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.

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 allĀ 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 localĀ 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.”