It's the week before Thanksgiving, and Merry Wilkinson, owner of Mrs. Claus's Treasures, is preparing for a weekend reunion of her mother's college friends. But when the group of women comes into Merry's shop, Merry is met with frosty attitudes and cold hearts.
The women argue amongst themselves constantly, and the bickering only intensifies after one of the friends is poisoned. With her father's role as Santa in danger due to his proximity to the crime, Merry will need to use all of her investigative gifts to wrap this mystery up and save Santa and her favorite holiday.
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My mother had been excited for weeks.
Then again, sometimes it can be difficult to tell. Excited is my mother's normal state of mind.
The first of the girls (as she called them) had started arriving yesterday. The rest were due this morning. After settling in, they planned to tour the sights of Rudolph, New York, beginning with my store, Mrs. Claus's Treasures.
I checked my watch. Eleven thirty. "Now remember," I said to Jackie O'Reilly, my shop assistant, "these are longtime friends of my mother, but I've never met any of them before."
"Doesn't sound like such good friends to me," she said. "My mom's childhood pals are more like aunts to me than my own aunts are."
"College friends drift apart. In terms of location as well as moving on with their lives. They've kept in touch over the years with Christmas cards and the like, and some of them visited Mom in New York when she was singing. Mom and Dad stayed with one of the women when they were in California last year, but Mom says this is the first time since college that they'll all be together. Anyway, the point is, Jackie, treat them well. This weekend is really important to Mom."
"Treat them well. I'll remember that. I assume you mean not like I treat our other customers, Merry."
"That's not what I meant."
"Whatever." Jackie tucked a piece of fresh holly around a giant glass bowl piled high with silver and pink balls. "How's that look?"
I studied it. The display seemed sparse to me. "Fill the bowl up more. It should be on the verge of overflowing."
"If it overflows any more, they'll fall out."
"Another one or two will be okay." In my former life I'd been a style editor at one of the country's top lifestyle magazines. I had a good eye, and I was proud of it.
I left Jackie to it, and went to give a small nudge to a customer who'd been spending a lot of time examining the earring tree. "Those are hand-made by a local jeweler," I told her.
She picked up a pair of earrings. Delicate threads of silver had been twisted into the shape of a snowman, and a tiny red stone provided his nose. "I've been admiring the quality. They are pricey though."
"The artist's name is Crystal Wong. She's from Rudolph and is in her first year at the School of Visual Arts in New York."
"She works here part-time." Jackie placed a pink ball on top of the stack. It did look dangerously unstable. She picked up a silver orb and slowly settled it in place. The display wobbled, and she held her hands out as though to catch them if they fell. Trust Jackie to make her point, even if the entire display collapsed around us.
"You're right, Jackie," I admitted as I remembered that at a magazine shoot we often had displays tumbling around us moments after the pictures were snapped. A photographic display isn't designed for stability or permanence. "Any more balls and the whole thing's going to topple over."
She didn't bother to hide her self-satisfied expression as she removed the last two balls.
"I like knowing the name of the artist and helping support a local community at the same time," the customer said. "I'll take these for me." She handed me the snowmen and then she picked up another one of Crystal's pieces, a gold chain with double links and a small jeweled wreath at the throat. She ran the chain through her fingers and checked the price tag. "This might be a bit too much for a preholiday gift. I'll take these instead." She swapped the necklace for a pair of earrings shaped like wreaths. "For my mother-in-law. I'll call it a Thanksgiving present to get her in the mood for the holidays. I'll take some of those napkins as well. I love your tree."
"Thanks." I gave the tree an appreciative glance. A live Douglas fir, replaced once a month, fully decorated with bells and balls, ribbons and wooden cranberry strings, small, warm white lights, and a glistening silver star at the top, filled one corner of the store. This was a Christmas-themed shop, but that never stopped us from featuring other holidays at the appropriate time. Today the main display was set as if for a Thanksgiving feast, with a centerpiece of real sugar pumpkins, fresh apples, red maple leaves, an orange and brown runner with matching place mats, and turkey-themed dishes.
I took the jewelry to the sales counter while the customer continued to browse. We'd been busy this morning, but the store was emptying out as lunchtime approached.
It was the week before Thanksgiving, coming up to the busiest time of the year. At Mrs. Claus's Treasures, I specialize in locally made crafts and design elements for gift-giving and for decorating the home. The store's located on Jingle Bell Lane, the main shopping area of Rudolph, New York. The greatest desire of the townspeople and shop owners of Rudolph is to be officially designated America's Christmas Town. That hasn't happened, not yet, but we call ourselves that anyway.
Although we celebrate Christmas all year round, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are the busiest, by far, and like all the owners of shops and businesses along Jingle Bell Lane, I was gearing up to do nothing but work for the next six weeks.
"Speaking of Crystal," Jackie said once the customer had left, laden with not only the two sets of earrings and Thanksgiving napkins but a porcelain Mrs. Claus doll dressed in Victorian attire, a chain of bright red wooden cranberries, and a set of the silver and pink balls. "How's she doing in New York?"
"Well, I think." Jackie and Crystal had never gotten on, perhaps because bold Jackie was filled with her own self-importance and shy Crystal was genuinely talented, but I got the feeling Jackie was proud of how well Crystal was doing. "She seems to be enjoying her classes and is making friends. She'll be home for the holidays and is going to do some shifts in here at the busy times."
"That's good," Jackie said. "I could use the help."
She spoke as though I weren't, at this very minute, rearranging the jewelry display.
The chimes over the door tinkled and my mother swept in. She'd been a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and had retired from the stage a few years ago. Now she taught voice lessons, but she was still every inch the diva. Her look was always dramatic with her huge dark eyes and jet-black hair (these days owing more to Clairol than to her Italian mother) and still-flawless olive skin. Today she wore a black wool cape tied with a row of fire-engine red frogs and lined with scarlet silk, a matching red hat trimmed with fake black fur, and red leather knee-high boots with substantial heels.
"Darling. How lovely to see you." She wrapped me in a hug, and I was enveloped in the familiar scent of Chanel No. 5. She released me and turned with a dramatic sweep of her arms. "Girls, come and meet Merry, my eldest daughter. Merry owns this absolutely darling little shop."
The five women who filed in in my mother's wake were a mixed lot. Their clothes ranged from new, expensive, and fashionable to mass-produced, well-worn, and slightly tatty. They ranged in size from short and round to tall and lean. They were all the same age as my mom, but if I hadn't known they'd been college roommates, I might have thought their ages varied by twenty or more years.
They greeted me warmly and gushed over both me and my shop.
Mom made the introductions, and I struggled to keep the names straight:
Constance: designer jeans, three-hundred-dollar haircut, diamond earrings and rings, tall and fit, healthy winter tan
Barbara: average height but powerful-looking in khaki pants, hiking boots, cropped gray hair, a row of piercings through her right ear
Karla: short and plump with pale pudgy cheeks, cloth coat pilling around the elbows and under the sleeves, sturdy brown footwear of the sort my paternal grandmother would have called "sensible shoes"
Ruth: heavily wrinkled, bags under eyes, jeans worn in the knees and hem but not fashionably, scuffed sneakers, an aura of cigarette smoke clinging to her and her clothes
Genevieve: also smelling of smoke but faint and overlaid with perfume, taller than the rest and as thin as the branches of the earring tree, struggling to keep her age at bay with what might have been a facelift, dyed blond hair tied in a high ponytail that was far too youthful for her
Introductions over, the women spread throughout the shop. Almost immediately Constance began gathering things off the shelves and display racks. Jewelry, Thanksgiving napkins and place mats, a set of coasters showing the elves hard at work in Santa's workshop. Genevieve picked everything up, examined it, and put it back again. Karla went straight to the toys, and Barbara studied the Christmas decorations. Ruth stood against a wall, her arms crossed over her chest, and simply watched the others. A deep line had formed between her eyebrows, and she was not smiling.
"Do you know the origins of these pieces?" Barbara asked me, pointing to a brightly painted wooden nutcracker soldier that formed part of a collection.
"I can tell you almost to the square mile," I said. "The woodworker lives not far from town, and he forages in the woods for broken branches after a storm and follows the crews who maintain the electricity wires when they're trimming trees."
His name was Alan Anderson and he was my boyfriend. I didn't mention that.
"Is everything you sell here local?" she asked.
"Not everything. I source some of the finer things in the city, but I do my best to get whatever I can locally."
"Merry was a design editor with Jennifer's Lifestyle magazine," Mom said. "She has excellent taste."
"I can see that," Barbara said. "I'll take the full set of these, thanks. They'll look great decorating my office."
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I'm a lawyer. We specialize in environmental protection."
"Sounds interesting," I said.
Karla had left the toy display and come to see the table decorations. "Interfering with businessmen trying to provide jobs and keep their community alive, more like," she said.
"That's your opinion," Barbara said.
"It's the truth."
"I'd like to hear more about what you and your firm do, Barbara," Ruth said.
Karla turned on her. "People like you, who only work for others, don't understand what it's like to be responsible for the welfare of your employees. Some of these environmental people want to bring in ridiculous petty laws that destroy hardworking family-owned businesses. You wouldn't believe the trouble and expense we have to go to before we can begin a project. All to protect some silly turtle."
Ruth lifted her hands. "I'm just asking."
"And I'm just telling you," Karla said.
I wasn't getting in the middle of that. I went behind the sales counter and began ringing up purchases while Jackie followed Constance through the shop, staggering under the weight of the other woman's selections. Ruth went to stand by the door, where she waited impatiently for the others to finish shopping.
Genevieve put a small ornament on the counter. "I'll be back later," she said to me, "and then I'll clean you out. For now, I'll get this charming fellow."
I'd noticed her trying to unobtrusively check the price tags on all the items she looked at. This little ornament, a two-inch-high wooden soldier to hang on the tree, was one of the cheapest things I sold. I wanted to tell her she didn't have to buy something she didn't really want just to please Mom, but that would come across as pretty insulting, so I said nothing.
"Why don't I treat you to a little something?" Constance was examining the jewelry display, and she called across the shop floor to Ruth. "Isn't this necklace absolutely darling? Would you like it?" She held up a chain with glass stones shaped like holiday lights.
"You don't need to do that," Ruth said.
"But I'd like to."
"No. Thank you." Ruth kept her arms folded across her chest. The line between her brows deepened.
"It's not much." Constance ran her eyes over Ruth, taking in the too-large brown jacket, the worn jeans, the scuffed sneakers. "You need a touch of holiday color about you."
My shop's not very large, and voices can easily be heard from one side to the other, but I thought Constance could have shown a bit of courtesy by approaching the person she was talking to, rather than yelling across the room so everyone could hear.
"I told you," Ruth said, "I don't want it."
"I'm only trying to be nice." Constance's tone was sweet, but a sickly sweet. Too much and without good intentions behind it. "You don't have to-"
"Lunchtime!" Mom called. "Complete your purchases, girls. I have the perfect place in mind for lunch. Merry, can you join us?" She lifted her eyebrows to the ceiling and opened her eyes wide, asking me to agree.
"Sure," I said. "That would be nice. Let me check on Mattie, and I'll follow you. Where are you going?"
"The bakery, of course. Where else would one go in Rudolph after a day of preholiday shopping?"
Except for Ruth, the women all bought something. They paid for their purchases and left. I watched them pass the front windows, heading up Jingle Bell Lane toward Victoria's Bake Shoppe. Mom led the way, chatting to Constance, who'd pulled a gigantic pair of designer sunglasses out of her Michael Kors bag as they left the shop. Barbara and Genevieve walked together, Karla behind them. Ruth came last, well behind the rest of the group.
"Are they all staying at your parents' house?" Jackie asked.
"Yes. You know how big the house is. Room enough for them all."
"How's your dad feel about that? A weekend of a houseful of women?"
"He's fine with it. Which might be because he's not here. He's gone to Florida on a fishing trip."
"Must be nice." Jackie looked out the window. The sun was out in a brilliant blue sky but the air was cold, everyone heavily wrapped in coats, scarves, and mittens. Winter was on its way.
"I'll try not to take too long at lunch." Before leaving, I went in the back to check on Matterhorn, my dog. I usually took a break around now to take him for a walk. He's a Saint Bernard, not exactly a small animal, and fully grown at just over a year old. Training's important with a dog of that size, and Mattie and I had worked hard together, with the result that he was reasonably well behaved when he wanted to be. When he didn't want to be was another matter altogether. Fortunately, most of the time he wanted to be good, and so I often brought him to work with me. Needless to say, he wasn't allowed in the shop itself ("bull in a china shop" is the phrase that comes to mind), but he was content to spend the day in the back with the occasional break for a walk, and he never barked no matter how much commotion was going on in the store.