Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews is a holiday mystery and the 16th installment of the Meg Langslow series, which follows a series of pranks around the holidays that turn to murder as Meg tries to solve the case and still make sure everything's ready for Christmas.
A few nights before Christmas, Meg is awakened when volunteer fireman Michael is summoned to the New Life Baptist Church, where someone has rigged a cage full of skunks in the choir loft. The lengthy process of de-skunking the church requires its annual pre-Christmas concert to relocate to Trinity Episcopal, where Mother insists the show must go on, despite the budget-related protests of Mr. Vess, an elderly vestryman. Meanwhile, when Meg helps her grandfather take the skunks to the zoo, they discover that his boa has been stolen – only to turn up later during the concert, slithering out from the ribbon-bedecked evergreens. The next morning is Sunday, and the congregation of St. Byblig's, the local Catholic church, arrive to find it completely filled with several hundred ducks.
It's clear that some serious holiday pranksters are on the loose, and Meg is determined to find them. But before she can, a fire breaks out at Trinity, and Mr. Vess is discovered dead. Who would have murdered such a harmless – if slightly cranky – old man? Who has the time during the busy holiday season to herd all of these animals into the town's churches? And will Meg ever be able to finish all of her shopping, wrapping, cooking, caroling, and decorating in time for Christmas Eve?
The buzzing noise woke me from an already restless sleep. In my dream, it was Christmas morning. We were opening presents and all the boxes I’d wrapped so neatly had suddenly become empty. Or worse, they contained odd, inappropriate objects, like bottles of vodka for my four-year-old twin sons and a subscription to Guns & Ammo for my cousin Rose Noire, who couldn’t even stand to see anyone use a flyswatter for its intended purpose.
“What interesting choices,” Mother was murmuring, holding up the power drill that had been in her box. Where had the drill come from? And why did she keep turning it on and off, on and off, making that irritating noise?
Just then I woke up. I fumbled on my bedside table for my phone. It was a little past 4:00 A.M. December twenty-first, not the twenty-fifth.
“Only a dream,” I murmured.
The buzzing wasn’t coming from my phone and I could still hear it. Not a power drill. It appeared to be coming from Michael’s side of the bed, from under the pillow. Some battery-operated toy, perhaps, that the boys had dropped while Michael had been reading them How the Grinch Stole Christmas before bedtime?
“Blast.” His voice was sleepy and annoyed. Then he sat bolt upright and began searching frantically under his pillow.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My pager.” He found the offending object, pressed something, and the buzzing stopped. A female voice took its place.
“Box fourteen oh four for the structure fire. One thirteen Clay County Road. Engine companies fourteen and two, truck twelve, rescue squad two, ambulance fourteen respond. Oh four fourteen.”
I recognized the voice of Debbie Ann, the local police and emergency dispatcher. And the “oh four fourteen” part must be the time. As for the rest—
“We have a call!” Michael sounded excited and leaped out of bed.
My stomach clenched. Ever since Michael, in a burst of civic zeal, had joined the Caerphilly Volunteer Firefighters, I’d been dreading this moment. The pager had been his constant companion since he’d finished his training a week ago. And now here it was: His first fire.
The address sounded familiar, too. I had the feeling if I were a little more awake, I’d remember exactly what was located at 113 Clay County Road.
Michael dove into the walk-in closet.
“Maybe you should wake Rob,” he called over his shoulder.
“Doesn’t he have a pager, too?”
“You know Rob.”
Yes. My brother—also a newly fledged firefighter—was capable of sleeping with a brass band rehearsing at the foot of his bed. I got up and winced when my feet hit the cold floor. It was in the twenties outside, and didn’t seem much warmer inside. Not a night for running around barefoot or in pajamas. I threw on my clothes, then raced out into the hall, and headed up the stairs to the third floor of our overlarge Victorian farmhouse, where my brother lived in one of our many spare rooms.
On my way upstairs I passed my cousin Rose Noire who occupied yet another third-floor spare room.
“Rob’s awake,” she said. “His pager woke me from across the hall, so I woke him. I’ll make them some coffee.”
I could hear thuds and exclamations from down the hall. Rob was in motion. Had the noise awakened my twin sons? They’d only recently moved to separate bedrooms. Although it had been their own request and they were vastly proud of their new solo lairs, they were both still a little anxious when awakened in the middle of the night and prone to creeping into our room or each other’s.
I went back down and peeked into Josh’s room first. A few less beloved stuffed animals were scattered across the royal blue sheets and blankets on his bed. Both boys were fast asleep in Jamie’s room, curled up together beneath the bright red bedding. I pulled the door closed to make sure they didn’t wake when Rob came thundering down the stairs in full gear, including the world’s noisiest boots. He’d probably have tried sliding down the banister for greater speed if the polished oak hadn’t been completely swathed in evergreen and tinsel. Then when the noise died down, I slipped out again. Rob was standing in the hallway outside Michael’s and my bedroom door.
“Where’s Michael?” he stage-whispered.
“Here.” Michael stepped out of our room, still fastening bits of gear. “I’ll drive.”
“Right,” Rob said. “Meet you out front.”
I pitched in to help Michael with his gear. Rob clattered the rest of the way down to the front hall, where Rose Noire was standing beside the Christmas tree, holding two travel coffee mugs.
“It’s only instant,” she said as she handed one to Rob. “So I added just a hint of nutmeg.”
“But it’s caffeinated, right?” he asked as he grabbed the mug and opened the door.
“Of course.” Rose Noire looked mildly affronted that he’d doubted her, but given her fondness for trying to reform everyone else’s caffeine habits with odd-tasting herbal concoctions, I could understand why he’d asked.
Rob ran out. I finished fastening the last buckle holding bits of gear to Michael’s belt.
“Thanks,” he said, giving me a kiss. “And yes, I’ll be careful.”
“Where’s the fire?” Rose Noire asked.
“At one thirteen Clay County Road,” I said. “Whatever that is.”
“The New Life Baptist Church.” Michael frowned. “At least I think. It would help if they just came out and said it.”
“Sounds right to me,” I said. “Somewhere in town—you can have Rob look it up on his cell phone well before you need to make any turns.”
“Good idea.” Michael took the second travel mug, murmured his thanks, and followed Rob.
Rose Noire and I looked at each other. We knew many of the New Life congregation—particularly Henry Burke, our local police chief, and his wife, Minerva. And I’d been over at the church last night when a friend who had to work the night shift asked me to take her daughter to choir rehearsal.
We heard Michael’s car start up and race off.
“It’s four twenty—a.m.,” Rose Noire added, as if she thought I might not have noticed the darkness. “I doubt if there would be anyone there now.”
If she was trying to make me feel better, it wasn’t working.
“Which could mean the fire would have plenty of time to become big and dangerous before anyone reported it,” I said. “Watch the boys, will you? I’m heading over there.”
I grabbed my coat from the enormous Victorian hat rack and my purse and keys from the hall table and dashed out into the bitter cold night.
Then I dashed in again, and upstairs to add another layer of clothes.
Even though I prided myself on how quickly I could get dressed and ready in the morning, I was at least five minutes behind Michael and Rob when I set out. Maybe ten.
A good thing this hadn’t happened two nights ago, when we’d had near-blizzard conditions. Or last night, when the plows still hadn’t finished moving the foot of snow off our roads. All we had tonight was the bitter cold, which meant the huge mounds of snow lining the roads weren’t going away any time soon.
I was relieved when I drew near the New Life Church and could still see its enormous steeple rising proudly into the air, illuminated by floodlights below—and with no flames or smoke.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot, I was not just relieved but downright puzzled. The church looked unharmed. All three of Caerphilly County’s fire vehicles were there, along with four police cruisers. All their lights were flashing. The firefighters and deputies were all standing around in clumps, staring at the church, except for one larger group that seemed to be staring at something at the back of the ambulance.
I scanned the scene. No, the church was fine. Not just the church but the entire sprawling complex, including two wings and a small outbuilding, all filled with classrooms, meeting rooms, and the multiple rehearsal rooms for New Life’s nationally renowned gospel choir. The floodlit façade was serene and unmarred by any signs of a conflagration.
I pulled into a parking space toward the side of the lot, about twenty feet from the ambulance, and close to where Michael and the other firefighters had parked. I was aiming to be far enough away that I wouldn’t be underfoot, but close enough that I might overhear what was going on. And my chosen spot was partly behind one of the mountains of snow that the snowplows had piled up, so maybe the firefighters wouldn’t notice me quite as easily.
As I turned the engine off, I saw a particularly tall fireman detach himself from the group around the ambulance and stride over toward my car. So much for my attempt to stay unnoticed. I braced myself to defend my right to rubberneck, and then relaxed. It was Michael. I opened the door and stepped out.
“The good news is there’s no fire,” he said.
“What’s the bad— Oh, gross!”
The wind had shifted, bringing with it an unmistakable odor, like garlic, rotten eggs, and burned rubber all mixed together.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
“Yes. The church has been skunked.”
“Skunked?” came a voice from nearby. I glanced over to see that I wasn’t the only spectator. I’d assumed the other cars in the lot belonged to the firefighters, but in several of them I could see people huddled, with their motors still running, trying to keep warm. Other spectators who were more hardy—or perhaps, like me, had taken the time to dress for the weather before coming out—stood by their cars, talking in twos or threes as they stared at the church. It was one of those groups that had overheard Michael’s words.
“It appears so,” Michael said. “No fire, and no apparent damage to the church, but the stench is awful.”
The group passed his words down to the next group, and soon the entire crowd was buzzing.
Just who were these spectators? Members of the New Life Baptist congregation? Worried relatives of other new firefighters? Surely not just curious bystanders drawn by the sirens—not at four thirty on a cold morning like this.
I could see another car turning into the parking lot, and more headlights farther down the road.
“What’s happening over there?” I pointed to the crowd around the ambulance.
“The guy who found the skunks,” Michael said. “Apparently one of them sprayed him right in the eyes and—oh, here’s your father. Good—the EMTs don’t have a lot of experience with skunk attacks.”
Dad’s familiar blue minivan zoomed past us to park near the ambulance. The sleigh bells he’d fastened to the bumpers and the door handles to amuse Josh and Jamie were jingling madly.
“Did they call him?” I asked. “Or do you suppose he’s been having insomnia again and whiling away the time by listening to the police and fire department bands on his radio?”
“No idea,” Michael said. “But thank goodness he’s here.”
We both headed toward the ambulance.
By the time we joined the cluster of firefighters and police officers at the back of the ambulance, Dad’s familiar black doctor’s bag was sitting nearby and he was bent over his patient, an elderly black man wearing a bulky down jacket over striped pajama pants and fleece-lined bedroom slippers. I recognized him as Nelson Dandridge, the church’s caretaker.
The two EMTs had stepped back, apparently happy to let Dad take over. They stood nearby, holding wads of white gauze over their noses. Some of the other bystanders were doing likewise, while the rest merely wore pained expressions. I didn’t need to ask why—I could smell the reason. Apparently poor Mr. Dandridge had taken a direct hit from the skunk.
“Try not to move your head,” Dad was saying. He was holding one of Mr. Dandridge’s eyes open and peering in with a small flashlight. Mr. Dandridge moaned and stopped trying to toss his head, but he began twitching his feet slightly as if some kind of motion would ease the pain.
“You’ll be fine.” Dad was peering into the other eye.
“But I can’t see!” Mr. Dandridge whispered. “And it burns.”
“Perfectly normal,” Dad said. “And you’ll probably feel some discomfort for the next few hours.”
“Discomfort?” From his tone it was obvious that Mr. Dandridge thought the word wholly inadequate for what he was feeling.
“Let’s continue the ocular irrigation for a little bit before we take him down to the hospital.” Dad turned to the EMTs who, to their credit, only hesitated for a few moments before returning to their patient’s side.
“‘Hospital,’” Mr. Dandridge repeated. He sounded unsure whether to feel happy that his condition was being taken seriously or worried that it might be more serious than Dad was telling him. The medics had taken up posts on either side of his head and were squirting saline into his eyes.
“There’s always a chance of complications,” Dad said. “Skunk spray is very caustic. Occasionally you see corneal ulceration, or uveitis, or conjunctivitis. And occasionally—”
“Dad,” I said. “I think you’re alarming Mr. Dandridge.”
Mr. Dandridge had begun moaning again and moving his head back and forth, impeding the medics’ efforts.
“But all those are very unusual,” Dad hastened to add. “And the best way to prevent them is for us to do a very thorough irrigation here at the scene. Try not to thrash around quite so much.”
With a visible effort, Mr. Dandridge stilled his head, but his feet began twitching again.
“I’ll see if I can arrange for an ophthalmologist to meet us at the hospital, just in case.” Dad stepped aside and pulled out his iPhone.
“That would be Dr. Garza,” I said. “Unless Caerphilly has recently acquired a second ophthalmologist.”
“Doc, can we scrub him with the tomato juice now?” one of the medics asked.
“Please do,” Dad said.
“Tomato juice?” Chief Burke asked.
“We actually carry it in the ambulance just in case,” one of the EMTs said. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen it used before.”
“Do we have an ETA on that change of clothes for him?” one of the medics asked.
“I’ll go check,” Michael said. He ran off—away from the church, I noted with relief.
Two more firefighters stepped forward to help the medics by swabbing Mr. Dandridge’s hands and face with rags dripping with thick red liquid. Mr. Dandridge opened one eye slightly and then closed it again tightly. I wasn’t sure if he couldn’t see or didn’t like what he saw.
“Does that tomato juice wash out?” Mr. Dandridge asked.
“A darn sight better than the skunk odor,” a medic replied.
“May we ask Mr. Dandridge a few questions while the medics are working?” Chief Burke asked. Standing at his side was Jim Featherstone, Caerphilly’s new volunteer fire chief.
The medics nodded. With visible effort the chief came closer and squatted down at Mr. Dandridge’s side.
“Nelson, it’s Henry Burke,” he said. “I’m sorry to bother you, but we need to know a few things.”
Mr. Dandridge nodded slightly and assumed a stoic expression.
“Like why the devil did you call the fire department?” Chief Featherstone demanded.
“Because the county doesn’t have a skunk department,” Mr. Dandridge said. “Anyway, I didn’t ask for the fire department. I just called 911.”
“But you said the church was burning.”
“I never said the church was burning.” Mr. Dandridge tried to sit up and was prevented by the EMTs. “I said that I was in the church and that I’d been sprayed by skunks, and my eyes were burning. But perhaps I wasn’t speaking too clearly. Those miserable skunks were still trying to spray me.”
“Skunks?” Chief Burke asked. “Plural? How many? And where were they?”
“In the choir loft,” Mr. Dandridge said. “And I have no idea how many of them there were. I thought it was cats at first, and I went closer to see why someone had left a whole cage of cats in the church—”
“Cage?” Chief Burke and Chief Featherstone said in unison.
“Yes, cage. And I have no idea how many of them there were in the cage. A whole swarm of them.”
“Actually, the traditional term is a ‘surfeit of skunks,’” Dad put in. “I was just talking to Debbie Ann—she’s arranging for the ophthalmologist—and it’s pretty obvious what happened. Mr. Dandridge called her to say that he thought there were intruders in the church—”
“I saw the lights on from my house,” Mr. Dandridge put in. “I live just across the road.”
“And as Debbie Ann was urging him to leave the building and wait for the arrival of a deputy, he began shouting ‘It’s burning! It’s burning!’ Which was a perfectly natural reaction to being sprayed in the eyes by a skunk.”
“Skunks,” Mr. Dandridge corrected. “Could be dozens of them.”
“And of course Debbie Ann made the logical assumption that he was talking about the church,” Dad concluded.
The chiefs looked mollified.
“I’ve sent in two of my men wearing SCBAs to check out the church thoroughly, to make sure there’s definitely no fire and no other hazards,” Chief Featherstone said.
“SCBAs?” Chief Burke repeated.
“Self-contained breathing apparatus. I can lend you some if you want your men to investigate.”
“Thanks,” Chief Burke said. “I’d appreciate the gear—I plan to go in myself. I’m pretty familiar with the layout of the church.”
“I told my men to stay away from the choir loft as much as possible,” Chief Featherstone said. “At least until Eli Slattery from animal control gets here to remove the skunks.”
“Did he say how soon he’d get here?” Chief Burke asked.
“No idea.” The fire chief was frowning. “I left a message on his voice mail.”
“Eli’s a sound sleeper,” one of the firefighters put in.
Chief Featherstone’s frown deepened.
“Chief,” another firefighter said. “We could just call Osgood Shiffley down at the service station. He’s open all night, and only a few blocks from Eli’s house. He could probably pop over and pound on Eli’s door.”
Chief Featherstone blinked in surprise. He had retired after twenty years in a big-city fire department and moved to Caerphilly to take over leadership of our volunteer force. He was still getting used to life in Caerphilly, and looked as if he wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or horrified by this kind of small-town solution to the problem.
“Let’s give Eli a chance to respond,” he said finally. “But I’ll keep the idea in mind if the delay becomes too inconvenient.”
“Maybe someone should just try to take the skunks out,” one of the firefighters said. “I always heard that after they spray they can’t do it again immediately.”
“Not what I’ve heard,” another firefighter said.
“Besides,” Chief Featherstone said. “Mr. Dandridge says there are multiple skunks. We have no idea if they all sprayed him or if some of them didn’t and are just waiting to go after the next person to stick his nose in the choir loft. Anyone want to take that chance?”
The firefighters fell silent.
“So we wait for animal control,” Chief Burke said.
“Do you have any more questions?” Dad asked. “Because I’d like to transport him to the hospital.” Dad looked at his watch. “The ophthalmologist will be meeting us there within the half hour.”
Both chiefs nodded their approval. Dad packed his bag and hopped into the back of the ambulance. The two medics helped Mr. Dandridge in. Then they conferred briefly, and one stepped into the back of the ambulance with the patient. The other almost skipped on his way to the less odorous driver’s seat. Michael and another firefighter came running up.
“Wait a sec,” Michael called. “We’ve got his change of clothes.”
The back door of the ambulance opened. Dad leaned out to take the clothes, and looked around until he spotted me.
“Meg,” he said. “Your grandfather’s in my car. Could you see that he gets home safely?”
“Why in the world did you bring him along?” I asked. While Grandfather was hale and hearty for someone in his nineties, I didn’t think either the weather or the hour were suitable for dragging him out of his comfortable bed in my parents’ guest room.
“I didn’t exactly bring him,” Dad said. “He heard the sirens. And when I got out to the car, he was already sitting there, ready to go. No use even trying to talk him out of coming. And once we figured out there was no fire, he decided to stay in the car and sulk.”
He sounded uncharacteristically exasperated—with me, or with his headstrong father? No telling. He slammed the door and the ambulance set out, steering a careful course through the growing throng of onlookers.
“Well, that might solve the skunk removal problem,” I said to the chiefs.
Chief Featherstone looked puzzled and glanced at Chief Burke as if seeking enlightenment.
“Meg’s grandfather is Dr. Montgomery Blake,” Chief Burke explained. “A very distinguished zoologist.”
“Blake?” Chief Featherstone frowned slightly, no doubt puzzled that Dad and his father had different surnames. Since he was new in town, presumably he hadn’t already heard about how Dad had been abandoned at birth, adopted, and only recently reunited with his long-lost father. Then he spoke again.
“The one you always see on Animal Planet?” he asked. “Getting bitten and peed on by exotic animals?”
“That’s him,” I said. “And I happen to know he’s particularly fond of skunks. He likes their attitude.”
“I’m glad someone does,” Chief Burke said. “Could you ask him if he’ll help, please?”
Copyright © 2014 Donna Andrews.
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Donna Andrews is an American mystery fiction writer of two award-winning amateur sleuth series. Her first book, Murder with Peacocks, introduced Meg Langslow, a blacksmith from Yorktown, Virginia.