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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How the Finch Stole Christmas!

A Meg Langslow Christmas Mystery

Meg Langslow Mysteries

Donna Andrews

Minotaur Books


Chapter 1

“Shakespeare was right. ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’”

“I wish I could hear you say that in person,” I said.

“Yeah, over the cell phone you miss all my dramatic gestures.” Michael’s voice sounded more exasperated than angry. And since I knew my husband wasn’t usually prejudiced against the legal profession, I was puzzled instead of worried.

“Are you someplace where you can talk?” he asked.

“I’m not at the theater, if that’s what you mean. Reverend Robyn wanted to see me about something. At the moment, I’m over at Trinity, sitting in her office, waiting for her to solve a Christmas pageant prop emergency, so until she comes back, I’m at your service.”

“Hang up if you need to,” he said. “I’m just venting to you so I can be cool, calm, and collected when I go into my meeting.”

“What meeting?” I made myself more comfortable in Robyn’s guest chair and snagged a Christmas cookie from the red-and-green plate on her desk. “And by the way, all the lawyers would include Cousin Festus and my brother. I know Rob can be annoying at times, but I’d miss him if you did him in, and I thought you agreed that Festus was highly useful and a credit to his profession. Can we settle for bumping off whichever particular attorney has gotten your goat this morning?”

“One or more members of the college legal department,” he said. “Possibly the entire department if I can’t get them to admit who signed off on that miserable, washed-up prima donna’s contract.”

“Ah, then it’s really Malcolm Haver you need to kill.” Robyn walked back into her office as I was saying it, and a puzzled frown crossed her face. I held up my hand with two fingers raised, to signal that I’d be off shortly, and returned to my conversation with Michael. “What’s he done now?”

“Showed up drunk for rehearsal. Again.” Someone else might have thought his voice sounded calm, but I could hear the anger below the surface. And I took a few deep breaths to cool my own anger. I’d actually been relieved when the college proposed hiring a big-name actor to play Scrooge in this year’s charity benefit production of A Christmas Carol, because I knew how exhausting it would be for Michael to direct and star. I’d been less than impressed when a board member pushed through hiring his old college buddy Haver—the whole point of casting someone from outside was to help with ticket sales, and I didn’t think Haver was a big enough name to do that. And Haver had been a major pain from day one, even before he started drinking. Instead of halving Michael’s workload he’d at least doubled it. I was starting to worry about Michael’s health and I intensely resented how Haver had turned what was normally a festive, joyous, family-oriented season into one long headache.

“If you want him to disappear, I’m sure Mother can find someone to do the dirty work.” I’d almost be willing to do it myself. But I didn’t want to say so in front of Robyn, who had taken up her knitting, and would probably have finished another set of mittens for Trinity’s Christmas scarf and mitten drive by the time Michael and I finished our conversation.

“I’d settle for figuring out where the hell he’s getting his booze.”

“None of the businesses here in Caerphilly will serve or sell to him,” I said. “Randall Shiffley made sure of that.”

“I’m still amazed that so many people agreed.”

“They all know that your production is one of the main attractions of this year’s Christmas in Caerphilly festival,” I reminded him. “And that having a well-known actor like Haver will help boost the ticket sales, a big portion of which will go to things that might otherwise cost tax dollars—all those social service programs we can’t otherwise afford. Enlightened self-interest.”

“Still, it only takes one rebel to supply him,” Michael grumbled. “Or one starstruck private citizen. Or he could be sneaking over to Clay County—they’d love to sabotage anything Caerphilly does.”

“Which is why I think it’s time to call in Stanley.” I’d already talked unofficially to Stanley Denton, Caerphilly’s leading—and only—private investigator about whether he’d be willing to shadow Malcolm Haver as part of our efforts to keep the visiting star sober.

“Exactly what I was thinking,” he said. “In fact, I’m just venting to you before going into a meeting with the Dean of Finance to get it approved.”

“Awesome,” I said. “And good luck. I should go; Robyn just got back and I’d better explain our homicidal musings to her before she reports us to Chief Burke.”

“When you leave Trinity, can you head over to the theater and keep an eye on things there until I finish arguing with Finance?”

“Can do,” I said. “Love you.”

“Back at you.”

I hung up and returned my phone to my pocket.

“Sorry,” I said to Robyn—who had been listening with unabashed interest as her knitting needles flew through her red and green yarn. “Michael’s having a tough day and needed to vent.”

“So I gathered. What’s he angry about?”

“He was calling more in sorrow than in anger,” I said.

“That’s from Hamlet, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Quoting Shakespeare’s an occupational hazard when you’re married to an actor.”

“Especially one who’s also a drama professor.”

“Michael was calling to vent about Malcolm Haver,” I explained. “The actor the college hired to play Scrooge in the stage version of A Christmas Carol that Michael’s directing.”

“He and Michael aren’t getting along?” Even the thought of disharmony seemed to sadden her.

“Michael tries,” I said. “But Haver doesn’t get along with anyone. He’s a nasty, self-centered jerk. Sorry—I know how uncharitable that sounds, but there’s just no getting around it: a nasty, self-centered jerk. Walked into the first day of rehearsal with a bad attitude and that was the peak of his popularity in local theatrical circles. But Michael’s a whiz at handling difficult performers, and no one would really care how unpleasant Haver is offstage if he did a good job in the show. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen off the wagon.”

“Oh, dear. You know, we have several very active twelve-step programs meeting either here or at the New Life Baptist Church,” she began.

“I know. We’ve got the flyer prominently posted on the cast information board,” I said. “I even tried talking him into it once, which wasn’t a good idea. He exploded at me and stormed out of the rest of the rehearsal.”

“He sounds like a troubled soul.”

“I’m sure he is.” Or maybe just trouble, but I knew better than to say that aloud in front of Robyn. “But don’t try to sympathize with him unless you want to get your head bitten off. He was doing fine at the start of the rehearsal period, but lately he’s started tippling earlier each day. Michael doesn’t have much hope that it will get any better when the show opens. Unfortunately, the way his contract is written, as long as he can stumble onstage, Michael can’t fire him. And although I don’t know how well it would hold up in court, the contract still calls for Haver to get most of his fee even if he’s fired for cause.”

“Didn’t anyone question the contract before signing it?” Robyn looked surprised. “I may be in an unworldly profession, but even I know the value of consulting an attorney before signing legal documents.”

“If Michael were in charge of Santa’s naughty-and-nice list, the college legal department would be getting nothing but coals and switches this year,” I said.

“Why were they the ones reviewing the contract anyway?” Robyn asked. “I know the play’s a joint project of the college and the town, but I thought the college was mainly donating use of the theater.”

“And for some reason they also insisted on being in charge of Haver’s contract,” I said. “I suspect the same board member who got him the part in the first place. If only I’d known to insist that the town attorney handle it—because she’d have run it by Randall and me when Haver’s agent came in with a whole bunch of changes that he claimed were standard Actors’ Equity requirements, which was a complete lie. Michael could have told them that if they’d bothered to show him the contract—Randall and I would have. But they didn’t. In fact, whatever lawyer the college had handling it didn’t do any research, didn’t try to negotiate—just caved. And now Michael is paying the price.”

“And then there’s the whole question of whether Haver is really worth all this trouble,” Robyn said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier just to have Michael play Scrooge? I’ve seen his one-man Christmas Carol show the last few years and loved it. He was brilliant.”

“He’d be light-years better than Haver if you ask me. Of course, I’m biased. The theory was that getting an actor with a national reputation would increase ticket sales enough to more than offset the cost of his salary.”

“That makes sense.” Robyn held up her knitting to inspect the green Christmas tree that was taking shape on the back of the red mitten. “But I’m not sure I’d have picked Haver. I mean, I know who he is, but just barely.”

I quite agreed. And I thought it was particularly ironic that they picked Haver instead of Michael, who still had a rather active group of fans himself, in spite of having abandoned television for academia more than a decade ago. Not something I could say in public, of course.

“Haver was nominated for a Tony once,” I said aloud. “And he was in a reasonably popular TV series for a few years. As a young man he was quite handsome—a B-movie heartthrob.”

“Yes.” Robyn nodded. “I remember my mother used to like him.”

“A lot of people’s mothers did,” I said. “Let’s just hope enough of them are still around to buy tickets.”

“And that there’s a show for them to see.” Robyn paused and thought for a moment. Or maybe she was just listening to the choir down in the parish hall, harmonizing beautifully as they rehearsed their Christmas carol program. “Have you considered getting him a keeper?”

“A what?”

“A keeper. A minder. I don’t know what you’d officially call them, but I know they exist, because I know of a diocese that hired one once for one of their employees—not a priest, of course, but a key employee, very capable, even very spiritual in his own way, but with an unfortunate weakness for alcohol. They sent him to a residential rehab program, and when he got out they hired someone to follow him around and keep him away from temptation for the first few months. Of course, you might have trouble getting your actor to agree to a keeper. In the case I’m talking about, it was either that or lose his job with the parish.”

“Haver might not agree,” I said at last. “But maybe the agent who drew up that contract could force him to accept a minder. Agents don’t get paid unless their clients do, and it’s still possible that Haver could drink himself into a stupor and breach the contract. I’ll suggest it. Thank you—that’s a great idea.”

I stood up, trying to decide if I should call Michael with the suggestion or head over to the theater and talk to him in person when he got back from his meeting. Then I realized that Robyn was looking at me.

“I’m sorry.” I sat down again. “You asked me to drop by to talk about something—I almost forgot. What is it?”

“I received a rather curious request this morning,” Robyn said. “That we host a Weaseltide ceremony in the parish hall.”

Weaseltide? Robyn was gung ho on reviving old traditions and minor Episcopal celebrations, but Weaseltide rang no bells. Which meant it obviously wasn’t something in the Book of Common Prayer. And I could have sworn after several years of helping out in the parish, I’d gotten pretty familiar with the Book of Occasional Services as well.

“That’s an interesting idea,” I said aloud. Mother had drilled us always to call something interesting when we couldn’t think what else to say.

“Yes,” Robyn said. “There’s just one thing—what is Weaseltide?”

Chapter 2

“Oh, thank goodness.” I didn’t try to hide my relief. “I thought Weaseltide must be something any good Episcopalian was supposed to know all about.”

“You’ve never heard of it then?” Robyn looked puzzled. “I rather got the impression it was some sort of local custom.”

“Not that I’ve ever heard,” I said. “But then by local standards, I’m not from around here. I’ve only lived here for a decade. You need at least a century before they begin thinking of you as a local. So I gather Weaseltide isn’t an Episcopalian festival.”

“I’m not even sure it’s a Christian one.” She frowned slightly. “Not that we’d mind if it wasn’t—the congregation is very supportive of ecumenical activities. We’ve had events with our local Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim brothers and sisters. But what if Weaseltide is part of some weird cult? And yet, one hates to upset them by interrogating them.”

I began to suspect why Robyn had brought the subject up with me. And of all things: weasels. Why did it always have to be weasels, I found myself thinking. They were among Dad’s and Grandfather’s favorite animals, so they already played a larger role in my life than seemed absolutely necessary. And now this.

“Let me see what I can find out,” I suggested. “If it’s something local, the Shiffleys will know all about it. If it’s something New Agey, my cousin Rose Noire can fill us in. And if it’s not either—”

“I knew I could count on you!”

“Just one question,” I said. “Who asked you about Weaseltide—anyone we know?”

“Someone named Melisande Flanders.” She read the name from a piece of paper on her desk. “Could she possibly be a new faculty member?”

“Not someone I’ve heard of, but then I don’t memorize the faculty directory. Was she young?”

“Not really. I’d say fortyish. Maybe fiftyish. Of course I’m a terrible judge of ages.”

“Probably not a student then.”

“Well, there are so many non-traditional students nowadays,” Robyn said. “I think half my seminary class was closer to Social Security than high school. But somehow she didn’t seem like a student.”

“A pity you couldn’t have gotten more information out of her.” Not only a pity, but downright puzzling—Robyn was normally a formidable though gentle interrogator.

“And a shame I’m dumping it on you, you mean,” Robyn said. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but every time I tried to ask her a question she’d sort of dither off in some other direction and we’d never quite get back to anything practical. And she seemed very.… well, I know from the name it’s tempting to assume it has something to do with actual weasels, but her behavior makes me wonder if Weaseltide could be some kind of gathering for people with an interest in … I don’t know. Severe anxiety disorder. Or some other mental health challenge.”

We both pondered that idea for a few moments. To me, the kind of gathering she was imagining sounded like a fairly normal sort of event for Trinity. But I wasn’t sure how Robyn would feel if I said that.

“One more question,” I said. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but—if she’s not a member of the parish, isn’t anyone we know, can’t be bothered to explain what it is she’d like to do with our parish hall, and didn’t leave you any contact information, just how much time and energy do we want to spend figuring this out?”

“A good point.” She slumped slightly in her chair. “You and I both have way too much to do already. But what if this is some worthwhile cause that we’d love to support if we knew what it was? Or what if she’s a lost soul who needs support and encouragement that we could give her through this? I’d hate to say no without making at least some attempt to find out.”

“So I’ll make a reasonable attempt and report back to you.” I stood and picked up my purse and tote. “And if she comes back—”

“If she comes back, I will tell her I’ve tasked you with making the decision on whether her event will fit into our crowded schedule and give her your cell phone number.” Robyn beamed at me as if she’d come up with a brilliant idea. Of course, from her point of view, she had. “I’m sure you’ll have much more luck than I had getting information out of her.”

“I’ll do what I can.” I headed for the door, and Robyn tossed her knitting onto her desk and fell into step beside me. “But for now, I have to head over to the theater and perform my official duties as Michael’s assistant director.”

“Yes, I heard you were doing that,” she said, as she accompanied me down the hall. “I admit, I was surprised—I had no idea you had directing ambitions.”

“I don’t,” I said. “At least for this show, the assistant director’s job is as a glorified gofer and organizer.”

“You’re certainly good at that. The organizing part, at least.”

“More to the point, I’m one of the few people other than Michael who can get Malcolm Haver to behave.” In fact, I was even better at it than Michael, but I wasn’t about to share that with anyone. “And Mother is the best of all. He practically cowers when she looks at him. We try never to leave him at the theater without at least one of us there to manage him.”

“So in a sense he already has a keeper,” she observed.

“Three keepers, all of whom have other equally if not more important jobs that they’d rather be doing. Not to mention the fact at all three of us are starting to feel homicidal thoughts whenever we spend any time with Haver. Especially Mother. The other night I heard her and Dad having the most alarming discussion about whether it was really possible to kill someone by impregnating one of their garments with a contact poison—and did I mention that she’s designing the costumes?”

“Oh, dear.”

“I’m sure she’s just blowing off steam, but clearly he stresses her. I want him off her hands.”

“Definitely—so think about the idea of a keeper. Although, frankly, unless he’s really ready to make a change in his life—”

“I know, believe me,” I said. “He’ll eventually elude even the sharpest keeper, and every time we take a bottle away from him he’ll start looking for another. I’m under no illusion that we can fix him. We’re just trying to get through the run.”

“Does he have any family who could help? Any friends who might be a good influence?”

“He’s divorced with no kids,” I said. “And any close friends he has would be back in L.A. We’re hoping his agent can be the good influence—they’ve worked together for forty years. He’s due in sometime today. Though if the agent can’t do anything, Mother thinks maybe it’s time to let Haver crash and burn.”

“Sadly, she might be right. And speaking of your mother, she’s due here in an hour for a meeting of the Christmas Toy Drive, so I’d better let you go. Just one more thing.”

I braced myself. Like Columbo, Robyn sometimes delivered her biggest bombshells under cover of those harmless words “one more thing.”

“Why does your grandfather seem to think we should add finches to the church’s holiday decorations?”

“Oh, blast,” I said. “So he’s hit you up, too? Just tell him no thanks.”

“I did, but you know how persistent he is. Are finches really part of the traditional Australian holiday celebration?”

“Not that I know of. The finches he’s trying to pawn off on you are Australian—they’re Gouldian finches. Very pretty birds—they have patches of red, turquoise, green, blue, and yellow—and they sing quite nicely. But they have nothing to do with Aussie Christmas celebrations. Grandfather just happens to have a surplus of Gouldian finches at the zoo and he’s expecting another batch any time now, so he’s trying to find places to put some of them.”

“Expecting another batch?” Robyn looked puzzled. “If he already has too many, why is he getting another batch?”

“He’s helping out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—he’s a certified wildlife rehabilitator, you know. The finches he’s got were seized from an animal smuggling operation, and his contact there has dropped a hint that they could be seizing another big batch sometime soon, so he needs to find a place to put them. Normally he’d just send them down to the Willner Wildlife Sanctuary, but Caroline Willner is off on a cruise with her daughter, and the staff member she left in charge is digging in his heels. I’m sure as soon as Caroline’s back she’ll figure out a way to help out with the finches, but in the meantime Grandfather’s trying to bully everyone he knows into fostering a few.”

“I will stand firm, then, and refuse to be bullied!”

Robyn dashed off toward the parish hall, where “Silent Night” had given way to ominous silence—would she have to settle another quarrel over whether to sing “Adeste Fideles” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” to the traditional tune?

I paused to take a few deep breaths, feeling my spirits lifted by the bracing spruce, pine, and fir scents that permeated the church, thanks to all the fresh evergreen wreaths and garlands decking the halls. I made a note in my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe to have another talk with Grandfather about his attempts to finchify the world. Then I peeked into the sanctuary to check on the progress of the Christmas pageant—and to make sure my sons were behaving.

Josh, who had been cast as the assistant leader of the shepherds, was covertly studying the thirteen-year-old playing Joseph, no doubt with an eye to replacing him in future. I didn’t have the heart to explain that it would probably be a few years before he succeeded—as was her custom, Robyn had filled the role of Joseph with a middle-grade boy who’d recently shot up to a gangly six feet. The fact that this year’s Joseph couldn’t walk three steps without tripping over his newly elongated legs didn’t matter, since Joseph was mainly required to be tall and look pious. When the time approached, I would probably advise Josh to angle for a role as one of the wise men. They had better costumes and props, and their dramatic entrance actually allowed some scope for acting.

Jamie, on the other hand, would probably snag the role of First Angel without difficulty. Although I knew I was biased, I couldn’t help thinking that he already stole the show as Third Angel. Unlike Josh, he wasn’t studying what the two senior angels did—he just threw himself heart and soul into every moment of the performance. When the angels gazed down tenderly at the Christ Child, his eyes brimmed with tears. When they pretended to blow on their trumpets to summon the shepherds, he gave the impression that he was blowing so hard that it was making him breathless. And in his favorite part, when the angels raised their wings and pointed them while the light crew shone a spotlight past them to give the impression that the Star of the East was somehow emanating from the tips of their wings, Jamie closed his eyes and looked so ethereal that for a moment you really could believe he was generating his share of the light. More than his share.

“Yes, he’s a ham like me,” Michael had said after watching the last rehearsal. “They both are.” But he sounded proud, so I refrained from smacking him.

I’d been a little worried about having the boys appear in not just one but two holiday plays, but so far it was working out okay. We’d made sure they knew that any decline in their school grades or the performance of their household chores could result in their understudies taking over the roles. And I was hearing a lot fewer “how many days till Christmas?” questions. Multiple renditions of “How many days till the Christmas pageant?” and “How many days till A Christmas Carol opens?” probably took up the slack, but somehow the variety made it all less annoying.

Satisfied that the younger Waterstons were behaving at least as well as their castmates, I slipped out of the sanctuary, quickly donned my winter coat, and escaped from Trinity before anyone spotted me and tried to recruit me for any of the many volunteer projects I knew were going begging.

The whirring of dozens of camera shutters greeted me when I stepped out of the church door, as if I were a celebrity being stalked by paparazzi. It wasn’t about me, of course. Trinity Episcopal, with its glossy bright-red door and elegant gray stone walls, was beautiful in any season. In its Christmas finery, with candles in all the windows, wreaths on all the doors, and fairy lights covering all the shrubbery, it was truly magical. And some of the tourists liked to have a human figure in their pictures for scale, so I paused for a couple of moments on the doorstep, buttoning my coat, before stepping aside for the convenience of the other tourists who preferred their church photos unsullied by random strangers.

As I walked I glanced at the sky, which was both leaden gray and curiously luminous. What I’d learned from the old timers to call a snow sky. I checked the weather app on my phone—yes, we were still getting two to six inches of snow, starting sometime this afternoon and continuing through the night.

“Two to six inches,” I muttered. “You’d think this close to the start they could be a little more precise.”

Ah, well. It wasn’t happening yet, and with any luck I could be safe at home before it got bad. Or if the roads became impassable during rehearsal and I ended up snowbound at the theater, at least Michael and the boys would all be with me.

I set out toward the drama building. My path didn’t lie through the town square, thank goodness, but tourists still filled the sidewalks and spilled over into Church Street, making the already congested traffic even worse. Tourists swarmed in and out of the nearby shops and restaurants—fewer shops, and thus fewer tourists than in the very heart of town, but still, it was a mob scene. This close to the town square, all the shops, houses, and—of course—churches had jumped onto the decorating bandwagon with a vengeance. Life-sized nativity scenes vied with life-sized Santa Clauses, with or without sleighs and the requisite quota of reindeer, and the occasional house sporting blue and silver candles and Stars of David. If there was a roof or a bit of shrubbery in this part of town not trimmed with some kind of lights I couldn’t spot it, and everyone seemed to have used the overcast sky as an excuse to turn them on early. I had to keep reminding myselef that these days nearly all the tree lights, fairy lights, and candles were LEDs, so my neighbors’ electrical bills weren’t going to send them into bankruptcy and they weren’t likely to burn their houses down. Whole forests had died to provide enough evergreen for the wreaths and garlands festooning almost every house, and there probably wasn’t a scrap of tinsel left within several hundred miles.

And copies of the poster for A Christmas Carol were in windows everywhere, in all of the shops and a good many of the private houses. From a distance, the poster’s festive metallic red, green, and gold colors added nicely to the glittering, tinseled look the whole town had taken on. And when you looked more closely—as I did while waiting for the driver of a car laden with confused tourists to make up her mind which way to turn and clear the crosswalk—well, Haver did look the part of Scrooge, scowling and shaking his walking stick theatrically at the world. His top hat and high-collared black coat fit in nicely with the festival’s Victorian theme.

I didn’t so much mind that “starring Malcolm Haver!” was in letters almost as big as the play’s title—the town and the college were paying him good money to headline the show, so we might as well get our money’s worth out of him. I’d have made “directed by Michael Waterston” a little larger, but maybe that was just me. I’d also have made the figure of Tiny Tim, in the background, a little less tiny, so someone other than his adoring mother could recognize him. Fortunately my son Jamie was charmed to be on the poster at all, and used it to lord over Josh—who was playing what Michael and I were careful to point out was an equally important role, that of Scrooge as a boy. For several weeks now, their lives had been wall-to-wall rehearsals.

The only part of the poster I didn’t much like right now was the line that gave the show’s run dates. Opening night was only two days away. And Haver was still stumbling through his blocking and mangling his lines—when he showed up at all.

I mentally wished Michael well in his mission to Finance.

I noticed that a trio of female tourists had clustered around the poster in the window of the bakery.

“Malcolm Haver!” one exclaimed. “Isn’t that fabulous?”

Copyright © 2017 by Donna Andrews