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Preview Purrfect Christmas

The Mysteries of Max 63

Tis the Season to be Molly

I would like to say that Christmas is my favorite holiday but it’s not. It’s not the day itself, it’s the season. Too cold, too wet and way too much snow. Cats aren’t in the habit of wearing shoes, you see, so all this snow and ice plays havoc on our poor paws. Now if they would simply schedule Christmas in the summer, or even the spring, I’d be all for it. But then we all know that the powers that be don’t consider a cat’s opinion as valid, so I won’t even go there.

Okay, so all this simply to say that this latest installment in my chronicles deals with Christmas, Christmas stores, in fact all things Christmas. The good part is that even in the middle of winter Tex decided to drag his barbecue set from the shed and cook us up some delicious goodies. But before that happened—and I guess this is the bad part—there were a bunch of murders being committed and I had to tax my brain—my big brain as my friend Dooley never fails to point out—to try and figure out who was behind it.


Ten years ago

Jeff Jones didn’t have to dress up like Santa, but it felt like a nice touch. And he was sure that the person he was meeting would appreciate the gesture. Usually it was his dad who played Santa, just like his dad had done before him for many, many years. In Hampton Cove Franklin Jones had earned himself quite a reputation as Santa, entertaining generations of youngsters while dandling them on his knee. Three years ago Jeff’s dad had taken over from Grandpa, carrying on the legacy.

“One day, my boy,” Jeff’s Grandpa had told him not so long ago, “all this will be yours.” He’d indicated with a sweeping gesture of his arms the interior of the Jingle Jones store, the all-year-round Christmas store the family owned in downtown Hampton Cove. Having been a big fan of Christmas all his life, Franklin Jones decided to create the Christmas store to end all Christmas store when he launched Jingle Jones. At first business had been slow, but over the years their reputation as the place to be for everyone who felt that Christmas shouldn’t be limited to the holidays but celebrated all year round had continued to grow and spread far beyond their hometown. And so now people came from all over the county to do their shopping at the Jones family store. Santa’s meet-and-greets had been organized exclusively during the holidays, though, since Santa needed to spend the rest of the year at his workshop with his elves to get ready for the next season.

For the first seventeen years Franklin had done the honors, but he was getting on in years, so the last three years Dad had taken over as Santa, with the firm wish that one day one of his two sons, Jeff or Jim, would step into his sturdy black boots and stick on the typical white beard and wear the jolly red outfit.

Jeff didn’t mind. In fact he loved dressing up as Santa, and as he looked around the store, which was deserted at this time of night, he wondered not for the first time whether he’d fulfill his dad and granddad’s wish and follow in their footsteps, yes or no. It was a tall order for a young man to have his whole life mapped out for him from an early age, and sometimes he wondered if he shouldn’t put up more of a fight whenever his dad spoke of the Jones family legacy, and how proud he was that his oldest son might pick up the baton and carry on what had become a tradition.

“A solid family business, son,” his dad never failed to point out, “that’s what we’re handing you on a silver platter. An income for life, if you’re prepared to put in the work. Cause make no mistake, running a Christmas store and keeping your customers happy is hard work. But it’s also the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do when you see the smiles on the children’s faces, and that of their parents.”

Oh, well. He didn’t have to decide now. He still had time. But at some point a decision would have to be made. Was he going to become the third Jones to run the Jingle Jones store? Or was he going to break away from tradition and do his own thing?

He looked up when the person he’d arranged to meet finally walked in. Holding up the big brass bell, he hollered in his deepest Santa voice, “Ho, ho, ho!” Which is when he discovered that the person emerging from the shadows wasn’t who he had expected. He let his arm fall back to his side and yanked down the white beard. Annoyance made his voice sound shrill. “What are you doing here?!”

Chapter 1

For our convenience Odelia had placed four cozy baskets near the radiator. In general I can’t say I’m a big fan of cat baskets. I’m a fairly big-boned cat, you see, and the manufacturers of these baskets seem to have some ideal cat in mind which is much, much smaller than me. But on the whole it wasn’t entirely disagreeable. The baskets were lined with some type of fleecy material that felt pleasant to the touch, and since they were placed so close to the radiator, they were nice and warm. Also, from our vantage point we had the perfect view across the backyard, which at the moment was covered in white. To make sure we didn’t accidentally end up in the wrong basket, Odelia had opted for different color schemes: mine was orange (obviously), Dooley’s beige, Harriet’s was as pristinely white as her snowy fur, and Brutus’s was a dark gray.

And so the four of us lay side by side, watching the world go by. In this case the backyard, which may have been covered in snow, but was also teeming with life. The fact that Chase had turned our backyard into a veritable haven for birds may have had something to do with this.

Not only had he installed a heated bird bath on a pedestal, but also several feeders where our feathered friends could get their nourishment during the cold snap we’d been experiencing. It was certainly fun to watch the little fellas pick from the feeders and fly to and fro the bird bath. Some of them even took quick baths in the bath, if you see what I mean. Frankly I’d never take a bath in my water bowl, but then of course I’m not a bird but a cat.

And so the four of us watched on, fascinated by the rare spectacle of dozens of birds snacking from the feeders filled with suet, seeds, fruits and nuts and anything else your growing bird needs.

And if you’re worried that my friends or I would get the wrong idea and decide that we should have bird on the menu once or twice a week, and that this was the perfect opportunity to have at it since they were right there in front of us, I can assure you that we would never go to such lengths to feed ourselves. Lucky for us Odelia and Chase provide us with the food we need in some abundance.

The same could not be said about everyone, though, as an article in the Gazette seemed to indicate.

“Did you see this, Max?” asked Harriet, who had been reading on the iPad again. “‘Cold weather detrimental for our little friends.’”

“What little friends?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, all the little friends,” she said, adding to my confusion.

“I think Harriet is probably talking about elves, leprechauns and fairies,” said Dooley. “They’re generally known as little folk. And they must be cold now, with this freezing weather we’ve been having.”

“I’m not talking about little folk,” said Harriet. “I’m talking about our little friends.”

“I guess the little folk could be our little friends,” Dooley allowed. “If they actually existed, of course. There seems to be some doubt about that. There was a documentary about fairies on the Discovery Channel last week, and according to the scientists they interviewed the first fairy still has to be discovered. Though in the world of literature—”

“Dooley, will you please shut up for a moment?” Harriet kindly requested. “I’m not talking about elves or fairies or leprechauns. I’m talking about cats and dogs that are out there, on the street, right now, freezing their tushies off.”

“Why wouldn’t they go inside, where it’s nice and warm?” asked Dooley. “That’s not very smart of them, is it?”

“They’re not inside where it’s nice and warm because they have nowhere to go,” Harriet said. “Because they don’t have humans who take care of them, like we do.”

“Oh,” said Dooley, as he gave this some thought.

“Do we know any of these cats and dogs?” asked Brutus, stretching himself luxuriously. “Cause I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t have an owner.”

“Well, there’s Clarice,” said Harriet. “She’s even mentioned by name in the article.” She cleared her throat. “‘On a cold winter morning your reporter ventured out along Main Street, to find a stray cat named Clarice, well known to the locals, huddled near a vent of the No Spring Chicks restaurant, trying to stay warm. It is at times like these that we are reminded of the creatures that live in conditions not as favorable as ours, and encouraged to show our Christmas spirit by sharing some of our food and hospitality with them.’” She looked up with a grim expression on her face. “Poor Clarice. Imagine having to be out there in the cold, day and night, trying to stay warm.”

“Who wrote the article?” asked Brutus.

“Odelia, of course,” said Harriet. “She writes all the articles.”

“So why hasn’t she shown her Christmas spirit and invited Clarice into her home?” asked our butch black friend.

“I think Clarice actually has a standing invitation to stay with us whenever she wants,” I said. “So if she’s still out there, it means she’s choosing to be out there.”

“You know what Clarice is like,” said Brutus, yawning. “She loves it out there, whether rain or shine, or freezing temperatures like we’ve been having lately. Odelia probably suggested she stay with us, and she turned her down flat, the way she always does.”

“Poor Clarice,” said Dooley with feeling. “Being out there on principle, even though it might kill her.”

“Nothing can kill Clarice, “said Brutus. “She’s indestructible. Tough as nails!”

“Yeah, but still,” I said, my thoughts turning to our feral friend, who had helped us out on numerous occasions. “You can be as tough as you like, but I wouldn’t want to be her right now. They’re saying it might snow a lot more in the next few days, and temperatures will drop even lower.”

Harriet shivered. “Brrr,” she said. “Good thing we’re inside where it’s nice and warm!”

“Yeah, good thing,” I agreed. I wasn’t going out there under any circumstances. Unless of course some urgent case required our immediate attention, which fortunately hadn’t happened yet. And frankly I was hoping it would stay that way. Besides, who in their right mind would be up to any mischief when it was this cold? Even the bad guys don’t like it when their tushies freeze off.

And so I made a mental note to tell Odelia to look in on Clarice from time to time and make sure she was all right, and then closed my eyes and settled in for the duration.

Chapter 2

Contrary to popular opinion Clarice wasn’t in a bad way at all. True, it was pretty cold outside, and especially at night she had to take care not to be out and about as much as she was used to, but overall she found life pretty chill. Especially since she had discovered that her popularity appeared to be inversely proportional to the prevailing mean outdoor temperature. The colder it got, the more people stopped by to offer her food and such necessities as warm blankets, knitwear and even little socks to keep her paws warm.

Her favorite place was the dumpster located next to the vent of the No Spring Chicks restaurant in the heart of town. The vent provided all the heat she needed to stay warm, and as an added bonus all the delicious smells of freshly cooked food, and the dumpster was never devoid of the kind of foodstuffs she enjoyed—the added bonus in this case the mice and rats the dumpster attracted. At night she crawled into the dumpster, curled up into a ball and slept. And in the daytime she felt like an empress greeting her subjects, of whom there were many and of every variety: young and old, men and women—all of them bearing gifts, forming a long procession of well-wishers.

So when Odelia Kingsley had dropped by the other day, and asked if she wouldn’t be more comfortable inside, she had declined the kind offer and told the reporter she was fine—nothing to worry about. The odd thing was that after Odelia had visited, the number of people visiting her modest lair had swelled to biblical proportions, and now she was being inundated with so much food the mice and rats and other vermin had a field day—and as a consequence so did she.

In other words: Clarice’s Christmas was shaping up to be an epic one. Better than any Christmas she’d ever had.


Across the street from the alley that people had started calling Clarice’s Alley, in honor of its most famous resident, Kingman was watching the comings and goings with a curious eye. Safely ensconced inside the General Store, lying on top of the radiator bed Wilbur had conveniently provided for him, the large piebald wondered what the big attraction was. He knew and liked Clarice, of course, since they were practically neighbors, but these sudden pilgrimage scenes that had sprung up were something else.

He looked up when Max and Dooley walked into the store and he greeted them with a nod of the head toward the scene across the street. “Clarice seems to be vying for the position of Hampton Cove’s First Cat. It’s been like this since your Odelia wrote that article of hers. People coming and going all day long. I wonder what the big deal is.”

“I’m glad she’s doing fine,” said Max as he hopped up onto the radiator blanket and pawed it appreciatively. “What’s this material? It’s very nice to the touch.”

Dooley had followed suit and agreed wholeheartedly with his friend’s endorsement of the radiator blanket. “We should tell Odelia to get us one of these, Max. They’re great.”

The General Store’s radiator wasn’t a luxury item, since the store’s automatic doors were opening and closing all the time, and every time a customer walked in or out it brought a gust of frosty air into the store. And even though the radiator was blasting away, it couldn’t compete with that contingency, which Kingman blamed on faulty interior design of the store. A lot of stores nowadays have a so-called air curtain installed that keeps the cold out and the heat in. It provides an invisible air barrier for stores where the doors are more open than closed. Unfortunately Wilbur was the old-fashioned type and didn’t believe in that kind of newfangled solution. Instead he had placed a space heater on the floor near the cash register, kept his knit cap on all winter, and his fingerless gloves, and kept the one radiator near the entrance blazing away so customers wouldn’t complain too much—or Kingman, for that matter.

“It seems like such a waste, though,” Max remarked, indicating the radiator. “With energy prices being as high as they are, Wilbur could probably save a lot of money if he got rid of this antiquity.”

“Hey, don’t give him any ideas,” said Kingman. “If it wasn’t for this old thing I’d be upstairs, locked inside our apartment all winter.” At least now he could be out and about and meet his friends, though as the temperatures had dropped, he was loath to venture outside.

The three of them settled in and watched the goings-on across the street with marked interest.

“You were right,” said Max finally. “It’s almost like a pilgrimage. People coming and going and bringing gifts.”

“I think it’s great,” said Dooley. “Very Christmassy.”

“It is very Christmassy,” Max agreed. “And I’m happy for Clarice.”

“She’s in here all the time, you know,” said Kingman. “Whenever it gets too cold out there she sneaks across the street and hops up onto this very radiator to warm her weary bones. She’s not a great conversationalist, though, I can tell you that. In fact I can count on the claws of my right paw the number of times we had an actual conversation.”

“Clarice is the strong, silent type,” said Max. “Always has been.”

“I didn’t know she was in here all the time,” said Dooley. “The article Odelia wrote didn’t mention that.”

“That article didn’t mention a lot of things. Like the fact that Wilbur has been feeding her from my stash of kibble. Though obviously she doesn’t need us anymore. I’ll bet she has more food now than she knows what to do with.”

“Oh, but Clarice is a good trencherwoman,” said Max. “I once saw her eat an entire rat in one go.”

“I know,” Kingman grumbled. “You should see the bags of kibble she manages to put away. I may be twice her size, but she can easily stuff down twice what I eat in an entire day!”

“It’s the cold,” said Dooley knowingly. “To keep her body warm she needs a lot of calories.”

“It’s very good of you to share your food and your home with Clarice, Kingman,” said Max. “Very neighborly.”

“Oh, well,” said Kingman with a shrug. “One does what one can, doesn’t one?” He didn’t mention that he had no say in the matter whatsoever. The shopkeepers association that represented all the shopkeepers in downtown Hampton Cove had decided that all stray animals either should be brought to a shelter, or had to be adopted by one of the association’s members. And since Clarice was some kind of local celebrity, the association had put Wilbur in charge of her well-being. Wilbur had suggested taking her to the Vesta Muffin Animal Shelter for the duration, but seeing as Clarice was a big hit with both tourists and locals alike, his idea had been shot down in favor of a more hands-on approach. One that would keep her in the public eye.

After all, Clarice attracted a lot of foot traffic, and foot traffic is the lifeblood of any town’s downtown area, especially Main Street, which had already lost a lot of business to the Hampton Keys mall.

“Mark my words,” said Kingman. “Clarice is the rising star of Hampton Cove. It won’t be long before her popularity eclipses that of any other cat in town—and that includes your good friend Harriet.”

Max seemed surprised by this. “Clarice? More popular than Harriet?” With her gorgeous looks the pretty Persian had always been the star of their local cat community. Their very own princess. But Kingman had a feeling that was about to change.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “There’s a new star in town, fellas. And you’re looking at her.”

For Clarice had decided to take a little break from attending to her legion of fawning fans, and was crossing the street in their direction.

“Oh, look, Max,” said Dooley. “It’s Clarice. She’s coming over to say hi.”

“Better move over, Dooley,” said Kingman. “You’re in Clarice’s spot.”

The door opened and Clarice strode in. And the moment she did, a hush descended upon the store. Conversations halted and all attention turned to the new arrival. Clarice, either unaware or indifferent of the glances that were riveted on her, looked up at Kingman and gave him a nod. “Kingman,” she said curtly.

“I’ve saved your spot, Clarice,” said Kingman with a touch of obsequiousness that would have made his stomach turn if he hadn’t felt it was necessary to accommodate Wilbur’s latest charge.

“Good,” Clarice grunted as Max and Dooley scooted over so Clarice could have her usual spot on the old radiator. Without hesitation she gracefully hopped up onto the blanket and settled down. Without another word, she closed her eyes, and before long she was fast asleep, causing Kingman to exchange curious glances with Max and Dooley.

Odd, felt Kingman, but it almost felt as if they were in the presence of royalty.

Chapter 3

Laura Scott was in a hurry. She had slept through her alarm clock, which wasn’t like her, and when she finally did wake up she saw to her consternation that she should have been on her way to the store fifteen minutes ago. She could still make it if she hurried. So she stepped into the shower and was enjoying the heat of the spray when she noticed a spot on the shower wall. Thinking it was a piece of fluff that had attached itself there, she tried to wipe it off, but discovered that it was in fact a small hole.

On closer inspection there was something seriously wrong with that hole. Obviously no hole should have been there, since the shower stall wall, like the rest of the bathroom, was tiled, and a hole presented a flaw in the system. Water could seep in and affect the structural integrity of the wall. Furthermore, she had never noticed this particular hole before, and wondered when and how it had come to be.

She cut her shower session short, wrapped a towel around herself and returned to the bathroom with her phone. Using the torch app she directed a powerful light at the hole, wanting to see how deep it ran. And that’s when she saw it: the light from her phone was reflected by something inside the hole. Like a piece of glass.

 Glass or… the lens of a camera?

A sudden chill made her skin creep, and all she could think now was to get to the bottom of this mystery that had presented itself to her. Was someone spying on her? Or was this simply the consequence of an overactive imagination, something she had been accused of in the past?

So she phoned Rebecca to tell her she was running late, and then put in a call to the plumber her landlady had been so kind to assign to her. It was the same plumber who had fixed her toilet the other day, and had done a great job at it.

The plumber promised to pop in shortly, and while she eagerly awaited his arrival, she busied herself with tidying up the apartment. Once upon a time she’d lived there with her then-husband Jeff, but that was before he had been murdered in a burglary gone wrong. She picked up the framed picture of her and Jeff on their wedding day, and eyed it fondly. She could still remember Jeff’s mother Rebecca calling her that morning, frantic with grief and shock, to tell her that something terrible had happened. That she had gone to open the store that morning, as she always did, and she’d immediately known that something was wrong. The store had been ransacked, and in the middle of all of the mess, Jeff had been lying, dressed in a Santa suit, his eyes wide open and staring into space.

It had been the worst day of Laura’s life. Made even worse when she realized that she hadn’t even noticed that Jeff hadn’t come home that night. In her defense, she’d been dead tired after a long day at the store, and had dropped into bed and fallen asleep immediately. It was actually Rebecca’s phone call that had woken her up. The first thing she noticed was that her husband wasn’t there, but she attributed that to him leaving early for work, something he often did during the holidays. And then of course the awful news came that he had died. Killed by a burglar. They caught the burglar quickly enough. But that didn’t bring her husband back. Nothing ever would.

She looked up from her musings when the doorbell chimed and hurried to open it.

“You’re very lucky, lady,” said the plumber as he entered the apartment and wiped his feet on the mat. “Someone canceled so I managed to squeeze you in.”

“Thank you so much,” she said. She knew how hard it was to get a plumber to come by at a moment’s notice like this. Her friends told her they often had to wait days or weeks before someone showed up. “I discovered something weird in my bathroom,” she explained as she led the way.

“Don’t tell me. Is it a spider?” he quipped.

“No, it’s not a spider,” she said with a weak smile. Last time he was there he told her the story of a woman who had called him round to deal with a big spider that had taken up residence in her bath. The lady lived alone, and didn’t know who else to call to deal with the monster.

She led the man into the bathroom and showed him the hole in the shower wall. “That’s not supposed to be there, is it? I mean, I only saw it this morning, when I was taking a shower. And when I took a closer look, I saw that there’s something behind the hole. Like a piece of glass or something. So now I’m wondering…”

The plumber frowned at the hole and scratched his scalp. “You didn’t try to hang up a painting, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” she said.

“It’s just that…” He took a closer look and frowned some more. “Looks like it’s been freshly drilled, too. And a fine job they did. Oftentimes when amateurs drill a hole in a tile like this it cracks. But this one is nice and smooth.”

“Like I said, I never noticed this was there before, which makes me think it must be new.”

“You live alone, correct?”

“Yes, I live alone.”

“What about your landlady? Any chance she did this?”

“Oh, no, absolutely not. Mrs. Lievens would never enter the apartment without making an appointment first. She’s very strict about respecting her tenants’ privacy. And besides, why would she drill a hole in my shower wall? That doesn’t make any sense.”

She didn’t want to mention her crazy theory that someone had installed a camera behind that hole. That was her own imagination running wild, of course. Who in their right mind would spy on her?

“Look, the only way to find out what this hole leads to is if I remove the tile,” the plumber explained. “But to do that I need your permission or the permission of Mrs. Lievens. So what do you say?”

“Remove it,” she said immediately. She was determined to get to the bottom of this thing, even though it was probably silly of her. But she knew that if she didn’t figure it out, it would haunt her. She was like that. Maybe since her husband died, or maybe she had always been that way, but minor incidents like this could keep her up at night. “You can put it back later, though, right?” she asked. Even though Mrs. Lievens was no stickler for that kind of stuff, and after having been the woman’s tenant for fifteen years their relationship was more akin to that of a warm friendship, she didn’t want to damage a property that wasn’t hers to damage.

“Oh, absolutely,” said the plumber easily. He was a professional, and always did a good job and took pride in the work he did. Which was why Mrs. Lievens always hired him for all the work that needed to be done in any of the properties she owned. “So let’s get to the bottom of this mystery, shall we?” he said, and took a chisel from his toolkit and carefully started removing the white cement between the tiles. It only took him moments to take out the tile in question and then they were both peering at the sizable hole that had appeared. It was about an inch in diameter, and some gizmo had been placed inside the hole.

“Now what do we have here?” said the professional, a note of excitement in his voice as he studied the gizmo. He gently extracted it from its position and what he ended up holding in the palm of his hand was… a camera!

Oh, God. So her initial idea had been right after all!

“Looks like you’ve got yourself a secret admirer, Mrs. Scott,” said the plumber. “I don’t know much about cameras, but I’d bet good money that this here thing is state-of-the-art. You’ve got your transmitter here,” he said, pointing to a small antenna. “This is your wide-angle lens right here. And a nice big battery pack to guarantee long hours of transmitting the footage. And considering the location you found this baby it’s safe to say that whoever installed it had nefarious intentions in mind.” He arched a meaningful eyebrow in her direction. “If I were you I’d take this wicked little thing to the police straight away.”

She nodded distractedly. She had a hard time believing that what she was seeing was actually real, but no doubt it was.

“Someone is spying on me,” she repeated.

“I’d say so. Spying on you taking a shower, Mrs. Scott.”

“How long do you think this has been here?”

“Hard to say. But this battery pack won’t last forever. Maybe a couple of weeks, max. So whoever rigged your shower must have done so very recently.”

“Oh, God,” she said, bringing a distraught hand to her face.

“Call the police,” the plumber insisted, a fatherly tone having entered his voice now. He was an older man, perhaps in his early sixties, and clearly he felt bad for her.

“But who would do that to me?” she said. “I don’t understand.”

“The world is full of weirdos and perverts, Mrs. Scott. Could be that someone took an interest in you. A customer at the store, maybe. Or one of your neighbors.”

She quickly parsed the list of her neighbors. Mrs. and Mr. Craig next door. Both octogenarians and the kindest people on the planet. Mrs. Harper on the first floor. Early seventies and a neat freak, always busy cleaning the hallway and making sure her own place looked spic and span. And Mr. Jackson who lived one floor up. A recently retired mailman who loved nothing more than to play with his set of toy trains. Hard to imagine any of them drilling a hole in her shower wall and installing a camera to spy on her. They probably wouldn’t even know how, much less how to enter her apartment without a key.

“Okay, so do you want me to put the tile back?” asked the plumber. “It’s just that when the police get here, they’ll want to examine the evidence.”

“No, better leave it like this for now,” she said. She had no intention whatsoever of calling the police. But she did have someone in mind who might want to look at this setup.

“Once the police are through with their investigation, please give me a call,” said the plumber. “I’ll happily restore the wall to its original state—without charge.” He directed a kindly look at her. “I’m sorry about this, Mrs. Scott. Nice lady like you doesn’t deserve having to deal with crap like this.”

“Nobody deserves this,” she said, to which he nodded commiseratingly.

Once the man had left, leaving the camera on her living room table, she immediately took out her phone and placed a call to the only person she could think of who might be able to help her. Odelia Kingsley might be a reporter first and foremost, but she was also a formidable private sleuth when it came down to it, as plenty of people could confirm, amongst whom one of her best friends.

“Mrs. Kingsley?” she said once the call connected. “My name is Laura Scott, and someone installed a camera in my shower to spy on me.”