“What’s a sugar plum?” Mason asked this question of no one in particular. He was riding in the backseat of the Toyota Prius on the way home from church after a Christmas Eve service. His older brother, Matthew, sat beside him. Dad and Mom were in front with Dad driving.
“It’s a plum covered with sugar.” Matthew’s voice had that “duh” tone.
Mom turned her head. “Where did you hear about sugar plums?”
“‘Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’” When there wasn’t an immediate response from the others, Mason continued. “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all—’”
“Great grandma told me she learned that poem when she was four years old for a school Christmas pageant,” Matthew said, interrupting. “Of course, we can’t talk about it in school now.”
“Why not?” Mason asked.
“Separation of Church and State.” Matthew, a budding historian, would have expounded further, but at that moment they pulled into the driveway of their house on a cul-de-sac.
“Look at Butlers’.” Mason indicated the house next door. “They must have a thousand lights. A manger scene, Santa and his reindeer…”
“A mixture of the religious and the…non-religious.” Matthew couldn’t think of a better word.
“That pretty much defines Christmas in the United States today.” Mom opened her door as Dad brought the car to a stop inside the garage.
Mason still thought the multi-colored lights illuminating the tableaus with a convenient white background of newly fallen snow created a beautiful scene.
Dad opened the door that led into the house. “All right, you two, hang up the stockings and get a plate of food ready for Santa.”
“And his reindeer,” Mason added.
Matthew wondered whether he wasn’t a little old to be preparing food for Santa Claus. But hey, it was Christmas.
Later, when they were the only ones upstairs and supposed to be in bed, Mason said to Matthew, “Let’s listen at the clothes chute to see if we can find out what presents we’re getting.” They opened the door to the chute. It was like having an intercom from downstairs.
* * *
The first thing that occurred to Mason when Dad woke them up in the middle of the night was that Santa must have had an accident. Had his reindeer tried to land on the roof at too steep an angle?
Dad’s voice was calm but forceful. “Get dressed fast and put on a jacket. We have to go outside. Butlers’ house is on fire.”
Matthew could hear noises coming from outdoors as he threw on some clothes, including a voice that might be somebody talking on a radio. He was scared and excited at the same time.
The boys raced down the stairs. Mom and Dad were already there. They all went out the front door and down the driveway to the sidewalk. Fire engines and police cars crowded the cul-de-sac. Firemen in hats, masks, and heavy jackets filled the front yard of Butlers’ house and trampled the Christmas scenes, although hundreds of the lights were still lit, producing an eerie glow that supplemented the spotlight beams from the vehicles.
No flames were visible. Matthew hoped that was a good sign. Firemen had gone in the front door with hoses. Smoke billowed out of the doorway and downstairs windows that had been broken. Some of the Christmas lights on the house overheated and exploded like small fire crackers.
Mason smelled the smoke and began to worry about the Butler family. He couldn’t see any of the four of them outside. Mr. and Mrs. Butler lived there with their two children, Jamie and Dorothy. He asked Dad about them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Butler went to a Christmas Eve party. I think the kids are sleeping over with friends. I’ll go tell that policeman where the Butlers are so he can track them down.”
Dad went and talked to the policeman. When he came back he looked somber. “I was wrong about no one being in the house. Dorothy was in the house—alone.”
Matthew asked, “Is she all right?”
“She’s unconscious. There comes an ambulance now.”
The ambulance threaded its way through the other vehicles and came to a stop. Paramedics jumped out and retrieved a stretcher from the back. Before the boys could see what was going to happen next, Dad and Mom herded them into their own house, saying that the fire was under control and it was safe.
For Matthew and Mason, going to sleep was easier said than done. They couldn’t see Butlers’ house from their windows, but they could hear the noises of the fire equipment for some time. Eventually they dropped off to sleep, but visions of fires rather than sugar plums danced in their heads.
* * *
As they gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents on Christmas morning, Dad looked disheveled and tired, as if he hadn’t slept much. Mom didn’t look much better. Dad had them sit down. He cleared his throat before he began to speak.
“I have bad news. Dorothy never recovered consciousness. She died, apparently from smoke inhalation. As you saw, there was a lot of smoke. She was supposed to be at a friend’s house, but her friend got sick. Dorothy was alone in the house.”
Matthew and Mason were stunned. Dorothy was a teenager, several years older than they were, but they had known her for years, ever since the Butlers had moved in next door.
Mason couldn’t believe she was dead. “Why didn’t she get out of the house when the fire started?”
Dad hesitated. Then he spoke slowly, searching for words. “She had a head injury. It may be that she was unconscious when the fire started.”
Matthew tried to understand what Dad was saying. “Did something fall on her?”
“No.” Mom spoke softly. “She was hit with a blunt object, like a baseball bat. There was a bat under the Christmas tree, partially burned.”
Mason said, “Jamie plays baseball. So somebody hit her. But who? And why?”
“There was a burglary two days ago at the Comstocks’ house on the other side of Butlers. An expensive amplifier for a sound system was stolen. The police think Butlers’ may have been a burglary too, perhaps by the same person. Whoever hit Dorothy apparently started the fire to cover it up. We don’t know what he was after. The Butlers have to check to see if anything was taken. One of our neighbors saw the smoke and called 911 right away, so the fire didn’t do as much damage as the person apparently hoped it would. The fire started in the Christmas tree and spread from there. Dorothy was lying near the tree.”
They opened their presents in a subdued atmosphere. The Christmas morning ritual didn’t bring its usual joy. What good were Lego sets and electronic games to somebody who was dead? Or whatever kinds of presents girls got.
After breakfast, Mason pulled Matthew upstairs to his bedroom and asked for a conference. After Mason closed the door, Matthew asked, “What’s up?”
“I…I just want to talk about what happened. Dad and Mom are getting ready for Christmas dinner and they don’t have time to talk.”
Dad and Mom had invited the three surviving Butlers for Christmas dinner. They were temporarily going to live with friends, but the friends had a previous invitation for dinner. The Butlers were at their burned house this morning, trying to assess the damage. They couldn’t plan a funeral for Dorothy yet because an autopsy was being performed on her. Matthew wasn’t sure what an autopsy consisted of, but he was sure it wasn’t pretty. He sympathized with Mason. He, himself, had a lot of unanswered questions.
Mason tried to collect his thoughts. “Dorothy babysat with us several times.”
“Which is funny because she isn’t that much older than we are.”
“I liked her. I like Jamie too, but I don’t like his friend at all.”
“What friend is that?” Matthew couldn’t ever remember seeing Jamie, who was older than Dorothy, with a friend.
“Two days ago, before it snowed, I was riding my bike up and down the street after school. I saw Jamie and another boy in his garage. It looked like they were wrapping a large present. I rode up the driveway.”
At this point, Mason went into playacting mode, something he was good at.
“Hi, Jamie. That’s a big box. What are you doing, giving your parents a car for Christmas?”
“Ha ha. Hi Mason. Don’t I wish. Then I might inherit one of their cars and be able to drive once in a while. No, unfortunately, it’s not a car. Just a present for my girlfriend.”
“You’ve got a girlfriend? She’s a lucky girl, getting a present like that. What is it, anyway?”
Mason stopped playacting. “At this point the other boy looked at me with a scowl and said, ‘Listen, you little twerp. You’re asking too many questions. Why don’t you just jump on your velocipede and hotrod out of here?’”
Matthew laughed. “He sounds like a real winner. We may find out who he is. Mom just told me that one of Jamie’s friends is coming to dinner. His mother is a pharmacist and has to work today.”
* * *
Mom and Dad cautioned Matthew and Mason not to ask too many questions of the Butlers who would be understandably upset after viewing the damage to their house. Even more upset because their daughter had been killed there. Since it was a crime scene a policeman had escorted them into the house and cautioned them not to touch anything.
When Mr. and Mrs. Butler and Jamie arrived for dinner, having walked over from their house, they talked about what it was like to see the damage. Mrs. Butler said, “The Christmas tree looks like one of the trees after a forest fire. It’s black and the needles and most of the branches are gone. All the decorations and lights are burned and black. So are the presents under it. The whole place smells of smoke.” She stopped as tears appeared in her eyes.
Mr. Butler continued. “It’s a worse nightmare than the Grinch stealing Christmas. But it’s not the presents. Our daughter was stolen from us.”
Jamie didn’t say anything. He just stared at the floor.
Mason wanted to cheer him up. He didn’t know how to do it, but he was determined to try. “It’s too bad about your girlfriend’s present. I bet she’ll be glad you thought about her. And after all, it’s the thought that counts.”
Jamie muttered something unintelligible.
Mrs. Butler looked at Jamie. “Come to think of it, I didn’t see that present. It wouldn’t have burned up completely; the other presents didn’t. It was larger than the others. I shouldn’t have missed it.”
Jamie said, “Maybe the burglar stole it.”
Mr. Butler scratched his head. “Why would he steal that and nothing else? He didn’t take any jewelry or anything valuable.”
Matthew had a question. “Do you think it was the same burglar who stole the amplifier from the Comstocks’ house?”
Mrs. Butler was crying and couldn’t talk, so Mr. Butler answered. “The police think it’s possible, even though it was a different time of day. The strange part is that there was no sign of a break-in at either house. The police can’t explain that. Unless Dorothy let the person in. But she wouldn’t let a stranger in—especially at night.” He paused and then stumbled on. “She was in her night clothes. She had been in bed.”
The doorbell rang. It was Ted, Jamie’s friend, being dropped off by his mother. Mason took Matthew aside and whispered in his ear. “That’s the boy who was in the garage with Jamie and was mean to me.”
Matthew made a quick survey of his appearance. He looked just like many teenage boys everywhere—tall and skinny, with a mop of blond hair, underdressed for the occasion in jeans and a T-shirt. Jamie didn’t look much different, except that his hair was darker and he had acne on his face.
Dad and Mom steered the conversation away from the fire and murder when they sat down at the table. Everybody said grace in unison and then settled down to a delicious dinner, complete with turkey and lots of other good food.
Matthew and Mason did their part to keep the conversation going. Matthew asked Jamie, “Is Ted in your rock band?” Matthew was interested in music and knew that Jamie had formed a band to play rock music, some of which he wrote himself.
Jamie looked a little startled at the question and paused before he spoke. “Yes…he is.”
Ted, not so reticent, grinned. “I play drums. I’ve got a nice set at home.”
Mr. Butler smiled for the first time. “Better at your house than in our garage.” Then he grew solemn again and lapsed into silence.
Matthew, uncharacteristically, couldn’t wait for them to finish dessert. As soon as he could leave the table without being rude he did, beckoning Mason to come with him. They went from the dining room into the living room where Matthew spoke. “Put on a jacket. We’re going exploring.”
Once outside the house, Mason asked, “Where are we going?”
“To the scene of the crime.”
They ran next door, surveying the remains of the Christmas tableaus on the front lawn, smashed by firemen and their hoses, the snow dirty and covered with footprints. Otherwise, the only evidence of the fire on the outside was some broken windows and parts of the house that had been blackened by smoke. Matthew’s interest was the twin garage doors. He found what he wanted beside one of the doors.
Mason saw what he was looking at. “It’s an electronic door opener with a numeric key pad for entering a code, just like the one we have.” He was into numbers and liked saying the word “numeric.”
“Right. So if you know the code you can get into the house through the garage. Just like you can get into our house using our code.”
“Do you think the burglar knew the code?”
“I’m not sure. We’ve got one more place to go.”
Matthew led Mason across the Butlers’ yard to the Comstocks’ house. Again he stopped at the garage. Mason was trying to figure this whole thing out. “Okay, so they’ve got a code box too. But how would the burglar know the codes for both houses?”
At that moment, Mr. Comstock came out of his house. He saw the boys and said, “Merry Christmas, Matthew and Mason. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Comstock,” Matthew said. “We were just wondering whether your burglary was connected to what happened next door.”
Mr. Comstock glanced at Butlers’ house and shook his head. “That’s a tragedy. Dorothy seemed like such a nice girl.”
Matthew and Mason made noises of agreement. Matthew needed to ask a question. “Did Jamie mow your lawn last summer?”
Mr. Comstock looked surprised. “Why yes, he did. Why are you—?”
“Did he have the combination to this opener?” Dad and Mom had paid Jamie to mow their lawn. Dad had given him the combination to their door opener so that he could get tools out of the garage when they weren’t home.
“Well yes, because both Mrs. Comstock and I work. What are you driving at?”
“Nothing.” Matthew didn’t want to start rumors. “Jamie mowed our lawn and he got things he needed out of our garage. Are you a musician, by any chance?” Matthew’s deft change of subject worked, and they chatted for a few minutes before Mr. Comstock went inside.
Mason was still trying to put the pieces together as they walked back to their house. “So Jamie is probably the only person who knows the combinations to both garages. He has a rock band and could use an amplifier. But why would he kill his own sister?” Mason was horrified at the thought.
“I can’t picture him doing that. There may be no connection between the two crimes. Jamie was at Ted’s house last night. Ted’s mother was working and so she had their car. I guess that lets Jamie off the hook.”
“If Jamie took the amplifier, where would he put it? He couldn’t keep it in his own house, and Ted lives a couple of miles away. It’s too heavy to carry that far.”
“He couldn’t keep it in his house…unless he wrapped it up to look like a present.”
“And told his parents it was for his girlfriend.” Mason pictured the package being wrapped by Jamie and Ted. It was large enough to contain an expensive amplifier. “But the truth would be found out, eventually.”
“Unless they had a plan to get it out of the house last night and make it appear like a burglary.”
“Jamie and Ted didn’t seem very friendly during dinner. They barely said two words to each other.”
“Yeah, something’s going on.”
When they were back inside the house, everybody was bustling around except for Jamie and Ted who were sitting at the breakfast table playing chess. The others were planning to go shopping for some essential things that the Butlers needed. Mason caught up with Dad.
“Are you going shopping?”
“I don’t have to go. Do you two want to do something?”
“Yes.” Mason excused himself and said he’d be right back. He went to the space that held the washer and dryer. It was beside the breakfast table. He opened the doors that concealed the appliances and pulled the clothes out of the clothes chute. He left the door to the clothes chute and the doors to the washer and dryer ajar. Then he collected Dad and Matthew.
“We’ll walk past Jamie and Ted. Talk about going upstairs and trying one of our new games on the computer. Don’t ask questions.” He added that as both Dad and Matthew started to speak. “As soon as we’re upstairs I’ll fill you in.”
Mom and the Butlers were just leaving. Dad and Matthew followed Mason and did as he requested. He reveled in the fact that he had this kind of power. It was fun getting people to obey him. They went upstairs, leaving Jamie and Ted alone.
As soon as they reached the second floor, Dad and Matthew started to speak again, but Mason put his finger to his lips and whispered. “Matthew and I think Jamie and Ted have some secrets. We’re going to listen in on their conversation.”
Mason again shushed Dad and answered his question by opening the upstairs door to the clothes chute. They could hear Jamie speaking as clearly as if he were right beside them.
“…tell me what really happened last night.”
After a pause, they heard Ted’s voice. “I already told you. I drove to your house. I parked the car around the corner. I was wearing my hoodie, so if someone saw me they wouldn’t be able to identify me. I went up the driveway and opened the garage door, using the combination. I went into the house. The amp was beside the Christmas tree where we put it. I picked it up and got out of there, closing the door. I carried it to the car and went back to my place where we unwrapped it. The whole thing was a piece of cake.”
“So he did have a car.” Matthew’s words were more of an exhale than a whisper.
Jamie said, “Are you sure you closed the garage door?”
“Sure as I’m sitting here.”
“I should have gone with you.”
“We couldn’t risk having somebody recognize you.”
There was dead silence for so long that Mason had trouble staying still. Dad put his finger to his lips. He was listening intently.
Finally, Jamie spoke again. “Ted, you’re a blasted liar.”
This explosion riveted the listeners.
When Ted spoke it was so softly that they had to strain to hear him. “You told me Dorothy wasn’t going to be there.”
“I didn’t know her stupid friend had gotten sick. I was at your house, remember? You didn’t have to kill her. She’s not the greatest sister in the world, but she’s still my sister.”
“I panicked. She came downstairs and asked me what I was doing there. I had to shut her up. I grabbed the bat that was under the tree.”
“You hit her and then set fire to the tree.”
“I told you; I panicked. A box of matches was beside the candles on the table. I figured…I don’t know what I figured.” A pause. “I…I’m sorry.”
“You’re an idiot. We have to get rid of the amp.”
“What? After all our trouble?”
“We have to get rid of it. It’s evidence. We have to go to your house now.”
“We don’t have a car, remember? My mother’s not carpooling today like she did last night.”
“Then we’ll have to walk. Do you know what walking is? Putting one foot in front of the other? Come on, before this whole thing blows up.”
A few seconds later the listeners heard the front door close. Dad said, “Get in the car. We’re going to follow them.” They raced downstairs, grabbed their jackets, and jumped in the Prius.”
Dad gave his cell phone to Matthew. “Call Mom on her cell phone. Tell her to ask Butlers what Ted’s last name is and where he lives. Then we’ll call the police.”
* * *
The movers placed the last pieces of furniture inside the big van that was sitting in front of Butlers’ house. Matthew and Mason watched through the window. When Mom came by, Mason asked, “Will they sell the house?”
“Yes.” Mom nodded. “They can’t live there anymore. Even after it’s repaired, it will have too many sad memories.”
Jamie and Ted had been arrested on charges of burglary, arson, and murder. Perhaps Jamie wouldn’t actually be charged with arson and murder, but he certainly had some responsibility for his sister’s death.
Matthew said, “I hope if children move into the house after it’s repaired, they’re law abiding.”
Mom nodded again. “You and me both.”