Hey Santa, get a clue . . .
Baby, it’s cold outside at the small town of Serenity’s annual Holiday Stroll festivities. But that doesn’t stop Brandy Borne and her theatrical mother, Vivian, from making merry. That is, until the two find something frosty in Santa’s workshop—the jolly man in red, dead as a doornail. And the goodies inside his donation bag have vanished like cookies and milk on Christmas Eve. It’s up to Brandy and Mother—with spirited shih tzu Sushi in tow—to take the reins and start checking off their naughty list. But the sleuthing duo might have to reckon with some ghosts of Christmas past before finally unwrapping the murderer…
“One of the funniest cozy series going.”—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
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About the Author
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Antiques St. Nicked
By Barbara Allan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins
All rights reserved.
"Up on the housetop reindeer paws, out jumps good old Santa Claus ..."
Today was the first Saturday in December, which meant only one thing to the citizens of quaint little Serenity, Iowa, on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi — the annual Holiday Stroll had once again arrived.
This evening the downtown merchants, following their usual nine-to-five hours, would reopen from seven to nine, luring shoppers in from the cold with free cups of hot chocolate, steaming cider, and homemade cookies, all in the name of good cheer (and early holiday sales).
Every storefront window had some yuletide display, from religious (manger scene) to whimsical (teddy bears), not to mention collectible (Department 56 miniature villages). Even ol' sourpuss Mrs. Hunter, who with her husband ran the hardware store, applied festive red and green bows to the tools arranged in their window.
Outdoor events went on as well. Each street corner had something going, whether a choir singing familiar carols or a small brass band playing holiday favorites, and of course, the customary Salvation Army red kettle with volunteer bell-ringer.
Ever since I was little, Mother would take me to the Holiday Stroll — Mother being Vivian Borne, seventies (actual age her well-guarded secret), bipolar, widowed, Danish stock, local thespian, antiques store co-owner, and self-styled amateur sleuth; and me being Brandy Borne, thirty-three, Prozac prone (since returning to live with Mother after my divorce), co-owner of our antiques store, and frequent reluctant accomplice in Mother's detecting escapades.
(Clearly if you object to parenthetical asides, you have chosen the wrong Christmas story.)
Our Trash 'n' Treasures antiques shop, located at the foot of the downtown, was not among the businesses opening their doors tonight. We'd participated in last year's Stroll to less than merry results — namely, one smashed Mary Gregory green glass pitcher, one stolen pipe commemorating Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo transatlantic flight, and a solitary sale (a twenty-dollar Keane print of a crying big-eyed waif).
Accompanying Mother and me tonight — but no less bundled up against the cold — was Sushi, my diabetic shih tzu. Soosh was wearing a leopard-print dog blanket with matching booties that she kept trying to kick off. I had on a black military-style jacket, black leather gloves, and a red wool scarf longer than Harry Potter's. Mother had donned an old raccoon coat that looked like something Andy Hardy wore in one of his college boolah-boolah movies. Thank goodness she only dragged it out of mothballs for the bitterest of winter days (or when she went off her meds, which was an indicator of same) (if it wasn't cold out, that is).
(Mother to Brandy: Dear, I know you took a creative writing class at the community college some years ago, but regarding those last two sentences, please try to be more concise. Our readers expect a higher literary standard after nine books and two novellas.)
(Brandy to Mother: Not if they've read them they don't.)
Anyway, the Stroll was already in full swing as Mother and I — Sushi in my arms so she wouldn't get trod on — made our way along the crowded downtown sidewalks, our breaths pluming, our boots adding more tracks in the lightly falling snow.
First stop, per usual, was to see Santa and Rudolph, who were always at the outdoor plaza of the First National Bank. If the Holiday Stroll was a Serenity tradition, this particular Santa (and his very special helper) was a Holiday Stroll tradition.
Simon Wright had been playing Jolly Old St. Nick every Holiday Stroll since I was in elementary school, and even though I was no longer a wonderment-filled child, there remained something comforting about seeing Simon year after year in his velvet red suit with white fur cuffs, black belt, and convincing (if fake) white beard, seated in a thronelike red chair in front of a wooden storage shed transformed into a pretend toy workshop.
The workshop — a sign above the door proclaimed it as such — was a colorful gingerbread house with silhouettes of elves painted on the windows. But what set Simon's setup apart from, say, a regular mall Santa was his actual, no fooling, really real reindeer penned nearby and tied to a post.
And for a donation to Simon's pet cause — the construction of a new shelter for domestic violence victims — the kiddies could have their picture taken near Rudolph, whose un-red nose was explained by Santa as only glowing red in flight on Christmas Eve.
(I snapped a free one with my cell phone.)
As we approached the bank plaza, Mother waved a hand, calling out, "Oh, yoo-hoo, Simon! I mean Santa! It's your favorite non-elf helper — Viv-I-an!"
Simon Wright barely afforded her a glance, and Mother's upraised hand went limp.
Seeing her hurt expression, I said, "Now, Mother — Santa is busy with that long line of kids who're even younger than you."
"He's never been too busy for me before," she muttered, adjusting her oversize, somewhat magnifying glasses.
Simon was a semiretired farmer who kept various animals — ponies, goats, sheep, even llama (and, of course, the reindeer) — to take to county fairs as a petting zoo.
After she'd been a widow for some years, Mother and widower Simon had gone out for a time. Of course, little Brandy would have loved to have Santa as her new father — think of the year-round presents! But Mother liked her freedom and discouraged any move toward matrimony from any suitor, even Santa Claus. Apparently the only role local diva Vivian Borne did not care to play was Mrs. Claus.
They had remained good, warm friends nonetheless.
I'd been watching Rudolph and commented, "That reindeer seems ... agitated. Don't you think?" In the past, the animal had always been quite placid in his job.
"These children are quite noisy," Mother replied, then brightened. "Simon must be worried about the animal! That would explain the frosty reception for yours truly."
"You're probably right. I hope Rudolph doesn't get spooked. That's a big animal."
But Mother was still thinking about Santa's slight. "Well ... perhaps we'll come back later and give Simon a proper Christmas greeting."
Sushi squirmed in my arms. "Rudolph isn't the only beast getting agitated," I said. "Our little angel here wants to go to the p-e-t store, and if I don't take her, she'll just keep after me. You coming?"
Mother seemed distracted. "I'll catch up with you later, dear.... I've just spotted some of my Red-Hatted League gal pals."
The League was a mystery book club off-shoot of the Red Hat Society.
Sushi gave a sharp, impatient bark. On Brandy! On Vivian! Dash away! Dash away all!
Paws and Claws, located on the main floor of a restored redbrick Victorian building, was run by Alura Winters, a petite woman in her late twenties who might have been a woodland sprit with those green eyes, that translucent skin, and her flowing red hair tucked behind elfin ears.
The pets who accompanied their owners (or was that vice versa?) loved Alura because each got a free treat (the pets, not the owners), and Paws and Claws seemed to be one place where all the animals could get along — cats with other cats, dogs with other dogs, even cats with dogs (to paraphrase Bill Murray).
Was this magical animal kingdom due to Alura's loving aura? Not hardly — behave yourself Rover or Tabby, or no treat!
Animals learn fast when it comes to their stomachs.
I put Sushi down so she could wander around the store while I picked out a gift for her — a squirrel with no stuffing whose squeaker was not accessible by a Velcro opening (I learn pretty fast, too). Still, at the mercy of Sushi's sharp little teeth, the cloth toy would only last till maybe New Year's Eve.
Alura employed an older woman to run the cash register so she herself could be free to mingle with customers and dispense treats to well-behaved pets. After a few minutes, I saw an opening to speak to her.
"Say," I asked, "did Simon get a new reindeer?"
To my knowledge there had been two other Rudolphs, reindeer having a life span similar to a dog or cat.
The elfin features frowned in thought. "No, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it's the same one ... why?"
"I just thought the animal was acting a little ... off."
I shrugged. "Irritable? Anxious? Skittish?"
She returned the shrug. "I took Rudy an apple earlier, when Simon was setting up, and he seemed just fine then." She paused, then added, "But maybe the children are starting to bother him — he is getting up there in age."
I smirked. "Simon or Rudolph?"
Her laugh was a Tinkerbell tinkle. "Well, both. But I don't suppose Simon was acting skittish."
"Well, he did ignore Mother's 'yoo-hoo.' And they used to be an item."
"Maybe he was just staying in character. An actress of Vivian's caliber should understand that."
"Good point," I said.
On my way to the cash register, I ran into a middle-aged man with wispy white hair and thick wire-framed glasses that reduced his eyes to raisins. What his full name was I couldn't tell you, but everybody called him Dumpster Dan, a harmless soul who lived a few blocks away in the old YMCA, which been converted into housing for indigents and those fleeing domestic violence.
"Hello, Dan," I said with a smile. "Merry early Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, Miz Borne!" He wore a rumpled trench coat with similarly wrinkled slacks beneath and dirty tennis shoes. He did not exactly smell like a candy cane, but otherwise was a pleasant presence.
Occasionally Dan came into our antiques shop with something "precious" that he'd found in a Dumpster. And, due to his less-than-stellar financial status, we usually bought the item no matter how un-precious it might be.
Dan gave me a big, multicolored grin. "Wonderful turnout for the Stroll, isn't it?" He cupped his hand to his mouth so no one would overhear, then whispered excitedly, "Boy, the Dumpsters'll be overflowin' by the end of the night."
"Like a stocking Christmas morning," I said.
"I'm sure to find something of value for you and your mother."
"Well, if you do, feel free to stop by the shop."
"Oh I will, I will!"
I moved on to the cash register and, after making my purchase, found Sushi in the dog-food aisle, confabbing with a miniature schnauzer. On the way out of the store, she tried to wrangle a second treat from Alura, and succeeded due to the general Christmas spirit, but possibly setting a bad precedent.
Sushi and I made several other stops for gifts. At Artists' Alley I bought Mother a piece of pottery that she collected (support your local artisans!), and at Meerdink's Men's Clothiers I got my special guy a navy sweater; and at the Hall Tree, I bought myself a present, a black cashmere sweater, just in case Mother's gift to me was a dud.
Final stop was the gourmet popcorn store, which made the most delicious caramel corn along with a dozen other flavors; the cagey owners piped the delicious aromas outside, so only someone with a terminally stuffed-up nose could resist and walk on by.
Many of the shops had either entertainment, live Christmas music of some sort, or free food stuffs, most often Christmas cookies and punch. I had to reluctantly avoid most of these seasonal temptations or Sushi would have begged for samples with a diabetic catastrophe in the offing.
By the time I'd finished shopping, the Stroll was winding down. Most of the outside events — choirs, bands, and bell-ringers — had already dispersed because the snow was coming down heavier, the wind gaining some bite.
I called Mother on my cell, and she texted me to meet her at Simon's display. So I trudged the four blocks through gathering snow, carrying Sushi along with my packages (she'd managed to lose all but one bootie) (why do we humans insist on trying to clothe canines?).
Arriving at Simon's stand at the same time as Mother, we found the throne empty, a sign on the chair reading, "SANTA IS CHECKING ON HIS ELVES." A forlorn-looking Rudolph stood with his magnificently antlered head bowed against the blustery wind.
Mother said, "It's not like Simon to close before the Stroll is officially over."
I set Sushi down. "Who could blame him?" I shivered. "It's getting nasty cold." The last word came out "told."
"Dear, remember — neither rain nor snow nor sleet!"
"That's mail carriers, Mother, not Santa. And that hasn't been true for them for yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-years."
Sushi, kicking off a final bootie, trotted over to the reindeer and barked. The caribou lifted its massive head with rack of horns and made a sound more suited to a pig oinking.
Soosh then trotted over to the workshop shed and began scratching at the door.
Now I might have gone over and snatched Sushi up into my arms and scolded her; but the dog had instincts that rivaled the two human sleuths in the family.
So we went over and Mother pushed open the door. Using the small but powerful light on my key chain, I mini-light-sabered around the dark interior ...
... illuminating Simon, in full Santa regalia, sprawled on his back, eyes staring upward, unblinking.
Mother knelt over him, fingers going to his throat.
"Oh dear," I said. "Is it a heart attack?"
She shook her head, then held up fingers coated in red. "No, a different sort of attack altogether."
I gasped just as she sighed, saying, "I'm afraid this good man has been murdered."
Like the Ghost of Christmas Future pointing to Scrooge's tombstone, Mother gestured with bloody fingers to a hammer lying on the floor, its head covered in a red just a little darker than the Santa suit.
"Why would someone kill Simon?" I asked.
But I feared I knew the all-too-mundane answer: for the monetary contents of the red velvet donation bag discarded near the murdered man's feet, the pouch turned inside out, as if Santa had already handed out each and every present.CHAPTER 2
"Here is a hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks ..."
The first responder to my 911 call was Officer Mia Cordona, dark haired, early thirties, with curves not entirely concealed by unisex slacks and a bulky blue jacket.
Mother and I had a somewhat tumultuous history with my one-time friend Mia ever since we'd unintentionally blown her cover on a drug case (we were investigating an unrelated murder, needless to say without Mia's official status).
Anyway, Officer Cordona was clearly not infused with holiday cheer upon seeing the two of us standing in the snow outside Santa's workshop.
"Mia, dear," Mother began, as the law enforcer approached, "might I remind you that this is a crime scene? I realize murder isn't your specialty."
Mia's cheeks, red from the cold wind, turned a deeper, not-at-all Christmassy crimson. "Might I remind you two to stay the hell out of my way?"
Mother tsk-tsked. "Profanity is both unprofessional and unbecoming in a public servant ... a public servant whose salary we help pay, I might add."
Hoping to defuse the tension, I stepped between them, and asked Mia, "Where should we go? We did discover the body, and call it in."
Her dark eyes shifted coldly to me. "Go. Home."
Mother's eyebrows climbed over the rims of her big-lensed glasses. "What about our statements?"
"Someone will get them later ... now leave."
"Don't you even want to know —"
And Mia headed to the shed door.
Mother looked crushed, but as for me, I was fine with not loitering in this nasty (and getting nastier) weather, much less cooling our heels in a clammy, cold interview room at the police station.
Handing Sushi over to Mother, I gathered my packages, which I'd removed from the workshop, and soon Serenity's two most notorious amateur sleuths were walking to their car in decidedly unfestive silence.
At home, in our Victorian-appointed living room, I took my time curling up on the couch with Sushi — it takes a lot of pillows to get comfy on a Queen Anne — while Mother went into the 1950s-styled kitchen to make us some tea.
Excerpted from Antiques St. Nicked by Barbara Allan. Copyright © 2015 Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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