by Carole Sojka
Enjoy another never before published Christmas mystery short story and have a Merry Christmas.
“Where the hell is Santa?”
“Shh! There’s a line of kids out there.” Maris adjusted her elf costume.
“What am I supposed to do?” Todd, the manager, asked.
“You be Santa Claus,” Maris said. “Here’s the costume and a pillow.”
“Me?” Todd’s voice rose again. “I have things to do.”
“More important than those kids and their parents?” Maris asked. She was a small woman, and despite her forty years looked appropriately elfin in the red and green costume.
Todd looked at the line. “I…guess not. Give me a hand?”
“Everything’s in the locker room.”
They passed the line of children and parents clamoring for Santa.
“Santa’s sleigh just landed. He’ll be here soon.” Maris grabbed Todd’s arm and hustled him along.
“Here you go.” Maris thrust the costume at Todd.
“I’m gonna feel like a fool.”
“Better an employed fool than an unemployed manager,” she said, and turned away.
Todd walked toward his locker and then yelled, “Oh, God!”
Maris said, “What? You okay?”
Todd’s face was white, and he struggled to breathe. On the bench by the lockers, a man lay, his legs crossed, his arms folded across his rotund stomach. He wore a red suit and hat and black boots. His white beard was covered in the blood that flowed from a slash across his throat. A towel lay on the floor in a bloody pool; Santa Claus was dead.
“Oh, God,” Maris said. “It’s Harry.” She took a breath. “I…I’d better be sure he’s dead.” Putting on her elf gloves, she walked in, carefully avoiding the blood.
Santa had no pulse.
“What’ll we do?” Todd asked.
“I’ll call the police,” Maris said, pulling out her phone. “You need to be Santa.”
“I can’t,” Todd wailed.
Maris pushed him. “Get changed,” she said. “You don’t have a choice.”
Todd stumbled away and Maris dialed 911. “I want to report a death.”
When Todd was dressed, Maris stuffed a pillow under his costume and pushed him out of the room. “I’ll wait for the police,” she said. “Who’s in charge today?”
“Mr. Shearing,” Todd whispered.
“He can call another Santa, but for now: Smile, Santa!”
Todd’s face was the color of his beard as he fled the room. Maris heard children cheering. She called Mr. Shearing who said he’d try to get someone and then waited.
Lieutenant Neill arrived, looking annoyed. “Nobody knew your name or where to find you.” He kicked at the mud on his boots.
“Sorry,” Maris said. “I’m only an elf.”
He turned to the two patrolmen with him. “Tim, get back to that accident on Fifth. There’s nobody else.” Tim left.
Neill was a tall man with sandy hair beginning to recede and blue eyes topped by unruly eyebrows. He wore a down parka over a blue suit, the pants wrinkled and mud-stained. “Damn mud,” he muttered, then, louder to the other patrolman, “Frank, tape off the doorway, then follow me and do what I say.” He turned to Maris. “Where’s this body?”
She showed him. Lieutenant Neill looked and then made calls before he got back to Maris.
“Did you touch anything?”
“I felt for a pulse, but I didn’t step in the blood. Todd stayed over near the other lockers.”
“The manager. He’s playing Santa.”
“Okay. We’ll need to close this room until we can dust for fingerprints. When do employees leave?”
“Could be anytime. It’s Christmas season.”
“How many employees will come in here?”
“Great. They’ll have to wait until everything’s dusted.”
“They’re not gonna be happy.”
Neill asked, “How many costumes are there?”
“Two, I guess. Todd’s wearing one. I gave it to him when Harry didn’t show up. It was on the locker room bench.”
“What’s Harry’s full name?” the lieutenant asked.
“I don’t know.”
“When did he start here?”
“Two, three weeks ago? Ask personnel.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Not much. I brought the children to Santa, told him their names, if I knew, and he took it from there. That was it.”
“When can I talk to Todd?”
“Santa’s on for forty-five minutes. There may be a riot if I take him earlier, unless they’ve found somebody else.” She dialed Mr. Shearing.
“I got Fred Spillman’s brother-in-law,” Shearing said. “He played Santa at Penney’s. Should be there soon.” Shearing paused. “You got the backup costume?”
“No. There’s only one.”
“Where’s the other one?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“He’ll have to switch with Todd.”
Lieutenant Neill watched Maris while she talked. “Who’s the boss around here, you or Todd?”
“He is,” Maris said, “but he’s young and he’s never seen a dead body before.”
Before Maris could answer, a large, balding man in his late thirties entered the locker room. “I’m Santa. Where’s the costume?”
To the disappointment of the children, Maris took Todd away to change clothes with the new Santa, whose everyday name was Brian.
“What’s Harry’s last name?” Lieutenant Neill asked Todd.
“I don’t know. Personnel must have it.”
“Had he worked as a Santa Claus before?”
“He…seemed to know what he was doing.”
“Good worker? Any problems?”
“He was late two days, and then today…”
“Did he seem upset?”
“Not to me,” said Todd.
“Where’s his stuff?”
Neill gestured to Todd to sit down and yelled to Frank to bring a bolt cutter. Frank rummaged through his tool box, got the bolt cutter, and Neill snipped the lock. He removed a jacket, trousers, sport shirt, shoes, and socks. There was also a wallet. The expired New York driver’s license said Harry Fleishman had been born June 14, 1961, was six feet tall with brown eyes and brown hair. The picture resembled the dead man; the wallet contained $5.00 and a credit card in the name of Harry Forsythe.
“I’m going to personnel,” he said to Frank. “Stay here. Call me when the M.E.arrives. Got that?”
At the personnel offices, Neill rang a bell, and a dark-haired woman came out. Neill showed the woman his badge. “I need to talk with you on a confidential matter of some urgency.”
“Very well,” she said. “Come in. I’m Ms. Hernandez.”
She led him into an office and sat behind the desk, but Neill thought this wasn’t her office. It probably belonged to her boss who wasn’t there.
“I need all the information you can give me about the man who played Santa in the Toy Department.”
“Harry Fleishman. He’s still employed.”
“I’m afraid he’s dead. We’re trying to keep this quiet. Harry Fleishman’s body is in the locker room.”
“Oh, my! Did he have a heart attack?”
“No. We think he was murdered.”
Ms. Hernandez stopped pretending to be her boss and said she would ask Mr. Holtzman, the personnel director, to meet Neill in the locker room.
On his way back, Neill stopped to ask Santa if he could manage without Maris. Brian, well into his role, said, “Ho, ho, ho. That’s okay with Santa.”
In the locker room, Neill asked Maris, “Was Harry different this week?”
“Well, he’d had a couple of drinks before he came in yesterday. And the day before.”
“How’d you know?”
“I could smell it.”
“What’s the policy on drunk Santas?”
“We’re supposed to call personnel and have them sent home. But there was nobody else and Harry smelled of alcohol but wasn’t reeling or anything. I hated to disappoint the kids. An elf isn’t enough.”
“Did he usually drink before work?”
“Well…he usually looked like he’d had a bad night, but until this week, he was just hung over.”
“Did you do anything?”
“I lectured him about drinking, gave him coffee and mints so the kids wouldn’t know.”
“How was he today?”
“I didn’t see him. Not until I saw his body.”
“Right,” said Neill. “Santa’s name was Harry Fleishman. Mean anything to you?”
“Had he been a Santa Claus here before?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long have you been an elf?”
“Since mid-November. I quit my job in the fall and needed to make money for Christmas.”
“Where you saw dead bodies?”
“Yeah. I was a nurse over at St. Joe’s.”
“Why’d you quit?”
“Too many dead bodies.”
A gray-haired main appeared at the doorway. “I’m John Holtzman from personnel. You needed information about our Santa Claus, Harry Fleishman?”
Just then, Dr. Johannsen, the Medical Examiner, strode up. Neill showed him the body, then said, “I‘ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
“I may have to leave if I get a call. Mrs. Cooper’s baby is due any minute.” Johannsen looked as if he had been waiting a while for this baby to arrive.
“Let Frank know.” Neill gestured to the patrolman.
As Neill and Holtzman left for the personnel offices, Maris asked, “Can I go home now? And Todd? He’s beat.”
“Leave your information with Frank. I’ll be in touch.”
At personnel, Holtzman said, “Now, Lieutenant, what can I tell you about Harry Fleishman?”
“The usual personnel stuff.”
“Let’s see. Born in 1961, 49 years old, from New York, an address in Rochester. Santa Claus last year at Olson’s in Niagara Falls.Previous to that, a variety of jobs: sales, delivery, that sort of thing.”
“Did you confirm with Olson’s?”
“Yes. No record.”
“Any gaps in his employment history?”
“We needed to get him started, so we put him on payroll and kept checking.”
“Turn up anything?”
Neill stood. “I’ll take the file.”
Back in the locker room, the M.E. was packing his bag and donning his coat.
“What can you tell me?” Neill asked
“Rigor is beginning, so best guess is he died no earlier than three o’clock.”
“Cause of death?”
The doctor wrapped his scarf around his neck. “His throat was slashed, although I won’t be able to tell whether he was drugged until blood tests. It doesn’t look like he fought back and it appears he was killed lying on the bench.”
“Wouldn’t the murderer be covered with blood?”
“The murderer knew what he was doing. He wrapped a towel around the victim’s throat as he slashed it, so the blood didn’t spurt all over. There was lots of blood, but it was caught by the towel and then spilled over onto the floor. Wearing gloves and staying behind the victim, he wouldn’t have gotten very bloody. Find any blood-covered gloves?”
“No. Any ideas on the weapon?”
“Straight razor or box cutter.”
“How long for the blood work?”
Dr. Johannsen turned back from the door, his face sagging with fatigue. “Depends on the lab.”
The crime scene tech was packing up her gear and donning her heavy, fur-lined coat.
“Anything to tell me?” Neill asked.
“Lots of fingerprints, but all the employees have lockers here. No footprints in the blood around the body. Nothing special on the body. The weapon…I don’t know. The M.E. thinks straight razor, but they’re not real common. Maybe box cutter. Not here, unless it’s in a locker.”
“As soon as I get a signed warrant, we’ll cut them open.”
“He was killed here, although how somebody could cut his throat is kinda weird. Maybe he was asleep.”
By the time the signed warrant arrived and Neill and Frank were able to search the lockers, several irate employees had threatened lawsuits because of the inaccessibility of coats, boots, and other winter wear. Neill referred them all to personnel.The search of the lockers was unproductive, yielding no straight razors, box cutters, blood covered clothing, not even any drugs or pilfered merchandise. After the morgue crew took the body away at ten o’clock, Conor Neill headed home.
On his way to work the next day, he thought about what he had done on the Santa Claus murder and about what still needed to be done, but a fatal highway accident took up most of the morning. By the time he got back to the station, it was mid-afternoon. He felt time slipping away as he picked up the Santa Claus file and started the check of national data bases. Neill spent a lot of the remaining afternoon trying to locate Harry Fleishman’s next of kin. The phone number for the family address Fleishman had given in Rochester was disconnected, and inquiries through the Police Department gave him nothing on Lindsay and Marvin Tuchman, Fleishman’s mother and stepfather. Telephone company records yielded a Marvin Tuchman in Syracuse. Neill called, identified himself to the woman who answered and asked for Lindsay Tuchman.
“This is she.”
“Was your name once Lindsay Fleishman?
“Do you have a son named Harry?”
“What’s he done now?” The woman’s voice sounded resigned.
“A Harry Fleishman has been found dead here.”
“Just Harry?” asked the woman. “Nobody else?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Harry drove drunk. I couldn’t get him to stop, his ex-wife couldn’t get him to stop, his stepfather couldn’t, the therapists couldn’t, the cops couldn’t. They shoulda put him in jail for a long time, but he only did a few days here, a few days there. Not enough. I always knew he’d kill somebody.”
“Actually, somebody killed him.”
“An automobile accident?”
“I’m sorry to tell you he was murdered.”
“His throat was cut.”
“Oh,” her voice faded.
Neill arranged to have someone from the Syracuse Police Department interview her, but he didn’t expect much. The checks of the national data bases yielded nothing. Harry Fleishman or Forsythe seemed clean–a ne’er-do-well, but not a felon or not one who’d been caught. The blood tests weren’t ready. Neill checked employment and personal histories on Todd Barton and Maris Norden. He wanted to assure himself it was okay to have let them go home without being searched. He remembered his training: “Everybody’s a suspect,” but he didn’t believe they were.
Todd was squeaky clean, a graduate of Mettanie High School and Northern Michigan University, employed by Nash’s Department Store for two years, promoted to management earlier this year. His parents lived in Mettanie, he grew up here, and he or his parents seemed to know everyone in town. Maris Norden had worked as a nurse in the ER of St. Joseph’s Hospital for five months before quitting and becoming an elf in Santa Claus’ entourage. She’d been a therapist in a rehabilitation facility in St. Paul for a year-and-a-half. Before that she’d worked at a Detroit hospital as a nurse for five years. Nothing was listed before that. Neill decided to visit St. Joe’s.
Neill grinned when he heard that Michael Girgis, a high school buddy, was St. Joe’s personnel director.
Mike Girgis was taller and heavier than Neill remembered, but he grabbed Neill’s arm, and shook his hand vigorously.
“Great to see you, Conor. It’s been a dog’s age.”
“The ten-year high school reunion, I’ll bet,” said Neill.
“Probably. Come on back.” Mike propelled Neill ahead of him and sat him down.
“What brings you here?” Mike asked.
“I’m trying to get some information on an ex-employee of yours, Maris Norden. She quit or was fired, probably in October. What can you tell me?”
“Come on, Mike. Do I have to get a warrant? Remember, you owe me.”
“I owe you?”
“I never told Jessica about Lillian.”
“Yeah. Right.” Mike Girgis looked embarrassed and said, “We’re still married, y’know.”
“And that’s probably because I didn’t tell her.”
“What d’ya need to know?”
“She left in October, just days ahead of being fired.”
“What’s that mean?”
“She was a good worker, did what she was told, except with anyone who might have been driving drunk.”
“She wouldn’t treat the drivers. She’d pretend she had other work, leave the doctors short a nurse. We were afraid we’d be sued, so we cautioned her, but she said drunk drivers had no right to live.”
“So she quit.”
“How long had she been here?”
“Five months, a little longer.”
“Thanks. Anything else?”
“Good to see you again. Give my best to Jessica. Think she’ll remember me?”
“Maybe. What about you?”
“Got married again last year.”
“Anyone I know?”
“No. She’s from Detroit.”
“Keep in touch.”
Back at headquarters, Neill called the rehab facility where Maris had worked before St Joe’s. Mr. Martinez, the director, was new and hadn’t known Maris Norden, but her file indicated she’d been an exemplary employee. The whole thing looked like a dead end, but Neill decided to call the Detroit hospital, too. He talked with personnel and was transferred to the director, who was not available, but would call him back. By five-thirty no one had called.
The next morning, Neill called and asked for the personnel director again.
“Hutton,” a voice said. Neill explained what he wanted, and the man said, “Yes. I know what information you want.” He was silent.
“And what is this information?”
“I can confirm that Ms. Norden worked here for five years as an RN between May of 1979, and June of 1984.
“How was her employment record? Did she resign or was she fired?”
“I cannot tell you anything more. I suggest that you get in touch with Lieutenant Richtmyer of the St. Paul Police Department. He may be more helpful.” With that, he said, “Goodbye,” and hung up.
Lieutenant Richtmyer, who knew some cops Neill knew, was more helpful. Maris Norden had worked in the Emergency Room at St. Paul General. In her fourth year of employment, a family of four was brought in. Their car had been hit by a drunk driver. All four died–either in the ER or on the operating table. The driver sustained internal injuries and required surgery, but Norden told him that he didn’t deserve to live. When ordered to provide a blood transfusion and contact the on-call surgeon, she simply disappeared. Although another nurse eventually provided the blood transfusion and called the surgeon, the driver died on the operating table. Maris Norden was charged with manslaughter.
“In court, she said that the driver had no right to live because he had killed four innocent people. The jury sided with her. They found her not guilty. After that, she left town. I don’t know where she went.”
“I know. She’s graduated to hands-on killing.”
“Really. In Mettanie?”
Neill called Nash’s and asked for the time cards for the day Harry Fleishman had been murdered. There it was: Maris had clocked in a few minutes before Harry arrived. She’d had the opportunity. She could have taken the bloody gloves home with her and dumped them. Were there two elf costumes as well as two Santa outfits? Maybe. She was smart enough to use the towel to keep blood splatter down. After all, she was a nurse.
Neill swore at himself for not having searched Maris Norden and Todd Barton before they’d left Nash’s that night. He’d searched all the lockers, but Maris could have had the bloody gloves in her elf satchel. Maris was due into work at two o’clock, but there was no answer on her telephone, so Neill went to her apartment. There was no answer to his knock, and the unlocked door swung open into an empty living room. He donned gloves and pushed open the bedroom door. The room was bare, the closets empty and all the personal items had been taken from the bedroom and bathroom. Neill swore. Why hadn’t he thought she’d run? As he turned to go, he saw an envelope on the dresser. He walked over and saw “Lieutenant Conor Neill” on the front. He slit the envelope open.
Dear Lieutenant Neill:
I’m sorry to run out on you like this, but I think you’ll be looking for me after you find that I clocked in before Harry that day. I’m not confessing, but by the time you read this, Maris Norden will have disappeared.
Harry really did deserve to die. You have no idea how much he drank. It was only a matter of time before he took somebody out. At least this Christmas there will be one less drunk driver on the road.
The Helpful Elf
“Son of a bitch!” Neill whispered, crumpling the letter in his hand.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section. You can check out all of the Christmas short stories that have gone up this month in our Terrific Tales section.