by Gary R. Hoffman
Enjoy yet another Christmas mystery short story that has never before been published!
The intercom’s yellow light blinked and a soft buzz could be heard.
Wonder what the old biddy wants this time?
Shanna walked to her bosses’ door and knocked. “Come in, Shanna,” she heard Gina Hargrove say.
Shanna walked into the office she had grown to hate. “Yes, Miss Hargrove?”
“Have a seat. I have something I need to discuss with you.”
Gina Hargrove was the head buyer for Rockley Department Stores. She still worked even though she had plenty of points built up in the company to retire. Shanna had been her assistant for almost fifteen years. When she took the position, she figured she would have an easy shoe-in to head buyer as soon as Hargrove retired.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
Gina put her right elbow on the desk and rested her chin in her hand. “I hate those things, especially the gift exchange things. If I get one more set with smelly powder and bath crystals, I’m gonna scream. Anyway, I need you to go buy a gift for the exchange. Ten dollars still the limit?”
“Got any hot ideas?”
Shanna thought for a few seconds. “Why not buy something you’d like to get.”
Gina chuckled. “My third husband, Jerry …” She paused and with her left hand tapped a well manicured fingernail on her desk pad. “No, maybe he was my fourth husband. Anyway, he got me started on this Champagne Chocolate Medley. It’s fantastic, and kind of like a really high-end trail mix, but with better stuff in it. They also include small bits of their special chocolate. But it’s not quite ten dollars a box.”
“I may have a solution for you,” Shanna said.
“Mrs. Rockley has already talked to me about the party. She wants me to draw the names for the gift exchange, again. I could buy you a box of the mix, tell you how I wrapped it, and then pretend I pull your name out first. No one else will have a chance at it. You could even go ahead and unwrap it there because no one else would suspect how expensive it is.”
Gina sat straight up in her chair. “That’s brilliant! Let’s do it.” She took her purse from her bottom desk drawer and dug out a hundred dollar bill. She tossed it across the desk. “Take the rest of the afternoon off and get things started. Keep the change as my Christmas gift to you.” She put her purse back. “Oh, I’m not even sure where you buy the stuff anymore.”
Shanna winked at her. “I’ll figure it out. I have my sources.”
Shanna’s gift turned out to be thirty-three dollars and forty-nine cents. She couldn’t believe anyone spent that much on a two-pound box of trail mix.
Clarence Rockley came storming into Gina’s office the morning after the Christmas party. “Where the hell is Gina?” he demanded from Shanna.
“I have no idea, sir. I thought she was probably upstairs in a meeting with you or something.”
“Well, she isn’t, but she’s supposed to be. We have a new line to discuss, and she needs to be there. Call her house. Call anywhere! Just get her in here!” He stomped from the office, slamming the door in his wake.
Shanna tried to call Gina’s house, but got an answering machine. She left a message to call the office asap. She was then at a dead-end. She had no idea of where to call next. She didn’t remember Gina talking about any new boyfriends lately, and even if she did, Shanna would have no idea how to reach them. She called Mr. Rockley’s secretary and told her what she had found out–nothing. As she hung up the phone, she waited to hear an explosion coming from the top floor, but didn’t hear anything.
She went to lunch at her usual time. Teresa Rehman, her best friend at Rockley’s, went with her. They usually ate lunch together. Teresa had even been the one who made a quick phone call and then told her where she could buy the mix she was looking for, but most of their conversation this day was speculation about what had happened to Gina.
It was strange returning to work because she usually brought Gina’s lunch back with her. When she got to her desk, she started working on a pile of invoices that were waiting for her.
After ten minutes, a man wearing an overcoat walked into her office. She could smell the chilly outside air still clinging to his clothing. He brought a freshness in with him. Two uniformed policemen walked behind him. “You Shanna Adams?” he asked.
“I’m Lt. Grey. We have a warrant to search Gina Hargrove’s office. That it behind that door?”
“No one has talked to you about Miss Hargrove?”
Shanna’s heart started pounding, and she could feel her hands shaking. “What’s wrong?”
“The owner of this company, Clarence Rockley, got in touch with us and asked us to check out her house. She didn’t show up for work today, and he insisted that was totally out of character for her. We found her on her living room floor.”
Shanna put her hands to her mouth.
“Apparently she died of a heart attack, but we’re just checking out everything to see if any other information becomes available.”
“Oh, my God.”
“You need a glass of water or something?” Grey asked.
Shanna fanned herself with her hand. “No, I think I’ll be okay.”
She got nothing done while the three men searched through Gina’s office. After what she thought was a very short time, they came out. “You notice any changes in her mood or anything during the last couple of days?” Lt. Grey asked her.
“No, nothing. We had our Christmas party last night, and she seemed fine.”
Grey smiled. “She drink a lot?”
“Not that I noticed.”
He gave her one of his cards. “If you think of anything that might help us, please give me a call, but I have a feeling this is a pretty open and shut case.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that.”
Her intercom buzzed. It was Emma, Mr. Rockley’s secretary. “Mr. Rockley wants you in his office at eight in the morning.”
“Any idea what’s going on?”
Emma laughed. “As usual, I’ll be the last to know.”
The following morning, Mr. Rockley wasted no time in getting to the point. “This might sound cold to you, Miss Adams, but I have a business to run. I need you to take over Gina Hargrove’s duties asap. While we are talking, people are cleaning out her office of any items of a personal nature. I’m sorry this promotion comes with these extenuating circumstances, but we must continue. Okay?”
“Emma will be in touch with you about salary and benefit changes. Be back here at two this afternoon for a meeting. You may go now.” He went back to reading a paper. Just as she got to the door, he spoke again. “Another thing you’ll need to do is find an assistant. I’ll have to approve them, of course, but find someone within the company we can promote.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Shanna had mixed emotions as she headed back for her office. Her mind wandered to Teresa. She might make the perfect assistant for her.
Shanna moved all her personal things from her desk into her new office. She sat at the desk and spread her arms from side to side. It was hers, all hers!
She dialed Teresa’s number on the interoffice phone to see if she would be interested in being her assistant, although she knew she would be. They had fantasized about it before.
Early the next morning, Lt. Grey met with the medical examiner. “So what did you come up with, Larry?”
“Well, the woman definitely died of a heart attack.”
“It sounds like there’s a but attached to that.”
“It’s strange. The heart attack was caused by clots formed by her red blood cells. They stacked together and clogged her vital arteries,” Larry said.
“That uncommon?” Grey asked.
“Sort of. There’s usually some catalyst, but so far I haven’t found it. Her stomach contents showed she had eaten a small amount of that trail mix you found in her apartment, as well as a small amount of white wine, but I haven’t had time to go over all of it, yet. Looks like normal stuff. You know, nuts, berries, chunks of chocolate. There’s one thing I do know about it. I looked it up on the internet, and it’s super expensive. This lady make a good living?”
“Yes, she was paid well. She was the head buyer for Rockley’s.”
“Well, she could probably afford it then.”
“That would be my guess,” Grey said. “Let me know if you find out anything else. Right now, this looks like a natural cause death to me.”
“Agreed, but there’s usually a reason red blood cells clump together.”
“Then find it!” Grey said and left.
“Don’t expect anything for the next couple of days. Tomorrow is Christmas, you know,” Larry yelled after him. “And have a Merry Christmas!” He got no answer.
Two days later, the after Christmas sales were popping up like dandelions on a warm spring day. Shanna had received word of her new salary and decided to celebrate her promotion by going shopping over a long lunch hour.
She found a shawl that was beautiful and made in India, Teresa’s home country. Shanna thought it would be a great gift to welcome Teresa as her new assistant. She wasn’t officially her assistant, yet, but there didn’t seem to be a problem when she told Mr. Rockley of her choice. He said he would wait until after the first of the year to make the final decision. Start fresh, as he said. She figured since it was the slowest time of the year, he also was interested in saving a week’s higher salary for Teresa.
Her euphoria was short lived when she returned to her office. Lt. Grey was waiting for her. “I need to ask you a few more questions,” he started.
“Okay. Anything … to help,” she stammered. She set the packages on her desk and was taking off her coat when he started.
“What do you know about this Champagne Chocolate Medley stuff she had?”
“I bought that for her. She didn’t like the gifts most people gave in our gift exchange, so she wanted something special.”
“You bought it for her!” Grey asked as he frowned.
“Sorry about my reaction, but that wasn’t the answer I was expecting.”
“It’s the truth. Why should I lie?” Shanna said.
“Miss Adams, Gina Hargrove died because someone put poison in that package of mix.”
“We found berries that are highly toxic that had been added to the regular ingredients.”
“I had nothing to do with anything like that,” Shanna insisted.
Grey paced around her office. “So let me get this straight. You go out and buy a package of this expensive mix for her, wrap it up, and she gets it in the company gift exchange. That about it?”
“That’s close,” Shanna answered. “Miss Hargrove paid for the mix because she wanted something more expensive than the company limit. I made sure she got it by pretending to draw her name out first.”
“So who wrapped it, you or the store?”
“Actually, neither one. My friend Teresa did. I didn’t have any really good looking paper yet, so Teresa took it home with her and brought it back to me the next day. I told Miss Hargrove how it was wrapped so she could choose the correct one.”
Grey opened his notebook. “Would that be Teresa Rehman?”
“You stay here,” he said as he hastily left her office. “I’ll be back.”
Shanna couldn’t get any work done while Grey was gone. She kept running the whole scenario over in her mind. It was just impossible that Teresa had anything to do with Gina’s death.
When her phone rang an hour later, she jumped. “This is Lt. Grey. I’ll be back to you in a couple of hours. You can wait if you want to hear the story tonight, or I can talk to you in the morning.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder who Teresa called to find out where to buy the Chocolate Champagne Melody?”
“Not really. I just figured she knew somebody.”
“Oh, she knew somebody alright. Her live-in boyfriend.”
“She never mentioned him to me,” Shanna said.
“Probably because the guy is the President and CEO of Elliot Electronics. Name’s Jerry Hargrove.”
“Jerry Hargrove. Isn’t that …?”
“Sure is. Gina’s ex. Gina’s salary was high here, but her ex-husband’s was higher. He was sending her a hefty alimony check each month. Apparently, he was telling Teresa they couldn’t get married because he couldn’t afford it, what with paying Gina so much money each month. Teresa decided to eliminate the problem.”
Shanna was shaking her head. “But how did she poison Gina?”
“Ever hear of Rosary Peas?”
“I have to admit, I hadn’t either until yesterday. They do grow in certain parts of the United States, but most of them grow in India. One small berry from that plant can kill a person and make it look like a heart attack.”
“That’s crazy,” Shanna said. “Where would she get them?”
Grey smiled. “That was actually the easy part. Poorer people in India use the berries to make jewelry and even rosaries. That’s where they got their name. Anyway, our forensics people noticed there were small holes drilled in the remaining berries they found in the mix. Teresa had taken them from a rosary she had with her from her homeland. We found her rosary with some of the beads missing.”
“Yeah, wow. She took the package home to wrap, opened it, put in a few of the berries, and then resealed it. She then wrapped it in Christmas paper knowing you wouldn’t open it and notice it had been resealed. Gina probably didn’t notice because she was in a hurry to eat it.”
“Well, believe it.” Grey stood to leave. “Better find yourself another assistant, too. I don’t think the one you picked
Also in this issue is Crimewave, another Christmas mystery short story. Check out even more Christmas mysteries in our Terrific Tales section, with several more to come before Christmas!is gonna work out.”