Author: T.C. Wescott
Publisher: Better Mousetrap Books
Genre: Cozy Mystery
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the village, the night settled in over swirling-smoke chimneys; the air was alive with pine and holly, with sugar and cinnamon and cider, by golly!
Along snowy lanes and through shadows it crept, past windows behind which each villager slept, where sleeping dogs lie and cats rest a’purring-
Tonight, in Christmas Village, a killer is stirring.
Welcome to Christmas Village, a magical hamlet where even in December the roses hold their luster and bees buzz among the bluebells. Nestled betwixt an opulent garden with meandering footpaths and an ancient grove of plum trees, Rose Willoughby’s boarding house is plum-full with lodgers. There are no vacancies, but just wait. Soon there will be one…and another…and another.
When the Inn's guests begin dying in inexplicable ways, some villagers believe a beast from old village lore is the culprit. The sheriff knows better, but he’s just as helpless to catch the invisible killer as are the town folk with their eyes to the sky in search of a flying creature. But our mysterious murderer hasn’t counted on yet another lodger coming to the cottage: Maribel Claus.
Short as a stump, round as a wheel, sweet as a candy cane, and a sharp as a whip, Maribel loves a good puzzle. But can she unmask the phantom killer in time and save Christmas?
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"Each time a kiss is given under the mistletoe, a berry is removed. When the berries are gone, so is your chance for romance. Them's the rules, so don't miss out!" said Rose Willoughby as she centered the old chair under the stairway arch as she had done every December for the past thirty years. Same day, same chair, same nail. The only thing new was the fresh sprig of mistletoe, and it was plucked from the same tree that provided the green, berried adornment for as many Christmas seasons as she could remember.
She retrieved the sprig from the fireplace mantle and held it up to the approval of the lodgers gathered in the parlor. "As out-of-towners, I thought you'd enjoy knowing the correct way to use mistletoe."
Rose had lived her whole life in Christmas Village where, generally speaking, there was a 'right way' and 'wrong way' of doing just about anything. Were she aware of the existence of plastic mistletoe, for instance, she would be quick to inform you that such an abomination had no place in a world where existed the true article.
Her rambling three-story house—long ago christened Plum Cottage by the villagers on account of the plum trees planted out back by her grandfather—rested at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac off Cinnamon Street. The property was notable not only for its plum trees but also the deep beds of lustrous flowers and the pea shingle pathways meandering through them. The cottage had been built by hand by her father's father and later converted by Rose's mother, when Rose was still a girl, to what out-of-towners might call a bed and breakfast. The house and acreage were handed down to Rose upon her mother's retirement some twenty years ago. In Christmas Village parlance, Plum Cottage is referred to as a lodging house, and Rose its keeper.
Jimmy 'Sticks' Johannsen sat cross-legged on the edge of the sofa, twirling a candy cane through his fingers with remarkable dexterity. "With Harper's Harpoons in your house this week, Miss Willoughby, I dare say those berries needn't worry about being separated from their brethren." Sticks, a juggler, was to be the village tall man for the next week during the Christmas Festival. Ironic, as he was all of five-feet in height, but so adroit was he in the use of stilts that it has been said the only thing stopping him from walking on posts a thousand-feet high was the effect such elevation would have on his health. Everything about the man was square—his hands, his head, his torso, even his nose. Such angularity, however, was relieved considerably by his warm eyes and genuine smile.
There was a flash of fire and smoke in the corner as Eric Stumpf, professionally known as Siegfried the Great, performed another of his tricks in hopes of impressing young Missy Culpeper, Rose's apprentice and part-time help.
"We are a singularly single group," continued Sticks, "That is, unless Eric can magically make Missy's good sense disappear sufficiently to steal a kiss from her."
This evoked a hearty round of laughter. Eric took the joke in stride but Missy turned progressively deeper shades of red before spinning and skipping out of the room.
A man stood upside down on his hands between the open curtains of a large picture window. Snow gently fell outside as he raised a hand in the air, now balanced on only one palm. "Are you going to take that kind of talk, Eric?" he teased.
By the time he'd finished speaking he had lifted himself up by his fingers, and curling his thumb and pinky finger inwards, balanced on only three phalanges. Such a feat was little more than the flex of a muscle to the troupe's ace acrobat, Xander 'Whirly' Byrd, a man well past his fortieth year if his face was to be believed but possessing the body of a twenty-five-year-old gym dweller with not an ounce of fat to spare on his taut frame.
"As a matter of fact, I will take it." Eric jumped from the antique settee, his black cape flying opened to reveal its dark red inner lining. "I will even up the ante!"
He rushed across the room to where Rose stood and plucked a little green leaf from the sprig of mistletoe in her hand. "A rose by any other name. . ." he said, a mischievous gleam in his eye, the leaf on display between his thumb and forefinger.
Then a flash of smoke.
Rose coughed and waved away the smoke to find the young magician holding a single rose in place of the leaf. ". . .is just as beautiful." He held out the flower for her to take. This she did between exclamations of joy and surprise. "Now, how about that kiss." He winked.
"Mr. Stumpf, if I were twenty years younger, I might take you up on that."
He stepped over to the wooden chair, tested it for sturdiness, and put on an expression of feigned disappointment.
"Then the least you can do is to help a poor, dejected fellow regain some measure of dignity by allowing him to climb this chair and place that mistletoe for the benefit of lovers more fortunate than himself." He was a tall, handsome young man, with hair so dark it shined blue and teeth as white as the snow outside.
She held the mistletoe close to her chest. "Nothing doing, young man. If you want an extra share of plum pudding for dessert, that I can do. But me climbing on that chair to hang this plant is tradition, and here in Christmas Village, tradition is a very precious thing. Now shoo!"
She playfully motioned him away and plopped a defiant foot on the chair seat, shakily pulling herself up to full standing. The echo of approaching feet sounded out from the stairwell.
"Oh, crumb," mumbled Rose as she lowered herself off the chair. "People are coming."
"Why, Miss Willoughby, whatever are you up to?" said Madame Zorena, the troupe's psychic-in-residence, upon reaching the bottom of the staircase and finding her hostess atop a chair. She affected a European accent of some sort, though how real it was had long been a matter of speculation. Although not presently in the five-gallon turban and full-length flowing gown she wore for her public performances of tarot readings, palm readings, and group séances, she was still very much dressed the part of the traveling gypsy with handkerchiefs and bandanas aplenty.
"Oh, Madame, please excuse me," begged Rose. "Let me get out of your way. I was only trying to hang this mistletoe."
"I would beg you to carry on as you were and let me wait, but I will not be the only one seeking passage."
As though summoned by her words, the beautiful Anemone Harper and her rather brutish shadow, Bull Vargas, appeared behind Madame at the foot of the stairs. Anemone, with her tall, curvaceous frame, her sky-blue eyes and full red lips, appeared at first blush to be a gentle flower. But Rose had seen the young woman unloading the troupe's equipment and knew this flower had strong roots.
"Oh, good, Miss Harper, Mr. Vargas," said Rose, with more enthusiasm than their faces reflected back. "Now that you're here I suppose we can have pudding. Just let me finish this one thing."
Rose stepped aside as they passed and then returned her chair to the center of the archway and promptly climbed onto it. She was not about to let anything else impede her progress in hanging the mistletoe! Aside from her usual duties tending to lodgers, she had a late night of baking to look forward to and was anxious to get started.
The annual festival, when the village would be open to throngs of out-of-towners, was the single greatest source of income for the Christmas Village Historical Society. These funds came largely through the sale of baked goods. It didn't hurt that the Society boasted two of the best amateur pastry chefs in the village—herself and Mrs. Maribel Claus. Maribel was expected over early the next morning to help Rose set up their booth and Rose had to make sure the goodies were packed and ready to go by that time.
If she couldn't manage the hanging of a single blasted plant, how was she expected to get forty tarts baked and still squeeze in her requisite four hours of sleep? Somehow, she was sure, it would work itself out. Things always did.
But first, the mistletoe.
"I'm not sure I would do that, if I were you," said Madame Zorena.
"And why not?" asked Rose, trying not to sound annoyed. "I'm not so old my joints don't work. Are you having a premonition, Madame?"
"It's not that, I think Mr. Snipes might be—"
"Ah!" Rose felt the impact before she saw its cause. Next thing she knew, she was on the floor next to the chair and her right ankle felt like someone had wrapped it with barbed wire. When she looked up, she saw a nose so sharp it could cut words, a receding hairline, and ridiculously pinched features, all haphazardly stuck on a head shaped like a light bulb.
It was the head of Mr. Barnaby Snipes, who identified himself as the owner and manager of the troupe of performers currently lodging in her cottage. He had come down the stairs and walked directly into Rose, sending her flying.
"Miss Willoughby, what on earth do you think you're doing, standing on a chair where people walk?"
Eric rushed to her aid as Whirly somersaulted to her side. Together they picked her up and sat her in the chair. Snipes didn't budge.
"I was just trying to hang my mistletoe," said Rose between sobs of pain and disappointment.
Sticks got into Mr. Snipes's face. "How did you not see her? Or did you see her and not care?"
Snipes huffed and puffed in feigned indignation. "How dare you! Of course, I did not see her. My mind is on tomorrow, on making sure all of you are taken care of. I can't be expected to know each time a woman is going to put herself in the way of common foot traffic." He stopped to watch Miss Willoughby pathetically pick her precious sprig up from the floor. Miraculously, it had not lost any of its berries. "I hope your stupid small-town superstitions are worth it. Don't you know that mistletoe is nothing but a parasite that sucks the life out of trees? I must question the hosteller who would subject paying guests to such grotesqueries."
"Barnaby, how dare you be so cruel!" said Anemone. She would have continued her rant but Bull put an arm around her shoulder. For the effect it had, it might as well have been a hand over her mouth.
"What? Nobody's hurt. At least not terminally," retorted Snipes, glancing passively at Rose sitting in the chair, rubbing her ankle. "Now, where's this plum pudding I was promised? You forced me to participate in the making of it, so I insist upon having mine now as I plan to spend the remainder of the evening in my room going over the City Council contracts again. I'm certain they're trying to swindle me somehow, I just haven't yet found the loophole. Though, rest assured, I will! Now, about the pudding."
"It's on the table," said Rose. She tried to stand but her ankle protested and she tumbled back into the chair.
Anemone wrestled herself out from under Bull's heavy arm and rushed over to inspect Rose's ankle.
The young woman grimaced. "Oh, dear, I think it may be sprained. I should get some ice."
"You may be right," conceded Rose. "See Missy in the kitchen and she'll take care of it. That's her job, not yours."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Anemone, showing more life than she had in the two days since she arrived at Plum Cottage.
Rose had first suspected the young woman, with fresh shadows under her eyes and skin so pale, might be coming down with a cold. No one so beautiful should have a right to sadness, she thought. But Rose knew that wasn't true. Love isn’t the only emotion that is blind.
Anemone looked up at her from her kneeling position on the floor. There was a smile on her lips and so much more behind her eyes. "You've welcomed us as friends into your home and friends look after each other, do they not? I will see to the ice myself."
Anemone sped out of the parlor and across the hall towards the kitchen. Bull, the troupe's strongman, his head and chest free of hair and full of muscle, took a few steps forward as though to follow her, but thought better of it. Rose couldn't say what Anemone's function was within the troupe. She wasn't a performer nor was she the manager. That was Mr. Snipes. She was, assumed Rose, some sort of assistant to Mr. Snipes; a buffer between him and the humanity that seemed to displease him so.
Snipes turned his back to the small group huddled around Miss Willoughby and focused his attention on the Christmas pudding enjoying pride of place on the coffee table. Small plates and silverware were at hand so he served himself.
Whirly floated over to the other side of the table. Snipes avoided his gaze, but that didn't dissuade him.
"I didn't have you pegged as a pudding man," said Whirly. "I'm sure it'd be no trouble for Rose to whip you up a pie from all those mistletoe berries growing in the grove out back."
"Idiot. Mistletoe berries are poisonous."
"That won't stop us from making the pie if it won't stop you from eating it."
Snipes caught Whirly's meaning and looked at him in reproach. Whirly winked and walked away.
Barnaby Snipes took a bite from his pudding and, for the second time that evening, someone in the parlor of Plum Cottage cried out in pain.
"Gorblimey, what did I bite into? I think I broke a tooth!"
It was one of Rose's many traditions each December to make a Christmas pudding. Following the old customs, each member of the household took a turn stirring the mixture, always in a clockwise motion to ensure good luck. As the stirring commenced, small trinkets made of pewter would be dropped into the mixture: a thimble, a trumpet, a ring, a car, a bell, a hat, and so forth. Lodgers loved being involved in the creation of such a special dessert, seeing what trinket they received and learning what it meant.
Out of town visitors for the Christmas Festival were typically in Christmas Village specifically for these experiences. Not so with her present boarders, who were there to perform and earn a living from the village. To be fair, the majority of the entertainers were true and good and relished both her company and her knowledge.
Then there was Barnaby Snipes, who reluctantly agreed to his turn at the stirring of the pudding but insisted on stirring in the wrong direction to tempt fate. Now fate was biting back. Or, he was biting fate, as the case was. When he reached into his mouth and removed the trinket, 'fate' was revealed as a little silver bell.
Snipes tossed his plate down on the table and held the little bell in the air. His hands were shaking.
"I'm going to have my teeth looked at tomorrow, and if there's so much as a scratch on any one of them, I'm handing this over to authorities and my lawyer will be in touch."
With a huff he shoved the bell into his jacket pocket, gave each person in the room the stink eye, and shuffled his skinny legs back up the stairs and to his room.
"I feel sorry for that bell," murmured Sticks.
Bull Vargas followed his employer up the stairs without saying a word. With her bulky escort gone, Anemone lit up like a cold lamp and the mood in the room shifted from tense to upbeat.
Rose's ankle was wrapped and she was able to wobble around on it but now she was concerned that she wouldn't have the stamina to stay up late and bake all the goodies needed for the sale tomorrow. Missy could handle the household duties, but when it came to baking, the poor girl couldn't be trusted to make toast.
Rose called her friend Maribel, and with a frog in her throat, explained the situation. Maribel assured her she would have the matter well in hand. Having already baked her share of the goods, she said it wouldn't be a thing to bake Rose's share as well. Rose was doing her a favor, she said, as she was too wired for sleep and didn't know how to fill her time, but now Rose had answered her prayer.
Rose smiled. That was just like Maribel. It was as important to her to relieve Rose of any sense of guilt as it was to help her with her predicament. All she wanted in return was Rose's solemn oath that she'd take it easy on her ankle so she wouldn't be out of commission for the bake sale.
Rose removed the last batch of tarts from their cooling spot on the windowsill. While closing the window she noticed the snow had stopped and all seemed quiet in her gardens. She placed the tarts on the kitchen island and covered them with a towel. She turned to leave the room.
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound came from outside the kitchen window. It was a little black bird, pecking away at the sill. For the slightest of moments, she found herself overtaken with a sense of dread, as though something uninvited had slipped into her comfortable world. Something just the other side of right.
The chill in her bones passed and Rose did the one-legged hopscotch into the parlor where she was quickly accosted by Whirly and Sticks, who inserted themselves under her arms and guided her to the sofa. Then the two men, along with Eric, Anemone, and Madame Zorena, sat in the chairs surrounding her in a half-circle in front of the roaring fireplace.
"It looks like my evening has just opened up," she said expectantly to the younger people gathered round. "But never mind me, I love a quiet evening by the fire. You all skedaddle and get what fun in you can before your busy week begins tomorrow."
"Nothin' doin'," said Eric. "You know this village as well as anyone, right?"
Rose was curious. "Yes, at least as well, I'd say. Been here my whole life."
The magician became excited. "I have heard things happen here that don't happen elsewhere."
Rose laughed. "The things people say!"
"So, it's not true?" asked Madame Zorena, who'd apparently heard the same thing.
"As I've lived here my entire life, I can't well say what does and doesn't happen anywhere else."
"Fair enough," said Sticks. "But we were hoping you might be willing to tell us some stories."
"Stories? What kind of stories?" Rose hoped she hadn't appeared as eager as she felt. As a child she loved hearing the stories of the elders and, now of a certain age herself, she found she loved sharing them.
Whirly peered between the window curtains. "Let's see. The snow has stopped falling. It's now pitch-black outside with only a sliver of moon casting its pale light. Here we are inside, sitting cozy by a roaring fire. What kind of story do you think the moment demands?"
"I see," said Rose, narrowing her eyes mischievously and pointing them over her wire frames. "You want a ghost story, do you?"