Even now, city workers stood upon ladders, waiting for the residents to craft an ornament to hang upon the tree. Once the last runner crossed the finish line, the mayor would flick the switch, and just like that, the Christmas tree would be ablaze with millions of multicolored lights signaling the start of the holiday season.
The square buzzed with activity. Local merchants sponsored tables to share their products with the visitors. Dax Moore, a fireman with the Aberdeen Fire Department, stood behind the table serving hot cocoa and sugar cookies to the line of women vying to grab his attention. Across the way Betty’s Café had a table, where Betty herself was serving steaming hot coffee and tea. In another part of the park Papa’s Pizza was handing out hot, fresh slices of pizza. Aberdeeni’s was handing out cannoli, and the world famous Candi Cakes were being shared by Candi’s Candies.
There were activities for young and old alike. An ice skating rink had been built near the center of the park where even now it was filled with skaters, flying around it’s glasslike surface. Crafters and merchants had tables displaying their products for sale. Intricate snow castles were competing with snowmen of all shapes and sizes. People milled about placing bets as to which would win the competition and reign king or queen of the holiday festival. Children ran about, not bothered in the least by the flurries of snow that dropped from the night sky, while their parents chatted with their neighbors.
Ben Jordan, the young police chief from Aberdeen, stood next to Mike Landry, the mayor of Aberdeen. Ben’s gaze swept through the crowds, taking in every detail, making certain everyone was safe.
“I’ve asked City Council to consider refurbishing the gazebo this spring,” Mike said drawing Ben’s attention away from the scene in the park.
The gazebo under question stood next to City Hall. It was decked out in its finest holiday attire. Red ribbon was wrapped around the posts and pine boughs were draped off the railing, sparkling with holiday cheer. Carolers, dressed in rather dubious Victorian garb and singing a lusty holiday too, stood beneath its roof. To say the gazebo needed to be refurbished was an understatement. The wooden flooring was warped and worn in places. The roof, reinforced nearly a dozen times in as many years, was barely hanging on. Not that it mattered. There were so many leaks in the roof any snow that landed on it was bound to fall through the holes peppering the surface.
“What they need to do is raze it and build a new one,” Ben replied as he watched Mrs. Jones talking with Gladys Clapper. Barney, her dog, stood sentinel next to her, eyeing the passing people as if they were intent on doing her harm.
“The council will never agree to that,” Mike replied. “They think it should be registered with the National Register of Historic Places.”
That bit of information got Ben’s attention. He turned to Mike in disbelief. “What?”
Mike Landry shrugged. “They seem to think it’s historical.”
“It’s barely forty years old!” Ben replied.
Mike shrugged again. “You know the council. There’s no sense trying to be logical with them. You’ll see,” Mike added with knowing glance in Ben’s direction.
Ben ignored Mike’s comment. City Council had made no secret they wanted Ben to assume the role of mayor when Mike retired next fall. Each time the council cornered Ben, he had listened patiently to their reasons, neither accepting nor rejecting their offer. Mike had nearly a year left in his tenure. Ben wasn’t about to usurp Mike’s authority by considering the council’s offer.
“I think you should know that I’ve arranged to have the guys in flak jackets for this,” Abe, one of Ben’s officers announced as he came to a stop in front of Ben.
The irritation of becoming mayor was quickly replaced by annoyance. To call Abe ornery and difficult would have been a compliment. The man had a complaint for everything. He thought he had a solution too. Year after year, Ben kept hoping Abe would finally bite the bullet and retire. In the six years Ben had been police chief, Abe never once hinted at the possibility retirement was in his future. Ben figured Abe stayed on to do his Word Jumbles, collect the local gossip and to make Ben’s life difficult. So far, Abe was batting a thousand.
Mike whipped his attention to Ben. “Do you think there’s gonna be trouble?”
Ben gave Abe an exasperated look as he replied, “Of course not. We’ve done this for years. There is never trouble.” At least not the kind of trouble that required flak jackets, Ben thought.
“That’s not true,” Abe corrected before he took a sip of the coffee he held in his gloved hand. “Don’t you remember what happened in Newton during their Pumpkin Palooza? There was nearly a riot!”
“There was nearly a riot because someone spiked the apple cider,” Ben replied dryly.
He’d heard the news from Sheriff Wincomb just a few weeks past. Ben wasn’t surprised the apple cider had been spiked. Things like that happened. Ben, however, was not about to allow that to happen here. He made that perfectly clear to his officers.
“Your men are ready though, right?” Mike asked, clearly concerned. A riot was not the legacy he wished for.
The muscle flexed in Ben’s cheek. “My men are always ready.”
“Yeah, thanks to me,” Abe replied. He saw the dark look Ben shot at him. “Hey, I’m just trying to be helpful.”
“If you want to be helpful, why don’t you go over there and direct traffic,” Ben retorted, pointing towards the parking area just off Main Street.
“I’m no traffic cop!” Abe protested. This earned him another hot glare from Ben. He threw up his hands in submission. Coffee flew out of his cup and landed on Ben’s jacket. Abe let out a disgruntled sigh. “Fine. I’ll direct traffic but I warn you, the union is not going to be happy about this!” he grumbled as he stormed away.
“What about Rufus? You don’t think he will be here, do you?” Mike asked as Ben brushed the coffee off his coat.
Ben understood Mike’s concern. Rufus Merriweather was the town’s streaker. Sometime during the year, Rufus would strip down into the outfit God had given him and run through the streets of Aberdeen. He’d been doing it for seventy years and Ben doubted he would stop until he took his last breath. Rufus naked was not a sight Ben wished to see on a warm, sunny day. He sure as certain didn’t want to see it when the wind was blowing and the temperature was nearing thirty. Heck, Ben couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to see Rufus naked.
He scanned the surrounding area to see if Rufus was about. He didn’t spot Rufus, but he did see his mother and she didn’t look the least bit happy as she marched towards him. Neither did Kitty, who Claire towed behind her. Minnie, Claire’s neighbor and friend, kept pace with Claire, chattering the whole way. Kitty’s husband was nowhere in sight.
“Where’s Burt?” Ben asked when Claire reached his side.
“He’s home. Where she should be,” Claire snapped giving Kitty a pointed look.
Ben laughed. Kitty certainly had a way of keeping his mother on her toes. “What did Kitty do now?”
“Hey!” Kitty said, taking umbrage at Ben’s words.
“I’ll tell you what she did!” Claire shot out. “She went and sat on Santa’s lap!”
“So? What’s wrong with that?” Kitty demanded. “That’s why he’s here!”
“No. He’s here for the kids,” Claire corrected. “You’re not a kid. You’re an old lady.”
“Speak for yourself!” Kitty snapped. “Besides, Santa didn’t mind that I sat on his lap.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Oh for God’s sake. You’re eighty-nine years old!”
“So?” Kitty protested. “I don’t know how much longer I have left. I need to put my requests in when I have a chance. I want to make certain I have a spot saved for me in heaven.”
“I think you’ve got Santa confused with the man upstairs,” Minnie said, cautiously pointing towards the cloud filled night sky.
“I don’t have them confused,” Kitty corrected. “I’m hedging my bets. The way I figure it, I need all the help I can get. If Father Frank can’t get me into heaven, then maybe Santa can pull some strings for me.”
“Oh for goodness sake!” Claire groaned again, wondering exactly what she had done to deserve having to deal with her aunt for the holidays.
“Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve sat on a young man’s lap,” Kitty continued.
A low groan of irritation erupted from Claire. Clearly, she did not appreciate Kitty’s opinion. Ben tried to contain his laughter. He took pity on his mother and decided to intervene on her behalf.
“What about Burt?”
Minnie gave Ben a look that suggested he’d lost his mind. “I said young man. There ain’t nothing young about Burt,” Kitty huffed.
“How do you know Santa is young?” Minnie asked. “He looked old to me.”
“Naw,” Kitty said, dismissing Minnie’s comment, with a flick of her wrinkled hand. “That’s just the wig and beard. When I sat on his lap I noticed . . .”
Claire slapped her hand over Kitty’s mouth. “Don’t you dare say it!”
“What? I was just going to say that I noticed he didn’t have any wrinkles around his eyes. What did you think I was going to say?” Kitty asked when Claire pulled her hand away.
A blush the color of Santa’s suit, ran up Claire’s cheeks. Thankfully, she was saved from explaining what Jimmy Tanner, Mike’s deputy mayor arrived.
“It’s time,” Jimmy said to the group. He turned to Mike and asked, “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I will be,” Mike said, holding up the flare gun.
Ben wished he was as confident. Mike wasn’t known to be the most accurate shot with the flare gun. One year Mike had shot the star off the top of the Christmas tree. Another year, he had shot the window out of the Court House. And yet another year, he had flatten the tire on George Winders Buick. Last year Ben had asked Mike if he wouldn’t feel better using a starter gun as opposed to a flare gun. Mike had immediately dismissed Ben’s notion like it was crazy.
“Now you know Ben,” Mike said in a voice that suggested Ben was either a child or ignorant. “We’ve always used flare guns to start the Turkey Trot. It’s a tradition and it’s what makes it festive.”
Ben didn’t think danger was festive at all. He could have gone to city council and pushed his concern regarding the flare gun. Lord knows he could cite plenty of examples. But seeing as this was Mike’s last year as mayor, Ben decided he’d make a concession and allow the man to use the gun. But that didn’t mean Ben wouldn’t keep an eye on him.
At least that was his intention. Only before Ben knew what had happened, chaos erupted. Just as Mike started to lift his arm to shoot the flare, a loud explosion sounded in the area. Barney, Mrs. Jones’ beagle, panicked at the noise, breaking free from Mrs. Jones’ grip. He charged directly towards Mike, like a heat seeking missile. He clipped Mike in the knees causing him to fall backward just as he pulled the trigger. The gun sounded and a flash of light erupted lighting the area. The flare made a beeline, not towards Stop ‘n Shop parking lot as intended, but headed directly towards the gazebo. Somehow, no one was hit. The same couldn’t be said for the gazebo. The flare sailed through the air, narrowly missing one of the caroler’s top hat as it landed smack dab in the middle of the gazebo. The caroler’s reaction was instantaneous. They scattered, leaping over the wooden railing as the worn floor erupted in flames. Seeing the flames, the spectators panicked and began to run, screaming from the area. Soon there was a confusion of runners and spectators all racing through the streets. Ben watched in amazement and disbelief, wondering what more could possibly happen when Kitty suddenly let out a loud whoop. Ben turned his attention to his great aunt. All four-foot ten of her stared, mesmerized, straight ahead.
“Woo wee! Now that’s a lap I wouldn’t mind sitting on,” Kitty announced as Rufus Merriweather ran past them, wearing nothing more than a pair of dayglo socks and sneakers.
Ben looked over to see Mike Landry’s reaction. Mike lay sprawled on his back in the snowdrift. Ben reached down to help the mayor up just as Mike said, “I guess we won’t have to refurbish the gazebo after all.”