SHE WROTE: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Celebrate the Season Whatever It Is . . .
One fine August evening, as Joey “the Gent” Torcelli sat in his deserted diner on the outskirts of Keyes, South Carolina and talked on the telephone and rubbed his gun arm to ease his arthritis; and as beyond Joey’s diner the wildlife in the swamps of Keyes County began to emerge into the deep blue dusk of the twilight and cogitate upon ways to make the encroaching darkness aid them in their endeavors both nefarious and recreational; and as beyond the swamps the last of the evening sun disappeared into commingling waters of the Blood River and the Intracoastal Waterway outside the kitchen windows of the white-columned plantation house known as Two Rivers; Agnes Crandall stirred crushed raspberries and sugar in her heavy non-stick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she’d ever trusted.
It wasn’t easy.
“Come on, Joey.” Agnes cradled the phone between her chin and her shoulder and frowned over the tops of her fogged-up black-rimmed glasses at the raspberries, which were being annoying and uncooperative, much like her fiancé lately. “Taylor’s a terrific chef." Which is why I’m still with him. "And he’s very sweet.” When he shows up. “And we’ve got a great future together.” Assuming we’re ever together again.
Joey snorted his contempt, the sound exploding through the phone. “He shouldn’t leave you all alone out there in that house like that. You should find somebody better.”
“Yeah, like I have the time,” Agnes said, and then realized that wasn’t the right answer. “Not that I would. Taylor’s a great guy.”
“He’s a mutt, Agnes,” Joey said.
Agnes took off her glasses and turned up the heat under the raspberries, which she knew was courting disaster, but it was late and she was tired of playing nice with fruit; the raspberries were about to find out who was boss. “Cut me a break, Joey. I’m behind on my column, I’ve got the Mothers coming tomorrow, I’ve got--”
“And there’s Rhett,” Joey said. “How’s Rhett?”
“What?” Agnes said, thrown off stride. She stopped stirring her berries, which began to bubble, and looked down at her dog, draped over her feet like a moth-eaten brown overcoat, slobbering on the floor as he slept. “Rhett’s fine. Why? What have you heard?”
“He’s a fine healthy-lookin’ dog,” Joey said hastily. “He looked real good in his picture in the paper today. You did, too.” He paused, his voice straining to be casual. “How come old Rhett was wearing that stupid collar in that picture?”
“The collar?” Agnes frowned at the phone. “It was just some junk jewelry--”
The oven timer buzzed, and she said, “Hold on,” put down the phone, and took the now madly bubbling berries off the heat with one hand. Rhett picked up his head and barked as she reached for the oven door to get the tray of cupcakes inside, and Agnes turned, raspberry pan in hand, to see what he was upset about.
A guy with a gun stood ten feet away in the doorway to the front hall, the bottom half of his face covered with a red bandana.
“I come for your dog,” he said and pointed the gun at Rhett who was now baying at him, and Agnes said, “No!” and slung the raspberry pan at him, the hot syrup arcing out in front of it like napalm and catching him full in the face.
He screamed as the sauce and then the pan hit him, pawing at the scalding fruit and dropping his gun to rip the bandana away as Rhett went for him. Agnes ran around the counter and scooped up the pan as Rhett barreled into him, and the guy slipped in the syrup on the tiled floor and went down flailing in the doorway, hitting the back of his head on the marble counter by the wall and knocking off every cupcake she had cooling there.
“Goddamn it,” Agnes said, standing over him with her pan, ready to defend herself and her dog, her heart pounding.
The guy didn’t move, and Rhett began to hoover up cupcakes at the speed of light.
“Agnes?” Joey shouted from the phone on the counter. “What the fuck, Agnes?”
Agnes kicked the gun away into the housekeeper’s room and peered at the guy, trying to catch her breath. She was pretty sure that if he were conscious, he’d be twitching from the hot syrup, not to mention the slobber that Rhett was flinging his way.
When he didn’t move, she backed up to grab the phone off the counter. “Some guy just showed up here with a gun and tried to take Rhett,” she told Joey, breathing hard. “But it’s okay, I’m in control, I’m not angry. Much.” Goddamnit.
“Where is he?”
“On the floor, in the hall doorway. He hit his head and knocked himself out. Joey, why would anybody want Rhett?”
“Fuck that,” Joey said. “Get the hell out of there. Take Rhett with you.”
“Like I’d leave him,” Agnes said, outraged. “I can’t get out. I told you, the guy’s lying across the hall door. I’ve seen all those horror movies. He’ll come to and reach up and grab me.”
“Get out the back door--”
“I can’t, Doyle’s got it blocked with screen and boards. I’m going to hang up and call 911.”
“No, “ Joey said. “No cops. I’m comin’ over.”
“What do you mean, no cops? I--”
The dognapper stirred.
“Wait a minute.” Agnes put the phone on the counter and held the frying pan at the ready, hands shaking, as she craned her neck to look closer at the dognapper.
Young, just a teenager. Short. Skinny. Limp dirty dark hair. Stupid because if he’d had any brains, he’d have grabbed Rhett when he went out for his nightly pee. And now that he was unconscious, pretty harmless looking. She probably outweighed him by thirty pounds.
As she calmed down, she could hear Dr. Garvin’s voice in her head.
How are you feeling right now, Agnes?
Well, Dr. Garvin, I’m feeling a little angry that this punk broke into my house with a gun and threatened my dog.
And how are you handling that anger, Agnes?
I never touched him, I swear.
The boy opened his eyes.
“Don’t move.” Agnes held up her pan. “I’ve called the police,” she lied. “They’re coming for you. My dog is vicious and you don’t want to cross me, either, especially with a frying pan; you have no idea what I can do with a frying pan.” She took a deep breath, and the kid glared at her, and she looked closer at his face, seeing the lurid welts of singed skin where the raspberry had stuck. “That’s gotta hurt. Not that I care.”
He worked his battered jaw, and she held the frying pan higher as a threat.
“So, tell me, you little creep,” Agnes said, “why were you trying to kill my dog?”
“I weren’t tryin’ to kill the dog,” the boy said, outraged. “I wouldn’t kill no dog.”
“The gun, Creepoid,” Agnes said. “You pointed a gun at him.”
“I was just gonna take him,” the boy said. “There weren’t no call to get mean. I weren’t gonna hurt him. I wouldn’t hurt nobody.” He touched the sauce on his face and winced.
The boy closed his eyes, and Agnes was reaching for the phone again when he rolled to his feet and lunged for her. She yelped and smacked him hard on the head with her pan, and he staggered, and then she hit him again, harder this time, just to make sure, and he fell back onto the floor, blood seeping down the side of his face, and lay still. She felt a qualm about that, but not much because it was self defense, and he’d broken into her house, he’d scared the hell of her, he had no right—
Violence is not the answer, Agnes.
That depends on the question, Dr. Garvin.
--and she was not out of control, she was not angry, she was calm, she was shaking but she was perfectly fine, and anyway it was non-stick pan, not cast iron, so she was fairly certain she hadn’t done any permanent damage.
Fingers crossed, anyway.
Beside him, Rhett collapsed, overcome by the number of cupcakes still on the floor.
“I hate you,” she said to the unconscious boy. Then she picked up her phone, and said, “Joey?”
“Don’t do anything, Agnes,” Joey yelled, the sounds of traffic in the background. “I’m on Route 17. I’m almost there.”
“That’s good,” Agnes said, realizing her voice was shaking, too. “He’s just a kid, Joey. He said he wasn’t trying to hurt anybody--”
The kid lunged to his feet, and Agnes screamed again and dropped the phone to swung the pan again, but this time he was ready for her, ducking under her arm and butting her in the stomach so that she said, “Oof!” and fell backward against the counter. She scrambled to her feet as he tried to backhand her, and she ducked and swung the pan again and hit him in the head, really hating him now, and then she hit him again, and then she couldn’t stop, she hit him over and over gritting her teeth, and he yelled, “Stop it, stop it!” and grabbed for her while she pounded him, driving him back toward the hall door, she heard herself screaming at him, “Get out, get out, I hate you, get out of my house, get out of MY HOUSE!!!” as he lurched back, his arms across his head, and then he stepped in Rhett’s water dish and fell back into the wall, all of his weight hitting it as she swung at him, and then he fell through it, screaming.
Agnes froze, the frying pan raised over her head, as he disappeared, and then the wall was solid again, and she heard a thud, and the screaming stopped, cut off, and there was nothing.
She stood there with the pan over her head for a moment, stunned, and then she lowered it slowly and clutched it to her chest, warm raspberry sauce and all, her heart beating like mad. She stared dumbfounded at the wall, waiting for a moment to see if he’d come rushing back through, like a ghost or something. When nothing happened, she went over and pushed cautiously with the pan on the place where the kid had disappeared.
It swung open and shut again, the hideous wallpaper that had covered it now torn along the straight edge of a door-frame.
“Oh,” Agnes said, caught between amazement that there’d been a swinging door behind the wallpaper and fear that there was also a crazed moron behind there.
“Agnes!” Joey yelled on the phone.
Agnes took a deep breath and stepped back to the counter and picked it up. “What?”
“What the fuck happened?”
“There’s another door in my kitchen, right next to the hall door.” Agnes went back and pushed it open again, avoiding the rusted, broken nails that lined the doorway edge, and peered into the darkness. There was no floor in there, she realized. It just opened onto a black void. “Huh.”
“Where’s the kid with the gun?”
“Good question.” Agnes dropped her wimpy non-stick skillet on the counter, yanked open the utility drawer by the door, and got out her heavy-duty flashlight. She turned it on, shoved the door open with her shoulder, and pointed it into the void.
“What are you doing?” Joey yelled.
“I’m trying to see what’s behind this door. I didn’t even know it was here.”
“Agnes, you can explore your goddamn house later,” Joey said. “Take Rhett and get the hell out of there.”
“I don’t think the kid’s a problem anymore.” Agnes held the phone with one hand and peered down into the pool of light the flashlight cast on the floor below as Rhett came to join her, pressing close to her leg so he could peer, too. “He fell into a basement. I didn’t even know I had a basement back here. Did you know--” She played the light around the floor and then froze when it hit the moron. “Uh oh.”
“What do you mean, ‘uh oh’?”
The boy was splayed out on what looked like a concrete floor and he did not look good.
“I think he’s hurt. He’s definitely not moving.”
“Good,” Joey said. “He fall down the stairs?”
“There are no stairs.” Agnes squinted down into the darkness as the light hit the boy’s face.
His eyes stared up at her, dull and fixed.
Agnes screamed, and Rhett scrambled back, stepping in the raspberry sauce, which he then began to lick up.
“Oh, God,” Agnes said, as her throat closed in panic. “Joey, his neck’s at a funny angle and his eyes are staring up at me. I think I killed him.”
“No, you didn’t, honey,” Joey said around the traffic noise in the background. “He committed suicide when he attacked an insane woman in the stupid house she bought. I’m almost there. You stay there and don’t open that door for anybody.”
“He’s dead, Joey. I have to call the police.” This is bad. This is bad. This is not going to look good.
“The police can’t help you with this one,” Joey said. “You stay put. I’m gonna get you somebody until we figure this out.”
“Some body. Right.” Agnes clicked off the phone and looked back down at the dead body in her basement.
He looked pathetic, lying there all twisted and dead-eyed. Agnes swallowed, trying to get a grip on the situation.
How are you feeling right now, Agnes?
Shut the fuck up, Dr. Garvin.
Don’t say “Fuck,” Agnes. Angry language makes us angrier.
Gosh darn, Dr. Garvin, I’m feeling . . .
She put the beam on the boy again.
Okay, calm down, she told herself. Think this through.
She hadn’t killed him, the basement floor had.
You hit him many times in the head with the frying pan, try explaining that one.
Okay, okay, but he’d attacked her in her house. It was self-defense. Yes, he was young and pathetic and heartbreaking down there, but he’d been a horrible person.
Why do you always hit them with frying pans, Agnes?
Because that’s what I always have in my hand, Dr. Garvin. If I were a gardener, it’d be hedge clippers. Think how bad that would be.
She punched in 911 on her phone, trying to concentrate on the good things: Rhett was fine, Maria’s wedding was still on track, her column would be finished eventually, Two Rivers was starting to look beautiful and it was hers, well, hers and Taylor’s, pretty soon she was going to be living her dream, and her cupcakes were burning but she could make more cupcakes—
There’s a dead body in my basement and I lost my temper and I hit him with a frying pan many times, I was not in control--
“Keyes County Emergency services,” the police dispatcher drawled.
“There’s a dead body in my basement,” Agnes said, and then her knees gave way and she slid down the cabinet to sit hard on the floor as she tried to explain that the kid had broken into her house and had been going to hurt her dog while Rhett drooled on her lap.
“A deputy is on the way, ma’am,” the dispatcher said in the same drawl, as if dead bodies in basements were an every evening occurrence.
“Thank you.” Agnes hung up and looked at Rhett.
“I have to make cupcakes,” she said, and he looked encouraging, so she got up to get the blackened cupcakes out of the oven and clean the floor and get back to work, thinking very hard about her column and Maria’s wedding and her beautiful house and everything except the dead body in her basement and the goddamned frying pan.