by Sally Carpenter
Enjoy this never before published Thanksgiving mystery short story.
Working most holidays, Darren discovered, was one disadvantage of his job as a government spy. Those Cold War enemy agents operated on the days when most loyal Americans were safely at home, feasting with their families. He’d spent last Christmas on surveillance, holed up in a grimy apartment–Fourth of July chasing a would-be bomber through Chicago during a heat wave–and Labor Day in a cheap motel room, deciphering an intercepted coded message. This year he could enjoy a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner with his family, even though he was on the dodge from a double agent.
The agency had known about this turncoat for months, but attempts to unmask him proved fruitless. Someone was selling government secrets to unfriendly foreign powers. Darren was en route from Chicago to Washington, D.C., with the type of information this traitor would love to swipe–the locations and strength of all American missile bases at home and overseas. Washington needed this data right away to stop an enemy air strike. Fortunately for Darren, his route passed by his rural hometown in central Ohio. He could detour north off Interstate 70 long enough to partake of a hearty dinner and sleep in his old bed before hitting the road again. Mom’s home cooking sounded more appetizing than a warmed–up Swanson TV dinner of frozen turkey and peas. Besides, what safer place to hide the information than in a humble country house miles off the main road?
When Darren arrived at his parents’ home the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, the gravel-filled driveway was already clogged with the other relatives’ cars. Darren pulled his black Buick behind Uncle Jack’s pick-up truck, pushed the steering column’s gearshift into “park,” set the hand brake and turned off the motor. He made one last inspection of the antique gold college ring on his right hand. With a fingernail he carefully pried the black stone atop the ring, and the gem swung up a tiny hinge to expose a coded microdot inside the cavity. Darren pressed the lid closed, determined to keep this little beauty safe. He’d bungled his last assignment and he was late for a rendezvous in South Bend, Indiana, because he’d forgotten about the state’s different time zones. If he lost this top-secret information, he may as well stay here and pick apples in the family orchard for the rest of his life.
Darren took his small travel bag from the trunk and locked the car. He buttoned his coat against the fall chill and headed along the concrete walkway to the covered front porch, opened the screen door and knocked on the front door. A large man opened the door. “Look who the cat dragged in!” One hand clutched an open can of beer. He wore faded black pants and an old collared shirt. Darren couldn’t tell the color of the man’s belt because of the gut hanging over the top of the pants.
“Hello, Uncle Jack. Are Mom and Dad home?”
“We got the whole kit and caboodle here, Darren. Come on in.”
Darren stepped into the foyer. The place looked homey with the framed family portraits, kitschy knickknacks, a 1961 calendar from the insurance man and mass-produced landscape oil paintings purchased at the local five and dime. He greeted his dad, looking a bit frailer these days, and asked about mom. “She’s in her domain, Darren, where she usually reigns.”
That meant only one place–the kitchen. Mom relished her role as a full-time homemaker. For her, cooking was an art form best accomplished without men loitering in the way, but Darren stuck his head in the kitchen anyway.
“Darren! How nice to see you! We’ve missed you.”
She came over and kissed him. Mom had short hair, permed into tight white curls. She wiped her flour-covered hands on the apron tied around the waist of the calf-length, full skirt of her short-sleeved dress. In the heat of the kitchen, her nylon stockings were rolled down around her ankles, just touching the top of her oxford shoes. “Let’s look at you. You’re so thin. Have you been eating?”
Lately his meals consisted of McDonald’s cheeseburgers or stale ham-on-rye sandwiches during stakeouts or blue-plate specials at a downtown greasy spoon. Trouble was, Darren’s work was classified and he couldn’t tell his family what he really did for a living. “I’m eating, Mom.”
“We’ll make sure you’re good and fed tonight. You’ll have seconds on everything, right?”
“Your Aunt Jessie brought her carrot casserole. You like that, don’t you?”
“Of course, Mom.” Actually he didn’t, but since Aunt Jessie brought that blasted dish to every family dinner, he’d learned to tolerate it.
Mom escorted Darren into the living room, which was cramped with relatives of all ages and types, ranging from nearly deaf Grandpa to the latest baby. While saying his hellos, someone knocked on the front door. The noise startled
Darren. Knocks and doorbells put him on high alert, as the sound usually preceded someone kicking in the door of his motel room. Surely the double agent hadn’t tracked him here? Out of habit, Darren glanced around for a hiding place.
Uncle Jack opened the front door. “It’s your sister, Sharon. And look what she brought with her!”
Sharon held hands with a man Darren had never seen before. He was tall and muscular, with penetrating grey eyes that swept across the room.
“Big brother, I want you to meet my boyfriend, Cole. Cole, my brother Darren and my Uncle Jack.”
“Welcome to the family, Cole,” said Uncle Jack. “Can I take your coat?”
“No, thanks, it’s pretty cold outside and I need some time to warm up.”
Darren shook the man’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Cole had a strong, confident grip. Darren figured the man was either a politician or used car salesman.
“Sharon’s told me all about you,” said Cole.
Darren shot a glance at sis. She didn’t know about his spy work, but he wondered how many family secrets she’d shared with this stranger. Even an off-hand remark could cause havoc and Sharon was the family blabbermouth. He forced a laugh. “I wouldn’t believe anything she says.”
“Oh, Darren, don’t be silly. I only say nice things about you, don’t I, Cole?”
“Indeed you do.”
Uncle Jack said, “Boyfriend, eh? Will there be wedding bells soon?”
“We’re just going steady–for now.”
Cole patted Sharon’s hand. “If your mom’s cooking’s as good as you say, I may be popping the question sooner than you think.”
Mom poked her head into the room. “Sharon, dear, can you help us in the kitchen?”
“Sure Mom.” She kissed Cole. “I’ll save you the biggest piece of pie.”
“I hope it’s pumpkin. That’s my favorite.”
She laughed. “You and pumpkin pie! That’s what you always want. Darling, it’ll be the death of you yet.”
Sharon left for the kitchen and Uncle Jack set off the spoil the new baby.
“So, Darren,” said Cole, “Sharon tells me your folks have a fine orchard out back.”
“It’s nothing much, just a few fruit trees.”
“I’m stuck in the city all day and I love the fresh country air. I’d like to see this orchard.”
“Hasn’t Sharon shown you the property?”
“We’re usually indoors talking with her folks. Would you mind showing me around?”
“No, I don’t mind.”
“Great. It’ll give us a chance to get to know each other.”
Darren disliked the man. He seemed too slick, too chummy and too pushy, but for his sister’s sake he’d humor the guy.
Darren’s work made him suspicious of everyone he met. The two men left the living room for the kitchen, the only room with a door leading out back. In the hot, steamy room the women, including some aunts and cousins, were hard at work rolling pie dough, basting the turkey, chopping vegetables and sprinkling brown sugar over sliced sweet potatoes. The scent of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves tickled Darren’s nose. Ah, the smells of Thanksgiving! Mom was beating a concoction of canned pumpkin, eggs and sweetened condensed milk. Looked like Cole would get his pumpkin pie after all.
The kitchen door opened onto the back porch. The back yard slopped down and the fruit trees stood in neat rows at the bottom of the hill. Darren shivered slightly in the cool air but he figured he wouldn’t be outside long enough to fetch his coat. He led Cole on a tour of the orchard, but as they walked he got the impression that the man wasn’t really interested in the trees. Darren stopped beside the small shed that held the lawn mower and gardening tools.
“Tell me about yourself, Cole. What is it that you do?”
“I work in munitions.”
That wasn’t the answer Darren expected. “Really? I don’t know of any munitions plants around here. Are you at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton?”
“No, I don’t make munitions. I sell then.”
A tingly feeling ran down Darren’s back. Anyone who actually handled U.S. military armaments wouldn’t discuss such a thing with a civilian.
“Your work be must be top secret.”
“Not really. Just discreet.”
“To whom do you sell these munitions?”
“To the highest bidder.”
The men locked eyes for several seconds. Cole broke the silence. “That’s a nice college ring.”
“Your sister said you didn’t go to college.”
“What she meant was I didn’t graduate. I left after two years to join the Army.”
“Seems strange for a dropout to buy an expensive college ring.”
Darren felt uneasy. “I had a good time at school. What’s wrong with that? Why are you interested in my ring? It’s nothing special.”
“Oh, yes it is, and I want what’s in it.”
“It’s black onyx. That’s not a particularly valuable stone.”
“Quit stalling, Darren. You know what I mean.”
From the look in Cole’s eye and the chill in the man’s voice, Darren knew exactly what he meant. “You’re the double agent.”
Cole held out a hand. “Give me the microdot, Darren.”
“You scum. You used my sister to find me. She never had good taste in men.”
The agent reached inside his coat and pulled out a gun. No wonder the man wanted to keep his coat on; Darren would have easily spotted a shoulder holster under a suit jacket. Damn! Why didn’t he figure out this guy sooner? The comforts of home had put him off guard.
“Be sensible, Darren. You wouldn’t want your sweet mother to find your body out here among the fruit trees, now would you?”
“You can’t shoot me. Everyone saw me leave with you.”
“My car’s in the driveway. I can put your body in the trunk and drive off. Everyone’s busy inside. By the time they notice us missing, I’ll be halfway across the state.
“I can’t give you the microdot, Cole.”
The double agent raised the weapon and straightened his shooting arm. “I’m taking the microdot whether you’re dead or alive, Darren. I don’t care which it is.”
Darren grasped the ring and pretended to tug. “It won’t come off. I’ll have to soap it off.”
“Then I’ll shoot your finger off.”
Darren silently cursed his bad judgment on leaving his own firearm packed away in his travel bag on his bed. Who knew he’d need his weapon at a family dinner?
Cole began squeezing the trigger.
“Yoo hoo! Darren!” His mother called from the back porch. “Where are you? We’re ready to start!”
Cole turned his head at the sound and Darren bolted. Good old mom. She always turned up at the right time to help him in difficult situations. Darren sped through the orchard and then zigzagged up the hill and across the open lawn, praying that Cole couldn’t hit a moving target. A bullet whizzed past his ear, too close for comfort. Darren headed for the driveway. He’d jump into his car and drive to the nearest police station. but when Darren reached his car, he stopped cold. A station wagon, no doubt Cole’s, was parked against the Buick’s back bumper, blocking him in.
Cole reached the top of the hill. Darren ducked behind parked cars, using them as a shield. Crouching, he worked his way toward the house as bullets pinged off the vehicles. Surely he’d be safe inside. Shooting fifteen innocent eyewitnesses or holding them hostage was more trouble than Cole would want to handle.
When Darren reached the last vehicle he sprinted for the back porch, jumped the back steps two at a time and flung open the screen door. He slammed and locked the back door behind him. The women had left the kitchen. Good. He didn’t want to put them in danger. He looked out the window; Cole was only yards from the house and closing in fast.
Darren had to hide the microdot. Protecting the information came first before watching out for himself. He glanced around the room. The drawers and cabinets were too obvious and besides, one of the relatives might find the ring. The old wooden back porch creaked beneath Cole’s footsteps. Darren’s heart pounded. The screen door squeaked as it opened. Cole rattled the knob. Darren slid the ring off his finger. Cole pounded on the locked door.
The pungent aroma of spices filled the kitchen. On the counter sat a stainless steel bowl full of pumpkin pie mixture, ready to pour into the unbaked piecrusts.
Darren dropped the ring into the bowl.
“Darren! Open this door before I shoot my way in!”
He quickly obeyed. Cole stepped inside, close the door, and leveled the gun at Darren.
“Give me the ring.”
Darren held out his hands. “I don’t have it. It must have fallen off outside in the grass.”
“Don’t give me that baloney. Where is it?”
The back door flung open and Uncle Jack and Dad entered the kitchen. Both men had a shotgun tucked in the crook of an arm. On seeing the firepower and uneven odds, Cole hastily re-holstered his weapon.
“Been out rabbit hunting?’ Darren asked the men, struggling to sound nonchalant.
“Yeah, but the varmint skedaddled,” said Uncle Jack. “Where’re the cooks?”
“I’m right here.” Mom came in from the hallway, wiping her damp hands on her apron. “Had to visit the little girl’s room. Now put those guns away and everyone scoot so we can finish up in here. Why are you outside anyway? We’ve got plenty of turkey. We don’t need any rabbit stew for dinner.”
Sharon showed up from the hallway. “Cole! There you are! Where have you been?”
Darren cut in before Cole could say something incriminating. “He wanted to see the orchard.”
“Did he now?” She snuggled up to Cole, who looked as if he’d rather be hugging a stray dog with rabies. “Cole, darling, you never asked me to show you the orchard.”
“It was my idea,” Darren continued. “You know, show off the family home.”
“That’s nice. Come on, sweetie.” Sharon locked her arm around his. “It’s time for charades. It’s a family tradition.”
As she led her beau out the room, Cole shot Darren a glance that said this isn’t over yet.
Uncle Jack and Dad went to the cellar to put away the shotguns. Darren slid over to the counter. He reached into the bowl of pumpkin pie fixings to retrieve his ring. Mom slapped his hand. “No tasting before dinner.”
“But Mom, it looks so good–”
“Go on, git. You can have a slice after dinner.
Since Darren couldn’t think of a good explanation as to why he needed to fetch a piece of jewelry from the pie filling, he apologized and joined the rest of the family in the living room for a lively game of charades. He wasn’t in the mood for frivolity, so he sat on a hassock in a corner and watched. Across the room, Sharon and Cole perched on a loveseat (how ironic, Darren thought, since Cole didn’t love her). Although Sharon participated in the fun, Cole stayed seated and silent, occasionally glancing at Darren.
After charades the family gathered around the black-and-white TV to watch The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet until seven o’clock when Mom announced that dinner was ready. Parents hustled their tykes into the bathroom to wash up while the adults took their places around the wooden dining room table, made bigger by adding extra leaves. China bowls and platters loaded with rich foods covered the table. After everyone settled in, Dad said grace and the guests attacked the food with gusto. Darren enjoyed the food and the conversation so much that he almost forgot about his spy mission; that is, until Mom announce it was time for dessert.
“Who wants pumpkin pie?”
“Please, ma’am.” Cole raised his hand. “Can I have two pieces? I love pumpkin pie.”
Darren sat up and opened his eyes wide. The microdot! Mom must have baked it into the pie. Suppose Cole found the ring in his serving?
He jumped to his feet. “I’ll help with the pies, Mom.”
“Nonsense, sit down and relax.”
“No, you’ve been on your feet all day. Let me help.”
Before she could protest further, Darren hurried into the kitchen. On the open windowsill sat two baked pumpkin pies, cooling. He studied them. Which one had the ring? Both of the pies had a smooth top and no tell tale lumps. He poked the pies in an attempt to feel the ring.
“Darren! What are you doing?” Mom had entered the room. “Get your mitts off those pies! You’re worse than the kids.”
She handed him a knife from the wooden rack near the door. She told him to fetch the dessert plates from the cabinet, which he did. He cut one of the pies and, using a metal pie server, slid each piece onto a small china plate. He studied the edges of each slice. He didn’t see the ring.
His mother started slicing the second pie. Did that pie contain the microdot?
“Mom! Why don’t you let me cut that while you serve?”
“What’s gotten into you? You were never this eager to help out in the kitchen. Now don’t forget the whipped cream.
Your Uncle Jack will have a fit if he has to eat pie without any whipped cream.”
Mom removed a large white Tupperware container from the refrigerator and handed it to Darren. He opened it and scooped out generous dollops of handmade whipped cream onto each cut slice. He tried to watch Mom cut the second pie but she shooed him out of the room. With a heavy heart, Darren carried the cut pieces on a metal serving tray. He served the plates, placed his empty tray onto the sideboard and sat down at his place at the table. Mom entered with the second tray and soon everyone was “chowing” down on dessert. Darren nibbled on his pie while anxiously observing the others.
What if someone bit down on the ring and broke a tooth or, even worse, swallowed the microdot?
The guests licked the dessert plates clean, but no ring appeared. Had Cole found the missing jewelry and pocketed it?
Darren had eyed his nemesis closely and had seen nothing amiss. With everyone stuffed, the family retired to the living room for the traditional sing-along around the piano. Darren gracious offered to help clear the table. He grabbed a tray, piled on the dirty plates and made a beeline to the kitchen. Mom was filling the sink with hot water for the washing up. She tied on her apron and put on the yellow plastic gloves she always wore when washing or cleaning. “Did you like the pie? I found the recipe in Good Housekeeping magazine.”
“Yes, it was delicious, Mom.”
“I’m glad I made two extra pies. One’s in the fridge for tomorrow and you can’t touch it. The other one’s there on the counter in case someone wants a snack tonight.”
The ring must be in one of the last two pies! Although he felt bloated, he’d have to force himself to eat a slice later.
“Oh, good,” he said. “There was so much pie filling in the bowl I was hoping that you’d baked a bunch of pies.”
“The bowl that was on the counter. You know, when I was in here before dinner.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t use that batch.” She grabbed washcloth and began scrubbing dishes. “After you left, I found a metal washer in the bowl. Must have fallen off the shelf. I couldn’t possibly use contaminated pie mix, so I threw it out.
The color drained from Darren’s face. “Threw it out?”
“Poured it down the sink. Then I whipped up a new batch of pie filling.”
Darren sank into the nearest chair. The microdot–and his career–had both gone down the drain.
“Darren, dear, what’s wrong? You look ill.”
“I…I…down the sink? All of it?”
“You don’t look well at all. Should I call the doctor?”
“I…I’m okay, Mom. I ate too much and I’m tried from the long drive. Can I go to my room and lie down?”
“Of course, dear. Do you want some Pepto-Bismol?
“No, I’ll be fine.” He stood and kissed her. “Thanks for dinner, Mom. It was wonderful.”
He left before she could quiz him further about his gastric system and trudged upstairs to his bedroom. From the living room came the sounds of off-key singing and the raucous playing of Aunt Bea, who played piano for the Methodist church services. What she lacked in talent she made up in enthusiasm. Darren was in no mood to party with the others.
He needed to plan what to do now. He’d have to look for another job, that is, if the government didn’t throw him in jail for losing state secrets.
In his room, Darren removed his shoes, lay on the bed and stared through the window on the opposite wall. Outside a bird sat on a tree branch. He pictured the ring flowing through the drainpipe, banging against the metal sides as it worked its way to the sewage plant and eventually into the Ohio River. He remembered a time years go when Mom’s wedding ring had fallen down the sink and she went into hysterics. Darren bolted upright and smiled as he remembered how that situation was resolved. Maybe the microdot wasn’t lost after all. Relaxed, he laid back and napped.
When he awoke, darkness had fallen outside the window; his wind-up alarm clock said eleven-thirty. He put on his shoes, took the flashlight out of his travel bag, opened the door and looked down the hall. Nobody was in sight. He closed the door behind him and tiptoed down the hall, which was faintly illuminated by the nightlights plugged into the baseboard outlets. From behind the other bedroom doors came soft snores. Good. This household of farm folks turned in early. He’d do what he had to do, return to his bed and no one would be any the wiser, especially not Cole.
Darren walked gently down the stairs as not to make the steps creak. On the first floor he switched on the flashlight.
He stopped at the utility closet long enough to fetch a metal bucket, socket wrench and screwdriver. In the kitchen he set the flashlight on a chair with the beam aimed at the cabinet beneath the sink. He got on the floor, opened the cabinet doors, and removed the cleaning supplies stashed there so he could reach the drainpipe. He set the metal bucket beneath the U-bend of the rust-covered pipe. When Mom’s wedding ring had fallen down the drain, the elbow in the pipe had trapped the jewelry. Dad had removed the pipe (shouting some colorful language while doing so) and found the ring. With any luck–
Darren stuck his head beneath the sink. He scraped off the corrosion built up on the pipe with the screwdriver and then he fitted the wrench around the pipe and gave several firm tugs. When the pipe finally loosened he wiggled into a better position and gently twisted until the U-bend dropped off and fell into the bucket. He got out of the cabinet, sat up and waited for the excess water from the pipe to finish draining into the bucket.
Darren set the bucket into his lap and picked up the U-bend. He poked around inside it and dislodged a thick clump of hair, grease and other gunk he didn’t wish to identify. He tipped the U-bend over the bucket, shook it, and heard a satisfying “clunk” as something hard hit the metal base. He reached into the bucket and took out his ring. Heart pounding, he set aside the bucket and stood. He carefully opened the ring’s lid. Yes, the microdot was still in place, seemingly undamaged. Darren let out a sigh of relief that immediately turned into a gasp as the ceiling lights blazed on.
Cole stood in the hall doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulling the largest, sharpest knife from the wall rack. He was dressed in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers but he wasn’t the least bit sleepy. He spoke in a loud whisper.
“If you call for help, I’ll slit your throat before you finish screaming.”
Darren dropped the ring into his pants pocket and raised his hands. He also talked softly as not to wake the family.
“You’ll never get away with killing me.”
“I’m a trained spy. I know how to disappear.”
With his tush rubbing against the counter, Darren started to ease toward the back door.
“Stop moving or I’ll throw this knife.”
Darren stood still; even if he escaped outside, he wouldn’t get far. His car was still blocked in and the nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile away. Once he was outside, Cole wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him. Darren lowered his hands until he gripped the counter behind him. Cole stepped up, grabbed his shirtfront with his free hand, and pressed the blade against his throat. Darren bent his head back to avoid the knife. One hand brushed against a round pan sitting on the counter. Cole moved closer and nicked Darren’s skin with the knifepoint.
Darren slid one hand beneath the pan and in one quick move smashed the pumpkin pie into Cole’s face.
Cole dropped the knife and raised both hands to wipe the glop out of his face, but Darren kept rubbing the pan against his face. Cole tried to shout, but with his mouth filled with pumpkin pie and whipped cream, all he could do was gurgle. Darren pushed Cole backwards. Arms flailing, the man lost his balance and fell onto the table. The back of his head struck the table’s sharp corner and he fell to the floor. The pie tin slid off, leaving a mess of pie filling on Cole’s face. Darren knelt down. The back of Cole’s head was covered with blood. “Well, Cole, is that enough pumpkin pie for you?”
“What’s all this commotion?” Mom shouted.
Darren looked up in surprise. Mom, Dad, Sharon and most of the adult relatives, all clad in their nightclothes, stood in the doorway and gawked.
Uncle Jack pointed to the floor. “Who the tarnation is that?” Nobody could see Cole’s face beneath the ooze of food.
“It’s Cole,” Darren said.
“Cole!” Sharon shouted. “Is he…is he dead?”
“I’m afraid so, sis. I’m sorry.”
Sharon hugged her mom and sobbed. “There, there, dear.” Mom patted her on the back.
Darren stood, trying to figure out a decent explanation for the situation. He moved in front of the open cabinet doors beneath the sink, hoping nobody would spot the bucket.
“I came downstairs to get a snack and I caught him stealing the good silverware. Cole came at me with a knife, I threw the pie to stop him and he tripped and fell on the table and hit his head. Don’t cry Sharon. He was a burglar. He was no good for you.”
“Are you all right, son?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Look, I don’t want to spoil everyone’s Thanksgiving. All of you go back to bed and I’ll take care of this. I’ll call the police and clean up the mess.”
His parents insisted on staying, but Darren persuaded them to leave. After everyone returned to their bedrooms, Darren called the local police, using the rotary wall phone in the kitchen. Then he made a second call, a coded message to his Midwest contact to say that the double agent had been neutralized and the microdot was safe and on its way. After hanging up the phone he washed off the ring and slid it back onto his finger. He also grabbed a paper bag from a cabinet, filled it partway with the good silver, and then pressed Cole’s hand against the bag to leave prints and establish his story.
The police believed Darren’s tale of the attempted burglary and chalked up the death to self-defense. After the body was taken away, Darren put the U-bend back in place and mopped up the floor. The grandfather clock in the living room struck three in the morning. Darren fell into his bed for a long, restful sleep without taking time to change clothes.
The next morning Mom wouldn’t let him drive off without a Tupperware container holding a huge piece of leftover pumpkin pie.