I’ve always loved a good puzzle. As a child I could solve them quicker than anyone I knew, even my father–who loved them as much as I did. Somehow, I always understood how they worked, more so than I understood the people around me.
“You’ve got an eye for detail, Samantha,” my father would tell me.
It’s the same for me today, except the puzzles I face as a homicide detective are much more difficult to solve. There’s a time limit imposed on them too. If I don’t find the right answer quickly, then more people could die. Still, these puzzles are only as good as the people who make them, and they’re never as clever as they think.
Cases usually involve following the evidence until it gives me the killer’s name. It doesn’t matter how careful they are, somewhere along the line they will always make a mistake. They’ll leave a footprint in a flower bed, or they’ll forget to check for witnesses or cameras, for example. When I find that loose thread, I pull it, I pull it hard. And I keep on pulling until it all unravels. I then solve the puzzle, breaking the case finally.
But not every killer leaves such an obvious trail in their wake of destruction. Every now and again I come across one that’s far better at hiding. They work meticulously, leaving only what they want you to find. They change the puzzle. For them it’s all a gruesome and bloody game; one they want you to lose at.
Those cases, when you see the absolute worst of humanity, stick with you the longest. They keep you awake at night, sometimes for years afterwards–the real-life boogeymen. The longer it takes to catch them, the worse that fear grows too. You begin to question yourself and your abilities as a cop. You start to see the killer everywhere you look, in every face you see, until you lose all objectivity.
I’ve faced this a few times myself. And yet, in all my years hunting these bastards down, I’ve only come across one that nearly broke me entirely. The thing to remember about evil is that it never sleeps. It’s always prowling the streets, looking for its next victim. It lurks in the darkest places to avoid being found out. Try to drag it out into the light and you will see just how bad its bite really is.
Not even the Christmas season is off limits to the unhinged side of humanity that often appears to greet the world–with a blood-soaked handshake. A killer doesn’t normally give a shit about what time of year it is, they only care about their next victim. But this one was different. The timing was everything to him and without it his message was lost.
The case I found sitting on my desk, days after Christmas Day 2013, involved what at first seemed simple enough. Two people had argued in the street until one throttled the other. It made me chuckle to see both men were wearing terrible Santa Claus costumes. I sipped my coffee and nearly put the police report back down on my desk–it was an open-and-shut case, hardly warranting my attention–when the report grabbed me suddenly.
Witnesses had reported the fight, but no body had been found until the next day. That unfortunate pleasure fell to an early morning jogger–the poor woman practically tripped over the corpse while she listened to her running playlist. The accompanying photos in the report had me hooked entirely. They weren’t pretty, but they revealed something interesting: the killer hadn’t stopped at murdering his foe, he’d done more.
The second I see the sentence ‘after death mutilation’ in a report, my mind turns to panic, as it did that day too. In the most gruesome picture–a close-up of the victim’s face–I saw the work of the purest kind of evil. The eyes were missing, supposedly pushed deep into the skull, as if to prevent the deceased from watching what came next.
There appeared to be a fixation with Santa, made clear by the sentence ‘on naughty list’, written in blood on the ground beside the body. But worst of all, the victim had been stripped naked and disemboweled, his innards forming the shape of a snowflake around him. The blood had already turned to ice by the time police were on the scene.
Let me just add, the body was left in the middle of a public park. Stuff like this shouldn’t happen in places like that, where families take walks with their kids every day. I can’t even imagine what kind of mental damage seeing that would have had of a child.
This killer had a point to make, one that hinted of more to come. He had yet to perfect his message, though, which lead most of my department to write it off as a single, chaotic killing and nothing more. What they didn’t see at the time was just how hard it would be to catch this one person. I did, and even though it kept me away from my daughter and husband a little too much at times, I never stopped looking.
Even so, the trail went cold only three months later. It didn’t matter that I had three different descriptions of the killer–one from a local tramp, another from an Uber driver, and the last from a security guard. He’d vanished without a trace, disappearing before the snow had even finished falling.
Now, no cop ever wants to leave a case open, so for two months straight, I laid awake at night thinking about what went wrong. Worse still, every time I kissed my family goodnight I imagined him killing again, his signature brutality a heart wrenching reminder that I’d failed to catch him the first time.
Over time I learned to live with that one case sat unsolved on my desk, day in, day out. I saw it every morning and noted that, with each new day that came, yet another coffee stain had appeared. Trying to ignore it became my daily routine. Soon enough even I began to think like the others in my station. The murderer had made a run for it before we’d had the chance to stop him. Maybe it really was just a one-off killing?
It was another twelve months later, to the day, that I got my answer.
The first thing I noted was how perfect the timing of the latest killing was. I received the newest report a few days after Christmas day of 2014. There were differences, but it was unmistakably the same person behind it. The same message was written close to the body too. This latest victim had been throttled on Christmas Day and left for others to discover a day or so later.
I went directly to the murder scene after reading that report, to see the victim for myself. My partner met me there.
“You were right, Sam,” Darren said the second I arrived at the third-floor apartment. The look on his face–a strange mixture of disbelief and horror–still haunts me. “Our killer isn’t done yet.” He handed me my coffee, almost as a way of easing me into the unusual crime scene. I could immediately tell how nervous he was by the trails of sweat across his bald head.
A year had been enough for the killer to get his methods and his message clear in his mind, and the results were shocking. The victim had been positioned on a wooden chair and carefully wrapped in hessian. Not for any religious or cultural reason, though. No, this makeshift mummification was a sick joke from the killer. He’d stuck the sack-like material together with thick strips of Duct-tape and finished his ‘gift’ off with a bow, made using rope.
If not for it being my job to catch this asshole, I would have left that place straight away. I still dream about it now; the body on the chair the only thing in the room, the rancid stench of death so strong it made my eyes water, the way it felt to realize we were all part of the killer’s game now.
“This is only going to get worse,” I said. A camera flash popped behind me, causing my concentration to waver. Forensics were busy documenting the scene for later.
“You must have read my mind.” Darren flipped over a couple of the pages in his trusty black book. “We’ve had two more bodies turn up already.”
“Let me guess; the exact same thing as this?”
“You got it. This is now officially a serial killer hunt. I’ve reported it to the chief already. He’s ordered a city-wide manhunt.”
“Good. What about the cause of death; is it the same as last year’s victim?”
Darren knelt beside the seated body, which moved slightly with the shifting floorboards beneath. “Can’t tell how he died, not with this material covering him up,” he said, tugging on a frayed edge.
There was no way I was going to wait to find out later. So, I took out my pocket knife and cut away a piece of wrapping, just around the back of the victim’s neck. Not the ideal kind of present to be opening, I can tell you. But after removing a few of the layers, I eventually got my answer.
“Look,” I said.
Leaning in close, Darren saw it too and immediately made a note in his book. He read it aloud as he wrote. “Victim strangled with rope, then wrapped up…” As an afterthought, he added, “…like some goddamn Christmas present.”
“Judging by how deep these red marks go on the neck, I’d say he was possibly hung. The autopsy will reveal if the neck was broken.”
I didn’t unwrap that gift all the way myself, I left that to the coroner. It turned out to be a lot more like the first murder than we’d thought. Once the body had been unwrapped, the full extent of the injuries was revealed. And just like before, the eyes had been forced into the skull, while the abdomen had been cut open and the entrails removed.
We soon left the first murder scene and visited the others. Neither of us were surprised to find the two other victims had been dealt with in the same way. Our killer had no interest in prolonging the suffering of his targets, not while they were still breathing at least. Once he’d strangled the life out of them he was free to do what he wanted.
That was how it went for the next nine poor souls caught up in the killer’s fantasy that year. Each time he had written the same message too, ‘on naughty list’.
By the twelfth body I was becoming better at searching the scenes. Forensic evidence was everywhere, like it had been left on purpose, baiting us to catch him. I found hairs–not all of them human–finger prints, saliva, even semen. For most cases it would have led to an arrest almost immediately, but not this time. The murderer had planted it all, some even came from his other victims.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next? Yep, the bastard vanished again. He’d terrorized the city for twelve days in 2014 and then disappeared without a trace. His wave of violence had started on Christmas day and then ended less than two weeks later. Did I see the relevance of the twelve days at the time? I was mentally drowning in a lake quickly filling up with the dead, so no, not at all. Can you blame me?
And so, another year went by and I became even more obsessed with this one case–the toughest puzzle I’d ever had to solve. It disturbed me how easily the killer could go into hiding and no one ever saw a thing. I also knew it would all start up again that year, 2015 by then. How the theme manifested itself next had me permanently worried. Would he go even further, or stick with the same level of violence?
By Christmas of that year I was a complete wreck. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the ‘Gift-Wrap Killer’, as the newspapers had called him. My other cases were taking up less of my time while I focused on catching one person. If not for Darren stepping up and taking point on the usual crimes, I don’t think I would have been a cop for much longer.
I chose to work as much as I could during the Christmas seasons. I wanted to be there when another body turned up on someone’s snow-covered porch one winter’s night. My husband, Richard, did his best to make that Christmas work for our little daughter, Erika. Without her mother there I’m sure it wasn’t what it should have been. But I had a duty to protect the citizens of this city.
2015 was the year that things changed, though. When the first victim was found, on Christmas day this time, I saw a clear progression in the killer’s methods–an improvement even. It seemed the message hadn’t been received as loudly as he had intended, so he’d gone further.
The body was wrapped, just like before, but there was something extra. After tearing away a section of material from the neck of the victim, I found a small card tucked behind the rope. It was old, made maybe decades ago, with torn corners and a heavily worn pattern on the back. I removed it as carefully as I could and turned it over.
By the end of that Christmas I had all twelve of the cards and understood the message perfectly. The first was a picture of a bird in a tree; a partridge in a pear tree, to be exact. They went all the way through the old ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol too, all the way to the twelfth; Drummers Drumming.
But that wasn’t the only change we saw.
To signify the number of days after Christmas Day, the bodies had been chopped up into pieces. Victim two arrived in two pieces, victim three in thirds, and so on. By the end of his killing spree he’d carved up his last victim into twelve small parts, each wrapped meticulously with hessian and finished off with a rope bow.
I mean, have you ever seen lumps of bloody meat covered in a sack and sealed with Duct-tape? It’s revolting. Most of the fluids don’t remain inside the parcels, it leaks out and forms congealed puddles all around. It didn’t matter that each present was positioned in a neat pile, in the same way you would around your Christmas tree each year, it went everywhere.
The entire police force for the city was ordered to keep shut about the extra details that had turned up that year. It was a huge embarrassment for us all to have missed the killer three years in a row. We were bashing off one another, trying to find something to help us catch this asshole. Some days even Darren and I fell out over it. Somewhere along the line we knew someone had to have messed up, or overlooked evidence. Blame was thrown about during that time like Christmas candy.
Then the time came that we found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering how the killer had evaded us yet again. All I had to add to the file–which was getting bigger every year–was a partial number plate, for a car seen leaving the area where the fourth body had been dumped. That was it.
At that point I was about ready to snap. It was slowly driving me crazy, to be so far behind this nut-case and know it was only set to get worse. The emotional weight that came with the knowledge that every death he caused was partly my fault, gnawed at my insides. By failing to stop him each year I had become his unwitting accomplice, one hiding him from justice through incompetence.
Needless to say, it had begun to take its toll on me. At my lowest point, I turned to my good-old-friend Mr. Jack Daniels for support. Half a bottle a day was what I needed to drag my sorry ass to work, to that one case-file that never seemed to leave my desk. I was angry at myself, but taking it out of everyone else, even my family. Arriving home drunk one night, I got into an argument with Richard that ended with me locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing for an hour straight.
“Don’t tell me I’m losing it!” I’d screamed through the closed door at him. I knew he was right, I just couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
Richard’s reply only added to my grief. “We all care about you, Sam. Stop pushing us away.”
Sitting with my back against the door, I tried my best to gain control of myself. I managed enough to be able to speak without screaming. “I’m trying my best to stop this, I promise I am.”
“We know, honey. Me and Erika are just worried about you; you’re not eating, you’re drinking all the time, and you barely sleep… This case is slowly killing you.”
If not for my family, I don’t think I would have coped. It took weeks of arguing and sleeping in my office to realize they were my real strength in all of this. I was protecting them as well as the rest of the public. If I didn’t catch this killer, he could eventually come for someone I loved. That thought was like a cold splash of water to my mind, it cleaned away all the muck and filth I had been trying to escape.
I threw myself into every report I could get my hands on after that rough time. Widening my search, I was hoping to catch something I hadn’t seen before. There had to be something, I knew it.
For months, I built up my stockpile of information. It covered an entire wall in my office. It was a grim picture too, with every terrible detail on display, sometimes just to remind me of what I had to go up against. I used photos of the victims as coasters, I’d become so used to them lying around the place. Their faces were like old friends I saw every day.
As for myself, well I was more determined than ever.
Then one morning, while chatting with Darren among my many piles of paperwork, I hit on something. For two of the years the Gift-Wrap Killer was active, we’d received complaints from a warehouse owner on the outskirts of the city. He’d reported a break-in, each time blaming the homeless. No report had been received for the last year, though.
“What do you make of this?” I handed the report to Darren and watched his eyes widen as he read it.
“You think it’s our man using the warehouse each year?” He jotted the address down in his favorite black notebook and slid it into his shirt pocket.
“It’s worth checking out at least. I’d bet this warehouse owner just got fed up with reporting the yearly break-ins. No one ever followed up on them.”
“Well, it’s a long-shot, but it’s the best we’ve got.”
We didn’t bother the chief with our plan, we went out by ourselves intent on searching until we became either bored or fed-up. There was no point in dragging anyone else along only to find an empty warehouse and not a shred of new evidence. Besides, the chief would have insisted on clearing it with the owner first. That would have taken hours.
In the car, on the way to the warehouse, Darren asked me, “Do you think this guy will ever stop?”
“I doubt it,” I replied, while looking at a photo of Erika and Richard on my phone. “This ends with a bullet to his head, or it won’t end at all.”
“It’s like that, is it?”
I swiped the photo away. “Yes, it’s exactly like that. This guy doesn’t want to go quietly, he wants it to be loud. People like him live for the attention, and when they get it they’ll do anything to keep it.”
“So, we put him down?”
“Like a fucking animal.” I made sure not to catch Darren’s eye as I replied.
Later that afternoon we were at the warehouse and ready to search the place. Time was running out for that year. We were only days away from Christmas day 2016 and I for one was becoming increasingly more desperate for a break in the case. Anything would have done. If the killer was back, then he would have been preparing to start again. We were looking for a sign of that.
When I spotted the broken chain hanging from the main gate, I knew I’d found something crucially important. Someone had cut them with bolt cutters and not even bothered to hide their entrance. We found the bolt cutters in a snow-filled ditch nearby.
“Let’s split up,” I said, removing my thick gloves and storing them in a pocket. The cold hurt my fingertips, but I was too preoccupied to care.
Darren gave me a worried look from beneath his thick bobble hat–made for him by his wife. “You sure that’s a good idea, Sam? Maybe we should call for backup first?”
“Fine, you do that while I look around.”
I avoided any further discussion and headed off alone, taking the right building first. There were three in all, each appearing in desperate need of renovation. The outside walls were green in places, where the paint had peeled off, and every single window was smashed in. The local kids had used the building for target practice over the years, I suspect.
Inside, it was even worse. A smell of dampness and decay wafted my way as I pulled the door open. Stepping over the threshold, I switched on my flashlight and unclipped my holster. My right hand never left the handle of my Glock twenty-two pistol while I searched that place. If the killer was there, then I was going to fire first.
After half an hour searching the first floor I moved upstairs. I followed the hallway on the next floor, until it led me into a large room with sheets covering the windows. I knew I’d found the right place, a sense perhaps of the evil that was lurking there. Or maybe because I recognized the material draped over the windows; it was hessian, just like the killer used.
Freezing suddenly, I heard movement behind a stack of crates to my side. Someone was there, watching me, studying what I did. The panic I was feeling wasn’t an act either, I was petrified. In the corner of my eye I caught sight of a man, peeking out from behind the crates.
He disappeared before I could make out his features properly.
“Hey, stop right there,” I called, shining my flashlight that way.
The sound of footsteps running away made me leap into action. I yanked my gun out and held it in front of me, aiming where the light of my flashlight shone. My pace quickened, as too did my heart. I had the bastard only meters away from my deadly aim and I wasn’t going to miss.
About halfway down the next corridor, which connected two of buildings, I could hear music playing. The closer I got the more I could hear. Someone had put on an old record player. I could hear the scratches and jumps from the degraded vinyl. The melody echoed throughout the corridors, like a distant party was taking place somewhere inside.
“Do you like Christmas songs?” someone shouted, their voice cutting through the recorded choir’s rendition of Silent Night like a rumble of thunder.
I didn’t answer, my response was waiting in the chamber of my gun.
As I entered the room, following the song to the source, I was surprised to find decorations everywhere. I’d entered Santa’s Grotto it seemed. Fairy lights were hanging from the walls, toy snowmen and reindeers stood at knee height, and in the center, a Christmas tree–one rotting from the damp and cold.
“You didn’t send the North Pole a letter this year, did you?” The man tutted loudly from behind the tree.
After so long searching, I finally got to see the face of my killer when he stepped out from behind the tree. He was skeleton thin, his clothing torn and covered in stains, and hanging loosely. His chosen outfit was perfect for the time of year; he wore an old-fashioned Santa Claus outfit, one that had seen nothing but abuse. Judging by the greyish color of his skin and his blackened-with-dirt beard, he hadn’t seen water and soap in months.
Parting his jagged teeth to lick his broken lips, which were sore and blistered in the corners, he then spoke again. “Shall I tell you what happens to naughty children?” He produced a large blade and swung it through the air, at roughly the same height as my chest. “I gut them, like a fish!”
“Don’t come any closer,” I ordered. Placing the flashlight in my pocket, I pulled out my phone and attempted to call Darren.
The killer shook his head, tapping his hunting knife against his thigh. “I see you’ve been a bad girl this year. And to think, all the trouble I went through to get your gift ready.”
“Just shut up and stay where you are. You won’t be killing anyone this year, asshole.”
My gun dipped a little as I noticed the missing signal bars on my phone screen. I was alone and unable to call for backup. I expected Darren was on the other side of the building, without any idea his partner was staring the Gift-Wrap Killer in the face.
“But, your gift. It’s waiting for you outside,” the killer said, gesturing to the sheet-covered window behind him.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Santa brought your present early. Look.”
Keeping my gun aimed at his head, I stepped around the tree and removed the sheet with one pull. “Don’t move an inch, or I’ll shoot you dead.”
I then caught sight of my gift and nearly choked on my tongue.
Darren’s lifeless body was hanging from the second-floor window of the building opposite, his eyes bulging out of his purple colored face and his mouth wide open. He’d been strung up by Christmas tree lights, then tossed out the window. Blood ran down his legs and dripped to the ground far below, where it darkened the snow in a crescent shape. A dark patch ran across his abdomen. He’d been gutted, just as the killer had promised.
I staggered away from the window. “No! You bastard!” I screamed.
“Merry Christmas,” he replied, before darting off down the corridor.
There was no way I was going to let him escape again. My intention at that point was to end it, once and for all.
Running for the corridor, I took the safety off my pistol and readied to fire. I aimed for the killer’s leg and pulled the trigger, bringing him down a second later. He landed in a heap, tangled up in his outfit and flailing about in anger.
I walked cautiously over to him. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done.”
He laughed. “And it only took you three years to find me. You’re all the same, you adults.”
“Adults?” My mind swirled with confused thoughts as I tried to understand what he meant.
“I spend my life giving gifts to your children and what do you do? You tell them I don’t even exist. How dare you take that away from them. How dare you deny my existence!”
That’s when it all fell into place for me, finally. His motive for murdering innocent people was some twisted form of revenge. The loon believed he was Santa.
As I said, I wanted it to end. So, when he eventually straightened himself out, and then swung the knife at my shin, I put two in his chest. The force of the final shot sent him back, landing hard against the cold ground. He breathed only two more breaths after that, before becoming silent a few seconds later.
I couldn’t contain my feelings for much longer. I burst into tears, sobbing like a child and shaking all over. The relief from finally catching my man could barely make it to the surface under the immense emotional weight brought on by Darren’s murder. My partner of eight years was gone, and I knew it was partly my fault. I may not have been the one to throttle him or hang him from the second floor, but I had dragged him to that place, and I had been the one who’d decided we should split up.
Leaving the Gift-Wrap killer’s body where it fell, I stumbled my way to the first floor, where I again tried to use my phone. This time I had enough of a signal to call for the back-up I should have gone in with in the first place. I told the chief exactly what had happened and was ordered to wait for more officers to arrive.
While I waited, I avoided looking toward my partner’s corpse. Every now and again, I caught the crescent shape of blood in the corner of my vision and felt my throat tighten from the grief. All that kept me calm was the knowledge that I’d stopped the Gift-Wrap Killer from adding to his death toll.
To this day, I still have trouble dealing with the lasting effects of that one case. To make it seem clear in my mind I often rearrange the puzzle pieces in my imagination, just to find a semblance of order in the chaos. But it never works. All I end up seeing is the face of the killer, staring up at me, his eyes red and his chest soaked in blood.
Because of that one person, Christmas holds a different meaning for me. I give thanks that I get to watch my daughter grow up and get a job, get married, and have children; and that I’m in a rock-solid relationship with my husband. Then I remember Darren and the Gift-Wrap Killer’s many victims, and I weep for them. I mourn their loss each year as strongly as if I’d lost them all over again.
Now the happiest time of the year will forever be the day I got my partner killed and shot Santa in the chest. That’s right, folks, I killed Santa!