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Jill Churchill

The Merchant of Menace

One

I can't do it all. I'll be dead or in the loony bin before Christmas,' Jane Jeffry whined. She and her best friend and next-door neighbor, Shelley Nowack, were sitting at Jane's kitchen table. The house smelled of freshly baked cookies and coffee and just a hint of wet dog. It was only five in the afternoon, but the clouds were low and heavy and it was as dark as midnight outside.

“Nonsense,' Shelley said in the brisk tone that intimidated traffic cops, school principals, and bankers, but to which Jane had grown immune.

Jane put her head down on the table, face forward with her nose to a place mat. 'No, no. My children will be given into custody of my mother-in-law,' she mumbled into the quilted fabric. 'And she'll tell them awful things about me and great things about their dead father and—'

“Jane,' Shelley snapped, 'get a grip. They're not babies anymore.”

Jane made a noise like a hippo pulling its foot out of the mud and continued her litany of woes. 'Mel's mother's coming to town for Christmas and she's going to hate me—'

“She's not going to hate you and all that matters is what Mel himself thinks of you,' Shelley persisted. Mel was Jane's 'significant other,' as her daughter Katie insisted on referring to him.

“—and I have new neighbors on the other side of my house I've never met but already don't like—”

Shelley reached out to pet Jane's head sympathetically, but drew back her hand when she realized Jane had streaks of cookie icing in her blond hair. 'You need to get your roots touched up — and the green gunk washed out,' Shelley said. 'Maybe they'd clean Willard up, too. A nice family trip to the groomers.”

Willard, the big yellow dog who was lurking under the table waiting for possible cookie crumbs and contributing the only unpleasant odor in the mix, growled as if in disapproval of Shelley's suggestion.

Jane's muffled voice was just short of a wail. 'Who cares if I have green hair or a smelly dog who likes to roll in the snow? Nobody's going to even look at me. I'm just a cookie-making, fruit-compoting, house-cleaning, madly- shopping drudge with red food coloring under my fingernails and a vacuum cleaner bag full of dog hair. Willard's doing that weird midwinter shedding thing again.”

Shelley got up and poured them both new cups of coffee. 'How did you get yourself into all this?' she asked. 'You're doing the cookieexchange party and the neighborhood caroling party as well, aren't you? Back-to-back. Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Not good planning, Jane.”

Jane sat up, running her sticky hands through her sticky hair and grimacing. 'What a good friend you are to remind me of those,' she said. 'I take full blame for the cookie exchange party. It was my own idea, long before I got stuck with the rest of it. But as I recall, you encouraged me when I was reminiscing about how nice it used to be when that dear old lady who lived on the corner had a cookie exchange and all the neighborhood women got together once a year.

“I did. And it's going to be fun, Jane. I told you I'd provide the wine and tea and coffee and the boxes for everybody to take their traded cookies home in. I've already got the boxes all stacked up and decorated.”

Jane gave her friend A Look that would have curled the hair of a lesser person. 'Right. All I have to do is clean and decorate my house and make tons of extra cookies to be eaten at the party.”

Shelley gestured expansively with her coffee cup. 'You'd have to do that anyway,' she said breezily. 'But how did the caroling thing happen to you?'

“It was that damned Julie Newton.'

“I thought you liked Julie.'

“I thought I did, too. Despite her dreadful perkiness and optimism. When she got her cookie party invitation, she came by — gushing like mad about what a terrific idea it was and how it would promote neighborhood unity and how clever I was. She turned my head, Shelley. She made me feel like Lady Bountiful.'

“She's good at that,' Shelley said. 'She once got me to run the Trash and Treasure booth at the church bazaar and I thought for a while it was my own idea.'

“And I'm a sucker for flattery,' Jane admitted. 'So, Julie went on about how great it would be to have this neighborhood caroling thing and then have everybody get together at somebody's house afterwards for a buffet dinner. Sounded good to me and I nodded and agreed, and added suggestions, because I thought she was volunteering to do the whole thing. Then, when she had me thoroughly hooked on the scheme, she mentioned that she, of course, was having her kitchen renovated from the studs out and although the contractor — that nice young Bruce Pargeter guy who put in my pantry shelves — had said he might be done by Christmas, she wasn't sure she could count on him making the deadline and—'

“—you volunteered to be hostess?”

Jane leaned back in her chair and sighed heavily. 'God help me, I did! Or she volunteered me. I don't remember the gory details. It was sort of like a train wreck. One minute I was chattering along, every bit as perky as Julie, and the next minute I'd agreed to have the whole neighborhood in for a buffet dinner.”

Shelley looked over the cookies cooling on clean pillowcases on Jane's kitchen counter. 'Jane, what are these green things supposed to be?'

“Elves,' Jane said drearily. 'Little nastyChristmas elves. The cutter looked like an elf, but they blobbed out when they cooked.”

“They look more like holly leaves — or a fungus growth,' Shelley said.

Jane smiled weakly. 'But they taste okay. Throw some on a plate and let's make ourselves sick on them. I couldn't possibly let anyone else see them.'

“I can't move,' Shelley said. 'My feet are stuck to your floor.”

Jane nodded hopeless acceptance of this criticism. 'Corn syrup. I dropped the bottle and the lid came off. I've already washed the floor twice and Willard's licked up as much as he could. Just leave your shoes there.'

“Thanks, but I'd rather have my shoes stick than my feet.' Shelley tossed some cookies on a plate, her shoes making a sound like Velcro being pulled apart, and sat down across from Jane. She nibbled a cookie cautiously and smiled. 'They do taste okay. So, tell me about Mel's mother and why she'll hate you.'

“Because he's her only son. He's a successful detective, up and coming, all that. And I'm a widow with three children, one already in college, which is a dead giveaway that I'm older than he is.'

“So?' Shelley said.

“So she's going to see me as a predatory old hag, trying to trap her dear boy.'

“Jane, you don't know that. She's going to adore you. Well, if you get this disgusting kitchen cleaned up, that is. And do some major repairs to your hair.”

Jane shook her head. 'Nope, she's not. Mel's already said so.'

“He told you this?' Shelley said with amazement.

“Not in so many words. But he keeps mentioning how he's sure she's going to like me and my family. And how he's told her how terrific I am and how he's really, really sure we're going to get along great. I can tell he's desperately trying to convince himself of this.”

Shelley frowned. 'Oh, that doesn't sound good.'

“It doesn't. The more a man reassures me that everything's going to be fine, the more suspicious I become. And he's almost to a fever pitch about how well his mother and I are going to hit it off.'

“At least you don't have to have her around all the time, do you?'

“No, she's staying with Mel, of course. He'll bring her to the cookie party because I invited her. And Christmas Eve and Day because I've invited both of them. Other than that, I don't imagine I'll see much of her,' Jane said. 'Of course, I won't see much of him, either, but since I've gotten myself stuck with all this entertaining, I guess that would have been inevitable anyway.'

“Jane, I think you're making too much of all this. All you have to do is make the extra cookies and clean up

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