Authors: Shelley Freydont
Keep reading for a special excerpt from Shelley Freydont’s next Celebration Bay Mystery...
Coming September 2013 in paperback from Berkley Prime Crime!
“Santa’s in your office and he’s hopping mad.”
Liv Montgomery looked from her assistant Ted to the closed door of her office. “He hasn’t even come to town. What seems to be the problem?”
Ted shrugged. “He wouldn’t say.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t know.” Ted Driscoll was a handsome sixty-something man, tall, thin, with a shock of thick white hair. He was slightly mysterious and the fount of local gossip. Today his usual three-piece suit had been replaced with a reindeer sweater.
“No, but in this case, you’d better ask him yourself. He didn’t even say hello. Just lumbered in here and demanded to talk to the town event organizer. Since that’s you, I left him in your office. Where’s my favorite dawg today?”
“Over at the Woofery. He had a run-in with an overturned garbage can, and Sharise took him in on short notice.”
Ted shuddered. “Poor thing, and I was hoping to get him rehearsed for the
“Don’t you dare.” Since Liv moved to Celebration Bay three months before to become the town’s events coordinator, Ted and her Westie, Whiskey, had bonded over a mutual love of singing. Both howled loudly and happily off-key whenever they got together.
“Have you had lunch?”
Liv shook her head. “I’ve been at the inn, double-checking on the Dickens’ Dinner. They’re fine.”
“Told you. The Andersons have been doing a version of goose and turkey for years.” Ted perched one hip on his desk and reached for the phone. “I’ll call Buddy’s for delivery. You go deal with Santa.”
• • •
Hank Ousterhout was “chubby and plump” and about six foot two. A thick white beard tumbled over his chest to the belt buckle of his jeans. His cheeks were rosy, but not with merriment. Santa was pissed.
“Mr. Ousterhout. How nice to see you.” Liv stuck out her hand.
The not-so-jolly giant grumbled but took her hand and pumped it.
Liv eased her fingers from his grip.
“Have a seat.”
Ousterhout pulled a chair up to her desk with one hand, sat down, and leaned forward on his elbows. His beard spread over the desktop in front of him.
She sat behind her desk. “Ted tells me you have some concerns.”
“That woman,” he rumbled. “That—that woman.” He fairly vibrated with anger.
“Which woman?” Liv asked, though she thought she knew. The manager of the newly opened Trim a Tree shop on the square was not doing much to instill the Christmas spirit among the townspeople or her customers.
She’d moved in over the Thanksgiving weekend, and during the following two weeks, Liv had received scores of complaints by phone, mail, email, and the Celebration Bay website and Facebook page.
Liv had encountered her once and that was enough. Grace Thornsby’s attitude added insult to injury when the small year-round holiday store had disappeared to be replaced by Made in Taiwan.
“You’re not going to let her get away with it, are you?”
“Certainly not.” Liv wondered what “it” was this time. The tasteless window display? The cheap merchandise inside?
The manager of TAT, as the store was called among the locals, had offended just about everyone. She refused to adhere to the council decorating guidelines. Had refused to contribute to the Celebration Bay Toys for Tykes Christmas Party. Was rude to her customers and humiliated her employees in front of them. If Liv didn’t stop this now, it would be an awful few weeks until TAT closed down in January. And she couldn’t let that happen.
Mr. Ousterhout’s beefy fist slammed on the table, rattling Liv’s paper-clip holder. “She hired her own Santa.”
“Ah,” Liv said. “Maybe she wasn’t aware of the one-Santa rule here.” Though TAT along with every other business in town had been sent reminders of town policy.
“The heck she ain’t. Why Roger Newland sold to Clarence Thornsby is beyond me. Why he sold at all is a mystery. He didn’t tell nobody. We woulda helped him out if we knew he was having troubles.” Hank stopped to shake his massive head.
“And we don’t need no store like that Trim a Tree in Celebration Bay. And we don’t need but one Santa. I’ve been Santa here for over ten years. We only allow one Santa in town, and that’s the town Santa, since we don’t want the children getting confused with a bunch of hawkers, and jarring their belief in the real Santa.
“I won’t be party to some cheap-selling gimmick. When we let a bunch of outsiders take over, the town’ll go to hell. And that’s a fact.” He wound down and took a breath that ruffled his beard.
Liv stood up. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll get over there and explain our policy more fully. She might be getting guff from her corporate office, and if that’s the case, I’ll speak with someone who can make the change.”
“Thank you. And you can tell her for me if she makes one more nasty remark about my, um, about me, she’ll be sorry.”
Liv smiled tightly as she waited for him to work himself out of the chair. She was particularly sensitive to threats, whether meant or not. Since moving to Celebration Bay in the fall, she’d already been involved in a murder investigation, something that had never happened in all her years of event planning in Manhattan. Go figure.
“You just get ready for the Santa Parade. I’ll take care of the other Santa.” Liv hadn’t regretted taking this job or moving to upstate New York for a minute. But she had to admit some jobs were easier than others, and locking horns with the manager of Trim a Tree was not one of the easy ones. Grace Thornsby was not on
Santa’s “nice” list.
Liv gently steered her visitor through the outer office to the door. “Don’t worry, Mr. Ousterhout. We’ll have this sorted out in no time.”
“Before tomorrow’s Santa Parade and tree lighting?”
“Before the parade,” Liv assured him.
“I meant what I said.” He turned on his heel, nearly knocking down the deliveryman from Buddy’s who had just entered carrying a large brown bag and wearing a Santa hat.
Christmas was a big season for the town, and the citizens pulled out all the stops. Even the deliverymen.
“Hey, Hank,” said the young man.
“Jason.” Hank nodded gruffly and struck off down the hall.
“Betcha he came to complain about the Trim a Tree lady,” Jason said, handing Ted the bag. “I’ve been helping him out at the machine shop in my spare time, and she sure knows how to rile him. And everybody else. You should have heard them during the breakfast rush this morning.”
“I bet.” Ted didn’t need to be on-site to know what they’d said. He was the switchboard for Celebration Bay gossip. It made him indispensable as an assistant and as a friend.
“Yeah, I hate Penny having to work for that old—they were supposed to be helping the Newlands out. That’s a joke. When we’re married, Penny’s not going to have to work unless she wants to, and not for the likes of Grace Thornsby.”
Ted handed him a couple of dollars. “Merry Christmas, Jason.”
“Thanks, Mr. Driscoll. Genny’ll put it on your tab. Merry Christmas.”
Liv closed the door behind him. “So the delivery boy’s fiancée is working at Trim a Tree?”
“Yep. Let’s eat.” Ted carried food into Liv’s office and placed it on her desk. “We need sustenance before we face the Harridan of the Holidays. Pastrami and split-pea soup?”
They ate lunch at Liv’s desk like they did most days since they rarely had time to take a real lunch break.
“Maybe you should bring me up to speed on the Santa, Newlands, and Trim a Tree situation.”
“This is what I know,” Ted said as he unwrapped his sandwich.
“The Newland family ran a holiday shop in the same location, Newland’s Four Season Gifts, tasteful merchandise, friendly atmosphere. Been there for years. It closed over the summer.
“They had some family troubles; Roger got sick. Roger’s youngest daughter, Penny, and her mother tried to keep the store open, but between the overhead, the medical bills, and the economy, they got behind on their rent. They took out a second mortgage on their house to keep the business alive, but they fell behind in the payments. Now they’re about to lose their home.”
“That’s a shame.”
Liv toyed with her split-pea soup. “So how did Grace Thornsby end up selling plastic Santas on the square?”
“Clarence Thornsby and Roger Newland are cousins. Clarence offered to take over the gift shop and hire Penny to manage it until the Newlands got back on their feet. Penny is a single mother, lives at home. It was a simple case of family helping family. Or so we all thought.”
Ted, consummate storyteller that he was, paused for dramatic effect. “Clarence owns several successful boat dealerships. Don’t know why he didn’t just loan the Newlands the money. Instead, as soon as the lease for the store was transferred, he took down the sign, cleared out the merchandise, changed the name to Trim a Tree, and installed his wife as manager.”
“Wow. No wonder everyone is upset. That poor family. The Newlands must feel so betrayed.”
“Of course they do. And it doesn’t help that some people are blaming them for letting this happen. Now Roger has taken a turn for the worse. Penny and his wife, Margaret, pretty much blame Clarence for all of it.
“Clarence isn’t a bad man. I think he meant to help. But that wife. There’s speculation that Grace talked Clarence into the new product. Cheap junk, more profit. But not for the Newlands. Next thing we know, Grace is running the show, running roughshod over Penny, and has installed an illegal Santa.”
Liv sighed. “Don’t we have a zoning code? How did they get away with it?”
Liv waited. Ted loved to build the suspense when he had information. In the few months she’d worked alongside him, she’d learned if you showed impatience, he just took longer to tell and he enjoyed it more.
“I’ll give you a hint. Starts with ‘real estate’ and ends with ‘broker.’”
Liv groaned. “Janine.”
“One and the same.”
“Surely she told them about the town ordinance.”
Ted lifted a bushy white eyebrow. “Are you talking about”—he shifted to a nasally falsetto—“‘Those silly things? They can’t enforce them, dear, just sign on the dotted line’ Janine?”
“What is her problem? Does she do these things just to cause trouble?”
“Just to cause
trouble, maybe. You did take her job after all. Other than that, she’s just spiteful and clueless in general.”
“I did not take her job. I answered the ad and was hired. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.”
Ted grinned. “Sure, and she would have made their life miserable, too.” He leaned over the desk and pushed her sandwich closer to her. “Eat.”
“The Santa’s one thing,” Liv continued. “But I don’t know if we can dictate the kinds of things Grace Thornsby sells. If the store wasn’t right on the town square, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we need a permanent store in that location. One that is open all year. And one that doesn’t try to compete with the town’s Santa.”
“Definitely tacky to have two Santas right across the street from each other. Unfortunately, the location makes perfect sense, considering the Newlands left all the shelves and all the display cases behind.” Ted frowned slightly. “I wonder what happened to their merchandise. There was never a liquidation sale that I recall.”
“Don’t even think about leaving me to open a gift shop.”
Ted shivered dramatically. “God, no. I have a genetically disposed aversion to froufrou of any kind.”
Liv glanced at his reindeer sweater and light-up holly pin.
He gave her his blandest look.
“And what about Grace Thornsby? I’ve only talked to her once, when she started blaring ‘Santa Baby’ into the street the day after Thanksgiving while everyone else was still recovering from tryptophan overload.”
“That’s her in a nutshell,” Ted said. “She arrived in town in November, not that anyone would notice, what with Thanksgiving and that unfortunate incident of the body at the Turkey Trot.”
Liv shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
Ted shrugged. “Since then she’s hardly gone out of her way to make friends. A delivery truck dumped a bunch of boxes on the sidewalk, blocking the doorway of A Stitch in Time. Grace let it sit there all afternoon. I’ve never seen Miriam Krause so mad.”
“I seem to remember that, but I was really tied up with the ill-fated Turkey Trot and the Pilgrims’ Feast, which reminds me. There were twelve hundred people there. We have to start looking for a larger venue for next year.”
Liv bit into her sandwich, chewed meditatively. “It’s almost like she’s purposely trying to anger people. Why would any businessperson do that?”
“Because . . .” Sheer mischief glinted in Ted’s eyes. “There’s more.”
Liv cast her eyes toward the ceiling. “There always is . . . in Celebration Bay.”
Ted linked his fingers and rested his hands over Rudolph’s nose. “Grace is Clarence’s second wife. Second time for Grace, too, and—are you ready—she used to be married to Hank Ousterhout.”
“The town Santa?”
“The one and only.”
Liv groaned. “You’re kidding. Talk about your six degrees of separation. Please tell me this isn’t going to turn out to be some vendetta: scorned ex-wife flaunts herself and her new Santa in front of her ex-husband, the real Santa? Or worse, flaunts her new husband in front of the ex-husband?”
“Or vice versa.”
“Liv, this is Celebration Bay. Anything can happen.”
“And they talk about Manhattan. The Big Apple has nothing over Celebration Bay when it comes to drama, let me tell you.”
“I don’t guess it does. You ready to go?”
Liv wrapped the rest of her sandwich and put it in the fridge.
They muffled themselves into jackets, scarves, and hats and went outside. It was a frosty day, which kept the snow that had piled up around the town frozen and relatively clean, but if you asked Liv, it was a little too cold for standing outside at night listening to carols while waiting for Santa to arrive and for the Celebration of Lights to officially kick off the Christmas season. Hopefully, it would warm up just a few degrees before tomorrow’s festivities.
Liv paused at the sidewalk just to look over the town. “Boy, it looks great.”