Gus Chance hurried through the snow-covered streets of Christmas Village, humming a little tune and clutching her jazz sheet music to her chest. She wanted to get back to the small apartment above the cider store that she’d rented for the week so she could go over the music she would play later that night. Gus, a sheriff in the town of Mystic Notch, was on vacation in Christmas Village, and part of that vacation entailed pursuing her passion of playing jazz on the piano. She’d secured a gig at a trendy little club called the North Pole Lounge and had even connected online with a sax player who could accompany her. The woman had good credentials and was, in fact, employed as one of the pipers piping in the village. Since Gus had never met her, they’d arranged to meet at the lounge before the gig to get acquainted with each other’s playing styles. They’d picked out a few songs, and Gus had bought the sheet music. She wanted to be sure she was well acquainted with them before the gig. Gus had only been in town a few days, but she already knew all the shortcuts. Knowing all the entrances and exits was part of her training as a sheriff, and she couldn’t turn that off even when she was on vacation. The first thing she’d done when getting to town was stroll the streets and take note of where everything was. Gus wasn’t one hundred percent sure this village suited her. Oh, it was quaint, she’d give it that, but all the forced joy grated on her. She sensed an odd undercurrent. But that was Gus’s way and one of the reasons why she was a good sheriff.
She didn’t see things the way others did. Where others saw pretty icicles, Gus saw frozen weapons that could fall and stab you like a sword. To Gus, the sparkly garlands wrapped around all the pine trees in town could be used to strangle someone. And she didn’t even want to get started on the twinkling lights over by the skating pond. Could you say electrocution? Not to mention the snowmen with their glassy coal eyes and colorful scarves that seemed to pop up everywhere. She wasn’t sure who made them but thought it was possibly someone in the chamber of commerce. Or maybe they just appeared. The children seemed delighted with them, but every time Gus walked past one, she felt like it was watching her. Deep in thought, she started across the street only to jump back as a horse-drawn sleigh nearly ran her down. The horses snorted puffs of air, their hooves clomping on the street, bells jangling.
Happy tourists sat in the back, holding mugs of hot cocoa. Yes, it was all very picturesque until you thought about what those horses must leave behind. Someone must be kept quite busy cleaning up the mess on the streets. Glancing down the street to make sure nothing else was coming, she noticed the sign to the chocolate store. Hadn’t she heard something about an elf being murdered behind there? Too bad she’d also heard it had been solved. Just as well, she thought as she crossed the street and headed toward Gingerbread Alley, a shortcut to her cottage that was on the next street over. She was here to play the piano, not solve murders. She had plenty of that back home in Mystic Notch, where the murder rate seemed to have risen considerably since her sister, Willa, had moved to town. Gus slipped into the alley, intending to hurry through to the street where her apartment was. Unfortunately, a large crowd blocked the way.
“Save the birds!” A woman with bushy red hair tacked a flyer onto a pole. Gus had seen the flyers around town. They were for some sort of protest about the treatment of the birds that acted as tourist attractions in Christmas Village. A crowd had gathered around the woman. “Why do the birds need to be saved?” a gray-haired woman in a brown wool coat and matching hat asked. “The birds of Christmas Village are mistreated. Made to stay out in the cold and the snow. We must save them!” The bushy-haired woman sounded quite dedicated to her cause. “They’re not mistreated!” a younger woman with short blonde hair that spiked up on top of her head yelled from the edge of the crowd. “We take great care of our birds! They’re treated like royalty.
You know that, Vicky.” The bushy-haired woman, Vicky, narrowed her gaze on the blonde and waved her hand around. “This is not the normal environment for these birds. They’re shivering.” “The birds are an integral part of Christmas Village!” said a short woman holding a box of chocolates covered in gold foil. “If you ship out the birds, it will affect tourism.” Vicky put her hands on her hips. “Tourism? Is that all you’re worried about? The money? Well, I…” The chocolate-bearing woman’s face turned red, and she stuttered. “I… ack…” “What?” the blonde persisted. “We have heated nests and everything.
” Vicky’s eyes practically bulged as she pointed at the blonde. “You…. Arghh….” Then her eyes rolled up in her head, and she toppled onto her face, landing in the dusting of snow that always seemed to cover the ground in Christmas Village. The crowd gasped and shuffled forward. “Give her air!” Instinctively, Gus pushed through the crowd toward the woman, her sheriff training taking over. “Step aside. Police.” She heard murmurs of heart attack or stroke. She even thought she heard someone say, “Good riddance.
” The woman lay face down, not moving a muscle. This did not look good. Gus squatted beside her and pressed a finger to her carotid artery. No pulse. She turned the body slightly so she could look at Vicky’s face. The woman’s eyes were partially open, and a little bit of foam gathered at the corner of her mouth. Someone was calling the ambulance, but Gus knew it was too late. A wave of sadness swept over her as she realized her thoughts about Christmas Village not being the joyful place it pretended to be might be correct. Not only was the woman dead, but Gus suspected she’d been murdered. “What’re you doing? Let go of that body! You’re tampering with a crime scene!” The familiar voice was like a jolt of electricity straight to Gus’s heart.
She looked up to see the last person in the world she expected to find in Christmas Village: her old nemesis and instructor from the police academy, Detective Kristine Winters. “You! What are you doing here?” Winters scowled down at Gus, making her feel like she was still a rookie cadet who couldn’t do anything right. But she wasn’t a rookie anymore. She was a sheriff with an impressive record. She took a deep breath and stood. Fifteen years had passed since Gus had last seen her old teacher, and the woman had aged quite a bit. Her hair was snowy white, she wore reading glasses, and her belly was round. Probably not much to do up here in Christmas Village except eat, Gus thought. Gus glanced back at the body. Well, there was not much to do until now.
“I’m here on vacation.” Gus brushed the snow off her pants. “And messing around with dead bodies like you’re not supposed to be.” Winters’s blue eyes flicked over to the body, then she directed her gaze to the crowd. “What happened here?” “She just keeled over,” an elf with curly-toed shoes said. “My guess is she had a heart attack or stroke. She was pretty worked up,” said a middle-aged man who Gus recognized as the man who ran the fruitcake shop. “So, it looks like natural causes.” Winters nodded at the detective who had accompanied her, a thin man in his late thirties. “What do you think, Detective Noel?” Gus looked down at the body.
She estimated the woman to have been in her early forties. Her purple lips and the foam on one corner of her mouth seemed to indicate she was poisoned. “I don’t think so.” Winters’s gaze snapped back to Gus. “Well, you’re not the law enforcement here, are you?” Gus squared her shoulders. She wasn’t about to let Winters intimidate her, and she certainly wouldn’t stand by and let a murder be labeled as natural causes. “No, but I am law enforcement in Mystic Notch, New Hampshire.” “Oh really? So you got a job finally?” Gus ignored the barb. “Yes, I’m a sheriff.” Gus pointed to her badge—or where her badge would’ve been if she was wearing her uniform.
Detective Noel cleared his throat. “Um… the medical examiner is here.” “Right, let him through, then,” Winters said. She turned to Gus. “Let’s not forget that I’m the law here. This death was likely just natural causes, but even so, I’ll advise you to stay out of this. This is my crime scene, and I don’t need a flunky rookie messing it up.” Gus stepped back and fought the tidal wave of anger rising inside her. She knew better than to argue with Winters. Why was she acting this way? Back when she was in the academy, Winters had been tough, but she’d been a good cop.
Winters had pushed all of them pretty hard, but she’d pushed Gus in particular because Gus had messed up on her first case. Well, she wasn’t going to mess up this time. As she faded back into the crowd, Gus scanned the crime scene. Because that was what she thought it was now—a crime scene. She was sure Vicky had been poisoned, and it was clear the woman made some enemies with this bird-saving crusade. Some of the crowd had dispersed. Others were whispering. Gus caught snatches of conversation, but one in particular got her attention. “The gals over at Ruffled Feathers will be happy she’s gone. I heard their permit was in jeopardy because of all the squawking Vicky was doing.
” Gus made a mental note to visit Ruffled Feathers as she looked for clues. The victim’s purse had fallen over, and the contents were scattered about. Her appointment book had fallen open. Gus craned her neck. She just managed to see something written on today’s date a second before Winters snatched the appointment book up and dropped it in an evidence bag. Gus had only gotten a quick look, but she thought she’d seen perm meetg. st nic. At least the evidence bag was a good sign. Winters must be treating this like a crime, or she wouldn’t be collecting evidence. Was the meeting relevant? Had she already met the person, or was that for later? If the meeting had already taken place, maybe the person she’d met with didn’t like what Vicky had to say.
If it was for later, maybe someone didn’t want that meeting to take place. But who was st nic? Gus almost snorted at the shorthand for Saint Nick. Maybe that wasn’t so strange given they were in Christmas Village. As she was thinking about how to learn more about the meeting, a man came rushing down the street. “Vicky! No!” He fell to the ground beside the body, much to the dismay of the medical examiner, who was trying to work on it. Winters gently tugged the man away, and he stumbled around the crime scene for a few minutes. “Sit down, Steve. There’s nothing you can do.” “But she was fine this morning!” Steve started wailing. Must be the husband.
He seemed very upset, maybe too upset. Gus noticed he clutched a white takeout bag with a blue fleur-de-lis. Was he bringing Vicky lunch complete with poison? But she’d already been poisoned, so he couldn’t be bringing it. Still, Gus was reluctant to cross him off the suspect list. In her experience, the spouse was often the killer. As Gus moved away from the crime scene, her cop instincts kicked in. Three reasons compelled her to solve the case. First, she couldn’t resist the challenge, and maybe she was a little bored with nothing to do but play piano. Secondly, she was sworn to see justice served, and if there was a chance Winters would rule this as death by natural causes, then it would be up to Gus to find the killer. And thirdly—and possibly most importantly—Gus wanted to prove to Detective Winters that she was a good cop, perhaps even better than Winters herself.
R C H A P T E R 2 uffled Feathers was on the street Gus had just come from, so she stuffed her sheet music in her pocket and headed back. The shop was in a brick building and had cheery feather garlands around the front door. Taking care not to stand directly under one of the dagger-like icicles that hung from the roof’s peak, she opened the door and entered. The shop was filled with anything and everything to do with birds. Bird cages, bird feeders, bird food. If it had to do with birds, it was in there. One wall was loaded with cuckoo clocks, some of which were adorned with carved birds while others had birds waiting to pop out of the doors when the hour chimed. Behind the counter stood two women, one of whom was the blonde who had spoken from the edge of the crowd. The other was an almost identical copy of her. They looked up as Gus approached.
“Can we help you?” they said in unison then looked at each other and giggled. Gus smiled. Normally, she’d start peppering them with questions, but she wasn’t here in an official police capacity, so she supposed she’d have to act like a nosy busybody. That was what her sister Willa did to wheedle information out of people when she butted into her cases back home. “Did you hear? That lady that spouts off about the birds just dropped dead out there.” Gus acted nonchalant, looking through one of the displays of bird-themed greeting cards. She wasn’t exactly sure that the girl who had been in the crowd knew that Vicky had died. She might have left before the woman collapsed. Either way, Gus was keen to see their reaction. “Vicky Smithers?” one of them asked.
Gus noticed they were wearing name tags. Apparently, one was named Comfort and the other Joy. Odd names, but she supposed if you lived in Christmas Village and gave birth to twins, they were appropriate. Gus shrugged. “I think someone called her Vicky.” “Wait, she’s dead?” Comfort looked at Joy. “I thought you said she passed out.” “I thought she did.” Joy looked mildly disturbed. Was she just acting? Had she known that Vicky was dead? Maybe she’d left the scene early on purpose so as to not look too interested in the victim’s fate.
“Afraid not. They weren’t able to revive her.” Not that anyone really tried to revive her, since it was clear that she was gone right away. Gus tried to look as if something had just dawned on her. “Oh, I suppose that’s good news for you guys. Aren’t you in charge of all the birds here in Christmas Village?” “Yes, we are,” Joy said cheerfully. “I mean, it’s not good news for us, though. We didn’t want anyone to die.” “How did she die?” Comfort asked. Gus studied her to see if she was being coy.
If Comfort and Joy had murdered Vicky, then they would know exactly how she died. “I don’t know. She just keeled over.” “Heart attack?” Joy sounded like she was hoping the police would think that. “She was kind of young for a heart attack, wasn’t she?” Gus asked, trying to draw more information out of them. “Yeah, but she got worked up about a lot of stuff,” Comfort said. “Maybe all that stress and negativity did her in. What did the police say?” “They mentioned something about natural causes.” Comfort and Joy stared at her. Did they appear to be relieved? If they’d poisoned Vicky, then they should be practically gleeful if the police would attribute the death to natural causes.
But there was a problem though. Comfort and Joy obviously weren’t exactly on friendly terms with Vicky, so how would they have been able to get her to ingest poison? Comfort had been in the crowd. Could she have slipped Vicky something? Gus made a mental note to see if she could find out when and what Vicky had last eaten and what poisons might be slower acting. Gus didn’t remember any water or coffee cup around, so she didn’t think someone had slipped it into anything Vicky was drinking. And if the husband was bringing her food, then that probably meant she hadn’t just eaten, unless someone had given her a snack of some sort. Maybe a cookie or some chocolates or even fruitcake. If she were assigned to this case as sheriff, she could simply find out what the victim had eaten from the autopsy. She could probably find out what type of poison had killed her, too, if it was indeed poison. But she wasn’t working this case in an official capacity. She’d have to resort to sneakier methods.
For the first time, she realized how hard it must be for Willa to investigate all those murders back home. Maybe she should go easier on her. Willa did come up with some halfway decent solutions, and Gus grudgingly admitted her efforts did help solve the crime, sometimes. Gus had never realized before how difficult that must be even with Willa’s unnaturally smart cat. She inspected one of the large bird cages. “I suppose it is disturbing when someone in the village dies, but without her around, your lives will be a lot easier, right?” “Sure!” Joy eagerly agreed. “She was making quite a ruckus, and people were starting to… hey…wait a minute, you’re not insinuating that we killed her, are you?” “No, of course not. Though I did hear something about her getting your bird-keeping permits pulled…” Comfort and Joy started fluttering behind the counter. “Not true. Well, she did try, but we’ve done nothing wrong.
” “Yeah, we keep the birds happy and healthy. Just look at them.” Joy gestured toward the window that overlooked the village green. High atop bountiful nests in a shed decorated like a Swiss chalet sat the geese-a-laying. All six of them seemed to be happily settled into their cozy nests. At the far end of the pond, the swans a-swimming glided blissfully. Beyond the swans was a tree laden with golden delicious pears. A little brown bird—the partridge, Gus presumed—poked its head out from under a shrub, looked around, and then darted back into the shrub. The partridge seemed happy. And Gus had heard the calling birds squawking their heads off earlier that morning.
They were quite healthy, if the volume of their ear-piercing calls was any indication. But just because the birds were healthy and happy didn’t mean that Comfort and Joy hadn’t killed Vicky. “I suppose they do look happy, but still when people start poking around in your business, it can get sticky,” Gus said. Comfort and Joy glared at her. The vibe was no longer friendly, and Gus figured she might have worn out her welcome. “Sure, it was a pain the way she kept putting up those flyers and spouting off about the birds, but our permits were in good standing, and we have no violations. Just ask Mary Dunn down at the town hall. She’s in charge of making sure the tourist attractions are in compliance. She’ll tell you we had nothing to worry about.”