A crackling Christmas mystery that combines murder and blackmail at a holiday office party, in a mashup reminiscent of Big Little Lies and Clue.
There are only a few rules in a White Elephant gift exchange: 1) Everyone brings a wrapped, unmarked gift. 2) Numbers are drawn to decide who picks first. 3) Gifts don’t need to be pricey—and often they’re downright tacky.
But things are a little different in Aspen, Colorado, at the office holiday party for the real estate firm owned by Henry Calhoun and his wife Claudine. Each Christmas sparks a contest among the already competitive staff to see who can buy the most coveted gift: the one that will get stolen the most times, the one that will prove just how many more commissions they earned that year than their colleagues. Designer sunglasses, deluxe spa treatments, front row concert tickets—nothing is off the table. And the staff is even more competitive this year as Zara, the hottest young pop star out of Hollywood, is in town and Claudine is determined to sell her the getaway home of her dreams.
Everyone is puzzled when a strange gift shows up in the mix: an antique cowboy statue. At least the sales agents are guessing it’s an antique—otherwise it’d be a terrible present. It’s certainly not very pretty or expensive-looking. In fact, the gift makes sense only to Henry and Claudine. The statue is the weapon Henry used to commit a murder years ago, a murder that helped start his company and a murder that Claudine helped cover up. She swore that no one would ever be able to find the statue or trace it to their crime. So which of their employees did? And why did they place it in the White Elephant? What could possibly be their endgame?
Over the course of the evening, Henry and Claudine race to figure out who could have planted the weapon, and just what the night means for the secrets they’ve been harboring. Further adding to the drama is a snowstorm that closes nearby roads—preventing anyone from leaving, as well as keeping law enforcement from the scene. And by the end of this crazy night, the police will most definitely be required…
Chapter 1: Claudine Claudine By midnight the snowfall would reach a foot, just shy of breaking Aspen’s one-day record set more than forty years before. No one predicted the storm would be so severe. The sheer speed of it. The first flakes didn’t even start coming down until around two that afternoon.
Claudine couldn’t see them outside the salon’s picture window, her head stuck under a hooded dryer. With a freshly French-manicured hand, she reached into her cream-colored Chanel flap bag and pulled out the guest list: not counting herself, Henry, and their six employees. There hadn’t been much time to put the list together. Zara had let her know she was coming just a few days before. Considering the short notice and how packed Aspen social calendars were during the holiday season, these were good, solid choices:
Captain and Mrs. Tiggleman
Kevin and Jerry
The Alpine Brothers
Old-school residents with character and charm. And, of course, purpose. The Tigglemans could rave about both houses she’d sold them—and show Zara that Aspen, unlike Hollywood, didn’t favor youth but was a place where one could age with class and grace. Henry’s childhood friend Kevin and his husband, Jerry, would demonstrate their long-standing connection to the town—and its inclusive, liberal side. And the Alpine Brothers, Jack and Bobby, with their ability to talk for hours about how to curve wood just right or the best temperature to melt steel, would indicate the firm’s expertise, their insistence on working with only the finest contractors.
Claudine could have gone wider with the invitations, but it would have been a mistake to think packing the party with a room full of insipid millionaires was the right move to impress a pop star. The start-up bros who’d been invading town for the past decade brought a unique sense of soullessness and poor taste—the latter slowly destroying the business of Calhoun + Calhoun. Tech geeks who’d spent their entire lives wanting to blend in had no appreciation for Henry’s artistry, the singular vision he brought to every architectural project. He put his heart into each of his houses—or at least had put it into them, until the health scare a few weeks ago. No, the new-money crowd only wanted acceptance and would rather buy a prefab cookie-cutter monstrosity like Steve Gilman specialized in rather than let Claudine sell them a true masterpiece.
She tried not to think about Steve. Though that was hard. These days Aspen was crawling with real estate agents like him. No discretion or discernment. Quick to sell whatever clapboard mansion came available. To think, the two of them were once the only upscale agents in town. (And once briefly—though not briefly enough—more than that.) Now there were dozens. The recession had driven a lot of brokers working mid-tier price points into their section of the market, and things continued to get more crowded thanks to the internet—Zillow, Trulia, Redfin. The only way to survive in this business was to sell big.
And Calhoun + Calhoun was just barely surviving. How bleak had things gotten? Well, just look at this salon. For years Claudine had been going to Lather—was one of Jeff’s very first clients. He was the only person she trusted to get the sharp jut of her black bob just right. An overly severe angle looked like she was trying too hard to be hip, desperate to seem younger than fifty-three. Not angled enough, and she seemed too matronly, looked ten years older. There was a precision to it, but precision is expensive. Which now she couldn’t afford. She had to come to a dump like this where instead of the soothing strings of Beethoven they pumped in too-loud Top 40 hits, and rather than glossy, oversized European fashion magazines the reading material was cheap, well-thumbed supermarket tabloids.
There was a stack of them on the table next to the hair dryer. She had already read them. The same stack sat on her desk at the office. Research. They all had Zara on the cover. Her streaked-blue hair pulled back in a greasy, disheveled bun. Oversized sunglasses covering eyes no doubt swollen from crying and sleeplessness. And the telltale sign of sorrow for a celebrity of her stature: sweatpants.
POP PRINCESS ZARA SINGS BLUES AFTER LIAM SPLIT
INSIDE ZARA’S DEVASTATING HEARTBREAK
FRIENDS WORRIED SUPERSTAR ZARA MAY DO SOMETHING INSANE
That something, apparently, was going mansion hunting in Aspen.
Obviously, Claudine had been shocked when she called. Shocked that it was Zara herself and not a personal assistant. Shocked that someone Zara’s age still knew how to call. Claudine’s younger employees only texted.
“I found the listing for Montague House online,” Zara said. Her voice sounded normal, without a trace of the soaring falsetto that had sold out arenas around the world and earned her fifty million Instagram followers. “I’d like to fly in and see it next Thursday.”
“Absolutely,” Claudine said. “We have our company holiday party that day, but I’ll reschedule.”
Claudine was relieved. Money was so tight that she’d already scaled back the holiday party from previous years. Usually she hired a top caterer to pass hors d’oeuvres and mix specialty cocktails. This year the plan was takeout: spring roll platters and Thai meatballs. Even the self-serve prosecco bar felt like a stretch.
“Don’t reschedule. I can see it another time—” Claudine could hear the waning interest in her voice, Zara was only used to hearing yes.
“We can combine them?” she offered quickly before she had time to think about what she was saying, before she could process how this would affect Henry. “Why don’t I move the party to the house. It was absolutely built for entertaining, and you can see it in top shape.”
“A holiday party sounds perfect,” Zara said. “It’s so hard to get in the spirit in L.A. And being around people right now would be good for me. What can I bring?”
For a moment Claudine almost didn’t tell her about the White Elephant. She could just cancel it. Her employees would be glad. She knew how much they dreaded it each year. At most holiday parties, the game was a lighthearted romp. Cheap gag gifts. Ten- or twenty-dollar limit. Claudine’s version was different. In introducing the annual game, she had neglected to include a price limit. After a couple years, a spirit of one-upmanship had been established, along with an expectation that each employee should bring a lavish gift, one that reflected how well they’d performed over the year, how much they’d racked up in commissions. The purpose had originally been to make people laugh, to reward the most clever. After a few years of observing the tradition, however, it was clear that their lighthearted, team-building holiday game served only to create competition, cause jealousy, and stir rivalry among her staff. Claudine encouraged a level of competition, but even she would admit that including Zara in this year’s White Elephant would make the team even more uneasy and desperate to impress.
“Ooh, I love party games!” Zara said. “Entertaining is my jam, and it’d be nice to see the space full of people.”
Having it at the house posed a few problems. Sure, it was available. That wasn’t an issue. Mr. and Mrs. Lions—the first and only owners—had already moved to Scottsdale. And the place was still furnished. The moving company wasn’t coming until after the holidays. But switching the party from the office to Montague House meant Claudine would have to make it a more extravagant affair. Catering. Florals. A piano player would be a nice touch, given the Lions’ gorgeous black Steinway grand. She’d need to invite a few more people to fill out the space. And invitations. No matter how intimate, a proper soirée required a proper invitation. Claudine was willing to make certain compromises, but not when it came to etiquette.
The biggest problem was Henry. He had been so distraught over her taking the listing. Of course, he didn’t come out and say so. Too quiet. Never said much of anything. She was the talker, the salesperson. He expressed himself through his designs. Yet it was hardly a coincidence that right after she told him the Lions had asked her to sell Montague House, he wound up in the hospital. She knew what the mention of the house must have stirred up. The unspoken. If business wasn’t so bad, she wouldn’t have dared—would have told the Lions to find another broker. They did not have that luxury. They couldn’t refuse any listing. At least it was one of theirs. If things didn’t pick up soon, Claudine would have to consider branching into listings for houses Henry hadn’t designed. That the Alpine brothers hadn’t built. That Calhoun + Calhoun hadn’t overseen from the dig to dinner with the new owners.
Taking the listing was one thing. Asking Henry to come to the party at Montague House was another. He hadn’t been back since they finished building it and turned the keys over to the Lions. He wouldn’t even drive past it, taking long detours to avoid catching the slightest glimpse of the property. To go back there after all these years, to once again step through those large oak doors into the marbled foyer, into the past… who knew what that might do to him?
In just a few hours, they would find out. She didn’t ask Henry to go. She told him he was going. She needed him there in order to make this sale. No one could explain the home’s many intricate features better than the man who’d designed them. Besides, the name of the company was Calhoun + Calhoun. Surely Zara would be offended if only one Calhoun could bother to be present.
There was simply no overstating the importance of tonight. It had the potential to change everything. Selling Montague House to an A-lister like Zara would solidify Claudine as the town’s most exclusive agent, placing her once and for all ahead of Steve. This sale would leave him and his company in the dust. Imagine the inquiries she’d get. Calhoun + Calhoun’s client base would soar. The deluge of calls and emails. The boost to their social media. Right now they only had three thousand or so followers. How many would they add with one shot of Montague House on Zara’s Instagram and @calhounandcalhoun tagged? Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? Good god, what if Zara took a selfie of the two of them and posted that? What was she doing at this cut-rate salon? What would a few hundred dollars more matter to her overdue Amex balance? Visionaries didn’t compromise.
Claudine put the guest list into her purse and picked up one of the magazines to memorize a few more details about Zara and her recent breakup with heavily tattooed goth rocker Liam Loch.
One of the biggest questions is who will get custody of Pip, the cute rescue Pomeranian that Zara and Liam adopted shortly after they started dating.
Claudine hoped it was him. She hated dogs. She didn’t need that fur ball running around Montague House, shedding everywhere, pissing in the corners. Small dogs especially were attention suckers.
She had to admit, there was something poetic about the entire situation. Zara was obviously hoping Montague House would be a new chapter, a fresh beginning—just like it had been for Claudine. That five-acre plot of land had rescued her, set her life on a different trajectory. Now all these years later it would serve the same purpose for Zara.
She checked the time on her Cartier Tank Anglaise: 2:45 p.m. She was supposed to meet the caterer at Montague House at 5:00 p.m. No time for lunch. Not like she had planned on it, she hadn’t been eating much the past few days. There were leather Balenciaga pants to fit into. After the salon, she’d hurry back to the office to check in with her staff, change into her outfit for the night, and grab her White Elephant gift. She had to say, in all her years of the game, it was maybe the best gift she’d ever chosen. Not the most expensive, but likely to draw the most gasps.
She tossed the magazine back on the pile, reached once more into her purse, and took out the thin wooden invitation. Made from reclaimed wood salvaged from last summer’s fires near Basalt and embossed with gold-leaf lettering:
Cocktails + Hors d’oeuvres 6 p.m.
White Elephant Exchange 7 p.m. Sharp
There was a festive touch of deep cranberry stain around the edges. Later on, when reporters were interviewing the guests and trying to put together a timeline of the night, Captain Tiggleman would say they should have known something was terribly wrong from the beginning. Even the invitation looked like it had been dipped in blood.
Trish Harnetiaux is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her plays How to Get into Buildings, Welcome to the White Room, and If You Can Get to Buffalo have been published by Samuel French. Her latest play Tin Cat Shoes premiered at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks and she is currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction. Harnetiaux has been a resident at MacDowell, The Millay Colony and Yaddo. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and her work can be found at TrishHarnetiaux.com.
A cross between the movie Clue and Big Little Lies…it is told from two perspectives: a third-person omniscient voice...and the first-person voice of the mystery man or woman responsible for the [crime]…We expect this to replace the Snuggie as this year’s go-to white elephant gift. —Sean M., Senior Editor on White Elephant