Cannot Cancel Christmas – A Deviled Yeggs Mystery

I’m Detective Staff Sergeant Deviled Yeggs.  I work homicide in the big city of Tracy.  My partner is Jim Wednesday.  Poached Yeggs, homicide detective and my nephew, has been working with Jim and me.

It was early in the morning Christmas Eve.  Jim called and said he was on his way to pick me up.  Poached was meeting us there.  I was not quite awake.  I asked why he was waking me up on a holiday weekend when I was not even on the call list.

Jim replied, “We all are on the list when there is a worldwide disaster right here in Tracy, or there could be.”

As I was getting dressed and having difficulty in doing so, I wondered what crazy fool would mess with Christmas?

Jim picked me up and, within a few minutes, I recognized our destination, what used to be the Rotten Apple Gang’s Orchard.  It was now a legitimate enterprise, The Orchard.  Why change the name when that is what it now is?  Both Honeycrisp and Ambrosia met us next to a gate in a side fence.

Seeing the gate caused my brain to finally awaken.  The two sisters of Red Delicious, the former crime boss who was now in prison, Honeycrisp Apple and Ambrosia Apple were now legitimate orchardists.  Yep, that’s the word.  To celebrate, they had a friend bring reindeer to Tracy so that the parade would have real reindeer for the Santa float.  They made a pasture area for them in the orchard, but then the truck to take the reindeer home broke down.  Since the reindeer had been away from the public eye, everyone thought they had gone back to the North Pole.

Honeycrisp Apple said, “I’m so glad you are here.  The mayor is waiting for you.”

“The mayor?!” I asked.

“Yes, this would be big news, but he wants no one to know.”

Jim asked, “And you said wrongful death, not murder over the phone.”

Ambrosia shook her head, “The mayor will explain.”

Boaz walked up to meet us.  There were crime scene people in the orchard looking for something.  “I’m glad you could come.  Then again, I did not allow for you to back out.  We have a wrongful death.  It is not human though.  Rudolph was killed by a hunting arrow.”

I asked, “Rudolph, as in reindeer, red nose, all that?”

Boaz rolled his eyes.  “These were not Santa’s reindeer.  They belong to an exotic animal farm up near the Canadian border.  I think Honeycrisp went there to pet animals last summer on vacation.  They dreamed up having reindeer on the Santa float.  We named this one Rudolph postmortem, but I am hoping we can keep the lid on this until after Santa delivers presents in another 18 hours.”

Until that moment, I had been in reaction mode.  I had no idea what time it was until the mayor mentioned 18 hours.  All I had noticed was that it was still dark.

Boaz continued, “I want this investigated as quietly as you can.  I hope we can keep the media in the dark.”

Jim asked, “And what are the crime scene guys looking for?”

Boaz continued, “The farm hand that the fancy ranch loaned the Apples was making a midnight walk around the grounds.  He heard something that he had heard before.  They control the animal populations on the ranch with bow hunting.  He saw Rudolph go down.  He saw someone in old and tattered camouflage gear emerge from the tree line and he yelled.  The guy took off.  He was wearing a ski mask.  Hey, it’s cold.  I doubt if the mask was as a disguise.”

About that time, a guy in a khaki uniform walked up from the area where we had parked.  “I got a call.  Where is the dear deer?”

Boaz asked, “Who are you and who called you?”

The guy flashed his badge.  “Mr. Mayor, I rarely get the opportunity to work in Tracy.  I’m the regional game warden, Bow Chiclet.  I’ll take the case from here.”

Boaz replied, “No, I have my best homicide detectives on the case.  I insisted on secrecy.  The media cannot find out.  So, I ask again, who called you?”

Bow replied, “My dispatch called.”  Boaz groaned.  The sun was not up, and he already had leaks.

I asked, “Are you a B-O, Bo, or a B-E-A-U, Beau?  And do you have any jurisdiction in Tracy?”

Bow rolled his eyes, “B-O-W. I have nine counties. Tracy is in the middle of my territory, but you never have wild animal poaching here, until today.”

Jim responded, “The reindeer is not a dear deer, it’s a Rudolph.  It is not a wild animal.  And we’ve got this.”

I asked, “And it’s B-O-W, as in bow and arrow, like what was used to kill Rudolph.  You wouldn’t have killed the reindeer yourself so that you could investigate the crime and make a big splash?  That would account for the ‘leak’ in security.  Besides firemen have been known to start a fire so that they can become the hero.”

Bow shook his head.  “No, dispatch called.  It would be stupid for me to kill the reindeer, having to arrest myself, and you need another name.  They are loading a female reindeer in the M.E. wagon.  And pull your crime scene guys out of the trees.  I need to find the trail and those guys are putting fresh tracks on top of the hunter’s tracks.”

Boaz said, “They are working a grid from where the arrow emerged.  If you agree to work with my homicide guys and say nothing to anyone, I’ll have the farm hand show you in what direction the killer ran.  You can pick up the trail from there.”

As Boaz and Bow started toward the barn, Poached walked up.  Jim and I had him accompany Bow.  Bow protested.  He always worked alone, but the mayor thought that his half-brother, Poached, would be great insurance to keep Bow from talking.

Jim and I talked to the farm hand.  We got a reasonable idea about the clothing that the killer had worn.  The bow was an old recurve bow.  He doubted we would find any sports shops with such a bow that had been sold in the area.  Although the recurve delivers more energy, there are fancier gadgets these days, and although the farm hand had a quick glance, what he saw looked to be straight line at the grip, but to be used right-handed based on the arrow rest.  These days, they form the grip for right or left-handed use, along with the rest for the arrow.  A long bow is straight, mostly, just curved when stringing the bow.  The farm hand explained that a recurve bow has three curves: a large curve in the middle and then two small curves near either end that curve the opposite direction, toward the target  – more tension leads to more force when releasing the arrow.  These days, the bows have pullies to increase the arrow speed.

Couple an old bow with old, tattered clothing and nothing orange.  It did not seem like a hunter.

After the sun came up, Bow and Poached came to the precinct to warm up and get something for breakfast.  They lost the trail at the river.  They were canvassing up and down the river with no luck.

The morning news was filled with stories about Rudolph being killed.  Panic was starting to spread.  Would Santa cancel his trip due to fear of other reindeer shootings?  Could he fly with one less reindeer?

The media was loving it.  It made no difference to them that little children were hearing the news.  By lunch time, the national media desks were covering the story that Rudolph had been killed in Tracy by a liquored up redneck, obviously right-wing.  As Australia was already into the early Christmas morning hours, there was a panic that Santa might not show.  The entire world, even the world that should be asleep, was starting to panic.  After all, many children in the far side of the world had gone to midnight church services, just to return and find that one of Santa’s reindeer was dead.

Jim and I had nothing.  Poached and Bow were on the verge of hypothermia if they went back to the river.  I suggested a bold move for the mayor, my nephew, Boaz.  He agreed.

We announced through all media outlets that he would make an announcement regarding Santa’s deliveries in another hour.  The word was to not spread fear.  Santa was already on the move, but the details would come in an hour at the large conference room at City Hall.

Boaz, a couple of trusted mayoral staff, Poached, Bow, and Jim and I met with ideas on how to spin this.  Rudolph could have been a doppelganger and that Santa’s real reindeer were fine, but we doubted that the children would understand that one.  We could come clean and say where the reindeer had come from and none had ever been to the North Pole, but somehow the truth sounded the least plausible response.  Everyone would think trickery going that route.  But then Boaz had an idea, and we were set.

The point is that for an hour, announcements were being made that the press conference would end all fear of Santa’s sleigh not doing its thing.  If the killer of Rudolph, or Rudolphina, got the message, Boaz would be targeted.  A limited area for entrance to the conference room meant we had a chance to catch him.  Jim and I observed one entrance and Poached had the help of Bow Chiclet at the other.  The usual security checked all the people entering.

As usual with no setup time, people were running everywhere around the conference room.  You would think that a single-piece recurve bow would be easy to spot, but we missed it.

Boaz went to the podium.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so glad you could come here on short notice on Christmas Eve.  I have sad news.  Santa’s reindeer had been here for our Christmas parade earlier this month.  Most of the reindeer flew home, but Rudolph had a head cold.”

At that moment, Jim and I noticed strange movement near us.  The bow emerged between two correspondents.  I ran behind them, and Jim ran in front.  The crowd was too much to get there quickly, but Jim lifted the bottom of the bow just as the arrow took flight.  The arrow embedded in a ceiling tile over Boaz’s head.  I grabbed the assailant by the collar.  I would have been penalized in American football for a perfect horse-collar tackle, but at that moment, I could care less if I injured the guy.

Boaz did not even blink.  “Never mind the police detectives.  They have found someone who does not belong at this conference.  Where were we?  Oh, yes!  Santa already had backup plans and he had been flying without Rudolph for years before that fateful foggy night.  It is surprisingly clear tonight.  Rudolph would not have been needed.  But the sad news is that Rudolph has indeed been murdered.  I have my best men on the case.  The city’s finest.  We will have Rudolph’s killer apprehended soon.  But I wanted the world to know that the NORAD tracking system is accurate.  Check the website, Santa is already making deliveries.  There is no need to panic.  That is all that I have.  My press secretary will have a transcript of my statement.  I hope you all have a wonderful Merry Christmas tomorrow.”

I thought as we took the archer from the room in handcuffs, “Wow!  He said, ‘Merry Christmas!’  That might lose him some votes, but at the same time, I was proud of my nephew.  And to think, he did not even flinch when the ceiling tile insulation coated his shoulder like a layer of snow.

Back at the precinct, we discovered that our archer was a recently unemployed draftsman for a manufacturing plant in Tracy.  His name?  Griffin Grunge.

We were delayed in starting the interview.  The DA and the mayor wanted to be in the observation room with Captain Hart, Poached, and Bow Chiclet.  The sun was still in the sky on Christmas Eve, but not for long.

I started the interview.  “Until the incident at City Hall, all we had was a case of poaching.  Of course, someone might consider a case of international terrorism because you started a worldwide panic that Santa might cancel his Christmas deliveries.”

Grunge retorted, “I just shot at a deer.  I needed food for my family.  The farm hand ran me off before I could clean and dress the meat.  My family hasn’t eaten in three days.  That deer was going to be all I could give my wife and children for Christmas.  Then, as I wandered empty-handed through a shopping center, I saw that I had killed Rudolph and Santa might not deliver presents.  If my kids knew that, they would not be so terribly disappointed knowing no one else got anything either.  But then, I heard someone’s phone chirping a notification that the mayor was going to explain how Santa was still on schedule.  I went crazy.  I had to stop that announcement.  I didn’t want to kill the mayor.  I just had to give my children hope that Christmas was cancelled or at least postponed.  Maybe I could get a job.  Maybe this insanity of a life would be over, and things would be back to normal.”

I sighed, “Tell me your story, Grunge.  Where is your wife and children and how is it that with the mission downtown and churches opening their doors to the homeless that you have not eaten for three days?”

Grunge sneered, “I’m not a charity case.  All I need is a job.  There is a bridge along the river that has a hidden chamber.  I think it might be an overflow in case of flooding.  If you go there, she won’t come out.  We have three children, a four-year-old girl, a two-year-old girl, and a newborn boy.  I was laid off two months ago without a severance package.  We had little reserve cash for such a thing.  I have an associate’s degree in drafting and design.  I saw how other graduates went with engineering companies and they would constantly be laid off.  I was making more at Mobility Tech and they gave me an engineer title.  And it made me feel that I was giving back since Mobility Tech makes everything from crutches and canes to motorized scooters for the elderly.  We make security brackets so that the wheelchairs on the buses don’t shift if the driver hits the brakes really hard, but sales were off, and the cost of raw materials were going up.  Without me, they would probably have to hire an engineer and pay more, but that’s after business picks back up.  My wife was a nurse, but she had complications with this last pregnancy, so she quit.  That was right before I got laid off.

He continued, “If you have never been laid off and you expect to get hired soon, you don’t know how to cut back on expenses until you have practically nothing left.  With COBRA, it came down to either not having insurance and feeding the family or feeding COBRA.  We switched to a zero-premium policy, but we didn’t read the fine print about existing pregnancies.”

Jim sighed, “And you thought killing the mayor was better than going to a mission for a good meal?”

Grunge spat, “We are not a charity case!  I just need a job.  I’m not on drugs.  I do not drink.  I don’t want to go to a mission and expose my children to all that.”

I groaned, “But my father’s job at the mission is to ensure that there is no drugs or alcohol on the premises of the mission.  He tosses people out if they are high or drunk.  And families like yours would get sent to Lily the Pink.”

“To a brothel?!  That’s worse!”

“I am sorry, Grunge.  Your prejudice and lack of information has you out fighting ghosts.  There is no drugs or alcohol at the mission.  Pink Lady has converted what once was a brothel into an extension of the mission and a thriving legitimate business, hiring many of the family members that live there.  She has alcohol on the premises because she makes hard apple cider, but she does not tolerate anyone drinking up the profits.”  I scratched my head.  “We have a variety of problems.  One is what we are charging you with.  Another is rescuing your wife and getting your family to safety and a good source of food.  I think I could have Pink Lady arrange for Christmas presents for the children.  But you have to cooperate.  First, tell us where your family is.  We’ll put you on speaker phone and you can tell them to come out of hiding.”

We dispatched Guy Weiss and Poached.  Mrs. Grunge did not want to come out of hiding, but she did eventually.  They had called Pink Lady ahead of time and she put them in an apartment across the hall from Anna Hill and her family.  Maybe Mrs. Grunge can use her nursing skills with Anna Hill expecting soon.  There were a couple of stores that were still open, and Lily the Pink mobilized to get some toys and clothing.  And Mrs. Grunge and the two girls were well fed, not too much since they had not eaten for three days.

In further interviews with Grunge, it seemed he went with a crooked home financier to pay off the medical bills.  They were forced out of their home.  It may have eventually happened anyway, but eviction usually takes longer than that and most people do not like seeing people thrown out of their homes this close to the holidays.  I suspected the financial loan shark worked for the Rotten Apples.

Next, we asked how he got past security.  He said that he stood outside City Hall and when a television station’s crew showed up with heavy equipment, he begged to carry the tripod for pocket change since he was homeless and out of work.  He got twenty dollars and a canvas bag that adequately hid his bow and a couple of arrows.

But with all those issues righted, we still had the murderer of Rudolph, one of Santa’s reindeer.  Not really one of Santa’s reindeer, but that is the picture that we had painted for the press.  We would eventually have to come clean that these were not Santa’s reindeer after all, but the media were in a feeding frenzy.  We had to delay the truth until after the holidays.

After a couple of hours of learning every stupid move that Grunge had made to make his bad situation worse, the mayor and DA entered the room.

Boaz said, “I am not pressing charges for attempted murder.  I know there is video evidence that he aimed and fired an arrow, but we can say that was for dramatic effect.  There was no harm done, except to a ceiling tile.  Besides, I feel that I have more political gravitas now that I am an assassination survivor.  Maybe I’ll make it to the White House.”

The DA shook his head, “Yeah, as a visitor and you’ll probably have to pay for admission.  But as for Grunge, he does not have the money to pay the fine for the poaching charge, and I know a family that would love to have their father with them when they open presents tomorrow morning.  After the holidays, I’ll have that head of security person at Lily the Pink bring you in to negotiate some kind of plea deal.  Maybe nothing more than community service.  Mr. Mayor, do you know anyone who can work out those arrangements with the head of Lily the Pink security?”

Boaz, who was steadily dating Sandy Beech, head of Lily the Pink security, simply turned red.  Everyone except for Grunge laughed.

So, what I was left with could have been handled by Bow Chiclet, a fine for poaching.  After the New Year, we would sit down and figure out what story to leak to the press, and hopefully the press will be interested in something else by then.  Nope, that something else might involve me and that might be worse than an out-of-work draftsman / designer that was a crack shot with a bow and arrow.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Credits

The recurve bow in the photo was never used to kill a deer by my brother – he missed – but I used it to get archery merit badge.

C. J. Box writes a series of murder mystery novels based in Wyoming about a Game Warden named Joe Pickett.  Since it is one of our favorite parts of the country and the stories are well written, my wife and I both love the novels.  Bow Chiclet sort of rhymes with Joe Pickett, my tribute to C. J. Box.  The Bow, misspelled, gives the idea that he might be good in archery.  And the Chiclet is a candy-coated gum with each piece about the size and shape of a tooth, prompting hockey players who get a puck in the face to say that they lost a few chiclets.  White chiclets may have been the norm in the old days, but they come in a variety of colors these days – thinking of losing chiclets.

In Stan Freberg’s Christmas Dragnet, the man who did not believe in Sandy Claus was named Grudge.  He also didn’t believe in Cincinnati and Cleveland, but he hadn’t made up his mind about Toledo.  (For those not living in the USA, those are three real life cities in the state of Ohio, USA.)

This story is a mash of two stories, both true to an extent.

When I was very little, we had a neighbor south of my hometown, about a mile from us on the farm.  He had a relative or friend that had reindeer.  The reindeer were brought to his farm and some “idiot” shot and killed one of them – not running wild, fenced into an enclosure.  I had seen the reindeer as we would go into town for groceries or church.  Our school bus driver took a different route.  To soften the blow to the media and eventually to parents and children, they said that Rudolph had been killed.  That way, the original eight reindeer were still intact.  Oddly, they could have admitted that they were simple reindeer from a farm a couple of states over, but that never occurred to them.

And, I have been laid off three times in my lifetime.  The first time was a government NASA site closure.  The law that was passed to kill our project was officially communicated to our site in mid-September.  There was a different law, still in effect, that if there was enough people employed on the project, we had a ninety day warning period before we lost our jobs.  Thus, I was laid off on 20 December.  “Merry Christmas, everybody!” Dripping with sarcasm.  The next lay off was at the end of a government fiscal year, 30 September.  The last time was in mid-October.

Why in that time of year, so close to the holidays?

Companies say that their most important asset, resource, whatever is their employees.  The truth is that their employees are just about the only thing that is expendable.  Executives not getting a bonus might be an option, but then the executive would have to be the person saying that he would forgo the bonus and what executive would do that?!  Okay, a few would.  I had a boss one year who cancelled his pay increase so that each of us got a little extra.  But laying off people gains more than just the saved salary.  The insurance premiums are based on the number of employees at the beginning of the year and for some of those policies the average age of the employees.  Thus, laying off a 60-year-old grandmother, making minimum wage saves you more money the following year than laying off the highly paid 40-year-old executive, if you can lay off enough old people to get the average age down to a lower premium bracket.  Sure, they must lay off a couple of non-essential young people to “prove” they were not targeting old folks.  Griffin Grunge was one of those young ones who left with all the old people in a restructuring of the company demographics, all to save on the benefit package cost per person – that is, the people who still had jobs.

If the insurance companies based their policy premiums on the employee status on the July company demographics, this surge in unemployed at Christmas could be lessened.  And there you have the ugly truth of “Our employees are our most important asset.”

In those three layoffs, I never got the idea of killing a reindeer to feed the family, nor did I ever try to kill the mayor, but the pain of not being employed during the holidays made the layoff sting a little more than it might have otherwise.

Oh, and I knew a few draftsmen over the years that were given an engineer title, but thinking of expendable employees, they were near the first to go.  They were good at what they did, maybe even great considering years of experience, but not as versatile as a degreed engineer.

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