For Skingle and Country
Christmas had come and the four of us were looking forward to a fun time spent warming up to the fire crackling in the hearth, enjoying plenty of delicious snacks and the company of our humans. Unfortunately this was not to be, for an urgent royal summons arrived that whisked us away to Liechtenburg, a small country located in the Swiss Alps. One of Europe’s oldest royal houses found itself besieged by a pernicious thief eager to divest its residents of their most prized possessions. But of course this was before a string of murders rocked the nation and plunged us headlong into a Christmas mystery.
The sun shone through the window of Vaasu Castle, eager as always to spread some sweetness and light amongst the inhabitants of that ancient pile, located in the heart of Vaasu, the capital of Liechtenburg, a pleasant little country wedged in between Liechtenstein and its bigger neighbor Switzerland. For centuries Liechtenburgers, as they were affectionately called, had been ruled by the noble House of Skingle, and even to this day, King Thad, the most recent spawn of his family’s infamously fertile loins, inhabited the family’s royal dwelling and reigned not with an iron fist but with a benevolent hand. Supported by his consort of thirty-five years, Queen Serena, King Thad was a much-beloved sovereign, and if some thought it anachronistic that a monarch would still be as invested in the day-to-day running of his country, at least his subjects didn’t seem to mind. Then again, Liechtenburg was a prosperous country, and so no one had much to cavil at and much preferred things to stay the way they were.
Unbeknownst to many, the king had recently been struck by a mysterious illness that had left him bedridden, his royal duties mostly having been taken up by his two sons: Crown Prince Dane and Prince Urpo. The fact that King Thad’s illness hadn’t been officially communicated didn’t preclude it from being widely commented on throughout his realm, since a thing like that is very hard to keep a secret. And so, gossip had been circulating, with some speculating that the king’s final hour had struck and that very soon now an announcement would be made that Prince Dane had been induced to step up to the plate and was to be crowned the new king and head of state.
But as sunrays fluttered across the noble visage of King Thad, laid up in bed as he had been for the past three weeks, they found the subject of all these rumors and gossip in a most foul mood indeed. Now the king had never been accused of being a ray of sunshine himself, but even for him, his mood today was beyond the pale. His wife, Queen Serena, had entered the royal bedroom with an eye to ascertaining whether the monarch felt up to offering his views on the upcoming Christmas ball, but instead of being enlightened by her spouse’s ideas on the matter, she was subjected to the kind of verbal abuse she had come to expect in recent weeks.
“Oh, get lost with your nonsense about the Christmas ball,” the king grumbled annoyedly. “Who cares about some stupid ball when I’m about to die, you silly woman!”
“You shouldn’t say such things, darling,” said the queen, shaken but determined not be browbeaten by her husband. “You’re not going to die.”
“You’re not a doctor, so what would you know?”
Serena had taken a seat next to her husband’s bed and now studied the man she had said yes to in an unguarded moment thirty-five years ago. Back then, he had been as handsome and charming as could be, and the whole prospect of being married to an actual future king had momentarily blinded her to the fact that her betrothed possessed a certain meanness of character that she had only caught glimpses of. But as the years passed, she had come to appreciate the real measure of the man, and the results unfortunately weren’t much to write home about.
Back then, her mother had warned her that Prince Thad was easily the nastiest of the two princes, but she had thrown caution to the wind, having been swept off her feet by the dashing nobleman who was first in line for the throne. To one day become queen was such an enchanting prospect that it had momentarily made her blind to the man’s faults, of which she would soon find out there were many.
“A letter arrived,” she now announced primly.
“What letter? What are you talking about?” Thad grunted as he idly played with his phone. He might have been struck down with illness, but that hadn’t made him put down tools for a single second. Even though the prime minister had suggested he momentarily place Dane in charge of things, Thad wouldn’t hear of it. He might be down, but he wasn’t out—not by a long shot.
“A letter from Buffy Kurikka,” said Serena. She had positioned her hands in her lap, and it took every ounce of self-control to maintain eye contact with her husband, even as his eyes had suddenly gone a little wary.
“Never heard of her,” he blustered.
“She wants to pay us a visit,” Serena continued, undeterred. “To introduce her son.”
“What son? What are you babbling on about!”
“I probably should have said: your son.” Or she could have said: ‘Your bastard son.’
For a moment, neither of them spoke, then Thad impatiently motioned with his hand. “Tell her to get lost. Her and that son of hers.”
“You better tell her yourself. After all, he is your son, and she was your mistress.”
Thad grumbled something under his breath, and for his doing he appeared unusually abashed. This reminder of his infidelity, at a time when Serena was pregnant with their first child, clearly didn’t sit well with him.
It was, of course, an open secret that King Thad, who prided himself on being a man’s man, had never taken the marital vows he had spoken too seriously. In his view, those vows were more a guideline than a set of rules set in stone. A gentle hint or vague suggestion, in other words. And since he was the king, the man who ruled all and sundry, he felt that he was perfectly entitled to sow his oats wherever he damn well pleased, whether in the nuptial bed or without.
The many affairs Thad had engaged in over the years had driven a wedge between himself and Serena, but that had never stopped him from continuing the much-maligned practice until he was of an age when women started to look at him askance when he made advances. Also, with his sons coming of age, Dane and Urpo had started asking difficult questions, mostly concerned with the impact their father’s philandering had on their mother, whom they both loved very much. And so, the affairs had ended, but not the resentment Serena still felt.
It was no big secret that the king and queen occupied separate wings of the castle, and only when in the public eye displayed some token form of affection. Keeping up appearances was important to both of them, if only for the sake of their two sons, who wouldn’t have taken kindly to an official separation or, God forbid, an actual divorce.
Only one of Thad’s affairs had ever led to actual offspring, and even though he had never officially recognized the boy, his existence was no big secret, even though everyone knew well not to bring it up in conversation with either King Thad or Serena.
She threw the letter down on the bed. “Here. You answer it. I don’t want to have anything more to do with that woman or her son.” She got up and prepared to take her leave when a cough from her husband arrested her departure.
“They’re trying to kill me, you know,” he said.
She glanced down at him with a cold look. “Who is trying to kill you?”
“Well, our boys, of course. They want me dead.”
“Oh, nonsense,” she said with some vehemence.
“They hate me,” he insisted. “I can see it in their eyes. Especially Dane. He can’t wait for me to die so he can become king. But I won’t let him, you hear.”
“Nobody is trying to kill you, Thad,” she said emphatically. “You just haven’t been taking good care of yourself, that’s all. Or did you really think you could eat and drink with abandon and not suffer the consequences?”
In no way did Thad even remotely resemble the man she had married more than three decades before. For one thing, he had tripled in size due to his intemperance, and with the amounts of alcohol he liked to imbibe, his liver had probably gone down the same road. According to the Physician to the King, the only way he might be able to save himself was by going on a very strict diet. That and a prolonged period of complete rest. But of course, Thad would have none of that. He wasn’t merely the supreme ruler of the realm but also of his own body, and no silly doctor was going to tell him what he could and could not eat or drink.
He made an impatient gesture. “They’re poisoning me!” he insisted. Then he frowned as he regarded her strangely. “My God!” he suddenly cried. “It’s you, isn’t it? You are trying to kill me!”
“Oh, Thad,” she said with a shake of the head, causing her platinum tresses to envelop her well-preserved features. Contrary to her husband, even at sixty, she still cut quite a handsome figure and was admired by all for her timeless sense of style, her grace, and her patience and kindness. “You’re out of your mind.”
“No, but it’s true!” he insisted, sitting up straighter. “I thought it was the boys, but it’s you, isn’t it? You are trying to get rid of me.” He picked up the letter and waved it angrily in her face. “And it’s all because of this. Revenge!”
“I don’t have to listen to this nonsense,” she announced, head held high in a regal fashion.
But as she made her way to the door, he yelled after her, “I’m on to you, Serena! And I’m going to beat you at your own game. You hear me? You can’t kill me! Not if I get you first!”
Having returned to her own suite of rooms in a private wing of the castle, Serena lost some of her regal fervor. It wasn’t that she was about to break down into tears over her husband’s latest delusional rant, but the fact of the matter was that they had suffered another security breach last night, this time resulting in the theft of a very precious brooch, one that used to belong to her grandmother.
She entered the sitting room and as she did, her good friend Tiia Pohjanheimo immediately rose from the settee where she had been enjoying a cup of jasmine tea, her favorite.
“And?” asked Tiia anxiously. “How did he react?”
“Badly,” said Serena. “As was to be expected.”
“He’s not going to invite the woman, is he?”
Serena shrugged. “He actually accused me of trying to poison him, can you believe it? I’m telling you, Tiia, the man is becoming more and more delusional with each passing day.”
“What do the doctors say?”
Serena had taken a seat next to her friend on the settee, but found she was too wound up to sit still, so immediately she rose again and paced the room, wringing her hands as she did. “They’ve advised him to go on a very strict low-fat diet. Cut out all alcohol, for one thing, which is exactly what he doesn’t want. Oh, Tiia, maybe we should postpone the Christmas ball? With Thad in the state he’s in, I don’t feel up to it. He seems to be getting more belligerent with each passing day.”
“Nonsense,” said Tiia, who might look like the sweetest woman in existence but could be quite forceful if she wanted to be. “As far as I can tell Thad only has himself to blame for the condition he is in right now. You can’t expect to spend all your life eating and drinking and… to put it bluntly, whoring, and not have your body break down at some point. It’s a miracle he’s made it this far, considering he’s put on about a hundred pounds in the last five years alone. The man looks like a whale, honey. And a very unhealthy whale at that.”
In spite of her anxious state, Serena had to laugh at these words. “Thanks for that,” she told her friend. “If there’s anyone who can cheer me up, it’s you.”
She had known Tiia longer than she had known Thad, having met in kindergarten. The two had become firm friends from the first day, and even after fifty-five years, that hadn’t changed. Throughout it all, they had shared joy and pain, heartache and personal triumphs, and frankly, Tiia was in many respects the best thing in Serena’s life, apart from Dane and Urpo and Serena’s grandkids.
“It’s that brooch, isn’t it?” said Tiia, who had an uncanny knack of reading her friend’s mind. “Why don’t you get the police to investigate?”
“Oh, you know what the police are like. Before you know it, the story will be in all the papers, and that’s the last thing I need right now. More scandal and gossip.”
Tiia nodded. “I see. Well, then there’s only one thing for you to do.”
She looked up in surprise. “There is?”
“Do you remember Opal telling us last year how she was being threatened?”
“Of course. Such a terrible business.” Their good friend Opal, who was a big thing in the States, having had her television show for many years and now her own television network, had been plagued by someone sending her threatening letters and messages and even going so far as to try and kill her.
“Then you’ll also remember how Opal enlisted the help of a woman named Odelia Kingsley and her husband, who is a police detective. Together Odelia and her husband managed to expose the culprit and bring them to justice. They did what the police couldn’t do, and in all discretion. So what I would advise is to get in touch with Opal and ask her to arrange for the Kingsleys to come here and catch this jewel thief for you. That way at least one problem will be dealt with, leaving you to handle Thad without the Tiffany Thief adding to your worries.”
Tiia was right. She had enough on her plate right now without the added anxiety over this thief making their lives miserable. So far only a few items had gone missing, oddly enough all of them pieces at one time or another acquired from Tiffany’s, one of the jewelry houses the family favored. Which is why Dane’s wife Impi had decided to christen the thief the Tiffany Thief. She also had one of her favorite pieces of her collection stolen only a couple of nights ago. In her case, it was her engagement ring that had disappeared. Dane had been on the verge of calling the police when Serena had intervened and told him to wait.
“Maybe you’re right,” she now told her friend. “If these Kingsleys are as good as Opal believes they are, maybe we should ask them to look into this for us.”
“The only problem will be that it’s such short notice,” said Tiia. “And of course… it’s Christmas.”
Serena glanced out of the window of her sitting room at the snow carpet covering the ground outside. It had been snowing steadily for the past ten days, and the whole world had suddenly been magically transformed into a winter wonderland. With the castle as its backdrop, the scene now closely resembled a fairy tale. She could see a group of tourists being led through the grounds, eagerly taking selfies with Vaasu Castle as a backdrop. The sleigh that took the tourists around the gardens shimmered brightly, and as the sun hit a patch of snow, it glittered like diamonds. Serena even thought she could hear Christmas music drifting in from down below. One of the tourists must be playing it on their phone.
If only they knew what the actual situation was behind the fairy-tale walls of the castle, they would probably be shocked, she thought with a touch of bitterness. Then she abruptly turned. “Let’s do it,” she said, displaying her usual knack for making snap decisions. “Call Opal and ask to get in touch with the Kingsleys. If they’re available over the holidays, I’ll cordially invite them to join us here.”
Tiia smiled as she took out her phone. Then she frowned. “What time is it in LA?”
“Better wait until they wake up over there,” Serena agreed. The Tiffany Thief might be something of an emergency, but the last thing she wanted was to wake Opal up in the middle of the night. Or the Kingsleys. She just hoped they hadn’t planned anything for Christmas. Most people did. And they might not take kindly to having to suddenly change those plans just because some queen on the other side of the world was faced with a problem.
Then again, no doubt Opal would give it her best shot. And knowing the former talk show queen, she could be very persuasive indeed.
The living room was abuzz with activity as Dooley and I rested peacefully on the couch. Our humans were enjoying one of their oft-organized family dinners, and for the occasion had also invited Uncle Alec and his wife Charlene. As it was, it was one of the last times we’d see the new couple for a while, since they were leaving to go on their honeymoon soon.
“Honeymooning in the sun!” Uncle Alec caroled loudly as he raised a glass to his new bride. “Finally!”
It had been a little while since the couple had been married, and except for a brief vacation, they hadn’t actually had time to go honeymooning. But now, with a lot of businesses closing down over the holidays, and hopefully criminals deciding to spend time with their families instead of relieving hard-working families of their possessions, they had decided it was now or never.
“So where are you going again?” asked Scarlett Canyon.
“The Maldives,” said Charlene with a smile. She looked more relaxed than I’d seen her in a long time. Being mayor of a small town may sound like a great proposition, but Hampton Cove can hardly be called a typical small town, in that we do get our fair share of trouble and mayhem visiting these shores, causing both Charlene and her new husband to be on their toes. But now it sounded as if they were about to dig those same toes into the warm white sands of a sunny tropical beach.
“God, I’m so jealous,” said Marge as she pronged a piece of lettuce with her fork and started eating it with small nibbles. For some reason, she reminded me of a rabbit. “I wish I could join you guys. I could really use a vacation.”
“Well, why don’t you?” said Charlene.
“Take a vacation,” she means,” Uncle Alec hastened to add. Clearly, the last thing he wanted was for his family to gatecrash his honeymoon. “Plenty of last-minute destinations to book,” he added for good measure.
“As long as they’re far away from the Maldives,” said Gran with a wink. “Isn’t that right, son?”
Alec grimaced. “Oh, you can come if you like,” he said reluctantly, making it sound as if the prospect of traveling with his sister was about as enjoyable as having his teeth pulled.
“That’s all right,” said Marge with a smile. “The last thing I want is to disturb you and Charlene on your honeymoon.”
Uncle Alec looked relieved. “I hear San Diego is very nice this time of year. Or what about Puerto Rico?”
“What I would like most of all,” said Odelia, “is a nice vacation in the snow. We haven’t had snow in Hampton Cove for a while, and I think it would be great if we could build a snowman with Grace and get our sleds out.”
“I would love that,” her husband grunted. “Christmas isn’t really Christmas without a nice thick carpet of white.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Uncle Alec. There definitely was no snow in the Maldives. Not even a single flake anywhere to be found. “Go up to Canada if you want snow. Plenty to be found there. Or how about Alaska?”
“Or Europe,” Scarlett suggested. “Though you’d have to go to the north, of course. I doubt they get a lot of snow in Spain or Italy.”
“Oh, but they do,” Tex assured her. “They’ve got some great ski resorts in the Italian Alps if that’s your bag.”
Judging from the dreamy faces all around the dinner table, it was obvious that a nice Christmas vacation was on everyone’s mind. Except mine, of course, or that of my three friends.
“Imagine having to wade through a couple of inches of snow,” said Brutus with a shiver. “Yuck!”
“And the slush and the muck it leaves behind,” Harriet added.
“Oh, I don’t mind snow,” said Dooley, offering the contrarian view. “As long as it’s still fresh, it’s a lot of fun to traipse through it. Though it is a little chilly on the paws.”
“It is chilly on the paws,” I agreed. The moment those snowflakes started to flutter down was the moment I’d hunker down next to the heating and not move an inch until springtime. I don’t know about you, but there’s something very disagreeable about the cold. I much prefer to stay indoors while all those foolish humans rush to be outside at such a time. But then I guess humans are a little weird. At the first sign of snow, they can’t wait to race one another to the door and head out into that world of white. Brrr!
“I hope they won’t go anywhere for the holidays,” Brutus confessed.
“Same here,” I said, adding my voice to the choir.
Unfortunately for us, our most fervent wish wouldn’t be answered, for even at that moment, and unbeknownst to us, dark forces were already conspiring to get us out of the safety and comfort of our own homes and into the wild open spaces of the European heartland, where snow and freezing temperatures would await us. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. But suffice it to say that the moment Odelia picked up that phone—yes, the phone that you can hear ringing if you pay close attention—our dreams of staying would be rudely interrupted.
“Oh, hi, Opal,” we heard Odelia speak into the device.
We shared a look of apprehension. Twice before, this woman had entered our lives, and each time a period of some turmoil had preceded. Once to induce us to pay her a visit in a place called Los Angeles, where we had been instrumental in catching a wannabe murderer, and once when a friend of hers had more or less invaded our home and caused us no small measure of grief.
So it was with a sense of impending doom that we now paid close attention as Odelia exchanged pleasantries with the former daytime talk show host. Before long, she was listening intently, a frown on her face, as no doubt Opal poured yet another story of heartache and sorrow into her ear, requesting her assistance in a matter of the gravest importance and the greatest urgency.
Finally, she nodded and said, “I’ll have to discuss it with my family. But I’ll let you know as soon as possible—I promise.”
That same family was also looking on with a distinct sense of expectancy, and when Odelia hung up, Marge was the first to speak. “And? What did she want?”
Odelia smiled. “You guys, we have all been formally invited by Queen Serena of Liechtenburg to spend Christmas with her and her family at Vaasu Castle! That’s in Europe!” she added for good measure.
The four of us closed our eyes in abject dismay.
“I knew it,” Brutus grunted. “I just knew it.”
Copyright © 2023 by Nic Saint