My name is Brandy Alexander, and I made the mistake of stopping by Julia’s to drop off mistletoe, not the fake kind, but the real deal. It was precisely what she’d asked me to buy for her Christmas party tonight. And no, that isn’t a stage name, and I don’t dance on Bourbon Street. Brandy was my dad’s idea of the perfect New Orleans name for a girl with our last name—Alexander. He sat waiting in a bar—and drinking—on the night I was born. His rogue brother, my Uncle Andrew who was with him, thought it was a great name too. My mother, however, did not. She’s been blaming me for it my entire life—like I could name myself!
I took a lunch break, which I don’t normally do this time of year. Starting on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, and ending sometime when returns are final after New Years, there is an increase of online shopping, bringing with it more fraudulent activity for companies like mine. My work is in a specialized department for a major telecom organization. My knack for seeing what others miss makes me good in this type of work. I can see calling patterns in dialed numbers. Sometimes the duration of calls is what clues me to investigate further. It involves looking at spreadsheets of dialed numbers for mind-numbing periods of time, but once I notice an irregularity, I lock onto it like a heat-seeking missile. Online holiday shopping is to hackers what an All You Can Eat Buffet is to those with voracious appetites.
I spotted Frank, Julia’s handyman, waving his arms wildly for my attention. It would have been hard not to spot him jumping up and down behind the manger of the life-sized nativity on the front lawn of Julia’s bed and breakfast. Squeezing through the shoulder-to-shoulder nutcracker soldiers that lined the walkway I found myself stepping over dozens, if not hundreds, of extension cords that looked like the spaghetti tracks weathermen use for hurricane forecasts.
The fresh, woody fragrance of the spruce tree in the middle of the yard wafted subtly in the cool air. It reminded me of every Christmas since I was born, all spent next door at the Deedlers. Mr. Deedler always brought home a freshly cut spruce tree on Christmas Eve. The smell of spruce always reminded me of Christmas.
Julia’s tree which had to be fifty-feet tall if it was an inch had a man working in a cherry picker trying to maneuver a star into position on top of it.
“Brandy!” Frank hissed in his loudest whisper. “Get over here! I have to tell you something.”
“Oh, I thought you were waving your arms trying to stay warm out here. Are you trying to hide from Julia because you’re not doing a very good job?” I asked as I picked my way across the lawn on my toes, trying to keep my four-inch heels from sinking into the grass.
“Yes, I’m hiding from Julia,” he said, and when I got close enough, he grabbed my hand and pulled me behind the manger. In heels, my five-foot-eight height put me right at six feet compared to Frank’s five-foot-five elfin frame. While he watched his weight with the tenacity of a runway model, he was strong enough to almost lift me off my feet.
Frank was wearing gloves with the fingers cut off and one of the jumpsuits Julia bought for him to work in. Frank had customized his jumpsuit by bedazzling his name over the pocket in rhinestones. He pulled out a white, linen hanky and sneezed into it. He made a production out of dabbing his nose three or four times on each nostril before folding the square neatly and tucking it back into his bedazzled pocket.
“What are we doing back here, Frank? Cuz I’m not that kinda girl,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” Frank said while he made this all-a-flutter movement with his hands.
“So, what do you want to tell me that is so important we have to hide behind Hotel Dieu…freezing?” I wanted to hear the Reader’s Digest version of whatever he had to tell me instead of the epic production Frank could take all afternoon delivering. I was stepping from toe to toe trying to keep my feet from going numb. I scrunched up my shoulders and pulled my coat up over my face to my eyes. Breathing inside my coat was helping me warm up a little. Winter in New Orleans is damp, so it could feel like a bone-crushing cold even if it was only forty degrees.
“I don’t want her to come home and see us talking,” he sniffed. “She went to lunch with LB, her new boyfriend.”
“She’s not even home!” My head popped up out of my coat, and I sounded like I was screaming at him because I was. “We’re hiding behind a manger. Julia would have to be psychic to know what you’re going to say. This really better be important so I have a reason for standing outside instead of being inside…” and raising my voice a tad I added, “where it’s warm.”
“When I tell you what is happening here, it will curl that straight blonde hair of yours,” Frank said. “Nice coat. Looks new, is it cashmere?” he asked rubbing my arm like a cat.
“Yes and yes on the coat. Out with it, Frank. I’ve got to get back to work, and I’m cold.”
“Julia’s getting death threats. Maybe it’s over all the outdoor decor in the front yard, or maybe it’s over the other things that are going on,” he said, picking imaginary lint off his jumpsuit.
“Death threats? That’s not news. I’ve threatened to kill Julia many times. Why are other threats newsworthy?” I asked while clapping my gloved hands together in an attempt to keep them warm. Julia had a knack for ticking people off. The comments she made to her manager at the telecom company where we both used to work got her downsized right out the door. I still worked there and we’ve remained friends, even though it is difficult at times.
“One man from the Neighborhood Business Association told her she was making the neighborhood look like a cheap amusement park. They complained she would force them to hire police for traffic and crowd control to handle all the types of people it would attract.” Frank air quoted types. “They said tons of cars coming to see her production will jam up the streets, and they can’t get to and from their homes, not to mention it will bring more crime. The neighborhood association sent her this letter telling her to remove it all.” He handed it to me to read.
“I guess they’re afraid she’ll compete with the owner of the local chicken franchise, who turned Christmas lights into neighborhood warfare when he tricked out his home,” I said while reading the letter. I flipped the paper over to see if anything was written cryptically on the back. Nada. “You know who they are referring to, right?”
“Yes,” Frank said between sniffles and a big eye roll that moved his head around with it.
After reading the demand letter sent by the neighborhood association, I took a minute to look at what they seemed so worked up over. Julia did have a lot of outdoor decorations, more than anyone else, but growing up in New Orleans, people always put out tacky stuff during every holiday.
“We have Mardi Gras for goodness sake,” Frank said. “Everyone should be used to tacky by now. What if they make her close the bed and breakfast?” Frank asked more distressed than usual and started pulling at a short piece of hair on the back of his head.
I looked around. There were so many things moving, spinning, blinking, and twinkling that as soon as my eyes moved to the next decoration, I noticed something I missed and had to go back and look at it all again. Even in the daytime the number of lights all over her large mansion turned the bed and breakfast into a thing to behold. I could see every light was equally spaced and faced the same direction. Who has time to do all this?
“I don’t think it will come to that,” I said. “This is Julia’s first year of being in her new business, and I think she’s excited, that’s all.” I crossed my fingers behind my back. “There’s probably some association rule she’s violating and they sent a letter asking her to comply. No big deal.”
“No, it’s not just the letter. One neighbor complained to her about the traffic.” Frank picked up a box resting on the ground near his feet addressed to Julia. “This was left at the front door and there’s no return address or sender marked on it. Do you think we should open it?” he asked pushing the package into me. It was thumping like something was hopping around inside.
“Bombs tick, they don’t bump around inside a box,” I said. “When will she be back?” The way the box was moving gave me the creeps, so I tried to hand it back to him. Frank wouldn’t take it so I put it back on the ground. It continued to erratically thump around like something inside wanted out. “It seems something was sleeping and we woke it up.”
“She went to lunch with LB about thirty minutes ago and this came right after. What if something is alive in here and dies from no air before she gets back?” he asked.
“Something like what?” I asked. Neither of us could now take our eyes off the box moving around by itself.
“Maybe the boyfriend sent her a puppy? Or a kitten? He knows she’s crazy over animals. Maybe it’s a Christmas present?” We could not stop looking at the box with its erratic movements. Frank added, “The way things are going, maybe someone wants her to open a box with a dead animal inside.”
“Something is alive in there,” I said.
“Maybe we should open it and wrap it back up before she comes home. We could put air holes in it.” Frank was pulling at that one piece of hair again. “It could be a bird. Julia lost that lovebird she had in her office not long ago. Maybe LB sent her another one.”
The box wasn’t very heavy, and since I had put it on the ground, it wasn’t moving as much. I thought the box was too heavy to be a bird unless it was a fat pigeon. I started to worry if it was a puppy or a kitten, it could suffocate by the time she came home. “Okay, let’s open it and put air holes in it. Then we’ll wrap it back up so she can be surprised,” I said. I nodded toward the box and said to Frank, “You do it.”
“Why do I have to do it?” Frank stepped back and put both hands on his chest.
“Cuz you’re the boy?” I asked as if it were obvious.
“I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” he sniffed. “Brandy, you’re the fearless one when it comes to handling stuff like this. Please?” Frank took another step away from the box, holding out a pocketknife for me to use.
“Something is just not right about this box,” I said. I bent over to work on the box while it remained on the ground. “Frank, get ready to catch a bird if it is one. If what’s in here flies away, YOU have to explain it to Julia.”
I started to work on the tape with Frank’s knife, while he pulled off his fleece jacket and positioned himself to throw it over a bird should one fly out in an attempt to escape. I had barely finished cutting through the tape on one side of the top when the first big, black sewer rat squeezed through the slight opening. I skyrocketed to my feet. Frank and I grabbed onto each other, and we both jumped back at the same time. My heels promptly dug into the lawn. I held onto Frank harder to keep from falling on the ground with the rat. We were frozen in a death grip, hanging onto each other with both hands as we watched two more big, black rodents squeeze out after the first one. We stood staring at the box for what felt like an hour after the third rat vacated and it stopped moving.
I kicked the box to make sure nothing else was inside.
After the rats ran off under the house or into the bushes, our heart rates returned close to normal. I opened the box the rest of the way while Frank took a step backward and watched. ‘Rats get what they deserve’ was written in the bottom of the box in black marker.
“I wish we hadn’t opened it,” Frank said.
“I’m sorry we did, too, but can you imagine if she opened that in the house? I bet that is what whoever sent it was banking on,” I said. “Who delivered it? Did you see the person?”
“No. After Julia left with LB, I came out because the guys were delivering the tree on the front lawn. I saw it at the front door. It wasn’t moving then. When I headed back inside, I came to get it and saw it moving and thumping like you did. I was trying to decide what to do with it right before I saw you drive up. When I saw you stop, I brought the box over here with that letter I just showed you. I didn’t want Julia to see me give it to you to read. I was thinking if I let something die in a box while she was gone, she would kill me.” Frank made a theatrical gesture of stabbing himself in the chest with an imaginary knife like Julia might do to him. If anything, Julia let Frank get away with murder.
“So, do you know who left this letter?” I asked, looking at Frank through narrowed eyes.
“No. It was left in the mailbox unsealed, you know, with the flap tucked inside. No stamp either,” Frank said. Frank was more than a handyman. He was Julia’s boy Friday and most of the time he knew more of what was going on at the bed and breakfast than she did.
“Rats?” I was thunderstruck. “Who would send live rats as a Christmas gift?”
“That was no gift. Who would send that to her? Oh, I don’t know. Let’s see,” he said in a mocking tone. He stood tapping a foot, one arm crossed over his body holding his elbow of the other arm in his hand, while one finger rested on his chin. “Maybe one of the neighbors whose kids she called the cops on. Or someone in the cooking club she’s browbeating into meeting here to use her oh-so-big-and-perfect kitchen. I heard her telling them that she’d be a terrible cook if she had to work in their kitchens.” When he finished, Frank just stood there shaking his head side to side in disapproval.
“Yes, that implies they’re all bad cooks and they may not take that too well,” I said. “Julia’s from Baton Rouge which is not known as the culinary capital of the state. She is gonna get a knife from her perfect kitchen in her back if she isn’t careful.”
“She told one of her church group ladies…”
“Wait. What?” I cut Frank off. “Julia’s in a church group?” Julia had been known to cuss like a drunken sailor when she didn’t get her way, so I could not imagine a church group putting up with her for very long or Julia’s interest lasting any length of time either. This was bigger news than the rats.
“Hard to imagine, but yes, she is in a church group.” Frank looked heavenward when he added, “She wants God in her life since she’s trying to meet someone nice, and she thinks that’s going to influence Him to send her a rich one.” He stopped to cross himself.
“Frank, can we speed this up? It’s getting colder out here,” I said, blowing hot air into my fists to try to warm them. “My feet feel like blocks of ice,” I said and nodded to Frank’s feet which donned low-wedged-heel-pumps with a peek-a-boo toe. “Aren’t your feet cold in those?” I asked.
“I’m wearing knee-high hose to keep my feet warm. As I was saying…” Frank stopped with his hands on his hips to make sure I was listening. “One of the church ladies asked what she could bring to the party tonight. She told her to keep her Tupperware home, and she didn’t want dips, chips, or pigs in a blanket.”
Tack and diplomacy were not on Julia’s list of skills. It probably wasn’t even on her list of skills she thought she should acquire.
Frank peeked around the manger to see if Julia had come home yet. “I’m worried the neighborhood association might try to close down the bed and breakfast. Then she’ll really be difficult to live with,” Frank said.
“I’m more worried about the rat thing. That’s dangerous and more menacing. One could have bitten her. We could have been bitten,” I said moving my pointed finger back and forth between me and Frank. “That’s over the top. The Neighborhood Business Association doesn’t want to close anybody down and lose tax revenue coming into the area. Besides, church group ladies are more likely to pray for her, so…”
“Not this bunch of do-gooders,” Frank cut me off. “They all have rich husbands based on the cars they drive and the clothes they wear. One of them has a Louis Vuitton bag I’d give any…”
“Frank,” I cut him off. “I’m cold. Stick to the issues I need to know please.”
The moisture from his exaggerated exhales hung between us. “I’ve overheard them saying Julia is nouveau riche and ill-mannered when she leaves the room. They need their eyes and hearing checked because I’m not invisible or deaf.” Frank just shook his head making a tsk, tsk, tsk sound. For all his nutty behavior, he was loyal to Julia. He said, “That’s not the worst one though.”
“There’s something worse than rats and hateful church ladies?” I asked.
“Yep. She’s been seeing a married man until recently. The Queen,” the not so endearing term Frank used for Julia when she was out of audio range, “found out he was married to someone in her gourmet cooking group who is also in her Pilates class. Rather, the wife in Julia’s Pilates class found out her husband was seeing Julia when another gourmet club member let it slip—here in this kitchen—during a cooking class. Pilates threw a handful of flour at Julia and then proceeded to throw the entire twenty-pound bag all over the kitchen. Guess who had to clean that up?” Frank paused waiting for me to answer.
“Please, Frank. It’s too cold for the pregnant pause,” I said.
“I bet she didn’t tell you that one, did she?”
“No. She didn’t,” I said. “Do you think this woman—the wife—is dangerous?”
“I don’t know. She was on a tirade that day in our kitchen, and the other cooks ran and grabbed all the knives,” he said. “You know how Julia can press the wrong button on people.”
“More like she can push all the buttons on the panel,” I said.
“Brandy, you see stuff people do all the time. Keep an eye on the others tonight and not just that hot, new boyfriend of yours. Watch Julia’s back tonight, please? So will I when she doesn’t have me working like a slave.”
“I’ll be here,” I said.
“There’s one other thing. She invited her brother.”
“The one she doesn’t get along with?” I asked as we watched Julia’s Mercedes pull into the drive and park all the way in the back of the house.
“Yes. It’s the only brother she has.” Frank said and continued in a hurry, “The brother and his new wife of two weeks. Julia doesn’t know he’s married yet. He told me when he called to RSVP to the party.”
“Wait. What?” I said just as Julia let her dogs out the front door, all of them. They ran and chased each other through the yard decorations, knocking over everything in their paths.
Frank looked back and forth from the front door to me before he went back to his whisper, “She invited the cooking Pilates and her husband to the party tonight. They’re coming.”
“Anything else, Frank?” I asked not thinking there could possibly be another issue in Julia’s life, but I have been wrong before and I was wrong now.
“Her new boyfriend’s name is LB, and there’s something just not right about him.” Frank said and peeked around the manger again before he said, “Quick. She isn’t looking. Go.” Then he ran off around the manger in the opposite direction.
My head was spinning from all the people Julia invited to the party, and who, according to Frank, all had a score to settle with her. I was looking forward to having a romantic holiday evening with my new boyfriend, Jiff. Now, Frank wanted me to be Julia’s wingman and watch for problems any one of a dozen guests might want to cause at this party tonight.
I allowed myself to be distracted by all the decorations in an attempt to re-clutter my mind with something other than Julia’s problems, many of which she didn’t even know she had. Every inch of the lawn was decorated. The manger Frank and I hid behind had life-sized people and two sheep that raised and lowered their heads as if eating the bale of hay in front of them. Next to the manger was Santa in a sleigh with eight reindeer as tall as me with several elf characters loading the sleigh with toys. The elves were animated and moved in a circle on some powered track up to the sleigh and appeared to put a toy in it while Santa—who had audio—ho, ho, hoed his approval while his animated arm checked off a list he held in the other hand. There were spotlights on a snowman family surrounded by fake snow to one side of the big tree. They didn’t move.
I loved Christmas. I liked all the decorations and enthusiasm Julia had for the holiday. There was nothing like the smell of a real tree. When I was growing up, my mother insisted my dad put up a fake tree in our house and bought all plastic ornaments that were the same color. She had it on a board with rollers she could roll in and out of a closet, throw a sheet over it, and never have to take it down or put it up. If we were still children, my mother would be an early adopter of the huge blow-up lawn monstrosities now popular. The choices were endless. There were blow-up snowmen, or snowmen families, Santas in helicopters, Santas with reindeer, and Santas with toys. Anything you could think of was made to be blown up into Hulk-size plastic proportions—their balloon likenesses tethered to the front lawn by night and deflated by day.
I involuntarily shivered, but it was not from the cold.
Copyright © 2017, Colleen Mooney
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book shall be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is a liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of the information contained here.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
eBook ISBN-10: 0-9905527-7-2
eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-9905527-7-2
Print ISBN-10: 0-99005527-8-0
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-9905527-8-9