Death by Chocolate

“That chocolate’s going to kill you some day.”

I still hear Betty’s words every time I reach for some. I’m not worried. I’m much healthier than my nag of a boss ever was.

They do say chocolate can be good for the heart. Maybe she should have enjoyed more while she still could.

Betty was right. Chocolate can kill. It must have shocked her in those final moments to realize she would become its victim — or of the rat poison it contained.

She should have kept her hands off my stash, and finally given me that raise.

The Secret Admirer

“Hey baby.”

Chrissy’s eyes barely opened enough to make out the text on her phone. Who the hell would text someone at two in the morning? It must be a wrong number.

She put her phone back on her nightstand and rolled over.

Buzz. Buzz.

Chrissy picked up the phone again and saw “I miss you baby” staring back at her in her text notifications.

“I’m not your baby. You have the wrong number,” she responded.

Before she could turn the phone off, it rang. She answered it.

“Hello? I’m sorry. But I told you. You have the wrong number,” Chrissy said.

“No I don’t. Why are you being such a tease? You want me to come over, don’t you?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Chrissy couldn’t place it.

“No. I don’t know you. Please leave me alone.”

“You know who this is baby.”

“No. I don’t,” Chrissy insisted as goosebumps formed along her arms.

“You know me baby. And I know you want me,” he said.

“I’m hanging up now.” But he jumped in before she could.

“You do that baby. I’m just up the road at our favorite little pub. I’ll be at your apartment in less than five minutes.”

She froze as he hung up. She worked at a pub up the street from her apartment. She worried it wasn’t a wrong number after all.

Plenty of guys worked there and hung out there regularly. Staff contact information was easy to come by. It was kept behind the bar in case someone needed to call around for fill-ins. And anyone who saw her there could have followed her home to find out where she lived.

She grabbed her phone, purse and car keys and headed out her front door to the stairwell. But she saw headlights pulling into the parking lot in front of her building from the window there. That could be the guy.

She turned around and pounded on the door of her neighbor across the hall. If he was heading to her apartment, she wanted to be anywhere but there. The neighbor, a woman of around Chrissy’s age, answered just as the headlights dimmed. Seeing how frantic Chrissy was, she let her come inside.

Chrissy ran to the neighbor’s living room window that overlooked the front parking lot. She saw the man walk up to the exterior door. His face was highlighted by the floodlights pointing down at the doorway. He looked up towards the window where she stood.

She recognized him. He was a regular at the bar.

She was horrified to see him pull a key out of his pocket and use it to open the front door.

“Oh my god,” Chrissy cried. “I should call the police.”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Chrissy could hear the man’s footsteps as he approached the floor of her apartment. She held her breath, not sure if he’d shout, bang on her door, or quietly leave if he couldn’t get in.

Instead, she heard a key go into the lock of her neighbor’s door. The doorknob slowly turned as Chrissy started dialing 9-1-1.

She stopped when her neighbor squealed.

“Oh sweetie, you almost scared us half to death” she said as she flung her arms around the man. “Chrissy, this is my boyfriend, Mike. You’ve probably seen him around.”

Chrissy let herself breathe again, pushing out a huge sigh of relief. Maybe it was a wrong number after all.

“Hey baby,” he said, turning his smile to Chrissy.

Her breath once again escaped her. She glanced out the window towards her car. It sat barely ten yards away, but, to Chrissy, even that suddenly looked like miles.

Shelter

It didn’t matter how menacing the gray sky looked. Nothing would stop Rob from getting out of his hellhole of a hometown. He packed up his rusty old pickup and hit the road for the last time.

No more small town gossip. No more boarded up buildings up and down the lone stretch through town. No more of his cheating ex-girlfriend or his louse of a best friend who took her off Rob’s hands. No more working for the family business. Rob shut down the hardware store as soon as his father passed and it became his to close. Its cash flow could best be described as “hemorrhaging” anyway.

He wasn’t even twenty minutes out of town when his cell phone beeped with an alert. He picked up the phone to see if it was anything important.

“Damn it,” he growled as he pounded his fist on his steering wheel, hitting the truck’s horn.

It was a tornado warning. One was spotted not far from him, and it was heading in his direction. It would be on him in less than ten minutes. His eyes scanned the horizon, looking for somewhere to take shelter. Only one old farmhouse stood out among the fields and the lone road he sat on. He hit the gas and headed in the house’s direction.

By the time Rob pulled down the drive and got out of his truck, the sky was so dark it could have been night. The wind nudged him toward the front porch where he frantically pounded on the door.

“Hello!” he shouted. “Is anyone in there?”

Knowing he didn’t have much time, he peered in the window. A small, elderly man sat hunched over in his chair across the room. He didn’t lift his head. Rob tried the front door, but it was locked tight. There wasn’t time to break in through a window to help. He needed to get underground. He pounded hard on the window one more time to try to wake the man from his deep slumber. For all Rob could tell, he wasn’t breathing anyway.

“Poor fool,” he said out loud.

Rob turned around and, seeing the gray funnel in the distance, ran to the side of the house. He checked the cellar door. Locked. He rushed to his truck. He grabbed a heavy wrench from the toolbox in the truck’s bed.

He hit the old rusted padlock.

“Come on,” he pleaded with the cellar door as he continued to beat on the lock. “Open damn it!”

One final, panicked swing of the wrench did it. He pulled the padlock away, opened the door, climbed down into the cellar, and pulled the door closed behind him. He crouched under the workbench on the far wall, protecting his head while he listened to the roaring of a freight train above him.

When the noise stopped, he emerged from the cellar and looked around. The house was banged up, but it still stood. Even his pickup was still there, though a large tree limb had fallen onto the truck’s bed. The tornado must have changed course, the worst of it barely missing them.

Rob reached into his truck’s toolbox and pulled out a flashlight. He headed back to the cellar, hoping to find a saw he could use to cut the tree limb so he could remove it. His truck was damaged, but it still looked drivable. And he still wanted to get away.

After rummaging through tools in the cellar, Rob noticed a large cabinet. He opened it, hoping to find something useful. Instead, he found a collection of newspaper clippings, taped along the cabinet walls, even on the inside surface of its doors.

His curiosity piqued, Rob read the headlines. Every one talked about an old bank heist from the 1970s. He knew the story. Everyone in the area did. Two masked men hit a bank just a few towns over from where he grew up. They made off with nearly five million dollars. A bank guard was killed in the robbery, but the criminals were never found.

Why would that old guy care so much about an old robbery? Rob wondered. At first he thought the man in the farmhouse might have been an officer involved in the case. But then something on the bottom shelf caught his eye. Cash. The corner of a single bill stuck out from under the shelf. The cabinet had a false bottom.

Rob cleared the lower shelf and pried it up, revealing a stash of more money than he’d seen in his lifetime. It all fell into place. The old guy in the house wasn’t a cop who worked on the old robbery case. He was one of the guys who pulled it off.

Rob dumped the contents of an old toolbox and stuffed the cash in it. He went back to the workbench and found the saw he was looking for. He made his way out of the cellar and put the toolbox in his truck. Then he went back to the house and peered in the window.

“Good,” said Rob, noticing that the old man was still asleep, or worse, in his chair. If that roaring wind didn’t wake him, nothing would. Rob didn’t want to draw attention to himself as he tried to free his truck.

He made quick work of the log, cutting it in half so he could push each piece of the limb off the sides of his truck’s bed. He then got into the cab and continued driving, knowing he had a decision to make. Would he keep the money? Or would he turn it in?

As tempting as it was to keep all that cash, he didn’t want to risk being caught with it. So he drove two towns over, where the heist happened all those years ago. He set the toolbox on the front desk and asked to speak with whomever was in charge.

“You’re one lucky guy,” said the town’s sheriff after Rob told him the story and told him where he could find the rest of the evidence. “Not only might you have solved the biggest crime in these parts for decades, but it sounds like you barely skirted the storm. And you know, if this all pans out, you’ll be entitled to the reward. The bank’s still offering a hundred grand for any lead that brings those bandits to justice.”

A hundred grand, Rob repeated to himself in his head. It’s not five million bucks, or even whatever cut was still in that cellar. But it’ll be a hell of a start to a new life.

Sweets Thief

Every weekend when Maggie visited her grandfather, he let her choose any piece of candy she wanted from his sweets bowl. Her favorites were butterscotch candies, twisted in shiny golden wrappers.

Last weekend during Maggie’s visit, it disappointed her to find that he had run out of her favorite sweets.

“What’s wrong?” asked Grandpa, watching Maggie dig in the sweets bowl.

“I can’t find butter candy,” said Maggie.

“Butterscotch,” Grandpa corrected, helping her sort through the candies in the bowl. “Hmmm. I know I put some in there yesterday.” He couldn’t find any butterscotch left in the bowl either.

“Did you eat them all?” asked Maggie.

“No sweetie. I put some out just for you. Maybe I forgot to put them in the bowl. Let me check the kitchen.”

There was a small empty bag of butterscotch candies in the kitchen trash can. But where could they be if he didn’t put them in the candy bowl?

Her grandfather went back to the dining room to give Maggie the bad news. The butterscotch had vanished. And he had no idea what could have happened to them.

That is, he had no idea until he walked by the living room. A little flash of golden light caught his eye from near the window. He went over to investigate, and Maggie came running behind him.

It was a butterscotch candy, lying on the living room floor next to Grandpa’s favorite chair.

“Now how did that get here?” asked Grandpa.

“Look!” squealed Maggie, falling to the floor to crawl behind the chair. “Here’s another one!”

Her grandfather joined her on the floor, and sure enough, he pulled out several more pieces of golden candy. He reached under the chair too, and feeling a hole in the chair’s lining, he reached inside. When his hand emerged, it was filled with butterscotch, caramels, and other wrapped sweets.

“Why did you hide candy in your chair Grandpa?”

“I didn’t. But I think I know who did,” he answered, looking at the sofa across the room. There sat a gray ball of fur, watching them intently with an annoyed look on its face. “I don’t think old Dusty is happy that we found his secret stash,” he said.

Dusty forgave them quickly when Maggie crossed the room to give him a good scratch behind the ears. After all, he could find another hiding spot later.


 

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by a real “sweets thief,” my cat named Tubs. I used to keep wrapped candies out for guests, until I noticed that some had gone missing. It turns out Tubs had torn a hole in the bottom of my living room chair (which I didn’t even think he could get under at the time).

He would swipe wrapped candies one at a time and store them in the chair’s lining for later (along with other things, including money!). He never actually ate the candy, but instead thinks they’re toys because he likes the crinkling sound of the wrappers. Here’s a photo of Tubs with a caramel candy. 

Sweets Thief

Dead in December

“Not another one,” said Detective Kim Owens. She sighed, shaking her head as she looked at the corpse on the floor. It was the third mall Santa murder in less than two weeks.

“We should talk to Dan.” Her partner, Connor Muloney, hated bringing up Kim’s ex husband because it usually put her in a foul mood. But Dan Owens was the lead detective on the first mall Santa murder case, which occurred within city limits.

“You talk to him,” said Kim.

Kim left the city and became a county detective after the divorce. Dan had a habit of spreading half-truths to his fellow officers, and they had a way of making their way back to Kim’s ears. That’s why she hated working with city cops. They left her surrounded by staring eyes and muffled whispers.

“He’s just going to ask to talk to you,” said Muloney.

“So, let him ask. It’s about time he learned he can’t have everything he wants.”

“You got it. I’ll see if they have any leads,” Muloney said as he got into his car to head for the city.

In between prying questions about his ex-wife, Dan Owens did manage to help. He informed Muloney that the first victim wasn’t your typical mall Santa. He was actually a wealthy CEO and patriarch of one of the most powerful families in the city.

It turns out, despite his corporate image, he was a good guy. And his secret Santa persona was a way he liked to give back to local kids. He even donated gifts and played Santa at the Christmas party in the hospital’s children’s ward for each of the last ten years.

“If you need anything else, have Kimmie give me a call,” he said, hanging up before Muloney could protest.

He phoned Kim with the contact information Dan gave him for the county detectives in charge of the second homicide investigation. By the time he met up with her, she had called them and was ready with an update of her own.

The second and third victims weren’t as unique as the first. The Santa from the next county over was hired through a temp agency. And their victim was a retail employee. The mall manager thought he looked like the perfect Santa and asked him to take the gig. It was his first year in the role.

“So what do you think we have here?” asked Muloney. “Do we have some nut killing Santas because he didn’t get what he wanted as a kid or something?”

“Anything’s possible,” said Kim. “But I don’t know.”

“The only thing they have in common is the Santa suit,” he countered.

“Yeah, but why would some guy in the city travel a couple of hours into the ‘burbs just to kill two more Santas? Why only kill mall Santas when the city’s full of them on every street corner this time of year?”

Mulaney knew she had a point. If the killer was out for some sort of crazy revenge on Santa, he had plenty to choose from closer to home.

“It’s more personal than that,” she added.

“I’ll update Dan on what you found out. He should know.”

“No,” said Kim. “I’ll deal with my idiot ex.”

Kim got in her car and pulled up Dan’s number in her phone’s contact list. She hadn’t talked to Dan in ages. But she couldn’t keep passing him off on her partner.

“Kimmie baby!” was a greeting she neither expected nor missed.

“I wanted to run something by you Dan.” She cut him off. “I don’t think this case is about some whack job out to get Santa.”

“Sure it is. Random crimes sweetie. Otherwise my boys and I would have rounded the bastard up by now. But don’t you worry. We’ll figure it out.”

“And what exactly have you been doing for the last week besides sitting on your hands, waiting for the Franklin County detectives to clean up the mess for you?” Whenever it came to sharing jurisdiction or working with other departments, Dan had a habit of letting others do most of the work, and later claiming as much credit as he could get away with.

“Oh, come on,” he said. “Why so harsh? You can’t possibly still have your panties in a twist about Becky.” Becky was the twenty-something Dan had cheated on Kim with three years earlier, breaking up their marriage. “Isn’t there a statute of limitations on angry ex-wives?”

“You wish,” she shot back at him. “But whatever. I didn’t call you for this. I just wanted to let you know that we don’t suspect these are simply random killings. At least not all of them.”

“What are you getting at?” he asked.

“I think at least one of the homicides was personal. Maybe the other two were the killer trying to cover his motive with similar crimes. Why else be so specific about mall Santas? Muloney’s on the phone with Franklin County to see if they have any reason to suspect someone wanted their guy dead. I don’t see any evidence of that with ours. No one had any reason to kill him. What about yours?”

“We’re,” he paused. “… still looking into that.”

“Well, let us know if you ever get off your ass and do that,” she snapped. “Oh, and when you do, call my partner,” she said, hanging up on him abruptly. Maybe it would be best to leave Dan to Muloney after all.

When she got back to the county police department, Muloney was waiting for her. As she suspected, the Franklin County detectives didn’t have any suspects or motive for why someone would want their victim dead. It appeared he was killed simply because he was wearing his Santa suit at the wrong place in the wrong time.

“Turn on channel six,” said one of the other officers. Kim grabbed the remote and turned on the small television in the corner of the room.

On the local news they were airing a story about the children’s ward in the local hospital. They were in desperate need of donations after their benefactor was murdered in the first mall Santa slaying. This was the first public mention of who that victim was and what he had been quietly doing for the community for years.

The reporter had done some digging, and it turned out the first victim’s estranged son was back in the picture and had put a hold on all of his father’s usual donations for the season. So the hospital was trying to get others in the community to step up and help patients in the children’s ward have a merry Christmas.

“What slime,” said Muloney.

“That is pretty low,” Kim agreed. “But money always sounds like motive to me. Dan is going to hate this.”

“Why’s that?” asked Muloney.

“Because it means he’ll be expected to do his job.”