“Christmas seems to come earlier each year, Jen,” Henry Martin laughed.
“You’re not wrong, Mr Martin,” she smiled back.
“I think that’ll do it, anyhow,” he said, tying up the last bin bag and putting it to one side. “Let’s get out of here.”
They were the last two at the office Christmas party. Each year, at Ambrose’s downtown shopping centre, they shut up a few days before Christmas and celebrated together. It was Saturday 21 December, early evening, and the employees had celebrated and gone home to their families.
That left only two people – centre manager Henry Martin and his secretary, Jennifer Graham. Martin was in his mid-fifties, greying but rocking a look that was described by many as ‘like a silver fox’. He was charismatic, with an easy-going charm and an even easier smile. Jennifer was a similar age, boasting long brown hair, attractive but wearing a Christmas jumper that was anything but.
The two colleagues turned off the lights in the conference room, where the party had been held, and made an exit through the main concourse, passing the shops. This time of year, there was little in the way of natural light trickling through the skylights, but they had enough visibility to make their way.
Halfway through the building, Martin stopped in his tracks.
“Did you see that, Jen?” Martin asked. “It looked like a light, in the grotto.”
Jennifer looked over, but couldn’t make anything out.
“Come on, let’s just check everything’s alright before we go.”
As manager, Martin had keys to all the shops, but he found the grotto door had been left unlocked. He called out ‘hello’, but there was no response. He knew where the lights would be, and he flicked them on.
The grotto lit up. There was a large tree in the centre of the room, surrounded by sleigh decorations, small plastic elves and penguins and reindeer. In front of the tree, there was a chair – it should have been empty, but there was a large figure slumped back, dressed in a Santa suit.
“Steve,” Martin sounded annoyed, “what are you still doing here? You can’t sleep it off here.”
Martin and Jennifer wandered up to the Santa, and found that he wasn’t resting – far from it. He looked peaceful, save the bullet hole in his head and the blood that had run down his face.
“What should we do, Mr Martin?”
Martin didn’t reply – he seemed to be listening to some far-off noise.
“Do you hear that, Jennifer?” he asked in whispered tones. “There’s someone still here. You call the police – I’m going to try and catch them.”
Martin ran towards the back door of the grotto while Jennifer pulled out her phone and dialled the emergency number.
“Well, it seems someone’s Christmas party ended even worse than ours,” DCI Monroe said as she looked at the body.
The call about the death of Steve Denholm had come in as Ambrose CID were enjoying their own Christmas celebrations – still at the station, of course, with the grim anticipation that an incident may be reported to break the festive mood.
After that had proven to be the case, investigators headed over to the shopping centre grotto. Monroe was clad as ever in black, contrasting with her porcelain skin – she hadn’t dressed up for the party at all. She stood to one side with Professor Rycroft, charcoal suit and confused face, while his sister Dr Rycroft concluded her examination of Steve Denholm’s body. As they’d been standing there, they’d discussed the little info they had about the identity of the victim – he was an employee there, early forties but older-looking, and the fact that he was a drinker was clear to anyone with nostrils.
“Don’t quote me on this until you get my report,” she said, “but I doubt there’s going to be any surprises. Looks like a single shot to the head while he was in his chair. Small calibre weapon, and death would have followed fairly quickly.”
“Can you give me a time of death?”
“Maybe an hour ago – two hours max, but probably on the lower end.”
Monroe checked her watch – it had just gone seven.
“Is there any trace of the weapon?” she asked. When Dr Rycroft replied in the negative, Monroe nodded: “Okay, thank you. You’re free to take the body whenever you’re done.”
As Dr Rycroft finished her work, Monroe looked to the professor, who stood with his customarily vacant expression.
“What do you make of it, Prof? A thief trying to strike it lucky before Christmas, get away with a few gifts, and he kills Steve Denholm because he’s in the way?”
“He’s not in the way though, is he? If you’re sitting down, you’re hardly disturbing an intruder.”
“What do you think?”
He frowned: “I don’t know. Would you really kill someone to steal a few shopping centre presents? These gifts will be kids’ toys, right? Surely you’d break into the electronics store, or the jewellery counter, if you’re breaking in? No, I don’t like it.”
“According to the call, we’ve got a few witnesses who reported a thief running away from the scene of the crime.”
“Really?” Rycroft raised an eyebrow. “Let’s go and speak to them, then.”