his arm and down the windowpane.

Carl cried out in pain. His hand was sliced in more places than he knew, and it hurt. But he didn’t let that stop him. He twisted his fingers around and reached up to unfasten the window lock.

Bonnie appeared on the other side of the window. “Stop it, Carl! Stop it!”

“All I want is to see my boy.”

“I can’t let you do that, Carl. I can’t take the risk.”

“I’m coming in. And you can’t stop me.” His fingers touched the window lock.

“No,” Bonnie whispered. She grabbed his protruding hand.

“Leave me alone!” Carl bellowed.

“I can’t.” She took his fist in both of her hands and jerked his arm upward, impaling it on a jagged piece of broken window glass.

Pain coursed through Carl’s arm, then his body, like the ripple of sheet lightning. He screamed, then jerked his hand back through the window, clutching it close against his chest. Blood gushed from the open wound.

His face was spotted with blood and sweat. “You can’t stop me,” he said, gasping. “No matter what.”

“He isn’t here,” Bonnie said, tears spilling from her eyes. “Tommy isn’t even here. Please go away.”

The sound of a police siren cut through the morning air. It was still several blocks away, but moving closer at top speed.

Carl pressed his wounded arm against his mouth. He clamped his other hand down on it, trying to stanch the flow of blood. “This isn’t over,” he said, gazing at his ex-wife through the spiderwebbed windowpane. “I’ll be back.”

He turned and raced down the street, barreling through a chain of spectators, ducking into the backyard three houses down.

Even after he had disappeared from sight, Bonnie’s breathing didn’t slow down. Her heartbeat didn’t settle, and she couldn’t stop clutching herself. Because she knew what he had said was true. She knew this wasn’t over.

She knew he would be back.


Megan McGee readjusted the rearview mirror so she could get a better look at her beard. It wasn’t easy. There was barely enough room inside her tiny two-door Toyota for herself, much less an English bulldog. There was absolutely no room for primping. Still, she wanted to look her best when she knocked on the door, although why it mattered to her she couldn’t imagine. Certainly no one back at the law firm cared. No one at Santa’s Helpers was watching. And God-well, best not to get her started on that subject.

The English bulldog squatting in the passenger seat, Jasper, made a grunting, spitting noise. A stream of gas emitted from his hindquarters while a sheepish expression crossed his squashed English face. He stretched forward, rubbing his very wet nose against Megan’s hand. A pool of drool spilled out of his mouth and dripped down her arm.

For the record, Megan reminded herself, I hate this dog.

Perhaps hate was too strong a word. Perhaps it was sufficient to say she didn’t particularly much care for the beast. She had never wanted the dog, never wanted any dog. She had inherited him from a neighbor who was moving to Hawaii, where the quarantine laws were quite strict. They couldn’t bear the thought of poor Jasper being cooped up in a cage for a year or more, they had said, so would Megan please please please take care of him for them?

Just imagine. They go off to Hawaii while she’s stuck in Oklahoma City with the Hound of the Baskervilles. It wasn’t enough that he was the worst, most plug-ugly creature she had ever seen in her life. He was also a finicky eater, and usually dripped and dragged his food all over her apartment. What’s more, he needed digestion medicine two times a day, which required her to open his slime-lined mouth to deliver the goods. And that wasn’t even mentioning-this was the topper-doggie suppositories. Every day without fail.

She had thought about taking him to the pound or putting him to sleep, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. So here she was, tootling around town on Christmas Eve, with the Pet from Hell.

What a life she led.

Megan gazed up at the steely gray sky. Last night’s predictions of snow might still come true, she realized. Which would be good for those trying to get into the Christmas spirit, although bad for those-like Megan-who still had driving to do.

She slid out of the car and tried to smooth the pronounced wrinkles in her borrowed suit. Red faux fur with white lining. A red-and-white stocking cap. And of course, the full white beard. Wasn’t she just the cutest Santa that ever was?

Probably not, Megan thought, sighing. When she’d picked up the suit at Santa’s Helpers, she had noticed a new associate from Crowe Dunlevy who definitely outstripped her in the cute department. What did she expect, for Pete’s sake? She was thirty-seven and not getting any younger or prettier. Especially not with a bushy white beard on her chin.

Oh, please, she told herself, don’t get started on that again. You have a job to do. And an important one at that. Cookie deliveries. Meals on Wheels, the Christmas edition. Ho, ho, ho, and here’s a little something sweet to get you through the night. That was her mission. Bringing a little sunshine into the lives of the poor, the elderly, the lonely.

Jeepers, she thought. She should be making a delivery to herself.

She carefully removed her blue plate from the backseat and took it out of the protective bubble wrap. She loved this plate. She’d bought it in England several years before, when she had been in Canterbury for the St. Dunstan millennial birthday celebration. It was nineteenth-century Spode, with a blue-etched scene of bucolic British country life. It had cost her a small fortune, but she loved it dearly. One of the best things about these cookie deliveries, as far as she was concerned, was that she got a chance to show off her plate.

She grabbed the giant bag of cookies, poured some onto the plate, arranged them as artfully as she could manage, and headed for the door, trying not to trip. As she had learned at her last several stops, her agility was considerably hampered by having her feet encased in shiny black boots about three sizes too big.

She rang the doorbell and waited. She heard some shuffling on the other side of the door, but she had learned not to get impatient. According to the fact sheet, the woman inside, one Teresa Tucker, was eighty-four years old, living alone and managing quite fine, thank you. Let her take as long as she wanted.

At last the door creaked open, and a wizened face appeared in the opening. “Yes?”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Megan said, in the deepest voice she could muster. “Merry Christmas!”

“I’ve already given,” the woman replied. She began to close the door.

“Wait just a minute, Mrs. Tucker.” Megan planted a brick-size boot in the doorway. “You can’t shut the door on ol’ Santa.”

“I may be old,” Mrs. Tucker said, “but I’m not senile or blind. You’re not Santa. You’re a woman.”

Megan coughed. “Well then, I’m Mrs. Santa.”

“I don’t normally think of Mrs. Santa as sporting a beard,” Mrs. Tucker answered. “But I suppose anything could happen that far north.”

Somehow Megan didn’t think Mrs. Tucker was quite into the spirit of the thing.

“I’ve got something for you,” Megan said, abandoning the basso profundo voice. She brought the cookie-filled plate around to view.

“Oh, joy,” Mrs. Tucker said wearily. “What is it this year?”

“Cookies! Ho, ho, ho!”

“Cookies? Why, I haven’t been able to eat cookies since-” She stopped in mid-sentence. All at once her eyes glowed like Christmas lights. “Oh, but I do like this!” She snatched the bundle out of Megan’s hands, plate and all.

“Wait,” Megan said hesitantly, “I think you’ve got the-”

“I do love blue china.” Mrs. Tucker dumped the cookies into a nearby bowl and

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