Hello again, to all those intrigued enough to be back reading another entry to the case file archive. If you're new here, I'm Terra West, the daughter of the Chief of Dakota County's Police Force, and the assistant, informat, and all around best friend of the teenage detective prodigy whose investigations stopped just as many crimes. These are my memoirs, for lack of a better term, but I doubt anyone involved would consider them 'my' stories. Before I recount what happened I would just like to say Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever it is you may celebrate. I say this because this case took place during the winter holiday season. As accordingly, I would recommend you read the records of this particular case in the vicinity of whatever holiday you prefer, because it was definitely the most memorable Christmas I've ever had and I think you deserve to share the experience. So, without further adieu, I'll begin at the place where it all started: Dakota's biggest shopping mall, early morning on Christmas Eve…

December 24, 10:00 AM

J DeMarcus stood beside me, clad in a fancy blue winter jacket and matching hat (A flat cap that made him look like a newsboy) with arms full of shopping bags from various stores, as we were carried by escalator to the top floor of the mall. The usually emotionless egotist I called my friend was currently oozing with nauseating holiday spirit as we embarked on a journey of last-minute shopping. The two hefty bags I was holding were dwarfed by the amount of crap he'd amassed since we got there.

"Do they have to keep playing this music?" I complained as we stepped off the escalator and the mall began another cheesy Christmas song, as had been playing on a mind-numbingly repetitive loop.

"Tis the season, Tee," replied J. I rolled my eyes. "You don't have to be such a Grinch, ya know."
He had a point; as any of my close friends knew, I haven't been the biggest fan of the yuletide Christmas since I passed age thirteen. Growing into the cynical, misanthropic teenager I am, the appeal of a holiday dedicated entirely to commercialized business disguised as a tender and warm family occasion didn't exactly strike me anymore. J, however, was the biggest (and possibly most obnoxious) Christmas enthusiast there was, which didn't make any sense considering the feeling-impaired, logical machine he was every other time of the year. Still, despite our opposing views, the two of us were gathered together, and I was happy to spend time with him that didn't involve us tracking down some criminal.

"What are you doing this Christmas?" I asked as we continued to walk.

"The usual," he answered. "Marathoning every Christmas movie and TV special I can fit into 24 hours and consuming astronomical amounts of eggnog. How about you?"

"Exchanging gifts in the morning and being annoyed just like every year, then running around for a family get together. Though I pleaded, my parents are dragging me to a dinner reunion or some crap."

J sighed, with a strong resentment as if he were disappointed in me.

"What?" I defended. He wouldn't look me in the eye, he just kept looking forward.

"You shouldn't complain about it," he said sternly. "Not everyone has a family to spend Christmas with."

I fell silent, realizing who I was talking to. I suddenly felt like an insensitive idiot and had nothing to say. Luckily, a moment later, the conversation was interrupted when a familiar voice called out from nearby.

"J! Merry Christmas!"

We both turned, peering through the walking crowd of people around us and stopping. Soon, we saw who it was.

"Clarissa!" J called excitedly, practically running over to see her. Oh, joy, I thought sarcastically. Clarissa Troy was the teenage heiress to one of the richest families in the country. We'd both met her a few months back when she was involved in a case surrounding the death threats sent to another millionaire, and she and J had maintained a sentimental bond ever since. The airheaded rich girl and I had long since squashed our beef, but I didn't enjoy being in her presence, mainly because when she was around J seemed to stop being my best friend and start being her right hand flirting buddy.

"What are you guys doing here?" she asked with a smile, taking a sip of the drink she was holding and putting her free hand in the pocket of her zillion-dollar designer coat.

"Last minute gift-shopping," J answered. "You?"

"Just hanging out. Todays going to be a busy day, me and my dad are doing charity events all over town. Last night we donated to St. Dwight's charity hospital, I even read to the sick kids,"

So she can read? Amazing.

"In a few minutes I'm going down the street to the toyshop."

The 'toyshop' she was referring to was Pinciatti's Workshop, a dusty old storage room owned by Marco Pinciatti, an aging architect who would transform it to a humble kids' toy store every Christmas Eve. He sold a bunch of old fashioned toys and ornaments, ranging from nutcracker figurines to wooden rocking horses, and half the profits were donated to charities for children. Pinciatti was an old man now, and had been doing this for decades; within Dakota's community, it was a beloved tradition to visit the Pinciatti's store, but being that his store was right behind the mall, business was slowly waning. We all loved him, and it was kind of nice knowing the Troys were sharing their wealth during hard times.

"Is that eggnog?" J asked Clarissa, the disposable coffee cup in her hands catching his eyes. Another J DeMarcus eccentricity is his obscene love of eggnog. While he knows I find the substance revolting, it's one of his biggest addictions, right next to solving mysteries and being right about everything.

"Yup," answered the heiress. "Caramel flavored."

Laughing at the surplus of bags occupying J's upper body, she lifted the cup to his lips and playfully poured a sip into his mouth from the same spot she was just drinking from. I averted my eyes in disgust, realizing he'd once again forgotten about my existence.

"It's great!" J exclaimed with a smile.

"I know right," Clarissa replied. "One free cup goes to everyone in honor of Christmas Eve."

"Direct me to this magical place!"

Clarissa laughed and grabbed his arm, leading him away merrily as if I wasn't even there. J looked back to me last minute.

"Be right back, Terra."

At least I got that, believe it or not it was progress from the last time he ditched me for Clarissa Troy. And yes, it happens enough to note the progression of its factors.

"Yo, Terra," called another familiar voice behind me. I turned to see Christine, one of my close friends whom I'd known since I started my freshman year of high school.

"Last minute shopping again?"

I smiled, happy to run into someone I actually like.

"Just like every year." I replied. She looked over to J and Clarissa in the distance.

"Still hanging out with the detective?" she observed. I shrugged.

"When he's not being distracted by rich ditzes."

"At least he's in the Christmas spirit."

"Yeah, he loves this time of the year. He's not religious in the least, and he lives alone, so I have no idea what he sees in it."

"Who knows? That kid's already weird, nothing he does is surprising."

"To top it off I couldn't figure out what to get him this year, once again. Gift Card it is."

"Come on, Terra!"

It's not like J's an easy person to shop for! He lives his dream every day, he's almost a celebrity in town, and on top of that he's smart to the point of it almost being a freaking superpower. What the hell do you get for someone who already has everything?"

Christine laughed and nodded. "Everything?" she reported. "Didn't you say he lives alone?"

I sighed. "Yeah," I began. "He doesn't have any family, no one to spend Christmas with."

Her eyes roamed back to J and Clarissa, who at this point were drinking that disgusting eggnog and laughing and making googoo eyes at each other.

"I think he might've found one person.."

I looked down, not knowing what to feel at that notion.

Christine laughed. "You have competition now, Terra!"

I scoffed. "Competition? What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you and J belong under that mistletoe over there. I don't know why you keep denying that you like him."
"Woah, woah," I said, nearly dropping my bags. "I do not like J DeMarcus!"

Christine grinned. I felt myself blush.

"Besides," I said. "He and Clarissa are practically married, he has no interest in me anyway."

"Maybe you just need to make yourself a little more noticeable," Christine answered confidently. "That boy is the worst, best detective in the world."

By the time we left the mall I had the scent of roasting chestnuts burned into my nostrils and the lyrics of every known Christmas song running through my head at once. As we prepared to cross the street and head back to my place, I felt a slight freezing sensation on the tip of my nose, as it proceeded to warm and drip water to the ground.

"Damn," I said, looking up to the sky. "It's snowing again."

There had been an extreme snowstorm the day before, and the town was now covered in snow for the first time since December started. Good news for the excited kids, a pain in the ass for those of us who hated the cold. Now more was falling down.

"God, Terra," sighed J. "Do you have to be such a curmudgeon about everything."

Before I could even think of a retort, it happened.

An ear-shattering, ground-shaking boom sounded from the distance.

"What was that?" I cried, feeling my ears start to ring. I looked over to J. His eyes were hard and his face had become stern and serious.

"An explosion." he answered. Then it came again, less loud and violent than the last but nonetheless the same sound, and now I could tell just how eerily close it was. J dropped his bags right there, leaving them falling to the snow covered sidewalk and running in the direction of the blast at full speed.

"J, wait!" I called, not certain at all what to do.

"I'll call Clarissa to pick it up later!" he yelled back, swiftly disappearing around the corner. With a split second of hesitation, I sighed and propped my bags down next to his, then ran as fast as I could after him. Most of J's talents and skills were attributed to his mind and weren't physical; I'd forgotten how fast he was able to run.

I sprinted after him, trying not to fall in the snow. As I caught up with J, we could now hear the clear roars of a raging fire. It was really close. As we were approaching the other side of the mall's exterior I went through the list of possibilities for the building it was that just blew up, and my mind fell to a terrifying conclusion.

"Wait, J," I called as we ran. "You don't think...-?"

"It's the most likely possibility." he reported between breaths. My heart sank with worry. We rounded another corner and stopped right there. We were frozen in our stances, out of nothing more than pure horror. J and I looked up at the wreckage; we peered at the burning remains of the building that stood right next to the mall. Through the falling snow and the sheet of fire, we could vaguely make out the letters of a sign that once said 'Pinciatti's Workshop'.

"Call 911!" J exclaimed immediately. I quickly obeyed, as we watched the once beloved place fall to the ground.

10:35 AM

J and I stood out in the snow, fearing the worst as dozens of police searched the now-extinguished building. J paced back and forth, as he often did when he was thinking, and I stood in shock, leaning against the gate and trying to process what had just happened. Surprisingly, it seemed not many people in the mall heard the sound of the explosion. The only person I saw coming to investigate was an off-duty mall Santa who was probably too embarrassed to come up and say anything to us, so he just went about his business. Before long, my father came walking to us from the building, his glasses fogged and his face red with worry, hands buried into the pockets of his trench coat.

"We meet again, DeMarcus," said my father, without even giving me so much of a hello. "Why is it wherever you go there always seems to be trouble?"

"Hey," J defended. "Your daughter and I just so happened to be passing by when we heard the explosion. Isn't that right, Tee?"

I rolled my eyes, once again caught between their constant rivalry.

"What happened to Mr. Pinciatti?" I asked, too heartbroken to articulate 'Did you find a body?'.

"He's out," my dad replied. "Shopping for supplies, he's been gone all morning."

J and I met eyes, then let out simultaneous sighs of relief.

"Cause of explosion?" J asked, now in full-fledged crimefighter mode.

"You were right on the mark, kid," my father answered. "It was a bomb."

A chill ran down my spine. J looked away into the distance, his eyes conveying intense interest on the building's mailbox.

"I think I just found a clue…" he said absently.

"What are you talking about?" replied my dad, completely missing what J was talking about. J put his finger to his lips in deep thought.

"Pinciatti was out all morning," J explained. "He routinely visited the shop every morning and night, and assuming he was here today he would've checked the mail. With that being said, why is the tab up?"

My father and I double taked and looked in shock at the mailbox.

"You're right…" I thought aloud. My father looked over to the crowd of police nearby.

"Benson," he called out, as the young, leather jacket-clad Deputy Benson stepped forward. "Check that mailbox."

Benson was my father's right-hand man, and between you and me he was the more level headed of the two. He shrugged and waltzed over to the unassuming mailbox, opening it while unsure what he should expect to find. His face suddenly became one of surprise as he reached in and started pulling something out.

"It's a tape," he reported, holding it up. "A cassette tape in a plastic bag."

J looked over to me then my father.

"So the bomber left us a message."

My dad looked over to the decimated building, then back to Benson.

"Round everyone up," he instructed. "We're taking this back to the station."

"Take me too." said J to my father.

"Are you crazy," he replied. "We break all kinds of rules working with you regularly, this right now is strict police business. We'll handle this investigation."

"Oh really," shot J stubbornly. "Who just found your first lead?"

My dad looked over to me as if for approval, and I shot him my innocent puppy eyes. He pinched his nose and sighed in acceptance, then lead us to his police cruiser without words and opened the door to the back seat.

10:44 AM

My dad lead the way into the building. J and I followed suit, and behind us were the other cops driving back from the scene. He nodded to the people behind the counter at the entrance and took us to the equipment room in the back of the building. I'd been to the police station so much between being the Chief's son and a crimefighter's assistant that the white walls and busy atmosphere almost felt homely as we walked down the halls.

We the equipment room, where a row of computers were set up and hooked to hulking consoles with slots for Benson and a group of other cops came in after us as my father slid the tape into one of the console's compartments and hit a button. Static came buzzing from the speaker system and soon there was sound. It was a voice that all of us knew too well, and one that sent a shiver through my body.

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the town

Horrible people were running around

Girls and boys played without care

In bliss, not knowing their time would be near

Watch as I've started the plans I laid out

Devised to burn this town to the ground

A few more seconds of silence carried on and then the tape ended. Everyone in the room awkwardly shifted eyes between each other until J spoke up for us all.

"Simon Greystone, he's back after all."

"We're dealing with a psycho again!" my father said, stressfully rubbing his temples.

"A smart psycho," J replied. "He's challenging you to find the rest of the bombs"

"The rest?" Benson repeated in shock. J answered,

"The rhyme said 'burn this town to the ground'. The whole town, not just one little toy store."

"What do we do now?" I asked my father directly. He sighed and mustered the answer.

"We keep searching for the possibility of other bombs," he replied. "As for you two, I think you're just about done for the day."

11:10 AM

I sat in the police station's waiting room as I waited for my father to finish studying the tape and drive us home. J was adamant about staying to work on the case before the next bomb struck, in fear that the people targeted wouldn't be as lucky as Mr. Pinciatti. Nonetheless, the authoritative Chief West was determined to send everyone's favorite detective off on his way. After nearly ten minutes of waiting, J walked into the room as well. He held two things: an unknown CD and my laptop, which I'd previously left in my father's car.

"What's going on?" I asked, unable to read his drifting eyes.

"Your dad doesn't want me getting involved." he answered as he sat down beside me.

"So what are we doing?"

"Getting involved."
He opened up my laptop and slid the CD into its disc drive.

"What's this?"

"They kept the tape as evidence or something, but that didn't stop me from copying the audio onto a CD. To work we go."

He passed me the laptop as it booted up, and soon the disc started playing. The same rhyme filled the room's silence.

"What do you make of it?" I asked.

"Well," J replied. "What caught my attention is the few seconds of silence tacked on at the end."

"What? It's just an empty space before they stopped the recording."

"Could be, but there are multiple takes on this thing, our good buddy Simon edited it to perfection. So why leave that in?"

Using the audio-editing software I'd gotten for my last birthday, I highlighted the last few seconds of dead air J was talking about. As of now all we could hear in that space was faint static. I amplified it, and the static became much louder, but there was also something else. A few more close listens and I could gather it was definitely a voice. One more amplification revealed it to be indistinct whispering, sounding like complete gibberish in a hushed tone.

"Is it in another language or something?" I met eyes with J.

"Not at all," he answered. "It's backward."

I listened to it again, and my eyebrows rose at the realization that he was right. It definitely sounded like some warped, rewinded English.

"Reverse the sound." J instructed. I quickly complied, revealing completely comprehensible words:

Did you catch the hidden clue?

If not rewind and start anew

"Hidden clue?" I thought aloud. I looked over to J and I could tell his mind was racing with the possibilities as he analyzed the facts in his head.

"The 'clue'," he began. "Is probably something that could lead us to the next bomb."

"But then what was it? Did we miss something?"

After a few more seconds of intense staring, J's eyes suddenly lit up as he jumped in his seat.

"Got it!" he exclaimed. Left in the dust again, didn't take long.

"What is it? What's the clue?"

"Greystone's setting up a challenge for the police. Remember the children's hospital Clarissa was talking about?"

"Yeah…? St. Dwight's wasn't it?"

"Yes! Don't you get it?"

I replied with a blank stare that said it all. He sighed and rolled his eyes like I was an idiot (as usual) and then explained.

"We just heard the poem, the first words of every line in order were 'Twas', 'Horrible', 'Girls', 'In', 'Watch', and 'Devised'. In the second message we just heard, it said to rewind. Backward, the first letters of each of those words spell out 'Dwight'!"

I nearly gasped. "You're right!" I said. "Does that mean the next bomb will be at the children's hospital?"

J quoted the rhyme. "Girls and boys played without care, in bliss, not knowing their time would be near…"

I closed my laptop and stood up. "We have to tell them!"

J got out of his seat and opened the door to the room, calling out urgently.

"Yo, Chief West, I know where the next bomb is!"

In mere seconds my dad came rushing out, another police force lackey at his side. He straightened his glasses to regain composure and set hard eyes toward J immediately.

"What are you talking about?"

"No time to go into detail," J replied, beginning one of his tangents of rattling off at lightspeed. "We found a hidden message in the tape which lead to another hidden message and we have a strong lead that the next bomb is planted at the children's hospital."

While the other cop looked utterly lost, trying to mentally slow down J's words, my father simply rolled his eyes.

"Look," he said, being used to J's eccentric speech patterns. "I appreciate you're trying to help but let this be a matter for the police."

"You look," J replied intensely. I fell back nervously, avoiding my fathers' eyes.

"First off, I don't appreciate the condescending tone. More importantly, we're dealing with a bomber, a lot of people's lives are in danger! If you care at all we need to get to St. Dwight's right now. Again I point out, who was it who figured out Greystone's plan last time?"


We arrived at St. Dwight's Children's Hospital after about ten minutes of police car-bound speeding. J lead the way into the building, my father reluctantly following suit. I walked between them as to ease the tension. By the time we reached the entrance of the building, two other cars with blaring sirens had pulled up on the same street. I observed my surroundings.

The hospital was pretty small, it had been built a few decades ago without much money put into it. Child hospital's are just about one of my least favorite places to be, solely for the sad reality that they entail. Children so young shouldn't have dismal lives of sickness and pain. It was Christmas for crying out loud, they should be out sledding and having fun, not cooped up in a depressing ass building while struggling to maintain health. I had to give credit though, as the building's maintenance crew had clearly put effort into cheering up its young patients for the holiday spirit. Christmas decorations hung all around the exterior, and the front yard was lined with adorable snowmen, handiwork of the child residents, decorated with old hats and scarves. The scene was so innocent and cheerful it tore my heart that something as evil as a bomb threat would target this place. I fought back the sudden urge to cry; this criminal we were dealing with was a kind truly evil.

"What's going on?" called the young woman behind the counter as we and several policemen behind us came rushing into the main lobby. "I mean, can we help you?"

Beside us there was a cluster of kids in patient gowns sitting in a circle before an old man in a chair who was reading to them from a storybook. They all looked up at us in surprise and my heart sank.

"It's an emergency," my father explained urgently. "We have reason to believe someone's planted a bomb here. We need to get everybody out now!"

After a second of hesitation to comprehend the situation, the now terrified woman ran to a nearby telephone mounted on a wall, hit a few numbers and spoke.

"We need an emergency evacuation now! All children and faculty get out of the building!"

I'm sure they had a more professional protocol wording than that, but I doubt it mattered in that moment.

In no more than a few minutes, the building was cleared, save for my dad and a few of his men. The snowfall was letting up quite a bit by now, which probably benefited the dozens of sick kids spread around in the large, empty space behind the building. They were in luck; as we were told by one of the nurses, exactly a week ago, the hospital had been donated an astronomical amount of brand new winter gear, coats, boots, gloves, etc. and it was easy to see they had never been used until now. At least while they stood out in the snow potentially in fear of their lives, they'd be warm.

J and I, as expected, had been escorted behind the hospital with the staff and patients to wait while the building was thoroughly searched. I stood, drifting off and staring at the falling snow trying to keep calm, as J paced back and forth in front of me.

"I wish we'd gotten some kind of timeframe," J thought aloud. "Knowing when these things were set to detonate would make this a lot easier!"

"So what happens after they find the bomb?" I asked him, stopping him in his perfectly symmetrical tracks. He raised a brow in thought.

"Greystone more than likely has more set up somewhere else in town. If this search is a success, we look for more."

The fact that he said 'if' made my stomach tighten.

"You think my dad'll catch that asshole this time?"

J looked off into the distance.

"Simon Greystone's tricks won't protect him forever. He slipped away before, but now that we know what we're dealing with we won't let him get away. Or at least I won't."

His words became more stern with that last sentence.

We heard a door open nearby, and turned to see a cop standing in the back entrance.

"J," he called. "The Chief wants to see you."

He and I met eyes, and he motioned me to follow along as he walked toward the building. I answered the curious eyes of our new friends with an appropriate shrug as I disbanded and caught up to J.

We were lead by the cop to the main lobby, where my father stood center with a bunch of other policemen scattered around him. They all got quiet and stared at us as we entered.

"I'm guessing you didn't find any bombs?" J said, breaking the silence.

"No," my father answered sternly. "But we're not ready to write you off just yet, J. We did find this."

He held up a plastic ziplock bag. Inside it: a clunky black audio tape.

"Better than nothing!" replied J. "What are we waiting for, let's play it."

My dad nodded. "Benson." he called. Across the room, Benson came rushing up, holding an old radio/CD player with a slot for tapes, and I assume it was collecting dust in one of the cops' garages until it finally found a purpose today.

All the police in the room gathered around as my father took the tape out of the bag and slid it into the radio and hit play. Electronic whirring and crackling emitted from the device, until the familiar static sounded and the room became tense. Soon, we all heard Mr. Greystone's crackling voice.

"So you've risen to the challenge, you've made it this far

As shepherds following the North Star

You followed the clues in the trail I lead

To the place where children will lay in their beds

While visions of sugarplums dance in their heads

As if they aren't soon to be dead

But where lies to fire to put them under?

Perhaps the many of winter's wonders

You might have a chance of stopping it soon

The children have till the clock strikes noon…"

A chill ran down my spine as the tape cut off. It was just as eerie and haunting as listening to the first rhyme a few hours prior. The tension of the situation left the room in a state of silence.

"We have 'till noon," said Benson, snapping everyone back to their senses. "It's 11:26 now, we're lucky we got here soon enough!"

J shot my father a strong look saying 'I told you so!' and my dad brushed him off.

"We still only have about a half hour," he called to everyone in the room. "Everyone, we need to find that bomb!"

The room erupted into commotion as all the police frantically ran around the room.

"What about the tape?" Benson spoke up. "There might be some clue in the rhyme like last time."

"It said 'the fire that lies under'," I added. "That's probably the bomb."

"In 'winter's wonder'?" said my father. The room fell silent again, and all eyes went to J.

I cleared the floor for my friend. "Take it away, detective."

He stepped forward and began his usual patterns, his eyes darting around the room and his hands nervously moving about as his mind processed information. The cops all around stared at him as if they were waiting for a computer to load. Then, suddenly, he jumped in realization and threw his hands together proudly.

"Got it!" he said, smiling and beginning to pace the room.

My father raised a brow. "Feel like sharing with the rest of us?"

"It's easy," J replied, beginning one of his long-winded explanations. "Didn't you all notice something about the kids out there?"

"Like what?" asked Benson.

"Their clothes!" J exclaimed as if that made it all obvious. "Didn't you all notice they were wearing new winter clothes?"

"Yeah," I replied. "The lady told us, someone donated brand new winter stuff."

"Yes," J said, pacing to the side of the room with the windows. "They were incredibly new, so new we could tell they weren't used at all until just now. But they've had them for a few days, they weren't used, meaning the kids haven't been outside in a while!"

"Your point?" my father demanded, becoming more impatient.

J grinned proudly and answered. "If the kids haven't been out, how do you explain this?"

J pointed out the window and we all looked to see what he was talking about. Then it struck: the snowmen in front of the building.

"Oh my god," cried Benson. "If the kids couldn't have made those… You don't think…?"

"It is a pretty smart hiding place." said J with a shrug. My father and I met eyes. He then turned to the rest of the room and continued giving orders.
"Everyone out! Take those snowmen apart!"

In all my years I never thought I'd ever hear my father instruct police to ransack snowmen; it gave me a much needed jolt of joy.

"Hurry, hurry!" exclaimed Benson as everyone followed my father out to the front yard of the hospital. I ran to the nearest snowman and immediately began tearing it apart, knocking off the head and digging through the torso until I hit something hard. I scraped off a thick layer of snow revealing a side of a hard, rusty metal casing.

"It's here!" I announced.

"Get away from it!" my father demanded protectively. I accordingly stepped to the side. My eyes were drawn to the remains of the snowman I'd just destroyed. Its disembodied head was at my feet, accompanied by a classic carrot nose and a stylish orange scoff. Good ol' Simon definitely has attention to detail.

"Get the others!" my father ordered. "Take them away and have them defused!"

The surrounding cops obliged and ran off to do just that, tearing apart the 'adorable' snowmen as fast as they could.

"Found one!"

"Here's another one in this snowman!"

"This one too!"

I let out a sigh of relief as J came to my side.

"We're doing good," he said. "I'm getting these riddles faster."

I mustered a smile. "You'd think I'd be used to this by now."

It would only make sense, but nonetheless the whole situation was still weighing on me mentally. This past year I've accompanied J in cases involving a millionaire poisoned by his butler, a hotel being terrorized by illusionists on Halloween, a serial killer who made his victims think they were going crazy, and other scenarios of the sort. Maybe after so many back to back cases I was crumbling under the pressure. Maybe my spirit was crushed by the prospect of my once joyous Christmas Eve being turned into a terrifying bomb-search. Who knows; I just needed to collect myself before the others started noticing.

J smiled back. "You're getting there."

For the first time since this case started, I looked deep into his eyes and saw a trace of actual emotion. When caught up in life-threatening investigations, I sometimes forget J's an actual human being, as opposed to some puzzle-solving computer. I could see briefly see the desperation cracking through his hard exterior. Briefly.

"Even if I don't have a good Christmas this year I won't let a psychopath ruin it for everyone else. I'll handle this, Tee. Everything'll be fine."

His words were surprisingly reassuring. Without thought, I felt my hands reach over and grasp his, holding them dearly. As he stared into my eyes, the coldness of the freezing weather left my mind.

"J," called Benson urgently, snapping me back to reality. We both turned to see him. "Look what we found!"

He held up another plastic bag, covered in splashes of snow, and containing an all too recognizable black tape.

Moments later, J and I were in the backseat of the police car again while my father drove us to our home. I could feel his angst practically seeping out as he took J and I back to chez West.

"It still doesn't feel right." said J as he peered out the window while the snowcovered town blurred by.

"We know, J…" my dad replied, offering no other notion aside from that. J ignored his tired tone and continued.

"It just doesn't make sense that a bomber would stop there."

"Well, he did."

"What if it's a red herring? What if there's something else hidden in the tape?"

My dad simply reached to the passenger seat and pulled out a CD in a case, then tossed it back to J.

"We'll keep looking," he explained. "If it bothers you that much, which it probably does, there's a copy of the message. Let us know if you find anything."

J sighed, lamenting the situation. I remained quiet for the duration of the ride.

We pulled up at my house in a few minutes. I hugged my father goodbye and wished him luck as he pulled off. J still looked stressful about the situation.

"Why don't you just hang out here for a while?" I offered in an attempt to get his mind off it.

He looked up at me and sighed again, before inevitably following me into our home.

"My mom's out visiting my grandparents for the holidays." I explained as I unlocked the door with my key and swung open the door. He silently proceeded in behind me. I unzipped my coat and threw my scarf and gloves to the couch. I rubbed my hands together to warm them up, just then realizing how cold I'd been. J closed the door and proceeded warm my hands by holding them. I felt my cheeks warming up due to sudden blushing, and he let go on account of the awkwardness. Smooth, Terra.

"Well, I'm stumped." the detective reported as he made his way to the kitchen to finish off my father's supply of eggnog.

I sat down in my couch and looked at the disc my father gave us.

"Want to relisten to it?" I called to J.

"Nah," he replied. "I already know the whole thing."

He came out of the kitchen and with a huge mug full of eggnog as he sprinkled nutmeg into it. Without even trying, he then proceeded to recite the entire rhyme.

"I tip my hat to whoever's been searching

If you've found this this it means you stopped

The home of boys and girls from burning

And followed the star all the way to the top

I tip my hat to the clever somebody

Who found all the clues I left from afar

You have relief to rest and be cocky

'Till next you follow the North Star…"

J sighed and took huge gulp of his drink. His uncanny ability of memorization was impressive, but over the years I got more and more used to his frequent J-isms. I shrugged and lightly threw the CD to the side.

"From the way it sounds he accepted defeat," I said. "The rhyme says we can rest and be relieved."

J didn't start pacing but instead sat next to me. I gently removed the newsie hat from his head and set it next to my scarf.

"You've done enough today," I said as he leaned back into the leather couch. "It looks like everything's gonna be fine. Don't spend your favorite Holiday worrying."

"I know," he sighed. "I just feel like I'm missing something. I ran through the message in my head over and over and analyzed the audio at the station but there's nothing special or hidden about it."

"Maybe that's because there's nothing to get. You did it, chill out."

He got up and walked to the other corner of the living room, staring out through the window.

"Oh, and Terra..."

He reached into the lapel of his jacket and pulled something out.

"I'm sorry it's kind of rushed, I didn't get a chance to wrap it…"

He held out his hand revealing what he was holding: a little diamond tiara.

"What's this?" I asked as he walked over and handed it to me. It looked so familiar, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen it.

"It's a present," answered J. "I Remember all those years ago when your aunt got you a princess tiara for your birthday and then it mysteriously disappeared?"

"Oh my god…" I gasped, clutching the tiara warmly. As he said, I lost the tiara when I was in elementary school. It meant the world to me at the time, I was up crying all night before J offered to help.

"That was forever ago! We were little kids back then!"

"Yeah, but back then when you found out I wanted to be a detective you enlisted me to find it."

"Yes! That was how we first started talking! You found out my idiot dad accidentally sold it at our yard sale."

"Good times. I promised you I would find it… I may be a tad late but there it is."

My face was lit with smiles and the redness of welling tears.

"How the heck did you find it?"

"I found the people your dad sold it to and tracked it down. It only took a few months, the thing somehow ended up with their relatives in Chicago. A few phone calls and emails and here we are…"

"Oh my god, J… I forgot all about this thing. You remembered after all these years? Well, I know you remember everything but still!"

"Of course I do! Looking for that tiara was what started our friendship… I know it's kinda dumb, but that means a lot to me, so here you are."

I had nothing to say. I opened my mouth but I couldn't produce words. J finished the eggnog and grabbed his hat, preparing to leave.

"Merry Christmas, Tee." he said with a smile, then left my house. I merely sat there, looking down at my tiara. Right about then, my gift card and I were feeling really freaking inadequate.

5:32 PM

I was reflecting on my day, running over the events in my head and trying to dispel them to fully convert myself into the Christmas spirit. I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling when my phone rang. I looked at the Caller ID on the screen and didn't recognize the number at all.

"Hello?" I picked up and asked.

"Terra?" replied a slightly confused voice. Male, young-sounding, vaguely authoritative.


"Yeah. Chief West told me to call you and said to come to the Christmas parade. We're all here and so is J."

I jolted upright in bed.

"Is there another bomb?" I cried, gathering my thoughts. "I'm on my way!"

I hung up the phone and rushed my clothes back on, barely tying my scarf before promptly bolting out the door.

The snow had long since stopped falling but heavy layers of it still decorated the town, and the sun was midway through setting by the time I left the house. The parade was only a few blocks away, and I urgently ran with the many horrible scenarios running through my mind.

The festivities were just beginning as I arrived to the vast crowd of people gathered around the road's path to watch the parade. My view of the night sky was currently illuminated by the red flashing of a firetruck with yet another Santa perched atop it. Everyone cheered and applauded loudly. The Santa-truck was the leading vehicle in the parade, a bunch of floats and giant balloons following behind it. Upon further reflection I realized it was the same Santa from the mall earlier. Talk about commitment to the role. I then realized something else felt more familiar about him, but I couldn't zero in on it. Then I was distracted immediately by an unexpected spectacle: a police helicopter hovering above us

"Terra!" called a voice from the crowd. It was J. I turned back to see him pushing and shoving his way over to me (now in a different jacket and matching hat).

"What's going on?" I called out as we finally reached each other through the sea of people.

"Remember me thinking there'd be another bomb?" he said, catching his breath.


"There's another bomb."

"Thought so."

I looked up at the onslaught of approaching floats and moving attractions curiously. The audience was now going crazy as the giant Christmas tree float came cruising by. It was the one they advertised weeks prior, it was the one everyone came out to see.

"Where was it?"

"Is not was." J corrected.

"You didn't get it?" I exclaimed. He smiled.

"Chill, it's under control," he sighed, pointing up. "I got my best men on the job."

I glanced back up to the helicopter flying above us.

"Remember how all those poems kept saying 'Follow the North Star'?"

I nodded, trying my best to put it together in my head before he revealed the answer.

"We're the poor shepherds," J said. "And there's yonder star!"

He pointed up to the tree float. I never thought anything of it, but atop of the massive balloon was a big mechanical glowing star. I gasped in anticipation.

"I said it was under control." he reassured. I gazed up in slight disbelief as the police copter lowered a ladder, and a brave officer climbed down. The audience's encouraging roar turned to questioning silence and then confused muttering as the helicopter flew over to the tree and the officer grabbed the huge star and heaved it off of the tree. Clutching the ladder for dear life as he struggled to hold onto the bomb-star ornament the helicopter carried on with intentions of getting as far away from the people as possible.

"Now," J said, turning my head from the sky to him with a cocky grin. "You can consider this case closed."

I couldn't fight the warm smile my face wanted to convey.

"You know you're amazing, right?"

He gave a pretentious shrug and I rolled my eyes.

"Wait a minute," I said suddenly, my tension quickly returning. "Where's Simon Greystone!? Did he get away again?"

My thoughts were swiftly interrupted as J pointed behind him, over to the fire truck. A bunch of police cars gathered around it and stopped it, as armed officers proceeded to order Santa down the latter and, from the looks of it, read him his rights before handcuffing him and walking off.

"The hell?" I uttered, with no further words coming to mind to translate my confusion at the real-life SNL skit that just played out before everyone's eyes.

"Found him," he answered as the cops walked the handcuffed Saint Nick over to us. "His ego was too big to not come here and watch his work unfold in person. How a wanted felon on the run got a gig at this parade without anyone noticing I don't know, but I told you I wouldn't let him go twice."

He reached over and pulled the man's incredibly fake white beard off and revealed the familiar face to me. The broad, grizzled jaw, those harsh and sunken eyes.

Surprisingly, the old man wasn't fighting the police at all, nor did he even look angry or anything. He simply had a calm expression and spoke softly.

"J DeMarcus," he began. "I should have known, the only sharp mind around. You've defeated me again, detective, this time even managing to find me before I got away."

"That's because last time you got lucky." J replied dryly.

"And as luck may have it, I have the honor of speaking face to face with the little boy who single handedly did what all the police in town couldn't. To be apprehended by you is an honor."

J seemed disgusted by his compliments. "It's an honor to send you to jail."

"I so look forward to dueling again, detective. Though next time we meet you'll be challenged like never before."

Then he smiled. He smiled the creepiest, most evil, most pants-wettening smile I think I ever saw.
"Yeah, yeah," J replied, nonchalantly, unphased by Greystone's demeanor. "Write it to me from your cell."

"Merry Chri-"

The cops binding his arms shoved him along and lead him to the back of a nearby police car where they proceeded to throw him in and drive off.

"What does he mean," I asked in horror. "He seemed awfully relaxed for someone about to go to prison! What does he mean he'll be 'seeing you soon enough'?"

J simply shrugged. "He's in jail now," he said earnestly. "If he breaks out, I'll be there. Till then, we have nothing to worry about."

We met eyes and for a split second, it all stopped mattering. No more fear, no more worry; everything was going to be fine as long as I was here with him, getting lost in each others' eyes.

"Terra! J" barked my father from behind me. Mood: killed. J and I turned to see him slowly approaching, coffee in hand.

"I heard J prevented the parade from getting really ugly," I said to him. "You called me over?"

"Well, the press is here," he began. "The reporters want another story for your friend here, and since you being there today was just about the only thing that kept me from losing my badge by shooting this kid, I think you deserve some limelight too."
We both laughed.
"Hey!" J spat dryly. "Who just saved hundreds of lives not five minutes ago?"

I smiled and rolled my eyes at him. My father reached out a hand to J.

"Contrary to what my headaches may say, you did good today."

J shook his hand.

"Eighty-five percent of your job should probably qualify for more than just 'good' but thanks! So did you, Chief West."

My father and J DeMarcus were smiling at each other and shaking hands with no clear motives of killing each other; it was a Christmas miracle."

"Hey, guys!" called another voice approaching the group. Goddamn, is everyone I know at this parade?

Clarissa Troy approached us, a suited butler at her side carrying a metal cart full of shopping bags; our shopping bags, which we had discarded that morning at the mall. I'd forgotten all about them.

Clarissa, of course, was also wearing a different hundred-dollar outfit than the one before. I'll never understand she and J's shared obsession with displaying the depths of their immaculate wardrobes.

"Thanks, Clarissa," said J noting the bags she'd brought back to us. "Today's been a hectic day."

"What the hell is going on here?" she asked. "First the helicopter, then Santa gets arrested, now the news is showing up. I see Dakota stepped up their parades."

J laughed. My father looked over to the wave of reporters running out of trucks and flooding the scene.

"Welp," he sighed, placing his hand on J's shoulder. "Let's go talk to them, private eye."

J turned back to Clarissa and I.

"Tee," he said to me as they walked off. "Would you fill Clarissa in real quick."

Then they disbanded to answer questions and smile for the cameras. J just ditched me with Clarissa and not for her, that's a first.

"Take it away, Terra." said Clarissa with a laugh, getting ready to hear a story as crazy as she expected.

I told her it all. I told her everything, from our last encounter with Simon Greystone, to leaving her at the mall and finding the bomb, to rhyming storybook-themed messages, to the bomb-stuffed snowmen, to being called by my dad to the parade. She shook her head in disbelief as she took it all in. Sure, she'd accompanied J on a case or two, but she wasn't as desensitized to constant madness of his life like I was.

"Well," she said finally. "You better have a kickass gift for him tomorrow."

I frowned. Must I keep having this conversation.

"Easier said than done," I replied. "What could I possibly get that he wants?"

"Well," she replied. "It must get lonely in that big, empty house of his."


"Just a thought, nevermind it. Anyway, Merry Christmas."

She gave another smile then disbanded into the crowd as her butler handed me all of the bags.

"Merry Christmas..." I replied absentmindedly. For the first time ever, I was completely enthralled by the depth and profoundness of something said by Clarissa Troy. For a moment, I felt extremely small; as if this random broad we'd known for a few months understood my lifelong best friend more than I did. Okay, maybe she's not such a ditz…

And thus, The Holiday Bomber Case was closed. Without a single fatality might I add.

As I entered my home, Clarissa's words rang in my mind. I returned to my room, and my eyes fell to the tiara I left on my bed. My heart sank once again. I dropped my shopping bags and dug through them until I found that gift card. Without a second thought, I grabbed scissors from my desk and cut it to pieces.

I took out my cell phone, dialed a number, and kept dialing numbers the rest of the night.

December 25th, 8:30 AM

J DeMarcus was probably sulking down in his bed watching stop-motion Christmas specials and drowning himself in eggnog. To his surprise, his doorbell rang. As he opened the door, for the first time in a long time I saw on his face a look of genuine surprise. Before he could say anything, I, along with the huge group of people behind me, began to sing.

We wish you a merry Christmas,

We wish you a merry Christmas,

We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year

We started our entrance into the building, and J's eyes widened as he saw the extent of the guests I'd brought along. My father, Clarissa Troy and her family, Christine, and B were there, along with Marco Pinciatti, two nurses from St. Dwight's children's hospital, the widowed Lady Mason and her children, Mrs. McLaren along with her two boys and little Leyla (whose missing teeth had now grown in), Stacy Hill, the Feldman couple Mr. Hanesworth and even an off-duty Deputy Benson. .

Good tidings we bring

To you and your king

We wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

We decided to give the carolling a rest for a while. J's face was so cutely dumbfounded I couldn't help but smile. He stammered around for the right words.
"What are all of you doing here?" he said finally. B spoke up first.

"We've spent enough Christmases alone, don't you think?"

"Terra tells us you planned to sit here by yourself the whole holiday," Mr. Hanesworth began, smiling through his grizzled blond beard. "After you saved my family business I couldn't have that."

The ex-Mrs. Mason spoke next.

"Not a day goes by where we don't think of Thomas," she said, clutching her two boys' shoulders. "We're forever indebted to you for what you did."

"That makes all of us," added Harold Bianchi of the touring magicians. "When Ms. West called us last night, there's no way we could let you sit in this house alone after all that."

My dad finally spoke.

"Merry Christmas, J."

Then the rest of the group repeated in unison.

"Merry Christmas!"

For a moment J simply stood there, taking it all in. He then gathered himself and produced a smile.

"So, man," began Stephen McLaren. "So do you want us to give you our gifts now?"

"Nah," J finally replied, walking over to his piano. "We have all day for that. For now, how about I show you all how to carol properly."

"Always the show off," B said, as she reached into her duffel bag and pulled out her violin. "But I had a feeling you'd say that."

The two began playing, and the room was filled with the beautiful composition of 'Silent Night'. We all joined in and sang.

Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin, mother and child

Holy infant so tender and mild

J kept playing as he turned his head and looked back at me, eyes full of genuine joy. I nearly dropped a tear as he mouthed words 'Thank you'. I stopped singing just long enough to mouth back. As I gazed into his eyes in a moment I wouldn't mind lasting forever, I whispered to him,

"Merry Christmas…"