Wed
Oct 18 2017 9:00am

Donna Andrews Excerpt: How the Finch Stole Christmas!

Donna Andrews

How the Finch Stole Christmas! by Donna Andrews is the 22nd Meg Langslow Mystery, which is guaranteed to put the “ho ho hos” into the holidays of cozy lovers everywhere with its gut-bustingly funny mystery (available October 24, 2017).

Meg's husband has decided to escalate his one-man show of Dickens's A Christmas Carol into a full-scale production with a large cast including their sons Jamie and Josh as Tiny Tim and young Scrooge and Meg helping as stage manager.

The show must go on, even if the famous―though slightly over-the-hill―actor who's come to town to play the starring role of Scrooge has brought a sleigh-load of baggage and enemies with him. And why is Caerphilly suddenly overrun with a surplus of beautiful caged finches?

Chapter 1

“Shakespeare was right. ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’”

“I wish I could hear you say that in person,” I said.

“Yeah, over the cell phone you miss all my dramatic gestures.” Michael’s voice sounded more exasperated than angry. And since I knew my husband wasn’t usually prejudiced against the legal profession, I was puzzled instead of worried.

“Are you someplace where you can talk?” he asked.

“I’m not at the theater, if that’s what you mean. Reverend Robyn wanted to see me about something. At the moment, I’m over at Trinity, sitting in her office, waiting for her to solve a Christmas pageant prop emergency, so until she comes back, I’m at your service.”

“Hang up if you need to,” he said. “I’m just venting to you so I can be cool, calm, and collected when I go into my meeting.”

“What meeting?” I made myself more comfortable in Robyn’s guest chair and snagged a Christmas cookie from the red-and-green plate on her desk. “And by the way, all the lawyers would include Cousin Festus and my brother. I know Rob can be annoying at times, but I’d miss him if you did him in, and I thought you agreed that Festus was highly useful and a credit to his profession. Can we settle for bumping off whichever particular attorney has gotten your goat this morning?”

“One or more members of the college legal department,” he said. “Possibly the entire department if I can’t get them to admit who signed off on that miserable, washed-up prima donna’s contract.”

“Ah, then it’s really Malcolm Haver you need to kill.” Robyn walked back into her office as I was saying it, and a puzzled frown crossed her face. I held up my hand with two fingers raised, to signal that I’d be off shortly, and returned to my conversation with Michael. “What’s he done now?”

“Showed up drunk for rehearsal. Again.” Someone else might have thought his voice sounded calm, but I could hear the anger below the surface. And I took a few deep breaths to cool my own anger. I’d actually been relieved when the college proposed hiring a big-name actor to play Scrooge in this year’s charity benefit production of A Christmas Carol, because I knew how exhausting it would be for Michael to direct and star. I’d been less than impressed when a board member pushed through hiring his old college buddy Haver—the whole point of casting someone from outside was to help with ticket sales, and I didn’t think Haver was a big enough name to do that. And Haver had been a major pain from day one, even before he started drinking. Instead of halving Michael’s workload he’d at least doubled it. I was starting to worry about Michael’s health and I intensely resented how Haver had turned what was normally a festive, joyous, family-oriented season into one long headache.

“If you want him to disappear, I’m sure Mother can find someone to do the dirty work.” I’d almost be willing to do it myself. But I didn’t want to say so in front of Robyn, who had taken up her knitting, and would probably have finished another set of mittens for Trinity’s Christmas scarf and mitten drive by the time Michael and I finished our conversation.

“I’d settle for figuring out where the hell he’s getting his booze.”

“None of the businesses here in Caerphilly will serve or sell to him,” I said. “Randall Shiffley made sure of that.”

“I’m still amazed that so many people agreed.”

“They all know that your production is one of the main attractions of this year’s Christmas in Caerphilly festival,” I reminded him. “And that having a well-known actor like Haver will help boost the ticket sales, a big portion of which will go to things that might otherwise cost tax dollars—all those social service programs we can’t otherwise afford. Enlightened self-interest.”

“Still, it only takes one rebel to supply him,” Michael grumbled. “Or one starstruck private citizen. Or he could be sneaking over to Clay County—they’d love to sabotage anything Caerphilly does.”

“Which is why I think it’s time to call in Stanley.” I’d already talked unofficially to Stanley Denton, Caerphilly’s leading—and only—private investigator about whether he’d be willing to shadow Malcolm Haver as part of our efforts to keep the visiting star sober.

“Exactly what I was thinking,” he said. “In fact, I’m just venting to you before going into a meeting with the Dean of Finance to get it approved.”

“Awesome,” I said. “And good luck. I should go; Robyn just got back and I’d better explain our homicidal musings to her before she reports us to Chief Burke.”

“When you leave Trinity, can you head over to the theater and keep an eye on things there until I finish arguing with Finance?”

“Can do,” I said. “Love you.”

“Back at you.”

I hung up and returned my phone to my pocket.

“Sorry,” I said to Robyn—who had been listening with unabashed interest as her knitting needles flew through her red and green yarn. “Michael’s having a tough day and needed to vent.”

“So I gathered. What’s he angry about?”

“He was calling more in sorrow than in anger,” I said.

“That’s from Hamlet, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Quoting Shakespeare’s an occupational hazard when you’re married to an actor.”

“Especially one who’s also a drama professor.”

“Michael was calling to vent about Malcolm Haver,” I explained. “The actor the college hired to play Scrooge in the stage version of A Christmas Carol that Michael’s directing.”

“He and Michael aren’t getting along?” Even the thought of disharmony seemed to sadden her.

“Michael tries,” I said. “But Haver doesn’t get along with anyone. He’s a nasty, self-centered jerk. Sorry—I know how uncharitable that sounds, but there’s just no getting around it: a nasty, self-centered jerk. Walked into the first day of rehearsal with a bad attitude and that was the peak of his popularity in local theatrical circles. But Michael’s a whiz at handling difficult performers, and no one would really care how unpleasant Haver is offstage if he did a good job in the show. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen off the wagon.”

“Oh, dear. You know, we have several very active twelve-step programs meeting either here or at the New Life Baptist Church,” she began.

“I know. We’ve got the flyer prominently posted on the cast information board,” I said. “I even tried talking him into it once, which wasn’t a good idea. He exploded at me and stormed out of the rest of the rehearsal.”

“He sounds like a troubled soul.”

“I’m sure he is.” Or maybe just trouble, but I knew better than to say that aloud in front of Robyn. “But don’t try to sympathize with him unless you want to get your head bitten off. He was doing fine at the start of the rehearsal period, but lately he’s started tippling earlier each day. Michael doesn’t have much hope that it will get any better when the show opens. Unfortunately, the way his contract is written, as long as he can stumble onstage, Michael can’t fire him. And although I don’t know how well it would hold up in court, the contract still calls for Haver to get most of his fee even if he’s fired for cause.”

“Didn’t anyone question the contract before signing it?” Robyn looked surprised. “I may be in an unworldly profession, but even I know the value of consulting an attorney before signing legal documents.”

“If Michael were in charge of Santa’s naughty-and-nice list, the college legal department would be getting nothing but coals and switches this year,” I said.

“Why were they the ones reviewing the contract anyway?” Robyn asked. “I know the play’s a joint project of the college and the town, but I thought the college was mainly donating use of the theater.”

“And for some reason they also insisted on being in charge of Haver’s contract,” I said. “I suspect the same board member who got him the part in the first place. If only I’d known to insist that the town attorney handle it—because she’d have run it by Randall and me when Haver’s agent came in with a whole bunch of changes that he claimed were standard Actors’ Equity requirements, which was a complete lie. Michael could have told them that if they’d bothered to show him the contract—Randall and I would have. But they didn’t. In fact, whatever lawyer the college had handling it didn’t do any research, didn’t try to negotiate—just caved. And now Michael is paying the price.”

“And then there’s the whole question of whether Haver is really worth all this trouble,” Robyn said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier just to have Michael play Scrooge? I’ve seen his one-man Christmas Carol show the last few years and loved it. He was brilliant.”

“He’d be light-years better than Haver if you ask me. Of course, I’m biased. The theory was that getting an actor with a national reputation would increase ticket sales enough to more than offset the cost of his salary.”

“That makes sense.” Robyn held up her knitting to inspect the green Christmas tree that was taking shape on the back of the red mitten. “But I’m not sure I’d have picked Haver. I mean, I know who he is, but just barely.”

I quite agreed. And I thought it was particularly ironic that they picked Haver instead of Michael, who still had a rather active group of fans himself, in spite of having abandoned television for academia more than a decade ago. Not something I could say in public, of course.

“Haver was nominated for a Tony once,” I said aloud. “And he was in a reasonably popular TV series for a few years. As a young man he was quite handsome—a B-movie heartthrob.”

“Yes.” Robyn nodded. “I remember my mother used to like him.”

“A lot of people’s mothers did,” I said. “Let’s just hope enough of them are still around to buy tickets.”

“And that there’s a show for them to see.” Robyn paused and thought for a moment. Or maybe she was just listening to the choir down in the parish hall, harmonizing beautifully as they rehearsed their Christmas carol program. “Have you considered getting him a keeper?”

“A what?”

“A keeper. A minder. I don’t know what you’d officially call them, but I know they exist, because I know of a diocese that hired one once for one of their employees—not a priest, of course, but a key employee, very capable, even very spiritual in his own way, but with an unfortunate weakness for alcohol. They sent him to a residential rehab program, and when he got out they hired someone to follow him around and keep him away from temptation for the first few months. Of course, you might have trouble getting your actor to agree to a keeper. In the case I’m talking about, it was either that or lose his job with the parish.”

“Haver might not agree,” I said at last. “But maybe the agent who drew up that contract could force him to accept a minder. Agents don’t get paid unless their clients do, and it’s still possible that Haver could drink himself into a stupor and breach the contract. I’ll suggest it. Thank you—that’s a great idea.”

I stood up, trying to decide if I should call Michael with the suggestion or head over to the theater and talk to him in person when he got back from his meeting. Then I realized that Robyn was looking at me.

“I’m sorry.” I sat down again. “You asked me to drop by to talk about something—I almost forgot. What is it?”

“I received a rather curious request this morning,” Robyn said. “That we host a Weaseltide ceremony in the parish hall.”

Weaseltide? Robyn was gung ho on reviving old traditions and minor Episcopal celebrations, but Weaseltide rang no bells. Which meant it obviously wasn’t something in the Book of Common Prayer. And I could have sworn after several years of helping out in the parish, I’d gotten pretty familiar with the Book of Occasional Services as well.

“That’s an interesting idea,” I said aloud. Mother had drilled us always to call something interesting when we couldn’t think what else to say.

“Yes,” Robyn said. “There’s just one thing—what is Weaseltide?”

 

Copyright © 2017 Donna Andrews.

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Donna Andrews is a winner of the Agatha, Anthony, and Barry Awards, a Romantic Times Award for best first novel, as well as the Lefty and Toby Bromberg awards for funniest mystery. She is a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and the Private Investigators and Security Association. Andrews lives in Reston, Virginia. How the Finch Stole Christmas! is Andrews's twenty-second book and fourth Christmas mystery in the Meg Langslow series.

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