The Victim

Pitka cast a world-weary eye over the shabby hotel mezzanine. He was still half asleep. Someone put a coffee in his hand. Jesus H. Christ what a mess. No blood, but broken glass, ash, soot and tinsel everywhere.

The hotel had seen better days, but the mezzanine, with its comfortable-looking armchairs and fireplace, would have continued as a cosy and inviting little refuge from the New York freeze. A few embers remained in the grate.

A Christmas tree lay sprawled across the room, baubles scattered on the carpet, some smashed into glittering shards. A coarse hessian sack spilled brightly wrapped and beribboned packages down the mezzanine steps into the lobby proper.

The fat guy in the charred Santa suit lay smouldering in the middle of the floor, tangled in Christmas tree lights that were still flashing. Little wisps of smoke curled off his scorched flesh.

“Can someone turn those off for God’s sake?” Pitka rubbed his eyes. “What’s all the spilled liquid?”

Goldman was picking something out of the corpse’s white beard with tweezers.

“Milk,” she said.

Of course. He stooped to peer at little pellets of something spread across the hearth.


She looked up, and then to where he was pointing.

“Some kind of animal droppings. Herbivore.”

“You’re not going to tell me that they’re reindeer.”

“Only if you want me to, sir.”

“Hmmm. So. Electrocution, then?”

“No. He was tied up with the lights after he died. And then they were switched on. I can’t be entirely certain until I see some lab results but I’m thinking he was poisoned. His skin is overly florid and there are crumbs of this in his beard.”

She handed him a transparent plastic evidence bag. It contained what looked like the remains of a small raspberry & cream tart.

“Smell it.”

Pitka unzipped the seal on the bag and immediately noted the unmistakeable and curiously appealing delicate scent of bitter almond. He nodded.

“Any ID?” he asked, of no-one in particular.

Morrison appeared at his elbow.

“None on the body, chief. No-one in the hotel knows who he is. There was only a desk clerk on duty and he was apparently…” he looked at his notebook “…’having a quiet drink with his girlfriend…’ in one of the unoccupied rooms.”

Pitka sighed. He looked at his watch. 5.15 am. Christmas Day.

An unidentified corpse in a hotel lobby. An unidentified perp. No immediately apparent motive. No witnesses. What were the chances that anyone was going to come forward to identify this guy over the holidays?

He stepped outside and lit a cigarette. It was still dark. A light snow swirled down through the streetlights.

Reindeer droppings?

Somewhere, in a house further off down the street, a kid started to cry.