Christmas has come to Cabot Cove, but a peaceful holiday season is not in the cards after Jessica Fletcher is pulled into a centuries-old mystery in the latest entry in this USA Today bestselling series.
With work on the reconstruction of her beloved home almost complete, Jessica Fletcher is in high holiday spirits, spearheading the annual Christmas parade and preparing for her nephew Grady and his family to come to town. The only thing dampening the holiday cheer is the discovery of two sets of bones on Jessica’s property: one set ancient, the other only about a year old. It’s concluded that they were both placed there during the reconstruction, and Jessica suspects that, despite the centuries between them, the remains might be connected.
Soon tabloid reporter Tad Hollenbeck arrives in Cabot Cove to write a story about what he calls “the murder capital of the country.” But when Tad himself is murdered, Jessica speculates that his arrival, his death, and the discovery of the bones are all somehow linked.
As Jessica digs deeper to find the connection between the bones and Tad’s murder, everything seems to come back to a mystery that has long plagued Cabot Cove. If she wants to solve the case, she’ll need to delve into her beloved town’s dark history, or else this holiday season may be her last....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The holidays are murder, I tell you."
I smiled through the steam rising off my tea and lowered the cup back to its saucer. "Can I take that to mean you won't be out caroling this year?" I said to Dr. Seth Hazlitt across the table at Mara's Luncheonette.
"Have you ever heard me sing, Jess?"
"As a matter of fact-"
"Question answered then, ayuh. But there is the matter of the annual Christmas parade."
"Please tell me I don't have to play Mrs. Claus again."
"If I have to play Santa, you have to play Mrs. Claus. That's the deal."
"When exactly did I agree to that?"
"The first time you said yes."
"That was five years ago."
"Just one more year, Jess. I promise."
"That's what you said last year . . . and the year before."
"Did I?" Seth mused, fingering his chin. "Must've slipped my mind. No surprise, given that I'm a year older. That's the best thing about aging: It gives you an excuse to ask people to do what you know they don't want to. Tell you what-you find someone to replace me as Santa this year and you're off the hook. At least, according to the forecast, we won't be dealing with any snow. Seasonal temperatures and clear skies-that's what the weatherman says, ayuh."
"It's weatherperson these days, Seth."
"Is it, now? And who exactly made that rule? Is it written down anywhere? Because I'd love to see it. In my mind, there are weathermen and weather ladies and they're both weather people."
Just then Sheriff Mort Metzger ambled through the door and joined us at the table, taking his usual seat. "I miss anything?"
"We were just exchanging Christmas wishes," Seth told him.
"In that case, here's mine," he said, tilting his gaze toward me. "A holiday season free of murder. How's that sound, Mrs. F.?"
"Works for me, Mort."
"Are you still going to visit your nephew Grady in New York?"
"Now that I'm back home, we decided to move the festivities here."
I'd long ago stopped counting the days since the fire that had nearly cost me my life forced me from my beloved Victorian at 698 Candlewood Lane. I'd been staying in a suite at Cabot Cove's swanky Hill House hotel, weathering any number of setbacks encountered by the construction crew. The fire had spared the old home's structure and I'd done my utmost to preserve as many of the original period detail as possible. With a healthy insurance payout aiding the restoration, my instructions had been to spare no expense.
Three words I shall never speak again. I had witnessed any number of fitful stops and starts, do-overs, and alterations to the original reconstruction plans. I had remained steadfast in my desire to preserve as much of the house as possible and create a precise replica of what I'd lost, instructions that had proven impossible to comply with for several random, and often conflicting, reasons. I was forced to compromise and then compromise some more, leading to all those dreaded delays and cost overruns. The end result was an exterior beautifully true to its original form, but a newly minted interior with fresh character it would take some time for me to get used to.
The final and most recent setback, which had followed my being granted a provisional certificate of occupancy so I could move back in, was the need to replace the property's septic system after the current one failed final inspection.
"Why?" I'd asked the inspector, Carl Cragg, my fisherman friend Ethan's cousin.
"Because it's old."
"So am I. Should I be replaced, too?"
"Inspecting you isn't in my job description, Mrs. Fletcher. And the system's no longer up to code."
"It was up to code before the fire," I told him.
"Grandfathered," Carl Cragg explained. "The reconstruction of your home changed that status."
For the first time, I found myself wishing our quaint town had a more modern sewer system. In any case, the crew had begun digging this morning, with an additional few days' work in the offing. Today being Monday, with any luck they'd be done before Christmas Day on Sunday.
Across the table at Mara's, Seth Hazlitt shook his head, grinning warmly. "Grady Fletcher . . . It's been forever and a day since I've seen that boy."
"That boy is in his mid-thirties now with an eight-year-old boy of his own."
"About the age Grady was when he came to live with you, right, Mrs. F.?" Mort asked me. "When you were still living in Appleton."
I nodded. My late husband, Frank, and I had taken on the responsibility of raising Grady following a tragic accident that claimed the lives of his parents. Frank and I had stepped up, not hesitating to volunteer our efforts, which became the best decision we ever made. I often tell people that the happiest day of our lives was when we brought him home and the saddest was when he left for college. The proudest day of my life was when I played the role of parent at Grady and his beloved Donna's wedding. And they'd even named their son Frank after my beloved husband.
"The timing couldn't be better," I noted. "Celebrate my first Christmas back home with family."
"Does that mean I'm not invited?" Seth asked lightly.
"Are you bringing the pie?"
Seth nodded. "So long as you promise not to tell it was baked right here by Mara."
"Why?" Mort asked him. "As I recall, Doc, your own baking efforts didn't exactly win any ribbons."
"How do you know?"
"Because I was one of the judges at the Founders Celebration the year you entered. Enough said?"
Seth frowned. "I suppose. Baking is women's work anyway."
Which drew a broad grin from Mort. "Did you hear that, Mrs. F.? We've got us a genuine dinosaur here. Wake up and smell the new century, Doc. It sure beats the scent of your strawberry rhubarb, from what I recall."
Mort cast me a wink, as Seth's features crinkled in a fashion typical of our very own town curmudgeon, who happened to still serve as primary care physician for a large chunk of Cabot Cove. Seth seemed to enjoy nothing more than pointing out, when we were out for a walk, all the folks he'd delivered as babies. It left me wondering if there was anyone native to our town he hadn't delivered.
"Anyway," I said to Mort, "I'd like to invite you and Adele over for Christmas dinner, too."
"That's mighty kind of you, Mrs. F., but . . ."
The sheriff of Cabot Cove seemed to be struggling for words. "It's just that, well, Adele isn't exactly the most sociable sort, you know."
"I know that's what you always say when I suggest inviting her to anything. Maybe I should give the woman a call, issue a personal invitation."
Mort looked less than enamored of the prospect of that. "Just don't let her bring any food, please. For your own good."
"That bad?" Seth asked him.
"Bad doesn't begin to describe it. Let me put it this way, Doc. Adele's first job was in the kitchen of a Howard Johnson's."
"That chain pretty much went out of business years ago."
"My point exactly."
My phone rang, an incoming call from the all-too-familiar number of my contractor, Ben McMasters.
"Don't spoil my breakfast," I greeted him.
"We've got a problem, Mrs. Fletcher."
"Oh no. What is it this time, Ben? Don't tell me you found a sinkhole when you dug out the old septic system."
"Actually, ma'am, we found a body."
It had been a body. Judging by the condition of the bones, though, that had been a long time ago.
"I feel like I'm dressed up for Halloween," Seth Hazlitt told Mort and me.
Seth's worn woolen suit and loafers were hardly conducive to an examination of those bones and an accompanying wooden chest, six feet down in a trench Ben McMasters's crew had dug to lay the fresh piping that would be connected to my new septic system. Ben had provided Seth a pair of coveralls, which he pulled over his clothes before donning the extra pair of work boots Ben always kept in his truck.
"They don't fit," Seth groused.
"Too big or too small, Doc?" Ben asked him.
Seth showcased the freedom his feet had to roam inside the worn lace-up boots. "What does it look like?"
"Hey, too big is better than too small."
"Not by too much."
As Cabot Cove's de facto coroner, Seth would perform a preliminary examination of the skeletal remains. We'd have to wait for a Maine State Police crime scene team to remove both the bones and the old wooden box the construction team's efforts had revealed. I watched Seth move awkwardly toward the ladder, appraising it the way one might a trip to a root canal specialist, as a pair of Cabot Cove deputies who'd arrived ahead of us to secure the scene looked on.
"Is this the first time you've dug this deep into my lawn?" I asked McMasters.
"You mean what used to be your lawn, don't you, Mrs. Fletcher?"
"Well, now that you mention it . . ."
"And the answer's yes, ma'am. Truth be told, nobody would have found those bones if the order to replace your septic system hadn't come down."
"Yup," said Mort, whose face crinkled the way it did when he'd swallowed something sour, "Mrs. Fletcher here seems to be so lucky when it comes to death. You might even say she attracts it."
I was too busy watching Seth descend the ladder to pay much attention to what Mort was saying. I had something else on my mind I wasn't ready to share with him yet, figuring it was better to listen to what Seth had to say once he climbed back out of the hole, or from down inside it.
"You've got that look, Mrs. F.," Mort said, moving in front of me just as I started to draw closer to the resting place of my septic system.
"What look is that?"
"Your 'I've got a secret' one. Care to share?"
"This isn't the first time I've replaced the septic system, Mort. The one they're ripping out was installed fifteen years ago, I think, give or take."
"So the workmen dug up this part of the lawn back then, too, and there were no bones to be found."
Mort took off his hat and rolled his eyes. "So you're saying the remains could have been here no more than fifteen years."
"Actually, I think somebody buried them here much more recently," I told him. "At some point while all the construction here was underway, sometime in the past few months."
"In which case, they must not have figured on the septic system replacement mandating the yard being dug up," Mort concluded, not bothering to argue my point.
"Neither did I."
"But it wasn't you who moved the bones here, right, Mrs. F.?"
"Not that I remember, anyway," I quipped. "And you said it perfectly, Mort, when you used the word moved. Those bones, and whatever's in that chest, must have been hidden somewhere else for a time, maybe a long time, before somebody found their opportunity to stash them where he or she figured they'd never be found."
"In your backyard. Which proves my point."
"What point was that?"
Mort fitted his hat back over his still-thick hair, sprinkled with more dabs of gray now. "That you attract death, at least murder."
"You're assuming the person those bones belonged to was murdered."
"I prefer to wait and see where the evidence takes me."
He rolled his eyes again, then cast his gaze toward the hole into which Seth Hazlitt had disappeared. "With you, Mrs. F., it always leads to the same place."
Seth looked almost comical trudging about the bottom of the six-foot trench in the bulky work overalls and oversized work boots. He looked bloated, puffy with air, his feet sloshing around the mud that lined the trench thanks to Cabot Cove's high water table. He almost fell a few times and banged up against the trench's earthen walls on several occasions.
He'd finally gotten himself steadied enough to crouch amid the mud to examine the mix-matched clutter of bones, which looked as if they'd been dumped into the hole like the contents of a trash bag.
"I can tell you they're human, ayuh," he called up to us without changing the direction of his gaze.
I watched him sifting gently through the next layer of mud, coming out with several bones. Each time he plunged a hand into the muck, he seemed to come out with another one, at least a chipped fragment.
"These are the remains of a man-I can tell you that much," Seth said, finally looking our way.
"How can you be sure, given the bones' degraded condition?" Mort said down to him.
"Narrow pelvic cavity. Women have much wider ones, so babies can pass through."
Mort sneaked a peek down toward his belt buckle. "Right. I knew that. Must've forgot. That all?"
"Not quite," Seth said, examining what looked to be a section of skull large enough to be recognizable. "This man's been dead a real long time. I can tell by the degraded remains of his teeth. He lived in a time before dentists and oral care became the norm, that's for sure."
"Care to be more specific?"
"I'd be guessing."
"Then by all means," Mort urged, "guess."
"Late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. I'll be able to narrow it down much further with an accelerator mass spectrometer to do a proper radiocarbon test."
"You don't have an accelerator mass spectrometer, Seth," I reminded him.
"Because our good sheriff keeps taking it out of my budget requests. If I had one of the darn things, I'd be able to do a more proper job as medical examiner."
"De facto medical examiner," Mort corrected.
Seth was inspecting the skull in his gloved hands. "De facto or not, this medical examiner can tell you there's a symmetrical depression in this skull here."
"A result of blunt-force trauma, you think?" Mort queried, squinting to see the skull better.
"A fall would be just as likely," Seth said, looking up at us and then at the rungs he had grasped on his way down. "Maybe got pushed off a ladder."
"Don't give me any ideas, Doc."
Seth stopped suddenly when his furrowing about the muddy floor of the trench revealed another bone that looked to have suffered far less degradation, with remnants of decaying flesh that still hadn't totally decomposed. Several more followed that must've been similarly dumped, but a bit off to the right of the original find. I thought I saw Seth's eyes bulge, before he rose from a crouch and clambered up the ladder, his too-big work boots slipping off the rungs. He actually lost one altogether as he neared the top rung and accepted Mort's help to boost him from the hole so as not to have to put pressure on his stockinged foot.