A Santa Stabbing

Book 1 in the Shop 'Round the World Series

Coming: Nov 2, 2022

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She didn’t realize she’d traded “Naval Aviator” for “amateur sleuth”…

Retired Navy pilot Angel Warren’s new life awaits in Stonebridge, Pennsylvania, where she’s opening Shop ‘Round the World, her travel-inspired gift and novelty shop. A newly empty nester and longtime widow, she’s looking forward to leaving her flying career and its many life-or-death decisions behind and reconnecting with family and friends. Right now, Angel’s biggest challenge is getting the shop ready for its grand opening just weeks before Christmas.

Until she finds a dead body in the shop murdered with one of her specialty Santa figurines. Even worse, Angel’s fingerprints are on the “weapon” and she’s a prime suspect. It doesn’t help that the deceased is an old friend who’s collected a long list of enemies as a cut-throat real estate agent. And then there’s the Stonebridge Chief of Police—and Angel’s high school BFF—who brings her in for questioning.

If Angel wants to clear her name before the Christmas rush, she’s going to need to do some sleuthing on her own—and with the help of her stressed out parrot, Ralph.

Heat Level: Smooth Sailing

A Santa Stabbing

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A Santa Stabbing

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I spend the next hour unwrapping the dozens of wooden Santas that have arrived from one of my Russian handcrafts suppliers, matching them to the invoices. So far my Santa source, Tatyana, has sent me nothing less than exceptional product.

Which is why I’m less than thrilled with the Santas I’m unwrapping. They were supposed to be classic Russian Santas, hand carved and painted hardwood. I ordered only Christmas-themed Dzed Moroze, Father Snow, the Russian version of Santa Claus. Sweeping robe-like coats and matching hats, intricately carved staffs coated in gold paint held by mittened hands. Santa faces with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, boasting winding white-and-gray beards.

These are nowhere near what I ordered. This box of six-inch statues is full of Santas sporting various NFL logos, and their hats seem pointier than normal. Did she order from a new artist? Or mix my invoice up with another?

If these were nesting dolls instead of the Santa figures, I’d go with the flow. It’s common to have various themed Matryoshka dolls; I’ve ordered several Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania pro- and college-team themes for the nesting collectibles. But my Santa inventory is meant to be top of the line, pure Christmas.

I sigh, wondering if Tatyana has enough time to accept a return and get what I ordered delivered. I look at the whiteboard calendar on the office’s far wall. It’s possible, but the shipping might be cost prohibitive. I reach for my phone to call her—

“Ouch!” Ralph’s shriek startles me. He must see someone in the front window. I don’t hear knocks at the shop entry when I’m this far in the back. I spin on my foot to see who it is. My sudden movement catches my hip on the corner of the workbench, and the row of unwrapped Santas jiggles. Time slows as thousands of dollars of inventory threaten to jump off the plywood.

“No!” I reach over with both arms, stopping all but one of the football Santas from launching into midair. I watch in dismay as a Santa flips, hits the side of the contractor’s buzz saw, and splits into two jagged pieces that hit the floor with two sickening thuds. I kneel and pick up the pieces of the destroyed Santa. And mentally calculate the cash loss.

Business isn’t open yet, and I’m already destroying my profits. I throw the Santa halves into the box that rests against the back door. The tinkling crunch of the half-dozen malformed glass swizzle sticks I threw out last night underscores the weight of the broken Santa, and a shot of sadness slices through my hurried activity. An artisan in Russia spent hours perfecting the now unsaleable Santa. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

It’s part of being in retail.

I’m still on my knees, grasping the workbench to stand back up, when an unfamiliar clicking sound sounds, followed by a distinct scratching at the back employee-only door. Keys against the steel door. I stop breathing as my heart races. Mom has keys to the front door, to my apartment upstairs. No one else has the keys to this back entrance, except the girls and their keys are with them at their respective universities.

Someone’s letting themselves in, picking the lock. All that separates us is a standard push-lever commercial door. I can always get out, but no one should be able to get in without a key.

Ralph’s whistle echoes through the building.

It’s his way of warning me.

I’m not going to let anyone think they can even try to get into my shop. Navy training kicks in as I cut to the chase and press the lever. The door flings open.

“Whoa!” A woman jumps backward, arms flailing, her feet miraculously staying under her. A paper cup flies through the air and splats onto the gravel. Steaming coffee splashes across the concrete stoop, rolling to a stop with the LATTE LOVE logo face up.

“What the he—!” Harshly spoken words have my hackles up, but I’m too stunned to reply. I’ve heard a lot of creative swearing onboard ships, but I have to admit, this particular string of epithets ranks among the saltiest. The woman’s arms flail as she fights to stay upright. I reflexively grab at her, managing to catch her upper arm in one hand and coat lapel in the other.

“Let go of me!” She’s not even fully upright before she yells at me, clearly surprised. Shocked, maybe.

I immediately recognize Frances Schrock, my high school classmate and owner of the real estate business that has basically bought and sold most of Stonebridge. Including my shop and home, the cutest red brick building on Main Street. Yes, I’m partial.

“Frannie! I’m so sorry. I, I thought you were a burglar.” I stare at the humongous collection of keys still grasped in her hand. Is the one clutched between her thumb and index finger a match to mine?

“Angel!” Her usual dulcet tone returns. “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you’d be here this morning or of course I would have knocked!” She shoves the keys into the pocket of her perfectly tailored wool coat and looks down to where her leather tote lay, piles of papers spilling out. “I was going to leave my brochures for the Stonebridge Tourism Authority on your desk.”

At my silence, she shifts her feet. I’m being quiet because I’m trying to figure out how on earth, in any world, this is okay. That someone not connected to my business would think it’s okay to break in—okay, let herself in—to leave brochures. I’m new to the small-town rules thing, after being gone for so long and living on a global scale. I’m not that out of touch, am I?

“Gosh, Angel, I’m so sorry I startled you. The whole point of me leaving these was to not bother you. I’m taking them to all the businesses in town today.”

“Your coffee is gone.”

“No worries whatsoever.” She looks down at her outfit. “Look, not a drop on me. We’re good.”

There’s a coffee stain on my brown leather boots, but I figure she doesn’t notice it because she’s busy shoving the papers into her bag. She straightens, her usually smooth face crinkled in…worry?

“Come on in while I get you a fresh cup. It’s the least I can do.” I hold the door open, wave her into my cramped office.

“I’ve got my hot beverage bar all set up. Your choice, coffee or tea.”

Frannie waves her hand in the air as if flitting away a gnat. “Please, are you kidding? That’s not necessary. It’s no biggie, seriously.” But she follows my outstretched arm and enters my office. I shut the door firmly behind us, not desiring any more surprises this morning.

“I imagine you’re wondering why I’d come here and let myself in, but believe me, it was because I didn’t want to take up any of your time. I ran into your mother at Latte Love, and she mentioned you might be out this morning. When no one answered at the front door, I thought I’d try the back.”

“It’s okay.” It isn’t, but again, it’s on me that I haven’t changed the locks yet. “Coffee?”

Frannie nods. We stand at the beverage counter as I prepare her drink. I feel her gaze on me, and when I look up she draws in a breath, nods. “So tell me, Angel, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you since the closing, except for out here on the street a time or two.”

I wince inwardly, hoping she’s not still upset that I worked with Dave, one of her more junior agents, instead of with her or her husband and business partner Ken. I’d been so anxious to seal the deal on my home and shop building that I’d not thought about contacting her directly. And in my defense, the junior agent had been the listing agent.

Frannie has assured me more than once that my oversight, like the coffee spill, wasn’t any big deal, but my guilt lingers. It’s too dang easy to make missteps returning to the community where I learned to ride a bike, had my first kiss, learned how to go after my heart’s desires. I’ve been gone a long time.

“I’m good. Setting up my business, keeping myself beyond busy. I’m shooting for the grand opening in two weeks.”

“I’m so glad to hear that. We’re all thrilled that you picked Stonebridge as your permanent port-of-call. It’s an honor to have a real-life Navy hero in our midst!”

True to Frannie’s words, there’s no sign of rancor in the wide smile she gives me. In fact, she’s downright welcoming, as always.

“I’m no hero. Just did my job is all.” I assume she’s referring to the press release describing one of my combat missions. I flew a SAR mission that got six SEALs out of a sticky spot. It was a right-time, right-place thing as far as
I’m concerned. I didn’t fly into the thick of a battle, but the newspaper made it sound like I did.

“You’re modest, just like Will.” She refers to her son in the US Marine Corps. Her gaze is constantly looking past me, skittering about the office, as though she’s hoping for someone more interesting to show up. I notice that her lipstick, a deep cinnamon, matches the autumnal hues of her outfit. She’s making the most of the Thanksgiving season, while I’m already into Christmas. Frannie’s always been the most stylish of all my high school classmates, garnering her the best-dressed award at the end of senior year. Her pumpkin gingham blouse’s collar peeks out from under a matching orange crewneck sweater, all under a stylish ginger car coat that tops nutmeg corduroys. Her pants are tucked into mocha leather high-heeled boots. My comfy holiday sweater and battered jeans shoved into well-worn boots is shabby by comparison.
No negative self-talk allowed. You’re still in setup mode. Besides, comparers never prosper, or something like that.

Frannie takes the holly-themed mug into her perfectly manicured hands and sits on the one additional chair in my office, intimating we’ll have a prolonged chat. She chose pumpkin creamer for her coffee, and the scent of cinnamon fills the air.

“How are you doing, Frannie? How’s Ken?”

“Me? I’m fine! Business is crazy, of course, as you know. Be glad you bought when you did. I just sold the building three down from yours for almost twice as much.” Her enthusiasm is evident in the way her eyes sparkle and her teeth flash with each smile. Frannie leans on one hip, her bright blue eyes assessing me over her chic sunglasses.

“Your mother says you’ve got so many dreams for this old laundromat. I would have thought you’d still be working on your apartment. There’s a reason you got the building for a song!” She emphasizes dreams as if they’re mere wisps of ideas and not about to become my, and Stonebridge’s only, international curio shop on Main Street. I trust my mother, as in I know she didn’t say anything intimate to Frannie. But Frannie’s job is to overstate the obvious, so it’s easy for her to take a simple statement and blow it out of proportion. I’m unnerved by the reminder that nothing I do here is under the radar. Sure, I lived in a fishbowl while in military communities, but most of them were much larger than Stonebridge.

“My family helped me with the renovations, so the upstairs living quarters are close to finished. And yes, I do have a lot of plans for the shop.” I see her take in the disarray that is the temporary wood shop, her brow curved in disbelief.

“This is all temporary, from the contractors. Some of my plans will take longer to implement than others. I’m sure you can relate, since you and Ken started up your real estate business from nothing.”

“We did, but that was over twenty years ago, right out of college, when William was in pre-school. It seems a lifetime ago.” She smiles and her lips tremble. She presses them together as if trying to rein in her momma-bear heart. “Now my boy’s a Marine. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. And before I forget, thank you for your service. I never knew what a sacrifice it must have been for your parents to let you go when you were so young.”

While I’m sure they had their concerns, my parents were more than a teensy bit thrilled to have their bouncing-off-the-walls child out the door to chase her dream of becoming a Navy pilot. I’m not going to even try to explain this to Frannie, though. Not in a quick gab session, anyway. I don’t know Frannie’s son; I’ve only seen him in quick catch-ups like this one. He’s almost five years older than the twins, as Frannie and Ken had him while they were still in college.

“William went straight into the Corps right out of high school, right? That’s impressive. He’s a brave young man. I had four years in Annapolis before I was one hundred percent in the Fleet.”

“You’re being too modest, Angel. You’ve always been that way. But now you’re part of the Stonebridge small business scene.” She leans forward, places a hand on my desk. “Can I share something? One thing you need to know about running a business is that you have to throw any sense of humbleness right out the door. Brag to everyone about how wonderful your shop is, how they don’t want to miss a single bit of it. Are you planning a real grand opening, I hope?” Frannie sniffs. “Soft openings are a waste of time, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Actually, yes. That’s why my goal is to open by Small Business Saturday.” The Saturday after Thanksgiving, after Black Friday, seemed perfect when I was writing in my planner last June. Now, only a couple weeks out, it looks insane.

“I suppose that’s a good time to launch a Christmas shop. I mean, it sounds like you’ll have to count on your seasonal revenue to carry you for the rest of the year?” Her pained expression tugs at my will-I-fail? anxiety.

“Oh, it’s not a Christmas shop. Christmas will be twenty-five to sixty percent of my stock, depending upon the time of year. I’m carrying items for every imaginable holiday around the world. And lots of fun gift items. Don’t worry, I’ll keep both the tourists and locals happy with my selections.” I don’t like that I’m feeling defensive about something I’ve planned in so much detail. But Frannie doesn’t know the kind of work I did in the Navy, that launching a business feels second nature after following flight checklists before and after every mission. Except for this part. Tiptoeing around the locals. Because I won’t be moving in two years, I won’t be able to start over like I did with each new duty station. Putting down roots has its risks, too.

Frannie’s perfectly groomed brows arch above her trendy frames. “Really? That’s far more ambitious than I realized. Make sure I get a grand opening poster for my office window.”

“Poster?” My stomach sinks as I realize I haven’t even begun to think about print promotion. I’ve been so wrapped up in getting the inventory ready for retail, both physical and via the website. Social media is where I’ve put all my promo eggs. I never considered the good, old-fashioned tried and true. My palm itches to slap my forehead.

Frannie’s expression softens, and compassion glimmers in her eyes. She reaches across the expansive desk and puts her hand on my forearm.

“Don’t stress. Groundhog Quick Print over on Loganberry Drive does a wonderful job. They’ll give you a local business discount and do the design work, too. Tell them I sent you.”

“Thanks for the info, Frannie. I’ll stop in there on Monday.” I mean it. Frannie interpreted my silence correctly and offered an immediate, viable solution. The spiky hot caterpillars in my gut turn to warm butterflies of gratitude. They remind me I’ve made the right decision to start over in Stonebridge.

“One Way or Another” sounds from Frannie’s designer bag and she retrieves her phone, removes her sunglasses and perches a pair of red-framed reading glasses on her nose. She reads the Caller ID and frowns, then holds the phone to her ear.

“Jenna. Where are you?” Frannie’s tone turns sour on a dime, and I inwardly cringe. I’d witnessed how Frannie runs her office with an iron fist. I’ve been there. I’m constantly reminding myself that not everyone has had the benefit of quality leadership training. Let’s just say I’d never talk to a subordinate with such a tone of disdain, at least not in public, even on the phone.

“Let me guess, he’s too busy to get it himself?” Frannie actually tsks her disapproval. “Go ahead, get his coffee, then go back and get my usual. I’ll text you where and when to bring it. Ken will have to rely on himself for his showing this afternoon. I need you more than he does.” Frannie’s tone is so caustic, a complete one hundred and eighty degrees out from the sunny tone she took with me. Is her head going to start spinning?

Frannie turns her attention back to me and lowers her reading glasses. She winks. “See what I mean about the perils of running your own business? Jenna comes off as a sweet young woman, but she’s human. Give her a five-minute break and she takes half an hour. I’ve learned over the years to always make it clear that I’m the boss. Remember, Angel. You can’t please everyone.”

“Um, thanks.” Explaining to Frannie that I have two decades of leadership experience isn’t an option, and not only because it’d be a pure ego exercise on my part. Frannie’s not a listener.

“Tell Quick Print that I sent you. Their website is fun, with an easy graphic design app that you can fiddle with until they open on Monday.”

“Will do.” I check my phone for the time. “Look, Frannie, I hate to rush you—”

“Say no more!”

“It’s just that I already had an appointment to get coffee at Latte Love.”

“Oooh, fun! I rarely get to actually sit and chat in there, I’m always on the run. Are you meeting someone?”

“Yes. My sister. Crystal?”

“Oh.”

Frannie’s brows raise, and her lips purse as if something important has occurred to her. Or maybe she’s trying to place Crystal. It’s not as though their paths cross much—Crystal and her husband have been in the same house for thirty years. I’m about to ask Frannie about it when she returns to her happy self and nods, pats me on the forearm again.

“Wonderful. You must be so happy to be back with family.” She looks at her phone. “Oh boy. I’ve lost track of time myself. I’m so sorry but I have to jaunt off to a showing. You’ve got my number—let’s get together!”

We loosely hug—the Stonebridge version of a wave—and I walk her through the front of the shop and let her out the front door. I expect her to head toward her office, with the black-and-white striped awning, visible several blocks down. Instead she turns to the right, toward the end of town. She’s probably got her own property showing on schedule.

Schrock Real Estate has blossomed over the years. Frannie and Ken have a lot to be proud of. Their signs are in front of the vast majority of sale properties in Stonebridge, and real estate has seen an uptick as young couples are flocking to more suburban, semi-rural settings after making their mark in any one of the major cities that surround us. Besides Philly and Pittsburgh, we’re only two hours from Washington, DC, and three from New York. Frannie and Ken made my property purchase easier than it might have been, via their junior agent Dave, working with me across the miles to get the myriad documents signed. I literally walked into the title company’s office on a quick trip from Belgium last December and closed on the building in under two hours. This allowed for the extensive amount of rehab that was needed to be done before the girls and I ever rolled into town. As I told Frannie, we’d finished the rest of the re-do this past summer.

There’s no doubt that Schrock Real Estate is a success. Frannie and Ken are living the American dream. Yet I don’t get the feeling that Frannie thinks she has that much to be happy about. If her tone with Jenna is any indication, I suspect their office environment remains intense. Whenever I’ve been in their office, I’m usually yukking it up with Ken, who ran cross-country all four years of high school, same as me. Ken and I were closer friends than Frannie and I, back in the day.

I’m going to be late for coffee with Crystal if I don’t hurry, so I quickly make sure Ralph’s locked in his cage, still in front of the large store window. I shove my arms into a red wool coat and twist a sparkling silver hand-knit scarf from Bryce around my neck. The hand-painted Russian broach I’ve pinned to my lapel dresses up my otherwise casual attire. The intricate design features a couple in a troika, with tiny snowflakes dusting the scene.
Ralph gives me a side-eye from his heated perch.

“See you later, sweetie.” I say.

“Bye-bye.” He mimics the twins, who have the same pitch, in his usual sad voice. I ignore the tug at my heartstrings. He’ll be fine for the few hours I’ll be gone.

Within five minutes I’m at Latte Love, invigorated by the cold gusts of wind that hastened my pace. I’m never not impressed by the gray-stone building that used to be the town jail, then fifty years later, the police station. It became a coffee shop several years back, but changed owners more than once from what I’ve heard. I’m not going out on a limb to say Latte Love is located in Stonebridge’s most sturdy edifice.

“Hey,” Crystal greets me through the open passenger window of her white Jeep. I blink. I didn’t see her pull up.

“Hi!” I wave. While I wait for her to parallel park, I make a mental note to ask her about Frannie and Ken. And realize that not only did Frannie not answer my question about how Ken was, she barely mentioned him, save for dissing him in front of her employee. And me.

I’m aware that as a widow, it’s easy for me to put Tom on a pedestal, but the truth is that he was the love of my life.

Is Ken still Frannie’s soul mate? Or is something going on I’m unaware of?

Crystal and I hug, then walk up the stone steps of Latte Love together. Finally, the day turns to what I came back home for.

Normalcy.

End of Excerpt

A Santa Stabbing

is available for pre-order in the following formats:

Tule Mystery

Nov 2, 2022