Christmas Trifle – Excerpt


The coroner’s inquest overflowed with locals, press, and visitors. In the small, upscale ski resort town of Snow Lake, Nevada, parking tickets and DUI’s were the norm. Occasionally, people would have accidents in the mountains, but rescue teams patrolling the areas by snowmobile, horseback, or motorbike, depending on the season, kept incidents to a minimum. Of course, there was the maverick skier or snowboarder deliberately going off manicured runs and getting into trouble. Or the summer hiker who left a trail in search of adventure, only to become lost. There was always the poor soul who succumbed to overnight frigid mountain temperatures at any time of year.

But death by murder was virtually unheard of. Two murders were astounding.

It was early April, and defying any promise of spring, snowy, gale-force winds blew outside. The inside of the room, however, was hot and stuffy, crammed with the living. The judge banged his gavel against the chattering assemblage.

“Now I’m not putting up with what I put up with this morning. This afternoon I want it quiet in here.” He glared at the people packed side by side on rows of folding chairs, hastily brought in to accommodate the ever-increasing crowd. “This is a public hearing, but I can throw you all out if you don’t behave yourselves. I’m an appointed official, so I’m not afraid to do it.” The crowd chortled and settled down.

“That’s better. And you, officer in the back,” he yelled out. A young policewoman in uniform near the entry doors snapped to attention and looked at the judge. “Don’t let anybody else in. We’re like a can of sardines in here already. No more. You got that?”

“Yes, Judge.” Her voice was shrill but firm.

 Satisfied, the judge turned to another man in a different uniform sitting nearby. “Bailiff,” the judge ordered, “crack open some of those windows. I feel like I’m in a sauna.”

The bailiff rose and hurried over to a line of tall windows. Moving around people leaning against the wall, he proceeded to do as commanded. The judge pointed the end of his gavel at those in the bailiff’s way.

“You! You press people. I’m not going to tell you again. You are to stay at the back of the room and stop taking pictures like you did earlier. Your pack gives me any more trouble and I’ll have those cameras and phones taken away from you. You understand?”

Six men and two women didn’t say anything but reluctantly retreated to the back of the room.

The judge cleared his throat and looked out before him. “I hope everybody had a nice lunch, because there will be no eating and drinking in this room. Is that clear?” The crowd stared at the judge in rapt silence. The judge nodded.

“Good. Now I’m going to repeat myself as I’m seeing a few new faces in here. A coroner’s inquest does not deal with issues of blame or responsibility for somebody’s death. We do not deal with issues of criminal or civil liability. It is usually the ‘how’ question that is the main focus of this inquest. The coroner cannot, by law, deal with any other matters. It is a fact-finding process. However, we often deem it necessary to summon expert witnesses to make a decision. That stated, I will now turn the proceedings back over to the coroner’s counsel.

“Thank you, Your Honor,” the counselor said, and stood. He was a tall, stooped man and bald, except for a thin rim of short gray hair running around the back of his head almost like a sweatband.

“I call Detective Ragini Chabra to the stand.”

Rising from a nearby chair, a short, middle–aged woman of East Indian descent took the stand. She was dressed in a boxy black suit, skirt reaching mid–calf. On her feet were serviceable ankle-high snow boots trimmed with black fur. She did not cross her legs, but sat with her feet close together, leaning forward, as if ready to spring if called upon to do so.

The counselor stared at the woman seated in the witness box and kept his tone formal, if not cold, even though he’d known her family since their arrival from India to Snow Lake decades ago. He’d helped her father obtain American citizenship in the days when he did pro bono work. He had been at her christening. He watched her climb the ranks in the police department. But the long-time friendship between colleagues did not enter something as serious as a judicial inquiry to ascertain facts relating to an incident such as a death.

“Please state your name and your position. And please speak into the microphone. We’ve had some difficulty with people hearing in the back rows.”

“My name is Detective Ragini Chabra.” Her voice was loud and clear without using the mic, projected with the authority of someone used to being in charge. “Among other things, I am the senior homicide investigator for the Snow Lake County Police Department and have been for ten years.”

“Please tell us what happened on the day of March fifteenth.”

“Yes, sir. It was the third day of Blackout Weekend.”

“Please tell us what that is,” he said then gave her a half smile. “Pretend we don’t know. We need it for the record.”

“Blackout Weekend is a winter event bringing hundreds of people into the Snow Lake area. This year it took place during March thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. It’s billed as the ultimate snow adventure.”

“That would be as advertised by our chamber of commerce,” he quipped.

A few daring spectators giggled. The judge glared in their direction then turned to the counselor.

“Please refrain from making such comments, Counselor.”

“Sorry, Your Honor. Please go on, Detective.”

“Yes, sir. The event brings with it an infusion of money that sustains many businesses throughout the year. It usually runs for four days over a long weekend and takes place sometime in March. Mostly young people and professionals come to ski or snowboard together by day and party by night. There is usually a full schedule of parties, networking mixers, meetups and daytime activities, things of that sort. For the force, it means twelve–hour days.”

“Does Blackout Weekend tie in with the double murders?”

“We believe so, yes. Both victims were here for the event.”

“Go on.”

“On the morning of March fifteenth my team and I were called out to Rest Area 17 on Eagles Rise to investigate the deaths of a man and a woman.”

“For those not from the Snow Lake area, please tell us where Eagles Rise is.”

“Eagles Rise is on one of the lesser mountains in the Sierra Nevada, about three miles from here. Although not as high as Heavenly, the run, also called Eagles Rise, is known for its difficulty with traversing and is usually run by experienced skiers or snowboarders.”

“And halfway down is Rest Area 17, often used by skiers to take a break or to have something to eat or drink out of the elements?”

“Yes. Although small, the building is insulated and there is a fireplace with a woodpile outside the door for making a fire.”

“And do people spend the night in Rest Area 17?”

“Not as a rule. While there is a single bed and a table and chairs, there is no running water or electricity. There is an outhouse several yards away. It’s very basic. Not something most skiers are interested in staying in for very long. Not unless they were caught in a snowstorm.”

“Do we know what time the victims arrived at the rest area?”

“On the night of March fourteenth. Sometime after eight p.m. – that was the last time the victims were seen by witnesses – and before twelve, when the snow grooming took place.”

“That correlates with the postmortem, but I had hoped your investigation might have narrowed it down, vis-à-vis any witnesses. The bodies were slightly frozen due to the room not being heated. You haven’t been able to establish the time of death any nearer than within four hours?”

“No, sir. Sorry.”

“Don’t some lifts close earlier than others?”

“Yes, the more popular slopes have lights, allowing the skiers access until 11:30 p.m. But the smaller ones, such as Eagles Rise, close shortly after sundown.”

“In that case, how did the victims get to Eagles Rise that late at night if the lift was closed?”

“They probably took an active lift to a higher run and using flashlights, skied down through an unmarked trail. It’s a dangerous thing to do, but it has been known to happen, especially by young and capable skiers.”

“Why Rest Area 17?”

“From what I have been told, it has a reputation for being a member of the mile-high club.”

The crowd was respectfully silent but several smiles broke out. The counselor cleared his throat and went on.

“Tell me about the grooming of the slopes and how that helped you in your investigation.”

 “The runs are groomed at midnight after all the slopes are closed, as are the lift areas. All traces of the day’s activity in the snow are removed. On the heavily trafficked runs, snow is often blown in from the sides to even it out. This procedure allowed us to establish a time frame. Due to the practice of grooming, and the run having no marks on it when we arrived, the crime must have happened before midnight. On the run the next morning, we found only the ski tracks of the man who found the bodies. Those went down as far as the rest area.”

“Let’s now go back to when you received the call on March fifteenth.”

“The call came into the station at eight-oh-four a.m. It was a nine-one-one call, initially, patched through to us. He was calling from the rest area.”

“How did the man make this call? I understand cell phones don’t usually work in the mountains.”

“There is a landline callbox near the door, in case whoever is stopping at Rest Area 17 is in trouble.”

“I see. Please continue.”

“We received the call at eight-oh-four. He was quite hysterical. He said he’d gone into the building and discovered –”

“Yes, yes,” he interrupted. “We heard the nine-one-one call played for us by the first responders this morning. The man was understandably very upset. Please tell us what happened when you and your team arrived.”

“We discovered the half-clothed bodies of Sherryl Zucker, twenty, and Timothy Kollar, twenty-two, on the single bed. He had been shot twice in the back. She had been shot in the head. He was lying on top of her. It was obvious by what we found, they had been killed during the act of intercourse.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, becoming impatient. “This was verified by the postmortem. What were your findings when you investigated?”

“They had been shot close up. We found powder burns on the man’s back. Probably being preoccupied, they didn’t hear –” She was interrupted by the sounds of snickering coming from the back of the room.

The judge picked up his gavel and banged it, glaring at the spectators. “Silence! This is a serious business. There is no room for tittering in my courtroom.” It became graveyard silent. He turned to Detective Chabra. “Please continue.”

“Thank you, Judge. We believe the assailant followed them to the rest area also on skis and waited, possibly listening to what was going on. Then he or she slipped inside and shot the couple. After that, he or she skied away.”

“It was the act of a single person?”

“We can’t say that for certain, but we have reason to believe it was the act of one person. We were fortunate that foot and ski tracks made by anyone else during the day were obliterated by a heavy snowfall between five and six p.m. that night, after the slope was officially closed. Then there was the mandatory cleaning of the slope itself, done by a snow-grooming machine, which occurred at midnight. The next morning, we found only one set of ski tracks on the slope made by the man who discovered the bodies. That meant the two victims and the murderer had to have arrived before the snow grooming occurred but after it snowed. The couple was seen by witnesses leaving the party shortly before eight, meaning they were killed sometime between eight p.m. and midnight.” She turned to the judge. “I hope I am making this clear, Your Honor.”

“Crystal,” said the judge. “Continue.”

“Thank you. It was a fairly clean crime scene, as we were dealing with only four sets of prints: the two victims, the murderer, and the caller. When we arrived the next morning, the fifteenth, we found two pairs of skis leaning against the side of Rest Area 17. Both sets of bindings on the skis matched the boots of the two victims. The man calling in the murders that morning had his skis still clutched in his arm. The bindings on those skis matched his boots. I want to emphasize the tracks of those three sets of skis – the two victims, and the man who discovered them – went from the slope directly to the rest area. There was only one set of ski tracks going to and from the outhouse, as well as indentations of a pair of skis leaned against the outhouse, and one set of boot tracks leading to the rest area. We believe those to be the assailant’s. Those tracks didn’t match either victims’ shoe size or the man who discovered the bodies. And we found prints from those same boots running toward the slope from the building, dragging the skis from the outhouse behind.”

“If I may continue with my own line of questioning, Your Honor,” the counselor said, with a slight nod in the judge’s direction. His interruption was sharp but his tone obsequious.

“Well, for heaven’s sake, get on with it,” the judge said. “We haven’t got all day.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.” The coroner’s counselor turned to the detective. “Were you able to get prints from the assailant’s boots?”

She turned her attention back to the counselor. “In a manner of speaking, but unfortunately, ski boots are generic in nature and reveal little, other than size. The prints indicate the boots would have fit a man with a relatively small foot, an eight and a half or nine, or they could have been a woman’s size ten.”

“You are saying the killer’s boots could have been worn by either gender?”

 “Yes. In addition, all rental boots were accounted for, so we have no way of knowing whether it was a man or woman.”

“I see. Did you find any indication the killer skied down the slope after the murder?”

“That is what we believe, yes. His or her tracks led to the ski run but, once again, were wiped out by the slope grooming.”

“I believe we have exhausted the subject of the boots, skis, and grooming, Counselor,” the judge interjected.

“Yes, Your Honor. Detective Chabra, did you verify why the man who discovered the bodies was there so early?”

She consulted her notes. “It was because he hadn’t skied in a while and he was anxious to get back on the slopes. He was on the first ski lift to Eagles Rise when it opened just after dawn, seven thirty-five. He was the only one on the chairs. Fortunately, when he called to report the crime, they closed the lift immediately, so, once again, we were able to have a clean crime scene with the exception of those four.”

“Did the caller know either or both of the victims?”

“Not to our knowledge.”

“Did he say why he stopped at the rest area?”

“Yes, he stated that because he hadn’t skied in fifteen years, he pulled a muscle –”

She broke off. The counselor picked up the conversation.

“Pulled a muscle?”

“Yes,” Chabra said, and looked at the judge. “In the…ah… groin area.”

The judge grabbed his gavel. He gave the spectators what was later called “the evil eye.” They were wisely silent. The counselor went on.

 “So he got off the run to rest. What did your department find out about the victims?”

“Sherryl Zucker was a twenty-year-old from Santa Barbara City College. Timothy Kollar was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Arizona. Ms. Zucker had arrived for the long weekend. Mr. Kollar arrived a week earlier and had been reportedly seeing a tall, blonde woman the first few days after his arrival. None of his friends know her name, and we haven’t located her yet. These same friends stated Ms. Zucker and Mr. Kollar met the night before their deaths at a party and struck up a friendship. Neither of them had any previous record, although Mr. Kollar went to traffic school for running a red light in order not to pay a fine or have the violation appear on his license.”

“What about the murder weapon?”

“We have yet to find the murder weapon, itself, but a barrel will produce individual markings in addition to a bullet’s land-and-groove impressions as the bullet passes through. It is these unique markings that allow us to determine whether a given bullet was fired from a particular firearm. We believe the bullets were most likely fired from a Glock 45. We can’t say for certain, but –”

“You can’t say a lot of things for certain, can you?”

“Sir? Excuse me?”

“What you actually know is that two young people are dead, and the man who found them has a pulled groin. That doesn’t strike me as a lot.”

“Sir, it’s early in the investigation. It’s only been three weeks. And –”

The counselor’s interruption was strong. “Well, you will forgive my frustration over this, Detective. I can only say, I hope we will move ahead as a county with no higher crime than parking violations.”

The coroner’s counselor looked at the judge, his voice taking on an edge of finality. “Given the facts that have been presented before us or lack of them, Your Honor, I ask for a ruling of willful death by person or persons unknown.” He turned back to the detective. “That will be all, Detective Chabra.”

Chabra’s eyes narrowed, as the stooped counselor turned away. She knew her old family friend was up for reelection and two unsolved murders didn’t look good on his record. And he was running a distant second to a much younger man. Truth be told, he should have retired years ago. Mid–seventies. High blood pressure. Why was he hanging on to a job that was only killing him?

But then why was she hanging on to a job that could potentially kill her?

Detective Chabra stepped down from the witness box.

Chapter One

On December twenty-fourth, nine months later, Chef Charly Harding paused in the hallway of Phillips, Phillips, and Phillips, Attorneys at Law. She noted the clear glass walls separating each of the offices and wondered how many people were actually working and how many were making a show of it. The modern concept of being “open” was worse than cubicles of the past. Give her an honest kitchen any time.

Charly’s own reflection in the nearest wall of glass caught her attention. She gave the image a critical eye, almost as if she were one of her featured dishes at the restaurant. Mr. Willoughby, her lawyer, had given very specific instructions as to how she should dress. On the tall side, she wore low black heels because she mustn’t appear too powerful and a pale blue dress, well cut but not screamingly expensive. The small holiday corsage pinned to her shoulder, with its green and white mistletoe wrapped in a red ribbon, was not too frivolous for the occasion, but rather, indicated a person aware of seasonal events. Just enough makeup on a face with uniform, not unattractive features. Even her mother said so.

Her hand flew to blonde wisps pulling free from the twist at the back of her head. Mr. Willoughby had already told her to fix that before going into the conference room. It might signal inner turmoil or lack of attention to detail to the opposition. They could try to use that against her. He would, he’d added. A trip to the ladies room beforehand was in order. Which was good. She needed a quick visit, anyway. Nerves.

Mr. Willoughby came up from behind and looked around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. Phillips et al was the only other competition Willoughby & Associates had in the small but popular resort town of Snow Lake, Nevada. Justifiably on his guard, he leaned into her ear.

“You understand what’s going to happen now?”

She gave no response, but stared back at him, her face revealing little.

The older black man also took a moment to consider the woman before him in a clinical manner, but from his point of view. She glowed with good health despite the stress of the past few weeks and fourteen–hour workdays. She was young by his lights, only thirty. Her age could work against him in the upcoming meeting. “Thirty somethings” were notoriously determined to have their own way, but changed their minds at the most inopportune times. Wishy-washy but insistent about it. They thought they knew more of the world than they actually did. At fifty-one, James Willoughby, Esq., had learned the hard way about millennials.

He pondered on this particular millennial, one Charlotte Ann Harding, better known as Charly to her friends. Chef and co-owner of the finest restaurant in town, she’d been running Chez Felix by herself for the last year or so. That meant she probably had some common sense. He hoped. And she’d been determined to go ahead with this divorce. She even paid extra fees to make it happen within four weeks instead of the standard six.

But upon occasion he’d sensed in her a certain ambivalence, a reluctance to accept for herself what she claimed her goal was. There was nothing worse than a client sitting on an emotional fence at the signing off on something as permanent as divorce.

“You understand what’s going to happen now?” Willoughby repeated the question.

Vivid, blue eyes stared back at him. She didn’t answer but nodded once. Sensing she was nervous, he slipped on his best lawyer smile and tried to make a small joke.

You’re fortunate to live in Nevada, Mrs. Harding. Most of my clients need to take up residence for the duration of the procedure. But of course, you know that. You see many of their faces at Chez Felix during their stay. Or should I say their incarceration?”

Willoughby snickered at his delivery of the punchline. Charly gave him a dutiful but weak smile. He cleared his throat and became serious again.

To continue, settlements can be reached quicker than in other states, but they are just as inflexible once agreed upon. By terminating your marital status, once you go ahead with this divorce, there is no turning back.”

Yes, this meeting will finalize the separate living expenses and managements of assets and properties. I’m clear on that,” Charly said.

Encouraged, Willoughby went on. As you have no children, there are no issues of child support and visitation rights.”

We have pets, so there will be visitation rights,” Charly spoke with a firm voice, glossing over the fact that not having a child was at the crux of much of this. At least for her. Six years and the timing had still not been right for Cliff. Of all the things she’d given into him on, and there were many, this was the one that festered within her.

Mr. Willoughby, unaware of her internal dilemma went on, “Yes, of course. That addendum is in the Divorce Agreement. But to reiterate, once you sign the papers today, your divorce will be final. You do understand that, correct?”

“I do.” Charly paused. She heard a small laugh escape her lips. She fought to be serious, but couldn’t seem to do it, despite the expression on her attorney’s face. “I’m sorry. I tend to giggle when I’m nervous. ‘I do’ is the same thing you say when you get married. I do,” she repeated and hiccupped. Then hiccupped again. “I sometimes get the hiccups, too. Sorry about that. If I hold my breath and count to ten they usually go away.”

Closing her eyes, Charly followed her own instructions. Even with her eyes closed, she sensed her lawyer’s apprehension growing. After a moment her eyes shot open and she spoke again, relief running through her.

“See? They’re gone. It’s all great.” She smiled but her lower lip quivered.

Mr. Willoughby ignored the beads of sweat trying to make an appearance on his forehead. He needed to get out of family law. Go back to something far less demanding, like taxes. Or real estate.

“Let’s push on, shall we?” He glared at Charly with the same look he gave his thirteen-year-old daughter when she went off the deep end about something, nothing, everything. His look seemed to work better on his client, because Charly swallowed hard and nodded again. He was encouraged. “As this is a high-profile divorce involving two outstanding citizens of Snow Lake –“

“That would be Cliff and me,” Charly interrupted.

“Yes.” Maybe his feelings of encouragement were premature. He fought back the urge to scold her. He spoke slowly, emphasizing each word.

“We want to be civilized without giving in on any points. And we want to keep this low-profile, as we don’t want the press to be all over this. Once they get wind of these things –” He broke off. No need going into the horrors of the paparazzi yet. “Remember, Mr. Harding will be in the conference room –”

“Mr. Harding?” Charly’s interruption was even louder this time, but not as certain, her voice riddled with puzzlement. “Cliff’s father has passed on.” Realization covered her face. “Oh, no, no, you mean Cliff. You’re calling him Mr. Harding. The way you call me Mrs. Harding, no matter how many times I’ve asked you to call me Charly. Sorry, I seem to be babbling. At least I’m not hiccupping. It’s just that I haven’t seen Cliff in over a month. I’m a little nervous. Sorry.”

Mr. Willoughby drew in a sharp breath, fighting a bout of exasperation. Maybe what he needed was a vacation. That was it. A few days off after Christmas was just the thing. He smiled benevolently.

“It’s quite all right, Mrs. Harding. Just keep in mind that your husband has already agreed to give you anything you want, so unless he’s changed his mind, this is more or less just a formality. So why don’t you relax in there and let me do the talking? Right now we’re in the driver’s seat. Let’s try to keep it that way.”

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