It was a cold Wednesday in late January, and Trixie, Diana, and Alicia were enjoying a morning out at the Coffee Mug, Sleepyside’s newest coffee house. It had opened midway through the Christmas season to rave reviews and was one of the few non-franchise and locally owned businesses in the new strip mall. The crowds had not diminished after the holidays as it continued to lure both younger people who had long clamored for a Starbucks and older residents curious to see just what the fuss was all about.
The three women had managed to grab a table for four in a corner by the window and Chloe slept contentedly in the carrier Trixie had set in the empty chair beside her. Born into the boisterous extended Bob-White family, the two-month old was usually unfazed by noise and crowds.
“Is that that new baby of yours?” a distinctive voice asked from across the dining area. The whirlwind known as Carolyn Beales swept towards them, and Trixie watched in amazement as the woman that was barely five feet tall effortlessly parted the crowd and was quickly peering over her into the baby carrier.
“No, it’s her new pet rock,” Alicia deadpanned before Trixie could answer.
“Why, Alicia Johnson!” Carolyn grinned, tearing her eyes away from the baby. “I’d heard you were back. I see Philadelphia was good for you.”
“Marriage is good for me.” Alicia returned the grin, waving her left hand to show off her wedding set.
“Ah. I’d heard about that, too, and I was hoping it wasn’t just a rumor. Well, I’m happy for you, and I’m glad you’re back. Sleepyside was never the same after you left.” She turned to Trixie. “I don’t know if you know, but your aunt and I were best friends all the way through school.”
“I seem to remember Moms mentioning that at some point.” She smiled and nodded towards Diana. While never officially a volunteer, Di had occasionally helped out at the hospital while Trixie and Honey had served in the Volunteen program that Carolyn coordinated. “I think you remember my sister-in-law Di.”
“Of course I do. It’s nice to see you again, dear.”
“And this little one is Chloe.” Trixie gently unbuckled the straps of the carrier and took the baby out. “Would you like to hold her?”
“Is the pope Catholic?”
With a giggle, she handed her daughter over to the woman whom she had so often found rocking babies in the hospital nursery when she wasn’t needed at the desk. “That’s what I thought.”
She moved the now empty carrier to the floor and pulled out the now empty chair. “Sit with us for a while.”
Carolyn carefully sat down with the baby, who was now looking up at her with wide blue eyes. “Such a sweet baby. And how are you doing?”
“Great, now that she’s sleeping through the night. Those first few weeks were slightly rough.” She reached over to rub Chloe’s cheek. “Right now, I’m soaking up the time with her and taking advantage of it to spend time with other family and friends. Hence why we’re here on a weekday morning. I’m going back to the agency in another couple of weeks.”
“I spoke to Brian the other night at the hospital, and he said Honey’s staying pretty busy right now.”
“Honey’s a champ, and my brother Bobby is actually a big help, even though he’s still so young.”
Carolyn rolled her eyes. “He’s in college, Trixie. If I remember right, you were what, fifteen, when you exposed that fake archaeologist?”
“Thirteen when she exposed my fake uncle,” Di threw in. “Face it, Trixie, Bobby’s a good five years older than we were when you and Honey started detectiving.”
She giggled. “Point taken.”
“How have you been, Carolyn?” Alicia asked. “I’ve been meaning to call you, but I haven’t really had a chance yet. I’d almost forgotten how chaotic life in Sleepyside can be.”
“Well, marriage, a new niece, and a major move…. It’s no wonder you’re busy! But I’m doing well, I suppose. Still working at the hospital, although I’m working afternoons and evenings right now. It’s not too bad. I’ll be back to the mornings this summer when the Volunteen program gets going again.”
“How is your son doing? Is he still in town?”
“Oh, no. Mark hasn’t really lived here since he went off to college. Right now, he and his wife are both working down in D.C. Either I’ll go down there or they’ll bring my grandson up here to visit once or twice a year. They’re trying to talk me into moving down there with them, but I really don’t want to leave Sleepyside.”
“I don’t know what the hospital would do without you,” Trixie said.
“Oh, they’d find someone,” Carolyn demurred. “But I’m not sure what I’d do without it. I’m still a long way from wanting to retire.”
“I thought I was,” Alicia chuckled. “I’m still not quite sure what my next steps are going to be. I may wind up fighting Helen and Jean for days with Chloe.”
Trixie giggled. “You may have a hard time with that one. Moms keeps asking me if I’m sure I’m not ready to go back to work early.”
Carolyn grinned, but then she sighed. “Seriously, Alicia, you have a brand new husband that you really should have married thirty years ago. Pull him away from that store of his and cherish every second you have with him.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Alicia promised. “Right now we’re having fun planning a belated honeymoon for this spring. Just booked our cruise last week.”
“Ooh, where?” Di asked. “The Caribbean?”
“Hawaii?” Carolyn guessed.
“No. Alaska! It turns out it’s something we’ve both always wanted to do, and it’s a good time to do it. And we’ll still get to swim. Our ship has both a pool and a hot tub, not to mention a sauna. Hmm. Now I’m wondering if I can talk Frank into a speedo for the pool….”
Trixie and Diana’s equally horrified gazes met, and Di quickly finished her coffee. “I think I need a refill. Does anyone else want anything?”
Trixie pulled a folded bill from her pocket and handed it over. “Would you see if they have any of those blueberry muffins left? If not, then any flavor would work.”
“Sure thing. Anyone else?”
The two older women shook their heads and Di quickly made her escape.
“Was it something I said?” Alicia’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
Carolyn smirked. “That was cruel, Alicia. I’m glad you haven’t lost your touch.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she snickered. “And it’s not like it’s not true. I am a newlywed, after all!”
Mercifully, Chloe began to fidget and Carolyn reluctantly handed her back. “I really shouldn’t intrude any longer, but I’ve enjoyed talking to you both.”
“You’re not intruding,” Trixie assured her. “Aunt Alicia may be, though, if she’s going to give me and Di nightmares.”
“Eh, you’ll live. You’re both married women with children of your own. You know how those things work by now.”
“Yes, but Chloe isn’t!” Trixie protested, covering the baby’s ears.
Carolyn chuckled and patted her on the shoulder, then looked around to make sure no one was listening. “So on to other topics. If I was to call the agency, do you think Honey would have time to take on a new case or should I wait until you’re back at work?”
“What kind of case?” Trixie asked, her curiosity aroused.
“Just a small one. It shouldn’t take too much time, but I really don’t want to talk about it here,” she whispered.
“Understandable. Here’s an idea. My day is pretty open until I pick Erica up from school this afternoon, if you’d like to drop by. Then I can talk to Honey and see what we can do.”
“I have another idea. Why don’t you all come over to my house for lunch? Say around 12:30? Yes, you, too, Alicia. Bring Diana, too. You both might as well hear it first hand instead of badgering poor Trixie on the phone tonight. And I want to hear all about your wedding!”
Trixie and Alicia both accepted and Carolyn breezed off towards the line where Di stood waiting for her order. When Di returned to the table a few moments later, she looked almost as bemused as she had when she left for her refill.
“I really hope that I have that much energy when I’m her age,” Di said, setting a muffin down in front of Trixie. “Sadly, I had to turn down her invitation. I promised my mother that I’d have lunch with her today. I think she’s trying to rope me into taking her place on some committee she’s on. Don’t tell her, but I think this case will be more interesting.”
Alicia grinned. “I’ll call you tonight and let you know.”
“Please. I admit I don’t know her that well, but it was nice of her to think to include me, and now I’m curious, even if I won’t be involved.”
“I haven’t really seen her that much since high school,” Trixie said. “I see her in town every so often and always stop to talk for a few minutes. Last time was when Erica and I were in Crimper’s just before Halloween. She had a cart full of candy for trick or treaters.”
“I’m sure she gets a ton of them living downtown,” Alicia said. “And I know she loves every minute of it. She’s always loved both children and holidays. Halloween and Christmas especially. You should have seen some of the Halloween costumes we came up with when we were young. She always went all out decorating, too. Have either of you ever been to her house?”
Trixie nodded. “I went a couple of times back in high school. After she took over the program from Ms. Lee, it was still all girls, so it was basically a tea party. China cups with delicate little handles and matching saucers that I was terrified of dropping. Some kind of really weird sandwich thing that I think was covered in cream cheese. Seriously, had it not been for Honey, I would have been totally out of place.”
Alicia laughed. “That’s called a sandwich loaf. They were all the rage when we were young. Someone was guaranteed to take one to just about every party. Carolyn and I both made our fair share of those over the years.”
She shuddered. “Eww. But thankfully the next year was a lot better. That was the first year there were boys in the program, and so the party was much more casual. It was really just a regular cookout. Hamburgers, potato salad, that sort of thing. That was really a lot of fun.”
“Just how did that work? Male candy-stripers, I mean. I’m assuming they didn’t have to wear pink and white stripes.”
“Nope. They mercifully retired those hideous pinafores that year. We had red polos with a SGH Volunteen logo. Khaki or black pants, although girls could wear a skirt instead. Honestly, they were able to get more volunteers of both genders once the uniform was modernized.”
“It’s kind of a shame that the pinafores have been relegated to history,” Alicia sighed. “I understand why, but there was something so classic about them. Just like when nurses still wore their white dresses and caps.”
“Moms was disappointed, too, when I first showed her the new uniform. I was just glad I didn’t have to wear those white stockings anymore.”
“I’m not surprised your mother was disappointed. She loved those pinafores and working as a candy-striper. I have to admit that Carolyn and I honestly volunteered more because our friends did than because we really wanted to, though. I’ve always thought it’s somewhat ironic that given her initial reluctance to volunteer, Carolyn turned it into a full-time job.”
“Why did she?” Diana asked.
“Well, she didn’t immediately. She married Paul not long after high school graduation, then Mark was born a year later. He was never intended to be an only child, but for whatever reason, they weren’t able to have a second one. You have to understand, too, that Carolyn’s very much an extrovert. Once Mark started school, she really didn’t like being home alone all day. She started out volunteering in the gift shop, and then she accepted a paid position when the board offered her one a couple of years later. She’s been there ever since.”
“I can understand that,” Trixie said. “I love Erica, and I love Chloe, but even if I didn’t have the agency, I’m really not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. I mean, I’ve enjoyed my time off, and I’m grateful for it, but…”
“You’re also ready to be back at work,” Alicia finished for her. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Thank you. Not everyone understands that.”
“Then that’s their problem,” Di interjected. It’s not like you don’t have people fighting to watch them for you. Have you decided who gets her the first day you’re back at work?”
Trixie giggled. “Yep. Both Moms and Jean. I mean, they’re both set up for her, and usually I’ll be dropping her off with one of them when I take Erica to school, but they agreed they’d just both spend that first day at my house so that they can both say they had the first day. Granted, Moms has already watched her for a few minutes here and there, but she was fighting hard for that first day, too.”
“Yep. That’s what we thought.”
To Trixie’s mild surprise, when she arrived at Carolyn’s Dutch Colonial a couple of hours later, she saw that it had changed very little over the years since the Volunteen parties. It was still well-maintained and immaculately clean, but even though it had been five years since Paul Beales had died, his recliner was still situated near the fireplace in the living room and the deer head he had mounted over the mantle still greeted visitors with a baleful glare.
Alicia met its empty stare head on, then raised an eyebrow at her friend. “Really, Carolyn?”
Their hostess shrugged. “At first, it just seemed wrong to take it down too soon, even though I’ve never really liked the thing. But now, well, it’s heavy, and Mark’s in Washington. I know I could ask someone else, but it just hasn’t been that important.”
Alicia gave her a side-hug. “And it’s a way you still feel close to Paul, and I need to stay out of it.”
“That’ll be the day,” Carolyn grinned. “Seriously, it’s okay. Bambi’s not my favorite, but he meant a lot to Paul and Mark. One day he’ll finally come down. I am going to apologize, though. If I had planned this ahead of time, I’d have made a sandwich loaf and a cake or something, just for old time’s sake, but I didn’t have time for that. I just made some vegetable soup and sandwiches.”
“That sounds awesome!” Trixie exclaimed, beyond grateful that the lunch had not been planned ahead of time. “Is there some place I can set Chloe?”
Carolyn gently reached out to pat Chloe’s hand. “Anywhere you want, Trixie. We’ll head on into the dining room, and there’s plenty of room in there, too. If you want, I could bring Mark’s cradle down from the guest room. I had it refinished and bought a new mattress when my grandson was born.”
“I really appreciate it, but there’s no need. She’s fine in the carrier for now, and I have her sling in the bag, too.”
Carolyn led the way to the dining room, and Trixie set the carrier down in the chair beside her. Alicia happily described her new husband’s proposal and their elopement as they ate. It wasn’t until they were back in the living room and Carolyn had a cooing baby in her arms that she mentioned the potential case.
“So, I really didn’t just ask you here to get a baby fix, although that is an extra benefit,” she said with a quick grin. “And someday soon, we’ll have to have an actual party like we used to. It’s been way too long, and we need to at least get the old gang together. But for now, somehow, this isn’t as easy to talk about as I thought it would be.”
“Just start at the beginning,” Alicia suggested.
“Like always, the master of the obvious,” Carolyn quipped. “But yes. It all started a few weeks ago. It had been a long night at work, and to be honest, it was a rough night. I came home, put on a pot of tea, and changed into my pajamas. I was halfway through my tea when the telephone rang. You both know as well as I do that calls around midnight are seldom a good thing, so it was relief to see a local number on the caller ID. I’d originally thought something was wrong with Mark or his family, you see.”
“A wrong number?” Alicia guessed.
“That was my next thought. The caller ID box said ‘payphone’ where a name usually is, and it was a Friday night. I assumed it was someone standing outside one of the bars trying to call someone to pick them up. Instead, when I answered, it was someone who sounded perfectly sober – or at least, he wasn’t slurring his words or anything that made him sound like he had been drinking. He greeted me by name and asked how I was doing. Basically just made small talk for about five minutes, then wished me a good night and hung up.”
“Did you know who it was?”
“No. It was like he thought I’d recognize his voice and I was honestly so flustered by the whole thing that I never really asked, either. The next time he called, he just started out by saying ‘It’s me again, Carolyn,’ and started talking about the weather, I think it was. Look at the ID, Trixie. Scroll through it.”
Trixie took the cordless phone from its base on the end table and scrolled through the list of calls. There were a few calls from her son and several from the hospital. The remainder were all from the same local number that simply read ‘payphone’ and all had had been made within a few minutes of midnight. She looked up. “Is there any pattern to them? The time is consistent, but the dates seem random.”
“They’ve all been nights I’ve worked. So somehow, he knows my schedule, and since it varies every week, I’ve kind of assumed it was someone from the hospital, but none of the voices there seem quite right.”
“You said you were flustered when you spoke to him,” Alicia pointed out. “Maybe you just don’t remember it that clearly.”
Carolyn flushed. “Well, the thing is, I kept answering with the intention of giving him a piece of my mind and asking what he thought he was doing. But he would always start talking as soon as I answered and, well, I actually started enjoying the conversations. Now I’m too embarrassed to admit I have no idea who he is, but on the other hand, it’s gone on long enough. I need to know, and I also need to know if it’s a scam of some kind. I mean, why not just call from his home phone or a cell phone? Just about everyone has one these days, and he’s spending as much on a payphone as he would a Tracfone, at least. So why use a pay phone? That’s the main reason I’m worried it’s just a prank or a scam of some kind.”
“He could just be old fashioned about a cell phone,” Trixie mused. “Has he asked for personal information?”
She shook her head. “No. At least nothing like my mother’s maiden name or anything obvious like that. It really started out as just small talk, but honestly, we talk about a little of a lot of things. I mean like current events or things going on in Sleepyside. Turns out we like some of the same television shows and movies. He’s more into the Rangers than the Giants, but he follows both sports. Paul did, too, but he was more into football.”
“Well, he was the captain of the team in high school,” Alicia said dryly. She turned to Trixie and giggled. “When they first got together, Tall Paul was her all.”
Trixie blinked. “Was that his nickname?”
The giggle became a full blown laugh, and Carolyn joined in. “It’s an old Annette Funicello song that was popular when we were kids. Annette’s boyfriend in the song was called Tall Paul, and he was the captain of the high school football team. So when I started dating Paul, who really was over six feet tall, quite a few people teased me about it. I think they made more fun over the song than they did our height difference.”
Chloe began to squirm and Carolyn readjusted her against her shoulder and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, sweetie. Your aunt and I can get a little silly when we get together. She’s always been a bad influence on me.”
“As if.” Alicia snorted. “You were always the bad influence on me!”
“But oh we had fun, didn’t we?”
“We did. And there’s still a lot more fun to come, especially now that I’m back in town.”
Trixie smiled, but looked again at the phone and wrote down the number on a small notepad she kept in the diaper bag. “In the meantime, we can at least try to track down your mysterious caller. When do you expect him to call next?”
“I don’t work again until Friday night, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t call after I get home.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to Honey and see just how busy she is. If nothing else, I’ll kind of unofficially look into it. I’ll let you know.”
“If you need a babysitter,” Alicia said, “Frank and I will be glad to do it. Seriously, if you’re going to be staking out a phone booth on Friday night, we can come over early and give you and Dell time to go out to dinner if he’s not working. Turn it into a date night for the two of you.”
“That just might work,” she smiled. “Let me talk to Honey and Dell, and I’ll give you a call. Right now, Chloe and I should probably get going. I want to run by the agency and see if Honey’s around, then this little one needs a nap before we pick Erica up from school.”
After making her goodbyes and getting Chloe secured in the car, it took her only a few minutes to drive the few blocks from Carolyn’s house to the Sleepyside Detective Agency.
Bobby, alone in the office, looked away from his computer with a smile when she entered. “Good timing. I was just about to call you.”
“What’s up?” she asked. She set Chloe’s carrier down on her desk, then fished the sling out of her diaper bag and nestled her into it. “And where’s Honey?”
“She’s out doing surveillance for the McMurphy case. I’m not sure when or if she’ll be back this afternoon. However, UPS was just here, and you have a package in the storage room.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea. Looks like it may be an eBay purchase or something. It’s not addressed to the agency, so I didn’t open it.”
She shrugged. “I have no idea what it could be. I don’t remember ordering anything since I was Christmas shopping, and I’m pretty sure I got all those packages. At least, I can’t think of anything I missed.”
She wandered into the storage room to see a large plain brown cardboard box. The only label aside from the UPS shipping label was computer generated and bore a return address proclaiming it was from “Mailboxes and More” in Tucson, Arizona. She returned to the office for her scissors to slit the tape when Bobby stopped her.
“Does it ring a bell at all? I may be paranoid, but if YOU don’t know what it is, I wonder if we need to call the bomb squad before it’s opened.”
She started to shake her head and tell him he was overreacting when she looked down at the baby in her sling and realized he might have a point.
“I’ll give Dell a call. I’m pretty sure it’s perfectly safe, but with Chloe here, I don’t want to risk it.”
She pushed a button on her phone and waited for his greeting before saying, “Hi. Got a minute?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Chloe and I stopped by the agency. Right before we got here, UPS dropped off a package addressed to me and I have no idea what it is. It looks safe, but Bobby’s got me paranoid. I really don’t think we need the bomb squad, but any chance you or maybe Dan or Jake could come check it out at some point?”
“Be there in five minutes. Don’t touch it.”
“I really hope he wasn’t in the middle of something,” she told Bobby. “If he was, I’m siccing him on you.”
“Hey, I’ll take it if it keeps you safe.”
“If Chloe wasn’t here, it’d already be open,” she told him, cradling the baby to her chest.
“I’m sure. But given that we live in a world with anthrax, mailbombs, and devious Lynch twins with relatives near Tucson, we really should think about developing a policy to handle things like this. I know I don’t have a say as an intern, but asking as your brother, maybe you and Honey could consider it when you come back to work?”
“That actually is a good idea,” she admitted. “Take it up with Honey, and if you two don’t want to wait, I’ll go along with whatever you cook up.” She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Devious Lynch twins? Is Valerie still stalking you?”
“No, thank goodness. Last I heard from Larry, she’s now got her heart set on some poor sucker she met at some kind of mixer with a nearby boys school. That doesn’t mean I trust her, though. However, on the other hand, I really don’t think she’s behind this. I don’t see her conning anyone at the ranch into sending anything that would hurt either of us.”
“Me, either, even though I think anything legitimately coming from there would have their return address on it. I really don’t think anyone from there would be sending me anything though. Pretty sure Di and Mart’s wedding was the last time I saw any of them, well, except for Snipe Thompson, and he really has no reason to send me anything.”
Bobby facepalmed. “I’m an idiot.”
“I totally forgot about him. Ten to one, that package is from him and I’m going to look like an idiot.”
She didn’t have time to reply before the door flew open and both Dell and Dan strode inside.
“Where is it?”
Bobby pointed to the package and Dell slipped on rubber gloves, then picked it up. “We’re going out back to check it out. You stay here.”
Trixie nodded. She looked down at Chloe and said, “This is your daddy in work mode, sweetie.”
Chloe started to whimper and squirm in the sling and Trixie took her out of it. Wrinkling her nose, she picked up the diaper bag with her free hand. “Someone needs a change. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
After returning from the restroom with her daughter, she had just enough time to dig a pacifier out of the diaper bag before Dell and Dan came back inside. Dell set the box down on her desk and laughed when Dan immediately plucked Chloe out of Trixie’s arms. “It’s safe, but I’m glad you called. I’d much rather you call if you have any doubt at all.”
“Haven’t you been trying to tell her that for at least twelve years now?” Dan teased as he settled the baby against his chest.
“At least.” Dell grinned. “Maybe it finally sunk in.”
“Ha ha ha,” she replied, sticking her tongue out at the two of them. “So it’s definitely safe?”
“Safe as safe can be,” Dell affirmed. “Go ahead and look.”
A postcard from the Wilson Dude Ranch rested on top and she read the brief note on back before looking any further. “Saw these and thought of you. Congratulations. Snipe.”
“Well, Bobby, you were right,” she told him, setting the postcard down. She looked up and explained to the others, “Somehow he guessed it was from Snipe right before you walked in.”
She then reached back into the box and took out a brightly colored baby blanket in a Navajo design and spotted two Beanie Babies underneath. “That was really nice of him, but I really hope he didn’t feel obligated. This blanket couldn’t have been cheap. I remember looking at some when we were out there years ago. He even sent something for Erica, too.”
“I’m sure he wanted to do it,” Dan assured her. “He’s not really the kind to do things just because he feels like he has to.”
“I suppose. But he also doesn’t really strike me as the kind to go to baby showers either. I’ll send him a nice thank you note and let him know we appreciate it. At any rate, I hope we didn’t drag you two away from something important.”
“It’s been a quiet day at the station,” Dell said. “Not that I’m complaining. So what have you and Chloe been up to?”
“Well, you know we met Aunt Alicia and Di for coffee this morning. Ran into Mrs. Beales from the hospital. She has a case for us and invited us over for lunch. I wasn’t sure if Honey and Bobby had time to take it on, so I dropped by here to talk to them, and well, we got sidetracked by the package.”
“What kind of case?” Bobby asked warily. “It may need to wait a few weeks.”
She gave them a quick run down of the persistent caller. “So it should be pretty quick, and I was thinking…,” she trailed off with a glance at her husband.
Dell grinned. “You want to go stake out the phone booth on Friday night.”
She nodded sheepishly. “Aunt Alicia’s already volunteered to babysit for us. Said she and Mr. Lytell could come over in time for us to go out to dinner and have a date night first.”
“It’s a date,” he agreed easily. “Have you tracked down the phone booth yet?”
It had seemed like a waste of time in the beginning, but early in the days of the agency, Trixie and Honey had painstakingly put together a database of the known payphone numbers in Sleepyside. The initial time investment had paid off as several cases had given them opportunity to use it. Now, she passed the notepad over to Bobby. “Do your stuff.”
He punched a few keys on his keyboard. “Okay. That’s the one outside Snyder’s Cafe out on Mitchell Street.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Is that place even still open?” Situated on the outskirts of Sleepyside, the small restaurant’s exterior was quickly falling into disrepair.
“Yes,” Dan confirmed. “Jake and I had lunch there yesterday.”
Dell winced. “Do you have a death wish? Angling for ptomaine poisoning? Maybe a little salmonella in your soup?”
“It wasn’t THAT bad,” Dan protested.
“It’s not that good, either. The Chief drug me out there last year during budget time for a lunch with the mayor and Councilman Blythe. We got the money we asked for, but we both missed work the next two days with stomach cramps. Never again. I don’t care that Blythe’s mother is a Snyder or that our funding depends on the mayor and council. I’ll phone in an anonymous tip to the health department before I’m guilted into eating there again.” He snorted. “Thank goodness it’s only open for breakfast and lunch. Should be pretty deserted when we stake it out. It’s so bad, the rats won’t even eat there.”
Trixie giggled. “That’s probably a good thing in this case. I don’t think I’ll miss them.”
“Are you sure this shouldn’t be a police case?” Dan asked, turning the discussion back to the case. “She doesn’t want to file charges? It’s more of a stalking case to me.”
She shook her head. “No. I mean, no, she doesn’t. At least not yet. She honestly didn’t sound like she’s afraid of the caller, and she went out of her way to emphasize that the calls aren’t obscene. I’m actually more concerned that he’s trying to scam her somehow, although I’ll admit I don’t like that he knows exactly when she works. She’s just convinced she should know who he is and can’t place the voice. My plan right now is to find out who he is, even if it’s just getting a license plate number when he shows up at the payphone and having Dell run it. Then we can go from there.”
He nodded. “Sounds sensible. I just see way too many little old ladies taken advantage of.”
“Ha!” Dell exclaimed. “Your heart is in the right place, but you obviously don’t know Carolyn Beales. She’s tiny, but she’s only three or four years older than I am. She’s also a force to be reckoned with. Always has been. If we find out this guy has nefarious motives, we’ll need to be there, all right, but for his protection, not hers.”
“Point taken,” Dan conceded with a grin. “And since I’m working Friday night, text me the plate number and I can run it if I’m not out on a call. Then you won’t have to come into the office.”
“Thanks.” He looked at the younger man and sighed. “I really hope you never get fed up with a small department where even the detectives have to take shifts on call.”
“Nah. I’ve already paid my dues in the City. Besides, Sleepyside is home. Even Spider found out the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.”
“So what have you been up to lately?” Trixie asked him. “Aside from working, I mean. I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks.”
“Honestly, mostly just working. I met Uncle Regan’s new girlfriend last weekend, though.”
“What? Who? When did that happen? How did that happen?”
“You’re missing where,” he teased her. “But yeah. Surprised me, too. Especially when I realized I knew her…”
Her eyes widened even further. “Who is it?”
“Fay Franklin, believe it or not. She works at a riding stable in Peekskill. Apparently they met when the owners were considering buying a colt from the Manor House.”
“Huh. Didn’t really see that one coming. Do you think they’re serious?”
He shrugged. “She’s the first woman he’s had more than two dates with since Joan, so hopefully. Seems like she could be good for him. I think she’s just as much into horses as he is.”
“Mrs. Franklin told me she majored in equine science, so yeah, she’s probably at least close.” Her eyes twinkled. “I’m tempted to tell her you ran into Fay when I pick up Erica at school this afternoon, but I won’t. If Fay hasn’t told her they’re dating, I don’t want to be the one to do it.”
“I wouldn’t step into that one either,” Dan chuckled. “Somehow I keep forgetting that the Mrs. Franklin who is Erica’s teacher and and the Mrs. Franklin that’s Fay’s mother are the same person.”
“Yep. I’m glad she went back to school for her degree. Erica adores her. Thankfully she has one more year with her before moving up to the middle school. I’m not ready for her to be that old yet.”
“Me either,” Dell admitted. “But I think we’ll have a harder time of it than she will. Next year may actually be harder for her with both Becky and Blake going into sixth grade while she’s left behind.”
“True. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it, I suppose. But at any rate, I’m happy for Regan and Fay. Now we just need to find you someone, Dan….”
Dell glanced over at him. “You know she’s going to find out eventually, Dan.”
“It was one date,” he groaned. “Seriously. That’s all it will be. She was nice enough, but when we got back to my place, I quickly found out she’s extremely allergic to cats…”
Trixie giggled despite herself. “At least you tried. Someday, you’ll meet the right one.”
The rest of the week flew by, and almost before she knew it, it was Friday evening. Realizing it would be extremely late when they returned home, Trixie had invited them to spend the night, and so when they arrived, they had an overnight bag along with both pizza and a new-to-her game for Erica’s PlayStation.
“Thank you!” Erica told them, grinning at the familiar characters on the cover. She looked up at Mr. Lytell. “Want to play? I borrowed this one from my friend Blake a few months ago, and it was a lot of fun.”
“Sure. Glad you like it,” he said, allowing her to take his hand and drag him to the living room.
Trixie followed Alicia into the kitchen. “That really wasn’t necessary, but thank you. She’s always thrilled to get new games. Don’t let her bother Mr. Lytell too much, though.”
Alicia snorted and waved it off, setting the pizza boxes on the counter. “Don’t let him keep her playing too long, you mean. Frank’s had a secret video game addiction for years, and despite trying, I’m just not that fond of them. He’s going to have a blast with her. The only problem will be dragging them away so that they can eat dinner. And don’t be surprised if she winds up with a few more. He’s slowly going through weeding out his older game rentals so he came make room for new releases.”
“We do appreciate it,” Dell told her, grinning in bemusement at the unlikely sight in the other room. “Both the game and the babysitting. Worst case scenario, feel free to let them eat in there. A rare dinner away from the table won’t hurt anything. Chloe just went to sleep, so she should be good for a couple of hours at least.”
Trixie nodded. “Diapers are by the crib, and there’s formula ready in the refrigerator. Just heat it up when she gets hungry. I usually use the microwave, but there are pots in the cabinet beside the stove if you’d rather do it that way. You’ve got our cell numbers….”
“We will be fine,” Alicia assured them. “And if somehow I can’t find something, I’m sure Erica knows exactly where it is.”
“She does. It’s Friday, so she doesn’t need to worry about homework, at least. I’m sorry I have no idea what time we’ll be back. If he doesn’t even get to the phone until midnight, it could be pretty late. Don’t feel like you need to wait up.” She picked up the baby monitor receiver from the kitchen table and handed it to her aunt. “This works all over the house, so you can take it to bed with you. Chloe will let you know when she wakes up.”
“Sounds good. And don’t worry about the time; we’ll be fine. Just have fun and solve the case. This really means a lot to Carolyn.”
“We’ll do what we can,” Trixie replied. She took one last run up to the nursery, dropping Alicia’s overnight bag off in the guestroom on the way, then they hugged Erica before slipping out.
Time alone had grown even more precious after Chloe’s birth, and Trixie and Dell lingered over dinner at the Dutch Oven before heading back to the car. “Where to now?” He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “We probably even still have time for a movie if there’s something you want to see.”
She shook her head. “Honestly, not really. I’d ideally like to be there and ready by eleven, just in case he’s early, and that might be pushing it. Unless there’s something you really want to see.”
“I’d really rather just spend the time with you,” he told her. “Somewhere where we can keep talking. I love both of our daughters, but I’ve missed having time alone with you.”
She brought his hand up to her lips and kissed it. “Me, too. You know what? We do still have a couple of hours. We could always pretend to be teenagers and go park by the bluffs….”
“And watch the submarine races?” he teased.
She knew exactly what he meant, but she returned the teasing. “Um… how do you see them under the water? And is the river deep enough there for submarines?”
He waggled his eyebrows. “Why don’t we go find out? I happen to know a nice little spot that’s out of the way and has an great view of the river.”
The out of the way spot truly was off the beaten path. Situated off of a narrow lane near Killifish Point, it had only a guardrail to block their view of the river. They unbuckled their seat belts and Trixie snuggled up next to him. “So when do the races start?”
He turned in his seat and wrapped his arms around her, then trailed kisses up her neck. “Well, right about now seems like a good time to me. What do you think?”
In answer, she captured his lips with her own.
Some time later, she sat leaning against him with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her.
“How are you doing?” he asked softly, gently breaking a peaceful silence.
“Well, you’re keeping me pretty warm, so I’m not complaining,” she answered with a grin. “Why? Do I need to warm you up again?”
“Once we’re home behind a locked door, I’m going to take you up on that,” he assured her. “But no. I really should have asked before this, but how are you doing with everything? You’re amazing with both Erica and Chloe, but I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed or anything and me never notice it.”
Her heart melted at the earnest expression on his face. “I have to admit I felt a little overwhelmed when she was first born and I was still recovering, but even then, you and Erica, not to mention our families, did so much to help out, it really wasn’t that bad. And now that I’m mostly caught up on sleep, I’m really good.” Her smile turned wistful at the thought of their infant daughter. “I’m going to miss this time with her when I go back to the agency, but I do need to go back. I might feel differently if we didn’t have Moms and Jean, but we do. They’re both awesome with kids.”
“So are you,” he told her. “And you know I would be happy no matter what you wanted to do. You’re a great mom, but you’re also a great detective. I know it’s going to be harder for you when you do go back, so don’t hesitate to let me know if you need me to help out more. We’re in this together, after all.”
“There’s no one I’d rather be in this with. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
As the evening wore on, they left their little hideaway and drove back through town and to the diner where they parked where they could see the enclosed payphone but not draw undue attention to themselves.
Fifteen minutes before midnight, a late model sedan appeared and parked directly under a security lamp a few yards from the phone booth. A man wearing a heavy parka that obscured most of his features slowly got out and carefully made his way to the old fashioned phone booth.
Fortunately, the car was parked in such a way that the license plate was clearly visible to them, and Dell sent a quick text to Dan with the number. He raised his eyebrows when the reply came, then shot off a quick text of thanks.
He frowned as he looked at Trixie. “It’s registered to Willard O’Neil, co-owner of the book store on South Tenth Street. I want a closer look at his face now that he’s put his hood down, but it certainly looks like it could be him.”
“Didn’t think it’d be this easy. Do you know him at all? What kind of person is he?”
He trained his binoculars on the booth. “Oh yeah. I’ve known Will since first grade. He was always athletic and got a full ride to college on a hockey scholarship. He never made it to the NHL, but he did play professionally in Europe until about fifteen years ago. Theoretically, he co-owns the bookstore with his sister, but it’s pretty common knowledge he’s the primary financial backer.”
“So he’s pretty well set financially?”
“Well, it’s possible he’s had bad investments or something that I don’t know about, but he was pretty much at the top of his league in Europe. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a pretty hefty nest egg from that. And by all signs, the book store is doing pretty well, too. Last I heard, they were starting to branch out into acquiring and selling rare and collectible books on the internet. So no, I really don’t think he’d be trying to scam Carolyn financially.” He frowned. “Not at all, really. He has a quirky sense of humor and might have played a few minor pranks over the years, but nothing malicious. I have no idea what his angle is here.”
“Is he married?
He shook his head. “No. He never did marry. Dated quite a bit while he was playing hockey, but nothing serious, at least not since he came back to Sleepyside. If he had a serious girlfriend in Europe, I never heard about it.”
She nodded and reached into her bag for her digital camera. She fitted a telephoto lens on it. “I’m going to see if I can get a clear shot of his face. Then maybe we can know for sure it’s him.”
As quietly as she could, she slipped out of the car and behind the mounds of snow that the plows had piled up in the shadows that edged the parking lot. Her plan was to reemerge behind the dumpster in the corner and peek around it to get the photographs. The plan probably would have worked if she had seen the patch of ice between the two piles she was trying to slip back through. Instead, it was invisible in the darkness and her snow boots were unable to grip the slick surface. She managed to protect the camera as she fell, but she landed rather painfully on her bottom. Unfortunately, she also landed on a slight hill, and she was unable to stifle a shriek as momentum from her fall kept her sliding until her back hit the dumpster.
A loud metallic clang echoed through the night and several rats skittered out of a hole in the side of the dumpster, squeaking in irritation that their nightly feast had been interrupted. She cringed as she heard a car door slam, and within seconds, she heard two steps of footsteps approaching her: one at a run, the other a bit slower.
She held on to a protrusion from the dumpster to very carefully stand to her feet. “Be careful! It’s icy!” she called out as Dell approached with a flashlight trained on the ground.
“Are you okay?” he asked, gingerly making his way to her.
His question was echoed by an “Is everything all right?” from an approaching voice. The mysterious caller soon came into view.
“I’m okay,” she confirmed. “Pretty sure I’m bruised, but I’m okay. I didn’t see the ice until I was sliding across it.”
“What were you doing back here?” the caller asked, a cell phone in his hand. He flipped it open. “I’ve got 9 and 1 dialed. Do I need to dial the other one and call the police?”
“Technically, I AM the police,” Dell chuckled. “Off-duty tonight and helping my wife with a case. Will, I’d like you to meet my wife, Trixie.”
The other man really looked at them for the first time, relaxing as he recognized his old friend. He smiled as he looked at Trixie. “Nice to meet you. Sorry it’s not under better circumstances. I’m Willard O’Neil, but my friends call me Will. Never did like the name Willard.”
She grinned. “Totally understand. I’m actually Beatrix. I seriously debated having my first name officially to Trixie when Dell and I got married, but sadly, Beatrix looks more professional on my business cards.”
A squeak came from the vicinity of her feet and she grimaced as she looked down at a large rat gnawing on what appeared to be the remnants of a hamburger bun. “Obviously, I need all the help with that that I can get. If I can manage to get off this ice, do you have a few minutes? I’d like to ask you a few questions regarding the case we’re working on.”
“Sure, but if it’s the mystery of why anyone would eat here, I can’t help you with that one. This may be the first time in my life I’ve ever felt sorry for a rat.”
She glanced sideways at Dell and teased, “And I’d actually heard it was so bad they wouldn’t eat here. That informant was wrong.”
Dell snorted as he carefully walked across the ice. He held his hand out to Trixie and slowly guided her to stable ground. “Why don’t we go back to our car? It’d be nice to get warmed up a little. Just ignore the car seat in the back.”
“Here’s another idea. I really need to get off my knee for a bit. If you’re heading back through town, why don’t we go to Wimpy’s? It’s usually deserted this time of night, and I can stretch my leg out in one of their booths.”
“Sounds good to me,” Trixie responded to Dell’s inquiring look.
Wimpy’s was indeed deserted except for the lone employee who emerged from the kitchen at the sound of the bell on the door. It was only a few minutes before they were all situated with coffee and pie, along with instructions to just yell if they needed anything.
“So, how can I help you?” Willard asked after taking a bite of his pecan pie. “I really haven’t seen anything at the other diner until I heard you fall tonight.”
“I’m not actually investigating the diner,” she admitted. “My client hired me to find out who’s behind a string of anonymous phone calls. I was able to track them down to a particular phone booth, and well, here we are.”
“A funky old phone booth on the outskirts of town,” he said with a small smile. “And you’ve found me out, although I swear they weren’t obscene or anything like that.”
“I know that,” she assured him, even though she blinked at his wording. “She just wants to know who you are. She’s convinced that she should know your voice, but she doesn’t.”
“This has been going on for so long, I almost wondered if she did.”
“Why?” Dell asked. “You’re not the stalker-type, and this doesn’t seem like a silly practical joke.”
“I admit I’ve been silly with the way I’ve gone about it, but no. It’s not a joke or prank.” He sighed and looked again to Trixie. “You’ve got to understand. I don’t know if Dell told you we went through school together. We’re a few years younger than Carolyn, and by the time we got to junior high and discovered girls, most of our class had a crush on her. She was the head cheerleader, beautiful, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. She was also very, very taken. Paul was even older than she was and if they weren’t actually engaged yet, they might as well have been and everyone knew it. She got teased a lot because of a stupid song that I’m sure you’re way too young to have ever heard.”
Trixie giggled. “You’d think. But she and my Aunt Alicia were reminiscing about it the other day.”
“It’s a really insipid song, and I’d hoped to give her a new song to replace it. I mean, she’s way out of my league, and there really aren’t that many songs with men named Willard, but well, I figured it might be worth a try. Especially since her middle name is Margaret.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dell winced as a flash of recognition crossed his face. “Tell me you didn’t.”
Willard flushed slightly, but grinned. He mimicked dialing a rotary telephone, then held his hand up in the shape of a receiver and pretended to be talking into it. “It’s me again, Carolyn. They got me, Carolyn. You won’t miss me, Carolyn, I know that. But I’ll miss you….”
Despite his mangling of the lyrics, Trixie recognized the song and groaned. She had spent many evenings in high school sitting around the kitchen table doing homework with Mart after Brian had left for college. Unlike Brian, who preferred quiet when he studied, they had found that they both concentrated better with music in the background. It hadn’t taken them long to fall into a routine of taking turns picking music for each study session, and Mart had frequently chosen either Weird Al or Ray Stevens.
“I know it was silly and juvenile. I first had the idea when I had my knee surgery a few months ago, so maybe it was the pain meds. The thing was that I could tell she was lonely. It’s been even more obvious that she was since we’ve started talking, so I don’t regret trying to give her some company, even if I wasn’t brave enough to flat out tell her I was interested. I picked the phone booth just like in the song, knowing that it would also give her a way to track me down if she wanted. I even called myself so I knew it would show up on caller id. I swear we just had normal conversations, though. I never even asked her what she was wearing, let alone if she was naked.” He blushed as he realized what he’d said. “I swear that If I’d thought I was truly upsetting her, like in the song, I’d have stopped. And Trixie, be sure to send me the bill for this. I never meant for this to cost her anything.”
She nodded. “I can do that, but I have to let you know that part of this investigation is running a background check. Even if I send you the bill, I’m not going to leave out anything unsavory I might find out when I give her my report.”
He smiled. “I have absolutely nothing to hide, except maybe the parking ticket I got in college. That’s not a problem, and I’d expect no less.”
She returned the smile. “Just wanted to be upfront with you. I have to keep the best interests of my client in mind. I have one more question, though, for tonight. Carolyn told me that you call her every night she works. How do you know her work schedule?”
“Well at first, I admit I saw the schedule hanging behind the nurses’ desk when I was in the hospital. But after that, I just asked her. The last few weeks, I haven’t even had to ask. She just tells me when she’s off next when we say goodnight.”
“Seriously?” she asked in disbelief.
He nodded. “Yep. Didn’t she tell you that?”
She facepalmed. “No. No, she did not.”
Later, on the way home, she asked Dell, “So, what do you think?”
“He may be an idiot, but I think he’s really serious about her. Probably was back in school even more than I thought. You realize why he’s so adamant that that Annette Funicello song is so horrible?”
She shook her head and he chuckled. “It was pure jealousy. None of the boys liked it, because it just reminded them that they had no chance with her.”
“Were you one of them?” she asked.
His eyes twinkled as he quickly glanced over at her and drawled out the word, “Maybe….” He grinned. “But it didn’t last long. I just wondered if she ever knew how many of us did.”
“Oh, I’m sure she did,” Trixie giggled. “But I’m sure it was less awkward for everyone if she pretended she didn’t. Honey and Di did a lot of that in high school.” She suddenly sighed. “It was why I wasn’t about to let on to Bobby or Dan the other day that I knew just why Snipe sent us that box. I’m nowhere near as oblivious as they think I am, but what am I supposed to do? It would be cruel to let him know that I know, especially since he’s tried so hard not to let me know. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I’m totally and irrevocably in love with YOU.”
“I know,” he assured her. “I also saw how quickly you put the blanket in the closet after you took the picture to send him in the thank you note. It’s really not necessary, baby. I’m not going to feel threatened if you use it.”
“I’ll think about it. I admit I did hide it away partly because I didn’t want you to worry about it, but I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it, either. I may research and find out how to preserve it, then just give it to Chloe as an heirloom for her someday when she’s older. It really IS a nice gift.”
He reached over with one hand and squeezed hers. “Totally up to you.”
She shifted in her seat and winced. “You know, I was really hoping we could finish what we started earlier, but given how stiff and sore I am, I think we should take a rain check. Any chance you could grab the tiger balm and play ‘find the bruise’ instead?”
“Of course I will. And I promise, as soon as you’re up to it, I’ll make it worth the wait.”
A few weeks later…
“So Carolyn is going through with planning her dinner party,” Alicia told Trixie over the phone.
Sitting at her desk in the agency, she smiled as she toyed with her pen. “She’ll enjoy that.”
Alicia snickered. “She will. And so will you. We were working on the guest list at the Coffee Mug this morning. Most of the old gang, of course. Frank, obviously. She also wants to add in some of Will’s old crowd and asked him who he wanted to invite. Congratulations. Dell, and therefore you, made the list. However, I promise to make sure there’s at least one main dish beside the sandwich loaves she’s already planning.”
“I would really appreciate that,” she replied. “Let me know once a date and time is set so we can figure out a babysitter.”
“Sure. I think Carolyn’s going to either send out invitations or call everyone in a day or two. I just wanted to give you a heads up.”
“Things must be going pretty well between the two of them if she wants to introduce their friends to each other.”
“This is Sleepyside,” Alicia reminded her. “They already know each other, even if they never really intermingled in school. But yeah. She actually had him move Bambi to the attic last weekend, so if I had any doubts of her intentions, that would have settled it.”
“I’m glad it’s working out for them.”
“Me, too. They deserve to be happy. But I should let you get back to work. I just wanted to let you know you’re officially part of my social circle now.”
“Did you have to put it that way?” Trixie groaned.
Alicia snickered again. “Yes. Yes, I did. Tell Honey and Bobby I said hello. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Aunt Alicia?” Honey asked as Trixie hung up the phone.
She nodded and related the gist of the conversation. “I can’t believe she told me I’m part of her social set now.”
“You know what’s even better? Thanks to your marriage, you’re part of hers, but thanks to her marriage, so is Mr. Lytell.”
She looked at her in horror as another thought struck her. “Oh, please let this dinner be before their cruise. Somehow, I wouldn’t at all put it past her to bring out photos and ‘accidentally’ leave in one of Mr. Lytell in his bathing suit.”
Honey shrieked with laughter.
“A speedo, Honey,” Trixie said, her face white. “She traumatized me and Di fantasizing about him in a speedo. I know we’ve seen some scary things over the years, Honey, but trust me. I’d rather face a thousand ghosts than have to see that one. I love her, but, gleeps, my aunt can be a cruel woman….”
Author’s Note: Although the song “It’s Me Again, Margaret” ends with the caller arrested and using his one phone call to call Margaret a final time, the music video continues on to show Margaret arriving at the station to bail him out (and ask to buy the jailer’s handcuffs). While I went in a much milder direction, it was this ending that inspired this story.