To the townspeople’s delight, the annual lighting of the tree is a spectacular success. Unfortunately, Santa pulled up in his sleigh, DOA. At first Stan is sure it’s Seamus, her boyfriend’s uncle, inside the red suit. But the victim turns out to be an employee from the town’s Christmas tree farm. Rumor has it the deceased was a mean drunk with a soft spot for feral cats. Stan has no idea why he was dressed as St. Nick—or why he’s dead.
Meanwhile, Seamus, a jolly Irishman who comes to America every December to visit his pub-owner nephew, is nowhere to be found. Could he just be off on a Boston bar crawl? Or is something more sinister under the tree? Seamus was supposed to be dressing up and posing for pet pictures with Santa at the shop, but the dogs and cats might have to find another lap to curl up in if Stan doesn’t solve two mysteries soon. Or murder might be the only thing under the mistletoe this holiday . . .
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The whole night could've been straight from a Norman Rockwell painting, if only Santa hadn't dropped dead in his sleigh as he rode up to light the Frog Ledge Christmas tree.
Before that happened, it had been almost magical. The kind of holiday scene from a movie or TV show. A few inches of snow set the scene for the picturesque Connecticut town, adding just enough atmosphere without making it difficult to get around. White holiday lights framed the green and continued down Main Street, illuminating the Christmas wreaths perched atop the streetlights. Children and dogs scrambled through the snow joyously as they often did in the special days preceding Christmas, when snow seemed miraculous rather than a burden.
Townspeople packed the streets, the town green, and the area in front of the library where the town Christmas tree stood, adorned with lights, proudly waiting for the switch to flip. Good cheer permeated the air. The festive mood was contagious, and how could it not be? Christmas carols played from the speakers outside of town hall, and red bows adorned the town center landmarks.
Stan Connor watched the scene with a smile on her nearly-frozen face. It was way too cold to be outdoors — so cold she had her warmest wool pom-pom hat covering her long blond hair and a scarf wrapped around her face — but she still wouldn't miss this night. In years past, the Christmas season had buzzed by her almost without notice as she went about her busy life. She didn't even know if her old town had a Christmas celebration like this one, never mind attended one herself and been happy about it.
But in her new town — her new life — everything was different. In Frog Ledge, population barely anyone, residents had an obligation to partake in festivities. And that didn't mean simply Christmas or Halloween. It encompassed lesser-known events like National Dance Like a Chicken Day, and old favorites like Groundhog Day. It was ... quaint. And usually enjoyable. Stan had moved fairly quickly from thinking it was all weird to jumping in with both feet in the year and a half she'd lived here.
"This is very exciting," the woman next to her said, leaning over so Stan caught a whiff of some fruity perfume. "Isn't it? I'm so proud of my Seamus for doing this every year." Vivian O'Sullivan, affectionately known as Miss Viv around town, had been Seamus McGee's seasonal love interest since the two were in high school some forty-five years ago. Part of the Frog Ledge McGee family — which included Stan's boyfriend, Jake — Seamus only came to town a few times a year, but always at Christmas to take on the starring role as Santa. He spent the rest of his time in Ireland, and quite possibly elsewhere. No one seemed really sure.
Miss Viv adjusted her faux-fur wrap and beamed, squeezing Stan's hand. "Christmas is my favorite time of year."
"It's wonderful," Stan agreed.
Miss Viv nodded, stealing a glance at the woman on the other side of her before sliding a hand through her arm. "Come on, Victoria," she said. "You have to admit this is fun." When she got no response, she winked at Stan. "My sister is such an uptight Yankee."
Victoria O'Sullivan didn't look as enamored as her sister with the scene of small-town Christmas bliss. Maybe she was simply cold, but she seemed incredibly stiff. Her jaw had a set quality to it that conveyed a lack of interest in participating in the obligatory small talk that filled a night like this. She had brown hair — clearly a dye job — cut into a severe bob that landed at her chin line. Her short bangs barely touched the middle of her forehead, giving her a stern, substitute teacher look. The wire-rimmed glasses she kept pushing higher on her nose added to the look. Her face was devoid of any makeup.
"It's wonderful," she said, but her tone suggested she'd rather be strung up by her hair on the town green. "I'm going to go get a cup of coffee in the library." She slipped away into the crowd.
Miss Viv — seemingly the polar opposite of her sister with her long, flowing, silver hair, glittery green eyeliner and way too much mascara — shook her head affectionately, watching Victoria carefully make her way across the parking lot. "My poor sister. She's never been one to let herself have much fun. She hates the cold, for one thing. And she's been so down lately. I wish I could help her more."
Stan only knew Miss Viv through small talk, and she didn't know Victoria at all to comment. But since she was basically part of Jake's family, they'd all ended up standing out here together with a front-row view of Santa's arrival — Jake's parents, sisters, cousins, and a gaggle of aunts and uncles who were in town for the annual McGee holiday festivities. Everyone except for Jake, who'd been part of the crew hanging the lights earlier in the day and was now at his pub, McSwigg's, preparing for the onslaught of revelers who'd want a hot Irish coffee to warm their bones after being out in the cold.
And there would be an onslaught, both at the pub and all the local businesses. It was one reason why this tree lighting and holiday stroll was so important, especially as the town had grown and evolved and new businesses had taken root. Folks from neighboring towns who didn't have a holiday celebration like Frog Ledge's would come over to enjoy the evening. The shops in town were open all evening with specials and refreshments. Some, like Stan's new Pawsitively Organic Pet Patisserie, were having extra special activities. She'd timed the grand opening of her new pet bakery to coincide with this weekend. Tonight was her soft opening, and tomorrow was the all-day main event. She couldn't wait.
Stan had asked Santa to come and have his photo taken with the town pets once he was done with his tree lighting duties, and Seamus jovially agreed. Stan had taken full advantage of the advertising opportunities, and she knew many townspeople, including her new-to-town sister, Caitlyn, and her fiancé, were looking forward to bringing their dogs.
But before they could get to that portion of the evening the tree had to be lit, the signature activity signifying the official start of the holiday season. This year, the new planning committee — which included Stan, against her better judgment — wanted to make a splash with Santa's entrance. In the past, he'd arrived on a fire truck.
"Booooring." Betty Meany, the executive director of the Frog Ledge Library and new head of the committee, had yawned at the first meeting. "We need to shake things up this year."
So "shaking things up" ultimately translated to creating a custom sleigh for Santa to ride in on. Emmalee Hoffman, a local dairy farmer, came up with the idea. The committee jumped on it. One of Jake's bartenders, who dabbled in woodworking, offered to make the sleigh. Emmalee's new husband, Ted Brahm, volunteered to tow it behind one of his snowmobiles. The plan was to pull the sleigh containing Santa and his elf across the town green as people lined up to watch its arrival, then coast across the street to the town hall and land in front of the tree, where Mayor Tony Falco and Santa would flip the switch together while the Frog Ledge Elementary School choir sang Christmas carols.
But, like most things in life, it didn't go as planned.
Stan missed the first cue, despite her position at the front of the crowd. She'd been busy fixing Scruffy's elf collar, an adornment her schnoodle didn't especially love, but tolerated. So Stan didn't see the exact moment Ted's snowmobile skidded to a stop, perfectly positioning his gorgeous sleigh right next to the mayor so Santa could disembark gracefully and flip the switch. Which meant she didn't see Santa's elf — Amara Leonard, Stan's neighbor and the owner of Frog Ledge's specialty veterinary practice — leap from the sleigh in a panic.
The next thing she saw was the sleigh moving again, this time to a position behind the tree. Then the Christmas carols stopped abruptly and Tony Falco's voice rang out over the intercom system. "Okay, everyone! Three, two, one! Merry Christmas!" Then the tree bloomed bright with white lights, before anyone had even properly prepared for it.
There was a moment's pause while everyone tried to catch up, then a few people cheered, which started a trend. Stan joined in the clapping, but something felt strange.
"Now go walk around town, visit the stores, and get some hot cider to warm up," Tony's voice continued. "We know how cold it is out here. Thanks for celebrating with all of us in Frog Ledge!" The intercom crackled and went silent.
Next to her, Miss Viv frowned. "What's going on? Why didn't Santa come out and greet everyone?"
"I have no idea. That did seem kind of fast." Stan pulled her scarf away from her face and tried to see what was going on with the small crowd around the sleigh, but she couldn't see past the newly lit tree. A couple of people in the crowd were calling for Santa, but their chant wasn't picking up steam. Everyone else had already moved on to the next thing — food and warm beverages, most likely — and were flocking toward the stores and food establishments on Main Street.
Just as Stan started to walk toward the crowd, she saw Tony step away from the group. His cell phone was pressed to his ear. She clearly heard him say, "We need an ambulance at the town hall. For Santa."
Every hair on the back of her neck stood up. She glanced at Miss Viv to see if she'd heard. She hadn't. Her hands nervously tugged on her wrap, eyes scanning the scene in front of her, but she gave no indication she knew anything was wrong.
"I'll be right back," Stan murmured, squeezing her hand, and started toward Tony. Miss Viv nodded anxiously.
She and Scruffy reached Tony just as he'd ended the call. "What's going on?"
He shook his head, his face grim. "Something's wrong with Santa."
They both looked at the sleigh. Stan caught a glimpse of the bright red coat from the Santa costume, but Santa himself wasn't budging.
"Is that why you did the lighting so fast?" Stan asked.
Tony nodded. "Amara jumped out and let us know there was a problem. We didn't want to call attention to it in front of all the children." He looked at the crowd still dispersing. There were a few people hanging around, still hoping for a glimpse of the elusive Santa Claus. "So we got him out of everyone's line of sight and lit the tree."
Stan looked at the unmoving red blob in the sleigh, then her eyes traveled to where Amara stood a few feet away from the crowd, looking ill. Ted Brahm spoke quietly to her. "Are you sure something's wrong and this isn't some kind of joke? I mean, doesn't Seamus like pranks?" She'd heard all about Seamus McGee's unique sense of humor. His family enjoyed telling the tales.
"If this is a prank, it's a really good one," Tony said. "Because when I felt for a pulse, I couldn't find one."
Stan gaped at him. "You mean ..."
"What the heck is going on?"
They both turned as Sergeant Jessie Pasquale, Jake's sister and the town's resident state trooper, rushed up. It had been her night off, so she was dressed in jeans, UGGs and a puffy black parka. Her long red hair was stuffed under a hat. She'd obviously been alerted either by the 911 call, or simply the odd nature of the celebration.
Tony waved helplessly in the direction of the sleigh. Jessie marched over, looking for all the world like she was about to give her uncle a good talking to. Stan held her breath as she watched the scene unfold in slow motion: Jessie reaching in to grab Santa and haul him up by the arm. Amara and Ted watching from a distance, Amara's hands covering her mouth. Everyone held their breath, waiting for his eyes to pop open, shining with amusement. But when Jessie loosened her grasp, Santa simply slid back into the curve of the sleigh, his head flopping forward.
He didn't move at all.
Stan hadn't realized Miss Viv was next to her until she began to scream, a loud, keening sound that jolted anyone within hearing distance into a state of panic.
"What's wrong with my Seamus?" she cried, grabbing Stan's arm, her long fingernails penetrating Stan's coat to dig into her flesh.
Stan looked around for help before Miss Viv alerted the whole town that there was a serious problem. Liam, Seamus's older son, noticed the commotion and came over. "What's going on? Is everything okay?" He huddled inside a leather jacket that barely looked warm enough for the cold night.
"Can you take her to sit down somewhere?" Stan pointed to a row of folding chairs that had been set up for anyone who couldn't stand for the celebration.
"Viv, come on." Liam slipped his arm around the distraught woman, still looking at Stan with a question. She shook her head. He'd just begun to lead her away when Victoria O'Sullivan appeared, two steaming paper cups in hand. She squinted at them, then looked at her sobbing sister.
"What on earth is going on?" she asked.
"Something's wrong with Seamus," Miss Viv wailed, flinging her arms around her sister. The coffees went flying. Stan felt one batch of the liquid splash down her jeans, luckily not hitting Scruffy in the process. She bent to scoop up her dog while Liam tried to wrangle the two women, his eyes searching Stan's questioningly. She shrugged helplessly.
Jessie waited, lips pressed together, until Liam had gotten them out of sight. Then, cursing under her breath, she reached into the sleigh and yanked the unruly white beard away from Santa's face.
And stopped and stared. "What the ...?"
Stan moved to her side and looked down. Her mouth dropped open. She and Jessie looked at each other.
It wasn't Seamus McGee. The man looked vaguely familiar, but Stan couldn't place him. She was also distracted by his black eye, which looked quite fresh. His ashen face and slitted eyes were a sharp contrast to his bright red, jolly Santa suit. There didn't seem to be any life left in him, and he looked even worse against the backdrop of the handcrafted sleigh, such a beautiful work of art. The bench where Santa and his elf, Amara, had sat looked like cherrywood. It still smelled of fresh wood shavings. Brightly wrapped Christmas boxes were scattered on the floor, a stark contrast to the still figure. Stan's stomach turned and she looked away.
Jessie's face went through the range of confusion to relief then back to blank. Trooper Lou Sturgis raced up, speaking into the radio sitting on his shoulder. "Have the ambulance pull up in front of the town hall," he instructed.
Seconds later the ambulance roared to a stop in the street. Members of the crowd began to notice something wasn't right and drifted back to the area, curious. The paramedics unloaded a stretcher. They pushed it up through the snow piles, through the crowd of holiday revelers-turned-gawkers and over to the waiting sleigh. They took over as Jessie stepped back to let them do their job.
"Is this for real? Santa keeled over?" the female EMT asked no one in particular.
"I don't know why anyone would lie about that." Her partner, a bearded guy who looked like he hadn't slept in days, yawned. "That's a big bummer for the holiday season."
Stan's entire body felt chilled, and she knew it didn't have anything to do with the cold weather. She hugged Scruffy tighter against her. Had Santa really died on his way to light the tree? How awful. What a Christmas memory. At least Tony's fast thinking had saved the entire town's children from being completely traumatized.
Jessie came over to Stan. "Did you see that?" she asked. "It wasn't my uncle!"
"Thank God," Stan said. "Cause this guy's not looking too good."
"Yeah, but, what the heck's going on?" Jessie dropped her voice. "My uncle is supposed to be Santa. Not this guy. And how the hell did he end up ... in this condition, anyway?" She looked at the paramedics bent over the unresponsive man again and shook her head. "Shoot, Harold. I'm sorry."
"Heart attack, maybe?" Stan suggested helpfully. "Harold who?"
"Harold Dewey," said Trooper Lou, coming over to them, his face grim. "And he looks dead."
Jessie didn't respond. The EMTs would be the ones to make that call, but all the evidence pointed to that outcome.
"You think he finally did it?" Lou asked. "Drank himself to death?"
"I heard he was getting sober," Jessie said. "Either way, it's a darn shame. He could be a pain in the rear, but he had a hard life." She watched the paramedics wrestle Harold's body onto the stretcher, then walked over to confer with them.
Excerpted from "Purring Around the Christmas Tree"
Copyright © 2017 Liz Mugavero.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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