THE FOREVER CHRISTMAS TREE


A Bell Sound Novel #1
Avon Books
October 2018 (09-25-18)
ISBN-10: 0062854070
ISBN-13: 978-0062854070


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CHAPTER ONE

She’ll be home for Christmas…unfortunately…

The Wet and Wild was hopping tonight with an overflow crowd of military men and women from Coronado, both the North Island Naval Station and the special warfare command center. Sure, it was TGIF, time for blowing off steam, and there was a live band. But, more than that, with only two weeks remaining till Christmas, the air reeked with joy. The Christmas spirit.

Not so much, though, at the long table at the back of the tavern, where Lt. Wendy Patterson, U.S. Navy WEALS, sat with two of her teammates, and a half dozen Navy SEALs.

Started about ten years ago, WEALS (Women on Earth, Land, and Sea) was the female version of SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land). They often bragged that they were as “hard-assed and ever battle ready” as their male counterparts “and looked hot-damn-better doing it.” Wendy had been with them for eight years.

The band, with its female singer, was just finishing up their Mariah Carey version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” for the second time, to the raucous cheers of the mostly male audience.

What is it about Mariah Carey and sailors? I just don’t get the appeal, Wendy thought. It must be a male testosterone thing.

At least the men at her table weren’t hooting and hollering, as they were perfectly capable of doing, she well knew from past experience. And her female friends weren’t rolling their eyes with amusement. You’d think they would be in a happier mood with two-week liberties coming for most of them, starting next week. In her case, it was the first break in six months. For reasons Wendy avoided thinking about, she wasn’t looking forward to her time off. Looking around the table, she saw that her friends didn’t seem in any better shape.

It was funny how the SEALs and WEALS tended to stick together when out in public, almost like there was a magnetic pull, or they were a bunch of braindead homing pigeons. It wasn’t deliberate, and certainly not an act of snobbery, like some people thought. In fact, they looked downright scruffy at times, the powers-that-be having lowered the grooming standards for special forces operatives so they wouldn’t stick out in foreign countries. No high and tight haircuts, no daily shaving requirements, no inflexibility on military attire. No GI Jane look for the women. Once, when Wendy was about to go out on a live op in Kabul, she’d been advised not to shave her legs or armpits for several weeks. Not that anyone could tell under the burka she’d worn, but just in case she tripped over a rock and flipped her hem up to her butt, she supposed, or was captured.

No, the reason these teams clung together was because of their shared experiences. They’d seen and done things no one else had. And, frankly, they were a little, or a lot, burned out by the constant missions to curb global terrorism. The images would give the average person nightmares.

Like the recent pink mist involving one of their own.

Like the reason for them being together tonight.

The group of them here at the table had just returned from a memorial service for one of their fallen team members, Master Chief Travis Gordon. Flash had taken a hit from a suicide bomber in Baghdad ten days ago, leaving behind a wife and two kids.

“Can you believe the music playing when they rolled Flash’s casket into the church?” Wendy remarked, attempting to break the silence. ‘‘Should’ve Been a Cowboy is hardly the traditional hymn for a funeral.”

Everyone grinned at her words, mostly somber grins if there was such a thing. She hadn’t realized she’d spoken so loud, but the band had just taken a break. It was one of those odd moments of quiet within a crowd.

Sitting on her right side was Lt. Commander Jacob Alvarez Mendozo, best known by his SEAL nickname JAM. She must have looked confused at the grins because he explained, “Unusual, maybe, but very appropriate. Flash loved country music. That was his favorite song.”

Wendy had known Flash, of course, but not that well. “Guess I’m just surprised that the priest allowed it.”

“The Catholic Church is more lenient these days about what they’ll allow during their services. What surprised me was that they followed the eulogies with the old Roman Rite Mass, the Tridentine Latin rite. Must have been at the request of his parents. Believe me, that requires a special dispensation.” JAM had been in a seminary at one time; so, he would know about all that religious stuff.

“Remember how he and Cody O’Brien used to go at it over rock versus country, The Boss versus Garth Brooks,” Lt. Merrill Good reminded them. Merrill’s nickname was Geek due to his genius I.Q. Supposedly, he’d gotten his doctorate at age eighteen.

I do not want to think about what I was doing at eighteen. Or where. Or with whom. Damn! How can it hurt so much, even after twelve years? She steeled herself against the pain, willing the shield to come up over old memories. With a self-deprecating laugh, she thought, This is just great. Giving myself another reason to wallow. Get over yourself, Wendy. You survived. The past is no big fat hairy deal. Not anymore.

“Yeah, but did you see how wrecked Cody was today? Even though they were constantly on each other’s asses, they were tight as brothers.” This from Ensign Diane Gomulka, a sharpshooter in WEALS and one of Wendy’s housemates. Diane was from the Northwest where she claimed to have honed her skills on grizzlies and other wild game. No wonder her nickname was Grizz.

Silence followed Diane’s words for a moment as they contemplated the brother and sister bond that existed among them, even when they disagreed with each other, even if they didn’t like a particular person. When you worked in such close proximity, whether in a fox hole, or the jungle, or a Kabul stakeout, you came to know the other person very well. In fact, you came to recognize each other’s smell, the sound of their walk, even the way they breathed.

“Well, I’m going on record here. The song I want played at my funeral is Another One Bites the Dust. The pallbearers should be Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. You can tap a keg at the reception. On my tombstone you can chisel, ‘He laid one thousand chicks.’” Only Sr. Master Chief Petty Officer Frank Uxley would come up with this notion. FU was the most obnoxious, politically incorrect, horny SEAL in the world, and that was saying a lot, but he was an explosives expert with unmatched skills. You’d want him at your back in a Close Quarters situation or any live op.

But make a move on me one more time, FU, and I am going to karate chop your favorite body part. Not that she was special in that regard. FU hit on anything with breasts.

“What makes you think we would plan a funeral for you, asshole?” remarked Commander Luke Avenil, the highest ranking and the oldest of their group at close to forty. In fact, he had a few gray hairs feathering the sides of his dark brown, almost black hair, which was long, but not as long as JAM’s in its usual pony tail. Handsome, in an edgy sort of way, Slick had been in the original Force Squad, part of the infamous 8th platoon in SEAL Team Thirteen. “Don’t you have any family?”

“Just my mother.”

“You have a mother?” Slick asked incredulously.

FU threw a pretzel at him from across the table.

Slick caught it in one hand and proceeded to chomp on it, noisily.

“Listen up, all of you. I’ve saved your sorry asses more than once by disabling a bomb in your friggin’ laps. You owe me, and I want the whole military funeral shebang. Ten-gun salute, parade with a horse-drawn hearse, and all that. No, wait. Forget the ten-gun salute. A cannon would be better.”

Unbelievable! And he’s probably serious.

Everyone shook their heads at FU’s cluelessness.

In an obvious attempt to lighten the conversation, Geek said, “Hey, I got some news yesterday. I was talking to Peach, and—”

“Who’s Peach?” Wendy interrupted.

“Caleb Peachy. He used to be a Navy SEAL. An Amish SEAL.” At her arched brows, Geek shrugged in a “Go figure” way, then continued, “For a while, after he left the teams, Peach worked for a treasure hunting company, Jinx, Inc. The Jinkowsky family business. Its headquarters is in New Jersey.”

“I remember them,” Slick said. “They recovered some kind of pink diamonds from a shipwreck. And then they worked the Louisiana bayous searching for Jean LaFitte’s buried stash.”

“Right.” Geek nodded. “Anyhow, they’re involved in shipwreck salvaging, mostly, but lots of other stuff. Cave pearls and pirate bootie, like you said, Slick. Also, Nazi stolen art works. Buried gold or precious gems. Tomb artifacts. Caves with drawings or hidden items, like those famous Scrolls. That kind of stuff. Anyhow, the company is for sale.”

He had the interest of everyone at the table.

“Why did Peach call you about this?” Slick asked.

Geek blushed a little. A SEAL who blushed? Had to be a first. He was as wild as all the SEALs, but gave the appearance of an innocent because of his boyish features. It was one of his charms. “He figured I have the cash to buy them out, I guess…if I was so inclined.”

Everyone knew that Geek was wealthy, probably a millionaire, from all his inventions. Most famous, at least among this crowd, was his “penile glove,” which sold in the thousands on the Internet. Enough said!

“And are you so inclined?” Slick took a long draw on his beer as he spoke. Everyone at the table was drinking beer. No food had been ordered yet. Probably wouldn’t be in their present moods.

“No. Well, probably not. Oh, hell, maybe,” Geek admitted.

“Wow! Just like Indiana Jones! I’m in,” Hamr Magnusson exclaimed. He was the youngest of their group, although he had spent a few years in the NFL (Can anyone say “The Hammer”?), which probably meant that he, too, had the cash to invest in such a venture. He gave up football during the uproar over concussions and was lured by his older brother Torolf into becoming a SEAL…on a challenge, everyone said. Torolf, who had been a SEAL at one time before joining the family vineyard business, had bet his brother that he couldn’t make it through Hell Week. Hamr had done so, bruised and sore, but no concussion, and too stubborn and prideful to quit.

“Look at it this way,” Geek went on. “I read a blog one time where some Marine said there were only three reasons why any fool would want to become a SEAL. To prove something to someone, to prove something to themselves, or because they’re monkey ass crazy. Well, I say there are three reasons why a person would become a treasure hunter. Fame, fortune, and monkey ass adventure. Same thing, in a way.” Geek grinned and raised his bottle, drinking deeply, then set the empty bottle on the table with a clunk, as if making some point.

“Works for me,” Slick said, “but my ex-wife has me in court again. I’m about tapped out.” For years, Slick’s ex-wife had been suing him for more and more alimony. Rumor was that she wanted the Malibu house that Slick had inherited from some relative.

“Did anyone ever watch that “Oak Island” program on the History Channel?” Delphine Arneaux asked. Delphine was a mocha-skinned former body builder from New Orleans, now a master chief in WEALS, and another of Wendy’s housemates. Her nickname was Arnie, not because of her surname but a play on Arnold Schwarzenegger, the quintessential body builder. “That’s Oak Island in Nova Scotia, not North Carolina, by the way. No one is exactly sure what’s buried on Oak Island, but it’s almost certain that it’s something important. Could be buried treasure, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, some Templars’ secret relic, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, even the Arc of the Covenant. It’s creepy, but exciting.”

They all chuckled at that wide range of potential treasures, mostly unbelievable. And the idea of some venture being both creepy and fun.

“Seriously, you guys,” interjected K-4…that would be Kevin Fortunato, who’d joined the SEALs after his wife died of cancer, “we’re all burned out at the moment. Eventually, we have to give up this life, maybe sooner than later. Unless we have other talents or degrees…,” he glanced pointedly at Geek. “…which I don’t, we usually ease into one of the paid military security companies, like Northbridge or Academi. But think about it. This treasure hunting gig would be a great alternative, a better transition to civilian life. Still the element of danger. Excitement. And financial reward.”

“And women,” FU added. “Betcha the babes would be hot for treasure hunters, just like they are for SEALs. We’d be regular Harrison Fords, younger and tougher versions.”

K-4 rolled his eyes.

And Wendy said, “You are delusional.”

“What? You don’t think I’m a chick magnet, Flipper?”

Flipper was Wendy’s WEALS nickname because she swam and dove like a fish. Years of competitive swim teams and dive meets. She still did a mean swan dive. Actually, she’d had another nickname originally, “Windy,” and not as a play on her name. No, during her first week of WEALS training, she’d accidentally broken wind when doing duck squats, and the SEALs instructors, never ones to be sensitive or politically correct, had slapped that tag on her. Luckily, she’d outgrown that incident and the nickname.

“Like I said, delusional,” she remarked to FU.

FU looked as much like Harrison Ford as she resembled Kim Kardashian. Wendy took a sip of her beer, not really her drink of choice, but asking for a watermelon margarita at the Wet and Wild would be like asking for filet mignon at MacDonald’s.

“So, what’s everyone doing for liberty over the holidays?” Delphine asked. “I’m going to spend at least a week with my family. Lots of Creole food. Music. Dancing. A week is more than enough, though. I can only take so much of kids yelling, babies crying, and my Aunt Estelle getting drunk on what she calls ‘sweet tea’ but is actually straight bourbon.”

No one spoke while the waitress took away their empties and gave them new bottles, but then Hamr said, “I have to go home to Blue Dragon or my father’ll whack me on the head and give me the concussion I didn’t get in football, and that’s no joke. He’d do it with the long sword he keeps in the hall umbrella stand.”

Wendy had met some of the Magnussons, who prided themselves on their Norse heritage. The men all looked like fierce Vikings, perfectly capable of going a-Viking for fun and plunder. Even Hamr, with his long blond hair pulled off the sharp features of his face into a long braid, would look comfortable on the prow of a longship.

“Talk about kids and babies and yelling and laughing,” Hamr continued while Wendy’s mind had been wandering. “All one hundred of us Magnussons will be there, between my father, my stepmother, nine sibs, their significant others, and a gazillion rugrats, no exaggeration.”

“I’ll be alone in Malibu and loving it. No tree. No jolly Christmas songs. No fruitcake or cookies,” Slick said. “Me and my friend Jack…Daniels.”

“Sounds lonely to me,” Wendy commented.

“Sometimes lonely is good,” Slick said enigmatically, holding her gaze for a long moment.

What does that mean? Is Slick hitting on me? Nah. He’s had plenty of chances to make a move over the years if he was interested in me that way. He must sense a fellow loner, which is what I’ve been, sort of, ever since…no, I am not going there. Not now. She shook her head to clear it and said, “I’m going home for Christmas…for the first time in twelve years.”

Everyone looked at her and waited for her to say more.

“I own a house on the Outer Banks, which my Aunt Mildred has been taking care of since my father died. I’m hearing rumors that Aunt Millie has gone a bit bonkers, turning the place into some kind of B & B for swinging seniors. Well, ‘lively’ seniors, but you get the picture.” She revealed all this in a rush, already regretting having brought up the subject at all.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” K-4 said. “My wife and I honeymooned on the Outer Banks. Houses there run in the millions. I mean, oceanfront real estate. Flip? Wow!”

“My house isn’t oceanfront, and Bell Cove isn’t like other touristy towns along the Outer Banks.”

“What do you mean by banks?” Delphine asked, her brow furrowed with puzzlement. She and Diane would be grilling her for sure when they got back to the cottage.

With a heated face and wishing she could change the subject, Wendy inhaled deeply. Best to get it all out and over with. Well, not all. Some of it. “The Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands in North Carolina that separates the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s only about 200 miles long and three miles at most in width, but more often only a mile across. A ferry is needed to cross in several places, including to my town, near the southern edge of the OBX; that’s an acronym for the Outer Banks. While a lot of the Outer Banks is commercialized with open sea beaches and state parks and, yes, even shipwreck diving sites…” She addressed that last to Geek, “…Bell Cove has been waging the good fight to keep its character for a long, long time. They want visitors to spend their dollars there, but only if they’re passing through to Beaufort or the Crystal Coast. We’re like Mayberry at the Beach.”

“I’m not the one who asked about the Outer Banks. My parents used to vacation on Nags Head and Hatteras,” Geek said. “They liked to sail.”

“Tell us more about your house and your hometown,” Diane persisted.

“Like I said before, Bell Cove isn’t like those others. Built around an inlet off Bell Sound, it’s never catered to the tourist crowd, not because it isn’t attractive, but the beaches are too wild, and its deep water harbor hasn’t been maintained enough over the years to bring in the boaters.”

“So, if there’s no tourist industry, how do the people there make a living? Do they travel to the other towns?” JAM asked.

She shook her head, and realized suddenly that the reason everyone was so interested in her hometown is that it had given them a subject to discuss, rather than the looming one…the death of their friend. For that reason, Wendy elaborated, “Some do, but mainly the town was founded around Bell Forge, a small factory. The Conti brothers, Italian immigrants, settled there back in the early 1900s. They were craftsmen who made incredible bells, the kind that hang in cathedrals and city towers, but they also made bells as musical instruments. A dying industry, of course, like all things today that can be made cheaper in mass production.

“Bells,” Diane sighed again. Diane had a tendency to romanticize everything.

“Anyhow, it’s a lovely place, built around a town square, with a Catholic Church at one end and a Presbyterian one at the other, their bells often appearing to be in competition. The street lights are in the form of bells and are adorned with red bows at Christmastime. It’s the kind of place where Christmas carolers walk down its streets in period costumes. Everybody knows everybody.”

“Does it snow there?” Diane asked, probably hoping for a warm climate with sunny beaches, a sharp contrast to her home state where snow lay on the ground throughout the winter, often neck deep.

“Rarely, usually only an inch or two a couple times a year, but there are exceptions. When I was about six years old, we got twenty inches.” Wendy’s throat closed up for a moment as she recalled her mother, who had been alive then, out by the dunes, making a snow man with her. Her mother had been wearing a red coat, and her auburn hair had been powdered with snowflakes, and she’d been laughing. But then, there were other memories. When Wendy was sixteen, her hair a darker shade of auburn than her father’s Scottish ginger, she’d been walking on the snowy beach, hand and hand with Ethan. She’d been the one laughing then, with joy, and wearing her mother’s red coat, which she’d refused to give away. Wendy’s heart hurt at that mental image.

“Flip, you okay?” Diane asked under her breath as one of the guys called for another round.

“What? Oh, yeah,” she said, “Just caught back in time for a moment. Anyhow, there’s nothing prettier than snow on sand dunes, I can tell you that.”

“Tell us about your house,” Delphine encouraged.

“Oh, really, you guys don’t want to know all this stuff.”

“Yes, we do,” almost everyone at the table said, except FU, who was eying a woman at a nearby table who was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Ask About My Tattoos.”

“It’s a big house, with eight bedrooms, most of which we never used. My parents wanted a big family, but it never happened after my mother got sick. Dad was a doctor, the old-fashioned kind, who had his office and surgery on one side of the ground floor. There are nice views of the ocean and bay from the second and third floor windows. Anyhow, that’s it. Big house, small town, a trip I’m not looking forward to. End of story.” She exhaled with relief and seeing some of the guys’ eyes glazing over at what must be as boring to them as a Home and Garden TV show, she asked, “So, anyone interested in ordering dinner, or should we go somewhere else?”

But not all of them were as bored as she’d thought or willing to let her go so easily.

“Sorry to be so nosy, Flip, but why haven’t you been back in twelve years?” Diane inquired.

Wendy’s face heated once again. “It’s not that I haven’t been back at all. I’ve made several fly-by visits. Once when Aunt Millie was in the hospital. For my Dad’s funeral. Anytime I was needed. Usually just overnight. The last time I went back was five years ago. My family visited me out here, though.”

She could tell that they had lots more questions.

“Sounds like a charming place,” Diane said then. “Can I come home with you for Christmas?”

Huh? What? “Are you serious. Grizz?”

“Yeah. Everyone’s going to my brother’s place in Spokane for the holidays, and my mother will be harping on me about why I don’t have a real job, and when am I going to get married and have kids, like my sister. And Dad pumps me for secret information about the SEALs. And my sister Marion wants me to introduce her to a SEAL.”

“What’s she look like?” FU wanted to know.

Diane ignored him and concluded, “The idea of a quiet Christmas in a small town with freakin’ bells, well, that’s heaven to me. Can I come?”

“Sure.”

“Me, too,” Geek said. “As long as there’s wi-fi, have computer, will travel.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

“I’m game.” This from K-4.

“I could cut my time in Nawleans short, please God, and head out there for a week,” Delphine said.

With each person self-inviting themselves, Wendy’s jaw dropped even lower. Oh…my…God!

“Great, and Flip mentioned some shipwreck diving places on the Outer Banks. I could check them out, too, first hand,” Geek said, then pointed to his iPhone on the table in front of him. “I just checked. Did you all know that section of water off the Outer Banks is known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ because there are still so many…hundreds, even…of shipwrecks still out there, undiscovered.”

“Oh, hell! Count me in, too,” JAM said, then addressed Geek, “Maybe we can go to Jersey first and look over that Jinx operation.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Geek agreed.

“You’re not going without me,” Hamr proclaimed.

“What about your family?” JAM asked.

Hamr shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”

Wendy was stunned, but then she realized that this might be a good thing. She’d managed to avoid seeing Ethan all these years. If her friends were with her, it would provide a natural barrier.

“Will you have enough room for all of us?” Diane asked, a bit sheepishly, realizing she started all this.

“Should be fine. You might have to share space with some senior citizen swingers until I get things straightened out, but it’s a big house.”

“How senior?” FU inquired.

They all laughed then.

Geek glanced around the table. “So, road trip to the Outer Banks for Christmas?”

“Hoo-yah!” a bunch of them at the table said, raising their bottles of beer high, like toasts.

Later that night, Wendy called Bell Cove. “Aunt Mil, it’s Wendy.”

“Well, hello, sweetheart. You’re still coming next week, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but I want to bring some friends with me. It might be four or five. Is there enough room?”

“Of course. Harry is going to his son’s home for the holidays, and Gloria is moving into one of those assisted living places. Elmer and Claudette might still be here, and Raoul sleeps with me,” her aunt said, as if thinking aloud. Then, she concluded, “Easy peasy, darling. Bring as many friend as you want. The more the merrier.”

“Raoul?” Wendy choked out.

“Our dance instructor. You’ll love him, honey.”

“And he sleeps with you?”

“Of course. Where else would he sleep?”

There were a million questions she wanted to ask about this Raoul but the one that popped out was, “How old is Raoul?”

“Oh, he’s a younger man. Once a woman reaches a certain age, she wants a man who can still tango, if you get my meaning.”

Aunt Millie was seventy-two. Wendy didn’t want to picture her aunt doing the “tango” at all, and definitely not with some young stud looking to steal an old lady’s savings.

“How young?”

“Sixty last month.”

“What’s that noise I hear in the background?” Wendy asked, noticing the music suddenly blaring and people laughing. “Are you having a party?”

“No, it’s just the usual. Mambo Monday.”

Before she hung up, Aunt Millie asked in a sly voice, “Should I get a Christmas tree, or do you want to pick it out yourself when you get here?”

Over the years, Wendy had demanded that no one ever mention the name of Ethan Rutledge to her. Not her father before he died, or Aunt Millie, or her longtime friend Laura Atler, who was editor of the small weekly newspaper, “The Bell.” She didn’t want to know where he was or what he was doing. But there were three things she did know. He was married. He had a child, who must be going on twelve years old, in fact probably more than one child by now. And his family owned tree farms…Christmas trees, to be precise, at this time of the year.

That had to be what Aunt Mildred was alluding to, although Ethan probably didn’t even live on the Outer Banks anymore. His dream had been to become a veterinarian and move off the barrier island.

But then, my dream was to become a doctor, a general practitioner like my dad. And look where I ended up.

Their compromise plan was that they would live off island after marrying the summer following their sophomore year at UNC, Chapel Hill, where they’d been accepted for admission in the pre-med and pre-vet programs. It would probably take Wendy ten years to get through undergraduate and medical school. For Ethan, it would be a few years less. After that, they would move back to Bell Cove where she would join her father’s GP practice and Ethan would set up a medical clinic.

What did they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men going awry? Boy, did they go awry for them!

“Do they still sell those Rutledge Trees?” she asked, immediately regretting her first question related to Ethan in all those years.

Aunt Mildred laughed. “Oh, sweetheart, you are so out of the loop. The Rutledge Tree has become famous, at least here in North Carolina. People travel hundreds of miles to get one. They place orders a year in advance.”

“Huh?” Ethan’s father, and his father before him, had been trying to grow Christmas trees on the Outer Banks for decades, to no avail. The soil and climate weren’t ideal for evergreens. What resulted were stunted, sparse specimens…glorified Charlie Brown trees. And people bought them, first as a joke, then a conversation piece, even in upscale island homes. Ethan had been embarrassed by them, even when they had only a small, local following.

But that was the past, and Wendy had dwelled on it enough. If just the mention of a Christmas tree prompted these kinds of memories, she could only imagine what she was in for going home. Could she cancel at this late date? No. There were things there that needed to be settled.

With a shake of her head to clear it, she asked her aunt, “Do we have to have a Christmas tree?”

“Bite your tongue, girl.”

“Maybe it’s time to get an artificial tree.”

“Wendy Ann Patterson! You’ve been living in California too long if you think a Bell Cove home would stoop to a fake tree, although I did see one in the window of the hardware store last week.”

“Okay, okay, but you buy the tree, Aunt Millie, and have it delivered, for heaven’s sake. Don’t think about hauling it home yourself. Wait a sec. The guys can pick up a tree when they get there. They’d probably get a kick out of doing that. Then we can all trim it. Do we still have Mom’s old decorations in the attic?”

“Of course. Do you think I would get rid of those?”

“I guess not.” Wendy felt a tightness in her chest just thinking about the raggedy angel tree topper that they’d pulled out every year, even after her mother died.

“I am so excited,” her aunt said. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

Wendy doubted that. Very much.

Especially when she heard a voice in the background yell, “Hey, Mil, where’s the vodka?”

*****

CHAPTER TWO

Ding, dong, ding, dong, dang!…

“I hate Christmas.” Ethan Rutledge hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but as he sat at the conference table in the Bell Cove municipal building on a Friday night, drumming his fingertips on the scarred surface, he had to have some way of expressing his exasperation. The emergency meeting of the town council was taking forever to commence.

Everyone at the table turned to look at him as if he’d committed some sacrilege. He supposed it was, for a Christmas tree farmer.

Like I care!

Just then, the bells of Our Lady by the Sea Catholic Church out on the square tolled the hour. One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight. That was immediately followed by the bells of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight. Not to be outdone, the clock in the tower above this building, which had been late for years, rang its own bells. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. It was like a freaking bell competition. Day in, and day out.

“And I hate the bells, too,” Ethan declared, which was definitely a sacrilege in a town that was built on bells.

His remark prompted some gasps and looks of horror from everyone, except Laura Atler, editor of the weekly newspaper, The Bell, who sat next to him. She chuckled and whispered, gleefully, “Way to go, Scrooge!” Laura, who had been best friends with she-whose-name-he-hadn’t-spoken-for-many-years, got pleasure in needling him every chance she got.

Frank Baxter, owner of Hard Knocks, the hardware store, glared at him and said, “Don’t take your bad mood out on the rest of us.” Then, he inquired, not in a nice way, “Business bad, boy? I certainly hope the market isn’t dropping for those wonderful Charlie Brown trees.”

Ethan was a successful businessman selling Christmas trees…well, all kinds of trees…around the country, but what Baxter referred to was the infamous “Rutledge Tree” inadvertently developed by his grandfather and further mucked up by his father, a self-taught botanist, which were sold only on the Outer Banks…IN HUGE NUMBERS! There was a time when Ethan had been embarrassed by the stunted, scrawny evergreens, but he’d learned to have a sense of humor, and now promoted the hell out of the funny Christmas trees. And people came from many miles away to buy the stupid things. Go figure!

“Business is just fine,” asshole, Ethan said. “How are those aluminum foil trees moving?”

“They’re not aluminum foil,” Baxter sputtered. “They’re genuine Williamsburg reproduction silver leaf fir trees.”

Williamsburg, my ass! “Hmpfh!” Ethan snorted.

He and Baxter had been in a running battle ever since Ethan’s grandmother, Eliza Rutledge, opened a Holiday Shoppe (With two p’s and an “e” on the end! Don’t ask. Half the people in town called it the shoppie.) on the lot of their landscape business two years ago and made the mistake of offering some items that could also be purchased at the hardware store, such as removable wall hooks, of all things. Which had prompted Baxter to start carrying Christmas tree lights, which resulted in the shoppie, rather shop, selling electric drills to aerate the trunks of trees. Those drills had been like a gauntlet thrown down. This year, the window of Hard Knocks was stuffed with Christmas paraphernalia, everything from tree toppers to garlands, with the coup de grace being those artificial trees. Now, that was a sacrilege. North Carolina was the largest producer of Christmas trees in the United States, second only to Oregon. Dissing real trees was a Tar Heels sacrilege.

While the other council members conversed softly with each other, trying to ignore the hostility, Ethan sank down lower in his chair and pretended to be reading text messages on his phone. How he’d gotten roped into serving on this body was beyond him. A moment of madness when Leonard Ferguson had died suddenly of a heart attack and they’d needed a temporary replacement. Temporary? Hah! That had been two years ago.

Leonard Ferguson’s shoe store, named simply Shoes, had been a fixture on the town square for as long as Ethan could remember. He, his dad, his grandfather, all of the family, had gotten their shoes and boots there over the years. Of course, it was now renamed Happy Feet Emporium, whatever the hell an emporium was, by his widow Doreen Ferguson, who also happened to be the mayor. He hadn’t been in the store lately, but he’d heard some of the fancy gear there sold for a couple hundred bucks a pair.

Ethan looked at his watch again and sighed. Before you knew it, the bells would be chiming again. Mid-December was the busiest time of the year for a Christmas tree farmer. His local lot and its shop were open until nine p.m. tonight, manned only by his grandmother, aided by two high school kids, and Ethan’s daughter, Cassie, who was eleven going on eighteen. God only knew what kind of mess he’d find when he got back. Plus, he had three flatbed trucks of Fraser Firs, the Cadillac of Christmas trees, up at his mainland farm set to go to wholesalers early tomorrow morning. He had a seaplane that he kept over at the airport in Echo Harbor for commute across the sound, which saved him hours getting back and forth to his headquarters, but still time was awasting here.

Just then, the mayor straggled in, Thank God! Her lateness was what had been holding up the meeting. “Sorry, sorry,” she apologized, “I got a last minute phone call that I had to take.”

More like a shoe customer, I bet. Wanting to buy a pair of three hundred dollar high heels with a name, like Man-hole-ah or Jimmy Choose.

“That’s all right, Reenie,” the suck-up Baxter cooed. Everyone knew the old fart had the hots for the mayor. If Ethan had wanted to be mean, he would comment on Baxter’s comb-over, a recent practice designed to entice the merry widow, he guessed. Actually, it wasn’t so much a comb-over as a comb-forward. With bangs! He knew what bangs were because he had a twelve-year-old daughter who cared about such things. In a good wind, Baxter would look like a light bulb with a fur collar.

“Don’t worry. It’s no big deal,” the others said.

Ethan said nothing.

The mayor plopped a pile of papers onto the table, which he hoped wasn’t an agenda. If they had an agenda, it would mean hours. Exhaling whooshily as if she carried the weight of the world, or at least Bell Cove, on her shoulders, Doreen sank down into a chair and smiled at each of them. That’s when he noticed her appearance.

Doreen, who was a few years younger than his grandmother’s seventy-two, was sporting the most godawful hairdo today, probably thanks to her daughter, Francine, who owned the only beauty parlor in town, Styles & Smiles. It was what his mother used to call a bouffant. In other words, a big gray bush. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t stop looking at. But it was nothing compared to the deep, orangish color of her skin. He’d heard that Francine had started offering spray tans in her shop, but Holy Cow! If this was the result, there were going to be a whole lot of dingbat women around Bell Cove looking like yams.

Besides that, Doreen was wearing a Christmas sweater, fluorescent lime green, with two Rudolph’s. She probably didn’t realize that the red noses were directly over her breasts which were lifted higher than nature ever intended, probably a purchase from that new boutique on the square, Monique’s Boutique.

Baxter’s beady eyes about popped out.

Despite himself, a smile tugged at Ethan’s lips.

“Oh, my God!” Laura whispered beside him.

“Could we get this show on the road, Doreen?” Ethan asked. “What’s so urgent that we needed a special council meeting?”

“Yeah,” said Tony Bonfatto, owner of the Cracked Crab. “What’s the emergency? I have a holiday buffet for the Ocracoke Divers Club at nine-thirty.”

“A little crabby tonight, are you, Tony?” Ethan asked his friend with mock sweetness.

Ethan was pretty sure the words Tony mouthed at him were, “Bite me!”

Doreen scowled at all three of them and began to pass out some folders. Ethan opened his and groaned. Yep, an agenda. He would bet his left nut that up next would be new committees. He hated committees almost as much as he hated agendas.

Quickly, he scanned the sheet.

—Factory closing.

—Christmas street light malfunctions.

—Town square tree.

—Fund raiser.

“Jeremy will give us the report on Bell Forge,” Doreen said.

Jeremy Mateer, owner of The Cove, a sort of old-time general store that sold everything from groceries to neoprene diving suits, came from a long line of Mateers who started with a “mercantile” back during the Depression. Jeremy, who was wearing red suspenders and a Santa hat…yes, he was that kind of a dork…pulled out his own folder.

Death by folder! Ethan groaned inwardly.

“Gabriel Conti, owner of Bell Forge since old man Conti died last year, is coming to town next week. Mr. Conti is an architect from up in Durham, and he has no interest in the factory,” Jeremy announced and waited a moment for that news to sink in. “Bell Forge has been declining for years, as we all well know. The work force is down to twenty now. In its heyday, they employed seventy-five to a hundred. We’ve all been waiting for the axe to drop for some time now.”

Ethan remembered Gabe. They were about the same age, and although Gabe had been sent to ritzy boarding schools by his jet set parents, he had come to Bell Cove on occasion to visit with his grandparents, both of whom were now off to the great bell cathedral in the sky.

“We got a heads up about Mr. Conti’s visit because a commercial developer, that shark Benson from Nags head, was stalking the grounds last week with some surveyors,” Doreen told them. “You know what that means. A high rise hotel. Beaches loaded with tourists. Motor boats and water skiers.” She shivered as she added, “MacDonald’s.”

“There’ll be a MacDonald’s over my dead body,” Harvey Bernstein of The Deli proclaimed. Harvey prided himself on everything in his shop being fresh, never frozen. The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” had once done a segment on his Reuben sandwiches, declaring them “Reuben’s Greatest Masterpieces.”

Baxter, on the other hand, chimed in with his often-voiced opinion on the town and tourism, “I don’t understand why everyone fights the inevitable. Look at all the customers we would get if they tore that building down and added some popular attractions. Our businesses would double or triple profits.”

The hiss of outrage heard around the table shut him down immediately. By the look of scorn on Doreen’s face, it was clear that Baxter wasn’t putting his overpriced loafers, which he’d probably bought at the em-por-i-um, under her bed anytime soon.

Blushing, and it was not a pretty picture, ol’ Bax slunk down in his chair and muttered, “I’m just sayin’.”

Ethan wasn’t surprised about the factory closing. It had been mismanaged for a long time, ever since old man Conti had been in and out of nursing homes, and there being no resident owner on site since his death last year. His son and daughter-in-law much preferred living in Italy and mixing with the international crowd. Thus, the place had been left to the grandson, Gabe.

Practically the only thing Bell Forge made these days were bells for church choirs and high-priced wind chimes. But Ethan had hoped the company would be sold to some other company interested in keeping up the tradition. A pipe dream, he supposed. Look at that famous Whitechapel company in London, which had made both the Liberty Bell and Big Ben. It closed last year after five hundred years in business. Bell Forge had been operating for a mere one hundred. “Is it a done deal?” Ethan asked.

“No. Not at all,” Jeremy said. “That’s where we…the council…come in. I contacted Mr. Conti at his law firm, and he agreed to meet with us after he looks over the plant and its books, but before he meets with the Benson folks.”

So, there was a chance.

“We need a committee to meet with Mr. Conti,” Doreen said. “Who wants to head that committee? Jeremy can’t do it because he’s having root canal surgery that day.”

I knew it, I knew it. A committee. “Don’t look at me,” Ethan said. “This is the busiest time of year for me.”

Doreen narrowed her eyes and gave him “The Look,” the one that said, “Stop being a prick, Ethan. I knew you when you ran around the tree farm in nothing but a droopy diaper.”

He narrowed his eyes right back at her, not about to be intimidated by an orange yam with a bush on its head.

Which, of course, gave Doreen the opening to ask, “By the way, did you call Natalie?”

“Natalie…who?”

Doreen made a tsk-ing noise at him. “Natalie Forsyth, the nurse over at Southern General Hospital. My second cousin’s daughter who was recently divorced. Remember?”

“I haven’t had time.”

“Make time. That daughter of yours needs a Mommy. Beth Anne has been gone for three years now. You’re starting to act like an old man.”

“Oh, good Lord! This is a council meeting. Not Bell Cove Matchmakers,” he protested.

“Forget about it, Doreeen,” Harvey said. “I fixed him up with my niece, a very nice school teacher who was visiting here last month, and he canceled at the last minute.”

“I had the flu.”

“A likely story,” Tony, whom he had considered a friend, up till now, inserted with a grin. “Women are all over him, like Sunday sauce on homemade pasta, when he stops by the bar, and he ignores them all.”

“Maybe he’s turned…” Baxter started to say.

“That will be enough,” Doreen said before her suitor said what they all knew he was about to say and Ethan jumped over the table to knock the smirk off Baxter’s face. “My point, Ethan, was that we’re all busy. Besides, you have as much, if not more, to lose than any of us with all that acreage devoted to your island tree farm. You know darn well the vultures will be salivating over the prospects of forcing you out. A perfect place for a strip mall, I’m guessing.” She paused when Baxter raised his hand and said, “No, Frank, you are not serving on the damn committee. That would defeat the whole purpose.”

“There are a lot of folks in this town who’d agree with me,” Baxter argued, but then, realizing the hole he was digging, romance-wise, added, “Not that I don’t value your opinion, Reenie. You’re the most—”

“Stuff it, Frank,” Doreen said.

“I’ll serve on the damn committee, but I’m not heading it,” Ethan agreed grudgingly.

“How about you, Tony? You would get along with Mr. Conti really well,” Doreen suggested.

“Why? Because we’re both Italian?”

“Oh, please. Talk about thin skin!” Doreen said. Tony had developed a sore spot regarding ethnicity ever since that reality show, “The Mob” become popular. “I meant, because you’re both graduates of Duke University.”

“Oh. All right. Dammit.”

“I’ll serve on the committee, too,” Laura said, which surprised Ethan, but then she probably figured she’d get a news story out of it. “Listen, folks, we’re forgetting something here. Bell Forge is the cornerstone of this town. It was founded by the Conti brothers when they immigrated here in 1902. I know because I looked it up this morning. They were fine craftsmen who were known throughout the world for their bells. In its heyday Bell Forge produced bells for some of the most renowned cathedrals and time towers. Orchestras would settle only for Conti bells for their choirs.

“Are we really going to let that heritage go? I think we need to think about ways to keep the bell factory, not retrofit it for some other purpose, and definitely not tear it down to turn this town into yet another Myrtle Beach.”

Ethan felt a twinge of guilt then at having questioned Laura’s motives for volunteering to be on the committee.

“Good thinking,” Doreen praised Laura. “Okay, so, Tony, Ethan, and Laura will serve on that committee and will call on any of the rest of us, if need be. Is that settled?”

They all nodded. Ethan grumbled.

“Moving on,” Doreen said. “The Christmas street lighting in this town is now a clear and present danger. Matthew couldn’t be here tonight, but he asked me to convey how dangerous the situation is. We’re a law suit waiting to happen.”

The Matthew that Doreen referred to was Matt Holter, Ethan’s best friend, and the town’s attorney/treasurer. It was Matt who’d volunteered him to serve on the town council, initially. Ethan was always reminding his pal that he owed him. Now, more than ever.

“I don’t even have a light in front of my store anymore,” Baxter complained.

“And the one on my corner keeps flickering on and off,” Jeremy said.

“The things are almost a hundred years old. What do you expect?” Doreen said. “The state inspector gave a report yesterday. The entire street lighting system needs to be overhauled, but the immediate concern is the Christmas lighting, which must be fixed, or shut down.”

“What? At this time of year? Does that mean no Christmas tree lighting on the square, either?” Laura asked, appalled. “What about the Christmas Eve Carol Walk? What about the church concerts? And the Festival of the Bells?”

“Exactly,” Doreen said dolefully.

“How much?” Ethan asked.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars. Initially.”

Silence followed, because they all knew there wasn’t an extra twenty-five thousand in their treasury, not since the sewer project that was completed last summer.

“I’ve already ordered the work to begin Monday morning. We’re short at least fourteen thousand. We can borrow that amount, but we’ll have to find a way to repay quickly, or else—”

Ethan could give them that amount, easily, or lend it to them. But he knew they wouldn’t accept. Small town pride and all that.

“You can’t raise taxes. We’re already sky high. No way!” said Sally Dawson, speaking up for the first time. Sally ran the bakery/ice cream parlor and struggled as a single parent to raise three sons since her husband died in Afghanistan.

“I’d have to double the price of my trees,” Ethan mused aloud, though he wasn’t really complaining about taxes.

Baxter didn’t take it that way, though. “Your trees cost too much already.”

“You should talk! You’d think your shovels were gold-plated,” Ethan countered.

“Customers are already complaining about the price of my Crab Imperial,” Tony inserted to the grumble fest.

The complaints came fast and furious then.

“What will Mr. Conti think about keeping the factory going if the town looks so downtrodden we can’t even afford proper street lamps.”

“This stinks.”

“What next? Street excavation for new water lines?”

“And if it snows?

“It hardly ever snows?”

“It does sometimes. Remember that blizzard back when we were kids?”

“If we’re going to spend money on street lights, I want something done about the sand dunes piling up on my side of town. You can’t hardly see the ocean for the dunes anymore.”

“Forget lights and sand dunes, I want the sidewalks repaired.”

Doreen pounded the table with her gavel, which was actually a small lady’s hammer, probably a gift from Baxter. “Enough! And before I forget, Ethan, isn’t it about time you let us have that Blue Spruce for the town square gazebo this year? It’s already too big for an indoor tree.”

“You’ve kept it trimmed to a perfect shape,” Sally complimented him.

“It is beautiful, at least twenty feet now, I’m guessing,” Harvey remarked.

It was actually eighteen and one quarter, a star in the midst of a litter of runts on the local Rutledge Tree farm. The Blue Spruce had been a pet project of Ethan’s which he’d nursed meticulously for many years, succeeding where his father and grandfather had failed: to grow a perfect Outer Banks Christmas tree, especially a type so out of place for barrier island development, even more so than other species. It had only cost about five thousand dollars so far in fertilizer, wind and sun screens, and time, making it commercially unacceptable. But that was beside the point.

“Think about how impressed Mr. Conti would be,” Laura said, knowing exactly why he would never cut down that particular tree down.

Really, they’d gone too far this time. He had refused to cut that tree down every single year when they’d started asking, once it became apparent that this was the one Christmas tree that had managed to flourish here on the island. He didn’t mind donating a tree, even one of the pricey ones from over on the mountain, but not that one. All he said was “No!” but he said it with such finality that no one argued, just indulged in a lot of under-the-breath griping.

The Catholic Church bells began to toll, nine times. Followed by the Presbyterian Church. Followed by the town hall clock. Ethan put his face in his hands and counted to ten, then twenty.

“I have never seen such a bunch of grinches in all my life!” Doreen said then. “I swear, Dr. Seuss must have modeled his book on you yahoos. What we need is some ideas here, not complaints.”

“Ooh, ooh, ooh! I have an idea for a fundraiser,” Laura said.

Ethan raised his head to stare at her. He didn’t like the tone of her voice, way too gleeful. And she was looking at him.

“A Grinch contest. Around the town, we could place posters with nominees for the grinchiest person in town. People would vote five dollars a shot for their choice, or they could add a nominee. The money could be collected in Mason jars. You would donate those, right, Bax?”

Baxter was too stunned to answer.

“Isn’t that kind of mean?” Sally asked.

“Nah! It could be fun. All in the spirit of Christmas giving,” Laura contended. “We’ll probably be able to pay for the Christmas street light project in no time, and have money left over. I’ll put a running total in the window of ‘The Bell’ every night. Maybe we could even have a crowning of Mr. Grinch at the concert on Christmas Eve. Or Ms. Grinch. Oh, there are so many possibilities. Bell Cove Grinch of the Year. I love it!”

I’d like to crown someone. “Have you lost your mind? I’m not putting one of those posters and a begging jar in the Christmas shop,” Ethan asserted.

“Wanna bet your grandmother will?” Doreen challenged, narrowing her eyes at him, again. “It’s just the kind of thing she would like for her shoppie.”

Ethan cringed at the word.

“I know who I’m gonna nominate first.” Baxter slapped a ten dollar bill on the table and stared at Ethan.

Ethan one-upped him with a twenty and gave Baxter an equal glower back.

“See, it’s already working. Two people have been grinched, and we don’t even have the posters made up yet. I’m going to nominate my circulation manager, Zeke Abrams. He’s the grouchiest man alive,” Laura said.

And on it went.

It was the craziest, most asinine thing Ethan had ever heard off. They would be the laughingstock of the state, maybe the country. He wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the network TV crews land on their doorstep for a morning segment, titled something like, “The Crazy-Ass Things People Do for Christmas.” It would be right up there with those nutcases who decorate their houses and yards with a fifty million watt lightshow every year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, as Ethan was leaving the town hall, at nine-freakin’-thirty, Laura sidled up to him and said, “Guess who’s coming for Christmas, Mister Scrooge? And I don’t mean Santa Claus.” Then she added, “Ho, ho, ho!”

Later that night, after sending his grandmother and Cassie home and checking over the day’s receipts and inventory, Ethan walked to the far end of his local tree farm, to the perfectly shaped Blue Spruce tree, the one the council kept badgering him to donate, the one that had defied all odds in growing on an island where even the hardiest evergreen trees struggled to survive. He inhaled the familiar pine scent, which somehow seemed different with this tree than all the others.

It was a reminder of things long dead. He should just chop the damn tree down and burn it for fireplace kindling. A final end to…everything.

He should.

But he didn’t.

He couldn’t.

He…just…couldn’t.

*****

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