Hoppy Holiday Homicide


When downtown Glendale's yearly holiday celebration turns up more than one dead body, everyone becomes a suspect... even Angie.

Nobody does the holidays like small-town Maine, and my particular small town just so happens to be the very best at decking the halls and rocking around the big Christmas tree downtown.

Yes, every year, Glendale puts on a Holiday Spectacular that’s grander and greater than the one that came before. Unfortunately, the only thing everyone’s going to remember this year is the two dead bodies that show up in the center of the ice sculpture garden.

With the whole town having come out to play, everyone’s in close proximity to the crime scene—and everyone’s a suspect. A great many fingers are pointed my way, too, since it was me and my cat that discovered the deathly duo. With only my whacky Nan, recently discovered cousin, overly optimistic Chihuahua, and snarky feline to help me, can I clear my name and save Christmas all in one perfectly executed investigation?

Hold on to your jingle bells, because it’s going to be a wild ride.


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Read the first three chapters!

Chapter 1

Hi. I’m Angie Russo, and while you may not immediately recognize it, I’m probably one of the most unusual people you’ll ever meet.
Why?
Well, how many other people do you know who can communicate with animals? And, no, I’m not talking meows, woofs, and chirps. We have actual conversations, and we even solve crimes together—but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Before I say any more—shhh!—my strange ability is a secret that must be protected at all costs. Not because I’m in danger or anything, just because I’d rather people not know. 
Okay?
And, no, I’m not a witch, werewolf, or other kind of fictional supernatural creature. I’m just a normal girl in her late twenties who got electrocuted by an old coffee maker and woke up with the power to communicate with animals.
First, it was just the one cat, Octo-Cat as I call him. He was in the room when I got zapped. We were both there for a will reading, me as the lowly paralegal and him as the primary beneficiary. 
When he realized I could understand him, he revealed that his late owner had been murdered even though everyone thought the rich old lady had died of natural causes. Turns out that wasn’t what had happened at all.
She’d been murdered, and now he needed me to help him prove it.
Well, we got justice for Ethel Fulton and eventually wound up living in her stately manor home. Since none of the relatives wanted Octo-Cat and I really, really wanted him, we ended up together, too.
We live with my eccentric grandmother, who’s known around these parts simply as Nan. A few months ago, we also adopted a rescue Chihuahua named Paisley. She’s the sugar to Octo-Cat’s spice, and the cute little thing can never say a bad word about anyone… 
Well, except the naughty raccoon named Pringle who lives in our backyard. He used to live under the porch, but then he kind of blackmailed us into building him a custom treehouse—two treehouses, actually. Oh, boy, is that a long story.
Speaking of long stories, I’ve got several of those. Just you wait.
You see, a lot has changed in the months since Octo-Cat and I officially opened our P.I. business together. We haven’t had a single paying client yet, but we’re still getting tons of experience by accidentally stumbling into one mystery after the next. 
Hey, whatever works. Right?
Oh, also, I’m in love with my boyfriend and former boss, Charles Longfellow, III—although I haven’t exactly told him that yet. Octo-Cat is also in a long-distance relationship with a former show cat and minor Instagram influencer named Grizabella. And he never stops telling her—or anyone who will listen—just how much he loves her. He’s even started giving me guff about how slow Charles and I are moving by comparison.
Then there’s the fact that we’ve discovered Nan isn’t actually biologically related to me or my mom, but we’re still working on digging up the full story there. Yes, this entire time, she hasn’t understood the reason we were shoved together, either.
On the positive side of that crazy bit of news, we have connected with long-lost family in Larkhaven, Georgia. I was supposed to visit them last month, but a murder derailed our travel plans just a bit. So, instead, my cousin Mags showed up here and is staying through the end of the month.
Mags is a hoot, and we all love her. She and I have so much in common and look so much alike that I sometimes wonder if we’re not actually twins instead of just cousins. 
She’s a couple years older than me, though, and as far as I can tell, she’s completely normal. Her family owns a candle shop in her town’s historic district, and she’s promised to teach Nan and me how to make our own candles before she heads back home.
We have lots to do before that happens, though. 
For one thing, it’s almost Christmas. Nan keeps all of us busy with the custom advent calendar she made at one of her community art classes, and today we’re also scheduled to head into town for the twelfth annual Holiday Spectacular!
The Holiday Spectacular is a time-honored tradition for our small town of Glendale. People come from all over Blueberry Bay to gather around the big tree downtown, compete in the ice sculpture competition, and celebrate Christmas with the staggering variety of small businesses downtown. 
We get everything from hot cocoa stations to learning Christmas carols from around the world to meeting local authors and getting signed books from them to… 
Well, each year is completely different, and that’s what makes it so much fun. I can’t wait to show Mags my hometown at its best. I hope she’ll love it every bit as much as I do.
Hey, look at that, it’s time to go find out!
* * *
I smacked my lips together after dragging my new cranberry red lip stain across them. Perfect for the holidays. Normally, I wore very little makeup, since my clothes made enough of a statement without any outside help. Lately, though, Nan had begun insisting I put a little more effort into my appearance. She claimed it was for all the holiday festivities, but I suspected she secretly hoped that my glamorous new efforts might rub off on my cousin, Mags.
It’s not that Mags was plain, but she did prefer a simple, non-fussy wardrobe. While working in her family’s candle shop in the historic district, she sometimes wore old-fashioned clothing with big skirts and a bonnet—and I suspected that was all the fuss she could handle. I didn’t blame her for wanting to keep it easy during her leisure time.
Mags’s signature knock sounded at my bedroom door—three short, one long, two short again.
“Come in!” I called, turning away from the mirror and toward the door.
Mags wore a white button-down shirt and white skirt with white flats. Her white-blonde hair fell midway down her waist, and her fair skin had not a stitch of makeup on it. She looked like a snow angel... or a ghost. 
“Can I borrow an outfit from you today?” she asked with a frown. “I think I’m letting Nan down with my color choices.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry about Nan. I let her down constantly. She still loves us both, though.”
“She offered to let me wear something from her wardrobe, but Angie—” Mags dropped her voice to a whisper and motioned for me to lean closer. “Everything’s hot pink!”
We broke apart in giggles. 
“Seriously, though, please help a cousin out,” she begged, joining her hands in front of her and shaking them at me.
I skipped toward the closet, loving every minute of having my long-lost cousin here. I couldn’t believe we had little more than a week left together. I was going to miss her so much when she went back home.
“How’s this?” I asked, tossing a Santa-print party dress at her. It was the same one I’d worn when we took the pets to get their pictures done with Santa at the pet shop in Dewdrop Springs. While it was one of my favorites, I had tons of holiday wear that hadn’t made it out of the closet yet this year.
That was the thing about doing most of my shopping at Good Will: everything was so cheap and went toward a good cause, so I had zero issue indulging my addiction. Today I wore a pair of jeans with the ugliest Christmas sweater I owned—it had giant pom-poms stuck in a huge ring to form a three-dimensional Christmas wreath, complete with jingle bells and a giant satin ribbon. 
It was wretched, and I adored it. 
“This is perfect,” Mags said after a quick appraisal of the dress. 
“Goes good with pigtails,” I said.
She turned crimson. “I think that’s perhaps a little too much for today.”
Octo-Cat trotted in with Paisley following close behind. 
“Mommy, you look gorgeous!” the Chihuahua cried.
“One day that sweater will be mine,” my tabby swore. “You can’t tell me that’s not meant to be a cat toy. Look at all those mischievous floofs!”
Well, he had me there.
“Mommy, can I come, too?” Paisley asked, her tail wagging so fast that it was little more than a black blur.
“She can’t talk to us in front of Mags, genius,” Octo-Cat said, looking bored with the whole thing.
Mags smiled at me, probably wondering why I had suddenly stopped talking when the animals entered. Let’s just say it was incredibly hard to keep my secret from her, especially considering she was family. Still, the fewer people who knew, the better. And I didn’t know if she would even believe me. I didn’t want to send her screaming back to Georgia and ruin our relationship with the rest of the family before we even got the chance to meet them.
Just one more week to go. I could keep my secret for that long…
Um, right?


Chapter 2


Mags looked absolutely adorable wearing my Santa-print dress. She complemented the look with a fuzzy white beret and then asked for my help applying that new cranberry stain to her lips and a bit of blush to her cheeks.
“Selfie time!” she cried, maneuvering her phone to capture a photo of us from several angles. 
“Wow, we really do look alike,” I said when she showed me the resulting pictures. Despite her fairer coloring, we both had the same brown eyes, perky nose, and heart-shaped face. She had the perfect poise of a supermodel while I had somehow managed to give myself a triple chin and the viewer a front-row view straight up my nostrils. 
This right here was why I didn’t find myself addicted to social media the way so many others in my age bracket tended to be. I’d much rather be behind the camera than in front of it, but if given the choice, I’d go for no cameras at all. I could thank being raised by two newscasters for that.
“You’re way more photogenic than me,” I mumbled as Mags texted our selfie to a few family members back in Georgia. I hadn’t met any of them yet and wasn’t super thrilled with the awful photo being one of their first introductions to me.
“It comes with lots and lots of practice,” Mags revealed with a coy smile. Unlike me, she seemed much more comfortable interacting with people online as opposed to in person. “I’m on screen a lot for my candle-making videos, so I’ve learned my angles.”
“Girls!” Nan called from the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom tower. “Ready to paint the town red? And green?” She chuckled at her own joke as she moved down the grand staircase and into the foyer.
Mags looked to me for confirmation as she stuck her phone into her small handbag and pulled at the hem on her borrowed dress.
A huge smile crossed my face as I yelled, “Coming!”
Mags, the animals, and I pounded down the two flights of stairs to the foyer where Nan had relocated to bundle up in an eclectic assortment of bright pink winter wear. 
Nan pulled out a tiny brown jacket and knelt to the ground. “Paisley, come here, you sweet dog!” 
The Chihuahua ran, her whole back half wiggling with joy. “Yes, Nan. Coming, Nan. I love you, Nan.” 
While she called me “Mommy,” her greatest loyalty definitely lay with Nan. I’d asked her about that once, and she said that she couldn’t remember what it felt like to have a mother since she’d lost hers when she was still too young to remember. Since Nan insisted on being called Nan by everyone who knew her—and because she couldn’t communicate with Paisley the way I could—the little dog had taken to referring to me as Mommy.
She stood mostly still now as Nan worked her legs and head through the little brown jacket, which upon closer inspection was actually a reindeer costume. The hood had two tall, erect antlers that put Paisley off balance somewhat as she hopped away from Nan and attempted to prance about the house.
“Mags, you look lovely,” Nan said as she straightened back into a standing position. “And you’re well-matched to Paisley in that Santa dress, which is good because I’ll need you to keep an eye on her while we’re out.”
“Oh, are you not coming?”
Nan shrugged into her hot pink coat lined with black faux fur around the collar and cuffs. “Of course I’m coming. But I need both arms for hugging all my old friends who only journey home for the holidays. Paisley will have a much better time with you.”
I stepped forward and grabbed Octo-Cat’s neon green leash and harness from the back of our coat closet. He hated having to wear it, especially since he’d gotten better about being off leash during our outdoor adventures. Unfortunately for him, I’d be with Mags the whole time today, which meant I couldn’t use our ability to converse to keep him in line. 
At the end of the day, safety won every time, which meant the harness was non-negotiable. Of course, that didn’t stop my cat from trying. 
“I’m not wearing that,” he said, glaring at me as he spoke. “Last time you put it on me, Santa Claus got murdered. And before that, you granted me a favor in exchange for my compliance. That was a long time ago, so as far as I’m concerned, you owe me a whole new favor if you expect me to wear that thing today.”
I shook my head and bit my tongue to keep from talking. The favor he’d tricked me into granting was the purchase of this giant manor home, since he didn’t like my previous rental. As much as I liked the luxe estate now, I didn’t think him wearing the harness a handful of times over the past year and a half was anywhere near equivalent of an ask.
I reached for Octo-Cat with both hands and he swatted at me.
“No, Angela. No!”
“I don’t think he wants to wear that,” Mags said with a nervous laugh. “Why are we bringing him, anyway? It seems to me that an outdoor festival wouldn’t be very fun for a cat.”
“Trust me, I’ll never hear the end of it if I leave him behind,” I said, then quickly added, “He’ll be yowling for days to punish me, and mostly at night, because he’s got an evil streak a mile wide.”
“Smart cat.”
“You have no idea.” I chuckled with relief. You’d think I’d be better at minding my secret after so much time, but you’d be very, very wrong.
“Well, here.” Mags grabbed Octo-Cat so quickly neither he nor I saw it coming. “Let me help.”
He struggled and spun in her arms, but Mags held on tight while I worked the harness onto his furry little body. “You will live to regret this, Angela, and it might not be all that long.”
I set him on the ground and stifled a laugh as he took a couple steps, twitched, and then frantically began to lick his fur where it touched the neon green straps.
“Are we all ready to go?” Nan asked cheerfully, completely unbothered by the angry kitty standing near her feet. While Octo-Cat generally held me to a higher standard of behavior and let Nan’s foibles pass by unmentioned, one of these days, he’d get her, and he’d get her good. Hopefully, he’d at least wait until after the holidays.
A minute later we’d all piled into my sedan, and less than fifteen minutes later we’d arrived downtown for Glendale’s Holiday Spectacular.
Even though it was early, we had to park several blocks away in order to get a spot.
“Wow,” Mags said when downtown finally came into view. “It’s like we’re inside a snow globe.”
We had half a foot of snow at best, but Mags never got white Christmases at home in Georgia, so I let her enjoy the moment without explaining the snowfall was actually light for this time of year.
“Welcome! Welcome to the Holiday Spectacular!” Mr. Gable the owner of our only local jewelry store and the head of the planning committee, greeted us with his pet rabbit in one hand and an old-fashioned camera in the other. He wore a Santa costume without the classic fur-trimmed coat, revealing black suspenders on top of his thick wooly undershirt. “Have a seat on the sleigh. Let Santa and E.B. take your picture.”
“E.B.?” Mags asked as she and I slid into the rear seat of the sleigh and Nan jumped up front with both animals. 
“It’s short for Easter Bunny,” I explained, having just met the bunny for the first time myself earlier that month when we went to the pet store for photos with Santa and ended up solving a murder mystery instead. “Apparently, she was an Easter gift for the grandkids gone wrong. He was quick to rescue the bunny and give her a better life, and the two have been together ever since.”
Mr. Gable set E.B. in the nearby nativity scene which had been lined with hay and outfitted with food and water for the little rabbit, then he stepped forward to take our picture.
“Do you see that?” Octo-Cat demanded just as Mr. Gable instructed us all to say cheese. “That ridiculous rabbit has the exact same harness as me. I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life. Oh, you will pay mightily for this, dear Angela.”
Sure enough, E.B. also wore a neon green harness, although she didn’t seem to mind nearly as much as Octo-Cat did. In fact, she’d already fallen asleep cuddled up sweetly in baby Jesus’s manger.


Chapter 3


After getting our photo snapped at Santa’s sleigh, we made our way over to the extreme cocoa station. Here, festivalgoers could order crazy custom concoctions with more flavor and mix-in varieties than even made sense for a cup of hot chocolate.
Seeing as we’d arrived at the very start of the festival, the crowds were still sparse, and that came with the added bonus of no lines. Mags and I stepped right up to the outdoor counter and ordered the unicorn drink made with white chocolate and swirled with raspberry, rainbow marshmallows, pink drizzle, sprinkles, and a gold-and-white candy cane horn. We watched in awe as the barista whipped up our order.
Nan took this opportunity to shout a quick goodbye and then disappear on the arm of a comely silver-haired gentleman I don’t think I recognized. Nan knew everyone both in town and outside of it, but she hadn’t dated a single soul since my grandpa’s death more than a decade earlier. Judging by her coquettish laughter and sparkling eyes, I’d definitely have to learn more about this mysterious new friend of hers.
For now, however, I’d simply focus on this special time spent with my cousin and our two favorite animal companions as downtown Glendale did what it does best—celebrate the season. 
“There you are,” my mother crooned, rushing over to saddle both me and Mags with giant warm hugs. “Merry Christmas! Happy Holiday Spectacular!”
“Merry Christmas Eve, Mom,” I said, grabbing my freshly delivered unicorn cocoa from the pop-up table and dropping a tip in the barista’s gift-wrapped jar. It felt a bit odd to be wishing her a happy eve when it was hardly even ten o’clock in the morning. 
The Spectacular ran from ten in the morning to ten at night, giving people all day to drop by and enjoy the festivities. Most favored the night hours because of the majesty and wonder added by the light displays, but I knew the committee was working hard under Mr. Gable to get more folks coming out early and spreading a steady stream of business out over the entire day.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, then took that first decadent sip of my sugary drink. Mmm.
Mom studied her reflection using her camera’s selfie mode and fluffed up her hair as she answered. “The first reindeer game is about to begin, so naturally he’s covering it for the station. It’s the three-hooved race, sure to be a lot of fun.”
Dad did the sports report for the local news while Mom was an anchor. She covered a lot of human-interest pieces around Maine, especially now that their broadcasts were viewed regionally, thanks to her role in solving the beloved Senator Harlow’s murder. 
And, naturally, the Holiday Spectacular had been big news since it first started. Tourists now came from out of state to celebrate the season with us, and each year, the festival became bigger and bigger, thanks in part to Mom’s ace coverage of the event and to the expert leadership under Mr. Gable.
“I need to get back,” Mom said, glancing back over her shoulder toward the games field. “But I saw the two of you from across the way and figured I’d dash over to ask a quick favor.”
“We’d be happy to help,” Mags said as she held Paisley tucked under one arm and the steaming souvenir mug filled with cocoa in her other hand. “Just tell us how.”
“Great. It shouldn’t take too much of your time, but it is really important. I’m afraid the judges for the ice sculpture competition are no-shows. Would the two of you mind filling in?”
“Not at all,” Mags said, shaking her head so hard, some of her cocoa splashed onto the freshly shoveled street below. “Oops! Sorry about that. It sounds like a lot of fun judging, though. I’d be happy to help, if Angie is up for it.”
“Wonderful. We have over thirty entries, if you can believe that, but you don’t need to write up score cards or anything. Just pick first, second, and third place, and text me with what you decide. The ice sculpture garden is at the far end of our setup near the bridge and the little park. Think you can find it?”
“I know we can,” I answered, taking a step toward Mom but being unable to go any farther without yanking my stubborn cat who refused to move from the spot. “Now go get back to Dad before you miss out on that race.”
“Will do,” Mom said, already jogging back in the direction from which she’d come. “Thanks again, girls.”
“What do you say? Should we go now?” Mags asked, then took that first tentative sip from her half-emptied unicorn cocoa. Her eyes grew wide and her head shot back. “Wow, that’s a lot of sugar.”
I took another swig of mine and moaned in pleasure. “If you ask me, it’s exactly right. Then again, you probably don’t eat Nan’s homemade baked goods every day of the week.”
“I wish I did, though!” Mags enthused as we wound our way through the fancifully adorned streets.
We strolled past a number of local craftsmen and women peddling their wares, and I spied a particularly eye-catching necklace that I wanted to make sure we came back for once our judging duties were behind us.
Mags stopped dead in her tracks and gasped with glee. “Whoa, are those live reindeer?”
I laughed at the look of wonder that overtook my cousin. I’d been coming to the Holiday Spectacular since it was first founded twelve years ago, but I was sure seeing it all for the first time would make anyone drop their jaws to their chests like Mag was now. 
“Yup, eight of them. There are also sheep, goats, pigs, and even a camel. It’s a full petting zoo. Part Santa’s workshop and part little town of Bethlehem.”
“We’ve gotta come back.” Mags grabbed my hands and gave one last longing look toward the animals. “I’m petting every single thing they’ve got in there.”
“I promise we will,” I said, squeezing both of her hands then letting go.
“I’d rather not spend my precious time around stinky, sweating cattle,” Octo-Cat groused. 
Well, too bad for him. He’d complain about whatever we did, and Mags was truly excited to come back and spend time among the reindeer.
We strode past more pop-up restaurants, merchants, and local groups manning their booths, progressing nearly a full block in our trek before Mags ground to a halt once again. “Candles!” she cried. “Oh my heart!”
I nodded toward the pair of women sitting outside the tent. Mags had already disappeared inside where it was dark, save for the glow of tealight candles set up carefully around the inside.
“She makes candles for a living,” I explained to the ladies sitting outside the tent. I felt odd standing here with them while Mags was inside but knew better than to take my cat and dog into a space with open flames. “Yours are beautiful. How much are they?”
“We’re not selling the candles,” the younger of the two women explained with a kind smile. “We make and sell menorahs. Other members of our synagogue are also set up selling potato latkes a few booths down.”
“Oh, for Hanukkah. I’ve never celebrated myself but have always loved the story about the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.”
“It’s not just a story,” the older woman said. “It’s God working miracles. He still does that to this day, you know.”
“How much is this?” Mags asked, rejoining us with a small silver menorah in her hands. 
The women told her the amount, and she handed over a couple twenties. “Thank you. I will cherish it always. Happy Hanukkah.”
“Happy Hanukkah,” the women called after us as we continued toward the ice sculpture garden.
“They have a bit of everything here. Don’t they?” Mags asked.
“You have no idea,” I said with a giggle. “Just wait until we check out some of the reindeer games.”
“I’m glad we got here nice and early. There’s so much to do, I’m afraid we won’t have time for it all.”
“Well, here’s the ice sculpture garden. Let’s make sure we give each contestant fair consideration, then pick our winners and get back to the streets.”
We crossed the road and entered the park where rows of enormous and intricately carved ice statues stood in a spiral configuration. A sign at the beginning of the path read: “Start here and follow the path until you reach the center. Once there, follow the red ribbon for a shortcut back to the start. Enjoy!”
“It’s like the Guggenheim,” I said, thinking of the fantastic museum I’d studied during my humanities coursework. “You never have to turn or think about where to go next, freeing you up to enjoy art for art’s sake.”
“Look at this one!” Mags cried, already a few sculptures down the path and admiring the carving of a swan splashing into water with wings spread wide. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“How about this one?” I said pointing to a giant, elaborate snowflake. “It must have taken so much time to get all the details exactly right.”
“It’s sad that this gorgeous art is all going to melt away.” Mags stood in front of the statue of a woman wearing a gorgeous flowing gown now. “And it’s going to be very hard to pick just three to win.”
“Let’s start by just looking. Then when we reach the center, instead of taking the shortcut out, we can walk through again and try to make a short list of our favorites.”
Mags nodded. “So far, everything is my favorite.”
“It may take a few back and forths,” I agreed. “So let’s get started.”
We walked through the spiral, admiring sculptures of animals, people, nature, and even abstract creations. Hardly any time had passed at all before we wound up in the center, and a swatch of bright red caught the corner of my eye. I turned toward it, expecting to see the promised ribbon that would guide festivalgoers out of the garden and prevent traffic jams. 
Instead I saw deep pools of crimson marring the otherwise pristine snow. Blood.

 


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