A VERY KICKAPOO CHRISTMAS
The 5th Jolene Jackson Mystery
Jolene and Jerry are finally ready to tie the knot, but just because the mesquites are decorated with twinkling lights and big red bows and there’s fake snow on the lawn of The Big House doesn’t mean it'll be a smooth sleigh ride to the I-dos.
In spite of the personal toxic fallout, the hazardous waste dump Jolene inherited is all cleaned up and off her to-do list. Only now, there’s a fake one being built in its place. It’s one of the educational stops on the miniature train ride through the salt flats and horny toad habitat on the way to the new oil and gas museum on her new property. Yes, really.
The grand plan it isn’t exactly like the park Lucille waged war against, however, there’s still plenty of irony in her taking it upon herself to be the head honcho. Her dedication is duly reflected in some dubious decorating choices, but before she can show off the fancy visitor center, someone’s up and dies of extremely unnatural causes, right there on her new purple carpet.
The town’s in a panic over rumors about the reasons behind the murder, and everybody’s stocking up on protection. They may be singing O Holy Night and Deck the Halls, but they've also got dust masks strapped to their faces and pistols packed at their fingertips. With mayhem running rampant and a shadowy killer on the loose, there's more fear than cheer in the air and the only thing for certain is that it’s going to be A Very Kickapoo Christmas.
* * * * *
I’m not sure which is most disturbing, that I’m admitting to living in Kickapoo, Texas, that I’m planning a wedding that includes sparkly bows and twinkling lights on mesquite bushes or that Lucille is sort of spearheading the development of the park she was jailed for trying to stop. It’s a tossup.
Oh, there are many more disturbing factors, of course, but the one weighing most heavily on my mind at the moment was the wedding. Yes, my wedding. Never actually thought I’d say those little “I do” words again, but once I wrapped my mind around it, I wanted the deed done. I’ve begged Jerry about a thousand times to just cut to the chase and go visit with his friends at the courthouse, but he won’t. He wants the event, says we’ve waited a lifetime for it and we’re going to have the whole show. There were many potential problems with that scenario and one big problem that was guaranteed—and I was listening to her yammer nonstop into my ear via wireless cellular technology. If my smartphone were truly smart it would have disconnected the call long ago. Ditto for the dummy holding it.
“No, Mother, we are not going to have purple flowers, purple bows, purple lights or purple cakes. It’s a Christmas wedding.” I sighed into the phone yet again. I’d hoped to break the unfortunate pointless sighing habit once things settled down, only things never settled down, not really, not ever. Another sigh. “Yes, you can put them at the visitor center. Just not at my wedding. You can cover the entire center building in purple roses like a parade float, I don’t care. Just not at the wedding.”
“Well, missy, you darn well better care!” Lucille said. “This educational park is going to be the jewel in this community’s crown and I’ll tell you for sure it is going to sparkle!”
I said nothing, but Lucille still continued to regale me with a plethora of details that I did not want to know about the Little Ranch Museum. Actually, I already knew the important things—I am writing the checks, after all—but we were not focused on important things.
“The purple and white pansies should hold up real good through winter,” she said. “I made that gardener man put plenty of mulch around them. The ones on the north by the front entrance may not make it, but they’ll look good for today, which is what counts. It’s real important for everything to look good for today, you know. Especially you.”
What? Me? As the words registered, I snapped out of my complacency. “Hey, I’m not involved here.”
“Now, Jolene, I told you about this event several times before and you said fine. Fine, that’s what you said, and now you’re acting like you don’t know anything about anything.” Lucille huffed and grumbled. “I swear, Jolene, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you had Oldtimers Disease.”
“You’re acting just plain dumb, dumb as a box of rocks, but you’re not,” she said, ignoring the correction. “Your problem is that you just don’t listen. I might as well talk to the wall.” She huffed into the phone. “You don’t pay attention to anything I say. It just goes in one ear and out the other.”
Oh, I begged to differ. I paid very close attention to every syllable and vocal nuance when I realized it was about to cause me trouble—like now. “Oh, I heard what you said before, about something happening at the center, but I did not put it on my calendar or my to-do list because it does not pertain to me.”
“It most certainly does!”
“Let me refresh your memory on how all this works—our roles are very clear. You are the official community liaison for the center. I am the silent and invisible person behind the scenes who provides the money. Silent and invisible are the important words here. You handle these events, not me, not ever.”
Lucille huffed again. “Now, Jolene, you know good and well that everybody’s been wanting to see you.”
“Uh huh. They just want to make sure I’ve haven’t fled back to Colorado before they close out the latest betting pool at the Dairy Queen.”
“That was just a rumor,” she muttered. “Besides, this event today is important, just real important, and you have to be there for it and that’s all there is to it.”
My internal warning system, which had been blessedly dormant for weeks, kicked into high gear and the vaguely uneasy feeling became not so vague. “No.”
“Now, Jolene,” she said, her voice teetering between coaxing and commanding. “Everybody is counting on you being there this afternoon.”
Lucille sucked in her breath. “Well, missy, you darn well better not leave me standing in front of the whole town with egg on my face after all the trouble we’ve gone to for this. You have to be there in person and that’s that.”
Many questions skittered through my mind. None of them came with an answer I was going to like. “What have you done?”
“Well, Miss Hardhead, if you must know, everybody wanted to throw you a big party on account of how you’re helping the community and all.”
“Oh, for godsake, you know how I hate parties. You have photo albums full of me scowling behind birthday cakes.” I paused. Where had that come from? I’d never thought of that before, but it was absolutely true. It would no doubt behoove me to explore the why of it, but I was not lacking in unresolved childhood issues, so it would just have to take a number. Right now, I had a more immediate potential for trauma to deal with. “Let me be clear, Mother. I don’t need or want a party.”
“Well, Jolene,” Lucille said, snippily. “It’s really not about what you want.”
“Now you stop that ungrateful nonsense,” Lucille scolded.
“The whole town’s turning out to honor you and welcome you back into the community and you’re going to be there and you’re going to act happy about it. This is a big to-do, so you get yourself cleaned up and put on some decent clothes, which means a dress, missy, not those jeans or sweatshirts or whatever other scraggly thing you’ve got. A little makeup wouldn’t hurt either.”
I pressed my lips together and managed to not speak—or scream—but I couldn’t stop the heavy choking sigh that gurgled in my throat.
“Don’t you be growling at me. This party is important. Lots of big important people are going to be there, people who make things happen, so you just trot yourself down off that hill and be at the visitor center on time. You act nice, smile real sweet and pretend you appreciate what everybody’s done for you, you hear me? And if you’re not there at least fifteen minutes early, you are late, missy, and I’ll be coming to get you.” Click.
I felt my arm rise, gripping the phone like a baseball—or a neck. After a few seconds of slightly disturbing, but highly satisfying, contemplation of the possibilities, I set the phone down and considered my actual options for dealing with the situation. I’d been down this road before and I absolutely did not have to go to some stupid party no matter what my mother threatened. However, I am also not an idiot—at least not about this. If I didn’t show up, if would affect the museum, not to mention my ability to show my face in town or otherwise. Hearing about it from Lucille for the rest of my life wouldn’t be much fun either.
And, while I might want to just be the anonymous person behind the museum who provides the money and walks amongst the populace unnoticed, that ship sailed long ago with the highly publicized adventures of the Jackson Gang. As much as I hated to admit it, if I wanted the project to succeed, I had to play the part I’d been assigned. I had to go to the damn party.
I glanced at the time. Three hours and twenty minutes. It would take me every second of that to prepare myself—at least physically. Mentally, there would never be enough time. Sighing and grumbling, I shut down my computer, turned off the light in my office and moseyed out into the open main area of The Big House. My eyes wandered to door of the media room. I rarely watched a movie in there, but today it seemed to call to me like Odysseus’ sirens. I shook off the temptation to hide from the world, but I wasn’t quite ready to face the music yet, so I headed to the kitchen for another cup of hot tea.
As I stood at the sink, staring out across the now-covered swimming pool to the pastures below. The day was cloudy, so even from the hill I couldn’t see as far as usual. But everything I could see was mine. Mine. I marveled at how unreal it still felt. I was living it, yet it felt like I was just a temporary player in a movie that needed someone to finish it. I was living in a luxurious 3600-square-foot home, which also included another whole house on the upper level, on a massive ranch with cows, horses and oil wells. And it was mine, lock, stock and barrel--literally. Unreal.
Also on that list of things that were hard to believe was that I was finally going to marry the love of my life. That one hadn’t fully settled in yet either since I still halfway expected Jerry to bolt at any time. He had his own worries about me—so did I. And yet, our relationship was the most stable part of my life. I took another sip of tea then headed to the bedroom.
Most of my winter stuff was still packed away in Colorado—one of about a million things I hadn’t had time to deal with. So, I knew without looking that my very large, but sparsely populated, closet held nothing that would work for today’s big to-do. I flipped through the hangers anyway, just for the hell of it. The closest thing I had to business or formalwear was a sundress I’d bought back in the summer, only now it was winter. I know I complain about the heat, but I am not a fan of the other highly unpleasant season here either. It might be forty-something degrees outside, but it feels colder than ten below in Colorado thanks to the humidity and the freakin’ wind.
So, accepting my sad fate, I put on a dark gray sweatshirt that matched my mood, then grabbed my jacket and the keys to the Yukon. The roads weren’t icy, so I could have taken the Beamer, but the Yukon reminded me of my Tahoe and my old life—both of which had rolled off the cliff and burst into flames about the same time.
This new life was taking some getting used to. Today, however, I was very grateful I didn’t have to worry about money. I’m sure there were plenty of upscale dress shops in Redwater Falls where I could have nabbed an exclusive designer frock, but I didn’t care about any of that. I was just happy to go to a basic department store and not have to check price tags.