“No, Eddie, you can’t have any of these cookies,” Edith Marble said as she carefully placed the decorated Santa cookies in a plastic container putting wax paper between each layer. She reached up and pushed a wisp of gray hair out of her eyes. “They’re for Sarah’s Christmas Open House tonight, although why she’s having it this early with Thanksgiving only just over a few days ago is beyond me. Next thing you know she’ll be having it before Thanksgiving,” Edith grumbled. After just putting on a big Thanksgiving dinner for her family as well as her brother and his whole family, Edith didn’t feel like making Santa cookies with leftovers from Thanksgiving still in her refrigerator.
Eddie, her black, tan and white border collie beagle mix, sat on the floor beside her eagerly waiting for a bit of cookie. His brown eyes followed her hand and when she set aside a cookie with the corner broken off, he gave a little yip to remind her he was there, but she ignored his pleas although she continued to talk to him. He was her companion, after all, and living alone as she did, he’d become her confidant. As soon as she put the lid on the plastic container, she broke off a piece of the imperfect cookie and gave it to him. “That’s all you get, Eddie. You’re starting to put on a little weight and that’s not good for you.”
She put on her boots and a heavy coat, hat and gloves as Eddie waited eagerly at the door ready for his walk. “No, Eddie. Not today. Maybe later, but I have to deliver these cookies to Sarah Clauson first. There’s no way you can go into her house and you can’t stay in the car. Who knows how long I’ll be if she wants to show me all her decorations both inside and out.”
When Edith arrived at Sarah Clauson’s home at the end of a short cul-de-sac, a neighbor was using a snow blower to clean the circle in front of the Clauson home. She stopped and waited for him to finish in front of their drive, but he turned off the blower before moving it out of the way. She rolled her window down and called out. “Hi, Mr. Jones. It’s nice that you take care of the end of your road. I imagine the snow really builds up sometimes.”
He nodded and shouted to her from where he stood. “Snow doesn’t build up much with the traffic coming in and out over the Christmas season because of all the decorations my damn neighbors put up every year. I hate it. I’ve complained to the township trustees, but do they do anything about it? Hell, no!”
“I imagine it could be annoying,” she shouted back, “but it’s only for a short while each year.”
“Hmph,” he grunted as he walked over to her car. “It gets earlier and earlier every year. They started decorating before Thanksgiving. Actually, I think it was right after Halloween. Disgusting! Harriet and I have to keep our blinds pulled to keep the blinking lights from coming in the windows.”
“I don’t think I’d like that, either,” she said, commiserating with him.
“You wouldn’t.” Even with his hat that covered his head and most of his face, she could see his scowl. “But that’s not even as bad as the music. Makes me hate all Christmas songs. If I hear one more time Here Comes Santa Claus, I think I’d shoot him if he ever really did show up. So why are you here, Edith?”
She smiled at him hoping he wouldn’t take his anger out on her. “I’m bringing Christmas cookies for the Clauson’s open house tonight.”
“That’s tonight, huh?” He groaned and threw up his hands. “Hordes and hordes of more people and my driveway will probably be blocked like usual. It’s just too much. How can a neighbor put up with all this?” He waved his hand at the Clauson home, shook his head and went back to plowing the rest of the circle so Edith could get in the Clauson driveway.
Several tire tracks in the drive showed others had already been in and out since the snow started falling last night. She pulled up to the garage and carried the container of cookies carefully to the side door of the garage and went in. The car was gone so Carl must have gone somewhere, she thought. A yellow cat came up to her meowing piteously.
“Rudolph, what are you doing out here? Poor kitty did you slip out when Carl left?”
She knocked on the door leading into the house, waited a while and then knocked again. When Sarah didn’t come, Edith tried the door. It was open so she walked in and up the two steps leading to the kitchen with the cat following.
“Sarah,” she called out. I’ve brought the cookies I promised.” She looked around the kitchen. There were Christmas decorations everywhere, and most were of Santa Claus. She called out again. “Sarah! It’s Edith. I’m here with the cookies.” When there was still no answer, she set the container on the kitchen counter and went into the dining room. Light from the windows showed more Santa Clauses everywhere around the room and a table centerpiece with Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. “Sarah?” she called again. Trepidation filled her as she started wandering through a house filled with Santa paraphernalia and even a life sized Santa which spooked her when she walked into the hall leading to the bedrooms.
It was in the master bedroom Edith found Sarah dressed in hunter green stretch pants and a red sweat shirt with a picture of Santa on the front. She was lying on their bed on a bedspread with red poinsettias on a white background. Around her neck was a Christmas scarf pulled tight enough to strangle her. With Sarah’s eyes bulging and her tongue protruding, Edith didn’t need to feel her pulse to know she was dead.
“Oh no, Sarah. Who could have done this to you?” She felt the tears coming along with a heavy pressure in her chest. She left the room and went to the kitchen phone to call 911. She knew enough to take a kitchen towel with Santa’s beaming face on it to pick up the phone and dial the number. She stood at the kitchen window watching, waiting and crying until a police car pulled in and she saw Sheriff Braddock and his large sized deputy climb out. When she saw them heading for the front door, she wiped her eyes with the dish towel she still held and went to the door. Using the towel she unlocked the front door and opened it.
Sheriff Braddock raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You! You’re the one who called about a dead body?”
She nodded. “Come in Sheriff.” She nodded at the deputy.
Sheriff Braddock stepped in and shook his head at Edith. “Is this for real? You found another dead body?”
Edith swallowed. “Unfortunately, yes.” He didn’t need to remind her of the other unfortunate times. Tears started to fill her eyes and she blotted them with the Santa towel. She turned and led him down to the bedroom.
“Who is she?” Sheriff Braddock asked in a softer voice as he looked at the body with the cat now curled up beside her.
“Sarah Clauson. Mrs. Santa Claus as she’s known by many people.”
He frowned. “Mrs. Santa Claus?” He raised his eyebrows and Edith could tell from the look he gave her he was thinking “Oh, really? What kind of nonsense is that?” but he refrained from any sarcastic remarks although his deputy snorted and rolled his eyes.
Edith scowled at the deputy and then looked at Sheriff Braddock. “You may not have noticed but the yard is filled with Christmas displays, especially ones featuring Santa Claus. Did you notice Santa Claus and his sleigh and reindeers on the roof, too?”
He gave a brief nod.
“And did you look around as you came through the living room and down the hall and notice all the Santas everywhere you looked?”
He bit his bottom lip and looked a little abashed.
“She and her husband have this thing about Santa Claus. He’s known as Santa Claus to many, too. He goes to Christmas parties dressed for the part and hands out gifts.”
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“She was having a Christmas Open House tonight, and I said I’d bring some extra cookies. She usually gets a lot of people at these things,” Edith said.
“When did you get here?”
“No more than fifteen minutes ago. You can check with the neighbor, George Jones. He was clearing off the snow in the circular turnaround out front.”
“Did you touch anything?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Not really except for the door knobs on the door leading into the garage and the back door.”
His eyes narrowed. “The doors were unlocked?”
“Yes. She knew I was coming this morning and I don’t think many people around here lock their doors during the daytime.”
“What about anything else like the front door, or these back doors on the inside?”
Before she could answer him, someone came into the kitchen shouting “What in the hell is going on. Why are the policemen here?”
Edith left the room followed by Sheriff Braddock and his deputy. “Quit shouting George and stop swearing.”
George Jones stopped in the living room and scowled at her. “You gonna answer me?”
Sheriff Braddock stepped around Edith. “Are you Mr. Clauson?”
“No. I’m a neighbor, and I demand to know what’s going on here.”
“Stuff it, George. Now isn’t the time to act like you’re so important,” Edith scowled at him.
“I’m going to want to talk to you a little later, but for now I’d advise you to go into the kitchen and sit down and like Mrs. Marble said, st . . . err, be quiet.”
Edith went into the kitchen with George and told him what had happened. That silenced him, but she wondered if he knew about Sarah and was using his blustering to cover up the crime. He had a reason and quick and easy access to the house.
Soon the coroner and the crime scene team arrived. If she hadn’t known Sarah, she would have liked to go in and watch them, not that Sheriff Braddock would have allowed her to watch. So she and George sat in silence until a man with a snowy white beard and Santa hat came bursting in the back door.
“What’s happened?” he asked. He looked around for his wife. “Where’s Sarah?”
Edith went to him and took his hand. “I’m so sorry, Carl, but Sarah is dead.”
“Dead? What do you mean? She was fine when I left,” he said shaking his head in disbelief. “Where is she? I don’t believe it. I want to see her.” He started to leave the kitchen when Sheriff Braddock came towards him.
“Mr. Clauson? I’m afraid we have bad news for you,” he said, gently. “I’m afraid your wife was murdered.”
“No. No, that can’t be true. I saw an ambulance out there. They’ll save her life.”
“It’s the coroner, Sir.” He turned and led Carl down the hall so he could identify the body.
Edith heard his howls coming from the room, and she started tearing up again. Soon Sheriff Braddock brought him back to the kitchen and told him to sit and wait while they finished up. He looked at George and told him to wait, too. He ignored Edith.
“We’ll find out who did this, Mr. Clauson,” he said.
Edith looked at him and saw he meant it. He would, too, with her help, of course.
She sat down by Carl and held his hand. Remembering the death of her husband, she knew no words could console him right now, but his daughter should probably be called.
“Carl, do you want me to call Nancy?” she asked.
“I don’t know. She shouldn’t see her mother like that,” he said.
“I think she’d want to be here with you,” she said softly.
Edith phoned their daughter and as gently as she could she told Nancy about her mother.
Sarah’s body had left in the ambulance and the crime scene techs had just started when Nancy and her husband, Alex, arrived.
Carl stood up and folded Nancy in his arms as she sobbed. “I don’t believe it, Dad. No one would hurt Mom.”
When they’d calmed down and Nancy and Alex learned what had happened, Sheriff Braddock said. “I’ll need to question each of you separately about your whereabouts this morning. The coroner roughly estimated the time of death between seven and seven-thirty a.m.”
Edith saw him look around for a private place. She knew there weren’t any doors between the kitchen, dining room or living room. The bedroom where she was murdered wouldn’t be an option and the only other bedroom was filled with Santas and a Christmas tree with no place to sit and take notes.
Sighing, he said. “I guess I’ll take you one by one into the living room and Deputy Rolland will take notes. I’d like to start with you, Mr. Clauson. Mrs. Marble I’ve already talked to you so you can stay or leave.” He ushered Carl to the living room and the cat followed.
Edith chose to stay. She’d do what she could to comfort Carl and his daughter as well as eaves-drop a little to listen for clues. She figured Sheriff Braddock could use her help especially since she knew everyone here.
“I’m sorry, Nancy, for your loss. Sarah was a special person. I’ve always liked and admired her,” Edith said. She didn’t mention she thought both Sarah and Carl took the whole Santa thing way too far and thought it was totally ridiculous.
Nancy nodded and sniffed. “I just can’t believe anyone would harm my Mom.” Her voice quivered.
Edith glanced at Alex. He still had his heavy red plaid coat on. He’d moved closer to the door between the kitchen and dining room. He hadn’t said much since they’d arrived, and she could see he was listening. She frowned. He should be comforting his wife and not eaves-dropping on what was going on. Actually, I should be doing that, she thought, if I’m to help Sheriff Braddock, but she didn’t know how she could suggest Alex sit down and then take his listening place.
She looked at George. He sat fidgeting a little in his chair and kept glancing at his watch. “Have an appointment somewhere, George?” she asked.
He started. “No. Why?”
“You keep looking at your watch.”
He shrugged. “I don’t like sitting around. Got things to do, you know. Besides I can’t be a suspect. Why would I kill her?” He glanced at Nancy then added. “She was an awfully nice lady.”
Maybe he wouldn’t, Edith thought, but then he does hate having all those lights, music and Christmas displays attracting crowds of people. He could have come to complain and lost his temper and killed her. Still, she acknowledged to herself that seemed unlikely. He’d be more likely to file a nuisance complaint. But then she remembered he’d said he had and no one did anything about it.
After Carl returned, Deputy Rolland came for George Jones, and Carl sat down and reached over to hold Nancy’s hand.
“How about if I fix some coffee?” Edith asked.
Carl shrugged and said, “Okay” but his tone of voice didn’t suggest any interest in it.
“Where did you go this morning, Dad?” Nancy’s teary blue eyes looked at him.
“I went to meet some guy in Burlington about an early Belsnickle Santa candy container. I was going to get it for your mother for Christmas. He only wanted nine hundred for it which was a good deal. He advertised it on Craig’s List.”
Edith turned around. “I take it he wasn’t willing to deal or it wasn’t what you thought.”
He shrugged. “He never showed up. We were to meet at a McDonalds in Burlington, a good hour and a half from here so I left early, around six, in case of bad weather. I waited there for over an hour and then headed home.”
“She would have loved it, Dad,” Nancy said and squeezed his hand. “She loves all the Belsnickle Santas you’ve given her.”
“What are they?” Edith asked.
“Belsnickle means trickster in fur sort of like woodland Santas. The ones worth the most money are old German from the 1800s,” Carl answered.
Edith pondered that for a moment. “I know you haven’t had time to look, Carl, but maybe you should check to see if any of your Belsnickles, or whatever they’re called are missing. Could it be someone came after them since you say they’re valuable?”
“I’ll look after Sheriff Braddock is done in there. Not many people know the value of them.”
“Every year you have this Christmas Open House with people coming in and out,” she said.
“True, but there are many cheap copies made of them and most people don’t know one Santa ornament from another.”
Alex came over to the table and sat down. “I’ll have a cup of coffee, Mrs. Marble.”
Edith checked to see if it was done, then filled a mug for him and placed it in front of him.
He muttered a thank you, before adding three heaping spoons of sugar and stirred it. He sneezed before he picked up the cup, and looked down at Rudolph who had followed Edith. “Damn cat,” he said.
Edith raised her eyebrows. “Cat allergies?”
He nodded. “It’s why I don’t come often to visit.”
George returned to the kitchen. “Sheriff Braddock said I can leave now and he asked for either Nancy or her husband to come in next.” When both of them made movements to stand he added. “Just one at a time.”
Alex and Nancy exchanged glances and then he got up and headed for the other room.
Edith quickly poured two cups of coffee for Nancy and Carl. As unobtrusively as possible, she slipped over to the open doorway to listen to the interrogation of Alex in time to hear him say he’d gone Christmas shopping. When questioned about shopping that early in the morning, he said Wal-Mart was open twenty-four hours and he wanted to beat the crowds.
“You can check the trunk of my car and see the gifts in there,” Alex said.
Edith went back to the table and sat down. “Carl, did you let Rudolph out when you left?”
He looked puzzled. “No, of course not. He’s a house cat and getting a little too old to deal with the cold. Why are you asking that?”
“He was in the garage complaining about being outside when I came.”
Carl and Nancy stared at her for a minute.
“That means neither one of you would have harmed Sarah.”
“You can’t have thought either one of us would have killed Sarah.” Carl scowled at Edith.
“No, of course not, but I know both of you. The Sheriff doesn’t so I was just aiding in your defense, you see. Even though Nancy doesn’t live here, she visits often and knows Rudolph isn’t allowed out. I think he was your cat before you married, wasn’t he?”
Nancy sniffed and nodded. “I don’t have an alibi. I was home alone cleaning with no one to back me up.” She started crying again. “I loved Mom so much. I would never harm her.”
“I know, Nancy,” Edith patted her arm. “You’ve been a good daughter over the years.”
When Alex returned, Edith got up and headed towards the living room. Deputy Rolland tried to stop her saying the sheriff wanted to talk to the daughter next, but Edith told him she’d only be a minute.
Sheriff Braddock looked up when she entered and shook his head. “I told you I don’t need to ask you any questions. You can leave.”
“Ahh, but I need to tell you some things so you head in the right direction.” She smiled at him and sat down on a chair opposite him. She took a moment to glance at several of the curio cabinets filled with Santas before returning her attention to him.
He rolled his eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. “Go on.”
“Okay. First, Rudolph was in the garage when I came.”
“A reindeer? So?”
Edith could tell he was getting annoyed with her. “So, he’s a house cat that’s never allowed out especially in the winter.”
“Maybe he slipped out when Carl left.”
Edith shook her head. “I asked Carl and he was quite clear it didn’t happen.”
Sheriff Braddock thought about this for a moment and Edith went on.
“The Belsnickle Santa candy dish Carl went to see is quite expensive as he more than likely told you.”
Sheriff Braddock nodded.
“Did he also mention they have quite a collection of these Santas that would be worth a lot of money? Just glancing around at the curio cabinets, it seems there are some gaps, but Carl would have to check to make sure.”
“You’re suggesting a thief came in and stole them.”
She nodded. “But it would have to be a thief who was quite familiar with the collection and the worth of these particular Santas, and I think I know who it was.” She leaned forward and whispered the name.
“He said he’d been shopping and has the packages in his car to prove it,”
“Check the time on the receipt. I’ll bet they were dated before or after the time Sarah was killed. He also has a cat allergy so would have been all too eager to put the cat out, and being in the family as long as he has, he’s sure to know the value of this particular kind of Santa and which ones are real and which one are not.”
With that she stood up and smiled at him. “I’m heading home now. If you have any more questions, I assume you still have my number.”
The call came from Sheriff Braddock later that afternoon. “We arrested the son-in-law,” he said.
Edith could hear the little smile in his voice. “Did he admit to it?”
“Not at first, but the sales receipts showed the day before so this was all premeditated.”
“So he was the one who put the ad on Craig’s List and waited for the right person to go for the bait,” she said.
“Uh huh. Said he already told several people before Carl called that it was sold.”
“Carl didn’t recognize the voice? I suppose he disguised it.”
“Right. We found the Belsnickles in large plastic crates in his garage,” Sheriff Braddock said.
“That was dumb. I supposed he was going to remove them before long,” she said.
“He actually had an antique dealer in another town willing to buy them. He gave us the name, but I’m not sure we can get the dealer for anything. It’s Alex’s word against his.”
“Did he say why he did this?”
“Gambling debts. Also, he seemed to think Mrs. Clauson would have gone with her husband.”
“How sad. Poor Nancy. Poor Carl. All for a gambling addiction.” Edith’s heart ached for them.
“Yeah. Oh, by the way, Mrs. Marble. Thank you.”
Edith hung up with a smile. She was glad she was able to help, not that she doubted her sleuthing skills since she’d done it before. She looked down at Eddie. “After all if Miss Marple could do it, Eddie, I can solve crimes, too.”
*Disclaimer - To my knowledge the real Mrs. Santa Claus is still alive and well at the North Pole. Long may she live.