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Sugar Plum Spies
Author: Jennifer Estep

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

CHARLOTE

 

 

You could always tell the criminals by their toys.

Fancy cars, enormous yachts, private jets, expensive art. In my experience, most criminals loved showing off their ill-gotten goods. To many, it was a badge of honor, a not-so-subtle way of showing everyone else, especially their rivals, just how smart, rich, strong, and successful they were. But paramortal criminals—those with magical abilities—tended to be a little flashier and more boastful than most, with toys that were much more lavish.

Like Tannenbaum Castle.

I stood in the back of the grand ballroom, which took up a good portion of the sprawling castle’s second level. Crystal chandeliers bathed the ballroom in a soft, warm glow, highlighting the white marble floor and colorful wall tapestries, while thick strands of fresh evergreen garland studded with silver bows swooped along the second-story balcony like ribbons of icing on a tiered cake. High above the decorations, silver leaf swirled through a gorgeous ceiling fresco of a snow-crusted forest before dripping down onto the evergreen-tree-shaped crown molding like metallic icicles.

The pictures I’d seen of the ballroom didn’t do it justice, but what made it truly special was the theatrical stage that dominated the front of the cavernous space.

Detailed mosaics of stars, snowflakes, and evergreen trees had been set into the base of the mahogany platform in a mirror image of the ceiling fresco, and bits of stained glass gleamed like diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds in the dark wood. The stage was framed by white marble columns wrapped with red ribbons that twirled up like peppermint sticks to support a broad stone cornice studded with even more white stars, blue snowflakes, and green trees that capped the entire area like a sparkling crown.

Stairs at either end led up to the performance platform, and the heavy blue brocade curtains had been drawn aside to reveal a lovely holiday scene, anchored by a thirty-foot-tall Christmas tree at the back center of the stage. Thousands of white lights snaked through the branches, which were adorned with silver stars, blue snowflakes, and red bells.

Oversize gold presents trimmed with blue, red, and green bows were clustered around the tree, while six-foot nutcrackers clutching everything from candy canes to silver bells to pine-cone wreaths were lined up along the night-sky backdrop. A single twelve-foot nutcracker grasping a real silver sword was positioned on the right side of the stage, while smaller nutcrackers were spaced along the ballroom floor as though they had leaped off the platform and frozen where they landed.

A ballet troupe was set to perform scenes from The Nutcracker as part of tonight’s Christmas Eve party, and the castle’s decorators had fully embraced the theme. I eyed a cluster of three nutcrackers standing a few feet away. With their shiny black hats, painted-on mustaches, fluffy beards, and oversize teeth, the holiday figures looked like grinning, maniacal monsters that would cheerfully bite anyone who got too close to them—

Fingers snapped in front of my face, startling me out of my snide reverie, and a man wearing a black chef’s jacket glared down his nose at me. He was about ten years older than me, in his mid-forties, with dark brown hair and eyes, ruddy skin, and a thin mustache that bristled with annoyance.

“Pay attention,” Jacques Cadieux said, a faint French accent coloring his deep voice. “You’re here to work, not gawk at the furnishings.”

“Yes, Chef,” I replied.

Jacques gave me another suspicious glare, then moved on to critique the rest of the waitstaff. In keeping with the Nutcracker theme, we were all dressed alike in short royal-blue jackets trimmed with gleaming silver buttons, along with tight white pants and knee-high black boots.

I slid my index finger underneath the chin strap that secured a black brimmed hat to my head, then reached up and dug that same finger into my hair. I hated hats. They always made my head itch, but disguises were a way of life for spies like me. At least the boots were somewhat comfortable, although I would have preferred to wear my usual sneakers. You never knew when you might have to run away from an enemy.

Chef Jacques finished his inspection, then stabbed his finger at a swinging door in the back wall that led into one of the castle’s many kitchens. In the distance, the light, cheery tinking of glasses sounded, along with the louder, deeper rattling of pots and pans, and the delicious aromas of warm butter, sweet vanilla, and spicy cinnamon flavored the air, overpowering the sharp scent of the massive Christmas tree on the stage. My stomach rumbled, a painful reminder that I hadn’t managed to snag any food from the kitchen when the waitstaff had been escorted through there earlier.

“You are to serve the guests promptly and professionally,” Jacques barked out. “Not simper and flirt and make fools of yourselves. I will not have my food grow cold and my reputation be sullied by your collective laziness. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Chef!” the waitstaff shouted in unison.

The woman next to me rolled her eyes. I winked at her, and she giggled. Jacques spun in our direction, and the woman pressed her lips together to stifle another giggle. The chef eyed us for a moment, then marched over to a table along the wall and started issuing orders about how the towers of crystal champagne flutes needed to be rearranged.

The woman turned to me. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and was quite pretty, with short dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and light brown skin. “I’m Maria Basu.”

“Charlotte Heldin,” I replied, giving her my cover name. “Have you worked in the castle before?”

Maria brightened. “Oh, yes! I live in the village and often work here at the castle. Sometimes I babysit for the Eisen family, but usually I’m here in the ballroom, handing out drinks with everyone else. The Eisens love to throw parties, especially this time of year.” She giggled and rolled her eyes again.

Tannenbaum Castle was located on top of the mountain of the same name in the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, while the village in the valley below was known as Tannenstelle. The village was as charming as the castle was grandiose, and the whole area looked like a storybook picture, especially given the holiday decorations and the several inches of snow that had fallen last night. Another storm was supposed to hit the region tonight and dump even more snow on both the mountain and the village.

I’d spent the last three days holed up in a village hotel eating copious amounts of pastries and preparing for tonight’s mission, which had included getting myself hired as part of the Christmas Eve waitstaff. Yesterday morning, I’d gone to the castle staffing office in the village and told the supervisor a sob story about how I was a down-on-her-luck waitress who needed money after a bad breakup with a boyfriend. Back home in Washington, D.C., I worked part-time as a waitress at the Moondust Diner, so this particular spy legend wasn’t too much of a stretch for me.

The supervisor had just been through a messy divorce herself, and she was happy to hire me. She’d even tried to give me some money, which I had politely declined. Germans were such kind, generous, thoughtful people that way.

Earlier today, I’d gotten into a van with several other folks and had been whisked up the narrow, winding road that led from the village to the castle, while the more important workers—like Chef Jacques—had ridden in the far quicker and much less cramped gondola lift.

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