Merry Bloody Christmas
Warning: If you are a child, pregnant woman, or have a heart condition, you will want to turn the page now. This Christmas murder mystery is not for the faint of heart.
Detective Michael Stoane wished he had a job that offered time off for the holidays. But here it was the morning of Christmas Eve, 1958, and he was trudging his considerable girth through the snow on his way to a crime scene. The snow was coming down in lumps, and there was a good foot on the ground. He had decided to walk from the station down to the scene, a downtown department store, because he hated driving in the snow and, even more than that, he hated driving with a hangover. It wasn’t so bad he might puke or get dizzy, but his brain was just befuddled enough to keep from thinking straight.
He wanted a second cup of coffee and thought about stopping, but there wasn’t anywhere convenient. He remembered that he still needed to buy presents for his sister and her family, or he had to figure out a good excuse not to go to dinner at their place the next day. From the little he knew about the body that had been discovered, clearly a murder victim, this was going to be a time-consuming and potentially high-profile case. It meant he probably wasn’t going to get any much-needed rest, but this might be just the excuse he was looking for to avoid Christmas dinner.
The department store, Pennyworth’s, was on the northwest corner of two busy streets. Stoane approached the building from the east, his eyes locked on the front entrance. Across the street was a bank blaring Christmas music out onto the sidewalk where Stoane stopped and stared at the store. He shook his head with irritation at the music, “Jingle Bell Rock.” Pennyworth’s had two stories above ground and, Stoane knew from previous shopping visits, another one underground. Two uniformed officers were cordoning off the front walkway with yellow police tape. From his vantage point across the street, Stoane could see no signs of forced entry. He stood there for a few minutes, telling himself that he was scoping out the scene from afar, but in reality, he was merely procrastinating. He was really not looking forward to crossing the street.
“Excuse me,” said an irritated-sounding woman to his left.
“Yeah?” said Stoane, slightly surprised, as he turned his head to look at her. She was short, wearing a fur coat, holding an oversized leather purse in one hand and a small dog in the other, and her face had a severe expression, as though she insisted on keeping her teeth tightly clenched despite a painful toothache.
“Excuse me, sir, but I am trying to enter the bank,” she said.
Only then did Stoane realize that he was blocking the bank’s doorway. He considered flashing his badge and telling the woman that he was there on police business—if for no other reason than because the woman seemed the type that deserved an unnecessary delay—but thought better of it and stepped aside.
The woman made the sort of derisive snort that define such people, and, with a big display of difficulty, opened the door and entered the bank. Stoane realized that she had probably expected him to open the door for her, and he felt a quick moment of satisfaction that it had not occurred to him to do so.
He started to laugh out loud to himself.
“Ho, ho, ho! There’s a little of the holiday spirit!” said a theatrically jolly voice to his right.
It occurred to Stoane that, for an investigator, he sure wasn’t very observant this morning. He hadn’t even noticed the guy dressed as Santa Claus standing next to him, ringing a bell, collecting money for some charity. He was covered in snow, like he’d been standing out there for hours.
Stoane give the Santa a forced, impatient smile, broke eye contact as quickly as possible so as not to prolong the conversation and hurried across the street.
“Merry Christmas!” called out Santa behind him.
Stoane slipped and almost fell on the icy road. One of the uniformed officers dashed over and grabbed him by the arm.
“Careful, Detective! The streets are really icy!”
This was Officer Perkins, a young, enthusiastic cop with a keen sense for the obvious. If Perkins had been standing next to Santa Claus, he no doubt would’ve been well aware of that fact.
“Thanks, Perkins,” said Stoane.
“Have you heard, Detective Stoane? We found her purse,” said Perkins. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “It’s Jane Heather.”
“Is that somebody I’m supposed to have heard of?”
“Sure! Yeah. Well, I mean, maybe. She’sl?”
“Must’ve missed that one …”
“Well, it’s a really good movie. It’s pretty good, at least. She was supposedly in town to get a divorce. The paper had something about it last week.”
“You don’t say. Where’s Detective Malcolm?”
“Inside, downstairs. I think he’s talking to the store manager. That’s who found her.”
Stoane entered the building, took the escalator downstairs. The basement showroom looked to be mostly large appliances—washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. It was a smaller area than the upstairs floors. To Stoane’s left as he disembarked the escalator was an overhead sign that read “restrooms,” and, facing each other, a matched his-and-hers pair. The body had been found in the men’s room. That door was propped open, and two forensics experts were there, dusting for fingerprints. Detective Malcolm was talking to a thin man with a thinner mustache.
“Detective Stoane, this is Miles Gosling, Pennyworth’s general manager,” said Malcolm. “Mr. Gosling, this is Detective Stoane. He’ll be the primary inspector on this case.”
Stoane nodded to Gosling, kept looking around. He walked over to the men’s room, looked inside. The body was a young woman, probably about 21 or 22. Blonde, thin, pretty enough to support the movie star rumor. She was draped over the side of the stall, bent backward in a place the human body was never designed to bend. Her head and arms dangled upside down, her long hair stopping just inches above the tile floor. Her blouse was torn, revealing her left shoulder and breast, and there were lacerations all along her neck, shoulder and the upper portion of her breast.
Adams, one of the forensics technicians, bespectacled and perpetually unshaven, gave Stoane a quizzical look.
“There’re two things about this that are somewhat surprising,” said Adams. “First, besides the torn blouse and her tit hanging out, there aren’t any signs of a sexual assault. I mean, we’ll have to wait to see some of the lab results, but shit, she’s still got her pants on. Second, and I can’t wait to hear what you think of this, but we’re going to have a hard time determining time of death because she’s been drained of blood.”
“No shit?” said Stoane.
“No shit,” replied Adams. “Not much beyond a drop or two on the floor either. Somebody drained her and left with the blood.”
“Fuck me. Stealing blood. Who found the purse?”
“Malcolm. It was in the ladies’ room. Looks like the killer grabbed her in there and, for whatever reason, dragged here over here.”
“Might’ve felt more comfortable in here. I know I always feel like I’m trespassing whenever I’m in the ladies’ room. The purse had ID?”
“I guess. You’ll have to ask Malcolm about that. But you know who this is, right? It’s Jane Heather.”
“Right. A big movie star.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say a big star, but she was in that piece of shit movie Cry of the Seagull.”
“That wasn’t a vampire movie, was it?”
Adams gave him a smirk that Stoane chose to interpret as “I’m glad you said the ‘V’ word so that I didn’t have to.”
“Is there a black market for movie star blood?” asked Stoane without caring for an answer. “Or else we got some sort of goddamn Dracula copycat killer.”
“Or it’s a real vampire,” said Adams, cranking up his smirk.
“Well, I hope it’s neither of those options,” said Stoane. “Because either way a killer with that sort of goddamn profile is so likely to go serial his name might as well be fucking Kellogg.”
Stoane moved in closer to look at the body. The cuts seemed to have been made by repeated, frenzied attacks with a small, sharp weapon. Her clavicle was clearly visible. If the body had been found somewhere other than hanging over a stall in the basement restroom of a department store—say, out in the forest somewhere—Stoane would have presumed that this had been a wild animal attack—a bear, maybe, or a wolf. It definitely seemed as though she had been gnawed on by some hungry beast with an unpleasant disposition. And it was strange how desiccated the injuries looked—dry, blackened, hardened and leathery.
“Well, this is nasty,” said Stoane. He felt a little woozy. Stoane fancied himself a stoic man of the world, not easily derailed by perverse killings, but this was a skin-crawling experience, he didn’t care who you were. His hangover flared like the devil’s nostrils. He felt lightheaded, as though the inside of his skull was as dry as the wounds on the woman in front of him.
“I need a drink of water,” he said. There was a drinking fountain between the restrooms. The pathetic trickle that came from the fountain was not nearly worth the Herculean effort required to maneuver his sizable, nearly-as-wide-as-it-was-tall frame to lean over a take a sip
“Hey, we haven’t dusted that yet,” said Michaelson, the other forensics technician, a real by-the-booker.
“Fuck off,” replied Stoane. He liked Adams, but despised Michaelson.
Stoane walked over to where Detective Malcolm was taking a statement from Gosling, the store manager. They appeared engrossed in a serious conversation that Stoane had no qualms interrupting.
“OK, Gosling,” said Stoane, putting on his business face. “You found her how long ago?”
Gosling looked at Stoane, appeared taken aback, looked to Malcolm and then back to Stoane.
“Well, as I already said to Detective Malcolm here, I got here two hours ago, around 6:45, went straight to my office upstairs to take care of some paperwork,” said Gosling. “I came down here around 7:30—these are the only restrooms in the building—and I opened the door, flipped on the light, and I saw Miss Heather, and I could tell immediately that she was dead, so I ran back up to the office and called the police.”
“You knew right away it was Jane Heather?” asked Stoane.
“Yes, sir. She had come into the store yesterday afternoon to do some shopping, and I had made sure to personally introduce myself and welcome her to Pennyworth’s.”
“What time was that?”
“Around 2:30 or 3. I can remember because it was right after we’d received our weekly shipment from Maybelline. They usually come on Tuesday afternoons around 2. They might have been a little late this week on account of the snow. The invoices include delivery times. I can check that upstairs if you’d like.”
“Sure. She was by herself?”
“How long did she stay? What’d she buy?”
Gosling suddenly looked embarrassed. “She wasn’t here very long—five, 10 minutes,” he said. “And she didn’t buy much, just a few odds and ends.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Women’s hygiene products.”
“I see. Besides you, did she interact with anyone else in the store?”
“Just our clerk, Sammy—Samantha. That’s who rung her up. She paid with cash.”
“Did you see her talk to anybody else?”
“No, no, no. I was sure to accompany her throughout the duration of her visit, so as to prevent any of our other customers making a scene.”
Stoane found this starched-shirt pencilneck intolerable. Wanted to strangle him, but restrained himself long enough to ask, “What time did you close up last night?”
“8 p.m. 8 to 8—those are our hours. I was the last to leave, around 8:45 or so.”
“Did you or any of your employees conduct a security check last night after closing?”
“Of course. Sammy and Dana, two of our employees, conducted a security check while I closed out the register and prepared our daily deposit. They assured me that the store was clear of customers. But I can give you their contact information.”
“Anybody come in between when you left last night and came in this morning? A cleaning service, anything like that?”
“Well, obviously, Miss Heather and whoever killed her. But no cleaning service, not last night.”
“Did you notice any signs of a break-in when you first arrived this morning? Was the door unlocked?”
“Who has keys to this building?”
“Well, as far as I know, just myself, our two assistant managers, Debbie Holcomb and Peter Jay, and the building owner, David Peltier.”
“What do you mean, ‘as far as I know’?”
“Well, we recently had to lay off one of our assistant managers, Clay—Clayton Smyth—and he turned in his keys, but it’s possible he had made copies. I intend to change the locks but haven’t yet. The layoff was just last week.”
Stoane interrogated Gosling for a few more minutes, with increasing irritation. He considered Gosling a suspect, but an unlikely one without a readily discernible motive. But suspect or no, he didn’t like the guy, and after a 20-minute conversation, after inspecting a bizarrely murdered and mutilated corpse—not to mention the damned hangover still pulsating in his head—he needed some air, maybe even a cigarette. Hell, what he really wanted was a drink. But a cigarette would suffice. Unfortunately—like a damned fool—at his healthnut sister’s request, he’d been trying to quit, so he didn’t have any.
Stoane took a walk around the showroom floor. He stopped in front of the vacuum cleaners. Everything in the store seemed very carefully displayed—that weasel Gosling obviously ran a tight ship—but there was one vacuum cleaner that seemed out-of-place. It was a big stainless-steel industrial monstrosity. It looked like an atom bomb with an octopus tentacle crawling out of it—a long tube trailing out of the vacuum and straight to the floor, ending in a long thin nozzle, perfect for getting to those hard to reach places. Stoane, using his handkerchief, picked up the nozzle. It was clean on the outside. He sniffed it, and then called out, “Hey Adams, you got a flashlight?”
Adams ran over, handed Stoane a flashlight. Stoane shined the light into the vacuum nozzle. The inside was crusted with a thin dusting of what looked like chili powder. Stoane popped open the vacuum lid. It released a stench like burnt hamburger. The vacuum was half filled with blood. It had started to crust over, and looked like a bread pudding coated in scabs.
“Well, it looks like our vampire was saving lunch for later,” said Adams.
Stoane bent over, looked closer into the vacuum. There were bits of material, what looked like fur, floating in the gore.
“I need a cigarette,” said Stoane.
He went back upstairs, out the door. It had stopped snowing. Officer Perkins and the other uniformed patrolman, whose name Stoane couldn’t remember, were fending off questions from some excitable kid, late teens, early 20s, maybe reporter from the damned campus newspaper. Stoane sized him up immediately as the sort of kid who always pitches his voice a notch or two too loud.
“Hey, Detective!” said the kid. “What’s going on in there? These guys won’t tell me anything.”
“Got me, kid,” said Stoane. “I’ve got no idea what’s going on in there. Certainly no real police work, more likely some kind of supernatural occult speculation. You got a cigarette, son?”
“No, sir,” said the kid. Stoane wasn’t surprised, the kid didn’t seem like he’d graduated from chewing gum yet. “What kind of ‘supernatural occult speculation?’” asked the kid, concerned and intrigued.
Stoane ignored the kid. “What about you, Perkins? Cigarette?”
“Nope,” said Perkins with hints of both pride and nostalgia. “My wife made me give it up.”
The nameless officer shook his head apologetically before Stoane could ask.
Stoane sighed. “Well, I guess I’ll take a walk over to the liquor store.”
“Is there really something occult going on?” asked the kid.
Stoane ignored him, stepped to the curb and waited for an opening in the traffic so he could cross the street. The air felt brisk, not too cold. The sun was out overhead. Stoane hoped it would melt some of the snow. With the sun shining and reflecting off the snow, it was actually blindingly bright. The colors of the buildings and the cars parked nearby seemed unnaturally vivid.
As he crossed the street, Stoane noticed that the guy in the Santa suit was still out in front of the bank. As Stoane approached, Santa started ringing his bell like a dog wagging his tail at a prospective treat.
“Hey buddy,” called out Stoane, “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you? Or is it strictly milk and cookies for you?”
Santa laughed his famous three-syllable guffaw. “No, young man, no cigarettes for me, but if you’ve been good this year, maybe I’ll bring you a carton for your stocking!”
Stoane noticed that Santa’s suit had dull brown patches where the coating of snow was missing. It looked like it had been streaked with mud.
“What happened to your suit, buddy?” asked Stoane. “Passing car splash you?”
Stoane brushed the arm of the suit. Dried, reddish brown flakes drifted toward the street’s slush. A faint, familiar iron odor tickled Stoane’s nostrils.
“What the fuck?” exclaimed Stoane. He looked, for the first time, directly into Santa’s eyes. The pupils were dilated, barely outlined with blue.
“My suit needed a new coat of paint,” said Santa, matter-of-factly.
Stoane felt a sharp pain as something—the sharp edge of Santa’s bell—struck him in the eye. He screamed and keeled over. He couldn’t see anything—but he heard quick footsteps darting away to his left.
“Perkins!” shouted Stoane. “Stop him! Get that guy!”
“What? Who?” asked Perkins from the other side of the street.
“Stop him!” screamed Stoane. “That guy! Fucking Santa! Kris fucking Kringle!”
Stoane heard quick footsteps as Perkins and the other officer, whose name he still couldn’t remember, ran down the street, yelling, “Stop! Halt!”
Then he heard two gun shots, followed by the voice of the eager, inquisitive kid, “Oh my god! They’ve shot Santa! Oh my god! The cops killed Santa Claus!”