Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams had spent the last three weeks dealing with a spate of porch pirate calls, so it was no surprise when his Monday began with a sobbing Melanie Bristol on the phone.
“I thought the delivery just hadn’t arrived when it should,” the twenty-something mother of two said between gasping sobs and sniffles. “But when I checked my order status this morning, they told me it’d been left on my front deck Friday while I was at work.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what was in the packages?”
“Nothing of any real value.” Another rattling intake of breath. “Just all of the stuff I’d bought online for my kids. Why would anyone steal a bunch of toys?”
Pete pinched the bridge of his nose. With Christmas two days away, a replacement order—if the merchant would even agree to one—would never arrive in time.
Melanie was a single mom, struggling to keep her two little ones fed while maintaining a roof over their heads. He’d stopped to help her a month ago when her battered twenty-year-old Ford Taurus had died at the side of the road. Last week, he’d seen it putting down Route 15 trailing a black cloud that smelled of burnt oil.
The woman couldn’t afford to fix her car but had tried to give her kids a Christmas, only to have some Scrooge pilfer it.
“I’ll be right over,” Pete told her. “If you could have a list of what exactly was in the boxes, it would help.”
She thanked him and hung up.
The drive to the cluster of circa 1950s homes on the northern edge of the township took under ten minutes. None of the houses had been updated since the 70s. Most boasted holiday decorations as tired as the rest of the property. One house—not Melanie’s—sported what Pete always thought of as dead Santas—those inflatable Clauses and snowmen that sagged into puddles of colorful plastic during the daylight hours but puffed to life after dark.
Melanie’s place had a string of red and green lights framing the small front porch. He made out a tree through the sheer curtains in the front window. The Taurus, brownish-gray with salt from last week’s snowfall, sat in the driveway, a silent reminder of hard times. As if the Bristol family needed one.
Melanie answered his knock attired in a flannel robe over stained sweats. She clutched a bundle of papers, which she held out to Pete once he was inside. “I printed out all the receipts from the stuff I ordered online.”
He scanned through them. “These were all in that same order?”
She nodded. “I checked the box about shipping it all together to save money. I had to wait because Jody’s Little Pink Pony was back-ordered.” Melanie sighed. “If I hadn’t been so cheap and let them ship the other stuff, only one thing would’ve been stolen.”
“Maybe not. This band of porch pirates cruises around looking for multiple boxes. Or large ones. Apparently, they don’t think one small package is worth their time.”
“You mean, it’s not just me?”
Pete offered a comforting smile. “No. I’ve been after these guys for the last three weeks.”
She huffed a laugh. “I don’t know if that makes me relieved to know I wasn’t singled out or upset that you haven’t been able to catch them.”
“Yet. I will get them. I promise.” He wished he could promise it would happen before Christmas and that she’d get her kids’ gifts back. Pulling out his notebook, he said, “I’ll make a list of these and update the items the local pawnshops are watching for.”
Melanie waved a hand at him. “Keep the receipts. I have the information stored on my computer. And if I have those laying around, Jody and Jake will find them.” She realized what she’d said and choked back a sob. “Not that it matters. I won’t be able to surprise them now. Unless you count Santa not coming to your house on Christmas Eve as a surprise.”
Pete assured her he’d do his best and would be in touch. He paused before getting back in his township-issued SUV to take another look at the receipts and what would have been the Bristol family’s Christmas. In addition to the pink pony thing, there was some sort of spaceship model, a tub of Legos, a doll, and a couple of board games. All had been discounted. Melanie had stretched her meager income as far as she could.
He tossed the receipts in the car and looked around at the neighbors’ houses. When he’d worked in the city, more often than not, neighbors refused to admit to seeing anything. Out here in the country, he might have better luck.
The first door he knocked on was answered by a man who appeared to be in his sixties wearing a plaid shirt and faded jeans. Pete had seen him around town but didn’t know his name, which turned out to be Sam Washington. After introducing himself, Pete told Sam about his neighbor and asked if he’d seen anyone lurking around. The man shook his head.
“Sorry. No. But wait.” Sam turned and called into the house. “Mom? Have you seen anyone over at Melanie’s place? Someone stole packages from her porch.”
A frail woman shuffled from the rear of the house, pushing a walker in front of her. “Afraid not. That’s horrible. That poor girl works harder than any three normal folks and loves those little ones more than life. What kind of person would steal from that family?”
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “But I intend to find out.”
He touched the brim of his hat and moved on. None of the neighbors he spoke with saw any suspicious activity around the Bristol house. Pete believed them. He received no answer at two of the doors. One—the house with the dead decorations—had no lights inside and only two bored cats watching him from the window. He knew the homeowners from township meetings and was aware of the long hours both husband and wife worked.
The second house, directly across from Melanie’s, belonged to an elderly woman. Mrs. McVehil lived alone and was known as something of a hermit. Her small Craftsman-style house badly needed a handyman. The paint was peeling and the hedges around the place hadn’t seen a trimmer in years, but the windows were spotless. Pete made out a single light bulb burning from within, but no one answered when he rang the bell.
He did a doubletake. Was that one of those new video doorbells? “Mrs. McVehil?” he said to it, wondering if it was real and he was being watched…or if it was a fake and he was talking to himself. “This is Pete Adams, Vance Township Police Chief.” There was no movement, no sound from inside. He slipped his business card between the storm door and its frame and headed back to his SUV.
Still in a funk from facing Melanie and her plight, Pete swung by the Monongahela EMS ambulance garage on his way back to the station. If anyone could cheer him up, it was the love of his life, Zoe Chambers. He found her in the crew lounge with the rest of the on-duty paramedics, putting the finishing touches on a sorry excuse for a Christmas tree.
“I thought you’d put that thing up last week,” he said.
“We did.” Zoe reached into the center of the tree and came out with two handfuls of mewing fluff, one black-and-white, the other solid gray. “There’s a reason God makes these little ones adorable. It’s so we do not kill them.”
She’d told him about finding a mama cat and five kittens hiding in the back of the garage a couple of weeks ago. The paramedics had taken them in and—Pete thought—found homes for them. “Why are they still here?” he asked.
“Allergies. Tony’s sister had claimed these two and her daughter ended up in the ER with a severe reaction. So…” Zoe snuggled them against her neck. “…we got them back.”
From the look in her eyes, Pete knew what was coming next. “No.”
She batted her lashes. “Please.”
“No. We already have two.” The pair of orange tabbies had come with Zoe when she moved in. He still couldn’t tell them apart, but he’d come to realize that having a purring cat in his lap could help melt away the day’s stress.
She huffed and set the kittens down, shooing them away from the tree. “What brings you here?”
“I was hoping you might be able to help me with a project.” As he told Zoe about Melanie and the kids having their Christmas stolen, the other crew members gathered around, a mix of sadness and anger on their faces. By the time he reached the end of the story, he didn’t have to ask. The medics had already started making plans for a toy drive.
“I’d like to get my hands on those thieves,” one of them said.
Pete raised a hand in a “stop” gesture. “You let me handle the porch pirates. I’ll leave the Bristols’ Christmas to you.”
Zoe narrowed her baby blues at him. “You mentioned that the Bristol house wasn’t the first this gang has hit.”
“Unfortunately, no it’s not. They’ve been hitting homes around Vance and neighboring townships for the last month or so.”
“What about those folks? I mean, of course, we’re going to help Melanie, but what about the others who’ve had their holiday ruined? We can extend our efforts to make sure they have something under the tree too.”
The rest of the crew nodded in agreement. “We need to know ages for the kids,” one of them said.
“And sizes,” added another.
A third paramedic said, “We should round up some goodies for the parents as well.”
Zoe walked Pete to the station’s front door, leaving the others to plot. “You mentioned you tried talking to the neighbors,” she said.
“Yeah. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary.”
“But Mrs. McVehil didn’t answer the door.”
Zoe had that look in her eye—the one she got when she had a plan and wasn’t ready to share it yet.
“What are you thinking?”
She grinned. “Nothing.” Standing on her tiptoes she pressed a quick kiss to his lips. “Go catch the bad guys. I have work to do.”
He’d been right. Zoe had definitely cheered him up.
Two more reports of packages stolen from porches came in during the day. In both cases, the victims were irate, but neither was in the same dire straits as Melanie Bristol. As in the other thefts, none of the neighbors saw a thing.
Frustrated, Pete returned to the station the next morning, braced for more calls and hoping for a break.
Zoe appeared in his office doorway a few minutes after eight, still wearing her EMS uniform. “Let’s go,” she said.
She gave him that damned sexy grin that made him curse the hours between now and four p.m. “To Mrs. McVehil’s house.”
Zoe explained on the way that she and her EMS partner had responded to a number of 911 calls over the years from the woman. “She knows us by name and even makes us cookies any time we do a non-emergency transport for her. When I called her about the theft at her neighbor’s house, she told me to bring you over this morning.”
“Why didn’t she answer the door to me yesterday?”
“She doesn’t answer the door to strangers.”
Zoe raised her hands in surrender. “Just telling you what she told me.”
Mrs. McVehil clearly didn’t think of Zoe as a stranger. The door opened before Pete had a chance to ring the fancy bell. And Zoe hadn’t been kidding about the cookies either. The woman refused to discuss anything until they were all seated around her table with a plate of frosted sugar cookies and a cup of tea in front of them.
“If I had known you were Zoe’s beau,” Mrs. McVehil told Pete, “I’d have gladly let you in yesterday.”
Pete started to point out he had identified himself as a police officer but changed his mind.
“Zoe told me on the phone about the young widow woman across the road who had her packages stolen,” Mrs. McVehil continued. “That’s just awful. I don’t know what’s got into people these days.”
Zoe placed her hand over the woman’s. “Tell him what you told me. About your doorbell.”
Pete paused, a cookie halfway to his lips.
“My nephew bought that fancy gizmo for my birthday two months ago. Piece of foolishness if you ask me. People have been knocking on doors for centuries. Why do you need a bell? Especially one like that.” Her voice changed, mimicking the gift giver. “Oh, Auntie, you can see who’s at your door by looking at your phone.” She sniffed. “I can see who’s at my door by looking out the window too.”
Pete covered his smile. “You’ll get no argument from me, ma’am.”
Zoe patted the woman’s hand. “But that’s not all your doorbell does, isn’t that right?”
“Oh, heavens no. The danged thing records.” Mrs. McVehil chirped a laugh. And you don’t even have to ring it to start it recording. All you have to do is walk past. Don’t that just beat all?”
“It sure does,” Pete said.
Once they’d made what Mrs. McVehil considered a sufficient dent in the cookies, she directed them to a closed laptop on her bookshelf.
“That’s another bit of foolishness,” she said.
“Your nephew?” Zoe asked.
She nodded. “Last Christmas. I don’t know how it works. He tries to teach me every time he comes to visit though.” She shrugged. “Old dogs, you know.”
Pete stood back and allowed Zoe to boot up the computer. They had to phone the nephew to learn how to access Mrs. McVehil’s cloud account, but within minutes, they were scanning footage of the comings and goings in front of the house. Pete had his doubts. How sensitive was the doorbell’s motion detector? Would thieves from across the road trigger the device?
They probably wouldn’t have…except they parked their rusty minivan in front of Mrs. McVehil’s home. The timestamp indicated mid-afternoon on the day of the theft. “Bingo,” Pete said under his breath.
Zoe looked at him. “Do you recognize them?”
“I do,” the older woman said before Pete could answer. She leaned over Zoe’s shoulders, tilting her eyeglasses to the correct angle for optimum visibility. “That’s Sean Mulvaney’s boys. I always said those two were nothing but trouble.”
Pete pulled into the Mulvaneys’ driveway, blocking the same rusty minivan he’d seen on the video. He knew Sean’s wife had died years ago when the kids were small. The single dad did his best to keep the teens reined in, but Pete had paid more than a few visits to the house in recent years. Small stuff mostly.
Sean answered his knock at the door, a wary look in his pale eyes.
“What can I do for you, Chief Adams?”
“Are your sons at home?” Pete asked.
The look of unease melted into one of parental frustration. “What’d they do this time?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to them. And you.”
Sean eyed Pete and then stood clear of the door, gesturing him in. “They’re downstairs in the den.”
Pete followed him through the tidy but sparsely decorated house. An artificial tree covered in mismatched ornaments sat in one corner. The sounds of imitation explosions and gunfire drifted up as they descended to the basement. The “den” looked like the epitome of a man cave, teen style. A massive television filled one wall. The Mulvaney boys sat with their backs to the stairs using handheld controllers and chiding each other for bad shots.
“Holy mother…” Sean said in a whispered breath. Raising his voice loud enough to be heard in the next county—and over the noise of the game—he barked, “Matthew! William!”
The boys scrambled to shut down the virtual carnage. Had the situation been less serious, Pete would have found their frantic attempt to hide the controllers amusing.
“Where on God’s green earth did you get that television?” Sean asked in the same loud voice even though he no longer needed to shout to be heard over the muted explosions. He inhaled sharply and turned to Pete. “Oh, no. This is why you’re here.” Back to the boys. “You stole it?”
The pair stood shoulder-to-shoulder and stock straight with guilt written across their faces. The tallest of the pair simply replied, “Um…”
Pete had the entire story within a half hour. The big screen and the gaming system had been fruits of their earliest porch pirating ventures. Sean admitted to rarely going downstairs to check on them, so the new equipment had gone undetected until Pete’s arrival.
The boys, under the withering stare of their father, confessed to stealing packages and either keeping the loot, giving it to friends, or selling it at a pawnshop in Brunswick. The toys from the Bristol house had been a disappointment, they admitted, but they’d made a few bucks on the deal.
Red-faced, Sean towered over his kids like the Grim Reaper about to end life as they knew it. “You will march your sorry backsides to that store and buy every item back. And then you’ll return everything to the proper owners.”
“Not the TV,” the shorter boy whined.
Sean’s eyes narrowed further. “No. Not the TV. It’s been used. You will pay for a new one and the gaming equipment out of your allowance and give the new one to the people you stole it from.”
The shorter boy made the mistake of looking relieved.
“And lest you think you’re going to keep any of this, think again. You will donate it to the church’s youth center.”
“I have one slight change to that plan,” Pete said. “I’ll drive the boys to the pawnshop. I want to have a talk with the owner about receiving stolen merchandise.”
“That will be fine.” Sean faced Pete and crossed his arms. “And about my boys. You’ll be arresting them I’m sure.”
Both kids shrunk about a foot.
Sean had quietly spoken to Pete earlier about this very situation. He’d said he believed in tough love and paying for ones’ actions. If his sons had to spend Christmas behind bars…and New Year’s too for that matter…so be it. From the expressions on Matthew’s and William’s faces, Pete suspected their foray into the world of crime had ended.
“I’m feeling generous,” he said. “I’ll start the paperwork when I get back to the station, but if you…” He looked at Sean. “…will agree that they turn themselves in on December 26, I think I can delay the arrest warrants a couple of days. And if they do as you’ve said and make restitution, that’ll go a long way toward a lighter sentence.” He knew the judge would likely assign them public service rather than juvenile detention.
By late afternoon on Christmas Eve, Pete had escorted Sean Mulvaney and his boys to the pawnshop to reclaim all the merchandise they’d fenced there. Apparently, all the illegal transactions had been handled by one employee, whom the owner dismissed immediately upon hearing what had happened. Pete collected the guy’s information and gave him the same deal he’d given William and Matthew. Except in this case, Pete knew the judge wouldn’t be as lenient.
The boys turned over what cash was left from their spree. Sean forked out the rest, letting his offspring know they’d be paying him back in full if it took until they were thirty.
The next stop was a crowded department store to purchase a replacement TV and game system.
Finally, they made their rounds of each of the porch pirate victims where the shame-faced teens apologized and returned Christmas to the rightful owners under Pete’s and Sean’s stern gazes.
The last stop was the Bristol house. Pete was surprised—and a bit apprehensive—to see a fire truck and ambulance parked in front. The sound of laughter filtering through the front door as they approached eased his concerns. When Pete knocked, Santa opened the door with a hearty “ho ho ho.” Pete smiled. Santa sounded—and his eyes looked—a lot like Pete’s old friend, retired Fire Chief Bruce Yancy. Two other firemen wearing elf ears and hats munched on cookies from a plate held by Mrs. McVehil. The Bristol kids were all wide eyes and smiles at the colorfully wrapped packages overflowing from under their tree. Zoe’s partner, Earl, wore a Santa hat and was assembling a pink bicycle in the living room. Pete looked around for Zoe, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Melanie’s smile matched that of her kids as she approached the new arrivals. “Chief Adams, hello.” She swept an arm to indicate the merry madness going on behind her. “Can you believe it? Word got out about our stuff being stolen, and the fire department and ambulance service showed up with all of this.”
“We have a lot of good people in Vance Township,” he said.
“Yes, we do.” She looked beyond him to Sean and the boys.
Pete grabbed handfuls of Matthew’s and William’s jackets and hauled them in front of the young mother. Each held boxes containing a pink pony, Legos, a spaceship model, a doll, and the board games, all neatly wrapped by the pair. “Let me introduce Matthew and William Mulvaney. Also known as the Scrooge who stole your Christmas. Boys, say hello to Mrs. Bristol.”
They murmured hellos.
Sean prodded them from behind. “Apologize to the nice woman.”
Both sounded appropriately ashamed as they told her they were sorry and handed over the presents.
Melanie smiled through her tears. “It takes a lot of courage to own up to your mistakes,” she told them. “I appreciate your honesty.” She looked at Sean and at Pete and mouthed, “Thank you,” before adding the packages to the others under the tree.
Behind Pete, the door slammed. He turned to find Zoe, a Santa hat covering her short blonde curls and a devilish smile on her gorgeous lips.
“There you are,” he said.
“I had to get something out of the ambulance.” She kept her arms crossed in front of her zipped-up parka which appeared lumpier than usual. With a wink, she squeezed past him and called, “Jody. Jake. I have something for you.”
Pete noticed Melanie, wearing the same impish grin as Zoe, had her phone ready to take pictures.
Zoe dropped to her knees as the kids gathered in front of her. She unzipped her coat, reached in, and pulled out the two fluffy kittens from the ambulance garage.
The little girl giggled in delight, and the boy’s eyes grew huge. Each gingerly took one of the mewing balls of fur.
“What do you say, kids?” Melanie chided while still videoing.
They responded with a duet of “Thank you, Miss Chambers.”
“You’re very welcome.”
Once Santa Yancy had corralled the kids and kittens to a chair where he opened a book and started reading to them about the night before Christmas, Pete drew Zoe to the doorway between the living room and kitchen.
“I gather Melanie knew about your surprise,” he said.
“The kittens? Oh yeah. I talked to her earlier to make sure it was okay…and that the kids knew how to behave with live animals. I wasn’t about to treat Jody and Jake if it meant putting the kittens in a bad situation.” Zoe grinned.
Pete wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
She made an exaggerated attempt to think about it. “I don’t believe you have.”
He bent down and pressed a long, deep kiss to her lips.
She gently pulled away, her cheeks flushed. “Chief Pete Adams. Aren’t you being a bit brazen in front of the kids and these fine folks?”
He chuckled. “The kids are too busy with Yancy. I mean Santa. As for the adults…” Pete aimed a finger upward. “They don’t hang that stuff unless they expect you to make use of it.”
Zoe lifted her gaze to the mistletoe suspended in the doorway and smiled. “Good point.” She rose onto her tiptoes, flung her arms around his neck, and gave him an even steamier kiss before whispering, “Merry Christmas, my love.”