On St. Nick’s Trail by M K Scott
Private Eye Nala Bonne and her trusty crime-fighting rescue dog Max spend their days surfing social media for telltale signs of disability fraud and philandering husbands, but when a lucrative opportunity to investigate something entirely different, Nala readily agrees to take the case.
The task: find a missing Santa impersonator
Unfortunately for her, someone is dead set against the search and will stop at nothing to drive Nala and Max out of town before their search even begins.
Can this dynamic duo locate the missing Santa before it’s too late?
Targeted Age Group:: 12-90
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 2 – PG
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
All The Talking Dog Detective Agency books take place in Indiana. The small town of Santa Claus was perfect for a cozy with its obsession with Christmas. Santa Claus also served as my childhood vacation spot, which made me familiar with the town, its inhabitants and attractions.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
All characters are purely fiction, but have been influenced by various people I have met. For example: Tyler Goodnight came from a Tupperware party I attended where the presenter's last name was Goodnight. She explained with a laugh that when her future husband introduced himself as Goodnight, she thought it was a huge joke and refused to have anything to do with him. I incorporated this into the first book in the series.
Cool air streamed into the car from the small opening at the top of the window. Nala regretted not putting on a jacket before she left to meet her friend, Karly, at a nearby outdoor restaurant venue. Normally, she’d prefer to eat inside, but she glanced over at her oversized black German Shepherd, Max. He made dining and often travel problematic. An outside table was the only way the three of them could meet. Maybe she didn’t have to take her dog everywhere, but she did. It felt right, especially because he was her business partner, too.
The cactus-shaped restaurant sign sprouted from the ground like an overgrown weed. She turned on her blinker, and slowed for the turn. Her dog shot her a look. “Hope they have cheeseburgers.”
She sighed. With Max, it was always about food preferably cheeseburgers. She read something about German Shepherds having sensitive stomachs, but that didn’t apply to her canine. Most people would be shocked about their pooch vocalizing in English.
After about a month of Max nattering on about just everything she accepted it. Along with his story that he had been enchanted by the girlfriend of his original owner. It must have been like those drive-in movies where a spell goes wrong. Only this time there were no zombies storming the mall instead, there was a talking dog, which unfortunately most humans didn’t relish. Thank goodness, Karly who worked at the shelter, picked out Max for her.
It might have been helpful if her friend had mentioned Max could talk, but she figured it out once she quit doubting her sanity. The car bumped into the half-filled parking lot making it easy to spot Karly’s vintage station wagon covered with pawprint stickers and reminders to spay and neuter your pet. No one would guess she was a shelter employee.
Once she switched the engine off., Max gave her an inquiring look. Right. She never answered her question. Elephants were reported as never forgetting, but she’d put Max up against them anytime. “It’s a Mexican restaurant. I did notice they had cheeseburgers on the children’s menu.”
“Sounds small,” Max complained and contorted his face into a pleading express complete with liquid brown eyes.
“Stop that! I’ll get you two.”
“Still sounds small.”
“Keep that up and you’ll get nothing. You know cash is tight. I can’t be buying you endless cheeseburgers, especially with neither of us is working right now. We can only live on the previous cases so long. We’re here because Karly has a potential work for us.”
Max’s ears perked up as his tongue lolled out in a doggy grin. “She’ll buy me another of those extra small cheeseburgers. You’d think she could have told you about the case on the phone.”
He was right. You’d think someone who worked with animals everyday would be onto their various manipulations, but Karly turned to putty when it came to the cats and dogs. It made her passionate to get them all placed in good homes. Max had a point about the possible case. It meant it was an unusual case. Hopefully, it wouldn’t involve hunting down a miscreant who was stealing cats.
“Let’s go see.”
She swung open the driver door still amazed how heavy and large it was. Her ancient Volkswagen Beetle had been replaced by her parents’ not so old Crown Victoria, which happened to be outfitted with a police scanner and two-way radio due to her father being a police captain.
“Nala. Max. Over here.” Karly waved from underneath a black table umbrella imprinted with the name of a popular tequila.
Nala held the car door wide for Max to exit before closing and locking it. They strolled to the where the iron fence surrounded a couple of tables and let themselves in. Max immediately went to the water bowl that was filled with water. After lapping up a little water and splashing out much more, he settled underneath the table. Typical.
“What’s up,” Nala slid into the wrought iron chair and picked up a menu scanning it for the cheapest item.
“Glad you asked.” Karly gave a short nod. “Got a call from my Great Aunt Selma.”
“Oh.” Nala felt it was a safe comment since she didn’t know Aunt Selma. What she did know was Karly had a truckload of relatives and from the various stories her friend spun, they probably had their photo in the dictionary next to the quirky definition.
A waitress attired in a cheap polyester peasant blouse and colorful skirt exited the building carrying salsa and chips. She placed them on the table and asked, “What can I get you?”
“Water is fine for me,” Nala assured while mentally doing the math and including a tip. “I’ll have the three-taco special plus two cheeseburger kid meals.”
The waitress arched her eyebrows while penciling the order on her pad. Karly cleared her throat and pointed to herself. “Give me the bill. I’d like the enchilada platter and an iced tea.”
“You got it.” The server turned and left without another word. Before she could inquire about the nature of the case, Max spoke.
“Did you see that. Didn’t even look at me. Didn’t say a word about what a handsome dog or what can I get your dog. Nothing. She probably didn’t even know I was here.”
“It might be better that way,” Nala reminded her pooch and nudged him with the tip of her shoe. “As hard as it may be to believe not everyone is cool with dogs hanging out at restaurants. Keep it low key.” She turned her attention to her friend who was smirking. “Does your Aunt Selma have a new beau she needs to check on?”
Most of her private eye practice had devolved to date checks, which she could usually do from the comfort of her office. It was boring. Not exactly what she expected to be doing when she chose to become a private eye. Her sometime partner Sawyer would throw some insurance work her way since he returned from Europe, but since he’d left for another mysterious trip even that had dried up. She could use another hundred fifty, although Selma might expect a friends and family discount, which would knock off twenty-five.
“No.” Karly tittered and reached for the chip basket. Chip in hand, she dipped it to the salsa and held it at chin level as she replied. “Great Uncle Bob wouldn’t look kindly on that. The town is in trouble and only you can save it.”
Saving a town sounded pretty important. Would just she and Max be able to do it? “I can use that for my resume. Town saver.” The idea made her smirk, then sigh. “Right now, I need a good reason to stay a private eye. It hasn’t been exactly what I’d thought it would be. There’s been a few moments that sent my heart into triple time, other times like I felt I really helped, but most of the time its been an exercise in tedium which includes trying to catch folks on disability jumping on trampolines or dancing on tables via social media.”
It hadn’t given her the best impression of humankind along with her date check service, which usually revealed secretive men who insisted on meeting in out of the away places who were almost always married or in a relationship. It made her hate to take the date check clients’ money. In truth, the only reason they contacted Nala’s agency was because they had a hunch anyhow. All she did was confirm it. Because eating and paying her own bills was a necessity, she took the money. In her own way, she was making the world safer for singles.
The thought cheered her, but she needed something more to brighten her outlook. “Tell me something good.”
“Ah,” Karly hesitated as she wrinkled her nose. “Are you talking about the case.”
“Could be.” Nala was hesitant to go into her need to hear something positive for a change. By the time, she crunched into a tortilla chip Max had his head in her lap demanding his share. It was no wonder he balked at eating his dog food. A few chips found their way to the ground where they vanished under Max’s administrations.
“Santa is missing.” Karly uttered the words with a straight face.
Had this entire trip been a setup just to get her out of the office where she waited desperately for the phone to ring. She’d play along. “It isn’t his busy time. I’m sure he’s on a Caribbean island enjoying the sun.”
“No. You don’t understand.” She gave her head a hard shake. “Maybe you don’t remember I used to live in Santa Claus, Indiana.”
That did ring a bell. Nala and Karly had been friends forever. A school report came to mind about towns with odd names. Her friend mention then that she had been born in Santa Claus, but couldn’t remember much else about the town. At least it wasn’t as bad as Gnaw Bone or Toad Hop. “I kinda remember that. So, you’re saying Santa left a town that was named after him?”
“Not left. Vanished. He normally stops at Rudolph’s campground and has coffee with Uncle Bob. They’d been good friends forever. Then he heads to Santa’s Candy Castle––
Nala held up one finger. “Lemme guess. Peppermint sticks.”
“Maybe. Heard he has a fondness for caramels and toffee. Anyhow no one has seen him for two days.”
An adult no matter even if he bore a strong resemblance to the merry old elf should be able to have some private time. “This is a big deal why?”
Due to having stuffed a couple of chips in her mouth at once, Karly settled for her eyes and eyebrows expressing her emotions. Her eyes grew wide while her eyebrows went up and down several times. Whatever she meant there was some strong feeling associated with it.
“Ah, I know I’m guessing here. Does it have anything to do with eyebrows? Groucho Marx?”
“Who?” Karly spat out the word along with a few chip crumbs.
“He was the Marx Brothers with the bushy eyebrows. Never mind. Explain it to me. Why can’t an adult, especially a senior adult can do whatever he pleases. Maybe he went to the North Pole to check on the toy production.”
“Be serious.” Karly leaned across the table and settled an irritated look on Nala. “The entire town is depending on you. Without St. Nick, we have nothing. The town didn’t even rate a post office until they changed their name to Santa Claus. People come to Santa Claus often to pose by the many Christmas themed places but mainly for an opportunity to see the real Santa.”
One of them was starting to spin off into the Twilight Zone land. Nala didn’t think it was her, but she did have the talking dog. “Okay. The real Santa is missing.”
The server returned with the iced tea and water. “There you go. Your meal will be here soon.” A sparkle of mischief appeared in the woman’s eyes. “I guarantee it will be here before Christmas.”
Kinda funny, but neither Karly or Nala laughed. Probably realizing she had an unreceptive audience the server drifted off to greet new customers walking in from the parking lot.
Karly gave the server a glance and continued speaking fast and intense. “He’s as close to the real Santa as I’ve ever seen. Real beard. He’s on the short side. Jolly. Has a way with children. He even knows sign language. He’s been at the theme park as long as I can remember he brings people in. Children want to tell him their list while older teens and adults come back for nostalgia purposes. The park used to be called Santa Claus Land. Without him, it’s just another theme park and plenty of those have gone belly up. Most of the town works there.”
Okay. She could see the problem. Santa needed to be found. “It’s September. Isn’t the park closed now?”
“They’re open for Halloween weekends.”
“What’s Halloween without the jolly old elf?” She teased not believing Santa had a significant part to play with children suited up in their best princess or super hero costumes.
“Exactly. It’s bad enough that my old home town has to compete with a new park across state lines. But there has been some vandalism in town, now this.”
Vandalism really wasn’t her thing. It was hard to pinpoint folks who show up in the night, do their thing, then vanish. Security cameras were always a big help. If they had those, they wouldn’t need her. “How are the two tied together?”
Karly boosted herself a little more and she was practically lying across the table to whisper the words. “He signed his name, the vandal.”
“That should make things easy. His name?”
Karly’s prone position on the table was starting to attract attention. “Jack Frost, she hissed the name, shimmied back to her seat knocking off the chip basket in the process.
Always quick to spot an eating opportunity, Max gobbled up the wayward chips and Nala picked up the basket.
She could do without the server joking on them anymore. It did make her wonder if this whole deal was a prank. “Do you think this whole thing is a huge publicity scam? Come on, Jack Frost. He might as well signed the North Wind.”
“Go ahead and make fun. The town may lose its place in the hearts of children. Plenty of letters often written in pencil and crayons find their way to the small post office of Santa Claus. Many people send their Christmas cards to be stamped with the famous Reindeer and Santa postmark. The postmark tends to change annually, but Santa is always on it. The folks who come to the park might decided to opt for that renegade mouse land instead, at least he’s still there. All the stores, campgrounds, even the golf course depend on people vacationing in Santa Claus.”
“It sounds serious.” Nala shook her head. “I’m not sure there is a great deal I can do.”
Karly folded her arms and sniffed. “After I found you a premier crime solving dog.”
Premier might be an over exaggeration, but Max did help. He picked up on clues that humans missed. She’d almost felt she have to do it to not disappoint her friend, but then again, a big money client could come in while she was questioning folks in the Christmassy town.
A different server arrived with their food and delivered it with a single comment, “Disfrute de su comida.”
Nala covertly delivered the small cheeseburgers to the waiting Max who swallowed each one without even chewing. Good thing she didn’t have her hand too close to his mouth she might be missing a few fingers. Might as well give him some fries, too. Not too many, the last thing she wanted was a gassy canine in the car.
Another sniff sounded as Karly picked up her fork ready to attack her meal. “I’ll have to call Great Aunt Selma and tell her all the work she did getting the various business to cough up five thousand dollars for your retainer was all in vain.”
“Five thousand,” Nala repeated the sum. It would certainly help. Maybe she could work out the mystery of the vanishing Santa. The man probably went to Vegas or something. Even Kris Kringle needs some down time.
From underneath the table Max mused on the case. “Think how many cheeseburgers that would buy.”
“Yeah,” Karly agreed and she cut into her enchilada. “When you find Santa and deliver him safely home there will be a bonus.”
Well, it looked like she and Max had a job. “Tell Aunt Selma we’re are on St. Nick’s trail.”
“I think he prefers Santa, but I’ll tell her.”
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