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.”


Beth inherited a cozy little cottage in a seaside village when her great aunt, Patty, passed away. That’s how the attorney described it at least. She hadn’t seen Aunt Patty for more than ten years when they both attended her parents’ funeral after a car accident.

It sounded like the perfect place to start over. Beth finalized a nasty divorce only a month ago, and she felt burnt out with her job on the anemic local police force. She needed to get away for a while.

Beth assumed her boss felt guilty for making her miss the funeral because it surprised her when he approved her request for time off. She took it as a sign, packed her bags, and drove north to New England, not stopping along the way despite the half a day’s drive.

“Cozy little cottage my ass,” Beth said as she pulled up to the property. It looked nothing like she imagined after talking to the lawyer. Shutters dangled on loose nails. The walls showed more exposed wood than paint. And overgrown hedges nearly blocked the path to the front door, which might have been a good thing because the gate on the picket fence had fallen off its hinges.

Beth couldn’t turn around and leave then, or she would have. She needed to rest after the long drive. I’ll just stay the night, she thought to herself. I’ll sort through some of Aunt Patty’s things tomorrow, and then I’ll go home.

The cottage’s interior rivaled what she saw outside. Floors creaked with every step. Much of the antique furniture sat in disrepair. She saw a puddle near one of the windows. No one thought to close it when her aunt’s body was taken away, despite it being the rainy season. Beth closed the window and rolled her luggage to the bedroom.

She turned on a lamp. I guess this is where Aunt Patty died, she thought. Just an observation, as Beth wasn’t easily creeped out. I might as well get started. The sooner I go through this stuff, the sooner I can leave and have it put on the market. She had no interest in making the fixer-upper a more permanent residence.

Beth started with the bedroom closet. She neatly folded Aunt Patty’s clothes, boxing them up for Goodwill. She came across some old family photos and other mementos from Aunt Patty’s, and her grandmother’s, childhood. I should hold onto these, she thought as she set them near her suitcase.

She went through the nightstand drawer next, finding some empty pill bottles but not much else. From the labels she could tell Aunt Patty suffered from a heart condition before her death.

By that point, several hours had passed and Beth felt drained. But the only thing left to go through in the bedroom was a secretary desk, so she pressed on.

The desk drawers overflowed with personal papers, from old letters to paid bills. Beth sorted them into two piles, things she could throw away and things she should keep for a while, like utility bills for accounts she would need to cancel.

As Beth began to close the secretary, another paper caught her eye, tucked tightly between the last mail slot and the edge of the desk. How did that get there? Beth wondered.

She removed the piece of paper and unfolded it. Her eyes widened as she read.

The paper contained her aunt’s handwritten will, signed by Aunt Patty and her lawyer just days before her death. But this will wasn’t the same one the lawyer showed her. It didn’t only leave her the cottage. It seemed Aunt Patty went on a casino trip with some of her church friends several months earlier, and she won big. Despite her modest surroundings, Aunt Patty was worth millions, and she left it all to Beth, her last living relative.

Beth took another look at the pill bottles in the nightstand drawer. A wave of sadness overcame her. Sadness, and anger. She unpacked her suitcase. She wouldn’t head home the next day. She would make herself cozy here after all. In the morning she would meet with her colleagues from the local police department. That, and she would confront Aunt Patty’s lawyer.

Falling Off the Wagon

A crowd gathered around The Wagon Wheel, a hundred foot tall ferris wheel at the Franklin County Fair. A passenger, twenty eight year old Rory Daniels, fell from one of the upper gondolas to his death.

The other passengers remained on the ride until police arrived to question witnesses. All the passengers stayed except Rosemary Wynn that is.

Rosemary, Daniels’ girlfriend, rode with him when he fell. The attendant let her off The Wagon Wheel, concerned keeping her on the ride in her hysterical state might result in another accident.

At least he assumed it was an accident. That’s what the police came to find out.

The Wagon Wheel’s record was clean: no injuries and no deaths, until that night. The gondolas didn’t pose a risk, as long as you followed the rules. No standing. No leaning over the edge. No shaking or swinging your car. For an accident like this to happen, the victim or someone else on the ride had to ignore those safety precautions. The police needed to investigate anyway.

They spoke to Rosemary first. She gave her account of what happened.

“I asked him to stop. I begged him to stop.”

“Stop what?” asked the officer in charge.

“Stop shaking the car.” She paused, trying to fight back tears. She lost that fight. “I asked him to stop shaking the damn car. He knew I was terrified of heights.”

“Then why did you get on the ride?” asked the officer.

“I didn’t want to. Rory wanted to go on The Wheel before we left, and they don’t let you get on alone.”

The officer looked at the ride’s operator who nodded to confirm the “no single riders” policy.

“I asked him to stop,” Rosemary said again. Her tears flowed harder as the emergency medical personnel moved Rory’s covered body into an ambulance. “I screamed at him to stop, but he wouldn’t quit messing around.”

It was clear he wouldn’t get much else out of the traumatized girlfriend, so the officer left her with a colleague while he talked to other passengers. Those not in a position to see or hear anything from their seats were sent on their way.

He started by talking to the riders in the cars on either side of Rory and Rosemary’s. They both confirmed Rosemary’s account of her shouting at her boyfriend. But other than hearing her screaming “Stop!” they couldn’t offer more insight into the conversation. Neither could view the victim’s gondola from their positions above and below. The riders above didn’t even realize what happened until the cars rotated so Rosemary could get off the ride.

The only other passengers who witnessed anything included three high school students whose car sat across from them, on the other side of the wheel. They heard Rosemary screaming but sat too far away to hear what she said. The girls did notice the car shaking though, with both Rory and Rosemary on their feet.

“I think they were fighting,” said one of the girls. The other two shook their heads in agreement.

“She was holding on,” said the second teen. “He kept grabbing her arms.”

“Maybe he tried to scare her,” said the last of the friends. “Like something my idiot brother might do. Then he fell.”

The officer glanced at the other girls and they continued to nod, signaling they witnessed the same incident. It sounded to him like Rory’s death was nothing more than an accident with a young man horsing around trying to freak out his girlfriend. He fell backwards out of the gondola while she held on and begged him to stop.

After offering condolences to Rosemary, the officer sent her home.

He went back to the scene the next day to meet with members of the forensics team. Mechanical failure and negligence on the part of the fair staff needed to be ruled out. But with consistent witness statements it seemed, to him, like an open and shut case.

That opinion was about to change.

Not fifty feet away from The Wagon Wheel, he noticed a familiar face: Rosemary’s. He didn’t think anything of it at first. She was just a grieving girlfriend, visiting the place where she last saw her boyfriend alive.

Then he caught it. A hint of a smile crossed her face before she finished off an ice cream cone and got in line for the fair’s biggest attraction, The Wooden Racer. It was the fair’s roller coaster, the tallest one in the state.

3 A.M.

I tossed and turned for what felt like hours, unable to sleep. I looked at my clock. It was three o’clock in the morning. I wanted to throw the clock against a wall. Instead, I dragged myself out of bed and made my way downstairs, careful not to wake my husband.

“There’s no time like the dead of night to sit down and write,” I told myself. So I plopped down at my desk and got to work on my latest novel.

I typed away for an hour and a half before deciding to give sleep another try. The quiet in the house made me uncomfortable.

But as I approached the stairs, a light flashed through the window of my front door. It caught me off-guard, but maybe the neighbors were out having a better night than I was. I started making my way up the stairs.

I turned my back to the door. But there it was again, a light shining through the front window. It lit up the wall at the top of the stairs. I moved a little faster to get a look from the upstairs window.

And there they were, two headlights, parked in my driveway, pointing at my house. I rushed into the bedroom and woke my husband. We had heard about nearby break-ins a few weeks ago, and with our house being semi-secluded, we had reason to be concerned.

My husband got out of bed and made his way downstairs. He stood by the door waiting to see if the intruder tried to get inside. I watched from the upstairs landing, phone in-hand, 9-1-1 typed and waiting for me to dial.

Then it came — the rapping on the door, so loud it could have woken the dead.

“Who is it?” my husband shouted, unable to identify the visitors through the frosted glass, though he could tell there were more than one.

“State troopers!” they yelled back to him. We don’t have a local police department, so we rely on the state police.

He inched closer to the door, knowing there was no good way to verify their identities without asking them to come to a window. And if they were intruders, how much protection would a window offer? I sat on my perch, heart pounding, armed with my phone. He opened the door.

I took a deep breath, relieved, when two uniformed officers entered our home. I wouldn’t need to call the police after all. They apologized for the scare and said they received a call from our alarm company.

“Our alarm didn’t go off,” my husband said. The officers were told that the alarm went off around three o’clock. But I woke up around three o’clock, and I heard no alarm. The dog never barked either. The dog would bark if the alarm went off. He always did.

Sure enough, the alarm system’s status code showed that it had gone off. But we never heard an alarm. And we never received a call from the alarm company, which should happen before they call the authorities. The officers accompanied us as we checked every entry point and found one of the doors hanging wide open.

What started as a late night fright, thinking potential intruders were trying to get into the house, became much worse. Did someone already come and go? Did the wind blow open a poorly-sealed door, perhaps even affecting cell reception, explaining the lack of calls? We didn’t notice anything missing. And we never did find out. But the worst part of all was the realization that help, should we need it again, was an hour and a half away.