by JW Fiction
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Mystery · #2104481
A jaded private investigator gets dragged into a holiday murder mystery.
|I remember the old days of Christmas, when little boys and girls across the world went to bed wide eyed, ears sharply listening for the pitter-patter on the roof when the jolly man in red came to deliver boxes of joy in the night. Things were different then. Innocent. You could believe in the spirit of the season and feel that for a couple weeks in December, the world wasn't that fucked up. Then Logan happened.|
Boston, MA: Christmas Eve, 2005
My flight was delayed several times that night. 6pm departure quickly became 1am arrival. On any other night the pilot would have diverted and forced us to camp overnight as refugees in a strange faraway terminal as only Americans could be stranded; with our iPhones plugged into outlets and complaining that the airport Starbucks ran out of whatever overpriced flavor of the month we were all rabid about at the time. But it was Christmas Eve. Whatever caution had been drilled into our pilot's training was clouded by the Spirit of Christmas, the probability of a Christmas Miracle that would safely deliver us all to our destinations. To our loved ones and warm fireplaces under stockings filled with candy and cheap gifts we neither wanted or needed, but were grateful for, nonetheless. We plodded on through the blizzard of 2005 without fear or even the doubt that we wouldn't make it. Things were different back then.
I remember landing. I had a window seat. Tail section of the plane. Outside was a hurricane of swirling white. There was no way to tell if we were over land or water. The thud of the landing gear hitting the tarmac was like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. There's no way we should have made it to Logan that night. Maybe the Christmas Miracle was real after all. The plane swerved and skidded along the runway and I gripped my carry-on tightly, palms red from the pressure. I looked to the passengers across the aisle, a mother and son, both smiling and laughing at the thought of finally making it home for Christmas. No fear in their eyes. I sometimes forget, but there was magic in those days.
Through the blizzard we began to see lights. Red, blue. Flashing. Not directional lighting to guide our plane to safety, but alarms. When we came to a stop and the engines ceased, we could hear sirens. After nearly half a day of traveling and finally reaching our destination, we still couldn't leave our seats. When the storm began to dissipate and I could see clearly out my window, I saw the Massachusetts State Police had set up a perimeter around our runway. I remember looking around, trying to figure out who the terrorist on our flight was. It didn't make much sense at the time, though, even in the confusion. If there was a terrorist on our flight, he must have gotten cold feet since we made it to Boston intact. I looked closer and saw that their focus wasn't on us, but above. After nearly an hour of spotlights and warning shots, the rogue aircraft was forced to land at Logan International Airport.
I can recall with clarity the reluctance of the Reindeer as their hooves touched down in Boston that Christmas Eve. The nose on their leader glowing a fierce crimson red. The sleigh skidded to a halt and its rider put his head down and his hands up. The fat man forced to his knees as the police swarmed in. The bags of presents ripped open, scattering their contents along the runway. No toys or games or joyous icons of youth spilled out. Only weapons. Guns, explosives, ammunition. We remained still in our seats unable to speak, as much in shock as in sorrow. Everything we thought we knew about the spirit of Christmas ended on that snowy night in '05. The night we shouldn't have been in the air to begin with. The last night any of us felt any true magic. The night we found out Santa Claus was a god damn arms dealer.
You Better Watch Out
Lowell, MA: December 1st, 2015
It was the first snow of the season when she knocked on my door. I wasn’t used to visitors anymore. Hardly anyone came looking for help. There was an uneasy acceptance when tragedy struck. People seemed to expect it. Stacks of old newspapers littered the sofa I often slept on when I felt I had no reason to go home for the night. I don’t think I bothered to move them when I slept there the night before, too drunk to drive and too drunk to care where I lay myself down to pass out. The office had a faint smell of whiskey, result of several mostly empty bottles in the bottom of the trash barrel. My head hurt and my mouth was dry. I looked across the room to the water cooler. Too far.
Later, I was sitting at my desk pretending to focus on the latest headshots of missing persons. I didn’t care about finding them, though. I’ve always just been curious as to what happened to them. Sure, most of them are taken. Kidnapped. Murdered. Maybe some of them just wanted to leave. Start over. I admired them for that. I wondered how many people starting a new life I’d passed on the streets. How many have I nodded at in line buying groceries, or held doors open for? People with families looking for them, people in too far with the wrong crowd, trying to get away. Maybe before Logan I would have looked for them, opened cases. My fire had burned out. The drive was gone. I just liked to look at their pictures and pretend.
I must not have heard her knock again before I heard footsteps turning to go back downstairs and out the building. I would have let her leave. I didn’t want to help her anyway. But she stopped midway down the stairs. I heard her turn and step up with purpose. She didn’t stop to knock again. She opened the door and walked right into my office. She didn’t look at me at first. Her gaze shot around the room, from the sofa covered in newspaper to the coatrack with all of its hooks broken off; a pathetic, splintered board with no purpose. She stepped close and looked at my desk, noticing the photos spread out in front of me. I saw a hint of relief in her eyes. Optimism, maybe. She thought I was lost in focus, concentrating on a case. I was good at playing people like that, even when I wasn’t trying to.
She finally looked me in the eyes. That was when I realized how beautiful she was. Not in a stand-out, bombshell kind of way. That kind of woman would never set foot in my office. They didn’t need to seek out strangers for help. No, she was a different kind of beautiful. Long dark hair, big brown eyes hidden behind glasses. There was something bookish about her. Teacher? No, dressed too nice for that. Too confident. Lawyer, maybe. Plenty of those in these parts. She looked at the chair in front of my desk, coffee stains on the seat. A small wince of disgust crossed her face and she remained standing in front of me. Neither of us spoke for a moment. Finally she pulled an envelope from her purse and tossed it on my desk, covering the photos.
“You got an appointment?” I asked her.
She rolled her eyes and laughed at me. “Doesn’t look like you’ve got people lined up out the door waiting for your help.”
“Aren’t too many people that want help these days. A lot out there that need it. No one ever asks, though.”
“Some people are too proud."
I sighed. I was dehydrated and tired. “No it’s not that. People just don’t want it anymore. Things go to shit and they just take it as it comes. How’d you find this office in the first place? I stopped advertising years ago.”
She flashed me a triumphant smile. My stomach fluttered and I realized she had the power to make men fall on her every command. I don’t think she knew it, though. Not yet.
“Maybe you’re not the only detective around here after all.” She said proudly.
“Private investigator.” I grumbled.
I glanced down at the envelope laid out in front of me. I picked it up. I looked past it to the Missing Persons photos. I focused on one girl in particular. Lizzy Mae Carmichael, 13 years old. Last seen walking to school April 18th, 2012. I’d worked cases like this dozens of times. Same result. Creep follows girl for weeks. Figures out her routine. Plans ahead. Trunk is filled with supplies. Rope, tape, shovel. Creep waits until he can’t contain himself anymore. The stalking is the most satisfying part of the ritual for him. One day everything lines up perfectly, or he stops caring about getting caught. He drives up beside girl. Takes her. It happens too fast for either of them to process it. Before he knows it she’s beaten to death and he’s digging the hole. The lucky ones are killed quickly before the creep gets himself under control long enough to keep them alive for all the sick games he’s dreamed up for them. Maybe she just ran away, though. That sounds better.
“You going to ask me what that’s all about?” She was beginning to sound impatient. I took a breath and studied the envelope. Nothing particularly unusual. Standard manila. Addressed to Carly Jensen, 19 Mokema Avenue. No return address. Faded stamp. Blue snowflake. Hadn’t seen one of those in a long time. I looked closer at the stamp. It had a strange glow to it, like a bulb nearly burnt out and clinging on to life. I’d seen that stamp before. It couldn’t be, though. All that was gone now.
“What’s this all about, Ms. Jensen?” I asked her.
“Well aren’t you going to open it?” She whined.
I opened the envelope to pull out a piece of pink construction paper. Felt fragile, old. On the top half of the paper was a crude drawing of a Christmas tree. Zig-zag green lines with balls of color along the points. A big yellow star on top. Boxes of red and blue under the tree. A little girl, stick figure, triangle dress, smiling. Under it was a letter, written no doubtedly by a child, in purple block letters:
Iv been A GOOD GIRL This yeAr!!! Mommy sAid she wont by me A puppy this yeAr but I know I cAn Ask you becouse Iv been soooo GOOD!! I wAnt a brown one And his nAme will be Auggie becouse Ill cAll him AUGGIE THE DOGGIE! PleAse bring me a puppy And I wont Ask for Anything next yeAr or even the yeAr After! I hope you like the milk And cookies I dont know how to mAke them but I bout them with my own mony And I hope you like them. I even bout cArrots and lettice for your rAindeer! Rudolph is my fAvorit!
I looked back up at Ms. Jensen. There was no shame in her expression, no embarrassment. Only the resignation of childhood’s unfulfilled dreams. No one gave her a dog that year. I could see it clearly in her then. She never got one and eventually she stopped asking, even hoping for one. Sometimes it’s best that way, I think. To stop dreaming, stop wishing. You can’t be let down when you don’t have hope. I put the letter down, covering Lizzy Mae Carmichael’s photo.
“What am I supposed to do with this, Ms. Jensen? You want me to look into your mother for never getting you a dog? You want me to find out if she really loved you? Look into her medical records to see if maybe she was allergic?”
Her eyes narrowed and her brow tightened. She was as annoyed with me as I was with my whole situation. Beautiful but uninvited guest in my office, hangover pounding away. The nausea I felt from even the slightest turn of my head. I sighed and leaned back, watching the room spin with my movement.
“Turn it over, genius.”
Our eyes met and I sensed something new in her. Behind her sarcasm, her confidence, the mask wasn’t on as firmly as she believed it was. I saw fear in her. Something had shaken her up. She wasn’t used to being shaken up and it brought her in front of me that day. She was desperate, I knew that now. I flipped over the paper and dropped it on my desk. I looked up at her with a curiosity I hadn’t felt in years. Her mask had fallen off. Her eyes were beginning to well with tears.
“Ms. Jensen-” I began.
She leaned forward and placed her palms on my desk, lowering her head to meet my eyes. “I need your help.” She pleaded.
I pressed my fingers into my forehead, trying to push the hangover out of my brain. I looked back down at the letter. On the back of the paper there was a reply, just four words but large enough to consume the whole page. Faded print, not ink. Maroon, brown, perhaps. Written in blood? It read:
YOU BETTER WATCH OUT
Frank’s Diner was crowded as it usually was mid-morning. I lowered my nose above my coffee mug and inhaled the steam slowly. I felt momentary relief for my hangover, but it quickly returned with the image of Ms. Jensen’s letter in my mind. We had left the office and walked down the street to Frank’s. We didn’t speak along the way. The chill in the air and the snow falling on my head was refreshing. Peaceful. As we approached the diner we stopped to watch a street performer. Homeless, probably. Scrawny. Strung out on something. Meth was big in these parts. He was beating some old drumsticks on trash cans. Talented, but pointless. There were no charitable souls in this neighborhood. Not anymore. He didn’t even have a cup for tips. There was something familiar about the rhythm. He was humming along with it. Hmmm hmmm tap-tap-tap tap. He stared at me with his empty methed out eyes. His gaze switched to Ms. Jensen. Hmmm hmmm tap-tap-tap tap. She moved closer to me and we entered the diner.
Frank was behind the grill when we entered, in his usual spot cracking eggs and flipping pancakes. Old man in his 70s. Never saw him take a day off. Never saw him with family either. I wouldn’t know, though. We’ve never spoken. I’d been eating there several times a week for the better part of a decade. We nodded when our eyes met and that was it. Don’t get me wrong, I respected the man, but we didn’t need to get to know each other. That’s what I liked about Frank’s. It was a place you could go and be around other people but not have to really be with them. You could be alone and not feel the side effects of true isolation.
The coffee burnt my tongue as the waitress brought us our breakfast. Eggs and hashbrown for me, just toast for Ms. Jensen. She didn’t look to be in the mood for eating. She thanked the waitress when she put the plate in front of her but didn’t lift her eyes from the table. She seemed lost, as if trying to figure out the sequence of events of how she got to be where she was. The waitress glanced at me and I nodded her off. Julie was her name. Sweet girl, not too bright. Had a boyfriend who came by every now and then looking for money. Took her tips right out of her apron. Saw him slap her one time outside after closing. I thought about stepping in. He wasn’t that imposing. To a small girl like Julie, of course. But men like that fold when face to face with another man who isn’t going to take any of their shit. I’ve seen it too many times. I was turning up the street to go home when he hit her. The sound of it cracked the midnight air like a firecracker and I turned to look. He was pissed, she was crying, but not afraid. He was a prick but I was willing to chance that he wasn’t going to kill her that night. As I began to walk away Julie and I locked eyes for a moment. I saw acceptance in her, like she knew I wasn’t going to stop him, and that no one ever would. I doubt many people have stood up for her in her life or taught her how to stand up for herself. She had learned her place in the world early on. The punching bag. I’ve always felt like shit about it. She still smiles when she pours my coffee and serves me my meals. That’s what eats me up inside. She thinks she deserves all of it.
Ms. Jensen was peeling away the crusts of her toast. Rolling them into little balls and dropping them on the side of her plate. Something changed in her from the office to the diner. If I was going to get more from her, and I figured I didn’t have much else going on, I would have to prod her for information.
“How old were you when you wrote the letter?” I asked her.
She lifted a piece of toast, opened her mouth, and put it back down. “Seven.” She replied. “I wanted that dog so much. It was all I talked about for months. My mother was never going to buy me one. She hated animals. She could never say no to me, though. She knew I’d have a fit and cry for hours, so every time I asked, she would just say, ‘Ask Santa for one. Ask Santa Claus for a dog.’”
“Sounds like a lousy thing to do to a kid. Get your hopes up like that.”
“I thought he would bring me one. And when I woke up Christmas morning I ran downstairs. I shook all the boxes, looking for one with holes. I thought maybe the dog got out. I tore the house apart looking for him. My mother, she wasn’t mean. She kept trying to distract me with other presents, kept putting new sweaters and dolls in my arms, but I wasn’t having any of it. I started screaming ‘AUGGIE!’ I was crying and I ran outside because I thought he ran away, or someone left the door open and he got lost.”
She stopped at that and took a bite of her toast. Big bite. Kept chewing for a while, kept her from saying more about the dog that was never there. She probably hadn’t spoken about this out loud to another person in years, if ever.
“You mailed the letter to him, right?”
She swallowed her toast and sighed. “Yes.”
“Never heard back from him?”
“Had you ever gotten a letter back from him in the past?”
“No. A couple of my friends from school had, at least they said they did. They brought it up every chance they got.” She paused and looked me straight in the eyes. I knew what she was about to ask and I wanted to get up and walk out of the diner that very moment. “Did you ever get a letter from him?” She asked me.
I squirmed in my seat and looked over at Frank. He was still in the same spot I assumed he’d been in for the last 40 years. Flipping pancakes, turning sausages, the heat eroding his face into the grimace of wrinkles and age spots it now was. I turned back to Ms. Jensen. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her without telling the truth.
“Once.” I said.
She lurched forward in her seat and her eyes grew wide. She pushed her glasses back up in position, not taking her gaze away from me. “Tell me about it.” She asked.
I sighed. “Baseball glove.” I started. “Wasn’t much, I know, but I wanted it more than anything. I was 10. My father never let me play sports. Said it was a waste of time. Said I’d be better off learning to use my hands, fix things. Weld, rebuild engines, anything was better than throwing and hitting a ball.”
Ms. Jensen was genuinely captivated. “What did you write in your letter?”
“Nothing too much, I guess. Said I wanted a baseball glove. Said I never got a chance to play any games with the other kids in the neighborhood. Got picked on because of it. Thought maybe if I had a glove they’d lay off and let me in. Guess it worked.”
“What did he write back?”
I laughed. First time in a long time. Months, maybe. “Five words: ‘Only if you’re good, kid!’”
“I figured he had a lot of letters to answer. It was enough that he got back to me. At first I didn’t believe it was him. I thought maybe one of my brothers was having a go at me. But it had that stamp. His stamp.”
“The blue snowflake.”
“The one on your envelope.”
Ms. Jensen slumped back in her seat. You could see her mind racing. Piecing together the details of my story and hers. I finished my coffee while she thought of what to say next.
“Why did it take him so long to write back to me?” She asked. “And why would he...why would he write that? ‘You better watch out.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Ms, Jensen.”
“Carly.” She said.
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with how this was developing. I didn’t want to be on a first name basis with her. I could feel that getting into this with her would shake things up for me in a way I knew I couldn’t handle.
“First of all, we can’t be sure it’s even from him. You know the story. He disappeared before he ever got to trial. No one’s seen him since. Why would he come back now and send a letter to a girl who asked him for a puppy years ago? You know how things are up there now. Chaos. Someone probably broke into one of the old workshops and thought they’d have a go at someone.”
She wasn’t convinced. I’m not sure I was either. “But why me?” She asked. “The blood…the stamp! Everyone knows he kept those close! They were special! Who could have gotten their hands on them? Wherever he is, he probably still has them with him!”
“Unless he’s dead by now and now someone else took them.”
She gasped and almost looked offended. “Dead? You can’t be serious.”
“The magic is gone, Ms. Jensen. What else could still be keeping him alive?”
She shook her head and pushed her plate away. “He can’t be dead. I don’t believe it.”
I realized then that I wasn’t going to be able to get through to her. She wanted to believe in something I stopped believing in nearly a decade earlier. There was nothing left for me to do but end it right there.
“I can’t help you, Ms. Jensen.”
She looked stunned. Crushed. “But after all this. The letter, the stamp! You got that same stamp when you were 10 years old! What do you mean you can’t help me?”
“There’s not enough for me to go on here. We’ve been over it already. Creepy letter. Stamp that’s either a damn good fake or in the hands of some loser with nothing better to do. If you’re frightened, and you have reason to be startled, take it to the cops. That’s where you should have gone to begin with. Why me? Why come here?”
She glared at me and clenched her fists. “Because you were there. You were there when it happened. You saw him get taken away. I know what it did to you. I know who you were before it happened. You think I just walked into your office this morning with no idea who you were? I read about you. You were going places. You were a hero.”
I slammed my fist on the table. The plates rattled and I looked around the diner, unsettled by my own reaction. No one else was paying attention. Typical.
“I was never a hero.”
“I know what you did, who you were. I know seeing him get taken away changed you. You used to believe. We all believed. That’s why I came to you. I know he means something to you. I know you want to find out the truth, to find him. I don’t care what he did, what they say he did. You can’t say things are better with him gone.”
I was starting to feel nauseous again. I was wrong about this girl. She was distressed but she had a plan. She was on a mission to recruit me. To drag me into something I didn’t have much of a chance of coming out clean. I wasn’t going to let her have her way, though.
“Time to go, Ms. Jensen. I’ll walk you back to my office and you can take that letter to the proper authorities. I can’t do anything for you.”
She stood up, bitter and defeated. “Fine,” she said. “If you’re really going to give up before we even get started then maybe I was wrong about you.”
I dropped a twenty on the table. I thought about the holidays coming up. How the magic was gone. I put another ten dollar bill on the table for Julie. Maybe her boyfriend would end up with that money. Maybe he’d see it sticking out of her apron and slap her when she tells him she’s out of money. Maybe not. We left the diner and I paused for a moment in the crisp mid-morning air, letting the snow again crash and melt into my scalp. It was much quieter outside. No traffic. The drumming had stopped. Meth-head must have found a fix.
Ms. Jensen sulked the entire walk back to the office. She had given up trying to convince me. We entered the office building and I stopped at the bottom of the stairway, trying to come up with words to console her. I don’t know why. I wanted her out of my life but I didn’t want her to hate me. Maybe seeing Julie got to me more than I let on. Before I could get any words out we heard sounds above us. Footsteps. My office. I stepped back and glared at the ceiling. Ms. Jensen caught my suspicion and grabbed hold of my arm. I motioned for her to stay where she was but she followed me up the stairs regardless. Tip-toeing up those stairs, I was cursing myself for not carrying a gun anymore. I stopped seeing the point. Stopped caring. We stood outside my office doorway and heard rummaging inside. Fool, I thought. I had nothing of value in there. Nothing of value anywhere, really. We heard humming. It was so familiar. I’d heard this before. It was ingrained in me somehow.
Pum pum pum pum. Pa rum pum pum pum. Pum pum pum pum. Pa rum pum pum pum.
It couldn’t be. I stepped into my office. Shielding Ms. Jensen with my left arm, trying to hold her back. This was no place for her anymore. Before us stood the meth-head. The street performer. Torn, faded jeans, filthy black t-shirt and stained white vest. His splintered drumsticks in his back pockets. A surprisingly pristine wooden baseball bat dangling from his right hand. It looked brand new. In his left hand was Ms. Jensen’s letter. He was smirking at us, crazy-eyed and still humming.
Pum pum pum pum. Pa rum pum pum pum. Pum pum pum pum. Pa rum pum pum pum.
I stared at him in disbelief. “Drummer boy.”
Ms. Jensen gasped. “No, it can’t be.”
He laughed and swung the bat at my desk. I stepped back and tried to shield Ms. Jensen with my body.
“I told you!” He screamed at us. “You better watch out!”
I wasn’t processing what he was saying. I was in disbelief. “You’ve aged.” I said. “How is that possible?”
Drummer Boy laughed. “You better not cry!”
Ms. Jensen pulled on my arm, trying to get me to leave. I don’t know what came over me. Why I stayed in there with that madman. “Did you send the letter?” I asked him.
He swung the bat again at my desk. Put a damn good crack in it. Cheap wood. “He’s making a list!” He started laughing again. He stumbled briefly. This wasn’t meth. He was on something new and dangerous.
I felt like an idiot for getting so close. I snapped out of the funk I was in. I turned to Ms. Jensen and began to push her out of the doorway and into the hall when Drummer Boy rushed me. I felt a crack in my spine and before I knew it I was on the ground looking up at my ceiling fan. My lungs burned and I struggled to breathe. I could taste blood in my mouth. My head throbbed and the room began to spin. My eyes opened and closed. I felt thirsty. I looked across the room to the water cooler. Too far. I heard Ms. Jensen scream. Drummer Boy stood over me. He was still laughing.
“HE’S COMING! HE’S COMING TO TOWN!”
He raised his bat and then all I saw was darkness.
To be continued...