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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Gift of the Magpie

A Meg Langslow Mystery

Meg Langslow Mysteries (Volume 28)

Donna Andrews

Minotaur Books

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Chapter 1

Monday, December 21


“Cow manure?”

I was talking into my cell phone, but my friend Caroline Willner, who’d just popped into the kitchen with an armload of brightly wrapped presents, must have thought I was talking to her.

“Is this part of the whole not-swearing-in-front-of-the-boys thing?” she asked. “And what did I do to deserve—oops!” Her voice sank to a whisper. “Sorry! Didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

Although I could see that her curiosity was aroused.

“We have access to a variety of manures—cow, horse, sheep, goat, and llama,” I said into the phone. “Much of it’s even organic. Is there a particular reason you want cow manure?”

“Well, any of those would be acceptable,” my caller said. “Especially the organic ones. I just don’t want chicken manure.”

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s so apt to be infected with salmonella. Give me your address and let me know when I can drop by—would sometime later today work? If you can show me the area you want fertilized, I can figure out how much manure is required and how many volunteers we’ll need to spread it.”

“I’ll be home all day putting up the tree.” She rattled off her address. When I’d jotted it down, we wished each other a Merry Christmas and signed off.

“And a Merry Christmas to you,” I said, turning to Caroline and accompanying the greeting with a hug.

“Likewise.” She set the presents down on the table and began to pry her small, round form out of a bright turquoise down jacket. “Your mother sent me in here to see how I could help out with this noble, heartwarming holiday endeavor you’re in charge of. And it turns out to be a manure-delivery service? I can see why she told me to ask you, instead of explaining it herself.”

I could see her point—I wasn’t sure Mother had ever actually uttered the word “manure” in her life—she preferred “natural fertilizer.”

“And it’s certainly not very Christmas-y, is it?” she added. “Not exactly festive.”

I sighed.

“Manure can be pretty festive if you’re a die-hard gardener,” I pointed out.

“Ooh—I have an idea,” she exclaimed. “How about some exotic manure? Much more festive. And I’ve got a lot of it down at the sanctuary. Zebra manure, wildebeest manure, yak manure—lots of options. I’m very careful about their feed, so it’s all completely organic. You’re welcome to as much of it as you’d like.”

“I’ll suggest that to Dad,” I said. “He’s the manure expert.” And I could let him explain that we probably had more than enough suitable manure right here in Caerphilly County, thanks to the growing number of local farmers who’d taken up organic farming. Although if too many of them had figured out that they could actually sell their organic manure, nice to know we could trek down to the Willner Wildlife Refuge for a supply—it was only an hour or so southwest of us. “Most of our projects aren’t that weird, and so far this is the only one involving manure. It’s called Helping Hands for the Holidays.”

“And just what does Helping Hands do when it’s not delivering manure?”

“Well, it all started out this fall, after the hurricane,” I said. “For a while everywhere you went you saw blue tarps, boarded-up windows, and piles of branches and other debris. The Ladies’ Interfaith Council figured out that some people couldn’t do the cleanup and repairs themselves and couldn’t afford to hire anyone. So they decided to help out.”

“If I try very hard, I can see the members of the Ladies’ Interfaith Council picking up fallen branches,” Caroline said. “Small, graceful ones. But shingling roofs? Do they wear white gloves, or is that just for the tea parties?”

“Clearly it’s been a while since you went to a Council meeting.” I had to laugh. “Robyn Smith started shaking things up when she took over as rector at Trinity, and ever since they let in the Wiccans and the atheists, things have been downright lively.”

“Is your mother okay with all of this?” Caroline looked anxious.

“Mother’s fine with it,” I said. “They haven’t done away with the tea parties and cucumber sandwiches—they’ve just added a whole lot of other things, most of which she approves of, as long as other people do the heavy lifting. Anyway, the Council decided to fix things up for a couple of the neediest cases—a few retired folks on limited income and a young woman who was recently widowed and is trying to work full time while raising three kids. They negotiated a deal with Randall Shiffley—his construction company provided the supplies at cost and he donated the services of a few skilled workers. The Council raised the money to pay for the supplies and recruited volunteers to perform the manual labor under the supervision of Randall’s workers. And stuff got done for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The ladies of the Council saw that it was good, so they got all excited and decided we should do a lot more of this helping our neighbors.”

“And that’s not a good thing?” She must have picked up on my tone.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” I said. “But this is absolutely the wrong time of year to be doing it. Everybody’s calendars are already bursting at the seams, and the weather hasn’t exactly been helpful.”

“Really?” She cocked her head in puzzlement, rather like a bird. “I thought you hadn’t had any snow? We haven’t down my way.”

“We haven’t,” I said. “Snow isn’t the only kind of weather that can complicate things. The last few months we’ve had unseasonably warm weather and torrential rain—Caerphilly Creek has flooded three times already this month. But whenever the thermometer plunges into the sub-freezing zone, the atmosphere’s dry as a bone. We’ve had nothing for weeks but warm wet days and bright sunny deep-freeze days. Everyone’s mourning the likelihood that we won’t have a white Christmas.”

“Maybe Rose Noire should do her snow-summoning dance,” Caroline suggested. “It could help—it was a lot of fun last year.”

“Oh, so that’s what happened?” I said. “No, thank you. Breaking the all-time snowfall record last year was interesting, but we don’t need to go for two Christmas blizzards in a row. And a snowfall could bring all the Helping Hands projects to a complete halt, instead of just making everyone who’s working on them miserable. At least the people working on the outdoors projects—fortunately we do have some indoor projects. In addition to roofs, furnaces, insulation, wiring, and plumbing we started getting other kinds of requests. Car repairs. Accounting woes. Medical issues. Helping Hands turned into a sort of Make-A-Wish program for grown-ups. And then—”

My phone rang. It was Randall Shiffley. I should probably answer. With luck he was wearing his mayor’s hat and calling me, his part-time special assistant, on some official business. But the odds were it would be Helping Hands business. I could at least hope he was calling with a progress report on an existing project, not enlisting me for a new one.

“Hey, Randall,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Meg,” he said. “Got a couple new ones for you.”

I tried to sigh too softly for him to hear. Then I put the phone on speaker. Hearing our discussion of whatever new projects Randall was about to dump on me would probably do more than any amount of explaining to help Caroline understand Helping Hands for the Holidays.

“First one’s a no-brainer. Couple over on Bland Street whose grandmother is coming to live with them, and she’s in a wheelchair. They’ve asked if we can build them a ramp.”

“Refreshingly straightforward.” I was scribbling in my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, as I called my voluminous to-do list. “You want me to go over and kick things off?”

“No need,” Randall said. “I’ll send one of my men over to scope it out. If their granny needs a wheelchair ramp, odds are she’ll also need a whole host of other accommodations they haven’t even thought of yet. Once we know what-all they need, I’ll let you know how many helpers to send. Meanwhile, do you have some time today? Got a new possible project that requires your touch.”

This time Randall could probably hear my sigh. Requiring my touch usually meant that either the project or the person requesting it was difficult. Possibly both.

“You know Mr. Dunlop?” he asked. “Harvey Dunlop, over on the south side of town?”

The name sounded familiar. I frowned in an effort to place him. Enlightenment struck.

“Harvey the Hoarder?” I asked.

“That’s him.” Randall chuckled. “Good old Harvey.”

“Are his neighbors complaining again? I thought that yard cleanup we talked him into doing last summer shut them up.”

“The cleanup you talked him into,” Randall said. “I like to give credit where it’s due. Yes, they shut up for a while, but now they’re back, complaining about rodents, and smell, and what an eyesore the house itself is. On top of that, this time Mr. Dunlop’s relatives have gotten into the act and are threatening to sic Adult Protective Services on him. And you know what Meredith’s like.”

Yes, I did. Here in Caerphilly, Adult Protective Services—or Child Protective Services, or any other kind of town or county social work—meant Meredith Flugleman. Which wasn’t a bad thing—she was highly skilled, passionately dedicated, and without a doubt one of the best-hearted people in the county. But she was also annoyingly perky and persistent. Once she decided that Something Must Be Done, having her around was like having a small, yappy terrier nipping at—or worse, attaching itself to—your ankles. I didn’t think her approach would work well with Mr. Dunlop.

“So he’s asked for our help?” I said.

“Not exactly,” Randall said. “But he needs it. And I figure if anyone can talk him into asking for help, you can.”

I took several of the deep, calming yoga breaths my cousin Rose Noire was always nagging me to try when stressed.

“Meg?”

“Just checking my schedule,” I said. “I should be able to get over to Mr. Dunlop’s house a little later this morning. I’m assuming time is of the essence.”

“I can only do so much to slow down the town building inspector,” Randall said. “And you know Meredith. Luckily Meredith’s on a cruise till after New Year’s, and the inspector’s off deer hunting for the time being. But still—the sooner the better.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”


Copyright © 2020 by Donna Andrews.