By Tracy Falenwolfe
“Remember to prick the skin with a needle before you roast it.” Heinrich Metzger gave all his regular customers who ordered a Christmas goose the same advice. What he really wanted to say was, If you don’t already know that, you should have gone with a turkey, but he kept his mouth shut. His Lancaster, Pennsylvania butcher shop had seen a steep decline in business in recent years thanks to the vegans and the animal rights people and those hippies, the pescatarians, so he’d had to take on some side work for his old friend Steven Verba.
The work itself was simple, and he already had the equipment. Heinrich’s cousins Willard and Carl Bauer owned pig farms adjacent to his own spread, which made it even easier. Usually. Today, though, Verba went and changed things up. He asked Heinrich to handle a special delivery, and Heinrich wasn’t thrilled about it. It was three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve and the snow was starting to accumulate. He was open for another hour and there were still four orders to be picked up—one prime rib roast, two dressed turkeys, and another goose.
Three old, wise men were gathered in the corner of the shop. They were Heinrich’s father’s cronies, and after the local Grundsow lodge closed, they started congregating at the shop to buy their Lebanon bologna and speak Pennsylvania Dutch to each other. By law, Heinrich couldn’t offer them a place to sit or the use of his restroom, but the men didn’t care. Their only concern was that their language and traditions didn’t die.
After Heinrich kicked them out for the day, they’d stand in the parking lot retelling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes, and carefully rolling up and eating one slice of smoked meat after the other until they’d worked their way through a whole pound.
The bells over the door jingled and Heinrich looked up. It was old lady Handwerk, come for her prime rib. She wanted some scrapple, and some chow-chow, and some hot bacon dressing too, now that she was here. Fine. Heinrich left her smaller items on the counter and went to the walk-in fridge for her prime rib. As he grabbed the roast he glanced down at Verba’s special delivery on the bottom shelf. Wrapped in butcher paper like all of the other deliveries, it was the same general shape and weight of a goose. It didn’t strike Heinrich earlier, when he’d been in the cooler for the Dietrichs’ turkey, but now that he looked again, the gold Metzger’s sticker and the red and green plaid bow and the compliments of Steven Verba gift tag stood out like a string of flashing lights.
Heinrich’s stomach turned. Verba’s special delivery had no sticker, no ribbon, and no gift card, which meant Heinrich was looking at a regular old goose. His heart started drumming. If Verba’s special package wasn’t here, then where was it?
“Yoo-hoo?” old lady Handwerk stood at the counter and called. “You didn’t give my prime rib to someone else, did you?”
If only he’d have been so lucky. Panicked, Heinrich hustled old lady Handwerk and the former lodge members out the door.
His long-time delivery person had quit last week after a stroke left him unable to drive, and Carl’s son Garrett had been filling in. Heinrich loved his nephew, but the kid was a real waste case. He must have had Verba’s package with him in the delivery van.
Heinrich’s fingers shook as he dialed Garrett’s number. The kid was always on his phone, so surely he would answer, but no. Heinrich texted instead. No response again.
He shed his apron and ran to his truck. The old wise men were still chewing in the parking lot. “Was ist das?” The eldest called out. “What’s wrong, boy? It’s not closing time yet.”
“My nephew’s out making deliveries and he took something he shouldn’t have.” Heinrich pulled on his coat as he spoke. “I have to find him and get it back.”
“We can help,” the old man said. “Whatever you need.”
“Ja,” crony number two chimed in. “We helped your father all the time.”
Heinrich wanted to say no thanks, but the faster he found Garrett, the better. The kid had made the customer deliveries before lunch. Since then he’d been delivering Christmas geese to local charities and soup kitchens. All the legit packages had been wrapped the same way—sealed with a gold Metzger’s sticker, tied with a red and green plaid bow, and outfitted with a gift tag that said compliments of Steven Verba. How could Garrett have grabbed the unadorned package and not have noticed it was different?
Regardless, would Heinrich only be making things worse if he involved his father’s friends in order to get it back?
He hesitated, eyeing the old men while he weighed his options. Not that he had many. Verba would flip if he ever found out what had happened, but he would be ruined if the wrong package was delivered to a charity on his behalf. He was a big deal in the community, and reputation meant everything to him.
Heinrich looked at the list again. He ripped it in half and gave the top to the elder crony. “He might be at one of these places. If you find him, stop him and tell him to call me.”
Elder crony squinted at the list. He shook a cigarette out of a beat up pack of Camels and lit it. “These are all on the east side of the city, right?”
The old guy nodded. “Let’s go, then,” he said to the others. “What are we waiting for? Christmas?”
The cronies were still cackling with laughter as Heinrich jumped into his truck. His head throbbed. He drove through the snow to the soup kitchen on Fourth Street where he pounded on the back door and rang the delivery buzzer. The priest who ran the place told him he’d missed Garrett by a matter of minutes, and that the goose he had delivered would feed many hungry mouths. Phew. He felt like a steer escaping the slaughterhouse.
The snow was picking up as Heinrich sped downtown to the second charity on his half of the list. Again, he had missed his nephew. Again, he was thanked for the goose. Again, he thanked God that Garrett had gotten it right so far.
Jumping back into his truck, he vowed to hire a new delivery person, pronto. Then he said a silent prayer asking the powers that be to let him catch up to Garrett while Verba was still none the wiser. If he’d done the deliveries in order, the kid had only two more left. Hopefully he still had the plain package, because if it ended up in the wrong hands, all hell would break loose.
Heinrich tried calling and texting Garrett again, but got no response. He called Carl, who also didn’t answer. Heinrich left a message outlining Garrett’s screw up, and told Carl that if he heard from his son to tell him to stay exactly where he was and call Heinrich.
Heinrich’s low fuel light lit up on the way to the third charity. It blinked a few times before glaring at him steadily. He coasted into a twenty-four-hour gas station and mini-market, and lo and behold, pulled up right next to his own delivery van. Garrett must have gone inside to use the bathroom or to get himself a snack, because he was nowhere in sight. Heinrich didn’t even care. He considered it a Christmas miracle that his low fuel light had guided him to Garrett like the freakin’ Star of Bethlehem.
Heinrich, praying for another miracle, approached the van, opened the door, and looked in the back. There it was—the plain package. The special delivery. Heinrich felt the contents through the paper, just to make sure. He’d wrapped it himself, but after losing track of it, he wanted to be doubly certain. Yup. A chill ran through him as he dragged his fingers over the paper. About the same shape and weight as a Christmas goose, but definitely not what’s for dinner.
He slogged through the slush to take the package to his own truck. As he filled his gas tank, his phone rang. It was Steven Verba.
“Hello, Steven,” Heinrich said. “What can I do for you?”
“Heinie.” It was the nickname Verba had given him in grade school, as if there’d ever been a chance he’d be called something else. “We have a problem.”
Heinrich swallowed, but knew not to speak.
“Your very eager delivery boy delivered a package to my home today. My home.”
Heinrich knew it still wasn’t his turn to speak.
“Do you know what was in that package?”
Heinrich continued to bite his tongue.
“It was a Christmas goose, from me, meant for the homeless shelter by the river.”
Bomb dropped. Now it was Heinrich’s turn. “I’m sorry, Steven. That was my mistake. Keep the goose, I’ll make sure the shelter gets another one, no charge. I’ll deliver it myself.”
“This is not about the goose, Heinie.”
“I know.” Heinrich swallowed. “I have the other package. I’m delivering it personally, right after I close the shop.” He looked at his watch. “Don’t worry, you can count on me.”
“I’m not sure of that anymore.”
“Look, the kid’s my nephew. He’s a stoner, I know it. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the shop was busy and he must have just grabbed the wrong—” Heinrich realized he was listening to a dial tone. He didn’t want to see Garrett right now, so he took off before the kid came back to the van and went to do what he had to do.
He was sweating bullets by the time he delivered the plain package to Deuce Gelder. The tips of Heinrich’s fingers tingled. He gagged once or twice on his way back to the van. No way to sugar-coat his sideline now. He was in it up to his giblets—no better than Verba, who’d sent the vile package as the result of a temper tantrum.
Verba was obsessed with rivalries. Every few months, he threatened to end their arrangement and take his business to Bob Klein, Heinrich’s biggest competitor. Heinrich should have told him to go ahead and do that. Up until now, the job had been to chop up dead bodies and feed them to the pigs. Today, Heinrich handed a man his son’s head in a plain brown wrapper. All because Gelder’s son had come to work for Verba without mentioning who his father was, which had convinced Verba that the kid was a plant. Some kind of corporate spy.
Heinrich heard Gelder’s agonizing wail as he pulled away from the house. A few miles down the road he had to pull over and vomit in the snow.
Instead of going back to the shop, he drove to the cemetery behind the old Grundsow lodge and sat in the truck next to his father’s grave. It was dusk, and red and green Christmas lights from the house across the street lit up the blanket of snow around the headstone. Heinrich’s old man would be disappointed in him for sure. He’d been a butcher his whole life and had supported his family without ever having to do what Heinrich was doing. If he were still here, he’d be back at the shop swapping stories with his old lodge buddies. If he’d been hurting for money, he would have taken on a respectable side job, like shoveling manure or something.
Heinrich made up his mind then. After the holiday he’d call Verba and tell him he was out. His cousins would be pissed about the extra money drying up, but that was too bad.
When he finally got back to the shop, the door was open and Bing Crosby was singing about silver bells. It sounded like a dirge.
Carl was behind the counter. Mr. and Mrs. Shoemaker were leaving with their turkey. “They were waiting in the lot when I got here,” Carl said. “Where’d you take off to?”
“Long story.” Heinrich rubbed his eyes. “Is Garrett back?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him. That’s why I came over. I’ve been trying to get in touch with him since you called.” He looked uneasy. Worried for his son.
Heinrich recalled Deuce Gelder’s wail and dry heaved.
“Whoa.” Carl stepped back. “You sick?”
“I’ll be okay.” Heinrich pulled out his own phone and looked at it. “He hasn’t gotten back to me either. Where the hell is he?”
The shop phone rang and Carl jumped on it. “Metzger’s.” He listened for a few minutes. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” Then he shook his head. “Okay, I’ll tell him.”
“Garrett?” Heinrich asked as Carl hung up.
“No. Your dad’s friends. They said to tell you they got a flat tire over on the east side somewhere. They’ve been wandering around looking for a phone to call a tow truck. They’re going to get the tire fixed and head home.”
Carl glanced into the lot. It was full dark now, and the snow was piling up. “I hope Garrett didn’t have a wreck.”
“I don’t think he had a wreck. I think he got the munchies and doesn’t give a crap about making the deliveries.”
“What’s your problem today?” Carl asked.
Heinrich filled him in on the day’s events, skipping the part where he threw up. “Tonight was the last time. I’m done. I’m sorry. We’ll find another way to make some extra cash.”
“You think it’s going to be that easy?” The blood drained from Carl’s face. “You think Verba will just let us stop?”
“Yeah,” Heinrich said. “He doesn’t really have a choice, does he?”
“Sure he does.” Carl dragged his hands through his hair. He turned a circle. “He can choose to whack us both to keep us from going to the cops.”
“With what?” Heinrich leaned against the counter and hung his head. “There’s no evidence he ever did anything wrong. That was the beauty of the whole operation. No body, no crime.”
“What if Gelder takes the head to the cops?”
“He won’t,” Heinrich said. “Guys like Verba and Gelder settle their own scores.”
“I guess so,” Carl said.
The bell above the door jingled, and Heinrich expected it to be Garrett or one of the customers he was still waiting for. Instead, a courier ran up to the counter with a package. It was wrapped in brown butcher paper and tied with a silver bow. The gift card on top said compliments of Steven Verba and Klein’s butcher shop. It looked to be the shape and weight of a Christmas goose.
Since winning the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award in 2014, Tracy Falenwolfe’s stories have appeared in over a dozen publications including Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, and Crimson Streets. Tracy lives in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley with her husband and sons. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find her at www.tracyfalenwolfe.com