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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Owl Be Home for Christmas

A Meg Langslow Mystery

Meg Langslow Mysteries (Volume 26)

Donna Andrews

Minotaur Books


Chapter 1

Saturday, December 21

“HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!… HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!”

The gray-haired couple standing at the tinsel-decked front desk of the Caerphilly Inn started slightly, and glanced over their shoulders in the direction of the hooting.

“That’s just the ornithologists again, Mr. Ackley.” Sami, the desk clerk, had probably been hired for his soothing voice. “Having their conference here, you know. Owl Fest.”

“They haven’t brought in live owls, have they?” Mrs. Ackley’s face was anxious. “Surely the hotel wouldn’t allow them to do that.”

“Jane’s terrified of birds.” The man put a protective arm around his wife’s shoulder.

“Of course not!” Sami managed to look shocked at the mere suggestion. “That would be completely against the Caerphilly Inn’s policies.”

Which was why we’d been confiscating all the live owls various ornithologists kept bringing into the conference, and taking them a few miles down the road to temporary quarters at the Caerphilly Zoo. The owls, that is, not the ornithologists—although I’d been tempted. Two screech owls, a barn owl, and a northern saw-whet owl so far.

Sami batted absently at the poinsettia partially blocking his view of the couple and glanced at me with a slight frown, as if to suggest that perhaps I should go and deal with the latest owl infestation. This might be my grandfather’s conference, but the hotel staff knew perfectly well who to ask if they wanted to get something done. They’d probably be coming to me even if I wasn’t Grandfather’s official conference organizer. My mind strayed to the three—or was it four?—pages of conference-related tasks in my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, as I called the three-ring binder in which I kept my monumental to-do list.

“They’re practicing their owl calls,” I said. “Maybe I should go remind them to keep the door to their conference room closed, since—”

“HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!… HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!” rang out again.

“No, no, no! That’s completely wrong. It’s HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!… HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!!”

If there was a difference between the two calls I couldn’t hear it. And the couple at the desk didn’t seem reassured to learn that the hooting came from ornithologists rather than owls. I could understand how they felt. I wasn’t thrilled either at being snowbound this close to Christmas in a hotel with a flock of hooting ornithologists. Although if they’d just stick to the hooting, I could live with it. Unfortunately, I suspected before long they’d be back to shouting, arguing, pounding their fists on tables, and maybe even throwing more drinks at each other and getting into more fistfights. Just like yesterday. Only yesterday—at least in the morning—they could all stomp out of the hotel when they lost their tempers, and maybe even drive into town to get away from it all. It would take a brave soul to venture out into today’s subfreezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. And until the snow let up, no one was going anywhere.

Which was what Sami was explaining to the couple—who were apparently under the delusion that he could summon them a taxi. He was having a hard time making himself heard above the Christmas carols playing over the speakers strategically placed throughout the lobby. Obviously someone had just jacked up the volume. To drown out the hooting? Or did someone hope hearing a choir singing “peace on earth, goodwill to men” would have a calming effect on Mr. Ackley?

“I’m sorry, but there simply isn’t anything we can do until the storm lets up,” Sami was saying. “All the power and telephone lines are down, and it’s not even safe for snowplows to be out. But the hotel has a generator, and plenty of supplies, and we’ll be doing everything we can to keep our guests safe and comfortable until the snowstorm is over.”

“How long will that be?” Mr. Ackley asked.

“At least another twenty-four hours.” Sami visibly braced himself as he delivered the bad news.

“Twenty-four hours!” Mrs. Ackley wailed. “How is that possible?”

“Now that’s a fascinating thing.” Sami’s ordinarily calm, mellow voice took on a note of excitement. “Normally we don’t have that much snow in Virginia, but right now the polar vortex has dipped unusually far south. And there’s a low pressure system over the Atlantic…”

I suppose there was no way I could have warned the Ackleys that Sami, the calm and ever-helpful desk clerk, was one semester away from getting a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from nearby Caerphilly College. Most of the time, he remembered that guests who asked about the weather only wanted to know whether to don sunscreen or carry an umbrella. But he was having a hard time keeping in check his fascination with the freakishly huge winter storm now stalled over most of the Eastern Seaboard.

I should probably interrupt him before he started explaining isobars and isallobaric pressure gradients again, and drawing more maps of the polar vortex.

As it turned it, I didn’t have to.

“I’m sure this is all very fascinating.” Mr. Ackley’s voice clearly communicated that he didn’t think any such thing. “But what we really want to know is whether we’ll be able to make our plane this evening.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t look very likely,” Sami said.

“It’s been twelve hours since the snow started, and word is both of the county snowplows are now stuck in drifts.” I decided Sami had spent enough time in the hot seat.

“Chief Burke just sent out a bulletin that police and emergency services are suspended until further notice,” Sami added.

“And even if Sami could magically transport you to the airport, your plane won’t be flying,” I went on. “You’d have to go west of the Mississippi or south of Atlanta to find an airport still open.”

“And when the Chicago and Atlanta hubs shut down…” Sami let his words trail off ominously.

“Amtrak’s called it quits, too,” I said. “This storm’s already one for the history books.”

“But we need to get home for Christmas.” Mrs. Ackley’s voice held a note of rising panic. “All three kids are coming home!”

“If we miss our flight today…” Her husband frowned at Sami, and then visibly checked his irritation and forced his face into what he probably intended as a friendly, apologetic look. “I know it’s not your fault.”

“I do understand,” Sami said. “With so many planes canceled at what’s already one of the busiest times of the year, it’s going to be very difficult for the airlines to reschedule everyone.”

Difficult was a tactful way of putting it. I’d have said well-nigh impossible.

“But still—this is unacceptable.” Mr. Ackley seemed to be regretting his brief apologetic moment. Did he think good weather was an amenity he could demand from the hotel along with clean towels and room service? “I expect you to do whatever you can to deal with this. You have my cell phone number—”

Sami managed to maintain his smile as he held up a slip of paper. I refrained from reminding Mr. Ackley that cell phone service had also fallen victim to the storm.

“Call me as soon as you have news for us.”

“Yes, sir. M—” Sami stopped himself in mid “Merry Christmas,” wisely sensing that under the circumstances it wouldn’t be well received.

Over the lobby speakers a choral rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” gave way to an instrumental version of “We Three Kings” as the couple threaded their way through the various Christmas trees and masses of poinsettias festooning the lobby. They reached the elevators, pushed the UP button, and stood glaring back at Sami while they waited. Either they hadn’t noticed they were standing directly under a ball of mistletoe or they were in no mood to make use of it. Sami picked up the desk phone and held the receiver to his ear. The body of the phone was below the level of the counter, so unlike me they couldn’t see he wasn’t dialing.

“I thought you just said all the phones were out,” I said.

“I could be making an internal call. Last time I checked, that still worked. And besides, logic clearly isn’t his strong point. And maybe I should cut them some slack. They’re from Florida. They might never have seen weather like this before.”

“That might be true if they’ve always lived in Florida,” I said. “But at their age, they could also have retired to Florida. Possibly from someplace like Michigan or upstate New York that gets a lot of snow and has the resources to handle it better than we can. They may have inflated expectations.”

“Even Michigan and upstate New York aren’t handling this one all that well,” he said. “A pity the cable’s out and I can’t show them what’s happening all over.”

“And for that matter, a pity they didn’t believe the weather reports and get out yesterday morning while the getting was good.”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t looking at me—in fact, it probably appeared to the frowning couple as if he were talking into the phone. “Believe me, if there were any way for the Ackleys to leave the hotel right now, I’d move heaven and earth to arrange it. And even if they’re able to get home, who knows if their kids will be able to travel. You shut down half the airports in the country and it screws up so many schedules that all the others are bound to have some problems, too.” He breathed a sigh of relief when the Ackleys stepped aboard an elevator.

“I’m sure Grandfather’s ornithologists will be just as annoying when it’s their turn to leave,” I said. “And that will be even closer to Christmas, and there will be so many more of them.”

“But that won’t start up until tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll worry about them tomorrow. Maybe a miracle will happen, and this storm will speed up and only dump a foot of snow on us instead of more than two.”

I’d heard closer to three, but if Sami hadn’t, I wasn’t going to depress him.

“Cheer up,” I said. “At least there’s no doubt we’ll have a white Christmas.”

“Well, that’s something.” He sighed. “Meanwhile, if you’re going back to the conference rooms—”

“I’ll close the door to the lobby on my way there.”

I turned and took a couple of the deep yoga-style breaths my cousin Rose Noire was always recommending for times of stress. And I tried to let the sight of the Inn’s lobby, beautifully and extravagantly decorated for the holidays, rekindle my Christmas spirit. Elegant wreaths and garlands graced all the walls and their evergreen scent mixed with that of the spicy potpourri bowls to perfume the air. Across the room, where a fire burned briskly in the huge fireplace, a dozen red velvet stockings trimmed with gold and sparkling faux gems hung from the mantel. To the right of the fireplace was the main Christmas tree, almost brushing the twenty-foot-high ceiling. It held so many ornaments you only saw the occasional glimpse of green, and its lower branches were invisible behind the hundred or so intricately wrapped empty present boxes arranged in a semicircle around it.

Yes, the lobby decorations were fabulous. I made a mental note to say so to my mother, who’d been in charge of them. But no matter how fabulous they were, I’d still rather have been snowbound at home.

My eyes veered from the Christmas cheer inside the lobby to the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that normally gave a view of the Inn’s elegant outdoor dining terrace and the perfectly manicured garden beyond. All I could see today was snow. The flakes were tiny, but they were falling so heavily I couldn’t even make out the shape of the enormous oak tree at the far end of the terrace.

At least if I was snowbound at the Inn over Christmas I’d have most of my family here to celebrate with me. Grandfather and Dad were here to attend the conference. Rose Noire was helping out part-time with logistics in return for attending any panels she found interesting. Mother was here with Dad, keeping her distance from the conference itself, but finding plenty to occupy her time. She had elegant teas with Rose Noire and with some of the women who were attending the conference or accompanying their spouses. She chivvied the hotel staff into fixing any decorations that had strayed from perfection. She went around doing sketches of ideas she might want to use in planning next year’s decorations. And she had brought along industrial quantities of ribbon and wrapping paper and set up a highly useful present-wrapping nook in the Washington Cottage, where she and Dad were staying. Most of our family, knowing we’d be tied up with the conference until the evening of Sunday, the twenty-second, had finished our shopping early—and once we’d seen the weather reports, we’d brought all the presents along, in case the storm was even worse than predicted and we were still snowbound on Christmas Eve. We’d miss the family members who were traveling—my brother, Rob; his fiancée, Delaney; my grandmother Cordelia; and Caroline Willner, a friend of such long standing she might as well be family. They’d taken a Caribbean cruise together. I wasn’t sure whether to feel envy or astonishment. Astonishment that they were willing to set foot on a cruise ship so soon after the epic disasters we’d all gone through on one a few months ago. And envy, because they were probably all lounging in swimsuits sipping drinks with paper parasols in them, very far away from any thought of snow. For a moment I allowed myself a pang of envy. And a brief flash of resentment at Grandfather’s assistant, who was spending the holidays with family in Bermuda, instead of being here to run the conference. Then I stifled both feelings. After all, palm trees and temperatures in the eighties didn’t exactly feel like Christmas, did they?

And most important of all, my husband, Michael, and our twin sons, Josh and Jamie, had moved into the hotel with me. If only—

My cell phone buzzed to announce an arriving text. What now?

Copyright © 2019 by Donna Andrews