HOLIDAY CHILL

By Don Hornbostel

The counterman at the West Side Diner stacked cups in preparation for closing, keeping one eye on the door, the other on the clock. Ernie Hagin was his name, a heavyset sort of guy with an overhanging brow, a squat nose and huge scarred hands.

His only customer rattled the newspaper he was reading and drew a restless glance from Ernie."These murders really got the town on edge don't they?" the lone patron, Harve Gantner, remarked.

Hagin wiped his clean dry hands in his apron. "Yeah. Three women dead in the last two months. And this the holiday season too. Everybody's got shopping to do, errands to run. Gotta be out."

Gantner shook his head. "And all lookers. All stabbed. Cut up. Robbed. You see their pictures? Real beauties."

"Yeah. On the news. All classy ladies, too. One was a rich lawyer. That one killed over on Clarke Avenue worked at the bank right down the street here. Used to come in ever once in a while. Sat in that booth under the Coke sign."

Gantner folded the paper and shoved it aside. It was his first time in the West Side Diner. He curled his hands around his coffee cup as if to let the warmth seep into his flesh. Staring at the redness that chapped his fingers, he flexed first one hand, then the other, picking at a line of scabs on the meaty part of his thumb. Past the far edge of forty, Gantner still had all his hair, but lacked that middle-aged layer of padding that would have insulated his tall stack of bones. His face fell far short of distinction, the sort of guy you meet and forget.

A shiver racked his torso and worked up a groan from deep within. "Damn cold outside," the man behind the counter commented. He dipped a fistful of spoons into a plastic tray of detergent. "Supposed to get down below zero tonight."

"Feels that already. When the sun went down, I think it pulled twenty degrees along with it. "Hagin sniffed a reply as if he had really been listening. Silverware clattered. Running water bubbled into a grimy pan plastered with dried egg left over from breakfast.

Gantner seemed ill at ease, almost jumpy. One finger tapped a beat on the counter. As he swiveled his head, surveying the empty diner, its iced over windows, the snow piled neatly up against the bottoms of the window panes, his focus suddenly snapped toward the door.

Someone had just entered. Someone bundled up in a long puffed coat, a scarf, knit gloves and slick-shiny boots. Even through all those layers, it was evident this was a woman.

As she moved toward the corner coat rack, Gantner gave her the twice over. With each layer of clothing she removed his interest visibly increased. Short skirt with long legs to justify it. Curves in all the best places.

She hung up her winter apparel, tugged at laced cuffs and checked her hair with careful little pats. The wind and the scarf had mussed her style, but Gantner showed no evidence of disappointment. Head tilted downward, she pursed her lips and approached the counter. While Hagin scrubbed the spot she was heading toward, Gantner made a too-obvious effort to divert his interest, shuttling his gaze this way and that, anywhere but where the woman was: The lit menu overhead, damp holiday decorations taped to the window glass, once-sparkling garlands now limp with dust thumbtacked to the walls, the stocky, greasy-haired guy behind the counter. It didn't work. This female was a definite man magnet.

"Coffee," she said sitting down one stool's distance from Gantner. It was a sultry voice, a voice that stirred men's hearts. "Hot as you can get it." She crossed her legs with that soft, silky little whispering sound.

"Sugar?" the counterman inquired through a flirty grin. A cold stare caught him in its grip.

"Black. And hot."

Gantner sneaked another look-- first at her hand (no ring), then at her profile. Their eyes met when the lady did the same. Gantner said, "Good coffee... here." It was an easily recognized fumble-- probably nowhere near what he wanted to say. But it earned something distantly akin to a smile.

"Hope so," she said. "Sandwiches aren't bad either. "What do you recommend?"

The counterman cut in. "Ham on rye is all I got left. I lock up at -" his nose turned back to the neon ringed clock above him-- "twelve o'clock sharp. Twenty-one minutes."

She looked to Gantner as if for approval. He shrugged. "If you're hungry, you gotta take a chance... right?"

She gave the counterman a nod and he turned away, one beefy hand grabbing the refrigerator door, the other reaching for a shiny-bladed knife stuck on a magnetic wall rack.

"Bad night out there." she said after a sigh.

Gantner shook his head. "Yeah, kinda surprised to see you out all alone-- with a murderer on the loose and all."

"I figure I'm safe in here." She gave both men a quick summarizing glance. "You both look okay."

Hagin turned to give the lady a good going-over. His lips worked as he stared, mayonnaise sliding off the knife in oily globby drips. When he turned back to his work he began humming an off-key version of Jingle Bells. The lady offered a hand to her fellow patron. "Dee Davis," she said as an introduction. "Hi, Dee. Nice to meet you. I'm Harvey Gantner... er, Harve." Gantner took the hand and squeezed it. She left it in his strong grip until Hagin shot an over-the-shoulder glare of disapproval.

The lady looked long and deep into Gantner's eyes. "Sales, right? And you like to ski?" "Sales. Hardly. And for me winter and sports don't mix. Hate the cold. I dunno, it gets me all worked up and grouchy-- the sloppy snow, sheets of ice that trip you up. Hate it."

Again her expression verged on a smile and warmed up Gantner's fixed features considerably. "I just thought, the sweater." She leaned closer and pinched up a woolly roll of Gantner's sleeve. It was a bulky knit in bright zigzags of color. "Wild sweater, wild guy on the slopes."

Gantner laughed out loud, then squeezed his lips together as if with regret. "No. No, I--" "Your sandwich, Ma'am," Hagin interrupted. He gave Gantner a chilly look. "More coffee, Ma'am?"

"No, I haven't touched this yet." With that she took a cautious sip and paused to stare. Her eyes blinked nervously.

"Something wrong, Dee?" Gantner asked.

"Yeah, you awright, lady?" Hagin seconded the concern.

"Fine," she replied to Gantner as if the counterman hadn't said a word. Hagin took the hint, wiped idly at the spout of a sugar shaker, then checked the clock. "Ten minutes till straight-up twelve. Them dangerous hours are just ahead."

The words apparently caught Ms. Davis's attention. "You mean when those poor women were killed?"

Hagin nodded toward the folded newspaper. "All the murders happened between midnight and 3:00 A.M. Bad time to be out." He slapped both hands palms flat on the counter. "Glad I got a place just across the street." Ducking his head, he pointed

through a rare clear area of glass. "Above Carsten's Hardware. Real cozy. Real close." His focus shifted to the lady's eyes, but she turned toward Gantner.

"I'd better eat my sandwich and go. The snow makes walking a chore."

Gantner's transparent prospects had just brightened. His entire demeanor reflected the renewal of hope. "Walking? You walked here?"

"Had to. My car's snowed in over on Stoughton."

Gantner moved to occupy the closer stool. "Stoughton... over by the park?"

"East side," she said between nibbles on her sandwich. "Carrolton Apartments, I'll bet?"

Her surprised look told Gantner he was right. "I'll be," Gantner went on. "Had a buddy used to live there."

Hagin moved a napkin dispenser and a salt and pepper rack between the two as if to build a little metal barrier. "Close in five. Eat 'em up. Coffee taps shut off here, too." His focus shifted back up to his apartment, then to the lady.

"So your friend moved out?" she said to Gantner.

Hagin took the hint again, busying himself turning off the outside lights and sticking the key into the register's drawer lock. All the while he grunted some gratingly repetitive seasonal song to himself and stole not-so-secret stares at Dee Davis.

"Yeah, took a job down in Fort Dyers last summer. Hated the winters here as much as I do." Gantner's features crumpled and he rubbed his hands together as if to get warm. "Five C. My buddy lived in Five C."

"How about that?" She put down the crust of her sandwich and wiped her hands on a napkin. A near smile lifted one corner of her lips. "I was right across the hall. I've been there almost eleven months."

"Surprised we didn't run into each other. "Her eyebrows arched with agreement as she took another sip of coffee.

"Look." Gantner spun his stool forty-five degrees in her direction. "I hope you don't think this is too forward of me, but with all that's going on after dark in this town, I thought maybe it'd be a good idea if I walked you home. Just to your building, I mean. That's it."

She set her cup down gently and gave Gantner long hard look. "Okay," she said finally. "Okay. That might be a good idea."

"Here." Gantner pulled out his wallet and sorted through a ragged wad of bills. "Let me get yours?"

Hagin tossed separate checks at the two an stood waiting.

"Mr. Gantner, you don't have to." She fumbled with the clasp of a rather large purse. "I mean, I never meant--"

Gantner snatched up both checks and dropped a ten on the counter in front of Hagin. "Keep the change."

"Yeah, that'll keep me warm tonight," Hagin slipped in. Then louder, "You two be careful over by the park. Cops think the killer hides out in places like that. Two people can get themselves stabbed about as fast as one, you know."

As if the counterman hadn't said anything, Gantner and the lady readied themselves for a frigid walk. He put his arms into a long wool topcoat, then assisted the lady with her scarf and held her gloves while she slipped into her boots. Hagin was hurriedly turning off lights, nearly closed up and ready to leave right behind his late night customers.

"Good movie on at twelve," he said. "Jimmy Stewart. The one where he runs outta money and wants to kill himself. This time of the year you gotta watch it. Original black-and-white." He looked at Dee Davis like a puppy looks at a chew bone. "Think I'll make some hot popcorn. Maybe pop a brew or two."

"Stoughton's what?" Gantner tried with uncertainty in his tone. "Two blocks? Three?"

"More like six," she said. "Better bundle up good. You're gonna get real grumpy."

Gantner got that uncomfortable look. He raised his collar and yanked balled-up leather gloves from his coat pocket. "I'll make it. Don't you worry about me."

Gantner and the lady stepped our into an icy blast of wind. As she put her hand on his offered arm, Hagin watched, his fingers clicking the key all around the keyhole.

"This way," the lady prompted. "We'll follow the street light down Fourth, then cut through the hospital parking lot. That place is always lit up like a bonfire.

The two headed off into the night with Hagin looking after them, shivering in a thin sweater he had put on to cross the street. "Damn," he hissed out loud. "She's too good for that guy. Too good. Should be me there. Should be me between them soft, warm sheets tonight."

An ambulance siren screaming through the night caught Hagin's attention and kept him on the diner side of the street. As the vehicle passed, its lights burning red in the man's eyes, he strained to get a peek inside. Somebody was in there. The attendant was standing, holding up a gleaming instrument of some sort.

"Glad it ain't me," Hagin muttered, watching two police cars zip past. "Hell of a night to have to go to the hospital." The thought made him look down the street. "Mr. Lucky and the lady must've already cut across."

His gaze scoured the hospital parking lot, the twin pair of ribboned wreaths hung on the entryway posts. "She should be under them big lights by now... "Curiosity stirred Hagin's features, set his nose to twitching. He wrapped his sweater tightly around him and shoved his hands into his pockets. Moving quickly through cones of cast light, he followed the snowy pair of tracks, easily recognizable as Gantner's size elevens and the lady's rounded boot heels. One track after another they went, side by side, at first long strides, then shorter ones. Even patterns, then awkward ones, weaving. "Probably whispering in her ear," Hagin muttered sardonically.

Where a grove of evergreens reached out onto the sidewalk the tracks stopped, turned face-to-face. Hagin cursed to himself. But then he caught sight of the blood. A drop here. A splatter on the snow blanketing an evergreen branch. His diaphram involuntarily pressed hard against his lungs and expelled a choking breath that hung a damp cloud in the stillness.

"Damn!" came out as a whisper. Hagin stopped. He turned an ear and listened. Nothing. Totally quiet. He took a short step, craned his neck to see into the shadows among a scattering of evergreens. A whimper. A weak cry.

Hagin took in a cold breath and gave the hospital a fast look. Half a block, he thought. If I can just carry her a half block. Blindly he ventured into the trees, into the darkness, into where death lurked.

Arms flailing this way and that, he shoved branches aside, plodded through knee-deep drifts, all the while rubbing his arms to keep warm. "Where are you? Lady, I can't--" "See a thing?" The voice finished his words. Hagin squeezed his eyes shut, then threw them wide open as the knife sliced across his throat, leaked warm blood down his chest, staining a red beard into his sweater. As his knees gave way and his limp body folded onto the white carpet of snow, a practiced hand went through his pockets, pulled out his wallet, and fished for the keys to the diner. The last sound he heard was the metallic jingle of his own set of keys.

"It's just a jingle," the killer said ever so calmly. "Not a bell ringing, like in that movie. You go to hell."

And with a genuine smile showing the way, the rounded little boot heels tracked their way back toward the diner's cash register.