The cast of Donna Andrews’ New York Times bestselling Meg Langslow mystery series is back for an unforgettable holiday story in The Twelve Jays of Christmas. Meg's brother Rob and his fiancé Delaney have been engaged for some time now. In fear of their mothers’ propensity for over-the-top celebrations, they decide to throw a party just before Christmas and then elope. When a blizzard traps their guests inside, the two mothers find out about the planned elopement and start trying to pull together the kind of over-the-top event the couple was trying to avoid in the first place. To make matters worse, a murder is afoot. Will Meg manage to help the snowbound would-be eloping couple thwart their mothers' grandiose wedding plans AND solve a murder among the assembled friends and relatives?
Release date: October 12, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 304
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The Twelve Jays of Christmas
“Look out! The wombats are loose again!”
I’d almost dozed off, even though I was sitting upright in a hard kitchen chair, but that woke me up in a hurry. Had someone actually shouted something about wombats? Or had I only imagined it?
The kitchen was—well, quiet didn’t apply. The Christmas carols playing over the little hidden loudspeakers were a trifle louder than optimal. I should find the remote and fix that. But it was peaceful here. Just me, sipping a cup of hot spiced cider left over from last night’s holiday party and enjoying a few moments of relaxation before I opened my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe to start what I knew would be a busy day.
I heard scuffling noises coming from somewhere. Hard to tell where over the dramatic trumpet introduction to “Joy to the World.” I got up and limped over to the kitchen window, still favoring the ankle I’d sprained a week ago. No random wombats running amok outside. No marsupials of any kind in the backyard, and given how loudly heaven ’n’ nature were singing over the little loudspeakers, a herd of elephants could have been stampeding in the front yard without my noticing.
I picked up the remote and dialed down the volume so the carols were almost subliminal.
Now I could hear the scuffling sounds again. They were coming from the basement.
I limped over, opened the door to the basement, and—
“Shut the door!” a ragged chorus of voices shrieked. “Shut the door! Quick!”
I slammed the door shut, but not before I spotted the furry object lumbering up the stairs. A large and rather bearlike furry object. More the size of a cub than a full-grown bear but still—large.
Something hit the other side of the door with a thud that shook the house. I spared a brief moment to feel grateful that we’d coughed up the money to restore our house’s original heavy, solid-wood doors rather than replacing them with cheap, hollow modern doors.
Human footsteps thundered up the stairs, from at least two pairs of feet. Maybe three.
In the scuffle, the wide-brimmed straw hat I was wearing had fallen off. I grabbed it and jammed it back on my head.
“You get him back into the pen.” I recognized my brother Rob’s voice. “I’ll explain it to Meg.”
“Can do.” The other voice belonged to Kevin, the tech-savvy nephew who had set up housekeeping in our basement.
I crossed my arms, frowned, and stared at the basement door. The scuffling sounds grew more distant, and after thirty seconds or so the basement door opened and Rob slipped out, looking so tanned and relaxed that I felt a brief pang of envy.
“When did you get back?” I asked. “I thought you and Delaney were going to stay in Florida for another few weeks.”
“And miss Christmas in Caerphilly? With the family?” He gave me a quick hug. “We decided to hop back and surprise everyone. Maybe get in some cross-country skiing with all that snow they’re predicting. We didn’t get here till three a.m., so I figured we could save the glad cries of welcome and the fatted calf–slaying till morning.”
“Consider yourself welcomed.” I grabbed a hat from the rack by the back door and handed it to him. “We’re fresh out of fatted calves, although I might be able to arrange a plate of bacon and eggs. But first I want to know why there are wombats in our basement.”
“It’s a long story.” He frowned slightly and stared at the hat—a well-worn wide-brimmed gray fedora. “What’s this for?”
“Protection from birds,” I said. “Put it on, or you’ll be sorry. Let’s get back to the wombats.”
“Birds? In the house?”
“Birds in the house.” I took a deep, calming breath and sat down to spare my ankle. “Three northern mockingbirds. Mimus polyglottos, if you care about the Latin name.”
“You sound like Grandfather.” He snickered at the idea. Yes, being the granddaughter of Dr. J. Montgomery Blake, the eminent naturalist and environmentalist, was having an effect on me. Probably a good idea if I avoided mimicking his legendary curmudgeon’s temper. I took another deep breath.
“They’re loose in the house,” I went on. “If you startle them or invade some part of the house they’ve decided is their territory, they will swoop down to attack. They also seem to enjoy pooping on humans’ heads. So wear the hat. Especially since any day now I expect they’ll be joined by up to twelve blue jays. If Grandfather were here, he’d probably inform you that jays and mockingbirds are two of the birds that most commonly display aggression toward humans.”
“Then why do you have them in the house?” Rob looked understandably puzzled.
“You first,” I said. “You explain the wombats, and I’ll fill you in on the mockingbirds. I’ll even help you out—it has something to do with Grandfather, right?”
“Naturally.” He popped the fedora onto his head and tilted it to a jaunty angle. “It’s one of his new projects.”
“Promoting the wombat as a domestic pet?” I suggested. “Aren’t they a little large? Not to mention being an endangered species.”
“No, these are actually just on temporary loan from the zoo,” Rob explained. “Kevin volunteered to help Grandfather with his observations.”
“Observations of what?” My resolution to remain calm was wearing thin. “Why is Kevin babysitting wombats in our basement?”
“They glow in the dark!”
“Yes.” Rob nodded vigorously. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Reasonably cool,” I said. “Can’t you find a dark place for them to glow in that isn’t our basement?”
“It’s more convenient for Kevin to have them here.” Rob almost made this sound like a reasonable explanation. “Grandfather wants to learn more about their bio- … um, bio—”
“Biofluorescence?” I suggested. I knew the term because I’d almost memorized the sign beside the tank of jellyfish at the zoo, thanks to my twin sons’ fascination with them when they were little.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Rob said. “Grandfather wants to see if it’s constant or if it varies depending on stuff like the time of day and whether the wombat is hungry or full. And whether it changes during their mating season.”
“I do not want wombats mating in our basement,” I said. “I know Grandfather feels very strongly about all those programs to breed endangered species in captivity so they can be reintroduced to the wild, but I draw the line at him taking over our basement for it.”
“They won’t be breeding in the basement,” Rob protested. “They’re named Ian and Bruce, so I’m pretty sure they must both be boy wombats. So no matter what they get up to, there won’t be any baby wombats.”
“Let me amend my previous statement.” I realized I sounded a bit testy and tried to rein it in. “I do not want any wombats in my basement. Not even celibate wombats. I am declaring the basement a wombat-free zone. If Kevin wants to help Grandfather with his experiments, he can go out to the zoo. And furthermore—”
Just then the doorbell rang.
“Damn.” I closed my eyes and shook my head. “It’s starting again.”
The doorbell rang a second time. Someone was impatient.
“What’s starting again?” Rob asked.
“People showing up to harass Castlemayne.” I headed for the front door, grabbing my makeshift cane along the way. It was actually a shepherd’s crook left over from the recent church Christmas pageant. My ankle was sufficiently healed that most of the time I no longer really needed it for support, but in the last few days I’d found it useful for intimidating some of our unwanted callers.
“Castlemayne? What’s that?” Rob trailed along behind me. “Or is it a who?”
I reminded myself that he had been away for the past two weeks and probably hadn’t paid all that much attention to what was going on here in town even before he’d left.
“Roderick Castlemayne the wildlife artist,” I said. “You know, the one Grandfather hired to do a series of bird paintings to go with his new book.”
“Oh, him.” Rob almost bumped into me when I stopped just inside the front door. “But why are they showing up here to harass him? Isn’t he working out at the zoo?”
“Not anymore. He’s working in our library. And all his enemies are showing up here to harass him.” I looked through the peephole and saw nothing. But the doorbell rang again, so clearly someone was still there.
Either our caller was deliberately standing aside to avoid being spotted through the peephole—and some of the harassers were sneaky enough that they’d started doing that—or it was someone very short. Could it be—
I flung the door open and was delighted to see the short, plump form of our friend Caroline Willner standing in the doorway, almost hidden behind a stack of presents.
“Welcome,” I said. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you. Rob, help her with the presents.”
“More in the car, but don’t call Josh and Jamie to help.” She handed her present stack to Rob and enveloped me in a quick hug. “I’ve got something for them that’s too big to wrap.”
“Don’t worry.” I helped her out of her coat. “Michael took them skiing for a couple of days. They won’t be back till tomorrow, so there’s plenty of time to hide their presents.”
“You don’t ski?”
I lifted my right foot and pulled up my pants leg so she could see the elastic bandage.
“Ouch.” She winced in sympathy. “What happened?”
“Oh, dear.” She shook her head. “What’s he done now?”
“He’s the reason for your sprained ankle?” Rob reappeared from taking the presents into the living room. “What happened? And why is he here instead of out at the zoo?”
“He’s here at your house?” Caroline looked alarmed. “Why?”
“He doesn’t like working at the zoo,” I said. “Says the environment in the aviary isn’t conducive to creativity. Grandfather talked us into letting him use our library.”
“But he’s supposed to be painting the birds from life, isn’t he?” she asked. “Which is why Monty set him up to work in the aviary—they can just fill a habitat with whatever birds he’s trying to paint and turn him loose. How can he possibly paint in your library?”
“Grandfather had his staff haul cages full of birds into our library,” I said. “Enormous cages,” I added, to avert any concern she might have about the birds’ well-being. “Unfortunately, shortly after they arrived, Castlemayne claimed that the bars of the cages interfered too much with his ability to paint them. And it never occurred to him that the mockingbirds would do anything other than sit quietly on the table for him to paint them.”
“So he let them loose?” Rob hooted with laughter. “What a maroon!”
“The poor birds!” Caroline exclaimed. “What happened to them?”
I didn’t resent the fact that she worried about the birds first, without a single thought to what happened to our library when the fourteen overwrought mockingbirds had made their break for freedom. She was a birdwatcher. She ran an animal sanctuary. And it wasn’t her library.
“We caught most of them—in humane traps that Grandfather set up.” I didn’t want her imagining us leaping around the house with giant butterfly nets. “And a few of them are known to have escaped through open doors. But there are still at least two loose in the house. Possibly three. You might want to wear this.”
I grabbed a hat from the collection on the hall hat-and-coat stand and handed it to her. It was a particularly nice hat in deep red velvet with a little sprig of holly and a tiny fir cone frosted with fake snow—and it had a reasonably wide brim.
“Perhaps I could also help recapture the birds,” she suggested.
“I would love it if you did,” I said. “Rob, can you bring in the rest of Caroline’s bags? I’d help—”
“But I bet Dad has ordered you not to overdo it until your ankle is all better. No problem.” He held out his hands. Caroline tossed him her keys, and he hurried out.
“Nice, having a doctor in the family,” she said. “Especially one like your dad. Must save on trips to the hospital.”
“Not this time,” I said. “Dad insisted on having my ankle X-rayed. But at least I know with certainty that it’s only a sprain, and rapidly improving. And—”
“Um … Ms. Langslow?” came a timid, quavering voice from behind me.
I turned to see a slight figure standing in the hallway. Actually, cringing was more like it, and he had the usual anxious expression on his face.
“Morning,” I said. “Caroline, this is Harris, Mr. Castlemayne’s assistant. Harris, this is Caroline Willner, the owner of the Willner Wildlife Sanctuary. She’s an old friend of the family and often spends the holidays with us.”
“Especially since that daughter of mine got into the habit of going on holiday cruises,” Caroline said. “Ever since that disastrous cruise your grandfather got us into, I prefer caroling on dry land.”
Harris nodded his head, mumbled something that might be “how do you do,” and clutched more tightly with both hands at the stack of dirty dishes he was holding, as if terrified that Caroline might be expecting a handshake.
“Lovely to meet you.” Caroline, observant as always, had detected his obvious reluctance to shake hands and pulled hers back. “It must be fascinating to work for such a distinguished artist.”
Harris looked more anxious than usual, as if he interpreted this question as an attempt to trick him into saying something that would get him in trouble. I took pity on him.
“Why don’t you take those dishes back to the kitchen,” I said. “And I’ll come help you put together Mr. Castlemayne’s breakfast tray.”
“I think he just wants coffee right now.” From Harris’s agitated tone, you’d think the appearance of an unexpected hot breakfast would enrage his boss. Actually, from what I’d seen, it probably would.
“Then I’ll get you the coffee.” After a week, Harris probably knew where to find it. But given his incredible klutziness, I was just as happy to have him keep his hands off our coffee maker.
“Wouldn’t mind a cup myself,” Caroline said. “If you’re making it anyway.”
“It’s already made.” I headed down the hallway. “Rose Noire already started it before I got up. And she will be very grateful if Harris takes Castlemayne his cup so she doesn’t have to.”
When we arrived in the kitchen, Caroline seated herself at the kitchen table and I got busy with the coffee mugs. Harris delivered the dirty dishes to the sink, then darted back to stand awkwardly in the doorway, fiddling with the brim of the Irish tweed cap he was wearing as if it really bothered him, wearing a hat indoors—and in front of women to boot.
“Probably just as well to have me take it in rather than Rose Noire,” he said finally. “He can be very rude with staff, unfortunately.”
“And he doesn’t seem to have noticed that Rose Noire isn’t staff,” I said as I poured the coffee. “She’s family. My second cousin once removed.”
“Oh, dear!” Harris was so perturbed by this news that he almost dropped the mug of coffee I was handing him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. And I’m sure he had no idea—”
“And wouldn’t treat her any better if he did know,” I said.
“I should apologize to her,” Harris said. “I’ve been giving her orders as if she were a servant.”
“Your orders probably sounded like polite and deferential requests,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Or if you feel guilty, help me organize it so she never has to deal with your boss again.”
“I’ll try,” he said. “Really. I understand. The creative temperament is so difficult to deal with. I’m doing my best to keep him in a positive, productive frame of mind.” With that he ducked out of the kitchen and I could hear him almost running down the hall that led to the library.
“Creative temperament, my eye!” Caroline exclaimed. “Castlemayne’s a menace!”
Copyright © 2021 by Donna Andrews.
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