It’s launch day for Murder at Christmas, Sand and Sea Hawaiian Mystery Series #4. This is a fun story which involves the death of a substitute Santa at Christmas. In this book we revisit the senior sleuths who helped Luke and Lani solve the mystery in book 2 of the series: Murder at Sunrise. I’ve found that engaging the seniors as part of the sleuthing gang brings a certain humor to the series that probably wouldn’t be evident in their absence. So please do join Luke and Lani along with: the southern sisters Emmy Jean and Tammy Rhea Thornton, straight laced Janice Furlong, tender hearted Elva Chambers, and fit and athletic Beth Wasserman, as they mix meddling with investigating while working together to track down a killer.
I’ve included Chapter 1 below.
Santa was dead. There was no doubt about it. His red and white hat was lying at his side, his beard was covered in dirt, and the blood from the large gash on his head was pooled around him. I bent down to feel for a pulse just to be certain, but I wasn’t expecting to find anything.
“Did you find him?” Kekoa Pope, my cousin and fellow employee at the Dolphin Bay Resort, asked over the handheld radio resort staff used to communicate with one another.
“I found him.”
I heard Kekoa let out a sigh of relief. “Good. Tell Sam to get his red furry backside over to the party. The line to take a photo with Santa is getting longer and longer.”
I looked down at the body of a man I knew and respected. My brain hadn’t quite reconciled the pounding in my chest with the reality of the scene before me. The whole thing seemed so surreal. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to find a substitute Santa for the event,” I choked out.
“Substitute? But Sam is the substitute.” I could hear the panic in Kekoa’s voice. The poor thing had been persuaded to take on the organization of the Step into Christmas party even though she had absolutely no background in event planning and was in so deep over her head she’d most likely never see the light of day again.
“I know Sam is the substitute, but I’m afraid Sam is dead.”
“Hit on the back of the head.” I looked down at the red bikini I wore with only a grass skirt over the bottom half. I hadn’t had anywhere to put a phone, so I hadn’t brought mine when I’d gone to look for Santa. “I don’t have my phone and don’t want to leave Sam alone. Call Jason,” I added, referring to my cop brother. “Tell him to bring a team. I’ll be waiting near the loading dock behind the hotel.”
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kailani Pope, although pretty much everyone calls me Lani. I’m a WSO—water safety officer—at the Dolphin Bay Resort on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Normally I spend my shifts on the beach, but this year, just as the holiday visitors began to arrive, half the employees at the resort had come down with the flu, so everyone who wasn’t sick had been asked to take on extra shifts. Today I’d spent eight hours on tower two, making sure the guests who preferred to hang out at the surfing beach were both safe and happy, before grabbing a quick shower and dressing in a red velvet bikini, a grass skirt, and an elf hat, to help out as a Santa’s helper for the annual kickoff event for the holiday season. One of the main attractions during this time of the year is photos with Santa. When the Santa who was supposed to work the event had called in sick, I’d enlisted the help of my friend Sam, who conveniently owned a Santa suit, to fill in. The sun had long since set, so the alley where I stood was dark except for the overhead lights that had clicked on automatically. If Santa had fallen victim to his attacker in one of the areas that wasn’t illuminated, he might not have been discovered until morning.
I watched as the first of the HPD squad cars rolled into the alley. I was expecting to see Jason, but instead it was Colin Reynolds, one of the HPD officers who worked with him.
“Nice outfit. Very festive.” Colin winked as he greeted me.
I just glared at the man I’d known most of my life. Colin was a good guy, but he liked to tease, and after five days of sixteen-hour shifts I wasn’t in the mood for needless banter, no matter how harmless. “Where’s Jason?”
“Finishing up on another call. He sent me to get started. What do we have?”
“Sam Riverton. We recruited him at the last minute to act as a temporary Santa when the man who’d been assigned the job got sick. He’s a local I’ve known for a year or so. He’s sixty-six years old, retired from teaching, and a really nice guy. He hangs out with the Monday afternoon senior bingo group I attend with my neighbor Elva.”
Colin knelt down to take a closer look at the body. “When did you first notice he was missing?”
“He arrived on the resort grounds at around five. He was supposed to start at six. We arranged for him to get into his costume in the locker room down near the beach that’s used by the staff. When six o’clock arrived and there was still no Santa, Kekoa sent me to find him. I started off looking in the locker room, so it must have been an additional fifteen minutes before I found him.”
“Is there a reason he might be back here at this time of day? The place is deserted.”
“The loading dock staff leave at four and the area is secured. Kekoa thought it would be best if Sam accessed the building by the back door so he wouldn’t have to walk through the busy part of the resort on his way to the party. She figured if he could slip in though the back unnoticed he could make a big entrance, so she arranged for the door to be left open.”
“How many people knew of this plan?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Sam’s guests, security, and maybe a handful of people who were working the party.”
I turned to watch as several vehicles from the Honolulu Police Department pulled into the alley and parked behind Colin’s car. I knew most of the men and women who served the community I lived in and it usually gave me a feeling of comfort when they arrived on the scene. Today I just felt empty.
Colin stood up and faced me. “Did you see anyone else around when you got here?”
“No. I imagine whoever did this was long gone by the time I decided to check back here.”
“Did you touch anything?”
“No. I felt for a pulse, but that was it.”
Colin glanced at the three men who were walking toward us. “I’m going to talk to the medical examiner. While I’m doing that I want you to go back inside and tell whoever is in charge of security to secure the door that leads back here. I’m sure Jason will want to talk to you when he gets here.”
“I’ll be in ballroom two. I’m helping out with the Step into Christmas event. I’ll be there until after midnight, so he can look for me there.”
With that, I headed to the back door of the building. It was locked, which meant someone had locked it between the time Kekoa opened it for Sam and now. I turned around and headed back around the building to the main entrance.
I felt like I was in a daze as I walked through the colorfully decorated resort. While Dolphin Bay tends to exude a happy energy on a regular basis, there’s something especially magical about the festive sparkle that’s created when hundreds of guests gather together in anticipation of Christmas on the island.
Kekoa hurried over to meet me as I arrived at the foyer to the ballroom. “What happened? Who would kill Sam?”
“I don’t know.” I looked toward the table set for eight Sam had been given in exchange for taking on the Santa gig. My next-door neighbor, Elva Talbot, was one of the seniors waiting for Sam to make his grand entrance. She was going to be devastated when she found out what had happened. “I found him in the alley near the loading dock. Someone hit him in the back of the head.” I looked at the hundreds of elegantly dressed guests waiting for the party to begin. “Have you seen Titan?” I asked, referring to Titan Mathews, the head of security.
“Not since this morning. It seems we had another burglary; this time a very expensive necklace was stolen. The last time I saw him, he was attempting to assure the extremely irate woman it belonged to that everything that could be done to find her family heirloom was happening.”
“That’s five robberies in two weeks.”
“I know. I’m afraid we have a real problem.”
“I agree, but right now I need to find someone to secure the exterior door leading out to the loading dock. Colin wants to make sure resort staff and guests can’t wander onto the crime scene. I’m going to grab my phone and then head upstairs to the security office, but I’ll come back right away and we’ll figure out what to do next when I do.”
“Okay, but hurry. The natives are getting restless.”
There was a line twenty people deep at the elevators. The ballroom where the Step into Christmas party was being held was on the second floor of the main lodging and convention building and the main security office was on the fourth, so it was a lot quicker to run up the stairs than wait for the elevator. My long black hair flew behind me as I ran as fast as I could in the red flip-flops that had been part of my costume.
When I arrived on the fourth floor I headed directly to the security office. The only person inside was a new hire whose name I couldn’t remember. “Where’s Titan?”
“He left for the day.”
“When did he go?”
“I guess about a half hour to forty-five minutes ago. I didn’t look at the clock. I was on the phone when he came in, did something on his computer, and then left again, but I did hear him mentioning something about having a date he was already late for.”
I frowned. “What computer?”
“The one in his office.”
I headed in that direction.
“Wait. You can’t go in there.”
I stopped and turned around. “It’s okay. I work here. My name is Lani Pope.”
“I know who you are. You’re a WSO, and the last time I checked, WSOs don’t have clearance to poke around in the security office.”
“I guess you heard a man died.”
The young man looked shocked. “Tonight?”
“Within the last sixty minutes. I’m supposed to find someone to secure the exit leading onto the loading dock. HPD doesn’t want employees or guests wandering out there while they’re investigating the crime scene.”
“Of course. Just give me a minute.”
I waited while he accessed one of the radios we used to communicate among themselves and dispatched the security guard on duty to the loading dock exit. Once that was accomplished he turned his attention back to me. “The door has been secured.”
“Great.” I turned on my biggest smile. “What’s your name again?”
“So, Bill, now that the door is secure we just need to get a look at the security tapes for the last hour.”
“I’m not sure I should show those to you. I mean, it’s not like you’re a cop.”
The poor guy looked more than just a little harried, but I needed answers and I needed them immediately. “Look, my brother is the lead detective on this case. He got held up and wanted me to pitch in until he arrived. We’re concerned that if we don’t identify the person who killed Santa right away he or she will have time to get away, possibly even get off the island. I mean really, what harm could possibly come from us looking at the video feed together?”
“I should check with Titan.”
“Do you have a way to get hold of him?”
“I have his cell number for emergencies. Hang on; I’ll call him.”
I waited, but I could tell by the look of frustration on Bill’s face that he wasn’t picking up. Bill left a message, but who knew how long it would be before Titan returned his call if he really was on a date?
“Look, time is of the essence here. What possible harm could come from taking a peek at the video feed?”
He frowned. “Oh, all right. What sort of time frame are we looking at?”
“I’m going to say between five-twenty and six. Santa was shown to the locker room down by the beach at a little after five and he was supposed to get to the party by six.”
Bill did as I’d asked. I could see his frown deepen as he typed commands into his keyboard. “This is the camera that covers the loading dock beginning at five-twenty.”
I looked at the screen he was pointing to. It was focused on the dock and rear door of the alley. Based on the position of the camera and the location of Sam’s body, the camera wouldn’t have caught the murder anyway. “How many cameras look out onto the alley behind the loading dock?”
“Just this one.”
“Can we speed up the feed so it won’t actually take a half hour to see it?”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
I watched but didn’t see much of anything. With the camera positioned as it was I doubted there would be much to see.
“Wait. Stop there.” I leaned forward. “Now rewind just a bit.”
He did as I asked.
“Stop.” I pointed at the screen. “Look here; the door is beginning to open from the inside. Show me the next frame.”
Bill tried to do what I needed, but the next frame showed the door closed again.
“Maybe whoever was going to come out changed their mind and closed the door before opening it all the way,” he suggested.
“Or not. Go back to the frame where the door starts to open.”
“Look at the time stamp.”
“It says five twenty-eight.”
“Now go to the next frame.”
“So what happened to five twenty-nine?”
Bill frowned. “It’s gone.”
I glanced at the closed office door where Titan kept a desk. “Who would have access to erase or tamper with the video?”
“No one. The video isn’t actually on a tape. It’s on the hard drive, which is backed up to the cloud at the end of the day. If you want to review footage of a period of time, you query the video feed by camera number, date, and time. The security personnel on shift can view the feed, but the only people who can edit the video on the hard drive are those with the highest clearance.”
“Would Titan be able to delete or alter the material?”
He looked shocked. “I’m not sure.”
“Okay, do you remember seeing anything? You’ve been sitting here monitoring the video cameras. You must have noticed someone coming out to the alley through that door.”
Bill looked down at his hands. “My girlfriend called. There may have been a short time when I was distracted.”
“How short?” I demanded.
“I guess about twenty minutes. Although it may not have mattered. The video feed rotates. If whatever occurred took place within the confines of a single minute I might not have seen whatever it might have been even if I’d been paying attention.”
I just glared at him. “We need to find out if there’s any other missing footage. You start looking; I’m going to text my brother.”
I noticed several SOS texts from Kekoa when I picked up my phone to text Jason about the missing footage.
“I need to get back to the ballroom. Do you have a cell phone?”
“I have my personal phone.”
I jotted down my cell number. “Text me after you’ve finish looking at the footage. If you see anything, no matter how small, or if you find additional missing footage, text me right away and I’ll come back. My brother Jason is with the HPD and I’m sure he’ll want to speak to you when he gets here, so don’t go anywhere.”
I headed back toward the ballroom. It seemed strange to me that the hotel was full of colorfully dressed people chatting and sharing drinks as Christmas carols played in the background, while just beyond the exterior walls a man had been hit over the head and left to die. I couldn’t imagine who would want to kill kind, sweet Sam, but I intended to find out.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Kekoa said when she saw me. “Things are really getting tense. We made an announcement to the guests that due to unforeseen circumstances Santa wouldn’t be attending the party after all. Santa’s helpers are circulating with complimentary champagne until dinner is served and it seems most of the guests are fine with the situation, but Elva and the seniors are of course concerned about Sam. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold them at bay. They want answers and I think they’re about at the end of their patience waiting for someone to fill them in.”
I looked toward the table where the seniors were sitting. “I’ll talk to them. But not here. Let me see if I can find an empty conference room where we can talk in private. I’ll come back to get them as soon as I know where we’re going.”
“Okay, but hurry. I’m afraid they’re going to ambush me if I don’t start giving them some answers.”