The Christmas House
                                                   Late November, 1957

          Evelyn Kitt shoved open the driver’s door of her faded black 1949 Chevrolet Deluxe,
gave the parking lot a quick glance to be sure she was alone, and then stepped out into the
November pre-dawn darkness.  Cinching the belt of her dark blue swing-coat against the
stinging, wind-driven drizzle, she leaned into the rear passenger compartment to extract a
large wicker basket covered by a tattered brown baby’s blanket.  She then straightened, self-
consciously smoothed the front of her coat, and braced against the weight of the basket
before starting what she hoped would be a quick and furtive walk to the front door.
         As she approached her destination, Evelyn’s eyes darted from one dimly lit window to
another.  With each step, the clacking sound of her heels, striking the cold concrete
sidewalk, echoed off of the stone and brick façade of the Ransom Orphanage and made her
wish she had worn her rubber soled work shoes, which now sat in her locker at the hospital.
         After a few nerve-wracking moments, she arrived at the front entrance of the old
building and set the basket down under a small awning on one side of the large double-
doorway.  A naked, yellow light bulb screwed into a socket under the awning illuminated
anything placed there.
Kneeling down, she pulled the blanket back, gave her sleeping two-day old daughter a kiss,
and then wiped one of her own wayward tears from the child’s cheek.  More tears marred
Evelyn’s makeup as she stood and walked away.    
         When she reached the car, she tugged the door open, turned around and regarded
her progeny’s new home for a second.  Instinct urged her to linger until she saw that the
basket had been discovered, but she couldn’t risk being seen.  Evelyn took solace in the
knowledge that a shift change would be coming soon and her daughter would not be in the
cold for long.  Sadly, parents abandoning children at this orphanage was a fairly common
occurrence, so she knew the workers here would immediately know the significance of the
large basket deposited under the purpose-built awning by the front door.       
         Evelyn felt numb as she forced herself back into the car.  She then took one last look
at the solitary basket as she started the engine and shifted the idling Chevy into gear.  After
a long moment, she slipped the clutch, and the car sputtered off towards Scranton.  She
would have to hustle if she expected to make it to work on time.  It would not do for the
young director of pediatric nursing at the Scranton General Hospital to be late for her shift.
                                                                     ___
         As she drove into the gathering dawn, Evelyn thought about the wretched mess her
relationship with the father of her child had become over the last six months.  When she told
him she was pregnant, he and his family offered to pay for an abortion during her first
trimester.  They were rich and well known locally and didn’t want the scandal of a bastard
child.  She made the sign of the cross and uttered, “God forgive me,” as she admitted to
herself that she felt thankful when he managed to go back to the angels after wrapping his
car around a tree on Route Eleven.  
         When he died, she didn’t see the point in telling her own family, so she hid the
pregnancy from them.  She shook her head as she remembered wearing loose clothes and
largely avoiding them for the last five months of her pregnancy, feigning night and weekend
courses as requirements for her new position.     
         After stopping for a traffic light, the urge to go back and retrieve her daughter still
strong, Evelyn noticed her hand was a bit jittery when she reached for the gear shift on the
steering column.  To calm herself, she took a deep breath, blew it out through pursed lips,
and reminded herself that her troubles were behind her, both geographically and
chronologically, and before long she would be the only person who would give one whit
about what happened here today.  



                                                               Chapter One
                                           Thursday, August Seventeenth, 1995

         Spring’s soft rains and summer’s gentle caress had dressed the coal regions of
Northeastern Pennsylvania in shades of green ranging from kelly to teal.  A fleeting dry wind
distributed the scents of bluebell, lilac and other wildflowers as it mitigated the heat from the
mid-August sun.  It appeared Shelly Simon had picked a perfect morning to wrestle the
family’s bed sheets on to the back-yard clothesline where they would dry naturally and
absorb the floral bouquet the breeze provided.  
         While she worked, she had a dialogue with her two-year-old
daughter Carey, who intently watched from the side of her playpen.  As Shelly methodically
clothes-pinned each sheet to the line, arm-length by arm-length, she occasionally stopped
and dramatically inhaled the fragrant breeze.  Her histrionics caused her daughter to giggle
and in between repeatedly pulling her yellow sundress over her head, Carey quizzically
looked at Shelly and chirped, “Mom!  You silly.”
         One of the things that had attracted the Simons to this property was that it backed up
to a sheer cliff face that had been scrubbed out by the erosive action of the Susquehanna
River before it shifted west, soon after the last ice age.  The scarp now erupted almost
straight up from the ground, and terminated as a flat, bald ledge, eight-hundred-feet up.  
This ledge was a favorite hiking destination for the family and where the dogs were now
lined up.
                                                                       ___
         As Shelly bonded with Carey, the dog’s master methodically passed one of the child’s
discarded diapers under their noses, and they crowded it, inhaling its scent like a rich
bouquet.  Steely eyes then shifted their focus to a point out over the cliff, narrowing to better
observe the idyllic scene far below.  The dogs, too, focused their gazes, panting and
muzzles dripping, while they waited for the command.  A moment later, a soft double-click
sound caused their ears to prick up and they immediately began an easy lope down the
rocky path that skirted the weathered face of Campbell’s ledge.  In less than a minute they
silently glided down the half-mile trail, poured into the field below, and then eagerly sprinted
the last hundred yards through the tall grass to the Simon’s yard.
                                                                        ___
         Oblivious to the dogs’ approach, Shelly knelt next to the playpen, repeatedly sticking
her nose through the mesh side material.  Carey was chuckling and struggling to maintain
her nascent balance as her mother playfully nuzzled her.  Suddenly Carey looked toward
the woods and gleefully squealed, "Puppies."  
"Puppies," Shelly repeated curiously, as she followed
Carey's gaze.  
         The dogs had remained hidden by the tall weeds until they silently bounded over and
through the four-foot-tall rail fence at the perimeter of the property.  Shelly could now see
that they were taller than normal dogs and heavily muscled.  The first dog was the lankiest
and had a blotchy coat comprised mostly of black and tan with some white patches over the
shoulders and hips.  The one immediately behind had a mostly black coat with some tan
accents around the eyes.  The last three had matted, mostly black and tan, blotchy
coats.         
        The primitive looking predators traversed the dirt covered path that led through the
Simon’s property in seconds and when they were within a few yards, the leader let out a low
growl.  Shelly panicked and tried to reach through the mesh to cover Carey with her arms.  
She was too shocked to scream.
         The three subordinate dogs attacked Shelly, knocking her to the ground.  Sharp
canines and incisors sank in to the pulpy skin at the base of her neck, lower jaw and left calf
muscle.  She tried to scream for help, but the dog clamped to her jaw silenced her, so only a
low guttural roar emanated from her as she fought for her and her daughter’s life.  
         Carey let out a short plaintive cry as the two lead dogs jumped into the playpen.  The
blotchy alpha dog sank her teeth into the soft flesh of the toddler’s throat, growled and
shook her like a rag doll.  The mostly-black canine caught her foot in its scissors like teeth
and tugged, eventually biting through the tender young tendons and greenstick bones,
finally running off with its prize.
         The dog holding the lifeless toddler by her neck then jumped from the playpen and
jauntily trotted off for the woods, holding its head high as though the child’s body weighed
nothing.  Seeing this, Shelly ignored her pain and kicked and lashed out at the three dogs
holding her down, actually managing to stab a clothes-pin into one of the dogs’ eyes,
causing it to yelp and back away.  The other two also retreated long enough to give Shelly a
chance to flip to her stomach, but when she tried to push up, she discovered her left arm
simply would not respond to her brain’s commands to support her.  It was numb and weak
because when the lead dog had bitten through her shoulder it had damaged the nerves
running from her neck, rendering the arm almost useless.
         With adrenaline substituting for the help of her left arm, Shelly finally managed to get
to her knees.  Just as she did, a faint clicking noise, barely audible to her, caused her
attacker’s ears to prick up and they stood motionless as if waiting for their next order.  Then,
after a short two-note whistle they all looked up toward the ledge and began to run in unison
toward the back fence, silently disappearing into the tall, yellow-green grass.  Shelly
watched them disappear, her face a mask.  Helpless, she closed her eyes, taking no solace
from the caress of the summer sun.  "Carey," she squeaked forlornly as she fell back to the
ground, bleeding and gasping and fighting to remain conscious.  She didn't cry. She
couldn't.
                                                                     ___
         The five dogs bounded up the mountain trail.  When they reached their master, sitting
in the truck, they began to yip with excitement.  The first dog laid Carey Simon’s remains at
the master’s feet and lowered and rotated its head as a sign of submission.  The other dogs
performed the same act and each of them was rewarded with a scratch behind the ears.  
Then, in response to a gruff, “In,” the dogs jumped into the back of the waiting vehicle, and
the driver tugged at a rope that was attached to the tailgate, closing it with a metallic
“thunk.” Then a weathered hand roughly yanked the shift lever on the floor into low range in
the four-wheel drive’s transfer case.  This was done to limit the speed of the old beater
before it traversed the precipitous descents that lay ahead.
         The top of this prehistoric shelf was formed by a rocky slab oriented along a north-
south axis roughly a hundred feet wide and two hundred feet long.  It was bordered by the
cliff on one side and a dense forest on the other.  On the southeastern side of the plateau,
a steep trail cut between boulders twice the size of the old SUV, led into the woods.  Once
passable by car when the coal mines were the major industry in the area, it was now a
barely navigable path that necessitated a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who
knew how to avoid the lethal outcrops that could hang up an axle, or sever a brake line.  In
places, leafy boughs of opposing trees reached across the road, forming a verdant tunnel
that on a less sunny day might have necessitated headlights.  The old Chevy now inched
down this dark corridor.
         When the steepest part of the road was behind it, the truck picked up speed
splashing through countless puddles up to its frame and across streams which earlier in the
year would have been impassable.  As it careened along, its deep-lugged tires slung foul
smelling muck against the sides of the old truck and up through holes in the floor.  This
patina would later serve as good camouflage when it was secreted in its hiding place.  
       After traveling for three miles along overgrown mining trails that had only been used by
off-road enthusiasts and mushroom pickers since the late fifties, the SUV and its grizzly
cargo suddenly made a hard right turn through a gap in some trees, straightened out and
then began to back down a steep slope. The driver rode the brakes for roughly a hundred
feet, before whipping the wheel to the left and parallel parking the truck into a depression in
the canyon wall.  This left the vehicle hidden under the road bed and rendered it invisible
from almost any angle.
       After shutting the engine down and scrambling through the passenger door, the driver
called the dogs and they clambered over the seat and tumbled onto the soft culm.  The floor
of the ravine was so steep that the dogs immediately began to slide downward toward the
bottom where there was a small cave-like opening barely visible through the brush.  As they
struggled to maintain their positions, they began to drip saliva from their muzzles.   
         The driver then leaned into the truck, un-wrapped the toddler’s body, and gazed at
her lifeless face for a moment.  Suddenly, an errant tear escaped otherwise dispassionate
eyes and for a moment the stolid face wrinkled with anguish.  Then, jaw muscles knotting
reflexively, the brute first hugged Carey’s body and then laid it across the seat, steadied it,
and in one swift movement lopped off the child’s left wrist and hand with a small, razor-sharp
hatchet.  A few moments later the body of the toddler was thrown to the dogs.  Growling and
fighting ensued as they each tried to tear off a piece of the defiled baby for themselves.  
The guttural sounds of combat and tearing flesh made the forest go quiet as the other
animals cowered.  
      When they divided up the carcass to their mutual satisfaction, they each retired to a
spot around the cave mouth and gnawed on their respective morsel.  After allowing them a
short time with their prizes, their master limped around the clearing, gathered up what
pieces of the skeleton the dogs hadn’t swallowed, and placed the remains in a plastic bag.  
Then, after covering the exposed side of the truck with fresh cut branches still lush with
leaves and blossoms, the driver used a double note whistle and a hand sign to send the
dogs running through the small opening at the base of the ravine into a long-forgotten coal
mine.
      Taking a quick look around, the pack-leader then crawled through the entrance, stood
up and leaned back out to pull what appeared to be a huge boulder across the entrance,
plunging the cave into inky blackness.  In less than a second, a small flashlight was clicked,
casting a dim funnel of light.
       The tunnel they had entered sloped gently away from the entrance.  A little more than
two-hundred feet in, it led through a large room, sloped back up twenty feet or so, then
leveled out and bored straight into the side of the mountain.  Large diameter timbers placed
every two and half feet adorned the walls on the sides of the up-sloping tunnel.  After
another twenty feet, smaller, less frequent, arthritic looking timbers –the last line of defense
against the mountain closing this old wound- continued down the more level part of the
tunnel.  
      In the middle of the passage, rotting railroad ties still supported rusty narrow-gauge
tracks once used for transporting coal from the deep veins to the surface.  Ground water,
seeping through the ceiling, provided the substrate for a slimy coating that gave portions of
the wall a black oily sheen, and the atmosphere was redolent with the fetid odors of decay,
time, and wet dog.  It was down this forlorn corridor that the hybrid canines ran, silent as
ghosts, followed by their stumbling, noisy master on two canes.
      After a little more than a half-mile, the tunnel splayed into a wider cavern that was at the
bottom of a vertical shaft.  Daylight filtered through here, and illuminated two thin black wires
running along the tunnel roof that intermittently disappeared into the shale ceiling.  At these
points, the proximal end of a small birch limb protruded a few inches out of the low ceiling.  
These nodules represented provisions that had been put in place to erase all evidence of
whatever happened here.   
      The perpetrator knew if police were ever able to discover and connect the mine with the
crimes there would almost certainly be residue that would be traceable.  This could not be
allowed.  The plan was to start a new life when this project was completed with no loose
ends; a new life, perhaps down south, far from the remote hollers of this godforsaken coal
region where the heartache had begun.    
      The air in this grotto was a little dryer than the rest of the mine and the youngest pups
were secreted in a small, grass-lined depression in the wall.  As the older dogs found their
respective places around the cavern for sleeping, their master took a small thermos bottle
out of one pocket and a rubber glove from another.  The glove was then filled with milk from
the thermos and knotted at the end.  Next, it was placed in a leather harness with multiple
cylindrical compartments so each finger went into its own slot.  
      The pups began to yelp and whine when they saw this, their four little blotchy heads
now protruding from their cubby.  As they watched their master strap the harness on, they
became even more excited and began to stumble across the entranceway to their den.  
Some of the other dogs had regurgitated food for them, but they ignored it.  What they
really wanted was mother’s milk.
       The “alpha human” laid down a few feet away and beckoned them in a gentle, tone.  
"Come, my little assassins, time for breakfast." They bounced awkwardly toward their ersatz
mother and each one seized a leather nipple with their pin like teeth, piercing the leather
and the rubber glove underneath.  As they suckled, a dreamy smile crossed their master's
face and a low-pitched moan, almost like purring, filled the cavern.  
        When the glove emptied, the master pulled away from the dogs.  "That's enough for
now.  Don't want you to get too contented." The halter was placed back in its storage niche.  
Then the master limped to the center of the floor and grabbed the bottom of a knotted rope
that hung from a two by six board spanning the orifice above.  Chuffing like a power lifter,
the self-appointed executioner began to ascend the rope hand over hand.  All of the dog’s
heads rose up in unison as they watched their leader levitate higher and higher and finally
disappear through the small hole in the roof of the cavern.
         A few seconds later the light abruptly disappeared as boulder was rolled across the
opening.  The dogs were now in total darkness, but they’re collective gaze remained
focused on the spot where their master had just disappeared.  They remained in that
posture with muzzles lifted and radar-dish ears cocked until they heard familiar sounds: a
metallic clink and then wheels crunching across stones, a few more metallic clinks, the whine
of an electric motor followed by the cough and sputter of a small gasoline engine coming to
life.  Seconds later, the sound trailed off and the dog’s heads drooped as they made their
way to their respective resting places.  They would stay immersed in a dark, virtually silent
world until their leader returned.
                                                                       ___
         Jennifer Martin turned left from Main Street onto Ransom Road, proceeded two miles
on the narrow two-lane drag and finally turned right into the Simon's driveway.  Fifteen
minutes after Carey had been taken, Jennifer put her pale-blue mini-van in park and shut
the engine off.  Smiling, she turned to her preschooler in the back seat and said, "Wanna go
see Carey?"  The child giggled and squirmed in her car seat, reaching out to her mother.
         Jennifer got out of the car and opened the back door to unbuckle her ebullient
daughter.  Katie spilled out of the car and toddled up the driveway and through the wooden
gate that opened into the back yard, delightedly calling her friend's name.  Jennifer quickly
grabbed a diaper bag and ran after her impetuous offspring.  Before she made it to the
gate, she heard Katie scream and begin to cry.  Jennifer’s jog turned into a sprint.  What
she saw when she entered the yard shattered her jubilant mood, like bricks through plate
glass.  
      Shelly lay in a pool of red which contrasted garishly with the patchy green lawn and
cheerlessly flapping sheets.  The left side of her face had been badly mauled and her ear
was all but gone. Jennifer could see that her friend's arms and legs had a blue tinge and her
breathing was coming in short shallow wheezes.  
       Stifling a scream, she scooped up her daughter and turned her away from the
gruesome scene.  She then called out to Shelly, trying to keep her voice steady, while Katie
sobbed uncontrollably.  Shelly did not respond, so Jennifer called again and reached down
with her quivering, free hand to shake her friend.  Shelly finally opened her eyes and
managed to huff out, "Dogs!"
        Straightening back up, Jennifer looked across the back yard and to the woods
beyond.  Afraid the dogs could still be hidden in the tall grass outside the fence, she pulled
her daughter even closer, and ran for the protection of the van.  She opened the driver’s
door, actually threw her daughter into the seat and grabbed her cell phone.  She then
slammed the door and dialed 911.  After she spoke to the operator, she warily walked back
to her friend, repeatedly calling out Carey’s name.
Tell me what you think.  
johnh@parttimediet.com