Banners reading “Have a Joyous Yuletide,” “Merry Nollaig Beag,” and “Happy Hogmanay” decorated the interior of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. A box of Yule candles sat next to Liss MacCrimmon’s day-by-day calendar on the sales counter. It was open to the current page—Tuesday, the ninth of December.
As Liss wielded a feather duster and rearranged stock, a snippet of an old Christmas carol lodged in her mind and stuck there. Christmas was coming. The geese were getting fat. Or at least Liss supposed they were, not being acquainted with any personally. But with sales virtually nonexistent, she had a scant supply of pennies to put in “the poor man’s hat.”
Or was it the old man’s hat?
Liss never could remember the exact lyrics. She wasn’t much of a singer, either. Alone in the shop, she contented herself with humming the melody aloud. Even that small musical effort was off-key, but not far enough to silence her.
A glance through the plate-glass display window at the front of the store revealed the same bare, unappealing landscape she’d seen every other time she’d looked. Skeletal branches reached up into an impossibly blue sky, starkly silhouetted against that cloudless backdrop. On the ground, patches of dead, yellow-brown grass alternated with piles of rotting leaves, pummeled by hard rains into shapeless, colorless lumps of vegetation. The vivid hues that had brought tourists flocking to Maine in the fall were only a distant memory.
Bright morning sun made the scene even more depressing. Still no snow. How could it not snow in Maine in December?
“Think snow,” Liss muttered to herself. “I ought to put that on a banner.”
People had a right to see the white stuff on the ground by now. Skiers expected to be able to take their first outing of the season during Christmas vacation, if not before. Even more important, the residents of Carrabassett County needed tourists to show up and spend money on lift tickets, lodging, food, and gifts. Without that regular influx of business, everybody suffered, especially the tiny town of Moosetookalook.
With a sigh, Liss turned away from the window. Wishing wouldn’t make it snow, not even if she had Aladdin’s lamp and a genie at her beck and call. What a pity that neither magic nor science could accurately predict the weather, let alone control it.
After retying the bright red scarf holding her long, dark brown hair away from her face, Liss busied herself straightening the display next to a sign that read “Kilt Hose Stuffers.” To Liss’s mind kilt hose—or knee socks, as those not into Scottish-American heritage in a big way would call them—made ideal Christmas stockings. She’d gathered together an eclectic assortment of items that might be tucked into the toe or made to cascade enticingly over the top. There were penny whistles and small figurines of pipers, refrigerator magnets and campaign buttons bearing pseudo-Scottish sayings and puns, and the cutest little stuffed bears Liss had ever seen, all dressed up in kilts and plaids and wearing minuscule Balmoral caps. Liss had dubbed the four-inch high toys “Wee Scottish Bears” in the online catalogue she’d set up for the store.
The display table in order, Liss turned next to the tall shelves that held a variety of Scottish imports, everything from tins of Black Bun, the traditional Twelfth Night cake made with fruit, almonds, spices, and whiskey—lots of whiskey—to canned haggis. She had no trouble dusting the upper reaches. She stood 5’9” tall in her stocking feet.
Fourteen shopping days till Christmas, Liss thought as she worked. There was time yet to make a profit. If she started opening on Sundays, then it would be sixteen shopping days. She already planned to extend the shop’s hours by adding the two Mondays before Christmas. The rest of the year she took that day off to compensate for working Saturdays. Would it be worth the effort, and the expense, to staff the store seven days a week?
The loss of her part-time sales clerk, Sherri Willett, had made scheduling more difficult. At the moment, Liss was not only half owner of the Emporium, but the store’s only employee. To leave the shop for any reason, she had to lock up and put the CLOSED sign in the window.
Still, the extra hours might pay off. There was always the chance of a stray shopper wandering in. Liss sighed again. She should give it a shot. After all, she’d already calculated expenses down to the last decimal point. It wouldn’t cost all that much more to keep the heat at sixty-eight degrees for those extra days.
The raucous jangle of the sleigh bells she’d attached to the door had Liss smiling in anticipation. A customer at last!
Her spirits plummeted when she recognized Gavin Thorne. Like Liss, he owned a store that faced Moosetookalook’s town square. Several months earlier he’d bought the building that had once housed Alden’s Small Appliance Repair and opened The Toy Box.
“Don’t you look the fine Scottish lassie!” Thorne had a big, booming voice and a smile that showed a great many large white teeth. Both were in marked contrast to a milquetoast appearance.
Liss glanced down at the white peasant blouse and tartan mini-skirt she’d selected from the store’s stock that morning and was suddenly glad she’d put on wooly dancer’s tights beneath the skirt. She did not know Gavin Thorne well, but the last thing she needed was for another man to take an interest in her. Juggling the two she already had was hard enough!
“You know the store policy,” she quipped. “Model what we sell.”
“When am I finally going to meet his aunt of yours?” he asked as he made his way slowly through the shop. He paused to look at several of the displays, including the one of kilt-hose stuffers.
“She’s arriving on the nineteenth.”
A sudden thought had Liss taking a closer look at Thorne. She saw a lumpy individual with hair the color of dry grass and eyes hidden behind small, round-framed glasses. Liss wasn’t sure how old the toy store owner was, but he was surely closer to Aunt Margaret’s age—fifty-nine—than her own twenty-eight years. Could Thorne have a personal reason for asking about her aunt?
He approached the sales counter with one of “Wee Scottish Bears” in hand. “These selling well for you?”
“They do okay,” Liss fibbed.
She’d sold only one, to Sherri as a present for her young son. She’d expected to sell another to Angie Hogencamp, who owned the bookstore on the other side of the town square and had a small collection of designer teddy bears that her children were not allowed to touch, but Angie had taken one look at the stuffed toys and given a disdainful sniff.
“Maybe they’d do better at my place.” Thorne’s watery blue eyes looked straight at Liss, but only for an instant. The speed with which his gaze skittered away from hers set off an alarm of air-raid-siren intensity. “I could take them off your hands if you’re willing to sell them to me at dealer discount.”
Liss’s suspicion that he was trying to pull a fast one hardened into a certainty. The standard discount businesses gave one another didn’t leave much room for resale profit. The little bears were cute, but their suggested retail price was only $9.99.
“I don’t want to mess up the display.” Liss waited, curious to hear what he’d say next.
Thorne fiddled with the bear, smoothing one broad thumb over its tiny kilt and tugging at the itty-bitty hat to make sure it was securely attached. He inspected the minuscule manufacturer’s tag, which identified the company that had produced and distributed the toy.
“I don’t suppose you have any more of these in your stock room?” He glanced toward the closed door to the area where Liss processed mail orders and unpacked deliveries. “Some you haven’t put out yet.”
“A few.” In fact, Liss had been so taken with their Scottish regalia that she’d bought an entire case—an even hundred of the little bears.
“Well. Well, that’s good then.” All sorts of nervous twitches suddenly manifested themselves, from the traditional shuffling of feet and playing with rings to an odd little gesture unique to Thorne—he rubbed his knuckles back and forth over the underside of his chin. “I don’t suppose—?”
“No.” Liss injected every bit of firmness she could manage into her voice. “The way I see it, you hardly need one more toy in a store that already offers hundreds of selections, whereas these little guys fit in perfectly with the other items the Emporium sells.” Liss leaned across the sales counter until she was almost nose to nose with the shorter man. She plucked the stuffed bear out of Thorne’s hand and tried to recapture his gaze. “What’s this really about?”
“Nothing. Not a thing. Just making conversation. Well, gotta go now. Bye.” Backpedaling, literally and figuratively, the toy seller beat a hasty retreat.
Something landed on the Emporium’s hardwood floor with a soft plop just as the door slammed behind Gavin Thorne. As soon as the sleigh bells had stopped their racket, Liss came out from behind the counter to investigate.
He had dropped a folded section of a newspaper. It had been sticking out of the pocket of his jacket, Liss realized, and had been knocked free when he bumped into the door frame in his rush to get away. She picked it up, glancing at the date. When she saw it was from the previous weekend’s Boston paper, she started to toss it into the trash. A headline caught her eye as if fell and she quickly snatched it out again.
TINY TEDDIES IN SHORT SUPPLY.
Heart rate speeding up as she read, Liss skimmed the article. Then she took a good hard look at the small bear she still held in her other hand.
Liss carried the newspaper to the section of the store her aunt had dubbed the cozy corner. It was furnished with two easy chairs and a coffee table. She settled into the more comfortable of the chairs, curling her legs beneath her. Then she slowly reread every word of the story. There was no mistake. “Tiny Teddies,” the proper name for her “Wee Scottish Bears,” were the hot gift item this Christmas . . . and they were sold out in much of the U.S. The reporter who’d written the article believed there were no longer any to be had in the six New England states.
“Holy cow,” Liss whispered. If this was for real, she was sitting on a gold mine.
* * *
Across the town square from Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, an imposing red brick building housed the town office, the public library, the fire department, and the police station. Sherri Willett, wearing a stiffly starched blue uniform that sported a shiny new badge above the breast pocket, was the sole occupant of the three small rooms that comprised the latter.
Once she’d caught up on all the outstanding paperwork, she had nothing in particular to do. In fact, she’d been ordered to do nothing unless someone actually asked her for help. Jeff Thibodeau, who’d been promoted to chief of police just before Sherri was hired, had explained that the town budget didn’t extend to extra gas money. They were not to use their one patrol car to go out looking for trouble.
Never good at twiddling her thumbs, Sherri wandered into the reception area. The police department had never employed a receptionist. Three full-time officers and a handful of part-timers handled everything. The door straight ahead of her led, by way of a short hall, to the town office and the bays for the fire trucks. Another, to her right, opened directly onto the parking lot at the rear of the building.
Sherri straightened a row of uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs, then wondered why she’d bothered. There was no other furniture in this outer room. No plants. No magazines. Just a scuffed-up tile floor and a cobweb hanging undisturbed in one corner of the ceiling.
Retreating back into the office, recognizable as such only because it contained two battered army-surplus-style desks and an equally antiquated metal file cabinet, Sherri headed for the coffee pot. The glass was so streaked and spotted that it was difficult to tell what color the contents were, but what landed in Sherri’s cup had the consistency of sludge. She shuddered when she inspected the grounds.
Carrying the whole mess to the communal kitchen down the hall, she scrubbed the coffee pot and basket, then returned to the P.D. to collect all the mugs and cups scattered about and toss them into the suds. She hoped she wasn’t setting a bad precedent. She might be Moosetookalook’s only female police officer, but neither making coffee nor cleaning house was part of her job description.
She’d made that very clear to her co-workers when she’d started her last job and there had never been any trouble. Until recently, she’d been a corrections officer, dispatcher, and deputy—the three jobs were all one in rural Carrabassett County. She’d worked at the county jail, appointed by and responsible to the sheriff.
Sometimes she regretted leaving the sheriff’s office for the police department, but not when she opened her pay envelope. The town fathers of Moosetookalook might be frugal, but they were nowhere near as miserly as the county commissioners.
While a fresh pot of coffee brewed, Sherri resumed rambling. She stopped on the brink of entering the tiny holding cell in the P.D.’s closet-size third room. It probably had been a closet at one time, since it could only be reached through the office.
“What were you planning to do?” she muttered to herself. “Dust?”
Reversing course, she flung herself into the oversized chair behind one of the two desks in the larger room. The seat, which bore the permanent imprint of Jeff Thibodeau’s posterior, seemed to swallow her whole.
This was not what she’d expected. Oh, sure, she’d always known police work was 99% boredom and 1% sheer panic, but—
The shrill ring of the phone at her elbow startled her so badly that she let out a small squeak of alarm. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat as she reached for the receiver and put all the authority she could muster into her voice.
“Moosetookalook Police Department. Officer Willett speaking.”
Ten minutes later, Sherri strolled into Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. Although Liss hadn’t made a lick of sense on the phone, Sherri was relatively certain there was no crime in progress at the shop. Curiosity rather than concern for her friend’s safety had convinced her to forward all incoming calls to the P.D. to her cell phone and venture out on “foot patrol.”
It took another ten minutes for Liss to bring Sherri up to speed. She recounted Gavin Thorne’s visit and its outcome, stopping now and again to answer Sherri’s questions.
“So you do have more of these Tiny Teddies?”
“Almost a hundred of them. And Marcia bought some too.”
“I liked the little kilts. I figured I’d corner the market on kilted teddy bears. I never expected—”
“No, I mean why does Marcia have Tiny Teddies? She runs a consignment shop. Second Time Around stocks mostly clothing.”
“She bought hers for decoration. They’re dressed like Santa’s elves. From what I can gather—I did some checking on the Internet—the company that makes Tiny Teddies only manufactures a limited number wearing any particular costume. That makes all the varieties more collectible.”
Sherri nodded. Now that she thought about it, she’d noticed that the Tiny Teddies in the display window of The Toy Box, Gavin Thorne’s store, all wore different outfits. “So Tiny Teddies come in many varieties, in all sorts of get-ups. They’re considered collectible by adults as well as being toys for kids. And if you really have cornered the market on teddies in kilts, you can name your own price. But if this is such a hot item, why haven’t buyers already found your supply? You put the bears in the online catalog at the Emporium’s website, right?”
“Yes, but I didn’t call them Tiny Teddies.”
“So update the description.”
“I’ve had a better idea.” Liss’s changeable blue-green eyes gleamed with barely suppressed excitement. “We make the buyers come here. This could be just what Moosetookalook needs. There isn’t much time, but we do still have more than two weeks until Christmas. I’ve been making lists.”
“Of course you have.” Liss always made lists.
“First I have to talk to Marcia. Then to Gavin Thorne. And then we need to bring the whole town in on this.” Liss turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED, grabbed her bright green coat off the rack by the door and led the way back outside.
A blast of cold air hit Sherri as soon as they left the Emporium. She looked hopefully at the sky, but there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
They hurried past Stu’s Ski Shop with its life-sized skier on the roof of the porch and dashed across the intersection of Pine and Birch Streets. Marcia and her husband had bought the corner house a few years back. In common with most of the old Victorians that surrounded the town square, the downstairs portion had been converted for use as a business while the upstairs rooms had been turned into an apartment. Marcia lived there alone now. Almost a year ago, apparently in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Cabot Katz had decamped. Sherri had no idea where he’d gone, but several months later, Marcia had dropped the name Katz and gone back to being Marcia Milliken.
A small bell above the door tinkled merrily and more melodiously than the one at the Emporium. Once inside the consignment shop, Liss waited a moment, then called out a greeting: “Anybody home?”
“Hang on a sec!” The sound of a disembodied voice was followed by a flush. Sherri and Liss exchanged a rueful grin. When you owned a small shop there was rarely anyone available to cover for you when you needed to use the facilities.
Marcia emerged through a door behind the small desk she used as a sales counter. She was a tall, angular woman in her forties with a pale complexion and wheat-colored hair. Unlike Liss, she did not wear her store’s stock. She was comfortably dressed in well-worn jeans and a cable-knit sweater. She needed the latter. Marcia kept the temperature in her building at a frugal sixty-two degrees.
“Liss. Sherri. Hi. What brings you out on this nippy morning?”
“Have you seen this?” Liss thrust the newspaper at her.
Marcia’s eyes widened as she read. “Those dumb little bears? Get out of here!”
“How many do you have?”
“Two dozen. I didn’t buy them to sell. I’m using them for Christmas decorations.”
Liss started to explain her plan but Marcia didn’t let her get very far.
“Online auction. That’s the best way to sell them. Put the bears up one at a time. Set a nice high minimum bid for each one.”
If this were a cartoon, Sherri thought, the artist would draw dollar signs in place of Marcia’s eyes.
Liss looked horrified. “You can’t do that!”
“Because we have a chance to do something good for this whole town. Gavin Thorne has some of these Tiny Teddies, too. We need to go talk to him. If we work together, I know we can pull this off.”
Marcia looked doubtful. “Are you sure you want to deal with Thorne? I can’t say as I like him much. I stopped by to welcome him to town when he first opened The Toy Box and he gave me such a chilly reception that I haven’t been back since.”
“He’s recently divorced,” Sherri put in. “That tends to make folks sour.” She gave herself a mental kick when she realized Marcia might take that comment personally, but the consignment shop owner simply nodded in agreement.
“He and his wife had a toy store in Fallstown,” Marcia said. “The wife got the building. Thorne got the contents.”
Sherri tried to think if she’d heard anything else about Gavin Thorne, but the local grapevine had been remarkably quiet on the subject.
“He did join the Moosetookalook Small Business Association,” Liss said, “but he hasn’t been to any meetings.” Quickly and concisely, she filled Marcia in on Thorne’s visit to the Emporium.
“He tried to con you and you still want to work with him?” Marcia’s outrage showed plainly on her long, thin face.
The show of temper surprised Sherri. Until now, Marcia had never struck her as one of those people with a short fuse. Then again, she didn’t know the other woman well. Marcia was a relative newcomer to Moosetookalook. She hadn’t grown up in the village, as Sherri and Liss had.
“It couldn’t hurt to talk to Thorne,” Liss insisted. “For one thing , he’s the closest thing we have to a local expert on toys.”
A short time later, Marcia in tow, Sherri and Liss retraced their steps past Stu’s Ski shop and the Emporium. They passed Liss’s house—one of only two surrounding the square that was still used exclusively as a residence—and turned onto Ash Street. The Toy Box was located in the center of that short block, between the post office and Preston’s Mortuary.
Thorne’s shop had no bell over the entrance. The door closed, however, with a resounding thunk that echoed in every corner of the small store.
“With you in a minute,” Thorne bellowed from behind a sales counter built so high that a child would have to reach above his head to pay for a purchase. It was also an awkward height for Sherri, whose friends universally described her as a petite blonde. It hit the taller Liss squarely at bosom-level.
The minute stretched into several. Sherri and Marcia wandered off to inspect the shop’s offerings, leaving Liss to inch closer to its surly proprietor.
Keeping her six-year-old son’s belief in Santa Claus in mind, Sherri browsed. Thorne had a great selection of action figures and shelves filled with board games and jigsaw puzzles, but the store seemed a trifle thin on miniature trucks and cars. Video games took up another significant section of shelving. So did toys for very young children. In a far corner she came upon two Tiny Teddies, one dressed as a ballerina, the other as a clown.
Marcia joined her there. “There are ten more on a table on the other side of the shop. All different.”
As one, they headed for the front of the store, arriving just in time to see Liss go up on her toes to prop her elbows on the polished wooden surface of the sales counter in order to thrust her face into Thorne’s peripheral vision. He gave a start and looked up from his computer screen with a glower.
“We need to talk,” Liss said. When he stood, she stepped back and held out the newspaper.
Thorne leaned over the sales counter, his expression still thunderous. The floor on his side was a good foot higher than the area where Liss stood, so that he loomed over her. Nobody, not Liss or Marcia and Sherri, who had formed ranks behind Liss, was impressed.
Thorne did a double take at the sight of Sherri’s uniform. “You planning to arrest me?”
His sneer faded when she just stared at him, her gaze level and no hint of a smile on her face. Holding her head at that awkward angle was giving her a kink in her neck—another black mark against the surly toy seller.
“Come out of there!” Liss snapped the command in a no-nonsense voice.
Thorne blinked hard behind his Harry Potter glasses and obeyed, descending the two little steps from the office area. He led them to a small seating area at the back corner of the store. Small was the operative word, since the chairs were designed for children. While Thorne leaned against the wall, Marcia dropped into a bean-bag chair, joking that she’d probably need a forklift to get her up again. Sherri was small enough to ease into one of the child-size rockers but she still had to stretch her legs out in front of her to avoid a collision between knees and chest. Following Thorne’s example, Liss opted to remain on her feet.
“How many Tiny Teddies you have?” she asked him.
“Two crates. Mixed.”
Sherri felt a slow grin spread across her face.
“It looks as though the three of us may have the only supply of Tiny Teddies in New England. There are people everywhere who want them. If we work together, we all increase our profits.” Liss rubbed her fingers together in the universal gesture for money.
“What do you have in mind?” Thorne’s aggression had vanished. He looked harmless again, even amiable, a short, middle-aged man with a sagging midsection and weak eyesight.
“We make the customers come to us. That way the whole town benefits.”
Thorne looked skeptical, but he kept listening.
Liss took out the lists she’d tucked into her coat pocket and ticked off each point in turn. “One: get hold of the rest of the members of the Moosetookalook Small Business Association and tell them what’s going on. Two: attend the board of selectmen’s next meeting, which just happens to be scheduled for tonight. Both groups are a potential source of seed money. The selectmen know business has been slow, even with the boost Moosetookalook got when the hotel reopened last summer. So, when we ask for assistance to get the word out about our supply of Tiny Teddies—the financial wherewithal to run ads—I think they’ll go along with our request.”
“Newspaper, television, or radio?” Thorne asked.
“All three if we can swing it. The thing is, we want to do more than just attract customers to our own stores. We want to encourage shoppers to stick around long enough to spend money at all the local businesses. It’s short notice, but I think I can pull together a Christmas pageant—I’ve been thinking of it as The Twelve Shopping Days of Christmas.” She gave a self-conscious little laugh. “Maybe we could be a tad more subtle than that, so any suggestions for alternate names are welcome.”
Sherri repressed a snort of laughter. Subtlety was not Liss’s strong suit, but Sherri had to give her friend credit for ingenuity. As Liss expanded on her idea—twelve days of special ceremonies, one for each stanza in the Christmas carol, culminating in a pageant on the last day that included them all—she could see how the events might encourage tourists to come to town.
“I can find the ten ladies to dance and the eleven pipers,” Liss said, “but I may need some help recruiting leaping lords and milkmaids. And drummers. We’ll need twelve of them.”
“Try the high school,” Sherri suggested. “Convince one of the teachers to offer extra credit to those who participate.”
“When will you hold the final pageant?” Thorne asked. Whatever his earlier reservations, he sounded as if he’d now come around to Liss’s way of thinking. Although he still propped up the back wall of his shop, his stance had changed from studied indifference to rapt attention.
“If we call Saturday the first day of Christmas, then the twelfth day will fall on Christmas Eve.” Liss frowned. “That’s wrong, of course. Twelfth Night is actually after Christmas, but since celebrations in the U. S. center on the twenty-fifth of December, we’ll just have to take a little poetic license. I—”
“Christmas Eve is too late,” Thorne cut in. “You need to schedule things so that the final pageant falls on the weekend before Christmas.”
Liss’s face fell as she mentally subtracted days. “That would mean we’d have to have to hold the first day’s ceremony tomorrow!”
“Partridge in a pear tree, right?” Marcia asked.
At Liss’s nod, Marcia gave a dismissive shrug.
“No big deal if people miss that one. Or the next six, either.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Two doves, three hens, four calling birds, five gold rings, six swans, and seven geese. All poultry except for the rings, Liss—and boring! Until you start counting people, there won’t be anything interesting to see.”
“Okay. Okay, you’re right. But on the twelfth day we can make a terrific spectacle out of all of them.” Her enthusiasm only momentarily dimmed, she rummaged in another pocket for a pencil and started making notes on the back of one of her lists. “We’ll put a pear tree up in the town square next to the municipal Christmas tree. I know a taxidermist who can supply a stuffed partridge. Jump ahead to—”
“Jump ahead to customers arriving in droves to spend money,” Thorne interrupted, “and to the prices we’re going to charge. People will pay a heck of a lot more than ten bucks for these babies now.”
Liss looked as if she wanted to object, but held her tongue when she saw Marcia’s eyes light up.
After Thorne and Marcia had agreed to attend the selectmen’s meeting that evening with Liss, Liss and Sherri left the two of them engrossed in a discussion of the best wording for their ads.
“Time to get back to the P.D.,” Sherri said. “You won’t need my help dealing with the MSBA. You’ve already got an in with the top man.” Dan Ruskin, newly elected as president by the other small businesspeople in town, was one of the two men Liss had been dating since she’d returned to Moosetookalook seventeen months earlier.
Sherri started to cross the square, then paused to look back over her shoulder. “By the way—thanks, Liss.”
“Salvaging my morning. I was bored to tears.” She grinned. “And if this plan of yours actually works, it will also be thanks for all the overtime I’m going to earn working crowd control.”
To read more, look for A WEE CHRISTMAS HOMICIDE in stores and in ebook format.
© 2009-12 Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett). All rights reserved.