You can't beat a cute little New England town for the sweet sights of the season, but Unity’s celebration that year ended up more Law & Order than Holiday Channel.
Light Night started off well enough, with the Chamber of Commerce tree all decorated with sweet old-fashioned red bows and LED candles that looked like the real thing without the fire hazard. Next to it, a giant menorah elegantly crafted of silvery pipes was ready, too.
Both were set up in front of the old Congregational Church, which was Congregation Beth Shalom these days. The dwindling goyim needed to sell, and the town fathers (and mothers) liked the idea of keeping the historic building in religious use, so the deal was done.
Great for me, since I got to have my close friend, Rabbi Dina Aaron, nearly next door to my work at the town Historical Society. That afternoon, I was making sure the Society was ready for our little open house after the lighting with the help of my eight- year-old son Henry.
Well, let's say without Henry's hindrance. He wasn't wild about wearing knickers and a newsboy cap -- it was probably the last year he would be young enough that I could bribe or blackmail him into it. But he definitely did enjoy helping decorate the foyer, and with his photographic memory, he could make sure everything ended up in the right place.
Henry didn't want to rock the vintage look, but I always had fun with it. Playing dress-up is one of the fringe benefits of this job, which is a much better fit for me than my old post as a history professor. I'll answer to Dr. Shaw if I must, since I did in fact pile it high and deep, but I much prefer Christian. NOT Chrissy.
Christian is a very old Scottish woman's name, and my family apparently thought it would help me stand out. Not that I need it.
I'm too big for the actual surviving clothes, but I have a cute reproduction coat in black velvet that I bring out just for this. Makes me look like a 150% copy of Anne of Green Gables, complete with red hair.
Most of the time, I don't mind my size -- I'm six-one, and life-stress thin, but big-boned -- but I do feel like I'm missing out with the gorgeous Victorian gowns. Of course, they’re old and fragile, and no responsible person would wear them. But the whole reason I work with stuff is the vibes I get from things that were loved and used decades or even centuries ago.
It's not paranormal, well, not exactly. It's just an echo of the energy of the people who used, wore, or carried things.
So my costume coat is nice, and I feel pretty in it, but there's no kick.
We figured there was enough kick from the event. After the lighting, the Society was hosting a little open house, and after THAT came the real holiday fun: cocoa by the fire at Garrett and Ed's.
The dads I should have had (as I like to call them – we’re family of choice, not blood) host a private little party every year for family and friends to unwind after the town festivities because most of us are involved in running it, and we all need a break.
A little background: Garrett was my mentor back when we were both misfits in the History Department at Shoreline State University. Despite being a first-rate Lincoln scholar, he was too out and too honest to ever be Department chair; I didn't study the right topic or publish in the right places to get tenure. Eventually, I left for the Society, he retired and married former state trooper Ed, and we all ended up where we belong.
These days, I'm more grateful than ever for Garrett and Ed. Since my husband died in a stupid car crash, they've become the primary males in Henry's life. It's a lot easier to raise a good man with a couple standup guys around.
Speaking of standup guys, my assistant Lewis had also gotten the vintage fun memo, in a mackintosh and deerstalker. He wasn’t a Sherlock Holmes fan – he just liked the style, and it suited him, the long lines giving him a little height and the warm russet tweed adding a glow to his caramel skin. Lewis – full name John Lewis Barnes, of course for the Civil Rights hero – is less than a year away from his Yale doctorate and comes from a prominent New Haven church family. Lewis’s aunt, a pal of mine, had sent him my way because he was looking for an understanding employer at the same time my last assistant retired at 85.
Anyway, Henry was bouncing between helping Lewis and me hang garlands and set out the Nativity Scene and watching the Light Night setup outside when the fellas arrived.
I knew they were there before the bell; Empress Frederick, the Society cat, hissed and bounded away.
It wasn't Garrett and Ed -- it was Norm. Their giant red mutt, part St. Bernard, part Clifford and all sweet and loving, offended Her Imperial Majesty with his very existence.
“Hey, Uncle Garrett!” Henry called. “Ma made you dress up, too!”
“No, pal, I chose to get into the spirit.” Garrett was in full Victorian kit: gray wool greatcoat, red muffler and an actual vintage top hat.
“And good for him.” Ed, as usual, had opted out; a retired State Police Sergeant, he had zero interest in playing dress up, but he liked watch Garrett get into it. His sole concession to the season was a red-and-white striped scarf, knit by his daughter, which made him look a little less spare and stark than usual.
Henry and I went out to the porch to meet them; it wasn’t worth the aggravation of a potential confrontation between the Empress and Norm. I wasn’t worried for her safety, but Norm’s. He’d try to love her into liking him, and she’d shred his nose. Not exactly a happy holiday family moment.
“What kind of cocoa do you have this year, Uncle Garrett?” Henry asked.
“All the usual – dark chocolate, chocolate mint, mocha for the grownups – and a special treat for someone who has to watch his carbs – low-sugar double chocolate with whipped cream.”
“Awright!” Henry high-fived Garrett as Ed and I smiled. Henry has Type-1 Diabetes, and while it doesn’t rule his life, it does require some accommodations, especially during the holiday sweets season.
“All we have to do is survive this happy holiday horse – er – manure,” Ed said, quickly editing himself for Henry, “and we get to hang out by the fire with cocoa.”
Garrett chuckled. “Celebrations never killed anybody.”
He had no idea how close that was to famous last words.
Just then, there was a funny little woop-woop sound, like Henry’s old toy First Responder truck. We turned to see Unity’s only police cruiser, a cute little hybrid, painted up in powder blue and white, scuttling past as fast as its miniature engine would go.
The four of us looked at each other, and Norm let out a sad little whine.
The cruiser, woop-wooping all the way, scooted up to the stairs of the synagogue. That was all we needed.
“Henry, stay with Uncle Garrett and Norm,” I said, cutting my eyes to Ed. His cop radar had already kicked in, and my friend antennae were buzzing with concern for Dina.
Ed’s still in pretty good shape for a retiree, and even in my floofy velvet coat, I was able to cover ground too, so we made it to the steps in seconds – Lewis just a few steps behind us, trying not to be overly protective.
The former Congo Church (as parishioners cheekily called it) is a perfectly preserved early eighteenth-century house of worship, complete with white stone stairs and columns. Inside, a high, stark sanctuary centers around a carved wooden pulpit hovering ten feet in the air, and further up in the rafters, a balcony that once held with enslaved people and indentured servants. Even though the church evolved into a loving and open-minded group, and the place is now a warm and welcoming Reform synagogue, there’s still a tiny edge of the bad old days in the air.
Or maybe I just pick it up sometimes.
Certainly there was plenty of edge to go around on this day. Rabbi Dina Aaron stood at the huge white doors, wrapping her blue waterfall cardigan around her and staring at an object that had been left at the top of the portico.
It was cylindrical with a pointed top, of some dark and dingy old metal, with a few scrapes and dents. Somehow, it managed to look impossibly old and menacing at the same time. Also vaguely familiar, though I was racking my brain to figure out where I’d seen such a thing before.
“What’s this?” Tony Di Biasi, an old State Police pal of Ed’s, and the senior of Unity’s three cops, walked up to the thing and took a look. “Do you think I should call the bomb squad?”
“I’m not sure,” Dina said. “It does look kind of like an old shell. And there’s this.”
We were close enough by now to see the note in her hand. A piece of pretty stationery, with thick blue ink smudged by the light snow. It was mostly unreadable, but the few words that had survived were awful enough.
“Back where…came from.”
The signature was indistinct too. Who signs something like that anyhow?
“Happy freaking holidays.” Ed muttered. Only he didn’t say freaking. “Call hate crimes, DiBiasi.”
“Already did.” The pudgy little cop shook his head. “Now I’ve got to go talk to the selectboard and see if we want to go ahead with the event this evening.”
“You’re darn right we do.” Dina’s eyes flashed blue fire. “We don’t go hide somewhere just because somebody doesn’t like us.”
“The rabbi’s right,” Ed said. “Can’t let ‘em win.”
“All right. Well, let’s call a few of our old buddies, then, Ed.”
“That I can get behind.” Ed followed Di Biasi inside the building.
I was still looking at the metal object. Yes, it was corroded and battered, but it looked like something I knew. And not a shell.
We have a surprisingly good collection of old armaments – all duds or disabled, of course – brought home by veterans of various wars. The VFW guys take care of them, but I’ve catalogued enough over the years to recognize something like that when I see it.
And I was pretty sure this wasn’t artillery. The metal was old and dark, but very thin, and the piece looked rough and handmade, which was all wrong for a weapon. Even Colonial shells were made with care and precision.
This may have been made with care, but not a lot of precision. The front of the piece looked as if it would fall off if I touched it. Definitely not a shell – it would fall apart in the firing process, endangering the good guys before it hit the enemy.
But what, then? I bent down and took a closer look.
“Christian, don’t!” Dina grabbed my shoulder. “What if it’s-”
“It’s not.” I patted her arm. “I think I know what this is.”
Close up, I was absolutely sure. Still confused about why it was here, but certain what it was.
I pulled a pen from my pants pocket, and poked at what looked like a seam. The whole front of the piece swung away, revealing a glass screen and a candle stub.
“A lantern.” Dina let out a sigh of relief. “It’s a lantern.”
“A dark lantern.” I picked it up and showed her how the metal covered the glass – and the light. “If you’re trying to do something at night without being seen, this is what you’d want.”
“Wow,” Lewis said. “Looks early nineteenth century. Maybe even eighteenth.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too,” I agreed.
“Why would someone leave that here?” Di Biasi asked. “With a note like that?”
“No idea,” I said. Lanterns are usually good symbols – light and all that.
“Hard to know what any freak is thinking on any given day.” Ed shook his head irritably. “I’m getting really sick of hate.”
“We don’t know it’s hate,” Dina said. “All we know is that it’s weird…and that we’ve got to get ready to light everything.”
“Well, that’s true.” Di Biasi gave her a reluctant nod.
“That we do,” I agreed.
“Good. Then I’m going to go put on my pretty cape.” Dina wears a glorious sweeping blue velvet evening topper for the lighting every year, one of her very few frivolities.
“I need my stole and muff,” I said. Though I couldn’t wear any real vintage pieces, I’d invested in a few reproductions for occasions like this, including the coat, and very authentic-looking (but cruelty free, thank you!) black pretend muskrat accessories.
“Not without a little extra protection,” Di Biasi said with a nod to Ed.
“I’d expect nothing less, gentlemen.” Dina gave them a cool, brave smile. No backing down here.
A few minutes later, properly kitted out, Garrett, Henry and I stepped out on the Historical Society porch to take a good look at the scene. Lewis was already on the porch, surveying the Green, his jaw tight, clearly wondering what was lurking out there.
Still, if you didn’t know that Ed’s old Statie pals were circulating in the crowd, it would have been a perfect New England holiday scene. The light snow had returned, and the streetlights had come on, giving the whole thing a sparkle worthy of a cable movie.
Dina, in her cape, swept over to join the crowd of town leaders between the big silver menorah and the tree. Most of the town leaders had geared up for the event; there were several more capes in various colors, mobcaps, a smattering of top hats and greatcoats like Garrett’s, and of course plenty of Santa hats.
Ed, in his usual brown suede barn jacket and jeans, always looked like he was visiting from a different movie…and didn’t care.
Henry tugged on my sleeve. “Ma.”
“What, honey? You know you don’t have to sing if you don’t want to.”
“Not that, Ma.”
“Your numbers were okay five minutes ago. Are you-” His blood sugar is always the first thing I worry about, even though he’s very well regulated.
“Ma, I’m fine.” He scowled. “Everything isn’t that.”
“You’re right.” I nodded. I hate when I overstep like this. “So…”
“The old lady – behind Rabbi Dina.”
He pointed to Mae Tillotson. Henry wasn’t being disrespectful, just factual. Mae Tillotson was eighty if she was a day, one of those stern, upright matriarchs who usually seems stark and ferocious.
But in a gray vintage fur topped with a red velvet hat piled with holly leaves and berries, even she had a festive, jaunty air.
“What about her?”
“What was she doing earlier? I saw her putting something on the Temple steps when we got here.”
“You did?” I wasn’t questioning Henry’s recollection – he has a true photographic memory, and if he says he saw something, he did. I was just shocked to think that Mae would have done such a thing.
“Yeah, Ma. Looked like she had some old metal thing, like a paint can, maybe? But it was her. The red hat with the leaves. Was that why the cops came?”
Garrett and I exchanged glances.
We still had a couple of minutes before go time, and I wanted to settle this before the fun began.
“How about you stay here with Norm and Uncle Garrett while I go talk to Mrs. Tillotson.”
I marched across the path toward the group.
Dina saw me coming – I’m hard to miss, after all – and moved toward me. Ed fell in behind her.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Henry saw Mae Tillotson putting something on the steps.”
Ed nodded and walked over to Mae.
“Mae?” Dina asked. “Surely not. I hate to think…”
“So do I. She’s a volunteer at the society, and a nice lady.”
“Not that nice, if-”
“Rabbi!” Mae had one of those Julia Child voices you could hear for miles. More so, as she swept over to us, much exercised in mind. “I believe we have a terrible misunderstanding.”
“I sure hope so,” Dina said.
“That lantern was a gift.”
“My father was the sacristan. When I was cleaning out the garage this fall, I found the old thing, and wanted to make sure it went back where it came from.”
“Back where it came from.” Ed said. “Where the lantern came from.”
“Well, yes.” Mae bristled a little. “That’s what I said in the note.”
“Which got wet.” I shook my head. “It didn’t read that way.”
“All we could read was ‘back where – came from,’” Dina told her.
“Oh, dear. I’m truly sorry.” Mae patted Dina’s arm. “Of course it might seem scary if you couldn’t read the rest. What a mess.”
“It’s all right.” Dina returned the pat and smiled. “I’m just glad it was all right. Let’s go light the candles and tree.”
“And bring the lantern,” Mae said. “There’s more to the story.”
The whole story didn’t come together until later, at Garrett and Ed’s over that wonderful hot chocolate buffet.
“So here’s what Mae told me at the Society,” I started, after a sip of my mocha.
“She was just returning the lantern, right?” Dina asked.
“Yes, but the twist is what it was used for.”
Garrett perked up, as if he could guess what was coming. So did Lewis.
“Apparently, it was kept in the basement, in a hidden room that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.”
“Yes!” Dina clapped her hands. “One of the storage rooms has a little metal bedstead and a table. I thought it might be a place of refuge.”
“It sure was. And the dark lantern was for when the pastor guided enslaved people to their driver for the next leg of the trip to freedom.”
“Right,” Garrett said. “Because even if almost everyone in town was on board with the idea – there was always the possibility of someone who wasn’t.”
“And horrible consequences.” Ed nodded. “Even here in the supposedly free North.”
“Exactly. Hence the dark lantern and secrecy.” I wrapped my hands around the cocoa mug, thinking about what the people who came through the church must have suffered. I hoped they’d found safety and happiness in Canada.
“I wonder how many came through,” Dina said, gazing down into her mug, almost certainly contemplating some of the same questions I was.
“There are some individual accounts, and a very few records,” Garrett told her. While Lincoln was his primary focus, he’d studied a variety of other aspects of mid-19th century American life. “But unless you have the pastor’s diary, you’ll probably never know.”
Everyone was quiet for a long moment. The past is always with us, just under the surface, for good or bad.
“Well, we know about a few people.”
We all turned to Lewis.
He smiled. “One of my great-great-great grandparents – I think -- came through here as a boy with his mother. Family legend has it that New Haven County was so beautiful and the people were so kind that he never forgot it, and when it was safe to come back as a freedman, that’s what he did. Built a new life and a new world for his family.”
“And now you’re here, at the Society.” Garrett smiled.
“And the lantern is back where it belongs.” Dina nodded, .
“I think we all end up where we belong,” I said. “And sometimes you take the happy ending.”
“And the cocoa!” Henry chimed in.
Lewis raised his mug. “Especially the cocoa.”
You humans gotta work on this holiday stuff.
You spend a month running around screeching about how it’s the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” usually end up screeching at each other…and sooner or later I end up having to take a nip at one of ya because you owe me some treats.
Even so, that first year in Vermont really wasn’t too bad. Until New Year’s Eve, when the litter hit the fan.
I’d better introduce myself here. I’m Neptune, Boss Cat of WSV Radio in Simpson, Vermont. On my vet forms, it says Neptune Metz, domestic cat, breed unknown. I like to think of myself as a big gray cat from the Bronx. And I don’t use That Guy’s name anymore – he left Thing and My Girl and that’s all I need to know.
You mess with my people, you mess with me.
It’s That Guy’s fault we’re here now. He broke up with Thing, and they all decided to move so that they could stay close but not live in the same house. I don’t even know where Vermont IS. All I know is that I was in the box for a couple hours and got dumped out in this ugly, dusty, old-smelling place. Only good part is, there’s a nice big window facing on the porch and some new birds to scare.
Can’t hear them, though, because there’s always music playing.
I probably knew Thing was a DJ before we came up here, but since we didn’t live where she worked, it didn’t matter. Now, though, we can always hear somebody wailing about their damn breakup or whatever.
Humans are just weird. You apparently can’t be miserable on your own, you need to hear some fool screeching about it. Ugh.
And then come the holidays, and you need to hear special screeching.
Include me out.
At least I’d managed to hide out in my window or the studio through the worst of the craft fairs, carol sings, and whatever else Thing had to do for the radio station. I figured I’d end the year with a full, rich day of napping.
Probably the only time I’ve ever been wrong.
That morning, I was in my window, because it’s relatively quiet most of the time, and Thing had been kind enough to hang some tinsel there, so I have something to play with. She gave me an ornament too, but after I batted it into the office, she took it away.
So I’m just watching my birds – understand, I like to watch them fly around, maybe menace them a little, but I don’t want to eat them. Too messy.
Give me a nice freshly-opened can of tuna any day.
This SUV comes creeping along. It stands out because it’s slow – and it’s white. Back home, every other car was a white SUV, but not here. Too hard to keep clean with all this frickin’ slush. (Direct quote from Thing!)
It slows down even more. Guy looks out the driver’s window. I give him a good glare, and he drives off.
Damn right. You mess with My Girl and Thing, you mess with me.
Figured it was just the usual day at the office until it came back around and the same thing happened.
I don’t like this.
Good thing My Girl is away with That Guy for a couple of days. I don’t like him, but he’s a decent dad and he keeps her safe.
I jumped out of the window. Better go make sure Thing is okay.
Thing was across the hall in her office, working on something on the big light box. It’s more fun when My Girl works on the light box, because the colors move around and there are all kinds of interesting noises. Thing just taps away at it as if she’s expecting something to happen.
As far as I can tell, it never does.
I jumped up on the desk, and walked across the piles of papers to her. Thing isn’t My Girl, but she’s basically all right. She’ll do if you need a treat or a little attention, anyhow.
“C’mon, buddy.” She gave me a pat and a scratch in just the right spot under my chin. “You want to sit on my lap while I work on the log?”
Um, no. I am not a lap cat, and you know it.
Thing laughed. “Fine, then. You stay here on the desk and supervise.”
That’s about right.
We’d just gotten settled when the doorbell buzzed. I hate that thing. Took me forever to figure out that the horrible sound meant people coming in – and most of them aren’t bringing treats.
This one wasn’t, anyhow.
The Mail Lady doesn’t like me for some reason. Might be that I tried to nip her the first day we met. But, c’mon, her shoes smelled like dog.
“Thanks, Jerusha!” Thing took the mail and package from her and took it into the reception area.
I treated Mail Lady to an imposing glare. Take that to your doggie pal.
Time to climb back into the window and give that tinsel another hit. On the old reception desk, Thing was opening the package.
“What the ****?”
Thing’s almost as good with bad words as me, so I wasn’t surprised by the swear, but I had no idea why she’d be cussing at a package. I jumped up on the desk and took a look.
“Get away, Neptune. That’s a gun.”
Like a cat from the Bronx wouldn’t know a gun when he saw one. I looked inside. Seemed old and dirty to me. Guns – at least the ones I’d seen as a street kitten and in police holsters, were shiny and clean, and scary, too, even if nobody’s pointing them at anyone.
You couldn’t be a cat from the Bronx and not know what a gun can do.
But who sends Thing a gun? And why?
“It’s okay, sweetie.” She scooped me up, I’m sure more for her comfort than mine, and put me over her shoulder like a baby. I don’t normally like this much, understand, but it was kind of soothing, and she clearly needed it.
I favored her with a purr and gave her a nudge as I settled in.
“You’re right, pal, I’m calling Chief George.”
Damn right she was. Or I’d call him myself.
# # #
Chief was there in five minutes. Maybe less.
The cop shop is right across the street, and he’s been here a lot.
Not because he’s an NYPD veteran and Thing’s a friend of his wife’s. I wish. It’s because we have some freaks who don’t like what she’s done with the place.
These two mopes in funny outfits show up every Tuesday evening, yelling about how they want their talk show back. I don’t like the music Thing plays either, but it’s better than some weirdo screaming about stuff I don’t understand.
The yelling would be bad enough, but these guys have guns – the long, old-looking kind. Even Thing doesn’t think they’d actually use them, but she doesn’t like it, and neither do I.
So we see plenty of Chief.
I jumped out of Thing’s arms when I saw him coming up the steps. You don’t greet a fellow standup guy being held like a stuffed toy.
“Hey, Jaye. Neptune. You watching out for her, Big Guy?”
Chief and I exchanged a nod. A thing among men.
He’s a New York guy. He gets it – and we get him.
Probably glad to have a few folks who do. He’s a big Black guy, bald and maybe a little scary-looking to the very pale people around here, especially in his black leather coat.
With everything that was going on, I decided to stay close, and followed them as they went to look at the package. I hopped up into my window, where I could watch without them noticing me, and allowed myself a good swipe at the tinsel.
Wasn’t going to do any harm. Thing’s safe for the moment.
As I settled in, I noticed that big white SUV going past again.
“Okay, so what have we got here, Jaye?” Chief asked Thing.
She motioned to the box. “Somebody sent me a gun.”
“An old gun.” He gazed down into the box, picked the thing up with a gloved hand and held it for a moment. “Looks like an antique.”
Thing gave him an eyebrow.
“Antique like the things Howard and Harold carry,” said Chief.
“Different time period, I know, but it’s still an old gun.”
“And you still have guys with old guns protesting here on a regular basis.” He nodded. “It would make me a little nervous too.”
Of course, he was just saying that to make her feel better. Nothing makes us New York guys nervous. But it takes a lot to rattle Thing, too.
“Yeah,” she said.
“No note or anything, though.”
“Most of these folks want their targets to know they’re angry and coming for them,” Chief told her in a very reassuring tone. “So that’s interesting.”
“I don’t know what to think.” She pointed to the flap. “The package just says Jordan, Simpson Plaza. Only my last name. Not even the radio station.”
“Return’s unreadable.” Chief squinted down at it.
“What do you-”
“Not sure.” Chief shrugged. “Let me do a little looking around, see what I can do.”
“Coffee to go?” Thing offered, walking toward her office.
Chief grinned. Apparently, Thing has the only good coffee in town. All I know is that a foul-smelling box arrives every month, and the place reeks of it most of the time.
Why can’t they drink milk like reasonable creatures?
While Thing was pouring the vile brown stuff, I climbed across to the desk where she’d left the package and looked again.
Jordan, they’d said. I thought I remembered Thing laughing with someone about having the same name. But who?
I turned back toward the window, because a good nap makes everything better, and saw it on the bulletin board.
Thing had done some kind of woo-hoo event for the food pantry a couple weeks ago, and this old coot had something to do with it. She’d wanted to make sure his name was right on the poster, and that’s when they laughed about it. His first name is her last name.
Old Coot had been pretty nice, even if he smelled like big dog. Spent plenty of time telling Thing what a magnificent cat I am. Damn right, pal.
“Seriously, Jaye,” Chief said, as they walked out of her office, “I wouldn’t worry too much. There was no threatening note, and the gun wasn’t loaded. Maybe not even usable. So if it even is anything, it’s probably nothing serious.”
“Okay,” Thing nodded, gave a wry laugh, and drank from her own reeking mug. “Just a little New Year’s Eve surprise?”
Maybe not even that. Chief should see if the gun had anything to do with Old Coot.
I batted the poster.
Good aim! I knocked it clean into the middle of the room, right at Thing’s feet.
“Neptune!” she scolded. “Do I have to move the bulletin board, too?”
I glared at her. Humans are so clueless.
Do I have to do everything for you? I jumped down and kneaded the poster.
Thing and Chief looked at me, and then each other.
“No idea,” Chief said.
Oh, come on! You’re better than that.
“Me either,” Thing shook her head. “Maybe smells like something he likes.”
“Could be. Bratton does that sometimes.”
I assumed Bratton was the cat I smelled on his shoes. My guess was that he was a standup guy, too. And probably smarter than his humans, just like me.
“Anyway,” Thing said, “I’m sorry to bother you…”
“Nah.” Chief shook his head. “I’d always rather check things out. So you do the usual.”
“Keep calm and keep my eyes open?”
“You got it.” Chief smiled and picked up the package. Hopefully he’d get my message when he took a good look. “And give the Big Guy a treat.”
Chief and I exchanged respectful nods again. A pleasure doing business with him, even if I have to give him a shove in the right direction.
He went on his way, and Thing followed police orders and handed me a couple of Tuna Crunchies.
The sun was out, warming the window, and making the tinsel sparkle. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Thing, so I might as well take a little me time. I batted the tinsel a few times, chattered at a passing bird, then started to curl up and relax for a nice nap. All of this craziness was interfering with my sleep schedule.
I was just resting my chin on my paws when I saw it.
That ugly white SUV was back. This time it parked, and a guy got out. He was tall and dark-haired and carried himself like he thought he was a hot dude. I’m a tomcat. I know the look.
As he walked to the door, I jumped down and padded over to watch. I didn’t know what kind of trouble this guy was, but after what just happened, I wasn’t taking any chances.
When Thing opened the door, she let out a squeak. “Joe Cuevas!”
They hugged, and I did not like the way he hung onto her. Not even a little.
“Haven’t seen you since the whole staff was stuck in that blizzard together at Edison in New York,” Thing said.
“Yeah.” Hot Dude smiled. “Been a while. I’m spending the holiday week with a couple of old friends in Manchester. Thought I’d drop by and say hi.”
“Nice of you. Don’t see a lot of New Yorkers up here.” Thing gave him a sharp, assessing look, like maybe she was picking up something too. “How do the kids like the snow?”
“They’re with my wife back in Riverdale.”
“Ah.” Thing nodded.
I really didn’t like the way this guy was looking at Thing. I moved over a little closer to her.
“My wife and I are on a break.”
C’mon, Thing. I nudged her leg. Even she’s not dumb enough to buy that one.
“Meaning you’re going back to her. And if you can, you should.”
Hot Dude didn’t say anything.
“Some stuff is too big to get past, Joe.” Thing shook her head. Bet she was thinking about That Guy. “But most stuff is just pride and anger, and that’s not worth destroying a life over. Go back to her.”
Thing’s eyes were big and sad, and I knew that look.
I really didn’t want to see Thing cry again. And I really didn’t like this guy. I decided he had to go. So I gave him a good ankle nip and a hiss.
“Neptune! Bad kitty!”
I knew Thing was only saying that because she had to. Hot Dude mumbled something about staying in touch and left. He wasn’t quite running…but the birds usually move slower.
“Neptune,” Thing said, as she closed the door, “what am I going to do with you?”
Treats would be a good start.
I got a bunch of Tuna Crunchies and a nice little nap before the bell buzzed again, and Thing let in the Chief.
Maybehe’d have something good.
“Hey, Big Guy.”
Chief and I shared a nod. He always shows respect to the alpha male of the house.
Thing smiled. She sort of gets it. Sort of.
Chief smiled too. “Got some good news for you, Jaye.”
“I’d sure like some.”
“Oh, nothing.” Thing shrugged. “Nothing scary, just personal stuff. Do I look like rebound action to you?”
Chief’s eyes widened for a moment, and then he scowled. So did I. “Guy in the white SUV a little while ago?”
“Yeah. Old friend from the City. On a break with his wife, he says.”
“I won’t arrest you if you broke something of his. Might even help you if he tried anything.”
“It wasn’t like that. It was just – annoying.”
“Annoying, I can’t help you with. But I can tell Alicia to drop by after work.”
“I’d like that.” Thing smiled. Chief’s wife is pretty great, too. Even if she also smells like that other cat. “So what’s the deal?”
“The package was nothing serious. Just a shipment intended for-”
Someone pounded on the door. Chief and I both moved into strong stances. Anybody who comes after Thing will have to get through both of us.
Good luck with that.
“Oh, good, Mr. MacKenzie,” Chief said, as he opened the door. “Jaye, this was just what I wanted to tell you. The gun was supposed to go to Jordan MacKenzie here, at his shop down the street.”
Old Coot! I told you so!
An old guy with a fluffy white beard and tired eyes walked in, and said hello way too loudly.
“Jordan MacKenzie,” Thing said in her big on-air voice. “Of course. I forgot about your shop.”
“Yeah.” He gave her a smile. I remembered that he was loud because he didn’t hear very well. “It’s a World War II sidearm. Guy couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so he sent it to me. Too bad the label got messed up.”
“Yeah. Sorry I got the cops involved.”
“Don’t mind when it’s our cops.” Old Coot nodded to Chief. “He’s a good guy. And you’re a nice lady. I’m sorry you’re getting flak from those talk-show nuts.”
“We’re managing.” Thing gave her determined smile. “We just get up and keep going every day.”
“Just right. You’ll get there.” Old Coot looked down at me. “Great cat. Like seeing him in the window. Watches out for the place.”
“Sure does,” Thing said, bending to give me a pet.
“Well, give him an extra treat for me.”
“Same for me,” said Chief.
Both left with appropriate shows of respect and no attempt to pet me, just as it should be. I moved over to the poster on the floor, because I wanted to make sure Thing knew who was the real detective here.
After she closed the door, she turned to me.
“You really are a shakedown artist, you know.”
Call me whatever you like, just keep giving up the treats, Thing. I kneaded the poster again.
“What is with you and that-”
She looked down at it. “Simpson Food Pantry Fundraiser Sponsored by Grand Union, Saint Michael’s, Jordan McKenzie Antiques…”
People claim cats can’t smile. Maybe. I know I can smirk.
Thing just looked at me for a moment.
“Just another day when the cat’s smarter than me,” she said.
Got that right.
A while later, I was dozing in my favorite spot in the studio downstairs (it’s warm, and much quieter because Thing turns down the speakers when she’s there) when that annoying phone light blinked.
Thing had a kind of funny little smile as she picked up, and turned sort of pink as she talked. It was that Governor guy she’d interviewed a couple days ago, sounded like he’d left something out. She put him on the phone line in the studio so she could record – and I could hear them.
Some boring thing to do with land use…except that he sounded awfully nice and friendly.
“You okay down in Simpson?” he asked her when they were done.
“Sure. The protests about the format change are annoying but not a big deal.”
“Okay. Sorry again for bugging you on New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s fine.” Thing laughed. “I’m spending my big exciting evening in the studio with the cat.”
Hey! Watch it, lady. I’m the best company you’re gonna get, and you damn sure know it.
“Better than me. I’m doing First Night alone.”
Thing was quiet for a moment, and so was the guy.
“May I make an entirely appropriate proposition?” he asked.
“Let’s steal an idea from the positive energy people. I’ll keep a good thought for you at midnight if you promise to do the same for me.”
“I like it.”
“Good.” Another pause, and when he came back there was a smile in his voice. Yeah, this one is okay. Not like Hot Dude. “Happy New Year, Ms. Jordan.”
“Happy New Year, Governor.”
I hadn’t seen Thing smile like that in years.
And good for her.
I yawned. Enough for one day. Happy frickin’ New Year, people. I’m going back to sleep.
Want to know what happens to Thing, My Girl, and of course, Neptune, in the New Year? Pick up LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, from Crooked Lane. And, if you’re curious about Jaye’s history with Joe Cuevas, you can find out in “Snowed Under,” in the Creative James Media short story anthology DARK AND STORMY NIGHT,
A Jaye Jordan story
Even in frigid Vermont, we don’t usually welcome the holiday season by torching the tree. But because it was the Christmas of the Year from H-E-double-hockey sticks, I wasn’t entirely surprised when Oliver Gurney, the chair of the selectboard, threw the switch and the whole thing went up.
Flames running right up the trunk, shooting down the branches and bursting out the top. The star popped off and landed a few feet away from my porch, the firelight sparkling off the apparently indestructible gold plastic.
Burn, baby, burn.
“Holy-” my on-air partner and I started in shocked unison, avoiding the next word just in time to prevent the radio station from losing its license.
I cleared my throat. “Well, then. We appear to have had a small mishap. Let’s return to holiday music…I’m Jaye Jordan in the Simpson Plaza with Rob Archer, live here on WSV.”
As Burl Ives exhorted us to have a “Holly Jolly,” Rob’s husband Tim grabbed their son Xavier and my daughter Ryan and dragged them up to the radio station porch, their squeaks of outraged tween dignity barely audible over the music and the whoosh of the fire extinguishers. Fire Chief Frank Saint Bernard handed his eggnog to Town Clerk Sadie Blacklaw, who happens to be Rob’s aunt, and joined his men on the line.
Rob cued up the next record, though I’m not sure why, unless it was the old-school jock’s show-offy pride in the skill – or the vinyl. He looked over to me, his pale-blue eyes gleaming in the dying fire.
“Happy freaking holidays.” Rob did say freaking.
“Well, obviously, Little Brother, I checked the wiring on the lights before we put them up.” Oliver Gurney snapped at his twin, born three crucial minutes later and saddled with the humiliating title for life.
“Just making sure,” Orville, prominent local attorney and school board member, told his brother the hardware store owner with only a minimal smirk. “You know the police chief will ask.”
“And I’ll answer him.”
And it was on. The two were quickly bickering, rehashing three score worth of old grievances.
No surprise. Now that we were all safely inside WSV, and the fire was mostly out, it was back to default settings. Even if we had to figure out what on earth just happened. I picked up my Listen to Your Jewish Mother coffee mug and wished I were anywhere but here. Not a new feeling for me.
A year ago, my husband David had just finished chemo, my job as a midday DJ at New York’s top light music station was secure, and our daughter was thriving in her Westchester school. Then cancer did to our marriage what it hadn’t done to David, and the radio station wanted newer, edgier (read cheaper) young talent.
So I took the payoff, bought what was left of WSV, the place where I’d had my first on-air job, and Ryan and I moved in over the studios. David landed in Charlestown, right across the river, running the English Department at the community college and living with his parents there. Close enough for Ryan but far apart enough for us.
Rob had given up on radio, despite being the best morning man I’d ever known, and was running the restaurant next to the station when I came back. He was willing to voice-track a morning show and do the occasional remote for the pittance I could offer. I did news updates in the morning, and all-request love songs at night. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked.
Most of the time.
Which did not include this Thursday evening in December, when the first night of Hanukkah had just been celebrated with the burning of the town Christmas tree. With the newly revived local radio station broadcasting live.
Suddenly my blue t-shirt with a silver menorah and “LIGHT IT UP” didn’t seem quite so witty.
I pushed back the platinum-streaked piece of black hair that had come loose from my clip. The streak, my wardrobe of jeans, snarky tees and moto jacket – and the bony frame that came from being too stressed to eat – were all new in the last couple of years. The aftermath doesn’t just feel different than Before…it looks it, too.
Police Chief George Orr strode into the old reception area, where I’d set everyone up with good coffee from the schmancy club a friend had sent as a house (radio station?) warming gift. Accepting his cup, he led with a friendly smile, carefully calibrated to make everyone as comfortable as they could be with a six-foot-three Black man in a leather trenchcoat in a tiny town in the whitest state in the union. He’s a former NYPD lieutenant, recruited by the town fathers and mothers to bring some professionalism, and not incidentally some diversity, to the P.D. His wife, Alicia, is a vice president at the bank, and a new friend of mine.
The chief still has the NYPD hard look, and after a sip, he used it, just to make sure that we all knew who was in charge.
“All right, any reason to think this is anything but an accident?”
“Well,” Oliver began, with an apologetic glance to me. “There are those who aren’t too happy with the new radio station…”
“A-yuh.” Orville agreed.
This was classic Old New England understatement. When I replaced low-rent satellite talk with live local programming, mostly all-request music, I got heated complaints from a few committed fans. I probably hadn’t helped my case by starting the new format with “Despacito” – in Spanish – cutting off Edwin Anger’s rant about “those dirty aliens,” but you might as well know who you’re dealing with from the drop.
The pushback, though, had been limited to nasty messages and phone calls, and one lawmaker from the next town over calling for a state investigation. That died ugly when Governor Will Ten Broeck started laughing on the House floor when she asked him if it was legal to play records for “those degenerates.” By which she meant same-sex couples.
Ten Broeck, whose son is out and proud as well as his pride and joy, suggested the state rep find something else to do and kept walking.
So had I. Until tonight.
Chief George looked over to me. “Nothing over the line?”
I shook my head. When the first wave of letters and emails came, he’d carefully explained to me the bright line between mean and actively dangerous. I hope G-d gets you is scary, but not actionable unless it becomes: I’m going to kill you.
He nodded and took another sip of coffee. “Anybody else?”
That was for Rob, and absolutely beyond imagining. Rob grew up here; he was the morning man during my first hitch, and right up until the last owner turned WSV into a drone. If people don’t love him for that, he owns the local restaurant and serves up magnificent home cooking. Chief George probably meant the gay thing, but literally nobody notices or cares – when it’s Rob. His husband, Tim, is a combat veteran and an ADA, and the only guy who’s more standup than Rob. Vermont (except for the occasional fossil like that lawmaker) is pretty open-minded anyhow, but Rob and Tim are a special class.
“I really doubt it had anything to do with the station,” Oliver said, his slow pace and pronounced accent emphasizing his seriousness.
“But we need to make sure Jaye is safe.” Orville added.
“Well, of course, Little Brother. I never suggested…”
And, right back to the bickering. Orville and Oliver are my ex-husband’s uncles, and they consider themselves Ryan’s and my designated protectors. Especially since, as far as they’re concerned, David let us all down by celebrating his survival by chasing blondes. Most days, they minded a lot more than I did. He didn’t actually catch any blondes until after we were separated, and anyway, romance, or whatever you’d like to call it, was the last thing on my mind after six months of seeing him through chemo.
“Hey, fellas…” Chief George tried.
The rest of us exchanged uncomfortable glances.
But then I realized what was playing on the automated music service…and braced for it. Yep. The cat was already tensing. Most of the holiday music the service sprinkles in with the soppy power ballads and poppy Motown we play during off hours is wallpaper, inoffensive and unremarkable. Unless you’re Neptune.
And unless it’s “Happy Xmas, War is Over.”
For some reason, Yoko Ono’s voice absolutely freaks him out. Every time. Almost twenty pounds of anguished gray fur flew at me. As usual, I made the catch, and he draped himself over my shoulder and howled in my ear. Neptune is more Ryan’s cat; she picked him out at the shelter and named him for the eighth planet because he is part Russian blue.
But when you’re really scared, you want the mama. I patted his back and whispered something soothing, trying very hard not to giggle.
I’d like to say it was Neptune’s reaction, but no. It’s even worse. I grew up in the Western Pennsylvania back country, where neither British accents nor peace protests were common. So until I got to college, I thought Yoko and friends were singing: “It wouldn’t be Christmas without any beer.”
“Want a beer?” Rob whispered. Of course he knows.
“Not while I’m on duty, thanks.”
“Might need one to kill the nerves before you talk to the Gov tonight…”
“Oh, shut up.” I was going to tape a quick interview with Will Ten Broeck about the statewide food drive in about an hour. Boilerplate. No drama.
“You know he’s been divorced a couple years, right?”
“What part of shut up don’t you understand?” Yes, I had a crush on the very blond, very old-school Knickerbocker and very, very hot Will Ten Broeck when I was a pudgy kid and he was governor the first time. And no, I had not done one thing about it because he was married. Full stop.
“Please?” Chief George asked, with a faint metallic tone that suggested a final warning.
Neptune stopped howling for a moment and made a strange gurgling noise. I froze as the next song, thankfully just a harmless Chicago ballad, began. Then the cat let out a magisterial belch and jumped down.
I was grateful it was only a burp. The WSV transmitter is out on Quarry Hill, guarded by a gigantic bull moose. The good news is, Charlemagne will eat maple candy from my hand. The bad news is, he has a flatulence problem.
Emissions notwithstanding, all of us, with the exception of Orville and Oliver, were now paying attention to the Chief. Rob’s aunt Sadie, the Town Clerk and therefore the most familiar with the ways of the twins, shot me a small grin.
The Chief could stop a street in the Bronx.
“Oh, sorry, Chief,” Oliver said quickly. “No disrespect intended. You know how it is when-”
Chief George did indeed know how it was, which is why he didn’t arrest anyone.
The twins hung their heads like the bad little boys they’d been several decades ago, still looking almost exactly alike…and in similar outfits of plaid shirts, work pants and parkas – green for Oliver and blue for Orville.
“You know, Chief,” Sadie began, pouring a little oil on the troubled waters, “the permit was exactly the same as every year. Chamber of Commerce.”
“And,” Tim continued, his handsome features sharpening as he thought about it, “the tree came from Sevier’s Farm like always, too.”
Rob nodded. “That’s true.”
“And you checked the lights, right, Mr. Gurney?” asked Chief George.
If Orville shot his brother a triumphant glance, it was in everyone’s best interest to ignore it.
“I did indeed.” Oliver nodded decidedly. “And they were exactly right, as every year.”
Suddenly, I noticed a little movement from the corner where Ryan and Xavier had been sitting, trying to ignore the BO-ring grownups. As I started to fit some very unpleasant pieces together in my mind, I fixed them both with the Look of Death.
So did Rob.
The little angels – they will say medium-sized kids, being ten -- had run of the radio station, plus their own Snap Circuits electronics toys and more. They probably knew more about wiring than Oliver did. Certainly more than we did.
“RyansMom,” Xavier began, his brown eyes widening a little. It’s one of the most comforting things about his friendship with Ryan – he calls me the exact same thing her New York pals did.
“Did you try to brighten things up, kids?” Chief George’s tone was surprisingly gentle.
“What?” Ryan pulled herself up to her full height, her light-green eyes, exactly like her father’s, glowing with tween indignation. “No way.”
“Absolutely no way, Chief!” Xavier agreed.
“But,” my girl continued. “If you want to know what happened, you need to look at what’s different this year.”
“What’s different is us, Ryan,” I said quietly.
“Really, Jaye, I don’t see it.” Rob’s tone was reassuring – and intended for me, as those icy blue eyes of his beamed right into his son’s soul.
“C’mon, Dad,” Xavi said. “You and Papa taught me better than that.”
Tim couldn’t keep down a trace of a smile. “Well, we hope so.”
“Look, Ma,” Ryan cut in, pulling us back to the topic. “Did you ever do a live remote from the porch back in the day?”
I looked to Rob, and he to me. When I’d been here the first time, the tree-lighting was much more elaborate, involving a torchlight procession through town. We’d broadcast from the bank parking lot, a couple hundred yards away, plugged into their main circuit box.
“Um, I don’t think so,” I said.
“And, XavisDad, you plugged the remote kit into the power box outside, same as the lights, right?”
Oh, holy hotwire.
Rob and I looked at each other, and then the kids.
Chief George stared at us all.
“Looks like we torched the tree.” I motioned to my shirt. “I didn’t mean this literally, but…”
The Chief laughed, Lord love him. “How?”
“Pretty much the same way people burn down their houses with power strips every once in a while,” Rob started.
“We didn’t want to overload the station or the restaurant with the remote kit. So we plugged in out there…and overloaded itinstead,” I continued. “And…”
“Boom.” Xavier and Ryan said in unison.
“Boom?” the chief asked.
“Ayup.” Oliver shook his head. “Overload will kill you every time.”
Because G-d, karma or the music service has a very sick sense of humor, the song “Electric Avenue,” of all impossible things, was playing on the automation when Ryan and I went downstairs to light the menorah about twenty minutes later.
My girl and I smiled together. Once the mystery was solved, everyone had quickly left for their own busy evenings. Since Oliver was taking part of the blame for not checking where we planned to plug in the remote kit, and Sevier’s was willing to replace the tree because there’s really no way a properly fresh one should have gone up like that, all was well that ended well.
Easy for Shakespeare to say. Unlike Rob and me, the Bard didn’t have to re-decorate the new tree.
But still, it was the first night of our little family’s first Hanukkah in our new home and new life, and it had to be special. It was. I set up the menorah, a small metal one I’d ordered online, in the kitchenette outside the studio so it would be safe for the blue beeswax candles to burn all the way.
I gave Neptune a handful of treats. When in doubt, resort to bribery.
Then Ryan took up the matches and candles, and we began. I could manage it, because I converted when I married David, but my Hebrew is awful. Besides, it’s wonderful to see my girl bringing in light and hope and G-d the way Jews have been doing for more than five thousand years.
Even before I converted, I loved the story of Hanukkah. One day’s oil in the re-consecrated temple burns for eight. Freedom, light…and the knowledge that if you do your part, G-d will pull you across the finish line.
A great miracle happened here. Or at least a little one for us.
I gave Ryan the book she’d been asking for, a beautiful glossy coffee-table volume on the planets. She surprised me with an elastic bracelet of little blue glass Stars of David.
I managed to not cry until I sent her upstairs to read her new book.
Maybe half an hour later, the news line rang. I taped the interview with Governor Will Ten Broeck, exactly as expected, talking about big drive for the state food bank.
“Glad no one was hurt tonight.”
“We’re fine.” Of course he knew. It’s a very small state. “It looked pretty weird, but really. It’s Vermont. How weird can it be?”
Ten Broeck chuckled, almost nervously. “You were in New York a long time, so no insult intended, okay?”
“Pretty weird, Ms. Jordan. But you’re up to it.” `
There was a note in his voice that suggested – something – different than I’d heard from the Governor of New York when I’d done a fluff interview in the City. “Um, thanks.”
Of course, I hadn’t had a huge, stupid crush on the Governor of New York back in the day, either. He didn’t have deep blue eyes and a smile that could melt steel. And Rob hadn’t just gleefully reminded me that the honorable executive of the Empire State was single.
“Just so you know, I’m glad you’re back,” said Will Ten Broeck.
My mind said SQUEE!
But I managed to keep my tone within a degree or two of my usual cool range: “Actually, I think I am too.”
For more on Jaye's new life in Vermont, check out LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, from Crooked Lane.