The Case of Dixie's Christmasbyronde©
I heard the phone through the cobwebs of too little sleep, the late night cheeseburgers and more than a fair amount of scotch. By the second ring, I had nimbly thrown myself on the floor and was attempting to stand. On the third ring, I forced my eyes open and started the run to my office.
This was not unusual for me. I live in an apartment behind my office but there's only one phone. That phone sits on my desk. A private investigator gets most of his work by phone, so I had to answer it. Grabbing the doorframe on the way through slowed my speed a little. I only stubbed my big toe on the leg of the desk instead of breaking it. I was hopping around on one leg and swearing when the phone rang again. The insane giggling stopped my lunge at the desk.
"Jase, honey, now it's not that I don't like seeing you in your jockey shorts. Really, I do, but what if there'd been a client here? You really oughta look before you stagger in like that. And all that swearing. Tsk tsk."
Melody was sitting in the desk chair with a cell phone in her hand. Her whole body was shaking in mirth, and with Melody's body, there's a whole lot of nice things to shake. I usually remember that she gets to my office before I get up, but the holidays had kind of messed up my brain. I mean, how would you feel if you had to spend twelve hours a day dressed in an elf suit? I can tell you how you'd feel. You'd feel like washing down a couple cheeseburgers with about a quart of scotch while trying to understand why people ever reproduce. You'd swear all humans younger than twenty should be kept in restraints at home. You'd want to be with people who don't run you down in their quest for the latest big-breasted, alien, she-bitch heroine video game cartridge that just went on sale. That's how you'd feel, all right.
Well, that's how I felt last night anyway. I was gonna feel that way for one more day. Then it would be Christmas Eve, and everything would get back to what passes for normal in my life.
My voice croaked around the fuzzy carpet on my tongue. "I heard the phone."
"Oh, that was just me. I was trying out our new answering machine. Remember, I told you about it at Barney's last night?"
The small, quiet bar was a faint blur on the pages of my mind. I'd stopped in for dinner at seven and didn't remember when I left. I didn't really remember much after about ten.
"Yeah, sure. I remember. What time is it?"
"It's, uh... seven-thirty. Grady's won't open until nine, so you have some time yet. Now, go get yourself a shower and some clothes. There's coffee in the pot."
Even in my disabled state I hadn't missed Melody's luscious cleavage when she leaned over to see the desk clock. I'd met Melody on the stairway to my second story office/apartment a few months ago. She'd sort of moved in for a couple of days, and then decided she'd be a good addition to my staff. Up until then, my staff consisted of me, and I didn't think I could afford an assistant. Melody proved me wrong by doing some phone work that paid off pretty well. Since then, she'd taken care of the office stuff while I did the fieldwork. It was because of her that I was working at Grady's. I was part of the extra security the department store put on between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At eight-fifty, I casually sauntered past the cosmetic counter. Well, at least I was as casual as I could be in those tights, pointy-toed, green satin slippers and floppy hat. Other than that, I felt pretty good. In about a half hour, things were going to start downhill. I knew from experience that the tights would soon have a strangle-hold on my balls, and that my feet were going to hurt like hell. Evidently, elves don't need arch supports, but I'd found that walking on marble floors for twelve hours in glorified bathroom slippers makes flat feet an understatement.
The crowd outside the entrance was getting larger. This was going to be the worst day yet. There was one shopping day left before Christmas Eve, and that meant most of the housewives in town had the pre-heaters on their running shoes, a fist full of credit cards, and were preparing to do battle over the last merchandise on the shelves. To make matters worse, Grady's had started marking down some of the seasonal stuff. I swear, if Grady's had put starting blocks at the entrance, I would have seen nothing but faces and butts waiting for the door to open. At precisely nine, the manager walked to the door, carefully stood to one side to avoid being trampled, and turned the key in the lock.
A sea of ski jackets and faux fur swept through the door. The look on each face was the same. The mouth was set in a thin, flat line of determination and the eyes swept back and forth like radar antennae. The wave flowed into the three aisles that went through the store.
Until that moment, I had never thought of shopping as a contact sport. Grady's had marked down all the Christmas decorations to half price. Women were grabbing boxes of lights and colored glass balls as fast as they could reach.
I made the observation that the taller women had a definite advantage in this game. They could reach farther and higher. Then I saw their weak spot. One little old grandmother was trying to reach a particular box of crystal icicles, but she was being edged away from the display by the nicely-shaped, jean-clad ass of a woman about a foot taller. The little old lady stuck out her elbow and jabbed the offender in the side. The taller woman turned and looked down on Granny with fire in her eyes. Granny apologized profusely, but I noticed that as she was speaking, she was also positioning herself closer to the display. All was quickly put to right, and Granny got her box of icicles.
In half an hour, the Christmas decoration display was a stripped carcass. The only items left were several ornaments shaped like dinosaurs, and three boxes of lights that spilled green wires and colored bulbs from their ripped-open ends. Things were quieting down in the rest of the store too. The feeding frenzy had changed to a strategy of seek and find.
The rules in winter store security are simple – count the items going in and out of dressing rooms – that's year around, actually - and watch the shoppers with long coats. It's a simple matter, especially for women, to take three things into the dressing room and come out with two. The third is safely hidden underneath the clothing they wore in. The store record at Grady's is held by a thirty-year-old housewife who was apprehended wearing eight bras, twelve pairs of panties, six pairs of panty hose, three knit tops, and four sweaters. The security cameras had faithfully recorded the five trips to the dressing room it took her to get all that on.
The long coats are particularly useful for shoplifters. They can have inside pockets that will hold fairly large items. The bulk of the coat hides the bulge made by the stolen merchandise. The rule is, always watch the long coats for suspicious bulges. The rule doesn't work very well for people of generous proportions. It's difficult to tell a naturally occurring bulge from a stolen pair jeans. One must watch the suspect carefully. Jeans don't jiggle.
About noon, I witnessed the first method. A young mother with a small boy hanging onto her purse strap went into the dressing room with four blouses and two bras. In about ten minutes she came back out with the blouses, but I didn't see the bras. She went to the rack and replaced the garments, and started for the door. I cut her off.
"Um, Ma'am, could you please come with me?"
I'd expected to see fear in her eyes. Instead, I saw rage.
"Why in Hell would I want to do that?"
"I work for store security. I saw you go in the dressing room with several items, but I didn't' see you bring them all out."
"Oh." She smiled a really big, really fake, smile. "Well, I must have left some of 'em in there then."
"I'm sure you did. Just come with me and I'll have somebody check. If they're in there, you can leave."
"Look, Mr..., Mr. Elf, I gotta get Butchy here home for his nap. I haven't got time to go sit somewhere while you look in that fucking dressing room."
She turned to leave, and I caught her arm.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am, but you'll have to come with me. I don't want to make a scene, but –"
"Mommy, what's Santa's elf want?"
She looked down at the little boy and smiled.
"Butchy, this man is being mean to Mommy."
Butchy looked at me with murder in his little blue eyes.
"You leave my Mommy alone!"
It was amazing just how much power the little guy got into that punch. The tights had neatly packaged my most sensitive parts into one compact bundle and Butchy's small fist caught that bundle dead center. An intense pain shot through my groin and lower back, and took all the strength out of my legs. I had the urgent need to curl up in a fetal position. In the ten or so seconds it took for me to regain the ability to breathe and see, Butchy and his mother had disappeared. I decided it would be best not to go after her. Running through Grady's dressed in an elf suit with both hands on my crotch would not be professional. Besides, I couldn't even walk, much less run.
At seven that night, I turned in my elf suit and took my bruised balls to Barney's. It had been a rewarding, if somewhat painful, Christmas. I'd made enough money that I could take it easy over the holidays.
Joyce was wearing one of those headbands with felt antlers when she came to take my order.
"How's my favorite detective tonight?"
"Pretty good, now. I don't have to dress up like an elf any more, and my crotch is feeling better."
"Oh, those green pantyhose got to you again, did they? I told you to get a different size. They'll ride right up on you if they're not the right size."
"They are called tights... and no they didn't ride up on me again. Well, they did, but that's not why it hurts. Some little kid punched me there, and I hope he grows with a face full of zits."
Joyce has a laugh that consumes her body. It's loud, full, and everything quakes with the effort. She was quaking right now, from the antlers, to the generous breasts that peeked from her bright red sweater, to her pear-shaped butt. God, that woman can laugh. After about a minute, she slowed down enough to yell at Sheryl, her waitress and live-in lesbian lover.
"Hey, Sherry. A little kid beat Jase up. He needs some ice for his family jewels."
"Damn, Joyce. You don't have to tell the whole world. I'm not going to sit here with a bag of ice in my lap anyway."
"Suit yourself, but you better be well by tomorrow night. It's our Christmas party, remember? Now, what can I get you?"
I ordered two cheeseburgers to go with the scotch Joyce had brought, and listened to her giggle all the way back to the grill. The world was getting straight again. The world was always straight at Barney's. All I had to do was slip onto the duct-taped seat at my favorite booth, breath in the fifty-odd years of cigar and cigarette odors, take a sip or two of really old scotch, and everything was OK again.
Joyce's Christmas party was always a nice affair. It would be just a few of her regulars – me, Carla and Melody, and a couple others with no other place to go on Christmas eve - and of course, Joyce and Sheryl. There would be drinks on the house, a few appetizer trays from the local discount grocery, and presents around the little imitation Christmas tree that sat on one end of the bar. It was my kind of Christmas Eve – a little tacky but really relaxed. Sometime during the night, I'd catch Carla and Melody under the mistletoe back by the restrooms. If I was lucky, I'd catch Joyce and Sheryl too. If I was really lucky, they'd humor me and give me a kiss.
At about one, I decided to call it a night. The stress of the week at Grady's had just about wiped me out. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep until noon the next day. I paid Joyce and started home.
It didn't take long to walk the two blocks, but I was so tired it seemed long. The beat-up pickup parked in front of my steps didn't even catch my attention. I'd just turned into the stairway when I heard the man's voice.
"Hey man, it's about damn time you got home. I been waitin' on ya fer an hour."
I recognized him from a picture I'd seen in a biker bar. A few months ago, I'd tracked down one Melvin Tibbideau in my search for the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Reverend Downwoody was worried sick about his little princess. She'd run off and married Melvin, and poor Daddy hadn't seen her since. I found her by finding Melvin, and gave her father the address. I didn't know what happened after that, but I was pretty sure Melvin wasn't the preacher's idea of a perfect husband. Melvin weighs in at about three hundred pounds, has a tattoo of a snake on his forehead, and doesn't care much for gainful employment. He'd rather ride his old Harley and screw Jennifer. I'm not much of a bike guy, but I understood about Jennifer.
"Now, wait a minute, Melvin. All I did was find a guy's daughter. I had nothing to do with whatever happened after that."
"Shit, man, I know that. I'm not pissed off. Jenny's dad's OK now anyway. He don't like me much, but he can't do nothin' 'bout it. Jenny and me, we's legal with a license and everything.
"OK, so why are you parked outside my office?
"We went down to the bar tonight, and this old woman was wandrin' 'round in the parking lot, half froze to death. She come up to the truck when we's getting' out and said would we take her home. Well, where she said she lived couldn't be, 'cause they's only rich folks live out there. I think the old gal's 'bout a quart low. Jenny thought you'd be able to find out who she belongs to."
"Why didn't you call the police? That's what they're for."
"Don't like cops much. They'd prob'ly just stick her in jail 'til somebody turned up to claim 'er. It's a bitch sittin' in jail over Christmas."
Somehow, I figured Melvin was speaking from experience.
"OK, bring her up to my office and I'll see what I can do."
The little woman in Melvin's motorcycle jacket had probably been quite a looker in her younger days. She wouldn't have been half-bad now, if her silver hair hadn't been a mess and if she'd had some clothes. All she wore was a flannel nightgown and a pair of house slippers. I figured I'd start with the basics, and work from there.
"Ma'am, what's your name?
'I'm not going to tell you, young man. If I do, you'll just send me back."
The woman smiled, and Melvin threw up his hands. "See what I mean. That's all we could git out of 'er too."
"OK, Melvin. I understand. Now, Ma'am, where is it I would be sending you?"
"I'm not going to tell you that either. Just take me home or let me be on my way."
"And where is home? You have to tell me that, or I can't take you there."
"You won't believe me. They wouldn't believe me at Collingswood either."
"Well, give me a try. What's your address."
"Number one, Englebrook Road...See. I said you wouldn't believe me."
Well, Melvin was probably right about her. Englebrook Road was so exclusive you had to own at least two limousines to live there. The name "Collingswood" rang a bell, though. The Collingswood Community was a nursing home about a mile from Melvin's biker bar. The old girl must be pretty tough to have walked that far wearing just a nightgown. The temperature outside was well below freezing.
"I believe you. You're going to need to get warmed up and get some better clothes before I take you outside, though. Let's have some coffee and I'll see if I don't have a sweatshirt and some pants you can wear."
I left her in the apartment kitchen drinking coffee with Melvin and went to find some clothes. While I was in the bedroom, I called information on my cell phone, and then placed a call to Collingswood. She'd slipped out as the visitors were leaving at eight, and they'd been looking for her since. They promised to send someone to pick her up.
She looked almost as bad in my old jeans and faded sweatshirt. The jeans were pretty baggy on her small frame, and the sweatshirt could have held three of her.
"This is the best you could do? I've seen bag ladies dressed better. If Ling brought me this to wear, I'd ship him back to China."
"Sorry. I live here by myself. This is what I wear everyday."
"I guess it's true. There is no accounting for taste."
Just then, there was a knock on my office door. When I opened it, a man about forty-five gave me his cultivated meet-the-public smile and stuck out his hand.
"I'm Doctor Winston... from Collingswood? I hear you have one of our residents?"
When she saw him, her mouth gaped open. She slumped down in the chair and started to cry. Winston walked over and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Now, now, Dixie. There's no reason for that. Let's get you back to your room where you'll be warm and safe."
She stopped crying and looked up at him. There was fire in her eyes.
"Don't you mean, back where you can give me some more of your little pills to keep me quiet?"
Winston smiled and smiled knowingly at me.
"Those pills are for your heart, Dixie. They might make you a little sleepy, but they're good for you. Now, come along like a good girl."
"I'm not a girl, and I won't go with you."
"Then I'll just have to call Harold up from the car." Winston held out his hand.
Dixie stood up from the chair as if to go with him, but ran to me and threw her arms around my neck.
"My name is Dixie Montgomery", she whispered in my ear. "I do live where I told you, I don't know why, but my son put me in Collingswood. I heard Melvin say you're a detective. Check out my story and please, please help me. I can pay anything you ask. Just call my lawyer, Harry Cauldwell. He'll tell you."
"My, my. Dixie seems quite attached to you, Mr. Conford. Perhaps she'd enjoy a visit someday, if you have the time." His voice became firmer, a little too firm, I thought. "Dixie, it's time to go."
When I closed the office door, Melvin stood up to leave.
"Shit, they's takin' her to jail ain't they."
"Collingswood isn't a jail, Melvin. It's a nursing home. They just take care of people who can't take care of themselves."
"Sounds like a jail to me if ya can't leave when ya want. Well, I gotta get back to the bar. Jenny's gonna dance on the tables fer us an' I don't wanna miss it. Wanna come?"
I politely declined, although since I'd seen Jenny, the thought was inviting. She was pretty well endowed and during the week, she danced at one of the local strip bars. I had a feeling the bikers would have a ball. I was also pretty sure they wouldn't like a private detective horning in on their fun.
It was almost noon when I hauled my ass out of bed. It was strange to not have any thing to do. I tried to watch TV, but all the programs were kid's stuff with cartoon Santas and reindeer and talking snowmen. That reminded me too much of Grady's. Besides, I kept thinking about the little woman in the nightgown, and what she'd said to me.
Melody and I walked over to Barney's at eight, and Carla got there a little after. Joyce doesn't like jukeboxes, so there's none in the bar, but she'd brought her portable and music played softly in the background. If I hadn't been thinking about Dixie, the women would have made me drool. Melody had on a purple dress that fit like a second skin and left little to the imagination. The black stockings with little green ivy leaves and the black heels were frosting on the cake. Carla's outfit was a beautiful black dress cut low in the front and lower in the back. Her shoes had those big clunky heels that for some reason really turn me on. The black net stockings just made her long legs that more seductive. Even Joyce and Sheryl had dressed up. They both had on pant suits that did more than hint at their very sensuous bodies.