Editor's note: Everybody can use a break around the holidays. So, we bring you this fictional series every day from now through Dec. 24. We hope you enjoy "The Holly Wreath Man" - and your holidays.
The story will be updated with new chapters as they are published in The Patriot Ledger. So check back each day for more.
Chapter 1: Missing
Chapter 14: Gotcha!
Fred Swiggett sat in his office flipping through inventory sheets when Jeff Henderson walked into the general store. Here was his chance. Fred grabbed his coat and hat and dashed downstairs.
"Mabel, I'm going over to Wilford for a couple of hours," he said, deliberately raising his voice. "I should be back by 5:30." He waved at Jeff, who stood by the magazines. "How's Pop feeling?" "Better. He's coming home from the hospital tomorrow."
"Delighted to hear it," Fred said. "Your mama over at the hospital?" "No," Jeff said. "She's at Pop's taking care of business."
Fred walked up to him. "And what are you up to?" he said, enjoying the look of panic flashing across the boy's face.
"Nothing. Just thought I'd come in and look at the magazines. Did the new Life come in, Miss Mabel?" "Not yet, hon."
"Tell your mama I'll give her a call later," Fred said. He nodded to two old timers jawing by the stove and headed out the door.
"Sure," Jeff said.
Jeff watched Fred start up his car and drive away. Mabel opened her purse, pulled out an emery board and began filing her nails.
Jeff put the comic book down and headed for the spice rack. He paused, scanning the selection, then pocketed a can of cinnamon sugar and moved on to the soup aisle. He reached for Campbell's chicken noodle. A hand shot in front of him and grabbed his outstretched arm.
"Gotcha!" Fred said.
** ** **
It had taken Allie most of the day, but Pop's desk hadn't been this clean in years. She'd tossed out piles of old newspapers, sorted leaning towers of invoices and bank statements.
With each mess tidied she felt more despondent. Fred was right; there was no holly wreath business anymore, at least not a profitable one. From the drawer where she'd found the storage room key, she now pulled out a handful of letters, and began to read.
"Dear Mr. Henderson, With the growing popularity of artificial decorations, Macy's demand for your product has been reduced. Thank you for your interest."
The letter was dated November 1960 - two years ago.
Another began: "Pop, I wish I could help, but the powers that be have decided against natural wreaths in favor of plastic. I don't agree, but have no say in the matter."
From one of his best customers, it had come in just a month ago.
The door opened. Allie hastily wiped her eyes. The thin, dark-haired man who walked in, limping slightly, seemed surprised to see her.
"Oh, excuse me," he said. "I'm looking for Mr. Henderson."
"He's not here. Do you want to place an order?" "No," Turner smiled. "Do you know when he'll be back?" "He won't. At least not for a while."
"That's convenient," Turner said.
"What did you say?" Allie said.
"I said, that's convenient." He paused. "Do you work for him?" "I'm his daughter-in-law," Allie said, her face coloring. "Not that it's any of your business."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Miss -?" "Mrs. Henderson."
"Mrs. Henderson, didn't your father-in-law tell you about my visit?" "No. Who are you?" "The name's Turner. U.S. Labor Department," he said, producing his badge. "I'm investigating Mr. Henderson."
"For what?" Allie said, her voice rising. "What could he possibly have done?" "For starters, not paying minimum wage."
"How could he? Do you know how much he pays for wreaths?" "That's not the point, Mrs. Henderson. Like I told him, the law's the law."
"Wait a minute," Allie said, standing up. "When did you see him?" "Just yesterday. I told him I'd need to see his books and talk to his employees, although they weren't much help."
"He's in the hospital," Allie shouted. "And you put him there! You want his books? Here." She picked up the ledger and threw it at him.
For once, Turner was speechless.
The phone rang.
"Hello. What!? He's where? Oh Fred, no." Allie hung up, furiously blinking back tears. "I've got to go."
"Look, I'm sorry for your trouble," Turner told her, turning to leave. "But this isn't going away."
** ** **
Jeff Henderson sat on the top bunk in a basement holding cell at Tennyson police headquarters. He hugged his knees and shivered, trying to keep from crying and breathing in the sour smell rising from the man passed out on the bottom bunk.
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