By: Carol Higgins Clark

Friday, December 23

WE’RE ALMOST THERE,” Judd said quietly to Willeen, his partner in crime and in love, as he turned from the main road onto the private lane that led to the Bonnell home. It was five minutes before three in the afternoon, and the clouds over the surrounding mountains promised another snowfall for the holiday skiers at Vail. Judd’s eyes darted about. Just before the moment of breaking the law, every nerve in him vibrated. But this job had been elaborately planned and should be foolproof.

He had contacted Monsieur Bonnell using the name of a reputable art dealer with impeccable connections. Monsieur Bonnell was only too happy to invite him to inspect at close range the Beasley painting that was being offered for two million dollars.

“Now remember,” Judd said to Willeen as he drove up to the sprawling two-story stucco house, “we know that the housekeeper left at one o’clock, but in case there’s anyone else there, you have your Mace ready.”

“It’s ready.”

On the off chance Monsieur Bonnell was looking out the window, they were wearing salt-and-pepper wigs made out of the finest human hair and had taped on fake gray eyebrows. Willeen had on a pair of bottleneck glasses that disguised her considerable sex appeal and Judd was sporting tinted sunglasses.

They parked in the driveway, positioning the dark gray sedan for a quick getaway, walked briskly up the steps to the front porch and rang the bell.

There was no answer.

A biting wind made Willeen shift from one foot to the other. “Did Claude get things screwed up?” she asked impatiently.

“Claude never gets things screwed up,” Judd growled, his tone low and annoyed. “You heard me talk to Bonnell an hour ago. He confirmed the appointment.”

Judd studied the knob expectantly, then noticed that the door was not flush with the frame. Cautiously, he put his hand on the knob. It turned easily and he pushed open the door. Instantly he grabbed his own can of Mace from his pocket.

He nodded to Willeen. “Let’s go,” he whispered.

As they stepped over the threshold, Willeen touched his arm and pointed to the security panel by the front door. The green light was on, indicating it was not armed.

They started down the hall.

“Do you think you should call out to him?” Willeen asked. Then she gasped as a muffled groan came from the closet on the right wall. The muffled sound was followed by loud thumping against the door in what could only be termed desperation.

A dreadful suspicion attacked every fiber of Judd’s finely tuned criminal makeup. The map Claude had prepared for him showed that the painting was over the mantel in the living room to the right of the entrance hall.

“Ohhhh pleassssse, nooooo,” he cried. With Willeen at his heels, he raced from the foyer, through the archway, circled around a couch, avoided a cocktail table and screeched to a halt in front of the raised hearth.

He looked up and stared. Big baby tears welled in his eyes, clouding the blue contact lenses he had affected as part of his now unnecessary disguise.

The ornate gold frame was still in place, hanging uselessly, deprived of its function to enhance an artistic master-piece. Instead of surrounding the Beasley painting of the railroad station in nineteenth-century Vail, it now framed the rough gray stones of the massive chimney.

“It’s happened again,” Judd wailed. “That friggin’ Coyote beat us to it!”



Saturday, December 24

EBEN BEAN LOVED to ski. The magic, the joy, the excitement of it thrilled him. It made him feel free. And that was very important to someone who’d spent five years in the slammer. The ski slopes of Aspen Mountain, with their sweeping views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains, the very essence of nature in all its glory and splendor did his soul good. It was also a lot better for his nervous system than the claustrophobic view he had had from the bottom bunk in his tiny cell. He’d never gone to sleep without the nagging worry in the back of his mind that his hulk of a cellmate would strain the bed frame, which had supported the weight of scores of outlaws, to its breaking point.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I get squashed before I wake,

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