With Fred still coming to grips with a recent betrayal, shifting through all the curmudgeons to crack the case may take more holiday magic than she and Watson possess.
The Scroogiest of Ebenezer Scrooges wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance remaining immune to the holiday spirit once they entered the toy store. With Christmas a little over two and a half weeks away, I began counting the days for it all to be over. Though I most definitely would not consider myself a Scrooge, in my defense, Halloween had barely sighed its dying breath before Estes Park began stringing lights and hanging tinsel. Those aspects only increased the charm of the Colorado mountain town, making it a beautiful Christmas village, but there are limited versions of Christmas carols a person can bear on endless loops after so many weeks.
Still, surrounded by the massive assortment of old-fashioned Christmas toys carved from wood or made of hand-painted metal that filled Bushy Evergreen’s Workshop, the high-pitched voices of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing “The Christmas Song” nearly got me back into the mood—I was practically in the middle of Santa’s toy factory, for crying out loud. The six-year-old girl who lived inside me couldn’t help but be swept away by the wonderment and magic of it all.
A whimper at my feet drew my attention away from a carved elk with the nose painted bright red to resemble his more famous reindeer cousin. Watson grimaced up at me through slitted eyes as if he was in pain. It seemed he held no enjoyment of Alvin and the Chipmunks. If he could, I had no doubt Watson would’ve curled his fox-like corgi ears to block out the noise.
I smiled at him and shook my head. “You are the definition of a drama queen.”
He only continued to scowl. Maybe I was wrong. Watson was probably the Scroogiest of Ebenezer Scrooges, and he wasn’t a convert.
We rounded the corner, past a pyramid of stuffed animals, and came into view of the counter, which was outlined in twinkling multicolored lights. Old Duncan Diamond, the carver of the wooden toys, and his son, Dolan, were huddled together in front of a computer screen. Both seemed heavy in concentration. So much so that at Watson’s and my movement, Dolan glanced at us and then instantly returned to the computer before flinching and looking back up once more, clearly startled. He darted his gaze from me to Watson, then toward the front door and back. “Goodness! You two snuck in.”
Duncan gave a little flinch of his own at Dolan’s voice but smiled instantly when he saw us. “Didn’t even hear the door chime.” There was a flicker of sadness in his eyes, and I knew he was thinking of the year before, the loss and betrayal that had happened where Watson and I stood, but the look was gone in an instant and his smile returned. “To what do we owe the pleasure of a visit from Winifred Page and her corgi sidekick? I know your nephews and nieces are much too old for any of the toys I offer here at this point.”
“Nice to see you both.” I didn’t try to argue and finished my path to the counter, letting a little slack loose in Watson’s leash so he could wander around if he wanted. “And there are two things, actually.” I dug into my purse and pulled out a notepad. “Katie and I had an idea, and I’m making a quick jaunt around town to see if other store owners are interested.”
Dolan gave an exaggerated shiver. “It’s the coldest day we’ve had in weeks. If you’re walking all over downtown in this weather, you’re tougher than me.” He shrugged good-naturedly. “Although, we already knew that.”
Before I could respond, Duncan patted his son on the back. “But you’re sweet, kind, and pure of heart.” He refocused on me. “So what’s this scheme you and the baker sent from the gods have come up with?”
The first time I met him, Duncan Diamond seemed so old and sad. Now, despite heavy wrinkles on his face, he was lighter, happier. That helped me remember the point of Christmas spirit even more than the beauty of the toy shop. “We thought we’d use the final rush of tourists for some good. We’re putting together a coupon book for all the shops. The booklet will cost twenty-five dollars and will have discounts for all participating stores inside. All the profits will be split between the toy drive at the hospital, the women’s shelter, and the animal rescue.” Though Bushy Evergreen’s Workshop was at least the tenth store I’d visited the past couple of hours, I felt heat rise to my cheeks. I hated asking for things, even when they weren’t for me. “There’s no pressure at all, but anything you’d be willing—”
“What do you think, Dad?” Dolan didn’t even hesitate as he looked at Duncan. “Fifteen percent off all purchases, and a free stuffed animal for those over fifty dollars?”
Once more Duncan patted his son on the back. “See? Sweet, kind, pure of heart.” Duncan nodded at me. “Put us down.”
There was the sound of a door slamming in the back, and Dolan’s rather plain face lit up into a thing of beauty as his wife emerged from more rows of toys, snow falling from her long raven hair while she unwrapped the bundle in her arms. She smiled brightly when she noticed us. “Fred, Watson. So good to see you!”
Dolan hurried to help her finish unwrapping the bundle, revealing a chubby baby girl with a mop of bright red curls who giggled as her daddy kissed her cheeks.
Daphne let out a sigh of relief and straightened, her back popping audibly. “Darby is barely five months old, but I swear it feels like I’m lugging around a preschooler.” She started to laugh and then worry filled her beautiful eyes. “Is everything okay? Has someone been murdered?”
When I moved to Estes Park a little more than a year ago, I figured I’d be known around town as the owner of the Cozy Corgi Bookshop. And I was, but even more than a reputation for book-nerd status, my appearance had become associated with finding dead bodies. “No. Just here begging for money.”
She relaxed in relief and began sloughing off the layers of scarf and jacket. “Thank goodness.”
“You’re hardly begging for money, Winifred.” Duncan walked from behind the counter and scratched Watson between his ears. “But you did say you came for two reasons. What’s the other? We’ll help you in any way we can.”
“Always.” Daphne nodded her agreement with her father-in-law and looked at me in a sense of hero-worship, as she had on the rare occasions we ran into each other. Hardly something I felt I deserved.
“Well, Katie and I had a second idea as well. Next Thursday evening, we thought we’d throw a party at the Cozy Corgi, just for residents of the town, before the Christmas tourism starts the next day. Nothing lavish, just Katie’s baking and a time to chat and hang out. We thought we might make it a Christmas tradition.”
“I’ve never had one sampling of Katie’s baking that isn’t lavish.” Duncan gave a final pat on Watson’s head and stood. “And it’s a marvelous idea. For such a small town as we are, and everyone knowing everyone else’s business, we should do more things where tourists and sales aren’t the primary focus. We will be there.”
By the time we left Bushy Evergreen’s, though it wasn’t quite five yet, dusk had fallen. The thousands of lights strung up with the silver tinsel that swept from streetlamp to streetlamp covered Elkhorn Avenue in a canopy of Christmas. Not for the first time, with the snow falling softly, I couldn’t help but feel like we’d built our lives inside of a Christmas snow globe.
Estes Park was always beautiful, but with the Christmas lights and decorations, it was even more lovely than usual. I changed my mind—I didn’t want it to be over in a couple of weeks, even if it meant the end to the background of carols everywhere we went.
Some of my Christmas cheer gave way to a rush of anxiety as I glanced across the street toward the frozen waterwheel, also outlined in twinkling white lights. Right behind it, nestled among the few stores along the wooden pathway that led up from the main sidewalk, the window of the magic shop got my attention. Even from across the street, it was easy to see that they took Christmas seriously. There were so many lights, it glowed like a beacon. Alakazam was the reason I’d chosen to only do one side of the street first. I wanted to put off going into the magic shop for as long as possible. But with it staring at me from across the street, I could practically feel it taunting me.
That was a problem for the following day. Without a look back, Watson and I returned the way we’d come. I’d show Katie all the shops who’d signed up for the Christmas coupon book. Maybe over a dirty chai…
As we neared the Cozy Corgi, my mother, laden with boxes in front of her face, slipped and slid as she attempted to open the door to my step-sisters’ New Age shop. “Mom, hold on. Let me help.” I picked up my speed.
With a startled squeak, Mom flinched, her left foot kicked out, making contact with the front door of Chakras, and the boxes tumbled, their contents spreading over the sidewalk in glistening arrays of red, green, and silver.
I arrived just in time to grip her by the arm before she joined her fallen necklaces. “Sorry! I was trying to help, not scare you to death.”
She laughed and fluttered a hand in front of her chest. “That’s all right dear. I think the jewelry and I were both destined to end up down there, so it’s good you came along. I should’ve knocked on the door and waited for Zelda or Verona to let me in, but I was being stubborn.” She smiled up at me tenderly and then refocused at her feet, pulling out of my grip to bend toward Watson. “And hello to you too, handsome.”
Watson pressed into her touch, a simple acknowledgment that she was part of his pack.
I knelt to begin picking up the strands of crystals, stones, and beads. “I’m afraid these are a tangled mess.”
With a chuckle, she gave a final pat to Watson and began to help. “Can’t blame you for that either, Fred. Barry helped me carry them from the house and dropped them as well. He offered to help untangle them, but I figured the twins and I could do it once I got here. It looks like that was the correct call. Otherwise I’d have to do it all over again.” She grabbed the jewelry by the fistful and stuffed it back into boxes, only making the tangled situation worse. “It serves me right. I chose to make the collection out of barite, zincite, and quartz more for their green, red, and clear colors than for the correct blend of physical and metaphysical attributes. It’s what I get for putting commercialism of the holiday season over—”
“Good grief, you three, you’re making an absolute mess.” Zelda stood above us in the doorway.
“Actually, I would say barite’s qualities of assisting with regeneration and relaxation are perfect for the holiday season.” Verona, Zelda’s identical twin, except for her long blonde hair compared to Zelda’s brunette, peered over her shoulder. “Although, blending it with zincite’s influence over creativity and sexuality is an interesting choice.”
As the twins assisted by scooping up strands of gems, they began to bicker over the positive and negative attributes of Mom’s Christmas jewelry collection. Within a matter of moments, we were inside Chakras and had deposited the tangled mess of jewelry in a huge heap on top of the counter.
Mom let out an exhausted groan. “Goodness. This is going to take hours.”
“Actually…” Verona cast a conniving glance toward Zelda. “Just this morning, the kids were asking for new cell phones for Christmas. Both of them.”
Zelda cocked an eyebrow. “Interesting timing. So were mine. Apparently they’ve been talking.”
“Of course they have. Power in numbers.” Verona gestured toward the daunting mass of jewelry. “I bet our four little elves could tackle this in no time in hopes we might be more amenable.”
“Brilliant.” Zelda grinned and patted Mom’s shoulder. “Don’t give it a second thought. All will be handled. And from the looks of things, they’re absolutely beautiful. And regardless of their… interesting combination of attributes, I guarantee you there will be plenty of shoppers who will require such a focus of energy.”
A year before, I never would have dreamed I’d be standing in the middle of my step-sisters’ New Age shop talking about the powers of crystals as if it was the most normal thing in the world. It was bizarre, and… rather wonderful. I hadn’t been in Chakras for over a week. The store was always beautiful with its mishmash of outlandish and unique merchandise and decor, but Verona and Zelda had gone all out for their first year being open for the holidays. Christmas lights covered every single available surface. But there were new additions hanging from the ceiling that nearly took my breath away. Large round spheres, the size of beach balls hung in differing heights from the ceiling. They glowed in a shifting silvery, grayish white, their shards making them look like an explosion of snowy stars. Without thinking I started to reach out to touch one.
“I wouldn’t do that, Fred.” Verona’s tone had the hint of exasperation. “These are Jonah and Noah’s latest creations. They’re made from the same material they used for last year’s garlands.”
I yanked my hand back and turned to stare at the twins. “Are you serious? Your husbands made more deadly Christmas decorations?”
“Just for Chakras.” Zelda shrugged, unconcerned. “They’re not going to mass market them or sell them or anything like that. There won’t be any more lawsuits.”
“Besides.” Verona sounded a little more exasperated than her twin. “They keep going back and forth on what they’re going to do with their shop. I don’t think they’re ever going to get it opened.” She gestured toward the gleaming orbs. “These gave them a couple days of focus, which they needed.”
“They are lovely.” Mom eyed them skeptically. “Although… You may want to hang them a little higher. I can’t reach them, but there’s plenty of people Fred’s height or taller who will be tempted.”
“Oh! That reminds me!” Zelda turned to me, her long brown hair fanning out in an arc. “Verona and I were talking about the little coupon book thingy you and Katie are doing. In addition to the discount on all incense items, we thought we would also throw in a free energy consultation, no purchase required.”
“Thank you. That would be lovely.” I glanced back at my inventor brothers-in-law’s beautiful but deadly creations. “You might want to include a free box of Band-Aids or something as well.”
“Oh, Fred.” Mom swatted at me but couldn’t hold back a giggle at the twins’ sour expressions.