“The Grand Tree-Lighting Ceremony” was not an old tradition in Millers Kill. When Russ Van Alstyne had been a kid, there had been a Christmas tree in the park in the center of town, of course, and some civic-minded organization – the Elks? The Lions? had strung it with lights every year. But there had never been anything like the current froo-forah. At some point while he was away in the Army, the Millers Kill merchants association had decided they needed something to compete with the Aviation Mall and the various big box stores springing up in their corner of New York state. Something that would drag people into the old downtown and keep them there long enough to open their wallets and spend a little.
And so here they all were, waiting around in the park for an oversized tree to be plugged in; the mayor and aldermen and the Millers Kill High School chorus and a mass of spectators. There would be Santa, taking applications from the kids, and a horse drawn wagon looping around the downtown streets, and stores were giving away hot chocolate and mulled cider and free wrapping.
It was a pain in Russ Van Alstyne's ass.
The radio on his shoulder crackled. “Fifteen-fifty-seven? This is fifteen-forty, over.”
Russ sighed. “Go ahead, Mark.” He had told Durkee using names was okay – there were only three of them, on foot, around the park – but the kid had evidently memorized every procedural manual he'd ever read and was determined to stick to the standards regardless of what his chief told him.
“Found the little girl, chief. Released her to her parents with positive ID Over.”
Russ wondered how Mark had ID'd the parents. Marched 'em home to show a birth certificate? He'd better come up with something more efficient than that. There would be another two missing children guaranteed before the evening was done. “Good job,” he said into his mic. “Stay on Main Street, and keep an eye out for shoplifters.” Belated he added, “Over.”
“Ten-four, fifteen-fifty-seven. Over.”
A group of teens walked past Russ, elbowing, shoving and snatching each others hats. He frowned at them and they quieted down until they were out of sight.
“Chief Van Alstyne. You're looking rather dour. Where's your holiday spirit?” He heard Clare's Virginia accent before he spotted her. She emerged from the crowd, sensibly dressed in parka and scarf and woolen hat. She was holding a paper cup full of something steaming.
He let his gaze drop. She was wearing the boots he had given her last Christmas. He looked back up at her. “Reverend Fergusson.”
“Isn't this great? This is exactly how I imagined New England at Christmastime.”
“We're not really New England here.”
She waved a gloved hand. “Close enough. You can practically spit and hit Vermont.”
He stepped to one side and gestured for her to go ahead.
“You know what I mean. The only thing missing is snow. You'd think someone could arrange that.” She turned her face up, as if she could conjure snowflakes out of the twilight sky.
“You don't like snow,” he reminded her.
“I like it for Christmas. I just think it should disappear by the end of January.”
He shook his head. “Boy, did you settle in the wrong part of the world.”
She smiled a complicated smile. “Oh, I wouldn't say that.”
There was a pause.
“Are you going to--” she began.
“What are you--” he said at the same moment. They paused again. “You first.”
“Are you going to do anything special after the tree-lighting?”
“More patrolling on foot. The stores'll be open late.”
“I'm sorry. That's not much of a fun seasonal activity.”
“No, but it's a good opportunity for community policing. How about you?”
She took a sip from her cup. He thought he smelled coffee. “Oh, I'm going out to dinner afterwards. I have a friend up from the city. You remember--”
A penetrating British voice cut her off. “Vicar! There you are. Good God, I've been looking all over for you.”
“--Hugh Parteger, don't you?”
The Englishman drew up next to Clare. “I had to stand in line so long for my hot cocoa I might as well have gone to Mexico and harvested it myself. Chief Van Buren! How nice to see you again!”
“Van Alstyne.” Russ held out his hand and Parteger shifted his cup in order to shake. He had on leather gloves and a coat that probably cost as much as Russ's first car. “What brings you back to Millers Kill so soon?” He let his tone imply that whatever it was, Parteger should hurry up, complete his business, and get the hell out of town.
“The lovely vicar, of course. I wouldn't want to leave her all alone up here in the wilds of the Adirondacks too long.” Parteger snaked an arm around Clare.
She frowned. “Hugh...”
“Right. Sorry.” He withdrew his arm. “Don't want any public displays of affection.” He gave Russ a man-to-man look that said, but you should see her behind closed doors. “And of course, who can resist the chance to see a slice of small-town America celebrating Christmas the old-fashioned way. It warms the cockles of my heart. And other places.”
“Ignore him,” Clare said. “They were handing out mulled wine on the train up from New York.”
“Ssshh,” Parteger said. “You don't want me getting pulled over for caroling under the influence, do you?”
She laughed. She thought Parteger was funny. Well, of course she did. Why else would she see him? Except for the fact he was also rich and good-looking. Well. No. Rich wouldn't cut any mustard with Clare. Russ shook his head. Christ, if there was a town nativity, he could be the dog in the manger.
“I'd better get moving.” He glanced at his watch. “They'll be turning the lights on any minute now.” He nodded to Parteger. “If you want quaint and small-town, you should try the horse-drawn wagon. Jingle bells and everything.”
“Mmm. I don't know if Clare's up for that much time outdoors. I suppose the cold is part of the old-fashioned authenticity, too?”
“I'm fine.” Clare looked at Russ. “My boots are very cozy. You know what they say, warm feet, warm heart.”
“Is that— wait.” Parteger frowned. “I don't think that's how that saying goes.”
Russ smiled a little. “It's snowing.”
Clare looked up. The first tiny flakes were drifting through the air. At that moment, hundreds of lights blazed into life on the huge evergreen at the edge of the park. Clare smiled at him delightedly. “Why, thank you, Chief Van Alstyne.”
“My pleasure, Reverend Fergusson.” He walked away, whistling, God rest you merry, gentlemen. And smiling.