Christmas is just around the corner and Sarah Booth and Tinkie are preparing for a festive holiday season. After a turbulent season of solving cases, they’re ready for some holiday cheer. Sarah Booth and Sheriff Coleman Peters have finally gotten together, and this is the first holiday they’re celebrating as a couple. Sarah Booth busies herself with decking the halls and daydreaming about romantic Christmas nights with Coleman.
Then her friend Cece Dee Falcon shows up needing Sarah Booth’s helpright now. She shows Sarah Booth a box that was delivered by courier and left at Cece’s front porch. It contains a lock of hair, a photograph of a pretty young woman, very pregnant, and a note demanding ransom for the return of the teen. Cece reveals that this is her cousin’s daughter, Eve Falcon, and that she’d lost touch with this part of her family years ago. Eve and Cece had been close, until the family had a terrible falling out, and banished Cece from their lives. The countdown begins as the kidnapper pushes for paymentor else, he threatens, Eve will meet her maker. It’s up to Sarah Booth and her friends to find the girl before something terrible happens on what should be the merriest day of the year.
Carolyn Haines’s trademark humor and lovable characters are back, in a heartwarming Christmas story that will enchant and delight readers looking for a suspenseful mystery wrapped in joyful holiday merriment.
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"How can the holiday season be both melancholy and joyful?" I address the question to my Redtick Coondog, Sweetie Pie Delaney, as she snoozes by a crackling fire. Pluto, my black cat, is curled beside her. Outside, the night is chill but not bitter. It's winter in the Mississippi Delta and the weatherman has teased us with the possibility of the impossible — a white Christmas. I've already blanketed my three horses and given them hot bran mashes. It's time for Christmas cheer and a visit from my favorite lawman, Coleman Peters.
"Fa, la, la, la, lah!" I sing at the top of my voice, because I have to stop when Coleman arrives. I don't want to make his ears bleed with my caterwauling. I love to sing, but I have no talent for it.
"Fa, la, la, la, lah!"
Sweetie Pie begins a low, mournful howl. She does that whenever she hears a siren or me singing.
"Thanks for the commentary," I tell her. Instead of singing, I decide to check the bottle of champagne I have in the freezer chilling. It's a special occasion. I have a holiday gift for Coleman, a pre-Christmas present. One I think he's going to like.
"Put a bow on it!"
The command comes from the parlor near the Christmas tree. I whirl around and there, standing at attention, is a life-size nutcracker doll. Brightly painted and filled with the magic of my favorite ballet, he awkwardly steps forward, his wooden jaw opening wide. I could put my whole head in his mouth.
"That's rather ominous." I know it's Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House. Jitty was my great-great-great-grandmother Alice Delaney's nanny. The two women, one black, one white, survived the Civil War together, bonded by friendship and love rather than the law of property. Jitty has remained behind at Dahlia House to be my guardian. And tormenter, would-be boss, conscience, mother confessor, and keeper of the family history.
The beautiful music of the ballet comes out of nowhere, and Jitty the Nutcracker begins to limber up until he/she is moving with the grace and ability of a member of the Russian ballet. I had no idea that Jitty could dance like this. Perhaps it is just a spell cast by the mantle of Christmas, a time of wonder and possibility spread across my homeland. Whatever is happening, Jitty dances like an angel. She whirls and leaps and flies to the wonderful music that captures the essence of Christmas. Jitty brings to life the mystical land of sugarplum fairies, dolls who are alive, and one handsome prince. I have nothing to do but enjoy the show.
In the background is the beautiful cedar tree I cut out of a fence row and dragged back to the house by myself. It's thirteen feet tall, at least — full and fragrant. Tonight, Coleman and I will decorate it.
Jitty does one more flying leap and lands in a perfect bow.
"Brava! Brava!" I clap loudly and whistle when she is done. Sweetie Pie lifts her head and gives a big yawn. Millie's fine chicken potpie from the café has put her in a food coma. She is also no big fan of culture. If she's going to applaud dancing, the Boot Scootin' Boogey is more her kind of performance.
Pluto the cat stretches and rubs against my legs. It's a ploy for more catnip. I give it to him in a clever little elf cat-toy, even though he's done nothing to get such a reward. After all, it's the season for giving.
Jitty returns to the parlor, morphing back into the beautiful woman I've grown to love. She is still sporting the ridiculous fake beard. She puts her hands on her hips and looks me up and down. "Looks like you've been snackin' on the Sugar Plum Fairy. Girl, those hips could be deadly weapons. Pa-boom!" She cocks a hip at the dining room door and slams it with force.
Riding me hard is Jitty's favorite sport. "Not even Coker would kiss you sporting that pathetic clump of white hair on your face." I snatch for it, but she steps back. Jitty is quick.
"You leave my dead husband outta these debates. Coker and I had some mighty fine Christmases before the war took him." She grows suddenly melancholy.
"I'm sorry, Jitty. I miss my family, too. It feels like I've been on my own forever." In fact, I've been an orphan for a long time. My parents died in a car accident when I was twelve. My Aunt Loulane moved into Dahlia House and raised me until I went to college and then to New York City to try my hand at being a Broadway actress. That didn't work out so well and I came home with my tail between my legs.
"The holidays can bring on a mean case of the blues, and not the good musical kind." Jitty pulled the fake beard away from her face. "Lord, Sarah Booth, I hear in the Great Beyond that a white Christmas isn't out of the question for Sunflower County."
That news perked me right up. "The weatherman says the same. Snow! That would be awesome!" "No promises, but it's definitely a topic of conversation up there."
"You know what I'd like for Christmas?" She knows what I'm going to say. A message from my mother or father, some sign that they're still around me.
"I'll do what I can, but no promises. There are rules, you know, and they're there for a reason."
"Five minutes. I won't ask for more." Sometimes Jitty can make that happen. Not often, but each minute is precious.
"Now what you got for that big lawman to chow down on? He's gonna be hungry when he arrives, and not just for lovin'. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. An old saw, but true nonetheless."
"If you start quoting ancient axioms like Aunt Loulane, I'm going to run away from home."
Jitty gives me a dour look. "You'd better come up with a more credible threat than that. Now finish puttin' up that mistletoe. There's a car comin' down the drive."
She was gone in a puff of cedar-scented smoke just as I heard Coleman's tread on the front porch.
* * *
"The door's open," I called, starting back up the ladder to hang more garland over the parlor arch. The door opened and I turned to give my winter date a smile, only it wasn't Coleman. Madame Tomeeka, aka Tammy Odom, plowed into the foyer and stopped. Tammy is a friend from high school who also happens to be psychic. Judging from the frown on her face, she had bad news.
"What's going on?" I climbed down. "Want some coffee?" Tammy doesn't often drink alcohol, but she is always good for caffeine.
"Yes. I need something to give me a boost."
I motioned for her to follow me into the kitchen, where I put the coffeepot on to brew.
Instead of sitting down, she paced the kitchen. "I fell asleep this afternoon watching a TV show." I'd left some Christmas-themed dish towels on a chair and Tammy folded them in a neat stack. "I had a dream."
"What kind of dream?" I busied myself at the sink. This was not good. Tammy's dreams were often prophetic. "What did you see?" "I hate coming here, spoiling your holiday with dire warnings."
"You aren't responsible for what you see, but it's better for me to know." She had me really worried, but I downplayed my anxiety. "What was the dream?"
"Sarah Booth, something big and wonderful is coming, but at great cost."
I put a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. "Cost to me?"
"I can't be certain," she said. "You or someone you love."
"Tell me the dream."
Tammy eased into a chair, sipped the coffee, and sighed. "You were riding that big gray horse across the cotton fields. It was winter, the fields were bare, and you were flying. You had the biggest grin on your face, and I thought how much you looked like that tomboyish young girl I first met in grammar school. Hell-for-leather. That was how you did everything."
"The horses aren't going to be hurt?" It was my first reaction and worry.
"Oh, no. Not the horses."
She shook her head. "The dream changed, and you were riding your horse into an empty town. The stores were all locked up. At the end of the street was a crèche, and you rode down there. It was so real. There were sheep and donkeys and three wise men with their camels. But the manger was empty. The little baby Jesus was gone!" She was about to cry. I put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, it's okay."
"You don't understand. Everyone was searching for the little baby, and no one could find him. The wise men were frantic. Sarah Booth, I'm worried sick that something dark is going to happen this Christmas."
"Now, Tammy, don't get yourself all worked up over —"
The front door flew open with a huge bang. I darted out of the kitchen. If that was Coleman coming in, he was in a dither. But it wasn't the lawman standing in my foyer. Cece Dee Falcon, Zinnia, Mississippi's finest journalist and my friend, stood in the open door, her face drained of all color.
"Cece, what's wrong?" She looked perfectly undone.
"You have to help me, and you can't tell anyone." She thrust a gift-wrapped, padded envelope into my hand. "This came for me today."
I dumped the contents into my palm. A photograph of a pretty, pregnant woman looked up at me. A lock of dark hair tied with a ribbon fell onto the floor. And there was a note.
I unfolded the paper and stared at the typewritten words.
We have your cousin Eve. She is due to give birth Christmas Eve. We'll exchange her, unharmed, for $130,000. Do not tell the law or she will die.
I read the note twice before I remembered Tammy in the kitchen. "Uh, Tammy is here, and don't you think $130,000 is a very specific amount to ask for a ransom?"
"I knew something bad was going to happen." Tammy stood in the doorway. She'd heard it all — and there was no taking it back. "That baby is gonna be born, and the mama is missing."
"Hold on!" I held up a hand. They were both about to verge on hysteria. "This could be a setup." The note didn't have the feel of a real ransom demand. It was just ... off somehow.
"Coleman is on his way —" I started.
"No!" Cece snatched everything from my hand and stuffed it back into the padded envelope. "No! I can't involve Coleman."
Tammy gave Cece a long, considered look. "Who is this Eve girl?" she asked.
"My cousin. It's Carla and Will Falcon's only child. When she was growing up, we were close, but I haven't seen or heard from her in ... a while."
"So why are they contacting you for ransom money? Where's her mama and daddy?"
Cece's eyes filled with tears. "When I transitioned, Carla and Will thought I was Satan. They broke off all contact with me. And a few years ago, I heard that they turned Eve out in the street because she did something that disappointed them. I tried to find her and get her to move in with me. She couldn't have been over sixteen. But she was gone, and I never got a lead on her. I figured she'd changed her name and was living with some friends."
"So you didn't know she was pregnant?" I asked.
"I don't know anything about Eve anymore."
"Then why would the kidnappers contact you?" "Some folks think I inherited the Falcon land and fortune, but you guys know better. I walked away with nothing."
I remembered the fight over the property. Cece had wanted to be herself more than she'd ever wanted money or land — even though she should have been entitled to it. She'd fought so hard to be Cece instead of Cecil, and the very people who should have cherished and helped her — her family — were the people who fought hardest against her dream.
"This girl sounds like trouble." I hated to say it, but this kid ran away when Cece was going through hard times and could have used a loving family connection. Now Eve suddenly needed to be ransomed. I didn't want my tenderhearted friend to be used.
"If you knew Will and Carla, you'd have more compassion." Cece studied the picture of her cousin. "She's about to pop. It says she's due Christmas Eve."
"If the picture is even real." I sounded like such a bitter cynic.
"It's real, and that is Eve. I remember one Christmas when she was six, I got her a bicycle." Cece's face hardened. "Carla poured gasoline on it and set it on fire in the front yard. She said Christmas wasn't a time for gifts. To commercialize the Lord's birthday was just asking Satan to grab hold of Eve. The child stood on the porch until the bike was just a smoking heap. She never cried. When the fire was out she took the bicycle into the woods and buried it all by herself."
That memory was a perversion of Christmas. And what a terrible thing to do to a child. "You should have smacked that stupid woman in the kisser."
Cece's smile was tired. "It would only have made it harder on Eve. I bought another bicycle and kept it at my house for her. When she came over, I taught her to ride."
"Some people don't need to have children," Tammy said. "Some people should be sterilized."
Tammy was indeed in a dark mood. The whole missing-baby thing was preying on her mind. Tammy's dreams, while frightening for me, were more terrifying to her, because she knew the power of the images that came to her. She was still living in the moment of panic from the missing baby in the crèche, and now she was confronted with a real live missing mother and child.
"I have to help Eve," Cece said. "Whatever she's done, I have to help her."
"And we'll help. I have some savings." It was a paltry amount, but I would give it.
"Me, too." Tammy put an arm around Cece's shoulders.
"Scott and Jaytee said they'd send a bank draft. They're in Scotland doing that tour. I told Jaytee not to come home. There's nothing he can do."
"I'm sure Tinkie and Oscar will contribute." My partner in the Delaney Detective Agency and her husband would kick in. Tinkie and Oscar Richmond were loaded — and they were generous to their friends. "And Harold, too." Harold Erkwell worked at the Zinnia National Bank that Tinkie's family owned and Oscar ran.
"Why $130,000?" Tammy asked. "That is just a strange sum."
"Very specific," I said.
"Who knows why? Maybe Eve owes that much money to someone. Or maybe the person who abducted her has a specific financial need. All I know is I'll have that money by the time they call with the deadline. I'll give it without a second thought to make sure Eve is safe."
"Coleman is on the way here, and we really should bring him in." I said it softly.
"Absolutely not!" Cece was adamant. "We can do this without the law. The kidnappers will send more instructions for how to drop the money, and I'll get Eve back, then we can call in the law hounds."
Pushing Cece at this particular time would not be smart. To be honest, I didn't know what I would do in such a situation. If she brought in the law and something happened to Eve, she would never forgive herself. If she didn't ... we simply had to get the young pregnant woman back without injury.
"Cece, why would anyone think you would pay that amount for Eve?" This was the key to figuring out who'd taken her.
"I don't know. Only Eve would be aware how much I'd do to save her. She knew I loved her like she was my own."
And yet she'd left town without an attempt to stay in touch with Cece. "We can assume that Eve told the kidnapper to contact you, because she believed you could — and would — help her."
Cece nodded. "What hell it must be that she knows she can't contact her parents for the ransom. She knows they won't help her. How must that feel?"
Not very good. But Eve's parental rejection wasn't my biggest concern. Getting her and her unborn baby to a safe place for delivery and care was at the top of my priority list. "Cece, forget all of that. We have to make sure the money is raised and try to figure out who took your cousin."
"That's right. And I'm not much help. I haven't been in touch with Eve for several years. Her parents said I was a deviant and a freak and that God would punish anyone who associated with me. They told me to stay away from her, and I did. I shouldn't have listened to them."
I glanced at Madame Tomeeka and read the same reaction on her face. There was a very good chance we might beat the eternal snot out of Will and Carla Falcon when we ran across them. Cece was one of the finest people I'd ever met. She'd suffered through high school and college, forced into a gender that didn't fit her. And she'd saved her own money and taken action to change from Cecil to Cece. No living person had a right to judge her for that choice.
"Do you know where Eve lives?" It was a start.
"No, she left the area after her folks put her out. I never knew what the disagreement was about, and by the time I learned what Will and Carla had done, Eve was long gone. She was only sixteen. I hunted for her, but I never found her. I guess she changed her name and started a new life. Now she's pregnant."
"That was how long ago?" Tammy asked.
"About four years." Cece paced the room. "I hate to dump this on you at Christmas, Sarah Booth, but can you help me?"
My friends would show up to help me even if hell was freezing over. "You know it. Tinkie and Oscar are in Memphis at a party. I'll get her on the case first thing tomorrow."
"And you won't tell Coleman?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Gift of Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Carolyn Haines.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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