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Authors: Kathi Daley

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Santa Sleuth

 

by

 

Kathi Daley

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Katherine Daley

 

Version 1.0

 

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

 

A very special thanks to the gang who hangs out at Kathi Daley Books group page for sharing their Christmas memories when I needed a boost to get my mojo back. This book is dedicated to all of you.

 

Bree Heron

Barbara Hawk

Joann Hunter

Dawn Frazier

Linda McDonald

Taryn Lee

Kathy Kirkland

Bonnie Littleton

Sharon Robinson Dixon

Robin Coxon

Lisa Morin

Sandy Swanger Bartles

Donna L. Walo-Clancy

Shelli King

Peg Halley

Martha Hawk

Deb Forbes

Karen Borowski

Risa Rispoli

Kathleen Costa

Karen White

Van Loving Melton

Kathy Dunn

Teri Fish

Michele Hayes

Megan Smith

Teresa Terrell Fender

Dana Barrentine

Michele Hayes

Sharon Frank

Chassity Biddix

Cindy Olmstead Russell

Linda Kuzminczuk

Stephanie Treadway Hobrock

Janel Flynn

Della Williamson

Joanne Kocourek

Donna Pittman Robinson

Pam Paison

Chrissy Marie Raney

Mari Hinton

Kristin Wolf

Mary Brown

Misty Garoutte Clarkson

Lynn Hogan

Jeannie Daniel

Laura S Reading

Sharon Forrest

Martie Peck

Pamela Dennis Petteway

Vikki Partlow-Anderegg

Suzanne Boyd

Peggy Hyndman

Ruth Nixon

Christy Maurer

Linda Murray

TJ Morris

Mary Reese Robinette

Vicki Gardner

Sherrylrae Wicker

Sheryl Hagan-Booth

Janet Strasemeier

Sandie Dunlap-Mumford

April Schilling

Bonnijean Marlow Marley

Elaine Klingbeil

Hester Regan

Annette Guerra

Margarita De Jesus

Carol Smith

Betty Jo English

Sue Pippins

K’Tee Bee

Candace Wolfenbarger Knight

Yvonne Gilbert

Louse Ann Laba

Rhonda J Gothier

Bar Bristol Wiesmann

Stacy Smith

Janet Rose

Wanda Philmon Downs

Suzanne Sarnowski Marzano

Shelli King

Brooke Bumgardner

Kim Templeton

Stacy Smith

Toni King

Pat Walker Pinkston

Debbie Studstill Cox Hiemstra

Barb Kolasky

Diane Blaser

Judy Liggett Weaver

 

 

 

I also want to thank the very talented Jessica Fischer for the cover art.

I so appreciate Bruce Curran, who is always ready and willing to answer my cyber questions.

And, of course, thanks to the readers and bloggers in my life, who make doing what I do possible.

Thank you to Randy Ladenheim-Gil for the editing.

Special thanks to Nancy Farris, Joanne Kocourek, Marie Rice, Pam Curran, Vivian Shane, Teresa Kander, Wanda Downs, Elaine Robinson, Kathleen Kaminski, and Janel Flynn for submitting recipes.

And finally I want to thank my sister Christy for always lending an ear and my husband Ken for allowing me time to write by taking care of everything else.

 

Books by Kathi Daley

Come for the murder, stay for the romance.

 

Zoe Donovan Cozy Mystery:

Halloween Hijinks

The Trouble With Turkeys

Christmas Crazy

Cupid’s Curse

Big Bunny Bump-off

Beach Blanket Barbie

Maui Madness

Derby Divas

Haunted Hamlet

Turkeys, Tuxes, and Tabbies

Christmas Cozy

Alaskan Alliance

Matrimony Meltdown

Soul Surrender

Heavenly Honeymoon

Hopscotch Homicide

Ghostly Graveyard

Santa Sleuth

Shamrock Shenanigans –January 2016

 

 

Paradise Lake Cozy Mystery:

Pumpkins in Paradise

Snowmen in Paradise

Bikinis in Paradise

Christmas in Paradise

Puppies in Paradise

Halloween in Paradise

 

Whales and Tails Cozy Mystery:

Romeow and Juliet

The Mad Catter

Grimm’s Furry Tail

Much Ado About Felines

Legend of Tabby Hollow

Cat of Christmas Past

A Tale of Two Tabbies –February 2016

 

Seacliff High Mystery:

The Secret

The Curse

The Relic

The Conspiracy

The Grudge –December 2015

 

Road to Christmas Romance:

Road to Christmas Past

 

Chapter 1

Saturday, December 12

 

 

There was absolutely no question in my mind; I was going to kill my best friend, Levi Denton, when I next saw him. I loved the guy like a brother, but it seemed that as of late he’d been flaking on his commitments, and this time his flakiness had directly affected me. When I caught up with the guy he was going to be deader than deadonia.

“We’re ready for you,” Ellie Davis, the third member of the Zoe, Levi, and Ellie best friend triad informed me.

“I look ridiculous.”

“You look fine,” Ellie assured me.

“Seriously?” I looked down at themuchtoo big Santa suit I was wearing. “The pants are twice as long as my legs, the jacket hangs down to my shins, and the beard is way too long, not to mention scratchy. I look like a kid playing dress up.”

“The kids aren’t going to care that you’re a teeny, tiny Santa. They just want to tell you their wish, take a photo, and get a free candy cane.”

Oh, God, the photo. I hadn’t stopped to consider the photo. Zoe Donovan-Zimmerman, midget Santa, was going to be immortalized in photo albums across Ashton Falls for generations to come.

“Isn’t there anyone else who can do this?” I asked.

“Not really. Levi still isn’t answering his cell, Ethan had to leave, Hazel is busy with the craft fair, and I’m still not totally over my cold, so I really shouldn’t be getting up close and personal with toddlers.”

Ellie sounded fine to me. Her brown eyes seemed bright and cheery, and the red rim around her nose that had been apparent earlier in the week was totally gone. I hadn’t heard her cough or sneeze all day. If I had to guess she was just using the cold to avoid Santa duty.

“I’m afraid, my friend, that until Levi finally shows, the part of Santa is going to have to be played by you,” Ellie added.

I wanted to argue, but I didn’t. Ellie had taken over as chairperson for Hometown Christmas when my dad, who was supposed to be in charge of the event, decided to go to Switzerland with my mother, who wanted to visit her family, so I supposed I owed her on behalf of the Donovan family.

“Fine. Let’s get this over with.” I pulled up the legs of the giant pants I was wearing and headed toward the Santa booth that had been set up in the community center.

I looked around the large room. It was beginning to fill up, although I knew the crowds would be three times as large the next weekend. The bulk of the Hometown Christmas events would take place the following Friday through Sunday, but the Santa booth, as well as the craft fair, sleigh rides, and ice skating rink, were featured every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Why don’t you go ahead and get started?” Ellie suggested. “I’m just going to run into the back to get the camera.”

“Very well. But hurry.” I adjusted the pillow Ellie had placed between my T-shirt and the Santa jacket after I sat down on the giant Santa chair. The chair, like the suit, had been designed to accommodate a fully grown man and not a child-size woman, which meant that my feet, once I sat back in the chair, didn’t even touch the ground. I just hoped there weren’t any kids in line who were bigger than me.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I greeted the first toddler in the deepest voice I could muster.

The child began to cry.

“Don’t cry,” I said in a softer and gentler voice.

The child began to scream at the top of her lungs.

I looked helplessly at her mother, who picked up her hysterical daughter and plopped her in my lap.

“She just needs to get used to you,” the girl’s mother assured me. “Why don’t you talk to her while I run over to the booth with the ornaments?”

“You’re leaving?” I asked with a slight hint of hysteria in my voice.

“Just for a minute. I’ll be back before you know it.”

I wanted to argue with the woman, but she took off like a flash, leaving me with her still-crying child in my lap. Geez. HowdidI get myself into these situations?

“So what do you want for Christmas?” I asked the toddler in an attempt to gain her attention.

She cried louder.

“I feel your pain,” I sympathized. This was even worse than I’d imagined. People were beginning to look at me like I was pinching the child or something. “Do you want some candy?”

The toddler tried to wriggle off my lap. I caught her at the last minute, just as she was about to fall head first onto the floor.

I had to be the worst Santa in the history of all Santas.

“Sorry that took so long.” Ellie jogged up with the camera. “I couldn’t find the film. We really do need to go digital next year.” Ellie looked at the child in my lap and then looked around the room. “Where’s the mother?”

“Shopping.”

“She left her child with you while she went shopping?”

“She said she’d be back in a jiff, but it seems like it’s been longer than a jiff. I don’t suppose you’d like to take over?”

Ellie set down the camera and picked the screaming child up off my lap. She immediately stopped crying. “I’ll go find the mother and return her daughter to her while you talk to the little girl who just walked up.”

I let out a long breath of relief and then looked toward the mostly nonexistent line. There was only one child waiting at this point, but at least she was a little older and didn’t appear to be afraid of teeny, tiny Santa.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I said as the girl, who looked to be about five, approached.

“Are you the real Santa?” The girl looked at me with doubt on her face.

“No,” I admitted. “I’m Santa’s helper. Santa is very busy at this time of year so he needs others to help out.”

“But you can get a message to the real Santa?”

“Absolutely.”

The girl reached into the back pocket of her dirty jeans and pulled out a piece of paper.

“Is that your Christmas list?” I asked as she began to unfold it.

“I only want one thing for Christmas,” the girl answered. “I want Santa to find Cupcake.”

“Cupcake?”

The girl handed me the sheet of paper she was holding, which featured a photo of a dog about Charlie’s size with long black fur.

“Me and Dad and Cupcake moved to Ashton Falls a week ago,” the girl explained. “On our first night there was a storm and Cupcake was scared. She was barking and crying, so Dad put her out in the yard. He said he needed to get some sleep for his new job the next day and she was keeping him awake. There was a hole in the fence and Cupcake got out. I’ve looked and looked, but I can’t find her. Dad says I need to accept that she’s gone, but I can’t do that. I love her. Since Mom died she’s my best friend. Please tell Santa that all I want for Christmas is to have Cupcake back.”

I felt like I was going to cry. The poor girl was seriously grieving. I really wanted to help her, but I wasn’t sure if I’d have any more luck than she’d had finding her lost dog. Still, I intended to try.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Tabitha McClellan.”

“Well, Tabitha, as I said, Santa is really busy at this time of year, but I know someone who might be able to help you. Her name is Zoe Donovan and she works at the animal shelter in town. If you want to give me your phone number I’ll have her call you.”

The girl didn’t look totally happy about my offer, but she wrote down her number all the same.

“Can I keep this photo?” I asked.

The girl hesitated.

“To show Santa.”

“Oh. Okay. Please tell Santa that Cupcake is the most important thing to me. We have to find her.”

“I’m sure he’ll do his best.”

If my first two customers were any indication it was going to be a long day. I’d only been at my post for ten minutes and I was already an emotional wreck. No wonder the real Santa ate so many cookies. I was seriously in need of a little comfort food myself right about then. I was pondering the option of taking a break when a boy who looked to be about ten or eleven plopped into my lap.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I greeted him.

“Cut the crap,” the boy shot back. “I know there isn’t really a Santa, but if I want to get the items on my list I have to pretend to go along with the ruse in order to please my mom.” The boy plastered on a fake smile and waved to a woman who was wearing a red sweatshirt with a Santa face on it.

“Ruse?”

“It means con or scam. Geez, get a dictionary.”

“I know what it means,” I defended myself. This kid I really did want to pinch. Shouldn’t there be an age limit on visits to Santa?

“Fabulous. Now ask me what I want for Christmas and pretend we’re having a friendly conversation.”

“And what do you want for Christmas?” I hoped the kid would be quick because he had to weigh as much as I did.

“I made a list.” The man-size child handed it to me. “After I have my photo taken my mom is going to come over and ask you for the list. I’m going to pretend that I don’t know what she’s doing and she’s going to pretend I still believe all of this is real. It’s the way we do things.”

“Okay. Good to know.”

The boy smiled for the camera, and then walked away. As he’d predicted, his mom came over and asked for the list, and the boy pretended not to notice. I thought the whole thing was nuts, but both the mom and her son looked happy, so who was I to judge?

I was about to fake a sneezing attack and head for the back room when the most adorable little girl walked over.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I greeted her.

The girl, who was most likely around four or five, climbed up onto my lap. “I want some shoes,” she informed me.

“Shoes?” I looked down at the girl’s feet. She had on ratty tennis shoes that were soaking wet from the snow.

“My sister got new shoes, but all I got were her old ones. I want some shoes that are just mine.”

“Your name is Marissa Noltie, right?”

“Yes, I’m Marissa.” The girl smiled. “Santa really does know the name of every boy and girl.”

“Yes, I suppose he does. I’ll see what I can do about the shoes. Is there anything else you’d like?”

The girl looked hesitant. “Mama says we shouldn’t be greedy, but I really want a doll. One with black hair like mine and brown eyes. I saw one at the mall in Bryton Lake. She was so beautiful. She had on a blue dress and black shoes.”

“And she came with a little white dog.”

The girl grinned. “You know the one?”

“I do. Santa can’t promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Marissa hugged me. “Thank you, Santa. One of the girls in my class said you aren’t real, but I knew you were.”

I continued to talk to the various kids who visited the booth and took photos for another hour before Ellie decided it was time for a break. After putting out aFeeding the Reindeersign I headed over to the other side of the room, where Alex Bremmerton, one of the three minors currently living with Zak and me, was collecting toys and nonperishable food items with her friend, Eve Lambert. The girls had decided to take it upon themselves to organize a Secret Santa project to provide Christmas gifts for Ashton Fall’s less fortunate families.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Really well.” Alex smiled. “Your idea to ask for specific items was a good one. We asked the teachers at the elementary school to have their students write out lists to Santa as a class assignment. Then we picked out the lists that matched the families we had identified as needing a visit from Secret Santa and made up a master list that reflects the wishes of the kids we’re collecting toys for. We posted it a few days ago and so far over three quarters of the items on the list have been donated. We hope to have all the toys and food items for the baskets by the end of next week so we can get everything wrapped in time to deliver the gifts on the twenty-third.”

“I think it’s so awesome that you girls are putting so much of your time into this project. You’re going to make a lot of families who might not otherwise have had a Merry Christmas very happy.”

Both girls grinned.

“You know that doll you have at the house with the black hair, a blue dress, and a little white dog?”

“Yeah.” Alex nodded. “She was donated a couple of weeks ago.”

“Is she already promised to anyone?” I asked.

“Not specifically. A lot of girls asked for dolls, so I was just going to give her to one of them.”

“There’s a little girl named Marissa Noltie who asked for that doll specifically. I’ll talk to her mother, but I’m pretty sure she won’t be able to buy such an expensive gift. I’d like to set the doll aside for her.”

Alex made a note in her little notebook. “Okay.”

“Marissa has an older sister as well as a younger brother. If the family isn’t already on your list add them.”

“I will.”

“Oh, and Marissa needs some shoes as well. I’m not sure what size.”

Alex began flipping through her notes. She bit her lip as she concentrated. “I think I have information on the family, but I don’t see it now. I’ll look when I get home.”

“Okay, great. Did you ask Zak about the hams?”

“We did,” Alex answered. “And he said he’s happy to donate one for each basket. He’s going to throw in gift cards for the grocery store as well, so that families can pick up what they might need for their Christmas dinners.”

“And you’re still good with driving us around to make the deliveries?” Eve asked me.

“I’m very much looking forward to it. I can help with the wrapping as well. In fact, maybe we should invite a few others over to help. I can make some snacks and we can have a wrapping party. Based on the number of toys currently occupying the blue bedroom, I think we’re going to need all the help we can get.”

“Let’s do the wrapping party on Monday the twenty-first,” Eve suggested. “We should have everything we need by then.”

“Do we have enough wrapping paper?” I wondered.

“I think so, although I’m not sure how to deal with the larger items, like the bikes.”

“Maybe we can just put a big bow on them. Have you girls called all the families to arrange for delivery? I would think that a lot of the moms would prefer the gifts be delivered when their kids aren’t home so they can say they’re from Santa.”

“Alex and I are going to call everyone and set up a delivery window on the twenty-third,” Eve informed me.

“Great. It looks like you girls are on top of everything. I’ll get the word out about the wrapping party. In the meantime, I guess I should go find Ellie and ask her if she needs me to do another shift at the Santa booth. If you need a ride home later come and find me. I’m sure I’ll be here most of the day.”

I headed across the room to where Ellie was refilling the trays that held sugar cookies and other Christmas pastries. I told her about the wrapping party and she immediately said she’d be more than happy to help.

“Do you think we should go look for Levi?” I asked her as I bit into a sugar cookie shaped like a tree.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I’m getting worried. He’s been late fairly often lately and he definitely has something on his mind, but it isn’t like him to flake entirely.”

“Have you talked to him at all today?” I asked.

“No. We had an argument a few days ago and he’s been staying at his place. I haven’t seen him since Wednesday.”

I guess that explained a lot.

“Trenton just walked in,” I told Ellie. “I’ll see if he’ll take over as Santa and then I’ll go see if I can find the person who’s actually signed up to play the part. Chances are he just forgot.”

Trenton Field was a local psychologist and a member of the events committee, along with eight other community members, including Ellie, Levi, and me.

“That sounds like a good plan.”

“I should be back in plenty of time to give Alex a ride home, but in the event that she’s ready to go before I return can you take her home?”

“I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back. It looks like the Secret Santa project is a big success.”

“I’m really proud of the girls. They set a goal and are working hard to meet it.”

“Unlike some other people we know. If you catch up with Levi, you might remind him that he has shifts the entire weekend and that we’re counting on him.” The annoyance in Ellie’s voice was evident.

“Don’t worry,” I assured Ellie. “I’ll give him a piece of both our minds.”

 

Chapter 2

Sunday, December 13

 

 

I could hear Christmas carols playing as I slowly woke from a dreamless sleep. The room was warm and I could feel Charlie’s furry body next to mine. I smiled and allowed a feeling of comfort to wash over me for a split second before I remembered.

Oh, God. What have I done?

I heard Charlie whimper as he nuzzled his little face into my neck. I lifted my hand to my head and felt the bandage that covered the gash that had almost ended my life.

The room was dark as I slowly opened my eyes. Charlie was lying on the bed next to me and Zak was snoring softly from a chair next to the bed. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could begin to make out the images around me. A small table to my right, an IV stand to my left. There was a machine with flashing lights that I assumed was keeping track of my vitals. I’d really hoped to find that the past twenty-four hours had been some sort of horrible dream and that I was actually at home, preparing for the upcoming holiday. I closed my eyes and reopened them only to find that I really was in the hospital, recovering from what could only be described as the worst day of my life.

“Zak,” I whispered. My throat was dry and irritated and it hurt to speak.

Zak didn’t hear me, but Charlie began wagging his tail. I smiled at him and he put his paw on my stomach as if to say hi before jumping off the bed and trotting over to where Zak was sleeping. He jumped up onto Zak’s lap, which caused him to open his eyes.

“Zoe?” Zak got up from the chair and walked over to the bed. “I’ve been so worried. You took a pretty bad blow to the head. How are you feeling?”

“Water,” I whispered.

Zak went into the adjoining bathroom and returned with a glass of water. He helped me to sit up so that I could take a drink. The water was crisp and cold and felt wonderful as it slid down my parched throat. I remembered the burning in my lungs as I’d tried to breath in spite of the thick smoke that had drained the life from me.

“Kelly?” I asked.

“She’s still unconscious, but she’s alive. I really should go get the nurse.”

I reached out and grabbed Zak’s hand. “Jason?”

Zak hesitated.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” Zak confirmed.

He left to get a nurse or the doctor and I closed my eyes and let the reality of the situation wash over me. I’d acted rashly and now a man was dead and Ellie’s business had burned to the ground. I didn’t see how Ellie would ever forgive me and I couldn’t begin to comprehend how I would ever be able to forgive myself.

I looked at the clock. It said 1:11. The fact that it was dark indicated that it was 1:11 a.m. I’d gone to the Beach Hut at around four p.m. the previous afternoon. Had I been unconscious all this time? I tried to wait for Zak to return with the doctor, but I must have gone back to sleep because when I next opened my eyes, the sun was up and Zak and Charlie were gone. Sheriff Salinger was sitting in the chair next to me.

“Where’s Zak?” I asked.

“He took Charlie for a walk. He should be back soon.”

“Are you here to arrest me?”

“Should I arrest you?”

“I honestly don’t know.” I squinted as the bright light in the room made the pounding in my head even worse than it already was.

Salinger poked his head out the door and called for the nurse. He must have waited outside while she checked my vitals, gave me some water and pain meds, and readjusted my pillow, but the moment she left he came back inside.

“Do you feel well enough to tell me what happened?” Salinger asked.

I took a deep breath. My head still hurt, but the burning in my throat was much better than it had been earlier. I couldn’t remember everything, but I knew that I owed it to Kelly and Ellie to tell the sheriff what I did know.

“Levi was supposed to play Santa at the community center yesterday but he never showed,” I began. “I volunteered to track him down. I was driving past Ellie’s Beach Hut on my way to Levi’s apartment when I noticed a truck that looked like the one belonging to Jason parked in front of the restaurant. I was already both worried about and annoyed with Levi, and when I saw Jason’s truck I just got so mad.”

Salinger looked confused already. I guess I couldn’t blame him. I was sort of talking in circles. I took a sip of water and tried to gather my thoughts.

“You were worried about Levi and that made you angry at Jason?” Salinger asked.

“Yes. I mean no. Let me back up.” I took another sip of my water. “Ellie’s assistant, Kelly Arlington, was in a relationship with the dead man who I only know as Jason. I’m afraid Kelly and Jason got themselves into this destructive cycle where he would beat her up, she would break up with him, he would clean up his act and ask for forgiveness, they would get back together and things would be better for a while, and then he’d beat her up and the cycle would start all over again. I wanted to tell you,” I assured the man who had become my friend in spite of the rocky start to our relationship. “I almost did the last time Kelly was beat up, but she begged me to let it go. She assured me that she was done with the guy once and for all and just wanted to get on with her life. I knew at the time that keeping her secret was the wrong thing to do; I just didn’t realize how wrong.”

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