Valerie S. Malmont

Death, Snow, and Mistletoe

The fourth book in the Tori Miracle series, 2000

For Stephanie and Paige


Once again, I want to thank the members of my critique group, Francoise Harrison, Helen O. Platt, and M. Joan H. Juttner, M.D., for their help and support, not only with this book but all four in the series.

I am grateful to Silver RavenWolf for answering my many questions about Wicca and helping me write a more authentic description of a winter solstice ceremony than the one I first made up. However, there are mistakes, and they are all mine. I highly recommend her book To Ride a Silver Broomstick, for anyone who wants to learn more about the Craft.

Thanks go to Luci Zahray, who has provided much information about poisons.

I also want to thank Maggie Crawford, Danielle Perez, and George Nicholson for believing in me.

And last, my heartfelt gratitude goes to the mystery book dealers who have supported me since the beginning. I love you guys!


O come all ye faithful

THE STONE SPIRES OF TRINITY EVANGELICAL Church hovered like gray ghosts in the star-studded darkness above Lickin Creek. Brilliant splashes of colored light streamed from the church's authentic Tiffany windows and lay on the snow-covered brick sidewalk like gleaming jewels spilled from a pirate's treasure chest. The air was warmer now than earlier this afternoon when the first snow of the season had fallen on this small, pre-Civil War town.

Garnet had left his huge blue monster-truck with me to use while he was in Costa Rica, but I still had trouble manipulating it in tight places, so I parked on the street rather than trying to squeeze into one of the narrow spaces in the church parking lot.

I was scheduled to photograph the cast of the Lickin Creek Community Theatre rehearsing the annual Christmas pageant, and as usual I was running late-but only by half an hour tonight, a definite improvement. Was it my fault that three churches in the borough had trinity in their names? I'd been unfortunate enough to visit the other two first.

I grabbed my canvas fanny pack, my notebook, and the Chronicle's antique camera, and ran toward the neo-Gothic building. After trying the front doors and finding them locked, I finally entered the church through a side entrance, which was an anachronism of glass and aluminum decorated with a wreath of plastic greenery and ribbons. I found myself in a long beige hallway, facing a row of closed doors on either side.

After disturbing the choir at practice and barging into an Alcoholics Anonymous group meeting in the nursery, I followed a trail of noise down a flight of concrete steps and through a set of double doors into a basement room that ran the length of the church. To my left was a small kitchen, separated from the larger room by a waist-high counter on which stood several stainless-steel coffee urns and many heaping platters of cookies.

The main part of the hall, on my right, was packed with people, mostly women. I recognized several members of the Lickin Creek borough council as well as several county commissioners, and I guessed this was the politically correct basement to be in this cold winter evening. Some people wrestled with an enormous pile of evergreens in one corner, while others sat on metal folding chairs in small groups, chatting and drinking from Styrofoam cups. The rows of flickering fluorescent lights overhead cast an odd lavender glow on everyone there.

Six women stood on the stage at the far end of the room, silently studying their scripts. I relaxed when I realized that the rehearsal had not yet begun. I'd be able to get my pictures and be on my way home to feed my cats in a few minutes. The thought of a cozy evening at home with Fred and Noel, watching a good sci-fi film on TV, was almost too pleasurable to bear.

A middle-aged woman filling sugar containers at the kitchen counter waved at me. “Hey, Tori. Nice to see you again. We've got some great goodies-if you like chocolate.” The congenial speaker was Ginnie Welburn. I'd met her a few times at various functions, and although she was ten or twelve years older than I, we were drawn to each other by virtue of both being relative newcomers to Lickin Creek.

I grinned at Ginnie and patted my fanny pack. “Do I like chocolate? Where do you think these hips came from?”

“Good, that Lori Miracle's here from the paper.” The voice came from a woman on the stage who was swaddled in a politically incorrect but drop-dead-gorgeous mink coat. I recognized her as Bernice Roadcap, who, along with her husband, was a well-known local real estate developer.

“Come up here, Lori,” she ordered. “We'uns is ready to have our picture taken.”

Before I could say “It's Tori,” a full-bodied matron stepped forward and protested, “We are not ready, Bernice. Weezie's not here yet.”

As I walked toward the stage, Bernice turned to the woman who had just spoken. In my limited experience, nobody had ever crossed Bernice Roadcap and I expected a battle, but she surprised me by saying in a meek voice, “Sorry, Oretta. I hadn't noticed.”

The woman Bernice had addressed as Oretta stepped to stage front, planted her hands on her hips, and balanced herself on wide-apart feet. She wore an enormous pale-blue polyester pantsuit and a blouse covered with pink and purple hibiscus blossoms. Around her throat was a choker of silver and amber beads, so tight I wondered how she swallowed. Looking at her, I promised myself I most definitely would restart my diet tomorrow. I know how it happens; one night you go to bed a size ten and you wake up the next morning an eighteen.

Not a hair dared to move in her bright gold bouffant as she glared down at me. “You're the new Chronicle editor?” It was more an accusation than a question.

I couldn't keep from staring at her gravity-defying bosom. I had no idea anyone still manufactured corsets like that. Maybe a special order? I fought back a giggle and said, “I'd like to take the picture now. I have other stops to make.”

“We always have our picture taken during the final, dramatic ending of the pageant rehearsal. You'd know that if you weren't new to town.”

“I really don't have time to wait,” I said. “I'll just snap a picture or two and-”

Oretta tapped her foot. She was staring at me as though I'd lost my mind. “You'll wait until the end. It's the way we've always done it!” she announced.

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