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Officer Brody Taggert decided he was upgrading his mood from cranky to just plain foul.
"As good a time as any to go see Miss L. Toe," he said, out loud, heavy on the sarcasm as he said the name. Tag's dog, Boo, the only other inhabitant of the police cruiser, who was stretched out comfortably in the backseat, woofed what Tag took as agreement.
Actually, Tag thought, given his mood, now was probably not the best time to go see Snow Mountain's newest business owner, resident, budding author and pain in the butt.
Unfortunately the new-in-town Lila Grainger, aka Miss L. Toe, unlike most people Tag ran into who had an alias an also known aswas not a criminal at all. She was the chief of police's niece.
Which was the reason Tag had to go see her.
Tag's boss, Chief Paul Hutchinson "Hutch," was notoriously mild-mannered, but he had a core of pure steel and he had not been amused that Tag had missed the first ever meeting of the Save Christmas in Snow Mountain Committee last night.
"She's up to something," the chief had muttered. "She's crafty, just like my sister, her mother. And you missed the meeting, so now we're in the dark."
Tag decided not to point out that in the dark was a particularly bad choice of phrase, since that was what had ignited the Christmas fervor in Snow Mountain in the first place.
Town Council had decided to turn off the lights. The Christmas lights, that was. And the traditional Christmas display in the tiny Bandstand Park that was at the end of Main Street was to be no more.
Every year since 1957, the park had been transformed into Santa's Workshop. Ingenious motorized elves made toys andwrapped gifts, reindeer cavorted and Santa ho-ho-hoed and waved. But those particular models of elves and reindeer did not have fifty-year life spans.
Santa's ho-ho-ho had gone into slow mo. Last year one of the elves had seriously overheated and burst into flames. Unfortunately, someone with a cell phone camera had caught on film a child wailing in fear, his face dramatically backlit by the flickering blaze, and Snow Mountain had been put on the map.
The whole issue had been causing heated debates since last January. But at the October Town Council meeting, Leonard Lemoix, who was not Tag's favorite councilor, had gone where no one had gone before. Leonard had crunched the numbers. The cost of the much-needed repairs, setting up, and taking down of the display could, in three years, added up to enough money to buy a new police cruiser.
That didn't even include the cost of the power bill for running the Christmas lights, which were not the new energy-efficient variety, for between six and eight weeks every year.
Town Council had voted unanimously to shut down the display and Leonard had gone up a notch or two in Tag's estimation.
"My niece thinks it's my fault," the chief had said glumly the day after the meeting. "I didn't know anything about the police cruiser. Now Lila's starting a committee to keep Christmas in Snow Mountain. You know what she said to me? Uncle Paul, do you want Snow Mountain to be known as the town that canceled Christmas?"
That's when Tag found out he'd been volunteered to be on the committee.
"We can't have the department looking like villains who want to trade Christmas for a new police cruiser," Hutch said. The chief's increasing concern about image seemed to coincide with the arrival of his niece, too.
Lila was a city girl from Miami, and was very savvy about what was and wasn't politically correct.
Despite the fact Tag was developing a dislike for the niece he had not yet met, he knew better than to bother to protest, why me? about his appointment to Lila Grainger's committee. After six years on the force he was still, unfortunately, its most recent recruit.
He had shaken the title of rookie, and finally refused to carry the humbling joke badge he'd been required to produce at the whim of anyone senior on the force that said, Be patient, I'm new here, but he still got every single assignment that no one else wanted.
Which described the committee to keep Christmas in Snow Mountain to a T. Karl Jamison, the oldest man on the force, kept threatening to retire, which meant there would be a new rookie someday, but not in time, obviously, to save Tag from being at the whim of Hutch's niece.
And now he'd missed her first damned meeting.
Tag had not bothered to offer excuses for his absence at the meeting. He felt his reason for not being there fell into the personal and very private category, and the truth was he would rather face his boss's wrath than his pity. After the death of his younger brother, Ethan, Tag had handled about all the sympathy he could for one lifetime.
Still, he knew now there would be no acceptable excuse short of an armed robbery in progressfor not going to see Miss L. Toe, aka Lila Grainger, now, tonight, immediately.
Tag swore softly. The dog moaned anxiously, able to detect the downward-spiraling mood in the patrol car.
"It's not your fault, Boo."
The coming of Christmas was not the dog's fault. But with Halloween only a few weeks past, and Thanksgiving not yet here, Tag could have ignored the inevitable coming of the season for a little while longer.
Okay, he'd been glad when the town voted against the Christmas display, and not entirely because of the possibility of a new cruiser, either.
In his line of work, Brody Taggert saw the other side of Christmas, the side that did not make the front cover of the holiday editions of all the glitzy magazines. He saw what no one ever wanted to acknowledge: the season of joy and faith and miracles had a dirty underbelly, fallout.
As a cop, even a small-town cop, Tag saw firsthand that it was a time of accelerated stress for the people he dealt with most. Soon, after the Thanksgiving turkeys were cleared away, Christmas drinking would begin in earnest. Earnest drinking led to serious trouble: arguments, fights, domestic violence, car accidents, hypothermia, drunken dismantling of business establishments and homes and lives.
This was the conclusion Tag had reached about Christmas: poor people would feel poorer, lonely people would feel lonelier, desperate people more desperate, mean people meaner.
And of course, anyone who had ever known sorrow, as Tag himself knew sorrow, would feel the ache of that loss all over again, as if it were brand-new. This would be Tag's seventh Christmas without his brother. People had assured him that time would heal his wounds, but this seventh Christmas did not feel any different than the first: bleak, instead of joyous. There was an empty hole in his life that seemed to be made emptier by all the activity and excited anticipation building around him.
But that wasn't Lila Grainger's world.
He'd had a nauseating peek into her world when he'd received her first enthusiastic committee announcement via e-mail three days ago. Animated snowmen danced across a pink background that implored him: Save Christmas In Snow Mountain.
Action Meeting, Free Eggnog And Jeanie Harper's Nearly World Famous Shortbread Cookies.
The dancing snowmen had been particularly irritating to a guy whose computer skills ran to grave satisfaction that he had finally figured out the station's computers were equipped with spelling checkers.
But irritation at the whole concept, and dancing snowmen aside, Tag really had intended to go, and not just because he'd been told it was a good idea, either. The promise of Jeanie's shortbread was more bait than any bachelor could resist, particularly if they were the cookies that she dipped half in chocolate, which they almost always were at this time of year.
But lifereal life, not the chocolate-dipped dancing snowmen varietyhad intervened. He sought out his dog in the rearview mirror. Tag had missed the meeting because he'd taken Boo to see a veterinary specialist in Spokane yesterday afternoon.
The truth was he'd been back in plenty of time to make the seven o'clock gathering, but after a man had heard the words, You'll know when it's time, he couldn't go. Not didn't want tocouldn't.
Tag was a man who had cleaned up the aftermath of a lot of ugliness, he prided himself on having total control over his emotions. But not even the world's best shortbread cookies could have enticed him off his couch last night. His forty-two-inch flat screen and a hockey game, Boo resting on his lap, had helped him block out his sense of helplessness in the face of the doctor's diagnosis.
Boo was dying. Boo, not just a dog, but a link to his brother; even more than that, a link to life. More than time, it was Boo who had healed in Tag what could be healed.
What Tag hadn't been expecting was how swiftly the chief would react to his absence to Lila's meeting.
He'd been called in to see the chief at the start of his shift, and told he'd better get with the program.
The Save Christmas in Snow Mountain program that was.
Tag was pretty sure if he read over his job description and contract there was nothing in there about having to cooperate with the fruitcake plans of the chief's niece, even if it was going to be good for the police department's image, as Hutch claimed.
The word image, up until this point in the department's history, had meant being nice to little kids, keeping a crisp uniform, polished shoes and a clean car and Tag would have been content if it stayed that way forever.
He was also pretty sure there was nothing in his contract about cleaning cells if he didn't comply, either.
On the other hand, Hutch had thrown Tag a lifeline, offering him a job on the police department when Tag had just about swamped himself in misery, had been heading down a wrong road fast, after Ethan's accident.
The chief had also known, without ever saying one word to indicate that he knew, that he and Boo were partners in the rescue of Tag's troubled soul and so he had turned a blind eye to the dog riding in the backseat. Tag knew he owed Hutch, and owed him dearly.
He turned the patrol car down Main Street. It was just dusk, and the icy winds of mid-November were beginning to blow down Snow Mountain, the black, jagged silhouette forming a backdrop for the town.
Dry leaves and a few newspapers blew down a street lined by single-story brick-and-sandstone businesses that had largely seen a better day. Tilley's Dry Goods had had Going Out Of Business soaped on the windows for at least ten years.
The "D" in the Mountain Drugstore sign was burned out, the odd summertime tourist ventured in there expecting rugs. There were no wintertime tourists, something the optimistic Miss Grainger thought would be a cinch to change.
According to her vibrant pink e-mail, Snow Mountain could not only revive its Christmas display of Santa's Workshop in Bandstand Park, but become a Destination, the capital "D" emphasized with both bold lettering and neon-green.
But as Tag watched the lights winking out, one by one, on Main Street, he thought this was probably the town least likely to ever be a Destination. In fact, he was aware of thinking it wasn't the prettiest picture of small-town U.S.A. that he had ever seen.
He was also aware of missing the garish display of lights and moving figurines in the park at the end of the street just the tiniest little bit.
Lila Grainger's store, of course, was a shining jewel in the middle of that street, the one-hundred-year-old limestone recently sandblasted back to soft, buffed ivory, the new sign hanging above it, green, red and white, saying in tasteful letters, Miss. L. Toe, and in smaller letters underneath it, The Christmas Store At Snow Mountain.
Miss. L. Toe. Cute. Nauseatingly so. Welcome to her world. The opening of the store lent itself to motive, too. Lila Grainger had a vested interest in keeping the Christmas in Snow Mountain, now that she'd invested her whole book advance in opening a store here.
When she'd signed a contract to write a book about Christmas, the chief had practically sent out announcement cards he'd been so pleased and proud. Then, unexpectedly, she'd decided to move here from Florida and invest her windfall in this old building.
Tag had yet to meet her, but he had formed a picture of the kind of person who opened a year-round Christmas store on what seemed to be a whim: scrawny, wire-rim glasses, flowered dress, blue eyes spilling over moistly with that do-gooder glow.
The store windows, cleaned until they sparkled, were filled with fairy tale like displays that confirmed his worst suspicions. Mrs. Santa incarnate had arrived in Snow Mountain. One gigantic window display contained an entire town in miniature, completely decked out for Christmas. A train moved through it; he could hear the muffled choo-choo of the whistle right through the plate glass.
The other window contained a tree, at least seven feet tall, decorated entirely and in his mind, hideously, in various shades of purple.
It was a fantasy, not appealing at all to a man who spent the days of his life dealing with harsh reality.
"I'm getting a headache," Tag admitted to the dog as he reached over to the seat beside him, put on his hat, pulled the shiny black brim low over his eyes.
The dog whined.
"You are not coming in."
Boo, who usually obeyed instantly and without argument, ignored him, hurtled over the seat into the front of the car and was out the door as soon as Tag opened it.
The dog sat on the sidewalk, and waited, her tail thumping enthusiastically. Tag looked at her, the world's ugliest dog, and felt the downward swoop of his heart.
Cancer. Who knew dogs got cancer?
Boo, the exact color of a mud puddle, had the head of a Great Dane, the body of a Chinese Shar-pei, and the legs of a dachshund. There was nothing the least bit "cute" about the combination of a wrinkled dog with a painfully oversize head waddling around on very crooked and too-short legs.
Tag knew darn well that the visit to the specialist's office, the promise that his Christmases were about to get worse than ever, rather than better, was the real reason his mood was blacker than the silhouette of Snow Mountain. Since he could change nothing, especially not the mood, there was no sense letting it go to waste. The rawness of his own hurt was under control tonight, as it had not been last night.
He felt a moment's sympathy for Miss L. Toe, having to face him when he was in this frame of mind, but then he quelled it.