The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews is the 18th Meg Langslow Mystery and a Christmas murder mystery for the ages.
'Tis the season for tree trimming, mistletoe-dangling, and a cut-throat competition that has everyone in Caerphilly on edge. Whatever happened to the simple joys and magical spirits of Christmas? Meg Langslow's own mother is among those participating in a holiday-themed design extravaganza in which each room in an untenanted show house is decorated for the public to view. All the proceeds go to charity-so why are all the contestants fighting tooth and nail to win first prize?
That is the question Meg is trying to answer after Clay Spottiswood, the most haughty and hostile of the designers, turns up dead. With tempers flaring and fears on the rise, can Meg sort through the tinsel-strewn mayhem and solve a murder…before the killer strikes again?
Mother was standing in the evergreen-trimmed archway between the living room and the foyer, directly beneath the red-and-gold “Merry Christmas” banner, frowning at something she was holding.
Since I had no idea who or what “passementerie” was, I just sat there in the foyer of the Caerphilly Designer Show House with my pen poised over my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, waiting for Mother to elaborate. For a few moments I heard nothing but the soothing strains of an orchestra playing “Silent Night” from a radio somewhere behind Mother.
Evidently Jessica, the reporter from the Caerphilly College student newspaper, wasn’t as patient as I was. After all, she was here to interview the dozen interior designers who were decorating rooms in the show house, not to play guessing games with them.
“What’s ‘passementerie’?” she asked.
“Elegant, elaborate edgings or trimmings”—Mother stepped closer and showed us the little bit of black-and-purple braid she held in her hand—“with braid, cord, embroidery, or beads. The right passementerie can absolutely make or break an upholstery project.”
“I see,” Jessica said, although I could tell she didn’t really. Nor was it clear to me why Mother had interrupted my interview with the reporter to display bits of upholstery trimming to us. But before answering, I glanced around and let the Christmas decorations surrounding me temper my mood. The holly and red velvet ribbons wrapping the stair rails. The gold mobile of stars and angels hanging from the ceiling light in the upper hallway. The fact that Mother had a few strands of gold tinsel snagged in her hair.
“Today’s new word, then,” I said aloud. “Passementerie. Do you want me to use it in a sentence?”
“That would be nice, dear,” Mother said. “Particularly if the sentence is something like, ‘Hello, Mother. The UPS man just delivered a package from the Braid Emporium containing the passementerie you ordered.’”
“Alas,” I said. “The UPS man only delivered two packages, and neither of them contained passementerie.” There. That was also a sentence.
“The Braid Emporium was supposed to overnight it,” Mother said. “The day before yesterday.”
I lifted my hands and eyebrows in a gesture meant to convey the utmost sympathy along with a complete refusal to take responsibility for the shortcomings of either the United Parcel Service or the Braid Emporium.
“Maybe it’s hidden under all the snow,” Jessica said. “The drifts are two feet high in some places.”
“I’ve checked the drifts,” I said. “And packages began disappearing long before the first snowstorm.”
“Perhaps one of the other decorators took it by mistake?” Mother gestured as if tucking a stray lock of her beautiful if implausible blond hair back into her chignon. I hadn’t actually seen any strands out of place, so I assumed she was trying to suggest that she had been working so hard that she was in danger of becoming disheveled.
“Always possible that someone else picked it up by mistake,” I said. “That’s why I asked everyone yesterday to please stop having stuff shipped here to the show house—to avoid such misunderstandings.” And to avoid the possibility that one of the more competitive decorators would try to sabotage the competition by diverting important packages. “But I assume your passa-whatzit had already been sent before then. I’ll ask them all.”
Mother closed her eyes and allowed one faint, long-suffering sigh to escape. The reporter didn’t sigh, but she was clearly impatient. Or maybe just hyperactive, from the manic way she was tapping her feet on the floor and drumming her fingers on her knees. And upstairs someone’s radio came on, tuned to a very different Christmas station. I liked both “Run, Run Rudolph” and “Silent Night,” but not simultaneously.
“I’ll be in my room when you find my package,” Mother said.
She sailed back through the archway, head held even higher than usual. Her head brushed the evergreens framing the doorway, making all the tiny little bells attached to the branches tinkle merrily. The bells lifted my mood, and I glanced over to see if Jessica was impressed. Most people were when they met Mother, who in her seventies still had the slender elegance and regal blond looks of someone decades younger.
Jessica didn’t look impressed. Just impatient.
“In her room?” Jessica asked. “I didn’t realize anyone lived here.”
“She doesn’t,” I said. “She’s decorating the great room. Which is decorator-speak for what we normal humans call the living room. Or maybe the family room.”
Jessica had stopped tapping, thank goodness, but now she was nervously twisting one lock of her copper-red hair around a finger.
“I thought the old guy with the beard and the Georgia accent was the decorator,” she said.
“That’s Eustace Goodwin,” I said. “He’s decorating the kitchen and the breakfast room.” And would probably have a fit if he heard himself described as “the old guy with the beard.” Eustace was a dapper if slightly plump fifty-something.
“You need a different decorator for each room?”
I managed to stop myself from responding with my own version of Mother’s long-suffering sigh. Clearly Jessica hadn’t read any of the material we’d sent over to the student paper before showing up here to do her story. I needed to start at the beginning, which meant the interview would probably take a lot more time. Not even ten o’clock, and I could already see my plan for the day going down the drain.
But instead of snapping at Jessica, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. At any other time of year, I’d have counted to ten, but this close to Christmas, all it took was the holiday scents to calm me: spruce, pine, cinnamon, and clove. And upstairs, someone had changed the “Run, Run, Rudolph” radio to the same channel Mother was on, so now I could hear “The First Noel,” in stereo. I reminded myself that I’d finished all my Christmas shopping and most of the wrapping. I could do anything.
“This is a decorator show house,” I said, opening my eyes and focusing back on Jessica.
She had pulled out a small digital camera and was craning her neck around, taking pictures of random things while she listened to me. At least I assumed she was listening.
“The house is sponsored by the Caerphilly Historical Society. In a show house, you get a different designer for each room, and they all show off their best possible work. When the show house opens—in three days, on Christmas Eve—people will pay to tour it, and the historical society gets half of the money.”
“If there’s any left after paying the decorators,” she said.
“No, the decorators don’t get paid,” I replied. “They’re doing this for free.”
“For free? All of it?” Jessica looked up at the holly-decked crystal chandelier over our heads, which would not have been out of place in a small palace, and snapped a few pictures of it.
“They do it for the exposure,” I said. “If you’re someone with a big house and enough money to hire a decorator, what better way to check out the local talent than to come to a show house, where a whole bunch of designers are demonstrating their talent?”
“That really works?” Jessica sounded dubious. “I mean, have you actually gotten any clients for your decorating business that way?”
“I’m not a decorator,” I said.
“You’re not? Then what are you doing here?”
A question I asked myself at least once a day. What was I doing here when I could be home with my family, enjoying the holiday season? Maybe even spending a little time at my anvil since Caerphilly College was on winter break and my husband Michael would be home to watch our five-year-old twins. Ever since the boys had arrived, my once-thriving blacksmithing career had taken a backseat to sippy cups, naps, and lately T-ball.
I glanced up to see that Jessica was still waiting for an answer. And frowning as if I’d been trying to pull a fast one on her by impersonating a decorator. Well, I probably could if I wanted to. I couldn’t tell a finial from a mullion, but after the last few weeks I could toss off the jargon like a real pro.
“I’m the on-site coordinator,” I said. “Here to keep everyone organized.”
“Sounds like a thankless job,” she said. “How’d they rope you into that?”
“They threatened to turn my house into the show house,” I said. “I agreed to organize it if they’d hold it somewhere else. Anywhere else.”
“Yeah, that’d be worth it. So, the people who come to see this are mostly rich people, right?”
“Or people who want to see what the pros do to help them get some ideas for their own do-it-yourself projects,” I said. I actually wanted to ask why she was taking so many pictures of the banister and the stair treads. “Some people come to get holiday inspiration—since this is a Christmas show house, after the designers finish doing their rooms, they get to decorate them for Christmas.” Should I remind them again about the holiday part of their marching orders? Some of them, like Mother, had gone overboard, but others had yet to hang a single strand of tinsel.
“And every room decorated in a different style?” she asked.
“By a different decorator,” I said. “And so probably in a different style. For example, as you can see, Ivy Vernier, the decorator in charge here in the foyer, is an expert in trompe l’oeil. Painting stuff so it looks real,” I added, seeing her blank look at the French phrase. A few weeks ago I might not have known it myself. I pointed downward. “That floor’s not really marble.”
“It’s not?” Jessica bent over, and then plopped down on the floor, the better to study it at close range. She began tapping on the floor, as if testing to see if it really was wood. “Wow. Can I talk to the painter?”
“She’s not here at the moment.” Ivy had gone home with another headache. She’d been doing that a lot lately. Was it, as she claimed, a combination of paint fumes and eyestrain from so much close work? Or was the pressure of our deadline getting to her? Or was she reacting to the stress of dealing with the other designers? Dealing with one in particular—
“She’ll be around a lot in the next two days,” I said aloud. “To finish up her work before our opening. She might even come back before you leave today, and if she doesn’t, I can give you her contact information.”
Jessica nodded, and took several pictures of the faux marble floor. And then several of the faux oriental carpet in the center of the marble.
“And on the walls she’s illustrating Christmas carols and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen,” I added. To one side of the door, the Little Match Girl already sat shivering in sparkling painted snow. The three kings processed majestically up the wall beside the stairs, bearing the richest, most bejeweled gifts I’d ever seen. But the seascape of “I Saw Three Ships A-Sailing In” was only three quarters finished, and the painting of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” barely begun—how could Ivy possibly find time to finish?
I banished those thoughts and concentrated on the reporter, who was staring at the three kings. And reaching out to tap them.
“Careful,” I said, grabbing her arm. “Some of the paint might still be wet.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Wow. So what’s in here?”
She scrambled up and headed for the double French doors at the right side of the foyer.
“The study,” I said. “Done in a modern interpretation of the Art Deco style by Sarah Byrne from the decorating firm of Byrne, Banks, and Bailey.”
“Wow!” She was peering through the glass panes. And probably leaving a nose print. For a reporter, she hadn’t yet displayed a very impressive vocabulary. I hoped she’d find a few more varied expressions for her article. But I had to admit that, like Ivy’s painting, Sarah’s black, red-and-gold Deco-themed fantasy was worth a few wows. I coveted it, just a little. A good thing Michael and I were very happy with our Arts and Crafts style interior—decorated, naturally, by Mother.
Of course, if seeing Sarah’s room inspired Mother to do a little Art Deco experimentation, I could find a room in our oversized Victorian house for it. Michael’s office, perhaps? Or one of the guest rooms?
“This designer’s not around either?” Jessica stepped into the room and ran her finger over the dramatically curved arm of the closest of a pair of Art Deco armchairs upholstered in red velvet.
“She was here a minute ago,” I said. “Probably had to fetch something.” I was disappointed not to find Sarah around. If Jessica was going to interview some of the decorators, Sarah was one of the ones I wanted to steer her toward, and not just because I found her congenial. She was also articulate, upbeat, and funny. She usually wore a streak of some bright color in her blond hair—green, purple, red; whatever fit her mood—and dressed in odd but interesting clothes.
I was hoping Jessica would illustrate her article not only with pictures of the rooms but also a few of the more presentable designers. Mother’s cool blond elegance. Eustace’s dapper charm. Sarah’s puckish grin and funky retro style.
Yes, definitely a good idea to keep Jessica here till Sarah came back. I nodded with approval as the reporter drifted around the room, taking pictures.
“Try out the chair,” I suggested. “You’d be amazed how comfortable it is.”
She perched tentatively on the edge of the red-velvet seat and then smiled and relaxed back into it.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I would love to have a chair this comfy for studying back at my dorm room. Why do I suspect it might cost a little more than I want to pay?”
“It probably costs as much as your annual tuition,” I said. “And my husband’s on the faculty at Caerphilly College, so yes, I know how high tuition is. Those chairs are Sarah’s pride and joy. Authentic something-or-others.”
“If I ever get filthy rich, I’ll buy one,” she said, wriggling a little deeper into the chair. “But what happens to the chairs when the show is over? The owner of the house doesn’t get to keep them, surely?”
“The owner of the house is the First Bank of Caerphilly,” I said, “which has been trying to sell it ever since they foreclosed on it six years ago. They very graciously agreed to let us use it for the Christmas show house. They’re putting it up for sale as soon as the show is over, so of course they’re hoping that someone will fall in love with it and want to buy it.”
“Weird that it wouldn’t sell before,” she said. “It’s a nice house. Or did it need a lot of fixing up after being empty for six years?”
“The Shiffley Construction Company did a little fixing up, as their donation to the project.”
“That’s the company Mayor Shiffley owns?”
“Yes. Randall Shiffley’s a big supporter of the historical society.” And luckily, not here to hear me call thousands of dollars in major repairs “a little fixing up.”
“So if all the decorators—” Jessica began.
“I am going to kill that man,” came a voice from the doorway.
Copyright © 2015 Donna Andrews.
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Donna Andrews is an American mystery fiction writer of two award-winning amateur sleuth series. Her first book, Murder with Peacocks, introduced Meg Langslow, a blacksmith from Yorktown, Virginia.