How the Witch Stole Christmas

Witchless In Seattle Mysteries, Book 5

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

Oh, Mr. Butterbaum, you didn’t…?” I asked, knowing the answer before he nodded his snowy-white head to confirm.

He blustered, leaning back in his chair and brushing a hand over his houndstooth jacket with the cheerfully blinking Santa pin on his lapel.

“I didn’t mean to… Honest. She was so dang mad at me, too. She died before I could tell her I was sorry. I need to apologize, Stevie…er, I mean, Madam Zoltar, or whatever we’re callin’ ya these days. I need my girl to know I’m sorry. Maybe that’ll give her some peace and she’ll stop showin’ up at the end of my bed every night, holdin’ that durn,” he threw up his fingers in quotes, “‘special sucky hose thing’ attachment. Scares the livin’ boxers right off’a me every time, I tell you.”

I readjusted my signature Madam Zoltar turban and gripped his hand, giving him a pensive glance. I couldn’t help but wonder what provoked him to buy a vacuum as a gift.

“But a vacuum? You bought your one and only true love a vacuum for Christmas? Her last Christmas here on earth?”

I sighed and fought a judgmental frown. Men. Though, in Mr. B’s defense, maybe his wife had wanted one.

“It was the Shark,” he weakly defended with a sheepish glance peppered with guilt, making the wrinkles beside each of his eyes deepen. “I thought I was doing good by her. Matilda even said she wanted one. Swear she did while she was watchin’ an infomercial for it. Said she’d like to have one.” He shook his head in remorse. “Knew I shoulda gone with the dang Pajama Jeans. Now she’s hauntin’ me and I don’t know what to do. Don’t only spirits who haven’t crossed over do that? You gotta help her, Stevie—and me, too. Ain’t slept a whole night through in forever.”

“May I ask question?”

“Mmmm,” I muttered back to one of my beloved afterlife pals.

“Arkady Bagrov does not understand why a sucky Shark hose thing is not a good thing,” my favorite dead Russian spy said, clearly oblivious to the matters of women. “Where I come from, giving the sucky thing is high praise. This Matilda should be grateful her husband give her something so useful to make his home beautiful, no?”

I fought a laugh, using the back of my hand to cover my mouth while not revealing to Mr. Butterbaum I was hearing a ghost praise his choice of the ultimate Christmas gift.

Now Win’s good-natured laughter barked in my ear. “Ahhh, old chap. I’d say nyet. But this of course explains why you could never have a wife. Women want something with true meaning. Something you’ve invested a moment of research on, you old goat. Not a vacuum with a special sucky thing.”

Arkady’s rumble of good cheer followed Win’s remark. “Hah! You!” he playfully accused. “You should know about the sucky thing. This silly talk of meaningful gifts is what you call the sucking up thing!”

And then Win laughed in return, something that happened a great deal since he and Arkady had met up again in the afterlife a few months ago during the hottest week we’d ever had on record here in Ebenezer Falls, Washington. Once mortal enemies, now buddies, they often slapped each other on the back like old friends these days.

Which was nice, considering Arkady had joined our little family in his direct, or what some would call, pushy manner. He just showed up one day while I was in the height of a confrontation with who we now know was Win’s twin brother, Balthazar (more on him and his dastardly disappearance later), inserted himself into our lives, and never left.

Since then, I’d come to love hearing Arkady’s rich voice, his swoon-worthy accent, and even his completely unfiltered sexist thoughts. He genuinely doesn’t mean to be so insensitive. On the contrary, he’s quite complimentary to me in my ongoing spy training—holds me in the highest regard for being nothing more than, according to him, a mere mortal with more grit and determination than ten Russian spies in a Siberian prison.

But unintentional sexist comments aside, he’s kind and giving, and above all, loyal to us to the core, and that helps when it comes time to speak to the spirits. He, like Win, aids me in contacting the dead at my little shop here in the center of Ebenezer Falls. He proves quite helpful when dealing with the crustier-than-usual specters.

With his stern reminders he once took on a cartel in Mexico with nothing more than a Chapstick and a can of pickled herring, and his cheerfully forceful way of pushing the more tight-lipped ghosts to ante up information, he’s a good addition to our small crew of ghostly facilitators.

Oh, and he seems to make Win really happy. Win, my dead British secret agent, stuck on what we jokingly call Plane Limbo (a plane where, after death, the undecided go), deserved a friend to share his afterlife.

This particular plane can become quite lonely as spirits come and go with rapid frequency and they decide whether to cross over, making it tough for those who aren’t ready to cross to forge friendships.

For the moment, Arkady was sticking around, and he and Win spent lots of time together rehashing old spy missions, and in general behaving like they were back in high school, reliving their glory days.

Whiskey, our rescue St. Bernard, stirred at my feet, tucking his nose against my calf, reminding me Mr. Butterbaum was still waiting to speak to Matilda, his recently passed wife of over fifty years.

“Mr. Butterbaum?”

He patted my hand, his gnarled fingers curling over mine, his face a mass of worried wrinkles. “Call me Vern, MZ.”

I smiled in sympathy. “All right. Vern it is. So let me get this right. You want to apologize to your wife for buying her a vacuum for Christmas.”

He dipped his head at me. “Yep. That’ll exorcise her, right? Or whatever ya call it. Make her go into the light? I want her to rest in peace is all.”

Fighting a chuckle, I wondered if the vacuum was really the problem here. “Yes, my goal is to help her cross over into the light, but do you really think she was that angry over a vacuum cleaner? Angry enough to haunt you? You were married for fifty years. Surely she knows you well enough to know you meant well by giving her a vacuum with a special hose attachment.”

“Then why does she keep showin’ up every night at the end of our bed, wavin’ that hose attachment thing around like a checkered flag at the Indy 500?”

“That is the question.” I patted his arm and squeezed it tight, holding up Matilda’s treasured locket between the fingers of my other hand. Sometimes, making contact with the dearly departed was easier if I had a personal object they’d worn or some item they truly loved. “Are you ready, Vern?”

He puffed his chest out as though preparing to put on a brave front and gave me a hesitant smile. “I think so.”

Settling back in my Madam Zoltar chair, I said, “Dim the lights, please,” voice-activating our lighting system. Instantly, the lights settled into an amber glow, making Vern’s fresh-from-Florida-golfing-trip tan appear deeper. “Matilda? Are you here with us, dear? I have someone who’d like to talk to you.”

The light hum of energy I felt when a presence announced itself had been growing stronger as of late. The shiver along my spine indicating an aura in the room occurred just like the days of old, before I had my witch powers slapped out of me by a vengeful warlock.

Each time I performed a séance during the summer months, when our tourist season here in Ebenezer Falls was at its highest, I’d experienced some of my old signals, and I welcomed them—relished them—but mostly, I tried not to dwell on them.

It was almost as if, if I ignored the possible return of my powers, I couldn’t end up disappointed if they didn’t fully return. In my old life as a witch, before I’d been shunned, I’d lived in a town where the paranormal lived out in the open. I’d also communicated with the dead, it was my specialty. I heard them speak to me as though they were right in the room, and then one day I didn’t.

The loss of that communication had been devastating—but the miracle of hearing Win, and more recently Arkady, were promising signs all hope wasn’t lost. But I wasn’t going to count my chickens just yet. I couldn’t for fear of crushing defeat.

“Matilda?” I called again as the hum became deeper, more resonant, and the Christmas lights we’d strung around the room began to flicker. I smiled at Vern, whose eyes had grown wider than dimes. “I think she’s here, Vern.”

I was excited by this prospect. Vern? Well, Vern, obviously not so much. He sat hunkered down in his chair, his shoulders bunched together.

Win cleared his throat. “I have contact, Dove. Matilda’s here with me.”

“She’s here, Vern. Go ahead and say whatever you’d like to say.”

Vern blustered, his bushy white eyebrows scrunching together when he scanned the room as though his wife might pop out of the ether, hose attachment in hand.

“Matilda, honey? I’m sorry. I don’t know why you’re showin’ up every night, but I need my sleep, gal, for our grandkids, and you’re scarin’ the ever-livin’ poop right outta me, all hovering and looming with that dang hose. I don’t know what you want me to do. How many more times do you want me to apologize?”

Patting his hand, I silently reassured him he’d done well.

“Matilda says to tell Vern she hovers and looms because something’s stuck in the hose, and he’d know that if he vacuumed himself instead of paying that lushly ripe peach of a Happy Housekeeper, Jeanette Hartman, to do it. Then she called him a moron,” Win offered with a deep chuckle. “Affectionately, of course.”

Every once in a while, when a spirit from the afterlife wasn’t really hurting anyone, when the situation wasn’t dire, I told fibs as I relayed messages. Not big ones, mind you, but some dipped in a little more sugar than vinegar.

So, I nodded my head to signal to Win I understood. “Vern? Matilda says there’s something stuck in the hose. She’s been trying to tell you, and that’s why she keeps showing up each night.”

Now, Vern looked affronted, almost annoyed, his lips pursing as he squinted his eyes. “Well, what the heck, gal? What’s stuck in the hose that’s so important you gotta show up every night, spookin’ the life outta me?”

“Now, Matilda, don’t say such things.” Win clucked his fancy British admonishment. “Vern simply wants you to find peace. Forget about the Happy Housekeeper and play nice with us now, darling. Tell us what troubles you so.”

I followed Win’s lead and asked, “Matilda? What’s stuck in the vacuum hose? Vern wants to know. Won’t you please share?”

“Yessiree, he does,” Vern assured the room, his eyes squinting. “’Fore he has a heart attack.”

“Ahhh,” Win whispered, his husky voice echoing in my ear. “I see. How lovely, Matilda. Won’t that be a brilliant gift? Something to always remember you by.”

“What’s that, Matilda?” I encouraged Win to pass on what Matilda told him, cocking my ear to the room.

“Matilda says it’s her wedding ring. She wants to be sure their granddaughter has it before her wedding to her beau in early spring. She meant to tell Vern if anything happened to her, to give it to her, but she passed in her sleep before she was able.”

“Oh, Matilda, what a lovely thing to do,” I murmured, my throat tightening.

“She also says to please apologize to Vern for the misunderstanding. She wasn’t angry about the gift at all. She quite adored the vacuum. In fact, it worked so well, she accidentally vacuumed up the ring by mistake. She’d forgotten to put it back on after applying some hand lotion and knocked it from their dresser. By appearing to him each night, she was only trying to ensure their granddaughter had the ring as promised.”

Nodding, I smiled at Vern and explained the circumstances of the ring. “Matilda also says she loved the gift, but most of all she loves you, and can’t wait to see you again.”

Vern’s shoulders shook a little beneath his suit jacket then, his eyes becoming watery discs of blue. “She’s okay, my girl? She’s happy?” he asked, his voice tremulous.

“She is, Vern. So very happy,” I replied, biting the inside of my cheek to keep a small sob from escaping.

Pulling a neat square of a handkerchief with reindeer on it from his inside shirt pocket, Vern mopped at his eyes. “I love you, gal. Love you bigger than the moon and stars. You go on now. I’ll meet ya there,” he said, his gruff voice cracking.

The room stilled suddenly, as though all the air evaporated from the space. The lights flickered, casting long shadows on the walls of the room we called, in tribute to Madam Zoltar, my predecessor, Séance Command Central.

And then, as though expelling a breath, a soft warmth whispered throughout, floating across the table where we sat, making the lights warmer, the candles flames jump higher and the scent of magnolias drift to my nose.

I knew before Win said as much, but hearing his confirmation made me smile anyway. “She’s gone over, Dove. As easy as any crossing we’ve had.”

Sighing in happiness as the room returned to normal, I gripped Vern’s hand and squeezed. “She’s gone, Vern. Safely on the other side.”

He let his head hang low, his chin dropping to his chest. “Sure do miss her.”

A tear escaped my eye, the way it always did when a spirit found eternal peace, as I nodded my understanding. “She loved you very much, Vern.”

Fifty years was a long time to remain with one person, but their bond reminded me true love existed, across all kinds of boundaries—even death.

Vern’s head snapped up as he straightened his jacket and clapped my hand in a final thump, his crooked fingers wrapping around mine before letting go. “When ya find yourself a good fellow, you hang on tight, ya hear, Stevie? There ain’t nothin’ like it. Have a merry Christmas, Toots.”

Rising from his chair, he put on his hat, dropped some bills on the table we’d donate to our various causes, and was gone, the chilly wind from Puget Sound blowing into the door as he pulled it open and left.

I folded my hands in front of me on the table and let my forehead rest against them, absorbing the last remainders of Matilda’s soul, allowing her passing a moment of respectful silence.

“Every day, I’m thinking I like you more, Stevie,” Arkady whispered, his tone as gruff as Vern’s had been.

“You know what I’m thinking, comrade?” I asked, pushing the chair away from the table.

“What is this you are thinking, my little slice of lemon meringue pie?”

I snickered. Arkady had a million nicknames for me, most of them having to do with food, which Win assured me was our Russian spy friend’s downfall. At one point on a mission in the Alps, Win declared Arkady had grown too out of shape to chase him properly.

“I’m thinking the hour is late and we need to get home to Bel and see how the setup for the neighborhood open house and Christmas Lights Display Contest is going. I haven’t heard from him in over three hours, but I promised I wouldn’t micromanage this whole thing. Yet, I worry I haven’t timed the lights to blink in tune with ‘All I Want for Christmas’ just right. It needs tweaking. Not to mention, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ has to play at the exact moment the judges enter the house. I want them to see the amazing spread of food I’ve planned, and be filled with the peace and joy of the season.”

“Heaven forbid they aren’t at peace as they dine on authentic French pastries that stuffy sod, Chef Foo-Foo Wahoo’s concocted. Wasn’t it he who said, ‘I am ze best chef in ze world! Ask anyone and he will tell you, Chef Foo-Foo Wahoo makes pastries lighter zan ze air itself!’”

I snorted my endless amusement with the fact that Win wasn’t a fan of our local caterer, Petula’s, new pastry chef and boyfriend. “His name is Chef Pascal Le June, Spy Guy, and it’s important the judges enjoy their moment with us—feast on the goodies we’ve had prepared as they rest in the lull of the amazing Christmas storm I’ve whipped up. We want to stand out, don’t we?”

“Hah! If the judges’ souls aren’t in complete harmony with the universe because of Chef Foo-Foo’s ‘lighter than air itself’ pastries, surely Norman Reedus himself will scream in, covered in Georgia sweat and filth, crossbow at his shoulder, dead squirrel on a stick to tell us the apocalypse has arrived.”

My giggle filled the store at Win’s disgust for Chef Le June. I thought he’d be pleased as a Brit in the Queen’s service to see I’d actually hired someone with so much experience and world-renowned praise. My Spy Guy was a bit of a snob when it came to food and his luxuries. So his distaste for Chef Le June left me confounded.

One of my eyebrows rose in mock disdain. “This from a man who hired Cirque du Soleil acrobats and mimes to perform at our housewarming party? Quit poo-pooing my chef, pal, and remind yourself where I learned to hire only the best. From the best. That would be you. I learned from you. Now we need to make haste, boys. We have less than an hour before the judges arrive.”

Setting my turban on the table, I began blowing out candles and looking for my purse, spurred on by the fact I hadn’t heard from Bel, and all the little details I’d planned so carefully had to be checked and double-checked.

Vern’s séance had been the last of the season for us. Madam Zoltar 2.0 was officially going on a two-week holiday break because she had big Christmas plans.

Have I mentioned it’s almost Christmas here in Eb Falls? Have I also mentioned it’s, without a doubt, my absolute favorite holiday of all time?

Well, it is, and this year, much like Clark Griswold from Christmas Vacation, with not just Win, Whiskey and Arkady, but both my parents in the picture, I was determined to make it the best Christmas ever, with all the trimmings.

I know, I know. I’m an ex-witch. You’re probably wondering why Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday. Swear, I’m not holding a grudge or anything like that. I mean, over the loss of my witch powers and being booted from my coven. I can only say, even before I was shunned, the thrill of ghosts and goblins and spooky cemeteries dries up a little when you deal with them on a daily basis.

Either way, today was the beginning of my hiatus from the store until after the New Year.

And I was starting with the Eb Falls Christmas Lights Display Contest. I was going to win that bad boy and nab that trophy if it took feeding stray souls to puppies.

I kid. Mostly, anyway. I really do want to win. I don’t know why the contest had become my eye of the tiger. I’m not normally overly competitive, but no one is better at creating magic with a set of Christmas lights than I am. Ask anyone in my old hometown of Paris, Texas, just how good I am at hanging lights and turning old barns into winter wonderlands.

I’d been planning, and Pinteresting, and making flow charts, and drawing diagrams for months since I’d heard about this contest at the Eb Falls potluck dinner I’d gone to with Forrest at the church back in September. I’d paid close attention to the rules designed to keep things fair amongst neighbors.

Each participating homeowner had a budget we had to adhere to (I think that rule was made up especially for me. My fellow Eb Fall-ers worried out loud I’d have more to spend on decorations—due to my much-speculated millionaire status—and I’d go overboard. Hah! I can decorate on a budget like nobody’s business). We couldn’t bring in any professional designers, we had to do the work ourselves, and we weren’t allowed any live animal nativities.

According to Forrest—my occasional date, and grandson to my favorite senior Ebenezer Falls resident, Chester Sherwood—one year, in desperation, Alma Sandford had stolen Lars McKinnon’s old cow Bessie-Lou, after her own cow had the audacity to up and die two days before the contest.

Anyway, I’d orchestrated music timed with lights, snowmen, reindeer, bells, Santa on my rooftop, and even fireworks. That was my pista resistance (yes, I know it’s pièce de résistance. But this sounds funnier, yes? At least Bel and I think so), my ace in the hole. The fireworks display with Santa throwing glitter from his bag of booty. I tingled all over just thinking about it.

Each contestant participating also hosted an open house for the judges, complete with all sorts of yummy holiday goodies they could snack on to keep their energy levels high as they handled the exhausting chore of their judging duties. Hence Chef Le June.

I think I rolled my eyes when Mrs. Vanderhelm, the head of the Eb Falls Christmas parade and planning board, fed us that line, but I didn’t care. I’d hired someone to handle the tempting tasties so I could focus on my real mission, making this holiday the best one ever.

Or maybe it was the best first real Christmas with all the trimmings ever, like family and friends and decorations and platter after platter of delicious food.

Most Christmases, it was just Bel, me, The Hallmark Channel, and the occasional invite to a friend’s house. I’d never had the opportunity to spend it with my father because he hadn’t come into the picture until just this year. And my mother?

Well, let’s just say, before Dita began to make this miraculous change in her life this past spring, she hadn’t been around much in my adult life, and when I was a child, she’d never made much ado about Christmas.

So, if I’m honest, this year was about making up for all the Christmases past. The ones where I watched holiday shows about families who decorated trees together, went on sleigh rides, drank hot coco, and gathered ’round a big table full of smiling faces on Christmas Day…but had none of those things.

This year, I had a family, and I wanted them all, living and dead, to know how much I loved them. How proud I was of their accomplishments. How much I treasured the chance to spend the holiday with them.

“You know,” Win remarked casually as I hopped into my new replacement Fiat (see: total disaster last spring, when my first Fiat ended up in the drink). “Speaking of my old chap Belfry. I haven’t heard from him since we arrived at the store either. Quite unusual, don’t you think, Dove?”

“Bah!” Arkady barked as we sped away. “I bet my old heat-seeking missile days he is taking nap. I know my little comrade, and how much he likes to make with the Z’s.”

I chuckled as we headed out of town, admiring each small store’s light display as we drove toward what I fondly called Mayhem Manor, our amazing, freshly renovated house set high on a cliff facing Puget Sound.

I loved our house, with its sprawling front porch, wide steps, all sorts of peaks and turrets, room after room of soft, muted colors and vintage furniture and, most of all, the incredible view. Decorating the house had been a dream come true for this Christmas lover, and I’d been working on it for over a month.

Everything should be in place by now. Every light display, every Santa and snowman, should all twinkle. The group of carolers I’d hired should be humming Nat King Cole along the front porch steps. And one of Petula’s staff should have delivered Chef Le June’s pastries, and the scent of hazelnut and chicory coffee, along with rich white hot chocolate with plump marshmallows and peppermint sticks, should be filling the air in our kitchen.

As we came around the bend of the road along my house, I waited to catch my breath and be astounded by the magnificent beauty of the Christmas I’d created in my imagination. Belfry had promised he’d have the lights on when I came home so I could preview all our hard work before the judges arrived and tweak any last-minute problems, should they arise.

“My daffodil of love?”

“Yeah, Arkady?”

“Why are you Americans all so strange?”

I frowned as an oncoming car’s headlights temporarily blinded me. “What do you mean?”

“Look on the roof, my pumpkin seed. Arkady Bagrov wants to know, is this some new American Christmas tradition?”

As I pulled up to our long driveway, looking upward to see what Arkady meant, I too, wondered the same thing.

Because it definitely wasn’t an American Christmas tradition I saw.

But the real question was, why—or better still, how—had a bright white light-up metal Easter bunny, with a big blue bow around his neck, ended up sitting on the roof of our house, spitting Easter eggs from his butt?

Chapter 2

I fell out of the car with a gasp, holding on to the door in a white-knuckled grip. I almost couldn’t speak, but somehow I managed to croak, “What the fudge?”

“Bollocks!” Win yelped with surprise. “Are those pink flamingos?” He paused a moment, as though he, like me, couldn’t believe his eyes, and then he inhaled a sharp breath. “They bloody well are! Eleven of them, if I’m counting right.”

Win had absolutely counted right. There were exactly eleven pink, plastic flamingos on my lawn, all displayed in a crooked circle, the wind lashing at them so they clacked together in a plastic song of unison.

My eyes widened, almost glazing over as I took in the scene before me. “What…?”

“Now, now, my precious pearl of the sea,” Arkady soothed, his voice like a gentle stroke to my back. “This is not so bad. Look at those beads the scantily clad women are throwing from the balcony upstairs. Like during Mardi Gras, da? Aren’t they colorful? I promise you, I have been to your New Orleans, and those beads are just as shiny.”

Arkady was right. The beads the women were throwing from our upstairs balcony were very shiny—especially when they caught the glint of the hazy red-light district bulb glowing and revolving above their heads. Nine heads in total, if one were to calculate.

But hold up. There were women throwing Mardi Gras beads from my guest-bedroom balcony.

My breath shuddered in and out, the cold air pushing puffy clouds of condensation from my lips while I watched each woman twirl the beads around her fingers in saucy fashion, posing seductively and blowing kisses to an invisible audience.

Yet, still I couldn’t summon words.

Win’s warm presence surrounded me, attempting to invisibly hold me up. “Dove, gather yourself now. We must find Belfry and investigate what’s gone so awry.”

Awry?” I fumed as air finally pushed its way back into my lungs. “Do you see this, Win? Something hasn’t gone awry; it’s gone bananapants! Off the rails! Look at this, Win! Where are all my decorations? This is a disaster!”

“In all fairness, I, like my old adversary Arkady, rather don’t mind the women in corsets throwing beads. But I will admit, the witch with a wildly sparking wand planted firmly in her bum might come off as a bit garish and tasteless to some. Especially to that judge Mrs. Vanderhelm, whom I think we all know can certainly identify with the witch and her bum.”

That would be funny if, one, it weren’t true, and two, it weren’t happening on my front lawn. I doubled over, gripping my stomach as each new horror of this redecorating nightmare prank presented itself. I almost couldn’t take it all in. All the lights, the sound, the color.

Who had stolen all my Christmas decorations and, in their place, hung from every possible corner of our house everything but Christmas decorations?

Who?

Where had my decorations gone?

Where was the Santa, sliding down a hill on a sled, that I’d handcrafted myself from wire and lights after seeing a picture and directions on Pinterest? It had taken me a weekly class in welding in Seattle and nearly two days to position that darn thing on the roof so the judges would see it from the road.

Who’d replaced that with an Easter bunny pooping Easter eggs?

Where was the snowman family, playfully lobbing snowballs at each other in an arc of colored snowballs? Who had taken my daggone mechanical, life-size, Victorian-era Santa from the front porch and put a cackling, almost demonic-looking, equally life-size Uncle Sam with an out-of-control red sparkler in its place?

Why, instead of a softly glowing sign reading Merry Christmas To All on the second-floor balcony overhang, was there now a cheap, half-lit sign reading Eat At Bo-Bo’s?

Where were the standing lanterns with festive greenery and shimmering gold and red ribbons lining the pathway to my front steps? Who had swapped them out for a single skinny scarecrow with a moth-eaten burlap shirt and a pile of rotted pumpkins?

It was then I made the mistake of looking to my left, where, in my hydrangea garden, should have resided the nativity.

The nativity I’d thrown all my love into? Trashed. The eyeball-rolling joy I’d derived from making those iconic figures out of papier mâché after watching videos on YouTube? History.

No!

Who, in good conscience, would steal my realistic baby Jesus and replace him instead with a zombie garden gnome, its gnashing teeth dripping blood? And the Virgin Mary with the light-up shawl? Someone had actually had the nerve to abscond with her and replace her with a cardboard cutout of Frankenstein positioned just right, so he loomed over the baby Jesus imposter. And where in all of Sweet Pete was Joseph?

Was this some kind of joke Belfry was playing? Was he taking his revenge on me for being so picayune and difficult about this contest since I’d begun planning to coup a win from my entire neighborhood?

No. Never. Bel knew how much I wanted to win. Sure, he’d called me silly, he’d mocked me all while I’d learned to use a blowtorch and played in endless amounts of water and glue to get the right consistency for my papier mâché.

But he’d helped me every step of the way, too, indulged my every whim—even when I’d considered taking on the enormous task of personally acting out “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with partridges and everything.

No, someone had sabotaged me, and that someone was going to pay!

As I began to consider suspects, I heard a familiar tune—one I was sure I’d heard in some club back in the day. My whirling dervish of a mind stopped dead in its tracks and I groaned.

Why of all the why’s in the wide-wide world were my twelve handpicked carolers tossing a multicolored beach ball around, dressed in corsets, bikinis, fishnet stockings, stilettos and Speedos, singing not “The Christmas Song,” but “Pour Some Sugar On Me”—with handheld bells?

Just as I began to catch my breath, I saw something else that made me gasp and widen my eyes until they near fell out of my head.

“Is that…?” I began, but couldn’t finish the sentence as I pointed to the front porch, where red and purple lights flashed out an angry, erratic beat.

“A stripper pole? I believe that’s an affirmative, Dove,” Win replied after a long silence, his voice much too calm for me.

Yes, indeed. It certainly was a stripper pole, right in the middle of our front porch, complete with an admirably athletic woman in a red, sparkly thong bikini and the highest heels I’ve ever seen. She slid along the pole with such elongated grace, you’d think it didn’t take the entirety of her estimated six hundred and thirty-nine muscles to do so.

Slamming the door of the car, I lifted the hem of my Madam Zoltar caftan and stomp-picked my way through a display of maudlin headstones (ten of them, if anyone was keeping track) with each of the Christmas Lights Display Contest judges’ names on them.

“Belfry!” I bellowed into the darkening night. “What the heck’s going on?”

Like he always did whenever they were separated, Whiskey bounded out ahead of me and up the steps to find his buddy Belfry, only to become caught up in a fake spider web attached on either side of each of the porch’s pillars. He growled and struggled, twisting his large body as Win called out to him.

“Settle down, boy! Wait there for Stevie to untangle you, good man!” Win chastised.

I’m not the only one who can hear Win and Arkady. Ironically enough, Whiskey can, too, making life so much easier on me when he takes off on one of his tangents to hunt tennis balls.

“Arkady will get dog untangled—you get the girls some clothes,” he directed. “Their lips, they are blue like in Siberia when we do totally naked Russian Spy-A-Thon.” Then he laughed, and just as quickly muffled it when I growled my discontent.

“You do that naked?” Win asked, surprise and awe in his tone. “Kudos to you, bloke.”

“You do not do this naked in your country, Zero?” Arkady still occasionally slipped and called Win by his old spy name, Zero Below.

“And stick our pasty-white toes into snow? Not on your bloody life, friend.”

“Boys!” I warned, my temper flaring. My dream was falling down around me, months of hard work crumbling, and they were reliving Naked Spy Ironman.

Okay, okay, okay. I needed to take a deep breath before I went all Fight Club. However this had happened, these people weren’t responsible for this assault on my Christmas-loving soul. But they likely had answers as to who did.

Under my breath, I whispered to Win from a clenched jaw, “Would you go find Belfry for me, please? Be sure he’s okay. I’ll try and get to the bottom of this.”

“Of course, Dove. I’ll be right here if you need me. Just call.”

An inhale in and an exhale out and I shook off my utter horror as a swirl of light-projector ghosts—with their middle fingers in the upright position—whizzed across the front of the house. Deciding the carolers were the closest to me, and least likely to run far, or even very fast in such skimpy outfits, once they saw my rage, I headed straight for them.

Keeping my eyes on their faces, I approached the group, catching the first pair of eyes willing to gaze into mine—which happened to belong to a very thin young man wearing a Superman Speedo.

His Adam’s apple bobbed as his singing warbled and faded off into the night. He gave me a sheepish look when I snatched the ball from the two beach bunnies next to him and lobbed it over their heads. Stilling his brass bell, he gaped at me, waiting.

“You,” I said, pointing at him, attempting to keep my voice steady and non-confrontational. “Why are you dressed,” I waved my hand up and down along his body, “like this?”

His lanky body shivered in violent protest, making the bell clang a tinny cry. “Not because I don’t need the money, that’s for sure.”

Rolling my eyes, I planted my hands on my hips. “Listen, I hired you guys to dress like carolers from the eighteen hundreds and sing Christmas carols, not sing the playlist from Chubby Buddies Steak and Gentleman’s Lounge in your skivvies! Why did you all show up in bathing suits and—and whatever theme this is?” I pointed to another young woman’s fishnet stockings. “Where’s my ‘Joy To The World’ and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’?”

A young woman with lustrous copper hair, also shivering so hard her teeth were chattering, gripped the ties of her bikini top and sighed an exasperated sigh. “Because that’s what our boss told us to do. We thought we were dressing as carolers, too. But our boss said there’d been a last-minute change in the work order and we should wear beach party/burlesque attire—as skimpy as possible. We thought it was a crazy combo. I mean, who mixes bikinis and burlesque? But we’ve done worse in less—it just wasn’t this cold. Seriously, do you really think I’d be here in a bikini when it’s forty-five degrees out if I knew we were actually going to be doing this outside? Not enough money in the world, lady.”

I blinked at her, my shock clear. Someone had changed the work order? “Who changed the work order?”

A young girl, maybe no more than college age, pushed her way from behind the others and frowned at me, her raven eyebrows swooshing together as she shook her bell in my face in an angry gesture, her pale fingers trembling with the effort.

“Listen, lady. We’re not customer service, okay? We show up and shut up and that’s that. Everyone’s gotta make a living. Now do you want us to sing another round of Def Leppard or should we move on to ‘Walk This Way’?”

I fought a good stomp of my feet and began to pull out my phone, fully prepared to call the Christmas Twenty-Four-Seven people, the place I’d hired the carolers from, when a handful of beads landed on top of my head.

My blood pressure soared upward with a sharp spike. “Hey! Get down from there!” I bellowed up at them, but they couldn’t hear me due to the whir of the wind machine, blowing glitter and bubbles.

Without thinking, I ran for the ladder I’d left on the side of the porch for any last-minute technical emergencies and climbed up the rungs to the second floor.

Sticking my pinky and my index finger in my mouth, I tried to get their attention with a sharp whistle. “Ladies! Get down from there now!”

One of them actually smiled coquettishly and winked a flirty false eyelash at me, continuing to gyrate to the sounds of the carolers, who had indeed struck up “Walk This Way.”

“I said, get down!” I hissed, grabbing for the banister as I hiked up my caftan and swung my leg over the wood.

Hopping onto the balcony—there was very little room to move about and even less clothing on the women—I grabbed a handful of beads from one woman in a tight pink leather bustier with a gold zipper and shook my finger at her. “Give me those beads and get down from here!”

“Hey! Knock it off, lady! Didn’t anyone ever tell you it pays to be nice to the staff?” A buxom brunette huffed the admonishment from crimson lips.

My head began to beat out a dreadful pound, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it, Stevie, you ask? But how can it get any worse?

How much worse does it get than an Easter bunny on your roof, spitting Easter eggs from his butt, while ghosts from some hidden projector fly through the air and give you the finger? How much worse does it get than plastic pink flamingos and baby Jesus zombies?

I’ll tell you how. It gets worse when the headlights from the Eb Falls van pulls into your driveway and blinds you with the harsh glare of a reminder your judgment day has arrived.

The very van bringing a car full of ten persnickety, matching-blazer-wearing, rule-abiding, seventy-year-old judges who were sure to have the vapors when they laid their judgey eyes on this fiasco.

That’s how.

I felt almost as naked as the women surrounding me. In my panic, I wanted to lunge at the side of the house, spread my arms and legs wide in an attempt to cover this debacle and hide my horror.

Whoever had thrown up all over my house with every decoration for every holiday on the calendar had covered every nook and cranny, ensuring there was no hiding this.

One of the women dropped a string of beads over my head with a grin and a tweak of my nose. “Don’t look so glum, chum. You’re having a party! Let’s celebrate!”

Swatting the beads away, I let my head hang between my shoulders in order to gather my wits and a reasonable explanation for the judges, but there was no time to gather anything before a loud screech of dismay sounded when the judges piled out of the van and spilled onto my front lawn.

What is this abomination?”

I closed my eyes and gulped. Mrs. Vanderhelm and her highfalutin’ had arrived and I was officially doomed.

So I did the only thing I could do. I hissed one more terse order at the ladies to “put those beads away!” (as if that was going to make everything better. It was like putting a Band-Aid on an open-heart surgical incision) before I swung my leg over the railing and climbed back down the ladder to face my execution squad and take my licks like a man.

As the judges gathered in a semi-circle, their eyes reflecting the residual vomit of the varied holidays displayed across my lawn and all over my house, I waved on a wince. “Evening, esteemed judges! Welcome to…um, my home.”

As their eyes swiveled toward me in unison, some shocked, some disgusted, and one or two pair amused, I smoothed my clammy hands over my rumpled caftan, forcing a smile in the very moment another rainstorm of beads showered down from the balcony.

Several of the colorfully-hued plastic necklaces nailed Mrs. Vanderhelm’s head and shoulders. “Oooh! What in the world?” she squealed and sputtered, stumbling over one of the Styrofoam tombstones, her ankles twisting in an attempt to keep her balance.

“Mrs. Vanderhelm!” I made a valiant short leap forward, almost successfully catching her. Alas, I slipped in a patch of mud and steamrolled into her instead, sliding into an almost split.

Which, of course, knocked Mrs. Vanderhelm to her knees—you know, where there was plenty of mud to sully her pantyhose.

Bending my knee, I twisted the upper half of my body and planted my palms on the ground so I could dig my heel into the soft earth in order to rise—and slipped again. As in, total face-plant in more mud.

As the male judges hauled a sputtering Mrs. Vanderhelm upward, I spit the grass and dirt from my mouth and wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my caftan, only to be assaulted again with another batch of necklaces.

Looking upward amidst the onslaught of hard plastic falling down around me, I yelled to the women on the balcony, “Hey, you up there in the pink spandex and kitten mules! Did you bring all the beads in New Orleans? How many of those stupid necklaces do you have? Enough with the stinkin’ beads!”

“I see you’re entertaining our guests, Stevie. I can always count on you,” Win teased with a husky chuckle. “Still looking for our man Bel. Will pop back in momentarily. Oh, and do tell the lovely lass in the red string bikini, clinging to the banister for dear life, she mustn’t wear that color. It clashes with her skin tone.” And then he laughed and his aura disappeared.

On a grunt, I somehow managed to regain my footing, only to find the judges gaping at their tombstones while they muttered angry words and Madge Bledsoe dabbed at Mrs. Vanderhelm’s skirt with a tissue.

On a ragged breath, I wiped my filthy paw across my hip and stuck my hand out in the group’s general direction. “I’m Stevie Cartwright. Remember me? You know, from all those meetings you had before the big day today? The pleasure’s all mine.”

But no one took it. In fact, I think Ralph Acres wrinkled his bulbous nose in distaste before driving his hands into the pockets of his trousers and looking down at his feet.

That’s when I saw the big multicolored beach ball the carolers had been tossing about catch the wind and clunk Mrs. Abernathy square in her surly face.

She sputtered, flapping her hands and crying out as I ran for the ball and kicked it as hard as my leg would let me, while two of the judges soothed her.

Licking my dry lips, I stuttered, “I can explain, Mrs. Abernathy. Okay, wait. I can’t explain. I mean, I have no explanation for how this happened. I—”

“Are those women in their—their underwear?” Madge Bledsoe screeched, pointing up to my balcony with a knobby finger.

“Yep, they sure are,” Frank Morrison said on a lewd cackle, before Hank Winkowsky nudged him in the shoulder, effectively shushing him.

Blowing a breath from my lips, one that whistled on its way out, I attempted to make a joke. “So I guess the avant-garde approach wasn’t the way to go?”

And cue the crickets.

Well, except for Mrs. Vanderhelm. Her lips went thin in her pudgy face even as her eyes, fringed so thick with mascara her lashes looked like spiders’ legs, narrowed at me. Her angry gaze made a louder impact than any sonic boom.

Thus, I quickly decided this wasn’t the crowd for my improv. So I put on my apologetic face. “If you’ll all just let me explain. Here’s the thing. I just got home from work and I don’t know what happened—”

“And these tombstones? Can you explain why our names are on them? Are you mocking our committee and the contest? A contest that has been a tradition for fifty years in Ebenezer Falls, Miss Cartwright. Or need I remind you?”

I cocked my head at Mrs. Vanderhelm and her question, peering at her in the glow of the red light in an attempt to read her facial expression. “What? No! I would never—”

“Wouldn’t you, then?” she asked, lifting a penciled-in eyebrow as she tapped her clipboard with her red pen of death. “Wasn’t it you, in all your sarcasm, who asked all those questions about whether the stringent rules we take quite seriously for this contest allowed for one to breathe?”

Oh. Okay. Yeah, I had asked that. But they only had a million and two rules, and as Mrs. Vanderhelm had set about the tedious task of reading them aloud, I’d tried to lighten the boredom. Obviously, I needed to learn to read my audience better or shut up, the latter probably being my best bet.

I shot her a guilty look as another stiff breeze ruffled my thin caftan, slicing through the fabric and making my knees quiver.

“I did, but I swear to you, Mrs. Vanderhelm, despite my crass jokes, I took this contest very seriously and I adhered to all the rules. I adhered so hard, I was like Gorilla Glue. Swear it on my secondhand Kenneth Coles. I don’t know what or how this happened, and I know this surely means I’m disqualified, but won’t you all please let me at least offer you some nourishment for your trouble? Maybe I can find a way to explain this to you. If you’d all just come inside, I have a delicious—”

“What’re you gonna feed us in there, arsenic and frog testicles?” Ralph asked, rubbing his round belly on a snort.

Frannie Lincoln’s eyes nearly rolled to the back of her head when Ralph said the word “testicles,” making Madge and Frank reach for her to keep her from collapsing. Her teased, marshmallow-colored hair flopped in the wind as she backed away from Ralph, swatting at his hands with a pinched expression on her face.

“This is a disgrace, Stevie Cartwright! How could you bring us all the way out here only to laugh in our faces?”

I nodded in her direction, tucking my hair back from my face as the rain began. “Yep. It’s a big disgrace, Ms. Lincoln. But if you’ll only let me explain, I’ll try and make it up to you. I hired Pascal Le June to make you some tasty treats for my open house. You remember him, right? He’s the chef who came all the way from France to work for Petula? The one who makes ze pastries lighter than air?” I asked in my sadly lacking French accent.

Pascal had been all the buzz in town when he’d arrived. Everyone wanted to meet him, rub elbows with him, sample his amazing delicacies. My hope was that he and his tempting treats would at the very least keep me from getting kicked out of future contests.

Ah, and then I noticed it looked like I’d caught someone’s attention, because Ralph perked up and winked at me. “We can’t let the little gal go to all that trouble without at least takin’ a peek, can we, folks?” He looked at his fellow judges for confirmation.

“Everyone follow me inside!” I encouraged before they took the opportunity to refuse Ralph. I said a prayer that at the very least, the snacks I’d so carefully picked out were just waiting for the judges to gobble them up.

Blowing up the front porch steps with a finger to my neck, gesturing to the carolers to can it, I was hit with some beads midway, followed by the boisterous giggles of the women on the balcony. “Knock it the fudge off, ladies!” I bellowed upward, fighting my way through cobwebs and plastic spiders.

Gripping the handle of the door, I heard Madge chastise Hank Winkowsky. “You mind your eyes, Hank, or I’ll tell Wilma! And what are you lookin’ at anyway, Ralph Acres? Isn’t that child bride of yours enough to keep your eyeballs in your head?”

“Ralphie’s got a trophy wife!” Frank sang.

And that was true enough. Ralph had made quite a splash earlier this year when he’d married a woman almost thirty-five years younger than him. She was beautiful and tall and most of the ladies in town, especially the soccer/yoga moms, hadn’t welcomed her with open arms. But that was just jealousy talking. I thought she was quite lovely.

As Frank teased Ralph, I pushed my way inside on a long groan, crossing my fingers and toes the interior of the house didn’t look as bad as the outside.

I almost sighed in relief when the scent of vanilla and rich chocolate reached my nose. Please let there be festive red and silver platters full of puffy pastry and drizzled with the richest caramel glaze ever, sitting by a roaring fire, strategically placed near the ten-foot Christmas tree I’d climbed a ladder eleventy billion times to decorate. Please,please,please,please,please.

But my relief was short-lived when I heard a scream from outside. A terrified, bloodcurdling scream.

Now what? Had someone recreated the movie Saw? Were there zombies stumbling across my lawn, crying out for brains? Maybe Norman Reedus had actually shown up?

I flew back down the steps to see what else had gone wrong, tripping into one of the carolers, our limbs tangling together before we righted ourselves and I saw what the screaming was all about.

I gasped a breath so sharp, my lungs stung.

Aw, c’mon. Really?

For reasons only Mrs. Vanderhelm could explain, probably out of morbid curiosity, she’d meandered over to the vulgar nativity scene, where she now stood with her hand over her mouth as her fellow judges gathered round her in protective formation.

Ah. So that explained where my Joseph had gone. Caught by the garish beam of red light from the balcony, the crown of his smashed papier mâché head was poking out from behind one of my leafless hydrangea bushes. Somehow, in my panic and dismay over the zombie Jesus gnome, I’d missed that.

But that wasn’t all I’d missed.

I’d also missed the lifeless body of the famous pastry chef, Pascal Le June.

Chapter 3

Upon my arrival, and in my sheer horror, I guess I hadn’t noticed the lumpy brown tarp under the hydrangea bush. My eyes had been too busy taking in the entirety of my debacle rather than pinpointing the specifics.

The tarp shivered in the ever-growling wind from the Sound, lifting upward then wafting back down to shroud Chef Le June once more. Ralph scurried to pull the plastic sheet away from Pascal’s face while Hank knelt next to the chef, his fingers at his wrist, before he bellowed, “Call 9-1-1!”

I skidded to a stop just short of falling into Madge and Mrs. Vanderhelm, who’d huddled together like two sparrows in a hurricane, their spines shivering in their smart judge blazers. Peering over their shoulders, I hissed my disbelief, praying the chef was simply unconscious.

But his slack jaw and glazed-over eyes suggested otherwise. He wore his typical white chef’s uniform, currently spattered in mud and dried grass. There were scratches on his right cheek and both his fists were clenched in tight balls. Huh. Maybe he’d caught one of the bare limbs of my hydrangea bush as he’d fallen? Had there been a scuffle?

Hank clucked his tongue and shook his gray head. “He’s gone. Dang shame. Made some mighty fine sweets. Loved those things with the hard pink shells.”

Ralph pulled a handkerchief from the inside of his jacket pocket. “Aw, yeah. And those marmalade-filled things. Whaddya call ’em again?”

“Petite fours, isn’t it?” Hank wondered aloud.

“Dove! Is that…? Chef Le June?” Win squawked the question.

Closing my eyes, I gave a silent nod before I placed my hands on both Madge’s and Mrs. Vanderhelm’s shoulders. “Please come inside while we wait for the police, ladies. You can wash up and get warm. You’re both going to catch your death—”

Mrs. Vanderhelm stiffened with an appalled gasp, tucking her plaid handbag against her side in a defensive move.

Sighing, I corrected my poor word choice. “I mean a cold. Please, ladies.” I turned to the rest of the judges to convey my sincere invitation. “All of you, in fact. Come inside while we wait for the police to arrive. It’s warmer, and I promise no frog testicles.”

Now Madge gasped, too, but even in his shock, Hank still snickered. Using slight pressure, I steered the two judges toward the house, then gave them a light nudge.

As the group turned and began to make their way inside, their voices filled with fear, I scoured the area where Chef Le June lay, my eyes squinting when the red light from the balcony made another pass across his body.

How had I missed seeing him there? I felt awful about it.

Nyet, my succulent petunia! Not another murder?” Arkady whispered with marvel in his tone.

I winced and squatted on my haunches, angling my head to get a closer look at Pascal, taking in the strong, almost too sharp angles of his paling face. Honestly, he was in insanely good shape for someone who’d spent the better part of their days creating flaky crusts and custard cream-filled confections.

His skin was stretched taut over his cheekbones, the scratches on them infinitely more defined as a result. His wide eyes—a deep green, and the talk of all the ladies in town, single or otherwise—stared in blank repose beneath bushy but well-kept raven eyebrows.

“Stevie?” Arkady prompted for an answer to his question.

I shrugged in confusion. Mostly, there was nothing to see. “I don’t know what happened, Arkady.”

And I really didn’t. There were no signs of any obvious blunt trauma, no blood to speak of other than the drying scratches on his cheek, no gunshot wounds (thank heaven). Though, there was a bit of something crackled and glistening at the left side of his mouth.

Crumbs from one of his delicacies? He prided himself on taste-testing every batch of pastries he made.

Which begged the question, what the heck had happened? Chef Le June wasn’t even supposed to be here tonight. He didn’t do “ze menial labor,” according to him. He’d made that very clear when I’d hired him.

When we’d first met, he’d very arrogantly informed me his confections were on display, not him. I vaguely recall him saying he was no horse and pony show, or something like that, while Petula giggled at his awkward English metaphors.

The plan had been to have one of Petula’s staff arrive at our house just a half hour shy of the time I arrived home to prepare for the judges. That person would set everything up and be on their merry way. The delicious scent of coffee brewing meant someone had at least been here. In fact, Enzo, our contractor/friend, had been instructed to let Petula’s staff member in before he left, with the promise they’d lock up on their way out.

But then I remembered, the front door hadn’t been locked…

Belfry!

I froze, my chest tightening. “Has anyone found Belfry yet? Is he okay?”

“No, Dove. Not a sign of him anywhere. I’ve looked all over the house, in his favorite plants in your bathroom, the backyard, which is utterly absurd, considering our good man’s penchant for the heat. I even looked in the vase by the fireplace, his latest favorite naptime haunt.”

I heard the slight panic in Win’s voice, the concern. I knew my Spy Guy pretty well now. Okay, there were exceptions to that statement. I still didn’t know how even he hadn’t known he’d been adopted and had a shady twin brother who’d threatened to steal everything from us. In life, he had worked as a spy for MI6, for gracious sakes. You’d think it would be a given he’d have all his loose life ends tied up.

I also didn’t know much about his ex-girlfriend, Miranda. The woman he was convinced had killed him, and a beautiful, mysterious fellow spy.

But I did know his tone of voice. I knew when he was giving me upper-crust British disdain because I loved fried Twinkies and Pop-Tarts. I knew when he was mocking me simply to mock for his own amusement, and I knew concern. So his words were like a punch to my gut, one almost so real, I had to poke my fingers into my ribs to keep my stomach from losing its lunch.

I bolted upright, pressing my knuckles into my temples. “You couldn’t find him.” I spoke the words aloud in order to process them.

“Not anywhere, Stevie. But I’m certain he’s about. You know our Bel. He’s a crafty bugger. Likely, he’s found some new place to nap we just haven’t come upon yet.”

“You two, go inside and make pretty with the sourpuss-face judges,” Arkady ordered. “I, Arkady Bagrov, like all good Russian spies, will search for my comrade Belfry until the soles of my feet bleed. Go now before they become suspicious!”

Turning away from Chef Le June’s body, I moved back toward the house, trying to keep my panic at bay. I almost didn’t care about the scream of sirens or the shock of the judges. I only knew I had to find Belfry.

Something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong.

As my hand met the door handle once again, the blur of activity around me still in full tilt, I had a premonition about Bel. Just like back in the day when I’d still been a full-fledged witch.

The kind of premonition a witch feels when her familiar is too far from her, when the invisible thread of their tether is broken.

“Stevie? What’s happening? Talk to me, Dove.”

Shaking my head, I fought tears and whispered, “Something’s wrong. I know something’s wrong. Bel’s missing and it’s not good, but I don’t know why, Win. I don’t know what’s happening. I haven’t had a premonition this strong since I lost my powers.”

“Your powers?” a voice from behind said. One I recognized, and had even come to welcome. Well, except in times like these, when there was a body in the middle of my lawn and I was sure to end up grilled with questions like some steak at a barbecue.

Fighting to keep my emotions in check, reminding myself Bel was notorious for hiding out during naptime, I forced a smile and turned to one of my very favorite officers of the law. “Yippee. Officer By The Book’s here.”

Officer Nelson shot me a quick smile, his skillful policeman’s scowl breaking before he resumed his usual resting-stern-face position. “What about your powers, Miss Cartwright?”

I flapped a dirty hand at him and his crisp uniform with the perfectly straight trouser lines. “Oh, you and your overly sensitive policeman-like hearing must be on the fritz today. I didn’t say powers, Goof. I said flowers. As in, there’s a body in mine. And are we back to calling me Miss Cartwright again? I thought we’d moved past that two crime scenes ago?”

Clearing his throat, he gazed down at me in all his rigid handsomeness and winked before straightening his already impeccable posture. “I’m on duty.”

We’d been through a thing or two, Officer Nelson and I, including the death of his girlfriend, Sophia, this past summer, and one murderous romp through a cemetery, wherein I’d saved his life. Nowadays, we occasionally shared a cup of coffee in the mornings before he headed off to his shift and I opened the store.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still that nosy nag of an amateur sleuth who was forever bugging him for information about open cases and getting in over my head in matters I shouldn’t. But since he’d lost Sophia, I was less naggy, more friend.

And I liked it that way. Dana was a grand, honest soul, as pure as they came, and while we still played this game of pretentious formality, I knew deep down he liked me a little, and probably much to his dismay.

I reached for the set of beads caught around the badge on his chest and held them up into the flashing lights of the ghosts still swirling on the front of my house. “I see you’ve met the ladies?”

Planting his hands on his hips, Officer Nelson sighed the sigh of the beleaguered. “I know there’s an awkward, totally outrageous explanation for them, Miss Cartwright. I’m every bit pins and needles, waiting to hear it.”

We both stopped and cocked our heads when a strangled, warbling noise from behind my front door interrupted our conversation. Our eyes met as if to ask, “Am I hearing things?” But then we shook our heads in dismissive unison and smirked at one another.

Nah. No way.

“Holy cats! What the heck’s goin’ on around here, Stevie?” Sandwich, my second favorite Eb Falls police officer, shouted as he pounded up the stairs, drowning everything else out.

I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. “Why, whatever do you mean, Sandwich? Everything’s right as rain.”

Large and beefy, with shortly cropped dark hair, my gentle giant frowned down at me. “Didn’t you enter the Christmas Lights Display Contest? What gives with the Easter bunny on the roof and the ladies and gents in, er…their underwear?” he asked, pointing to the bare legs of the carolers, who’d now stopped singing and had closed ranks, snuggling against one another in their retrieved coats.

“Uh, yep. I sure did enter. I went all out, too. But you know what I think is really gonna cinch the deal? The half-naked carolers singing Def Leppard. What say you, Sandwich?”

He paused, assessing me just as another sparkler from the demented Uncle Sam on the porch flared up. “Oh. Sarcasm. I get it. So what happened here? Where are all those decorations you kept talking about? And what happened with Chef Le June? Did you see anything?”

My answer was cut off when someone inside my house screamed. Though, this was a much different scream than Mrs. Vanderhelm’s. It was a little drawn out, rather piercing, and maybe even a little more terrified.

Officer Nelson brushed past me, driving the heel of his hand against the door to push it open fully.

The judges were positioned in a half-circle at the base of my staircase, their eyes wide, their mouths open. I followed their line of vision to the top of the steps, where a skittering-scratching noise dragged my focus upward. And then it happened.

In fact, a whole flock happened.

Turkeys, that is. Yep. That’s right. The sound Officer Nelson and I heard on the porch moments ago had, in fact, been turkeys. An entire flock of them (more than two is a flock, isn’t it?), waddling into the sitting room at the top of the stairs, overlooking Puget Sound.

“Miss Cartwright?” Officer Nelson and his “how will you explain this one?” tone asked.

With that question, the turkeys began dropping downward, pecking and gobbling in low squalls, their clawed feet beating out a frantic rhythm while they paced from step to step. They were obviously as stunned as we were, judging by the surprised blinks of their beady eyes.

Frannie Lincoln squealed in alarm, throwing herself at Frank Morrison and wrapping her legs around his waist. She clung to his neck in fear, her aging hands clenched behind his head. “I hate birds!” she cried, burying her face in Frank’s neck.

“Shooooo!” Mrs. Abernathy screeched, flapping her purse at them as they continued to advance.

“Stevie!” Sandwich shouted, rushing the stairs to herd the turkeys as their gobbling grew louder. “What’s going on?”

Yet, I could do nothing more than blink in my own surprise. I had turkeys in my sitting room. Someone had put not one, but four turkeys in my house. What in the name of Pete was happening? Then I realized, it was the amount of turkeys pecking their way down the stairs that troubled me.

Four. There were four of them.

That’s when it hit me. I’d ordered four turkeys total from Gobble Unlimited. One for our personal Christmas feast, and three for donation to the church for the Eb Falls Christmas Eve party. That was no coincidence, was it?

As the turkeys rambled about, their gobbles growing louder, their necks bobbing and dipping, I stood transfixed.

Win’s abrupt shout of an order roused me in my discombobulated state. “Dove, snap out of it and take control. The detectives have arrived!”

With a shake of my head, I attempted to clear my mind of all the questions I had about turkeys and baby Jesus imposters and sprang into action. “Sandwich! Herd those gobblers back up into the stairwell and down the hall to the guest bedroom on the left! Judges? Follow me into the parlor, please, so we can all be in the same place to greet the detectives.” Turning my voice to the open door, I yelled, “Half-naked carolers and naughty ladies, get in here and warm up!”

The moment the words escaped my mouth, I caught sight of Detective Sean Moore behind the crowd of people pushing their way into my house. Dressed as per usual in low-slung jeans and a T-shirt beneath his dark brown blazer, his rippled muscles flexed and tensed as he took my front steps two at a time.

Since this past summer, when his partner, Detective Ward Montgomery, murdered Officer Nelson’s girlfriend, Sophia, in a paid-for-hire mob hit then attempted to murder me, Sean Moore had been on his own. While the Eb Falls Police Department searched for a replacement, I’ve seen a bit of a transformation in Detective Moore since his time without Detective Ward.

Oh, he was still pretty snarly and cocky, but those attributes were currently tinged with a new humbleness I’d never witnessed to this point.

Rumor around Eb Falls was he blamed himself for not catching on to Detective Montgomery’s extra-curricular activities for the mob. I’d heard Officer Nelson mention that particular revelation to Sandwich. Dana said it had brought a whole new dynamic to Detective Moore’s investigations nowadays. He was more careful, more thorough, and more empathetic.

Unfortunately, it didn’t bring a new dynamic to our relationship.

He still didn’t like me overly much and I can’t say exactly why—other than we’d originally met under interrogation-like circumstances, and I’d met his cocky with my own brand of cocky and our two cockies had collided.

Regardless, he’d likely be lead detective on this one. But then I saw someone behind him. Someone short and curvy with copper-red hair in a messy bun atop her head, held in place by a funky-colored headband.

She wore a green T-shirt that read Dunder Mifflin (which made me send her a silent thumbs-up. I loved The Office) beneath a cropped leather jacket with spikes around the cuffs and along the wide lapels. Her jeans were loose and looked comfortable, her high-top sneakers pink and green.

She smiled at me from behind a glowering Detective Moore and waved cheerfully. “You’re Stevie Cartwright, yeah?” she asked, holding out a hand with a multitude of rings.

I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that she knew my name. But I gave her a half-smile in return while taking her hand and giving it a quick pump. “That’s me.”

She grinned even wider, her eyes shiny and brown “So cool! I’m Melba. Er, Melba Kaepernick… Um, I mean Detective Melba Kaepernick. Shoot. I’m still getting used to that title. Anyway, you’re the lady who talks to dead people, right? So-so cool! I’ve heard a gazillion things about you since I joined Eb Falls PD a few weeks ago.”

I eyed Detective Moore—who looked rather pained at this point—with a raised eyebrow. I was sure she’d heard plenty about me from him.

“I bet every last one of those gazillion things was complimentary, too.”

“Well, no. Not all of them. In fact, most of them weren’t very nice at all, but I like to judge for myself—”

“Detective Kaepernick?” Detective Moore ground out, gripping Melba’s upper arm. “We have a dead man outside. This isn’t a social call. And there are witnesses inside. Go do your job and talk to them. You know, make like a real detective?”

“Sure-sure,” she agreed on a nod as she disentangled her arm from Detective Moore’s grip, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly in his direction before she caught herself. Then she turned back to me, her smile back in place. “Anyway, super to meet you. Totally wanna grab your ear in the near future—”

“Kaepernick!” Detective Moore groused. “Go!”

Melba scurried past me and into the parlor where the judges had gathered, as Detective Moore glared at me.

“Not just a new partner, but a brand-new detective, too, Starsky?” I teased, referring to one of the many TV cop names I’d called him and his ex-partner. “Your world must be all kinds of turned upside down.”

He made a face and clenched his angular jaw. “Uh, yeah. Fresh-off-the-truck detective.”

I wagged my finger at him. “Serves you right for gossiping about me, Starsky. I’ve helped way more than I’ve hindered—”

“Pascal!” a voice shrieked from my lawn. “Pascal, where are you, ma cheri!”

Petula, our local caterer, pushed her way past people and Detective Moore, tears streaming from her swollen eyes. She grabbed my arm, her hands ice cold. “Stevie, is it true?”

My heart crashed against my ribs. I hated this part. Hated it so much. I liked Petula a lot. She was our go-to for any event Win and I hosted. Though, I will admit, the whole Pascal thing never felt quite right. But seriously. What did I know about true love?

I’d been dumped at the altar by my ex-fiancé Warren and I’d had absolutely no idea he was cheating on me when he did the dumping. To make matters worse, I was a witch at the time. You’d think my Spidey-witch senses would have picked up his cheater’s vibe. Love really can make you turn a deaf ear.

So I pulled her into a tight hug and squeezed. “I’m so sorry, Petula. Please, come inside and I’ll get you something warm to drink while we figure this out, okay?”

But she shrugged me off, her red-rimmed eyes wild as the wind tore at her hair. “No! I don’t need anything warm to drink. I know who did this, Stevie! I know who killed my sweet Pascal!”