This is an excerpt from The Kringle Conspiracy, debuting on Kindle November 1st:
Santa Claus sat at the back of the café, drinking what appeared to be a large latte. Intrigued and amused, Marcia Wendt stepped into the coffee shop. Yes, she noted, that is indeed a Santa, and he is indeed drinking a large latte. The whimsy of the moment reminded her of why she chose to spend the last of her four-month sabbatical in the Denver metropolitan area.
As she glanced around, Marcia realized that the café served a dual purpose. An admixture of dusty tomes, glossy language and travel guides, and garishly lettered graphic novels jockeyed with each other for space on rustic pine planks. Coffee mugs hung from hooks over the squat, modern espresso machine, while footed glasses filled shelves behind the counter. Stairs led up the back of the café, presumably to bigger rooms and more books. The tables displayed an eclectic collection of clienteles – two young women smartly dressed in skirts and designer boots chatted with each other over steaming mugs, and a slight young man in faded brown flannel gazed out the window past her. And, of course, there was Santa Claus.
Marcia stepped into line behind a teen sporting a bleached-blond mohawk with burgundy tips. He looked rather like an exotic parrot to Marcia. The woman behind the counter, pleasantly plump with black curly hair and granny glasses, said in an unmistakably Brooklynese accent, “What’ll ya have?”
Marcia, pleased by the further absurdity of a Brooklyn accent in Denver, stifled a giggle. “Double cappuccino, skim milk, decaf espresso, for here.”
“Ok, a double-nothin’ for here,” the woman yelled to a buzzed-bald, gangly youngster with nerd glasses whose t-shirt proclaimed him a barista. She turned back to Marcia and smirked, “So, why bother if there’s no caffeine and no fat?”
“Because I’m over forty, I’ve had too much coffee already today, and I’ve got a great imagination – I can imagine that it’s the real thing,” Marcia mourned.
“Well, can’t argue with that,” Ms. Brooklyn nodded as she handed Marcia the double-nothing, topped with a cloud of whipped cream. “While you’re at it, pretend there’s no calories in the whipped cream, ok?”
Marcia snorted. “Gotcha. Actually, I figure I can live a little dangerously.” She fumbled in her pockets for a five, grabbed the “double-nothing” and the change, and strode right to Santa’s table, daring herself to trust. “May I sit here?” Santa’s snowy beard and eyebrows were definitely the real thing, she noted with approval.
“Be my guest,” Santa said in a low, but pleasant voice. Out of the corner of her eye, Marcia saw the man in flannel glance up briefly, then quickly bury himself back in his book.
“So, what brings Santa to a coffeehouse?”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s really prosaic. We had a meet-and-greet for some kids here that ended a half-hour ago. Not quite Thanksgiving yet, but the holiday calls get earlier and earlier every year, and Book Nook’s no exception.” Despite the “prosaic” mission, this Santa, whose snowy beard was real and whose blue eyes twinkled behind silver half-glasses, met with Marcia’s approval. He could have been the jolly old man himself.
“You’re surprisingly chipper for a Santa,” she ventured. “Or is it too early to get burnout?”
“Santa burnout?” Santa was taken aback, his eyebrows raised. “Never heard of that before. Those must not be real Santas you’re seeing, then.”
At this, the flannel man in the corner gave the Santa his own pointed, raised-eyebrow look, one that could have said, “You’re laying it on awful thick, aren’t you?” Santa merely grinned and winked back. Marcia caught the whole exchange and committed it to memory for the great story it would later make for her students.
“But the secret to being a Santa is …”
“What?” Marcia asked, breathlessly, after the pause stretched far into dramatic effect territory. She had fallen into a sort of hypnosis, she thought, but felt too comfortable to break free.
“The secret to being a Santa is to listen with a loving and non-judgmental heart.”
“Wow,” Marcia sighed after a long moment of thought.
The Santa took a sip of his nearly forgotten latte. “So, do you want to ask Santa for something for Christmas?”
It was a pure, simple question. How could she answer such a question?
“With the truth,” a small voice inside her responded. Marcia took a deep breath, and spoke. “I want the right man to come into my life.”
The Santa did not laugh. Instead, he leaned forward, patted her hand, and said softly, “A worthy wish. But I want you to do something for me.”
“You must trust. Simply that.”
“Thank you.” Marcia stood up, bent forward, and threw her arms around the old man’s neck in a hug, then kissed his cheek. Smiling through sudden tears, she grabbed her coat and hastily left the shop, her “double-nothing” forgotten.
A few minutes later, she heard her inner dialogue chiding her for trusting a stranger.