A Case for the Toy Maker

by

Candace Havens

Ho. Ho. No…

It’s Christmas in Sweet River, Texas, and the whole town is feeling festive apart from Ainsley McGregor. Ainsley has never enjoyed the holidays and would rather ignore them, but with her shop Bless Your Art busier than ever and filled with happy shoppers, even she’s feeling some Christmas spirit. That is, until her Great Dane, George Clooney, sniffs out a dead body in the Santa House at the Christmas Festival.

When one of her favorite crafters becomes the prime suspect, Ainsley is determined to prove his innocence. The case is full of so many twists and turns that even Ainsley begins to fear the truth. Is she protecting a killer?

With help from her friends and some extremely nosey townsfolk, Ainsley and her dog hurry to find the truth—as long as they can outwit and outrun the killer first. Otherwise, this Christmas might just be her last.

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As I reached up to unlock the back door to my shop, Bless Your Art, something bumped me from behind. “George Clooney, that’s rude. Stop it.” I turned to find out why he was sniffing me and invading my personal bubble. He was usually well-behaved and courteous—except when squirrels were involved. They were the bane of his existence.

“Oh.” Pecans from the pie I’d eaten for breakfast had ended up on my butt. “How did that even happen? Classy, Ainsley.” I picked them off and handed them to George who gobbled them up.

I had been kind of groggy from my turkey hangover this morning. I love Thanksgiving, but I have no willpower when it comes to the sides and desserts.

George and I had been worn out by the time we made it home from my friends Shannon and Mike’s winery, and we fell asleep on the couch at seven the night before and woke up at five. I’m not normally a morning person, but it was Black Friday, and we had a big day planned at the shop.

After dumping my armful of junk on my desk, I put on a Bless Your Art apron. We’d already decorated for the holidays on Wednesday. I loved that every booth had an individual spin on the holidays, but we’d coordinated with multicolored lights and garland for all the vendors, and we’d draped the walls of the tall brick warehouse in the same way.

The shop was on Main Street, in the middle of Sweet River, Texas, where all the holidays were celebrated by the town with decorations and festivals.

One of which we had coming up soon.

As I reached for the broom, someone banged on the back door. George turned into the demon guard dog, barking loud and ferociously. I may have screamed.

“Ains, are you okay? Are you in there?” my friend Shannon asked.

I laughed nervously, as I unlocked the door. “Did you hear that? I wasn’t expecting company.”

She held a cardboard container with two cups of coffee. With the other hand, she showed me a brown paper bag. “I have three cinnamon rolls for you and a biscuit for George. I figured you’d need caffeine and sugar to power through today. Do you forgive me for scaring you?”

She owned the coffee shop around the corner and was known for amazing baked goods, and the best coffees and teas in Texas. In the two years that I’ve lived here, she’s become the best friend I’ve ever had.

“Of, course.” I took the bag and the drink. She always brought me an extra one to reheat later in the afternoon. “Thank you.”

“I saw you and George drive by and thought, since it’s early for you, maybe caffeine would help. Did you hear Jake’s coming home tomorrow?”

I snorted. That was the real reason she’d come over. Jake was the local fire chief and a guy I sometimes hung out with. I mean, I thought we were dating. Then, the world went crazy and he headed off to do specialized training for emergency services for three months.

Other than a text or two the first few weeks he was gone, I hadn’t heard much from him. Though, he did text me yesterday afternoon to say he was headed home and needed to talk to me.

I’m sure it was to let me down easily, now that he’d be back in town.

Shaking my head, I put all the goodies on the break room table. “Yep. It doesn’t matter, it’s not like he missed me or I missed him. I mean, sure as a friend but nothing more than that.”

Liar.

She scrunched up her face. “Are you sure? He’s a tough one to read. Mike said last time he’d talked to him that they were working sixteen-hour days because they’d combined several of the classes.”

“He mentioned that to me at the beginning. Not all of us can be you and Mike.” I forced myself to grin at her to take the bite from my words. “I’ve got a lot going on right now. I’m not worried about it.”

That wasn’t exactly true. Jake was an incredible human being and I cared about him and I’d been certain he had the same feelings for me. But now I wasn’t so sure. Distance didn’t always make the heart grow fonder.

She chewed on her lip, which meant she wanted to say something. “Okay. I better get back to work—those early morning shoppers need their caffeine.”

After she left, I locked the door behind her.

I shook my hands in the air to get rid of the sadness I felt coming on. Nothing would ruin my holiday spirit.

“All right, George. Let’s get to work.” I leaned down to hug him and he licked me from forehead to chin. “Duuuude. That’s so inappropriate.”

Nine hours later, we finally had a lull at the store. There were still kids waiting to see “Santa,” who was our favorite toymaker Don, but there were only a few left. We’d been slammed since nine that morning with a store full of customers. It appeared as if everyone wanted to get their holiday shopping done early.

Even though the store was doing okay, we’d had a slow fall, and we were all counting on these holiday sales. That said, I was exhausted and starving. Okay, not starving, but hungry just the same. I needed to get off my feet more than anything. Even with my favorite Skechers, which happened to be a Christmassy red, they were throbbing.

I was about to take a quick break—when an elderly gentleman walked in the door. This guy looked like Santa, even more than Don did, and that’s saying something.

Like full-on, white beard, and moustache, but he wore wakeboard shorts with a red sweater that didn’t match—and was extremely thin. He smiled and waved at Don, who we’d set up at the front of the store with a throne, backed by several festive Christmas trees.

He’d thought of the idea to keep the kids busy while the parents shopped. And it had worked. We’d also set up a story-time place where we all took turns reading various holiday-themed children’s books.

Don grinned and there was nothing but joy on his face.

Who was this guy?

It’s probably strange that I was worried about the kids seeing two Santas at once. I never wanted to ruin anyone’s fun. But then the kids jumped up and down and yelled, “Two Santas, yeah.”

The two of them hugged and it was obvious the guy was a longtime friend. Don glanced at me and waved toward the man. Then he leaned forward to whisper, so the children couldn’t hear. “Ainsley, this is my friend Davy Santos. I’ve known him almost half my life.”

“Dude, we are old,” Davy said.

They both laughed. It came out as ho, ho, ho, and then kids waiting in line were wide-eyed.

I reached out a hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” Then it clicked in my head that he was the guy working our Santa house this year. “Um. Santa.”

He and Don laughed again.

I was chairperson for our holiday festival, and in addition to running my store, I’d been involved in several committees pulling the event together. It was a ten-day holiday wonderland with vendor booths, a Christmas tree lot, and carnival rides.

It started the next day and I couldn’t believe how everything had come together. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

“Yes, ma’am, I’m looking forward to it. I just saw the Santa house, Don. They told me you made it. It’s fantastic. I had no idea you and—” Davy glanced around at the children “—Mrs. Santa were still in town, but I was hoping.”

It’s hard to tell with Don because his cheeks are always kind of rosy, but I was pretty sure he blushed.

“She’s going to have a cow when she sees you. Where have you been?”

Davy opened his mouth, but he was interrupted.

“How come you’re a brown Santa and he’s a white one? Also, you’re kind of skinny,” a small black girl asked. She was adorable with her hand on her hip, eyeing the men suspiciously.

Davy knelt down. “Santas come in all the colors of the world and we are all in charge of bringing joy to children.” He was sweet about it.

“I thought so,” she said. “I have a black Santa book, but I haven’t seen one yet.”

“Well, now you’ve seen a brown one. What were you going to ask Santa for?”

She pursed her lips together. “I want the doctor Barbie and a giant dog like that one.”

George had peeked around the counter to see what was going on.

This time, we all laughed.

“I’d like to take a break to chat with him,” Don said, as he patted his friend on the shoulder. “I haven’t seen him in years.”

“Of course.” Stepping from behind the registers, I grabbed one of the holiday books to read. “Hey kids, the Santas need a lunch break. But I have Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf for you.”

“Hey, that’s my holiday,” a boy, who couldn’t have been more than four said. He waved at me. “But we also have a tree ’cuz my dad likes the lights.”

“You know what, in Sweet River, we celebrate all the holidays. Everyone is welcome here. And how cool is it that you get to celebrate both holidays?”

“I’m glad we decided to do a big booth together for the Sweet River Holiday Festival,” Shannon said, as she finished wiping down the long counter at the front of the booth.

Ours was just outside Bless Your Art at the south end of the big park that ran down the river. There were more than seventy-five booths with all kinds of fun stuff and at the opposite end of the park was the fireman’s Christmas tree lot and a bunch of cool carnival rides for kids and adults.

Firemen. Sigh. Don’t think about Jake. Too late.

“Are you okay?” Shannon stared at me with a questioning look.

“Yes. Sorry. I was thinking about everything we need to do before we open the festival tomorrow morning.”

Ainsley, you’ve got to stop with the fibbing. You’re racking up the wrong sort of Karma points.

“And, me too, on the booth. I think it’s natural to pair us together. Your coffee, tea, and hot chocolate—and food—with our artsy stuff. It’s going to be great. Also, we’re much closer to the store’s bathrooms and we don’t have to use the Port-o-Potty.”

“You said it, sister.” She laughed. “We can put people in space and explore new frontiers in the sea—but a chemical toilet that isn’t disgusting seems impossible.

“I’m just grateful I don’t have to haul those barrels of coffee across the park like last year.” Shannon examined her counter. She’s OCD about cleanliness, which I find quite endearing.

I especially like it when she organizes my pantry and kitchen cabinets, for real. I’m not a slob, but I’d rather watch holiday movies on Hallmark, than organize anything.

After putting the rag she’d been using back in the cleaning bucket, she turned in a circle. “This could be someone’s house. Don and Ms. Peggy did such an amazing job building this.”

The booth was something out of a fairy tale. They’d fashioned after the Santa house they’d built, which was in the center of the park. There was gingerbread trim around the roofline and underneath the counter. It was painted white, and we’d used the same lights and decorations we used in the store. Half of it was open with tables and tons of shelving. We were able to put out a great selection of the many items customers might also find in Bless Your Art.

Our festivals, and we had one just about every holiday, pulled in a lot of tourists from all over and we were expecting our biggest year ever. All the B&Bs, campgrounds, hotels, and motels in a sixty-mile radius had been completely booked for months.

“They did,” I said. “They finished the Santa house a few days ago. Do you want to check it out with me?”

She nodded.

George had passed out in a corner where we’d stuck one of his old beds under the counter. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near food, but we had a special order from the mayor, so he could hang out with me while I worked the booth. “Hey, dude, you want to go for a walk?” In less than a second, he was on all fours.

We laughed.

“If we were at home he would have groaned and given me the stink eye,” I said.

We pulled down the flap that closed up the front of the booth, and then we locked the side doors. They’d built it like this so we didn’t have to take everything out and bring it back the next day. And the whole thing was movable. We could store it in the old barn at my farm, and load it on a flatbed trailer to take it back and forth to the park for the festivals.

Beat building a new booth every other month for whatever holiday we celebrated. Shannon was right—it was like a mini gingerbread house. I loved it.

After shutting it all down, we headed to the center of the park, waving at friends as we went along. Everyone was doing last-minute prep on their booths. It was chillier than usual, even for late November. We would have great weather over the weekend, but it was supposed to get below fifty tonight.

Funny, being in the fifties and sixties was shorts weather for a lot of people in Chicago, where I’d lived before moving here. Now, even I had a sweater on and was wishing for my coat.

The sun was just above the tree line and with all the Christmas lights on the booths, it was like walking through a winter wonderland.

“There’s the Santa house,” Shannon said, just as George growled menacingly. “What’s wrong, George?”

That growl was never a good sign, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I had a strong urge to turn around and walk back to the store. But my curiosity knew no bounds. I had to find out what was going on.

We stopped in front of Santa’s house, which was a bigger version of our booth except it really did look like a house right out of the North Pole. “Wow, they did a great job. It’s fancy,” I said.

George growled again. A knot formed in my stomach, twisting hard.

Shannon glanced at him and then me. “Ainsley? You don’t think…is something wrong?”

“I hope not,” I said. George had done this before and it had never been good news.

He barked and then did the high-pitched whine that told me something I really didn’t want to know.

“No,” I whispered.

“Ains?”

I took a deep breath and pulled my phone out of my pocket. “Hold on to George—tight.” After handing her the leash, I turned on the flashlight app on my phone.

“You’re freaking me out,” she said, as she gripped the leash tightly.

“I’m freaking myself out.” Opening the double doors to Santa’s house, I peeked inside.

My breath caught, and bile rose in my throat.

“Call my brother.” My voice was nothing more than a hoarse whisper. I forgot I had my phone in my hand.

“What is it?”

The image of the man with the candy-cane-striped pole sticking out of his chest would be burned in my brain forever.

“Santa is dead.”

End of Excerpt