Lee Barrett has landed her dream job at Salem’s WICH-TV. As the new field reporter, she’ll be covering events live as they’re unfolding. Next on her holiday checklist is an interview with the beloved chairman of a popular walking tour through Salem’s historic districts. But it may be his ghost walking this snowy Noel season after Lee finds him murdered in his stately offices, bloody Santa hat askew.
With her police detective boyfriend working the case and a witch’s brew of suspects—including some bell-ringing Santas—Lee chases down leads aided and abetted by her wise cat O’Ryan and some unsettling psychic visions of her own. When a revealing clue leads to another dead body, not even a monster blizzard can stop Lee from inching closer to the truth . . . and a scoop that could spell her own demise this killer Christmas.
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“An entertaining story that keeps readers guessing until the very twisted and eerie end.” —RT Book Reviews
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It was the first day of December in Salem, Massachusetts, my hometown. Wanda the Weather Girl had advised the WICH-TV audience to expect afternoon snow flurries and overnight plunging temperatures and, as the old song says, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I've been associated with the local TV station in one way or another for a couple of years, but this December first was also the beginning of a brand-new broadcasting position for me.
I'm Lee Barrett, née Maralee Kowalski, thirty-two, red-haired, Salem born, orphaned early, married once, and widowed young. I wasn't nervous about the new job. I have a solid background in TV — Emerson College graduate, worked in Miami as a home shopping show host, did a stint on a network weather channel, taught Television Production at a local school, and even spent a short time as a TV call-in psychic. (Not too proud of that one,)
My boss at the station, Bruce Doan, likes all of his employees to wear more than one hat, so in addition to doing occasional investigative reports on the late news, I'd just become WICH-TV's newest field reporter and I was excited about it. It meant that I'd be covering events on location, reporting from the scene where news was happening. It was, I thought, a dream job come true, and just in time for Christmas.
The holiday season is a big deal in Salem. It seems that everything that can hold a lightbulb blazes brightly, and since the year's theme was "Ring in the Holidays in Salem," a whole lot of bell jingling was going on too. My Aunt Ibby had even tied a bell with a red ribbon onto our cat O'Ryan's collar. He was not pleased about it. Aunt Ibby and I share the big old family home on Winter Street, where I have my own apartment on the third floor.
So far on my first morning as a field reporter, I'd stood in front of the bandstand on Salem Common telling the audience about the traditions involved in the decoration of the annual community Christmas tree there. Next, I'd visited with a group of veterans who repaired and repainted donated used bicycles for underprivileged kids as part of a Veterans Helping Santa program.
There was nothing further listed on my schedule until an eleven o'clock appointment with Albert Eldridge. Mr. Eldridge was, among other things, chairman of the Holiday Walk committee, overseeing a popular walking tour through one of Salem's beautifully decorated historic districts. So by nine-thirty Francine, the mobile unit driver/photographer, and I were headed back to the waterfront TV station on Derby Street where a light dusting of snow had begun to fall.
Having the opportunity to work with some of my old friends at WICH-TV on a daily basis made this new job even better. I checked in with Rhonda, the way-smarter-than-she-looks receptionist. "How'd you like your first morning?" she wanted to know. "I watched the Christmas tree segment. You looked good. If you were nervous it didn't show."
"Not nervous," I said. "Excited."
She leaned across the curved purple Formica-topped reception desk, pushing aside an improbable arrangement of glitter-sprinkled lavender poinsettias. "Okay, tell me everything," she said. "You still dating the hot cop?" The "hot cop" in question was detective Pete Mondello and the answer was a resounding "yes." Still dating, still a cop, and definitely, still hot.
I caught her up on recent day-to-day happenings in my sometimes ordinary, sometimes very strange life — carefully omitting the stranger parts. "Aunt Ibby is going to London for the holidays," I told her. "Her friend Nigel invited her when he was here last year."
"Oh? Good for her. But does that mean you'll be alone for Christmas?"
"Not alone," I said. "O'Ryan will be with me and, anyway, Pete's sister and brother-in-law have invited me for Christmas dinner at their house."
"That'll be nice," Rhonda said. "Did you know that the Doans are inviting everybody to a Christmas Eve party here at the station?"
"Got my invitation. I'll probably go." Sometimes Pete volunteers to work on holidays so that officers with kids can be with their families. That meant there was a pretty good chance I'd be spending Christmas Eve with my friends at WICH-TV. New Year's Eve is always reserved for Pete though.
It didn't take long for Rhonda and me to catch up on each other's lives the way good friends can and by ten-fifteen Francine already had the mobile van parked in front of the building, engine running and heater cranked up when she phoned. "Ready to roll, Lee? If this snow doesn't stop you'll have to do your interview with the old guy indoors instead of in front of the fancy-ass mansions."
I glanced at my watch. She was right. We'd be a little early for our appointment, but if Mr. Eldridge wanted to give viewers a peek at some wonderfully decorated old homes we'd better do it right away before blowing snow made filming difficult. I said good-bye to Rhonda, pulled up the fake fur collar of my plaid wool jacket, plunked a knit hat over red hair gone wild, and hurried downstairs. The snow had picked up in intensity. Not the soft, fluffy kind, but the icy, face-stinging variety. I hurried along the sidewalk to the waiting van, pausing only to stuff a few dollars into a camo-painted kettle manned by a bell-ringing Santa with an obviously fake beard and a just-as-obviously genuine smile. I climbed into the passenger seat. "Let's roll."
It's not far from Derby Street to Washington Square, so within minutes we pulled up in front of what one might describe as a stately brick home. A discreet black and gold sign over an exquisite Samuel MacIntire carved doorway identified it as Historical Charities of Salem. The annual Holiday Walk was just one of the numerous fund-raisers Albert Eldridge chaired throughout the year. Some of the proceeds went to maintenance and restoration of Salem's many historical sites and buildings. Other funds supported veterans' causes, aid to needy families, a community Bookmobile (my librarian aunt's favorite) and — especially at holiday time — toys for kids. I felt honored to be able to meet and interview such a prominent and important citizen.
While Francine remained in the van, making camera, sound, and lighting adjustments, I climbed the stairs to the handsome front door and, following instructions posted on the glass inset, entered the reception areas without knocking or ringing. A cushy oriental runner on a polished hardwood floor led to a massive mahogany desk where a diminutive gray-haired woman welcomed me with a smile. A fragrant Scotch pine Christmas tree with Victorian-themed ornaments stood to one side of the desk and a tall wing chair upholstered in green and gold stripes flanked the other. Several comfortable looking club chairs were arranged attractively around the long room.
Only the white plastic topped metal table next to the door seemed out of place. An untidy row of cardboard boxes, canvas bags, and plastic tubs, all filled with a variety of items, were spread across the top. More boxes were piled beneath the folding legs. I saw canned goods, cake mixes, shampoo bottles, candy bars, detergents, packages of diapers. A pile of stamped envelopes in a wire basket marked "outgoing" beside a matching one marked "incoming" was at the end closest to the door. A tall barrel marked "Toys" stood at the opposite end.
"Good morning. May I help you?" The smiling woman greeted me from behind the desk. I handed her a business card, one of my new ones identifying me as Field Reporter. "I'm Lee Barrett," I said. "I'm early for an eleven o'clock appointment with Mr. Eldridge."
"Oh, yes." She peered at the card through granny glasses perched at the end of her nose. "Lee Barrett. Of course. I've seen you on TV. You're Isobel Russell's niece, Maralee. She speaks so highly of you."
"You know my Aunt Ibby?" I wasn't surprised. In her position as head research librarian at Salem's main library, I think my aunt has met just about everybody in Salem at least once.
"Yes indeed. She and I are both members of the Christmas Belles, you know. We're going to start rehearsals this week for our holiday concert." She offered her hand across the broad expanse of desktop. "I'm Lillian Jeffry. Mr. Eldridge's secretary."
"How do you do, Ms. Jeffry. My aunt has told me about the Belles. Sounds like a lively group of musicians."
"We do have a grand time together." She glanced at a grandfather's clock in the corner. "You're quite early for your appointment. Mr. Eldridge likes to keep a timely schedule so I'll announce you at precisely eleven. Meanwhile, just make yourself comfortable." She waved a hand toward the wing chair. "If you'll excuse me, I'll continue with my work while we chat. Mr. Eldridge likes to have all of his holiday cards hand addressed, and as you might imagine, a man of his stature has hundreds of friends." I started toward the chair she'd indicated. "Oh, just a moment, dear. While you're up would you add these cards to the outgoing basket? The letter carrier should be along any minute." I accepted a stack of envelopes, admiring perfect cursive, mentally comparing it to my own back hand scrawl, and added them to the pile.
"You have beautiful handwriting," I said. "No wonder Mr. Eldridge likes to have you address his cards." I paused in front of the table. "Are all of these things for needy people?"
"Yes. Sorry if it looks a little bit messy. People come in and leave donations. Then some of our people pick them up and take them to the right charities. Toys for the kids, new socks and underwear for the vets, diapers go to the battered women's shelter, candy for all of them." She smiled. "I know it looks disorganized, but it really runs quite smoothly. Things come and go from that table all day long. Look, here comes the letter carrier now."
The postman entered, said, "Hi, Lilly. Stayin' out of trouble?" Not waiting for an answer he picked up the outgoing stack of envelopes, dropped a few pieces of mail into the incoming basket, and hurried away.
"'Bye Howie," she said to the already closed door.
The grandfather's clock chimed eleven. "All right, Lee. I think you can go right on into Mr. Eldridge's office now. I know he's expecting you. I checked just a little while ago to see if he wanted me to order some lunch for him, but he's so deep into his work he didn't even answer. A break will do him good. He's been poring over the books since I got here this morning."
"Thanks. We're going to try to do the shoot outside. He'll probably enjoy the fresh air." I walked carefully across the polished floor, hoping the heels of my boots wouldn't mar its perfection, and tapped gently on the door marked "A. Eldridge" before pushing it open.
It was a beautiful room, as one might expect in such a house. Here was more oriental carpeting on gleaming floors and portraits of distinguished men and elegant women lining cream-colored walls. Ashes from a dying fire smoldered in a wonderful huge fireplace with boughs of fragrant evergreen and holly arranged on the mantelpiece. Mr. Eldridge, chin resting on his chest, red Santa hat slightly askew, appeared to be concentrating on a book that lay on his desk. I approached from the right side of his desk. "Mr. Eldridge?" I said. "I'm Lee Barrett from the television station. We have an appointment." No reply. I shook his shoulder gently. "Mr. Eldridge?" The chair rolled back and the man slid forward ever so slowly, feet first, until almost all of him was under the desk. Just his head and shoulders remained propped against the chair seat, the Santa hat at a rakish angle covering one eye. The other eye was open, bloodshot, unseeing.
I backed out of the office. "Ms. Jeffry," I said, trying hard to remain calm. "Please call 911."CHAPTER 2
Ms. Jeffry's eyes widened. Her jaw dropped, mouth open. But, good secretary that she was, she reached for the phone, dialed 911. "Tell them we need an ambulance." I struggled to maintain a normal tone. "Something is wrong with Mr. Eldridge."
She repeated my words, gave the address, dropped the phone, and ran for the open office door. "The ambulance will be here soon," I said. "Maybe we shouldn't touch him." Ignoring my warning, she knelt beside his chair, pushed the Santa hat aside, and pressed anxious fingers against the side of his neck.
"Cold," she murmured. "So cold."
Sirens sounded outside. Francine appeared in the doorway. "What's going on? There's an ambulance out there. Holy crap!" She moved closer. "Is that him? The guy we're supposed to interview? What happened?"
"I don't know." Steering Francine back toward the reception area, I looked over my shoulder to where the kneeling woman rocked slowly back and forth, shoulders trembling. "He looked as though he was just sitting there, reading," I whispered. "I shook his shoulder and ..." I shrugged, unable to finish the sentence.
"Oh, wow." Francine covered her mouth with one hand. "You shoved him out of his chair like that? Is he dead? Oh, wow!"
I'd just begun to protest the "shoved him out of his chair" part, when two uniformed EMTs, one man and one woman, wheeled a stretcher past us and into the office. The woman gently helped Ms. Jeffry to her feet and guided her to where Francine and I waited in the doorway. The man moved the chair aside, lowering his silent patient to the floor.
The woman, whose embroidered name tag read T. J. Wells, faced us while her partner focused his attention on Albert Eldridge. "What happened here?" she said. "Did any of you see him fall?" Wordlessly, Francine and Ms. Jeffry each looked at me.
"I ... I guess I was here when he slipped out of the chair," I said, watching as the male half of the team (name tag: Dom Marafa) placed latex-gloved fingers on the patient's neck, much the way Ms. Jeffry had, shook his head, turned Mr. Eldridge onto his left side, then looked directly at me. "He slipped out?"
"I thought he was asleep. I shook his shoulder to wake him up. Then he just kind of slid out of the chair. I told Ms. Jeffry and she called 911."
"Uh-huh." Marafa touched the back of Mr. Eldridge's head, then carefully removing both gloves and placing them into a red bag, he stood and walked toward us. "T. J., note male patient. Unresponsive. Minimal rigor. Call off SFD. No need. I'll phone in the triple zero." Facing us, he closed the door of the office behind him. "I'm going to call for some police assistance and we'll need to get a little information from you ladies."
I've spent enough time with my detective boyfriend to know what triple zero means. It means that there's no point in performing CPR or attaching cardiac monitor leads, that the patient is beyond their help. Calling off the Salem Fire Department's emergency vehicle offered further proof. Marafa turned his back and spoke into his phone. T. J. Wells spoke softly into her own phone, then, with pen and pad poised, nodded in the secretary's direction. "The patient's name?"
Ms. Jeffry drew herself up to her full height of about five feet, and answered in a firm voice. "He's Albert Eldridge. Executive Director of Historical Charities of Salem. He is a very important man."
"Why are they calling the police?" Francine stage-whispered. "Should I get my camera?"
"No camera," Marafa returned the phone to his utility belt and faced me. "You're Lee Barrett, aren't you? I recognize you from TV. Are you here on some kind of TV business?"
I nodded. "We're here on assignment. An interview." I shrugged and glanced toward the closed office door.
"Okay. I see. Will you ladies give T. J. your full names and addresses, please? The police are on their way."
Ms. Jeffry had resumed her seat behind the desk. She'd placed a box of tissues in front of her. "I'm sorry to say it, but I think Mr. Eldridge may be dead. I touched him, you know. His skin felt cold. Quite cold."
My investigative reporter hat was firmly in place. There was no doubt in my mind that Albert Eldridge was dead. The EMT had told his partner to note "minimum rigor." That meant that rigor mortis had begun and the man had been dead for some hours before I'd touched his shoulder. Besides that, I was quite sure I'd seen a red streak on one of Marafa's gloves after he'd touched the back of Mr. Eldridge's head.
Maybe the very important man didn't die of natural causes.
One at a time, we gave T. J. the requested information. By the time she'd snapped her notebook shut, and Francine and I had each unzipped our warm jackets and chosen one of those comfortable club chairs, the sound of sirens once again split the wintry air. Two uniformed police officers joined us. The room, which at first glance had seemed quite large, had begun to feel crowded. Marafa, once again gloved, opened the office door and the police, one at a time, looked inside but didn't enter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bells, Spells, And Murders"
Copyright © 2018 Carol J. Perry.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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