by Frederick Ramsay
Here is another Christmas short story for your holiday reading, this one is by mystery writer Frederick Ramsay and has been previously published! Still a couple more to come between now and Christmas.
The door slammed against the wall, bounced, shuddered, and slapped shut again. Darcie Starling, mouth agape, stood as her father’s picture in the foyer wobbled on its hook, seemed to hesitate, unsure if it should, and then plummeted to the floor with a crash, scattering glass shards across the floor. Seconds later, the Digby police, search warrant in hand, pushed their way in, this time more gently, and proceeded to search her house. Ransack would be a more accurate description of what they were about. Clumsy and heavy footed, they tipped over her Christmas tree, the almost new artificial one which she’d bought at the Goodwill Store. Drawers, cabinets and her purse were unceremoniously dumped.
Her beautiful faux alligator luggage, a high school graduation present, lay on the floor; lids flopped back like filleted fish. She’d only used the set once forty-five years previously when she went east to college. The huge state university campus and its masses of students, so intimidated her that, except for trips to the bathroom and to purchase peanut butter crackers and soda pop from machines, she refused to leave her room. She never registered, never unpacked. Several visits from the Dean of Students and a Health Service nurse from could not move her. Mercifully, at the end of the fifth day of her hold-out, her father called her home to care for her critically ill mother. And when that good woman died, Darcie stayed on as her father’s housekeeper and hostess, not that the Digby Regional Superintendent of Schools required much in the way of the latter.
Police traipsed though her house for an hour, crushing fallen Christmas decorations under foot. They ground the delicate ornaments into the carpet and left footprints of brightly colored crushed glass in the foyer. They dumped her dresser drawers. Her face turned bright crimson when a grinning, gap-toothed cop pawed through her underwear. And as if that weren’t enough, protests ignored, she was arrested, handcuffed, and stuffed into the back seat of a police car. She never imagined, in her wildest dreams, would never have guessed, that the gift of Second Sight would cause her so much grief.
* * *
It had started innocently enough. A week after her sixtieth birthday, Darcie saw her cat, savaged by her neighbor’s Pit Bull. The image seemed so real, she dashed into the back yard screaming at the dog’s owner. He, a glass of lemonade in one hand and a tattered copy of Agatha Christie’s A Holiday for Murder in the other, nearly fell out of his Pawley’s Island hammock at her verbal onslaught. Cleopatra, the cat in question, watched all this with feline disinterest. Her neighbor, momentarily stunned, recovered and had some strong words for Darcie in return. Mixed in among them was the news that Jaws (the name of Pit Bull in question) had spent the day at the Vet’s and had not yet returned. At that moment Cleopatra announced her presence by rubbing against Darcie’s legs. Abashed and thoroughly confused, she retreated to her kitchen and poured a bowl of milk for the cat.
The following day, Cleopatra was, in fact, crushed in the jaws of Jaws, so to speak. In a deja-vu moment, the scene from the previous afternoon was played out once again. This time the neighbor, frantic at the prospect of losing his dog, apologized profusely and begged her not to call the authorities. He would make it up to her, he promised. Darcie called the police anyway. They, in turn, took a snarling, unrepentant, Jaws away. Her neighbor muttered something about getting even. She guessed that was why she now sat handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser. But this would come much later—after the hold-up and shooting at the Digby Savings and Loan.
Indeed, two and a half years would pass between those two pivotal events, years during which Darcie saw many more things about to happen. They came to pass on the day following the vision. Like the mythic Cassandra, she felt overwhelmed by omens and portents. Impending disasters robbed her of her sleep. Since she assumed this pernicious gift had been His, she prayed to her God to take it away. She’d been raised a low church Episcopalian and the God that made his home there did not, as a rule, respond to petitions. He, Darcie had been taught at an early age, remained an aloof but distant Presence. And as for his son…well, he was rarely, if ever, mentioned except when featured in the Sunday readings. For the most part, the Almighty was simply referred to as “the Lord.” Darcie always imagined the name set in bold face, capital letters—THE LORD—and given the respect the title carried. No other demands were made on Him . . . or his. In this, she discovered, churches on her side of town were in general agreement.
Darcie’s butcher’s daughter, on the other hand, attended the First Assembly of God Church out on the highway. She declared that God answered prayers all the time and recounted in great detail instances when divine intervention had, in fact, saved one or more of her friends. Given the vagueness of theological thought that permeated the churches near her, and the insistence by most of her caste that religion was to be a private, that is to say, an unspoken matter, she was led to wonder if her God would mind very much if she were to drop in on the one at the Assembly of God Church and do her praying over there. She really did not want this awful gift and would try anything, even a visit to the Holy Rollers, which is how she thought of the butcher’s daughter’s place of worship. She finally decided against it.
She had strayed from the correct, that is to say Episcopalian God, once before with disastrous results. When she was sixteen she desperately wanted to be asked to the Junior Prom by Erik Fosom. Her friend, Bridget O’Reilly, persuaded Darcie to accompany her one evening to the Irish Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual…something. There, immersed in the mixed scents of incense and hot candle wax, they prayed to God’s Mother to intervene on Darcie’s behalf. The next afternoon Erik slipped from a wagon filled with freshly cut alfalfa and caught his leg in a silage chopper. Naturally, the invitation to the prom never arrived. Bridget insisted it had something to do with the fact that Erik was a Lutheran and you know how God’s Mother felt about them. Darcie thought, but never said, that going around God’s back and praying to his Mother had probably provoked him into reverting to his Old Testament self. Either way she could never look Erik Fosom in the eye after that. She felt certain her indiscretion with the Irish deity had cost him his leg.
So, in the present instance, even though Christmas did involve God’s mother somewhat more than usual, she decided the risk too great and resigned herself to five minutes daily on her knees discussing her problem with the God of her upbringing who, she sensed, had no more interest in it than Cleopatra who had, by that time, succumbed to her terrible fate, but who would readily have made some sort of feline petition had she been able.
* * *
The ride downtown through the slush and gaudy Christmas lights seemed interminable. Cheery versions of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” racketed along the route as the cruiser splashed to the police station. Her mood did not match their happy cadence. Handcuffs pinioned her hands behind her back. Their sharp steel edges cut into her flesh. No one spoke to her, no one answered her questions, and the heater didn’t work. Finally overwhelmed by frustration and discomfort, she began to cry. Not sobs. She had been schooled as a small child to never lower herself to expressing base emotions. But in the rear seat of that icy Ford Crown Victoria, tears streamed down her cheeks as she choked back the howl that sat poised somewhere just behind those two lumpy things in the back of her throat.
When the cop in the front seat Mirandized her and she heard the word lawyer, she settled down. She didn’t know any lawyers. The church seemed full of them but she made a point of ignoring them, politely of course, as a matter of principle. Her late father had a low opinion of any profession that would knowingly protect a guilty man. However, she did know Judge Horace Graybill. She remembered that prisoners were allowed to make one phone call. She knew the Judge’s phone number and she knew he could straighten out this mess in a heartbeat.
She started to feel better.
* * *
Judge Horace Graybill had the voice of an Old Testament Prophet. When he spoke, people even those merely within earshot, fell silent and listened. His critics, primarily those in the legal profession and who had to try cases before him, said that voice notwithstanding, most of what proceeded from his mouth made little or no sense. The County Bar Association routinely reported to the Governor the all too frequent instances when the judge’s rulings were reversed on appeal. Nevertheless, he had a constituency which regularly reelected him, and the judge remained sublimely indifferent to his record. In his view, one he expressed often to his cronies at the Digby Country Club, the Court of Appeals had been stacked with liberals by President Carter and what else could you expect.
The fact that Jimmy Carter had been out of office for over three decades and the court in question had one or two sitting judges on it who were not even born when he left office did not dissuade him from that view.
“So what’s all this fuss and feathers about, Dorothy?” He insisted on using her real name. Darcie was a corruption of Dorothy and a name she’d bestowed on herself at age two when she had attempted to pronounce Dorothy. Almost nobody called her anything but Darcie. But the judge, being of a formal disposition and accustomed to having correct nomenclature used in his court, insisted on Dorothy.
Once, she had changed her name. About the time she had her fixation on the not as yet one legged Eric Fosom, she started signing her name D’Arcy. She thought it had a romantic French look to it. She reverted to Darcie after the incident with the silage chopper and never used that spelling again.
“I have no idea, Judge,” she said. “These people seem to think I had something to do with a shooting this morning and they arrested me.”
”Nonsense. Pure Hoo-haw if you ask me. Wait here.”
Since she’d been put in a jail cell, the Holding Tank, they’d called it, she was not going anywhere. Had it been a weekend, she might have had to share the space with any number of felons and miscreants but luckily, it was late Monday morning and, except for her, the cell was empty. She slumped back on the narrow cot and tried to think. Her attempts at cognition were disrupted by the extreme lumpiness of the mattress and the stench it emitted. She stood and moved forward and tried to see into the corridor. Nothing. She heard singing off to her right, mournful, Negro singing. African-American had not made it into her lexicon and as far as she was concerned, it never would. All nonsense, stirring people up against one another. Amy, her black nanny, had looked after her as a child and into puberty. There was never any problem with saying Negro to her. Not the other “N” word, of course. The Starlings were not bigots, everybody knew that. And Amy said so, too. Darcie could not remember Amy’s last name. She wondered if she ever knew it—not that it made any difference. Amy was like one of the family and that was all there was to that, thank you very much.
She paced the cell, measuring its length and width and tried to ignore its pervading aroma of urine and Lysol. Horace Graybill reappeared.
“As I expected, all hoo-haw, Dorothy,” he repeated, “but I can’t get any help here. They say they have a witness who’s on his way down here to ID you. And because I’ve known your family since forever, they even recused me. What’s all this about a witness?”
“My neighbor. He has it in for me. I had his dog arrested for murder and he never forgave me.”
“Well, I’ll find you an attorney. In the meantime you just sit tight. You have money for a lawyer, Dorothy?”
“Umm… I can probably find some.”
In truth, Darcie was as poor as a church mouse. When her father died, he left sums for her support. He had no concept of inflation and believed that with a Republican administration firmly in charge of the nation’s economy, he’d set enough aside to last her lifetime. The bulk of his estate went to his son who played the guitar and lived somewhere in Southern California. No matter how she scrimped, the money dwindled away. The house, the only other thing she’d inherited, was mortgaged to the hilt. Darcie had no marketable skills. How she would pay a lawyer would have to come from some other quarter. She dropped to her knees and concentrated on the Holy Roller God. She would pray to him here in the Holding Tank and Eric Fosom, or whoever else might be at risk, would just have to take his chances.
The cell door screeched open and a large black woman staggered into the cell.
“In you go, Dolores,” a guard said and slammed the door closed. The woman collapsed on the cot.
“Whoo-ee,” she said. “This is not been a good day. What you doing on your knees, lady?”
“Praying, or I was about to when you came in.”
“Well, don’t let me stop you. Lord always have time to listen to a sinner.”
“It wasn’t like that—I mean about the sinning. I wanted him to take something back.”
“Take somethin’ back. Somethin’ that he give you and you don’t want no more? Maybe he give it to me instead. Can’t have too many blessings, no sir.”
“You wouldn’t want it.”
“Depends on what it is. How about you let me decide?”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t think it’s transferable. It’s the gift of Second Sight.”
“Second Sight? You mean like you can see the future?”
“Well, sometimes, yes.”
“Well, let me tell you something, Honey, that gift didn’t come from no God. That’s the Devil’s doing. You be right wanting to shuck it.”
“I’ve tried and my God won’t take it. So I thought I’d shop around to see if somebody else’s God would. What church do you attend?”
“Mount Olive Apostolic Holiness Church, but somebody else’s? How many Gods you think they is?”
“Well, just one I guess . . .” Darcie’s theology remained a little vague on that point. The doctrine of the Trinity confused her. She knew it was “One in Three” but she never could work out the details and then there were the obvious differences in the behavior of the First Assembly God and hers.
“You guess? Girlfriend, you better be more than guessing. There ain’t but one God and he the same all over.”
“Well, maybe, but the God I was taught isn’t in the habit of spending time on human foolishness.” There, she’d said it. The woman, Dolores, stared at her in disbelief.
“No wonder he ain’t taken that devilment from you. You don’t believe.”
“Yes, I do.” Did she? “I just thought if we were to pray to the God of the Mount Olive Apostolic um…maybe he would hear me and—”
“Listen to me, Honey, there ain’t but one God. If yours seem different it’s ‘cause you treat him different. Like—you don’t expect nothing`, you don’t get nothin’. That’s it.”
Darcie mulled over Dolores’ words. She thought they made some kind of sense, but then why had the Reverend Franklin Falstoop, D. Min., down at Saint Stephen’s, never said so. He, of all the people she knew, seemed absolutely committed to the Doctrine of the Distant Presence. She rocked back on her heels to think. Things had become very confusing since this gift business had started. She wondered how much Dolores, who smelled suspiciously of strong drink, really knew.
“Why are you in here?” she asked.
Dolores rolled over on her side and hiccupped. “D.U.I and ve-hic-u-lar homicide. What about you, Woman? You a axe murderer or something? You look like that Lizzy Borden I seen on the TV.”
“They think I had something to do with a shooting and robbery on the other side of town.”
“I knew it. What other side? Oh, you mean like my side, where you rich white folk don’t never come.”
In fact, for Darcie and the gentle folk she associated with, the other side meant across the Norfolk and Southern railroad tracks, but she didn’t say so.
“I’m not rich,” she said, instead. “What’s vehicular homicide?”
“I done run over somebody. The only reason I’m in here is because I had me a wine or two at Jasper’s ‘fore I drove home. Then this guy busts out of a alley and step right in front of me. Wham! He’s flying like Superman.”
“He was drunk?”
“Liquidated. So after a hearing tomorrow, when I’m for sure sober, they’ll turn me loose and that’s that. Dolores Carthcart be free to go home and figure out how she going to pay the back rent and keep the Gas and Electric from shutting off her heat. Yes, Lord, big day tomorrow. If my old momma see me now, she drop a calf.”
Cathcart? Why did Darcie think she knew that name?
Dolores turned her bloodshot eyes on Darcie. “So why don’t you just tell me my fortune while you still got the gift. Then we’ll pray it away.”
Darcie shook her head. “It’s not that way. I mean I don’t ask for the visions, they just come.”
“You can’t see nothing except what come to you?”
“Yeeesss…” Darcie felt one coming. “Oh my,” she said, “if we pray right now, I think it will go away. Here, get down on your knees and pray with me. I need the God of the Mount Olive Apostolic Whatever church right now.”
“I ain’t getting off this bed to pray for nobody.”
“Will you if I ask for a vision about you?”
“You said it don’t work that way.”
“I said it never has, but then I never tried.”
Dolores Cathcart rolled off the cot and stood next to Darcie, who had rocked forward on her knees again. She placed her hand on Darcie’s shoulder and after a brief pause bellowed, “Almighty Father God…have mercy on this here miserable sinner.” Darcie winced. She did not like to think of herself as a sinner, miserable or otherwise.
“She’s burdened, Lord. Yes, burdened, burdened, burdened with the Devil’s own works. Alleluia and Amen.” Darcie did not accept the notion the gift did not come from God and she wondered if he’d be annoyed by Dolores saying otherwise. She certainly did not want to get on his bad side again.
“Yes, Lord, and she needs that burden taken away! Amen and thank you, Jesus.”
In the silence that followed, Darcie felt a warm glow that started at the point where Dolores’ hand pressed on her shoulder. It spread across her shoulders and down her back. At that moment she received the vision. She did not know why, but she knew it would be her last. She knew, too, that she must pay very close attention to it.
“Oh!” she said.
“Dolores Cathcart,” Darcie intoned.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“What? What you see?”
“A package wrapped in brown paper is delivered to your house at 1347 South Main Street. Oh, you’re opening the door.”
“How you know my address?”
“The mailman leaves and you are in your living room. Nobody else is home.”
“Yeah, yeah. What’s in the package? Wait, don’t tell me. This here is the Devil’s work.”
“No, no, this is from the God of the Mount Olive Apostolic Holiness Church.”
“I thought I tol’ you——”
It was at that precise moment that Darcie Starling had her epiphany. The heavens did not open, trumpets did not sound. No angel chorus sang sweet hosannas. She would not have been surprised if they had, but none did. But she finally understood and she KNEW.
“You’re right. Yes, yes, I see now…there is just one God, but he needs multiple venues and alternative messengers to do His work.” She smiled. She’d found God. It was if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“Get on with it, Woman. What about my package?”
“You are opening it. Oh my—”
“What? It’s a bomb. I’m gonna die.”
“Rich? Hold it right there.” Dolores scowled. “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm. You see how it go—boney assed white woman come in here and bullshit me. You worse than that snotty little brat my Momma took care of back all them years ago. ‘You’re one of the family,’ they’d say and then give her two dollars a day for ten hours work. And soon’s that girl got big enough to find her behind without a map, then it was, ‘Goodbye, Amy, we don’t need you no more.’”
Amy Cathcart? Was that her name? Then this would be her daughter. Darcie didn’t know her Amy had a family.
“I am not…deceiving you. I’m never wrong about these things. Like yesterday afternoon. I saw the robbery and shooting that happened this very morning, at dawn, saw it all, clear as day. An armored truck parked across from the Exxon Station and a robber came up behind the guard at the truck’s back door while the other one was in the Savings and Loan. The first one was knocked out with a golf club and when he fell, his gun went off and shot the other one coming out of the door. Robber grabbed four big bags of money and ran around the corner and disappeared. I don’t remember a witness though. Now that’s odd…Well, anyway, tomorrow you will receive some money, a lot of money.”
Dolores looked doubtful. Then she smiled. “Can’t make no difference either way, but I think I best send Lynel out for cigarettes around the time the mail come. He don’t have to know about no money.” She helped Darcie to her feet. “You all done with your seeing?”
“All done. That was the last one. Your praying worked. No more visions.”
The two women settled into a comfortable silence. Darcie started to mention Amy and then suspected Dolores would either be angry or embarrassed if she did, so she let it drop. Five minutes later, Judge Graybill reappeared.
“I knew it all along, all Hoo-haw, Dorothy. I was just in the middle of engaging an attorney for you when the DA came downstairs and said the case is dropped. Seems like their witness, the only one who could have identified you, got drunk in one of those bars down there in Darktown and got himself run over by an equally drunk black woman.”
“That would be me,” Dolores said, and fixed Judge Horace Graybill with a look that dared him to wander into the area of black lifestyles, which is where he was obviously headed. He harrumphed.
“They will be here in a minute to turn you out. I told that DA, one of those sob-sister liberal Democrats if I ever saw one, that the whole idea of you, an over sixty spinster lady with no prospects, robbing an armored truck was ridiculous. And I was right. The witness was a drunk and… well they will be here any minute. They said they were sorry about your house.”
The judge took one more look at a baleful Dolores and scurried away down the corridor.
* * *
Darcie surveyed the shambles the police had made of her home and belongings. On any other occasion, she would have been devastated. Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit or just the relief of being out of jail, but she remained calm. Nothing had been broken that could not be replaced.
It had been a near thing. Thank God for Dolores Cathcart. She stepped over a shattered glass bulb, its hook still dangling from the stem. It had been her mother’s favorite. She sighed and picked her way into the kitchen. The search team had been a bit more circumspect here. Her silverware had been dumped into the sink but it appeared that what they were looking for would not be found in the kitchen.
She realized she’d eaten nothing since early morning except a bowl of Cheerios. She made a cheese sandwich and poured out the last of the milk. The wall clock whirled and clunked. She’d bought the clock at a yard sale. It was designed to look like a cat, the clock face fitted in its stomach. Its tail tick-tocked back and forth while its oversized eyeballs oscillated in the opposite direction. It reminded her of Cleopatra.
The post office would close in less than an hour. She put her half-eaten sandwich aside and went down into the basement. The police had been very thorough there. The washer and dryer contents were scattered all over the floor. Her father’s golf clubs, the kind with wooden shafts, lay like pick-up sticks in the corner. Cabinet doors hung open, their contents spilled out onto counters and piled high on an old, chipped, porcelain topped table. She swept these items onto the floor and spread out a large square of brown wrapping paper. She walked back into the unlighted gloom toward the front of her house. Most of the shelves there had also been cleared except the topmost. She supposed the searcher had been short of stature, or had assumed nothing of interest would be found in a collection of dusty, lidless, mason jars.
She pulled over a stepstool and carefully removed the jars revealing a shallow crawl space. Her father had kept apples and potatoes in that cool dry area. After Ernie Ducotte harvested his potatoes, he would sell Darcie a bag of culls cheap. Darcie bought them when she could and stored them up there, too. She peered in. All four bags were just as she’d left them. She dragged one out and dumped its contents on the wrapping paper.
Eighty-one neat packets each held together by a brown paper tape around its middle. She stacked them like bricks, four lengthwise, five across. She stepped back to admire the etched faces of Jackson, Grant, and Franklin. She stuffed the odd packet in her pocket. She’d need it to buy postage and then she just might stop at the Piggly Wiggly and pick up a steak. It had been along time since she’d eaten a steak. A steak and a baked potato…and sour cream…and real butter.
She had just enough clear tape to seal the package. She added cording just to be safe. She closed her eyes and called up the vision—the last she would ever have. It was only fair. After all, Dolores’ accident had made it possible. God had given her this bounty and he insisted she share it.
She addressed the package:
To: Dolores Cathcart
1347 South Main Street.
You can find other Christmas and Christmas mystery short stories in our Terrific Tales section, with more to come over the next week.