It was Christmas in Lickin Creek, and all through the town something was stirring..The borough council was quarreling about the color of the Christmas lights. A social worker wouldn't let a living baby be part of the town's living crèche. And some ladies were stretching the limits of their leotards in a pageant called the Nutcracker. All in all, former New Yorker Tori Miracle was basking in the quaint glow of her adopted Pennsylvania town, when suddenly the season went sour. A boy was missing. A thirty-year-old mystery resurfaced. And now two people have been murdered. With her boyfriendthe town police chiefout of town, Tori must help his befuddled replacement. And what she finds out, or should be finding out, is making Tori the next targetof someone only in the mood for murder....
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O come all ye faithful
The stone spires of trinity evangelical Church hovered like gray ghosts in the star-studded darkness above Lickin Creek. Brilliant splashes of colored light streamed from the church's authentic Tiffany windows and lay on the snow-covered brick sidewalk like gleaming jewels spilled from a pirate's treasure chest. The air was warmer now than earlier this afternoon when the first snow of the season had fallen on this small, pre-Civil War town.
Garnet had left his huge blue monster-truck with me to use while he was in Costa Rica, but I still had trouble manipulating it in tight places, so I parked on the street rather than trying to squeeze into one of the narrow spaces in the church parking lot.
I was scheduled to photograph the cast of the Lickin Creek Community Theatre rehearsing the annual Christmas pageant, and as usual I was running latebut only by half an hour tonight, a definite improvement. Was it my fault that three churches in the borough had trinity in their names? I'd been unfortunate enough to visit the other two first.
I grabbed my canvas fanny pack, my notebook, and the Chronicle's antique camera, and ran toward the neo-Gothic building. After trying the front doors and finding them locked, I finally entered the church through a side entrance, which was an anachronism of glass and aluminum decorated with a wreath of plastic greenery and ribbons. I found myself in a long beige hallway, facing a row of closed doors on either side.
After disturbing the choir at practice and barging into an Alcoholics Anonymous group meeting in the nursery, I followed a trail of noise down a flight of concrete steps and through a set of double doors into a basement room that ran the length of the church. To my left was a small kitchen, separated
from the larger room by a waist-high counter on which stood several stainless steel coffee urns and many heaping platters of cookies.
The main part of the hall, on my right, was packed with people, mostly women. I recognized several members of the Lickin Creek borough council as well as several county commissioners, and I guessed this was the politically correct basement to be in this cold winter evening. Some people wrestled with an enormous pile of evergreens in one corner, while others sat on metal folding
chairs in small groups, chatting and drinking from Styrofoam cups. The rows of flickering fluorescent lights overhead cast an odd lavender glow on everyone
Six women stood on the stage at the far end of the room, silently studying their scripts. I relaxed when I realized that the rehearsal had not
yet begun. I'd be able to get my pictures and be on my way home to feed my cats in a few minutes. The thought of a cozy evening at home with Fred and Noel, watching a good sci-fi film on TV, was almost too pleasurable to bear.
A middle-aged woman filling sugar containers at the kitchen counter waved at me. "Hey, Tori. Nice to see you again. We've got some great goodiesif you like chocolate." The congenial speaker was Ginnie Welburn. I'd met her a few times at various functions, and although she was ten or twelve years older than I, we were drawn to each other by virtue of both being relative newcomers to Lickin Creek.
I grinned at Ginnie and patted my fanny pack. "Do I like chocolate? Where do you think these hips came from?"
"Good, that Lori Miracle's here from the paper." The voice came from a woman on the stage who was swaddled in a politically incorrect but drop-dead-gorgeous mink coat. I recognized her as Bernice Roadcap, who, along with her husband, was a well-known local real estate developer.
"Come up here, Lori," she ordered. "We'uns is ready to have our picture taken."
Before I could say "It's Tori," a full-bodied matron stepped forward and protested, "We are not ready, Bernice. Weezie's not here yet."
As I walked toward the stage, Bernice turned to the woman who had just spoken. In my limited experience, nobody had ever crossed Bernice Roadcap and I expected a battle, but she surprised me by saying in a meek voice, "Sorry, Oretta. I hadn't noticed."
The woman Bernice had addressed as Oretta stepped to stage front, planted her hands on her hips, and balanced herself on wide-apart feet. She wore an enormous pale-blue polyester pantsuit and a blouse covered with pink and purple hibiscus blossoms. Around her throat was a choker of silver and amber beads, so tight I wondered how she swallowed. Looking at her, I promised myself I most
definitely would restart my diet tomorrow. I know how it happens; one night you go to bed a size ten and you wake up the next morning an eighteen.
Not a hair dared to move in her bright gold bouffant as she glared down at me. "You're the new Chronicle editor?" It was more an accusation than a question.
I couldn't keep from staring at her gravity-defying bosom. I had no idea anyone still manufactured corsets like that. Maybe a special order? I fought back a giggle and said, "I'd like to take the picture now. I have other stops to make."
"We always have our picture taken during the final, dramatic ending of the pageant rehearsal. You'd know that if you weren't new to town."
"I really don't have time to wait," I said. "I'll just snap a picture or two and"
Oretta tapped her foot. She was staring at me as though I'd lost my mind. "You'll wait until the end. It's the way we've always done it!" she announced.
In the short time I'd lived in Lickin Creek, I'd become very familiar with that phrase and its evil twin, "We've never done it that way." Hit me with a two-by-four half a dozen times and I get the idea. There was no use in arguing; I might as well find a comfortable place to park myself for the next hour.
Oretta turned to face her cast. "No point in waiting for Weezie any longer. She doesn't have any lines near the beginning, anyway. Places, everybody. Bernice, stand over therestage rightnext to the palm tree. Have you all highlighted your parts? It would be nice to hear you reading the right lines tonight." She glared at one of the hapless women, who seemed
to shrink several inches. Another rummaged through her purse, extracted a bright yellow marking pen, and began to diligently mark her script.
Silently cursing myself for being such a wimp, I shrugged off my jacket and took a seat on a metal folding chair in the front row. Ginnie Welburn appeared next to me bearing a cup of steaming coffee and a couple of cookies
wrapped in a red paper napkin. "Thought you might like some nourishment," she said with a grin.
"How did this happen to me?" I whispered, accepting the gift. Little Santa faces smiled at me from the napkin.
"Whatever Oretta Clopper wants, Oretta Clopper gets," Ginnie said. "She's one of those natural forces you just can't fight."
"Who is she? The name's familiar. Isn't the new borough manager named Jackson Clopper? Are they married?"
Ginnie snickered. "Don't let her hear you ask that. Oretta's the ultimate snob, and in her opinion, Jackson crawled out of the lower depths when he was hired to be borough manager and should be made to return there as soon as possible. I believe her husband, Mataviouswho's almost a doctorand Jackson are some sort of fifth cousins once removed, or whatever they call it around here."