This story takes place in the time gap between the first two Laura Fleming novels: Down Home Murder and Dead Ringer.

I was glad I had saved Liz's present for last. Maybe it would help make up for Mrs. Hamilton's earlier abuse. "I believe this is for you," I said, handing her the glittery gift bag.

"For me?" she said, looking pleased. "Who did this come from?"

"A good elf never tells," I said solemnly. "Union rules."

She smiled and opened the bag. I could see my cousin Clifford watching from where he was playing Christmas carols on his guitar. The present was from him, but he was too shy to want Liz to know that. Liz reached into the bag and pulled out a long knife, the blade smeared with something dark.

"What on earth?" she asked.

"I don't know." I looked over at Clifford, but he seemed as confused as I was. "I think there's been some kind of a mistake," I said, but was interrupted by a shriek from a few feet away.

Mrs. Hamilton had keeled over in her wheelchair, and one of the other residents pointed at her and shrieked again.

Liz dropped the knife back into the bag and thrust it toward me so she could run to Mrs. Hamilton. I was only a few steps behind her, though I didn't know that there was anything I would be able to do.

Liz put her hand on Mrs. Hamilton's back as if to straighten her up and then jerked her hand away. I was the only one close enough to see that her hand was covered in blood. A hole through the canvas back of the wheelchair matched the old woman's bloody wound.

I think Liz and I realized at the same instant that the smears on that knife had to be blood, which meant that I was carrying the weapon that had been used on Mrs. Hamilton.

* * *

I'll admit that I didn't have much Christmas spirit when my husband Richard and I came home to Byerly. My grandfather had been gone less than a year, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to celebrate without him. Still, I was trying to get into a holiday mood and had even agreed to help my cousin Vasti throw a party at the old folk's home a few days before Christmas. The last thing I expected was to end up investigating a stabbing.

Of course, if I had had one lick of sense, I would have called Vasti and canceled when the storm started that afternoon. But no, I let Richard talk me into going out in the middle of the worst ice storm to hit the mountains of North Carolina in years. It took us twenty minutes to chip out the car, and the roads were coated with ice.

I held just as tight as I could to the arm rest the entire time we were driving and tried my darnedest not to back-seat drive. Finally I couldn't help but say, "There's a stop sign just around that curve. You might want to start slowing down."

"Yes, dear," Richard said.

"Sorry. It's just that driving in this mess makes me nervous."

"Hey, I live in Massachusetts. No puny North Carolina winter can scare me."

After several years up North, I should have been used to winter weather, too, but I wasn't. "Of course in Boston they have snow plows to keep the roads clear," I reasoned. "And driving in ice isn't anything like driving in snow."

"Yes, dear."

"Sorry," I said again. I managed to stay quiet for another couple of minutes, but then said, "Take your time. We've got half an hour before we're due at the old folks' home."

"Isn't it supposed to be 'nursing home?' Or maybe these days it's a senior citizens' center."

"You're probably right." I felt the car slide, and gritted my teeth. Normally nothing in Byerly was more than ten minutes away from anything else, but we had already been on the road for twenty minutes and we weren't there yet.

"You're just afraid we're going to get into an accident and you'll have to go to the hospital dressed like that," Richard said with a grin.

I pulled down the sun visor on my side, looked into the mirror on the back side, and made a face at myself. "Do I look as foolish as I feel?"

"'The little foolery that wise men have makes a great show.' As You Like It, Act I, scene 1," he replied.

"Thanks loads. That makes me feel much better." Thanks to Vasti, I was dressed in green tights and a red garment that Richard said was a jerkin. My coat covered most of the outfit, but not the shoes and hat. The bells on the curled toes of my red slippers jingled every time I moved, and the plume on the Robin Hood hat constantly fluttered in and out of the corner of my sight.

"I think you look adorable," Richard added. "Just what I'd like to find in my Christmas stocking. Except that an elf shouldn't be frowning. Maybe we should have a little elf practice so you can learn to go hee hee and ho ho and important stuff like that."

I looked at him accusingly. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

He grinned.

"Keep it up," I said. "I'll tell the other members of your department that Boston College's Shakespeare specialist has been quoting from Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer."

"Such cruelty," he said, shaking his head. "And so close to Christmas, too. You're liable to get coal in your stocking instead of that new software you've been hinting about. Just think of how happy those senior citizens are going to be when you and the others show up."

"They're going to laugh their fool heads off at us," I grumbled.

"You don't want to spoil the party, now do you? Remember, what the Bard said. 'A woeful hostess brooks not merry guests.' The Rape of Lucrece."

"Vasti's the hostess, not me. I'm just an elf."

"Well, if you didn't want to be an elf, you shouldn't have volunteered."

"I didn't volunteer," I protested. "Vasti volunteered me." Vasti had originally arranged for four cousins to be elves at the Christmas party she was throwing at the Byerly Nursing Home, but when our pretty cousin Ilene got a better offer and backed out, Vasti was left one elf short.

To be fair to Vasti, I hadn't fought her too hard when she suggested I take Ilene's place. I was hoping that the party would inspire at least a little of the Christmas spirit I was missing this year.

I shoved the feather on that darned hat back into place and looked at Richard in his blue jeans and Shakespeare sweatshirt more than a little resentfully. "Vasti could probably come up with a costume for you."

"No, thanks," he said. "I don't look as good in tights as you do."

Finally I saw the sign for the nursing home. "There it is. Go right just after that post," I said, and was glad when we managed to turn past the post and not into it. Not surprisingly, there weren't many cars in the parking lot. Most folks had enough sense to stay home on a night like this.

Still, the place looked like it was ready for a Christmas party. Colored lights outlined the entrance, and there was a wreath in every window. I recognized Vasti's style. As far as she's concerned, if it's worth doing, then it's worth overdoing.

With Richard and me helping each other across the parking lot, we just barely kept from falling on our behinds. Vasti was pacing across the lobby just inside the front door. I guessed that as the hostess of this shindig, she rated a higher rank than I did. Instead of an elf suit, she was dressed in a red velvet dress with white fur around the sleeves and collar, and had a perky Santa hat on top of her brown curls. I would have thought boots would fit the costume better than red patent-leather pumps, but Vasti always did have a weakness for high heels.

"It's about time!" she said when she saw us. "I didn't think y'all would ever get here."

"You said seven o'clock," I said, checking my watch. "It's only a quarter til now." I thought that was pretty good, considering the ice storm.

"Seven? Laurie Anne, I know I said six–thirty. The triplets are late, too."

I thought about arguing with her, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. "Well, we're here now."

"You can leave your coats in the closet behind the reception desk," she said, "and then come on down to the recreation room." She tapped her foot while we hung up our coats, and then led the way.

About halfway down the hallway, she stopped to let Richard and me pass her.

"What's the matter?" I asked, stopping too.

"Oh nothing," she said, and started up again. "I guess I should have gotten you a bigger elf suit."

I followed her as best I could while trying to catch my reflection in every shiny surface we passed. "It doesn't look too tight to me," I said.

"Now don't you worry about it," Vasti said. "Most of these old geezers can't see far enough to notice figure flaws."

What figure flaws? Maybe I wasn't Hollywood material, but I didn't think I looked that bad.

By now we had reached the recreation room. I had to admit that whoever Vasti had talked into doing the work had done an wonderful job of turning the institutional room into a place where you didn't mind having a party. Tinsel garland and electric candles were scattered all around the room, and each of the tables circling the room had a silk poinsettia centerpiece.

There was an enormous Christmas tree in the center of the room, decorated with lots of blinking lights and shiny balls. A long table filled with platters of party food lined one wall, with punch bowls on either end. There was a small platform in one corner with music stands.

"Did I tell you that Clifford is coming to play Christmas carols?" Vasti asked.

"That's a great idea."

"I was just going to play tapes, but he said he wanted to come." She lowered her voice to what she thought was a conspiratorial whisper and said, "Don't tell him I told you, but I hear he's sweet on Liz Sanderson, one of the nurses here. I think she's Hoyle Sanderson's little sister. You remember Hoyle, don't you? Now he's blond but she's a redhead, so I can't decide if it's natural or not."

"Is Clifford serious about her?"

"Oh he's serious enough, but he's too doggone shy to tell her that. I don't know what on earth he's afraid of."

I did. I had been painfully shy in high school and through a good part of college. Clifford was afraid he'd be laughed at, just like I had been.

Vasti went on, "I've got half a mind to tell Liz that he's got a crush on her just to get it over with. Then maybe he'll quit mooning over her."

"Vasti, don't you dare."

"Why not? The worst that could happen is that she'd tell me that she's not interested and ask me to break it to him gently."

The problem was, Vasti had never broken anything to anyone gently in her whole life. "Vasti," I started, but then reconsidered. If I left it alone, she'd likely forget about it anyway. Instead I said, "What do you want us to do? Everything looks pretty well set up already."

She picked a clipboard up off of a table and made a big show of looking at it. "Laurie Anne, you can arrange those Secret Santa gifts under the tree so they look pretty." She pointed to several boxes filled with wrapped packages. "You and the other elves will be handing them out later."

"Isn't that Santa Claus's job?" I said.

"No, because Arthur and I are going to be mingling and making sure that everybody is having a good time."

"Where is Arthur anyway?" Richard asked.

"He had a City Council meeting. Civic leadership takes up so much of his time." She sighed theatrically, which would have been more effective if I didn't know how much she loved being the wife of a city councilman. "I just hope he can make it through the storm."

She consulted her clipboard again. "Richard, those boxes on the table have cookies in them. You can set them out on those platters. All right?"

"'I will be correspondent to command,'" he said. "The Tempest, Act I, scene 2."

She paused a minute before deciding that he had said yes, and then said, "Now y'all two get busy, and I'm going to find a phone to see if the triplets are coming or not."

As I reached for a package, she added, "Laurie Anne, you might better be careful about bending over. I don't know how much strain those tights can take." With that burst of Christmas cheer, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Being an adult, I didn't let her comments bother me. Well, I stuck my tongue out at her behind her back, but I did put the presents around the tree like she’d asked. Then I went to see how Richard was doing.

"Aren't you done yet?" I asked in what I thought was a fair imitation of Vasti's soprano. "What on earth are you waiting for?"

"I'm trying, but Vasti baked enough cookies for an army," he said.

"Heaven forbid!" I said. "Vasti doesn't bake. She must have got someone else to bake them for her." I looked inside one of the boxes. "See? I know those are Aunt Nora's double–butter cookies. She always decorates them so pretty, I'd recognize them anywhere." I reached for a particularly fetching reindeer and then paused.

"Richard," I said, "tell me the truth. Do I look heavy in this outfit?"

He stepped back and studied me from a couple of angles. "To quote the Bard," he said, and then gave a piercing wolf whistle.

"Richard! This is a hospital. Sort of, anyway." I looked around to make sure no nurses had run in to see what was the matter. "Thank you, love, but that's not the kind of answer I was expecting."

"I calls them like I sees them."

"And what play did that come from?"

"Who said anything about a play? That's what Shakespeare used to say to Mrs. Shakespeare."

"Oh yeah? Then why did he only leave her his second best bed in his will?"

Vasti's return interrupted our literary discussion. "The triplets didn't answer their phone, so I guess that they're on their way. Richard, are you planning to finish that today?"

Richard saluted. "Yes, Mrs. Claus. Sure thing, Mrs. Claus. Right away, Mrs. Claus." Even Vasti had to grin as Richard made a show of rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Richard and I had just finished arranging refreshments to Vasti's satisfaction when Idelle, Odelle, and Carlelle arrived, with Clifford in tow. The triplets were dressed in elf costumes like mine, but Clifford had escaped Vasti's penchant for costume and was just wearing a nice red and white sweater with his blue jeans. All four of them were carrying more wrapped presents.

"It's about time," Vasti said. "The party starts in five minutes."

Actually, we still had twenty minutes left, but Idelle knows how useless it was to argue with Vasti as well as I do. "Sorry Vasti. We had to finish wrapping the last batch of presents after work, and the roads are just terrible."

Then the sisters noticed me and Richard, and, as if one, said, "Laurie Anne! Richard! We didn't know you were coming! Just let us hug your necks!"

Richard and I were immediately surrounded by hugging and kissing cousins, followed by less effusive but equally sincere greetings from Clifford.

"Doesn't Laurie Anne make a cute elf?" Idelle asked her sisters.

"I don't know how Richard is keeping his hands off of her," Odelle agreed.

Carlelle said, "He just needs a little encouragement. Vasti, where'd you hang the mistletoe?"

"I didn't think mistletoe would be appropriate at a party for senior citizens," Vasti said stiffly.

"That's all right," Idelle said. "We brought some." She dug into her pocketbook, produced a sprig tied with red ribbon, and held it up high over my head. "Richard, Laurie Anne needs a kiss."

"'The kiss you take is better than you give,'" said Richard, and kissed me soundly, much to the delight of the triplets. "Troilus and Cressida, Act III, scene 5."

"That's enough of that," Vasti said. "We've got work to do." She handed out assignments, and we went to work.

Richard and I were hanging the mistletoe when he whispered, "How am I supposed to tell the triplets apart when they're dressed alike?"

"Check their necklaces," I said. "Each one is wearing her initial." Actually, I was used to the triplets dressing identically most of the time, so this was no worse than usual. I did notice that while my outfit was nearly the same as what the sisters were wearing, their jerkins were a good three inches shorter than mine.

Vasti must have realized the same thing, because I heard her say, "I didn't realize your outfits were so short when I bought them."

All three of the sisters raised their eyebrows in innocent surprise, even though we all knew that Carlelle was an expert seamstress and that hemming those jerkins wouldn't have taken her any time at all.

"Short skirts won't do you much good around here," Vasti said with a sniff. "Even you three aren't desperate enough to chase after men old enough to be your grandfather."

"But there's always the doctors," Idelle said cheerfully.

"And the orderlies," Carlelle added.

"And maybe even male nurses," Odelle said.

"I see y'all have given this some thought," Vasti said. "Some of us are here out of the goodness of our hearts to spread some Christmas cheer."

Idelle made a rude noise. "Who do you think you're fooling, Vasti? Everybody knows that the only reason you put this party together is for publicity for Arthur. Showing off how civic–minded he is."

"Well, helping out a husband is better than trying to catch one," Vasti snapped.

I decided it was time for some peace on Earth. "As long as the old folks have a good time, it doesn't really matter why we're here, does it?"

"I suppose not," Idelle admitted.

"And speaking of old folks," Vasti had to add, "we better get a move on. Our guests will be here any time now."

I was arranging the packages the triplets had brought under the Christmas tree when Clifford came up behind me and touched my shoulder. He was carrying a silver gift bag with a cascade of curling green and red ribbons tied around the handle.

"Laurie Anne, you're going to be handing out the gifts, aren't you?"

"The triplets and I are," I said.

He held out the bag. "Could you add this one to the stack?"

"Sure." I didn't see a tag. "Who's it for?"

"It's for Liz Sanderson. She's a nurse here."

Knowing how shy he could be, I didn't say a word, just put the bag under the tree. He was still standing there when I turned back around.

"I thought it'd be nice if she got a Secret Santa gift, too. All the residents are getting them," he said.

"That's very thoughtful of you, Clifford."

"I just didn't want her to feel left out. She works real hard."

"I'm sure she does."

He nodded a few times rapidly, and then said, "I better go tune my guitar. Bye now." He walked away more quickly than was strictly called for.

Richard walked up while Clifford was escaping and asked, "What's the matter with him?"

"I think he doth protest too much," I misquoted, and explained what Clifford was up to.

"Ah, young love," Richard said. "Reminds me of my first Christmas gift to a girl."

"What was that?"

"A paperback copy of Romeo and Juliet, with photos from the Zeffirelli film. I hoped it would inspire the lovely Jennifer to imagine me as Leonard Whiting and herself as Olivia Hussey."

"Did it work?"

"Yes and no. She fell in love with Leonard Whiting."

"Her loss," I said, and gave him a consoling kiss before finishing up with the packages. "There," I said when done. "As pretty as a Christmas card."

"I'll say," said Richard with a grin.

"I meant the tree."

"Of course," he said innocently.

We wandered over to the refreshment table, but the triplets had everything under control. Vasti rushed by a time or two with clipboard in hand, but I couldn't figure out why since we had finished all the work.

"It's time," she finally wailed, "and Arthur isn't here yet. The secretary at City Hall said he left ages ago."

"He probably got held up by the storm," Odelle said.

"It was terrible driving over here," Carlelle added.

"Like driving on a sheet of glass," Idelle said.

"But we can't have a Christmas party without Santa Claus," Vasti protested. Then she looked at Richard. "Richard, do you suppose––?"

"No," Richard said. "For one, I'm not Santa Claus material." That was true enough. You didn't often see a lanky. brown–haired, beardless Santa. "And for another, you haven't got a spare red suit."

Vasti nodded, acknowledging defeat. "Oh well. The photographer from the Byerly Gazette probably won't make it either."

"Thank the Lord for small favors," I whispered to Richard. "I am not about to have my picture taken while wearing an elf suit." Especially not for publication in the local paper.

Vasti looked at her clipboard one last time and nodded decisively. "We may as well get this show on the road. Clifford, play 'Jingle Bells.' Richard, you can serve punch. Elves, y'all go stand around the tree. And smile everybody! It's Christmas."

We all obeyed, right down to the smiles. Like she said, it was Christmas. The double doors on the end of the room opened, and the nursing home residents slowly started coming in. When I saw the happy expressions on their faces, I decided it had all been worth it. Driving in the storm, doing what Vasti said, even wearing the elf suit.

The last folks to come in were in wheelchairs, mostly pushed by nurses, and I looked to see if I could spot the young lady who had caught Clifford's eye. I knew her as soon as I saw her. She was by far the youngest nurse there, and no matter what Vasti said, her red hair looked natural to me. There was just a sprinkling of freckles over her nose, and she had a curvy little figure that would have looked a lot nicer in an elf suit than in that starched nurse's uniform.

"Cute, isn't she?" Odelle whispered.

"Not bad, if you like them young and pretty," Idelle said.

"Look at Clifford," Carlelle said with a giggle. "He looks like he's been struck by lightening."

Well, not quite, but pretty close. If Liz had looked in his direction, there was no way she could have mistaken his expression for anything other than unabashed adoration. Then he caught himself and concentrated on his guitar playing.

"Isn't love wonderful," Carlelle sighed.

"You should know," Idelle said. "You've been in love three times this week yourself."

Odelle said, "When she gets a look at that doctor, she might try for four."

The three of them moved to converge on an admittedly attractive doctor. Meanwhile, the residents were converging on the refreshment table, and I went to help Vasti dispense cookies and other goodies. Richard was doing a booming business filling glasses, and I could tell he was dispensing Shakespearean quotes alone with the punch.

Once the first flurry was over, I managed to edge over to where the lovely Liz was making sure a particularly frail–looking patient had everything she needed. Just to help out, of course, not because I was nosy.

"Are y'all having a good time?" I asked them both.

The older lady looked confused. "She wants to know if you're having a good time," Liz said in a much louder voice. The lady bobbed her head and nibbled on a cookie.

"Mrs. Good is a little hard of hearing," Liz explained to me, "but she really is enjoying herself. They all are. We really appreciate y'all coming over here."

"It's our pleasure," I said, and was glad to realize that I was telling the truth. "I'm Laura Fleming, by the way."

She clearly didn’t recognize my name, so I sighed to myself and added, "Some people call me Laurie Anne." As a matter of fact, almost everyone in Byerly did, no matter how hard I tried to change their ways.

"That's right. You're the one who lives in Boston, aren't you?"

I nodded. "There aren't many secrets in Byerly."

She smiled. "No, there aren't. Besides, I know some of your cousins. Ilene and Vasti, of course. And Clifford."

Had I noticed a certain emphasis on that last name? "I think he mentioned you to me," I said nonchalantly.

"Did he?" she said, and she didn't sound a bit nonchalant. She looked over to where he was playing and singing "Christmas in Dixie." "He's got such a nice voice. Reminds me of Garth Brooks."

Yes, there was definitely attraction on both sides. Now, how would I get them under the mistletoe? Stop that, I told myself firmly. I was getting to be as bad as Vasti.

Speaking of Vasti, she was ready to speak for herself. She waved for Clifford to stop singing, and stood next to him. "Is everybody having a nice time?" she asked in a voice loud enough that even Mrs. Good would have no trouble hearing her. She waited for an affirmative murmur, and then said, "Well, we're all real glad. I do have some bad news for you, though. Santa Claus got stuck in the ice out there, and he's not going to be able to make it. But don't you worry! He sent some of his very favorite helpers with a whole bunch of presents for you folks. Y'all just stay where you're at, and they'll be coming around in a minute."

That sounded like a cue for us elves, so we met by the Christmas tree. Vasti and her clipboard joined us.

She said, "Now all of the packages are labeled, so you shouldn't have any problem handing them out."

I said, "How do we know who's who?"

"I sent around pins for everybody with their names on them a couple of days ago. They're supposed to be wearing them."

Now that she mentioned it, I saw that all of the residents were wearing red and green badges. Whatever faults Vasti might have, she did know how to arrange a party.

Vasti consulted her clipboard and asked the triplets, "Did y'all put together a list of what you got for people? I want to cross–reference it with my Secret Santa list."

"We didn't quite finish typing it up," Carlelle said in a tone that meant that they hadn't even started yet. "You don't need it right now, do you?"

"I suppose not," Vasti said. "Laurie Anne, you would not believe what some of these people asked for for Christmas." She rolled her eyes. "All kinds of candy when they know it's not good for them and frilly lingerie they don't need any more than the man in the moon. One old coot wanted dirty magazines. Now what good are dirty magazines going to do an old man?"

"Maybe looking is better than nothing," I said.

"And what if he gave himself a heart attack?" she asked indignantly. "How would I explain that? I told the triplets to just ignore any silly gift ideas like that."

The triplets nodded dutifully.

Vasti said, "Now you four get busy, and I'll go see how the refreshments are holding out." She clattered away.

"Did you three get stuck buying and wrapping all of the presents?" I asked. There were thirty or forty residents, and it looked like there was a gift for each of them under the tree.

"Well, most of them," Carlelle said. "Every patient is somebody else's Secret Santa, and those that are able did their own shopping. We just shopped for those who couldn't."

Idelle said, "You didn't think Vasti did any of it, did you?"

"I think she likes to organize things so she doesn't have to do any of the work herself," Odelle said.

"That's not fair," Carlelle protested. "She works hard telling everybody else what to do." The other triplets and I snickered, and she realized how that had sounded. "You know what I mean. Besides, we love shopping, don't we?"

Her sisters nodded.

"Laurie Anne, I'd love to come see you in Boston," Idelle said. "Christmas shopping must be so much fun with all those stores you have up there."

"To tell you the truth, Richard did most of our shopping this year. I just couldn't get into the mood," I said.

"Really?" Carlelle said. "I just love Christmas shopping. All the sales and the people and the Christmas music and all."

Most years I had felt the same. It's just that every time I went into a store this year, I kept seeing gifts that would have been perfect for Paw. And Paw wouldn't be here this Christmas.

"Anyway," I said, not wanting to pursue the subject, "we better get going before Vasti Claus sics the reindeer on us."

While we handed out gifts, Clifford led the residents in Christmas carols. If Liz noticed that he was watching her while he sang, she didn't show it directly. Still, she tended more to the residents who were close to the singing than to those who weren't.

Apparently the Secret Santas had done a good job choosing gifts. I heard right many ooh's and aah's. I had always heard that Christmas was for children, but you wouldn't know it from watching these people. They were having themselves a good old time.

I was on my way back to the tree to pick up another gift when I saw one man having troubles getting his package open. "Can I give you a hand with that, Mr. Biggers?" I said, after checking his name tag.

"That would be real nice," he said.

I pulled the paper off for him, broke the tape holding the box shut with my thumbnail, and then put it back on his lap so he could open it himself.

"Thank you kindly." He pulled the box top off, looked inside, and grinned like the cat who ate the canary. "My, my, my," was all he said.

I looked in to see what had him so pleased. The box was filled with copies of Playboy and Penthouse. Mr. Biggers turned a few pages and grinned even wider. "My, my, my."

I saw Vasti approaching, and I guess Mr. Biggers did, too, because he slid the lid back on top of the box.

"Did you get a nice present?" Vasti asked brightly.

"I sure did," he said. "Just what I wanted."

"Aren't you going to show it to me?" she said.

"Oh, this isn't anything you'd be interested in," he said, with a sideways look at me. "Just a bunch of sports magazines. I dearly love reading about a good game."

"Well, I hope you enjoy them." She clattered away.

Mr. Biggers winked at me and said, "Merry Christmas, young lady."

I wondered if the gift had been purchased by one of the triplets or all three in collusion. Even as children, there had been nothing they enjoyed half as much as putting one over on Vasti. No wonder they hadn't made her a list.

Encouraged by my success in spreading Christmas cheer, I looked around to see if there was anyone else I could speak to. I saw a wheelchair–bound woman off in a corner by herself. "Hello there Miz..." She wasn't wearing a name tag, and only looked at me balefully when I paused for her to insert her name. She probably never had been a very pretty woman, but with that expression, she was downright intimidating. My Aunt Maggie would have wanted to know how much she'd charge to haunt a house. "Hello there," I finally said. "Did you get a nice present?"

She mumbled something, and I realized that only the left side of her face was actually moving. The right side just sagged.

"I beg your pardon?" I said.

She grimaced and mumbled louder but I still couldn't understand. Fortunately another patient walked up with two cups of punch. His name tag said Frank Morgan.

"I'm afraid Mrs. Hamilton is a little hard to understand right now," he said. "Just give her another week in physical therapy, and she'll be quoting Shakespeare like that young fellow who was pouring the punch."

Mrs. Hamilton said something, and this time I caught enough of it to tell that it wasn't very nice.

Mr. Morgan winced, but just said, "Here's your punch, Sadie," and tried to hand it to her. Instead of taking the cup, she shoved it aside, knocking it out of Mr. Morgan's hand and splashing punch onto the floor.

"I'll go get something to wipe that up," I said, but Liz must have seen what had happened because she appeared with a paper towel.

"Accidents will happen," she said smoothly, and wiped it up. "Mrs. Hamilton, did you want another cup of punch?"

I swear I could see the blood rushing to Mrs. Hamilton's face. She struggled for a long moment with what she wanted to say before finally spitting out, "BITCH!"

There was a moment of silence, and I knew the whole room must have heard her. Liz went white, and I realized just how young she was. She was probably still in her early twenties, not nearly old enough to be able to take that without it hurting her feelings.

Mr. Morgan said, "Maybe I should take Sadie to visit with the others." He started to push the wheelchair but had only gone a few steps when Mrs. Hamilton used her good arm to switch on the electric wheelchair and move away from his grasp. I saw rather than heard him sigh, and he followed along after her.

Everyone else in the room went back to what they had been doing, leaving me and Liz standing there.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

"I shouldn't let her upset me like that," she said, more to herself than to me. "She's old and she's real sick."

"I'm sure she didn't mean it."

"Actually she probably did," Liz said with a half smile. "Sadie Hamilton has been after me ever since I started working here, probably because she knows how young I am. The other nurses keep telling me that if I can put up with her, I can put up with anything."

"Is she that bad?"

"Any of the residents can get grumpy sometimes, but Mrs. Hamilton is just plain mean. She's been even worse the past few weeks. She had a stroke the day after Thanksgiving, and she pretty much lost the use of the right half of her body. She could probably get some of it back in physical therapy if she'd just try, but she won't. She just mumbles the most awful things at us when we try to show her. How can you help someone like that?"

"You can't," I said.

Liz nodded. "I know, but I have to keep trying." She spotted the punch glass on the floor and picked it up. "I better get back to work."

"Me, too," I said, and returned to my station at the Christmas tree to finish handing out presents. We were just about done when I saw the bag for Liz still sitting there. That's when I got the idea of giving it to her to cheer her up, and instead handed her the knife that had been used to stab Mrs. Hamilton.

* * *

Liz had been trained well. Even after seeing the wound, she hesitated only a second before checking for a pulse.

"Is she...?" I asked.

"She's alive," Liz said, and then called out, "Get Dr. Buchanan!" Another nurse ran to comply.

"You better call the police, too," I told Liz in a quieter voice. Liz nodded, and I saw the doctor coming in at a run. I stood back out of the way while he and Liz exchanged a few words and then wheeled Mrs. Hamilton out of the room, still slumped over in the wheelchair.

I looked around for Richard. The other residents didn't seem as upset as I felt like they should be. After a slight pause, they kept on eating cake and drinking punch as if nothing had happened. Even the woman who had been shrieking had quieted down and was nodding in time with the carol Clifford was playing.

Of course, I told myself, they didn't know Mrs. Hamilton had been stabbed. As far as they knew, she had succumbed to another stroke or maybe a heart attack, and probably neither of those were unusual around here. Should I tell them? I couldn't think of a good reason why I should, at least until we knew more.

I finally spotted Richard coming out of the kitchen with a tray of cookies. I met him at the refreshment table and pulled him into a corner.

"What's the matter?" he asked as soon as he got a good look at me.

"Didn't you hear the scream?" When he shook his head, I told him what had happened.

As soon as I finished, he said, "Are you sure that's the knife that was used on her?"

"Of course I'm not sure," I snapped, "but I would hope that there aren't any other bloodstained knives floating around the place."

"Is there anything else in the bag?"

"I don't know." I pulled the bag open, but all I saw was the knife and some red tissue paper. "I don't want to touch anything." I looked around the room. "The awful thing is that whoever did it is probably still in here. I mean, we'd have noticed an outsider."

"I assume the police are on the way."

"I hope so. I told Liz to call, and I'm sure the doctor would want them here, too." We stayed there watching the party uneasily and listening for the siren which would mean that the police had arrived. Instead Liz came over to me.

"Laurie Anne? Chief Norton wants to talk to you." Richard nodded, and I followed her.

"Is she here?" I asked as we walked.

"No, she's on the phone." She led me to a paneled office marked Dr. Buchanan. "Chief Norton is on line 3." She closed the door behind her as she left.

I picked up the phone, and punched the blinking button. At first, all I heard were sirens and yells. "Junior?"

"Is that you, Laurie Anne?" she said, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony.

"It's me."

"Hold on just a minute, will you? I've got myself one hell of a mess to deal with out here. Three carloads of fools drinking beer ran into one another, and now they want to fight about whose fault it was."

That explained the noises I was hearing. I could just picture Junior in her blue jean jacket and cowboy boots wading into the middle of it. Even if she was only five foot three, she'd have them in order pretty quickly.

I've known Junior since we were five years old, and even then she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps as chief of the Byerly police department. Her name was the result of Andy Norton's wish for a son to name after himself. When his fifth daughter was born, he named her Junior. Naturally his sixth child was a boy. He became Andy Norton the Third, and Junior's deputy.

Junior finally came back to the phone. "Are you still there?"

"I'm here."

"Tell me, Laurie Anne. Why is it that every time you come to town, something like this happens? No, don't answer that. I don't have time. What's going on up there?"

I quickly told her what little I knew.

Junior said, "The doctor says that Mrs. Hamilton is going to make it, but it was damned close. Another inch or so, and she'd be gone. I hear you gave Liz Sanderson a gift bag with the knife that did the job."

"I think so."

"Where is it now?"

"I've got it." I hadn't known what else to do with it.

"Good. Don't let it out of your sight. Liz said there was no tag. Do you know who it was from?"

"Yes," I admitted reluctantly. "My cousin Clifford asked me to give it to her."

"Is that so?" she asked, and I just knew she had raised one eyebrow.

"Not the knife," I added hurriedly. "I was watching him when Liz pulled it out of the bag, and he was as surprised as she was. The bag wasn't sealed or anything, and it's been under the Christmas tree all evening. Anyone could have seen it and put the knife in."

"We'll see. What else was in the bag?"

"I haven't looked."

"I imagine you've got fingerprints all over the outside by now, so we won't worry about that, but don't put your hand inside. Just hold the bag by the bottom and spill out whatever's in there."

I cleared some papers off of the desk blotter, and then did as she instructed. The knife fell out first and was followed by two other items. "It's a Garth Brooks cassette tape, still sealed, and a little gold cardboard box. Like a gift box."

"See if you can use a pencil or something to open that box without touching it."

"I'll try." Fortunately Clifford hadn't taped it shut, and I used two paper clips to get it open. "It's a pair of gold earrings. Hoops." I leaned closer. "They aren't real gold, but they are pretty."

"Anything else in the box?"

I poked around with a pen. "Just cotton padding."

"How about in the bag?"

"Tissue paper."

I heard someone on Junior's end call her name, and Junior told me, "Hold on." A few minutes later she said, "Now what kind of knife is it? And remember not to touch it."

To tell the truth, I wouldn't have touched it if she had asked me. "It looks like a regular kitchen knife. Wooden handle, used but not real old. It looks shinier along the point, like it's been sharpened."

"It would have to be right sharp to go through the wheelchair and into Mrs. Hamilton's back."

"I suppose so."

I heard someone yelling for her again, and Junior must have dropped the phone she was talking on, because I heard it bounce off of something. Or someone.

This time she was gone longer, and I could hear her cursing long before she came back to the phone. "Laurie Anne, I've got a problem."

"Are you all right?"

"I am, but one of these fools just hit Trey upside the head and knocked him cold." Before I could ask, she added, "I'm sure he's going to be fine, but now I'm going to have to deliver this baby all by my lonesome."

"What baby?"

"I don't have time to talk about it right now, Laurie Anne. Is there a Bible anywhere around there?"

I didn't even ask, I just looked around the shelves. "I don't see one."

"Well, get a book, any book, and open it up."

I grabbed a Physician's Desk Reference.

"Put your left hand on the book and raise your right hand."

I did so, wondering what she was up to.

"Shoot, now how does it go?" Junior said. "Do you, Laurie Anne Fleming swear to uphold the laws of Byerly, North Carolina, and the United States, not necessarily in that order. Say, 'I do.'"

I said, "I do."

"Then by the power invested in me as Chief of Police in Byerly, I hereby make you a deputy of the Byerly Police Department, with all the rights and responsibilities I decide to let you have. You can put your hand down now."


"Laurie Anne, I wouldn't ask you if I didn't have to, but I don't have any idea of how long it's going to be before I can get there. I'd ask for someone from the county or the state to take over, but they're all tied up with the ice storm same as I am. Besides, you and I both know that you're going to be asking questions anyway, don't we?"

"Probably," I admitted. I was getting a reputation around Byerly for curiosity.

"That's what I figured. This way you're obliged to tell me everything you find out, not just the stuff that doesn't affect your family."

That smarted, but she was right. I had avoided giving Junior information in the past when I thought it might cause more harm than good. "I've always told you everything eventually, haven't I?"

"Yes, you have, and that's why I'm trusting you now. At the very least, I need you to make sure that whoever it was who tried to kill Mrs. Hamilton doesn't try again. If you find out anything else in the meantime, that's fine too. All right?"

I could think of a good dozen reasons why I should tell her no, but of course what I said was, "All right, Junior." If she could deliver a baby in the middle of an ice storm, I could do this.

"Good. I'll be there when I can. Bye." She didn't wait for me to say goodbye back.

I hung up the phone and maneuvered the knife and Clifford's presents back into the gift bag while I tried to decide what I should do next. As Junior had said, the first priority was to protect Mrs. Hamilton. Obviously someone had to be with her at all times. The question was, who? What if I used the very person who wanted to kill her as a guard? Who could I trust?

Myself, of course, and Richard. And Vasti, and the triplets, and Clifford. Then I stopped. Junior was trusting me to be at least somewhat objective, and if they hadn't been my cousins, I wouldn't have crossed them off of the list so quickly. I had to be fair about it. I was going to assume that Richard was innocent no matter what, but that was as far as I could go without more proof. I could post Richard in Mrs. Hamilton's room, but I didn't think he'd be thrilled about my trying to find a murderer on my own. And actually, I wasn't too thrilled about the idea myself.

A knife in the back sounded like a solitary act to me, so maybe I could conclude that only one person was involved. If so, that meant that the solution was to use two guards at a time. That would have to do.

Liz was waiting for me outside the office, pacing nervously.

"Is Chief Norton on the way?" she asked.

"I'm afraid not. She's tied up because of the storm."

"Then what are we going to do?"

"Don't worry," I said, trying to sound a lot more confident than I felt. "She's deputized me temporarily."

She didn't look impressed, and I can't say that I blamed her. I don't know that I would have trusted a deputy in green tights myself.

"Where's Dr. Buchanan?" I asked. "I need to ask him some questions."

"He's in the infirmary."

"Can you show me the way?" She nodded, and I followed her.

I have never liked nursing homes. They smell too much like hospitals, and they're too quiet. Now that I knew that there was an attempted murderer on the loose, this place was downright creepy. I stuck close to Liz and watched all around as we walked.

The infirmary consisted of a treatment room and a small ward of half a dozen beds. One bed had been curtained off, and Dr. Buchanan had just closed the curtain behind him when we came in.

"Dr. Buchanan? My name is Laura Fleming. Chief Norton has deputized me to take charge here." I thought that the phrase "take charge" was properly official without promising too much. "I'd like to ask you some questions about Mrs. Hamilton's injury."

"Fine," he said, looking at his watch, "if you can ask them in a hurry."

"Are you going somewhere?" I asked, following him as he kept on moving. Liz trailed along behind me.

"I just got a call from the hospital in Hickory. I see patients there as well as looking after the residents here, and they need me tonight. There have been a number of weather–related incidents."

"What about Mrs. Hamilton?"

"She should be fine. The wound was deep, but no vital organs were hit, and there was relatively little loss of blood. We got to her before she could go into shock. The nurses will monitor her for complications, of course, but I don't foresee any difficulties."

"I see," I said, a little breathless from trying to keep up with him. "Could you slow down a little bit?"


"Does what you said mean that this wasn't an attempted murder after all?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Another inch and the knife would have hit her heart. I'd guess that the heart was the intended target, but the difficulty of stabbing through the wheelchair back deflected the aim."

"Does that imply that the person knew what he or she was doing?"

"Combat knowledge, you mean?"

"Or medical," I said. Liz didn't look happy at that suggestion.

Dr. Buchanan stopped a second to consider it. "In most groups of people that would be a reasonable assumption, but not here. You see, most of our residents spend a fair amount of time reading up on their bodily processes. Comes with growing old, I suspect. Most of the residents' library is made up of medical books of one kind or another. Anyone here could easily have researched the issue."

By now, we were at the front door and Dr. Buchanan was pulling on an overcoat. He asked, "Was there anything else? I really need to get to the hospital."

At the moment I didn't have any other questions. I wasn't sure what Junior would say about my letting a possible suspect leave the scene of the crime, but I didn't think I had any right to stop him, under the circumstances. Besides, I was almost certain he had not been in the party for very long after the triplets made their play for him. The three of them together did tend to scare men off.

I said, "I guess not. Chief Norton will probably want to talk with you later on."

"Fine. I expect to be at the hospital for some time to come." He turned to Liz. "Let me know if there are any problems with Mrs. Hamilton or any of the others."

"Yes, doctor. Be careful out there."

I must admit I would have preferred for him to stay. A doctor made a comforting authority figure, and I wasn't too happy with assuming the role myself. "Who's officially in charge of the home now?" I asked Liz after he left.

"I'm not sure. Usually Mrs. Higgenbotham would be. She's the head nurse for the night shift. Only she couldn't make it in tonight because of the ice storm. And Mrs. Donahue, the administrator, left early for the same reason. As a matter of fact, we're on a skeleton shift because so many people stayed home. There's only six nurses, counting me, two orderlies, and the cook."

That kind of decided it for me. If I didn't take charge, no one would. I said, "The first thing we have to do is to make sure that Mrs. Hamilton is protected. Someone needs to be with her at all times."

"One of the nurses is in there now. I'll make sure she stays there."

"Good. I'll be sending one of my cousins to join her."

"What for?"

"Until we know who tried to kill Mrs. Hamilton, we can't trust anyone to be in there with her alone."

"Surely you don't think that one of us––"

I cut her off by holding up my hand the way Aunt Maggie always does. "I don't think anything yet. The point is that we have to protect Mrs. Hamilton the best we can. Is she conscious?"

"No, she's under sedation."

"Fine. If she should come to and say anything, I need to know at once. Come with me so you can show my cousin back to the infirmary." I walked briskly away, imitating Dr. Buchanan's walk and hoping that she would follow. Fortunately, she did.

The party was still going on, but clearly the news about Mrs. Hamilton had begun to spread. Instead of mingling, people had gathered into tight little knots around the room. I noticed that no one was going near the spot where Mrs. Hamilton had been stabbed.

Richard was standing with Vasti and my other cousins. What I really wanted was a few minutes alone with him, but I could tell from the expression on Vasti's face that I wasn't going to get it. As soon as she saw me, she put her hands firmly on her hips. "Where have you been? What is going on around here? Where's Junior? How am I supposed to throw a decent party when I don't know what's going on?"

If Dr. Buchanan leaving hadn't convinced me, that would have. I couldn't afford to hesitate in taking charge, because if I did, Vasti was bound to leap into the vacuum. I might be unsure about my own skills, but I knew all too much about Vasti's.

As soon as she stopped to take a breath, I jumped in with, "Y'all must know what happened. Junior can't get through the ice storm, so she's put me in charge. Carlelle, Liz is going to take you to the infirmary to keep an eye on Mrs. Hamilton. There's a nurse there if she needs anything medical, but I want you to stay there and make sure no one bothers her. Don't leave her alone, not even to go to the bathroom, unless you get word from me."

The triplets looked at each other for a second, but after the silent conference, Carlelle nodded. "All right." She followed Liz away.

By now Vasti had her breath back. "Laurie Anne, just what in the Sam Hill is going on?"

I ignored her. "Idelle, I want you go outside and check the parking lot. There were only a few cars there when we got here, and they should all be covered in ice. See if there are any without ice, and if there are, get the license number. And see if you can tell if any cars have left."

"How is she going to do that?" Vasti wanted to know.

Idelle said, "I'll check to see if any of the parking spots aren't iced over yet, of course." She also left without questioning me.

"Laurie Anne," Vasti said, "are you saying that whoever it was might still be lurking around?"

Obviously I was, so I went on. "Richard, can I have your handkerchief?" He handed it to me, and I gingerly pulled the knife out of the gift bag I was still carrying. "Odelle, check the kitchen and see if there are any other knives like this around. I want to know if the knife came from here." She took a good look at the knife, nodded, and headed for the kitchen.

"Laurie Anne––" Vasti started, and I knew I was going to have to come up with something for her to do.

"Vasti, I want you to keep the party going. Don't let anybody leave the room, but don't scare them either. Get the nurses to help you if you need them." I touched her shoulder. "I'm counting on you to keep these folks calm."

Though she looked a little suspicious, she nodded and said, "All right, then. Why didn't you say so in the first place?" She started corralling nurses and residents.

"What about me?" Clifford said.

"I want you to come with me and Richard for a minute," I answered, and we went into a quiet corner where I could still see what was going on.

"Clifford," I said as gently as I could, "did you know that knife was in the gift bag?"

"Of course not! The first time I saw it was when Liz fished it out of the bag."

"I found a Garth Brooks tape and a pair of earrings in the bag, too. Is that what you meant for Liz to have?"

He nodded. "She's real fond of Garth Brooks."

"And that's all that was in that bag when you gave it to me?"

"That's all. Does she know it was from me? Liz, I mean?"

"Not yet," I said. He was so concerned about his crush being found out that he hadn't even realized that he was a suspect. "You heard what Mrs. Hamilton said to Liz, didn't you?"

"Everybody in this room heard it," he said indignantly.

"You must have been pretty angry at her. Feeling about Liz the way you do."

"You bet I was! I know she's old and all, but she's got no call to be talking to people like that. Especially not to Liz." He finally caught the implication. "Laurie Anne, you don't think I stabbed her, do you?"

"No, I don't," I said truthfully, "but I had to ask. That knife showing up in your gift right after Mrs. Hamilton was so mean to Liz does look funny."

"I guess it does," he admitted. "If it had been a healthy man who said those things, I probably would have started something, but I never would have with a sick old woman. And you know I would never have stabbed anybody in the back like that. Anyone could have stuck that knife in the gift bag. All kinds of people were all around the Christmas tree tonight."

"Did you see anyone in particular over there?" I asked hopefully.

He shook his head. "I wasn't really paying attention because Vasti had me playing carols."

"Did you see anyone over near Mrs. Hamilton? Before she collapsed, I mean?"

Again he shook his head. "I don't think so. People were coming and going so much, I don't know where anyone was." Then he added with a shy grin, "Except for maybe Liz."

"How long have you known Liz?"

This time he knew where I was leading. "Long enough to know that she'd never do anything like that. Ever since she was a little girl, she's been just as nice. She told me herself that the residents say ugly things to her all the time, but she knows that they don't really mean it."

"All right," I said. Asking him about Liz had been foolish anyway. He wouldn't have a crush on her if he thought she was that kind of a person. "Richard and I are going to see if we can find out who did this. In the meantime, I want you to help Vasti keep people calmed down. Play them some more Christmas music. Maybe that will help."

"All right," he said. He picked up his guitar, but then hesitated. "You believe me, don't you Laurie Anne?"

"Of course I do, Clifford," I said, and I guess he could tell I meant it. All right, I wasn't being objective, but I had changed Clifford's diapers. There wasn't a mean bone in that boy's body.

As soon as Clifford went, I hugged Richard. "I'm afraid we've been drafted. Or at least, I have. Are you game?"

"'I will be correspondent to command,'" he said. "The Tempest, Act I, scene 2."

"You used that one already today."

"Did I? 'Heaven lay not my transgression to my charge.' King John, Act I, scene 1. So where do we start?"

"With Mrs. Hamilton, I think. She's from Byerly, but I don't know a whole lot about her."

"Are you implying that you know about everyone else in Byerly?"

"Not everybody, of course, but most everybody. By their family if not any other way." I pointed to a bearded man in a red and green sweatshirt. "That's Mr. Honeywell. I went to school with his grandchildren, and he used to play Santa Claus at our Christmas party." Then I nodded at a skinny woman with jet black hair. "Mrs. Peabody has been dying her hair that color for as long as I can remember, but she always does it at home because she doesn't want anyone to know that it's not natural."

"I was completely fooled," Richard said dryly.

"Since I don't know Mrs. Hamilton, I guess our first step is to find out about her." Liz picked that moment to return.

"I left your cousin with Mrs. Hamilton," she said, "but I still don't think it's necessary."

"Maybe not," I conceded, "but better safe than sorry. Now, if you don't mind, I want to ask you some questions about Mrs. Hamilton." From out of the corner of my eye, I saw Clifford looking at us worriedly. "Maybe we could use Dr. Buchanan's office." I wasn't about to question Liz with Clifford watching me like that.

As soon as we got there, I waved Liz to one of the visitor chairs and took the desk chair myself. I thought I might as well try to look official. Richard picked up a pad of paper and a pen from the desk, and then pushed his chair back behind mine. Obviously he was going to let me run the show.

I took a deep breath. "I guess my first question is, do you know of any reason why anyone would want to kill Mrs. Hamilton?"

"No!" she said, and I guess she must have realized she answered a little bit too quickly. "I know you're thinking about what she said to me tonight, but believe you me, she's said the same and worse before. To all the nurses, not just to me."

"Does she just fuss at you nurses, or does she bother the other residents, too?"

"Oh she's like that with everybody: nurses, doctors, other residents, the kitchen staff, even other people's visitors."

"Does she not get visitors of her own?"

Liz shook her head. "Not since I've been here. She's got a couple of daughters who live in the state, but they never come to see her. They'll send a card once in a while, but that's about it."

No wonder she was angry all the time. Under those circumstances, I would be too.

"What about her will? Is she leaving them any money or anything else valuable?"

Liz shook her head again. "It's the daughters who pay her bills here. I don't think she has any money of her own, other than her Social Security check every month."

So much for that idea. "Does she have any particular enemy here at the home? Somebody she's really offended, rather than just pestered."

Liz took a minute to think about it. "I'm not sure," she said slowly. "Mrs. Good said she took her box of candy last week."

"Not really a killing offense, is it?" Richard said.

Liz shrugged. "Probably not, but you'd be surprised at how seriously our folks take that kind of thing. Mrs. Good's family sends her a box of candy every year, and she hoards it for a couple of months before she'll finish that last piece. It may not sound like a big deal to you, but you have to remember that Mrs. Good can't just drive to the mall to get another box. She's got arthritis so bad that she can't hardly stand up. That candy means a lot to her, and she was so got away with when it disappeared. She insisted that we search Mrs. Hamilton's room."

"Did you?"

"Yes, we did, just to reassure her. We got Mrs. Hamilton's permission first, of course, and wasn't she furious! I think she said yes just to make Mrs. Good look bad. We searched everywhere, but couldn't find hide nor hair of it. And after all that, Mrs. Good still wouldn't believe it. She claimed that Mrs. Hamilton must have hid it somewhere else."

Mrs. Good's unreasonable anger sounded promising, but I couldn't honestly suspect her. "I can't see how a arthritic woman could have stabbed Mrs. Hamilton," I pointed out.

"I guess not," Liz said, and then she shook her head. "I don't know of anything else. Of course, the residents don't tell us everything that's going on."

"Why is that?" Richard asked

"Maybe they think that coming to a nurse would be like tattling," I guessed.

"That's part of it," Liz said. "And then I think they just like it this way because it gives them something to do. They'd rather fuss and fume among themselves." I must have frowned, because she added, "I'm not putting them down, really I'm not. Boredom is the biggest problem these people have. After a while, one day is an awful lot like another. If their feuds keep them entertained, who am I to interfere? Anyway, what I was leading up to is that maybe you should talk to one of the other residents."

"Is there anyone who was a particular friend of Mrs. Hamilton's?"

"Mr. Morgan would like to be, for some reason. The other nurses say he's been sweet on her ever since she got here, and no one can figure it out. She certainly doesn't encourage him. She's just as mean to him as she is to everybody else."

"Could you find him and bring him here?" I asked.


She was gone long enough for me to ask Richard, "How am I doing?" and for him to reply, "'Exceeding wise, fair–spoken, and persuading.' King Henry VIII, Act IV, scene 2."

Then Liz brought in Mr. Morgan, performed introductions, and left. Mr. Morgan was thin but seemed heartier than most of the men in the home, and was dressed in a bright red pullover and gray slacks.

"Is Sadie all right?" he asked. "Liz wouldn't tell me a thing."

I weighed the idea of not telling him what was going on against the reality of my having no reason to ask him questions if something hadn't happened. Reality won. "Someone tried to kill Mrs. Hamilton," I said, watching his face for a reaction. All I saw was concern.

"Is she all right?"

"The doctor says she's going to be fine, but it was close."

He took a deep breath, and said, "Poor Sadie. First the stroke, and now this. Do they know who stabbed her?"

"I didn't say anything about stabbing," I said quickly. Was solving the crime going to be this easy? Of course not.

Mr. Morgan smiled. "Honey, this is a awful small place. Mrs. Robertson thought she saw blood when Sadie passed out, and Morris Nichols was watching when Liz pulled that knife out of the gift bag. We put two and two together a while ago, especially when no one would tell us anything different. We're not children."

"You're right," I said, acknowledging the reproof. "I'm sorry, but we didn't want to scare anybody until we had a better idea of what was going on. As soon as we're done here, I'll make some kind of an announcement."

"I think that would be a good idea. Now what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Did Liz tell you that Junior Norton deputized me?"

He nodded.

"What I'm trying to do is to take care of some of the groundwork for her, maybe find out who might have wanted to hurt Mrs. Hamilton. Liz tells me that you're pretty close to her."

Mr. Morgan leaned back in his chair. "Well, I don't know if you'd call us close. Sadie doesn't let anybody get too close."

"I understand that she can be difficult sometimes."

He grinned widely. "Difficult, my right eye. Sadie Hamilton is the most ornery woman I have ever met. Never has a nice word for anyone, and no one but her ever does anything right. She curses like a sailor, and I've never known her to pass up an chance to tell anybody just what she thinks about them."

"I expect she's nicer once you get to know her," I ventured.

"Not so you'd know it. She tells me off two, three times a day."

"Then why...?" I wasn't sure how to phrase the question.

"Then why did I put up with her? I like her, plain and simple. She keeps my blood moving. Sadie says I'm too damned nice, and I think she's right. My mama and daddy raised me to be polite, no matter what, and that's how I've always been. Not Sadie! She always says what's on her mind, lets it all hang out, like the young folks say now."

Actually, I hadn't known young folks to say that in quite some time, but I nodded anyway. "She sounds kind of like my Aunt Maggie. She's never been one to mince words either."

Mr. Morgan said, "Most of us old folks are too shy to speak our minds. We know we're in the way, so we act just as nice as we can to make sure people still want to be around us once in a while. Sadie just doesn't give a darn about what other people think." He looked at Richard. "You must know The Taming of the Shrew."

"'Her only fault, and that is faults enough, is that she is intolerable curst and shrewd and froward,'" Richard quoted. "Act I, scene 2."

"That's Sadie to a T. I never did like the end of that play, when Kate is all tamed. I'd just as soon she stayed a shrew, like Sadie has."

"Until she had the stroke, that is," I said.

He nodded sadly. "Oh, she's still got the feelings inside her, you saw that at the party. She just can't get the words out. It frustrates her something terrible. I pure hate to see her like that."

I realized that we had gotten off the track, and thought I better bring it back around to the attack on Mrs. Hamilton. "With her being so ill–tempered, do you think that there's someone she had particularly angered?"

He considered it for a minute, and then slowly shook his head. "I don’t know a soul that really wants her dead, if that's what you mean. Sure she makes people mad, but not like that."

"Liz said something about Mrs. Good and a box of candy," I said, feeling silly.

Mr. Morgan waved away the suggestion. "Young lady, surely you don't think anybody stabbed Sadie over a box of candy."

"No, not really."

"And another thing," he continued, "Margaret Good had no business claiming it was Sadie who took that candy. She made such a big to–do over it when it came in the mail, showing everybody what a big box it was and talking about how generous her daughter was to send it. All along knowing that Sadie's brats don't so much as call her on the telephone, not even when they heard about the stroke. Margaret even left the box in the TV room to rub it in. If you ask me, it served her right when somebody made off with it."

"Was Mrs. Hamilton feuding with anybody else?" I asked.

"Before her stroke, she was on the outs with pretty much everybody," he said, grinning again. "Sadie told everyone in sight that Mrs. Houghton's husband used to run around on her, and Mrs. Houghton was right put out about that. Especially since it was true. Then Sadie threw out a vase of Charlie's flowers because she said she was allergic to them. And she got to the TV room first one morning a while back and insisted on watching game shows all day long when she knew a bunch of the other ladies wanted to watch their stories."

"Soap operas," I translated for Richard. He was rushing to write all of this down, but I didn't really think he needed to bother. I could see why Mrs. Hamilton hadn't been very popular, but none of this was exactly motive for murder.

"Anything else?" I asked.

"I think those are the most recent problems. If you want me to go back a few months or so––"

"No, I think this will be enough to start on. I appreciate your time, Mr. Morgan."

"That's all right, young lady. Do you think it would be all right if I went to see Sadie now?"

"I think she's still unconscious, but I guess it would be all right." Even if he was the one who tried to kill Mrs. Hamilton, he wasn't likely to overpower the nurse and Carlelle in order to try again.

Idelle and Odelle came in as Mr. Morgan left.

"Are you ready for us?" Odelle asked.

I nodded. "What did you find out?"

"It's hard to tell," Idelle said, "but I don't think anyone's been out of the parking lot since we came in. Other than Dr. Buchanan, that is. I suppose someone could have come in or out on foot, but it's awful slippery out there. I fell down twice myself."

"Are you all right?" I asked.

She rubbed her tail end. "Only hurt my dignity."

"What about the knife?" I said to Odelle.

"I talked to Mrs. Cummings the cook and she said they have a set of cooking knives just like the one you have. And there's one missing. It's been gone since last week, so she already bought herself a new one that has a different kind of handle."

Last week? That implied premeditation to me. "Did she have any idea of who could have taken it?"

Odelle shook her head. "She said they don't really lock up the kitchen, because there's never been any reason to. Residents come in for snacks all the time."

"So unless someone came in last week to steal the knife, and then managed to sneak back in tonight in the middle of an ice storm, it must have been one of the residents or a staff member," I said. That left out Clifford and the rest of my family out, I added to myself, but I had never really considered them suspects anyway.

Unfortunately, I was still stuck with every one of the residents and staff members who had been at the party. Plenty of suspects, but no motive.

"What do you want us to do now?" Odelle asked.

"Has Vasti got things under control back at the party?"

"You know she has," Idelle said with a snicker.

"Then maybe you two can go check with Carlelle in case she needs something to drink or to go to the bathroom."

They nodded and left.

"Well?" I said to Richard. "Any ideas?"

"We could bring in those soap opera fans. I know some people are ardently devoted to them."

"Thanks a whole lot. Next time you can be the deputy."

He shook his head emphatically. "No thank you. I'm quite content to play the role of faithful dogsbody."

I put my head on my hands. "What have we got here anyway? In a room full of people, someone stabs a little old lady through a wheelchair. Why stab her? I mean, she's a patient. Wouldn't it have been easier to slip something into her medication?"

"Not necessarily," Richard said. "Drugs are monitored pretty closely."

"OK. Then why in the party? Why not late at night?"

"The purloined letter approach? Whoever it was must have known that he or she wouldn't be noticed."

"Then why now? She just had a stroke, for heaven's sake. What harm could she do to anyone? I don't think she could even monopolize a television set the way she is now."

"Maybe she was an easier target. From what people have been telling us, how easy would it have been to sneak up on her before?"

I sighed. "Maybe Junior should have deputized Vasti instead of me because I haven't got a clue as to what's going on."

Richard put his arm around me. "You're doing fine. All Junior wanted you to do was to protect Mrs. Hamilton, and you're doing that. The rest is up to Junior, remember?"

"I guess," I said unwillingly. "It's just that it would be awfully nice to be able to hand the solution over to Junior when she gets here." I stood up. "Anyway, I promised Mr. Morgan I'd make that announcement. Coming, faithful dogsbody?"

"'I will follow you to the last gasp with truth and loyalty.' As You Like It, Act II, scene 3."

Word must have spread that I was playing detective because the people in the recreation room quieted down when Richard and I walked in. Vasti was doing her best to hand out more cookies, but I don't think anybody was taking her up on it. Clifford was playing a song over by the podium, and I waited until he finished before starting.

"Can I have everybody's attention?" I said unnecessarily, since they were all watching me already. "I'd like to make an announcement." The people moved closer. "Y'all probably all know about Mrs. Hamilton by now. She was stabbed, but she survived the attack. The doctor said she's going to be fine." I waited for that to sink in before going on. "Chief Norton can't get through the storm to take charge herself, so she deputized me."

There was talking among them at that, and I thought I heard my grandfather's name mentioned. As I’d said earlier, there were no secrets in Byerly, so these people almost certainly knew I had taken an interest in such things before. Maybe that meant they'd trust me.

I continued, "I've been trying to see what I can find out about what happened, and that's where you folks come in. Did any of y'all see anyone around Mrs. Hamilton acting funny, someone who might have stabbed her?" There was a lot more talking, but no one seemed to have anything definite to say. "All right, then how about this? The knife used to stab Mrs. Hamilton was stuck in this bag afterwards." I held up the gift bag. "Did any of you see someone messing with this bag or putting anything into it?" Again the response was negative. I was disappointed but not surprised. If anyone had seen anything, word would already have reached me.

I went on, "Now you folks know as much as I do, but I'll answer any questions you might have."

A fearful-looking woman raised her hand, and I nodded at her. "How do we know that the murderer isn't going to come after someone else?"

I did feel right foolish when she asked that. Until then I had just assumed Mrs. Hamilton was the only target, and I didn't have any real reason for thinking that. Foolish or not, I didn't suppose it would be very comforting for me to admit my mistake. "That's why we've been keeping all of you in here," I improvised. "Safety in numbers."

A man muttered, "Safety in numbers didn't help Sadie Hamilton."

"That's because she wasn't expecting anything. Now all of you are on your guard."

"Does that mean that the murderer is still here?" the first woman asked. "Here in this room?"

There was no way around that one. "I'm afraid that's just what I mean. As far as we can tell, no one has left the home since Mrs. Hamilton was stabbed."

Now there was a wave of muttering and sidelong glances. I wanted to reassure them, but I resisted. These people deserved the truth. I didn't expect whoever it was to go after another target, but I couldn't be sure.

I looked at a clock on the wall. It was close to midnight, and these folks were going to have to go to bed soon. How could I protect so many of them?

"It's getting late," I said, "and I know you're getting tired." Goodness knows I was. "My cousins, my husband, and I are going to stay here for the night." I probably should have checked with them first, but between the ice on the roads and a thwarted murderer in the building, I didn't imagine that they'd argue. "I think we should all spend the night in here." There was some comments made, both from nurses and residents, but I talked over them. Hospital beds had wheels, didn't they? "We'll just roll in beds, and stick together. Nobody else is going to get hurt."

There was a lot of conversation, but I didn't hear any loud objections so I decided I was going to get away with it.

"Liz, Vasti, and Clifford are going to be in charge of getting everybody everything they have to have for tonight, so if there's something special you need, just tell them."

Clifford looked blank, but Vasti called out, "People, I'd appreciate it if you'd go sit down until we get things set up." There was some movement, but clearly not enough to suit Vasti. "Come on now!" she said, clapping her hands sharply. "We haven't got all night."

This sounded like as good a time as any for me to leave, and I pulled Richard along with me.

He asked, "Where to now, fearless leader?"

"I'm not that fearless," I answered. "I want to get out of here before Vasti comes up with something for me to do."

The door to the infirmary was flanked by two of the triplets. I know they were trying hard to look menacing, but it just didn't work with those elf costumes.

"How's she doing?" I asked.

"She was stirring a bit a little while ago," Carlelle said.

"I think she might be awake by now," said Odelle. "Are you going to interrogate her?"

I nodded, and opened the door as quietly as I could. The had opened the curtain around Mrs. Hamilton's bed to give them more room. A nurse I didn't know and Idelle looked up as I came in, and I saw that Mr. Morgan was sitting by the bed holding Mrs. Hamilton's hand.

Richard tapped my shoulder and mouthed that he was going to stay outside, and I closed the door behind me. "How is she doing?" I whispered.

"I think she's waking up," Mr. Morgan said. "Are you going to question her?"

"I'm going to try," I said. "Do you think you could stay and interpret for me? She was pretty hard to understand earlier."


Idelle and the nurse moved out of the way, and I pulled a chair up to the bed. Mrs. Hamilton did seem to be moving restlessly, and I hadn't been there but a few minutes when she opened her eyes.

She glared accusingly at me, then gave Mr. Morgan a somewhat friendlier look and mumbled something.

"She wants to know what she's doing here," Mr. Morgan said. "What should I tell her?"

"You know her better than I do. Do you think she can handle the truth?"

He nodded. "A lot better than she could our not telling her." Then to Mrs. Hamilton he said, "Sadie, this is kind of hard to believe."

She mumbled something else, and even without understanding the words I could tell she was impatient.

Mr. Morgan said, "Sadie, somebody stabbed you. Somebody tried to kill you."

She didn't say anything for a while, and I was trying to decide if she had understood him or not when she blurted out, "Who?"

"We don't know who," I said. "We were hoping you could tell us. Somebody came up behind you at the party. Did you see anybody?"

She shook her head, and said, "Die?"

I smiled in what I thought was a reassuring manner. "No, ma'am, the doctor says you're going to be just fine." Her glare told me that she was not reassured, but I thought I knew why. "Don't worry. We're going to make sure that no one hurts you again." I was wrong.

In the clearest words I had heard from her, she said, "Should have let him kill me."

I looked at Mr. Morgan in shock, and he started wringing Mrs. Hamilton's hand. "Sadie, don't say things like that!"

Her only response was to pull her hand away from his and determinedly shut her eyes.

The nurse and Idelle were both shaking their heads sadly, and Mr. Morgan kept whispering, "Sadie? Sadie?" I didn't have anything else to say, so I just left.

"You be sure and stay with her," I said to Carlelle and Odelle. They grinned and saluted, but I knew they'd stay.

"Well?" Richard asked once we were out of earshot. "Any accusations?"

"She said she didn't see anything, but I don't think she would have told me if she had. Richard, she wants to die!" I was on the verge of tears, and I guess Richard realized it.

"Come on," he said. "Let's find someplace quiet." He led me into what looked like a nurse's lounge, sat me down on a couch, and put his arms around me.

I took half a dozen deep breaths to fight back the tears. "It was so awful," I said. "She actually said that we should have let whoever it was finish the job. We're doing all we can to protect her, and she doesn't even want to be protected. How can she give up like that?"

"She's old," Richard reminded me. "According to Mr. Morgan, she's been miserable ever since her stroke. It's not unusual for people to get depressed at a time like that."

"I know, but it's Christmas."

"More people get depressed during the holidays than at any other time of the year."

"I know," I said again. "But..." Then I stopped. Was what Mrs. Hamilton was feeling all that different from what I had been feeling? And she had a whole lot more reason to be depressed than I did. My grandfather was dead, it was true, but he would have been the last person on earth to want me moping around. Suddenly I felt very ashamed, both for blaming Sadie Hamilton for her depression and for wallowing in my own. "I really have been a Scrooge this year, haven't I?"

"Where did that come from?"

"Just thinking about Mrs. Hamilton. It's hard to explain, and right now we've got work to do."

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm not giving up. Maybe if Mrs. Hamilton sees how hard we're working, she'll realize she's got something to live for."

"Maybe," Richard said, "but don't count on it. This is Byerly, not 34th Street."

I nodded, but I don't suppose I really believed him. I wanted a Christmas miracle for Mrs. Hamilton and maybe a little one for myself while I was at it.

Vasti spotted us as soon as we came back into the recreation room and gestured for us to join her.

"You go ahead," Richard said. "Surely someone must need me to lift a bed or something."

"Coward!" I said to his back.

"'The better part of valour is discretion.' King Henry IV, Part I, Act V, scene 4."

Vasti really had got the job done. The party food and tables were gone, and the room was filled with rows of beds. A line of curtained panels ran down the center and two signs pointedly labeled the halves LADIES and GENTLEMEN. A few folks were already pulling off their shoes and socks and climbing into bed.

After all her hard work, I couldn't very well ignore her demand for my attention. "Vasti, you have done a wonderful job."

"Oh this," she said waving her hand airily. "Nothing to it. What I wanted to tell you is that I think I solved the case!"

"Really?" I said, hoping I didn't sound too sarcastic.

If I had, she didn't notice it. "Look what I found!" She held out a Whitman's Sampler box of candy.

I guess I looked blank.

"This box of candy was stolen from Mrs. Good. A nurse saw it and told me all about it. You see––"

"I've heard the story. Are you sure that's the same box?" I said, not sure why I should care.

"Mrs. Good identified it herself, and I had the devil of a time convincing her that she couldn't have it back."

"Why couldn't she?"

"It's evidence," she said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I found it in Mrs. Hamilton's room."

Now that was interesting, although puzzling. Hadn't Liz told me that they had searched the room when the candy went missing?

"Her room is one of the closest, so I thought we could wheel her bed in here. She's not going to be using it tonight, after all. Anyway, this was in the drawer of her nightstand."

I didn't even bother asking Vasti what she had been doing in the nightstand. "So you think the candy has something to do with the attack?" I said.

"It must have. And there's more." She lifted the lid of the box, and I saw that there was only one piece of candy missing. "Look at that piece there," Vasti said, pointing to a nougat.

I did so, careful not to touch. "What?"

"Just look."

I got closer, and saw what I thought was a fingerprint. "It looks like someone picked it up." Knowing Vasti, I was pretty sure I knew who it had been.

"It's been tampered with," Vasti said triumphantly. "It looked funny to me, and when I looked on the bottom, I found a needle mark. Don't you see? It's been poisoned."

"Did you get one of the nurses to take a look?"

"Of course not. One of them might be the murderer."

She had a point, of course.

"Pick it up and see for yourself," Vasti said.

"No, I trust you, and I don't want to disturb any evidence. If it was tampered with, what do you suppose it means?"

"Isn't it obvious? It means that Mrs. Hamilton was intending to poison Mrs. Good, and Mrs. Good retaliated."

"Vasti," I said slowly, "do you really think Mrs. Good could have stabbed someone?"

"Well, maybe not. But it has to be connected somehow."

"Maybe," I conceded. "If it has been poisoned, I'd think that a more likely idea would be that someone had tried to kill Mrs. Hamilton before and hadn't succeeded."

"That could be it, I suppose," Vasti said grudgingly.

"I'll tell you what. You hang on to the candy, and we'll have Junior send it to a lab for testing. They'll be able to tell us for sure."

"All right," Vasti said, somewhat mollified, and went to tell an orderly what he was doing wrong.

By then the residents were pretty much settled down for the night. The nurses and orderlies were stationed in chairs throughout the room, making sure everyone was taken care of. I saw that Clifford had pulled up a chair right next to Liz's, and while they weren't speaking, the way they were looking at each other said a lot.

"How's it going?" I asked them.

"Pretty well, I guess," Liz said. "Maybe they'll get some sleep, anyway. Clifford was a big help." She smiled at him, and he smiled back. "They'd be a lot happier if Chief Norton was here. No offense, Laurie Anne."

"No offense taken. I'd rather that Junior was here, too."

I saw Vasti supervising Richard, who was shoving in a chair I recognized as coming from Dr. Buchanan's office. "I don't know about you people," she said, "but I'm worn out." She plopped down onto the chair, and leaned back. "I'm going to try to get some sleep."

I thought longingly of one of the other chairs from that office, but said, "The triplets worked all day, and I know they're beat, too. I better take over so they can get some rest."

"I don't think so," Richard said. "I think you should get yourself a chair and grab forty or fifty winks. I'll stay with Mrs. Hamilton."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely." He pulled a worn paperback of The Winter's Tale out of his back pocket. "The Bard and I will keep watch together."

I gave him a hug and a kiss. "You are wonderful, you know."

"'The naked truth,'" he said with a grin. "Love's Labour's Lost, Act V, scene 2." He bowed with a flourish before he left.

By the time the triplets arrived, I had found chairs for all of us and they quickly wrapped themselves in blankets Liz produced and fell asleep. I must admit thinking that it was ridiculous that anyone could sleep in a situation like this, but I only had time to think about it for a minute before dozing off myself.

I awoke to a loud whisper. "Nurse! Come here!"

Liz muttered, "Now what?" and tiptoed her way toward a bed next to the window. A minute later she was back. "Mr. Biggers said he saw someone walk by the window."

"Is he sure?" I asked.

"Positive. I had to promise him that we'd go check or he'd be on his way out there himself."

I looked toward the window unenthusiastically, not thrilled by the idea of going out in the cold and ice, when darned if I didn't see a shadow myself. "I think there is someone there!"

Liz shrank back toward Clifford. "Maybe it's the murderer. What are we going to do?"

"I guess I'm going to go see who it is," Clifford said in a much deeper voice than he generally used. "Have y'all got any kind of a gun around here?"

Liz shook her head. "There's a softball bat in with the sports equipment."

"That'll do. You two better stay here and keep an eye out."

"Clifford," Liz said, her hand on his arm. "You aren't going out there alone, are you?"

"No, he's not," I said firmly. I was older than he was, and if anything happened to him, his mother would kill me. "I'm going, too. Liz, I wouldn't wake the others until we know for sure what's going on."

"That's right," Clifford said. "We don't want to make too much noise. That might warn him."

Common sense told me that making noise was exactly what we should do, so our prowler would pick up and go, but I was still hoping to solve the puzzle for Junior. Besides, I rationalized, who was I to spoil Clifford's big moment?

Liz watched him adoringly as we armed ourselves with aluminum softball bats and put on our coats. "Be careful," she whispered after us. Well, after Clifford anyway.

"You stay behind me," Clifford said as we stepped out onto the icy sidewalk, and I saw no reason to argue with him. Just staying upright was taking all of my attention, and I cursed myself for not finding something to put on my feet instead of those darned elf shoes.

We walked around the building as quietly as we could. I wasn't sure, but from the broken ice, it did look like someone had walked down the sidewalk ahead of us. We were just about even with Mr. Biggers's window when I saw a large figure walking slowly, peering into windows.

I tugged at Clifford's sleeve but he'd seen him, too. He gestured me forward, and together we crept closer. Only I guess we weren't creeping quietly enough, because suddenly the prowler turned right toward us.

Clifford raised his bat threateningly, and called out, "You over there! What are you doing here?"

The man said, "Hey now, put that down," and stepped into the light.

I started laughing. Our prowler was wearing a red hat with white trim and had a long, white beard. That's right–– it was Santa Claus.

It wasn't really Santa Claus, of course. After a minute more I recognized Vasti's husband. "Arthur? What on earth are you doing out here?"

"I know I'm late," he said, coming toward us. "I got stuck in the ice. I'd have gone on home, but I saw Vasti's car in the parking lot and thought the party must still be going on. I was hoping I could get her attention from out here."

"Why didn't you just come on inside?" Clifford wanted to know.

"Vasti told me not to let anyone see me before we made our big entrance. I wasn't sure if she'd still want me to give out presents or not."

We started back for the front door. "I'm afraid you're way too late to give out presents," I said, and then stopped.

"What's the matter?" Clifford asked.

"Presents," I said softly. "Where was her present?"

Arthur said, "Whose present?"

"Mrs. Hamilton's!" I said. "Come on!"

We went as fast as we could, and I threw off my coat and dropped it on the floor in my hurry to get back to where Vasti was sleeping.

Liz looked up as soon as I came in, but I went right past her. Let Clifford explain, I thought, as I went to shake my cousin. "Vasti! Wake up!"

"What? What's going on?"

"I need your Secret Santa list."

"What for?" I saw her clipboard under her chair and grabbed it. "Is this it?" Without waiting for an answer, I started flipping through the pages. I found the list of residents, the gifts they wanted, and their Secret Santas. "Thank goodness you're organized," I said to Vasti, and looked for Mrs. Hamilton's entry. There it was, in black and white. I can't say that it was the name I expected, but it did make sense once I found it. Especially when I thought about the candy.

By now Arthur and Clifford had caught up with me, and were greeting and being greeted by their significant others.

"Clifford," Liz said, "are you all right? I was so worried." She looked up at him, and he took her in his arms. No mistletoe was required for the kiss that followed.

"Arthur? Where in the Sam Hill have you been?" Vasti said. "And straighten that beard. You look silly."

I left them to their explanations, and went to the infirmary. I took my time, because I wanted to think about just what I was going to say when I got there. I tapped lightly on the door, and Richard let me in.

"What's up?" he asked.

"I think I've got it," I said quietly.

The nurse had that dazed look of someone staying awake by main force of will. "You can go grab a cup of coffee if you want," I said. She didn't ask for explanations, just nodded and went out.

Mr. Morgan was still perched by Mrs. Hamilton's bed, watching her sleep. "How is she?" I asked.

"'O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature's soft nurse!'" Richard said. "King Henry VI, Part II, Act III, scene 1."

"We better wake her up," I said.

"Wake her up?" Mr. Morgan said. "What for?"

"She needs to know who it was that tried to kill her," I said.

"I'm awake," a churlish voice said from the bed.

Sure enough, Mrs. Hamilton was glaring at us all. "Good," I said, and took the nurse's chair.

"Mrs. Hamilton," I said, "I think I know who tried to kill you, but I need to ask you something first." Her only response was a grunt, but she didn't take her eyes off of me. "My cousin found Mrs. Good's box of candy in your room. Did you take it?"

I could tell from the way her face turned red what she was going to say before said it. "No!"

"That's what I thought. I'm guessing that someone left that box in your room a week or so ago. Is that right?"

She looked suspicious, but she nodded.

"There was one piece missing from the box. Did you eat it?"

She made a face. "Half. Tasted bad."

"I imagine it did. It had been tampered with."

"Poison?" she wanted to know.

"I think so."

She blinked several times. "Who?"

I didn't answer her directly. Instead I looked up at Frank Morgan, who had been listening attentively. "Maybe Mr. Morgan will tell us."

He got very still. "How would I know?"

"Or maybe you'd rather tell us what you got Mrs. Hamilton for Christmas."

He didn't say anything, so I went on.

"I checked Vasti's list, and you were Mrs. Hamilton's Secret Santa. Only there wasn't any gift for her under the tree. And you weren't on the triplets' shopping list, because you told Vasti you'd get her something yourself. What did you get her?"

"Nothing," he said. "She didn't want anything."

"Didn't she? Is that what she said?"

He looked down at his hands for a long moment, then shook his head and looked at Mrs. Hamilton while he answered me. "You don't know what's it like, you can't know. Sadie's an old woman, but she's always been strong and independent. She didn't like being here, but she could stand it as long as she could keep doing for herself. Then she had the stroke, and she couldn't even go to the bathroom by herself anymore. Most of her body is just dead." He looked up at me. "Do you know how you'd feel if you were in that shape?"

I shook my head.

"I'll tell you how you'd feel. You'd want to die, just like Sadie did. She wanted to die worse than anything. She wouldn't fill out a gift list, said she didn't care. I went to her and asked her if there wasn't something I could get for her. She looked me straight in the eye and said as clear as could be, 'I want to die.'"

He took a deep breath. "Don't think it was easy for me to do, because it wasn't. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but I couldn't just leave her like that. I took Mrs. Good's candy and put a sedative in it because I thought Sadie would go easy, that they'd think she went in her sleep. I didn't realize it would taste bad. I just thought it hadn't worked, and that's when I decided to steal that knife and use it. I thought that way she'd die quickly, but I guess I didn't hit the right spot."

He looked back at Mrs. Hamilton, who was watching us carefully with her one good eye. "I sharpened it up as good as I could, and made sure to hit you on the side with no feeling so it wouldn't hurt. I didn't want it to hurt." His voice broke. "I'm sorry, Sadie, I wanted to help you and I've only made it worse."

Mrs. Hamilton struggled for a moment, and finally said, "Jail?"

"That's right. I'll be going to jail."

"For me?"

"I'm not sure I follow you."

"Jail? For me?"

He looked at me, and I said, "I think she's asking if you were willing to go to jail for her."

Mrs. Hamilton nodded as hard as she could in confirmation.

Mr. Morgan said, "I guess you could say that. To be honest, I was hoping it wouldn't come to that." To me he added, "I would have confessed if it looked like anyone else was going to get into trouble."

I nodded, believing him.

"For me?" Mrs. Hamilton said, and she sounded almost in awe. Her next sentence was garbled, but I think she said, "No one does things for me."

"That's not true, Sadie," Mr. Morgan protested. "Lots of people do things for you."

She shook her head. "You. You tried. For me. Why?"

Mr. Morgan cocked his head. "Because I thought that's what you wanted. I care for you, Sadie, you must know that. And it's Christmas. I wanted to you to have what you wanted."

"Did want it," Mrs. Hamilton said. "Not now. Don't want it. Live."

Mr. Morgan took her hand in his. "Really, Sadie? I'm so glad."

I halfway expected her to jerk her hand away from him, but she didn't. Instead she fixed her eye on me and said, "Jail?"

"He'll be going to jail all right."

"No!" she said vehemently.

"You don't want him to go to jail?" I asked, wanting to be sure she meant what I thought she meant.

She shook her head vigorously. "No jail."

Mr. Morgan looked astonished. "Sadie, are you sure?"

"No jail." Then to me, she said, "You fix."

"Mrs. Hamilton, I don't know what I can do. I'm not really a deputy."

"No jail. Fix it!" Then she closed her eyes. Even in that condition, she had dismissed me as plain as day.

Mr. Morgan looked at me. "Can you do that?"

I thought about it a minute. "Well, since Mrs. Hamilton is still alive, I don't know that Junior can do anything without her pressing charges. I expect she'll want to have a good long talk with you, though." I hesitated. "Assuming that this is the first time you've ever tried anything like this, that is."

"Of course it is!" he said. "What kind of person do you think I am?" He glared at me for a minute, and then relented. "I suppose you had to ask that. I swear, I never tried to kill anyone before."

"All right," I said. Of course, I was going to warn Junior to check over the nursing home's records just to be sure that there hadn't been any suspicious deaths, but I didn't see any reason to mention that.

I called the nurse back in and decided that she would be enough protection for Mrs. Hamilton now. Richard and I deserved the rest. Which, unfortunately, we were not going to get for a while yet.

We had barely got back to the recreation room and found empty chairs when we saw blue lights flashing from the parking lot. Junior had finally arrived. She had thoughtfully not used the siren so the others kept on sleeping, but I knew that she was going to want me awake to catch her up.

It didn't really take all that long to tell, once Junior quit laughing over the elf suit I had nearly forgotten I was still wearing. "I think that's about it," I said. "If I remember anything else, I'll let you know."

Junior just kept shaking her head. "I knew you'd try, but I didn't have any idea that you'd put it together so quick."

Quick? It felt like I had been at the nursing home for days. "What are you going to do about Mr. Morgan?"

"Well, I'm going to have to talk to Mrs. Hamilton myself, but if she really doesn't want to press charges, I expect I'll be able to find some loophole or another."

"Good. And now I would like to formally resign my position of acting deputy."

"Resignation accepted, but don't expect any kind of severance pay."

"No? Did I not do a good job?"

"You did fine," she said, "but you're out of uniform." She started snickering again.

"Ha ha," I said, with very little good humor. Then, to change the subject, I asked, "Did you get that baby delivered all right?"

"The mama did all the hard work. About all I did was catch the daddy when he passed out. A healthy girl, by the way. They were all set to name it after me until they found out what my name is."

"Junior Junior wasn't quite what they had in mind?"

"Not hardly."

I yawned so wide it almost hurt. "How are the roads?"

"Getting better," she said. "You shouldn't have any trouble driving now if you take it slow, and the ice will probably all be gone by afternoon."

"Good," I said.

"I expect you want to get some sleep," she said. "I know I do."

"That's part of it," I said, and indeed the first part of my plan was to take off the elf suit and climb into bed. But after I got some rest, I was going Christmas shopping.