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Bootleggers’ Christmas

Christmas is such a magical time of year and I wanted to share some of that magic with the gift of a Bootleggers’ Christmas. There are three principal families in Best Served Cold, the third book of the Bootleggers’ Chronicles series, and the characters of each family are revealed one Christmas Eve.

Because this is a chapter in mid-book, here’s a quick refresh of the characters: Maggie is a World War I widow trying to put a roof over the head and groceries on the table for her young son Tommy by running a boarding house. Her confident and mentor Frank is a centuries old ghost of a police inspector. Mickey Duffy is a “very” successful bootlegger/ mobster and his wife Edith is running out of patience with it all. Delores is the young daughter of the brutal Bailey family- hardscrabble farmers and small scale criminals/bootleggers.

The only change I’ve made to the original chapter is to reorder the snippets. It seemed better to end on the hopeful promise in Maggie’s story, rather than the bleak despair in Delores’s. Although (spoiler alert!) she does make a life for herself in Pony Gulch amidst good friends.

You can find more of Maggie’s stories in the Bootleggers’ series, more of Edith’s (post Mickey) in the Rum Runners’ series, and Delores’s adventures after she flees her family in the Moonshiner’s Mysteries.  -SD


(Philadelphia, 1926)

Out in the country, at the Bailey farm, there aren’t any Christmas carols or decorations. There’s no special treats to eat. No special dinner. The boys are sprawled at the kitchen table. In the next room, Bert sleeps on the couch, his arm dangling off the edge, his fingertips grazing an empty whiskey bottle lying on the floor.

Vi sits next to the wood stove, her mending in her lap. Delores is beside her, reading a movie-star magazine she’s stolen from the drugstore. Maybe she’ll go to California and be in the movies.

Frankie and James have been drinking hard all day. The shooting on Locust Street the night before has them panicked and, like many bullies, they react with false bravado.

“We sure showed them, eh, James?” Frankie pounds the table, knocking over his empty glass. “Hey, who drank my whiskey? Ma, more whiskey!” Frankie waves his glass.

Vi hurries to grab the glass and fill it from a jug on the counter.

James speaks into the crook of his arm where his head rests. “We chased ‘em off, Frankie. You and me. Ran like scared rabbits, they did.”

“You should have seen it, Delores,” Frankie says, leaning back in his chair to see his sister. “There must have been a dozen of ‘em, all with tommy guns.” He swivels a bit too much and falls to the floor.

“What the—?” he says, getting up onto his hands and knees. “Who did that?” Frankie glares with bloodshot eyes at his sister, who is ignoring him.

“Hey, I’m talking to you. If you’d done your job, you stupid cow, Mickey’d be dead already. Then nobody would be shooting at poor ol’ Frankie.” He pushes himself up off the floor and staggers over to Delores.

Frankie turns around, arms swinging wildly. “James, that’s right, ain’t it? If this cow had done what she was supposed to, Mickey would be a stiff, dead as a doornail.”

James is snoring, head flat on the table.

Frankie turns back to Delores and smacks her magazine to the floor. Delores stays still, stares at her hands. “Stupid cow. It’s all your fault.” The sound is sharp as he slaps her on the face. She doesn’t react. Nor is there a word or movement from Vi. Delores’ cheek blooms red. The momentum of his swing causes him to continue twirling and lose his balance again. Frankie lies on the floor, somewhat stunned by the change in elevation. Sighing, he curls up into a ball and passes out.

Delores stares at him, murder in her eyes. She slowly reaches for the magazine. Standing, she turns to Vi. “Another Merry Christmas, Ma. I’m going to bed.”

“Wait, Delores. Don’t go yet. Sit for a sec.” Vi whispers, careful not to disturb her sleeping sons. She reaches into her mending basket, pulling out a pair of turquoise blue mittens. She’s sewn a narrow strip of white rabbit fur around the top. She strokes them and then hands them to Delores. “Here, Delores. I made these for you. For Christmas. They match your eyes.”

Delores’ blue eyes swim with tears. She slips one on, holding her hand up so that she and Vi can admire the color and the fur. “Thanks, Ma. They’re beautiful.” She casts her eyes over her mother, a woman broken but hopeful. Vi’s desperation makes Delores feel sick. She looks over at her brothers, passed out and snoring, and her lip curls.

Walking over to the wood stove, she uses the cast iron hook to lift the round cover plate. Delores drops the mittens into the fire underneath.

Vi gasps.

As she puts the cover plate back in place, she turns to her mother, Frankie’s handprint now bright red against her pale skin. “Merry Christmas to you, too, Ma,” she says, her eyes empty.

Delores steps over Frankie and moves down the hall toward her room.

* * * *

Across town, the Duffy’s are settled in front of a Christmas tree festooned with glass ornaments. Ropes of red and green beads are woven through the branches. Its electric lights are reflected in the large picture window in the living room. Beneath the tree, reaching almost to the walls on either side, are piles of presents. The Duffy Christmas is marked by abundance.

Edith is curled up in one of the big leather armchairs next to the roaring fire. After dinner, she’d slipped into silk lounging pajamas. Mickey is settled in the other chair across from her, his smoking jacket tied loosely around his full stomach. He pats it. “Hilda’s Christmas dinner.” They sip a special Christmas cocktail their housekeeper has made. Christmas records play on the Victrola.

“Isn’t this nice. Sitting here in front of the tree together. So much better than going out,” Edith says.

Mickey acknowledges by making a noise around the cigar in his mouth. He takes it out, puts it into the heavy crystal ashtray, then reaches into his pocket. Mickey pulls out a small wrapped box.

“Merry Christmas, Kitten. This is for you.” He hands her the box, picks up the cigar, and watches her.

Edith unwraps it. She gasps. “Oh Mickey, it’s gorgeous!” As she holds the box, her hands tremble, which makes the diamonds and precious stones seem alive. It is a cat brooch. Its eyes are emeralds, and rubies create the small tongue that peeks out between the diamond head and body.

“A gorgeous cat for my precious kitten.” Mickey says magnanimously, and puffs on his cigar.

Edith feels sick inside. Mickey is at his most generous when he is guilty of some indiscretion. Ignoring the pain she feels inside, she eases out of her chair and wraps her arms around his neck. He manages to get his cigar to the ashtray, as she kisses him “Thank you. It’s magnificent.”

“Well, I’ve been away so much lately, I wanted to make it up to you, doll. You’re always my best gal.” Mickey smiles.

Edith’s smile becomes brittle. “I’m glad to hear it, Bunny,” she says, spitting out the endearment. She steps back into her seat. “I’m sure there is some stiff competition in the line-up,”

“Edith? Kitten, come on.”

“So who is she this time? One of those floozies at the club, or a little something tucked away in Atlantic City?”

Mickey winces as the barb strikes home.

Edith throws a cushion at him. “I knew it. You do have a girl in AC. You are such a bastard, Mickey.”

“Look, honey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no one in AC. There’s no one at the club. You’re the only girl for me.”

“Liar. This is getting old, Mickey. I’m going to bed.” Edith stalks off. The cat brooch abandoned, still in its box.

Mickey shakes his head. “Hilda, can you make me another cocktail?” he shouts in the direction of the kitchen. He winces when Edith’s bedroom door slams.

* * * *

Maggie cherishes these few days of Christmas. Her lodgers have all scattered, spending time with their own families, either in town or far away. The privacy is a rare treat that adds to the special feeling of the holiday. Just the two of them. Three if you count the Inspector.

Maggie keeps supper light so she and Tommy can concentrate on getting ready for Christmas. Earlier, they’d gone to the tree lot by Harold’s grocery store and chosen a tree they could manage on the sleigh.

While Maggie prepared supper, Tommy evened the end of the trunk and attached a wooden cross-brace to the bottom to keep it from falling over. Afterwards, he and Maggie moved the desk to one side to make room for the tree in the corner of the living room.

The radio fills the room with Christmas carols. On the table near the fireplace is a plate of Christmas baking: squares, decorated cookies, other sweet treats. A bowl full of nuts, and another bowl of hard candy are nearby.

Under Frank’s watchful eye, Maggie and Tommy are busy decorating the tree. First to go on are the popcorn garlands Maggie and Tommy had strung earlier. Then the green and red paper chains that Tommy had made. Maggie opens the shoebox full of paper stars and snowflakes from previous years, as well as the few ornaments that they have either bought or been given. A few glass balls from her Christmases with Jack are precious, and she reminds Tommy to be careful with them as she hands them to him to hang.

Tommy has a rhythm going: one ornament, one treat. He slowly empties the shoebox and the plate.

Last to go on is the silver tinsel she buys every year. There are families who manage to save it after Christmas, but Maggie can’t figure out how they get it off the tree, or how they store it. Her tinsel was always a tangled mess, so she buys a new box every year.

“There’s a bare spot, near the bottom,” Frank says. Maggie points it out to Tommy, who fills it with a shiny snowflake.

Maggie and Tommy cuddle on the couch and gaze at the sparkling tree. Frank sits, content, smiling, completely entertained by Tommy’s excitement. It’s wonderful to be with those you care about at Christmas.

Under the tree are a few gaily wrapped parcels from Mother and Father, and more from Mamma and Papa Barnes. There’re a few parcels from Archie. Dick had stuck some money in a card for Tommy and tucked it into the tree. A large, extravagantly wrapped box—To Tommy from the Duffy’s—is there too. It was delivered earlier in the day, causing no end of curious energy from Tommy.

And nestled onto a branch of the tree is a small, flat package, loosely wrapped, with a big, floppy bow. Tommy has insisted on putting his gift to Maggie right into the tree every year after seeing the Christmas tree at Wanamaker’s Department Store. It looks like this year he has maybe broken from tradition and given her a scarf rather than perfume?

“Time for bed, soon, sweetheart.” Maggie kisses the top of his head.

“Aw, Mother,” Tommy protests automatically. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He dashes up the stairs and returns with a single, limp sock. He anchors it to the mantle by tucking one end under the clock.

“Perfect,” says Maggie. “Now come here, and I’ll read you The Night Before Christmas.” A tradition from her own childhood, she could recite it from memory. The year Tommy was born, Jack had given her an exquisitely illustrated version of the tale, and the two of them had stood next to Tommy’s cradle reading it aloud to their son.

The fire warms the room. Tommy curls into Maggie so he can enjoy the pictures. Frank, basking in the moment, is sitting across from them in his chair, smoking his cigar. He is also enjoying the family tradition.

“And to all a good night.” Maggie closes the book. She misses Jack most on a family evening like this. “And that means good night to you, too, young man. Now, off with you, or Santa won’t come,” Maggie says.

Tommy checks to see that his gift to his mother is still secure in the tree branches. “No peeking, Mother,” says Tommy as he scampers off to bed. Maggie clears away the plate of cookie crumbs. Frank follows her into the kitchen.

“The tree is the nicest ever, I think,” Frank says.

“Why, Inspector, thank you. You’ve had a lot to compare it with.” There’s a twinkle in Maggie’s eyes.

“Are you going to get some of those electric lights next year? I’ve seen them on other trees, and they really are something.”

“You know, I was thinking I might get a string at the end of the season, when they go on sale; put them away for next year. They can be used outside, too. I’d love a string around the front window. Oh, it would be so magical to turn off the lights and look out through the red and green glow.”

“When are you putting out the bicycle?” Frank asks.

“The delivery man was kind enough to lift it behind the washstand on the porch. I hope I can get it out again. If I can, I’ll put it beside the tree tonight; otherwise, it might take both Tommy and me to wrestle it out tomorrow morning. Let’s get his stocking filled first. I don’t want to be creating a lot of racket and fussing with the bike, if he’s not asleep.”

Maggie has hidden an orange behind the sugar canister. She puts it into the toe of the sock Tommy had brought downstairs. She adds a few nuts and some candy. She is smiling. There’s a spring in her step as she goes into the dining room and gets the small book of Boys Own stories she has hidden in the buffet. She also tucks into the sock the new woolen mittens, brown with green and red stripes, that she had knitted in the evenings after Tommy was in bed. There’s a nice heft to the Christmas stocking. She sets it on the kitchen table to put on the mantle later.

Giggling and shushing, she and Frank tiptoe upstairs to her bedroom. The two stand in the doorway to Tommy’s room, gazing at the sleeping boy. “Sugarplums dancing,” she whispers to Frank.

Quietly, she opens her closet door and pulls down two wrapped boxes. One contains a new wool sweater. A bicycle bell is in the other. She grins.

“He is going to be over the moon tomorrow morning,” Frank whispers. The magic of Christmas secrets has him lowering his voice, even though Maggie is the only one that can hear him.

“I know,” Maggie whispers back. “And Edith got him a train set. She spoils him rotten.”

When Maggie has the two wrapped parcels under the tree, she and Frank head to the back door to start the big project for the night. Maggie lifts the metal washtubs off the stand and wrestles them into the kitchen. Then she carefully slides the heavy wooden washstand to one side. With every scrape, she looks to Frank who is standing watch in the middle of the kitchen, listening for Tommy. When she can get behind the washstand, she lifts the bicycle onto the top of it. Maggie wiggles past and lifts it down. “Oof, that’s heavy.”

Rolling it into the living room, she leans the bicycle against the desk beside the tree. She ties a bright red bow to the Red Racer’s handlebars and a tag that says “Tommy”, in case there’s any doubt about who Santa has left the bicycle for.

“It must mean a lot, being able to give Tommy such a wonderful gift,” Frank says.

“It does. He’s wanted one for ages. Thank goodness for those bookkeeping clients. They really made the difference this year. There were days when things were fairly bleak, money-wise. But the past year has been so much better. Bills are paid, I’m on top of the loan payments, there’s money saved for Tommy’s school, I can get repairs done on the house—without worry—and the refrigerator is full. I am blessed.”

There’s a lovely feeling in the room: the fragrant and sparkling tree, the gifts, the bicycle. Maggie feels satisfied with herself and the world. “Let’s sit a bit, and then I’ll go put the porch to rights.”

“Are you going to see your family this year?” Frank asks.

“Aren’t you one to spoil the mood.” She’s full of good cheer and is teasing him. “I haven’t been back for years. I’ll probably phone Mother tomorrow morning if I can get a line, and Tommy can thank her for the gift personally. Missing Jack so much just dredges up all the hurt feelings again, and reminds me of what Father did. I won’t be seeing them for Christmas or any other time soon.”

Memories of Frank’s urging for reconciliation—their last conversation on the subject, lie between them.

Maggie gazes at the tree. “It must be hard on you, Inspector. You must miss family gatherings at this time of year.”

“It is lonely. An unusual kind of lonely. People far from home can at least imagine what their families are doing, and can be with them in their mind’s eye. My family is lost to me. One year I managed to track down one of my great-grandsons in Philadelphia. I went to ‘visit’, but it wasn’t the same. He was a stranger. The photos of his parents—meaning my granddaughter and her husband—unfamiliar. I was so alone that year and others. And then I met you.” Frank smiles at Maggie.

“I’m glad we can spend Christmas together, Inspector. I hope that you think of us as family. I get lonely, too. Especially at night after Tommy’s gone to bed. I miss Jack and sharing all this with him. He would have loved to teach Tommy to ride that bicycle. And I can just see the two of them under the tree, setting up the train set.”

She raises her coffee cup. “Here’s to loved ones no longer with us.”

Frank raises his hand as if there is a cup in it. “To loved ones, near and far.”

The End (of Chapter 16)