Scary Christmas, everyone, and a spooky New Year! Enjoy this creepy snowman tale for the winter season.
As much as Burnett hated the spring melt, the first big snowfall agitated him even more. As the thick white flakes covered his car in the police station parking lot, he put in a call to the mayor.
“It’s snowing, sir.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Burnett waited, his eyes on the snow.
The mayor sighed. “Can you gather the city council?”
“Our conference room? Lunch meeting?”
Burnett hung up the phone and looked at Cheryl, readers on the end of her nose, painting her nails at the front desk. “When those dry, could you call the town council?”
Cheryl looked up from her bright red talons and gasped.
“Land sakes, it’s already snowin’!” she said, eyes wide.
“That’s why you need to call Doc, Beverly, and Fosse for a lunch meeting.”
“Of course. Sorry, I wasn’t payin’ attention.” The secretary awkwardly shuffled the papers on her desk with her palms.
“Just let them dry, Cheryl. Ten minutes won’t hurt anything. I’ll make some more coffee.” He added water and discounted joe to the old limescaled coffeemaker and reached into the cupboard for some extra mugs. He winced at the bright yellow smiley face cup leering at him from the back of the shelf. It was old man Miller’s.
When Miller left two years ago, Burnett took over as sheriff. Miller was born and raised in Tattler. Most assumed that he had moved to the Lower Forty-Eight to be closer to his daughter in Seattle. He left a goodbye letter in the office after the fifth snowman appeared. No one blamed him.
“Fosse was already coming in for rock salt,” Cheryl said from the doorway. “Beverly’ll be over after lunch rush.”
Burnett shut the cupboard on the yellow mug. “Doc?”
“Got a patient, but he’s coming.”
In the end, it was the mayor who was late. He came in pulling at his shirt collar as if it were strangling him.
“Sorry, the reverend came by right before I left.”
“Is he alright?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long has it been?” Fosse asked, pushing back his long black braid.
“Eleven months,” Burnett answered. He knew every date by heart.
“He wanted to know if we had any leads on Michelle’s killer,” the mayor said. There was a long silence. They all knew the answer.
“Maybe there won’t be any more snowmen this year. Maybe he moved on,” Beverly said, voice cracking.
“Four years in a row, and we haven’t caught him, Bev,” Doc said. “Why would he?”
The mayor cleared his throat. “Sheriff, you called me. What do you think we should do?”
Burnett twirled a pen between his fingers and looked at the ceiling. “We ban snowmen.”
“Are you serious?”
“Pass a temporary resolution banning them within city limits.”
“That’s about the Scroogiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Beverly said.
“Just this year. Until we catch him.”
“I am not banning snowmen, Burnett,” the mayor said.
“I don’t see that we have any choice, sir!”
“You want to fine seven-year-olds for playing in the snow?”
“Not the seven-year-olds. Just their parents.”
“Right.” The mayor rolled his eyes. “That will sure build public confidence.”
“Do you honestly want Pete and me running all over town checking every snowman for a corpse like last year? A one-season ban won’t hurt anyone. It’s not like kids can’t play. They just can’t build snowmen.”
“I don’t like this,” the mayor muttered.
“Relax, Lionel,” Fosse said. “You’ll get re-elected. Nobody else wants the job anyway.”
“Very funny,” the mayor said. “Doc, how many families with kids have we got?”
“Twenty-eight,” Burnett corrected. “And one of those is missing a mom this year.”
In the end, Fosse convinced the mayor to go along, which meant the other two caved. The secretary made it official by writing down some minutes for the emergency meeting. Pete came in from patrol after the council had cleared out.
“The Fosters ain’t gonna like this,” Pete said, looking over the notice Burnett had printed.
“Highlight one year. And give it to him, not her.”
“What if he ain’t there?”
“He’ll be there. Just hope he’s sober,” Burnett said. Pete followed him into his office and shut the door.
“Boss, are we going to watch for the hat?”
“The top hat. The Locklear’s kid, remember?”
“But she said she saw Frosty in his top hat.”
Burnett rubbed his eyes with his fists and sighed. “Penny Locklear also told me she saw the Easter bunny in her backyard last spring and that he pooped out a golden egg.”
“I’m just sayin’, don’t you think we should keep an eye out? That’s kind of a weird thing for a kid to come up with on her own.”
“Not if she watches tv.”
Pete shrugged. “Your call, boss.”
Burnett rolled his eyes. Pete tried. He’d give him that at least. He pulled open the desk drawer that he’d dedicated to the case and pointed.
“Eight victims in four years. No patterns. No known motive. Just eight bodies stuffed into snowmen. And a kid making up stories about a killer Frosty in a top hat.”
“I went to high school with the first one. Rick Gray,” Pete said quietly.
“He was found first, but Hayes was killed first,” Burnett corrected him.
“I thought they couldn’t determine time of death because of the snow.”
“Medical examiner in Anchorage had a tentative timeline. I went with it.”
“Oh.” Pete scratched the back of his neck where a sunburn was beginning to peel. “Well, I guess I’d better get those notices passed out.”
“Don’t forget to give a stack to the secretary at the school.”
Pete left without another word, and Burnett pulled out the last case file. Each of the eight faces was etched in his mind. He remembered when Miller found the first victim. No one in town was sure how long Hayes had been missing. He spent most of his days high or drunk in the apartment over his mom’s garage, and she’d long ago given up asking for the rent money. Old Man Miller had recognized his boots at the base of the big snowmen in front of the vacant house next door. Burnett was the deputy back then. He remembered poking his nightstick into the snowman’s head, revealing Haye’s frozen face. He’d never forget those glassy eyeballs staring straight at him out of the snow.
He looked out of the window at the snow accumulating on his car, rolled his head back and forth to stretch his neck muscles, and settled in to study the case files for the hundredth time. It was going to be a long winter.
The snowman ban went into effect largely without argument. Most of the kids had been in Michelle’s preschool class, and the rest saw the reverend on Sundays. A few of the seasonal staff made a snowman outside the Cove motel before their manager told them about the ban, but that was it. Everyone else complied.
Everyone else was too scared not to.
December arrived without snowmen, and Tattler Cove seemed to relax a little for Christmas. Burnett was finishing paperwork when Pete came on the radio.
“Boss, we got a problem. I’m at the school. Penny Locklear didn’t show up today. She’s been missing since she left for the bus this morning. There was a screwup, and nobody called her parents. I’m here with them now.”
“Why didn’t they call me?”
“Mrs. Locklear saw my car and flagged me down.” Pete’s voice wavered. “Boss, the sun is already down.”
“I know. I’ll meet you at the school in ten minutes.”
Within an hour most of Tattler Cove was out searching with lights and walkies. The school secretary had a panic attack, and Doc had to sedate her. Burnett organized the searchers and tried to keep the Locklears calm. When Pete’s number appeared on his cell phone, Burnett stepped out of the school’s administration office into the hallway.
“Boss, I found a snowman.”
Burnett cursed under his breath. “Is it her?”
“I haven’t touched it. Should I take pictures?”
“Yes. I’ll come help you in a minute.”
He left the Locklears with the school principal and headed out into the frigid night to find Pete at the corner of Kildeer and Cedar. He crunched over the icy gravel drive to where Pete was staring at a short snowman partially hidden by tree branches. A carrot poked through the vaguely head-shaped ball at the top of the drift.
“I talked to Penny at her bus stop last week,” Pete said without looking up. “She told me she saw Frosty outside her window. He was wearing his top hat.”
“You’re going to have to look.” Pete covered his mouth with one hand and turned away. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
Burnett gritted his teeth and swept away part of the pile of snow closest to him to reveal a pair of red snow boots with ladybug print.
“It’s her,” he said. Pete made a choking noise and ran for the road. Burnett just stared at the ladybug boots. This snowman was so much smaller than the others.
When Pete finished emptying his stomach, he stumbled back to the body. “How do I tell her mom and dad? What am I supposed to say? I just talked to her last week!”
“Tell them the truth, gentle as possible,” Burnett said, eyes on the tiny snowman. “And quickly. They need to know so I can call off the search.”
Pete sniffed and wiped his eyes. “I liked her. She was a cute kid.”
“She was.” Burnett stood and patted Pete’s shoulder. “You call Doc. I’ll wait for him. You should tell the Locklears in person.”
Pete nodded and blew out a steamy breath that glowed in the beam of the cruiser’s headlights. He walked toward his car to call the doctor. Burnett headed to his own cruiser to stay warm. He watched Pete’s unsteady feet sinking into the icy drifts as he closed his cruiser door with a soft click. He sat back and closed his eyes for a moment. He was weary, but every nerve tingled with restless electricity. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. He could see every victim’s face in his mind, frozen eyes staring at him in horror. Now he would add Penny to those faces. He sat forward and rubbed his eyes with his fists until he saw stars. When he finally opened them, his eyes fell on the passenger seat.
How could he have been so careless? The top hat sat on the seat, clear as day in the light of the street lamp. It was a good thing Pete was so distraught over Penny that he hadn’t looked in the car. Burnett felt the buzz of adrenaline in every nerve ending and grinned. That was why he kept pushing himself each year. It was the thrill of almost getting caught. Each snowman had been more daring than the last. Old man Miller’s body had never been found, even though he had built the snowman next to a game trail. Then he’d started wearing the top hat each time. No one had even come close to guessing the truth in five years. Not even Penny.
He had given himself a tough challenge this season banning snowmen. He had to plan more than ever since Penny had gotten every kid at school on the lookout for Frosty. He still wasn’t sure how she’d seen him after he finished with Michelle Pine, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was she wouldn’t let it go.
Pete wouldn’t let it go either. Tattler Cove had plenty of winter left, but Pete would be the hardest challenge yet. Burnett reached over the center console for his extra coat to cover the top hat in the passenger seat.
He turned with a jerk toward the sound coming from the driver’s side window and found himself nose to nose with Pete’s service pistol. His hand went back to the hat, but Pete shook his head and pointed to the steering wheel.
“You forgot the camera, boss. Freeze.”