The Christmas Letter
If you love small towns, endearing relationships, food, animals, and a touch of murder, you will love this new mystery series by Kathi Daley, author of the popular Zoe Donovan Cozy Mystery Series.
Set in the small town of White Eagle Montana, the series features Tess and her dog Tilly, who spend their days delivering the latest gossip along with the daily mail. When a close friend is murdered, Tess and Tilly join forces with the reclusive genius in town to sleuth out the truth behind the shocking murder that is rocking the community as it prepares for the annual Christmas Festival.
Release date: December 1, 2017
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 145
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The Christmas Letter
My name is Tess Thomas. I live with my dog, Tilly, in White Eagle, Montana, a small town with a big heart nestled in the arms of the Northern Rocky Mountains. I work for the United States Postal Service, delivering mail to the residents of this close-knit community where, more often than not, the folks you grow up with are the same ones you’re destined to grow old with.
“Morning, Tess; morning, Tilly,” Hap Hollister greeted us as we delivered not only his mail, but the muffins Hattie Johnson had asked me to drop off when Tilly and I had stopped by Grandma Hattie’s Bakeshop earlier that morning.
“Morning, Hap.” I handed the tall, thin man with snow-white hair a stack of envelopes, as well as the brown paper bag in which Hattie had packed the muffins.
“Pumpkin?” Hap asked.
“Cranberry. Hattie wanted me to assure you they’re fresh.”
I watched as Hap peeked in the bag. “How’s Hattie’s arthritis this morning?”
“She seems to be having a good day. You can go by later and ask her yourself.” Odd fact about Hap and Hattie: They used to be married, but they separated a few years ago and moved into separate residences, but now they date.
“I’ll do that. Hattie and I are planning to take in a movie at the cinema in Kalispell this evening if the snow holds off. Guess I should firm up a time for us to meet.”
“You might want to have a backup plan. With those dark clouds overhead, I have a feeling the storm’s going to roll in before nightfall. The Community Church has bingo on Wednesdays, if you can’t make it to Kalispell.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. It’s been hard to find date-night activities since the cinema in town decided to shut down during the winter.”
I slipped my mailbag off my shoulder, being careful not to catch my long, curly brown hair in the strap. “I heard there’s a group who want to use the space for community events during the winter, though it seems like a lot of folks in the area have an abundance of ideas but are short on follow-through.”
“Sounds about right.”
I picked up a stack of Christmas CDs Hap had displayed at the front of the home and hardware store Hap owned and operated and began to sort through them. I know that in the age of iTunes, iPods, and smartphones, CDs are a bit outdated, but if you knew the folks of White Eagle, you’d know a lot of them were pretty outdated as well.
“If nothing works out for tonight you could postpone date night until Friday,” I suggested. “We have the tree lighting and there’s a holiday special at the diner.”
“Nope.” Hap shook his head. “That won’t do at all. Our agreement clearly states that Hattie is to cook dinner for me every Sunday after church, as well as on the seven major holidays, and in return, I’m to take her out on a proper date I plan and pay for every Wednesday as well as every other Saturday.”
I paused and looked at Hap. “Has it ever occurred to you and Hattie to set aside this experiment you’re engaged in and get back together full time, like everyone knows you should?”
“Sure.” Hap nodded but didn’t elaborate.
I wanted to say more, but it really wasn’t any of my business, so I set the CDs back in the bin and prepared to leave. “Tilly and I should get going if we want to stay ahead of the storm. Got anything outgoing?”
“Actually, I do.” Hap set the muffin he’d been nibbling on on the napkin Hattie had provided. “Just give me a minute to fetch it.”
Tilly and I wandered over to the potbellied stove to warm up a spell while we waited for Hap. It wasn’t easy being a mail carrier in White Eagle, with subzero temperatures and seasonal snow to contend with. But White Eagle was our home, and as far as Tilly and I were concerned, we wouldn’t trade it for all the tropical breezes or big city amenities in the world.
“Here you go.” Hap placed a stack of white envelopes on the counter next to a small pile of fishing supplies.
“You planning on doing some fishing?” I asked as I picked up the envelopes.
“A group of us are fixing to enter the old-timers’ ice fishing competition at the Winter Carnival.” The Winter Carnival in White Eagle was held every year between Christmas and New Year’s. “I haven’t been fishing since last year’s carnival, so I figured I’d better go through my supplies.”
“I know the teams are made up of four men. Harley Newsome passed away this year. Have you found a replacement?”
“I spoke to Pike and he said he’d be happy to fill in.”
Pike Porter was White Eagle’s oldest resident at ninety-two. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“Man’s old, not dead. He said he wanted to do it and I’m inclined to let him.”
I supposed Hap had a point, but I worried about Pike walking around on the ice. Once again, however, what he did was none of my business, so I slipped Hap’s outgoing mail into my bag without a word. “I really should get a move on. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Have you been by Rita’s place?” Hap asked as I turned to the door.
“No, not yet.” Rita Carson was the local florist.
“I want to send Hattie a rose. Rita said she’d be getting in a shipment today.” Hap handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “If you don’t mind passing this along, I’d greatly appreciate it.”
“No problem.” I slid the currency into my pocket. “Tell Rita to pick out a good one.”
“I will, and I’ll make sure she delivers it today.” “Thanks, Tess. See you tomorrow.”
I pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck as Tilly and I left Hap’s store. There were snow flurries in the air, which I knew would precede the storm that approached from the far side of the mountain.
I looked at the red envelope at the top of the pile. “Looks like Pike has a letter today.”
Tilly barked once in reply. Pike Porter wasn’t only one of Tilly’s favorite people, he was one of my favorite people as well.
“Let’s finish the rest of the route and circle around toward Pike’s last so we can sit and chat for a spell. I want to hear all about his plans for the ice fishing tournament.”
Tilly must have figured that was a fine idea because she continued down Main Street, passing the alley that led to Pike’s tiny cabin, which shared a lot with Pike’s Place, the local saloon, which Pike had once owned but had sold.
The next stop on our journey was Sisters’ Diner, the café my mom, Lucy Thomas, owned with my aunt, Ruthie Turner. My mom and Aunt Ruthie had decided to buy the diner after my dad passed away and Mom realized she would need to find a way to support herself. Ruthie had worked as a cook for the diner’s previous owner, who’d expressed a desire to retire to a warmer climate, so the two sisters had pooled their savings and been making a go of the restaurant ever since.
The wreath someone had hung on the door shifted to the side as Tilly and I entered the entryway of the warm, friendly building. I had to smile as a decorative Rudolph with a flashing nose welcomed diners while “Frosty the Snowman” played in the background.
“I’ve got Christmas cards.” I held up several colorful envelopes as I entered the main dining area.
“Oh, good.” Mom clapped her hands in delight. Mom and Aunt Ruthie had come up with the idea of soliciting Christmas cards from customers who had dined with them throughout the year. They planned to hang the cards on the back wall after sorting them by general geographic location. It was a cute idea that would not only brighten the place but would demonstrate the fact that customers who stopped by Sisters’ Diner represented visitors from every state, as well as many countries around the world.
“Oh, look,” Mom said, waving her arms in the air so her red curls bounced up and down. “We have two from Nevada, one from Florida, four from Utah, and one from Florence, Italy.”
“Today was a good haul,” I agreed. “And the wall is looking really nice. If this idea continues to catch on, you may need to dedicate two walls to the project next year.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Mom grinned. “In fact, with the abundance of international cards that have arrived in the past week, I’m considering changing the theme of this year’s tree from Homespun Christmas to Christmas Around the World.”
“That would be fun. Maybe you could find ornaments representing all the countries you get cards from, like the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
“Exactly. Did you notice whether Millie had her novelty ornaments out yet?” Millie Martin owned a home and decorating store at the other end of the row of mom-and-pop shops lining the town’s main thoroughfare.
“I didn’t notice them when I stopped by to deliver her mail, but I wasn’t looking for them either. I guess you can call to ask her. If nothing else, she may be able to special order the kinds of ornaments you’re looking for.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“So, what are we talking about?” Aunt Ruthie asked after she finished ringing up the customer she’d been dealing with and joined us.
“Ornaments from around the world,” Mom answered.
“Did you ask Tess if Millie has her specialty ornaments out?” Ruthie asked.
“She did and I hadn’t noticed,” I answered in my mom’s stead. “She did have baby’s first Christmas ornaments displayed near the counter if you want to send something to Johnny.”
“The baby won’t be born until January, so baby’s first Christmas would technically be next year,” Aunt Ruthie pointed out. “Still, I’d like to send something special because they’re having a girl. I’m hoping they’ll name her after me. She’s my first granddaughter, you know.”
“I’m sure Johnny will take your request into consideration when it comes time to name his daughter.” I paused and glanced out the window. “Storm is coming; I’d best be on my way.” I turned and looked at my mom. “Dinner on Sunday?”
“Of course, dear. I’ll make a pot roast.”
Tilly and I left the diner, but not before Aunt Ruthie slipped Tilly a bite of something she’d smuggled from the kitchen. I tried to dissuade Ruthie from feeding Tilly table scraps, but she liked to be sure those who came into the diner were well fed whether they be the customers she served or the four-legged visitors, like Tilly, who were only passing by.
The flurries that had been lingering throughout the day were beginning to intensify by the time Tilly and I made our way to the far end of town and crossed the street to start back toward the gazebo, where I’d left my Jeep. I usually liked to say hi to those I served, but given the weather, I realized I might want to speed things up a bit if I didn’t want to get caught in a whiteout.
I managed to stick with the plan while delivering mail to Pete’s Pets, Sue’s Sewing Nook, the Moosehead Bar and Grill, Mel’s Meat Locker, and even Rita’s shop, Coming Up Daisies, but the moment I entered the Book Boutique, my best friend Bree Price’s bookstore, I knew I’d lose my momentum.
“Please tell me you’re coming to book club tonight,” Bree said the moment Tilly and I entered the cheerily decorated store.
“Tilly and I will be there,” I confirmed over the sound of Christmas carols.
“Good.” Bree nervously ran her hands down the sides of her dark green angora sweater dress in a gesture I had come to recognize as the prelude to her relaying information she knew I might not want to hear.
“Is there something on your mind?” I asked.
“No.” Bree shook her head, but I noticed she was trying hard not to look me in the eye. “Are you sure?” I asked persuasively.
“Nothing’s wrong, but there are some new members joining us tonight. I figured I should let you know so you could wear something nice.”
I frowned. “Nice?”
Bree tucked a lock of her perfectly straight, waist-length blond hair behind one ear. “I just figured you might want to make a good first impression because both new members are male, single, and gorgeous. Based on what I know of them, either would make a good match for you.”
I lifted one brow. “We’ve discussed this. I don’t do blind dates. Not for anyone and not for any reason.”
“It’s not a blind date,” Bree insisted. “It’s just book club, but it seems silly not to put forth a little effort with your appearance. You’re going to be twenty-eight on your next birthday. Don’t you think it’s time to settle down?”
“If by settle down you mean get married, no. Tilly and I are quite happy living on our own.
You promised you’d stop with all the matchmaking and I expect you to keep your promise.” “I know,” Bree replied. “I just want you to be as happy as Donny and me.”
Donny Dunlap was my ex, who I’d dumped after I realized he paid a lot more attention to Bree than he ever paid to me. I know Bree felt bad about basically stealing my guy, but the truth of the matter was, I was never really in to Donny all that much, and I was fine with the way things had worked out. Still, Bree, being Bree, wasn’t going to fully enjoy her relationship with Donny until I met and fell in love with someone she felt was perfect for me.
“Storm’s coming so I need to get going. I’ll be at book club, but only if you promise to lay off the matchmaking.”
Bree paused. “Promise me.”
“Okay,” Bree grudgingly agreed. “Have you been to the police station?” “No, not yet. Why?”
“Can you drop this book off for your brother? I told him I’d deliver it, but you’re going to be stopping in anyway, so…”
“Yeah.” I reached out a hand. “I’ll make sure Mike gets it.”
I had just left the Book Boutique and Tilly and I were heading to our next stop when a bright green sports car whizzed by, splashing slush on both of us. “Damn it all to hell,” I said before I could suppress the curse. “There’s no way Fantasia didn’t do that on purpose.”
Tilly shook the slush from her fur and barked in agreement.
Fantasia Wade was a twenty-eight-year-old gold digger and former classmate of mine who’d recently married seventy-nine-year-old Austin Wade, the oldest son of one of the town founders and one of the richest men in town. In the year the pair had been married, Fantasia had managed to burn through an impressive amount of his money, which left me wondering when Austin would wise up and put his young bride on a budget.
Given the fact that I had slush running down my cheek, I turned around and headed back to the bookstore, where I knew Bree would let me clean up in her bathroom.
“What on earth happened to you?” Bree asked when I walked back into her store just a minute after having left.
Bree rolled her eyes. “Talk about letting money go to your head. Now that she’s married to Austin Wade she seems to think the rules of common courtesy don’t apply to her.”
“She always has been full of herself. I’ll just be a minute.”
I tried not to let my anger boil over as I washed my face and used a paper towel to wipe the dirt from my jacket. There were just some people who were born thinking they were better than everyone else and Fantasia was one of them. Of course, the fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous seemed to fuel her superiority complex. It’s hard to tell someone who was head cheerleader, homecoming queen, and the most popular girl in school that she’s no better than you and make her believe it.
Tilly and I tried to put our little incident with Queen Wade behind us as we finished our route. By the time I’d made my way back to the starting point, where I’d left my Jeep, the sky had darkened. I figured Tilly and I would just drive over to Pike’s, so I loaded her in the cargo area, made a U-turn, and headed back to the cabin where White Eagle’s oldest resident lived. My route had taken longer than I’d planned, so I wouldn’t have as long to chat with Pike as I’d like, but he only received mail a couple of times a month, so when we had a reason to stop in, we generally took it.
“Pike,” I called as I rapped on the door.
When there was no answer, Tilly used a paw to scratch at the door. “Pike, it’s Tess and Tilly,” I called again.
Still no answer.
I looked down at Tilly. “I guess he’s out.”
Tilly barked and scratched at the door again. Normally, Tilly wasn’t quite so insistent, so I knocked one more time for good measure before slipping the letter under the door and turning away to head back to the Jeep.
Tilly remained at the door rather than following. “Come along, Tilly. Pike’s not home.” Tilly barked.
“I know you were looking forward to a visit, but we’ll have to come back another day. Maybe tomorrow.”
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