As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of stories soon.
This week’s story was one that I wrote at the urging of a marketing person I was working with at the time. It was Christmas time and he convinced me that writing a holiday-themed short story that included some characters from my detective series would be a good marketing tool.
I was skeptical, but actually wrote this entire story during a flight from Atlanta to Boston that was repeatedly delayed due to weather. By the time I landed, the first draft of the story was done.
This tale is included in my short story collection, Random Tales, a collection of unrelated stories.
My next collection, releasing on March 29th, will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in four years.
I hope you enjoy,Lucy’s Christmas Miracle, posted here as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story. Note:If you’ve read any of my Frank Rozzani books, you’ll spot some familiar locations and names. A quick note on the cover: I had this cover designed so the story could be a standalone on Amazon. The dog and the girl in the picture look eerily like my dog, Lucy, that I had for many years and my daughter. The cover artist never saw photos of either one, but this was what she came up with.
Lucy’s Christmas Miracle
A Frank Rozzani Private Detective Short Story
I wrote this story completely on a flight from Atlanta to Boston. It was about a two hour flight in rough weather. It was inspired by the dog, Lucy, in my Frank Rozzani Detective Series books. It’s a light-hearted story about a child that goes missing and the events leading to locating her.
It was meant to be a quick tale to get readers interested in my books and as a special Christmas bonus to those who have read the books to whet their appetites for the third book.
I had written the dedication to my youngest daughter who is sometimes wise beyond her years. A freaky thing occurred when I asked my usual provider to create a cover for the story. It came back with a picture of a little girl being guided by a dog. I had to take a second look at the picture as the little girl has a strong resemblance to my daughter mentioned in the dedication. The designer has never met or even seen my daughter, so the coincidence was interesting.
I hope you enjoy this tale and the message that it brings about what is important in life.
This story is dedicated to my youngest daughter Lilliana who believes in the magic of Christmas. She doesn’t see Christmas as a time for toys and presents. When she was five, her Christmas list started with wanting to be together with her family on Christmas. We can all learn a lot from little ones who are pure of heart and spirit.
“She’s missing. I can’t find Ruby anywhere.”
“What do you mean she’s missing? She’s only three. How could she get away from you?”
“Armand, I don’t know. I just went into the laundry room for a second. She was watching Barney on TV in the living room. I came back and she was gone.”
This was the conversation between Raven and Armand Bigtree. Armand had just finished playing bass with Frank and Jonesy at the annual Sun Dog Christmas party. Fat Sam hosted the party every year for his employees, their children, and the children from the community. Fully decked out as Santa Claus, Sam gave gifts to the local kids and provided music and food for their parents.
“That’s why you didn’t bring her to the party. What if she comes home while you’re gone?”
“I asked Judy next door to stay at our place in case she comes home. I need you to come and help me find her.”
Jonesy was dismantling his drum kit and overheard the conversation.
“Is there someplace that you think she might go?”
Armand’s wife, Raven, turned to face him.
“I’ve checked all of those places, the playground, the park, the pond behind our house, that’s why I’m here. I thought Armand and whoever else is around can help me look.”
Raven began to tear up and then sank into a chair.
“I feel so bad. She wanted to play and I was so busy getting ready to come to the party that I turned my back on her for just a split second.”
Armand stood like a 6’7″ tree behind his petite wife and put his gigantic hands on her shoulders.
“It’s not your fault. Let’s just find her,” Armand said with a quivering voice. He idolized his little girl, but wanted to be strong for Raven. “She couldn’t have gone too far.”
Armand, Raven, and Jonesy left the Sun Dog to split up and look for three-year-old Ruby Bigtree. It was three days before Christmas.
The little girl was zigzagging down the sidewalk. Lucy had never seen one this small just wandering out here without a larger human or two controlling where it went. She stopped to pick a flower then was off to stand next to a tree. There was no adult with her. Lucy thought she better follow.
This little human was interesting. She wasn’t as sure-footed as most of the taller ones, kind of unstable like the older humans, but much faster and unpredictable. This one also smelled different. A combination of sweat, dirt, indoor, and outdoor smells made this human easy to follow. Lucy could always sense the feelings of people by how they moved and how they smelled. She knew when they were scared, dangerous, friendly, or sick. She didn’t think about why, she just assumed all creatures like her could do this.
The little one wasn’t afraid of her. Lucy just instinctively followed.
Frank Rozzani arrived at his trailer after playing at the annual Sun Dog Christmas Party. He was home to shower and change so that he and his dog, Lucy, could head out for dinner. He was disappointed, but not totally surprised, when Lucy didn’t emerge from the doggie-door in the trailer. She was spending an increasing amount of time outside now that the weather was cooler. He was about to go into the bathroom to shower when his cell phone rang. It was Jonesy.
“Did you miss me already?”
“Frank, it’s Ruby Bigtree. She’s missing. Raven and Armand asked me to help look for her and I thought we could use help from you and Lucy.”
“Missing? Did someone take her?”
“We don’t think so. We think she wandered off from their house.”
“Well, I can help. Lucy isn’t around. She’s probably out exploring”
“Okay. We’re starting at Armand’s house and fanning out from there.”
“I’ll see you there in a few minutes.”
Frank headed back out to his car and drove the two miles to Armand and Raven Bigtree’s house. He phoned Anita to fill her in.
“That’s terrible Frank. I’ll meet you over there. I haven’t seen Lucy either. She’s probably found something interesting to dig up or sniff out in the woods.”
“Too bad. She might be able to help us.”
The Bigtree family lived in a rented house near the corner of East Coast Drive and First Street. It was only a short two block drive from the Sun Dog. They loved the community and had become part of the extended family that Fat Sam, had attracted. In fact, Sam owned the house and rented it to Armand and Raven at a reasonable price. When Ruby was born three years ago, Sam actually surprised them with a fully equipped nursery and lowered their rent because of the extra mouth to feed.
Frank, Jonesy, and Anita met in front of the house. They decided to split up for their search. Jonesy went west along East Coast Drive. Anita went north on First Street. Armand and Raven went south on First Street. Other friends and neighbors combed the beach area. Frank took the wooded area near the back yard of the Bigtree house that spread between First and Second Street and was bordered by Sherry Drive. There were some paths, but it was mostly overgrown evergreen trees and undergrowth. He wished Lucy was with him not only to help find Ruby, but to alert Frank of any creatures lurking in the woods.
Frank knew as he searched that locating the child quickly was of supreme importance. Although not cold during the day with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 50’s, the temperature tonight was supposed to drop into the upper 30’s with a chance for rain. The odds of survival would decrease drastically. Darkness was only about three hours away.
Following the little human was proving to be a challenge. She did not seem to know where she was headed. She changed directions and speeds based on new things that she wanted to touch. Lucy had been around puppies and the behavior was not that different. She had to divert the small human from the busy hard path that all of those rolling metal things moved on. Lucy had seen both animals and humans lose battles with those things when they got in their way. This little human wouldn’t stand a chance. Lucy had followed her quite a distance from when she saw the child coming out of the house. Lucy felt a sense of relief when she saw it head for the woods. She could protect it much better there where only the elements and other animals were the threat. Lucy felt the cold, wet weather that would soon be coming.
Jonesy’s walk on East Coast Drive took him past the back of a couple of local businesses. The first was the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theater, or ABET, as it was known by the locals. ABET was currently running a holiday family play based on the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It had played before packed houses for both matinees and evening performances. Jonesy found some of the set decorators touching up pieces of scenery behind the building. He stopped by to talk to them.
“Hello there. I was wondering if you can help me.”
“Sure,” the big burly male that was painting a plywood fireplace said to Jonesy. “You’re Cliff Jones, aren’t you? I’ve been in your surf shop. You have some primo gear.”
Jonesy was trying to picture this nearly 300 pound man on a surfboard.
“Thanks. I’m looking for a little girl that’s missing. She has dark eyes and dark hair. She’s three years old. She lives over on First Street right at the corner.
“Oh man, that’s not Armand and Raven’s kid, Ruby, is it?” asked the red-headed female.
Yes,” Jonesy said. “Have you seen her?”
“No, but we will be on the lookout for her. My name is Gretchen. My sister works over at the Sun Dog. This here is Orson.”
“I think I know your sister. Does she have red hair also?”
“She does on most days. Sometimes it’s purple or blue.”
“It was just red and green for the Christmas party today. Anyway, if you see Ruby, will you please let me know right away?”
Jonesy handed Gretchen a card.
“I will. Orson and I will help look for her as soon as we cover this paint. We’ll get whoever is here to help too.”
“That’s great,” Jonesy said as he moved to continue on his way. The sun was beginning to get pretty low in the west and he didn’t want to waste any time.
Anita covered the area between the beach and Sherry Drive on First Street. She stopped every bicyclist, skateboarder, jogger, and dog walker that would listen and showed them a picture of Ruby that she had borrowed from Raven. She didn’t have any luck until she stopped an elderly couple riding a tandem bicycle. The husband passed the picture to his wife.
“I don’t know,” the wife said. “I’m pretty sure we saw this girl playing in the front yard of a house about a block away. It was a dark blue two story house with gray trim.”
“I think you’re right Ellie,” said the husband. “She was playing with a doll out there and then some woman brought her in the house. She wasn’t too happy to be going in.”
“And you both think it was the same girl in this picture?” Anita asked.
“Well, we can’t be one hundred percent sure with these old eyes, but, yes, I’d say she was pretty close. Don’t you think so Ellie?”
“I do. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to be sure.”
Anita agreed and made her way to the house that Ellie and her husband described. The couple had dismounted their bike and were following a short distance behind Anita. She was a bit nervous to knock on someone’s door and asking them if they had kidnapped a child. She decided to go ahead and knock and then wing it from there.
Anita climbed the stairs to the porch. The house was decorated for Christmas and was neat and well landscaped. It didn’t look like the house of a kidnapper, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. She rang the doorbell and immediately heard the barking of a small dog and the scamper of little feet.
“Don’t open the door until I get there, Zoe,” came a woman’s voice from inside.
When the door opened, a twenty-something year old woman with dark hair and eyes was standing there with a young girl, three to four years of age, clinging to her leg. It wasn’t Ruby. Anita improvised and held up Ruby’s picture.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you’ve seen this little girl. She’s been missing for almost an hour and she was last seen in this area.”
“Is that Ruby Bigtree? She’s friends with my Zoe. Oh my gosh, she’s missing?”
“She is. A group of us are out looking for her.”
“Well we will join in the search. Zoe was just playing with her yesterday.”
“Thank you. The more people we have looking, the better our chances of finding her.”
Anita turned to leave and the elderly couple was just getting back on their bicycles.
“We will help look for her too. We may be old, but we can cover some ground on our bike,” the husband said.
“Great. Every pair of eyes will help.”
Frank had covered most of the wooded area that was bordered by Sherry Drive and First Street. He found several beer cans, some wine bottles, and various other signs of temporary occupation, but nothing that would indicate that a three-year-old had recently been here. It was beginning to get quite dark. Frank had grabbed the flashlight that he kept in the trunk of his car, but, in the woods, the darkness was almost absolute and the flashlight only lit up a small area around him. It was time to head back to the Bigtree house. It was likely that Ruby was already back, but if not, it was time to call in the cavalry.
When Frank got back to the small house on First Street, the cavalry had already arrived. He saw Anita’s Jacksonville Police Department cruiser. He also recognized Fat Sam’s SUV and saw that there were several other cars, motorcycles, and bikes near the house. Jonesy and Anita were already back and Sam was in the kitchen cooking food for everyone. Jonesy and the Bigtrees were huddled around listening to Anita as she laid out the game plan. Frank moved closer to join the group.
“What we need to do now is form a search grid,” Anita said. “I have mobilized just about every officer on duty and several that have volunteered to come in that were off-duty. I am bringing in all of our canine units. These dogs are trained to subdue bad guys, but they can also do a pretty mean job of tracking when we need them to. We also have a lot of volunteers that just showed up. We will get people going door to door with pictures of Ruby. I’ve had the volunteers take a picture of one of her recent photos with their cell phones.”
“I checked the woods over by Sherry and First,” Frank interjected. “I didn’t see any sign of her.”
Anita motioned for Frank and Jonesy to join her outside. They followed her into a remote corner of the front yard.
“I won’t lie to you two. If we don’t find her close by, that might mean that somebody snatched her. It’s already been two and a half hours since Raven noticed her missing. If she’s been taken, we’ve got a whole new situation here. Do either of you know if Armand and Raven have any enemies that would use Ruby to get back at them somehow?”
“I seriously doubt it,” Frank said. “They are the nicest people I know. They are both hardworking and well-liked in the community.”
“That’s what I thought, but I have to ask in these situations.”
“How big of an area are you going to search?”
“Based on the manpower we have, we can search a five mile radius from their house. That will cover most of Atlantic and Neptune beach from the ocean to the Intracoastal,” Anita answered.
“Okay,” Jonesy said. “We are in this for the long haul. Let us know where we will be most useful.”
Anita’s silence meant that she had to think about this for a minute.
“Jonesy, why don’t you cover the beach? You know every inch and every wave up and down the beach. You know all of the hiding places in the dunes. Take a few people with you and fan out through that area.”
“Frank, I want you with me. We’re going to drive around that five mile radius and make sure every inch is being covered. I’ve got the radio so if anything happens, we’ll know about it first. I want you with me when we find her.”
“That makes sense. In this one, you’re the boss. Just let me know what you need.”
Anita went back into the house. She had designated members of her department to lead squads of civilians. They were in the house awaiting direction. The members of her force were searching maps of Neptune and Atlantic beach on laptops on the dining room table. Anita used them to give direction to her team. When she was done, everyone headed for the front door to put the plan in operation. Armand and Raven had asked to be part of the teams. They felt like sitting and waiting at their house would be unbearable. Anita insisted that they stay at home. She knew that finding Ruby might not be the happy reunion that her parents hoped for and wanted to spare them from that possibility.
Frank slid into the passenger seat of Anita’s cruiser. Anita joined him and let out a big sigh.
“How are you holding up?” Frank asked.
“How do you think? Armand and Raven are friends. Their precious little girl is missing. It’s raining and in the upper 30’s out here. The temperatures are falling. She can’t survive out in the elements for very long. We have a lot of area to cover in the dark. We will probably find her, but I’m nervous about how we will find her. The odds aren’t on her side.”
“That’s where I figured you were at. I’m going to give you some advice that I use on my cases. What I’m going to tell you is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. When my wife died, I was immediately filled with negativity. I looked for bad in everyone. When I first started working cases in Jacksonville, I approached every client as if they had something to hide and expected a bad outcome to every case.”
“Hey, great pep talk so far.”
“Just let me finish. You know what I found? There is a lot of good in the world. You just have to stop looking for the bad and let the good find you. I share your dread that Ruby can’t survive long out here, but we have a strong community looking for her. Let’s not start looking for her expecting the negative. That negativity has a way of spreading like a cancer. Let’s look for Ruby and we will handle whatever comes of it. I can’t promise that she’ll be okay, but, if I’ve learned nothing else, we have to have faith that things will turn out in a positive way.”
“Thanks. I can see where expecting the worst will burn someone out quickly in this line of work. When it’s friends, it makes it twice as hard because of the potential long-term effects of tragedy.”
With that, Anita put the car into gear and they drove silently through the streets of Neptune and Atlantic beach.
It was getting cold and lots of water was starting to fall out of the sky. Lucy’s fur kept the cold and dampness at bay, but she could see the little human’s clothes getting soaked as it began to shiver. Lucy knew that it was time to go into protection mode. She edged closer to the little girl. She didn’t want to scare her. When she was close enough, she bit down firmly on the little one’s outer layer of covering on her arm, careful to make sure that no flesh was in her clasped jaws, and she pulled the child toward shelter. There was a group of tall live oak trees that bordered the clearing they were in. The dense leaves would keep the water to a minimum as it continued to fall from the sky. Lucy would do the rest to protect the child.
The search continued throughout the night. They had been driving around for six hours. It was now about four in the morning and Frank suggested they get some coffee to shake off the drowsiness. They had several false reports come in, but nothing had turned out to lead them to Ruby.
“Hey, it will be light in a couple of hours. That will make the search easier,” Frank said in an animated voice trying to maintain an upbeat mood.
“Frank, it’s been a long time out in the cold. The rain has stopped, but, unless she made it inside somewhere, I just don’t want to think about how this is going to end.”
“Maybe someone took her in and she wasn’t able to tell them where she lived.”
“I doubt it. Armand and Raven told me that they work with her frequently having her recite her name, their names, her address, and phone number.”
“At three years old? Seems kind of young.”
“Even if she can tell them her own name, that’s a big help.”
“Well, let’s get back at it. I’m worried about Lucy too.”
Frank and Anita had stopped by his trailer a couple of times during the night and there was no sign of Lucy. Frank knew she could survive on her own, but it was very unusual for her to be gone all night.
“The K-9 units had a heck of a time finding Ruby’s trail. The rain washes away all of the scent. Hopefully, as things dry up, they’ll have better luck.”
“We’ll have some fresh volunteers in the morning. I know we’ll find her soon.”
Frank kept visualizing positive thoughts to keep himself going as much as to motivate Anita. He was no stranger to having family members and loved ones in danger. It could be grueling on one’s psyche to go through the uncertainty. He could empathize with what Armand and Raven were going through. Once they were back in the cruiser with some coffee and donuts, Anita pulled out into non-existent traffic and began cruising their search area again.
Jonesy and his surf shop manager, Dusty, were leading a search group on the beach. He had one group searching the sand itself while others carefully used walkovers and other vantage points to check the dunes. Jonesy didn’t want to disturb the delicate dunes and he also didn’t want to send his companions into them in the dark. The dunes were a favorite resting spot for rattlesnakes and other pleasant creatures in Florida. He didn’t want to put them at risk and have them end up with a poisonous bite for all of their trouble.
They were on a stretch of beach not too far from the Sun Dog when someone in the group shouted for them to come to the spot they were checking out. As Jonesy approached, he saw a small lump in the sand that seemed out of place. He started to move faster, but as he did, his mind filled with dread.
“It’s covered with sand,” Dusty said as Jonesy reached the area.
“I’m not surprised, the tide just went out and this area was covered with water just a little while ago.”
Jonesy and a few others worked to remove the thin layer of sand. When they did, Jonesy realized that the lump was made by a canvas bag. The bag was soft and was about three and a half feet long. It was tied at the top. The collective beams of flashlights lit up the top of the bag as Jonesy steeled himself to untie the rope so they could see what was inside.
As he loosened the rope, he opened the top of the bag just enough to see dark hair just inside the bag. He felt deflated, but they had to be sure. He opened the bag and a one foot diameter object covered with dark hair fell out of the bag into the darkness at his feet startling him and eliciting a collective gasp from the group. As he shined the flashlight on the object at his feet, he began to laugh. It was an uncontrollable belly laugh that hits someone when they’ve had little sleep and are under a great deal of stress.
“What’s so funny,” Dusty asked as he gazed down at the object in the flashlight’s beam. When he saw it, he began to laugh as well.
“Looks like this bag fell off of a cargo ship from China,” Jonesy said as he picked up the teddy bear with the dark fur. He then shined his light on the side of the bag and noted the Chinese characters stenciled on the side of it. The rest of the bag contained soggy duplicates of the initial bear. The sigh from the group was palpable, but Ruby had still not been found.
It was six in the morning and the sun was starting to come up over the Atlantic. It was going to be a cloudless winter day in North Florida. Anita and Frank sat in her cruiser in front of the Sun Dog, a place of so many good times. Today’s mood, however, was not good.
“I think it’s time, Frank. We need to call in the FBI. I don’t think she’s still in the area. Some sicko probably picked her up and took her miles away.”
“I hate to admit it, but I think you’re right. Let’s call it in and then we’ll go back and tell Armand and Raven.”
Anita took out her cell phone and called the local FBI field office in Duval County. She was on hold briefly, but then began to talk to someone in the appropriate department.
“That’s right. Missing three-year-old. Native American features. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Last seen wearing a red jumper with a green turtleneck underneath.”
Just then, Anita’s radio began to squawk loudly. She motioned to Frank to turn it down.
“…Lieutenant Velasquez…you’ve got to see this…”
Anita turned to look at Frank. He turned the radio back up. Anita told the person on the phone that she would call back and she ended the call.
“Say again Drake. What do I need to see?”
“I can’t explain it Lieutenant. Just come to the wooded area over by the elementary school just past the playground. You’ve got to see this for yourself.”
They were only about half a mile from the spot. Anita put on her lights and siren and they sped there at light speed. When they arrived, the K-9 unit’s SUV and Sergeant William Drake’s cruiser were parked at the elementary school. A crowd was moving toward the woods. Anita was filled with dread as she moved toward the spot. There is no way that Ruby could have survived the cold, damp night in the woods.
When she and Frank walked past the playground and down the little trail to a clearing, she was filled with sadness at what she saw. Ruby’s body was curled up next to something black under some live oak trees. An animal must have attacked her and dragged her here. As she got closer, she saw the K-9 officer seated near the body and a beaming smile on Drake’s face.
“Why are you smiling, Drake? What’s going on here?”
“Shhh,” Drake said. “She’s asleep.”
All of a sudden, Lucy’s head popped up from where it was curled around Ruby. The look on her face could only be described as a dog smile. She didn’t get up, though, as she didn’t want to wake the peaceful child.
“Apparently Rozzani’s dog spent the night in the woods with her keeping her warm. The K-9 officer found her and just sat there and let the kid sleep.”
Frank walked over to his dog. Lucy’s tail immediately started to wag.
“Good girl Lucy,” Frank said in a wavering voice. “You’re a good dog. That’s where you were all night, Lucy. I guess I’ll have to give you a pass on this one. You’re a good girl.”
Lucy wagged her tail gently. As she did, Ruby stirred and let out a huge yawn. She opened her eyes and then looked around at all of the people gathered in the clearing near the trees. She stretched and put her head back down on her new canine friend. Frank called Armand and Raven’s house to tell them what was going on. The collective screams could be heard over Frank’s phone.
“Just bring our little girl home to us. Bring Lucy too. We want to thank her.”
When Frank and Anita got back to the Bigtree house, there were people everywhere. The applause broke out as soon as Frank carried Ruby to her waiting parents. The volume of applause increased when Lucy emerged from the back of the cruiser and shook herself dry. Sam had prepared a breakfast feast for everyone. Not to be forgotten, he had prepared a special treat for Lucy, a huge bowl of chicken gumbo, which she ate happily in between pats and words of praise from everyone present.