Story by Mike Blackwelder
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Sam Baskerville turned the corner on the upstairs landing and froze. The rattle of a door handle could only mean a break-in. Shampoo scented steam-rolled from the bathroom door and clouded the window that looked down on the backyard. Snow fell in big, wet flakes. The astringent floral smell of the cloud made him think of Singapore opium dens. Not that Sam had ever visited an opium den or been to Singapore. He narrowed his eyes and pushed past the steam.
Watson rattled the handle of the bedroom door wearing nothing but two pink towels–one around her hair and the other wrapped around her body and tucked between her breasts. Like a minidress, the towel came down just far enough to cover all the good bits.
“Is the game afoot, my fine companion?” Sam wiggled his eyebrows. If he sucked in his gut and imagined hair, he looked a lot like the Great Detective.
“Sam. Open the damn bedroom door. I’m going to be late for work.”
“Sorry, you know I don’t want the kids sneak–“
Jennifer Watson-Baskerville cut him off with a look, padded damp feet on the hardwood toward him, and stuck her hand in his pocket.
“Yes, Watson. I believe we might have time for a little–“
She yanked his keyring free and faced the door. “Calling me Watson this morning is not going to get you anywhere. Especially with… This. Damn. Thing.” She fought to turn the key in the deadbolt. “Don’t you think this lock is–“
“A great idea, given what happened last year?”
“No. I was about to say paranoid and insulting.”
Watson threw open the door and tossed him back his keys. “Please tell me you’re going to get to the hardware store and get a copy of this key made soon.” She walked into the bedroom. “Either that or…” The tenor of her voice changed as her words trailed off.
“What? What’s wrong?” But he knew. He knew what he’d find and steeled himself before he followed her in.
It was worse than he could have imagined. Mangled tissue and severed bows were scattered over the bed and floor. Torn paper splashed the scene of the crime.
“Can we take the lock off the bedroom now?” Her face shifted from frustration to pity. “Sam, I love you. I know you’re disappointed but it’s just Christmas presents. Things. That’s not what Christmas is about.” She kissed him. “Please don’t be hard on the kids. Let’s talk about it after I get home tonight.”
Sam’s jaw clenched so tight he couldn’t speak. His anger melted into resolve. Last year, one of David’s presents had been opened early. This year was much worse. One of his five kids wanted to ruin Christmas and he intended to find out who.
— ♦♦♦ —
Sam assessed the damage and but couldn’t hold back the thrill of the mystery. The prospect of the chase and eventual capture was like the first sip of Italian espresso. His enthusiasm was tempered slightly by last years’ disappointment of not being able to find the culprit. This year would be different. He’d taken precautions well beyond the lock, but he wanted to put his old-fashion detecting skills to the test first. He picked up the pocket-sized notebook he kept on his bedside table, turned to the scene of the crime, and tapped a My Little Pony pencil against his forehead. Next to the grocery list, he wrote his observations.
A human had done it. Their dog, Rufus the Doofus, didn’t have the manual dexterity to accomplish this precise destruction. There was no slobber on the torn paper and the gifts were pristine. All the kids’ presents had been eviscerated while the small pile for him and Watson rested untouched on the top of the cedar chest. The brutal thoroughness suggested the criminal had been in a rush. Five kids times fourteen presents each equaled…a lot. He could eliminate Watson since hers were unopened and she’d seen all the kids’ gifts before they’d been wrapped.
As he wrote the names of his five children in his notebook, Toby toddled in and held up his arms. “Dada!” One little fist was empty but the other clutched Sam’s red-handled screwdriver.
“Whoa, little man. Where’d you get that?” Sam plucked the tool from his hand. “Put your eye out.”
Toby wiggled his fingers.
Sam picked him up as a reflex and then realized his youngest could see all the open presents. Sam spun him around and the little boy laughed. Although logically Sam knew an eighteen-month-old wouldn’t care about the presents, he still didn’t want Christmas to be spoiled for anyone. Well, spoiled for anyone else.
He set Toby down and gave him a swat on the diaper. “Go find one of your sisters.”
Toby said, “Vi Vi!”
“Yes, go find Violet.” He closed the door and crossed to the ruin of presents.
Sam estimated a dedicated person could have done the deed in ten minutes. He’d been in the basement working out for about thirty minutes. Watson had been next to him at her laptop. She’d kissed him for a long time when she got up to get ready for work. There had even been enough contact to rattle his water bottle and keys on the treadmill and he’d thought they might get frisky. That would have given the criminals at least another five minutes. Luck was not with him. With the snowy roads, she didn’t want to be late. That left the window of opportunity to be about twenty minutes. Plenty of time.
He examined the list while he tapped the pencil under his nose. The least likely suspect was always guilty in the movies. Sure, Toby could care less about what was in a present, but he could savage one open like a jail-yard thug. Not only did he have an uncanny knack of materializing in the most unlikely places, he had also been holding a screwdriver. A toddler might be able to jimmy a lock, but there would be a fair amount of collateral damage. Sam examined the lock. It shiny and unscratched, so he ruled Toby out. Mostly.
He’d installed the Yale surface-mount, key-operated, security bolt on the outside of the bedroom door a week ago after he’d run out of places to hide the kids’ presents. There was only one key, which he kept on the ring in his pocket. The kit had come with two, but he’d thrown the other in the trash outside the hardware store. He loved Watson and trusted her, but she practiced very poor operational security. The kids could have easily swiped her key without her noticing, so he decided she wouldn’t get one until after Christmas. His key had been in his pocket or secured in his nightstand while he slept. Sam rubbed his knuckles absently over the whiskers on his chin.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Watson drop both towels into the laundry basket in the closet. Her pale freckled skin made him forget the crime for a moment. Whenever he saw her naked in the morning before work, Sam went into a fugue state. He snapped back to the present when she hooked her bra.
“I’ve got a deposition today at 2:00.” Watson tucked her pink blouse into the gray pinstriped skirt and zipped it up the back. “But I should still be home before dinner.” After running her fingers through her dry, strawberry blond hair, she looked amazing. Sam often wondered at his luck in marrying such a beautiful, talented woman. It was unfortunate she gave birth to five underage criminals.
Watson cupped his face in her hands. “Don’t pillory the children today. Remember, innocent until proven guilty.” She added in an undertone. “But I’d put money on David. It’s usually the most likely suspect.”
He kissed her. “I wish you could stay home today.” One of the kids is going to need a lawyer before the day is done.
— ♦♦♦ —
Sam was pretty sure he could lift some prints from the torn wrapping paper. The fingerprint cards he made last year were around somewhere. Sam wrote, fingerprints cornstarch packing tape, in his notebook. Watson caught him in the hall with the crescent of her fingernail in the middle of his chest. “Don’t ruin another one of my makeup brushes.”
“I’ll try, but great results sometimes require great sacrifices.” Sam escaped her glare as he ducked into Toby’s room and grabbed the baby monitor.
After he made it downstairs, Sam strolled into the kitchen to the smell of burned toast. Toby sat on the linoleum with one of Sam’s slippers in his mouth and his number three suspect, Violet, sat at the island, her back to the patio door. Outside, the snow had intensified to blizzard.
In one slim hand, Violet held a beaker of orange liquid and in the other, a blackened triangle of bread. Her round glasses reflected the light from the fixture overhead making her look owlish and inscrutable. Sam couldn’t tell if she was eating breakfast or mixing poison.
There was no shame in acknowledging that, next to her mother, Violet was the smartest person in the house. Of all the children, she was the most likely to find some diabolical way to defeat his added security. It was perfectly reasonable for him to suspect the orange fluid was acid developed specifically to dissolve the guts of his new lock. But still, she was only eleven. And an eleven-year-old was not as cunning as say, her father.
“Good morning,” Violet said.
“Good morning, sweetie. Burned the toast again, eh?” It was always good to distract them with small talk before you hit them with the probing questions.
“It’s not burned. I like it dark.”
“Dark like your heart?”
Violet said, “ha,” with the implied eye-roll of the teenager she would soon become.
“Did you go in mom and dad’s room when I was working out in the basement this morning or while I was packing lunches?” Sam was pleased with the brilliance of that question–and Watson thought binge-watching old Law and Order seasons was a waste of time.
“No. Did someone get into the presents again this year?” Violet regarded Sam. “I haven’t been in your room since I returned mom’s copy of Anna Karenina. I didn’t like it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It was just a romantic tragedy of tsarist high society, interspersed with digressions into 19th-century Russian agricultural policy.”
“No. Not that. About the presents.”
She looked over her glasses like his old biology professor. “Given the time of year and the lock you installed, it’s not a difficult leap that you were attempting to keep us away from the presents.” She put down her toast and shrugged. “And I could hear you swearing from my room.”
Sam decided directness would be the only effective approach with Violet. “Did you do it?”
“Me?” Violet sat back. It was as if he’d asked Mycroft to leave the Diogenes Club and go for a run. “Why would you ever think that?”
Sam shrugged. “Doesn’t every kid want to take a peek at their presents before Christmas?”
“No.” Violet scowled. “I would rather be surprised. Plus, the only ones I care about are book shaped. If I wanted to know what those are, I’d log into your Amazon account.”
“You don’t know my password.”
Violet push her glasses up obscuring her eyes and took a swig of the acid.
Sam didn’t fail to notice she hadn’t answered his question. Better to let her think she won that round.
— ♦♦♦ —
As he left the kitchen, Sam almost tripped over Maize, suspect number four. She sat in the middle of the hallway floor, wearing shorts, one ballet slipper, and one snow boot. The hood of her hand-me-down pink winter coat hung from her head, but her bare arms hadn’t made it in the sleeves yet.
“I’m goin’ outside, Daddy. Where’s my other boot?”
Sam squinted at her. This four-year-old may or may not know how she melted his heart when she called him Daddy. Was she trying to distract him?
“Why?” He looked her over and didn’t see an obvious climbing harness or grappling hook that would get her into the second-story bedroom window.
“I’m going to lay on my back and see how many snowflakes fall in my mouth.” Maize gave him the pitying look one would give a geriatric relative searching for the glasses on their head.
“Were you in Mommy and Daddy’s room this morning?”
“Are you sure?”
“Is that where my boot is?”
Sam was about to shout, “Ah hah! So, you left your boot at the scene of the crime,” until he saw her boot lay two feet to the right of where she sat.
“Oh. Here it is. Thank you, Daddy.” She stuffed the ballet-slippered foot in and bolted for the door.
“Hey. Long pants and a shirt first. It’s twenty degrees out there and your mother’s still home.”
Maize stomped off to the girls’ room. It was possible that she was eager to go out in the blizzard and retrieve her rope and grappling hook before he found it. He’d need to check since a thirty-foot drop wouldn’t deter Maize in the slightest. It was, however, highly unlikely she had the upper body strength to throw a sharp piece of bent metal that high. Maybe she wanted to play in the snow. Maybe she was trying to avoid answering any more questions.
— ♦♦♦ —
Speaking of trying to avoid him, where were David and Becca? His thirteen-year-old twins were prime suspects.
Criminal masterminds and teenagers share a hatred for the light, so the twins wouldn’t be hard to find. Since the only room in the entire house that didn’t have all the lights turned on was the den, Sam started there.
He peeked around the corner and down the three steps into the sunken family room. The curtains were closed over the windows and patio door. The television and lights were off. David sat alone on the couch in the dark, face illuminated by the glow of his phone. Sam glanced over his shoulder, half expecting to find his oldest daughter creeping up behind him. When he whipped his head back, David’s gaze darted back to his phone.
David shrugged. “Bathroom.”
Sam stepped down the three steps into the den and sidled to the end table. “Who are you texting?” He’s probably trying to arrange a place to hideout once I have the evidence I need to prosecute.
David looked at the ceiling and thought hard about the question.
When he didn’t answer, Sam turned up the heat on the interrogation by throwing his best silent glare.
David raised an eyebrow as if to say, what’s wrong with you? But Sam didn’t fail to notice he didn’t answer the question.
“What are you hiding? Were you two in it together? I’ll go easy on you if you give up your sister.”
David frowned. A second later, his eyes widened, and he smiled. He held up his phone for Sam to see. “Best friend!”
“Oh. Why didn’t you say you were texting Brett? Is something wrong?” Are you on drugs? Is Brett your dealer?
“Nuh uh.” David looked back to his phone and typed furiously.
Sam scratched his chin. Something was wrong. Usually, David’s philosophy was, “why use one word when twenty will work just as well?” Now, the son that always on stage delivering a Shakespearean monologue grunted like a regular teenage boy.
While David wasn’t looking, Sam backed nonchalantly to an end table and placed the baby monitor behind a family photo of the seven of them in London.
“Hi, Dad,” Becca said and made him jump. “You looking for me?”
“Yes.” Sam struggled for words as he wasn’t sure if she noticed him hiding the baby monitor. He blurted. “What’s wrong with your brother?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What’s not wrong with him?”
“Why is he grunting and acting suspiciously? Did he do something this morning?”
“Oh, that.” Becca waved her hand.
Sam leaned forward, ready for it. He’d figured David for the Christmas criminal all along.
“I bet him twenty bucks he couldn’t go the whole day speaking in two-syllable responses.” She flopped down in the chair opposite her brother and looked him in the eye. “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and look stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”
“And my point is proven.” Becca pulled out her phone and typed. “When the snow lets up, I’m going to meet some friends at the park.”
David said, “Me too.”
Sam wasn’t sure he believed the whole two-syllable bet since it could be an elaborate ruse to throw him off. It didn’t matter. With the baby monitor planted, he could sit back and listen. Sam backed out of the den because it didn’t pay to turn your back on burgeoning criminal masterminds. He bumped into Toby, who fell on his diapered bottom. He held the TV remote in his mouth like a wet, plastic blowgun.
“Ba. Ba.” The remote wiggled up and down. Sam tugged it free. “Let’s go get something to eat, partner.” He added in a whisper, “and we may hear something interesting.”
Toby, as any good sidekick would, said, “Ba. Ba.”
After Toby’s hand been shackled in his booster seat and hand a sippy cup of milk, Sam pulled out his phone and brought up the baby monitor app.
Becca’s voice crackled over the speaker. “Do you think Dad will figure it out?”
Sam shook his fist with the same sort of bitter triumph that Holmes must have felt halfway down Reichenbach Falls.
“No way,” David said.
“You’re sure? It’s pretty obvious that all the evidence points to KRRKRRK.” Becca’s voice trailed into static. “Then KRRKRRK and KRRKRRK.”
Sam shook his phone and held it closer to his ear. Is this thing broken or is she just saying, KRRKRRK?
“You know, David, I often think to myself how handsome and generous Dad is. It would be just like him to double our allowance this year.”
Sam shut down the app on his phone and shoved it in his pocket. “Well, Toby, they found us out.” Sam unbuckled the toddler and put him behind the gate that turned the living room into a medium-security toddler prison. “David! Becca! Come watch your brother for a few minutes so he doesn’t bite a hole in his sock again!”
Sam heard their shoulders slump. “Aww, Dad!”
“Just do it! And I think he needs his diaper changed!” Sam smiled at Toby. “Work up a good one for them. You know, the chili-con-carne load.”
He called over his shoulder. “And one of you check on Maize in the backyard. Make sure she doesn’t have hypothermia. I’m going to head down to Baker Street!”
— ♦♦♦ —
Sam walked past the treadmill and yoga mats in the basement to a room at the back. It had a wooden plaque screwed to the door that read, 221B. David had cut out the plaque and wood-burned in the numbers at scout camp. Behind the door, the inner sanctum was dominated by a furnace, utility sink, and an old, harvest gold toilet. He fished his phone out of his sweatpants and sat down.
Sam opened the Tracker Deluxe app. He hoped it wouldn’t come to this because he wanted to solve the crime by pure observation and deduction. Right after he ordered the lock, he found he could upgrade his phone finder app to the deluxe version for $29.95. This allowed him to not only find his phone to the nearest foot but see where it had been, minute to minute, for the previous twenty-four hours. This version even let him upload the floor plan of the house for a 3-D view.
Since the Baskerville’s had a family phone plan, he could trace the location of all five phones. Sam applied a filter for the thirty minutes from the time he locked the door before his workout until Watson wrestled his keys out of his pocket after her shower. A long squiggly white line traced his path inside the house like the flight path of an airplane. His line was stationary by the treadmill until he went upstairs to change Toby and then moved into the master bedroom where he discovered the crime. The pink dot showed Watson’s phone had been in her purse in the front hall the entire time.
He clicked on the purple line. Violet had gone from the charging stand, to the kitchen, and into her bedroom without ever going upstairs.
He left the twins until last. The anticipation built to a point that Sam couldn’t help but smile. He clicked on Becca’s track. Nothing. She’d only been in the girl’s bedroom and the bathroom.
Heart pounding, Sam took a deep breath and clicked on David’s line. He nodded. During the critical time, those key ten minutes, the phone went from the downstairs hallway, up the stairs, paused in front of Sam’s bedroom door, and went in. Sam rubbed the whiskers on his chin. Sure, it was circumstantial. He couldn’t prove that David carried the phone, but it sure was damning.
Sam had been so focused on finding the culprit he hadn’t really been thinking like a father. What should the consequences be? For sure the boy would have to re-wrap all the presents to Sam’s standards. Phone privileges revoked? Likely. Grounding over Christmas break? Probably. Should Sam return all David’s presents, too? That thought made him queasy–a Christmas morning where one child got nothing. Sam wasn’t sure he had the heart for that, but how would David learn otherwise?
At that horrible thought, the door to 221B rattled and opened. Toby came in. “How did you…nevermind.” Sam shook his head in frustration about the decision he had to make and the fact that he hadn’t been able to go to the bathroom uninterrupted in the last twelve years. He stood, flushed, and grabbed the bar of Lava soap in the utility sink.
“Hey there, Toby.”
The youngest tried to say, “Da Da”, but had a ring of keys in his mouth. It wasn’t the ring of big plastic ones he should have been chewing on, but an actual ring of keys.
“Gimme that you little knucklehead. One of these days you’re going to trip and ram something sharp into your brain. Then Mama will never forgive me.”
Sam took the keys and saw it was the ring from the junk drawer. This bunch held the keys for all the padlocks, bike locks, luggage locks, and apartments of the past.
Sam froze. He pulled his ring out of his pocket, the one with every key he needed, including the one for the bedroom door deadbolt. The junk keys were completely useless, but they looked and felt like his keys. The pins in his mind lined up for the satisfying hardened-steel clunk of realization. He knew now, with satisfying certainty, who done it.
At that moment, he heard the garage door opener activate.
Toby said, “Mama.”
“Perfect.” He hoisted Toby and went upstairs.
— ♦♦♦ —
When Sam got to the front hall, Watson was already inside stomping handfuls of snow off her boots.
“Bad out there?” Sam said.
“Yeah, the highway is closed. No way they’ll open the courthouse this morning.”
Watson crossed from the door to the garage to the front door and let in a snow-packed Maize.
“I’m glad we’re all here. Family meeting. Den. Five minutes.”
Watson’s eyes went wide. “Yes, sir.”
Sam turned his head and yelled to the rest of the house. “Ya hear that everyone? Family meeting. Five minutes.”
When Sam strolled into the den six minutes later, Watson sat in a chair holding Toby and the other four kids were squeezed in a line on the couch. He stood in front of the TV and crossed his arms behind his back.
“Does everyone know why we’re here?”
Five heads nodded.
“Even you, Maize?” Sam wanted to make sure.
“Yes, Daddy. About the presents, right?”
Sam paced. “My investigation is complete. I’m happy to say I know exactly who opened all the children’s presents.”
Watson bounced Toby on her knee. “Really? You figured it out already?”
“I was pretty sure that David was the guilty party even before I reviewed the evidence.”
“Not cool,” David said still winning the two-syllable bet.
“His was the single present that was opened last year, so I admit I was predisposed. Then I reviewed the evidence. Circumstantial. Wouldn’t hold up to Mom’s cross-examination, but still pretty damning.”
David sat up straight. “But…but…”
Sam held out his hand. “I know it wasn’t you, son.” David sat back.
“Then who was it?” Watson asked bouncing Toby a bit faster.
“I’ll admit, I thought for a while it was a group effort. Everyone was acting weird. Well, weirder than normal.”
Becca and Violet demonstrated an amazing example of synchronized eye-rolling.
“Then I dismissed the idea. There was no way all four kids would have been able to walk upstairs without me hearing it in the basement. Maize, I love you with all my heart, but you’re not very stealthy. You stomped out of the womb.”
“That’s the truth,” Watson said to herself.
“So, who was left that could have opened all the presents? I thought, ever so briefly, that somehow Toby had stolen my keys,” Sam chuckled, “and opened the lock on the bedroom door. Absurd, of course.” Sam stopped pacing. “So, if it wasn’t any of the children…” All eyes turned to Watson.
Watson smiled a big, genuine smile and kissed Toby on the cheek. “You have a very smart Daddy.”
“Yes, Sam.” Watson looked at him with eyes that usually told him he was about to get lucky. “Tell me how you figured it out.”
“The last piece of the puzzle was the keys. When Toby brought me the junk keys, I knew how you’d done it. Then I thought back to you getting dressed this morning.”
The twins let out a simultaneous, “Oh man,” and “Can we go now?”
Sam sighed. “All of you were born because mom and I occasionally get naked around each other, smooch, and–.”
Another synchronized twin response of, “Seriously, can we go now? This is getting gross.”
“Yes. This family meeting is adjourned.” The four older kids filtered out, followed by an eager Toby.
In the distance, Sam heard Becca shout. “Hey! You owe me twenty bucks.” Followed by “No fair. I couldn’t concentrate when Dad started talking about sex.”
Sam sat down on the couch and Watson joined him. She said, “You were talking about me getting dressed. What gave it away?”
“Your hair. I remembered your hair was dry when you took the towel off. There’s no reason to wrap a towel around dry hair unless you wanted me to think you were in the shower.”
“You do know women will shower without washing their hair, right?”
“Yes, but I smelled your shampoo in the hallway. You took the shower ruse one step too far.”
“Very good.” Watson snuggled up against him now. “And what about the lock?”
“You swapped the junk keys in the basement when you kissed me on the treadmill. I thought you were trying to be frisky. Then you swapped them back when you pretended to struggle with the door lock. The door was open the entire time. Clever. But you forgot to put the junk keys back and Toby got a hold of them. Your operational security did you in.”
“Beautifully done, Mr. Holmes.” Watson purred.
Sam didn’t rise to the bait. “I figured out how, but not why.”
Watson regarded him. “I told you this morning. I’ve been telling you for years. For me, Christmas isn’t about things.”
“I know. I know. You always had big Christmases when you were young. You and your brothers got dozens of presents. It doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be.”
“I couldn’t get you nothing. It’s not…natural.”
“You don’t have to get me anything. Get me something less tangible. Remember how fun the trip to London was? You could plan a trip for the whole family.”
“Yeah, but that was a vacation. Not Christmas.”
“Sam, how much have you spent on presents compared to what we spent on the trip?”
Sam nodded and sighed. “Yeah.”
“And don’t you like the experience I got you?”
“What are you talking about?”
Watson held out both hands, palms up.
“What, you mean ripping open the gifts wasn’t an object lesson? It was a present?”
Watson pointed her finger at him. “A present you opened early! You weren’t supposed to figure it out so quickly.” Watson kissed him and tugged his lower lip between hers. “Merry Christmas, Sherlock.”
“You’re wicked, Moriarty.”
“Ooh. I like the sound of that.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The Story of Your Life By Jason J. McCuiston, Art by L.A. Spooner
“I knew tonight was your night, and so here it is.” She placed the large red book, his name written on the cover in big gold letters, on the counter. “Now let’s see what you have brought me.”
Mark pushed the bag to her, not wanting to look at its contents again. The price had been high, but he knew that it was worth it. Once he had the book, it wouldn’t matter, anyway.