by Gary R. Hoffman
Enjoy another never before published Christmas mystery short story.
As Susan was struggling to open her front door, she thought of her Uncle Theodore. He always had some cute little saying or adage from somewhere else. One of them he said came from Germany and translated into English as, “A lazy man will carry himself to death.” She was beginning to believe it as she tried to carry three bags of groceries, two more of Christmas presents and another of wrapping paper and bows, just to save two trips to the car.
As she stepped into her apartment, the plastic bag holding the wrapping paper, which was really too small to begin with, split and five rolls of paper cascaded in five different directions. One even made it under her couch. “Well, crap!”
She made it to the counter in her kitchen and starting sorting groceries by freezer, fridge and pantry. That’s when she noticed the light on her answering machine blinking.
After I get all this stuff put away.
When the food was secure, she moved the bags of presents to the kitchen table to sort them. On her way past the answering machine, she pressed the play button.
“Judy, this is Dee. I need a favor, NOW! I was supposed to pick Rick up today at four. He’s coming in by bus and getting off at Luther’s Restaurant just out on Highway 21. I was gonna try and make this special since he hasn’t been home for three years, but Jimmy fell at school today and I’ve got to go see what’s wrong with him. Please, please, please help me out here.”
The line went dead. Susan frowned at the machine. Someone really has a wrong number. She checked her caller ID, but the number was blocked. There was no time indicated as to when the call came in.
“Sure don’t know what to do about this,” she said to no one except herself.
She went to the closet in her bedroom and got down a box containing gift boxes and other assorted Christmas decorations. As she went through her bags of gifts, she sorted them out and put some of them in special boxes she had saved over the years. When she was finished, she put all the trash in one bag and went to put it in her trash can. It was overflowing. Time to bite the bullet and get this out of here.
When she came back, the light on her answering machine was blinking again.
I couldn’t have been gone for more than three minutes!
She pressed the play button.
“Judy, this is Dee again. I’m at the hospital. Last day of school before Christmas vacation and Jimmy breaks his arm playing dodge ball. I just want to make sure you realize how important this is. No one else in the family knows Rick is coming in from Afghanistan. He wanted to surprise everyone for Christmas. Please don’t tell anyone else. Thanks, again.”
Someone really has numbers mixed up. Susan turned the machine off and looked at her watch. Naw, it’s a bad idea; I don’t even know this guy. She got a can of soda from the fridge and sat at the table. But, it is Christmas. It’s the time of year when people are supposed to be nice to each other.
As she was driving to Luther’s, a Greyhound bus passed her heading into the city. She knew she wasn’t very late. Few cars were parked on the lot. When she entered, there were only two people sitting in booths. The counter was empty; one guy looked old enough to be the other’s grandpa. She headed for the booth where the younger man was sitting. “Excuse me, are you Rick?”
He took both his hands away from the coffee mug he was holding and put one on the seat beside him. “And who are you?”
“May I sit down?”
He looked her over from top to bottom. “I suppose.”
“My name is Susan. Do you know someone named Dee?”
He leaned forward and was almost scowling. “She’s my sister. What’s wrong with her? Why didn’t she come get me?”
Susan held her palms out to him. “Just slow down a minute, and I’ll try and explain this to you.”
The waitress came over with a pot of coffee and a cup, poured one for Susan and refilled Rick’s. Susan continued as soon as the waitress left. “I got a phone call on my answering machine, actually two calls. Both were from Dee telling me she couldn’t get over here to pick you up. I know she had numbers mixed up, but I had no way to call her back. She was calling someone named Judy.”
“Do you know who Judy is?” he asked.
“Do you know where I live?”
“Again, no idea! I really don’t have any idea who you are. I was just trying to help out someone who seemed to need it.”
He snickered. “Dee always needs help. There is always some kind of trauma in her life.”
It was then that Susan first noticed the man sitting two booths away from them. He had bushy white eyebrows that moved up and down as he chewed. His nose was almost clown like, shaped like a light bulb with several pock marks on it probably from acne when he was younger. He was eating pancakes and with each bite, he had to wipe syrup off his chin.
“Yeah, I know people like that.”
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Susan, I appreciate you coming down here, but I live quite a ways into the city. Dee was going to pick me up here to save cab fare. If you want to drive me part of the way, I would appreciate it.”
“Why didn’t you just ride the bus all the way to the downtown depot?”
“All this was supposed to be a surprise.”
“I can take you all the way to your house,” she said.
“No, no, that won’t be necessary.”
He thinks I’m some kind of a stalker or something. He doesn’t want me to know where he lives. “Okay, if that’s what you want to do.”
“That’ll be fine. Why don’t you finish your coffee, and we’ll shove off.”
“Fine.” She quickly finished her coffee; the man’s eyebrows were still jumping around like caterpillars on a hot griddle.
When he slid from the booth, Rick picked up a knapsack and his coat, which he put over his arm. Susan stopped just outside the front door. “Mine’s the blue car.”
Rick put his hand up close to her back. She could feel something hard there. “I’ve got a gun under here and believe me, I’m not afraid to use it. Now, who sent you?”
Susan’s heart fluttered in her throat. “I…I told you. I got a phone message from someone named Dee.”
Just then, a dark blue SUV pulled into the parking lot, tires screeching as it made a turn to toward them. Susan could see both windows on the passenger’s side were rolled down and men with guns had their arms out the windows. She could see one man’s face. Rick shoved her off to his right, as she started hearing popping noises. Something stung her left side like a tree branch scraping against it. She was down behind some shrubbery. There was a crash and Rick fell backwards through the glass front doors of the restaurant. The man with the caterpillar eyebrows ran out, looked down at Rick and disappeared around the side of the building.
Adam Montero, a detective for the Overland Police Department, was standing at the foot of her bed in the emergency room. “You were lucky. Just a graze in your side.”
“And the other man?” Susan asked.
He looked down. “Not so lucky.”
Susan turned her head on the pillow and bit her thumbnail. “What the hell went on out there?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. At least this time, we have an eyewitness.”
“I’m not sure how much I can tell you. I really didn’t even know the guy.” Susan related the story of the phone calls, the other man in the restaurant, and of the face she saw in the SUV window.
“We’ve got your car, by the way. Need it for evidence. Several bullet holes in it. Several windows shot out, too.”
“Great. Just what I need, another bill.”
“If I can send some men into your apartment, they may be able to trace where those calls were coming from. They’re pretty good at what they do.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll do anything to help.”
“That’s great. From where this one has started, I think we’re going to need plenty of help.” He paused. “They’re going to keep you here for a couple of days to make sure you don’t get an infection. I’ll be back to talk to you, meanwhile, we’ll station one of our men outside whatever room they move you to.”
“You mean you think I’m in danger?”
“No way to tell right now. Just trying to cover all the bases.”
“I’m not sure whether that’s comforting or not.”
Montero laughed and left the room.
Two days later, she was released from the hospital. The doctor gave her some cream to put on her side and she was given a prescription for antibiotics. There had been no problems in the hospital. She even enjoyed the company of the different policemen Detective Montero had assigned to guard her.
As a nurse rolled her out the door in a wheelchair, Montero was waiting for her in a squad car. Two uniformed policemen were standing there. The cold weather definitely felt like Christmas and there was a Santa Claus outside the hospital ringing his bell and collecting money for the Salvation Army. She smiled at him and got in Adam’s car, but as they drove away, it hit her: “That Santa back there! He was the man in the restaurant. He may have had on a beard, but those eyebrows and that nose are the same.”
Adam made a U-turn and headed back to the hospital entrance. The Santa was gone. Adam got out and questioned anyone standing around as to where the Santa might have gone. The only information he got was that Santa had entered the hospital. He called hospital security and alerted them. “Since that guy was outside the hospital, I think we better provide you with protection until we can get this thing worked out.”
He then drove Susan home and stayed with her until another police officer arrived. Her name was Paris Rogers. Adam and Paris checked out her apartment before letting her go in. “Am I going to be a prisoner like this forever?” Susan asked.
“Hopefully not. We still don’t know much. We do know the man killed at the restaurant was working for some agency within the federal government. And you know them. They’re not real anxious to give out information. Why someone wanted him killed is anybody’s guess. We did contact his family by tracing the phone calls his sister made here. The person she was calling had just got a new phone number and she put it in her speed dial wrong. All the family knew was that he was in the Marines and serving overseas. ‘Fraid it’s not going to be a very good Christmas for them.”
Later in the evening, Susan needed to do some laundry. Officer Rogers reminded her to lock the door as they walked downstairs to the apartment’s laundromat. When they returned, Susan’s door was standing open. It was easy to see it had been forced. The doorjamb was shattered where the locks had broken from it. Officer Rogers made Susan stay in the hallway while she went through the apartment. When she was convinced it was clear, she told Susan to come in. Rogers immediately called Adam Montero.
Within thirty minutes, six squad cars were in front of the apartment. Two policewomen went in the building, each carrying a suitcase. Susan was given a short time to throw some clothing in the only suitcase she owned. Susan and the two women officers then left wearing hooded sweatshirts. Police officers were carrying their suitcases. They each got in a different car and left going three different directions with another squad car right behind them.
“If this guy can follow you now, he’s a genius,” Montero told her.
“Where are you taking me?”
“A safe house.”
“For how long?”
“That depends,” Montero said.
He paused a few seconds. “When the trial starts.”
“That could be months!” Susan protested.
“We’re pushing for a speedy trial, but I can’t honestly tell you how long it’s going to take to start it.”
“You do realize Christmas is just two days away?” Susan said.
“Yeah, I know. You have big plans?”
“One of the few times a year I get to see what is left of my family.”
Montero sighed. “I’ll see what we can do.”
Montero and Officer Paris Rogers showed her around the safe house. There was one door he didn’t open. “What’s behind there?” Susan asked.
“Actually, it goes out to an old porch. The floor is pretty shaky so we just closed it off. No need for you to go out there. And the outside door is nailed shut, so no need for you to worry about anyone coming in that way.”
“Is anyone going to stay here with me?”
“We don’t think that is necessary any more. This is just what we call it, a safe house.”
Susan started to say something but Adam held up his hand to stop her. He took a paper from the inside pocket of his suit coat and handed it to her. She started reading.
Don’t say anything. I want you and Officer Rogers to go in the bedroom and exchange clothing. You’re going to leave with me dressed like a cop. Rogers will stay here. Take nothing out with you.
Susan did as she was told. Adam kept talking just like he was giving her all kinds of instructions. Ten minutes later, Susan and Adam left the safe house.
“What’s going on?” Susan asked when they were in the car.
“Remember when the guy broke into your apartment while you were doing laundry? We’re pretty sure that wasn’t a mistake. He had already bugged the apartment, but he broke in to put a homing and listening device in your suitcase. All he had to do was hang back and follow the signal to the safe house. I said the guy would have to be a genius to follow us, and I was pretty close. He’s no dummy. There are also two officers on the porch I told you not to go out on. If he’s been listening, and I’m sure he has, he thinks you’re there alone. He comes after you in the next few hours, which we think he will, he’s got a big Christmas surprise waiting for him.”
“Great, but where are you taking me now?” Susan asked.
“We contacted your brother. You’re going there.”
“But he lives about a hundred miles from here.”
“The City of Overland is buying you a bus ticket. We’ve also gathered up all the things at your apartment you bought for Christmas presents. They’ll be on the bus with you. You should be at your brothers just in time for a Christmas celebration.”
“Well, Merry Christmas to me!”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section. You can check out all of the Christmas short stories that have gone up this month in our Terrific Tales section. There will be more mystery and pet Christmas stories.