by B.K. Stevens
This is the first of several Thanksgiving mystery short stories we will be publishing this month, and this one has never before been published.
“I’m not sure it’s safe.” Rose Foley held the baskets in both hands. “Wait until Dad can go with you, Matt. You boys shouldn’t make deliveries on your own.”
“Plus we’re taking Krav Maga.” Berk threw two quick punches into the air. “We’re self-defense experts, Mrs. Foley. If old ladies attack us with their canes—-”
“Nobody’s going to attack us,” Matt cut in. “Come on, Mom. It’s not dangerous. It’s Ridgecrest.”
She shook her head. “Ridgecrest’s changing. Did you see yesterday’s newspaper? An armed robbery, two overdose cases at the emergency room, burglaries—-terrible. But all right. Here are the names and addresses. The last one’s just outside town, that small brown house up the gravel road.”
Matt skimmed the list. “I know the one you mean. Don’t recognize the name, though. Emily Swanson?”
“She moved here last month—-she sent us the nicest note. She’s a widow, a retired English teacher. Must be lonely, poor thing. Maybe you could chat with her a bit.”
“Will do,” Matt said, and the boys walked out into the church parking lot, into the bright, cold sunlight of a Virginia November.
“Remind me,” Berk said. “Why are we doing this? Ridgecrest already has a meal delivery deal.”
“It doesn’t deliver on Thanksgiving.” Matt shoved baskets into the backseat. “It drops off extra meals the day before—cold turkey sandwich, something like that. But that’s pretty pathetic for Thanksgiving. So my mom and her friends put a notice in the paper, offering to cook dinners for anyone who needed them. I said we’d help.”
“Thanks a bunch for volunteering me,” Berk said, then shrugged. “Just get me home in time for football.”
Deliveries went quickly. Soon, they pulled onto the gravel road and drove to the weather-beaten brown house with a ramshackle detached garage. Matt strode to the front door, with Berk trailing behind and yawning.
A woman opened the door—tall, thin, and bent, leaning heavily on her walker, curly gray hair drooping over her eyebrows and crowding her cheeks. She wore thick glasses, a bulky sweater, baggy slacks. “What a pretty basket!” she said, in a high-pitched, wavering voice. “Come in! I’ll get you some milk.”
She shuffled off to the kitchen. The boys exchanged looks, then settled on the couch. “Good deed for the day,” Matt thought, and looked around. Not much furniture—couch, rocking chair, coffee table, television, small desk with a lamp next to it, built-in shelves filled with spools of thread and rows of mismatched teacups. All the curtains were closed tight. “Bad idea,” Matt thought, especially with only one small ceiling light.
“Ready!” she called. “Could somebody help with this tray?”
Matt bounced up. He passed the only bedroom and glanced in—tiny, with barely enough room for a bed, a bureau, a single chair. The kitchen was tiny, too, and felt dim and stifling, with curtains closed and no lights on. He carried the tray to the living room, and she lowered herself into her rocker. “Such nice boys! What are your names?”
Matt took a polite sip of milk. “I’m Matt Foley, and he’s Berk Widrig. My mom said you taught English?”
“Yes,” she sighed, “at a Richmond high school. Then I retired, my husband passed away, and I couldn’t afford to live in Richmond anymore.”
“Do you have family nearby?” Berk asked.
“No. My daughter and her children live in California. But my nephew from Richmond brings me groceries and picks up embroidery projects I’ve finished. He sells them to craft stores—I can use the extra income. I love to sit in my rocker and embroider,” she hesitated. “That’s fine for an old lady, but it probably gets dull here for you boys.”
“That’s for sure,” Berk downed his milk. “Not much to do in Ridgecrest.”
“You must have some places you go to,” she said. “My students always did. Where do high-school kids here hang out?”
Matt shrugged. “Fast-food places, mostly.”
She pursed her lips. “There must be places where kids can get something more interesting than cheeseburgers. Come on, now. I won’t tell your parents—I don’t even know your parents. Where do you go when you really want a good time?”
“Well, I’ve never gone,” Berk said, “but some kids—-”
“Don’t bore Mrs. Swanson with gossip,” Matt cut in, “and I promised my mom we’d head straight back. Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Swanson.”
She smiled. “Thanks. Berk, could you come back tomorrow and rake my leaves? I’ll pay you fifty dollars.”
Berk’s eyes widened, “Sure. You got a rake in your garage?”
“No,” she said, quickly. “It’s empty. You’d better bring a rake. See you tomorrow.”
“And if she doesn’t have much money,” Matt said, “fifty’s a lot to offer. I don’t think you should come back tomorrow. Something’s not right about her.”
Berk laughed, “That’s nuts. She’s a nice old lady.”
“I’m not sure she’s nice. I’m not even sure she’s old. Why does she have the curtains closed on such a nice day? Maybe she didn’t want us to get a good look at her. And with her hair half-hiding her face and those big glasses and bulky clothes, how do we know she’s as old as she says?”
“So she wants us to think she’s older than she is? What woman wants that?”
“Maybe one with something to hide. She says she taught English. Did you see any books? I glanced into her bedroom. No bookcase. She’s got built-in shelves in the living room, but not one book. Does that sound like an English teacher? You know what else isn’t on her shelves? Photographs. She says she has a daughter with children. You know any grandmothers who don’t have pictures of their grandkids everywhere?”
“She needs the shelves for embroidery stuff,” Berk said, “like those spools.”
“Embroidery thread doesn’t come on spools. My mom embroiders, so I know. And she says she embroiders in the rocking chair, but there’s no lamp near it. She wears thick glasses, but somehow she can embroider in that dark room? And supposedly her nephew sells her finished projects to craft stores—no way. Craft stores are for people who make their own things, not people who buy things somebody else made.”
That made Berk pause. “So why’d she sign up for Thanksgiving dinner? If she’s hiding, she wouldn’t want anyone to see her.”
“Unless she’s setting up a cover.” Matt hesitated, knowing it sounded crazy. “Maybe she wants some people to see her as this Mrs. Swanson. If nobody ever saw her, people might wonder. This way, they’ll get used to the idea a retired teacher lives here. And if things get risky—-”
“She can disappear into her secret identity!” Berk’s eyes lit up. “You think she’s a criminal?”
“Maybe,” Matt didn’t want to get Berk all worked up. “She did try pumping us about where kids go to get something ‘more interesting’ than cheeseburgers. Maybe she asked you to come back because you seemed willing to talk about it, and—-”
“—and she wants to pump me again!” Berk bristled with excitement. “She’s a drug dealer! Your mom said more overdose cases are showing up at the hospital. I bet Mrs. Swanson’s staking out the territory—sneaking into town at night, sneaking back. Even if the cops hear about a new drug dealer in town, they’ll never look for her here. And I bet her so-called nephew’s a contact who brings her drugs. I’ll call the cops.” He reached for his cell phone.
“Slow down,” Matt said. “They’d never believe us. We don’t have proof.”
“Then we gotta get proof.” Berk looked around. “The garage! When I asked about it, she clammed up. Maybe she keeps drugs there. Let’s search it!”
“Typical Berk,” Matt thought. “That’d be a dumb place to keep drugs. Anyway, it’s padlocked. We should leave and think things through.”
Berk shook his head. “She might get away. Maybe the garage has a window in back. Even if she just has a car, that’ll prove she’s not a shut-in.”
Before Matt could object, Berk ran behind the garage. “This is stupid,” Matt thought, “and it could be dangerous.” But he couldn’t drive away and leave Berk behind. He set off after him.
Berk was kneeling, pushing at the garage’s back wall. “There’s an old dog door,” he said. “It’s stuck, but I bet I can get it open.”
“Berk, stop,” Matt said. “That’s breaking and entering.”
“I’m not breaking. Just entering.” Grunting, Berk gave the door a last shove. “Got it!” He peered inside. “It’s dark, but there’s definitely a car. Doesn’t look like an old lady’s car, either. Looks like a drug dealer’s car.”
As if Berk knew what a drug dealer’s car looks like. But Matt couldn’t help himself. “Can you see anything else?”
“Yes, tell us what you can see, Berk,” a voice behind him said—a woman’s voice, but not high-pitched or wavering.
Matt turned around to see her standing a few feet away. She was tall and thin, but not bent over now. Without the glasses and gray wig, she looked about thirty, and her face looked hard. She pointed her gun at him.
“I was enjoying that dinner you brought me,” she said, “when I realized I’d never heard your car start up.”
Don’t panic, Matt told himself. He raised both hands in the air—that was the ready position he’d learned in his Krav Maga classes, to put attackers off guard. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We were just curious. We’ll leave now.”
“No, you won’t,” she said. “I heard him say something about drug dealers.”
“He’s only joking.” Matt made himself take a step toward her. It felt wrong, but he knew it was right. To take the gun away, he’d have to get closer.
She shook her head. “You were suspicious—-that’s why you didn’t let him tell me where kids here hang out. So, let’s see. I’m an old lady living alone, I see two people breaking into my garage, I grab my gun, and I panic. Cops will believe that.”
“Not once they start checking Mrs. Swanson’s background.” Matt took another step toward her. “You really want to risk that? Just let us walk away.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, and lowered her gun.
Now, he decided. He leapt forward, shouting. He grabbed the gun with his left hand, twisted his body, and knocked the gun to the side. He’d deflected it—-if it went off now, the bullet would go into the ground, not into him. And she was distracted, focusing on the gun. Time to get aggressive. Shouting again, he jerked his body to the left, wrenched the gun away, and jumped back.
He held the gun in both hands and pointed it at her. “Down on the ground!” he shouted. “Or I’ll shoot! Berk, call the police. Now!”
He never relaxed his hold on the gun. By the time the police came, his arms were stiff. The police ordered him to put the gun down, handcuffed everyone. Then the drive to the police station, calls to parents, hours of interrogation. Finally, the officers who searched the brown house made their report: Rolls of cash in the freezer, drugs in sewing baskets, bullets in medicine bottles. When the boys and their parents left the station, it had turned dark.
“Thank goodness you’re safe, Matt!” his mother said. “But with all the excitement, I never cooked our own dinner. I’ve got some leftovers from church—-I could make you a cold turkey sandwich. But that’s pretty pathetic for Thanksgiving.”
Matt breathed in the cold night air, smiling, feeling grateful. “Actually, Mom,” he said, “that sounds perfect.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (watch for more Thanksgiving ones coming up) in our mystery section.