It had never occurred to anybody on Martin’s Cove before, that the Christmas Killer might not exist. But now it occurred to Steve. And Steve didn’t tell anybody.
Martin’s Cove was a small island. An isolated part of something much greater, inconsequential enough to be left alone for the best part of the last three hundred years. One island with one town. Picture it. Wide streets and clap-board houses. Wooden side-walks and old fashioned billboards. Drug stores and movie houses and ice cream parlours with hand painted signs, left unchanged in the aeons since President Kennedy died.
There are more people there now than there used to be. But that’s true of everywhere. New rings of big, glass fronted houses had sprung up along the many jagged shore lines sometime after flower power fizzled and before the rat race became the national pass time. They welcomed a fleet of European cars carrying the many suited success stories who were so tired of city life that they only went back there to work, shop, eat and socialise. They weren’t really part of the Cove, they were just a circular suburb of the City that lay a short ferry ride away.
The first recorded “Christmas Killing” was boxing day 1968. A policeman, the old fashioned kind with a double breasted coat and an Irish accent, was “pounding his beat” when he found the body. He may have been whistling. He was almost certainly twirling his night-stick. If he was, he stopped when he found her. Mrs Patterson from the general store. Shot through the forehead. There was a note. It said Merry Christmas.
People have the wrong idea about being shot. In movies when the bad guy is put down by the good guy with a last second head-shot to save the day, all we see is a neat hole and bit of blood. Maybe some scorch marks if the SFX guy is being thorough. When someone is shot in the head, close range, the bullet blows a hole the size of your fist in the back of their skull. In the first few seconds as much as half the blood in their body will spray out and pool around them. Have you ever spilled a cup of water? Goes everywhere doesn’t it? Imagine four pints. Then imagine blood.
But that’s not the worst of it.
The explosive force of the gunshot creates a jet of air pressure, following in the bullet’s wake. It enters the same wound and puffs out and contorts the features of the face. Swelling and blackening the eyes. Expanding the skull. Maybe pumping blood out of the ears. That’s what happens, and that’s how they found her. Mrs Patterson from the general store. And Amos Evans from the ferry port in ’70. And dozens of people since. Every year. Every other year maybe. A three year gap here and there. Some old, some young. Some rich, some poor. Some men, some women.
The Christmas Killer was a fact of life on Martin’s Cove.
But what if he wasn’t?
Steve knew it wasn’t. Steve saw it. It suddenly appeared in his mind, and once an idea got in to Steve’s brain it was there for good. He had followed the murders in the newspaper. They weren’t hard to miss, and he was always interested in crime. The dos and don’ts. The clever ones and the stupid ones.
It was a bright summer day. Steve was thinking about something else. He doesn’t remember what. All he remembers is the sudden “click”. If you asked him now he’d swear he heard it. An actual click. Small but real. Like a small key in a tiny lock – click. And the Christmas Killer was gone.
He would sit at his desk and imagine it. It fascinated him. A construct. Copycat after copycat after copycat. A string of geniuses, all sharing an unspoken plan, all leading to now. His first thought was to tell everybody. Everybody. Explain it to them slowly, let his brilliance wash over them. Be famous, rich too hopefully. “The man who Saved Christmas” had a nice ring to it. Maybe write a book. Tell the world.
But that was then, and the following day things changed. Steve figured it out, and Steve wouldn’t tell anybody. Because now it was Steve’s turn.
Because Steve had Richard.
* * *
Richard and Steve had known each other since school. They had gone to the one grade school in the one town, together. Then the one High School. Both named after the one person of fleeting importance ever born there.
Richard was an Islander back to the Mayflower, an old family with older money that, over time, had bought them half the island. His father wore sweater vests and voted Democrat, his mom hosted charity events and raised awareness…of various things. He was smart and handsome and kind. He played an instrument and got straight As. He would have been a Quarterback if the school had had a football team. He was the Cove’s shining star. He was better. Better than Steve. Pocket royalty in a miniature kingdom.
Steve was a neglected child of the nouveau riche. More a house guest than a son. Ignored by a workaholic father who had been dragged off the mainland by a wife more concerned with chasing some Rockwellian delusion of small-town cosiness, than raising a family. They lived in a glass and steel monolith on a beach a few miles from the town. They saw each other at dinner and exchanged polite chatter. They were the kind of people the very sand of the island resented. Pretenders. Usurpers. The men cold-shouldered the father on his rare ventures into town. The women smiled through bridge with the mother and bitched about her shoes behind her back. They sent Steve to the public school instead of his fathers private Alma Mater as a token effort at fitting in.
Steve was cleverer than Richard, but not as academic. He was good looking, but not so engaging. Where Richard was funny and warm, Steve was acerbic and unsettling. They both stuck out, in their own ways. They were friends. They had gravitated, like minds and differing backgrounds. Different species of the same creature, sensing in each other the only thing they truly had in common: ambition.
They were high achievers. The only high achievers Martin’s Cove had thrown up in a long time. Richard wanted to be a doctor, he wanted to set-up a pro bono practice on the island, funded by his family’s investments. He wanted to use his personal fortune to fund medical research or support a local Community College. He hadn’t decided yet.
Steve wanted money. Not his father’s money, not Richard’s money. His own. His own money and his own building with his own name on the front. He wanted Gordon Gekko braces and the cover of Time magazine. After that, maybe politics.
The two boys got almost mirror image grades at school, applied to the same Ivy draped colleges and got the same acceptance letters. They moved away together and were room-mates at college. They spent four years there, passing the time in meditative reading and monk-like devotion at the altar of ambition. Whiling away the evenings with Steve reading economic journals and business theory and Richard’s head buried in medical textbooks. Two lives running in parallel, best friends based around an understanding that neither really had time for friends.
* * *
Years later, after half a decade of business school and a couple of (extremely) profitable decades on Wall Street, Steve returned to Martin’s Cove. He was wearing his Gordon Gekko braces. He moved into his fathers old house. His parents had died years before, without anyone, least of all Steve, really noticing. Slipping in between the Starks and the Godfreys at Martin’s Cove Cemetery. The only flowers on their grave had been from Richard.
Steve had never forgiven this place for ignoring him, and yet he did not hate it, which he felt was very generous. He announced his return to a failing community with massive donations to the church and school. He bought ageing general stores and visited old friends from school. Complimenting their fat children and wrinkled wives. He smiled to himself about them all.
Richard had been back for a few years already, after med school and some medicins sans frontiers work he had made good on his promise of a free clinic for his home town. Steve was glad to hear it, he enjoyed Richard’s company, and the two soon reconnected. Enjoying regular lunches together in town. Richard wasn’t as much fun as Steve remembered, he had mellowed and slackened in the long years they had spent apart, though he was still clearly better company than everyone else on the island. The only person, Steve thought, who had ever really been on his level.
One day, over lunch at the Main Street Diner, Richard asked him for financial advice. Steve just smiled, savouring the moment over a pretence of swallowing. It was pretty delicious. Richard asking him for advice. Perfect Richard, sitting there in his designer shoes and cashmere sweater, asking him for advice. Richard wasn’t the richest man on the island anymore, a fact Steve never mentioned. He just used to sit and enjoy it to himself while they talked, wrapped in the same fluffy feeling of superiority that Richard must have felt every day while they were growing up. It was wonderful. But being asked for advice was even better.
Richard had some money that had matured and he didn’t know what to do with it, he wanted to make sure it was safe – he could sense something in the economic climate that made him nervous. This money was for a scholarship fund he wanted to set up next year, apparently, and he wanted Steve’s advice on where to put it till then. Steve didn’t hesitate. “Just give it to me” he said, “I’ll put it in a short term bond, it will be secure and insured under my company’s name. No worries.”
And Richard did.
Good old Richard, a trusting soul.
Steve didn’t do any of that.
That was six months ago. Today, the day after Steve’s great epiphany, Richard called him. Steve was glad, he wanted his friend to be the first to hear his idea. He wanted Richard to be the first person to tell him how clever he was. But then Richard did something very annoying, he asked for his money back. Steve’s mind writhed in anger as he heard the question. Richard should know this is not the time for this. Now he would have to explain that he lost it all, and of course Richard would be angry at him, as if it was all his fault. Ridiculous person, really, always putting on those ridiculous pretences of caring and now clamouring for his money and starting to kick up a fuss. Steve sighed to himself as he put the phone down.
And click – the Christmas Killer was back.
The money, Richard’s scholarship fund, that was gone. Steve had been trying to triple it in a year so he could show off to Richard just how clever he was. But then the economy bottomed out, and who could have predicted that? It wasn’t Steve’s fault! But there it is…the money was gone and guess who was going to get the blame? Oh well. If Richard had just left him alone for another few months he could have raised it back and no one would ever have had to know, but instead he’s prying and asking and getting in the way. Now getting rid of him, that was a much more efficient solution.
The important thing was to get the details right. The small things that were always the same. He had time though, it was still only October, he had ten weeks to work it all out.
He went down to the archives of the local paper and leafed through all the articles on all the Christmas Killer’s victims. This wasn’t uncommon. Seemingly every other month there was an author researching a book, or a documentary film crew in town, doing the same thing. He knew it wasn’t suspicious. He made photocopies of the articles and took them all home. Read them over and over, memorising the details.
One problem was that people were starting to think the Killer must be dead, or gone somehow anyway. There had been a gap of nearly five years now. The longest break for decades. People were starting get comfy. Starting to forget the morbid lottery that used to hang over the town every winter. Steve thought about how shocked everyone would be, and smiled. Stupid, soft dreamless people who’s only aspiration was to die with grey hair. Knocking their world upside down would almost be a service. There would silence on Christmas morning, and fear in the air. He’d have to be afraid too, of course, or it would look suspicious.
The modus operandi was easy to pin down. Single victim. Single gun shot. Single note. That was always consistent. Steve already had his victim lined up. Richard lived alone so that would be no problem, and the house is easily big enough to sneak into without being noticed. Phase one would be easy.
Phase two, like wise. Wait for him in the kitchen or bathroom, because he would almost definitely use one or the other every evening, and when he comes in – shoot him. Now that would be a bit messy, which is unfortunate. He would have to be precise, all the other victims were dead in one shot and if Richard was only wounded he might scream for help or fight back. No, he must make sure to get him quickly. Get right up close, yes it would be messier that why and he might get brain or blood on him, true, but that would wash off and the clothes will be burnt anyway.
The note would be tricky, it would have to be pre-written obviously because taking his gloves off to write whilst still in the house was a no-no. The really hard part would be matching the writing. Steve scoured the clippings and cuttings for a photo of it. He found one, just one, from the Jackson girl in ’87, shot coming back from a party on Christmas eve. Steve wondered briefly who had wanted her dead, a boyfriend maybe or an envious girl from school. He spent an afternoon or two copying the writing, practising. It was neat printing, not cursive, so it wasn’t that hard. That had been a relief. When he had it down pat he took all his practice paper down to the furnace and burnt it.
Ten weeks is a long time, and Steve had to remind himself to use all of it, he must not get over-excited and give himself away. On three different trips into the city over the course of the November he went to three different clothing stores and bought a black sweater in one, black pants in the other and a black ski-mask in the third. He burned the receipts.
Finding a gun was surprisingly easy. No worries about it being registered in his name or anything. Part of the brilliance of the plan lay in the fact there would be no investigation – the Christmas Killer kills people. He always has done. Chalk another one up on the tally and let the permanently on-going investigation dawdle along into senility. Steve would never be a suspect, he could order a gun from a catalogue and hang framed pictures of himself holding it on his office walls and never be questioned. It was brilliant. He had a bit of target practice on a range in the city, he was a good shot. Now all he had to do was wait.
* * *
Christmas rolled around as slowly for Steve as it does for a small child, as Thanksgiving ticks over into December the days seem so stretch on, the week between the eighteenth and Christmas Day was the longest of Steve’s life, he took to holding the gun a lot. In front of the TV or while he was reading, just getting used to the surprising weight of it. Clicking the hammer back and forth, opening and closing the chamber, spinning the barrel. He liked the mechanical sounds. He imagined the thrill of hiding and shooting and…winning. Beautiful.
By Christmas Eve morning the town was looking like a cliché Christmas card, snow lined streets and holly in shop windows. The smell of pine resin and baking sat over the place like friendly smog. Steve rose quite early and went into town, under the guise of last minute Christmas shopping he wondered the stores browsing clothes and books and pointless electrical gadgets, but always keeping one eye on Richards clinic. He thought about his plan and unconsciously stroked the Macy’s bag that held his equipment.
At five-thirty he saw Richard turn the sign in the spray-snow covered window to ‘closed’, that would mean he would be leaving soon. He walked directly, but not hurriedly, to the long footpath that lead along a rocky beach and joined some old stones steps up to the bottom of Richards back yard. It was about a mile walk, and he would easily be able to make it about twenty minutes. The lock on an old shed was broken, had been for years, and Steve slipped inside. From here he could see the house and would hear any car pulling up in the front drive. He changed his clothes, neatly folding his suit and overcoat into a the large Macy’s bag and pulling on the black clothes and gloves. Then he pulled out the gun and, slowly and carefully, loaded it. He did it precisely, almost reverentially, recognising the need for this to be done properly.
It was a very simple plan: as soon as he heard a car pulling up he would walk up the garden path and get in through the kitchen window. It was an old house and the windows had no locks on, even if they did Richard wouldn’t have used them. When Richard comes into the kitchen, shoot him, drop the note…the note! Steve frantically searched his pockets…it was still there. Phew. Yes, drop the note and leave, change back into his own clothes, and walk back to town along the beach path. Stopping along the way to throw the gun into the sea. Once he was back in town he would carry on browsing the stores, buy a few things for appearances sake and then go to the Diner and get dinner. It would be good to be there when the body was discovered so everyone could see his obvious shock. It was a simple plan, and brilliant, so why were his palms so sweaty? He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. He was fine, the months of waiting had just made him tense, that’s all.
He heard a door in the house slam. But that couldn’t be right, could it? He hadn’t heard a car pull up. Unless Richard walked? Maybe he did, or maybe he left early and beat Steve back here. Damn. Oh well, he’s in there now, it will still be easy to get in and out without being heard. He decided to wait until it was completely dark to make his move though, just in case – it was only a few more minutes.
The last of the sun disappeared behind the ocean and heavy black blankets of cloud kept even the moonlight off Steve’s back as he made his way up to the kitchen window. He peered through the warped and weathered glass, there were no lights on….maybe Richard had gone straight to sleep? If so, it would be quite easy to sneak up on him and shoot him as he slept. Steve slid his fingers under the window and inched it open about a foot, then slowly raised his leg through the gap. The damn floor was wet and his foot nearly slid out from under him as he planted it down inside, but he managed to steady himself before he made a noise. He fed his head and torso inside and then drew his trailing leg in after him. The floor was soaked and this time, as he tried to straighten up, he lost his footing completely and fell on his back. He froze, trying not even breathe, waiting for a response to his noise, but there wasn’t any. Who the hell leaves their kitchen floor this wet anyway? He could feel it soaking through his clothes and waited for the cold water to reach his skin, except it wasn’t cold. It was warm. Warm and, now he thought about it, too thick for water. He struggled up, suppressing the growing fear, and tried to calmly run across the room to the turn the lights on.
The lights revealed something Steve had not expected to see, or rather, had expected to see…but not yet. Richard, his best friend and intended victim, lay dead in the middle of the kitchen floor. His fridge was open, he’d obviously been putting his groceries away, a broken jar of cranberry sauce was at his feet. There was a perfectly neat bullet whole in his forehead, scorched around the edges, sitting over a face that…that was not perfectly neat. Not anymore.
He had been wrong, he was never wrong, the very idea was twisted and strange,
He looked to the scrawled note sitting on his friend’s lifeless chest. It had never occurred to Steve before, that the Christmas Killer might actually exist.