Chicago: Come Spend Christmas with Murder

Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Murder, She Wrote. This is just funness! Also, any likeness to any persons living or dead is scrictly coincedental, except when it's not!

As always, send your comments to Lizzie Bapst:

Upon entering the terminal in a Chicago airport‚ Jessica spotted a restaurant labeled The Gaslight Lounge. She checked her luggage through‚ which proved to be even more of a hassle than expected‚ due to the particularly heavy traffic in the airport. But that was yet another trivial matter that need not bother her when traveling around Christmas. Turning in a few circles again‚ looking for the lounge‚ she finally pointed herself in the direction she wanted to go and rolled her hefty suitcase on wheels behind her‚ thankful for whoever it was that first decided‚ "Suitcases should roll".

She walked directly to the lounge‚ where‚ she'd been told‚ she'd find her great-niece‚ Christine Magnall. The last time she'd seen Christine was 17 years ago‚ on Christine's first birthday. She'd kept in touch‚ of course‚ as she did with all her nieces and nephews‚ but hadn't seen much in the way of pictures of Christine. She wasn't sure how she'd recognize her‚ but she was told that Christine would find her. In fact the reason she was visiting‚ instead of staying in Cabot Cove for a white Christmas with Seth‚ was because of a phone call she'd received from Christine. The details were still a bit shaky to her‚ but she was hopeful that her arrival would calm Christine down enough that she could get some more details of the ordeal.

An ornately decorated sign stating "Please seat yourself" was waiting at what would be the receptionist's podium‚ and Jessica‚ following her instructions‚ found a table for two near the back of the busy restaurant. She'd just gotten settled in when an over-loaded waitress came bounding through the doors behind her‚ and‚ before Jessica could say anything‚ tripped over the wheels of Jessica's suitcase‚ spilling three glasses of water‚ mostly on herself‚ and breaking two others.

"Oh dear!" Jessica cried out‚ quickly getting out of her chair to help the poor girl clean up the broken glass and dry the water with a towel hanging from the waitress' shoulder.

"Oh‚ you don't have to do that‚ Aunt Jessica‚ I can get it‚" she said‚ losing her balance and falling directly into the puddle of water.

"Yes‚ I can see that‚ Christine‚" Jessica responded‚ holding out a hand for the young woman.

The girl looked up at Jessica with wide blue eyes‚ her peaches and cream complexion reddening. She was dressed simply‚ in her uniform for the lounge‚ a white shirt with black pants‚ vest and bow tie. Her blonde hair‚ held back in a simple ponytail‚ was dripping with the water she'd just emptied from the glasses. Surprisingly‚ she looked somehow more intelligent than expected after witnessing her spill. Yet‚ there was a sparkle in her eyes that seemed to suggest a certain youth to her character. Her eyes‚ though sparkling‚ seemed old‚ tired‚ and too wise for their years‚ a problem which Jessica planned to remedy in her great-niece.

Taking Jessica's hand‚ the girl stood and told Jessica‚ "Well‚ thank you‚ but I'm not Christine."

Jessica was puzzled. The young woman had called her "Aunt Jessica"‚ hadn't she? Jessica's own sparkling blue eyes reflected her confusion and prompted a chuckle from the waitress.

"I'm Christine's friend‚ Kelly Phillips‚" she added‚ shivering. "She's been talking about you so much‚ I feel like you're MY great-aunt Jessica! It's absolutely a pleasure to meet you. Christine will be out soon‚ I'm sure."

"Well‚ it was nice meeting you‚ as well. Would you like to join us?"

"No‚ I really have to be getting back to work. Besides‚ I've got this mess to clean up. Whose idea was it to put suitcases on wheels‚ anyway?"

As Kelly finished her question‚ a beautiful young woman with brown‚ tightly curled hair and burdened dark blue eyes‚ wearing nearly the same uniform as the former‚ came bursting through the double doors leading to the kitchen‚ her expression changing definitively from contentment to frustration‚ and finally to anger in a matter of mere seconds.

"KELLY! Not again!" she nearly screamed‚ walking quickly over to the drenched blonde‚ not even noticing Jessica. "That's the third time this week you've toppled your tray. I can't keep covering for you!"

"It was my fault‚ really‚" Jessica broke in‚ unable to watch the young woman sit in silence to be reprimanded. "I shouldn't have had my luggage in the aisle."

The brunette‚ turning to Jessica‚ gasped at the first glimpse of her face and threw her arms around Jessica's neck.

"Aunt Jessica! You're here!" Christine exclaimed‚ close to tears.

"I said I would be‚ didn't I?" Jessica told her‚ hugging her.

"Of course! But I just…well‚ I just…" she stopped short.

"Just what?" Jessica prompted.

"Oh‚ it doesn't matter. You're here‚" she replied‚ finally letting loose of Jessica. "And I'm so glad!" she added‚ a sadness in her eyes that Jessica couldn't overlook.

"So‚ uh…I hate to interrupt‚ but‚ you were about to yell at me‚ Christine‚" Kelly interrupted with a smile.

Christine gave her friend's arm a playful jab‚ to which Christine responded by wincing‚ and told her to finish cleaning up her mess and then join the two at the table Jessica had chosen.

"I need you to help me tell Jessica the whole story."

"The whole story?"


"Wow! Some undertaking! You sure you want to go through all that again?"

"No‚ but I know that Jessica can help. And if she can help---it's completely worth it."

"All right. I'll be there as soon as I can‚" Kelly replied‚ lightly half-hugging Christine. "It'll be fine. I'm sure Aunt Jessica can figure it out." Winking at Jessica‚ who in turn smiled warmly at her‚ she saluted Christine and returned to her work as Jessica and Christine each took a seat at the table.

"She seems nice‚" Jessica started‚ after a few awkward moments of silence.

"Oh‚ she's wonderful‚" Christine replied‚ staring blankly into nothingness.

"Christine?" Jessica asked‚ calling the young woman's attention back to her.

"Sorry‚ Aunt Jess. I'm a little pre-occupied."

"I noticed. Christine‚ I realize I've never been your closest Aunt‚ geographically‚ but you've shared a lot with me in your letters and e-mails. That doesn't have to stop because I'm sitting in front of you."

"Oh‚ I know‚" Christine responded‚ staring again into nothingness. "It's just…still hard to talk about."

Jessica reached across the table and put a hand on Christine's own shaky‚ fidgety hands.

"Start at the beginning."

"The beginning…" Christine sighed. "It seems so long ago. Everything was easier then. We didn't expect it to happen to us¡Xnot us. Not here. We were so safe‚ here." She paused for a moment‚ staring silently into empty space again. Dragging herself from her reverie‚ she continued‚ "Sorry‚ Jess. I guess I'm getting side tracked."

Jessica put her other hand on Christine's trembling hands‚ and looked compassionately into her teary‚ blue eyes.

"Take your time."

Christine nodded.

"It really started about three months ago when one of the teachers from a middle school around here somewhere was found--- dead in an alley somewhere. We didn't really think anything of it at the time. After all‚ this is Chicago. Crime does happen. But then‚ the next week‚ on the same day‚ at almost the same time‚ they had an anonymous call to report that the same thing had happened---only this time‚ to one of the teachers from my old high school. The next week---same day‚ same time---same call. And again the next week. By that time‚ everyone had started to detect a pattern‚ but no matter what anyone had done about it‚ it was always a teacher or professor."

"I can take it from here‚ Christi‚" Kelly replied‚ sliding into the booth and placing an arm around Christine's shoulders. Christine nodded.

"Anyway‚ about a month ago---the pattern apparently shifted---from teachers to students."

Jessica's horror had finally bubbled over the top‚ but‚ left her speechless. After all‚ what could be said?

"Obviously‚ because we're students at Roosevelt‚ we were concerned about that. We did everything we could to avoid it‚ too¡Xstayed inside‚ never went anywhere alone‚ were very cautious‚ very careful. That is‚ until one of the girls from our dorm disappeared."

"I was furious. She had the room directly to the right of ours. I can't tell you what she meant to me---to both of us‚ really. She was always there. She was a constant. Someone we could always go to---always talk to. She understood everything. And suddenly‚ this…this horrible man just took her away from us. I didn't know what to do---except to help look for him‚" Christine interjected‚ her anger clearly showing through. "And that's when it happened." Both girls were silent.

"What happened?" Jessica questioned.

"He came after me‚" Christine whispered‚ barely audible above the buzz of the busy restaurant.


"He obviously didn't kill her---" Kelly began. "But that's only because Christine had called the police a half an hour before to tell them where she'd be. They tried to stop her‚ but---"

"But I'm stubborn‚" Christine broke in‚ softly. "I couldn't let him get away with all that he'd done‚ Aunt Jess. You understand that‚ don't you?"


"Anyway‚ the police got there just in time‚ but the creep escaped‚" Kelly interrupted.

"And so did I---with only a few bruises‚ a slap on the wrists from the police and small dents in my walls of pride and confidence. Thank Heavens for Tae Bo in PE‚" Christine added.

"I don't understand‚ Christi---what is it that you want me to do?" Jessica queried.

"Help them. Help them get this guy‚" Christine pleaded.

"Me? I'm not a detective¡X" Jessica began.

"Oh‚ Aunt Jess‚ don't kid yourself---you might as well be with all the sleuthing you do!" Christine replied. "Face it---you're the only one who can get this guy."

"I'm sure the police are doing their job to solve this."

"Yea‚ the problem is‚ they're idiots‚" Kelly added‚ rolling her eyes.

"I'm sure it's not that terrible."

"You don't know these guys‚ Mrs. Fletcher. Most of them are from the sticks. Things have gotten really bad in our precinct. Nobody wants to be a cop. So‚ we get the losers from the sticks who can't tell Stephen Sondheim from Jerry Herman!" Kelly exclaimed.

"You're a musical theatre major‚ aren't you?" Jessica questioned.

"Absolutely! What else is there?" Christine replied with a wink.

"I still don't understand what you think I can do about this! There are no clues---no suspects---there's nothing with which to start! Even Sherlock Holmes needed a clue!" Jessica told the young women.

"Just check into it. Please?" Christine asked‚ her forehead creasing‚ eyebrows curving and lips turning pouty. "You're going to be here until Christmas‚ anyway. That's two weeks away! Surely you can accomplish something in two weeks! Please Aunt Jessica?"

Jessica looked at the girls' pleading faces‚ their big eyes sad and teary‚ and couldn't refuse.

"All right. Two weeks. I'll help. I'll do what I can‚" Jessica said‚ a reassuring smile.

"Great!" Christine said‚ jumping up from the booth. "Let's go home and get you settled in. Mom and Dad are jumpy about you coming‚ too."

Jessica could only hope Christine's parents‚ John and Amanda‚ weren't jumpy because they too had a mystery for her to solve.

"Aunt Jess!" sounded a familiar voice as Jessica and Christine arrived at 1016 Casehill Road.

"Amanda!" Jessica replied‚ stepping out of the car and hugging her.

"How are you‚ Jessica?" came another voice from the front porch.

"I'm just fine‚ John. You? How's school coming along?"

"Better than expected. The students at least have some respect this year‚" he told her‚ grinning‚ as he walked down the slippery porch steps to help with Jessica's luggage. "Be careful on those steps. Even with salt‚ they tend to get quite slick."

Jessica heeded his warning and carefully eyed the steps before tentatively finding her footing on the first frozen step. She did the same with the next step. And the next. Christine came up quickly behind her‚ but passed her on the steps‚ jumping up one and then another as quickly as she could. She reached the top‚ the fifth step‚ lost her footing and slid all the way down to the bottom‚ sending her purse and it's contents flying across the snow-covered front lawn.

"I'm fine!" she said‚ laughing‚ sitting still on the ground.

"Christine!" Amanda called. "Be careful. You've broken your wrist once. I don't think we need any more broken bones in this family!"

"Of course you would say that‚ mom. You're a nurse."

Amanda's pale checks colored at that remark‚ the effect seeming to darken her already brown hair and bringing out her blue eyes.

"I just want you to be careful‚" she said‚ extending a hand to Christine.

"Thanks‚" Christine said‚ grabbing her mother's hand with a grin and pulling her mother onto the ground with her.

"Christine Beatrice!"

"Oooh! The middle name! I'm in trouble‚ now!" Christine added with a wink at Jessica.

Amanda‚ who had her back turned to the others‚ took this opportunity to throw the snowball she'd been forming at Christine. Christine reciprocated with a snowball of her own‚ and the snowball fight began.

"Come on‚ Jessica‚" John said quickly afterward. "These maniacs can make anything exciting. Let's get you inside before you freeze watching the two of them." He led her inside their modestly decorated home and up the flight of stairs‚ adorned with gold Christmas garland and pictures of Santa's sleigh and each of his reindeer. To her right‚ on the wall‚ hung pictures of family. John's parents‚ Amanda's parents‚ cousins‚ aunts and uncles and several of Christine and her brother‚ John Jr. At the top of the stairs‚ Jessica spotted a familiar picture of Frank and herself.

"Oh my! Amanda kept this?" she asked John‚ a smile crossing her face.

"Oh‚ absolutely‚" he told her. "She'd never let go of that. It's her favorite. She always loved going to visit you and Frank in Cabot Cove and that picture of the two of you by the sea was a reminder for her."

"Yes‚ we loved having her there‚ too‚" Jessica said‚ gently straightening the picture on the wall‚ gazing lovingly at Frank.

"You still miss him‚ don't you?"

"Everyday‚" Jessica replied‚ unable to take her teary eyes from the picture.

"I'll just set this in your room. It's the first door on the right. You can check it out whenever you feel like it. If you need to switch rooms‚ just let us know. We can do that with no extra cost to you‚" John told her jokingly as he carried her luggage up the stairs and to the room he told her was hers‚ leaving her to her memories.

"So‚ what do you want to know‚" Amanda asked‚ coming into Jessica's room late that night in her red plaid pajamas.

"About?" Jessica asked‚ closing her book and removing her reading glasses.

"Whatever it was you said you wanted to ask me about at dinner‚" Amanda replied‚ curling up next to Jessica on the bed‚ her head in Jessica's lap.

"Fill me in. Just like you used to do."

"That was years ago‚ Jessica. I was a little girl‚ then."

"Well‚ we could all use a bit of nostalgia just now‚" Jessica told her solemnly‚ running fingers through Amanda's hair.

"True. What do you want to know?"

"I don't believe you ever told me how you and John got together. Start with that‚ we'll see where it goes from there. We used to talk all night."

"Ahh‚" Amanda sighed‚ wishfully. "I guess I miss it more than I thought. Could you ever be persuaded to move to Chicago?"

"Could you ever be persuaded to move to Cabot Cove?"

"Well‚ in light of recent events‚ I'd give anything to be transferred there---as long as there was something open for John‚ too. You know‚ he jokes a lot‚ but he really adores teaching. Actually that's how we met. He was my English teacher in high school."


"Yea. That's why there's such a huge age difference between us. Then‚ I graduated high school and was working in customer service---remember? Oh‚ how I hated that job. Anyway‚ he was really sweet about coaching me for an interview---he was interested‚ which thrilled me down to my toes‚ because I was majorly crushing over him…"

They continued talking well into the early morning hours.

Meanwhile Christine lay awake‚ staring at the ceiling. Jessica was right. There were no clues; how could she help? Christine hadn't even gotten a good look at the man. She was only certain that it was in fact‚ a man. Beyond that‚ she had no idea how to describe him. Christine's thoughts started running together and the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling became a blur as she drifted off to sleep.

Christine found herself standing off to one side on a dark side street. She saw two figures running towards her‚ one behind the other. She felt she should know them‚ but it was just too dark. The second figure began to catch up to the first one as they ran by Christine‚ spraying her with dirty water from a puddle. As they passed‚ Christine got a good look and instantly recognized them. That was him! The one who had attacked her! And the girl...that was... Christine sat bolt upright in bed and screamed‚ "KELLY!"

John and Amanda were instantly awaked and running to Christine's room‚ but it was Jessica who got there first and held a fragile‚ weak and scared Christine in her arms. Amanda and John both tried to help comfort Christine‚ but the young woman pushed them away each time‚ clinging to Jessica. Amanda and John looked on helplessly‚ hurt by the actions of their daughter. Jessica looked at them‚ her eyes filled with concern‚ and motioned for them to leave the room.

When they had gone‚ Jessica‚ still holding tightly to Christine‚ began to rock back and forth with her as though she were rocking a child to sleep.

"Shhh…" Jessica began. "It's all right. It was just a dream. Kelly's fine. Want to tell me what happened?"

Christine lifted her head to meet Jessica's eyes with her own teary ones‚ but it wasn't to talk about the dream.

"I don't think Kelly is fine‚ Jessica. I just know something's happened." "Why don't you call her and find out?"

"I…I can't…" Christine stammered‚ and Jessica realized she was much too shaken and exhausted to be doing anything but sleeping.

"Tell you what. In the morning‚ we'll go see her. Right now‚ just rest."

"In the morning? But…what if she's…"

"Would it make you feel better if I called her now?"


But as Jessica started to get up to get the phone‚ Christine didn't let go.

"No. No‚ I…I guess we'll have to wait until morning. I mean‚ you're right; it was just a dream. She's probably fine."

The words were coming out of her mouth‚ but she didn't believe them.

"I'm sure she is. She's at home right now‚ asleep‚ like you should be."

"Will you stay with me‚ Jessica?"

"Of course. I'll stay until you fall asleep."

Christine lay her head on Jessica's lap‚ as her mother had done hours before‚ and slowly drifted off to sleep‚ Jessica gently running her fingers through Christine's hair to calm her.

John and Amanda waited for Jessica in the hallway outside their daughter's room. When Jessica came out‚ they walked with her down the hallway to her room.

"What happened‚ Jessica?" Amanda asked as a look of panic crossed her face.

"She'll be okay. She had a nightmare. I can't say that's at all unexpected after what she's been through."

"Are you sure she'll be okay? Should I go sit with her?"

"She's asleep‚ now‚ if you go in‚ you risk waking her up again. I think she'll be okay¡Xbut I'll make you a deal---if she wakes up again---you'll be the first one in there."

"Why wouldn't she let us help?" John asked‚ obviously hurt.

"I'm not sure‚" Jessica told him. "She's tired. She's frightened. She wasn't thinking clearly. Don't take it too hard or too seriously. I'm sure she won't even remember doing it‚ and if she does‚ she'll feel bad enough for all of us."

"I just don't know what to do‚" Amanda stated quietly‚ tears filling her eyes.

Wrapping his arms around her‚ John kissed the top of her head and suggested she go back to bed.

"Come on. Let's let Jessica get some sleep. Jerry Herman wrote lyrics for Dear World that say "your perfect day starts each tomorrow morning". Let's go to sleep and wake up later this morning and hope it works‚ anyway‚" he told her‚ putting an arm around her waist and leading her toward their room.

"Goodnight‚ Jessica‚" he whispered over his shoulder as she closed the door of her room and plopped on her bed. She was asleep nearly the moment her head hit the pillow.

"Wake up sunshine!" Kelly called late that morning‚ plopping onto Christine's bed and shaking her awake. "It's today!"

"Light the candles‚" Christine tried to sing‚ her voice hoarse‚ a wide grin crossing her face.

"Get the ice out! Roll the rug up!" Kelly cooed.


"TODAY!" they shouted together‚ Christine sitting up brightly in her bed.

"So‚ you ready to show your Auntie Jessica how to open a new window?"

"Oh‚ I think she already gets that‚ Kelly."

"Well‚ I was just trying to stick with the same musical‚ okay? I could've said to show Jessica a little priest‚ but it wouldn't have been nearly as exciting‚ now would it?

"Well…" Christine replied‚ exploding with laughter. "Actually‚ the idea of showing her a little priest is rather intriguing."

"Oh‚ hush‚" Kelly said‚ throwing a pillow at her. "Your Aunt Jessica is waiting for you downstairs. She says we can start investigating today if you wish."

Christine's ears perked up.

"I'll be down in a moment!" she declared‚ scrambling across the bed and falling off of the edge‚ prompting laughter from them both.

"Take your time‚ quicksilver."

"Did you just call me a horse?"

"Sounds like a good time up there‚" John said‚ finishing his bowl of cereal.

"I wish we were privileged enough to get in on it‚" Amanda said under her breath‚ but not low enough to avoid being heard.

"I'm sure she didn't do anything to intentionally hurt you‚ Amanda‚" Jessica reiterated her earlier statements. "She's shaken up. You all are. Why don't you come with us today to do a bit of investigating?"

"Me? Investigating?"

"Well‚ I told Kelly‚ who will hopefully tell Christine‚ that we'd be investigating today‚ but I mostly have it in my plans to relax today and have a good girls day out. I'd be thrilled if you'd join us‚" Jessica bargained.

"Okay‚" Amanda said after a moment's thought.

"Have fun‚" John told them‚ putting on his suit jacket and grabbing his briefcase.

"Oh‚ I'm quite sure we will‚" Jessica told him‚ winking at Amanda.

"Keep my favorite girls out of trouble‚ will you‚ Jessica?" he replied‚ a twinkle in his eye‚ before kissing his wife goodbye and heading out the door.

"Ready‚ Amanda?"

"I suppose I'm as ready as I'll ever be." Then‚ turning toward the stairs and yelling up the staircase‚ she called‚ "Girls‚ hurry up‚ there aren't that many hours in a day‚ you know!"

"Oh! Look at this‚ Kelly‚" Christine said‚ lifting a pair of earrings from a rack.

Kelly flicked the bright blue furry balls on the ends of the silver chains that comprised these "earrings" and made a face as though she'd just munched on a fried calf's liver.

"Those are great‚ Christi‚" Kelly said‚ completely straight-faced. "If you're planning on going fishing and short a lure or two."

Christine shrugged and put the earring back on the rack‚ looking out the store front at the people passing by‚ their holiday packages weighing them down.

"Kelly! Look!"


"Look who's here!"

"Who?" Jessica finally asked‚ coming over to the girls and looking out the big picture window.

"It's Sargent Malin‚" Kelly told her. "There---in uniform."

"Oh? Who's Sargent Malin?" Jessica asked‚ genuinely confused.

"He's the Sargent assigned to the murder cases‚" Amanda said‚ her eyes following the Sargent. "He gives me the creeps‚ Jess. There's just something about him."

"Well‚ he is a Police Officer. He's been around a lot of crime that most of us couldn't even dream would happen‚" Jessica offered.

Amanda shook her head. "No‚ I mean‚ there's just something about him." She shivered and her arms filled with goose-bumps. She shook her head. "I'm probably just being silly and overly dramatic‚" she finished‚ nervously chuckling.

Jessica wasn't so sure Amanda's hunches should be over looked so quickly‚ and watched through the window as the uniformed officer walked around the corner to pass the front of the store in which they were standing. All four women looked at the racks of earrings and bracelets in front of them‚ glancing up to follow the officer and not be seen‚ but in vain. Sargent Malin had seen them staring through the window and waved as he came into the store‚ greeting them cheerily on his way.

"Good afternoon‚ ladies‚" he said‚ bowing at the waist.

"Good afternoon‚ Sargent Malin‚" Christine greeted him.

"Hey‚" Kelly said‚ her eyes fixed upon the man.

"Good afternoon‚" Amanda mumbled‚ her fists clenched‚ her shoulders stiffened‚ and Jessica nodded in acknowledgment‚ watching Amanda's reaction to the man's entrance.

"Well‚ I don't believe I know you‚ ma'am‚" he flashed his pearly white smile in Jessica's direction.

"I'm Jessica Fletcher. I'm Amanda's Aunt."

"Ah! Here for a visit‚ then?"

Jessica nodded.

"I hope you enjoy your stay in our fine city‚ Miss? Fletcher." His eyebrows raised when he asked if her title had been "Miss‚" suggesting an interest and Jessica's disgust nearly surfaced.

Instead‚ she smiled politely and replied‚ "It's Mrs. Fletcher‚ actually."

"Oops! My apologies! Well‚ a man can dream‚ can't he? I'm sure‚ madam‚ you have one lucky husband‚" he replied smoothly‚ taking her hand and planting a kiss on it.

"Actually Uncle Frank…" Christine started to say‚ but was interrupted by Jessica.

"Thinks the same thing‚" Jessica quickly finished for her‚ shooting her a glance which seemed to tell her to avoid letting the Sargent know about Frank‚ that went unnoticed by Sargent Malin.

"Well‚ have a great day of shopping‚ ladies‚" the Sargent said‚ as he turned and left the store‚ continuing his route‚ whistling down the hallway.

Amanda sighed and made a conscious effort to unclench her fists.

"I don't know what it is about that man…" she began.

"He seems a little too…smooth…to be a Police Officer‚" Jessica finished her thought.


"Well‚ I have run across a few officers who felt they were above the law‚ Amanda‚" Jessica told her. "But that's no reason to assume that of all of them. I haven't seen anything yet that's told me he's anything but a concientious officer of the law." Jessica gave Amanda a reassuring smile after she'd spoken‚ but there was still a flicker of doubt in her own mind that couldn't be extinguished.

A few hours later the quartet was seated in the food court of the mall‚ eating from each other's plates and laughing heartily when Sargent Malin again interrupted.

"Ladies‚" he greeted.

"Sargent Malin!" Christine exclaimed‚ her eyes wide‚ as she shifted in her seat to face him. "I didn't get to ask you earlier‚ what's new with the murders?"

"We're still looking into finding connections. Sure‚ they were all teachers‚ but‚ what did those teachers have in common?"

"Were they all part of the same teacher's union?" Kelly suggested.

"It's possible‚" Sargent Malin replied.

"Don't you know?" Christine asked‚ frustrated.

"Not yet. I have some people looking into that sort of thing."

"And what about the student?" Kelly asked. "Remember Carrie Lewis?"

"She was studying to be a teacher‚ was she not?"

"Yes‚ but how do you explain me‚ then?" Christine reminded him.

"You‚ my dear‚ baited a trap for the man‚ and are quite lucky that nothing worse happened to you."

"Sargent Malin‚" Jessica interrupted. "Why is it that a homicide investigator is moonlighting as a mall cop?"

"Ah! Dear lady‚ you have very great powers of perception‚" he intended it to be flattery and smiled insinuatingly at Jessica‚ who in turn kept a straight face. "All of us down at the precinct take a turn monitoring the activities here at the mall‚ regardless of our department."

"I see‚" Jessica replied skeptically. "Isn't that rather unusual?"

"Perhaps unusual‚ but‚ nonetheless safe‚" turning to the Christine and Kelly he responded with‚ "This is Monday‚ you know. We'll see what happens tonight." He turned on his heel‚ bidding them good day as he did‚ and continued his routine walk through the mall.

"Do you have enough clues‚ now‚ Jessica?" Christine whispered to her. "You know‚ to start your investigation?"

"Enough to start. But we'll have to do some research ourselves. It seems as though Sargent Malin is going to be dragging his feet throughout this entire investigation."

"Hello‚" John said‚ taking the phone from the receiver. "Jessica? No‚ she's not here. Can I give her a message?… Of course she's alive. Why wouldn't she be?…Hello?…Hello?" he hung up the phone‚ shrugged and went back to his dinner preparations.

"Mort‚ I'm fine‚ I promise…really…Who told you that?…How would Seth know?…What did it say?…That's absurd!…Well‚ tell everyone that I'm fine-- Still kickin'. All right. I'll see you in a few weeks. Bye." Jessica hung up the phone to face the questioning‚ wide-eyes of John‚ Amanda‚ Christine and Kelly. She walked calmly over to the table to join them for dinner and began nibbling on the salad that had been set at her place at the table.

Christine dropped her fork in her plate‚ causing a loud clang‚ which made everyone jump.

"What's going on‚ Aunt Jess?" She practically screamed from anxiety.

"Well‚ it seems that the Cabot Cover rumor mill has been working overtime‚ that's all."

"And?" Amanda asked nearly as excitedly as Christine had‚ her cheeks blushing.

"And…well‚ to quote Mark Twain‚ ¡¥Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated'."

"Your death!" Kelly exclaimed. "What a rumor mill!"

"It's a small town‚" Jessica told her‚ grinning.

"Still‚" Amanda began. "Most of the time the rumors start from something." And as she finished‚ they were all interrupted by a knock at the front door.

"Who could that be?" John asked‚ pushing his chair back and rising to get the door.

"I'm not looking forward to finding out‚" Christine said‚ frozen at the table. "What if it's the ki--…"

"It's not‚" Kelly told her‚ calmly.

Jessica rose and followed John to the door. As he opened the door‚ her eyes widened to see a shouting‚ newspaper waving‚ angry Seth.

"It's bad enough that this reached your Boston reporter friend without being truthful‚ but that you didn't have the decency to call and let us all know that you were all right just appalls me‚ Jessica‚" he shouted‚ coming through the door and handing her a once-wet‚ tattered newspaper with a head shot of her underneath the headline‚ "Mystery Writer Murdered‚" covering page one.

"Seth‚ I didn't know‚ and you needn't shout! I'm fine‚ and my hearing is just as good as it always was."

"How could you not know you were dead?" he questioned‚ his hands flying to his hips‚ defiantly.

Jessica shrugged before replying‚ "I'd like to think I'll have more important things to worry about when it happens‚" she said with a grin‚ causing Seth more anxiety before he finally gave in‚ exasperated.

By the time Seth had finally finished snacking on the foot he'd so conveniently brought to put in his mouth‚ Amanda‚ Christine and Kelly had all gathered to watch‚ hearing the shouting from the kitchen.

Meanwhile‚ Jessica had unfolded the paper and begun reading the article.

"You said Haskell knew about this?" Jessica directed at Seth.

"Who?" Seth asked.

"Haskell Drake. My ¡¥reporter friend' from Boston."

"Oh‚ him‚" Seth snorted. "Yea‚ he called your house while I was there checking in on things."

"I'll have to call him and let him know I'm fine‚" Jessica responded. "Where are you staying‚ Seth?"

"He could stay here‚ couldn't he‚ Mom?" Christine questioned Amanda.

"Absolutely! Come on upstairs‚ Doc‚ I'll show you to your room‚" Amanda told him.

"Oh‚ I'd appreciate that‚ but you don't have to…" Seth told her.

"Come on‚ you can help us investigate‚" Amanda told him.

"Investigate?" Seth asked‚ looking to Jessica‚ his voice rising in volume and inflection.

"Of course! Jessica's helping us investigate the murders‚" Christine blurted out‚ not catching Jessica's pleading glance to keep Seth in the dark.

"Murders?" Seth questioned. "Jessica…"

"Yes‚ Seth?" Jessica asked‚ calmly.


"Yes‚ Seth. Murders. Are you staying? Let me take your suitcase‚" she told him‚ grabbing his suitcase and following Amanda up the stairs and to his room‚ him huffing and puffing behind them all the way up to his room about murder investigations and danger.

"Seth‚ you know‚ you can't follow me everywhere I go‚" Jessica said‚ sitting on the bed in his room later that evening.

"Jessica‚" Seth said with mock offense. "I came here to make sure you're still alive."

"Okay‚ you know I'm alive‚ but you insist on staying. Why?" she questioned‚ trapping him in a proverbial corner.

"Jessica‚ you find yourself surrounded by danger more often than not. As your friend‚ I feel like I should be there for you when you do."

"Seth‚ where's the danger?"

"Don't say that‚ Aunt Jess‚" Christine said‚ leaning against the doorframe. "You'll jinx it."

"I knew we should've closed the door‚" Seth remarked.

"Seth‚" Jessica reprimanded him.

"Well‚ I'm just saying…" Christine told him‚ slightly offended. "I'm not the one that followed my crush halfway across the country just to see her for Christmas‚" she added slyly. "Which‚ I might add‚ is about the second most romantic thing I've ever heard of‚" she finished‚ turning lightly and walking door the hallway to the bathroom to brush her teeth‚ faintly hearing Seth's snort as she did.

"Oh‚ you know I'm just saying what you're thinking‚ Doc‚" Christine yelled from the bathroom.

"What are you saying?" Amanda asked‚ walking into the bathroom to brush her teeth as well.

"That Doc has a crush on Aunt Jess."

"You noticed too?" Amanda asked‚ loud enough to be heard by Seth and Jessica. "I've been wondering for years when the two of them would figure that out about each other‚" she grinned at her daughter before lifting her toothbrush to her mouth and brushing her teeth vigorously.

"I am much too old for crushes‚" Seth told Jessica‚ gritting his teeth.

"Oh‚ I didn't say a word‚ Seth‚" Jessica grinned back at him.

"Incidentally‚ why did you follow me halfway across the country?"

"I…I…came because I heard you dead‚ remember‚ Jess‚" Seth stuttered.

"Is that the story you're going to stick to‚ Seth?" she questioned‚ her eyes twinkling with mischief.

"Woman‚ would you get off my case?" Seth retorted.

"In that case‚ you can give me a hand‚" she started.

"Oh‚ no you don't‚ Jessica‚" Seth interrupted. "It's not your job to go investigatin' murders." He crossed his arms and stuck his chin in the air‚ as though his words had any effect on Jessica's investigating.

"Seth‚ please. It's only for a couple of weeks‚" Jessica told him. "There's no possible way that I can get into any kind of danger if you're by my side. Which is where I want you to be this time."

"Aww‚" Christine said‚ coming to the door again. "It's so sweet. I'm so happy for the two of you!" she hugged them both‚ said her goodnights and went to bed‚ the rest of the household following suit.

"Sure I can introduce you‚ Jess‚" John said as the two of them walked into his classroom at Lincoln High School. "Emma Donnovan is the biology teacher here and she's also the spokes-person for the union from Lincoln High. "But why?"

"I got up early this morning to escape Seth's watchful eye and went to the library. Thankfully‚ it opened early today. I looked up all I could about the union‚ and found out that there are some college Professors at Roosevelt‚ who used to be part of the same Union you here at Lincoln are a part of. So‚ Kelly could've really been onto something when she brought up the teachers' union."

"Boy‚ when you're left to your own resources---" John chuckled.

"I know‚" Jessica replied‚ grinning‚ as they heard a knock on John's door.

"Heard you had a famous writer visiting your classroom today‚" a woman dressed as a librarian‚ complete with half-glasses resting on her nose‚ tied to a string around her neck and a head of gray hairs pulled back into a bun said‚ coming into the classroom. "I'm Charlotte Plank‚" she said‚ extending a hand toward Jessica. "I'm the Home Ec teacher here at Lincoln High. No need to introduce yourself‚ J.B. Fletcher."

"Good morning‚" Jessica replied‚ surprised‚ shaking the woman's hand.

"How'd you hear about Jessica?" John asked. "She's only been in town a couple of days."

"High Schools are like small towns‚ John‚" Charlotte told him‚ smiling.

"It's even worse when it's a high school inside a small town!" Jessica told them‚ recalling her own days substitute teaching in Cabot Cove High School.

"So‚ what brings you here‚ Mrs. Fletcher?" the gossipy‚ Charlotte Plank inquired.

"Just thought I'd look around‚" Jessica said‚ casually. "Soak up the atmosphere."

"For another book?"

"Well‚ no. Just for…me‚ really."

"Oh?" another voice‚ heavy with a Russian accent‚ came from the hallway.

Jessica looked up to see a well-dressed‚ thin‚ middle-aged Ukrainian man standing in the hallway.

"Mikale Tsukerman‚" the man said‚ coming to her and shaking her hand. "I teach Algebra."

"Nice to meet you‚ Mr. Tsukerman‚" Jessica replied‚ politely.

"Are you sure you're not here to solve dee murdehrs?" he questioned. "All dee sleuthing you do‚ surely you can…well‚ make progress on our murdehrs‚ here."

"Oh‚ I assure you‚ Mr. Tsukerman‚ I'm leaving the crime solving to the professionals."

"Too bad‚" the man replied. "The professionals surely are not capable of solving such a complex case."

"Oh? What makes you say that?" Jessica asked‚ her eyebrows raised‚ her curiosity aroused.

"Oh‚ don't pay any attention to him‚ Mrs. Fletcher‚" Charlotte Plank interrupted. "He had a brush with immigration shortly after arriving here in Chicago and he's been sour against the police ever since."

"Not true. The Officers were kind in…uh…dealing with my papers‚" the Russian said. "I simply do not think‚ from what I observed‚ that the Policemen are capable of handling such a case."

"What makes you say that?" Jessica inquired.

"Check with their Internal Affairs. They will tell you‚" he said‚ leaving the room and heading across the hall to his own classroom.

John and Jessica exchanged glances that seemed to convey the messages each meant to convey. Jessica's that she had a new avenue to explore and John's that the wheels in Jessica's head were obviously running rapidly.

"Personally I let the Officers do their jobs‚" Charlotte chimed in. "But‚ I've heard some Internal Affairs nightmares‚ before‚ myself."

"Oh?" Jessica asked‚ again letting her curiosity lead the conversation.

"Well‚ dirty cops and such. Happens a lot here in Chicago. Well‚ it's not unexpected. A lot of the cops have Mafia ties. That Sargent Malin has a Grandfather in the Mafia. I'm not too sure about that Sargent."

"What makes you say that?"

"He's got a Grandfather in the Mafia. He's a cop. The cops have been trying to shut down the Mafia for years. Still haven't succeeded."

"I'm sure it takes more than that to shut down a whole organization‚" Jessica smiled.

"It's still pretty fishy‚ don't you think?" Charlotte asked‚ turning and walking from the room‚ leaving Jessica to contemplate these new facts for herself.

Jessica sat in one of the desks in front and rested her head on her hand‚ staring into the distance. Mob connections? Mr. Tsukerman and Miss Plank were the second and third people to express their concerns about Sargent Malin‚ but so far‚ Jessica had only seen a kind‚ considerate side of the debatably good Sargent.

"What are you thinking‚ Jess?" John asked‚ sitting at his desk and taking a chocolate candy bar out of the top drawer.

"I'm just trying to fit pieces together. Although there aren't many pieces to fit together‚ yet."

"Chocolate?" John asked‚ holding out a Hershey bar for Jessica.

"Well‚ why not?" Jessica asked‚ taking the candy bar and carefully opening it.

"So‚ what else do you need?" John asked‚ taking another bite of his candy bar.

Jessica took a bite and savored the chocolate.

"Well‚ I definitely need to speak with Emma Donnovan‚" Jessica told him.

"Hello!" came a friendly voice from the doorway.

Jessica looked up to see an attractive‚ red-headed‚ young woman of what Jessica judged to be about 27‚ her slim frame stopping to lean comfortably against the doorway.

"I heard my name!" she said‚ walking to Jessica and extending a hand. "Emma Donnovan. Head of the Science Department."

Jessica shook her hand and introduced herself.

"I heard that you're the spokeswoman for the Teachers' Union from Lincoln High‚" Jessica mentioned casually.

"Yes. I wasn't at the meeting to elect the spokesperson. When that happens‚ they tend to elect whoever didn't attend‚" she said‚ grinning. "It's a lot of extra work‚ but it keeps all of us safer and better paid."

"Of course‚" Jessica replied. "Do you hold any authority position in the Union?"

"Vice President. I missed that meeting‚ too‚" she said‚ winking at Jessica.

"Who's the President?" Jessica asked.

"One of the Professors at Roosevelt. She has always felt that Unions were important for teachers‚ so she's been President for several years. Her name's Eileen Williams. She's the Physics Professor there."

"Oh‚ I think I remember Kelly and Christine talking about her‚" John spoke up‚ crumpling the wrapper from his candy bar and dropping it in the trash can to the right of his desk. "Her class is a bear‚" he winked.

"She certainly doesn't make things easy for her students‚" Emma added. "But that's good. She's making them learn."

"Anyone else I would know involved with the Union?" Jessica asked.

"Ann Collier is a new Professor at Roosevelt‚ and she's the Secretary‚ but I wouldn't think you'd know her. You could probably get together with her if you wanted. She doesn't have many classes this year‚ with it being her first year and everything. Besides she teaches U.S. History---how many classes of U.S. History can you have?" she guffawed.

"I take it your impression of Miss Collier isn't the highest?" Jessica asked‚ her curiosity again getting the better of her.

"Well‚ it's just that I suspect she's got connections at Roosevelt‚ and that those connections are probably the one and only reason she's teaching there. I really haven't seen any evidence of her having much knowledge of History. She's got a degree‚ of course‚ but…still‚" Emma left it at that. "Anyway‚ it was great seeing you‚ Mrs. Fletcher. I've got to prepare for the day's classes. If you need anything else‚ don't hesitate to ask." Having said that‚ she turned and left to room‚ walking toward her own classroom down the hall.

"That gives you a few more pieces‚ doesn't it‚ Jess?" John asked.

"A few‚" she told him. "It sounds like I need to make a visit to Roosevelt."

"Amanda's waiting for you in the office."

"Great! Have fun in your classes today‚" Jessica said with a wink‚ folding the wrapper of her Hershey bar over the remaining pieces and sticking it into her purse.

"I'll try‚" John smiled. "Make sure you're ready to update me when I get home from school today. I might need some excitement after the drudgery of Freshman basic English and Senior Advanced English."

"I'm sure it's more exciting than it sounds to a normal person‚" Jessica responded on her way out the door.

"Whoa!" Amanda said‚ coming through the door as Jessica was leaving. "Sorry Aunt Jess. I was just coming up to get you." Turning to John‚ she said‚ "I'm going to take Jessica around town today. Sort of show her the sights through the eyes of a Chicago native."

John chuckled in response.

"Love you‚ Amanda."

A smile crossed her faced as she led Jessica out the door. "Love you‚ too‚ Johnny boy."

"I still don't think I understand‚ Jess‚" Amanda said‚ pulling into a parking space at Roosevelt. "What do you want to do here?"

"I just want to talk to a few of the Professors‚" Jessica told her.

"How are these Professors related to the murders?" Amanda asked‚ confused.

"Well‚ I'm not sure‚ Amanda. Hopefully we'll soon find out."

"Aunt Jess?" Christine asked‚ spotting her mother and aunt from where she was walking on the sidewalk. "What are you doing here?"

"What a lovely welcome for your aunt!" Amanda interjected.

"Well‚ I didn't mean it that way‚" Christine said‚ rolling her eyes.

"It's all right‚ Christine‚" Jessica told her. "I need to speak with a few of the Professors here."

"Oh? Which ones?"

"Eileen Williams…"

Christine groaned. "Well‚ I just got back from physics. Here‚" she said‚ handing Jessica a test paper.

"C?" Amanda asked.

"If my name started with a Z‚ I'm sure she'd have given me that grade‚" Christine observed. "It's just because we're doing stuff with all these equations and she's being a Physics Nazi and making us memorize all of them."

"Christine‚" Amanda said‚ reprimanding the girl.

"Well‚ I speak the truth. She's a physics Nazi."

"Nonetheless‚ I'd like to speak with her‚" Jessica said.

"Well‚ here‚ let me take you. Maybe I can get brownie points for taking you. Showing a visitor around the campus‚" Christine suggested.

"Lead the way‚" Jessica told her.

"No. That's not it at all. Didn't you take physics in High School? Velocity is a vector‚" Eileen Williams was taking questions after a lecture as Jessica‚ Christine and Amanda arrived in the Science building of Roosevelt University. "Because it's a vector‚ it has a magnitude and direction. Change one of those things and acceleration changes. Any other questions?"

Whether the students were afraid to ask for fear of the arrogance of the Professor or simply didn't have any other questions‚ no one bothered to ask any other questions regarding the lecture and the Professor dismissed them. Christine led the way in‚ Amanda and Jessica following closely behind.

"Ahh‚ Christine. Great job on that exam‚" Eileen said‚ looking up and spotting the young student.

"Thanks‚" Christine replied‚ smiling. "This is my aunt‚ Jessica Fletcher. She wanted to speak with you‚ so I told her I'd show her the way."

"Showing visitors the campus‚ huh?" Eileen asked.

"Well‚ it's just my aunt."

"Still very admirable."

"Thanks‚" Christine responded. "I'll just be going‚ now. Have a great chat."

As she left‚ Eileen extended a hand to Jessica.

"I'm Eileen Williams. You're…Jessica Fletcher? Sounds familiar."

"Aunt Jess is a mystery writer‚" Amanda spoke up.

"J. B. Fletcher‚ right?" Eileen asked.

"That's right‚" Jessica said‚ shaking her hand.

"I've read a few of your books. Can't say that I'm a fan of mysteries‚ but for their genre‚ it was nice entertainment."

"Thank you‚" Jessica said‚ raising an eyebrow at Amanda. "Actually‚ I came here to ask you about the teacher's union."

"Interested in joining?" Eileen jested‚ an expected mood change.

"No‚ not this time‚" Jessica responded‚ caught off-guard. "I was just wondering if you could tell me a little about it‚ the people involved in it‚ anything at all‚ really."

"I'm the President. Basically‚ my job is to organize strikes‚ if it ever comes to that. Until then‚ I negotiate salaries and benefits‚ chair the meetings and check in with the superintendents and Principals to make sure the deals are being upheld. Pretty simple‚ really‚" Eileen said‚ beginning to become annoyed. "What's this about‚ Mrs. Fletcher?"

"I'm just curious‚" Jessica replied. "The murders that have been occurring have all been people involved with the union‚ haven't they?"

"Are you suggesting something sinister is going on in the union?" Eileen asked‚ now becoming angry.

"Not at all."

"That the others in the union could be in danger‚ is that it?"

"Not necessarily."

"Well‚ listen‚ Mrs. Fletcher. If you can find something going on in the union: great. I've been trying to figure out where our funds have been going for years‚" she said‚ returning to a civil attitude.

"What do mean?" Amanda asked.

"I mean that the funds have been disappearing‚" Eileen whispered. "Not very much at a time‚ but anyway‚ I've had several accountant friends of mine trying to figure it out for five years. They've been monitoring the bank accounts of the union members‚ with the help of a few PI's I know. They haven't been able to figure it out‚ yet. Although I got a call from one about a month ago that they might be getting close. They had to interview a few union members‚ but they said they'd get back to me soon. Like I said‚ though‚ it's been at least a month."

"Isn't that when the murders began?" Jessica asked.

"I guess it was about that time‚" Eileen said. "I never really thought of that."

"Did anyone else know about your investigation?" Jessica inquired.

"Not that I know of. I've tried to be very secretive about it. I've not told anyone."

"You haven't told anyone. Does that mean that there's some way they could have found out without you having told them?"

"I suppose that's always a possibility. If one of the union members found out about their bank accounts being monitored and got together with another of the members…well‚ word could've spread quickly if they'd been observant and the PI's not very good."

"So‚ someone could've found out?" Jessica suggested.

"I guess so‚" Eileen replied carelessly.

"The people who were murdered---how were they involved with the union?" Jessica asked.

"Well‚ some of them were the ones I was asking to help me figure out where the money was disappearing to. Economics teachers and such."

"That makes sense‚" Jessica said‚ absentmindedly. "How about the others?"

"One of them was helping the detectives trail some of the other union members. He had his daughter helping‚ as well‚ who was also murdered."

"Christine and Kelly's friend‚ Carrie‚" Amanda offered.

"Yes‚ I think that was her‚" Eileen replied. "Are you going to figure this out‚ Mrs. Fletcher?" she asked‚ turning sarcastic in mere seconds.

Amanda gestured to Jessica that they should be leaving.

"Well‚ thank you very much for your time‚" Jessica said. "We have to be going‚ now. We have another appointment."

"Let me know what you find‚ Mrs. Fletcher‚" came Eileen's sarcastic response.

When Amanda and Jessica had gotten into an empty hallway‚ Amanda spoke up.

"No wonder no one likes her. The woman's skitzophrenic!"

"Maybe we caught her at a bad time‚" Jessica suggested.

"Maybe insanity runs in her family!" Amanda said‚ unable to bring herself from her conclusion.

"All right‚ Amanda. I get the point‚" Jessica said‚ hoping to end the discussion.

"What if she's the one who's been taking the money from the accounts and she murdered all those people‚ but she doesn't know because she has multiple personalities and one personality did it‚ but the other personalities don't know‚ because‚ obviously‚ they couldn't be there at the same time?" Amanda suggested‚ talking as fast as a California Valley Girl.

"I think it's a little too soon to be drawing conclusions‚" Jessica said calmly.

"Well‚ it's just an avenue to explore‚" Amanda said. "I could really get into this sleuthing thing. "It's so exciting to face the prospects of collecting clues and fitting them together! But‚ how could anyone ever make up clues like this? How could anyone's imagination ever rival real-life?"

"It's not easy‚" Jessica replied‚ solemnly. "It takes a lot of planning and rewriting. We won't even discuss the problems some writers have inventing all the names to use for their stories."

"Oh my! That's certainly something to consider. Just think about all the people involved. I mean‚ there are…what…12 members of the union who aren't even regular meeting attendees. The meeting attendees usually number around 12‚ four of them being the ¡¥Officers'. At least‚ that's what John tells me."

"John's part of that union?" Jessica asked‚ her eyes wide‚ eyebrows raised.

"Yes. Didn't he tell you?" Amanda asked.

"No. No‚ he didn't."

"He just joined after the murders started happening. I thought it was a good idea at the time‚ because if it was teachers who were being murdered---it had to be a good idea for them to stick together. But now…" her expression turned to fear. "Now he's in danger‚ isn't he‚ Jess?"

"Well‚ he could be in danger if he attempts to leave the union‚ as well. Because if he leaves the union and the murderer actually is involved in the union‚ he or she could think that John knows more than he does. But we don't even know for sure that that's the case‚ Amanda. Let's not put the cart before the horse."


"John will be fine‚" Jessica told her‚ putting an arm around her shoulders. "He's quite capable of taking care of himself."

"Jess---I have to make his peanut butter sandwiches."

"Well‚ you know what I mean. Besides---are you sure he doesn't just think your peanut butter sandwiches are better? You always did make one heck of a peanut butter sandwich!" Jessica said as they arrived at the car and Amanda began to unlock the doors. "I could go for one about now‚ actually. What do you say we head back to the house? John should be getting home about now‚ maybe you can double the batch of peanut butter sandwiches."

Jessica winked and plopped into the front seat of the car‚ her eyes twinkling all the way to Casehill Road.

"Jessica‚ you're going to do something dangerous again‚" Seth grumbled when Amanda and Jessica arrived home and filled him in on the events of the day.

"Absolutely not‚" Christine chimed in‚ also home between classes. "She's just doing what I asked her to do. And if I haven't already said it‚ Jessica‚ thank you!"

"Well‚ you're welcome‚ Christine‚ but it's really gone beyond that‚ now. Now it's about proving to people that the police officers in this precinct are obeying and upholding the law."

"What do you mean?" Amanda asked‚ closing the jar of peanut butter and handing John a sandwich.

"Everyone is so focused on Sargent Malin and his mob connections that they're not looking past that. I don't think he's guilty."

"Really?" Amanda asked. "But he's so…obviously the type."

"If there's one thing I've learned through all these years of being involved in murder‚ it's that there is no ¡¥type' that a killer fits into. Well‚ at least‚ they don't all fit into the same one. Rich people‚ poor people‚ middle class. Employed‚ unemployed‚ living on the streets. It doesn't matter."

"If I'm not mistaken‚ I think you're on to something‚ Jessica‚" John spoke up in between bites.

"Maybe. I know the possibilities. I just need to talk to some people again."

"Well whatever you do‚ avoid that nut we talked to at Roosevelt‚" Amanda told her.

"Mrs. Williams?" Christine asked. "I think she's got multiple personalities. Or she could be manic-depressive. She was never big on re-writes."

"Jessica‚ I'm not sure I like this‚" Seth said‚ getting up from the table and going to her side.

"Seth‚ I'm fine. What harm is there in talking to people?"

"I hate it when you ask questions like that‚" Seth commented.

"Like what?" Christine wondered aloud.

"Like ¡¥What harm is there…?' and ¡¥What's the worst that could happen…?'‚ because that's generally when there is harm and the worst does happen‚" Seth explained‚ crossing his arms.

"Oh‚ Seth‚ don't over-react‚" Jessica began‚ starting to walk around him‚ until he stood in her way. "Seth‚" she continued after a moment. "You can't protect me from everything."

Seth went to the table‚ a hurt expression crossing his face and had a peanut butter sandwich of his own.

"Trouble in paradise‚" Christine said‚ smiling at Jessica.

"Christine‚ I don't think that's necessary‚" Amanda said.

"Maybe I can help you‚ Jessica‚" John spoke up after sitting all that time in thought.

"How so?" Jessica asked‚ eyebrows raised.

"Well‚ there's a union meeting tonight‚" John began.

"John‚ don't do anything dangerous‚" Amanda spoke up‚ her voice mirroring her fear.

"Don't worry‚ dear‚" John said‚ going to her and hugging her. "I can just keep my eyes and ears open extra wide‚" he finished‚ still holding her.

"I wouldn't want you to do anything dangerous‚" Jessica told him.

"Nah‚ I'll be fine. I promise to call right after the meeting is over so you know that I'm fine. And I'll keep my cell phone on the whole time‚" he directed this statement at Amanda‚ who was still trembling in his arms‚ her face pressed into his chest.

"I mmmm mmmm ew‚" Amanda said‚ her voice muffled.

"What was that‚ my girl?" John asked‚ everyone chuckling with him.

"I can't lose you‚" Amanda said‚ bringing her head up‚ beginning to laugh.

"Oh‚ well‚ when you put it that way…" John laughed. "You're not going to lose me‚" he said as she laid her head back into his chest. "I'll be around for a long‚ long time."

"But I can't take that chance‚" she said‚ hugging him tighter. "Jessica‚ please tell him not to do anything stupid."

Jessica opened her mouth to speak‚ but was interrupted when John spoke.

"I'll be fine. I'm not going to do anything dangerous."

He wrapped his arms around her and felt her take a deep breath.

"John‚ I don't like this‚" she said after closing her eyes for a few moments and resting in his arms.

"I know‚" he told her‚ grinning. "But it'll be fine. You just worry about having peanut butter sandwiches ready when I get back."

"Is everyone here?" Eileen Williams said‚ standing and banging a gavel on the table at the union meeting that evening.

"What's this meeting about‚ anyway?" someone asked from the far end of the table.

"It's about all the murders that have been happening‚" Eileen replied. "And keeping the rest of you alive. As you all know‚ tonight is exactly a week from the last murder. Which means that there could be another one tonight‚ if the killer continues to follow the same pattern and schedule."

"So you decided to keep us out later by ourselves---good plan‚" someone replied sarcastically from the end of the table.

"It's reasonable‚" Charlotte Plank spoke up in defense of their President.

"I agree‚" Emma Donnovan added. "It might help us to be aware of what's happening."

"I have some information to share with you all‚" Eileen said‚ to quiet the room. "While this may not be the time to air out the union's dirty laundry---I've been taking a look at our budget‚ and we're doing to have to cut way back this year. The money's just not there this year."

"Why?" John chimed in. "Hasn't everyone been paying the union fees?"

"Well‚ yes‚ I…I guess so‚" Eileen stammered.

"So‚ where'd the money go?" John asked.

Murmurs were heard throughout the room.

"Whos access to dee books?" Mikale Tsukerman asked when the din had died down.

"Eileen does‚" someone mumbled from the back.

"So does Charlotte‚ she's the treasurer for goodness sakes'!" came another voice.

"Charlotte? You can't honestly believe that Charlotte would do anything like that‚ can you? Are you mad?" Someone else asked.

"What about Emma? She's not exactly known to be a Saint‚ and she's the Vice President; she's got access‚" Another person was in on the debate.

"Please!" Eileen interrupted‚ banging the gavel hard on the great‚ oak table. "Please. There are people already investigating this. Let's leave this to professionals. Please‚ just take care of yourselves. Protect yourselves from this murderer‚ who seems to be after all of us."

"Well‚ it could be important‚ Eileen‚" John added. "What if‚ whoever the murderer is also is the person dipping into the funds?"

"But who?" Emma asked.

The meeting was adjourned‚ but the Union members sat in silence‚ staring at each other.

"Christine‚ did you say that your friend‚ Carrie was also a musical theatre major?" Jessica asked‚ moving her rook to block Seth's queen from her King.

"Aha!" Seth said‚ stealing her unguarded rook with his queen. "Check."

"No‚ Carrie was our English Ed major‚" Christine said‚ drying her hands‚ wet from washing dishes.

"English Education?" Jessica asked‚ her eyes growing wide. "No one told me that." She sacrificed a knight to Seth's black pawn.

"Yeah. Her mom was an English teacher in some itty bitty hick-town in Central Illinois. Nokomis‚ I think. Something like that. Anyway‚ she wanted to follow in her mom's footsteps. So‚ she got the scholarships and got up here."

"Was she doing any research as to what her teaching career would be like after college?" Jessica questioned‚ sacrificing another piece.

"She was checking into the Union and things like that…" Christine stopped short. "Holy cow‚ the union!"

"What about the Union?"

"Jessica‚" Seth prompted. She mindlessly moved a bishop into the path of a hungry Rook.

"Well‚ she was going with her dad to the union meetings‚" Christine said. "She mentioned something about doing some work for Mrs. Williams."

"Some work? What kind of work?" Jessica asked‚ moving another knight to be devoured by one of Seth's.

"I don't know. She wouldn't say. She was really onto something‚ though. She had a meeting with someone the night she disappeared. I assume it was someone from the union. That's all she'd devoted her life to in those past few weeks. The union and that odd-ball work she was doing for Mrs. Williams."

"Check-mate‚" Seth announced‚ smugly‚ folding his hands over his belly.

"Are you sure she didn't say anything at all about the work she was doing for Eileen Williams‚ Christine?"

"I don't know. She might have‚" Christine thought for a moment. "No‚ I don't think so."

"Would she have written anything down somewhere?"

"Like what?"

"Any clues as to what she might be searching for?"

Christine shrugged. "No idea. She always wrote down all her appointments‚ though‚ on this huge desk calendar she hung in her dorm. I'm pretty sure it's still up if you want to see it. Her room-mate will let us in. She and I know each other from some of our classes."

"That would be great‚" Jessica said‚ her brain already whirling with the possibilities.

Amanda came into the room and placed a hand on Jessica's shoulder.

"Aunt Jess‚ it's getting pretty late. John should've been home hours ago."

"I'm sure he's fine‚ Amanda."

"Maybe you should have gone with him. You'd have been considerate enough at least to call! I hate waiting for a call from him! It's as though he doesn't know how to pick up a phone and dial!"

"He's always hated the phone‚ Mom‚" Christine spoke up. "Jessica's right‚ he's fine."

Yawning‚ Seth stood and announced that it was past his bedtime and that he would be heading up to bed‚ leaving the "womenfolk" to their own devices.

"I can hardly wait to talk crushes!" Christine had joked.

"Jessica‚" Amanda said‚ knocking on Jessica's door at an insanely early hour of the morning.

"Amanda?" Jessica asked‚ rubbing her eyes and glancing toward her clock. "Come in."

"I'm sorry to wake you‚ Jess…"

"It's fine‚ Amanda‚" Jessica interrupted‚ patting a vacant spot next to her.

"Oh! I see Christine's in here‚ too‚ eh?" Amanda asked‚ seeing Christine asleep on the chest that was set near the window.

"Yes‚ we were talking late. I think she's finally asleep."

"Jess! You're talking behind my back!" Amanda jested.

"Oh‚ but you're still my favorite‚" Jessica responded. "Come. Sit down. Tell me what's wrong."

"Does there have to be something wrong?"

"You're coming into my bedroom at 3 in the morning and you don't think I'm going to pick up on the fact that there's something wrong?"

"John's still not home‚" Amanda said‚ sitting on the bed and drawing her feet up under her.

"Where is he?" Jessica asked.

"I wish I knew‚" Amanda replied‚ biting her lip to fight back tears. "I knew he shouldn't have gone to that Union meeting…"

"I'm sure he's fine‚ Amanda‚" Jessica told her‚ placing a hand on Amanda's shaky ones. "We'll wait until about 7 and then‚ if he's not home‚ we'll go see Srgt. Malin."

"I'm just so scared‚ Jess. I don't want to lose him‚ now. I'm not ready to."

"You're never really ready to lose someone you care about."

"Oh‚ I know that. It's just…John is…he's what makes me feel alive. Being alone…that's not necessarily alive. And John---he's so marvelous. He's hilarious. He always knows exactly when to make a joke and when to be completely serious and comforting. He's perfect. He's my white knight."

"You know‚ your Uncle Frank was exactly the same way. There aren't many of them out there‚ but boy when you find a guy like that‚ you hold on to him."

"Exactly. It's just like…if he wasn't there‚ I…I wouldn't exist. I would just sort of…disappear into ether."

"And yet‚ every moment it's as though you can't breathe‚ because you want to freeze that moment in time forever and you're afraid if you breathe‚ it will ruin the picture you're trying to keep---the feeling you want to hold onto."

The two sat in silence‚ each lost in her own private thoughts‚ when they were each smacked with a pillow from behind.

"What's a slumber party without a pillow fight?" Christine asked‚ another jab at each of them with a pillow.

"Oh‚ and I suppose you think you're going to win‚ don't you?" Jessica asked‚ her eyebrows raised‚ a sparkle in her eyes.

"Who else?" Christine asked.

Amanda and Jessica glanced at each other before simultaneously bringing up their pillows and bombarding Christine with them.

"Sargent Malin‚ I'm trying to help you!" Jessica exclaimed in the Sargent's office the next morning. "And to do that‚ I need a list of the murder victims."

"I just don't see what you can do‚" he told her‚ digging through some papers on his desk.

"Finally! Someone who agrees with me‚" Seth said aloud‚ exasperated.

"Seth‚ you're not helping‚" Jessica whispered to him.

The Sargent dropped a file of papers and they scattered across the floor.

"Treguna Mekoides trecorum Satis dee!" he yelled‚ pointing at the papers. When everything in the room stood still‚ he shrugged and began picking up the papers. "It worked for Angela Lansbury‚" he mumbled under his breath. "Mrs. Fletcher‚ I just don't have time to share these things with you. I'm dealing with 6 murders that we believe are connected‚ and I've got 51 other cases that are‚ as of yet‚ also unsolved."

"The names‚ Sargent‚" Jessica remained steadfast in her request.

"Okay‚ there was‚ uhm…Carrie…what's her name? You already know about her---her dad was a Professor at Roosevelt‚ he was uhm…Richard‚ something…"

"The list?" Jessica asked.

"Here!" Sargent Malin said‚ frantically grabbing at a piece of paper from the floor. "Here‚ take it. Keep it. That can be your copy. Just go."

"Thank you‚ Sargent. This is more helpful than you know."

"Sargent! What are you doing?" Amanda said‚ bursting into the room. "My husband is missing‚ could be dead‚ and you're…searching through garbage!"

"Your husband's missing?" he asked‚ straightening immediately.

"Yes. He left last night for a union meeting and he's not yet come back‚" Amanda replied‚ more calmly.

"I wondered when the next one would show up. I'll get a team out looking for him. That's all I can do‚ Mrs. Magnall."

"Well‚ will you let me know if you…"

"We'll call you as soon as we find him‚ not a moment later."

"Ready Amanda?" Jessica asked‚ taking her arm.


"They'll call you when they catch up with him. In the meantime---what if he calls? Or goes home? Someone's got to be there to meet him‚" Seth suggested.

"Seth's right‚" Jessica said‚ Seth coming to her side. "Let's go home."

The three walked out of the Police station arm in arm‚ Seth's arm a little tighter around Jessica's than usual.

"Seth‚ I want to thank you‚" Jessica said‚ meeting Seth in the living room when they'd arrived back safely to the house on Casehill Road and Amanda had been settled in.

"For what?" Seth inquired.

"Coming to make sure I was all right. Keeping me out of trouble. The usual." Jessica shrugged.

"Jessica‚ did it ever occur to you that I came to Chicago simply to take a vacation?" Seth questioned‚ a twinkle in his eyes.

"Did you?" Jessica asked.

"I…No‚" he finally admitted‚ Jessica coming to sit next to him on the couch.

"Oh‚ Seth---Christine is so upset about the murders. John is missing; Amanda's lost without him. How can anyone involved in all this have a merry Christmas?" Jessica asked‚ her eyes growing misty. "Christmas isn't suppose to be ruined by murder."

Seth reached a stubby arm around Jessica and pulled her closer.

"Don't you remember what Frank said‚ Jessica? Christmas should be a reminder of what COULD BE‚ not what is."

"Thank you‚ Seth‚" Jessica sat‚ resting her head on Seth's shoulder and looking out the window conveniently resting in the wall before their eyes. Large snowflakes fell softly onto the already thick blanket of crisp‚ even snow on the ground outisde. "Wouldn't Frank have loved this Christmas? Look at all that snow. Every year Frank insisted that we go outside after the first snow and make snow angels. Every year. Well‚ until that last Christmas when he was sick. He still wanted to go out‚ but I wouldn't let him. I told him he'd be able to… 'next year'. He made me go out by myself and make a snow angel that he could see from our window."

"Ruth hated the snow. She'd rather have lived somewhere with less snow than Maine‚ I think‚ but she never complained. She never suggested going anywhere else to live."

Thus the conversation went‚ until there was a knock at the door.

"Mrs. Fletcher! Hello!" Emma Donnovan greeted, her usual cheery self. "Is John here?"

"No, I'm afraid not," Jessica told her.

"Oh? I thought for sure he'd be here. Where is he?"

"I haven't a clue."

"Did he come home last night?"

     It was then that Jessica saw a bit of a green, knitted stocking cap in the bushes-one she thought she'd remembered seeing before.

"Of course! Why wouldn't he have?"

"Just checking. As Vice-President of the Union, I felt that it was important that I come check."

"Of course. Yes, he's fine…just out."

"Well, could you have him call me when he gets in? I have to talk to him about Union business."

"Of course."

Thanks!" she called behind her, getting into her car.

Jessica stepped outside into the crisp, cool air, Seth following suit, holding her coat should she get cold. When Emma Donnovan had driven out of sight, Jessica walked over to the bush, bent over it and began to move the branches as though she were gardening.

"John," she whispered.

"Jessica," answered the bush. "Make sure there's no one around but you and Seth, so I can finally make it in the house to Amanda."

Jessica carefully searched the premises for little hidden eyes, even something as simple as the house across the street with open curtains. If John had been hiding in the bushes all night, there was a reason, and if he felt he needed to hide, he could be in danger.
When she'd made her way back to the bush, she continued her conversation with John.

"All clear," she whispered, still pretending to be adjusting the bush.

"Thanks, Jess," he whispered, and slowly crept behind the line of bushes to the porch and through the design in the railing of the porch, then crawled to the door. Seth, standing on the bottom step, nearly missed John until he heard the door creak closed behind him.

Moments later, Seth and Jessica were sent hurrying inside, hearing Amanda's scream.

"John! Good Heavens, John! You're alive!" They heard Amanda's voice from the kitchen.

Nearly frozen, with a rudolph-red nose to prove it, John got up from the kitchen chair and went to her, holding her tighter than he ever had before. Jessica and Seth made their way back to the living room to give the couple some privacy.

"John, I…I thought you'd been killed," Amanda said, a single tear rolling down her cheek. "And I'm not ready for that." She hugged him tighter.

"Hey, what's this?" he asked her, pulling away and wiping the tear from her cheek. "I told you I'd be back, didn't I?"

"But you didn't call; you didn't come home. What was I suppose to think?"

"I know. But I couldn't."

"Why?" Another tear rolled down her cheek.

"Are there any peanut butter sandwiches left?" John asked. "I'm starving."

"John…what happened last night?" A few more tears joined the one that had fallen to the floor.

"Amanda," he cooed, wrapping his arms around her again. "I'm here. And I'm fine. Let's not worry about last night. He would have moved to the counter himself to open the plastic bag with the leftover sandwiches, but Amanda clung to him, not willing to let go. "Everything's fine." He kissed the top of her head. "I love you."

Amanda looked up at him.

"I love you, too. That's why you can't keep doing that. I worry about you. Not knowing if you're dead or alive…I…"

"Good thing I'm not a secret agent," he interrupted. "Or am I?" he teased, raising his right eyebrow.

"Stop it," Amanda replied, pulling away and giving him a playful jab in the arm. He pretended to be in pain while Amanda retrieved the leftover sandwiches.


"Seth, I can't stand it, anymore. I have to go ask John about the union meeting," Jessica anxiously informed Seth, but he took her hand and held onto it. "You know that's not helping," she said after a few moments, her grin growing wider.

"Do you mind?" he asked, mischievously.

"Not too much," Jessica replied, laying her head on his shoulder. "What do you make of all this, Seth?"

"It's dangerous, that's for sure."

"Oh, Seth."

I'm not finished, woman. It's dangerous, and there's no way that I'm going to allow you to jump into something dangerous with your eyes closed."

"Seth, I'm not..."

"Jessica. I think you're going about this very wisely."

"Seth---did I just hear that come out of you?" Jessica asked, her eyes growing wide.

"As much as it pains me to say that, Jessica. I think you've been keeping yourself safe. Up to this point."

I knew there'd be the equivalent of a 'but' in there, somewhere."

"Jessica, it's getting more dangerous by the minute. Why can't you let the Sargent do his job and come back to Cabot Cove for Christmas? The snow's beautiful this year, and they've got the lights hung in town. Everyone's feeling Christmassy."

"Seth, I would, you know that. But Christine asked me to come because she wanted me to help. I can't go back to Cabot Cove without doing all I can to help."

Seth, overcome by a feeling he couldn't describe, was compelled to embrace Jessica, and did so. Jessica, shocked at his sudden forward actions, could do nothing but wrap her arms around his neck and let his embrace soak up the over-whelming emotions the current events were forcing to bubble inside her, and a tear spilled from the crystal pools in her eyes.

Christine and Kelly, arriving home from a day of shopping, passed Seth and Jessica in the living room and found John and Amanda in the kitchen.

"Did this house suddenly become a motel! The four of you are all over each other!" Christine exclaimed dramatically.

"Christine!" Kelly interrupted, then looked at Christine to find a wide, Cheshire cat grin crossing her face.

"Excuse me," Jessica said, coming into the kitchen, Seth in tow.

"Oh, Jess, I was just kidding," Christine told her.

"What's in the bag?" John asked, pointing to the bag Christine was holding.

"My last Christmas presents, thank you very much. And NO I'm not telling---one of them is yours." She stuck her tongue out and him and disappeared upstairs.

"Getting anywhere in this case, Mrs. Fletcher?" Kelly asked, not following Christine upstairs.

"I'm afraid not," Jessica replied. "Know anything that would come in handy?"

"Eileen Williams is missing."

"She's what?" Jessica asked, stunned.

"Missing. No one can find her."

"I knew I shouldn't have…" John stopped mid-sentence.

"What?" Amanda asked. "What shouldn't you have done?"

"I'd rather not talk about it right now, girlie. However, I do have to run out for a bit."

"Where are you going?" Amanda asked desperately.

"Trust me," John replied, squeezing her hand and planting a light kiss on her lips.  "I'll be back. Don't worry about me."

"How are you going to 'go out' and hide at the same time?" Jessica asked.

"No idea. But I have to risk it."

"Why? Why do you have to risk it? I don't see the wisdom in trading your life for hers. I see the nobility, but not the widsom."

"Amanda, she could be hurt, or dying. It's not fair of me to know where she is and not go help her."

"You know where she is?" Jessica's eyes widened.

"Yes," John answered casually, putting on his coat. "Doctor Hazlitt, would you be kind enough to come with me? As I said, she could be hurt---or dying. She may need medical attention."

"I'll go get my bag." Seth moved quickly up the stairs.

"Where is she?" Jessica asked. "And how do you know?"

"I can't tell you, just yet. Trust me, it's better that you don't know. Then, if anyone comes looking for her, you can answer truthfully." Just as John finished putting on his coat, gloves, and stocking cap, Seth came down the stairs, fully clad in his own winter apparel and carrying his black Doctor's bag.

"I don't like not knowing where you'll be," Jessica began. "It's dangerous. Anything could happen."

"It'll give you a taste of your own medicine, Jess," Seth chuckled, giving her a hug.

"Seth, this is serious. You're the one always complaining about me putting myself in danger, and now here you go, off to heaven knows where to put yourself in danger!" she fired back, but held onto him a little tighter.

"This could be the difference between catching the killer and letting him or her go free," John spoke up.

"But it's not your job!" Amanda and Jessica both said at once.

"We'll be fine," Seth told them both. "We're men." He kissed Jessica on the cheek one last time before heading out the door with John, into the cold, Chicago winter snow.

"Like that will do them any good," Kelly snorted, turning to go upstairs.

"Kelly!" Amanda called for her, when she'd gone halfway up the stairs. "You can't tell anyone anything you've just heard. Especially not Christine. She doesn't know anything about this, and I don't want her to."

"Sure thing, Mom."

Kelly! Where are you?" Christine called down the stairs. "I need your help!"

"Gee, I'm popular today!" Kelly said, running up the stairs.
* * *

"Jessica, I'm not sure I like this," Amanda told her, as they were cleaning up in the kitchen.

"I know the feeling," Jessica replied, taking another dish to the sink to be rinsed. "But, they are quite adept at taking care of themselves, and I'm sure that they know what they're doing."

"Are you saying that for my benefit or yours?"


"Haul out the Holllllllyyyyyyyy! Put up the tree before my spirit falls again! Fill up the stocking! It's time we hung some tinsel--on that...hmm hmm hmm hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!" Christine was singing on her way down the stairs, carrying her newly-wrapped packages to go under the tree. "Mom, you're insane, you know that?" she said, coming into the kitchen.

"Oh? Why's that?" Amanda asked jokingly.

"Because you have NINE presents under the tree," Christine teased.

"I guess somebody loves me," Amanda said smugly.

"I guess it's Dad!" Christine exclaimed. "Speaking of whom---where is the genius?"

"He went out with some friends," Amanda replied, turning back to her dishes. She got a nudge from Jessica.

"Why? It's five days before Christmas! We should be together as a FAMILY!" Christine gestured dramatically and hugged Kelly while she was speaking.

"All right, I dunno what you're doing, but get off me," Kelly mumbled, her head buried in Christine's brunette hair.

"Just funnin'," Christine bubbled. "I love Christmas! It's so happy! Families get together, you get presents, you put up lights, you SING! Oooh! Christmas should happen everyday! Especially this one! Aunt Jess, it's so awesome that you're here! It makes me feel so much Safe. Almost like nothing can touch us! You're our guardian angel!"

  Seeming to act as an omen, the star fell from the top of the Christmas tree as the doorbell rang.

"I'll get the door," Jessica said, handing the star to Amanda. "You work your magic with the star."

"Mrs. Fletcher," Charlotte Plank greeted as Jessica opened the door. "How are you?"

"Fine, thank you. Come in, Miss Plank."

Thank you, but I don't have much time. Is John around?"

"No, I'm afraid he's not. Can I give him a message?"

"Well, I suppose it's safe to tell you," Charlotte hesitated.

"Absolutely. Come in," Jessica stepped aside and closed the door behind Charlotte.

"I wouldn't want to be accused of being a gossip," Charlotte began. "But I did want to pass along word to John, because he asked, of course, that I've been going through the books and I've figured out how much money has been stolen from the union accounts."

"Oh? How much?" Jessica asked, her eyebrow raised.

"Two and half million," Charlotte told her, her own eyes widening.

"Have you told anyone else about this?" Jessica questioned.

"Not yet. John advised me not to tell Eileen Williams or Emma Donnovan, at least. But I think I'll let a few others in the union know. Mikale. A few of my friends there."

Could you do me a favor?" Jessica asked sweetly.

"Sure," Charlotte replied. "I'm always ready to be kind."

"Undoubtedly. Could you do me the favor of not telling anyone else in the union how much money has been taken?"

"Why? I mean, what would it hurt?"

"Well, right now, the only people who know how much money has been taken are you and the person who took it. The thief may make a mistake that we can catch. But, we can only know that if you keep the exact total to yourself."

"Oh, I see what you mean. How about if I tell them a wrong amount? Say, one and a half million instead of two and a half million?"

"That could work, too. Just make sure you don't tell anyone the real amount stolen."

"Right. You got it, Mrs. Fletcher. I hope this works!"

"Me too, Miss Plank. Me too," Jessica said, opening the door.

"Oh, call me Charlotte," the woman replied, smoothing her hair back into the tight bun it had been in before.

"Only if you call me Jessica," Jessica replied, shaking the woman's hand and closing the door after her, turning the lock.

"Who was it Aunt Jess?" Christine asked, coming in from the other room, bits of garland stuck in her hair.

"Charlotte Plank," Jessica said casually. "What happened to you?"

"The Christmas tree and I got into a fight. I won."

"That's good. I think."

"It is. We got the star back up!"


The two of them heard a light knock on the door.

* * *

Christine screamed, opening the door.

"'Scuse me, Jessica," Seth said, carrying John through the door with the aide of Eileen Williams.

"Dad! What happened?" Christine cried, leading the way into the living room.

"I'm fine, Christine. Go on upstairs with Kelly."

"But Dad…" Christine complained.

"Come on, Christi, let's go watch the Tony Awards from '86. Isn't that the year Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur performed Bosom Buddies?"

"Yeah. I guess that'll be all right."

"All right?" Kelly questioned, nearly dragging Christine up the stairs with her. "Are you kidding? What could possibly be better?"

Her voice faded as the girls finally made it up the stairs.

"Jessica?" Amanda asked, coming into the kitchen. "Who..."

"Hey girlie," John grinned, sliding his left leg under the table.

"John, what happened?" she asked, walking to him and kneeling next to him.

"I'm fine," he assured her, motioning for Seth to do the same.

"Oh, yeah, he'll be fine in a few weeks," Seth spoke up.

"Seth, what happened?" Jessica whispered.

"Patience, woman. All in good time."

Oh, forgive me," Amanda said, noticing Eileen Williams. "You're...Mrs. Williams, aren't you?"

"Yes. That's fine; I understand. Please, don't mind me. I don't want to be any trouble."

"No, it's no trouble. Would you like anything to eat? Anything to drink?" Amanda offered.

"Maybe just some water," Eileen Williams replied hesitantly.

"Are you sure? We've just made some soup, and I can tell by your bright red cheeks that you're cold," Amanda continued.

"Well, maybe just a little bit," Eileen conceded.

"Good," Amanda said smiling. "We can all have a nice bowl of soup, and the two of you can explain to me what's going on!"

* * *

"So, tell us what happened," Jessica began after everyone was seated at the table with a bowl of soup in front of them.

"Not much to tell," John replied, sliding a spoonful of soup into his mouth.

"Not much my foot!" Eileen Williams responded. "You know, you have one incredible husband, Amanda."

"I know," Amanda smiled. "Or at least...I used to. Excuse me," she said, rising from the table and making her way up the stairs.

John sighed. "I screwed that up, didn't I?"

"Maybe it was my fault. I probably shouldn't have said anything," Eileen suggested.

"I think that there's just a lot going on right now. She just needs a little bit of time to adjust, to know everything's fine," Jessica told them, smiling comfortingly.

"I hope so," John said, tasting some more soup.

They three sat in silence until John put down his spoon and began talking.

"After the union meeting last night, I got the feeling Eileen might be in trouble. I've had a bigger role in all of this than I've let you in on, Jessica. I hope you understand, though, that it could be dangerous for Amanda and Christine, and especially you, if I'd told you anything more than I have so far. I've been one of the ones helping her look into the disappearing act going on with the union funds. With a minor in Accounting, I was one of the ones going over the books. After the murders started happening, we were all very careful. But somehow---they still got to us. We're always very careful to let only people we trust know where we are when we meet to compare notes and such, but somehow..."

"They always found us," Eileen finished, sadly.

"Right. Last night, we were suppose to meet up privately after the union meeting, but when we got to our normal meeting place--it's a deserted office building on the other side of town--everything was amiss and we didn't want to risk anything. So, we agreed that we all needed hiding places. It sounds rather childish, I know, but whoever this killer is, Jessica, knows everything that's on file with the union---our families, our addresses, everything." John had picked up the tale. "So, I helped everyone hide---I'm sure that at some point I was being followed, but I think that I successfully escaped from the brooding eye of our tail. Anyway, we all arranged to meet up with each other today."

"That's why he was so concerned about me," Eileen added. "I couldn't get out of my spot this morning. I hid across the street from the office building, and I saw flickers of light occasionally in the window. Well, obviously, I couldn't risk anyone seeing me, so, I stayed put."

"I think I can finish it from here," Seth spoke up.

"You, Seth?" Jessica questioned.

"Yes. Remember, I did enter the story about this time," he replied smugly. "Anyway, John took me to find Eileen, as you know. But when we got there, found Eileen and checked to see that she was all right, John didn't check before stepping out into the open..."

"And I was shot," John finished. "It was my own fault. And the only real problem is that we didn't see who fired the shot. As Seth said, I'll be fine in a week or two."

"Assuming you stay off that leg," Seth barked. "It can't heal properly if you're hobblin' around on it."

"And you can't go to the hospital because whoever is after you might find out," Jessica keenly demised.

"However, they could also know that I'm here," John added, devastation mirrored in his voice.

* * *

  "Dad, why do you have to go?"
Christine questioned, holding tightly to John, who struggled to stay balanced.

  "Christi," John began, kissing the top of her head. He paused for a great while, seeming to want to say something, but holding back. With a sigh, he added, "I'll be back before you know it.

  "I don't like this idea, John," Jessica said, her turn to give him a goodbye hug.

  "I know, but it's for the best."
  Seth came and slid an arm around Jessica's waist.

"You've been awfully quiet," John added, turning toward Amanda.

  "You've heard what I have to say about this, John," Amanda replied angrily. "You're not taking that into consideration at all."

  "Amanda," John again spoke, hobbling over to her on his crutches. "I am taking it into consideration. That's why I'm leaving."

  Amanda threw her arms around his neck, her eyes over-flowing with the tears that had been stinging her eyes.

  "Shh. It'll be fine," John reassured her, running his fingers softly through her hair.

  "I just can't help it," she wimpered, still holding tightly to him. "If you don't come back..."

  "I'll be back in a few days to check on you and the girls. That's a promise."

  Christine looked away, embarrassed at her parents' long kiss in the middle of the family room.

  "Get a room!" she jested, tossing a pillow from the couch at them, but purposely missing by several feet.

  "Okay, okay, I'm leaving!" John laughed.

  Then, kidding Amanda's forehead, he wobbled out the door and into a taxi.

* * * *

  "...then someone grabbed me from behind, and you guys all showed up to save the day..."

  Jessica was reading the statements the police had taken from Christine.

"See, Mrs. Fletcher, there's nothing unusual there. There's nothing to go on," Sargent Malin told her, frustrated.

  "Maybe there is, Sargent," Jessica replied, straightening her reading glasses, and re-reading the sentence aloud. "Then someone grabbed me from behind, and you guys all showed up to save the day."

  "So? What does that tell you? That we got there in time to save her." Sargent Malin leaned against the back of his chair.

  "No, it tells me that Christine wasn't sure at the time if the killer was a man or a woman."


  "She said, 'someone,' had grabbed her from behind. Not 'a man'. Not 'a woman'.  Someone."

So, what? We should...start over? Mrs. Fletcher, this is not the only case to come across my desk."

  "Maybe we don't have to start over completely, Sargent," Jessica suggested. "Do you by any chance have a way of obtaining information about all the members of the union?"

  "What kind of information?"

  "The normal. What kind of car they drive. Income. What grade or grades they teach. Family members. Any of them have connections to each other?"

  Sargent Malin stared in Jessica's general direction for what seemed to her like an unnecessarily amount of time, staring blankly into nothingness. Surfacing from his thoughts, he sighed and acquiesced. "I'll have my partner do some checks."

  "Oh, thank you, Sargent Malin," Jessica smiled widely at him.

  After a shorter pause, he added. "Don't make me regret this, Mrs. Fletcher."

* * * *

   "So, Christine, what made you decide to go into Musical Theatre?" It was Seth's voice to float across the kitchen to her. "Rather than, say, become a doctor."

"Oh, but, see, if I go into musical theatre I can PRETEND to be a doctor," she told  him with a grin. "Aunt Jess you want anything to eat while I'm over here?"

"What?" Jessica asked, looking over the top of her reading glasses from the files she'd been studying. "No, no, thanks."

"Come on, Jess, you have to eat something. Keep your strength up," Seth interjected his expert, but unwelcome advice.

"Seth, I can't help put think that I'm over-looking something!" Jessica told him, frustrated.

"You can't solve all the world's problems, Jessica."

"I know that."

"Do you? Sometimes I wonder."

"Seth, you don't understand. Christine asked for my help. Amanda's nerves are in shambles! This is more than trying to solve a murder so that people can walk around Cabot Cove in peace. This is my family."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Calm down, Aunt Jess," Christine interrupted, setting a plate in front of Seth and setting down a cup of tea for herself. "I didn't ask for your help so you could get all stressed out."

"I'm sorry, Christine. I only want you, Amanda and John to be out of danger."

"Aunt Jess, we know that. But we also know that you can't protect us from the world."

"I just want to help."

"And you have," Christine hugged her great Aunt and smiled. "Love you."

"Love you, too," Jessica replied.

"So, what have you gotten from these files?" Christine asked, sitting down to her tea and taking part of the stack of papers from Jessica.

"Well, not much, other than what we already knew," Jessica responded, dismayed.

"Well, we'll just have to take another look, then, won't we?" Christine asked, handing some of her papers to Seth. "Here, Seth, take a look at these."

"But I…I… But…" Seth stammered. "I don't know what I could learn from these…"

"Just read them. They're great reading material," Christine told him. "Don't you ever hang around the gossippers in Cabot Cove?" She was joined in laughter by Jessica.

Seth and Christine exchanged pleasant grins and continued jesting.

Jessica’s face turned sullen, and in the midst of a friendly embrace, Christine and Seth watched her as she finished reading a piece of paper.

“What’s wrong, Jess?” Seth finally asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“Nothing, yet.”

Then why the long face?” Christine queried.

“Well, I need to go visit some people again.”

Now?” Christine asked, surprised.

“Yes. Right now. Christine, could you give me a lift?”

“Sure,” Christine shrugged, tossing a confused glance at Seth. “Where we goin’?”

To interrogate the suspects,” Jessica told her, walking out the door.

Christine gave her a mock salute and followed her out to the garage, hearing Seth’s chuckle behind her all the way.
* *
“I don’t understand, Aunt Jess. It can’t be Eileen Williams, can it? I mean, she was the one Dad went out to save. Why would Dad do that to protect a murderer?”

“No, I think we can eliminate Eileen Williams from our list of suspects. Watch out!” Jessica cried out as a silver Mercedes pulled out in front of Christine into the street.

Christine slammed on the breaks just in time to avoid a collision with the Mercedes. Seth, in the back seat, was grumbling the whole time about teenagers and their driving habits.
Jessica, while placing her hands flat on the dashboard of Christine’s older Mercury Topaz, kept her head and examined the license plate. 491 3236.

“Idiot,” Christine mumbled after they were riding smoothly again. “It doesn’t happen very often, but every time it does, it makes me feel like such a horrible driver—like I’m not watching out like I should be. Sorry, Seth. Aunt Jess.”

That’s perfectly all right, Christine,” Jessica encouraged. “You’re doing just fine.”

“If I knew that twit, I’d give him what for!” Seth spoke up.

“Funny you should mention that,” Christine said. “It looked like Miss Donnovan’s car.”

“Miss Donnovan? The one that works with your father?”

And is Vice President of the teacher’s union.”

“Christine, do you know where she lives?”

“Yeah, it’s only about 10 minutes from here.”

Would you mind driving us there?”

Sure. But I have to get gas, first. This thing gets pretty good gas mileage,” she said, patting the dash. “But I do have to fill ‘er up once in a while. I just hate to think the chunk it’s going to make in my paycheck,” she added, playfully wincing for effect.

* *
“Jessica,” Seth began when they’d reached the nearest BP station and Christine had climbed out of the car to pump the gas. But he didn’t continue.

“What is it, Seth?” she questioned.

“Be careful.”

“Seth, I’ll be fine.” The tone of her voice sounded to Seth as though it contained a hint of annoyance.

“Jessica, I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I know that, Seth. And I appreciate it. But nothing’s going to happen just to talk to people. I’ve done this a few times before.”

“I know nothing’s going to happen to you. Because I’m going with you.”

You’re what?” Jessica’s eyes grew large.

“That’s right. Going with you.”

“Seth, I know you want to protect me, but the fact is---you can’t. Not from everything.”

“But I can try.” His position on the matter seemed never to waiver, so Jessica offered her last excuse.

“How am I suppose to explain your presence? I mean, you can’t be a brother---we’re too close in age.”

* **

Christine pulled up the circle drive to a large victorian house, a silver mercedes in the grass. The license plate was missing.

"Oh, I love this house!" Christine said, driving slowly around the circle to the front door. "It's so beautiful!"

"I wonder what a nice two-story Victorian costs these days," Jessica commented.

"A small fortune," Seth offered, trying to follow her train of thought.

"Okay, let's go," Christine said, gently guiding the car into park.

"Let's go?" Jessica asked.

"Yeah. Let's go," Christine unbuckled her seatbeat and began to get out of the car when she felt Jessica's hand on her arm.

"No. You have a different job. You need to come back to pick us up in a half an hour. Meanwhile, I need you to go hunt down Sargent Malin. He should be at the station."

"But Aunt Jess! This is so exciting! Interrogating suspects!"

I know. But we need a driver, too. So you'll have to settle for the less exciting job."

"Oh, fine. Good luck, Aunt Jess. Be careful. You too, Seth."

Not to worry. We'll be fine," Jessica said, getting out of the car.

"See you in a half an hour!" Seth told her as they turned around to walk to the door.

"I'll just make sure you get in all right. Signal me or something."

"All right," Jessica told her. "But then you have your job to do."

"I know. I know."

* * *

"Mrs. Fletcher," Emma Donnovan greeted cheerfully as she opened the door to find Jessica and Seth. "And who is this?" she gestured toward Seth.

"Him?" Jessica asked, a desperate attempt to buy time.

"I'm Frank," Seth stated calmly. "Frank Fletcher."

"My husband," Jessica added, feeling Seth's hand encouragingly squeeze her own.

"Oh?" Emma questioned "That's funny. I thought John mentioned you were widowed."

"WEll, we thought we lost him once. It's a long story," Jessica offered.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Forgive my manners! Will you come in?"

"If it's no trouble," Jessica began. "We'd love to."

"No trouble at all. It's a big house. I actually get a little lonely, sometimes. Please, follow me."

  Jessica looked at Christine, waiting in her car in the big circle drive and waved her on. Jessica watched as the white Mercury Topaz drove away and a gray cloud bloated above the old victorian.

"I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you," Jessica said, closing the door behind Seth.

"That's perfectly all right, Mrs. Fletcher. I've been expecting you," came a male voice from the shadows.

Jessica and Seth heard the latch of the door lock as thunder rang out above them.


"Hey girlie---tomorrow's Christmas," John said, hobbling over to where Amanda was sitting.

"Seems like a hollow promise this year, don't you think?" she replied from her spot by the window.

"Not at all. We've got each other. We've got beautiful children. Aunt Jessica is here and the good Doctor. What more could you need?"

"John, I want to understand," she told him, but stopped short and continued her trance, watching the snow fall softly outside her window.

"Amanda, I'm trying to make you understand, but I don't know what you want to hear."

"I just want to know why you're putting your life at risk like you are. I want to understand why you're so willing to die and leave Christine and I here to mourn you." She turned her head away from John and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I can't lose you, John. I don't know what I'd do. I don't know how I'd pick up the pieces of my life and move on, because I don't think there would be any pieces left. I love you." Her face was moist from her tears when John sat next to her and cradled her in his arms. She clung to him.

"I love you, Amanda. More than anything. But I can't sit back and allow others to get hurt. It's not because I have a death wish, or because I want to leave you. You can understand that, can't you? You wouldn't sit back and do nothing if Jessica were in trouble, would you? I do love you, but I'm not going to leave you anytime soon."

Amanda slowed raised her head to look him in the eye, a single tear rolling down her left cheek. "Promise?"

He gently tilted her chin up and drew her into a loving kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck and returned the kiss, content and safe in his arms.

"Mom! Dad!" Christine's voice floated up the stairs.

"Well, is that why we had children? I wasn't good enough at ruining the moment, eh?" John asked, grinning.

"Mom! It's Aunt Jess! I think she's been kidnapped!" Christine said, running up the stairs and stopping at her parents' open door, gasping for air.

* * *

Jessica awoke and found herself in a large, dark room.

"Seth?" she asked, her voice shaky. She couldn't remember many of the events that led her to this moment, but she was sure that she had remembered Seth by her side, and she knew that if he had tried to play the gallant soldier, as he was apt to do, he may have been hurt in whatever it was that had found her in this particular room.

"Seth, are you there?" she called out again, this time summoning enough of herself to call out louder. She heard a ruffling sound to her right and then what sounded like the squeaking of mice. "I don't suppose one of you is named Seth," she remarked, more to herself than the critters she knew were keeping her company in the room.

She sat up straight, blinking in an effort to adjust to the darkness. Instead, she found herself staring into a black ocean of nothingness. "Come on, woman," she told herself. "What have you gotten yourself into this time? Where are you?"

The answer came from a stack of cardboard boxes falling, almost on top of her, revealing a bit of a small, dirty window. The window, though caked with dust, allowed for a pool of light to bathe the room, as if it were a soft summer day. She walked over to the sliver of light, careful not to trip over anything that might be in her path, and removed a box from it's place on top of an old wooden chest. Though the window was merely half a foot long and half a foot wide, the small room was then filled with light, allowing Jessica to recognize the objects with which she'd been occupying the room. An old wooden rocking chair sat in the corner pile, amidst other bits of old furniture probably made for pennies when originally crafted, but now worth thousands of dollars.

"Of course!" she said aloud. "The attic! But still no sign of Seth," she worried.

  Continuing to search the room while trying to adjust to the minimal light, Jessica spotted what she thought must have been the attic door. Or at least, hidden behing a terrible large stack of giant, heavy boxes, she assumed would be the door. But there had to be another way in and out---for how could someone stack the boxes there and still leave the room? Or maybe they hadn't LEFT the room at all. Jessica suddenly became chilly and goosebumps started to appear on her arms.

* * *

"She's WHAT?" Amanda nearly screamed, startled for both herself and her Aunt.

"She told me to drop her and Seth off at Emma Donnovan's and then go visit Sargeant Malin and pick her up in a half an hour. I did that, but when I went back, I waited for nearly a half an hour before I realized something HAD to have been wrong! There's a terribly scary looking cellar door not far from where I parked my car. I went investigating over by that and I heard noises coming from inside the cellar. They could be there," Christine said most of this quickly, and without breathing, requiring her to stop and take a few deep breaths afterward.

"What are we going to do?" Amanda asked, half to herself, half to the other two in the room.

"YOU are not going to worry about it," John spoke up. "We'll call Sargeant Malin and tell him all that we know."

"Are you sure?" Christine asked. "I mean, what if Jessica KNEW that Sargeant Malin was in on it, and that he wouldn't be in his office?"

"He wasn't in his office?" John questioned.


"Well, that doesn't necessarily mean he has anything to do with this," John told them.

"But it means that he COULD," Amanda spoke up. "I never liked him and his...his...sneaky-ness!"

"Calm down, Amanda. We don't know anything, yet." Turning to Christine he added, "Do you know if Jessica kept any notes on this?

"Probably not, but I've been eavesdropping a lot, lately. What do you want to know?"

"Christine!" Amanda scolded.

"Well, how else am I suppose to find out what goes on around here? Nobody ever TELLS me!"

"Okay you two, enough," John interrupted. "Now, what do you know, Christine?"

"Well, for starters, Charlotte Plank stopped by the other day to tell you how much money had been taken from the union accounts. Jessica asked her not to tell so that if anyone DID know the exact amount, we would know who to investigate further. Although, I guess now we know, anyway..."

"Do you remember the amount, Christine?"

"Yeah, two---"

"No, no.
Don't tell me," John interrupted. "Just remember it. I'll call a meeting of the union members."

"Emma Donnovan's not going to be there..." Amanda suggested.

"She will if she doesn't want to be suspected."

"But what do we do between now and the meeting?" Christine asked. "Something could happen between now and then!"

"We'll look for anything Jessica may have written down or alluded to--maybe she did something without even knowing," John said, starting to get up.

"Oh, no you don't," Amanda said, gently sitting him back down. "You sit tight. Christine and I will look around."

"Amanda, I--"

"YOU, are going to sit there and recover. Christine and I are quite capable of searcing for anything Jessica may have left behind."

"Hey, what about all the stuff I've heard?" Christine asked.

"You stay here with your father and make sure he sits there," Amanda said, turning to leave.

"Amanda---,"John started.

She turned to face him.

"Thank you."

She smiled a sparkling white, ear-to-ear smile at him and hummed her way down the hallway.

* * *

  A groan from the direction of the door landed on Jessica's ears.

"Who's there?" she tentatively called out.

"In you go," a voice said as the door opened, despite the heavy boxes, and a figure was pushed into the room, falling on the floor and remaining still. The door slammed shut, and Jessica jumped. The figure on the floor simply lay there, unsurprised and unaffected by the loud banging of the door and the key turning in the lock.

"Seth?" Jessica asked, frightened, making her way toward the figure. No response.

"Seth!" she called out, falling to her knees at his side. "Seth, what have they done to you?" Clear pools collected in her eyes, and she had to force herself to focus. She gently rolled him over and lay her head on his chest, listening for a heartbeat and trying to keep the tears from spilling onto her cheeks. "I shouldn't have let you come with me. Now both of our lives are in danger."

The pools in her clear, blue eyes over-flowed and spilled, making multiple paths down her cheeks and creating a few large, wet spots on Seth's, now tattered and torn, shirt.

* * *
"Now, if I were Jessica, how would I hide clues?"
Amanda asked herself aloud, making her way to Jessica's room.

  But a search through Jessica's belongings proved fruitless.

"There has to be SOMETHING," she continued, another glance toward the closet.

* * *
"Sargent Malin!
Where have you been?" John asked, the telephone receiver to his ear.

Christine sat, silently, eyes wide, staring at her father, trying to listen.

"Why can't you be like Grandma and have the phone turned up so loud I can hear it across the room!" she whispered to her father.

John gestured to her to be quiet, and she quickly calmed down.

"Jessica's been kidnapped," John said calmly into the phone. A short pause. "Sometime this afternoon. Christine dropped her off at Emma Donnovan's and when she went back to get her, she never came out...well, no she didn't go in and check; she's got more sense than to confront a criminal by herself!...I really think you need to get your people on this...Her salary? Probably the same as mine...No, no it's not much. What are you getting at, Sargent?...Jessica asked about it?"

"The mercedes!" Christine shrieked. "Dad! It HAS to be her!"

"One minute, Sargent," John said, pulling the phone away from his ear. "What are you talking about, Christine?"

"Emma Donnovan and her new mercedes! Even with your salary added to Mom's we could never afford that! And that huge Victorian she has---it had to have been expensive. Where did she get the money? Where else? The union funds! Jessica decided last minute that she wanted me to take her there! Right after a silver mercedes almost ran into us!" Christine was speaking quickly again, and this was the first chance she had to take a breath.

"Sargent do you and your men have plans for this evening, say, around 8?" John said, picking up the phone again.

* * *

"A ha!" Amanda exclaimed, pulling a folder from it's place on the shelf. "The police files..." She skimmed over them in search of anything Jessica may have made notes next to. "Why can't you EVER make notes, Jess?"

"Mom!" Christine said, jumping onto the bed. "Did you find anything?"

"No. I'm afraid not. Any ideas?" Amanda questioned.

"Well, we figured out whodunnit. Emma Donnovan. But then, I guess that was pretty obvious. Anyway, that's where all the money's been going. But now she's got Jessica. Do you think she'd...?"

"I don't know, Christine. You know, I'm not too sure about her. I mean, I believe she could take the money. But theft is one thing. Murder is quite another. I'm wondering if maybe she didn't have an accomplice."

"But who?"

I'm not sure."

A moment of silence passed between the two.

"Did you find anything there?" Christine asked, indicating the files Amanda was holding.

"No. I was hoping Jessica would have made notes or something."

"Where's the other one? I'll help."

"What other one?"

"The other folder. I'm pretty sure Sargent Malin let Jessica bring home two folders of information about everyone in the union."

"That's the only one here," Amanda said, rummaging through the other things on the shelf.

* * *

  Jessica still sat in the attic, Seth's head resting in her lap, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"Seth, can you hear me?" she whispered, desperately, again. He seemed to move, but, she was unsure of whether he had actually moved, or if it was just a hopeful hallucination. "Seth, please. You've just got to wake up!" She slight shifted her position and leaned against one of the heavy boxes piled against the wall, oblivious, now, to the rats and other creatures sharing the house.

* * *

"What do you mean, 'That's the only one here!' There's GOT to be another one. It had all the information about the teachers from Dad's school in it!" Christine told her mother, excitedly. "It's probably important---it's GOT to be there!"

"It's not here, Christine. Calm down, though. We'll find it. It's got to be around here somewhere," Amanda suggested.

A short ring of the phone caused both Amanda and Christine to jump, and then stand in the middle of the room, frozen.

"Who could that be?" Amanda asked.

"What if it's Jessica?" Christine said, turning to run to her parents' room, Amanda close at her heels.

"What if it's Sargant Malin telling us that they FOUND Jessica..."Amanda suggested, and they both stopped, frozen in the hallway.

"Hello," they heard John answer, "Magnall Residence."

"Who is it?" Amanda asked, as they entered the room to see John on the phone.

"Shhh!" Christine suggested, cupping a hand to her ear.

"Why, yes, Doctor Savage, he's staying here...he did?...No, he's not here right now. Can I take a message for him?...oh?...Well, yes, I will have to report that...How did you?...Oh, well, I couldn't ask a magician to reveal his secrets. Thank you, Doctor Savage; I'll let him know." John hung up the phone and glanced up to see the puzzled expressions on the faces of his wife and daughter.

"I suppose you want to know what that was all about," he grinned.

"No, not all," Christine suggested sarcastically.

"Doctor Savage? Is it about Jessica? Is she all right?" Amanda asked.

"No, now, girlie. Those are all very good questions. I'm just trying to decide whether or not I should share this information with you."

* * *


  Jessica awoke to a voice that sounded familiar, but distant.

"Jess, are you okay? Did they hurt you?" Seth asked, looking at up her.

Jessica thought for a brief moment that it had all been a dream. That horrible Victorian Mansion. Being locked in the attic. Seth, poor Seth, arriving in the attic, beaten and barely breathing. She yawned, quickly, and then she silently lectured herself for falling asleep for any length of time. She was over-whelmed by relief that Seth was all right, and feeling terrible for dragging Seth into the mess she had gotten them into, and, she was afraid, wouldn't be able to get out of.

"Seth! Seth, you're all right!" she cried, now fully awake, and gently kissing his forehead. "I'm so sorry! Not just that I fell asleep, but...but that you've been drug into this, and you're obviously hurt terribly, and I feel as though it's all my fault and I..." Jessica's run-on sentence, a rare occurence, prompted a response from Seth.

"Shhhhhh. Stop," Seth told her, holding his hand to her mouth, as though she needed a gesture as well. "Woman, do you honestly think I'd let you go through all this alone?"

"But I didn't THINK before I just drug you into something was terribly irresponsible and I..."

"You didn't drag me into anything---except the city of Chicago."

"But I..."

"Could you STOP talking and listen to me for five minutes?" Seth asked her, struggling to sit up. "I chose to come with you. I chose to protect you. I chose to fight back. You, even as stubborn as you are, couldn't have stopped me. They were after YOU, Jessica. I had to do something."

Seth, sitting up, painfully, by this point, leaned against one of the heavy boxes and pulled Jessica close to him, where he held her.

"How could you do that for me, Seth? Look at you!'ve been nearly killed! There's no excuse for that!"

"I didn't do it for you, Jessica. I did it for me. Because if I hadn't, they would have killed you. And if they'd have killed you, I would have had to have begged them to kill me, too. I couldn't get out of here without knowing you were at my side."

"Oh, or I Seth!" Jessica cried, gently hugging him.

"I love you, Jessica," he told her, kissing the top of her head, which was now buried in his dislocated shoulder.

"I love you, too, Seth," she replied, her tears forming more dark spots on Seth's shirt.

* * *

“Then he has to be the accomplice!” Christine practically screamed when John had finished relating to them the information he received during the phone call. “We have to find him!”

“Whoa, calm down, Christine,” Amanda insisted. “Where would we start?”

Well, we can’t just SIT here!” Christine wailed.

“We could start by calling Sargeant Malin,” John interjected.

“Well, let’s do it, then!” Christine suggested anxiously.

“Are we sure he’s not involved, though?” Amanda added. “I mean, how does all this happen under his nose?”

The three sat in silence for a moment, debating the possibilities on their own.

“We’ll have to chance it,” John finally declared. “He’s our only hope.”

* * *

“What do we do from here, Jess?” Seth asked when she had finished crying, and his hands were tightly holding hers.

“I don’t know, Seth,” she answered sadly. “I just don’t know.” She laid her head on Seth’s shoulder, again, her forehead creased in thought.

“Come, now, Jess, cheer up.”

“I can’t help it, Seth. What are we going to do? Why isn’t anyone looking for us? And if they are looking for us, how are they going to know where to look? Christine left us here, of course, so it would be logical to look here, but what if they already have and since they didn’t see us, they assumed we’d gone somewhere else on our own?”

Calm down, Jess. They’ll find us,” Seth said smugly.

“How do you know, Seth? How can you be so sure?”

Don’t think I haven’t learned anything from you, Jess,” he grinned.

“Seth! What have you got up your sleeve?” Jessica asked, the sparkle returning to her eyes.

“How else do you find someone?” He paused to give Jessica a chance to answer, but she merely looked, wide-eyed at him, her eyes becoming brighter by the minute. “I left clues, of course!”

* * *

“Did you check Emma Donnovan’s?” Sargeant Malin asked, as Christine, Amanda, John and he were standing around in Jessica’s room.

“Are you insane? They could just take us all as prisoners and we’d just vanish from the face of the earth!” Christine exploded, rather loudly.

“Calm down, Miss Magnall. We have to start somewhere.” The Sargeant turned to Amanda. “Would she have left any clues as to her train of thought? Written anything down anywhere?”

“I’m not quite certain, Sargeant. I mean, she was usually investigating on her own, and I don’t think she took notes. She has a wonderful memory.”

“What about the guy who came here with her? Doctor…Hazlitt?”

“Seth!” Christine interjected. “He had all those files, remember? I wondered why Aunt Jess didn’t have them! What if he was making notes in the margins or something? We shoul---“ but her last few words were lost to them as she left the room, presumably moving to Seth’s room. The tiny contingent that was left followed her down the hallway.

“Have you looked in his room, yet?” the Sargeant inquired.

“Well, yes,” John replied. “But we didn’t find anything. Actually, the girls were in the process of doing that when I got the phone call I told you about.”

“Ah, yes!” Sargeant Malin interrupted. “My guys should be apprehending Mr. Tsuckerman as we speak. How was it exactly you come across the information about his green card?”

“Well, it was the strangest thing. We got a call from Doctor Savage. Apparently he did his residency under Seth, and so Seth called in a few favors of him. One of those favors was to see if he had patient files for Tsuckerman. Anyway, when Doctor Savage typed the name into his computer, well, he got the alert about the non-existent green card.”

“So, would it be fair to say that Doctor Hazlitt suspected him?” the Sargeant asked.

“I don’t know. It’s possible,” John suggested. “But not having a green card and being an accomplice of a murderess gone kidnapper isn’t exactly the same thing. The two could be completely unrelated.”

“So, you’re saying they may have been doing checks on everyone and…that’s just the only problem they found?”

“It’s possible.”

“Jessica’s very thorough,” Amanda finally spoke up. “She wouldn’t leave out anything.”

“Then where’s all the information?” Malin asked.

“And specifically the missing file…” John mentioned.

“It’s not like there are THAT many hiding places around here, Dad,” Christine added.

“And where has he been in the house that he would know well enough to hide something?” Amanda asked them all.

“No where, really,” Christine began. “I mean, he and Jess spent most of their spare time here playing chess!” She stopped immediately after the word, “chess”, and froze in place. “Of course! The chessboard!” She turned on her heels and ran toward the stairs.

“Christine!” Amanda called after her. “Where are you going?”

To retrieve the missing file!” she called, running down the stairs.

* * *

“Remember the file we had that led you to the conclusion about Emma and her accomplice?” Seth asked Jessica.

“Yes. But how…?” Jessica stuttered.

“I made notes in the margins,” Seth declared.

“So now what?” Jessica asked him, relaxing a bit.

“Now, we wait,” Seth told her, kissing the top of her head and then leaning his head back against the wall, his arm still tightly around Jessica.

* * *

“Christine what on earth are you talking about?” Amanda asked after catching her breath when she finally arrived downstairs.

“Remember how Aunt Jess wrote me that letter about the chess board she bought for Seth at some…auction?”

“That auction in New Orleans?” John asked.

“Right!” Christine sat next to the chessboard and pulled it onto her lap, examining it. “It was when I was reading that Nancy Drew book, remember? The one with all the secret passageways and hiding places?”

Every Nancy Drew book ever written,” John mumbled.

“Anyway, she told me that she had bought Seth a chessboard years prior to that in New Orleans. She solved a murder there with Harry McGraw.” She continued to turn the chessboard different directions and examine the sides. “And there was a secret hiding place in it that played a key role in that mystery.”

“Didn’t they find some sort of hidden papers or something?” Amanda asked, trying to recall the story.

“I don’t remember. It’s not important,” Christine responded. “The important part is HOW did they get it open?”

“Well, how do you know that’s the one?” John asked.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Christine asked him. “She said it’s Seth’s favorite.”

“She’s got a point,” Amanda added.

“But how did they get it open?!” Christine yelled, frustrated.

* * *

“Perfect,” Emma Donnovan said into her telephone. “Yes, they’re still up there. I don’t think they’ve realized yet that they could get out if they just looked around…Have you heard anything, yet?…You will NOT!…Because if you do, I’ll turn you into the police. Don’t think for a moment that I won’t. You stay there and mind the phone! And notify me the minute you hear from them!” She slammed the phone into its cradle. “Now, to head to that union meeting.”

* * *

“Is there a button on the side or something?” Sargent Malin asked, crowding in with the others around the chessboard.

“What about tapping a series of spaces?” Amanda suggested.

“It would take all day to figure out which spaces!” John told her.

“And what order to tap them,” Sargent Malin.

“Would you all just BACK UP?” Christine yelled, frustrated. But as she said it, she grabber the chessboard by the King’s spaces and a drawer popped out. Amanda gasped, and Christine stood there, dumbfounded.

“Looks like you found it, Christine,” John chuckled.

“What’s in it?” Sargent Malin asked.

“It’s some kind of…note…” Christine said, digging in the drawer for the piece of paper.

“What kind of note?” Amanda asked.

Christine silently read the note and dropped both the note and the chessboard to the floor.

“What, Christine?” John asked.

“What is it?” Sargent Malin spoke up.

“It’s…a ransom note,” Christine told them.

“A random note?” Amanda asked, concerned.

“From whom?” John added.

“The point of a ransom note is for it to be anonymous,” Christine told her father, in a tone that told him he should have already known that.

“Of course, but, who COULD it be from?” he asked her.

“Well, I DID leave her at Emma Donnovan’s…” Christine said.

“Is that too easy?” Amanda asked. “I mean, it seem like it would have to be someone else. She’s not THAT stupid, is she?”

“She’s trying to keep Jessica and Seth hostage. I’d say she pretty much qualifies for idiot of the year,” Christine told her mother.

“All right. Enough,” John looked at his watch. “Listen up. Here’s what I suggest…”

* * *

Charlotte, do you know why this meeting was called?” Emma Donnovan asked, sitting in her chair at the meeting.

“No idea, Emma,” Charlotte replied.

“I heard it was because they’re going to accuse the murderer,” Eileen Williams interjected.

“That’s ridiculous. One of us?” Emma asked.

“It’s go to be!” Charlotte added. “Who else would know…?”

Know what?” Emma asked, after Charlotte’s sentence had trailed off.

“I’d better not say,” Charlotte said, backing down.

“Where’s Tsukerman?” Eileen asked. “Shouldn’t he be here, too?”

“Oh! He called me,” Emma explained. “He’s tied up. He can’t make it.”

“Tied up, huh?” John said, entering the room on his crutches and taking his seat, Sargent Malin behind him.

“Yes,” Emma said arrogantly. “He’s flooded with grading finals. He’s put it off, again, and so he has to get it done.”

But tomorrow’s Christmas! Surely he’s not planning on working, then?”

“That’s why he has to work tonight,” Emma explained, smoothly.

“Are you sure it’s homework he’s working on?” John asked. “He’s not…guarding prisoners?”

“And just what are you suggesting, John?” Emma asked him.

“Only that Jessica Fletcher and Seth Hazlitt are missing, and they were last seen going into your house.”

“Well, yes, there were there this afternoon, but, they left shortly after they arrived. They called for a taxi and drove God knows where.”

“I don’t think so,” John said. “I think you know exactly where they are. Because I think they’re somewhere in your house.”

“Well, you’d be hard pressed to prove it,” Emma stared coldly at him.

“Is this why we’re all here?” Charlotte asked. “Because Emma has Jessica Fletcher?”

No,” John told her. “Actually, we’re here to discuss how much money has been stolen from the union funds.”

“Are we still on that,” Emma mumbled. “That two million is old news.”

“Who has it?” Eileen asked.

“Where is it?” Charlotte Plank asked.

“Wait a minute,” John began. “Those are all very good questions. But I have one for you all, first.”

“What?” Eileen asked.

“Does anyone, besides Charlotte, know the exact amount of the stolen money?” John asked, slowly.

“Wasn’t it 400,000?” Eileen asked.

“That’s what I heard!” Someone else added.

“Me, too!” came another voice.

“No,” Emma said. “It was two million.”

“Good guess,” Charlotte told her.

“It was you all along, wasn’t it?” Eileen asked Emma.

* * *

“Seth, are you all right?” Jessica asked after she had paced the floor for a while.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked her, but she could tell it was laborious for him.

“Seth, you’re lying to me.”

“Jessica,” he paused for a breath. “I’m…perfectly fine. Why don’t you take a nap? Pass the time faster.”

“Seth, I don’t want to take a nap. I want to make sure you’re okay. Is there anything I can do?”

“I can’t ignore that fire in your eyes, Jess,” he admitted. “Truth is, I may have broken a rib or two.”

“Oh! Seth, and you’ve been holding me for hours. I must have been leaning right…”

“Jessica, not another word,” he told her, again putting a finger to her lips. “Do you really want to help?” Jessica nodded. “Good,” Seth chuckled. “Then come over here, sit down next to me, and go to sleep.”

But just as she was sitting down, they heard loud yells coming from downstairs, and soon banging on the door to the attic.

“Jessica?” Amanda called.

“Aunt Jess?” she heard Christine say. “Seth?”

Christine popped her head up through the floor of the attic and saw the pair leaning against one of the boxes and motioned for her mother to follow her up.

“I didn’t think we’d make it in time!” Amanda said, finally making her way up to the attic.

“Did you bring a doctor?” Jessica asked.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Amanda asked, concerned.

“It’s Seth,” Jessica told her. “He might have a broken rib.”

* * *

“Oh, don’t be so naïve, Eileen,” Emma told her. “We’re all in the same boat, here. We’re all teachers. We all work for peanuts. I’m not going to do it, anymore. It’s too much work for not enough money. And being under appreciated by those ungrateful little brats! We spend our entire lives working to give them an education. To help them succeed. And what do we get? Nothing. Barely enough money to live on and the piece-of-crap satisfaction of knowing we’ve ‘helped a child learn’. I’ve had it. I’m out of here.” She got up to leave the room and was met at the door by Sargent Malin.

“We found your prisoners about a half an hour ago. And that Tsukerman guy was more than ready to talk to us, and it’s all about you. I don’t imagine it’ll be long before he tells us how it was all your idea and you forced him to co-operate.”

* * *

“I’m so glad you were able to handle it, Amanda,” Jessica said, giving her niece a hug once they had gotten home and Seth’s rib taken care of.

“I’m happy to help. That is why I became a nurse,” she chuckled.

“Still,” Jessica told her. “It’s extra nice that we don’t have to spend the rest of Christmas Eve huddled around Seth in a hospital room.”

Christmas Eve?” Amanda asked. “Jessica, look at that clock!”

“12:05,” Jessica said aloud. “Merry Christmas, Amanda!”

Merry Christmas, Aunt Jess,” Amanda told her through a yawn. “You sure you’ll be all right staying up for a while? You’ve been through a lot, you really should go to bed.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine, just a bit longer. I’m still quite awake from today’s scare.”

“Well, don’t stay up too late. We’ll have to get up early to open presents. Christine has come into my room every Christmas since she was 3 to wake me up and tell me to open presents.”

Aww! That’s so sweet,” Jessica said.

“Until you find out that she jumps on the bed screaming at 4 AM, insisting we open the presents.”

“Well, perhaps this year, she’ll give you an hour or two respite,” Jessica chuckled.

“Nice thought, but I highly doubt it,” Amanda joined in her laughter. “Good night, Aunt Jess.”

“Sweet Dreams,” Jessica said, hugging her niece.

“Pleasant nightmares!” Amanda yawned, walking to her room.

* * *
“I’m glad you let Aunt Jess sleep, Christine,” Amanda told her daughter as Christmas ripped open another present.

“Well, I figured she’d been through enough. Besides, she was asleep in a chair next to Seth’s bed, holding his hand, so I didn’t want to disturb them.” She paused after she said this. “What do we do with their presents?”

“We could go leave them at the foot of Seth’s bed,” John suggested.

* *
“How ya feelin’, Seth?”
Jessica asked, seeing Seth awake as she walked back into the room after her shower that morning.

“Just fine, Jess,” he told her, starting to sit up.

“No, don’t get up,” she told him, rushing to his side.

“Woman, give it a rest. I’m fine,” he restated, sitting up.

“Merry Christmas, Seth,” Jessica grinned.

“Merry Christmas, Jess,” Seth said, taking her hand.