by Margaret S. Hamilton
Enjoy this never before published Halloween mystery short story and watch for a couple more yet this week!
Five minutes before closing, Lizzie Christopher stacked fabric sample books on the shelves of her interior design shop. A woman walked through the Main Street entrance and slammed the door shut.
Lizzie stood up and stretched. “We’re about to close. May I help you?”
The woman waved a stack of leaflets. “Your shop window is in violation of the town council’s Halloween proclamation.”
Cynthia Hoffmann. Lizzie sighed. A life-long resident of Jericho, Ohio, Cynthia resided in her family’s Victorian house at the edge of the historic district. Age hadn’t improved her gloomy, brown-shingled home, surrounded by precisely trimmed yew bushes.
Lizzie approached Cynthia, leaving several feet of floor space between them. “I have a copy of the recent proclamation which welcomes residents of nearby areas to celebrate Halloween with us in Jericho. It says nothing about decorations in the shop windows or local homes.”
Cynthia crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the shop door. “I’m not leaving until you comply with my order.”
Lizzie didn’t take her eyes off the woman. This wasn’t the first time Cynthia had kicked up a fuss. Several months earlier, she’d demanded that residents use only red geraniums, white petunias, and blue salvia plantings for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Lizzie, like most of the gardeners in town, had ignored her and planted the shop window boxes with purple wave petunias and dwarf lavender plants.
Picking up her cell phone, Lizzie tapped 9-1-1 and waited for the dispatcher. “Intruder at Lavender Cottage Interiors. I’d like to close up, and she refuses to leave.”
“Cynthia Hoffmann?” the dispatcher asked.
“An officer’s down the street in another shop. Give her five minutes.”
Lizzie locked the rear shop door and pulled on her fleece jacket. She turned off the lights and slung her cross-body bag over her head. “We’ll wait for the police to sort this out.”
Cynthia closed her eyes and continued to lean against the shop door.
Lizzie assessed the woman’s height and weight. Cynthia outweighed her by at least seventy pounds and was close to six feet tall. No way Lizzie could budge her.
Officer Bethany Schmidt knocked on the shop door.
As Cynthia shifted her body off the door knob, Lizzie darted to the door and yanked it open.
“Thanks for coming. I’d like to close up now.”
Officer Schmidt entered the shop. “Ms. Hoffmann, it’s time to leave.”
“Not till she removes her tawdry Halloween decorations from the shop window.”
Officer Schmidt took Cynthia by the arm. “Let’s go. I’d better not get another call about the Main Street shop windows. I’m a law enforcement officer, not the Halloween decorations police.” She opened the door and pushed Cynthia outside. Turning to Lizzie, Office Schmidt asked, “Anything else?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Thanks, as always. I’ll see you tomorrow at the parade.”
* * *
An hour later, as soon as Lizzie had joined her family at the dinner table, the doorbell rang. She dropped her knife and fork with a clatter. “What now?” Three dogs charged the front door, barking at top volume.
Her teenagers, Claire and Phillip, continued to devour their food.
“I’ll go.” Her husband, Nick, put down his wine glass.
Lizzie pushed back her chair. “Let me do it. I might have to sign for a delivery.” She pushed past the dogs and peeked through the sidelights. A familiar woman stood on the door mat. Easing open the wooden front door, Lizzie left the glass storm door closed and locked.
Cynthia Hoffmann held up a flyer. “You’re in violation of the Halloween decorations yard code.”
“Not you again.” Lizzie crossed her arms and raised her voice over the din of barking dogs.
“We permit only tasteful seasonal decorations in Jericho.” Cynthia looked up at the flat portico over the door where the family’s four jack o’ lanterns were displayed out of reach of the local pumpkin smashers. “Carved pumpkins are acceptable, as are corn stalks, but the rest of your so-called decorations are not.”
“Witches, Frankenstein, mummies, vampires, and zombies.” Cynthia gestured toward the plywood lawn decorations. “After you asked Officer Schmidt to run me off Main Street, I called the mayor. He agreed with me. No decorations that might scare the children. After all,” she sniffed, “Halloween is for the children.” Her smile was evil. “You’re about to learn the consequences of your actions.” Cynthia raised a whistle to her lips and blew three short blasts. A group of men swarmed up the embankment, yanked the plywood decorations out of the ground, and threw them into the bed of a pickup truck parked in front of the house.
Lizzie unlocked the storm door and stepped outside. Pulling her phone out of her pocket, she tapped 9-1-1 and spoke to the dispatcher. “Trespassing and vandalism. 117 North Chestnut Street.”
“Is it the yard police?” the dispatcher asked.
“Cynthia Hoffmann and friends.”
“They’re staging a coordinated attack all over town. It’ll be a few minutes.”
Nick and the kids joined her on the front porch. “What’s going on?”
Claire shrieked. “My yard figures.” She jumped off the porch and raced across the front yard. Grabbing one end of her pride and joy, a full-sized plywood vampire she’d spent hours painting, she continued to yell. “Don’t you dare touch my work. We made these for the Halloween parade tomorrow night.”
Nick ran into the front yard. “Lizzie, call the police.”
“Stop them. They’re stealing my yard art.” Claire continued to shout at top volume. Lizzie grabbed a corner of Claire’s vampire figure as a man tried to yank it from them.
Phillip stood next to the screaming coffin he’d made in shop class. “Nobody touches my coffin.”
Nick helped Phillip lift the coffin off the sawhorses and put it on the ground. Phillip climbed inside it while Nick slid down the embankment and clambered into the truck bed. After the lawn police loaded the wooden figures in the truck, Nick threw them back on the lawn.
Lizzie entered the fray and snapped photos of each adult marauder before she climbed down to the street and took additional photos of the pickup truck and other cars. Putting her phone on video, she filmed the action in the front yard. “I’ve recorded you for the police. You’re not going to get away with this.”
Finally, a Jericho police SUV pulled up in the street, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Officer Bethany Schmidt climbed out carrying a bullhorn. “Yard police, you’re trespassing. Line up in the driveway.” She pointed to several men headed down the street. “You three, get over here too.” Her fellow officer herded everyone into a group.
After Lizzie and Nick joined Officer Schmidt, Lizzie said, “Cynthia Hoffmann rang the doorbell and accused us of having illegal yard decorations.”
Officer Schmidt pointed to the ten adults milling in the driveway. “These people took it upon themselves to rid the local homes of Halloween decorations that didn’t meet their approval. Gangs of them are all over town tonight.”
Claire and Phillip approached them.
“Officer Schmidt, we worked so hard on the wooden Halloween figures.” Claire’s voice trembled. “The Art and Service Clubs and a whole bunch of volunteers. We made permanent decorations to use every year on the Town Green.”
“Not a problem,” Officer Schmidt said. “Go ahead and deliver them to the Town Green tomorrow after school.”
“Which means I’ll be on guard duty until the parade is over,” Lizzie said. “Why should a bunch of yard police ruin the Halloween fun?”
Nick patted her shoulder. “I’ll be with you.”
A black Suburban pulled up. “Great, here’s our transport,” Officer Schmidt said. She used her bullhorn to tell the trespassers to line up for boarding.
One of the yard police members edged toward Lizzie and pulled out a hunting knife. “We don’t even bother to steal those inflatable black cats and spiders. I give ‘em a poke, and they’re done.”
The two police officers frisked each gang member and found several more knives. Cynthia Hoffmann carried pepper spray and a taser.
“Nice haul,” Officer Schmidt said. “We’ll impound their vehicles, too.”
They watched the police van drive away followed by the patrol car.
“Let’s load the decorations into the van tonight,” Nick said. “We can tie the coffin to the roof rack.”
“I have sales calls at customer’s homes tomorrow. I can’t show up with a coffin on top of my van,” Lizzie said.
“Why not?” Phillip asked. “It’s a great looking coffin.”
Lizzie smacked her forehead. “Fine, I’ll borrow the installer’s truck.”
“By the way, I ordered the dry ice you wanted,” Nick said. “I’ll bring it to the Green tomorrow in an approved cooler.”
* * *
The next afternoon, Lizzie and Nick stood under a tree on the Town Green guarding the dry ice cooler as they watched the high school students set up the wooden figures and cornhole games. After Phillip and his friends positioned the coffin near the gazebo, they tested opening the coffin lid. It screamed every time.
“Sounds great,” Lizzie said. She clutched two tall thermoses.
“What’s the dry ice for?” Nick asked.
“Atmosphere. After you put it in the coffin, Phillip will pour hot water on it from these thermoses. When the kiddies open the coffin smoke will billow out.”
“Carbon dioxide should be safe enough in the open air,” Nick said, “as long as nobody touches the dry ice without heavy leather gloves.”
Lizzie and Nick kept watch over the yard decorations during the children’s games. Parents snapped photos of their kids with the life-sized vampire and zombie figures. The dry ice and hot water combination produced a spooky fog when the coffin lid was raised.
Soon, it was time for the parade. The children, with their parents nearby, marched as a group behind the high school band. Lizzie gripped her heavy flashlight and motioned to Nick to do the same. Lizzie suspected that if the yard police returned, it would be after the children had left the Green.
Lizzie saw several pickup trucks approach the area and idle behind the police barricades blocking the surrounding streets. Adults clad in all black, wearing balaclavas, emerged from the truck beds. Several slipped onto the Green and stood behind trees. Lizzie heard the coffin scream as the lid was raised. “What’s going on with the coffin?”
“No idea,” Nick said. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Lizzie alerted the dispatcher about the masked figures, who promised to relay the information to the police officers monitoring the parade.
After they had marched down Main Street, the high school band members stood in formation at the end of the Green. They continued to perform while the golf cart floats drove in front of a group of costumed dogs and their owners walking the parade route. As the band played a rousing Sousa march, the men in black charged.
The men used sledgehammers to pound the plywood Halloween figures to bits before they approached the coffin.
A man revved up his chain saw and positioned the blade over the coffin.
Lizzie screamed. “Wait!”
Nick raced down the gazebo steps and approached the coffin. “Check to make sure it’s empty.”
The guy with the chainsaw lifted the coffin lid. A dry ice fog coated the bottom underneath a prone figure.
“Back off. There’s somebody inside.” Nick heaved Cynthia Hoffmann out of the coffin. “The dry ice would have suffocated her.” As Cynthia revived, Nick encouraged her to take deep breaths. Lizzie called the dispatcher and requested an ambulance.
Officer Schmidt turned up minutes later.
“The yard police never quit, do they?” she asked. “I want everybody in the gazebo to wait for transport. Cynthia could have died in the coffin.”
“It was an accident,” the man with the chainsaw said. “We didn’t know that stuff was inside.”
Nick said, “Dry ice, which is carbon dioxide, can suffocate a person in an enclosed space within a few minutes. It’s a virtually undetectable way to kill someone.”
“We live in trailers on her family farm outside of town,” a man with a sledgehammer said. “She threatened to evict us unless we did all the yard police stuff. We knew it wasn’t right, but Ms. Hoffmann always knows best. We had to stay on her good side or lose our homes.”
“You don’t care about Halloween decorations?” Lizzie asked.
“Why did you dump Cynthia in the coffin? She almost died.”
A third man chimed in. “She’s already bellyaching about Christmas decorations, including the big mouse on the clock tower. We had to shut her up. We figured a little nap in a coffin wouldn’t hurt her.”
An EMT crew appeared with a stretcher and carried Cynthia to a waiting ambulance. Lizzie heard her continue to protest. “We must maintain certain standards in Jericho. I almost died inside that coffin.”
Lizzie followed the stretcher. “If you hadn’t meddled in the town’s affairs, none of this would have happened. You decided to ruin it for everybody. Tonight, I didn’t hear one parent complain about the wooden figures. I didn’t see one child scared of them. They’ve probably seen much worse on television.”
Officer Schmidt and another officer herded the yard police into the same Suburban they had used the night before. The driver tapped the horn as he pulled out and headed for the station.
Claire and her friends picked up what was left of the plywood figures.
“I’m so sorry,” Lizzie said. “You kids worked very hard to create the figures.”
“We’ll remake them,” Claire said. “And do an even better job next year. We’ll use glow-in-the-dark paint and motion-activated sound effects.”
“And dry ice fog,” Phillip said. “That was a big hit.”
“It was almost Cynthia’s undoing,” Lizzie said.
“She deserved it,” Claire said.
Lizzie frowned. “No, she didn’t. I hope she’s learned her lesson.”
As they carried the coffin across the Green to Lizzie’s van, a band of five-year-old pirates ran up.
“Please make it scream one more time.” The kids jumped and cheered. “See you next year!”
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