Every square inch of Golden Oaks Assisted Living was decorated with fake pine garlands, fake poinsettias, colorful bulbs, bows, Santas, and reindeer. In the front room, a group of high school carolers entertained residents in wheelchairs and on walkers. Attired in his civvies, Police Chief Pete Adams passed a brightly decorated Christmas tree. The last time he’d been here, paper angels with handwritten requests for socks, blankets, and toiletries had hung from the branches. Now, the angels graced gift-wrapped boxes under the tree.
Pete made his way through the crowd to the receptionist’s desk. The petite dark-haired woman was all but hidden by a stunning wood-carved Nativity scene.
She stood and gave him a professional smile. “Hello, Mr. Adams. I believe he’s in his room.”
Pete thanked her. She reclaimed her seat, promptly disappearing behind the manger. “You need to find a better place to display that,” he told her.
“Don’t I know it,” she said with a sigh.
Strains of “We Three Kings” grew faint as he climbed the stairs and headed down the second-floor hallway. He found his father seated in one of the public gathering areas near his room looking dour despite the presence of Barbara, his neighbor and object of his affections.
“Hey, Pop.” Pete took the chair across from the older Adams. “Barbara. You look lovely as always.”
A flush of pink colored her wrinkled cheeks. “Thank you, kind sir.” She patted Pete’s father’s hand. “Harry, look. It’s your son.”
Harry pulled his hand away. “I know who he is.”
She met Pete’s gaze and shrugged. “It’s not a good day.”
“You got that right.” Harry made a fist and thumped the table once. “There’s a thief in this place. Took my favorite pocket watch.” He looked at Pete. “The one that once belonged to President Dwight Eisenhower.”Pete knew the watch well. He’d been with his pop the day he bought it at a flea market. The seller swore by the Eisenhower story although even as a kid, Pete had his doubts. Harry had overpaid for the piece. Especially since it never kept the right time. Years later, it quit altogether. “I’m sure you just misplaced it.”
“I did no such thing.” Harry’s sour expression grew darker. “You people all think I’ve lost my marbles. Well, I’m here to tell you, that watch has been stolen. And it’s not the only thing to go missing around here.”
Barbara appeared equally downtrodden. “I’m afraid he’s right about that.”
Harry’s Alzheimer’s often clouded his perception, but his lady friend was sharper than most. If she was agreeing with him, there must be something to the allegation. “What else is missing?” Pete asked her.
“Little things mostly. Evelyn Downey claims she can’t find the broach her late husband gave her. But she could’ve simply lost it. The clasp hasn’t worked well for years. The last time she wore it to dinner, it fell in her lap. If I hadn’t pointed it out, she’d have dropped it on the floor when she stood up.”
Pete relaxed. Barbara was probably right. “I’ll check with management and see if anyone has turned it in.”
“She already did.” Barbara rested her hands on the tabletop. “No one has. If someone found it, they must think finders keepers.”
Harry looked at her. “That old fart with one leg had his bank robbed.”
Pete scowled. “What?”
Barbara shook her head. “His name is Mike.”
“He’s an old fart.”
She gave Pete an apologetic smile. “It’s true, he isn’t very pleasant.”
“What about a bank?” Pete asked.
“Not a real bank.” She held her hands apart to show the size. “It was an antique mechanical thing. Cast iron, I think. A little man with a rifle supposedly shot a penny into a slot in a tree or something.”
“William Tell,” Harry corrected her.
Barbara lowered her hands to her lap. “I only saw it once and not close up. Mike was trying to show it off to a bunch of us but couldn’t get it to work. Still, he was quite proud of it.”
“Old fart,” Harry muttered.
Misplacing a cast-iron mechanical bank would be harder than losing a broach or a pocket watch.
“And then there’s my music box.”
Pete brought his focus back to Barbara. “The one you keep on your dresser?” He remembered chatting with her in her room once and seeing the dainty gold box, its lid open to reveal intricate inner workings and an ethereal dancer painted inside.
“Yes. I overwound it years ago and must have broken the spring. But it was so pretty. And it was a gift from my mother, so I couldn’t throw it away.”
A missing pocket watch, Pete could write off, especially considering it was his father who misplaced it. A lost broach with a faulty clasp? He could accept that as well. But add the mechanical bank and the music box? Harry might be right about a thief roaming the halls of Golden Oaks.
But Harry’s eyes had glazed over, that all-too-familiar lost look he wore more and more frequently. Pete reached across the table to place a hand on Barbara’s. “I’ll talk to management. See if anyone else has been complaining to them about lost items.”
“That would be lovely.” She gave him a wry smile. “They don’t pay much attention when we report such things. They just think we’re old, you know?”
Pete grinned. “I’ll be sure and set them straight.”
Harry blinked. “Pete? When did you get here?”
“Just now, Pop.”
He banged his fist on the table. “Someone stole my Eisenhower pocket watch.”
Downstairs, the carolers had concluded their concert and were headed toward the doors. The residents were wheeling and walkering their way to the elevators creating a slow-moving traffic jam. Pete located Connie Smith standing outside her office, chatting with a woman he assumed was a family member. He waited until they finished their conversation and the woman strode away before approaching Connie.
“Chief Adams.” The case manager smiled brightly. “It’s good to see you.” Her smile faded when she noticed his stern expression. “Is everything okay with Harry?”
Pete glanced around at a group of residents chatting loudly a few feet away. “Perhaps we should discuss this in private.”
She ushered him into her office and closed the door. “Please. Sit.” Once they were both settled, she picked up a stray pen and asked. “What seems to be the problem?”
He told her what he’d learned. Her expression transformed from tolerant when he mentioned the lost pocket watch and broach to concerned when he mentioned the bank and music box.
“Oh, my. That does seem like a lot to simply dismiss.” Connie fingered her hair. “Especially considering what I just heard. The daughter of one of our residents asked me to keep an eye out for her mother’s book. It’s a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“That has to be worth a pretty penny.”
Connie shrugged. “Probably not as much as you’d think. She really loves that book and has literally read it to pieces. The spine is broken, and the pages are loose. At first, I thought she probably carried it with her and left it somewhere around the facility. But her daughter insists her mother never took the book out of her room because it is so fragile. Once I thought about it, I realized she was right. The only time I’ve ever seen it was on her bedside table.”
“If someone took it, they had to have entered her room.”
“So it would seem.” Connie absentmindedly drummed the pen on the table. “Apparently, we have a thief.”
“Several of the items are too large to hide easily. You shouldn’t have too much of a problem locating them.”
Connie blinked. “You’re assuming the culprit is one of our residents?”
Pete had to admit, he had been. “If a visitor had taken the cast iron bank, I’d think someone would’ve noticed.”
“Not necessarily.” Connie set the pen down. “Family and friends are in and out of here all the time. Especially this time of year, they bring gifts and carry tote bags. We don’t search them for contraband.”
“How about your security cameras?”
“I don’t have the staff to go back over all the footage.” She fixed him with a hopeful gaze. “But I’d be happy to let you take a look if you like. As you know, there aren’t any cameras in the rooms, but you might see something suspicious in the hallways.”
Sitting in front of a monitor, searching security footage for a burglar, wasn’t how Pete had anticipated spending Christmas Eve. But he thought of his pop and Barbara and the other Golden Oaks residents losing treasured possessions and knew there was no other place he should be.
Harry and Barbara had eagerly accepted Pete’s invitation to look through the videos. They’d had a taste of sleuthing once before when Zoe had enlisted their help to find a killer. This was safer—but duller—by comparison.
Pete set them both in chairs in the security office and faced his father. “Do you know when your watch went missing?”
Harry didn’t answer, and his eyes had that blank look again.
Pete turned to Barbara. “What about your music box?”
She brought a wrinkled but elegant finger thoughtfully to her chin. “I know it was there on Sunday. I had company. Some ladies from my old church stopped by and were admiring it. I didn’t notice it was missing though until Tuesday.”
“Good.” Pete tapped the keyboard, pulling up the footage from the camera in the hallway near both Barbara’s and Harry’s rooms and set it to replay Sunday afternoon’s recording. “I’m going to put this on fast forward, so we aren’t here until New Year’s. If you spot anyone coming or going who shouldn’t be, call out and I’ll freeze it.” He shifted his attention to his father. “Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Harry flipped a hand impatiently. “Roll it.”
The image played across the screen, showing Barbara’s church ladies scurrying out, which brought a chuckle from her. “Those gals have never moved that fast.”
“Just let me know if anyone else shows up.”
Leaving them to watch one monitor, Pete pulled up footage from another camera in the hallway near the resident who’d lost his cast iron bank.
After twenty minutes, Harry grew impatient. “What are we looking for?” he asked.
Pete clicked pause on his own video and turned toward them. “Someone coming out of your room or Barbara’s. Someone you didn’t invite or maybe carrying something that doesn’t belong to them.”
“Some no-good thief stole my Eisenhower pocket watch.”
“I know, Pop. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Another twenty minutes passed with an assortment of people zipping down the hallways. The only ones who entered the room Pete watched were nurses, aides, and one of the cleaning crew. His eyes were starting to fog when someone else veered into the room. Pete hit pause, rewind, and play at normal speed. When the visitor exited, he faced the camera, and Pete froze the image.
“Pop. Barbara. Do you know who this is?”
Both turned toward him. Barbara adjusted her glasses. “That’s Daryl.” She looked at Harry. “Right?”
“I don’t remember his name, but we play cards.”
“And bingo.” Barbara looked at Pete. “Yes. It’s Daryl, but I don’t know his last name.” She pointed at the screen she and Harry had been watching. “He dropped by to visit both of us too. I think he stops in at everyone’s room at least once a week. He’s what you’d call a social butterfly.”
“You say he visited both of you?” Pete tipped his head toward the video still running on their monitor. “Recently?”
“Oh, yes. But only when we’re there.” Barbara frowned. “At least I think so.”
Pete studied the still image on the screen. Daryl was using a cane and his other hand was clearly visible in the frame. If he’d taken anything as large as a cast-iron bank from the room, it wasn’t during this particular visit. Pete looked at Barbara. “Have you seen anything else suspicious?”
“No.” She gave a disappointed sigh. “The only people in and out of our rooms are those who are supposed to be there. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize.” She’d given him a solid lead. A social butterfly, if not the thief, might very well know who was. “Do you know which room is Daryl’s?”
Pete lucked out and found Daryl at home rather than flitting about on his visitation rounds. Pete introduced himself as Harry’s son.
Daryl smiled broadly. “The police chief.”
So much for being inconspicuous. “Yes, sir, that’s right. Mind if I come in?”
Daryl shuffled to one side and waved with his free hand. “Please. I enjoy company.”
Pete tried to not be too obvious as he scanned the room. Daryl had an extensive collection of wood carvings decorating every available surface. Wildlife, birds, and one extremely realistic-looking turtle drew Pete’s interest. “These are incredible.”
Daryl beamed. “Thank you.”
“You did these?”
He held out his hand which trembled like a dry leaf in a stiff wind. “Back before my son got afraid I’d cut off something vital.” Daryl thumped his cane which was also masterfully embellished.
“Nice work. I do a little carving myself. Gunstocks mostly. But nothing as intricate as these.”
“Ha. You should see the stuff I’ve given away. These are my rejects.”
“I noticed a wooden Nativity scene on the front desk when I came in. More of your handiwork?”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? But no, I can’t claim that one.”
Pete forced his attention from the carvings to subtly scan the rest of the room. None of the missing items appeared in plain view. Coming back to the wooden menagerie, he asked, “None of your work has turned up missing recently, has it?”
Daryl scowled in puzzlement. “No. Why?”
Pete kept his expression relaxed. “Some of your neighbors have reported personal items as lost.” He watched Daryl and added, “Or stolen.”
The old man’s face went blank. “That’s horrible.”
Pete’s internal BS detector started screaming. Still, nothing about Daryl suggested criminal intent. Perhaps Pete had been in law enforcement too long. He saw lies everywhere. “Tell me something, Daryl. Do you play poker?”
“Used to.” He grinned. “Around here though, the only card games are bridge or pinochle.”
Pete took another survey of the room and nodded. “You should talk to my pop. I’m sure he’d be happy to scare up a poker game if there’s enough interest.” Pete patted the old woodcarver on the shoulder and let himself out.
The light dusting of snow on Christmas morning was just enough to add to the holiday atmosphere without endangering anyone on the roads, freeing Pete from his policing duties for a few hours. Since Zoe also had some rare downtime, he brought her with him to Golden Oaks.
Aides attired in elf hats and ears were gathered around the angel tree, collecting and sorting the gifts. Zoe rushed over to them. “Wait.” She placed two more packages under the tree.
One of the young women smiled and thanked her. “We had quite a bit of participation this year. Look at all these presents.”
“That’s wonderful.” Zoe smiled back at her and rejoined Pete. “I’m glad to see all these gifts. It seems like a lot more than last year.”
He shifted his father’s package to his other arm. “See? You didn’t need to worry.” He knew if she had her way, she’d buy something for every resident in the facility. She’d already delivered cookies to the staff on a previous visit.
They climbed the stairs and headed down the hallway to Harry’s room where they found him seated in his favorite chair, arms folded and a glum look on his face.
Zoe crossed to him and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Merry Christmas, Harry.”
As always, her presence brought a sparkle to his eyes. “Hello, Sunshine. Is it Christmas?”
“It sure is.” Pete held out the brightly wrapped box to him. “Santa left this for you at our house.”Harry snorted but accepted the package and gave it a quick shake. “It doesn’t rattle. And it’s light. You got me a box of air.”
Zoe took a seat on the edge of his bed. “Open it.”
He ripped into the gift wrap and deposited it on the floor. Pete helped him open the box and watched his eyes grow wide as he pulled out a black and gold Pittsburgh Steelers lap quilt.
Harry tossed the box on top of the discarded wrapping paper and laid the quilt across his knees. “Maybe they’ll win the Superbowl this year.” But his grin quickly faded.
“What’s wrong, Pop?”
“There’s a thief around here. Someone stole my Eisenhower pocket watch. You remember it, don’t you, son?”
Pete glanced at Zoe who’d taught him to go along with Harry’s repeated tales rather than remind him they’d already covered this ground. “I remember, Pop.” Pete had asked Connie to keep an eye on Daryl regarding the missing items but hadn’t heard back. Considering the holiday, he didn’t expect to for a few days.
One of the elfin aides appeared in the doorway with a stack of boxes—two larger and one small one. “Ho ho ho.” She entered the room and held out the gifts to Harry. “You must’ve been very good this year.”
He accepted them with a snort. “You don’t know me very well.”
The aide winked at Pete and left.
Zoe rose from the bed and leaned over to examine the tags. “What do we have here?”
Harry shook the small box. Nothing rattled but he scowled. “This one is heavier than it looks.”
Zoe met Pete’s gaze. “The big ones have the angel tree tags on them. This little one only has Harry’s name on it. Nothing saying who it’s from.”
“Open it, Pop.”
Harry ripped into the colorful paper revealing a generic white box with tape keeping the lid closed. He refused Zoe’s offer of help and picked at the tape until he managed to peel it off. He lifted the lid, removed some crumpled tissue paper, and choked a laugh. “It’s my Eisenhower watch.” He studied it closer. “And it’s running.” He pressed it to his ear and then held it out to Pete. “Listen.”
Pete could hear the soft tick, tick, tick from where he stood. Before he had a chance to give the suddenly reappeared and resurrected timepiece a closer look, an exuberant cry from across the hall drew his attention. A moment later, Barbara appeared in the doorway on her walker.
“Come see what I got,” she said, tears glistening.
Harry set his gifts on the floor as Pete handed him his cane. All three of them crossed to Barbara’s room where gift wrap was folded neatly on her dresser, next to her music box which was playing a soft melody Pete had never heard before.
Barbara stood over it, a hand pressed to her cheek. “It works. It’s been broken for years, but now it works.”
Zoe picked up the gift wrap and looked at the tag. “Doesn’t say who it’s from, but the handwriting matches Harry’s.”
Pete met her gaze and wondered if she was thinking the same thing.
A smile spread across her beautiful face. “Who had the bank and the broach? And the book?”
He gestured to her. “Come on. Let’s go see if they received mystery gifts too.”
It didn’t take long to discover that the secret Santa had struck elsewhere as well. The William Tell bank was back in one-legged Mike’s room and was firing pennies into the slot for the first time in more than a decade. Evelyn Downey was happily wearing her broach which now had a new clasp keeping it secure. And one ecstatic reader was showing off her newly rebound copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
According to reports shared throughout Golden Oaks, several other residents had received personal items they’d thought were long gone and which were now as good as new.
The elves were as clueless about the source of the “gifts” as the residents were. Pete, however, had his suspicions. He took Zoe’s hand and drew her down the hall.
“Where are we going?”
“Following a hunch,” he told her.
He found Daryl standing in his open doorway, chatting with a young man Pete had seen around the place, usually pushing a cart loaded with a trash can and cleaning supplies. This time, Pete noticed a strong resemblance between the two, as if the janitor was a much younger version of the woodcarver. When they spotted Pete and Zoe’s approach, the janitor started to walk away.
The final puzzle piece fell in place. Pete called out to him. “Hold up a minute. I want to talk to both of you.”
The janitor’s eyes took on that deer-in-headlights look common in guilty parties. Daryl, on the other hand, only looked smug.
“What’s going on?” Zoe whispered.
“Just wait,” Pete whispered back. He pointed from Daryl to the janitor. “Let me guess. Grandfather and grandson?”
They exchanged glances.
The younger man swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“AKA Santa and Santa’s helper.” Pete didn’t need to pose it as a question. He knew.
Fifteen minutes later, Pete, Zoe, Daryl, and his grandson, whose name was Levon, gathered around the woodcarving collection after sharing their story. Daryl had come up with the idea after learning about all the broken treasures his neighbors possessed. Levon had the opportunity to sneak those items out of the rooms while cleaning, hiding the harder to conceal pieces in the trash can.
“Levon has helped me in my workshop since he was a wee tyke.” Daryl’s pride was evident in his smile as he spoke. “He got to be better than me. That Nativity scene you asked about. That’s his handiwork. And he’s not just skilled at carving but at fixing stuff too. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t make work again.” Daryl patted his grandson’s shoulder. “Kid’s got…how do you young folks say it? Crazy skills.”
Levon lowered his head but not before Pete spotted the crimson flush of embarrassment in his cheeks.
“Let me get this straight.” Pete looked at Daryl. “You located the broken personal items.” Pete shifted his focus to Levon. “You stole and repaired them.”
“And wrapped and put them under the tree,” Daryl added. “‘Stole’ is such a harsh word.”
Levon lifted his gaze to Pete’s. “Are you gonna arrest me?”
At his side, Pete heard Zoe choke back a laugh. “I don’t know,” he said. “Did you keep any of the loot for yourself?”
Levon’s eyes widened. “No, sir.”
“Did you sell any of it for profit?”
“No, sir. Not for profit or for nothing. I only fixed the stuff and gave it all back. Honest.”
Pete couldn’t maintain his stern cop face any longer and smiled. “Well, then, I don’t see any reason to arrest you.”
Levon exhaled so hard, Pete feared the kid’s knees might buckle.
Daryl raised a finger. “Can I ask one favor?”
“Could we keep this just among us? We might be playing Santa, but I’d like to keep it a secret Santa if you don’t mind.”
“No problem.” Pete shook hands with both men.
As Pete and Zoe walked hand-in-hand back to Harry’s room, it seemed every other conversation they overheard revolved around the joy of having a beloved memento back and like new. Daryl and Levon had been busier than Pete had realized.
“I think all the comforters and socks and robes from under the angel tree
are being ignored because of the cool toys.” Zoe made air quotes around her
last two words.
“Maybe, but I doubt any of the angel tree gifters will mind.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Right?”
She snuggled closer against him. “Right. After all, people like Daryl and Levon? They’re real angels on earth.”