Something white hit my windscreen.
I scraped it off with my wipers but another few white things got stuck on. I peered out my side window, trying to see where Patti was changing lanes.
One minute I'm speeding down the Parkway with a definite tail on Patti Penucchi, a hairdresser with sticky fingers and a dangerous pair of scissors, and the next I've got snow hitting my windscreen, looking uncannily like bits of dead bird.
"Are those feathers?" Lula said beside me. "Did we hit a bird? Did we hit a lot of birds? How come I didn't feel no bump?"
"I didn't hit anything!" I was trying to see past the flying bits hitting my little white Mazda.
We saw it together then, the semi-trailer and the chickens inside and the trail of feathers blowing straight at us.
The wipers powered away for a few seconds but it was like a blizzard of white all around the car.
I'm pretty sure Lula said, "Hit the brakes!" and it must've seemed like a good idea at the time. So I did. And three seconds later a car rear-ended me.
Trenton cops don't get called to highway collisions but I'm pretty sure they make an exception for me because twenty minutes later, after the Black Ford Guy who rear-ended me had stopped yelling, Eddie Gazzara pulled up in a cop car and ambled over to me. Eddie's married to my cousin Shirley-the-Whiner, which tells you a lot about why he'd show up to my near-constant car fiascos.
He looked at my car covered in chicken feathers and at the Black Ford behind me. I'm pretty sure the trail of chicken feathers stretched about a mile long. Eddie began to laugh.
"It's not that funny," I huffed. "It's..."
"You did this," he said, shaking with laughter, "all by yourself?"
I looked around in vain because cops give Lula the runs. "Yeah," I said. "I guess I did."
Eddie nodded. "It's a doozy," he said and went off into his loud guffaws again.
Lula had probably scrammed to a safe corner of the trees lining the highway the second she heard the sirens. I guess being a former 'ho sours the relationship a bit. My own relationship with the cops was On again with a capital On. Sure enough, a piece-of-crap Crown Vic pulled up behind a Trooper's car ten minutes later. I could see Morelli nodding furiously to the Trooper as I waited miserably. Not only had I totalled my car in a chicken blizzard, I'd also lost Patti Penucchi and a lay-by at Shoe City.
I'm pretty quick with giving statements; I do it a lot. The Trooper seemed inclined to believe me over crazy Black Ford Guy who insisted I'd braked without warning. There's no such thing as leaving a safe space between cars in Jersey. That's just a waste of good space. But driving through a feather blizzard is just crazy. Besides, if anyone was responsible it was the guy driving the semi.
As soon as the other cops had left, Morelli grabbed me into a crushing hug.
"You have got to stop doing this," he muttered thickly into my hair. "I'm going to have to buy shares in Rolaid. I can't afford it."
Joe Morelli is a vice cop who happens to know parts of his job very well. Pretty much the only thing that scares him is Joyce Barnhardt, Satan's own dominatrix.
"It wasn't my fault!" I said angrily, but I leaned closer into him. "One second I was chasing Patti Penucchi and the next it's snowing chickens." He was warm and comfortable in his leather jacket and blue jeans, and I slid an arm around his back to get really snuggly.
I knew Ranger was there from the way Morelli stiffened. Ranger knows more about Morelli's job but that's because Ranger is Batman. And he kills people. While smelling of Bulgari. It's a fascinating thing to me.
I sighed and re-arranged myself so that I was not snuggling and not shaking. I was standing unaided on two feet, which was pretty good all things considering.
"Babe," Ranger said.
"It wasn't my fault." I sighed.
He looked at the Parkway and I thought I saw the corners of his mouth turn up. With Ranger, that's almost a belly-laugh. "I know," he said and then he was gone.
"Come on," Morelli said. "I'll give you a ride home."
I shook my head. "I can make it." Luckily the car started on the third try.
Lula appeared once he'd left, jumping into the passenger seat and gasping. "I nearly wet myself," she said. "I'm in shock. I think I need a doughnut on account of I almost died from a truck of chickens. Look at my hands shaking. Maybe three doughnuts to get some of shakes out. And some Cluck in a Bucket."
I stared at Lula.
"What? I could get a complex! I can't let no bird have some power over me. I gotta get back on the horse and eat the chicken."
I was kind of hungry for Cluck in a Bucket myself.
There are a lot of things I don't wish for at Christmas anymore. Mostly I stopped wishing for a new life, a new job or a new car. It figures that I've just wrecked my car on the Parkway and I've lost my skip. This Christmas Eve, I was just hoping for the day off.
And pineapple upside-down cake. I never stop wishing for that.
The 'Burg has the kind of grapevine where local newscasters call home for regular news updates. It means my mother always knows when I blow something up and then she irons.
My niece Mary-Alice was in the living room when I walked in.
"Hi, Mary-Alice," I said.
Good enough from a girl who thinks she's a horse and had a pair of my mother's spatulas clipped to either side of her head. I stopped to say 'Hi' to my dad but he just slid deeper into his chair and muttered something about clowns.
My mother, Valerie and Grandma Mazur were all in the kitchen and I got this uncanny deja vu feeling. I've seen this before. Valerie was sitting in the middle chair at the table, crying into the tablecloth, my mother was sitting on the left with her lips pressed so tight together they were almost invisible, and Grandma Mazur, on the right, was flipping through a wrestling magazine.
My mother didn't say a word when she saw me, which is a really worrying sign. She just pointed to Entenmann's coffee cake on the table. I cut myself a wedge and eyed my sister Valerie who used to be perfect, but who on occasion can resemble a Jets fan at a Giants' Superbowl party.
"Stephanie," my mother said as I lifted a forkful to my mouth, "why?"
I sighed around a mouthful of cake. "It wasn't my fault! I was following Patti Penucchi and then there was a blizzard of feathers all over the Parkway."
"That must've been a doozy of an accident," Grandma Mazur said, grinning at me. "Arline Sweeny and me've done some burnouts at the WaWa, but there weren't any chicken blizzards involved."
My mother moaned pitifully. "What did I do wrong? Why must my daughter get into car accidents and chase people for a living?
"Evelyn Nagy called to tell me her daughter got a promotion again. There are no criminals at the personal products plant."
I rolled my eyes.
My mother's lips compressed even further, if that was possible, and Valerie didn't stop crying.
I swallowed and said, "What's wrong with Val?" Diversion is the best form of defence.
Grandma Mazur looked up from her packet of pork scratchings and said, "Cuddle Umpkins did a runner on Val."
Oh boy, could Val pick them. Her first husband was memorable mostly for his thinning hair and playing naked leap-frog with the babysitter when they lived in California. Her second husband, Albert Kloughn, was memorable all on his own for having the body of a twelve year-old and choking on chicken bones, but he'd seemed devoted to Val and the girls.
"It was such a stupid fight," Val said, finally lifting her head from the table. Whoa! The 'Burg is famous for racoon eyes, though it's not always a door that's to blame. Sometimes it's the mascara.
"I didn't mean it," she wailed. "But we wanted to have a really good Christmas for the girls, and work has been so slow lately. I don't understand why he can't get a high-profile case like Lenny Chamberti's."
Lenny was a rumoured Mob hitman and I knew why Kloughn couldn't get a high-profile case. It's because most people wanted lawyers with a good win-record. Kloughn made the New Jersey Nets look like a success story.
Grandma Mazur said. "I hear Lenny Chamberti makes you choke to death on a fishbone if he loses. It looks more natural that way."
"Did he leave a note?" I asked. It's important, the note.
"No!" Valerie exploded. "He didn't leave a note and it's almost Christmas. And it was going to be perfect and he was even going to dress up as Santa for the g-girls and now he's ruined everything. Why can't I keep a husband? Is there something wrong with me? Fuck!"
A bit of cake fell out of my mouth.
My mother stood up and made her way to the cooking sherry.
Grandma Mazur made the sign of the cross.
Val never swore. Pigs were flying somewhere.
My day was just getting better and better.
Later that evening my day was the worst it had been in a really long time.
It had taken the combined efforts of my mother's drinking and my sister's pleading to get me to agree to this. No self-respecting almost-thirty-one year old wants to dress up as Santa on Christmas Eve, even if it is because a pre-pubescent lawyer had done a bunk.
And my relationship with the police department was most definitely Off again.
"Please?" I'd said. "It's just one trip. In, out, eat a cookie. It's one of my mother's special rum and raisin cookies. Mmm, mmmm, cookies!" I mimed rubbing my tummy, but it was wasted because Morelli couldn't see me over the phone.
He laughed. "Not even for you, Cupcake. It feels like thirty below out there. Tell your sister to dress up herself."
"She can't. Santa's not supposed to live there. He has to come in from the garden and say, 'Ho ho ho' and then leave again."
"I can't leave Bob on Christmas Eve."
I huffed. "Not even for that special sexy Christmas thing you wanted?" A little bit of blackmail never hurt anyone.
"Mmm. You drive a hard bargain, Cupcake."
"So you'll do it?"
"Not a chance," Morelli said. "I gave up on good deeds after your Grandma Mazur copped a feel at Sunday dinner. This has all the hallmarks of a Plum catastrophe."
And Batman had turned his phone off. So guess who was going to be Santa tonight? It was either me or Grandma Mazur and my mother threatened to cut me off pineapple upside-down cake if I let Grandma Mazur do it.
When I was eleven, my mother dressed me up as an angel for the Christmas show. I've stayed away from glittery gold with white trimming ever since. These days I usually end up in varying shades of doughnut stains, but at least my mother isn't dressing me anymore. So I can't really blame her for having to creep through my sister Valerie's garden on Christmas Eve, with size twelve Santa boots, an itchy wig-beard and my biggest, fattest feather pillow stuffed down my front. Santa doesn't have it this hard, but I'm Stephanie Plum and I do.
"I'm freezing my tatas off," Lula huffed behind me. "I musta been sick, letting you talk me into this. This ain't no weather for an elf. Hnnngh!"
It really wasn't. It was crazy person weather, when even Trenton turned into a nice, safe neighbourhood on account of nobody was suicidal enough to leave the house.
I tried not to feel the cold breezing in through the big hole in the ass of my Santa suit. It figured that on Christmas Eve – the one day it was actually useful – there'd only be reject suits available to rent. Life's like that sometimes.
I fumbled in the suit's pockets a little harder. Crazy person weather. And I still couldn't find the key.
"Hnngh" came from behind me, a little louder.
It had been an easy plan. All we had to do was sneak in, stack the presents under the tree, make nice for a few seconds with my nieces and leave. Outside, with my fingers slowly going numb in my oversized gloves, not so much.
I watched the neighbours' windows for lights. The last thing I needed was to get busted breaking in on Christmas Eve dressed up like a jolly fat man. Even pineapple upside-down cake might not be enough for that.
"Omigod," she said horrified, a few seconds later. "I think I got icicles on my nose!"
The wind chose that moment to blow the snow clean off the neighbour's car and onto the backs of our heads.
"Screw this!" Lula yelled and charged past me for the front door. I felt myself slipping and falling, reaching out to grab the nearest solid thing, which happened to be Lula, so the next second we were both sliding around on Val's icy path and falling over each other.
At 5'7" and 125lbs of pure birthday cake, I'm not dainty; I'm no match for Lula though. She rolled us over the path and onto the grass, holding on to my santa-pants with a death grip. It was a good thing I fell face forward. That pillow really broke my fall.
"Pffff," I said from under Lula.
The front door opened and bright light lit up the garden all the way to Lula in poison-green spandex sitting on Santa.
"What are you doing?" Val hissed.
I made more 'Pfff'-ing noises until Lula got off me. I think she was a bit dazed still because she kept rubbing her nose and then rubbing the back of her head under the elf ears.
When I could breathe again I said, "I couldn't find the key." It sounded reasonable to me, but Val's lips started to compress.
We stumbled gratefully into the warmth of Val's house. I itched underneath my beard and adjusted my pillow. I get why men spend so much time adjusting their junk now. It's just something you have to do.
Val's house looks nothing like my apartment. Mine is designer-spare. She has the tree, the lights, a plastic santa in the window and tinsel over her curtain rods.
"Wipe your boots," she said, pointing at the mat. "What were you thinking? It's nearly midnight!"
"I had to find a Santa suit on Christmas Eve!" I protested.
"Is that hot milk?" Lula said, zeroing in on the Santa treats in the living room. "I hope that has brandy in it on account of how cold it is outside. Santa and his elf need to be warmed up."
There was only one cup of milk.
"You can have the carrot," she said, nodding at me. "I'm beautiful with my plus-size frame but Santa needs to go on a diet."
"It's just a pillow!" I mumbled and turned around to heft the sack of presents onto my back.
"Is that a hole in your pants?" Valerie's horrified voice drifted from the stairs. "You have a hole in your pants? What were you doing?"
"It wasn't me," I replied. "Someone had a run in with an angry dog and dropped the suit back early. I got it with the hole." Though when I felt the dimensions it seemed a bit bigger than I remembered. I guess Lula's death-grip on my pants meant business.
"This here is real good Christmas cheer," Lula called from the living room, where she was standing with one of my mother's cookies in her left hand and an iced snowman her right.
"Um," I said.
"Jesus Christ," Valerie said. She seemed to have trouble speaking for a second but then she continued, "I'm going to wake the girls. For Christ's sake, Stephanie, just don't turn around."
I rolled my eyes. What did she think I was, stupid?
"And remember to Ho, Ho, Ho!" she said and stomped upstairs.
I ignored her and focused on breathing while lifting the sack again. I struggled into the living room bent double. Probably Ranger's no-dessert policy had some benefits: his body was a temple, mine was lucky to be an abandoned car lot. Three torturous steps later, the sack of suffering was safely deposited under the tree and I leaned against the mantelpiece breathing heavily.
The cookie plate was empty.
"I would've saved you some cookies," Lula said, "but there weren't enough on account of how small the plate is. Maybe we should ask for a refill."
I glared as much as a dying person can.
Footsteps clattered downstairs as I wheezed and, just in time, I remembered to turn around and face the stairs. I waved in greeting.
"That's not a real Santa," Angie said.
"Ho! Ho! Ho!" Lula said. "Look! It's Santa." She pointed at me.
Mary-Alice stared at Lula, then me, and then back at Lula. "Mommy," she said to Valerie. "Who is that?"
"Me?" Lula snorted. "I'm an elf! See my ears? I'm here with Santa. Ho! Ho! Ho!" Lula's elf-ears stuck out at right angles ever since she accidentally sat on them at Halloween. They're also milky-white where Lula is caramel-mocha all over, including her hair.
The youngest, Lisa, began to cry.
"Why does Santa have an elf?" Angie wanted to know. "That looks like a fake beard."
Valerie was beginning to get that look in her eyes again. Any second now I would have to start ducking flying crockery. "It's not," she said tightly. "Santa visits everyone on Christmas Eve. Isn't that right, Santa?"
"Er, yes. Merry Christmas," I said, reaching carefully behind me for the sack. "How about you tell Santa what you want for Christmas?"
Mary-Alice's eyes widened. "Didn't you get my letter?" she asked, horrified.
"Yes," Val prompted.
Every year I think about getting a new job. I am never going to be a Santa again. Bounty hunting is easier. "Sure, I did," I said, rummaging through the neatly wrapped packages. "That's why I got you a..." I pulled one out of the bag and rattled it. "A book," I finished triumphantly. I'm a good present-rattler at least. Nothing gets past me. Except things in boxes that aren't shoes.
"Why didn't you take the carrot for the reindeer?" Angie said.
"Neigh," said Mary-Alice.
"Reindeer don't like carrots," Lula said and waved the cookie plate. "Reindeer like cookies. How about a refill?"
"It's a long drive back to the North Pole," I said, desperately, "Merry Christmas!"
"Ho! Ho!–" Lula never got to finish because Val's face went purple and all hell broke loose.
"SANTA'S supposed to say, 'Ho! Ho! Ho!'," Val yelled. She pointed at me. "Say it now!"
I said, "HO! HO! HO!" as loudly as I could and prayed for a miracle.
"There will be no more refills!" Val was yelling. "We're going to do presents and then go to fucking sleep!"
The sound of glass breaking in the kitchen was loud in the silence.
"Did you hear that?" Lula said once we had all caught our breath. "Is somebody tryin' to break in on Christmas Eve?"
It sure sounded like it. It sure sounded like somebody had taken out the glass in the kitchen window and was trying to sneak in.
Valerie was frozen in horror. My sister doesn't like intruders. She doesn't like guns either, not after the Eddie DeChooch fiasco. Somehow she seems to think that because I've survived this long as a bounty hunter that I'm actually competent with intruders and guns. The truth is I only shoot people by accident.
I jumped as a loud crash sounded from the kitchen. It sounded like the intruder had knocked over the spoon rack.
"Do something," Val hissed behind me. She pulled Lisa, Angie and Mary-Alice closer to her.
Oh, boy. My relationship with the police was definitely going to be back On if I got through this without any major bullet holes.
A whole symphony of metal crashing sounded and I felt a strange pity for the thief who was definitely the worst thief ever. With the noise they were making, the whole neighbourhood was probably on the phone to Trenton PD and my mother at the same time. I gripped the gift-wrapped book tighter and inched towards the kitchen.
From beyond the swinging door we heard:
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle bells, jingle all the way
But the words were muffled, as though they were being said through a–
"MASK!" Lula screamed as a face appeared from behind the swinging door.
I took a quick second to register that it was a Grinch before I hit him full in the face with Angie's book.
The Grinch went over backwards, making a horrible sound, and I rushed through the door. He hadn't gone very far. My knees cracked against his shoulders and I went flying, face-forwards again, over his head and landed with a smack on the kitchen floor.
It's the costume. Santa's supposed to bring joy to the world. I can only manage slapstick.
I heard Lula say, "Don't move!" and looked up just as she was taking aim.
He didn't have a chance.
The pasta canister on the kitchen tabletop exploded into sharp fragments. In the doorway I saw Valerie staring, wide-eyed, at Lula, who was sprawled on top of the Grinch. His mask had been knocked off and he was making 'Hnnngh' noises.
Lisa said, "Daddy?" from behind Val.
It was at that moment that Trenton PD made its appearance.
Valerie and Kloughn were standing in the middle of the wreckage with eyes only for each others. An extremely interested audience made up of Lula, two neighbours and three cops were watching them. I was holding an ice-pack to my throbbing forehead and trying to eat my cookie.
"How?" Val was saying, tearfully. "What happened? I was so worried."
"I went to your cousin Bunny at the credit bureau," Kloughn said, taking her hands in his green gloves. "I got a loan. I got a Santa suit."
All eyes flickered to his suit.
Val's eyes glistened. "For me?" she said.
They were holding hands over a credit loan. It was sickening. I was glad Morelli wasn't here to watch this. He gets definite ideas whenever my toothbrush is in his bathroom for several days running.
"Oh, Cuddle Umpkins," Val said, and more sickening things happened.
"Are they gonna keep doing that?" Lula asked, breathing heavily. "I just ate. I have a delicate stomach. It's easily upset."
Strong arms wrapped around me from behind. For the second time that day, I leaned into the warm body behind mine.
"Cupcake," Morelli breathed. "I was wrong. Next time I want ringside seats."
I decided to ignore this. "Are they still kissing?" I asked weakly.
He laughed. "I thought it was an in-out job?"
I'm such an optimistic person. That is my only explanation for why I predict things will go well despite all the catastrophes. I said as much to Morelli once Val and Kloughn had stopped with the disgustingness.
He kissed my nose lightly. "Cupcake, you're just a trouble magnet. That's all there is to it.
"But," he continued, "you have fantastic taste in lingerie."
Oh, he'd found the hole in my santa pants.
Kloughn was not giving his statement to a smirking officer who kept looking over at Morelli and me.
I narrowed my eyes. "What's with Officer Giggles?"
"He's new and you're a bit of a legend around the station."
"Does this mean I can skip the statement till tomorrow?"
Morelli looked at me for a second and his hand moved in my santa pants again. "Yeah," he said roughly. "Let me take you home and make it up to you."
Mary-Alice galloped down the stairs like a herd of rhino to say 'Merry Christmas' before I left.