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       Probable Claus: A Storybook Park Short Mystery, p.1

           Carol E. Ayer
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Probable Claus: A Storybook Park Short Mystery


  PROBABLE CLAUS

  A Storybook Park Short Mystery

  By Carol E. Ayer

  Copyright © 2016 Carol E. Ayer

  Copy-edited by Kristin Huston

  Cover design by Viola Estrella

  All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof

  may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

  without the express written permission of the author

  except for the use of brief quotations in a review.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.

  “Boss, Santa’s missing!” Cameron’s red hat, jauntily positioned on his blond head, sported a catsup stain across its white pompon, making it seem like he was starring in a Christmas horror movie. Not exactly the kind of thing I liked to promote at holiday time at my sweet storybook park, but if Cameron’s announcement was true, I had bigger problems.

  “What do you mean Santa’s missing?” This was so not the news I needed just four days before StoryWorld’s annual Holiday Festival, when the St. Nicholas, sleigh, and reindeer statues took center stage.

  Cameron looked impatient with me. “Just what I said. Me and Joaquin went up to the shed and carried the sleigh and all the reindeer over to the Magic Forest, just like you asked. Then we realized the big guy wasn’t there.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yeah, dude. You can look for yourself if you want.”

  I sent Cameron back to work at The Castle—the entrance to the park—and wended my way from my office to the storage shed in the open space behind the Humpty Dumpty Birthday Area. I had to forcibly push back a bunch of weeds to get to the ramshackle green shed. Inside, I found Valentine’s, 4th of July, and Halloween decorations but definitely no Santa Claus. I continued on to the Magic Forest, where Cameron and Joaquin had set up the sleigh and the eight reindeer. The sleigh was leading the reindeer instead of the other way around (thanks to my top-notch staff), but that could be fixed easily enough. What couldn’t so easily be fixed was the absence of Santa Claus.

  I trudged over to the Jack Sprat restaurant to whine about my predicament to my bestie, Donna. She came out of the pumpkin-shaped building to greet me.

  Donna wrapped her arms around herself and hopped up and down a couple of times. “Cold today, isn’t it? You must be loving it, you hater of sun and lover of cold and rain.”

  “Yeah, I do. But I’ve got big problems.”

  “Sounds like you could use some coffee and donuts?”

  “By all means.”

  After a while, Donna and I met up again at one of the outdoor tables. We sat in the glass slipper chairs, and Donna handed a peppermint latte and a chocolate donut with red sprinkles across the table.

  She pulled the arms of her green sweater over her hands and shivered. “So, what’s up?”

  “Santa Claus is missing.”

  “Ashling, honey, I hate to break this to you, but I think it’s time. Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

  “That’s hilarious. Our statue of Santa Claus is missing.”

  “So? Is that really so bad?”

  “Yes! It’s very, very bad. It’s from one of the original sets from StoryWorld’s early days and is worth a lot of money! Not to mention that my grandfather gave it to my mom. She loves that statue! And what are we going to do about the Holiday Festival? You know how everyone gathers around the sleigh at the end of the festival and we sing holiday songs. The sleigh without Santa is like a breakfast without donuts. I can’t believe this. What if it’s been stolen?”

  “Slow down. I’m sure it’s just been misplaced.”

  “How? It’s five feet tall and 75 pounds!”

  “I don’t know, hon, but I’m sure it’s nothing sinister.”

  I took a bite of donut and sip of latte to consider her words. “Do you think Joaquin and Cameron are playing a prank on me? Maybe I’ll find it in some weird location like The Three Little Pigs set or riding the merry-go-round.”

  “Knowing the two of them, that does seem possible.”

  “Okay. Well, I feel better. I guess I’ll just wait until it turns up. Thanks for breakfast. I’ve got a lot to do, so I can’t stay.” I grabbed the latte and donut and headed back to the office.

  “It’s still missing!” I told my boyfriend, Scott, over the phone that afternoon. This was my third call today in which I’d moaned to him about the missing statue. Great guy that he was, he hadn’t complained once.

  “I’m really sorry, honey. I wish I could do something. How about dinner tonight at Freddy’s? That should cheer you up.”

  “I’d love to. Meet you there at six-thirty?”

  “See you then.”

  I hung up and allowed myself a few seconds of warm fuzzies. My relationship with Scott had gone through its ups and downs, but we’d been going strong now for a number of months. We saw each other three or four times a week and talked on the phone every day. I couldn’t believe I’d ever had doubts about getting involved with him. He was the perfect boyfriend.

  A knock at the door interrupted my warm fuzzies. I called to my visitor to come in, but once he did, I wished I’d hidden under my desk and pretended I wasn’t there. Now standing in front of me with his trademark suit and bow tie was Professor Smith, my nemesis from the past summer. Professor Smith, who taught children’s literature at nearby Springdale University, had expressed great outrage that our sets didn’t match up exactly with the stories they represented, and he had “kindly” given me an extensive list of instructions for how to fix things. I had done absolutely zilch since he’d given me the list. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where the list was.

  “Hi, Professor Smith. Happy Holidays!” I said with false cheer.

  He regarded me coolly. “I have gone through this entire park since you opened this morning. And I have found none of my requested changes. Still! It has been months. I am in complete disbelief.”

  I had to take a moment to decipher his stilted language, but I got the gist. “Right. Well, yes. It unfortunately takes money to do those things you asked. And we never seem to have enough money, what with upkeep of the park and paying the staff and holding special events like the Holiday Festival. You know how it is.”

  “No, I do not. Painting costs very little money. Several of the items would involve a simple change of paint. Dorothy’s gingham dress, for example.”

  “Right. Well…”

  Fortunately, we were interrupted by my staff member, Katie, who rushed into the office and, almost knocking Professor Smith to the floor, took up position in front of my desk, hands on her hips. Smith grunted an objection.

  “Katie! How are you? It’s good to see you.”

  “What’s wrong with you? Why are you happy to see me?”

  I shot her and then Smith a guilty glance. “What do you mean? I’m always glad to see you. What can I do for you? Do you need something?”

  She frowned, not buying it. “The merry-go-round isn’t working. Again.”

  “Oh! Well, I’ll come right away and help you. I’m so sorry, Professor Smith, but we’ll have to discuss this later.”

  I hurriedly rose from my desk and, pushing Katie ahead of me, left the office.

  “What did he want?” Katie asked on our way to the merry-go-round, surprising me. She usually didn’t really care all that much about what was going on at work unless it involved her friendships with the female staffers or her relationship with Joaquin.

  “He wants us to change a bunch of things around here. Get them more in line with the stories.”<
br />
  “I wondered what he was up to. I saw him snooping around this morning.”

  “You did? He’s pretty upset we haven’t made any of the changes that he suggested.”

  But I’d lost her attention. She now had her phone out and was texting rapidly.

  We arrived at the merry-go-round, where a simple tweak got the ride running again. A simple tweak I’d told Katie about countless times and that she should have known about. But onward. At least she’d saved me from dealing with the good professor. By the time I returned to the office, he was gone.

  “So…have you gotten my Christmas present yet?” I asked Scott that evening over pepperoni and olive pizza.

  “Maybe.” His warm brown eyes sparkled, and my heart pitter-pattered—both over the forthcoming present and my boyfriend’s attractiveness.

  “What is it? Do you have it with you?”

  “Ashling, sweetie, you don’t get to have it or know what it is until you unwrap it Christmas morning.”

  “I’ll tell you what your present is if you want. I’m actually dying to. I know you’re going to love it.”

  Scott laughed. “That’s not how it works. I can wait, and you can wait, until the twenty-fifth.”

  “Oh, all right. But you owe me. I think you should order mud pie for us to make it up to me.”

  “I don’t really see how you figure that I owe you, but okay. We can have mud pie.”

  We finished the pizza and shared the mud pie the way we usually did—about three quarters for me and one quarter for Scott—and said good night at our cars. The good night, which involved a lot of toe-curling kissing, lasted a few minutes. Then Scott pulled away, citing an early meeting in the morning, and we agreed to talk soon.

  Once at home, I admired my five-foot-high Christmas tree, which Scott and I had cut down the weekend before at a tree farm. The Santa Claus we’d placed at the top of the tree reminded me of our missing statue. My mom’s father—my grandfather and founder of StoryWorld—had given the statue to her when she was six, asking if it was all right if they kept it at the park on her behalf. The reindeer and sleigh were created a few months later to complete the “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” set. Although it had been a permanent set for many years, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was replaced by Treasure Island and began its new life as centerpiece for StoryWorld’s holiday festivities. When Life magazine did a piece on StoryWorld at holiday time, they featured the set on the cover. Mom had the cover framed and kept it in a prominent place in her living room. I knew how devastated she’d be if the Santa statue were lost or stolen.

  That gave me an idea. Was it possible Mom and my stepdad had come by the park and taken the statue away so it could be touched up? The statue had a few chips and could use a good paint job. I remembered Mom remarking on its slightly distressed condition the year before.

  Sinking down into the couch and wrapping my snowflake throw around me, I called her.

  “Hi, sweetheart, how are you?” My mom’s cheery voice never failed to brighten my mood.

  “Hi, Mom. I’m good. How about you and Tim?”

  “We’re fine. We’re in the middle of decorating our tree. Remember the little skater we got you when you were five? I’m just about to hang it.”

  “Yes! I love that skater. I was wondering what happened to it.”

  “You can certainly have it for your own tree if you want, but I guess I feel sentimental about it. I’d like to keep it if I can.”

  “Sure. Mom, um, you haven’t been by the park lately, have you?”

  “Yes, actually, I was there yesterday to get a recipe from Donna. Her candy cane cake. I’m going to serve it at my holiday Garden Club meeting.”

  “Okay. You didn’t take anything away with you, did you?”

  “Take something away?” Then she muffled the receiver and said, “Tim, honey, no. Put that one closer to the top. “

  “Mom?”

  “What was that, Ashling? Take something away? What do you mean?”

  Shoot. It sure didn’t seem as though she had taken it. Now I would have to confess the statue was missing. “I thought maybe you’d taken the Santa statue. You know, to get it fixed up.”

  “The Santa statue? Without asking you? No, of course not. Ashling, I hope you’re not telling me that it’s missing. Please don’t tell me that.”

  “Okay, I won’t.”

  “It is?”

  “Well, yeah, but don’t worry. I have a feeling my employees took it as a prank. It’ll be front and center for the Holiday Festival.”

  “I certainly hope so. Santa hasn’t missed a Holiday Festival in thirty years. And you know how valuable it is and how much I care for it.”

  I sighed. “I know. I’ll be seeing you and Tim on Saturday morning, then?”

  “Wouldn’t miss the festival for the world. I better go now. Tim has too many ornaments on one side. The tree is about to tip over. Bye, sweetheart.”

  Darn. She didn’t even give me a chance to ask if she had any of my presents yet.

  I had a horrible rash across my hand and running up my forearm the next morning. I couldn’t stop scratching it. What the heck?

  “Poison oak,” Donna diagnosed when I showed her. “Have you been hiking in the woods lately?”

  “Scott and I went to a Christmas farm last weekend, but this only started today.”

  “You must have gotten it at StoryWorld, then. I didn’t think we had any around here.”

  “I didn’t either. I’ll have to ask Jay to look around and get rid of it. You can get a rash even in the winter?”

  “Afraid so. I’ve got some calamine lotion in the restaurant. I’ll bring it out. And are you ready for my holiday surprise?”

  “Is it my present?”

  “No, Ashling, it’s not your present. You’ll have to wait until Christmas morning to get that.”

  Harrumph. Did no one believe in early gift-giving? “So you and Charlie will be coming over as usual Christmas morning? With the food?”

  Donna always cooked eggs, bacon, and croissants on Christmas morning, and she and her husband packed everything up to bring over to my folks’ house. We made mochas for the coffee lovers and hot cocoa for the non-coffee lovers, and exchanged presents while we listened to carols. I was excited that Scott would be joining us this year for the first time.

  “Of course!” Donna said. “It’s tradition.”

  “Great. So what’s the surprise?”

  “Be right back.” She went in the back of the restaurant and came out a couple of moments later with a tube of lotion and a cup of coffee.

  I took the lotion from her to put in my pocket and frowned at the cup. “Coffee? That’s not much of a surprise.”

  “Take a closer look.”

  I peered into the cup and was delighted to find a little reindeer fashioned in the latte milk. “Oh, wow! This is so neat!”

  Donna nodded. “I’ve been practicing. After the holidays, I’m going to try out storybook themes. Bears, pigs, apples…that kind of thing.”

  “That is so perfect. What a terrific idea. I kind of hate to drink this, though. It’s so pretty.”

  “More where that came from. Come back later and I’ll give you a snowman.”

  “You’ve got a deal! See you later.”

  Joaquin and Cameron came into the office at the end of the day to turn in their ride keys.

  “Okay, you guys, this has been going on long enough,” I said.

  They looked back at me blankly.

  “I know you took Santa Claus. Where did you put him? I haven’t seen him next to the Tin Man or skating across the Little Mermaid pond, so where is he?”

  “Boss, you think we took him?” Cameron asked, pressing his hand to his stomach and doubling over with laughter. “No way.”

  “You didn’t? You really didn’t?” I looked back and forth between the two of them.

  “We really didn’t,” Joaquin said.

  “And you have no idea whe
re he is?”

  They shook their heads in unison.

  I told them they were excused and called for Dinah to come sit in my lap. She padded across the room from her bed and hopped up.

  I scratched the top of the calico’s head. “Oh, Dinah, where in the world is Santa Claus?”

  She just purred.

  The next morning, I took a sip from my gingerbread latte, decorated on top with a gingerbread man.

  Donna sat across from me, shivering again. “I don’t see how you can possibly like this weather. I’m wearing long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt, and two sweatshirts!”

  I nodded. “Yeah, I’m a little cold myself, actually. Our StoryWorld sweatshirts aren’t very thick.” I pulled at the sleeve of my red sweatshirt with a picture of The Castle on front. While I was at it, I scratched my arm.

  “Don’t scratch!”

  “It’s so hard not to. Brr, it really is cold, isn’t it?”

  “Maybe you should look into getting thicker sweatshirts. Hey, I saw Ethan Mahoney the other day. I’m glad he’s playing Santa again. He’s the perfect Father Christmas. Real beard and everything.”

  “Yeah, he really is right for the role.”

  “How many years has he been doing it now?”

  “Gosh, twenty years, maybe? He loves StoryWorld. He used to come here as a kid, and he was a staff member when he was older, too.”

  “That’s devotion.”

  “Yeah. The only problem is that whenever he’s got someone to listen to him, he talks their ear off with stories from ‘the good old days.’ If he had his way, we never would have changed the sets at all. We would still have all the original sets intact, including ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ He and Professor Smith should get together and have a complain-fest.”

  Donna took a sip of her coffee. “Yeah. Say, Ash…you don’t suppose that Professor Smith took the Santa? Because Santa doesn’t look like he’s described in ‘’Twas The Night Before Christmas’ or something?”

  I stared back at her. “Oh my gosh, Donna. That’s a brilliant idea. Katie said Smith was snooping around the day it went missing. Maybe he was over at the shed, took the statue, and stashed it in his car before he came to see me!”

 
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