Richard Stone opened his front door with a broad grin. "Jack Chessler, you old party hound! Looks like your hair's a little wet from the snow. Want me to put it in the dryer for a minute? Come on in. You too, Margie."
"Merry Christmas, Richard," said Chessler. He smiled thinly and scraped the snow off his boots before entering the front hallway with his wife. Stone laid their coats on a chair in the small den to the right of the hallway and ushered the couple into the parlor on the left.
The annual Stone Christmas party was underway two nights before Christmas Eve. Stone, the president of a manufacturing firm, and his wife Susan, a corporate lawyer, took pride in the event. The front parlor was festooned with wreaths and balloons. A brightly decorated tree graced a corner, and appetizers and drinks were lavishly laid on the sideboard.
As guests filled the parlor, the drinks and conversation flowed. Mitchell Nore, a bald, sixtysomething computer expert, talked about the Year 2000 software bug. Stone described his recently acquired early edition of Poe's poems. Theresa Volpe became lyrical about a whitewater trip she had taken in Colorado the previous summer.
Almost two hours into the party, Stone glanced at his watch, excused himself, and went to the back door of the house. Momentarily turning off the security system, he admitted a fat man with a white beard, a red coat and pants, and fur-topped boots.
"Mr. Stone?" asked the visitor. "I'm Carter Hill, from the agency. Understand you need a Santa this evening."
"You're right on time," replied Stone with a smile. "This way." He led Hill to the library and handed him a red sack from behind a sofa.
"Just follow me into the parlor and do your bit," Stone said. "The names are on the packages." The two entered the parlor by the connecting door.
"Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, everyone!" boomed Hill. "You've all been very good this year, and I have some wonderful presents for you!"
This guy isn't bad, thought Stone as Hill made a great show of handing out the presents. When the sack was empty, however, Stone frowned and went to the library. Returning several minutes later, he whispered to his wife and cleared his throat.
"I'm sorry, everyone," he announced loudly. "There seems to be a problem. A package containing a diamond necklace intended for Susan is missing. To be on the safe side, I'm calling in the police. Please don't leave the room until they arrive."
Two hours later, the twenty-one guests were seated sullenly around the parlor, nursing drinks. In the back, the Stones were talking with Inspector Louise Connelly. Hill sat nearby with his red coat unbuttoned and listened.
"Each guest agreed to be taken into the den and searched," reported Connelly. "Santa too. We didn't miss a stitch of clothing. We checked the coats too, and have searched the rest of the house. In the library wastebasket, we found a small box and some wrapping inscribed 'To Mugs, from Santa'. Your nickname, I presume, ma'am."
Susan Stone nodded. "It's a long story."
"The necklace must be found, officer," said Richard sternly. "It was small-- a thin chain with a full-carat diamond-- but quite expensive, the most expensive gift in the sack. And it was not insured."
"Please tell me again when you last saw it."
"I kept all the gifts in the library wall safe," Stone said. "The necklace was one of the last to go in. I wrapped it myself this morning. Just before the party, I took each gift out of the safe, including the one to Susan, and put it directly in the red sack. I then put the sack behind the sofa, where it was not visible from the doorway between the library and the front hall. It was there until Santa arrived."
"Who else was in the house this evening?"
"Just Susan, myself, and our guests. The windows and back door are on our alarm system, and we unlocked the front door only when greeting guests. Everyone stayed in the parlor except for a few who used the bathroom up the hall."
"And who were they?" asked Connelly.
"Let's see. I saw Mitch Nore leave. I flew him in today and interviewed him about running my company's information systems. And Jack Chessler, a rare-book dealer and old friend. And Sara Callaghan. She's an English major at Yale and the daughter of my accountant. Been accompanying her father Barry to our party the last few years, since his wife died. That it, Mugs?"
"That's right, inspector," said Susan. "As hosts, we kept an eye on our guests."
"Were any of them out of the room for long?" Connelly asked.
"Sara was back in two minutes," said Susan. "She said there was a spider in the bathroom, and she was terrified of spiders. I sent Richard to look, but it was gone. Jack and Mitch were gone several minutes, not more than ten each."
"Uh huh." Connelly glanced at Hill. "Do you always bring in a Santa to your Christmas parties?"
"No, this was the first time," replied Richard. "We've usually had presents waiting under the tree, but thought this would be more fun." He looked at Hill suspiciously.
Hill sat slowly up in his chair and cleared his throat.
"Inspector, may I make a suggestion?" he asked.
Connelly raised her eyebrows. "Shoot."
"Well, I've been making a list of suspects and checking it twice, and I think I know who's been naughty or nice. I also know where you can find the diamonds."
Within a few minutes, the diamond necklace was discovered and the thief arrested.