A pillar of her small California town, retired schoolteacher Mary McGill has a finger in every pie and a place on every committee. Usually, everything Mary organizes runs smoothly. But this year, the town’s annual Christmas pageant hits a snag with the discovery of a blood-stained corpse lying in the manger—and a cowering black-and-white cocker spaniel puppy right beside the body.
Two local children report seeing a shadowy figure fleeing the scene, but there are no clues as to the murderer’s identity. If Mary can figure out what the purebred pup was doing there, she’ll be one step closer to finding the killer. But as someone who knows nothing about puppies, purebred or otherwise, Mary needs to scratch beneath the surface before more than the Christmas pageant goes to the dogs . . .
“Dog-loving cozy fans will welcome Delaney’s series launch, an extension of her Ellie McKenzie series . . . Christmas cheer, puppies, and cute, resourceful children add to the fun.” —Publishers Weekly
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A Mary McGill Mystery
By Kathleen Delaney
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Kathleen Delaney
All rights reserved.
Mary McGill stood on top of the library steps, trying to hear the person shouting at the other end of her cell phone. She could only make out every other word. It sounded as if they said the cow had run away. She should have learned to text.
'Where did the cow go?' She listened for a minute as the growing crowd made their way through the park toward the Victorian Christmas Extravaganza on Maple Street, one block over, wondering, not for the first time, why she'd agreed to once more chair the organizing committee for this event. 'Why we ever let the Maids a-Milking bring a real cow, I'll never know. Can you catch it? It what? Oh, oh. Keep me posted.'
She hung up, hoping Bobby Connors was right and he could keep the cow out of Mrs Wittiker's mums. She was pretty proud of those mums. Oh, well. It was a bit late for them anyway.
It was getting dark fast. Clouds were coming in. The forecast was for rain, but not until later tonight. Mary sent up a silent prayer it would hold off until at least midnight. It would take that long to get everyone out of their costumes, make sure all the animals were accounted for and back in their barnyards or kennels and any stray children found and returned to their parents. No matter how hard you tried, children strayed.
Her cell phone rang again. 'Mary here. Everything's fine. No, no sign of the cow. You tell Bobby to get on it. We can't have a cow running — Oh. Good. Where's the posada? The donkey did what? Is Luanne all right? Take care of her. She's about as far along as Mary was when they got to Bethlehem and I have no intention of closing this event tonight birthing a real baby.' She listened a moment. 'All right. I should hear the singing any time now.'
The library Mary stood outside of was in the middle of Santa Louisa's town park, almost directly across from St Theresa of the Little Flower Church, where the posada was supposed to end. Mary and Joseph would finally be welcomed someplace after all the inns set up along the procession route had rejected them. Mary would lay baby Jesus in the manger, the children's choir would sing a hymn, the people who had followed the procession would join in and a party would immediately commence. Libations were supposed to consist of lemonade and hot chocolate. Mary fervently hoped that was all that was served.
Many California towns had recently included posadas in their Christmas celebrations, but this was Santa Louisa's first attempt. St Theresa's had decided to hold the posada as their contribution to the annual Victorian Christmas Extravaganza and the plan, or at least the hope, was that after the singing and the breaking of the piñata, all the pilgrims would leave Main Street and move over to Maple Street and enjoy the extravaganza. Every house on Maple Street was lit to the hilt with Christmas lights, and almost every house offered some kind of tableau. This year it had almost gotten out of hand. The Maids a-Milking were really going to try to milk that cow while the lords were leaping all around them. How they could do that every fifteen minutes while people walked up and down the street, gaping at the exhibits, she didn't know, and was afraid they didn't either.
They weren't the only ones taking the 'extravaganza' seriously. Mimes, Morris dancers, a barbershop quartet, a storyteller, a group wearing Dickinson-era costumes while singing Christmas carols, even Ebenezer Scrooge, were all making an appearance. Evan Wilson played Scrooge every year. He came out on his balcony, dressed in a bathrobe and stocking cap, shaking his fist at the children, telling them to 'get off my property.' Then he'd throw down gold-wrapped chocolates. The children loved it. Mary didn't know how he did it. Evan was usually such a mild-mannered man.
The posada would come down Maple Street, turn the corner on 11th, a block before the extravaganza started, continue up Main Street and stop on the church lawn, where the manger scene was set up, just to the right of the church steps. Joseph, portrayed by Stan Moss, led the procession, walking alongside Luanne Mendosa who portrayed Mary. She was perched worryingly on the Bates' donkey, an animal that wasn't mild in the least. Shepherds walked behind, followed by the Three Kings, who had thankfully not been able to come up with any camels. They were mounted instead on Irma Long's three most elderly and unflappable mares. The townspeople came next, singing traditional Mexican songs, and in this case, traditional English Christmas hymns as well, pausing only to howl in disappointment each time they were refused entry by one of the inns along the route. They should make it to St Theresa's manger scene in – Mary checked her watch – about fifteen minutes. The crowd was already moving her way.
So many people. She thought back to the first extravaganza, over twenty years ago. She'd managed that one, too, but the crowd had been considerably smaller. Only a few houses were lit that year, the entertainment limited to a living manger scene, a barbershop quartet on the Martins' lawn and the high-school choir. Where they had set up she couldn't remember. What she did remember was her middle-school home economics class making Christmas cookies. How Samuel had laughed when he'd seen the few she'd brought home. Their nieces and nephews hadn't minded how uneven they were or how sloppy the frosting. They'd gleefully added them to the Christmas breakfast Mary and Sam hosted every year. Sam had been gone some seven years now, but she still missed him dreadfully. Her days teaching home economics were also gone but not missed nearly as much. However, she still presided over the extravaganza, which now attracted visitors from all over the state. She sighed and shifted her weight. Why she'd allowed herself to be talked into coordinating this mob scene 'just one more year,' she had no idea. Yes, she did. It was either that or prance around in a reindeer costume. The choice had been clear. She surveyed the crowd and checked her cell phone again. All quiet.
Mary looked down at Dalia Mendosa. The child had climbed the steps without her noticing.
'Dalia. What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be over at the church waiting for the posada to arrive?'
Dalia nodded. 'I was. We have the doll and everything, but he won't get up and I don't know what to do. Ronaldo's there. He's holding the doll.'
Mary surveyed the ten-year-old and shook her head slightly. 'What are you talking about?'
'It's Doctor Mathews. He's lying in the manger, asleep, I think. He won't get up.'
The child's eyes were large and a little frightened.
'Old Doctor Mathews? The vet? Are you sure?'
Dalia nodded, her large green eyes wide with apprehension. 'We called his name, but he won't get up.'
Oh, Lord. Cliff Mathews. He'd been so good too. Why did he have to pick this night, of all nights, to fall off the wagon? Why did he have to pass out in the manger? She clicked on her cell phone. 'Tony? I think we have a problem. Can you meet me at the manger? No. St Theresa's. Now. Cliff's been drinking again and it looks like he's passed out in it. The posada will be here in just a few minutes. I can't get him out of there by myself.' She listened for a moment. 'Thanks.' She hung up and took Dalia's hand. 'Let's go.'
They crossed the street with some difficulty. People were everywhere. Strollers decorated with battery pack Christmas lights were pushed by parents who weren't looking where they were going; dogs on leashes, even though outlawed, wound themselves between people's legs, doing their best to trip someone. The traffic lights were off tonight and the sea of people that flowed in all directions, laughing, talking, kept Mary and Dalia from making much progress. Finally, they stood in front of the church. The lawn was clear of spectators. There was, so far, nothing to see, but as soon as the posada got closer ... Was that singing coming their way?
'Where is he?'
Dalia pointed to a rough-built lean-to, open to the street. Inside, where the manger was set up and the animals were housed, was in shadow. Spotlights were ready, sitting at both the inside and outside corners, for the arrival of Mary. The place would radiate light, the North Star would shine from the oak tree and angels would appear. But for now, everything was in shadow. Mary could just make out the outline of what looked like a goat. It bleated as she came up. A couple of other animals hung their heads over small pens, staring at the figure overflowing from the manger in the middle of the display, waiting for Mary and Joseph to appear.
'Cliff Mathews, you promised.' Mary let go of Dalia's hand and marched up to the manger. 'Get up right this minute. How you could —'
She stopped abruptly. Cliff wasn't going to get up, now or ever again. He lay in the middle of the manger, eyes staring up at nothing, the shadows failing to hide the front of his gray hoodie, stained bright red.CHAPTER 2
'So, there you are.'
The voice made Mary jump. She wheeled around. Father D'Angelo bore down on them.
'I told you two to stay where I could see you. I was scared to death. Why did you — Oh. Hello, Mrs McGill.'
'Good evening, Father.' Mary glanced down at Dalia. Why had she been out here, with the animals, unsupervised? It didn't matter. There were other things more pressing, like a whole procession of people following Mary and Joseph on their quest to find a place for Mary to have her baby. It couldn't be here. There was no longer any room in this inn, either. 'We have a problem. Can you call St Mark's right now and tell them we are rerouting the posada over to their crèche? They're right around the corner. Theirs is a big one, so please, do it now.'
The priest looked for a second as if he didn't understand, then, as her words sunk in, he began to shake his head. 'No.' He shook it emphatically as he thought about it. 'Why? We've planned this for months. It's our first. Why would we ...'
Dalia moved closer to Mary and reached for her hand as she watched Father D'Angelo. It gave him his first view of the manger. His head stopped shaking and he drew in his breath with a hiss. 'What's that? There's someone in the manger.' He took a step closer. 'He has to get out. We can't —'
Mary's hand closed on Dalia's. She pulled her close and stepped in front of Father D'Angelo, blocking his assault on poor, dead Cliff. She thrust Dalia at him, making sure the child had her back to the gruesome scene. 'Please, Father. Take the children inside and make that call. Tony's on his way, and I'm going to call Dan right now. Or Hazel.' She looked around. Where was Ronaldo? He needed to go ... There. Standing beside the sheep pen. One sheep had her head over the railing, watching them with what seemed to be great anxiety.
'Dan? Dan Dunham? Hazel? She's the dispatcher for nine-one-one. What are you saying?' Father D'Angelo quit trying to move around Dalia and stared at Mary.
She gestured toward the children and once more gently pushed Dalia toward the priest. The children needed to get out of there before the police arrived; before they realized what they'd found wasn't a living, breathing drunk but a very dead man. 'Ronaldo's got the baby Jesus doll. They can put it in St Mark's manger.'
The eight-year-old boy watched them with the same anxious expression as the sheep. Eyes wide, seemingly trying to decide if he should be scared, he clutched something tightly to his chest; something smaller than the doll, something that squirmed. Mary squinted to see better, but the lighting was dim. What ... No time. She'd find out later. She turned back toward the priest. 'Maybe you, or one of the ladies, can take them over to St Mark's. Only, as soon as their mother gets off that retched donkey we're going to need you back here.'
Father D'Angelo took another look at the body in the manger, crossed himself, walked the few steps over to Ronaldo and reached for his hand. The boy backed up a step and clutched his bundle tighter.
'It's all right. You can take the doll with you. We're just going to St Mark's. We'll meet your mother there.'
Ronaldo stared at the priest but he didn't move and didn't speak.
Father D'Angelo glanced over at Mary, a helpless look in his eyes. He'd always seemed so calm, so collected when they'd worked together on events like the Cancer Run or the Special Olympics, but he wasn't collected now. However, Mary suspected he'd never found a dead body before.
She sighed. It was equally obvious he'd never taught school. 'Ronaldo, please go with Father right now. Dalia's going also. The posada's not coming here, and you have to hurry to catch them.'
She was interrupted by a whimpering noise. The bundle Ronaldo held so tightly squirmed harder.
'What's that?' Father D'Angelo bent down.
Ronaldo backed up farther, pushing against the sheep pen.
'That's not the doll.' Mary also took a step closer to the cowering child.
'It's a puppy.' Dalia sounded torn between pride and fright. 'We saved it.'
Mary and Father D'Angelo turned toward her as one. 'You what?'
'Saved it. We came out to make sure the doll was here, ready for when Mom rode up on the donkey, and heard the puppy crying. That's when we saw Doctor Mathews. I called to him, but he wouldn't get up. Ronaldo picked up the puppy and I went to get Mrs McGill.' She paused, as if she hadn't yet told the most important part.
Mary held her breath. Surely they hadn't seen ...
'It's black and white.' Dalia looked at her brother, as if for corroboration.
Mary let her breath out in a sigh of relief.
Ronaldo nodded and shifted the wiggling puppy.
'We can't ...' the priest stammered.
'You have to.' Mary put as much determination in her voice as she'd ever used in her seventh-grade home economics classes. 'Take the children and the puppy. We'll sort it all out later.' She reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. 'I'm going to call Hazel now. We'll get the procession rerouted, but the people at St Mark's need to know they're about to get several hundred people they hadn't counted on.'
Father D'Angelo took another quick look at the body in the manger, took each child by a shoulder and herded them back toward the vestibule of the church. 'I'll go right now,' he tossed over his shoulder.
Mary sighed and turned back toward the body as she clicked open her cell phone. Cliff. Poor old Cliff. What could possibly have happened?
She almost dropped her cell. 'Tony! You scared me half to death.'
The tall, dark-haired man grinned. 'Sorry about that. Where's Cliff?'
Mary took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she'd learned in her Silver Sneakers exercise class, hoping it would keep her hand from shaking. 'In the manger.'
'In the — He would pick tonight.' Tony turned slightly to stare at the crumpled body. 'He's really out cold. Do we need an ambulance?'
'We need the coroner. He'd dead.'
She ignored the shocked look on Tony's face and spoke into her cell phone. 'Hazel? Mary. We have a problem. I'm at St Theresa's and Cliff Mathews is dead. In the manger. Send Dan and the troops and can you call Sister Margaret Anne? She's walking with the posada, but she's got her cell. Her number should be on your sheet. Good. They have to go to St Mark's. Don't let them come here. Father D'Angelo is going over there right now.' She paused. 'No. I don't know what happened, but the last thing we need is a few hundred people milling around while Dan and his people try to find out. Thanks, Hazel.'
Tony hadn't taken his eyes off the body. 'Where are my kids? They were supposed to wait in the church, with the choir, until the procession arrived. Are they still here? Inside?'
'They're with Father D'Angelo.' Mary paused.
Tony continued to stare down at the body as if transfixed. He'd made no move to touch anything but seemed to be taking in all of the details.
Mary had seen all the details she wanted or needed. 'I asked Father to take them with him to St Mark's and stay there until Luanne gets off the donkey.'
Tony managed to tear his eyes away from the awful tableau. 'She's the most stubborn woman – she's due any minute. Why she insisted on riding a donkey half a mile up the street is beyond me.' He looked back at the body. 'Did you find him?'
Excerpted from Purebred Dead by Kathleen Delaney. Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Delaney. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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