THE WORST NOEL

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CHAPTER 1

             Lilly awoke hours before dawn to the sound of her alarm clock going off. She flung her hand in the general direction of the nightstand to find the snooze button and stop the incessant ringing, but only succeeded in knocking the clock to the floor. 

            “Ugh,” she groaned. She leaned over the side of the bed and clawed the floor, trying to reach the clock.  When she found it, she turned it off and sat up groggily, wiping sleep from her eyes and yawning. Barney, the family’s Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, lifted his shaggy, brindle-hued head and stretched across the foot of the bed.

            “I hate Black Friday,” she said to Barney. The biggest shopping day of the year brought a level of anxiety that gave her nightmares the other three hundred sixty-four days. She peered into the bathroom mirror before heading downstairs. Her brown hair was tangled from sleep and her eyes, normally bright hazel, were hooded and sported bags.

            She needed coffee and lots of it. She went downstairs to find that the kids had left the kitchen light on all night again. “Good,” she muttered to herself. “I was hoping to give the electric company a nice fat check for Christmas.” She switched off all the lights but one and started the coffeemaker. Before long the kitchen was filled with the aroma of ground Arabica beans and Lilly’s senses started coming alive.

            After showering, dressing, and grabbing a quick breakfast, Lilly poured herself a travel mug of coffee and slipped out the side door without making a sound. Normally Barney followed her downstairs for breakfast, but it was too early for him.

            The car didn’t even have time to warm up during the short drive to Juniper Junction Jewels. Lilly drove along Main Street, smiling at the Christmas lights that hung from the shop fronts and the street lamps. She loved this festive time of year. And since this was Colorado, there were several inches of freshly-fallen snow on the ground to make the lights seem even prettier. At the end of the block, she swung her car around the back of the row of shops and pulled into one of the parking spots allocated for her jewelry store. Each store got two parking spots so employees wouldn’t have to go searching for spots when Main Street got really busy, as was often the case in the upscale Rocky Mountain resort town.

            It was so early the plows hadn’t even been out yet, so Lilly stepped carefully when she got out of the car. Shifting her shoulder bag from one arm to the other and holding her coffee, she reached for the doorknob at the back of the shop.

It was unlocked.

            Lilly’s stomach lurched; her body stiffened. This was a shop owner’s worst nightmare, made even more horrible when the shop sold precious stones, expensive gems, and custom jewelry. Lilly turned the knob slowly and pushed the door open, peering around it to make sure there was no one waiting for her in the back room.

            She didn’t see anyone, so she closed the door softly behind her and set her bag and coffee down on her desk. She had been the last one to leave Wednesday afternoon and the shop had been closed for Thanksgiving Day; she shuddered to think that the shop had been unlocked for thirty-six hours. She wracked her brain trying to remember locking the door behind her on Wednesday, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t remember setting the alarm, either, but that obviously hadn’t gone off because the alarm company had her home number and her cell number.

            Quickly walking over to the vault where she kept her inventory when the store was closed, she stopped short when she saw that the door to the vault was slightly ajar. She put out one finger to push the door open a bit farther; wave after wave of nausea swept over her when she saw that one of the sliding shelves that held the jewelry had been moved. She stepped into the tiny vault and pulled the shelf out a bit further—there was a necklace missing. A pearl necklace. She frantically pulled out all the other shelves in turn, not daring to breathe until she satisfied herself that nothing else had been taken. She backed out of the vault and strode to her desk, where she leafed quickly through the papers littering the top. Nothing else seemed to be missing.

            She pushed open the sliding barn door that led to the interior of the shop.

            Lilly prided herself on making Juniper Junction Jewels a homey, rustic place that looked like someone’s living room. As such, the lighting inside the store was provided mostly by lamps set strategically around the shop rather than cold, sterile fluorescent lights.

             She turned on the lamp closest to the office. She didn’t notice the body lying on the floor behind one of the glass cases until she tripped over it.