Monday, December 28, 2015

Missing Horse and Unwanted Bridal (A Ham and Jessica Short Story)


Paula Gail Benson

            On December 28, I returned to work, hoping to hide out in the holiday-hollowed halls of academia. No such luck. The first of the three dastardly “Ds” in my life, my ex-wife and fellow faculty member, Daphne, anticipated my strategy and beat me there. She stopped me as I reached my office door to ask if I’d decided on the song I wanted.

            Saturday Night Fever’s “How Deep Is Your Love” and Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” had been playing in my head. “All by Myself” from Bridget Jones’ Diary would probably embarrass Jessica.

            Movie music wasn’t always the best selection for a father-daughter wedding dance, but, as a tenured film professor, that’s my frame of reference. My department seniority grated on Daphne, a Victorian literature specialist who had just been promoted to full professor status.

            “Ham, you have to choose music Mrs. Dutton can play,” Daphne informed me.

            I wondered why the Dean’s secretary’s ability determined the music at our daughter’s wedding. As a contributor to the costs, I should get what I wanted for the one moment of the evening I might enjoy.

            “Don’t even bother protesting,” Daphne said before I could open my mouth. “Mrs. Dutton is playing the wedding and reception music as her gift to Jessica.”

             “Will Mrs. Dutton be playing at the rehearsal dinner, too?” I wondered if there might be a song to convince Jessica that Gordo was absolutely the wrong choice for a life partner. Maybe the Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” from The Runaway Bride?

            “She’ll be a guest. The rehearsal dinner is the groom’s family’s responsibility.”

            I hadn’t met Gordo’s mother yet and still hoped she could be recruited to help halt the nuptials. From Daphne’s expression, I suspected the mothers hadn’t bonded.

            “Mrs. Humphreys is a piece of work,” Daphne told me. “I hope Jessica can steer clear of her.”

            Another reason to call this shindig off. Except that Jessica was convinced she was in love and I’d promised to be supportive.

            Hal Montgomery, the professor whose office was next to mine, had just arrived, barely nodding to us before ducking inside his refuge. Since I would rather talk with him than Daphne, I said, “I need to check with Monty.”

            She frowned. “Just don’t tell me that you two are planning Gordo’s bachelor party.”

            I had no desire to attend, much less plan, any celebration for Gordo. “Department business,” I replied.

            That made her frown deeper, probably wondering what business the Dean could have entrusted to us. She left me with one final instruction. “When you pick up your mail, show Mrs. Dutton some gratitude, and for God’s sake, don’t antagonize her. We’d never find a replacement at this late date.”

            Jessica had intended to hand me the invitation to her New Year’s Eve wedding on Christmas Eve as my gift--which actually would have been quite awful not only as a Christmas present, but because New Year’s Eve had always been my favorite holiday. Our having thwarted a robbery at the Study Break Café led her to present the invitation to me two weeks before Christmas, thus increasing my agony over the impending tragedy, and giving Daphne more opportunity to involve me with wedding tasks and bills.

            At least we had managed to have a remarkably civil holiday so far. I remained staunchly pleasant at the Christmas party Daphne hosted for the department with the second dastardly “D,” her boy toy spouse, Dorian. Or, as I thought of him, Dorian, the usurper, who rubbed Daphne’s back like he meant to burp her, and insisted they drink egg nog from a pewter German wedding cup as joint slurpers. After getting through that horrendous evening without becoming violently ill in front of my colleagues, then navigating our split-family version of Christmas day, maintaining detente through the waning days of the year should have been a gingersnap.

            Except for dreading the abhorrent wedding.

            I slipped inside Monty’s office, closing the door behind me and slumped in the chair before his desk. “Did you know Mrs. Dutton was a musician?”

            “Sure,” he replied, placing items in neat stacks on his desk. “Lizzie started taking piano from her this year. Didn’t you write the checks to her when Jessica took?”

            Depending upon his home climate, Monty alternated being grateful and mad at me for bringing Selma Grant, his former student and now wife, into his life. Their daughter Lizzie just turned six and would be Jessica’s flower girl.

            His response made me feel more guilt and shame about knowing so little of Jessica’s life after her mother and I divorced. All my checks had gone to Daphne, like my wedding contributions.

            I left Monty’s office, excusing myself to get my mail from the department office.

            “Hey, Professor.”

            The third of the three dastardly “Ds,” Millicent Dutton, called to me as I entered her domain. She never referred to the faculty by last name, except the dean. Crooking her finger, she motioned for me to approach.

            “Yes, Mrs. Dutton?” I hoped that she wasn’t going to demand I name a wedding song at that moment.

            “I understand you’re good at theft,” she said.

            The student newspaper with the Study Break Café robbery story lay on her blotter.

            “Well, not stealing, but preventing theft,” I responded.


            I assumed this was not the skill she was hoping I possessed.

            With a sigh, she continued, “You might be able to help me anyway.”

            “Hi, Professor Richards.” My research assistant Wendy walked in and headed for the mail cubicles to retrieve the contents of my box. If only I had just slunk into my office after leaving Monty’s.

            “Do you know the oversized rocking horse that the Nu Beta Tau fraternity house always used to put out in its yard as a Christmas decoration?” Mrs. Dutton asked.

            Since I was clueless, I was glad Wendy answered.

            “I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard about it. People could ride on it and have their picture taken beside it.”

            Mrs. Dutton nodded. “You’d have to use a small ladder to reach the saddle, but it offered a great photo opportunity. And, the boys never charged for it, even though it could have been a money maker.”

            “What about this rocking horse?” I asked.

            “They don’t put it out anymore,” Mrs. Dutton told me.

            I wondered where this was going, when Wendy said, “Wasn’t there an accident with a child and they were forced to take it down?”

            “That’s what I want to know.” Mrs. Dutton focused her laser eyes on me. “What happened to that rocking horse and where it is now?”

            I was about to open my mouth to say I had enough assignments from Daphne when Wendy took my arm and steered me to the door.

            “Probably I can help you research that, Professor,” she told me.

            “Before the wedding,” Mrs. Dutton called after us.

            “Wendy, I can’t justify having you research something for Mrs. Dutton’s curiosity when we have course work and film festival planning to do,” I whispered as we made our way down the hall.

            “It’s not a problem,” she assured me as she withdrew her grip from my arm and handed me my mail. “Leo’s the fraternity’s historian.”

            Her Goth boyfriend Leo was the last person I’d consider for fraternity membership, much less being an officer.

            She smiled. “Just let me handle Mrs. Dutton’s question. I know you’re swamped with grades and tasks for the wedding.”

            Probably I should have put on my stern professor face and insisted that she concentrate on my research needs, but Wendy could wind me around her little finger like Jessica. The two girls had become good enough friends that Jessica asked her to greet those attending and keep the guest book at the wedding.

            Wendy left me at the door to my office. I entered, put the mail on my desk, and was about to start into a stack of papers when I got a text from Jessica. She had become adept at texting since I bought her a new phone for Christmas and I never ignored her messages.

            She sent me an address and asked that I meet her there in two hours. I figured the directions and shut up the office to stop for a cup of coffee first.

            Two hours later, I parked on the street beside behind Jessica’s Rav4 at a two story Tudor style home in a downtown community near the university. As I rang the bell, I wondered if this might be where the newlyweds planned to make their home. Within seconds, Mrs. Dutton answered the door with a scowl.

“You have an answer to my question?” she asked.

“I was working on it when I got Jessica’s message to come here.”

She shook her head before stepping back to let me inside. “Jessica’s upstairs.”

            It was rather terrifying to think we’d been left alone.

            She pointed to a bench in the central hallway, the seat of which looked shiny from years of waiting students’ bottoms. She left, exiting through the open French doors into a room with comfortable furnishings and a fireplace.

            “Thank you.” I sank to the firm seat, glad we did not have to spend time in the same room. I looked around, noticing the layout. Another set of French doors opened into a room directly opposite to the one Mrs. Dutton had entered. A stairway, to my left, led directly to the second floor landing. I peered down the hallway where a door seemed to open on a lighted room, perhaps a kitchen. I wondered about all the times Jessica must have come for lessons, sitting right where I was now, without me even knowing.

            “I’m ready,” Jessica called from upstairs.

            As Mrs. Dutton played the traditional wedding march, I watched my daughter descend, a true vision in white, floating from above to the earth below. For a moment, I felt a flash of relief it wasn’t her mother’s dress. This gown was uniquely and beautifully her own.

            I rose as she approached, unable to smile or speak, my heart felt so full. I wanted to take it all in and was afraid I couldn’t appreciate enough this moment Jessica had planned, just for us.

            A clap of hands made me realize that Mrs. Dutton had stopped playing and was standing in the door watching, breaking our reverie. I’d never seen such a delightedly wicked grin on her face.

            “Oh, you look just like Caroline Kennedy,” she exclaimed. “Only her dress had those appliqued shamrocks.”

            Her words brought a piercing sting to my already overwhelmed heart. All I could think of was John John and his bride being lost forever in a terrible accident. Was it a premonition of what lay ahead for Jessica if she married Gordo?

            Somehow, Jessica always had been able to read my mind. “She means John Jr.’s sister, not his wife,” she said softly. “So, what do you think?”

I couldn’t help myself. “Gordo doesn’t deserve you.”

“Ha,” Mrs. Dutton responded.

I wasn’t sure if she was agreeing with me or laughing at me.

Jessica played the diplomat by changing the subject. “Why don’t we try a few steps to see if you can maneuver around this skirt?”

            “Have you figured out what you’re going to dance to?” Mrs. Dutton asked as she headed toward the piano.

            I hoped I sounded conciliatory instead of perplexed. “Perhaps you have a suggestion?”


            I was fairly certain that second “ha” was mocking me.

Mrs. Dutton began to play and Jessica positioned her hands at my shoulder and waist. My own appendages seemed to have taken on some grotesque sci-fi creature proportions. I tried to be more suave than I felt, always a mistake.

“You know,” I said, as we began to sway back and forth. “That song really isn’t too bad.”

Jessica leaned toward me, the hint of a smile at her lips. “It’s chopsticks, Dad.”

I held my hands up in surrender. “I’m afraid I’ll embarrass you.”

Her arms entwined my neck. “No, you won’t. I don’t want a choreographed show, just a quiet dance with my father.”

For a few moments, we went back to our circular pacing in time to the music. I felt all gawky, as if Jessica were cotton candy that might dissolve at my touch, but she was confident, poised, perfection. I was right. Gordo definitely didn’t deserve her.

            “The name of a song would be nice,” Mrs. Dutton called.

            Jessica got that funny look on her face that I had come to recognize as my child humoring me into facing the fact she was an adult. “Try ‘Born to be Wild.’”

            Mrs. Dutton launched into it with gusto.

            Jessica forced me into a livelier move. “You see? She’s very versatile.”

I preferred to think of her as cantankerous. “She wants me to find out what happened to Nu Beta Tau’s Christmas rocking horse,” I panted as I tried to keep up.

            Jessica beamed. “That’s a great idea, Dad. Why don’t you concentrate on solving Mrs. Dutton’s mystery? I’ll pick out the right song for our dance.”

            Within minutes, I was pushed out the door, leaving Jessica and Mrs. Dutton to scheme against me. As I got into my car, I began feeling quite depressed that Jessica and Wendy, the two women who had some modicum of respect for me, seemed determined to divert my mind to other endeavors besides the grand wedding plan.

            Jessica sent me a text as I sat stewing. Along with her message, “Found on Mrs. D’s bedside table,” was a snapshot of a photo featuring a couple standing in front of the Nu Beta Tau Christmas rocking horse. It couldn’t have been more than five years old. The man was older, distinguished, and familiar to me from university functions. The woman smiling up at him, in an adoring and not fanatical manner, was Mrs. Dutton.

            The next morning, as I approached my office deep in thought, I heard Monty say, “Here he is,” and looked up to find him with Gordo in the hallway. Monty reached out to clasp my shoulder and keep me from bolting.

            As he faced me, Gordo looked as if he’d taken a large bite of unsweetened grapefruit. “I wanted to hand deliver the invitation to the rehearsal dinner, ah, sir.”

            “Thank you.” I accepted the envelope, raising my shoulder to bump off Monty’s grasp. I was pleased Gordo remained formal, calling me “sir.” I wasn’t yet prepared to use the “s” word when mentioning him, even if it would be followed by “in-law.”

            “My mother recently returned from Europe so we just finalized the plans today.”

            “You mean, she hasn’t met Jessica yet?”

            “No, they met last summer, and Mother’s had several Skype conversations with Jessica’s mother.” He reached to loosen the knot in his tie, as if it suddenly had gotten very tight. “She’s looking forward to meeting you tomorrow night.”

            I nodded, noticing that Monty held an envelope in his hand, too. Nice to invite the family since Lizzie was the flower girl.

            Gordo turned back to Monty. “So, I’ll see you at the Nu Beta Tau house later.” He nodded stiffly to me and left.

            “Why don’t you like him?” Monty asked.

            “You never had him as a student.”

            “Because I was faculty advisor for Nu Beta Tau and I told him if he took his English elective course from me, I would fail him.”

            “I wish I’d had that option.” Gordo ping-ponged from Daphne’s to my classes, trying to find the one requiring the least work. I don’t know how mine won the prize. “He doesn’t even like film.”

            “But, he loves Jessica. Why don’t you come to the gathering at the frat house this afternoon? Some of the alums are coming by to wish him well.”

            I shook my head. “Papers to grade.” Then, it occurred to me that Monty might have the answer to Mrs. Dutton’s question. “Ah, isn’t Nu Beta Tau the house that used to put out that oversized rocking horse as a Christmas decoration?”

            Again, Monty clasped me on the shoulder. “Ham, if you value our friendship, don’t even go there.”

            Sighing, I entered my office and found Wendy and Leo waiting for me. They sat in the chairs in front of my desk. Leo held a scrapbook tightly to his chest. I sensed he didn’t want to divulge its secrets, but Wendy was insistent.

“Leo, spill,” she said before I could greet them.

            “Okay,” he replied. “So you want to know about the rocking horse. Well, the official story was a covered up scandal. A five year old kid climbed onto the horse’s saddle, then fell and hit her head against the rocker.”

            “Was she seriously injured?” I asked.

            “That was part of the cover-up. No news leaked, other than the accident occurred. The next day, the horse was gone.”

            “No word about what happened to it?”

            Leo shook his head. “There’s a sealed agreement between the family and the fraternity.” He shifted and scratched, sure signs there was information he had not disclosed. I’d seen too many guilt-ridden students.

            I crossed my arms. “Give, Leo.”

            He sighed. “The guy who could tell you the details is Gordo. He was the fraternity president when the deal went down.”

            Oh, great. The last person I wanted to talk to about anything, except leaving Jessica at the altar.

            I ended up scouting out the gathering for Nu Beta Tau that afternoon, trying to sit low enough in the seat of my car so no one recognized me. Most of those coming and going were Gordo’s age, but the distinguished gentleman from Mrs. Dutton’s photo did show. He didn’t stay long and didn’t seem to notice that I trailed him as he left.

            He stopped at a house near Mrs. Dutton’s where a sweetheart of a little girl, maybe about ten years old, danced out into the yard to meet him. Her mother stood in the door waiting to give him a hug before they all went inside.

            Just as I was ready to give up the surveillance, he came out and returned to his car. I followed him to a large home on the outskirts of town. He parked beside it, glancing at a separate garage behind the house.

            Once he was inside, I risked trespassing to have a closer look at the separate garage. Its doors were padlocked. I opened the doors as much as I could and shined my penlight inside.

            “May I help you?”

            I turned to face the gentleman, looking at me with hands on his hips. Involuntarily, I held up my hands, as if submitting to arrest.

            “Ah, I know this appears odd.”

            “It appears that you’re trespassing.”

            “Yes, sir. I suppose I just should have come to the door and asked instead of coming on your property.”

            “Well, you appear harmless enough. Put your hands down and tell me what you want.”

            “Could we talk for a few minutes, as fathers who are willing to do anything to make their daughters happy?”

            The next day was the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Mrs. Humphreys took an immediate shine to me, suggesting that I sit beside her at the wedding since Daphne and I were divorced. She grasped my knee as tightly as Monty had gripped my shoulder. Somehow, I was able to respond that I felt the father and step-father should show solidarity by sitting together, which made Dorian extremely happy. Gordo also looked relieved.

            After Mrs. Dutton saw that I brought the gentleman from her photo as my “date,” she spent the evening focused on him, so I assume that he told her about his daughter being so jealous that he might remarry that she made up the story about his granddaughter being hurt on the rocking horse to break up his romance. After all, how could he continue to see a woman he’d proposed to in front of a horse where his granddaughter had been injured? He had sacrificed his own happiness with Mrs. Dutton to keep his daughter satisfied, but he kept the rocking horse in his garage. Maybe now he and Mrs. Dutton could have a second chance.

            I wish my expertise at preventing theft had extended to keeping Gordo from stealing Jessica away in marriage, but then a father has to know when his or his daughter’s happiness comes first.

            Daphne and Dorian insisted that Gordo and Jessica drink a toast from the German wedding cup. As I led Jessica to the dance floor, she whispered that she hoped Mrs. Dutton and her beau might give the cup a try before the evening was over.

            Then, as the music began, I felt ill. This couldn’t possibly be our song. Mrs. Dutton played the Van Morrison tune from the last scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Colin Firth wrapped his coat around a nearly naked Renee Zellweger, standing in the snow of a London street.

            “Gordo needs to be here,” I said, pulling away and looking for the groom.

            “No, Dad,” Jessica replied, drawing me close. “This is the song I wanted for our dance. Because I knew I could never be married until I found ‘Someone Like You.’”

            And, hearing her say that, New Year’s Eve became my favorite holiday all over again.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Wishes by E. B. Davis

I sat on the dock behind my house gazing at the starlit sky. The dark waters of Pamlico Sound slushed by the dock’s pilings. Unwanted images of a young woman invaded my mind. She had gasped for breath and held her chest. EMTs worked, trying to save her life. Then, her body went slack. The technicians’ efforts were futile. Her stillness confirmed what my foreboding had warned. This time someone had died.

I hugged my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around my legs, and squeezed. Was it an effort to comfort myself or release my frustration? The young woman’s death earlier in the evening was as self-inflicted as suicide but unintentionally so. A line of cocaine, a heart attack in the making. A girl’s whim at a party killed her. I’d asked her friends and family, but no one knew how she got the coke or where she’d been. It was going on eleven. I wondered if the killer cocaine party had continued somewhere on the island. Those attending, ignorant of her death.

My eight-year-old son was with my ex in Norfolk celebrating Christmas a week early. In coming years, would I face what that young woman’s parents now faced? Could I prevent that from happening? I looked up at the stars, made a wish, and rubbed a tear running down my face against my jeans.

Wishing was silly of me. As a Dare County Deputy Sheriff on Hatteras Island, I’d made my peace with reality. As a divorced single mother, I’d done the same. I could only do my best as a mother and as the island’s only criminal investigator. Most of our crimes involved alcohol abuse, unfortunate domestic situations, B & E, and traffic violations. But drugs happened everywhere. The young woman hadn’t been the only victim.

When the first incident occurred, putting a young man in the Nags Head hospital, he’d admitted to using coke. But he claimed the stuff came from Raleigh. The second time, the victim had suffered a heart attack but recovered. She wouldn’t talk to me. I’d asked around. Friends said she hadn’t been off-island for a long time. No one could or would tell me the source of the cocaine. The third victim’s friend, whom I’d found sitting in the hospital waiting room, told me she didn’t know who had sold the coke, but the seller was a local. Someone in my jurisdiction was dealing.

I’d talked with the task force in Manteo, but they couldn’t help. Their people were already stretched until after the holiday. A week to go before Christmas Eve parties followed by New Year’s Eve parties. Fearing another death and thinking of loved ones’ grief, I wanted to nail that dealer. I stared at the stars, pondering my cocaine investigation, when my eyes caught something moving in the sky—a falling star, an aircraft?

A pinpoint of light descended and circled, lowering in the sky. I sat up and crossed my legs against the dock, stretching my back upright. Now in the moment, all my senses were on alert. As the light stream neared, I stood up and felt for the phantom gun on my hip. The light touched down on the dock beside me. I eyeballed the light with a mixture of awe and trepidation.

The light peeled itself a section at a time, like a banana undressing. Inside a tiny woman stood. Aglow, she stepped out onto the deck. Tinker Bell? I had to be dreaming and pinched myself. Could I dream the pain I felt? Sure. Before I could think up another test that would actually prove something, the woman advanced. Her attitude was visible from her strut, hands-on-hip stance, and sour facial expression. Could I dream up a fairy combination of Melissa McCarthy, Rosie O’Donnell, and Roseanne Barr? Maybe in a nightmare.

“Okay,” she said, her voice was low in pitch, not the least bit how I imagined a fairy would sound. “What’tal it be?” She sounded like a bartender.

“Huh,” I said.

“You’ll have to do better than that, doll.” She heaved a sigh, crossing her arms over her chest and looking disgusted by my lame answer. A trench coat, cinched by a belt across her bulky waist, covered her body. Clad in high-heeled booties, she was no Tinker Bell or fairy Godmother, more like a feminine mob Godfather. Her expression told me I hadn’t fulfilled her expectations. I hoped no beach ponies died tonight.

“What?” My confusion and disbelief must have shown.

“Your wish. What was your wish?”

What was she talking about? I had to regroup. Her sudden appearance, breezing in from the sky and demanding answers, had severed my thoughts. I took a moment to stare at her, questioning my senses.

“Look, I haven’t got all night. You made a wish. For it to be passed on by the Powers That Be, it must have been important. But if you can’t even remember it, how the hell am I supposed to grant it?” She stopped ranting and tilted her head. “What’s your name?”


“Sue,” she said, clenching her fists and standing as tall as a four-incher could. “You incredulous humans get my goat. Why wish if you don’t believe?”

My jaw dropped. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You got any swamp water, Sue?”

“Swamp water?” I turned to the right and nodded toward the marsh.

“Not that swamp water. A bit of whiskey will do.” 

Whiskey? I visualized a top cabinet in my kitchen, one my son couldn’t reach even with a chair. “Bourbon—Evan Williams.”

“Nice. Go into your house and get a shot. She narrowed her eyes at me. Make it a double. Cut a bar straw in fourths and bring one part out with you.”

I slipped into my house and did as she asked. If all of this were my imaginings, a morning hangover was the worst I’d suffer. Been there, done that. I sat back down on the dock and placed the glass of whiskey and straw beside me. She was still there, tapping her bootie on the wooden deck.

She took the clipped straw, dipped it in the whiskey, and took a sip. “Hits the spot!” Turning to me, she added, “Have a sip, Sue. You need it.”

I lifted the glass to my mouth and took a sip, too. It burned on the way down, clarifying my muddled thoughts. She was right. It tasted very good.

She pointed the straw at me and asked, “Do you remember your wish?”

“Who are you? What are you?” I shook my head and figured she’d say—a figment of my imagination.

“I’m a Sound Sprite.”

“As in Pamlico Sound?”

“Yep, that’s my name, too, Pam—that’s how wishes are divvied out—by region.”

“Pam, the Sound Sprite.”

“More formally, Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound.” She bowed, pranced around, put her dukes up as if she were in the ring, and then turned to dip her straw into the whiskey. She smacked her lips. “I have quite a reputation to uphold. I didn’t bother translating the Spirit of Christmas’s message. Getting it first hand is better. What was your wish?”

Equilibrium restored, I remembered my wish. “I’m a law enforcement officer. I want to arrest whoever is selling killer cocaine on the island. People are dying.”

“Got any suspects?”

“None, but it’s a local.”

“Got any leads?” she asked, as if I hadn’t done my homework. She was starting to annoy me.

“The victim was dressed like she’d gone to a party. Someone must have driven her home, called nine-one-one, and vamoosed. Cocaine and parties go together. The party could have been in some local’s home, but I called some of the property management companies on the island. There are two houses nearby rented for the holidays by locals. One’s a photographer. He works freelance for those companies on their rental-house catalogs. How would he have the money to rent a big house? Makes me favor him as the suspect. The other owns a spa and pool service company.”

“Have you checked them out?”

“I was thinking of scouting those houses before you arrived, but everyone knows me. I’m afraid I’ll scare them off, which is why I asked for an off-island task force’s help. But they won’t be available until after the holidays.”  

Pam asked me the location of the first house. After I told her, she said, “I’ll do recon. When I get back, you’d better start believing or I won’t grant your wish. You think about it.” Before she zipped up into her peel, she said, “You got any munchies? Get’em out before I get back.”

She disappeared in a squiggle of light. Before I could question myself too much, I went into the house, got a tray of cheese and crackers, and a dish of North Carolina peanuts grown in Currituck County, just up the road. Best peanuts I’d ever eaten. Supporting local businesses was a priority for me. But the thought of local business directed my thoughts back to the case as I carried the snacks out to the dock.

I took another sip of whiskey before helping myself to the crackers and cheese. A poor substitute for dinner, but Woody, my boyfriend and fellow police officer, was celebrating Christmas with his parents and daughter in Greenville. On Christmas, his ex would have their daughter. Woody kept me in takeout or often made me dinner. Without him or my son, I’d skipped the meal. One of the crackers crumbled with an edge of cheese as I picked it up.

Pam zipped back and landed on the dock. “That was a nightmare.”


“Family feud time. No wonder the photographer rented a house for his relatives. At least he can go home. I was only there a minute when his father started a fight with his mother about something that happened twenty years ago. The grandparents chimed in yelling about some past incident. They paid for the rental house. Then his drunken brother started taunting him like a twelve-year-old. I thought the photographer’s head would explode. Grandchildren were running and screaming through the house, and their mothers were sequestered on the deck drinking wine.”

“No drugs?”

“No drugs, no Christmas spirit. Let me try the next rental house.”

I told her the location. She flitted off. Alone, I leaned back, placing my palms on the deck behind me and wondered if I’d lost my mind. Seemed like an easy way to eliminate suspects unless this was all a fantasy.

My grandmother had talked of spirits and sprites, but she also read me fairy tales and “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.” At the time, I might have believed, but since then, I’d lumped them all into the same category of sweet fictional tales. I’d loved my grandmother for her imagination, for her willingness to believe. She’d been an innocent, a pure spirit herself.

Me? Not so much. In my profession, I’d seen too much to ever feel innocent. I wondered what image I projected to my son. Was I more scary than warm? How did you educate your children to the horrors of the world and make them feel secure? I shook my head, wishing I could be that pure spirit like my grandmother. Maybe when I retired, removed from my job of criminal horrors, I would tell the tale of Pam the Sprite of Pamlico Sound to my grandchildren, if I were so fortunate. But how would that tale end? Could I believe? What was the power of faith?  

Light streaked in front of me. Pam returned. “You got it right on the second try. Party and drug central,” she said, her lips twisted into a grimace. She looked at the tray. “Thanks for making some snacks my size.” She lifted the cracker crumble and cheese and popped it into her mouth. “Yum, that beats eating mosquitoes any day.”

I tried not to think about insects. “So what exactly did you see? How many people were there?”

“The place is packed. Must be forty people in there. Twenties and thirties. Women were fancy dressed. Men in jeans and flannel shirts. Drinking and snorting. Loud music. A game on the TV. No neighbors. It’ll go on all night.”

“No neighbors at this time of year. Are the drugs out in the open?”

“In the master bedroom on the top floor.”

“See anyone who looked like the ringleader?”

“Yep. Upper thirties, starting to bald. Built like a rock. Dark hair, sort of preppy looking. He wore business casual, not jeans and flannel.”

That confirmed what I thought. Darren Sutton, the spa and pool service company owner. “I’ll call a few of my colleagues. We’ll surround the place.”

“He’ll flush it. There are motion detector lights on the ground level. Went off when I arrived. Partiers on the front exterior decks can see anyone approach the house. They’ll alert your dealer before you get up the front steps. Before you climb all the way to the top floor, they’ll have the placed wiped clean.”

“Is there an elevator?”

Yeah, but they have it locked on the top floor. You’ll have to go undercover.”

“I can’t fool anyone. Everyone knows me.”

Pam wiggled her eyebrows. “Don’t underestimate me. I’m good.” She put her finger to her temple and screwed her lips into a smirk. “Not even your mother will recognize you when I’m done.” She turned her index finger into a light wand and started air writing. Light swirled around her finger as she wrote and chanted,  “Bibbity, Bobbity, poop, now you’ll look like Betty Boop.”

Betty Boop? Who? I felt cold. My clothing had changed into a bikini top with a skirt. “Are you crazy?” I asked, but my voice sounded weird. High and squeaky.

Pam tapped her forehead and waved her hand. “You’re right. Wrong era. Let me change you." She wrote with a lit finger again, but this time said, “I want a Christmas clone like Emma Stone.”
I felt my face transform, my cheekbones widened, my lips puffed, but before I knew it Pam said, “No, no, you’re not the auburn type. Sorry.” She closed her eyes thought for a moment and smiled. “I got it. Better than a Christmas box, now you look like Megan Fox!”

I felt my appearance change again. Goosebumps formed. I looked down to bare skin and  pushed up boobs barely covered in black lace. “Oh my—” I didn’t finish my sentence and wobbled into the house. The bathroom mirror revealed me—more of me than I’d ever show in public. A Megan Fox look-alike stood before the mirror ensconced in a black stretch-lace top. I peered into the mirror. I looked like me, but I could have fooled anyone at first glance. With my hair darkened and lengthened and a face full of makeup, I looked like a sexy reflection of the star. My eyebrows rose as I inspected the skin-tight black leggings that hugged my butt and legs. The high black wedges on my feet were the reason I couldn’t walk right.

Pam flew in behind me and sat on my shoulder. “Perfect,” she said, smiling.

Disgusted, I couldn’t fathom her enthusiasm. This look went against my grain. “I’m an officer of the law. I can’t be seen like this. I wear a uniform.”

“Not undercover. Not tonight.”

I sputtered, “But, but.”

“No buts about it. You’ll fit into that party. No one will recognize you. Act like an airhead. Mingle. The lights are on low upstairs. Hide behind the draperies and get some good party pictures.”

I stared at myself in the mirror.

“What’s wrong? This is perfect. You have to work hard to make your wishes come true. Did you imagine I’d wave my wand and put the dealer in jail? With no evidence? Like that would work. You’ll get the evidence, arrest the drug dealer, and save lives.”

I took a deep breath. She was right. I had to do this. I looked in the mirror. Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound had to be real. I never could have done this on my own—wouldn’t have—it was so not me. Going undercover and dressing like this passed my comfort zone by at least a mile. I thought of that young woman who died. I thought of my son. My core steeled. No one would recognize the down-home styled woman I projected in my personal life. The straight-edged, by-the-book police investigator couldn’t be found within the image I saw in the mirror.

“You can do this, Sue.”

“Suzanne,” I said, giving the mirror a sultry look.

Pam smiled at me in the mirror. “Oh, good. Get into the role. I will, too.” Her trench coat changed into a long sequined-dress. Spiked heels winked from under her hem. “Let’s go finish that whiskey before we hit the road.”

We finished the glass and walked out to my garage. “I need two more things before we go. Give me a black clutch about a foot long by four inches wide and six inches tall.”

“Okay. No problem.” The bag appeared in my hands. In it, I stashed my badge, phone, and gun.

“I’ll need other wheels.”

“Nah, we’ll use what you have. I’ll change it back once the arrest goes down.” Pam transformed my patrol car into a Lexus. On our way down Route 12, I called two officers who were on patrol and explained what I wanted them to do. Danny had played college football, a defensive lineman. Tara didn’t look scary until she moved. Her speed and black-belt maneuvers broke bones within strike range. I didn’t think I needed more backup. Arresting the guests wasn’t my objective. The dealer was my target.     

“We should have an escort,” Pam said.

“Will anyone see you?”

“Not me, you. A woman arriving alone might seem suspicious.” Pam squinted through the windshield. “Slow down. I can see our escort coming from the woods.”

A buck lumbered onto the road and stopped, mesmerized by my headlights. I slammed on the brakes. A common occurrence, island residents sustained more auto body damage from deer than from car collisions. I turned toward the passenger seat. “A deer?”

“Yep. Lower my window.” Pam flew outside to the deer and started air writing again. I lowered my window and heard her say, “A Christmas cheer for you my deer. But don’t make us late since you’re Sue’s date.” The buck transformed into a startled brown-haired man. He tottered on two legs for a few moments, getting his human legs to work. “Get in the car,” Pam ordered. She opened the back door, and he got in. “Sue, meet Buck, your date.”

I nodded to Buck. He got a goofy look on his face. I looked at Pam. “Does he know the difference between date and mate?”

“I don’t think it makes a difference. He’s under your spell so just tell him what to do.”

“All righty,” I said and hit the gas.

As we turned down the party house street, my phone rang. I gave instructions to my backup crew. “Stay out of sight. I’ll call you after I get what I need. Then enter the house and make the arrest.”

I parked on the street and opened the door for Buck. We walked up the driveway leaning against each other. Buck was still unstable on two legs. I balanced on high wedges unused to heels. We probably looked drunk, which might have been a plus.

Pam’s observations were correct. As we approached the house, motion-detector lights came on. Buck blinked, but he followed Pam, who flew in front of us making come-hither arm motions. Some guys on the top deck looked over the railing and leered at me. I realized they could look down my already revealing top. I wanted to strangle Pam, but she was granting my wish. I gritted my teeth, launched myself up the stairs, and found the door unlocked.

A local sat on a stool in the foyer, watching us. Carla Thompson. Tough-lady Carla was a mate on a charter fishing boat. Moonlighting? She acted like a bouncer, looking us in the eyes and checking us out. Her eyes slid over Buck, but when she looked at me, confusion entered her eyes. She narrowed her eyebrows as if trying to place me.

“I know—Megan Fox, right?” I said, wondering if the comment was too self-flattering. She didn’t say anything but angled her head as if trying on a new hat. “Someone even asked me for an autograph one time.” I laughed and gestured to Buck. “You know Buck—teaches kite surfing,” I said, as if everyone should know him. She nodded. Buck twitched his nose as if he’d like nothing better than to sniff her, so I took his arm and dragged him up the stairs. Two levels later, the party swirled around us in the large great room. Buck pranced a bit as if nervous. I couldn’t blame him. This wasn’t my scene either.  

Groups congregated around the room. I led Buck to an empty corner behind one of the groups, out of the fray, and took stock of the room. An open floor plan, the kitchen centered and opened into the great room. At the opposite end, a large flat-screen TV anchored the far wall. A college bowl game played on the TV. Men sat on couches, watching.

Pam fluttered by the kitchen island bar, hovering beside a man who fit the description of Darren Sutton. Booze bottles littered the bar. A man nodded to greet Sutton and rubbed the side of his nose with his finger. Sutton gestured to the man to follow him. It wasn’t until they disappeared behind a closing door that I realized a master bedroom suite was located behind the kitchen.

A twenty-something girl in the group we’d hid behind tittered and covered her mouth with her hand. Her eyes were trained behind me. I turned. Buck had his head in a bowl of Chex Mix. I looked back at the girl, affected a smile, and rolled my eyes while strong-arming Buck’s head out of the snack. I picked up the bowl and led Buck out to the deserted back deck through a sliding glass door.

As soon as the night air hit Buck, he calmed. I led him to a darkened deck space aside French doors. Light seeped out around the curtain. I placed the Chex Mix on the deck. Buck advanced on it like a pig to slop.

With him busy, I crept over to the door, took my camera from my clutch, and peered through the curtain using the camera lens. I snapped shots of the man snorting a line from what looked like a marble cutting board. Darren’s smile at the man turned my stomach. Money exchanged hands between the men, which I captured in pictures.  

I was tapping my teeth with my fingernail when Pam’s light squeezed through the crack between the French doors. She plumped into 3-D on the deck side. “So do you have what you need?”

“Maybe, but I want more. I have to get into that room. Stay with Buck. He’s cramping my style.”

Pam started laughing. “You don’t have style.”

I exhaled through my nose and closed my eyes before slapping on an explanation that would satisfy her. “As an investigator, I operate better alone.” Without waiting for a response, I left her with Buck and returned to the great room, putting my phone on video. I hoped those around me thought I was checking messages. At the bar, I grabbed a cup, filled it with ice, and poured club soda into it. Darren and the man came out of the room and parted ways. Darren approached me with a smile. “Well, looky here. I don’t think I know you, sugar.”

Yuck. “Suzanne,” I said and almost put out my hand. Too much. Instead, I cast him a coy smile, as if I were interested in getting to know him better.

“Darren.” He looked at me much as his bouncer had downstairs. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

“Oh, honey, don’t you know a better pickup line than that?” I reached over and patted his arm.

He put his arm around my waist and pulled me to him. “Yep, I sure do, sugar. I know a lot of things,” he whispered in my ear.

As a come-on it sucked, but I smiled and snuggled up to him. “I sure could use some candy right now.”

He placed his hands on my face and looked me in the eye. “Say pretty please.”

I almost gagged. Pam had said I had to work hard to make my wishes come true. She hadn’t lied. I narrowed my distance to his face to an inch, my lips nearly touching his. “Pretty please?”

“Let’s take this somewhere private,” he said and led me to the master bedroom, closing the door behind us. He pulled me into his arms and ran his hands down my spine, executing a full-body grope. Head to head, I looked over his shoulder and checked out the room. The marble cutting board lay on the bed. Atop it, a rolled up fifty-dollar bill sat. Behind them, Pam flew in, sat on the bed, and lifted her eyebrows at me.  

“I might need something in return for the candy,” Darren said into my ear.

I hoped my phone picked up his voice. “I’ll be glad to pay. What are you charging?”

“Twenty a line, but I hoped you’d give payment in a different form.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll make sure you get your reward.”

He released me, opened the drawer, and took out a quart freezer bag filled with coke. Looked like a half kilo to me. Pam flitted out to the deck, and I overheard her say, “Too much Christmas cheer, change back into a deer.”

As I wondered what Pam was thinking, Darren looked up from the coke and screwed up his eyes. “Did you hear anything?”

“Not me.” I walked over to the French doors, angling my phone at Darren holding the cocaine, opened the doors wide, and hopped out. Darren looked bewildered, then alarmed, and then angry. He started walking toward the door. I disappeared into the darkness of the deck, passing Buck as he entered the room, his ten-point antlers barely squeezing through the door. I heard Darren scream.

I called my backup and told them the suspect was in the top floor master bedroom. I fled down the exterior deck stairs. By the time I descended onto the driveway, I heard a ruckus in the house. I walked toward my car. A spotlight flared at me. I put my hands up to shield my eyes. “Who the hell are you?”


“Woody?” The light went out. I staggered without night vision. I heard Woody’s steps coming toward me. My vision returned. His mouth hung open. “I thought you were in Greenville,” I said. Woody didn’t say a word, his eyes trained on my chest. “I waved my hands in front of his eyes. “Are you catatonic?”

“Wow, you look awesome.”

“A girl died tonight. I wanted to get the bastard who supplied the coke—now before anyone else died—so I went undercover.”

Woody’s intelligence seemed to return. “You think it’s the same guy from the other incidents.”

“Yep. You up for taking statements?”

“Sure, whatever you need.”

“Find out if any of his guests were at the party earlier when this girl was here.” I leaned into   
the Lexus and found the picture her mother had given me. “Here’s the victim’s picture.”

“Maybe we can get him for more than drug distribution.”

“Let’s hope. But I have to get my uniform. I’ll be back to process the scene.

Woody looked disappointed. “Go. I’ll take statements.”

I got into the Lexus. Getting rid of the Megan Fox clothes was imperative. My fellow officers would roast me for the apparel. I’d never live it down. Luckily, only Woody had seen me. Before I put the car in gear, I saw Woody grab Carla Thompson trying to sneak out. My phone rang as I got to the end of the road. “Yeah.”

I heard rapid breathing. “Sue.” Tara’s voice was higher than normal. She gulped. “There’s a huge deer in the master bedroom upstairs. He’s got the perp trapped. But we can’t get in either.”

I had to smile. “That’s just Buck. He loves Chex Mix. Get a bowl and lure him out. He’ll follow you into the elevator. Just be calm, pat him, and feed him from the bowl. Don’t let him get amorous. Once on ground level, put the bowl on the driveway and let him finish it. He deserves a treat for his assistance. He’ll walk back into the woods. You won’t have to stick around.”

“But how did he get up there?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said and hung up.

As I neared home, the Lexus changed back into my patrol car. Tara must have read Darren his rights. I called some off-duty officers to help interview the partygoers, but I had to go back and process the scene. In my bedroom, I couldn’t wait to strip off my Megan Fox clothes, but when I tried, none of them would come off except for the high wedges. Twisting, stretching, and tearing didn’t work. “Pam,” I yelled. But the dang fairy didn’t appear. I ended up covering them with my uniform and pulled my hair back into its usual ponytail. In no time, I hopped back into the car.

Photographing the great room and bedroom, taking fingerprints, and bagging the evidence didn’t take long. We let those partygoers who weren’t inebriated or stoned go home after taking all their statements. Tara told me docile Buck had given her no problem. She waited with the guests who needed rides. Danny offered to take Darren Sutton up to Manteo for State accommodations, enabling Woody and me to spend a few hours alone. After a quick stop at the station to secure the evidence, we went to my house. Woody made coffee. I sneaked out to the dock. 

“Pam!” She didn’t appear. “Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound—answer me!” I saw her zinging light spin from the still dark sky. She landed on the dock.

“What’da ya want? Got your wish, didn’t you?”

“I can’t remove the Megan Fox clothes. Get them off me.”

“No can do.”


“Look, I admit it. I’m lazy. When I knew I could grant two wishes in one call, I took it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Yours wasn’t the only wish I granted tonight.”

“Who else made a wish?”

Pam raised her eyebrows and gestured to my house.


“Hey, the ex came early and took his kid home. His parents fell asleep, and he was lonely, thinking about you. What can I say? I’m a lazy old softie.”

“So how do I get rid of these clothes?”

“I doubt you’ll get rid of them, but there’s only one person who can take them off you.” She winked.

“Are you kidding me?”

“Be a fairy godmother, too. Grant the poor guy his wish.”

“I knew you were real.”

“Yes, you believed.”

I crossed my arms and made face at her. “Figures.”

“Hey, kid, what do you expect? Fairy tales?”

No, I thought, but a happily-ever-after ending would be nice. Woody and I were already intimate, but I felt used, and not by him. I sighed. “Pam, maybe you should take a remedial course in Fairy Godmothership.“

She waved off my suggestion—couldn’t be bothered. “Merry Christmas, Sue.”

“Merry Christmas, Pam,” I said. Pam zipped off into the sky to...Never-Never Land? The North Pole? Who knew?

I walked back to my house and opened the door. When I took off my uniform shirt, revealing my cleavage bound only by black stretch-lace, I swear Woody got the same goofy grin on his face as Buck. He poured us cups of coffee and clacked his cup against mine. “Here’s to Christmas wishes,” he said, giving me a brilliant smile.

His eyes twinkled as had my grandmother’s when she told us Christmas tales. The sign of a true believer. It was one of the reasons I’d fallen in love with him. I rang my cup against his. “Merry Christmas, Woody.”

  The End