She'd never seen a Santa suit used quite that way.
But then Cassandra Gonzalez had never been to a masquerade Christmas party either. True, it was hard to be unique in a roomful of elves, snowmen and Sugar Plum Fairies, but it seemed a bit ... not blasphemous exactly, but wrong, to dress as the Headless Santa.
It was like Friday the 13th Santa. Or Chucky Santa. Santa and horror just didn't mix.
Unless you happened to be the kind of person who would think it fun to mock the big-bellied symbol of kindness and generosity by carrying the head—snow white beard and Santa hat intact—at the side, like a football.
And if you were fine with mocking Santa, you were probably fine with running a narcotics operation spanning the length of Interstate 95, counting some of the most notorious international drug lords among your close associates.
Headless Santa could be the ideal costume, in fact, for the crook known only as Raven to the members of Richmond's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Program. They'd been hunting him for months now and had to scramble when they'd received word from a confidential informant, just the day before, that he planned to attend the annual holiday benefit held at a exclusive country club 90 miles from the city.
That in itself was odd. Raven rarely went out in public. Normally he hid behind the electrified walls of his headquarters in St. Petersburg...Russia, that is. If he ventured out, it was to his homes in London or Milan, or at his Cape Cod estate. It was odd for him to go anywhere, much less the small town set at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It didn't have the cache of large metropolis where a person could disappear and never be found. It did have one giant advantage—access to not only the region's deep-watered ports but the Intracoastal Waterway.
Perhaps Raven was thinking to expand his trade west using the nation's highways of rivers.
The thought had Cassandra tightening her jaw. That she would not permit. Not after losing Jacob more than a decade earlier to the scum who'd peddled dope outside the broken back gate of their high school.
They'd been next-door neighbors and best friends as children. Almost lovers as teens. Then his dad had died of a heart attack when they were 15. Still so young, so awkward, she'd tried to comfort in her own way. But he'd turned from her and toward the lure of false friends and fast highs. The distance between their houses might as well have been miles instead of yards.
It had been years since she'd even laid eyes on his face—beautiful but strong with an adorably dimpled chin and a smile that had started to turn her insides squishy, like melting chocolate. Then, over their Christmas break senior year, she'd found him behind the bleachers, zoned out and half comatose from whatever drugs he'd taken. The family moved days later, and she never saw or heard from him again.
With a shake of her head to put her old, lost friend from her mind, Cassandra moved through a throng of elves comparing costumes to get a better view of the man—it had to be a man judging by the sheer height... lack of head notwithstanding—and to possibly catch a phrase or two of the conversation he was having with a disproportionately diminutive Abominable Snowman.
They stood by the buffet table that probably trembled under the weight of dozens of trays of hot and cold foods that filled the air with an assemblage of savory and sweet aromas. Flickering candles in a deep cherry red sat among assorted evergreens at strategic points along the table, separating the hors d'oeuvres from the main dishes, and those from the desserts.
Cassandra picked up a plate and randomly selected items as she moved down the line, toward her target.
Headless carried a plate piled high with turkey and stuffing. At the side, peas floated in a pool of greasy-looking gravy. An awful lot of food to eat, especially when you didn't have a mouth. At least not a visible one.
Abominable stood at his side with a plate of raw vegetables. Definitely a woman. No guy would eat food like that at a party. Especially at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Her stomach gurgling, she glanced down at her own plate that looked more like Headless's than Abominable's. Not paying attention, she'd loaded it with macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and a giant slab of turkey. Apparently her subconscious wanted comfort. It would have to wait.
The two were speaking, but she could only catch phrases—kilos...samples...client lists.
She sidled closer, humming to herself, and was about to make her move when a voice crackled in her ear.
"Geez, Gonzalez. Pipe down will you? We're recording."
Drat. She'd forgotten all about her partner sitting in the club's parking lot, inside the decade-old minivan that looked like it had carted a family of five to the Himalayas and back.
"Don't like music, Stillwell?" She spoke using the ventriloquism skills she'd practiced, so no one would see her mouth move. Although they'd probably wonder what she was grinning at.
"You call that music?"
"Well, excuuuuse me," she mumbled, slightly miffed. She was no soloist, but it wasn't like she was tone deaf.
Jerking, she looked up, way up, to the neck of the headless Santa. A voice had come from somewhere in its depths.
"Sorry?" She squinted, trying to figure out where the eyes were. Had to be camouflaged somewhere. The buttons ran down the center, no visible openings in the dense red velvet cloth of the chest—
"You said 'Excuse me.' I asked what for."
The voice was deep, melodious, with an Eastern European accent that sent a shiver from the area below her chest into her belly, and lower.
Laughter in her ear made her want to scowl and snap at her partner to shut up. Instead she forced a smile toward Headless's collar. "Oh, I was talking on my cell phone. Bluetooth." She tapped her ear where the tiny transmitter/receiver sat.
Headless's neck area tipped downward at a thirty-degree angle, then to her toes before crawling back up. "If you have secured a mobile device somewhere in that lovely gown, I will invest in the designer."
Her heart gave a giant thud, and a warmth flooded her face and neck, followed by more shivers up her back. Aside from the accent, he spoke with the syntax of a person whose English was a second language. Perhaps Russian. Like Raven.
"You caught me," she said, forcing a chuckle. "I was talking to myself, thinking of an argument I had this morning. With my jerk of a boyfriend."
She smoothed her free hand down the side of the silky red-and-white-striped sheath she'd worn. It was patterned like a candy cane and might have looked like one if worn by someone without hips. That someone wasn't her. Hips she had plenty.
But then the dress wasn't designed for a stick figure—not with its deep-dipping cowl-neck bodice and back, and a thigh-high slit up one side. It was designed to draw attention to curves. Specifically the attention of one Russian drug dealer who was known to like the ladies.
Seems she might have hooked him.
"Ah," he said, nodding the costume's neck and shoulders, "lovers' quarrel. Permit me to provide some distraction. Perhaps I could entice you to join me for a bite?"
She gulped. That voice was getting to her. It made her concentration fade. Outside temps might be sub-freezing, but here, with his eyes—buttons... whatever—on her, all she could think was hot summer nights and sweaty bodies.
" Food." He lifted his sagging plate. "Or perhaps were you thinking of something else?"
A fuzziness clouded her brain for a moment, along with a secondary rippling of desire, very real desire, that she hadn't felt in several years. "Careful," the voice in her ear said, and she blinked herself back into focus.
"I'd love to," she said, tipping her head toward Abominable who'd been standing silently by. "Will your friend join us?"
He turned to Abominable, lifted her, his..its hand and bowed over it. "We will meet later, yes?"
Abominable considered him, eyes glittering black through holes that were framed with inch-long fake lashes. Who knew they made Abominable costumes for girls?
"Choose carefully, friend, the woman said in a bored voice that marked her as British, or at least raised in the U.K. "I won't wait forever." She did an about-face and took off, leaving a handful of feathers floating in her wake.
"I've never seen an abominable snowman flounce before. Or molt for that matter." Cassandra spoke without much thought, but she brightened, unaccountably, when Headless laughed. It was a sound of joy and abandon, not the laugh of someone with evil on his mind. "You amuse me."
She gave herself a mental back-patting for apparently hooking such a big fish, so quickly. So easily. Now she'd only have to reel him in.
Before she could act, he drew a finger from her shoulder to her elbow. The white glove he wore was soft, satiny, and its effect skimming along her bare flesh was instant, and alarming.
Then he spoke. "More than amuse, you please me," he said, his voice dropping in volume, making her feel as if they were alone in that hot, stuffy room full of jostling, half-drunk masqueraders making enough noise to drown out the four-piece string quartet pumping out holiday classics. He set his plate down on a nearby table, then took hers and placed it next to his. Then he wrapped his silken hand around her bicep. Unable to do more than gawk, she followed like a lemming when he drew her toward the back of the room, through a doorway into a hallway, then into a small office. An empty office where no one could hear them. He closed the door behind them.
"Hold on, lover," she finally said, easing her arm free. "What are we doing here?"
A snort came from inside the suit. "Good grief, Speedy, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Cassandra's breath stopped, caught in her throat as her gaze jerked up.
"Who are you? And how do you know my nickname?"
I hope you enjoyed Part One of "Santa Suit Hijinks." Please come back tomorrow for Part Two.