As you may know, I released my new Christmas crime novella a couple of weeks ago, Stealing Christmas, and I thought I’d share here the opening chapter. If you find it appeals and you can’t go another moment without reading the rest, or picking it up and putting it to one side for December, you can find a link at the bottom of the post. Kindle and paperback both available. Enjoy!
The Christmas lights on the outside of the first house illuminate the whole street.
“Jesus Christ,” Teddy Norton says. It’s not his first viewing, but it still gets him. “Pretty sure she’s added more bulbs to it every damn time I come round. You reckon people on this block go about their homes with sunglasses on?”
Bud Corrigan stares at the house. The flickering of the lights dance across his features. It’s the first time he’s seen it. He shields his eyes as he peers out. “Cindy must really like Christmas, huh?”
“Who knew?” Teddy says. “This looks like the house of someone that actually enjoys the season, and she never looked to me like she enjoyed anything.” Teddy grits his teeth. Cindy was in charge of human resources at the factory where they’d both worked just a few short months ago. She was the one found out about Teddy’s…history. She was the one that got them both fired.
Bud stares at the house like the lights have him hypnotised.
Teddy taps him on the arm. “Come on. We’ll roll round the back, go in that way.”
“You don’t think it’s too well lit? People might see us.”
“See us? It’s the best cover we’ve got. Can you see anything through those windows?”
Bud leans forward, against the passenger side door, right up to the glass, trying to see through the house’s windows. “No, guess not.”
“We could probably hit every light switch in the place and still no one would be able to see us.”
“Okay, sure, good point.”
Teddy starts up the van, rolls down the street and round the corner. He takes his time through the slush on the road. Snow is piled high on the sidewalks and next to the parked cars there. It’s not snowing right now, but the sky above them looks heavy with clouds. There isn’t a single star visible. It’ll likely snow again, and hard, before the night is out.
“How long ago did the party start?” Bud says.
Teddy checks the clock on the dashboard. “An hour.”
“She’ll be there now, right? I mean, there’s fashionably late, but an hour would just be rude, right?”
“She’ll be there. It didn’t look like there was anyone home. We’ll check first, don’t worry.”
Bud is worried, though. He’s never done this before. This is his first time. He chews his bottom lip and his knees bounce. He’s balled his hands up in his lap to stop them from fidgeting. He’s balled them up so tight his knuckles are bone white.
The other houses on the street have made an effort, but none of them compare to Cindy’s in terms of lights per square inch. It makes Teddy think of the Griswold home in Christmas Vacation. He thinks maybe her husband is the joyous one, just like Clark in the movie. The big kid. Probably put all those lights up himself right at the start of the month, spends the rest of the year counting down until he can do it all over again.
It’s eight o’clock, Christmas Eve. Cindy’s house is the first on their list. They’re starting in the centre of town, working their way out. Phil’s will be last. He lives on the outskirts, the biggest house in town for the biggest swinging dick. Phil owns the factory where Teddy and Bud worked. Where Cindy works. Phil was their boss. He didn’t fire them personally – got his brother, the head of security, to do that – but he surely signed off on it.
They intend to be done in three hours, tops. Three hours then they’re gone, out of town, keep driving, and find somewhere new to start over. Kiss this shitty little place goodbye. Merry Christmas. They’re giving themselves the biggest gift of all come Christmas morning, and they’re not gonna wait for no fat man in a red suit to deliver it, they’re gonna go out and get it themselves.
There’s a group of carollers going from house to house. They’ve already been to Cindy’s, moved on after receiving no answer. Now, three doors down, a husband, wife, and child stand in their doorway, listening to them tunelessly work their way through We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Still, as bad as it is, they smile. They all smile, singers and listeners alike. It’s Christmas Eve. The happiest time of the year. Everyone’s in a good mood.
The back wheels of the van skid a little as Teddy takes the corner, but he manages to right it. Slows a little more.
“Remember when we used to do that?” Bud says.
“Do what?” Teddy is concentrating on the road, he doesn’t have time for reminiscing.
“When we usedta go carol singing to get a little cash together.”
“I remember about three houses outta five usedta give us cash for singing. The other two times we just had to wind the song up and stand there lookin like a couple of assholes twiddling our thumbs.”
Bud laughs. “Yeah, but they were usually the old people. The elderly. They had the biggest smiles, though.”
“Oh yeah, that’s what I was in it for – the fuckin smiles. I had the voice of an angel, man. I deserved payment for that shit.”
“It’s true, you really hit those high notes. I was a decent, uh…what’s it called…”
“Yeah, that’s it. I was good at that.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. And you don’t sound like an angel no more. What went wrong?”
“Cigarettes and booze, man.”
“You’d sound more like Tom Waits if we tried it now.”
Teddy grunts. “Uh-huh. Mark Lanegan.”
Teddy slows, stops at the back of Cindy’s house. It’s easy to tell which is hers. There are no lights on the back, but it’s hard to miss the glow that emanates from the front.
“Then we’d take all that loose change and we’d go hang round the liquor store until someone came along who’d go in and buy us beer.”
“Keep us warm on those cold nights,” Teddy says, not really paying attention, looking up at the dark windows of the house, making sure it’s as empty as he tried to convince Bud it is. He remembers how no one answered for the carollers. He’s just doubting himself, is all. Listening too much to his nerves.
“Wasn’t so hard to find someone to go in for us when it was December,” Bud says. “People were always a lot nicer at Christmas.”
“Maybe they still are and we just don’t notice as much anymore.” Teddy checks the windows of the other houses. The neighbours. Checks for lights, for movement, anyone watching them. Doesn’t see anyone. It’s not a night for people to lurk at their windows and be suspicious of every car on the road. It’s a night to relax with family and watch Christmas specials on the television, to sip egg nog and sing songs at the piano. To tuck up the children on the one night of the year they’re eager to get to bed. Santa Claus is coming to town. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Teddy kills the engine, pockets the keys. They both slide from the van and make their way to the back gate. They’re lucky – it’s not locked. Bud looks at Teddy. “Get in,” Teddy prompts.
“Figured we’d have to climb the fence.”
“Yeah, well, we don’t, so get movin.”
They both wear black. Jeans, jumpers, woollen hats. They look suspicious as all hell, it’s true, but it’s also necessary. When they’re driving, they take off the hats, wear heavy coats that aren’t black. If a cop passes them on the road, looks inside, they don’t want to arouse his interest. If he pulls them over, they don’t want him questioning the evening’s all-black fashion choices. If he asks, they’re plumbers on an emergency call, trying to save someone’s Christmas from being ruined entirely from a burst pipe.
Snow in the back yard crunches underfoot. It’s thick, untouched. No kids have played in it, no dogs have run in it. Not a single snowman. Near the back door there’s a gas-powered barbecue, wrapped up for the winter, practically buried under white. Teddy recognises the shape of it. They go to the back door. Teddy keeps an eye on all the nearby windows. He carries a toolkit. It’s held close to his side. Bud carries the bags. Holds them close, too. They both stop at the back door, listen. They look at each other.
“I don’t hear anything,” Bud says.
“See, what’d I tell you? She’s gone to the party.”
Bud nods along. “Yeah, good.”
Teddy tries the handle, on the off-chance they’ll get as lucky with the door as they were with the gate, but it’s not to be. He’s not disappointed because he’s not surprised, but it was worth checking. He gets down on his knees, checks the style of lock, then opens up the toolkit. Pulls out a hammer and chisel. Before he sets to work he turns to Bud, looks up at him. They’ve been over this already, but sometimes it’s worth repeating things to Bud. He’s prone to forgetting the important details. “If there’s an alarm, forget the gifts. Straight upstairs, grab the jewellery. Got it?”
“Yeah man, I know, I know.”
“Uh-huh. I’m gonna hit this now – you keep a look out.”
Bud turns his back on Teddy, holds watch. Teddy places the chisel in the centre of the door handle, hits it hard with the hammer. The lock flies out the other side, hits the floor with a thud. The door opens. It’s not his first time.
They listen. There’s no alarm. Teddy pats Bud on the arm, squeezes his bicep. “Let’s move.”
They get inside. Teddy stays in the kitchen, checks drawers and cupboards and cookie jars for wallets, purses, change. Bud goes straight into the front room, checks the gifts. Shakes each box. Anything that sounds like jewellery, feels like it might be expensive, he tears it open, checks. Teddy doesn’t find anything in the kitchen, but as he heads through, on his way to the stairs to go up to the bedroom, he notices that Bud has come up with a Rolex, a pair of earrings, a necklace. He’s working fast. Teddy is impressed. It’s probably the nerves.
The lights on the Christmas tree are on. They twinkle. There are a couple of fake candles flickering on the fireplace. It all looks decidedly dim in contrast with the front of the house.
Teddy reaches the landing, checks the bedroom. Straight to the vanity table. He empties out the contents of the jewellery box, upends the necklace stand. Bud appears behind him in the doorway. “Reckon I got all the gifts worth anything,” he says.
Teddy shakes his bag. “Cindy sure has a lot of jewellery.”
“Well, I’ll say this for her, she’s never looked cheap.”
Bud goes to the built-in wardrobes, rummages. Pulls out a couple of suits, stuffs them into the bag. Teddy spots him.
“Fold them, Bud, fold them. They ain’t gonna be worth anythin if they’re all crumpled up and damaged.”
Bud looks confused. “I’ve never folded a suit before.”
Teddy narrows his eyes. The only time he’s ever had to wear a suit he was in court. “Well, just be gentle with em, okay? We’ll fold them after. Try not to crease them.”
“Sure.” Bud folds a suit in half – jacket and pants – and feeds it into the bag.
Teddy looks round the room. He checks under the bed. “We’re done here. Let’s go.”
They leave the house as quietly as they entered, checking the windows again before they crunch through the yard and back to the van. Bud carries both bags. He slides open the side door, puts them in. Doesn’t throw them, doesn’t want to make more noise than necessary. He grabs a new pair of plates. They have a change for after each house they plan to hit.
Teddy starts the van. Bud gets in, straps in, Teddy drives on. Takes his time, goes nice and slow, keeps in control of the steering wheel. Doesn’t want to skid, to sideswipe one of the parked cars and set off its alarm.
“D’you think they’re having a good time?” Bud says.
Teddy narrows his eyes. “What? Who?” Sometimes Bud comes out with non-sequiturs, and no matter how many times Teddy has berated him about this, it doesn’t stop him. Part of the reason being Bud doesn’t understand what a non-sequitur is.
“The people at the party. Do you think they’re enjoying themselves?”
Teddy shakes his head. Other than to acknowledge where they are, Teddy hasn’t given them a thought. “The fuck do I care?”