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Gnome Alone Excerpt!


I've been experimenting with ways to post excerpts. Downloadable PDF? One of those online magazine things? I decided to try just old-school blogging it. If you have a preference, please let me know in the comments. And now...


GNOME ALONE

By

Kirsten Weiss


About Gnome Alone

Christmas is coming… and so is murder…

It’s holiday season in small-town Doyle, and the town is pivoting from UFO tourism to Bigfoot Days. For Susan Witsend, the owner of Doyle’s only UFO-themed B&B, presents a branding conundrum.

But when Bigfoot is blamed for a mass garden gnome theft, control-freak Susan is drafted to track down the kidnapped gnomes. And then the holiday season hits another sour note with the murder of a member of her caroling group. Are Susan’s organization skills up to juggling missing gnomes and tracking down a killer in time to ring in the festivities?

Because as Susan unwraps motives and alibis, she finds herself adding more names to the naughty list. She may have to face some hard truths about her own limits and about just how far a not-so-jolly killer will go…

Gnome Alone is book five in the laugh-out-loud Wits’ End mystery series. A fast-paced and funny cozy mystery, packed with quirky characters, pets, and murder! It’s perfect for fans of Jana DeLeon, Janet Evanovich, and Donna Andrews. Beam up this hilarious cozy mystery and start reading today.

Susan’s Bigfoot Investigation Protocol at the back of the book!



Chapter One


“Bigfoot's been messing with our garden gnomes.” Mr. Gomez’s brows drew down in a glower.

I studied the three elderly men, bundled in parkas and fur-lined boots. Bracing one mittened hand on Mr. Gomez’s mudroom wall, I knocked more snow off my boots. “Ah... I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with that.”

Mr. Gomez’s frown deepened, his round face crinkling above his red scarf. His snowy hair stuck up in fierce licks, like an incoming mountain blizzard. “You're a detective, Susan, aren't you?”

“No, I'm really just nosy.” Okay. I was being modest. I was a crack amateur detective, and I'd helped our local sheriff solve several murders. But I don’t like to brag.

Though news about my prowess as an investigator had clearly spread through small-town Doyle. After so many successes, it was bound to happen. And we were going to be late for caroling practice if we didn’t move soon.

“Garden gnomes should be no problem for a bright young thing like you,” Mr. Gomez said. “This is serious. What if Bigfoot was the one who broke into that house last month on Sequoia Street? That's only six blocks away.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. Bigfoot. Of course. In a fit of madness, our small town had decided that decorating for the holidays wasn't enough. We had to layer something called Bigfoot Days on top of the season. If I saw another Bigfoot Santa hat, I thought I might scream.

“He took Norbert,” Mr. Bolinsky chimed in, his triple chins wobbling. He was short and round, and had a high-pitched wheeze for a voice. Tucked between his thick blue scarf and knit hat, a scowl marred his usually jolly appearance.

“Norbert?” I said.

“He's my gnome from Norway,” Mr. Bolinsky squeaked, his voice muffled by the scarf. “Hand carved.”

The third man of the group, Mr. St. John, jerked a bony thumb at Mr. Bolinsky. “Terrence got him on a Baltic cruise.” Mr. St. John was tall and hale. He was also so elegant I often caught myself imagining he spoke with a British accent.

“Hand carved!” Bolinsky repeated.

“Very valuable.” Mr. Gomez nodded.

“And you think... Bigfoot took him?” I may run a UFO-themed B&B, but I drew the line at Bigfoot. One had to draw the line somewhere.

“Bigfoot took all of them,” Mr. Gomez said. “We each had a gnome.”

Mr. St. John and Mr. Bolinsky had moved into Mr. Gomez's house six months ago. They said it saved on retirement villages.

“Gnomeo and Gerome. That's Gerome with a G,” Mr. St. John added helpfully. “Are you going to write that down?”

Hastily, I pulled my day planner from my ginormous blue purse.

“We had to get them.” Mr. Gomez's eyes twinkled. “We didn't want Norbert to be lonely.”

“Gnomes do seem to thrive more in groups,” I agreed solemnly and jotted a note.

Mr. St. John cleared his throat. “Actually, the preferred collective noun for garden gnomes is a lawn. A murder of crows, a lawn of garden gnomes.”

Really? I shrugged and wrote that down too. “Could it have been kids who stole your gnomes?”

“Only if there’s a kid from Doyle seven feet tall and covered in fur,” Mr. Gomez said. “I saw him, right outside, carrying away our gnomes.”

I blinked. “You saw… Bigfoot?”

“Seven feet tall,” Mr. Gomez repeated.

“With long, shaggy brown fur.” Mr. Bolinsky tapped the page in my open planner. “You should write that down too.”

I did, but more to make them happy than because I thought this was going anywhere. Still. Bigfoot? “Did you, er, call the police?”

“The sheriff's too busy to mess with missing garden gnomes,” Mr. Gomez said. “She's got bigger things on her plate.”

But the three senior citizens assumed I didn't. Gotcha.

In fairness, I really didn't. I’d been so worried the holidays would get away from me, I’d organized them into brutal submission. The biggest thing on my plate was tonight’s caroling practice. “Why don't you tell me more about it in the car?”

I waited on the stoop while Mr. Gomez locked the door. Snow fell thickly on the quiet residential street. “I nearly slipped on the ice when I came here,” I lied casually. “Would one or two of you mind taking my arm?”

The snow was fresh enough not to be too slippery. But Mr. Gomez and Mr. Bolinsky were wobbly under the best of circumstances.

“Sure,” Mr. Gomez said, looping his arm through mine.

“Don't mind if I do,” Mr. Bolinsky said, taking my other arm, and I adjusted my purse.

Behind their backs, Mr. St. John winked.

We shuffled to my Crosstrek. Mr. Gomez was the only one of them with a snow-appropriate vehicle. His newish Jeep was currently covered in six inches of snow and sitting in his driveway. But he didn't like to drive in the dark.

With more groaning and complaining than necessary, the men clambered into my SUV. The snow fell thicker, collecting on the edges of my windshield.

I adjusted the rearview mirror, catching a flash of my blue eyes and blond hair. Backing carefully down the drive, I pulled into the winding lane. We drove past lit windows and pine trees decorated with holiday lights.

“So how's it working out,” I asked, “being roommates?”

“Fine.” Mr. Gomez double checked his seatbelt and pulled his crimson hat lower over his ears. “Now, what are you going to do about our stolen gnomes?”

Oh, brother. But the gnomes mattered to them, and the men mattered to me. It seemed I was on a gnome hunt. I leaned closer to the windshield, my headlights illuminating narrow white circles of road. “When did the theft happen?”

“An hour ago.”

“We should have taken photos of the footprints then,” Mr. Bolinsky said in his reedy voice. “Now they'll be buried in snow.”

I stifled a sigh.

Mr. St. John patted my shoulder. “Have faith, Susan.”

“I'll look into your missing gnomes.” Because what else could I do? Most likely, the theft was part of the old traveling gnome gag. Soon, the men would receive photos of their gnomes in exotic places. “Have you received, any, er, photos?”

“You mean proof of life?” Mr. St. John leaned forward, his beaky nose extending over the seat.

“I don't think this is your usual gnomenapping,” Mr. Bolinsky chirped from the back seat.

“What do you think Bigfoot would want with garden gnomes?” Mr. St. John asked.

“Maybe he's lonely,” Mr. Bolinsky said, and my heart squeezed. Maybe the three widowers were lonely.

“Or he wants to spruce up his garden,” Mr. Gomez said from the seat beside me.

“Gnomes do brighten up a yard,” Mr. St. John said. “I'm not sure about this Bigfoot fellow though. He was all right when he was just wandering around in the forest. But thievery? That's something else.”

I adjusted my grip on the wheel, the fabric of my mittens rustling. “Yes, it is strange that Bigfoot didn't appear until someone decided we should have Bigfoot Days,” I said significantly.

The older men fell silent. I rounded a steep bend and slowed, bumping through a drainage gully. The Crosstrek’s wheels hit ice, and the back of the car slid sideways.

My hands spasmed on the wheel. I let off the accelerator, and the wheels grabbed the road. Exhaling, I continued driving forward.

“Think Bigfoot knows about the Bigfoot Days?” Mr. Bolinsky said breathily.

“He must know,” Mr. Gomez said. “There are banners all over town. And on the highways.”

My mouth pressed into a line. I hated those banners. They should have been holiday banners. Or at least feature UFOs.

“You know what this means,” Mr. St. John said in my ear.

“Intelligence,” Mr. Bolinsky said. “Bigfoot can read.”

“I told them the banners were a mistake,” Mr. Gomez grumped. “But no listens to me anymore.”

I cleared my throat. “You said you spotted Bigfoot an hour ago?”

“It was five thirty-two,” Mr. Gomez said. “I checked my watch. There he was, bold as brass, stomping through the front yard with our gnomes. I recognized Norbert right away.”

“Hand carved!” Mr. Bolinsky chirped.

“And then it started to snow,” Mr. Gomez said.

“So all the tracks were obliterated.” I shook my head. More importantly, it would be fairly dark at five-thirty in December. Who knew what Mr. Gomez had actually seen?

“Well,” Mr. St. John said, “that's the way of the supernatural, isn't it? If paranormal phenomena went around leaving evidence, it wouldn't be paranormal. It'd be normal.”

“You need a mite of faith,” Mr. Bolinsky said.

“But not too much,” Mr. Gomez said. “Then you get taken advantage of by telemarketers.”

“Damn scammers,” St. John growled. “I got an email from my nephew last month saying all his money had been stolen in Mexico. The crazy thing was, Roland was in Mexico. But something seemed off, so I called him. Turned out, the whole thing was a scam.”

“Trust but verify,” Mr. Gomez said. “That's my motto.”

“I hope he didn't use Norbert for firewood,” Mr. Bolinsky said.

“Nah,” Mr. Gomez said. “With all that fur, he doesn't need a fire, even in this weather.”

We turned onto Doyle’s Main Street. Christmas lights gleamed in the shop windows and from the trees along the sidewalks. Snow rimmed the false fronts of the Gold Rush town. Red and green banners fluttered from iron lampposts proclaiming:


BIGFOOT DAYS IN DOYLE!


I frowned. Wasn’t it enough that the town was UFO central? Bigfoot just muddled the brand.

We made it to my B&B, Wits' End, without any further slipping. I pulled into my private spot on the gravel drive. Cheerful light streamed through the Victorian's windows.

I waited for the men, grunting and grumbling, to extricate themselves from my SUV. We walked to the porch, its railings swagged with pine boughs.

WHOMP.

Heart seizing, I stepped backward and looked up at the faux UFO crashed into the mansard roof. The UFO’s shiny metal was bare of snow. A pile of white covered the rose bush beneath the flying saucer.

My muscles relaxed. I sent a silent prayer of thanks to my Gran, who’d been wise enough not to position the UFO over the front door. Its slick sides never held the snow for long.

I followed the three men, stamping their feet and blowing into their mittens, into the high-ceilinged foyer.

Bailey, the elderly beagle I'd inherited from my Gran, looked up from his dog bed beside the reception desk. He yawned and shook his head, collar jingling. The dog settled back onto his forest-green cushion.

More pine boughs looped through the white stair banister leading to the second floor. A wooden Santa stood guard on the scarred, wooden desk. Electric candles flickered in the stained-glass transom above the front door.

My Gran’s vintage nutcracker should have been on the desk, but I hadn’t been able to find it this year. It was really irritating.

Taking their turns patting the dog’s head, the three men told Bailey he was a good boy and loosened their scarves. Mr. Gomez pulled a baggie from the pocket of his khakis and fed the beagle a treat.

I unwound my blue scarf and admired the Christmas tree. My cousin and I had decorated it with flying saucer ornaments. More ornaments lined the shelves set into the stairs beside the reception desk. I'd been doing a brisk sale in them to guests over the holidays. They were doing even better than the alien bobble heads.

Surprisingly, the holidays were a bang-up time for UFO sightings. Maybe it was the clarity of the winter air. Or maybe St. Nick was confused with UFOs, because a lot of sightings happened on Christmas Day.

Hey, it could happen.

A shadow fell across my face, and I looked up into a sprig of mistletoe.

“I think there's some tradition about mistletoe.” My boyfriend, Arsen, screwed up his handsome face in mock thoughtfulness. “I'm not sure what it is though.” Lights from the tree near the front door reflected red, green and gold off his whiskey-colored hair.

“Oh, kiss the girl,” Mr. Gomez bellowed.

Arsen grinned and gave me a chaste kiss on the lips.

“Is that it?” Mr. St. John sneered. “In my day, mistletoe meant something.”

Arsen pulled me into his arms and bent me backwards like a hero on a romance-novel cover. We kissed more deeply, my heart banging against my ribs. He pulled me to standing, and I laughed.

“Now that's more like it,” Mr. Gomez said.

“You shouldn't tease the young people,” Mr. Bolinsky said to his friends.

“I kept all the food warm in the kitchen,” Arsen said, releasing me. “But two carolers have already arrived, so I brought out the hot chocolate.”

“Perfect.” I removed my mittens. “Thank you.”

“And now I'm going to go shovel out the rest of your driveway,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said, “but don't you want to practice with the other carolers?”

Arsen's hazel eyes turned shifty. “Um, no. Shoveling's more critical right now. You know me, safety first.” He grabbed his jacket off a hook behind the reception desk and strode out the door.

“Isn’t he more a safety last kind of guy?” Mr. Gomez asked.

“He's a little self-conscious about his voice,” I whispered to the three elderly carolers.

“I don't see why,” Mr. Bolinsky said. “He's got a fine baritone.”

Mr. St. John bent his bony elbow, jabbing him sharply in the side. “Leave it.”

I left the men to find their own way to the practice room, AKA the B&B's breakfast room. Slithering out of my parka, I hustled into the kitchen. I dropped scarf and parka on a wooden chair beside the small, round table and arranged the snacks on platters.

I was particularly proud of the mini quiches. But my sugar cookies decorated in space themes and holiday colors also looked as good as they tasted.

Platters stacked in both hands, I pushed open the swinging kitchen door with one hip. I walked through the foyer to the octagonal breakfast room. It was one of my favorite spaces, with blue toile wallpaper and tall windows overlooking the front yard.

I’d decorated the room like Gran had when she’d been alive. Gold tinsel wove through the brass hanging lamp over the table. Wreaths hung in every window.

Nora Snelson, a lovely brunette in her forties, stood beside the blue-curtained windows. She crossed her arms over her low, v-necked plum sweater, her lips pinched.

My smile hardened. Nora had been the genius behind Bigfoot Days. Not that I was one to hold a grudge. And at least she wasn't scowling at me tonight.

She frowned at the three old men. They sang a rousing version of Walking in My Winter Underwear. It was not on the approved caroling song list. It was also nearly impossible to get out of your head once you heard it.

I set the cookies on the oval table and turned to Redford Bright, a sparse, gray-haired man with a Gary Cooper demeanor. He wore a charcoal blazer and a soft-looking red scarf that brought out the twinkle in his gentle brown eyes.

“Would you like a mini quiche?” I glanced around. Parkas had been piled on a dining chair, propped in one corner.

“Don't mind if I do. Thanks, Susan.” Redford plucked a quiche off the tray and popped it into his mouth.

“Where’s Tansy?” I asked him. Redford and his wife seemed inseparable.

“She’s coming straight from her pottery shop to meet us here,” he said.

“Are those sugar cookies?” Mr. Gomez asked and grabbed two.

Nora checked her watch. “Is this it?”

“There's a lot of snow on the roads,” I said. “I’m sure that’s why people are late.” Normally, tardiness annoyed me. But I’d planned on people being late tonight.

Nora's elegant eyebrows drew together. “I told you we should have canceled.”

“I thought we agreed that anyone who wanted to practice could come?” I said. I was sure I’d made a note of it in my planner, and I almost looked around for it to check.

“We're missing our soloist.” Nora motioned abruptly to the empty space beside Redford.

He swallowed, wiping his fingers on a red paper napkin. “I tried calling Tansy, but it went to voicemail. She was probably delayed with a customer, but she’ll be here soon. You know how my wife loves these rehearsals.”

The older men launched into a rude version of Jingle Bells.

“I can stand in for Tansy,” I said.

“No,” Nora said. “You can't. You’re an alto. She’s soprano. I'll take Tansy's part if it comes to that. We'll give it five more minutes, and then we're starting.”

Redford grimaced. “I should have picked her up when I was coming back from Angel’s Camp. But then her car would have been left behind at her pottery shop. It seemed easier for us to take two cars.”

“We should have canceled due to snow,” Nora repeated.

I smothered a sigh. The Christmas spirit seemed in short supply tonight.

The phone rang in the pocket of Redford’s blazer. “That must be Tansy.” He pulled his cellphone free, glanced at its screen, and frowned, clapping it to his ear. “Hello...? Yes, what can I...?”

Redford’s face sagged. “What…? But… No.” He staggered and clutched the back of a wooden chair. “Yes... Yes... I'll be right there.” His hand dropped to his side.

“Redford?” Nora asked. “Is something wrong?”

“That was the sheriff,” he whispered. “It's Tansy. She's... dead.”


Chapter Two


“I… I have to go home.” Redford rushed unsteadily from the room.

Nora and I shared horrified looks. I jogged after Redford, diverting to grab my parka from the kitchen before zipping back into the foyer.

In his dog bed, Bailey raised his tawny head inquiringly.

“Stay.” I walked onto the porch.

Through the falling snow, the headlights flared on Redford's burgundy Honda Accord. He backed from the drive too fast, and Arsen shouted. The Accord struck a small snowbank. Its tires spun, engine whining.

“Hold on.” Snow shovel over one shoulder, Arsen walked to the Honda and studied its tires.

The driver's window rolled down. “How's it look?” Redford asked.

I carefully made my way down the steps and to the men.

Arsen rubbed his chin. “We can get you out of this. There's a sandbag in the shed out back. I'll get it.”

“I don't have time.” Redford's voice rose to a howl.

“Maybe we should drive you,” I said, my chest aching. “Arsen's Jeep is the best vehicle for the snow.”

Arsen shook his head. “Sure, but where to?”

“To his home, I think?” And in a lower voice, I said to Arsen, “He just got word his wife passed.”

Arsen's bronzed face drained of color. “Oh, no.” He braced a gloved hand in Redford's open window. “I'm sorry. I'll be happy to drive you. It'll be quicker than digging you out.”

Redford nodded, rolled up the window, and stepped from his car.

Nora appeared on my porch. “What's going on?” she shouted, whisking her long hair over her shoulders.

Redford and Arsen waded to the Jeep Commander.

“Practice is over,” I yelled back. How was it possible for things to be moving so quickly, but the world felt like it was slowing at the same time? How could Tansy be dead? “Can you take the other men home?”

Nora nodded and disappeared into the B&B. Mincing to the Jeep, I climbed into the back seat.

Arsen reversed, and we drove down residential streets to Redford's home, a low, ranch house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Christmas lights glowed in its windows. Animated wicker reindeer strung with white lights grazed in the front yard.

A massive pine tree loomed over the scene. It tilted toward the house, as if it any moment it might pull up its roots and fall. Someone had strung lights high in its branches.

Three sheriff's department SUVs sat parked on the street. Behind the SUVs, a fire truck and an ambulance waited. The paramedics and ambulance crew stood off to one side in the yard, speaking together.

The men disbursed. Two men climbed into the ambulance and started it up.

Arsen parked in the spot on the street behind the ambulance. The white and red van pulled from the curb and drove away.

Redford sat in the Jeep’s front seat. His hands clenched and unclenched on his thighs. “I can't go in there,” he said in a low voice. “If I go in there, it will be real. She’ll be gone.”

“You can do this,” Arsen said quietly. “You have to.”

The firetruck pulled away, leaving only the sheriff's vehicles.

Redford’s neck muscles corded. He twisted in his seat to face me. “Will you both come with me?”

“Yes,” I said, a cold, leaden heaviness weighting my heart. I knew loss. Not like Redford’s, but memories of my grandmother could have me blinking back tears in an instant. “Of course we will.”

We stepped from the Jeep and walked toward the house. My foot skidded on ice. Arsen grabbed my elbow, balancing me.

The gesture nearly left me in tears. Redford and Tansy had seemed the perfect couple. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through. My throat closed. No, I could imagine it, and I squeezed Arsen’s muscular arm.

Redford hesitated on the front stoop. Then he straightened his shoulders, opened the door, and walked inside.

Arsen and I glanced at each other and followed.

A young, curly-haired sheriff's deputy we knew, Connor Hernandez, stopped him in the hallway. “Mr. Redford?”

“Yes.” He stepped to the side, trying to look past the tall deputy. “My wife...”

An occasional table lay on its side in the hall. Its contents—envelopes, a dish, a key ring—lay scattered across the tile floor.

Connor clutched the small radio attached to the collar of his near-black parka. The radio beeped. He muttered into it, releasing the button, and the radio crackled. “The sheriff will explain.”

Redford took a step forward, and his foot crunched on something. His skin bunched around his toffee-colored eyes. “Did she... Where is she? Did she fall here? Where is she?”

“The sheriff will explain,” Connor said.

Sheriff McCourt stepped into the hallway. Her blond, Shirley-Temple curls were disheveled, as if she'd just removed her hat. She caught sight of me, and her nostrils flared. “Witsend.”

“Redford was at the B&B,” Arsen said hastily. “His car was stuck, so we gave him a lift.”

“And you two can go now,” she said.

“What happened?” Redford said, his voice anguished. “Where's my wife?”

“She's in the living room, Mr. Bright,” the sheriff said.

He swayed, as if his feet had been nailed to the spot. “Was there...?” He pointed to the fallen table. “What happened?”

“There appears to have been a robbery,” the sheriff said. “I'm sorry.”

Redford's sway became more pronounced. He braced one hand on the shiplap wall. “You mean... She was killed?”

“We're still investigating the cause of death,” the sheriff said. “We'd like to ask you some questions though. Why don't you come through to the kitchen, and we'll talk.”

He gulped and stepped forward, turned. “Susan. Arsen.” He swallowed. “Thank you. I’ll pick up my car tomorrow.”

I nodded. “If there's anything we can do, let us know. We'll help any way we can.”

Redford moved down the hallway, glancing into an entryway to the right. He gave a small cry and stumbled backward. His legs folded, and he slid down the wall.

Connor, Arsen and I rushed forward to help.

I glanced through the squared-off entry into a living room. Two deputies crouched over a woman's body beside a fallen Christmas tree. Twinkle lights wound around her neck blinked obscenely.

I gasped. “Oh my God.”

“Okay,” the sheriff said. “That's enough. Susan, Arsen, out.”

“I want them to stay,” Redford said.

“Well,” she said, “they can't.”

Arsen helped him to his feet. “We're going. Redford, let us know how we can help.”

I reached over and squeezed Redford's hand. “Don't worry. We'll find out what happened.”

The sheriff's cornflower eyes flashed blue fire. “No, you won't. This is my investigation, not yours. Got it?”

As if. My fellow caroler's wife had been murdered. Of course I was getting involved.

But the sheriff couldn't be obvious about letting me assist. It was this little game we played. She publicly denied I was an essential element of her investigations, and I provided invaluable assistance.

I squeezed Redford’s hand again, and Arsen and I left.

*****

The next morning, after breakfast, I laid out the newspaper on my round kitchen table. There was nothing about Tansy’s death, but maybe it was too soon for an article to appear.

The town would be talking about the murder though. How had the sheriff found the body so soon? A neighbor must have reported a disturbance or something at the Bright house. That’s the sort of gossip that doesn’t stay quiet in a small town.

At my feet, Bailey whined. I bent to ruffle the beagle’s soft fur.

My cousin Dixie stomped into the kitchen, the red-and-green tips of her dark hair quivering. Since it was winter, she’d traded her usual shorts for camo pants. Her heavy boots left damp tracks on the linoleum.

“Dixie!” I pointed at the mess she’d left on the floor.

“You need a better doormat. Did you hear about Tansy Bright?”

“I know.” I nodded. “It's terrible.”

“They say one of her neighbors, Mrs. Baer, found the body.”

My cousin had gathered a lot of intel in a short amount of time. What else could I get out of her? “I wonder what Mrs. Baer was doing over there?” Gone to borrow a cup of sugar? Or had Mrs. Baer seen something suspicious?

Dixie shrugged out of her black parka. “How should I know? They think it might be connected to that burglary last month on Sequoia.” Her gaze traveled the kitchen’s butcherblock counters, gleaming white subway tile backsplash, and blue cupboards. Our grandmother’s Santa collection lined the wooden shelves. “Good thing you don't have anything worth stealing.”

I folded the paper. Terrific. It was going to be that kind of morning.

“Word is,” Dixie said in a low voice, “Bigfoot was responsible.”

“For the murder?” I asked, incredulous.

“For the burglary on Sequoia.”

My jaw tightened. Oh, for Pete’s sake. That was just… But Mr. Gomez had seen something that looked like Bigfoot. “There's no such thing as Bigfoot,” I said stoutly.

Dixie eyed me, and I shifted in my chair. I suppose that comment was a little rich from someone who gave UFO lectures on the weekends.

I smiled. “Let’s get a start on cleaning those rooms.”

We climbed the green-carpeted steps, and I pulled cleaning supplies from the hall closet.

“But I think different,” my cousin said, apropos of nothing. She plugged in the vacuum.

I adjusted a black-and-white UFO photo on the wall. “Think different about what?”

“The so-called burglary gone wrong that led to Tansy’s death.”

“So-called?” I tilted my head. Burglaries could go wrong, but murders could also be made to look like burglaries.

But it was too soon to speculate. I had no evidence in either direction. Yet. “Then what do you think happened to Tansy?”

“Santabomination,” Dixie said, and turned on the vacuum.

“Excuse me?” I raised my voice over the roar of the cleaner.

“Santabomination. You know? Evil Santa.”

I folded my arms. “Stop trying to ruin the holidays. I know you love them, too, or you wouldn’t have dyed the ends of your hair red and green. There’s no such thing as evil Santa.”

“That's what you think. What about Krampus, and Grylla the Christmas ogre, and Bellsnickle? There are all sorts of Christmas demons.”

Whatever. “For a minute there, I thought you were going to make a case for the abominable snowman.”

“The what?”

“You know,” I shouted over the vacuum. “Like Bigfoot?”

Her vacuum fell silent.

The guest room door beside me popped open, and a rosy-cheeked elderly woman popped her head out. “Bigfoot? Was there a sighting?”

I winced. “No. Sorry.”

Mrs. Meeks’ wrinkled face fell. “Darn. I was so hoping to see him. Such a gentle soul. And I'll be out of my room in fifteen minutes if you want to clean it.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Meeks,” I said.

She shut the door, and I glared at Dixie.

My cousin grinned.

Dixie was going to be needling me about Bigfoot all day. This was doubly traitorous, because she was a huge UFO nut. Or “UFO curious” as she preferred.

“I have to go into town,” I said. “I'll be back in an hour.”

“I thought you were cleaning?”

“I'll get you a mochaccino.” I jogged down the stairs and doublechecked my planner, where it lay open on the reception desk. Yes, I could manage an hour diversion.

Bailey sat at the base of the steps and wagged his tail. “Want to go into Doyle?”

His tail thumped harder.

I grabbed my blue parka and knit hat and strapped Bailey into my Crosstrek. Between the murder and the missing gnomes, I wasn’t sure where to start. Clearly, murder took priority. But I had no suspects. No clues.

So I’d start with gossip central: our local coffeeshop, Ground.

My Crosstrek crawled down Doyle’s snowy streets. I found a parking spot on Main (barely) and Bailey and I walked toward the café.

The gold rush town was a gingerbread fantasyland. Snow frosted the tops of the old-west false fronts, strung with pine garlands. Lights twinkled in holiday window displays. A wreath hung from Ground’s red-paned front door.

I walked inside the café and inhaled the scents of Christmas spices and coffee. Spider plants strung with white twinkle lights hung above the counter. The natural brick walls were lined with carpets and paintings.

Ground was one of the many dog-friendly businesses in Doyle. As we waited at the counter for two mochaccinos, the slim, brown-haired owner, Jayce, tossed Bailey a treat. It bounced off the beagle’s nose, and Jayce winced. Bailey frowned at the treat, then snatched it off the floor.

“Sorry,” she said.

“That’s…”

Bailey spattered crumbs on the laminate floor.

“How are things going?” I asked her. The coffeeshop was packed, and it was only Thursday. Doyle did most of its tourist trade on the weekends.

“Business is terrific. It feels so good to see the boards off the windows on Main. And Bigfoot Days are a hoot.” Her ivy-green eyes twinkled.

My mouth slackened. Not Jayce too. “Don't you think they would have been better, er, after the holidays? I mean, the holidays are always big times for tourism.”

Jayce tilted her head. “Probably. But I like to think of every day as Bigfoot Day.”

My heart sank. Jayce had gone to the dark side. Doyle was a UFO town. But as she was an all-around nice person and might have intel on the murder, I’d put her betrayal aside. “Have you—?”

“Good, you’re here,” Nora said as if she’d called a meeting, and I bit back my annoyance.

She stepped up to the dark-wood counter beside me and brushed her curling brown hair off one shoulder.

Jayce drifted away.

“What happened after you left last night?” Nora demanded, her brown eyes narrowing. “I heard Tansy was killed in a robbery?”

“It looked that way.” I rubbed my neck.

“What did you see?”

“Not much. There was a table overturned in the entry...” I couldn’t tell her about the Christmas lights around Tansy’s neck. That might be a detail the sheriff would want to keep quiet. “What did you hear?”

“Only what everyone is saying, that Tansy was strangled with Christmas lights. Poor Mrs. Baer is beside herself.” She smoothed the front of her low-necked, berry-colored sweater.

So much for keeping details quiet. “You talked to Mrs. Baer?” I asked.

“I brought a holiday pound cake over this morning.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? And what was a holiday pound cake? “Did she tell you anything else?”

“What else was there to tell? Dead. Door open. Christmas lights around her neck. What did the sheriff tell you?”

“It’s very early stages of the investigation,” I hedged.

She sniffed. “If McCourt had caught those robbers when they hit that house on Sequoia, this never would have happened.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame the sheriff.”

“Who else is to blame?” she asked.

“The robbers? And maybe it wasn’t a robbery.”

Nora lifted a single, elegant eyebrow. “Ah. I was wondering when you’d start that.”

“Start what?”

She sighed. “Go off on one of your little… flights.”

Flights? I stiffened. “What are you talking about?”

She cocked her head and smiled. “Well, you’ve always lived in your own little fantasy world, haven’t you?”

“I may run a UFO-themed B&B,” I said, annoyed, “but I’m thoroughly grounded in reality. I only meant, is there anyone who had a grudge against Tansy?”

She arched a brow. “Aside from you?”

I took a step back and bumped into the high counter. “What?”

“Don't worry, I know you wouldn't have killed her to take her place as soloist.”

That was the pot calling the kettle black. Everyone knew Nora wanted to be the lead soloist. “But—”

“Besides,” she said. “I’ll be taking her place in the group.”

“You will?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, of course not.” Because I was grounded in reality, and it was only a silly caroling group. Who cared if it was the social event of the holidays? Though I couldn’t help noticing Nora had gotten exactly what she wanted. As usual.

But that wasn’t entirely true, and shame burned in my chest. Nora had seen her share of sorrows.

Nora looked around the crowded café and smiled smugly. “Bigfoot Days is a smashing success.”

“I don't understand why the Downtown Association didn't wait until after the New Year. People come here for the holidays without Bigfoot. And what about UFO days?”

“The Downtown Association is for businesses on Main Street, which your B&B is not.”

“I know, but—”

“They can hardly spend money on a UFO festival to benefit one B&B that's not even in the downtown.”

“That's not what I meant,” I said, exasperated. “I just think Doyle has more UFO history than Bigfoot history.”

“What does history have to do with anything? Neither UFOs nor Bigfoot are real, and Bigfoot sells t-shirts.”

So do UFOs. “Aren't you on the board of the Downtown Association?” I asked.

“I'm a member, like all the other businesses on Main. I suppose Karlyn will become the next president.” She rubbed her perfect chin. “As VP, she makes a likely successor.”

“That's right. Tansy was President of the Association.” Could her death have had something to do with her volunteer work? All sorts of skullduggery happened in politics.

“And Karlyn didn't kill her to rise in the ranks,” Nora said tartly.

“I didn't mean to suggest—”

“Oh, stop pretending. Everyone knows what a snoop you are.”

You took a holiday poundcake to extract gossip from Mrs. Baer.”

A coffee cup crashed to the floor, and we winced. A barista bent to pick up chunks of broken mug. Jayce hurried from behind the counter with a broom.

“Karlyn’s promotion means more work for her,” Nora continued, ignoring my point. “Being vice president is easy. Being president is hard. No one would kill for that job.”

I plowed onward. Nora might be a pain, but she was also a source. “Did you know of any conflicts at the Association?”

Nora rolled her eyes. “What do you think? It's a volunteer-run organization, aside from the general membership, which is compulsory. Everyone with a business on Main is forced to pay a special tax to support it.”

Jayce returned to the counter with three paper cups. “Here you go. A double espresso for you, Nora, and two mochaccinos for you and Dixie.”

“Thanks, Jayce,” I said.

“There's no snow projected for Friday,” Nora said to me. “So I've called another rehearsal at Wits' End.”

“That's...”

Nora walked off without a word.

“Okay,” I said.

“She's very efficient,” Jayce said brightly.

She was very bossy. And I was in Ground for more than coffee drinks. “I'm worried about Tansy's murder.”

Jayce’s green eyes widened. “Oh, no. Tansy was in your caroling group, wasn't she? I'm so sorry. How's Redford doing?”

“I'm not sure.” I gnawed my bottom lip. “I haven't seen him since last night. Do you know him well?”

“He likes his coffee black, reads his paper here Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and leaves good tips. I'm sorry to say that's everything I know about him. I didn't know Tansy at all, aside from the occasional bulletin from the Downtown Association.”

“You must be in the Association, aren’t you?”

Jayce rolled her eyes. “I didn’t have much choice, and it’s not cheap. But the people at the association are doing their best.”

“Were there any conflicts within the association?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“I’m just trying to think of who could have wanted to kill her.” I scanned the tables. I knew several of the people there, and I nodded. I’d make the rounds for more gossip after I finished talking to Jayce.

Jayce blinked. “I heard it was an accident—that she interrupted a burglary.”

“Right,” I said quickly. “I’m sure it was. Sorry, I'm letting my imagination run away with me.”

“It's Doyle, the land of UFOs and Bigfoot.” She smiled. “Runaway imagination goes with the territory.”

Unfortunately, murder did too. And I had a bad feeling there was more to Tansy's death than met the eye.


Chapter Three


Fruitcakes have been horribly maligned. Yes, there is such a thing as a perfect fruitcake, and it's delicious. But what you often buy in the store is dry, hard, and flecked with neon fruit. Who wants neon fruit?

At my butcherblock counter, I soaked a cheesecloth in brandy. I knew the secrets to delicious fruitcake. Now if only I knew where her antique nutcracker had gone… I’d had it out for Christmas last year. Where had I put it?

More irritating, my quest for additional gossip in Ground had been a bust. At least I still had my baking. I wrung out the cloth and wrapped another fruitcake.

Arsen looked up from the kitchen table and tapped his computer tablet. “If you're trying to impress my aunts, don't bother. You know they're crazy about you.” He set down the tablet.

I brandished a bottle of brandy. “I'm not trying to impress them. I don't know what else to get them for Christmas.”

Finding a gift for Arsen was even more challenging. He was, to put it bluntly, loaded. If he wanted something, he bought it for himself.

“It’s Gran’s recipe,” I said. “People always raved about her fruitcake.” And I’d scheduled the fruitcakes in my planner, so I had to make them. Once it went in the planner, it was law.

“Then my aunts will love it,” he said. “Besides, your Gran was basically the perfect woman. Aside from you.”

Throat tightening, I stared down at the fruitcakes. She had been amazing. Gran had saved me. She’d given me summer breaks from a smothering childhood. Later, she’d left me the B&B. I don’t know who I would have become without her help.

Something thudded against the side of the house. I whipped my head toward the kitchen window, framed by blue curtains.

“It's only falling snow.” Arsen picked up the tablet. “And my aunts don't care about gifts. They just want you to be impressed by their Christmas Eve dinner.”

“I plan to be.” And I wasn’t coming to their dinner empty-handed.

My cell phone rang on the kitchen table. Arsen slid it toward me.

Hastily rinsing and drying my hands, I answered. “Hello?”

“Have you found Norbert?” a man wheezed.

“Nor—? Oh, hello, Mr. Bolinsky. No, I'm sorry, I haven't had a chance—”

“He's alone out there. And he's from Norway.”

I grimaced. “It's just that—”

“Or he's not alone, and he’s in the grips of a fiendish Bigfoot monster. I haven’t forgotten Gnomeo and Gerome.” He lowered his voice “But… And I’ll deny it if you tell the others, but those two are just ordinary gnomes.”

“I take it you still haven't received any, er, proof of life?”

“No photos, if that's what you mean. We've got to find those gnomes.”

By which he meant, I had to find them. Oh, well. True, the murder investigation would keep me busy. But it was the holidays. I could do this small thing for three kind old men.

“Don't worry, Mr. Bolinsky. I'll keep working on it.”

“Thank you, Susan. And Happy Holidays.”

“Happy Holidays to you, too. Bye.” I hung up.

“What's old man Bolinsky want?” Arsen swiped his finger across the tablet’s screen.

“Didn't I tell you? He thinks Bigfoot stole their garden gnomes.”

He looked up. “Why does he think Bigfoot stole them?”

“Because Mr. Gomez saw him do it.”

Arsen set down his tablet again. “Mr. Gomez saw Bigfoot,” he said flatly.

I held the phone against my stomach. “Mr. Gomez isn’t senile, and his eyesight is usually quite good, except at night.” I didn’t see the need to mention it had been dark when he'd spotted Bigfoot.

“This is amazing luck,” Arsen said. “Now I can try out my new parabolic mike.”

“Your what?”

He stood, knocking his chair back. “I'll put a kit together.”

“That's—”

Arsen strode from the kitchen, the door swinging behind him. After a moment, the door to the front porch slammed.

Something crashed. I hurried into the foyer.

The Christmas tree had fallen on its side. A UFO ornament spun like a top on the faux-Persian rug, slowed, and toppled over.

I glared at the tree. “Darn it.”

Bailey peeked around the corner of the reception desk.

“It's okay,” I said. “I don't blame you.”

I'd gotten a high-quality, used, artificial tree this year after a lecture by the fire marshal on holiday hazards. I was responsible for my guests' safety.

As much as I loved the look and smell of real pine, Wits' End was an old wood house. Though I'd compensated for the lack by stringing real pine boughs up the stair banister.

I righted the tree, adjusted its base, and plugged in the cord, which had gotten yanked from the wall. Colorful twinkle lights sprang to life.

I returned the flying saucer to its branch and checked for more tree damage. There was none I could see.

I returned to the kitchen, Bailey trotting at my heels. At the small, round table, I opened my planner.

I had two investigations to manage now, so I needed to be extra organized. I made two to-do lists, began new investigation pages at the back of my planner, and cross-referenced my lists with my calendar.

I smiled at the pages in satisfaction. There's something magical about having goals. Just writing them down increases the odds of hitting them. I checked the clock on my phone and nodded.

No one was checking into Wits’ End this afternoon. The cleaning was done. I'd prepped the casserole for tomorrow's breakfast.

I had time to investigate.

Tansy Bright had been the president of the Downtown Association. I'd start there.

*****

The Downtown Association was on Main Street, in a small second-floor office above a wine tasting room and beside a karate studio. I found a parking spot in the alley behind the building and paused beside Tansy’s pottery shop.

Misshapen mugs and bowls lined the windows. A CLOSED sign hung crookedly in the glass front door. Poor Tansy. She’d worked so hard to build her business. Sighing, I crunched past the shop to a rear staircase in the two-story wooden building.

A row of deadly-looking icicles hung above its entrance. I hurried beneath them, then turned and knocked them down with my mittened fist. Icicles are lovely, but I'd heard too many stories of them falling at the wrong time.

I climbed the steps to a wooden door labeled:


DOYLE DOWNTOWN ASSOCIATION.


I knocked.

“Come in,” a woman called distractedly.

I opened the door and stepped inside a cramped office. Boxes stacked three high made a maze on the thin, gray carpet. A strand of unlit fairy lights lined the windows, steamed to opacity in the overheated room.

Karlyn, an attractive blonde in her mid-forties, tapped a keyboard at a standing desk. She glanced over her shoulder, then turned toward me, her shoulders slumping. “Oh. Susan. I'm sorry I missed caroling practice last night. I wish I could have been there for Redmond. Poor man. What an awful thing.”

“We were worried about you. What happened?”

“I was snowed in.” She jerked down the hem of her red suit jacket. “Can you believe it? The snowplow dumped a load of snow in front of my private parking space, behind my boutique. I had a shovel, but by five-thirty I realized I'd never make it in time.”

“What a pain,” I said, sympathetic. In addition to being VP of the association, Karlyn owned a women’s clothing store on the opposite side of Main Street. “How long were you stuck shoveling?”

“I closed the shop a little early, so I must have started around... five? If I’d known, I would have started earlier.” Karlyn bit her plump, lower lip. “Or maybe not. It was a busy day.”

“And you were at the shop all day?” I glanced at her chic, knee-high boots. If she’d been dressed for success like she was today, dealing with the snow couldn’t have been easy.

Hot air hummed from the heating vent in the carpet. The cord for the twinkle lights swayed above it.

“If I hadn't been at the shop,” Karlyn said, “my car wouldn't have been stuck behind that pile of snow. Why do you ask?”

“What? Oh. I’m curious if there’s been any increase in sales this year over last. Because of Bigfoot Days, I mean.” In my experience, telling people they're murder suspects tends to make them clam up. But I felt my neck muscles tightening. I’d fibbed before in service of the truth, but today, it didn’t feel right.

“We don’t have the stats yet, so it’s impossible to tell. We won’t know for months.”

Casually, I edged to the window above the alley and laid the light cord along its frame. “I also wanted to give you my condolences about Tansy. Actually, I should have led with that,” I said, rueful.

“Thanks.” Karlyn bowed her head. She swallowed. “I still can't believe she's gone.” She looked up, her smile wan. “But I can well imagine her going after a housebreaker. Tansy didn't let anything or anyone get in her way.”

“I guess I can see that too. Tansy was one tough lady.” A bead of sweat trickled down my back, and I unzipped my parka.

She brushed a lock of blond hair behind her ear. “You have no idea. She had a big impact on this town, though most people don’t realize all the work she did.”

“How's the Downtown Association going to manage now that she’s gone?” I asked.

“Fortunately, the holidays are usually a slow time for the Association.”

“Even with the Bigfoot Days going on?” I glanced at her computer screen, a spreadsheet filled with rows of numbers too small for me to read. Darn it.

“The work for Bigfoot Days was done months ago,” she said. “All we had to do was put the banners up at the beginning of the month. It's been our most successful promotion yet.”

Was it? My stomach sank. That meant they'd do it again. “How can you tell it's successful? I thought you wouldn’t get the sales stats for months.”

“But we do have the tourism stats. So far, tourism is up five percent over last year.”

“That could be a normal bump.”

“Considering we figured we'd get a drop after that ridiculous UFO riot...” Her brown eyes narrowed, as if she’d just remembered I owned a UFO-themed B&B.

“Wouldn’t it be more effective if Bigfoot Days came after the holidays next year?” I asked. “That’s when business tends to drop.”

“Tansy and Nora didn’t think so, and I’m quite willing to defer to their expertise.”

“But why Bigfoot?” I asked, exasperated.

She clasped her slender hands together. “Because he's amazing. Just think—a humanoid, a bi-ped like us, being able to survive, hidden in the wilderness. Doesn't it give you hope? Obviously, Bigfoot must be highly evolved.”

My jaw slackened. Whoa. She was a believer? I mean, UFOs were one thing. There was actually some evidence of those, and I still was agnostic. But Bigfoot? “Why… do you think he’s highly evolved?”

“Because the Bigfoot have cast off the shackles of society.” Her words came in a rush. “They don't need the internet or offices. They just live. There's no competition for resources or with each other. They're one with nature’s bounty.”

A second bead of sweat joined the first along my spine. “And they're living in Doyle,” I said slowly.

“In the forests. Don't you see? People thought all those missing hikers were abducted by aliens. But really, they went to live with the Bigfoot.”

Doyle does have a history of disappearing people. An entire pub vanished a couple years back, building included. What makes the story even weirder is that the people returned months later, with amnesia and minus the pub.

It makes you wonder.

“But when the missing came back,” I said, “they had no memory of where they’d been. Wouldn’t they have remembered a Bigfoot colony?”

“Oh,” she said, “the Disappeared remember. They're just trying to protect the Bigfoot.”

She was serious.

“But there's no evidence,” I said desperately. Doyle couldn’t become a Bigfoot town. What was I going to do with the UFO in my roof?

“What about those stolen gnomes?” Karlyn picked up a microfiber cloth and rubbed a spot on her computer monitor. “Mr. Gomez saw Bigfoot clear as day. Plus, remember the burglary on Sequoia last month?”

“You heard about Mr.—?” I shook myself. “A criminal Bigfoot doesn't match up with the idea of a highly evolved being.”

“He must have his reasons for taking the gnomes. It's our fault if we don't understand them.”

I tried again. “I just think January Bigfoot days would make a nice bridge between Christmas and Valentine’s Day.”

“We don't have any Valentine’s Day events. Tansy was never much of a romantic.”

“I'm surprised she went along with Bigfoot Days,” I muttered. What was with this new sasquatch obsession?

“What?” Karlyn asked.

“Oh, I just keep thinking about her murder.”

“We all are,” she said, her pale face somber. She smoothed the front of her red skirt.

“Did you see Tansy yesterday? Her pottery shop is only a few doors down.” I motioned to the dingy window.

“No.” She shifted her weight. “I wasn’t working at the association yesterday. I was at my shop, across the street. Remember?”

Rats. “Did Tansy have any enemies?”

“Enemies?” Her forehead wrinkled. “What does that—? She died in a burglary.”

“That's what it looks like, yes.”

“And you think there's something more to her death? But that's not—” Karlyn shook her head and frowned. “I suppose… It would make more sense if it was personal. But there was that robbery on Sequoia.”

I plucked a fallen winery brochure off the gray carpet and set it atop a box. “But if Bigfoot committed that robbery—”

She sucked in her breath. “You cannot possibly accuse Bigfoot of murder. He’s never killed anyone.” Her face spasmed. “That documentary about him killing those pot growers proved he was framed.”

Documentary? I shook my head. It didn’t matter. “Then if it wasn’t Bigfoot, it must have been someone with a grudge.”

“I guess,” she said doubtfully.

“As president of the Downtown Association, Tansy had to deal with a lot of personalities. Were any business owners, I don't know, angry or upset with her?”

“Quentin wasn't too happy about the banners. He thought they were a waste of money. But tourism is up five percent.”

“But... tourists don't see the banners until they're already here.”

“So?”

So the banners couldn't be attracting tourists into town. Oh, never mind. “Quentin… Do you mean Quentin Fairman wasn’t happy?”

“That's the one.”

Quentin Fairman owned the ice cream parlor on Main. “Thanks.” I turned to go, then turned back. “Oh, and Nora has called another practice for Friday night.”

“I know. She already contacted me. She's so organized.”

I gritted my teeth. “Yeah. Organized.”


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