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Secret Sleuth Book 8

Season’s Greetings: Whodunit?

Santa Claus is coming to town, but guess who’s coming first – Great Aunt Kit. And if Sheila and her fellow sleuth Clara want to give her author relative what she most wants, they’ll wrap up a murder. But not too fast, because Kit wants to be involved first-hand in solving this puzzle.

Kit also has ideas on how to solve Sheila’s romantic relationship with detective-once-more Teague O’Donnell, starting with revealing on her dangerous secrets. And then there’s the question of who will truly rule the house – Kit or Sheila’s rescue collie Gracie?

Holiday clues will keep Sheila, Clara, Kit -- and you – guessing as all celebrate the season in Book 8 of this series that takes murder seriously, but not death.

If you’re new to the series, don’t miss the start, with a murder on a transatlantic cruise in Death on the Diversion. In Death on Torrid Avenue and later books, accidental investigator Sheila returns to dry land in the Midwest, where mysteries abound in her new Kentucky home.

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Excerpt:

DAY ONE

MONDAY

CHAPTER ONE

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

But he came back, right?

As a ghost, according to Charles Dickens.

And who should know better, since he wrote the book. And writers of books always know best. Hah!

But in the case of A Christmas Carol, yes, Marley was dead. My great-aunt Kit was not.

Far from it.

And she would land here at Cincinnati’s airport any minute.

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For me, her arrival would be the true start of the Christmas season. And not a second before — even with decorating the house, sending cards, and now listening to three stringed instruments delivering Santa Claus Is Coming to Town under a fake-evergreen festooned canopy.

Kit’s spent Christmas with my family for as long as I can remember, though this year, she would first spend a couple weeks with me, before we drove to my family home for the actual holiday.

One of my earliest memories is of Kit reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aloud to my siblings and me. Though I’ve wondered if my memories jumbled with the Muppets movie version — not something I’ve told her.

I love my great-aunt and enjoy her — good thing, since we lived together for a decade and a half, up until a little over a year ago.

Yet I was unsettled.

Ebenezer Scrooge tried to explain away his ghostly visitors as a bit of undigested beef.

My nerves had another explanation — the ghost of my previous life, in the form of Kit, coming face-to-face with my current life.

That previous life involved pretending I was Kit.

Sort of.

Not using her name, but presenting myself to the public as the author of a book she’d written.

All that was her idea.

The book was Abandon All, which became a huge hit, major motion picture, the whole enchilada.

The stringed instruments shifted to O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Beautiful, but not exactly an upbeat tune.

With the earnings from Abandon All, nurtured into a substantial nest egg by Kit’s investing, she moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina last year, while I created a life in Haines Tavern, Kentucky, with my rescue collie dog Gracie, romantic interest Teague, cohort Clara, other friends and neighbors, and … oh, yeah, several murder cases Clara and I have helped resolve.

Unlike Ebenezer’s ghosts, who seemed to have a familiarity with each other, none of those populating my present life knew about my past life.

Well … dog people will understand if I said maybe Gracie suspected. After all, she overheard my conversations with Kit.

Otherwise, I’d kept the lives separate, including using part of my legal name — and no part of the Abandon All name — as Sheila Mackey of Haines Tavern.

And now, here came Kit, the embodiment of that past life.

As for the flip side, Kit knew about my present life. Especially the murder-solving, since she’d helped us remotely.

But she didn’t know the rest in the detail she would have when we’d shared a brownstone in Manhattan.

Last Christmas had been less than two months since we’d left Manhattan, so it hadn’t felt all that different.

But now, when she came down this airport hallway to where I stood, we’d see each other for the first time in a year.

We used to be part of each other’s everyday lives. Now, so much had happened — for each of us — while the other hadn’t been around.

Yes, I was nervous. More excited than nervous, but still nervous.

Then I saw her.

It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize her. I did.

I mean I knew it was my great-aunt. Yet, it wasn’t.

I had to consciously keep my mouth closed. Her hair was short, stylishly wind-blown, with earrings peeking through it. She wore dark slacks, a white blouse with the crisp collar turned up, a neat cardigan that looked like silk, and a swirly scarf.

And makeup.

My Great-Aunt Kit was wearing subtle, flattering, skillfully applied makeup.

Gathering my wits, I stepped forward. I didn’t get far. First, I had to disentangle my arm from more fake-evergreen festooning, this marked with bows, one of which hooked my sleeve.

But finally, we hugged. “You look great, Kit.”

“Good to see you, too, kid.” Her return hug was utterly familiar.

“No, I mean it, you look fabulous. Retirement—”

“Semi-retirement.”

“Yes, semi-retirement, since you’re still writing—”

“And all the business stuff.”

“And all the business. Come to think of it, I don’t know how you can call it semi-retired. But whatever you call it, it suits you.”

“I call it doing what the heck I want and letting the rest of it go hang. And whatever you’re doing suits you, too.”

“Thanks.” I airily evaded her narrow-eyed regard.

This new-look Kit had me oddly off balance.

As if Marley, instead of being dead and appearing to Scrooge as a ghost to warn him to change his ways, came back in spiffy top hat and tails to do a song and dance routine.

Or maybe it was the things I’d kept from her.

The person I’d kept from her.

Oh, she knew I was seeing someone named Teague O’Donnell, but she didn’t know the details.

Like the major detail that I lo—

Wait. Had I been about to turn that monumental emotional corner … while walking down an uninspiring airport corridor with my great-aunt, listening to Frosty the Snowman and a man complaining about his flight from Denver?

Not to mention I wasn’t ready. So very not ready.

Back away.

Do not speak that word.

Do not cross that threshold.

Fortunately, Kit and I had reached the point where we either went outside or to baggage claim, raising the urgent question of, “All carry-on, Kit?”

“Those days are long gone.” She didn’t sound broken up about it. “Women my age can’t get the lotions, potions, and sprays we need into any one-quart bag. The TSA needs an old lady exemption if they want us to carry on our luggage.”

She’d rarely bothered before with lotions, potions, or sprays.

I’d been the one doing that for all the TV interviews and public appearances. She’d happily said no one paid any attention to her.

But wasn’t the point of retirement supposed to be relaxing? Maybe letting yourself go a little?

It figured Kit did things backward.

“Never had time for all this before,” she said, as if she’d heard my thought, an old habit of hers. “Working hard to make a living. Even after — you know — always seemed like it might all go away. I needed to keep producing. Guess I finally believe it will stick. And I have time to look after me.”

“But you’re still writing — I know you are.”

“The characters see to that. But not writing as much without the drive to avoid starving spurring me on. It’s a whole world I didn’t know about. This skin care and hair care stuff is a total racket.”

She said it admiringly.

“You really do look great,” I said.

My bright-eyed aunt watched people around us as we awaited her luggage. Bits and pieces of their looks, behavior, conversations went into her writer brain, where they fermented with all the other bits and pieces collected over a lifetime, before coming out in a rich, mellow flow.

I wanted to be my great-aunt when I grew up.

At least I wanted her writing ability.

I’d told Teague about my efforts to write, Clara had discovered them by accident, and Kit knew without being told.

But the year had been filled with stops and starts of writing efforts that left me expecting the ominous Ghost of Christmas Future popping up to point its bony and sepulchral finger at the graveyard of my deceased hopes.

“Did you know this airport — Cincinnati’s airport — isn’t in Cincinnati? Or in Ohio. It’s in Northern Kentucky,” I prattled.

“Uh-huh. And its airport code letters are CVG for Covington, even though it’s not in Covington, either.”

Figured she already knew that.

Before she could ask why I was babbling, I continued babbling. “That’s right. Not even the same county as Covington. In fact— The belt’s started,” I said unnecessarily, considering mechanical sounds and the shift forward of humanity, like zombies drawn by the activated machinery.

Kit gave me a sharp look before she joined others in moving toward the belt, but not at all like a zombie.

Four hundred and thirty-seven bags — that’s a rough estimate — coming toward us. Four hundred and twenty-three were black.

Didn’t bother Kit.

She stepped forward, snagged a black bag, and had the handle extended and her carry-on attached before I reached her.

When we first traveled together — me joining her on research trips, she joining me on promo trips — and I watched that performance, I’d asked, “Don’t you want to check it’s yours?”

“It’s mine. Years ago, I noticed baggage handlers dump luggage front-down, eliminating how most people recognize their luggage. Had a guy add red stitching on the back of mine.”

This was a new bag, but it, too, had red stitching on the back.

The bag rolled along smoothly as an ocean liner in calm water as we strode out ahead of the herd.

In my car, Kit surveyed me and said, “I thought you were going to gain weight to change your look.”

That was among many things I didn’t miss about leaving behind my role as the purported author of Abandon All. No more strict dieting to look a certain way.

“Everybody said the camera put on ten pounds. If I gained ten, I’d look in real life the way I’d looked on camera. Safer to gain twenty.”

Kit snorted. “Fifteen, I’d say. You could go another ten. But you look a lot better than the walking skeleton you resembled in New York at the end. You always did listen to those PR people too much.”

It wasn’t listening to them so much as being on the receiving end of their critical looks before I went on stage or sat for an interview — enough to put anyone off eating.

“Before we go to your house, how about a quick orientation tour,” she suggested.

I chatted about North Bend County and Haines Tavern, the county seat, as I drove her past the town square, festively decked for the season. It had looked better Sunday when I returned a book to the library on my way to Shep’s Market for a bout of houseguest-arriving panic shopping.

We’d had a couple inches of snow Saturday and the white garnish set off red and green wreaths on each black lamppost. Freshly shoveled paths through the square showed sharp and clean.

Now, most of the snow had turned to slush tinged gray. It even seemed to dim the holiday tree in the center, dueling crèches in front of the two churches at the square’s east end, and decorations on the substantial Historic Haines Tavern on the south side.

A clutch of Victorian costumed carolers might have helped the ambience, but the only occupants of the square were a man and woman having an obvious disagreement. He had an angry grasp on her upper arm and she had her head down, possibly crying. They could have come out of the courthouse — divorce proceedings? — and only gotten that far.

For a second, I wondered … But then I spotted a uniformed bailiff watching them from the courthouse steps. If anything needed handling, he was far better equipped than I was.

Not looking toward the arguing couple, Kit said, “Quaint.”

Did that mean she didn’t like it?

My spirits lifted.

I didn’t care. I like quaint.

Since she’d closed the door on my former life more than a year ago, we could each pursue our own likes. In fact, that’s why she did it. To make me find quaint, if that’s what I wanted.

Feeling mellow, I set out to share highlights to intrigue Kit.

She brightened when I pointed out the town square wasn’t square — it was rectangular — and brightened more at hearing the Tavern had great food and generous portions for drinks.

But my pleasure in showing off the town dimmed when we passed a house with a twenty-foot purple inflatable plastic reindeer with barely enough air left to be identifiable.

“Since when is purple a Christmas color?” Kit said.

I agreed.

“This is it,” I said brightly, as if I would have pulled into another driveway for the heck of it. “It’s a work in progress — remember all the changes at the brownstone? Well, think of those in super slow motion, as I figure out what to do next and how to organize—”

She put a hand on my shoulder and gave it a small shake.

“You shouldn’t worry—”

She’d picked up on my nerves.

“—about people recognizing you, Sheila. Being happy makes you look very different.”

I also looked less stylish, less made up, less au courant than I had when we lived in Manhattan. The opposite of Kit.

Like we’d flipped from our Manhattan images to our non-Manhattan images as low-key disguises from our old lives.

Except that wasn’t what I was nervous about.

It was this next introduction.

Not to Teague O’Donnell, my … boyfriend, I suppose, though it was hard to consider him a boy.

He’d been a police detective in Illinois. Now he was a substitute teacher/carpenter/sheriff’s department consultant.

He had threads of gray in his dark hair, faint lines around his light green eyes, a sharper groove at the left corner of his mouth, which he quirked when amused, but not ready to full-out grin. His skills in our personal life wouldn’t go on a resume or a BOLO description, but shouted not a boy.

But the point is, he would meet Kit later. In one of several ways I’d carefully considered to get them off to the best start possible.

No, what came next was a different meeting.

The two most powerful females in my life, face-to-face.

Kit and Gracie.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“So, this is Gracie.”

Aunt Kit regarded the dog, who regarded her back from a couple yards away.

Gracie is a sable and white rough collie — think Lassie, including the plume-y tail, perfectly tipped ears, and commanding bark. She’s also a rescue I adopted when she was about a year old.

“Let’s sit down and I’ll fill you in.” I led Kit to the living room.

“Christmas tree looks great. It all looks great. Kind of miss having you decorating for the season.” She’d left all that to me when we lived together.

“Do you have a tree?” I asked.

She lifted one shoulder. “I’m here, get to enjoy yours and your parents’. So, tell me about Gracie.”

“I don’t know what happened before the Collie Rescue group got her or which of her quirks are from experience and which are just her. One quirk is being friendly to new people and dogs she encounters at the dog park or out and about. But in the house, she’s wary of first-time meetings. Something about being in the house makes her cautious. Even with me sometimes.”

As I spoke, Gracie made a circuit of the room’s edges, watching us seated on the couch, then circling in slightly.

“I haven’t seen overt signs of abuse. She’s not hand shy, for example. Stubborn, yes. Hand shy, no.”

“Most of her quirks are probably the interaction of experience and what’s just her. Like people.”

Gracie stood in front of Kit, watching her, flicking a look at me, then returning to Kit. Could she possibly spot a resemblance?

“Her experience didn’t have to be abuse to trigger a reaction,” Kit said. “Someone new came into where she lived and it was not a good experience. She stands back and observes newcomers. Sees if they’re okay or if they’re one of those people. A reasonable and intelligent approach.”

Gracie moved in closer, then sat. Another half minute and she slid into a down without being told.

“She’s a kid still,” Kit said.

“I know. I just … hope I’m doing the right things for her…”

Gracie reached up and touched the tip of her nose to Kit’s hand, which dangled over the cushion’s edge. Not accidentally.

“You are.”

Kit turned her hand to rub behind Gracie’s right ear.

Gracie sighed, and shifted more onto her side, settling in.

“Great,” I said with mock annoyance. Mostly mock. “My dog takes to you in minutes. Me, she’s still not sure about all the time.”

“I’m passing through. I disappoint her and life goes on. You disappoint her — or abandon her or mistreat her — and it’s the end of life as she’s known it these past months. Stakes aren’t as high with me.”

I gave Kit a skeptical look. “That’s sophisticated reasoning for a dog.”

“This is one sophisticated dog. Aren’t you, Gracie?” Kit spoke as if talking to an intelligent contemporary.

Gracie tipped her head and touched her nose to Kit’s hand again.

I was equally torn between pleasure — and relief — at this dog-aunt connection and terrified if the two of them ever ganged up against me.

*   *   *   *

Their alliance intruded on my plans almost immediately.

“I’ll take your suitcase up and show you your room,” I said.

My dog gave me a dirty look for distracting her ear scratcher.

I’d thought I’d let Kit settle in, rest a little, and then we’d see about having dinner at the Historic Haines Tavern. Maybe with Teague if he could make it.

I hadn’t set it up ahead of time because I didn’t want to put pressure on either of them … or me. But if I messaged him around the time he usually got home from substitute teaching and casually suggested …

“Don’t you take Gracie to the dog park most days?”

“Yes, but—”

Why did I bother? Gracie had heard the two magic words. I would soon be Swiss cheese — bored through by commanding eyes— if I didn’t comply.

Kit clinched the deal. “Don’t let me interrupt your routine. In fact, I’ll come with you.”

*   *   *   *

In the car, Kit lost a slew of points with Gracie by saying, “I’d like to see more of your new hometown. We could swing by landmarks on the way to the dog park.”

Gracie gaped at her, because one did not take side trips on the way to the dog park. On the way home, fine, but never, ever on the way to the dog park.

Okay, I didn’t really know if Gracie understood Kit’s words meant detours from the most direct route to the dog park.

But she sure understood it as the trip developed.

First, Kit asked to see an old house I’d talked about, lamenting how its recent neighbors encroached on it. Then another neighborhood, more accurately, a few houses on a twisty road called Shady Bridge that connected two newer developments.

“Are you considering buying real estate?” I teased Kit.

“You talked about these places so vividly, I wondered if you might be tempted to move to one.”

“Not at all. I like my little house.”

“Must get crowded with two big dogs and … other people,” she said, teasing back.

I turned the conversation away from how much time Teague and his dog Murphy spent at my house.

We made another pass by the Tavern, stopped at the entry to Beguiling Way, a former alley turned pedestrian-only passage in front of the yoga studio, drove to Shep’s Market. We weren’t done. Next, Kit requested a swing south to the highway, near the Jolly Roger grocery store.

“Do you want me to stop?” I asked Kit, with visions of both my regular and panic shopping falling short — and she hadn’t even opened the fridge yet. “Is there something you need or want?”

“Not a thing. Want to see places you’ve talked about.”

Something about that didn’t ring true. But Gracie gave a short, piercing bark from the back seat, driving every other thought out of my head.

Also curtailing my hearing, because she’d positioned her mouth inches from my right ear before issuing her peremptory reminder of the promised destination of this trip.

“Okay, okay. Dog park next.”

Besides, if Kit wanted to see what I talked about most, the dog park was the place to do it.

Because, according to the text I received before we left, Clara would be there with her dog LuLu and Teague’s dog Murphy.

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