To help spread the word, Minotaur is also offering In the Bleak Midwinter in ebook format for only $2.99. Then at the end of January, they're offering the second in the series for $2.99 as well. At the end of February - you got it, the third ebook gets marked down to $2.99. This is a shameless ploy not dissimilar to the cigarette companies giving away thousands of packs of free smokes to the GIs during WWII. Their goal, and mine, is to turn you into slavering addicts, eager to rush out and buy every book in the series. (The only health warning attached to my mysteries, of course, is that you risk staying up all night if you start a book in the evening.)
But if the ebook sells the trade paperback, what sells the ebook? How about a free, original short story, set in the fictional Adirondack town of Millers Kill? I've been releasing a series of Christmas-themed flash fiction on my personal blog (you can find the first two here and here.) Yes, Christmas day is over, but good Episcopalians like the Rev. Clare Fergusson know Christmas is a season that runs until January 6th. So: set after my fourth book, To Darkness and to Death:
Away in a Manger
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
The fourth Sunday in Advent. The last of the four weeks of preparation before the feast of Christmas. The vestment and altar colors are Sarum blue or purple. The collect begins, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation...” And in St. Alban's, Millers Kill, it was time for the Christmas pageant.
“Sydney, hold still.” The Reverend Fergusson struggled to tie a donkey-eared hat beneath the chin of a wriggling three year old.
“I want wings!” the little girl yelled. “I want angel wings!”
Ned Donovan, who had taken on the thankless job of directing the pageant, leaned down. “Sydney, you didn't learn the angel song. You learned the animal song. Won't it be fun to sing it right up next to baby Jesus?”
“I want wings!”
Clare Fergusson looked over to where the last of the angelic choir were suiting up in satin sacks and tinsel halos. “Can't you stick her in an angel costume? It doesn't really matter if she sings or not.”
He sighed. “Sure. Whatever. Come on, Sydney, let's get you changed. You can be an angel.”
“No!” The child's shriek was even louder. “I'm a donkey! With angel wings!”
Ned looked at Clare and spread his hands.
She nodded. “Jesus is a Bitty Baby doll and two of the three kings are girls. I don't think a winged donkey will be stretching it too much.”
“Okay, then. Come on, Sydney. Let's get your wings on.”
Clare left the other volunteers – mostly moms – to herd the cast out of the Sunday school room and into the church for their final rehearsal. She sprinted ahead to the sanctuary, where two dads were muscling the stable roof onto its cross-barred supports. The manger was already in place in front of the altar, with two bales of real hay thoughtfully provided for Mary and Joseph to sit. One of the benefits of being in a small, rural town. She was checking to make sure the two microphones were turned on when she spotted the tall man coming through the narthex doors.
It was Russ Van Alstyne.
Her stomach bottomed out. She replaced the mike in its stand and walked steadily down the aisle. He was in civvies, instead of his police uniform. “Chief Van Alstyne,” she said. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Reverend Fergusson.” He paused, then looked past her, frowning. “I didn't expect so many people here.”
“It's a church. At Christmastime.” He gave her a look, and she relented. “This is the day we have our Christmas pageant The kids do a dress rehearsal at nine and perform it at the ten o'clock Eucharist.”
“Ah.” He glanced around at the stone pillars and arched windows of St. Alban's. “No Christmas decorations?”
“It's still Advent. We'll green the church later this afternoon. Did you come here to check out the holiday décor?” She tugged Russ to one side as Nathan Andernach pushed his way through the narthex door. She smiled and waved at the verger. “Perhaps I can get you a schedule of the services?”
“I'm not going to be in town for Christmas.”
“Oh. You're--” her voice faltered. “You won't?”
Russ looked around again. The pageant kids were shuffling in the side door to the church, in roughly their order of appearance. They would process down the north aisle, up the center of the sanctuary, and take their seats in the front pew, hopefully without the youngest getting distracted or taking stage fright. “Is there some place we could go for a little privacy? Your office?”
She shook her head. “I need to be here.” She swallowed. She had a feeling she didn't want to hear whatever it was he was going to say. “Could we meet after services? I have an hour or so before the greening.” She paused for a moment, because she rarely invited him into her home, but if he needed privacy-- “You could come to the rectory.”
He looked down at his boots. “God. I wish I could. But I'll be gone. I'm leaving—we're leaving for Montreal. I have to be at the train station in an hour.”
“Montreal.” With his wife. Of course.
“We're going for a week. Linda has this idea--” he turned and faced her for the first time, “--you know we're in marriage therapy.”
“Linda has this idea that we need time away together. Sort of a...” his voice trailed off.
“A second honeymoon.”
His lips tightened. “The therapist says it's a good thing, to break out of our usual rhythms.”
“Montreal will be beautiful at Christmas.”
“We've got Duane and Tim coming in to cover the extra patrols. So they won't even notice I'm gone at the station.”
“I don't want to go.” His voice was a whisper. “A whole week without seeing you or talking with you--” he removed his glasses and wiped his hand over his eyes. “Christ, I sound like a whiny little kid, don't I?”
The real little kids had assembled in their pews. Mary and Gabriel were taking their places as the narrator – one of the teens in the youth group – read, “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth...”
“No,” Clare said. “You sound like a man gearing up to do the right thing.”
“I want to fix my marriage. I swear to God I do. But I can't just turn off these feelings.” He reached toward her. “Clare, I--”
“Don't say it.” She wrapped her arms around herself, “Please don't say it. It doesn't help.”
He let his hand drop.
In front of the altar, Gabriel spread her wings flamboyantly. “HAIL, oh FAVORED one, the LORD is WITH you!”
“That's great.” Ned Donovan's voice drifted up the aisle toward them. “Maybe a little less...dramatic?”
Russ snorted. “Sounds like she's understudying for Evita.”
Clare smiled a little. “The angel of the annunciation and the Fear-not angel tend to be played by the less, um, reticent children.”
“Did you do this when you were a kid?”
“What part did you play?”
She smiled outright at him. “All of them. I started as a cow and worked my way up through shepherd, angel choir, king's page, king and both speaking angel roles to reach the pinnacle of Christmas pageant success – Mary.”
“Where do you go after you've been Mary?”
She gestured to her black clericals. “As you see, I had to enter the priesthood.”
He smiled a little. “God, I love you.”
Clare shook her head. She felt a hot pricking behind her eyes. At the front of the church, Mary stood up. Bits of hay stuck to the backside of her blue robe. “Behold,” she said. “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
“It doesn't matter what you feel or what I feel.” Clare kept her eyes on the rehearsal. “What matters is what we do. I'm going to get through the fourth Sunday of Advent and two services on Christmas eve and another one on Christmas morning. You're going to go to Montreal with your wife and put all your effort into closing the gap between the two of you.”
She glanced at him. He was facing the rehearsal as well. He nodded, a sort of jerk of the chin. “Yeah. You're right.”
A four-foot-high centurion marched to the center of the aisle and unrolled a scroll. “A decwee fwom Caesah Augustus and Quiwinius, govewnah of Sywia. All the wowld shall be taxed.”
“Low bar for auditions?” Russ said.
“No auditions. Everybody plays a part if they want to.”
“Yeah.” He turned to her. He did not touch her. “Merry Christmas, Clare.”
She didn't try to smile. She could at least be honest with her face. “Merry Christmas, Russ.” She didn't watch him as he left, but she felt the push of cold wind at her back when he passed through the narthex. At the front of the church, the animals gathered by the manger. There were two cows, a dog, a cat, one duck and something striped that was either a zebra or a tiger. And there was a donkey. With wings.
“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” They were in tune, more or less. “The little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”
Clare started down the aisle. It doesn’t matter what you feel. It matters what you do. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,” she sang. “The little lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.”
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