Footprints in the Snow

By: Lizz Browne

Disclaimer: I don't own Murder, She Wrote, I don't intend to make money off this, blah, blah, blah. Annie is mine- I don't care if you use her, just ask first please. Oh, I have to thank Lizzie, the bestest twin in the whole world, for writing a couple paragraphs in the beginning and getting me unstuck!

Snow fell softly outside, covering the town with a thick blanket of white. Annie looked out the window of the Sheriff's station and sighed.
"What's wrong?" Mort asked. "Christmas is only a week and three days away! Nobody should be as sad as you look right now."
Annie came away from the window and stood behind Mort as he strung garland around the room.
"Christmas was never one of my favorite holidays. We never had a nice Christmas in Denver. And to top it all off, I've just got a bad feeling about this one. It's weird…" she trailed off as a chill ran down her spine.
Mort jumped off his chair and turned to face her. "Why was Christmas so bad in Denver? You know, you're just full of dark secrets."
She laughed. "I think dark secrets is a little extreme, don't you? I'd call them unpleasant memories. But anyway, everyone knows Christmas is supposed to be a magical time of miracles and happiness. Well, every year I'd wish for a Christmas miracle, that my parents would give up alcohol and actually become my parents. And every year, it never came true. So therefore, I don't believe in Christmas."

"Ready?" Jessica asked, zipping her coat and handing Annie the keys.
"I suppose," Annie sighed, taking the keys and heading toward the door. "But I really wish you'd have gotten someone else to go shopping with you, Aunt Jess. I'm sure Seth would've loved to go, and he does have the day off."
"Well, now, how'd you know that?" Jessica asked, raising her eyebrows at the young woman.
"I checked."
After examining a glance from Jessica, she added, "All right, yes, I was going to con him into taking you. I hate Christmas!"
"Well, I'm going to turn you from your Scrooge-like ways, Annie. Give Christmas a chance. It was your Uncle Frank's favorite holiday, you know."
"So I keep hearing."

Ten minutes later the pair were downtown and just outside one of the local shops.
"I'll just wait in the car," Annie told Jessica, putting the car in park.
Jessica turned the key and took it out of the ignition.
"Hey!" Annie called after her as she exited the car and walked quickly toward the shop's door. Jessica merely turned and smiled at her, dropping the keys into her purse.
"Aunt Jess, that's not fair!" Annie said jumping out of the car and running to catch up.
"I know that."
"What makes you think that this is going to make me like Christmas?"
"I have faith."
"I don't." Annie snorted.
"I know," Jessica said putting her arm around Annie's shoulders. "And I plan to fix that."
Oh, come on. It'll be fun. You can help me shop for Seth."
Annie laughed for the first time that morning. "All right, you got me. How can I resist that?!"

Jessica and Annie were wandering around the back of a little shop that sold various odds and ends, when a loud argument broke out at the front of the store. John Barkalow and Kevin Harris were screaming at each other over a Christmas light competition.
"Ha! You think the icicle lights that you hang on your front porch can actually compete with my fantastic display!?" John laughed and attempted to look down at Kevin, but he was far too short.
"I've got more up my sleeve than icicles this year, John! Just wait and see who wins!" Kevin shot back.
"oh really? Well whatever you've got certainly won't beat ME! You'll have to settle for second place."
"Guys, it's just a light contest. We're not talking life and death here." Charlotte, the store clerk broke in.
"It goes deeper than that, Charlotte. I'd rather die than lose to him!" John said then turned on his heel and stalked out of the store.
Annie turned to Jessica. "See what Christmas causes?"
"Oh, Christmas didn't cause that. Those two have been at each other's throats for years. Some old family feud that everyone but the two of them has forgotten. Now, what should I get Seth?"
"I don't know," Annie shrugged. "What do you usually get him?"

* * *

Later that afternoon, Annie was in the Sheriff's office trying to help Mort win the game of checkers that he was playing on the computer, when Seth came in and interrupted their argument.
"There you are! Do you have any idea how hard it is to find you?" Seth asked Annie.
"No, not really. I usually know where I am." She replied, grinning at him.
"Cute. Very cute." Seth told her. "Anyway, I need your help. What do I get Jessica for Christmas?"
"And you're asking me…why?" Annie asked.
"You're her niece."
"You're her best friend."
"You live with her."
"So do you! You're there enough, you should just move in." Annie replied mischievously.
  "Kinda waiting until the last minute to shop aren't you, Doc?" Mort teased. Seth rolled his eyes at them.
"No, I used to be one of those Christmas Eve shoppers. THAT'S last minute." Annie told him.
"You're not helping me." Seth said.
"You're not helping me either." Mort said, playfully tugging on her sleeve.
"What do YOU need help with?" she asked.
"That." He said pointing to his computer screen.
"Wow, he's killing you. Okay, shoo. I'll do it."
"No way, get your own comfy chair." Mort said, not moving from his position behind the desk.
She rolled her eyes. "Fine." She said, sitting on his knee and clicking the screen to move one of his checkers so it wouldn't be jumped. "All right, Seth. What do you usually get her?"
"I don't know. Stuff."
Annie replied, jumping one of the opponent's checkers.
"What are you doing!?" Mort broke in. "Now he's gonna jump YOU!"
"Well he was gonna jump me anyway! Better to take one of his checkers with me!"
"Oh, my God. I can't watch." Mort said dramatically.
"Good idea." Annie replied dryly. "All right. You." She said turning back to Seth.
"I got her a pretty diamond pendant one year."
"How about a diamond ring to match?" she asked, grinning wickedly.
Seth turned the color of a Santa Claus suit. "Lot of help you are!" he said grabbing his coat and heading for the door.
"Wait, Seth. Come back, I'll be serious." She said, absentmindedly moving another checker.
"AHH! Look at the move you just made! And you said you were good at checkers!"
"OOPS! That move just lost the game! I thought you were trying to HELP me!!!" Mort exclaimed.
"I did help you! I prolonged the loss so you would have time to mentally prepare yourself for it!"
Mort tried to glare at her, but ended up laughing instead.
"It's just a game you know," she said. "And besides, Seth needs our full attention."
"How about… she collects scarves doesn't she?" Mort asked.
"No, that's what I got her. A wool scarf from Mexico. Alpacas are cool." Annie said. "Why don't you just wander around some and see if anything jumps out at you?"
"All right, I will. Let me know if you think of anything though." Seth replied.
"Of course." Annie said, as he put on his coat and left the office.
"I thought the diamond ring was a good idea." Mort said.
"Me too." Annie laughed. "Brr..its cold out there." She added as they got hit with the blast of cold air that Seth had let in when he exited.

Seth left the Sheriff's office and went to the hospital for his afternoon shift. It was a relatively quiet day, and Seth was on his way to see if the nurses needed anything when he ran into someone head-on.
"Oh, Seth! I'm sorry." Colin Moser exclaimed. Colin was the county coroner, and he totally looked the part. He stood 6'3" tall with thick dark hair, and icy blue eyes.
"That's all right, Colin." Seth replied. "I wasn't paying attention either."
"Excuse me," Colin said abruptly "I need to get home."
"Everything all right?"
"We'll soon find out, won't we?" Colin said with a dark glance around the room. Seth felt a chill creep down his spine.

"I'm telling you it was weird!" Seth was telling Annie and Jessica the story over dinner at their house.
"Oh, maybe he just…you know…left the iron on or something." Annie said getting up to fetch the pie for dessert.
"No, it was more than that, Annie. You should have seen him."
"How about a game of chess to take your mind off it, Seth." Jessica asked.
"Sounds good to me."
"I play loser!" Annie said
"Loser?" Seth questioned as he went to get the board while Jessica set about making tea.
"I'm a very bad chess player." Annie said laughing.

Kevin Harris stood on a ladder in the light of his outdoor lamp stringing Christmas lights on the roof of his house. His wife Susan came out to watch him for a moment.
"I wish you wouldn't do that in the dark, Kevin. You could slip on a patch of ice that you can't even see." She said to her husband.
"Sue I'm fine. Besides, I have to do this in the dark. That way, if John drives by, he won't really be able to see what I'm doing."
"Don't you think you're taking this competition a little too far?"
"Absolutely not! We've been enemies for years, and he's always been better. This time, I'M going to be the best!" He exclaimed.
"You're equals in the idiocy department." Susan muttered as she went back into the warm house.

Two streets over, John Barkalow was setting up his tin reindeer and Santa Claus sled on the front lawn. When he was finished, he plugged them in, and quickly made sure everything was working. Then he turned then off, and went inside the house. John had just finished making his hot chocolate when the telephone rang.
"Yeah, what?" he said grabbing the phone off its cradle. "Oh, it's you. What do you want? Well I wasn't planning on…All right! Fine. I'll be over in about fifteen minutes."
That said, John slammed down the phone, and went upstairs to change his clothes. He came back down a few minutes later, grabbed his coat and keys, and headed out the door, leaving his forgotten hot cocoa on the counter.

Early the next morning, Deputy Sheriff Andy Broom was singing along with the Christmas carols on the radio when he passed by John Barkalow's house and nearly threw up. There on the front lawn, was John; impaled on the antlers of one of his reindeer, the snow beneath him stained crimson with his blood. Andy pulled the car into the driveway, and radioed for Mort and an ambulance.
Mort and the ambulance were there about ten minutes later, and not long after that, Seth showed up with Jessica.
"Sorry Mrs. F, but it looks like an accident." Mort said, "Nothing suspicious here."
"Could have been a suicide Sheriff. Look at this." Andy came up to the little group, handing Mort a note.
Mort looked at the white piece of paper, and read the three words on it aloud, "Goodbye, cruel world. Where did you get this?"
"Victim's pocket."
Andy replied.
"Guess we better take a look at the inside. Although it looks to me like he just climbed up that ladder there and fell off. Coroner can tell us what the cause of death was."

They were poking around the kitchen, when Seth discovered the mug of cocoa on the counter.
"What is THAT?" he asked.
Jessica peered over his shoulder. "Looks like it was hot chocolate to me. Which doesn't make sense. When I was upstairs a minute ago, there was a pile of clothes on the bed, like he changed in a hurry. And now this. Why would a man, change clothes, make hot cocoa, and then kill himself?"
"So maybe it wasn't suicide Mrs. F. Maybe he came in and made his drink. He forgot to do something, so he changes fast, and goes outside, thinking he'll be right back in a minute. Unfortunately, he has an accident and never makes it back inside."
"Maybe…" Jessica replied but she didn't look convinced.
"I think you've been working on too many books lately. Even you can't make a case for murder out of this!" Mort told her.
"Well, we'll see what the coroner says the cause of death is. I'll be right back." Jessica said and then exited.
"I'm a little curious about that myself. I think I'll go give him a hand examining the body. What is that woman up to now?" Seth said.
After they finished looking around the kitchen, the three men went back outside and found Jessica at the top of the ladder, scrutinizing the roof of the house.
"Jessica! Come down here!" Seth called up to her sternly.
"Oh, I'm coming," she said beginning to make her way down the ladder. When she got near the bottom, Seth held up his arms, and she allowed him to lift her down the last few rungs and set her on the ground.
"What on Earth do you think you were doing!? Do you want to end up like him!?" Seth said gesturing to John's lifeless body, which was just being loaded into the ambulance.
"Oh, Seth, I'm fine. I was very careful. But Mort, it looks like something was dragged around on the roof and there are two different sets of footprints around the ladder."
"I bet there's more than two. There's his, yours, mine…"
Jessica held up her hand to silence him. "NOW there is, but there are still a few prints on the roof that I don't believe belong to John."
"Well who else would be on his roof?" Mort asked.
"Perhaps a murderer."
Mort looked at her skeptically, then conceded. "Okay, okay, I'll check it out."
"Thank you." She said smiling.

Annie came bounding down the stairs and skidded to a stop in the middle of the kitchen.
"Well you're awfully cheery this morning, Ebenezer." Jessica said, pouring herself a cup of tea.
"The Ghost of Christmas Past isn't haunting me so much today." Annie replied.
"What is it with you women and talking in riddles all the time!" Seth asked. Jessica and Annie laughed.
"Any plans for today, Annie?" Jessica asked.
"I'm going to go downtown and do some last minute shopping." She said.
"Anything for me?" Seth questioned.
"Maybe." Annie teased, "But that's for me to know and you to find out."
"All right. Have a good time, dear." Jessica said as Annie took her pea coat off the rack and wrapped her aquamarine scarf around her neck.
  "Seth, what did you and the coroner find out?" Jessica asked as Annie grabbed her keys and left.
"Well, Colin insists that the cause of death was that…uhm…antler wound. But I thought I saw a smaller stab wound that could indicate murder. I'm going to check that out later today. Not so good to look at all that right after breakfast, you know."
Jessica smiled.

Annie parked her car in front of the Sheriff's station and jumped out. As she ran into the building, the door slammed behind her. Both Mort and Andy looked up, startled.
"Sorry about that." Annie said, taking off her coat.
"Hey there, Ebenezer." Mort said.
"You know you are the second person to call me that this morning? And I've only been up for two hours!"
Mort laughed. "I'm sorry. I've just never encountered a person who truly doesn't like Christmas."
"I don't believe in Christmas." She said.
"How about New Year's? Or Valentines Day?" Andy asked.
"I HATE Valentine's Day!" all three said in unison.
"So where are you off to today?" Mort asked Annie.
"Just some last minute shopping in town. What about you? Any news on John Barkalow's death?"
Well it looked like a suicide, but Mrs. F is convinced it's murder. I should be getting the coroner's report momentarily. Right, Andy?"
"What? Oh, I forgot! I'll get right on that, Sheriff." Andy said jumping up and leaving for the hospital.
"Another murder? This town holds a lot of grudges doesn't it?"
"Yes it does."
"What about the suicide note? What did that say?"
Mort pulled a plastic bag from a stack of papers and other assorted odds and ends on his desk.
"Goodbye, cruel world." She read aloud, "That's a little melodramatic, don't you think?"
"Yes, but John had a reputation for being a little over the top." He replied, "Oh! I almost forgot. I have a favor to ask of you."
"Sure." She said, then on second thought asked, "What is it?"
"Well, the little caroling group I've organized for the past few years is going to try four-part harmony this Christmas. And I'm short a soprano. I have three decent altos, two tenors and two basses. I just need one strong soprano." He looked at her with pleading eyes.
"Isn't there someone else?"
"Eve Simpson."
Annie winced. "All right, I'll do it. But just for you."
Mort jumped up and hugged her. "Thanks, you're the best!"
Annie laughed. "What songs are we singing?"
Mort sat back down and began rummaging around in his desk. "I have sheet music for you somewhere. I don't remember which drawer I put it in though."
"Start with the last one, it's always in there." Annie said.
He did so, and was about halfway through the drawer when he triumphantly held up a manila envelope with her name on it. "I found it!"
Annie snorted. "You were pretty confident that I'd give in, weren't you?"
Mort answered honestly, "I was praying you would. And I was prepared to beg until you did."
Annie laughed. "Well in that case, I'm not singing."
"Oh no, you can't renege on me now. You already committed!"
"I'm just kidding. I wouldn't do that." She told him, opening the envelope and pulling out the music. " God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, that's good to sing in a round," she began a running commentary to herself, "Silent Night, Joy to the World. Those are classics. Angels We Have Heard on High. That's pretty. O Come All Ye Faithful. English or Latin?" she asked, looking up at Mort.
"Pfft. Amateurs."
She said grinning at him.
"Can you sing it in Latin?"
"Actually, yes." She continued rifling through the music, "Noel. Pretty, but over sung. Carol of the Bells and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Challenging, but they're my two favorites."
"You approve then, Maestro?" Mort asked, an amused twinkle in his eye.
"Yes, dear. I approve." She smiled and stuffed the music back into the envelope. "When are we rehearsing this?"
"Tonight, at 7 in the community center."
I'll be there. Meantime," she grabbed his wrist and looked at his watch, "I have some shopping to do."
"I thought you weren't one of those last minute shoppers." Mort teased her as she got her coat on.
"I never said that," she tossed her hair, blew him a kiss, and was gone in a swirl of snowflakes.

Annie hadn't been gone five minutes when Andy returned from picking up the autopsy report. He handed it to Mort, then read over his shoulder.
"Cause of death was the antler. Looks like it was suicide after all." Mort said.
"Maybe not," Andy told him, "I saw Doc Hazlitt and he said that there was a smaller, deeper stab wound that he wanted to look at more closely. He said he would talk to you later."
"Okay, thanks Andy."
"You okay, Sheriff? You seem a little preoccupied."
"I do feel a little odd. Anxious, almost. I'm sure its nothing. Probably just something I ate."
Andy chuckled. "That's what Scrooge said when Jacob Marley came to visit him."
"Are you saying I'm going to be haunted by someone?"
"Maybe," Andy was kidding, but Mort felt a chill slither down his spine all the same.

"Good Morning, Charlotte" Annie said to the girl behind the counter.
"Hi, Annie. Any news on John's death?"
Not really. Leaning towards suicide, I guess."
"It's kinda hard to believe he's gone, you know? He used to come in here every day and crow about something. Had an opinion about everything, John did; and he wasn't afraid to voice it."
"It got him into a lot of trouble though, didn't it?"
"Oh definitely. He won't be missed, that's for sure. I don't think there was anyone who really liked him."
"Well that narrows down the list of suspects if it was in fact murder." Annie said sarcastically.
"Oh! Great song!" Charlotte said reaching over to turn up the radio.
Annie smiled and wandered to the back of the store, singing along to the Big and Rich song Charlotte was playing up front.
A few minutes later, Annie had found nothing that she was looking for, so she said goodbye to Charlotte and left the little store. She hadn't gone three steps when she ran right into someone and looked up, startled.
"Oh, hi Mr. Moser. I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention."

7pm that night, Seth burst into Jessica's kitchen.
"You're late, Seth." Jessica said.
"I am not. You said seven. And what does that clock say?" he asked, pointing to the clock above the stove.
"seven-oh-two. See, you're late."
Seth grumbled to himself as he went to hang up his coat.
"I am not nit-picky!" Jessica called after him.
Seth re-entered the room, disbelief on his face. "Do you have radar or something?"
"Yes." She laughed. "Seth, have you seen Annie at all today? I would think she'd be home by now. And she hasn't called either."
"Did you try calling Mort? She's probably with him."
"I did. He's at the community center with his caroling group. He said she was going to be there, but she hasn't shown up yet. I also tried Emily and Ian and neither one of them has seem her either. I'm getting worried, Seth."
"I'm sure she'll be all right…" he was interrupted by the ring of the doorbell.
Jessica went to answer it, while Seth stirred the soup that was beginning to boil in a pot on the stove.
Jessica went to the door and opened it. No one was there, just an envelope lay on the doorstep. She stooped to pick it up, and open it. Unfolding the plain white paper inside, she read the bold black type to herself.
In the kitchen, Seth heard Jessica call his name, and her tone was so urgent he went running, leaving the spoon to slowly disappear into the pot of soup.
"Jess, what is it? What's wrong?" he asked, pulling her inside and closing the door to block out the cold wind of winter.
Wordlessly, she handed him the note. He read it quickly, and looked up at her with horror. "Kidnapped?"
She nodded, and then finally found her voice. "We have to go talk to Mort." She said, but didn't move.
Seth took her coat off the rack and helped her into it. When he had his own coat on, he fished his keys out of his pocket and took her hand, leading her out to his car.

They entered the community center to the sound of a chorus singing Joy to the World. Both noticed the absence of a soprano and Seth silently squeezed Jessica's hand.
"Hey, Mrs. F, Doc," Mort said when they approached the front of the room. "Do you know where Annie is? She was supposed to be here."
Seth handed him the paper they had found. Mort read it and paled. "No," he whispered, "Why?"
"What's going on?" asked one of the tenors.
"Rehearsal is over for today." Mort said, "Come on, let's go down to the station, see if we can't lift some fingerprints off this."
A few hours later, Seth and Jessica returned to her house, tired and worried. They entered the kitchen to find soup all over the place. They had been in such a hurry to leave, they had neglected to turn off the stove and the pot had boiled over. Jessica looked at the mess and all the tension built up inside her finally spilled over. She sat heavily in a chair and burst into tears.
Seth dropped the rag he had been using to clean up and crossed the room in two steps. He knelt in front of her and gathered her in his arms. "It's all right, Jess. We'll find her. She'll be fine, she's strong like you."
"I always thought Cabot Cove was so safe. You hear stories about stuff like this happening, but you never really think it can happen to you. Especially not here." She sobbed, tightening her arms around his neck.
"Well look on the bright side. Clam Chowder doesn't stain." He joked.
She pulled back and stared at him for a moment before gently slapping him. "You're terrible."
"But I made you laugh."
"Yes you did." She kissed him lightly, "I love you."
"It's Christmas, Jess. Anything can happen at Christmastime." 
"I hope you're right," she sighed.
"I am," he told her, pulling her to her feet.
They cleaned up the soup together and when they were done, they went into the living room and sat on the couch. Seth flipped on the television, and found a Christmas movie that was just starting.
"White Christmas," Jessica said aloud, "This was Frank's favorite holiday movie."
"Ruth's too." Seth said, wrapping his arm around her and dimming the light on the table beside him. Outside, in direct contrast to the emotions in turmoil, snow fell serenely to blanket the town in another coating of white.

No one slept that night. Not Annie, in the dark and damp cellar she found herself in, or Mort, who tossed and turned until his wife told him to go sleep in the spare room, or Jessica and Seth, who sat together half watching movies and half staring into nothing all night.
The next morning the doorbell rang and Seth opened it to find Emily Wilson and Ian Dalton, Annie's best friends, on the doorstep. Somehow, the entire town knew that Annie was missing. Jessica appeared behind him, looking tired and old and invited them in for something warm to drink.
"Is it really true?" Emily asked when they were all seated at the table.
"Yes…it is." Jessica said worriedly.
"She'll be okay, won't she?"
"I don't know, Ian. We can only pray."
"I'm scared." Emily said.
"I am too." Jessica and Ian said in unison.
"Mrs. Fletcher, what can we do to help?" Ian asked.
"Help?" Jessica replied. "I couldn't ask you to help, it could be dangerous."
"Maybe not." Seth looked thoughtful. "They might be able to help."
"We can!?" Emily cried.
"But Seth…" Jessica started, but he shushed her.
"You know how people can't keep their mouths shut in this town. Emily and Ian could wander around town, and listen to people. They would be less obvious than us, or Mort. Someone is bound to talk…gloat a little."
"Great, Doc! Let's go Em." Ian said jumping up. Both looked happier now that they had a mission. They thanked Jessica for letting them in to warm up, grabbed their coats, and set off. Jessica turned to Seth who wore a smug smile.
"Riddle me this, Seth. What do WE do?"
His smiled vanished.

Annie sat on the hard basement floor. It was cold, and dirty, probably wrecking her favorite pair of jeans. She tried to look around her, but it was dark, and being night blind she couldn't make out much of anything. Feeling restless, she stood up, and keeping one hand on the wall, she began to feel around the cellar.  It seemed to be a normal basement, mostly empty except for a few boxes towards the back. Annie was nosy, and bored so she took a box off the stack and began feeling around in it to see if there was anything she could use. The first box contained boxes of round things she assumed were Christmas ornaments. Apparently there were no decorations upstairs, because the second box was full of lights. She untangled some lights until she found a plug then began feeling around for an outlet. She was just getting frustrated enough to give up when her fingers touched the outlet she had been looking for. She plugged in the cord, and much to her delight, tiny little rainbows pierced the darkness. Now she could see that the boxes were labeled in a large block print.
"Confident person. High self-esteem, sometimes comes off as arrogance." She said aloud. Wondering what else she could find out about this person she barely knew, she began to explore more boxes.

Jessica and Seth entered the Sheriff's station. Mort looked up from the mug of coffee he'd been staring into.
"Resorting to tea leaves, Mort?" Seth asked dryly.
"Glad to see you haven't lost you sense of humor." Mort replied in what would have been a cold tone had he not been so tired.
"All right, play nice." Jessica interrupted before Seth could fire off his reply. "Have you heard anything?"
"No, not yet. You?"
No. But Emily and Ian are our ears in town."
"Have you asked around town yet?" Seth asked.
"Andy's doing that."
"Mort, why don't you help him. What are you doing here?" said Jessica.
Let's go look for witnesses." She said, holding out her hand to him.

They met Andy on Main Street. "I've asked in every building on the left side," he told them.
"All right, why don't you and Mort take this half, Seth and I will take the other half, and we'll meet in the middle at Charlotte's." Jessica said. They all nodded in agreement, and Seth took Jessica's arm as they set off down Main Street. Jessica could feel the people staring at them, and whispering. For some reason she couldn't explain she was disturbed by this and pressed closer to Seth, finding strength is his ability to appear totally oblivious, when she knew he felt it too.
Twenty minutes later, they met up with Mort and Andy outside Charlotte's and discovered that neither pair had learned anything useful. Andy crossed his fingers as the entered the final shop on Main Street.
Charlotte was behind the counter, singing along to the radio like usual, but she stopped mid-phrase when she saw them.
"Oh, Mrs. Fletcher, I'm so sorry about what happened."
"Thank you, Charlotte. Maybe you can help. Did you see Annie at all yesterday?"
What happened yesterday? What WAS yesterday? Christmas season. Everything gets crazy. So many people coming and going, all the days blur together, you know? Yesterday was…the 21st. Oh, no! I forgot Josh's birthday! 21st, Josh, Big and Rich, ANNIE! Yes, she was here yesterday. In the morning. Walked around a little, we sang Me and Charlie Talking together and then she left."
"That's all?" Mort demanded, "You didn't see anything else?"
"Well I saw her literally run into some guy outside, but then she walked off."
"Some guy? Charlotte, this is an insanely small town, and the best you can do is "some guy"!?" he cried.
"Well he was tall." She hurriedly continued, after catching Mort's exasperated and somewhat pained expression. "He was wearing a grey hat, but I think he had some dark hair underneath. And his coat was black."
"Fantastic. That description could fit half the guys in Cabot Cove." Mort told her.
"Look Sheriff, I want to help more, but that's really all I saw!"
In the meantime, Seth had noticed that Jessica was not participating in this conversation, because she hadn't heard a word of it. She was staring off into space.
"Jess?" he asked, giving her hand a squeeze, "What are you thinking, dear?"
"Last time I was in here, Annie and I were shopping for you. And John Barkalow and Kevin Harris were arguing up front. Everything was normal."
"And now John is dead, and Annie is missing." Seth said.
Jessica snapped back to reality. "Seth that's IT!"
What's what, Mrs. F?" Mort asked.
"What Seth said. John's dead and Annie's missing! Don't you see? They're connected! John really was murdered, and then Annie was kidnapped because whoever did it is local and knows that you would concentrate more on finding her than solving the murder. Once you solve the murder, you'll find Annie!"
"Okay, then Seth, can you and Colin go back over the body, see if you can find anything you missed? Mrs. F, want to come with us and question some suspects?" Mort asked.
"Absolutely! Who first?"
"Kevin and Susan Harris.
Then his closest card buddies. After that, we'll swing by the hospital and see what you've got, Seth."
"All right," Seth kissed Jessica on the cheek and left for the hospital.

They pulled up in front of Kevin Harris' house and, carefully climbing the porch steps, rang the doorbell. Susan answered the door. She knew immediately why they were there.
"I suppose it was only a matter of time. Come in, Kevin's in the workroom, I'll get him for you." She said taking their coats and leading them into the living room.
When they were seated, she went downstairs to the basement, and got Kevin. He came upstairs, brushing sawdust off his sweatshirt onto the nice clean carpet.
"KEVIN JAMES HARRIS!" Susan cried, "I just vacuumed!"
"Oh, sorry Sue. Leave it, I'll get it. I suppose you're here to talk to me about John Barkalow's accident."
"Actually, we have reason to reason to believe that it was murder," Mort told them.
Susan gasped. "Murder? And you think that Kevin…?"
"We're not accusing anyone, Mrs. Harris. We just want to ask you both a few questions. Kevin was probably John's best enemy." Jessica explained.
"All right, I've got nothing to hide. Ask away." Kevin said.
"We figure that John was killed late at night, around 1 or 2am. Can you tell me where you were then?"
"Asleep in my bed, like everyone else. Susan and I had just come back from a Christmas party at the Sheridan's."
"Cathy and Matt Sheridan?" Mort asked.
"Yes, they had their annual Christmas party. We were one of the last to leave." Susan said.
"All right."
I hadn't seen John since that day we heard about the light competition in Charlotte's store." Kevin added.
"What light competition?" Jessica asked.
"Just a Christmas light competition. You get 20 dollars and bragging rights."
"What happened that day in the store?" Mort asked him.
"Well John was going on about how he was going to win it, and how my icicles wouldn't stand a chance. I guess I got a little carried away, and yelled back at him, but Sue made me realize it was just a Christmas light contest and if I let John win, he'd brag for awhile and then forget about it."
"Okay, I think that's it." Mort stood to go, and the rest followed suit. "Thanks for your time."

Two of John's three "friends," or at least the three people who liked to take his money in card games, were home when Mort and Jessica stopped in to question them. Both said basically the same thing; that they really only saw John once a week for their card games and other than that he kept to himself and was always busy with work. He was an accountant and stock adviser to some people since he had once worked on Wall Street. After that, they headed to the hospital, to see Seth.
As they were walking down the hall, they passed by Mollie, Colin Moser's wife. She came running out of his office, slamming the door behind her, and stalked down the hall towards them, tears in her eyes.
"Mollie, are you all right?" Jessica asked her.
"I'll be fine."
"He didn't hurt you did he?" Mort asked.
"No, I suppose I hurt him, although I didn't realize he had a heart for anything but money." Mollie replied.
"Can we do anything to help you?" Jessica said.
"Know any good lawyers?" Mollie said bitterly.
"I'm sorry, I don't."
"That's 'cause you had a good marriage, Mrs. Fletcher. Excuse me." She said and brushed by them.
"There you are!" Seth said from behind them, "I was wondering where you were."
"Did you find anything else Seth?" Jessica asked. He took her hand and led them back down the hall to his office. They each took a chair and Seth told them his findings.
"The antler wound was not what killed him. There were multiple punctures through the heart in a small area. That was what killed him. Shredded the heart muscle and he stopped breathing and bled to death at the same time."
"What weapon would yield a wound like that?" Mort asked.
"Ice pick would, icicle even. However, I noticed that the scalpel I was using fit perfectly into the hole. I'd bet my life that that's what the murder weapon was."
"Who could have access to something like that?"
"Doctors, or anyone who worked in the hospital, or knows someone who does. Biology teachers use them too. I'm afraid that doesn't narrow down the suspects any."
"And there wouldn't be any fingerprints on the weapon would there?"
"Not likely. Everything is sterilized and cleaned thoroughly after it's used." Seth said.
"Great. Well…thanks, Doc." Mort said. "Mrs. F, you want a lift home?"
"No thanks, Seth can take me."
"Okay, see you later then. If Emily and Ian find anything, let me know?" he asked running a hand through his hair, that Jessica noticed looked a little grayer than usual.
"Of course," she told him.  

Later that night, Jessica and Seth were back at her house, when Emily and Ian arrived.
"Have you heard anything at all?" Jessica asked, anxiously.
"Plenty," Ian said.
"But nothing useful. Everyone is talking about it, but no one knows anything!" Emily finished, her voice mirroring the frustration she felt.
"Well you did your best," Seth told them. "Why don't you go home and rest."
"All right," Ian replied. "Em, do you want to come to my house and help us decorate?"
"Sure," she said sadly, as she put her coat back on.
"I've got an appointment at Loretta's in the morning, but I think I'm going to cancel." Jessica said aloud when they were gone.
"I think you should go. Might be good for you to do something normal. And besides, you know how they talk down there. You might learn something." He told her.
"You know what? You're right!"
"I know that."

Annie was really cold now. She had gone through all the boxes, but there were no clothes or blankets stored away down there. She was also hungry. She never wore a watch, but she figured she had been down there at least 36 hours, and all she'd had to eat was the granola bar she'd thrown in her pocket before she left the house.
Suddenly, she heard the scratch of the lock sliding. She quickly reached over and unplugged the Christmas lights. The door at the top of the stairs opened and something was placed on the landing.
"Here. It's soup." Said a gruff voice. Then the door closed, the lock was slid into place, and Annie was left alone in the dark again. After the person's footsteps had died away, she plugged the lights back in and made her way across the basement to the stairs. Bringing the soup back to her little corner and holding it to the light, she determined that it was vegetable soup. Ice cold vegetable soup.
Fabulous," she muttered to herself.

Jessica sat in a chair at the beauty parlor, as Loretta happily snipped away at her hair. Ideal and Phyllis sat under the dryers behind them, and Corrine was painting her own finger nails. They were chatting about the holidays and the weather, delicately sidestepping Annie's disappearance, until Eve Simpson burst in the door.
"You will NEVER guess what I just heard!" she cried.
"Probably not, what is it?" Loretta told her.
"Colin Moser is divorcing Mollie! He caught her having an affair with…you're not going to believe this…John Barkalow! Although, I'm not sure how he's going to be able to afford a divorce; he invested in all the wrong stocks and lost a ton of money. What a Christmas present for him!" Eve stopped and took a deep breath, "Corrine, how about a nice red color for the holidays?"
"Well what do you make of that, Jessica?" Loretta asked. Jessica was staring off into space. "Jessica?"
"Loretta, are you almost finished?"
"Sure, honey. What's wrong?"
"I think I have the answer. And I have to go talk to Mort."
"Okay, there you go." Loretta said, taking the black apron from around her shoulders.

Jessica entered the Sheriff's station to find Mort, Andy and Seth crowded around an object and a whole mess of wrapping paper.
"Ahh! Why must you sneak up on people, Jessica?" Seth asked, standing in front of them, while Mort and Andy shoved it back in to the bag.
"I was trying to wrap your present, and then I enlisted the aid of these two, and they ruined it!"
"You weren't doing so well to begin with. That's why I had Annie wrap mine." Mort told him.
"Forget wrapping paper, forget Christmas!" Jessica cried.
"But it's tomorrow." Andy said.
"Jess, what's wrong?" Seth asked, coming to her side.
"I think I know who the murderer is! I just need help proving it!"

Jessica knocked on the door of Colin Moser's office and stepped into the room.
"Do you have a minute, Mr. Moser?"
"Well, all right. But just a minute." He told her, putting his pen down.
"That's all it will take. I only have one question. Why did you kill John Barkalow?" she asked in a calm, even voice.
"That's absurd, Mrs. Fletcher. Have you been dipping into the eggnog? I had no reason to kill him, I barely knew him!"
"I'm afraid that's not true. Your wife was having an affair with him. And you found out. That's why you're divorcing her, isn't it? But of course you knew John before that, didn't you? He was giving you advice on your stocks, wasn't he? Only he told you to invest in all the wrong things, and you thought he did it on purpose. Maybe he did, we may never know for sure. Wasn't it convenient for you that you're the coroner. You could make the autopsy report say whatever you wanted and no one would be the wiser. Until Seth became interested, isn't that right? And you knew that sooner or later someone would figure out what you did and tell the Sheriff. So you kidnapped Annie, knowing that he would concentrate far more on trying to find her and forget about John Barkalow's death."
"All right, I did it! I loathed the ground that scum walked on. He did run my financial status into the ground on purpose! And then, he had the nerve to start that ridiculous affair with Mollie…! You're clever Mrs. Fletcher, but apparently you lack common sense. Wasn't very wise for you to come here alone." He reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out the scalpel that had killed John Barkalow. Just then, Mort, Seth, and Andy burst into the room. Colin let the scalpel clatter to the floor, admitting defeat. Andy went around the desk and cuffed him.
"Where's Annie?" Mort practically growled.
"My basement. Here, I'll give you the key." Colin said tiredly reaching into his pocket and producing his house key.

Andy took Colin over to the jail while Mort, Seth, and Jessica hurried over to Colin's house. They searched the first floor looking for the door to the cellar, until Seth found it under the stairs.
Downstairs, Annie heard the lock open, but she was so cold she couldn't even unplug the Christmas lights. She was expecting another bowl of cold soup but instead heard Jessica's voice calling her name.
"I'm here," she said her voice coming out soft and shaky.
"Annie!" Mort dropped to his knees beside her, and hugged her.
Seth took one look at her and said, "Better get her home fast, we'll be fighting hypothermia."
Jessica helped her to her feet. Annie nearly fell again, so Mort scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the car.

The next morning, they all gathered in Jessica's living room to open Christmas presents. Seth promised Annie that she would be well enough to go to the Christmas party that night if she stayed warm in the house all day.
Jessica unwrapped the box that Annie had given her and opened it. Inside lay a beautiful hand woven rainbow-coloured scarf. The tag read: Made in Mexico with real Alpaca wool.
"Annie, it's lovely, thank you!" she said getting up to hug her niece who was seated next to Mort on the couch.
Next, Mort handed Annie a small box. She unwrapped it and opened it, and found a sparkling diamond pendent in the shape of a star on a gold chain. She gasped and flung her arms around his neck.
"It's gorgeous," she told him, her voice muffled by his shoulder, "And I know exactly what to wear it with!" When she let go, she grabbed a ball of wrapping paper and threw it at Seth, "Your turn."
Then she jumped off the couch, pulling Mort with her. "Come help me."
"With what?" he asked, bewildered.
"I suddenly have the urge for hot chocolate."
When they were safely out of earshot in the kitchen, Mort asked her, "What did he get her?"
Annie grinned at him, as she pulled down a mug.
"No! Really?"
Oh, forget it. I have to watch!" she said opened the kitchen door just enough so that she could see through to the living room. Mort came to stand behind her.
"Nosy," she teased him.

In the living room, Jessica was opening her gift from Seth. She pulled from the wrapping paper a small red velvet box, and looked up at him with questioning eyes.
"For once in your life, Jessica, don't ask questions. Just open it." He said.
Lifting the lid of the little box, she found a pair of exquisite Opal earrings. "Seth, they're wonderful!" she stood and embraced him.
"I hoped you'd like them." He said, hugging her back.
"You're marvelous, Seth." She told him, kissing him tenderly.
"Merry Christmas, Jess."
"Hey Annie, how's the hot chocolate coming?" Jessica called, her eyes sparkling.
Laughing, Mort and Annie tumbled through the door.

Later that night, Seth stood at the foot of the stairs, tapping his foot impatiently. Annie and Jessica were upstairs getting dressed for the Christmas party at Eve Simpson's house.
"Come on, we're going to be late!" he called up to them.
"We're coming!" Annie replied. Jessica started down the stairs while Annie ran back to her room to put her shoes on.
Seth opened his mouth to remind them how late they were going to be, but stopped dead. Jessica came down the stairs and took his arm. "Annie will be right down, are you ready to go?"
"Jess, you look lovely," he managed to spit out. Jessica was wearing an ankle length hunter green dress with a V-neck at the collarbone.
"Thank you." She said going to get her coat.
Annie came down a moment later. She was wearing a deep maroon dress, with long sleeves, a ballerina neckline, a tight bodice and a flared skirt that ended mid-calf. Around her neck was the star that Mort had given her that morning.
They arrived at the party fashionably late, "as usual" Seth grumbled. Mort was standing off to the side, by himself. Adele was helping Eve and "the girls" in the kitchen. Emily and Ian crashed the party and then six of them stood talking for the better part of the night. They all kept Annie close, as they were still getting over the fact that they'd nearly lost her.
Late that night, after Emily and Ian had gone home, and Seth and Jessica were dancing, Annie saw Mort step out the front door. She followed him out, and stood behind him on the steps.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing. It's a little crowded in there though. And look," he pointed up at the crystal clear night sky, filled with glittering stars, "It's beautiful out here."
"It is," Annie said, "Little chilly."
Mort turned to face her for the first time and noticed she wasn't wearing a jacket.
"What are you doing!? Seth would kill both of us if he caught you!"
"Oh, relax. He's a little preoccupied at the moment." She said smiling. Mort looked over her shoulder into the window behind her and chuckled. "Besides, I'm not that cold just yet."
He turned back to watch the stars and she leaned forward, resting her chin on his shoulder.
"You know what?" she said.
"I believe in Christmas."