Authors: Suzanne Young
Murder by Christmas
Cover Designer: Karen Phillips
All rights reserved
Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are purely fictitious and the products of the author’s imagination. The author has also taken the liberty of placing fabricated homes in the middle of actual neighborhoods. Any resemblance to actual persons or places is coincidental and unintentional. Places of interest and historic references are real.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording or electronic transference without written permission from the author.
Copyright © 2013 by Suzanne Young
9028 West 50th Lane, #1
Arvada, CO 80002-4441
This book is dedicated to
Chris and Erin,
Susanna and Chad,
Erinna and Paul,
with my love.
Other books in the Edna Davies series
Murder by Yew, 2009
Murder by Proxy, 2011
Murder by Mishap, 2012
“What was your favorite Christmas tradition when you were a child?” Edna Davies asked Mary Osbourne. They were headed for the Narragansett Stop and Shop in southern Rhode Island.
“That’s easy. On Christmas Eve, we’d hang our stockings on the mantelpiece and then call up the chimney to talk to ‘the big elf’ as my father called him. I guess it was how kids asked for things before department stores had Santas.”
“Actually,” Edna said, “the first department store Santa Claus dates back to eighteen-ninety in Brockton, Massachusetts. The chubby, white-bearded owner of Edgar’s dressed in a red suit and walked around the store. My grandfather’s father took him to Brockton on the train, just to meet the old man. Granddad said it was one of the most exciting experiences of his childhood.”
Mary chuckled. “I guess that would have been fun, both the train ride and meeting Santa himself. I never got to meet Santa in person, but I always thought it was funny to see my usually-stiff mother and father bending into the fireplace and talking into the flue. I remember that was the only night in the entire winter I made sure they didn’t light a fire in the living room. They tried to tell me the ashes would be cool by the time he came down the chimney, but I wasn’t taking any chances.” She laughed aloud before asking, “What was your favorite tradition?”
“Sing-alongs on Christmas Eve,” Edna said without hesitation. “My family always gathered around the piano to sing carols. Mother played and the rest of us sang. Dad couldn’t carry a tune worth a lick, but he belted out those songs as if he were the greatest opera singer alive.”
The two women were laughing and exchanging memories as they left the car and went into the store.
“How about a lovely poinsettia for your Christmas party?”
Stopping her cart at a display of various sizes and colors of poinsettias immediately inside the entrance, Edna held up a healthy-looking plant. Christmas music played over the speaker system, interrupted occasionally by such requests as “Carry out at register four” or “Customer service, line one.”
Rounding the table, Mary tilted her head to study the pot, her thick red hair nearly obscuring the black fleece earmuffs she wore against the biting cold of the winter morning. After a few seconds’ hesitation, she straightened and shook her head. “Don’t want Hank or Spot eatin’ it,” she said, looking around the store instead of at Edna. “Could kill ‘em, ya know. I’m decoratin’ with fake now that I have a dog and cat to think about.”
Edna had come to know her quirky neighbor fairly well in the year and a half since the Davies had bought their retirement home next door to the Osbourne mansion. Until her mid-fifties, Mary had never had a pet and had never thought to get one. Then, last year, she’d taken in a black Labrador when the dog’s owner, a childhood friend of hers, had died. Bonding quickly with “Hank” and discovering an affinity for small animals, she had also befriended an abandoned, half-grown kitten in April, naming the black feline “Ink Spot.” Now, instead of living alone in the rambling, three-story house, Mary had acquired a family of sorts. Never one to go half-measures in any new venture, she frequented the library and local animal shelters in order to learn how to care for her pets.
Regarding poinsettias, Edna thought Mary was being overly cautious. “That’s just an old wives’ tale.” When she saw Mary’s lips begin to tighten into a stubborn line, she hurried to add, “Oh, I agree that your animals might get sick if they were to eat an entire plant, but you should be more concerned about decorations that contain live lilies, holly or mistletoe.” Realizing she might be making matters worse in frightening Mary, Edna hastened to say, “Really, none of my children or any of the animals we’ve had has ever eaten a Christmas decoration, live or artificial.”
She picked up one of the new variety of poinsettia, trying to decide whether to switch this year to the new hybrids that looked more like rose blossoms than the traditional pointed leaves. Her eyes passed quickly over the blue, pink and purple hues. Thinking of her home decked out in its holiday finery in years past, she had no hesitation about sticking to the old-fashioned red color. Her thoughts were interrupted before she decided on the shape of the blossoms she wanted.
“Well, looky who’s here.” The booming voice issued from a woman who strolled up behind Mary and bent around to peer into her face. “I recognized that red hair clear across the store.” Her carrying words held the hint of a southern drawl.
The newcomer was pretty, not a great beauty, but attractive and well groomed. A red-knit tam and matching scarf complimented her dark brown hair and eyes. Her pink skin glowed with health, and she seemed full of energy and good cheer. Edna guessed her to be in her early forties. About Matthew’s age, Edna thought, picturing the oldest of her four children.
Mary smiled hesitantly, “Hello, Laurel.”
Edna, knowing her neighbor to have good instincts about people, mentally noted Mary’s body language when she moved aside to put some space between herself and the woman. Before Edna could think much about it, though, the newcomer turned toward her and leaned over the display table.
“Laurel Taylor,” she said, extending a hand and introducing herself.
Edna set down the pot she’d been holding, shook the woman’s hand and returned the greeting. “Edna Davies. Pleased to meet you.”
“Oh,” Laurel squealed, turning to Mary, then back to Edna. “You’re the neighbor. Benjy’s mom.”
“Benjamin,” Edna corrected, narrowing her eyes at Mary before returning her gaze to Laurel. “I’m not his ‘mom.’ I’m his housekeeper.” She smiled to take any sting out of her response.
Laurel shrieked with delight. “‘His housekeeper.’ I love it. And isn’t that just the way with our feline friends.”
Mary glanced at Edna with a neutral expression, but Edna could see the corners of her neighbor’s lips twitch ever so slightly before she said, “Laurel runs CATS, the local rescue home I told you about.”
“Oh yes,” Edna said, remembering one of the animal shelters in which her neighbor had developed an interest and where she volunteered when she wasn’t donating her time to the South County Hospital. “I remember the name because Albert and I saw the musical on Broadway. Based on T.S. Eliot’s
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
. We loved it.”
Laurel chuckled. “I must admit the association hasn’t hurt business, but tell everyone that CATS is an acronym for Cat Adoption Temporary Shelter.”
“Clever of you.”
“I thought so.” Laurel laughed with pleasure and was about to say something else when a younger man approached the group. In his early thirties, he was close in age to the two youngest of Edna’s four children, Grant and Starling. “This looks like a happy gathering,” he said, stopping beside Laurel and nodding to Edna and Mary in turn. He was handsome with a rugged outdoor look about him.
“Hi, Jake,” Laurel spoke with enthusiasm as she grasped his elbow with both hands and laid her cheek against his upper arm.
“Doctor Jake,” Mary acknowledged with a grin, returning his nod. Nearly six feet, Jake Perry was as tall as Mary with similarly curly hair, but where her long tresses tended to frizz, his short locks waved nicely around his head. The color was darker, too, with more brown in it than Mary’s carroty-red hue.
“Hello, Doctor Jake,” Edna greeted Benjamin’s veterinarian. “Merry Christmas.” She thought he tried to loosen Laurel’s grip, but the woman seemed to cling even tighter to his arm.
“Last minute shopping before the big storm hits?” he asked. “I just heard a report predicting as much as three feet. I hope all of you’re ready.”
“The last storm never materialized,” Edna said. “If this one actually pans out, I hope it holds off until travelers get to where they’re going for Christmas.” She was thinking in particular of her son Grant and his family arriving from Colorado. He hadn’t been back to Rhode Island for three years. When his plans to bring his family east the previous summer had to be cancelled because of his work, he’d promised everyone they’d get back for Christmas. His sister Starling had flown to Colorado both to get in some skiing and, teasingly, to escort Grant home, insuring he keep his promise.
“I’m not worried about a few feet of snow as long as everyone can make it over to my house for my Christmas Eve party,” Mary piped up. “Edna and I are baking today for her family and for my party. You and Roselyn are coming, I hope.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Neither would I,” Laurel chimed in. With those words, she immediately released his arm before inquiring, “Where
the little woman?”
Jake took the opportunity to back away and raised his eyes to survey the crowded store. “She’s around. We’re picking up supplies for the clinic. That’s another reason I’m keeping my eye on the weather report. Our pet photos have finally been delivered. The clinic’s one big fund-raiser for the year and that online outfit who promised a four-day turnaround took three weeks. The phone lines’ve been so tied up with ‘Where are they?’ calls, we’ve probably lost business.” He grimaced. “At least the pictures are in now, so people can come pick them up, pay us, and get their cards in the mail. Have you all been waiting for photos?” He smiled at Laurel, deepening the lines in his weather-roughened cheeks. “The money goes to help support our local animal shelters, you know.”
“I’ve been waiting for you to bring your camera to CATS.” Laurel stroked his arm, but refrained from clinging this time. “You promised me you’d be over. Remember?”
“I brought Hank and Spot to sit with Santa,” Mary said when Jake hesitated in answering Laurel. “I didn’t order cards, though, only an eight-by-ten.”
“Benjamin doesn’t like to pose for pictures. It’s candid or nothing with him, so we donated instead,” Edna said, wondering whether she had saved Santa Claus or her ginger cat from injury when she decided not to have a holiday picture taken.
“When can you bring Santa and your camera over to CATS,” Laurel insisted, not letting the man ignore her. “I have only four in the house right now, but that’s still too many for me to bring to your clinic. We
have a special Christmas picture taken. Can’t you just imagine them draped around Saint Nicholas for a promotion photograph? We can both use it for marketing flyers, even after the holidays.” She gazed up at the vet, and Edna thought the woman stopped just short of batting her eye lashes. “My kitty Christmas tree is up and all decorated. It’ll make a wonderful background.”
“I can spare an hour tomorrow morning,” Jake said, probably aware that Laurel wasn’t going to let him get away without a commitment.
“Perfect.” Laurel’s smile broadened. “I’ll be home.”
His own smile fading, Jake said, “I’d better go see what my wife is up to before she maxes out the credit card. Nice to see you ladies.” As he spoke, he sidled away before quickening his step and heading farther into the store.
“I’d better be off too,” Laurel said, staring after the veterinarian. “Lots to do today.” She leaned across the table again, extending a hand to Edna. “You must stop in for tea sometime. I bet I could find a pretty little companion for your Benjy. My prices are the best in the area.”
“Benjamin.” Edna disregarded the marketing pitch. “My cat’s name is Benjamin.”
With a fluid motion, Laurel released Edna’s hand, picked up the plant Edna had been examining earlier and turned to hurry off toward the checkout counters. Edna was too stunned to respond before the woman disappeared into the crowd. First of all, she had no intention of adopting another cat, and secondly, she had considered purchasing that particular plant herself.
Regaining her senses and her humor, she mentally shrugged. She planned to visit Schartner Farms in the next day or two anyway where she knew they had a huge selection of healthy plants. She also wanted one of their beautifully decorated wreaths for her front door, an evergreen garland to wrap around the banister on the stairs in the front hall and, if they hadn’t all been sold out by now, a six-foot Christmas tree. To Mary, she said, “Shall we get our shopping done? Time’s a-wastin’, as my mother used to say. Don’t let me forget to pick up some candles. I forgot to put them on my list. I hope there are some of those lovely pine-scented ones left. I love the smells of Christmas, don’t you?”
She talked as she merged into the flow of other incoming customers and aimed the cart toward the baking goods aisle. Mary apparently had something else on her mind. “Get to CATS early, if you plan to drink any of Laurel’s tea.”
Typical of Mary, she didn’t say anything more until Edna prompted, “Why is that?”
“She makes a fresh pot in the morning and only adds water after that. Heats it in the microwave. If the tea gets really weak, she might add a teaspoon of leaves.”
A lover of freshly brewed, strong tea, Edna shuddered at the thought. “Thanks for the warning.”
Noticing the store was beginning to get busy, Edna hurried Mary along to fill the cart with flour, sugar, butter, eggs and the assortment of other baking and party items on their lists. Soon, they were heading toward the cashiers.
“I need mistletoe,” Mary announced as they approached shoppers waiting at the registers.
“I saw some over by the poinsettias,” Edna said. “Would you get some for me, too? I’ll get in line.”