DI Alan McLean sighed and looked at his watch. Only ten minutes until sunset. He could only guess what time Victor Alexander would return home from work and find whatever he was going to find. McLean pulled the file across the desk and opened it again. It was certainly an unusual case. He wondered whether he’d have been sent the file if half of the station hadn’t gone down with a spectacular vomiting bug. Probably not. It wasn’t a major crime yet, although it certainly had potential. At the moment it was a just bizarrely seasonal stalking.
The first photo in the file had been taken on 22nd December, when Mr Alexander had arrived home to find that the front of his house and two shrubberies had been festooned with fairy lights. It was the Santa dummy on the doorstep that had rattled him. Or rather, the sign around its neck that read ‘what will you be getting for Christmas little boy?’ He wasn’t alarmed – far too level-headed for that – but it was a nuisance. He wanted it on record in case something else happened. The Santa was certainly creepy. A real-life version coming down the chimney would have been enough to send you running away screaming. McLean had taken his daughters to a grotto with a far more avuncular specimen.
He looked at his watch again and wondered what they were doing with their Christmas Eve. Was there a festive movie playing at home? The sky had turned orange and it would soon be dark. Had they talked their mum into making hot chocolate yet? He didn’t yet know what time he’d get home. One call from the officers stationed outside Alexander’s house could give him an idea, but his phone remained silent.
He turned back to the file and another photograph. The 23rd of December had brought a new display. Mr Alexander arrived home to find a series of photographs showing happy families celebrating Christmas. They all looked happy, eating and drinking or exchanging presents. The photographs had been blu-tacked to his front door, along with a wreath saying ‘Merry Christmas’. The FIs hadn’t found any fingerprints but they’d sent the whole lot for further examination, just in case. McLean wondered whether they’d been decimated by vomit too.
Now it was Christmas Eve. Time to find out whether Mr Alexander would come home to another prank or something more serious. He read Alexander’s statements again. He was the senior partner in a firm of accountants based in Leicester city centre. It clearly paid well – the house was large and in an affluent part of town. Yet he lived alone. Conversations with his neighbours revealed a man who worked long hours and didn’t socialise. Perhaps that was why they hadn’t noticed the new decorations being added to his house. McLean wondered whether he should feel sorry for the man, or whether he liked things that way. He drummed his fingers on the desk. It was finally dark. Surely something had to happen soon. There were two plain clothes officers in a car outside the house and a patrol car nearby. His phone buzzed. Mr Alexander had arrived home and there was no obvious sign of any interference with his property. Maybe it had just been a strange practical joke that had fizzled out. Hopefully that meant that he could go home soon. He liked Christmas Eve better than Christmas Day; there was something wonderful about the anticipation. He’d loved sharing the traditions from his childhood in Glasgow too. Most of them had been the same as the English customs, except one. His wife had never heard that you should light a candle and put it in your front window to welcome strangers. Their children had turned it into a candle to welcome Santa instead. He smiled, wondering if the candle would be there to light him home. The phone rang.
“Go ahead. Understood. I’m on my way.”
Alexander’s house looked even more impressive in real life than it did in the photos. The fact that there was a top of the range Jaguar parked in the drive didn’t hurt. McLean knew the plain clothes officer who answered the door.
“Evening sir. We found him in the garage, turning off the power. He’s in the living room now. Mr Alexander wanted a word.” He ended on an eye roll. It had obviously been a trying night already.
As McLean entered the room, his eyes were immediately drawn to the display on the wall next to the fireplace. ‘How does it feel to spend Christmas alone in the dark?’ It had been created by a projector that sat on the carpet.
Another officer rose from the sofa as he entered the room. He’d been sitting next to a pale young man in handcuffs, who was shaking so much McLean wasn’t sure he was capable of standing. It was a stark contrast to the beetle-browed man in the armchair. McLean knew it was Victor Alexander before he stood up to identify himself and shake hands. He had a firm handshake and a piercing gaze. McLean remembered his neighbours’ comments and wondered what it would be like to work for him. You certainly wouldn’t argue with him. The man was physically unremarkable yet somehow, he had force.
“I know it’s not the usual form, but I wanted to hear his explanation before you took him away.”
McLean nodded. “Have you had an explanation?”
Alexander shook his head. “I’m waiting for him to stop trembling. Come on, pull yourself together man!”
There was another chair opposite the sofa and McLean sank into it. He looked into the eyes of the handcuffed man and saw the effort that he was making to form a sentence. Finally, with a gulp and a deep breath, he spoke.
“He doesn’t remember who I am.”
“We’ve met a few times. I used to come and pick Fiona up when she was working late, save her getting the bus home.” He glanced at Alexander. “That happened quite a lot.”
“Fiona?” Alexander said. “Do you mean Fiona Mitchell?”
“My wife. I’m Mark Mitchell.”
“She was a good worker; I was sorry to lose her.”
“I bet you were. All that overtime for no extra pay.”
“She was dedicated.”
“She was overworked!”
“Is that what this is about?” McLean asked. “Getting your own back on your wife’s old boss? Why?”
Mark was shaking his head. “That’s not it. Let me explain.”
He fell silent until Alexander ran out of patience and told him to get on with it.
“I met Fiona when she was a trainee accountant. She was already working for Mr Alexander’s firm and they were paying for her training. I had quite a few friends who’d gone into law and finance so I knew you had to work hard to make it. The trouble was it never stopped. She told me that once she was qualified, she’d have more of her own clients so she could plan her workload. No more late nights because one of the partners needed her to do something urgent. Except it didn’t work that way. She became a safe pair of hands, someone he,” he nodded at Mr Alexander, “could rely on for sensitive work.”
Alexander nodded. “That’s true enough.”
“When we got married, she had to beg for two weeks off to go on honeymoon. Her Dad had a heart attack and he rang her to ask her to come in while he was still in surgery.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t. You don’t exactly encourage personal confidences. But how hard is it to realise that you don’t call someone into work on a day their relative is near death?”
Alexander didn’t reply.
“Christmases were the worst. They always open because tax returns are due at the end of January and their clients often use their Christmas down time to get up to date. Somehow Fiona always ended up working because she didn’t have children.”
“That wasn’t my decision. I left all of that to the office manager.”
“Yeah, but plenty of people asked you to intervene because it was unfair. You could have done that, but you just closed your office door and let the office manager’s cronies get their own way. Every Christmas I’d have to go and visit my family on my own. Every year I’d sit there, seeing the sideways looks between my aunties. Their poor neglected nephew with a career woman for a wife. As if she had a choice. All because you don’t need a break if you haven’t got kids. The irony is, we really wanted them. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.”
“Is that why she left?” McLean asked.
“Yeah. She got home from work one Christmas Eve and just sobbed; she was exhausted. We had two days leave together before she had to be back in the office. I wanted to wrap her in a blanket and sit her on the sofa but she needed to see her family. We spent the whole time travelling around to visit everyone, then she went back to work. She handed her notice in a couple of weeks later.”
Alexander was nodding. “I remember. I still don’t understand why you did all of this. Were you trying to give me a terrible Christmas as some sort of revenge?”
“No. That wasn’t it. Have you read ‘A Christmas Carol’? Charles Dickens?”
Mark looked around the room, addressing the question to all of them. Someone muttered that they’d seen the film and McLean wondered if they meant the Muppet version. “Scrooge didn’t understand Christmas. He thought that life was all about money so he ended up alone and friendless, with no-one to mourn him. You reminded me of that story. You’re all alone in this lovely house until you go back to work. Maybe you’re happy that way, I don’t know. It sounds daft now I say it out loud, but I thought that if I could recreate the ghosts, it would help you to understand what Christmas is for. That it might make you think about your employees and look after them a bit better.” He went quiet but McLean had a strong impression that he was holding something back.
“Did you have something else to say?” McLean asked. “Now’s your chance.”
“It’s just – are you happy Mr Alexander?”
Alexander looked surprised. “I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me that. No, I don’t suppose I am. I grew up in a family where hard work and fun were equally important. Oh, we had the most wonderful Christmases back then.” His eyes shone as he spoke. “My father used to dress up as Father Christmas for the children’s party at the factory and I had to pretend I didn’t know it was him. Then over the years, hard work took over and the fun stopped. My wife, Belinda, died.” His voice faltered. “She had breast cancer. We didn’t have children so when she went I was all alone. It’s easier to bury yourself in work than to submit to the sympathy of well-meaning neighbours. Then one day you find that work is all you have.”
He looked up at Mark. “I’m sorry about Fiona, I didn’t realise she was so unhappy. The truth is, I liked it when she came in over Christmas. I don’t suppose she liked me very much, but she was kind. It reminded me of Belinda. She was good at looking after people, I expect Fiona’s the same.”
Mark nodded. “She is. Everyone except herself. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” He looked up at McLean. “I don’t think I want to press charges. Am I able to do that? Can you just let him go?”
“We can. He broke into your garage, but that’s his only offence.”
Everyone stood up and the sergeant removed Mark’s handcuffs.
“There was one other thing.” Alexander said. “Why now? Fiona left nearly two years ago, what prompted you to visit me this year?”
Mark smiled and reached into a pocket for his phone. He found what he was looking for with a few taps and held it out towards Alexander. “This is our daughter, Angela. It’s her first Christmas.”
The sergeant went ahead of McLean to stand down the patrol car that had pulled up in front of the house. Victor and Andrew shook hands on the doorstep.
“I can’t supply you with a giant goose, but I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”
“Thank you. The whole family are descending tomorrow so it’ll definitely be busy, but at least we’ll have a few quiet days afterwards. What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
As they walked down the path, a woman of about fifty walked up. “I’m sorry to intrude, but I saw the police car; is everything all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” Victor replied. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“Oh, that’s good.” McLean saw her hesitate, biting her lip. “Look – I know we don’t really know each other, but Belinda was a good friend to me. I loved her very much and I don’t believe she’d want you to be on your own at Christmas. Would you like to come over for a drink?”
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
McLean smiled. It was a lovely gesture but he still felt as if he might throw up. He checked his watch. If he was lucky, he’d be home in time for hot chocolate.