Table of Contents
“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE DOING THIS,” MARY SAID.
“I’m not doing anything, Mary, except trying to get some answers. Which, I might add, could help your husband. I don’t believe he murdered Rory Brent.”
“You don’t?” Mary said. “What makes you such an expert? You write books, that’s all. The evidence is against him, as sad as that might be. Please leave.”
As I reached for the doorknob, I was startled by the sound of heavy footsteps on the porch outside. My hand froze in mid-motion. There was no need for me to open the door because Jake Walther did. He pushed it open with such force that it almost knocked me over. He stepped inside and slammed the door behind him.
He had a crazed look in his eyes.
The smell of alcohol on his breath was overwhelming.
And the sight of the shotgun he carried was sobering.
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First Printing, October 1998
Copyright © 1998 Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. Murder, She Wrote is a trademark and copyright of Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
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eISBN : 978-1-440-67346-7
For Zachary, Alexander, and Jacob,
through whose innocent eyes the mystery,
majesty, and promise of the
Christmas spirit lives.
And for Roy Kramer, lawyer and accountant,
who defines what friendship means,
and Billie Kramer, his partner in decency.
“The meeting will come to order!”
We’d gathered in the Cabot Cove Memorial Hall, built after World War II to honor those from our town who’d given their lives, literally and figuratively, defending the country. It soon became a popular place for meetings and social events, especially when large numbers of people were involved. This meeting to plan the upcoming annual Christmas festival certainly qualified. The hall was packed with citizens, most of whom came simply to listen—or to get out of the house during that dreary first week of December—and for some, to offer their ideas on how this year’s festival should be conducted.
Cabot Cove’s Christmas festival had started small a couple of dozen years ago, consisting back then of townspeople getting together on Christmas Eve and going from house to house to enjoy cider and cookies, singing carols all the way. But as the years passed, the festival became more ambitious. Today it evolves over an entire week, and has become one of Maine’s leading tourist attractions. People come from all over to participate in what’s been billed as “America’s most traditional Christmas celebration.” Hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts for miles around are booked as much as a year ahead. Some claimed it had gotten out of hand, becoming too commercialized. Others reveled in the town’s national reputation as an oasis in a commercial Christmas world, where tradition reigns. No matter what the view, the festival had taken on a life of its own, and most Cabot Cove citizens got caught up in the excitement and were enthusiastic participants.
I was delighted to be there, not only because I enjoyed participating in the planning, but because for the first time in a few years I would actually be home during the holiday season. I’d found myself traveling on previous holidays, usually to promote my newest murder mystery, or sometimes simply because invitations extended me were too appealing to pass up. But even though I’d spent previous Christmases in some wonderful, even exotic locations, I always felt a certain ache and emptiness at being away from my dear friends, and from the town I loved and called home.
The meeting was being chaired by our mayor, Jim Shevlin. Seated with him at a long table on a raised platform were representatives from the public library, the Chamber of Commerce, the town historic society (sometimes snidely known as the “town hysterical society”), local political clubs, the fire and police departments, the volunteer ambulance corps, and local hospital, schools, and, of course, the standing decorating committee, which each year turned our lovely small village into a festival of holiday lights.
Shevlin again called for order. People eventually took seats and ended their conversations.
“It’s gratifying to see so many of you here this morning,” Shevlin said, an engaging smile breaking across his handsome Irish face. “This promises to be the biggest and best holiday festival ever.”
People applauded, including me and Dr. Seth Hazlitt, my good friend with whom I sat in the front row. He leaned close to my ear and said, “Jimmy always says it’s going to be the biggest and the best.”
I raised my eyebrows, looked at him, and said, “And it usually is.”
“Hard for you to say, Jessica, considerin’ you haven’t been here in a spell to make comparisons.”
“But from what I hear, each year tops the previous one. Besides, I’ll be here this year.”
“And a good thing you will,” Seth said. “This is where Jessica Fletcher ought to be spendin’ her Christmases.”
I was used to mild admonishment from Seth, knowing he always meant well, even though his tone could be taken at times as being harsh and scolding. I returned my attention to the dais, where Shevlin introduced the chairwoman of the decorating committee. She went through a long list of things the committee planned to do this year, including renting for the first time a large searchlight to project red and green lights into the sky above the town. This resulted in a heated debate about whether a searchlight was too commercial and tacky for Cabot Cove. Eventually, Mayor Shevlin suggested the searchlight idea be put on hold until further discussions could be held.
As such meetings tend to do, this one dragged on beyond a reasonable length. It seemed everyone wanted to have a say, and did. During the presentation of how the schoolchildren would participate I noticed someone missing at the dais. I turned to Seth. “Where’s Rory?” I asked.
Seth leaned forward and scanned faces at the long head table. “You’re right, Jessica,” he said. “Rory hasn’t missed a holiday planning meeting for as long as I can remember.”
Rory Brent was a prosperous local farmer who’d played Santa Claus at our holiday festival for the past fifteen years. He was born to the role. Brent was a big, outgoing man with a ready, infectious laugh. He easily weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, and had a full head of flowing white hair and a bushy white beard to match. No makeup needed. He was Santa Claus. His custom was to attend the planning meeting fully dressed in his Santa costume, which he proudly dragged out of mothballs each year, stitched up gaps in the seams, had cleaned and pressed, and wore to the meeting.
“Is he ill?” I asked.