"You’d better think about it before he gets here!”
Katarina waved the end of a plastic holly garland at Cally, causing the desk chair on which she was standing to wobble. Cally gasped and ran to steady the chair.
“She’s not kidding,” said Bethany. The receptionist was arranging a row of white pillar candles along the mantelpiece behind the desk. She had a sprig of the same plastic holly tucked into her long, silver curls. “Santa really doesn’t like it if you don’t have a wish prepared for him.”
Cally shook her head and handed the roll of tape up to Katarina. She had begun to realize Christmas was celebrated a bit differently here in Woodley, USA, particularly at Vale House, and not just because it was famously haunted by more spirits than Santa could pack into his sack.
Still, all the bright ornaments from the boxes Ignacio had brought in from the barn did make the Reception Hall feel festive. Cally had to smile in spite of herself, watching (and trying to find a way to help) Katarina and Bethany layer the decorations on thicker and thicker.
“I get it!” Katarina laughed and climbed down from the chair to admire her handiwork. The wide doorway between the Hall and the dining room was now framed in green leaves with red berries and a tasteful hint of tinsel. “I get it! You don’t believe in Santa! Do you?” The short, round woman, a few years younger than Cally, put her hands on her hips and nodded sternly, though her dark eyes still twinkled. “That’s alright, you don’t have to believe. But you still have to make a wish!”
“Oh...” Cally picked a red glass ornament out of the box on the desk and turned it over in her hands. “I don’t mind Santa. I guess I believe in the spirit of him, anyway. It’s just that I don’t believe in wishes. Not anymore.”
“Callaghan McCarthy!” Bethany was at least fifteen years older than Cally. Her eyes didn’t twinkle the way Katarina’s did, but her smile was usually just as warm. Except for now, when her lips were drawn into a hard line as she scolded. “How could you even say such a thing? You have everything a woman your age could wish for! Your new book has just come out, and it’s selling well.” She counted on her fingers as she enumerated Cally’s blessings. “Your children are happy and healthy, and you’ll get to see them both over the holidays. You have a grandson on the way, and you even have a new romance in your life. With a very handsome gentleman, if I may say so. And on top of it all you live in the best haunted bed and breakfast this side of the interstate!”
Cally had to laugh, then. “You’re right. I am a lucky woman. Even though my children’s father will be visiting for Christmas, too. I’m sure I’ll be able to handle that okay – at least he’s staying at the Yellow House with them, not here! But you’re wrong about one thing.”
Katarina had started to extract a string of tiny white lights from one of the boxes, but she stopped with them still balled up in her hands. “And what is that? You know Bethany’s never wrong about anything.”
Both Bethany and Katarina laughed so giddily at this, Cally suspected they might have broken into the holiday brandy a few days early. She considered doing the same, maybe, later. Meanwhile, she explained herself. “It’s just that this is not the best haunted bed and breakfast this side of the interstate.” Quickly, before their laughter could turn into exclamations of outrage, she added, “It’s the finest bed and breakfast on either side of any interstate.”
The two women laughed again, louder and longer this time, while turning to help one another untangle the lights. Cally considered the red globe in her hands and, making up her mind, nestled it gently into the tinsel garland between two of the candles on the mantel.
The ornament had left red glitter all over her palms. She let out a quiet snort. She hated glitter.
“Oh, well, I suppose I’m going to be up to my eyebrows in it for the next few days,” she muttered quietly to herself, reaching back into the box for another glass ball. Out loud, she asked, “So, who plays Santa, anyway? I bet it’s Merv Arkwright. He’s got the right build for it. Or is it Ian?” She thought Ian May would probably be the best candidate, with his wide, generous smile, but he had lost quite a lot of weight, last time she’d seen him; his Santa suit would need more than a few pillows to fill it out. “Is that why Ian and Sofie are taking time away from their sailing adventures to come home for Christmas?”
“My hope is they’re coming home to stay,” Bethany said bluntly. “I’d make that my wish, this year, except we’re not allowed to make wishes that interfere with anyone’s free will. Ian and Sofie are both too old to be off sailing, especially this time of year! But as to your guesses: no, and no. Wrong on both counts. Nobody can play Santa, except Santa.”
As if in answer, Santa Claus appeared at the top of the grand staircase. At least, a skinny, dark-skinned young man wearing a red hat did. His dimples were indeed merry, though his ‘Run, Run Rudolph’ t-shirt was probably not something Santa would have chosen to wear. The jolly apparition called “Ho, Ho, Ho!” down the stairs, but of the three living humans in the Hall, only Cally could hear this. Making sure the other women’s attention was elsewhere, she threw him an “I’ll talk to you later” wink. He bowed with a flourish and vanished.
Katarina was still bent over the box of lights, her black ponytail bobbing as she struggled with a complicated snarl. At last she straightened, holding up a length of tangle-free wires and little clear bulbs. “Ta-da!”
Katarina’s satisfied grin spread even wider as her gaze shifted over Cally’s shoulder to the front door.
Cally turned around to see a tall silhouette wavering in the middle of the leaded glass oval. The door was already opening, and Katarina’s husband rushed through it, one hand reaching back to stop the screen door slamming behind him.
“And here is just the man to help us hang these up!” Trailing Christmas lights, Katarina bustled past Cally to stand on tiptoe and kiss Ignacio on the cheek. “I think these should go above the door to the parlor.” She pointed with one hand, holding the string of lights out to him with the other.
“I’m afraid I can’t help right now,” Ignacio said. He took the lights absently into his hands, but he only looked down at Katarina, and then over to Cally. His face was drawn, his eyes wide and serious. “The sheriff is on his way.”
“Whatever for?” Bethany looked up from the box she’d been rifling through. “Are we violating some kind of fire code with all these lights?” She laughed at her own joke, though it wasn’t far from the truth.
“I’ll put the coffee pot on!” Katarina dusted bits of tinsel off her apron and turned toward the kitchen. “Dunn always likes hot coffee on cold days!”
“No.” Ignacio stopped her in mid-dash. “He’s not going to have time for coffee. Not right now. Luke has found a body in the pond.”
The stunned silence that filled the Hall lasted only a second.
Cally wasn’t sure whether it was herself or the other women who had shouted the name, but all three of them hurried past Ignacio to the door.
“It isn’t Ian!” Ignacio had to shout to make himself heard above the clamor of all three of them trying to get the door open at once. “It isn’t Ian. It’s... well, neither of us recognized him. It’s a stranger, someone from outside of town.”
Cally let out a breath. In a small town like Woodley, if neither Ignacio nor the town pizza-delivery guy recognized the body, then it had to be someone Not From Around Here. That meant it was almost certainly nobody she knew and loved, but it was still a shocking matter.
“What was a stranger doing down by our pond?” Cally wrapped her arms around herself to quell the shudder that crept through her. “Anyway that pond’s not deep enough for someone to drown in. Unless...” If there was a body in the pond, she thought, someone had to have put it there. The thought that foul play had been committed so close to the house made her stomach turn over, and not just because she’d been walking outside along the fence last night...
“No, it’s probably not anything shady.” Ignacio smiled down at her, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “He was trapped under the ice.”
Cally didn’t feel the least bit reassured by this, but before she could say so she saw more figures outside the door. She opened it once more to see both Sheriff Mahon and Jacob Lucas coming up the porch steps. Once they reached the top, however, they held back, pointing apologetically to their wet boots and pants cuffs.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she called out to them. “Get in here before you freeze to death.” She winced at her choice of words as she pushed the screen door open.
The sheriff took off his hat and Luke took off his pizza delivery cap. As they shouldered past her into the warm Hall, Katarina nodded to Ignacio.
“See?” she said, resuming her dash to the kitchen. “I’ll get the hot coffee!”