"Ouch, ouch, ouch!" Zelda whispered.
"I told you to wear gloves," muttered Shelley.
I could barely make them out on the dark porch. It was one in the morning, and Wagtail was slumbering. If it hadn't been for the moon, I wouldn't have been able to see them at all.
"Gloves are too cumbersome," Zelda groused. "I don't know how you can place the lights precisely with woolly fabric on your fingers."
I shivered as a cold wind swept through. My elf tights with one red leg and one green leg weren't thick enough to keep out the chill. We stood on Marie Carr's front porch, hastily wrapping colorful lights on the Christmas tree we were delivering. Shelley passed me the cord of lights. I wrapped them around my section of the tree and handed them to Zelda. "Hush, you guys," I hissed. "Two kids live here. You'll wake them!"
Wagtail, a small town in the mountains of Virginia, had experienced a boom year by catering to visitors who brought their dogs and cats for a vacation where they could be part of the fun. This year, instead of exchanging gifts with our neighbors or having secret Santas, the town had decided to make the holidays merry for our less-fortunate residents. My grandmother, whom I called Oma, German for grandma, had installed a suggestion box in the lobby of the Sugar Maple Inn, which we ran together. Anyone could stop by and drop off a suggestion for a deserving neighbor or a resident in need. And then the semisecret Elf Squad was dispatched.
An observant person might have noticed that Shelley Dixon, a waitress at the inn, and Zelda York, who worked at the registration desk, had altered their schedules and could have suspected them of being elves. But we were also taking turns at the Sugar Maple Inn booth at the Christkindl Market, so our schedules were all twisted around. As far as I could tell, no one had identified us yet. We weren't worried about the adults but were trying to keep a low profile so we wouldn't spoil Christmas magic for the children of Wagtail.
Shadow Hobbs, the Sugar Maple Inn handyman, had cut the perfectly shaped balsam fir earlier in the day, and we elves had transported it to the Carr house on a golf cart that we had decorated as Santa's sleigh. Our previous forays had caused rumors that Santa's elves had been spotted in Wagtail to spread through the elementary school like wildfire. We had been careful to dress in cute elf attire in case we were seen. Even Trixie, my Jack Russell terrier, wore a red and green dog dress with a hat that curled at the top, just like ours. At the moment, she was sniffing boxes of ornaments we had stacked by the front door.
The Schroeder children were local favorites and had received many notes in the suggestion box. At ages eight and four, Ethan and Ava Schroeder had been orphaned when their parents and only living grandparents were lost in a plane crash. Marie Carr had taken them in as foster children until someone adopted them. Everyone was determined to brighten their holiday.
"I still say we should just leave the lights with the ornaments," said Zelda in a low voice.
"Where's your Christmas spirit? The lights are the worst part of decorating," Shelley hissed back. "This way they can plug it right in, make hot chocolate, and hang ornaments."
Heaven only knew what the tree would look like when the lights were plugged in. Another frigid breeze blew in the night, and I was fairly sure my nose had gone numb.
"I read that the best way to put on the lights is in three triangular sections," whispered Zelda. "Maybe we should try that."
"That's crazy," said Shelley. "You have to zigzag them along the branches so you'll get depth in the lights."
They bickered like sisters, but Shelley and Zelda were part of the Sugar Maple Inn family. When I moved to Wagtail, I hadn't expected to find a family among the employees, but I was delighted that it had worked out that way.
My parents had divorced when I was young, and for the first time in decades, I was where I wanted to be for Christmas-in Wagtail. No planes, no trains, no hasty visits, and best of all, no arguments about where I should be and when. My parents had both started new families, and while I loved them dearly, the truth was that I always felt like an outsider at their new homes.
I had such happy childhood memories of Christmas in Wagtail, and while I knew things would be different seen through my adult eyes, I couldn't help being excited about spending the holiday in Wagtail. I looked forward to the ringing of the church bells and the possibility of Fluffy Cake, which I remembered fondly. Not to mention that my childhood friend and heartthrob, Holmes Richardson, would be home for the holidays.
"There. We're done," whispered Shelley.
At that moment, I spied a flutter in the curtain on the window that overlooked the porch.
"Dash away now!" I whispered, jumping off the porch.
Thank goodness our rush to the sleigh-golf cart caught Trixie's interest and she leaped on board with us. The electric golf cart couldn't go too terribly fast, but I gunned it as Zelda shook sleigh bells attached to a leather horse harness. The merry tinkle made me grin every time. What could be more fun?
"Did you really say dash away?" Shelley laughed.
"It just came out. I guess I'm in the spirit of the season."
At that moment, a light blazed upon us, so bright that it briefly blinded me, and I slammed the brakes.
Trixie yelped in surprise.
"It's a sign from heaven," breathed Zelda with wonder in her tone.
I blinked and gazed around.
"Not unless the Grinch has a heavenly connection," muttered Shelley.
She pointed to our right. I squinted against the glare. A gigantic Grinch with huge devious eyes loomed over the roofs of the houses. He must have just been turned on because we would surely have noticed him before. There were no high-rises, billboards, or garish lighting in Wagtail. The moon was usually the only light in the night sky. The Grinch's head had a green cast and glowed as though a strong light must be inside. I guessed it was a blow-up figure.
Even though we were a couple of blocks away, we could hear the notes of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" coming from the ghastly fellow.
"I'm all for holiday fun," said Zelda, "but if I thought that guy was going to come down my chimney, I would brick it up. Not to mention that I don't think anyone in the neighborhood, including me, will get much sleep tonight."
I dropped off Zelda first. The repeating song was growing annoying, and lights were flicking on inside houses all over the neighborhood.
Shelley lived on the other side of town, where it was blissfully quiet and only twinkling Christmas lights on trees and rooflines glowed in the night. I drove the electric golf cart back in the direction of the giant Grinch to Rose Richardson's detached garage, where I parked and closed the door. Holmes's grandmother, Rose, was like a grandmother to me too, and happened to be my Oma's best friend. We were hiding the sleigh-golf cart in her garage so children wouldn't see it around town during the day.
Trixie and I walked back to the inn on the path that meandered through the green, the park in the center of Wagtail, which wasn't so green now that snow lay on it. We passed the giant Christmas tree that remained lighted all through the night. Dark Christkindl market stalls lined the perimeter of the green. Bright lights twinkled in the trees that lined the path, and a few snowflakes floated in the air. It was like our own private wonderland, except for the tinkling notes of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
The Sugar Maple Inn loomed at the end of the green, nothing short of splendid. White lights on pine swags graced the railings of the front porch, wound up the columns, and followed the arch of the ceiling between them. By day, white and red ornaments added a touch of color to the greenery. Battery-operated lanterns lined the stairs. Bold black and red buffalo plaid pillows adorned the white rocking chairs, adding a hint of country style. Lights glowed on the lush wreaths that hung in the windows. And on the third floor, on the balcony outside of my bedroom, stood a tree with sparkling lights that seemed to be suspended high in the air.
The windows of the inn were largely dark, save for those on the first floor in the common areas, but at this hour, even those were somewhat muted.
On the second floor, in a guest room window, I thought I spied a face looking out at us. But in the dark, and with the large wreath that hung in the window, I wasn't quite sure.
As I approached, a group of people gathered on the porch. Most of them wore pajamas with winter coats over them.
Trixie and I trotted up the stairs.
Casey Collins, our young night manager, stood in the doorway, looking terrified. "Holly! Holly's here. She can help you." He grabbed me by the arm and tugged me toward him like a shield.
I stumbled inside. "Won't you all come in?"
When everyone had piled into the lobby and the door was closed, Aunt Birdie demanded, "Wake up your grandmother this instant!"
I did my best to stay calm as I faced the surly crowd. Oma was the mayor of Wagtail, but I hated to disturb her sleep for something like this. After all, I was dressed and awake. "I'm guessing you're here about the Grinch?"
"It's forty-five feet tall," said a man whose red plaid pajama pants jutted from under his coat. "No one can sleep."
"Where is it exactly?" I asked.
"At that awful Rupert Grimpley's house," declared Aunt Birdie.
That was enough to make them all start grumbling again. We had a few guests staying at the inn, and I didn't want them awakened by angry townspeople. I didn't know Rupert well. He was a slightly gruff sort.
"Where is Liesel?" Aunt Birdie pressed. Oma and Aunt Birdie had never gotten along very well. My mother lived in California, about as far away as she could get from her older half-sister, Birdie. My father and his sister had hightailed it out of Wagtail as well, leaving their mother, Oma, to run the family inn. Now that Oma was older, she had brought me on board as her partner. Maybe because they saw themselves as the family matriarchs, Oma and Aunt Birdie were prone to butting heads.
Thin and gaunt, clothes hung beautifully on Aunt Birdie. But her skin sank in under prominent cheekbones and her eyes blazed with fury. In another time, she would have been called a handsome woman. She took great pains with her wardrobe, and even now she was the best dressed person in the room. I felt certain she didn't sleep in those gray wool trousers.
"Yeah!" called someone else. "She's the mayor. She should handle this."
I held up my palm. "I have this under control." A blatant lie, of course. "Now, everyone go home, and I will take care of the Grinch."
They still grumbled as they filed out.
Only Aunt Birdie remained, one eyebrow lifted critically. "You should change clothes before you go. I don't think Rupert will be cowed by an elf."
She was probably right, but I had a secret weapon. "You too, Aunt Birdie, go on home."
Pulling out my cell phone and dialing, I walked up the grand staircase.
Officer Dave Quinlan answered the phone immediately. "If you're calling about the Grinch, I'm on my way. I've already had twenty complaints."
"I'll meet you there," I said.
As fast as I could, I swapped my tights and elf coat for jeans, a sweater, and a puffy jacket. Trixie had taken off her elf hat by herself. I quickly exchanged her elf coat for a red fleece dog coat.
We ran back downstairs.
Casey was still in the lobby. "Your aunt scares me."
Aunt Birdie intimidated a lot of people, and Casey was still young enough to be easily rattled. He attended community college on nearby Snowball Mountain, and even though he wasn't a kid, he reminded me of the young Harry Potter, with round wire-rimmed glasses and a shock of dark hair that fell over his forehead.
"You're not the only one who feels that way."
"What do I tell people who call and want to speak to your grandmother?" asked Casey.
"Tell them we're already on it." I walked out the door, jogged down the steps and hurried and along the sidewalk that bordered the green. Trixie raced ahead of me, sniffing scents as she went. The stores and restaurants to my left were closed, but lights shone in their windows. The Christkindl booths to my right, just inside the green, were shut down for the night as well. I barely noticed them as I drew closer to the Grinch.
He loomed over everything, his sinister eyes angled ominously. The music grew in volume as I approached. No wonder people were complaining. What was Rupert thinking?
Officer Dave and I arrived at the same time. Formerly a sailor in the Navy, he now worked for the police department headquartered on Snowball Mountain, but he lived in Wagtail and knew the residents well.
A crowd of people on the street parted as we walked up. The base of the Grinch took up the entire front yard of Rupert's home. The music blasted, drowning out conversation. We had to walk around the Grinch to get to the porch of his bungalow.
Dave rapped on the front door. "Rupert?" he shouted. "It's Dave Quinlan. Open your door. This is police business."
It wasn't easy to hear Rupert over the music, but from behind the door he yelled, "Ain't done nothin' wrong!"
"Rupert, you're disturbing the peace. Now open up!"
The door swung open just a crack. Rupert peered out at us. "I'm celebratin' the season just like everybody else."
"Come on, Rupert," said Dave. "Nobody can sleep with this racket and the lights beaming into their homes."
"I have a right to decorate. Look over there at the neighbor's house. They have lights all over their house. I don't see you makin' a fuss over that."
Dave crossed his arms over his chest. "They're not shining in bedroom windows, Rupert, nor are they blasting music. Now close down your Grinch for the night."
Revue de presse
“Wagtail Mountain will appeal to animal lovers and mystery lovers, alike.”—Kate Carlisle, New York Times bestselling author of the Bibliophile Mysteries
“Davis has created another charming series.”—Sofie Kelly, New York Times bestselling author of the Magical Cats Mysteries
“Davis has created a town that any pet would love—as much as their owners do. And they won’t let a little thing like murder spoil their enjoyment.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author of the County Cork, Museum, and Orchard Mysteries
“Murder, mystery, a bit of romance and seriously PETS!! Who could ask for anything more?”—Open Book Society
“Touches all the bases of the cozy mystery—including a bit of romance—and does so with style.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch