Beyond the police car’s glaring strobe, cheerful strands of twinkling white icicles dripped from the eaves of the house. Each porch post was wrapped in green. A profusion of multi-color lights sprang up in the yard, garnishing every bush, every bird feeder, and every tree in sight.
Wedging the cruiser into a slim niche between a Ford Expedition and a Pontiac Grand Am, Brash deCordova came within inches of a gigantic inflatable snowman. The chief of police picked his way between a stand of lighted candy canes, a herd of reindeer, and an animated gingerbread man. The obstacle course led him to the front porch, where a trio of wooden carolers greeted him, and a motion-activated wreath began the first bars of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
It came as no surprise when the doorbell twinkled out the tune of Jingle Bells. Brash shook his head in wonder. The Hutchins certainly loved the season.
The door swung open and a plump woman motioned him inside. “Brash! You’re here.” The relief in Vanessa Hutchins’ voice was palatable. “Come in, come in.” She turned slightly away and bellowed down the hall, “Larry! The police are here!”
“I’m sorry to come calling like this, Vanessa,” Brash apologized, tugging the cowboy hat from his auburn head. “Larry tells me you’ve had some trouble.”
“I’ll say! Look! Just look at that!” She flung her arm toward the massive Christmas tree centered at the front windows. Dozens of bulbs, baubles, and ornaments covered every tip, illuminated by hundreds of miniature white lights. A red and green tree skirt peeked from beneath the lower branches.
“Nice tree,” Brash murmured, wondering how it kept from collapsing.
“Nice? It’s empty! Glory be, someone stole all our presents!”
A groove of worry puckered the officer’s brow. “All of them? How many did you have under there?”
“You mean an exact number?”
“For now, an estimate will do.”
Vanessa cocked her head to one side, mentally tallying up the gifts. “At least thirty. I’m almost done with my shopping. Or I was, until this happened!” She gave another emphatic wave toward the barren tree skirt.
“Calm down, Nessa,” her husband said, coming into the room carrying a steaming mug. He thrust it at his wife before offering his hand to Brash. “Brash, thanks for coming out so quick. Vanessa, take a few sips of hot chocolate and try to relax. Everything is going to be all right.”
“All right? You’re not the one who shopped for those gifts. And you didn’t wrap a single one of them, Larry, so don’t tell me to calm down!” Her voice rose with every word, both in pitch and volume.
“Can we have a seat?” Brash suggested.
Appalled by her lack of manners, the frantic woman immediately turned apologetic. She fussed around the officer, fluffing a snowman afghan at his back and producing a Santa-shaped ottoman for his feet. Brash politely settled among the excessive holiday pillows, grimacing when he activated one with music. Over the digital notes of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, he struggled to sound professional. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
“We were robbed, that’s what happened!”
“Were there any signs of forced entry?”
“The back door was jimmied open, if that’s what you mean,” Larry Hutchins offered. “We didn’t touch anything, in case you want to dust for prints.”
“Smart thinking. Was anything else taken?”
“Not that we’re aware of. We checked the gun case, jewelry box, desk drawers where we keep the checkbook, that sort of thing. Everything else seems to be here.”
“They were only interested in the presents,” his wife concurred. Hot chocolate already forgotten, she had taken to wringing her hands.
Brash jotted down notes in his trusty little notebook. It traveled with him everywhere he went, tucked into his shirt pocket. “Take me through this evening. We need to establish some sort of timeline.”
“Well, let’s see… I got off work around four. I stopped by Granny Bert Cessna’s to leave a donation for the Angel Tree. Bless her heart, that woman is over eighty and still as active as ever! She told me she’s going to Vegas to attend the National Finals Rodeo with her new beau, Sticker Pierce. They’re doing some big award for him, being as he’s a rodeo legend and all. Glory be! Anyway, on the way home, I spotted Glitter Thompson walking her dogs, so I stopped to chat for a few minutes. Poor dear is having trouble with her bursitis again. So, I must have wound up getting home about five fifteen or so. Since I forgot to lay anything out for dinner, we decided to go out for supper when Larry came home.”
Brash waded through all the useless chatter to find a kernel or two of helpful information. “Were the gifts still under the tree when you arrived home at five fifteen?”
“Yes. The first thing I do when I get home is turn on the tree lights. I’ve thought of getting one of those automatic timers, but I’m not sure I trust them.”
“What time did Larry get in?”
“Five thirty-eight, same as every day. You can set your clock by this man.” For the first time since Brash had arrived, Vanessa smiled. She patted her husband’s shoulder as she stood over him, too nervous to sit.
“And neither of you saw anything unusual? No strangers about, no cars out front, no unscheduled deliveries?” Brash clarified.
“No, everything seemed normal,” Larry answered.
“What time did you leave for the restaurant?”
“Around six thirty. And we called you the minute we got in, about ten minutes ago.”
“So that narrows down the window of opportunity to about an hour and thirty-five minutes.”
Larry nodded. “That sounds about right.”
“Vanessa, do you have a list of everything under the tree?”
“Of course. I keep a detailed list of what I buy for each person, and I check each item off as I wrap it. I’ll be happy to get it for you.”
“Fine, fine. But I’d like to ask a few more questions before you do. Have either of you noticed anything strange over the past several days, or weeks? Again, any strangers about, cars out front, deliveries, anything disturbed in the yard, anything at all?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Glory be, not that I can think of.”
“How long has your tree been up?”
“We always put it up Thanksgiving evening, while the kids are here to help pull things out of the attic. Larry’s shoulder gives him a fit, you know. Rheumatism.”
“Old football injury,” her husband claimed, rotating his arm as if to disprove his wife’s claims.
Brash had been a few years behind the other man in school, but he knew Larry Hutchins did little more than warm the bench. The most strenuous thing he ever did during a football game was to carry the water cooler and hoist it in victory when the Cotton Kings won, dumping its contents on the coach’s head.
Himself Cotton King royalty, Brash chose to ignore the exaggeration. Instead, he turned to Vanessa. “How long have the gifts been under there?”
“I couldn’t start wrapping without paper, of course, and I didn’t decide on my theme until after Black Friday.”
She bobbed her head. “I do a different theme of paper each year, you know, and this time it was snowflakes. You should have seen the tree… it was particularly gorgeous this year, with at least six different snowflake papers in all different colors.” Her eyes turned misty as she clasped her hands over her heart and mourned the lost beauty. The monetary loss hadn’t been mentioned yet, most likely because she was still in the emotional phase of the theft. “As soon as I settled on a theme, I went to Bryan and bought all my paper.”
“And when was that?”
“Let’s see… It wasn’t Monday, and I don’t think it was Tuesday, because I had a Weight Off meeting. I had church on Wednesday night and played Bunco on Thursday.” She scrunched her face as she ran through her week. She had a brief argument with herself about whether she had missed the Wednesday night service, until she remembered Brother Greer’s lesson. She even went so far as to share the gist of it with the two men. When she still couldn’t pin down the exact day she went shopping, she called in reinforcement. “Larry, what day did I bring home dinner from Tasty’s?”
“What’s Tasty’s?” Her husband looked perplexed.
“That new fast food place on the way out of Bryan, the one with those low-cal smoothies I’m always raving about.” When he still looked confused, she added, “You know, where Merle Bishop’s granddaughter started working.” Nothing registered on his face. With an exasperated sigh, she found something he could relate to. “The spicy chicken wings, Larry. What night did I bring them home?”
“Oh, Tuesday night,” her husband readily supplied. “I had already eaten at the poker game, but they made a nice midnight snack.”
The mention of a poker game did not escape Brash’s attention, but he made no comment. For the better part of the past year, he had been chasing a gambling ring operating in and around The Sisters. The operation included poker games, cock fighting, and some serious football score pools. To his consternation, he had yet to make a solid arrest, but he was getting close. He could feel it.
With a mental note to ask about the game later, Brash focused on the crime at hand. “So, you purchased the paper on Tuesday and began wrapping shortly after that. Now, I want both of you to think about this carefully. Since last Tuesday, has there been anyone in the house that normally doesn’t visit? A repairman, perhaps, or a neighbor who surprised you by dropping by? A delivery man who offered to bring the packages inside?”
“I had someone come in and work on my cuckoo clock. Every year, I have the little bird replaced with a Santa for the holidays.” Vanessa glanced at her watch. “He should be making an appearance in about five minutes.”
“We had a new freezer delivered and set up yesterday,” Larry said. “I’m taking a taxidermy class and need a place to keep mounts before I work on them.”
“And of course, I hosted Bunco on Thursday. There’s sixteen in our group,” Vanessa supplied. She nodded her head vigorously. “Yes, I remember now. Glory be, I was so shook up, I couldn’t even think earlier. But yes, I bought the paper Tuesday night and I took off work on Thursday so I could binge-wrap presents. I wanted the tree to look perfect when the ladies came.”
Brash held in a groan. He had his work cut out for him, running down all these potential leads. “Anyone else you can think of that has been in or around the house in the past week?”
“I hired a couple of high school boys to help me hang lights.”
“The Avon lady dropped off my order. And I invited the paper boy in while I found my wallet and paid him.”
“So, half the town of Juliet has been here,” Brash muttered beneath his breath. To the Hutchins, he announced, “I’ll need the names of everyone you’ve mentioned, plus phone numbers if you have them. I’ll look at the back door, take a few photos, and write up my report. I’m sure the insurance adjuster will ask for it.”
“Insurance?” Vanessa blinked in surprise.
“Your homeowner’s policy most likely includes theft. You’ll need to call your agent to confirm.”
“Glory be, I hadn’t even thought of that!”
While Vanessa still looked dazed, her husband’s expression lightened considerably. “So, we might not be out all that money, after all?”
Brash stood from the couch, again setting off the musical pillow. “You’ll have to speak to your agent to be certain. If you’ll direct me to the kitchen, I’ll finish up and get out of your way for the evening.”