Mystery Holiday

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

Caution: Adult language

Rid your life of toxic influences.

It was in the throes of one of those half-wasted couch confessionals a half-hour after everything dazzling and intimate and promising and hopeful and false fades away.

Cohen had cajoled Anderson Cooper into a giggling, inebriated near-stupor for an audience of everybody. “He’s no friend,” Somebody’s Cousin’s Girlfriend’s BFF states, climbing over a comatose partier’s outstretched legs to land jarringly on a sprung and stained couch. Empowered by alcohol and eye contact. “Guy’s a celebrity fucker, a reality show hack, and his bestie’s like this modern-day Tom Brokaw who came from a rich family and probably makes like a trillion. Of course, he’d be thrilled to haul him down to his level live in front of the whole world. Like my mom used to say, he’s no friend.”

She peeks furtively at Emma Stone Clone across the room, one hand between Russ’s thighs. It’s now clear whose BFF she is, why Russ sent somebody and their cousin on a midnight beer run, and why this one gives a fuck about Andy and Anderson.

“My sister sent me this lame meme the other day -- – ‘Rid your life of toxic influences.’ I was pissed at first, but she’s right. They poison you to make themselves strong, then YOU become the poison.”

And that’s when it all pours out, about Jordan, about Mr. Samuels, about Mickey and Helen. The taunts, the teardowns, the subterfuge and sabotage, the passive-aggressive, the overtly savage.

“God, you GOTTA get rid of that toxic shit.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It is EXACTLY that easy. That’s our resolution. Right now.” She fumbles in her bag and thumbs out a text.

Across the room, Emma Stone stops dry-humping to consult her loudly buzzing iPhone. Her eyes bug; she turns and tosses her ex-BFF a double-handed reply, dropping her phone. Emma shoves Horny Host over an armchair and storms out.

“There,” she says. “OK, uh…?”


She blinks, then grins sloppily. “Ok, cool. Now, it’s your turn.”

Make a new friend every day.

“There was some kinda vigil going on at Transmodal Common, and it was packed for blocks. So I circled around, and one of the pub guys pulled out of this spot. I figured I was safe on campus…”

Detective Curtis Mead shook his head, scalp flashing in the gleam of the Unicorn and Dragon rear delivery door bulb. “You couldn’t hit the CVS on the Beltway?”

I smiled weakly, quite an effort. “I was already running about 45 minutes late, so I figured I’d hit the one here. With winter break, I figured things might be less congested.”

“So when you came back to the car…”

“Well, I dropped my keys, and while I was screwing around in the dark, he clipped me on the shoulder. Luckily, I slipped on the ice, and he missed me with the second swing. I started yelling, the pub guys came out the back door, and he ran off.”

“Chef said it sounded like a girl being attacked,” Det. Mead reported.

“THERE’S the insult for my injury.”

“Eh, you’re just going to have a big fugly bruise for a week or so,” Curtis assured me. “You think it was a bat? And it WAS a man?”

“Kyle was in Little League, remember? It made the same clonky aluminum ring when he hit the car and the concrete. The other? I didn’t see the person, just enough of a shadow to make out they were bundled up. Ryne Sandberg would have been pretty disappointed to discover his haul was super strength decongestants and a jumbo can of store-brand cashews.”

“Yeah,” Curtis said in a way I didn’t like. “Thought you were already off to Arizona, Snowbird.”

“Sarah’s sister had a knee replacement right after Thanksgiving. What did you mean, ‘Yeah’?”

“Hey, Dodge, you wanna get some coffee, chill out before you head home?”

“Naw – better get home. You COULD loan me a flashlight. There’s a can of cashews around here somewhere…”


I called Curtis the next morning, after they found the body in the FastFill lot. Not just because of my own brush with felony assault. Not because the deceased was a 63-year-old University employee. It was probably the bloody baseball bat under the decedents’ Taurus.

“Easton Alpha 360, 2019 model,” Curtis informed me, too easily. “Had the BBCOR stamp – NCAA regulation for metal bats. Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution.”

“I understood none of that,” I replied. “You’re saying it was University issue?”

“Team logo engraved on the knob, along with the Millington Sports logo. Owner’s an alumnus, and he donated 30 to the team in 2019. Aluminum-composite barrel – longer, lighter swing—”

“You’re fading again…”

“The 2020 season got cut short by you-know-what, but not before a kid named Russ Peregrym took a serious ACL injury in training. Hometown boy, four-year high school letterman, top university hitter in 2019. The initials ‘RP’ were engraved on the grip – when he was permanently bumped, the University retired his bat.”

“He left his bat at the scene of the murder?”

“Rolled too far under the car to risk retrieving. And no, Peregrym finished his bachelor’s after his baseball ride fell through, and he’s teaching in Joliet. Lived just off-campus, and those places are Chicago Union Station. Friend or partygoer likely lifted the bat at some point. Let’s shift gears, though. I just sent you a text with a photo. Of the victim. Don’t worry – it’s his driver’s license.”

Sarah set a fresh cup before me and squeezed the good shoulder. I called up my messages, and examined Carl Munson’s slightly disheveled DMV portrait. Tubby bad side of middle-aged white dude with an eyeglasses exemption. It was like looking in a mirror, except he’d sprung for nicer frames.


“That ain’t the least of it. You got lunch plans?”


“Remember that student got killed about a year ago?” Curtis asked, pumping horsey sauce on his Double Beef N’ Cheese. Apparently, third-tier victims flew economy. “Grad student, they found her in the alley behind her apartment on Selden? Tricia Cashmore?”

I located a spot away from the frost-rimed plate glass. “Buried her in a snowdrift, found her a couple days after she went missing?”

Curtis slipped into the booth and untangled a curly fry. Sarah’d ordered General Tso’s and eggrolls from the China Road for her wounded albatross, so I sucked my mocha shake as he dug in.

“Thing is,” Curtis continued through beef and horseradish-ish goo, “Cashmore was bludgeoned repeatedly about the head. One of the wounds corresponded to a rounded club or more likely the end cap of a baseball bat, and the damage seemed to indicate a metal weapon.”

I quit sucking. He held up a sauce-covered finger. “We think maybe she was the first. There was a similar death a month later, but since there was no common thread between Cashmore and the victim and it happened way over on the West Side, we chalked it up to a personal dispute. Cashmore was an honors psych student; Gary Schmitt was a 33-year-old chronically unemployed bullying asshole with a list of assaults on his record. We figured he’d finally pushed the wrong buttons with the right person.

“I investigated Delbert Wooden’s murder in July – Millington East Junior High social studies teacher going on 34 years; well-respected if not necessarily loved old dude. Wooden was clubbed to death a few blocks from his house taking a late-night stroll. This one looked like a robbery. Then I noticed the tag on the tree about 10 feet from the body.”


“Graffiti, this case a spray-painted line and a dot, like a day-glo orange sideways exclamation point. The Peoria PD gang guy couldn’t identify the symbol, so I checked to see if maybe the city or the power company had marked the tree. Nope. And then one night, me and Ron Kretschmer, detective on the Schmitt case, start swapping stories, and he remembers that same symbol on the sidewalk near HIS victim, which he’d written off to an utility marker. So we start poring over the Cashmore crime scene photos, but of course everything was covered in snow the night she was killed, so who knows? But the Coroner thinks the same weapon was used in all three murders. Um, four. Four-and-a-half.”

My fingers had grown numb, and I released my shake. “The symbol on the minimart wall?”

“Mm. The other one was under the ‘No Parking’ sign next to the Unicorn and Dragon loading dock.”

Make lemonade.


I got a pretty good idea WHEN it probably happened. Last New Years Eve. It was a pretty effed-up night – that girl who got killed and her roommate Cari got into it, and it screwed up my plans with Cari. I’d sent her boyfriend Cody on some wild goose chase, and tried to move in. Then the dead girl texted her, and she stomped out. It was a real dick move -- I was an asshole after my injury. But after the guy tried to kick my butt and Cari ghosted me and that girl got killed, I decided it was time to pull it together, quit the booze and the rest, get my degree, and make the best of things. Yeah, I was pretty messed up, but I remembered Tina or Tricia or whoever was on the couch. I was more worried about Cari and her telling Cody, so sorry, I didn’t see who it was. I didn’t notice the bat was gone til like a month later. With the baseball scholarship gone, had to find a cheaper apartment. Now I’m glad it disappeared. Fresh start, you know?

Think outside the box.

“What’s perplexing here is the seeming lack of an ideal victim.”

“Well, I know I have my flaws and foibles, but…”

Alan simply smiled and proceeded – I’d met Prof. Greaves at a couple hearings on community policing and judicial inequity. “The ideal is the serial’s fantasy — the target of hate, obsession, grievance, based on race, religion, gender, physical characteristics, socioeconomic class, or, today, political orientation. You said the second victim was in his 30s, a history of violence. I suppose if the killer caught him unaware in an isolated area… My point is, many organized serial murderers have at least a vague ideal or ‘type’ — blonde, a parental surrogate, Asian, black, Latino, trans. Here we have a female college student; a low-level, low-income, violent repeat offender; an elderly school teacher; and a…”

“Fat old schlub?” I suggested.

“Well, you and Mr. Munson are similar in age and physiognomy. There’s a possibility Munson was an predetermined target, but your murder was thwarted only by the interference of others. More likely, our killer missed his prey the first time, then spotted Munson in a vulnerable situation.”

“So the ideal here is a GROUP of people? Like collecting Pokemons?”

Alan laughed indulgently. “More like stand-ins for individuals who’ve aggrieved or who are imagined to have aggrieved or harmed the killer.”

“So why not just kill the originals?”

“Perhaps the killer is removed from his ‘enemies,’ geographically or physically or even by death? Or maybe these individuals still have a psychological hold, and our murderer can’t bring himself to attack them directly?”

A tentative rap rattled the pebbled glass in Alan’s office door.

“Khalid?” a pixelated figure behind the glass rumbled confirmation. “Could you give me five more minutes?”

An affirmative rumble, and the shadow vanished. “The more disturbing question is, how long is our murderer’s enemies list? How many Pokemons are there? I suppose we’ll know when the NEXT fresh-faced grad student or roughneck abuser or elderly social studies teacher or…” the prof stopped, shrugged. “Well, you catch my drift.”

“Don’t suppose you and Khalid could walk me to my car?”

Make amends.


It was a wake-up call for both of us. The next morning, I crashed ‘til about noon, then just kinda laid there thinking about shit. Plus, I was NOT looking forward to facing Tricia — she just really blew me away with that fucking text, but what sucked was she was right. I was always on her to quit being such a tight-ass and loosen up, to quit being such a, you know, C-word at parties. Shit, you know she caught some frat dude try to roofie her one time, and I got all over HER for being a drama queen bitch? I was no friend. She talked like that — mom talk. My girls were ‘no friends of mine.’ She always had to ‘cross her Ts and dot her Is’ for her psych profs, and she even had this lame vision board her mom gave her. She was actually working on it when I finally got my ass up. She actually made lunch for me, and we started hugging and crying, and— Oh, shit. Sorry…

Trish told me the party was a ‘turning point.’ She’d been stressing out about her masters thesis, but she’d talked to somebody at Russ’s and had a ‘breakthrough.’ She wouldn’t say much about it, but she did slip up and mention an ‘Aubrey.’ Tricia used a ‘them’ for this Aubrey, so she coulda been a he or her or non-binary. You oughtta ask Chris Something — buddy of Russ and my ex. He was zoned out by the couch where Trish was talking to Aubrey.

And it wasn’t just the psych paper. You know what a to-do list is? Well, she was making a ‘did’ list with that dumb vision board. I think she was embarrassed I saw it, because she kept it in her room after that. No idea what happened to it. Her sister cleaned her stuff out, you know, after. I’d kinda forgot about it, but I figured it was like every New Year’s resolution — you sober up and do the same old shit.

Be a better listener.


Man, I was so wasted that night — I don’t know what I could tell you. That girl, you know, the dead girl, tried to step over my legs but bumped me. I was too gone to even get up, but she started yapping all this feely shit at this, what’d you say her name was, Audrey? I remember this Audrey bitching about all the people who’d, um, effed her over, and dead girl’s roomie going psycho and bailing, then I just zoned out again.

Give one compliment a day.


I wanted the vision board to remember Trish, but the whole thing was a little strange. All she’d put on it was a list of names — I can dig it out, maybe send you a .jpg. It was things she did — all-caps, so it must have been important. Like people she needed to atone to, or maybe help. Off-hand, I remember a Jordan, somebody named Mr. Samuels… And the only Aubrey I know is that girl on Parks and Rec.”

Respect others’ truth.

“Oh, God.”

We’d returned to the scene of the crime —actually a block north. The Community Coffee Commune was deserted beyond a table of compulsive academics sipping fair-trade Guatemala and chewing on the concept of “other.” Curtis filled me in on a different set of others, showed me his photo gallery, and I invoked the deity.

 He leaned in. “Dodge?”

I waved him off and pulled my iPhone from my hoodie. Luckily, Alan was fine-tuning spring lesson plans. I put him on speaker, and he only reluctantly disconnected 15 minutes later. Curtis was silent for a few moments, ‘til I asked him for a number. It took six rings.

“Sorry to bother you,” I greeted. “My name is Samuels; we met behind the Unicorn and Dragon the other night. I wondered if we could meet for a cup of coffee at the Commune? And bring Aubrey.”

The line was silent. “Leave us alone,” a tortured female voice hissed.

Another gap. The new voice was raw, saturated with violence. “Yeah, asshole. Be happy to meet you, though YOU might not be when we’re done.”

“Chill, Jordan.” I punched the end button.

Curtis had his own phone out. “That was truly dumb. But, Jesus.”


“Dissociative Identity Disorder — DID,” I explained after the “customers” around us confiscated Chris Skalinski’s replacement Louisville Slugger and hauled Jordan kicking and spitting to the curb. “What most folks mistakenly call split personality. Tricia’s vision board was more like a whiteboard, to chart out Chris’ individual ‘personalities.’ When Chris thought he’d ‘zoned out,’ he’d probably surrendered to the more vulnerable ‘Aubrey.’

“After she sobered up, Tricia processed what Chis had actually told her about the ‘people’ tormenting him. And realized she’d hit the Lotto, academically. If she could get Aubrey’s consent and cooperation. But Chris’d sobered up, too. Drunk Tricia couldn’t have known her well-intentioned advice had triggered a therapeutic murder spree. Sober Tricia was too focused on the prize to even think about anything else or tell anybody else. Her psych prof would have seen the book potential, probably the Netflix potential.”

“Skalinski killed her to shut her up?”

“Drunk Tricia had given Chris a plan, a mission, but sober Tricia was standing in the way. Chris had access to Peregrym’s bat, and my guess is, once Tricia was gone, he scouted out the nearest facsimile to each of his fictional ‘roomies.’”

I could tell Curtis was as wired from the thick Commune java and the excitement as me. Maybe I’d resolve to cut back on the caffeine. “And that tag at the murders?”

“I don’t know whether it was Chris acknowledging his debt to Tricia, Aubrey mirroring her, Jordan mocking her, or something else. But as Tricia might have suggested, he was crossing his ‘T’s and dotting his ‘I’s.”  

January 05, 2023 07:40

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Nikki Hertzler
01:22 Jan 14, 2023

You had a good handle on how to write a story in the form of new year's resolutions. Lists are hard to figure into a story form.


Martin Ross
02:37 Jan 14, 2023



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Wendy Kaminski
13:17 Jan 05, 2023

OMG This was brilliant and groundbreaking, Martin! I have not seen anywhere else (yet -- and I indulged in a lot of crime... entertainment... :) where personal identity has muddied the water in an investigation. What an excellent use of probably one of the newest detective novel elements available. If a witness only knows someone as a "them," you have doubled or possibly tripled your suspect pool. Genius! And the way you incorporated it was incredibly well-done, particularly the reveal, but we'll get to that... Another deductive element I r...


Martin Ross
17:01 Jan 05, 2023

Thanks, Wendy!❤️ I really had problems keeping this one to 3000 words and getting all the clues and suspect in — thus Curtis’ interview transcripts (may do a Curtis solo procedural if I can find a plot). I kept a longer version for the second Dodge collection. Yeah, the they/them-dissociative identity link came to me in the middle of writing. I do a biannual local LGBTQ business directory for a non-prof, and I worked with a community garden director who had a female-born non-binary teen child with a non-binary female-born partner, which was...


Wendy Kaminski
19:56 Jan 05, 2023

Thank you! I will likely take you up on that!


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Wendy Kaminski
20:00 Jan 05, 2023

Oh PS, this reminds me of something a date of mine once brought up… What do you think is the newest crime? I mean there are new ways to DO crime, like you can do online theft, but it’s still just theft, and that is a very old crime. What do you think is the newest?? I don’t think I was ever able to answer. I don’t think it’s hate crimes, because those are as old as history too.


Martin Ross
23:25 Jan 05, 2023

That's a fascinating question! Crypto or NFT card fraud is essentially just a variation on the old fake gold mine or oilfield etc. con in early 20th Century mysteries, except with folks now so gullible they'll buy something they KNOW doesn't tangibly exist. The next new crimes might revolve around artificial intelligence that acts on its own larcenous criminal intent seemingly free of human intervention or manipulation and thus cannot be prosecuted. The human payoff would be in terms of the thief extracting or laundering the AI's "loot" in a...


Wendy Kaminski
23:30 Jan 05, 2023

I loved both Knives Out! Wow that latest was extra impressive, though. Anyway, while I did watch Murder She Wrote, I am a 100% Columbo girl: Yes, please just TELL ME THE SOLUTION FIRST - it's easier on both of us! :)


Martin Ross
02:23 Jan 06, 2023

LOL. Definitely a Columbo fan! Also loved Banacek. Rian Johnson, the Knives Out guy, has a new detective show, Poker Face, on Peacock beginning January 26.


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Aoi Yamato
02:19 Jun 02, 2023

another good story


Martin Ross
02:37 Jun 02, 2023

Thank you!


Aoi Yamato
03:38 Jun 02, 2023



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