You can read the story below or click on the book cover to reach the Smashwords page, where it is available (still free) in a variety of ebook formats. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied, or included in other works. On the other hand, you can share the link to this page or the Smashwords page with whomever you like.
You may not be familiar with Smashwords, but they provide multiple formats for ebooks, including Kindle. You can pull it right off the site if you have a Fire. If not, from your computer, click on the Kindle download, then plug your Kindle into the computer’s USB port and drag the file into your Kindle folder.
Copyright 2011 Esri Allbritten
I wrote this story as a gift for Chihuahua lovers and fans of my mysteries. It features characters that appear in my full-length mystery, Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, published by St. Martin’s Press. If you read this story before that book, it may influence your experience slightly. I did my best to keep it from being too much of a spoiler. You might also be interested to know that Manitou Springs, Colorado, is a real town, and having Santa appear under the town clock on Christmas Eve is a real event. Any differences in the way I’ve portrayed it are for plot purposes.
‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Charlotte Baskerville woke to enthusiastic doggy kisses on her right cheek. Until recently, two soft little muzzles had licked her awake. She quelled a sense of loss and opened her eyes. Lila, her long-haired black Chihuahua, stared at her from inches away. Charlotte stroked her sleek head. “You have to love me twice as much now that Chum is gone, don’t you?”
Chum, another Chi, had died in his sleep about a month ago, at the grand old age of 19. He hadn’t done much in his last years except snooze and grace Charlotte with gap-toothed smiles, but she still missed him.
Lila bounced around on the covers, long habit causing her to avoid the place where Chum used to lie. She paused and sniffed the spot, then looked up questioningly.
Charlotte pushed back the covers and made her voice cheerful. “Come on, let’s get up. That Mrs. Claus costume won’t finish itself, and we still have to decorate the tree.”
Lila ran down the carpeted stairs that led from the high bed to the floor and stood expectantly, her silky tail waving gently. Charlotte pulled a quilted robe over her flannel nightgown and stuck her feet in slippers.
She went to the window to check the weather. Two inches of fresh snow hid the brown grass under a blanket of white – unblemished except for lines of animal tracks that crossed and recrossed the yard. Charlotte squinted. Those didn’t look like squirrel or rabbit tracks, and they were spaced too close together for fox. They looked a lot like Chihuahua tracks, but Lila used a potty pad and hadn’t been outside since before the snow.
“Cat, maybe,” she muttered to herself. Most people knew better than to have outdoor cats in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Coyotes, mountain lions and hawks made meals of unattended pets in the foothills of the Rockies. “Maybe someone new moved in and they don’t know any better. I’ll ask around.”
Lila frisked around, nipping at the toes of Charlotte’s slippers and making her laugh. She led the way to the bottom drawer of the dresser.
“Who wants to look pretty?” Charlotte asked.
Lila stood on her hind legs and pawed the air impatiently, then stuck her nose in the opening of the drawer as Charlotte pulled it open.
Tiny, colorful outfits filled the drawer. Most of them were from Petey’s Closet and had been available to the public at some point, but a few were one-offs or gifts from friends. Charlotte chose one of these – a hand-knitted pink sweater with a Christmas tree of silver yarn on the back. Fluffy turquoise balls decorated the tree, and a bow sat at the top, right at the neckline. She dressed Lila in it, praising her squinty little face as it emerged from the neck hole. “What a beautiful girl you are!”
Lila sat as soon as she was dressed, and Charlotte rewarded her with a treat from a jar on the dresser. “Come on, Lila-loo.”
They went into the hall and downstairs, Lily scampering, Charlotte following more slowly. At seventy, she ran an extremely successful Chihuahua clothing business, but that didn’t mean she ran around like a teenager. Slow and steady got the job done.
A pre-lit artificial Christmas tree stood in the parlor, surrounded by boxes of ornaments. Charlotte promised herself she would decorate it that evening.
In the large kitchen, Ivan Blotski sat at the table, staring at a mug between his hands. Ivan was Russian. His first career was as a wolf trainer with a traveling Siberian circus, until an affair with the circus owner’s wife resulted in a move to the United States. Then he worked at a wolf sanctuary until someone poisoned the wolves, leaving him jobless. At that point, Charlotte hired him to work with her dogs, and gave him a room in her large house.
Having a live-in dog trainer might seem unusual to most, but Charlotte found Ivan’s exoticism entertaining, and his training made her dogs fantastic models. Dog, she corrected herself. She should really get another, but didn’t feel ready.
“Morning, Ivan.” She opened a cupboard and got out a coffee mug printed with a picture of Lila in a fairy costume.
As usual, Ivan had pulled his glossy black hair into a ponytail. His clothes – charcoal-colored slacks and a silky shirt in dark purple – were a little slick for Colorado, though they made him popular in the nearby casinos of Cripple Creek.
Ivan reached down and fondled Lila’s head as she stood with her front legs on the rungs of his chair. “It is getting colder. It’s a good thing Lila’s elf costume has long sleeves, but she should still not be outside for too long.”
Charlotte nodded absently as she picked up the coffee pot. “They have those outdoor heaters. Did you see the tracks in the back yard this morning? They don’t look like the regular wildlife.”
Ivan got up and went to the large windows that looked out on the back yard. He grunted. “Stray cat, maybe. It won’t last long.”
“Poor thing,” Charlotte murmured. The phone rang, and she put down her coffee to answer it. “This is Charlotte.”
“We have a problem.” It was Shermont Lester, one of Manitou Springs’ civic pillars. “Phil broke his leg skiing moguls.”
“That’s not good,” Charlotte said. Every Christmas Eve, the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department delivered Santa Claus to the town clock in an antique fire truck. Phil Grant, a genial man in his sixties, usually played Santa. Charlotte was going to be Mrs. Claus this year, and weather permitting, Lila would be dressed as one of Santa’s elves. “Those baggy red pants will hide a cast, won’t they?” Charlotte asked. “It’s not like Phil has to walk for the role.”
“And what about kids bouncing up and down on his lap?” Shermont asked. “It’s not very festive if Santa screams and passes out.”
Charlotte sighed. “You’re right. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I’d fill in, but I’m getting on a plane in four hours,” Shermont said.
“What about Alex?” Charlotte asked.
“Already left to see family in Phoenix.”
“In-laws are visiting, and he’s the only one who can deep fry the turkey.”
Charlotte closed her eyes and rubbed one temple with her free hand. “Did you call just to share the bad news?”
“Actually,” Shermont said, “we were wondering if Ivan would do it.”
Charlotte choked out a laugh. “You want Ivan to play Santa?” She heard a chair push back and turned.
Ivan stood as tall as his five feet six inches allowed. “I will do it.”
She looked at his straight black brows, high cheekbones and olive complexion. “Um.”
Shermont spoke in her ear. “Did I just hear him say he’d do it?”
“Hold on.” Charlotte covered the phone’s mouthpiece with her hand. “Does Russia have Santa Claus? I mean, are you familiar with the legend?”
Ivan waved a dismissive hand. “We have someone very close. He and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, carry presents and an evergreen tree in a sleigh pulled by three horses. They bring gifts to the children in person. There is none of this chimney business.”
Charlotte started to uncover the phone. “Do you call him Santa Claus?”
“We call him Ded Moroz.”
Charlotte stared at him. “Ded Moroz? That doesn’t sound very jolly.”
Ivan stared back. “No one in Russia is jolly.”
Charlotte studied Ivan, trying to see him as children might. Although only in his mid-thirties, his face was weathered from time with the circus. In addition to his habitual serious expression, he had a scarred patch under one ear from where a wolf had challenged him for dominance, and lost. “Does Ded Moroz have a beard?” she asked.
“A long white one.”
She lifted the phone to her mouth. “Shermont? I guess you have a Santa.”
After breakfast and a shower, Charlotte dressed, then put on her coat and Lila’s. She also pulled rubber booties on Lila’s feet, to keep snow from accumulating between her toes. “Come on, Lila,” she said, opening the door that led from the kitchen to the backyard.
As Lila stopped to pee, Charlotte walked across the snow to the stone outbuilding that served as the workshop for Petey’s Closet. She studied the animal tracks she had noticed earlier. Lila bounded by, leaving identically spaced marks in the snow. “Weird,” Charlotte muttered, walking on.
She unlocked the door to the workshop and flipped on the lights, then turned on the space heaters that made the place comfortable during the winter. It seemed extra cold, and Charlotte reflected that a stone building was a primitive dwelling, even when you put up drywall and track lighting.
She looked around the well-lit space. “Ellen said she finished your silver parka,” she told Lila. Ellen was the main designer for Petey’s Closet. She had left to visit family the day before. “Your elf costume should be here, too.”
She looked on the floor-to-ceiling shelves, where Ellen usually put completed projects. The pointy elf hat sat on the bottom shelf, but the rest of the costume and the parka weren’t there, so she poked through half-finished designs and scraps of fabric on the two work tables. The parka and costume were nowhere to be seen.
“Where on earth could they be?” Charlotte asked, looking around. She turned at the sound of Lila’s barking.
Lila faced a corner of the room, barking ferociously at a stack of boxes that held catalogs. Charlotte went over. The boxes were only a few inches away from the wall. She started to reach behind them, to check for the missing clothes, but thought better of it as Lila barked harder. There might be a mouse back there. She got a yardstick and ran it behind the boxes, but felt nothing.
Lila continued to bark, pawing at the boxes.
Charlotte scooped her up. “It’s a mouse, I’m sure. We’ll deal with it later. Ellen must have put your clothes in the house somewhere. I’ll call her.”
Back in the kitchen, she took Lila’s coat off before calling Ellen on her cell phone.
“Merry almost Christmas!” Ellen answered.
“To you, too!” Charlotte said. “Hey, I can’t find Lila’s elf costume, and I also want to show off that silver parka you made, to see how people respond. Where did you put them?”
“They’re on the bottom shelf, to the right of the table.”
Charlotte frowned. “That’s where I looked, but they’re not there. Where else could they be?”
“Nowhere,” Ellen said. “That’s where I always put finished stuff. Also, I distinctly remember that I had to move some Halloween things to make room for the parka. So they’re definitely there. You must not have looked hard enough.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “How hard is it to look on a shelf? Could you have packed them in your suitcase accidentally?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Like I said, by accident.”
Ellen blew out a breath. “I didn’t take my suitcase in the workshop, but hold on.”
Charlotte cleared dishes off the table as she waited for Ellen to come back. As usual, Ivan had left the crusts from his toast on his plate, and as usual, she threw them out the back door for the birds.
“Charlotte?” Ellen said. “I checked, and there is no elf costume or silver parka anywhere in my luggage.”
“Well, where are they?” Charlotte demanded.
“I have no idea. I’m sure I put them on the shelf, but even if I dreamed that, they have to be somewhere in the workshop.”
Charlotte sighed. “Okay, sorry to snap at you. Phil Grant broke his leg and we’re scrambling to make sure Santa makes it to the clock tonight.”
“Who’s the replacement?” Ellen asked.
Ellen burst out laughing. “Scariest Santa ever!”
“I’m just grateful he agreed,” Charlotte said. She heard the sound of children’s voices come over the phone.
“Listen, I have to go,” Ellen said. “The nieces and nephews want me to help them make paper snowflakes. The costumes are in the workshop. You’ll find them.”
“All right,” Charlotte said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas!” Ellen disconnected.
Charlotte went back to the workshop, this time without Lila. It had started to snow again, fluffy flakes that drifted slowly down in the still air. She stomped across the yard and into the stone building. As she opened the door, she heard scrabbling in the corner of the room by the catalog boxes and shuddered. Mice gave her the creeps.
Ignoring the shelf, she made a thorough search of the workshop, even going so far as to look inside boxes of Christmas trim, in case Ellen had opened one while she had the costume in her hand and left it inside. There was no sign of the elf costume or the silver parka.
“I don’t have time for this.” Charlotte rubbed her face with both hands. She had the pointy green hat, at least. If she had to, she could pair it with a green Christmas sweater. Lila would still look reasonably elfy. She went back to the shelf.
The hat was gone.
Charlotte stared at the empty space. “You have got to be kidding me.”
After fifteen minutes of frustrated searching, Charlotte was forced to admit that the elf hat was not in the workshop. She must have taken it into the house with her.
“I’m losing my mind,” she muttered, as she trudged back to the house. She met Ivan coming out, a pack of cigarettes in his hand. “You haven’t seen Lila’s elf costume anywhere, have you? It’s green and red, with a little pointy hat.”
Ivan shook his head and put a cigarette between his lips.
Charlotte gave him a stern look. “Santa Claus does not smell like cigarette smoke, just so you know.”
Ivan lit the cigarette and shrugged. “I will put on cologne.”
“He doesn’t smell like cologne either.”
Ivan squinted at her through the smoke drifting in front of his eyes. “What does he smell like?”
“I don’t know,” Charlotte said, exasperated. “Cookies and reindeer manure, probably.”
Ivan smirked. “Is that what Mrs. Claus smells like, too?”
“If I can’t find Lila’s elf costume, Mrs. Claus is going to smell like bourbon and despair.” Charlotte stepped past him and pulled open the back door.
Inside, she searched every place she could think of, but Lila’s elf costume appeared to be well and truly gone. She started looking through Lila’s other clothes, hoping to cobble something together.
Ivan stopped by Charlotte’s open bedroom door as she stood in front of the bed, which was covered in dog outfits.
Lila pranced up to him, holding a tiny cheerleader pom pom in her mouth.
“What are you doing?” Ivan asked Charlotte.
“Trying to figure out something for Lila to wear. I’d leave her at home, but the kids would be so disappointed.” Charlotte pointed to a little ensemble arranged on the bed – a pale-blue skirt with glitter snowflakes printed on it and a white turtleneck sweater. “Does this say ‘snow fairy’ to you? I’m going for a Nutcracker ballet look.”
Ivan nodded. ”If Tchaikovsky had written his Waltz of the Snowflakes for Chihuahuas, I am sure they would have looked just like that.”
“Really?” Charlotte looked at him hopefully. “You’re not just saying that?”
Ivan glanced at his watch. “We had better eat lunch soon if you are going to finish everything in time.”
Charlotte’s phone rang as she and Ivan were finishing their grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in the kitchen. She picked it up. “This is Charlotte.”
“Where are you?” Phil Grant asked.
“Didn’t Shermont tell you about my accident?”
“Yes, and Ivan is going to take your place.” Charlotte glanced at the kitchen clock. “But we have hours yet.”
“The Santa costume needs to be altered, Charlotte. Susan and I have been waiting for you and Ivan to show up.”
Charlotte grimaced. “Shermont must have forgotten to tell me, and I didn’t think of it. We’ll be there soon.” She hung up and looked at Ivan. “We have to go to Phil Grant’s house and see how the Santa suit fits you.”
Ivan pushed his chair back. “I will shower, to get rid of the cigarette smell.”
“There’s no time for that. Let’s just go.”
Susan Grant opened the door to them. “Come on in.” She patted Lila where she sat in the crook of Charlotte’s arm, then wrinkled her nose as Ivan passed her. “That’s quite the cologne.”
Ivan gave a regal nod. “Thank you.”
Charlotte set Lila down on the floor. “How’s Phil?”
“All hopped up on Vicodin,” Susan said. “It was a clean break, so he should heal up fine. It’s not the first ski injury he’s had, just bad timing.” She led the way into the living room, where the Santa suit lay on the couch, the boots on the floor below it. “Shall we see how it fits?”
Ivan sat and pulled on the boots. He stood, grimacing as he did. “They are too tight.”
“They can’t be too tight,” Charlotte said impatiently. “Phil is six-foot-two, for God’s sake.”
Ivan shrugged. “He has small feet.”
“He does not,” Susan said huffily. “Put the rest of it on.”
Ivan put the Santa costume on over his clothes. Charlotte circled him where he stood in the middle of the living room. The legs of the Santa pants drooped to the floor, completely obscuring the black costume boots. On the other hand, the shoulders of the coat, tailored to fit Phil’s lanky frame, stretched taut over Ivan’s broad, powerful shoulders, making the sleeves ride up his wrists.
Susan shook her head. “We are up poo creek without a paddle or a boat. I don’t think we even have water wings.”
Charlotte bent and lifted one of the pant legs. “I could cut out a section of these and fasten the white cuffs on at the new length.”
“Don’t you cut my Santa pants!” Phil yelled from the other room.
Charlotte let the fabric drop. “I might be able to stuff the extra length down inside the boots.”
“Then the boots will be even tighter,” Ivan said.
“Work with me, Ivan. It’s only for an hour, and you’ll be sitting down.”
He lifted one shoulder. “I am just saying, it is hard to be jolly if my feet hurt.”
Susan groaned. “No matter what you do with the bottom half, the jacket is ridiculous.” She looked at Ivan. “Do you have a red sweater or something?”
Ivan shook his head. “I have a white and gold tunic from my circus days. It is something Ded Moroz might wear.”
Susan looked at Charlotte. “Does he understand we’re talking about Santa and not someone from Lord of the Rings?”
“Ded Moroz is the Russian equivalent of Santa,” Charlotte explained. She plucked at one of the too-short sleeves. “Ivan, you have a black coat, right?”
“Then we’ll reverse the colors. Instead of a red coat with a black belt, I’ll whip up a red belt to cinch the black coat. I think I may have some white fake fur. I can make cuffs and tack them to the coat with some loose stitches. With the red Santa hat, I think it’ll pass.”
Susan nodded. “You’re absolutely right. Plus, we’re running out of time.”
Charlotte blew out a breath. “Let’s pack everything up so I can take it home. And don’t forget the beard.”
Back home, Charlotte whipped up a red belt on the small sewing machine she kept in the parlor. Then she removed the white fur cuffs from the Santa pants with a seam ripper. That done, she called upstairs. “Ivan, bring down whatever black coats you have. Also black boots, if you have some that are taller than ankle length.”
Ivan came down shortly, a pair of black leather boots dangling from one hand, three coats draped over his arm.
She took the coats from him. “Here are the Santa pants. You can put them on over your clothes, for now.”
Ivan did as she asked. As suspected, Phil’s boots didn’t accommodate the extra pants fabric. Charlotte sighed. “At least they’re the right length now. Let me see your boots.” The boots came up to the knee and were higher in front than in back, with a stacked heel. “I’ve never seen you wear these.”
“They were part of my costume for the wolf act.”
“Go ahead and put them on while I look at these coats.” She took them off the back of a chair. One was full-length, and another had a stand-up collar that looked vaguely military. Charlotte settled on the third, which was made by a famous designer and would probably look like it, even when cinched with the red belt. “This one.” She sent Ivan upstairs to change.
When he came back down, she fastened the red belt around his waist and plopped the Santa hat on top of his black hair.
“How do I look?” He asked.
He looked like a Christmas gigolo, but all Charlotte said was, “Festive. What time is it?”
Ivan checked his watch. “Two-thirty.”
Charlotte bit her lip. “The event starts at six. We’d better get started on the beard. I’ve never worked with one before, and there’s no telling how long it will take to get right.” She rummaged through the paper bag Susan had packed and pulled out the false beard and a bottle of spirit gum.
Ivan took a step backward. “You will not put that on me.”
Charlotte looked at him in confusion. “It’s part of the costume. Even your Santa has a beard. You said.”
“I am not talking about the beard.” He pointed to the bottle of spirit gum. “I used that glue once and had a bad reaction to it.”
“How bad?” Charlotte asked. “Rash bad, or worse?”
“I could barely breathe. We were nowhere near a hospital. The circus master had to put a tube down my throat until the effects wore off, so I did not suffocate.” He scowled. “The tube had been used to siphon gas.”
Charlotte put the spirit gum back in the bag and studied the beard. “This is too thin on the edges to work with a wire.”
“Can we buy another beard?” Ivan asked.
“At two-thirty on Christmas Eve? I don’t think so.” She looked down at the beard in her hand. “We can probably use Elmers glue. If it ruins it, I’ll buy Phil another one.”
Ivan shook his head. “No glue.”
“Elmers is nothing like spirit glue,” Charlotte argued. “It’s just water and…something. Horse’s hooves, maybe.”
Ivan shook his head more emphatically. “No glue. It will kill me.”
Ivan crossed his arms. “You can have Santa Claus or you can have glue. Not both.”
Charlotte raised her hands in surrender. “Fine. I’ll cut a beard shape out of whatever fake fur I find for the cuffs, and we’ll hang it from your ears with coat-hanger wire. See if you can hide your hair under the hat.”
Charlotte put on her coat and headed outside to the workshop. The bread crusts were gone, although the snow was trampled as if by an animal rather than birds. Squirrels, probably.
The keys were cold in her ungloved hands. She unlocked the workshop door, switched on the lights, and froze.
A smear of bloody-looking liquid decorated the linoleum floor.
“What on earth?”
As if in answer to her question, a shrill noise came from the corner of the room with the catalog boxes – something between a shriek and a moan.
Charlotte backed out of the workroom and ran to the house. “Ivan!” she shouted. “Ivan, come quick!”
Ivan opened the back door before she reached it. The Santa hat was pulled low on his forehead, and strands of black hair stuck out from one side. “What is it?”
“There’s some kind of animal in the workroom,” Charlotte panted, coming inside. “Lila barked at some boxes earlier and I figured there was a mouse behind them, but now there’s this bloody stuff, and it’s too much for a mouse. Maybe it’s a rat.” She shuddered and tugged at his sleeve. “Come on. I’m not going in there by myself.”
Ivan pulled away and opened a kitchen drawer.
“What are you doing?”
He took out a cleaver and hefted it in his hand. “We don’t want it to suffer.” He took a pair of leather gloves from the pocket of a coat he kept by the back door and stuck them in his red belt.
Charlotte stayed close behind Ivan as he stalked across the frozen yard in his knee-high boots and makeshift Santa outfit, the cleaver dangling from one hand. She had left the workshop door open, and the squealing sound came again as they neared it. “Oh, God, what is it?” she whimpered.
Ivan lifted the cleaver and stepped inside. He studied the mess on the floor for a moment. “Where are these boxes Lila barked at?” he asked quietly.
Ivan walked stealthily over, the cleaver raised. Then he put his booted foot against the bottom box and slowly pushed it to one side.
Charlotte expected a furry form to thrash around on the floor, fatally injured. But the only thing she saw was a ragged hole in the drywall. “It must be a rat,” she said, shuddering again.
“Do you have a light?” Ivan asked, bending to peer in the hole.
Charlotte went to one of the shelves and took down a flashlight. She crept forward, arm extended to its fullest, and handed it to Ivan.
He turned it on and pointed it in the hole. Then he squatted and looked closer.
“Can you see anything?” Charlotte asked.
Ivan stood. “It is not a rat.”
“Then what is it?”
He didn’t answer, but walked toward the door, leaving the cleaver on a work table.
“Don’t go all cryptic on me! Where are you going?” Charlotte trotted after him as he went out the door and followed the outside wall of the workshop.
“To see if there is a hole from the outside. I don’t want it to escape.” He walked to the corner of the building that corresponded to the hole inside. Snow had been scraped away from the ground, and a shallow depression disappeared beneath the wall. Ivan looked around, then picked up some stones from a pile that had come from an old fence.
Charlotte watched as he wedged the stones into the little hollow. “If it’s not a rat, what is it? Could you tell?”
“It was hard to see in the dark, but it is too big for a rat.” He brushed his hands off. “We will go see now.”
Back inside the workshop, Ivan closed the door behind them, then pulled on his gloves. He knelt on the floor and reached inside the hole. A growling squeal came from inside.
“That sounds like a raccoon!” Charlotte said. “Be careful!”
Ivan grasped the ragged edge of the drywall and jerked a piece free. “We will probably need a box and a blanket.”
Charlotte found a box of ribbon and dumped the spools onto the floor. A bolt of quilted cotton lay on the work table. She quickly cut off a length and put it in the bottom of the box. Behind her, she heard the unmistakable sound of a canine yelp. She turned in time to see Ivan lift a small, filthy form from the enlarged hole. “You don’t mean it! A Chihuahua?”
The dog in Ivan’s hands writhed and snarled, biting at his gloved fingers with bloodied lips. Its long fur, matted with dirt, was light in color, but what color was impossible to tell. Mud caked its delicate front paws.
Charlotte walked slowly over and put the box on the floor. “It’s okay,” she crooned. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
Ivan put the Chihuahua in the box, gripping the scruff of its neck to keep it there. With his other hand, he reached back into the hole, felt around, and brought out a small, slick-looking form. It moved feebly in his grip.
“A puppy!” Charlotte breathed.
Ivan put the puppy in the box. The mother immediately curled around it, wedging herself into a corner in the process. Ivan let go of her neck.
“Is that the only one? Charlotte asked.
Ivan felt inside the hole. “One more. He lifted it out and put it in the box. “There is something else.” With a rustle of fabric on plaster, he dragged out a grubby silver item.
“Lila’s parka!” Charlotte said.
Ivan felt around some more and came out with two bits of green and red material – also damp and stained.
“And her elf costume!” Charlotte looked down at the filthy dog, curled around her relatively clean pups. “Poor little thing.” She found a square of black fabric on a worktable and draped it over the box. “She must have chewed through the wall and dragged whatever soft stuff she could find into the hole, to make a bed. I wonder why she didn’t come to the house?”
Ivan stood. “I think she has not been treated well by people. She bit at my hands, although she was too afraid to use force.”
Charlotte found a roll of packing tape and pulled off a length, wincing at the noise it made. She taped the fabric to the cardboard sides of the box. “Sheila Canter, Lila’s vet, has two grandkids in town. I’ll bet anything she’s bringing them to meet Santa tonight. We can bring the box with us, and ask her to take a look at them.”
Ivan nodded and picked up the box. I will get a bottle of hot water, to keep them warm, and see if the mother will eat.”
“Good idea. I’ll stay here. I still need to find some white fake fur to make Santa’s sleeve cuffs and beard.”
The only white fur Charlotte could find was silky and shot through with strands of holographic tinsel. She regarded it doubtfully. “It’ll have to do.”
It was a quarter to six when they arrived at the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department. Ivan strolled to the antique truck as Charlotte unclipped Lila’s lead from the dog seat. She turned with Lila in her arms and found Shermont Lester standing behind her, dressed in Victorian finery.
Shermont gave her a panicky look. “What the hell is Ivan got up as?”
“Santa,” Charlotte said shortly. “And you’re lucky to have him, after what we’ve been through today. I had to give up on the Mrs. Claus thing entirely.”
They joined the others at the truck, where Shermont introduced Ivan to the other passengers, who also wore reproduction Victorian clothes. “We appreciate you filling in at the last minute, Ivan.” Shermont pointed to the running board of the fire engine. “Step on that and climb up. It’s time to go.”
Charlotte waited until Ivan was seated, then handed Lila up, dressed in the blue and white outfit.
“I thought Lila was going to be an elf,” Shermont said.
“Something happened to the elf costume, so Lila is a snowflake,” Charlotte said.
“Even though she’s a black dog?”
“Don’t be racist, Shermont.” Charlotte waved at Ivan and Lila. “Break a leg!”
Ivan scowled at her. “No.”
“It’s just a theatre expression.” She gave up trying to explain as Shermont closed the fire truck door.
“Gotta go,” he said, starting the engine.
“Could you not ring the bell until you get a little bit away from the station?” she asked. “I have some rather delicate passengers in my car.”
A large white tent sat beneath the town clock on Manitou Avenue. Bundled-up parents and children stood inside and spilled onto the sidewalk, drinking hot cider and basking in the warmth of propane heaters. When the fire truck pulled up, mothers and fathers pointed to it and said, “Here comes Santa!” to their youngsters.
The truck door opened and Ivan stepped down, Lila in one arm. Multicolored light shot from the glittery strands in his beard and the cuffs of his coat.
“Why is he all sparkly?” a small boy asked in a piercing voice.
His older sister gave him a pitying look. “That’s how you know he’s magic.”
“But what’s that he’s holding?” her brother persisted.
“One of the animals that visited baby Jesus,” his sister said. “That must be the black sheep.”
Ivan regarded the assembled tots from beneath lowered brows. Then he placed a hand on his hip and leaned back. “Ha, ho, ho!” he bellowed. “Merry Christmas!”
An impromptu cheer rose from the crowd.
Charlotte found Sheila Canter, the vet, inside the tent.
“I thought you were supposed to be Mrs. Claus,” Sheila said.
“I ran out of time, what with one thing and another. We just found a mother Chihuahua and her brand-new puppies in the wall of the workshop. They’re in my car. Can you take a look at them?”
“Of course! Poor things!” Sheila left her husband in charge of the grandchildren and followed Charlotte.
Once at the car, Charlotte opened the back door and carefully pulled the fabric away from one edge of the cardboard box. A growl came from inside as she did, but it wasn’t very menacing.
The mother Chihuahua blinked up at them, a towel-wrapped bottle of warm water at her back. Two white pups nursed at her belly.
“Has she eaten anything?” Sheila asked.
“Ivan was in charge of that. I’m sure he would have told me if there was a problem.”
“You say she bit at his hands?”
Charlotte nodded. “But not hard.”
Sheila nodded. “She might have a little problem with men.”
“Ivan will cure her of that if anyone can,” Charlotte said.
Sheila snapped her fingers above the box, to get the mother dog to look up. “Her mouth is kind of torn up. Any idea what that’s from?”
“Probably from chewing through the drywall,” Charlotte said. “I’ll make an appointment to bring her in as soon as I can.”
“See if she’ll let you wash it with soap and water. I hesitate to put her on antibiotics, what with the nursing pups.” Sheila replaced the fabric and straightened, then closed the car door as gently as she could. “I’d take her back home now. You have my emergency number.”
“Thanks.” Charlotte smiled gratefully. “Have a good Christmas.”
“You, too.” Sheila raised a hand in farewell.
Charlotte drove home and put the box in the kitchen. She shut the door as she left, to keep them there. Then she went back to see how Ivan was doing.
Bemused parents watched their children sit on the lap of a decidely untraditional Santa. Some of the older kids looked suspicious, but it went surprisingly well.
A few hours later, volunteers dismantled the platform for Santa’s throne while the official photographer snapped pictures of Lila under the Christmas tree. Ivan and Shermont Lester stood close by, talking and sipping hot cider. Ivan’s sparkly beard dangled from one ear so he could drink from his cup unimpeded.
“Best Santa ever,” Shermont said, as Charlotte joined them.
“Wasn’t he?” Charlotte gave Ivan a proud look. “What did you say to that obnoxious child who shoved his sister off the platform? I was never so glad to see a little boy burst into tears.”
Ivan took a flask from inside his coat and unscrewed the lid. “I told him to behave or Ded Moroz would leave him in the woods to freeze to death.”
Shermont choked on a sip of his drink. “Ded Moroz? Isn’t that a rapper?”
“You’re thinking of Mos Def,” Ivan said. “And he is an actor now. Quite good.” He poured a slug of something into his cup and offered the flask to Shermont, who waved it away.
The photographer came over, holding Lila. “She’s gotten a little restless. I think she might have to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, thank you,” Charlotte said, taking Lila.
The photographer smiled at Ivan. “Nice boots, Santa. See you around.”
Ivan gave a little wave. “Bye-bye.” He tossed back the contents of his cup and took Lila from Charlotte. “We will go pee now.”
Shermont watched him walk away. “I hope he just means the dog.”
“It’s hard to say,” Charlotte said.
“I heard you have some unexpected guests.” Shermont raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to keep them?”
“If it works out.” Charlotte smiled. “Never look a gift Chihuahua in the mouth, especially on Christmas Eve.”
Charlotte parked in front of the house. Lila had fallen asleep under her blanket. “What a good snow fairy you were tonight,” Charlotte said, as she unclipped the lead that kept Lila secure in her seat. Lila yawned and licked Charlotte’s hand.
Ivan got out of the car. “I will keep the new dogs in my room tonight. It will be easier for Lila if she thinks they are mine, at least for now.”
“You know best. I put them in the kitchen.” Charlotte went up the walk ahead of him, so she could unlock the front door and push it open.
Inside, they took off their coats. Charlotte glanced into the parlor. “We never did decorate the tree, but I’m so tired, all I want to do is eat something and go to bed. Do you mind terribly if we decorate it tomorrow?”
Ivan shook his head. “The Russian Orthodox Christmas does not happen until January 7th. I am going to cook a steak. Do you want one?”
“Thank you, but that’s a little heavy for me. I’ll just have some cereal.”
It was still dark when Lila woke Charlotte by licking her face. “Why are you up so early?” Charlotte murmured, lifting the covers. As Lila crept underneath and nestled against her side, Charlotte’s eyes drifted shut again.
She woke again a few hours later. Sunlight poured through the windows, and she could see a strip of brilliant blue sky from where she lay. She threw back the covers, eliciting a groan from Lila, who was still asleep. “Merry Christmas, Lila-poo! Let’s get up and see how our guests are.”
Charlotte dressed Lila in a shimmery green frock with a red bow and gave her two treats. “Because it’s Chrismas,” she said, as Lila licked her chops. She opened one of the drawers in her antique desk and took out a wrapped package for Ivan. It contained a pair of leather gloves lined with cashmere, a bottle of cologne she preferred to the one he normally wore, and a small stack of cash, tied with a red ribbon. The cash had a tag that read, Good luck at the casino!
She donned robe and slippers and started downstairs, Lila scampering ahead.
Ivan yelled up from the ground floor. “Put Lila on a leash, please. I have the dogs with me.”
“Lila, come!” Charlotte said.
Lila gave her a confused look, but came back up the stairs.
Charlotte picked her up. “Sorry, Ivan,” she called. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Lila’s dress didn’t have a ring for attaching a lead, so Charlotte swapped it for a harness dress in red, leashed her, and went downstairs again. She walked into the kitchen, but it was empty.
“Where are you?” she called.
“In the parlor,” Ivan answered.
Charlotte went to the parlor, Lila trotting ahead of her on the leash. When she got inside, she stopped. “Oh, Ivan…”
The twinkling lights of the Christmas tree sparkled off tinsel and ornaments. Beneath it sat an open cardboard box. Ivan had cut down the sides and used a felt-tipped pen to make it look like a sleigh. Three toy Chihuahuas from Charlotte’s collection were tied to the front with ribbons, as though pulling the sleigh. Inside the box, just visible, were the mother Chihuahua and her puppies.
Charlotte picked up Lila, who was straining at her lead, and tiptoed over to look inside. The mother Chihuahua’s fur was clean and white, and lay about her in swathes. She raised her head and yipped when she saw Lila.
Lila yipped back.
“She let you give her a bath?” Charlotte marveled.
Ivan grinned. “About two hours ago. I let her sleep while I decorated the tree. Then I took part of my steak, which I had saved, and chewed each piece before I fed it to her. It is an old trick. Then I talked to her for a long time.”
“What did you talk about?” Charlotte asked.
Ivan lifted one shoulder. “My time in the circus. My son. How cold it is in Russia, and how lucky we are to be here with you.”
Charlotte stepped forward and wrapped her free arm around Ivan, while Lila tried to lick him. “We’re lucky to have you.” After a moment, she stepped back and wiped her eyes. “Shall I put Lila down so they can meet?”
“One moment.” Ivan went over to the box and stroked the new dog’s head, then gently gripped the long fur at the scruff of her neck. “Go ahead.”
Charlotte put Lila down and shortened the lead. Then she let her advance toward the tree.
The new Chihuahua stood and stepped out of her bed, Ivan’s hand still in her fur.
Ivan and Charlotte spoke soothingly as the dogs came closer. Finally they sniffed noses, and two plumy tails began to wag, one black, one white. Then Lila suddenly dropped, legs splayed, and barked an invitation to play.
“I think they will be fine,” Ivan said, as the mother returned to her pups.
Charlotte picked up Lila. “She’ll play with you later.” She walked forward so she could see inside the box. Two white puppies squirmed blindly, their eyes sealed shut. They seemed impossibly small.
Lila whined questioningly, trembling with excitement.
“Aren’t they precious?” Charlotte said. “You’re going to have friends again!” She went to a nearby love seat and settled Lila on her lap. “Do you know what sex they are?” she asked Ivan.
“One boy, one girl.”
Charlotte smiled. “We’ll need to come up with names for them. You said Ded Moroz travels with his granddaughter?”
Ivan nodded. “The Snow Maiden.”
“What’s her name in Russian?”
Charlotte made a face. “Kind of a mouthful.”
Ivan chuckled. “In English, Ded Moroz is ‘Grandfather Frost.’ You could call the boy ‘Frost’ and the girl ‘Snow.’ That still leaves the mother.”
“Oh, I already know what I’m going to call her,” Charlotte said, smiling at him. “Ivana.”
Ivan bent and stroked Ivana’s head. She looked up and blinked at him with affection. “That is a nice name,” he said huskily.
Charlotte scratched behind Lila’s ears. “I want you to know, this is one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had.” She laughed. “And I’ve had a lot of them.”
“That is because you have your own Santa Claus,” Ivan said. “Shall I put on the costume for giving presents?”
Charlotte looked down at Lila to hide her smile. “How about just the hat?”
Ivan got to his feet. “And the beard. It is much fancier than the one Ded Moroz has. Do you think it would be all right to wear it to the casino tomorrow?”
Charlotte chuckled. “I think that would be perfect.”