The corpse looked hideous to the utmost extreme. It seemed as if the face had been stuck inside an insanely hot oven and flash-burned. Nothing that determined the beauty and grace of Rita Garner remained.
“Not a pretty way to die, eh?” Reyna muttered, inspecting the corpse closely. It was clad in a bright red frilly dress with lace edges with a similar hat perched jauntily on the head. The corpse was found seated on the living room sofa, a glass of red wine stuck to the hand. A card with a red-coloured christmas tree was placed next to it.
“Apparently the woman was strangled to death, and then her head was stuck in the hot oven. Preliminary investigations say that she died before her face was burned, though,” the inspector looked slightly nauseated, licking his lips before continuing.
“They cannot say so with certainty.”
Reyna sighed, looking at the inspector’s flushed face. He was a new recruit and though he tried to act tough, she could see that the sight was freaking him out.
“You go and inform the boss that I am taking over this case from now,” she said, nodding towards the door.
“Alright ma’am,” he said, sounding relieved. He gave her a salute and quickly exited the room.
Strangling, then burning and then arranging the setting—she had to give the murderer some points for ingenuity. It was nothing like she had seen before.
Dubbed the “Red Christmas” murders by the newspaper people, it was the seventh victim in six months. And things weren’t looking good for the police department’s reputation.
“Ughhh!” she groaned, slamming her fists on the table in frustration. She had been involved with the case since the fifth incident and yet, she was no closer to finding the culprit now than she was then.
“Something…there has to be something…some slip…damn him! No one can be so perfect!!!”
Reyna Ashwood was twenty-three, tall and slender yet sinewy with a jet-black page-boy bob, dark grey eyes, an aquiline nose coupled with crimson full lips and a dainty chin. Often clad in a grey shirt unbuttoned at the collar, black pants and overcoat, she was the youngest detective in the department. Intolerant of wishy-washy nonsense, her professionalism impressed many of her superiors and generated awe among her colleagues.
Her parents died in a car accident five years ago, when she just entered adulthood. Since then, she had been living with her butler Gerard Radcliffe, her maternal aunt Catherine Rainsworth dropping in often. The Ashwoods were pretty rich, as they owned a couple of very profitable mines apart from being the forerunners in the hospitality industry. But Reyna didn’t inherit her father’s business acumen—she was more like her mother. Mysteries appealed to her, so did the need to service the society. Hence after finishing school, she decided to pursue Criminal Psychology at Oxford before joining the police as a detective. She left the handling of the business to her cousin, Philip Ashwood. And he didn’t disappoint her.
After submitting her initial report, she decided to go back home. Though gruesome sights like these didn’t unnerve her as much as it did the others, she still felt a faint tremor run down her spine.
She was a human after all.
The Ashwood Manor was a structure of opulent simplicity. It was grand, yet subtly so. The pale white walls with carved pillars marking the entrance, the giant oak doors opening into the sun-kissed hallway coupled with the heavenly scent of roses wafting from the garden lent an unearthly air to the atmosphere. The house symbolised the Ashwood way of living—simple, subtle yet grand at the same time.
She went upstairs to her room, got changed into more comfortable clothes, washed up and headed downstairs to the dining hall for lunch. She could see her butler arranging the table for two.
“Aunt Cathy, you do take the ‘feel-at-home’ thing a bit too seriously, don’t you?” she said heavily, looking out of the window.
“Of course, young detective!”
Catherine Rainsworth was of medium height with pale alabaster skin, ruby tinted amber eyes, dark brown hair set in a fashionable bun, a straight nose, pink lips and a strong chin. She was slim and shapely and was clad in a bright red gown with a crystal brooch on the side. She was almost in her mid-forties, though she still believed she was a young lamb. She had divorced her husband some ten years back and since then, she had been living on her own at her maternal home which was some fifty miles away from the Ashwood Manor.
“You still haven’t given up on this red thing of yours, I see,” Reyna said, sitting down on her chair.
“Aww come on, Reyna—red is the colour of youth, colour of vitality, life…colour of passion!!!” said Catherine, throwing about her arms dramatically.
Reyna shrugged, allowing a small smile play on her lips. Her aunt was seriously a child at heart.
“So, how’s work?” she added, seating herself.
“Not good, aunt Cathy. This Red Christmas thing is going out of our hands now…and it’s getting annoying. Not to mention a serious blow to our reputation. It’s Christmas next month and I somehow have this feeling that the murderer is going to plan something big unless we catch this guy.”
Catherine twirled her spoon in her soup thoughtfully.
“I hope you find out the culprit soon…serial killers give me the jeebies…”
Reyna sighed as she spooned down her soup dolefully.
“It is alright, young detective…perk up. No discussions about work during lunch and dinner—that’s the rule of the Ashwoods’, isn’t it? So tell me…”
Catherine lowered her voice dramatically.
“There’s the Annual Winter Ball next week…thrown by the Carmichaels. The Ashwoods are invited…so, who’s your date?”
“Hey Anderson! Get me the list of the victims…complete with details, okay?”
It was late evening as Reyna sifted through the papers, all containing transcripts of the interviews the police had with the witnesses. Most of them were bluffs, make her grind her teeth in anger. Didn’t these people know how difficult and important it was to solve cases? Then why on earth did these people utter such fairy-tales as witness accounts?
She gave an involuntary shudder when the remnants of the afternoon conversation floated unbidden into her mind. Trust Aunt Cathy to drop the bombshell. Annual Ball?
She must be crazy.
Here she was, neck deep in work while her aunt was planning some crazy dating regime.
She shook her head in disbelief…who was she kidding? Her aunt had been like this as long as she could remember. From setting up play-dates when she was a toddler to match-making when she was in school, her aunt was always the unofficial matchmaker.
Though it often irked her, she couldn’t help but smile. She loved her aunt…she was the only family Reyna had.
“Here is the list, ma’am.”
The file was a pretty thick one—it was evident that the department had researched well into the victims. All of them fell into the age bracket of twenty-one to twenty-seven. All were good-looking, successful young women.
And all were single.
“Hmm…” she said thoughtfully.
What did the killer have against beautiful, successful, young women?
RED CHRISTMAS VICTIM SEVEN
Famous socialite and philanthropist Rita Garner was found dead in her mansion yesterday with a card containing a printed red christmas tree next to the corpse. Preliminary investigations say that this could be the work of the individual who is only known as the “Red Christmas” murderer. With such a dangerous man on prowl…
“The newspaper people have already deduced the killer to be a man, eh?” Catherine said, sipping her tea as she read the newspaper.
“But I cannot say for certain, though. The manner of killing is gruesome indeed…suggesting it to be a man’s work as the popular psyche goes…” Reyna trailed off thoughtfully.
“But on the other hand, such articles are creating an environment of fear in the public…” added Catherine gently, lowering her cup.
Reyna nodded in agreement.
“That is why it is imperative to catch the culprit as soon as possible.”
Reyna had a brainstorming session with her colleagues in the morning, but couldn’t come up with a conclusion. Sighing to herself, she went back to her cabin only to find her secretary waiting for her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Dr. Thorston from Our Lady General Hospital wants to meet you. He says it’s urgent.”
“Is he here?”
“He is in the waiting area.”
“Show him into my cabin.”
“Are you sure?” Reyna asked again.
Dr. Thorston, a plump balding man of sixty, nodded vigorously.
“Yes, Detective Ashwood. I have the files to prove so.”
Reyna looked at the man thoughtfully.
“I will be coming by your hospital today evening. I need to check your accounts.”
“Please do so. I will tell my assistant to expect you.”
“Thank you, Dr. Thorston. You do not know how big a breakthrough it is.”
He stood up, smiling.
“It is the job of the people to help the police, Detective Ashwood.”
As the doctor exited the cabin, Reyna couldn’t help but whoop mentally. A breakthrough at last!
After sometime, she decided to call Philip Ashwood…the ball was a week after the next…just a day before Christmas eve. And if she knew her aunt, she would be dragged into the ball whether she liked it or not. It is better if she was well-prepared.
“Oh hello Reyna! How are you?”
“Am fine…how are you?”
“Alive and kicking as you can see…rather hear at the moment. How’s work?”
Reyna sighed. Why did people always ask about work?
“Red Christmas is driving me nuts…but that’s for later. Are you free around Christmas?” she asked.
She could visualize her cousin’s freckled face crunched up thoughtfully.
“Would you come to that Carmichael’s Winter thing with me? Otherwise Aunt Cathy will pair me with someone really random.”
“Okay okay…got your point. I will tag along with you. Besides, I was considering to drop in sometime next week…”
“Drop in, then! It is fun to have people around during Christmas…”
“Alright…see you in a week!”
Reyna replaced the receiver with a happy face. Another thing done.
“I have never heard anyone going to a ball with her brother!” Catherine exclaimed when Reyna told her in the afternoon.
“You should be glad I am playing along in the first place,” Reyna mumbled, picking at the broccoli in the salad. She hated broccoli.
Catherine sighed, looking at her niece.
“You really don’t get the idea of the ball, do you?”
After lunch, she visited Rita Garner’s house again. The entire mansion wore a sad look…death hung in its very atmosphere. Apart from a few police personnel who guarded the entrance, it was empty.
The scene of crime had been sanitised…it looked squeaky clean. She sat on one of the leather couches, looking around the vaulted drawing room. The fireplace had been boarded shut.
“Why were you targeted, Rita Garner?” she whispered to herself.
The chair on which the corpse had been found was missing—it had been taken by the forensics for examination. The air smelled of bleaching powder, as if attempting to mask the odour of burning flesh that was present a few days ago.
Rita Garner, according to the report, lived alone in this house. She worked as teacher in the rural primary school in the mornings while she volunteered at the hospital in the afternoons.
A quiet philanthropic life.
How on earth did you make an enemy?
Our Lady General Hospital was a well-tended spartan building in the quieter area of the city. It was almost evening, the slant rays of the setting sun colouring the clouds a fusion of red and orange. She entered the building.
As she gave her name at the reception, she was glad to see that she was expected.
A young man clad in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck came bustling towards her.
“Dr. Thorston told me you would be visiting. I am Ian Howard, his assistant,” he said, offering his hand. He looked just a couple of years older than her.
She shook his hand, smiling.
“Follow me, Detective.”
He took her into a room filled with towering cabinets.
“Our hospital is almost seventy years old, and is a famous name worldwide. The gynecology department is a specially celebrated one, Dr. Thorston being a big name in this field. It is indeed an honour for me to work with him.”
He handed Reyna a fat folder.
“We pride ourselves in protecting the privacy of our patients. Especially the cases involving abortions. I would be glad if this file does not exit the room…it is highly confidential.”
“I understand, Dr. Howard.”
The young doctor smiled.
“Thank you Detective. The hospital closes at eight for visitors. It would be preferable if you get your work done by then.”
Reyna nodded again as the doctor went out of the room.
She had two hours—it was best if she got to work soon.
The next two weeks passed without much incident and soon it was time for the Winter Ball. Reyna was in jitters…not because of the ball but because of the fact she wasn’t as close to solving the case as she would have liked.
On the other hand, Catherine made it her personal mission to dress Reyna up.
“Young girls these days…they do not know what it is to be womanly. I mean…look at your hair!”
Reyna cringed, fingering her short hair.
“Hair is meant to be long, thick…but no…tell me, what is this sorry excuse of a hair-cut?” Catherine barked, making the poor girl jump.
“Long hair comes in the way, aunt Cathy. And you know my job is a hands-on kind of thing.”
Catherine shook her head in disdain.
“You are just like your mother, Reyna. No sense of grace at all.”
As evening started to fall, Reyna’s butler showed in Philip Ashwood.
Philip was of twenty-five, tall, broad-shouldered with dark brown hair and a freckled face. Clad in a crisp white shirt, dark blue silk suit with a matching bow-tie and a white kerchief, he did look dapper.
“Hello Phil…isn’t someone looking all dressed up?”
“Same to you, Reyna.”
Reyna was dressed in a deep green one-shouldered gown with a tight bodice and a flared skirt. Two emerald-studded pins gleamed in her jet-black hair while long emerald earnings adorned her ears. Her eyes were lined with kohl, with a spot of rouge on her cheeks.
She was looking very pretty indeed.
“Thanks to me, young Phil,” added Catherine.
She was clad in her usual red…a red figure-hugging dress with a long slit from her ankle to mid thigh. Her voluminous dark-brown hair hung in soft waves around her face.
“Aunt Catherine…you are looking fabulous as usual.”
“Enough with the pleasantries…let’s go!”
Twenty minutes later, the party reached the destination. Fake snow and glittering stars decorated the entrance, lending a festive spirit to the atmosphere.
“Forget work for a few hours and enjoy to the fullest, okay?” said Catherine as they climbed up the steps.
“You got it, Aunt Cathy,” Reyna answered.
Carmichaels’ knew how to organize a party and soon Reyna was enjoying herself to the fullest. After dancing, she wend her way to the drinks counter and got herself a cocktail to wash down her parched throat.
“I love kids so much!”
Reyna jumped as the last line came unbidden into her mind.
“Oh Cathy! I feel so lucky little Reyna has you for an aunt!”
She sat down on a nearby chair in a daze, feeling suddenly suffocated.
She decided to step out for some fresh air.
“All the victims? Are you sure, Ashwood?”
“Yes sir. All of them had their abortions done at the hospital sometime last year.”
The Chief looked troubled, scratching his chin.
“Stay sharp, Detective. This killer could be dangerous.”
“What happened, Reyna?”
She whipped around.
It was her aunt Cathy.
And she was holding a gun.
“So it was you,” said Reyna softly.
“You figured it out…just as I thought you would,” Catherine replied, unlocking the safety catch of the gun.
“But why, aunt Cathy?”
“Why? You dare ask me why?” Catherine hissed, holding the weapon steady.
“Your father loved me…he was supposed to marry me…but when he found out that I could never conceive…could never bear children…he dropped me like filth and married my sister. And then you were born.”
Catherine stepped forward, pointing the weapon to Reyna’s forehead.
“I married a man…but I couldn’t love him. He realized that and divorced me…I began living alone. I often dropped by…seeing you, your parents…it burned me!!!”
Hot tears ran down her cheeks as she continued.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Five years ago, I tinkered with the engine of the car, leading to that accidental explosion. If I couldn’t have him, no one could. Then you inherited the land, the property. You behaved just like her. No womanly grace, no eye for style. But still men fell for you. I was always dressed up, but no one spared me a glance. Not now, not then.”
“You donated to the hospital,” Reyna added softly.
“Yes, that’s right. That was when I found out about the abortions. How girls with the gift I couldn’t have were misusing it.”
“So you killed them…”
“Yes, Reyna. They didn’t deserve to live…they were desecrating their gift. How could I allow them to walk this planet. They used their beauty to their advantage…not anymore…don’t worry, Reyna. You will soon be joining them…and your parents…”
Reyna stood up slowly, tears glistening in her grey eyes.
“You were my only family, Aunt Cathy…why?”
“You weren’t supposed to exist, Reyna.”
“I refused to believe what the investigations were showing up…it was the first time I was afraid of the truth…I loved you, Aunt Cathy…”
“I hated YOU, REYNA!!!”
But Catherine couldn’t pull the trigger.
“I hate you, I hate you, I HATE YOU!!!”
“NO!!!” someone screamed.
It was Philip, along with several policemen.
Two gunshots rang through the silent night, killing yet another family.
Philip Ashwood walked slowly into the church. He was clad in a black suit which he had worn only once before. During his uncle’s funeral.
Catherine Rainsworth had been a popular woman and hence her funeral was attended by many. He found a familiar black-head and made a beeline for it.
“Are you sure?” he muttered, standing next to her.
“Yeah. It’s best if the world doesn’t know about her being…you know. At the end of the day, she was my family,” said Reyna heavily.
Her shoulder was bandaged, the white looking stark against her black dress.
“So to the world, she was another victim of the Red Christmas murderer while the culprit was gunned down by the police moments later, right?” he said in a low voice.
“Yeah. In a way, it is true. She was a victim of herself, you know. All these years, I never realized she was hurting this bad. I could have helped her…”
Philip gave her a one armed squeeze.
“Did you bring what I had asked for?” she asked.
Philip nodded, pointing towards a black bag. She opened it slowly. Inside it was a bright red dress.
“Black was never really her colour, was it?”
She took the dress and walked up to the dais where Catherine’s coffin was placed for display, paying no attention at the surprised gasps of the others
“There you go, Aunt Cathy. Your favourite red dress…” she whispered, laying the dress over the body who was once Catherine Rainsworth.
“Rest in peace, Aunt Cathy…sleep well…”