Thursday, November 30, 2017

Christmas Cookie Caper
by Margaret S. Hamilton

 “Lizzie Christopher, you haven’t returned my calls!”
Lizzie was on her hands and knees on the floor of the local food market, perusing the bottom shelf. She saw two poison-green duck shoes, and looked up to red corduroy slacks embroidered with candy canes, topped with a Christmas sweater festooned with gold rope trim, and hung with small ornaments and tree lights.

Lizzie grabbed a package of rice off the shelf and struggled to her feet.

“Patricia, what a nice surprise, and what a pretty sweater.”

“Where have you been? And why haven’t you answered my phone messages? I even resorted to texting you.” The rector’s wife considered texting as indecent as cleavage exposure in church.

Lizzie pulled a chiming phone out of her hooded sweatshirt pocket and glanced at the screen. “It’s a crisis a minute this week.”

Stan, the market owner, called from the back room.

“Hey, Lizzie, I’ve got your order packed in boxes.”

Lizzie waved her thanks and smiled at Patricia.

“We’ve been at a soccer tournament all weekend, returning to town late last night. My apologies, we were out of cell range most of the time.”

Lizzie pulled a list out of her purse and squinted at it. “The throw pillows for the church Christmas boutique are finished. I’ll clip loose threads and insert the pillow forms this morning, and deliver them, the table runners and tree skirts, to the Parish Hall by noon. Will that be acceptable?”

She continued before Patricia could respond. “I made a commitment to bake twelve dozen raspberry snow bars in six batches. Plans have changed, and I am to do the preparation and baking in the church kitchen.” She checked her list. “My assigned time is four to six this afternoon.” Lizzie looked up. “It’s inconvenient, but I’ll do as you ask.”

 Patricia began to sputter. “But the ingredients…did you read my e-mail about the ingredients?”

Stan joined them and showed Patricia a spread sheet. “Everything you need for every single cookie is listed. The shipment just arrived. All the chocolates, bittersweet, semi-sweet, and milk, in bars, chips, and chunks. Dutch process cocoa, candied fruits, coconut, nuts, jams and preserves. Eggs, sweet butter, flour, brown, confectioners and regular sugar.”

 “How…how did you do that?” Patricia asked.

 Lizzie smiled. “Easy. As a new member of the boutique baking committee, you sent me a complete set of recipes. I assembled the ingredients into one shopping list, and fired it off on Saturday.” She patted Patricia on the arm. “I heard that the local stores were stripped of every kind of baking supply, so I contacted Stan.”

 “Well, I’m sure Stan’s products will meet our exacting standards,” Patricia said. “That’s one less crisis I have to deal with today.”

“Of course, I shop here all the time,” Lizzie said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll pull my van around back and load up.” She and Stan walked towards the back of the store. She turned and called over her shoulder. “Is the parish hall open?”

 “Push the intercom button, and the secretary will let you in. I have a long list to get through before I make it over there.”

 “Don’t we all,” Lizzie said to herself.

Lizzie thanked Stan and headed out. She’d looked forward to a weekend of out-of-town soccer games, free of her Christmas boutique obligations. Lizzie had worked long hours with the seamstress at the interior design shop she managed, making the holiday accent pillows and Christmas tree skirts. People paid a premium for the items, the monies raised used for a variety of St. Paul’s parish outreach programs.

Lizzie hadn’t had time to respond to the many people who had alerted her about the ingredient shortages. The messages made no sense. The stores should be stocked to overflowing with colored sugars, candied fruits, and cookie cutters the first week of December. She dropped off the boxes of supplies at the church. Patricia’s husband, Ted, the rector, helped her carry everything inside.

 “You’ve saved the day, Lizzie,” he said. “Thanks to you, the boutique cookie bakers will get everything completed today.”

At mid-day, Lizzie called the church secretary, and requested that someone meet her in the parking lot to receive the interior d├ęcor accessories from the shop. She waved as she made a fast getaway. Lizzie’s decorating customers required attention, especially those who needed their new window treatments installed and reupholstered furniture delivered before holiday parties.


            Later that afternoon, Lizzie pulled into the empty parish hall parking lot. The place looked deserted. “Good,” she thought, “I’ll have the kitchen all to myself.” She heaved milk crates out of the van, packed with everything she used for baking—measuring cups and spoons, large bowls, a powerful hand mixer, glass baking dishes, and her own ingredients. Rummaging for equipment or supplies in an unfamiliar kitchen would slow her down. Like a carpenter, she worked best with her own tools.

Two children exploded out of the bushes surrounding the parking lot, shrieking as they chased each other in circles.

“Hey, kids, where’s Mommy? Or Grandma?”

The girl looked about four-years-old. She pointed to the parish hall kitchen. “In there. She made us wait outside.” She looked up at Lizzie. “We’re hungry. Can we have something to eat?”

The boy was younger, jet-propelled, but not yet talking. He patted his tummy and picked his nose.

 “Let’s go inside and find your mother.”

They ran ahead of her. The parish hall door was ajar, the interior hallway dark.

“Odd,” Lizzie thought. “The church secretary is always here till five.”

She lined her crates up against the wall and walked towards the kitchen. She could hear someone opening drawers and cabinets, and moving stacks of stainless steel mixing bowls. The children raced into the kitchen.

“Belle, we’re here. The lady let us in. We’re hungry. Can we go home now?” the girl asked.

 “You’re supposed to call me ‘Mommy,’ remember? I told you kids to wait outside. I’m still looking for something,” Belle said. She continued to open drawers. “What lady are you talking about? There’s nobody else here. Are you telling lies again?”

 Lizzie tiptoed up the hall. The church office was closed and locked. She wondered how she could get Belle and her children out of the parish hall. Lizzie shook her head in frustration. She called 911 and spoke to the dispatcher. “Female intruder in the St. Paul’s parish hall kitchen. She left her small kids in the parking lot, so I brought them inside.” Lizzie eased her way back down the hall towards the kitchen, and continued to eavesdrop. The children whined about a snack.

 “Keep quiet, both of you. I can’t leave until I find their recipes. I don’t understand how they did any baking.” Lizzie heard Belle make a phone call. “I’m in the parish hall kitchen. They’ve been baking cookies all day. Where did they get their supplies? You told me our group had bought up every bar and bag of baking chocolate in town. But I smell chocolate, luscious, expensive chocolate.”

Lizzie finally understood the reason for the baking ingredient shortage in town. She heard Belle slam what sounded like her phone on the stainless steel countertop. Lizzie knew many of the kitchen cabinets would be locked. She heard Belle yank on the cupboard handles and kick the locked pantry door, before opening the refrigerator and rummaging through it. Lizzie hoped the boutique items and baked goods were locked in a Sunday school room upstairs.

Officer Bethany Schmidt opened the parish hall door and called out. “Lizzie, are you here? What’s going on?”

 Lizzie pointed towards the kitchen. “Hello, find what you were looking for?” she asked, as she walked through the doorway.

Belle grabbed something from a drawer and slammed it closed. She held her arm down at her side. “Where do you keep the cookie recipes?”

 “Are you on the boutique baking committee?” Lizzie asked. “I thought I knew everyone on the list.”

“You know I’m not,” Belle said with a snarl.

 “If it isn’t Isabelle D’Arcy,” Bethany said, as she entered the kitchen. “Causing more trouble? I hear you left your boyfriend’s kids unattended in the parking lot. Not a good idea. It’s almost dark.”

 “Mind your own business,” Isabelle said.

 “I’ll tell the station I’m bringing you in for questioning, and ask them to alert Child Protective Services.” Bethany thumbed her radio.

 “All right, I’m leaving,” Isabelle said. “Come on, kids, we need to go.” She balanced the boy on her hip, and pushed the girl towards the door.

“Not so fast,” Lizzie said. “What’s in your other hand?”

Isabelle’s face flushed. She smacked a pair of kitchen shears down on the counter.

“Why do you need the parish cookie recipes?” Lizzie asked. “They’re a closely held secret. It’s the church’s major money-making project for the year.”

 “They’ve cornered the cookie market,” Isabelle said. “My group can’t get any orders. Everybody buys from St. Paul’s.”

“Why shouldn’t they? The proceeds are for charity,” Lizzie said. “Are you baking as a fund-raiser?”

“We’re baking for profit,” Isabelle said. “We’re all stuck at home with small children. Jericho’s the kind of place where people pay good money for home-baked goods, especially if they can pass them off as their own.”

 “So you’ve organized a baking venture, perhaps with delivery?”

 “What’s it to you? You’re as big a snoop as that fat cow Patricia.”

 “Lizzie, you don’t know the half of it,” Bethany said. “This so-called cookie caper has been going on all weekend.” She pulled out her notepad and flipped through the pages, reading her notes.

 “Isabelle complained that St. Paul’s had a monopoly on Christmas cookie sales. She arranged to use the community church kitchen for her group’s baking activities, and reported St. Paul’s to the county Board of Health for selling cookies baked in private homes.

“Now I get it,” Lizzie said. “That’s why all baking activities have to happen here, in an inspected kitchen. And then Isabelle and her cronies stripped the shelves in the local stores, so the St. Paul’s bakers wouldn’t have any supplies.” Lizzie glared at Isabelle. “I overheard you on the phone.” Lizzie turned to Bethany. “Now she’s determined to get her hands on the church recipes.”

Lizzie brushed past Isabelle and turned on the ovens. “I’m here to bake twelve dozen cookies, thanks to you. Otherwise, I’d be at home with my family.” She hauled her plastic crates in from the hall.

She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “I can’t start until Isabelle leaves.”

 “You people have no idea what it takes to get a business up and running,” Isabelle said.

 “As a matter of fact, I do,” Lizzie said. “The Main Street merchants have an active mentoring program for new businesses. I’d be happy to refer you.”

 “Just stay out of my life,” Isabelle said.

 “Then stop interfering in ours,” Lizzie said. She picked up the scissors and clicked them. “A lethal weapon, in front of the children?”

 “Isabelle, I’ll let you off with a warning and follow you home,” Bethany said. “If I ever see your kids unattended, I’m charging you with child endangerment.”

 Lizzie locked the parish hall door behind them, and returned to the kitchen to organize her baking.

 She held her breath as she separated twelve eggs, one at a time, before she pulled out her hand mixer and two bowls. She creamed shortening, sugar and egg yolks, then added flour to make the crusts for her bar cookies. She patted the dough into six glass baking pans and slid them in the ovens. Lizzie missed working at home, enjoying a glass of wine with her husband, the commotion of teenagers and dogs in the background.

She grabbed another bowl and beat the egg whites to stiff peaks while gradually adding sugar. The kitchen filled with the aroma of almond flavoring she’d added. She lined up the six pans with baked crusts on the counter, and spread each with raspberry preserves, topped with coconut. Lizzie swirled the egg whites over the coconut, and returned the pans to the oven, deep in thought.

 She fumed as she gathered up her equipment. Isabelle didn’t care about the kids. She was irresponsible. What was wrong with her boyfriend? Was he not aware of her behavior? Lizzie also sensed that Isabelle had catering experience. She’d been clever enough to rent a commercial kitchen, and report St. Paul’s to the county health inspectors. But if she was experienced, why did she need the cookie recipes?

Lizzie dumped her mixing bowls, spoons and spatulas in the sink and squirted them with liquid detergent. Bethany called to report that Isabelle and the children were safely home. Lizzie turned off the water and propped her phone up, on speaker, to continue their conversation. She glanced at the coffee travel mug Isabelle had left behind.

“There’s something bugging me about Isabelle,” she told Bethany. “All her posturing about a young mothers’ baking collective doesn’t ring true. I would have heard about it from the Main Street merchants, and offered my help with the marketing and promotion end of things.” She rinsed and wiped her cooking equipment and loaded it back in the plastic crates as she continued talking.

“Several women in Jericho cater hors d’oeuvres, meals, and desserts. There’s never been an issue about their working from their home kitchens.”

“Based on previous cases you’ve meddled in, your gut instincts are usually correct,” Bethany said. “What do you suggest?”

“I know DNA testing takes months and is expensive. Isabelle left her travel mug on the counter. How about running her finger prints? She endangered the children and ransacked the kitchen to steal the cookie recipes. We still don’t know how she got inside, and why the secretary was gone.”

Lizzie wrapped the mug in a paper towel and sealed it in a large zip lock bag. She pulled six pans of fragrant raspberry snow bars out of the ovens, the meringue tops crisp, with a hint of color, and left them to cool on the countertops. Patricia would return to the parish hall kitchen after dinner to inspect and store them. She loaded up her van and headed for the police station to drop off the mug.


Bethany Schmidt dropped by the next morning. “Your instincts were correct, as usual. We ran prints on the mug through IAFIS and got a hit.”

“She’s not Isabelle D’Arcy, is she?” Lizzie asked.

“No, she’s a fugitive named Darcy Bell, wanted in connection with her previous chef boyfriend’s poisoning murder in New York a few years ago.”

“Hiding in Jericho,” Lizzie said. “With two small children as her cover.”

“We picked up Darcy and have her in custody. We’re waiting for lab results on the parish hall kitchen before we charge her. She’s demanded a lawyer and isn’t talking. We’ve notified New York to start the extradition process. Any idea if she put poison in the food supplies in the parish hall kitchen?”

“The cupboards and pantry were locked. I remember hearing her rummage around the refrigerator,” Lizzie said. “Make sure they check everything inside it.”

Bethany turned to leave. “Darcy stole her chef boyfriend’s recipes. She might have been searching for the parish cookie recipes, after all.”

“It’s one way of starting a restaurant,” Lizzie said. “Get some workers and a commercial space, and start a catering business. With restaurant-quality recipes, she’d be established in no time. Weed out the unsatisfactory workers and assemble a solid kitchen crew.”

Lizzie shook her head. “It was a good business plan. Start small, gain a local following, and then swing the financing to open a restaurant. But she needed cookie and dessert recipes.”

“What about the church secretary?” Lizzie asked.

“She had a dental appointment. She let Darcy in to use the bathroom just as she was leaving.”

“Sorry to tell you,” Bethany said, “but we confiscated your raspberry snow bars. I know you used your own ingredients and equipment, but we can’t take a chance.”

Lizzie sighed. “Safety first.” She had an idea. “Can you give me the names of Darcy’s kitchen crew? I’ll have them help me bake another batch, here, in my kitchen.”

Lab tests revealed that Darcy had put weed killer in the milk and cream in the parish hall refrigerator. She was charged and transported to the county lock-up to await trial. The Ohio Governor, in conjunction with the State Prosecutor, would make a final decision about her extradition to New York.

Darcy’s current boyfriend kept custody of his children.

Isabelle’s crew of young mothers was delighted to be part of the St. Paul’s boutique,
helping serve and clean up while their children were cared for in the church nursery.

Patricia, resplendent in burgundy velvet with gold reindeer earrings, announced that the combined sales of Christmas cookies and boutique items were the highest on record.



This story was originally published in Kings River Life December 16, 2015


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gotta Watch Out for Our Own

by Paula Gail Benson

            Celeste had just taken her place on a back pew when she saw him standing at the front entrance of the church, in the doorway clearly visible to the seated congregation and used mainly for handicapped access. He wasn’t handicapped or disabled in the common use of those terms, but he was obviously disadvantaged. Black and gray flecked stubble covered his chin and cheeks. He had dark, grease-streaked hair, the exact color unclear due to the slick texture that reflected the overhead lights. His dull, vinyl jacket had cracks, and his dingy shirt and trousers showed spots from substances dropped on them that had not been cleaned off.

            The whites of his eyes were large, emphasizing tiny pupils that darted back and forth. He shifted from side to side on the balls of his feet, like a tennis player poised to follow the direction of the ball. The motion, along with his expectant manner, suggested he either had too much or too little of a substance in his system.

            Celeste knew that most of the congregation, including the disabled, found the front entrance too open to the congregation’s view. This man did not seem to mind people watching him, but used the vantage point for his own purposes. Celeste had seen him do it before.

            He always arrived for the early service while the organ music played and before the minister made announcements. Fewer people. More spread out. Easier to isolate and descend upon his victim. He always selected a woman alone or an older couple he sensed to be approachable or vulnerable to his plea. Then, he came down the side aisle and scooted into the pew beside his target. For a moment or so, he kept to himself. Quiet. Looking ahead, as if listening to the organ, or checking the hymns listed on the boards on either side of the sanctuary, or meditating.

            Then, he would lean toward the person. Close enough so he could whisper.
“Do you think you could help me out?”

            The words came out eager, yet raspy. He was asking a Christian for compassion.

            “It’s my daughter’s birthday,” he continued. That’s what Celeste overheard when he selected the couple a few rows in front of her. Other members told her he always said he needed something for his family. Never just for himself. “I need to buy gas and a present, so I can go see her,” he’d explained. “Could you lend me twenty bucks?”

            Each time he appeared, Celeste felt the congregation’s unease as he moved toward his mark. People tried to avoid him, but that didn’t deter him. He seemed to have a sort of radar that led him to his target, as if he were acting by some inspired plan.

            Which made the situation worse. Celeste had heard plenty of discussion among the congregation about it. When he sat down on the pew beside a worshiper to make his pitch, he wasn’t just a derelict that could be passed by on the street, but one of God’s poor unfortunates here in God’s own house. To turn him down during service, with the eyes of the congregation and the Lord watching, made a person feel downright hypocritical. How do you reject the needy in a place that’s supposed to welcome, encourage, and support all?

            Yet, at the same time, was it fair to let this savvy homeless person intimidate people coming to worship? Asking for money in the church, where he knew people would feel guilty for not giving?

            Today, his eyes focused on Celeste. She trembled as he walked toward her. And, her trembling made her angry. Already, she had sacrificed. She no longer attended the later service for fear of running into her ex-husband and his new trophy wife, Marcella. Celeste now came to the lesser attended early service, and it had become her refuge for solitude and reflection, where she cultivated hope.

            Now, this unkempt man in torn clothing smelling faintly of urine had taken that from her.

            “Ma’am,” he began.

            She looked straight into his wavering eyes, not sure if she were more angry at herself or at him. Her direct gaze made him pause; his chin quivered and forehead wrinkled.

            “Ma’am,” he repeated, only this time more softly, almost in apology.

            From behind, Celeste felt a large figure leaning over the top of the pew. Mrs. Phipps, a church council member, had noticed what was happening and intruded.

            “You’ve been warned about this before,” Mrs. Phipps scolded the man. “Please stay for our service, but don’t ask for handouts here. That’s not how we operate. We donate to the shelter and other service agencies. You can get help from them. But, don’t disturb folks trying to talk with God. You don’t want us calling the law on you, do you?”

            He shook his head and backed out of the pew, murmuring, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am.”          But, just as he reached the aisle, he looked back at Celeste. For a moment, he was perfectly still. Then, he left.

            Celeste watched as he scurried back out the entrance. The service was destroyed for her now.

            She tried to evade any after service sympathy by heading into the assembly room for coffee and a donut. She had just relaxed a bit, taking her time to sip the hot beverage and chew slowly, when she noticed Mrs. Phipps in a corner with her ex and Marcella, who clung to his arm and wore a chic new Talbot’s amethyst-hued column dress. Marcella glanced in Celeste’s direction with an exaggerated pout of pity. No doubt, Mrs. Phipps was telling them about the homeless man encounter.

            Mrs. Phipps followed Marcella’s look. Always one to play both sides of the fence, Mrs. Phipps quickly excused herself and moved to join Celeste.

            “So good to have you coming to early service,” she said, patting Celeste’s hand that held the donut. “By the way, when are you coming back to circle meetings?”

            Celeste did her best to answer civilly, but didn’t stay for Sunday School. She couldn’t  finish the donut, even though she truly wanted to.

            Be grateful, she told herself as she walked to her car, took out the key from her purse and slid into the sanctuary of the driver’s seat. Sighing, she sunk into the comfort of the seat and checked the fuel gauge. Two thirds full. Encouraging.

            All right, she decided. That encounter was uncomfortable, but in the long run it will be beneficial. That’s your excuse for not coming to church. You’ll never have to admit that you can no longer afford to give an offering.

            She felt a pang in her chest for blaming it on a homeless person, but she had been looking a long time for a reason to stop attending church without her absence being noticed.

            Throughout that day, the homeless man’s face kept intruding upon her thoughts. The way he looked at her from the end of that pew. How he had begun to make his pitch, then stopped, even before Mrs. Phipps interrupted him. As if he saw something in Celeste, something she thought she kept well hidden from everyone.

            Celeste served meals at the homeless shelter for the holidays, as had been her custom since the divorce. She didn’t want her two daughters, both married and with families of their own, to feel any obligations or divided loyalties about inviting her to dinner. And, being at the shelter gave her an excuse for why she couldn’t host a family event herself. Besides, they knew she had been downsizing. When they expressed regret, she reminded them it wasn’t the home they grew up in without their father. And they seemed pleased when she entrusted each of them with her prized possessions to be passed to future generations.

            The girls told Celeste about Marcella, a tall, well proportioned redhead just a few years older than her step-daughters. They swore to Celeste that they avoided any connection except to be polite. Celeste accepted their reassurances, but knew her daughters had always been daddy’s girls, modeled after him as if poured into the same mold.

            She knew also that they blamed her for wanting a more reserved lifestyle than her ex chose to live. She freely admitted it took two to make a divorce, same as it did a marriage. She hoped her girls saw that example and learned from it. She told them, at a certain point, letting go was easier than holding on.

             Marcella was the last person Celeste expected to see at the shelter on Thanksgiving. She overheard Marcella telling one of the workers that her husband had joined the law firm team running the 5K Turkey Trot.

            Of course. Being health conscious had become his primary preoccupation since marrying Marcella. Celeste would have thought he got enough activity in the bedroom.

            Thankfully, the shelter director asked Marcella to walk along the tables refilling drinks and passing out rolls. That kept her away from the buffet line where Celeste served heaps of dressing and mashed potatoes on the plastic plates. The lines of people were steady. After standing over the hot containers for more than an hour, Celeste’s eyes blurred and her head felt woozy. She blinked to be able to see, and realized the homeless man from the church was holding his plate out to her. Today, his looked at her with a calm, steady gaze.

            “I appreciate your kindness,” he said.

            She smiled, wondering if he recognized her. “We have to look out for one another,” she replied.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Happy Thanksgiving.”

            Nodding, he continued down the line.

            After she worked a full shift, Celeste fixed a small plate for herself and took it to a staff office, saying she needed a few moments away from the heat and crowd. She sat down at a metal desk, pushing aside the papers covering the blotter to make room for her plate, and said a brief blessing. Slowly, she savored each morsel, closing her eyes to shut out all but enjoyment of the meal.

            “You’ll steal from anyone, won’t you? Even the shelter.”

            Opening her eyes, Celeste saw Marcella at the door. Her Ann Taylor suit looked too small for her curves. The blouse bunched up from the waist of the skirt. The whole outfit was wrinkled and smudged. Celeste wondered if it irritated Marcella that Celeste could have worn the suit in a smaller size?

            “I know what you’ve been doing and I won’t let you blackmail my husband,” Marcella said.

            Celeste squinted. “Blackmail? What are you talking about?”

            “Don’t even try to talk your way out of this.” Marcella stalked over and shoved an envelope into Celeste’s hands. “He told me to give this to you. I hope I never have to see you again.” She turned and left.

            Celeste sat dumbfounded by the attack, stroking the embossed return address on the envelope. Finally, the fog cleared from her brain. She realized she was holding letterhead from her ex’s law firm. Slowly, she opened the flap and pulled out a letter. Again, it was on the firm’s stationery, but a hand written note.

            Meet me tonight at 10 in the parking lot behind the firm. We’ll settle things there.

            Her ex’s indecipherable signature ended the note.

            What did it mean? For years, Celeste had struggled along without the alimony he owed her. It would have cost too much to go back to court to enforce the order, even if she could find a lawyer willing to oppose him.

            Could he be willing to pay her what was due? A surge of joy ran through her body at that thought. She was delinquent on the monthly fee for the storage unit. It held all she could salvage after the foreclosure on the house. Maybe she could pay off what she owed, then pay some in advance. And take a whole load of her clothes to the laundromat. Perhaps she could even spend a night in the Motel 6 and get a shower . . .

             Arriving early, Celeste turned off her ignition. The parking lot behind her ex’s law office was empty and lit by a single street light. The area around the edge of the building was hidden in shadows, and it would be illuminated with the building’s lights on.

            If it hadn’t been for the possibility of discovery, Celeste might have thought about parking here to spend the night. It was hard to find a clear open spot where you could feel protected.

            She watched as the back door to the firm opened. She almost didn’t recognize the stick figure of a man who stepped out.

            Her ex had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and his now almost bald head shone when he flicked on the porch light. Putting his hand to cover his eyes, he looked out over the lot, then called out, “Celeste? Is that you?”

            Putting her keys in her pocket, she opened the car door, then locked it behind her. She walked slowly toward the porch. After a few steps, she thought she heard a sound behind her, as if her car door had opened and closed. She turned to look back at it, but saw nothing amiss.

            “You might as well know,” her ex said. “ I can’t afford to pay you more than I am.”

            She turned back to face him. His words made no sense. He was paying her nothing now.

            But, he wouldn’t stop talking. “I agreed to meet you because Marcella said you might be approachable and we could work things out.”

            What was he talking about? Marcella? He agreed to meet her?

            Celeste said, “I came because Marcella gave me your note.”

            Another voice intruded. “Both of you are such stupid people.”

            They turned to see Marcella approaching them from the side of the building holding a gun.

            “Marcella?” her ex asked.

            “Don’t talk to me,” Marcella said, each word thrown down like a gauntlet. “You have no idea what it’s like, growing up with nothing. Seeing what people can acquire. Wanting just a little bit for yourself. I knew you were unhappy with your family, so I thought I could make it work out for the both of us. But, you kept pouring money into Celeste.”

            “I had to, baby,” he pleaded with her. “I’m under a court order.”

            “You were just too afraid to stand up to her,” Marcella replied. “Well, I wasn’t. You wrote those checks out to Mrs. Truesdale. I’m Mrs. Truesdale, too.”

            His forehead wrinkled. “What are you saying?”

            “I stole the checks you were sending to her when you put them out in the mail. I cashed them, and took the money for myself. And, yes, I’m the Mrs. Truesdale who’s been blackmailing you for more money. ”

            He looked back at Celeste. “You haven’t been getting your alimony?”

            “No,” Marcella answered for her. “And, she’s too penniless and gutless to do anything about it.” She turned to Celeste. “People talk about you like you’re some kind of saint, but you’re a fraud. How does it feel, living out of your car? Having to find public places to take your bath and wash your hair? Using the shelter refrigerator to store your yogurt, hoping the shelter staff doesn’t consider it community property?”

            Celeste wanted only one answer. “Why are you so angry?”

            “Because I’m tired of two people being in the way of my income source. So I figured out a way to bring you together. Tonight, you’re going to confront each other in this parking lot, and neither of you will walk away. A murder suicide. As grieving widow, I’ll be consoled by the money.”

            From behind her in the darkness, a figure tackled Marcella, bringing her hard to the ground and causing the weapon to discharge. Marcella, immobilized beneath her attacker, swore and cried. Having hit the porch floor when Marcella went down, her ex was raising his head to survey the situation. For a moment, Celeste was too frightened to move. Then, she saw the person who must have taken refuge under the clothes in the back seat of her car, then come to their rescue.
            The homeless man from her church looked up at Celeste. He said, “Gotta watch out for our own.”