The 19th Christmas Page 2

Cindy said, “Hang on.”

She ran up ahead to the couple who had just taken a photo of City Hall.

“Sorry,” she said to the surprised couple. “I wonder if you might have caught me and my man in your pictures?”

The woman said, “Let’s see.” She flicked through the photos on her phone and squealed, “Hey. Lookee here.”

She showed the phone to Cindy, who beamed and said, “Can you send it to me, please?”

“My pleasure,” the woman said. She took Cindy’s email address and said, “There you go. Merry Christmas.”

Impulsively, Cindy threw her arms around the stranger, who hugged her back.

“Merry Christmas to you, too. Both of you,” Cindy said, and she ran back to her sweetheart.

“Rich, look.” She showed him the photo on her phone.

“Instant Christmas card. Beautiful. I’ll send it to my family. And now let’s go home, Cindy. Home.”

Claire Washburn had slung her carry-on bag over one shoulder and her computer case over the other and was forging ahead toward the gate. She and her husband, Edmund, were at SFO, which was decorated for the season with over three million LED bulbs—not that Claire took any notice. She turned to look for her husband and saw him far behind, gazing out at the light show.

She called, “Edmund, give me one of those bags.”

“I’ve got them, Claire. Just slow down a little so I can keep up.”

“Sorry,” she said, walking back to him. “Why is it you can never find a luggage trolley when you want one?”

He made a face. “You want me to state the obvious?”

The airport was always busy, and it was even busier today, with mobs of people flying out to spend the holidays with relatives in far-flung places.

It was a working holiday for Claire. As San Francisco’s chief medical examiner, she had been asked by National University in San Diego to teach an extra-credit course for students in the master’s program in forensic medicine.

She was glad to do it.

The quick course would be held during Christmas break and was the perfect amount of time for a case study of a crime Claire had worked years ago. The body of a young boy had been discovered in a suitcase chained to a concrete block in a lake miles from home. Claire’s work on that case had helped the police solve the crime.

Along with giving her a nice paycheck, the City of San Diego was putting Claire and Edmund up at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, a resort-style hotel with a gym and a gorgeous pool. It promised to be a great respite from the somewhat harsher NoCal winter.

Edmund had resisted going with Claire on this trip. He had made plans with friends from the San Diego Symphony to lay down a track for a CD they were working on. But Claire knew the real reason he didn’t want to come: Edmund was becoming more introverted by the year, and he just wanted to stay home.

Claire had told him, “Edmund, it’s a chance for us to be together with a heated pool and room service. Your mom is dying to babysit her youngest grandchild over Christmas, and Rosie wants to be babied. Tell me I’m wrong.”

He couldn’t honestly do that.

Edmund knew how much Claire loved talking to students, encouraging them and sharing her experience on the Thad Caine case. It would be a needed lift to her spirits, and if Claire wanted his company, he couldn’t say no.

Edmund saw a lone luggage trolley by the newsstand and he grabbed it.

He called to Claire, “I got wheels. We are definitely not going to miss our flight.”

Part One

* * *



JULIAN LAMBERT WAS an ex-con in his midthirties, sweet-faced, with thinning, light-colored hair. He was wearing black jeans and a down jacket as red as a Santa Claus suit.

As he sat on a bench in Union Square waiting for his phone call, he took in the view of the Christmas tree at the center of the plaza. The tree was really something, an eighty-three-foot-tall cone of green lights with a star on top. It was ringed by pots of pointy red flowers and surrounded by a red-painted picket fence.

That tree was secure. It wasn’t going anywhere. But he would be, and soon.

It was lunchtime, and all around him consumers hurried out of stores weighed down with shopping bags, evidence of money pissed away in an orgy of spending. Julian wondered idly how these dummies were going to pay for their commercially fabricated gifting sprees. Take out a loan on the old credit card and worry about it next month or not worry about debt at all. Julian’s phone vibrated, almost catching him by surprise.

He fished it out of his pocket, connected, and said his name, and Mr. Loman, the boss, said, “Hello, Julian. Are we alone?”

“Completely, Mr. Loman.” Julian knew that he was meant only to listen, and that was fine with him. He felt both excited and soothed as Loman explained just enough of the plan to allow Julian to salivate at the possibilities.

A heist.

A huge one.

“The plan has many moving parts,” Loman said, “but if it goes off as designed, by this time next year, you, Julian, will be living the life you’ve only dreamed of.” Julian dreamed of the Caribbean, or Ipanema, or Saint-Tropez. He was picturing a life of blue skies and sunshine with a side of leggy young things in string bikinis when Loman asked if he had any questions.

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