It’s a homicidal holiday, and only Travis Whitaker can crack the case…
Chapter 2: Snow Business
December 22, Still dark o’ clock
Our early morning phone call had come from one Janice Rappaport, wife of the recently deceased James Rappaport. So recently deceased that the blood soaking into the sheets and mattress of his presumably very expensive bed was probably still warm. I say probably because no way in hell am I touching it. Let’s just assume.
So Tim Demarco, my partner, and I hopped into my cherry El Camino and drove the very short distance from my office on Queen Street to the Rappaport’s home on Hughes. The drive was just long enough for my car to stay goddamned freezing the entire time
.Did I mention I hate the cold?
Really. I really hate it
.“You know the Rappaports?” Tim asked from the passenger side, blowing into his hands.
He was one of those “Aah, it’s not cold,” guys who liked to tool around town every winter in a thin windbreaker or sweatshirt while the rest of Cape May humanity was bundled up like Nanook of the North. But even he was feeling it this morning, which secretly delighted me.
“Nah, just what I’ve heard around town. Never met them. From what I gather they’re a very F. Scott Fitzgerald couple; moneyed and bored. They’re on the city board or city council or city something or some such, no?”
Tim nodded. “City council. Two of five, Columbo.”
Always with the insults.
“Interesting,” I said, and meant it. The city council angle was a thread hanging off of this thing that needed yanking. But first I needed more info.
“You ever seen her?” he asked me with a cocked eyebrow. This meant she was attractive.
“No,” I answered honestly. “I assume by your very subtle drooling that she’s a looker?”
Tim gave me a squink eye. “A looker? I’m sorry, is it 1939, pops?”
I said nothing.
Tim said, “Yes. She’s very fine. Foxy. Mature.”
“A cougar?” I asked feeling instantly stupid for using the term, but it was already said so what could I do?
Surprisingly, Tim didn’t break my balls about it, which meant she must be really good-looking.
“What’s beyond cougar?”
“I don’t know… Mountain lion? Tiger? Bobcat?”
“Bobcat, I like that. She’s a bobcat.”
“So yeah, she’s all right. Met her a few times. Very… outgoing for a married lady.”
“She grabbed my ass at Lucky Bones last summer.”
“Nice. Can’t wait to meet her.”
“Ah-ah,” Tim tsked me. “You’re a taken fella’ now, no meandering.”
“Don’t spoil my fun,” I protested, but he was right. Last summer during the whole editor serial killer investigation, I fell deeply in like with Daryl Vance, a newspaper reporter from Philadelphia. Female reporter, if you find the name confusing. That’s the short version of it. The long version contains another woman, my old high school sweetheart, Cathy Steltzer, showing up to jump my bones, along with several dead bodies, on the beach. Just thinking about it made me tired.
“You miss her?” Tim asked.
Daryl and I don’t get to see near enough of each other, but when we do it’s always good in so many ways. But at her behest we’ve kept it casual. Just thinking that stings. Makes me feel like she’s playing me until something better comes along, a feeling I’ve known a lot in my life, but she keeps saying it’s because she doesn’t want to commit when we’re 100 miles apart. 100 miles! Just 90 minutes up the parkway! What is that to a like like ours? But I guess I understand. I guess.
I shouldn’t be such a baby girl. I know she likes me, she knows I like her. She’s just being practical, a trait I was not born with. But still…
“Sorry, dude.” Tim said. I must have been brooding.
“It’s okay,” I replied, and it was. We’d work it out or we wouldn’t, but fretting over it now wasn’t going to accomplish anything so I put it out of my head. “What number is the house?”
“There it is,” I said. “The one with all the police cars and crime scene tape in front of it.”
The detective at work.
We pulled up as close as we could and hoofed it up the street, a howling wind chasing us into the windowed front porch. The heavy wooden door slammed shut behind us. Jesus, I hate winter. We politely pounded our feet on the welcome mat and stepped inside where we were met by Cape May Police officers Shawn Austin and Tony Genaro.
Shawn saw us and said, “You guys came quick.”
“That’s what she said…” Tim said before I could.
Shawn nodded. “Nice. Widow’s upstairs talking to our detective. Be advised, he’s pretty pissed she called you guys.”
It was good of Shawn to warn us; he didn’t have to. We had developed a bit of a friendship since The Editor last summer. I wasn’t going to be godfather to his kids or anything, but we’d caught a few beers and a few ballgames in the last year. I was a guy without a lot of friends, so I was still getting used to it. I was probably being more cautious in my relationship with Shawn than I was with my girlfriend. This vaguely unnerved me.
“Why’s he pissed?” I asked. “We’re only trying to help.”
Tony looked up from his notepad and answered, “Because you have a habit of making these things bigger than they are, that’s why.”
Tony and I didn’t get along all that well.
Tim stood up for me. “Travis didn’t create a ring of cannibals or a book-obsessed serial killer. He just helped solve the cases. Not sure what’s so wrong with that.”
Tony said nothing, just glared at Tim for a moment before looking back down to his notepad. Tim gave a quick Orlando Bloom-ish wink.
We stood there a few moments. I let the heat from the forced air blower at my feet waft up around me. It dawned on me that Shawn and Tony were doing the same. They’re not so tough…
Shawn said, “She specifically asked for you. Said she knows you, trusts you.”
I was honestly flummoxed. “I’ve never met her before in my life.”
Shawn chirped, “What am I, cruise director? I care who you know and don’t know? She said she knew you, asked me for your number, called you, and here we are.”
I hate it when people I’m fond of make me feel like a jerk. Shawn gave a little head nod and shrug. I gave a little head nod and shrug back and looked at Tony. He did not give a little head nod and shrug, just stood there, all intense bald head and muscle. Shawn stood there, too, all crew-cutted black hair and muscle. Tim was also present, all long hair and leaner muscle. I was just… there. I really need to hit the gym.
I asked, “What are the particulars?”
Shawn walked from the foyer to the wide staircase that split the house. On either side were two very nice rooms full of expensive stuff that led into other rooms full of expensive stuff. House was big.
“Killer came in through the chimney…”
“Ho ho ho…” Tim muttered.
“…walked around a bit, took a look around; there’s ash and soot here and there, boot prints in the rug, all the police crap we do so you guys don’t have to…” Really?
“…then went upstairs and did a number on the husband with a blunt object, axe or sledgehammer, given the damage. It’s quite extensive.”
I asked, “How exactly does what we assume is a full-grown man enter a house through a chimney? Outside of a Dr Suess story, I mean.”
Shawn walked us over to the hearth. A stiff breeze blew up the legs of my jeans.
“Fireplace has a door-sized flue, very old but well-maintained, rolls in and out like a pocket door. See the grooves in the slate?”
“Open it up and…”
Shawn opened the flue; on the other side, flapping madly against the wind, was a blue tarp attached to some scaffolding, covering a large opening in the wall. Large enough for a man to walk through.
“Killer came in here,” Shawn said, “and went out here.”
I did a quick survey and figured, “Fireplace is in the back of the house. Can’t see it from the street.”
“Very good,” Shawn said.
Tim finished, “The killer had to know it was there.”
“Right,” Shawn agreed. “The back side of the chimney was crumbling, hundred-and-some years old. The Rappaports hired Lionel Jeffries…”
“Jeffries Masonry,” Tim interjected. “Third generation. I went to high school with Lionel. He’s a good guy. His grandfather’s an asshole, but he’s pretty cool. His dad’s solid, too.”
“Maybe,” Shawn said. “Right now we’ve got a unit on the way to pick him up. We’ll let you talk to him after we do.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Tim shook his head resolutely. “No way Lionel did it.”
Shawn replied, “We’ll see. You ready to go upstairs?”
Tim took a deep breath. “Guess so.”
“Hope you didn’t eat yet,” Shawn offered helpfully. “It’s ugly.”
“Awesome,” I replied.
We took the steps slowly, the butterflies in my stomach had butterflies in their stomachs and they were relentless; it’s never fun entering the scene of a violent crime. Not something one gets used to, maybe because the room seems to have a memory, maybe because it serves as a stark reminder the fragility of life. The private dick as therapist.
“Over here,” Tim said and we went down a long hall to the bedroom. Inside were the muffled sounds of conversation, a crime scene camera clicking and whirring, a cop’s radio squawking.
“Here we go…”
I opened the door. The bedroom was large – not a surprise. The bed was just inside the door to the left, night stand, dresser, media center surrounded it. A second, slightly larger, slightly fluffier bed, with similar accoutrements, occupied the opposite corner of the room and was decidedly more feminine. One bedroom, two distinct occupants. Doors on either side led to what I assumed were his and hers bathrooms. Everything about the room screamed his and hers; separate beds, separate dressers, TVs, lighting designs, the whole nine.
Didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out James Rappaport was most likely gay. Or am I just that latently homophobic?
“Nice,” Tim said quietly.
I assumed he meant the room and not a sarcastic response to my thoughts, which I’m fairly sure he can’t hear, so I said, “Yep.”
We exchanged a brief glance, steeled ourselves, and looked to the bed.
“Jesus Christ…” he whispered.
I could not speak. All the air was sucked out of my lungs.There on the bed lay the pathetic remains of James Rappaport, his small body outlined by a thin satin sheet, looking unperturbed except for the bloody, pulpy mess of his head. I burped up a little of my coffee.The face, what was left of it, was smashed in. The wounds spoke of a blunt instrument with a sharp edge, like an axe. Flesh, bone and grey matter surrounded it like a grisly halo. It was, without doubt, the grossest thing I’d ever seen, and I’d seen some pretty gross things.
“Morning,” said the detective, Ike Curtis, as he turned from the widow. He was a TV stereotype of a cop; 50ish, thin-to-gaunt, tan raincoat and porkpie hat, cheap suit, notebook in hand.
“Morning,” I replied.
He looked gassy, as if dealing with us paid outsiders gave him physical pain. I’m sure he wanted to say something all cop-like to make us feel even less welcome, but he must have seen our ashen faces and was kind enough to give us a pass.
“I’ll debrief you downstairs when you’re ready.”
I nodded as appreciatively as I knew how. “Ten minutes?”
He tipped his hat and left.
The widow Rappaport stood in the far corner of the room, looking out her window at the grove of trees behind the house. The trees shook violently in the ghastly wind.
“You’re on,” Tim said and bumped me with an elbow.
Still dazed, I shuffled across the room. I cleared my throat.
“Mrs Rappaport? Travis Whitaker; Whitaker and DeMarco Investigations. You called us?”
She turned to us, face covered by the tissue she used to dab at her eyes.
“Yes,” she replied. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Tim choked back a “that’s what she said.”
“What can we do for you?”
She lowered the tissue and for the second time in 30 seconds I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. She was gorgeous. Late 40s but looked in her 30s, in the right light maybe 20s. Long dark hair pulled back, silk robe over her sloped shoulders and long neck, flowing down her curvy body to her knees.
“Janice Rappaport,” she said and offered her hand.
I shook it lightly, the room falling away. “Nice to meet you.”
Except I had met her. Once before. Several weeks earlier. The Brown Room. We had drinks and went upstairs to her room to do… what adults do that have met in a hotel bar and had a few drinks. Except then she wasn’t Janice Rappaport, she was Carol Brown, an out-of-town pharmaceutical rep there for a series of seminars. And I was Travis Whitaker, hotshot private eye hunkering over a martini or four, Absolut up with a twist, the way only Steve Augustine knew how make it, mulling my own bad luck at having a long distance girlfriend.
“Tim DeMarco,” Tim said.
She released my hand and shook his.
No, Carol Brown. Pharma rep. Only there for the weekend.
She finished, “It’s nice to have met you both.”
My heart jumped, my palms grew sweaty, my breath became very short, and for a brief moment I wished I was the one with his head caved in lying quietly in a pool of his own blood.