This story was written in three or four hours for a "game" that Lizz came up with for the fan fiction writers of the A&E Murder, She Wrote message boards. Her instructions were to write a short story in three weeks. As usual, I waited until the night before (even after getting her to extend the legnth of time we could write), and pounded this one out in a few hours. So, if it seems incomplete or rushed, that's because it is.

Disclaimer: I don't own the Murder, She Wrote characters or rights (Except the characters of Bridgette O'Niell, Brad Avery, Megan Oliver, and Sean Denney, who are the original creations of Lizz Browne and myself). The characters portrayed in this story are fictional, any resemblance to any person living or dead is strictly coincendental.

"Natalie Elizabeth Magnall! I'm going to be late. Hurry up!" Natasha Richards called from the bottom of the lavish staircase of their new Cabot Cove home.
"Coming, mother," the young woman replied, not bothering to close the book she'd been reading on her way down the stairs.
"I swear, Natalie, one of these days you're going to fall on your face reading one of those books of yours." Natalie opened her mouth to protest, but was interrupted by her mother's impatience. "Let's go, darling."
"Yes, mother," she replied, falling in step behind her 30-something, stylish, all-appearances mother on her way to their scarlet-colored corvette.

"Jessica, you absolutely have to meet her!" Eve exclaimed when talk at Loretta's Beauty Parlor turned to Natasha Richards. "Very classy!"
"Well, it looks as though she's about to," Phyllis Grant, Cabot Cove's one and only travel-agent piped in. "Here she comes."
"With that odd daughter of hers in tow," Eve added.
"Hello, Hello!" Natasha cried, walking into Loretta's, Natalie still behind her reading The Count of Monte Cristo.
"Natasha," Eve replied. "We were just telling Jessica that the two of you should be introduced."
Natasha turned toward Eve's gesture to see a blonde-haired woman with smart, inquisitive blue-eyes that seemed to sparkle with intrigue.
"Hello," Jessica said, extending a hand. "I'm Jessica Fletcher."
Natalie immediately looked up from her book. "J. B. Fletcher?" she asked, wide-eyed.
"Yes," Jessica replied, taking in the girl's actions and expressions.
"I just finished your latest, Mrs. Fletcher. It was wonderful. I have no idea how you do it," Natalie continued. "Every novel is different and exciting, and your characters feel as though they're about to jump off the pages to share the adventure with me. It's amazing!"
"Oh my, what a compliment! Thank you," Jessica told the girl, a softening smile to combat Natalie's obvious nervousness. "What's that you're reading, now?"
"Oh, nothing much," Natalie replied, her eyes brightening at the opportunity to talk of her books. "The Count of Monte Cristo. I lost interest after the first 60 pages, but I figured, hey, it's a classic. Why not finish? So that's exactly what I'm doing."
"Natalie, I'm going to be a while here, so why don't you go spend some time in town?" Natasha interrupted, sitting in a chair across from the decked in blue manicurist, Corinne, to get her nails done.
"Sure, mother," Natalie said, turning back to her book and walking out the door, toward the book shop.
"She's a lovely girl," Jessica said to Natasha.
"Strange, though. So much like her father, may he rest in peace," Natasha said disgustedly.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I thought she was lovely, though."
"Corinne, could we go a shade lighter this time? That last color was so bright it nearly made me ill. Do you have something like scarlet?"
"All done, Jessica," Loretta said as she removed her cape from Jessica's neck.
"Thanks, Loretta. Two weeks?"
"See you then."
"I'll look forward to it," Jessica said, walking out the door and nearly being run down by Brad Avery, a high school student who also happened to work at the bookstore next door to Loretta's.
"Mrs. Fletcher! Sorry," he said, catching his balance and stopping just in time to avoid a disaster involving Jessica, himself, and a rather large stack of books.
"Goodness!" came Natalie's voice from behind a smaller stack of books. "If I'd known you'd have problems with that stack, I wouldn't have let you carry it for me." Seeing Jessica, she added, "Hello again, Mrs. Fletcher! I'm sorry if this caused you any trouble. We're trying to get all these books to my car."
"No trouble at all. In fact, can I be of any help? That's quite a stack of books you've got there."
"No, I wouldn't dream of having you help with these. I don't want to be an inconvenience."
"What inconvenience?" Jessica questioned, chuckling. "I offered. Now hand me some of those books!"
"If you insist," Natalie responded hesitantly, handing Jessica her own small pile of books and taking some from the plethora Brad carried. "If my mom saw, she'd have a cow. She hates it that I read so much, anyway. If she saw that you were helping me carry all these books, that would be the end of it for me. Anyway, I'm glad you could help. I really appreciate it," she said, putting the piles of books in the trunk of the car.
"You're going to read all of those?" Brad questioned her.
"Of course," Natalie told him, slightly shocked. "Don't you love to read?"
"Music. I play the trumpet," Brad replied.
"Oh yes, I've seen you," Natalie said, something suddenly clicking. "I'm in band, too."
"I know," Brad said. "First Oboe."
"The only oboe, but, yes, that's good. How'd you remember?"
"I could never forget," Brad replied softly.
Natalie looked down at her sneakers and cleared her throat before turning to Jessica, saying, "Oh, I didn't mean to keep you, Mrs. Fletcher."
"Natalie, stop apologizing. You didn't do anything wrong. Actually, I wanted to ask you if you'd want to come by my house sometime and talk books," Jessica said, a grin crossing her face.
Natalie's face light up as her head whirled at the possibilities.
"Could I, Mrs. Fletcher? I mean…you'd want to do that with me?"
"Of course. It could make for some good conversation, and please, call me Jessica."
"Well, Jessica, let me know when and I'll be there."
"How about tomorrow afternoon?"
"Perfect. I'll be there."
"2:30 all right with you?"
"Marvelous! 2:30 on the dot."

"Mort?" Jessica said, after picking up her kitchen telephone the next morning and hearing the good Sheriff on the other end of the line.
"Mrs. F, I expected you to be here."
"Where? I'm afraid you've lost me, Sheriff."
"Well, it's just that you usually are around pretty quick after something like this happens. You feelin' okay, Mrs. F?"
"Mort will you stop speaking code and tell me what is going on?"
"There's been a murder, Mrs. F. Thomas Richards."
"Good Heavens! He's only been in town a few days, who would want him dead?"
"I don't know, ma'am. Frankly, I was thinking you'd have some theories."
"Where'd you find him?"
"Loretta's Beauty Parlor."
"I'll be there as soon as I can, Sheriff."

"I left last night at 8:00, Sheriff," Jessica heard Loretta telling Mort when she arrived at the scene.
"Jessica, I was about to call you," came a familiar voice from over Jessica's shoulder. "See what you were cookin' for breakfast."
"I might have expected that from you, Seth," Jessica replied with a chuckle. "What happened?" she asked, turning seriously to Seth.
"Mort found him in the heating ducts. Burned or over-heated. Hard to tell at this point."
"Seth, who would do such a thing?"
"You're the detective, Jessica."
"Oh, Seth, I'm not…"
"You're the closest we've got, Jessica."
"Where'd they find him in the ducts?"
"Come again?"
"Well, it's just a thought, but, if he was very deep in the ducts, wouldn't it take someone small to get him that far in there? We could narrow things down with details like that, Seth."
"What's all this we business? Let the Sheriff handle it. WE can go fishin'."
"Seth, how can you think about fishing at a time like this?"
"Seems to me after all these years, you'd be used to murdah."
"You don't get used to murder."

"The coroner says Mr. Richards was hit over the head and knocked unconcious before someone put him in the heating duct. So if was definitely pre-meditated," Mort stated as though it were complete fact.
"Sheriff, the heating duct could've been a last minute plan. There could've been an argument that resulted in a blow to the head, and then the killer improvised by putting him into the heating duct. Good Heavens, this all sounds so cold. A Heating duct? What were they thinking?" Jessica question, wincing at the thought.
"Whoever it was knew a lot about heating systems."
"What makes you say that?"
"They knew that they could turn the heat up high enough to catch something, or, in this case, someone, on fire."
"Any clues, Mort?"
"The body was found not far from the main opening, so we're either looking at someone not big enough to climb in the duct, or someone who wanted to come back later and get the body."
"Those are all very reasonable deductions, Sheriff," Jessica said, sitting in a chair across from Mort's desk.
"But what?" Mort questioned.
"Oh, no buts," Jessica replied. "We just…don't have much to go on, here. No witnesses. No evidence. Did you dust the ducts for fingerprints, threads, anything?"
"Ducts are clean, except for a bit of scarlet nail polish."
"No one knows anything about Thomas Richards. This could almost be the perfect crime."
"Almost?"
"Well, the killer has to mess up somewhere. And when they do, we'll be ready for them," Jessica said, getting up and heading out the door.
"Where you goin'?" Mort inquired as she left.
"Home, Sheriff. I have a girl coming to talk literature, and I may get some helpful hints about this case!" she said, not stopping to explain.

"I can't tell you how great this is for me, Mrs. Fletcher," Natalie said, sitting on Jessica's living room couch.
"It's Jessica, and I know that it'll be as much fun for you as it is for me. Although, I have to admit, I didn't think you'd want to come, today."
"Why?" Natalie asked, genuinely shocked. "Oh, because of Thomas? There was no love lost between the two of us, Mrs. Fletcher. I hated him."
Jessica looked at the young woman with questioning eyes. She would never pry, but there was no harm in encouraging the girl to continue to open up to her. That was why she had invited Natalie there to do, after all. She sensed the troubles this girl had from those first few moments at Loretta's.
"Thomas was exactly the nicest of men, and he was terribly unfaithful to mom. Honestly, I'm not sure if there'd be much love lost between my mother and I if it happened to her, but I feel a sort of responsibility to make sure she isn't treated worse than any other human being, even if that's not the way she treats me. Yes, Thomas was unfaithful all right. All the time. Sometimes there would be four or five different women a week. Once or twice he got too drunk and came after me." Seeing the look of concern in Jessica's eyes, she added, "Oh, nothing happened. I convinced him to sleep it off, and by the time he'd done that, he'd forgotten, anyway."
Natalie stopped for a moment, thinking. She averted her gaze many times before locking eyes with Jessica, squinting as if to see into Jessica's soul, and then continuing.
"Why do I get the feeling that you want me to tell you something useful?"
"I'm sorry, Natalie. I didn't mean to make it seem that way. I don't want to pry. I'm just trying to do my best to help the Sheriff with this case," Jessica told her.
"Well, I may not have liked Thomas, but I know that if I was murdered, I'd want even the people who hated me to bring the murderer to justice. What do you need to know?"
Jessica smiled.
"Do you have any idea who might have wanted your step-father dead?"
"Only every female under 70 in Cabot Cove."
"Could we narrow that down a little?"
"Well, I heard him arguing one night in the parlor with Eve Simpson. So, by all murder-mystery rules, since she's the most obvious, she's the one who didn't do it, right?"
"That's tricky, but you know, even sometimes the most obvious can be the killer."
"True. I've read a couple. Sometimes it's just bizarre. Anyway, I saw him pull up one night with Corinne, that manicurist from Loretta's. I have no idea what happened from there. I was into a particularly wonderful part of one of my favorite books-a biography of one of, if not THE greatest actress ever. I'm sure you know of her. Angela Lansbury."
"Ah, yes! Auntie Mame. My late husband and I saw a performance of Mame in…1966, I believe," Jessica commented. "Wonderful performance! Brilliant score by Jerry Herman."
"Of course! Anyway, that's really all I can think of at the moment. There has to be more. He was never home, so there are some things that would be impossible for me to know. He said he was booking a trip with that travel agent---Phyllis Grant, is it? Anyway, you could never tell with him, whether he was lying or telling the truth. Brilliant actor. He should have put his talents to use for good rather than evil."
"What about your mother?"
"Oh, she was home. She always takes her sleeping pill around 8:00 and doesn't wake up until at least 8:30 or 9 the next morning."
"Well, I am sorry for your loss, Natalie."
"Don't be, Jessica. You'd be wasting your time," Natalie replied distractedly, glancing at her watch. "Look at the time! I have to get home. Mom will wonder where I've gone. If I can do anything else for you, let me know. Meanwhile, though, I'll do a little investigating of my own and see what I can come up with."
"Oh, that's probably not a good idea, Natalie," Jessica told her, concerned. "It could be dangerous."
"Please," Natalie said, brushing away Jessica's concern. "I can handle a little danger."
"Don't do anything foolish," Jessica warned her, getting up to show her to the door.
"I know, Jessica. I'm a big girl of 17, and I can pretty much take care of myself, okay? I can get into R rated movies. That's good enough for me. If I'm old enough to watch danger and violence, I'm old enough to be involved in it. Besides, whoever did it isn't going to be gutsy enough to kill twice," she said, walking out the door and out of sight.

"Mrs. F, we've been over this a million times," Mort said, taking another drink of coffee from Jessica's familiar, blue-patterned china.
"One more time, Mort, please. I can't help but feel there's something that we're missing."
"Jessica, give it up, will you?" Seth chimed in. "Let the Sheriff do the job that you've been trying to convince me for years that he's capable of doing."
"Now wait just a minute, Doc," Mort started, only to be interrupted.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. I'm already sitting in between the two of you, what's next, separate corners of the room with dunce caps?"
"Dunce caps…I haven't worn a dunce cap in sixty…"
Jessica and Mort looked up from their files to make cheshire-cat smiles at Seth and his ramblings.
"What?" Seth asked. "Like you never had to wear one, Mort."
"No, Doc, I think they retired the dunce cap by the time I went to school," Mort told him, smugly.
"Mort…" Jessica broke in reprimanding him.
"Right. Okay, I checked on those alibis that you wanted, and it seems that they all have shaky alibis, but I don't get what any of these people have to do with this Richards guy."
"Maybe nothing. So Eve Simpson was supposedly at her office from 7:30 to 11 PM, and then home alone. Right?"
"Right. The wife-uh…Natasha…home with her daughter. She's really the only one with a witness, but I haven't checked with the daughter, yet, so it may be a mute point, anyway."
"Oh, Natasha was home. Natalie told me that much. Corinne-home with her mother, and Phyllis Grant was at the office until 8:30, then home alone."
"Right again."
"Jessica, what does any of this have to do with anything?" Seth spoke up, recovered from his last embarrassing dunce cap comment.
"Natalie told me that Thomas was with four to five different women a week, and those were some of the women she mentioned seeing with him."
Seth rose from his chair and went to peg on the back of the kitchen door to reach for his apron. Rather than his, he grabbed Jessica's white aprons.
"Whoops, wrong color," he said, placing Jessica's embroidered apron back on the peg, and selecting instead his pink apron, prompting a chuckle from Mort, and wide-eyes from Jessica.
"Seth, that's it!" Jessica said at last.
"My apron, yes. How nice of you to notice," he said, assuming that's what she was referring to.
"Not the apron, Seth. The color!" she told the two puzzled men, her eyes growing wider the more she understood. "Of course! How could I have missed it? It was right there all along."
"Now who's speaking in code, Mrs. F? Wanna explain this to me?" Mort asked her.
"Jessica, I'm sure all your mumblings sound good up there," Seth said, pointing to Jessica's head. "But…we're out here."
"Yes, that must have been what happened. I'm going to need your help to prove it…"

"We were wondering when you'd show up," Natalie said to an approaching figure.
"Glad you could make it," Brad Avery said, moving closer to Natalie.
"We just wanted to talk to you about a couple nights ago…when my step-father was murdered," Natalie told the figure, still hiding in the shadows of the alley behind Loretta's.
"Or more precisely, when YOU murdered him, Corinne," Brad said, pulling the figure from the shadows, revealing her identity.
"You think you're smart, don't you?" Corinne told them, straightening her wrinkled clothes.
"We were here, Corinne," Natalie told her. "We saw the whole thing from right over there," she added, gesturing toward a darker part of the alley. "The beginning of the evening, the argument, the bump on the head. You disappearing inside. It wasn't until I talked to Jessica Fletcher that I found out HOW he died. And then it came to me. That's why you went back inside---to make sure the heat was up far enough to kill him. I'm not sure about the science of all of this. I just know that you killed him. So, you have to ask yourself, do you want to keep it quiet? Do you want anyone to find out? Or do you want us to stay silent?"
"You think you can out-smart me?" Corinne asked. "You don't have any proof. Sure, you say you saw me, but I say I was home with my mother. Who's the Sheriff going to believe?"
"Corinne, Corinne, Corinne," Natalie cackled, amused. "Corinne, dear, haven't you ever heard of fiber samples? They found some fibers in the heating duct. Blue ones. Blue threads that I'm sure, when examined, will match the fibers of that wonderful blouse you were wearing a couple days ago when mom got her nails done. And besides that, the nail polish in the ducts. They've got you dead to rights if they only know where to look."
"Okay, okay, so you know, but what you don't know is how often he came to me, 'Corinne, my wife doesn't suspect a thing,' and 'Corinne, you're the only woman I want to see'. When I found out about Eve Simpson and Phyllis Grant-I…I couldn't believe it. He lied to me. When I confronted him, he denied it, of course. Flat out denied it. I was so angry and frustrated and I didn't know what I was doing…and before I knew it, I was putting traces of that ridiculous scarlet nail polish in the heating duct to turn them on to your mother's trail, and turning the heat up as far as I could get it…"
"You're under arrest," came Mort's voice from behind Corinne. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law…"
"Yes, I know, Sheriff, but what I don't know is…how?"
"It was a hunch," Jessica said, coming out of the shadows. "Mort told me about the scarlet nail polish on the heating duct, but I didn't connect it until later, when Seth took the wrong color apron, and I remembered that Natasha Richards had asked you to paint her nails with scarlet nail polish. When Natalie told me her mother took a sleeping pill at 8:30, well, it was a long shot, but I knew we had to find out."
"So they…they weren't really…" Corinne stammered.
"No, we weren't really here," Brad said. "We were at the diner having dinner, and then went to the drive in for a movie."
Mort led Corinne to his Sheriff's car and then to a cell at the station.
"Well, Mrs. Fletcher, congratulations on yet another job well done," Brad told her, shaking her hand when they had all arrived at the station.
"Thank you, Brad. I appreciate all your help," Jessica said, her patented warm, but impish smile lighting her face.
"You're going to be sure to catch West Side Story this spring when we perform it, right?" he asked.
"Absolutely! I wouldn't miss it! You playing Chino, Sean Denney as Tony, Bridgette O'Niell as Anita and Megan Oliver as Maria. Sounds like a dynamite cast!"
"Well, we'll see about Maria---that role could make or break the show, you know."
"What about you, Natalie, are you going to be dazzling us with your acting this year?" Jessica inquired of Natalie.
"I'm afraid not," Natalie replied, chuckling. "Actually, mom and I are moving back to New York. Small town life, this time. Just the two us, maybe some animals. We're going to see if we can't do some mother-daughter bonding."
"Wonderful," Jessica said, hugging her. "Thanks again for all your help. I'm sure we couldn't have done it without you."
"Oh, I'm sure you could've, but we were glad to help. It was a lot of fun," Natalie told her, opening the door to leave.
"Well, we better get going," Brad began. "We've got lots to do before Natalie goes back to New York."
"Oh really? And what is it that we have to do?" Natalie asked.
"Pack up all those thick books of yours, of course!" Brad said, grabbing her hand and pulling her out the door.
"Well, Mrs. F, another one for the 'Solved Cases' files. Would you like to do the honors?" Mort asked.
"No thanks, Mort. I promised a certain physician a fishing trip a few days ago, and I think I'd like to take that trip, now," Jessica replied, her impish grin returning. "What do you say, Seth?" she added, turning to face him.
"I say that's the best offer I've had all week. Let's go," he said, standing.
"All right, we can call Caleb from your house."
The End.

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