket? When she tried to sit, her eyes lost focus. Susan pushed Caley’s head between her knees until she made small protesting sounds.

Osey returned and said quietly to Susan. “Doc’s on the way.”

Susan nodded. Flu had felled another. Half her officers were flat out with it. A crime wave sweeping through town would have the bad guys outnumbering the good guys. If the stricken didn’t start recovering soon, there’d be no way she could resign. Deserting ship with only the dispatcher left to take the helm wouldn’t cut it.

“Oh, God,” Caley said, seemed to remember where she was, and closed her eyes.

Osey grinned. “I reckon you got his attention with that music.”

“I’ve never heard you play like that,” Evan said.

“I think I’ll go home now.” Caley struggled upright with some help from Susan, swayed a bit, and blinked her eyes. “Whoa.”

“I’ll take you,” Evan said.

“Evan,” Susan said firmly, “go back to rehearsal.”

Reluctantly, director and singers, with the exception of Osey, trooped back to their seats.

“Let’s get her in the robing room,” Susan said to Osey.

Five minutes later, Dr. Baylis Cunningham bustled in, looked at the patient, listened to her chest, peered into her eyes and ears, told her to say Ah, took her temperature, and pronounced flu, dehydration, and slight malnutrition. “Make an appointment to see me at the office.” Cunningham bustled out.

“I’ll get her home,” Osey said.

“You go rehearse. I’ll do it.”

Susan helped Caley into her ski jacket, guided her out to the pickup, bundled her in, and clicked the seat belt snugly around her.

“Give me your key and I’ll see that your car gets home.”

“The gray Ford over there.” With shaky hands, Caley detached a key from the key ring.

“Where do you live?”

“On Hollis, straight out from Eagle’s Pond.”

Susan took a left on Eleventh and a right on Campus Drive. The streets were dry, thank God. Hampstead was settled in a cluster of small hills, and when the streets iced over, it was a nightmare.

The sky was a solid gray with not even a paler spot to suggest the sun existed up there somewhere, and the temperature had not risen enough to melt the dingy snow left over from the last snowfall.

Christmas was everywhere. Wreaths on doors, decorated trees in front windows, reindeer capering across front lawns, sleighs and Santas on rooftops. Colored lights on outdoor trees, along eaves, and wrapped around mailbox posts. ‘Tis the season.

“You come to rehearsals,” Caley said.

Susan nodded. Finding solace in the Lutheran church would bring forth much guilt-invoking, you-let-me-down sorrow from her Catholic grandmother, if she knew. “I like the music,” she said. In the dimness of the empty church, frantic thoughts stopped chasing one another and her mind grew still and light. It was the only place where she could get away; no one bothered her unless a dire emergency arose.

Eight days ago an offer had come from her old boss in San Francisco. “We’ve got us something of an unusual situation here,” he’d said. “Money is all of a sudden spearheaded to shake some life into cold cases. I need a seasoned investigator to clear a few, zipzap-you’re-under-arrest quick, and rework some of the more high-profile.”

A failure of hers had ended up as a cold file. It still haunted her dreams. A baby, beaten to death, tiny body covered with cigarette burns.

“It’s a two-year job. You interested?”

Arctic in Hampstead and sixty-two in San Francisco? No contest.

“Think about it,” he’d said. “Take all the time you want. Till the day after Christmas.”

She hadn’t needed three weeks; she hadn’t even needed three seconds. When she’d stopped tap-dancing up and down the walls and begun planning, her officers had started dropping with flu.

That meant she couldn’t leave immediately, and it gave her time to think. Thinking made her realize it wasn’t quite so simple, and she’d started juggling pros and cons. In Hampstead, she was in charge. Boss. A heady feeling. She’d grown used to it, discovered she liked it. She’d met people here who would be hard to leave. Her husband was buried here. Her father was in San Francisco. They’d get into the same old nose-to-nose fights they always had. And the most troublesome question. Could she simply slide back into her old life? The job was only for two years. Then what? Finally give up and go to work for her father’s law firm because it was easier than fighting him? Hope her old boss could find money to hire her full-time? The call had come eight days ago. She had two weeks left to decide.

Caley started shivering. Susan looked at her—face flushed, eyes glassy—and turned up the heater.

“You come to hear Osey sing,” Caley said, her tone almost accusatory. She was an attractive young woman, late twenties, shoulder-length hair, light brown with a slight wave, oval face with a pointed chin and innocent amber-colored eyes.

“Yes.” O. C. Pickett was one of her detectives. In appearance, nothing but a lanky hayseed, not too bright. A farm boy. Whoever thought that was badly mistaken. Osey had a mind like a steel trap and a photographic memory, useful talents for a cop. He also had the ability to meet people and instantly be an old friend, another good talent for a cop. And he had a baritone voice that lifted the heart. It always amazed her when she heard him sing.

Caley James lived just past an abandoned paper factory in a three-story wood-frame house diminished by giant walnut trees, the leafless branches dark against the gray sky. It sat at the end of a long driveway and looked held together by a coat of white paint about to give up the fight. Perfect setting for a Gothic novel.

“Thank you for bringing me home,” Caley said as Susan pulled up the driveway and stopped at the back of the house.

“Please don’t come in with me.”

“I’ll just—”

“No. I have three kids.”

“I’ve seen a lot worse than anything three kids can do.”

“You don’t know,” Caley said darkly.

“I need to make sure you get inside safely.”

“I’m fine.” Caley released the seat belt and opened the pickup door.

Susan slid out, nipped around to the other side, and took a firm grip on Caley’s arm. “I’ll walk you to the door.” She braced herself against the freezing December wind.

“Only the door? Promise?”

“Promise.” Susan helped her across the driveway, avoiding the icy patches that hadn’t been cleared after the last snowfall. When snow isn’t shoveled, it gets trampled, then it turns to slush that turns to ice at the next temperature drop. She’d learned that to her sorrow. “Just let me—”

“You promised.” Opening the door a narrow few inches, Caley edged around it into the kitchen.

Susan let her go, telling herself to check up later. In this kind of cold weather, cops did welfare checks to make sure the elderly or ill were all right. In ordinary times, she would just add Caley to the list, but with everybody out sick there were no welfare checks. One old woman had frozen to death in her own living room. Susan didn’t want another tragedy.

All I have to do, Caley thought, closing the door behind her, is get to my bed. Not even that far. The couch. Miles to go before I sleep. A gargantuan sneeze almost crumpled her. She dabbed at her nose with a soggy tissue. Freezing in here. Tripping over curling linoleum in the kitchen, she went through the dining room and into the living room.

All three of her children were lined up on the couch, covered to their chins with quilts, watching television.

“I told him we weren’t supposed to,” Adam said. “We’d be in trouble when you got back.” Adam was the middle child, the eight-year-old.

“I turned it on,” Zachary said, a shade defensively, always truthful. Twelve, the responsible one.

Bonnie, the baby, at six, didn’t say anything. In fact, she didn’t look so good. Her face was flushed and her eyes droopy.

“It’s warmer this way,” Zach said. “And Adam got fidgety.” His younger brother couldn’t sit still for more than two minutes unless it was in front of a television set, where his brain went immediately to flat line.

“The Littles needed something to do,” Zach said, from his superior age of twelve.

“Hi, Mommy.” Bonnie was Caley’s cuddler and usually available for a hug. Now she simply sat listlessly watching gunmen chase each other through an empty office building.

“Hello, love.” Caley kissed her daughter’s forehead, touched one cheek and then the other. Warm. Oh, damn.

“Zach, for goodness sake, why didn’t you turn the heat up?” They tried to keep it down because even with the extra job at Basslight Music, she couldn’t afford the gas bills. “We don’t need to freeze to death.”

“Mommy, are we going to freeze to death?”

“No, darling, of course not.”

“I did,” Zach said. “All the way. Nothing happened.”

“Why didn’t you call your grandmother?”

“She called right after you left and said she was going … shopping, I think. Anyway, you weren’t going to be gone long. I could handle it. I didn’t start a fire because I knew you’d spaz.”

Caley squinted at the thermostat, twisted the dial all the way down and then all the way up. She did it again. Dumbly, she stood there as the enormity of the situation made its way through to her brain. The furnace didn’t work. The worst winter since Kansas became a state—when was that? Eighteen something? The furnace was dead.

Clutching her coat tight at her throat, she clumped down the rickety basement steps and peered at the metal monster. Like everything else in the house, it was old. It sat silently in its spot in the corner like a dumb beast too tired and abused to go on.

“Damn it!” She kicked it.

“… got released,” Zach was saying. “And dangerous.”

“Zach, what are you talking about?”

He sighed. “Grandma called right after you left.”

“What did she want?”

“I don’t know. Some stuff about this guy being dangerous and you should be careful and not let in any strangers.”

Back upstairs, in the kitchen, Caley flipped through pages. Furnaces, furnaces. “What was Ettie talking about?”

“I don’t know. You know how she is.” Her ex-husband’s mother was a mixed blessing, great in some ways, but given a topic she was a nonstop talker.

“Where’s that flyer that came in the mail?”

Zach put his finger on a flyer tacked to the corkboard over the phone. “When it came I put it here just in case.” Shanky’s Furnace and Air Conditioning.

Caley rubbed her eyes, then punched numbers and explained her problem.

A sympathetic female voice said someone would be out within the next two hours. It would cost seventy-five dollars for him to take a look at it. Seventy-five dollars?

“We could build a fire,” Zach suggested.

She put her arms around him, pulled him close, and kissed the top of his head, probably smearing germs all over him. What would she do without this child? This calm sensible child, too adult for twelve. Keep yourself under control and don’t panic so much, she said silently. It wasn’t fair to him.

He brought in wood, arranged it in the fireplace, crumpled newspapers, and within minutes had a fire going. Even Bonnie perked up a bit with logs cheerily crackling away.

Two hours and twenty minutes later, rescue arrived. He was thin inside a bulky black jacket, thin face with a comma-shaped scar like the letter C on his left cheek, high forehead, blondish hair, and blank deep-set hazel eyes, “Tim” stitched on his shirt pocket.

As she started down the basement stairs, Bonnie scrambled over and flung small arms around her waist. “Mommy, don’t.”

“I’m just going to show him where the furnace is.”

“Don’t go!”

“Bonnie…”

“Nooo!” Tears trickled down Bonnie’s round cheeks. “Please, Mommy. You won’t ever come back. Like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. You’ll be burned up.”

“That was an oven,” Adam said scornfully.

“He’s gonna hurt you.”

“Of course he won’t, darling. He’s here to fix the furnace so we can get warm.”

“He has funny eyes,” Bonnie mumbled, sticking to her guns.

He did, Caley thought. Goat’s eyes. Hazel, intelligent, knowing, and taking in everything. When she was a child, she’d owned a book about a troll who lived under a bridge. The evil troll had eyes just like the man she was about to take into her basement.

She gathered up her daughter, kissed the flushed face, and brushed light hair from her forehead. “You sit here. I’ll be right back.”

She turned on the basement light and stepped back to let him go first, not wanting him behind her.

A flicker of malice stirred in his eyes before he turned and trotted down the steps.

She pointed out the furnace, against the wall under the dirty narrow window. He placed his toolbox on the cement floor, removed a furnace panel, and crouched to shine a flashlight at its innards.

She huddled on the bottom step, hugging the banister. Never before had the dim lighting down here bothered her. There were only two bare ceiling bulbs sending fingers of light into the darkness spreading under the entire house. Junk was piled everywhere: boxes, old furniture, a rusted bicycle, broken toys, a doll buggy, a crib, a desk—maybe that could be cleaned up for Zach—file cabinets, chairs, a dining table. A good place to hide something, she thought. Like a body.

Tim banged away, said it needed two new pieces, and banged some more.

“Mommy!”

The edge of panic in Bonnie’s voice had her racing up the stairs. In the kitchen, the little girl stood in the center of spilled orange juice that soaked the front of her clothes, dripped off the table, and puddled in a widening circle around the dropped jug.

“Go change your clothes,” Caley snapped.

Bonnie’s bottom lip trembled and tears filled her eyes.

Oh, God. “I’m sorry, love. It’s all right.” She gave the child a one-armed hug, kissed her, and patted her on the fanny. “Get something dry on. It’s all right.”

Nothing was all right. She’d just yelled at her baby, she had orange juice all over the kitchen, and she had a weird guy in the basement. Tears prickled at her eyes.

“I’ll take care of it, Mom,” Zach said.

“Zach—” Hang on, don’t snivel. “You are a great kid. Thanks.”

She found Bonnie in the bedroom, shivering so hard she couldn’t manage the buttons on her shirt. Caley peeled off the wet clothes, slipped a dry sweatshirt over the little girl’s head, gathering pale hair loose from the neckline, and pulled on a pair of sweatpants. She carried Bonnie into the living room, sat on one end of the couch, and wrapped a quilt around both of them. She hummed softly. Adam, still mesmerized by television, sat on the other end.

Horses galloped across the television and guns blazed. Struggle as she might, she still dozed.

Gradually muscles, tensed to protect her from the cold, began to relax as warmth crept in like soft spring air.

She dreamed.

God, with a mass of fuzzy white hair and the repairman’s eyes, put her in an elevator and pressed a button labeled HELL. The elevator descended. When it reached bottom, the doors opened to gigantic, roaring, leaping flames. Hands grabbed her arms and legs, swung her back, and pitched her in.

“Mom! Mom, wake up!” Zach shook her shoulder. “We got a problem!”

“Adam?” She shot up. “Bonnie?”

“They’re fine. In the bedroom. Mom, the furnace won’t turn off.”

“Turn it down.” She slumped back against the lumpy couch.

“It is down. It doesn’t matter. It keeps roaring.”

She untangled herself from the quilts and got to her feet. Hot hot. The room swayed. It had gotten dark while she dozed. Somebody had turned on all the lights. Adam, maybe; he didn’t like the dark. She headed for the basement.

“Mom, he’s gone.”

“Gone,” she repeated stupidly.

“Wake up, Mom. We have to do something.”

She shook her head, then wished she hadn’t.

“Call them.” Zach handed her a bill. She owed six hundred and eighty-five dollars.

“Call. I’ll open windows.”

She punched in the number on the invoice and, rather shrilly, explained the situation to the male voice on the other end of the line.

“It’s the blower,” he said, superior male to ditzy female. “Takes several minutes before it shuts off.”

“It’s been several hours and nothing has shut off.”

“I’ll send someone out first thing in the morning.” Bored unworried voice.

“No,” Caley said. “Right now. He just left. Get him back here.”

Pause. “I’ll try his pager.”

She slammed down the receiver, used ticking seconds to track down a number, then called Kansas Power and Light.

After she explained a second time, a female voice promised someone would be there within an hour.

“Hour? We’ll be on the way to mummified in an hour.”

“I’ll put a rush on it.”

Caley disconnected and called another number, relieved when the phone was answered. “Ettie, would you take the children for a while? The furnace isn’t working.”

“Of course. I’ll be right there.”

Caley had the Littles and Zach, their breaths steaming in the cold air, waiting on the kitchen porch when their grandmother drove up. She bundled them into the car and waved as they drove away.

Feverish, shaking, coughing, aching in every joint, she switched on the outside light over the garage door and waited in her car for KP and L—or for the house to blow up, whichever came first.

Before either of those things happened, headlights poked up the driveway, a van parked in the circle of light outside the garage, and the repairman got out.

She scooted from the car and went to meet him. Shaking in the cold, she ran up the porch steps, opened the kitchen door, and let him in.

He smiled a creepy little smile that froze her hand as she reached to close the door behind them.

 

Copyright © 2001 Charlene Weir.

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Charlene Weir settled in the Bay Area, and after an early diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, abandoned nursing and turned her love of reading and puzzles into a career as a mystery writer. Her first novel, The Winter Widow, won the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic contest for best first mystery and was nominated for an Anthony Award.

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