In honor of the holiday season, here’s a piece of fiction. It’s a mystery story of sorts, wrapped in a Christmas party — but be warned, it’s not exactly what I’d call “merry and bright.”
A Christmas Story
The hired Santa has finished his rounds and moved on to some other party and every Christmas carol the band plays sounds like a funeral dirge. But it’s snowing outside and there’s an open bar and nobody’s in any particular hurry to get back to their dark, quiet homes tonight.
The conversation, as it’s bound to do in any group of perfect strangers, turns to their professions. This particular cluster of party-goers comprises a cardiologist and his wife, a schoolteacher, the hostess’s black sheep cousin, and, of all things, a private detective.
“Are you really a detective?” asks the schoolteacher, who loves crime novels and police procedurals. “That must be interesting.”
The detective agrees that it has its moments.
“I bet the holidays are a busy time in your business,” says the hostess’s cousin, who knows very well how easily family gatherings can lead to conflict and strife.
“You guessed it,” the detective says. “A lot of wives opening gifts meant for mistresses, husbands reading texts sent from lovers. Plus there’s the inevitable fall-out of the holiday revelry, people trying to turn over a new leaf, that sort of thing.”
“What’s the most memorable case you’ve ever worked at Christmas?” the crime-buff schoolmarm asks eagerly.
“You all don’t want to hear that, though,” the detective says. “Not a lot of peace on Earth and good will toward men in my line of work.”
“Go on, we’re curious now,” says the cardiologist’s wife, more to be polite than anything.
“It’s probably more interesting than anything the rest of us have to say about our work,” the cardiologist adds genially.
“Well, all right. Let me think.” The detective takes a fortifying swallow of mulled wine, which continues to be an unsatisfying substitute for whiskey. “I guess the most memorable case I ever had during the holidays was this man who came in the week before Christmas and tells me he thinks his wife’s planning to kill him. He says me he went onto his wife’s computer to find what sort of stuff she’d been shopping for online so he could get an idea of what to buy her for Christmas.”
“What a good idea,” the cardiologist says.
“Yes, I wish you’d thought of that, dear,” his wife replies, and everyone laughs, even the cardiologist, who’s given up on guessing what his wife likes and just buys her a scarf every year.
“You say that,” the detective says, “but the problem with snooping is that you’re almost guaranteed not to like what you turn up. This client of mine, instead of designer shoes or jewelry, he found she’d been researching how to commit the perfect murder. He showed me a print-out of her browser history. Her exact search terms were: ‘how to kill your spouse without getting caught.’”
“You’d think the first step would be not searching for incriminating topics on your family computer,” says the hostess’s cousin, who’s beginning to suspect that the detective is just making this story up.
“You’d be surprised what people get up to on their computers,” the detective replies. “I told him I’d take the case, and when I started looking into it, I found out they were approaching their ten-year anniversary.”
“Oh, I know this,” the schoolteacher says. “After ten years, the courts change how they decide alimony.”
The detective nods. “Something like that. Essentially, if they divorced, the wife would probably be paying him alimony for the rest of his life.”
“Tell me about it,” the black sheep cousin says. “I’ve got two ex-wives bleeding me dry.”
“That sounds like a pretty good motive for murder,” concludes the cardiologist.
“I thought so too, except that when I talked to the wife, she told me she wasn’t at home at the time those sites were visited on her computer. She had a good alibi, too – no chance she could’ve snuck off and logged on or anything.”
“But if she wasn’t the one trying to figure out how to kill her husband,” asks the schoolteacher, “who was?”
“The husband, as it turned out. If they divorced, sure, he’d get alimony, but if she kicked, he’d get the whole shebang. And he figured, since he had to go searching for incriminating information, he might as well do it on his wife’s computer and lay the groundwork to claim her murder was self-defense. If he could prove she’d been out to get him, and that he’d been concerned enough for his safety to hire a private investigator, nobody would be have any trouble believing he killed her to protect himself.”
“But you stopped him,” the cardiologist’s wife says. “See, it was a cheerful story after all.”
“Well, I guess. But the police couldn’t prove he’d actually taken any steps to go ahead with the plan and you can’t prosecute someone for thinking about killing his wife, so in the end, it came to nothing.” The detective scans the room in search of a fresh drink. “And, you know, as I recall, the wife died in a house fire a week later. Hm, I’d forgotten about that.”
The cardiologist’s wife’s hand goes to her chest. “That’s terrible.”
“But surely they managed to pin the fire on the husband,” the schoolteacher says.
The detective makes an apologetic noise. “There were some signs of arson, but the fire marshal’s report was inconclusive and he was never charged.” A waiter passes with a tray of champagne, and the detective manages to snag a glass. “You know, I think this might be the worst rendition of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ I’ve ever heard.”