My very first venture into amateur sleuthing, I unmasked the Santa Claus who surprised my third-grade class as none other than Mr. Blow, the school janitor! Jeannie Doyle broke down in tears, unable to handle the truth; the next day, during recess, her older brother punched me in the stomach. Undeterred, I collected evidence in the form of sales receipts proving that the presents left under the tree in our classroom had actually been bought by our own parents. Now, thirty years later, Santa Claus was sitting in my office, looking to hire a private investigator.
This was not the real Santa, mind you, but a far more convincing version than the 167-pound Mr. Blow. More than just heavy, this Santa (Gordon Nichols, “but call me Nick”) was round, and his beard flowed off his chin and cheeks liked a gentle snowfall. I had met him two weeks ago while updating the security system at a mall. When he sat down at my table in the food court, I introduced myself as Timmy Gulliver, not Tim Gulliver, Timmy, which I had not gone by since well before high school. Nick asked me a bagful of questions about my work and was particularly impressed that my interest began with a junior detective kit I had received as a Christmas present. I suspected that he was looking to hire me, but I never could have guessed why.
Nick had shown up at my office in the red suit and without an appointment. When my assistant announced “Santa Claus is here to see you,” I figured she was razzing me. All morning, she had been calling me Mr. Scrooge because I had limited the holiday decorations in my office to one single poinsettia plant, discreetly planted in the corner.
Right before Nick walked in, I had been hunting the Internet for a 3D video gaming console. The system my eight-year-old son Jake and every other kid in America wanted had sold out in the first two hours on Black Friday. Now the pirates of eBay had marked the price up five hundred percent. If the box wasn’t sitting under the tree on Christmas morning, Jake would think he had done something wrong, or he might realize that there was no Santa Claus, but I could not justify paying upwards of a thousand dollars for a toy that would cost $250 in less than a month. My job here paid well, but not ridiculously well.
Since I was already on the computer, Nick directed me to look up Lester Manning in the town of Shaffer. Shaffer was located west of Boston, en route to the Berkshires. Lester Manning’s family had earned its fortune in coal, which remained a popular source for heating homes in Shaffer and the surrounding towns. Lester Manning himself had been murdered in his own study two weeks ago. Someone had bludgeoned him with a brick from his own chimney. Even more curious, the study had been locked from the inside. The door had been latched shut, and the windows had not only been locked but caulked.
I had read about this murder. The story made national news primarily because of a joke the district attorney cracked. During a press conference, a reporter asked if the police were investigating the chimney as a possible means of escape. “Yes,” the DA quipped, “we will be bringing Santa Claus in for questioning.” Overnight, the Manning case became The Santa Claus Murder. Headlines were printed in red ink:
YOU BETTER WATCH OUT!
“Irresponsible.” Nick was referring to the press coverage as well as the district attorney’s comment. “Kids saw those headlines.”
My own Jake had seen a promotional clip for a syndicated news program. The anchorwoman, if you could call her that, was asking, “Did Santa Claus commit murder?” The station had run the promo during their afternoon cartoons.
I had not followed the case after that first frenzy. Unlike Nick, I didn’t have a vested interest. In addition to working at malls, Nick and his wife ran a Santa’s Village not too far from Shaffer. Admissions this year had fallen off by nearly twenty percent. Mostly he blamed the economy, but he could not discount the effect of bad press. “I really don’t care about the money,” he said. “I modeled my life around this saint who loved children. I just cannot stomach seeing that image tarnished.”
We both knew how the media operated. If nothing sensational happened in the next week, lazy reporters would dig up this murder, which had remained unsolved. Even with no new information, they would run an “update,” probably on Christmas Eve.