A Philadelphia detective spends Christmas Eve trying to solve a string of holiday-related “suicides” in this cheery Christmas crime noir.
by Jake Troxell
I ask the jackhole from SEPTA to turn the music off for a second time. Again he just nods his head in blind agreement. Obviously, the scattering of skull fragment and broken teeth on the ground in front of us is too much of a distraction. The distraction for me is that tomorrow morning I’ll have to hear this same Nat King Coles song crackle through the radio while my six-year-old unwraps her Christmas presents and I’ll be stuck associating it with this bloodbath.
The part of me that likes to break rules is tempted to pull out my sidearm and silence the speaker with one quick squeeze. I don’t have to – the music clicks off from some unseen control board and for the first time this holiday season I’m feeling thankful. The silence lets me focus on the headless businessman slumped over in front of the freshly emptied R2 to Warminster. This is my fourth “suicide” in as many weeks. That’s what we’re supposed to call them, at least until someone figures something better. Fourteen for the city total (that I’m aware of).
My gut ached filling out those reports; knowing their families would be getting left high and dry by the insurance companies just because someone high up is telling me to lie. I consider leaking it to The Inquirer but they’re a bunch of assholes too. They’d just bury the truth in hysteria like always. No, I do the cowardly thing and bite my tongue.
This VIC’s story is no different than the others: going about his normal routine when BLAM he shoots himself in the head. Only, no witnesses saw a gun or incendiary device or anything of the sort. A quivering lady with too much makeup and not enough skirt is telling me that he seemed happy. Says he was handsome so she took notice. Took special notice of the way he sucked on his candy cane. And that was the lowest common denominator: candy canes. That was the only thing connecting the headless stiffs. A mishmash of races and professions and political parties and genders and locations and everything else you would try to connect the dots with but the only minute detail connecting the victims was that at Christmas time they were eating Christmas candy. What a joke.
I’m supposed to be surveying the scene and looking for traces of a bullet’s trajectory but I know I’m not going to find shit so I make plans to fudge that in my paperwork. After a struggle pulling the thick-as-a-brick wallet from the VIC’s jacket, I sort through half-dozen credit cards, thirty bucks in cash, and a fat stack of business cards. A punch card for that soup place in Reading Terminal Market everyone likes, contacts for a couple of different mortgage lenders, and a few doctors, but one of the names stands out: Dr. Hermey, DDS.
I nearly shit myself when I see the card, I found an identical one in the purse of the first “suicide” victim. The address is two blocks from Suburban Street Station. I’m up the stairs and out onto snowy Market Street before it hits me that it’s five o’clock on Christmas Eve and there’s a half of a foot of snow on the ground. No dentist office is going to be open tonight. Still, I have to give it a try.
I flash my badge at the back of a security guards head and hop the elevator. The ride is swift and I thank god there aren’t elevator operators anymore that I need to make small talk with. Rushing down the empty grey hallway on the eighth floor I nearly choke with excitement or anxiety or whatever is making my fist shake. The door is going to be locked. I know it is. No one is going to be in the office and I’ll have to get a warrant. Waste of time. Still, something has the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and I start reaching for my gun. And that’s when it hits me.
The world is a silly blur when I wake up. My arms aren’t moving but it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s kind of funny when I think about it. A strange sort of man with a lightbulb on his forehead and no mouth stares down at me. I chuckle. Through his paper mask, I can see the outlines of a smile forming. I want to smile but there’s something dry holding my mouth open already. The ticks and taps of tiny metal tools dance around inside my mouth, the whirling of a small subway car is tunneling through my back molar. Burl Ives sings and my head weaves absentmindedly to the sweet concert of drilling and Holly Jolly Christmas.
When I wake up a little more the man who calls himself Dr. Hermey laughs a lot as he tells me about how excited he was that someone finally figured it out. He explains how for months he’d been paying workers at a candy cane factory in China to dump a mix of sulfur, charcoal, and some fun mystery chemicals into the batches destined for the east coast.
Then, as patients come in for fillings over the last several weeks, the Doctor of Dental Surgery would use potassium nitrate mixed in with his normal mercury fillings. The man’s maniacal laughter is infectious and I find myself laughing along through the saliva soaked gauze. The tube of nitrous oxide running up my nose makes it all so easy to be amused. The doctor says that when a lucky patient’s filling makes contact with a special candy cane his Christmas wish comes true. I muster a gargled question about his Christmas wish through the cotton dryness.
The man pulls down his mask and smiles a blinding white smile, “Because people should fear their cavities. Not fill them.” And with that, he stands up, sticks a candy cane in his mouth, and leaves me alone to admire the view from his office. Without his body blocking the view I can look out over City Hall and Dilworth Park from the dental chair. Down where the Christmas Village is set up. Families spin around together in circles. It looks fun. I watch and wait for the doctor to come back but he doesn’t and slowly my world becomes less hysterical and my molar begins to hurt. I spit out the bloody gauze and scream for help. I know no one will hear. If they did, they’d just hear screams from a dentist’s office. Nothing to be shocked about.
Taped next to the window there is a poster for a free Christmas Eve open skate at Dilworth Park sponsored by Dr. Hermey DDS. Decorated with pictures of figure skating candy canes and the words Free candy canes & peppermint hot cocoa bolded at the bottom.
Outside the window, I can hear faint pops. I try to wriggle free the dental chair’s heavy straps but it’s no use. I find myself wishing the music were loud. Loud enough to drown out the crying.