Gold, Frankincense, and Murder
High school geometry teacher, Donna Russell likes her life well-ordered and logical, even if it is a tad solitary at times. But when a charming co-worker at the local food bank disappears just before Christmas, Donna is left with more questions than solutions.
After the missing man's neighbor, muscle-bound EMT Sam Holton, volunteers as Donna's crime-fighting sidekick, sparks fly between them. Donna wonders if Sam can be trusted, or if he's trying to throw an unknown into her calculations—and her life.
And when police recover a body from the icy Niagara River, Donna is faced with the most frustrating equation of all: can murder plus mayhem ever equal romance?
Food pantries are lousy places to meet men.
I slammed another dusty can of sauerkraut into the rough wood shelving to punctuate that thought, enjoying the reverberation through the brick storefront. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not why I volunteered. My days of pining after some testosterone-charged he-god passed a decade or so ago when all my friends married and started having kids. I’d officially become “Aunt Donna,” and I was pretty okay with that.
Most of the time.
I had my friends, my students, and my cat. Only my friends were all busy chauffeuring their kids to basketball practice and dance recitals, my students at the high school drove me up the wall, and my black cat was one of those independent sorts, content stalking birds from the window. He rubbed against my leg twice a day when I filled his food dish, and that was pretty much the extent of my physical contact with other living things.
The bell over the door announced our first client of the morning. Linda Bartz blew in with a flurry of snow and stomped her boots into the mat. Linda was a rather matronly African-American woman, not obese exactly, but hippy and big bosomed. Underneath her long red coat, her figure could be perceived as fat. Then again, warm winter outerwear was a great equalizer. Everyone looked a little plump these days.
I handed her two paper grocery bags.
“One is fine.” She shook open the sack in one fluid motion. “I’m getting my paycheck on Wednesday, and the first thing I’m going to do is get me some food that don’t come in cans.”
One bag was our normal limit, but Linda was the sole provider for three bulky teenage boys. When I’d started at the food pantry, Sandy clued me in. Linda’s husband used to gamble away most of the family’s budget. When a bus coming back from the casinos in Niagara Falls flipped over almost a decade ago, he had been one of seven passengers killed. Sandy suspected the family might be better off. It didn’t seem to work that way, so everybody at Saint Mark’s looked the other way. Linda always got two bags.
“What? No more sauerkraut and lima bean casseroles?” I asked. “I tried that recipe you gave me.”
“How’d you like it?”
“I’ve got to hand it to you. It was almost edible.”
“That’s what my Johnny says. But I’ve kind of developed a taste for it. Still, I’m looking forward to fresh veggies for a change.”
“How do you like the new job?”
“It’s awful hard on the feet, but I think I’m going to like the pay. I just gotta get me some shoes that don’t come from the thrift store. Maybe some of them fancy orthotics. But whoever heard of waiting a whole month for your first check?”
“Crazy.” I watched Linda bag her chosen items with geometric perfection. I’d have to remember that the next time one of my students asked how geometry related to real life. “I’ll miss having you around.”
“Maybe I’ll come and do some volunteering of my own. It looks like you could use more help.”
“That’d be great. Just talk to Sandy. She arranges the schedule.”
“Gotcha.” She tugged on her gloves. “Now I think I’m going window shopping for them shoes.”
I went back to stocking the shelves with a vengeance, unloading a case of Spam in record speed. “Get out of the house. Volunteer somewhere. Meet people,” my mother said when she called from her Palm Beach condo. It seemed logical. And the Saint Mark’s Community Food Pantry was nearby and familiar. Mom and I stocked our shelves with mac and cheese and peanut butter from their supplies during much leaner times. Besides, there were worse ways to pass a snowy December afternoon in Buffalo than spending a couple of hours giving back. When I met Neal the first day, I thought maybe Mom had been on to something.
I whacked the final can of Spam into the shelving and brushed my hands on my jean skirt. Being hauled out of my warm bed to cover the morning shift in addition to my normal afternoons didn’t make me happy, especially since it meant Neal hadn’t bothered to show up. Again. Last Saturday I’d worried about him. The second week of doing his job and mine transformed my worry to annoyance. And the tinny Christmas music droning from the portable radio did little to get me into the holiday spirit. “Let It Snow.” Yeah, right. That little ditty was obviously written by someone who lived surrounded by palm trees, not snowdrifts tall enough to alter flight patterns.
The next time the bell above the door jangled, a petite blonde pranced in. She wore a form-fitting coat and dainty blue fuzzy earmuffs. “Whew! It’s cold out there!” At least she appeared blonde. I had doubts. She spotted me behind the counter and her shoulders sagged.
“Good morning,” I said, as she leaned in to sign the client sheet, giving me the perfect vantage from which to examine her roots. I was right.
I handed her one bag, and she headed straight to the canned fruit section. I glanced at the name on the sheet. Daphne. Of course, she is.
“We just got in some peaches, Daphne,” I called out after her.
“I see them. Thanks.” She tossed a few cans into her bag. “Hey, what happened to the guy who’s normally here?”
“Neal? I don’t know. He’s AWOL.”
“Hmm.” She turned to our meager selection of protein and snagged two cans of tuna. Odd. I would have pegged her as a vegetarian. She must have seen me looking at the cans. “For my cat,” she said. “Anyway, I’m a little concerned about Neal. He didn’t say anything to me about going anywhere. Maybe he’s sick or something.” She ran a hand through her hair. Static held one strand straight up. I considered telling her, but I enjoyed it too much.
It’s not that I had anything against petite, blonde vegetarians in particular. But throughout my life, I’d watched many of my male friends fall head-over-heels for that particular species, only to be dumped for a new flirtation. And then old pal Donna, the gangly brunette with pale blue-gray eyes hidden behind thicker and thicker glasses and no flirtation skills whatsoever, was always right there to help—with the heartbreak and their math homework. At least until the next cute blonde batted her eyelashes. But that was high school. And college. And grad school. Okay, maybe I did have a problem with petite, blonde vegetarians.
She went on, oblivious to her hair issues. “You know, that nasty flu is going around. Wouldn’t that be difficult, don’t you think? Being all alone, languishing with some foul disease, and so close to Christmas? Maybe someone should check on him. See if he’s all right or if he needs anything. Now, if you were to give me his address…”
“Sorry. It’s against policy to give out our volunteers’ personal information.” I had no idea if we had such a policy, but it seemed like we should. I wondered how many other female clients that morning would be disappointed to see me.
Not that Neal and I had anything exclusive, or even overtly romantic. What we had was canned pears in heavy syrup. He worked the mornings, and I the afternoons; our shifts overlapped by an hour. One day I’d rushed in straight from a conference at the high school. Neal had one foot out the door when my stomach started growling.
“Hungry?” Neal’s clear blue eyes crinkled at the corners. I wouldn’t call him drop-dead gorgeous. His sandy hair had already started to evacuate from his forehead, and his nose was a tad redder than his face, especially in the winter. But with his contagious smile and charming personality, I had trouble believing he’d made it to forty without marrying.
“No one is allowed to go hungry at Saint Mark’s.” He gestured toward the stocked shelves. “Look around you.”
“I don’t have a can opener.”
“You don’t need one.” He went to the fruit section and pulled out a can with a pop top. “You like pears?”
“I love pears.”
“Then lunch is served, mademoiselle.” And he winked.
We’d split the can of pears, and from then on I always skipped lunch before coming. Later, I made sandwiches to go with the pears, and we would eat together in the back room. Only rarely did clients interrupt us. We’d become friends. Neal had a gift for parody—a talent for making the world seem as absurd as it often was while still allowing me to laugh at it.
The bell above the door interrupted my recollections, and clients started pouring in. By the time Sandy arrived to help close down for the afternoon, the floor mat was sopping and the aisles drenched. She grabbed a mop while I continued the work at the counter.
“Sorry, Sandy,” I said. “We’ve been swamped all afternoon.”
“I can see that. Call if you get overwhelmed, okay? I can run over any time.” Sandy was an accomplished woman, slang for old, but with a résumé. She had short, thinning silver hair, and, as usual, wore a vintage polyester pantsuit. A large gold cross hung from her neck. She exuded a grandmotherly aura, but the food pantry was her only baby. I felt badly she’d walked in when it so desperately needed a diaper change.
When five o’clock came, she flipped the closed sign.
“Sandy, someone came by asking about Neal.” I forced my voice to sound casual. “Have you been able to get in touch with him?”
“I left a couple messages on his answering machine, but he hasn’t called back.” Sandy rubbed a handkerchief along the back of her neck and sighed. “I have a feeling I need to find someone to take over his shift permanently.”
“But he seemed happy working here. For him to leave without saying anything—”
“Donna, volunteers quit all the time. And when people leave, they seldom want to be put on the spot to explain why.”
“This person asked if she could have his address.”
“Let me guess. Daphne?”
“You didn’t give it to her, did you? We shouldn’t give out that information.”
“I couldn’t if I wanted to. I’m not sure where he lives.” I hesitated while Sandy gathered the paperwork. “But maybe someone should check on him.”
Sandy smiled briefly. “Might not be a bad idea. I can pull his address from the personnel files.”
I followed Sandy into her tiny square office just behind the counter. She plopped down in her desk chair and pulled open her file drawer, before copying the address in careful, precise script onto a sticky note.
“Thanks.” I stuffed the note into my purse. “I’ll let you know what I find out. And if he did quit, I may have a lead on someone to take over Neal’s shift. Linda Bartz is thinking about volunteering.”
“How’s that new job of hers coming along?”
(Q1) Why does Donna enlist Sam's help in her search for Neal? Does she trust Sam?
(A1) Sam is eager to help find his missing neighbor. While Donna is initially attracted to Sam, she doesn't really know his character, and is wise to be cautious.
(Q2) What reasons does Donna give for not attending church? Is it valid? What could you do to alleviate the discomfort of someone sitting alone?
(A2) Donna uses her busy-ness as an excuse, but she is more uncomfortable sitting alone than she wants to admit to herself. (Answers will vary.)
(Q3) Donna doesn't believe Sam could be romantically interested in her. What attractive aspects of Donna's personality has she discounted?
(A3) Donna is intelligent and witty. She is kind to volunteer at a food bank and check on a co-worker. Throughout the story she shows herself compassionate, competent, and persistent.
(Q4) Why doesn't Donna go to the police when she uncovers Sandy's embezzlement? What would you have done?
(A4) Donna sympathizes with Sandy and doesn't think the elderly woman could have anything to do with Neal's disappearance. Since Sandy already said she plans on turning herself in, Donna decides it's between her and God and St. Marks.
(Q5) The killer was motivated by revenge. Would striking back help closure? Would justice?
(A5) Answers will vary. (Consider Romans 12:19-21)