Forget a white Christmas in Houston. Poet, chef and amateur sleuth Neil Marshall sees a blue, blue Yuletide heading straight at him. And as if his holiday funk and the hectic seasonal demands aren't enough, Neil's grandfather, who bears an uncanny resemblance to old St. Nick, decides to make an unexpected visit. Soon, however, Neil learns that Grandpa's normal holiday cheer is closer to holiday fear as the elder Marshall is on the lam from a murder charge back in Colorado. It's up to Neil to nab the real murderer or else Grandpa's twelve days of Christmas may be his last.
About the Author
For twelve years, Tim Hemlin was a chef for a gourmet catering company in Houston, Texas. He now lives near Houston with his wife and children and teaches English in a secondary school. He is the author of If Wishes Were Horses . . . , A Whisper of Rage, and People in Glass Houses.
Read an Excerpt
"You're avoiding the subject." We stopped at my VW Bug.
"You drive this?" He was incredulous.
"It's a classic."
"Classic, hell. It's old, cramped, and has no heat."
"You think my Bug's cold and cramped, wait until you see my apartment," I shot back. "Besides, how'd you get to The Kitchen?" The renovated ranch house we worked out of had been christened The Kitchen. Perry enjoyed the sound of it--a nickname that implied both homeyness and culinary excellence.
"Walked," he replied.
"Walked? My apartment must be three miles away."
"Suspect you're right. Now, are you going to unlock this toy or are we going to stand here and freeze our balls off?"
"Hold your horses."
I slipped inside and unlocked the passenger door. He hunkered down in the seat.
"I was more comfortable riding a mule through Silver Valley when I was prospecting in the Twenties."
"Grandpa, you're seventy-two. You weren't prospecting in the Twenties."
"My soul's been here a long time, boy," he muttered.
I cranked up the Bug. "That's just fine for your soul, but why are you in Houston and not in Silver Valley?"
"I'm visiting my favorite grandson."
"Ain't you glad to see me? You're sure acting strange. What's wrong?"
"Of course I'm glad to see you. Nothing's wrong--"
"Then why the third degree?"
"I'm not giving you the third degree," I replied, growing exasperated. "I only asked a simple question."
"Hmmph!" He grumbled something unintelligible and, in the ensuing darkness, gave no further response. There was nothing like the holidays to engender warm family feelings, I thought,and chugged around the corner toward my apartment.
"I want to change into a clean shirt," I told him, "and then we can round up some dinner."
"You look fine. Can't we just get some grub?"
"I smell of garlic and onions. And I spilled booze on me when I made the apple-brandy p'te."
Hmmph again, I thought. Might as well be Bah, humbug. He was sure lifting my spirits.
"You planning on staying until Christmas?" I asked as we drove through the neighborhood streets. Live oak and pecan trees cast stark shadows beneath the street lamps.
"Don't know. What kind of chow do you like?"
"How about seafood?"
"Fried oysters?" he asked, perking up.
Like you should eat that stuff, I thought, but wisely kept the comment to myself. "I'll take you to Little Pappa's."
My apartment was located above the garage of my landlord, Jerry Jacoma. As I approached the area, however, I could see that something was wrong. Jerry's house was dark and his truck gone, but the front door was open, banging back and forth in the breeze. I coasted into the driveway and parked close to the street.
"That's odd," I stated absently, and turned off the Bug. "You wait here." I climbed out of the VW. So did Grandpa.
"Don't you ever do what you're told?"
"No, and that's why I'm in the--I mean, I ain't staying cooped up like a bear in a beaver bog."
I hushed him. "I'm serious. Jerry never leaves his door open."
Grandpa quickly looked in all directions.
I eased toward the porch.
"Might be wise to call the police," he whispered coarsely.
"There's a phone in the house."
"Your mother's right. You can act like a damned fool."
You don't talk to Mother, remember? I wanted to shout back, but again held my tongue. Quietly, I ascended the wooden steps, then paused and listened. All I detected was the banging. I caught the door on the outward swing, held it, and gently pushed it inward.
The living room was a disaster. Books scattered, tables overturned, cushions knifed, and the stuffing flung everywhere. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. I debated whether or not to call out, thought better of it, and edged back outside.
"What is it?" Grandpa said.
"Jerry's been robbed," I said. "Let's walk around back to my apartment and call the cops."
"Good to see you inherited some of my sense."
"Grandpa, I've been knocked around a time or two. I don't take too many foolish chances anymore."
"Noticed you're a bit more ragged than the last time I saw you. Your beard doesn't hide the whole scar. What caused that?"
"Not now, for Christ's sake. Come on." We scuffed up the driveway, wind cutting into us, when an image caught my attention. I froze. The back door also banged open and shut, open and shut. But down at the foot of the stairs, beneath the rear porch light, lay a dark shape.
"Oh, God," I whispered.
"They've found me," Grandpa said, voice low.
We both stared at Samson, Jerry Jacoma's Doberman, lying in a web of blood. Slowly, the dog raised his head and acknowledged our presence with a whimper.
As I knelt to examine the severity of Samson's wound, I noticed a piece of paper pinned by a knife to the porch banister. A piece of paper that, on closer inspection, was a coloring-book outline of Santa Claus.
Instead of being filled in with crayons, though, this picture was tinged with blood--and Jolly Old Saint Nick's head was skewered by the knife's lustrous blade.