If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.


April Interviews

4/07 Edith Maxwell, A Changing Light
4/14 M. E. Hilliard, The Unforgivness of Ravens
4/21 Grace Topping, Upstaged by Murder
4/28 Laura Jensen Walker, Hope, Faith, and A Corpse

Saturday WWK Bloggers

4/10 Jennifer J. Chow
4/28 Kait Carson

Guest Blogs

4/03 Saralyn Richard













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Martha Reed's "Death by GPS" will appear in the Spring 2021 issue of Suspense Magazine, which will be released in the second week of April. Congratulations, Martha!

Susan Van Kirk has a new audiobook, A Death at Tippitt Pond, that will be released this month. Marry in Haste will be released in May by Harlequin Worldwide Mystery, as will Death Takes No Bribes in September. Congratulations, Susan.

Congratulations to Martha Reed. Her short story, "The Honor Thief" was chosen for the 2021 Bouchercon Anthology, This Time For Sure. Hank Phillippi Ryan will edit the volume, which will be released in August at the time of the convention.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Killer Weeds," appears in the January 20 edition of Texas Gardener's Seeds: From Our Garden to Yours. Congratulations, Margaret, who, if you follow Facebook know, is a superb gardener herself!

Congratulations to Jennifer J. Chow for garnering a 2021 Lefty Nomination for Best Humorous Mystery Novel. We're crossing our fingers for Jennifer!

Congratulations to Paula Gail Benson whose "Reputation or Soul" has been chosen for Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical anthology to be released this spring.

KM Rockwood's "Stay Safe--Very Safe" appears in this year's 2020 BOULD anthology. Congratulations, KM!

Margaret S. Hamilton's "Dealing at the Dump" appears in Cozy Villages of Death Fall 2020.

Margaret S. Hamilton's "Black Market Baby" and Debra H. Goldstein's "Forensic Magic" appear in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories Fall 2020.

Jennifer J. Chow's Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines (interview on WWK on 11/11) released on November 10.

Annette Dashofy signed with agent Dawn Dowdle of the Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Congratulations, Annette!

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Saturday, December 26, 2020

Covid Christmas Economics

 by Paula Gail Benson



             A year with Covid-19 hit everyone hard. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we felt it deeply. Our economy, dependent on the tourist trade, faltered when the hotels and restaurants had to shut down.

Not that I’m an expert. I’m just a thirteen year old guy trying to string enough words together for an eighth grade paper. I stupidly took the honors course on my Uncle Sage’s enthusiastic recommendation.

“Oh, man, Double Mack,” Uncle Sage told me, brushing back his shoulder length gray hair with his fingers, then shaking it out like Mufasa in The Lion King or maybe a feeble attempt at copying the moves of that model on Granny Mott’s romance novel covers. Fabio, I think she called him.

“I wish I’d been able to take economics at your age,” Uncle Sage had said. “That stuff’s the basis for living well.”

If that was so, I decided I’d be looking for a simpler lifestyle. Maybe the monastery at Mepkin Abbey, in Moncks Corner, near Charleston, would take me. I could handle gardening, bee keeping, managing guest retreats, and setting up the annual crèche festival in exchange for room and board.

Uncle Sage--being co-owner with my mom of the formerly twenty-four hour breakfast spot, Cinnamon and Sage--understood or at least encountered economic issues daily. The restaurant had to close down completely in March and reopened only on a limited basis by summer. Cutting back from twenty-four to ten hours a day meant a huge loss of revenue and staff, not to mention a greatly reduced menu. No more fifty varieties of waffles. I particularly missed Number Twenty-five, the Christmas Special, alternating quarters of red velvet and key lime served with raspberry syrup.

Today, I had a bigger problem than food or honors economics.

Our home was a two story dwelling, located one row back from the beach, built to accommodate four rental units, two upstairs and two down. We lived on the second floor--my mom, nineteen-year-old sister Shandeigh, and me on one side and my Granny Mott, my dad’s mom, on the other. In a good year, we kept a steady flow of renters on the lower level.

This had not been a good year. We had barely enough lodgers to put a dent in the taxes and insurance. So, when Mr. Fenster Landress asked to take both lower units for two weeks right before Christmas--well, it was a gift.

He did want some extra services--light housekeeping and a change of linens midway through his stay. Normally, we provided the basics to renters as a self-serve operation. But, we couldn’t afford to turn Mr. Landress down, considering he paid top seasonal rates and we really needed the money.

With mom and Shandeigh picking up shifts for laid off workers, I offered to do Mr. Landress’ cleaning. It gave me a break from Zoom classes and the paper, which had to describe a small business philosophy. Besides, I figured, how hard could the cleaning be? One uptight adult shouldn’t mess up too many towels and sheets. I never understood why he rented both units just for himself. Maybe he liked having the extra space.

I headed downstairs in the late morning, after hearing Mr. Landress slam the door as he headed out for his daily beach walk. I saw him striding toward the boardwalk, decked out in trench coat and, as best I could tell, a suit. He didn’t seem to have leisure wear.

What I didn’t expect to find in Mr. Landress’ rooms was a sealed envelope with the printed message: In Case of My Demise. Not hidden away, in a drawer or suitcase, but in plain view on the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining area. Right where I couldn’t miss seeing it.

I finished sweeping and dusting, dumped the used linens upstairs in the laundry room hamper, and then did a stupid thing: I went back to the counter, scooped up the envelope, and pocketed it in my leather jacket.

Grabbing my bike, I pumped the pedals as I headed toward Cinnamon and Sage. I breezed up the highway, passing by the city’s holiday street decorations that had been in place since well before Thanksgiving. I tried to keep my nerves steady and my breath even behind my facial mask. Hidden inside my jacket’s inner pocket, the envelope felt like it must be a Taser sinking its prongs into my chest as I rode toward the restaurant.

After securing my bike in the back hallway where the employees had cubbies to store their stuff and a peg board for their coats, I circled around to the front door. Mom always wanted us to use the main entrance if we were eating, not working.

Stepping into the entry area, I stopped to admire the tree decked out with gold and glass molded waffle ornaments, featuring breakfast dishes and ice cream waffle cones, as well as fifty porcelain ovals tied by ribbons to the tree’s branches. Granny Mott had painted each oval with one of the waffle varieties formerly on the menu. I noticed Number Twenty-five had a prominent spot.

At the reception stand, Mom told a group of five it would take a few minutes to prepare a table. Seeing everyone masked, even the kids, was so weird.

Mom pointed for me to take a booth in the back. I followed her instructions, passing by the counter where Uncle Sage and Shandeigh conferred. Uncle Sage wore his Santa “ho, ho, ho” face mask, where the clear plastic covering over Santa’s wide-open mouth revealed Uncle Sage’s lips. Shandeigh, in a white mask dotted with tiny gold stars, plead her case to advertise her latest waffle creation as the week’s featured item.

“Hey, Double Mack,” Uncle Sage called, motioning me over.

“Just ‘Mack’ will do,” Mom told him as she went to clean off the customers’ table. Usually, Mom overlooked what Granny Mott called Uncle Sage’s “boisterous jocularity.” But today, Mom’s voice held a simmering intensity that indicated she was ready to snap. Probably not a good time for me to tell her I’d swiped a letter from the boarder’s room.

“Okay, Moan-nah,” Uncle Sage said, putting heavy emphasis on the “moan.” He motioned for me to come closer. “Call it, heads or tails.”

“Tails, I guess.”

Uncle Sage tossed the coin, caught it, and looked at the result. “Heads. Sorry, Shandeigh. Maybe next week.”

Okay, now I’d made my sister mad. But, I had to talk with someone and I didn’t think Uncle Sage was an option.

When Shandeigh came to my table, pad in hand, she said, “You’re having the egg nog waffle.”

I winced. “Is it any good?”

Shandeigh fixed me with her laser stare. “It’s my recipe. If you hadn’t called the toss wrong, it would have been this week’s featured item. Now, I have to encourage an overwhelming number of folks to order it to get Uncle Sage to promote it.”

I almost pointed out that Uncle Sage didn’t actually show her how the coin landed, but I decided not to encourage a toss redo. “Can I also have hot chocolate with marshmallows?”

“Suit yourself.” She flipped her pad shut and headed to the kitchen.

When she returned with my chocolate, after taking orders at the table with five and getting a few more willing to try her egg nog waffles, she was in a slightly better mood.

“Thanks,” I said for the chocolate. “We need to talk.”

“I don’t have time to deal with your economics drama now. Later, after work.”

Shandeigh juggled serving at Cinnamon and Sage with her next to last semester in the baking and pastry arts program at Horry Georgetown Tech. She wanted to start her own bakery after graduation. I figured she’d be running an international company in ten years. Maybe getting a job with her would be my ticket to avoiding economic challenges, but for now I needed guidance about our boarder.

“Not the course. It’s this.” I took out the envelope from my jacket and laid it on the table.

“What is it?” she asked, squinting as if she hadn’t worn her contacts.

“I found it this morning when I cleaned Mr. Landress’ rooms. It says, ‘In Case of My Demise.’”

Her eyes widened. “Was he dead?” she whispered.

I shook my head. “He was walking on the beach.”

“Why did you take the envelope?”

I kept asking myself that on the ride over. “I don’t know. I guess I thought if it disappeared the problem would too.”

Shandeigh, who read murder mysteries like Granny Mott read romance, gave me her scrutinizing eyes. “You may have made it worse. Your finger prints are on it now, if we ever have to hand it over to the police. What does the message say?”

“The envelope’s sealed. I didn’t open it.”

“Could make the situation better.” She shifted her shoulders. “Or worse. Let’s consider what we may be dealing with. He’s a loner. Maybe he’s depressed and decided to come to the beach to end it all.” She closed her eyes. “OMG, if he took his life in our rental, we’d have a tough time leasing it again.”

Not to mention, we’d be the ones to discover a dead body. But, I didn’t sense he was ready to end it all. “He doesn’t seem depressed. Just distant.”

She opened her eyes, staring at me. “So he wants to leave a message behind in case he dies suspiciously.”

“If he dies at all.”

Mom walked across the dining room. She looked in my direction after hearing me say “dies.”

“Everything all right?” she asked.

I took off my mask to cover the envelope. “Fine,” I answered. The syllable came out as a croak.

Mom looked unconvinced, but, noticing customers waiting, continued to the reception stand.

Shandeigh had been considering the possibilities. “Maybe he’s concerned about being the victim of a staged accident.” She looked off into space, as if mentally ticking off all the murder strategies she’d read. “Or, maybe he’s paid someone to kill him because he can’t bring himself to do it. He could be leaving a message to convince the insurance company he wasn’t complicit.”

“Are you really sure you want to be a baker instead of a cop or lawyer?”

“Shandeigh,” Uncle Sage called from the kitchen. “You want to come mix your special recipe?”

“On my way,” she answered, then looked back to me. “One thing is certain. You’ve got to return the envelope to his room.”

After the egg nog waffle, which turned out to be surprisingly good, and a second cup of chocolate with extra marshmallows, I’d built up my courage to return home. I donned my mask and pocketed the envelope. As I pedaled back, I worked out a plan for re-entering the rental.

Coasting into the family driveway, I noticed a tall man with shaggy dark hair eyeing our residence from across the street. Dressed all in black--slacks, polo shirt, and trench coat--he leaned against a column on the porch of Seaside Sundries, which Granny Mott compared to her father’s neighborhood store, because it tried to be all inclusive, stocking the stuff folks forgot (like sun screen or flotation devices) or decided they couldn’t live without (like soda or ice cream) for a day at the beach. The shop occupied a first floor portion of the condo building that blocked our view of the ocean. The family joke had always been with one good hurricane we’d be beachfront property.

I locked my bike in the storage closet. By the time I made it to the internal stair case, the man had disappeared. I took the steps two at a time and knocked on Granny’s door.

“Come in,” she called.

Mom worried about her being so trusting. When I unlocked the door and entered, I found Granny sitting in her sturdy, padded rocker, knitting needles in hand, her yarn caddy propped open on the floor beside her, and a narrow table on the other side holding a reading lamp, pile of romance novels, and the TV remote. On the wall, her sixty-five inch screen showed a Hallmark Christmas movie with the sound muted.

“Did you check me out in your video viewer, Gran?” I asked. “I might have been an ax murderer.”

“I’d recognize an ax murderer’s knock,” she assured me with a smile. “And, yes, I checked you out to make sure someone wasn’t holding you hostage to gain access.”

“You and Shandeigh need to go into the writing business.”

“I dare say we could make a go of it. What can I do for you?”

“Do you still have those extra pine cones I decorated as mini-Christmas trees for the scout project?”

“In the hall closet. Why do you need them?”

“To brighten up the place for Mr. Landress. It doesn’t look much like Christmas down there.”

“What a terrific idea from a thoughtful boy!” She pondered for a moment. “Wonder if there are some other decorations you can take down there?”

I didn’t want to be loaded down with stuff so I could get in and out fast, using the decorated pine cones as my cover to replace the envelope. “Maybe I should see how he reacts to these first,” I told Granny. “I think he likes his space uncluttered.” Finding the box I needed, I pulled a couple of the prickly, decorated giant cones out and was rewarded with a sprinkling of glitter.

“You’re more like your father every day,” she said as I took the cones and headed toward the door. I passed by photos of my dad and granddad side-by-side in frames on the wall. Both wearing military uniforms. They had each been special ops, Dad in Afghanistan and Pop Pop in the Gulf War. Neither came back from their last missions--listed as MIAs--but Granny Mott kept the faith.

“Thanks, Gran,” I called as I left, making sure the door was locked behind me.

“We need to offer him Christmas dinner,” I heard her yell from inside.

I just hoped Mr. Landress remained alive that long. Replacing my mask, I headed downstairs and reached the door to the rental unit when a voice from behind startled me, making me drop the cones. I turned to find the man in black directly behind me.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No problem.” As I stooped to pick up the cones, the sealed envelope fluttered from my pocket, landing next to the man’s shiny patent oxfords. Up close, I could tell his wardrobe was more upscale than it appeared from a distance. I glanced at his face and found him watching, particularly looking at the handwritten words on the envelope. I grabbed it and shoved it back in my pocket before retrieving the cones. “Something I can help you with?” I asked as I stood.

The man pointed to the metal sign attached to the corner of the upper floor of our residence. “Do you have any openings?”

“You’d have to check with the management company,” I told him. I didn’t mention the management company was Mom.

“Okay. Thanks.” The man stared at me, which made me nervous.

A car pulled to a stop on the road. I turned to see Giorgio, a local Uber driver, opening the back door of his Tahoe for Rhonda and Fonda Collingwood, two sixtyish sisters who lived in one of the elegant, long established private homes on North Ocean Boulevard. Giorgio would bring them here so they could walk the portion of the beach from our house to the pier, where Giorgio would be waiting to take them home.

“Hello!” They waved consecutively as they exited, then adjusted their sunglasses and totes before heading toward the sand.

The man in black clapped a hand on my shoulder, almost making me drop the pine cones again. “Take care of yourself,” he said before hailing Giorgio. “Hey, if you’re available, I could use a ride.” He sprinted toward the Uber.

I barely took stock of the situation when the door to the rental opened and Mr. Landress peered out.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I just thought you might enjoy some Christmas decorations,” I replied.

Mr. Landress gave the cones a scrutinizing look. “How much?”

“No charge. Actually, they come with the rental. We meant to have them out before you arrived.”

Mr. Landress reached for the cones. “You make these yourself?”

“Yeah. For a scout project.”

“Nice work. Thanks for thinking of me.” He closed the door.

Well, that had been a bust. And, now it was time to return for the Zoom economics class. Right after lunch, when it was most tempting to nap.

Today, Mr. Karlsson explained cost benefit analysis. “Think of our own time honored tradition of the ‘early bird special.’ If four people dine at your restaurant between four and six in the afternoon and spend approximately twelve dollars each, you earn forty-eight dollars. Let’s say the food itself costs two bucks a meal. You netted forty bucks. If you offer the same meals for seven bucks, you’ll only earn five bucks each meal. But, if you now attract ten diners between four and six, you net fifty bucks. As long as you don’t need more staff, that early-bird special increased profits twenty-five percent.”

I rested my head on my desk. In earlier classes, we’d discussed how compromises required giving up something you counted upon, but could be beneficial if the sacrifice gave you a greater earning power. There were lots of different business applications. I wondered if Uncle Sage’s making Shandeigh show her egg nog waffles were selling before he promoted them was kind of like a compromise. And then, there were the Collingsworth sisters, who could have afforded to drive most places, but provided some regular income for Giorgio by patronizing his Uber during these times when people weren’t traveling.

I must have dozed off as I was contemplating compromise.

“McElhannon McKinley Mott.” Mr. Karlsson called me by my full name. Well, he left off the third, but it probably meant I was in trouble.

“Sorry, sir.” When I shook my head to clear it, I realized I’d drooled on my iPad. I heard my classmates giggling.

“It’s not that we blame you for snoozing off,” Mr. Karlsson said. “It’s just your snoring was a getting a bit loud.”

The laughter made me too embarrassed to answer.

“Let’s call it a day,” Mr. Karlsson continued. “Mack, please stay online with me.”

Good grief. This day had been a bust.

“Listen, Mack,” Mr. Karlsson said when we were alone. “I sense you’re a little uptight about the paper.”

“I promise to work harder.”

“You know, economics is more working smarter than working harder. May I make a suggestion?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t let economics terminology throw you. It may seem a different language, but it’s basic common sense. Think about a ‘win-win strategy.’ If I make you feel better about yourself, then you might be willing to spend money on my product. Similarly, the reverse. If your spirits are boosted by buying my product, you may be willing to pay more for it and recommend it to your friends. See what I mean?”

“I guess.”

“Think about it. See you next class. And, Mack? Don’t stress.”

What Mr. Karlsson said made sense, but it always increased my anxiety when people told me not to stress.

I finished up my classes for the day, then did some research for the paper. I googled win-win strategy and linked it with economics. I found a few connections.

“How’s it going?”

I’d been concentrating so hard, I hadn’t heard Gran enter. And, I should have noticed because she brought a plate of fresh baked red and green sprinkled sugar cookies, hot out of the oven.

“Not so great. I just don’t get economics.”

She nodded. “Sounds difficult. Can you make any personal applications?”

“I’ve tried.”

“The closer you can make it to yourself, the greater that possibility that something will click.” She put down the plate. “Remember a few years ago when I was feeling blah? Every time I passed by a place, I only remembered the times I’d shared there with people no longer here.” She sighed, then gave me a smile. “I had to make a mental shift. Find my own reason for joy, not just what I’d shared with someone else.”

I didn’t have an answer. I felt bad I hadn’t noticed her being down.

She watched me. “You know, what my father, your great-grandfather said about running a store?”

“No. I remember you worked there.”

“Both a character building and humbling experience.” She laughed. “I could find endless ways to mess up, but Dad kept me on because he said people liked seeing my smile and my taking an interest in their lives.”

“That’s like what Mr. Karlsson called a ‘win-win’ strategy. Making someone feel better could encourage them to spend more.”

Gran laughed. “Perhaps. Dad never mentioned how much money he lost because I measured in the customers’ favor so they would benefit from my mistakes. I guess he figured the good will kept them coming back.” She paused before continuing. “My Dad had three rules for store keeping.”

“What were they?”

“First, make it personal. If you care about what you are selling, you can find something to do with it if no one buys it. Mom and I sure got enough presents from the extra inventory. Second, find a benefit no matter how your sales go. As long as you learn something in the process, it won’t be a total loss. And, finally, figure out how to stay in the game, even if you have to change your expectations.”

“Wow. He sounds like a smart guy.”

Her eyes twinkled. “I always thought so. Maybe a few of his genes passed down to you.”

“Thanks, Gran. Do you mind if I share these cookies with Mr. Landress?”

She held the back of her hand to her forehead and gave a dramatic sigh. “I suppose I can make more.”

“If you sprinkle some flour over your face, I’ll believe your struggle.”

She gave me a pouty lipped frown. “You must get the smart aleck from your mother’s side. Back to the kitchen.” She waved her hand as she departed.

I hid away a few cookies for a later snack, then put the rest on a paper plate that I covered with green cellophane and took downstairs. A frazzled Mr. Landress opened the door.

“What is it?”

“My grandmother made some Christmas cookies. I thought you might like some.”

He seemed stunned by the idea. “That’s . . . very kind.” He reached for the plate.

“Mr. Landress,” I hurried to speak, hoping to avoid the door being closed in my face, “could I come in, please? I have something I need to tell you. I’m not very proud of myself, but I have to be honest.”

He gave me an appraising look before making a stiff nod. “You’d better come in. The doorway is no place for confessions.”

“Thanks.” I stepped inside, then turned back to face him.

“Let’s have a seat.” He motioned toward the living room, sat on the couch, and placed the cookies on the coffee table.

I perched on a chair and pulled the envelope from my pocket. “I took this from the counter when I did the housekeeping. It was stupid. I just hoped if it went missing, you wouldn’t think about . . .” There was no good way to say it. “. . . well, about not being here. Like I said, it was stupid and I’m sorry.”

Mr. Landress reached for the envelope. He held it in his hands for a moment before turning it over. “You didn’t open it?”

“No, sir. It wasn’t my business.”

Mr. Landress’ dark eyes seemed to be boring holes in mine. “But, you showed it to someone.”

How could he know? “Just my sister. She told me I had to bring it back to you.”

His eyes narrowed. “No one else?”

I thought for a moment before remembering my previous botched attempt at returning the envelope. “Oh, Gosh. I dropped it on the porch and the man in black saw it.”

“The man in black?”

“High end clothing. He’d been watching our building from across the street and came over to ask if the rental was available.”

“You’re sure that’s all he wanted?”

The longer this day got the less sure I was of anything. “Mr. Landress, if you’re in trouble in any way, I know my family would do all we could to help you. My granddad and dad were military heroes and my family’s respected in the community. People would listen if we asked.” I looked at the envelope in his hands. “Maybe that’s why I took your letter. I didn’t want you to have to feel alone.”

He was silent for a moment before putting the envelope on the table. “What’s your name, son?”

“Mack Mott. Well, really McElhannon McKinley Mott, the third, to be formal, although my uncle calls me ‘Double Mack’ to irritate my mom.” I paused. “Too much information.”

He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mack Mott. What do you know about me, besides that I’m your tenant?”

I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, too, sir, and not much.” I didn’t want to say we were grateful his check hadn’t bounced.

“Have you heard of a prodigal son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I’m a prodigal father.”

“Okay.” I had no idea what he meant and he could tell.

The tiniest crack of a smile creased his lip. “Ever heard of a company called K Southers?”

“Who hasn’t?” I whistled the five-note intro to their TV slogan. “‘It’s not suit that makes the fellow, but the fellow who makes the suit.’”

He chuckled. “K Southers was my mother. She thought it clever to have advertising that directed attention from the fact a female designed the line. But, she always considered herself one of the fellows. Anyway, the motto’s served us well. At least during my tenure running the company. My son joined the business last year and he’s got all these new ideas, like us offering a monthly clothing box to subscribers. They select their preferences and sizes, then each month decide if they want to keep what we send them.”

I thought about my great-grandfather’s rules about learning what works and staying in the game. “How are sales?”

“Through the roof! Especially this year with Covid making everyone shop from home.”

“So, that’s good--right?” I could tell from his expression it wasn’t.

He reached for the cookies and folded back the green cellophane. “Smells like your grandmother’s a good cook.”

“The best. Only, I think these are from frozen cookie dough. Somebody in the neighborhood was selling them for a school project. She may have added the sugar on top.”

“Good call. Especially for the holidays.” He took one and put the plate back on the table. After tasting the cookie, he said, “Very good.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“Mack, you’ve made me face something I need to do. Something I realized after making the list I sealed in this envelope.” He finished the cookie before continuing. “I was jealous of my son’s success and began to wonder if I was any value to the company. So, I completed all the paperwork to turn the business over to him, then took off for the beach.” He pointed to the old fashioned television in the corner of the room. We hadn’t been able to afford an update and were glad it still operated. “Watching one of those Christmas movies on the cable channel, I heard a mother tell her daughter to make a list of all the achievements she wanted to be remembered for in life. I decided to make my own list.” He picked up the envelope and handed it to me. “I’d like you to read it. Tell me what you think.”

Carefully, I opened the seal and unfolded the paper inside. After reading it, I looked at him and smiled. “That really says it all.”

“Good.” He stood, putting his hands in his pockets. “Now, to tell my son. I got a voice message that he’s at the beach looking for me and suspect he’s the man in black you met. I’d just like to show him that I can track him as well as he can track me.”

“So you have the upper hand in giving your presentation?” I thought I remembered that creating an advantage in business. When he nodded, I told him, “Let me make a couple of phone calls. I think I can find out where he’s staying.”

Again, I took the internal stair case two steps at a time. After I told her what had happened, Granny Mott called Rhonda and Fonda Collingswood, who gave us Giorgio’s number. In a half hour, his Uber arrived to take Mr. Landress to his son’s hotel.

That evening after dinner, Mom gathered Granny Mott, Shandeigh, and me all together and said she wanted to know why Mr. Landress had extended his stay for two more weeks.

“He said his son would be joining him, thanks to a little talk he had with you, Mack. Care to give us more details?”

I told them about the day’s events, including struggling with the economics class as well as finding, taking, and returning the envelope. I got some questioning looks, but nobody yelled at me.

“What was in the envelope?” Shandeigh wanted to know.

“Mr. Landress wrote that he left a folder with an obituary and funeral preparations in his office, but he wanted his family to remember him for three things.”

“What were they?” Granny Mott asked.

“Being a good man for his family. Making a positive difference in people’s lives. And, looking for new hope each day.”

For a moment, we all were silent. Then, it hit me. “It’s like a sound business philosophy, really, don’t you think?” I asked.

We all laughed so hard, which felt really wonderful.

Granny Mott said, “With all the economic strategies you’ve encountered today, I guess you won’t have any difficulty writing your paper.”

“Not as long as you keep me supplied with cookies.”

We all laughed again, talking about supply and demand and whether we should use some of the rent money to replace the old-style televisions with large screens for our renters or maybe even offer breakfast service.

But, best of all, Mom called Uncle Sage and told him there would be two featured waffles promoted next week: Shandeigh’s egg nog specialty and my favorite Christmas Number Twenty-five.

THE END

 


Monday, December 21, 2020

A Task For Christmas Eve by E. B. Davis

At seventy-nine years old, it was now or never, and I couldn’t let never happen. No, siree. The kids must never know. They’d be shocked and wonder about me for all eternity. Protecting them had come first. Now though, I had to protect myself. I’d planned and hoped that tonight’s task would resolve my problem.

 

I looked around the interior of my house. All in order—the house was clean, the Christmas decorations were dusted and looked right nice, and the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Even the star on top of the tree was straight—for once. I would have given myself a figurative pat on the back, but the gesture was premature.

 

After finishing our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of beef stew with buttermilk biscuits, my son and daughter and their families had left at nine p.m. to attend the candlelight service at church, saying they’d be back at nine in the morning. I’d begged off the service, feigning a headache and reassuring them that I just needed a good night’s sleep. Not without comments, and my daughter threatening to spend the night to look after me. Last thing I needed. They’re great kids, but if they thought I was in my dotage, they’d have a surprise when I really started to act my age.

 

I had less than twelve hours to complete my task. By eight a.m. I had to have showered, dressed and put the sticky buns in the oven. I usually make the buns Christmas morning so they’ll be nice and fresh, but I’d made the dough this afternoon and stashed it out in the garage, inside my car so it wouldn’t freeze. Had my kids seen the dough in the refrigerator, it would have elicited questions. When I finished my task, I’d take it back in the house and let it rise. None of them would know the difference.

 

Working in the dark made my task harder. But then, I was supposed to be in bed. I put on my coat, boots and gloves and retrieved the wheelbarrow from the tool shed, positioning it near the kitchen door. My Christmas list included a new pair of gloves. Burning these tonight in the garden fire barrel would get rid o
f one piece of evidence and wearing the new gloves exclusively would let them know how much I liked them.

 

Two canvas tarps sat in the bottom of the wheelbarrow. One would join my gloves in the fire barrel later. I threw one tarp on the kitchen floor, took the other tarp and spread it neatly inside the wheelbarrow, letting the sides of the tarp drape down. Then, I stepped inside on the rug and took off my boots, having no need to get my clean floor dirty. My socks came off, too. In bare feet, I wouldn’t slip on the hardwood treads.  

 

Once in the attic, I stood stock-still. After nearly forty-five years, this moment had still come too soon. But I had to do it. I steeled myself. It wasn’t so much the horror, but my disgust and aversion that I had to shore. I felt around the doorframe and found the keys to the padlock that I had screwed on the door all those years ago. The kids never came up here. I sort of drilled that notion into them when they were young. Programmed them, like. Funny how those lessons you teach your little ones last a long time. Worked for me, and even if they didn’t know it, it worked for them, too, since they never allowed the grandkids up here.

 

I reached into my coat pocket and found the WD-40, sprayed inside the lock and slipped in the key.  The lock was stiff as I turned it, but it popped open. The next task, opening the door, wasn’t as easy. I took a deep breath since I might not take another until I got outside. Knew that wasn’t true, but all the same, I’d try. My other pocket held my flashlight. I turned it on and put my hand on the doorknob. The door stuck, and I yanked it open. On the closet floor lay the old canvas tarp, lumpy and dusty, enveloping the body.

 

Memories came back to me, but with my time limitation, I had to keep on task. I spread out the new tarp, grabbed the end of the old tarp and tugged. It slid out easily, which I hadn’t anticipated. I’d lined the inside with a sheet of plastic so nothing would seep out onto the canvas and the floor. Must be all dried up by now.

 

The body had smelled for a while. I’d told whoever dropped by that a raccoon must have died inside of a wall. Couldn’t tell where, I’d claimed. In a house this old, I thought my story believable. During the first summer, the kids and I slept in a tent in the backyard. Turned it into an adventure for them. They loved living outdoors. We’d use the downstairs bathroom and the refrigerator, but we cooked on the grill. I even put the TV on the back stoop so they could watch cartoons. By fall, the odor dissipated. By winter, I almost didn’t think about the body up here.    

 

No more reminiscing, I reprimanded myself as I grabbed the end of the tarp. Water must weigh a lot because the body’s lightness surprised me. Thank goodness. At my age, transporting a two hundred pound man would have taxed me. I’d sealed the plastic inside with tape, which was sure to have dried out now, then tied the ends of the tarp with twine like he was a big piece of saltwater taffy. My stomach turned just thinking about it. I was afraid the old tarp would break, its fabric brittle with age, so I wrapped the old tarp in the new one. The duct tape and scissors bulged from the same pocket that held the DW-40. I cut strips and sealed the new tarp in a neat bundle.

 

Getting him down the steps was my biggest worry. When I’d lifted him up here, I’d only had to go one flight up, and I was a lot younger then. Carrying him in my arms wouldn’t do—even now I couldn’t stomach being that close to the SOB. But I wasn’t looking forward to the noise of his bones clanking against the hardwood treads. As I schlepped him to the top of the stairs, I hoped nothing spilled out on his way down. The thought sickened me. Washing the staircase in the middle of the night wasn’t on the schedule. Last thing I needed to do.

 

I pulled the tarp more than halfway down the first riser. It started sliding down the stairs on its own powered by gravity so I kept a hold on it until I stepped into a better position. The clanking I’d feared didn’t occur. Adding the tarp increased the heft and kept its shape without bending. Nothing inside the tarp cut loose as it bridged from tread to tread. I held on to the railing with one hand, descended a few steps, and braked with the other hand, controlling its forward motion until I got to the landing. Then, I repeated the maneuver three more times until I was back down in the kitchen. By then, I was sweating like a hog.

 

In planning this task, I’d measured the width between the wheelbarrow handles. Their greater wideness than the doorframe brought my plan together. I opened the door, leaned over and jerked the front of the wheelbarrow into the door opening. Then, I tipped it so that the front end was down and jammed the handles into the doorframe where it stuck backend up in that elevated position. I’d practiced getting the wheelbarrow into position this week while I decorated the house with evergreens from my garden.

 

I lugged the tarp into the front of the wheelbarrow. After putting on my socks and boots, I climbed out the dining room window, from which I’d already removed the screen, closed the window and pulled the tarp into the wheelbarrow from between the handles. When the weight redistributed to the back, the wheelbarrow descended. As it came down, I jumped back. It made a bang as the metal supports under the handles hit the concrete. I stopped for a minute to make sure no one had heard, but my property had no close neighbors—yet.

 

While the unbending tarp had helped on the stairs, on the wheelbarrow it balanced on the two ends without sinking into the bottom making it difficult to move and balance. I gritted my teeth and pushed down in the middle, felt a few hard things resist my pressure, but it gave way, putting weight into the bottom of the wheelbarrow so I could maneuver it.

 

The concrete stoop at the back door had sunk over years to the level of the surrounding yard. When not a creature stirred, I placed the shovel in the wheelbarrow aside the body, put my back into my task, turning the wheelbarrow around, and toted the body through the backyard and through the trees, having cleared the path yesterday.   

 


I’ve always tried to think ahead, like selling three acres to that nice young couple. Now that I was older having a few youngsters around was a good idea. They were so grateful that they dropped by one time to show me their blueprints since we would be neighbors.

 

Well back from the property line and masked by a row of trees, the footers had been poured for the house and for a separate garage. I’d watched the men use a bobcat to level the ground for the slab of both structures. After Christmas, I’d heard, they would dump and level four inches of stone on top of the dirt, put a vapor barrier over the stone, then pour concrete over top of it and smooth it. Like I said, I think ahead, and it was now or never. I could dig dirt, but I never could have shoveled all that stone.

 

I edged the wheelbarrow over to the footers of the garage. Using the young couple was bad enough. I couldn’t go to my grave knowing they were living over top of Bobby. Having a half-ton truck over top of him though, sort of made me feel good. Would keep that sucker down.

 

Although the nighttime temperatures were starting to freeze, the ground was still soft. As I dug the grave, I thought about what I’d done. Bastard—and that wasn’t swearing—that was my opinion. I should know since his mother was my mother-in-law. Carol had died fifteen years ago. How two sons could have been so different, I didn’t know. He must have had a different father than my late husband, Darren, who died in Vietnam. Nurture or nature, who’s to say? Maybe holding her responsible wasn’t fair. She was widowed, too, and helped out with the kids, offering money when I was short. Life hadn’t been easy as a widow with two kids, especially when Carol kept saying that at least she had one son left, that is, until Bobby disappeared—under the tarp.

 

After Darren’s death, Bobby started coming around like he was filling his brother’s shoes. He’d do a few chores for me and play with the kids. At first, I’d appreciated him taking the time. He seemed like the good man his brother had been. But, when I came though the hallway and saw him reaching into my little girl’s pants, fiddling, I backed away. The terror I’d seen in my daughter’s eyes brought a burning anger over me. Bad enough to have lost her dad, but to suffer at the hands of her pervert uncle—I got angry at God for letting that happen.

 

My son’s baseball bat was in his room. I grabbed the bat and placed it near her doorway in the hall, made some noise and entered my daughter’s room, telling her to go outside to play with her brother. She seemed relieved and ran down the stairs. Bobby sat on the bed with bewilderment on his face, like he was wondering what had gotten into me. His performance was sickening. So caught up in acting innocent, when I leaned out into the hallway and got the baseball bat, he didn’t notice. I wacked him real good the first time, but I continued until I was sure he was dead. Clear as a bell, I heard Darren’s voice telling me that I’d done the right thing. Maybe I imagined that part, but I didn’t feel guilty. Jenny liked the new drapes and bedspread I bought for her.  

 

The investigation hadn’t amounted to much. Carol reported his disappearance right away. They asked us a bunch of questions those first few days. I worried they’d come back after the body started smelling, but the investigation went on the backburner. I went into the police station a time or two to try and help them, which also saved them the trip out to my house. After a few months, Bobby’s name didn’t come up much anymore.

 

Even though I didn’t feel guilty, I’ve prayed for my soul since then. The good Book says thou shall not kill, but then there were always exceptions to the rules. My motherhood manual said to protect your kids. I wondered for a while about if I should have made a big stink and forced Bobby to get treatment and rehabilitation. But, I’ve looked at the statistics. Pedophiles don’t change their stripes. None of that would have done any good. Killing him was the only solution.

 

Anger must have fueled me. Before long, I had dug a grave about six feet down. I dumped the body and shoveled the dirt back into the hole. Not all of it fit. Men don’t notice little, old ladies, but little, old ladies notice everything. Spying on them, I took note of the tool they had used to smooth the dirt and where they kept it and the key. I liberated the metal rake, smoothed and leveled the hole with the surrounding dirt, erasing my footprints as well. Once they poured stone, the dirt would sink some more, but if anyone noticed, they’d think that it needed more stone and fill in the depression. No one would know after they covered the stone with vapor barrier and concrete. I returned their metal rake, locking it as they had and putting the key back in their hidey-hole. Then, I put my shovel inside my wheelbarrow and carted it home.

 

As I threw my gloves and the tarp into the fire barrel I’d already stuffed with kindling and lit on fire, I looked up. The sky was dark, but one star shone brighter than the rest. The star might have looked the same as that night above the manger. The brilliance of the star lit my face and twinkled. I’d like to think that it was a sign of forgiveness. I’d been real good. Carol might not have believed me, might have turned me in. I couldn’t let that happen. I had my kids to raise. But then, I also thought not revealing his death and what caused his death had been a kindness to her. Not knowing was hard. But then, knowing would have been harder, I thought.

 

I prayed until the fire died and went into my car to retrieve the dough. One day I’ll find out if I’ve been forgiven, but in the meantime, I planned to enjoy Christmas with my family.   

 

 The End


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

A Christmas Near Miss: Santa-Fairy and the Tooth Claus by Tammy Euliano


December twenty-third again? Nick had barely recovered from last Christmas. Check that, Nick hadn’t recovered from last Christmas, and now it was bearing down again. He needed a break, time off. But the calendar pages kept flipping by. It used to be the happiest time of the year, the whole North Pole energized. He missed watching movies with Rudolph, laughing over their distorted life stories. He missed the elf flash mobs, those little guys could dance. But most of all he missed his own sense of joy.

“Hey sad sack.” A small voice came from the doorway.

“Tanya, hi. How’s the Tooth Fairy business?”

“Apparently better than Santa Clausing. What gives? You’re about to be on stage.”

He groaned. “Nothing, just not feeling it this year. I need a break. ”

“A break, seriously, you work one freaking day a year and you need a break? What about me? I never have a night off…ever.”

“Typical. You think Christmas is a one-day thing. Who do you think makes all those toys?”

“Mattel, Nintendo, Lego…”

Santa glanced at his shuttered workshop and felt a little smaller. “But keeping the list is a full-time job, as is training the reindeer, and keeping Mrs. Claus happy.”

Tanya plugged her tiny ears. “TMI there, Nicko.”

“I mean helping in the kitchen. Keeping up this physique is a full-time job.” He patted his over-round belly and tried a smile. It didn’t take. “And training the mall Santas. Sheesh, Millenials are impossible. They demand two breaks an hour, environmentally safe hand sanitizer, and pre-visit antibiotics for any kid with a cough. Last month, a guy who missed only one on the final exam, argued the date of Christmas was an unfair question.”

She giggled her tittery giggle. “I can’t believe you haven’t been forced to change Vixen’s name. It’s so judgy.”

“One group demanded I ‘free the beasts of burden’,” he said with air quotes. “Rudolph led a sneak attack and let’s just say they’re all requiring new roofs and some serious yard work.”

“Good for Rudolph,” Tanya said with another laugh that would ordinarily be contagious.

Why didn’t Nick find that story funny? “I need a break.”

“Come on. You need a break from being the most loved mythical creature in the Western hemisphere? Kids stop believing in me by the age of six, and Spanish kids think I’m a mouse. A mouse for heaven’s sake. Do I look like a mouse to you?”

Nick held his thumb and forefinger apart to approximate mouse-size. Tanya would fit inside. She flitted away. “No, of course not,” he said. “You’re a lovely, if diminutive, fairy.”

“Diminutive? How many fairies do you know? I’m average height.”

Must be a female thing, his five-foot-tall wife frequently said the same thing, and he knew better than to argue. “Yes, sorry, of course you are.”

“But I hear you Nick. I’m sick of picking up teeth, too. Under a pillow was the dumbest plan ever. They slip out and I’m having to hunt all over creation, without waking up the kid, or the dog. There has to be a market for a bedside tooth jar.”

“Buddy would suggest a stamp so kids could mail you their teeth.”

“Buddy the elf?”

Nick nodded.

“He thinks Venmo is the same as finding money under your pillow?” Tanya scoffed.

“No, you’re right. That’s what I keep telling him. Our jobs need the human…-like creature…touch.” He hoped that didn’t offend her. She could be sensitive. “Buddy wants to replace my deliveries with drones. Ever since the whole “Mommy kissing Santa – Mistletoe” fiasco, he’s been pressing to get me out of the homes.”

“Wasn’t that in like 1952?”

“It keeps resurfacing, stupid Jackson 5.” Nick had underestimated little Tommie Connor’s threat. A Red Ryder sounded like a wagon. The elves even painted those words on the side. Who knew he wanted a BB gun? And considering the subsequent threat, Nick had probably done the neighborhood a favor. Then, ten years later came the song, and then all the re-releases, and then a TV movie. Thank goodness Mrs. Claus never doubted him.

“Do you think that’s really why Buddy wants to take over the deliveries? I mean, look what he did to your workshop.” She gestured to the sad building.

Nick’s stomach squeezed. “He said out-sourcing would save on labor costs. I should have known better. Nothing can match the elves’ craftmanship. I’d put even the ones on the Island of Misfit Toys up against anything from those Chinese factories.”

“So we can’t quit, but we both need a break. Time to find ourselves, and rekindle passion for our jobs.”

“Like a gap year?”

“How about a gap week for starters?” she said.

“That sounds amazing, but I can’t disappoint the kids on Christmas.”

“How are you going to go being all jolly when your heart isn’t in it?”

Nick shrugged. He’d fake it, like he had the past several years, ever since he secretly accessed social media and learned he wasn’t so beloved as he’d been led to believe.

“Tell you what,” Tanya said, “how about we trade places, just for a week?”

“You can’t be serious. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. That wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“Hey, I get the rest of the week off, right?”

“Well, yes, I suppose.” He generally slept the rest of the week.

“While you still have to work every single night. You don’t know how much I’d love to just stay home for a night, all night.”

Nick’s misgivings faded at the prospect of having Christmas Eve off, to sit by the fire with Mrs. Claus and watch anything not animated, and not on the Hallmark Channel. It could work.

“Let’s do it,” Nick said.

“Do what?” Buddy, the mission director, appeared in the doorway, without knocking. He never knocked.

Nick decided the straightforward approach was best. “Tanya and I are trading places for a week.”

Buddy stared. “She’s taking your place? On the sleigh? Delivering gifts?”

“She is. It’ll be great. She has loads of experience.”

“Listen, Nick, if you need a break, I have the drones pretty much ready to go. Untested, but they should be okay.”

“We can’t have just okay, Buddy. It’s Christmas, and requires the touch of a caring, thoughtful being. Not an autonomous drone.”

Buddy seemed unconvinced, but he didn’t argue.

Next, Nick led Tanya to the pasture. The reindeer didn’t argue either. They barely noticed as Tanya flitted amongst them, introducing herself. It wasn’t until she came back that Nick saw she was plugging her nose. “First order of business is a bath. They smell awful.”

“Good luck with that. And even if you can talk them into it, their Christmas Eve meal is refried beans.”

She wrinkled her nose. Nick fished in his pocket and handed her a bottle of liquid peppermint. “Put some inside your scarf.”

They moved toward the house. Tanya snapped her tiny fingers and a long printout appeared in Nick’s hand. “What’s this?”

“Kids who’ve lost a tooth so far today. They’ll need their cash tonight.”

“No problem, I have a stockpile of quarters from the old days.”

“Quarters? Are you kidding? The average per-tooth payout is almost four dollars.”

Santa coughed. “For a baby tooth?”

“Inflation.” Tanya shrugged. “It’s more for the parents, wanting their kids to still be innocent believers.”

“You know, it’s creatures like you and the Easter Bunny that shorten my role in these kids’ lives.”

“You’re welcome.”

And Nick realized it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Once the kids stopped believing in the lesser mythical creatures, they started questioning his existence. Which meant less work for him. Why had that bothered him for so long? And why did it still?

He scanned the list of names, pulled a pen from behind his ear and scratched through Jason Oranski. “This kid’s on the naughty list.”

“So what? I don’t discriminate on the basis of behavior.”

“But, he didn’t feed his cat for a whole month, and lied about it.”

“And that’s a problem, why? I hate that cat, always hissing at me. Where’s your list?”

Santa pointed to a three-foot tall mound in the corner.

“Seriously?” She stared wide-eyed. “You know, I can pop in and out way faster than your stinky reindeer can fly around.”

Santa glanced back at the pasture to be sure they hadn’t heard. “Pop in and out? Carrying literally tons of gifts? Santa Claus isn’t a cash-based economy like the Tooth Fairy.”

Tanya raised an eyebrow.

“Besides, the kids need to hear the prancing and pawing of each little foot.”

“Hang on. Are you talking about the poem? No way I’m bounding down a chimney. I can’t just throw my wings in the laundry like your fat suit.”

“Whatever, as long as they hear the clip clop on the roof. Just pop in close to the fireplace, okay?”

The front door opened and Mrs. Claus appeared. “Tanya, what a nice surprise. Would you like some hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies?”

“I’m not much for sweets,” Tanya said, “but I’d love some milk.”

Nick kissed his wife on her flour-smudged cheek. “Great news. Guess who’s going to be home for Christmas?”

She stared.

“Me! Tanya and I are trading places for a week.”

Cocoa spilled over the table. At the alarm in his wife’s eyes, he said, “Work. We’re trading jobs.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “After I pay a small subset of children for the completely natural event of losing a baby tooth, we can roast chestnuts over an open fire, and I won’t have Jack Frost nipping at my nose.” Or other parts.

“Chestnuts are poisonous,” Mrs. Claus said.

Why was everyone such a negative Nellie? “We can watch the radar as Tanya here does all the deliveries.”

His wife looked less thrilled than he expected.

“What’s the matter?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’re Santa, you deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.” She shook her head. “It’s just wrong. It’s who you are. Who we are.”

“Won’t it be fun being someone else for a change? Someone who gets Christmas off?”

“But what if…” She looked at Tanya and trailed off.

“We’ve talked it all through. What could possibly go wrong?”

Mrs. Claus moved toward the kitchen door. “Um, can I talk with you, alone, for a moment?”

Nick apologized to Tanya. “Sorry about this, she doesn’t do change well.”

As soon as the door swung closed, his wife turned on him. “What are you thinking? She’s a fairy. Everyone knows she’s flighty.”

Nick let that one pass.

“Are you aware that at least a quarter of the kids wake up each day without money under their pillows? Why do you think that is?” She jammed her fists on her ample hips. He’d not seen her this angry since he invited all the elves to dinner before the factory closed. Sure, he should have known there were thousands of them, but they were small, how much could they eat?

He decided the question was likely rhetorical.

“Because Tanya the Tooth Fairy is a light-weight lush. She nips a little from the first few houses, and that’s all it takes, small as she is. You can’t let her play Santa. Christmas will be ruined.”

Nick’s first thought, “People leave liquor for the Tooth Fairy?” His second thought, “All they leave me is milk.” So he said, “It’ll be fine, dear. She can’t get drunk off milk.”

Several hours later, Nick began his first Tooth Fairy rounds. The wings Tanya fashioned for him chafed, and the spell she’d cast so he could travel without the reindeer gave him vertigo. He cross-checked Tanya’s list with his own, and sorted in descending order of behavior. If he delivered only a portion, he wanted it to be the deserving kids. If he felt better later, he’d finish the list. But he didn’t feel better, so Jason-the-cat-hater got to keep his tooth, as did Oscar-the-hair-puller, and Brenda-the-biter. Hopefully she’d lose more teeth quickly.

Nick couldn’t return too early or Tanya would know, so he took a break in Bermuda for some Dramamine, and again near San Diego for No-Doz. When he made it back to the North Pole, Tanya asked, “How did it go?”

“Fine, it went fine. How’s it going with Rudolph and the gang?”

“Good. We’ve come to an agreement. I’ll give them twice the beans when we get back if they’ll stick to vegetables until then.”

“Vegetables?” He glanced at the reindeer happily munching.

Tanya gave Nick’s belly a meaningful look. “They’re these things that grow in the ground. Broccoli, kale, no surprise you’re unfamiliar.”

Nick didn’t have the heart to tell her about broccoli farts.

“So there’s one more thing I forgot to mention,” he said.

“Just one?”

He shrugged, she won’t like hearing this, but if people left her liquor…. “Most everyone leaves out a little treat for Santa, and they’ll be disappointed if the cookies are left untouched.”

Her eyes filled. “They leave you treats?”

“They leave you…” Should he mention the booze? Probably not. “…a part of themselves.”

Anger flared in her tiny eyes. She wasn’t buying it.  

“Look, I’m sorry. I never asked them to leave things for me, and I won’t ask you to eat something you don’t like. But can you just break a cookie or two at each house? Spread around some crumbs and then move on.”

She nodded, but her forlorn expression tore at his heart. She was jealous of the treats. Or was it the appreciation the treats represented? Despite the haters on Instagram, Santa was beloved. Tanya had few likes, and was never trending. Santa, on the other hand, went viral every Christmas. He really did have the better job. A little appreciation went a long way.

Christmas Eve came. Nick ensured the sleigh was loaded and ready. He patted Rudolph on the head. “How ya feelin’ big guy?”

Rudolph squeezed his eyes shut, and let out a belch so loud his nose lit. “Gassy,” he said.

“Sorry about that, but you’re ready, right?”

His nose lit again.

“Keep an eye on Tanya.”

“Will do, Boss. It won’t be the same without you.”

Nick’s stomach did a small flip.

“It’ll be a lot lighter,” Donner said. Count on him to lighten the mood.

As they lifted off, Nick felt a strange melancholy. He belonged on that sleigh. It had never flown without him. A tear threatened, the first in several centuries. He wiped it away and headed inside to don the loathsome wings and head out on Tooth Fairy rounds.  “Nick,” Mrs. Claus stopped him at the doorway. “It’s Christmas Eve. Kids are about to get mountains of presents. They’re not going to care about a lousy quarter from the Tooth Fairy.”

“Four dollars.”

“What?”

“The average is almost four dollars.”

She gave me her I’m-taking-a-breath-so-I-don’t-lose-it face. Then said, “You need to stay here, in case there’s a problem. You might have to step in.”

“Step in?”

“Please?”

She grasped his hand and led him to the Control Room where Mission Director Buddy was watching the radar on enormous screens covering the far wall. “She’s several thousand deliveries behind,” he said.

“She’ll get the hang of it,” Nick said. “The first time I delivered, I was behind--”

“The first time you delivered there were less than a thousand homes total,” his wife said.

Fair point.

A ticker over the map counted down remaining deliveries. It was barely moving. “Fifteen thousand behind…twenty. She stopped moving.”

“Zoom in,” Nick said.

Buddy zoomed on the area of Tanya’s red blinking light. Russia. There weren’t a lot of deliveries in Russia. An enormous mansion filled the screen.

“Oh no,” Nick said. “The Smirnoffs’.”

“Who?” Mrs. Claus asked.

The view stopped zooming. Tanya lay on the arm of a leather sofa, a tiny straw extending from her mouth into a mug on the coffee table.

“He always puts a little something in the milk, to warm me up.”

“Nicholas.”

“I forgot.”

Silence fell as the digital counter remained frozen.

“I’ll suit up,” Nick said. How could he have been so stupid? And how was he going to make up for lost time? “Buddy, how far along are you with the drones in Europe? Could we use them to catch up, then I’ll cover the Americas?”

“They’re ready,” Buddy said. “And way easier in Europe without the FAA.” He typed a command on his computer and the radar over Western Europe filled almost immediately with tiny dots. “They’ll be near the Smirnoff’s when you get there.

Nick rushed from the room to finish the job. Being Santa was his life, his calling, and his passion. Next time he needed a break he’d think about those slimy baby teeth. And maybe talk with the Easter Bunny instead.