A killer Claus is on the loose in Terry O’Brien’s latest tale.
Chapter 1: A Right Jolly Old Elf
December 20 – Near Midnight
Dead embers crunched lightly under his feet. Soot and ash fell from above, taking a bit of the shine off his red velvet suit, a suit lined with white fur piping. The dingle ball at the tip of his hat bounced off his nose so he blew it away, along with a puff of black soot that sparkled briefly in the dim light. He crunched the pipe between his teeth and wormed his way deeper into the chimney, the rough brick snagging and pulling at his shoulders and elbows, further ruining the suit, but he did not mind; he had plenty of them.
The weather outside was frightful, howling above him in the way that only a Cape May winter storm can. The few, brave and, some would say, the foolish, who choose to winter on the Cape knew what to expect; wind, a little snow, wind, some rain, wind, howling wind, cutting wind, freezing wind, and wind. And cold. Cold and wind.
While Chicago is billed “The Windy City,” this is actually a bit of a misnomer. While it is not widely known, the fact remains: there is no windier place on Planet Earth than Cape May. One can Google it if one does not believe it.
Regardless, he pulled free of the last clinging bricks and stood up in the mouth of the fireplace. It was dark but for the moonlight spilling in from above, the door-sized flue separating the house inside from terrible wind and cold outside, but he was toasty warm inside the suit, standing in the chimney, glove-clad hands cinched on the heavy sack slung over his shoulder.
He quickly and quietly covered his means of entry and, with a grunt, placed a foot on the mechanical arm of the flue control mechanism and leaned. It slid open with the quiet sound of metal scraping over slate, and slid back into place just as quietly.
Entry gained, he stepped out into the room, an ostentatiously large, ridiculously opulent living room, or den, or whatever rich people called their rooms full of antiquities and fireplaces that they never used and seemed only to exist in order for other people to clean. It was dark but for the dim lights shining over the paintings on the walls, a schizophrenic collection of Kinkade oils, Lichtenstein prints and Grasso originals. He leaned in to examine them; he’d always been rather ashamed to admit how much he liked Kinkade’s work, as saccharine as it may be, and never much cared for Lichtenstein’s pop sensibilities. And Grasso’s work just made him feel queasy, confused and a little angry, though for the life of him he could not tell you why.
A clump of charred matter dropped from his snowy beard and fell silently onto the frame of one of the Kinkades, so he gave his chin a tug and a shake, sending clouds of ash spewing from his chin and onto the painting as if a small volcano had suddenly loosed on the sleepy hamlet on the canvas.
Something beeped nearby.
He raised his head and cursed himself for having nearly forgotten to disable the alarm. Not that the alarm would be of any use; in less than two minutes he would be gone and his night’s jolly work done. But he found it always better, more tranquil to do these things without lights flashing and alarms blaring.
So, without hurry, he shuffled across the living room into the foyer and punched the code into the control panel. The little lights on the console went from yellow to green. He knew this alarm system well, having researched it in his days leading up to the crime, and found it to be so bad at stopping intruders it was almost not worth having, even for show. Once tripped, the system gave the owner 30 seconds to disarm. A full 30 seconds – a lifetime for thieves used to living between the ticks of the clock. And even then, after 30 seconds, it only went to “Trouble,” or yellow. Then it was 30 more seconds before it went to red, or “Full Alarm,” and alerted the local police. A minute. A whole damn minute for the alarm system to not send an alarm.
And the code had been even easier to acquire; a few keystrokes on the Central Alarm Co.’s home page, answer a few rudimentary questions, convince the online assistant that you’re just not that technologically inclined and ‘Here you go, ma’am, thanks for doing business with us!’
He shook his head disapprovingly as he stepped away from the console.
His heart jumped a bit as the big clock in the living room began chiming midnight. A small light flicked on near the chimney, a little desk lamp on a little table. And on that table sat a small, beautifully ornate china plate with two large cookies and a glass of milk.
For a moment he allowed his heart to be warmed, then remembered that light had been on a timer, and that the odds that James Rappaport, obscenely wealthy local and owner of the house, had actually been the one to plug in the light and set the timer were about 1 in a trillion. More likely it had been a Mexican or Central American mother of six doing the actual manual labor of going to Swain’s Hardware, buying the light and timer, installing them in the living room, testing them, baking the cookies and pouring the milk, probably while staying late and losing precious family time because Rappaport had to go to some ludicrous city function with his ludicrously beautiful wife on his arm. A function peopled by the same 50 local muckety-mucks that graced every ludicrous city function; the VFW this, the Chamber of Commerce that, the Knights of Columbus whozit, and so on.
Every time he ruminated for any length of time on the injustice of it all it made him very angry. Not so angry he wouldn’t eat the cookies and drink the milk, which he did, but quite angry indeed.
He brushed the crumby memory of the cookies from his beard and placed the plate and glass in his sack.
He took a deep breath and surveyed the room. On one wall was a set of tall windows that looked out onto the long, wide front porch, which was dark except for a small light by the front door. The deck chairs were stacked and secured against the wind, the table tipped to its side. Angry flurries swarmed around the windows, as if the snow found it too cold to be outside in those appalling gusts.
The other end of the room opened into an elegant dining room. Fine crystal, china and silver adorned the table, which itself was draped with a white cloth he was sure must be silk. Probably very rare, very expensive silk. The whole house smelled like money.
Rappaport, he knew, came from old-old money, starting in Civil War times with cotton, through some Depression-era bootlegging and up to current day venture capitalism.
The dining room, much like the den, was filled with all manner of antiquity and art. Both the rooms emptied into a central corridor which halved the house, but he knew the other half was like this one: full of large rooms packed with expensive things that no one really cared about but were harder to tax than large sums of cash.
But this was not really his concern.
He made his way to the hallway and the stairs, which were bathed in a pale blue light from above. He could only guess Rappaport left the light on for his wife when she came home. If she came home.
Slowly he climbed the stairs. The glass and plate in the sack clinked against the other object inside. At the landing, he lowered the sack and pulled the object out. It was an axe.
He surveyed the area; the second floor was just as long and wide as the first, with long hallways running its length. Halfway down the hall to his right he saw the telltale blue light of a television at the floor crack of the door.
He spun the axe handle in his hand, feeling its heft and stepped inside. Rappaport lay in the bed, looking thin under the satin sheets. He was a thin man to begin with. Without the natty suit and jacket, in his sleepwear, he looked positively skeletal.
He was asleep. On the night stand an empty glass sat next to a bottle of Scotch which sat next to a bottle of pills. A set of headphones lay next to his head, turned up very loud. He glanced at the TV; Lifetime reruns of Will & Grace. Perhaps the rumors surrounding Rappaport’s sexuality and relationship with his wife had some merit after all. But again, these things did not concern him. His reasons for wanting Rappaport dead were far more pragmatic and had nothing to do with what or who he liked to do in bed.
This thought pleased him as the axe struck and cleaved Rappaport’s skull. He was pleased with the fact that this killing had nothing to do with the politics of sexual identity. As the axe landed a third, fifth, tenth time, he felt warm in the glow of his complete bipartisanship.
After 12 blows he was done, winded; the axe was heavy. Rappaport gave nary a twitch after the third swing, and even that was most likely an involuntary flexing of nerve endings.
Finished, he went back to the steps, dropped the axe back in the sack, and started back down the steps, blood and other things dripping from his gloves and beard.
As he took the final step into the hallway and then back into the living room and fireplace, he heard the jangling of keys in the front door. He quickened his step, but did not panic; if he knew Mrs Rappaport she was four martinis in and would probably try to seduce Santa if she saw him, covered in blood or not.
He opened the flue, slid out, pulled it closed. By then Mrs Rappaport was clomping her way up the steps, calling to her husband.
“Jimmy!” she cried like a screeching hawk. “Jimmy, you’ll never guess who I saw tonight! Jimmy! Take those damn headphones off!”
Now he was outside, having escaped through the chimney, and, mercifully, he could not hear her.
He crunched across the frozen grass and squinted at the snow and wind pelting his face. In less than a week it would all be over and he would be one very happy Santa.
Through the angry, swirling wind he heard her scream.
And then he smiled.
I hate mornings. I mean, I hate nice, warm, breezy July mornings, with birds chirping and butterflies flying and the air smelling of fresh mown grass and shit like that. But mornings like this? Blistering cold and windy like the top of a skyscraper? Ground frozen, water frozen, everything frozen and crunchy, every free-flowing body of water, from the water in your gutters to the water in your birdbath to the damn Delaware Bay is solid enough to walk on, and where the heat on full blast keeps a room reasonably habitable despite the chill breeze that blows through your poorly insulated windows and doors (even though you just shelled out good money for new windows and doors)? Well, I’m not really sure if there’s a word or formula to define hate to the Nth degree, but that, whatever that is, that’s how I feel about mornings like this.
I hate that it takes me 20 minutes to get dressed and undressed, that’s 40 minutes round trip, for my daily 15-minute pilgrimage to the Texas Avenue Wawa for a 24-oz cup of joe and a cruller or fritter. And I really hate that by the time I get home my coffee needs to be nuked. Nuked coffee is okay, but it’s never the same as fresh from the urn, it’s like it goes a little flat or something. Especially if you put three creams in it, like I do.
I just flat hate being cold. No lie, I quit my construction job five years ago because it was too cold. I was on top of a house down by the canal that we were renovating, a real dump that needed a top-to-bottom overhaul. I’m on top of this house, it’s about eight degrees out (I mean, just say that out loud. “Hey honey, what’s the temperature outside?” “Eight.” “Excuse me?” “Eight degrees.” Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?) and, as ever down here on the beautiful Cape, especially by the canal, there’s just the stupidest wind blowing off the water. I’m covered head-to-toe in three layers of Carhartts, thermal underwear, four pairs of socks… I could barely move. And I’m trying to swing a hammer and build a house.
Finally, I just looked at my boss and said, “Jay, my friend, I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.”
Jay didn’t argue. I was just a pup then, and what I didn’t realize was that Jay was probably just as cold and miserable as I was, except he had a wife and kids to feed and other employees to worry about and a business to run. Me? I was able to go on unemployment (because Jay didn’t fight it) and wait ‘til spring for the next job to come along.
I don’t have a wife and kids yet, but I do have my own business, so I understand a little bit more now where Jay was coming from, where on even the worst days you had to strap on your boots and go to work because no one but you is going to give much of a shit about your business.
I have, for the last two years, been fortunate enough to do well enough in the summer that I didn’t have to work in the winter. So I didn’t. Winter was for organizing and paying bills and reaching out to contacts and setting up your season and keeping up with training and paperwork. And drinking. I do a lot of drinking in the winter.
Luckily, I stumbled into some pretty high-profile cases in my first two years in business. First I solved almost 30 missing persons cases by busting up a super-weird ring of Cape May cannibals headed up by a crazy guy who owned a bunch of B&Bs. “Dead and Breakfast,” the press had dubbed it. That was pretty fun. Almost died twice, but who’s counting?
The next summer I got involved in the case of “The Editor,” who had a thing for killing local authors. He turned out to be local Exit Zero magazine publisher Donal Lonegan. Almost died a couple times there, too. But I don’t like to complain.
Along the way I stumbled onto an awesome partner, Tim DeMarco, who’s kind of a Zen Kicker of Asses, and met all sorts of interesting people. Both cases brought me a lot of local, regional and national press, which is always good for a short-term spike in business. But truth is, it was a bad summer. All that press does not translate into money, just means people know your name and, sometimes, what you look like. It’s not like I got a dollar every time someone Googled me or read my name in the paper.
Fact is, though I could probably squeak my way through the next few months, I could really use a case.
“Morning!” Tim shouted as he walked in at exactly 9am. This three-second entrance sucked all the warm air out of my office and all the steam out of my already reheated coffee, which I’d now have to re-reheat. Add these to the list of thing I hate about the damned cold.
“What’s going on?” I asked rhetorically and stuck the coffee in the microwave on the shelf behind my desk.
“Brisk out there,” Tim said and took off his coat.
“That’s one way to put it,” I replied.
Guess my misery was obvious. “Aw… Too cold out there for our intrepid PI?” Tim said in his gently ball-breaking way.
“It’s too cold out there for anyone,” I told him. “Anything going on your end?”
I’d placed Tim in charge of our internet and social media outreach. Meaning, since I am completely ham-handed with anything more advanced than a calculator, Tim had to answer all our email and deal with our Facebook traffic. I refuse to have anything to do with Twitter. A man must draw the line somewhere.
“Not a sniff,” Tim replied. “How bad is it?”
He plopped down on the small sofa in front of my desk.
“It’s not terrible, but it’s not good. If we tighten our belts we can see our way into March. Beyond that I can’t really say.”
“Shame people don’t steal as many bikes in the winter.”
A good chunk of our summer business consisted of tracking down stolen rental bikes. I charged clients just enough to make it worth not losing their deposits, and this money paid most of the bills.
“Something will turn up,” Tim said, in that consoling manner of his.
“I don’t know,” I said, and gnawed on my lip. “I’ve got a bad feeling. Phone hasn’t rung in weeks, and as much as I like hearing you say it, your sunny outlook isn’t going to make it start ringing now.”
The phone on my desk began to ring.
Tim smiled at me.
I said, “Now there’ll be no living with you…”
Tim snagged the receiver, “Whitaker and DeMarco Investigations, Tim speaking. How can we help you?”