Multicolored Christmas lights blink and flicker at night in the snowy central park of the town of Abruzzi, Pennsylvania. The decorations don't inspire the slightest twinkle of Christmas spirit in Detective Charlie Collins, Abruzzi P.D.
Fat white flakes flutter down, clinging to Charlie's black overcoat and melting fast against his dark brown skin. Snapping on latex gloves, he prowls the gazebo in the heart of the park, focused on the ugliness amid the holiday beauty. All he cares about is the crime scene in the gazebo, complete with a dead Santa Claus in a sleigh.
Charlie's dark eyes scan for details with practiced intensity, seeking out any telling traces beyond the obvious … which is to say, the bearded Caucasian man in the sleigh took a bullet to the brain. That, however, is not the only major detail that jumps out at Charlie and his partner.
"Since when does Santy Claus dress in black?" asks middle-aged, beer-bellied Officer Burt Sichak, who was the first law enforcement on the scene.
It's a good question. The dead man's clothes look like standard Santa-wear, except for the fact that they're all pitch black. Even the fur trim and hat tassel, which are usually white, are full-on black.
"You ever seen a Santa outfit like that, Charlie?” Burt looks like a rotten potato in a parka, and his cheeks are flushed from drinking. He was off-duty when the body turned up. "What does the African-American Saint Nick wear?"
Charlie ignores him. Burt's sense of humor sometimes leans toward racism; his comments don't always sit well with Charlie, and he doesn't seem to care how Charlie takes them.
Things were different in Charlie's hometown of Pittsburgh … but the 'Burgh, which is two hours south, might as well be a world away. Charlie's been in Abruzzi since his fortieth birthday six months ago, and he's learned to pick his battles. He's nobody's fool, but he doesn't dial it up to eleven all the time either.
The job is what matters most to him, as awful as it gets … and tonight's brutal murder is pretty awful. "Looks like a mob hit. Tap to the back of the head, exit wound up front."
Burt snickers. "Santa picked the wrong goombah to give a lump a' coal to, I guess."
Charlie nods. It's a fact of life; the Mafia's been a force in Abruzzi forever. This part of the state is thick with them.
Something catches Charlie's eye then, and he leans closer to the corpse. There's a crumpled bit of paper in Santa's fist, and he works to pry it out. It looks like the edges are torn, as if someone ripped the rest of it free but couldn't get the last shred from Santa's death grip.
Charlie can't get the last shred either. He finally gives up and searches Santa's pockets, which is where he finds a battered black leather wallet. There's a driver's license inside, which he slides out for a better look.
"We've got a tentative I.D. on the vic," he says. "According to this, the ex-Santa Claus is one Dominick Rialto."
"Hey, that's the produce guy," says Burt.
"Owner of Sunshine Market, right?"
"Also old school Black Hand Mafia," Burt says solemnly. "No wonder his Santy suit is all black!"
Charlie frowns. "Is that a thing?"
"It was for Dominick," says Burt. "Black Hand was started by Italian immigrants and evolved into the Mafia we got now. I've heard stories how hardcore it was. Dominick used to say he was part of it back in the day."
"Black Hand Mafia.” Charlie nods. "Black costume Santa Claus. I wonder if they're connected."
"Old school guy in his 70s like that, maybe he wanted to pay tribute to the Black Hand with his outfit.” Burt smirks and shrugs. "Or maybe he just thought it was funny, who knows?"
"But was it enough for someone to make him an ex-Santa?" asks Charlie. "Maybe the note in his hand will clear things up."
"My money's on a reindeer takin' down this guy.” Burt nods knowingly. "I never did trust that Rudolph. Red nose can be a sign of alcohol abuse, y'know."
"What do you have for me, Peg?” Charlie sweeps into the morgue at 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve day like he's not running on coffee and zero sleep.