A Body under the Christmas Tree by Steve Demaree by Steve Demaree - Read Online

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A Body under the Christmas Tree - Steve Demaree

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Now that I'm retired, my week consists of six Saturdays and a Sunday. I like retirement, although life wasn't too bad when I was Lt. Cy Dekker, head of the Hilldale Police Department, Homicide Division, assisted by my lifelong friend, Sgt. Lou Murdock. But retirement is better. Or it was until Saturday, December 15.

On that particular Saturday, I got out of bed, rather than lie there until I got numb. If I hadn't gotten up early that morning, I might still have been in bed when Lou called.

Within thirty minutes of rising up out of bed, as I sat in my recliner contemplating my day, I looked over at the vacant spot in front of my picture window. It was time to do something about that. I was about to go up into the attic and lug my Christmas tree down the steps and into the living room when Lou called and messed up my plans.

People aren't in the habit of calling me so early in the day. When the phone rang, I got a quizzical look on my face and wondered who was disturbing my peace. I walked over and picked up my heavy house phone, which some people call an antique. My hello must have sounded more like a question than a greeting, but that didn't phase Lou.

What're you up to this morning, Cy?

Always quick with an answer unless I'm overwhelmed by a case, I replied, About five ten and a half. Same as you.

Undeterred, Lou responded, How about giving me an answer that speaks specifically of today, like something that has to do with your actions or inactions?

How's this? I was about to go up into the attic and retrieve my Christmas tree, lights, and ornaments. Why? Do you want to come over and decorate for me?

You mean that ratty tree you've been putting up for years. How many years has it been? Ten? Does it still have any needles on it?

Actually, I bought it eighteen years ago and it only loses about a thousand needles a year, and since no one sees it but you, me, Jennifer, and sometimes Thelma Lou, and none of you have complained about it, I figure I'll put it up again this year. That is if you don't have a problem with that.

Well, it just so happens I do. I have an idea.

Is this an idea where later I'll regret that I listened to it?

Maybe. But I don't think so.

I'm sure I'll will, but shoot.

I can't. My gun isn't loaded. I don't even have it in my hand.

Lou. Just go ahead before I start thinking clearly and hang up.

Okay. Why don't you and I drive up to Haggendorf's Free Christmas Tree Farm and cut down our own trees this year?

Why don't you drive out there and cut down one for each of us and I'll help you bring mine into the house when you get here?

There's just one problem with that. I don't want to find needles all over the place in my baby for the next five years. I could understand that. Lou's baby was his '57 Chevy, which he doesn't drive a lot, but he treats it with kid gloves, anyway.

To needle him, I gave him a suggestion. Put it in the trunk. You don't ride in the trunk, do you?

Cy, you know how I am about my car.

But you have no problem with getting needles in my van?

Lou ignored my question. He knew how to get me to go along with his plan. We could stop at the Blue Moon for breakfast on the way out there.

Lou and I were making more of an effort to stop in for breakfast at the Blue Moon. Before we retired, and before I was given the ultimatum to lose weight, Lou and I used to eat breakfast at the Blue Moon almost every day except Sunday. And we ate enough on each trip to satisfy most groups of four. We seldom chose either biscuits and gravy or pancakes, or bacon or sausage. Most of the time, we chose both.

It had been three weeks since we had stopped in there to eat and see our favorite girl Rosie, who always treated us better than any wife ever could. Three weeks is a long time. That meant it was time to go back. Sort of a pre-Christmas breakfast.

Oh, okay. I'll pick you up in thirty minutes. I'm sure I'll regret this later.

I'll be sure to tell Rosie that.

I'm not talking about breakfast. I'm talking about cutting down a Christmas tree when I've got a perfectly good one waiting for me in my attic.

Lou chuckled, then hung up. He had me hooked.

I had already read my Bible and morning devotionals, and I had even done a few exercises. I had planned to fix breakfast after I brought the tree down, before I decorated it, but now I didn't have to do either of those.  After I took a shower and shaved, I would be good to go. I hurried through that ordeal because I wanted to get to the tree farm and back, so I could decorate my tree and be able to enjoy it.

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Well, that's how it started. With Lou's phone call. Although I'm sure I would have been suckered into solving some more murders whether I went to cut down a tree or not, knowing what I found out later.

I managed to leave my house without encountering the enemy from next door. I  said a quick prayer of thanks for that, then drove off to pick up Lou. My thoughts were only on eating a scrumptious breakfast, when, as I would find out later, they should have been on something else first.

I collected Lou and listened to his shenanigans until we arrived at our first stop, the Blue Moon Diner. We received our hugs from Rosie, the chief cook and owner of the diner.

So, where have the two of you been keeping yourselves?

I answered first, not sure if Lou would make up some lie that painted me in a bad light. Here and there.

Not here often enough, she replied. I've had to take out a loan to keep this place going. Whether you know it or not, finding one thousand new customers, which is what it would take to eat as much as the two of you do, is hard to find in this burg. Look, your stools have dust on them.

Maybe you should clean more often.

My comment caused Rosie to cuff me on the ear. Just go sit down and twirl around on your stools a few times while I go see if I have any food left.

Lou and I went over to the counter, plopped down on the same two stools where we always sit, and spun them around until we were about to get dizzy. Luckily, no one else was in the place. While we were acting like children, Rosie went to the kitchen and prepared a feast for us. We ate, let our food settle for a suitable time, talked to Rosie a few minutes to see how things were really going, then walked out, and got in my van. Maybe all that food was enough to give me the strength to cut down a tree.

As I took off, Lou finagled with my radio dial until he found the station that played all Christmas carols. He bellowed out each carol with a singing voice that brought dogs from miles around. I tried to ignore him as we headed out of town to the tree farm.

The Haggendorfs were a wealthy family who felt they had had enough money and enough of our cold Kentucky winters, so they moved south. Way south. Christmas shopping in shorts south. They deeded their one-hundred-plus acre farm, full of every kind of tree, to the county, with the stipulation that people could go out there at Christmas and cut down their own tree. There was a limit of one tree per family, to keep someone from cutting down all the trees and selling them, and there was a camera as you left the property, to make sure everyone abided by the rule. Although I'm not sure everyone knew about the camera.

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We hadn't much more than left the Blue Moon when it started to snow hard enough that I needed to use the windshield wipers. The Haggendorf property was on the edge of the county and up a steep and winding road, so it took us twenty-five minutes to get to the edge of the property. We left the city limits behind and soon the road out of town was bracketed by trees on both sides, and not much other than trees. That road still looked much like God designed it. Except for the asphalt. At least, my Bible doesn't say anything about God blacktopping on the sixth day.

It had been a while since I'd been out that way, so I slowed down when I realized that my left turn was coming up soon. By the time I got to the turnoff, the road was already covered with snow. I wondered if the snow might cause us to slide off the road, or if it would snow enough that we would get stuck. Sometimes I get pessimistic when I'm doing something I don't want to be doing. 

The road that turned to the left was flat, but after only a quarter of a mile we spotted a sign that said Haggendorf Tree Farm, one-half mile, with an arrow pointing to the right. I turned right, onto that road, and we started to climb the corkscrew road to the parking lot. After the Haggendorfs bailed on us, the county tore down the Haggendorf mansion and turned the grounds surrounding it into a parking lot. Other than the road that led up to it, the entire area was enveloped by trees. That's when it became a tree farm. I had heard that the mansion was a beautiful home in its day, but it had stood neglected for a while between when the Haggendorfs moved out and they deeded the farm to the county.

As I drove, I didn't wonder if each of the snowflakes was different. I only knew that all of them were quite large. It was going to be a significant snowfall for December. Accumulation of more than an inch or two in Kentucky in December is rare, but then so is finding dead bodies at Christmas. Although, at that time I had no evidence that if you found one you'd find the other.

The road leading up to the tree farm consisted of what an optimist might call two narrow lanes, or two wide bike lanes, although that morning it looked more like a slalom course at a ski resort, but with no flags and all the turns going in the same direction. If that wasn't threatening enough on its own, there were only a couple of feet on each side of the road that was rimmed with trees, both bare deciduous trees, and evergreens, so I used my windshield wipers to make sure I didn't reconfigure my van on the way up to the top. I would have enjoyed the view more if I didn't have to drive. Without closing my eyes I prayed that we wouldn't meet anyone on their way down.  

The snowfall did make it seem more like Christmas, and more than once since we left the Blue Moon Lou had sung It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. I wasn't sure if I was happy or sad that he only knew the first two lines of the song. At least we had the carols on the radio to distract him and keep him from setting a world's record for singing that one song.

I wasn't too crazy about the idea of dashing through the snow. I should have known that the one day Lou had come up with his lame-brained plan for my in-home decorations would be the same day we might set a record for snowfall for one day in December. Before we got up to the sign that identified the tree farm, the snow had become so heavy it was hard to see. If we hadn't been almost to our destination, I would have turned around and headed back home. If there was any place to turn around. But I was having second thoughts about Lou's suggestion to leave home and cut down a couple of Christmas trees.

Lou sang from the time we left the Blue Moon until we arrived at the tree farm. For a change, I didn't mind too much, as long as he didn't sing that one song over and over. I kept turning up the volume on the radio to get him to stifle his attempt at karaoke, minus the needed props. His singing took my mind off the dangerous drive through the snow and kept me from thinking about how going back down that curvy road might be even more dangerous. My thoughts instead were just as bad. I envisioned that I would get my tree, but another jealous tree would seek revenge and get me, or at least my van, on our way down.

I shook my head and focused on the fact that everyone loves Christmas carols, even if Lou is singing them. He looked over at me and smiled as he sang O Christmas Tree. He didn't know most of the words to it, either. I gave him a brief glance, then focused on the curving road that headed uphill. He wouldn't get a second glance on the way down. Too risky.

What seemed like four days later, we arrived at the top. At least the top as far as driving was concerned. There was the paved parking lot I knew about, and everything was uphill from there in three directions. And there were trees everywhere I looked. Evidently, all of New York City hadn't heard of the free tree farm just outside of Hilldale, Kentucky. For some reason, I drove all the way to the back-right of the lot before I parked. There were no other cars around. Maybe everyone else had more sense and stayed home. Or had come and cut their tree earlier in the month. I didn't take the time to count all the tree stumps where trees had been cut off near the ground. Besides, the place was large enough that no two people would head in the same direction to cut down their trees. There were thousands of trees to choose from.

We popped out of my van and looked around as the snow pelted down on us. I took a moment and stuck my tongue out and caught a snowflake or two. As I said, there were trees everywhere, although none were growing out of the asphalt. It wasn't like we had only a small selection to choose from, although I limited my choices to the evergreen variety. I had no interest in an oak or a redwood. My head swiveled as I scanned our possibilities. 

I'm someone who, if he is going to cut down a tree for the first time, wants to find the perfect tree. Even if it is free. I didn't drive all that way for a scraggly tree. I had one of those in my attic, and I didn't need to toss it after Christmas was over. But I didn't want to go too far up the hill to get my tree. Lou, who wanted to get home and decorate his tree before dark, pointed out one not five feet from the paved parking lot. How about that one?

The location was good, but it wasn't the perfect tree. Too tall, I said. I don't want one over six feet. I didn't want a tree too much taller than I am. I could see myself falling off a ladder, while wearing no device which alerted people that I had fallen and couldn't get up.

The tree wasn't going to come to us, so we started trudging up the hill. At least it wasn't a steep incline. Well, it didn't seem like one until I started to climb it. By then it had begun to resemble Mt. Everest, or at least Mt. McKinley, which went into the Witness Protection program and changed its name to Denali.

At least we could follow the tracks we made in the snow, back to my van. But then, we wouldn't need to do that. I could still see the van and no one had stolen its tires. Sometimes it pays to live somewhere other than the big city.

Fifty feet later, Lou stopped. Both of us were winded. How about that one? he asked, after he had caught his breath.

There were several trees in the general vicinity in which he pointed, so I asked, Which one?

The green one.

I raised my hands and held them out as if I was about to choke him. I almost lost my balance. The ground underneath my feet was becoming a little slippery.

Undeterred, Lou walked over and pointed at a specific tree.

That's cedar. Cedar is only good for smelling. They aren't as pretty as spruce and pine.

Lou nodded. I'm impressed, Cy. I didn't realize that you knew one tree from another.

I smiled. I Googled them before I left the house.

Lou laughed.

The snow was coming down harder, so I didn't want to take all day choosing a tree. I got less selective. How about that one? I asked, as I pointed at one twenty feet up the hill from where we stood.

Perfect. Go get the saw.

Saw? I replied.

Don't tell me you forgot the saw? What did you plan to use to cut it down, a pocket knife?

A pocket knife? I asked.

3

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I was having fun with Lou. Before I left my house, I put a saw in the back of the van. Since I had selected a tree I thought worthy of standing decorated in my house, I walked back down the hill to retrieve that saw. When I returned, huffing and puffing only slightly, Lou looked less eager to cut down the tree. I don't think this is the one, Cy? It doesn't look that good on the other side. Maybe we should look over there, he said, pointing off in the distance.

No, I like this one, I said, as much to disagree with him as anything. 

I started to walk around the tree, but Lou blocked my path. Do you mind? I want to see the other side of the tree, I said, as I tried to figure out if I was going to have to push him aside.

I don't think you do, Lou replied.

That made me even more determined that this was the tree I wanted in my house.

I gave Lou the look. Reluctantly, he moved out of my way. I stepped around him, anxious to see the other side of the tree to see if the branches were full. I looked up at the tree as I walked. The branches in the back looked