It was the night of Christmas Eve, and Henry Martin knew he needed to act.
He stood outside the house, clad in a Santa Claus outfit of his own (a touch too much, perhaps?), a sack under his arm. He was in the shadows, needing not to be seen. He hadn’t been seen when the family left, and he hadn’t been seen as he waited for the next few minutes, just making sure they weren’t coming back.
In the back of his mind, he thought the family went to visit an older relative on Christmas Eve – it seemed like his suspicions were correct.
He needed to move quickly now. He moved up to the front door, and looked about for a spare key. They didn’t have one, so he grabbed a stone from the front garden, and smashed one of the glass panels on the door. He knocked away the stray glass and reached in, opening the door from the inside. He was careful but quick – his hands were gloved, and he made sure he didn’t cut himself on the glass.
The last thing he needed was a stupid mistake like that to give him away.
He found the living room, and saw the gifts under the tree. He swiftly set about what he needed to do, shovelling the gifts into the sack. He just grabbed whatever he could, without a thought – once he’d got what he came for, it didn’t really matter what else he stole.
He felt a little guilty, stealing from a family on Christmas, but he did what he had to do. He’d replace it all, anyway, in the long run – a Christmas bonus should deal with the damage.
When the sack was nearly full, he grabbed it and made an exit, pulling the front door behind him.
Under the Santa beard, he smirked to himself – it had all proven to be surprisingly easy. The murder, the deception, and now the robbery, all done. He saw the first few flakes of snow in the air, and heard carol singing in the distance. With the mood he was in now, he felt the seasonal goodwill flow through him.
He walked a few streets, waving to children and offering his best “ho ho ho” to passers-by. He saw a few other Santas, carollers, other people in costume – as far as they knew, he was just part of the crowd. The snow was coming, and everyone was in a festive mood. Tonight was a magical night – no one had murder on their mind.
A little while to go, to where he’d parked his car, and then he was home and dry.
He turned the corner, and saw a figure sitting on his car bonnet. He marched faster.
“What are you doing on my car?” he demanded as he got closer.
The figure stood up, turned and faced him – Martin felt his face lose all colour.
“Mr Martin, is that you? You look very festive.”
“Rycroft,” he tried to compose himself as best he could, “what are you doing here? Look, I really don’t have time to be bothered tonight – it’s Christmas Eve, and I need to get back to my family.”
Rycroft scratched his head, and offered half a smile.
“Oh, yes, of course. You know I wouldn’t dream of keeping you tonight unless it was really important.”
Martin looked at him with impatience.“Say,” Rycroft seemed to notice the sack, “are those all gifts for your family?”
Martin wasn’t having it. He opened his car with his fob and stared at Rycroft. “Off the car, please – I’m going home.”
Rycroft didn’t move: “I don’t know if you are, Mr Martin.”
“Oh?” Martin tossed the sack of presents in the backseat and then folded his arms. “And why is that, Rycroft?”
“You’ve not got the right present, Mr Martin.”
The comment ran through him, but he didn’t show it: “What do you mean?”
“We’ve already opened the present.”
The snow had been coming for a while now, but this was the first moment that Martin truly felt cold. He pushed the back door shut, and stared at the Professor, who had now taken to his feet.
“You know what bothered me, Mr Martin – it was the time problem. Your story didn’t make sense – why would there be an intruder in Steve Denholm’s store if he’d been killed at least an hour earlier? I first thought that you may have hired someone, but after we spoke with that witness I mentioned, and we learned that there couldn’t have been anyone else, I wondered what the point of it was.
“And eventually, I placed it – it was to give you an alibi of sorts. You needed to discover the murder, and you needed to discover it that night, so you could clear yourself.”
Martin didn’t say anything – he just stood and watched Rycroft as he spoke. Neither man cared about the snow falling now – they were elsewhere, in the final stages of this battle between them.
“On the night of the murder, your whereabouts were fully accounted for. You were at the party when Denholm was alive, you went to get the gifts, you returned to the party, you discovered the body and you chased the suspect. You didn’t leave the shopping centre all night. What did that tell us, Mr Martin? It told us that, if you were guilty, the murder weapon must have been somewhere on the premises. As you know, we searched, and we found nothing. That meant you were innocent, right?
“But that didn’t satisfy me – between the row you had, and the absence of the figure you claimed you’d chased, I knew you were guilty. And I’d actually placed why before I left you that night.
“You only needed a few minutes. When you went to get the gifts for all your employees, you got your gloves and the gun, you found Steve Denholm – no doubt you arranged to meet him when you spoke in private – and you shot him. Then, you had to get rid of the weapon – you weren’t leaving the premises, but you had a room full of people who were. It was simple – you wrapped the gun up as a gift, and handed it to one of your employees. Your alibi was safe, and we wouldn’t find the gun because it had been unwittingly removed from the store by someone with no knowledge of your guilt whatsoever.”
Rycroft brushed the snow from his hair, and pulled a small umbrella from his pocket.
“Goodness, it’s coming down – it’s going to be a white Christmas this year, Mr Martin.”
“How did you know I’d be here tonight?” he asked, genuinely stunned that his scheme had been unpicked so quickly. “How did you know which gift?”
“Oh, I didn’t,” Rycroft winced in thought, and looked across the street – Martin noticed that DCI Monroe was approaching. “When I told you that Monroe was giving instructions to officers on the night of the murder, we were sending them to all of your employees’ houses – we opened all of your gifts until we found the gun. And then, we waited here for you to show up with the present. Having the murder weapon was one thing, but you wrapping the gift didn’t necessarily prove you’d killed Steve Denholm. But there’s only one reason you’d have to steal the gift, and we thought that letting you incriminate yourself would make the case iron-clad.”
Martin didn’t say anything – he simply listened to the sound of a distinct carol as the snow fell around him and DCI Monroe placed him under arrest.