by Guy Belleranti
The Santa Stickup was previously published by the Dana Literary Society in December 2005. Republished in the mystery anthology By the Chimney With Care in October 2006.
“Stuck up by Santa Claus first thing on a Monday morning!” Millie Mason’s double chin shook, and she glared at Sheriff Abner Peters before pointing at the empty display cases for the fifth time. “Gone. Thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well, ma’am,” Peters drawled, “I’ve got my deputies questioning folks down the street right now. And then–”
“Deputies Feeney and Grubb, you mean?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Good.” She crossed her arms across her ample waist. “But what are you going to do?”
“What about him?”
“Well, I’d like a little more detail about him. Can either of you improve on what you’ve already told me?”
“Improve?” Diana Montero, the other half of Mason-Montero Jewelers, wrinkled her tiny nose and placed her hands on her hips.
“Yes,” Peters said. “I want both of you to think hard. Try to be a little more complete in your description.”
“Don’t you know what Santa Claus looks like, Sheriff?”
“Certainly, Ms. Montero, but maybe there was something a little different about this Santa. Something that, uh, stood out.”
“He was a thief. That’s different, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it certainly is. And maybe–”
“He said he had a weapon in his right pocket,” Millie Mason burst out. “He said we better do exactly as he ordered or else.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“He didn’t show us. And we sure weren’t going to ask to see it either. Were we, Diana?”
“We certainly weren’t,” the other woman said.
“Hmm.” Peters adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose. “What then?”
“He told Diana and me to stuff everything in his big red sack,” Millie said. “Then he ordered us to lie on the floor and stay put until we’d both counted to five hundred. And he told us not to count too fast or we’d be sorry.”
Peters sighed and patted down the bit of sandy hair that covered his bald spot. “How about the way he walked? Anything distinctive about it?”
The two women looked at one another. “No,” Millie said, “nothing out of the ordinary. No limp or anything like that.”
“But he did have a strange way of talking,” Diana said suddenly.
“Strange?” Peters pounced on the word.
“Yes, his voice…it was high and low, loud and soft…”
“Hmm. What do you mean high and low, loud and soft?”
“He kept changing it. That’s what I mean. Isn’t that right, Millie?”
“Uh…oh, yes. Definitely. Trying to disguise it is what he was doing, if you ask me,” Millie said.
“How about his car?” Peters asked. “Did you get a look at it?”
“Car?” Diana looked at Millie and Millie looked at her. Then both of them shook their heads. “Nope,” Diana said. “Weren’t any cars in the lot except Millie’s and mine. I’d just flipped the door sign to OPEN, and had moved over to the east window to clean a dirty spot on the inside glass when his shadow fell over my shoulder. I turned around, saw him… He…he made me call Millie out from the back. Then he threatened both of us with bodily harm if we didn’t follow his orders to the letter.”
The Sheriff frowned. “How’d he know Millie was in the back?”
Once more Diana looked at the heavier woman. “That’s a good question. And I’m not sure–”
“He must’ve cased things ahead of time,” Millie said. She shivered. “He was probably crouched somewhere nearby watching, waiting…Ooo! Just the thought sends shivers up and down my spine!”
“Mine, too,” Diana echoed.
Peters nodded sympathetically. “How about your losses…the jewelry. Are you insured?”
“Of course,” Diana said, “but–”
“But what does that have to do with anything?” Millie finished. “We could’ve been injured. Or,” her chins quivered, “even something worse. That’s what you should be worrying about, Sheriff, not wasting time asking all these questions.”
“It’s important I get all the facts, ma’am. You never can tell what little thing might help break the case.”
“Well, I don’t know. I think – oh, maybe you’re right. But while we’re standing here there’s a crazy man on the loose ruining the spirit of the season!”
Sheriff Peters scowled. She was right. Coopesville County didn’t need this kind of lawlessness. Hopefully, Deputies Feeney and Grubb had learned something of use from one of the other business folks up or down the road.
He looked out the window. Here they came now, Grubb in his dark sunglasses, chewing as usual on an unlit cigar, and Feeney with his Stetson brim angled down to shield out the bright winter sun. “Excuse me a moment,” he said to the women. He stepped outside, and after the door had swung shut, asked, “What have you found out?”
“Drew a blank, Sheriff,” the hawk-faced Grubb said, cigar dangling from his lower lip.
Feeney pulled the Stetson off his head and nodded. “Yep, our thieving Santa’s made a clean getaway. No one saw a thing. And by now–” The pear-shaped man sighed. “By now I’m betting he’s ditched the suit and has stashed the jewelry somewhere safe ‘til the heat’s off.”
“You could be right,” Peters agreed. He scratched at his two day growth of beard, and moved into the shadow of a nearby tree to think. “Yeah, you really could be right. And if that’s the case…” He blinked. “Wait a minute. Wait one Monday morning minute!”
“What?” Feeney asked, as Peters swung back toward the store. “What is it?”
Peters didn’t answer, just hurried back inside. Feeney and Grubb followed more slowly.
“Well, Sheriff?” Millie asked.
Peters strode over to the east window. “You were standing here, Ms. Montero, when you first noticed the man?”
Diana Montero frowned. “Yes. That’s right.”
The Sheriff nodded. “And are you sure there isn’t anything else, anything at all, either of you can tell me?” He fixed his gray eyes on first one and then the other, staring long and hard at each.
“Of course we’re sure,” Millie Mason snapped.
Peters frowned. “Let me put it another way. Is there anything else either of you want to tell me, but are afraid to?”
“Huh?” Deputy Feeney said.
Peters held up a hand and looked him to silence.
“Afraid?” Diana repeated.
“Yes. Like maybe there’s something you or Ms. Mason neglected to say. Or something you or Ms. Mason said which isn’t true.”
“Yes, ma’am. A lie, in fact.”
“I…why what do you mean?”
“I mean claiming you were robbed when you weren’t.”
“What?” Feeney’s jaw dropped, and Grubb’s cigar fell from his mouth.
“Is it?” Once more Peters stared hard at the two women and when both avoided his eyes, he nodded. “No one else saw this Santa before or after the robbery because there wasn’t a Santa…and there wasn’t a robbery. Isn’t that right, ladies?”
When neither responded, he continued. “Faking a robbery for the sole purpose of insurance fraud…that’s a serious crime, you know.”
Both women glanced at one another, fidgeted, looked at one another again, and then Millie Mason sighed. “All right, Sheriff. We’re sorry. Very, very sorry.”
“Indeed we are,” Diana said.
Grubb grinned. “Good guess, Sheriff.”
Peters frowned at him. “It wasn’t a guess.” He fastened his eyes back on the two women. “Ms. Montero told me she was cleaning the inside of the east facing window when the robber came up from behind, that his shadow fell over her shoulder. But since the morning sun comes from the east the robber’s shadow would have fallen behind himself, not forward and toward Ms. Montero.”
“Shall I read them their rights, Sheriff?” Feeney asked.
Peters pursed his lips, regarded the two shamefaced women for a moment. “No, I think not. Since they haven’t filed any signed statements as yet…I think I’m going to reflect the spirit of the holidays and be forgiving.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Grubb asked. “I mean–”
“Yes,” Millie said. “You listen to the Sheriff.” She smiled up at Peters. “Business has been tight ever since that new jeweler opened over at the strip mall, and we…well, I guess we acted rashly. We won’t do anything like it again, will we, Diana?”
“Indeed we won’t.”
Peters nodded. “That’s good to hear.” He pushed open the door and then swung back. “I think you two ought to put that jewelry back in the cases pronto. A lot of folks might be looking for holiday gifts, and you sure don’t want to miss out on any sales. Feeney…Grubb…let’s head back to the office. I could do with a cup of coffee and my wife said she was bringing in some home-baked holiday goodies for us to snack on.”
The two deputies moved more quickly than they had in quite some time.
Check out more Christmas short stories in our Terrific Tales section, and watch for more to go up between now and Christmas!