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W. B. Cameron
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deckthehlls.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2016

Deck the Halls

 

W. B. Cameron

 

Detective Phillip Gramm leaned back in his swivel chair and tossed his pen on the desk. He hated all violence, but holiday hostilities were especially unsettling. His eyes swept the small, cluttered room, his home away from home. It was furnished with three desks, all strewn with papers and laden with outdated computer gear. Only one other desk was occupied.  Gramm glanced at the junior officer sitting across from him.

“Did you know, Sanchez, that December is a month of symbols? Menorahs, dreidels, kinaras…and, of course, the symbolic mother-lode: Christmas.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I was reminded of this fact as I stood in the Hall’s living room this afternoon watching forensics shoot photos of the six-foot Douglas fir. It’s triangular shape symbolizes the holy trinity, you know.  A star of Bethlehem shimmered at its top, and tinsel signifying God’s light hung from its ornament-laden branches. The team dusted countless Santa icons, wreaths, candles, poinsettias—all symbolic objects, their origins unknown to most.”

“But not to you, sir.”

"Amidst this Mecca of peace and good will,” Gramm continued, “The EMTs found poor Fred Hall sprawled across the coffee table atop a centerpiece of prickly holly. They reported that he clutched a clump of tinsel in his left hand. His right was clenched in a tight fist… Maybe he managed a punch before his attacker plunged a Christmas ornament into his chest—one of those turnip-shaped bulbs with the long pointed tips.”

“Glass?”

“If only….No, the ornament was—as were many of the Hall’s decorations—made of high-grade plastic. It was tough as steel and crusted with gold glitter. A nasty weapon, Sanchez. But Hall was still alive last time I checked with Mercy General. You might check again while I talk to his wife in Interrogation Room 1.” Gramm started toward the door of IR1, which opened off the main office. Two steps and he turned back. “Check to see if Fred Hall has a will and/or an insurance policy.”

“But..but…it’s Christmas Day.”

Gramm waved Christmas away. “I know, I know…But crime observes no holiday. Which reminds me—the unis are canvassing the neighborhood, right?”

“Yes, sir. Four of them.” Sanchez lowered his head and turned it slowly from side to side. “Crime stats may be lower on holidays, sir, but one violent act can sure mess up a lot of family celebrations.”

“Think positive, Sanchez. ‘Positive thinking produces more energy, more initiative, and more happiness.’” Before Sanchez could respond Gramm turned and entered IR 1.

***

          “Ms. Hall, thank you for waiting.” Gramm sat across from her and rifled through his folder. “I understand you were in the kitchen when your husband was attacked…chopping celery?”

          She nodded. The overhead light glinted off her platinum curls reminding Gramm of the disco balls so popular in his childhood.

          “For the stuffing. Fred loves his Christmas turkey with sausage stuffing.” Lisa Hall’s large, blue eyes brimmed with tears.

          She was in her mid-thirties, at least twenty years younger than her husband, and in excellent shape. Gramm reckoned a riled Ms. Hall could easily drive home a point with a sharp weapon. Or vice-versa.

          “Did you hear anything while you were in the kitchen?”

          “Yes. Fred’s no-good son from his first marriage popped in for his usual hand-out. Aaron is Fred's only child. What a waste.  Can't hold a job, feels entitled. I warned Fred he better stop enabling that boy.” She hesitated. “Actually, Aaron's a bit past boyhood. Still youthful, though. We are, in fact, very close in age.”  She patted her disco waves before continuing.

          "Fred belonged to a gang when he was young. He actually did time for theft before he found honest work—and God. Even though he made a new life for himself, guilt from his early sins haunted him. After Aaron's mom took off and left him to raise their son, Fred did his best to be a good father.” Her chin trembled as she dabbed at her eyes. “Aaron was a lost cause from day one. Fred believes that God sent Aaron to punish him for causing others so much suffering during his gang years."

          "Not a very flattering profile of God," Gramm muttered.

          "Fred believed God was giving him a chance to save his soul through suffering—like Christ saved all of us through suffering."

          “So Aaron visited at about what time?”

          “Early afternoon. I was finishing the stuffing and planned to get the bird in the oven by two.  Fred usually walked a couple of miles after lunch, but today he stayed in to finish decorating the tree. He and Aaron had a terrible row. Aaron called his father a worthless scumbag who cared only for himself. Fred screamed back that Aaron had been sent by God to torture him. He called Aaron his 'crown of thorns.' …There can be no doubt, Captain Gramm, that Fred was stabbed by his own flesh and blood."

          "You saw Aaron stab your husband?"

          "No, but that ornament was hanging on the tree when I went into the kitchen to start dinner, and it was in Fred’s chest after Aaron stormed out slamming the front door.”

          “So you found Fred immediately after Aaron left and called 911?"

"Yes."

"According to the paramedics, you were kneeling beside Fred when they arrived.”

She nodded.

“How long were you and Mr. Hall married?”

“Two years.”

 “Now, Ms. Hall, if you would be good enough to hold out your hands.”

          She did so. Gramm examined them closely, turning them over several times. “How do you explain these gold sparkles between your fingers?”

          “I-I grasped the ornament. My instinct was to pull it out. Then I remembered that it might be better not to disturb the wound….May I leave now, Detective? I must return to the hospital.”

 "Soon, Ms. Hall, soon."

***

          Gramm moved on to Interrogation Room 2 where his only other suspect, Aaron Hall, awaited. As he was about to enter, he was intercepted by Sanchez.

          “Sir, Brown just reported from the hospital…the ornament came within a centimeter of piercing Mr. Hall’s heart. It’s touch and go at this point.” He hesitated. “I’m not sure if it’s important, but the nurse mentioned that the victim was clutching a sprig of holly in that closed fist. He must’ve grabbed it from the coffee-table arrangement as he fell.  

          “And,” Sanchez consulted a slip of paper, “a very irate Samuel Barker, Esquire, informs me that Fred Hall did indeed have a will…He left his wife, Ellen, everything.  Sam, Esq., figures that the entire estate—house included—might come to $200,000. I haven’t found any life insurance policy yet….” Sanchez’s brow furrowed. “Sir, isn’t Fred Hall’s wife named—”

           Gramm never heard his sergeant’s final words. His impressive, if somewhat pedantic, intellect was already engaged on the forthcoming interview. He hustled into IR2

***

          "Mr. Hall, you visited your father this afternoon?”

          “Yes. But he was fine when I left. She’s the one who hurt him. She stole him from my Mom and broke up our happy home to get her grubby hands on his money. She found out the day before the attack that he’d named her as beneficiary in his $150,000 life insurance policy.”

“And you know this how?”

“Dad told me when I visited yesterday….said he’d changed the beneficiary from me, his own flesh and blood, to her. He said he’d just told her about the change that morning. Obviously, she decided to give herself the perfect holiday gift—Dad’s life insurance.” Aaron fidgeted with his watch. “It’s a miracle he’s still alive.” Aaron leaned slightly forward and grew very still. His eyes, usually shifty, focused on Gramm’s face. “He IS still alive, right?”

           “So, you and your father argued.”

          “No.”

          “You just indicated how upset you were with his beneficiary change. And your step-mother heard your voices raised in a heated dispute.”

          “No! I always speak loudly to Dad. He’s grown hard of hearing… Yes, I was upset about the insurance, but Dad and I are very close. I love him way more than that gold-digger does.” A tear slid down Aaron’s young face. "You can’t trust anything she says. She has always been jealous of me, and she knows I am on to her little con game. I call her the black widow."

          “Did your father have a will?”

          “I’m not sure.”

          “And your stepmother’s full name is Lisa Hall?”

          “As far as I know.”

          “And your mother’s first name?”

          “Why do you need that? She lives 2,000 miles away, has a new life with a new family…She would never hurt Dad.”

          Gramm waited patiently.

          “Ellen. Ellen Murray now.”

          “Did you ask your father for money this afternoon?”

          Aaron nodded. “Just a small loan until I found new employment. I pick up odd jobs here and there. I usually manage, but Dad helps me now and then.”

          “Please hold out your hands.”

          Gramm examined Aaron’s hands as he had Lisa Hall’s.

          “How do you explain these gold sparkles on your hand, sir?”

          “As we chatted, I helped Dad hang ornaments on the tree.”

          Gramm stood. “If you would follow me, please.”  He led the few steps to IR 1.

***

          Aaron and his stepmother glared at each other across the interrogation table. Lisa’s hands were folded and relaxed on the table, Aaron’s trembled slightly as he fiddled with his watch. Gramm sat between them at the head of the table. 

          “Ms. Hall, were you aware that your husband’s will leaves all his assets to his first wife, Ellen?”

          Her eyes opened wide. Her face drained of color. Her eyes swiveled from Aaron to Gramm.

 “No.”

          “Does your husband have a life insurance policy?”

          “Yes.”

          “And who is the beneficiary?”

          “Until 30 seconds ago I would have said me. Now, I’m not so sure.”

          “She is!” Aaron interrupted. “He told me she was!”

          There was a knock on the door. Sanchez entered and handed Gramm two sheets of paper.

          “Well, well,” Gramm said after reading the sheets. “It says here that one Robert Pratt—a neighbor, Ms. Hall?”

          She nodded warily. “A neighbor but not a friend, Detective. Bob Pratt and my husband nearly came to blows last week over the Pratts’ outside Christmas decorations. He must have fifty-thousand colored lights flashing and blinking all night. Even with our shades closed, Fred and I felt like we were trapped inside a carnival display. Sleep was impossible.”

          “Mr. Pratt has signed a statement that he saw Fred taking his customary early afternoon walk today.” Gramm’s eyes bore into Lisa Hall. He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head slightly to the left.

“I wouldn’t put too much faith in Bob’s statement,” Lisa said.

“Cops are continuing to canvas the neighborhood even as we speak,” Gramm continued. “And, for once, they are finding people at home. I’m confident that Fred Hall’s walk will have been noticed by others. I also believe we’ll gain valuable evidence as to when that walk took place and your time of arrival, Aaron Hall, at your father’s home. I suspect it was moments after your father started on his walk.”

          Aaron leapt from his chair and hovered over Gramm. “No! Dad was there when I arrived! He let me in. Lisa was in the kitchen. I swear Dad was still alive when I left.”

Gramm motioned for Aaron to retake his seat and shifted his attention from Aaron to Lisa Hall. “As I recall, a ball of mistletoe hangs just inside your front door—is that correct, Ms. Hall?”

          She nodded.

          “Mistletoe,” Gramm continued, “Ancient symbol of love, romance, and good luck. You two managed all but the third. Indeed, your luck has run out. The discrepancies in your stories are legion. There’s the eye-witness testimony regarding Fred Hall’s walk and anticipated confirmation of Aaron Hall’s arrival. There’s your explanation, Mr. Hall, for the glitter on your hands.” Gramm spread his own hands, palms up. “Admittedly a small point, but it goes to character. The proper protocol for trimming a Christmas tree is to string the lights first, then hang the garlands, then the ornaments, and, lastly, the tinsel. Your father’s tree was already tinseled. The ornaments had been hung.”

          “You are clutching at straws, Detective.”

          “Perhaps, Mr. Hall, but here’s what I think happened. When your father returned from his walk, he found you and Lisa embracing under the mistletoe—or similarly engaged elsewhere in the room—and he went ballistic. Threatened you with bodily harm? Or simply verbal threats to divorce and disinherit? Either way, one of you snatched the closest weapon, stabbed him, and left him bleeding as you planned a defense. You—I use the term collectively—decided to muddy the investigation by feigning mutual hatred and accusing each other of a crime where you believed no tangible evidence existed.”

          “Well, you got those last four words right.” Aaron smirked. He twisted his watch band with such vigor Gramm wondered how it remained intact. 

          “It wasn’t such a bad story,” Gramm continued. “Far more inventive than the more common ‘robbery gone wrong’ stratagem.”

          Aaron again left his seat. “I’m out of here. You can’t hold me without charging me.”

          Gramm held up the second sheet of paper. “The ornament missed Fred Hall’s heart by a whisper. He is expected to make a full recovery.”

          Aaron dropped back into his seat. “You’re just saying that to trick us.”

          “He has regained consciousness, and, though I take a certain pride in my Sherlockian deductions, I must acknowledge that they were unnecessary in this case. Fred has provided a full account of what occurred this Christmas day in his modest, bedecked home. Too bad the symbolic decorations turned out to be totally superficial—all but one, that is: the holly that symbolizes Jesus’s crown of thorns. Fred clutched a sprig of holly in his right hand in a final effort to identify his attacker. It was you, Aaron Hall, your father’s ‘crown of thorns.’”

          Aaron’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “We were so sure he was dead….”

          “Shut up, Aaron,” Lisa Hall’s voice was sharp. She sat ramrod straight. “Everyone knows your father has dementia. He forgot that he’s no longer married to Ellen. He trimmed the tree hanging tinsel before the ornaments. He forgot he’d taken his afternoon walk when he told me he hadn’t….Poor Fred. I guess Bob Pratt became as frenzied as his crazy Christmas lights and followed Fred into the house after Aaron had left. It must have been Bob I heard yelling and slamming the door after he stabbed Fred. Any jury—especially one with people who have cared for aging loved ones—will understand how trauma muddled Fred’s brain even more than usual, making his testimony worthless. They would understand how important it is that family be there to care for him when he’s released from the hospital.”

          Gramm could scarcely hide his disgust as he charged the pair with attempted murder, read them their rights, and arranged for their escort to central booking. He was, however, his jolly, lofty self as he left the office.

           “At last, Sanchez, we can toddle off to our own homes to celebrate.” Gramm paused halfway through the door and looked back at Sanchez. “I think we wrapped this one up nicely despite Lisa Hall’s pathetic, last-ditch effort to avoid a felony conviction.” He raised his hand in a thumbs up sign. “A symbolic hand gesture, Sanchez, meaning success.” He turned and strode away.

          Sanchez turned his computer off, stood, and walked to the door. Images of his parents and siblings enjoying a Christmas feast without him flashed through his mind. He, like Gramm, turned back to survey the small, cluttered room. Before flipping off the lights, he, too, raised his hand in a symbolic gesture—one that had more to do with the avian world than with success.

         

                                                  THE END


W.B. Cameron’s publishing history includes two romance short stories in Woman’s World, the Woman’s Weekly, an essay in Newsweek Magazine, two short mysteries in Futures Magazine (where she served as Assistant Fiction Editor for a brief time), a short feature in Cat Fancy Magazine, a short mystery in Spinetingler (submitted for 2016 Edgar nomination), and various short stories in various genres in various excellent small publications. 

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