Read Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen Online
Authors: Vicki Delany
At seven Jackie was behind the cash register and Crystal was helping a man select a gift for his wife. Things were slowing down, but that was only temporary. People with little kids would be taking them home for dinner and bed, and adults on their own would be in search of a restaurant. They'd be back, soon enough, for another round of shopping. My mom and her group swept into the shop. She sounded the note, and the singers burst into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Everyone in the shop stopped what they were doing to listen to the music, enormous smiles on their faces. I surreptitiously slipped across the room to stand beside the display of Christmas-themed music boxes.
The song came to an end, to enthusiastic applause. The singers bowed and went back out into the night.
“That was perfectly lovely,” a woman said to me. “I'm from Toronto and we come to Rudolph every year to do our holiday shopping.” She picked up a music box featuring a Santa Claus in his sleigh. She opened the lid and the notes of “Jingle Bells” rang through the shop. “Although I have to confess,” she said with a laugh, “I do far more shopping for me than buying gifts. It's really a matter of one for you, and five for me. I love this box. I'll take it.”
“I'll put it on the counter for you, shall I?” I said. “So you can continue browsing.”
“It's great to see the town so busy, isn't it?” a man whispered into my ear.
I turned to see Fergus Cartwright, our mayor.
“Sure is,” I said.
“Looks like that unfortunate incident last week didn't have any long-term effects.”
“My daughter suggested that Twitter campaign,” he said. “Clever girl, my daughter. Invaluable help to me sometimes.”
“That's nice.” I started to edge away. I had customers to attend to.
“Glad I thought of asking Russell to contact his friend at the
“I'm glad you did, too,” I said.
Hadn't that been my dad's idea?
“I'll let you get back to work,” he said.
Fergus was dressed in a severe black suit, white shirt, and black tie. A gold pin was attached to his jacket.
Fergus Cartwright, Mayor of Rudolph
, with the Stars and Stripes on one side, the logo of the town of Rudolph on the other. A bright yellow stain marred the pristine whiteness of his dress shirt. I was about to point it out to him and suggest he could use my back room to try to scrub it off, when none other than Sue-Anne Morrow came into the shop.
The mayor and mayor-wannabe glared at each other. Then they broke into smiles. They met in the center of the shop and shook hands warmly.
“Looks like a successful night, Fergus,” Sue-Anne said.
“Yes. Yes.” He beamed.
“I heard that some of the guests at the Yuletide Inn were overheard saying they were going to Muddle Harbor for dinner.” She lowered her voice. “And we all know that if they eat there, they'll stay to shop.”
“Are the stores open late in Muddle Harbor tonight?” I said. “They don't usually do that.”
“Apparently,” Sue-Anne said, “their mayor suggested they take advantage of all the people coming to the area who might be in search of, and I quote, âalternate choices.'”
His Honor growled.
“Looks like we need more than a Twitter campaign, Fergus,” Sue-Anne said. “I'd be happy to sit down with you and Noel and put our heads together to come up with somethingÂ .Â .Â . original.”
“Noel,” Fergus snarled. “Noel Wilkinson is no longer the mayor of Rudolph. People keep forgetting that.” He stalked out of the store.
“Fergus really is out of his depth, isn't he?” Sue-Anne said to me. “I'd better get back out there. People like to see a calming presence, don't they, Aline?”
“Aline's my mother. I'm Merry.”
“Sorry.” She waved her fingers at me and left.
I rolled my shoulders and flexed my knees. “I have to take a break,” I said to Jackie. “Get something to eat before the rush starts again.” I was not in my Mrs. Claus getup tonight, but comfortable slacks, a plain shirt under a good wool jacket, and very sensible shoes.
“We're good here,” she said.
I slipped out into the street. The stage had gone quiet as the children's entertainment ended and preparations for the adult stuff began. The town had hired a '50s-era dance band to play. There had only been one objection to the choice: my mom, who wanted nothing to interfere with her group of carolers.
I wouldn't know how this year's sales compared to previous years until I had the chance to ask the other shop owners, but I thought we were doing well. I glanced up and
down the street. I'd been in Rudolph last year for Midnight Madness weekend. Was the street quieter? Were people more subdued?
Were the folks of Muddle Harbor gloating over their good fortune?
As if I'd conjured him up, I spotted Randy Baumgartner, mayor of Muddle Harbor, across the street, munching on a hot dog. A group of six came out of A Touch of Holly laughing, buttoning coats, and pulling on gloves. They swallowed Randy up. I glanced around, but he'd disappeared. I wasn't sure if it had even been him.
Candy Campbell strolled by on the other side of the street. The police were out in force tonight, walking the beat and keeping an eye on everything. Detective Simmonds had come into my shop earlier to buy the necklace she had her eye on. She left with two toy soldiers as well, which reminded me that I was supposed to be getting more of those soldiers from Alan.
I took my place in the line at the cart in front of the butcher shop. Sausages and hot dogs sizzled, fragrant smoke and the mouthwatering scent of grilling meat rose into the night air. The line was long, but it moved quickly, and everyone was patient and friendly. When my turn came, I asked for a bratwurst, and stood to one side while the plump sausage was tossed onto the grill to heat.
“You look busy,” I said to Dan Evans, owner and chief butcher.
“Been better,” he grunted.
“Really? You mean other Midnight Madness nights?”
“Yeah.” He kept his voice low. “Other places are saying the same.”
“No. White or wheat bun?”
“White.” Tonight was not a night for being mindful of proper eating habits.
Dan tossed a bun onto the edge of the grill, toasting it lightly. He thrust my food at me as Kyle Lambert came out of the store, carrying a tray of uncooked hot dogs. Jackie had told me Kyle was working here this weekend.
“Take over, will you?” Dan said. “I need a break.”
“Sure.” Dan passed Kyle the tongs and the younger man took his place behind the barbeque. “What'll you have, buddy?”
I like my sausage well dressed. I'd slathered on mustard, relish, pickles, sauerkraut, hot peppers, onions, and topped it all with a splash of Dan's so-called special sauce.
The town's toymaker spotted me and came over. “That looks good,” Alan said.
I chewed happily. “Tastes good, too. Where's Dad?”
“Huddling with Sue-Anne Morrow,” Alan said. “So I came in search of something to eat. Careful, you're about to drop mustard all over yourself.” He pulled a tissue out of the pocket of his britches and wiped carefully at my lower lip. His touch was light, and all the while his expressive blue eyes were fixed on mine. My lip quivered. I swallowed. Around us, people chatted and laughed. My mom's group was standing on the snowy lawn outside the library, singing “Silent Night,” the pure, clear tones rising into the air. From the other end of the street came the sounds of the dance band warming up. A child asked for a hot dog and his dad said he had to wait for dinner. Alan's finger lingered on my mouth.
The world exploded.
Alan leapt back. I yelped and dropped my sausage. A woman screamed, people shouted. I whirled around. The hot dog barbeque was on fire. Flames shot out from the grill, yellow and red fingers of fire reaching up into the night air.
Kyle Lambert screamed in terror. He fell backward, landing against the side of the building, his white butcher's apron wrapped in
lan Anderson was the first to move. His arm shot out and he shoved me aside. I would have fallen had not the crush of people, either frozen to the ground in shock or running away, held me up. I barely had time to register what was happening. I might have screamed for Alan to be careful. Then again, I might have just screamed.
Alan rounded the burning grill and reached Kyle. He grabbed Kyle's arm and threw the shocked man to the ground. Kyle landed hard, face-first. Alan dropped to his knees beside him. “Roll, roll,” Alan shouted.
Kyle obeyed, and rocked back and forth on his belly. Dan Evans's wife ran out of the building. She held a cell phone in her hand, and was yelling into it.
“Everyone, get back,” Alan shouted. Flames were still leaping from the barbeque. “It might explode.”
A stampede began as frightened people hurried to get
away. Some were dragging crying children by the hand. I saw Vicky Casey crossing the street, fighting against the crowd. She carried a fire extinguisher.
“Stand back, stand back.” Dan Evans appeared with his own fire extinguisher. He and Vicky trained the red canisters onto the barbeque and simultaneously sprayed foam. Sirens sounded in the distance, getting closer. Candy and another uniformed officer were attempting to get people off the street, trying to clear a path for the emergency vehicles.
I ran to see if I could help Kyle. With Mrs. Evans's help, he'd rolled onto his back. The front of his long apron was scorched and his scraggly goatee was singed, but the skin on his face was clear and what clothes I could see looked to be intact.
“Lie still,” Mrs. Evans said. “Help's coming.”
Kyle swore. He tried to sit up. “I'm okay. Just shocked.”
The fire was out now, no match for the strength of Vicky's and Dan's heavy-duty extinguishers. People began returning, curious as to what was going on. Jackie burst through the crowd, her eyes wide with fright. She screamed at the sight of Kyle and dropped to the sidewalk beside him. She reached for him, but Mrs. Evans thrust out a hand. “Let the medics check him out first.”
“I'm okay, babe,” Kyle said. He tried to stand. His legs wobbled and he fell back with a moan.
“Out of the way, out of the way.” A paramedic pushed her way through the onlookers. Her partner followed, bringing a stretcher.
“I'm okay,” Kyle said once again.
“Let us be the judge of that,” the paramedic said.
I glanced around for Alan. He was gone. I made my way
to the back of the crowd and spotted him standing with Vicky, who was cradling her now-empty fire extinguisher. Both of them had pale faces and wide eyes. I probably looked the same.
“Get off the road,” a cop shouted at us. We ran to do as we were told, and a fire truck edged down the street. Men in bunker gear leapt off the truck and began unfurling hoses.
“Are you okay?” I asked Alan.
“That wasÂ .Â .Â . brave,” I said.
“Didn't even think about it,” he said. “If I'd thought for a moment, I would have run in the opposite direction. How's Kyle?”
“Darn lucky, I'd say.”
At that moment the stretcher was pushed through the crowd toward the ambulance. Kyle was lying down, but high-fiving everyone who approached him. Jackie walked beside him, holding his free hand and weeping copiously. The paramedics loaded the stretcher into the back and then one of them leapt up. A hand reached out and Jackie was hauled inside. The doors slammed and the vehicle pulled away. Some of the onlookers applauded.
“What do you suppose Kyle did?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Alan said.
“To make the fire go out of control like that.”
Vicky and Alan exchanged glances. “Kyle works for Dan on most special occasions,” Alan said. “He knows how to operate a simple gas grill.”
“A leak in the hose, maybe,” Vicky said. “Some kind of fault in the barbeque?”
Excitement over, the crowd began to break up. Detective
Simmonds was talking to Dan Evans. Both of their faces were grim. Simmonds was gesturing to the now-useless barbeque. Evans shook his head.
The firefighters got into their truck and drove away. Children cheered, thinking it was all part of the fun.
Almost as quickly as the excitement had begun, everything returned to normal. Mom and her choir launched into a rendition of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”
My dad ran up to us. His cap was disheveled and his red nose and cheeks owed as much to the unaccustomed exercise as to the touch of Mom's blush he always added when getting into costume. “What happened? Someone said there was an explosion. I heard sirens.”
“An accident,” Vicky said. “A fire in the hot dog barbeque. Kyle was singed, but thanks to Alan here, nothing more serious.”
I glanced at Alan. His hands were shaking. “Hey, you need to sit down.”
“I'm okay,” he said.
“Merry's right,” Vicky said. “Come inside and I'll get you a cup of coffee and a muffin.”
“Go with Vicky,” Dad said. “Santa's orders.”
Alan gave me a glance. Then he nodded and allowed Vicky to lead him away.
“Hero of the hour,” Dad said.
“He was that, all right. While the rest of us stood around like fools, only Alan moved.”
“Santa, Santa,” a cute little girl, all pink snowsuit and cat-faced hat, squealed. Dad put on his serious smile, turning his face into the one I always think of as Father Christmas.
The girl's mother grabbed at her arm, almost jerking the child off her feet. “We're leaving, Amber.”
“I wanna speak to Santa.”
“I said we're leaving.” She pointed a finger, tipped with long red nails, at my dad. “I don't know what kind of a town you think you have here, but it's out-and-out dangerous. Christmas Town indeed. More like Horrorville.” She dragged the howling, crying child away.
“Oh, dear,” I said.
My dad's face changed, and settled into worried lines. “Accidents happen, but after the death of Pearce, this doesn't look good. I'd better get back out there. Call your mom; tell her we need lively and very loud songs.” He walked away, belly rolling in the swaying gait that was part of his act. “Ho, ho, hoÂ .Â .Â . Have you been good, kids?”
“Real good, Santa,” a teenage boy in baggy clothes smirked. His friends laughed and slapped the joker on the back.
I wanted to follow Alan, make sure he really was okay, and maybe try to recover that moment when he looked deeply into my eyes and his hand caressed my lips. But Vicky would ply him with fresh baking and keep an eye on him for a while. I needed to check on my store, so I headed to Mrs. Claus's Treasures. Russ Durham fell into step beside me, his camera bouncing at his side. I'd seen him earlier, following the ambulance siren and then talking to Detective Simmonds. “Close one,” he said.
“Were you there?”
“Wanna tell me what happened?”
“I saw some people leaving. I think they're spooked at things that have been happening around here.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “But that had nothing to do with Nigel Pearce. Just an accident.”
“Simmonds isn't so sure.”
I stopped walking. “What do you mean?”
“She's ordered the grill to be taken in. She wants it sent to the lab and checked for signs of tampering.”
“That's what she says. Those gas barbeques are mighty safe these days. Dan and Kyle know how to use it.”
“Accidents happen. People get sloppy, make mistakes.”
“Simmonds knows that. She just wants to be sure. All I'm saying is, I hope word doesn't leak out of the police station that it might not have been an accident.”
I swore. He grinned at me. “I didn't know you knew bad words, Merry.”
I swore again. “You should hear my dad when he gets stuck in the chimney.”
Russ threw back his head and laughed. “Now that,” he said, “is the spirit of Christmas Town.”
We reached my shop. I peeked through the windows. A couple of people were browsing. Everyone hadn't fled. Horrorville, indeed.
A cold fist gripped my heart. All we needed would be for that woman to repeat that word. The nickname would spread like wildfire.
Was the explosion an accident?
My thoughts tumbled all over themselves. My float, the poisoned gingerbread, and now an exploding barbeque. Even the clumsy attempt
to get Dad out of town, if that's what Eve's supposed accident had been.
Randy Baumgartner, mayor of our town's chief rival, had been at the post-parade party and I'd seen him not more than a couple of minutes before the hot dog cart caught fire. Had he been at the parade assembly area, too?
Sue-Anne Morrow also stood to benefit. If business crashed just weeks before Christmas, voters would blame the current mayor. Come election time, they'd remember. Sue-Anne would ensure they remembered.
And then there was Kyle. Kyle, who'd been angry at Nigel Pearce. Kyle, who'd been manning the barbeque when it caught fire. Kyle, who I'd never thought all that bright to begin with. How dumb was Kyle to potentially set himself on fire?
Perhaps not so stupid after all. He wasn't harmed, and now he was basking in the weeping adoration of Jackie. If, and it was a big if, he'd caused the explosion deliberately, it was a risky thing to do. Then again, young men in pursuit of a woman's affections were not always known for their careful assessment of risk.
“What are you thinking?” Russ asked me.
“I'm thinking that I'd better get back to work. And put my happy face on.” I gave him a big grin.
He shook his head. “Try a less happy happy face. You look like an escapee from a funny farm.”
“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year,” sang the strolling choir. I hadn't phoned Mom yet. I didn't need to. She knew how important music was in creating mood. People stopped to listen, and I saw a good number of smiles. When the song
finished, Mom's voice rising into the night air on the last note like a crystal, the audience applauded enthusiastically.
Mom glanced my way, and I gave her a wink. Russ Durham took a picture of the choir.
“I hope you're going to put that one on the front page,” I said. “Not the burned-out hulk of a hot dog cart.”
“I am, I will remind you, Merry, also a proud supporter of this town.”
I went to work. About an hour later Jackie phoned to tell me that the ER doctor had pronounced Kyle unharmed, although slightly shaken up, and released him. He was, Jackie insisted, in no shape to drive, so she would be taking him home and getting him settled.
What could I say, except that I understood.
Accident or not, Kyle certainly had.