“Must be a front coming through.”
Detective Sean Peabody’s overzealous windshield wipers were working overtime, shoving away the faint snowflakes as soon as they could land.
It was shockingly cold for Georgia. At night the temperatures rarely fell below freezing, even in the dead of winter. Even in the passenger’s seat, warmed by the blast of the vents, Zoe Cross felt a little icy shiver race down her spine.
“Could be supernatural,” she suggested. “Aren’t we supposed to be keeping an eye out for any unsanctioned magic? Cold and snow in Georgia… seems pretty magical to me.”
Sean shot her a look. “Don’t even say it,” he groaned. “Not tonight.”
In spite of his tone, he was smiling. Zoe had a sneaking feeling that he was just as excited to be going on a New Year’s Eve date with her as she was to be going with him.
He pulled up at the mansion of Tad Michaels a few minutes later.
Zoe gaped out the window as they drove up the long circle drive. She knew the place was called the Michaels Mansion, but she hadn’t been expecting something quite so… well, palatial.
“How many rooms do you think are in a house like this?” Zoe asked excitedly.
“I hope you’re not planning to count them tonight,” Sean answered as he stopped in front of the valet station. “I was hoping to get a dance.”
“Detective Sean Peabody, dancing,” Zoe remarked, beaming. “I suppose I’ll have to sacrifice my curiosity about the number of rooms here, after all.”
They climbed out of the car, presented their invitations to the shivering valets, and Sean handed over his keys. Then, Sean offered Zoe his arm, and the two of them went walking up toward the house, which was already emitting the sounds of jaunty live music and a great deal of enthusiastic chatter.
A series of hired help met them at the door and took their coats.
“Well, well,” Zoe said. This was her first look at Sean’s outfit for the night. He had gone all out, and she couldn’t help admiring how devastatingly handsome he looked in his white tie ensemble. “Like something out of a spy movie.”
She expected some witty return from Sean, but he was quiet. He was taking in the sight of Zoe in her party dress, eyes wide and cheeks faintly pink.
It was just a little dress she had borrowed from Lissie, which hadn’t fit her quite right at first but, after a little magicking, she’d managed to get the hem at the right length. It was a royal purple in color, which she thought made her eyes look rather lovely.
Judging by the look on Sean’s face, he agreed.
“You look…” he said, then trailed off uncertainly.
The servant who had taken their coats returned and gestured them into the next room. Zoe took Sean’s arm again as they allowed themselves to be herded.
She wished he’d gotten to finish his thought, but she wasn’t about to press him on it.
The next room turned out to be an elaborately decorated ballroom. Here was the source of the music: a string quintet, all dressed in tails and gowns, serenaded a room full of dancing couples and onlookers, vest-wearing caterers with trays holding ritzy-looking hors d’oeuvres and tall flutes of golden champagne.
“Well,” Zoe said, looking up at Sean. “You did promise a dance.”
She expected Sean to demur, or at least to delay. The last thing she expected was to be confidently and capably swept up into the rhythm of the other dancing couples, then led around the floor by someone with a sure-footedness that could only have come from months of lessons.
“My aunt,” Sean answered eventually, in response to Zoe’s unasked question. “When I was twelve. Evidently to help my slouch.”
“I’ll have to send your aunt a whole basket of cookies.”
A minute or so before the year’s end, the quintet ceased playing. A well-dressed man joined them on the dais and took up a microphone to address the crowd.
“That’s Tad Michaels himself,” Sean whispered into Zoe’s ear.
“And now, friends, in the last seconds of this year, let’s think ahead to the new one. Join me in ushering in a bright new future for Sweetwater Falls, and for all of us!”
He raised a champagne glass, and Zoe and the other guests did, as well, then everyone sipped the toast in hearty good humor.
Just then, someone in the crowd began counting. “Fifteen! Fourteen!”
Michaels joined in, and soon the whole crowd was crying out the countdown. “Three… two… one!”
A cheer went up all around. Zoe nearly joined in, but she found herself interrupted.
Sean was tilting her face up toward his. He was swooping down toward her, and then his lips were pressed, softly but surely, against her own.
By the time he pulled back from her, the quintet was playing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Tad Michaels had disappeared. Around them, people in varying stages of drunkenness were caterwauling along, even those with only a tentative knowledge of the lyrics.
“It’s loud in here,” Sean said, taking Zoe’s hand in his own and giving it a little squeeze. “Why don’t we step out for a minute? Get some air?”
Zoe could only nod. Still under the influence of that kiss, she felt light and bubbly as a glass of champagne. She allowed him to lead her out of the dancing hall and into a quiet corridor beyond.
There were no guests around that Zoe could see, but she did hear voices. Once the door to the dancing hall was closed, the voices became more distinct.
“–let go of me,” a woman’s voice was saying. “Don’t you dare–”
“Don’t I dare?” a man hissed back, angry and sharp. “In my own home?”
“We’d better go,” Sean muttered.
Zoe hesitated. Part of her wanted to make sure that the woman was all right. But as she lingered a second, she saw a striking, well-dressed young woman storm out from the spot underneath the stairs where the voices had come from.
The woman spotted Zoe but looked away rapidly, then went walking quickly into some distant, unseen part of the house. She passed through a door and disappeared.
A man followed her out next. It was Tad Michaels.
“Come on,” Sean said again. “She’s all right. It’s got nothing to do with us.”
Zoe, shaken, allowed herself to be led away.
The snow outside was picking up. It was starting to look more and more like blizzard conditions. Many of the guests split away from the party within the first half hour of the new year.
Zoe and Sean lingered. The pleasant thrum of the night had been slightly punctured by the argument they’d witnessed, but they were still enjoying themselves, dancing and laughing. Besides, now that the floor had cleared a little, Zoe was finally able to locate her friend, Lissie, in the crowd. She was dancing enthusiastically and slightly erratically with the towering form of Detective Ian Logan, Sean’s partner. Zoe wanted to greet her friend, but she didn’t want to interrupt their dancing.
Suddenly, an earsplitting scream cut through the air.
The quintet stopped playing instantly. Everyone looked around, unsure what to do, except for Sean and Zoe. Almost immediately, they began to rush off in the direction of the sound.
It didn’t take them long to find the source. In a room upstairs, Tad Michael’s body lay sprawled out on the expensive carpet, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Above him, clutching an elaborate bow, stood the striking young woman Zoe had seen arguing with Tad earlier that night.
“Tasha Michaels,” Sean muttered.
The woman Tad had been arguing with earlier, the one currently holding what was quite evidently the bow that had murdered him… according to Sean, that woman was Tad’s own wife.
Lissie and Ian arrived at the room shortly after Sean and Zoe.
“Oh my goodness,” Lissie said, her hand flying to cover her mouth.
Ian and Sean, however, snapped into detective mode instantly.
“All right,” Sean said, pointing to the door. “Close that. We don’t want everyone to see and come traipsing in here.”
Lissie, who was closest to the door, reached out and closed it.
Tasha Michaels looked just about ready to faint. Sean walked over to her, careful to give the body a wide berth, and helped ease her into a nearby chair.
“I didn’t…” Tasha was saying wildly, nearly breathless. Her voice sounded hoarse.
Zoe realized it must have been her scream they’d heard downstairs. To scream that loud, to be heard all the way downstairs and over the sound of the string quintet… was that the kind of thing a murderer would do?
If she was staging the scene intentionally, maybe.
But surely if she was staging the scene, she wouldn’t choose to be found holding the weapon over the body?
Or maybe it had all somehow been an accident?
But no, that would have required Tasha to be practicing bow and arrow, indoors, in the middle of her husband’s big New Year’s Eve blowout party. And still dressed in her slinky designer gown, at that. That didn’t seem like a very practical thing to do.
“You two had better go,” Sean said to Zoe and Lissie. He had an apologetic look on his face, but his voice was firm. “Ian and I will call this in. We’ll handle everything. But we can’t have civilians walking around the crime scene.”
Zoe wanted to push back against this. Was she really just a civilian? She’d helped Sean solve a handful of murder cases on the mortal side of the portal by now. Surely he appreciated that she was an asset, that if there was a case to be solved then she could more than capably lend a hand?
But she saw the serious glint in his eyes. This was his job, and he might get in serious trouble if he gave Zoe access. Particularly at this early, crucial state.
“All right,” she said. “Lissie, let’s get out of here.”
Lissie, luckily, had driven to the party herself. Once the valet brought her aged little sedan around they climbed in and turned the vents on full blast.
The snow was coming down at an astonishing rate.
“Are you okay to drive in this?” Zoe asked Lissie.
“Sure,” Lissie said gamely. “I once heard a news report give advice on snow driving.”
“What was the advice?”
“That I should pretend I’m driving to church with a whole plate of biscuits and two gallons of sweet tea in the back seat, and my grandma’s next to me carrying a crockpot of gravy and wearing a brand new dress.”
Zoe couldn’t help but laugh at this.
Luckily, Lissie was as good as her word. If Zoe had been carrying any crockpots, she doubted the contents would have spilled a drop.
They pulled up at Zoe’s place and both got out. Evidently Lissie wasn’t planning to go back to her own house until they’d heard from Ian and Sean.
Luckily, it didn’t take too long. Only two cups of hot cocoa apiece later, Zoe and Lissie were rushing to the door at the buzz of the doorbell.
Snow, Zoe’s fluffy white kitten familiar, circled their feet curiously. Once upon a time, Snow hadn’t been too fond of Lissie hanging around–mostly because when Lissie was there Snow would have to play at being a real cat, one who couldn’t talk or do magic.
Now that Lissie was in the know, however, Snow had grown to greatly enjoy Lissie’s company. According to Snow, Lissie was the only person who really got Snow’s acerbic sense of humor.
When Zoe opened the door, Ian and Sean were standing there, white-dusted from their brief wait at the door.
“It is really coming down out there,” Ian remarked, pushing through into the apartment.
“We definitely want to look into magical causes,” Sean muttered to Zoe as he passed her by.
Once Zoe got everyone’s coats hung up and a fresh cup of cocoa into everyone’s hands, Sean and Ian started to ask Zoe whether there was anything she’d seen that they might have missed.
“Just that things seemed a little tense between Michaels and his wife during the party,” she said. “But Sean saw that, too. I put it down to party stress at the time, but….”
Sean nodded. “Tasha was a little too shaken to explain when I tried to ask her about it.”
Ian was paging through his little detective’s notepad.
Did he bring that with him to the party? Zoe wondered mildly.
“Either of you ever meet Matthew Michaels? Zoe, has he come into your shop?”
Zoe shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
“I know him,” Lissie said. “He comes into the library a lot. He seems like a nice kid. But….”
Ian sat forward, attentive.
Lissie looked reluctant to continue, but she did. “I guess maybe I’ve sensed some tension between him and his dad before.”
“How so?” Sean asked. “Did you ever see them interact?”
Lissie shook her head. “No, just… the way Matt would react when his dad’s name came up. Which was, you know… pretty frequent.”
Sean looked at Zoe. “Do you think you can work on finding out more about Tasha and Matt?”
Zoe’s heart leapt. Sean wasn’t planning to cut her out of the investigation, after all! She nodded, too eager to speak.
“Great,” Sean said. “Well, Ian and I have to get back to the investigation. So….”
They both stood, awkwardly. Sean’s hot cocoa was barely touched, but Ian had managed to drain his in the few minutes they’d lingered.
Zoe walked them to the door and handed them their coats. Ian shrugged into his and left quickly, but Sean paused a moment to give Zoe a brief, stomach-swooping kiss. They were both faintly flustered when they pulled away.
New year, Zoe couldn’t help but think, new me.
And evidently the new me is someone who kisses Detective Sean Peabody on the regular.
She returned to find Lissie helping herself to the remainder of Sean’s hot cocoa, a troubled look on her face.
“Do you really think a kid like Matt could do something as horrible as murder his own father with a bow and arrow?” Lissie asked, clearly distressed by the idea.
“I don’t know,” Zoe answered.
Though the truth was that she’d witnessed a lot of terrible things since she’d stepped into the mortal world.
And a sweet, bookish kid turning out to be a murderer probably wouldn’t surprise her anymore.