Book two in the Amanda Pepper mystery series. Available for the first time in ebook format!
Amanda attempts to instill the spirit of Christmas by having her students prepare and serve a meal for the homeless, but her plan backfires. A wealthy and politically ambitious parent, Alexander "Sandy" Clausen, turns the event into a lavish, catered publicity and personal photo-op. Worse, his party ends in fire and death with his daughter, Amanda's student, one of three people who insist they alone started the fire. Amanda wants to solve the crime with her sometime boyfriend and cop C.K. Mackenzie, and is equally determined to teach the the elusive killer a lesson or two as well.
From Gillian Roberts, the Anthony Award- winning author of Caught Dead in Philadelphia.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, worrying over what I’d seen. But Sasha tapped my shoulder and broke into my tangle of thoughts. “You can’t be a wallflower at this kind of party,” she said. “It’s illogical. The action is in the living room, behind you. Give a listen.”
The decibel level finally sank into my consciousness.
“Yeah,” Sasha said. “It’s a party.”
We were finally perking. The cliché of holiday spirit had indeed become fact.
“Gotta go now,” Sasha said. “They’re pretty much finished eating, and I’m in a rush. Thanks for the chance to shoot. I think I got some good stuff.”
“Stay. We haven’t talked yet.”
She ran her fingers through her jet-black hair. “Can’t. Got a date.”
“Shall I ask about him?”
“What’s to say? He’s new, stunning, rich, perfect.”
I shrugged. “Just another guy, is that it?”
She had gone into the hallway, to the back wall where the coatrack stood, and had extracted an ancient, rubbed to the nap, black velvet cape. She put it on and flipped the hood up. Little Black Riding Hood. Or the witch, to mix a fairy tale or two. “That face in there?” she said as she went to the door. “That Nick? He’s got style. My money’s on him. Go for it. “And she left.
Twice married, twice divorced, Sasha nonetheless adored men and they reciprocated. The affairs inevitably came to sad endings, but as bright as she was, she was sexually dyslexic and didn’t learn a single thing from any of the disappointing encounters. And that was half her charm.
I turned my attention back to the party, and found myself actually enjoying it. There were moments that were gifts when the eyes of a Philly Prep student met those of the homeless person he was serving and he stopped and looked, and honestly seemed to take note. To feel. Conversations started, questions were asked on both sides. Students forgot about clearing up and sat down to talk with guests. I wanted the photographer to verify this miracle, but he was long gone. I hoped Nick would write it down for posterity because otherwise it would be too hard to believe.
The tree sparkled, candles twinkled, people bubbled.
I tiptoed, afraid to break the spell with a normal tread. There was a vacant spot on the living room sofa, and I sat down to drink in the vista instead of more punch. I tried, in fact, to dispose discreetly of my cup on the end table, but it was fully occupied by a poinsettia in a red-foiled pot and an ashtray. I had to admire the planning that had so filled the tiny wooden top that nobody could possibly add anything—including water rings. Still, it left me holding the bilious red liquid.
A middle-aged woman sat next to me, carefully, slowly, unwrapping her shiny package in a long charade of anticipation and pleasure. Her excitement was contagious.
“I do love presents,” she murmured. “When my Thomas was alive…” Her hazel eyes looked almost bruised with fatigue.
Carefully, she pulled the tape off the cardboard box, disengaged flaps, removed Styrofoam pellets and finally, lifted her prize out of its nest.
And then those tired eyes stared, dumbfounded, at what I had last week declared the very worst of the gift donations, a porcelain figurine of a man in lederhosen. It had annoyed me for its stupidity—as if the homeless carry knickknack shelves around. But all the same, when the student who had solicited the donation looked hurt, I left it in the pile of gifts. I had meant to remove it later, but had forgotten.
The woman bit her bottom lip. Her long fingers played with her unkempt hair and her eyes welled up.
I felt responsible for her grief. Intentionally or not, I’d let the idiot thing pass. Merry Christmas—here’s some insult to add to your injury.
“There’s been a mistake,” I said, trying to save face for both of us. “That figurine didn’t belong with—certainly wasn’t intended for—there are so many other things. Scarves, gloves. I’ll find you another—”
“This isn’t mine?” she asked. “I wasn’t supposed to get it?”
I was so ashamed of us.
“I didn’t steal it.”
“Of course not. I didn’t mean—”
She cupped her hand over the little man’s head. “Your Santa gave it to me. Please don’t take it.” She looked as if she might crinkle up into herself.
“The other gifts,” she whispered, “they’re for people who don’t have anything and never will. But this—” she pressed it to her, “this makes me know I’ll have my own place again someday. This is a real Christmas present. For a real person. I had a house, you know. Before Thomas…before my luck turned.”
“Tell me,” I said, and for a long time I heard how a once-solid woman, Gladys, her name was, could shrink through disease and bad luck and loneliness and confusion and age until she was no more than a statistic falling through the cracks. Not all her connections to reality seemed too secure, but she was very optimistic. We talked intently until a voice booming “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” surprised me soundly.
It had no effect on the crowd. The room was so flooded with goodwill there were high-water marks on the walls, and nobody wanted to pull the plug.
However, I had late night with Mackenzie as an incentive plan for moving on, so I said good night to Gladys and stood up, the first to go.
I wasn’t the only one leaving. Peter and Laura were at the front door. Peter had his coat on and presumably, Laura would have also been bundled up and away, but Santa had her shoulder in a vise.
Alice Clausen had emerged. She stood by the door with her fixed and anxious smile, as if she saw nothing odd in the taut little drama before her. In fact, as if she saw nothing, anywhere, ever.
They were like a bad, slow-moving silent film. Peter waited, tense and dangerous as a Doberman, and Laura stood limply as if all her bones had dissolved. Her father, in disgust, released her, turned and walked back into the crowd.
“Larkly parny,” Alice Clausen said, breaking the silence. She giggled. “Lorvely parny. Party.” She hiccuped. Her eyes crossed, and she peered at me, leaning closer and closer, until I realized the rest of her was also tilting en route to the floor. I put out my hands to stop her at the same time Laura grabbed one of her arms and Peter the other.
“Can I help?” I asked.
Peter shook his head. “Laura knows how to handle it, but thanks anyway.”
“I’ll—I’ll see you both tomorrow,” I said.
Still propping up her mother, Laura turned and pierced me with a look so dark and intense it felt like a scream.
“Save me,” her eyes cried. “Save me.”
I would like to think that if I’d known for sure how to save her, and from what, I would have done so, instead of standing there gape-mouthed, convincing myself that what I had really seen was a desperately embarrassed teenager whose privacy I was violating.
If I had known for sure, I would have stayed.
That’s what I’d like to think.