The Mystery Before Christmas

 

 

 

Book 2 in my new A Cat in the Attic series publishes on November 12th. I am really loving this series and hope you will as well. I’ve included a description and sample chapter below.

 

Description:

After a serious accident leaves Calliope Rose Collins unable to continue with the career that has owned her soul for most of her life, she returns to Foxtail Lake, Hollister House, Great Aunt Gracie, and childhood friend, Officer Cass Wylander, where she begins to rebuild her life from the ashes of what she once had.

In book 2 of The Cat in the Attic series – In addition to the time she spends at the animal shelter, Callie has a new sideline writing human interest stories for the regional newspaper. It is a job she loves and hopes to grow until she is asked to reveal the man behind the mask when Secret Santa comes to town and begins committing random acts of kindness.

Meanwhile, Cass has a new murder to solve, Gracie has gone crazy with the decorations, and Naomi’s friend Hancock comes to town. https://amzn.to/2CplW1l

 

Chapter 1

“He moves softly through the night, unseen and unheard, leaving gifts for those in need, while the residents of snowy Foxtail Lake slumber beneath blankets piled high to ward off the chill of a Rocky Mountain winter.” I turned and looked at the cat I’d been reading aloud to. “What do you think? Too flowery?”

“Meow.”

“Yeah, maybe I should back off the descriptors a bit. It’s just that I want to grab my readers right from the beginning. Maybe I should just say something like: ‘Secret Santa strikes again,’ and then talk about the gifts.” I paused to consider this. “Honestly, most of the gifts have been delivered by means other than late-night drop-offs, but the imagery of Santa lurking around in the middle of the night is a lot more appealing than the imagery created by a wheelchair being delivered by UPS.” I glanced out the window at the falling snow. The little room at the top of the house felt cozy and warm, and it was this feeling I wanted to bring to my readers. I glanced down at my laptop and began to simultaneously type and speak once again. “Not only has the mysterious gift giver, known only as Secret Santa, been busy doling out random acts of kindness to the town’s residents, but he also seems to understand exactly what each gift recipient needs. Billy Prescott received a new wheelchair after his mother backed over his old one; Connie Denton was gifted a down payment on the diner where she’d worked for over twenty years and hoped to buy from her boss when he retired and moved off the mountain; Gilda Frederickson found a gift card for a winter’s worth of snow shoveling services in her purse after word got out that she’d broken her hip; and Donnie Dingman walked out onto his drive to find a used four-wheel-drive vehicle so he could get to his doctor’s appointments even when it snowed. Some are calling this anonymous gift giver an angel come to earth during this holiest of seasons, while others are certain the late-night Samaritan actually is Santa Clause himself.” I looked at the cat. “Better?”

The cat jumped down off the desk where he’d been sitting and watching me work, and headed toward the attic window, which was cheerily draped with white twinkle lights. Apparently, my honorary editor was done listening to my drivel for the day. I supposed I didn’t blame him. It did seem like I was trying too hard to find the perfect words to describe the phenomenon that had gripped my small town for the past several weeks.

I got up from the desk and joined the cat on the window seat. It felt magical to sit in the window overlooking the frozen lake as fresh snow covered the winter landscape. Great-aunt Gracie had strung colorful lights on one of the fir trees in the yard, bringing the feel of the season to the frozen landscape. Combined with the white lights draped over every shrub outdoors, and the white lights I’d strung around the window and along the ceiling of the attic, it felt like I was working in a magical fairyland.

“Maybe instead of a whimsical piece filled with artful words, I should do more of a hard-hitting expose,” I suggested to the cat. “Everyone knows about the mystery person who has been gifting the citizens of Foxtail Lake with the exact gifts they need the most, but no one knows who he is. Maybe I, Calliope Rose Collins, should work to unmask the Good Samaritan. I know the people he has helped with his good deeds would welcome the chance to thank him. He really is changing lives. He deserves recognition for that.”

“Meow.” The cat began to purr loudly as he crawled onto my lap. I gently stroked his head as I considered the past two months and the changes I’d seen in my own life.

Two months ago, I’d come back to Foxtail Lake after a terrible accident had shattered my world. At the time, I was a broken woman simply looking for somewhere to lick my wounds, but in the two months I’d been here, not only had I finally begun to accept my new situation, but I’d made quite a few strides in my effort to reinvent my life as well. While my years as a concert pianist would always hold a special place in my heart, I loved volunteering at the Foxtail Lake Animal Shelter, and I adored my new career as a columnist for the local newspaper, a role I’d earned after I’d helped my childhood friend, Cass Wylander, solve not only a present-day murder but the twenty-year-old murder of my best friend, Stella Steinmetz, as well. After the case was solved, I wrote about my experience, the local newspaper picked it up, and as they say, the rest is history. The article was so well received that I’d been offered a weekly column to fill with whatever subject matter I chose.

Unfolding myself from the window, I crossed the room and sat back down at the old desk that I’d shoved into the center of the attic to use as my temporary office. The article on Secret Santa would be the fourth article I’d written for the newspaper. The first article on Stella’s murder had been published in mid-November, followed by an article about the missing dogs from the animal shelter where I volunteered, and then an investigative piece relating to the controversy surrounding the misappropriation of the funds which should have been earmarked to pay for the annual tree lighting which was due to run this week. The stories I wrote weren’t the hard-hitting exposes a real investigative reporter might pen, but I had helped Cass find Stella’s killer, I had found the missing dogs and the man who took them, and I had found the cleverly disguised missing money after it was announced the annual tree lighting would be canceled due to a lack of funds.

Of course, Cass had helped with Stella’s murder and the missing dogs. He would probably have been happy to help with the missing funds as well, but that story broke right about the same time Buford Norris turned up dead. Buford was an ornery sort who tended to drink too much, so after his body was found buried beneath the snow, most people just assumed he’d passed out and froze to death. But Cass wasn’t quite as sure as some of the other town folk were that Buford had passed out on his own. Investigating the man’s death as possible foul play wasn’t sitting well with the sheriff or the mayor, but Cass was a conscientious sort who wasn’t going to close a case based on a maybe.

“Is Paisley coming for a piano lesson today?” Great-aunt Gracie called up the stairs.

“She is,” I called back down the stairs of the large lakefront home I’d grown up in. “Anna has dance after school, so her mother can’t give Paisley a ride home. I was planning to pick her up.”

“I’m going to run to the market. I can pick her up if you’d like.”

“That’d be great.”

Paisley Holloway was our ten-year-old neighbor who was living with her grandmother after her mother passed just before Thanksgiving. Gracie and I were doing what we could to help out since the grandmother had her own health issues to deal with. Most days, Paisley got a ride to and from school with her friend, Anna, but on the days Anna’s mother was unable to provide a ride, Gracie or I picked her up from school. On the days we picked her up, we usually brought her here to the house, helped her with her homework, and generally did what we could to make things easier for everyone involved. It really was a terrible situation. One that no ten-year-old should have to live through. I’d lost my parents when I was young as well, so I knew better than most how important it was to have a safe harbor in the storm.

“Is Alastair up there with you?” Aunt Gracie called after a few minutes had passed.

I looked at the longhaired black cat who’d jumped back onto the desk next to me. “He is.”

“Okay, make sure he doesn’t get out. There is a big storm blowing in, and I wouldn’t want him to get trapped out in it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I called. I supposed I should have gotten up and headed downstairs when Gracie first called up since it would have cut down on all the yelling back and forth. “Just send Paisley up when you get back. Alastair and I are working on next week’s column.”

“Okay. If you see Tom, let him know that dinner will be at six tonight.”

Tom Walden was Gracie’s groundskeeper, although, in reality, he was so much more. He’d lived on the property with Gracie for more than forty years. Tom and Gracie were friends, good friends who shared their lives. Sometimes I wondered if they weren’t something more.

Once Gracie left, I returned my attention to the blank page in front of me. I had to admit the idea of Secret Santa intrigued me. Not only because this particular Santa had already spent tens of thousands of dollars gifting deserving citizens with items they needed but would be unable to buy on their own, but also because he’d been doing it for almost four weeks and so far no one had figured out who he was. There were theories, of course. A lot of them. Based on the monetary value of the gifts, it seemed pretty obvious the Secret Santa was someone of means. Though our town was small, and those who’d lived here for a lifetime tended not to be the sort to acquire a large amount of wealth, the town did tend to attract more than its share of retirees, many of whom were quite wealthy when they arrived. Since I was suddenly determined to identify Secret Santa in my column, I started a list of possible “suspects” after considering the monetary outlay.

The first name to come to mind was Carolyn Worthington. Carolyn was an heiress who’d lived in Boston until two years ago when her only child, a son in his forties, had died in an accident. Shattered to her core, she realized she needed a complete change, so she bought an estate on the east shore of the lake and then quickly made friends by volunteering in the community. Carolyn was quick to share her wealth and had given a lot of money away in the past, which made her both a good and a poor candidate for Secret Santa. If Carolyn was doing the good deeds, then why the sudden secrecy? Still, given her wealth and her altruistic nature, she was on the top of most of the suspect lists in town.

Then there was Haviland Hargrove, a lifelong Foxtail Lake resident whose grandfather had struck it rich during the gold rush of the nineteenth century. Haviland wasn’t as naturally altruistic as Carolyn, but he certainly had the means to buy everything that had been purchased and then some. He was a man in his early eighties, so perhaps he’d decided to spread his wealth around a bit before he passed on.

Dean and Martin Simpson were brothers who’d made a fortune in the software industry. The men lived together in a mansion set in the center of a gated estate. Neither had ever married nor had children and while they didn’t go out and socialize a lot, they were pleasant enough and had several good friends in the community, including my friend, Cass, who played poker with them twice a month. Cass didn’t think that Dean and Martin were our Secret Santas, but I wasn’t so sure about that.

There were a handful of other locals with the means to do what was being done. I supposed that once I developed my list, I’d just start interviewing folks. Someone must know something that would point me in the right direction. I supposed there would be those who would think I should leave well enough alone, and perhaps they would be right, but after stumbling across a really juicy mystery like this one, anyone who knew me knew I was prone to follow the clues to the end.

“Anyone home?” Tom called.

I got up and walked to the top of the stairs. “I’m here. Aunt Gracie went to the market. She said to tell you that dinner will be at six.”

“That should work. Did she happen to say what she wanted me to do with the tree ornaments she had me pick up while I was in Lakewood?”

I decided to head down the stairs rather than continuing this conversation as a yelling match. “She didn’t say. I’m surprised she wanted additional ornaments. We have boxes of them in the attic.”

“I guess these are special. Custom made. I’ll just leave them on the dining table for now.”

I glanced out the open door at the darkening sky, mindful of Gracie’s warning about not letting Alastair out. “I’m sure that is fine. Let me lock the cat in the den, and I’ll help you carry everything in.”

“I’d appreciate that. It seems your aunt has gone decorating crazy this year.”

I looked around the house, which was already decked out with garland, candles, wreaths, and bright red bows. She really had outdone herself. When I’d asked her about it, she’d mumbled something about wanting the place to be cheerful for Paisley, but truth be told, I think she was just happy to have others in the house to celebrate with this year.

“As far as you know, are we still getting the tree this week?” I asked Tom after we headed out into the frigid afternoon.

“As far as I know. If this storm dumps as much snow as it is calling for, then I’m afraid her plan to go into the forest to cut a tree might have to be altered. Walter has some nice ones in his lot. I took a look while I was there to pick up the branches Gracie wanted for the mantle.”

“I would think a tree from Walter’s lot would be just fine. If we can cut one, we will, but if not, we’ll work together to sell Gracie on the tree lot idea.” I picked up the first of five boxes in the back of Tom’s truck. “I’m really happy she is enjoying the holiday so much this year, but I’m afraid she is going to overdo. Not only has she gone crazy decorating, but she signed up to be the co-chair for the Christmas in the Mountains event as well.”

“Your aunt has a lot of energy. I’m sure she’ll be fine. We just need to be sure to help out as much as we can.”

“I guess.”

“Gracie wants you to have the perfect Christmas. Like the ones the two of you shared when you were younger. This is important to her.”

I glanced up at the sky filled with snow flurries as I started toward the house. “It’s important to me as well, and I do plan to help out as much as I can. Of course, researching Secret Santa is going to keep me busy. I think I’ve pretty much decided to focus on figuring out who Secret Santa is rather than the gifts he has delivered. You haven’t heard anything have you?”

Tom set his box on the table next to mine, and we both turned around to go for the next load.

“Everyone seems to have an opinion, but I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with any proof as to the identity of Secret Santa if that is what you are asking. The guys down at the lodge think it might be Fisher.”

I raised a brow. “Ford Fisher? Why do the guys think it’s him? As far as I know, the man isn’t rich.” Ford Fisher used to own one of the pubs in town before it sold, so I imagined he’d done okay in terms of saving for retirement, but I doubted he had tens of thousands of dollars to give away.

“I think Ford might have more stashed away than one might think. There is a lot of money in alcohol, and Ford has lived simply for much of his life. In my mind, he doesn’t have the right temperament to be Secret Santa, but he has been acting oddly lately, which is why I think the guys at the lodge suspect him.”

We headed back to the house with the second load of boxes. “Acting oddly, how?” I wondered.

“Secretive. Evasive. He hasn’t shown up at the lodge in weeks, and when some of the guys went by his place to see if he was okay, he told them he was fine but didn’t even invite them in. I’ve called him several times, even left messages, but he hasn’t called me back.”

“Sounds like he might be depressed. Do you know if he suffers from depression?” I set my box next to the others on the table.

“Not that I know of. Ford’s always been a real social sort. Other than those few times when he was too hungover to make it to the lodge, he’s pretty much been there every Wednesday and Friday since I’ve been going. Not that I go every week. Sometimes Gracie and I do something, but Ford is a real regular.”

“It sounds like you and your friends might be right to be worried about him. I’d continue to check on him if he doesn’t start coming around. Having said that, in my mind, his overall mood doesn’t seem to have a Secret Santa feel.”

Tom headed back out for the final box. I tagged along after him in spite of the fact there was just one box left to fetch.

“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “The idea of him being Secret Santa doesn’t sit quite right with me either. I hope he isn’t ill. He didn’t say he was feeling poorly, but that could explain his absences.”

“Wasn’t Ford friends with Buford?” I asked. “Maybe he is just missing the guy.”

“Maybe,” Tom agreed. “Ford and Buford went at it like two old junkyard dogs most of the time, but in the end, I guess you could say they were friends. Best friends even. I don’t suppose Cass has proven one way or another what happened to Buford.”

I shook my head. “On the one hand, Buford had been drinking on the night he died and could very well have wandered out into the blizzard, passed out, and froze to death. On the other hand, Buford had a bump on his head that looked as if it had been inflicted by someone hitting him with a heavy object.”

“Could he have hit his head when he passed out?” Tom asked.

“He could have, but the position his body was found in and the location of the bump doesn’t tend to support that theory. Of course, Buford could have bumped his head earlier in the day, and the fact that he had a knot the size of a jawbreaker doesn’t necessarily mean that injury was enough to cause him to fall to the ground in a state of unconsciousness. At this point, Cass is following the idea that Buford was hit on the head, blacked out, and then froze to death. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see where his investigation ends up. I’m sure if Buford simply passed out on account of all the alcohol he drank, that scenario will float to the surface at some point.” I looked up as the sound of a car approaching permeated the still air. “That must be Gracie. Paisley will be with her. Maybe we can talk about this some more over dinner.”

“That’d be fine. The truth as to what happened to Buford has been weighing on my mind. It’d be nice to know one way or the other.”

“Yes,” I agreed. It would be nice to know for certain what had caused a man who’d lived here for most of his life to simply perish in an early but not all that spectacular storm. I knew the mayor was pushing the idea that Buford’s death was nothing more than a terrible accident. I supposed I didn’t blame him. The town was just beginning to recover from the murder of twelve-year-old Tracy Porter. If it was determined that Buford had been murdered as well, it would most definitely bring back the fear and paranoia that had permeated the town after Tracy’s death. Cass wasn’t the sort to simply grasp onto the easy answer; he was the sort to want nothing short of the truth. Sometimes I wondered if his dogged commitment to following his instincts rather than the dictate of his boss was going to get him fired. I supposed that it was more important to Cass to be true to his convictions than it was to keep the job he seemed to do better than anyone else did. I supposed I really admired him for that. In fact, the more I got to know Deputy Cass Wylander, the more convinced I was that my childhood friend had grown into a man I could not only respect but grow to love if I was interested in that sort of thing, which I wasn’t.

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