Authors: Kaitlyn Dunnett
SCONE COLD DEAD
A WEE CHRISTMAS HOMICIDE
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
HAVE A JOYOUS YULETIDE, MERRY NOLLAIG BEAG,
decorated the interior of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. A box of Yule candles sat next to Liss MacCrimmon’s day-by-day calendar on the sales counter. It was open to the current page—Tuesday, the ninth of December.
As Liss wielded a feather duster and rearranged stock, a snippet of an old Christmas carol lodged in her mind and stuck there.
Christmas was coming. The geese were getting fat.
Or at least Liss supposed they were, not being acquainted with any personally. But with sales virtually nonexistent, she had a scant supply of pennies to put in
the poor man’s hat.
Or was it the
Liss never could remember the exact lyrics. She wasn’t much of a singer, either. Alone in the shop, she contented herself with humming the melody aloud. Even that small musical effort was off-key, but not far enough to silence her.
A glance through the plate-glass display window at the front of the store revealed the same bare, unappealing landscape she’d seen every other time she’d looked. Skeletal branches reached up into an impossibly blue sky, starkly silhouetted against that cloudless backdrop. On the ground, patches of dead, yellow-brown grass alternated with piles of rotting leaves, pummeled by hard rains into shapeless, colorless lumps of vegetation. The vivid hues that had brought tourists flocking to Maine in the fall were only a distant memory.
Bright morning sun made the scene even more depressing. Still no snow. How could it
snow in Maine in December?
“Think snow,” Liss muttered to herself. “I ought to put
on a banner.”
People had a right to see the white stuff on the ground by now. Skiers expected to be able to take their first outing of the season during Christmas vacation, if not before. Even more important, the residents of Carrabassett County needed tourists to show up and spend money on lift tickets, lodging, food, and gifts. Without that regular influx of business, everybody suffered, especially the tiny town of Moosetookalook.
With a sigh, Liss turned away from the window. Wishing wouldn’t make it snow, not even if she had Aladdin’s lamp and a genie at her beck and call. What a pity that neither magic nor science could accurately predict the weather, let alone control it.
After retying the bright red scarf holding her long, dark brown hair away from her face, Liss busied herself straightening the display next to a sign that read
. To Liss’s mind kilt hose—or knee socks, as those not into Scottish-American heritage in a big way would call them—made ideal Christmas stockings. She’d gathered together an eclectic assortment of items that might be tucked into the toe or made to cascade enticingly over the top. There were pennywhistles and small figurines of pipers, refrigerator magnets, and campaign buttons bearing pseudo-Scottish sayings and puns, and the cutest little stuffed bears Liss had ever seen, all dressed up in kilts and plaids and wearing minuscule Balmoral caps. Liss had dubbed the four-inch high toys “Wee Scottish Bears” in the online catalogue she’d set up for the store.
The display table in order, Liss turned next to the tall shelves that held a variety of Scottish imports, everything from tins of Black Bun, the traditional Twelfth Night cake made with fruit, almonds, spices, and whiskey—
of whiskey—to canned haggis. She had no trouble dusting the upper reaches. She stood five-foot-nine in her stocking feet.
Fourteen shopping days till Christmas, Liss thought as she worked. There was time yet to make a profit. If she started opening on Sundays, then it would be sixteen shopping days. She already planned to extend the shop’s hours by adding the two Mondays before Christmas. The rest of the year she took that day off to compensate for working Saturdays. Would it be worth the effort, and the expense, to staff the store
days a week?
The loss of her part-time sales clerk, Sherri Willett, had made scheduling more difficult. At the moment, Liss was not only half owner of the Emporium, but the store’s only employee. To leave the shop for any reason, she had to lock up and put the
sign in the window.
Still, the extra hours might pay off. There was always the chance of a stray shopper wandering in. Liss sighed again. She should give it a shot. After all, she’d already calculated expenses down to the last decimal point. It wouldn’t cost all that much more to keep the heat at sixty-eight degrees for those extra days.
The raucous jangle of the sleigh bells she’d attached to the door had Liss smiling in anticipation. A customer at last!
Her spirits plummeted when she recognized Gavin Thorne. Like Liss, he owned a store that faced Moosetookalook’s town square. Several months earlier he’d bought the building that had once housed Alden’s Small Appliance Repair and opened The Toy Box.
“Don’t you look the fine Scottish lassie!” Thorne had a big, booming voice and a smile that showed a great many large white teeth. Both were in marked contrast to a milquetoast appearance.
Liss glanced down at the white peasant blouse and tartan miniskirt she’d selected from the store’s stock that morning and was suddenly glad she’d put on wooly dancer’s tights beneath the skirt. She did not know Gavin Thorne well, but the last thing she needed was for
man to take an interest in her. Juggling the two she already had was hard enough!
“You know the store policy,” she quipped. “Model what we sell.”
“When am I finally going to meet this aunt of yours?” he asked as he made his way slowly through the shop. He paused to look at several of the displays, including the one of kilt-hose stuffers.
“She’s arriving on the nineteenth.”
A sudden thought had Liss taking a closer look at Thorne. She saw a lumpy individual with hair the color of dry grass and eyes hidden behind small, round-framed glasses. Liss wasn’t sure how old the toy store owner was, but he was surely closer to Aunt Margaret’s age—fifty-nine—than her own twenty-eight years. Could Thorne have a
reason for asking about her aunt?
He approached the sales counter with one of the “Wee Scottish Bears” in hand. “These selling well for you?”
“They do okay,” Liss fibbed.
She’d sold only one, to Sherri as a present for her young son. She’d expected to sell another to Angie Hogencamp, who owned the bookstore on the other side of the town square and had a small collection of designer teddy bears that her children were not allowed to touch, but Angie had taken one look at the stuffed toys and given a disdainful sniff.
“Maybe they’d do better at my place.” Thorne’s watery blue eyes looked straight at Liss, but only for an instant. The speed with which his gaze skittered away from hers set off an alarm of air-raid-siren intensity. “I could take them off your hands if you’re willing to sell them to me at dealer discount.”
Liss’s suspicion that he was trying to pull a fast one hardened into a certainty. The standard discount businesses gave one another didn’t leave much room for resale profit. The little bears were cute, but their suggested retail price was only $9.99.
“I don’t want to mess up the display.” Liss waited, curious to hear what he’d say next.
Thorne fiddled with the bear, smoothing one broad thumb over its tiny kilt and tugging at the itty-bitty hat to make sure it was securely attached. He inspected the minuscule manufacturer’s tag, which identified the company that had produced and distributed the toy.
“I don’t suppose you have any more of these in your stockroom?” He glanced toward the closed door to the area where Liss processed mail orders and unpacked deliveries. “Some you haven’t put out yet.”
“A few.” In fact, Liss had been so taken with their Scottish regalia that she’d bought an entire case—an even hundred of the little bears.
“Well. Well, that’s good then.” All sorts of nervous twitches suddenly manifested themselves, from the traditional shuffling of feet and playing with rings to an odd little gesture unique to Thorne—he rubbed his knuckles back and forth over the underside of his chin. “I don’t suppose—?”
“No.” Liss injected every bit of firmness she could manage into her voice. “The way I see it, you hardly need one more toy in a store that already offers hundreds of selections, whereas these little guys fit in perfectly with the other items the Emporium sells.” Liss leaned across the sales counter until she was almost nose to nose with the shorter man. She plucked the stuffed bear out of Thorne’s hand and tried to recapture his gaze. “What’s this
“Nothing. Not a thing. Just making conversation. Well, gotta go now. Bye.” Backpedaling, literally and figuratively, the toy seller beat a hasty retreat.
Something landed on the Emporium’s hardwood floor with a soft plop just as the door slammed behind Gavin Thorne. As soon as the sleigh bells had stopped their racket, Liss came out from behind the counter to investigate.
He had dropped a folded section of a newspaper. It had been sticking out of the pocket of his jacket, Liss realized, and had been knocked free when he bumped into the door frame in his rush to get away. She picked it up, glancing at the date. When she saw it was from the previous weekend’s Boston paper, she started to toss it into the trash. A headline caught her eye as it fell, and she quickly snatched it out again.
TINY TEDDIES IN SHORT SUPPLY.
Heart rate speeding up as she read, Liss skimmed the article. Then she took a good hard look at the small bear she still held in her other hand.
Liss carried the newspaper to the section of the store her aunt had dubbed the cozy corner. It was furnished with two easy chairs and a coffee table. She settled into the more comfortable of the chairs, curling her legs beneath her. Then she slowly reread every word of the story. There was no mistake. “Tiny Teddies,” the proper name for her “Wee Scottish Bears,” were the hot gift item this Christmas…and they were sold out in much of the U.S. The reporter who’d written the article believed there were no longer any to be had in the six New England states.
“Holy cow,” Liss whispered. If this was for real, she was sitting on a gold mine.
Across the town square from Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, an imposing red brick building housed the town office, the public library, the fire department, and the police station. Sherri Willett, wearing a stiffly starched blue uniform that sported a shiny new badge above the breast pocket, was the sole occupant of the three small rooms that comprised the latter.
Once she’d caught up on all the outstanding paperwork, she had nothing in particular to do. In fact, she’d been ordered to do nothing unless someone actually asked her for help. Jeff Thibodeau, who’d been promoted to chief of police just before Sherri was hired, had explained that the town budget didn’t extend to extra gas money. They were not to use their one patrol car to go out looking for trouble.
Never good at twiddling her thumbs, Sherri wandered into the reception area. The police department had never employed a receptionist. Three full-time officers and a handful of part-timers handled everything. The door straight ahead of her led, by way of a short hall, to the town office and the bays for the fire trucks. Another, to her right, opened directly onto the parking lot at the rear of the building.
Sherri straightened a row of uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs, then wondered why she’d bothered. There was no other furniture in this outer room. No plants. No magazines. Just a scuffed-up tile floor and a cobweb hanging undisturbed in one corner of the ceiling.
Retreating back into the office, recognizable as such only because it contained two battered army-surplus-style desks and an equally antiquated metal file cabinet, Sherri headed for the coffeepot. The glass was so streaked and spotted that it was difficult to tell what color the contents were, but what landed in Sherri’s cup had the consistency of sludge. She shuddered when she inspected the grounds.
Carrying the whole mess to the communal kitchen down the hall, she scrubbed the coffeepot and basket, then returned to the P.D. to collect all the mugs and cups scattered about and toss them into the suds. She hoped she wasn’t setting a bad precedent. She might be Moosetookalook’s only female police officer, but neither making coffee nor cleaning house was part of her job description.
She’d made that very clear to her coworkers when she’d started her last job and there had never been any trouble. Until recently, she’d been a corrections officer, dispatcher, and deputy—the three jobs were all one in rural Carrabassett County. She’d worked at the county jail, appointed by and responsible to the sheriff.
Sometimes she regretted leaving the sheriff’s office for the police department, but not when she opened her pay envelope. The town fathers of Moosetookalook might be frugal, but they were nowhere near as miserly as the county commissioners.
While a fresh pot of coffee brewed, Sherri resumed rambling. She stopped on the brink of entering the tiny holding cell in the P.D.’s closet-size third room. It probably
been a closet at one time, since it could only be reached through the office.
“What were you planning to do?” she muttered to herself. “Dust?”
Reversing course, she flung herself into the oversize chair behind one of the two desks in the larger room. The seat, which bore the permanent imprint of Jeff Thibodeau’s posterior, seemed to swallow her whole.
This was not what she’d expected. Oh, sure, she’d always known police work was 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer panic, but—
The shrill ring of the phone at her elbow startled her so badly that she let out a small squeak of alarm. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat as she reached for the receiver and put all the authority she could muster into her voice.
“Moosetookalook Police Department. Officer Willett speaking.”
Ten minutes later, Sherri strolled into Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. Although Liss hadn’t made a lick of sense on the phone, Sherri was relatively certain there was no crime in progress at the shop. Curiosity, rather than concern for her friend’s safety, had convinced her to forward all incoming calls to the P.D. to her cell phone and venture out on “foot patrol.”