At nine-pm on a cold Wednesday night in Odessa, the small Alaskan city thirteen miles North of the city of Fairbanks, Liz Sanford bid her last customer of the night a merry Christmas and advised him on the treacherous last step to avoid spending the holidays in the hospital. While Matt Lojewski – Odessa’s resident Santa Claus – climbed into his Subaru Outback, Liz killed the front lights and cast a shadow on the Skyline Diner’s chrome exterior. A moment later, she was the other side of the counter, massaging her ankle while adding items to her to-do list, when she heard the bell above the door chime. Her reaction was instinctive; her forgetfulness to lock the Diner’s door was not.
“Sorry,” she said. “We’re closed.”
Liz put the coffee pot in her hand to one side and partially turned to realize she still had company.
“Sorry, we’re cl –”
When Liz couldn’t tell if the man was red from the cold or covered in blood, she closed her eyes, although she didn’t want to, and opened them shortly after.
“Are you deaf or something? I said I need your help.”
“Please, don’t hurt me,” Liz said. The cash register is full – take it – all of it.”
After the man removed his Beanie hat and stepped forward, the Christmas lights pulsating against his bald head, his eyebrows met in the shape of a V.
“Are you crazy? I’m not here to rob you. I said I need your help.”
The man hurried between the booths on either side of the entrance, cupping his eyes
while peering into the dark, snow glistening under a full moon.
Liz stuttered, ‘I – I– I don’t understand.”
Still wearing his evening wear – black suit and tie – the man checked the doors after he’d just locked them.
“How could you? You’ve never had someone chase you through the snow while trying to kill you, have you?”
Liz swallowed hard and felt the power that was keeping her upright begin to wane.
“He’s out there. I know he is. He’s probably watching us as we speak.”
“Who?” Liz asked. “Who’s out there?”
The man looked past Liz to the swing door that led to the kitchen. Liz figured there was someone behind her – his face visible through the porthole – and fell awkwardly to one side with fright. But the man took no notice and hopped the counter.
“My God, what are you doing?” Liz asked.
“The service entrance – I need to see if its loc –”
“It’s locked!” Liz said. “Joe locked it.”
The man turned, each word bookended by a frantic breath.
“Joe? Who the fuck is Joe?”
“Joe’s my husband. He left work early because he had a migraine and…”
“Lady, I don’t need your life story. I need you to help me.”
The man hopped the counter and returned to the window.
She told him her name.
“Did you say something?” he asked.
“Liz. My name is Liz, and if you tell me how – well, then I can help you.”
The man decided it was time to sit and did so in one of the booths where feeling cold replaced adrenalin coursing through his veins.
“Aaron. My name is Aaron, and I could really do with a cup of coffee.”
“Good. Okay – right – coffee. One cup of Joe coming right up.” Liz hesitated.
“What?” Aaron asked. “You see something?”
“No… it’s just… you…you have…” Liz circled her face with her finger. “You have blood all over your face.”
After Aaron grabbed the napkin dispenser in front of him and studied his reflection, he pulled a handful of napkins to clean the blood, but it was dry and proved challenging to remove.
“I got a dishcloth in the back if that’ll help?”
Aaron rolled the napkins and tossed them onto the seat in front of him.
“Just the coffee, Liz. Thanks.”
While Liz made coffee, Aaron emptied his pockets, and when Liz returned, she saw Aaron had left cigarettes, a key card, loose change, and a ring in front of him.
“If you’re looking for money… I mean, it’s Christmas, so the coffee is on the house.”
Aaron took the mug, held it with both hands, and said nothing.
Liz thought about sitting when she felt safer standing.
“What is it, Liz?”
“What the hell happened to you?”
Aaron took a mouthful, let the coffee soften the numbness in his teeth, and swallowed.
“Not now, Liz.”
“Aaron?” Liz whispered.
“Liz, I said, not now.”
“Aaron, I think there’s someone outside.”
Aaron fell from the booth and took Liz with him. “Get down.”
When Aaron looked again, Liz was crawling, although one of her shoes had slipped along the way, and he could see a hole in her tights.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m calling my brother.”
“Your brother?” Aaron sounded surprised.
“Yeah, he’s a cop.”
After Liz observed Nathan Rosenbalm and Kurt Lindhag exit an Odessa Police cruiser, she unlocked the door but held it closed.
“They’re here,” she announced.
“Wait!” Aaron said. “How can we be so sure?”
“I think I know my brother, and look, they even brought a marked car just like you asked.”
Aaron – sat in a booth at the furthest part of the Diner – turned his back on Liz. He’d been there since Liz made the call, entirely still bar a bout of coughing that burned his lungs. Liz opened the door.
“Evening, Liz,” Kurt said, sidestepping a gumball machine, and Nathan followed.
“Hi, Kurt, thanks for coming,” Liz whispered. “Can I get you guys a coffee?”
“Thanks, Liz, that would be great.”
“Hey, Nate. How you been?” Liz asked.
“Is that him?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Liz said. “He calls himself Aaron and –”
“Thanks, but we’ll take it from here,” Nathan said and left as he wiped snow dust from both shoulders.
“He hates me,” Liz said. “I mean, he actually hates me.”
“He’s hurting, that’s all,” Kurt said. “Give him time – he’ll get over it.”
“He left me no choice, Kurt. Either I told her or…”
Kurt put his finger gently on Liz’s lip. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Liz, or anybody for that matter.”
“What if you’re wrong? What if he never speaks to me again.”
“Wrong? Kurt Lindhag is never wrong. You of all people should know that, Liz Sandford.”
Nathan was stood behind Aaron when he turned and summoned Kurt with his finger.
“You better go,” Liz said.
Kurt was first into the booth, and Nathan followed.
“I’m Detective Rosenbalm, and this is Detective Lindhag.”
Aaron lifted his head, acknowledged the men sitting in front of him, and pointed at Nathan.
“You must be the big brother,” he said. “Sure, it’s dark in here, but the resemblance is uncanny.”
“Liz called – said you needed some help,” Kurt said.
“That’s right. Someone is trying to kill me.”
Kurt was staring.
“You’re wondering about the blood, aren’t you?” Aaron asked.
“I wouldn’t be good at my job if I wasn’t.”
“We’ll get to that, but first, I need to tell you what happened –”
“I’m curious,” Nathan interrupted. “Why is someone trying to kill you?”
“I saw something I shouldn’t have.”
“A murder?” Kurt asked.
Nathan lifted his cuff to reveal a thick wrist and a watch.
“Have you somewhere to be, Detective Rosenbalm.”
“It’s Christmas eve, Mr.…”
“Mr. Dahmer, but please call me Aaron.”
“As I was saying, Mr. Dahmer, it’s Christmas, I’m cold, and I’d appreciate it if we could get to the bottom of whatever this is.”
“I understand, Detective. Either of you two gentlemen have children?”
“Twins,” Kurt said. “So, let’s wrap this up as soon as possible, eh?”
“And you, Detective?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“I imagine that must make parts of your job somewhat easier, unlike Detective Lindhag, who carries the burden of wondering if his kids will grow up without a father.”
“If you don’t mind, Mr. Dahmer, but Liz said she thinks she saw someone outside,” Nathan said.
“Oh, he’s out there. He’s probably watching us as we speak.”
“The man trying to kill me, who else?”
“May I?” Kurt asked, and Aaron nodded. “When Liz called, she described you as somewhat fearful and agitated, but I’m just not seeing it, Mr. Dahmer.”
“After Liz made the call, she assured me everything would be okay and how her big brother would protect me. You’re here now, so why worry?”
“Glad we cleared that up,” Kurt said, resisting the urge to smile.
After Liz added two mugs and a fresh pot of coffee to the table and left, Nathan produced a notebook and pen from his inside pocket.
“Start from the start, Mr. Dahmer.”
“Very well. Are you guys familiar with The Grand Hotel in Fairbanks?”
“Sure,” Kurt said. “It’s popular with tourists this time of year.”
“I accepted a last-minute invitation to their annual hootenanny,”
Aaron said. “A lot of rich folk from the lower forty-eight like to hunker down
there for Christmas, but that’s none of our business, is it, Detectives?” Aaron winked.
“Go on,” Nathan said.
“I met a man by the name of Emil Gravel and his date for the evening.”
“This woman have a name?” Nathan asked.
Aaron considered the question and pretended to think.
“I’m afraid her name escapes me, but it’ll come to me. Anyway, I had the beef, Emil had salmon and…”
“Can you get to the important parts, Mr. Dahmer?” Nathan interrupted.
“Yes, of course.
Shortly after desert, Emil and his date began arguing.”
“Why?” Kurt asked.
“Alcohol, of course. According to everyone I spoke to, Emil had been drinking the house scotch since breakfast and was somewhat riled up by six pm. After his date left our table
crying, I followed her. She told me how Emil invited her to the party and how
it was her first time out to have a good time in a year.”
“A year?” Kurt asked.
“Yes. After her marriage break-up, she was overcome with a bout of depression and found it hard to leave the house. Emil had been helping her to adjust to her new
“You know, a name would really help,” Kurt said.
“I’m thinking, Detective. Shall I continue?”
Kurt glanced at his partner and then nodded.
“She said Emil had an anger problem, that he was the nicest guy in the world until he drank. The problem is, he drinks a lot.”
“What do we know about the husband?” Nathan asked, clicking his pen.
“Not much, only that he destroyed two families when he started a relationship with a married woman.”
“She tell you this?”
“Of course, she told me everything. Her husband’s name, what he does, where he lives, what he likes in the bedroom. Okay, the last bit is a lie.” Aaron laughed.
“Okay, Mr. Dahmer, what did you see?”
“After I bid the lady a goodnight and walked her to her room, I returned an hour later to check on her. I decided against my better judgment to open the door uninvited, and when I did, Emil was slumped shirtless beside the bed with his knees tucked into his chest while the lady was on the bed with a tie wrapped around her neck. Emil was sobbing, but when the other two gentlemen standing over the body saw me just standing there and aware of what had just happened, I took off running. The taller of the two gave chase, but I quickly managed to get into my car and drive away. Emil’s buddy followed me until he lost control and hit a tree. I stopped the car and ran back to help him, but he’d been impaled through the stomach by a sharp instrument. He tried to say something; only when I leaned in, he unexpectedly coughed and covered my face in blood.”
“And your car? I mean, bar our car and Liz’s, the parking lot is empty.”
“I, too, lost control of my car and ran the rest of the way here. The driver of the Lincoln, the guy who hit the tree, was holding a two-way radio when I found him, so I know he was communicating with Emil the whole time. Therefore, I know Emil has sent the other guy in the room to kill me.”
“Okay, I’m going to call Fairbanks P.D and see what the hell is going on,” Kurt said as he ushered Nathan off the seat. As Kurt approached Liz, she whispered, “Hey, what’s going on?”
“I need to ring Fairbanks P.D, but I ain’t getting any bars.”
“Try the parking lot,” Liz said. “Or the phone in the back.”
Kurt had one foot outside when something occurred to him, and he called out, “Hey, Dahmer, do you remember the room number?”
“Sure, it’s 1163.”
Nathan watched Kurt circle the parking lot with his cellphone high above his head. A moment later, Kurt decided to sit in the cruiser where it was somewhat warmer.
“Now that we’re alone, Detective Rosenbalm, I have a confession to make.”
For the first time since he arrived, Nathan reluctantly made eye contact with Liz.
“I’m listening,” he said.
Before Aaron could speak, Nathan’s cell buzzed in his pocket, and he answered.
“I just got off the phone with someone over in Fairbanks P.D, and they’ve had no calls from the hotel or reports of a car accident. They’re sending out a few patrol cars just
to be sure.”
“Mm-hmm, I thought as much,” Nathan said.
“I’m going to call the hotel and see who’s staying in room 1163. Perhaps that might shed some light on what the hell is going on.”
“Good idea,” Nathan said and hung up.
“Everything, okay, Detective?”
“Just waiting on Fairbanks P.D to verify your story. Now, you said you had a confession to make.”
“Correct. You see, what happened in The Grand Hotel wasn’t the murder I witnessed because well, I didn’t witness it, did I?”
Nathan abruptly stopped clicking his pen and considered this. “I guess so,” he said.
“No, the murder I witnessed happened in a Diner on Christmas eve when a disgruntled husband shot the man that destroyed his family.”
“Room 1163,” Kurt said, clearing his throat.
“One moment, Sir.”
After the fourth ring, Kurt heard, “Hello.”
“Hi, this is Detective Lindhag with the Odessa Police Department. May I ask who’s speaking?”
A pause followed.
“Is this a joke? Kurt, it’s me.”
“It’s me, Alison.”
“Alison? As in Alison Rosenbalm?”
Alison laughed, “Yeah, who else?”
“Are you okay? I mean…”
“What an earth are you talking about, Kurt. Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“I don’t know. It’s just we got a report saying you…”
Kurt was still talking when he slowly turned his head in the direction of the Diner, allowing the phone to slip from his grip. He froze.
“Kurt, are you there? What’s going on, Kurt? Kurt?”
Kurt was too far away to see what happened in the moments leading up to the gunshots, but he did see two muzzle flashes illuminate the large Diner window. In the time it took him to run from the cruiser to the Diner, Kurt did something he hadn’t done in a long time – he prayed. Kurt Lindhag prayed he was wrong.