Six Geese A-SlayingChapter 1
December 23, 8:30 a.m.
"We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New-"
"Bah, humbug," I said.
Under my breath, of course. As Caerphilly County's reigning Mistress of the Revels, I didn't dare let anyone hear me badmouthing Christmas or showing less than the brightest of holiday spirits. I took a deep breath and straightened my holly wreath headdress before saying anything aloud.
"Could you please tell the drummers and pipers to stop drumming and piping immediately," I finally said. Shouted, actually, to be heard above the din.
"They won't like it, Meg," my brother, Rob, shouted back. "They're having a competition to see who can make the most noise."
"I never would have guessed," I muttered. But I kept smiling as I said it. And I reminded myself that muttering wasn't particularly inconspicuous in weather so cold your breath smoked.
If only someone had warned me beforehand that "Mistress of the Revels" wasn't an honorary title. It meant I was in charge of organizing Caerphilly's annual holiday parade.
This year's theme was "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The twelve drummers drumming were represented by twelve members of the Caerphilly College fife and drum corps, while the pipers piping were eleven assorted bagpipers-currently playing in at least eleven different keys.
The drummers outnumbered the pipers, especially since they'd also brought along twelve matching fifers. But the bagpipers seemed quite capable of holding their own in the noise department. And they were definitely going to win if this turned into an endurance test. The drummers were already showing signs of fatigue, and the bagpipers hadn't even hit their stride yet. And while "Silent Night" and "The Little Drummer Boy" are both lovely Christmas carols when played separately, they didn't work well when played simultaneously by dueling groups of musicians.
None of which would have bothered me if they'd been doing it farther off-say, down in the cow pasture where they'd been asked to muster. Why did they insist on hovering right across the street from our house, all too near the spot in our front yard where I'd stationed myself, clipboard in hand, to check in the arriving parade participants?
"Go and tell them-" I began, and then stopped. Rob looked at me expectantly. He was quite dashing in one of the medieval costumes we'd borrowed from the Caerphilly College drama department. The blue brocade tunic matched his eyes, and unlike some of the volunteers, he was skinny enough to get away with wearing tights. As one of the ten lords a-leaping he was going to be a smashing success.
But as an enforcer, Rob would be a disaster. I knew what would happen if I sent him over to quell the riotous music. He'd ask them politely. They'd ignore him-if they even heard him. And a little later, I'd go over to see why they hadn't shut up and find Rob taking bagpiping lessons or practicing his leaping in time with the fife and drums.
Some things you have to do yourself.
"Never mind," I said, as I turned to head in the direction of the musical duel. "Go make sure none of the other leaping lords have hopped off anywhere. And can you check the Weather Channel and get the latest prediction on when the snow will start? I'm going to-damn!"
I'd stepped in something squishy. I remembered that the eight maids a-milking had recently strolled by, leading their eight purebred Holstein milk cows.
"Please tell me I didn't just step in cow dung."
"Okay, you didn't just step in cow dung," Rob said. "I'm pretty sure the cleanup crew has been by at least once since the cows came through here."
"That's a relief," I said. Though I was energetically scraping my foot on the gravel anyway.
"So that's almost certainly camel dung."
As if that made a difference. I lost it, briefly.
"Can't those stupid wise men keep their beastly camels out of the road?" I snapped. Rob had turned to go and either didn't hear me or pretended not to. And it occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh on the wise men, since Michael Waterston, my husband of six months, was one of them.
"Don't blame the stupid wise men," came a voice from behind me. "It was my fault."
I turned around to see an enormous, bushy-bearded figure clad in a peculiar feathered garment. One of the six geese a-laying, I realized-I'd have recognized that immediately if he'd been wearing the goose head and had been waving wings instead of a pair of brawny arms covered with thick hair and a colorful collection of biker- and wildlife-themed tattoos. But never mind the incomplete costume-I was just glad to see its wearer.
"Clarence!" I said. "You made it!"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," he said, giving me a bear hug.
"So this is one of the six geese a-laying?" said a nasal voice with a hint of a southern drawl. I glanced over to see who was talking and saw a tall, cadaverously thin man in jeans and a faded brown parka. And he wasn't just tall compared to my five feet ten-he even looked tall standing beside Clarence, who was six and a half feet tall and almost as wide.
Brown parka was scribbling in a pocket notebook. Around his neck he wore a small silver digital camera and a lanyard with a laminated badge.
"You must be the reporter from The Washington Star-Tribune," I said.
"Are you-" he paused to look into his notebook. "Meg Lansdowne? The parade organizer?"
"Meg Langslow," I corrected.
"J. Ainsley Werzel," he said. He stuck out a hand and I shook it, somewhat awkwardly, since he was still holding the ball point pen in it.
"So, one of your geese, I presume?" he repeated. He stuck his pen behind his ear and grabbed his digital camera, apparently intent on getting a festive holiday shot of the ferrets inked up and down Clarence's arms.
"And also one of our vets," I said. "This is Dr. Clarence Rutledge. He'll be helping look after the welfare of the many live animals appearing in today's parade."
I winced inwardly at how stilted I sounded, like something out of a press release from the town council. But better stilted than dimwitted.
Clarence shook the reporter's hand with a great deal less caution than I had. He was so used to enduring the teeth and claws of his more recalcitrant patients that a mere ball point pen wound meant nothing to him. Werzel was the one who winced.
"Damn," Werzel said, as he continued to gape at Clarence. "I wish my photographer would get here already. You haven't seen him, have you-short guy with a big Nikon?"
I shook my head.
"Damn," Werzel repeated. "He said ten minutes half an hour ago. Ah, well."
He stood looking around with an odd expression on his face, as if tracking down the source of a bad smell. I checked my foot again. No, it was clean. And when I took a deep breath, the icy air held only the tantalizing odors of the coffee, cocoa, and spiced cider at a nearby refreshment stand. I could hear sleigh bells jingling in the distance, and strains of Christmas carols drifting from various part of the yard. A brace of cousins hurried by pushing a cart loaded high with pointsettias, and several small children dressed as elves were handing out candy canes, courtesy of the Caerphilly Candy Shop. What could possibly be causing that sour face?
"Quaint," Werzel pronounced.
"Clearly that's going to have to be my angle on this story. Quaint."
He nodded as he said it, and a satisfied expression replaced the frown. He couldn't have been here more than five minutes, the parade itself wouldn't start for hours-and he'd already decided on his angle?
"Pity I can't think of something more sexy," he said, shaking his head.
Not that he'd tried.
"I've never really considered Christmas all that sexy," I said aloud.
"It's all a big conspiracy by the stores," he said.
I hoped that wasn't going to be the theme of his story. But then, I didn't have high hopes about the story anyway. The Caerphilly Town Council members might have been thrilled when they heard that the Trib wanted to cover our event, but I was far more pessimistic about how much could go wrong today. Not to mention more cynical about how ridiculous an unsympathetic reporter could make us look if he wanted to.
And why was The Washington Star-Tribune sending a reporter to cover our parade, anyway? Caerphilly County and the town of Caerphilly were in rural Virginia, two hours' south of Washington, D.C., and the Trib rarely mentioned their one claim to fame-the small but prestigious college where my husband taught in the drama department. Our parade drew good attendance each year, but mainly from the county itself and from nearby counties even more rural than us. Why wasn't Werzel covering more glamorous sights closer to home, like the national Christmas tree and whatever holiday parades and festivals the greater metropolitan Washington area had to offer? He could have written a clichéd story about our quaint country parade without even leaving his desk. I was convinced Werzel had an ulterior motive-to make us look not only quaint but ridiculous. Unfortunately, if that was his plan, I couldn't think of any way to stop him.
The ten lords a-leaping danced past, with Rob in the lead. They had all strapped sets of Morris dancing bells onto their shins, and their procession sounded like Jingle Bells on steroids. I couldn't help smiling as they passed. Werzel didn't even look their way.
"I mean, what's so special about yet another Christmas parade?" he asked, when he could make himself heard again.
"Holiday parade," I corrected. It was a reflex by now. "We've decided to make this year's parade as diverse and multicultural as possible."
"That's nice," he said. "Of course, in a place like this, I guess multicultural means you've asked both the Baptists and the Episcopalians."
He doubled over laughing at his own joke.
"Not exactly," I said.
Just then a large, mud-spattered truck eased to a stop near me and an elderly woman wearing a large, jewel-trimmed turban stuck her head out of the passenger side window.
"So where do the elephants go?" she asked.
"Anywhere they want to," I said. "But see if you can convince them they'd like to wait in the sheep pasture across the street."
"No problem," she said, as the driver eased the truck over in the direction I'd indicated.
"Elephants?" Werzel asked, looking slightly wide-eyed.
"For the Diwali part of the parade."
"The Hindu festival of lights," I said. "It's their major winter holiday. Elephants are customary, I understand. Why don't you go watch them unload?"
Werzel nodded and stumbled after the truck. I smiled. Maybe the elephants would save us from the quaint stereotype. And if not-well, we could live with quaint.
"Nothing like elephants for human interest, is there?" Clarence said.
"For some kind of interest," I said. "I wouldn't necessarily call it human, with just the elephants and this Werzel fellow involved. But with any luck, he'll have so much fun photographing the elephants that he'll be in too good a mood to be snide."
"I should go over and check out the pachyderms," he said. He sounded quite matter-of-fact-but in addition to being one of the town veterinarians, Clarence was the official veterinarian for the Caerphilly Zoo, so he had treated elephants before. "That reminds me-sorry about the camel dung, but one of them was limping, and I was taking him for a walk to check it out."
"Please don't tell me we have an injured camel," I said, clutching my clipboard anxiously. "The zoo's only got the three camels. It just won't have the right effect at all if the wise men come riding in on two camels and a ten-speed bike."
"Oh, don't worry-" Clarence began.
"Meg, dear," I heard my mother say.