Christmas has arrived in sleepy McGill, Georgia, but holiday cheer can’t keep temperamental Stella Reid from swinging a rolling pin at anyone who crosses her bad side—and this season, there are plenty. First an anonymous grinch vandalizes a celebrated nativity display. Far worse, the scandalous Prissy Carr is found dead in an alley behind a tavern. With police puzzled over the murder, Stella decides to stir the local gossip pot for clues on the culprit’s identity . . .
Turns out Prissy held a prominent spot on the naughty list, and suspects pile up like presents on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, the more progress Stella makes, the more fears she must confront. With a neighbor in peril and the futures of her beloved grandchildren at risk, Stella must somehow set everything straight and bring a cunning criminal to justice before December 25th . . .
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"Ain't Christmas just the best, Gran? It's like the magic in fairy tales, only real!"
Stella Reid looked down at her eight-year-old granddaughter Alma, whose eyes sparkled with holiday wonderment as she gazed at the same old battered tinsel stars and ragged streamers that were strung across Main Street every year in tiny McGill, Georgia. Since it took so little time and money to decorate the dinky three-blocks-long town, Stella wondered, not for the first time, why the town council didn't splurge and shell out a few bucks for some new ones once every quarter of a century or so.
But the glow on her grandchild's lovely face gave Stella reason to rethink her position. Magic, the real kind, was born in innocent, open hearts, who sought it everywhere. And found it. Even in tattered tinsel decorations.
"Yes, Alma sugar, Christmas is the best," Stella told the child as she squeezed her small, warm hand. "It plumb dazzles the eyes and the heart alike. A time when most anything can happen."
"Good," piped up Marietta, the restless eleven-year-old who was tugging at Stella's other hand. "Maybe I'll finally get them sparkly dress-up high heels I been asking for. Ever' year I write Santa a letter and tell 'im I want 'em, but when I look under the tree ... nothin'! Diddly-squat! I don't know why. Lord knows, I'm always good as good can be."
Stella heard a throat clearing behind her. Her oldest grand-angel, Savannah, whispered, "Yeah, Miss Contrary Mari's good, all right. Good for nothing."
The third oldest, Vidalia, clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. She almost always agreed with Savannah about Marietta's shortcomings, but she knew a reprimand was forthcoming.
Casting a disapproving look over her shoulder, Stella said, "I heard that, Savannah girl. If you can't say something nice, then —"
"I know. Sorry, Gran."
Marietta stuck out her lip and whirled around to face her accuser. "What're you saying sorry to Gran for, Vannah Sue? I'm the one you insulted! Gran, make her say sorry to me, too. I'm the one who was wounded."
Stella halted the entire entourage of her seven grandchildren in the middle of the sidewalk and cringed a bit to see her fellow McGillians having to walk around the blockage.
Stella had just collected her grandchildren from their mother's house and hadn't had a chance to give them baths or wash their hair and clothes, as she usually did once she got hold of them, a time or two per week.
She saw the disapproving looks of some of her neighbors as they passed the Reid gang, and she couldn't blame them. From the chocolate that was smeared on the face of the youngest, little Jesup, who had just turned six, to nine-year-old Waycross's wild mop of dirty red curls and second grader Cordelia's torn blouse, they were a motley mess, to be sure.
The oldest, twelve-year-old Savannah, did her best to keep them clean and neat, but it was a heavy burden and a losing battle for any child.
Stella's daughter-in-law, Shirley, had surrendered long ago — if, indeed, she had ever fought at all. She possessed a talent for bringing children into the world, at the rate of one per year, and she had a knack for naming them all after towns in Georgia where she had lived at one time or another. But that was where her mothering skills and maternal interests ended. No one who knew her could say they had ever seen her pick up a hairbrush, a bar of soap or a bath towel, or, heaven forbid, an iron.
Shirley's time and life energy were spent sitting on a barstool at the Bulldog Tavern on Main Street in downtown McGill, beneath a picture of Elvis, listening to sorrowful jukebox songs and bemoaning her perpetual rotten luck.
Stella tried to keep the anger she felt for her daughter-in-law to a minimum. After all, Stella's own son, the children's father, did even less for his brood than his wife. A truck driver who came home only a few times a year and stayed just long enough to impregnate his extremely fertile wife, Macon Reid wasn't the sort of son that Stella bragged about at church socials. She was fine with him driving a big rig. It was honest, hard, skilled work. But she'd be a lot prouder if he hadn't stashed a girlfriend or two in every port of call. Or if he'd put out at least a little effort to be home for the important stuff. Like Christmas.
Wondering how Macon had turned out so badly when he'd had such a fine daddy kept Stella Reid awake at night. It also kept her from judging her daughter-in-law too harshly.
Stella liked to think that most people tried the best they could. Some came up a mite light on the All Things Virtuous side of the scale, but Stella refused to believe that anybody started out in life determined to be good for little, if anything, to their fellow man.
At least, that was what Stella told herself when she collected her seven grandkids from Shirley's filthy house, with its empty refrigerator and unused washing machine. When she was carting the youngsters out the door and wishing Shirley well with the brightest fake smile she could muster, Stella was often enjoying the fantasy of snatching her daughter-in-law off that barstool, shaking the daylights out of her, and then finishing the job with a smack upside the noggin.
Stella felt guilty about entertaining such violent imaginations, but just a little. She figured it was better to think it than do it.
Hey, whatever works, Stella frequently told herself while indulging in those satisfying daydreams. Resisting temptation was an art that took many forms.
Stella drew a deep breath, summoning her patience, and told Savannah, "Tell Marietta sorry, too, darlin'. Nobody should ever be called 'good for nothin',' because the good Lord made ever'body good for somethin'." She added under her breath, "Though it's sometimes more obvious what certain folks are good for than others."
She turned to Marietta, whose lip was back in place and curled into as ugly a sneer as Stella had ever seen.
"Miss Marietta," she told her second oldest, "you wipe that nasty look off your face. If you don't cotton to bein' called 'good for nothin',' you might try bein' good for somethin' come dish-dryin' time. Hear me?"
The lip shot out again as the child gave her grandmother a hateful glance that could have peeled the paint off a freshly polished fire engine.
"You stick that lip back in, girl," Stella added, "before a crow flies overhead and poops on it."
Demanding sparkly plastic high heels and showin' a heap o' disrespect to her elders, indeed, Stella thought. Lord, have mercy. That young'un's not even a teenager yet, and she's already giving me fits. I can see trouble comin' a mile off.
With some effort, Stella got her troops reassembled, and they continued their march down the Main Street sidewalk, toward the drugstore.
History had taught Stella that taking her grandchildren from their mom for an "overnight" usually meant a week's worth of Grandma babysitting, at least. The medicine chest was low on Merthiolate, castor oil, and bandages. In a house filled with active, accident-prone children, a well-stocked bathroom cabinet took precedence over holiday shopping.
The army of Reids rounded a corner, and too late, Stella saw him.
Elmer Yonce. One of her least favorite McGillians.
He was between the Reids and the drugstore, blocking their path. Something told her that he had been waiting there for quite a while, intending to do exactly that.
It wasn't the first time she had tangled with Elmer.
She noted with some amusement that his hands were on his hips in what might appear to be a grandiose and authoritative stance. But Stella had known Elmer since elementary school, and she could tell he was taking the opportunity to hold up his britches, which were in danger of heading south, due to him sucking in his belly overly much.
For her benefit, no doubt.
An unsettling thought.
Any guy in the habit of pullin' in his gut and puffin' out his chest to impress womenfolk should probably invest in a pair of suspenders, she decided as he approached their group.
"Merry Christmas, Sexy Stella. You're lookin' ever' bit as sweet and tasty as a plate of your best fudge," he said, waggling his right eyebrow in what was, no doubt, an effort to appear flirtatious and irresistible. "Got plans for Christmas Eve? If not, I could slide down your chimney and leave a little something in your stocking, if you know what I mean."
Stella bristled. This was a bit over the top even for the town degenerate. If she weren't surrounded by her wide-eyed grandkids, ol' Elmer's left cheek would be glowing red and her palm would be tingling.
"Reckon I know exactly what you mean, Elmer Yonce, you filthy-minded peckerwood," she told him. "You best watch what you say to me. Specially when my grand-young'uns are within earshot." She reached out and pulled her brood close, like a hen gathering her chicks when a hawk soared overhead.
"Yeah!" snapped Savannah. "Her name's not Sexy Stella. It's Gran or Granny, or Sister Stella, or Mrs. Reid."
"That's right," Marietta chimed in. "She's pretty, but she ain't sexy. She's our grandma!"
"Well, I ..." Elmer coughed and stared down at his mud-caked boots. "I knowed your grandma for years, kids, and I always thought she was mighty, um ... Oh, never mind. I didn't mean no disre —"
"Our gran's strong, too," nine-year-old Waycross added, equally indignant. "If she decides to smack you upside the head with her big ol' black skillet, you'll know you've been beaned one for sure!"
"Yeah, Granny's fierce. She'll work you over good fore she's done with you," threatened little Alma, with the fury of a much-riled second grader, "and we won't lift a finger to save your mangy hide when she does it, neither."
In her peripheral vision, Stella caught sight of a figure, a large figure in a sheriff's uniform, moving toward their sidewalk assemblage.
"Have we got a problem here, folks?" asked a deep, rich male voice — the voice of law and order in McGill, Sheriff Maniford Gilford. Though, the citizens whom he protected and served knew better than to call him Maniford.
Born as he was on Saint Patrick's Day, rumor had it that his daddy had been deep in a bottle of Irish whiskey when he saddled his innocent baby son with that awkward handle. Those whom Sheriff Gilford arrested on a fairly regular schedule opined that this might be the source of his contrariness.
Though, Stella had never thought of her old schoolmate as difficult. Quite the reverse. For as long as she could remember — which was her entire life, since both of them had grown up in McGill — Manny Gilford had treated her with only kindness and respect.
Since Stella's husband had passed away six years earlier, the sheriff had developed an almost uncanny talent for appearing out of nowhere the moment she needed a friend. Especially one with a badge.
"No, Sheriff Gilford. We got no problem a'tall," she said, deciding to cut Elmer some holiday season slack. "Mr. Yonce here was just wishin' us a Merry Christmas. He'd 'bout wrapped it up and was fixin' to move along."
The sheriff fixed his pale gray eyes on Elmer, causing the older guy to squirm. Under the lawman's suspicious, unwavering gaze, Stella's wannabe suitor withered like a well-salted slug and slithered away. He limped slightly from an old war wound — a battle that had raged many years ago between himself and a mule he had attempted to harness. Elmer had consumed the better part of a six-pack. The mule, on the other hand, had been stone sober, so he'd won the fight with one well-placed kick, which Elmer was too inebriated to dodge.
Gilford watched Elmer until he disappeared around the corner, then turned back to Stella. "If that knucklehead brings you grief, Mrs. Reid, you just let me know, and I'll put a stop to it right away. I know how he is. I get complaints on him all the time."
"He called Gran 'Sexy Stella,'" Alma piped up. "That's not her name!"
"But we fixed his wagon," Waycross added proudly. "I warned him how good she is at skillet smackin'."
Sheriff Gilford's gray eyes twinkled. "Yes, son, your grandmother's skill with a cast-iron frying pan is pretty much legendary in these parts. If I could do what she does with a skillet, I wouldn't need to carry a gun."
Savannah stepped forward. Her bright blue eyes glowed with admiration and something akin to infatuation as she looked up at the sheriff, who, even though he was in his fifties and had silver hair, was still an attractive man who cut a handsome figure in his sharp, crisply pressed uniform. "He said something downright disrespectful to my grandma," she said solemnly, "but we stuck up for her."
"I'm glad you did," Gilford replied, with a sober expression that matched the child's. "We have to look out for each other, and especially our kinfolk. What did he say that was outta line?"
"It doesn't matter," Stella interjected. "You can't take anything a weasel like that says to —"
"He said something not nice about coming down her chimney and leaving something in her stocking," Savannah replied with a knowing look that, sadly, was beyond her tender years. "We don't have a chimney, and I'm pretty sure ol' Elmer knows that. So, I reckon he meant something naughty."
It hurt Stella's heart to think of the environment her granddaughter was being raised in, one where she would understand a double entendre at her young age. The girl was growing up far too fast, thanks to her mother and the characters Shirley exposed her children to on a daily basis.
A look of anger crossed the sheriff's face, and it occurred to Stella that he was thinking the same thing.
Gilford reached over, placed his big hand on Savannah's shoulder, and gave her a quick reassuring pat. "Thank you, young lady, for reporting that offense to me. Now that you've given your statement to a law official, you don't have to worry about it or even think about it anymore. I'll deal with it now, and I assure you that Mr. Elmer Yonce will regret that he showed your grandma any disrespect. In fact, after I get done givin' him a proper talkin'-to, I reckon he'll be scared to say boo to a fine lady like your grandmother anytime in the near future."
Satisfied and happily reassured, Savannah slipped back in place behind her precious gran.
Stella was about to thank Sheriff Gilford when she saw a familiar figure sprinting up Main Street in their direction.
"Pastor O'Reilly," Gilford said when the out-of-breath runner reached them. "What's going on? Is the church on fire?"
"Worse than that," replied the minister, trying to catch his breath as he leaned on one of four municipal garbage cans evenly distributed for shoppers' use along the three-block-long city center.
"Worse than the church bein' afire?" Stella said, trying to even imagine such a thing.
"Reckon it's not quite as bad as that," Hugh O'Reilly admitted, wiping an overly abundant amount of perspiration from his brow, considering the chilly nip of winter that hung in the air. "But it's a sacrilegious felony that's been committed. That's for sure! You've gotta come see for yourself!"
The pastor and the sheriff took off down the street toward the town square two blocks away. Stella could see that a group of her townsfolk had gathered near the gazebo, with more joining by the moment.
Whatever felonious mayhem had been committed, the much-revered town square appeared to be the scene of the crime.
She felt one of her grandkids tugging at her sleeve. When she turned to them, she saw a look of nearly rapturous excitement and curiosity on her oldest grandchild's face.
"Please, oh please, can we go see what it is, Granny?" Savannah begged. "Pastor O'Reilly said it's felonious! We don't hardly ever have anything felonious to look at here in McGill!"
"No!" Waycross shouted at his sister, his ruddy face flushing red. "We was on our way to get Merthiolate and bandages. Gran said so."
Savannah gave her brother a suspicious look and said with all the grim authority of an FBI agent questioning a suspected serial killer, "Since when, Mr. Waycross Reid, did you get all hot 'n' bothered about buying Merthiolate?"
He scowled up at her. "Ain't hot 'n' bothered 'bout nothin'. Just sayin' we should tend to our own bizness fore we go tendin' to other people's."
At that moment, Stella saw one of her two best friends, Elsie Dingle, join the knot of lookie-loos gathering in the square. She could tell by the way feisty Elsie was elbowing her way through the crowd to get a better view that she considered the sight to be worth the effort. The diminutive black woman might be only five feet tall, but Elsie knew how to use her otherwise abundant proportions to her advantage in a rambunctious crowd.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder In Her Stocking"
Copyright © 2018 G.A. McKevett.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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