Rebel Without a Claus: A Little Tombstone Novelette

Rebel without a Claus, the 2nd title in The Little Tombstone Cozy Mysteries, is a Christmas-themed novelette (about 61 pages). It is available in ebook form at all major ebook retailers or in paperback form as part of the short-story omnibus edition of Little Tombstone short stories.


It’s Christmas time at Little Tombstone, a rundown roadside tourist attraction in the tiny town of Amatista, New Mexico, and the annual visit from Santa Claus to the children of the village doesn’t quite go as planned.

Edgar Martinez, who’s played Santa every Christmas for the past twenty years, fails to make an appearance. He doesn’t even call.

The show must go on, so a substitute Santa takes Edgar’s place. But when Emma decides to investigate why Edgar, who is normally a rock of reliability, didn’t show up for the twenty-first year running to put on his size XXXL crimson crushed velvet Santa suit, she discovers that Edgar seems to have disappeared altogether.

Read a Sample Chapter

Five days before Christmas, I was in the dining room of the Bird Cage Café helping my second cousin, Georgia, set up the oversized, throne-like homemade plywood armchair which would soon contain the considerable bulk of Edgar Martinez, otherwise known as Santa Claus or alternately, Santo Clós, to the children of the village of Amatista and the surrounding countryside.

Mr. Martinez had been playing Santa in the dining room of the Bird Cage Café for the past twenty years, back when both he and Juanita, the proprietress of the Bird Cage, were considerably younger and Edgar had been at least a hundred pounds lighter.

That was according to Juanita.

“I don’t see how Edgar can go on like this,” said Juanita, surveying the modifications that Oliver, our handyman, had made to the massive painted plywood chair. “If that boy gets any bigger, he won’t be able to leave his house.”

“That boy” was pushing sixty, but since Juanita was nearly on the wrong side of seventy, I supposed that to her, Edgar probably did seem youthful.

I had my own memories of Mr. Martinez playing Santa Claus. By the time the tradition had become established, I’d been a gangly teenager and far too dignified to think of sitting on Santa’s knee and revealing my Christmas wishes, but I did have memories of the dining room of the Bird Cage being filled with squealing tots and their parents.

I was pretty sure there was a picture of me and Georgia somewhere, standing stiffly on either side of Santa in front of the backdrop of the garish pink and green aluminum Christmas tree my Uncle Ricky had acquired back in the sixties.

The antique tree had been quietly retired not long after that picture of Georgia and me had been taken, but this year, while cleaning out one of the guest cottages behind the Bird Cage in hopes that it could be turned into a habitable abode for Georgia and her son Maxwell, we’d come across that prickly aluminum tree, and Maxwell had become enamored with the thing.

This would be my first Christmas back at Little Tombstone, my extended family’s rundown roadside tourist attraction, since my grandmother had passed away.

It was strange for it to be just Georgia and me. We were all that was left of the family unless you counted Georgia’s mother, Abigail, who wouldn’t set foot on the place.

It was going to fall to Georgia’s precocious six-year-old son, Maxwell, to carry on the family line.

It was just as I was trying to imagine Maxwell as a grown man with children of his own and failing entirely, that the boy of the hour appeared with Earp, my late Aunt Geraldine’s ancient and irritable pug, in tow.

My great Aunt Geraldine, Georgia’s grandmother, had never allowed Earp to go around in the nude, and she would have heartily approved of Maxwell’s enthusiasm for dressing the poor pug up each morning before breakfast in one of the many little doggie outfits she’d bequeathed to me along with the animal.

This morning, Earp was costumed as a tiny elf, complete with hat, jacket, and little felt elf booties that made him pause and flick his back feet—first the right, then the left—every third step as he plodded across the worn floorboards of the dining room.

Maxwell was dressed to match.

“Where did you find that elf costume, Maxwell?” I asked.

“I found it in a box. We’re going to be Santa’s helpers.”

Maxwell was always finding things in boxes. In a place like Little Tombstone, with its rambling buildings complete with basements and attics, there was a lot of scope for indulging one’s desire to collect things: which appeared to have been a major pastime of every inhabitant of Little Tombstone for the preceding sixty years.

Who knew what we might find before we got the place set to rights, assuming that ever happened.

“Does Santa need helpers?” I asked Maxwell.

He nodded his head so vigorously that his elf hat tilted to one side.

“Mr. Martinez is a very experienced Santa,” Georgia pointed out. “I think he’ll be fine on his own.”

Georgia was not the sort of mother who’d ever encouraged Maxwell to believe in the mythological, and, admittedly, Santa Claus was about as mythological as one could get. Even if Georgia had been the type to try and get her offspring to believe in the magic of Santa, it might not have worked.

Maxwell’s idea of light reading was The Scientific American, and his favorite party trick was reciting the periodic table of elements backwards.

“I think you’d better ask Mr. Martinez first before assuming,” Georgia told Maxwell.

“I’m not sure about involving Earp,” I said.

Poor Earp had flopped down underneath the aluminum tree and was trying to chew off one of his front booties, which was so securely velcroed around his ankle that all he’d succeeded in doing was getting a mouthful of slobbery felt fuzz.

“Emma! Earp wants to do it!” Maxwell insisted.

“What if he bites someone?”

“Earp doesn’t bite!”

Earp didn’t usually bite. He’d never bitten Maxwell, and he’d never bitten me. He had nipped Georgia, but that was only after she’d trod on him in the dark, so I considered that to be an understandable indiscretion due to extenuating circumstances.

It was unlikely Earp would bite any of the kids who came to sit on Santa’s knee, but it wouldn’t at all surprise me if his discontented grumbling might not scare a few of them.

Plus, there was the question of hygiene.

“Technically speaking,” I said. “Earp’s not even supposed to be in here.”

“Why not?” Maxwell asked.

“I’m pretty sure that there are rules against having dogs inside restaurants.”

I was pretty sure there were rules against smoking cigars, too, but over at a table in the corner, Hank Edwards, curator of Little Tombstone’s Museum of the Unexplained, was doing just that.

As was his habit, Hank had turned over one of the little plastic NO SMOKING signs that Juanita put out in vain to remind her customers—Hank in particular—that smoking was not allowed.

I expected that as soon as Santa arrived and the kiddies were unleashed in the dining room, Hank would make a hasty exit.

Hank is not pro-kid, although you wouldn’t know it by the way Maxwell peppered him with questions every time he saw him.

Hank is also very much not pro Christmas. In fact, at the curio shop next door, which is supposed to be a place Hank derives his livelihood from selling cheap faux-southwestern tchotchkes to tourists, he’d made his feelings on Christmas quite clear.

The dusty front windows of the shop were obscured with placards announcing that there were “No Christmas Items of any Kind for Sale” and “Keep Christmas out of Amatista.”

I don’t know what had led Hank to believe that anyone in the village or passing by would think the Curio Shop would be the prime location for doing any last-minute Christmas shopping, but Hank was obviously keen to keep the festively minded at arms’ length.

I don’t know where Hank acquired his animosity toward Christmas in particular, but then there were any number of things Hank regarded with deep suspicion: the medical-industrial complex, the truth about the death of JFK, and the insistence of the scientific community that aliens did not regularly visit our planet.

“Why is there a rule against dogs in restaurants?” Maxwell asked me, and I was forced to suspend my observation of Hank just as he lit up his second cigar.

“Dogs aren’t very clean creatures,” I said.

“Earp is very clean,” said Maxwell. “He just had a bath last night.”

Earp had just had a bath. Somehow, Georgia and I had managed to suds up the pug and rinse him off in the apartment’s only tiny bathroom.

Earp was undoubtedly cleaner, but the bathroom wouldn’t recover for a while.

I gave up on the question of banning Earp from the premises. Instead, I went over to one of the front windows and cracked it open to let out the cigar smoke. Hopefully, Hank would finish his platter of bacon and eggs and his second cigar and leave before any asthmatic youngsters arrived to see Santa.

“Shouldn’t Mr. Martinez be here by now?” Georgia asked Juanita when she passed through the room to refill Hank’s coffee and inform him that she’d added his breakfast to his running tab. I decided that Chamomile, the waitress, must be on her morning break.

“Yes, he should be here already,“ Juanita replied. “Edgar is very reliable. It isn’t like him at all to be late.”

Outside on the boardwalk, I could see that a few families were already lining up, according to instructions, to await their turn to come into the dining room to see Santa Claus.

Hank might not be capable of obeying posted signage, but apparently, the younger set, eager to remain on Santa’s “nice” list, wasn’t having any trouble complying with protocol.

“I hope Edgar gets here soon,” Juanita continued. “It’ll take him ten minutes just to get into his suit.”

She pointed at the size XXXL crimson crushed velour suit hanging over the back of a nearby chair. It was a good thing that Edgar always agreed to serve as Santa because there wasn’t anybody else in the village who wouldn’t look absolutely ridiculous in that suit. There weren’t enough pillows to be had around Little Tombstone to make that suit fit an average man.

We waited another ten minutes while the line grew outside. Juanita went back to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the lunch special. Chamomile, the waitress, came back from her break and started making her rounds, refilling napkin dispensers and setting out condiment bottles.

Hank finished his breakfast and left, leaving a lingering cloud of cigar smoke behind him.

Juanita came out from the kitchen and said she’d tried to reach Edgar, but the call had gone to voice mail.

“What are we going to do?” Georgia asked. “We can’t just send all those kids home.”

“I think we’re going to have to stall for time while we dig up a substitute Santa.”

“Stall for time? How?”

“Perhaps, this is Santa’s Elf helpers’ shining hour?” I suggested.

“Emma!” Georgia said.

His mother might not have been in favor of it, but Maxwell was on the job. Before Georgia could express additional misgivings or define any parameters of what consisted of appropriate means of stalling for time, Maxwell was halfway out the door.

Fortunately, he left Earp behind, and I took the opportunity to relieve the poor pug of his onerous felt booties.

After I’d concealed the booties underneath the sparkly skirt of the aluminum Christmas tree, I addressed the question of acquiring a substitute Santa on such short notice.

“I’m going to see if I can talk Ledbetter into playing Santa,” I told Georgia and bolted out the back door of the Bird Cage before she could weigh in on the idea.

Ledbetter, one of our three tenants in the trailer court behind the Bird Cage, was tall enough to fit Edgar’s costume, although, unlike Edgar, Ledbetter was a fitness buff and would require considerable padding to approximate anything approaching a traditional Saint Nicholas physique.

Marcus Ledbetter, who’s a combat vet and suffers from PTSD, doesn’t normally do crowds, but I was counting on the crowd being almost entirely juvenile, and him being sheltered behind a wooly white beard might be enough to make the experience tolerable for him.

Ledbetter is a man of few words, but that didn’t worry me. Santa doesn’t have to say much. He just has to listen.

I found Ledbetter out back, bundled up in a puffy parka and sitting with his eyes closed on a folding chair next to his trailer soaking up the midmorning sunshine like an old cat.

“That you, Emma?” he asked without opening his eyes.

The man has the hearing of a Vulcan. How he knew it was me, I have no idea.

“We have a problem,” I said.

“What’s that?” He opened his striking blue eyes and gave me an unblinking stare.

A lot of people find Ledbetter intimidating, but I’m not one of them. Ledbetter is a gentle giant who wouldn’t hurt a fly. In fact, he flat out refused to kill a bat once.

But just because Ledbetter wasn’t into killing wildlife didn’t mean he was going to be easy to talk into playing Saint Nicholas.

“Edgar Martinez hasn’t shown up to play Santa,” I said.

“Is that today?”

“Yes, and there’s a whole crowd of kids waiting outside of the Bird Cage to see Saint Nicholas, but all we’ve got is an empty suit.”

“I don’t think Edgar’s suit will be a very good fit,” said Ledbetter.

“I don’t think it will, either, but you’ll come closer to fitting it than anyone else.”

Surprisingly, it didn’t take much persuasion to get Ledbetter to agree to play Santa.

I ran back inside to collect Edgar’s Santa suit, the hat with the flowing snowy white hair attached, and the curly beard.

After collecting the costume, I went to the front door of the Bird Cage and peaked out through one of the cracked panes of glass in the front door to see how Maxwell was getting along with keeping the crowd entertained.

I don’t know what put the idea into Maxwell’s head—it was as good as any I’d have come up with on such short notice—but he’d decided that the ideal strategy for keeping the crowd happy was leading a sing-along of Christmas carols.

When I say, “Christmas carols,” I’m using the phrase very loosely. At the moment I peeked my head out to see what was going on, the line of waiting parents and children were engaged in a rousing rendition of Ninety-Nine Pugs and an Elf on a Shelf modeled on the timeless and tasteless classic Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

The waiting crowd was down to seventy-eight pugs—the real pug having nearly fallen asleep on Maxwell-the-Elf’s feet after his exhausting struggle to divest himself of his little felt booties.

I shouldn’t have worried about his biting anyone. If Earp could sleep through Maxwell belting out a rendition of what must be the most irritating song on earth, he must be even deafer than I’d thought.

“I see you let Earp out,” I said to Georgia as I passed back through the Bird Cage.

“Maxwell came back for him. Maxwell said Earp was an essential member of the cast.”

“I’d better get this costume out back to Ledbetter,” I said.

“He agreed?”

“He did.”

“I’m so relieved,” said Georgia. “Now, maybe things will go smoothly.”

Except they didn’t. Things didn’t go smoothly at all.

End of Sample Chapter

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